Esther takes the opportunity to establish connections and source of information
Presenting myself in the kitchens, I was quickly met by a woman who could only have been the cook. She was of my height, but of a girth that spoke of someone who spent much of their time around food. After giving instructions to a member of her staff, she quickly turned to me.
“You must be the Lady’s maid. Don’t tell me she wants something special?”
“Oh, no. My mistress has very simple needs. On the contrary, she instructed me last night to come down first thing to compliment the cook staff on the meal.” Although the instructions were a lie, I believed it was one that would quickly earn me the confidence of the cook.
“Oh yes. She said she was quite surprised to find such quality of cooking in a country estate. She would have thought it only possible in London.”
“Well, I believe in putting on a good feed. Thank your ladyship and I hope she continues to enjoy our fare.”
“I’m sure she will.” Turning to leave, I halted and turned back to the cook. “If I might ask a favor?”
“Ah, here it comes. Some special diet?”
“Oh no, as I said, the Baroness has simple needs. No, might I spend some time in your kitchen. I will endeavor to stay out of your way.”
“That’s a strange request. Checking on my cooking?”
“No, far from it. It is rather silly, I should leave.”
“Well, it’s on the table, what is it?”
“I ask this favor only for myself. I love the smell and activities of the kitchen. When I was at school at the convent, we students had to perform many of the tasks associated with maintaining the school. The nuns believed that, although we would be ladies, that we should understand the labors of others that serve us.”
“I like that.”
“More than many of my fellow students, I assure you. But my favorite duty was the kitchen. It was ruled by Sister Angelica. She was of the fiercest demeanor. But, I soon learned she had a most kind spirit. She would sneak sugar treats to us girls. Always with the warning, ‘Don’t tell the Mother Superior, she’ll think I’ve gone soft.’ ” I gave an imitation of what I believed an old nun would sound like which got a grin from the cook. “Anyway, she said that cooking for others was one of the miracles she was able to fulfill.”
“Cooking may be difficult, but it is no miracle.”
“Oh, but she said it was. She said that the miracles performed by our Lord while he was among us were of two kinds. He healed the sick and he fed the people. She said she was not capable of healing, but she could, and I quote, “Take a lump of dead cow and let people taste heaven.”
At that the cook laughed and I could sense a change in her demeanor.
“She sounds like a right hilarity.”
“She was, we all suspected her demeanor was a mask. So, when I smell kitchens, I am reminded of both her and the mercies of our Lord in feeding his flock.” As this was a Quaker home, I believed that a religious theme would be agreeable.
“In that case, you are welcome to stay. You know, I was about to sit down for a bit of my own meal. Would you like to join me?”
“Thank you, but that would be too much. I do not want to bother you.”
“No bother. Skinny thing like you look like you could use some to eat.” Now she sounded like my Aunt who was always concerned of my weight. Sitting down, I was treated to the type of plain meal of bread and cheese that was the norm growing up.
“I know it’s not fancy, but I came from simple folk and still enjoy a simple meal. The name’s Anne Hawthorne, by the way. But call me Annie, everyone does”
“My pleasure Annie. I’m Esther Adams. Please call me Esther. And I quite agree. Even my lady enjoys small meals as opposed to the grandeur of court meals.”
“Must be wonderful to be at the Court.”
“As only a baroness’s maid, I don’t often get the opportunity.”
The cook’s face reflected her disappointment. Remembering the Baroness’s advice about servant’s wanting to hear gossip from London.
“However, my employer does enjoy the friendship of many influential members of the court, so we are often there for less official occasions.”
“Ah.” Her attention was back with me. I slowly ate my meal and waited for her questions. “So, who’ve you met? Have you met the King?”
“It would be disrespectful of my lady and her friends to mention any names.”
The cook let out a breath and was clearly disenchanted. This was the reaction for which I had hoped. “However” leaning over, I took her hand and then looked furtively around. “as you have been so kind to me, I can tell you that it is some of the MOST influential individuals.”
“Do you mean the King?”
Leaning back and feigning innocence, “I could not confirm that matter … but neither could I deny.” Adding a sly smile at the end.
“Oh. Yes of course, you couldn’t speak.” She stopped and thought before speaking again. “What of the Queen? Have you met her?”
Wiping my mouth before answering. “Given the nature of the Baroness’ friendships, it is considered by most at court to be better that the two not meet.”
“Oh.” Realizing what I had alluded to, the cook’s eyes grew wide. “Oh! Yes, that would not be a good idea.”
Again, smiling coyly, “You can make of it as you want.” While never saying anything, the impression that I had let this state secret be known seemed to have won the friendship of the cook.
“Is that why the lady was sent north?”
“Not entirely. There were some in court that felt she was using her position to promote radical ideas.”
“I’d never thought a noble would be radical.”
“My lady appreciates her position, but she also believes what our Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount, that we should take care of those who are not as well blessed as her.”
“Oh yes, she has been particularly adamant about the abolishment of the slave trade, which she sees as an abomination, and the cause of Irish independence. She sees no reason why someone who just happens to have estates in Ireland has more rights than her tenants who live there.”
“She is quite the radical.”
Raising my eyelids, I tried to show a slight disapproval as would be expected based on my family’s loss of fortune. “Of yes, in the last few years, she has been quite enamored of the writing of the American radical, Thomas Paine.” I had noted the Baroness reading him during our ride up from the Ruins.
After a few more moments with the cook, I had established a friendship that I believed would serve our mission. Stating that I had to attend to her ladyship, I took my leave with the promise to return.
As usual, I found the Baroness still asleep, so I prepared the fire to warm her tea and wash water. Taking up the book I had been reading, I awaited her wakening, which she did after a half hour.
“Good morning, Ma’am. Did you sleep well?”
“Not badly.” Handing her a dressing gown robe, I prepared her tea and set out the tray that Annie had insisted I take with me for the Baroness. The Baroness seeing the fresh bread, cheese and meat had to ask.
“And what have you been up to, Esther?”
“Ma’am. I had a most lovely time with the cook. She reminds me very much of my Aunt.”
“That’s lovely.” The Baroness tone was one of disinterest.
“She also provided me a great deal of information about the local area.” Which got her attention. I explained to the Baroness my conversation with the cook and how I might have hinted she was intimate friends with the king (‘Not far off’) and were a great supporter of the Quakers efforts at abolition and Irish independence (‘I don’t know that I ever really thought about either of those.’). “The cook was also very helpful in telling me where I might go to sketch the local fauna.”
“Lovely, but how is that helpful in our mission.”
“Because, Ma’am, she also told me where not to go.” The Baroness showed renewed attention to my account. “As she put it, ‘Frightful things have been seen there. Many think that there is a barghest around. Now a nice girl like you have naught to fear, but I would hate to have you experience the hell-dog.’ I thanked her and told her I would take her warning to heart.”
“Which is to say?”
“If you’ve no need for me today, Ma’am, I believe that your coachman and I should witness the local countryside.”
I was not sure if the Baroness’ silence was a good or bad omen. Then she smiled.
“Esther, you are amazing. We have been here no more than a day and you already have both a direction and plan for investigation. By all means. I’m supposed to ride with the young Mr. Simmons and meet his parents for lunch out on the estate. After that, we will be shooting. So, once you have helped me dress, I believe I have no more need of your service until late. Please inform Mr. Riley that he is to be of your service.”
Finishing her breakfast, the Baroness added. “Now you be careful out with that rake, Mr. Riley. I’ve no desire to lose my favorite maid and companion because she is with child.” At which point, I must have turned a bright red, because the Baroness laughed uproariously.