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.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Pocketbook

“So where, precisely, is he?”

Gus pointed. “Down in yon salon, your Lordship.”

I shaded my eyes with one hand. “And his horse?”

“Reined in out front and yonder,” said young Jase. “I seed it me own self. Right nice horse.”

“Good,” I said. “And you three know what to do?”

Gus, Jase, and Hil nodded soberly. The crowded street was thick with the usual fug of odors inconsiderable, and swarming with hawkers, thieves, and prostitutes. The old Tudor buildings leaned in from either side, blocking off the sky and turning the street into a tunnel. We loitered in the entrance to an alleyway, my three young skylarker friends slouching rudely against the rough stone walls.

“Remember,” I said to Gus, “‘tis very important that you do not outdistance me, but do not let him catch you.”


“There he be,” squeaked Hil, gesturing with one twig-thin arm.

“Here we go,” I said, and began to proceed down the street towards our quarry. He was a young man dressed elegantly in silk and brocade, his handsome face only slightly lined by war. If he was the worse for drink, he did not show it, but even at this distance I could tell he was less alert than he ought to be. His longish auburn hair fell into his eyes, and his demeanour was of a man with few cares in the world.

I reached his steed mere moments before he did, and as I passed the beast I deliberately stepped in one of its droppings, sacrificing an excellent boot for our cause. As he untied the horse, I called to him. “I say, you there!”

His head snapped up. “Who calls?”

“I do. I say, are you the owner of this infernal creature?” I asked, gesturing violently towards the horse.

His handsome face took on a pugnacious cast. “I am, sir. And what concern is it of yours?”

“This foul beast,” I said, my voice quivering with manufactured rage, “has defecated in the street, and befouled my boots. I suggest you exhibit some control over it.”

“Perhaps if you had watched your step, you should have avoided it,” he said nastily. I strode over to him and poked him in the chest with a finger.

“My boots are ruined. I would very much like to know who will pay for them!” My angry tones echoed through the stifling street, drawing looks from passersby.

At that signal, Gus and his two cronies came trotting ‘round the corner. The young man paid them no mind, but I kept watch on them out of the corner of my eye as they loped down the street like stripling wolves, neatly dodging skirts and weaving between sweating artisans.

As the young man summoned what was to be without doubt some cutting remark, Gus gracefully collided with him, squirming between us with ease as he jostled both of us. The young man staggered backwards, but caught himself. As he regained his balance, I said, “Are you all right, man?”

“Fine,” he said, dusting himself off.

“Why, I do believe that rascal picked your pocket,” I said.

The young man hastily patted his pockets. “By God, you’re right!”

“There he goes!” I shouted, and dashed off after Gus. The boy gave me a merry chase, as I was forced to dodge between hoi polloi who stared after me, startled. At last I caught him, when he had decided the chase was convincing enough. I made as if to box his ears, and he in turn emitted some most believable yelps. As we grappled, I said to him in a low voice, “Have you the pocketbook?”

“Got it, lordship,” he replied in an equally low tone. Finally, I seized him by the ear and loudly declaimed, “Hand it over, you thieving rapscallion.”

Making a great show of reluctance, he handed me the offending article. “‘Tis a fair cop, sir.”

I clipped him behind the ear and he dashed off. Panting slightly, I returned to the young man, who had apparently been loath to leave his horse unbound. “Here it is; the blighter gave me quite the chase for it.”

“My thanks, most humble and extensive,” he said, taking the pocketbook with great eagerness. He quickly opened it, and let out a dismayed cry. “‘Tis empty! I am undone!”

“The whoreson!” I swore fervently, causing the other man to gasp at my vulgarity. “He must have removed its contents before I apprehended him! What a blow!”

The young man clapped a hand to his forehead. “‘Twas nearly a hundred pounds! My captain shall have my head,” he moaned.

“Only a hundred?” I said.

“‘Only’ a hundred?” he scoffed. “That is nearly two years’ pay.”

I reached for my own pocketbook. “In truth, I am at fault, sir. Had I not raised a fuss over the trifling matter of a bit of dung, you should not have been distracted and allowed that rapscallion to rob you. Here, allow me to recompense you.”

“No, no,” he said, pushing my proffered bills away. “Had I not been so careless as to lash my horse to the post in the street, none of this would have happened. Keep your money.”

I placed a carefully composed look of extreme sobriety upon my face. “Sir, my honour will not permit me to allow you to go forth empty-handed. Man, mind yourself is the first commandment, and if you shan’t mind yourself, I must do it for you. Please take this.”

At last he relented, taking the bills with only the greatest of efforts. “Sir, you are too kind. To whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

I doffed my hat. “Dennis St. Michel, Viscount of Stokington, at your service,” I said, and made a bow.

“And I am Lieutenant Jasper Dithers, likewise at your service,” he replied.

“Hopefully those funds shall make your day a bit more pleasant.”

“Without doubt, my Lord. The gaming halls of London shall tremble with fear tonight!” he laughed.

“A sportsman, eh? My friends and I are planning a small soiree some nights hence; perhaps you would like to join us?”

“Oh no, I daren’t; I am afraid your company is too lofty for the likes of myself,” he protested.

“Nonsense,” I said heartily. “Thursday night, for certain. A small but cozy casino in Knightsbridge called Duke’s. Please, be there with my invitation.”

“Perhaps,” he said, smiling, but I could tell he would be there for certain. “Perhaps.”

“‘Til Thursday,” I said, and turning, strode back up the street. After I had turned the corner, I found Gus and Jase sitting atop a small dilapidated cassone that had mysteriously been deposited in the street.

“Well?” I said.

Gus shrugged. “Hil’s nipped back around to stick the mopusses back in the jemmy fellow’s saddlebag.”

“Good,” I said.

“Whyn’t we just keep it?” asked Jase.

“Because we are not thieves,” I said sternly. “Now come, let us away. Young Gus needs to be fitted for a suit.”

“A suit? Why?” he whined.

“It will all become apparent,” I said confidently, as I led the two boys away. The first encounter with the enemy had gone swimmingly. I optimistically hoped the second would as well. Well, as I would later learn, optimism is for fools and Irishmen. The first major kink in my plan was just around the corner.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Poet

Walker and I had quit London for the moment, traveling some sixty-odd miles to Suffolk, where there are more horses than men. Newmarket itself had a rustic, charming quality about it, and as we strode through the high street we carefully avoided the larger puddles. The streets were thronged with followers of the turf, each man clutching a folio of bills as though it were his own child. We passed two men, one tall, one short, both arguing inanely over their losses and how they would explain them to the tall one’s wife. Every variety of man under the sun roamed and caroused. It was a good day for the bet-takers.

“Our mutual friend Dithers’ banker is a fellow by the name of Battle-Crownes. Oliver Battle-Crownes,” said Walker.

“Describe him to me,” I said, neatly sidestepping a cart loaded with manure.

“Bald and brainless,” said Walker bluntly. “Full of vim, you know?”

“Right. Over-enthusiastic and under-cautious. I know the type.”

“A bit of a philanthropist, helping orphans, donating to all manner of charities.”

“A do-gooder.”

“Very much so. Does he figure well in your plan?” asked Walker.

“Indeed he does. Your information has been most helpful,” I said.

As we made our way to the track, the crowd seemed to congeal, the nattily dressed toffs hastily attempting to keep their distance from a raggedy figure. Unfortunately for myself, I was swept by the pull of the crowd into the beggar’s presence. A tattered and worn man, his eyes burned from some madness that welled from within. In his arms he clutched a ginger moggie of truly terrifying proportions, whose matted fur and scowling visage, coupled with its extreme heft, provided a nightmare worthy of Bosch.

“It speaks,” the beggar whispered. “The hellcat, he speaks, and of things man does not wot! Life is a hideous thing, truly!”

“Very good, sirrah,” I said, uncomfortable.

“Beware,” intoned the beggar in a voice most sepulchral and iron. “Beware the Great Old Ones! They come. Shuuulz! Berqlibr’thed! Al-Qap, the mad Arab! The Kid in Yellow! Beware! They come, from beyond the mortal veil, invading the world material and driving innocent men to Bedlam and beyond! The Brainless Hound of Infinite Spittle, who gnaws at the souls of the unwary, he comes. The beast-men of Raw-Li Ch’rrch come, bringing with them untold tides of despair. The tiger that walks as a man, he comes. Beware!”

Walker grasped my shoulder. “I daresay this fellow’s been touched by some imp or other. Come, let us leave this crackbrain, and be about our business.”

We eased away from the howling madman, who continued his tirade, at times raising the great feline in his arms for inspection by the crowd, but his words haunted me. The tiger that walks as a man. I remembered Lady Nimue’s words of warning: “‘Ware the tiger. ‘Ware the tiger.” Was I doomed to be forever haunted by the spectral stripes and phantom fangs of some unseen predator?

It was therefore with feelings of profound doom that I allowed Walker to guide me through the crowd, until at last we found our quarry, the elusive Mister Frazier, beneath a somewhat worn canopy, betting slips nearly covering the rickety table before him.

He was a tall, thin young man, his blonde hair knotted and unruly. His every motion suggested a man deep in unease, and for a brief, bewildering moment I thought it was my nemesis Hobbes. However, after a moment it became clear the resemblance was only co-incidental. He wore finely cut clothing, suggesting a young man of some means, but the fine lines on his face--and the dram of gin by his elbow--hinted at unpaid debts, at late-night visitations by creditors, at bankruptcy and forlorn hopes dashed. A well-built young woman sitting next to him, while somewhat plump, was sufficiently statuesque to delight the eye, but the cut of her gown and the cheapness of the fabric implied a certain mercenary aspect to their relationship.

“Mr. Frazier?” I asked. He looked up with eyes filled with dread, and I continued. “I come from our mutual friend Duke.”

With this remark his face turned ashy pale, but to his credit he held his ground, and merely nodded. “Do what thou must,” he said resignedly. “The barb may sting but a moment, but the shame of cowardice shall endure into eternity. I await thine killing blow.”

A poet. Typical. “Spare me your dramatics,” I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster. “I come to offer you a business proposal, not assassination, if that is not overly pedestrian for the likes of you.”

Frazier’s brow nearly met his hairline. “Who are you?”

“My name is Dennis St. Michel. I am the Viscount of Stokington.”

“Edwin Frazier, esquire,” he replied, standing and making a bow. “The young lady to my right is my esteemed muse and paramour, who rejoices in the name Miss Fredericka Ritz. She is the eternal and undying inspiration for every note I commit to paper.”

“Charmed,” I replied, and sketched a bow. “This is my partner Mr. Christopher Walker, of Africa.”

“How may I be of service?” asked Frazier.

Walker and I sat. “Mister Duke has apprised me as to the fact that you owe him nearly five thousand pounds.”

“Alas,” cried Frazier. “By equus and absinthe I am undone, my love of Lady Luck goes unrequited and the dice curse me at every throw.”

“I would like to offer you a chance to escape penury,” I said evenly. “I have need of a young man skilled in the arts of cards and you seem to match my requirements. I also need a young lady of Miss Ritz’s fashion; perhaps she would also like to assist us.”

“For what purpose, sir?”

“A small game concerning a gentleman of property but no morals.”

“A proper villain, then? Perhaps, perhaps. Do you possess any great chance of success?”

“I would put money on it,” I said, smiling.

Frazier grimaced. “As would have I, once. For most men--till by losing rendered sager--will back their own opinions by a wager.”

Walker glanced at me quickly. “If you follow, your debts shall be covered, and you shall away with a tidy sum. The part you play is but small.”

“And no great vice?” Frazier asked, and I could sense in his voice a weakening of resolve, a desire to escape his mean station by any methods offered to him. “No uncalled-for sin?”

“Can one sin ‘gainst a sinner?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “Think, my friend. Enough money to pay off Mister Duke, and perhaps to put your young muse in finery fit for a demigoddess, rather than a demimonde.”

Frazier sighed, and buried his face in his hands. For long moments he was silent. Then at last, as though from a great distance, he said, “What is my part?”

“A gambler, a role for which I think you most well-suited. And one other, but that shall require you to work an honest day’s work.”

He let out a death-groan. “First you blackmail me into whatever shenanigan Mister Duke has planned, then you condemn me to the hell of…labour.”

“It is but light work,” I said hurriedly. “You shall sit behind a desk and move papers about, nothing more.”

With an obstinate expression he said, “It is the principle of the thing.”

“And besides,” I said, “‘Tis not Mister Duke’s play. ‘Tis my own.”

“Yours?” he said, startled.

“Indeed. Will you act?”

He sighed, but then extended his hand. “It seems I have but little choice.” We shook.

Arrangements were made to transport young Mister Frazier and his lady back to the city. As Walker and I proceeded by coach to the warm and welcoming bosom of that noble municipality, I explained to him the role our gambling friend was to play. I also elaborated on the Vital Matter of the Banker.

Now, to find a forger and all would be in readiness!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Window

The apple I was eating was very good, but to be entirely frank I was somewhat tired of waiting for young Gus and his confederates to arrive. The morning had dawned misty and cold, and I huddled in a corner off Cavendish Square. Sir Julius Dithers’ house was opposite.

At last, a sextet of small wraiths emerged from the fog. Led by Gus, the urchins quickly formed a semicircle around me.

“This is his Lordship,” said Gus proudly. “He’s a real nobleman, he is.” The other children looked on in apparent awe.

Gus made introductions. “These are me mates Hans and Fritz,” pointing to two shock-headed boys who looked about six, “and Jase,” a squinting, dirty boy of nine or ten with a lizard in his pocket, “and the Slug.” Gus made an airy gesture towards a brawny boy with an expression of extreme stupidity on his face.

“An’ this is me gel Hil,” he said with some pride, slinging an arm companionably around the shoulders of a tiny girl of perhaps five years, whose stringy blonde hair and narrow features did not completely disguise a quiet intelligence. “Just like the big lads down by the quays got thems gels, I gots my gel,” said Gus.

“Gus, do you even know what older boys do with their girls?” I asked, bemused.

He frowned, and thought for a long moment. “She would bake me cakes?” he said hopefully.

“Yes. Yes, that is exactly what she would do.”

I turned to the chit of a girl. “Hil, Gus tells me you can read.” She nodded solemnly. I handed her a small card. “Read this, please.”

She squinted at the writing, and in a halting voice, read off, “R-Reputation is an idle and most false imp-impositi-on.”

“Very good,” I said. “Now, Gus told you what to do?” She nodded. “Then sally forth and off you go then.” She trotted down the street, eyeing the wall in front of Sir Julius’ manse carefully. At last finding a spot that suited her, she shinnied up the wall, and was over the top in a twinkling.

The boy Gus had identified as ‘Slug’ sat down against the wall and pulled his cap over his eyes. “Waken me iffen she comes back,” he said.

Gus looked at him contemptuously. “Mayhaps you’d best stay awake, lest the constabulars come.”

“Mayhaps you’d best shut it, lest I thump thee,” Slug said, his tone resentful.

“Get up,” said Gus in a cold hard tone.

Slug slowly clambered to his feet, his bulk ponderous and massive compared to Gus’ small frame. “You be thinkin’ this youth activities association belongs to you, liken you was our Parly-man.”

“Hold now,” said one of the other boys, either Hans or Fritz, but it was too late. Slug lunged for Gus, but his Goliath-like size was of little use. Gus agilely dodged the blow the other boy aimed for his head, and neatly caught Slug in a headlock. “Say nuncle,” Gus gasped as Slug struggled.

Slug merely grunted, and so Gus wrenched his arms higher. “Say nuncle!”

Slug squealed in pain, but before he could relent, the boy Jase pointed, crying, “There she is!”

We turned, and could see Hil nimbly working her way across one of the high gables of the mansion. As we watched, she struck the sill of a window that could have been no more than one foot across with the butt of her hand. The miniscule window opened, and she snaked through, vanishing into the house.

“Success,” I said. “She is in Sir Julius’ house.” Behind me, Gus turned Slug loose. The larger boy grumbled resentfully and massaged his shoulders, but the rest of us ignored him.

The boys took turns pitching pennies while we waited. Fritz seemed to be winning; at the very least, he took tuppence apiece from Slug and his brother Hans. However, aside from Slug’s continued sullen glances at Gus, the boys made quite merry.

After a time, we heard a scrabbling noise above us. Hil appeared sitting atop the wall, her bare heels tapping against the granite, and with our help she quickly descended. She briskly dusted herself off.

“Well?” I asked.

“Jus’ like you said, lordship,” she squeaked. “All writ under ‘em on little shiny pages like Gus said.”

“And what did they say, Hil?”

She thought hard, remembering. “Carry-vaggie-o, Rubbens, Brooeg-hell, and de la Toor.”

“‘Tis what they said?”

“You know it, lordship.”

“And no-one saw you?” She shook her head. “Good work, Hil. Have a sweet,” I said, and handed her a paper-wrapped confection. With astonishing rapidity, she crammed it into her gaping mouth, and began chewing furiously as a rapturous expression appeared on her face.

As the urchins and I made our way down the street, the children one by one detached from the group and vanished into the growing crowd, until I was left alone. I felt some pity towards these youths, so innocent in their lawlessness. They would do anything for a shilling. I have been accused of many a crime, but destitution, my dear Sir, destitution - that is a sin.

Still, my young cohort had uncovered some useful information for me. But I would have to keep an eye on Slug, for I would have other jobs for them in the future, and could brook no serious rift in their party.

The Duke

Gus and I strolled down Knightsbridge in the early afternoon swell. “I must admit, I have never heard of this place,” I said.

“Never ‘eard of Duke’s?” said Gus, affronted. “Why, his Grace is one of the chief patrons of the youth activities associations.”

“If this is an opium den, I shall be very put out.”

“Nay, nay, ‘tis a five-shilling house, you know, a bawd.”

We turned into Dunesborough Lane. An ill-painted sign had been hastily nailed to the side of a dilapidated slum. DUKES, POORVAYERS oF JOY. The lintel was stained with something that may have been wine, but on the odds was probably not.

“Well, this is pretty,” I said.

Gus grinned. “‘Tis the best, lordship.”

I opened the door and we entered. I was surprised to find the interior to be most opulent, if somewhat decadent. Men, young and old, were gathered around the velvet, with whores of various quality clutching their arms as dice were cast upon the tables. The din was extraordinary given the early hour, and as Gus and I threaded our way through the crowd we were nearly deafened.

Accosting a steward, we were directed towards the rear of the structure after inquiring as to the operator. A nondescript door, seemingly out of place amid the luxury, was set into the rear wall of the great room. Beyond it lay the inner workings of the casino, the private salons where gentlemen might entertain young ladies at their leisure, and the cellars stocked full of liquors and ale. The steward went in ahead of us, bidding us take our ease at the door while he consulted with the owner. After a time, a doughty young Chinawoman emerged. “Mister Duke is busy now,” she said in careful English. “He will not see you.”

SEND THEM IN!” bellowed an inebriated voice from beyond the door.

“Mister Duke is very tired. He cannot see visitors,” said the Chinawoman hastily.


“One moment,” she said, and retreated to the gloomy recesses behind the door. There subsequently ensued an apparently strained conversation, with the low tones of the Chinawoman being punctuated by loud outbursts from the unseen Duke.

At last the Chinawoman returned. “Mister Duke has made a miraculous recovery. He will see you now.”

We followed her deep into the bowels of the casino, arriving at a private apartment adorned in the most shabby style. Seated behind a decrepit desk was an equally decrepit man. His frock coat was worn, and covered with burns, which came from the occasional rain of ash that issued from the pipe clenched betwixt his teeth. He had little hair, and what hair he possessed was white, and twisted and knotted from neglect. Affixed, apparently permanently, to his face were a pair of smoked glasses, and in his manner he was most nervous, constantly twitching and jerking as though beset by spirits. A lotus-eater, in short.

“Who are you and what do you seek?” he barked, nervously looking behind us, as if expecting intruders. “Be quick, and say your peace, for this is the hour and time the bat emerges from his darkened belfry and assaults the unwary.”

“May we sit?” I asked, gesturing to a pair of ratty, worn stools before the desk. Mister Duke agitatedly nodded his assent.

“I much admire your casino,” I said, by way of opening the conversation. “It seems most prosperous.”

“Prosperous?” snorted Duke. “Spare me your kind words. I plow a lonely furrow, my friend.”

“I am Dennis, Viscount of Stokington. If you have heard of me, I should not be much surprised, for I am well-known in the gaming establishments of this great city.”

Duke tapped out his pipe into a bowl with shaking hands. “Stokington, Stokington,” he mused. “Yes, I’ve heard the name.”

“I have a small business proposition for you, your Grace,” I said. “One of extraordinary profitability, one that will raise you up from this lowly station.”

“Shut your mouth, boy,” snarled Duke. “You only reveal your ignorance.”

He sighed, and suddenly seemed ancient, a grayed and mouldering presence in a tomb long since deserted. “I was a great man, once.”

With trembling hands he packed tobacco into his pipe and jerkily struck a match. “A great man, yes. With a great house and a beautiful, charming wife, and children who loved me. Then I went over the edge. Pushed, really. The edge...there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others--the living--are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But I went over, was pushed over. Now I have nothing, save this casino.”

He puffed furiously on his pipe. “Damned Junius.”

I shifted in my seat. “Then perhaps this is your chance to regain some wealth.”

“What do you propose, then?” he asked tiredly.

“In a few days time, a gentleman will come to your casino accompanied by myself. When he does, I wish for you to ensure that he loses. Enormously.”

Duke eyed me through his smoked glasses. “And what profit do I warrant?”

“Keep his losses, for all I care.”

His eyebrows went up. “‘Keep the losses’? What profit do you warrant, then?”

“Satisfaction,” I said.

“Ah, a matter of honour,” he said wryly. He turned to Gus. “And do you approve of this course of action, young fellow whose name I do not possess?”

Gus squirmed. “Iffen his Lordship says it be good, then it be good. And my name, ‘tis Gus. Augustus.”

Duke looked hard at him. “Augustus. A fine name,” he said with some definiteness.

He turned to me. “I find your proposal most reasonable, although I must say I am affronted you would presume me to be the sort of man who cheats.”

“You own a casino.”

He glared at me momentarily. “Touché. However, before I undertake this for you, I wish you to undertake something for me.”

“And that would be?”

He shrugged. “A simple matter. A young musician, a gambler in my casino, has mounted debts to me that he has seen fit not to repay. This fellow is quite wealthy, and so I feel that it would be inopportune for anything…untoward to occur to him before he can settle accounts.”

“And I--”

“--will convince him to make full restitution.”

“I see. It sounds an easy matter. Where can I find him?”

“He has awayed to Newmarket, for the running. His name is Frazier.”

“Very well, I do a favour for you, and you do a favour for me. Most proper. I give you my most humble thanks for your assistance in this matter, Mister Duke.”

He nodded irritably, and with that as our signal to exit, young Gus and I made our adieus. We walked through muddy streets, and as we did so I reflected on Mister Duke’s decline of circumstances. Like a fine coat, the time when he fit had long since passed, and now he withered away in storage. Many a man prospers while another fails, both in the same field. I mentioned this to young Gus. The city had seen fit to provide me with a perfect example, and I pointed to two buildings facing each other across a busy street. One was well-built and well-appointed, the other dilapidated and decayed. “Look here,” I said.

Gus looked at me, baffled. “What?”

“Do you not see?” I huffed in frustration. “Read the signs.”

Gus peered at the two signs. He turned back to me in confusion.

“They both say ‘Baker’s’,” I explained patiently. “One is successful, the other a failure.” I frowned. “Can you not read?”

He bashfully looked at the ground. “Nay,” he whispered.

“Well, we shall have to remedy that,” I said briskly. “In the mean, are there any of your young associates who can read?”

The urchin thought for a moment, then brightened. “Me gel Hil, she knows her letters. Numbers, too.”

“Good, bring her along tomorrow. I have a job for her.”

I resolved at that moment that Gallant Augustus’s illiteracy should not go unmended. After all, reading maketh a full man, and if Gus were to grow to be a good sharper, he would need to be very full of it indeed.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Debtor

It is impossible for a Scotsman to open his mouth without making some Englishman hate or despise him. I reflected on this as we dealt with the latest difficulty to our plan.

“Now listen carefully, your Majesty,” said Walker. “‘Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously. Moses he knowses his toeses aren’t roses, as Moses supposes his toeses to be.’”

“Moses s’poses his toeses is rrrroses, but Moses s’posen errrrrrrrroneously. Moses he ken that his toeses ain’t rrroses, as Moses s’poses his toeses to bein’,” brogued the Dauphin.

Walker sighed, and turned to me. “‘Tis hopeless. Utterly hopeless.”

“If I had a shilling for every time I had heard the words ‘hopeless, utterly hopeless’ before the successful completion of some scheme or other, I should be a very wealthy man,” I said. “Still, you do have a point. Why, I imagine I could turn young Gus from a ragamuffin into a proper gentleman before you can turn the Dauphin from a Scot into a proper Englishman.”

“Not a bet I would consider taking, your Lordship,” said Walker. He turned back to the Dauphin. I released a sigh, and then excused myself from the small room we had rented. Making my way down the stairs, I exited the slaphouse deep in the heart of Southwark, where refuse spilled into the streets and tired beggars clamoured for alms. To think, I was scant alleyways from my room at the Tabard.

Avoiding mud puddles, I walked with a slow and forlorn pace down the street, passing the looming bulk of Marshalsea. From their barred windows, the denizens of that awful place called out piteously, begging for release. In more normal times, I ignored such entreaties, but sunk in such despondent mire as I was, when a grey-topped old duffer called in stentorian tones to me from a ground-level window, I stopped.

“Your lordship!” he called. “Your lordship, clearly a man of probity and prosperity such as yourself could see fit to release me from my bonds!”

“What is your name, old relic?” I asked, for his face was deeply lined from years of suffering and neglect. Almost ecstatically, he reached through the bars to me.

“The Right Reverend William Dunn, is I. Billy Dunn, of the little chapel in Aldborough Hatch, ask any man there, they know me!”

“A man of the cloth?” I asked, intrigued. “What brings you to such mean estate?”

“Oh, alas, alas,” he wailed. “Is it not true that all men can be criminals, if tempted, but also that all men can be heroes, if inspired? Were that such an opportunity were given to me!”

“At your ease, fellow. What troubles you? Why have you alighted here? What business is it?”

“A fifty-pound business,” he sobbed. “A grave weakness, done only for reasons of strength. Strength, I tell you!”

“Go on,” I said.

“My rectory lacked for funds--what a tragedy befalls the church! But a young man of my acquaintance--of handsome and trustworthy visage, from a good family, and most reputable--told me of a horse race to be held outside the city. This horse race, he vouchsafed--most surely he did, in the kindest and most honest words--had already been decided, even before the horses had been run. He allowed that were I to place my coin upon a certain horse--a most high-spirited stallion by the name of Beadlebomm--I should win back ten times my original wager.”

I smiled sadly. “And this stallion came in last, and you lost everything.”

“Everything!” cried Dunn. “Fifty pounds of the church’s money, which was to go to the upkeep and maintenance of my parish, and some shillings of my own! O what misfortune! In time, the bill-collectors and the county sheriffs came for me--honourable men, every one of them, and I will hear not a word against them--and locked me away here in this prison. Why, oh why did my luck turn bad? Why could not my horse have won?”

“My friend,” I said, “you have been subject to a most unkind trick. This fellow told you that this horse would win, when in fact he knew it was certain to lose. You were marked to lose before you even placed your wager.”

Dunn’s face coloured a deep red. “That...scoundrel! How dare he? How dare he?”

“This gaol you reside in...comfortable, is it?” I said idly.

“Comfortable? Do not be foolish! I moulder away here, as a result of the unconscionable actions of an unscrupulous charlatan!”

“Truly, it is unfortunate that this fellow has escaped justice. If there were some way of punishing him, would you be amenable?”

His face screwed up tight, Dunn managed to snarl, “Impossible. He has ventured overseas, indeed, came and visited me prior to his departure!”

“Such men must not go unpunished.”

“No, no indeed! May God’s own fist fall upon them!” he thundered, and gripping the bars tightly, rattled them in their sockets.

“How inexpressibly fortuitous of you to say so,” I said, “For I have just such a rogue of my acquaintance that needs punishment.”

Dunn’s eyebrows shot up. “You say so?”

“Indeed,” I said. “A slaver, and a dealer in slaves.”


“Quite so. If I pay your debts, would you be willing to work with me to malign this fellow?”

His aged face set with determination, he nodded. “I am your man.”

“I shall return.”

I whistled cheerfully as I returned to the rented room to extort fifty pounds out of Walker. Dunn’s words had inspired some theological reflection in me. God provides, I decided, and God loves tricksters. Jacob, David, Solomon--noble men all, and men of my party. Now I had my old priest. Yes, I thought, God most certainly provides.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Siren

Pendant la fin du dix-huitième siècle, les magiciens de la rue et les magiciens sont devenus une vue de plus en plus commune dans les petites routes et les allées de Londres, grandement comme un contrecoup contre la marée montant de science d'Éclaircissement.

From the Fruhlinger Archives: Nimue, une sorcière de la rue de Londres (Alexandre Cabanel, Oil on Canvas, 1795)

The Election

Many of my New World correspondents have recently apprised me as to the fact that you Americans are having yet another of your experiments with Athenian democracy. Far be it for me to counsel you as to what course of action your young nation, having only just come into existence within the limits of my own lifetime, should take, but I believe it clear which of the two candidates is superior. Please, for the sake of your nation, the sake of the relations between our two great nations, elect the older man with greater experience, the military hero, the reformer of an old, corrupt party, the maverick.

Vote early, vote often, vote Harrison and Granger in '36.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Dauphin

“How do you suppose they get this filling in here?” asked Walker, holding aloft a fine gougére, as we luncheoned the next day.

“Some sort of guild secret, I imagine,” I replied. The meal was most fine, consisting of the crispest, driest claret I have ever tasted, well matched by broiled grouse atop a bed of sautéed potatoes. Finely minced carrots completed the gustatory repast, and as we finished the meal with delicious pastries and coffee, we discussed the various advances of our plans.

“On your Mister Mills, I have nothing,” he admitted.

I waved a hand carelessly. “Not to worry. I have a spy following him as we speak.”

“Then tell me how else you have fared these last few days.”

“I told you before we would need ten to succeed.”

“Ten with us, or without?”



“You believe we need one more?” I asked. He said nothing. “You believe we need one more.”

“Ten is good. Eleven is better.”

“Eleven it is. Now, I have one of our gamblers--a Mister Jones, of Mayfair--and one of the busty young wenches--Mademoiselle Blaze shall do nicely. As for the role of the young priest, a friend of mine shall play that part, and I can count on easily getting two young ragamuffins.”


“Three, then,” I said easily. “The problem remains: we still require a master forger, an elderly priest, a gentleman of distinguished and noble countenance, another buxom young maid, and a second gambler.”

“Difficult to find, difficult to mind,” said Walker. “I shall make every reasonable effort to--hello, what’s this?”

I turned, and discovered a most singular person had just entered the salon. The third quality I noticed about him was the length of his beard, which was slate-gray and quite luxurious, reaching nearly to the floor. The second quality I noticed about him was his hat, a tricorn of quite impressive scale. But the first quality I noticed about him was his height. He was quite the shortest man I had ever seen, the top of his head (insofar as it could be discerned under the hat) barely clearing the plane of the tables.

Dressed in clothing once fashionable, now faded, he bore a large package bound in paper and twine. Weaving his way, through the crowded salon, he gradually made his way to the side of an elegantly dressed toff. Once behind the dandy, he cleared his throat loudly, and the finely-dressed gentleman turned, knocking the package out of the short man’s hands and onto the ground, where it made the horridly tragic sound of broken glass.

Already I knew what would come next, and flashing a grin at Walker, I rose and eased through the throng, reaching the ill-fated pair just in time to hear the short man release a voluminous torrent of slurred Scots.

“Ye daft bugger, luik wat ye’s done to me packy!”

Looking mightily affronted, the gentleman sneered, “Perhaps if you had been more careful--”

“Perhaps y’d best be minding your manners, for ‘twas ye who spun and smashed me packy, ye great Southern bastard.” To the gentleman’s obvious discomfort, and my admiration, the short man had managed to bring tears to his eyes, and a steady stream of brine leaked down his cheeks to lose themselves in the lichenous tendrils of his beard.

“'Twas for me wifey,” he sobbed.

“Perhaps I can make some...restitution,” said the gentleman, quite apparently uncomfortable, and he reached for his billfold.

Time for me to intervene. I gracefully sidled next to the short man, and wrapping an arm around his shoulders (in actuality the crown of his hat, but you make hay with the straw you have), said, “My good sir, please put your coins away. In truth, only an impartial, third observer could discern that neither of you was at fault.”

“Neither of us?” said the elegant gentleman. Although I could not see his face, I could sense the short man glaring at me.

“No, and so you should not be responsible for this man’s package.”

“But who shall pay for me packy?” bawled the short man, recovering nicely.

“I shall,” I said gallantly, and the crowd of onlookers applauded. “Since I discovered the lack of culpability, it only seems proper for me to provide the recompense to this gentleman, whose package was to meet an end so untimely.”

“Wa-al, that’s very gen’rous o’ye...ver’ gen’rous,” the short man mumbled.

“'Twould be most vulgar for us to discuss the transaction here, in this fine establishment. Let us retire without, where we may more easily settle accounts.”

Skillfully guiding the short man outside, despite his carefully concealed struggles, I presented to the rest of the salon the beaming face of a Samaritan about to embark on a positive crusade of goodness. There was a smattering of applause as we exited, Walker trailing slightly behind us.

Once in the alleyway, things changed abruptly. I turned the short man loose with a shove, and as he struggled to regain his balance, I said, “Nice lark.”

“What?” he said, giving me a blank look. Drat. My mastery of the thieves’ cant would serve me little here.

“Job. Trick. Scheme. Whatever you may call it. You almost got away with it.”

“An’ I woulda, iffen yous fine bodrachs hadna interfered,” he said furiously.

“Just out of curiosity, what was in the package? A couple of smashed-up bottles?”

He glared at me, then in a tone most begrudging, said, “Auld window-pane I foun’ in the lane.”

“Excellent!” I said, grinning cheerily. “To whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

The short man drew himself up, creating a very small picture. “I, fer all ye ken, am the crown Doffin of France.”

“An excellent and, I am certain, quite truthful answer, with only two small difficulties that I can see. One: it is pronounced ‘Daw-fan’ and Two: the Dauphin of France is nine years old and imprisoned in France, whereas you appear to be a septuagenarian and are at liberty in London. Other than that, I believe you completely, your Majesty.”

A look of dawning comprehension creased the Dauphin’s face. “Yuir not callin’ yon sheriffs?”

“No, I think not.”

He reached into his coat and retrieved a small tin. “Name’s Smythe,” he said, inhaling a pinch of snuff.

“I once knew a man with a wooden leg named Smythe,” I said to Walker.

“What was the name of his other leg?”

“I don’t know, he never told me.” Turning back to the Dauphin, I said, “How long have you been practicing the fine art of swindle?”

“All me life, an’ compared ta me, yuir just a wee bairn.” Proud. Very proud.

“And the best you can manage is a simple broken-vase scheme?”

“Ach! See here now,” he began, but I cut him off.

“Can you sound more English?”

He stared at me, and then clearing his throat, said, “Indubitably, my good man. How does this sound?”

“Still fairly Scottish, but perhaps with practice...” I said, turning to Walker.

Walker looked sceptical. “Perhaps.”

“What are ye blithering about?” said the Dauphin in irritation.

I smiled. “Your Majesty, I would like to offer you an honest day’s pay for a dishonest day’s work.”


Later, I asked Gus about him. “Oh, he’s alright,” said Gus. “Nice old bloke.”

“He claims to be a king.”

“Well, that’s alright for you, ain’t it? All kings is mostly rapscallions anyway.”

True. Very true. Sometimes my young streetwise friend could be most astute. At any rate, another role in my drama had been filled. Perhaps this Dauphin could act the proper Englishman. As the man said, the play truly was the thing, for after all I had already caught a king.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Reverend

That afternoon I ventured out to Piccadilly. The elegant townhouse in front of me bespoke prosperity, the façade a testament to the days of ancient Athens brought forth to the modern era. It also had peonies.

I knocked smartly on the front door. After a few moments an addle-pated young man, whom I initially took to be a servant, opened the door. A thick shock of wavy ginger hair surmounted a visage of astonishingly banal stupidity. However, the cut of his clothing and the smartly turned-out shoes he wore argued against the servant theory.

I politely raised my hat. "Is the young Reverend Keane within?"

A look of dull incomprehension settled on the young man’s face. "Is he within what?"

"You must be Geoffrey," I said kindly. Keane had mentioned his brother, apparently the local idiot, several times.

"Must I?" he replied, seemingly puzzled.

From behind the fool a voice hailed. "Whatever is happening, Geoffrey?”"A round-faced young man, his blonde hair slicked back from his forehead and dressed in the manner of a parson, appeared from the next room. "I can hear all variety of commotion, and--Oh no!" he yelped, as he caught sight of me. To my utter astonishment, he turned on one heel and sprinted from the foyer. I grimaced ferociously, and laid chase.

"William Keane, get back here!" I bellowed as I passed through an elegantly appointed sitting room with all speed. Three matronly ladies watched with startled expressions as a young minister dashed through their tea, followed closely by a well-dressed young noble. As I passed these three worthies, I collided with a young auburn-haired lady seated upon an ottoman, who let out a loud squawk as I sent her and her knitting sprawling. "Pardon me, ladies," I gasped, and resumed the chase.

Through the hallway, down the stairs, through the kitchen, and out into the garden, where at last I was able to corner my prey. Keane had, through all our years at Eton and Oxford together, been a doughy sort of boy, and I easily overtook him in our steeplechase through his house.

As he sprinted across the lawn I tackled him from behind. We grappled, his conduct, in my opinion, most unbecoming a man of the cloth. He managed to land several heroic blows, but at last I seized hold of his wrist, and with his own fist managed to lay a punch on him that took all fight out of him. "Stop hitting yourself," I said, panting, as I rolled off him. Both of us lay on the cool grass, momentarily exhausted by our exertions.

"What the bloody hell was that about, Will?" I asked at last.

Indignant, he raised himself to a seated position. "Here I am, newly become a man of God, and you arrive, as smart and neat as you please, ready to embroil me in some half-baked school boy prank! No thank you."

"You owe me, you coward! Dashing off like that in the middle of my duel with Hobbes. Most dishonourable, most dishonourable indeed. What would your father think?"

Keane grumbled unhappily. "Bringing my father into this--not cricket, old man, not cricket at all."

"He’d be ashamed of you, running like a little girl--coincidentally, was that fine specimen of womanhood I knocked over in your parlor your sister?"

"Yes, and I’ll have you stay well away from her, thank you very much. Besides, she’s very religious, although I must admit her theology’s worse than her knitting."

I idly flicked some blades of grass from my breeches. "Now, to business."

Keane groaned. "God preserve me, what now?"

"In order to make good for the gross insult you delivered to my person when you fled so shamefully, I have need of your services in a little parlor game I am planning."

"You must have any number of scallywags at your beck and call. Why me?"

"Because you possess the necessary mettle, the necessary steel. It runs in your family," I said, flattering him shamelessly. "The Keane spirit seizes the prompt occasion, makes the thought start into instant action, and at once plans and performs, resolves and executes! That is the sort of man I need to help me, not some stick in the mud with his head up his arse."

"So...definitely not Geoffrey then."

We both laughed at that.

When our peals of merriment had at last ceased, I said, "You shan’t find it difficult, Will. Just be your usual earnest, priggish self."

Keane glared at me. "You say the sweetest words to me."

I stood, and held out my hand. Helping him to his feet, I said, “I have a young lady to whom I need you to minister. I imagine you have done it a hundred times before. The only difference this time shall be that you shall cleave closely to the script I have prepared for you.”

Keane eyed me critically. "You do not ever change, do you?"

"I would like to change, but I am wicked," I said. I clapped him on the shoulder. "I will let you know all the details."

I took my leave. With luck, the young reverend would not realise he was playing two roles at once. Now, to see what Walker had unearthed, and what high-jinks Mister Mills had committed of late!

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.