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.

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.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Fop

The morning dawned bright and cool, and I awoke most refreshed. I quickly washed and shaved, and as I did so, I contemplated my next move. In life, as in dueling, a fellow needs a second, someone to pick up the blade and carry on the fight should a fellow fall. If I was to pursue the hand of Margaret, Duchess of Devon, I would need more than wits and guile. I would need information, as well as a loyal companion to watch my back.

Throughout my early years, my bosom chum was always the Honorable Joseph MacDonald, son of the Lord Mayor of Little Stoke. Now, as the years progressed, it became increasingly apparent to me that the source of his affection for me was more due to eros than to philia, but aside from the regrettable incident in the cemetery the previous day, he has the good sense to keep such bestial desires hidden. Disregarding the possibility of arrest and imprisonment, he knows that I do not share his proclivities, and prefer the fairer sex.

I decided old Joe would be the best fellow in the world to act as my lookout, and therefore prepared to depart for Stokington Court immediately. Joe has always been a bit of a jack-a-dandy and a fop, and places great stock in appearance, so I dressed in my finest taupe breeches, a coat of deep wine-colored wool, with a canary-yellow embroidered silk waistcoat and a white silk shirt. This, along with my dusky-gray hat, would mean that Joe would find little fault with my appearance, and therefore be amenable to lending help.

The rain of the previous day had vanished, and the mud had dried in the early morning sun, leaving Great Stokington washed clean and refreshingly vibrant. While Madame Cooper haggled with a lodger over their bill, I quietly made my escape from the Duck and Deacon. I had no desire to speak with my ersatz landlady while I had nary a shilling to my name.

With the crisp morning air filling my lungs, the short walk through the village to Stokington Court was most agreeable. In virtually every respect, I find Stokington Court to be superior to Menacing House. It is on the edge of the lively and enthusiastic village, not languishing on a dreary moor. While Menacing House appears extruded from the very stones of the earth themselves, Stokington Court has the proper and decent appearance of a domicile designed by men, for men. Menacing House is a feudal wreck, while Stokington Court is a very fine manor house. All of this means I hold Stokington Court in high regard, and would rather it be my house than that Gothic monstrosity four miles out on the heath.

Joseph MacDonald can be very stubborn and a bit of a coward. It is his worst flaw, and he does not respond well at all to bullying. In my experience it is better to decide things before he has a chance to think about them; once he has agreed to something, he will not go back on it, for fear of looking a poor sport. Keeping this in mind, I rapped smartly on the front door to Stokington Court with my walking stick. Momentarily, an aged butler opened the door.

"May I help you, good sir?" he inquired, with only the slightest touch of senility to his voice.

"Indeed my good man," I said in my most hearty voice. "Lord Stokington to see my friend Mr. Joseph MacDonald. Here you are," I continued, "hat, and redingote. Make yourself useful, there's a good fellow." Handing the specified articles to the butler, I strode into the foyer and began to ascend the stairs.

"B-but sir!" the butler protested. "Master MacDonald is not yet risen!"

"Good," I said cheerily. "I shall wake him."

The confused servant could barely hobble after me, and by the time he had mounted the stairs, I had located the bedchamber of my good friend, the Honorable Joseph MacDonald.

Throwing open the doors, I boomed in my very best things-are-going-to-go-my-way-and-there-is-absolutely-nothing-you-can-do-about-it voice, "Rise and shine, Joe! Day has broken!"

The vaguely inhuman creature beneath the sheets let out a groan like a death rattle, but otherwise made no move to rouse itself. Obviously, firmer measures were needed. I poked the supine figure with my walking stick. "Time to get up, Master MacDonald! Strong Drink is a mocker, as you are discovering, but that is no excuse to lie abed!"

Again the groaning mass under the bedcover made no move, so I jabbed it harder. This time Joe let out a startled yelp, and cried out, "Lay off, you demon!"

"Aye, demon indeed, and you are in Hell, young Joseph," I cried. "This demon's name is Rum, and see what happens if you cross me," and I jabbed him again with the stick.

At long last, he stuck his head from under the sheet. His bloodshot eyes suggested a man intimately familiar with the geography of Gin Lane. "Dennis?" he croaked disbelievingly.

"In the flesh," I said with the proper mixture of sternness and good cheer. "Now out of bed, get dressed, and we shall discuss over breakfast any number of outrageous pieces of mischief we are going to perpetrate."

And with that I strode from the room.

Twenty minutes later, Joe joined me in the morning room. I was already on my second cup of tea, having impressed on the old butler the absolute essentialness of strong Indian Darjeeling to the waking process. I must admit, Joe looked a damned sight better than he had the day before. His clothes lacked the strong stench of brandy and rum, and his hair and complexion seemed healthier and fuller of life. In addition, his sartorial choices suggested a man more in control of himself, more continent. Admittedly, with his tiny, pinhole-like eyes, upturned nose, and broad fleshy cheeks, he still maintained a somewhat porcine appearance, but at the least he was a well-dressed pig.

He quickly sat, and with some cajoling on my part, began to tuck in to the repast laid out for us by the servants. After we had filled our bellies somewhat, he spoke.

"Very well, Dennis, what is it now?"

"What is what?" I asked, carefully taking the appearance of bafflement.

"You're up to something, and no mistake," he said.

"I cannot visit an old friend whom I have not seen in seven years without some other motive?"

"No," said Joe bluntly. "You cannot."

I sighed. "As you wish. I am, as you have perhaps noticed, a bit of a rascal."

"You don't say," Joe said, a slightly sour grin on his face. "I believe I discovered that myriad times when some scheme or plan of yours blew up in our faces."

"A rapscallion, a cad, a bounder, even a bit of a...scoundrel," I said somewhat melodramatically. "And it is true, I've had fun in being so. But to tell you the truth, I am beginning to tire somewhat of such a life."


"Indeed. I feel the urge to root myself, to contribute to a community. In fact, for a brief insane time, I seriously contemplated taking holy orders."

Joe looked aghast. "But surely you would have been struck by lightning in the pulpit?! Or the church would have burned to the ground!"

I raised a hand in a reassuring fashion. "Fortunately for myself, the Church of England, and whatever poor benighted parish should have gotten me as a priest, I came to my senses. I realised that I was not suited to religious life. But the urge remained, a desire to better myself."

I paused to bite into a scone here, and Joe looked impatiently at me.

"Then I recalled the one person who always sought to improve me, whose moral advice I had disregarded for so long."

"The Widow Worth?" said Joe, puzzled.

"No," I said.

"Master Wilson?"

"No, guess again."

"The curate of the parish? The town constable?"

"No," I sighed.

"Your father?"

"Definitely not," I said firmly.

"Then who? You have me at a loss, Dennis."

"I am, of course, speaking of the Lady Margaret."

The look of horror that passed across Joe's face would have done any spectre proud. "No, that cannot be. You have always despised Margaret!"

"Despised her for her attempts to waken my own better nature, Joe! Can you not see how deluded I was? And now I find her father has died, leaving her in need of a strong right hand, a male presence to make her life less onerous, at precisely the same time I had my epiphany!"

"Well..." said Joe somewhat doubtfully.

"There can be no doubt in my mind that the Good Lord awoke such feelings in my breast at such a propitious time so that I might minister to Lady Margaret in her hour of need!" I said triumphantly, and polished off my cup of tea.

"Be that as it may, Dennis, what makes you believe she would look at all favorably upon your suit?"

"I think that as a lady of great refinement and discernment, she shall see in me the very qualities she needs in these difficult times. I intend to pay my respects to her this very afternoon, as a matter of fact, and with luck she shall come to view me most favorably."

"But," said Joe, quizzically, "I do not understand what role I play in all this."

"Truth be told, Joe, I have been away from Stokington for seven years. Much of what was once familiar is now strange, and much of what is new is unknown. I need your guidance. I need your help. You know this place, these people, better than anyone. You are the only one who can do it."

If you want someone to help you, it only makes sense to tell them they are the only ones who can. It flatters their sense of charity and makes them feel important. As I said the last few words, Joe visibly straightened and began to preen.

"Well, Dennis, I shall help you as best I can. What do you need?"

"Information, old friend," I said, and leaned in close. "Tell me everything."

And he did. Forewarned is forearmed, and when I call on Margaret I shall be very well armed indeed.

She will not know what hit her.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Inn

A chap needs a place to lay his head. This is a truth that none can deny, for a man who gets no sleep wastes away. My plans were not much in disarray due to my hasty exit from Menacing House, for I had not planned to visit that decrepit wreck at all. I had arrived on the poor man's private coach, the Royal Mail, earlier in the morning with the intention of attending Master Wilson's funeral, and then making a fast leg away. But the Lady Margaret, for all her dubious charms, had presented me with a golden opportunity to better myself. Now there is one thing that trumps a marquess, and that is a duke; admittedly, being married to a duchess does not make one a duke, but it is very nearly the same thing. With this in mind I decided to press my suit towards the Lady Margaret, which would require me to stay in Stokington. Therefore I needed some more permanent lodgings.

The long walk from Menacing House to Great Stokington gave me time to cool my head and abate the fury that the meeting with my father had aroused in me. I soon returned to my usual equanimity, and I even had a short chuckle as I approached the village.

The quaint hamlet glistened in the late afternoon sunlight, the rain having departed like a veil being lifted. It was a sight to gladden even the hardest heart, and I felt my spirits rise. Tomorrow is, after all, a new day, I thought. Why, perhaps this was the best thing. A clean break. A new start.

Having not intended to stay long in Stokington, I had left my meagre effects at the coachhouse. These I quickly gathered, and in the deepening gloom I made my way through the muddy streets to the local inn, the Duck and Deacon. Now of course I had no money, being dependent on my father for an allowance, so there was of course no chance of my renting a room. A word of advice at this point: never allow such things to discourage you. Be audacious, be bold, and you can do anything. It does not matter whether you are right or wrong, so long as you are definite.

With this in mind, I swept open the door and strode into the common room. A scene of raucous domesticity greeted me. Hens turned on spits above a broad hearth while dogs wrestled in a knotted, writhing heap. The wide wooden tables gleamed with a sheen of spilled beer, and in the air were the familiar tavern smells of alcohol, cooking meat, and sweat.

The usual crowd of farmers, artisans and laborers filled the room nearly to bursting, and the din was deafening. Here and there I saw the faces of the village's notables: Doctor Morgan, the Widow Worth, and Barrister Driver, the town clerk and solicitor. Only Driver met my eye, giving me a friendly nod. The Widow Worth merely glared at me; many a time I had shrugged off her meddlesome advice, usually to my benefit. Morgan was deep in conversation with his assistant Nicholas, perhaps too deep, if I am any judge of men.

But only one face I wished to see: that of Madame Cooper, the innkeeper. I found her quickly near the kitchen. A woman nearly as broad as she was tall, with a face as wizened as an old apple, she had run the inn for nearly as long as I had been alive, and her husband for as long before that. I came up behind her and gently tapped her on the shoulder. She turned, and with a startled shout, nearly launched a tray of buns into the rafters. "Lord Stokington, you nearly scared me half to death!"

"I do beg your pardon," I said with my best smile, "but when I spot a beautiful woman across a crowded room, I must make my way towards her, regardless of how many trays of buns I must upset."

"Oh, pooh, you rascal," she said, frowning, but a slight flush to her cheek suggested to me she was pleased. "You always were a silver-tongued flatterer."

"'Tis not flattery if it is true, madam, and as for tongues of silver, your majestic beauty and magnificent wisdom makes all such organs tarnished, leaving me flat-footed and slow-tongued," I said, and bowed deeply.

She tutted and smiled a little smile of embarrassment. "Now what brings you to the Duck an' Deacon, Lordship?"

"Would you believe me if I said the joys of your company?"

"No, I should bloody well not," she snorted with a laugh. "A rapscallion and a slippery Jim, that's you, Lordship. Iffen you told me the sun was up in the morning, I should check out the window afore I believed you."

"Well, then, let me say that I am here for the splendor of your ale," I said.

"That I shall believe," she said, and beckoned one of the serving girls towards us. The girl was a likely looking thing, with a pretty round face and a pretty round rump. "Fetch Lord Stokington a tankard of our finest, Mildred," said Madame Cooper. Mildred, the pretty serving girl, went to fetch the beer, granting me only a single backwards glance. Still, I have made do with much less.

"What brings you to Great Stokington, Lordship?" asked Madame Cooper. "I heard a rumor that you had a break with your father before you left for Oxford, so imagine my surprise, seeing you here."

"It is amazing what one hears, is it not?" I said, with a laugh. "No, I have returned to bury my old schoolmaster."

"Ah yes, the late Master Wilson. A tragedy, that."

"A man of a most gloomy and dreary countenance, but one who helped guide me to manhood, and to whom I owe a great debt. Tomorrow I must pay my respects to the Widow Wilson, and ensure her household is well arranged." I must do no such thing, but it sounded good.

'Oh, bless you, Lordship," said Madame Cooper. "I always knew you had a soft spot in your heart for Martha. Where is that girl?" she said, looking around in frustration. She gasped in startlement as Mildred popped up at her elbow. "Drat you girl, I should put a bell on you."

Handing me the tankard, she said, "Drink up, for Master Wilson."

"For Master Wilson," I murmured, and drank deeply. I quickly downed the thick brew, and smacked my lips in satisfaction. "That will put hair on your chest!"

"Aye, my thanks, Lordship."

"Now," I said, "I must make my way back to Menacing House, madam."

"Oh no," said Madame Cooper, aghast. "It is near four miles, it has fallen dark, and it has begun to rain again. Surely you cannot mean to walk back in the wet and the dark?"

"I must, Madame Cooper, for I have no lodgings in town."

"Then you must stay here for the night. My conscience won't permit me to let you go out in that weather. Stay. I insist."

"Well, if you insist," I said, with a grudging smile.


The bed in the room at the end of the hallway was barely wide enough to fit one person on it. Certainly two could not sleep side to side. Fortunately, Mildred and I found another way to fit on the bed.

See how easy that was?

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Book

The silken sound of the door sliding shut behind me was like a gunshot in the still of the library. A fire roared in the hearth, and on every side, firelight flickered off the leather spines of countless tomes. A high-backed chair crouched, toadlike, somehow shorter and squatter in the dim light, before the fire. The thick fug of cigar smoke stung my eyes and coarsened my throat, as I allowed my eyes to adjust to the gloom.

Then from the chair, came a voice from the past. “Back so soon?”

I said nothing.

“If I recall correctly, before you left you swore ‘that the hounds of hell themselves should not drag you back’, and that you intended to make your fortune far from this ‘stinking pile’, as you described it. Am I wrong?”

“You are not wrong,” I said, “and I shall.”

“Expelled?!” he roared, and for the first time my father roused himself from the chair, his tall lean form looming ferociously. “Expelled?!”

“Father, I can explain,” I began, but he would have none of it.

“And for what,” he continued, nearly shaking with fury, “for dueling? For some foolish schoolboy grudge?”

“’Twas not foolish, Father. My honor had been—“

“Your honor?” he snorted. “For seven hundred years this family has been the backbone of Devonshire, soldiers and barristers and priests, our honor built on the bedrock of decency and duty, and you boast of your honor? The honor of a brigand, a conniver and a thief?”

I felt my blood pound in my temples as rage swelled inside me. “How dare you, Father? I have never stolen a penny in my life, but I dare say if I had stolen entire counties I should be feted in every townhouse in London!”

A deafening silence descended. “So,” my father said in a poisonous whisper, “you think so little of your heritage? You think this family means nothing? All the years of sacrifice for king and country, all the deaths on the battlefield and on the ocean’s wave? You dare to equate them with your sordid little misdeeds?”

I willed myself towards quietude, but failed in the endeavour. “Sacrifice? Duty? How long has it been since a St. Michel rode at the head of an army? An hundred years? Two hundred?”

My father strode towards me, his face flushed with anger. “Why must you denigrate the past?” he bellowed.

I gave the only response I could: an honest one. “Why are you so content to live there?”

“You do not understand how hard our family has struggled to rise to our current position, Dennis.”

“I understand that you nearly never leave this house, or this room. You spend your whole life confined with old portraits and books!”

The weight of literature around me suddenly became oppressive, as if every book on the shelves had collapsed down upon me. Had I ever seen my father without a book? How could a man be such a slave to letters?

My father said angrily, “This house, these stones, they are our very being. This is Menacing House, not some country hovel, can’t you see that?”

I picked up a century-old volume of de Terzi, its leather cover pitted with age and time. “These books, these walls, they are not all we are. There is more to life than this!”

“You know nothing of life!”

“I know that it must be lived, if it is to have any value,” I said furiously. “And I intend to live it, all the same to you, sirrah.”

“Oh,” my father said in mock surprise, “it is ‘sirrah’ now, is it? With no education, no money, no connexions, and yet you’ll live life?”

“I shall find a way,” I said, rashly.

Looking at me with hard, cold eyes, my father sneered. “No doubt. As you have always done so, I suppose, through lies, deceit, and brigandage, you common, ugsome thief.”

“How dare you call me a thief,” I screamed in fury. “Here’s for your books, you bloody whoreson!” and I cast the de Terzi into the fire.

“No!” my father cried, and scrambled for the precious volume, but it was too late; the ancient vellum crackled madly on the hearth.

“You rank blackguard,” my father said, crouched over the fire with tears streaming down his pocked cheeks. “Get out, damn you, get out!”

“You could not keep me a moment longer,” said I, and I threw open the door and strode out.

From the dim inferno of my father’s library to the cool clear rain of the moors in a twinkling, and I angrily strode along the cracked avenue that led to the lane. A flock of sheep made its way across the avenue, grazing on the sodden grass that sprouted from between the broad flagstones, and as one ambled across my path, I gave it a frustrated kick.

How dare he call me a thief?! How dare he! I shan’t return to Menacing House; this time, I mean it. Let my feet take me where they will; if I do not meet with agreeable things, I shall at least meet with something new.

Beware, world, for here comes Dennis St. Michel.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Manor

Menacing House! O thou monstrous edifice, a testament to man’s vanity, greed, and arrogance! The ancient seat of the St. Michels loomed before me, its slate and granite mossy and damp, its gargoyles leering insolently out over the heath. Behind me, Margaret’s coach slowly trundled off. For a brief, fleeting instant, I contemplated calling after it, to take me away from this most hated of places. As much as I detested Margaret, my skin crawled as I considered entering that mighty hovel.

At last, I made my way up the cracked, potholed avenue leading to the narrow, cramped vestibule. I paused upon the lintel, my very feet loath to cross into those decaying halls. But duty cannot be denied. With a great feeling of unease, I entered. My unease only increased as I passed beneath the disapproving eyes of the long generations of my forebears, whose portraiture lined the great hall.

What nonsense is this, I thought with mad bravado. What fear? What shame? I am Dennis St. Michel! But even as I made plans for the appeasement of my father, the dread settled into my very marrow. Perhaps, if I told him that I intended to make an honest man of myself, to make an honest woman of Margaret, he might be lenient on the matter of Oxford. For, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a scoundrel not in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

But I knew in my breast that this would not pass. My father, Henry, Marquess of Forth and Stoke, latest of a long line of nobility stretching back to the Conquest, has never seen me as anything other than a wastrel and layabout, despite my efforts to dissuade this. Eton, Oxford, nothing is ever good enough for him. Well, to the devil with that! I shall make my own way in the world, Oxford or no Oxford.

Finally I reached my father’s most inner sanctum: the Library, a rarefied and dignified place in which I had never felt quite at home. The occasion I defaced the portrait of the King in the schoolhouse, the time I pelted Lady Margaret with soft apples, the occasion I tricked Joseph MacDonald into jumping in the cesspit; all the childhood transgressions had terminated here, with the stern, disappointing voice of my father.

Well no more! I shall accept no more the lashings of St. Michel pere! On the Continent and in the colonies, revolutions have sprung up, a new age is dawning, and my father’s ancient manners and decayed regime is dying, dying, dead. Who is to say that the coming age may not be one in which an enterprising, honest scoundrel might make off very well indeed?

My hand is on the door now. Whatever my father should harry me with, I shall endure it and prevail. It is a new era, an era for the knave and the villain and the rake. It is my era!

I open the door.

Time to meet the new regime, Father.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Lady

Having made my escape from the funerary rites of the late Master Wilson, I hurried along the muddy High Road towards Great Stokington, hoping to acquire a brandy or scotch there. The weather was most poor, an unceasing downpour that seemed to mock the very concept of solid ground as it turned every inch of the moors into a morass of mud. I cursed myself for a fool for failing to bring a horse, but that would have required first returning to Menacing House, and there I did not wish to return. The oneiric visage of that ancient pile of stone still lingers in my memory, driving me far afield, and upon my departure for Oxford I had sworn a holy oath I should not return. But perhaps the Lord Almighty has other plans.

Last night I dreamt I went to Menacing House again.

Dream-plagued and nightmare-ridden, I became lost in thought. The world became a grey-silver haze of sleeting rain. My absent-mindedness resulted in my not noticing the carriage until it was almost upon me. Cursing a round oath, I leapt aside as the great black chargers churned up the mud, their hooves skidding in the slick. The whole contraption shuddered to a stop some distance before me, the ramshackle wood and aged leather straining to contain the force of the mighty beasts that towed it. Rightly enraged, I bellowed an insult of epic proportions towards the driver. As I did so, the window-covering was delicately opened, and a high-pitched grating voice emanated from the vehicle. "John, why on earth have we stopped?"

Oh no, I thought. God no, not her.

The greatcoat-encased liveryman, his face invisible, called back, "Nearly ran down some poor bloke in 'e road, Ladyship."

"Well, flip him a farthing and let us be on our way," the coach's occupant said dismissively. I felt my hackles raise, for while I can stand to be nearly murdered in the road by a careless driver, I can't stand being patronized, particularly by her.

"Keep your damned farthing--I can't change it," I said with a snarl.

"Why you ins'lent wretch," said the driver, "D'you know whose coach this be?"

"Better than you, you knavish twice-a-day," I said. Whatever response the driver might have made was interrupted when the lady in the carriage called out, "John, what is the delay?"

At this she stuck her head out the window, if I may be so indelicate, and I saw her again. Seven years! Seven years gone and still I recognised the horse-faced bitch. The high whinnying voice, the flaming red hair the color of a carrot, the snobbishly upturned nose. My one-time playmate, the Lady Margaret.

"Dennis?" she said, her voice cracking with excitement. "John, why did not you say it was the Viscount?" She beckoned to me. "Dennis, come here a moment."

I should rather face a firing squad than speak with her, but duty obliges. I made my way through the sticky mire to her coach. "Why, Ladyship, I should have thought you'd forgotten me by now."

She tittered, hiding her mouth behind her hand, and I hid my grimace behind a polite smile. "Oh Dennis, how could I ever forget you, you dear boy! And stand up straight, you slouch like a vagabond."

Oh Lord, it begins.

She opened the door and beckoned me inside. "For heaven's sake, Dennis, come in out of the rain." I grudgingly clambered in. "You shouldn't be out in the mud and wet," she lectured. I glowered. I like the mud and wet.

"On your way back from Master Wilson's funeral, no doubt," Margaret said.

"Aye," I said, "The widow Wilson was quite distraught."

"She shall recover," said Margaret carelessly. "Husbands come and go, after all."

"Well yes, that is true, the life of a man is short," I said, and then could not help driving in the knife, "But I am surprised you recognise that, Ladyship, have never married, if I am not mistaken?"

Her glare could have burned through the finest steel, but she kept her mouth blessedly shut.

I waved my hand carelessly through the air. "And you being, what, nearly twenty-two? Practically a spinster. Of course, 'tis not your fault. Men are simply intimidated by your charm, I imagine."

Margaret scowled at me, then said, "You are going back to Menacing House?"

"No, actually I was--"

"To Menacing House, John," Margaret said as she leaned out the carriage window, and I felt the horses lean into their tracings and we were off.

Damn. Menacing House after all.

The window-covering fell shut, and as it did, Margaret let out a long sigh. Suddenly she looked both much older and much younger than her twenty-one years. I felt almost sorry for her. "No one will have me," she said softly. "I am too old."

I did not know what to say to this. It was easier when she was being obnoxious. "And now," she said, "my father has died at Tournay, and I am to manage the whole duchy with only my mother to help."

"I...did not know your father had died."

"A cannonball decapitated him. It was horrid, we could not even see the body."

"My condolences. He was a good man. I liked him."

"Did you? He hated you. He called you any number of rude names."

"He didn't know the real me," I said gallantly. "Many people despise me upon first meeting, only to consider me their bosom chum a year later."

Margaret sighed. "I miss him. But at least Mother and I shall be taken care of. He has left us fifty thousand pounds a year."

I nearly hit the ceiling of the carriage, so shocked was I. Fifty thousand pounds a year?! A fortune. Ten fortunes!

"Margaret, let me apologise for those crude and impolite things I said earlier. Your driver put quite a fright into me," I said in my most sincere voice, "And had I known you suffered such a loss, of course I should have thought to hold my tongue. Please accept my apology."

Her eyes welled with tears. I carefully held her gaze, staring into those widely-set, squinty eyes, as I offered her my handkerchief. She blew her nose with a loud blatting noise. "Oh Dennis," she said weepily, "thank you so much for understanding. It has been such a trial."

"Of course, my dear. Margaret," I said hesitantly, "Would it be fine if I were to hold your hand?"

She smiled at me through her sobs. "O-of course, Dennis. Of course."

And so we held hands, sharing our grief, united in the loss of her father and the gain of fifty thousand pounds.

Things were looking up.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Funeral

Master Wilson was dead to begin with. That poor sot. Oh the hell I had given him over the years! Only his death could draw me back to Stokington, only his death could set me free of that horrid place. In my youth I had been quite the hellion, and Master Wilson, the Royal Mail Inspector and Schoolmaster, had been the poor soul I had tormented. I had considered myself a reformed man, but many a reformed character may relapse, and indeed my return to Menacing House had been under a cloud of ill-repute, for I had just been expelled from Oxford.

It was the work of that bloody bastard Hobbes, the upstart son of some third-rate clerk with no name, that I was so forcibly ejected from the hallowed grounds of Magdalen College. And for what? For dueling?! Damn them, I shall have justice. How dare they lay their hands upon a personage such as myself! And that...boy, Hobbes, with him I have unfinished business. Cal, his friends call him, as though he were a common dog. We had not even crossed swords when the porters burst in upon us. My second, the Right Honorable William Keane, fled, the cowardly wretch. Hobbes, who had not even bothered to bring a second, hurriedly tossed aside his blade, flinging it into the ferns that ring the Meadow. Being a gentleman, I held fast to my own rapier. Hobbes, a man barely more than a peasant, could perhaps be excused for treating his weapon so shamelessly, but the son of the Marquess of Stoke knows the importance of proper swordsmanship. I do not know who betrayed us that day, although I suspect the Dutchman van Pelt. He had always blamed me for the ruin of his sister, but a girl like that cannot be ruined, for she had already ruined herself.

And so I, Dennis St. Michel, Viscount of Stokington, returned to Menacing House in disgrace, only to find the hapless Master Wilson had finally returned to ashes and dust.

They buried him in the rain, which I found to be somewhat appropriate, for he had always put forth a gloomy facade. The droplets sleeted down my redingote as the Widow Wilson, called Martha to those close to her, clung to me and wept.

"Oh, young Dennis, he has gone to a better place, but what of us here and now?" she sobbed.

I hate crying women.

I made some comforting noises, and eventually fobbed her off on some of her relatives. My nerves were somewhat shaken--why can women not be more like men? One never sees men break down and weep at a funeral. I needed a brandy.

I was just making to leave when I felt a hand upon my shoulder. "Dennis, it's been too long."
I forced a smile upon my face. "Hello, Joe," I said. I could tell by his voice old Joey was drunk. Perhaps I would forgo that brandy. I turned to face him. Time had not treated him well. His cherubic face, so beautiful as a boy, had now, at nineteen, turned to a softly pink grotesquerie. His black hair was greasy and lank, and the ripe stench of the most basest spirits assaulted my nose, rising from his dandified garments.

Plus, he was as bent as an old nail.

"You're a good fellow," he slurred. "A damned fine fellow." He was getting a trifle loud, and I saw faces turned our way. Now there is a time and a place for crapulence, but the funeral of our old schoolmaster was not it. "Easy, Joe," I said, "You don't wish to do anything you shall regret."

He sighed drunkenly. "Always looking out for me. Good old Dennis." He leaned in close, his foul breath assailing my face. "You always were my favorite, you know," he said, and brushed his hand against my cheek.

"Remove your hand, you sodomite," I said very coldly, "or I shall remove it for you." Joseph MacDonald is by all means a fine fellow and one of my oldest chums, but I'll be damned if he'll pass at me in a public place.

Thankfully, salvation arrived in the very convenient form of my mother. "Dennis, I have been hunting everywhere for you," she said, charging at me like a battleship. "Word has come from Oxford--expelled?! Your father is livid with rage, I--"

"Mother, how incredibly splendid of you to arrive," I cried, nearly beside myself with jubilation. On any other day I should expect a tongue-lashing but not today! "Here you are," I said, heaving Joe off my shoulder and onto my mother's. "Of course you remember the Honourable Joseph MacDonald?"

Obligingly, Joe said, "Plzz to make yr acq'ntance, Ladyship. What a lovely dress you have," and then vomited all over a headstone. My mother stared at the reeking mess in shock as Joe clung to her.

"Must be going now Mother," I said gaily. "Have other people to talk to, you know. Have a good time with Joseph," and I quickly strode away.

Check and mate, Mother.