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By Theodore Sturgeon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1956 Frederick R. Ewing
All rights reserved.
It had been a bright forgathering, bright people with their bright talk suffusing him with the warm radiance of his own bright future. Captain Lance Courtenay was proud of himself; he had watched his own words, all evening, falling as ordered and as startling as the brocade on his fashionable waistcoat; he felt his presence in such company was as timely and as casual as the stylish solitaire about his neck. Ay, bright was the word, and the next (or the one after) would be brilliant. Captain Courtenay was on his way.
"Not on your way so soon?" asked Lady Blanton as he bent over her wrinkled hand; and again he was pleased, for his ear was quick and he knew the overtones of sincerity when they appeared in a common phrase.
"I leave part of myself with you, milady," he said. He knew a way to produce his words with a breath like sighing and a firm rumble deep in his chest, a whisper with a contrabass. "You know I remain here in spirit, and a decent bit of my heart is yours alone."
"Along with you, rascal," she said, but she fluttered, she twinkled; she had been reached. "You'd eyes only for Miss Axelrood the whole evening."
This was true, but he shook his head and smiled. His teeth were excellent, especially the right upper incisor, which was extraordinary. "As we say in Devon, who studies a sheep to steal had better know the shepherdess."
The old lady laughed heartily, then drew him a step into the foyer. "I think to this day I've heard Libby Chudleigh called everything but a shepherdess." Sobering, she leaned close and said, almost anxiously, "Tell me, Captain, as a young man correct in all things; do you think it quite—ah—proper of me to entertain her, even when she brings such an ornament as her little Miss Axelrood?"
He contemplated her question and her earrings. Her earrings were diamond clusters, probably Italian, and glorified Mammon more than the Muses; he was delighted with them, and with their owner, who prompted him, "Have I embarrassed you, young man?"
"You have gratified me, milady.... As to your question, I feel that your house is the heart of Holborn, Holborn the heart of London, and London the heart of the world. If then all things are in the world, do not all things have a place here?"
"You have not answered my question, and you have been charming," said Lady Blanton approvingly. "Tell me this too: do you always call for your carriage at the very peak of an evening?"
"My carriage called for me," he rejoined. At the same time he managed to raise and hold his hat in a way which might have had significance; at any rate, she glanced at it. It was a wide-brimmed hat of the usual mode, drawn up and pinned three-corner style. "Ah," she said, "you military men, with your mysterious comings and goings! ... Where may I reach you, Captain?"
Behind the warmth and sincerity of his smile, a small explosion of exasperation threatened. That again—always that! What gleaming boots and good broadcloth could accomplish, the lack of an address could sweep away. With England weighted to sinking with town houses and granges, castles and manors, he had none to claim, even as resident, even as visitor. He said, "I cannot say, milady. I await orders; they come tomorrow at the latest. If one might have the privilege of writing ..."
"You may call it a duty. Good night, young man."
"Milady." He kissed her hand again, and strode quickly through the door, which stood open to the warm spring night—too quickly for a sight of the servant's outstretched palm. Down the steps he sprang, and into his carriage, which stood all agleam in a fair yellow paint and dull red trim, a match to the small crest of the Courtenays on the quarter-panel.
The coachman gathered his lines and grumbled in a resounding basso: "Eh, my peacock, another instant o' that chitty-chatty and ye'd a' ridden 'ome astride yer own arse."
"Hush, you old fool," snapped the Captain, and then, "Hold—halt!" as the wet gray entrance brought forth a vision. Down the steps came the fair Miss Axelrood, little feet atwinkle and her hoops held high. She leaped to the carriage step, alighting like a bird, her eyes and teeth sparkling in the glow from Blanton House. Lance Courtenay impulsively caught at her bare shoulder to steady her, and she turned it under his hand and away, laughing. He had to control the impulse to look down into his hand, such warmth and smoothness seemed to cling there. "You have at last been ungallant, Captain Courtenay, and all evening I had been sure you could not."
"I assure you, Miss Axel—"
"A gentleman," she chided, "is never inadvertently impolite." Before he could rephrase this toward understanding, she gave him that small dazzling laugh again and explained, "You left and bade me no adieux."
"A thousand pardons," he whispered, the hiss with the viol. "I leave against my will. A sudden and most urgent—"
"I don't want your apologies, Captain Courtenay, and I'll allow all your explanations. I have flown out here, bold as can be, only for your farewell."
"Au revoir ...?" he hazarded.
"Ah," she said, "just that, I know we shall meet again."
"It could not be too soon."
"It could. It shall be!" and she sprang away to the steps and up them, turning to laugh again just as she disappeared.
"Now there's a saucy bit," rumbled the coachman, "and one to 'ware of, Lanky."
"Drive, dash it all, Piggott."
"Higger-Piggott," said the man good-naturedly, leaning heavily on the aspirant. "Don't take away my respeckable 'yphen." He flicked his lines and the coach rumbled into Gray's Inn Road.
Lance Courtenay waited until they were safely out of earshot of Blanton House and the traffic around it, and then flared, "Damme, I'll take away more than your blasted hyphen if you don't stop making a fool of me in front of your betters."
"Eh," shrugged the coachman, "ye come by it honest, Lanky. We're all fools....'Oo is that pretty baggage, any'ow?"
Fuming, Lance ignored the question. Through Oxford Street he ignored it, and through the river corner of Cheapside; but at the bridge he surprised himself by answering: "She's a Miss Axelrood."
The coachman said nothing. Lolloping down between the bridge shops, the coach was half across the river before Lance amended: "She was brought by Miss Chudleigh."
This got a response; Piggott hummed with interest. "Was she then! How long has the old hoor been back in England?"
"I don't know. Not long." He was always reluctant, somehow, to discuss anything with the foul-mouthed old man; yet Piggott was in a position to pick up an encyclopedic amount of gossip. He said, challengingly, "She's a splendid-looking woman, though I had only a glimpse of her. She's not old, Piggott."
"She's seen 'er two-score, and 'alf another one by now. Why, she was your age when she went naked to the Venetian Ambassador's ball, and that was five-and-twenty year ago, at the least."
"Not naked, Piggott!"
"Ay, naked, and d'ye think they pitched her into the Serpentine for that? Na, 'is admirin' Majesty the Second George gave 'er a fifty-guinea watch. Greedy bitch! D'ye know she's wed to the Earl of Bristol's brother?"
"I don't know that. I had heard it," said Lance primly.
"She is, for all that. Could've 'ad the Earl of Bath, and struck the Duke of Hamilton 'twixt wind and water, takin' a piece along like a cannonball off a oaken frigate. Maid of Honour at Court she was. Eh! I could tell you what she was made of ... but 'twas Bristol's brother she wanted and Bristol's brother she got one midnight, then off 'e goes to sea. Whelped one for 'im too, or so they say."
"Whatever became of the child?"
Piggott shrugged wide old shoulders. "Dead by now, or given away. Growin' up somewhere like the rest of us, believin' what 'e's told whether it's true or not. 'E might've been the first the bitch dropped by the wayside, and 'e might not. I can tell you 'e weren't the last, and mayhap the last 'asn't passed those portals e'en now; old Lib's still at it."
"Piggott, you've a filthy mouth."
"Ay. It's a filthy time."
Lance looked out over the black water and denied this with all his being. Long association with Piggott made this denial a silent one, but none the less fervent for that. There was right and there was wrong; though these may not immediately present themselves to a man, he need only dig a little deeper, wait a little longer, to find them out. The dirty grey world in which Piggott lived filled him with horror, drove him constantly toward the white purities of a gentleman's existence. Yet the fact remained that grey was made up of particles of white in the blackness, and Piggott presented him with many of these. "What do you mean she's still at it?"
"What d'ye talk about in yon cold-frame of a 'ouse, you and t'other winter blooms?" Piggott blazed.
"Whatever it is, it isn't hostlers' gossip."
"And a pity." Piggott aimed his whip handle at the young man's broadcloth. "England and Prussia rule the ruddy world this Anno ruddy Domino seventeen 'undred an' sixty nine," he orated, "and those that rule the world take the orders of their 'ostlers, ay, their valets and their Maids of ruddy Honour. They do what they're told, they do, because their servants always know what's 'appening, and they can't know 'till they're told, like a ruddy great general wantin' to know what's 'appening over the 'ill. 'E could ask 'is batman an' likely 'e does; otherwise it's someone else's batman 'oo finds out, or it 'as to go all the way down the line to a weary-arse grenadier 'oo finally sticks 'is 'ead over and eats grapeshot for 'is breakfast ... and 'oo's more of a servant than anybody's ruddy foot soldier, I'd like to know? While you're about learnin' your airs and graces, m'lad, never forget to leave an ear in the scullery, and be grateful to whoever keeps the wax out of it for ye. What were we talkin' about?"
"You were making some libelous remarks about Miss Chudleigh."
"Na, lad, 'twas slander," the old man corrected. In the darkness, Lance Courtenay blushed; there were reasons why the distinction should have been his to make. Piggott went on, "Milord Augustus Hervey, the Duke of Bristol's brother 'as so many 'orns on 'im from our Lib 'tis said without 'is wig 'e looks like a ruddy 'all-tree. When she 'asn't been 'awkin 'er wares to foreigners on their 'ome grounds, she's been the hoor o' the Duke o' Kingston, ol' Evey Pierrepont."
"Look," said Lance, too enthralled at this point to affect disdain, "if she really is Hervey's wife, why has she kept it a secret all these years?"
"'Ad to. When 'e slipped the ring on 'er 'and, 'e wasn't of age. Afraid 'e wouldn't inherit if it got about, and so was she. By the time 'e did come in for 'is small slice, she was already abed with Kingston and wanted no mite nor morsel of 'er 'usband. 'E's a queer duck, any'ow, Bristol is, 'appy with 'is ships an 'is grouse, and with 'er too, long as she keeps 'er 'ooks out o' the Bristol treasury. And that she does, with Kingston there to cover 'er nakedness when 'e ain't using it, and giving 'er bits of town 'ouses to keep the rain off."
"That can't last long."
"Ay. We all get older."
"What do you mean by that?"
"It's been going on these four-and-twenty year, lad—since before you were born."
"I can't believe it! Why doesn't he divorce her?"
Piggott's burst of laughter startled the off horse. When he had her reined in, he said, "Scandal, lad."
"Isn't all this scandal?"
"Na. It's what you call 'ostlers' gossip. Fine folk can stand any amount o' that. But bring in your courts, an' your swear-in's and defaults, an' it's scandal, an' that hurts 'em. Bristol's not like England an' Frederick the ruddy Great these days; fight a war for seven year and settle it with everybody 'ome where they come from, what they call status quo ante only the poorer for it. Kingston's getting what 'e's paying for, or thinks 'e is or 'e wouldn't be paying it; and Libby Chudleigh's got enough o' the Kingston entrails wrapped around 'er finger to make a duchess of 'er, weren't it for Hervey. She'll not drop 'im while 'e stands to inherit, and she'll not drop Kingston either. They all take their pleasures, lad, and the only real cost is—'ostlers' gossip."
"I'm glad such people have your approval," said Lance, regaining his loftiness.
"Ye're a smarmy little prig," said Piggott reflectively.
"We're coming into Southwark." said Lance. "We'd better—"
"Ay," said the coachman, pulling left to the curb. He lashed up the reins and plunged his arms down into the boot. From it he drew a folded cloak, which he handed down to Lance, receiving the Captain's good woolen for it. Lance threw on the second cloak, removed his tricorne, unpinned the ribbons and let the brim drop. Piggott swung down and stepped to the right quarter-panel, where after a moment he emerged with the crest of the Courtenays, three red roundels on a golden field. This he placed on the seat beside Lance. He went around to the left side and turned the air blue with his imprecations. "Some pile-ridden catamite's been at me coach!" he roared. "Four shillin' six an' three farthin's up the spout, or 'alf of it, and God blind you if you say get another, Lanky."
Lance leaned out and looked. Piggott was pounding the dangling straps from which the second Courtenay crest had been unbuckled. "What happened to it?"
"What 'appened to the 'oly Grail? I don't know, damn blast the pox-puckered mother of the fatherless colonial 'oo did this."
"You're losing your sight with your wits in your old age," said Lance. "Next they'll have the wheels while you sit on the box a-gossip with some other old swine."
"By God we've crossed the river and it's your turn to keep a civil tongue in yer 'ead, ye little wart."
"This bargain is beginning to be over-costly to me," said the young man icily.
"Then strike a bargain with some other 'ackney. There's upwards o' five 'undred on the streets today, a good third cast-off privates like this'n. Among so many, surely to God ye can find a fool like me, but by my dangling breek, it must be a greater one."
"The more fool I," returned Lance. "Ye'd be back in the stables standing in muck whilst the other hostlers curried your face, taking it for the hind end of a spavined mare, weren't it for me. Who found ye this trap? Who paid to dress and paint it? Who flogged ye into a decent livery and taught ye to blow your nose on your sleeve instead of snapping it in your lap? Who but me?"
"Ye found the coach, I'll grant; but 'oo paid for it? Ye bought paint; 'oo laid it on? Ye prettied me up along of the trap, and I'll grant a quality fare say twice a fortnight for that, but 'oo gives up 'is 'ackney money masquerading as a popinjay's pimp, ay, and stands for yer 'igh an' mighty insults the while?"
Reverting to the cadences of a Courtenay, and with an imperious gesture, Lance said. "We have arrived at the dissolution of our partnership, Higger-Piggott. You may drive me to my inn, and thereafter you may find your own perdition."
Even in the dark, Lance could see the black furious flush crossing the old man's face. His voice was thick with anger as he snapped his whip out of the brace and set foot on the step. The carriage leaned and creaked with his weight, he loomed over the young man like a breaking sea, he sprayed and spat as he growled. "Ay, sir, ay, sir, that I will, sir; drive ye to yer inn, and on the instant; but I faithfully promise ye, God rot me, that I shall tie up these ruddy 'orses 'ere and now and do my driving with this cat," and he whistled his lash close to the crown of Lance's newly slouched hat.
Now it has been recorded that all of this young man's teeth were beautiful, but that one of them was extraordinary. It was the right upper incisor, and its uniqueness lay in a subtle concavity, from gum to bite and from edge to edge, so finely wrought by nature's lapidary that its difference from the other teeth was invisible on the closest inspection. And like most other wonders created by man or God, this one was meaningless out of its context. Its context was, of course, the man himself, specifically the musculature of his upper lip, and generally, his emotional makeup. The latter reacted, in all its complexities, most extremely under the impact of terror. The numbness in the back of the knees, the palpitation which struck at the base of the throat like a heavy fist, the aching hollowness in the solar plexus need not concern us here. The drying of the mouth, occurring instantly and completely, does. For this resulted in an adhesion of the concave tooth to the inside of the upper lip—an utterly unbearable sensation. Simultaneously the lips expanded as the cheeks contracted, increasing the hardness of the vacuum which married flesh to enamel.
Excerpted from I, Libertine by Theodore Sturgeon. Copyright © 1956 Frederick R. Ewing. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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