The Byzantine Omelette
Sophie Chattel-Monkheim was a Socialist by conviction and a Chattel-Monkheim by marriage. The particular member of that wealthy family whom she had married was rich, even as his relatives counted riches. Sophie had very advanced and decided views as to the distribution of money: it was a pleasing and fortunate circumstance that she also had the money. When she inveighed eloquently against the evils of capitalism at drawing-room meetings and Fabian conferences she was conscious of a comfortable feeling that the system, with all its inequalities and iniquities, would probably last her time. It is one of the consolations of middle-aged reformers that the good they inculcate must live after them if it is to live at all.
On a certain spring evening, somewhere towards the dinner-hour, Sophie sat tranquilly between her mirror and her maid, undergoing the process of having her hair built into an elaborate reflection of the prevailing fashion. She was hedged round with a great peace, the peace of one who has attained a desired end with much effort and perseverance, and who has found it still eminently desirable in its attainment. The Duke of Syria had consented to come beneath her roof as a guest, was even now installed beneath her roof, and would shortly be sitting at her dining-table. As a good Socialist, Sophie disapproved of social distinctions, and derided the idea of a princely caste, but if there were to be these artificial gradations of rank and dignity she was pleased and anxious to have an exalted specimen of an exalted order included in her house-party. She was broad-minded enough to love the sinner while hating the sin—not that she entertained any warm feeling of personal affection for the Duke of Syria, who was a comparative stranger, but still, as Duke of Syria, he was very, very welcome beneath her roof. She could not have explained why, but no one was likely to ask her for an explanation, and most hostesses envied her.
“You must surpass yourself to-night, Richardson,” she said complacently to her maid; “I must be looking my very best. We must all surpass ourselves.”
The maid said nothing, but from the concentrated look in her eyes and the deft play of her fingers it was evident that she was beset with the ambition to surpass herself.
A knock came at the door, a quiet but peremptory knock, as of some one who would not be denied.
“Go and see who it is,” said Sophie; “it may be something about the wine.”
Richardson held a hurried conference with an invisible messenger at the door; when she returned there was noticeable a curious listlessness in place of her hitherto alert manner.
“What is it?” asked Sophie.
“The household servants have ‘downed tools,’ madame,” said Richardson.
“Downed tools!” exclaimed Sophie; “do you mean to say they’ve gone on strike?”
“Yes, madame,” said Richardson, adding the information: “It’s Gaspare that the trouble is about.”
“Gaspare?” said Sophie wanderingly; “the emergency chef! The omelette specialist!”
“Yes, madame. Before he became an omelette specialist he was a valet, and he was one of the strike-breakers in the great strike at Lord Grimford’s two years ago. As soon as the household staff here learned that you had engaged him they resolved to ‘down tools’ as a protest. They haven’t got any grievance against you personally, but they demand that Gaspare should be immediately dismissed.”
“But,” protested Sophie, “he is the only man in England who understands how to make a Byzantine omelette. I engaged him specially for the Duke of Syria’s visit, and it would be impossible to replace him at short notice. I should have to send to Paris, and the Duke loves Byzantine omelettes. It was the one thing we talked about coming from the station.”
“He was one of the strike-breakers at Lord Grimford’s,” reiterated Richardson.
“This is too awful,” said Sophie; “a strike of servants at a moment like this, with the Duke of Syria staying in the house. Something must be done immediately. Quick, finish my hair and I’ll go and see what I can do to bring them round.”
“I can’t finish your hair, madame,” said Richardson quietly, but with immense decision. “I belong to the union and I can’t do another half-minute’s work till the strike is settled. I’m sorry to be disobliging.”
“But this is inhuman!” exclaimed Sophie tragically; “I’ve always been a model mistress and I’ve refused to employ any but union servants, and this is the result. I can’t finish my hair myself; I don’t know how to. What am I to do? It’s wicked!”
“Wicked is the word,” said Richardson; “I’m a good Conservative and I’ve no patience with this Socialist foolery, asking your pardon. It’s tyranny, that’s what it is, all along the line, but I’ve my living to make, same as other people, and I’ve got to belong to the union. I couldn’t touch another hair-pin without a strike permit, not if you was to double my wages.”
The door burst open and Catherine Malsom raged into the room.
“Here’s a nice affair,” she screamed, “a strike of household servants without a moment’s warning, and I’m left like this! I can’t appear in public in this condition.”
After a very hasty scrutiny Sophie assured her that she could not.
“Have they all struck?” she asked her maid.
“Not the kitchen staff,” said Richardson, “they belong to a different union.”
“Dinner at least will be assured,” said Sophie, “that is something to be thankful for.”
“Dinner!” snorted Catherine, “what on earth is the good of dinner when none of us will be able to appear at it? Look at your hair—and look at me! or rather, don’t.”
“I know it’s difficult to manage without a maid; can’t your husband be any help to you?” asked Sophie despairingly.
“Henry? He’s in worse case than any of us. His man is the only person who really understands that ridiculous new-fangled Turkish bath that he insists on taking with him everywhere.”
“Surely he could do without a Turkish bath for one evening,” said Sophie; “I can’t appear without hair, but a Turkish bath is a luxury.”
“My good woman,” said Catherine, speaking with a fearful intensity, “Henry was in the bath when the strike started. In it, do you understand? He’s there now.”
“Can’t he get out?”
“He doesn’t know how to. Every time he pulls the lever marked ‘release’ he only releases hot steam. There are two kinds of steam in the bath, ‘bearable’ and ‘scarcely bearable’; he has released them both. By this time I’m probably a widow.”
“I simply can’t send away Gaspare,” wailed Sophie; “I should never be able to secure another omelette specialist.”
“Any difficulty that I may experience in securing another husband is of course a trifle beneath anyone’s consideration,” said Catherine bitterly.
Sophie capitulated. “Go,” she said to Richardson, “and tell the Strike Committee, or whoever are directing this affair, that Gaspare is herewith dismissed. And ask Gaspare to see me presently in the library, when I will pay him what is due to him and make what excuses I can; and then fly back and finish my hair.”
Some half an hour later Sophie marshalled her guests in the Grand Salon preparatory to the formal march to the dining-room. Except that Henry Malsom was of the ripe raspberry tint that one sometimes sees at private theatricals representing the human complexion, there was little outward sign among those assembled of the crisis that had just been encountered and surmounted. But the tension had been too stupefying while it lasted not to leave some mental effects behind it. Sophie talked at random to her illustrious guest, and found her eyes straying with increasing frequency towards the great doors through which would presently come the blessed announcement that dinner was served. Now and again she glanced mirror-ward at the reflection of her wonderfully coiffed hair, as an insurance underwriter might gaze thankfully at an overdue vessel that had ridden safely into harbour in the wake of a devastating hurricane. Then the doors opened and the welcome figure of the butler entered the room. But he made no general announcement of a banquet in readiness, and the doors closed behind him; his message was for Sophie alone.
“There is no dinner, madame,” he said gravely; “the kitchen staff have ‘downed tools.’ Gaspare belongs to the Union of Cooks and Kitchen Employees, and as soon as they heard of his summary dismissal at a moment’s notice they struck work. They demand his instant reinstatement and an apology to the union. I may add, madame, that they are very firm; I’ve been obliged even to hand back the dinner rolls that were already on the table.”
After the lapse of eighteen months Sophie Chattel-Monkheim is beginning to go about again among her old haunts and associates, but she still has to be very careful. The doctors will not let her attend anything at all exciting, such as a drawing-room meeting or a Fabian conference; it is doubtful, indeed, whether she wants to.