Flossy turned out to be much amenable to being returned to Joseph, so once in the saddle I piloted her towards Stokington Court. The village seemed more welcoming than it had since my arrival; a weight of money in one's pocket and the promise of a well-warmed bed can do that to a man. Even the dull tones of Flossy's hooves upon the cobbles were music to my ears. Soon we reached the Court, and I found a most obsequious groom waiting for me there. The decrepit butler ushered me into the parlor, where I found Joseph engrossed in what appeared to be stitchery.
With a broad grin he looked up and brandished the cloth in his hands. "This new design I am making shall be the talk of Londontown this season," he crowed. "No other gentleman shall have a waistcoat half as fine!"
Now this was just pathetic.
Obviously, poor Joseph, under the influence of his henpecked father, had while I was away lost that urge to create mischief that I had spent years instilling in him. When I encountered him first in the cemetery, I had hoped that his dishevelment was an indication of some increased sense of the frailty of life, and that I was witnessing the birth of some new, devil-may-care Joe MacDonald. Alas, it seemed it was not to be.
It is one thing to enjoy fine clothes. I know many a strapping fellow who delights in a well-turned pair of breeches or a particularly fine cravat. Indeed, I myself have been known to play the jack-a-dandy, especially when some young petticoat is the prize. But there is a world of difference between appreciating garmentry, and a pallor-making obsession, doubly so when said obsession keeps one from adventuring.
With this in mind, I added a new entry to the private list of objectives I had been keeping since arriving in Stokington. Right after the entry reading "Plow Mademoiselle Margot Magee," I added "Revive Joseph MacDonald's Spirit."
"How did you find Flossy? I trust she is well?" asked Joseph anxiously.
"Oh quite well," I said easily. "I think the trot did her good. You should take her out more. 'Tis fine country for riding."
"Good, good," Joseph said with relief. "No broken legs then?"
"No, but very nearly a broken back," I said.
Aghast, he cried, "What?"
"You needn't worry, the only back injured was my own," I said, and gave him an abridged version of the previous night's revels.
"Oh, Dennis, I told you to be careful! That Brutus, I hear he is the devil himself. Why I heard he once knifed a man for offering him a spinach salad instead of steak! Can you imagine?"
"Unfortunately, after meeting the man I can. Although I must admit my interest has been piqued by the mysterious Mister Walker."
"Some damnable raconteur, no doubt," said Joseph dismissively.
"My dear Joseph, need I remind you that I am a damnable raconteur?" I asked lightly.
"Will you have dinner with me tonight, Dennis? I am near sick to death for lack of company, and I think I could perhaps use a damnable raconteur."
"Sorry, Joseph old fellow, but I have a prior engagement. Perhaps tomorrow? If your father is in the village, the three of us could trade stories over watercress Earl of Sandwichs and tea."
Joseph heaved a huge sigh. "Alas," he said bitterly, "tomorrow the fox hunt rides and my father rides with them."
The fox hunt! O happy day! I had not been on a fox hunt in nearly five years, and I immediately espied an opportunity to both slake my desire for the sport and perhaps draw old Joe out of his shell.
"Even better," I said. "You and I shall track the wily Renard to ground as well!"
"Oh Dennis," Joseph groaned. "I cannot stand the fox hunt. The poor fellow! Let him be, I say."
"He and I are kindred spirits, but it is hunt or be hunted, and I dare say I should never be caught, so it must be him. Besides," I said cunningly, "imagine the fine ruff you could add to your waistcoat from the sly one's tail?"
Joseph frowned uneasily, but I could see the temptation roiling in him. "Very well," he at last relented. "We shall ride."
"May I ask who runs the hunt?" I asked.
"Formally, it is the Lord Mayor of Great Stokington, but on this occasion he has seen fit to extend mastery to that Spaniard, the Duke of Marma."
"Who raises the mastiffs?"
"The very same."
"Well then, have your man over to the Duke of Marma's and get us some horses, and we shall have a merry run, in my case the unbeatable in full pursuit of the uneatable." I stood. "Good day to you sir, I must call upon the Duck and Deacon for my effects."
"Oh?" said Joseph, as he escorted me out. "You have returned to Menacing House?"
"Far from it," I snorted. "The fine Professor Papagoras has invited me to be his houseguest."
"Well, that is splendid," Joe said, and we reached the foyer.
"Good day to you, Joe," I said, and left.
My schedule was fair full: coney-catching at Doctor Morgan's in the evening and fox-catching at the Duke of Marma's the following morning.
The hunt was on!
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.