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In retrospect people said it was a Cinderella story.
Notably missing was the personage of the Fairy Godmother. But other than that, the narrative seemed to contain all the elements of the fairy tale.
There was something of a modern prince. He had no royal blood, but he was a powerful man—London's foremost barrister, Mr. Gladstone's right hand—a man who would very likely one day occupy 10 Downing Street.
There was a woman who spent much of her life in the kitchen. In the eyes of many, she was a nobody. To others, she was one of the greatest cooks of her generation, her food said to be so divine that old men dined with the gusto of adolescent boys, and so seductive that lovers forsook each other as long as a single crumb remained on the table.
There was a ball; not the usual sort of ball that made it into fairy tales or even ordinary tales, but a ball nevertheless. There was the requisite Evilish Female Relative. And mostly importantly for connoisseurs of fairy tales, there was footgear left behind in a hurry—nothing so frivolous or fancy as glass slippers, yet carefully kept and cherished, with a flickering flame of hope, for years upon years.
A Cinderella story indeed.
Or was it?
It all began—or resumed, depending on how one looked at it—the day Bertie Somerset died.
The kitchen at Fairleigh Park was palatial in dimension, as grand as anything to be found at Chatsworth or Blenheim, and certainly several times larger than what one would expect for a manor the size of Fairleigh Park.
Bertie Somerset had the entire kitchen complex renovated in 1877—shortly after he inherited, two years before Verity Durant came to work for him. After the improvements, the complex boasted a dairy, a scullery, and a pantry, each the size of a small cottage; separate larders for meat, game, and fish; two smokehouses; and a mushroom house where a heap of composted manure provided edible mushrooms year-round.
The main kitchen, floored in cool rectangles of gray flagstone, with oak duckboards where the kitchen staff most often stood, had an old-fashioned open hearth and two modern, closed ranges. The ceiling rose twenty feet above the floor. Windows were set high and faced only north and east, so that not a single beam of sunlight would ever stray inside. But still it was sweaty work in winter; in summer the temperatures rose hot enough to immolate.
Three maids toiled in the adjacent scullery, washing up all the plates, cups, and flatware from the servants' afternoon tea. One of Verity's apprentices stuffed tiny eggplants at the central work table, the other three stood at their respective stations about the room, attending to the rigors of dinner for the staff as well as for the master of the house.
The soup course had just been carried out, trailing behind it a murmur of the sweetness of caramelized onion. From the stove billowed the steam of a white wine broth, in the last stages of reduction before being made into a sauce for a filet of brill that had been earlier poached in it. Over the great hearth a quartet of teals roasted on a spit turned by a kitchen maid. She also looked after the civet of hare slowly stewing in the coals, which emitted a powerful, gamy smell every time it was stirred.
The odors of her kitchen were as beautiful to Verity as the sounds of an orchestra. This kitchen was her fiefdom, her sanctuary. She cooked with an absolute, almost nerveless concentration, her awareness extending to the subtlest stimulation of the senses and the least movement on the part of her underlings.
The sound of her favorite apprentice not stirring the hazelnut butter made her turn her head slightly. "Mademoiselle Porter, the butter," she said, her voice stern. Her voice was always stern in the kitchen.
"Yes, Madame. Sorry, Madame," said Becky Porter. The girl would be purple with embarrassment now—she knew very well that it took only a few seconds of inattention before hazelnut butter became black butter.
Verity gave Tim Cartwright, the apprentice standing before the white wine reduction, a hard stare. The young man blanched. He cooked like a dream, his sauces as velvety and breathtaking as a starry night, his souffles taller than chefs' toques. But Verity would not hesitate to let him go without a letter of character if he made an improper advance toward Becky—Becky who'd been with Verity since joining her staff as a thirteen-year-old child.
Most of the hazelnut butter would be consumed at dinner. But a portion of it was to be saved for the midnight repast her employer had requested: one steak au poivre, a dozen oysters in sauce Mornay, potato croquettes Æ la Dauphine, a small lemon tart, still warm, and half a dozen dessert crepes spread with, mais bien sur, hazelnut butter.
Crepes with hazelnut butter—Mrs. Danner tonight. Three days ago it had been Mrs. Childs. Bertie was becoming promiscuous in his middle age. Verity removed the cassoulet from the oven and grinned a little to herself, imagining the scenes that would ensue should Mrs. Danner and Mrs. Childs find out that they shared Bertie's less-than-undying devotion.
The service hatch burst open. The door slammed into a dresser, rattling the rows of copper lids hanging on pin rails, startling one of them off its anchor. The lid hit the floor hard, bounced and wobbled, its metallic bangs and scrapes echoing in the steam and smolder of the kitchen. Verity looked up sharply. The footmen in this house knew better than to throw open doors like that.
"Madame!" Dickie, the first footman, gasped from the doorway, sweat dampening his hair despite the November chill. "Mr. Somerset—Mr. Somerset, he be not right!"
Something about Dickie's wild expression suggested that Bertie was far worse than "not right." Verity motioned Letty Briggs, her lead apprentice, to take over her spot before the stove. She wiped her hands on a clean towel and went to the door.
"Carry on," she instructed her crew before closing the door behind Dickie and herself. Dickie was already scrambling in the direction of the house.
"What's the matter?" she said, lengthening her strides to keep up with the footman.
"He be out cold, Madame."
"Has someone sent for Dr. Sergeant?"
"Mick from the stables just rode out."
She'd forgotten her shawl. The air in the unheated passage between kitchen and manor chilled the sheen of perspiration on her face and neck. Dickie pushed open doors: doors to the warming kitchen, doors to another passage, doors to the butler's pantry. Her heart thumped as they entered the dining room. But it was empty, save for an ominously overturned chair. On the floor by the chair were a puddle of water and, a little away, a miraculously unbroken crystal goblet, glinting in the light of the candelabra. A forlorn, half-finished bowl of onion soup still sat at the head of the table, waiting for dinner to resume.
Dickie led her to a drawing room deeper inside the house. A gaggle of housemaids stood by the door, clutching one another's sleeves and peering in cautiously. They fell back at Verity's approach and bobbed unnecessary curtsies.
Her erstwhile lover reclined, supine, on a settee of dark blue. He wore a disconcertingly peaceful expression. Someone had loosened his necktie and opened his shirt at the collar. This state of undress contrasted sharply against his stiff positioning: his hands folded together above his breastbone like those of an effigy atop a stone sarcophagus.
Mr. Prior, the butler, stood guard over Bertie's inert body. At her entrance, he hurried to her side and whispered, "He's not breathing."
Her own breath quite left her at that. "Since when?"
"Since before Dickie went to the kitchen, Madame," said the butler. His hands trembled very slightly.
Was that five minutes? Seven? Verity stood immobile a long moment, unable to think. It didn't make any sense. Bertie was a healthy man who experienced few physical maladies.
She crossed the room and dipped to one knee before the settee. "Bertie," she called softly, addressing him more intimately than she had at any point in the past decade. "Can you hear me, Bertie?"
He did not respond. No dramatic fluttering of the eyelids. No looking at her as if he were Snow White freshly awakened from a poisoned sleep and she the prince who brought him back to life.
She touched him, something else she hadn't done in ten years. His palm was wet, as was his starched cuff. He was still warm, but her finger pressed over his wrist could detect no pulse, only an obstinate stillness.
She dug the pad of her thumb into his veins. Could he possibly be dead? He was only thirty-eight years old. He hadn't even been ill. And he had an assignation with Mrs. Danner tonight. The oysters for his postcoital fortification were resting on a bed of ice in the cold larder and the hazelnut butter was ready for the dessert crepes beloved by Mrs. Danner.
His pulse refused to beat.
She released his hand and rose, her mind numb. The kitchen crew had stayed put at her command. But the rest of the indoor staff had assembled in the drawing room, the men behind Mr. Prior, the women behind Mrs. Boyce, the housekeeper . . . everyone pressed close to the walls, a sea of black uniforms with foam caps of white collars and aprons.
In response to Mrs. Boyce's inquiring gaze, Verity shook her head. The man who was once to be her prince was dead. He had taken her up to his castle, but had not kept her there. In the end she had returned to the kitchen, dumped the shards of her delusion in the rubbish bin, and carried on as if she'd never believed that she stood to become the mistress of this esteemed house.
"We'd better cable his solicitors, then," said Mrs. Boyce. "They'll need to inform his brother that Fairleigh Park is now his."
His brother. In all the drama of Bertie's abrupt passing, Verity had not even thought of the succession of Fairleigh Park. Now she shook somewhere deep inside, like a dish of aspic set down too hard.
She nodded vaguely. "I'll be in the kitchen should you need me."
In her copy of Taillevent's Le Viandier, where the book opened to a recipe for gilded chicken with quenelles, Verity kept a brown envelope marked List of Cheese Merchants in the 16th Arondissement.
The envelope contained, among other things, a news clipping from the county fish wrapper, about the Liberals' recent victory in the general election after six years in opposition. Verity had written the date in a corner: 16.08.1892. In the middle of the article, a grainy photograph of Stuart Somerset gazed back at her.
She never touched his image, for fear that her strokes would blur it. Sometimes she looked at it very closely, the clipping almost at her nose. Sometimes she put it as far as her lap, but never farther, never beyond reach.
The man in the photograph was dramatically handsome—the face of a Shakespearean actor in his prime, all sharp peaks and deep angles. From afar she'd watched his meteoric rise—one of London's most sought-after barristers, and now, with the Liberals back in power, Mr. Gladstone's Chief Whip in the House of Commons—quite something for a man who'd spent his first nine years in a Manchester slum.
He'd accomplished it all on his own merits, of course, but she'd played her small part. She'd walked away from him, from hopes and dreams enough to spawn a generation of poets, so that he could be the man he was meant to be, the man whose face on her clipping she dared not touch.
We've known each other a long time, Miss Bessler," said Stuart Somerset.
At the Besslers' Hanover Square house, the drawing room had once been a rather ghastly green. But Miss Bessler, taking the reins of the household after her mother's passing, had papered the walls in a shade of carmine that was almost sensual, yet still solemn enough for the home of a former Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Miss Bessler raised a severe eyebrow at Stuart. She looked very fine tonight: Her eyes were bright, her cheeks held a tinge of becoming blush, her Prussian blue gown was pure drama against the crimson chaise longue on which they sat nearly knee to knee.
"We've been friends a long time, Mr. Somerset," she corrected him.
They'd met years before she'd made her official debut, when both Stuart and the Besslers had been guests at a weeklong house party at Lyndhurst Hall. He'd been alone in the garden, smoking a cigarette, thinking of someone else. And she'd escaped from the nursery to watch the dancing in the ballroom, indignant that a mature, clever girl such as herself wasn't allowed to join the fun.
"Yes, we have indeed been friends a long time," he said.
And it had been with pride and affection that he'd watched the lovely child—though she'd always insisted that at only a few weeks short of fifteen, she'd been no child—grow into an even lovelier young woman.
"That's much better," said Miss Bessler. "Now, won't you please hurry and ask the question so I may tell you how delighted and honored I will be to be your wife?"
Stuart chuckled. It was as he'd thought. Mr. Bessler hadn't been able to keep the news to himself. He took her hands in his. "In that case, would you make me very happy by consenting to become my wife?"
"Yes, I would," she said firmly. She looked happy—and relieved, as if she hadn't quite believed until this moment that he really would offer for her. Her hands squeezed his. "Thank you. We both know that I'm not getting any younger."
He still thought her a young woman, because of the twelve-year difference in their ages. But there was some unfortunate truth to her words. At twenty-five, with eight seasons under her belt, she was far older than the usual adolescents on display in London's ballrooms and drawing rooms.
"Not that it would change my answer, because I'm too practical and selfish to give you up," she said, "but I do hope you haven't proposed entirely out of pity, my dear Stuart—may I at last call you Stuart?"
"Pity is the last of my motives, Lizzy," he said. "There is no one else in all of Society with whom I'd rather spend my life."
He'd delayed looking for a wife until he was old enough to have sired the current crop of debutantes. He didn't want a seventeen-year-old, either on his arm or in his bed. He needed a more seasoned spouse who would not be flustered by the demands of an MP's household. Lizzy was a descendant of an old and highly regarded family, a statesman's daughter, and a gracious and competent hostess. And she was beautiful. She was everything Stuart could sensibly hope for in a wife at this stage in his life.
There were, of course, his more insensible hopes—but he'd had to accept that some dreams were stillborn and some memories mirages.