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, since...you 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.
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.