A Dinner to Remember
Sophia surprised him by being prepared for dinner ahead of him, not having suffered any obvious effects from the brandy she had drunk some hours earlier. She, and the girls were all very neatly dressed for dinner and were patiently awaiting his arrival in the withdrawing room. Miss Sophia was soberly dressed in a high-necked light-blue dress and was wearing a simple string of pearls and white gloves.
Robert did not hide his pleasure at seeing her. He greeted each of the children in turn by taking their hands and commenting upon how charmingly each of them looked, and how they would bring a radiance to their dinner table he had not expected.
He resolved that he would remember, next time, to bring them a small present, perhaps a simple necklace or a tortoiseshell comb for their hair, or a ring, even. He took Miss Sophia into his arms as he thanked her for joining him when he had not expected it, taking her by surprise. He soon recognized that he may have overstepped what was expected of him and backed away with an apology. She was blushing but had not been displeased by his action.
When asked, she admitted to still being tired, having got only a few hours rest, but that she was also recovering well. “I was too restless to sleep, and I was also too hungry to miss this, or I know I will be down to the kitchen when everyone else is trying to sleep.”
At the sound of the dinner gong Robert organized the little party to enter the dining room with the two younger girls on either side of him, holding his hands, while Sophia escorted Emily, and led the way; protocol, as laid down by his grandfather, be damned.
“Emily. As you are the eldest, I shall sit you to my right, with Hester next to you and closer to me. Anne shall be to my left, and you, Miss Sophia shall be next to her.” He noticed that cushions had already been placed on the chairs he had allocated for the children. Benson must have seen to that. Unlike his grandfather, who had always made dinner a trial for him and his brother by his insistence on absolute silence throughout dinner, he was determined that nothing would interfere with their relaxed enjoyment of it this evening. He would also strive to make it enjoyable and memorable for only the right reasons.
Too many of the dinners that he had partaken of in the battered wardroom of his ship had been clouded by the loss of too many men in too many battles. Where there should only have been familiar faces at the table, he often found many of them missing, and those of others, promoted after the death of an officer, filling in their place. He had never become used to that.
If he were not careful, it might begin to feel as he felt on board ship at those times. Charles was just such an absent face that he had been used to seeing at this more formal table, as Selena must have been for the children, though he would not let any of that spoil his enjoyment for the company of his nieces and his sister-in-law. He put those sad thoughts aside and beamed at those around the table. He knew that Charles would approve at what he was doing, even if he might not approve of other of his plans.
“I can assure you, ladies, that we are about to dine as few adults have ever dined before. I feel privileged to find myself in such elevated company and surrounded by such beauty. I believe it shall be a rare treat for all of us.”
They watched as a troop from the kitchen brought loaded trays into the room, led by Benson, and then watched has he helped the girls closest to him unfurl their napkins.
“What is this, Benson? Are we so short on staff that you are now reduced to waiting table?”
“I regard it as a privilege, sir. Horace, who usually waits on table has come down with the flu and is with his sister in the village until he recovers. We did not wish to expose the children, or even her ladyship to it at this time, and I do not mind at all. In fact, I was quite looking forward to this evening.” He smiled at Robert as he said that. “It will be a welcome change.”
Everyone knew what he meant. Sophia was aware that such conversation with any servant had been discouraged when Robert’s grandfather had been alive, but his father had been less formal. Despite being a navy man, and well-used to formality, Robert had no patience for it in his determination to provide a relaxing and different dinner occasion for the children.
He looked around at the wood paneling, and the portraits, staring down their noses at him. Judging. He would suggest that they soon be removed, possibly to the library. He was glad to see that the giant silver epergne that had sat in the middle of the table on those occasions had been removed. Charles would have seen to that.
“I am sure it is not what this dining room was used to in my grandfather’s day, Benson, but there are some changes that we can all welcome. I am pleased that we long ago dispensed with the pomp and the circumstance that my grandfather seemed to love, with a liveried servant behind every chair, and total silence until dinner was over, except for his castigating us if we fidgeted, whispered, or dropped anything. He was no better with the servants if they made any noise while they served us. My brother and I soon rebelled and were rewarded by being expelled from the dining room. We were not allowed to dine with the adults for as long as a month after we lost that privilege. We did not regard it as a punishment, but as a reprieve.” Four young ladies were listening to their exchange.
“I remember, sir. But that was the way he had been brought up and did not know better.” The children seemed to hang onto their every word as they looked from one to the other of the two men.
“Your father changed all of that for the better, but it was your brother that completed it. There has not been a formal dinner in this room for years. Your father was determined to try and get the finances of the estate under control.”
“And did he?”
“He made a good start on it, sir, but it changed entirely for the better when her ladyship stepped in, and did what she did, despite your father’s resistance and objections for some years. Your brother could not have been more supportive in everything she chose to do, but I believe you were of immense help there, yourself, sir.” Sophia knew that he referred to the financial help that Master Robert had provided throughout the years. She saw Robert blush a little. “The estate has been much better than self-supporting for the last four years now, and the finances have more than recovered.” Robert had already known most of that.
“I am glad that that more difficult time has gone. Children, and the pomp and silence at table that our grandfather insisted upon, were bitter enemies, as I well remember. They were trying times for two youths always ready to turn every serious occasion into moments of hilarity and unexpected mayhem whenever we might., much to the chagrin of the adults, and their consternation and constant disapproval. Age is often resentful of the ebullience of youth and seeks to constrain it and put it down, as well as to dampen its enthusiasm, as our grandfather did.” He recognized that this discussion might be too serious for the girls and went off into a more personal recollection.
“We got our revenge on him. I remember that Charles and I once let a piglet loose in the dining room”—now their attention was fully captured— “and conceived other slight disruptions to the stilted atmosphere of dinner. It was under one of the covers of the serving trays, like that one over there.” He pointed to the sideboard.
“We paid the price for it. Before that episode, our period of removal was usually just for that one dinner when we were sent up to our room. However, we knew that the adults would be dining for at least an hour and often two, so we dutifully left as though going off to our room, but we did nothing of the kind. We took ourselves to the servants’ hall, and dined there in much greater comfort, and ate what we wanted to eat.
“The piglet episode was when we were banished from the dining room for a full month. It was one July, and we thought we would celebrate our birthday in a unique way. We considered that it was worth it and plotted what we might do next to have us banished for even longer. Grandfather obliged us so readily without realizing that he was playing into our hands.
We were a constant source of mischief. I believe we may have dined in painful formality no more than one full month out of every twelve.” He had a rapt audience. “I doubt I should go into any greater detail. I would like to keep a few secrets.” He smiled at his attentive audience. He noticed that Benson was standing by, ready to wait on them now.
“Well, what has cook prepared to tempt our palates this evening, Benson? Or do I see that we are to be served with a delectable potion first?”
“Just so, sir.” He poured what appeared to be wine into Robert’s glass, so that he might approve its quality before it was served to the ladies.
As the children watched, he held it up to the light, swirled it, sniffed it and even tasted it as he closed his eyes, rolling it over his tongue as he looked thoughtful.
“Quite an impudent little concoction, Benson. Ours, I hope.”
“Indeed, it is, sir.”
“What year is this? There were three impressionable children and a young woman hanging on to his every word.
“It is this year’s vintage, sir. Even this month; in fact, no older than today. Indeed sir, I must confess with great pride, that it is not even an hour old.” Robert tried to look suitably impressed.
“That young? I thought so. You are spoiling us, Benson. The best of beverages, and good rib-sticking grub too, no doubt. What more might life have to offer us? Only the very best for me and my guests, I see.” He winked at them. He sniffed the contents. “And the bouquet is particularly good.”
The girls smiled at him and did the same, once they were served, wondering what there might be special about it and sipped at it. It seemed to be what they usually might expect.
“That might be the touch of lemon, sir. Our own lemons. Although you may be able to detect much more than a hint of blackcurrant, which will account for the color. Also, our own, and picked just this afternoon.” Robert expressed suitable surprise.
“Just this afternoon, eh? Nothing but the best for us, I see.”
“Yes, sir. Just so.” He was getting into the mood of it.
“Not very much for Sophia, she had enough strong drink, earlier.” She smiled at his attempted fun with her.
“But first, and according to the naval tradition which I fondly embraced; as it is still Sunday—but what a day it has been—we shall drink our usual toast, as we do on board ship. I will ask you, ladies, to raise your glasses and drink with me, ‘to absent friends and those still at sea’.” They repeated his words, as he requested, and then drank. In the newly relaxed atmosphere, Benson did the same. Yes, his grandfather would be not only turning in his grave but would be rising from it at this relaxed impudence.
“Now if this were Monday, we would drink to ‘our ships at sea’, with a different toast for each day of the week. On Tuesday, we would drink to ‘Our men’. On Wednesday, ‘to Ourselves’. Thursday, ‘to a bloody war’ or ‘a sickly season’, so that others might get promoted. Friday, it would be to ‘A willing foe and sea-room’, and Saturday, ‘to Sweethearts and Wives’, usually followed by the hope that may the two never meet, or may they both be one and the same, which is much safer.” He saw Sophia smiling.
“Now that we have got that out of the way, we should eat.” He looked at Benson, who read down an impromptu menu.
“There was a choice of either sausages, boiled ham, or a beef stew, sir—without onions, parsnips, or turnips—for the main course. Your guests earlier decided upon the Beef Stew for everyone.” He knew there had been little time to produce anything different, with him arriving unexpectedly as he had, but he would not have expected it anyway.
“Excellent choice! Beef stew it is then, and it will obviously be much improved without onions, parsnips, or turnips!” Benson put a steaming dish in front of each of the girls, served from one tureen, and then served Miss Sophia and him, from another. He could see what looked like onions, parsnips and turnips in his dish along with the meat, potatoes and assorted other vegetables.
“Cook insisted on the carrots and peas, however! And potatoes.”
“Of course she did. Can’t have beef stew without carrots, peas, and potatoes. I see the girls have spoons. I think you had better give me a spoon too. One cannot get at the gravy with a fork.” Hester came to his rescue.
“That is what the bread is for, sir.”
“It is? Then we shall all need bread, to sop up the gravy, that’s the fun part of it all.” Benson placed a small plate of bread by each of them.
The dining room had never been subjected to such extensive liberties or banter with the servants, nor to such obvious relaxation or enjoyment. Robert suspected that his grandfather was figuratively beating the door down by then, to get into the house and to stop such a travesty happening in his stately dining room.
Robert cut the larger pieces of meat for Hester, as Sophia did a similar service for Anne. Emily managed for herself, though Benson had taken the precaution of cutting some of hers up before he had served her. He also brought a glass of wine for each of the adults.
“Complements to my cook, Benson. And that happy idea of using bread to soak up the gravy was brilliant, Hester.” They dined mostly in silence anyway. The children were too hungry to talk.
After their plates had been tidied away he observed the next course brought to them.
“Sherbet and raspberries for dessert? We never got sherbet, or fruit, at sea, at least not very often. We felt lucky if we found weevils in the biscuits.” There was a sudden silence. He would need to explain some of that, later. “In fact, I do not think I have had anything like this since I left home.”
“It might be the last of the raspberries, sir. The birds are now getting them.
Robert noticed that Anne had dropped her napkin. He bent down to pick it up. As his head was out of sight, he let out a loud ‘quack’. He banged his head coming up.