Saturday 1st August 1914; Oxfordshire, England
Annie shuffled her feet against the bright red carpet, her plimsolls making a soft rustling sound. Her thin arms were beginning to ache from holding the silver tray, even though it was empty. It seemed like hours had passed since Cookie sent her into the dining room to wait on His Lordship’s guests.
Looking at the tray, she was reminded of playing Master of the Manor with Wilson. The memory of her friend brought a lump into her throat and her eyes began to sting. She stared with loathing at the meaty hands of the master, the same hands that had knocked Wilson to the floor five months past.
She forced herself to focus on the room rather than dwell on unhappy memories. Cookie always said that sad thoughts never brought a smile. Around the long oak dining table were ten chairs, each filled with one of His Lordship’s guests.
Sir Charles sat at the head of the table, a glass of wine in one hand and his fork in the other. Annie watched as a steaming mass of roast lamb, potatoes and onions steeped in gravy was manoeuvred onto the fork and shovelled into the man’s gaping mouth. She shivered in disgust and noticed that she was not alone in doing so.
The host’s mother, the fourth Baroness of Trapton was watching her son eat with her lips twisted into a sneer of revulsion. Opposite her sat Sir Albert, the widower. Those three were the only ones present without a partner. On Sir Albert’s side of the table were four others of what Sir Charles referred to as his ‘war friends’.
The truth was that none of them had been in the military. The war to which this term referred was their time as junior barristers at the Inns of Court. To the Baroness’ right four tall, thin women perched on the edge of their seats, tittering at every joke their husbands made and looking to Annie like a flock of ugly geese.
“Now, gentlemen, I trust that you’ve all heard the news from Europe?” A pompous-looking man in an overly-tight dinner jacket asked.
There was a chorus of clearing of throats and deep hums of approval from the side of the table closest to Annie. She sighed inaudibly and braced herself to hear a conversation in which she had no interest at all. Sir Charles’ mouth was eagerly mashing food into a soft pulp, so great was his desire to weigh in on this new topic.
“Perhaps,” the Baroness said, her shrill voice cutting across the clamour and leaving the dining room in expectant silence, “this is a conversation which would be better had by the gentlemen after they have retired to the billiard room. I cannot speak for the esteemed ladies beside me, but I have no interest in hearing your praises for that terrible blight that is war.”
The geese, who only moments before had been encouraging their husbands in the hopes of hearing the latest news from the continent, now followed the will of the elderly Baroness and voiced their disapproval at the men opposite them.
Annie thought that their husbands had in turn taken the characters of jackals. They looked with hungry eyes at the Baroness, sensing a weakness on which they could prey. It was the first time that Annie had ever heard war being spoken of as anything less than a glorious pursuit.
“Mother, are you suggesting that war is a bad thing?” The leader of the pack asked, dumbing down his speech for the woman who had taught him to talk.
The feathers of the great goose ruffled and Annie watched her pull back her head, ready to snap at the insolent jackal with her sharp beak. She was enjoying this new conversation more than she had thought she would.
“That is exactly what I am saying. I’ve been living in the United States for twelve years now with your aunt and her kind husband. In their company I have been introduced to veterans of the American Civil War who fought for both the North and the South. Do you know what all of those gentlemen had in common, Charles?”
“I can’t imagine they had much to agree upon.” He replied.
“You would be surprised. Each of them agreed that dysentery is a sure remedy for excitement, that a lead ball to the leg is a certain antidote to gallantry, and that they would trade all the rash boasts of their youth to be reunited with their fallen comrades.”
“Well,” Alfred bellowed, sending spittle flying across the tablecloth, “it’s a shame our Russian allies aren’t fighting the Americans. It sounds like they lack the stomach for a fight. I for one am champing at the bit to see the forces of the British Empire wade in against the Germans and their Triple Alliance.”
The Baroness’ long, thin neck seemed to elongate even further as she pushed her chair back from the table and rose to her feet, her pointed chin thrust toward the chandelier.
Every man at the table immediate scrambled to their feet, hastily folding their napkins beside their plates. It amazed Annie how quick they were to follow common courtesies even in the midst of a vicious argument.
“If the gentlemen present refuse so strongly to carry their conversation into the dining room, I shall retire myself.” She said, mustering enough dignity in her tone to shame each man into blushing. Five pairs of eyes turned down towards the table and not one of the men met her gaze.
“I think this war is none of our business. Let those Russians and Prussians fight amongst themselves, what’s it got to do with us?” One of the younger, scrawnier geese croaked from the middle of the table as she threw back a glass of blood red wine.
Annie’s mouth hung open. She had never seen a lady so affected by drink before in her life. The woman swayed slightly to either side and smirked from the corner of one mouth. Her husband’s glare looked furious enough to bore a hole through the woman’s forehead, but she either did not see it or did not care. Every face around the dining room except for the Baroness’ took on a deep red hue to match the curtains.
“Try some more of that lamb, dear. It’s quite splendid.” The Duchess said.
“Alice, please fetch the cigar box from my study and bring it next door.” His Lordship said, apparently still inspecting the edge of the tablecloth. “Comrades, I think we should retire to the billiard room.”
The jackals filed out through the doorway with the tails of their dinner jackets trailing down behind them. Annie watched the glum procession for a moment without moving before realising that Sir Charles had been addressing her.
It seemed that her name was Alice that day. The week before it had been Hannah and on her tenth birthday she had been known as Florence. She did not know how His Lordship had landed upon the name Florence, as it was not even close in sound or spelling to Annie.
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