Wednesday, June 5, 2024

In the Shadow of Her Majesty: Chapter Twenty One


Chapter Twenty One: A Most Welcome Repast

My arrival at the refectory was not what I had anticipated, for I still had a strong recollection of the prior day’s awkwardnesses: the stares, the wariness, the general sense that Ernest and I were viewed by all as untrustworthy interlopers.  As we approached the entrance, however, we were met with a very different sort of welcome.  We were noted, certainly, as almost every head turned, and every eye rested upon us, but each of the scruffy, simply dressed souls who encountered us did not treat us as if we were wolves among sheep; smiles and spoken greetings were offered up by one and all, and it seemed that the very spirit of those assembled had been transformed to one of genuine friendship.  

The refectory itself was a veritable bedlam of activity, as the entire community gathered together for their common meal.  Although there was no way to distinguish one from another by dress or manner, for a sartorial uniformity was the norm, every person evidently had their own particular responsibility; some hands cleared and wiped the rough-hewn wooden tables with grey and brown rags that appeared to be little more than repurposed garments, others brought baskets of cleaned but motley utensils from the scullery, most of which appeared to be ancient mismatched salvage from before the Collapse, yet others brought out metal trays and pans laden with eggs and oatmeal, still others syrups that had been tapped from the maples that filled the nearby woods, yet others brought battered carafes of what was most likely a hot chicory beverage.

It is a common and well-worn metaphor to associate such communal human industry with the diligent labours of social insects such as ants or honeybees.  That was, for all of its trite familiarity, the selfsame image that rose to my mind as I watched the scuttling about of these drably similar souls, yet with a single difference.  Perhaps it was because of their recent loss, but there was a homely comfort about their actions, as if all were taking solace in this most essential of daily customs.  There was laughter amongst them, and a pleasantness that I had not heretofore had the privilege to witness; in the clattering of fork and plate, the warmth of the room, and the aroma of humble but hearty fare, I could most surely appreciate their sentiments.

To my greatest wonderment, the culinary incense of the refectory did not repulse me as it had but a mere day before; what I had encountered as the dim odor of bland and watery mediocrity suddenly was nothing of the sort; precisely the opposite, for it stirred the yearnings of my appetite in an entirely pleasing, nay, almost overwhelming manner.

The savoury bouquet had a particularly salutary effect on my person, for though it bore very little resemblance to that of the meals to which I was accustomed, I was nearly dizzy with hunger; I must confess that I found myself salivating quite as vigorously as if I were one of Pavlov’s mongrels.

“Rebecca,” came a familiar voice from behind me.  

It was Raj, the catlike gentleman who had found us at least somewhat amusing previously.  He seemed more serious this morning, perhaps more muted by the loss they all had experienced.  “Good to see you at breakfast today.  You up for company?.”

“That would be delightful,” I replied.  “Company would be most appreciated.  Thank you, Raj, for your kind invitation.  If I might ask, how does one partake of this meal?”

For it was clear that the custom here was not that of any household of the Peerage, as the dozens of souls who had come through the doors had finished their preparations, but were not now taking their place at tables to be served, but instead gathering in a line to serve themselves from a single common groaning table, which was in turn replenished as needed by those whose task within the collective it was to prepare the meal.  

“Grab a bowl, get in line, serve yourself,” Raj said, shrugging nonchalantly.  “Pretty straightforward.”

“And where might we be seated?” I inquired, for I had no desire to tread incautiously should there be particular protocols or unspoken traditions within this community.

Raj pointed to an unoccupied wooden table and bench, where a single tan coat had been placed.  “I’m sitting right there.”

“Thank you, Raj.”  I turned to Ernest.  “Ernest, if you would be so kind?”

“Certainly, milady,” he replied, and went to take his place in the line, while I found my way over to the seat to which I had been directed.

Raj gave me a long, peculiar look from beneath an arched eyebrow, then joined Ernest as together they went to wait patiently in line; I took my seat, from whence I watched as Ernest and Raj made their way to where the repast lay.  

I do not doubt that there was nothing further from the community norm than to have one’s footman attend to such a duty, but I was not present among them because I had any intention of joining their fellowship, and insofar as I could present my person in a way that respectfully reflected the customs of the Peerage, I felt obligated to do so.

Raj was evidently quite interested in Ernest, and I could see him peppering my diligent footman with questions as the two of them moved closer to where they would fill their plates.  In point of fact, all those in line were rather significantly distracted by Ernest’s presence, as man, woman, and child alike cast furtive glances towards him, or…in the case of the young girl just ahead of him…stared at him agape, so distracted by his mechanical presence that she oft forgot to move or take food.  She, too, eventually found the courage to ask him some question or another, and I do not doubt that Ernest answered her with his typical grace and conciseness, for she blushed and seemed quite pleased at his reply.

The two returned to the table, with Raj settling next to me with his plate, and Ernest neatly placing my portion before me, along with what appeared to be a blunt camping fork and an overlarge pewter spoon.  That mattered not a whit, for of more import was the thick portion of well-syruped and lumpy oats, along with a well-seasoned mound of plainly scrambled eggs.  Though my instinct was to devour it in a manner more vulpine than ladylike, I paused, closed my eyes, and whispered a word of grace over the portion with which I had been blessed.

I took my first mouthful, which was something of an effort given that I was supping with what most closely resembled a serving utensil, a ladle, or somesuch; I may or may not have let out a faint moan of pleasure at the touch of sustenance upon my lips.  It was, to be sure, the simplest and most quotidian of meals, and one at the farthest remove from the wondrous gastronomic cornucopia in the great dining hall of Lord Fairfax.  Yet the oats were fat with rich whole milk and kissed with maple sweetness, the eggs salted and peppered generously, and in that precise moment there was nothing in the world that I could have found more amenable.

On the other hand, the less I say about the surrogation of chicory for coffee, the better.

“So you were hungry, eh?”

“I was, Raj, and again, thank you for inquiring.  I had, rather foolishly, gone nearly a day without attending to my necessary bodily appetites, and was by natural consequence almost unbearably esurient.”

Raj gave a small snorting snicker.  “Oh Kay. I’ll take that as a yes.”

“It was.  Raj, might I ask you a question in return?”

“Sure.  Fire away.”

“You have been ever so pleasant to us since our arrival, for which I am most truly grateful, yet I cannot help but observe that all about us seem suddenly far more kindly disposed to our presence.  Can you perhaps elucidate the underlying cause of this welcome transition?”

Raj paused for a long moment, tugging at his beard meditatively, his visage taking on an uncharacteristically grave affect.  “Yeah, that’d be Diego.  When we put Lucretia in the ground last night.  He had words about how she died, but also words about you and…um…Ernest, here.  ‘Bout what you did.  Saving his xxx and all, and what Ernest did to try to keep Lucretia alive.  Folks appreciate that.  Xxxx, I appreciate that.  You people may speak in crazy circles, but an ally is an ally.  Right now, we need every one of those we can get.”

I paused for a moment before replying, for at that moment my mouth was once again full, and even as ravenous as I had been, such a breach of fundamental table manners was unimaginable.  That Diego would have spoken so considerately in our favour was a heartening development, and marked a decidedly amenable direction in the relationship between these earnest people and the Peerage.

“Of course, Raj,” I said, the last of the oatmeal finally swallowed.  “I owe my life to your timely intervention on my behalf, and your willingness to hear Ernest’s plea.  You have fed me, and you have housed me, even in the face of entirely comprehensible wariness about my intentions.  It was not just our duty to return the kindness, but our pleasure.  My one regret was that we were unable to preserve Lucretia’s life; that must be a most terrible blow.”

His lips tightened discernably upon the hearing of this, as he fought back an upwelling of emotion; for all of his carefully constructed insouciance, it was clear that he, too, felt the loss of his friend and comrade most deeply.  There was a momentary pause, as he worked to compose himself.  What returned to his visage was a hungry, barely suppressed ferocity, his eyes alight with a new and eager vengeance.

“Diego said you and Ernest kicked their xxxxing xxxes.  Like nothing he’d ever seen.  Like they weren’t even a thing.  Like it almost felt unfair.”

I had, at that moment, taken another mouthful of my repast, so in reply I simply gazed unblinking into his burning eyes, offering a single slow nodding inclination of my head in affirmation.

He smiled, a menacing rictus, more voraciousness than pleasure.  “Are all of you Beautiful Ones that dangerous?  Oh Jesus please say yes.”

To that, I replied with a simple wink.