The Trouble With Martha

The Trouble With Martha  (1917) 
by Ellis Parker Butler
From the "Editor's Drawer" of Harper's Magazine, Dec 1917.

"I do hope she can make it pay," Mrs. Garner had said.

"One feels, if I may say so, under such good auspices in The Roses with Mrs. Freem." So Mrs. Garner had written all her friends and The Roses had become a bit of a rage with them because of Mrs. Freem and her "tone," but, it must be said, in spite of Martha.

The Trouble With Martha


IN the morning Mrs. Freem was always a little wan and worn, but the boarders at The Roses forgave that.

"No wonder, poor dear!" Mrs. Garner told Mrs. Littlepage. "She is always up when we retire, giving those little extra touches that make The Roses so charming to the refined. She is so refined herself. Her one thought is our comfort."

As a matter of fact, it was not to give "those little extra touches" that Mrs. Freem postponed until so late her bed-going. It was not until the guests were in their rooms that she dared go to Martha's room in the attic, and she was obliged to go there every night. It was to confer with the preposterously fat negro cook that Mrs. Freem remained up.

The Roses was one of those delightful small institutions, half hotel and half boarding-house, that sit so charmingly in their white-and-green spotlessness on one of the tree-bordered streets of Asbury Park. A staff of ten, including Martha, sufficed for the comfort of the guests, and ever since the place had been reopened under new management—meaning Mrs. Fremen's management—The Roses had been crowded. In her neat summer gowns, with her colorless, wan face and thin, white hands, Mrs. Freem was an ideal hostess for her paying guests. She was "tone" without obtrusiveness.

"I do hope she can make it pay," Mrs. Garner had said. "One feels, if I may say so, under such good auspices in The Roses with Mrs. Freem."

So Mrs. Garner had written all her friends and The Roses had become a bit of a rage with them because of Mrs. Freem and her "tone," but, it must be said, in spite of Martha.

"My dear Mrs. Freem," Mrs. Garner had said, "you know how I love The Roses, and that it is almost a cult with me, but don't you think the table might be improved the least bit? Not quantity, my dear Mrs. Freem, but the cuisine? If you were to secure another cook?"

Mrs. Freem seemed worried by this. She fingered the delicate cameo at her throat nervously and said, "Ah—ah—" twice. She turned quite pale and then colored. "Mar-tha—" she said. "Martha—I will speak to Martha. I—I—"

"I know how hard it is to get good cooks, dear Mrs. Freem," said Mrs. Garner, graciously. "I am sure, if you speak to Martha—"

Late that night Mrs. Freem climbed to Martha's attic room. Martha was awaiting her, her huge form filling a creaking wicker rocking-chair. Martha spoke first. She spoke as soon as Mrs. Freem entered the room.

"Look yere!" she said. "Jus 'bout once mo' is all I's gwine tell you to have dat no-'count Mike Hennesy rake dat dribeway de fust thing ebery mo'nin'. Little mo' an' dis place gwine look lak one o' dem tumble-down shanties up yonder at Long Branch. Yunnerstan' dat? Dis de secon' time I 'minded you 'bout dat dribeway, an' I don' want to have to speak 'bout it no mo' times. Yunnerstan' dat? An' to-morrow I want you to speak to dat Lizzie girl 'bout how she waitin' on Mis' Garner's table, an' ef she can't do no better you gwine hand her her pay an' let her go. Yunnerstan' dat? Now, here's what we gwine hab fo' meals to-morrow. You gwine tell Mistah Higgins ef he can't let you hab better soft crabs you gwine buy elsewhere. Now, what you want to ask me?"

"There's a telegram from a Mrs. Remsen asking for two rooms on the fourteenth," said Mrs. Freem.

"All right! Mis' Cousins an' her gal is gwine away on de fo'teenth. Mis' Remsen, she's a frien' of Mis' Garner, so to-morrow you telegraph her she can come. What else?"

"Mrs. Garner says," said Mrs. Freem, meekly, "the cooking is not just what it should be."

"Huh!" said Martha. "Well, dey ain' gwine be no change in de cookin'. I'm cookin' all de ways I knows how, an' de beste I knows how. What else?"

"Nothing else," said Mrs. Freem.

"Well, you tell Mis' Garner," said Martha "how as you gave me Hail Columbia an' you reckon de cookin' gwine be a lot better from now on. Say you jawed me ontil I was blubberin' like a chile. Yunnerstan' dat? Den go to bed. I's done work out."

Mrs. Freem duly reported to Mrs. Garner that she had taken Martha most severely to task and that the faithful old creature had promised, with tears in her eyes, to do better

"I trust she may," said Mrs. Garner, graciously. "You know, dear Mrs. Freem, I have the success of The Roses close to my heart."

This kindly reply greatly relieved Mrs. Freem, for her position was a difficult one. Martha Washington Smith, having gained during her many years' experience as cook the idea that Asbury Park boarding-house were a source of wealth, had leased The Roses for five years, but had had sense enough to know she could not draw the really profitable custom if it were known that The Roses was leased and run by a negress. And she said when she hired Mrs. Freem:

"You's gwine be de boss. Yunnerstan' dat? You's gwine swell aroun' an' order everybody 'roun'. You gwine order me 'roun', too, lak I was a no-'count nigger cook. You gwine git reg'lar wages to be owner of de whole place, but I ain' gwine ha' no nonsense. You ain't gwine run nuffin'. No, ma'm! I gwine pay de bills, an' I gwine say what's what, an' ebery night you gwine come up to my room an' git your orders. Yunnerstan' dat? Well, don' you fergit it, noway!"

It cannot be said that the cookery improved, as Mrs. Freem had promised it would, but perhaps Mrs. Garner imagined it was better. There were no more complaints made to dear Mrs. Freem until two weeks later, when Mrs. Remsen appeared with her daughter and her niece. Like Mrs. Garner, Mrs. Remsen was a lady of large bust and great fastidiousness, and she spoke to Mrs. Garner (as being more intimate with Mrs. Freem) on a matter that seemed to her to need immediate attention. Poor Mrs. Freem appeared before Martha with fear and trembling.

"I'm very sorry to have to bring such a message, Mrs. Smith," she said, "and I would not do so except that Mrs. Remsen and Mrs. Garner were most outspoken about it."

Martha glowered. "What dem ol' hens ruckeshin' erbout now?" she demanded.

"Why, the tennis-court," faltered Mrs. Freem. "The tennis-court seems to be where the players have a full view of the back porch. They say—Mrs. Remsen says—it is, well, disgusting to see a—"

"Go on! Gimme de words she spoke!"

"She says it is disgusting to see a fat old creature sprawled out on the back porch in filthy garments," said Mrs. Freem, hurrying over the horrid words. "She says her Milly is so sensitive. It—it sickens her, she says. She—she practically orders me to order you to keep off the back porch."

"Huh!" exclaimed Martha, angrily. "An' what you say to dat? I ask you, what did you say to dat, huh?"

"Why, I told her," said poor Mrs. Freem, "that I was sorry. I told her I always wished The Roses to be a place of charm and cheer to its guests, and I said I would speak to you.

"You did! You said you would speak to me! Nice way dat was to speak to high quality ladies what ask a reques'! You go on dat way, Mis' Freem, an' fus' thing you know I gwine hire another owner fo' dis boardin'-house. You ain' got no mo' sense dan a rabbit. When quality ladies lak Mis' Garner an' Mis' Remsen ask a reques' lak dat hereafter you gwine say: 'Yassam, I gwine 'tend to dat right away. Ef dat greasy ol' nigger set on dat back porch once mo' I gwine break her neck. I ain' gwine hab no nigger trash disgus' my lady boarders. No, ma'm!' Dat what you gwine say. Yunnerstan' dat?"

"Yes, Mrs. Smith," said Mrs. Freem, in her subdued tone. "I understand. I only thought, as you were the owner—"

"Nebber you min' erbout no owner!" snapped Martha. "I'll 'tend to de owner business!"

With this understanding in mind Mrs. Freem found her task easier. When Mrs. Garner complained of her morning coffee Mrs. Freem declared she would send her cook packing the moment she could engage a new one.

"I would discharge her to-day, Mrs. Garner, but I cannot leave my guests foodless. I shall speak to her most severely and warn her that if the coffee is once more what it should not be I shall deduct one half her month's wages."

Martha received the tale of Mrs. Garner's complaint in a more philosophical humor than might have been expected.

"All right!" she said. "I ain' gwine rile mahself all up lak I done at first. Them wimmins gwine complain an' complain, 'cause dey ain' got nuffin' to do but sit 'roun' an' knit an' complain. Yunnerstan' how to meet up wid de complainin' now, an' dat's de great point. I's cookin' de bestes' I knows how an' I can't do no more. When de quality ladies kick up a rumpus you lambaste me good an' plenty. Dey got t' feel satisfied, so dey don't up an' quit De Roses, an' dat all I care 'bout."

To do Martha justice, she did the best she could with the cooking. If it had been possible she would have given up the kitchen altogether, but it was necessary for her to be on the spot to manage the boarding-house, as any owner should look after his property, and she was too grossly fat to undertake any work outside the kitchen. The Roses was proving more profitable than she had hoped, and this was mainly because of Mrs. Garner, who had induced so many of her friends to locate there.

Late one night, after an unusually hot and trying day, Mrs. Freem climbed the stairs and tapped on Martha's door. When she entered the room Martha saw at once, by Mrs. Freem's worried eyes, that something was wrong.

"Huh! What now?" she asked.

Mrs. Freem fingered her cameo and looked at Martha hopelessly. "It—they—" she faltered.

"What now, huh?" demanded Martha. "I's waitin', an' I's tired. What now?"

"They"—hesitated Mrs. Freem—"they—Mrs. Garner and Mrs. Remsen—they got all the boarders together—"

"I's waitin'," Martha reminded her.

"They had a meeting, all of them," said poor Mrs. Freem, "and Mrs. Garner and Mrs. Remsen came to me. They expressed the highest regard for me; they said they appreciated the kind of boarding-house I was trying to make of The Roses, and recognized that I was a most unusual person in such a position; they said they considered me more as a friend than as a paid hostess, and were willing to put up with many small inconveniences to remain with me, but—"

"I's listenin'!" said Martha, sternly.

"But they had all joined together and come to one final conclusion," said poor Mrs. Freem. "They said this was their ultimatum—they cannot stand the cooking. They cannot stand the thought of such an untidy cook in the kitchen. Unless I discharge you immediately they will all leave The Roses to-morrow."

"Huh!" snorted Martha, angrily. "Huh!" she said, thoughtfully. She put her fat hands on her knees and looked at nothing and said, "Huh!" slowly and softly.

"Mis' Freem," she said, presently, "I gotta go! I can't resk no business what is coinin' money fo' me hand ober fist. You got to run dis boa'din'-house de bestes' you kin widout me, an' I's gwine raise you' pay two dollar a week to pay fo' de 'sponsibility. Y'unnerstan' dat?"

"Yes, Mrs. Smith," said Mrs. Freem.

"All right!" said Martha. "Dat all's settled. You gwine fire me. But—" she said, with sudden anger; "but I's de owner ob dis place, an' dey ain't no hired help gwine fire Martha Smif excep' dey's de all-firedest row whut ever was! No, ma'm! If I got to be fired lak a cook, I's gwine ack lak a cook! I's entitle' to dat much consolation."

The next noon the diners at The Roses were shocked and startled to hear Martha Smith's voice rising to shrieks and screams in the kitchen, followed by the crash of crockery. Poor Mrs. Freem came from the encounter in a state of almost utter collapse, and an hour later, Martha—gorgeously arrayed and contemptuous—rode by her own boarding-house in an open taxicab.

Every day, until cold weather ended the season, she rode by, her nose in the air. It was quite a consolation.

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 1937, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 85 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.