General Observations  (1896) 
by Barry Pain

From The Idler, Vol 10, Dec 1896. Illustrations omitted.

It were a comfortable place too—all the washing put out, no interfering, no nagging, no scraping, and every now and again the charwoman to help you. Why did I ever leave it?

Well, that was along of William. I means William the canary, and not William the carpenter, who is my young man, and never gave me a moment's sorrow yet, and it would be worse for him if he did.




GENERAL, age twenty-four, can cook. Christian, clean, honest, obliging, good character, eighteen months in last place—and that's me.

Ah, and a very nice place it was, too, the money were no more than seventeen, and if that's not too little I can swear as it's not too much. But then he were a gentleman, and so were she, and that's a thing worth twice thinking of. Riches is not everything. Why, there's my own sister, kitchen-maid in a house where they're rolling in money, but I wouldn't change with her. The other day, the cook being short of parsley, my sister pops into the kitchen- garden to get some, and there's the master smoking his cigar.

"O, damn your eyes," he says, "what are you doing here?" And she, being frightened, says, "It's the parsley, sir." "Well," says he, "you're a pretty little devil, and so you can have some." Pretty she is, too, but I couldn't stomach such treatment if I were her. But there it is—she stops because the cook's took a fancy to her, and teaches her to cook them French dishes. "Coatlets de mowtun ally refarm"—there's a name for you, and from what she tells me, nothing in the world but veal chops with a sweet sauce!

No, I preferred my place, and told her so. As I say, he were a gentleman whichever way you took him. He did paint pictures in colours, but then I don't think he ever tried to sell them. At any rate, nobody ever bought them. Very pretty they was though, and showed he'd got a knack. She was a perfect lady, too, and yet she had a kind heart. And in her evening gown—for it was late dinner every night, though small—she looked more like a photograph than like anything earthly. The house was just a cottage with a piece of garden to it, and handy for boating on the river, to which they were very partial—almost living on that river in the summer-time. Many a time, when he and she were out in the punt, I've stepped into that little bit of garden and seen the sun shining and the spring onions coming through, and it all looked so pretty, and the feeling of pleasantness was such, I wouldn't have called the Queen my uncle, as they say. It were a comfortable place too—all the washing put out, no interfering, no nagging, no scraping, and every now and again the charwoman to help you. Why did I ever leave it?

Well, that was along of William. I means William the canary, and not William the carpenter, who is my young man, and never gave me a moment's sorrow yet, and it would be worse for him if he did.

I hadn't been there more nor my month when she came into the kitchen, and she said about the dinner, which I remember as if it was yesterday, and was lambs' sweetbreads. And then she said—

"Are you happy here, Emma?"

Now, that were a question as I had never had put to me before—your happiness not being a thing as you can expect anybody to care about except yourself. So I were rather taken aback.

"Well, ma'am," I says, "it's a nice place, and very kind of you to ask, but take it how you will it's not as if you kept two of us."

"No," says she, with one of them little sighs of hers, "it's not. Do you find it lonely?"

"Well," I says, "being engaged to William, there ain't so much talk going on at the back-door as there might have been otherwise, which is only right. And yet, when you're single-handed, what you don't say to them at the back-door you don't say to nobody, which is what stifles you."

"Ah!" she says, "would you like to have a pet of your own to keep in the kitchen—a cat or a dog?"

"Thank you, ma'am," says I, "but cats is faithless, and dogs runs to fat when not exercised; but if I might mention it a canary has always been my ambition. And if that kitchen-window don't seem to ask for a cage to hang in it!"

She smiled and said I should have a canary, and next day she went up to London and brought back the whole thing complete. The cage were handsome, and the bird were pale yellow.

Yes, I was pleased to get it, and I was thankful for it, and I called it William after the other William, and I saw that it took its seed and water, and was nicely kept. But it's a bitter thing to think of now—I didn't value that blessed bird at the first, as he should have been valued. We was friendly, but nothing more.

You see, just at first he wouldn't sing, and he may have been a bit shy. But it was more cleverness than shyness. He knew, as well as I knew, that I wanted him to sing; and what he said to himself was, "I'll just see first if the place suits me. If they make it worth my while to sing I'll sing. If not, I'll sulk, and then they'll sell me." It was only natural. Birds have to do the best they can for themselves, just the same as human beings.

Then all of a sudden one day, as I were cleaning the silver, he give two or three little twiddly chirps, then come hopping along to the side of the cage and looked down at me out of his little sharp eyes, to see how I was taking it.

"Very well, William," says I. "If you can sing you shall sing, else no sugar."

He thought for a minute, and shook his head, as much as to say, "No, I can't see any reason why I shouldn't oblige." Then he hopped down, took a sip of water, hopped up again, wiped his mouth on the wooden perch, cleared his throat, and began. I took his time by the kitchen clock, and he went for seven minutes, and you could see by the way he stopped suddenly, shook his head, and stamped his claw on the perch, that there was a lot more to come only he couldn't remember it. He'd let himself get out of practice. However, not to discourage him, I gave him a little bit of sugar.

After that there was no more trouble about the singing. He'd found as he could make himself comfortable in the place, and so he meant to stop. And when he once settled that, there was no more banging backward. And he never had any of that silly vanity that you'll see in some people, though he was but a bird, while they may have Christian homes and advantages showered on them like water on a duck's back. There's many a woman won't sing at all if there's much talking going on, though speech is free to all, and we might all speak at once but for the inconvenience. That's what I call silly, foolish vanity, and setting of one's self up like a idol. There was nothing of that about William. He'd sing when there was coffee-grinding going on, and sing the louder for it. Bless his heart!

You may be sure it wasn't long before he and me was as good friends as there was in the world. In a week he'd learned to take hemp-seed out of my fingers. And clever! Well, once I put a bit of sugar in the bottom of his glass, when he wasn't looking, and covered it up with seed. When he'd eaten up the seed on the top, and come across that sugar, he were so startled that he regular jumped. However, I saw him wink one eye, as much as to say, "I must remember this little trick." Next time his seed-glass wanted filling, I did the same thing again. But this time the glass were no sooner in his cage than he went right up to it, dug down through the seed, and fetched that bit of sugar out. But there, if I get talking about his cleverness there'd be no end. As I said to Mrs. Amroyd, which is the charwoman, I said: "It's a comfort to think that if I'm took, and brief life is here our portion, William's clever enough to provide for himself." "Oh, yes!" she says, "carpenters can always make their money," confusing him with the other William, as she was always doing, and in a way as would sometimes bring the blush to my cheek, allusion having been made to the canary's bath which she mistook different.

With the affection I had for that canary, the wonder is however I came to leave the door of his cage unhitched. But the front and the back bell going simultaneous, and taking off my attention, I must have left it undone in my flurry. Anyhow, just as me and Mrs. Amroyd was sitting to our teas that bird got out. At first I thought he'd get frightened and beat his blessed heart out against the window. But not he—he knew too much for that. He came straight down on to the table, and began pecking up crumbs. "Well, Mister Impertinence," I says, "you know how to look after yourself." And I held out my finger to him, and he'd have hopped on to it, if Mrs. Amroyd hadn't happened to give a sneeze, which scared him, though not done malicious. However, he didn't go far, and he was soon back and at work on those crumbs again. Yes, be had got a cheek and no doubt about it, and I don't blame him for it neither. For cheek is what gets you on in the world nowadays. Why, if I had the cheek of that bird, I might be the Queen of Sheba. And yet he knew where to draw the line, did William. When I got the cage down, and stood it on the table with the door open, he understood that he'd got to go back, and let me catch him and put him back without so much as a murmur.

After that I used to let him out frequent, seeing as he could be trusted, and the way he'd follow me about that kitchen was one of the seven wonders of the earth, and got to be talked of, too, through the tradesmen's carts having seen it with their own eyes when calling at the back-door. He was a regular proverb in the place, William was, and if he'd been my own son I couldn't have been more proud of him. The only anxiety I ever had about him was along of Mrs. Chalk's sandy cat, which would sneak round my kitchen- windows by the hour; and that were soon over.

Keep those windows shut always, you couldn't. For it takes a fire to roast a joint in the summer just as much as in the winter, and living in a Turkish bath is what no Christian could be asked to do. Still, it gives me a feeling of nervousness, knowing as cats are artful. And that sandy cat were a bit too artful for his own safety. One morning I had just come down from the upstairs room, and with my hand on the kitchen door I heard a crash. I rushed in and saw what it was. The cat had got in at the window, and made a jump for the cage. In half a second I had shut window and door, so that Mister Sandy couldn't get out. Then I had a look at William and saw that he wasn't hurt, only frightened. And then I picked up the poker, and the next ten minutes kept me busy.

I had to report a vegetable-dish and two wine-glasses broke, but I didn't grudge them. The cat I buried that night, unbeknown, back of the rhubarb. Questions was asked, and answered in a way as you might call putting-off. That is, Mrs. Chalk says to me, "Have you seen our sandy cat?" I says, "Yes, I saw him in the garden last night." So I did. That was when I was burying him. She said, "You didn't throw stones at him, nor do anything to scare him away, for he's lost?" "No," I says, "I wouldn't do such a thing." And no more I would, for where's the sense in throwing stones at a dead cat. "Why," I says, "he may stop in the garden for ever, for all I care," which were the solemn truth, though artful.

As I said, William wasn't hurt, but he'd had a nasty shock. For weeks he was that shaken you couldn't get him to stir out of his cage. And when he did venture out at last, the least little noise seemed to put him all of a flutter. However, time and patience, and good feeding, brought him round. He were such a companion to me as you wouldn't believe. Every morning as soon as I were down, he'd start chattering to me. Often and often I've told that bird things as I wanted to say, but wouldn't have told to no living human being; for I knowed he wouldn't pass them on, or even let slip hint of them accidental, which is what the best of us is liable to. And he looked at you that intelligent, when you was talking, you could see as he understood every word. If you stopped, he'd give a sort of chirrup, as much as to say, "Well, go on. What next?"

For two years he were a joy and a comfort to me, and then he were took. He got a bit of a cold somehow, and I give a shilling to a woman I knew with experience in fowls to come and have a look at him. As soon as she saw him, she says, "We'll do all we can do, but it's more serious than you think. For what he's got is congestion of the chest, to which all them foreign birds is partial." Well, we gave him medicine, and he took it, for to the last he'd eat or drink almost anything, such was his desire to please. And he were well nursed, too, and I'd bank up the kitchen fire to last through the night, and never grudge the coals. A comfort to me, too, it is to think as everything was done, for one night I could see as the end were near and sat up with him, and at half-past eleven be were stone dead, if ever a bird was, and me broken-hearted. I wore black for him, too, which was the same I had when my aunt was took, and that started Mrs. Amroyd. "Why," she said, "to put it on for a bird, it do seem to me downright irreligious."

"Yes," I says, "he were only a bird, nor born to any high estate, as the hymn says, but he were a better friend to me nor ever my aunt was, which was wrangling from morning till night. And so the less you says, Mrs. Amroyd, the better for all parties, or you may live to lose a friend yourself, which would be only a judgment."

And of course I give notice. I couldn't keep coming into that kitchen where he'd always been, and never would be any more, not though it had been a king's palace. So I said as I'd leave at the end of my month, and no entreaties, nor the offer of another canary, though well-meant, could move me. I was sorry to part with them, and sorry to leave the place, but it had to be.

Ah! I shall never find another place like it. As a rule, a gentleman has money, and then he don't do on one general. All 1 has to look forward to is over-work, under-feeding, and nagging, and miseries. But all the same, I couldn't stop after William had gone.

What the other William says is, don't take a place at all. For the way he looks at it, if you makes your Christmas holiday your honeymoon, that's all a saving, and to be thought of when a couple ain't Rothschild's and the Bank of England, which I don't deny is sense.

However, that's a thing as needs thinking over. Still, he had the canary stuffed at his own expense, and give me in a glass-case, and that's a sign of a feeling heart. I daresay as I might do worse.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1928, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 94 years or less. This work may 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.

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