By the day of Ruth Simpson’s arrival, the Gower Street house was looking like a home. There were curtains hanging in the dining room and the matrimonial bedroom, nets in the attic room designated for Ruth. She had a bed as well, an old cast iron bedstead that Daniel had bought at auction. In the kitchen was a fine big wooden table, a dresser with drawers full of utensils. Enough for the new cook to carry out her duties.
‘Please let this be the last day of burnt toast,’ Daniel grumbled as his wife struggled before the fire, unused to such manual labour.
‘You could have prepared your own,’ she retorted.
‘I’m joking, dearest. You must admit that you will enjoy having someone around to do the cooking.’
‘And the cleaning I hope. This house is already covered in coal dust in only a few days,’ Celine climbed to her feet and sat down with a plate of charred bread.
‘Don’t work the poor woman into an early grave,’ Daniel warned, scraping the worst of the cinders from his portion. ‘You will have to help Mrs Simpson you know. We cannot afford a fleet of servants like Mrs Harper or your father have.’
Celine’s nose wrinkled. ‘How much work can one house be?’
‘My love, just bear in mind that you may want to learn a few practical skills. You don’t want to lose your cook inside of a month through exhaustion.’
Mrs Ruth Simpson arrived at midday, a small ancient carpet bag all she had with her when she pulled on the bell.
‘Come in!’ Celine flung the door open. ‘It’s so wonderful that you’re here at last.’
Ruth stared up at her new mistress. ‘Ma’am.’ She curtseyed clumsily and walked into the house, looking all about her. Celine knew that the new cook was only ten years older than her, yet looked much older. The poor woman, she thought. A life of misuse and hard labour had taken its toll.
‘I shall take you upstairs and show you to your new bedroom.’ Celine lead the way. ‘I hope you will find it comfortable.’
The small room was quite bare, with just the narrow bed made up and a small table, but the sun streamed in through the window nett and it looked quite acceptable, Celine thought.
Ruth put down her bag and untied her hat. ‘Ma,am, I shall get started right away. I shall find the kitchen myself but can you tell me what you want me to prepare for dinner?’
‘For dinner?’ Celine had not even thought. For a week she and Daniel had subsisted on pies that he brought home to her, and one evening they had been invited to visit Sam and Maria. ‘Well, shall I leave that up to you for this evening?’
‘Very well. What food is there in the pantry? And do you have any preferences? I assume the master will like a bit of meat. Which butcher do you use?’
‘I’m sorry. There is no food, only a morsel of bread and a dab of butter. Some milk. I have not…I’m not very good at this, am I.’ Celine sat down on the bed and covered her face with her hands.
‘Sorry, I – I don’t know what Daniel’s preferences are. He eats everything I’ve ever seen put before him so…And I don’t even know where the nearest butcher would be, let alone if they are any good. I’m sorry, Mrs Simpson, I am not used to running a household. Forgive me.’
Ruth Simpson looked at her kindly. ‘Ma’am, this is my first job as a cook, but I did work as a scullery maid some years back, and I’ve seen how a house is managed. Now, do you know which houses along the street are well run? I can find out from their cook where the best butcher is, and arrange for our food deliveries. All you need worry about is being able to tell me each day what you’d like me to cook. And leave me a little money to pay the bills.’
Celine smiled and nodded. ‘I can manage that. Try the Carlisle’s house two doors down. They are a doctor and his wife. Surely their house will be run like clockwork.’
‘I shall go there directly.’ Ruth put her bonnet back on. ‘From there I can go to the shops. I’ll write out a letter for you to sign. That way I can get everything on credit and bring you the bills to settle when they’re due.’
Celine breathed out, her panic subsiding. She may have been new at this but look, she told herself, a happy husband, an efficient cook, all inside of a fortnight. And was that the doorbell? She left Ruth to write out her letter while she went to see who her first official visitor could be.