"Sorry," I responded sullenly, twining my ankles together. I was feeling extremely tense after two solid weeks of chastity--well, as I define chastity, anyway: the pleasure of one's own company doesn't count--and finding it increasingly difficult to sit still. I felt like a clock that's been wound as tight as can be but not allowed to tick.
"Gin," she said a moment later, with exquisite smugness, laying her fan face-up on the table.
"I don't know why I bother playing cards with you," I shook my head sadly, sorting out my pitiful fistful of cards and totting up a shaming minus-score, "You always win."
"Because there's precious little else to do in the country at night," she answered, sweeping up the cards with a graceful gesture.
"I've been spoiled, living in Town," I took the deck and dealt a new hand, "I haven't had a single adventure since I left London."
"One would think you'd need the rest, after all the adventures you had this summer," she smiled slyly. One of the many things that I love about Caro is that we can confide in each-other about our romantic interests: she goes to many of the same queer nightclubs that I frequent--dressed as Charley, her male alter-ego, an exquisitely handsome young man; and though she isn't interested in men, as a rule, she does have a soft spot for pretty boys like me.
You wouldn't think it to look at her, especially in the pale-pink chiffon evening gown trimmed with fluttery white puffs of feather she was wearing; when she's not in male drag, she is the most frothingly feminine dresser of our social set. She likes the play of opposites, I suppose. She's got me into drag on a couple of memorable occasions, frilled to the earlobes in her very dainty wardrobe; and while I don't see myself making a life-style of it the way she does, I found it quite enjoyable.
It was for this reason, alongside our eminent mutual suitability (she's the eldest daughter of the twelfth Duke of Buckland, one of the oldest noble lines in England), that we decided to become engaged at a not-too-distant date--the end of next Season, to be exact. In the meantime we hadn't announced our plans to anyone.
"I'd give anything for a stroll through Soho right about now," I told her.
"You could always take a poke at Claude," she said, and I couldn't tell if she was joking or not. Claude Chatroy is her cousin, a seventeen-year-old Adonis whom I'd recently rescued from a sadomasochist white-slavery ring. He's not precisely one of Our Sort, but he's so obliging that I probably could take a poke at him if I wanted to.
"I don't even like to use a crop on my horse," I dismissed the notion, joking or no. After going to a great deal of trouble to rescue Claude, I left him with a dominatrix of my acquaintance, with whom he subsequently formed a very strong bond. Apparently he liked that sort of thing, and the rescue turned out to have been rather in vain. Besides, though Claude is as sweetly, enthusiastically affectionate as a puppy, his intelligence is that of a puppy, too. I like my men with a little more of a spark between the ears.
"What are you playing?" the object of our discussion was suddenly beside the table, no doubt drawn by the sound of his own name.
"We're playing Mop The Floor With Foxy," I said disgustedly as I drew yet another useless card from the stack, "Otherwise known as gin rummy. Would you care to join?"
"No, thanks," he perched on the arm of my chair and draped his arm over my shoulders. His heat was unnerving, "I stink at cards. Can I watch?"
"Of course, darling," Caro answered before I could object, enjoying my obvious discomfiture, "Foxy loves an audience."
For those just joining us, I should explain 'Foxy': it's my school nickname, and not a very imaginative one. In Society, the only people who call me that are people who were at Eton or Oxford with me, or whom I met through a school-friend. But Caro's eldest brother, Marquess of Petterby (called Petie-Boy at school, like a canary) was in my House, though a couple of years older than me; so Caro started using it, and then by osmosis all of the Chatroy clan started calling me Foxy.
I actually rather like the name, I think it suits my personality as well as my colouring, and so I use it when I'm out on the town--calling myself Lord Foxbridge in the depths of Soho would give people the wrong idea of what I'm there for (I like mollie-boys just fine, but I prefer the nonprofessionals). Though some of the people I know in the queer demimonde are aware of my real name, I am nevertheless known far and wide as Foxy Saint-Clair.
As the game progressed, and my score regressed, Claude continued to get cozy with me, rubbing my neck and stroking my hair as he watched the game; and though my heart and my brain were deeply indifferent to Claude's many charms, the rest of me was not bothered with such niceties of decorum and demanded satisfaction.
When Caro finally won the game, I excused myself to the lavatory for some relief. Even if I wanted to take Claude to my room for a little fun, I really didn't dare. When you're planning on marrying into a family, you simply don't start fooling around with its junior members. Especially when the junior member in question has all the sober discretion of a fireworks display.
Claude and his three younger brothers hadn't been sent to school, you see, never had a nanny, and had been allowed to run wild by eccentric parents; as a result, the four of them were incredibly childlike, having never been given the institutionalised introduction to the rigors of adulthood the rest of us had. Sometimes it was very charming, but often it was rather alarming, the things they'd blurt out in company the way small children do. I shuddered to think what he might say over dinner one night if I became more intimate with him than I already was.
Instead of returning to the drawing room (or the Red Drawing Room, I should say: Castoris Castle is equipped with several drawing-rooms, but the Red is closest to the dining-room and therefore used for smaller after-dinner gatherings), I went to work off some excess energy with a brisk walk through the gardens, where I tore around so fast that I was practically running. Once fully tired out, I climbed back up to my room and out of my clothes, falling gratefully into bed. It was all of nine o'clock.
"I think I'll run up to London for a day, Pond," I decided aloud over the next morning's coffee, "When's there a train?"
"I am not sure, my lord," he seemed a bit startled. After his week playing bedroom-lotto at Foxbridge, he had become wonderfully complacent by the sameness of daily life at Castoris, "I will ask Mr. Underdown for an A.B.C. Will your lordship be staying overnight?"
"Oh, definitely, that's the whole point," I told him, "And you needn't pack anything but toiletries and fresh linens for tomorrow. You can stay here, if you like."
"I would prefer to accompany your lordship," he bowed, and I could see by the glitter in his eye that he had a very similar purpose in mind as I had, "If that is amenable."
"Accompany away," I waved a magisterial hand, nearly upsetting my coffee-cup, "I only wish I'd brought my motor, I wouldn't have to wait for a train."
"I'll go look up the trains while your lordship is in the bath."
"Thank you, Pond."
I got out of bed and slipped into my bathrobe and slippers, preparing for the long trek down a terrifically draughty corridor. Unlike Foxbridge, Castoris Castle is a real castle, occupying a site that had been fortified by the Romans and remained fortified ever since. And though its living-quarters had been expanded and remodeled over the years, growing like a great stone bramble against a thick curtain-wall that rises straight out of the rocky banks of the Beve River, it could still be defended as a fortress (though only if one were confronted with a medieval army).
The place was never warm, not even in summer, and there were enough moaning draughts and inexplicable cold spots that one could easily believe the place was haunted; it felt like a good quarter mile from my circular turret bedroom to the converted garderobe against the outside wall that had been turned into a bathroom some time in the last century, though it was probably only a couple hundred feet.
After using the really ancient commode (like a sedan chair with a painted china tank on top) and soaking in the incredibly deep copper tub for as long as the hot water lasted, I bundled back up and dashed for my room, nearly mowing down a fellow-guest on his way to the same bathroom. I didn't pause to see who it was, though, as the corridor was especially frigid that morning and I needed to get near a fire before I froze.
Pond was already there with my tweeds laid out and a copy of the A.B.C. on the dressing-table, so I read through it while he dolled me up for the day. I'd already missed the London train out of Beverborough, the nearest town; but if I could cadge a ride into Melton Mowbray, I could catch an express at lunchtime. That settled, I started rehearsing excuses I could make to my hostess for why I had to scurry away to Town in the middle of my stay. Pond suggested a special emergency meeting at one of my clubs, which I leapt upon gladly. He really is the cleverest man I know, when it comes to the little details of life.