Seated in a high backed ormolu throne, one leg draped over the chair’s arm, a large glass in his hand, was Samuel. On his shoulder sat a monkey, a gold chain about its neck, a bunch of grapes in its paws. As I watched, it placed with the utmost tenderness a fruit inside Samuel’s open mouth which he crunched with relish, the pink juice dribbling from his lips.
With a wide, wolfish grin, Samuel called, ‘Come in. And introduce me to your dark companion …’
With Samuel’s words, the entire company turned to look at Slatina and myself. Even the monkey stopped grooming his master’s hair and cast its glassy eyes upon us.
‘Don’t stand by the door. Come into the parlour. Let us all become better acquainted.’ He looked behind me to the little child and said, ‘Bring us claret, Imp.’
The boy was so small, bare feet already so scratched and filthy, I made to protest but Samuel cut me short with a wave of his hand.
‘Don’t waste tender sensibilities on that little demon. He is more villainous and devious than the worst cutpurse or murderer.’
I shook my head in disbelief. ‘He is only a child. And the way to cellar is surely perilous in such darkness.’
Already the door was closing, Imp vanishing into the passageway.
Edmund shrugged. ‘Night is his world. He sees better by the moon’s rays than the sun’s.’ He tugged hard on the golden chain until the monkey climbed down from his shoulder onto his knee. ‘Come. Sit by the fire. Drink. But first, introduce me to the gentleman who has accompanied you back from your disgrace.’
Gauging my discomfiture at the mention of my slump in fortunes, Samuel again waved his hand. ‘Come, come. We shall have no secrets you and I. We are the very worst of our kind, yet we must feel no shame. What have we done but follow our natures? I have always been utterly myself and so, throughout your travails, have you.’
A sense of injustice burned in my chest – to compare me so to such a debased devil … I thought to protest, to claim that I could still at least call myself a gentleman. Fortunately my brain worked quicker than my tongue, cutting it dead before such an absurd utterance could pass my lips. For if there was one thing I could hardly call myself since my fall, that was a gentleman.
‘Well,’ he exclaimed, ‘if you will be so obstinate as to refuse introductions, allow me to begin.’ He took the monkey by its scruff, snapped the gold chain with a swift tug and threw the animal into the arms of one of the gentleman. ‘This is Jack Golding.’ He nodded to Golding and at the signal the man tossed the monkey into the air and into his neighbour’s lap. ‘Dick Cummings.’ Another throw, the animal now squealing in terror and pain as one of the ladies gripped it tightly about the throat, pinning its front paws together with her other hand. ‘Nancy and Coral Flitting, ladies of dubious but saleable virtue.’
It was as the poor, distressed animal was passed from hand to cruel hand I saw the details of the scene. The gentlemen’s clothes were fine, but ill fittting as if borrowed and pinned about them. Their faces were laced with scars, their chins stubbled, their teeth black or missing. As for the ‘ladies’, they were little better, their skin coarse and roughened by the elements, cheeks pocked and marked with such black spots as the inflicted use to cover traces of the French disease.
My estimations of the company had changed from surprise at their elevated nature to disgust. What a strange company of brigands, trollops and thieves, all dressed as if for a mask or theatrical, all dressed to deceive and mislead.
Samuel’s face was bathed in a light of wicked amusement at my obvious confusion. ‘Share your friend with us, Edmund. Tell us his name and what skills he owns.’
‘Of course. You see before you the talent of this city. Jack here is most gifted at parting a man from his purse without him feeling the smallest tug on its strings.’
Jack nodded, as if acknowledging a fine hand with a sword or aim with a pistol.
‘The sisters Flitting have talents in the maritorial arts, though they be single ladies. No finer tutor or firmer grip will a man find this side of the Channel.’
The women giggled at this, I turned to the wall in disgust.
‘And Dick,’ he paused, casting a fond eye over the scoundrel. ‘Richard Daniel Cummings. His touch with a blade is legendary. He can sever a man from his life as softly as a mother’s kiss, as swift as a wink, as painless as a sigh.’
The expression of delight upon Samuel’s face turned my insides to liquid, raised bile in my mouth.
I made to turn, to leave that evil place. Everything since our arrival had been laden with despair, with grostesquery, stripped of honour and beauty, decency and finer feeling. If we were to find our way in society, if I was to regain my position amongst my friends, it would not – could not – be through Samuel Longmire Gordon.
However, as I made to leave, Slatina caught my arm. ‘Lord Edmund, you have not introduced me.’
My mouth hung open in disbelief. Slatina was peculiar in the extreme, though much of this I had put down to his foreignness. But despite his unnerving nature he had shown me kindness, generosity. And always he had behaved properly, his manners impeccable, his air the perfect marriage of respect and dignity. The very idea that he wished to stay, to make the acquaintance of these low people shook me to my core, melted the very marrow in my bones.
Without another word, he bent stiffly to Samuel and said, ‘My name is Niccolo Vintila de la Slatina. Duke of Moravia, crown Prince of Bohemia.’
Samuel leaned back in his chair, fingering the long hairs at the base of his neck. ‘And what, Slatina, is your skill?’
The little man looked from Samuel to me, to the ladies and the ruffians seated on the couch.
‘Why, Lord Samuel,’ he said. ‘I can make your every wish come true.’