“What … what is it?” Alice stammered out, wiping sweat off her forehead with a soot-streaked forearm.
She reluctantly pulled her attention away from the roasting screen, where the haunch of venison wrapped in bacon crackled and spit in the fireplace. The kitchen was quieter than it usually was, with so many of the servants away. But the meat juices were dripping, the soup simmering, and the jellies setting. It was already late afternoon, and even with the large kitchen windows, Alice could tell by the fading light it was almost time for the first course to be served. It was the worst possible time for Lady Winthrope to come clopping into the kitchens to show off … what, exactly?
Whatever it was, it wasn’t for eating. Alice could smell the rot from here, even over the venison.
Through the swinging doors to the scullery, Sally had stopped scrubbing the family’s china in the copper sink to crane forward, trying to catch a look. “Don’t let your elbows get dry,” Alice called loudly over Lady Winthrope’s shoulder. Sally rocked back on her heels and grinned, but dutifully sloshed her boiled arms back into the greasy water.
The mistress held her prize out to Alice regardless, and she gingerly examined it without touching. It was roughly the size of a small melon, with what looked like brown spiky scales. Each of the scales tufted into a dry husky tip curled upwards. At its top, like a lady’s hair piled high, were thick curly green fronds. Even Lady Winthrope held it carefully to avoid touching the pale green mold creeping lightly up one side.
“It’s called a ‘pineapple,’ it is from South America, and it is a great honour that the Lady Ryder brought it for us,” Lady Winthrope said, though her face could not muster up the same enthusiasm as her words. Her eyebrows crinkled doubtfully.
Alice swallowed back a sigh. The Winthropes never could resist anything that would make them seem a higher station than they really were. “It is … moldy, my lady,” Alice said slowly, as if pointing out that fire was hot. “To eat it would risk ruining dinner.”
Lady Winthrope opened and closed her mouth, eyes wide, imploring Alice to find a solution. Like a child with hands too full of stolen biscuits to eat the pudding served to her.
Alice glanced behind Lady Winthrope at the shallow pot with the chestnuts in it. She couldn’t see them from here, but she could smell them, which meant they needed to come off the fire soon.
All this was taking too much time.
“How about we use it as a centerpiece?” Alice offered.
“A centerpiece, yes, thank you, Mrs. Wade!” Lady Winthrope exclaimed in relief. Alice took the prickly thing and made room for it on the kitchen table. This jolted several fruit flies out of their hiding spots, and Alice held back from swatting them away while the mistress was still here. Lady Winthrope glanced behind her at Sally’s back, suddenly conscious of her audience. “Just be sure to turn the moldy side underneath, and that no one cuts into it,” she whispered. “I’ll foist it off on Mrs. Beckett at the end of the evening. She’s to have a dinner-party next week.”
Lady Winthrope turned to go, then stopped mid-way. “Oh, one last thing,” she said, as if this had just occurred to her, and Alice’s stomach clenched. She hadn’t been in her position long—apparently Lady Winthrope had a reputation for churning through cooks—but it only took a few weeks to learn the mistress would gladly talk her way around any subject under the sun before approaching a quarrelsome subject outright. This must be the mistress’s main reason for coming downstairs all along.
The hour-bell chimed distantly and Alice had to squeeze her fingers into fists to suppress her impatience. She quickly turned to call for Sally, but she was already rescuing the chestnuts. The good girl started mashing them for the soup. “Yes, my lady?” Alice said tightly, and hoped desperately it wasn’t about Alice’s request for leave after dinner that evening.
“Yes, well … the Lady Ryder has done us another great honour. She, well, she brought her husband the Home Secretary and her three daughters to join the Society tonight. Surely four more mouths won’t make that much of a difference?”
Four more mouths! They would need two more goose pies, four more heads of celery boiled for the salad, another dozen egg balls rolled for the soup. … And of course, the extra time it would take to polish the cutlery once the dinner was finally over.