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Wilberforce The Cunning
I’m not usually the sort of person who indulges in quiet reflection, but when I do it often occurs to me that whether He, She, or It is referred to as Fate, the Good Lord, Providence, or however else you wish to designate the concept of a universal, omnipotent intelligence, said all-powerful, all-knowing being is really a decent enough chap. Of course, when most people contemplate the Divine they all attribute same with terms like “benevolent” and “loving,” but I often find myself considering the distinct possibility that His Almightyness prefers some of His children more than others, and that I, (in all modesty and through no action of my own), may be considered a member of the former group.
After all, I, Randolph Reginald Sylvester Throckmorton, Lord Hardwicke and Earl of Chichester (or is it the other way round? I can never keep track) have been blessed with youth, vigor, a truly handsome visage, and both libido and checkbook big as all outdoors, along with the ability and willingness to indulge both without fear of draining either. Who, in such circumstances, would not feel especially privileged?
When I’ve had this sort of theological discussion with Wilberforce, my valet, he, in all patience, reminds me that a truly compassionate God would not favor some of his children over others. Instead, Wilberforce advocates the belief that Our Father which art in Heaven has opted to provide us all with different sorts of burdens with which to test our mettle. Some of us, Wilberforce’s theory goes, find ourselves facing material and/or financial burdens, while others, such as myself, must labor under trials of a more spiritual nature.
At this point in our discussion I usually change the subject and ask Wilberforce to provide a martini, for while (it has been remarked by Mummy that) I am somewhat lacking in thinking capacity, I do have enough wattage powering the old noggin to recognize the presence of a superior intellect, namely that of Wilberforce, and that all attempts to out-debate him are futile. It is therefore better and wiser to defer to his opinions, not only in spiritual matters but in all other matters, as well. He is a wonder, and I would be lost without him.
Nevertheless, I find the presence of Wilberforce in my life to be a compelling argument in favor of my own position, (that I am one of those lucky souls favored by the Creator, in case you haven’t kept up). For one such as myself, a wastrel, a drunkard, and a libertine, (to use some of Mummy’s kinder turns of phrase), to have in his service one such as Wilberforce, methodical, brilliant, foresighted, wise, punctual, and in every way, shape and form a better man than I, (to borrow a turn of phrase from Mr. R. Kipling), yours truly must have done something right. Since nothing comes to mind vis a vis that certain something right in my past, I can only conclude that I (again, in all modesty) am simply one of God’s Favourites and that Wilberforce is but one of my many proofs of same.
Where was I? Oh, yes. I was describing my state of mind when the Chloe Arbuthnot affair first reared its ugly head.
It was a lovely April morning in London. According to Wilberforce a warm day was forecast, with clear skies in the forenoon and clouds to cool things off by teatime, but said clouds were expected to bring very little precipitation with which to dampen and muddy things up. But the weather was furthest from my mind as I lay nestled snugly in bed that morning.
No, indeed. No thoughts of clouds or sunshine rattled around in my brain that morning. The previous night, I’d partaken of a song-and-dance show at the DuBonney Theatre, a marvelous production entitled, “What’s That, Dad?” Good music, good acting, and lots of pretty dancing girls scantily clad in sparkling outfits, prancing about like leggy, full-bosomed nymphs. I’d introduced myself to one such nymph named Myrna after the show, and after a few drinks we ended up at my flat, wherein Myrna demonstrated that her considerable skills in the dancing department extended not only to upright dancing, but to the horizontal type, as well.
So, there I was that morning. Myrna’s naked form lay snoozing next to my own. I was in that pleasant state of half-wakefulness, half-dreaming, half-fondly remembering the previous night’s activities, hearing Wilberforce’s nearly-silent footfalls approaching the bedroom door, (presumably bearing on a breakfast tray my usual morning repast), and generally enjoying the sensation that all was right with the world.
Yes, I’m aware that the sum of my pleasant state added up to one and a half, but mathematics were never my strong suit at Eton.
Anyway, Wilberforce gently knocked and entered the room. Myrna made a show of modesty, (a trait for which she’d demonstrated no aptitude the night before), and clutched the bedsheets up to her neck, tragically hiding her lovely nude body. I’ve seen this reaction before, and I was all set to play my role of comforter and to sooth her startled nerves over a shared breakfast in bed and, hopefully, a quick post-breakfast boff.
One of Wilberforce’s abundant positive qualities is knowing exactly when to serve for one, and when I shall be breakfasting with a guest.
It was therefore with a great deal of shock and alarm that I noticed Wilberforce had not brought the expected tray loaded down with morning-meal type goodies: ham, eggs, toast, muffin, perhaps bacon on the side and/or half a grapefruit with the ever-popular cherry in the middle, juice, milk, coffee, tea, with plates and cutlery for two. No, indeed. Wilberforce came bearing only a single cup of coffee with saucer and spoon. I of course was horrified that he’d neglected my guest, and I at first wondered if Wilberforce had perhaps begun nipping at the cooking sherry in the mornings. However, this was such an un-Wilberforce-like notion my second concern was that he’d somehow suffered a severe head injury sufficient to addle his considerable brain, hopefully for only a temporary amount of time.
Wilberforce himself dispelled any fears of alcoholic stupor and/or the effects of concussion, before I could inquire about same. He said, “I do beg your Lordship’s pardon for the lack of a morning meal for yourself and your guest. However, I presumed that under the circumstances your Lordship would appreciate instead a good, stiff cup of coffee.”
Wilberforce then said the words that struck my heart with the coldest, darkest, most evil dread that any sane man might possibly contemplate. “Sir, your mother is here to see you.”
At that moment, my theological position that I’m listed in the Lord Almighty’s roster of “favored few” took a severe blow. “Good heavens! Are you sure?”
Quite positive, your Lordship.”
Tell her I’m not here! That I’m out!”
Begging your Lordship’s pardon, she stated with a great deal of confidence that she knows you’re here. I suspect she has a confederate within the building who reports to her your comings and goings. My preliminary investigation leads me to believe the culprit is the night doorman, but I cannot make any accusations at this time.”
I sighed. “Very well, Wilberforce. Tell her I’ll be right out.”
I have already taken the liberty, sir.”
I got out of bed and began slipping into pyjamas and a robe. I said, “Oh, yes. Myrna, this is my valet Wilberforce. Wilberforce, Myrna.”
Myrna squeaked “Hello, Wilbur.” She still clutched at the bedsheets.
Wilberforce said, “WilberFORCE, Miss Myrna. Delighted to make your acquaintance.” with such grace and composure to the naked woman in my bed she couldn’t help giggling and feeling at ease. I suspect if Wilberforce really wanted to, he could turn on the old charm sufficient to entice her to remove the sheets and welcome him into the bed with open arms and legs. How grateful I am that my valet uses his considerable abilities only in the service of good. I don’t need the competition.
As I tied the sash of my dressing gown I said, Wilberforce, …”
Of course, sir.” He said, “Miss Myrna, while I escort his Lordship into the drawing room, if you would be so kind as to get dressed, I will promptly return and help you effectuate an escape without detection.”
I took a quick swig of coffee and discovered to my delight that Wilberforce, as always, had prepared it just as I like it: black, two sugars, and a generous shot of whiskey.
As I said before, there are times when I feel quite privileged to be me. There are other times when I feel as unfairly burdened as that fellow Job in the Old Book. This was one such time.
The old battle-axe was positioned on my settee like a vulture perched on a branch, waiting hungrily for an ailing zebra to shuffle off this mortal coil. She wore her usual black mourning dress, commemorating her status as a widow and Dear Old Dad’s escape from her clutches, and her usual disapproving scowl. As usual, she also clutched her feared antique walking stick, made of solid oak with a handle of gold-plated cast iron. As near as I can tell, Mummy can walk just fine; the cane is simply useful for lopping the heads off orphans and slow-moving puppies that foolishly cross her path.
Speaking of canis domesticus, Mummy’s ever-present companion Bitsy growled and snapped as I entered the room. I describe Bitsy as a dog only because Mummy does so, and to contradict Mummy means bracing for a wallop from the aforementioned antique blunt instrument. To my knowledge, no zoologist can confirm Bitsy’s species, but I suspect the beast is the result of the cross-breeding of a long-haired white rat and a pygmy wolverine.
I said, as cheerfully as I could muster, “So nice to see you, Mummy. And how are things?” I sat down in a chair opposite her and braced for the maelstrom.
It didn’t start out too badly; occasionally gale force winds but manageable as Mummy recounted the adventures of various siblings, cousins and acquaintances and how they were all such grave disappointments to her. I was aided in my ability to weather the storm by two things; first, over Mummy’s shoulder I watched Wilberforce surreptitiously and efficiently escort Myrna out the front door without being seen by Mummy, or detected by Bitsy. I assisted in the escape by distracting Bitsy by attempting to pet her and thus inviting her to sink her venomous teeth into my hand, instead of possibly into Myrna’s ankle. Myrna appreciatively waved good-bye as she departed, and I reflected with a sigh and a smile how much I love the theater. The second factor which helped me endure Mummy’s tirade was more coffee provided by Wilberforce, in addition to orange juice he prepared, exactly as I like it: chilled, with very little pulp and a large portion of vodka.
After half an hour, however, Mummy picked up steam as she delved into my own numerous shortcomings. I was surviving, but just barely. The three cups of coffee and two glasses of orange juice enabled me to do so with a wan smile on my face and the occasional nod in agreement, but after a while the urge to relieve myself began to become overpowering.
Finally, all I could think about was conniving any excuse at all to justify adjourning into the bedroom to take care of some very important business, and I wasn’t paying attention to a thing Mummy said.
Until she said, “…and that’s why you’re getting married next month.”
I beg your pardon,” I said, completely forgetting the condition of my bladder.
Randolph! Didn’t you hear what I just said?”
Of course I did, Mummy! I just couldn’t believe it,” I lied.
I was saying that in your life, you have amounted to nothing.”
You are a drunkard.”
You are a wastrel.”
You fornicate with all manner of women, with no thought for decorum or dignity.”
And that is why I have arranged for you to be married next month to a lovely girl who will hopefully make something of you.”
I stood up. “Mummy, I wish to more fully discuss this with you after I have…washed my hands. It seems I’ve spilled juice onto my fingers, and they’re sticky. Pardon me a moment.” I took my leave and adjourned to the WC next to my bedroom. Once I’d completed my business, (just in the nick of time, I might add), I washed my face and prepared myself for the coming battle. I’d had this sort of row with Mummy before over this very issue, and I’d emerged victorious each time. I did not doubt I would achieve the same result on this occasion.
I recognize that as Lord Whatsit and Earl of Something-or-other I have an obligation to carry on the Throckmorton line and that it is my inevitable duty, like that of the condemned man ascending the gallows, to allow the noose of a wedding ceremony to be placed around my neck and then to drop rapidly through the trapdoor of matrimony. I’m just in no hurry to do so. I think I inherited my tendency to loathe marriage from my father. However, I also think Dear Old Dad didn’t inherit the malady from his own father, but instead contracted it after becoming hitched to Mummy.
As I re-entered the sitting room, I felt Mummy’s eyes upon me. I’d made an attempt to seem cheerful and nonchalant as I prepared to do battle over my impending arranged marriage.
Unfortunately, Mummy got off the first shot. She smiled smugly as I sat down and she said, “I know what you’re thinking, Randolph.”
Indeed, Mummy? And what is that?”
You are conniving to avoid this marriage. You are planning to engage of all sorts of public debauchery with all sorts of lewd, low women and in the ensuing scandal, you’re hoping this girl and her family will become so horrified at your behavior they will call off the engagement.”
Oh, dear. That’s exactly what I was planning. In fact, considering how consorting with theater girls is especially scandalous, I was looking forward to the excuse of being able to call on Miss Myrna again. Reeling from the admittedly solid blow, I counter-punched. With mock outrage I said, Preposterous, Mummy! I’d do nothing of the sort!”
She sighed. “Every attempt to introduce you to a nice girl has met with disaster. Your courtship of Miss Applewhite. Your courtship of Miss Entwhistle. Your engagement to Lord Basilton’s daughter. And of course, that outrageous affair involving Miss Smythe-Pennyworth’s cousin!”
I smiled at the memory. Cousins, actually. Plural. Yes, that was a good one.
Mummy continued. “I was unable to show my face at the Britannia Society for six months afterward!”
For which I was sure the Society was eternally grateful. I held my tongue. My hesitation amounted to an opening for Mummy to strike again and inflict further damage.
She said, “Your schemes will not work this time. I have already discussed your low proclivities with your fiancée and with her father.”
Colonel Arbuthnot and Chloe know every sordid detail.”
I gulped. “They do?”
And they have no objection to the marriage.”
They don’t? Well, that proves it. It’ll never work.”
What do you mean?”
It’s clear they’re both stark raving mad. We don’t want a bunch of nuts in the Throckmorton family tree, now do we?”
The Arbuthnots are not insane, they are from America.”
That’s almost as bad.”
Beggars can’t be choosers. Anyway, Colonel Arbuthnot seems to think that what’s past is past. He’s also of the opinion that Chloe is of such good moral strength and character that her positive influence will right your ship and make a better man of you.”
That’s exactly what I was afraid of. I was on the ropes. I had to clinch up and clear my head. It wasn’t time to panic yet, but my heart was pounding. I fell back on the old reliable. “Mummy! This is the twentieth century! Arranged marriages went out with the minuet and powdered wigs! What about love? What about compatibility? What about meeting the bride before popping the question?”
Mummy sneered. “The low classes may feel inclined to indulge in such frivolity, Randolph. However, for the nobility, there are larger issues at stake than foolish love and other base urges. And arranged marriages aren’t so old-fashioned. Your father’s and my own engagement was negotiated beforehand by our parents.”
That made sense. The only other explanation I could think of why Dear Old Dad had courted Mummy was he’d been afflicted in his youth by some sort of brain fever.
Again, my silence indicated to Mummy that my defensive well had run dry, and it was time to seal my fate. She stood up, making great creaking noises as she did so. “In any case,” she said, “the matter is settled. In four weeks time, we shall congregate at Titwillow Hall for a grand old country wedding. And there’s not a bloody damned thing you can do about it, Randolph. You’re getting married! End of discussion!”
Mummy’s assessment of my position was accurate. I had no more ideas. I said, “Mummy, is there any chance I can meet my future bride before she traipses down the aisle at St. Bartholomew’s?”
Yes, of course. We’re scheduled to have lunch with the Arbuthnots at the Shropshire Club at two P.M. Don’t be late.”
Yes, of course today. You will be there on time.” She shouted, “Wilberforce, I’m departing!”
As easily as a schooner might slice through the sea on a clear and cloudless day, Wilberforce emerged from the kitchen to open the door for Mummy. “Good day, Madame,” he said with an annoying cheerfulness.
She said, “Wilberforce, do make sure Randolph is at the Shropshire promptly at two. None of that ‘getting amnesia and forgetting where the club is’ rot. If you have to tie a rope around his neck and drag him to the table, do so.”
I shall ensure His Lordship suffers no more head injuries, Madame. Travel safely.” He closed the door behind her.
I sighed. “Wilberforce, did you catch all that?”
Wilberforce said, “Your mother’s ability to project her voice is admirable, Sir. I could hear every word through the kitchen door.”
So you know what a pickle I’m in.”
I’m afraid I do, your Lordship.”
It is my understanding, Sir, that the storm season in the Indian Ocean is rather severe this time of year. A trip to Australia would therefore be quite hazardous.”
Yes. And my solicitor informs me the statute of limitations has not yet expired since our last visit, so it could be tricky, anyway. America?”
Not advisable, Sir. Until Mr. ‘Mad Dog’ Martin is safely behind bars again, it would behoove you to steer clear of the United States.”
Well, quite a sticky wicket, wouldn’t you say, Wilberforce? Typhoons to the east. Machine-gun-toting bootleggers to the west.”
One is reminded of the aphorism about a rock and a hard place, Your Lordship.”
We entered the bedroom. I said, “Well, I’m not quite ready to face a hail of bullets from a tommy-gun, Wilberforce, so I suppose the only remaining option is to stay put.”
You will be attending lunch then, Your Lordship?”
Indeed I will. Draw a bath and set out a good suit in which to meet one’s future family. No need for a rope to drag me there. I shall face the firing squad with no blindfold and no cigarette.”
A quiet dignity is always admirable, Sir.”
Thank you, Wilberforce. And in the meantime, if you can put on your thinking cap and connive a way out of this mess, I’d very much appreciate it.”
I shall endeavour to do so, Sir.”
To demonstrate to Mummy that I’m not a complete slave to her whims, I did not enter the dining room at the Shropshire Club at 2:00 P.M. as she’d instructed. No, indeed. As an assertion of my independence I chose not to make an entrance until 2:08.
I was the last to arrive. I’d known Mummy was there before I’d even entered the dining room because I’d noticed the maitre’d was holding a bloody napkin to his hand. The only question was whether the offending teeth belonged to Bitsy or to Mummy herself.
The only man at the table had to be Colonel Arbuthnot. He was a stout fellow with a thick handlebar mustache and hair as white as snow. He must have made a dashing figure as he charged up Bunker Hill with Davy Crockett during the Battle of Gettysburg and all that.
Two women were also seated at the table. The first to catch my eye was a striking beauty. Waves of curly red hair and cute freckles on her cheeks and shoulders. Her eyes were green and she smiled shyly at me as I approached. I’m ashamed to say whenever I spy a member of the fairer sex I haven’t yet encountered, I habitually assess whether or not I’d be pleased to end up in bed with her. The redhead was definitely in the “Yes Indeed” column.
The second woman had straight black hair cut in that bob” style which is fashionable these days. She was pretty enough, with pale skin, blue eyes and bright red lips. However, the look on her face when I caught her eye might have been the same look given by one of the unlucky women of the night as she realized she had encountered Jack The Ripper.
This could only be my future bride.
As I approached the table, Mummy got in a couple of digs about my tardiness, and we made introductions. Chloe was indeed the young lady with black hair who appeared mortified at seeing me. The redhead’s name was Charlotte McCann, whom Chloe described as her dear, dear friend” from Wellsley, where they had both attended school.
I noticed that Mummy sniffed at the revelation her future daughter-in-law was an educated woman, but from the way her jaw was set I knew she was bound and determined to see me safely shackled to Chloe Arbuthnot, degree or no.
We sat down to eat and discuss the impending nuptials. At least, my lunch companions began discussing plans. I had plans of my own.
Simply stated, I could not believe Mummy’s assertion I couldn’t shock Colonel Arbuthnot and Chloe into canceling the engagement. Perhaps they expected inappropriate behavior on my part when it came to other women, but they surely had no idea how low I would go when it comes to avoiding matrimony.
Thus, during the soup course I looked my future bride right in the eye and said, “I say, Chloe, what if after lunch we went back to my flat and gave it a go, eh?”
Chloe spit out her soup. Colonel Arbuthnot began to cough. Charlotte stifled a laugh and for a moment, I thought Mummy might seize up and fall over dead. No such luck.
Chloe said, “I beg your pardon?”
It’s not far. Short walk, then up the stairs, into the old boudoir and then taking a spin around the sheets to get a head start on the honeymoon. What say?”
I could see Colonel Arbuthnot’s skin turning red the way a thermometer might do so when placed on a hot stove. I pressed on. “Oh, come now, Chloe. We’re all adults, here. No sense putting off the inevitable. After all, if you were buying new shoes, you’d like to make sure it’s a good fit before you paid. Let’s find out if we’re a good fit from the standpoint of conjugal relations.”
Chloe returned to her soup and mumbled, “No, thank you.” I wasn’t really paying attention to her reaction, anyway. I was more concerned with that of my future father-in-law, to know when to enact Phase II of my cunning plan. Phase I had been to horrify him. Phase II was simply a matter of knowing when to make a break for it, zigging and zagging to ensure I was a moving target. Once I was safely out of bullet range, I could proceed to Phase III, namely returning home to celebrate my newly cancelled engagement with a double martini.
To my surprise, Colonel Arbuthnot made no move for a firearm or to even take a stab at me with a cutting knife. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I cannot keep track of social mores in these modern times. Frankly, the idea of testing the waters seems sound to me. Might have saved a lot of trouble for a lot of people if it were a more common practice.” He returned to his soup.
Now I was the one almost ready to die at the table. I’d had no idea Americans had become so progressive. Nevertheless, we Throckmortons are proud of our stiff upper lips and I showed none of the shock that I was feeling. Instead, I continued with my plan. Chloe had not been outraged. Colonel Arbuthnot had not become homicidal. It was time to intensify my efforts.
I turned to Charlotte and said, “How about you, Dearie? Up for a quick one? Maybe take some notes? Fill in a few gray areas for Chloe so she can enter our honeymoon suite fully informed?”
Few things are more bruising to a chap’s ego more than a lady’s snickered rejection of his desire for her affections. One of those things is an out-and-out Ha, ha.” Charlotte emitted one of those devastating Ha, has” and then said, stifling more abuse, “Thank you, Your Lordship, but no. Actually, I’m a little flattered, but my heart belongs to another.” She eyed Chloe and together, they grinned at some maddeningly private joke.
Not even Mummy appeared outraged at my behavior. She didn’t take a swing at me with her cane, she didn’t summon her accompanying demons from hell, she didn’t spout fire from her nostrils, she didn’t even tell Bitsy to go for my jugular vein. In fact, she appeared almost to be enjoying herself.
For the first time, it occurred to me that my bachelor days might truly be numbered.
After lunch, Mummy took me aside. She said, Randolph, I understand the urge that one might have to sow one’s wild oats before settling down. Now that you see that you cannot shock the Arbuthnots into canceling the engagement, you might be well advised to take advantage of the time you have left. You ARE getting married. You ARE doing so in four weeks. Between now and your wedding day, feel free to indulge every base and lustful urge you may have. You have my blessing.”
Well, that bloody well takes the fun out of it.
I spent the next three weeks acceding to Mummy’s wishes, for a change, and doing my best to make sure every oat was sown, wild or no. I also did my level best to ensure my debaucheries were as public as possible, in the hopes that the Arbuthnots might crumble under the quantity of shameful acts, if the quality thereof didn’t do the trick.
I also begged Wilberforce on a daily basis to devise some cunning plan to free me from my impending doom. Have no fear, Your Lordship,” he repeatedly said. “I am pondering the problem, and I have every confidence a solution will present itself. In the meantime, patience and fortitude are the watchwords of the day.”
However, as the days passed and the clock ticked inexorably toward my date with the preacher, confidence, patience, and fortitude became scarcer and scarcer commodities. Two days before the wedding, we boarded the train north to the Throckmorton ancestral manor at Titwillow Hall. By that time, I was nearly hysterical with fear. Once or twice, I contemplated taking my chances by jumping from the moving train, but with my luck, I would only be paralyzed from the neck down and I was certain Mummy would find a way to ensure I stood at the alter at St. Bartholomew’s, even if I was propped up on a board.
Detecting my distress, Wilberforce only repeated, Patience and fortitude, your Lordship” and he asked me to recount everything I could remember about my meeting with the Arbuthnots and with Charlotte McCann.
Mummy was waiting for me at the station, probably to ensure I hadn’t made a break for it. Together, we returned to Titwillow Hall. Once we arrived, Mummy introduced me to members of the wedding party, both on Chloe’s side of the aisle and my own. It seems Mummy had the fear that any true friends of mine would abet in any scheme I might concoct to escape my fate, and that it was better for me to be surrounded by total strangers to ensure the ceremony was smoothly carried off. Frankly, that was a sensible fear and a wise countermove. I had to commend the old bat for her tactical ability. My best man was a fellow named Sniffy Crumshaw, a large fellow with a runny nose, whom I had never met before. My own dear friends and comrades had been warned to stay away, on pain of death. Since my friends all knew Mummy well, they took her warnings to heart.
They say that in certain situations, when one is faced with the inevitable, that he acquires a certain peace of mind, and an acceptance of his fate. I found my such peace of mind in the early afternoon that day, at tea time.
Wilberforce was serving, and we were on the back lawn, next to the tennis court. Chloe was playing Charlotte, and it was a thrilling match, as good as any I might have seen at the Wimbledon Club. Smashing serves, powerful forehands, perfectly placed backhands, graceful lobs. I found myself staring at Chloe, and she appeared to be having the time of her life. She was smiling and laughing and growling with ferocity, and it occurred to me that she was a truly lovely woman.
At that moment, I found that peace of mind. Chloe would, in less than two days time, be my bride. My wife. Mother of my children. My lifelong companion. The more I thought about it, the more the notion didn’t seem that bad, after all. Maybe it is time to settle down, Randy old boy, I thought. There are indeed worse fates.
Chloe won the match. I went down to the court to congratulate her on her victory, and I asked for a moment alone with her, away from Charlotte and the rest. We spent a moment walking toward the trees on the other side of the courtyard.
Chloe stared at me with wide, blinking eyes, perhaps wondering if I were plotting one more shocking scheme to sabotage the engagement. No, I thought. Not anymore.
I said, “Dearest Chloe. I must first apologize for my appalling behavior toward you and your father and your friends. I can offer no excuse other than I’ve been a damned fool, a boy unwilling to grow up and be the man he must be. But I realize now the time for boyhood has long passed, and it is time instead to assume the mantle of a man and a husband.
I confess the circumstances of our courtship have not been ideal, and I appreciate your patience and your tolerance of my inexcusable behavior. However, I pledge to you now the same thing I will pledge to you before God and the world. I will be the best husband I am capable of being, and I will spend the rest of my life, of our lives together, devoted to making you happy. I look forward to our wedding and to our marriage and to our life together, ‘til death do us part.”
Pretty good, I thought, especially since it was completely off the cuff. As a final touch, I kissed Chloe’s hand, the same hand that would soon bear my wedding band.
Chloe’s wide eyes blinked at me for a few quiet seconds, and I braced for more of the smiles and laughter and beaming expression on her face that I’d seen on the tennis court, that had brought me such a sense of peace.
My future bride opened her mouth and let out a loud, high-pitched, earth-shattering howl, as if I’d stepped on a mangy cat with my golf spikes. She ran from me, the howl continuing, becoming even more high-pitched until I was sure nearby dogs were clearing their throats to respond. I ran after Chloe, trying to find out what was wrong, as she headed pell-mell for the Hall, crying and almost screaming in despair.
Charlotte intercepted me and caught Chloe first. Together, they entered the manor and slammed the door behind them.
I was thunderstruck. I turned to my companions for some sense of understanding as to what had happened.
Mummy stared at me with her patented dagger stare. Bitsy growled. Colonel Arbuthnot sat clutching the arms of his chair, as if to hold himself down and avoid beating me about the head with it. The other assembled guests wore masks of perplexity or of some amazement and disgust that I could be so dastardly as to make Chloe cry like that. Sniffy Crumshaw, my dear old friend of two hours, wiped his nose with the sleeve of his jacket and stared at me as if I’d run over his dog in my roadster. Only Wilberforce, inscrutable as always, showed no reaction.
I said the only thing that could be said under the circumstances. “Wha’d I do?” Since nobody deigned to answer my question, I decided it was best to slink off to my room and lay low for a while.
As I dressed for dinner, I came to a decision. Blast it! Chloe clearly thought so little of me that my attempts to behave sociably and like a gentleman that the marriage was doomed to failure. If I was going to therefore spend the rest of my life handcuffed to a woman who loathed me, I might as well give her a good reason to so loathe. I determined to enjoy every last minute of my bachelorhood, hopefully engaged in coitus right up to part in the script where I said, “I do.”
Fortunately, at dinner I found myself surrounded by a bevy of lovely young ladies, namely members of Chloe’s wedding party, several of whom appeared receptive to enjoying my company before the ceremony two days hence. At dinner, I turned on the old Throckmorton charm with a sprightly young thing named Daisy whom, I ascertained, was Chloe’s cousin.
At dinner, I made no secret of my intentions with regard to Daisy; why should I? Mummy and Colonel Throckmorton were busily discussing plans for the ceremony, and the other guests still stared at me as if I’d been caught treating the Kaiser as an old college chum. Chloe sat at the other end of the table from me, next to Charlotte. Yes, I know it’s bad form to seat two ladies together at dinner, but nobody seemed to mind. Considering Chloe was busy talking to Charlotte, that left less time for her to caterwaul at me.
Aside from Daisy, only Wilberforce even bothered speaking to me at dinner. During the dessert course, he took me aside and said, “Begging your Lordship’s pardon, but I wish you to consider trading bedrooms with Miss Charlotte this evening. I have noted Miss Chloe seems very comforted by Miss Charlotte’s presence, and since Miss Chloe’s bedroom and yours are next to each other, perhaps Miss Chloe might feel more at ease if her dear friend were close at hand.”
I thought this was an excellent idea, but not for Wilberforce’s stated reasons. Chloe’s and my rooms were directly across the hall from Mummy’s room. If I were in Charlotte’s room at the other end of the hall, it would be easier for me to plan an assignation with the Divine Miss Daisy without fear of Mummy’s watchful eye. I told Wilberforce it was an excellent idea, and he departed to make the necessary arrangements.
After dinner, plans with Daisy went swimmingly. She was receptive to a quite drink or two alone with me in the den, she allowed me to kiss her and to make lewd suggestions, and by ten P.M. we were alone together in Charlotte’s (temporarily my) bedroom, preparing to mutually enjoy a sweaty conjugal union. She lay on the bed underneath me, naked as the day she was born, with legs spread and giddy enthusiasm. I could hardly contain my own excitement as I prepared to indulge myself in Daisy’s favors. The notions that I was less than two days away from wedded bliss, and that my future bride was under the same roof as I and Daisy were the furthest things from my mind. Almost.
And then it happened. Or, to put it more precisely, it didn’t happen. That’s right. It didn’t happen. NOTHING HAPPENED!
The famous Throckmorton fortitude let me down! I’d stepped up to the tee with driver in hand, but my follow-through didn’t! In all my many travels and adventures, Yours Truly could be counted on only with regard to how undependable he was in so many ways except one, but in that one way he (meaning I) had never, ever failed!
Naturally, in the face of such a disappointing situation, I did the only thing I could do. I panicked. I jumped into some trousers and ran from the room, abandoning Daisy to her own devices. The poor girl probably thought I’d lost my mind. If it were only that simple. I frantically ran through the manor, searching for the one person who could possibly help me in my plight.
Wilberforce,” I screamed. I spotted him in the main hall, heading out the front door. He was carrying a tin bucket in one hand and a small box in the other.
Good evening, Your Lordship. Is something amiss? You seem distressed,” he said.
Wilberforce, you’ve got to help me! This is a matter of life or death! No, I take that back. This is SERIOUS! I was alone with Daisy upstairs and I lost my…..resolve! You’ve got to help me!”
Wilberforce walked outside, with me following him. He said, “How unfortunate, Sir. However, a failure to maintain one’s enthusiasm is a common enough occurrence. Perhaps your anxiousness about your impending nuptials is preventing you from maintaining focus.”
We were walking across the lawn, staying close to the manor. All the lights were off, and it was a peaceful night, except for my own hysterics. “Wilberforce, you don’t understand! This has never happened to me before! Don’t you have something in your bag of tricks to help me summon up some courage? Some kind of pill, perhaps?”
Wilberforce said, “Unfortunately, to my knowledge, the state of pharmaceutical science has not yet advanced to that plateau, Your Lordship. However, I am confident that one day the discovery of such a pill will be of enormous benefit to mankind.”
I said, “Wilberforce, I’ve had it! I can’t go on! I’m done in! Being myself won’t get me out of marriage, and being a gentleman has apparently made me worse off! I’m running out of time! And if I can’t summon up the willpower to allow me to do the one thing I bloody well do better than anyone, I have nothing left to live for! If you have any ideas, I need one now!” Instinctively, I lowered my voice to a whisper. Wilberforce and I had stopped walking the grounds, and we were directly underneath Mummy’s bedroom window, two stories up. I didn’t relish the added dilemma of disturbing her desperately-needed beauty sleep.
Indeed it has, Sir. Fortunately, our patience and fortitude has been rewarded. A solution has presented itself.”
Wilberforce had set the bucket on the ground, and he removed from it what appeared to be a greasy rag from the garage. I saw more rags at the bottom of the bucket.
I said, “Then what are you waiting for? The situation couldn’t be more desperate! If you have a plan, do something now!”
I am doing so forthwith, Sir.” The small box Wilberforce had been carrying appeared to be a box of matches from the kitchen. He lit one match and used it to set the greasy rag on fire. He then dropped the rag into the bucket, where it ignited the other rags. A small but thick column of smoke began to emerge from the bucket. Wilberforce said, “If Your Lordship would be so kind as to play along?” He cleared his throat and shouted, “Fire! Fire, I say! Sound the alarm! Evacuate the manor! To safety! To safety!”
My own mind was an otherwise blank slate, so I followed Wilberforce’s lead. I ran back into the manor and began pounding on doors, shouting to all that we were in the middle of a conflagration.
Naturally, all was chaos. With the smoke coming from the bucket directly underneath Mummy’s window, when she awoke and panicked, well, panic became the order of the evening. Her screams could have forced Dear Old Dad out of his mausoleum in search of safety from the flames. In ten minutes, the entire manor had been evacuated and we were all standing on the front lawn. I took a moment to assess the situation.
Mummy was standing off to one side, her visage more pale than usual, clutching Bitsy so tightly I thought she might strangle the animal. No such luck. Mummy was glaring at Colonel Arbuthnot and they were having an animated conversation. For all I knew, they were speculating where to have the wedding reception if in fact Titwillow Hall had burned to the ground. All the members of the wedding party appeared safe, although Daisy appeared more distraught than the others. I also noticed that, as usual, Chloe and Charlotte were huddled together, tightly clutching thin dressing gowns around their bodies.
Wilberforce had disappeared shortly after the manor had been aroused; later, he told me he’d quickly doused the fire in the bucket and hid it in the groundskeeper’s shack. After half an hour of milling about the front courtyard, it was determined that there was in fact no fire in the manor, and that it was safe to return to bed.
I did so, completely at a loss about the evening’s events. When I asked Wilberforce to explain, he only said, “Wheels are in motion, Your Lordship. Please be patient a bit longer.”
The fair flower Daisy decided it was best for us not to associate for the rest of the evening, and I could not argue with her. What was the point? If I couldn’t summon up the necessary inspiration, I might as well sleep alone.
When I awoke and entered the dining room for breakfast, I noticed it was emptier than usual. Specifically, Mummy, Chloe and Charlotte were all noticeable by their absence. A few members of the wedding party saw me, but nobody made eye contact. I noticed my old chum Snuffy Crimshaw didn’t even lift his head from his oatmeal.
Colonel Arbuthnot, sitting at the dining table, saw me and approached. He placed his hands on each of my shoulders and said, “Stay resolute, your Lordship. Soldier on. That’s all I have to say.” And he left the room. I had the distinct impression he was actually embarrassed to be in my presence, but why I did not know.
I sat down and Wilberforce brought my morning coffee. I told him of my encounter with Colonel Arbuthnot and asked if he knew what the devil the colonel was talking about.
Your Lordship, it is my regrettable duty to inform you that your wedding has been indefinitely postponed. In fact, if I may be so bold, it is my considered opinion the engagement itself has been cancelled.”
Cancelled? By whom?”
By your mother, Sir.”
Begging Your Lordship’s pardon, if we may adjourn to a room with more privacy, all shall be made clear.”
In the study, Wilberforce explained. “When Your Lordship first presented me with your dilemma, it became apparent that no matter how much you demonstrated your unworthiness as a future husband to the Arbuthnots, they were determined to follow through with the engagement. Since it was apparently pointless to try to persuade Chloe Arbuthnot you were not a good match as a husband to her, it therefore became clear that your mother had to be persuaded that Chloe was not a good match as a wife to you.”
I said, “How could you possibly plan to do that? Once Mummy’s mind is set, her mind is set.”
Indeed, Sir. That was the crux of the problem. I attempting to come to a solution, I was fortified by the fact that the Arbuthnots were in fact so determined to see Chloe married to Your Lordship, despite your obvious shortcomings as a future husband. This suggested to me that perhaps the Arbuthnots determination was born of desperation. Perhaps Chloe herself had shortcomings as a future bride. It therefore became incumbent upon me to discern what those shortcomings might be.”
And did you find those shortcomings?”
Indeed I did, Sir. I was unfortunately hindered by the fact that I had never met Miss Chloe until yesterday afternoon, Sir. However, once I did so, the clues were unmistakable.”
Miss Chloe’s obvious and impressive proficiency at tennis was one clue, Your Lordship. The fact she had been a student at Wellsley was a second. However, the most prominent indication of Miss Chloe’s situation was her deep and close friendship with Miss Charlotte McCann. When you’d spoken to Miss Chloe on the tennis court yesterday, her reaction struck me as unusual. Then, when I noticed that Miss Charlotte followed Miss Chloe inside to comfort her, all became clear.”
What became clear, Wilberforce? I’m as much in a fog as London in October.”
Your Lordship will recall that when you first met Miss Charlotte and you had propositioned her, Miss Charlotte confessed to you that her heart belonged to another, did she not?”
Indeed she did.”
Miss Charlotte did not identify the gender of the one who possessed her heart, did she, Your Lordship?”
I thought for a moment. “Ehh, no, Wilberforce. She didn’t.” The light dawned. “Oh. OH! Oh, I see!”
Indeed, Sir. Your Lordship may be comforted by the fact that Miss Chloe’s extreme reaction to the pledging of your troth was not a result of her being horrified at the prospect of marrying you, but was rather the result of being separated from her heart’s desire.”
You mean Charlotte.”
Indeed, Sir. If I may wax poetic, Miss Chloe and Miss Charlotte indulge in a love that dare not speak its name.”
Brilliantly deduced, Wilberforce!”
Thank you, Sir. Once the nature of Miss Chloe’s relationship with Miss Charlotte became clear, I understood why the Colonel was so determined that his daughter be married, they traveled all the way to England to betroth her to one the likes of Your Lordship. I also realized this was the element of Miss Chloe’s character which your mother simply could not abide.”
So you knew that once my dear old Mummy discovered her future daughter-in-law was an aficionado of Gertrude Stein, so to speak, she’d break the engagement herself.”
Precisely, Sir. I recommended you switch bedrooms with Miss Charlotte anticipating that she and Miss Chloe would not pass up the opportunity to share an evening in each other’s embrace. Igniting the fire in the bucket directly underneath your mother’s window and sounding the alarm had the desired effect of having your mother and Miss Chloe and Miss Charlotte enter the same hallway at the same time. Your mother could not help but notice that Miss Chloe and Miss Charlotte had emerged from the same room.”
I couldn’t help but notice the two of them were quite scantily clad last night, by the way. I suspect they were inflagrante delicto when you sounded the alarm.”
Indeed, Sir. Once your other put two and two together, she immediately informed Colonel Arbuthnot the engagement was off.”
Well done, Wilberforce. It’s a shame Chloe’s secret came out in such a way, but I suppose it’s better than being forced to live in a marriage based on a lie.”
Very noble of Your Lordship to say so, Sir. You may also be comforted to know that there is a happy ending to the tale.”
Of course there is, Wilberforce. I’m still a bachelor.”
There is a second happy ending, Your Lordship. When Miss Chloe and Miss Charlotte found themselves facing sudden death in what they’d presumed was a dangerous conflagration, they realized that life was too short to continue denying their true feelings for each other. They have left the manor and have chosen to seek their fortunes together not only as friends, but as loving companions, unashamed of their desires. It is my understanding they have departed together for the Continent.
Wilberforce, simply outstanding! You are a marvel!”
Thank you, Sir. You are too kind.”
Shall we return to the dining room?”
As you wish, Your Lordship.”
When we did so, I spied Daisy sitting at the table. She gazed at me with fawning eyes. She said, “Oh, Randolph! I understand now why you were so uninspired last night? Some sixth sense told you something was wrong, didn’t it? You had some premonition about the fire!”
Eh? Oh, yes. Yes, I did,” I said.
How fortunate there was no damage.”
Well, yes, to a tin bucket and some rags, but those are easily replaced.”
Daisy smiled at me. “You don’t have any more premonitions of danger today, do you Randolph?”
I smiled back. “Why, no. Of course not. In fact, I’ve the feeling we’ll be quite safe for a while now, especially if we were to spend the afternoon in one of the guest cottages on the other side of the estate. One-ish, shall we say?”
I’m looking forward to it, Randolph.”
So am I,” I said. I had no doubt the Throckmorton fortitude would respond to the challenge this time.
Daisy smiled and left the room just as Wilberforce entered with my orange juice. Once again, I felt that life is better for some than others, and that Wilberforce is proof of that fact.
I took a sip of orange juice prepared just as I like it, smiled and said, “Wilberforce, perfection as always!”
Thank you, Sir.”
Copyright 1996 and on, Erotica Readers Association, Inc.
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