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...so 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 eyes...like 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.
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.