A Tartar of a Girl

A Tartar of a Girl  (1904) 
by E. R. Punshon

From English Illustrated Magazine, Vol 31, 1904.

Unless you hurry," I added, viciously, "you'll miss that train as sure as fate, and then what will happen to your dear Cecelia?"
Mary shrieked, said I was horrid to frighten her so, and departed with a flutter of skirts and a final injunction not to let Amelia go. "Tell her you'll kill her first," screamed Mary from the garden-gate, and added as an afterthought from the footpath, "Dead!"



"I EXPECT," said my sister Mary, as she hunted for her gloves, "that she will turn up an amazing swell, but don't let that frighten you."

"I won't," said I, stoutly.

"Be polite and pleasant, you know," continued Mary, tilting her hat all ways in a frantic effort to get it straight, "but, above all things, be firm."

"Granite," I assured her, "shall be butter compared with me."

"It is simply atrocious," Mary went on indignantly, nearly weeping over the mysterious disappearance of her umbrella, "that she should even dream of leaving me in such a pickle."

"Greater moral depravity," said I, "has not been displayed since the massacre of St. Bartholomew."

"Don't be irreverent, Tom," said Mary, rebukingly, as she borrowed half-a-crown to pay her railway fare, because she had nothing but gold, and the booking clerk always confused her so; "but tell her I cannot spare her till I have another cook, and mind you make yourself tidy before Cecelia comes—so much always depends upon first impressions."

"Oh, bother," said I, crossly, for I knew Mary entertained vain hopes that Cecelia, the visitor from America she was now hurrying to meet, and I should fall in love with each other, "and unless you hurry," I added, viciously, "you'll miss that train as sure as fate, and then what will happen to your dear Cecelia?"

Mary shrieked, said I was horrid to frighten her so, collected most of her belongings, felt to make sure she had her purse, gave her hat a final tilt, wondered what she had forgotten, shrieked again as she looked at the clock, and departed with a flutter of skirts and a final injunction not to let Amelia go. "Tell her you'll kill her first," screamed Mary from the garden-gate, and added as an afterthought from the footpath, "Dead!"

I went into the dining room to get my pipe and prepare for the coming struggle with the formidable and perfidious Amelia. After enabling Mary to triumph for nearly a year over her less fortunate sisters in the possession of a really good cook, she had seized this occasion, when poor Mary was already short of one servant, to depart without notice to get married in a neighbouring town, whence she had now written to say she would come to-day for her box.

"What shall I do?" Mary had wailed, "for I simply must go to meet Cecelia, who has never been in England before," and then, I, appearing on this scene of misery, rashly undertook my present mission.

I had not been smoking long before a ring at the door roused me, and "upon my word," said I to myself, as I answered it, "she is an amazing swell and pretty, too,—Mary never said she was pretty—but be firm, my boy, be firm."

"Will you be so good," I said aloud to the small neat figure in the well-fitting gown of grey tweed, "as to step this way?"

I held the door invitingly open and flattered myself I was carrying out my instructions very nicely. "Be polite but firm," Mary had said, and I was being polite, and if necessary I would be firm.

"Is Mrs. Drummond——" she began, but I interrupted her.

"Mrs. Drummond is out at present," I said, politeness just oozing from me, "but I can arrange everything. Will you please be so kind as to step this way?"

To my unbounded satisfaction, she now followed me and I, triumph in my heart, led her to the kitchen. She glanced about her with an appearance of surprise, while I wiped my brow and set my back against the door, taking thankful note that all the windows were locked.

"Now," said I, with a judicious mixture of politeness and firmness, "here is the kitchen and there is the dinner and you, my good girl, have got to set to work to cook it. Mrs. Drummond says she will see you when she returns."

"Wh—what?" gasped my captive.

"It's no good your pretending to be so surprised," I said, feeling that now the time for firmness had come, "you've just jolly well got to do what you're told."

"I won't," said she, decidedly, "I never do."

"So I believe," I answered, "but on this occasion you have no alternative."

"And why in the name of all that's extraordinary," she asked, "should I cook your dinner?"

"Mainly, because you are told to."

"But why?" she persisted. "What does it mean?"

"I am not here to argue with you," I said, loftily, "but simply to see that dinner cooked."

"Do you mind," she inquired with deceptive sweetness, "telling me what asylum for idiots you have escaped from?"

"There are the potatoes," I said, with a lofty wave of my hand, judging it best to ignore this insolence, "and I have reason to believe that the first step in the preparation of dinner is the peeling of potatoes. Let me see you begin."

"I'll do nothing of the kind. Be so good as to allow me to pass."

She marched up to me with an air I should never have supposed a person of Amelia's class could have assumed, and the look she gave me was absolutely withering. But Mary's injunction "Be firm" rang in my ears, and how could I face her to confess that Amelia had overawed me?

"You do not leave this house," said I, impressively, "until the dinner is cooked."

"Do you dare to stop me?" she demanded.

I had thought her pretty before, but now with her eyes flashing positive fire, with a little spot of red on either cheek and her small head held quite absurdly upright, I began to perceive that prettiness was a quite inadequate term. I was so busy admiring the little round chin she had poked forward at such an obstinate angle, that I quite forgot to answer her.

"I desire to go," she said, "and you will kindly tell Mrs. Drummond I will never return to be insulted in this fashion."

"When you have cooked the dinner," said I, feeling that I needed all my firmness, "we will consider that point."

She stamped her foot at me—a very small foot it was, too.

"I would sooner die," she cried, "than cook your horrid old dinner. So there."

I felt the time had come for desperate measures.

"Mrs. Drummond," I said in my deepest voice "told me you were to choose between cooking the dinner and having your head cut off."

With that I reached for the big carving knife, and never since the world began has a girl jumped quicker than did this one to those potatoes. She had the first peeled before I quite knew what was happening.

"That's a good girl," I said, approvingly, "I perceive your future husband will have little trouble with you if he goes the right way to work." Privately, I considered that future husband a very lucky chap, and, remembering my instructions to be pleasant, I asked presently:

"And when is the wedding to be?"

"I—I don't quite remember," she faltered, whisking the meat into the oven.

"I'll bet a good deal he remembers," I remarked.

"Very likely," she murmured; "am I to make an apple pudding or an apple pie or what with these?"

"Oh, I don't know," I said: "Mrs. Drummond is expecting an American friend to dinner, so she wants things nice, I believe."

"A—a what?" said she, staring.

"An American friend," I repeated, and then as the girl still stood staring, I added, "you have heard of America?—the country over the sea, you know," and I waved my hand vaguely towards the west.

"I fancy I remember hearing of it," she said, meekly, "but if I am to have all this dinner cooked by the time Mrs. Drummond is back, you must help me."

"All right," I said, though a bit taken aback. But, after all, she was really an extremely pretty girl, and I thought it would not be at all unpleasant. "It will be as well," I said, "for this American girl seems a bit of a Tartar, and dinner had better be ready."

"Oh, she seems a bit of a Tartar, does she?" said the girl, meditatively, tapping her chin with a knife-handle.

"So I should imagine," I remarked, "and though they say she is extremely pretty, for my part I think an English girl——"

"Oh, dear, the soup's burning," cried she, and drowned the neat little compliment I had in my mind with a most prodigious rattling of pots and pans.

"If you are going to help," she said, turning a hot face to me, "why don't you get some coal up, instead of hanging about there with your hands in your pockets?"

When I had done that she had another little job for me and then another, and presently had me down on my hands and knees polishing the fender.

"I simply can't cook," she said, "unless that is brighter, and we must not give this Tartar of a girl of yours any occasion to find fault."

"That's all very well," I protested, "but you do work a fellow jolly hard, and I'm sure there was no need to make me take that last scuttle of coals back for bigger ones—there was not an atom of difference between them and those you made me change because they were too small."

"Well, you shouldn't have made me stop," she retorted.

"I had to," I grumbled, "the dinner's got to be cooked, for Mary would never forgive me if Cecelia went hungry."

"I suppose you wouldn't mind?" she asked.

"Not a bit," I declared, "I'm sick of hearing the very name of Cecelia, her praises have been dinned into me so. Don't you think that fender will do? My back's near breaking."

"It's a pretty inferior job," she remarked, "not a hired girl but would be set to doing it all over again, but no doubt it's the best you can manage. I'm afraid the chimney will have to be cleaned, the fire's not drawing properly."

And in spite of all my protests she had me for half an hour or more raking out soot and cinders till I was black from head to foot.

"Think of this Tartar of a Cecelia," she urged, when I showed signs of rebellion, and the only poor satisfaction I had was when a shovelful of soot fell right on top of some apples and cream she had been preparing with special care.

"You are as clumsy," she said, half crying over her spoiled dish, "as you are stupid, and that's saying whole heaps."

Nor would she forgive me till after apologies that, looking back, I can only describe as abject and servile to a degree.

However, we were pretty soon on friendly terms again till she was good enough to remark that if I was clumsy and slow, I was at least willing. In fact, we got on so well together that presently I ventured to inquire how it was that she had taken to cooking.

"I suppose," she remarked, thoughtfully, "that I may say I was forced into it."

I told her I should have thought a girl like her could easily have got a dozen better jobs, and we were getting quite confidential when I heard the front door open and Mary calling me. In a moment or two she appeared at the kitchen door, my companion suddenly disappearing into the pantry.

"Gracious!" said Mary. Then she sat down on a chair with signs of what I considered excessive astonishment. "What—have—you—been doing?" she asked, speaking like a minute-gun.

"I have only been helping Amelia," I replied, meekly, keenly conscious of suppressed giggling from behind.

"Helping Amelia!" cried Mary, as though 1 had said I was St. Paul's Cathedral out for a walk.

"You see," I explained, "it got so late, dinner would not have been ready unless I had helped."

"You have become very thoughtful all at once," said Mary, suspiciously, "where is Amelia, and had you any trouble with her?"

"She was rather obstinate at first," I remarked loudly, "but she gave in when she saw it was no good."

"Oh," same a soft murmur from the pantry, while Mary remarked approvingly:

"I thought it would be all right if you were firm, though how you have got your self into such a mess, I can't imagine. I missed that train and could not find Cecelia—why!—what—oh, oh!"

For rather shyly my captive appeared from the pantry, and as she saw her, Mary simply gasped.

"Cecelia!" she cried; "Cecelia! am I dreaming? You, Cecelia!"

"He said," explained Cecelia, mildly, "that I must choose between cooking the dinner and having my head cut off, so I decided to cook the dinner. I made him work, too," she added, surveying my appearance with vicious satisfaction.

Mary and I gasped in about equal amazement, and Cecelia continued:

"He told me the dinner must be cooked, because you were expecting a Tartar of a girl from America; the country over the sea, you know," she added, with a perfect imitation of my manner and gesture.

"Well, Thomas," said Mary, resignedly, "our family never was famous for the intelligence of its male members, but even in their small allotment of brains, you have most certainly no share."

I was too broken-spirited to answer. I began to sneak towards the door.

"Where are you going?" asked Mary.

"I am going," I replied, plaintively, "to crawl into the nearest hole to die."

"Oh! very well," said my sister, with heartless approval.

"Couldn't you postpone that till after dinner?" suggested Cecelia. "It's quite ready now, and if you praise my cooking enough, perhaps I'll forgive you."

Mary looked first at me and then at Cecelia.

"After all," she said, enigmatically, "perhaps it may all turn out for the best"

But as I tell Cecelia she has never since our marriage cooked any dinner that tasted half so nice as that one—even though the two girls did giggle at each other all the time.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1956, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.