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Looking for a Cook 05/12/2010

Posted by florencecapital in Uncategorized.
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c. 1900

After a year’s residence in Tuscany, with growing love of the place and people, and a modest acquisition of the Tuscan tongue, I decided upon a bold step – I decided to abandon the artificial comfort of hotel existence and set up house. Many difficult questions presented themselves, but all seemed simplicity itself in comparison with the great servant question. How to find a serving-man, and an elderly housemaid, and a tolerable cook, who would not ill-treat a lonely foreign bachelor? I secured a grey-haired treasure of a housemaid – Concetta – (through no merits of my own, it is true), but cooks – they came pouring in upon me for three days, animated, loud-voiced, well-mannered women of all ages, dressed in their flaming best for the occasion, all endowed seemingly with every perfection, their one desire in life to serve me unto death. One and all got fearfully on my nerves, and nearly caused me to abandon my temerarious project. But on the morrow of the fourth day there  presented herself a small, neat, carefully-appareled woman, animated like the others, for she was a Tuscan, but quiet of voice, and with better manners and a more restrained bearing than most duchesses. Of a melancholy cast, too, which was rather an advantage, for the hilarious happiness of the Tuscan servant is a little detrimental to the tranquillity desirable in a student home.

Yet since the Tuscans regard melancholy as a species of rudeness, so her good manners seemed to have taught her to assume a gladness that she did not feel.

‘What is your name?’ I queried magisterially.

‘Elvirina Pezzi, signore.’

‘And your age?’

A pause. By a delicately-shaded change of manner she managed to convey that I had asked an indelicate and unmasculine question. Perhaps I betrayed a sign of irritation. ‘Thirty-one or two, signore,’ she answered hastily, ‘or perhaps thirty-three. I do not very well remember.’ (She was forty-two, I found out afterwards.)

‘Why did you leave your last place?’

‘Because my padroni go every year to their country house and take all the servants. I do not like leaving the town.’ ‘Are you married?’

‘No, signore.’

‘Have you any family or relations here?’

‘No, signore. At least none except a little nephew.’

‘A nephew?’

‘Si signore. The little son of my only sister, Elettra. My poor dear sister and Ezio, her husband, were carried off in the last epidemic of cholera, and there is none to care for the dear little angel but me. Ah! you should see him, signore. What a sweet angiolino it is?’

All her assumed cheerfulness vanished, a look of trouble and solicitude and great tenderness came into her eyes. I was moved myself, and admired such devotion to a sisters child. It jarred upon the situation, but I was obliged to ask: ‘What wages have you been in the habit of receiving?’

‘Forty francs a month, signore’.

‘I cannot give you more than thirty.’ She would have bargained with me but for the strong emotion under which she was labouring.

‘For the sake of serving so good a padrone, I will come for thirty,’ she said. ‘If I content him he will give more in time. It is hard to maintain my little nephew on thirty.’

‘What is the name of your late master? Will he let me call on him for your character?’

‘Eh! I should think so! The General Magliani. A most worthy gentleman, but that he would go into the country, and I do not like that. He lives at 39 Via Cavour. He will give the best of informations about me, for I have ever known how to content his palate. He is utterly displeased that I should go. ‘Elvirina,’ he would say to me many a time, ‘thy risotto and thy spaghetti a sugo di came…’’

‘Very good,’ I said, interrupting the flow, ‘come back to-morrow morning, and if I receive a good character I will engage you’. ‘Then I feel that the signore has already engaged me.’ She smiled an apology for the little familiarity, and retired with a polite curtsey.

In the afternoon I called upon the general. He was out, but his signora was in. I sent in word what my mission was. She would be delighted to see me; would I pass this way? I passed into a tiny, cheerless reception-room, overloaded with an immense quantity of florid, tasteless knick-knacks. A fat, rubicund, goodnatured-looking lady of forty-five or so – comfortable contrast to her garish surroundings – greeted me cordially, and motioned me to be seated.

‘I have taken the liberty of calling for the character of Elvirina Pezzi,’ I began.

‘You may engage her with your eyes shut,’ the good-natured lady replied decisively. ‘An excellent cook, and a sober, steady, hard-working, and very honest woman.’

There seemed really nothing else to say after this graphic summary of her perfections. Diffidently I added, ‘May I ask what wages you paid her?’

‘Twenty-five francs a month, with wine.’

‘Twenty-five!’ with a little surprise in my voice. ‘She told me she had been in the habit of receiving forty!’

 ‘Ha! ha! ha! the little witch!’ laughed the good-natured lady with great good-humour. ‘She received forty francs from an ignorant American gentleman ten years ago, and it was the joke of the whole market-place. Since then I don’t suppose she has ever received more than twentyfive!’ I didn’t like this trifling with truth.

‘But I’ve promised to give her thirty!’ I said plaintively.

‘Ah, well! they take advantage of you foreigners. It is a real shame. But she will serve you well. She is worth thirty francs. I would give her thirty francs myself if I could keep her.’ ‘She left you, I believe, because…’

‘Because she does not like coming to the country with us. She does not care to go away and leave that little rascal of a son of hers.’

‘Son!’ I leapt from my chair in agitation. ‘But it is a nephew!’ I cried, scarce knowing what I said in my trepidation.

The fat lady was convulsed with good-natured merriment. ‘You may call him a nephew if you like,’ she said, amid her chuckles, ‘but he’s her own son!’

‘But she said she wasn’t married!’ I cried, outspoken in my bewilderment. This fairly set the fat lady off in uncontrollable laughter. These Tuscan ladies are disconcertingly plain-spoken on such subjects.

‘Why, caro signore, marriage is not an indispensable preliminary to the birth of a son,’ she said. It required time for her to recover from her merriment.

‘But,’ I persisted, ‘it is her sister’s son – Elettra. She and her husband – Ezio, I think – died within twenty-four hours of one another in the last outbreak of cholera!’

This was too much for the fat lady, who began to irritate and annoy me by her want of restraint and reserve. She was holding her handkerchief before her mouth, and the tears were streaming down her cheeks. ‘She has no sister!’ she cried convulsively. And then with difficulty, ‘And Heaven be praised, we haven’t had the cholera here for thirty years!’

I thanked her stiffly. ‘Signora,’ I said, ‘I’m much obliged to you for your outspoken frankness. You have saved me the unpleasantness of taking a bad character into my house. I thank you. Good afternoon.’

She glanced at me with good-natured surprise. ‘Come, come, caro signore, you take too serious a view of the matter. It is nothing. It happens perpetually.’ (I winced at her terrible outspokenness.) ‘M Elvirina is none the worse cook in consequence. I tell you she is an excellent servant. She is an excellent mother, too, devoted to the boy. And she is quite steady, and has no lover now.’ (Again I winced.) ‘You will not repent having engaged her. Good afternoon, signore,’ she added a trifle stiffly as she glanced into my face, which, I suppose, was hard and conventionally set; ‘if I had known the effect of my frank avowal, I should have supported Elvirina’s statement and said it was a nephew.’ A shade of the good-natured twinkle returned into her eyes.

All this was very surprising, but I was mightily disgusted with Elvirina and her barefaced lies. I couldn’t help liking the woman, I saw she was a good servant; but I was fully resolved not to have her in my house at any price. Still, I did not at all relish the task of meeting her next day. I could not hope to attain Tuscan free-andeasiness of speech on the subject of ‘nephews’. It is a difficult subject for an untutored Saxon to handle delicately face to face with a woman. I resolved that I would not touch upon it but put her off with a diplomatic shuffle. But the situation was awkward and unpleasant; I worked myself into a state of nervous helplessness, and by the time she came was wholly without a plan of action.

‘The signore will have received good informations about me?’ she asked eagerly. Her question nonplussed me. To answer ‘No’ would have compromised the Signora Magliani, and would not have been quite true. I was therefore whirled into answering ‘Yes’.

‘Then the signore will engage me as he said?’ Her directness bereft me of all diplomatic suavity of language.

‘No,’ I answered curtly.

‘Then he has received bad informations about me?’

‘No.’ It was really too foolish this helplessness of mine. I must imitate her own directness. ‘You told me you had received forty francs a month,’ I said severely.

‘But not from the Signora Magliani. I have received forty francs a month though.’ (That was quite true.) ‘If it is a question of wages, I will come to so good a signore for twenty-five francs. It is little. I have to pay fifteen francs a month for my nephew’s board and lodging, and five francs for his schooling; that leaves me but five francs a month for myself.’

This further reference to the ‘nephew’ roused me to the full. ‘You say he is your nephew, but he is your son!’ I cried, with Anglo-Saxon brutality. The woman pursed her lips and controlled herself.

‘Did the Signora Magliani tell you that? It is no business of hers. It surprises me that so well-conducted a lady – she herself, too, a mother – could be so indelicate.’ (How delicious!) ‘It is true he is my son! And what then?’

‘But you said he was your nephew. I like truthful people!’ I answered sternly.

Elvirina looked a little perplexed. She seemed to regard me as a species of barbarian unaccustomed to the usages and phraseology of civilised society. ‘That is a form of expression among us,’ she said quietly. (And has been for centuries, I reflected, as I thought of the historical nepotism of her country.) ‘It is no lie. If the signore objects to such a trifle it is evident that I shall not content him. But I am a good cook, and work hard. What more can he wish from me?’

Tears stood full in her eyes as she curtsied to depart. Whatever her past levities might have been, it was evident that she was sobered now; work and the ‘nephew’ were the two concerns of her life. It would have needed a woman to reject her at that moment; I was only a helpless bachelor, launched upon the devious paths of housekeeping, and I engaged her there and then. My cook has proved a great success. She is unassuming, uncomplaining, very hard-working, and a bit of a cordon bleu. She cannot read or write, for all her splendour out of doors. Sometimes she tries to cheat herself out of a soldo in doing accounts; I don’t think she tries to cheat me. The ‘nephew’ I have never seen. He might not exist, and need never have been mentioned. But we refer to him without shamefacedness, and call him a ‘son’. I have sent him useless toys, and this Christmas that is coming I mean to raise Elvirina to the pitch of earthly happiness by telling her to have him to dinner in the kitchen.



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