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.
"No, guess again."
"The curate of the parish? The town constable?"
"No," I sighed.
"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.
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.