I remember the story our grand-grandmother told us about Lady Barclay, her aunt, who once stunned the London society by appearing at a glamorous charity event wearing a diamond as a tooth.
My grand-grandmother's memory wasn't quite reliable at 97 years old and was famous for coming up with fraudulent stories at her parties when she had too much to drink.
So, I double checked that memory by examining her diary.
To my delight - an aspiring story-teller myself - here's what I've found as the last entry:
"The Diamond in the Beans"
It was early April - a warm, radiant Monday that made everybody in the Barclay household crack a smile and tend to their chores with a bit more enthusiasm than usual. The windows of the mansion were wide open, letting in the lilac-scented air and the faint humming of Country Rose Street where Lady Barclay resided March through September every year.
The baroness was having lunch in the dining room, by herself.
Oh, mealtime! The only time when the deep line between her eyebrows softened, her voice sweetened and all the servants breathed out in relief.
“What’s the next course, dear?” She asked the cook aide, patting her forehead with her napkin. “The broth was delicious.”
“White beans with caramelized onions, beef steak and red beet salad, milady,” the young woman answered, carefully maneuvering the serving cart around the table.
When she was done placing the plates on the table, the cook aide pushed the cart out of the way and tiptoed to the grandfather clock by the china display. She stood there, motionless like a statue, her eyes fixing an intricate leaf motif in the Persian rug, her hands clutched tightly behind her back.
At the table, the baroness admired the steamy plates, her heart racing in delicious anticipation. “Oh, goodness gracious. This looks heavenly,” she murmured and grabbed a fork and a steak knife with her plump hands.
Mmmm. Nothing could beat the very first bite. The beans were tender and garlicky, covered in sweet, browned onions. She cut a piece of meat and speared a piece of pickled red beet.
“Small bites, child. You’re going to choke, for God’s sake” she heard her mother’s angry bark in her head. “And chew your food before you swallow. With your mouth shut! Lord Almighty, even a hog has more class than you.”
The baroness scoffed, almost choking on a mouthful of beans.
The old Lady Barclay talked a good game in front of the servants. She pretended to be a caring mother to her only child, but everybody in the household, from the butler to the stable hand, knew Lady Barclay didn’t even nurse baby Annabelle. She had to preserve her perky breasts, so the baron’s wandering eyes – a much younger man, with healthy appetites – wouldn’t stray into the servant’s quarters. His proclivities were well known in all society circles, no matter how hard old Lady Barclay had tried to obscure them behind lavish parties, donations to the church, old folks’ homes and orphanages.
Poor lonesome Annabelle toddled from room to room, sucking on her thumb, searching for her parents. Tired and hungry, she sought the warmth of whoever female servants were around. The French governesses were always busy competing for the baron’s attention, so she settled for the cooks who fed her crumpets and scones and tea biscuits until her little tummy burst, her little heart still yearning.
“The best way to watch your figure, darling, is to leave the table with your stomach only half full,” her sensible mother drilled into her head when Annabelle became a corpulent, withdrawn adolescent. Of course it didn’t help that she had buck teeth, an unsightly double chin and no waist whatsoever.
“It’s better to deal with the frustration of a half-full stomach, darling, than the discomfort, the shame and guilt that comes when stuffing yourself to oblivion. Not to mention the social stigma and fate of a pudgy, weak spinster nobody wants to associate with. You can’t let your stomach rule you, child. You weren’t born in a barn.”
When she ate with her parents, young Annabelle tried to half her portions and even refuse pudding, the most unthinkable punishment she could inflict on herself. But around midnight, she snuck into the kitchen, hid in the pantry and gobbled up everything she could get her hands on. Like a ravished animal, she shoved food in her mouth with both hands, sucking and licking her fingers raw. And, to her despair, she was still ravenous while dragging herself back to bed. She laid there, staring at the ceiling, the only consolation being the thought of breakfast the next day.
Her ghastly urges, her barbaric behavior scared and deeply shamed her. She didn’t have the slightest idea how to curb her compulsions, however. How to assuage the anxiety caused by her ever-growing mid-section, the guilt and self-disgust that plagued her every night. To comfort herself, she ate some more and always resolved to deal with her guilt and shame later, after the next meal.
The baroness closed her eyes and savored each bite of food, like ambrosia. She chewed and sighed with pleasure, her full cheeks flushed, her forehead and hairline damp with light perspiration. She stabbed a big piece of meat and shoved it in her mouth.
Mmmm. The steak was juicy, perfectly seared. The herby vinegar in the pickled beets tingled her busy tongue. Oh, and the beans! She couldn’t get enough of them, but her fork could only hold so much. She wished she could use a soup ladle, or a large serving spoon to pack a good amount in her mouth. But she had to display moderation and refinement in front of the cook aide. God knows, the brutes in her service needed to learn some class.
A sudden crunch sound broke the silence in the room. The baroness stopped mid-chew. A sharp pain exploded in her upper jaw. With the fork still in her mouth, she contemplated spitting out the food. No way. She couldn’t waste such a divine bite, so she gulped down the food. Besides, a proper lady never spits her food out. Not in front of the servants, anyway.
She then took a look at the utensil in her hand. Her eyebrows went up, the line between them deepening. There were slight dents in the dines of the fork. She brought the fork closer to her eyes. She had actually put a dent in the metal, for God’s sake. She put it down and gingerly thrusted her tongue forward, checking the upper incisors pulsing with pain. The ragged gap cut the tip of her tongue and she drew it back with a whimper. Half of her incisor on the right side was gone!
“What are you looking at?” She yelled at the cook aide. Her words came out gurgled. “Get a mirror!” The girl stood there, facing her, transfixed. Like in a trance, she pointed to the large mirror on the wall by the china display. “Not that, stupid! A hand-held mirror, from the bedroom! And fetch the cook when you’re back! Move!” She screamed when the girl didn’t seem capable to shake her stupor. “The bedroom is that way, you imbecile!”
The girl took off, tripping on the skirts of her ill-fitted uniform.
Left alone, the baroness moaned like a wounded animal. She gingerly touched her chin and stared at the blood on her shaking fingertips. She opened her mouth slowly and touched her incisors. How could that happen? The day before the charity event she was finally invited to? Hot tears pooled in her eyes.
“Even a hog has more class than you,” she heard her mother’s words in her ears. She tried to imagine her face, crumpled in disgust and exasperation. Thank God she was dead. The scene or rumors of her daughter, taking a bite of her fork, would have driven her apoplectic, no doubt about that.
She surveyed the remains of the third course, mourning the few tablespoonfuls of beans left on the plate, the half-eaten steak and the few pieces of beet staining the white porcelain bowl a deep purple-red.
Did the cook aide see her bite down the fork that way? She was a dimwit, though, so the baroness hoped she had been far away in her dull little world.
But what if she had paid attention and now was planning to tell the help and the whole London that lady Barclay – The Fat Goat – choked on her fork?
“What is it, milady?” A slender woman in a white cook’s head cover materialized in the room. Her flat chest heaved, her hand rested on her throat, trying to calm her breathing. Her hollow cheeks were pale, more sunken than ever. “Something wrong with the food?”
She approached the table and placed a silver-framed mirror on the tablecloth, then cautiously moved back a few steps.
“Where’s that idiot?”
“She tripped and fell on the stairs, milady. Her ankle is swollen.”
“Get rid of her. I don’t want that moron in my service,” the baroness said. She found it difficult to speak and not cut her inner lips in her ragged incisor.
Oh, how she hated mirrors. The sight of her buck teeth, the uneven jaws that made her look like an old, fat goat had always depressed her. She took a big breath and grabbed the mirror, her heart thumping in her collarbone.
“Oh, good Lord!” she gasped at the sight of the rivulet of blood on her chin and the front of her light yellow blouse. She looked an absolute fright. How was she going to show her face at the charity event tomorrow? She had to come up with a plan.
“Were there bones in the steak?” The baroness asked and placed the mirror on the table. She leaned back in the chair. The apprehension on the cook’s face was a soothing sight. She’ll find a way out of this.
“No, milady. It was boneless. I made sure of that. “
“A pebble in the beans, perhaps. Did you have that moron pick over the beans?” The baroness pressed further, scanning the cook’s face for clues.
Mildred’s hands played with the ruffles of her apron. There were multiples stains on it. Orange, green, mustard, bloody red. She must had been too distraught to change into a fresh one before running to the dining-room to face the baroness.
The cook hesitated for a second before answering. “No, milady. I did that myself.”
“Are you sure, Mildred? There’s no point in covering for that girl.”
“I am sure, milady,” she said. “But your ladyship’s earring is missing.” She pointed to baroness’s left ear. She had red, small fingers, with nails trimmed very short. Although shaken, there was a slight relief in her strained voice. And hope.
The baroness frowned in annoyance, but checked her earlobe. Her diamond stud was gone.
Her father gave her the diamond studs after her last suitor - a pompous ass-wipe - dumped her after dinner. On her fiftieth birthday. They were a consolation present of sorts that must have caused the baron a small fortune. He was extravagant that way, unlike his wife, the frigid Lady Barclay, who thought her daughter’s misfortune was a natural consequence of her vulgar urges and, therefore, well-deserved. Justified.
“My guess is that it must have felt in the beans, and your ladyship must have accidentally bit down on it. And swallowed it, possibly?” the cook explained, her voice high-pitched with distress.
The baroness remained quiet for a moment. The pulsing in her upper jaw started to slowly subside.
“It makes sense, my dear,” she admitted, graciously. “I have a lot on my mind with this charity event tomorrow. Tell James to call the dentist. I need to see him right away.”
“Yes, milady. “
The cook turned around and quickly headed for the door.
“Mildred!” the baroness called.
The cook stopped, still facing the door. She fixed the head cover first before turning around. “Yes, milady?”
“Mildred, my dear,” the baroness smiled. Her bloodied teeth looked sinister in her mouth. More frightful than ever. “I’ve been meaning to ask this for years. How do you keep yourself so fit, at your age? You’re surrounded by food all day. What is your secret, dear?”
The cook blinked a few times. She patted down her apron and smiled. “There is no secret, milady. I don’t have much of an appetite, that’s all. “
“Do you have some… illness? “
“Oh, no, milady. I’m in good health, thank God. I’ve never been much of an eater, that’s all. Not even as a child.”
“You should thank your lucky stars then.”
Clever answer, the baroness conceded. Over the years, Mildred has proved herself to be prudent, quite astute for somebody with a basic education. The multitude of cook aids she has trained over the years revered her. She treated them fairly and with dignity, which the baroness found it ridiculous, quite melodramatic. But even the butler seemed to heed her advice, and he was one proud, pigheaded fellow.
“I am indeed blessed in many ways, milady. I’ll go find Mr. James right away.”
“Blessed in many ways.” Another diplomatic answer from a servant who had been working over two decades for a veritable despot as Lady Barclay was openly called in town.
The baroness watched the cook’s small frame hurry away and leaned against the chair. A flicker of light caught her eye. She squinted. On the white linen, next to the water glass, lay the tiny diamond stud. She sat up, plucked the earring and without hesitation, she put it in her mouth.
“Milady,” she heard Mildred’s strained voice.
The baroness froze. This day couldn’t get any worse. “What else?”
She felt like throwing something at the cook. The small stud in her mouth made her words come out slurred, as though she were drunk. It rattled in her mouth against her big teeth.
“What about Agnes, milady?” The cook asked.
“Who?” The baroness almost spat the earring out.
“The new girl, milady. The cook aide. The girl who served your ladyship lunch.”
“What about her? “
The baroness scanned the cook’s face. Did the woman catch her put the earring in her mouth? Better yet, could she hear it in her mouth, rattling against her teeth?
If she did, Mildred’s face didn’t betray anything. Neither shock, nor derision. Just the usual apprehension the servants showed in her presence.
However, the baroness saw a quiet determination in those brown, bright eyes, emboldened perhaps by the edge she knew she had over Lady Barclay.
“Does your ladyship still want to dismiss her?” She asked boldly, her shoulders squared, her hands balled in small red fists by her skinny thighs.
Such impertinence would have gotten anybody else slapped hard across the face and thrown in the street immediately. But Lady Barclay knew such maneuver worked only with dumb people like Agnes. She couldn’t risk dismissing Mildred.
“I’ll leave that issue into your capable hands.” The baroness managed to articulate the sentence with as much composure as the earring in her mouth allowed.
“Your ladyship is very generous,” Mildred answered. “I’ll make sure she repays your ladyship's kindness, milady.”
“Oh, leave that to me, dear.”
The cook crossed the dining room in her quiet, unflattering shoes and closed the door carefully behind her. Lady Barclay grabbed the water glass and gulped several times until she was certain the diamond stud landed in her stomach, on top of the beans.
Yes, it was a sacrifice. Better to break her tooth on a diamond earring than on the tines of a fork, thank you very much. And while it was quite possible to recover the diamond from the chamber pot (she’ll have that idiot tend to it), she couldn’t have otherwise said the same about her genteel reputation.