Cedrica Grenford set her portable writing desk on the table. She had freshly prepared quills, a full bottle of ink, and neatly cut sheets of paper, each with the Haverford crest watermarked in the background. She took a deep breath and pushed her glasses farther up her nose. She was ready for this, her first test as confidential secretary and companion to Her Grace, the Duchess of Haverford.
That is to say, to Aunt Eleanor. Who would have thought that little Ceddie Grenford would grow up to one day call a duchess ‘aunt’? Even if that illustrious personage was remotely connected by marriage.
She had not imagined such a result when she had written to the duke to beg a refuge for her father, his distant cousin, who was failing in health and confused in mind, and to beg a refuge. Papa was an ill-paid country vicar with a lifetime habit of giving away whatever came into his hands. Now the church he had served so devotedly proposed to put him into a poorhouse. Or an asylum.
Two weeks ago, the duchess, escorted by her son, the Marquis of Aldridge, descended upon their house and carried Papa off to be cared for in a lovely pensioner cottage near Haverford Castle in Kent, taking Cedrica to London to serve the duchess as a companion. Of course, Cedrica had breathed a grateful sigh of relief… until this afternoon. She might be a little nervous but she was determined to do well in her new role.
“Cedrica, my dear,” said Her Grace, “come here and meet some of the ladies who form our committee.”
Cedrica managed to acquit herself without disgrace as she was presented to some of the duchess’s legion of goddaughters and their friends. Lady Emily Pembroke stopped her conversation with Lady de Courtenay to smile at Cedrica. Lady de Courtenay gave a friendly wave. Miss Sedgely offered a straightforward handshake, and Lady Elinor Lacey introduced the two bored schoolgirls with them as Miss Louise Durand and Miss Blanche Lacey.
The Belvoir sisters, Lady Sophia and Lady Felicity, also greeted Cedrica warmly. “I am to act as chairman, and Lady de Courtenay will make a third with you and I,” Lady Sophia said. “This committee has much work to do, Miss Grenford, and the three of us most of all.”
Lady Sophia introduced Miss Lockhart, who in turn made Miss Kate Woodville known to the company. Miss Woodville, it seemed, was a teacher at a young ladies’ academy. Perhaps teaching might be a future for Cedrica. She would make a point of talking to the young woman.
“Aunt Eleanor, I brought my friend, Miss Baumann,” Lady Felicity said, “Esther has a great interest in education for girls, and that is why we are here, is it not?”
The duchess smiled. “You must be Mr. Nathaniel Baumann’s daughter, Miss Baumann. You are most welcome to our number. Shall we be seated, ladies?”
This is no different to taking notes for the meetings of the Ladies’ Altar Society, or the Mothers’ Union, or the Vestry. So Cedrica had been telling herself for days, but these were not farmers’ wives and shopkeepers; these were fine ladies in fashionable silks with upper-class vowels and curious eyes.
And if the ladies were terrifying, the gentlemen would be worse. Lord Aldridge had suggested that she regard the proposed house party as an opportunity to meet a suitable husband and had promised to pay a dowry if such a gentlemen could be brought to propose. His money was safe enough. She preferred not even to speak to gentlemen of the ton if she could avoid it.
Cedrica sat in front of her desk, at the left hand of the duchess and the right of Lady Sophia, who took the head of the table and opened the meeting.
“Ladies, you know why we are here. Several of us were talking about the dearth of opportunities for women in all classes, should they want more of an education than the skills that our world deems ‘appropriate for a woman.’ We do not think ourselves less capable of great learning than our brothers, nor do we consider ourselves extreme examples of our kind. We believe that women who wish to study the arts or the sciences should be able to do so, as have some of us ourselves.”
Goodness. Had such ideas been suggested at a Vestry meeting, the speaker would have been laughed out of the room, with her father leading the mirth. Even the Ladies’ Altar Society would have been shocked. But these grand ladies were all nodding, even Her Grace.
“But talk butters no parsnips,” Lady Sophia continued. “We agreed that we needed a fund to support schemes for assisting girls to be educated beyond the sphere to which their sex, class, or both assign them. Her Grace has kindly agreed to be patroness of this fund and has an idea for announcing it to the world and, at the same time, raising money to support it. Ladies, you, your family and friends, and anyone who is in the least likely to support us are invited to Hollystone Hall in Buckinghamshire this December for a holiday house party and a New Year’s Eve Charity Ball.”
The explosion of delighted comments that filled the room flowed over Cedrica. A ball. How on earth would she ever manage that, much less the house party that would precede it?
Hollystone Hall, Buckinghamshire
Marcel Fournier sat on the bed assigned to him in the wing set aside for upper servants at Hollystone Hall and brooded on his wrongs.
The house was grand enough, the house party would serve the highest in Society, and Marcel could certainly not complain about the wages he would receive for a mere month of employment. The Duchess of Haverford was also compensating him richly for the few days needed to visit the house this month so he could advise on the construction of the kitchen he would use for the three-week event.
And that was the sticking point.
Not the kitchen itself. They were building—had almost finished building—a whole new kitchen out of some unused storage rooms. He was thrilled and flattered to have final say on the selection and placement of equipment, from the modern iron range to the last pot and spoon. No. He had no complaints about the kitchen he already regarded as his own.
Even the need for a second kitchen; he could concede the sense of that. To him would fall the important task of preparing the banquets that would thrill and impress the guests each and every night, culminating in the dinner on the night of the grand ball that would end the house party. He and the servants set to assist him would have their hands full with dish after dish after dish, each one different and each magnificent.
Let the English cook have her own kitchen to make little scones and heavy cakes, to fry eggs, bacon, and sausages, for the lesser meals of the day.
But she should answer to him. He, Marcel Fournier, was the master chef. He was a former apprentice to the great Carême himself. He should be in charge of all menus, ruler of both kitchens, deciding what would be made and how the kitchen staff were to be allocated. What was this Cissie Pearce but a country cook?
“Good English cooking,” Mademoiselle Grenford had said. “Mrs. Pearce is known for her good English cooking.”
Marcel could do good English cooking! Had he not grown up here in England after his family escaped from the Terror?
In Spitalfields, until he was apprenticed to a cook in an inn on Tottenham Court Road, then in Soho where he took charge in an earl’s kitchen, and finally, after having himself smuggled into France and attracting the man’s attention by the bold trick of sneaking into his office with a box of his own pâtisseries and menus for a year’s worth of banquets, in the kitchen and under the direct supervision of the great Marie Antoine Carême, chef to Tallyrand and through him to the diplomats of Europe.
For the past two years, Marcel had been one of the most sought-after chefs in the whole South of England. Good English cooking, indeed.
She was a little dab of a thing, Mademoiselle Grenford, with her light brown hair pulled back into one of the unloveliest coiffures he had ever seen and her thick glasses concealing rather fine eyes. He had thought her a mouse and had tried to overwhelm her with his masculine authority, honed by years as undisputed master of a kitchen. “I shall be in charge, of course, mademoiselle,” he told her. “I am a trained chef and a man. Madame Pearce shall lead in her own kitchen, but both kitchens shall answer to me.”
“The two kitchens shall operate independently, Monsieur Fournier,” the little mouse replied calmly. “Each of you shall be responsible for your own kitchen, its staff, and the food it produces.”
Whatever arguments he raised, however loudly, she just repeated the same thing. When Marcel Fournier was displeased, sous-chefs made themselves inconspicuous, apprentices cried, and kitchen maids fainted, but Mademoiselle Grenford just repeated, “The two kitchens shall operate independently,” until he ran out of ire, and came to bed.
So what now? Should he tell the duchess that he would not take the commission? Did he continue to agitate to be master below stairs? Or would he cede the field and with it the lucrative rewards of the handsome fee he was being paid and the opportunity to impress potential clients for the restaurant he would one day open when his savings grew sufficiently?
Put like that, there was little choice. The English had a saying about cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. He preferred his nose to continue in its current position. Well then. In the morning, he would concede, and he would do so with flair. Madame Pearce would be grateful for his magnanimity. Mademoiselle Grenford would be impressed at his generosity.
Since he was staying, he would inspect his kitchen again. He had some ideas for improving the layout. He would note them tonight and instruct the little mademoiselle in the morning.
Marcel found his slate and some chalk and threaded through the dark halls. His candle threw insufficient light in the cavernous space that would, in less than a month, be a bustling centre for gastronomic excellence. He retraced his steps to Mrs. Pearce’s deserted domain and retrieved a whole box of candles.
Two hours later, his slate covered with notes and his head full of plans, he went to return the box. In the morning, he would astound the little mouse with his brilliance! But he stopped at the kitchen door. There, enveloped in a shawl over her nightrail, with her hair cascading over her shoulders, was Mademoiselle Grenford herself, her elbows on the table, a cup clasped between two hands.
Hot milk, perhaps? He could have made her hot milk, with a touch of nutmeg and perhaps a hint of honey to sweeten. Perhaps he should offer.
No. He would not disturb her.
Marcel took the image of her back to his room. She was a sweet little mouse, was Mademoiselle. Out of his orbit, of course. He hinted to clients of his elevated family, brought low by the revolution. The claims were fantasy. He had been born in a noble household, as he claimed, but his father was a valet, and his mother a dairy maid. La Grenford really was a lady of the nobility, and from a ducal family at that.
But he could ease her way in this coming house party, and he would.
As he prepared for bed, he imagined her expressions of delight as guest after guest complimented her on the fine cuisine and the smooth running of the dinner service. The large, comfortable bed would do very well for the month he would be in residence. Yes. The decision to stay was an excellent one.
He reached over to douse the candle but stopped. What was that noise? There it was again. A squeak? Had he conjured mice with his thoughts of the little mouse lady? But no, it was not a mouse squeak. More of a…
In seconds, he was out of bed and zeroing in on his travelling trunk, from which the sounds came, and what he saw there sent him running to the kitchen.
“Mademoiselle, you must come. You must come immediately. It is an outrage.”
She looked up and blushed scarlet. “Monsieur! Your…” She turned her head away.
He looked down. He wore his shirt to bed, and nothing more, except a night cap against the cold. Coloring himself, he backed out the door. ”I will dress, Mademoiselle. But quickly, and then you must come. A minute. No more.”
Soon, with the cap shoved under a pillow and his shirt tucked into hastily donned pantaloons and covered by a banyan, he stood beside the lady looking down into the trunk, where a scrawny white cat fed a litter of newborn kittens. Inside his luggage. On his chef’s caps and aprons.
“It is an outrage,” he repeated a little helplessly. The cat was watching them through eyes slitted with the joys of motherhood and purring loudly enough to wake the household.
“This is Cristal, the housekeeper’s cat,” the mademoiselle said. “Mrs Stanley will be pleased that you found her, Monsieur Fournier. She was worried.”
“Found her? Worried? But she…” Running out of words, he scratched the cat behind one ear, and she purred more loudly.
“You keep an eye on her,” the mouse commanded, “and I shall find a box in which to move her. Do not worry, monsieur. I will see to it that your garments are laundered in the morning, and they shall be good as new.”
And she whisked out of the room, leaving him guardian of the feline and her young and in possession of the memory of an exceedingly trim pair of ankles.
A Suitable Husband is a novelette written for the 2016 Bluestocking Belles box set, Holly and Hopeful Hearts. Read more about the set and find buy links on the Belles project page.