Fortune had not been
kind to Johnny Carter since the conclusion of his affair with Lady Tabitha's
mother. In fact, the daughter would have been shocked to learn that he considered
that sordid drama played out on the sands of Brighton to be the high water
mark of his life, after which began a long downhill trek upon which he was
still engaged. Things will bottom out and I will have a run of luck soon,
he told himself. Thus while she regarded the ex-Colonel with horror, he
had nothing but golden memories of mother and daughter, those halcyon days,
the life-giving smell of salty air, the hollow-knocking sound of the boardwalk
underfoot, the domes of the Regent's pleasure palace pulsating with their
bold colors. "Has it really been eight years?" he sighed, looking at his
much patched boots propped now on the table next to a cracked and greasy
plate. The boots dated from then too. He had a keen memory for his clothes,
when he had bought them, how much each cost. He had never quite gotten over,
after twenty years serving His Majesty, the thrill of choosing one's own
attire. Bought them shortly before that whole setup went kerflooey, he smiled
to himself. Remember Esme looking down at them and then up at me, proudly.
Argentine bull, blood red grain, silver buckles, thirty guineas. He shifted
in his chair just enough to extract a tobacco pouch from his pocket. He
preferred cigars, nice long Havanas, although the occasional Corona would
not go amiss, but these straightened circumstances had reduced him to hardship
rations. Waiting for reinforcements, old boy. Been quite a time now, maintaining
this station in the bush singlehanded. And the natives getting antsy.
"Will you look at that," Mrs. Griggs said.
Since there was no one else in the room, he had to assume she was speaking to him. However, his motto, when in enemy territory, had always been Sit Tight, and so he said nothing, stuffing the inferior plug of tobacco into his pipe.
"Shoes," she went on. He could feel her stare. "I'd have swore they was meant to tread on the ground, shoes."
"They are boots, Mrs. Griggs," he said, though he knew he really ought to keep quiet. The woman annoyed him. She reminded him of a block of mutton fat he had once seen in a butcher's window as a child. Thick, white, cold, nowhere to get a grip on her. He shuddered. "Fine boots made of silver and Argentinean leather."
"Boots," the landlady said, coming around in front of him now, removing the plate and yet managing to bang it at the same time. "They worth anything?"
"I should say so."
"Gentleman wears his boots but he don't pay his rent. Don't you go lighting that filthy thing in here."
"Well why not?" he burst out angrily. "Your sainted husband did. Look at that picture of him." There were literally hundreds of these portraits, set like ambushes all over the house, a pipe with a nondescript face behind it was all the Colonel ever saw.
"It was his right," Mrs. Griggs said placidly. "He lived here. He weren't no lodger."
White hair, pale skin, a broad body straining the seams of her shapeless dress. He could never pierce that thick hide. Need an elephant gun, bell-shaped muzzle, ball of about five-hundred-thirty grams weight, close range, no job for a new boy, need someone who's faced down a mad bull elephant before. Run and you're dead. He frowned, noting he had put his feet on the floor, and that his pipe remained unlit.
"Mrs. Griggs," he said sweetly. "Will you be going out tonight?"
"No I will not." She regarded it as an indecent suggestion. The very thought. But he saw a wary spark of curiosity in her eye. That's it man. Steady hand. Finger on the trigger. Don't look down.
"Why?" she finally risked.
"No reason." He casually got up. He had no idea where he was going. "I just thought you might want something, that's all."
"Something?" Her mouth hung open. You could barely see the chair she was sitting in, she overflowed it so. Mutton fat, melting now, in this infernal heat. "What would I be wanting?"
"A souvenir, perhaps," he improvised. "There is that ball tonight. The one you were reading about in the Society page."
She almost went cross-eyed at this conflation of life and reading.
"Tattson House? The Baroness Tattson's ball, you mean?"
"That's the one." His suspenders were dangling around his waist. He hitched them up as if shouldering a load. "An old family friend of mine, Lady Tabitha de Bourneville, charming girl, I heard you sounding out her name in that column, didn't I? Ran into her the other day. Thought I might pop round and say hello. Catch up on gossip, who's in who's out, that sort of thing."
"You're going to the Tattson House ball?"
At least ninety inches, from tusk to tusk. A pity to leave it here, bleeding into the red earth, but you can't drag a kill like that back to camp. Besides, the natives will be grateful, a windfall for the village, big shindig tonight. That evil yellow eye goes on staring at you even while they hack up the body. The only problem now was he had to go upstairs and haul on his dress uniform.
Of course the Colonel had no intention of actually going to the ball. He had lost his taste for nighttime assaults, scaling walls, blustering past servants, a long time ago. Young man's game, really. He found himself on the streets, medals jangling at each step, not a penny to his name. Poor Tabitha, he reflected. A stunner, of course. He had seen that coming. Johnny Carter had an eye. He could see the future when it came to young girls. Could see the past too, in their mothers. Esme he had loved for what she had been. He could appreciate it where others couldn't. The traces. They had some laughs, the three of them. He frowned. He had acted badly, though, in the end. Must apologize. Next time he saw her. No matter what. He shook his head. Poor Esme. He thought of a precious, heart-shaped locket which lay nestled, as always, under his pillow.
"Sorry lad." He turned out his pockets to illustrate his plight.
"What good are you then?" the street urchin sneered.
Indeed, he thought.
He decided to walk uphill, exercise the old carcass, maybe change his luck. Lately, he had found himself cadging drinks in those seedy houses down by the docks. Not his style, really. He was a disgrace to the regiment. What he craved was companionship. All this reminiscing about Tabitha and Esme. Uniforms had a powerful effect on women. Something about wanting to play with their brothers' tin soldiers in the nursery. Where oh where will I find my little aide-de-camp? he wondered, reconnoitering. Or a drummer girl. He could picture her, button nose, sateen pants, raising her legs high while the sticks went rat-a-tat-tat. Present...arms!
A coach came careening into view, driven much too fast. The clatter of hooves sounded under the crack of a whip, confusing the already panicked team. He stepped to the side of the narrow street but as the vehicle bore down on him he had to flatten against the wall, both palms spread to the hot brick. On top, the coachman was still lashing his creatures, a cruel back-and-forth motion as if flogging someone. The horses were neighing and streaked with foam.
"Driver!" the Colonel yelled. "Driver!"
But his only response was to urge the animals on even faster. The juggernaut passed within an inch of the Colonel's body. A gold button on his chest was nicked and torn away. Long after the coach was gone, he remained stuck to the wall. Slowly, muscle by muscle, he freed himself and set about repairing his uniform.
"Blast," he said, seeing himself still trembling. He got down on his hands and knees and tried peering through the black for his lost button. Defend the Empire against savages and come home to find it ruled by madmen. For he had recognized, at the last moment, the Royal Seal.
"I won't!" a voice cried.
From where he crouched, the Colonel was practically invisible. He could just make out a thin, nervous woman with a fine shape. She paused a few paces off from him and held her hands clutched to her chest, appealing up to the thick rectangle of gloom that on this starless night comprised the sky. Oblivious to her surroundings, she addressed desperately, intimately, the void.
"Take me, please! Release me."
A finely turned ankle. Something glinted next to it. His button! But that was of minor import now as he saw her face suddenly illuminated by an answering break in the clouds. She was a Botticelli come to life, the ringletted blonde hair, the full, cherry lips, fragile yet inviting, with eyes on high like a beseeching Virgin. And yet so womanly.
"I beg your pardon," he said, getting up.
Despite his formal tone she jumped back.
"You!" she cried.
"Carter, Jonathan S., late of Her Majesty's Halberdiers."