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Who Knows Upon What Soil They Fed Their Hungry Thirsty Roots?

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The first news the kitchen officially received was from a footman, sent with the Lady Braybrooke's apologies for the lateness of the news, but there'd be four extra guests for supper.

The first news the kitchen actually received came far earlier, of course, when a harried John Barker the groom had met Sylvia the second kitchen maid. She had been sneaking in a small break when she ought to have been slicing up the sheeps' brains for the fritters for the servants' dinner, and he'd been leading a truly magnificent stallion down the path towards the stables.

Consequently, by the time the liveried footman politely knocked on the kitchen door, Mrs. Avis Crocombe was already quite aware that the shooting party had returned to Audley End House counting two young gentlemen and two young ladies more than when they set out that morning, and she had already fetched one of the two remaining Gâteau de Pommes from the pantry and sent Annie Chase off to fetch a basketful of chestnuts from the gardeners, making sure that the scullery maid knew to come straight back and start the messy process of getting them ready for the soup that would be added to tonight's menu.

”Fortunately,” Mrs. Crocombe observed to her first kitchen maid, Mary Ann, ”tonight only a light supper has been requested, as we sent a most generous picnic lunch along with the guns. It will be a simple matter to add a few extra dishes, especially as it is in the French style.”

”Yes, Ma'am.” Mary Ann nodded without looking up from where she was carefully slicing the oxe palates which Annie had been tasked with soaking, scraping and – under careful supervision – braizing earlier that day. The curry sauce was already waiting in the stewpan.

”It is Mrs. Warwick and her staff who will have a hard job of it, what with them already being so stretched and those four turning up without as much as a groom between them, let alone a maid.”

”Yes, Ma'am,” but neither of them really doubted that the housekeeper could handle the extra visitors. Unexpected guests were an eternal hazard of country life, whether it be a party of less-than-experienced boaters sailing the River Cam during the summer holiday - which the Lord Braybrooke, being himself a hereditary visitor for a Cambridge college, always felt obliged to offer a bed for the night - or, on one memorable occasion when a coach got lost in a blizzard on the way to the nearby train station, the entire complement of coach passengers as well as the coachman.

Though, of course, none of those guests had been of the sort to require a spare lady's maid.

”Do we know who they are, Ma'am?” Sylvia enquired without taking her attention away from the things on the stove. She was in enough trouble for sneaking out already – best not to risk adding to Mrs. Crocombe's wrath by letting anything burn or stirring less than briskly.

”Not as of yet, but I'm sure Mr. Lincoln will know. Now you best keep that cream from boiling and stop gossiping about Lord and Lady Braybrooke's guests.”

”Yes, Ma'am. Only – that stallion John was leading – I could have sworn the bridle was all silver...”

”Don't be silly, girl. Silver bridles aren't for a day's hunt. That's the sort of thing you bring out for weddings and funerals. You must have been seeing things.”

”Yes – yes, I suppose I must have been,” the kitchen maid agreed after a moment, having decided that there were a great many things about that stallion that she'd been seeing, which it might be best not to mention to Mrs. Crocombe right then and there.

***

”I do not believe I'm familiar with the family,” Mrs. Warwick said once she'd finished chewing on the last piece of palate. ”Are they newly moved to Essex?”

”They never quite said,” Mr. Lincoln replied. ”They never quite stated exactly where they live, either, but the young Mr. Gentry volunteered to ride to their house in the morning, if we could spare him a groom for company, to fetch some necessities for his sister and their friends.”

”Most kind of him, I'm sure,” Mrs. Warwick nodded, ”but that still begs the question of which house that might be. I could have sworn I knew of most of the better houses within a day's ride.”

”They will be staying for the remainder of the weekend, then?” Mrs. Crocombe enquired, mentally starting to recalculate how much she'd need to have prepared for that evening's dinner.

”Yes, Lord Braybrooke invited them to stay until the family leaves for London after the weekend. I believe he felt that his daughter and Miss Willoughby might benefit from some more – youthful society.”

”Ah,” said Mrs. Warwick and that was the end of that.

***

The next day was – as all days are when they fall on a shooting weekend – a busy one.

The guns and guests were fed a solid breakfast – Mrs. Crocombe having made certain that there were plenty of kedgeree and devilled kidneys – and ventured forth accompanied by servants and a light picnic lunch, as rain clouds hovered dark and dreary and made promises of a shorter day's hunt. Which would consequently mean a bigger dinner was expected.

Mr. Gentry set out somewhat later than the guns. John Barker had been volunteered by Lord Braybrooke to accompany him and though he handled the gelding he'd been generously allowed to borrow very well – one usually reserved for the Lord's guests' use – it appeared a challenge for him to keep up with the young gentleman's stallion.

There was a minor issue with the maids – one of the senior house maids had been assigned to assist Miss Gentry and her friend, Miss Huldra, but there was some issue which lead to a complaint about the girl. What exactly was the matter seemed unclear – the girl herself claimed merely to have offered to assist Miss Gentry with her hair and held up a pair of scissors as evidence – but the end of it was that the lady's maid Mrs. Augusta Strutt had brought with her to tend her and Miss Willoughby's needs was assigned to Miss Gentry and her friend instead.

Then there was the matter of the butter. Mrs. Crocombe was just putting her maids to work when Fanny Cowley, the dairy maid, arrived herself with a basket of less than the usual day's supply of butter.

”I don't understand it, Ma'am,” she told Mrs. Crocombe. ”I think perhaps some of the cows must have gone off their feed, and you can be sure I'll be having words with the cowkeeper. Somehow, half the pans of milk produced almost no cream. Why, one of them produced none at all. If I didn't know better – and believe me, Ma'am, I double-checked every window and door to see if some hole had developed – I'd have thought one of the cats had gotten in.”

Still, matters were handled. Mrs. Crocombe and her staff turned out an excellent feast for the Lord, his family and guests. Venison featured prominently, as did various smaller dishes appropriate to the time of year – roast larks, as the ladies had brought down several for sport, were among them. The planned chocolate pudding, which would not have been nearly as suitable for the upstairs table without cream to accompany it, was quickly swapped for a nice cabinet pudding made in a mould decorated with wreaths of leaves to give it a nice, autumnal aspect.

At some point between the marrow toast and the spitchcocked eels the footmen going to and fro could report the return of the young Mr. Gentry, and steps were taken to bring what had been brought up to the guests' rooms. (Around the same time, John Barker was caught by a fellow groom as he toppled from his utterly exhausted horse and was carried to his bed, where he fell into a deep sleep from which even the most insistent jostling failed to wake him.)

Last, but not least, two apple hedgehogs were sent up with the footmen and the dinner was complete.

***

At the end of the servants' dinner it was not an uncommon sight to see young Edgar Ashman, the third gardener, lingering over his dessert. He was a young man of healthy appetite and – it was occasionally said in jest behind his back – if he had been head gardener in his own right, he might very well have been putting his best foot forward towards Mrs. Crocombe, that's how much he clearly enjoyed her cooking.

Which is all to say that Edgar was still sitting, having only just finished his slice of chocolate pudding, when Mrs. Crocombe came walking by carrying not one, but two large, covered baskets. Naturally, Edgar was on his feet instantly, politely offering his assistance.

”Thank you, Edgar,” Mrs. Crocombe said. ”That's very kind of you. Yes, you may take the larger basket. We're going to the kitchen. And then, if you'd please run along and fetch Mr. Vert for me? Tell Susan I'm sorry to have to steal her husband away in the evening, but I have need of his professional expertise. Oh, and Mary Ann,” this naturally addressed not to the young gardener, but to the kitchen maid who was holding the door to the kitchen open to let the pair of them in with the awkward baskets, ”please fetch Mrs. Warwick for me as well.”

Having settled the baskets on the kitchen table and dispatched her two messengers, Mrs. Crocombe found herself a chair and sat down to wait. Mrs. Warwick could be expected reasonably shortly, but the gardeners lodged, as was both proper and practical, out by the gardens and so a little wait was to be expected.

After a moment she decided it would be inhospitable of her to merely sit and wait, and so she got up and started to prepare some tea for her expected guests. When Mr. Vert, the head gardener, trailed by Edgar, arrived as the last, consequently there were cups of tea for the both of them and a plate of cintra fritters to nibble on.

”So, what's this about, Mrs. Crocombe?” Mr Vert asked as he put down his empty cup.

She nodded towards the baskets.

”I was summoned by Lady Braybrooke after dinner. As it turns out, Mr. Gentry brought what's in those baskets as a hostess gift, and Lady Braybrooke feels that it would be a suitable sign of her gratitude if it's used for tomorrow's dinner.”

”I assume, as you took the trouble to ask for my presence, that we're in the vegetable realm?”

”I believe so.”

”Let's take a look, then,” and he pulled the cover off the nearest basket.

It was filled with – something that might possibly be fruit.

Possibly.

At first glance, Edgar noted a fair number of things that he would not otherwise have associated with fruit. Some of the things inside the basket appeared to be covered in fur or scales. Others had hair or wavy fronds like something he'd seen growing under the water in one the ponds. And yet, as he peered closer, he did notice that – while certainly most strange at first glance – most of the things in the basket did appear to have roughly the size and shape of fruit, and he noticed the stalks on several of them.

Mr. Vert reached out and picked up one of the larger possibly-fruits. It was a light purple and had stubby, scaly fronds and looked utterly unsuitable for eating.

”I assume the second basket contains more of the same?” Mr. Vert asked, taking out the knife he habitually carried for testing the fruits of the garden. Once Mrs. Crocombe had nodded, he sliced into the fruit, and beneath the shell what must be the edible flesh appeared, white and speckled in a manner that reminded Edgar of a ghostly strawberry.

Mr. Vert sniffed it, then cut free a tiny bit and tasted it.

”Sweet,” he eventually pronounced.

Mrs. Crocombe and Mrs. Warwick both took that as their cue to similarly reach out and investigate whichever fruits they picked. Once you cut into the various strange skins, the flesh beneath revealed a riot of colours – some pale, some red or green or brightest yellow – and flavours that by turn were decreed sweet or tart.

Edgar daringly reached for one of the remaining unclaimed types – small and scaly like some sort of serpent's egg, but the skin gave way easily and revealed what almost seemed like a pair of over-sized cloves of garlic. Yet when he bit into the pale flesh the taste was fresh, somehow sweet and sour at once.

Not to be outdone, Mary Ann snatched one of the strange little hairballs and tasted the pale flesh beneath.

”I think,” Mr. Vert eventually said, picking up half of a brightly green fruit covered in brownish fur, ”that this is what's called a Chinese gooseberry. I am in regular correspondance with a lodge brother from the Free Gardeners, who is employed by a family which used to have connections to the East India Company, and he's mentioned growing something quite like this in the family's hothouse.”

”Did he mention what it might be useful for?” Mrs. Warwick asked.

”Jam, I suspect,” said Mrs. Crocombe, taking the fruit and poking at the green flesh. ”I suspect several of these would make lovely, colourful jams.”

”I do believe his letter spoke of jam,” Mr. Vert nodded. ”Though he wouldn't have sent along a recipe.”

”Pity. Alas, I doubt there's time to write a letter to the cook of that household and make my inquiries,” Mrs. Crocombe said, then sat for a moment before getting a determined look on her face. ”But as I said, I suspect several of these might do for jams or maybe a nice ice cream, if the dairy maid has any cream to spare tomorrow. And some might do well in a pudding, though – outside they look quite horrid, but once you slice them open they are – remarkably pretty.”

”Yes, Ma'am,” agreed Mary Ann, absentmindedly pushing a few bits of spare fruit around on a plate, making and unmaking colourful patterns on the white porcelain.

”It would be a shame to hide it all away entirely. I shall have to give that some thought,” Mrs. Crocombe continued, frowning. ”Oh, but it's gotten late. Thank you all for coming and forgive me. I know we'll all be dreadfully busy in the morning, what with a house as full as this.”

”Do not apologize,” Mr. Vert offered as he touched the brim of his hat, ”or, if you must, if you would do me the favour of saving any seeds or stones of each of these? Preferably marked so that we'll know which is which. Edgar, before you leave, I want you to sample a bit of each of the sliced fruits, and then write down your observations about all of them in your notebook. If His Lordship or Her Ladyship turn out to be partial to one of these fruits, it will be useful to have a record of them.”

Soon the senior servants had retired, leaving Edgar sitting at the kitchen table scribbling and nibbling on brightly coloured fruit, while Mary Ann busied herself with sorting the untouched fruits by type and putting them away in the pantry for the night.

***

In the morning Mrs. Crocombe settled down with a cup of tea to leaf through her recipe books, both the Acton and the Francatelli.

Really, she should have sat down and done this last night, but the hour had been late and besides, she had had a letter to write to a certain Mr. Stride, a butler employed in a house close to Lord Braybrooke's London home, with whom she had been amiably talking for a few months now.

In the end, neither author had anything to say of Chinese gooseberries or the sundry other mystery fruits of presumably Indian origin. Not that she had expected them to. She would simply have to improvise.

She was interrupted in her studies by Fanny Cowley, who was quite possibly even more distraught than yestermorn.

”I don't know what's happening, Ma'am,” she said. ”There's barely any cream risen at all. I've hardly got enough for a day's share of butter, let alone anything for your cooking.”

Mrs. Crocombe eventually settled the matter for the day by instructing the dairy maid to walk to a nearby dairy farm and to take Jimmy the houseboy along for company and to help carry her purchases.

The matter of dairy being settled to her satisfaction, she turned her attention elsewhere and put her kitchen maids to work on the fruit, slicing and dicing as seemed appropriate. Some she decided to use for jams – the bright green of the Chinese gooseberries would make a pretty jam – and she put Sylvia to work turning some of the tiny hairball fruits into an ice cream. Others she decided to try in a curry dish instead of apples, as the fruit seemed to call for an Eastern theme in general, and for the odd snake-skinned garlic-clove-looking fruit she decided to take a few, wrap them in suet crust and make dumplings out of them.

Finally, she put aside a small selection of the most bright and colourful of the fruits, and put a pineapple fresh from the hothouse and a couple of pomegranates next to them. Then she went on the hunt among her pots and pans and moulds, eventually selecting one of the largest moulds in the kitchen.

It was a slow and repetitive process she had in mind, and even as she started she was not entirely certain she had time to do justice to the work. And yet – she sliced and arranged bright coloured fruit, poured the aspic on, carefully flavoured with a touch of wine, and sent Annie Chase back and forth to the ice house, staggering under the weight of the slowly filling mould. Sometimes she'd carefully sprinkle in a few pomegranate seeds in the half-set jelly, trapping them like so many drops of blood.

When the mould was nearly full, the task of carrying it back and forth became enough of a burden that the scullery maid had to be rendered assistance by the houseboy.

The final unmoulding ended up requiring the aid of a couple of Mrs. Warwick's strong-armed laundry maids, while two footmen looked dubiously on, painfully aware of who exactly would soon be expected to bring the creation to the table.

It was a riot of colour. Slices of fruit suspended in carefully set bands, pomegranate seeds like dazzling red stars behind them. The entire thing seemed like a fantasy palace, like something fit for a Maharajah or perhaps Titania herself. Mrs. Crocombe carefully placed fresh hothouse flowers around it on the large plate, then added a few candied flowers on top for decoration.

Then she took a step back and surveyed her work critically.

”That will do,” she decided, then added, ”You best be careful bringing it to the table.”

The two liveried footmen who had been awaiting that very order sighed and stepped forward.

***

Sunday dawned at about the usual the time of day, but several of the staff were already up and at work. Fires had to be lit, breakfast had to be prepared for both above and below stairs, carriages made ready to take the family and their guests to the local church, and pretty much everything needed to be packed in order for the family to catch the train back to London in the late afternoon.

Everything, in this instance, included Mrs. Crocombe and her staff, who would be expected to catch an earlier train in order to make sure a reasonable dinner were to be had by a travel-weary Lord and Lady Braybrooke.

Mr. Gentry and his companions, it was reported by the footmen, made their excuses while breakfasting on kippers and cold venison pie. Regretfully, they would not be able to go to church with their lovely hosts, who had been so very hospitable and provided their good neighbours with such excellent, soft beds and such delicious food. Half promises of return visits hadn't even half finished being made by the time the house boy was dispatched to let the coachman know that the guests' steeds should be made ready to leave at short notice.

As it happened, Mr. and Miss Gentry and their party stayed long enough to wave goodbye to the family and the guests heading to church. As they rode off, the very first toll of a distant church bell could be heard, carried on the wind.

Nobody was around to notice, but it was at that very moment that John Barker opened his eyes for the first time in more than a night and a day. He sat up, pushing back a stray lock of hair that hadn't been grey last Sunday, and for a moment he tried to recall the dreams he had dreamt. Then he noticed how brightly the sun was shining and, realizing he'd overslept, though not for a moment imagining by exactly how much, he leapt from his bed and hurried downstairs to the stable, hoping to avoid a scolding from the coachman.

It was hours later – after the family had returned and lunched – that it was discovered that Miss Willoughby, who had declined to go to church, pleading a mild indisposition of the feminine sort, was not in her room or drowsing in the sofa in the library. A search of the house, then the stables – as the lady was fond of going riding – and then the entire estate ensued, as it is hardly considered proper to allow young, unwed ladies of the better class to go astray while visiting your house.

The entire thing carried on for hours before it was finally determined that Miss Willoughby was utterly unfindable. Alas, by that time the train for London had long since left, and it was decided that it'd be better to spend another night at Audley End. In any case, the local constable would have to be summoned.

A telegram chased down Mrs. Crocombe and her staff at a station more than halfway to London. Fortunately, the transfer to a return train went reasonably smoothly, and it was to be ardently hoped that the family would be able to enjoy a decent supper, at least.

It was later than she would have preferred getting started preparations when Mrs. Crocombe finally found herself back at the kitchen of Audley End. Her kitchen maids, reasonably well-trained as they were, immediately got to work lighting the kitchen, while Mrs. Crocombe headed to the pantry to make a survey of what she had to work with. Not that she did not know the contents of her own pantry, but still – she had to start somewhere.

A flash of colour in an unexpected place caught her eye. She bent down and picked up what turned out to be a flower – and what a flower. As bright blue as an impossible sky and of no sort she was familiar with.

For a moment she looked at the flower, then she slipped it into her pocket and reached for a ham, deciding it would do as a start. Later that evening, as she finally sat in her room with a cup of tea, taking a moment of well-deserved rest before going to sleep, she remembered the flower and took it out, briefly worrying that it might have been crushed – yet there it was, whole and blue and of a sort unknown to her. She suspected that the flower must have fallen from the basket of fruit brought by Mr. Gentry and for a brief moment she was torn between regret that she had not found it somewhat earlier, as it would have made the perfect final piece of decoration for her aspic, and a selfish pleasure that she hadn't.

”Why, I suppose I should take this to Mr. Vert in the morning,” she said to herself, placing the flower between two pages of her own recipe book. ”Perhaps he might know what sort of flower it is. I'm quite certain he'd like to see this flower.”

Then she shut the book closed around the flower and put both it and herself away for the night.