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.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Cook

"And this fellow is a decent queer cole maker?"

"Aye, the best, Lordship, the best," boasted Gus as he led me through the crowded streets of Mayfair. Thronging around us were the assorted bakers, liverymen, and scullery maids whose daily toil made the lives of the upper crust possible. We slipped between two parked carts, their beds packed high with squashes in one and barrels in the other, and walked around to a fashionably decorated garden abutting a particularly elegant townhouse.

The heat from the kitchen door was intense as we ambled easily up to it; the morning baking was being done, and the delicious scent of fresh bread met our noses as I waited and Gus ventured inside. The morning was quite clement, and I enjoyed the intermingling smells of roses and baking as I waited.

After a time, Gus returned, trailing behind him a grin. The grin was attached to a young man dressed in the livery of a cook, but it was obvious to even the casual observer that the grin was the master here, and the young man merely a bit player in his own life. The young man extended a hand. "Tiberius Jones, at your service."

"Care to talk for a moment?" I asked.

"With pleasure," he grinned. "Young Gussie says you have a job in mind."

"I do indeed. I hear you make bent cole," I stated.

He glanced back and forth, apparently checking the garden for listeners. "Are you a constable?" He glared suspiciously at me, managing to do so while still grinning.

"I give you my word as a gentleman I am not."

"His Lordship’s alright," put in Gus.

"Right then," grinned Jones. "What’s it to be then?"

"Can you make a large sum of counterfeit notes, of varying denominations, relatively quickly?"

"Quick as you like," he shrugged. "An’ so sharp even Mr. Pitt couldna tell the difference."

"Actually," I said casually, "I would prefer it if he could tell the difference. They should not appear too authentic."

Jones’ brow furrowed. "Are you planning on turning me in? Running a scrap against me?"

"No," I said, smiling. "I’m running a roarer."

Jones frowned while still grinning, an impressive feat. "I dunna follow, but iffen your money’s good..."

"It is," I said. "Gus said you were a sharper, in addition to being a cole maker. This one is a long game, not a pass-the-king kiddie draw in a merchant’s hove." I put as much derision as I could into my voice.

"Here now, easy, Lordship," said Jones soothingly. "No offence meant, no offence meant. I’m game for most anything, iffen you need me. My gel Antonia wants a house, so whatever your scheme is, I’m your man."

I clapped my hands together. "Excellent! But I must ask, can you play the gentleman? I need a sharp young fellow to accompany me in places where the lower classes are less than welcome."

He looked affronted. "'Course I can. ‘Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.’ Is that posh enough for you?"

I spread my palms in a conciliatory way. "More than enough. But I must warn you, it could be physically dangerous. These are not kind people we shall be dealing with."

Jones grinned. "I’ll grab me sharps. Use ‘em all the time for me cooking. I’ve got skill, I have."

"Knives? I think that would probably be a bad idea. Would you not prefer a pistol, perhaps?"

"Knives are an excellent idea. Massive dock-off glittery ones. Ones that look like they could skin a cockatrice. Knives are nug, ‘cause they’re quiet, and the quieter they are, the more likely we are to make use of them. Stitch ‘em right up. Gives us the look of bein’ hard. Pistols for a jock, knives for a lock."

I stared at him. "Remind me to keep an eye on him," I said to Gus.

"Knives it is, guv," said Jones.

"So long as you do not put one in me, carry whatever you like," I said.

"Sharp," Jones said, and pulling off his chef’s cap, ran his hands through his greasy, curly hair. "When’s it to be then, and how much?"

"I need ten thousand."

"Ten thousand is dear."

"In differing notes."

"Differing notes is double dear."

"Too much for you?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.

Jones looked disgruntled. "I can handle it. When d’you need them by?"

"Probably in a fortnight. I shall send young Gus around to let you know the precise details."

"Right, I’m back to the fires, else I’ll find myself in a bad loaf." He spat in his hand, and we shook.

Walking back, I glanced down at Gus. "Are you sure we can trust him? I do not like the way he grins so."

“Mister Jones, he’s a right prince among men, he is. When he was a lad he was one o’ the minor clergy, then he went ‘mongst the resurrection men. Guessen he got tired of diggin’, ‘cause he started coining cole a year or two back. But he never forgot where he came from. Them flue-boys as work the East End get a pound a year from him. A whole pound! Can you hazard it?"

"A pound apiece?"

He goggled at me. "A whole quid apiece? Nobody’s that rich, Lordship."

We kept walking. A thought occurred to me. "Gus, if you were rich, what would you do with your money?"

Gus thought for a moment. "I’d buy me a dog. A right proper one, wif one ear turned inside out and a cold nose. He’d chase rats and be brilliantly clever."

"You’d buy a dog," I said flatly.

"Dogs’re right expensive, Lordship. I’d like to have a dog. Keep me warm anights."

I got down on one knee in front of him, and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Gus, if this works, I shall buy you a dog. A proper mongrel. With a turned-inside-out ear."

"Really?" he yelped.


As I walked back to the inn, Gus having departed in a happy daze, I noticed a strange feeling in my chest. Was I having some sort of fit? No, it was almost as though I felt…generous. Generous, and kind-spirited towards the rest of the world.

This would not do. This would not do at all. Marching back towards the inn, I resolved to harden my heart, and skin every penny away from some poor bastard immediately, lest I get a reputation for charity. A dog! Of all the things in the world!

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Thief

In the City of London, night seeps upward as the shadows lengthen, and gloomy dusk rises up from every cellar and drain. The darkness came up and engulfed the Tabard, leaving only a few brave lanterns to light the way. Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing. Would Hobbes attempt to strike me down that night, as he had on a night so similar not too long before?

I refused to be cowed. Boldly I made merry in the common room until the wee hours, drinking deeply of ale and brandy, supping on fowl and fish. At last, sotted and woozy, I made my way back to my pitch-black room. Fumbling, I reached for the counterpane in the utter darkness.

"The moon sits upon the Tower walls. You were not here."

I started, nearly spilling the tankard of beer I had brought with me. "Who’s there?" I whispered.

One of the curtains twitched aside, allowing a shaft of moonlight to blaze into the room. Grasping the curtain was a delicate feminine hand. She stepped into the moonlight, and my breath deserted me.

She was as beautiful as when I had seen her performing on the small platform. More beautiful, perhaps, for the moonlight struck her hair and set it ablaze in strands of liquid ebony. The witch.

"Lady Nimue," I managed.

She laughed, a surprisingly girlish sound in the night air. "That name is merely for the 'mudges," she said, her voice tinged with the slightest exoticism, the barest hint of an accent. It sounded somehow different from what she had said before. "Call me...Blaze."

"Very well, Blaze," I said, recovering slightly. "What are you doing here?"

"Robbing you blind, your Excellence," she said cheerfully. She held up a leather sack, apparently stuffed with whatever possessions of value I had.

"I knew it was not real magic," I said, and was surprised to discover an overtone of bitterness in my voice. Was I so desperate to be captured by this exquisite siren?

She laughed again. "Your Excellence does not believe in magic."

"No, although I do believe in thieving gipsies," I said, inching towards her. If she imagined she would away with my belongings without a struggle, she was sorely mistaken.

However, my drunkenness belied my stealth, and spotting my movement, she began to ease towards the open window. "Magic believes in you, though."

"Does it, now?" If I could get slightly closer, I could seize her, although not without some effort.

She placed one foot dramatically on the sill. For a moment I was struck by a strange sensation, as though I had seen the same moment before, but it passed quickly. "Trying to catch me, eh, your Excellence? I think you will find that gipsies do not catch so easil--"

Her face went strangely slack in an instant. I doubted she had been expecting whatever spell had overtaken her, for the sack of loot slipped from her fingers. The expression on her face was hauntingly familiar, and I grasped for the memory, until I realised she had worn the same expression in, or hallucination, or whatever it had been.

"Dark bells are ringing soon," she whispered through lips made soft and loose by the magic that afflicted her. "He comes...the world-shaker, the world-shatterer. He shall make a New World...he comes."

Baffled and frightened, I sternly said, "What witchery is this?"

"!" she said, pointing at me. "You shall be shall see him rise, and be present at his fall...the fate of nations shall rest in your hands..." her voice trailed off into half-heard whispers and murmurs, and then silence.

I waited for a moment, to see if there was anything more. Of course, I was not so foolish as to make ill use of this time, so I stepped forward and neatly slung the sack onto the bed, and grasped her by the arm.

Whatever trance she had so suddenly entered she exited just as suddenly. "Where-where am I? Have I had one of my fits?" With her free hand, she reached up and massaged her temple.

Then, her eyes clearing, she gasped at my proximity and attempted to leap away.

"Not so quickly, mademoiselle," I said, gripping her arm firmly despite her spirited efforts to escape. The warm, smooth flesh under my palm twisted and flexed as she struggled, but she soon recognised the futility of her actions.

"I am caught," she said, her voice aching with fury. "Summon the constables."

"On the contrary," I said. "A witch and a thief? Too valuable a prize to lock away in Newgate."

She looked at me, startled. "What then, your Excellence?"

"I could use a young lady of your abilities..." I said, and glancing down the front of her blouse, continued, "...and ‘talents’. How would you like a job?"

"A job?" she sneered. "I’d rather go to gaol."

I chuckled. "How old are you?"

"Eighteen." I quirked an eyebrow at this. "Sixteen," she said quickly.

Seeing my sceptical expression, at last she mumbled, "Fifteen."

"This would be no ordinary job, Mademoiselle Blaze. I think that a young lady such as yourself might benefit from such experience as might be imparted."

She gave me a cool look.

"It is," I said importantly, "a gullgropers job."

Her cool look was replaced by one of utter startlement. "Fancy a toff like you knowing a word like that," she said.

Pleased by the fact that I had managed to surprise not one but two of my confederates that day with my knowledge of underhanded dealings, I asked, "Are you interested?"

"Perhaps," she said, after a long moment. I released her arm.

"We shall meet again, I think," she said, and slid out the window without a backwards glance.

A young, talented, and undeniably buxom thief. One of the parts in my grand play had just been filled.

The Response

Aux gentilshommes du comité présidant du club des Brooks’s les plus honorables:

Bonjour et la plupart des salutation humble,

I bid you good day and request from you the honor of joining your most illustrious club on this fine day, n’est-ce pas. Many times I am hearing from my English friends who are telling me stories most outrageous regarding the honor and nobility of your club and now I am wishing to be a member. I am a nobleman most continental, and have seen glorious service in arms under his most holy majesty Louis le dix-septième in L’Espagne, L’Allemagne, et Les Antilles. However, récemment, L’Révolution has deprived me of my livelihood, and I am forced to flee to England. I hope most sincerely that you will allow me to join your societie. I have many amusing stories to tell, such as when I was the keeper of the Sultan’s bees, or my accidental visit to an island of cheese in the South Seas, or when I nearly liberated la Famille Royale from les sans-culottes. I most humbly beseech you grant admittance, good monsieurs, and I remain most graciously yours,

Le Marquis de Carabás
L'ordre de Saints Maurice et de Lazarus


To the Hand of the Most Honourable Marquess of Carabás,

Good day to you sir. We are most honoured by your request, and are most pleased and delighted to inform you that, in no small part due to the kind words of recommendation provided to us by your acquaintance Mister Christopher Walker, the noted African explorer, your application has been accepted, and we look forward to hearing of your many exploits around the world. May this letter find you in continued good health.

Your humble servant,
John Cholmondeley, Esq.
Brooks’s Private Secretary

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Cab

The interior of the cab we at last hailed stank of alcohol and horse urine. As the wheels clattered on rough cobbles, Gus elaborated on what startling information he had to impart.

"Someone’s been asking ‘round ‘bout you, Lordship," he said.

"Your gentleman with the thistle-down hair?"

"No, ‘nother fellow entirely. A regular gentleman of three outs, an’ no mistake. All rough and tumble. He’d be handsome, I bet, iffen he cleaned up."

"Describe him to me," I said.

"Little shorter than you, Lordship, and thin. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Looked young. I didna speak to him myself, but my mate Fritz did, an’ I watched."

"Did this fellow say anything?"

"Something about revenge, Lordship."

The subsequent obscenity I uttered must have been of sufficient volume to throw a fright into the driver, for the cab stuttered to a halt.

"Everyt’ing all right, guv?" came the cry.

"Yes, damn you, carry on."

Hobbes! The blasted, thrice-damned Calvin Hobbes! Somehow the blackguard had followed me to London, and was even now conspiring against me. I rubbed my eyes with my hand.

"This is a fine turn of events," I mumbled.

"Lordship, what d’you want me to do?"

I gathered my resolve. "I must devise a scheme to remove Hobbes from my presence once and for all. But how? If not for that infernal duel--"

I stopped, as illumination flooded my brain. I saw at once the way to victory, how neatly the disposition of Hobbes would fit into my plans for Sir Julius, and indeed would enrich them.

"Gus," I said with some forcefulness, "I need, almost immediately, for you to find me a queer cole maker."

Gus gaped, his mouth hanging open. "How do you know about a thing like that?" he gasped.

"You would be surprised at what I know, young Gus. Can you find me one?"

Gus closed his mouth and took on an expression of steely determination. "I know just the sharper, Lordship. Man name of Jones."

"Excellent," I said. "Anything else?"

"You wanted me to find out where His Nibs’ son drops his wins, aye? Well, I did."

"And where is that?"

"Posh nanny house in clubland. Him and his da are members." He frowned in thought. "Called Brooks’s, I think."

I sighed. "Of course."

The chief thrust of my offensive would take place on the tables. After all, to hold the dice is to be at war. Hobbes, far from complicating things, would make them much smoother.

But it appeared I would have to gain admittance to Brooks’s after all.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Witch

After meeting with Walker I felt near exhaustion. The effort of outlaying my plan, of answering Walker’s persistent questions, and of repairing any niggling flaws, had quite worn me, and the unpleasant haze that so frequently accompanies headache had begun to descent upon me as I walked through the city back to the Tabard. The evening sun was disappearing behind the nearest townhouses, and I soon found myself sunk into shadow, occasionally dipping into darkness only to emerge moments later into rusty sunlight haphazardly sprawled across the square.

At this time the sound men of business, the trader and the butcher and baker, make for their beds, while the rogues and rascals and lights of the frothy foam that surmounts our great society begin to roam. Therefore you can imagine my surprise when I noticed a large crowd had gathered some distance ahead of me. Curious, I drew closer.

The knot of humanity was gathered around a small wooden platform which had been erected to one side of the square. My first thought was of a hanging. I smiled wearily at my foolishness; the hour was far too late for that. But the press of the crowd prevented me from drawing nearer.

Over the murmurs and babbling of the throng cast out a voice. "Behold, most worthy nobles, ladies and esteemed gentlemen!" called the voice, masculine, full of brassy courage and bravado. "Fresh from the courts of the Emperor in Austria, the Tsar in Russia, and the Sultan in Turkey, the divine and devilish demiurge of divination, the conjuring queen of confabulation, the prestigious and paralysing princess of prestidigitation, she will tell all fortunes and perform magic such as the world has never seen!"

A wandering magician of some sort, the sort found on every corner in London. Still, it might be amusing to watch, I told myself. Besides, I was quite weary, and a few clever card tricks might help me relax. I began to elbow my way towards the center of the crowd, easing past plump burghers and sweating, brawling fishwives.

"Taught by Ulrica Arvidsson, the Sorceress of Stockholm herself, who was in turn taught by Cagliostro the greatest wizard the Italies have ever produced, who learned at the feet of England’s own Isaac Newton, Master of the Hermetic Arts and Discoverer of the Unholy Spheres!"

By this point I was nearly to the front row, and I could begin to see the man speaking. His voice was golden, lyrical and well-spoken, but at first glance one could hardly be impressed. His face, browned by the sun, was lined and creased by time and many cares. He had seen suffering. A bristling black mustache, shot with grey, surmounted his lip, and his current plumpness could not disguise the fact that he had known hunger. His clothes were worn and outlandish, their garish colors faded from long days of travel. In all, an air of inexpressible sadness emanated from him; he was a man dependent on the trickery of others for his fortune, and that will make a beggar out of any man. He was a gipsy, and like all gipsies he knew pain, and the cold, and poverty. He relied only on his wits to survive--his wits, and whatever withered ha’penny crone he had unearthed to play the part of the "witch" the fat and prosperous townsfolk had gathered to see. I admired him.

"Now, at long last, she arrives in London, site of ancient magic and new wonders! But stay back, I warn you, lest you be bewitched!" I pushed forward to the first row, and the platform. "I present to you, the Lady Nimue!"

And then I saw the girl.

For a moment, and for a moment only, I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. "Regina?" I whispered, but it was only something in the line of her jaw, the color of her hair, that had brought back memories of that ill-fated romance, so long forgotten.

The girl standing on the platform, as clear and unafraid as if she were a queen, was quite possibly the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. She was tall, with a woman’s bust and a woman’s figure, but she could not have been more than sixteen. An innocence of line, and a clearness of expression, hinted at her youth. A gipsy, clearly, from the inky spread of hair that cascaded down her back to the blackness of her eyes, twin turbulent pools of nothingness in which a man might lose himself, but her skin was ivory pale, not the usual healthy ruddiness so often found in that nomad people. A certain similarity of expression and overall visage between the girl and the man suggested daughter and father, but what tragedy the older man endured touched her not at all. Her nose and cheekbones were delicate, well-formed, and her lips were the palest of coral, just the slightest hint of rose imbuing them with life. A man could die like Narcissus, and turn into a reed, watching her, but unlike that unfortunate Greek it would not be of some perverse self-love but rather an agape born of the greatest respect for the beauty of His creation and the creatures within it.

She began to dance.

The music began suddenly, a harsh drumbeat followed by the haunting call of a pipe. Her hips swayed outward in gyrating loops that cast out her dress into a twirling disc of cloth, revealing slim, alabaster legs and bare feet, the slight cast of dirt upon which served only to heighten the exquisite beauty of the rest.

Her long, slender arms reached out into the welcoming air and traced enigmatic patterns there, while her nimble, delicate fingers wrote strange, foreign phrases upon the wind. As she danced, whirling and weaving, pirouetting upon the tip of a single toe, her sensuous body worked its magic upon the twilight. Her full breasts, so incongruous on so slender a frame, danced with her, but in their own separate paths, a pair of mischievous planets orbiting a bountiful, fecund sun.

I stood rooted to the spot. If the girl had asked me, I should have charged headlong into the French guns, or into the Chinese masses, or into the hordes of Hell themselves. At one remove I felt disturbed by her effect upon me. Was she a witch? The thought worried at me like a terrier. No, I thought. Such things were not possible. There was no such thing as magic. She was not a witch.

Then one of her orbits brought her face to face with me, and her eyes met mine. It was as though I was a key and she the lock, and together we connected. I wanted to break the connection, for fear of losing myself. A ghost of a smile drifted across her face, and she lifted up her hands, from which two dazzlingly white doves took flight. Where had the doves come from? Her arms were bare. She ceased her twirling, but her eyes never left mine, as she paced across the platform towards me, as supple and lethal as a panther. On hands and knees now, she crawled towards me like an animal. The lecherous fool in me would have ordinarily taken the opportunity to scan down the front of her blouse, but I could not remove my eyes from hers. Our faces were now inches apart. She raised one cream-white hand. Her full lips creased into a merry smile. And she blew some strange powder into my face.

I stumbled back, coughing, the powder drawn deep into my lungs. My eyes burned, and my lungs wheezed, as I drew my sword from its scabbard. Armor clanking, I whirled, looking about the forest glade for the sorcerous nymph who had bewitched me. She was nowhere in sight.

Shaking my head to clear it, I reminded myself of my quest. There was a beast in the woods. I must find it. So my king had commanded, and so I must obey.

Hazy morning sunlight illuminated the occasional droplets of dew as they tumbled from perches in the trees above. The air was green with pollen. My thick boots, encased in steel plate, made not a sound on the soft carpet of moss beneath me as I walked through the thickening forest.

For some hours I walked, becoming greatly thirsty in the heat. The atmosphere of life and vegetation was oppressive and menacing. I slung my sword over one shoulder, trusting the chainmail beneath my jerkin to protect me from the notched and gouged blade. I whistled slightly, under my breath, some old forgotten tune of war and fairies and lust among the roses. Even so, I could not dispel the air of threat and hostility that permeated the forest.

Thick sap ran down the cracked trunks of majestic oaks and ancient yews as I clambered down an overgrown slope. Suddenly, as though by magic, I spotted a glimpse of some sleek coat in the ferns ahead. The beast! But almost in the same instant, the burbling sound of running water reached my ears, and as I glanced about me in thirst, I lost sight of the beast. I cursed myself for a fool, and continued onward.

In time I found the stream. This slightly mollified my anger at losing sight of the beast, and I knelt beside it and dipped my cupped hands into the cool, dark water. The icy feeling as it cascaded down my throat was the finest in the world, and thus refreshed, I continued on my quest.

Twice more I saw the beast, twice more I saw the hint of dusky pelt, the sinuous line of some predatory creature slinking amongst the trees. Both times I lost the beast in almost the same instant, before I could give pursuit.

In frustration, I cried, "By God’s bones, why do you torment me, beast?" and threw down my sword into the ferns about my feet.

"Cast down not your blade, knight, for you shall need it soon," whispered a voice close to my ear. I whirled, in fear and confusion, but saw no one. As to the voice, male or female I could not tell.

"I am no knight," said I. "I wear these colours, my king’s colours, as a tiger wears his stripes, and for the same purpose."

There was no answer. I picked up my sword, and carried on.

In time the forest began to change. I had thought it choking and overgrown before, but this new turn showed the error of my thinking. The forest floor was strewn with blossoms, and the sickly sweet scent filled the air like a cloying perfume. Trailing vines hung from every tree, and the light became somehow greener and duskier as I progressed, despite my belief that the sun waxed in the sky. The air itself became almost wet, and hot with the sweet carrion breath of decaying blooms.

"Come," whispered the voice. I came forward, to a screen of vines that hung before me from an oak that had stood there since before the world. "Come," and this time I saw the voice came from behind the curtain of vines.

I stepped forward and parted the vines.

She lay like Venus in a lily, her nude body supported by a bed of moss and ferns, her raven hair lying in waves down across her breasts and modestly covering her most secret of areas. But she wore her nakedness like a banner, and there was no eros in it.

"Dennis of Stokington," she whispered, her voice husky in the humid air.

"Yes, milady," I said.

"You are on a quest. Honor and glory shall be yours, in the coming days. I see many things in your future."

"The future is not ours to know of, but only God's."

She smiled, and in that moment I loved her, and all the eros that had so far been kept from her sylvan boudoir rushed back, and I wished to take her there amongst the roses and irises and posies over which she ruled. "I see broad forests far from here, with strange dark men in them. I see jewels, lost to you forever. I see death. I see glory and infamy on battlefields and the high seas. A lost love found again, and then given up. Dark hounds at midnight. 'Ware the tiger, Dennis, 'ware the tiger. He shall be your undoing, if you let him."

"You speak in riddles."

"I speak clearly. You speak in riddles, for you do not know the answer."

"I desire you."

She smiled again. "Good."

I swallowed deeply, in lust and in fear. "When shall I have you?"

"That is not for you to know, or decide."

"Then when shall I see you again?"

"On the morrow, when the moon strikes the walls of the Tower. But not before." She laughed, and tossed her head back. Her tresses slipped from her breasts, exposing girlish nipples. "See, I send a guide for you, to take you home."

She nodded, and I noticed for the first time a small locket resting on her belly, just over the dimple of her navel. With a trembling hand, I reached forward to grasp it, my finger tips hesitantly and momentarily tracing over the smooth, warm skin of her stomach, before I lifted the small trinket.

"Open it," she whispered. "Open it and discover what I have hidden inside."

I gently flicked open the locket, and as I did so I caught a brief glimpse of an angry, hate filled face. Startled, I stumbled backwards. My boot caught upon a projecting root, and as I collapsed helplessly, I caught one final glimpse of my love. She watched serenely, unconcerned, as my head collided with a rock.

"Good luck, your Lordship," she whispered in a voice of milk and honey.


"Your lordship? Your Lordship?"

Woozily, I shook my head. My eyes felt full of grit. Head throbbing, it occurred to me at that particular moment, that there is something great and terrible about suicide. Then my common sense returned to me, and I opened my eyes to early morning sunshine.

Gallant Gus watched me curiously, perched precariously on a rain barrel. I rolled over, and managed to clamber shakily to my feet. I discovered that I was in an alleyway, much disheveled, and wondered if I had imbibed too much brandy the night before. Then the details of what could only have been a dream returned. Owlishly, I peered at Gus. "Where the hell are we?"


"Bloody hell, that must be twelve miles from the City. How did you find me?"

"Took some doing, your Lordship, but me gel Hil heard a drover say he seed you out by Shepherd’s Bush, so we tracked you from there."

I brushed myself off gingerly. My head still pained me. "Why so much effort, if I might ask?"

"Got news. Got all kinds of news, your Lordship," said Gus, grinning excitedly.

"Very well," I said. "Let us hail a cab, and while we go back to Londontown, you shall tell me what titbits you have managed to scrounge up and I shall try to clear the cobwebs out of my brain that the witch saw fit to put there."

"Witch?" said Gus, furrowing his brow.

"Never you mind," I said loftily. "Back to London!"

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Requirement

Walker and I met two days later for coffee and pastries at the salon owned by the two Negroes. At this occasion we were served by the taller of the two, who persistently and cryptically made remarks about "that play about which everyone is talking," "that popular book," and "the famous singer who sings that song."

"So you have a plan," said Walker.

"Indeed I do. It took some doing, but I managed to contrive a scheme fully capable of taking Sir Julius for all he is worth."

"Most excellent!" exclaimed Walker.

"True, but I have a scheme of my own with which I shall require help. I hope you are up to it."

"By all means," Walker said. “Since you are so kind as to assist me in my matter, I will assist you in yours.”

"Capital." I leaned in close. "We shall need a number of specialty items and a modestly sized contingent of confederates."

"That shall not be a difficulty; my funds run exceedingly ample, and I am certain that we may be able to find what you need here in London."

"Very well. But I shall need you to play a role or two, here and there."

"I have no objection," Walker said. "All visible gentlemen, man, are but as pasteboard masks, after all."

"Then it is settled. We shall need a gentleman of distinguished features, two cocky gamblers, a pair of buxom wenches, a master forger, three young rapscallions, a crooked casino, an old priest, a young priest, and the address of a reputable but slow-witted banker."

Walker settled back in his chair, an expression of bemused admiration on his face. "That is quite the list," he said.

"Yes, yes it is," I said with a laugh. "Now, here is what we do..."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Club

I felt no great urgency to visit Mister Mills at his place of business, nor to make my face known to him. Therefore whilst I waited for young Gus to return with tidings of Sir Julius, I whiled away the hours at play in Londontown. Now it is very often the ambition of a young man to have friends of the highest sort, and the best and most enjoyable manner of acquiring said friends is by achieving membership in a club, preferably a suitably exclusive and august body.

My own tastes run rather to the rakish, and for four or five years I had attempted membership in the highest and most desirable clubs, and had been repeatedly denied. Being a man of equanimity and sang-froid, I took these rejections with a light heart. Still, it was a cause of some concern to me that I had failed in this ambition. I resolved, since I was besieged by boredom, to rectify the matter.

Of all the clubs in London, none is more exclusive than Brooks and Almack’s, in St. James’s Street. A finely designed structure of the most noble and elegant architecture houses as aristocratic a body of men as this land has ever seen. Walpole was a member, as were Pitt, Fox, and Burke—truly a diverse grouping, to be sure. Indeed, even the Prince of Wales belonged, and I had long coveted a membership.

Therefore I resolved to apply once more, and by the light of a flickering candle a few evenings after my visit to the Worshipful Painter-Stainers, I wrote a most persuasive letter to the Chairing Committee:

Dear Most Honourable and Noble Sirs,

I write with the greatest appreciation for your August Club and Society and respectfully submit an Application to you for membership. It is my most sincere hopes that you will take into account my Illustrious and Noble heritage, which I am pleased to boast stretches through history to the Conquest and prior to that in the fiefs and halls of Normandy, and also my fine education in those hallowed halls of Learning Eton and Oxford. My wit and dash will, I daresay, make me an excellent and lively addition to your Society, and it is with greatest anticipation and eagerness that I look forward to receiving your response.

With Most Humble and Solicitous Regards, Your Servant,
Dennis Henry Ambrose St. Michel, Viscount of Stokington and Baron of Great Stoke

Carefully folding the paper and dripping wax upon the fold, I stamped my seal upon it. Then I handed it to one of the inn’s servant with detailed instructions to deliver it promptly.

I was on tenterhooks for the next few days, waiting with baited breath. Neither Walker nor ‘Gallant’ Gus nor Edward Mills had sent word of their activities (although I expected no such missive from the last) and so my entrenchment into boredom continued. I wandered the city, taking in the myriad sights, purchasing fresh apples and other fruits from vendors in its bustling markets, visiting museums and libraries as my fancy took me. I found a most excellent volume of Tasman, translated out of the Dutch, and for a few hours I was most amused by his accounts of adventures in Nieuw Zeeland. Still, that diversion was at best temporary, and after I left the library I found myself feeling dull and dispirited.

O how my spirits were lifted that day, when I returned to my rooms at the Tabard! O how my hopes were dashed when I unfolded the fine parchment to discover, in words of elegant Copperplate, the following:

To the Most Noble and Honourable Viscount of Stokington,

Sir, while we must admit we are pleased by your choosing to correspond with us in regards to membership, we must respectfully decline your entreaty. Unfortunately, reports of your Scandalous Exploits among the brothels and taverns of Oxfordtown and of gaming and horse speculation in Eton have reached our ears, and at this time it is the esteemed opinion of the Chairing Committee that admitting your August Person to our Society would irreparably besmirch and blacken the fine name of Brooks’s, and make us little more than a house of Ill-Repute such as can be found in any back-alley of Southwark or high-street of Philadelphia. We hope this missive finds you well, and we respectfully remain,

John Cholmondeley, Esq.
Brooks’s Private Secretary

I must admit, my face fell a bit at this. Nevertheless, it was always pleasant to receive such a firm vote of confidence from the tut-tutters and naysayers of High Society. It meant I was irritating the proper people. I was, however, slightly offended by the mention of "horse speculation." I appreciate horses, and a good horse race, but let me be clear: it is not speculation the way I do it.

I tried to be happy and gay despite this set back. This took some doing. Day and night I raged, shaking my fist as Lear did towards the heavens. I drank deep of gin and brandy. I smoked any number of fine cigars, fuming under my breath. I vowed vengeance, public humiliation. I tried to distract myself in books, in plays, in little works of poesy. I was counseled towards reason by the landlord, but I would not listen to reason, for reason always means what someone else has got to say. I raged, I fumed, I hated, I groaned in fury, I unleashed my wrath on the servants.

I applied to Boodle’s and was accepted the very next day.

Boodle’s is admittedly rather more louche than Brooks’s. As it so happens, though, I was considered by the fine gentlemen at Boodle’s to be prime material for membership, and so it happened that the following Friday evening I found myself at the gaming tables, of which Boodle’s has ever so many, drinking truly excellent brandy and increasing my wealth most hastily. Cutting the proper figure, I lounged in my chair, my cravat loosened, my hair disheveled, and my waistcoat most scandalously unbuttoned (I assure the ladies who may be reading these works, top button only. I have some standards.). Still, I was winning, and that breeds happiness in even the stingiest misanthrope’s heart.

Besides myself at the table, there was the usual collection of nobles and gentry, as well as a few exotic foreigners. Across the table a group of huge Danes gambled their money as though it were rubbish. One fellow, a bear of a man with a thick red beard whose name I heard as Fryktelig, seemed to be the leader, and fortunately for me and everyone else at the table was winning. Roaring with laughter, swinging a pitcher of beer, and wrapping his enormous meaty arms around his companions, he seemed the very image of Falstaffian pleasure. After one particularly fortuitous hand he cried, "De har steder som dette i Oslo ikke!" which I took to be a Danish cry of thanks to the Norse god of baccarat.

Some hours after my gambling had begun, rather the worse for alcohol, I was startled to discover a uniformed footman standing at my elbow. Apparently, he had been standing there for some time. In my experience, this situation usually precedes one being bodily ejected from an establishment. Therefore my first action was to hastily down the remainder of my drink. My second action was to scoop my winnings into my pockets as fast as possible. My third, and most belated, action was to realise I had not egregiously swindled anyone, nor insulted a duke, nor vomited on a courtesan, which is what usually triggers an ejection from one’s club.

I straightened myself with alcoholic dignity. "What d’you want?" I managed to slur this with minimal incomprehension on the part of the servant.

A most superior fellow, he had apparently seen young nobles in much worse condition than I, and merely replied, "There is a young...boy, for want of a better word, asking to see you, my Lord."


"At the servants’ entrance, my Lord."

"Take me to him," I said, wobbling only slightly. "Lay on, MacDuff."

The footman wove his way through the throng, as I somewhat precariously followed him. Eventually we reached the hot and crowded kitchen, and then the alleyway behind the club. The blast of heat from the ovens followed by the chill of the outdoors did much to return me to sobriety, and as a result I was not much surprised when young Gus grinned up at me from the bowl of soup he balanced delicately on his knees.

"He looks like a skeleton," said the footman with distaste. "I thought he needed some feeding, so I gave him some thin gruel, my Lord."

Gus held up the bowl. "Please, sir, I’d like some more."

"I wouldn’t, from the look of that," I said. "Have an Earl of Sandwich." I retrieved the somewhat inexplicable remains of the delicacy from inside a spacious pocket, where it had apparently migrated in the fashion of its species, with the distant hope of being eaten some day, most likely in a drunken stupor. Handing it to Gus, who eagerly tore into it as though it had not spent several hours in a silken hell, I upturned a bucket and sat upon it.

"I assume you have some news," I said after the footman had left us.

"Absolutely, Lordship," he said around a mouthful of bread and meat. "I’ve got me mates Hans and Fritz on his Nibs day and night, but they’ll want paying."

"Tell them to come with you next time, and I shall be sure they get their shillings. Now, what of Sir Julius."

"I didna crack the hogshead once, Lordship, and I got some pretty stuff resulting-wise."

"Go ahead."

"His Nibs, he acts like a right lambskin man when he’s out with his Parly mates, but I seed him strap a black-a-moor to a jigger and flog seven kinds of ‘ell out of him. Did it ‘imself, too. He only plays at being the crip."

"Well, I knew that already. What else?"

Gus swallowed heartily. "I ‘ung around his house when he was there. Grand old place. Nice floors. Not a richard in sight. Must be nice to live so high." He sighed, and rubbed his small forehead with his fingers. "His wife, his first one, she’s dead. Cholera. Got him a son, growed up though, so he’s a man. Wears the scarlet, that one."

"He’s a soldier?"

"Aye, a real lef-tenant. His Nibs, though, he married again. Some dell from the Germanies. He don’t dock her, but I don’t know why. I seen her in her buntlings," he grinned, and then tried to twist his face into a leer, which due to his young age he failed to achieve. "Pfwah, what a pair of--"

"Yes, yes, I understand."

"But his Nibs, he’s right jealous, keeps his dolly-mop locked up tight, he does. Buys her all sorts of things, though. I guess it keeps her happy."

"But what of Sir Julius?”

“Him? He’s right prompt about everything. Prompt to his carriage, prompt to the slave-yards, prompt back ‘ome. He don’t drink, he don’t gaff, he don’t even lollop when he takes his tea! This one, he’s a right thorough churchman. I mean, everything looks right iffen you don’t look too close."

I frowned. This might prove more difficult than I first imagined. "Anything else?"

Gus shrugged. "No, not hardly. His Nibs’ got a running man, name of Bumstead. Bit of a berk, if you ask me. Real penny-wise and pound-foolish. Eats a lot, though, out of His Nibs' larder and don’t imagine His Nibs cares for that at all. He might be a petticoat pensioner, though."

"Really? What makes you say that?"

A roguish smile. "He’s always hanging ‘round the lady of the house. Never lets her be."

I looked at him sceptically. "And Sir Julius allows that?"

"This Bumstead, he’s a berk, I tole you! Her ladyship wouldn’t look a brass farthing at him."

"And the son?"

"Oh he’s alright. Plays a bit o’ cards, likes the turf, you know. Don’t think he’s a picaroon, but he’s a bit sharp. Name of Jasper Dithers, esquire."

"And that’s all you have?"

"You know it, Lordship."

I handed him sixpence. "Bring your friends next time, and I shall give them their wages. Besides, you will need them. I have someone else for you to follow."

Gus beamed. "I’m turning into a right Isaac Gulliver," he said, and, pocketing the sixpence, turned and darted off into the night. Godspeed, young Gus, I thought.

My youthful spy had turned up some valuable information. Sir Julius appeared to have no weaknesses. "Appeared" being the key word. They were there, if one knew how to look for them. And I knew how to look. Sir Julius was finished, he merely did not know it yet.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Guild

Lest my Noble Readers believe erroneously that I had forgotten my promise to Mademoiselle Margot, I assure you that I had not. My discussion with her had revealed that this gentleman to whom she was engaged resided, and indeed laboured, in Londontown. While young Gus kept watch over Sir Julius, I decided that I would uncover this Mills character to whom Mademoiselle Margot had so impetuously pledged her heart.

Unfortunately for me, I had no idea of in what endeavour Mills was currently engaged. After returning to the Tabard, I resolved to discover what his business was the following day. I was also left with the Mystery of the Gentleman with Thistle-down Hair. As Gus had no clue as to his identity, I decided to let that particular enigma sit, and instead focused on tracking to ground the elusive Mr. Mills.

The next day dawned hot. By mid-morning it was already quite warm, and I fancied that it might become extremely clement by noon. As such I left behind my heavy redingote and wore only a simple frock coat. Still, I fancied I cut quite the fashionable figure as I made my way to Ironmonger Lane. Here I found the guildhall of the Most Worshipful Company of Mercers. If anyone would know where this fellow Mills earned his coin, it would be they.

An hour later, after many kind (and not-so-kind) inquiries with most nearly every mercer I encountered, I discovered that the Mercers did not know Mills’ business, or indeed anything of Mills at all. I left stewing in frustration.

The Grocers, the Drapers, the Skinners, the Tallow Chandlers—I daresay I made a nuisance of myself, visiting every guildhall in the City. And out of every guildhall I emerged empty-handed.

My prediction as to the day’s weather turned accurate by mid-afternoon, and I found myself sweltering in the heat. A dipper of water from a nearby well soon quenched my thirst, but the sun still beat down upon me, so I retreated to the shade cast by a convenient building.

It was most aggravating to have met with such failure. Still, I kept up hope. Now in all honesty I had little conception of how I would cause this Mills fellow to quit his engagement. But that was but a small obstacle, since I believed with all justification that Mills was an honourable man, and the only way to cause such a man to renege on a prior agreement is through guile, trickery, and deception, skills I am most happy to possess. However, I tried to avoid overconfidence, since this Mills was a prosperous man of business, and without some dissimulation no business can be carried on at all. Caution was required.

After a brief respite in the shade, I righted myself and proceeded down the lane. By chance I had wandered into Trinity Lane, and soon found myself in front of the fine guildhall of the Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers. While I doubted that a gentleman such as Mills was purported to be would have anything to do at all with such a low group of tradesmen, I resolved to be nothing if not thorough, and decided to inquire within.

The cool of the interior contrasted quite nicely with the oven exterior. A young man sat at a finely-wrought desk, his quill scratching spidery lines of ink across cream-white paper. "May I help you, sir?" he asked, looking up.

"Yes, my good man," I replied. "I seek information on a gentleman of some note in this city, but I most sincerely doubt your company possesses information on him."

"I shall be the judge of that," smiled the young man. "What is this gentleman’s name?"

"I must confess I do not know his Christian name, but his family name is Mills."

The young man’s eyebrows jumped towards his hairline. "Would that be Edward Erick Mills, the lithographer and salon owner?"

"It may," I hazarded. "In truth, I know very little of the man, save that he comes from Dublin and now resides in London."

"That is he, most definitely," said the young secretary. "Mister Mills is indeed Hibernian. His accent is most noticeable. He has long been a member of our illustrious society."

"Then perhaps I shall seek this man out," I said.

"If he should stop in, whom shall I tell him called?"

"Mister..." I was reluctant to give my true name. I glanced out the window, seeking inspiration. My eyes lit upon the signs of the nearby enterprises. A pub: THE RINGING BELL. A tanner’s: JOHNSON AND SON LEATHER CURERS. "Mister...Bell. Currer Bell."

"Very well, Mister Bell. I shall let him know you called."

"And his address?"

"His salon is in Candlewick, near St. Mary Abchurch."

"Thank you, sir," and with that I took my leave.

Most excellent! I now knew the location of Mills’ business. And it seemed he was a patron of the artistes, which suggested any number of ways in which he could be swindled. I resolved to make use of this information at once.

Art, after all, holds a mirror up to life: everything is twisted and false.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Boy

My meeting with Walker having been most productive, I made my way through the teeming streets of London in a most congenial mood. At last I understood what Walker had been driving at; Dithers was a wealthy man, and it would almost be moral to relieve him of that wealth after what he had done in Africa. The difficulty would be in the doing of the thing.

I told Walker that I am no thief, and this is true; however, I have no great qualms about tricking a man out of his money. I give another man the opportunity to use his wits to defeat me, and if I defeat him and take his money, then that is that.

Lost in these thoughts, and with my mind clouded with visions of avarice, it took me nearly a quarter of an hour to notice I was being followed. Now, it is not uncommon to be followed in London, usually by a back-alley-man or a strumpet, but this one was unusually persistent. Once I realised I was being pursued, I made my way to the relatively deserted Spital Square. My pursuant, recognising that the sparseness of the crowd left him vulnerable to discovery, began running from building-corner to building-corner, taking every available cover. This I saw only through the corners of my eyes, and I was impressed by his ability to hide himself in an area lacking adequate hidey-holes.

At last I tired of this diversion, and watching him carefully, I waited until he had ducked behind a nearby barrel, and then hid myself behind a dray cart. As I expected, he, under the mistaken impression that I had moved on, dashed forward past the cart, and when he did so I seized him firmly, which took some doing, since from the moment I laid hands upon him he put up a titanic struggle.

"Oi, oi, lay off!" he shouted. I was holding in my arms a squirming boy of perhaps seven or eight years old, thin as a rail and with a startlingly thick head of lustrous black hair. The boy himself was heinously filthy, his clothes ragged and worn. Obviously a street urchin of some sort.

"Let go!" he cried.

"No, I don’t think I shall," I replied, distracted by the fact that, even as he made the most herculean effort to free himself, he had still managed to pick my pocket. I was impressed.

"I shall let you go if you tell me why you are following me, and not before," I informed the struggling child, and to my surprise he ceased moving immediately.

"Right, your Lordship, it’s a fair cop," he said, with surprising savoir-faire. I could not help but laugh. I put the child back on his feet, and when I released him I was mildly pleased that he did not immediately dash off.

The boy dusted himself off, looking for all the world like a society gentleman squaring himself away after a tumble from a horse. I smiled.

"What’s you want to know?" he asked.

"First, what’s your name, boy?"

"Gallant Gus," he said with some pride.

"'Gallant Gus?'" I replied with some scepticism.

He glared at me. "Augustus Aloysius Aethelbert Dallas, Esquire, at your service, sir," he said, and made a deep, mocking bow.

I guffawed; young Master Dallas was proving to be most entertaining. "Very well, Gus, why are you following me?"

"Bloke slipped me half a hog for it," he replied easily, as though this were a conversation he had every day.

"Do you spy on people often?"

"All the time," he said proudly, "and I ain't never been caught--save 'til your Grace, o' course."

"For whom do you spy?" I asked, curious.

"I spies on the Prince o' Wales, when he be in town, on account of Mister Pitt asks me to, but I do that one grattis."


"Means for free."

"I know what it means."

"Mister Pitt, he's a right nob, that one, so's I does it free 'cause he's the patron of my youth activities association."

I smiled. "You mean your street gang?"

"We's the sons of gentlemen, we is," he said, affronted. "Right honourable rude lads. Me da's a barrister."

"Really? And where is he now?"

"Workhouse," replied Gus carelessly.

"For whom else do you spy?" I asked.

"Well, Mademoiselle de Pompadour, her grandmum was a nugging dress over in Paree, you know?" he said. "She has me spy on Lady Hamilton, but she don't pay much, so I don't do it very often. Just a ha'penny a week, see."

"I see. You obviously move in rarefied circles, Master Dallas."

"What's 'rarefied' mean?"

"It means I have a business proposition for you."

Gus grinned. "You want me to spy for you? Not a problem, your Grace. But it'll cost."

"How much?"

"Sign of the crown a week."

"Five shillings? You, young sir, are greedy beyond your years. I shall give you sixpence a week, and for that you do as I say, and spy for no-one else."


"Good," I said. "Do you know Sir Julius Dithers?"

"Do I?" replied Gus. "That old fogram? Me mate Elmo was a boot-black boy at his Nibs' house, and he tried to snaffle some french cream from his Nibs' study, but he made a fox's paw of it and his Nibs caught him and put one of his hocks into young Elmo’s nutmegs, he did!" Gus managed a fairly decent indignation at this outrage done to his fellow sharper.

"So you would not mind doing Sir Julius a harm?"

"Not in the slightest, your Grace."

"Good. I want you to follow Sir Julius everywhere he goes, and I mean everywhere. Get some of your friends to help if you need to. I shall pay them also."

"Cor," said Gus, his eyes wide. "You’re not half generous, a real princox. But why all the hugger mugger? Is his Nibs a French spy? Is that the run?"

I laughed. "No, nothing like that. 'Tis a personal matter. Now, one last thing: Who has been spying on me?"

Gus looked thoughtful. "Don't know his name. Funny, that. But a right tall fellow, taller than you."

"Well, I’m not very tall."

"Taller than me," he said evenly.

"This tall man, did he have dark hair?" I asked, thinking of Walker.

"No, no. His 'air was kind of silvery, like thistle-down. He nicks me outside the Wandering Monk and says, 'You're a likely looking lad, how would you like to make a shilling?' I says 'No hazard, governor,' I says, and he says, 'There's a nobleman staying at the Tabard, young, with blonde 'air and he dresses real flash. Go and tell me what he does.' So I does it."

"Well, I do not know any gentlemen with thistle-down hair. And you do not know his name?"

"No, no. Right queer, me not getting his name. I guessen I forgot to ask. But a shilling's a shilling."

"Right. You work for me now, young Augustus, and don't you forget it. Oh, and Gus?"

"Yes, your Grace?"

"Give me back my pocketbook."

He handed it over most reluctantly. "Thank you. Run along now."

Gus flashed a cheeky grin, and dashed off into the swelling afternoon crowd. He looked like a competent boy, but then I only know two sorts of boys. Mealy boys and honest-faced boys. The latter of which steal every damn thing that is not nailed down the moment your back is turned, and young Gus looked to be this sort. Which was good for me, since I could use a young ding boy to do my dirty work.

Soon I would have some knowledge regarding Sir Julius, and knowledge, as they say, is power.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Offer

"Diamonds?" I said. "But you stated these stones were red."

"Indeed I did," replied Walker. "Rare pink diamonds, to be precise. Found nowhere else on earth. It is my belief that Sir Julius, hearing of them, decided to ‘kill two birds with one stone,’ as it were, and plunder the nation of both its people and minerals."

"I still fail to see my connexion," I said.

"It is simple, my friend. I seek to revenge myself and my people upon Sir Julius. I have already eliminated the option of violence. Therefore, I have resolved to take something precious from him. I would like you to steal the diamonds."

I took a quick drink of coffee while I squelched my indignation. "Sir, I fear you have misjudged me. I am no thief. If that is all," I said, rising to leave, "then I shall bid you good day."

"Wait a moment," he said, grasping my wrist, and seeing my desire to leave, added, "please."

I sat.

"You are correct, I have misjudged you. My apologies." His voice was somewhat hoarse.

"Accepted," I said, somewhat stiffly.

To my shock, Walker dropped his head suddenly into his hands. "By God, I despair," he gasped. "In truth, I have no more schemes, no more plots. I had pinned all my hopes upon you. Will this fiend never be punished for his crimes?"

I felt a great wave of pity swell within me, which was an unfamiliar emotion. A second, unfamiliar emotion followed fast on its heels, and it took me a few moments to realise that it was some form of guilt. Walker had saved me at the Captain’s house; would I now abandon him to his fate? Would the lives and freedom of countless Negroes never be avenged?

"Be of good cheer," said a voice, and I was startled to discover it was my own. "While I shall not steal, I shall be as the wasp or the hornet, and I shall think of some other method by which to sting Sir Julius."

Walker looked at me with something akin to hope. "You shall?"

"I shall," I replied, in all seriousness. "I am your man." Thievery did not appeal to me, but if I could think of some other method to relieve this foul slave trader of his wealth, then why not? After all, many tricksters lay very great stress upon some definite moral purpose, at which they profess to aim their works. Why should I be any different?

The Stones

While I must admit I found Walker’s story to be most engrossing, in truth I could not see how it pertained to me, nor how it might lead to an enriching of myself. I said as much.

Walker gave a rueful chuckle. "Yes, I imagine you’re quite lost. So was I, when I realised precisely who my adversary was. Do not worry, shortly I shall reveal to you the part I wish you to play. In the mean, I must continue my tragic tale.

"When I saw Sir Julius standing there, as proud and reputable as a cockerel, it was only the distance between us that saved his life, for I had sat, as I informed you, in the rear of the chamber. Realising that any attempt to rush the podium should alert Sir Julius to the danger and provide him time to escape, I left the room, fuming in frustration. Once outside, my anger cooled slightly.

"I realised that I was no murderer. Revenge, such as it was, would not be served by descending to the depths of depravity currently inhabited by my nemesis. I would need to strike at him another way.

"I made inquiries, around and about Town, as to the extent and nature of Sir Julius’ business. In doing so, I discovered that Sir Julius had been involved in the trade and sale of human beings for many years, and had grown fat upon the sweat of their suffering. But his expedition to the Bangallan coast was different. Most of his slaves, I learned through discreet questioning, came from the West of Africa. Bangalla lies in the East. Why would he travel many hundreds of leagues out of his way for something he could get in waters most familiar to him?

"This was most curious to me. For days, the answer eluded me, no matter how many of his servants, hangers-on, and lackeys I questioned. The man himself I never met, fearing that in his presence I would lose control and throttle the despicable creature.

"Eventually I made a startling discovery as to the reason for Sir Julius’ expedition to Bangalla, via a most unusual source. It seems that Sir Julius, his first wife having long since expired, had recently remarried, and Lady Dithers—her maiden name is Büpadüp, a German—had brought into Sir Julius’ house a number of new servants. One of these, a scullery maid, had been dismissed for attempting to throw out what she described to me as 'odd little stones.' These stones, which were further described as ‘brownish-red’ and ‘not fancy’, were seized from the poor lass by Sir Julius himself, who until that point had troubled himself very little with Lady Dithers’ servants. He then harshly berated her and dismissed her on the spot. I only encounter the girl by chance; her brother is still in service with Sir Julius and she overheard us discussing him."

"And the stones?" I asked.

"Could only be one thing," he stated. "Bangalla is wealthy in many natural goods—ivory, spices, even a little gold—but of precious stones it is surprisingly lacking. However, among the empires and colonies of Africa the country is well-known for the rare reddish stones found on the slopes of Mount Mlima."

"Which are?" I asked, interested despite myself and irritated at his dramatics.

Obviously he was pleased with the suspence, for he took a deep drink of coffee, making me wait, before answering.

"Diamonds, your Lordship. The stones Sir Julius stole from my people were diamonds."

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Tale

Walker seated himself, and once Monsieur H had returned with pastries and more coffee, he began.

"As you have no doubt been apprised by Samuel Driver, I have been engaged for many years in the enterprise of African exploration. This passion for the Dark Continent began when I was a small child, and I visited the Portuguese port of Lourenço Marques. There I saw many fascinating sights--elephants, lions, and gyraphs. I also met many fine Negroes.

"It is a commonplace in both the courts and villages of Europe, particularly in England, that the Negro is inferior to the European. However, I must say I have never found this to be the case. In fact, many of them impressed me with their manners and wit, which I found in every case to be superior to the venal and corrupt traders from the so-called civilized ports of the Channel and Mediterranean. In truth, I soon became enamored with the African way of life, and sought every opportunity to increase the width and breadth of my knowledge.

"In time, as is customary, I became a man. Once at liberty to comport myself as I wished, I dwelt in Africa the whole and sum of the hours available to me. From the broad plains of Kenya to the deepest jungles of the Congo, I ventured into every corner of that great landmass. I was enraptured, as a man with his first woman.

"But in time my love seemed to sour. From the beginning, I was aware of the great wealth of that land, prodigious in riches and teeming with opportunity. Diamonds in the Congo Basin, gold among the Rowzee, precious woods and ivory from the Coasts of Ivory--all these things were there to be taken, and the worst of men emerged to take them. Cruel, vicious, and rapacious, these men sought to rob the land of every good thing. Both European and Negro, their behaviour soon came to disgust me, and I felt the vilest creature in existence when I was in their presence.

"My love for Africa was spoilt, and my faith in my fellow man--and in Europe--shattered. Civilization, after all, is only savagery silver-gilt. In despair, I followed my lord rum into the Slough of Despond, and became the most crapulent man alive.

"From port to port, I traveled in search of debasement. Every harlot and taverner below the Sahara knew my face, if not my name. At last it seemed even to me that I would do myself an irreparable harm, and so, with the last of my reis, I bought passage on a ship bound for a land of which I had never heard: Bangalla.

"Drunk and in a state of gross dishabille, I arrived in Mawitann, which is the capitol. I must confess, the first several days I spent in the city are lost to me. In time, my sensibilities returned to me. And I found myself amongst the people with whom I would spend the next ten years of my life.

"And what people! A quiet, peaceful village, Mawitann is filled with the kindest, most virtuous men in creation. At least, that is my opinion, and I will hear none gainsay it. In courage they exceed the Germans, in wit the French, in stoutheartedness even the English. And their food cannot be compared with that of the Italians, only with that of Heaven. But what is more, the natives there soon took me in hand and brought me back into a state of discipline and sobriety. I came to regard them as my brothers, and they me. I roamed far and wide throughout their broad land, and met everywhere I went with the most noble Negroes.

"I was most happy there.

"To earn a living, I acted as interpreter for the traders who came into Mawitann. Many of the same rapacious gluttons who had driven me to despair elsewhere in Africa sailed into that graceful port. But now I felt much more assured in my dealings with them, as I found myself able to act as protector for the natives, preventing the evilest of the outsiders from harming them through violence or trickery. And in time I came to be regarded with the highest prestige, as an honest and incorruptible man.

"In the course of time, I was called on some business to the Cape Colony, for nearly six months. I found my time there agreeable, but always the streets and structures of the city reminded me of the earlier times, the bad times, and I dreamt nightly of returning to Bangalla. When the time and hour came to return, I was the happiest man in Africa. I boarded the vessel taking me to Mawitann with the greatest of joy. I looked forward with eagerness to seeing old friends again. As we sailed into Mawit Bay, I could see the glow of the village’s cookfires from beyond the cape. How happy I was as we rounded the cape and sailed into the bay!

"The village was aflame.

"The horror, the horror! As the ship eased into one of the quays I leapt with all urgency onto the dock and dashed into the city. The straw and wood huts burned merrily, seeming in mockery of my earlier joy, and everywhere I saw corpses, corpses of men, corpses of women, corpses of children.

"In a kind of madness, I ran towards the house of my friend, Lua-Ga, the chieftain of the village. Smoke and flames clouded my vision, or was it tears? At last I found my friend.

"His chest had been staved in, but still he breathed. 'Walker, my friend,' he gasped.

"'Yes, I am here,' I said.

"'My friend.' His voice was hoarse, and thick, as though filled with blood.

"'Tell me how I might ease your burden, old friend,' I whispered, tears streaming down my face. 'Who did this?'

"'Slavers...white men...from the...east. you.' Like you. The words seemed to bore into my mind. Like you. Had I doomed my friends? Doomed a people I loved?

"In my arms Lua-Ga breathed his last. I wept for him. I wept for them all."

For a long time, Walker was silent. The depth of emotion he had revealed moved me, but I said nothing. It seemed obscene to say anything. The horrors he had seen made my own plight as nothing.

"I buried them. (Walker continued.) It took many days. But I could not leave my brothers to rot under the hot sun. And in the course of performing such funerary rites, my grief fell away from me, leaving only a core of rage. Vengeance must be had."

A chill ran up my spine. Would I be constantly plagued by men with thoughts of revenge? Without noticing my consternation, Walker went on.

"I began to track the slavers. In my time among the Bangallans, I learned many of the secrets, and with their ancient jungle wisdom I was able to follow the slavers to Mzizima, the great Arab city on the coast. A city of sparkling minarets and the call of the muezzin, but most of all famed for its slave market.

"Dressed in the robes of a most proper imam, I followed the gossip through the Servants’ Quarter, through the Camel Gate, almost to the steps of the Green Mosque itself, and heard the story of thousands of black Africans from the south--Bangalla being in the south--who had been sold to a powerful mzungu, a white man.

"I had tarried long in Mawitann burying my friends, and was almost too late. The last shipment of slaves, bound for the Colonies, was being loaded, and would leave with the evening tide.

"With great haste I bolted for the docks, for the tide would rise within the hour, and the last of my adopted people would be sent to enslavement or worse in the New World. I must have struck a strange sight--a tall mzungu in imam’s robes sprinting through the crowded marketplace. But I cared none for my appearance. Almost before I realised it I was at the piers, where the slave-ships sat like hulking prisons afloat.

"I was too late. The last ship slipped free of its moorings as I dashed to the end of the pier. I watched with hopeless fury as my bosom friends were taken from me, bound for captivity. But at the last, I saw something that drove me to even greater heights of rage: the mzungu, the white man, who had done all this.

"He appeared at the aft of the ship. I do not think he saw me. Ancient and stooped, with a walrus-mustache beneath a hawk’s nose, he hardly cut an imposing figure, but the fineness of his clothing and the elegance of his tricorn indicated a man of great wealth and prosperity. For only a moment I saw him. And then he was gone."

Walker drank deeply of his coffee, and was silent for a time, apparently lost in memory. I knew not what this tale had to do with me, but I listened with rapt interest to it, enthralled by the accounts of wickedness in exotic climes.

Putting down his cup, he continued. “This was nearly four months ago. Needless to say, after such tragedy I drifted. Africa held little charm for me, and so I returned to the land of my birth. The only thing that kept me alive, kept me sane, was the thought that one day I could have revenge on the old man in fine clothes. I lived for that day.

"Once in London, I was at a loss as to what to do next. I decided, after much contemplation, to write my memoirs."

Really! What a fascinating idea, I thought. I should do that someday.

"But the tasks of authorship soon felt onerous and heavy upon my shoulders, and so I whiled away my days visiting the fashionable parts of the city. The finest salons, most beautiful galleries, I visited them all. I even toured the country, wasting great sums--great, at least, to me--in gambling and other vice.

"One day, not long after you and I met at the Captain’s, I chose to watch a session of Parliament. The exquisitely wrought halls of Westminster were that day excessively hot, and I chose to take a seat high in the upper galleries, hoping to escape the crush of barristers and law-makers that dominated the floor.

"The speeches were most tedious, but their subject was not. The regulation of slavery, a subject of great interest to me, as you might imagine. So I attended to the wind proceeding from the floor most carefully. Still, the hot, stifling air made me drowse.

"But I was jolted sharply awake after many dull hours. An opponent of the bill had risen and begun to speak, arguing most vociferously for the free trade of human flesh and sweat. Imagine my shock when I realised it was none other than the old man in fine clothes!

"He was here, in London. Feted by society and an honourable Member of Parliament. It took me very little work to discover his name."

Walker’s eyes bored into me, and I felt the intensity coming off him like waves.

"My enemy was one of the richest men in London: Sir Julius Dithers."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Salon

O what a happy man who finds himself young and in London! The rain-soaked brick and cobble of Piccadilly glistened in the afternoon sun, which had at long last shed its bashfulness and emerged from the all-encompassing clouds. Every surface and plane seemed to me to be aglow with light, and as I gazed out of the carriage I met each passerby with a cheery smile and brash bonhomie.

Hobbes was left well behind, and I had arrived in the greatest city in the world. London, city of lights! The rented carriage clattered through crowded streets, weaving between fruitsellers, natty lads, fullers, and mohocks. The din and sin of the city rose up in contrast to its exquisite charms. Prostitutes mingled with politicians and poets; for the man with money, all could be had. In short, a city in which I was a most natural denizen.

I quickly found lodgings at the Tabard; ‘tis truly amazing what one can do when one has money. I dined that evening on good chicken stew, and found blessed sleep. The fact that I was many miles from my enemy, who in his bedraggled state no doubt would, should he decide to come to London, cover the intervening distance on foot, made my slumber most restful.

In the morning, I awoke to birdsong. The rain had finally broken, and the sun had emerged permanently. A warmth of adventure and prospective excitement filled me as I dressed neatly in coat, breeches, and waistcoat. With watch and fob I presented the proper gentleman, and I decided to breakfast at a certain salon whose name I had been given in Spitalfields.

The streets were still somewhat muddy as I made my way through the tumultuous crowds of London. Hawkers offered me every treasure from the far corners of the world, exquisitely crafted the day prior in Bethnal Green. Doxies offered their wares with great generosity as I passed their shabby and worn doorways. At least twice young dimber-dambers tried to snake my coin-purse, but with a quick hand and a sharp cuff to the ear sent the pick-pockets on their way penniless. In all, a good morning, and I whistled as I came up to the salon recommended to me by Mr. Walker.

It was an oddly spare place, somehow lacking in detail and precision. How this was possible in a building I do not know, but the only proper way to describe its architecture was generic. I was greeted by a small, rotund Negro, his upper lip surmounted by a bristling mustache. The Negro appeared the very height of prosperity, his full stomach filling out the nondescript waistcoat he wore most elegantly.

"Good day, good day, good day!" he said, smiling.

"Good day," I replied. "I am the Viscount Stokington."

"Most pleased to meet you," he replied, with a slight but noticeable accent. "Most pleased!"

Nonplussed, I stumbled conversationally for a moment, then continued. "And your name is..."

The Negro continued to smile, but his eyes betrayed a hint of panic. "A name? I am the short one with the hair on his lip! My partner is the tall one with the hair on his chin! We are purveyors of beverages and gossip. Did you hear of the poet whose scandalous behavior has shocked the city? Or the nobleman who has gotten into trouble? Or the general who has won all the victories?"

Now I was truly lost for words. My confusion must have been evident, for he asked, "Have you come for our black beverage with flavor?"

"You mean coffee? I am sorry, but--A...a Mr. Walker told me to meet him here, for business?" I pleaded.

With this revelation, the tension seemed to ease from the little man. "Ah yes! The man who walks! Come this way."

I followed him to a small table, where he bade me sit, and soon I had a steaming cup of coffee. With, as the small Negro had promised, flavor.

A goodly hour passed, and I drank several cups of coffee from the ceramic pot the Negro had left before disappearing back in the kitchens. While my thirst was quenched, my host had neglected to provide me with anything in the way of sustenance, and I was soon famished. When next he emerged from the back rooms, I hailed him.

"Good sir, would it be possible for me to get a bun or even a profiterole?"

"You mean a confection made of pastry cut in half and filled with whipped cream?"

I hesitated. "Yes, precisely."

"Remember, sir, a king’s son is not nobler than his food," and with that he bustled off.

"What an odd person," I mused. "And what a bizarrely circumlocutious manner of speaking."

"You must forgive Monsieur H and his friend Monsieur J," boomed an unearthly voice from behind me. I turned and found myself presented with a tall man, draped in a porphyritic cloak. His burning eyes were shadowed by his furrowed brow. "You see, they come from a tribe in darkest Africa where it is considered the very worst luck to speak the proper name of something. They will not even speak their own names, and it took the devil’s own work for me to winkle them out of them."

"Mr. Walker," I said, with a smile. I rose and made a proper bow.

"I am glad you could come, and it is fitting that you should meet me here, where it is patently obvious that the Negro prospers when given the chance."

"Fitting how, my friend?"

"It was obvious to me when we met at Captain Brutus’ house that you were an adventurer and gambler and gentleman of fortune. I need such a man, with such skills, now."

"You flatter me."

"On the contrary," he replied, his voice deep with foreboding. "Even what talents you possess may not be up to the task. This is no mere parlor game. The fate of an entire continent is at stake!"

The Duchess

Constable was generally known for his landscapes; this portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Devon, is an excellent example of his less well-known mastery of portraiture.
From the Yang Collection: Duchess in Hat (John Constable, Oil on Canvas, 1792)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Friend

This rare painting was only allowed to be displayed for the first time in 1932 by Sir Arthur MacDonald-Tewkes-de Plessy after much pleading by the Royal Gallery
From the Royal Gallery: The Honourable Joseph Charles Hastings MacDonald, Baronet of Little Stoke (Sir Joshua Reynolds, Oil on Canvas, 1796)

The Recovery

I was somewhat shaky after my encounter with the fiendish Calvin Hobbes, so with the help of the Professor, I made my way to the study and downed a dram of brandy. Miss Thompson saw to the cut on my forehead, proving that her dowdy exterior housed a most capable nurse.

"Who was that devil?" asked the Professor as he handed me a cup of tea.

"An old friend," I replied.

"He hardly seemed the friendly sort to me," sniffed the Professor. "Someone you’ve swindled at cards, perhaps?"

"On the contrary, I know him well. Or thought I did."

"Then what was the cause of that rumpus?"

"Would you believe a plate of pasta? But the details are far too ludicrous to recount. Besides, my...friend always insisted no blame could be attached to him," I said.

The Professor gave me a suspicious look, but let my comment pass. “It is far too dangerous for you here if a madman seeks your demise. He may be lurking in any alley you like, ready to spring forth and slide a dirk betwixt your ribs. Something must be done."

"Yes, I must make haste to London."

"So you are still resolved to discover what business Mr. Walker has for you?"

"Indeed I am, Professor, moreso, in fact, than I was." With that, I rose and made my way back to my room.

The floor was spattered with my blood and with the rain that had fallen when Hobbes had made his hasty exit. I frowned at the sight of my inherent mortality, but resolved that it should not be an omen for my coming voyage. London in all its splendor awaited.

Still, my mind continued to drift back to Hobbes. He would return. I knew it as I knew the sun, as I knew my own face. Anger and jealousy can no more bear to lose sight of their objects than lust. His quest for that unholy grail, vengeance, would bring him back to me as surely as the crusader gravitates towards Jerusalem.

But I would be ready. He would not catch me unawares again. I packed my things in the grim determination that, should Hobbes make another assault upon my person, I would deflect it with greatest alacrity. I might meet him a second time, but there would be no third.

I decided I would sleep on the coach. My excited demeanour would not allow me rest, so after my wardrobe had been carefully secured, I addressed letters to both Margaret and Joseph, informing them with the utmost humility that I apologised for the great haste in which I was leaving Stokington, but that the demands of business required my presence henceforth in London, and could not wait.

Giving these epistles to a servant, I made my fare-thee-wells to Miss Thompson and the Professor. As much as it pains me to admit, the old fellow had grown on me, and truly I knew then that I would miss his company in London. Then I mounted the carriage, and in the early morning gloom, I was off.

Glittering London awaits!

The Nemesis

It was a dark and stormy night. The frightening visage of a vengeful madman was illuminated only by the occasional flashes of lightning. The storm outside raged on, as inside I engaged with a lunatic.

"Cast out from Oxford, disowned by my family for squandering what little wealth they could summon," snarled Hobbes. "Misfortune after misfortune, all due to you!"

"To me? 'Twas you who gave offense, you who insisted upon blades at dawn. You who are to blame for any misfortune that may have fallen upon you!"

Truly, the prospect of being skewered by my most notorious enemy did not fill me with joy. At Oxford, Hobbes had been a shabby, worn figure, minuscule in his second-hand clothing bought, no doubt, from some dealer in the East End. In short, the object of our schoolboy pranks and japes. After the termination of some particularly scandalous jest, he would fly into a characteristic rage, the timbre of his voice becoming almost womanly as he swore vengeance upon myself and my confederates. Still, he in turn played his share of mischief on me and my bosom chums, so while his jokes always seemed to have a more cruel and callous edge to them I considered us square. The ragged figure looming in the dusky storm-light bore little resemblance to the pompous young naïf who delighted in using a type or kind of sesquipedalian loquaciousness to mock his foes. In truth, I had found his book-learning pretentious; I know a pretty word or two, but do not feel the need to flaunt them at every interval.

O how the mighty had fallen! The once proud darling of the ministers and deans of Oxford had been reduced to a gibbering madman.

"I hope your affairs are in order, Stokington, for you are now about to die!" he croaked, his voice apparently hoarse from disuse.

Somehow, amidst the various phobic emotions coursing through my veins, I found the courage to snort at him. "The Greenwich master of poesy, resorting to such a trite threat? You enemy lies prostrate before you, and you can do no better?"

"Stifle your tongue, Stokington! I am reduced to penury, thanks to you! I am an unfortunate and deserted creature, I look around and I have no relation or friend upon earth! These amiable people amongst whom I go have never seen me and know little of me. I am full of fears, for if I fail here, I am an outcast in the world forever!"

"Much better. I should think it most unsporting of me to expire while your poetical stylings were thus mediocre."

"Silence! A rapier to your heart, Stokington, and silence to your tongue!" His whole body shuddered, as though overcome by thoughts of revenge the emotion itself now threatened to break free from the confines of his form.

By this point much of my fear had deserted me. It became clear that Hobbes had not truly taken leave of his senses, but his life was as cold as an attic facing north; and revenge, like a silent spider, was weaving its web in the shadows, in every corner of his heart. An enraged man can be deal with, and during his diatribe on his suffering I had chanced to free my right hand from beneath the counterpane.

"But I speak too much, and too little," cried Hobbes. "Listen: I hear the doddering old fool’s foot upon the stair. My time grows short. I am vengeance, I am the night, I am--"

"You are unconscious," I cried, as I seized the candlestick from the bedside table and heaved it at him. My quondam schoolmate let out a squawk as the heavy brass struck him across the ear. He stumbled back, and in that opening I flung aside the sheets that had entrapt me and sprang to my feet.

Hobbes quickly recovered from the blow, and in a glittering arc he swung his blade at me. Too close, man, too close! I seized his sword-wrist firmly and, deflecting the blow, placed a punch squarely in the devil’s nose. "No!" he cried. "My revenge!"

In the eerie light of the thunderclouds that menaced the skies above we grappled. His filthy and sweat-drenched body squirmed as I attempted to fasten him into a hold. From the lower floors of the house I could hear alarums as the servants and Professor Papagoras awoke.

Hobbes struck a mighty blow to my forehead, and dazed, I tripped backwards over some cylindrical object on the treacherous floor. Blood cascaded into my eyes. “Now, come sweet death, and take him,” panted Hobbes, his voice thick with glee, as he raised his sword.

In haste, I scrabbled for the nearest object of defence—and found that my hand had alighted on the candlestick. With one desperate swing, I brought it up—and connected. The heavy base struck Hobbes’ sword hand, and with a howl he nervelessly dropped the sword.

At once I was upon him. A mighty rain of blows emanated from my fists, as properly enraged and roused to action I took my fury out upon my enemy.

Behind me, the door flew open. Professor Papagoras stood there, looking tragically comical in nightgown and with fire-poker raised above his head. The hostler and boy both stood ready behind. "What is the meaning of this ruction?" demanded the Professor in his reedy voice.

"Alas," wailed Hobbes. "I am undone!" And giving one heroic final blow, he struggled free from my grasp and dashed to the open window. Standing dramatically with one foot upon the sill, before the storm and strife that raged without, he cursed me. "This is not over, Stokington. I shall have my revenge! The next time we meet shall be the last, and I shall bring your death!"

And with that he flung himself through the portal. I stood, panting, dimly lit by the light of the hostler’s lamp.

Gone. He was gone. For now.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Vagabond

Dinner that night was an awkward affair. I had decided that discretion on my part would be best, as I did not seek to worry either the Professor or Miss Thompson. Despite this nobility on my part, I felt most aggrieved and in ill sorts. I could not imagine what individual, perhaps maddened by some unknowing action on my part, should seek me harm.

The house lay deep in shadows that night. From every crevice and corner spread creeping pools of inky blackness that threatened to rise up and engulf the unwary. The constant drumbeat of rain upon the roof proved maddening, and in such madness I came to understand the insanity that drove my unknown foe. With all haste I make my exits to the library, but what I supposed would be the warm and familiar glow of the candles served only to deepen the shadows that surrounded me. I turned my attention to a volume of Blake. An unwise choice this proved to be, as tormented by visions of Heaven and Hell, I soon retreated to that unwelcoming land that lies between sleep and wakefulness. In this melancholy and nightmarish realm, the occasional roll of thunder penetrated my consciousness like the roar of cannons.

On occasion I roused myself back towards consciousness, but my frequent draughts of brandy soon put me into an alcoholic stupor, made more frightful by the lashing rain upon the windowpane. Thus ensorcelled by spirits of an earthly variety, I became more open to the influence of spirits of a spectral sort. Every shadow made my heart pound dully in my chest, every gust of wind through the shutters drove me to heights of suspicion.

I saw no-one as the night deepened. I could have been in the house alone. Neither Miss Thompson nor the Professor saw fit to make themselves known, though I would have gladly suffered much for their company.

At long last I saw the fingers of the clock creep towards two o’ the clock, and my sense won over my bravado. I retired to bed, discontented and worried. It is a terrible thing, the unknown. Even the bravest man quails before it. After much fitful tossing and turning, Morpheus’ warm embrace greeted me. My sleep was troubled.

In the wee hours of the morning, when the world was still dark, I awoke into confusion. Some noise, some sound had disturbed my restless slumber, and I found myself trapped beneath a heavy counterpane, haunted by the echo of my own breath in the darkened room. Or was it my own breath? For several moments I held it within me, and my skin crawled as I heard the unmistakable sound of air being drawn into lungs not my own.

No coward was I. "Who’s there?" I demanded, but no response came. Only the heavy beat of rain on the gable. "Who’s there?"

"Your doom."

The voice that rasped out of the dark was hoarse with hate and rage. I struggled against the sheets, seeking to free myself and face this unseen assailant. He spoke again.

"Three weeks in woods and field and mud and rain, Stokington. Three weeks." The hairs on the back of my neck came up. The voice was familiar, very familiar, but I could not place it. But it mattered not. The madman had found me.

"You were the ruin of me, Stokington," he growled. “Now I shall be the ruin of you.” A shadow detached itself from the wall, and I wondered sickly how long this lunatic had been there. Had he been there when I came in to sleep? Had he been there when I drowsed in the library? Had he been there while Miss Thompson, the Professor and I dined? Perhaps he had come directly from the church, after assaulting young Sarah so. The thought chilled me.

The shadow raised an arm, and I saw the glint of a rapier in what little light there was. "Prepare for death, Stokington, for I am the spirit that always denies!"

A bolt of lightning exploded somewhere out on the moors, illuminating the room, and I saw him!

A slight, almost boyish frame made leaner still by hunger, enwrapped in ragged clothing that had perhaps once been fashionable. A cherubic face, so childlike in its beauty, marred only by spatters of mud and a month-long growth of beard. Long, matted golden blonde hair curtained a pair of green eyes that, sunk deep into the recesses of the skull, were filled with malice, madness, and hate. One delicate, nearly feminine hand clutched a long, rust-spotted blade. In short, the picture of madness unbound.

Worse still, I knew this man. My one-time nemesis.

"Calvin Hobbes," I whispered.

The Banns

A strange effect of marriage, such as the eighteenth century has made it! The boredom of married life inevitably destroys love, when love has preceded marriage. And yet, as a rake-hell has observed, it speedily brings about, among people who are rich enough not to have to work, an intense desire for all noisy forms of enjoyment. And it is only dried up hearts, among men, that it does not predispose to love. In my latest predicament, I began to see the truth in all this, for la Duchesse and Lady Margaret both insisted I stay at least two more days in Stokington, so that I might be present for the crying of the banns in the local pulpit on the following Sunday.

The local gentry were resplendent in their finery during the vicar’s sermon. The Most Reverend Dr. Staneglass is well known in Devonshire for the sheer tedium of his homilies, so I amused myself by imagining what private sins these pillars of the community might have committed.

I counted myself exceedingly lucky that for the past decade my mother and father had seen fit to employ the services of a chaplain at Menacing House, thus relieving them of the obligation to attend Sunday services and allowing me to avoid meeting them that fateful Sunday. Thus was avoided a public brawl in a rectory, which even for such a debauched person as myself would have been somewhat scandalous. Still, I felt quite respectable seated next to Margaret and her mother in a front-row pew. Behind me I could hear the scandalised and outraged whispers of the town elders, particularly the Widow Worth, a frighteningly aggressive meddler in the affairs of lads and lasses alike. Naturally, I ignored the decrepit old crone’s malicious susurrus to her eunuch companion, a fellow who had once been a noted field doctor accompanying the Honourable East India Company into Malaya, but now due to the harridan’s emasculation was little more than a shadow. Rumour had it that the Widow Worth had once convinced a young lady of her acquaintance that the girl was a great artist, and that overcome with fumes from the pigments she used as well as feminine weakness, the girl became certain she was being haunted by some ghastly spectre. To bring a swift end to a tragic tale, the poor maiden is now confined in Bedlam, yet another victim of the Widow’s insatiable need to meddle.

Even she could not countenance an unpleasant thought towards Margaret and myself, sitting oh so proper, with Margaret’s lady’s maid acting as chaperon. Of course, Margaret, being true to her nature, treated the poor girl abominably, constantly sending her off to perform petty errands. "Sarah, go forth and do this thing for me." "Sarah, go forth and do that thing for me." "Sarah, go forth and do that other thing for me." It grew quite tiresome, and I was nearing the point of instructing Margaret to allow the poor girl a rest, when the vicar rose to cry the banns.

"Oh Dennis," whispered Margaret, "This is so exciting!"

"Marriage," began Dr. Staneglass. "Marriage is what brings us together, today. Marriage, that blessed arrangement, that dream within a dream. And love, true love--"

Whatever the vicar wished to impart on us regarding love was interrupted by a blood-curdling scream from outside the church. Such a horrifying shriek, as to stop the heart! Several ladies in the church screamed as well, while the better-bred of their number swooned.

Almost as one, the gentlemen leapt to their feet and moved outside. I too accompanied them, for the scream had obviously come from a woman in peril, and as a gentleman it was my duty to attend to her. I rushed down the church steps, only to find a large crowd gathered around none other than Margaret’s lady’s maid, Sarah. The girl appeared unharmed, but by the trembling in her hands and the ghastly expression on her face, it was clear she had taken a tremendous shock.

"Sarah, what is the matter?" I asked in my most kindly voice. I felt ashamed I had allowed Margaret’s torment of young Sarah to carry on for so long, and hoped that by treating her kindly now in a moment of crisis her spirits might be buoyed. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed as Margaret imperiously swept through the crowd and hauled Sarah to her feet.

"What on earth are you sniveling about, you foolish cow?" demanded Margaret.

"Softly, Margaret," I said. I turned to Sarah and asked her, "Go ahead, dear. What happened?"

" horrible," the maid whispered.

"What was?" I asked. "Do not be alarmed, you are safe among friends now."

"A...a man," she managed to stammer out. "A man with a sword! He raved...oh how he raved...a madman!"

This brought a startled gasp from the assembled crowd. The vicar, who had only just arrived, asked, "And what did the madman say?"

Sarah’s eyes darted to-and-fro; it was clear she was still befuddled and frightened. "He...said something...something about revenge. He said...he said your name, your Grace!" she said, suddenly raising her arm and pointing at--me!

"He was all dirty...his hair matted," she continued, almost to herself. "His tigers' eyes, so angry!"

A murmur went up through the crowd, as the frightened churchgoers marveled at the possibility of a deranged lunatic in their midst.

"This all sounds like nonsense to me," declared Margaret.

"Why, Margaret," I said, my voice astonished. "It is patently obvious the girl has had a bad shock. Do not dismiss her so carelessly!" To Sarah I said, "What happened to him, this madman?"

"I screamed, and he ran off! That way!" she cried, and pointed; at once, a large contingent of the assembled gentlemen began to make haste in pursuit of the miscreant. I doubted they would catch him. He had already time enough to escape. I was nevertheless troubled, for the madman had named me, and called for some unspecified revenge. I had many enemies, but none who could be charitably called madmen.

Whatever joy I had found in the ill-timed union of Margaret and myself was dashed, and as I returned to the Professor’s house I found the town to be grim and shadowy, with phantom assailants behind every corner, and a hostile and deadly air seemed to permeate what once was kind and friendly.

My enemies were on the prowl. I would need to be on guard.