Authors: Janet Gleeson
The Grenadillo Box
The Serpent in the Garden
SIMON & SCHUSTER PAPERBACKS
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2004 by Janet Gleeson
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Originally published in Great Britain in 2004 by Bantam Press, a division of Transworld Publishers
SIMON & SCHUSTER PAPERBACKS
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Book design by Ellen R. Sasahara
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The thief taker : a novel / Janet Gleeson.â1st Simon & Schuster pbk. ed.
1. Women cooksâFiction. 2. SilversmithsâFiction. 3. London (England)âHistoryâ18th centuryâFiction. I. Title.
PR6107.L44T47 2006 823â².92âdc22 2006045684
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first saw the girl one Monday morning, huddled in a doorway in Foster Lane. She was no more than twelve or thirteen; her feet were bare, and apart from a bright crimson shawl wrapped about her head, her costume was ragged, and colorless with dirt.
But there was nothing remarkable about the sight of a beggar loitering in the streets of London in 1750, and Agnes was preoccupied with more important matters. As cook for the Blanchards of Foster Lane, she was thinking about ragout, and where to find the best green angelica for syllabub, and how much the kitchen maid and scullery maid would get done while she was out.
Despite all this, something about the girl, sitting alone surveying the street, struck a chord. The girl was sitting as still as stone, her bony knees pressed up to her pinched face, her eyes fixed on the Blanchards' doorway. Her shawl reminded Agnes of the one her husband had given her on their wedding day, and she felt a moment of sympathy, mingled with suspicion.
A few minutes later Agnes had reached the market and was battling through the throng. She stepped over rotting offal and cabbage leaves to prod breasts of pheasant and partridge. She sniffed oysters and herrings and asked the price of oranges, shouting her requirements over strident cries of “New mackerel!” and “White turnips and fine carrots, ho!” and “Fine China oranges and fresh juicy lemons!” She watched a juggler with blackened teeth catching knives in his mouth, then sampled a corner of gingerbread so spicy tears welled in her eyes. The street child had slipped from her thoughts.
Within the hour, Agnes had arranged deliveries with half a dozen tradesmen whose goods she could not carry, and jotted every item and its price in her notebook for Mrs Tooley's accounts. In her basket she had carefully stowed sweet oranges, Jordan almonds, two dozen pullet eggs, a pickled salmon, half a pound of angelica, the same of glacÃ© cherries. As she retraced her steps, her mind whirled with all there was to do. At the very least, Rose, the kitchen maid, should have skinned and jointed the hare, plucked and drawn the pheasant, and (provided Philip had not distracted her unduly) begun to grind the sugar for the desserts.
Agnes turned from Cheapside into Foster Lane and approached the railings that lined the steps to her basement kitchen. The beggar girl was exactly where she had been earlier, her eyes fixed on the first-floor windows of the Blanchards' silver workshop. Suddenly, she seemed to sense Agnes's presence, and turned and caught her gaze. Lank strands of hair partially covered her face. Behind them, Agnes detected eyes that were curiously disturbing: upturned and slanted, the whites very white, the pupils large and dark. Instinct told her that the girl was up to no good. She showed every sign of being a cutpurse or some rogue's accomplice. But her limbs were thin as rope, she was plainly in need of nourishmentâand Agnes regarded nourishment as a matter of the utmost importance. Moreover, Agnes had a child of her own, Peter, who, owing to her position as cook, she saw infrequently.
The door behind the girl opened and a maidservant darted out. “Get away with you, vermin!” she bellowed, thrusting a broom as if it were a sword, whacking the girl in the small of her back. “Don't think you'll get anything by begging.” The girl fell forward, then scrambled to her feet. “I didn't mean no harm,” she squawked, rubbing her back. “I wasn't doing nothing wrong.”
“You was dirtying my step, and Gawd knows what more besides. So scram, unless you want another feel of the hard end of this,” said the maid, waving her broom. The girl raised her hands and sidled away.
“Good riddance.” The maid gave the step a brisk once-over before slamming the door.
Agnes understood the maid's concerns, but something in the girl's demeanor, coupled with her own thoughts, impelled her forward. “One moment, if you please,” she said, hurriedly rolling three farthings from her purse into her palm.
“What?” said the girl, then, spying the coins in Agnes's hand, she added, more politely, “I ain't done
“Did someone ask you to wait here?”
The girl looked from Agnes's hand to her face. “No.”
“Then what are you doing?”
The girl said nothing, but searched the street. Agnes tentatively offered the coins on the flat of her palm, as if she were feeding a horse that might bite. The girl snatched them away, scratching Agnes's palm slightly in her haste. “My pa's coming,” she muttered.
“But you have been here some time. Where is he? Has he employment in the vicinity?” Agnes waved toward the Blanchards' grand shopwindow. Behind stout iron bars was a glittering display of silver salvers, dishes, cups, and candlesticks.
“He does business around here.”
Agnes's curiosity was roused. She took an orange from her basket and lifted it to her face to sniff it, regarding the girl from behind the curve of the fruit. “What manner of business?”
The girl considered the orange, then glanced over her shoulder. “He fetches things for people.”
The description sounded ominous. Agnes paused. What foolhardy impulse had possessed her to engage such a person in conversation and give her coins? The girl must think her soft in the head. At best, she had shown her that sitting in doorways was a feasible means of making a living. At worst, the girl might even now be signaling to her father to creep up and rob her.
As the girl peered down the street, Agnes observed a sharpening in her expression. Turning apprehensively to follow her gaze, she observed a cluster of foppish gentlemen watching a pair of ladies descend from a carriage. Beyond them was a man clad in a long dun-colored coat and tricorn hat. Agnes pointed at the lurking figure. “Is that your father?”
No sooner had she uttered these words than she felt a grab of surprising swiftness and force. The orange and purse were whisked from her grasp. “Wait!” she splutteredâbut the girl had rounded the corner and was gone.
“Trouble, Mrs. Meadowes? Want me to chase after her?” called John, the first footman, loudly, from the top step of the Blanchard residence. A flash in John's eye and a small tick at the corner of his mouth betrayed his amusement at the events. He was sharp-witted, discreet, and generally respectful, and not prone to lewdnessâunlike certain others Agnes could mention. But she disliked being the subject of mirth. She prayed that he had not seen the girl take her purse, and thanked heaven that she had been robbed after, rather than before, her trip to market. The purse had had only a shilling and sixpence in it, but this seemed small consolation for the damage to her pride.
She bustled toward the steps, shooting John a reproachful glance. “Thank you, John,” she said with what dignity she could muster. “I am in no need of assistance. I was about to give her the fruit, in any case.”
He nodded slowly. “'Course you was, Mrs. Meadowes. By the by, would it cheer you to know the post boy just brought a letter for you? I left it with Mrs. Tooley.” He tapped the side of his nose as if sharing a secret. “Sender's from Twickenham. Who's that, then? Rare you get correspondence, ain't it?”
Agnes felt her stomach pitch. Twickenham was where her son, Peter, boarded with a certain Mrs. Catchpole, who rarely troubled to write.
At that moment, Nicholas Blanchard appeared on the threshold twirling a silver-topped cane. “Ready, John,” he declared. A sudden tightening of his jaw betrayed his disapproval that his first footman was engaged in conversation with his cook. He was poised to pass some remark, but Agnes had no wish to add to her humiliation. She dropped a curtsy, eyes lowered, then, clutching her basket of provisions like a shield, she scuttled down the basement steps.
, Agnes's domain, had an uneven flagged floor and was lit by three high-set sash windows that were regularly cleared with vinegar and water. An open iron range with bread ovens and warming cupboards threw out such scorching heat that anyone near it turned redder than cayenne pepper. In a capacious dresser, the tools of Agnes's tradeâpots and dishes, utensils and cutleryâwere neatly stored. In front stood a long deal table, its ancient surface pitted and scarred by years of use.
Agnes carefully set down her provisions upon this table, next to a dish of jointed hare. She gazed around distractedly, looking for the housekeeper. “Where might Mrs. Tooley be?” she asked.
“Having a lie downâshe's been taken strange,” said Rose, a comely, buxom, brown-haired maid, as she emerged from the larder bearing a large cod by the gills. “She's got one of her distempers coming.”
Doris, the scullery maid, looked up from the bucket of potatoes she was peeling. “She don't wish to be disturbed,” she added slowly, as if finding the words cost her considerable effort. “Not 'less it's urgent.”
Rose slapped down the fish impatiently at the far end of the table. “And she said to tell you to finish off the dessert. Only the orange creamâthere's a jar of plums left out, and the apple pie from yesterday will do.”
Agnes suppressed a sigh; it did not do to reveal disgruntlement to those beneath her in case it encouraged them to do the same. “Did she say anything about a letter?”
Doris raised her plump face and tried to puff away a stiff carrot-colored lock. “Don't recall. Did she, Rose?” She shook her head as a question mark of peel fell into her bucket.
“Only that she'd keep it safe till after your duties was finished,” replied Rose. “She said you wouldn't have a moment before.”
Agnes told herself firmly there was no reason to suppose anything was wrong. The letter might contain nothing more ominous than a list of what Mrs. Catchpole wanted for Peter the next time Agnes visited. She walked to the side of the dresser. Hanging on a hook was a slate, with the menu chalked upon it in her own hand:
almond soup, white fricassee, boiled cod
chicken patties, jugged hare, roast venison, oyster loaves, mushrooms, cauliflower pickle
apple tart, orange cream, plums in syrup
Under normal circumstances, Mrs. Tooley took care of the dessert. But at sixty-two, her health was growing fragile. She was prone to sudden contagions and would wash her head with salt, vinegar, and a spoonful of brandy, and lie in her darkened bedchamber, sipping an infusion of aniseed and opium until she fell into a deep sleep. Her condition invariably improved, but it might take several hours. Today, Agnes would have to take on her culinary duties.
Depositing the slate on the table, Agnes opened the middle drawer of the kitchen table and took out a plump volume of handwritten recipes, bound in crimson cloth. She had begun to compile this important record five years ago, when she first came to the Blanchards' as undercook to the French chef. The household was one of middling size and means, with fewer than a dozen servants, but the family aspired to meals that would rival those in grander houses. Agnes had been a competent cook, having run a modest house for her husband, and although she had not had the least knowledge of foreign ways or sauces, she knew that French cooking was greatly superior to traditional fare. Being ambitious and eager to secure her future for her son's sake, she had observed, questioned, and recorded all the chef deigned tell her in his heavily accented English. Written in her meticulous hand, it began with soups, continued with fish, progressed to roasting and boiling, and then branched into all manner of fancy fricandeaus, ragouts, pies, puddings, and desserts.
A year ago, after a barrage of angry shouting, the French chef had been dismissed. A missing half barrel of port had led Mr. Matthews, the butler, to discover a significant discrepancy between the stock in the cellar and the accounts from the vintner. Agnes and Mrs. Tooley had been obliged to make do until a replacement could be found.
But instead of the mayhem Mrs. Tooley had feared, the kitchen ran more smoothly. Pigeon pies, forced calves' heads, and tongues roasted the French way turned out to be all well within Agnes's capabilities. And Agnes was satisfied with a salary of forty pounds a year, whereas a French chef would have demanded twice that sum. After a lengthy conference between Mr. Matthews, Mrs. Tooley, and Lydia Blanchard, Agnes had been promoted permanently to the post of household cook and a new kitchen maid, Rose, engaged to assist her. And Mrs. Tooley, when she was well, turned her hand to making dessert.
Agnes now flicked through the recipes with ease. She knew almost every one from the first two courses by heart, but thought it wise to refer to the one for orange cream so she would make it precisely as Mrs. Tooley would wish. Then her attention returned to the hare. To be properly tender it would need to simmer a good two hours. She told Doris to bring her the stone jug. “Is this seasoned yet?” she inquired of Rose. The girl was haphazard when it came to crucial matters such as pepper, salt, and mace.
“Lord, no, Mrs. M.,” said Rose unashamedly. “It slipped my thoughts.”
Agnes noticed she had a purplish bruise on her cheek, and her eyes looked feverishly bright. The girl was slicing the cod into uneven steaks. “Not too thick with those,” Agnes said sternly. “Try and keep them the same size. And mind you butter the dish well so they don't stick. And wash your hands after, or you'll taint anything else you touch.”