As she took off her hat and gloves, Jessie MacPherson looked around the kitchen with a mixture of satisfaction and sheer terror. So this was her new empire. It was not that she was unused to large kitchens – she had worked in such places since the age of thirteen when she had left her home in Kirkcaldy and come to Edinburgh, to work as a scullery maid in a house in Randolph Crescent. But there, and in her subsequent places, she had always been at the beck and call of the cook, merely a humble assistant learning the craft. But now she was the cook, faced with a kitchen maid and a scullery maid who were eyeing her with the same nervous suspicion that she had once extended to her sometimes tyrannous overseers.
It looked to be an efficient kitchen, but first appearances could be deceptive. It felt reasonably cool, which was a good sign considering it was a June morning of dry heat outside. The walls were painted a strange but pretty shade of blue-green which set off nicely the copper ware that was arranged on open shelves and racks about the room. Carefully she noted the size and extent of this collection of pans. Everything seemed to be there from the great triangular kettle for poaching a turbot to the tiniest pan for heating a spoonful or two of sauce. The range was not smoking, she noted with relief, and seemed adequate for the size of the house. But ranges were tricky animals. She had never come across one which did not exhibit strange foibles, peculiar to itself. Above the range, on the brick chimney breast, was inscribed in dark letters the moral: “Waste not, want not”.
“You’d think it was a workhouse!” exclaimed Jessie. The maids looked startled, as if they did not understand what she was speaking about. “That motto – it’s like something out of a poor house, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so, missus,” murmured one girl uncomprehendingly.
“Oh, just call me Jessie,” she said, throwing her hat and gloves on a chair. “I may be the cook, but I’m no going to be pompous about it.”
The girls looked even more surprised, for the custom was to address the cook as if she were a married woman of mature years. But Jessie, who had just turned twenty-three, could not yet resign herself to the idea of being thought of like that.
“What are your names?” she asked.
“Effie, missus – I mean, Jessie,” said the elder girl. “And this is Annie.”
“Well, I shall need you both to help me get my bearings. Where are the store rooms?”
“Through there – off the scullery.”
She walked through the open door that Effie indicated into the scullery. Compared to the kitchen it was primitive with a gloomy view of brick walls from its window and that faint smell of damp dish rags, endemic to sculleries, hanging in the air. The lowest rack of the drainer was filled with breakfast plates, and stacked none too neatly by the sink were some unwashed dishes. Her arrival had obviously interrupted Annie in her first washing up of the day. With annoyance she saw there was no way of heating up water in there. All the hot water would have to be carried through from the kitchen.
So much for the scullery, she thought, and pushed open the door in the corner which apparently led to the larders. She found herself in a barely lit passageway with three doors facing her. The first, conveniently nearest the scullery, appeared to be the dry larder, with broad stone shelves bearing cheeses coyly sheltering under gauze domes, baskets of eggs, and, most strikingly of all, a vast white bowl grandly bearing the family device: a large black “L” with some sort of crest above it. The bowl, she discovered when she lifted the beaded muslin cover, contained nothing more exciting that some weary-looking milk which had been left to separate and had, by the look of it, been somewhat forgotten. But that grand “L” struck her, for now as she looked around the shelves she saw it was everywhere, even on the humblest butter dish. It was family pride taken to a ridiculous degree. The Lennoxes of Quarro obviously thought a great deal of themselves! She wondered what they were all like.
She turned to find that Annie had followed her into the larder.
“This milk is off,” she said. “You’d better get rid of it. In a few hours in this heat it’ll reek.”
“Yes, missus,” said the girl and staggered into the scullery with the great bowl.
In the next larder the meat and fish were kept and from these essential items she could begin to construct the evening’s menu. She took out her pocket book and made a few notes. There were some fine-looking sweetbreads and a handsome loin of lamb which would provide an entree and roast. But what of the fish? She looked inside the ice chest and found residing in solitary splendour a large salmon, wrapped in damp sacking, which seemed an ignominious fate for such a beautiful fish. She lifted it out and felt the weight and stiffness of it, for looks could sometimes be deceptive. But this fish was fresh and firm, muscled like a prize fighter from struggling against the wild torrents of the Tweed. Monsieur Auguste, the French cook for whom she had worked for the last three years, had never been able to decide whether he thought Tay or Tweed salmon the finest, but Jessie could only imagine that the best fish in the world was the one caught within walking distance of the kitchen. She had seen the river, for the road from the station had run alongside it. It had flashed and sparkled in the early morning sun, running swiftly over rocks which looked as though they had been tossed in by some careless hand. She had thought of salmon then, and now she held one in her hands, precious and heavy, like some great piece of silver. She placed it back in the ice chest and wiped her hands on her handkerchief. She took up her pencil and wrote in her pocket book: “Saumon Poëlé – beurre Montpellier?” She queried the sauce, because she had not yet inspected the vegetable store and kitchen garden. Herbs, those magic ingredients which could transform the simplest dish, had been both Monsieur Auguste’s delight and despair – the latter because of the reluctance of Scots market gardeners to grow the range of herbs that he had known in his mother’s sunny garden in Provence. In the end he had been forced to cultivate his own, growing neat tubs of sorrel, tarragon, rosemary and parsley in the tiny basement yard of the house in Randolph Crescent.
The vegetable store smelt sweet. It was easy to see why, for there were several large baskets of over ripe strawberries flooding the place with their unmistakable scent. Strawberry ices? she thought, for these strawberries were not pretty enough to send to the dinner table. They would have to make jam as well, to preserve what they could of this glut. It would be a disagreeable job on such a day. It was too hot for boiling cauldrons of sugar syrup but a few dozen jars of strawberry jam would be welcome in the bleak days of winter when the taste of fresh strawberries was a faint memory.
She turned her attention to the other vegetables. It was a reassuring sight. The kitchen garden was obviously in skilled and fastidious hands. There was asparagus, thick green and white fingers of it, touched with pink, as if they were blushing from the knowledge of their own quiet perfection. There were tiny carrots, tied up in elegant bundles like posies. There were lettuces, just unfurling their leaves and as complex as any rose. There were currants: black, white and red, beautifully presented on beds of leaves, like the many coloured blocks of annuals in a garden parterre. But most promising of all was an earthenware jug, stuffed to overflowing with parsley so that it created a neat green sphere, like a miniature piece of topiary. If there was such parsley, there was a good chance there would be other things and she decided to make a visit to the garden when she had a chance.
But now she would have to go and get changed. The mistress would be expecting her upstairs to discuss the day’s menu.
Effie showed her to her quarters which lay not in the attics as she might have expected but up a flight of stairs adjacent to the kitchen. Such were the privileges of being an upper servant, for there was privacy, even a certain luxury, in such an arrangement. It was true that the furniture was old-fashioned and plain, that the drugget on the scrubbed and stained boards was fraying in places and that the chintz curtains were so faded that it was impossible to guess what exotic colours they might once have displayed. But the fact they were bleached meant but one thing – that the room caught the sun. And it was full of sunlight now, for the light flooding though the tall sash and pretty circular window above it had shone right in her eyes when she had opened the door. It bore no resemblance to the chilly attics or the stuffy box beds she had endured in the past. It was big enough to pace about in. It had a bed broad enough for two and a little desk with a fretwork bookshelf above it. There was only a Bible on it at present but Jessie mentally filled it with her own small collection of books.
“Oh, I shall be happy here!” she exclaimed as she opened her box. At the top, carefully wrapped in tissue, was her favourite working dress that she had laundered and ironed at the end of a brief holiday in Dysart. It was nothing special, a plain blue-and-white-striped washing cotton, but Monsieur Auguste, who had an eye for such matters, had complimented her on it and had called her “ma belle cuisinière” when she had first worn it. She needed that glow of self-confidence now as she stood at the looking glass, buttoning on a fresh white collar and cuffs, for she had not yet seen the mistress, Mrs Lennox, and the idea of an interview with her made Jessie nervous. The consultation with those upstairs was something of which she had no experience. Her previous employers had been remote figures who never penetrated into the depths of the kitchen. But she was now the cook and was expected as soon as possible in the boudoir. A final glance in the glass confirmed that her cap was straight and she smoothed her apron with a gesture that was ineffectual but calming. When she had written out her menu, she went downstairs in search of someone who might point her in the right direction. She looked into what was presumably the butler’s pantry and found a white-haired old man bent over a table covered in various pieces of silver, one of which he was polishing intently.
“Er, excuse me, sir . . .”
He turned round and smiled.
“Welcome to the Quarro, lassie,” he said, laying down his polishing rag. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to meet you at the door but I was upstairs giving Sir Hector his coffee. You must be Mrs MacPherson.”
“Jessie,” she said. “And you are Mr Maxwell?”
“Aye, that’s right. Well, you’ll be wanting to go upstairs and see the mistress, won’t you?”
“Yes – if you’ve a moment to show me where to go.” “Come with me, lass,” he said taking off his green baize apron and pulling on his tail coat which had been hanging over the back of a chair. “You’ve got your menu, then?”
“Aye – do you need to see it?” she said, reaching into her pocket.
“Oh no, lass,” he laughed. “I was just checking you hadn’t forgotten. You wouldn’t want to get off on the wrong foot now, would you?” And he winked and smiled in such a kindly way that Jessie felt reassured about the forthcoming interview.
Mr Maxwell took her up a flight of dark oak stairs that were dangerously well polished.
“That’s the dining room through there,” he said, indicating one door as he opened another. “You’ll want to see that, I expect, when you’ve finished with the mistress. This is the saloon. This is where they have dances and such – it’s a fine room, isn’t it?”
The vast room was in semi-darkness as all the holland blinds were firmly down to keep the sun off what Jessie presumed was some very fine furniture.
“Very grand, yes,” she said. “But I wouldn’t feel comfortable sitting in here.”
“No, no, it isn’t used much these days. It’s a shame – you should have seen it when it was all lit up for a ball. Aye, that was a sight worth seeing … Here we are,” he said, for they had reached a door on the far side. “I’ll just announce you.” She heard him say, “The new cook is here, madam.”
“Send her in, Maxwell,” said a woman’s voice and Jessie, summoned by a smile from Mr Maxwell as he came out, stepped into the boudoir.
Jessie knew at once that Mrs Lennox was a fraud. She did not quite know how she knew, for she did not count her experience of the world or of human nature to be very great, but in her bones, in those first few moments, she knew that this employer of hers was not at all what she pretended to be.
It was true that like a well-dressed stage set all the props of gentility surrounded her as she sat at her little desk. The panelling was an attractive faded cream and there was some pretty china carefully displayed on the shelves on either side of the fireplace. It was a mixture of Chinese and famille rose as far as Jessie could judge, for one did not work in smart Edinburgh houses without washing up a fair amount of valuable porcelain. There was a pair of old armchairs, covered in pink and gold tapestry, and the flowers in the room had been carefully picked and arranged to reflect these colours. Mrs Lennox herself, perched on a chair at the desk, was as beautifully arranged, the striped white voile of her skirts falling in an elegant serpentine curve in a manner which struck Jessie as altogether too studied.
It took Mrs Lennox a full few moments to bother to turn and look at her new cook. When she did it was with a long, scrutinizing gaze which did not at all become her undeniably pretty face.
“MacPherson, is it?” she asked, glancing at a letter which she held and which, Jessie presumed, contained her references.
“Your references seem quite in order – but I see that this is your first post as a professed cook.”
“Yes, ma’am, but for the last three years I have been first kitchen maid for a French cook. I’m quite used to advanced work.”
“We shall see,” said Mrs Lennox in a tone which made Jessie quite mad. “We entertain a great deal here, MacPherson, very distinguished people who are used to high standards. I hope you appreciate that.”
“Of course, ma’am. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.” “Well, I shall give you a month’s trial. I think that is quite reasonable in the circumstances.”
It will be quite mutual, thought Jessie, wondering how she was to bear the high-handedness of such a creature. Why, she’s no different from me, except she’s done well for herself! For as she had spoken, in a drawling, affectedly languid manner, Jessie had heard quite clearly the remnants, although carefully suppressed, of broad Scots, the undeniable accent of small-town Scotland, a world which Jessie knew well for she had grown up in it. Mrs Lennox was, she judged, perhaps the daughter of a clerk or small shopkeeper who by her wits, her face and sheer good luck, had managed to marry well.
“Very good, ma’am,” she managed to say. “What are your orders for today?”
“We will be eight at dinner. We have guests coming down this afternoon. I have the menu here.”
Jessie glanced at it and suppressed a smile. It had the look of being copied straight out of Mrs Beeton, dull and entirely lacking in finesse. She decided to disregard it. She would make this jumped-up Mrs Lennox grateful to have her working there.
“Can you manage that, do you think?”
“Well, if you’ll forgive me for a moment, ma’am, I’ve already visited the larders and made up some suggestions. If you don’t mind my saying, this menu is not really suitable for what’s in season. I suggest, for example, potage a la jardinière, followed by . . .”
“Jardinière?” interrupted Mrs Lennox, repeating the phrase awkwardly in an accent which made Jessie wince. Monsieur Auguste had not only taught her how to make French sauces but how to pronounce them properly.
“Yes – it’s much nicer on a hot day than a brown soup like consommé, wouldn’t you say, ma’am?”
“Perhaps,” she said, sounding somewhat piqued. “What else do you suggest then, MacPherson?”
“Well, ma’am, for the fish – saumon poëlé au beurre Montpellier, for the entree – ris de veau a l’oseille.” Mrs Lennox’s face was blank. “That’s sweetbread with sorrel, ma’am,” said Jessie, confident now in her own knowledge and this woman’s utter ignorance. She carried on: “Then sorbet de champagne. For the roast – loin of lamb with rosemary. Vegetables – petit pois au laitue, pommes dauphinoise. And finally tartes de groseilles à l’alsacienne, crème aux fraises and a souffle à la vanille.” She was tempted to add “Ca va, madame?” as Monsieur Auguste had always said to her when she had looked puzzled. But such a joke could not be shared with Mrs Lennox.
“If that is what you regard as suitable, MacPherson,” the mistress said after a moment, “I can only hope that your ambition does not outstrip your capabilities.” She turned back to her desk. “That will be all. You may go.”
Outside Jessie did not know whether to curse or to cry. What an impossible woman! I hope it wasn’t a mistake to come here. She looked again at Mrs Lennox’s menu which she still held, examining the neat copperplate hand which was not very far removed from board school copybook. She recognized it, for her own had once been as regular, but years of scrawling recipes on scraps of paper in order not to forget some gem had made her writing less than legible. She would have to make an effort with that; it was another of her responsibilities to write out menu cards for the dining room.
Before she went downstairs again she went into the dining room to see where her food would be presented. She hardly noticed the grandeur of it as she considered the practicalities. At one end of the room was a door to a small servery, and beyond that, an ominous flight of steps up which all the food had to be carried. She went that way back to the kitchen, measuring the distance, a perilous draughty distance which could cool a dish or take the height from a soufflé. She would have to be careful about that.
A few hours later, she began to feel she had made good progress with the day’s work. Effie made a creditable job of the staff dinner while Jessie cooked asparagus and cutlets to send upstairs for luncheon. The stock pot was simmering gently, the sorbet was in the ice chest, and when the time came for the staff dinner, Jessie felt quite happy to take her place in the servants’ hall and relax.
The other servants returned to their work directly after dinner but Jessie remained in the hall with Mr Maxwell, enjoying for the first time the small pleasures of being an upper servant. Effie fetched them a pot of tea and while Jessie poured, she let Mr Maxwell elucidate the mysteries of the family “upstairs”.
“Of course,” he said, “things aren’t as they used to be. When I first came here there were fifteen indoor staff – now we have to struggle along. It’s a great shame that a grand old place like this can’t be kept up properly these days.”
Certainly the size of the servants’ hall, a large whitewashed room with a ceiling shaped like a barrel and a long oak table with places enough for twenty, suggested that the Quarro had seen better days. Mr Maxwell gazed around him at the empty places with the look of a man who has seen the glories of Rome and now sees only ruins.
“No, it’s not the same,” he sighed. “Not with Mr James away all week in Edinburgh working – it isn’t right that the eldest should have to work like that. Mr Andrew, yes, but the heir as well … I suppose he has to keep that wife of his in petticoats,” he added with a certain contempt.
“Mrs Lennox, you mean?”
“Yes – Mrs James. I think he could have done better for himself than that, but the girl obviously got her hooks into him. It wouldn’t have happened when the master was young – things were better managed. People knew their place then.”
“And who else is there?” she asked.
“Well, there’s Miss Elizabeth, the master’s sister – she’s been like a mother to Mr Andrew and Miss Celia since their mother went. A very religious lady, she is, very proper – a better lady you couldn’t ask to work for, unlike some I could mention.”
“I see,” smiled Jessie, organizing the ramifications of the family in her mind. “How old are Mr Andrew and Miss Celia then? Will I have visits to my kitchen for cakes and lemonade?”
“Well, Mr Andrew always has a good appetite – but he’s away at present, staying with some school friend in England. They’re both seventeen – twins, you see.”
“Do they look like each other?”
“Oh no, not at all. You wouldn’t know to look at them that they were brother and sister. I’ll show you a picture,” he said, getting up and going over to a large Scotch chest at the far end of the room. “Now, where did I put it . . .” he mused aloud, as he rummaged through a drawer. “Ah, here we are. This was taken on Mr James’s coming of age.”
The photograph showed a family group, with Sir Hector and Miss Elizabeth seated on chairs on a strip of carpet, the two children cross-legged on the ground in front of them, and standing behind, the young heir, the first growth of a moustache decorating his upper lip.
“No, they don’t look alike at all,” she said, for the boy was fair and ruddy-looking while the girl had straight, dark hair and an intense expression on her slender face. “I should reckon that she’s grown up bonny,” she remarked.
“Oh, aye,” said Mr Maxwell with great satisfaction, “she’s the image of her mother and she was a real beauty.” There was real wistfulness in his voice, as if he had once extended to his lovely mistress a more than ordinary respect.
She glanced up at the clock and laid down the photograph.
“I’d better get started if we’ve visitors. I shall want to impress the mistress – she didn’t seen quite convinced that I was up to the job.”
“I shouldn’t worry about her, lass,” said Mr Maxwell. “If Sir Hector likes what you send to the table, you’ll be all right. He’s still the master here.”
In the kitchen that afternoon, Jessie began to settle into a routine. Effie was not entirely the liability that she had first suspected her to be, for like many girls she had learnt to bake at her mother’s knee and if she knew no culinary refinements, she had a skill with cakes and pastry. Jessie showed her Monsieur Auguste’s recipe for madeleines and it was not long before there was a rack of fragrant little cakes cooling on the kitchen table, each plump, golden and scallop shaped. She broke one in half to let Effie taste it and watched with a certain pleasure as the girl ate it greedily.
“Not bad for a first try,” said Jessie. “I’ll show you a lot more before I’m done with you.”
“Oh, would you?” asked Effie. “Last cook we had wouldn’t tell me anything and wouldn’t let me do anything important. All I was allowed to do was make toast. Apart from the scrubbing, of course.”
“Why did she go?” asked Jessie, taking up the mandoline slicer and beginning to slice a cucumber.
“Mistress sacked her for giving her lip.”
“I shall have to watch what I say then,” said Jessie, “I’ll take my tempers out on this, or the meat pounder, instead of her!”
“Oh, aye, so long as you don’t take it out on me,” said Effie with the first show of real spirit that Jessie had seen her display.
“I’ll try not to,” she said. “Now, I think you’d better get on with the vegetables for dinner. The peas need shelling and I want you to put on one side all the big tough ones. Nothing bigger than your littlest thumbnail, mind.”
“Can we brew up a pot of tea, Mrs MacPherson?” said Maudie, the younger of the housemaids, coming in. “Just to catch our breath before the folk arrive. The mistress has been right fussy today. Anyone would think it was the Prince of Wales who was coming to stay.”
“Of course you can – any time you like. I like the company when I’m working. And please don’t call me Mrs MacPherson – I hate that. Plain Jessie does for me.”
“You’re a strange one, aren’t you?” said Jean, the head housemaid. “What are these, then?” she said, surveying the table where the plates for tea were laid out and pointing at
the madeleines. “Awful queer shape for a queen cake.” “They’re madeleines.”
“French, eh? I don’t know what the master will say to that,” she said, shaking her head and walking away.
Jessie did not rise to the bait. She knew that people were notoriously conservative about what they ate, and that a middle-aged Scottish baronet would be no exception. Monsieur Auguste had once told her that when he had first come to Scotland, he had found a kitchen maid boiling cabbage for several hours. “Mon Dieu!” he had exclaimed. “What a wicked thing to do. So I asked her, “Ma petite, what “as that poor chou done to you that you are so unkind to it?” When he had first told Jessie that story, she had been too young and ashamed to admit that her mother had taught her to do just the same.
While Jean and Maudie, the housemaids, sat and gossiped over their pot of tea, Jessie set up the tea trays. Over this she exercised a certain artistic licence, watching the quiet amazement of Jean as she placed a rose on top of a sponge cake and put a few flame-coloured nasturtium heads amongst the wreaths of parsley and watercress on the sandwich plates.
“Voilà!” she announced, when she had finished. “That should show madam upstairs what I can do! Is there any tea left in the pot?”