The year is 1898. Our heroine, Princess Alexandrina, better known as Mink, is the suddenly penniless daughter of the late, disgraced Maharajah of Prindur, and the best female marksman in England. Queen Victoria has offered Mink a grace-and-favor house (rent-free lodging granted by a monarch) at Hampton Court Palace, where the dispossessed princess and her large-footed serving maid, Pooki, fall in with a cast of classic English eccentrics, a wandering American, and a beetle-eating hedgehog named Victoria. We join the story as the palace residents are preparing for the fateful picnic that will set the events of this charming mystery in motion. The Pigeon Pie Mystery will be published Aug. 7.
On the day of the picnic, Pooki carefully rubbed her hands with parsley to rid them of the reek of onions, then slipped out the back door. Hoping that the Princess hadn't spotted her, she fled up Moat Lane smelling of violets, still tying the ribbons of her bonnet. When she returned, she crept back into the kitchen and immediately set about reviving her mistress's new hat, trimmed in fashionable turquoise, which Mink had decided to wear that afternoon. It was already suffering from the damp, and she held it next to the range for a few minutes, then dipped a blunt knife into hot water and carefully recurled the feathers. Satisfied with the results, she then put a bone on to boil in order to make some hair pomade.
She was adding oil and citronella to the beaten marrow when the Princess came down to inspect the pigeon pies, carrying a newspaper. Mink stopped in her tracks, noticing something strange on the floor. Unable to believe what she was seeing, she took a step closer. As she stared, wondering how on earth a hedge-hog had got into the kitchen, Pooki stood in front of it, but not even her enormous feet could hide its prickles.
"One of the gardeners found her for me yesterday, ma'am," Pooki hastily explained. "She has come to eat the beetles. I have named her Victoria."
The Princess continued to gaze at the creature, her hands on her hips. "I don't know why you've called her after Mrs. Fagin. That woman still hasn't returned the family jewels."
"Ma'am, you must not let anyone hear you calling the Queen 'Mrs. Fagin,'" said Pooki, wagging her finger. "She gave you a home. There were more than a hundred people on the waiting list."
The Princess surveyed the floor. "Can't you just put down some arsenic or something?" she asked.
"No, ma'am," the maid said, shaking her head. "It is too dangerous. The Maharaja always thought that the British Government was going to poison him, and it was never allowed in the house."
"Well, let's hope Victoria's appetite is as big as yours. And don't let Mrs. Boots see her. That woman's convinced I've smuggled in a pet as it is."
The maid's eyes fell to the floor. "Why would that be, ma'am?" she asked, slowly looking up.
"Goodness knows," the Princess replied. She then handed her the newspaper, and tapped at an advertisement for a fancy dress ball at the Greyhound Hotel, next to the entrance to Bushy Park. "I've decided to go," she said. "I haven't been to one for ages."
Pooki read it and beamed. "That is an exceedingly good idea, ma'am. You might find a husband."
Mink frowned. "I don't want a husband."
"You wanted to marry Mr. Cavendish, ma'am," the maid reminded her. "Everyone needs love. Even Victoria the hedgehog."
"Well, my views have changed," Mink replied curtly, sitting down at the table. "Wives just end up being female valets." She nodded at the paper. "I'm going to go as Boadicea."
Pooki shook her head. "You cannot go as Boadicea, ma'am. Gentlemen do not like such ladies. They are too ferocious for them. You should go as Cinderella."
Mink stared at her. "I'm not going as Cinderella!" she exclaimed. "You are twenty-seven and still not married, ma'am. You will have to go as Sleeping Beauty or you will die a spinster."
The Princess frowned. "I'm not going as Sleeping Beauty either," she declared. "And I don't need a husband."
Pooki crossed her arms. "Then you shall be Snow White."
The Princess stood up. "I'd rather go as one of the Seven Dwarves. Now, let's see those pigeon pies."
The maid froze. "Ma'am, you do not need to see those pigeon pies."
"I just want to check them before we go to the picnic," said the Princess, looking towards the larder.
Pooki put her hands on her hips. "There is no need, ma'am, as I have already said. You would be better off deciding which ear- rings to wear."
"I've already decided," Mink replied, studying the maid. "So what's wrong with the pigeon pies, Pooki?"
The maid closed her eyes. "Nothing, ma'am," she said, shaking her head. "They are very, very beautiful." Suddenly she opened them again and looked straight at her mistress. "And even if they happened to be as ugly as Mrs. Boots, there would be nothing you could do about it, as we have to leave in less than an hour and I still need to help you dress and do your hair."
Mink moved towards the larder, but the servant stood in her way. The Princess darted to the right, but the maid blocked her. She then dodged left, but Pooki was too fast.
"I'm not interested in seeing them anyway," said Mink sulkily, heading slowly for the stairs. Suddenly she turned, and hared round the kitchen table, the duped maid sprinting after her. The Princess reached the larder first, then stood in contemplation, her head to one side in line with the pitch of the pastry, which undulated like the swell of the sea.
Pooki had made them the previous day from a recipe given to her by Alice Cockle, who dropped in with a bag of flour in case she ran out. Pike, the butcher's boy, then arrived at the back door with the delivery of birds, which she lined up in a row on the kitchen table, their clutched pink feet pointing heavenwards. After plucking and singeing them, she relieved them of their pitifully small guts, cut off their wings, necks, and feet, and trussed them up for stewing. Arranging the giblets and a slice of beef in the bottom of each pie dish, she then added the pigeons, stock, ketchup, a glass of port, and, to all except one, boiled eggs. Covering them with a pastry lid, she crimped the edging and placed in the middle a rose made of butter and flour into which she stuck pigeon legs, their feet sticking up into the air.
It took a while for Mink to be able to speak. "Why does only one of them have three legs?" she asked.
The servant peered over her shoulder. "That one is for the General, ma'am," she said. "His butler asked me to make one without eggs, as his master does not eat them, and suggested inserting fewer legs to identify it, as they do every year apparently."
The Princess continued looking at it. "I can't stand the man. He appears to forget he's married." She glanced around the larder. "We seem to have an awful lot of watercress."
The maid froze. Slowly she turned her dark eyes to her mistress and swallowed. "It is in season, ma'am," she replied evenly, then walked swiftly out.
With her hair swept up into a well-padded chignon to give her extra height, Mink left Wilderness House wearing a turquoise and seal-brown jacket with a high collar, her matching skirt hugging her hips and flaring from the knee as fashion dictated. Pooki followed in a new black merino maid's dress, with a white apron, cap, collar, and cuffs. They walked in silence, the Princess already regretting having agreed to go on account of the unfortunate-looking contents of the maid's basket. Nor did she know whether anyone would talk to her, apart from the three ladies who had invited her, as none of the other grace-and-favour residents had tried to make her acquaintance.
Eventually they found the Pond Gardens, laid out by William and Mary into small enclosures surrounded by tall hedges to protect the exotics when moved out of the conservatories. Mink immediately spotted the party in a section that remained as a private refuge for the residents. Some stood in clusters, others were propped up in bath chairs, and a number sat on rugs on the lawn. Neatly arranged on a row of trestle tables draped with white linen were silver platters and dishes bearing joints of lamb and beef, veal patties, rabbit pies, lobsters, apple trifles, casseroles of prunes, and Swiss puddings. At one end stood a silver tea urn, and at the other bottles of sherry, claret, beer, lemonade, and soda water. A row of expressionless butlers stood behind with their white-gloved hands at their sides, all of whom had just placed a bet on which resident would disgrace themselves the most.
The Princess approached, wondering whether the three ladies who called on her had arrived. As she stood looking around, she noticed numerous eyes upon her and heads coming together to exchange whispers. She was just contemplating whether to leave when Lady Montfort Bebb caught her eye and gestured to the garden chair next to her and the Countess.
"Do take a seat, Princess," she said, smiling, as Mink approached. "It's always preferable to be off the ground. You get a much better view of the proceedings. We wouldn't want to miss anything exciting. The chaplain and the organist came to blows last year." She then looked the Countess up and down. "Though some behaviour is best forgotten."
The Countess fiddled with the ribbons tying her widow's bonnet. "It would be forgotten were it not for certain people endlessly bringing it up," she said curtly. "The reason I fell from my chair was because the sherry was adulterated. Goodness knows what the merchant added to it. I couldn't get out of bed the whole of the next day."
Lady Montfort Bebb pursed her lips. "May I suggest that you avoid the sherry altogether this year?" she said. "We struggled getting you to your feet, you were so convulsed with laughter. No one else was amused, I can tell you, apart from the butler who witnessed your collapse and found the spectacle so hilarious he fell backwards into a flowerbed. The poor man broke his leg." She looked away, then snapped: "It wouldn't have mattered, except that he was my butler."
"I've no intention of going anywhere near the sherry," the Countess replied primly, her black-gloved hands clasped in her lap. She raised herself up from her chair and looked towards the trestle tables. "I shall try the claret."
Feeling the urge for some as well, Mink excused herself and returned with three glasses. She sat down next to the Countess and offered her one.
"Don't encourage her," muttered Lady Montfort Bebb, reaching out an age-dappled hand for a glass, which she promptly drained. "I don't know why I arrange this every year. Something always happens to make me regret it. But I live in hope that one year we will be one happy family and let bygones be bygones."
The Princess glanced towards the path, then lowered her voice. "I do hope we won't have to spend the afternoon with the General. I find him intolerable."
Lady Montfort Bebb patted her arm. "Don't worry, my dear. Thankfully he finds me intolerable, so we will be spared his presence," she replied. "I'm not at all surprised that you've taken against him so quickly. He has no manners to speak of. He gets into his carriage before his wife, and continues to smoke in the street when he passes a lady. How he can object to my music is beyond comprehension. It never bothered you when you were living next to me, did it?" she asked, turning to the Countess.
There was a significant pause. "Not in the least," she replied, glancing at the floor.
"Goodness knows what Mrs. Bagshot sees in him," Mink continued. "I bumped into her before she left for Egypt. I rather took to her."
"Mrs. Bagshot is adorable," agreed the Countess. "But her husband is another matter entirely. I heard he once slapped a kitchen maid for rejecting his advances. And he was extremely rude about my interior decoration when he and Mrs. Bagshot moved into my old apartments overlooking the Thames."
"So he does have some taste after all," muttered Lady Montfort Bebb, peering through her lorgnettes at the crowd. "I wonder where Lady Beatrice has got to. We're still missing the blancmange. Oh, look, there's Dr. Henderson. Why I should eat luncheon in the company of the man who treats my chilblains is beyond me, but Lady Beatrice insisted that I ask him. It seems her daughter is quite taken with him. Oh, dear, he's coming our way." She turned to Mink. "Let me know if you have no wish to be introduced, and I'll pretend I haven't seen him."
"On the contrary," she replied. "That man needs instruction on the etiquette of train travel."
Once Lady Montfort Bebb had acknowledged him with a nod, the general practitioner approached and raised his hat, revealing his tousled curls. She turned to Mink. "Allow me to present Dr. Henderson. Princess Alexandrina, Dr. Henderson."
Mink looked at him from her seat. "It seems you have a mania for fresh air, Dr. Henderson," she remarked tartly.
"Ventilated air, such as that in a railway carriage provided by an open window, is much better for the health than that which has already been expired by others, Princess," he replied.
She raised her chin. "And what of chills, doctor? Surely one could catch one's death being subjected to a fully open window during a train journey in the month of March?" Dr. Henderson glanced away, then met her blue gaze. "Strong emotions lead people to act in ways that they often later regret. One can only hope that a victim of such behaviour would find it within herself to forgive such foolishness."
The Princess was about to reply when Lady Montfort Bebb stood up. "Finally!" she exclaimed. Mink turned and saw Lady Beatrice approaching with her daughter, a plain-looking girl much more timorously attired, whose gaze scattered over the guests until it settled on Dr. Henderson. Behind them walked a sweating butler carrying a large pink blancmange on a silver platter as if it were a bomb. Suddenly he appeared to falter, his view of the ground obscured by his tremulous load. All might have been well, had it not been for his woeful over-correction. It was never clear what hit the ground first, but one thing was certain: the servant and the dessert were entirely enmeshed by the time they both landed. Without a backwards glance, Lady Beatrice and her daughter increased their pace and sat down.
"It appears that your butler's gout isn't cured after all," remarked Lady Montfort Bebb.
Mink raised an eyebrow and looked at Dr. Henderson. "He must be your patient, doctor," she said.
"It gets better and better," said the Countess, dabbing away a tear of mirth with a black-bordered handkerchief. "Here's the General, with whom I can only assume is his American guest."
"What on earth has that foreigner got on?" asked Lady Montfort Bebb, examining him through her lorgnettes.
Mink sat up and peered. "It appears to be some sort of monkey-fur coat."
The General approached, wearing a bowler hat, a fashionably quiet grey lounge suit, and an unconventional fancy waistcoat arranged with a double row of buttons. He scanned the women, his eyes stopping on Mink. With him was a broad man in a chimney-pot hat and a luxuriant pelt down to his knees. His dark hair was expertly plastered to his head, and over his wide smile perched the politest of moustaches.
"These seats are already taken, General," declared Lady Montfort Bebb, gesturing to the empty places beside them.
"By whom, I wonder?" he asked, smiling. "A couple of whelk sellers, or maybe some sweeps? Or the organ grinder? No? Then it must be Mr. Blood! Pity he didn't take you away while he was round on Saturday. Not to worry. It's only a matter of time before he'll be back, with any luck."
Lady Montfort Bebb looked away, nostrils flared, gripping her cane in fury. The General started the introductions, and she reluctantly turned back at the sound of her name to find Cornelius B. Pilgrim holding out his hand. She looked at it as if she had caught the tail wind of an elderly cheese. "In England, Mr. Pilgrim, a well-mannered man never puts out his hand in greeting until a lady extends hers," she said pointedly. "Such behaviour is based on the assumption that the lady is the social superior."
The American laughed, slapped her on the back, and took a seat. She sat in stunned silence, looking ahead of her.
"Mr. Pilgrim is a friend of the family and a palaeontologist. He's staying with me for a few weeks while he visits our museums," said General Bagshot, sitting down next to Mink, who immediately froze.
Lady Beatrice leant forward, the pink ostrich feathers on her hat quivering. "You must go and see the life-size dinosaur replicas at the Crystal Palace, Mr. Pilgrim," she suggested. "They were the first in the world, like most things in Britain. I understand the plans for those in Central Park were scrapped."
Cornelius B. Pilgrim thanked her for the recommendation and said he had just been to see them. "I do love English trains. You get much less covered in soot over here," he said.
Mink edged away from the General, who had opened his legs to such an extent that his knee was touching the edge of her skirt. "It's all to do with the coal we use, Mr. Pilgrim," she pointed out. She looked at Dr. Henderson. "Though, of course, it also depends on how far open the window is. Some people insist on having it all the way down, much to the great annoyance of the other passengers."
The doctor's eyes fell to the floor.
"No one ever agrees how much fresh air to let into a train carriage," said Lady Montfort Bebb. "The consumptives are the worst. Do you have any other plans, apart from visiting our museums and manhandling the populace, Mr. Pilgrim? I should avoid the National Gallery when it's raining. The working classes tend to shelter there when it's wet."
"I was thinking of going to see some of the Dickens landmarks," he replied, lounging back in his chair. "Apparently you can still see the steps in Oliver Twist on the Surrey side of London Bridge."
Lady Beatrice adjusted her golden-blond fringe. "Much of the rest, I shouldn't wonder, has been trampled to death by foreign tourists. Furnival's Inn, where he began to write The Pickwick Papers, was torn down several months ago. At least that's one less mecca for the Yankee hordes."
Cornelius B. Pilgrim scratched his cheek. "I must confess I haven't read it. I'm about to start Little Dorrit."
There was silence as the women exchanged disapproving glances.
Mink turned to him. "I hope you'll feel at home during your stay, Mr. Pilgrim. Jacksons of Piccadilly sells American groceries."
"Should anyone want such things ..." said Lady Montfort Bebb, looking doubtful.
Suddenly Mink felt an arm on the back of her chair, and the General turned towards her and lowered his voice. "I called yesterday, but your maid said you weren't at home. You weren't hiding from me, were you?" he asked, his eyes skimming her chest.
Her stomach turned as she inhaled the fetid stench of pipe tobacco and port. "Hiding from you, General?" she asked, sitting forward. "To be perfectly frank, I haven't given you a second thought. I was attending a meeting of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies."
"Were you, indeed?" he said, looking her up and down. "Woman suffrage is condemned by the Bible."
Mink smiled politely. "I wasn't aware that you had read it, General."
"What on earth does he want?" cried Lady Montfort Bebb, staring at Gibbs, the grocer's boy, running towards them, clutching his cap.
Panting, he approached Dr. Henderson. "Mother says to tell you that the baby's on its way," he said. Mink watched the doctor leave, turning away when he glanced back.
"What a pity Dr. Henderson's gone," said Lady Beatrice, looking at her daughter, who was talking to another group of residents. "How she'll find a husband I'll never know." She leant towards the Countess and lowered her voice. "I'm still looking for one for you, of course."
"But I don't wish to remarry," the Countess hissed, glancing around to see if anyone heard. "I've told you countless times. You're a widow yourself, and know perfectly well that it's most agreeable not to have a husband. There's no one spilling tobacco over the carpet, leaving collars in every corner of the bedroom, or forgetting to put their boots out to be cleaned. Why do you insist on trying to push me back up the aisle?"
Lady Beatrice leant towards her. "I'm considerably older than you, not that one could tell with all that grey hair you refuse to dye, and have my daughter for company. You are all alone in those freezing apartments in Fish Court with only your ferns for company. One can only get away with such eccentricity at an advanced age." She then glanced around, opened her handbag, and tilted it towards the Countess. "I have something for you," she whispered. "We ladies have to make the most of ourselves. You're fortunate in that you're a natural beauty, but even nature needs a helping hand."
The Countess peered into the bag with a frown. "It looks like some sort of taxidermy," she muttered.
Lady Beatrice put her hand inside and thrust the contents into the Countess's lap. "It's a false fringe," she hissed. "Put it into your bag. There's no need to pay me back, not that you would. Just keep me abreast of all the gentlemen suitors."
The Countess immediately covered it with her hands. As soon as Lady Beatrice turned away, she dropped it on the floor with the tips of her fingers and went to fetch some more claret. Wanting to escape General Bagshot, Mink joined her. But when she returned, there was no other seat available, and she reluctantly sunk back down next to him.
"I was wondering whether you had reconsidered my offer," he murmured, leaning so close to her she could feel his blood-shot nose against her hair. "I've always found that you natives have such appetites for pleasure. Your father certainly did, as everyone knows. I'm hoping you're just like him."
Suddenly Mink stood up, the contents of her glass spilling onto the General's crotch. He let out a wail, staring in disbelief at the deep red stain on his trousers. The Princess gasped, holding her hands to her cheeks. "Forgive me, General," she begged. "I'm such an oaf."
A butler ran over with a napkin, and General Bagshot snatched it out of his hands and started dabbing at himself while those around them stared. "They're ruined," he seethed, and glared at the Princess. Mink sat down, apologising loudly. She then leant towards him and purred into his ear: "You're absolutely right, General. I am just like my father. I've an excellent aim."
The Countess, who had watched the General's soaking with delight, looked over towards the trestle tables and said loudly: "I wonder whether it's time for luncheon. So much amusement has given me an appetite."
"What a good idea," said Lady Montfort Bebb. "Did you bring the butter this year? Though I don't know why I bother to ask."
The Countess flicked an imaginary speck off her skirt. "Apparently there's a problem with my account," she said, breezily.
Lady Beatrice turned to her. "You should marry the butter-man," she said, looking her up and down. "Then we'd all be spared the humiliation of dry bread rolls."
Lady Montfort Bebb headed towards the tables and returned several minutes later, frowning. "No one seems to know where the gong is," she said. She looked at Lady Beatrice. "I can only assume that for the second year running it has been left behind."
Lady Beatrice put a hand over her mouth. "I've had so much on my mind," she said, tittering nervously. "You've no idea the anxiety my cook causes me. She deserted me last week just before a dinner party, claiming she had to see her mother on her death-bed. That woman has been dying for eight years."
As they were eating, the General shouted over to Pooki, demanding to be brought another slice of pigeon pie. As she served him, he turned to her and asked, "So what's the gossip amongst the servants?"
"I do not know, General," she replied, not looking him in the eye.
He frowned. "Come, come. There must be some tittle-tattle with which you can enliven the picnic," he said.
"I do not know of any, General," she replied, shaking her head. "I have already told you."
He surveyed her. "You do disappoint me," he said. "I've always found Indian servants delighted to pass on the slightest hint of a scandal. And what they don't know they make up."
Pooki's jaw set. "There is one thing I heard from one of the delivery boys," she said after a pause.
"Oh, good," said General Bagshot, smiling. "Let's hear it."
The maid looked at him and raised her voice. "He said that you killed some of Lady Beatrice's doves and sold them to the butcher as pigeons."
Lady Beatrice dropped her fork, while Mink stared at Pooki, open-mouthed.
The Countess eventually broke the silence. "Has anyone read the new edition of The Fern World by Francis George Heath?" she enquired, looking around. "I do recommend it."
Suddenly the General roared with laughter. Turning back to Pooki, he said, "You'd better bring me another slice, as I might be eating a nice plump dove. I've always wondered what they taste like." He looked over at Lady Beatrice, who immediately got to her feet and walked away. Mink turned to Cornelius B. Pilgrim and asked the first thing that came into her head: "Do American women really wear their diamonds in the morning?"
Not long after Pooki had returned with General Bagshot's third slice, he put his hand against his stomach and declared he was feeling off colour.
Ignoring him, the Countess asked, "Is anyone going to the fancy dress ball at the Greyhound Hotel this year? They always put on such a good spread."
"So it would seem," said Lady Montfort Bebb. "I can't recall a year when you weren't the last person to leave the supper room."
"An English fancy dress ball?" asked Cornelius B. Pilgrim. "What fun! Sure, I'll go."
Lady Montfort Bebb smiled at him and cocked her head. "We'll see about that, Mr. Pilgrim. I'm in charge of selling the tickets in order to keep out the riff-raff."
When General Bagshot complained again that he was feeling unwell, Mink declared, "Isn't it funny how one always fancies some blancmange when there isn't any."
Several minutes later he wrapped his arms around his abdomen and leant forwards with a loud moan.
"Oh, look, there's a kitty cat," said Cornelius B. Pilgrim with a smile, looking at the plump black-and-white creature on top of the garden wall. "How cute."
Lady Montfort Bebb raised her lorgnettes. "That's Lord Sluggard, the palace mouser."
"It looks like he's caught something for once," said the Countess, leaning forward. "I can't quite make out whether it's a rat or a mouse."
The General emitted a much louder groan and doubled over. Everyone sat up in their seats to peer at the animal.
"It's neither," declared Mink. "That's a false fringe."
At that moment came a hideous retching sound, and the ladies quickly withdrew their feet as General Bagshot vomited on the grass. Just as Cornelius B. Pilgrim passed him his handkerchief, the man vomited again, causing the rest of the party to disperse. The American then took his arm and led him back to the palace, watched by the residents and servants, their eyes flicking between the vomit on his boots and his stained trousers. It was considerably later, when one of the butlers was drinking his winnings in the Mitre, that the Astronomical Clock stopped.
From the book The Pigeon Pie Mystery: A Novel by Julia Stuart, copyright 2012 by Julia Stuart. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Audio production copyright 2012 by Random House Inc.