Some wives would move heaven and hell to find a good cook.
|"There will be an extra place for dinner tonight, Matilda," said Mrs. Chilton, "and I want no backtalk about thirteen being an unlucky number." She bustled over to her writing desk. "Dr. Chilton has been planning this dinner since— Oh!" She struck her thigh. "Why on Earth did I have Eliza tidy up in here? Now I can't find anything!"
She brushed past the cook and out of the parlor. Matilda—her heavy face as round and red as a beef-steak tomato—followed, her brow and mouth lowering darkly.
"I know it wasn't on the menu I gave you yesterday," Mrs. Chilton called behind as she swept into her husband's spacious study, "but Emma Turner's given me the recipe for a lovely custard. It's very easy to prepare so there's no use your glowering at me. I'll just write it down"—she snatched up a blank sheet of parchment and a fountain pen from her husband's desk—"and if you'll just pop round to the market— Oh!"
Black ink squirted onto the parchment. She glanced around, but there wasn't so much as a sheet of blotting paper at hand, and Mrs. Chilton—her hands fluttering— was reduced to glancing inside an ornate silver snuff box that she couldn't recall ever seeing before. She found it filled with a soft, black dust, and after a moment's hesitation she sprinkled some of it over the pooling ink. It soaked up the blot beautifully, and she shook the detritus into the grate.
If she noticed the pentagram embossed on the snuffbox's lid, it made no impression on her mind. But few things did.
"There it is." She pushed the list at Matilda. "Now I must get my hair done. I won't be back until three at the latest, but I expect to find things well underway when I do."
Matilda growled in the back of her throat.
"Well, it's your own fault!" Mrs. Chilton snapped. "If you hadn't scared Penelope into giving notice last week, you'd have help. Honestly, Matilda! People think that I'm demanding, but next to you I'm a pussycat!"
Then she fled before her nerve could fail entirely before her terrifying cook.
Thirty minutes later Matilda, a black bonnet on her head and a wicker shopping basket in the crook of her arm, was marching down the sidewalk. She squinted at her mistress's recipe as she walked, so preoccupied that she failed to notice that every horse as it passed her swerved and whinnied sharply. Instead, she muttered and glared at the paper. Her mistress's handwriting was growing worse every day, and as for the ingredients for this "lovely custard"—
The eye of a blind goat? The tongue of a bat?
She also failed to notice that the ink was darkening still on the yellowed parchment, and that other words—words such as "milk" and "tapioca"—were fading away to nothingness.
"Good heavens, what is that racket?" Dr. Chilton demanded as he stepped from the parlor with the afternoon paper in his hand. The walls were still rattling from a boom like artillery fire.
"Oh, Henry!" His wife flew to him. "It's Matilda! It was five o'clock before she got home from the market and she was in such a frightful temper! She only said that if I wanted that custard for tonight I should get out of her way!"
Dr. Chilton glared past his wife. "Perhaps we should think about getting a new cook."
"Oh, but Henry!" His wife put a hand to her gaping mouth. "I'm sure it's only on account of tonight's menu!"
"And what's wrong with tonight's menu?"
"Nothing! Only I did add a custard to it. And usually Cook is so ... so stolid! A mite mulish, perhaps, and unimaginative—"
"We can always find another cook."
"Not one with her solidity. Henry." She clutched him. "Remember Elmira and the fits she used to throw."
Dr. Chilton made a face.
"Very well, my dear. But tell Matilda she's used up her last chance. And if tonight's dinner doesn't go off—"
But it did go off. Despite all expectation dinner was rolled out at the appointed hour—excepting the custard which, Cook told Mrs. Chilton, hadn't turned out as expected—and consumed with great relish.
Would that the ritual Dr. Chilton wanted to perform in the study with his guests immediately after had been as successful!
"Oh, my dears." Mrs. Chilton sniffed at Mrs. Pultney, and dabbed at the corners of her eyes. "Henry has been such an ogre since the dinner party the other night. He— Yes, do take the last of the plum cake. Isn't it heavenly? But his friends have broken with him completely, and his club has revoked his membership. On account of— Oh, I don't understand his business. I only know something went widdershins at their last dinner."
"Didn't I hear he'd lost a valuable manuscript?" Mrs. Bradford said as she helped herself to a third seed cake. "Something with invisible writing they'd meant to decipher? I don't mean to pry, Gertrude."
"I really don't know." Mrs. Chilton sighed. "He had a most frightful tantrum that night, but I got nothing out of him except that he and his friends had been expecting an important visitor, who failed to turn up."
"Important visitor?" Mrs. Pultney frowned. "Emma Crackstone told me they were to interview a new secretary, and that your husband had lost his references. Or had otherwise failed to arrange for him to show up."
"Well, he says the subject is closed." Mrs. Chilton sipped her tea, then smiled into her cup.
"But things do have a way of working out. We have a new kitchen servant. Matilda brought him home from the market the very afternoon of the dinner party. He's rather frightening to look at," she added nervously, "dusky all over, and his eyes are very red, and he swears most profanely. But his cooking—as I'm sure you've noticed this afternoon—is divine!"
Prompt: "Satan's Palimpsest"