Storm and Silence(8)By: Robert Thier
Keep it simple. Don’t say anything else. Just keep it simple and for God’s sake, don’t blink.
My aunt’s glower flickered. I waited, holding my breath. I had gambled on her nature: my dear aunt was suspicious to the bone, but she also didn’t actually care tuppence about how I spent my time, as long as it didn’t threaten her social standing or the contents of her purse. If I had gotten myself killed last night she wouldn’t have cared, if I had done it in a nice, quiet manner. I saw the suspicion gradually lift from her bony face to be replaced by her usual expression of mild distaste. ‘Um… err… yes, now that you mention it I do recall something of the kind,’ she said slowly. ‘The day before yesterday, you say?’
‘Exactly,’ I confirmed, letting my smile grow even more bright and confident. ‘Where did you think I was? Did you think I spent the night in prison?’
Her mouth thinned. ‘Lillian! Don’t even joke about such a thing! It is unbecoming of a lady!’
‘Of course. I am sorry.’
Behind me, I heard Ella carefully step out of the room. She had obviously listened and knew that the danger of actual bloodshed was passed.
‘Shall we go down to breakfast?’ I suggested. ‘I am hungry after my walk.’
Nodding, and still frowning slightly, my aunt turned and led the way down the stairs. Behind her, I let out a deep breath. Thank the Lord for uncaring relatives.
Breakfast. The most important meal of the day, it is said. And, in many families under the glorious rule of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, an occasion for the entire household to gather around the table and make polite small talk about their plans for the day, while consuming luscious delicacies. I had read once, when for some reason I had peeked into a cookbook, that in the usual upper middle-class family, the following was brought to the table, for one breakfast:
• fresh sausages
• boiled eggs
• a cold ham
• porridge with fresh cream & butter
• a pheasant pie
• fresh curds and whey
• corn muffins
• fresh bread
The cookbook had also suggested that a red and white chequered tablecloth should be avoided since it could have adverse effects on the digestion.
Breakfast at my uncle’s house was slightly different. For one thing, my dear Uncle Brank only owned one tablecloth - a dark brown one, so stains would not be visible and it wouldn’t have to be washed so often. For another, the meal was not quite so opulent. And as for the polite small talk at table, that was inhibited slightly by the fact that my uncle wasn’t actually present.
Mr Brank had not come down into the dining room to take his meals for years, not since his sister and her husband had died, leaving him the task of looking after six of these strange, unpleasant little creatures commonly referred to as ‘girls’. Mr Brank was not fond of female company. He’d had to acquire a wife at some point in his life, of course, in order to produce an offspring who could someday take over the business, but at least she was a sensible, economical woman. These… ‘girls’ were another matter entirely.
Thus it was that when we arrived in the dining room that morning, the big chair at the head of the table was empty, and my aunt bore an especially sour expression on her thin face. Leadfield, our only servant, who held the position of butler, valet, scullion and shoeblack all at the same time, was waiting for us and bowed as far as his ancient back would allow.
‘Breakfast is served, Madam.’
‘Thank you, Leadfield,’ my aunt said in a cool voice, repeating the ritual that had taken place in our household for over a decade. With another bow and a sweep of his bony arm Leadfield directed us to the table.
‘Will Mr Brank be joining us at the breakfast table today, Leadfield?’ my aunt asked, continuing the ritual.
‘The master is very busy and left early for work this morning,’ Leadfield gave the expected answer. ‘I brought him his breakfast earlier, up in his study.’
I saw my aunt throw a piercing glower up at the door of Uncle Brank’s study, just visible upstairs. It had long been his inner sanctum and impenetrable fortress, where no female, not even my aunt, was allowed to enter.
When Mr Brank’s sister and her husband, my beloved mother and father, had been so inconsiderate as to die in an accident, and this horde of chattering miniature females had invaded his home, Mr Brank had wisely decided to retreat and establish a secure base in his upstairs study, where these small creatures would not dare to venture. Instead of coming down to breakfast, lunch and dinner, he preferred to have his meals brought up to him by the aged butler, or to simply eat at work. Needless to say that this did not endear us girls to his wife, who lost many an opportunity to discuss at the table with her husband such important subjects as her latest efforts in household savings and the profligacy of the neighbours.
This time, things were no different. My aunt pursed her lips as the other doors to the dining room opened and my other sisters filed in from various parts of the house, yet my uncle remained absent.
‘Are you sure he is already gone, Leadfield?’
She sniffed. ‘Well, hopefully he will join us tomorrow.’
‘Hopefully, Madam,’ Leadfield concurred.
‘You may serve the first course.’
The first and only, I thought, shaking my head.
‘Yes, Madam. Thank you, Madam.’
With all the dignity of a host of royal lackeys serving a voluptuous feast, Leadfield took the lid off the porcelain bowl in the middle of the table and poured each of us a healthy portion of porridge. To this he added some potatoes and salted herrings - the cheapest and most nourishing food that could be found on the London market. Say what you will, my uncle didn’t starve us. Over the years, I even had gotten quite a taste for salted herrings.
My aunt obviously didn’t feel like that. She eyed the fish on her plate with ambivalence. I could clearly see two of her strongest instincts warring with one another: her stinginess, which told her that this was the cheapest food you could get without poisoning yourself, and her social aspirations, which told her that a lady would under no circumstances eat something that also formed the regular diet of Irish peasants. In the end, stinginess, aided by a rumbling stomach, seemed to win out. She poked one of the potatoes with her fork as if she expected it to come alive and attack her. When it didn’t, she impaled it and picked up her knife.
I had already started shovelling porridge into my mouth while my aunt was occupied, taking the opportunity to actually get some serious eating done before my lack of table manners was noticed. Beside me, Ella ate with considerably better manners but equal enjoyment. Gertrude, my eldest sister and the old maid in the family, didn’t seem to mind the plain food either. The others, however, - Lisbeth and especially the twins, Anne and Maria - looked rather contemptuously at their plates and took a long time to start eating.
Even when they finally stuck their forks into the herring, they did not eat very much, and this was not just the case because they didn’t like their food: unlike me, they considered themselves to be very fine ladies. Very fine ladies could under no circumstances talk with their mouths full, which meant they hardly ever could put a bite in their mouths.
‘Have you heard?’ Anne burst out as soon as we were all seated. ‘Lord Tilsworth is engaged! And to a frightful girl, too. She is supposed to be one of the most low-minded creatures in London - and with horrible freckles all over her face. What in God’s name induced him to marry her I cannot imagine! She’s not even of the gentry, from what my friend Grace told me the other day.’
‘No!’ gasped Maria. ‘Can it be true that he is throwing himself away on somebody like that? I can hardly believe it!’
‘It is true, I swear it. As I said, I had it from Grace, who had it from Beatrice, who had it from Sarah, who had it from her second cousin, who heard it all from the cousin of Lord Tilsworth’s second chambermaid.’
‘Which of course means that it must be true,’ I mumbled, rolling my eyes and chewing my potatoes.
‘Lillian!’ snapped my beloved aunt. ‘Don’t talk with your mouth full.’
‘Such a pity,’ Maria sighed. ‘Tilsworth would have been such a catch. And he was quite taken with me at the last ball.’
I rolled my eyes again and hoped my aunt wouldn’t see. She would probably consider that unladylike behaviour, too. Oh yes, the last ball. Anne and Maria had been talking about it for days and days now. They were the only ones of us who actually ever got invited to any balls, because they were the only ones pretty enough in the eyes of the gentlemen. No, that wasn’t quite true. Ella could have given them a run for their money - if she hadn’t been so painfully shy. But as it was, Anne and Maria, pale, tall and sickly-looking, with dark circles under their eyes and that demure look that gentlemen favoured so much, were the only ones of us ever getting into society.
Which was pretty much how I liked it. They were welcome to all the balls and all the men they could get. They could have thousands and thousands of men, and have illicit affairs with them or marry one or all of them, or cook them for dinner if they really wanted to. I would wish them the best of luck. But why oh why did they have to bore the rest of us to death by talking about it?