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Excerpt: Death in Kew Gardens

Book 3: Below Stairs Mysteries (Kat Holloway)

September 1881

The Chinese gentleman ran from between the carriages packed the length of Mount Street and straight into my path. I had no chance—he emerged so suddenly and without my seeing him that I barreled directly into the poor man.

My basket full of produce slammed into his narrow belly, knocking from his feet. He landed on the cobblestones in a tangle of limbs and fabric.

I shoved my basket at my assistant, Tess, and bent over the unfortunate man.

“My dear sir, I do beg your pardon—you popped out so quickly.” I thrust my hands down to him, intending to help him to his feet.

Instead of accepting my assistance, the man cringed from me, his face screwing up in abject fear.

“Come now,” I said, softening my voice. “You can’t stay on the cobbles—they’re full of mud and muck.”

The man hesitated, still afraid, so I firmly took hold of him and hauled him to his feet.

He was small boned and light, easily lifted, but I felt strength under his garments. Once he was standing upright, I saw that he was a few inches taller than I, dressed in a silk robe that fell to his feet, the sleeves so wide his hands would disappear if he folded them together.

His round cap had fallen to the ground, revealing a head that was quite bald from forehead to the top of his skull. As though to make up for the lack of hair in front, a thick braid hung down his back to his knees, and a beard curled to his chest.

His robe was a deep blue, with birds and vines embroidered on the hem in rich yellow and green. The colors were muted from dust, rain, and London grime, but the garment must have once been lovely.

The Chinese gentleman finally lost his agitation and looked at me directly. He was not a young man, middle aged perhaps, though his hair and beard held little gray and his face bore only a few lines. But his eyes, which were dark brown, nearly black, contained a weight of years greater than my own, an understanding that comes from experiencing life, all its tragedies and triumphs. He had an air of supreme confidence that even falling to a London street could not erase.

This gentleman stared at me a moment longer before he tucked his hands into his sleeves, dropped his gaze, and gave me a slight bow. “Forgive me, madam.”

“Not at all,” I said briskly. “I knocked you over, sir, so I ought to apologize. Do take care as you walk about. The drivers do not go as cautiously as they should, and they can’t always stop their heavy drays in time. I would hate to think of you lying hurt on the street.”

He listened to my speech without blinking, though he transferred that keen gaze to my left shoulder. I sensed Tess behind me, gawping at the man with no sense of her own rudeness.

“Please accept my many apologies, good lady,” he said.

His manners were exquisite, such a refreshing change from those of men who had no intention of being courteous to a mere cook.

“No harm done,” I said. “Now, you must excuse me, sir. I need to walk past you, and there is very little room on the road today.”

The corners of the man’s eyes crinkled with good humor. As he bent to sweep up his cap, I saw razor scars on the top of his scalp from many years of shaving back his hair.

He gave me a final nod and darted off, moving swiftly between the carriages, around the corner to Park Street. I watched until he disappeared from sight then I took my basket from Tess, and we walked on.

“Well, that was interestin’,” she said in her cheery tones. “You don’t see many Chinamen in these parts. I’m surprised he’s allowed to walk in Mayfair.”

I shrugged. “He likely works for a family here, as we do.”

Even as I spoke, I felt a frisson of doubt. I’d been employed at the Rankin house on Mount Street long enough to have become acquainted with the servants in the homes around it, and none employed a Chinese gentleman.

Also, I did not believe he was a common laborer, as were many Cantonese who had come to London to escape poverty or war in their own country. While the gentleman had been afraid when I’d first knocked him down, he’d stood proudly on his feet, without the slump of shoulders of a menial. His faded robe had once been fine, the touch of the silk like gossamer.

“I’d never be Chinese,” Tess said, swinging her basket. “I hear their women stuff their feet into tiny little shoes.” She kicked out her long foot in its high laced boot. “Can’t work if you do that.”

“You couldn’t help being Chinese if your parents were,” I pointed out. “And the women in China from our walk of life work just as hard as we do.”

“If you say so, Mrs. H.,” Tess said. She crowded close and tucked her hand under my arm. “We’re packed in tight today, ain’t we? Her ladyship next door has no business inviting so many to her house for an afternoon. She’s ruined the whole street.”

Lady Harkness, wife of a knight of the realm, was holding a gathering today to show off her husband’s exquisite and unusual garden, full of plants he’d brought home from his years in the Orient. As it was September, most families of note were off in the country, hunting foxes or shooting birds flushed out by their servants, so but Lady Harkness still managed to fill her gathering. Her husband was decidedly middle class and possibly lower, said Mrs. Bywater, the mistress of my house, with a sniff. Sir Jacob been given a knighthood for services to the Empire, but he’d been born a tradesman in Liverpool.

Regardless of his beginnings, his wealth had brought him much prestige. The number of fine carriages that lined Mount Street and wrapped around the corner showed that his humble beginnings had been forgiven.

Not only did the waiting carriages jam up the works, but carts, wagons, and foot traffic served to clog the area further. Even the most elegant corner of London was a thoroughfare to somewhere else.

Mrs. Bywater was attending the garden party, in spite of her snobbishness about Sir Jacob and his wife. So was her niece, Lady Cynthia, with whom I’d formed a friendship. Both ladies wanted a look at the strange plants Sir Jacob had brought back from his many years in foreign parts. Lady Cynthia would tell me later about Lady Harkness’s do, most likely how horrifically wearying it had been.

For now, I had to get supper on the table for the family when they returned and for the entire body of servants—a dozen of us—who kept the Mount Street house running efficiently.

I entered the kitchen, exchanging coat and hat for apron, and began to sort through the comestibles, my encounter with the Chinaman fading to the back of my mind.

While Lord Rankin, a baron, owned the house where I lived and worked, he allowed Lady Cynthia, sister of his deceased wife, and her aunt and uncle, the Bywaters, to occupy the house while he dwelled in Surrey. Cynthia’s aunt and uncle had moved in to chaperone her, and also to keep her behavior in check—at least Mrs. Bywater considered this to be part of her duty. She and her husband wished to get Cynthia married off, out of harm’s way, but Cynthia, so far, had resisted.

The family had remained in residence through the sticky, smelly, uncomfortable London summer. Mr. Bywater always had much business in the City, and Lady Cynthia refused to return to her father’s house. Therefore, my duties had not eased during the hot months, and the kitchen had become like the devil’s anteroom.

Tess and I and the rest of the staff had sweated and struggled, our tempers short. A walk outside had scarcely brought any relief, as the heat enveloped the entire city. At least we were mercifully away from the river and its stink.

September brought welcome coolness and abundance as farmers began to cart in the harvest. Potatoes and apples gradually dominated the vendors’ carts, as well as walnuts and game from the countryside—partridges to venison. Mr. Bywater did not hunt or shoot, but he had friends who sent him whole birds or meat packed in paper and sawdust. Such a savings, Mrs. Bywater never failed to state.

One lesson the penny-pinching Mrs. Bywater learned, however, through the long, roasting summer, was that we truly needed a housekeeper.

Mr. Davis, the butler, and myself had taken on much of the housekeeping duties, but I was too busy cooking, Mr. Davis too busy tending to the wine, silver, and service at table, to take care of much else. Discipline deteriorated among the maids and footmen, and tasks did not get done. I insisted on a large share of the household budget for food, but Mr. Davis wanted it for the master’s wine and brandy. We quarreled frequently, and Mrs. Bywater lost her patience with us.

Mr. Davis told me, triumphantly, a week ago, that Mrs. Bywater had finally broken down and asked an agency to send her candidates for a housekeeper. She hadn’t found one she liked yet, but at least she’d begun the proceedings.

Until then, it fell to me to go over the household accounts, keep inventory of the food, supervise the kitchen staff, and cook until my hands were sore, burned, and abraded.

Tess had proved to be quite capable, learning what I taught her quickly, and was beginning to master recipes and more complicated cooking techniques. She’d been scrubbing floors before I’d taken her on—a sad waste of talent. She’d make a fine cook after more training.

I did not muse on my encounter with the Chinese gentleman the rest of that day, as I had much to do. The next day was also particularly busy, and by the time I prepared the evening meal, I was short tempered and exhausted. Mr. Davis blamed me for a missing bottle of wine—had I put it into my sauce by mistake?

When Charlie, the kitchen boy, spotted the wine behind a stack of greens, had Mr. Davis apologized and owned he’d been wrong? No, he’d sniffed, tucked the bottle under his arm, given Charlie a half-hearted clout on the ear, and stalked away.

I could only shake my head and return to my sauté pan, hoping I hadn’t ruined my sole in butter sauce. The butter had to brown, not burn, or the entire dish was spoiled.

Mr. Bywater liked his supper the moment he returned home, and we were a bit behind with the soup and greens. I thickened the soup with flour instead of letting it reduce, tossed in some cream and a good handful of salt, and sent it up.

Then Emma, the downstairs maid, spilled half my perfected butter sauce on the floor, and fell to weeping. I plunked the rest of the meal onto platters to go up in the dumbwaiter, told Tess to see to the staff’s supper, caught up a basket, and went out through the scullery.

Cool air touched my face as I walked up the stairs to the night, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I usually did not mind my life as a cook, but at times I found it trying. I reminded myself of the virtue of hard work and the fact that I was saving my shillings for the day I could reside with my daughter and run a little tea shop, the two of us living in bliss. Sometimes this vision helped, but tonight, peace eluded me.

In spite of my pique, I hadn’t forgotten those in more need than myself. My basket held scraps I’d saved from the meal—greens too wilted for the dining room, trimmings of cooked meat or fish sliced off for symmetry, fruit too squashed to look fine in the bowl, and dried ends of yesterday’s cake.

The few who gathered outside, knowing I would appear with my basket, swarmed to me with gratefulness. I handed out the food in pieces of towel that would have only gone into the rag bag.

A slim figure joined those in the shadows. I always met the beggars exactly between the streetlamps, where the darkness was greatest. The poor things feared the light, knowing they could be arrested for being unemployed and hungry.

I turned to the newcomer with my last bundle of scraps. “Now, sir, get that inside you, and you’ll feel better . . . Oh.”

I was surprised to see my Chinese gentleman from the day before. His long beard was a wisp against his robes, the blue of the silk black in the shadows.

He held out a box to me, a small wooden casket. “Please,” he said. “A gift for you.”

I held up my hands. “No, no, you do not need to give me anything.”

“You did me a kindness, madam. Allow me to thank you by doing one for you.”

“You are courteous,” I said, softening. “And I thank you, but I cannot possibly accept it. A gentleman does not give gifts to a lady, especially one he is not acquainted with. I am not certain of your customs in China, but in England, I am afraid that is the case.”

His eyes glinted as he raised his head, and I saw in them a flash of hurt. I felt contrite—I must have insulted him.

I gentled my tone. “Forgive me. I know it must be difficult being far from home.” I’d never been farther than Cornwall, and though I’d found it lovely, I’d longed to return to London with all my might.

To my concern, his eyes filled with tears. “Indeed.” The sadness in his voice tugged at me. “Very difficult.”

I put an impulsive hand on his arm. “My dear sir, I am so sorry. Might you tell me your name? Then you would know at least one person in London. I am Mrs. Holloway.”

He hesitated, gazing at my hand on his arm. I lifted it quickly, wondering if I’d just insulted him again.

“Li,” he said after a moment. “That is my name.”

“Excellent. Well, Mr. Li, now that we are friends, perhaps I can accept the gift you are so generously bestowing. As long as it is not too extravagant, mind.”

The box was small and did not look very costly, but one never knew what was inside boxes until one opened them.

“It is, as you say, a trifle.”

“If you promise,” I said doubtfully.

A smile pulled at the corners of Mr. Li’s mouth. “It is tea.”

“Oh,” I said, pleased. A good cup of tea was a fine thing. “Thank you, Mr. Li. You are kind.”

“It is you who are kind, Mrs. Holloway.”

I decided to end our effusion of politeness by taking the box. The wood was intricately carved but the box was light.

“There now,” I said, not certain how to gracefully take my leave. “I ever you have need of a friend, Mr. Li, I am the cook in the house yonder.” I pointed to it. “I am extremely busy most of the time, but if you do need help, do not hesitate . . .”

I trailed off, realizing I spoke to empty air. Mr. Li had slipped into the shadows as I’d pompously waved at the great house. I glimpsed him walking swiftly along Mount Street toward Berkeley Square, but I soon lost sight of him in the lowering mist. The beggars had taken their food and gone, and I stood alone.

Chuckling at myself, I tucked the box into my basket and returned home.

I left the basket in the larder, but the tea I took upstairs to my bedchamber and locked into the bottom drawer of my bureau. It was my tea, and I would not risk Mr. Davis happening upon it, and my gift disappearing down his throat.

In the morning, Sunday, as I was about to pour out the batter-like dough for the breakfast crumpets, Lady Cynthia rushed into the kitchen.

She did this often, as she found the company of her aunt and uncle stifling and many of their guests a bore. The accepted life of a spinster was not for her. She demonstrated this today by appearing in trousers—riding breeches to be exact—with boots to her knees and a waistcoat, long-tailed coat, and neatly tied cravat.

As she kept to her feet, I remained standing, as did Tess, Charlie, who tended the fire, and Emma, who’d come in to help convey breakfast to the dining room.

“I thought you’d like to know right away, Mrs. H.,” Lady Cynthia said. “There was a death last night. Sir Jacob Harkness.”

“Oh, dear.” I’d never liked Sir Jacob—what little I’d seen of him—but I felt a dart of sympathy. Sudden death was always sad, difficult for the family. “Poor man. Was he ill?”

“No, indeed. Fit as a proverbial fiddle.” Lady Cynthia’s voice was as robust as ever. “That’s why I’m telling you. He was murdered. Stabbed through the heart in his own bedchamber. The police are even now swarming the house next door, questioning everyone in sight.”

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