Having sated his love – like an animal – with the object of his adoration, Cherie, our hero, Antonio, sips a whisky and remembers times past.
Where had it all gone wrong? I dismissed the butler for the evening, laid my first edition copy of I, Claudius down on the occasional gilt table and gazed into my stiff whisky glass. The years melted away …
A chill November night. We had dined at Grand Vita, an establishment frequented by actresses, dancing girls, dressers, usherettes and other theatrical types. Outside, heavy rain softened the orange glow of the gas lamps. Hansom cabs splashed past us, the horses blackly sleek with water, the drivers perched atop their conveyances like little waterproofed molehills, sharp white noses peeking like beaks from under the brims of sou’westers.
“Come, Baron Brown, shelter beneath my umbrella. Walk with me a while.” I proffered my arm with its white-gloved hand.
The Baron, an imposing figure in a long, tweed cape which reached almost to the hem of his dress kilt, stood head and shoulders above the others. He prodded me with his silver-topped ebony cane.
“Aye, it’s a generous offer, Antonio, but I’m gaein’ in this direction,” he growled in that rough, manly baritone I was to grow so fond and then so frightened of.
He gestured vaguely, somewhere towards the left, where the wide, well-paved streets petered into alleyways with stinking gutters. What devilish scheme was he concocting?
“I’m the leader and you’re not! If we go my way,” I wheedled, using all the considerable charm at my disposal, “and head in a more central direction with perhaps a few right turns, we’ll almost arrive where you’d like to –“
The door to Grand Vita banged open. A sudden pool of light; laughter, the clatter of silverware, the pungent odour of eels en croute. Harriet, a pretty young thing with a sullen mouth, lately employed as the understudy to The Scottish King at The Duke’s, swayed and hitched up her stays. She broke wind loudly, giggled and returned whence she’d came.
I turned back to the Baron. He had gone, his hulking bulk merging with the dark shadows. And I was left alone, with my umbrella sheltering just my own slim, athletically erect frame, a disappointed yet private relief etched across my face…
I was startled from my reverie by my valet, Campbell McAllister, and my Camp Aide, Petros Mendlesohn.
Mendlesohn was shaking me awake with a surprisingly strong grip. “Lord Antonio! Wake up, Sir!”
His speech was indistinct, muted by the hideous clanking of McAllister’s huge balls.
“Please put them away, Campbell,” I murmured, covering my piercing blue eyes with a delicate hand. “Why have you dressed for dinner so early? I have asked you not to wear full regalia in my personal quarters. It is too, too unseemly.”
He produced a great quantity of linen handkerchief from the bottomless depths of his pocket, spat and then polished his balls lovingly. “But it’s a great honour, my Lord Antonio, awarded for services to the Pawnbroker Industry.”
I sighed. If only ma Cherie was here with me. She was a rock – as in Ignatius not Blackpool – to me, strong when I was weak, determined when I was tempted to fall over. One steely glance from her and –
But, thankfully, the good-natured, simple man was unpinning the globular medals from his chest.
Petros edged closer, his breath hot against my ear. He hissed softly, like a snake with a puncture.
“Antonio, the State Banquet for the Texan oilman. There is a problem. The new Chef, Monsieur Picquelles, he has eaten all the pies!”
I slumped in my beautifully carved mahogany chair. Do they really suppose I don’t care, don’t feel, don’t regret with every fibre of my being the loss of those pies? To be indifferent to that would be inhuman, emotionally warped –
What flavour were the pies? What is Baron Brown hiding? Who is the Texan Oilman and will Monsieur Picquelles eat him, too?
To be continued