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 nature...it 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.
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.