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“And that is the moment at which a most curious animal burst into my study...”
I had re-told the story in considerable detail, adding my own embellishments where I thought doing so might make the tale more interesting. Not to demean Miss Elliot any more than she deserved, but she had precious little grasp of the art of oratory, and it seemed to me that the story could benefit from the addition of a train robbery and perhaps some romantic tension between Professor Elliot and his captured princess. Miss Elliot had initially seemed somewhat distressed by my improvements upon her original narrative, but was soon as enthralled as any of the other listeners, and content merely to listen in rapt attention, bless her heart.
“This is the rhino whose carcass now rots in your basement, ja?”
This was Helmut Eisenbarth, my barman. A German man I had taken on two years earlier when I decided I would prefer not to go out exploring without the creature comforts of having an alehouse to visit. Though his contributions to my adventures were otherwise somewhat minimal in value, I found the drinks he mixed for me while abroad and his sage advice to be invaluable in times when the stress of the present adventure became too much to bear, even for my own fierce spirit. I had briefly employed a tobacconist in a complimentary position, before he was stabbed and killed in an otherwise-uneventful voyage to the Netherlands last winter, and had yet to find a qualified replacement for the man. Nevertheless, I could not help but frown at this interruption.
“How is it that you are all so familiar with this animal?” I asked crossly. “Have you been attending classes of zoological esoterica behind my back, perhaps?”
“How can you not be aware of this, you great simpering ninny”, Blackhawk chuckled from his place in my armchair, his throaty ejaculation of hilarity reminding me as always of the croaking of a ghastly crow. “It is hardly an obscure animal. I begin to think that your famous reputation for woodcraft is undeserved!”
In retort, I picked up a crystal goblet which I had emptied of brandy while I had been speaking and hurled it at his head, causing it to shatter against his scalp. He screamed furiously as blood began to flow freely down his face. Content that I had won the argument, I was prepared to move on when Helmut interrupted me once again, fussily picking up the shattered bits of glass from the floor as he spoke, to my irritation.
“Have you perhaps not seen the new five pound note that was issued last year?” He held in his pudgy hands a promissory note of the five pound denomination, which he extended to me for my inspection. I leaned in to look at it.
Pictured upon its surface was an outlandish animal which stood on four great, thick legs, with a leathery hide and two enormous, fanciful horns upon its almost equine head, Beneath it was a finely-rendered scroll, seemingly in the act of being unfurled, which bore the legend ‘This is a Rhino’ upon it. I peered at it for a few long moments before glancing back at Helmut. He was staring at me with an almost expectant look upon his thick, sweaty face. I peered back at the note in his hands, attempting to discern his intent. Ultimately, irritated with the ongoing interruption of my talk, I snatched the note from his hands and swiftly pocketed it.
“If nobody has anything else to say...” I cast about the room, offering a warning glance at one and all, making it as plain as possible that I had no intention of allowing anything further to be said even if they wished to, “... Given what Miss Elliot has told me, I believe our best course is to set out for Ireland tomorrow in the forenoon. I intend to spend this evening canvassing the docks in the hopes of finding someone capable of fashioning us with a map of the land, or, god willing, even guiding us to and through that forsaken land. Helmut, I should like for you to provision The Regal Swine, which I intend to use to transport us across the Atlantic to our destination.”
Helmut nodded, screwing up his brow in thought as he drew a notebook and pencil from his shirt pocket. “Jawohl. What do you imagine we should need?”
“Difficult to say. Several months’ worth of food, I should think. We shouldn’t want to be caught at sea with too few provisions to last the duration and be forced to resort to cannibalism again, eh wot?” I chuckled grimly at the memory, but noted that there seemed little humour in the reactions of those who were present for that fateful expedition from Dover to France.
“Well, naturally!” I scoffed. “An uncivilized land such as this? I doubt they’ve ever so much as heard of whiskey! Several barrels, at least. And spare no expense. Miss Elliot shall naturally be financing the expedition, so I see no reason why we ought to deprive ourselves of the finest spirits on her behalf.” I smiled warmly at the woman, who, I noted to my annoyance, was tending Blackhawk’s head wound with a white napkin which was even now nearly soaked-through with his sanguineous humor. My smile froze on my face, which Blackhawk, damn his filthy bones, instantly took note of. He leered at me for a bare but telling moment before returning his attentions to Miss Elliot, whom he whispered something to, eliciting a delighted giggle from her. I felt a moment of irrational rage, and briefly considered additionally hurling a glass bottle at his face before deciding that it would be poor sport of me to do so with him pinned to my chair by Miss Elliot’s ministrations, to say nothing of the damage I might do to my beloved chair. How it galled me to see him sitting in it! For that alone I might have allowed Barty to do away with the insufferable buzzard! It was time to see him away.
“If nobody has aught else to add...”, I asked, rhetorically, looking around the room and then carrying on before anyone could call my bluff and add aught else, “...I believe we will adjourn for the evening and meet at the Regal Swine in the morning. Set your affairs in order, gentlemen,” I intoned. “We tread into terrible, primeval darkness, from which none of us, save naturally myself, can guarantee safe egress. Father,” I began, already stepping towards the exit of the drawing room peremptorily, “wish me luck in this latest and most daring of exploits...”
“Luck?” He bellowed, “Luck? How dare you impose upon me to wish you luck when you are already forcing the imposition of dragging me along on another of your confounded gallivants?” He became so agitated that he very nearly rose from the wheelchair which he had lately taken to being pushed about in out of a desire to illicit sympathy from the gullible and ignorant.
“You are free to stay at home for this one if you wish, papa,” I said over my shoulder, still inching my way out of the door, hoping against hope this would be the one time he would choose to let the matter go without emasculating me in front of my crew.
“Don’t you tell me what I am free to do”, he very nearly screamed at me, waving his cane at me as one might a sword. “By holy mother Mary’s menstruation, boy! The day I require you to determine what freedoms I am entitled to is the day I have Margarida here wheel me into the shallow grave I know you already have dug for me in the back lot!” Margarida flinched at the sound of her name, plainly afraid that she was to be given another of my father’s incomprehensible commands, the dear girl. “He plans to kill me, you know! My own son!” he glared around the room, vainly attempting to meet the gaze of all in attendance.
“Very well, then, papa! Do as you will! If you’re so bound and determined to join us, I will not stop you, and indeed would be privileged to count you among our number!”
“Another precious month STOLEN from me!” he bellowed, as if by rote, “while death bears down upon me like...”
“...A raging bull”, I finished along with him, helpfully.
“Don’t you disrespect me in my own home, damn you!” At this he did rise from his wheelchair, strode across the room and belted me across the face with his walking stick, painfully. “Now look what you’ve done! You’ve bloodied up my stick!” He whirled about, pointing the blood-spattered cane at Margarida, who shrank in horror from him. “Margarida! Clean my stick!” The poor woman sputtered something in her native Portuguese, seeming to indicate she did not understand his words. My father, not understanding her words, bellowed at her in incoheent rage, which itself drew more confused and horrified words from the woman. Knowing that this could keep him busy for the better part of the hour, I quietly made my escape from the room, followed closely by everyone else. I firmly but quietly closed the door behind me and hastened towards the front hall.
- - -
As Blackhawk passed by me on his way out of the room, his top-hat cradled under one arm, awkwardly, while the other pressed his bloodied handkerchief to his scalp, he leaned in towards me, a sinister scowl marring his already-unsightly features.
“I shall have her, Kingsley”, he hissed. “I shall make her mine and take her for my bride. She shall bear me children, who shall carry on my legacy long after I have ground you into the dust and you are forgotten by history itself. Mark my words.”
Before I could so much as reason out who he was speaking about, he surged out of the room and was well down the hallway. It then dawned upon me that he spoke of Miss Elliot, who I supposed he must have assumed I had feelings for.
Well, did I? If I had asked myself this question a moment before, I suspect that my answer would be a horrified and emphatic ‘no’, as I visualized a gaggle of one-armed children, each having inherited their mother’s presumably-congenital curse. But in that moment, when I considered the idea of Blackhawk deriving satisfaction from the deluded belief that he had taken something I wanted from me, my blood fairly boiled with rage. By what right did he presume to attempt to stand athwart my admittedly-nonexistent romantic pursuit? I swore, then and there, that I would never allow him to have her. I would move heaven and earth themselves, if need be, to deny him the pleasure of the mistaken belief that he had bested me, even if it meant I should need to marry a cripple and an invalid in order to do so.
As if guided by the cold, clammy hand of fate, Miss Elliot at that very moment came about from behind me, looking as radiant as I had abruptly decided she had always looked. “Mister Kingsley”, she said, “I’m dreadfully sorry to have had my own family difficulties result in such strife between your father and you...”
“Oh, stuff and nonsense!” I guffawed. “No, Miss Elliot, that’s merely my father’s way of expressing affection towards me. He can’t stand to see me stride into danger without his being there by my side to aid me. Despite his bluster, he is in some respects no different than a vicious, bloodthirsty mother hen.”
Her eyes lit up at this. “Well, of course! How could I have not seen it before?” she withdrew a handkerchief from her purse, with some difficulty, and dabbed at the blood still flowing freely from my nose from my father’s most recent physical act of affection. “I must have been blind not to have seen his manifest concern for you earlier.”
“Think nothing of it, my dear woman”, I said, accepting her assistance indulgently. “The ways of men are often as mysterious to women as the ways of women are to any rational mind.”
I led her to the front door and assisted her with the placing of her cloak about her shoulders as she made ready to go. “I pray you. rest well this evening, Miss Elliot”, I intoned. “for tomorrow we set about restoring peace and order to your family. I swear, even if I should need to sacrifice my entire crew in order to see your father and brother safely returned to you, it shall be done.” I bent at the waist and kissed her gloved hand lightly upon the knuckles.
She blushed deeply, and seemed as though she were about to reply when she rushed from my home, plainly aflutter from my gallantry. I smiled warmly as I watched her go, thinking of how this would gall Blackhawk if he were but here to see it.
God how I hated him.
(To be continued!)