Ruin stared us in the face. Were our cherished plans to be frustrated by a marauding cow, who little realised that she was imperilling her own means of existence? Were we to turn away three, five, nine thirsty customers at one fell swoop? Never! None of these people ever saw me before, nor would ever see me again. What was to prevent my serving them with tea? I had on a pink cotton gown,—that was well enough; I hastily buttoned on a clean painting apron, and seizing a freshly laundered cushion cover lying on the bureau, a square of lace and embroidery, I pinned it on my hair for a cap while descending the stairs. Everything was right in the kitchen, for Mrs. Bobby had flown in the midst of her preparations. The loaf, the bread-knife, the butter, the marmalade, all stood on the table, and the kettle was boiling. I set the tea to draw, and then dashed to the door, bowed appetisingly to the visitors, showed them to the tables with a winning smile (which was to be extra), seated the children maternally on the steps and laid napkins before them, dashed back to the kitchen, cut the thin bread-and-butter, and brought it with the marmalade, asked my customers if they desired cream, and told them it was extra, went back and brought a tray with tea, boiling water, milk, and cream. Lowering my voice to an English sweetness, and dropping a few h's ostentatiously as I answered questions, I poured five cups of tea, and four mugs for the children, and cut more bread-and-butter, for they were all eating like wolves. They praised the butter. I told them it was a specialty of the house. They requested muffins. With a smile of heavenly sweetness tinged with regret, I replied that Saturday was our muffin day; Saturday, muffins; Tuesday, crumpets; Thursday, scones; and Friday, tea-cakes. This inspiration sprang into being full grown, like Pallas from the brain of Zeus. While they were regretting that they had come on a plain bread-and-butter day, I retired to the kitchen and made out a bill for presentation to the oldest man of the party.
Nine teas. . . . 3 6
Cream . . . . 3
Bread-and-butter . . 1 0
Marmalade. . . . 6
Feeling five and threepence to be an absurdly small charge for five adult and four infant teas, I destroyed this immediately, and made out another, putting each item fourpence more, and the bread-and-butter at one-and-six. I also introduced ninepence for extra teas for the children, who had had two mugs apiece, very weak. This brought the total to six shillings and tenpence, and I was beset by a horrible temptation to add a shilling or two for candles; there was one young man among the three who looked as if he would have understood the joke.
The father of the family looked at the bill, and remarked quizzically, "Bond Street prices, eh?"
"Bond Street service," said I, curtsying demurely.
He paid it without flinching, and gave me sixpence for myself. I was very much afraid he would chuck me under the chin; they are always chucking barmaids under the chin in old English novels, but I have never seen it done in real life. As they strolled down to the gate, the second gentleman gave me another sixpence, and the nice young fellow gave me a shilling; he certainly had read the old English novels and remembered them, so I kept with the children. One of the ladies then asked if we sold flowers.
"Certainly," I replied.
"What do you ask for roses?"
"Fourpence apiece for the fine ones," I answered glibly, hoping it was enough, "thrippence for the small ones; sixpence for a bunch of sweet peas, tuppence apiece for buttonhole carnations."
Each of the ladies took some roses and mignonette, and the gentlemen, who did not care for carnations in the least, weakened when I approached modestly to pin them in their coats, a la barmaid.
At this moment one of the children began to tease for a canary.
"Have you one for sale?" inquired the fond mother.
"Certainly, madam." (I was prepared to sell the cottage by this time.)
"What do you ask for them?"
Rapid calculation on my part, excessively difficult without pencil and paper. A canary is three to five dollars in America,—that is, from twelve shilling to a pound; then at a venture, "From ten shillings to a guinea, madam, according to the quality of the bird."
"Would you like one for your birthday, Margaret, and do you think you can feed it and take quite good care of it?"
"Oh yes, mamma!"
"Have you a cage?" to me inquiringly.
"Certainly, madam; it is not a new one, but I shall only charge you a shilling for it." (Impromptu plan: not knowing whether Mrs. Bobby had any cages, or if so where she kept them, to remove the canary in Mrs. Bobby's chamber from the small wooden cage it inhabited, close the windows, and leave it at large in the room; then bring out the cage and sell it to the lady.)
"Very well, then, please select me a good singer for about twelve shillings; a very yellow one, please."
I did so. I had no difficulty about the colour; but as the birds all stopped singing when I put my hand into the cages, I was somewhat at a loss to choose a really fine performer. I did my best, with the result that it turned out to be the mother of several fine families, but no vocalist, and the generous young man brought it back for an exchange some days afterwards; not only that, but he came three times during the next week and nearly ruined his nervous system with tea.
The party finally mounted the char-a-bancs, just as I was about to offer the baby for twenty-five pounds, and dirt cheap at that. Meanwhile I gave the driver a cup of lukewarm tea, for which I refused absolutely to accept any remuneration.
I had cleared the tables before Mrs. Bobby returned, flushed and panting, with the guilty cow. Never shall I forget that good dame's astonishment, her mild deprecations, her smiles—nay, her tears—as she inspected my truly English account and received the silver.
Nine teas. . . . 3 6
Cream . . . . 7
Bread-and-butter . . 1 6
Extra teas. . . . 9
Marmalade. . . . 6
Three tips. . . . 2 0
Four roses and mignonette. 1 8
Three carnations . . 6
Canary . . . . 12 0
Cage . . . . 1 0
I told her I regretted deeply putting down the marmalade so low as sixpence; but as they had not touched it, it did not matter so much, as the entire outlay for the entertainment had been only about a shilling. On that modest investment, I considered one pound three shillings a very fair sum to be earned by an inexperienced 'licensed victualler' like myself, particularly as I am English only by adoption, and not by birth.