Saturday, December 2, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Four

Chapter Four: My Dinner in the Great Hall of Fairfax

It had been, as one might expect, quite the evening, one which to my sensibility began in earnest when Father and I met just prior to dinner, Father having been detained in an extended conclave with the other Lords of Defense about a matter of great importance to the Crown, the same matter that was engaging the full attentions of my dear Stewart.

We exchanged the usual pleasantries, and inquired after one another’s journey, although again, Father was by necessity and propriety very closed-lipped about the particulars of his travels over these last few days. This naturally piqued my curiousity, as what few smidgens of detail he did share caused my mind to pursue all of their possible implications. The Firedrake had travelled from Boston that morning, escorted by Her Majesty’s frigates HMS Dagger and HMS Weasel, and given that Father had departed after breaking the fast and arrived before his conclave at noon, they must have traversed the entire distance at flank speed.

Boston, of course, was home to the Royal Society’s primary regional research and development facilities, where the greatest minds in the old colonies turned their genius to the advancement of the Crown; it was also home to the most sophisticated manufactoriums in the colonies, capable of producing the most efficacious of devices. It was there, in perhaps the most remarkable instance, that much of the nanotube materiel for the East African Equatorial Space Elevator was produced, although obviously both the assembly and launch of componentry that comprised that marvel of the Crown were undertaken at Port Mombasa under the guidance of Mutongoria Kimathi and her House Gikuyu.

I had, that afternoon prior to dinner, finally availed myself of opera glasses, and with Amanda’s guidance had observed the distinct position of the Firedrake and her frigates. They were not, as I had mistakenly but justifiably surmised, part of the defensive picket surrounding the estate, but were instead positioned nearly above the Great House itself, well inside the protective veil of a dozen ships of the line, which given the Firedrake’s prodigious and fearsome capacities seemed an unusual and significant choice.

Father had also noted his intentions following the gala; to travel south to Her Majesty’s Royal Seat at Williamsburg, then following several days of urgent business to return north to our estate for a week of needed rest and recuperation, much of which would be spent hunting deer with several of his colleagues. All of these things were offered in the utmost discretion, for they were themselves not sufficient to enlighten me as to their specific purpose; I can only wish that some kindly muse had whispered that purpose into my waiting ear, for had I known the nature of Father’s errand and the significance of the Firedrake’s invaluable cargo, so much of my own unfortunate part in what was to occur would have been changed.

None of that was at the forefront of my mind as we took our places in the sumptuous dining hall, where beneath the finest crystal chandeliers an intricately carved mahogany table of stupendous length was set with service for one hundred and thirty five, with each guest at their assigned station; Father to my left, the Countess of the House Loudon to my right, and dear Stew and the Baroness Annandale seated so far up the great table that I could barely even catch the whisper of their voices amidst the chatter of polite conversation. A remarkable array of the Mid Atlantic and Northeastern peerage was present and in attendance, which meant that the meal, by necessity, was a repast that befitted such an august company.

The meal began with a first course of creamy butternut soup, coupled with the very best of sherries, a ‘10 Portuguese Quinta das Carvalhas, which combined to produce the most sublimely comfortable effect upon one’s palette.

After an exactly sufficient time for the gathered to appreciate the first course, the Duke’s bustling throng of servants offered up the second course, a delicate portion of vat-grown halibut, which was itself coupled with a measure of dry Riesling, a ‘17 from Prieur Montrachet; not the typical Chardonnay one might choose for vat-grown fish, but still an impeccable choice.

At, again, the precise moment the table was ready, our china was whisked away, and the third plate bearing our primary relevĂ© arrived. It was a seared cut of Wagyu beef, itself a buttery perfection, with a small tumble of fried garlic-brushed Jerusalem artichoke straws, accompanied by a ‘13 Chateau Latour Pauillac, from which I politely demurred. It is not that I am one of those unfortunate souls for whom a Cabernet upsets digestion, and only a boor could dislike that most excellent vintage, but I was already feeling the sherry and the riesling, and wished to keep my wits about me.

There was here a brief digestive pause, a considerate necessity which allowed the gathered to catch their culinary breath and to converse freely with their neighbours. Whilst Father exchanged pleasantries and Defense Ministry shop talk with an impressively bearded and moustachioed Rear Admiral, I and the Lady Loudon reacquainted ourselves with one another. Constance is a skilled violist in her own way, who makes up for her slight lack of discipline with a remarkable ear and an unerring intuition for tone and nuance. We’d played some delightful Schumann duets two years ago at a summer musical soiree she had hosted at her estate by the Potowmack, and we reminisced at some length about the loveliness of the river on that sultry moonlit evening.

She and I were still talking, now about my travails with the Grande Etude, when the next course arrived; generous slices of goose roasted in the Cantonese style, with a delectably seasoned pyramid of kalijira rice. Given the oriental character of the course, it was paired with a single ceramic cup of the finest heated Niizawa sake, which had the most delightful warming effect when ingested.

From that, the servants delivered in rapid succession the three entremets: first, a single but well-sized bacon-wrapped brussels sprout; second, a crisp and flaky blackcurrant tart no larger than the end of one’s thumb; and finally, an intimately-sized and elegantly plated portion of baked brie with fig, pistachio, and orange.

No sooner had the last silver forkful of the brie been swallowed than the entire waitstaff descended upon the great table like a murmur of starlings, and to the great delight and amusement of all assembled…many of whom may have had more than one glass of the Cabernet…fully reset the entire table in a display of prowess and dexterity unseen outside of the acrobats at the cirque. From the far end of the table it began, soiled plates and precious crystal glasses and goblets systematically thrown singing through the air by precise hands to others just as sure that caught and removed them, while yet others whisked away the fine linen tablecloths. They swept down the long table like a clattering, clinking wave, every moment teetering on the humorous illusion of disaster, whilst fresh plates and glasses were juggled and flung and abruptly placed just so with clockwork precision, nary a scrap of food or errant drop of liquid going astray, and not a single diner in any way disturbed. It was a marvel, and when the dessert setting was suddenly miraculously and materially perfected before us, finger bowls and dessert silver glistening all in their proper array, crystal port snifters still singing softly from the abruptness of their placement, the entire table affirmed our mechanical servers with an uproarious and slightly tipsy round of huzzahs.

I will confess to have demurred yet again from the ices and finger cakes, for which I laid apologetic blame upon the tightness of my corsetry, although I did indulge myself in a healthy glass of Cockburn’s Tawny Port.

At the conclusion of the dinner, as we ladies excused ourselves for coffee in the order of our rank, and I waited my turn to rise and take my leave, I for a moment found my thoughts, melancholy no doubt from the inevitable conclusion of such an insuperable repast, turning to the ramshackle shanties and humble villages I had overflown in the Town Carriage mere hours before.

What would the common, savage souls who scratched and struggled in such mean estate make of such a meal as the one that had just passed? Would they find it a delight to the senses, a taste of the divine feast here on earth? Or would it seem a horror of near diabolical indulgence?

I could not have known how soon I would receive a profanely direct answer to that question.

Chapter Five: A Moment with Stewart