The Marchesa di Sant'Andrea finished her early morning cup of tea, and then took up the batch of correspondence which her maid had placed on the tray. The world had a way of treating her in kindly fashion, and hostile or troublesome letters rarely veiled their ugly faces under the envelopes addressed to her; wherefore the perfection of that pleasant half-hour lying between the last sip of tea and the first step to meet the new day was seldom marred by the perusal of her morning budget. The apartment which she graced with her seemly presence was a choice one in the Mayfair Hotel, one which she had occupied for the past four or five years during her spring visit to London; a visit undertaken to keep alive a number of pleasant English friendships which had begun in Rome or Malta. London had for her the peculiar attraction it has for so many Italians, and the weeks she spent upon its stones were commonly the happiest of the year.
The review she took of her letters before breaking the seals first puzzled her, and then roused certain misgivings in her heart. She recognised the handwriting of each of the nine addresses, and at the same time recalled the fact that she was engaged to dine with every one of the correspondents of this particular morning. Why should they all be writing to her? She had uneasy forebodings of postponement, and she hated to have her engagements disturbed; but it was useless to prolong suspense, so she began by opening the envelope addressed in the familiar handwriting of Sir John Oglethorpe, and this was what Sir John had to say—
"My Dear Marchesa, words, whether written or spoken, are powerless to express my present state of mind. In the first place, our dinner on Thursday is impossible, and in the second, I have lost Narcisse and forever. You commented favourably upon that supreme of lobster and the Ris de Veau a la Renaissance we tasted last week, but never again will you meet the handiwork of Narcisse. He came to me with admirable testimonials as to his artistic excellence; with regard to his moral past I was, I fear, culpably negligent, for I now learn that all the time he presided over my stewpans he was wanted by the French police on a charge of murdering his wife. A young lady seems to have helped him; so I fear Narcisse has broken more than one of the commandments in this final escapade. The truly great have ever been subject to these momentary aberrations, and Narcisse being now in the hands of justice—so called—our dinner must needs stand over, though not, I hope, for long. Meantime the only consolation I can perceive is the chance of a cup of tea with you this afternoon.
Sir John Oglethorpe had been her husband's oldest and best friend. He and the Marchesa had first met in Sardinia, where they had both of them gone in pursuit of woodcock, and since the Marchesa had been a widow, she and Sir John had met either in Rome or in London every year. The dinner so tragically manque had been arranged to assemble a number of Anglo-Italian friends; and, as Sir John was as perfect as a host as Narcisse was as a cook, the disappointment was a heavy one. She threw aside the letter with a gesture of vexation, and opened the next.
"Sweetest Marchesa," it began, "how can I tell you my grief at having to postpone our dinner for Friday. My wretched cook (I gave her seventy-five pounds a year), whom I have long suspected of intemperate habits, was hopelessly inebriated last night, and had to be conveyed out of the house by my husband and a dear, devoted friend who happened to be dining with us, and deposited in a four-wheeler. May I look in tomorrow afternoon and pour out my grief to you? Yours cordially,
"Pamela St. Aubyn Fothergill."
When the Marchesa had opened four more letters, one from Lady Considine, one from Mrs. Sinclair, one from Miss Macdonnell, and one from Mrs. Wilding, and found that all these ladies were obliged to postpone their dinners on account of the misdeeds of their cooks, she felt that the laws of average were all adrift. Surely the three remaining letters must contain news of a character to counterbalance what had already been revealed, but the event showed that, on this particular morning, Fortune was in a mood to strike hard. Colonel Trestrail, who gave in his chambers carefully devised banquets, compounded by a Bengali who was undoubtedly something of a genius, wrote to say that this personage had left at a day's notice, in order to embrace Christianity and marry a lady's-maid who had just come into a legacy of a thousand pounds under the will of her late mistress. Another correspondent, Mrs. Gradinger, wrote that her German cook had announced that the dignity of womanhood was, in her opinion, slighted by the obligation to prepare food for others in exchange for mere pecuniary compensation. Only on condition of the grant of perfect social equality would she consent to stay, and Mrs. Gradinger, though she held advanced opinions, was hardly advanced far enough to accept this suggestion. Last of all, Mr. Sebastian van der Roet was desolate to announce that his cook, a Japanese, whose dishes were, in his employer's estimation, absolute inspirations, had decamped and taken with him everything of value he could lay hold of; and more than desolate, that he was forced to postpone the pleasure of welcoming the Marchesa di Sant' Andrea at his table.
When she had finished reading this last note, the Marchesa gathered the whole mass of her morning's correspondence together, and uttering a few Italian words which need not be translated, rolled it into a ball and hurled the same to the farthest corner of the room. "How is it," she ejaculated, "that these English, who dominate the world abroad, cannot get their food properly cooked at home? I suppose it is because they, in their lofty way, look upon cookery as a non-essential, and consequently fall victims to gout and dyspepsia, or into the clutches of some international brigandaccio, who declares he is a cordon bleu. One hears now and again pleasant remarks about the worn-out Latin races, but I know of one Latin race which can do better than this in cookery." And having thus delivered herself, the Marchesa lay back on the pillows and reviewed the situation.
She was sorry in a way to miss the Colonel's dinner. The dishes which the Bengali cook turned out were excellent, but the host himself was a trifle dictatorial and too fond of the sound of his own voice, while certain of the inevitable guests were still worse. Mrs. Gradinger's letter came as a relief; indeed the Marchesa had been wondering why she had ever consented to go and pretend to enjoy herself by eating an ill-cooked dinner in company with social reformers and educational prigs. She really went because she liked Mr. Gradinger, who was as unlike his wife as possible, a stout youth of forty, with a breezy manner and a decided fondness for sport. Lady Considine's dinners were indifferent, and the guests were apt to be a bit too smart and too redolent of last season's Monte Carlo odour. The Sinclairs gave good dinners to perfectly selected guests, and by reason of this virtue, one not too common, the host and hostess might be pardoned for being a little too well satisfied with themselves and with their last new bibelot. The Fothergill dinners were like all other dinners given by the Fothergills of society. They were costly, utterly undistinguished, and invariably graced by the presence of certain guests who seemed to have been called in out of the street at the last moment. Van der Roet's Japanese menus were curious, and at times inimical to digestion, but the personality of the host was charming. As to Sir John Oglethorpe, the question of the dinner postponed troubled her little: another repast, the finest that London's finest restaurant could furnish, would certainly be forthcoming before long. In Sir John's case, her discomposure took the form of sympathy for her friend in his recent bereavement. He had been searching all his life for a perfect cook, and he had found, or believed he had found, such an one in Narcisse; wherefore the Marchesa was fully persuaded that, if that artist should evade the guillotine, she would again taste his incomparable handiwork, even though he were suspected of murdering his whole family as well as the partner of his joys.
That same afternoon a number of the balked entertainers foregathered in the Marchesa's drawing-room, the dominant subject of discourse being the approaching dissolution of London society from the refusal of one human to cook food for another. Those present were gathered in two groups. In one the Colonel, in spite of the recent desertion of his Oriental, was asserting that the Government should be required to bring over consignments of perfectly trained Indian cooks, and thus trim the balance between dining room and kitchen; and to the other Mrs. Gradinger, a gaunt, ill-dressed lady in spectacles, with a commanding nose and dull, wispy hair, was proclaiming in a steady metallic voice, that it was absolutely necessary to double the school rate at once in order to convert all the girls and some of the boys as well, into perfectly equipped food-cooking animals; but her audience gradually fell away, and in an interval of silence the voice of the hostess was heard giving utterance to a tentative suggestion.
"But, my dear, it is inconceivable that the comfort and the movement of society should depend on the humours of its servants. I don't blame them for refusing to cook if they dislike cooking, and can find other work as light and as well paid; but, things being as they are, I would suggest that we set to work somehow to make ourselves independent of cooks."
"That 'somehow' is the crux, my dear Livia," said Mrs. Sinclair. "I have a plan of my own, but I dare not breathe it, for I'm sure Mrs. Gradinger would call it 'anti-social,' whatever that may mean."
"I should imagine that it is a term which might be applied to any scheme which robs society of the ministrations of its cooks," said Sir John.
"I have heard mathematicians declare that what is true of the whole is true of its parts," said the Marchesa. "I daresay it is, but I never stopped to inquire. I will amplify on my own account, and lay down that what is true of the parts must be true of the whole. I'm sure that sounds quite right. Now I, as a unit of society, am independent of cooks because I can cook myself, and if all the other units were independent, society itself would be independent—ecco!"
"To speak in this tone of a serious science like Euclid seems rather frivolous," said Mrs. Gradinger. "I may observe—" but here mercifully the observation was checked by the entry of Mrs. St. Aubyn Fothergill.
She was a handsome woman, always dominated by an air of serious preoccupation, sumptuously, but not tastefully dressed. In the social struggle upwards, wealth was the only weapon she possessed, and wealth without dexterity has been known to fail before this. She made efforts, indeed, to imitate Mrs. Sinclair in the elegancies of menage, and to pose as a woman of mind after the pattern of Mrs. Gradinger; but the task first named required too much tact, and the other powers of endurance which she did not possess.
"You'll have some tea, Mrs. Fothergill?" said the Marchesa. "It's so good of you to have come."
"No, really, I can't take any tea; in fact, I couldn't take any lunch out of vexation at having to put you off, my dear Marchesa."
"Oh, these accidents will occur. We were just discussing the best way of getting round them," said the Marchesa. "Now, dear," —speaking to Mrs. Sinclair—"let's have your plan. Mrs. Gradinger has fastened like a leech on the Canon and Mrs. Wilding, and won't hear a word of what you have to say."
"Well, my scheme is just an amplification of your mathematical illustrations, that we should all learn to cook for ourselves. I regard it no longer as impossible, or even difficult, since you have informed us that you are a mistress of the art. We'll start a new school of cookery, and you shall teach us all you know."
"Ah, my dear Laura, you are like certain English women in the hunting field. You are inclined to rush your fences," said the Marchesa with a deprecatory gesture. "And just look at the people gathered here in this room. Wouldn't they—to continue the horsey metaphor—be rather an awkward team to drive?"
"Not at all, if you had them in suitable surroundings. Now, supposing some beneficent millionaire were to lend us for a month or so a nice country house, we might install you there as Mistress of the stewpans, and sit at your feet as disciples," said Mrs. Sinclair.
"The idea seems first-rate," said Van der Roet; "and I suppose, if we are good little boys and girls, and learn our lessons properly, we may be allowed to taste some of our own dishes."
"Might not that lead to a confusion between rewards and punishments?" said Sir John.
"If ever it comes to that," said Miss Macdonnell with a mischievous glance out of a pair of dark, flashing Celtic eyes, "I hope that our mistress will inspect carefully all pupils' work before we are asked to eat it. I don't want to sit down to another of Mr. Van der Roet's Japanese salads made of periwinkles and wallflowers."
"And we must first catch our millionaire," said the Colonel.
During these remarks Mrs. Fothergill had been standing "with parted lips and straining eyes," the eyes of one who is seeking to "cut in." Now came her chance. "What a delightful idea dear Mrs. Sinclair's is. We have been dreadfully extravagant this year over buying pictures, and have doubled our charitable subscriptions, but I believe I can still promise to act in a humble way the part of Mrs. Sinclair's millionaire. We have just finished doing up the 'Laurestinas,' a little place we bought last year, and it is quite at your service, Marchesa, as soon as you liketo occupy it."
This unlooked-for proposition almost took away the Marchesa's breath. "Ah, Mrs. Fothergill," she said, "it was Mrs. Sinclair's plan, not mine. She kindly wishes to turn me into a cook for I know not how long, just at the hottest season of the year, a fate I should hardly have chosen for myself."
"My dear, it would be a new sensation, and one you would enjoy beyond everything. I am sure it is a scheme every one here will hail with acclamation," said Mrs. Sinclair. All other conversation had now ceased, and the eyes of the rest of the company were fixed on the speaker. "Ladies and gentlemen," she went on, "you have heard my suggestion, and you have heard Mrs. Fothergill's most kind and opportune offer of her country house as the seat of our school of cookery. Such an opportunity is one in ten thousand. Surely all of us—even the Marchesa—must see that it is one not to be neglected."
"I approve thoroughly," said Mrs. Gradinger; "the acquisition of knowledge, even in so material a field as that of cookery, is always a clear gain."
"It will give Gradinger a chance to put in a couple of days at Ascot," whispered Van der Roet.
"Where Mrs. Gradinger leads, all must follow," said Miss Macdonnell. "Take the sense of the meeting, Mrs. Sinclair, before the Marchesa has time to enter a protest."
"And is the proposed instructress to have no voice in the matter?" said the Marchesa, laughing.
"None at all, except to consent," said Mrs. Sinclair; "you are going to be absolute mistress over us for the next fortnight, so you surely might obey just this once."
"You have been denouncing one of our cherished institutions, Marchesa," said Lady Considine, "so I consider you are bound to help us to replace the British cook by something better."
"If Mrs. Sinclair has set her heart on this interesting experiment. You may as well consent at once, Marchesa," said the Colonel, "and teach us how to cook, and—what may be a harder task—to teach us to eat what other aspirants may have cooked."
"If this scheme really comes off," said Sir John, "I would suggest that the Marchesa should always be provided with a plate of her own up her sleeve—if I may use such an expression—so that any void in the menu, caused by failure on the part of the under-skilled or over-ambitious amateur, may be filled by what will certainly be a chef-d'oeuvre."
"I shall back up Mrs. Sinclair's proposition with all my power," said Mrs. Wilding. "The Canon will be in residence at Martlebridge for the next month, and I would much rather be learning cookery under the Marchesa than staying with my brother-in-law at Ealing."
"You'll have to do it, Marchesa," said Van der Roet; "when a new idea catches on like this, there's no resisting it."
"Well, I consent on one condition—that my rule shall be absolute," said the Marchesa, "and I begin my career as an autocrat by giving Mrs. Fothergill a list of the educational machinery I shall want, and commanding her to have them all ready by Tuesday morning, the day on which I declare the school open."
A chorus of applause went up as soon as the Marchesa ceased speaking.
"Everything shall be ready," said Mrs. Fothergill, radiant with delight that her offer had been accepted, "and I will put in a full staff of servants selected from our three other establishments."
"Would it not be as well to send the cook home for a holiday?" said the Colonel. "It might be safer, and lead to less broth being spoilt."
"It seems," said Sir John, "that we shall be ten in number, and I would therefore propose that, after an illustrious precedent, we limit our operations to ten days. Then if we each produce one culinary poem a day we shall, at the end of our time, have provided the world with a hundred new reasons for enjoying life, supposing, of course, that we have no failures. I propose, therefore, that our society be called the 'New Decameron.'"
"Most appropriate," said Miss Macdonnell, "especially as it owes its origin to an outbreak of plague—the plague in the kitchen."