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MRS SEMPILL'S FIRST ATTEMPT AT
All over Scotland, a custom prevails amongst persons in the least removed above indigence, of preparing every summer a certain quantity of gooseberry-jam and currantjelly, or one or other of these preserves, which they usually store in little pots, and set carefully by, to be used at high tea-drinkings during the ensuing winter, or applied as a cure for sore throats, supposing that any of the family should become liable to that ailment. As almost everybody in the country has a garden, in which the fruit is raised, the expense of this little luxury is not great; yet it is sufficient to put the article beyond the reach of the poorer class, who therefore only become acquainted with jelly or jam when, in the event of any illness befalling them, some kind neighbour in better circumstances sends a pot of the precious condiment, to aid in effecting a cure, or to alleviate the languor of a sick-bed. Amongst children of all denominations, it is the very first luxury known or enjoyed; and hence, to them, the season for making it is one of the most important in the whole year, seeing that it is not easy for mothers, or aunts, or grandmothers, to perform the operation without certain not inconsiderable spillings finding their way to young mouths.
Though perhaps three-fourths of the respectable burghers' wives make these preserves, it may readily be supposed that all do not possess, as their own property, the brazen pan required for the purpose. In fact, very few pans are needed amongst a considerable population.
By virtue of the general system of borrowing and lending, which subsists in country places, one pan may serve some twenty or thirty people every season. In a certain respectable west-country town, a few years ago, there were but three pans-one belonging to the minister, another to the master of the boarding-school, and a third to the relict of a wealthy citizen deceased. When the time drew nigh for the making of jelly, these pans were drawn from the seclusion in which they lay during the rest of the year, and carefully scoured. But it was odds if their respective owners got an easy or convenient use made of them. The applications for the loan of the utensil came so fast and thick, that it was with no small difficulty that either the minister's wife, or the wife of the keeper of the boardingschool, or Mrs Mitchell, the respectable old citizen's widow, could get her own jelly made on the very day when the ripeness of her berries rendered the process desirable. The ladies would either make a formal call to prefer the request in person, or, if more at ease, some such message as this would come by the errand-going daughter for the time being : ‘My mother sends her compliments to you, Mrs Mitchell, and would be much obliged for the loan of the brass pan ;' to which the answer would probably be: • Make my compliments to your mother, and tell her that the pan is engaged to-day to Mrs Harper, and to-morrow to Mrs Jamieson, and on Friday to Mrs Thomson, and on Saturday I intend to use it myself; but your mother shall have it on Monday.' This will serve to give some idea of the active service which these three brass pans underwent in the jelly-making season. In fact, during three weeks of July, it was scarcely possible to walk along the street of this quiet old place without getting a glimpse of some one of these three flaming culinary articles, as it was
whisked along in the hands of the servant-lasses from the house where it had been, to that in which it was to be used.
One year, a certain Mrs Sempill resolved to make a few pots of currant-jelly for the first time. She was the wife of a watchmaker in a very small way, whose sign of a huge gilt watch on the outside, with the hands eternally indicating twenty-five minutes past nine, was but poorly supported within by an empty cloak-case, and three saucers on a table near the window, containing the disjected members of certain horologes long ago sent in to be mended, but which, after being taken down, had somehow never been put up again, so that the owners had ceased years ago even to inquire after them. Mr Sempill, however, had a small allowance for keeping the town-clock in order, and, what with repairing eight-day clocks at the houses of the owners, and other sources of revenue, he contrived to live much as other poor tradesmen do. The wife was a soft, good-natured, sluttish woman, with a large family of small children, who, as she had no servant, fell entirely to be managed, or, properly speaking, mismanaged, by herself. The back-room in which they lived was constantly overflowing into the shop and street with little creatures, in whom the human lineaments could scarcely be discerned beneath the thick stratum of dirt with which their faces were incrusted, but who, nevertheless, seemed as happy with pillows for dolls, and teaspoons for toys, as if they had had the contents of a bazaar at their command. The heart of the stoutest housewife might have sunk beneath such a tremendous load of duty as fell to the lot of poor Mrs Sempill. For her part, she had never attempted to grapple with it. If she could contrive to prepare their meals with some sort of punctuality, it was the utmost she could do. As for her person, it was never strictly in good trim. Even the black prints which she wore for their eminently useful virtue of keeping long clean, were glaringly dirty. She had altogether a torn-down, worn-out look, as if she every day endured a fate not much less harassing than that of poor Honoria, represented in Chaucer's ancient tale, as every day torn to pieces by the dogs of her rejected lover. A sterner or more refined nature would have been broken by such circumstances; but poor Mrs Sempill was of that easy temper which does not grieve itself about what cannot be avoided, and she struggled on through twenty years of incessant drudgery of the worst kind, with nothing like the ultimate exhaustion which might have been expected.
One year, I say, Mrs Sempill resolved to make her own jelly. It was an almost unaccountable resolution. Perhaps some one had made her a present of the fruit; or some debt of long standing had been unexpectedly paid ; or Mr Sempill had got an order for a new mainspring for a gentleman's watch ; or some other uncommonly agreeable circumstance had occurred to disturb the unfortunate torn-down woman in her monotony of contented poverty, and inspire her with the idea of for once imitating her betters. However the notion was suggested to her, certain it is that Mrs Sempill did make preparations for the boiling of a panful of currant-jelly. The requisite utensil was bespoken from Mrs Mitchell with all due ceremony, and as solemnly promised. The sugar was purchased, and the berries were gathered. Great was the sensation produced amongst the host of youngsters, from the eldest boy, aged twelve, down to the prattlers of two or three years, when it was discovered that there was to be a making of jelly that night in the house. A subdued ebullition of great joy went through all hearts. The usual amount of noise and turbulence was diminished about one-half; and even Tam, noted as the most irrepressibly mischievous of the whole clan, was for two hours a positively well-behaved boy. About three in the afternoon they were all set down at a table with their mother to pick the berries from the stalks, in order to prepare them for the pan. There were strict injunctions to eat none; but of what use are all the demands of a morality which goes beyond the ordinary limits of human virtue? The temptation to eat was irresistible, and eat they did accordingly. Mrs Sempill, in the course of her other duties, now and then cast an eye to the little busy fry around the table, and often would she cry: Now, Tam, you 're eating,' Bob, ye villain, if I come to you,' and so forth; but it was all in vain. The eating was kept up just as long as there remained any berries to be picked ; after which, feeling that prompt measures were best, they each seized a handful out of the basin, and rushed out of doors in a whirlwind of triumphant laughter, to devour the spoil at leisure, and mock the gaze of powerless vexation with which their mother followed them.
A quarter of an hour served at any time to reconcile Mrs Sempill to her offending offspring, and no more was necessary on the present occasion.
One by one they came quietly in, and once more took up their positions in the kitchen, where they found their mother engaged in straining the berries through a piece of cloth. All gazed with wonder and delight on the red stream which poured through the cloth into the pan ; and when that operation was concluded, and the cloth with its contents laid aside, all rushed with eagerness