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"The Head of the Department" from Good Housekeeping

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Good Housekeeping
The Head of the Department
by Ellis Parker Butler

Henry Walters waited until the door of his private office closed behind the figure of Raymond Longley before he ventured to smile. He had done a good bit of business and he felt that he could afford to smile. He had just taken Longley into the firm.

Henry Walters was one of those forceful modern American business men who have been called our captains of industry, and he knew the value of men. The heads of his departments represented the best brains and talent in the business, and he believed that success lay in surrounding himself with men of the greatest obtainable capability. He was famous for the great salaries he paid; but none knew so well as he that the high-priced man is frequently the most economical investment.

He had been troubled to keep Raymond Longley. As general manager, Longley's merits were apparent to all Walter's competitors, and Walters had been anticipating all possible bidders by increasing Longley's salary from time to time, until it had reached a sum beyond which he could not afford to go. By taking him into the firm Walters forestalled those competitors who needed Longley.

As Walters turned to his desk again his telephone bell rang, and he answered with his usual curt "Well?"

"That you, Walters?" came the reply. "This is Dr. Millward. I wish you would come home, immediately. Your wife has had another attack, and her condition is very serious. Come, immediately."

Walters hung up the receiver and turned to the door. His face was white, and as he hurried through the outer office the clerks looked after him curiously. He called the nearest cab and urged the driver to make the greatest haste. He knew that on the speed of the horse, perhaps, depended his chances of seeing his wife alive. Without knowing why, he felt guilty.

Mary Walters had been poor when her husband was poor. She had grown as he had grown, and as he had become wealthy and famous in business she had, month by month, fitted herself for the increasingly difficult management of the home. She had given him the place his wealth and position deserved in their social world; had kept the household running with such smooth wheels that he was entirely unaware of its manifold and complex machinery; and had risen from the ability to manage one servant and a small house in a country town to the place of mistress of a city house of eighteen rooms, with its servants of all degrees. In the meanwhile, she had found time to bear him six healthy children, and to superintend their training, without permitting any loss of the reputation of his house as one of the best managed in the city. In return, he had liked her -- he was too busy for love -- and occasionally showed himself at the opera with her. He paid the household bills and her own expenses for dress, without complaint.

When Henry Walters reached his home he was a widower. For several days he was almost ill; on the seventh day he telegraphed his sister to come, and went hack to his office.

Miss Martha Walters took entire charge of the house, and assumed the duties of a mistress with a light heart. A little over forty, she came from a small Ohio town and fearlessly took up the burden where her sister-in-law had dropped it. A day spent over the household accounts appalled her; she frowned over the apparent extravagance of her brother's mode of living, and proposed that they should retrench.

"Very good," he told her. "Retrench, then. I have paid no attention to the house. Mary managed it. Probably she was not the best manager in the world. I have often thought the house cost too much to run, but I never complained, and I will not complain now. Mary always did her best. But, if you economize, do not do so by changing our mode of living. I consider the domestic department of my life just right. I want a good home; I want the social side kept up. I can afford the one, and the other helps me commercially. Otherwise, you have a free hand. I make you the head of this department. All I want to see is the results."

The social side was immensely simplified by the year of mourning. There were no great dinners to give, and Miss Martha trusted that by the end of the year she would know better how to conduct such affairs. In the meantime, she went cheerfully to work to reform things.

She considered the number of servants sinful, and began by discharging three who seemed least necessary. Three more, who thus had increased duties to perform, left of their own accord, and she filled their places as best she could; but there began a constant series of "Please, ma'am, I wish to give notice" that filled her with despair. One-half her time was spent in securing help, and when she did secure a promising example she generally had to discharge it before its month was up.

In less than three or four months she was tired out, and her face wore a look of anxiety. Her appearance affected Henry Walters's nerves, and the children, who are always quick to notice a changed domestic atmosphere, became cross and rebellious.

"Martha," her brother said one morning, "don't you think the cook you have now is just a little too careless? Burnt chops yesterday, and this coffee is not quite what it ought to be. There must be plenty of good cooks to be had in New York. Mary always seemed to have good breakfasts."

"Then I don't know where she got her cooks," said Martha. "I have had all the nations of Europe represented in the kitchen, and they are all degenerates in the art of cooking. Mary must have known some secret source. I cannot even keep my poor ones. I can't keep any of the servants. They come and go like phantoms, and only half do their work while they stay."

"That is your department," he replied. "I cannot interfere. I have enough to occupy me; but do get a good cook and keep her."

When he received that month's household account he whistled. It was heavier than any of Mary's had been when they had been giving large dinners; but he would not have cared if things had retained their customary excellence. Preoccupied as he was, he began to notice the difference. Sometimes his hand gathered a ridge of dust from a table; occasionally, he had to wait half an hour for his breakfast, or Martha would come down late and untidy. His home, which had been so smooth in its movements before, developed a series of annoying roughnesses and halts that told of domestic machinery out of gear, and, with it all, the expense continued to increase.

By the end of the year the house had reached such a state that he no longer brought his business friends to dinner, and Martha was little more than a wreck. The first entertainment after the period of mourning decided him. Martha had failed utterly as a hostess. She lacked the wifely qualities that had served Mary so well as a hostess, and the dinner fell flat. In fact, it was a dismal failure -- the sort of failure that in business would have meant financial ruin. Mr. Walters knew that such another dinner would mean the social ruination of his house, and that he could not afford. More than all else, however, the slipshod housekeeping jarred upon his keen business sense. He liked things done well. At the office he had things done well; there were no broken cogs and creaking wheels there, and when the bills for the disastrous dinner came in he felt that a reformation was needed.

He pulled out the drawer in his desk labeled "Domestic Affairs," and ran over the accounts his wife had rendered, and compared them with those of his sister. He saw that he was paying more for an inferior service in the domestic department than his wife's regime had cost him for first-class service. Similar results in any department of his business would have meant the instant discharge of the head of the department.

He leaned back in his chair and thought the matter out from a cold business point of view. Clearly, he must have a housekeeper. It occurred to him for the first time that the management of a home was a business quite as important as any other business; in short, the most important. He, and all other men, worked for what, if not to establish and keep a home? And if that home was a failure, did not all his work end in a fiasco? Was not the home, after all, the prime object of human endeavor, and the proper management of the home a high form of specialized labor?

"Well," he said at length, "labor can be bought in the market, be it one kind or another. I have got to get a head for my domestic department, and I want the best. I want a manager as good as Longley is in his department -- or as Mary was."

He began to realize the value of Mary as he had never realized it during her life.

To Martha he merely said that he had decided that she was working too hard, and that he had concluded she deserved an assistant, and Martha was profoundly grateful.

The advertisement which he put in the Herald was concise:

WANTED -- A HOUSEKEEPER. Must be able to manage the entire domestic arrangements of a gentleman's home, and superintend the care and education of his children. Must be competent to maintain the social status of the family. Compensation adequate.

Twenty-three women replied in person, and he interviewed them all -- and dismissed them. He discovered that there are professional housekeepers, just as there are cooks and parlor maids, and he was surprised by their idea of "compensation adequate." He had thought, rather mistily, that perhaps board, lodging and about thirty dollars a month would be fair. The lowest any of these asked him was one hundred dollars a month, and he could see at a glance that none of them was "competent to maintain the social status of the house." They were merely housekeepers. Proficient as they might be in their own department, it was clear that they regarded the social duties as quite distinct from those of a housekeeper. His next advertisement kept this in view:

A GENTLEMAN OF MEANS, desirous of maintaining the social status of his house, and wishing to assure the proper management of his domestic affairs and the proper education and training of his children, wishes to secure the services of a lady of refinement and ability. Write.

In reply to this he received three requests for interviews, and one letter. The three women who called were so clearly of the adventurous class that they received prompt dismissal. The other letter was brief and unpromising:

"If the advertiser will send his name and address to Mrs. C. G., adding any references he wishes, she may consider his proposition."

Henry Walters hesitated an entire day before he ventured to consider this letter, and then he merely inclosed his card, with the name and address of his banker written across the back. He heard no more for a week, and had forgotten the letter when he received a second:

"Mrs. C. G. Wilbur, who answered Mr. Walters's advertisement in the Herald, would be pleased to consider the matter of the position in his home. Will Mr. Walters kindly appoint a time for an interview?"

Mr. Walters laid down the letter with a smile of mingled pleasure and surprise.

"Clara Wilbur!" he exclaimed. "That is Jack Wilbur's widow. To think of Jack Wilbur's wife coming down to a housekeeper's job! He must have left nothing at all."

Jack Wilbur's home and wife had been famous during the years when Henry Walters was working his way into fortune and into society; but the Wilbur failure and Jack Wilbur's death had caused his widow to withdraw from her old station. She had been lost to sight for three years. Mr. Walters wrote her, making an appointment for the next day.

He was prepared to see the type that he had come to know as the professional housekeeper -- gentlewomen who had been unfortunate, and who wore the simple garb of their profession; but Clara Wilbur rustled into his office gowned in silk and wearing a stylish hat that spoke of a Fifth Avenue, if not a Parisian, course. She might have been the Clara Wilbur of the days when Jack Wilbur was still a millionaire, making a formal social call.

"Mr. Walters?" she inquired, and then: "I come, as you know, in response to your letter. I think we had best, without ceremony, take up the matter in a coldly businesslike manner."

"Correct," said Mr. Walters, "quite correct. Now, my house -- "

"I know all that," she smiled. "You cannot think I would go so far as to ask an appointment before I had thoroughly investigated? There is no need to go into the small details. I have investigated, and I know your needs and what would be required of me. I," and she smiled again, "am satisfied with your character and the standing you have in society. I see no objectionable features that would deter me from taking the -- the position."

Mr. Walters tapped his desk with his pencil, impatiently.

"Yes, yes!" he said. He had not thought that he and his home would have to pass an examination. When he hired employees they did not ask certificates of his character. He resented this woman's methods. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"Now," he said slowly, "I suppose you can give references? There are some reputable persons who can vouch for your ability as a housekeeper?"

Clara Wilbur smiled deprecatingly.

"Don't you think," she asked, "that you are taking up the matter from the wrong side? From your advertisement, Mr. Walters, and from my investigations, I conclude that you want someone who can manage your social affairs, as well as manage your house. To me it seems that you should take it for granted that Jack Wilbur's wife is capable of the domestic management, and that my ability as a hostess must be the more important. If I take the position, I can make or mar your social prospects, while a housekeeper could be easily secured to assist me if I lacked a housekeeper's ability. As to my social standing, you may see Mrs. Van Orden, Mrs. Randolph-Vesey, or Mrs. Oglethorpe -- they are all my intimate friends."

"Then," said Mr. Walters, who could not quite conceal his gratification at hearing these magic names, "you feel that your only possible failure might be in the management of the house?"

Clara Wilbur shook her head.

"I admit no possible failure," she said. "I have studied your case, and I know I can fill the place as well as any woman can fill it. I know your household needs complete reorganization, and that your children need a mother's care. For all that I am competent. I can, I am sure, conduct your home as well as Mrs. Walters conducted it during her life. I know I can do it no better, for no one could do it better."

Mr. Walters studied his visitor closely for a minute. He felt that she was correct in her opinion of herself.

"Very well," he said, "we will consider it a bargain. I will make you the head of my domestic department." He allowed a smile to hover around his mouth a moment. "As to compensation," he said, "you'll pardon my speaking of it, but it is really a business matter."

"Strictly a business matter," agreed Mrs. Wilbur.

"Have you formulated any idea of what would be correct?" he asked.

"Yes," she said, "I shall want five thousand dollars a year, the first year."

Mr. Walters laid his pencil on his desk with a snap.

"Five thousand dollars a year!" he exclaimed, in surprise.

Mrs. Wilbur raised her eyebrows.

"Of course," she said, "I have a small income of my own. Otherwise I could not afford to take such a small stipend. But, as I may not be able to bring the best possible results the first year, I do not care to ask more."

"But -- five thousand dollars!" Mr. Walters exclaimed again.

Mrs. Wilbur arose.

"We do not seem to be likely to reach an agreement," she said. "Of course, I cannot haggle. I thought, from my investigations, that you required as the head of the domestic department a high-class employee -- is that the proper term? There are all grades, you know."

Mr. Walters nodded.

"Be seated," he said. "I do want a high-class employee, as you term it. Every man in this place is the best I can get. I believe in the best. But the sum you ask is as much as I pay the heads of some of my departments here."

"Yes?" she inquired politely. "And they are worth it, too, I presume?"

"Every cent of it," said Mr. Walters.

"And you have thought what you require of me?" she asked. "I must manage the house and keep it running in all its departments as smoothly as your business runs here. More so, for you can correct mistakes made here, while perfection alone is permissible in the home. Your business is a matter of yearly balance sheets -- the loss of one day is overbalanced by the profit of another. In the home each day must stand alone. A good dinner tomorrow does not correct a bad one today.

"Then, I must arrange and carry to a successful end your social functions. I must be hostess, and for that I must have a certain charm of personality and diplomatic tact. Your department heads here need only carry out your orders.

"In addition I must be a mother to your children. I must combine sympathy and steel -- a mother's love and a mother's rule. In all, you ask a manager's brain, a diplomatist's genius and a mother's heart." She paused, and then leaning forward, said:

"Mr. Walters, do you know what it is you ask? Have you thought what it is your home requires? What is missing there? What have you lost? You ask me to take the place of a wife in nearly all her duties! Think of it! I must, in the management of the house, in the social world and in the nursery, take the place of your wife!"

"Yes," he said, "that is exactly what I want."

"And at what would you rate your wife's services?" she asked triumphantly.

Mr. Walters looked at the floor thoughtfully. He had never been mean with Mary. He had frequently given her money, but, like most husbands, he had not considered her work of any particular money value. If it had been a question of salary he would have said twelve hundred dollars a year was too much for the work she performed. When they lived in the small town he had given her fifteen dollars a week for household expenses, out of which she saved, on an average, two dollars for herself, and she had one hundred dollars a year extra for clothes. That made two hundred dollars a year, for which she cooked, nursed the babies, cleaned the house and kept up the social intercourse of the family. Their first servant he paid over two hundred dollars a year, and his wife, still did half the work of the house, and put in her spare hours making her own and the children's clothing.

As Mr. Walters made these rapid mental calculations he felt that he had grossly and stupidly underrated Mary's value. Her personality had made his home the gathering place of the men who had opened the way to riches. Her economical management had built up the savings that had permitted him to go into business while other men still toiled at a desk. Her character had made the home sweet, and the children clean-minded and simple-hearted. He looked up and encountered Mrs. Wilbur's smile.

"My wife was worth ten thousand dollars a year to me," he said.

"And I only mentioned five thousand," said Mrs. Wilbur.

"You will come as soon as possible?" he asked. "Do you wish a written contract?"

Clara Wilbur proved as efficient as she had dared suggest. Her experienced hands set the house to running smoothly; she had managed servants before. She made his dinners famous, harmonizing the incongruous elements of his business friends and social acquaintances, and bringing many functions from the brink of failure -- which is dullness -- because she had the tact that comes of experience. She made the children love her and honor her, and when the year ended Mr. Walters felt that she was so much a part of his home that she could never leave it.

But on the anniversary of her coming she spoke of leaving. Mr. Walters's face fell when she broached the subject.

"It is a business matter," she said. "and we must look at it so. I am more valuable to you now than I was a year ago. I have, as a wife does, grown into the life of the house. Every day I become more useful. Besides which, a competitor is bidding for my services."

Mr. Walters gave her seven thousand dollars the second year, and he enjoyed his home to the full of that amount, and more. As she had said, her value increased with her stay in the house. She became so thoroughly identified with the Walters' establishment and crept so deeply into the life and affections of the children that Mr. Walters could not imagine the house as it would be should she go.

A month before the termination of her second year she spoke again of leaving.

"I wanted to give you fair notice," she said gaily. "I really think I must go this time. You see, the fame of my housekeeping has spread abroad, and I have received such a tempting offer that I can hardly resist it. I am afraid you could scarcely afford to pay as much as I should have to ask."

"Mrs. Wilbur," he said, "I will give you eight thousand dollars if you will stay another year." She shook her head.

"Your competitor offers more," she said.

For a week Mr. Walters considered the matter, and the more he turned it over in his mind the more he found it impossible to see her go; but to pay a housekeeper more than eight thousand dollars a year seemed an act of folly. It would be unbusinesslike.

Mr. Walters was sitting at his desk once more as he ruminated, and he was playing with his open penknife. Large salaries, up to a certain limit, he considered good business, but beyond that limit they were folly. Take the case of Longley -- Mr. Walters closed his penknife and slipped it into his pocket. He whistled as he turned over the papers on his desk.

"Mrs. Wilbur," he said, that evening, "I cannot pay you more than I offered you this morning."

"Then I must go," she said.

"No," he said, "not necessarily. I said the same thing to Raymond Longley once. I couldn't pay him a larger salary, but I took him into the firm. I would like to form a partnership with you."

She had been fingering a new magazine in her lap, nervously turning the pages. Now she looked up quickly.

"You mean --" she asked.

"I would like you to marry me," he said.

Mrs. Wilbur felt two emotions. At first she was swept by a wave of indignation that this man should think so meanly of her as to seek to buy her services with a marriage certificate; but this was quickly succeeded by the thought of all he was offering. He offered her his name, his fortune and a permanent place in the world. He was evidently not intending an insult, but an honor. She looked at him seriously a moment, and dropped her eyes again.

"I appreciate all your words mean," she said slowly, "and the honor you do me by saying them. It is always an honor, isn't it. to be asked into the firm?"

He was still smiling at her, anxiously gathering in her words as they fell.

"But, you see," she concluded. "a competitor has got in ahead of you. I have promised to form another partnership -- of the same kind."

Mr. Walters's smile clung to his face, but it now was no more than a weakly grin.

"I'm -- I'm sorry," he managed to say, and then to lighten the situation he added, "I presume he offered superior inducements."

Mrs. Wilbur smiled in her tantalizing way.

"Yes," she said; "he loves me."

Her employer drew a long breath.

"Are you at liberty to --"

"Oh, yes!" she answered. "It is Raymond Longley."

"By George!" he ejaculated," and I did not suspect it! Oh, well," he said, "it isn't so bad as it might be. You'll be in the firm just the same."



Saturday, October 07 at 1:19:01am USA Central
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