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.
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.