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Excerpt: Mrs. Holloway’s Christmas Pudding

Book 6.75: Below Stairs Mysteries (Kat Holloway)

December 1882

“Mr. Whitaker is very ill.” Mrs. Bywater’s words rang through the kitchen as my young assistant, Tess, and I cleaned up from supper and began preparing for tomorrow’s breakfast. “What on earth did you put in the plum tart, Mrs. Holloway?”

I turned abruptly, my fingers floury from the bread dough I’d been mixing.

Cooks were often the first to be blamed when a dinner party guest fell sick. Mrs. Bywater’s words stung me all the more, because a few years ago I had been accused of actually murdering an employer, though with a carving knife, before the details of the case had become known.

No matter what, such an allegation must be nipped in the bud.

“He did not grow ill from my cooking,” I said firmly. “I test every dish before it goes up, and Tess tastes them too. There was nothing wrong with the food.”

“And yet, my husband’s friend Mr. Whitaker became quite sick and had to be taken home to be looked after by his doctor,” Mrs. Bywater snapped. “Mrs. Whitaker is at her wit’s end.”

“I cannot help that, madam,” I replied, striving to keep my temper. “If the gentleman is ill, it has nothing to do with my meal.”

I spied Mr. Davis, the butler, who had entered the passageway outside the kitchen. As he stood behind Mrs. Bywater, he let outrage show on his face. He did not like servants being the first accused either.

Tess’s freckled face darkened, and I feared she’d pipe up in my defense. Tess had a very frank way of speaking, and her runaway tongue might get her dismissed.

We were interrupted by a click of heels in the corridor, and the next moment, Lady Cynthia Shires, splendid in a gray gown trimmed with black, swept into the room.

“Absolute nonsense, Auntie,” she said loudly. “Mrs. Whitaker herself says Mr. Whitaker’s doctor has treated him for weakness over the past few years. Besides, if Mrs. Holloway’s cooking had been the culprit, we’d all be rolling about in agony.”

I winced at her blunt way of putting it, but Cynthia had a point. One person was unlikely to eat the only tainted bite in a whole dish.

Mrs. Bywater pressed a hand to her slim waist. “I have been feeling a bit dyspeptic myself. I am certain it was the plum tart. Should have boiled those plums first, Mrs. Holloway, and in any case, kept them back for the Christmas pudding.”

I pressed my lips together to rein in a sharp retort. We’d had an excess of the fruit, which Mrs. Bywater had found at an agreeable price and spontaneously ordered several crates of. Plenty for the plum puddings for Christmas and New Year’s, she’d said.

In vain had I pointed out that “plum” pudding didn’t actually have any plums in it. Currants, raisins, citrus peel, and other dried fruits, yes—these held together with plenty of breadcrumbs, suet, spices, and brandy.

Mrs. Bywater said my notions were silly, and of course we’d have plums in the Christmas pudding.

As she was mistress of the household, I’d ceased arguing. I’d been trying to use up the plums in other ways, but Mrs. Bywater complained every time I served them that I was wasting them. Not that she didn’t eat an entire bowlful whenever they were put in front of her.

Though she consumed her food heartily enough, Mrs. Bywater was of a slender stature, with graying dark hair twisted into a simple knot. Her light-brown eyes stared into mine with the stubbornness of one who will not be told she is wrong.

“Mr. Whitaker’s illness came from elsewhere,” I repeated. I had a stubbornness of my own. “A sherry before his arrival tonight, perhaps. Or his afternoon tea.”

Mrs. Bywater gazed at me as though I were a simpleton. “It was never his tea, or his sherry. What a notion. Find out which dish was responsible, Mrs. Holloway, and throw anything left of it into the slop pail. I suppose it won’t even be fit for the dogs the coachman insists on keeping. If it was the plums, wash them and boil them down before you use any more.”

I should have curtsied and agreed to obey, but my legs refused to bend. I knew full well my preparations had nothing to do with any illnesses, though I also knew Mrs. Bywater would never believe me.

Mrs. Bywater gave a jerk of her head, as though finding me impertinent and defiant. “You should have more care for what comes out of this kitchen, Mrs. Holloway. Else you might have to find another to work in.”

Dealing that blow, which made my heart thump in fear and anger, she turned on her heel and tramped out of the kitchen. We listened to her stride down the hall to the back stairs and up them, every step emphasizing her disapprobation.

Once the door at the top banged shut, Mr. Davis stormed into the kitchen.

“Mr. Whitaker was already ill before he began to dine,” he said in irritation. “Hobbled in, dabbing at his forehead with a handkerchief, and groaned all the way through the meal. I hope he didn’t give anyone in the household his ague.”

“Mrs. Whitaker told us her husband’s digestion was delicate,” Cynthia said. “Didn’t stop the man from stuffing himself with everything on offer. Probably doesn’t eat half so well at home. Auntie tucked in quite thoroughly herself. If she’s dyspeptic, it’s because she laced herself too tightly before gorging.”

“Is Mr. Whitaker so very ill?” I asked, concerned.

“Yes, poor chap,” Cynthia answered. “He had to be carried out by two of the footmen and put into his carriage. Mrs. Whitaker is quite worried. It’s too bad—I rather like the man. ”

Life was precarious, and a chill or fever could carry one off without warning. Even if Mr. Whitaker was in the last stages of consumption, however, Mrs. Bywater would find a way to blame me. It was an ongoing battle between the two of us, Mrs. Bywater ever seeking an excuse to be rid of me.

“I will need to find out exactly what happened,” I decided.

“We know it’s nothing to do with you,” Cynthia said quickly.

I appreciated her loyalty, but her friendship wouldn’t help if Mrs. Bywater sacked me, which she likely would if Mr. Whitaker died.

If I lost my post, it would be a disaster. Most of the salary I earned went directly to my friends, Joanna and Sam Millburn, for the keeping of my daughter. If I had no way to pay Joanna, the Millburns might not have the wherewithal to look after Grace.

Cynthia knew this, as did Tess, though Mr. Davis did not. An unmarried cook with a daughter was not the sort of person Mrs. Bywater would let remain in her employ, so I had sworn Cynthia and Tess to secrecy.

I suppressed a sigh. “I will simply have to prove to Mrs. Bywater for once and for all that none of my dishes were tainted.”

Very annoying as I was especially busy with preparations for the upcoming Christmas dinner. Mrs. Bywater had decided the family would stay in Town this year, with Cynthia’s family traveling up to see her, instead of she going to them. I was glad of Cynthia’s presence, because I liked her and missed her when she went to her father’s estate, but it did mean more work for me and less time I could spend with Grace.

“Why should you have to prove it?” Mr. Davis began, jerking me from my thoughts, but Cynthia interrupted him.

“Because Auntie won’t leave off until Mrs. Holloway has thrown away every morsel in the house, which is ridiculous. She would then complain about the expense of replacing it all.”

“Course, we’d be rid of all them plums,” Tess murmured behind me.

Cynthia acknowledged this with a grin. “I’ll help, Mrs. Holloway. Glad to.”

She was kind to me, this fair-haired, blue-eyed earl’s daughter who defied convention, befriended a cook, and went about with her friends dressed in gentlemen’s suits. Her eccentric ways couldn’t hide a good heart or a quick mind, and I was forever grateful she had come into my life.

“Thank you,” I said with sincerity. “I’ll need to know exactly what Mr. Whitaker ate, and also what sort of illnesses he suffers from.”

“I can help with that.” Cynthia bounced on her toes in her restlessness. “Round up all your friends, Mrs. Holloway. We’ll rush about for you. Won’t we?”

She directed the question at Mr. Davis and Tess. Tess agreed eagerly, and Mr. Davis gave her a conceding nod.

“I will list the dishes he partook of,” Mr. Davis said. He turned and glided from the room, his footsteps quiet as he made his way to the butler’s pantry.

All your friends, Mrs. H.” Cynthia’s eyes danced. “Will you send for him, or shall I?”

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