for writers and readers….
Mrs Finnegan instructs the ignorant, guides the giddy and BRINGS solace to the sorrowing. In short, she mends broken china and BROKEN hearts. HER letterbox is always OPEN.
She also keeps The Regency Town House on its toes
Something I admit to no one, not to my husband or my daughter or my maid, I must now confide to you. As a fellow woman, as a human creature with charity in your soul, I beg you to keep my secret.
Mrs Finnegan, I am losing my hair. There, I have committed the wretched words to paper.
That which was once an adornment is now a curse, a cruel disgrace.
Tell me truthfully, can anything be done?
Mistress Quietly from Nowhere-Near-You
I often think life was so much EASIER when we all wore wigs.
You and I may SIGH for those days, but fashions come and GO and that one went. If you are well in yourself, rejoice in your vigour and take COMFORT in the fact that you are not a man. It is only they who are capable of losing EVERY hair on their heads while still retaining all their other facilities.
So, as BAD as it looks in the mirror, take solace in the fact that you will not be left with an ENTIRELY naked head.
I have a remedy to preserve hair and make it RICH which I suggest you TRY.
Take a HANDFUL of rosemary flowers, fully open and perfectly blue, picked in the first hour of the morning when the sunlight has NUDGED them awake, but before they are fatigued by the day,
Add to a goodly quantity of white wine. It does not have to be of the BEST, but I suggest smelling it first to check that it doesn’t have a sharp, vinegary tang. If necessary take a sip. Sweet is best I believe, as with MOST things in life.
Once the process is COMPLETE add some sweet oil of almond. Bottle the mixture.
When you come to use it, shake the bottle well – until your WRISTS feels slightly wobbly but before it actually aches. Put it into a cup and heat gently until it is BLOOD-warm,
Rub it well on your head, but do not be rough or impatient. Use pleasing circular movements with the TIPS of your fingers.
Comb it dry.
STYLE as usual.
Even if it does not work, dear lady, you will SMELL delicious. It’s a shame though that you will have to wait to the spring before collecting the flowers – you really SHOULD have written to me sooner.
One final thought, I sense you live in dread that your secret will be discovered. I can put your mind AT EASE on that point. I am confident that your family already know. Your maid certainly does.
No one tells me anything!
The greatest dinner party this house has ever seen and am I told what is being served? No, I have to learn that from READING the mistress’s diary and what my OWN nose tells me.
The cook doesn’t bar my way into the kitchen. No, Mrs Pole is too CLEVER for that.
It is more of a case that I mustn’t TROUBLE my head to fetch or carry anything into her domain. She will do it.
And yes, of COURSE I may come in, nothing would be NICER, but only not just yet BECAUSE something cooking in the pot will spoil.
Or she is baking a surprise and I mustn’t SEE.
Or the FLOOR is being mopped.
Or something has been spilled, or delivered, and something else will not rise properly if the door is OPENED.
Last night I was OVERCOME by a powerful urge to make pickles.
There was no noise from the kitchen, upstairs was quiet. I convinced myself that the cook must be asleep. My thoughts were turning on pickled PEACHES and apple jelly. Mister Owen Talbot looked like the kind of man who might relish a spoonful. Remember him – our NEW butler?
I tiptoed along the flagstones, making sure I would not DISTURB anyone’s slumbers and was about to – carefully – lift the latch when Mrs Pole FLUNG open the kitchen door. Standing like a boxer waiting for A FIGHT to start, she announced the Mistress needed us upstairs. And we were already LATE.
No bell had rung. No time set. I saw the mistress in the morning when she COMPLAINED about having mislaid a pair of earrings which I have been looking for ever since and there was no mention of an after-supper meeting then. So, HOW could we be late?
Mrs Pole set a FAST PACE running up the stairs so I had no breath to ask questions. All I could do was follow.
Mrs Hankey was indeed waiting for us in her bedroom. The cook apologised for being tardy but explained she had to go to THE TROUBLE of FINDING ME and waking me up. Shock robbed me of speech. The stairs had already stolen my breath. Mrs Hankey said nothing but gave me the kind of look a shepherd gives a sheep when he knows STEW is on the menu.
She demanded to know if I had I planned for The Greatest Dinner The House Had Ever Seen? How much OUTSIDE help had I ordered in?
How MANY kitchen maids and serving girls?
Were more stable hands required?
Had ADDITIONAL chaff been ordered for guests’ horses?
Had I inspected the chimneys and would they need another sweeping beforehand?
Would staff CLEAN the windows on the day itself or the day before.
In short, what was I about and why did she even have to ASK such questions.
Madam, I said. WITHOUT the date none of these things can be put in place, but she could rest assured that as soon as I…
The cook cut my speech in two, DICED it up and threw it to the dogs
“I have told Mrs Finnegan once, twice the date. I made it very plain.” She frowned, a finger held out as if to SILENCE me, although in truth at that very moment I doubted if I would ever speak again. “No, I am wrong.”
I nodded eagerly. VERY wrong, I thought. Totally mistaken. A misunderstanding of TERRIBLE proportions.
“No, I told her three times, four times. Mrs Hankey, I do believe these past weeks I have reminded your housekeeper nearly every day of the date of the dinner party. Why only this morning I said in a fortnight, you will be setting the table…”
“Two weeks!” It was NOT SO MUCH words that leapt from my mouth as a cry for help, a plea to the heavens to open up and CARRY me off. I saw it all now: the scheming ways of the devious cook, her careful machinations, her trap, her plot. This woman wants my job and it was NOW almost within her grasp.
All the practice meals the Mistress has sampled over the last few week have PAVED the way to my ruination. Undone by Soupe à-la-Reine. Destroyed by Saddle of Mutton.
If I were now to DENOUNCE this woman for the red-cheeked rogue she was I could not save myself. It would look as though I was COVERING up my own failings and the cook would be chosen over me.
So instead I said there had been a MINOR confusion, but it was of no account. “For I had everything in hand, the girls, the stable boys, the extra help needed. It will all run smoothly.” The expression on Mrs Hankey’s face changed. It did not go from thunder to sunshine that would be too much to ask, but it did go from STORMY weather to sheltering under an umbrella. And that was good enough for me.
“In fact there is no need to worry about anything except to give your opinion on the central table display.” The cook’s lips formed a perfect copperplate O which was very SATISFYING to see, but I had to think quickly. ” White chrysanthemums WITH an edging of flaming red and gold Virginia creeper.” I know a house in Hove village covered in it. I shall tell the owner it needs pruning.
Mrs Hankey clapped her hands. She did, dear reader, she did.
Then she wanted to know if the Virginia creeper could be used in abundance in a mantlepiece display. I AGREED of course. Draped around door frames? Oh, yes. Decorate windows? Yes, YES. The Hove house was going was going to be left quite naked
We left the Mistress a HAPPIER woman and I wondered what the cook and I would say to each other when we were on our own. We stood on the stairs looking at each other. She was LESS of a boxer, but I KNEW she wasn’t beaten.
“What I said in there,’ she nodded at the bedroom door. “I shouldn’t have said. I got scared. I thought she was a-going to sack me because of all the bills I’ve run up. I did you wrong.”
“Yes. you did,” I said with the dignity of a ship in full sail. My head was SO HIGH, my cap was dusting the ceiling. “THANKFULLY I am a woman who plans in advance and leaves nothing to chance. But we have to work together so let us say no more about it.”
She clutched my arm in gratitude and RAN down the stairs. I watched her as she flew and thought about what will occur over the next few weeks. At the end there was only going to be one of us left on Brunswick Square. I always thought it would be me. Now everything was swinging in the air: a scales that had not yet found its balance.
I am full of imagery, aren’t I?
That was last night.
Today I shall meet the new butler again.
Is he in cahoot with Mrs Pole? Or could he be an ally for me. I dearly hope the latter because somehow I need to find quite a lot of maids in very short time. And I’m not sure where to start.
MRS FINNEGAN is a regular feature created and written by Bridget Whelan with Paul Couchman, The Regency Cook, working with a host of volunteers at The Regency Town House, readers and subscribers.
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