The morning started out cold. A thin sheen of sparkling rime coated the corners of the oriel window panes. The soft mauve sky was brightening to a clear azure. Frozen dew on the lawn, looking like a fine dusting of caster sugar, was already beginning to melt. Arcs of ice fanned out from under the tree row lining the estate’s long, curving driveway – half moons that would remain hidden until well past midday.
A man sat in a plush wing chair in the bay’s alcove, a woolen blanket wrapped snuggly around his legs. He wore a midnight blue crushed velvet morning robe, edged in a crimson silk brocade. A cup of tea sat on a side table, steam rising from the bowl. A book laid, open-faced, down in his lap – an ornate volume bound in rich brown leather, its spine embossed in gold and its pages gilded.
The ambiance of the scene was straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Augustine Stiles hated Norman Rockwell, and he hated the cold.
Jasper, Mr. Stiles’ stoic concierge, stood at the far side of the room – a virtual statue waiting for his employer’s instructions.
Mr. Stiles was in a foul mood, and Jasper knew to stay clear when the man was in ill humor.
There had been no recent news regarding the guests attending his most recent Wish Dinner Party. Mr. Stiles’ satisfaction came, not from the society reviews of his largess and cuisinier skills, but from what befell his visitors after the affair.
The last wish fulfilled had been Jillian Brown’s. Mr. Stiles had sent a lovely spray of purple carnations to the funeral of Ms. Jillian’s boyfriend, Ray. The young man was the unfortunate victim of a carnival ride tragedy, having fell to his death from a gondola at the apex of the midway ferris wheel.
The envelope Jasper held in his hand, he believed, would raise Mr. Stiles from his funk.
A pre-printed return address label featuring the image of a wide-eyed, yellow tabby kitten peering out of the top of a tin watering can announced the letter was from Estelle Grandy, a 74-year old grandmother from Bloomsburg, Vermont.
Ever the consummate servant, Jasper had also brought with him the wish card Mrs. Grandy filled out during her stay at Mr. Stiles’ estate.
She was especially memorable for her insistence on drinking only iced water, with two slices of lemon. Her abstemious stance on alcohol was contrary to typical guests at Mr. Stiles’ dinner parties. His meals were known as much for their wine and spirits pairings, as for their culinary delights.
Mrs. Grandy was also self-diagnosed as lactose intolerant and gluten sensitive. Her participation in the elegant meal that was prepared was limited to a salad of plain greens and tomatoes – vinaigrette dressing on the side – and a breast of chicken cooked, sans skin, en papillote with lemon slices and a few sprigs of fresh rosemary.
Mr. Stiles refused to allow her diet restrictions fetter his creativity. If she would not eat what he had so carefully prepared for the others, she would nonetheless be presented with a meal that was both flavorful and aesthetically pleasing. He took it as a personal insult that she picked at her food, barely eating a third of it.
Normally, Mr. Stiles abhorred such gastronomical superciliousness, but he was intrigued enough by Estelle Grandy, and what her wish would be, to extend his hospitality to the finicky septuagenarian.
Guests were apprised that dinner was formal dress. Mrs. Grandy instead wore what she considered her “Sunday Best,” a simple dark blue and white, knee-length swiss dot dress with a box pleated skirt. The peter pan collar was buttoned securely at her throat, and her ever-present black, patent leather frame bag purse swung from her crooked elbow.
Her sartorial sense was as limited as her culinary preferences.
“Don’t lurk back there like the Grim Reaper, come in, come in,” Mr. Stiles gestured with a languid wave. “Jasper tell me you have something to buoy these bleak doldrums.”
Jasper handed Mr. Stiles Mrs. Grandy’s letter.
Mr. Stiles took the letter, pinched between his thumb and forefinger, like a fouled piece of trash.
“What is this?” Mr. Stiles sneered at the cutesy sticker and florid handwriting.
“It appears that Mrs. Grandy has sent you some sort of card,” Jasper said, his hands clasped behind his back so that Mr. Stiles couldn’t hand off the card to him.
“Ah yes, Mrs. Grandy,” Mr. Stiles laid the envelope on the table by his teacup. “Our priggish patron.”
“The bothersome dinner guest at your most recent soiree, yes sir,” Jasper said.
Mr. Stiles held out his hand, knowing Jasper would also have Mrs. Grandy’s wish card.
“I recall she judged my off-menu fare somehow lacking,” Mr. Stiles said, perusing Mrs. Grandy’s questionnaire.
“Yes, sir,” Jasper didn’t elaborate further.
Mr. Stiles waved the wish card like a fan, then placed one corner on his forehead, eyes closed.
“I predict her card is to thank me for fulfilling her wish,” Mr. Stiles, chortled, amused at his own jest.”
“I suppose so, sir,” Jasper said.
“Don’t spoil the ambiance, Jasper,” Mr. Stiles said picking up Mrs. Grandy’s card again. “Report.”
“As expected, the wish made by Mrs. Estelle Grandy from Broomeburg, Vermont, was unexpected,” Jasper began. “Unlike our other senior citizen guests who asked for retirement security, fantasy vacations or financial freedom for their children, Mrs. Grandy was exceptionally creative.”
Mr. Stiles closed the book in his lap, using the wish card as a bookmark. Standing he placed the book in the chair and walked to the window slowly opening Mrs. Grandy’s card.
“Go on,” Mr. Stiles said, then blew into the envelope to open the pocket for better access.
“Mrs. Grandy, while a pillar of her community now, was once, what was it called?”
“Strumpet,” Mr. Stiles said gently removing the card. “Continue.”
“Indeed,” Jasper said. “Mrs. Grandy, nee Evans, previously lived in Comstock, Idaho, where she, in her juvenescence was employed at a house of ill repute. She was apparently rather skilled and had an extensive clientele. One john in particular… “
“Jasper, please, some decorum.”
“Pardon, one client, in particular, was a favorite,” Jasper said. “In point of fact, the gentleman asked Miss Evans to give up her life of debauchery and marry him, to become an honest woman.”
“She declined?” Mr. Stiles said turning from the window.
“To be sure,” Jasper cleared his throat. “The client, a one Mr. Clarence Green, was a brakeman with the Idaho and Montana rail line. His proposal rejected, Mr. Green left Comstock and moved east for other employment.”
“And the lovebirds lost all contact.” Mr. Stiles continued reading Mrs. Grandy’s card.
“Precisely,” Jasper said.
“Now we come to her wish.” Mr. Stiles replaced the card in its envelope. “Our own modern-day Dickensian tale.”
“So to speak,” Jasper said. “Mrs. Grandy’s wish did involve finding a lost love, but it was not Mr. Green.”
“This is my favorite part,” Mr. Stiles slipped the card into his robe pocket, then rubbed his hands together with glee. “Please, continue.”
“Living and working out of the same boarding house as Mrs. Grandy, nee Evans, was another young soubrette, Miss Darlene Bell. Miss Bell and Miss Evans were especially close, and she was undoubted, the reason Miss Evans spurned Mr. Green’s marital overture. Feeling guilty that Miss Evans would give up the opportunity to have a respectable life, Miss Bell also left Comstock. Miss Evan, heartbroken, moved here to Broomeburg and reinvented herself. She met and married Mr. Grandy and they settled into a life of reputable domesticity.”
Jasper paused in his narrative long enough for Mr. Stiles to leave the study, then return showered and dressed for the day. At Mr. Stiles’ direction, Jasper went on with his report.
“As per her wish request, Mrs. Grandy implored you to locate Miss Evans, with the intention of a reconcilement.”
“Mrs. Grandy is unattached?” Mr. Stiles asked, but knew the answer.
“Mr. Grandy departed this life some five years ago,” Jasper said. “The Grandy offspring – a son George Jr., and a daughter, Rebecca – have moved away from their childhood home and started families of their own. Mrs. Grandy is presently living alone.”
“And Miss Evans?”
“Miss Evans never married and is currently residing in Westchester, Vermont.”
“That is a mere 25-minute drive from Broomeburg, astonishing.” Mr. Stiles had returned to his chair and book. “Were we successful in reuniting Mrs. Grandy and Miss Evans?”
“I would posit that the card you received from Mrs. Grandy indicates that you were.”
“And you would be correct, Jasper,” Mr. Stiles said, handing Jasper several photographs. “I believe one photograph shows the ladies enjoying a meal of moules marinières, soupe à l’oignon, and if I’m not mistaken and I’m not, a perfectly prepared cheese soufflé. They are exploring Paris together, the last leg of their European vacation.”
“The City of Love, sir”