Death Below Stairs Excerpt
Book 1: Kat Holloway Mysteries
London, March 1881
I had not been long at my post in Mayfair, on Mount Street, when my employer’s sister came to some calamity.
I must say I was not shocked that such a thing happened, because when a woman takes on the dress and bad habits of a man, she cannot be surprised at the disapprobation of others when she is found out. Lady Cynthia’s problems, however, turned out to be only the beginning of a vast tangle and a long, dangerous business.
But I am ahead of myself. I am a cook, one of the finest in London if I do say it, and also one of the youngest to be made head cook in a lavish household. I’d worked some time in the winter at a house in Richmond, and it was a good position, but the family desired to sell up and move to the Lake District, and I was loath to leave the environs of London for my own, rather private, reasons.
Back went my name on the books, and the agency at last wrote to my new lodgings at Tottenham Court Road to say they had found a place that might suit. Taking their letter with me, I went along to the house of one Lord Rankin in Mount Street, descending from the omnibus at South Audley Street and walking the rest of the way on foot.
I expected to speak to the housekeeper, but upon arrival, the butler, a tall, handsome specimen who rather preened himself, took me up the stairs to meet the lady of the house in her small study.
She was Lady Rankin, wife of the prodigiously wealthy baron who owned this abode. The baron’s wealth came not from the fact that he was an aristocrat, the butler, Mr. Davis, had already confided in me—the estate had been nearly bankrupt when Lord Rankin had inherited it. Rather, Lord Rankin was a deft dabbler in the City and had earned money by wise investment long before the cousin who’d held the title had died, conveniently childless.
When I first beheld Lady Rankin, I was surprised she’d asked for me, because she seemed too frail to hold up her head, let alone conduct an interview with a new cook.
“Mrs. Holloway, ma’am,” Davis said. He ushered me in, bowed, and withdrew.
The study in which I found myself was small and overtly feminine. The walls were covered in yellow moiré, the curtains at the windows, white lace. Framed mirrors along with paintings of gardens and picturesque country lanes adorned the walls. A delicate, gilt-legged table from the last century reposed in the middle of the room, with an equally graceful chair behind it. A scroll-backed chaise, covered with shawls, sat near the desk.
Lady Rankin was in the act of rising from the chaise as we entered, as though she had grown weary waiting for me and retired to it. She moved listlessly to the chair behind her desk, sat upon it, and pulled a paper in front of her with a languid hand.
“Mrs. Holloway?” she asked.
Davis had just announced me, so there was no doubt who I was, but I nodded. Lady Rankin looked me over. I remained standing in the exact center of the carpet in my second-best frock, a brown wool jacket buttoned to my throat, and my second-best hat of light brown straw perching on my thick coil of dark hair.
Lady Rankin’s garment was white, filmy, and high necked, its bodice lined with pearls. Her hair was pale gold, her cheeks thin and bloodless. She could hardly be thirty summers, but rather than being childlike, she was ethereal, as though a gust of wind could puff her away.
She glanced at whatever paper was in front of her—presumably a letter from my agency—and then over the desk at me. Her eyes were a very light blue and, in contrast to her angel-like appearance, were rather hard.
“You are very young,” she observed. Her voice was light, as thin as her bones.
“I am nearly thirty,” I answered stiffly.
When a person thought of a cook, they pictured an older woman who was either a shrew in the kitchen or kindhearted and a bit slow. The truth was that cooks came in all ages, shapes, and temperaments. I happened to be nine and twenty, plump and brown haired, and kind enough, I hoped, but I brooked no nonsense.
“I meant for a cook,” Lady Rankin said. “Our last cook was nearly eighty. She is . . . gone. Living with her daughter.” She added the last quickly, as though fearing I’d take gone to mean to heaven.
I had no idea how Lady Rankin wished me to answer this information, so I only said, “I assure you, my lady, I have been quite well trained.”
“Yes.” Lady Rankin lifted the letter. The single page seemed too heavy for her, so she let it fall. “The agency sings your praises, as do your references. Well, you will find this an easy place. Charles—Lord Rankin—wishes his supper on the table when he arrives home from the City at eight. Davis will tell you his lordship’s favorite dishes. There will be three at table this evening, Lord Rankin, myself, and my . . . sister.”
Her thin lip curled the slightest bit as she pronounced this last. I thought nothing of it at the time and only gave her another nod.
Lady Rankin slumped back into her chair as though the speech had taken the last of her strength. She waved a limp hand at me. “Go on, then. Davis and Mrs. Bowen will explain things to you.”
I curtsied politely and took my leave. I wondered if I shouldn’t summon Lady Rankin’s maid to assist her to bed but left the room before I did anything so presumptuous.
The kitchen below was to my liking. It was nowhere near as modern and large as the one I’d left in Richmond, but I found it what I was used to and comfortable.
This house was what I called a double town house—that is, instead of having a staircase hall on one side and all the rooms on the other, it had rooms on both sides of a middle hall. Possibly two houses had been purchased and knocked into one at some time and the second staircase walled off for use by the staff.
Below stairs, we had a large servants’ hall across a passage from the kitchen. Past the kitchen on the same passage was a scullery—which also connected to the kitchen and had a door that led out and up the outside stairs. On the other side of the kitchen was a larder, and beyond that a laundry room, a room for folding clean linens, the housekeeper’s parlor, and the butler’s pantry, which included the wine cellar. Mr. Davis showed me over each, as proud as though he owned the house himself.
The kitchen was a wide, square room with windows that gave onto the street above. Two dressers full of dishes lined the white-painted walls, and a hanging rack of gleaming copper pans dangled above the stove. A thick-legged table squatted in the middle of the floor, one long enough on which to prepare several dishes at once, with space at the end for someone to sit and shell peas or whatever I needed them to do.
The kitchen’s range had been neatly fitted into what had been a fireplace, and this fireplace was large, the stove high enough that I wouldn’t have to stoop or kneel to cook. I’d had to kneel down on hard stones at one house—where I hadn’t stayed long—and it had taken some time for my knees and back to recover.
Here I could stand and use the hot plates that were able to accommodate five pots at once, with the fire below behind a thick metal door. The fire could be stoked without disturbing the ovens to either side of it—one oven had racks that could be moved so several things could be baked at the same time, and the other spacious oven could have air pumped though it to aid roasting.
I was pleased with the stove, which was quite new, likely requested by the wealthy lordship who liked his meal served precisely when he arrived home. I could bake bread in one oven while roasting a large joint of meat in the other, with all my pots going above at once. The greatest challenge to a cook is to have every dish ready and hot at the same time so none come to the table colder than any other. To aid this, a shelf above the stove that ran the length of it could keep finished food in warmth while the rest of the meal was finished.
The sink was in the scullery so that dirty water and entrails from fish and fowl could be kept well away from the rest of my food. The larder, a long room lined with shelves and with a flagstone floor, looked well stocked, though I’d be the judge of that. From a cursory glance, I saw bags of flour, jars of barley and other grains, dried herbs hanging from the beams, spices in tinned copper jars with labels on the front, and crates of vegetables and fruit pushed back against the coolest walls.
The kitchen itself was fairly dark, as most kitchens were, despite the high windows, so we would have to burn lamps or gaslight all the time, but otherwise, I was satisfied.
The staff to run this lofty house in Mayfair wasn’t as large as I’d expect, but they seemed a diligent lot. I had an assistant, a rather pretty girl of about seventeen who seemed genial enough—she reminded me of myself at that age. Whether her assistance would be useful remained to be seen. Four footmen appeared and disappeared from the servants’ hall, as did half a dozen maids.
Mrs. Bowen, the housekeeper, was thin and birdlike, and I did not know her. This surprised me, because when you are in service in London, you come to know those in the great houses, or at least of them. However, I’d never heard of Mrs. Bowen, which either meant she’d not been in London long or hadn’t long been a housekeeper.
I was disturbed a bit by her very thin figure, because I preferred to work with those who enjoyed eating. Mrs. Bowen looked as though she took no more than a biscuit every day, and then only a digestive. On the other hand, I’d known a spindly man who could eat an entire platter of pork and potatoes followed by a hearty dose of steak and kidney pie and never had to loosen his clothing.
Mr. Davis, whom I soon put down as a friendly old gossip, gave me a book with notes from the last cook of what the master preferred for his dinners. I was pleased to find the dishes uncomplicated but not so dull that any chophouse could have provided the meals. I could do well here.
I carefully unpacked my knives, including a brand-new, sharp carver, took my apron from my valise, and started right in.
The young assistant, a bit unhappy that I wanted her help immediately, was soon chatting freely with me while she measured out flour and butter for my brioche. She gave her name as Sinead.
She pronounced it Shin-aide and gave me a hopeful look. I thought it a beautiful name, conjuring mists over the green Irish land—a place I’d never been—but this was London, and a cook’s kitchen was no place for an Irish nymph.
“It’s quite lovely,” I said as I cut butter into the flour. “But I’m sorry, my girl, we can’t be having Sinead. People get wrong ideas. You must have a plain English name. What did the last cook call you?”
Sinead let out a sigh, her dreams of romance dashed. “Ellen,” she said, resigned. I saw by her expression that she disliked the name immensely.
I studied her dark brown hair, blue eyes, and pale skin in some sympathy. Again, she reminded me of myself—poised on the edge of life and believing wonderful things would happen to her. Alas, I’d found out only too soon the bitter truth. Sinead’s prettiness would bring her only trouble, well I knew, and life was apt to dash her hopes again and again.
“Ellen,” I repeated, trying to sound cheerful. “A nice, solid name, but not too dull. Now, then, Ellen, I’ll need eggs. Large and whole, nothing cracked.”
Sinead gave me a long-suffering curtsy and scuttled for the larder.
“She puts on airs,” Mrs. Bowen said as she passed by the kitchen’s door. “Last cook took a strap to her.” She sounded vastly disapproving of the last cook, which made me begin to warm to Mrs. Bowen.
“Is that why the last cook was dismissed?” I already didn’t think much of this elderly cook, free with a strap, whoever she was. Sinead’s only crime, I could see so far, was having dreams.
“No.” Mrs. Bowen’s answer was short, clipped. She ducked away before she could tell me anything more interesting.
I continued with my bread. Brioche was a favorite of mine—a bread dough made rich with eggs and butter, subtly sweet. It was a fine accompaniment to any meal but also could be served as pudding in a pinch. A little cinnamon and stiff cream or a berry sauce poured over it was as grand as anything served in a posh hotel.
It was as I began beating flour and the eggs into the milk and sugar that I met Lady Rankin’s sister. I heard a loud banging and scrambling noise from the scullery, as though someone had fallen into it down the stairs. Pans clattered to the floor, and then a personage in a black suit burst through the scullery door into the kitchen, boot heels scraping on the flagstones, and collapsed onto a chair at the kitchen table, flinging out arms and legs.
I caught up my bowl of dough before it could be upset, looked at the intruder, and then looked again.
The person wore black trousers, a waistcoat of watered silk in a dark shade of green, with a shining watch fob dangling from its pocket, a smooth frock coat and loose cravat, a long and rather dusty greatcoat, a pair of thick leather gloves, and boots that poked muddy toes from under the trousers. The low-crowned hat that went with the ensemble had been tossed to the table.
Above this male attire was the head and face of a woman, a rather pretty woman at that. She’d done her fair hair in a low bun at the back of her neck, slicking it straight from a fine-boned face. The light color of her hair, her high cheekbones, and light blue, almost colorless eyes were so like Lady Rankin’s, that for a moment, I stared, dumbfounded, believing I was seeing my mistress transformed. This lady was a bit older though, with the beginnings of lines about her eyes, and a manner far more robust than Lady Rankin’s.
“Oh Lord,” the woman announced, throwing her body back in the chair and letting her arms dangle to the floor. “I think I’ve killed someone.”
As I stared at the woman in alarm, she looked up at me, fixed me with a gaze that was as surprised as mine, and demanded, “Who the devil are you?”
“I am Mrs. Holloway.” I curtsied as best I could with my hands around my dough bowl. “The new cook.”
“New? What happened to the last one? Nasty old Mrs. Cowles. Why did they give her the boot?”
Since I had no idea, I could not answer. “Has something happened?”
The lady shoved the chair from the table and banged to her feet, her color rising. “Good God, yes. Where the devil is everyone? What if I’ve killed him?”
“Killed who?” I asked, holding on to my patience. I’d already decided that the ladies of this family were prone to drama—one played the delicate creature, the other something from a music hall stage.
“Chap outside. I was driving a rig, a new one, and he jumped out in front of me. Come and see.”
I looked at my dough, which could become lumpy if I left it at this stage, but the young lady was genuinely agitated, and the entirety of the staff seemed to have disappeared. I shook out my hands, wiped them with a thick towel, laid the towel over the dough bowl, and nodded at her to lead me to the scene of the problem.
Fog shrouded the street onto which we emerged from the scullery stairs, Lady Cynthia—for that was Lady Rankin’s sister’s name—insisting we exit the house through the servants’ entrance, the way she’d come in.
The fog did nothing to slow the carriages, carts, delivery wagons, small conveyances, and people who scurried about on whatever business took them through Mount Street, which was situated between Grosvenor Square and Berkeley Square. London was always a town on the move. Mud flew as carriage wheels and horses churned it up, droplets becoming dark rain to meld with the fog.
Lady Cynthia led me rapidly through the traffic, ducking and dodging, moving easily in her trousers while I held my skirts out of the dirt and dung on the cobbles and hastened after her. People stared at Lady Cynthia in her odd attire, but no one pointed or said a word—those in the neighborhood were probably used to her.
“There.” Lady Cynthia halted at the corner of Park Street, a respectable enough place, one where a cook should not be lurking, and pointed.
A leather-topped, four-wheeled phaeton had been halted against the railings of a house on the corner. A burly man held the two horses hitched to the phaeton, while a lad patted them, trying to keep them calm. Inside the vehicle, a man slumped against the seat—whether dead or alive, I could not tell.
“Him,” Lady Cynthia said, jabbing her finger at the figure inside the phaeton. “He popped out of nowhere and ran in front of me. Didn’t see the bloody man until he was right under the horses’ hooves.”
I was already moving toward the phaeton, Lady Cynthia behind me, pressing myself out of the way of carts and carriages rumbling through, lest I end up as the man inside. “Did you summon a doctor?” I asked her, raising my voice to be heard over the clatter of hooves and wheels.
“Why?” Lady Cynthia gave me a blank stare with her pale eyes. “He’s dead.”
I reached the phaeton and opened the door to study the man slumped in the seat. I let out a breath of relief—he was quite alive. I’d unfortunately been witness to those brutally and suddenly killed, but the one thing I’d mainly observed about the dead was that they did not raise their heads or open eyes to stare at me in bewilderment and pain.
The burly man holding the horses called to Lady Cynthia. “Not dead, m’lady. Just a bit bashed about.”
“You, lad,” I said to the boy with him. “Run for a doctor. Perhaps, my lady, we should get him into the house.”
Lady Cynthia might wear the clothes of a man, but she hesitated in the fluttery way young ladies are taught to adopt these days. Cooks, I am pleased to say, are expected to be a bit more formidable. While the boy raced away at my command to summon a physician, I had no compunction about climbing into the phaeton and looking the fellow over myself.
He was an ordinary person, the sort one would find driving a cart and making deliveries to Mayfair households, though I saw no van nearby, nothing to say who his employer was. He wore a plain but thick coat and linen shirt, working trousers, and stout boots. The lack of rents or stains in his clothing told me he was well looked after, either by a wife, or perhaps he could afford to hire out his mending. Or perhaps he even took up a needle himself—but the point was he had enough self-respect to present a clean and neat appearance. That meant he had work and was no ruffian of the street.
I touched his hand, finding it warm, and he groaned piteously.
Lady Cynthia, hearing him, looked much relieved and regained some of her vigor. “Yes, inside. Excellent idea Mrs. . . . Mrs. . . .”
“Holloway,” I reminded her.
“Holloway. You.” She pointed a long, aristocratic finger at another sturdy youth who’d paused to take in the drama. “Help us carry him into the house. Where have you been?” She snapped at a gangly man in knee breeches and heavy boots who came running around the corner. “Take the rig to the mews. Wait until we heave this man out of it.”
The thin man, who appeared to be a groom—indeed, he would prove to be the head groomsman for Lord Rankin’s town stables—climbed onto the box and took the reins, sending Lady Cynthia a dark look. His back quivered as he waited for the burly man who’d been holding the horses and the youth to help me pry the hurt man out of the phaeton.
I looked into the youth’s face and nearly hit my head on the phaeton’s leather top. “Good heavens,” I said. “James!”
James, a lad of about fifteen or so years with dark eyes, a round, rather handsome and freckled face, and red-brown hair sticking out from under his cap, shot a grin at me. I hadn’t seen him for weeks, and only a few times since I’d taken the post in Richmond. James didn’t move much beyond the middle of London, as he made his living doing odd jobs here and there around the metropolis. I’d seen him only when I’d had cause to come into London and our paths happened to cross.
James, with his father, Daniel, had helped me avoid much trouble at the place I’d been before Richmond, and I’d come to count the lad as a friend.
As for his father . . .
I could not decide these days how I regarded his father. Daniel McAdam, a jack-of-all-trades if ever there was one, had been my friend since the day he’d begun deliveries in a household I’d worked in a year or so ago. He was charming, flirtatious, ever ready with a joke or an encouraging word. He’d helped me in a time of great need last autumn, but then I’d learned more about Daniel than perhaps I’d wanted to. I was still hurt about it, and uncertain.
After James and the burly man worked the injured man from the carriage, I pulled myself upright on the phaeton’s step and scanned the street. I have sharp eyes, and I did not have to look far until I saw Daniel.
He was just ducking around a corner up Park Street, glancing behind him as though expecting me to be seeking him. He wore the brown homespun suit he donned when making deliveries to kitchens all over Mayfair and north of Oxford Street and the shapeless gloves that hid his strong hands. I recognized his sharp face, the blue eyes over a well-formed nose, the dark hair he never could tame under his cloth cap.
He saw me. Did he look abashed? No, indeed. Mr. McAdam only sent me a merry look, touched his cap in salute, and disappeared.
I did not know all Daniel McAdam’s secrets, and I knew he had many. He’d helped me when none other would, it was true, but at the same time he’d angered and confused me. I was grateful and could admire his resolve, but I refused to let myself fall under his spell. I had even allowed him to kiss me on the lips once or twice, but that had been as far as that went.
“Drat the man,” I said.
“Ma’am?” the groom asked over his shoulder.
“Never mind.” I hopped to the ground, the cobbles hard under my shoes. “When you’re done in the stables, come ’round to the kitchen for a strong cup of tea. I have the inkling we will all need one.”
A doctor came and looked over the man Lady Cynthia had run down. He’d been put into one of the rooms in the large attic and pronounced to have a broken arm and many bruises. The doctor, who was not at all happy to be called out to look at a mere laborer, sent for a surgeon to set the arm. The surgeon departed when he was finished, after dosing the man with laudanum and giving Mrs. Bowen instructions to not let him move for at least a day.
The man, now able to speak, or at least to mumble, said his name was Timmons and begged us to send word to his wife in their rooms near Euston Station.
At least, this is what Mr. Davis, the butler, related to me. I had scrubbed my hands and returned to my brioche when the hurt man had been carried upstairs, as I needed to carry on with my duties if I was to have a meal on the table when the master came home. Lady Rankin had said he returned on the dot of eight and expected to dine right away, and it was after six now. Ellen-Sinead, though curious, obediently resumed her kitchen duties.
As Sinead and I worked, Mr. Davis told us all about the doctor’s arrival and his sour expression when he’d learned he’d come to see to a working-class man; the surgeon, who was much more cheerful; and the fact that this Timmons would have to spend the night. One of the footmen had gone in search of his wife.
By that time, I had shaped my rich bread and was letting it rise in its round fluted pan while I turned to sort out the vegetables I’d chosen from the larder—plump mushrooms that were fresh smelling, asparagus nice and green, a firm onion, bright tomatoes.
“Lady Cynthia is beside herself,” Mr. Davis said. He sat down at the kitchen table, propping his elbows on it, doing nothing useful. My chopping board was near him, and I thumped the blade menacingly as I cut through the onions Sinead had peeled for me. Mr. Davis took notice. “She’s a flibbertigibbet but has a kind heart, does our Lady Cynthia,” he went on. “She promised Timmons a sum of money for his trouble—which Lord Rankin will have to furnish, of course. She hasn’t got any money. That’s why she lives here. Sort of a poor relation, but never say so.”
“I would not dream of it, Mr. Davis.” I held a hothouse tomato to my nose, rewarded by a bright scent, the tomato an excellent color. I longed to bite into it and taste its juices, but I returned it to the board with its fellows and picked over the asparagus. Whoever had chosen the produce had a good eye.
Mr. Davis chuckled. I’d already seen, when he’d led me through the house, that he could be haughty as anything above stairs, but down here in the kitchens, he loosened his coat and his tongue. Mr. Davis’s hair was dark, though gray at the temples, parted severely in the middle and held in place with pomade. He had a pleasant sort of face, blue eyes, and a thin line of mouth that was usually moving in speech.
“Lady Cynthia and Lady Emily are the Earl of Clifford’s daughters,” Mr. Davis said, sending me a significant look.
Interesting. I left the vegetables and uncovered the fowl I was to roast. I’d cook potatoes and onions in its juices and throw in the mushrooms at the end, along with the tomatoes for tang. For fish, I had skate waiting to be poached in milk, which I’d finish with parsley and walnuts. Early March could be a difficult time—the winter fruits and vegetables were fading, and spring’s bounty barely beginning. I enjoyed cooking in spring the most, when everything was fresh and new. Biting into early greens tasted of bright skies and the end of winter’s grip.
I had heard of the Earl of Clifford, who was famous for being a bankrupt. The title was an old one, from what I understood, one of those that kings had been bestowing for centuries—reverting to the crown when the particular family line died out but given to another family when that family pleased royalty enough to be so rewarded.
I did not have my finger on every title in Britain, but I had heard that Clifford was the eighth of this earldom, given to a family called Shires. The present Lord Clifford had, in his youth, been renowned for bravery—deeds done in Crimea and that sort of thing. He’d come home to England to race horses, tangle himself in scandals, and have notorious affairs with famous beauties. He’d finally married one of these beauties, proceeded to sire two daughters and a son, and then gambled himself into ruinous debt.
His son and heir, as wild as the father, had died tragically at the young age of twenty, going slightly mad and shooting himself. Lady Clifford, devastated by the death of her favorite child, had gone into a decline. She was still alive, I believe, but living in poor health, shutting herself away on her husband’s estate in Hertfordshire.
The daughters, Ladies Cynthia and Emily, had debuted and caught the eyes of many a gentlemen, but they’d not fared well, as their father’s debts were common knowledge, as were their mother’s nerves and their brother’s suicide. Lady Emily, the younger, had married Lord Rankin before he was Lord Rankin, when he was but a wealthy gentleman who’d made much in the City. Lord and Lady Clifford must have breathed a sigh of relief when he’d put the ring on her finger.
I had known some of the Clifford story from gossip and newspapers. Now Mr. Davis kindly filled in the gaps as I plunged a tomato into hot water, showing Sinead how this loosened the skin so it could be easily peeled.
“Lady Cynthia was not so fortunate.” Mr. Davis stretched out his long legs, making himself as comfortable as possible in the hard wooden chair. “She is the older sister, and so it is a scandal that the younger married and she did not. And of course, Lady Cynthia has no fortune. She is agreeable enough, but when she found herself in danger of being on the shelf, she chose to become an eccentric.”
While I left Sinead to finish peeling, seeding, and chopping the tomatoes, I warmed butter and basted the hen, which was a plump, well-juiced specimen. Lord Rankin, it seemed, spared no expense on his victuals. Happily for me, as a cook’s job is made ten times easier with decent ingredients.
“Poor thing,” I said, shoving the fowl into the roasting oven and licking melted butter from my thumb. I closed the door and fastened it, and snapped my fingers at the lad whose task it was to keep the stove stoked. He leapt from playing with pebbles in the corner and grabbed a few pieces of wood from the box under the window. He opened the grate and tossed in the wood quickly, but I was alarmed how close his little hands came to the flames. I warned him to be more careful. I’d have to make up the balm I liked of chamomile, lavender, and goose fat for burned fingers if he wasn’t.
The boy returned to his game, and I wiped my hands and looked over Sinead’s shoulder as she moved on to tearing lettuce for the salads. I liked to have my greens washed, dried, and kept chilled well before serving the meal.
“Lady Cynthia took at first to riding horses in breakneck races,” Mr. Davis continued. “Amateur ones of course, on the estates, racing young men fool enough to take her on. She has a light touch with a horse, does Lady Cynthia. She rode in breeches and won most of her gallops, along with the wagers. When our master married Lady Emily, he put a stop to Lady Cynthia’s riding, but I suppose she enjoyed wearing the breeches so much she didn’t want to give them up. Our lordship don’t like it, but he’s said that as long as Lady Cynthia stays quiet and behaves herself she can wear trousers if she likes.”
Mrs. Bowen chose that moment to walk into the kitchen. She sniffed. “Speaking of your betters again, Mr. Davis?” She studied me getting on with the meal, then with head held high, departed for the servants’ hall, disapproval oozing from her.
Mr. Davis chuckled. “Mrs. Bowen puts on airs, but most of what I know about the family I learned from her. She worked for Lady Clifford before she came here.”
I pretended to absorb myself in my cooking, but I was curious. I have a healthy interest in my fellow beings, unfortunately.
As Davis went momentarily silent, my thoughts strayed again to Daniel. He popped up here and there throughout London, always where something interesting was happening, and I wondered why he’d chosen the moment when Lady Cynthia had run down a cart driver.
“If Lady Cynthia hurt this man for life with her recklessness,” I observed, “it could go badly for her.”
Davis shook his head. “Not for the daughter of an earl decorated for bravery and the sister-in-law of one of the wealthiest men in London. Lord Rankin will pay to keep our Lady Cynthia out of the newspapers and out of the courts, you mark my words.”
I believed him. Wealthy men could hide an embarrassment to the family, and Lady Cynthia viewed herself as an embarrassment—I had noted that in her eyes. I myself saw no shame in her running about in gentlemen’s attire—didn’t we enjoy the courageous heroines who dressed as men in plays of the Bard? Cheer for them in the Christmas pantomimes?
I saw no more of Lady Cynthia that evening, or indeed of anyone, as I turned to the business of getting the supper done. Once I gave my attention solely to cooking, ’ware any who stepped in my way.
Sinead proved to be capable if not as well trained as I liked, but we got on, and she burst into tears only once. She ceased her sobbing after she cleaned up the salt she had spilled all over the lettuce and helped me pull the roasted fowl out of the oven, bubbling and sizzling, the aroma splendid. I cut off a tiny piece of meat and a speared a square of potato and shared them with her.
Sinead’s face changed to rapture. “Oh, ma’am, it’s the best I ever tasted.”
She exaggerated, I knew, although I suppose her comment was a testament to the previous cook’s abilities. I thought the fowl’s taste could have been richer, but I would not be ashamed to serve this dish.
Mr. Davis and the footmen were already in the dining room above. I rounded up the maids to help me load a tureen of steaming asparagus soup into the lift, followed by the lightly poached skate, and then when it was time, the covered plate of the carved fowl with roasted vegetables and the greens. I hadn’t had time to fix more than the brioche for pudding, and so I sent up fruit with a bite of cheese alongside the rich bread.
It was my habit never to rest until I heard from the dining room that all was well. Tonight, I heard nothing, not a word of praise—but not a word of complaint either. The plates returned scraped clean, although one of the three in each course was always lightly touched.
Such a shame to waste good food. I shook my head over it and told the kitchen maids to pack away the uneaten portions to give to beggars.
I’d learned long ago that not every person on earth appreciates good food—some don’t even know how to taste it. Instead of growing incensed as I had done when I began, I now felt sorry for that person and distributed the food to the cold and hungry who better deserved it.
“Who is the faint appetite?” I asked Mr. Davis when he and I and Mrs. Bowen at last took our supper in the housekeeper’s parlor, with Sinead to wait on us.
“Tonight, Lady Cynthia,” Mr. Davis said between shoveling in bites of the pieces of roasted hen and potatoes I’d held back for us. “She is still most upset about the accident. She even wore a frock to dinner.”
Apparently, this was significant. Mrs. Bowen and Sinead gave Mr. Davis amazed looks.
One of the footmen—I thought his name was Paul—tapped hesitantly on the door of Mrs. Bowen’s parlor and entered when invited.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am,” he said nervously. “But his lordship is asking for his evening cup of coffee.” He swallowed, his young face rather spotty, his Adam’s apple prominent. He darted Mrs. Bowen a worried look. “He’s asking for Sinead—I mean Ellen—to deliver it.”
An awful hush descended over the room. I was struck by the paling faces of Mrs. Bowen and Davis and the unhappiness in the footman’s eyes, but mostly by the look of dread that came over Sinead.
She set down the teapot she’d lifted to refill Mrs. Bowen’s cup and turned to that lady pleadingly, distress in every line of her.
Mrs. Bowen gave her a sorrowful nod. “You’d best be going on up, girl.”
Sinead’s eyes filled with tears, every bit of cheerfulness dying. She wiped her hands on her apron, curtsied, and said, “Yes, ma’am,” before she made for the door.
She found me in the doorway, blocking her way out. “Why?” I asked the room, not excluding the footman. “What is the matter with Ellen taking the master his coffee? Mrs. Bowen, Mr. Davis, you tell me this minute.”
Mr. Davis and Mrs. Bowen exchanged a long glance. Sinead would not look at me, her cheeks stark white and blotched with red.
It was Mrs. Bowen who answered. “I am afraid that his lordship occasionally believes in the idea of . . . I suppose we could call it droit du seigneur. Not often, fortunately.”
“Fortunately?” The word snapped out of me, my anger, which had touched me when I’d seen Daniel in the street, finally finding a vent.
I was well aware that a hazard for young women in service, no matter how grand the household, was that the master, and sometimes his guests, saw no reason not to help themselves to a maid, or a cook’s assistant, or, indeed, even a cook, when they fancied her. The young woman in question was powerless—all she could do was either give in or find herself another place. If she fled the house without reference, gaining new employment could be difficult. If she gave in to the master’s lusts, she risked being cast out with a stain on her character. If her own family would not let her come home, or she had no family, she had no choice but to take to the streets.
I had learned as a very young cook’s assistant to keep myself buried in the kitchen and rarely cross the paths of the gentlemen of the household. As cooks seldom went above stairs, this had worked well for me. My ruin had been entirely my own fault and nothing to do with any house in which I’d worked.
“It does not happen often, does it?” I asked testily.
I was pleased that at least Mr. Davis and Mrs. Bowen looked ashamed, Mrs. Bowen bordering on wretched. “Only when his lordship has been made unhappy,” Mr. Davis said.
And he’d been made unhappy today by Lady Cynthia running down a man in the street, a story everyone in Mayfair likely knew by now. “Good heavens—why on earth do you stay here?” I demanded of all present. “There are masters respectable enough in other houses, and wives who will not put up with that sort of thing.”
Mr. Davis regarded me in some surprise. “We stay because it’s a good place—you’ll see. His lordship is generous to the staff. Always has been.”
“I see. And sending a young woman as sacrifice every once in a while is a small price to pay?” My mounting anger made my blood fire in my veins. “Well, I will not have it. Not in my kitchen.”
“Mrs. Holloway, I understand your unhappiness,” Mrs. Bowen said. “I share it. But what can we do? I try to keep the maids occupied away from his lordship, but it is not my house. Her ladyship ought to keep him under her eye, but she cannot.”
I full well knew Mrs. Bowen was right. Some gentlemen are high-handed enough to believe everything they do is justified. Those who have power and wealth behind them are only encouraged in their prideful thinking. The frail Lady Rankin likely knew what was going on but hadn’t the strength to confront him about it.
My heart sank at the thought of having to look for another place when I’d only just found this one. The kitchen was well stocked, the house efficiently run, and the street near to an omnibus that would take me easily to the place in London where my heart was. Why, oh why, did the master and his base needs have to ruin a perfectly good situation?
My fury made me reckless. “I won’t have it,” I repeated. “Ellen, sit down and calm yourself. I will take Lord Rankin his coffee.”
End of Excerpt