Godey's Lady's Book, January, 1857, pp. 30-34

Finding the Leak

A Domestic Episode

By Alice B. Neal

"Home's home, isn't it, now?" said Mr. Murray Cooper, complacently, as he seated himself at an inviting supper-table, and admired his wife sitting opposite to him busied with the tray. Mrs. Cooper was by no means intended for a burning and shining light in society, but she made a very pleasant and mellow radiance, so to speak, in the more limited circle of her own fireside.

Mr. Cooper had "tastes" and a precedent for all his likings and aversions in some of the distinguished family of which he was a member. The "Murray" was a family name, and his soul aspired to the scale of living to which it belonged; but his means were several thousand a year short of its gratification. Indeed, if Mrs. Cooper had not been practical in the extreme degree, and experienced, as to the value of money in itself considered, it is doubtful whether they could have got on at all. The recklessness with which her husband assumed that charge and responsibility, and the style in which his bachelor expenditures had been conducted, were rather alarming to one who had always had need to calculate ways and means closely. For Mrs. Cooper, though very proud of her family, in a certain way, was only a Smith--Martha Smith; and it is well known that the Smiths cannot subsist upon their name and connections as a Murray or a Cooper might do.

Poverty among the Coopers was being well dressed--living in a large house, waited on by plenty of servants, but always troubled by an accumulation of liabilities.. Still, as Mr. Cooper, Sen., often remarked, "people must live," by which he meant the he must, whatever became of the tradesmen he employed. Poverty, as known to the Smiths, included self-denial, industry, and a great many "wants reduced to must haves," before they were satisfied. The younger branches of the Bird Coopers, the De Laney Coopers, and the Groswold Murrrays looked down upon their cousin as having sunk several degrees in the social scale when he left the one room in the third story of a fashionable city boarding-house for the whole of a small but comfortable house on Seventh Avenue, whereas, inasmuch as he managed, with his wife's oversight, to live somewhere within his range of income, and paid for most of the clothes he wore and the food he ate, some unprejudiced persons might have ranked him morally in the ascendant.

Literally, Mrs. Cooper did not know where to commence her reforms when her husband's idiosyncracy as to money matters first was made apparent; but she came to the conclusion that the starting point of charity was a good place to commence enforcing its respectable relative, economy, and so began with her own personal experience.

But her husband had a few prejudices to overcome before he could be induced to set aside the extremely modest amount she proposed from his salary. "He didn't believe in an allowance. What was the good in knowing what you spent? It didn't make it any less, and, in fact, it was decidedly uncomfortable to be posted on the subject. He never had an allowance; the girls and mother never had one. No; they always got whatever they chose, and the bills were sent to the store. It wasn't their business when they were paid. To be sure, the governor always grumbled when they came in, and threatened all sorts of things, but nobody ever minded."

"But I should," interposed the governor's daughter-in-law. "I would have gone without, first--and would now, rather than see you worried. It's a great deal better to know just what you can afford to get; only try it, Murray, or let me, for baby and myself. If you only knew how I hate to say, 'charge it!'"

"Poh, poh, Martha, I didn't think you were such a goose! Why, most women would jump at it. I never had an 'expense book,' as you call it, since I was born. Books are bothers enough at the office. Who always wants to be marching up a column of figures, and ruminating on a 'sum total,' except it's a balance in one's favor, which I believe I never yet had the pleasure of experiencing. When I have the money, you're welcome to it, you know that. These private purses make a wife altogether too independent. They are the very--I beg your pardon, the mischief, you know!"

"But suppose," said Mrs. Cooper, "I should wish to make my husband a birthday present, how unsentimental it would sound!--'My love, please give me ten dollars to buy you a gold pencil!'or, to have my nice little surprise spoiled by the bill being presented beforehand at the office! Or, having to manage Mrs. Green's fashion, and take what I wanted from your pocket, little by little, after you were asleep at night! To be sure you never would miss it."

"Now, that's rather hard on a fellow, Martha, after all my reforms! Don't I even stop in an omnibus to count change? Haven't I done wonders in not bringing home-- all sorts of things, you know? I'll bet you two to one--"

"I never bet, recollect," interrupted Mrs. Murray, in a grave tone that belied the mischief of her smile--at the idea of her husband's reforms!

"Well, I wouldn't be afraid to--that I can tell to a dot every cent I've got about me to-night."

"Suppose I agree to give up the allowance if you can?" suggested the unbelieving helpmate.

"Done!" And the porte-monnaie was drawn forth triumphantly. It so happened that a little foot-bill of two or three year's standing had been presented that evening, which had caused an inspection of cash on hand, ending in an invitation the collector was perfectly accustomed to--to call again.

"There's two fives--Butcher & Drover's--do you see? And a ten, Rhode Island money, a three and a one, and seventy=five cents in change. No allowance carries the day, madam."

"Not quite so close. I can see; the banknotes never are quite Cologne. Now suppose you look in your pockets."

"Oh, I'm quite cured of that!--no more change lying around loose."

Two of these convenient receptacles emptied presented only a knife, pencil, two small screws, and a box of leads. In the breast pocket of his coat the hand made a sudden pause.

Mrs. Cooper was in turn triumphant, as she saw a flush of discomposure rise to her husband's face.

"Stupid!--oh, I remember now the change at Delmonico's for my lunch, you know!" And the discomforted man drew forth two cigars, a gold dollar, a bill, and some small change.

This was the history of the allowance, important, since, from its practical working, Mr. Cooper first began to understand a faint glimmer of the important truth, "a penny saved is twopence got;" and, as is often common with enthusiastic minds, he plunged into reforms on his own account to a most alarming extent.

This was, after their essay at housekeeping, Mrs. Cooper's plan again, though he often ignored that fact, and congratulated himself on the brilliant idea.

He gave up smoking for two months and a half; then had a few cigars some one had given him down town; afterwards a bunch of some choice brand, Loper, a friend of his who was in the business, had desired him to try; and finally a half box was smuggled in quietly, and replaced at intervals. He wore really shabby clothes through the hot weather, but brought home a choice assortment of white jean, Marseilles, and a fancy check suit, the very last three days of September heat. He undertook self-shaving in the most virtuous manner, and annoyed Mrs. Cooper three days in the week by forgetting to do so, and presenting quite too stiff an upper lip to please any one neat almost to fastidiousness. He talked a great deal about table economy, inspected the ash heap to see that the cook threw away no available lump of coal, and even was accustomed to inquire "what had become of the beef bone," having heard accidentally that a good family soup might be made of a beef bone with a few vegetables. In fact, these last symptoms had grown very troublesome, and Mrs. Cooper began to wish most devoutly that Murray would "let her keep house," as was her lawful right, and even suggested that, if he would give the reins entirely into her hands, she would undertake to drive safely through the year's losses and expenses. She had failed in converting him to one of her principal doctrines, however, that of paying ready money for everything. July and January were still rendered miserable by the successive arrival of yellow envelops, known at once by their having no post mark and the extreme briefness of their address. They always gave her headache, for she knew precisely the effect they would produce when her husband caught sight of them, no matter how amiable or cheerful he might be at the moment. This very evening, when Mr. Cooper so emphatically pronounced "home to be home"--and indeed it looked so in the bright neatness of her household ways, and especially in contemplation of the well-spread supper-table, at which they were seated--his wife was inwardly disquieted by knowing that her own hands would be obliged to "put rancor in the vessel of his peace" by bringing forth the grocer's half yearly account, at the amount of which she had not ventured to glance.

"Now, what shall I do for your comfort or amusement, this evening, old lady?" inquired this really devoted Benedict, as he bit off the end of a cigar, and fumbled behind an engraving by Landseer for the match-box, that he always insisted on having there, just where he could reach it.

"There's the paper--but that I've read; and I looked through 'Harper' as I came along. Shall I crack some nuts? That reminds me that I must get one of those patent-lever nut-crackers. I saw one at Smith's, to-day, and a gridiron, the most complete arrangement you ever saw for doing a steak--catches the smoke and the gravy at the same time."

"How much was it? You know ours came with the stove, and isn't two years old yet."

"Oh, a dollar or so, I suppose--a mere trifle. Must you sew to-night? Always that everlasting work-basket! Why don't you have a seamstress? How much would it cost now to have all that pile sewed up for once?"

"A dollar or so," retorted Mrs. Murray, playfully; and, as she drew out her thimble and needle-book, the grocer's communication was discovered on top of her work-box.

"Had any letters to-day? Who is that from? I say, Matty, suppose we should begin to think of a little place in the country, next spring? Lawton was talking about that lot on the bend of the Bronx, you know, again, to-day." And two or three satisfactory puffs filled up a short pause, as Mr. Cooper threw himself back in his own particular easy-chair. "We must have saved something this year towards it, you're such an industrious little woman, and deserve to have a house of your own, and everything nice about you, if anybody does. Whom did you say that was from? It's time you heard from your sister, isn't it?" And a hand was stretched past her, as with the most complacent air, Mr. Cooper possessed himself of the missive.

His wife's spirits had gradually been sinking since the opening of her work-box. She knew perfectly well that she was considered as responsible for every item of the account as if each barrel of flour and pound of coffee had been purchased for her sole individual benefit. Mr. Cooper's face clouded with the direction of the letter, darkened with breaking open the envelop; the storm burst with his first glance at the sum total.

"A hundred and fifteen dollars! Did you see that, Martha?--a hundred dollars and over, when it ought not to have been thirty-five, with all I paid in July. What in the world did you order when I was away this fall? I never had these things charged."

"Only what was necessary."

"Necessary! I should think so, with all the waste that goes on in that kitchen. I wish you'd see after your cook, Martha, as I've told you a hundred times. It would be a great deal cheaper to put out this everlasting sewing, and attend to your house a little more.

"I try to do both," said Mrs. Cooper, mildly, bending before the gust, as it were, knowing it to be inevitable.

"Try! Yes, I dare say; it looks like it, with all the bread I see thrown out--enough to feed a dozen poor families. Three barrels of flour! No wonder."

"There is quite half of the last one yet."

"And sugar and coffee; don't tell me. There's Lawton says they use only a half barrel of white sugar every year. His wife does her jelly in coffee crust."

So had Mrs. Cooper until she found that it was cheaper to use that which did not need refining, and her husband never thought he could touch mutton or game without currant-jelly, and had almost a juvenile fondness for sweetmeats of every description. She knew perfectly well what became of the sugar.

"And butter--yes, it's the butter. How much do you think we've had since October?" said her husband, presently, with the air of a virtuous judge condemning a criminal found guilty in every point of an indictment. "I told you Ann wasted butter from the first. How can you expect we shall ever get along in the world, Martha, if you don't see after your servants? What's the use of denying myself everything?--for Mr. Cooper here recollected a cane, a pair of fur-lined gloves, and a fancy travelling-cap that he had severally dismissed from his thoughts in the most resolute manner- "everything, I may say, for your sake and the children's, if this is the way you are to go on."

It was certainly an unexpected amount to Mrs. Cooper, who, invariable economical, thought she had been especially careful the last six months. She was very sorry. It was hard when she too could enumerate self-denials of time and patience, and had braved cross looks, and spoiled dinners, and "warnings," with a houseful of company, in the inspections of Ann's closets and safes, and repeated rebukes and corrections of her carelessness. Though economical to the last degree, there was nothing she shrank from so much as an approach to meanness, or being considered so by others. Perhaps it was her own special weakness, this dread; but even that she tried to put down in doing a housekeeper's duty faithfully.

Her husband, not in the least pacified by her admission that "it might have been the butter," replaced the bill in its envelop with the air of a man whose substance is "wasted by riotous living," and sent it skimming on to the table--to the floor, indeed, under the lounge, where his wife found it in dusting, the next morning. She was rather heavy-hearted for the evening, which promised so much, closed very uncomfortably, she stitching away in silence, and her husband, declining to amuse himself or be entertained, gloomed over the fire, after his cigar was finished, and stalked off to bed an hour earlier than usual.

"Really, I cannot understand it. I thought I had been so very careful. I don't wonder Murray is discouraged; and yet I don't see how I could have done without anything we have had."

Mrs. Cooper laid down her duster, and opened the uncomfortable account. It was a very "long face," and a very perplexed one that the opposite mirror reflected; but it brightened visibly before she had finished her inspection of the various items, and her cheerfulness had entirely returned, even to gayety, before she had finished copying off some of them on a sheet by themselves. If she had made any discoveries, she kept them to herself that evening; but, when her husband hung up his overcoat in his office, the next day, and felt in the outside pocket for a clean handkerchief, he found with it a note, in his wife's handwriting, addressed to himself.

It was odd. Perhaps he had been too hasty in condemning her, or too severe, rather, considering how very fond she was of him, and how she felt even a word. Poor child! He would overlook it, this once; and so he broke the seal.

He thought it was another bill, at first glance, and that she had been afraid to give it to him after his late outburst; but it was in his wife's handwriting, and headed--

"WASTE" FOR 1856!

1 bottle of brandy, $1 25

1 box of cigars, 4 50

1 gallon of brandy, 5 00

1 demijohn, 1 00

1 box of cigars, 4 20

1 case of claret, 5 00

1 gallon of Sherry wine, 6 00

1 box of cigars, 4 50

1 box of cigars, 4 20

$35 65

He could not understand it at all at first: but, as he glanced at the dates, each one made it clearer and clearer. Really, he could not have believed that these little "stores," laid in, from time to time, for himself and a friend or so, who was accustomed to "drop in," could amount to so much. Mrs. Cooper did not drink brandy, or Sherry wine, or smoke cigars, so the "waste" lay at his own door after all.

Mrs. Cooper, sitting by the front window, at twelve o'clock, saw the office boy arrive with a return dispatch. It was very short, but quite to the point.

"Dear Wife: I own up. Sold!

Yours truly,

Murray Cooper."

Transcribed from the original, Godey's Lady's Book, January 1857 pp. 30-34 by Hope Greenberg. 2/8/96. Copy freely as long as this notice is attached.