Taste and Tastefulness
The conclusion of a remarkably unsatisfactory dinner given by Lady Hawthorne having been signaled by the honourable proprietress of Longshire Hall, there was little else for the party to do but quit the dining room and retreat to the drawing room, where the whist table had been laid and, each member of the retinue observing prudent reticence, contemplate the disagreeable continuance of hunger which the evening promised.
“Miss Easterly, do accord me the favour of partnering me at cards,” urged Mrs. Rawlings. “It’s said there is none in the neighbourhood with your particular tastefulness at taking tricks.”
“Certainly, that is an imprudent rumour that my play shall give the lie to,” replied Anne Easterly with alacrity. “I dare not partner so ardent a player as yourself, Mrs. Rawlings.”
“Then my brother, perhaps,” said the lady, ever unwilling to cede victory when the means to avert defeat were readily at hand. Beckoning to Mr. Woodland, who stood diffidently behind the chair of Lady Hawthorne, she indicated the place across the table from Anne. “Do indulge me, Edward, as I have a fancy to divert my mind this evening with a dozen triumphs with trumps, at the very least.”
“I suppose Lady Hawthorne has no objection,” replied Mr. Woodland. “For, though I cannot bear to disobey my dear sister, I certainly shrink from giving offense to our gracious benefactress, whose generosity permitted us to partake in tonight’s most unforgettable dinner, the taste of which shall linger long after memories of the evening have faded.”
Their venerable hostess provided neither ascent nor refusal, a postprandial somnolence overtaking her countenance and causing her white cap to nod.
“I do believe, judging from the thorough occupancy of the seats around the card table, that I am the odd man out this round,” said Captain Middlebury. “I shall endeavour to amuse myself, however, with the provisions of my pockets, and I invite my dear friends to join me.”
There was great astonishment in the company when Captain Middlebury, from the capacious pocket of his waistcoat, withdrew an unfamiliar package which shone like black lacquer.
“Do tell us at once, Captain Middlebury, what that strange object might be,” cried Mrs. Rawlings. “I, for one, have never seen such a curiosity in all the county. Surely it is another of your wonderful importations from abroad.”
“Indeed it is, and I beg each of you to guess from whence I obtained this curiosity,” he said.
“I do not doubt every one of us should fail in the attempt, except, perhaps, Miss Easterly,” said Mr. Woodland.
“You may take it for granted I should do no better than any at this table,” replied Anne.
“Do guess, Miss Easterly. It is well known that your friends rely upon your discriminating taste, which can only serve you well in this endeavour,” said Mrs. Rawlings.
“Judging by the slender marking upon the facing of the object, one can only conclude its origin lies in the Orient,” Anne said.
“Quite so!” exclaimed Captain Middlebury. “I had it from the land of Japan, a prideful country thoroughly closed to strangers — I dare say, rather like Longshire Hall!”
None of the party congratulated Captain Middlebury upon his mistaken essay at humour; indeed, each was privately mortified at this lapse of good taste, and not the least among them was Lady Hawthorne, who roused herself from her slumberous repose to give the unfortunate gentleman a glimpse of her disapproving countenance.
Here the captain hastened to disguise his lack of wit by proffering the little bag to his companions of the evening.
“Let everyone take a bon-bon, which will enliven the whist match and sweeten the assured victories of Mrs. Rawlings and the most courteous Lady Hawthorne,” he urged with his customary eloquence, and he tore open the black rectangle, pouring forth into a little teacup an abundance of small green spheres.
“Upon my word, never have I seen such marvelous objects!” exclaimed Mrs. Rawlings.
“In truth, they are remarkable, Captain Middlebury,” said Mr. Woodland. “But are they of an agreeable flavour?”
Captain Middlebury declined to reply to his friend’s inquiry, and instead turned to press the teacup upon Lady Hawthorne.
“Do accept the first taste, Lady Hawthorne,” he said.
The genteel old woman repulsed him with a cry of displeasure.
“Bon-bons green in colour? I’ll wager they have gone off in the long voyage from the Asiatic seas to Sussex.”
“Not so, not so!” protested Captain Middlebury. “They are fashioned of chocolate cloaked in sugared green tea.”
“Green tea? Who could ever vouch for such nonsense?” said Mrs. Rawlings, offering the unhappy captain and his confections a suspicious glance.
“It is a novelty of Japan,” he replied.
“A novelty, indeed!” said Lady Hawthorne in a cold tone that marked her severe displeasure. “I have no place for novelty upon my dinnerplate or, more precisely, in my teacup.”
“And certainly not a green novelty, which cannot help but give offense,” said Mrs. Rawlings.
“Quite so, my dear sister,” said Mr. Woodland. “There’s a great lack of civility in a bon-bon that pretends to an unnatural colour.”
“I cannot agree, Mr. Woodland,” cried Anne with emotion. “Is not green the colour of nature itself? Green grows the grass, and the leaves upon the trees, do they not? And does not the colour green itself signal novelty in the newness of spring, a season which we all may admire? In my view, as green is a natural colour, there is neither uncivility to be gained nor offense given by granting green confections a place upon our table.”
“Natural though their colour may strike you, Miss Easterly, you cannot deny that it is unheard of to eat tea, which all respectable people consume by drinking alone,” said Mrs. Rawlings.
“Indeed, I can and do deny it,” answered Anne. “One may partake in more than one manner. Does not one eat shaved ice, just as readily as one drinks water? Does not one breakfast upon an egg of a Christmas morning, when the night previous they drank a similar egg in a festive eggnog?”
“That is entirely true,” replied Mr. Woodland. “But is there also not wisdom in conforming to the regular usages in dining? Does not one profit by adhering to custom?”
“Quite so,” said Lady Hawthorne. “Adherence to custom in dining is the mark of an advantageous upbringing.”
“So it is, Lady Hawthorne,” Mrs. Rawlings said. “Custom and fine breeding are pleasant companions never seen separately in good society.”
“Don’t you agree, Miss Easterly?” Mr. Woodland inquired curiously.
“I most heartily disagree,” Anne exclaimed. “I see no harm in following the inclinations of those who reside outside the bounds of good society and may lack an advantageous upbringing. So long as they give neither harm nor offense, why should one not savor sweetmeats that originate through innovations which fall outside the usual usage?”
Mr. Woodland studied Anne with an inquisitive air, as if the novelty in the drawing room lay not in Captain Middlebury’s green tea confections but in Anne herself.
“Well said, Miss Easterly,” he replied.
Emboldened by his words, Anne turned to Captain Middlebury, who had occupied himself with strolling from one end of the drawing room to the other during her speech.
“I shall gratefully accept a green tea bon-bon, sir,” she said.
Captain Middlebury gave Anne a glance of dismay that asked her indulgence.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Easterly, but I have eaten all the bon-bons in the interval between the offering and the argument.”
“Captain Middlebury, for shame! Are you so lacking in simple restraint?” said Mrs. Rawlings.
Lady Hawthorne made known to her guests, through curt gestures and the severe expression of her countenance, that she desired to be provoked no further by Miss Easterly, Captain Middlebury, or the green confections, and in response Mrs. Rawlings hastily dealt the whist cards.
The inhabitants of the drawing room of Longshire Hall each bent over their cards, with the exception of Mr. Woodland, whose eyes lingered long on the intriguing and tasteful Miss Easterly.