The shrill laughter of the women, booming male voices raised in discussion of politics and warfare, the clink of fine crystal and the clatter of rat-tail silver on rare, gold-embellished Sevres flatware drift down the lofty shaft of the dumb-waiter to where the brigade of cooks bustles in the steamy kitchen.
Overseeing all, the Chef, Monsieur Edouard, and the Butler, Graves. They work as a silent team, the fixed points around which all other activity revolves. They taste, consult, an eyebrow is raised and a modicum of spice or salt is added to the array of dishes in preparation for the dinner that has just begun in the grand, Gothic panelled dining room above their heads.
There are Peers of the Realm, a former Prime Minister, a Head of the Church, four generals, an Air Vice-Marshall, and two noted philosophers at the table of Lord and Lady Albacore tonight.
There is no indication, in the splendour and the gaiety, of the war that rages beyond the high stone walls of the estate. Perhaps the military men would better be employed in guiding tactics and logistics on the western front of the campaign. Perhaps the statesman should be on hand as an advisor to his young and ambitious successor, whose rise to power he so elegantly steered from behind the scenes. No doubt the Lords should be in the Upper Chamber tonight for the debate; and almost certainly the clergy and the philosophers should be deep in pensive meditation on how to sustain the morale of a damaged nation at this time of crisis… but when the Albacores of Gorey Manor invite one to dine, not even Vandals at the gate could prevail over the urge to sit a padded bottom on a Chippendale chair and tuck in to the fine wines and sumptuous food for which such soirées are renowned.
There is no indication, either, in the menu for the feast, of the rationing and the shortages to which lesser mortals are subject at this trying time in the nation’s history.
A chilled soup, the pale, translucent green of a jade figurine, has already been served to the eager diners. The chef himself has gathered the leaves from the walled kitchen garden, and the cream was provided by the estate’s fat Jersey cows just this morning.
The shallow bowls, wiped clean of every speck, have just descended in the dumb-waiter, and chef and butler exchange a discreet smile of satisfaction as a maid scuttles them away to the kitchen lad for washing.
Next comes the fish course. Quenelles de brochet – fat dumplings of pike, fished from the Manor’s private lake, light as clouds floating on a pool of dill-flecked almond sauce. Graves lifts a spoon to check the sauce just as it is to be poured, but Chef Edouard stays his hand.
“There is no need, my friend, all is as it should be.”
Graves nods. “Of course, Chef, I defer to your palate on such an occasion.”
And the fish is away is the creaking lift, to be presented by the serving staff along with the chilled 1932 Chablis chosen by Graves from the vast wine cellar to accompany the dish.
The laughter from above is more raucous still, by the time the last morsels of the great freshwater predator have been consumed and the fish knives and forks have been gathered away. Two of the generals are mapping out the Battle of Waterloo with salt cellars and mustard pots, fiercely contesting a point of strategy, while the Churchman tops up his glass of Pétrus from the decanter at his side and mildly tries to intervene with a homily about the feeding of the five thousand, quite unrelated to the battle of the cruets and thus ignored by the generals.
The main course is pigeon, shot by Graves himself ten days ago in the coppice on the hill that overlooks the manor, and left in the cool store to hang by the neck until so ripe as to be almost rotten – just the way Lord Albacore likes it. The birds have been roasted intact, their bald heads tucked under a plucked wing, and can be torn apart by the diners for whom such manners, which would shock the common people, are considered perfectly correct form. The birds’ gizzards have been pounded to a rich paté to be served on heart-shaped croutons, as Lady Albacore demands. Chef’s underlings have peeled and turned carrots and potatoes into unnatural little bullet shapes by way of accompaniment. A rich wine sauce, scented with juniper and other berries, will coat each plate with its blood-black juices.
By the time the dinner plates are empty but for gnawed bones and beaks and claws, some diners are inclined to take stroll around the grounds, but here the war does play its part, and the heavy velvet drapes must not be parted to let a chink of light escape. And so they sit back, and pat their stomachs in mild protest, and pick at fruits and water ices to settle their stomachs before the cheese board and the nuts and grapes and, of course, the ancient pipe of Port, are hauled up the dumb-waiter and brought to the table. Graves is on hand to decant the Port, and to advise on the choice of cheeses – English classics such as Stilton and Wensleydale, for even Monsieur Edouard cannot work a miracle and call upon cheese from France while the seas swarm with gunships and submarines.
If anyone is feeling at all nauseous, or a trifle unsettled, he or she would never be so impolite as to mention it in such elevated company.
Downstairs, the kitchen is becoming quieter. The brigade of sous-chefs has left for the night, heading back to the estate’s tied village through the still, dark night.
As the last plates return to the kitchen, Chef Edouard is wiping down the surfaces himself, assiduous in his thoroughness. He waves the kitchen boy away from the sink and the lad has grabbed his cap and coat and is out the door, whistling, before Chef has a chance to change his mind.
It is quieter, too, upstairs now. The gentlemen have retired to the billiards room for brandies and cigars, the ladies have declined coffee or tea and are making their way unsteadily up the grand oak staircase to bed. Graves stands silently at the foot of the stairs, listening. His sharp ears, as every butler worth his salt must have, pick up the faint sounds of the lady philosopher vomiting into the basin of the Blue Boudoir. A slight smile crosses his lips.
It will be the first of many such unfortunate upsets tonight. For every course has had a tiny, subtle addition, as yet unrecorded by Larousse Gastronomique. A rogue berry here, a note of bitter almond there, a pinch of this, a modicum of that…
Graves returns to the kitchen, where Chef Edouard waits alone. The two men shake hands in silence. Their job is done. Graves pours them each a glass from the remains of the Pétrus, and they sip in silence.
A bell rings, urgently, on the board above the doorway. The Master Bedroom bell. They look at one another. It has begun. In a few moments a chambermaid on the top floor will hear it and then…
They don their coats in silence, and leave the kitchen, Chef clicking off the main switch as he closes the door. They both have bicycles propped against the wall of the scullery.
“You go on ahead,” says Graves. “I’ll catch you up.”
Chef nods. There is a train to catch and people that will meet them to spirit them away and pay them well for tonight’s work. He has no intention of missing it. He mounts the bike and starts to pedal off.
Graves picks up a shotgun from behind the wisteria, aims, and fires. The loud retort echoes around the silent grounds, but it’s just like any night, when gamekeepers and poachers are on the prowl. After the brief cry and the clatter, there is just the quiet whirr of free-spinning wheels.
Graves mounts his own bike. He has no intention of catching the train. He has not done this for the money. He has been waiting to do this for years and years. Another small smile passes across his face as he puts his foot to the pedal and moves off, past the motionless form that was Monsieur Edouard, down the long gravel drive.
It is dark, and he is lost in pensive satisfaction at a job well done. On any other night, he might have spotted the tree branch lying in his path, but not on this night. He is jerked into flight before he knows what has happened, and the last thing he hears is the first scream echoing from the Manor as a chambermaid enters the master bedroom, and Graves, the loyal servant, the devoted butler, the dutiful slave, laughs. Then he, too, like those he served, is dead and gone.
Fay Franklin is a seasoned travel guide book editor and writer. However, she often strays away from the world of non-fiction as a regular participant in the weekly Show Me Your Lits literary flash fiction writing challenge, where this story originated. Her work has been published in The Legendary and HazardCat e-zines.
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