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   Chapter 27 IT COULDN'T BE BETTER THAN THAT

The Girl at Cobhurst By Frank Richard Stockton Characters: 15629

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The Haverleys could not expect that the people of Thorbury would feel any general and urgent desire to recognize them as neighbors. They did not live in the town, and moreover newcomers, even to the town itself, were usually looked upon as "summer people," until they had proved that they were to be permanent residents, and the leading families of Thorbury made it a rule not to call on summer people.

But the example of the Tolbridges and Bannisters had a certain effect on Thorbury society, and people now began to drive out to Cobhurst; not very many of them, but some of them representative people. Mr. Ames, the rector of Grace Church, came early because the Haverleys had been to his church several times, and Mr. Torry, the Presbyterian minister, came afterwards because the Haverleys had stopped going to Grace Church, and he did not know that it was on account of the gig shafts.

Mr. Hampton, the Methodist, who was a pedestrian, walked out to Cobhurst one day, but as neither the brother or sister could be found, he good-humoredly resolved to postpone a future call until cooler weather.

Lately, when a lady had called, it happened that there had been no one to receive her but Mrs. Drane; and although there could be no doubt that that lady performed the duties of hostess most admirably, Miriam resolved that that thing should never happen again. She did not wish the people to think that there was a regent in rule at Cobhurst, and she now determined to make it a point to be within call during ordinary visiting hours. Or, if she felt strongly moved to a late afternoon ramble, she would invite the other ladies to accompany her. She still wore her hair down her back, and her dresses did not quite touch the tops of her boots, and it was therefore necessary to be careful in regard to her prerogatives as mistress of the house.

Early one afternoon, much sooner than there was reason to expect visitors, a carriage came in at the Cobhurst gate, driven by our friend Andy Griffing. Miriam happened to be at a front window, and regarded with some surprise the shabby equipage. It came with a flourish to the front of the house, and stopped. But instead of alighting, its occupant seemed to be expostulating with the driver. Andy shook his head a great deal, but finally drove round at the back, when an elderly woman got out, and came to the hall door. Miriam, who supposed, of course, that she would be wanted, was there to meet her, and there was no necessity for ringing or knocking.

"My name," said the visitor, "is La Fleur, if you please. I came to see Mrs. Drane and Miss Drane, if you please. Thank you very much, I will come in. I will wait here, or, if you will be so good as to tell me where I can find Mrs. Drane, I will go to her. I used to live with her: I was her cook."

Miriam had been gazing with much interest on the puffy face and shawl-enwrapped body of the old woman who addressed her with a smiling obsequiousness to which she was not at all accustomed.

The thought struck her that with servants like this woman, it would be easy to feel herself a mistress. She had heard from the Dranes a great deal about their famous cook, and she was glad of the opportunity to look upon this learned professor of kitchen lore.

"What would she have said to my tall raspberry tarts?" involuntarily thought the girl.

But it was when La Fleur had gone to Mrs. Drane's room, and Cicely, wildly delighted when informed who had come to see them, had run to meet the dear old woman, that Miriam pondered most seriously upon this visit from a cook. She had not known anything of the ties between families and old family servants. At school, servants had been no more than machines; she was nothing to them, and they were nothing to her; and now she felt that the ignorance of these ties was one of the deprivations of her life. That old woman upstairs had not lived very long with the Dranes, and yet she regarded them with a positive affection. Miriam knew this from what she had heard. If they were in trouble, and needed her, she would come to them and serve them wherever they were. This she had told them often. How different was such a woman from Phoebe or Molly Tooney! How happy would she be if there had been such a one in her mother's family, and were she with her now!

"But I have only Ralph," thought Miriam; "no one else in the world." Ralph was good,-no human being could be better; but he was only one person, and knew nothing of many things she wanted to know, and could not help her in many ways in which she needed to be helped.

With a feeling that from certain points of view she was rather solitary and somewhat forsaken, she went to look for her brother. It would be better to talk to what she had than to think about what she had not.

As she walked toward the barn and pasture fields, Ralph came up from the cornfield by the woods on the other side of the house. As he went in he met Mrs. Drane and La Fleur, who had just come downstairs. Cicely had already retired to her work. At the sight of the gentleman, who, she was informed, was the master of the house, La Fleur bowed her head, cast down her eyes, smiled and courtesied.

Mrs. Drane drew Ralph aside.

"That is La Fleur, who used to be our cook. She is a kind old body, who takes the greatest interest in our welfare. She is greatly pleased to find us in such delightful quarters, but she has queer notions, and now she wants very much to call on your cook. I don't know that this is the right thing, and I have been looking for your sister, to ask her if she objects to it, but I think she is not in the house."

"Oh, bless me!" exclaimed Ralph, "she will not mind in the least. Let the good woman go down and see Molly Tooney, and if she can give her some points about cooking, I am sure we shall all be delighted."

"Oh, she would not do that," said Mrs. Drane. "She is a very considerate person; but I suppose, in any house, her instincts would naturally draw her toward the cook."

When Ralph turned to La Fleur, and assured her that his sister would be glad to have her visit the kitchen, the old woman, who had not taken her eyes from him for an instant, thanked him with great unction, again bowed, courtesied, smiled, and, being shown the way to the kitchen, descended.

Molly Tooney, who was sitting on a low stool, paring potatoes, looked up in amazement at the person who entered her kitchen. It was not an obsequious old woman she saw, but a sedate, dignified, elderly person, with her brows somewhat knitted. Throwing about her a glance, which was not one of admiration, La Fleur remarked,-

"I suppose you are the cook of the house."

"Indade, an' I am," said Molly, still upon the stool, with a knife in one hand, and a potato, with a long paring hanging from it, in the other; "an' the washer-woman, an' the chambermaid, an' the butler, too, as loike as may be. An' who may you be, an' which do you want to see?"

"I am Madame La Fleur," said the other, with a stateliness that none of her mistresses ever supposed that she possessed. "I came to see Mrs. Drane, in whose service I was formerly engaged, and I wish to know for myself what sort of a person was cooking for the ladies whose meals I used to prepare."

Molly put down her knife and her half-pared potato, and arose. She had heard of La Fleur, whose fame had spread through and about Thorbury.

"Sit down, mum," said she. "This isn't much of a kitchen, for I haven't had time to clane it up, an' as for me, I'm not much of a cook, nather; for when ye have to be iverything, ye can't be anything to no great ixtent."

La Fleur, still standing, looked at her severely.

"How often do you bake?" she asked.

"Three times a week," answered Molly, lying.

"The ladies upstairs,"

said La Fleur, "have been accustomed to fresh rolls every morning for their breakfast."

"An' afther this, they shall have 'em," said Molly, "Sundays an' weekday, an' sorry I am that I didn't know before that they was used to have 'em."

"How do you make your coffee?" asked La Fleur.

Molly looked at her hesitatingly.

"I am very keerful about that," she said. "I niver let it bile too much-"

"Ugh!" exclaimed La Fleur, raising her hand. "Tell your mistress to get you a French coffee-pot, and if you don't know how to use it, I'll come and teach you. I shall be here off and on as long as Mrs. Drane stops in this house." And then, seating herself, La Fleur proceeded to put Molly through an elementary domestic service examination.

"Well," said the examiner, when she had finished, "I think you must be the worst cook in this part of the country."

"No, mum, I'm not," said Molly. "There was one here afore me, a nager woman named Phoebe, that must have been worse, from what I'm told."

"Where I have lived," said La Fleur, "they have such women to cook for the farm laborers."

"Beggin' your pardon, mum," said Molly, "that's what they are here, or th' same thing. Mr. Haverley, he works on the farm with a pitchfork, jest like the nager man."

"Don't talk to me like that!" exclaimed La Fleur. "Mr. Haverley is a gentleman. I have lived enough among gentlemen to know them when I see them, and they can work and they can play and they can do what they please, and they are gentlemen still. Don't you ever speak that way, again, of your master."

"I thought I had heard, mum," said Molly, "that you looked down on tradespeople and the loike."

"Tradespeople!" said the other, scornfully. "A gentleman farmer is very different from a person in trade; but I can't expect anything better from a woman who boils coffee, and never heard of bouillon. But remember the things I have told you, and thank your stars that a cook as high up in the profession as I am is willing to tell you anything. Are you the only servant in this house?"

"There's a man by the name of Mike," said Molly, "a nager, though you wouldn't think it from his name. He helps me sometimes, an' he helps iverybody else other times."

"Is that the man?" said La Fleur, looking out of the window.

"That's him, mum," said Molly; "he's jest goin' to the woodpile with his axe."

"I wish to speak to him," said La Fleur, and with a very slight nod of the head she left the kitchen by the door that led into the grounds.

Looking after her, Molly exclaimed,-

"Drat you, for a stuck-up, cross-grained, meddlin', bumble-bee-backed old hag of a soup-slopper; to come stickin' yer big nose into other people's kitchens! If there was a rale misthress to the house instead of the little gal upstairs, you'd be rowled down the front steps afore you'd been let come into my kitchen." And with this she returned to her potatoes.

La Fleur stopped at the woodpile, as if in passing she had happened to notice a good man splitting logs. In her blandest voice she accosted Mike and bade him good-day.

"I think you must be Michael," she said. "The cook has been speaking of you to me. My name is La Fleur."

Mike, who had struck his axe into a log, touched his flattened hat.

"Yes, mum," he said; "Mr. Griffing has been tellin' me that. Are you lookin' for any of the folks?"

"Oh no, no," said La Fleur; "I am just walking about to see a little of this beautiful place. You don't mind that, do you, Michael? You keep everything in such nice order. I haven't seen your garden, but I know it is a fine one, because I saw some of the vegetables that came out of it."

Mike grinned. "I reckon it ain't the same kind of a garden that you've been used to, mum. I've heerd that you cooked for Queen Victoria."

"Oh no, no," said La Fleur, dropping her head on one side so that her smile made a slight angle with the horizon; "I never cooked for the queen, no indeed; but I have lived with high families, lords, ladies, and ambassadors, and I don't remember that any of them had better potatoes than I saw to-day. Is this a large farm, Michael?"

"It's considerable over a hundred acres, though I don't 'xactly know how much. Not what you'd call big, and not what you'd call little."

"But you grow beautiful crops on it, I don't doubt," remarked La Fleur.

"Can't say about that," said Mike, shaking his head a little. "I 'spects we'll git good 'nough craps for what we do for 'em. This ain't the kind of farm your lords and ladies has got. It's ramshackle, you know."

"Ramshackle?" repeated La Fleur. "Is that a sort of sheep farm?"

Mike grinned. "Law, no, we ain't got no sheep, and I'm glad of it. Ramshackle farmin' means takin' things as you find 'em, an' makin' 'em do, an' what you git you've got, but with tother kind of farmin' most times what you git, ye have to pay out, an' then you ain't got nuthin'."

This was more than La Fleur could comprehend, but she inferred in a general way that Mr. Haverley's farm was a profitable one.

"All so pretty, so pretty," she said, looking from side to side; "such a grand barn, and such broad acres. Is it the estate as far as I can see?"

"Yes, mum," said Mike, "an' a good deal furder. The woods cuts it off down thataway."

"It is a lordly place," said La Fleur, "and it does you honor, Michael, for the cook told me you were Mr. Haverley's head man."

"I reckon she's about right there," said Mike.

"And I am very glad indeed," continued the old woman, "that Mrs. and Miss Drane are living here. And now, Michael, if either of them is ever taken ill, and you're sent for the doctor, I want you to come straight to me, and I'll see that he goes to them. If you knock at the back door of the kitchen, I'll hear you, whether I am awake or asleep. And when you are coming to town, Michael, you must drop in and see me. I can give you a nice bit of a lunch, any day. I daresay you like good things to eat as well as any-body."

Mike stood silent for a moment, and his eyes began to brighten.

"Indeed I do, mum," said he. "If I was to carry in a punkin to you when they're ripe, I wonder if you'd be willin' to make me a punkin pie, same kind as Queen Victoria has in the fall of the year."

La Fleur beamed on him most graciously.

"I will do that gladly, Michael: you may count on me to do that. And I will give you other things that you like. Wait till we see, wait till we see. Good-day, Michael; I must be going now, or the doctor will be kept waiting for his dinner. Where's my cabby?"

"Mr. Griffing has drove round to the front of the house, mum," said Mike.

"Just like the stupid American," muttered the old woman as she hurried away, "as if I'd get in at the front of the house."

Andy Griffing talked a good deal on the drive back to Thorbury, but La Fleur heard little and answered less. She was in a state of great mental satisfaction, and during her driver's long descriptions of persons and places, she kept saying to herself, "It couldn't be better than that. It couldn't be better than that."

This mental expression she applied to Mr. Haverley, whom she considered an extraordinarily fine-looking young man; to the broad acres and fine barn; to the fact that the Dranes were living with him; to the probability that he would fall in love with the charming Miss Cicely, and make her mistress of the estate; and to the strong possibility, that should this thing happen, she herself would be the cook of Cobhurst, and help her young mistress put the establishment on the footing that her station demanded.

"It couldn't be better than that," she muttered over and over again as she busied herself about the Tolbridge dinner, and she even repeated the expression two or three times after she went to bed.

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