Times -- Ch. 08


May You Live in Interesting Times

Chapter 8

Abigail was up fairly early in the morning, planning her first ‘At Home’ when a delivery was made to the kitchen. Delilah came up and told her that her order from the tinsmith was here. Abi hurried down to the kitchen, and decided that what she had received was perfect for its intended use. She immediately had half the kitchen staff go to the icehouse and break off blocks of ice, enclosing the blocks with cloths, and then using hammers, heavy pans, or other implements to smash the ice.

Meanwhile, Delilah and another undercook started making a mixture in the smaller tins. Cream, some milk, sugar, and a berry flavoring were put into the tins in what Abi hoped were the right proportions.

“You cannot add ice to this,” Delilah said. “I understand that this is river ice, and it will contaminate the food.

“We will only use the ice to chill the mixture,” Abi said. Put the lids on the tins, and give them a good shake to mix them up well. Then put them into the big pot, which we need to move into the icehouse.

The crushed ice was poured into the big pot, and came a third of the way up the sides of the tins. A heavy layer of salt was then poured onto the ice, and the staff went back to crush more ice. Another layer of ice, then another layer of salt, to the dismay of Delilah at the expense of the salt. Finally a third layer of ice went on top, taking the ice to the level of the mixture in the tins.

“Now we leave it,” Abi said. “Every hour have someone go in to stir the contents of the tin, until you no longer can. A couple hours after that it will be ready. Hopefully in time for my ‘At home’. Make sure you have some other goodies for the ladies, in case I got the mixture wrong, or it doesn’t turn out.”

“What is it?” the cook asked.

“Have you heard of ice cream?” Abigail asked.

Delilah gasped. “I thought only the king’s cook knew how to make that,” she said. “How did you ever learn to make it?”

“In Italy, but they call it gelato there. I was lucky enough to make friends with a cook in a chalet, and he showed me the secret.”

--- - ---- -

Diana Villiers, Duchess of Buckingham, glanced at the house her carriage had pulled up at, with a look of distaste in her mouth. She considered the Duke of Spritzland to be a disgrace to royalty, and had no intention of going into the house, even though she had gotten a beautiful invitation from someone named Lady Abigail Currie, sister to the Earl, who Diana understood now owned the house.

“Jonathon! Go up to the house and see if there is a package for me there,” the Duchess said to her footman, who jumped off the rear of the carriage and walked smartly up to the door. At the door, the doorman invited him in, and then went to Abigail in the grand room.

Abigail came out, and spoke to the footman: “Yes, I do have a package for the Duchess, but I would really like if she could come in for it. I want to confirm that everything in it belongs to her.”

The footman went back to the carriage and explained to the Duchess. The woman in the carriage looked up at the slender, but busty girl standing at the entrance, and her curiosity got the better of her, and she allowed the footman to help her from the carriage and up the steps.

Abigail told the footman to take the carriage around to the stables at the side, and ushered the Duchess into the Great Room. Diana was surprised to see three other great ladies there: two Duchesses, and a Countess. All had small bags and were searching through them. Abigail seated the Duchess in the best chair, and then took a stool herself after handing the woman another bag. The Duchess opened it, and found her necklace on the top: it was the first one that Joe had pulled from the sand, and was actually worth £250, Abi later learned. The Duchess pulled it out and immediately put it on, with Abi helping her with the clasp. She put the lesser necklace into the bag, and sniffed as she embraced the girl: “The Duke bought me this when he was courting me,” she said. “How could I refuse a man that would have something like this made? And he was one of the highest men in the land, after the King, of course.”

“I’m glad you have it back,” Abi said. “When the Earl and I managed to get hold of it, there was no question but that we would return it. The other items in the bag are all the ones with the same jewelers mark on them. Let me know if there any other jewels that were also taken.”

“There were quite a few pounds in coin taken,” the Duchess said. “Were they recovered?”

“Unfortunately no,” Abi said. “We understand that the gang would spend all the cash money on drink and women. The jewels were too well known to be pawned or sold locally, so they were kept until the Michaelmas Fair. Then out of town pawners would buy them for a fraction of their value, and sell them to jewelers in other cities who would remove the marks and resell them.”

“Pity. Anyway, I am glad that gang is gone,” the Duchess said. “They deserved to die.”

“Yes,” the Countess said. “I couldn’t sleep well while they were still alive, for fear they would come to my house and rob us of the rest of our valuables. Thank you for dispatching them, Lady Currie.”

“What? You are the girl who killed the entire gang? That was the talk of the town for a few days. I imagined it was another girl: less refined then yourself,” the Duchess said.

“Well, I only killed two. You see, all of the money we used to buy this house and refurnish it was on the carriage, so we would have lost everything if the robbers had succeeded.” Abi pulled her dagger out from within her gown (which was the special one with the keyhole neckline, requiring the weapon to be located in a holster at her back). “I always carry this, so when the leader of the band jumped down to see the gold, I slit his throat. Another one on a horse had a gun, so I threw the dagger, expecting to hit his arm. But he turned to aim, and the dagger went into his side, killing him.”

“What did your brother the Earl do during this?” the Duchess said. “Hide in the back like the Duke did when we were attacked?”

“Oh no,” Abi said. “He was quite gallant. He fought two swordsmen at once until the guard got into the action, and then they each fought one. The guard killed his man, and then stabbed the other, when he tried to surrender. The guard was having none of that.”

“How exciting,” one of the other Duchesses said. “I also was bothered by the coach being robbed. My husband is one of the investors in the coach line, and he was much worried that the robberies would curtail the service. He said sales went up after the gang was gone.”

Abi saw Delilah at the door, and nodded in response to the cook’s questioning glance.

“I have a little treat for you all,” Abi said, and four maids brought in plates containing what Abigail thought of as ‘finger food’: small pieces of bread with a meat paste on top, cheese, and some sweets. But the important thing was the six bowls presented to the visitors, Abigail and Gabrielle, who was present, but saying nothing. She knew she was too young at 12 to converse with such ladies.

“What is this?” the Countess asked. “Some sort of pudding? But the dish is so cold.”

“As is the food,” Abi said. “It is ice cream.”

“No?” said the Duchess. “I had ice cream at a summer event three years ago put on by the King. “But this tastes better. His was plain … I think this has berries in it.”

“Very much so,” Abi said. “I got the recipe in Italy when we were coming home. I hope you like it.”

“I must hire your cook,” the Duchess said between spoonsful. “This is delightful.”

“Delilah? Are you still there?” Abi called, and the cook entered the room, stopping at the door.

“The Duchess would like to talk to you,” Abigail said.

“You must come work in my kitchens,” the older woman said. “I will double the salary the Earl pays you. You start tomorrow.”

“I am sorry milady,” the cook curtseyed. “I am most contented to be working for the Lady and the Earl, and have no intention of moving to another position when they treat me so well.”

“We will treat you well, for a servant,” the Duchess said and the last three words told Delilah she was right in turning down the offer.

“But I … I mean … I will go as high as triple the normal cook salary,” the Duchess said. The cook shook her head ‘no’.

“That is all, Delilah,” Abi said and the cook quickly left the room.

“You will lend her out when I have a party?” the Duchess asked, almost commanding.

“Well, I understand that the King considers the recipe to be a secret,” Abi said. “I wouldn’t want to upset him be spreading it about. Perhaps when things are settled down.”

That turned the conversation around to the troubles, which is what Abi had hoped would happen, and the women spent the next quarter hour gossiping about what they had heard. The Duchess was a staunch Cavalier, but Abi and the others did not voice their allegiance, leading the girl to assume that at least of few of the others followed Parliament.

Eventually the ladies had to leave. Apparently they had other At Homes to visit, and with the jewels, the conversation, and especially the ice cream, they had spent twice as long with Abi as they expected. Joe was sent to get the carriages, and soon the guests were gone.

“Thank you for allowing me to observe your At Home,” Gabrielle said after. “And especially thank you for the ice cream. It was wonderful. Mother stopped having At Homes when father started pawning things, and before that I was too young.”

“No problem, sweetheart,” Abi said. “Now I know you don’t like going down into the kitchens, but if you come down with me, there might be another dish of ice cream.”

“Actually, I like the kitchen, but mother says it isn’t proper for a Lady to be down there. But you are a Lady, and you go all the time. I like to see all the hustle and bustle, and tasty things being made. I will go with you.”

They headed down the stairs, where the silver dishes from the At Home were carefully being cleaned so that Delilah could lock them back up. “What are we to do with the rest of the ice cream?” the cook asked. “We used only two tins. The rest are still in the icehouse. Will they keep?

“Probably not,” Abi said. “Joe, run out and tell all the men to come in for a treat. I think there will be enough for everyone to get at least a half bowl. And make two full bowls for Gabrielle to take up to her mother.” The Duchess had skipped the At Home, due to her embarrassment over her husband’s situation, but she deserved a chance to sample the treat. And Gabrielle was ecstatic at the chance to have a second bowl.

The men and servants from elsewhere in the house came in shifts when they could, and each got a few spoonsful of the new wonder food. They were amazed that their Lady thought enough of them to allow them to taste food that was normally considered a treat for princes and nobles. If they were not bonded tightly to Abigail and the house before today, they certainly were now.

---- -- -- -- -

Delilah had to make a special order for the next two days, getting in more cream and milk, and especially salt. Normally salt went into food and recipes a pinch or spoon at a time. But ice cream meant cups and cups of the stuff to cover the ice.

“Milady,” Delilah said as she was making out her order. “We should look into getting a few cows. The staff said the house had four living in the back fields before they were sold. It would save on the expense of the milk and cream. And if there is extra, we can sell it off.”

“That is a good idea,” Abi said. “Does it mean hiring a milk maid?”

“No, apparently the milk maid from before is still here. It was her idea. She says that there are four stalls in the barn behind the horse stables. The area needs to be well cleaned: milk making requires total cleanliness.”

“Put her to work on it, and make her take a helper. She will need another who can do her work on her day off. Will this leave us short in the kitchens?” Abi asked.

“Perhaps we could hire one more,” the cook said. “The helper will only be gone for one day a week. We will have no problems finding someone good. All the staff in the city want to work here, now that we have holidays and the ability to court.”

“Make it happen then,” Abi said.

“That brings up another point,” Delilah said. “I was wondering if you might want to hire my beau for a gardening staff. He is assistant at the Kwinter house, but he would accept any position here.”

“I will hire him based on your recommendation,” Abigail said. “I have an idea, but I will have to talk it over with Edward, the old gardener first. I don’t suppose your man will be able to come for an interview before Michaelmas, will he?”

“No milady,” Delilah said. “The Kwinter’s don’t allow any time off. John will work until the end. I will see him at church, perhaps he can dart in then for a little.”

“That will work. I want Edward to speak to him, and see if he is up to the job, and at what level.”

------- ------

The rest of the At Home’s went about the same as the first one. After that first week, Abi dropped back to only having an At Home once a week, but was collecting a pile of ‘carte de visites’ 1 inviting her to At Homes held by other ladies. She tried to go to four or five a day on the four days when she was not holding her own, making for a busy week, but getting in touch with many people and able to track many opinions about the troubles was the goal of her mission. Of course, she realized the attraction of society wasn’t her sparkling personality, but the chance to get invited back to her At Home’s where the famous ice cream was served.

Abi had a meeting with Edward the gardener on Saturday, and she sat the old man down. She told him she had a new gardener coming in the next day, and she wanted to see if he would be able to replace Edward as the head gardener.

“So you’se gonna let me go ‘en?” the old man said. “Out on der street after o’er 50 years workin’ dis house?”

“No,” Abigail said with a chuckle. “You should know that William and I are not like that. But with over 50 years you have done your part, and it is time to pass the torch … er, shovel on to someone younger. This fellow is assistant gardener at Kwinter’s, and might be ready for a managers job. But you will not go out on the street, as you say. Your room here, and your meals, will continue for as long as you live. It is called retirement, and you have earned it. You will get half pay as well.”

“I knows the master over at Kwinters,” Edward said. “He do a good job, and his assister is pro’ly good too. But I cans stay?”

“Of course. The place wouldn’t be the same without you,” Abi said. “Besides, if the new man passes muster, then he will still be able to draw on your experience. You just won’t be digging, cutting or any of the hard work.”

“I’se kin talk with the lad, I s’pose,” Edward said.

John appeared after church the next day, and the old man spent over an hour with him. Edward would describe a plant or tree disease, and expect the younger man to tell him what it was, and how to cure it (or not, in a few trick cases, where the correct answer was to cut the tree and burn the wood to prevent the disease spreading). At the end of the session, Edward went to Abigail.

“Lad knows ‘is stuff,” the old man said. “’E’ll do, awright. Are you sure I ain’t got to leave now?”

“No,” Abigail said. “I was talking with Bentley, and she says you live in a bit of a suite, with your two young daughters.”

“Gran’dawters,” the old man corrected. “They’se mum works acrost town at a V’count’s house. I got ‘em in here a cupple yars back.”

“Yes. You can stay in that suite, at least until one or both the girls marry. I understand that both of them have suitors from the stables.”

“Aye,” Edward said. “Good lads, both of ‘em. If they has little ‘uns, I best get a small room, and give the big one to them. It’d be nice to have weebies about.”

“And I’ll bet you make a great grandpa to them,” Abi said. “We’ll start John after Michaelmas.”

The old man left to go back to his gardens, and Abi sought out Delilah, giving her specific orders for Michaelmas. There was to be a cake, and a batch of ice cream that would be entirely for the staff. The celebration was a retirement party for Edward, and a welcome to John and the other new staff that would be starting that day.

  1. A carte de visite (French for visiting card) is an innovation of that time that followed the At Home. Basically, you left a card if you visited and missed the meeting. As well the cards could be used as an invitation to return.

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