It’s been far too long since we visited Lord Edmund and Slatina. The mysterious little man seems to have rejuvenated Edmund’s fortunes, but at what cost?
… ‘Our agreement,’ he said, a hint of steel in his voice. ‘Introductions to all the great families of your acquaintance. All the noble young Sirs and Ladies. Those of good breeding – good … blood.’
At the word blood, a great cloud seemed to cover the day, blocking all warmth and light, turning me cold. ‘But – ‘ I began but got no further.
‘An agreement, Lord Edmund,’ he said. ‘You gave your word.’
And so it was my fate was sealed …
It was clear that my reintroduction to society would require a house in London and as I had long since lost my own, Slatina set about securing a handsome, if modest enough villa in Belgravia looking out over a private square and gardens.
To make introductions between Slatina and my acquaintances would require some time and effort on my part. Over the months – nay years – of my disgrace, friends had fallen from me like oak leaves in autumn, until not a one remained.
I confess that during the depths of my degradation this solitude had not bothered me overmuch – what need has a blackguard of human company when he has a deck of playing cards, wine and a man to serve it? However, the act of regaining those of my acquaintance and my place in society would prove a cruel lesson.
I drew up a list of names from the finest familes in London, calling cards were printed – a good plate on paper of the highest quality – and hand delivered by one of the Red Men as I had come to call Slatina’s servants. Within an hour there came the first reply – my card returned, torn into pieces no larger than my thumbnail. Over the coming days every card was returned in a similar fashion.
If anything was to demonstrate what an outcast I had become, it was this – that not a one of my former friends would acknowledge me.
‘I believe Lord Edmind,’ said Slatina one morning over breakfast. ‘We should perhaps begin with a personage of less elevated stature. Someone, perhaps,’ his tongue flicked over red lips, ‘less respectable.’
‘But why?’ I demanded. ‘If we wish to move in the best circles – ‘
In a bound he was on his feet gripping my shoulder and I felt the sting of his nails – sharp as needles – even through my housecoat. ‘You have seeen the stepping stones, Lord Edmund? We begin with a lowly stone and from there we jump to another and another, one small step at a time.’
The idea turned in my head. ‘A person of high birth but low standing …’ One name sprang to mind. ‘Lord Samuel Longmire Gordon.’
I felt Slatina’s breath – hot as a furnace – against my ear.
‘Tell me of Lord Samuel.’
What could I tell? Only that Samuel Gordon mixed with the lowest types of men – cut throats, procurers, highwaymen, thieves of the vilest sort – or so it was rumoured. Through these foul creatures he bought his pleasures – opium, flesh, the most terrible acts of pain and violence perpetrated on ones fellow creatures. A man keen to wallow in filth, to inhale its bitter odours and call them sweet.
Slatina steepled his fingers, nails touching his chin. ‘Tell me, then, why has this dreadful fellow not been cast aside as you yourself were?’
There was but one reason. ‘His fortune. One of the largest in the land. It pays to close mouths, to turn eyes from his sins. He is not welcomed into the best homes. But neither would he be turned away.’
As I said the words, I thought of the horrible injustice of it. How a man so depraved could pass in society merely because of the weight of his coffers. The very thought sickened my stomach, filled my throat with bitter juices. Strange, how such a thought had never occurred to me previously.
‘Then, it is Lord Samuel that we seek. I shall have a card delivered within the hour.’
It was with a low heart that I dressed that day, that I paced my rooms, at once sitting to read, then rising to gaze from the window, merely to return to my book, with no more than three words read before I was on my feet again. I lunched, walked in the afternoon, returned to dress for dinner – and still no reply from Gordon. Could it really be that the most depraved man in London rebuffed my friendship?
It was just as a rather good steak pie was being served that one of the Red Men knocked on the door.
‘This came for you, my Lord.’
On the salver, a note, blotted with ink, a black thumb print smudging the word – Edmund.
With a hammering heart, I slit the seal and read.
Edmund. I have lately returned from the coast. Come this evening at eight. I have a rather good Lafite we might try.
There was no signature, however I recognised Samuel’s scratchy hand, his lack of social grace and manners.
Suddenly, Slatina was at my shoulder, lifting the note from my fingers. ‘You see, Lord Edmund, how we prise the door open? Soon we may step through.’