Saturday, 18 May 2013

Chapter 3; Part 3

Dotty and Jingo made dinner a rather lively affair, shouting at each-other from their opposite ends of the table (being the ranking male, Jingo was of course Aunt Em's partner), telling jokes and gossipy stories, and otherwise being noisy and fun; but they weren't overbearing, they managed to include everyone in the conversation, they simply provided the driving force.

People often assume that Dotty is, well, dotty, due to her incredible frivolity and the saccharine quality of her porcelain-doll prettiness; but she's one of the cleverest women I know.  She has a genius for making people have fun, frequently in spite of themselves; she's also an incredible mimic, particularly of voices, and has given herself a very mush-mouthed Mayfair accent despite having been born and bred "in the sound of Bow bells."  Her giddiness wasn't an act, though, as Caro's was: it was a natural effusion of her desire to entertain everyone around her; and she kept her cleverness to herself so that her friends' enjoyment would not be marred by the knowledge that they were being skillfully manipulated like puppets.

After dinner, Dotty wanted to dance, and prevailed upon me to have the music-room carpet rolled back and the gramophone brought out.  She provided her own recordings, fortunately, since I didn't think the Foxbridge collection got any livelier than a Viennese waltz; and her and Jingo's enthusiasm for the Charleston and the Black Bottom was infectious, and soon we were all flinging ourselves about in accepted nightclub fashion (well, most of us, anyway--Nanny and Lady Heard sat out the festivities, though Silenus and Aunt Em took a few sedate turns).

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Chapter 3; Part 2

I was feeling so antsy after one cup of tea that I left the drawing-room as quickly as I politely could, and went to go moon by the front door in hopes of seeing Twister drive up through the gate.  Unfortunately, I didn't have the patience to moon properly, so I kicked the door closed in a pettish gesture that did the door no harm but nearly broke my toe, and slouched grouchily back to my room.

I did some more kicking when I got there, glad I was wearing good country brogues instead of stylish thin-soled Town shoes, taking out my frustration on the table by the door and the small chair by the bureau (having learned my lesson with the door, I stuck to kicking the smaller furniture).  I was about to kick the waste-paper basket, which was made made of fur and claws to look like a bear's foot, when I heard a very strange growling noise.

Curious, I turned to see where the noise had come from, but sound is difficult to trace in stone rooms, with the echo of a vaulted ceiling distorting it; I stood at alert, listening for it to repeat.  When it did repeat, I peered toward the fireplace, whence the sound seemed to come.  The third growl came, and stone room or no stone room, the sound was quite definitely coming from the bearskin rug.  Then the bear moved, the head lifting eerily and staring straight at me, the whole thing lurching forward like it was trying to get up.

I didn't quite scream, but I gasped loudly enough that it might have been interpreted as a scream, and the great lurching bear laughed.  Clutching at my thumping heart, I fell back into the little chair I'd just kicked and heard it laugh again.

"Oh, that was worth sweltering for a half-hour under that rug," Twister's head emerged from under the bear's head, his hair skewed every which way and his face alight with hilarity, "If you could see your face!"

"God damn it, Twister, you took ten years off my life!" I shouted to relieve the tension I felt in my chest, which had been momentarily clenched in terror and wasn't yet ready to unclench, then threw the nearest loose object at him: it was a cigarette box, which missed him by a mile, and cigarettes went flying all over the room.

"Oh, boy, that was priceless!" he kept on laughing, sitting back on his haunches and letting the rug fall off of him into an undignified pile.  He didn't have a stitch on, which made my tension move immediately from my chest to other, more easily relieved parts.  I threw myself at him, wrestling him down to the floor, and a good time was had by all.

"How long have you been hiding up here?" I asked some time later, when our breathing had slowed to a point that speech was possible.

"Not too long," he replied, his voice rumbling in his chest under my ear, "I got Pond to sneak me in when I arrived, a bit before four.  And he only knew I meant to surprise you, which in fact was all I'd intended.  You were to come in and find me in your bed.  But once I got here, this rug absolutely begged to be put to use."

"I would have preferred to find you on the rug rather than under it," I punched him lightly in the ribs.

"The housemaid who popped in here to check your towels about five minutes after I went to ground would probably have disagreed," he punched me back, then tickled me.

"Don't be so sure," I giggled, the picture formed in my mind of a housemaid finding an unknown man lying naked on a bear rug, "Housemaids can be particularly depraved.  And if it had been one of my footmen, you might not have escaped with your honour.  One of them practically raped Claude Chatroy."

"Really?" he sounded concerned, that wonderfully attractive professional tone rising in his voice.

"Practically, but not really," I said, smiling up at him, "I doubt seriously if he resisted in the slightest."

"I guess a short stretch of white-slavery opens a chap's boundaries a bit," he laughed.

"If Claude has any boundaries at all, I've yet to witness one. I haven't heard of anything he won't do, except act like an adult."

"Unusually censorious of you," he said, grasping my chin to turn my face toward his, "Do you want him?"

"What?" his question made me draw back in astonishment.

"He's a very beautiful boy," Twister said in a odd way, as if pointing out something that I must have neglected to notice.

"Do you want him?" I suddenly felt a sensation that I hadn't felt in years: I was jealous.  I hadn't felt that particular emotion since Eton, when my pubescent ideals of romance were rather busted by Jingo getting off with the captain of the rugby team, whom I also fancied, and then telling me about it in lurid detail next night in bed.  It was an unpleasant sensation.

"I've never met him," he pointed out, "You may remember that you left the party before I arrived, the night we raided the Marquis de Mazan's little slave auction."

"But you know he's a beautiful boy?" I frowned.  How had he known that?   I don't think Claude was that well-known outside of his family circle, he certainly wasn't photographed for the society magazines like Caro was.

"There were pictures at the auction," he laughed again, a naughty laugh, "They'd been distributed like a programme.  Quite interesting pictures, if you know what I mean."

"Golly!" I gasped, "I hadn't thought there'd be pictures.  Claude didn't mention it."

"He may not have known, he was pretty well drugged. They were all burned, though, oddly enough," he looked off into the distance, his work life intruding a little bit, "The whole packet of programmes we got off the guests were accidentally sent to the incinerator.  Quite a lot of evidence from that raid went missing, in fact, and then the evidence room clerk suddenly quit his job.  It was distinctly fishy."

"Huh," I grunted noncommittally.  It sounded to me like Silenus may have been responsible for that, ensuring that no scandal could possibly attach to Melinda Cumming, the other abductee who'd been auctioned along with Claude--and whose father was a Member of Parliament, now deeply in Silenus's debt, "Did they give you any interesting ideas, before they were burnt?"

"Not really my cup of tea," he stroked my back absently, "All the tying-up and blindfolding and flogging.  Sadomasochists are so terribly devoted to their equipment."

"You're evading the basic question," I nestled back down against his chest, the spurt of jealousy having mysteriously spent itself already; now I was just curious, "Did you find Claude attractive?  Would you like to have a go at him?"

"Well, he's a superb physical specimen," Twister said thoughtfully--and from my vantage-point, I could see that his thoughts were of an arousing nature, "But I don't know him.  I'm not really one for casual encounters with relative strangers."

"While casual encounters with relative strangers are among my favourite things," I admitted.  Might as well get into this topic now, while we were comfortable.

"À chacun son goût," he said, a chuckle rumbling in his chest.

"Does that mean you wouldn't mind if I went tom-catting around?" I raised my head to look him in the eye.

"I think I'd mind if I knew the particulars," he said very seriously, meeting my eye, "Or if I knew the man.  But as an abstract notion, I can accept that as part of your nature, it's what makes you you.  And you have also evaded the basic question: do you want to have a go at Claude Chatroy?"

"I might if I didn't know him," I laughed at this fundamental difference between us, "He's lovely to look at, but he's much too young, and you'll not find a bigger goof in all of Gloucestershire."

"I just wondered if you were jealous.  Your tone when you spoke of him was rather bitter."

"I guess I am a little jealous," I thought it over, doing a quick examination of my feelings, something that I still wasn't very good at doing, but Silenus was encouraging me to make a practice of it, "but not because I want him.  I just sometimes wish I were as blithely idiotic as he is.  How pleasant it must be to go strolling through life without a care, too stupid to even know how boring you are, with men and women throwing themselves at you, and all you have to do is stand still."

"I hadn't thought of it that way," he raised his eyebrows and stuck out his bottom lip as he considered the idea, "I think I'd rather be intelligent than beautiful, though."

"How fortunate for me that you're both," I reached up and twined my fingers in his wavy golden hair.

"Which would you rather be," he wondered, doing the same with my hair, pulling out a long coppery curl from the front and twining it around his finger, "if you couldn't continue to be both?"

"I don't know," I said honestly, scooting up his side so I could kiss him, "Beauty is so temporary, but then cleverness seems always to get me into trouble."

"Curiosity is what gets you in trouble, not cleverness," he corrected me, but by then we were so wrapped up in each-other's hair, and then wrapped up in other parts, that we weren't really concentrating on speech.

Some time later, Pond made a discreet sound outside the door before entering, giving us time to disentangle ourselves and pretend to be decent.  Twister called bags on the first bath and disappeared into the bathroom, so I slipped into my dressing-gown and curled up in the big chair with a cigarette and my thoughts.  Pond went around opening the windows, saying the place smelt like a gymnasium, and started laying out my evening clothes.

When it was my turn in the tub, Pond followed Twister into his room to help with the dressing, though Twister was a great deal more firm about doing certain things for himself than I ever could be, so he was back before I even finished drying off; as a reaction to being thwarted by Twister, he was excruciatingly meticulous with my toilette, and I looked as perfect as a magazine illustration when he finished with me.

"You look as though you've been lacquered and polished," Twister remarked when we met again in the corridor on the way out of the tower.

"I think I was," I laughed, "You wouldn't let Pond dress you, so he took it out on me."

"I like Pond, but I'm not fond of being valeted.  If you could find a way of mentioning that without hurting his feelings, I'd be much obliged."

"He'll probably ask me to mention to you, without hurting your feelings, that you need to be valeted more thoroughly.   I decline to become involved, you'll have to settle it amongst yourselves."

"Selfish beast," he reached out to pinch me, catching me on the backside and starting a merry and entirely childish chase down the Great Stair and into the hall.

Skidding through the archway on the shining parquet floor, I nearly collided with a girl, whom I took to be Miss Lavender Brazington of Haresden Hall.  She was rather pretty but very young-looking; if I didn't already know she was old enough to be at University, I would have guessed her to be a tall twelve-year-old: her cornsilk hair was very long and tied with a blue ribbon, and her gauzy white evening dress was built in such a way as to somehow suggest a pinafore.

It was a very interesting effect, and when I found Caro dancing attendance on the girl in a distinctly flirtatious way, I realized that Miss Brazington was just my fiancee's type.  It was good to know, I had frequently wondered what sort of woman she'd be bringing home with her when we were married.

With the arrivals of Twister and Miss Brazington, my little party was complete, and I felt an immense sense of satisfaction as we walked in to dinner together, Dotty, Lady Faringdon on  my arm in proper precedence, the rest of my guests paired up neatly as we promenaded into the dining-room; it was such a wonderfully grown-up feeling, looking down the long table, raising my eyes above Aunt Em's head to look at my mother's portrait. I thought she'd be proud of me.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Chapter 3; Part 1

Twister is coming today! That was my first thought on waking up Friday morning, and it filled me with excitement.  I hadn't seen him for almost twenty days, the longest I'd gone without his company in all the time I'd known him.  Granted, I'd only known him for three months and a bit, but he became a key figure in my life on our first meeting, and I'd barely gone a day without thinking about him, and not more than a week without seeing him.

It was for his benefit that I had been chaste (more or less, depending on your definition of chastity) in the time we were apart.  Well, that, and because there aren't a lot of temptations in the country.  I could probably have found a strapping chap on the Castoris estate to oblige me, or met a bloke at the Chatroy Arms in the village--I've discovered that our sort are found everywhere and in every walk of life--but it seemed unwise to dally on the home property of a family into which I planned to marry.

And so I made a virtue of necessity--since I have so very few virtues, I've become accustomed to taking them where I can find them.  At any rate, I was feeling so randy after twenty days with only the pleasure of my own company in bed that I couldn't wait for the day to be over so I could get Twister into the tower, his room or mine.  I wasn't even sure I could wait until night: I might just haul him up here the minute he arrived.

After breakfast and my morning ride, bathed and dressed in my country best, I went in to the room I'd assigned to Twister to make sure that everything was just right.  Each of the guest-rooms in the tower was named for the deceased beastie, usually in the form of a hearth-rug, that was the centerpiece of its decor; mine is of course the Bear Room, not to be confused with the Polar-Bear Room next door where Bunny was lodged; Twister's room was known as the Wolf Room, and contained a profusion of wolf pelts, all different colours and species--the hearth-rug was a shockingly large Canadian timber-wolf, the mouth of its stuffed head arranged in a most fearsome snarl.

My grandmother's brother, the fourth Earl of Carton, was a prodigious hunter of large game, and he gifted his  sister with one hundred trophies when she married the ninth Earl of Vere, ranging from American buffalo heads to Russian bear skins, Argentine stag-horn chairs and Indian tiger blankets, African elephant tusks carved with fantastic scenes and enough Caucasian boar-hides to keep us in bristle brushes well into the next century.  And the trophies kept on coming as long as Lord Carton lived, which was a surprisingly long time considering his dangerous profession, so we had enough taxidermy scattered around the Castle to start our own natural history museum.

And of course everything in the room was just right, from the gleam of polish on the bronze inkwells to the crisp fold of the snowy Irish linen sheets.  There was a water-glass and pitcher on the night-table, a drinks tray on the desk, cigarettes in boxes on the mantelpiece and the tables, spare nightclothes in the sweet-smelling wardrobe, and big rough towels stacked on a rack made of hot-water pipes so they were always nice and warm once the bath was drawn.  Everything a gentleman could possibly want.

It suddenly struck me funny that the part of the house best supplied with modern conveniences was the part that pretended to be the oldest.  The tower keep gave every appearance of being centuries old, its outside almost indistinguishable from the real Norman keep on the hill; but it was built with the electricity, gas, running water, and telephones that had to be expensively (and in some cases clumsily) rigged into the older part of the house, as well as a hydraulic lift serving its three floors of bedrooms and rooftop gymnasium, and electric radiators as well as coal grates and wood-burning fireplaces to keep it toasty warm.

Its lower half housed the kitchens, which are as sleek and gleaming as any London hotel's, modeled on a plan made for my mother by Escoffier himself; before that, it had been slightly less sleek and gleaming, but still in the vanguard of 1860s technology.  It also contained the most hygienic servant's dormitories in Gloucestershire, and service-rooms equipped with every modern time-saving appliance known to man.  It was quite a conceit, all this modernity made to look medieval; and when I thought on it, I found myself becoming rather more appreciative of the Victorian additions.

But my amusement and appreciation only lasted as long as it took me to jot the idea down in my diary.  I was so keyed up for Twister's arrival that I found myself quite bored in the hours leading up to it.

 Generally, in the country, unless there is a planned activity like a hunt or village fete, one just sort of wanders around and occupies oneself with whatever comes to one's notice; you might read a book or write a letter or have a chat with a guest, maybe play billiards or cards, or go outside and practice archery or croquet.  But if you're completely focused on one upcoming event, such pastimes just aren't very entertaining.

I played some billiards with Bunny, ate lunch in the center of the walled garden, went out with my rifle and shot at some paper deer against an ancient stone wall that had been used by my ancestors for target practice since bullets were invented, read the newspapers from London and Gloucester, and played a dozen rounds of Patience in the great hall window with one eye on the gate, all in a writhing discontent of unspeakable ennui.

When Coldicott brought me the telephone, plugging its cord into a tiny hole in the floor under the table where I was sitting, I welcomed the distraction; but then I was plunged into disappointment when he told me it was Sir Oliver Paget on the line--Twister should have been on the local from Gloucester, not on the telephone.

"Don't tell me you're still in London," I complained immediately into the mouthpiece.

"And hullo to you, too," he laughed in that way he has that makes my highest dudgeons melt into little puddles, "But yes, I'm just leaving the Yard now."

"I've been dancing in front of the gate like an anxious puppy, waiting for you," I pouted, "I won't survive another whole day of this."

"I wasn't able to get away from the office in time to get the train," he explained, "I'm sorry."

"Is it a new case?" I hoped it wasn't something that would preempt his visit.

"No, just an annoyance with some misfiled paperwork.  I'll get the very next train, I promise.  The Bristol train leaves Paddington soon, I should be able to get the local, or even a cab, from..." I could hear him flipping the pages of an A.B.C., "Chippenham, and be in time for dinner."

"A cab?  My guests don't arrive in cabs," I said with comic hauteur, "I'll send our driver to Chippenham for you.  Oh, wait!  I have a much better idea!  Bunny got down here in two hours in his motor.  Why don't you go around to Ryder Yard and get mine, then I'll have both you and my motor in one pretty bundle."

"You're willing to trust me with your Rolls-Royce?" he sounded a little incredulous.

"I'd give it to you if you wanted it," I said, in all honesty.  Of course, I'd have to buy myself another one just like it, I love that machine, "But you must promise to drive as fast as you can, with none of your policeman's regard for the law.  Bunny bragged he did eighty-five most of the way here in that tin-pot Lagonda of his, let's see if we can beat him."

"That's a promise," he laughed again, warming my heart, and other parts of my anatomy as well, "Policemen have a gentlemen's agreement about speed laws.  Anything else you'd like me to bring you from London?"

"Just your own beautiful self," I crooned over the wire, wondering briefly after I said it if there was anyone else listening--I knew the Foxbridge end was secure, we had so many extensions in the house that we constituted our own exchange, so there was no operator any closer than Cirencester able to listen in; but Scotland Yard was likely to be better equipped with local busybodies who knew the speaker and might spread tales.

"I'll be with you shortly, then," he said, ringing off without the usual meandering small-talk most people I know use when getting off the telephone.

"Hullo-ullo?" I demanded into the telephone, jiggling the cradle to get someone's attention, "I need to call London, Hoskins' Garage in Ryder Yard, Westminster."

"Right away, my lord," came Coldicott's voice, surprising me a little: he must have run part of the way to get as far as the switchboard-room outside the servants' hall in the short time since he'd left me in the great hall.

"Pond should have the number," I suggested helpfully.

"I'll ask him, my lord, he's right here in the hall."

"Oh!  Since he's there, maybe he should call, they'll know him better than me.  Have him tell them that Sergeant Paget is coming by to pick up my Rolls, and to have it fueled and ready for him."

"Very good, my lord.  I'll be along shortly to retrieve the telephone."

"Thanks, Coldicott," I replaced the receiver and went about dealing another hand of Patience.

The Packard arrived with the guests who had made the train a short time later; and since I knew it wouldn't have Twister in it, I had calmed down quite a bit and was able to display the correct degree of smiling graciousness when Jingo, Dotty, and the Colonel all came piling out of the car.

They sound like Beatrix Potter animals when I put their names together like that, but they simply aren't the sort of people you can call by their proper names after knowing them for any amount of time.

The Marquess and Marchioness of Faringdon are indecently high-spirited and almost shockingly fashionable, giddy and gorgeous Bright Young Things of the first water, and insisted on being called by their nicknames as soon as they met you.  And though I am allowed by familiarity to call Colonel Gascoyne "Tony," he just looks so much like a Punch caricature of an army officer, with his rigid posture and Cavalier mustache, the sort of gentleman who can make pajamas look as formal as a uniform, that I can't think of him as anything else.

I made small-talk about the train journey with the three of them as we climbed the Great Stair and then the smaller staircase to the second floor, and handed Jingo and Dotty (who were rather subdued, so I assumed thoroughly hung-over) to a housemaid to show them to their rooms; Aunt Em had declined to put them in the East Bedchamber, having already been to some trouble to get the Blue Room ready for them.  I then took the Colonel along to his room in the tower, the Tiger Room, directly above my own.

"My goodness!" he exclaimed over the huge specimen laid out on the floor, its immense head bigger than the foot-stool by the fireside chair, "Who shot this fine fellow?"

"My great-uncle, Lord Carton.  He was quite the Great White Hunter in his day."

"Ah, good old Carton.  I knew him well," he knelt down to examine the beast's gleaming fangs; I should have known the Colonel would be a friend of the late Earl, as he was a fairly famous big-game hunter himself, "He took me out on my very first safari.  I bagged a pretty feeble-looking gazelle, but I was just a young lad, then, and Victoria still on the throne.  He brought down a wildebeest the size of a lorry.  He was quite a man."

"How well did you know him?" I asked teasingly, inspired by the tone of his voice to wonder if he did indeed know Lord Carton, "In the Biblical sense, as they say?"

"Not near Biblical enough," he answered with the appropriate note of camp, "A dashed attractive brute, old Carton.  But he had no taste for boys, more's the pity."

"Nor for ladies, so I'm told," the fourth Earl of Carton had died a bachelor, and the title went to his younger brother and thence to a nephew.

"The mind boggles to think where all that energy did go," he smirked, walking up to me and laying his hands on my waist.

"Listen, Tony," I said, not moving away from him but adopting as businesslike a tone as I could manage, "I need you to do me an immense favor."

"Anything for you, dear boy," he said, nuzzling into my neck and making me go all goose-fleshy.  Mustaches are my Achilles heel.

"I need you to lay off on the familiarity," I did step away this time, so he couldn't feel the immediate effect he'd had on me, "My lover is going to be here this week."

"Lover?" he looked surprised, but obliged me immediately by stepping three paces away and putting his hands behind his back at parade rest, "You never struck me as the hearts and flowers type."

"It rather took me by surprise, too," I admitted, "But I am very much in love with him.  We haven't yet discussed his ideas about fidelity, but I suspect they're rather more hidebound than mine.  He's quite the traditional sort of chappie."

"Well, drat," he smiled jovially and settled himself into a chair with his feet on the tiger's head, taking a leatherbound case from his jacket and lighting a slim black cigarillo, "I was looking forward to a bucolic idyll with you.  But I shall take the disappointment with stoic fortitude, as becomes an officer of His Majesty's Army, and find other fields to harrow."

"That's a rather vivid turn of phrase," I laughed and settled into the other chair, propping my feet beside his, "Just keep your mitts off my footmen.  I know from experience that your harrowing would put them off their stride."

"Footmen? Faugh!" he snorted like a mildly offended bull, "I don't dally among the household staff.  Just not pukka, old man."

"I'm glad you think so, I've already had to speak to one of my guests about it."

"Oh?  Fellow travelers at Foxbridge? Do tell!"

I went ahead and told him everything I knew about the proclivities of the other male guests, which as I've said was unusually extensive--unlike Bunny, the Colonel could be counted on to keep reasonably mum.  Loose-lipped fellows were not invited to live at Hyacinth House, Lord Arthur requires a pretty high degree of discretion from his 'lodgers.' It's the only reliable form of security from unwanted attention.  If the fusty old busters at White's, Boodle's, or Brooks's ever got wind of the true nature of their near neighbour on St. James's Street, it wouldn't be long before uncomfortable questions were raised at a Parliamentary level.

He caught me up on all the local gossip from Hyacinth House (we could divulge secrets all we liked about other residents, it was outsiders that we have to keep in the dark), and a few other little tidbits from our mutual clubs and haunts, and then it was time for tea.

I took a roundabout route to the drawing room in order to skirt through the great hall and check if Twister had arrived yet.  It had been two hours, but I hadn't been apprised of his arrival and was getting anxious again.