“A toast!” cried Lord Charles Emmanuel Wytherington III, rising from his chair.
“A toast!” cried the company.
“But who shall make it?” asked the Lady Lucy-Emma.
“Why I shall make it, of course, in honour of the harvest season,” the Lord answered.
The other diners nodded their agreement, raising their glasses high.
“To the bounty that the earth has given us and to the wealth she has provided for her children. To the country that sustains us and the city that enriches us. For summer shall never cease from the shores of England. To Wytherington and London Town!”
“Wytherington and London Town!”
Six wine glasses were lifted, and thick red wine poured down six throats.
“Delicious as always, Lord Wytherington,” said the Reverend Edward Hall. “Is it a ’38?”
“A ’37,” Lord Wytherington answered.
“I thought so,” Edward said, “reminds me of my time in the war. We were sitting in the trenches, explosions all around us when out of nowhere, little Jimmy pulls out a bottle of red - a ’22 no less, a very good year.”
Clarice Spenser sighed dramatically and rolled her eyes.
“Edward, I think we’ve all heard this story before,” Lady Wytherington cut in.
“Oh Lucy, do let him go on,” said Anne-Mary, the Lady Wytherington’s younger sister, “I think the Reverend’s stories are simply fascinating.”
She winked at her sister but the effect was lost on Edward who began the story again.
“At least let’s wait for the first course,” interrupted Clarice, seeing the staff begin to serve the hors d’oeuvres.
“Oh yes,” agreed her husband, Joseph Worthy, “I’m half-starved.”
Six pairs of hungry eyes watched the first course arrive from the kitchen on small silver platters. It was an exquisite array of live oysters, fresh from Colchester. They seemed to almost wriggle in their dishes.
“Reverend,” said Lord Wytherington, “will you do say the blessing please?”
Each of the diners bowed their heads and clasped their hands together while Edward intoned the grace.
“Lord our God, we thank you for this bounty which we are about to enjoy and for the generosity of our hosts the Lord and Lady Wytherington. May your blessings rain down on them, their house and all the works of their hand. May you make us truly grateful for the bread you bring forth from the ground. In the name of Jesus Christ, may peace be upon him, - amen.”
“Amen,” answered the other guests.
Clarice and Joseph quickly helped themselves to oysters and began to tuck in. Lord Wytherington carefully unfolded his napkin over his voluminous chest while he looked at them with thinly veiled disgust. The other diners waited. He reached out a ponderous hand, took an oyster and cracked it open with a sharp knife. Then he gulped it down like a professional. The meal had begun.
“More salt, Mandy, and more water for the table,” announced Albert as he burst into the kitchen holding a pile of oyster shells.
“Yes sir,” the cook replied, before shouting the same instructions to Emily, the maid.
“Yes ma’am,” she mumbled and scurried off.
“Did you leave any spares for us, eh?” John asked, looking wistfully at the oysters.
“Sorry John, it looks like they ate them all,” Mandy answered without looking up. She knew that the under-butler loved oysters.
John looked crest-fallen.
“Only joking,” Mandy laughed, and tossed him the last oyster. “Enjoy it, love.”
“Thanks,” John said, grabbing a knife and cracking the shell.
“This is no time to be eating, lad,” said Albert, “the master has demanded more bread. Hurry and fetch it from the pantry.”
John ignored his superior until he had relished the last drop of oyster and then sauntered off in the direction of the pantry. He was in no particular rush.
Albert sighed. “I hope he picks something up before I retire,” he said almost to himself, “or else Wytherington Hall will come crashing down round his ears.”
“He’ll learn,” Mandy said, stirring a vast cauldron of soup, “he’s still young. Ah, here’s Emily back with the salt and a jug of water. She’s a good ‘un, she is.”
“Thank you miss,” curtsied Emily, beaming.
Albert sniffed dismissively. “Hurry up then and bring it to the table.”
Emily dropped her eyes and sped from the kitchen.
“No need to be so hard on her, Albert, she’s a good kid. Works hard.”
“She does her job.”
A bell rang.
“I’d better see what his Lordship wants,” said Albert.
“All I’m saying, is that I think you could do better to diversify,” said Clarice Spenser, waving her soup spoon around for emphasis. “You can’t just rely on rent these days.”
“Mrs. Spenser, I assure you that the Wytherington estates are doing just fine thank you,” replied Charles.
“Darling,” cut in Lucy-Emma, “perhaps we should hear her out? It can’t hurt surely.”
“Oh yes, do go on,” said Anne-Mary.
“You should consider the tourist market, Charles, always plenty of morons willing to trump up some cash to see how the upper-half live, right Edward?”
“I’m quite sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, nothing at all.”
John began to serve the soup course, fresh mushroom and barley soup with a dash of cream. He began with Clarice, of course, seated as she was to his lordship’s right, and then served the other ladies in a clockwise direction. Albert was always so precise, John thought to himself, the old fool. And here John was, surrounded by the great and the good and they didn’t even notice him. One day, he would have dinner with Lord Wytherington, he thought to himself as he carefully ladled out the soup. And Charles, for John would call him by his first name, would look at him with envy in his old-blood eyes.
“Maybe you should consider it, Lord Charles,” said Anne-Mary, rolling her eyes in amusement. “I think my sister could do with some new necklaces, why not let the riff-raff pay for them?”
“My dear, that is hardly a godly attitude. The Lord rewards honest labour with abundant reward,” said Edward.
“Too true, too true,” replied Joseph Worthy, “my wife and I have both felt His blessings of course. I believe I heard you preaching on just such a topic last Sunday, did I not?”
“Indeed you did, though perhaps not all were in church to hear it. I began with the verse from Genesis, “by the sweat of your brow shall you labour” and then I expounded the five virtues of work, namely...”
A phone rang. Clarice pulled out her mobile and checked it.
“On that note I’m afraid I must excuse myself. Work call.” Clarice tucked her chair into the table and strode into the hallway, barking instructions down the phone.
“Terribly sorry about that,” muttered Joseph, “but when work calls, Clarice must answer.”
“I always thought that work sounded like no fun at all,” said Anne.
“Lucky you’ve never had to work then,” said Lady Wytherington and they both giggled.
Lord Wytherington cleared his throat and gave his wife a cold look. She fell silent. Charles drained his glass and began to drink his soup in earnest. The others did the same.
“Tell me Joseph,” began the Lord Wytherington, “since your wife seems to be otherwise occupied, perhaps you could tell us about some of your own activities. I hear you have become a - what is the term? - a ‘tree-hugger’?”
Joseph Worthy snorted.
“My lord, the preferred term is eco-activist and I fear it is not so interesting for present company.” He looked around the table, hoping to be contradicted.
Anne-Mary looked down, avoiding eye-contact.
“I for one would like to hear about it,” said Lucy.
“Where to start? I have always believed that we were put on God’s earth to keep it for him, right reverend?”
“So it has been taught.”
“But I began to realise that this required a more, shall we say, active role. In short, my lady, human beings are the source of much evil and destruction in this world, and I have come to believe that we can no longer stand idly by.”
“Are they done with the soup yet?” Mandy asked, as she and Emily together spread the salmon mousse into tight swirls.
“I think so,” answered Albert, watching each pink whirl for any imperfections. “Emily, you will assist John in clearing the soup bowls as soon as you have finished.”
“Yes sir,” she answered.
John leered at her from the corner of the room, where he sat picking his teeth with a knife. If Emily noticed she showed no sign.
“These are adequate,” Albert announced, “now get to it.”
Emily quietly shuffled off to the dining room with John just behind her. They gathered the plates without notice from the diners, piling dishes one on top of the other.
As they walked down the long corridor to the kitchen, with Clarice’s heated conversation fading into the background, John sidled up behind Emily.
“Filthy rat!” he hissed into her ear and gave her a shove.
The crash of china was unmistakable as soup-drenched shards spread across the carpet. Emily lay among the debris, eyes-wide with shock. Desperately, she tried to pick up the pieces with trembling fingers.
Albert and Mandy came running.
“What happened here?” Albert demanded.
“She tripped,” John answered with a smirk.
“Is this true, young lady?”
The old butler tutted under his breath. “A terrible waste of good bowls, terrible. And on such a good carpet, too! This will have to come out of your pay-cheque you know.”
Emily nodded again, still searching for shard fragments, fighting back tears.
The bell rang. Albert shook his head in dismay at the broken bowls and then stepped over Emily to see his Lordship.
Mandy looked into John’s eyes for a long time.
“This wouldn’t have had something to do with you John, would it?”
“Me? No. Not my fault the girl’s got butter fingers.”
“Are you sure? You know how much these bowls are worth?”
“Nothing to do with me. And don’t go saying any different or I might mention certain habits of yours to Albert.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“Tell me chef, seen any of his lordship’s brandy lately? I heard a cask went missing last week and I thought I saw you enjoying a glass of it last night. But then maybe I didn’t. What do you think?”
“I think you didn’t.”
“That’s my girl. Now, I think you’d better get on with serving the mousse and leave her to clean up the mess.”