Great Wash at Longbourn House
Statistically, the products mostly offered and consumed at this board are romance novels. So that I don't disappoint anybody's expectations, here is a fair warning: this story is not a romance, but a glimpse into humdrum reality, which Miss Austen's contemporaries knew minutely and took for granted, and some modern readers think a bore.
May I take this opportunity of thanking Caroline and Henry for their gold mines of erudition, JA's Life and Times Board and JA Information Page.
Only just enough light seeped through the hangings when Mrs. Bennet slid carefully down from the featherbed over layers of wool-tuft mattresses, and tip-toed to the washstand. When already closing its ornate doors discreetly, she remembered what day was dawning on her, and sighed resignedly. She kept servants that could do their own work, but great wash was so big an undertaking that it was certain to disrupt everybody's life.
She was not expected to be up until the housemaid would come for her at eight o'clock. But no - she was sure to have no real repose and would do nothing but fret because of her delicate nerves. Expertly she worked her backside up the bed without disturbing Mr. Bennet, and nestled in with a firm intention not to sleep a wink. She had worries enough, especially taking into account what Mrs. Long had said yesterday...
The maid's raising curtains was the sound that roused Mrs. Bennet; and she opened her eyes wondering that they could ever have been closed. The stiff moreen, hung the day before, resisted. It looked as good as new in bright morning light. She could only pray that the printed cotton of summer blinds would prove of washable disposition.
Mr. Bennet was up and shaving. His old powdering-gown, she fancied, outlived its presentable state, but seeing him apply the razor himself drove all other thoughts out of her head.
"But Mr. Bennet! What has happened to the butler?"
"Nothing that I'm aware of. For your sake, my dear, I hope that he is in full possession of his faculties. I have been given to understand that the washerwoman didn't turn up, so your butler is trying to fetch her; or, failing that, to find a substitute. I have nothing against the latter: the person that used to come did not look as if anything she touched would ever be clean."
"Dame Bushell! Now, Mr. Bennet, I wouldn't have you speaking in this way. I'm sure you've found the linen as clean as anywhere, or I wouldn't be keeping her services. Dame Bushell is a perfectly honest, industrious, painstaking person, who earns a good deal of money by washing and charing."
"And spends it in other luxuries than tidiness - in green tea, and gin, and snuff. Gin in this case, I venture to guess."
Unlucky beginning for a day of toil! Mrs. Bennet, once in her dressing-room, being helped into a comfortable morning gown, lamented for Sarah's benefit.
"I am cruelly used, nobody feels for my poor nerves. I have done with this ungrateful creature from this very day. I shall never speak to her again, and she will find me as good as my word. I have no pleasure in talking to undutiful people. Not that I have much pleasure, indeed, in talking to anybody. People who suffer as I do from nervous complaints can have no great inclination for talking. Nobody can tell what I suffer! But it is always so. Those who do not complain are never pitied."
The waiting-woman listened in proper silence to this effusion, meanwhile lacing, tying, buttoning, shaping the folds. Soon her mistress felt better: true, the dress was plain brown cambric muslin, but of a very pretty kind; the cap, white sarsenet and lace, was bought in its time as fit for carriage wear.
Downstairs the matters didn't seem bad at all. To be sure, the kitchen, passages, and kitchen stairs were not swept, as they should be before breakfast, and probably wouldn't be attended to after it; but the fire was lit, and the cook was not too busy to be unable to grumble at being short-handed.
What a relief: the sun was shining, and though there were clouds, but small and white, frisking like lambs up in the sky. A fine September day, good for drying. Outside the wash-house Mrs. Bennet was met by the housekeeper, who hastened to explain that instead of errant Dame Bushell they were going to have a much superior helping hand: the wife of John Stevens consented to oblige.
Mrs. Stevens enjoyed the fame of being the best laundress far and wide, with twenty times more work than she could do, unrivaled in flounces and shirt-frills, and such delicacies of the craft. She was mindful of her renown, and made her voice heard. She scorned drab shades in clothes, worn usually by gentlewomen, as well as farmers' wives, and flaunted screaming greens, canary yellows and scarlets; her particularly fiery red and orange patterned dress attracted more attention in church than Sunday service.
The clouds of steam and the smell of soap had already settled in the wash-house; and the stone floors, it seemed, hadn't dried from hectic soaking of the previous day. The huge copper cauldron, duly put on fire before dawn, was boiling steadily, awaiting the first batch of whites. Mrs. Stevens was at the deep tub, gripping the handle of the long wooden pole with her wrinkly washerwoman's hand, moving it up and down in sure and steady strokes of a dairy maid churning butter. Linen rubbed vigorously against the side of the poss-tub and slopped loudly onto the ribbed bottom, but miraculously not a drop of soapy water was splashed.
The laundress bid the mistress of the house a good morning politely enough, though she didn't pause to drop a curtsey; while Dame Bushell would have been bobbing happily for a spell.
"You are very handy with a posser, my good woman," Mrs. Bennet said, trying to sound condescending and encouraging.
"Dolly and myself are friends these twenty years."
"This. A posser is a 'dolly' among us of the trade," she took out the pole for a moment, so that the wooden disk with its three projecting throngs was visible, and plunged it in with renewed vigour.
"I expect everything is in order?"
"Well, madam, I've told Mrs. Hill that this lye-water isn't strong, not for holland covers. Sheets and smalls, yes, but when these are boiled, they take it out of lye, they do, ma'am, and for the holland there won't be much left. And when it comes to the dish-cloths at last, you can just as well dip them into a mud-hole, for all the good it will do."
"You might want to add another bucket in between, ma'am. I always have one handy."
Mrs. Bennet looked at Hill helplessly. Every pint of water that seeped and re-seeped through the lye-letch, washing out the all-important potash from the ashes, went into the cauldron.
"...So you just send a foot boy to my house, Mrs. Hill; Stevens will hand it. But warn him to be careful. Lye-water of my making is the real thing."
"Yes, yes, of course," sighs of relief sounded from both Mrs. Bennet and her housekeeper.
"...It is that strong, I could've been making my own soap with it. Even if oil is scarcer than it was, lard isn't lacking yet. In fact, I have half a mind to do it, the prices they ask for soap nowadays. No wonder, with the tax they take from the soap-makers. Three pence a pound, have you heard anything like this! In Cheapside, they say, the soap-boiling pans are fitted with lids that tax collectors lock every night, to prevent production under cover of darkness."
"Abominable - " the listeners remarked faintly.
"Well, girls," Mrs. Stevens focused on the housemaids at the big tubs of clean water and the scullery maid near the roaring fire, "be ready to take piece by piece; look at it carefully for spots, especially with tablecloths; if any, put the things over there, I'll deal with them later. If all right - rinse, at least once; consider how soapy the thing is. And don't be afraid to rub with your hands, don't think that the boiler will do all the work. Mary Hutchins, is it with this club that you are going to stir in the cauldron? D'you want to tear every blessed thing in half, or what?"
One of the maids approached the severe task-master timidly.
"How's that, Betty Dawkins? Wetting your finger-tips like a fine lady! You won't be able to get a steady hold of a handkerchief even. What?"
"I thought the water hot," the unfortunate girl whispered.
"Dame Bushell - "
"Hot? Whoever washes linen in hot water? It sets the dirt! A tiny bit warmer than lukewarm! As for your Dame Bushell, I wonder if she has sense enough to soak the linen with soap rubbed on stains, even if she doesn't apply fuller's earth, for which I'll lay a small wager - "
As nobody else knew how to apply fuller's earth, there was no real need to stay, and Mrs. Bennet was grateful to escape into the house. If the breakfast-room was dusty without the kitchen maid's attentions, it was so in measure, and the cloth was on the table. From the dining-parlour voices could be heard. She cautiously looked inside.
Two elder Miss Bennets were sitting at one side of the dining-table in the neglected room - the other chairs were still upturned for the floor-sweeping - and talked both at once very fast.
"Jane my love, what is going on?"
"Good morning, madam. We decided to check the tallies against the lists - for you remember the last small wash but one - "
"Indeed I do," Mrs. Bennet agreed with great feeling. "Kitty's day shift, my finest striped waistcoat, and your stockings, gauze worsted - all gone! I do not count the flannel petticoat, as I meant to give it out to deserving poor, and luckily that pierrot has been found, of which I'm very glad, for it is a true Indian dimity, not just plain muslin, such a fine thing, not to be found everywhere. I blame gypsies, I'm sure they sneaked into the drying yard and helped themselves. Your father and your uncle Phillips may say that there weren't any gypsies in the neighbourhood - I cannot make myself heard, in my own house I was being persuaded that the things were never sent to wash at all. You cannot be too careful."
"I think I understand," Elizabeth exclaimed. "Pillow slips are written twice: 'pillow-bears' here and 'slip covers' here."
"Are not slip covers for window-seats?" Jane asked anxiously.
Mrs. Bennet couldn't take her gaze from the brass-bound wooden block, faced with transparent horn, inscribed with the names of various article of clothing. It had been a part of her dowry, this smart laundry tally; countless times she turned its small discs of numbers for the benefit of stupid abigails who could wash no more than they could read. And now it was her daughters' turn. Oh, if only what Mrs. Long had said would prove true...
"What number of cravats! Either Papa decided to eclipse Beau Brummel, or something is added - "
"I believe chemise kerchiefs are, for my riding-habit, you know, and ruffles and tuckers - "
"I'll write down 'neck-cloths of all kind'. Then night caps and under caps go together - "
Wash or no wash, the morning was wearing on pretty much as usual. While Jane and Elizabeth made themselves useful, Mrs. Bennet proceeded from one room to another, where Hill managed to apply herself to her various duties; the master of the house enjoyed leisure and tranquillity in his library; and the younger daughters of the family were summoned only by breakfast bell at ten o'clock. They had been too busily engaged in their separate apartments to make their appearance before. Mary came from her books, and Kitty and Lydia from their toilette.
Spreading his toast with butter, Mr. Bennet enquired gravely into his lady's toils.
"I expect that your exertions are greater than ever, considering what uncommonly warm August we experienced. Houses, windows, chickens, children, trees, and pigs in the village - all looked of dusty complexion, young ladies not excluded."
"Indeed, sir," Lizzy echoed, "that dreadful hot weather kept one in a continual state of inelegance."
"Woe to white gowns! woe to black! Drab was your only wear."
"How well you put it, my dear Mr. Bennet. The dust was beyond anything, it was impossible to venture outside. No foot could make three plunges into that abyss of pulverised gravel, which had the impudence to call itself a hard road, without being clothed with a coat a quarter of an inch thick. And Mrs. Long's two nieces paraded in white gowns, which I think an absurd pretension in their place. Mrs. Long doesn't even keep a carriage and has to go to balls in a hack chaise. By the way, do you know what Mrs. Long has told me?"
The butler appeared at Mrs. Bennet's elbow and conferred in deferential tones that her presence was requested by Mrs. Stevens immediately.
Mrs. Bennet hurried to the wash-house, imagining unimaginable catastrophes and how they would tell on her poor nerves.
Among the tubs for first and second rinsing Hannah Stapley sobbed wringing her hands lake a tragic queen. The blow was severe indeed: somehow the bag with blue stone got torn or untied in the rinsing tub, so the blueing stained the white clothes in streaks.
"Oh Lord! what will become of me? I shall go distracted."
Mrs. Stevens ruled over the horrified conclave with a field-marshal's presence of mind. From her post at the starching tub, still continuing to test the solution for resistance to her open palm, she commanded.
"Make your choice, madam, what I shall begin anew at once, and what may take its course. It'll take several washings; a pity that the stone cannot be bleached out."
Faintly Mrs. Bennet agreed to sleep on spotted sheets and cast a wary eye over a wet heap of family linen.
"What a blessing, cravats are in order, they were the first out of the tub, I suppose, as usual. This corded petticoat is worth a try, but not the calico. Some of them are better than the others - but this! Why, I believe I've put five breadths of linsey into the flounce, oh my goodness, do something, Mr.s Stevens! Night shifts. Well, these are for day wear, with low-cut dresses. Lining of Mr. Bennet's breeches is not very good, but it is so disgraceful and contemptible an article in itself that its being comparatively good or bad is of little importance."
The offending tub was drained through cheese-muslin, the ultramarine powder set to dry for future use. Fresh water was brought in bucket by bucket, and the work was resumed.
Mrs. Bennet longed to get away from the incessant thump of stones in the mangle box, pressing water out of sheets against the hardy table beneath, but the laundress pointed imperiously at the soapy pile of summer gowns, waiting for their turn to be carefully rubbed with a soft brush and starched nicely.
"This muslin will fray! Whoever thought of soaking this dress? Now it won't take form with any starching and ironing. Perhaps it can yet be saved by pinning on a flannel board; the dress, I see, is made double only in the body and sleeves."
"The very thing I told Lydia when she had bought it, seven yards and a half, too. I didn't think that it would wash well. She is not to be trusted in the choice of a gown, she doesn't understand muslins. Fine! She'll pin it herself for a lesson."
Mrs. Stevens wasn't through with her. "I regret to say, madam, that your linen did not get the attention it should. Especially tablecloths are the living history."
"We dine with four-and-twenty families," Mrs. Bennet inserted proudly. "But I'm afraid there's nothing we can do. Lady Lucas was advised to wash her tablecloths with some bleaching powder - coming from Scotland, she says. In places they divided with a touch."
"The apothecary explained everything about this powder to me. It is lime worked over by some mad Frenchie's invention. Lady Lucas should have boiled it in water first, until the water turned pink. But I do not keep with those new-fangled fancies. I assure you, ma'am, the sulphur fumes, whatever their smell, do not ruin threads, applied judiciously. I really have a hand, if I say it myself, and many a yellowed piece I had saved. For wine-spots, ma'am, it works like a miracle."
"The back scullery has one door and one small window only," the housekeeper suggested, "and that can be pasted over with paper, every crack."
"It will do nicely, Mrs. Hill. Let the maids hang ropes there, and see that they don't forget to wipe the dust. The rags, madam, can use the freshening, too."
"We wash them at once!"
"How otherwise, ma'am. Yet those stains will persist, as every woman knows. It won't do to have a short supply of rags in your household, ma'am, with five grown-up daughters. Also, while we are at it, we may throw in the silk stockings."
"For those the rector's wife gave me a recipe, with honey and soft soap in strong whiskey. You rub the mixture in, then rinse it in several waters, but without squeezing, and hang it up to drip; when half dry shake it well and mangle or iron it."
"Well, if not exactly the same, I've known about soap in spirits, of course. And it doesn't bleach any more than plain soap, though it washes somewhat easier, perhaps. As for honey, it only stiffens it up a bit. Why waste words? You'll compare yourself, ma'am. Even at a small wash whitening silk stockings is no trouble. Just take a table or stool, turn it bottom upwards, then make it close with a sheet and pin the stockings round the inside. Take a chafing dish with charcoal, break some brimstone and strew over it, then cover it close - and it will turn them white."
"Very well, do it in your own way. My head is splitting already."
Mrs. Bennet quitted the wash-house, overwhelmed with the responsibility to superintendent the household management. Everything was on her shoulders; everybody else's chief wish was to have as little trouble in the business as possible. So she wasn't any too pleased, when Lydia and Kitty, dressed to go out, accosted her in the vestibule.
"Mamma, may we go to Meryton? I've seen a very smart bonnet indeed in a shop window."
"And I'm in want of an ounce of darning cotton."
"You will do nothing of the kind. The last bonnet you bargained for was pulled to pieces, then you wanted to trim it afresh, and still are looking for prettier-coloured satin."
"Oh, I'm sure I'll find some now," Lydia brightened.
"Oh, no. You will have the goodness to pin another of your great bargains on the flannel board for drying."
"May I call on Maria Lucas?" Kitty chimed in, leaving defeated Lydia behind. "I absolutely promised her."
"There'll be work for you, too. Learn the housekeeping, children, while I'm still here."
"I shall put my washing out."
"You never know, Lydia. I thought so, too, when I married, but Mr. Bennet's mother scolded me for expense. And when Jane arrived, I was only too glad that I kept my washing at home."
Mrs. Bennet went to her apartment to sigh over her daughters' future mothers-in-law, while the girls sighed over scissors and a bundle of old newspapers, cutting them into ribbons.
Soon the scullery was criss-crossed by flax ropes, overhung with an assortment of wet cloths, napkins, rags and stockings. Pans of brimstone, strategically placed by Mrs. Stevens, were put to burn, while the maids sealed the doors with news-sheets and flour-paste. The Bennet sisters, one after the other, pulled off paper, stuffed into the key-hole, and peered through at the blue-green glow of the sulphur.
The other ropes, in the drying yard, were sagging, burdened with the multi-coloured crop. Big sheets were just scrupulously straightened - they'd stay under their own weight; but pins were needed for smaller things to prevent their scattering in the wind. Mrs. Bennet did not hold with tying. "It's one thing to tie a petticoat by the tapes, but tie a shirt by the sleeves, however loose the knot, and no roller will smooth the creases." Flat irons were used in Longbourn sparingly, only for heavier materials or to make starched napkins glossy.
The housemaids were closely watched by the waiting-woman, whose duty it was to see that on return from the wash only unblemished articles in perfect repair passed into the presses.
"Mind where you stick this pin, Betty - right in front. Have you heard about rust at all? Put it in a place where the trace won't be noticed, like in a seam."
"Oh, Sally, you are a worry-wart. Rust! Some cream of tartar in a little water, and it's gone."
"Yes, but it's not you who will do the cleaning. I have my hands full of work as it is, what with missing buttons and mending and storing."
"Well, I don't sit on cushions all day long, either." Betty lowered her voice. "And she - this washer-woman - says that I had to pick the dust out of seams by hand, just shaking holland covers was not enough. Who do she think she is!"
She rattled the pins in a pear-wood etui with energy that could clean the dustiest of dusty covers.
When the cook announced the kitchen dinner, the etui went to Lydia. A board covered with flannel was set on two chairs in a dressing-room. Good-natured Jane helped her sister to stretch the muslin carefully and demonstrated, how to pin it, thread by thread, with most Lilliputian paces.
"Why have you bought this dress at all?"
"I just had to put Mary King in her place, when she showed off in this print gown with green crewels. I'm ten times as smart as she, a little freckled thing."
Jane studied the markings. Their resemblance to green crewels, it had to be owned, wasn't great, for the pattern was a small red spot. But she hadn't the heart to point it out, so, with a gentle advice to pay more attention to the texture, she left Lydia to her tedious task.
Their meal over, the servants returned to the wash-house; the job was under way. Even the butler himself advanced with a coal scuttle, dignified-looking, as if he was going to replenish the fire in his master's library, not to feed the humble boiler. The cook made her appearance from her stronghold and personally carried an egg in an earthenware bowl. The housekeeper hurried after her with a square bottle of spirits.
Mrs. Bennet was applied to again for sorting the silks.
Pasting the underarm seams of a pink gown with the yolk mixture, the laundress expressed her doubts of a certain brownish purple dress.
"This was dyed recently, wasn't it, madam? By Mr. Floor, of course. Four shillings thrown away! He is at present rather low in my estimation. Since Mr. Chambers is gone, I have nothing but troubles with dyed satins. You do not want it washed at present, ma'am. Have it rubbed with a soft material, of a similar colour; the folds might be beaten lightly with a handkerchief or thin cloth. It will continue to look decent for a while."
"Oh, Mrs. Stevens, is it really unwashable? We made the preparation of West Indian soap bark, you know."
"I'm glad to hear it, madam. However one pounds and boils the Bouncing Bet, it never lathers just as easily. But, I'm afraid, colours run off some satins even in cold water, and vinegar doesn't help much. By the way, do you want to rinse this sarsenet with sugar, or perhaps you'd like me to stiffen it with fish glue, if there is any in your kitchen?"
"Fish glue! I've never heard - "
"It doesn't matter, madam. If the kitchen maid has her wits about her, I'll teach her to cook glue from fish bones and tails. It is very good for stiffening silks, indeed, for neck-cloths, too. I do not abide those oversized, over-starched, overflowing ends, that I don't."
At last Mrs. Bennet emerged from the wash-house with new additions to her subjects of never-failing regret and sallied forth into the drawing-room.
"Girls, you wanted to go to Meryton. Very well, you may call on your Aunt Philips and say Mamma's compliments and will she lend a piece of puce-coloured merino; I know she has some. It seems to me that wind has risen a little. Kitty, you'd better put on your kerseymere spencer. And when calling, ask tactfully whether it is true what Mrs. Long says - "
She was interrupted by the maids' screams in the yard: a sudden squall of wind wafted a thick mizzling rain on the half-dried linen.
Together with the maids the young ladies rushed out to save the freshly laundered linen from rain. Soon the sofa and the drawing-room chairs and tables were heaped with piles in every transitory state from almost dry to near dripping, and the girls were definitely wet. Lizzy summed up,
"Really getting wet through now and then is no bad thing, finery apart; for one should not like spoiling a new pelisse, or a handsome plume; but when there is nothing in question but a simple gown, it is rather pleasant than not. How melancholy I was all the morning! how cheerful I am now! Nothing like a shower-bath - a real shower-bath, to cure low spirits."
Mary came down from her room to learn the cause of the noise that interfered with her making extracts out of Young's Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality, and expressed approval.
"The little chill refreshes, and your enjoyment of the subsequent warmth and dryness is positive and absolute. Besides, the stimulus and exertion do good to the mind as well as body."
Mrs. Bennet sent the servants around to put up all the clothes-horses that could be found and fretted that the grates were cold and empty. But as nobody agreed to put up with roaring fires in the beginning of September, she discarded the idea. Instead she made the housekeeper to improvise some ropes in the vestibule, where the steaming clothes would bring the greatest discomfort to the inhabitants of the house, and to place the clothes-horses whenever a draught could be suspected; sent the maids to distribute the smaller articles in bedrooms over the chairs and wardrobe doors.
"But how shall we cope with these big covers, Hill? They'll be drying till Doomsday without fire. Perhaps the kitchen - "
The cook was holding her fortress well. The family dinner was to come quite soon, they were at their busiest, and anyway, why expose the linen to the risks of dirt and grease in the kitchen. As if on order, the wind howled in the chimney with double fervour, and a giant puff of smoke engulfed the wet bundle in Mrs. Hill's arms, making her gasp.
"Soot," the cook proclaimed with grim satisfaction. "When sheets are aired in front of a fire, it's a fair bet they'll gather any amount of it. Use bread crumbs. Rub a dry cloth with the driest bread crumbs, and soot will come off. I should know, or rather my apron should."
Treacherous pins tore finer muslins, plucked from the ropes too hastily.
"Look at this bed-gown," Mrs. Bennet groaned. "Jane, my dear, you are the neatest worker among your sisters. I do not doubt your making out the star pattern very well, as you have the breakfast-room rug to look at. And I wish you'll tell Sarah to see to the scalloped gown, and mend this great slit. It is impossible to manage this house without thorough knowledge of repairing and restoring clothes. You should learn to be more careful."
A housemaid approached her mistress.
"I beg your pardon, madam, for interrupting you, but what is to be done with Miss Lydia's dress?"
She held out a nightmare in red-spotted muslin, completely shapeless, blobs and blisters all over.
"Lydia, what have you been doing?"
"I pinned as you told me!"
"You put the pins too far between," Jane guessed, "and they stretched the material unevenly."
"I thought it'd take forever, my back aches to this time, and you are not pleased," Lydia grumbled.
"It is not the question of being pleased or not, but of the dress being ruined."
"Oh, muslin always turns to some account or other; I'll get enough out of it for a handkerchief, or a cap, or a cloak," the young girl brightened. "Muslin can never said to be wasted."
"I'm not certain that you can afford a new gown very well, and if you think you cannot, I will give you the body-lining," Jane offered.
"I am determined to buy a handsome one whenever I can," Lydia confessed. "I'm so tired and ashamed of half my present stock, that I blush at the sight of the wardrobe which contains them."
Mary very gravely remarked, "Your wishes, my dear sister, would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds. But we must consider the affordability of it to our father; for, with our board and pocket allowance, and the continual presents in money which pass to us through our generous mother's hands, our expenses are very little within a hundred pounds apiece."
But of this answer Lydia heard not a word. She seldom listened to anybody for more than half a minute, and never attended to Mary at all. Nor did Mrs. Bennet, who had no turn for economy, but a sound understanding of the first duty of a parent.
"New gowns you must have, children, all of you," she cried eagerly. "Why, it is less than two months to the first assembly ball of the winter season. Lizzy, my dear, run to your father and ask how much he will give you girls. Stay, stay, we will settle with your father about the money afterwards, but the things should be ordered immediately. Mrs. Long called yesterday, just when soaking began, and told me..."
She hadn't time to finish: suddenly the door was flung wide open, and the scullery maid shouted, "Oh, madam, Betty scalded herself!"
Complaining about stupid servants possessed of two left hands, who cannot do the simplest task without messing, Mrs. Bennet nevertheless dashed to the site of the accident.
Luckily, Betty had more fright than real injury. When taking an apron out of the cauldron with unwieldy wooden tongs, she didn't notice a brining clout, coiled inside, and it landed on her ample bosom. The skin wasn't damaged beyond reddening. The hurt maid was quieted more or less and dispatched to the kitchen - to grate potatoes for her own poultices.
Carefully dragging a coloured satin gown through a mound of feathery foam, Mrs. Stevens was lost in reminiscences.
"I was young then, unmarried yet. Well, I was carrying a full bucket from a boiler to a tub, and couldn't see my way for steam, or perhaps I lost my footing in pattens, but I fell and dropped the bucket." She waited for the ohs to die down, and continued imperturbably, "To tell the truth, I hardly felt it. In those days a woman wasn't considered dressed without three petticoats at least, and the skirts were honest-to-god, not flimsy, like nowadays. Strange to say, thought ladies had more to wear, they washed less. Certainly, I'm not going to grumble, not I; it's good for business."
Composed, Mrs. Bennet returned to the house. Disentangling herself from the sheets, blocking the hall, she noted that bleaching was a success, with satisfaction; and that the servants' wash was enormous, almost half of the family wash, with amazed acceptance. It certainly took a lot of place; when the stores were in linen cupboard it always seemed that they had run out of things. With the great wash off her shoulders, she would have to see to lace. What about this strange recipe of washing it in milk - never fancied trying that, especially in the hot season. Or was it buttermilk? And some gowns had to be dyed, and some gowns could use trimming... Ah! the woman's work is never done!...
Mr. Bennet, at the head of the dinner table, joked that instead of a grace he should say a complete sermon, taking for the text St Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, "that he might sanctify and cleanse it with washing of water, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing."
"Indeed, let us be truly grateful that this day of judgement is almost over."
The dinner was taken rather informally. It was useless to expect the maids to help the ladies to dress Ò they barely managed to serve the meal - and, as Mrs. Bennet said, it didn't matter among the close family members. She was heart and soul of the table talk.
"Jane, my dear, I'm afraid that your lettuce-green gown with the bugle border is very much washed out, though I charged everybody to take great care of it."
"No wonder," Lizzy consoled her sister. "It is too handsome to be worn - almost too handsome to be looked at."
"We must hurry and unpick it to whole-breadths and pieces and send them to town for dyeing. It must be placed in Mr. Wren's hands, as Mr. Floor's work is all for nothing. Thanks to him I shall have to re-dye a dress the third time in one year. Now, which colour will be better, chocolate brown or purple? Purple is pretty enough, but it does not become my complexion."
"Make Jane to dye her dress brown, too, my dear, but the kind of brown can be left to her choice. Then there will always be something to say, to dispute about which is the prettiest."
"What ideas you put into the girl's head, my dear Mr. Bennet! Brown is too dark to begin with. Jane can have her gown dyed a light blue or a somewhat deeper green; after that there will be still a darker blue or a sunless pinewood green; and then, if she wishes, walnut brown or a dried blood effect to choose from."
"It's like any natural phenomenon," Lizzy explained, "the sequence of dyeing is from light to dark as irrevocable as day darkens into night, but with no following dawn."
"You never said a truer word, child. I can feel it still: when Mr. Bennet's mother was taken unexpectedly, for my mourning I had to unpick my beautiful fawn silk pelisse and to have it dyed black for a gown. Then I was trapped with these blacks - smart of their kind - year after year, and it was the longest period of no deaths in the family."
"I think green will be nice," Jane put forward quietly.
"So be it, my dear. Incidentally, Mr. Bennet, why not dye your morning coat?"
"You regard it as too light? Every admirer of Tom Jones should wear the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded. But perhaps you are right, and I must have a garment in fashionable blue."
"Oh yes, Papa," the younger girls joined, "the best colour for a coat. Everyone who is anyone has got a blue coat."
"And may I have a new pelisse, sir?" irrepressible Lydia added.
"I see no reason for it," her mother stopped her. "Your pelisse is velvet; when fresh lined and made up, I'm sure you will have no occasion this winter for anything new of that sort, for velvet is to be very much worn this winter. Miss Baker charges eight shillings for the making, but the buttons seem expensive."
"So, Lydia, you must turn your pelisse into new."
"I have determined to trim my lilac sarsenet with black satin ribbon just as my China crape is. Ribbon trimmings are all the fashion."
"With this addition it will be a very useful gown, happy to go anywhere," Mr. Bennet agreed courteously.
The rest of the dinner was devoted to the fate of window-curtains and sofa-covers.
When Mrs. Bennet went to glance whether everything was in order, the brilliancy of an unclouded night mocked at her, the full moon was beaming innocently. In the wash-house Dame Kew polished the copper cauldron with flannel, soaked in turpentine, and fine brick dust; and Sukey scrubbed the scum off the tubs. The goose fat was at hand, to preserve copper from verdigris, and ragged cloths for drying the tubs were ready. She was so pleased that she quite forgot to point out that each had a whole tallow candle for her sole use.
The night was solemn, and soothing, and lovely, but Mrs. Bennet hadn't the eyes for it. She collapsed upon the sofa in the drawing-room, with no strength left, not even for complaints about her own sufferings and ill-usage. A woman's lot was difficult, especially if she had to make... not a big income... go a good way. She wished that fate would be kinder to her daughters... Yes! What was it that Mrs. Long had said?...
"My dear Mr. Bennet, have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"
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