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The clatter of crockery on the flagstone floor broke my heart. I knew without turning that it was my platter of whole roast pig, the crowning glory of the vast meal I'd spent days creating for the supper party above stairs in this grand Mayfair house.
A less capable cook would have buried her face in her apron and sunk down into wailing, or perhaps run out through the scullery and shrieking into the night. I had a better head on my shoulders than that, even if I was not quite thirty years old, and so I stayed upright and calm, though stoic might be the more appropriate adjective.
"Leave it," I snapped at the footmen who were scampering after the clove-studded onions rolling about the floor. "I'll send up the fowl, and they'll have mutton to follow. Elsie, cease your shrieking and scrub those parsnips for me. A dice of them will have to do, but I must be quick."
The scullery maid, who'd screamed and then leveled obscenities at the footmen after being splashed with the juices in which the pig had been roasting, closed her mouth, snatched up the bowl of parsnips, and scurried back to the sink.
I ought to be mortified to serve a joint of mutton with sautéed parsnips at Lady Cynthia's aunt's supper party in their elegant abode in Mount Street. But I was too worn down from the work that had gone into this night, too exasperated by the incompetence of the staff to worry at the moment. If I got the sack-well, I needed a rest.
But first to finish this meal. There was no use crying over spilled . . . pork.
My task was made more difficult by the fact that my kitchen assistant, Mary, whom I'd painstakingly trained all spring, had left a few days before-to get married, if you please.
I'd tried to tell the silly girl that looking after a husband was far more difficult than being in service ever would be. Husbands didn't pay wages, for one thing, and you never got any days out. Asking for extra pin money or an hour to oneself could send a husband into a towering rage and earn a wife a trip to the doctor, both to have her bruises seen to and so the doctor could assess whether there was something wrong with the woman's mind. A true wife was a sacrificing angel who asked nothing for herself.
I had taken time to explain this to Mary, but nothing had penetrated the haze of love into which she'd lapsed. Her young man seemed personable enough, at least upon first assessment. Some married couples rubbed along quite well, I'd heard, which definitely had not been the case for me.
I hadn't exactly given Mary my blessing, but I hadn't hindered her from going either. Lady Cynthia, at my behest, gave Mary a parting gift of a few guineas-or at least, Cynthia borrowed the sum from her uncle to give, as she hasn't a penny to her name.
However generous I'd been to Mary, her going left me shorthanded. The agency had not yet sent a satisfactory replacement, and the other maids in the house had too many chores of their own to be of much use to me. We had no housekeeper, as the woman previously in that position, Mrs. Bowen, had retired in March after a bereavement. None of the potential housekeepers Lady Cynthia's aunt had interviewed had taken the post, so many now that I feared the agencies would stop sending them altogether.
Therefore, the butler, Mr. Davis, and I struggled to do the housekeeping duties as well as our own. So of course Mary chose this very time to run away and leave us.
But I could not worry about that at present. At this moment, I had to save the feast.
I at last convinced the footmen to cease trying to put the roast-blackened pig back onto the platter, and to run up to the dining room to receive the two capons laden with carrots and greens I lifted into the dumbwaiter. The downstairs maid cranked the lift upward while I got on with chopping the parsnips Elsie had scrubbed and thrusting them into already boiling water. A quarter of an hour in and they'd be soft enough to brown with onions and carrots and adorn the mutton. A sauce of mint and lemon would accompany the meat, and the meal would finish with various sweet treats.
Those at least I'd made well in advance, and they already waited upstairs on a sideboard-a raspberry tart with chocolate film on its crust, a lemon and blueberry custard, ices in bright fruit flavors, a platter of fine cheeses, a chocolate g‰teau piled with cream, and a syllabub. Syllabub was a rather old-fashioned dish, but as it was full of sherry and brandy, I could not wonder that ladies and gentlemen of London still enjoyed it.
I was halfway through preparing the mutton, perspiration dripping down my neck and soaking my collar, when Mr. Davis appeared in the kitchen doorway.
Mr. Davis had been butler to Lady Cynthia's brother-in-law, Lord Rankin, for years, and could be haughty as you please above stairs. Below stairs, he dropped his toffee-nosed accent, sat about in his shirtsleeves, and gossiped like an old biddy. This evening he was in his full butler's kit, his eyes wide with consternation, the hairpiece he wore to cover his thinning hair on top askew.
"Mrs. Holloway." His horrified gaze took in the skinless pig on the floor in a spreading puddle of spiced sauce, and two maids at the table chopping vegetables as though their lives depended upon it. One was the downstairs maid who'd helped send up the capons, the other the upstairs maid, Sara. I'd laid my hands on her and dragged her in to help when she'd been unwise enough to come down to the kitchen in search of something to eat.
"What the devil has happened?" Mr. Davis demanded. "I announced the pièce de résistance to Mr. and Mrs. Bywater and Lady Cynthia and all their guests-which include His Grace of Guildford and the Bishop of Dorset, I might add-and I uncover two chickens. The same as their Saturday lunch at home."
I did not bother to look up after one hasty and irritated glance at him. "It is perfectly obvious what happened. Your footmen are clumsy fools. And I'll thank you not to compare my blanquette de poulet à l'estragon to a Saturday lunch. They will find them tender and declare the fowl the best they've had in years. Now, unless you wish to don an apron and peel carrots, you may leave my kitchen." When he only stood in the middle of the floor, his mouth open, I took up the paring knife that lay next to me. "At once, Mr. Davis."
I'd only intended to hand him the knife and tell him to get on with the carrots if he continued to stare at me, but Mr. Davis eyed the blade, took a hasty step back, and then scuttled away, nearly tripping over the mountain of pig in his haste.
How we finished the meal, I have little recollection. Somehow, the two maids and I had the vegetables peeled, chopped, sauted, and seasoned, the mutton sauced and presented quite prettily, and everything hauled upstairs via the dumbwaiter.
Sara, who had at first resented mightily that I'd recruited her for kitchen duty, beamed as the last of the food went up, and impulsively hugged the downstairs maid. Sara looked as though she wished to embrace me, but I stepped out of her reach before she could give in to the impulse.
"I'll never doubt you again, Mrs. Holloway," Sara said. "You worked a miracle. Like a general, you are."
I abandoned the kitchen, letting the footmen clean up the remains of the roasted pig-which I knew they'd devour or rush it home to their families as soon as I was out of sight. If I wasn't in the room to see it go, I couldn't stop them, could I?
I'd eaten little tonight, but I crossed the passage to sink down at the table in the servants' hall, thoroughly tired of food. I slumped in my chair a moment until my shaking ceased, and then I drew my notebook from my apron pocket and began to jot my thoughts on the meal.
I did this most nights, especially after I'd prepared a large repast. The notes were for my own guidance or perhaps would be used to train my assistant, if I ever found another one.
Sara brought me a cup of tea, for which I thanked her warmly. She looked upon me with admiration-at last, after my three months of employment in this house in Mount Street, she had found respect for me.
I wrote in relative peace for a time-jotting down what had turned out well in the meal, and what needed more polish. I did my best to ignore the noises across the hall-I heard more broken dishes and made a note to ask for funds to replace them.
Mr. Davis found me there an hour later. I'd longed ceased to write, my pen idle on the paper, my thoughts far from the meal and the noises around me.
Earlier this week, on my half day out, I'd gone to a lane near St. Paul's Churchyard to spend the time with my daughter. She'd grown an inch since I'd taken this post, becoming more of a young lady every time I saw her. One day, I vowed, I'd take what I'd saved of my wages, and Grace and I would live in a house together, looking after each other.
My daughter and I always made a special outing when I visited, and that day we'd gone to look at exhibits in the British Museum. Quite a few antiquities had been flowing back to London these days from archaeological digs in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Near East, and ladies and gentlemen flocked to see them-mummies, sarcophagi, and little dolls that had accompanied the ancient Egyptians into their tombs; as well as more cheerful things like vases, jewelry, jars, and combs from the civilizations of Greece and Rome, and tablets of writing only scholars could read.
While we'd stood waiting to enter the building, I'd sworn I'd seen the face of a man I knew. His name was Daniel McAdam, a gentleman I'd come to look upon as a friend-a very close friend.
Of late, though, I'd revised that opinion. I'd seen much of Daniel in the early spring, and then nothing at all in the last two months. Not a sign of him, not a glimpse of him, not a dickey bird, as I would have said in my youth. As I'd lectured Mary about marriage, in the back of my mind was a promise that I'd not make a fool of myself over a man ever again. I vowed I'd put Daniel straight out of my head.
However, when I'd glimpsed a gentleman in a plain suit coming out of another door in the museum, his dark hair barely tamed under a black bowler hat, every ounce of my resolve fled. I'd found myself stepping out of the queue, craning to see him, turning away to follow him when he walked off toward Bedford Square, blast it.
Only Grace's puzzled query-"Where are you going, Mum?"-had brought me to my senses.
Mr. Davis cleared his throat, and I jumped, opening my eyes. I seemed to have dozed off.
"Lady Cynthia wishes to see you," Mr. Davis announced, looking too smug about that. "You're for it now, Mrs. H."
I gave him a prim stare. "I am quite busy, Mr. Davis. I must prepare for tomorrow."
A cook's work is never done. While the rest of the household sits back and pats their full stomachs, I am in my kitchen starting dough for tomorrow's bread, making lists of what I'll need for the next day's meals, prepping any ingredients I can, and making sure the scullery maid has finished the washing up.
Mr. Davis had shed his coat, and damp patches adorned his shirtsleeves beneath his arms. His brows climbed. "You expect me to go upstairs and tell her ladyship you're too busy to speak to her?"
"She will understand." I liked Lady Cynthia, for all her eccentricities, but at the moment, I did not wish to have a conversation with anyone at all.
Mr. Davis eyed me closely, but I turned a page of my notebook and pointedly took up my pen.
As I bent over my notes, he heaved a great sigh, and then his footsteps receded. He stepped into his pantry-probably to fetch his coat-then I heard him start up the stairs. He was gone, and blissful quiet descended.
The peace was shattered not many minutes later by heels clicking sharply on the slate floor and an impatient rustle of taffeta. A breeze burst over me as a lady stormed into the servants' hall and leaned her fists on the tabletop in a very unladylike manner.
She had a fine-boned face and very fair hair, lovely if one enjoys the pale-skinned, aristocratic version of beauty. Her high-necked and long-sleeved gown was deep gray with black soutache trim-she wore mourning for her sister, recently deceased.
I jumped to my feet. She straightened as I did so, a frown slanting her brows, her light blue eyes filled with agitation.
"It is important, Mrs. H.," Lady Cynthia said. "I need your help. Clementina's going out of her head with worry."
I had no idea who Clementina was-I assumed one of Lady Cynthia's vast acquaintance.
"I beg your pardon, my lady. What has happened?"
"She was here tonight, very upset." Cynthia waved impatiently at the chairs. "Oh, do let us sit down. Davis, bring me tea to steady my nerves, there's a good chap."
Davis, who'd followed Lady Cynthia down, stuck his nose in the air at being ordered about like a footman and said a haughty, "Yes, my lady." He glided out to shout into the kitchen for someone to make a pot of tea for her ladyship and be quick about it.
I had not seen much of Lady Cynthia since Lord Rankin had retreated to his country estate to console himself. He'd allowed Lady Cynthia to remain living in his London house, which revealed a kindness in him that surprised me. Lady Cynthia had no money of her own, as I've mentioned, and not much choice of where to go. Her parents, the Earl and Countess of Clifford, lived in impoverished isolation in Hertfordshire, and I knew Cynthia had no desire to return to them.
An unmarried lady could not live alone without scandal, however, so Cynthia's aunt and uncle-the respectable Mr. Neville Bywater, younger brother to Cynthia's mother, and his wife, Isobel-had moved into Lord Rankin's house to look after her. Her aunt was content to put her feet up and enjoy the luxurious house in Mount Street while her husband went off to work in the City. The Bywaters were not poor, but they were careful, willing to save money by taking Lord Rankin's free room and board.
“Clemmie’s married to a baronet,” Cynthia said as soon ass he and I sat down. “He is appallingly rich and has priceless artwork hanging on his walls. That is, he did—that artwork has started to go missing, whole pictures gone. Sir Evan Bloody Godfrey is blaming Clemmie.”
I blinked. “Why should he? It seems a bizarre assumption to make.”
“Because Clemmie is always up to her ears in debt. She plays cards—badly—and wagers too much, and she likes the occasional flutter on the horses. As a result, creditors visit her husband. Before this, he’d pay up like a lamb, but a few months ago, he suddenly announced that enough was enough. He forbade Clemmie to wager ever again, but of course, Clemmie couldn’t help herself.”
“Her husband believes she sold the paintings to pay the debts,” I finished as Sara scurried in with tea on a tray and set it carefully on the table. She curtsied, waited for any further instruction from Cynthia, then faded away when Cynthia dismissed her.
I reached for the teapot and poured out a steaming cup of fragrant tea for Lady Cynthia then topped up my empty teacup.The scent of oolong, my favorite, came to me.
“Exactly, Mrs. H. But Clemmie swears it isn’t true. She says she has no idea how she’d sell the paintings even if she did take them, and I believe her. Clemmie is an innocent soul.” Cynthia sighed, running her finger around the rim of her teacup. “She says there’s been no sign of a break‑in or burglary. The paintings are simply there in the evening, gone the next morning.
”Interesting. The problem piqued my exhausted brain. However, I did not allow myself to speculate too deeply. Simple explanations are usually the wisest ones—a person can complicate a straight forward situation with unnecessary dramatics and end up in a complete mess.
“Perhaps an enterprising butler is having the paintings cleaned,” I suggested. “I understand old paintings can acquire quite a bit of grime, especially in London.”
Cynthia waved her long-fingered hand. “I thought of that, but Clemmie swears she’s questioned the staff and none have touched them. They rather dote on her, so I’m sure they would tell if they knew anything.”
“Hm.” Either one of the servants was lying quite fervently,or someone had managed to creep into the baronet’s house inthe middle of the night and silently rob it. I tried to picture a man walking in, taking a painting from the wall, and walking out again with it under his arm, frame and all, but I could not. London houses had servants roaming them all hours of the day and night, and he’d be spotted.
“You are intrigued,” Cynthia said in triumph. “I see the sparkle in your eyes.”
“I admit, it is odd,” I answered with caution. Lady Cynthia was apt to throw herself into things rather recklessly. “Though I am certain there will be a clear explanation.”
“Clemmie will be happy with any explanation. The silly cow is devastated her husband doesn’t believe her, terrified he’ll cut her off without a shilling. She wants to find the culprit and present him to the baronet on a platter.”
“If she finds the culprit, she should summon the police,” Isaid severely. “Does she mean to catch the burglar herself, tie him up, and wait for her husband to come home?”
“Ha. Sir Evan is a high-handed,dried‑up stick, but I don’t want him putting it about that Clemmie is stealing from him. The only reason he doesn’t have her up before a magistrate is that he’d die of shame.” Lady Cynthia clattered down her teacup and leaned to me. “Say you’ll help, Mrs. H. I’d bribe you with extra wages, but Rankin holds the purse strings and my aunt and uncle are parsimonious.” She brightened. “But Clemmie can reward you. Her husband might embrace you and give you a heady remuneration if you found his precious paintings. He is oozing with wealth. Has a roomful of art and antiquities from all over the world—can’t think why this burglar is not touching that.”
Even more interesting.
I was comfortable with my salary, as Lord Rankin paid what was fair for a cook of my abilities and experience. The thought of extra was always welcome, of course—something to put by for my daughter—but that was not why I nodded in agreement. The puzzle did make me curious. Besides, looking for missing paintings seemed far less dangerous than hunting murderers or chasing Fenians.
Sometimes I can be a foolishly confident woman.