Maith Ailineighdaeth! A #holiday story: The Tea Ceremony

Tis the season, and what better way to celebrate the holidays than with a story about tea. Happy Ailneighdaeth to all!

The spread was better than the party had expected: the teacakes were beautifully arranged, the biscuits were whole and tolerably fresh, and the tea, though overboiled, was well made, with the milk and sugar added in proper style and in the proper order. Upon the whole, it was a pleasant set, a pale imitation of Marridon’s grand ceremonies, but a worthy effort: the sandwiches tasted as they should, the teapot was not unpretty, and it was more than enough to silence Bartleby’s remonstrances about breakfast. Rannig delighted in the chocolate rounds, but while he was choosing his next biscuit and listening to Bartleby go on about the correct method required in submerging a biscuit in tea, the captain’s awareness was awake to the vase, which had begun to shift into the light. The proprietor and his staff quitted the front room and returned to the kitchen, and once they were gone, a slender shadow slithered out of the vase and into the corner. Had Danaco not been sensible of the rattling sound before, she should never have suspected anyone hiding there; whoever the he was who made himself master of the vase and lurker of the room moved on silence feet, slipping from the corner of the room to an adjacent standing plant without a sound. Rannig was too well engaged with his biscuits to be troubled about shadows, and as Bartleby went on about which cakes were best for black tea, the captain kept his eye on the figure’s progression, watching it slink into the caliginous breaks in in the light, slowly making its way toward the table at the other end of the room, where the middle-aged man was still sitting with his coffee.
                “Now that the baggage is gone,” said Bartleby, glaring at the old woman, who had left her table and was crambling out of the front room, “and I don’t have to compete with her nasal gales any longer, I can drink my tea in peace. Remember what I’ve taught you, my boy. Lift with your left hand and small finger extended—yes, that’s right—and keep your saucer in the left hand, perfectly straight, as you see me doing here. If you want more milk in your tea, put the saucer down first, then the cup—very good—to not clink them together unmercifully as you did the last time. Porcelain will crack, even under the glaze. Yes, that’s it. Now take up the canter with the left hand, pour your milk, and after putting it back, you may then take up your teaspoon—that is why it is called a teaspoon, because it is used primarily for tea—“
                “How come I can’t use my left hand for the milk and the right hand for stirrin’?” the giant asked. “My left hand’s just sittin’ here not doin’ anythin’ while my right hand’s doin’ all the work.”
                “Because it is how it is done, my boy,” Bartleby replied, with unanswerable dignity. “Why do we brush our teeth and wash behind our ears?” There was a pause, and as Rannig was about to give an ingenious answer to this, Bartleby continued, “You cannot have tea without the proper parade. It is a ceremony, and as with any ceremony, there is an order to things. The left hand is reserved for your cup and your biscuit, and your right hand is for the accoutrements and utensils, and you may only have one hand occupied at a time, that you might dunk your biscuit or eat your sandwich in safety. My boy, to not chimble your biscuit into your cup-- you have a plate for that. Gently shake off the crumbs before you put it over your cup. There should be a minimum of crumbs sloughing off into your tea—and what do you think you’re doing now, Rannig?”
                Rannig had taken up one of the chocolate coated items and was on the verge of submerging it in his tea. “Am I doin’  it with the wrong hand. Ye said food is for the left hand--”
                “Yes, yes, food is for the left hand, but what look at what you’re doing! How could do such an outrageous thing? Unconscionable how you could be so reprehensible at table-- Captain, do you see what the boy is doing? Whelving a chocolate apricot square like a savage!”      
                “Scandalous, to be sure,” said Danaco, sipping his tea with smiling eyes.
                “Absolutely ferocious! Barbaric behaviour as ever I have seen. I blame you, Captain, for such heathen conduct. I never taught him any such thing. Monstrous and shameful—and he can do it without compunction!”
                Rannig’s eyes darted about. “I’m just puttin’ my biscuit in the tea, Bartleby, like how you showed me and all.”
                Bartleby’s face lengthened and his eye welled. “Biscuit?” he cried, his jowels quaking. “My dear boy, have you gone comepletely blind?”
                In an effort just to be sure, Rannig closed his eyes and then opened them again. “…No.”
                “Must I tell you what you’re doing wrong?”
                Bartleby sunk his fists into his seat and growled to himself. “What you are currently hovering over your cup is not a biscuit!”
                “Sure looks like one,” said Rannig, examining it. “It’s round, it’s a little hard, and it’s got apricot inside—“
                “That is a cake, my boy!” said Bartleby, in exasperation. “It is a sponge cake! You see? It has chocolate brushed on top and fruit in the middle, and it is dressed with icing underneath! You cannot put that in your tea! It is unscrupulous to submerge that in a warm drink at haphazard! I never thought you capable of such heathenry as to put a cake in tea!”
                “Oh.” Rannig gave the cake a thorough inspection. It certainly did not look like a cake. It might have come from the teacake selection, but it was somewhat hard and well suited for submerging. “But how come I can’t put a teacake in tea?”
                Bartleby’s furnishings flared. “Why not--! Why not, he says. Captain, do you hear this inanity? Why can’t he put a teacake in tea-- It is not done, Rannig! It is absolutely not done! It is uneducated, ill-patted truculence run mad. You would not put a regular slice of cake in tea, would you?”
                “No, of course, you would not put a slice of cake in tea, is what you mean to say, and therefore you should never put a teacake in tea. The chocolate will melt and the apricot inside will run into your drink and spoil the flavour! A man should be hanged for such unpardonable behaviour! Absolutely incognitable!”
                To be sure of his sins, and to farther discompose the old man, Rannig quickly immerses his teacake in his drink and retracted it, studying the tea’s effects on it in the dim natural light. The chocolate did not melt, nor did the apricot deliquesse into a fine sludge; the teacake looked exactly as it did two seconds ago, only the sponge portion was a bit damp and the icing on the bottom had thinned. Rannig gave the cake a little shake and studied the effects. He bit into it and found the texture still hard and wholly unchanged. “Are ye sure this is a cake, Bartleby? Sure looks like a biscuit to me. It even tastes like one.”
                “My boy,” Bartleby began, trying not to smack the cake away form Rannig, “there is a fundamental difference between cake and biscuits-- size has nothing to do with it, before you say how small the individual cake is. It might look like a biscuit, but there is a scientific method for determining cakes and biscuits, one which does not imply submerging it in tea to see whether the sponge holds up. A cake, my boy, is defined by a soft body, and is usually made with eggs and rising agents, and a biscuit is hard and made with more preserving factors, such a sugar or butter. Cake is a luxury—I know it is because cakes are classified as luxury items when taking them across the border into Balletrim and have to be declared so those savages cannot take them from you—but a biscuit may be safetly enjoyed by everyone at anytime. If you want to be absolutely sure whether a thing is a cake or a biscuit, to spare yourself from the horrendous blunders of plunging a teacake into tea, as you just did, which I will never forgive you for, one need only wait to see whether the item in question goes hard or soft. If it softens over time, it is a biscuit, and if it is a cake, it will harden.”
                Rannig listened and nodded through the whole of this speech, and once he had time to understand and deliberate, an illuminating idea descended.  “So... All I gotta do is wait for this cake to go stale, and then I can put it in my tea?”
                A slight sibilation ebbed out of Bartleby’s nose, and Danaco indulged in a quiet mirth.
                “The boy was born with his legs around their neck,” the old man grubled, throwing up his hands. “How this child did not suffocate in his mother’s womb—Captain!” Bartleby gasped, thrusting a finger at him. “What are you doing! What can you possibly be doing!”
                Danaco was smiling down at a teacake in his hand. “I am sure I don’t understand you, my friend.”
                “Do not put that in your tea! I can sense you about to do it. The designing grin on your face tells me you are about to do something villainous.”
                “I have never tried a teacake like this before, and Rannig promoted my interest in the practice. You are always going on about experiments, and now we shall be conducting one. We shall see whether these teacakes are equal to Sesternese tepid tea.”
                “Nonsense!” Bartleby gowled. “This is not an experiment! You know very well that is a sponge cake, captain.”
                “Do I, but here I have the whip hand of you. I only need to pretend to put my hand in and you are all aflunters.”
                Danaco planted the teacake into his cup, and Bartleby gnashed frantically at his own fingertips.
                “I cannot watch! I will not watch such lunacy!” Bartleby wailed.
                He turned away, covering his eyes. It was worse than any mauling, more horrid than any crime could profess. That the captain should do so ungentlemanly a thing—and on purpose to distress him—it was more than his nerves could bare, and he yelped to himself as he heard the sloshing sounds, his mind in a torment, his imagine on fire with notions of teacakes screaming in violent agony, crying out to rescued from such shameful doings. A silence succeeded, a chortling sound slowly emerged, and Bartleby peeked through his hands to see Danaco sitting with an empty teacup and Rannig laughing behind a raised hand.
                “The boss had no tea left, Bartleby,” Rannig laughed
                Relieved and a little agitated, Bartleby took up his napkin and fanned himself with it. “You insidious, conniving-- you almost had me, captain,” wiping his brow.  “You would not really do it. No, of course not, because you are a civilized gentleman who understands tea and all its observances.”
                “I might have done it to see you dissipate over ritual gone awry,” said Danaco, with an arch look, “but a teacake that is durable might be plunged into a cup at peril. The risk alone should revive any sepulchering spleen.”
                “I like my spleen as it is, captain, filtering blood cells and squelching harmful microbes and doing absolutely nothing with regard to biscuits, cakes, or tea."