A Regency lady searches for her missing shawl and makes a delightful discovery.
|"I wonder where my shawl can have got to?” Lady Noel mused.
She had made the most of a sunny interlude between April showers to take a walk in the rose garden about the manor. Unfortunately, the rain returned with typical unpredictability and she had hurried back indoors looking forward to ringing for a tray of warming tea to be brought to her whilst she finished the shawl that she had been crocheting. Upon entering the sitting-room, she was astonished to find her workbasket empty. There was no trace of the sea green, delicately worked shawl that she had spent hours creating.
She had hoped to have the shawl finished for tonight’s dinner party as it would have complemented her gown so well. Her friend, Mrs. Endford, had given her the pattern and she had been looking forward to showing Mrs. Endford her completed handiwork.
For the umpteenth time, Lady Noel checked under the armchair with is gilt legs ending in griffon feet. There was no sign of the shawl there, nor under the worktable or side tables that furnished her sitting room.
Lord Noel was out riding and she could not believe one of the servants had taken up the shawl. Still, she rang for Mrs. Early, the housekeeper, just to make sure.
Whilst she waited for Mrs. Early to appear, she called to her spaniel, Topsy. She was astonished that her dog did not dash over to her as usual. Topsy was normally eager for attention and never missed an opportunity to be made a fuss of. Lady Noel frowned in puzzlement as Topsy paced the room, occasionally stopping to scratch at the rug. Lady Noel reprimanded her, surprised by this odd conduct in her normally well-behaved dog. Perhaps she was jealous of Rufus, the other spaniel, who had ridden out with Lord Noel.
“Have you seen the shawl that I have been working on, Mrs. Early? I left it with my workbasket, yet now it has gone. I thought perhaps one of the servants might have been in here and moved it?” Lady Noel asked when the housekeeper appeared.
“Not that I know of, Ma’am. The housemaids have been busy with their needlework mending the household linens these last two hours. The kitchen staff are hard at work preparing dinner and Mr Smith and James were busy looking over the wine glasses and silver when I passed the butler’s pantry.”
“How odd! I do hope the shawl is found soon. You don’t suppose there is anything the matter with Topsy? She’s been behaving strangely of late and has grown oddly plump.”
“It will be the cream that the dairymaid gives her most likely, Ma‘am. She’s such a muddle-headed girl. I’ve told her time and again not to feed Topsy. She just can’t resist giving the dog a bowlful of cream when she comes fawning with that handsome feathery tail of hers wagging faster than you can whisk eggs.”
Suddenly the door was opened by Jenny, Mrs. Early’s niece, who had been taken on as a still-room maid earlier that week. Jenny was loving her new job helping to prepare cosmetics and distill medicines and flower waters to scent the linen. Ever curious, she liked concocting new recipes with the herbs when her aunt wasn't watching. Mrs. Early always gave her strict instructions to follow the recipe guidelines that she gave her. In the morning she helped Mrs. Early to set the breakfast tea trays for Lord and Lady Noel. She was only just beginning to remember where all the breakfast things were kept in the well-stocked still-room.
Seizing her chance as Jenny left the door open, Topsy scurried out.
“Aunt Esther, I wondered whether I should add some apples to the chutney mixture? Mother always does at home,” Jenny asked Mrs. Early.
Mrs. Early turned to Jenny with her hands on her hips. "No, there's no need for that, Jenny. It might spoil it. Just follow the instructions that I gave you.”
Jenny made to reply but Mrs. Early hurried her away, curtseying to her ladyship. She thought that her niece still had a lot left to learn.
Once they were safely out of earshot of the sitting-room door, Mrs. Early berated, “what do you mean by coming in like that? You know you aren’t meant to enter the upstairs rooms when the family are there without an invitation, and certainly without knocking.”
“I’m sorry. I only wondered…”
“You do too much wondering, my girl, that’s your problem. If only you had less of your fanciful ideas and could keep your mind to your tasks then you’d find them far easier. Now, perhaps you could help me get up a tea tray for her ladyship. Then I’d better search for that missing shawl.”
In the still-room, Mrs. Early busied herself rummaging through the pile of best table linen in case the shawl had somehow found its way into there. “Funny. I’m sure the table cloth for the card table is missing. I remember seeing it on top of the pile, waiting to be washed.”
“I wonder if Prudence took her ladyship’s shawl thinking it was a table cloth for the card table. She’s been making the drawing-room ready for the guests, " Jenny suggested.
“I doubt it, Prudence is a sensible lass. She didn't get to be head housemaid for nothing. Now instead of loitering about wondering where that shawl is why don’t you get on with that tea tray. Remember, Lady Noel likes warm cream with her coffee.” Mrs. Early waved her niece towards the dresser where the containers of expensive tea and coffee for the family were kept.
Jenny dragged a stool towards the still-room dresser, its legs making a grinding screech over the flagstones. Mrs. Early huffed in exasperation.
“I wonder what they’ll be having for tea back home? Jim will be back from his carpenter’s apprenticeship. I do hope he’s done well. I bet Mother will make him something special. Perhaps it’ll be a pound cake. Though I’m sure it won’t taste as nice as these seed cakes that you’ve made her ladyship. Shall I help you with the Savoy cake after I’ve done the tea tray?” Jenny asked, reaching for the cake tin and a couple of plates.
“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Early replied hurriedly, still in a flurry as she searched through the last of the linen cupboards in case the shawl had ended up in there.
Jenny guessed from her aunt’s distracted air that her search had been fruitless. “Perhaps her ladyship took her shawl up to her room and forgot she’d left it there?”
“I doubt it but I’ll look there.”
Jenny grabbed Mrs Early's sleeve as she turned to leave. “What’s that noise?”
“I can’t hear anything,” Mrs Early said.
Jenny pursed her lips in concern. "It sounds like something scratching. I’m sure I heard whining too.”
“Most likely the wind. Now, have you done that tea tray?”
“Yes.” Jenny presented the laden tray to her aunt for inspection, feeling proud of herself. “This is how I do it at home. Everyone has their own way,” she said to break the silence.
The colour drained from Mrs. Early's face as she stared at the tray in Jenny’s hands. Plates and bowls were stacked on top of each other with the fruit bowl balanced on top. One plate held a loaf of bread with the bread knife stood up in its middle. Cutlery was piled like an unruly catch of sardines about a jug of coffee set on the pristine white serviettes. The cakes were mixed with the cold meat and pots of pickles on the three-tiered cake stand.
“Honestly, Jenny, what can you be about! If that had gone up to her ladyship you’d be in trouble. You must make the sandwiches up ready, never expect gentry to do it themselves. As it is I hardly know what to do with these cakes now they’re spotted with pickle. Just look at those napkins covered in spilled cream! I’ll set out another tray myself. You get on with grinding the sugar for the cakes.”
Crestfallen, Jenny fetched down the sugarloaf from the shelf. She unwrapped the thick brown paper and broke off enough sugar for their baking using sugar tongues. Once she had got a pile of sugar lumps she rolled a bottle over them until the sugar looked like sand and was fine enough for use.
Mrs. Early looked flustered as she returned from seeing her ladyship.
“What’s wrong?” Jenny inquired.
“Topsy’s gone missing. Her ladyship and the butler have been searching high and low. The dog didn’t even appear for her dinner and you know how greedy she is.”
Jenny was distraught for she was fond of the pretty, cheerful spaniel.
“I’ll fetch my cloak and bonnet and go and search in the grounds,” Mrs. Early said.
Jenny caught the mysterious sound again. A mewling this time. It sounded like it came from behind the servant’s staircase. “I wonder…”
“No Jenny, I can’t do with more of your wondering. Now get on with making that cake. I expect the mixture to be done by the time I get back.” Mrs. Early bustled away, the keys on her chatelaine making the familiar jangling that haunted the corridors of the servant’s quarters.
Jenny paused, her arms aching from whisking the egg whites to a stiff snow. The sound came again, louder this time. She was sure it was a dog.
She scurried into the servants' hall, peering under the staircase. In the corner was a furry bundle. A grin lit Jenny's face. “Topsy! So you’ve taken her ladyship’s shawl.”
The dog was snuggled into a nest consisting of the shawl, the table cloth from the card table, and the dairy maid’s spare apron. Jenny gasped, noticing that Topsy was not alone. Nestled beside her were five tiny puppies with sweet stubby noses and stumpy tails.
“Oh, how lovely!” Jenny laughed, clapping her hands and reaching out to stroke the velvety soft puppies.
“Jenny, what on earth are you doing under there?” Mrs. Early peered over the banister.
Mrs. Early was joined by Lady Noel. Her eyes twinkled with amazement. “Topsy, I never thought I’d see you again. Now I've found not one spaniel but six! Look at those adorable puppies! Thank you for finding them, Jenny.”
“I’ve found your shawl too, Ma’am, though I’m afraid you won’t be pleased to see it as the puppies have been chewing it and it‘s a right state.” Jenny held up the ruined shawl which now looked more like a cobweb it was so full of holes.
Lady Noel laughed, proudly fussing over Topsy and the puppies. “No matter! It’s a delight to have Topsy back and to see her beautiful pups. I'm so relieved that you looked for her there. I would never have thought she'd hide under the staircase.”
“I was wondering how you’re getting on with the shawl that I gave you the pattern for. I notice you're still wearing your cashmere tonight,” Mrs. Endford said, settling beside Lady Noel after dinner and inclining her head towards the snug wrap draped about her shoulders.
“I would have finished it had it not been for Topsy’s puppies playing with it. It’s quite unravelled.”
“Puppies! Oh, how wonderful. May I see them? You know how I miss my beautiful Molly so much and I would like Pip to have a companion now that she’s gone.”
Beaming, Lady Noel rang for Mrs. Early to bring in Topsy and the puppies. With tears in her eyes, Mrs. Endford picked one out to take home once it was old enough.
“For once Jenny, I’m glad that you got to wondering,” Mrs. Early smiled.