“It is time, sir,” Allen replied. He tucked the silver tray under his arm, bowed, pivoted on his heel, and departed.
“Well, follow him. Dining room’s just across the great hall. When I passed by earlier it was making a very ancient and fishlike smell.”
Genevieve’s stomach balked. “Oh...my.”
“No need to look so ill, Miss Langley. Quoting Shakespeare. Allen’s made branzino. Off we go. I won’t enjoy it but you might.” He stood, tugged the edges of his cardigan, and jutted his elbow at her.
She paused a second, wondering what he meant for her to do with it. Some odd gesture of gallantry, I suppose. Genevieve slipped her arm through his and suppressed a smile.
He cut his eyes at her. “You think me odd, Miss Langley? What a pass the world has come to when gentlemen no longer escort their ladies to table. Have you never been elbowed round?”
“‘Youth, whatsoever thou art, thou art but a scurvy fellow.’ If ever I get my hands on a man of your acquaintance, I’ll teach him.”
Her uncle’s arm was a warm thing to clasp as they made their way through the tangle of passages and Genevieve thought what a sad fact it was that gentlemen no longer “elbow” their ladies as Farnham had so bluntly put it; there was a certain peaceable respect in the gesture that made her feel like royalty as they hurried through the echoing hall and into another cell of firelight. The smell of baked seabass filled the room and through a curl of steam and candle-glow, Genevieve saw Allen pouring water into crystal glasses like a tee-totalling Bacchus in a three-piece suit. Farnham released her arm and pulled a chair out, waiting for her to sit before he pushed it in again. He took the place across from her, leaving the chair at the head of the table empty.
Genevieve had spread her napkin and thus exhausted any action that required no conversation. “Are we expecting company?”
Farnham laid his napkin across his legs with meticulous care and drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “None. The welcoming committee had gone to London to visit the Queen else they would have been here to pay you homage.”
She felt the sting of his sarcasm and wished he wouldn’t take everything she said as a personal insult. “I only wondered, as you weren’t sitting at the head of the table.”
“I’ve saved a place for Macbeth’s ghost.”
“I thought theatre-people refused to say the name of The Scottish Play.”
Farnham speared a potato with his fork and passed the bowl to her. “I am not superstitious. Why should I not use his name any less than I’d use yours? You’re not going to give me bad luck, are you?”
Genevieve served herself and set the bowl before the empty plate at the head of the table and bowed toward it. “Then Macbeth, dear sir, would you take some supper?”
Farnham scoffed. “Silly girl. I was in jest. I leave a place at the head of the table because I hate to have my back to the gaping hall.”
“Curious. I like to know if anyone is looking at me.”
“Oh, uncle, narcissism never did any man a good turn.” Geneveive laughed at Farnham’s befuddled expression and laughed harder when he flapped his elbows with an annoyed look.
“Perhaps we’d better bless the food and have done with ghosts,” he said.
“Oui, monsieur, c’est une bonne idée.”
Farnham bowed his head and Genevieve did the same. She wondered where Allen had gone to and if he thought his employer’s behavior in regards to the empty seat a bit odd.
“For what Thou hast given us, liege Lord, we thank Thee and ask that our lives might be of service to Thee,” Farnham prayed in an elegant, soothing voice that seemed to treasure the holy words. “In Thy Son’s magnificent name do we pray. Amen.”
“One thing you will need to know, Miss Langley.” Farnham turned his fork with the potato still speared on the tines and smiled at it. “We are often interrupted during our supper.”
“Or what? Or whither? Never you mind, for it changes every time. I thought you would like to be advised, though.”
Puzzled, she shrugged. “Of course. Thank you.”
Allen brought the branzinos on two plates and set one before each of them. The whole fish in its crispy, salted jacket stared at her with a glassy eye and Genevieve thought it seemed to look at Whistlecreig and its inhabitants in a spirit of judgement and lemon-juice. “I incline to concur,” she whispered.
“To whom are you speaking?” Farnham asked.
Genevieve snapped straight, blushing to realize she’d been overheard. “To my fish, if you must know.”
“I could have gone a long time without knowing that.” There was a bit of a silence--horrifyingly awkward--and Farnham smashed the potato he’d been turning on the fork since first stabbing it. “Tell me, Miss Langley, are you one of those nature-spiritualist people who eat nothing but dried fruit and hot water and apologize to the Earth for taking even that much from Her bosom? No? Good, because I was going to tell you that I’ll have none of that here. We eat fish. We eat poultry and lamb and pork and whatever we take a fancy for. Allen raises cabbages and he doesn’t weep a little weep over each plant as he decapitates it and takes its head to steam in a pot.”
“Really, sir!” Allen’s voice intruded.
Farnham stopped Allen with an imperious gesture of his hand. “I imagine we’d eat a horse if we decided it would taste any good. What I mean to say is that you’ll find your feelings constantly trod upon if you insist on animals and plants having spirits and crying tears and marrying and owning property and all of that ridiculous brouhaha one hears so much about in this modern age. Animals have lives and I like them to live their lives in comfort and decency. But I’ve got a life too and what’s more, I’ve got a soul, and when the time is right I have no compunction about eating a bunny or two to keep body and soul entwined.”
“Sir. Your potato,” Allen murmured.
Genevieve passed a hand over her lips, praying she wouldn’t dissolve into laughter as she watched Farnham stare at the shapeless mash that had once been a potato sitting cheek-to-jowl with the fin-tail of his branzino.
“Hmmm...well dear me,” Farnham muttered.
Allen cleared his throat. “‘I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit’, sir? Was that, perhaps, the quotation for which you were searching?”
Farnham drew himself up. “Oh fie on you, Allen.”
Genevieve tried to keep her amusement inside but the aggrieved expression on Allen’s face and the surprise on Farnham’s as if he’d been an unlucky Jove discovering his Titantic strength was too much to be borne in silence. She laughed aloud--peals of it--and the idea of anyone laughing in a place like Whistlecreig only made her situation funnier. Farnham sat back, affronted, and Allen whisked himself off someplace--Genevieve could only imagine where--and still she laughed. It was just too bang ridiculous, this house and these people and her uncle’s passionate description of his butler merrily guillotining the cabbages in the garden.
“I suppose you think I’m joking,” he said after she’d finally stopped laughing long enough to begin to feel embarrassed.
“No. That’s what makes it so...so...” the hilarity almost burst out again but by a valiant sip of water, Genevieve saved herself from further disgrace.
“Now that your fish is quite cold,” her uncle said, “shall we proceed with our supper?”
“By all means.” Genevieve fanned her cheeks. “Branzino has given me permission to consume him as soon as he is cooled.”
Farnham was furious, she supposed. For the next fifteen minutes he flicked at the skin of his fish, making small cuts in the flesh but eating very little. He seemed to have lost all his appetite and when Allen finally came around with steaming cups of wassail, he beamed upon Farnham with a fatherly eye.
“I think a bit of company is good for you, sir.”
“Look at how you’ve eaten. That’s appetite there.”
Geneveive fingered her napkin, curious to see Allen employing sarcasm which seemed to be his master’s forte. But Farnham was not laughing--he even seemed a bit astonished and looked at the plate with a certain fondness.
“You know, Allen,” he said, “I think I did make a good attempt.”
“Enjoy your cider, sir.” Allen rested his fingers on Farnham’s shoulder for a moment then cleared away the dishes, leaving Genevieve and her uncle alone again.