Camille’s Story, 1910
I stared into the pot as the water began to boil, melting the knob of butter into a shiny yellow slick. “Now?” I asked anxiously. “Should I add the flour now?”
Across the kitchen, Mama was whisking egg whites at a furious pace. “Is the butter melted, Camille?” she called.
“Almost,” I replied. “Almost . . . yes!”
“Good. Now add the flour all at once and stir as hard as you can. Mind the stove, now. I don’t want you to burn yourself again.”
“All at once?” I repeated.
“Yes. Just pour it in and begin stirring. Don’t stop until it’s come together in a thick dough.”
I bit my tongue as I reached for the flour; Mama had helped me measure just the right amount. All at once, I reminded myself. Then I poured the flour into the pot. But I must’ve poured it a bit too fast, because a huge cloud of the stuff rose into the air!
“Oh!” I cried, rubbing my powdery face. “Ah-ah-ahhhh-choo!”
The scullery maids started to giggle—and who could blame them? My shenanigans at the stove were a constant source of entertainment for the entire kitchen staff. But I knew that they didn’t mean any harm by their laughter. After all, I’m sure I made a funny picture, now that my dark, chestnut-brown hair was as white as a powdered wig!
“Are you all right, Camille?” Mama said.
“Yes, Mama. I’m fine,” I replied as I tried not to sneeze again. I focused all my attention on stirring, stirring, stirring the gooey mix in the pot. Mama was trained as a pastry chef by her father, Alistair Beaudin, a famous chef who was known throughout all of France for his delicious desserts. The Beaudin family method for making light, delicate profiteroles was a carefully guarded secret, and just one of the reasons why Monsieur Henri and Madame Colette Rousseau had been so eager to hire Mama when she had finished her apprenticeship. Mama had been just as eager to accept their offer of employment, since she and my father, the groundskeeper at Rousseau Manor, were engaged to be married. Monsieur Henri used to joke about what a perfect match it was, bringing together two sweethearts and satisfying his sweet tooth at the same time. But he had stopped making that joke after Papa died.
Mama and I still missed Papa terribly, but Monsieur Henri and Madame Colette had done everything in their power to ease our pain. Since they had no children, the Rousseaus had dedicated their ample time and fortune to helping others, including Mama and me. Just after Papa’s death, the Rousseaus had promised that they would always take care of us, no matter what. And in keeping that promise, they had earned our loyalty—for life. It was a privilege to work at Rousseau Manor, one of the grandest homes in all of France. The manor, and the estate it sat on, had been in the Rousseau family for generations. Ever since my tenth birthday almost two years ago, Mama had been trying her best to train me in the pastry arts so that I, too, could carry on the Beaudin family tradition. But despite my heritage, I was a disaster in the kitchen! Somehow, though, Mama had limitless patience with me. And if she wouldn’t give up, then I wouldn’t either.
I stirred and stirred until my arm began to ache. Then, like magic, it happened: The sticky flour and buttery water combined to make a smooth, shiny dough.
“Mama!” I cried. “I did it! I did it!”
“Well done, Camille!” she said proudly from across the kitchen, and even the scullery maids began to applaud. I beamed with pleasure.
“Now what?” I asked.
“Let it rest for a few minutes to cool,” Mama told me. “Then you can add the eggs, one at a time. Twelve ought to do it. Remember to beat well after each addition, Camille. And don’t add them too soon, or else the heat from the dough will cook them.”
“I won’t,” I promised. Then I ducked into the pantry for the eggs I’d gathered. Since spring had arrived, the hens had been laying even more eggs than usual; I’d already collected two large baskets and it wasn’t even noon! I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Mrs. Plourde, the cook, decided to make a quiche for luncheon.
I held out my apron skirt to make a pouch for the eggs as I counted them, one by one. As I gently placed each egg in my apron skirt, I heard a sharp voice say my name. My heart sank. I knew who it was right away: Bernadette, the head housemaid and one of the most powerful servants at Rousseau Manor. Bernadette was quick to find fault, especially with me. She was always displeased with how I folded the napkins or scoured the pans. Even my thick hair, which resisted all my efforts to stay in a tidy plait, seemed to offend her.
“Camille!” she barked again. “What are you doing?”
“Dawdling, most likely.” She spoke over me with a contemptuous sniff. “As if there wasn’t enough work to be done around here.”
“No excuses,” Bernadette said as she grabbed hold of my elbow and escorted me back to the kitchen. “Now, show me your task, or I’ll send you off to polish the silver.”
“I’m making dough for the profiteroles,” I tried to explain as I carefully placed the eggs in a bowl. “There’s croquembouche on the menu tonight.”
“Croquembouche?” Bernadette asked. She raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “And your mother trusted you with the profiteroles?”
I nodded miserably. It was no secret that croquembouche, a tall tower made of airy profiteroles filled with creamy custard and held in place by a sticky caramel sauce, was one of the most challenging desserts to make. Even I had to wonder what Mama was thinking when she asked for my help.
“Then you’d best get on with it,” said Bernadette. She folded her bony arms across her chest, and I could tell that she intended to watch every single thing I did.
What if the dough is still too hot? I worried. I snuck a glance around the kitchen, but Mama must have stepped out.
“Get on with it, I said,” Bernadette snapped.
I touched the side of the pot. It still felt warm . . . but was it too warm? Oh, how I wished that Mama would return! But one look at Bernadette’s stern face told me that I didn’t dare delay. I took a deep breath and cracked an egg as carefully as I could. Even so, a fragment of the shell tumbled into the pot. I reached in quickly to retrieve it, hoping that Bernadette wouldn’t notice. But she did, of course. She noticed everything.
“I cannot imagine that Monsieur Henri wishes to eat eggshells in his croquembouche,” she said pointedly.
“No,” I murmured as I began to whisk the egg into the dough.
I focused all my attention on the mound of dough. With each stir, the egg should’ve disappeared more and more—but instead it began to clump together. My heart sank. It was obvious even to me that I’d made a mistake and added the egg too soon.
Bernadette peered into the pot. “Well, now it’s gone and curdled,” she told me. “You’ve ruined it.”
Just then, thankfully, Mama returned to the kitchen. As she hurried over to us, there was hardly a trace of the limp she had from breaking her ankle last winter, but I knew Mama did everything in her power to conceal the truth: Most days her ankle hurt more than she wanted to admit.
“Ahh, Bernadette, how nice to see you,” she said. “Thank you for helping Camille while I was away.”
“Really, Marie, I can’t imagine what you were thinking when you let her make the profiteroles,” Bernadette said, shaking her head in disgust. “Just look at this slop! It’s hardly fit for the pigs.”
A slight frown crossed Mama’s face as she looked into the pot. “The mixture was still too hot for the egg,” she remarked. “It needed more time to cool.”
Oh, Mama, I didn’t want to add it! I longed to say—but I knew I had to hold my tongue. Mama must have seen the tears in my eyes because she continued in a very cheerful voice. “It’s no harm. We can start over.”
“A waste of food.” Bernadette sniffed. “Camille is not experienced enough for a task like this.”
“It is true that Camille is young,” Mama replied. “But I am confident that she will learn by doing. She tries very hard, you know.”
“Indeed, she does!” We all turned around to see that Madame Colette had entered the kitchen. She looked beautiful, as always, with her silver hair twisted into a soft chignon at the base of her neck. Bernadette, Mama, and I all curtsied at once.
“My goodness, Camille, look at you!” continued Madame Colette. “The flour on your face is enough to show me how hard you’ve been working today.”
“Thank you, madame,” I said with a curtsy as Mama passed me a damp cloth to clean my face.
Madame Colette glanced into the pot, but if she was dismayed to see the mess inside it, she didn’t show it. “Henri is truly looking forward to tonight’s dessert,” she said kindly. “And I know he will be even more pleased to learn that Camille helped make it. Now, Bernadette, did you need to see me?”
“Yes, madame, and thank you for your time,” Bernadette replied as she led Madame Colette to her office across the hall. As soon as they were gone, I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I am so sorry, Mama,” I said, gesturing to the mess in the pot. “I wanted to wait, but Bernadette—”
Mama shook her head. “No apologies necessary, Camille,” she said in a gentle voice, but I could see that she was upset. “I can imagine what happened. It’s no trouble to start again. Do you remember what to do?”
“Then go ahead and get started. You’ll do fine,” Mama said with an encouraging smile. She picked up the pot. “I’ll take this out to the pigs.”
As I began to measure more water into another pot, I realized that Bernadette had left her office door open. I could clearly hear every word of her conversation with Madame Colette. How odd, I thought. Bernadette always shuts her door.
I tried not to eavesdrop, but it was impossible to ignore them as they chatted about Rousseau Manor’s staffing needs. Then Bernadette said something that caught my attention.
“I am afraid, madame, that I must ask of you a very special favor.”
“Of course, Bernadette,” Madame Colette replied. “You may go ahead.”
“It is about my cousin, Philippe Archambault,” Bernadette continued. “He and his family lived near the river before the flood. They lost . . . everything.”
Madame Colette said nothing, but I could picture the look of concern that had surely crossed her face. All through last summer and fall, into the winter, the rain had poured—more rain than anyone could remember falling before. By the time January arrived, bringing with it even more rainstorms, the River Seine had begun to rise. The sodden ground could hold no more water, and it oozed up through pipes and drains, until nearly all of Paris was flooded. In some places, all that could be seen were the tops of the trees! It was a slow flood; the muddy water rose with the pace of molasses, providing enough time for most Parisians to escape to higher, dryer ground.
To many people who lived on country estates at the edges of the city, the flood was a marvelous spectacle to gawk at. They traveled to the heart of Paris just to see the buildings underwater, the rickety bridges that supported daring escapes, and the fireboats sailing down streets where horses used to pull buggies alongside clattering automobiles. The Rousseaus, however, would never be so coarse as to enjoy the misfortune of others. At news of the first survivors to escape from the flooded city, they had opened the doors of Rousseau Manor, welcoming as many people as the servants’ quarters could hold. Yes, it was crowded; yes, the workload had never been greater (especially for those of us in the kitchen); but I couldn’t have been more proud of Monsieur Henri and Madame Colette. Their generous spirits were an inspiration to us all.
“How can I help?” Madame Colette asked Bernadette.
“Might there . . . be room for them here?”
“I would love to offer them our hospitality, of course,” Madame Colette said right away. “But we are already filled to capacity.” She sighed heavily. “How many? Your cousin and his wife?”
“Yes. And their two children. Please, madame, they have been living in a church—”
“Bernadette, you need not plead their case to me. I have the greatest sympathy for those who lost everything to the flood waters,” Madame Colette interrupted gently. “But I don’t know where we could house an entire family.”
“What about the groundskeeper’s cottage?” Bernadette suggested.
I clapped my hand over my mouth in surprise. The groundskeeper’s cottage? That was where Mama and I lived! Of course I knew it was a luxury—a true indulgence—that the Rousseaus had allowed us to stay there even after Papa died. And I knew that we had no right to expect such wonderful accommodations—a cheerful two-bedroom cottage with its very own kitchen, separate from the manor, when the rest of the staff shared rooms in the attic.
But that little cottage was our home. It was the only home I had ever known.
Just then Mama returned from the courtyard. “Camille, I—” she began to say. But I held a finger to my lips before she could continue.
“The estate needs a full-time groundskeeper again, madame,” Bernadette pressed. “It has been too long. Marcel tries his best, but he comes only twice a week. The neglect of the gardens and the orchards has begun to show. My cousin Philippe would be honored to tend them. He would care for these grounds as if they were his very own. And his son is nearly full-grown! If you bring them to Rousseau Manor, it would be like hiring two groundskeepers.”
“Not to mention, his wife, Élise, is a fine cook. She has even worked in a restaurant.” Bernadette continued earnestly. “She would welcome the chance to serve in the kitchens. Why, perhaps Élise could be responsible for cooking meals for the staff! We both know that the kitchen staff has been terribly taxed by preparing all the additional meals for our guests. And Philippe’s daughter is as sweet as could be. I tell you, madame, that my cousin and his family would prove themselves to be a great asset here. Any kindness you showed them would be repaid many times over.”
There was a long pause.
“Please,” Bernadette finally said. “I never ask for special consideration, madame. But this is my family. My flesh and blood. I cannot bear to think of them spending one more night on the streets—”
“Of course, Bernadette. Say no more,” Madame Colette interrupted her. “Please tell your cousin that he is welcome at Rousseau Manor, and I am sure that he will make a fine groundskeeper. You’re right. It has been too long.”
“And the cottage?”
“Yes,” Madame Colette replied. “They will be able to move in shortly. I hope they will find it quite comfortable.”
Bernadette did not respond. Or perhaps she did and I couldn’t hear her because I was so stunned that nothing else mattered in that moment: not the daunting croquembouche waiting to be made; not the pigs outside, gleefully eating the dough I’d ruined; and not the flour that had drifted out of my hair and into my eyes, making them smart. No, there was only one thing I could think about in that moment:
Where were Mama and I going to live?