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."
"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.
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.