The Life, Times, and Misadventures of Dennis St. Michel, Viscount of Stokington, Soldier, Gambler, Diplomat, Scoundrel, Notorious Rakehell, and Lord of Menacing House, in his Own Words.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Yule

May I wish most heartily a happy Christmas to all my loyal Readers, and may this festive season find you in the bosom of your families, a glass of egg-and-grog in your hand as you warm yourself before the hearth. I myself shall be attending the Boar's Head Feast, a most merry occasion.

Celebrate long and well, and may St. Nicholas visit the young lads and lasses with great armfuls of presents. Happy Christmas!

"God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this day
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray

O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy."

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Arrangement

Dinner at the Professor’s was a most droll affair. Miss Louisa Anne made any number of foolish and idiotic remarks, and I took great delight in mercilessly and subtly mocking her. Now, many of you may decry me as being ungentlemanly, but for what other purpose are the stupid placed on earth, save to amuse the rest of us?

Besides, it was not as if she even noticed.

I, on the other hand, noticed that Mademoiselle Magee seemed rather down-at-heart, and did not take part in skewering Miss Louisa Anne. This supreme change in her demeanour gave me pause, causing me to wonder if perhaps the acid-tongued conversational duelist I had encountered previously was an aberration. I possess such a lack of adequate rivals that the loss of even a single one produced in me a gastric distress.

After dinner had concluded, I planned to retire to the library, where the Professor had informed me he had a first edition of Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina, which I had looked forward to reading. Stopping first at the sideboard and preparing myself a glass of port, I then made haste to the Professor’s fine book cellar.

Now I have earlier vouchsafed my dislike of my father’s library, but the corresponding room in the Professor’s townhouse could not be more different. It is light and airy, with several large windows, and much open space. The books are kept up properly, and remain obediently on the shelves. In short, it is a room where man demonstrates his prowess over the written word rather than vice versa.

Having prepared myself for what was for me an unusual occurrence--a quiet evening in--I was therefore somewhat startled to discover the library had already been claimed by the woman in black, Mademoiselle Magee.

As I entered, she looked up with a short jerk of her head. “Oh. ‘Tis you, the Professor’s errand boy,” she said, but her words lacked her usual malicious glee, and I sensed only irritation.

I prefer my opponents to be fighting fit rather than weakened by some distress, so I made a bow and said, “My apologies, Mademoiselle, I did not realise the room was occupied. I shall retire elsewhere.” In part I said this because I did not wish to seem churlish, but also because Mademoiselle Magee is rather…sharp and jagged, like a hedgehog, and that made her a rather challenging conquest indeed. I take second to no man in my admiration of the female portion of the species. Let the other men play their games of politics; give me a fine young kirtle and an afternoon free of distraction and I shall be a happy man. Ambition is but the toy which amuses our lighter hours--women are the serious business of life.

Beginning a decorous exit, I placed my hand on the knob when Mademoiselle Magee spoke.

“No. Hold a moment,” she said, in a musing voice.

“You require something, Mademoiselle?” I asked, turning. I hoped this would not take long, as my glass of port was getting rather lonely.

“Yes, there is a matter…but you could not possibly help,” she said with a dismissive snort.

“How can you know if you do not ask?” I said reasonably.

She eyed me sceptically. “Very well. Sit,” she commanded, pointing to a divan, “and drink your port, you foolish boy, you so obviously want to.”

“Very well, I shall,” I said, and drank deeply. “Now what is this matter?”

“First I must ask for your word that you will speak of this to no one,” she said in a mocking tone of voice. “Of course, you could not give your word, and even if you did it would mean nothing.”

“My word means nothing? All words mean something.”

“You are a rascal and a rakehell, a knave and a true villain, so of course if I ask for your word, you shall lie and in your most honeyed voice promise me you shall take whatever I tell you to the grave.”

“Oh, not to the grave, no.”

“You intend to divulge my secrets long before then?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“Oh, no, I intend not to die.”

“You intend not to die?” she asked in disbelief.

“Indeed. I doubt God will have me, and the Devil seems the sort to trade a good pound for a bad ring, so I imagine it shan’t be too difficult to escape eternal hellfire, and then I shall be back to my highjinks and fun again,” I said casually.

Mademoiselle Magee surprised me: she laughed at this. “I find myself liking you in spite of me,” she said.

“It is my talent,” I said solemnly. “Promise me you shall take my secret to the grave?”

“No, no,” she said, still laughing. “If you shall not die, neither shall I. I shall live on, unchanging, until…until…until the twenty-first century and beyond!”

“As long as that? Why, the French will have conquered the world by then, and who would wish to live in a world where only French is spoken?”

“The French,” she said, and her laughing ceased, and she looked saddened. “’Twere not for the French, I should not be here.”

“Oh?” I said.

“My father fought at Minorca against the French, during the War of Seven Years. When Byng’s line failed, the garrison there fell back to Gibraltar. My mother--her name is Gabriella--was the girl who brought the water. It caused quite the scandal, when my father brought her back to Ireland with him.”

“I see,” I said, and took another drink of port.

“They married for love, you see.”

“While you intend to marry for money? Or land?”

“I do not intend to marry at all, and that is the problem!”

I raised my eyebrows at this. “Problem?”

She looked at me for a moment, and then said very seriously, “Do you solemnly swear to take this to the grave?”

I looked at her, and said equally seriously, “I shall do no such damn foolish thing.”

She gave me an appraising look, and then set her jaw. “Good. I should have thrown a book at you else you said otherwise.”

“Go on then.”

She rubbed her chin for a long moment, and then said, “When I was but a slip of a girl of sixteen, I made a dreadful mistake. A boy--a handsome, kind, wealthy boring boy--asked me to marry him, and I like a dolt said yes. He and I have been secretly engaged these last --well, why should I tell you how old I am?!” she said, giving me a disparaging look. “At any rate,” she continued, “When the Professor came to take me away from my flowers and make me a lady, the boy--Mills, is his name--had long since departed for other shores to seek his fortune, and I thought myself free of him. But now he has returned, and has recommenced whatever dull romantic intrigue he had planned before he left. He has asked me to marry him again, and he will not take no for an answer!”

I thought about this for a moment. “Have you considered faking your own death?” I asked. “It is surprisingly easy to do.”

She snorted. “I need a permanent solution, not some half-cocked scheme you run with a pair of roustabouts and a corpse taken from a fresh grave.”

“Why not simply call off the engagement?”

“I have my honour; I gave him my word,” Mademoiselle Magee said haughtily. Then she looked at me with something akin to inspiration. “But you on the other hand…”

“I, on the other hand?”

“…Are a scoundrel who has no honour. Think me a plan, Dennis, to escape this hateful matrimony, think me a plan.”

“And what shall you do for me?” I asked. “Not very much, while I can do many things for you--or to you,” I said, and leered at her.

“If you think such words shall put me off my feed, you coney-catching bastard, you do not know Margot Magee. The last thing I need is another suitor pressing his suit.”

“My suit is not the thing I wish to press. In fact, let us forget my suit--and you your gown, and get down to bare facts.”

She gave me a cool look. “If you assist me, I shall not give you a ‘no,’” she said finally.

“Then you shall give me a ‘yes’?”

“I did not say that, did I?”

“No you did not,” I said admiringly. “So it is to be a game then? To the victor go the…”

“The what?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I could not think of anything salacious that rhymes with ‘spoils.’”

“Keep it that way,” she said. “Find me a way out of this engagement and you shall have your game, your Lordship.”

And with that, she swept from the room.

Now all I had to do was discover a way to extricate Mademoiselle Magee from her engagement. Without faking her death.

Boils, toils, roils…no, still nothing.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Lecture

I returned to Professor Papagoras’ in a foul temper. Whatever joy I had taken in that day’s ride had been thoroughly snuffed out by the snake Mrs. Llwynog. A man may be dashed to pieces on an outcropping of rock, or break an arm on a tree, or be shot by one of his fellows by mistake, but you go on. That is part of life, and a part of the hunt. After all, the seasons do not fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun, and the rain. However, I cannot stand anyone but me getting away with things.

In addition, during the long walk home it began to rain. So it was a very sodden fellow who returned to the Professor’s townhouse that teatime. I quickly stripped off my damp riding gear and changed into something a bit drier.

I was just about to sneak into the study and see if the good Professor had any “medicinal” brandy, when the man himself appeared from the study.

“Ah, your Lordship!” he said enthusiastically. “Just the fellow I wished to see.”

“Really,” I said, somewhat distractedly.

“Oh yes,” he said. “Come in, come in,” he beckoned.

Reluctantly, I followed him into the study. A wide variety of objects and curios lined the walls, filling shelves and glass-fronted cases. I turned my head upon entering, and came face to face with a strange creature, all white, with no arms but two legs, and a pudgy, bulbous shape that reminded me of a pear, or the Mayor. The small mustache worn by the creature only completed the resemblance. It was stuffed, of course.

Many other surfaces were covered with pinned beetles, their glittering carapaces setting the room ablaze with chitinous fire.

The Professor led me over to a disarrayed workbench. I idly picked up an odd-looking brass device. “What is this, pray?” I asked.

“Oh that,” the Professor said dismissively. “Device I invented for getting sunbeams out of cucumbers. Old news, your Lordship.”

I set the strange device down as the Professor gestured triumphantly at a stack of papers. “Voila,” he cried.

“Yes?” I said politely. “And? What is it?”

“Why, it is only my life’s work,” he said, looking simultaneously aghast and affronted. “A manuscript that shall put the name of Aristotle Papagoras on the map!”

Oh. Wonderful. I shall endure a lecture on natural philosophy, I thought. “Congratulations.”

“I shall tell you about it; after all, a clever young man such as yourself must have an appetite for knowledge. Tell me, are you familiar with the works of Erasmus Darwin?”

No. “Very slightly, Professor.”

“In his Zoönomia, Darwin puts forth the most novel theory: that all creatures arose from some primal ‘filament,’ as he calls it, and were not individually created by the Lord as Sedgwick would have it.”

“Well, that makes a variety of sense, I suppose.”

“Indeed,” said the Professor happily. “Clearly organisms change over the course of their lives, so why should not species?”

“And we see inheritance amongst ourselves. Everyone tells me I have my mother’s nose.”


“And when my father dies, I shall get all his money.”

“Preci--no, that is…there is perhaps a limit to how practical a metaphor is…”

I turned my attention to the stack of papers. “And I presume you have written a monograph on the subject?”

“Not merely a monograph, but the definitive work, my boy,” he said excitedly. “Why, I have found evidence of transmutation itself, on the far side of the globe.”

“Really?!” I said, interested. I care very little about natural philosophy, but I have always enjoyed tales of the exotic and of faraway destinations.

“Yes, yes, on the Galápagos Islands. Do you know them?”

“Unfortunately, I do not.”

“Some miles off the coast of Peru, in the Pacific Ocean,” he said as he struggled to open a large atlas. Once he found the correct page, he pointed to a tiny archipelago. “I ventured there some years ago, as a young man, and you’ll never guess what I found!”

“What?” I asked, and was a little alarmed to realise I was amused by the Professor’s obvious enthusiasm.

“Finches!” he shouted triumphantly.


“Yes, they are a variety of bird.”

“I know what a finch is, Professor.”

“Very good, very good,” he said. “Now, these finches had any number of different types of beak, each one well suited to eating the differing fruits found on the islands.”

“That makes sense; a heron eats frogs, and a wren eats insects, and their beaks are very different.”

“Exactly!” crowed the Professor. “As the finches ate different fruits, their beaks changed to suit their food. But that is not all.”


“No indeed, my boy. For on these islands are great tortoises, as well as iguanas that live in the ocean.”

“Tortoises and iguanas. Fascinating,” I said.

“And do you know what they have in common?”

“I must confess I do not.”

The Professor grinned at me through his snowy white beard. “It was the same with me, it took me forever to see it, but the answer is…BEAKS!” he shouted.

“I see…” I did not see at all, but when a man grins at you like that, you choose your words carefully, to avoid pushing him from “modestly eccentric” to “dangerously insane.”

“Both the tortoises and the iguanas have beaks, just like the finches.”


“Therefore, what my manuscript proposes is the obvious truth: the finches must have arrived first on the islands, and transmuted themselves into the tortoises and iguanas.”

“Transmuted…into tortoises?”

“All perfectly logical, my dear boy.” Seeing my apparent confusion, he patted me on the arm. “You are obviously unacquainted with the subtler arguments of science.”

“Well, with men of such vigor and intellect as yourself in command, I dare say science is in good hands,” I said, while trying to find a convenient exit.

Fortunately for me, at that very moment, Miss Thomasina entered the room. Pausing to curtsy, she said to me, “Your lordship, a young man came by moments ago with this for you.” She handed me a small envelope.

“Pardon me, Professor,” I said, and he made genial away-with-you motions as I exited the study, relieved at the timely arrival of this missive.

Curious, I opened the envelope and discovered a thin card of vellum inside. Extracting it, I was momentarily taken aback by the words writ upon it.

Her Grace Margaret, Duchess of Devon

Wishes to Inform The Reader That She Will Be


On the Night of June --, 1794.

The Reader’s Attendance is Requested

As I held the card in my hand, I was intrigued.

The game was afoot.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Shrew

The hunt was called short on account of the poor Major. We brought his body back to the house, and when we arrived there was a great outpouring of grief. Apparently, Major Tom had been thought of as the best of men, and much beloved, although I could not see why. Not to speak ill of the dead, but he struck me as being a bit...bland, and rather a gloomy fellow. Still, his death struck me harder than I would have expected. Now, no man can reach manhood without the loss of a friend or two, but this was the first time I had personally been in the presence of death.

Feeling somewhat muddled, I stood to one side in the drive as the body was carried into the house. As the deceased passed by, I saw that Mrs. Llwynog also standing by. Now, she had given every semblance of grief during our short journey to the house, weeping and carrying on so such that I had thought it would be a blessing for all of us, including her, were she to fall into a swoon, and cease her wailing. At the house with no one watching her, however, she was dry-eyed and calm. One might have speculated that the hunt had been ended on account of rain, not the death of one of the huntsman, from her countenance. Miserable woman.

She had led him into it, damn her, the least she could have done was shown some remorse. But her gaze was as cold and as pitiless as a glacier. Cruelty, thy name is woman.

However, I cannot lay all the blame at the feet of Mrs. Llwynog. Major Caine surely deserved a large portion of it. But I myself shall never allow myself to be led around by the nose by some woman. Goaded into a fateful plunge into rough ground because he felt himself less of a man than a chancer whom he barely knew? The fool.

And Mrs. Llwynog, with her guileful ways, was judge, jury, and executionatrix of the hapless Major. Leading a man on like that, when her only eye was on his pocketbook, and showing not the slightest sign of guilt or remorse afterward.

Now, I know many a man prefers his woman to be meek and mild like so much of Richardson’s work, but I myself prefer a girl with a bit of spirit. I’ve read my Vindications. I cannot for the life of me see the appeal of milksops like Pamela, Clarissa, or young Werther’s Lotte. A girl like that is only good for one thing, and that only takes perhaps forty-five minutes, and you cannot do it all day, so how would a man fill the remainder of his time, saddled with such a pale and pious wife?

No, give me a lass with fire in her belly and a lust for life, and I shall be set for life. A girl should have a generous helping of dash, if she is to win this scoundrel’s heart.

But this Mrs. Llwynog was a harpy of another sort entirely. Major Tom may have stuck his head in the noose, but she held it open for him, and if there was any justice in the world, the constable should have her down to London, and let her dance for the crowds. A murderess is still a murderess, whether she does it with poison, a blade in the night, or with humble words.

Cold and cruel, that one. And what is worse, she shall pay no price for her crime. I watched her as she was led away by some kind “gentleman”, almost instantly comporting herself as a stricken damsel, with her handkerchief to her face and tears streaming down her cheeks.

I could have slapped her.

That fox knows many tricks, but not one good one.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Hunt

“You look like hell.” Professor Papagoras tutted over me as he held the door open. I had taken the trouble to put on my shirt and shoes during the walk back across the moors, but still held my coat and waistcoat tucked under my arm. “What have you been up to, eh?” the Professor asked, chuckling.

“My doctor prescribed a brisk run in the country,” I said austerely. The warmth of the entryway to the townhouse was a pleasant change from the chilly morning air, and I resolved to get some food in me as quickly as possible.

“Oh,” said the Professor, “a young fellow stopped by for you, not half an hour ago. He said to tell you the running of the hounds would be at nine on the dot.”

“Nine?!” I cried, and hurriedly looked at the clock. “Why, ‘tis already half past eight!”

I rushed up the stairs, and with all due haste dressed in riding clothes and made a desperate attempt to look presentable. This would never do, I looked a sight, but needs must, and so I dashed from the Professor’s in the hopes of catching Joseph before he left Stokington Court.

It seems I am forever running from place to place, but I would not pass up a chance to run the fox for all the world.

At last I arrived at Joseph’s, and not a moment too soon, for he was pacing in front of the manse with a pair of fine stallions tied and ready to ride.

“Where the devil have you been?” he cried on catching sight of me. “We shall be late!”

“To the deuce with being late, get me on a horse, man!” I said, and swung myself into the saddle of a fine looking roan. The horse sidestepped, and Joseph leapt forward to untie the reins. Both mounted now, we spurred the horses into a gallop and made haste to the Duke of Marma’s.

Now this Duke kept a most exquisite estate, especially for being not only a foreigner but a Spaniard. We galloped up the main thoroughfare with mere minutes to spare, and found ourselves in the company of the rest of the hunt. Pulling the horses to a stop, we dismounted, and Joseph led me through the crowd of sportsmen. We soon came upon the Mayor of Great Stokington, a man of some years and stoutness.

“Milord Mayor, of course you remember Dennis, the Viscount of Stokington,” Joseph said by way of introduction. I bowed, and doffed my hat.

“Of course, of course,” the Mayor harrumphed. “Splendid, splendid. You arrived just in time, we were beginning to commence.”

“But where is the Duke of Marma?” I asked. “For I was most looking forward to making his acquaintance.”

“Under the weather, under the weather, the poor chap,” said the Mayor.

“Nothing serious, I hope,” I said.

“No, no, just too much of that Spanish food, if you ask me. Heathenish stuff. Uses chillys, whatever those are.”

“I do believe you mean ‘chiles,’ Mayor,” I said.

The Mayor stared at me blankly, then turned to the assembled party. “Right then, since there are sixteen of us, we shall hunt in teams of four.”

I was handed a gun and shot, and met with my teammates. Joseph was on my team, of course, and also a doughty military fellow, and best of all, a fine looking woman all in scarlet. A scarlet woman, indeed!

“Ah, Dennis, allow me to introduce Major Anthony Caine and Mrs. Maureen Llwynog of Cardiff,” said the Mayor.

“A pleasure,” said Major Caine, and bowed. Mrs. Llwynog, to my surprise, shook hands.

“Is that how they do things in Wales?” I asked her with a smile.

“That is how they do them, your Honor,” she said coquettishly.

As we walked back to our horses, Joseph muttered, “For God’s sake, keep your eye on the fox.”

“Indeed I shall,” I said, watching the pert bounce of Mrs. Llwynog’s rump as she walked toward her own horse.

“You know what I mean,” said Joseph irritably. We mounted, and the hunt began. We were set with a rather wily-looking auld master of the hounds, and his pack of fine curs, and he began to lead us on a goodly chase.

We saw neither hide nor hair of Reynard during the first two hours, until the Master of Hounds called a brief halt. In the distance we could hear the halloo of the other hunters and the call of their horns.

“Sounds like they’re having a merry run, Major Caine,” I said to the tall, sad-looking soldier.

“Please, call me Tom. Everyone does. Everyone save me wife, that is,” he said.

“Very well, Major Tom,” I said. “And from where in England do you hail?”

“Upper Canada, actually.”

“Ah! The New World, how damnably clever.”

“Yes, I serve under Lieutenant-Governor Semcoe. My wife is there now.”

“Does this wife of yours have a name, or must I be forced to refer to her as Major Tom’s Wife in conversation?” I asked, jokingly.

“The Lizard, least that’s what I call her. Frightful woman. Just like her mother.”

“Ah well,” I said, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

“That Mrs. Llwynog, there’s a woman I wouldna mind getting closer to,” he said, grinning lasciviously, which did not quite work on his mustachioed face.

“But did you notice she’s Mrs. Llwynog?” I asked, and cocked an eyebrow.

“No hazard, lad; I hear her husband caught a musketball in Holland. Look at that bosom,” he sighed. “She’s ready for a right tupping, that one.”

As if overhearing our conversation, even though she was some distance away, the lovely, and indeed as Major Tom put it, quite bosomy Mrs. Llwynog turned in our direction. I tipped my hat, and a wink, towards her. Seeing this, she smiled in return.

“Oh, she likes you,” Major Tom said bitterly. “Never fails. I see a lassie I like, and some other man-jack steals her away.”

“What kind of a military man are you, Caine?” I asked, and snorted. “Give up at the first sign of opposition much? Thank God you’re in Canada and not in Belgium. Besides, you must have some charm. You caught that Lizardy wife of yours, didn’t you?”

“Aye, and much good it’s done me,” he said gloomily, but before he could say more, a great baying went up among the hounds.

“They’ve caught the scent, sirs!” cried the Master, and the dogs bolted into the woods in pursuit of their quarry. The five of us followed swiftly.

Now, I am no mean horseman, so it was no surprise to me that I soon took the lead in front of my fellows, but I was quite agape when I saw that riding beside me and keeping pace was none other than Mrs. Llwynog. She flashed a toothy grin at me and spurred her mare forward.

“Oh no, Madame,” I cried, “The fox is mine.”

“We shall see, your Honor,” she called back.

Soon we came upon the dogs clustered in a tight knot, around a hedgerow at the bottom of the hill. “T’scent’s confused, lordships,” panted the Master of Hounds as he returned to us after investigating.

“By God, I hope the fox has not gone beyond that stile,” said Joseph, pointing. “’Tis all fen in there.”

Silently I agreed. A horse could be crippled or even killed on ground like that. “If the fox is indeed in the marsh, I recommend we leave off and wait for him to emerge,” I said.

Mrs. Llwynog looked at me with disdain. “Where’s your sense of adventure, lads? I dare say I shan’t look at a man who won’t risk a horse or a thousand pounds for a good thrill.”

“Madame,” I said sternly. “I am many things, and a chancer is one of them, but I will not kill a good horse for ten pounds of foxflesh.”

“Fine,” she sniffed. “You looked to be the poorer, commoner sort of aristocrat anyway.”

The Major stirred in his saddle, and looked uncomfortable, but whatever words he would have spoken died on his lips when the Master of Hounds cried, “There he goes!” and sure enough, the dogs swarmed through a gap in the row after a scarlet blur.

Major Tom looked at me, then at Mrs. Llwynog, then at me again. Apparently, he made up his mind, for defiantly he said to me, “’Kill a horse’? Cowardice.”

He spurred his horse forward down the hill.

“Hold Tom,” I cried. “Don’t do it, man! The ground’s too rough!”

“I shall do as I like, and no one shall tell me otherwise!” he called back without looking.

“A brave man,” cried Mrs. Llwynog, gaily. “Tally-ho, Major, tally-ho!”

“A damned fool, is what he is,” I said angrily, and turned on her, “the same as you.”

I spurred my own horse to a gallop after him. For all my skill I could not beat him to the hedgerow, and by the time I and the roan jumped it, he had vanished into the misty fen. Now as I said, I am many things, but I am no fool, so I slowed the roan to a walk.

I could no longer see Mrs. Llwynog, Joseph, and the Master of Hounds on the hilltop. The bog was shrouded with mist, and seemingly from all around me came the distant baying of hounds. I felt a fool. I had not spoken quickly enough, and the devilish Mrs. Llwynog had spurred Major Anthony Caine to some mishap. But it was not the Welshwoman alone who drove him. Perhaps it was some need to be his own man, free of his wife and commander and king. And perhaps he thought it well to act on this need. But it is not given to man to know his own needs.

The roan and I walked for what seemed to be an eternity, but was probably only five minutes, in that marsh of mist and fog.

And at last we came on Major Tom.

His horse stood at some distance, with the natural respect that all animals have in times of danger. It did not seem hurt, which was a blessing. Tom, on the other hand, was in much worse shape.

I dismounted quickly, and carefully making my way through the treacherous mud, came over to him and knelt beside. His head lay at an odd and frightening angle.

“Tom,” I said softly. “Can you hear me, Major Tom?”

For a long moment he did not answer. Then at last, his lips parted, and he said, “I hear you.”

“What happened, Tom?”

“Lost the foxie in the fog. Dogs all gone. Horse came up on a hummock, stumbled.” His voice was weak, and confused. “Horse threw me.”


A long silence. “Aye.”

“Tom, I think your neck is broken. Don’t move.” He shifted his arm, and I quickly grabbed it. “Don’t move.”

“Canada,” he said, and coughed violently. “I’m feeling very still.”

“Yes, Tom,” I said, my voice hoarse.

He seemed to think for a long moment. “And I think my horse knows which way to go.”

“I’m sure he does,” I said, biting back tears.

“Tell my wife I love her very much.” His voice was very faint.

“She knows,” I said.

He said nothing for a long while. And after a bit, I saw that his chest was not moving any more.

“Can you hear me, Major Tom?” I asked, the first time a bit desperately, but then I asked again twice more, and grew calmer every time. He was gone.

Eventually Joseph and the Master of the Hounds came down, and together we got him out of there. All that because some woman smiled at him. The bloody fool. The poor, bloody fool.

We never did catch the damned fox.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Escape

I awoke to birdsong, and the soft sighs of June as she slept next to me. The sun shone brightly through the window, and all was right with the world. Lust, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create sunshine, filling the loin so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world.

I gently caressed June’s shoulder until she awoke. I was feeling rather frisky, and so we made merry upon the bed for a time.

“Oh, June,” I said, “You are a glorious woman.”

She smiled bashfully. “You have made me happy, Dennis.”

“And may I continue to do so,” I said, “although I fear your bed has ensnared me.”

“Oh pooh,” she giggled, and walloped me with a pillow. With a roar of false outrage, I held her down and tickled her until she begged me to stop, tears of merriment cascading down her cheeks.

“Oh! Oh oh!” she gasped. “Stop, Dennis, please stop, I beg you, I shall do anything you ask!”

“Anything?” I teased.

“Yes, anyth--what was that?” she said, suddenly alert.

“I heard nothing,” I whispered.

We listened intently. “There!” she whispered. “Do you hear it?”

I did. The most feared and hated sound of all: a tread on the floor below! A moment later, I realised there was a worse sound, for to our aghast ears came the muted murmur of male voices below us.

“My husband!” whispered June in terror.

“Well,” I said, “Last night was highly enjoyable, but I must away. Good day to you, madame,” and gathering up my clothes, I made for the stairs.

But O! What tragedy was this? I could hear the creak of nail on wood as a man’s shoe trod upon the lowest step!

Trapped, damn my eyes!

I hurried back to the bedroom. “Your husband comes to greet us and commend us on such a vigorous night of field tilling.”

“Oh God,” she moaned in terror.

“June!” came the cry up the stairs. “Does your lazy rump still lie abed?”

“Behind the door,” she whispered, gesturing frantically.

Seeing immediately what she was about, I quickly sprang behind the open door. The cold brute who dared to call himself my angel’s husband strode into the room not a moment after I had secreted myself. Frowning, he stood just inside the doorway, eyeing his wife carefully, and with extreme inconsideration blocked my escape.

“Why aren’t you up and about, wife?” he asked coldly. “Been teasing the kitty while I was away?”

I nearly reached out and assaulted the dastard for his vulgarity, but restrained myself. June, meanwhile, hurriedly arose from the bed, sheet wrapped about her, and threw her arms around her husband.

“I was…merely trying to surprise you,” she said, with only a very slight touch of desperation.

The Doctor recoiled slightly from her embrace, and said, “Surprised I am--at your indecency. You should cover yourself.”

You damned fool, I thought. If she had any decency, she would go uncovered all day long, looking as she does. Thinking this, I resolved to perform some mischief on the Doctor, perhaps leave some sign that he had been cuckolded. I dare say I doubt he would care if another man made toad in the hole with his wife from a purely natural standpoint, but I imagine his pride would be affronted.

The Doctor turned and called back down the stairs, “Nicholas! Fetch the bags up here, would you? And be quick about it!”

So he would shame his wife in front of a servant, would he? The arrogance of the man! Resolving to listen to my own devils, my hand snaked out while his head was turned and I gave June a firm pinch on her bare buttock. She yelped.

Morgan turned back, startled. “What was that?”

“Nothing,” said June quickly. “I trod upon a nail-head.”

“Oh,” he said dully. I imagine he would not care if she trod upon a bayonet.

“I shall dress, then? While you manage your bags?” she asked hopefully.

Morgan stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, then said, “Yes. Yes, I imagine so.” He turned and began descending the stairs.

Thank God.

I hurriedly struggled into my breeches. “You must leave,” said June.

“Madame,” I replied, “Even the promise of more of your sweet kisses could not keep me.” She melted a little as I said this.

From outside I could hear Morgan bellowing at his hapless catamite, Nicholas. Feeling rather daring, I pulled June close to me and gave her a long kiss. Releasing her, I asked, “Is there another way out of here, besides the front door?”

“No, so hurry before--” but before I could descend the stairs and flee, I heard Morgan and Master Nicholas entering, grumbling and straining under the weight of their bags.

“Damn!” I whispered furiously. I placed my hands on her shoulders. “Think, June. Is there any other way out?”

She thought for a moment, then the light of remembrance dawned upon her face. “Yes! The window out Rexford’s study. ‘Tis not high, and there is a shrubbery directly below.”

“Thank you,” I said with feeling, and checking rapidly to ensure I had all my clothes, quickly crossed the hallway to the Doctor’s study.

“June!” Morgan bawled from below. “I am famished! Get down here and make me some breakfast post haste!”

With some urgency, I rammed up the paint-encrusted window. The resulting gap was just large enough for a rather fit young man to shimmy through. I eased my legs through the gateway to freedom. Twisting back towards June, I said, “Adieu, madame mon amour, jai passerai chaque nuit rêvant à votre yeuxl.”

She gave me a pleased, soulful look, and I slung myself out the window.

June was right, there was indeed a privet bush beneath the window. However, she neglected to mention that there was another window betwixt the bush and the study window, this one leading into the kitchen, and as I plummeted to earth I passed before the startled eyes of Doctor Morgan.

For a heartstopping moment, he was transfixed. Luckily I had been wearing my breeches, else he should have gotten a good look at my bare arse. As it was, I efficiently used the seconds he had given me through bafflement to extricate myself from the shrub. As I finished, I heard him bellow from inside the house. “June! Who the devil was that?!”

One of my mottoes is: Never look back. That way they won’t get a good look at your face.

I sprinted across the lawn towards the lane, my bare feet pelting through the sodden grass. Behind me I could hear Morgan charging like a bull out the front door of the cottage, hot in pursuit. Luckily, the lackwitted physician had taken too long to take to the chase, and I soon left him huffing for breath and hollering impotently. “I’ll catch you, you rascal, whoever you are!”

I chuckled to myself as I trotted down the lane. He didn’t even know who I was! I had stuck his wife, squeezed through the window, and outrun the furious husband, and I still left behind no clue as to my identity!

One of my better exits, I must say.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Wife

Dusk fell on the moors. Dusk like thunder, like a cloak broad and black, turning the heath to shadowy gravemould. Along the horizon tors sprang like giants against the ruddy sunset. I walked along the lane towards Glenwood Cottage. In general, I avoid the moor in those hours of darkness when the powers of evil are exalted, but my liaison with Madame Morgan could not be delayed.

The earth had long since descended into inky darkness when I arrived at Glenwood Cottage, the solitary window a gleaming beacon of hope in infinite blackness. The house itself was modest; a cozy fit for a family of five but more than ample enough for a doctor, his wife, and his assistant.

Before knocking, I made sure that the Doctor himself was not at home. A quick check of the stables revealed the absence of two horses. These the Doctor and his apprentice must have taken to Londontown. Thus reassured, I made my way back to the cottage. The rustic brick was cool to my touch as I guided myself by feel through the darkness to the front door.

I straightened my coat and waistcoat, then rapped upon the door. Inside, there was a brief noise, then silence. After a long moment, the door opened a crack.

A woman’s quavering voice said, “If you be a highwayman, I warn you I am armed.”

“Madame,” I said, “I am just a poor traveler momentarily lost upon the moors. Perhaps you could allow me inside to warm myself by your hearth?”

A brightly twinkling eye appeared at the crack, and I leaned into the light from the window, allowing her to see my visage. Madame Morgan opened the door with great haste, saying, “Your Lordship! You gave me quite a fright!”

“My apologies, Madame. I meant no harm. But I truly would like to come in, as it is becoming rather chilly.”

“Of course,” she said, and favored me with a broad smile. “Where are my manners?” She ushered me inside.

The interior of the cottage looked as though an ossuary had exploded. Bones of all kinds lined the walls, as did more arcane objects, which I could only guess to be the tools of the sawbones’ trade. On closer inspection, many of the bones were not human, a fact I greeted with some relief. I spotted the skulls of a horse, a cow, and other, unidentifiable creatures on bureaus, tables, even chairs. The Doctor’s experimentation had taken him far afield in search of bones.

June Morgan, having left me in the maw of this ghastly ribcage momentarily, returned with a tea tray. “Perhaps you would care for some tea?” she asked me.

“Of course,” I said, and in the light of the cottage I allowed myself to get a better look at my quarry. By God she was a fine looking woman. Proud features set into a face of alabaster, with raven-black hair artfully coiffed so that the delicate tips brushed her blushing cheeks. Having caught her unawares, I now saw she was in a state of mild dishabille, her bodice loosened slightly, and as I sipped my tea I could see the tops of her delightful breasts bobbing with every breath.

I glanced around the room. “Fascinating,” I commented. “It must be stimulating, living with a man so concerned with the natural philosophy.”

“Oh yes, my husband is a man of…science,” she said, and I detected a note of bitterness in her voice.

“I personally see myself as a man of history,” I said.

“How so?” she inquired. Did my eyes deceive me, or did she lean towards me as she asked the question?

“Science is so cold and clinical,” I said, and stood. “Only by understanding one’s place in history, and acting to change it, does one have the potential for the heroic.”

“’The heroic’,” she said, and this time there was teasing in her voice. “Words most often heard from limp-wristed dandies in lace and silk before they declaim their latest sonnet.” But she smiled when she said it.

“Oh, there is room for poesy in the heroic, and room for heroism in the poetic. What of Lancelot and Guinevere? Of Tristan and Isolde?”

“Romeo and Juliet?” she suggested, and winked at me.

“Truly their epic loves were not undercut by the heroism of their lives but enhanced. To live and to love--heroically,” I said, and sat down close to her. “One is not possible without the other.”

I took her hand in mine, raised it up between us. “A left hand. A right hand. Perfect matches, yet opposites. The heroic and the poetic, the epic and the romantic, together in one climactic impulse, that life impulse, impossible to deny, impossible to dissuade, rising inside you until--can you feel it, June?”

“I feel it, Dennis,” she gasped, her hand trembling in mine.

“The urge, June, the urge! To live without regrets, in the moment, from peak--to peak--to peak,” I said, squeezing her hand. Her face was very close to mine now. “Heroism, June, is knowing what must be done, and doing it, doing it as hard as you can. No matter how hard life pounds at you, you must not submit, but pound back, and when at the end you are bruised and exhausted, you will bask in the glory of your triumph. That is heroism, June,” I whispered.

“Oh Dennis!” she whispered, “you speak with such passion, such intensity, a woman might--”

“A woman might what?” I whispered.

“Oh!” she said suddenly. “I must apologise, Dennis, I forgot to give you the tour of our fine cottage.” She stood and grasping my hand, dragged me up from the sopha and into the kitchen. “The kitchen,” she announced hurriedly, and pulled me upstairs. “Rexford’s study,” she said.

We quickly went down the hallway, and she opened a door. “And our bedroom,” she said, and gestured to the bed. “Notice how fine our quilt is, I made it my--”

I pushed her up against the wall and kissed her, hard and hot and how she wanted it. Her lips were soft and moist beneath mine, and I felt my tongue brush against hers.

“Oh Dennis, yes,” she gasped as our lips parted.

“No more talking,” I said mock-sternly, “the time for talking is over. Now is the time for doing,” and I swept her into another long kiss. I kissed her neck, brushing her silky skin with my lips, tasting the sweat on her, as I untied her corset. When the last stay came loose, I stood back.

Her dress fell away in one glorious motion, revealing an exquisite body, untouched by the ravages of time or decay. A pair of beauteous breasts, high and full with skin the color of pale ivory and tipped with delicate pink nipples, were only the most prominent of her advantages. The curving hips, the honeyed thighs, the delectable navel set like a pearl in the center of a smooth flat stomach—the result of her arrayed features was one of staggering beauty and incipient tumescence.

I pulled her close to me, and kissed her again. While doing so I caressed her dainty buttocks, feeling the velvety, supple flesh beneath my hands. As we kissed, I spun her around and guided her to the bed. Now her hands were on me, and I momentarily relinquished my hold on her glory to slip off my coat, my waistcoat, my shirt. She ran her hands over my bare chest, and teasingly tugged at the hair there.

I love a tease.

My breeches soon joined the rest of my clothing on the floor, and naked, we slid onto the bed. Very quickly I was hard, and she whimpered when she caught sight of my ever-present friend. I have been gifted, I cannot deny it, and no woman who has been with can, either.

I cupped her breasts in my hands, feeling the delightful sensation of her nipples brushing against my palms. Gasping with pleasure, she arched upwards, and as she did so I slid into her.

The next hour was ecstasy.

For both of us.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Delay

My apologies to all my loyal and intelligent Readers for the lack of a new chapter in my memoirs today, but tragically your Hero has momentarily succumbed to a catarrh and was unable to complete his latest missive. I shall return on the morrow, with the tale of my adventures at the house of Doctor Morgan, and what came afterwards.

Thank you most kindly for your patience.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Fox

Flossy turned out to be much amenable to being returned to Joseph, so once in the saddle I piloted her towards Stokington Court. The village seemed more welcoming than it had since my arrival; a weight of money in one's pocket and the promise of a well-warmed bed can do that to a man. Even the dull tones of Flossy's hooves upon the cobbles were music to my ears. Soon we reached the Court, and I found a most obsequious groom waiting for me there. The decrepit butler ushered me into the parlor, where I found Joseph engrossed in what appeared to be stitchery.

With a broad grin he looked up and brandished the cloth in his hands. "This new design I am making shall be the talk of Londontown this season," he crowed. "No other gentleman shall have a waistcoat half as fine!"

Now this was just pathetic.

Obviously, poor Joseph, under the influence of his henpecked father, had while I was away lost that urge to create mischief that I had spent years instilling in him. When I encountered him first in the cemetery, I had hoped that his dishevelment was an indication of some increased sense of the frailty of life, and that I was witnessing the birth of some new, devil-may-care Joe MacDonald. Alas, it seemed it was not to be.

It is one thing to enjoy fine clothes. I know many a strapping fellow who delights in a well-turned pair of breeches or a particularly fine cravat. Indeed, I myself have been known to play the jack-a-dandy, especially when some young petticoat is the prize. But there is a world of difference between appreciating garmentry, and a pallor-making obsession, doubly so when said obsession keeps one from adventuring.

With this in mind, I added a new entry to the private list of objectives I had been keeping since arriving in Stokington. Right after the entry reading "Plow Mademoiselle Margot Magee," I added "Revive Joseph MacDonald's Spirit."

"How did you find Flossy? I trust she is well?" asked Joseph anxiously.

"Oh quite well," I said easily. "I think the trot did her good. You should take her out more. 'Tis fine country for riding."

"Good, good," Joseph said with relief. "No broken legs then?"

"No, but very nearly a broken back," I said.

Aghast, he cried, "What?"

"You needn't worry, the only back injured was my own," I said, and gave him an abridged version of the previous night's revels.

"Oh, Dennis, I told you to be careful! That Brutus, I hear he is the devil himself. Why I heard he once knifed a man for offering him a spinach salad instead of steak! Can you imagine?"

"Unfortunately, after meeting the man I can. Although I must admit my interest has been piqued by the mysterious Mister Walker."

"Some damnable raconteur, no doubt," said Joseph dismissively.

"My dear Joseph, need I remind you that I am a damnable raconteur?" I asked lightly.

"Will you have dinner with me tonight, Dennis? I am near sick to death for lack of company, and I think I could perhaps use a damnable raconteur."

"Sorry, Joseph old fellow, but I have a prior engagement. Perhaps tomorrow? If your father is in the village, the three of us could trade stories over watercress Earl of Sandwichs and tea."

Joseph heaved a huge sigh. "Alas," he said bitterly, "tomorrow the fox hunt rides and my father rides with them."

The fox hunt! O happy day! I had not been on a fox hunt in nearly five years, and I immediately espied an opportunity to both slake my desire for the sport and perhaps draw old Joe out of his shell.

"Even better," I said. "You and I shall track the wily Renard to ground as well!"

"Oh Dennis," Joseph groaned. "I cannot stand the fox hunt. The poor fellow! Let him be, I say."

"He and I are kindred spirits, but it is hunt or be hunted, and I dare say I should never be caught, so it must be him. Besides," I said cunningly, "imagine the fine ruff you could add to your waistcoat from the sly one's tail?"

Joseph frowned uneasily, but I could see the temptation roiling in him. "Very well," he at last relented. "We shall ride."

"May I ask who runs the hunt?" I asked.

"Formally, it is the Lord Mayor of Great Stokington, but on this occasion he has seen fit to extend mastery to that Spaniard, the Duke of Marma."

"Who raises the mastiffs?"

"The very same."

"Well then, have your man over to the Duke of Marma's and get us some horses, and we shall have a merry run, in my case the unbeatable in full pursuit of the uneatable." I stood. "Good day to you sir, I must call upon the Duck and Deacon for my effects."

"Oh?" said Joseph, as he escorted me out. "You have returned to Menacing House?"

"Far from it," I snorted. "The fine Professor Papagoras has invited me to be his houseguest."

"Well, that is splendid," Joe said, and we reached the foyer.

"Good day to you, Joe," I said, and left.

My schedule was fair full: coney-catching at Doctor Morgan's in the evening and fox-catching at the Duke of Marma's the following morning.

The hunt was on!

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Breakfast

The previous night's gallivanting resulted in my back aching even worse in the morning. I awoke in a modest but well-appointed bedroom in the house of Professor Papagoras and his three students. None of these three young women had presented themselves the night before, when the Professor and I arrived at his cozy townhouse in Great Stokington, but I had great hopes of making their acquaintance that morning. Given the events of the preceding night, I was now quite cured of taking pleasure in society, be it country or town. A sensible man ought to find sufficient company in women.

Upon dressing, I somewhat gingerly made my way down to the dining room, where breakfast was being served. The invigorating scent of bacon and eggs helped ease the pain in my back, as did the presence of three lovely young ladies at table.

Papagoras, already seated and reading the Times, managed to stand as I entered. "Ah, your Lordship, good to see you up and about," he said.

"Adopting strays, are we?" said one of the young ladies, a darkly hued brunette, rather tartly.

The Professor chuckled nervously. "You must forgive Mademoiselle Magee, your Lordship, she has a tongue of acid."

"Not nearly acidic enough," she muttered into her teacup. One of the other young women, a rather attractive blonde, giggled.

"Allow me to introduce you, your Lordship," said Papagoras hastily. "These three charming young ladies are students I acquired in Ireland last year. They have come to Stokington with me to learn the ways of London society."

"A noble goal," I said. "One day I hope to learn them myself."

"Mademoiselle Margot Magee you have already met. This young lass," he said, gesturing to the blonde demimonde, "is Miss Louisa Anne Powers, of a most worthy family in Ulster. Finally," and here he motioned in the direction of the third woman, a most dowdy girl of plain features, "we have Miss Thomasina Thompson, also of Ulstershire."

"I greet you most wholeheartedly," I said, and bowed. "I am Dennis St. Michel, the Viscount of Stokington."

"Oh, a Viscount," said Miss Powers in a most charming Irish lilt. "How fascinating. You must be ever so important," she said, simpering.

"Oh, hush yourself," said Miss Magee. "One would think you've never seen a man before. Boy, actually."

"I fear Mademoiselle Margot has formed an unflattering portrait of me. Tragic, since we have just met," I said, seating myself.

"Unflattering, or accurate?" she asked, smiling nastily across the table.

Oh, good. I was looking for a challenge. And she was not bad looking either.

"More unflattering than accurate," I said.

"So somewhat accurate. Thank you for correcting me, sir. I shall remember it."

"And I am no boy. I have twenty years. How old are you, mademoiselle?" I asked. Miss Powers and Miss Thomasina gasped, but Miss Magee showed no discomfort.

"Old enough to know the difference between arrogance and experience, and you seem long on the former and short on the latter," she said.

"A touch, a touch," I laughed, touching my breast. "But I have experience enough, more experience than you might expect."

"Oh, no doubt," she said, delicately taking a bite of a muffin. "I dare say the brothels of Brighton are ringing with the tales of your exploits."

Papagoras embarrassedly harrumphed and gulped for air. "Miss Margot, you shall mind your tongue at table!" he managed to squeeze out.

"Oh, do not mind her, Professor," I said with a wicked grin. "Without a doubt, Miss Margot's only motive is jealousy. She is doubtless as pure as the driven snow, as caged and coddled as a mynah bird, without the imagination to enjoy life, a flaw so typical of her sex. No wonder she lambastes the more daring and dashing men around her."

"Be careful what you say, Lordship," Miss Magee said angrily. "I am no shrinking violet like Thomasina."

"Oh!" gasped Miss Thomasina, who blushed furiously.

A strange noise emanated from the Professor. At first I believed him to be choking, then with shock I realised it was laughter. The night before he had let out great cackles, but this was a deep chuckle, a belly laugh if I may be so crude.

Tears streamed down his face. "Oh! Oh oh! At last we have found a match for Miss Margot! You had best watch yourself, Miss Margot, this fellow will cut you down to size," he choked out, then collapsed into a paroxysm of mirth again.

"Yes, watch yourself, Miss Margot," I said sweetly. "Or would you prefer I do it for you?"

Miss Margot could only fume in silence, trying to find a truly cutting remark. Miss Powers and Miss Thomasina looked on silently, scandalised by the table talk and shocked by Miss Margot's defeat. At last the Professor's fit of merriment subsided, and with a final chuckle he said, "I like you, Lord Stokington. These young ladies have run me to rags, but with you on my side I dare say I can hold my own."

"You are too kind, Professor," I said, and took a bite of eggs.

"Do me a great favor," Papagoras said. "Stay on as my houseguest. I could use the amusement."

Carefully setting down my fork, I said, "Professor, I am honored. I could think of no better company than yourself."

"Good, good," he said, "then it is settled. You shall stay here, and act as my aide-de-lieutenant against these incorrigible harridans."

"Professor," gasped Miss Powers.

"Do not worry, Mademoiselle Powers," I said. "I think you will find I am a much kinder constable than the Professor," and winked at her.

"Oh yes, which shall free me to be the wicked constable," laughed Papagoras.

After finishing my breakfast, I turned to the Professor. "I must fetch my articles from the Duck and Deacon. I shall see you again at luncheon?"

"If you can tear him away from his mikroscope," said Miss Margot.

"No doubt I shall," I said, and stood. "Good morning to you all."

I quickly made my way out into the street after making the proper bows. Well, well, well! The Mademoiselle Margot was quite the fiery lady!

I vowed then and there to be the most able aide-de-lieutenant to the Professor's general, the most able soldier possible--and I would keep my swordsmanship in practice.

After all, a good swordsman should be able to take three opponents at once, shouldn't he?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Deal

In a whirl of long gowns and elegant breech-clad legs, Margaret and I waltzed. The band played on, and the colorful maelstrom upon the parquet prevented any conversation between the Lady and myself. However, in due time, the tempo changed, and we began a stately country dance.

"You think you are cleverer than you are, milord," whispered Margaret to me as we moved through the allemande.

"How so?" I replied.

"That woman, there is something between you, I know it, do not deny it."

"Pardon me, mademoiselle, if I concentrate for a moment on the steps while I consider how to sufficiently allay your suspicions," I said, keeping an eye on my feet.

"'Allay my suspicions'? You are the most arrogant and deceitful creature in existence!" she hissed, and squeezed my hands in a vice-like grip as we shifted into a cotillion.

"Mademoiselle, I speak naught but the truth. Say the word and I shall leave at once!" I said as our faces passed close to one another.

She said nothing as we moved through the next change, but when we drew close again she glared at me, glanced at the floor, and said, "Tell me truly, Dennis, tell me the truth and I shall believe it." She looked me in the eyes and I was astonished to see she was being sincere. It almost hurt to reply. Almost.

"There is nothing between Madame Morgan and myself, your Grace. She is the wife of a friend, that is all," I said, and managed to set my features into an expression of sincerity without laughing.

Margaret still looked suspicious, but said nothing. At last the dance ended. I bowed, and she made her curtsy. I guided her from the parquet, and as we moved to the side, I placed my lips closed to her ear. "I told you before I was smitten. Did you think me false then?"

She looked at me with a humbled expression. "No, I did not. I had forgotten you had said that, Dennis."

I gently touched her chin with the tip of a finger. "I meant it, milady. Why, in six months time, no doubt you and I shall be--" I stopped, and looked away, blushing. Learning to blush at will is very difficult, but a skill well worth acquiring.

"Oh Dennis," she gasped, unable to contain her joy and excitement. "Do you mean it?"

"Hush," I said sternly. "I must be frank, milady. I can promise nothing now, for I have not yet made my fortune, and a rose as beautiful as yourself deserves the most fitting and well-appointed garden in which to grow."

"But surely your father can provide--" she said, rather desperately in my opinion.

"He has declared that I must make my own way in the world, at least until his own passing. It is the way of the St. Michels, my dear," I said, and shook my head, as if to impart onto her the foolishness of extending such outmoded traditions to the present day.

"If your father commands it, then you must obey," said Margaret softly.

"So you see that there can be no understanding between us, until I have come into some money. In fact, all I have upon me at the moment is a single sovereign, for gratuities and so forth." She frowned, and I reassuringly placed my hand upon her elbow, and smiled. "Do not worry, milady, for I have some prospects in London already."

"Ah, very good," she said, "At least you are not penniless. I cannot stand the wretched poor, even the aristocrats."

"In time, in time, all things will be resolved. Please be patient, and perhaps in a month, at the most two, we can make some arrangement."

"Very well," she said with a disappointed expression.

Just then Barrister Driver appeared. "Ah, your Lordship, just the gentleman I sought."

"And why is that, Mr. Driver?" I asked.

"Captain Brutus is putting together a game of whist, and would you believe, so far he has found only two other takers in this crush?"

"A game of whist? Surely there are many other players besides myself here tonight."

"Sadly yes," said Driver, grinning broadly. "But you see, the Captain has a reputation as being quite the master player, and all others fear his deal."

"And I?"

"Are known as the veritable boy prince of cardsharps in Stokington."

"I play ecarte, and some sheepshead," I protested, "but of whist very little."

"No whist?" asked Driver, looking a trifle disappointed. "Brutus will be put out, that he could not get together a game."

"I know a little," I offered, striving to be helpful. "Perhaps I could play a few tricks, if only to satiate the Captain."

"Oh capital!" declared the Barrister. "I must admit to you, your Lordship, an ulterior motive," he said, winking. "Captain Brutus has been looking for a new solicitor..."

"Ah, I see. And you thought that if you offered up a new mark, he should look favorably upon you?" I said, cocking an eyebrow.

Driver smiled guiltily, but otherwise said nothing.

"Very well. If I am to help you, you must help me, Driver. Loan me five pounds, would you be so kind?"

"Five pounds! Outrageous," he yelped.

"Five pounds, and I am sure to lose it to him, and won't he look favorably upon you then?"

"Oh, give him five pounds," said Margaret. "'Tis only money, you silly man."

Looking a trifle green, Driver passed me a five pound note. "Do not lose it too fast," he muttered.

"I shan't," I said. "Now where is this table?"

The little room on the second floor was congested with cigar smoke and the stout bodies of well-to-do men. Driver and I wove our way towards the center of the room, where a small table had been erected. Bottles of gin, brandy, port, and all manner of spirits were close at hand, as were a tray of Earl of Sandwichs. Three men were already seated as we approached.

Driver introduced me. "Mr. Christopher Walker you have already met," he said, gesturing to the tall purple-clad African explorer. I was not particularly surprised to find him there, as he had struck me as a bit of a chancer when we first met.

"And this," said Driver, "is the Greek gentleman Professor Papagoras," and motioned towards a wizened old man with a long white beard. Papagoras chuckled and drank deeply of his glass, whisky spilling out the sides of his mouth and staining his beard.

The last man needed no introduction. Well more than six feet tall, and with a chest like a barrel, this could only be the Captain John Brutus. "Captain Brutus," I said, "I have heard a great deal about you."

"And I you," he replied. His face was covered by the most extraordinary beard, which seemed to cling to it like moss, and grew, urchin-like, in every direction, leaving only the tiniest of gaps for his small, squinting eyes to peer out. His nose was large and red as a ripe tomato, and I could not for the life of me determine if he were smiling or grimacing. "Please, be seated," he said.

A tall rail thin woman, her stringy coal-black hair tied up in a bun, looked on nervously. His wife, I thought, and this was confirmed when Brutus barked at her, "Olive, fetch the Viscount a cigar." She whimpered, but quickly obeyed.

I sat, and looked cheerily at the other men. "Be glad to be out of that swell below," I said. "Not enough dash if you ask me."

"Not enough dash?" smirked Walker. "Politeness is the currency of kings at such a soiree."

"Aye," cackled the Professor, "They are even polite to us rascals."

"But not polite enough," I sniffed, taking an Earl of Sandwich off the tray. "If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, we wicked people would have it all our own way. As it is, it is most inconvenient."

Brutus laughed uproariously, as did the Professor. Even Walker spared a chuckle. Brutus picked up a pack and riffed the cards. "Shall we begin?" he asked.

"Oh indeed," I said, and Walker and the Professor nodded.

"It is to be whist," said Brutus, and began to deal.

"Oh, whist! I have heard of that," I said, and broad grins appeared on the faces of Brutus, Walker, and the Professor.

"It is a very fine game," said the Professor. "You are sure to enjoy it, Lordship."

"No doubt I shall," I said, smiling brightly. "How do you play this game, then?"


"So that is--"

"I believe it is one-hundred and forty-seven to me, Captain," I said. The Captain grumbled and gripped the table in his big meaty hands, but then pushed the sizable pot towards me. The Professor whooped and clapped, despite his greatly reduced stake.

"Oh, a touch, a touch," he laughed, tears streaming from his eyes. "You are well and truly fleeced now, Brutus,"

"One more hand?" I asked innocently.

The Captain ground his teeth, but he still had his pride, and I had not yet beaten him enough for him to back down. "Aye, one more."

He dealt, and play began. In the first trick, the Professor made the mistake of leading with the jack of diamonds, which I carried with the ace. As I swept the trick towards me, a huge, ham-like fist closed on my wrist, and I looked up into the alcohol-sodden face of the Captain.

"How many is that?" he asked. "Seven leads in a row?"

"Unhand me, sir," I said.

"You're cheatin', I know it."

"I am no cheat," I said frostily. "I am good enough I do not need to."

"Thought you couldna play," said Brutus evilly.

"That is not cheating, that is ordinary bluffing. Now unhand me."

"Oh, I'll unhand you, you rotten bastard," he roared, and jerked me up and away from the table, wine bottles flying crazily through the air. I landed first on my chair, which skittered away from the impact, and then on my back.

"I never cheat," I gasped, through a haze of rage and pain. I tried to regain my feet, but Brutus hauled me up with one hand.

"Cheat me in my own house, damn you!" he snarled. He pulled my face close to his. "You'd best get out, lessen I break your poz."

"Not without my money," I squeezed out between gritted teeth.

"Your money?!" he roared, and shook me like a rat.

The pain in my back was intense, but I ignored it as I said, "Won it fair and square. I shall not leave without my money."

"Give him his money." The voice was quiet, but commanding. Brutus turned, and as he did so I could see Walker standing there as still as a church on Saturday evening. In the swirling cigar smoke and dim light, he seemed to drift in and out of vision, phantomlike, but I could still see his hand under his coat, and the dull gleam of the polished wood of the butt of a pistol.

"He won fair and square," said Walker quietly. "I saw him. We all did. You lost. Now turn him loose."

Brutus snarled like a caged beast, but sensing the mood was turning against him, lowered me to the ground and released me. "Cozen me in my house, threaten me--" he blustered.

"No one's threatening you," said Walker, his hand still on the pistol. "Now give him his money."

"Like hell I will," bellowed Brutus, but he had lost the crowd, and someone in the back shouted, "He won! Pay him as a gentleman would!"

"There," he growled, as he swept my winnings off the table towards me. "Take your damned money."

I slowly picked it up, my back still aching. Brutus nodded to a pair of stout groomsmen by the door. "He has his money, now throw the bastard out."

Less than a minute later, I was picking myself off the ground outside the servants entrance, and picking bits of gravel out of my hands and shirt. Luckily, Brutus had not wanted to disrupt the party, and neither Margaret nor June Morgan had seen me.

"Sorry about that, old chap," drawled a voice, and I turned to find Walker leaning against the doorway.

"Sorry?" I laughed. "By God, I haven't had this much fun since I got here."

Walker laughed too, the first real laugh I'd heard from him yet. Still smiling, he said, "You should have lost to him."

"I hate to lose."

"No doubt," he said. "But you will have to learn how someday."

I reached into my coat and pulled out a wad of bills. "Your half."

"I couldn't," he said.

"We were partners."

"Still," he said, and smiled an enigmatic smile. "I must take my leave, your Lordship, but I dare say we shall meet again," and he disappeared back into the house.

I stood in the courtyard for a long moment, then turned towards the stables.

"Ah, Viscount," a reedy voice I recognised belonged to the Professor said, "wait a moment, please."

The old man was hobbling around the house, his crooked back slowing him to barely more than a shuffle.

"Yes, Professor Papagoras?" I inquired politely.

"How is your back, young fellow? That blackguard Brutus gave you quite a blow."

"Sore, but I shall manage. Thank your for your kind inquiry. Now if you may excuse me, it is a long ride back to Great Stokington."

"Ride? With an injured back? I shouldn't dream of it," he said, finally reaching me and nearly winded. "Let me take you back in my carriage."

"Oh, no," I said. "I really must take this horse back to my friend, and I should prefer not to impose."

"'Twould be no imposition at all, dear boy. It would be a just reward. I've long desired to see that bearded blowhard soundly thrashed, at cards if at nothing else, and thanks to you it's been done. Now I can die a happy man," he said, grinning wickedly.

"I live but to serve," I said, and bowed. This proved to be a ghastly mistake, as the pain from my bruised back nearly caused me to fall over. Papagoras rushed to my side, or rushed as quickly as a nearly lame man with a cane can rush.

"My dear boy, you are positively crippled. I will not allow you to ride back. You will ride in my carriage." Overcome with momentary pain, I was too distracted to protest. "Where are you staying, your Lordship?"

"Duck and Deacon," I gasped.

"That hovel?" the Professor snorted. "Those beds will destroy your spine, should you sleep in them in your condition." He signalled one of the grooms. "No, tonight you must stay at my house in my guest quarters. I insist."

"If you insist," I groaned as I straightened back up.

Soon we were in the carriage on our way across the darkened moors, with poor Flossy tied to the back and barely able to keep pace.

Once on the cushions of the carriage, the pain in my back began to fade, and my mind began to catalogue the night's inventory. I had gained nearly one hundred and fifty pounds, a new place to lay my head, wooed Lady Margaret, and received an assignation with Madame Morgan. In the negative balance I had gained a sore back and lost the warm embrace of Mildred, at least temporarily.

On the whole, a most profitable evening.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Doctor

Having acquired a horse, I whiled away the remainder of the afternoon playing whist at the Duck and Deacon; with the initial stake of a ha'penny I found in the lane, I was soon up by nearly a sovereign when the rickety grandfather clock sounded six. Bidding adieu to the increasingly disgruntled 'cardsharps' of Great Stokington, I hastily made my way back to my room and changed into something more fitting for a ball: a royal blue coat, my saffron waistcoat, and buff breeches. I checked my cheeks to ensure no stray whiskers had escaped my razor, and descended down to the stables.

God bless Joseph, for he had delivered his mare Flossy exactly as promised. Admittedly, the old screw had more of the glue factory than the racing stable about her, but she seemed strong enough to carry me to this John Brutus's.

Now, I do not care to boast, but horsemanship is one of my great loves, and indeed I care for nothing so much as I do a ride in the country, or perhaps a foxhunt. The evening was fine, for the portentous fog of the early morning had quailed beneath the quotidian sun, and as a result I enjoyed quite a fine sunset as I rode towards Little Stoke. With the liberal application of the spurs and the crop, I managed to provoke Flossy into something resembling a trot, and thus arrived at Captain Brutus's house.

Already a line of carriages stretched for hundreds of yards as guests waited to be discharged at the front step. The house itself was hideous, precisely what one might expect a former navy captain of no particular rank to buy, proving once again that you can buy a captaincy, but you cannot buy class. A grotesque green-gabled roof surmounted it, appearing as though spun from cheap glass, and the walls were brick of the most nauseating shade of vomit yellow. The house's design itself was most inharmonious, simply a long box with no ornamentation whatsoever. In truth I do not think I have ever seen such a vulgar edifice.

Avoiding the crush of carriages at the front, I steered Flossy towards the stables. From there I planned to enter via the servants' entrance and find Margaret, trading one nag for another. This would also neatly dodge the issue of an invitation, which of course I did not have.

I flipped a groom a penny, and instructed him to give Flossy some water and oats. The servants' entrance was not difficult to find, as the constant knot of activity around it gave it away. The key in times like these is to move forward with total confidence. Act like you belong, like no one can stop you, and no one will. As I moved through the back corridors and the kitchens, I saw the usual motley assortment: the footman out with his pipe, taking a quick smoke, the scullery maid flirting with a valet, the cooks carrying huge trays of food.

Between the din of the ballroom and the din of the kitchen there is always a curious lull, a handful of empty hallways connecting the two that lacks all activity. Perhaps it is to allow the man who moves between to acclimate himself.

I stepped into the ballroom, which was overwrought with lanterns and all manner of screens and draperies. A candle in the wrong place and the entire structure should ignite, I thought. Even at this early hour the room was filled with people, the din deafening, the heat suffocating. As I wended my way through the crowd, I snaffled a drink off a passing waiter's tray and quaffed it. Fail to get the proper fluids and you could die in such a soiree.

"Dennis!" Someone called my name and I surveyed the crowd.

"Dennis!" Again my name, but this time I glimpsed the hailer. It was the Barrister Driver, not necessarily whom I wished to see, but an amusing fellow nonetheless.

I crossed the room to find him with a small group of men. The only woman there was Driver's wife, Abigail, quite the beauty, with long red hair and a prodigious bust, but tragically while the middle and lower floors had much to offer, there was nothing in the upper floor. She gave me a dimwitted smile and returned to her drink.

"Gentlemen, may I present Dennis, the Viscount of Stokington," said Driver. I sketched a bow, as did the other men.

Driver went on. "Your Lordship, this is Mr. Christopher Walker," he said, gesturing to a strapping fellow in a purple coat. "Walker here is in African exploration."

"Really?" I said, interested despite myself.

"Yes," drawled Walker. "The Bangallan coast."

"Fascinating," I said.

Driver moved on to the next gentleman. "And of course you know Doctor Morgan."

The Doctor smiled a cold, callous grin as he shook my hand. "Of course, Lordship. Good to see you again."

"And you," I said. I have never liked the doctor, there is something of the vivisectionist about him.

Doctor Morgan smiled broadly at me, and clapped me on the shoulder. "In fact, Lordship, it is extremely lucky that you have arrived at such a time."

"Why is that, Doctor?" I asked. His hand felt very heavy on my shoulder.

"Because I was just telling these fine people of my latest experiments. I am very much interested in experimentation. Are you?"

"Perhaps," I said, a trifle uncomfortable. "It would depend on the nature of the experiment, I imagine."

"Well," the Doctor continued, still not removing his hand, "I have been working on a cure for syphilis--I believe we all know what a horror that disease is--and I think I may have discovered an inoculation against the contagion! But it's is not suitable for discussion around ladies, Madame Driver."

"Oh, by all means continue," said Abigail bravely.

"It consists of an injection to the buttocks, which causes the disease to fail to appear," he said.

"An injection to the buttocks?" I said. "How original. However did you uncover this method?"

"It occurred when I was reading about the practices of certain ancient Greeks," said Morgan. His hand really was quite heavy now. "The ancient Greeks were quite keen on medicine. Hippocratus and so forth, you know. There are any number of techniques pioneered by the ancient Greeks I should like to try."

"Oh, without a doubt," I said.

"Perhaps you would like to assist me, your Lordship," said the Doctor, with a broad, sharklike grin.

"Perhaps," I said stiffly.

"A most ingenious method, Doctor," said Abigail, looking rather stricken.

"Oh look, Doctor," I said. "Is that not your wife?"

"Where?" he asked, turning to look, and blessedly releasing my shoulder. "Oh. Yes. It is June."

"Thank you for that wonderful discussion of the nature of the Greek method, Doctor, but I have others to speak with," I said. "Mr. Walker. Barrister Driver, Madame Driver, good evening."

With great rapidity I made my escape. I saw no sign of Margaret, but the motion of the crowd soon caused me, entirely without intention, to cross the room, and I nearly walked into June Morgan. "Madame Morgan!" I said. "What an unexpected surprise!"

"Oh, good evening, your Lordship," she said, and made a brief curtsy, but her entire demeanour bespoke sadness.

"Is something the matter, Madame? You look out of sorts."

"Oh, no, 'tis nothing," she said, and fanned herself, but her half-hearted denials did little to dissuade my concern. And concerned I was, for 'tis tragedy for so beautiful a woman to appear so downcast. Her raven locks were cut in a most fetching style, and the way her bosom swelled against her corset was enough to take even the most celibate of monks' breath away.

"You seem distraught. Come, let us sit," I said, and, taking her by the elbow, guided her to one of the sophas that lined the edges of the room. We sat, and being rather forward, I took her hands in mine. "Now, tell me, Madame Morgan, what is the trouble."

Her large brown eyes looked into mine, and then abruptly she started to weep, a silent weeping that fortunately did not attract the attentions of those surrounding.

Have I mentioned I hate crying women?

"He never looks at me anymore," she sobbed.

"Who?" I asked.

"Who else, Rex, the coldhearted bastard," she said vehemently, and I was momentarily taken aback upon hearing her use a word no woman ever should. "He and that assistant of his, Nicholas, they spend the whole of the day in his offices, experimenting. He never even looks my way."

"Cry not, milady," I said, and handed her a handkerchief.

"Oh, oh, thank you, your Lordship. You are too kind," she said, dabbing at her eyes with it. "I must be hideous."

"Hideous?" I said. "Far from it. You are one of the lights of our village, and if the Doctor does not see that, well then the Doctor is a fool, if you will forgive me saying so."

"Do you really think I am beautiful?"

"Poseidon's nymphs themselves would look on in envy, sighing that Nature formed but one such woman."

"Please, stop," she said, smiling with embarrassment. What she really meant was, please, go on.

"The night is gone cold with resentment over the blackness of your hair, and the moon hides her face in shame from the luminosity of your eyes."

"Oh, your Lordship, you say the most lovely things." Madame Morgan's eyes were shining like stars now.

"Not lovely, but true, and there can be no harm in telling the truth."

"Perhaps you should come and dine with my husband and I some night, and we can hear more of your poesy," she said, and I very nearly wanted to cry, watching her pathetic attempts at lustful cunning. "I would invite you tomorrow night, but tragically my husband and Nicholas must venture into London and will be gone until the morn, your Lordship."

"Please, Madame, call me Dennis."

"Very well, Dennis, then I am June."

"June," I said, smiling.

"Dennis!" cried a very familiar and very unwanted female voice over the crowd, piercing ears and etching glass.

Damn! I had completely forgotten about Margaret.

"Dennis!" she screeched again, and I glimpsed her forcing her way through the crowds towards me.

"We will meet again," I whispered hurriedly to Madame Morgan. "Tomorrow night!"

She nodded, and I turned around just in time to come face to face with Margaret. Her face was cherry red, and she shot an infuriated glance at June. But luckily for both of us, she was able to contain her womanly nature and did not make an immediate scene.

"Madame le Duchess," I said, and swept down into a low bow.

Glancing up, I could see she was enraged, but still she dipped into a curtsy. God bless etiquette. "Monsieur le Vicomte," she said.

Whatever respite from her wrath the forms of polite society had afforded me were gone, and with cold anger she said, "Who is that woman?"

"Oh, look," I said, "they have ices," and I began to move towards the table laden with refreshments.

"Dennis, how dare you move away from me like that!" she said angrily.

"Keep your voice down, Margaret, this is a nice party."

"Answer me," she hissed. "Who is she?"

"The wife of a friend, Doctor Rexford Morgan. She was feeling rather faint in the heat and I helped her to a sopha."

"Oh. Well," Margaret said, and I could tell she was looking for somewhere to discharge her rage, "well, where was her husband?"

"I believe he was showing off some of his Greek medical techniques to Barrister Driver."

Margaret eyed me suspiciously. I'd won, and I think she knew I had won, but she was uncertain as to how.

"Hmph," she snorted, and fanned herself angrily. "She did not look like the right sort."

"What sort is that?" I asked. "And how is your dance card?"

"My dance card?" she said, bewildered.

"Almost empty! Superb!" I said, grabbing her by the hand and leading her towards the parquet.

"Dennis, what--" she protested, but then the band struck up, and I swept her into a waltz.

We danced.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Horse

The tea at Margaret's had been most refreshing, and I returned with a spring in my step to Great Stokington. I felt very lucky to have escaped intact from both Margaret and the Duchess, and this filled me with a profound sense of relief, but it soon faded. The joy of parting is nothing to the pain of meeting again, for the following night I must see her at Brutus's ball.

The details of the evening that followed were wholly pedestrian. I returned to the Duck and Deacon, took supper, and retired to bed, but not before sharing a few moments of ecstasy with Mildred. Since I had been ensconced at the inn for more than twenty-four hours, and showed no sign of dislodging, Madame Cooper left me alone. Show the slightest sign of vacillation and she will have you out the door, but cling like a barnacle and she will ignore you. Most people operate on the principle of doing as little as possible; make things difficult for them, and they will very often give you your way.

The following morning, I gave Mildred a solid boot out of bed, and then readied myself for the coming day. A quick shave, paying close attention to my lamb chops, then a brisk wash and I was ready to dress. Since I would be attending a ball that evening, I wore rather plain clothes, suitable perhaps for country sports or Polish royalty.

Unlike the previous day, the morning air was filled with a thick fog as I left the Duck and Deacon. A man could see no more than a dozen feet in front of him. I felt that this was perhaps ominous, but the important thing about omens is that they can be read any number of ways, so I decided the fog was ominous for my enemies and beneficial for me, and went about my day.

I went for a long walk in the country, then luncheoned with Joseph MacDonald. Over cold roast beef, I inquired as to this Captain John Brutus.

"A most bestial sort of fellow," sniffed Joseph. "He was in the Royal Navy, and the rumor is he was cashiered for brawling. He lives outside Little Stoke."

"Describe him to me."

Joseph frowned in thought. "Tall, dark hair. Ah yes! He wears a very thick beard, which tells you everything you need to know."

"Yes, never trust a man with a beard; he's most likely hiding something," I said.

"Still, I must inquire, Dennis; you have only been in Stokington two days. However did you wrangle an invitation?"

"I didn't," I said, taking a bite of buttered bread.

"Then how do you plan to get in?" Joseph asked, his brow furrowed in confusion.

"On the basis of my wits and charm." I flashed a smile. "They have never let me down yet."

"Oh, Dennis," Joseph groaned. "This Brutus, he's a very dangerous chap. I heard he killed a sailor in the South Seas over a woman. Be careful."

"I am always careful."

"You are always reckless, you mean."

"Still, you are absolutely right, Joe. I must take every precaution to ensure I shall not be turned away. Thank you for your pertinent advice."

Joe looked slightly mollified, but nearly choked on his roll when he heard my next words: "With that in mind, I need your horse."

He sputtered. "Flossy? Whatever do you need her for?"

"Well, I can't very well turn up on foot when every man jack will have a carriage, can I? It would be most improper."

"I cannot loan you my horse! You will return her with two broken legs, or perhaps not at all!"

"My dear Joseph, I am almost offended. Here I am, a bosom friend in his hour of need, and you begrudge me the use of your horse for but a single evening. Does not the Good Book preach charity? What would the vicar say?"

"I think he would say I would be wise not to loan you my horse!"

I heaved a great sigh. "Very well, Joe. No horse, then. Well, that changes a great deal. The saffron waistcoat is right out."

"I'm sorry?"

"Oh do excuse me, talking to myself. I was just thinking that I would be unable to wear my royal blue coat and saffron waistcoat with my buff breeches, as the road dust from a long walk would ruin them."

Joseph nodded. "A prudent notion."

"I imagine instead I shall have to wear the vermilion-and-green checked coat with the blue striped waistcoat." He began to squirm in his seat, listening to me describe this sartorial abomination.

"And the breeches would most definitely have to be the plum-colored ones. And perhaps the rose silk shirt..."

"Oh take the horse!" he burst out. "Anything to prevent you from committing such a crime against fashion."

"Why thank you, Joseph, you are most generous," I said, and smiled.

Clothes make the man, and sometimes they make the man a horseman.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Tea

I dare say Joseph was an absolute mine of information, but declined my invitation to accompany me to Lady Margaret's house in Least Stokington. Newly armed with word of the recent vicissitudes of the Dukes of Devon, I decided to attend to a few errands in Great Stokington before making my play in Least Stokington. A quick stop at the village florist's, the chocolatier's, and an old antique store, and I was as well armed with suitable trinkets for Lady Margaret and her mother as I was with precious information obtained from Joe. The shopkeepers were more than willing to lend to me on credit; sometimes it is a marvelous thing to be a St. Michel.

Now, Least Stokington is a mile west of Great Stokington. Both sit upon the River Forth (which, Dear Reader, is not to be confused with the River Forth of Scotland, for that is a fairly broad body of water, whilst our River Forth is scarcely more than a jumped-up stream), but Great Stokington is closer to the Channel, and as such receives the bulk of the up-river trade. Hence the names--Great Stokington is the larger of the two villages. Roughly two miles south lies the hamlet of Little Stoke; barely a place where two paths cross, it is there that the Honorable Joseph MacDonald's father is the Lord Mayor. As I had no horse, I was forced to walk, but a single mile is hardly something of which to complain, and indeed the walk was most agreeable. The rains had left the heath verdant and lively, and the air was redolent with the smells of flowers. Birdsong surrounded me on every side, and I felt the happiest man in the world.

After about half an hour, I arrived at Least Stokington. Lady Margaret's house there has no proper name; it is in many respects the least and most shabby of her domiciles. Her ducal seat lies elsewhere--of course, she takes her duchessal seat where-ever she goes. The house in Least Stokington is a townhouse, not some grand palatial manor, and my first reaction upon seeing it again was that I did not like it. It was run-down, and showed every sign of neglect. Far be it for me to lecture others on the proper etiquette, but it feels somehow disrespectful to Stokington for her to treat her home here in this fashion.

Package under my arm, I smartly rapped on the door, and waited until a liveried butler answered. Unlike Joseph's senile old fool, I recognised immediately there would be no outwitting this stern fellow. I raised my hat, and said with my most winning smile, "Good day, sir. Dennis St. Michel, the Viscount of Stokington, here to pay my respects to the Dowager Duchess of Devon on the untimely passing of her husband, the Duke." Sometimes it pays tenfold to be particularly formal in these situations.

Seeing he could find no fault with my phraseology, the butler snorted, and said, "Come in."

He left me to wait momentarily in the foyer, and I surveyed the place. The aura of decrepitude I perceived from the exterior was somewhat less pronounced inside, but still I was a trifle offended. It was not right she should disrespect the town and county that had given her so much in her youth.

The butler returned, and with an ill-concealed glance of contempt, escorted me into the parlor. The first impression I had was of overwhelming pink: pink silk curtains, pink papered walls, a pink sopha, indeed even a table of the pinkest cherry wood. After a few moments I felt as though I were in an intestine.

The Dowager Duchess, who is Margaret's mother, was seated on the sopha. Perhaps once she had been handsome, but the years had taken their toll on her long face and she now resembled nothing so much as an old she-goat. The slight growth of beard did little to dispel the likeness.

"The Viscount of Stokington," the butler stiffly announced, and then made his departure. The Duchess rose and curtsied, which I returned with a most proper bow.

"Young Dennis," said the Duchess, with a rather stiff smile. "Thank you for taking the time to visit us. We are honored by your presence."

"On the contrary," I said earnestly, "the honor is solely mine. I would be entirely remiss should I fail to pay my respects to the survivors of a truly great man."

"Hush, Dennis," she said firmly. "Your roguish 'charm' will get you nowhere here."

"Madam, with all the respect that is due to you, I fear you have misread me greatly. While it is true your husband and I had the occasional disagreement, I must confess I felt great respect and gratitude towards the Duke. Perhaps not fondness or affection, but respect and gratitude nonetheless."

"Gratitude? Whatever for?"

"While it is a commonplace that amongst my generation there is naught but debauchery and contempt for the past, there are still those who recall your husband's heroism at the Battle of Plassey, your Grace."

She stared at me, agape, momentarily at a loss for words. "Why, young Dennis, I had no idea you were aware of my husband's early career. It has been entirely overshadowed by his years in Parliament."

"Indeed, your Grace, not merely aware, but deeply filled with feelings of awe. He opened India, madam. For that I am eternally grateful," I said, and here I gave a roguish grin, "because where else shall I get my Darjeeling?"

"Oh you," she said stiffly, but I sensed her warming to me. "Speaking of tea, would you care to join my daughter and me, your Lordship?"

"I would be honored."

In mere moments, the most able servant I have seen in my twenty years laid a fine table for us on the veranda.

"I must compliment you on your servants, your Grace," I said. "They are exceedingly well-mannered."

From inside the house came a commotion. "That plate is not nearly clean," hectored a shrill, ear-piercing voice. "Take it back and clean it again, you idiot girl!"

"My daughter," said the Duchess, and Margaret strode onto the veranda.

Her eyes lit up as she saw me, but her irritating voice was correct in every manner. "Lord Stokington, what a pleasure to have you in our home."

"The pleasure is all mine, I assure you, your Grace. The opportunity to have tea with two such beautiful and shrewd young ladies does not often present itself."

At this, the Duchess tutted and fanned herself, contriving to look mildly scandalised. I stood quickly and pulled out a chair for Lady Margaret.

"Her Grace the Dowager Duchess was just telling me something of your father's exploits in India, your Grace."

"Hmm?" said the Duchess, "I beg pardon, your Lordship, but what was that, precisely?"

"You were telling me how criminally under appreciated the Duke's service abroad has been," I said, and dropped a wink to Lady Margaret, who tittered.

The Duchess sniffed. "You'd best watch this one, he has too much of the gaming parlor of him."

Ignoring this blatant insult, I smiled as the tea girl arrived, balancing a tray on one hand while carrying a kettle in the other. "Ah, excellent, the tea has arriv--"

"No, you ignorant cow," shouted Margaret. "I specifically said the blue china print teapot."

"B-but your Grace," the tea girl stammered, "the blue china print, you used her last evening, she's dirty."

"I do not care. Clean it and fetch it at once."

The tea girl stood there for a moment, until Margaret shouted, "I said, at once!" at which she bolted from the veranda.

"The help in this village are completely incompetent," Margaret said imperiously. "London is superior to the country in every respect."

"Begging your Grace's pardon, not in every respect," I said. "The flowers here are quite the best in the world." From my package I produced a bouquet of wildflowers. "These are for you, your Grace."

Margaret smiled in delight, and took the flowers. "They are beautiful, Dennis."

"I trust I am not being too forward."

"Not at all," Margaret gushed, while her mother frowned.

"Put those in water, they will last longer," I said with a smile. "Perhaps long enough for you to take some of Stokington back to London with you."

"That would be marvelous," she said.

"The superiority of our foliage aside, I do trust that you both are finding adequate amusements here in Devon," I said to the Duchess.

"Fair enough," she said grudgingly, but Margaret quickly chimed in with, "Fair enough, indeed most fair, for while the country lacks London's refinements, there are entertainments enough if one looks for them. Why, just tomorrow night there is to be a ball at Captain John Brutus's country home, and dearest Mama here has found any number of her precious antique spoons."


"Aye, yes, she collects them. A silly affectation, if you ask me."

"No one did," said the Duchess, looking rather offended.

"Silly and foolish," Margaret pronounced definitively.

"I must respectfully disagree, Lady Margaret," I said, and both women looked at me, startled.

"Oh yes," I said airily. "I dabbled a bit in spoon-collecting in my youth. Nothing of great seriousness, for I lacked the passion of the true collector. But still, I have nothing but the most sincere appreciation for--in fact," I said, "I just recalled--"

"Oh what is it, your Lordship?" said the Duchess with bated breath.

"I was passing by an antique shop in Great Stokington when I happened to spy in the window--well, it would be simpler to show you," and with this, I reached into my package and pulled forth a trio of pewter spoons, engraved with the names of the Georges. "Coronation spoons, I believe."

The Duchess gasped in delight. "A complete set, too! Oh how marvelous, Lord Stokington! What a fortuitous find!"

"You are quite correct, your Grace, but tragically the ardor for spoons has cooled somewhat in my breast and I...the thought occurs, your Grace."

"Yes?" the Duchess said eagerly.

"Would you care for these spoons? I feel you shall enjoy them far more than I."

"Oh, Lord Stokington, I could not possibly..."

"I insist, your Grace."

It did not take much more prodding from me for her to accept the spoons, and after that she was far more affectionate and favorable towards me. The rest of the afternoon passed relatively sedately, although I confess the constant talk of spoons soon grew tedious in the extreme. I did, however, notice that the higher I rose in the esteem of the Dowager, the lower I seemed to fall in Margaret's. This would not do.

Soon, the tea was finished, and I said my farewell to the Dowager, who barely spared me a glance as she examined the newly-acquired spoons. I quietly asked Margaret if she would escort me to the door.

In the foyer we paused.

"Very clever, with your spoons," she said. "She'll dote on you now."

"A politic gift, I admit, but nothing more," I said. "I came to see you, not your mother."

"Me?" she said, attempting disbelief but achieving haughty satisfaction.

"Indeed, for since our meeting in the carriage, you have not been far from my thoughts. If I may be so bold, your Grace?"

"By all means, be so," she said, unable to contain her eagerness.

"Very well. I find myself...smitten with your Ladyship," and even for me the sheer enormity of the lie caused it to pause on my tongue, but the ill-concealed squeal she emitted indicated she had not noticed. "The flowers were in honor of your late father, but these are in honor of you."

From inside my package, I produced the last item, a box of finest French chocolates. "Please accept them as a gift from me."

Margaret's eyes were very large and I could not help but notice the glutton's twinkle present in them as I placed the box in her hands.

"Thank you, Dennis," she said. "I mean that most sincerely."

"You are most welcome." I opened the door to leave, and then turned to her again. "Captain Brutus's party?"

"Yes?" she said hopefully.

"Shall you be there?" I asked, and when she nodded her assent, I said, "Then so shall I. Good day to you, your Grace." And I took my leave.

A most productive afternoon, in my opinion. All I need do to win Lady Margaret's hand is be good. I think I could be a good man if I had fifty thousand a year.

And tomorrow night, I shall dance.