Sunday, 16 November 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014 - Day 16

To say that I was perturbed by this turn of events would be the understatement of all understatements.  Deeply rattled wouldn't even come close.  In fact, I'm not at all sure there is a word or phrase that would adequately describe how I felt as I stumbled back to my room and fell into the regal Venetian throne chair beside my fireplace, where I sat staring at my shoes in a dazed manner.

"Twenty minutes until the dinner-gong, my lord," Pond came in a few minutes later, no doubt wondering what had become of me.

"Right-oh," I said, but didn't move.

"Are you unwell, my lord?"

"No, I suppose not."

"Can I help?" he asked, coming around in front of me to look into my face,  I suppose something in my voice alarmed him.

"I don't see how," I looked up at him.

"You can tell me about it while we're getting dressed," he put out his hand to get me out of the chair.

"I don't think I can," I said, taking his hand and standing up, "I don't think I can say it aloud."

"Shall I send word that your lordship is ill and can't come down to dinner?"

"No, I guess I'll get dressed," I went into the dressing-room and started peeling off my tweeds like a sleepwalker.  I was so shocked I couldn't even think about how shocked I was; my mind was humming like an engine, the thoughts like pistons going up and down so fast that I couldn't hear one separate from another.

I went down to the drawing-room and got a couple of cocktails into me, which seemed to numb the turmoil just enough that I was able to talk and walk around like a normal person—or so I assume, since nobody asked me if there was something wrong or if I was feeling ill, as Pond had done. I had no memory of walking or talking, nor of going in to dinner and eating a meal, but I must have done.

Excusing myself from the drawing room at the earliest polite moment, I went back upstairs and sat staring at the fire in my dressing-room until Pond showed up to undress me, ages and ages later.  And as I sat there, I kept ricocheting between the two columns of thought that had emerged from the chaos over the last couple of hours: Must I? and Can I?

Obviously, I had no legal obligation to give Jingo anything; but did I even have a moral obligation?  None of the people in that house was a relative, or a schoolfellow, or even a friend of long standing.  In fact, the only person at Verevale with any such claim on my loyalty was Jingo himself.  

On the other hand, I did like most of the people there, and would happily become friends of long standing with them, particularly those whose photographs I'd be buying from Jingo.  I hated to think of what being blackmailed would do to them: it would dim that wonderful light of eager conquest in Michael's bright and handsome face; it would introduce a note of shame and fear to Lavinia's and Abigail's long-standing friendship; and imagine the squalid things poor Rupert would have to do for Jingo and Dotty, since he didn't have a penny to bless himself with.

I have been taught to believe that if one can be of assistance, one must be of assistance.  I could save a half-dozen or so people from the emotional and financial distress of blackmail; I could certainly cough up twenty thousand guineas without breaking the bank, and easily spend the night with a man I'd already slept with hundreds of times already: therefore I should save that half-dozen or so people.

But then there was the problem of Dotty, which brought me immediately to the Can I? column of my thoughts.  I knew perfectly well that I could sleep with Jingo, my body's reaction to his nudity earlier showed that I still wanted him despite how much I'd come to dislike him.  But how could I possibly allow myself to be intimate with Dotty?  It would feel like I was cheating on Caro, for one thing; for another, it would debase to a sordid expedient something that I considered my proud duty to the Saint-Clair heritage.  And could I even perform with Dotty?  I had no idea, I'd never tried anything like it.

Mightn't that, on the other hand, be a good reason to try it with Dotty?  I mean, wouldn't it be better to know if I was actually capable of the act before I got married?  On the other other hand, though, wouldn't my feelings for Dotty make being with her an entirely different sort of experience to being with Caro?  Were the two acts even comparable?  Again, I had no idea.

The bottom line was that the very idea of laying a finger on Dotty Faringdon terrified me right out of my skin.  But since my objection to Dotty seemed to be made more of fear than any real moral or practical considerations, and since it had been drummed into my head since infancy that a Saint-Clair never allows fear to turn him from a necessary task, I began to feel that it was practically my duty to go through with it.

That was a very energising thought: my duty.  It actually helped me pull the complicated dilemma together under one heading, organising the whole mess into one easy to consider (if potentially difficult to perform) responsibility.  I may not like it, I may not want to do it, but the Saint-Clair motto is Fide Sanguinis Fæce, 'Loyal to the Last Drop of Blood.'  And in this case I didn't even have to exsanguinate myself in loyalty to my new friends, I just had to hand over a great wad of money and engage in some probably-not-unpleasant exercise.

I was so bucked up, in fact, that I was able to unburden myself to Pond with the whole story while he was changing my clothes.  He was even less enthusiastic about it than I was, and thought I was an idiot to give in to Jingo's demands; but he at least understood why I felt I had to.  I started to feel like a knight getting put into armour instead of a rather silly toff getting put into pajamas, with my faithful squire by my side and a two-headed dragon waiting out in the arena.  I even imagined a bit of fanfare as I marched off down the corridor to the Queen's Room and knocked at the bedroom door instead of the dressing-room.

"Good evening, Lord Foxbridge. Come in," Wickson opened the door to me and gestured gracefully.  She was very short and squat, with grizzled hair and a face creased and oily like a walnut, a caricature of an old Gypsy woman though faultlessly dressed in a stylish black uniform.  I wondered if she was, in fact, of Romany stock, though domestic service is certainly not the sort of career one finds Gypsies embracing.

"Foxy, darling, you actually showed up," Dotty was lounging elegantly on an ornately feminine couch in the centre of the ornately feminine room, dressed in a gossamer negligée with great feathery cuffs and absolutely nothing on underneath, like a sultry blonde Cleopatra, "I didn't think you would."

"Evening, Dotty," I said tersely, trying to be gracious but missing the mark somewhat.  I had to admit that she was alluring, even to my male-oriented eyes, as rosy-warm and inviting of caresses as one of those Victorian courtesan paintings you find in the better class of saloon bar; it made me feel rather nervous.

"Ah, here's our brave little soldier," Jingo came in from the bathroom, beautifully draped in a long Arab kaftan of silky gold tissue, nearly as sheer as Dotty's negligée and twice as sexy, "Come to sacrifice himself on the altar of depravity for the sake of his friends."

"Your cheque," I reached into my pocket and produced the long strip of paper, folded discreetly in half.

"Many thanks," he plucked it out of my hand, unfolded and examined it, then walked over to the magnificent Florentine writing-desk up against one wall, "If it makes you feel any better, you're paying for my little brother Georgie's education.  You like Georgie, don't you?"

"Oxford's not that expensive," I said, though it did indeed make me feel better: Jingo's younger brother, Lord George Ponsonby, called Pongo at school as Ponsonbys usually are, was a smaller, prettier, and much sweeter version of Jingo; he fagged for me in his first two years (and my last two years) at Eton, and I was extremely fond of him—an entirely Platonic fondness, I hasten to add, as young Pongo wasn't nearly the tart I was at school.

"He'll need a little income of his own when he comes down, won't he?" Jingo wrote out a fairly lengthy note and folded the cheque inside it, then put it in an envelope and sealed it with his signet ring in red wax, "Massingale, take this down to the post box in the hall, would you?"

"Yes, my lord," the young valet scurried forth from whatever corner of the room he'd been hiding in.  As extravagantly pretty as the boy was, with his golden curls and bottomless brown eyes, he had nevertheless mastered the knack of blending into the woodwork, which marks the best servants.

Wickson went out right after Massingale, leaving me alone with Jingo and Dotty; and they just sat there, Jingo at the desk and Dotty on the couch, staring at me.  Not just staring, either, but smirking at me, as if expecting me to do something amusing.

"So, do you come here often?" I laughed nervously, hoping to ease the tension with a joke.

"You're a sweet boy, Foxy," Dotty got up and walked over to me, putting her hands on both sides of my face and kissing me softly on the mouth; her perfume enveloped me in a warm delicious cloud of ginger, vanilla, and cinnamon, like a fresh-baked cake, "I really do wish you were staying, I absolutely adore redheads."

"Here's all the film we took this week," Jingo said, carrying a large and expensive-looking alligator dressing-case with pretty gilt fittings, "I'd appreciate having the case back, it's part of a set."

"You're giving me all of it?" I took the case, which wasn't as heavy as it looked, "Not just the ones I asked for?"

"Not giving, no," Jingo put his arm around my shoulder, and Dotty was still standing close, with only the dressing-case between us, "I'm selling them to you for twenty thousand guineas."

"Wait, you wish I was staying?" I was nearly as confused as I'd been before.

"We don't like unwilling playmates, chum," Jingo kissed me on the cheek and gave my shoulders a friendly little shake, "We just wanted to see how far you'd go."

"You mean, you were just pulling my leg?" I glared at him, "I've been worried to death for the last three hours and you were just kidding?"

"I wanted to knock some of the smugness out of you," Jingo laughed, sliding his hand slowly down my back and letting it rest at the base of my spine, "I won't lie, it's given me enormous pleasure to watch you moping around all evening like Joan of Arc heading for the stake. But I guess I went too far, that's why I'm throwing in the rest of the film, sort of an apology for upsetting you."

"Oh," I couldn't even think of what to say.  Though immensely relieved, I was also oddly disappointed: it's rather jarring to work yourself up to some brave act of self-sacrifice and then find out it's not needed; all that putting-on of armour, all the fanfare and the banners, then the dragon folds his tent and goes home for his tea, "Thank you."

"If you ever change your mind, you're always welcome, Foxy," Dotty said to me, back on her couch with her steamy Cleopatra pose, but her tone gentle rather than provocative.

"Good night, old man," Jingo walked me to the door and let me out into the corridor, giving me another friendly kiss, "Off to your bed of virtue."

"Good night," I replied rather mechanically and went back to my own room, swinging the case thoughtfully as I went.

Honesty bids me admit that I was half-tempted to go back and see what it would be like with the two of them—curiosity is my most defining characteristic, after all.  But the other half wanted to run as fast as I could into my room and Pond's protective sensibility, and that was the half that won the toss.

"They didn't make me stay the night, after all," I told Pond when I came into the dressing-room, where he was still tidying up.

"But they gave you the film you requested?"

"They gave me all of their film!" I said gleefully, "To apologise for teasing me.  Wasn't that sweet?"

"Well, for twenty thousand, I should think they'd throw in a few extras," he said, taking the case from me and putting it on the dressing-table so we could examine its contents, "You could buy a substantial farm for that kind of money.  Just the film, though, not the cameras?"

"I didn't ask for cameras," I frowned at the idea, "Rather like asking a barber for his razors, what?  Tools of their trade and all."

"And with them, they can just go ahead and take dozens more photographs next week," he pointed out, "Are you going to buy those, too?"

"I didn't think of that," I admitted, peering into the case.  There were about thirty shiny little cans of film rolls in there; if each roll recorded one encounter, there had been quite a lot going on at Verevale Court in the last six days.  There was also a very attractive leather-bound notebook, which contained a long list of paired (and in some cases grouped) initials and dates with a number corresponding to a label on each can of film.  As I expected, ML was the most common monogram on that list, paired at least once with almost every other monogram in the book—if they could hook that boy up to the electricity somehow, they wouldn't need a generator.

"How do we know these are the actual films?" Pond went on, picking up one of the cans and shaking it by his ear, "They might just be random rolls of film."

"I could have them developed to make sure," I suggested, pleased to notice that he hadn't said 'my lord' in quite some time, like when we were just friends, "Though I do believe Jingo gave me the real thing.  He's a blackguard, but he's pretty straightforward about it."

"If you say so," he closed the case and took it over to the wardrobe to stow out of sight, "But you shouldn't go alone to a negotiation. You always pay the first price anyone asks."

"What's the point of being rich, if you have to haggle like a rag-and-bone man?" I shrugged, "Can you find someplace secure to keep that film?  Jingo wants the case back, and he didn't give me the key."

"Twenty thousand and he can't even spare the case?" he shook his head in exasperation; he brought the case back out and transferred the cans into a drawer in the bureau, locked it, and handed me the key, "Better put that on your watch-chain.  But aren't you just going to destroy it all?"

"I suppose I should make sure it is the real thing, first," I said, though the only real reason I wanted to get the film developed was to see what was on it.  Plain old prurient curiosity, of course, but there it is.

"Uh-huh," his tone conveyed just how much he believed my specious rationale, "Will there be anything further, my lord?"

"No, thank you, Pond," I smiled and reached out for his hand, "And really, thank you, Pond.  You've been a real brick tonight."

"One endeavours to give satisfaction, my lord," he smiled back at me and executed a grandiose little bow after shaking my hand.

I got into bed with my diary, which I had been neglecting of late, and sat up for more than an hour catching it up on my doings.  And nobody dropped in for a visit, so it really was a bed of virtue, as Jingo had said.  I had a hard time getting to sleep, and eventually had to turn the light back on and pick up my book; I didn't feel even remotely virtuous, I just felt lonely.

2,790 Words
26,288 Total Words

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