“You look like hell.” Professor Papagoras tutted over me as he held the door open. I had taken the trouble to put on my shirt and shoes during the walk back across the moors, but still held my coat and waistcoat tucked under my arm. “What have you been up to, eh?” the Professor asked, chuckling.
“My doctor prescribed a brisk run in the country,” I said austerely. The warmth of the entryway to the townhouse was a pleasant change from the chilly morning air, and I resolved to get some food in me as quickly as possible.
“Oh,” said the Professor, “a young fellow stopped by for you, not half an hour ago. He said to tell you the running of the hounds would be at nine on the dot.”
“Nine?!” I cried, and hurriedly looked at the clock. “Why, ‘tis already half past eight!”
I rushed up the stairs, and with all due haste dressed in riding clothes and made a desperate attempt to look presentable. This would never do, I looked a sight, but needs must, and so I dashed from the Professor’s in the hopes of catching Joseph before he left Stokington Court.
It seems I am forever running from place to place, but I would not pass up a chance to run the fox for all the world.
At last I arrived at Joseph’s, and not a moment too soon, for he was pacing in front of the manse with a pair of fine stallions tied and ready to ride.
“Where the devil have you been?” he cried on catching sight of me. “We shall be late!”
“To the deuce with being late, get me on a horse, man!” I said, and swung myself into the saddle of a fine looking roan. The horse sidestepped, and Joseph leapt forward to untie the reins. Both mounted now, we spurred the horses into a gallop and made haste to the Duke of Marma’s.
Now this Duke kept a most exquisite estate, especially for being not only a foreigner but a Spaniard. We galloped up the main thoroughfare with mere minutes to spare, and found ourselves in the company of the rest of the hunt. Pulling the horses to a stop, we dismounted, and Joseph led me through the crowd of sportsmen. We soon came upon the Mayor of Great Stokington, a man of some years and stoutness.
“Milord Mayor, of course you remember Dennis, the Viscount of Stokington,” Joseph said by way of introduction. I bowed, and doffed my hat.
“Of course, of course,” the Mayor harrumphed. “Splendid, splendid. You arrived just in time, we were beginning to commence.”
“But where is the Duke of Marma?” I asked. “For I was most looking forward to making his acquaintance.”
“Under the weather, under the weather, the poor chap,” said the Mayor.
“Nothing serious, I hope,” I said.
“No, no, just too much of that Spanish food, if you ask me. Heathenish stuff. Uses chillys, whatever those are.”
“I do believe you mean ‘chiles,’ Mayor,” I said.
The Mayor stared at me blankly, then turned to the assembled party. “Right then, since there are sixteen of us, we shall hunt in teams of four.”
I was handed a gun and shot, and met with my teammates. Joseph was on my team, of course, and also a doughty military fellow, and best of all, a fine looking woman all in scarlet. A scarlet woman, indeed!
“Ah, Dennis, allow me to introduce Major Anthony Caine and Mrs. Maureen Llwynog of Cardiff,” said the Mayor.
“A pleasure,” said Major Caine, and bowed. Mrs. Llwynog, to my surprise, shook hands.
“Is that how they do things in Wales?” I asked her with a smile.
“That is how they do them, your Honor,” she said coquettishly.
As we walked back to our horses, Joseph muttered, “For God’s sake, keep your eye on the fox.”
“Indeed I shall,” I said, watching the pert bounce of Mrs. Llwynog’s rump as she walked toward her own horse.
“You know what I mean,” said Joseph irritably. We mounted, and the hunt began. We were set with a rather wily-looking auld master of the hounds, and his pack of fine curs, and he began to lead us on a goodly chase.
We saw neither hide nor hair of Reynard during the first two hours, until the Master of Hounds called a brief halt. In the distance we could hear the halloo of the other hunters and the call of their horns.
“Sounds like they’re having a merry run, Major Caine,” I said to the tall, sad-looking soldier.
“Please, call me Tom. Everyone does. Everyone save me wife, that is,” he said.
“Very well, Major Tom,” I said. “And from where in England do you hail?”
“Upper Canada, actually.”
“Ah! The New World, how damnably clever.”
“Yes, I serve under Lieutenant-Governor Semcoe. My wife is there now.”
“Does this wife of yours have a name, or must I be forced to refer to her as Major Tom’s Wife in conversation?” I asked, jokingly.
“The Lizard, least that’s what I call her. Frightful woman. Just like her mother.”
“Ah well,” I said, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
“That Mrs. Llwynog, there’s a woman I wouldna mind getting closer to,” he said, grinning lasciviously, which did not quite work on his mustachioed face.
“But did you notice she’s Mrs. Llwynog?” I asked, and cocked an eyebrow.
“No hazard, lad; I hear her husband caught a musketball in Holland. Look at that bosom,” he sighed. “She’s ready for a right tupping, that one.”
As if overhearing our conversation, even though she was some distance away, the lovely, and indeed as Major Tom put it, quite bosomy Mrs. Llwynog turned in our direction. I tipped my hat, and a wink, towards her. Seeing this, she smiled in return.
“Oh, she likes you,” Major Tom said bitterly. “Never fails. I see a lassie I like, and some other man-jack steals her away.”
“What kind of a military man are you, Caine?” I asked, and snorted. “Give up at the first sign of opposition much? Thank God you’re in Canada and not in Belgium. Besides, you must have some charm. You caught that Lizardy wife of yours, didn’t you?”
“Aye, and much good it’s done me,” he said gloomily, but before he could say more, a great baying went up among the hounds.
“They’ve caught the scent, sirs!” cried the Master, and the dogs bolted into the woods in pursuit of their quarry. The five of us followed swiftly.
Now, I am no mean horseman, so it was no surprise to me that I soon took the lead in front of my fellows, but I was quite agape when I saw that riding beside me and keeping pace was none other than Mrs. Llwynog. She flashed a toothy grin at me and spurred her mare forward.
“Oh no, Madame,” I cried, “The fox is mine.”
“We shall see, your Honor,” she called back.
Soon we came upon the dogs clustered in a tight knot, around a hedgerow at the bottom of the hill. “T’scent’s confused, lordships,” panted the Master of Hounds as he returned to us after investigating.
“By God, I hope the fox has not gone beyond that stile,” said Joseph, pointing. “’Tis all fen in there.”
Silently I agreed. A horse could be crippled or even killed on ground like that. “If the fox is indeed in the marsh, I recommend we leave off and wait for him to emerge,” I said.
Mrs. Llwynog looked at me with disdain. “Where’s your sense of adventure, lads? I dare say I shan’t look at a man who won’t risk a horse or a thousand pounds for a good thrill.”
“Madame,” I said sternly. “I am many things, and a chancer is one of them, but I will not kill a good horse for ten pounds of foxflesh.”
“Fine,” she sniffed. “You looked to be the poorer, commoner sort of aristocrat anyway.”
The Major stirred in his saddle, and looked uncomfortable, but whatever words he would have spoken died on his lips when the Master of Hounds cried, “There he goes!” and sure enough, the dogs swarmed through a gap in the row after a scarlet blur.
Major Tom looked at me, then at Mrs. Llwynog, then at me again. Apparently, he made up his mind, for defiantly he said to me, “’Kill a horse’? Cowardice.”
He spurred his horse forward down the hill.
“Hold Tom,” I cried. “Don’t do it, man! The ground’s too rough!”
“I shall do as I like, and no one shall tell me otherwise!” he called back without looking.
“A brave man,” cried Mrs. Llwynog, gaily. “Tally-ho, Major, tally-ho!”
“A damned fool, is what he is,” I said angrily, and turned on her, “the same as you.”
I spurred my own horse to a gallop after him. For all my skill I could not beat him to the hedgerow, and by the time I and the roan jumped it, he had vanished into the misty fen. Now as I said, I am many things, but I am no fool, so I slowed the roan to a walk.
I could no longer see Mrs. Llwynog, Joseph, and the Master of Hounds on the hilltop. The bog was shrouded with mist, and seemingly from all around me came the distant baying of hounds. I felt a fool. I had not spoken quickly enough, and the devilish Mrs. Llwynog had spurred Major Anthony Caine to some mishap. But it was not the Welshwoman alone who drove him. Perhaps it was some need to be his own man, free of his wife and commander and king. And perhaps he thought it well to act on this need. But it is not given to man to know his own needs.
The roan and I walked for what seemed to be an eternity, but was probably only five minutes, in that marsh of mist and fog.
And at last we came on Major Tom.
His horse stood at some distance, with the natural respect that all animals have in times of danger. It did not seem hurt, which was a blessing. Tom, on the other hand, was in much worse shape.
I dismounted quickly, and carefully making my way through the treacherous mud, came over to him and knelt beside. His head lay at an odd and frightening angle.
“Tom,” I said softly. “Can you hear me, Major Tom?”
For a long moment he did not answer. Then at last, his lips parted, and he said, “I hear you.”
“What happened, Tom?”
“Lost the foxie in the fog. Dogs all gone. Horse came up on a hummock, stumbled.” His voice was weak, and confused. “Horse threw me.”
A long silence. “Aye.”
“Tom, I think your neck is broken. Don’t move.” He shifted his arm, and I quickly grabbed it. “Don’t move.”
“Canada,” he said, and coughed violently. “I’m feeling very still.”
“Yes, Tom,” I said, my voice hoarse.
He seemed to think for a long moment. “And I think my horse knows which way to go.”
“I’m sure he does,” I said, biting back tears.
“Tell my wife I love her very much.” His voice was very faint.
“She knows,” I said.
He said nothing for a long while. And after a bit, I saw that his chest was not moving any more.
“Can you hear me, Major Tom?” I asked, the first time a bit desperately, but then I asked again twice more, and grew calmer every time. He was gone.
Eventually Joseph and the Master of the Hounds came down, and together we got him out of there. All that because some woman smiled at him. The bloody fool. The poor, bloody fool.
We never did catch the damned fox.
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.