I dare say Joseph was an absolute mine of information, but declined my invitation to accompany me to Lady Margaret's house in Least Stokington. Newly armed with word of the recent vicissitudes of the Dukes of Devon, I decided to attend to a few errands in Great Stokington before making my play in Least Stokington. A quick stop at the village florist's, the chocolatier's, and an old antique store, and I was as well armed with suitable trinkets for Lady Margaret and her mother as I was with precious information obtained from Joe. The shopkeepers were more than willing to lend to me on credit; sometimes it is a marvelous thing to be a St. Michel.
Now, Least Stokington is a mile west of Great Stokington. Both sit upon the River Forth (which, Dear Reader, is not to be confused with the River Forth of Scotland, for that is a fairly broad body of water, whilst our River Forth is scarcely more than a jumped-up stream), but Great Stokington is closer to the Channel, and as such receives the bulk of the up-river trade. Hence the names--Great Stokington is the larger of the two villages. Roughly two miles south lies the hamlet of Little Stoke; barely a place where two paths cross, it is there that the Honorable Joseph MacDonald's father is the Lord Mayor. As I had no horse, I was forced to walk, but a single mile is hardly something of which to complain, and indeed the walk was most agreeable. The rains had left the heath verdant and lively, and the air was redolent with the smells of flowers. Birdsong surrounded me on every side, and I felt the happiest man in the world.
After about half an hour, I arrived at Least Stokington. Lady Margaret's house there has no proper name; it is in many respects the least and most shabby of her domiciles. Her ducal seat lies elsewhere--of course, she takes her duchessal seat where-ever she goes. The house in Least Stokington is a townhouse, not some grand palatial manor, and my first reaction upon seeing it again was that I did not like it. It was run-down, and showed every sign of neglect. Far be it for me to lecture others on the proper etiquette, but it feels somehow disrespectful to Stokington for her to treat her home here in this fashion.
Package under my arm, I smartly rapped on the door, and waited until a liveried butler answered. Unlike Joseph's senile old fool, I recognised immediately there would be no outwitting this stern fellow. I raised my hat, and said with my most winning smile, "Good day, sir. Dennis St. Michel, the Viscount of Stokington, here to pay my respects to the Dowager Duchess of Devon on the untimely passing of her husband, the Duke." Sometimes it pays tenfold to be particularly formal in these situations.
Seeing he could find no fault with my phraseology, the butler snorted, and said, "Come in."
He left me to wait momentarily in the foyer, and I surveyed the place. The aura of decrepitude I perceived from the exterior was somewhat less pronounced inside, but still I was a trifle offended. It was not right she should disrespect the town and county that had given her so much in her youth.
The butler returned, and with an ill-concealed glance of contempt, escorted me into the parlor. The first impression I had was of overwhelming pink: pink silk curtains, pink papered walls, a pink sopha, indeed even a table of the pinkest cherry wood. After a few moments I felt as though I were in an intestine.
The Dowager Duchess, who is Margaret's mother, was seated on the sopha. Perhaps once she had been handsome, but the years had taken their toll on her long face and she now resembled nothing so much as an old she-goat. The slight growth of beard did little to dispel the likeness.
"The Viscount of Stokington," the butler stiffly announced, and then made his departure. The Duchess rose and curtsied, which I returned with a most proper bow.
"Young Dennis," said the Duchess, with a rather stiff smile. "Thank you for taking the time to visit us. We are honored by your presence."
"On the contrary," I said earnestly, "the honor is solely mine. I would be entirely remiss should I fail to pay my respects to the survivors of a truly great man."
"Hush, Dennis," she said firmly. "Your roguish 'charm' will get you nowhere here."
"Madam, with all the respect that is due to you, I fear you have misread me greatly. While it is true your husband and I had the occasional disagreement, I must confess I felt great respect and gratitude towards the Duke. Perhaps not fondness or affection, but respect and gratitude nonetheless."
"Gratitude? Whatever for?"
"While it is a commonplace that amongst my generation there is naught but debauchery and contempt for the past, there are still those who recall your husband's heroism at the Battle of Plassey, your Grace."
She stared at me, agape, momentarily at a loss for words. "Why, young Dennis, I had no idea you were aware of my husband's early career. It has been entirely overshadowed by his years in Parliament."
"Indeed, your Grace, not merely aware, but deeply filled with feelings of awe. He opened India, madam. For that I am eternally grateful," I said, and here I gave a roguish grin, "because where else shall I get my Darjeeling?"
"Oh you," she said stiffly, but I sensed her warming to me. "Speaking of tea, would you care to join my daughter and me, your Lordship?"
"I would be honored."
In mere moments, the most able servant I have seen in my twenty years laid a fine table for us on the veranda.
"I must compliment you on your servants, your Grace," I said. "They are exceedingly well-mannered."
From inside the house came a commotion. "That plate is not nearly clean," hectored a shrill, ear-piercing voice. "Take it back and clean it again, you idiot girl!"
"My daughter," said the Duchess, and Margaret strode onto the veranda.
Her eyes lit up as she saw me, but her irritating voice was correct in every manner. "Lord Stokington, what a pleasure to have you in our home."
"The pleasure is all mine, I assure you, your Grace. The opportunity to have tea with two such beautiful and shrewd young ladies does not often present itself."
At this, the Duchess tutted and fanned herself, contriving to look mildly scandalised. I stood quickly and pulled out a chair for Lady Margaret.
"Her Grace the Dowager Duchess was just telling me something of your father's exploits in India, your Grace."
"Hmm?" said the Duchess, "I beg pardon, your Lordship, but what was that, precisely?"
"You were telling me how criminally under appreciated the Duke's service abroad has been," I said, and dropped a wink to Lady Margaret, who tittered.
The Duchess sniffed. "You'd best watch this one, he has too much of the gaming parlor of him."
Ignoring this blatant insult, I smiled as the tea girl arrived, balancing a tray on one hand while carrying a kettle in the other. "Ah, excellent, the tea has arriv--"
"No, you ignorant cow," shouted Margaret. "I specifically said the blue china print teapot."
"B-but your Grace," the tea girl stammered, "the blue china print, you used her last evening, she's dirty."
"I do not care. Clean it and fetch it at once."
The tea girl stood there for a moment, until Margaret shouted, "I said, at once!" at which she bolted from the veranda.
"The help in this village are completely incompetent," Margaret said imperiously. "London is superior to the country in every respect."
"Begging your Grace's pardon, not in every respect," I said. "The flowers here are quite the best in the world." From my package I produced a bouquet of wildflowers. "These are for you, your Grace."
Margaret smiled in delight, and took the flowers. "They are beautiful, Dennis."
"I trust I am not being too forward."
"Not at all," Margaret gushed, while her mother frowned.
"Put those in water, they will last longer," I said with a smile. "Perhaps long enough for you to take some of Stokington back to London with you."
"That would be marvelous," she said.
"The superiority of our foliage aside, I do trust that you both are finding adequate amusements here in Devon," I said to the Duchess.
"Fair enough," she said grudgingly, but Margaret quickly chimed in with, "Fair enough, indeed most fair, for while the country lacks London's refinements, there are entertainments enough if one looks for them. Why, just tomorrow night there is to be a ball at Captain John Brutus's country home, and dearest Mama here has found any number of her precious antique spoons."
"Aye, yes, she collects them. A silly affectation, if you ask me."
"No one did," said the Duchess, looking rather offended.
"Silly and foolish," Margaret pronounced definitively.
"I must respectfully disagree, Lady Margaret," I said, and both women looked at me, startled.
"Oh yes," I said airily. "I dabbled a bit in spoon-collecting in my youth. Nothing of great seriousness, for I lacked the passion of the true collector. But still, I have nothing but the most sincere appreciation for--in fact," I said, "I just recalled--"
"Oh what is it, your Lordship?" said the Duchess with bated breath.
"I was passing by an antique shop in Great Stokington when I happened to spy in the window--well, it would be simpler to show you," and with this, I reached into my package and pulled forth a trio of pewter spoons, engraved with the names of the Georges. "Coronation spoons, I believe."
The Duchess gasped in delight. "A complete set, too! Oh how marvelous, Lord Stokington! What a fortuitous find!"
"You are quite correct, your Grace, but tragically the ardor for spoons has cooled somewhat in my breast and I...the thought occurs, your Grace."
"Yes?" the Duchess said eagerly.
"Would you care for these spoons? I feel you shall enjoy them far more than I."
"Oh, Lord Stokington, I could not possibly..."
"I insist, your Grace."
It did not take much more prodding from me for her to accept the spoons, and after that she was far more affectionate and favorable towards me. The rest of the afternoon passed relatively sedately, although I confess the constant talk of spoons soon grew tedious in the extreme. I did, however, notice that the higher I rose in the esteem of the Dowager, the lower I seemed to fall in Margaret's. This would not do.
Soon, the tea was finished, and I said my farewell to the Dowager, who barely spared me a glance as she examined the newly-acquired spoons. I quietly asked Margaret if she would escort me to the door.
In the foyer we paused.
"Very clever, with your spoons," she said. "She'll dote on you now."
"A politic gift, I admit, but nothing more," I said. "I came to see you, not your mother."
"Me?" she said, attempting disbelief but achieving haughty satisfaction.
"Indeed, for since our meeting in the carriage, you have not been far from my thoughts. If I may be so bold, your Grace?"
"By all means, be so," she said, unable to contain her eagerness.
"Very well. I find myself...smitten with your Ladyship," and even for me the sheer enormity of the lie caused it to pause on my tongue, but the ill-concealed squeal she emitted indicated she had not noticed. "The flowers were in honor of your late father, but these are in honor of you."
From inside my package, I produced the last item, a box of finest French chocolates. "Please accept them as a gift from me."
Margaret's eyes were very large and I could not help but notice the glutton's twinkle present in them as I placed the box in her hands.
"Thank you, Dennis," she said. "I mean that most sincerely."
"You are most welcome." I opened the door to leave, and then turned to her again. "Captain Brutus's party?"
"Yes?" she said hopefully.
"Shall you be there?" I asked, and when she nodded her assent, I said, "Then so shall I. Good day to you, your Grace." And I took my leave.
A most productive afternoon, in my opinion. All I need do to win Lady Margaret's hand is be good. I think I could be a good man if I had fifty thousand a year.
And tomorrow night, I shall dance.
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.