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The Girl at Cobhurst By Frank Richard Stockton Characters: 15584

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Two days after her lecture to Mrs. Tolbridge, Miss Panney was again in Thorbury, and, having finished the shopping which brought her there, she determined to go to see the doctor's wife, and find out if that lady had acted on the advice given her. She had known Mrs. Tolbridge nearly all that lady's life, and had always suspected in her a tendency to neglect advice which she did not like, after the adviser was out of the way. She did not wish to be over-inquisitive, but she intended, in some quiet way, to find out whether or not the letter about which she had spoken so strongly had been written. If it had not, she would take time to make up her mind what she should do. Kitty Tolbridge and she had scolded each other often enough, and had had many differences, but they had never yet seriously quarrelled. Miss Panney did not intend to quarrel now, but if she found things as she feared they were, she intended to interfere in a way that might make Kitty uncomfortable, and perhaps produce the same effect on herself and the doctor; but let that be as it might, she assured herself there were some things that ought to be done, no matter who felt badly about it.

She found the doctor's wife in a state of annoyance and disquiet, and was greatly surprised to be told that this condition had been caused by a note which had just been brought to her from her husband, stating that he had been called away to a distant patient, and would not be able to come home to luncheon.

"My dear Kitty!" exclaimed Miss Panney, "I should have thought you were thoroughly used to that sort of thing. I supposed a country doctor would miss his mid-day meal about half the time."

"And so he does," said Mrs. Tolbridge; "but I was particularly anxious that he should lunch at home to-day, and he promised me that he would."

"Well," said the old lady, "you will have to bear up under it as well as you can, and I hope they will give him something to eat wherever he is going."

Mrs. Tolbridge seemed occupied, and did not answer.

"Miss Panney," she said suddenly, "will you stay and take lunch with me?

I should like it ever so much."

"Are you going to have strawberries?" asked Miss Panney.

Mrs. Tolbridge hesitated a little, and then replied, "Yes, we shall have them."

"Very well, then, I'll stay. The Witton strawberries are small and sour this year; and I haven't tasted a good one yet."

During the half hour which intervened before luncheon was announced, Miss Panney discovered nothing regarding the matter which brought her there. She would ask no questions, for it was Kitty Tolbridge's duty to introduce the subject, and she would give her a chance; but if she did not do it in a reasonable time, Miss Panney would not only ask questions, but state her opinion.

When she sat down at the pretty round table, arranged for two persons, Miss Panney was surprised at the scanty supply of eatables. There was the tea-tray, bread and butter, and some radishes. Her soul rose in anger.

"Slops and fruit," she said to herself. "She isn't worthy to have any sort of a husband, much less such a one as she has."

There was a vase of flowers in the centre of the table; but although Miss

Panney liked flowers, at meal-times she preferred good honest food.

"Shall I give you a cup of tea?" asked her hostess.

The old lady did not care for tea, but as she considered that she could not eat strawberries on an empty stomach, she took some, and was just about to cast a critical eye on the bread, when a maid entered, bearing a dish containing two little square pieces of fish, covered with a greenish white sauce, and decorated with bits of water-cress.

As soon as Miss Panney's eyes fell upon this dish, she understood the situation-Mrs. Tolbridge had actually fallen back upon Kipper. Kipper was a caterer in Thorbury, and a good one. He was patronized by the citizens on extraordinary festive occasions, but depended for his custom principally upon certain families who came to the village for a few months in the summer, and who did not care to trouble themselves with much domestic machinery.

"Kipper, indeed," thought the old lady; "that is the last peg. A caterer's tid-bit for a hard-working man. If she would have her fish cooked properly in her own house, she could give him six times as much for half the money. And positively," she continued, in inward speech, as the maid presented the bread and butter, "Kipper's biscuit! I suppose she is going to let him provide her with everything, just as he does for those rich people on Maple Avenue."

The fish was very good, and Miss Panney ate every morsel of it, but made no remark concerning it. Instead of speaking of food, she talked of the doings of the Methodist congregation in Thorbury, who were planning to build a new church, far more expensive than she believed they could afford. She was engaged in berating Mr. Hampton, the minister, who, she declared, was actually encouraging his flock in their proposed extravagance, when the maid gave her a clean plate, and handed her a dish of sweetbread, tastefully garnished with clover blossoms and leaves. Miss Panney stopped talking, gazed at the dish for a minute, and then helped herself to a goodly portion of its contents.

"Feathers," she said to herself; "no more than froth and feathers to a man who has been working hard half a day, and as to the extravagance of such flimsy victuals-" She could keep quiet no longer, she was obliged to speak out, and she burst into a tirade against people who called themselves pious, and yet, wilfully shutting their eyes, were about to plunge into wicked wastefulness. She ate as she talked, however, and she had brought up John Wesley, and was about to give her notion of what he would have had to say about a fancy church for a Thorbury congregation, when the plates were again changed, and a dainty dish of sirloin steak, with mushrooms, and thin slices of delicately browned potatoes, was put before her.

"Well!" inwardly ejaculated the old lady, "something substantial at last.

But what money this meal must have cost!"

As she cut into the thick, juicy piece of steak, which had been broiled until it was cooked enough, and not a minute more, Miss Panney's mind dropped from the consideration of congregational finances into that of domestic calculation. She knew Kipper's charges; she knew everybody's charges.

"That dish of fish," she said to herself, "was not less than sixty cents; the sweetbreads cost a dollar, if they cost a cent; this sirloin, with mushrooms, was seventy-five cents; that, with the French biscuit, is two dollars and a half for a family lunch for two people."

Miss Panney did not let her steak get cold, for she could talk and eat at the same time, and the founder of Methodism never delivered so scorching a tirade against pomp and show in professors of religion as she gave forth in his name.

Mrs. Tolbridge had been very quiet during the course of the meal, but she was now constrained to declare that she had nothing to do with the plans for the new Methodist church, and, in fact, she knew very little about them.

"Some things concern all of us," retorted Miss Panney. "Suppose Bishop White, when he was ordained and came back to this country, had found a little village-"

Her remarks were stopped by a dish of salad. The young and tender leaves of lettuce were half concealed by a mayonnaise dressing.

"This makes three dollars," thought Miss Panney, as she helped herself, "for Kipper never makes any difference, even if you send your own lettuce to be dressed." And then she went on talking about Bishop White, and what he would have thought of a little cathedral in every country town.

"But the Methodists do not have cathedr

als," said Mrs. Tolbridge.

"Which makes it all the worse when they try to build their meeting-houses to look like them," replied the old lady.

It was a long time since Miss Panney had tasted any mayonnaise dressing as good as this. But she remembered that the strawberries were to come, and did not help herself again to salad.

"If one of the old Methodist circuit-riders," she said, "after toiling over miles of weary road in the rain or scorching sun, and preaching sometimes in a log meeting-house, sometimes in a barn, and often in a private house, should suddenly come upon-"

The imaginary progress of the circuit-rider was brought to a stop by the arrival of the last course of the luncheon. From a pretty glass dish uprose a wondrous structure. Within an encircling wall of delicate, candied tracery was heaped a little mound of creamy frost, the sides of great strawberries showing here and there among the veins and specks of crimson juice.

Miss Panney raised her eyes from this creation to the face of her hostess.

"Kitty," said she, "is this the doctor's birthday?"

"No," answered Mrs. Tolbridge, with a smile; "he was born in January."

"Yours then, perhaps?"

Mrs. Tolbridge shook her head.

"A dollar and a half," thought the old lady, "and perhaps more. Five dollars at the very least for the meal. If the doctor makes that much between meals, day in and day out, she ought to be thankful."

The dainty concoction to which the blazing-eyed old lady now applied herself was something she had never before tasted, and she became of the opinion that Kipper would not get up a dish of that sort, and so much of it, for less than two dollars.

"There was a Methodist preacher," she said, spoonful after spoonful of the cold and fruity concoction melting in her mouth as she spoke, "a regular apostle of the poor, named Lorenzo Dow. How I would like to have him here. He was a man who would let people know in trumpet tones, by day and by night, what he thought of wicked, wasteful prodigality, no matter how pleasant it might be, how easy it might be, or how proper in people who could afford it. Is there to be anything more, Kitty Tolbridge?"

The doctor's wife could not restrain a little laugh.

"No," she said, "there is to be nothing more, unless you will take a little tea."

Miss Panney pushed back her chair and looked at her hostess. "Tea after a meal like that! I should think not. If you had had champagne during the luncheon, and coffee afterwards, I shouldn't have been surprised."

"I did not order coffee," said Mrs. Tolbridge, "because we don't take it in the middle of the day, but-"

"You ordered quite enough," said her visitor, severely; "and I will say this for Kipper, that he never got up a better meal, although-"

"Kipper!" interrupted Mrs. Tolbridge. "Kipper had nothing to do with this luncheon. It was prepared by my new cook. It is the first meal she has given us, and I am so sorry the doctor could not be here to eat it."

Miss Panney rose from her chair, and gazed earnestly at Mrs. Tolbridge.

"What cook?" she asked, in her deepest tones.

"Jane La Fleur," was the reply; "the woman you urged me to write to. I sent the letter that afternoon. Yesterday she came to see me, and I engaged her. And while we were at breakfast this morning, she arrived with her boxes, and went to work."

"And she cooked that meal? She herself made all those things?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Tolbridge, "she even churned the butter and made the biscuit. She says she is going to do a great deal better than this when she gets things in order."

"Better than this!" ejaculated Miss Panney. "Do you mean to say, Kitty

Tolbridge, that this sort of thing is going to happen three times a day?

What have you done? What sort of a creature is she? Tell me all about it

this very minute."

Mrs. Tolbridge led the way to the parlor, and the two sat down.

"Now," said the doctor's wife, "suppose you finish what you were saying about the Methodist church, then-"

Miss Panney stamped her foot.

"Don't mention them!" she cried. "Let them build tower on tower, spire on spire, crypts, picture galleries, altars, confessionals, if they like. Tell me about your new cook."

"It will take a long time to tell you all about her, at least all she told me," said Mrs. Tolbridge, "for she talked to me more than an hour this morning, working away all the time. Her name is Jane La Fleur, but she does not wish any one to call her Jane. She would like the family to use her last name, and the servants can do the same, or call her 'madam.' She is the widow of two chefs, one a Florentine, named Tolati, and the other a Frenchman, La Fleur. She acted as 'second' to each of these, and in that way has thoroughly learned the art of Italian cooking, as well as the French methods. She herself is English, and she has told me about some of the great families she and her husbands lived with."

"Kitty," said Miss Panney, "I should think she was trying to impose upon you with a made-up story; but after that luncheon I will believe anything she says about her opportunities. How in the world did you get such a woman to come to you?"

"Oh, the whole business of engaging her was very simple," answered Mrs. Tolbridge. "Her last husband left her some money, and she came to this country on a visit to relatives, but she loved her art so much, she said-"

"Did she call it art?" asked Miss Panney.

"Yes, she did-that she felt she must cook, and she lived for some time with a family named Drane, in Pennsylvania, with whom the doctor used to be acquainted. She had a letter from them which fully satisfied me. On her part she said she would be content with the salary I paid my last cook."

"Did she call it salary?" exclaimed the old lady.

"That was the word she used," answered Mrs. Tolbridge, "and as I said before, the only question she asked was whether or not my husband was in trade."

"What did that matter?" asked the other.

"It seemed to matter a great deal. She said she had never yet lived with a tradesman, and never intended to. She was with Mrs. Drane, the widow of a college professor, for several months, and when the family found they could no longer afford to keep a servant who could do nothing but cook, La Fleur returned to her relatives, and looked for another position; but not until I came, she said, had any one applied who was not in trade."

"She must be an odd creature," said Miss Panney.

"She is odder than odd," was the answer. At this moment the maid came in and told Mrs. Tolbridge that the madam cook wanted to see her. The lady of the house excused herself, and in a few minutes returned, smiling.

"She wished to tell me," 'said she, "before my visitor left, that the name of the 'sweet' which she gave us at luncheon is la promesse, being merely a promise of what she is going to do, when she gets about her everything she wants."

"Kitty Tolbridge," said Miss Panney, solemnly, "whatever happens, don't mind that woman's oddity. Keep your mind on her cooking, and don't consider anything else. She is an angel, and she belongs to the very smallest class of angels that visit human beings. You may find, by the dozen, philanthropists, kind friends, helpers and counsellors, the most loving and generous; but a cook like that in a Thorbury family is as rare as-as-as-I can't think of anything so rare. I came here, Kitty, to find out if you had written to that woman, and now to discover that the whole matter has been settled in two days, and that the doors of Paradise have been opened to Dr. Tolbridge-for you know, Kitty, that the Garden of Eden was truly Paradise until they began to eat the wrong things-I feel as if I had been assisting at a miracle."

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