I’ve been rather remiss, having left my ‘Devil’ alone for a couple of weeks. But here we have a return visit to Lord Edmund Spencer – look here to read parts one, two, three and four. About to end his life, the disgraced Edmund meets the mysterious Slatina who wants to show him something …
At the door, Slatina stopped, turning that half moon smile on me once more.
‘Here is a promise,’ he said. ‘From this day on, I shall be ever by your side.’
With that he reached forward, turned the handle and flung wide the door …
At first I saw nothing, for the wind was still howling across the moors, still battering the oaks along the drive, singing through their boughs like the Devil’s own church organ.
Then something moved in the shattered darkness and forward stepped a footman in full livery – gloves, buckled shoes, scarlet coat braided with gold – the only sign that he walked through the worst of storms, a speckle of mud on his stockings and his wig slipped askew. In his hand was a silver platter, balancing a crystal decanter and two glasses, the stopper rattling in the gale.
Perhaps I said something witty at this most particular of sights, but if I said anything, I’m unclear on what it was, my mind was so befuddled, my senses dazed and scattered as the oak leaves.
The man stopped before me, bowed stiffly, offering me the decanter. I stared at him, dumb as an ox, silent as a grave. Slatina took up the decanter in his deft, slight fingers, filled the glasses, passing one to me and keeping one for himself. I took the proferred glass as if in a daze, as if the footman had beaten me about the head with the very bottle.
Slatina raised his glass, a smile as thin as a razor cut opening his palid face. ‘To interesting times,’ he said.
I heard the glasses chink, was aware of the wine burning me like hot lead poured fresh from the foundry, but though I know these actions occurred, I felt I had no control over them, that they happened distinct from my being, the deeper part of me that I recognise as myself. It was as though some other force controlled my hand and now it seems to me this was the case and that this was the true start of my troubles. For if in my naivety I believed my life had fallen into the worst, the deepest and darkest of places, I knew nothing of what was yet to come.
Though I was confused I noted one more thing that struck me as peculiar – that Slatina merely touched the glass to his lips, the wine imparting a colour to them that had not been there previously. But drink he did not.
That slash of a smile widened still. ‘If I may ask you to step to your left, Lord Edmund. For you have visitors.’
Baffled, I stumbled to one side, one hand on the glass, the other gripping a door shivering in the wind, though I know not if I held it to stop a gust from slamming it to or to stop myself from buckling at the knees.
For a moment there was merely myself and the smiling Slatina and the torrid night. Then I heard footsteps crunching on the gravel and from the darkness stepped another man and then another and another and when I peered further into the crashing rain I saw more shapes, an endless trail of men and each one in scarlet velvet, each laden. They marched into the house one after another, a trail of firey soldier ants, and I agog at what they carried: hams clothed in muslin shrouds; joints of beef and loose necked chickens already plucked for the pot; crates of champagne and wine and port; baskets of rosy cheeked apples and potatoes and cabbages green as grass in Spring.
On and on they came, men with gilded chairs and tables, ormolu mirrors decorated with fat cherubs and oyster shells, star fish and ribbons. One man bowed under a canteen of silver cutlery, another toted fine crisp linens. Then a trail of puffed and powdered servants carried cloaks and boots, waistcoats and shirts and cravats, long trousers and knee breeches, all seemingly cut for my own frame. In other words they brought a like replacement for every item I had lost to cards, or sold to pay wages or to buy rank claret.
The trail of men continued for many minutes, my mind so dazzled by the colours, the brightness of it all, the sheer cost of all the goods there before me, I believed my wits had finally left and I was fit only for the most rank Bedlam cell.
As I was wondering whether this trail of glories would ever end, someone caught my arm. It was Slatina and writ across his face, an expression of amusement. The narrow man gave a bow so shallow it was little more than a dip of his eyes.
‘Lord Edmund,’ he said, ‘come let us retire and leave the men to do there work.’
He reached his hand to me and I, like a young child following his nurse, staggered after him.
Who was this man? Why was he helping me and how could he afford luxury that has not been seen since the days of Croesus? If only I had asked these questions then, perhaps … But I beg you to understand how magical – how miraculous – that night was to me, a man so recently wallowing in the depths of disaster, in the lowest place on this earth, now raised to greater heights than any foreign potentate or bejewelled maharajah. From Hell to Heaven in less time than it took for the hand to swing around the face of a grandfather clock. Perhaps this dramatic change in circumstance and the effect it wrought on my senses will help exonerate my later actions – if anything can.
Back in the study, a fat log crackled on the rekindled fire, a table groaned under platters and decanters and glass ware. And a thick blanket of soft fine wool lay over my chair, just a such as I had wished for minutes before. The joyful sight brought tears to my weary eyes.
Slatina and I sat by the fire and I listened to the footsteps, the busy comings and goings of Slatina’s men as that so named gentleman poured yet another glass of wine.
‘So, Lord Edmund,’ he said. ‘You see what help I can be to you?’ His finger slid round the top of the glass, skin squeaking and catching, the sound making me shiver. ‘Now. Let me say what little service I may ask in return.’