Letters from Armorica: Dinner Party (29 April 37 AF)

First Letter

The Elms, Wickshire, Cumbria

25 February 1015

My dearest cousin Armand,

The weather having been fine and the moon being full, Squire and Mrs. Willoughby hosted a dinner party this past week, to which I and Brother Edward were invited. It was my first dinner party in Wickshire! And it was a much grander thing than a mere tea, though of course not nearly so grand as a ball.

I have been cataloguing, for my own benefit and appreciation, the kinds of social events one might encounter here in the country. First there is "coming over for tea," which is a small gathering of not more than five or six people, congenial or otherwise. In Yorke, "coming over for tea" lasts precisely for the socially acceptable half-hour, except among family or intimate friends, and then either takes one's leave or escapes gratefully, depending on the company. In the country, possibly due to the distance between homes and the vicissitudes of winter travel, however, tea may be much more prolonged.

Then there is Market Day, where one might meet and speak with almost anyone—within the bounds of propriety, of course, pace my brother Edward. Market Day is a delight in good weather, and an excellent time for meeting a friend, for one might promenade about together at length. One is constantly interrupted, of course.

And then there is the dinner party, which is rather more like Market Day than tea, only more constrained. In Yorke a hostess plans the guest list for a dinner party most carefully, choosing to invite those who will get on well together, or those to whom one owes an invitation, or those who will strike sparks from one other, all according to the needs and inclinations of the hostess. It is much the same here in Wickshire, except that the pool of those one might invite is much smaller; and unlike a ball, one needn't invite those one dislikes.

The guests gather in the drawing room, as in Yorke, for conversation, and then go into dinner together in strict order of precedence…but precedence in the country is quite a different thing than precedence in Yorke. To my surprise Squire Willoughby honored me by taking me in himself, though of course I was seated rather further down the table.

"Privilege of rank," he said to me, with a broad smile.

"La, sir," I said, in my most affected tone, "you shall turn my head! And you old enough to be my beloved Jane's father!"

"And so I am," he chuckled, patting my arm, "and so I am!"

But I get ahead of myself. In Stourton, on Market Day, one may greet anyone in one's acquaintance that one chances to pass by, be it Miss Willoughby or Lieutenant Archer; but in the drawing room a young lady must be less forward. When Edward and I arrived, therefore, I immediately went and sat with Miss Willoughby, whom I had not seen in some days, and then waited for the young gentlemen to come to us.

Which they did, of course. There was no room on the sofa for Edward but he took up station nearby, adopting his most forbidding mien. Lieutenants Pertwee and Archer soon joined us despite his manifest, along with another handsome young man I had not met but who proved to be Edward Hargreaves the scientific farmer.

My dear Jane performed introductions, introducing the two Edwards to one another; and shortly thereafter the doors were opened and the good squire came to take me in to dinner.

Once I was seated I had to laugh; for Mrs. Willoughby had placed Lieutenant Archer to my left, between Jane and myself, and Lieutenant Pertwee to my right, while Brother Edward watched in consternation from several places down on the opposite side of the table.

I spent the first course chatting not unagreeably with Lieutenant Pertwee, who is a decent man, though dim, and hearing about events at the garrison and how Pollock had beaten Maskerton at whist.

"Rolled him up, too, took his entire allowance," said Pertwee. "Bad business, that. Can't stay away from the cards in garrison, of course. Not much else to do this time of year. Still, it was a bad business."

With the next course, Archer turned to me with a gentle smile. "And now, Miss Montjoy, how do you do?"

It was my first chance for a prolonged exchange with the good lieutenant, and I took full advantage.

"Your brother officer tells me that it is quite slow in garrison this time of year," I said. "Tell me, how do you find it? Has Anaxagoras been the balm for which you were hoping?"

"Not he," he said with a laugh. "A few choice ideas, mind you, but hidden amidst a mass of infernal nonsense. I was quite disappointed."

"It seemed an odd selection to me," I said. "Do many officers go in for ancient philosophy?"

"Hardly," said he. "But am not your typical officer, you know."

"I see that, of course. What accounts for it, if I may be so bold?"

He gave me a rueful smile. "It has long been the tradition in my family that the second son serve in one regiment or another. But until the passing of my brother Ernest I was the third son, and so was bound for the University." He shrugged slightly.

"Why, I am sorry for your loss!" I said. "I hope you do not find the military life too…too—"

"Physical?" he said. "Not at all, for I am a countryman myself. But I try to keep up my studies. And service does have its present compensations."

I rewarded him with a demure smile. "More of your philosophy?" I asked, deliberately misunderstanding him.

"It is quite to my taste. But, again in keeping with family tradition, I am most interested in wizardry. My uncle belongs to the Royal College, and in his day my great-uncle Matthew was Court Wizard to the King who was."

"Wizardry? Truly?"

"Quite so—not that I seem to have any great talent for it, so perhaps it is best that I was compelled to take on another career."

Philosophy, wizardry, quite the gentleman, and so well-looking in his uniform—if I were dangling after the officers, Armand, I fear I should be quite jealous of my dear Jane Willoughby.

Your loving cousin,


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photo credit: NH53 Silverware in Cathedral Museum via photopin (license)

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