This is something of a defining moment for the story in a couple of ways. First, I just had a tremendous amount of fun writing it, because the bulk of the chapter grew out of a single joke which was just so funny and so bizarre that it not only ended up dominating virtually the entire chapter, it ended up being a character-defining moment for Miss Elliot and Reginald both.
Also, the end of this chapter - specifically around the 8:20 mark - contains perhaps the most outlandish conceit in the entire story so far, which, I feel, more than anything else, makes it plain just what sort of a world we're looking at in this story.
And so, without further ado...
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Inspecting the wreckage of my study with no small amount of chagrin, I saw Ivan begin to extricate himself from his hiding place beneath the table. As he did so, however, I noticed that underneath him was the still-sheet-covered and still-comatose form of Miss Elliot, who it seemed he had completed his surgical work upon during the battle. I realized that he had not been hiding at all, but rather seeing to the safety of his patient. I felt a stab of guilt at having thought so little of him earlier on, and while I still intended to have him flogged in his sleep – one cannot be indecisive in front of the help, after all – I also resolved to feel remorseful with regards to having done so later on, and to fashion him with an elk carcass to gnaw on as recompense for the unfair treatment.
In the mean time, though, I took a moment to congratulate Ivan on his handiwork and asked him to step aside. I then stooped down and removed the sheet from over Miss Elliot’s face. "Miss Elliot", I shook her gently by her left shoulder so as to awaken her. "The threat has passed. All is well once more."
"Oh, thank heavens", she said wearily, stifling her yawn with her left hand. "I trust I haven't discommodated you over-much by leading this beast to your home."
"Not at all, not at all. Indeed, you've done me something of a favour; I'd never have had the opportunity to box one of these creatures into unconsciousness otherwise. Bloody good sport, really!" I gestured down at her right shoulder. "And another bit of good news: Ivan here has successfully completed your surgery. It should be sore for a few days, but a glass of brandy or two will take the edge off of that, I daresay."
She looked down at her right shoulder and scowled somewhat. It was bandaged up expertly, with the flow of blood comfortably stanched. "It seems it was a rather larger operation than I had anticipated, Mister Kingsley..."
"Oh? Ah, yes! Quite so, quite so. Had to amputate the arm entirely, I'm afraid. Nothing to be done for it, you understand. Too far gone with infection. You really ought to be more careful than that, you silly girl."
She looked at the stump of her shoulder, then to Ivan, who was beaming proudly at his accomplishment, fastidiously licking the blood from his hands in the manner of his people - such admirable thrift they showed; never a thing wasted! - and then to me again. "Shan't this be something of an inconvenience for me, don't you think?"
"Oh, pish-tosh!" I laughed out loud. "Just... I don't know. Put a brooch over your left shoulder or something of the sort. Draw the eye away from it. Ah, but listen to me! Giving fashion advice to a woman! What do I know about such things?"
"No, no", she shook her head, "I meant... lifting things, opening doors and the like."
"My dear woman!" I shouted, barely holding back a peal of laughter, "You can't possibly mean to tell me that a woman of wealth and means such as yourself doesn't have servants whom she can pay to perform such menial tasks as that." I waggled my finger at her reprovingly. "Now I think you're just fishing for sympathy."
"I'm afraid I'm guilty as charged, Mister Kingsley." She rolled her eyes in an act of mock melodrama, placing her left hand theatrically to her forehead. "Oh, woe is me! I shall be denied the pleasure of cobbling shoes and hewing wood! Whatever shall I do!" We all laughed at her jest, and I called for my maid, Pansie, to come into my office and start cleaning up the mess while I moved to my liquor cabinet to fetch us some drinks. "I realize I'm being quite the pest about the whole matter", she said after a few moments, pouting somewhat in consternation, "but might I ask what's to be done with my loose arm?"
"Oh, by all means. But you have nothing to fear, my dear. We'll give it a proper christian burial, and when the rest of you dies, we'll bury you with it. No reason why you ought to find yourself one-armed on Judgement Day and need to dig your way out of your grave one-handed!"
"I hadn't thought of that! How very considerate of you. But I should wonder if I would have the strength to move through such a weight of soil even so..."
"Not to worry", I waved my hand dismissively at her. I selected a bottle of brandy and held it up for her approval. She nodded in assent, smiling warmly at the sight of it. "We'll make a point of including a shovel, work-gloves and a pair of miner's goggles to keep the dirt from your eyes. Standard resurrection gear, don't you know."
She nodded thoughtfully. "I find myself, upon consideration, somewhat startled that they don't discuss this sort of matter with us in church."
"Haven't the stomach for it, dear souls. But they'll pay for it when they show up for the final judgement all dirty with grave-dirt and breathless from work."
"And what of yourself, Mister Kingsley? I imagine you have your own plans well in order."
"Naturally." I smiled broadly. I found I rather liked this woman. She knew a great mind when she saw it, and wasn't afraid to say so. "I shall be interred in a mausoleum of my own design, with a combination lock on the front door which only I know the combination to. That way nobody else will be able to get in or out without my approval."
"Out? Whoever should want to get out save yourself?"
"Well, Pansie, of course!" I laughed at the woman's silliness. "I shall naturally want to have my maid on-hand when I rise from the dead. Who else should fetch my slippers for me when I get up on that holiest of mornings?"
"You plan to have your serving woman... murdered and interred with you?" She asked, a chilliness suddenly having crept into her voice.
"For shame!" I was hurt by the very insinuation, and made no secret of it. "To even suggest such a thing! Do you imagine me some sort of pagan pharaoh, to indulge in such criminal excess? No, of course not. She shall be sealed in, alive and well. Food and drink shall naturally be provided for her from a trust fund I have already established towards that very end, and shall continue to until she expires from entirely natural causes! Why, if you're so concerned for her well-being, it may please you to know that her cleaning equipment shall be sealed inside with her so that she shall have the ability to keep the place tidy until judgement day. She's the sort of woman who requires tasks to apply herself to, or else she becomes restless and depressed, you see."
"I must confess, I find her devotion to you remarkable, that she would agree to such an arrangement."
"Yes, well", I waved the matter off lightly, "it was in her contract when she signed on to work with me. She can't read a word of English, naturally, and so I imagine she'll find it to be something of a surprise when the day comes, but my lawyers tell me it should hold up well enough in a court of law, should it come to that."
"MIster Kingsley, you are a man of rare foresight and character. I see that I have done well in entrusting my family's well-being to you.”
I inclined my head to her, acknowledging her well-placed praise and opened the bottle in my hands. As I began to pour a snifter of brandy for my guest, I asked her, "And speaking of which... before we were so rudely interrupted, we were speaking of the prospect of an expedition to Africa...?"
"Ah, yes!" she said, perking up at the memory of it. "Yes, but I fear that there is yet another wrinkle in this tale which I hadn't the opportunity to share yet. For you see, I fear that nearly all who were on that fateful safari have now either been kidnapped by these Nubian rascals, or else met their untimely ends at their hands. As it happens, I'm not exactly sure WHERE it is that they've taken father as a consequence!"
I nodded my head thoughtfully. "That is a spot of bother. But you say 'nearly' all. Do I correctly deduce that there remains at least one who could yet guide us to our quarry?"
"There is! My brother, Jonothan. But I fear there is yet another problem still."
"Imagine that", I replied dryly. "What is it? Does he have a tennis match he must attend which will otherwise occupy him? I seem to recall he's a deft hand with a racket..."
"No, no. Nothing of the sort. No, I fear the problem is somewhat more substantial than that. In order to elude the curse, he's fled the country, the coward, and we shall need to fetch him before we can set off for Africa."
"Rotten luck, that", I muttered, handing her her glass and beginning to pour my own. "And where has he fled to, might I ask?"
I nearly dropped my glass, so startled was I. Ireland! Of all the places in the world he might have retreated, why the devil would he have chosen a god-forsaken wasteland such as that? Ireland: The Dark Continent! Its existence had been rumoured by mariners and fishermen for centuries, but it was only in recent decades that it had left the realm of myth and legend and had entered that of science. Even after two decades of exploration, its coastline had only been mapped last spring, and of those few landing parties which had gone inland and returned alive to tell the tale, reports were confused and incoherent. While I feared no man alive, even I could not suppress a momentary wave of terrible, bowel-loosening apprehension from sweeping through my body at the notion it.
“Is everything quite alright?” Miss Elliot asked me, her face marked with obvious concern.
“Yes, yes. Quite”, I said, pouring and quaffing another glass of brandy in a single gulp. “though I believe I shall need to have Pansie fetch me a fresh pair of trousers.”
(To be continued!)
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