A painfully awkward dinner party set in 1863. Feel free to critique!
|1863- Word Count: 2000
Crystalline glasses and filigree silverware clinked as General Norwood of the Union Army settled himself heavily at one end of a long dining table. A lacy white cloth was elegantly draped across the surface, and he assumed the wood to be finely grained - as everything in the proud Southern manor seemed to be. Yet, he knew the tablecloth, dishware, and furniture alike were a façade of deportment and class, cleverly disguising the immoral source of the Southern family’s wealth.
To the General’s left, Lucinda Fairley eyed the Union officer warily. Against her protests, her mother had seated her directly beside him, assigning her the role of conversationalist to a man she found intimidating and unfamiliar in all regards. Not only was he twice her age, but he fought against her parent’s livelihood. The General was- according to her parents at least- “a rotten Northerner seeking to strip the family of house and prosperity,” of which her mother constantly reminded her family by vehemently muttering under her breath whenever the Union troops occupying the family’s manor were out of earshot.
If Lucinda agreed with her parent’s beliefs, she did not reveal it to the General. Her sweet innocence made any confrontation, even one delivered through finely veiled insults, quite unnatural to her character.
As the rest of the party arranged themselves around the table, Lucida quietly noted her mother’s careful arrangement of the guests and family.
Lucinda’s mother’s seat was at the head of the table, a place normally belonging to Lucinda’s father, but because he was off assisting the war effort, Mrs. Fairley had taken control of the household and thus his place at the table. The honorable Doctor Evan Tibbets, thoroughly southern-born, sat to her mother’s right, followed by Union Officer Hansom to Mrs. Fairley’s left. Near the middle of the table sat Lucinda’s sister, Cecelia Fairley, Queen of the Fairley fortune. Directly across from Cecelia Fairley sat Frederick Upton, her fiancé. The final guest was a certain Officer Edwards, also of the Union army, and perhaps the most formally educated of the gathering. He sat across from Lucinda.
Mrs. Fairley, after sweeping into the room in the wake of the final guests, began the dinner with a well-rehearsed “welcome” which sounded more like a challenge than a greeting to Lucinda.
“Honored guests and family,” she began, gesticulating grandly with finely manicured hands, “I thank you all for joining me in what I know will be a lovely dinner. I aim for this experience to be a demonstration of Southern hospitality, one I hope this house has and will continue to prove throughout the ensuing trials of the world - provided we are not wiped from extinction…” At this, she swept her gaze around the room, alighting on each of the officers, before adding a playful half-smile and laughing lightly. “No, of course that would not be the case. Now, let us eat.”
She slid elegantly into a seat pulled out for her by the serving girl, who had taken up the role to replace a servant boy off at war, and immediately began conversation with Officer Hansom, a cue for the rest of the assembled party to follow. Thus, Lucinda sighed and turned to the General. Across the room, the serving maid began her evening work, spooning the first course onto Mrs. Fairley’s plate.
“Miss Fairley, may I first thank you for graciously entertaining the Officers tonight,” the General began. His accent was clipped, and would have been foreign to Lucinda’s ears, had she not begun to adapt after the arrival of the Northerner’s to the manor.
“Oh! Of course, as my mother will tell you, the pleasure is all ours.” she replied. He smiled warmly at her, blue eyes twinkling above a trim grey beard, and chuckled slightly.
“Yes indeed, so she has said… though I think that is not what she truly means, is it?” He sent her a rather pointed look, and Lucinda blushed, quickly looking down at the tablecloth.
“I’m sorry if we have given you such an impression, we…”
“Oh no, I’m just teasing. I know our presence is highly unwelcome here, but for tonight at least, let us lay our differences aside and enjoy the meal. Speaking of which, how on Earth were you able to obtain such food? I know supply in the South is dwindling.”
“Yes, that is true, Mother had to call in quite a few favors in order for her demands to be met, and of course even this meal is without many of the usual essentials….”
The two began to fall into easy conversation over the lack of supplies in the South, and the construction of the dishes. As she answered his questions, the General listening attentively, even nodding slightly, Lucinda was amazed by his esteemed manners and genuine interest in her conversation. It was a trait not found within her own family, and for once, she felt important, understood. Perhaps the dinner would not be so taxing after all.
Meanwhile, Officer Hansom captivated his end of the table with an exciting tale of his visits to the American West. Apparently, he had faced down an entire gang of cowboys given into greed, camped along the great Pacific Ocean, and fell into an encampment of the native people, escaping only by his superior intellect (in actuality, the group of natives had demanded his gun, powder, horse, all that was in his haversack, and just for amusement, his clothing, and he was left to wander half-naked to the next town.) As his narrative expanded, taking on many unrealistic additions, he indulged deeply from his glass, his pretty face growing redder with each renewed pour of the wine bottle. At one point, his hand maneuvered its way to the serving girl, and he gave her a playful pat on the rump. She squealed in surprise, her cheeks suddenly as red as the wine she poured.
Mrs. Fairley, her eyes keen to even the most minute misdemeanor, found herself choking on her water after witnessing the scene. Dr. Tibbets was intrigued by her display, and began explaining the symptoms of a rare exotic disease found in the deep jungles of a neighboring continent. Mrs. Fairley desperately tried to conceal both her disgust at his words, and the violent coughing that had suddenly overtaken her. Nearby, Cecelia shot a smirk at Frederick, and they stifled giggles behind freshly pressed napkins before resuming their vexing conversation with Officer Edwards.
Officer Edwards, on the other hand, was seeking to pursue a deep philosophical debate over the nature of civilized society. “This war,” he stated, almost immediately setting the dining companions nearest to him on edge, “is truly a discourse over the contrast in belief between two opposing sides. Each has their own definition of civilized society, and each considers the opposing side the antithesis of their chosen definition. This severe discourse, I tell you, may even be the death of true civilized society. Now, what is your definition of civilized society?” Cecelia and Frederick resisted shooting each other looks of desperation, and Cecelia, a semblance of grace, elegantly redirected the conversation.
“Why, that's truly fascinating Officer, but, I must say that I would love to hear how you are finding our southern hospitality. Is it a measure of civilized society, as you so argue? After all, this dinner’s very existence stems from my mother’s insistence upon fighting her own battle against the Northerners.”
Officer Edwards was intrigued at his hosts’ confession. “How true! This dinner is a perfect example of civilized societ-” At this he suddenly inhaled sharply and froze, his eyes taking on a faraway gleam as he worked through this new development. The silence deepened, and for an awkward moment, Cecelia, not knowing what to say, simply sat flicking her eyes to the table, to Frederick for assistance, and then back to Officer Edwards. Around her, the rest of the table continued on with conversation, the tinkling of dainty china resounding from all sides as the group finished the third course. At one end of the table, Lucinda was unusually engaged in conversation with General Norwood, and Cecelia found herself wishing, for once, that she was in her sister’s place. Frederick finally spoke to break the strange silence.
“Officer...are you all right?”
Officer Edwards seemed to be suddenly shaken from his trance, and with a slightly startled expression replied. “Goodness, I apologize, I seemed to have drifted away for a moment.”
“Yes…” Cecelia said slowly, discomfort and confusion plain across her face. To clear the air, she laughed hesitantly, though regardless, it sounded slightly strained. “You certainly did. Silences at dinner can be a most..awkward affair.”
As Cecelia struggled to converse with Officer Edwards, someone she now considered to be a failure at polite society, Lucinda had found yet another resonating topic with the General. She learned that he had a daughter, similar in temperament and age to Lucinda.
Thus, as Lucinda found rare fulfillment in a dinner she had dreaded initially, the rest of her family found themselves regretting the dinner more and more with each passing moment.
By dessert, her mother was at her wits end. Mrs. Fairley’s practiced porcelain smile had begun to crack, and her eyes took on a strange intensity as Officer Hansom continued to consume wine.
“Young man” she finally said with an acrid sweetness, “I think you've had quite enough for one night.” In response, Officer Hasom only laughed, a large unrestrained sort of bellow, that sent Mrs. Fairley’s eyes flashing. Even the good Doctor (whose was a great deal looser than Mrs. Fairley) had begun to balk at Officer Hansom’s behavior.
“Good sir, she’s quite right I’m afraid. You wouldn't want to deprive this kind family of all of their valued product?” Officer Hansom grinned lazily. “I see...well in that case…” He gestured drunkenly for the servant girl to leave him, as she was about to refill his glass.
“Very good.” shot Mrs. Fairley. “Now, I apologize, but it is growing late. I fear it is time to bring an end to our...amusement.” Her face twisted in disgust, and she abruptly stood to address the table.
“I believe it is time to retire, I thank you all for your presence and hope you have enjoyed dinner.”
Only minutes later, the group had retreated to a sitting room where many of the gathered family and Officers had begun to retire for the night.
General Norwood said his farewell to Lucinda.
“You are an accomplished young lady, do not let your family define you. I wish you the best in all your pursuits, and thank you again for dinner.” he said. Lucinda was surprised by his words, seeing that usually it was Cecelia who received praise. As the General stepped away to give his farewell and thanks to her mother, his words repeated in her mind.
“An accomplished young lady…”.
After all of the guests and officers had retreated, the family was left alone in the drawing room.
“Oh, that dinner was absolutely horrid. Those Northerners have no sense of propriety!” Mrs. Fairley suddenly exclaimed. The rest of the family, save Lucinda, sighed in silent agreement. Then, Lucinda piped up.
“You know, not all of the Northerners are as terrible as you say. General Norwood was rather sweet.” The family looked to her in confusion, as if suddenly realizing she was still in the room. Lucinda pressed on, finding a rare opportunity to be heard by her family.
“He actually complimented me! In fact, I would say he was a true example of civilized society!” At Lucinda’s words, Cecelia’s eyes widened, and she stammered an excuse to retire to bed. Mrs. Fairley stared in wonder at Lucinda.
“Well, I…” her mother was about to reply, but then simply excused herself.
As the family trickled out of the room, each heading their separate ways, only Lucinda declared the evening a success. The rest knew that dinner had aged them, in some cases, vastly.
For: Quotation Inspiration Contest
Prompt: "The dying process begins the minute we are born, but it accelerates during dinner parties." Carol Matthau