The parchment crackled in my strong grip; a hand-written epistle from my arch enemy, Baron Brown. His poor penmanship swam before my eyes. My heart fluttered in my chest like a wren trying to escape from a birdcage made of ribs. I slumped against the ottoman – the Ottoman Ambassador, that is, who made his excuses and left with a quite unseemly haste and an even more unseemly slamming of the beautifully carved and gilded door.
I charged into the morning room, my coat-tails carried like pennants behind me in the speed of my athletic gait. “Cherie, what should I do?”
My beloved looked up from the slim volume she was perusing. “Antonio? O, I shouldn’t do anything until Carole’s communed with Aquarius.” She yawned prettily and turned a page with a languid finger.
Our parlour maid, Carole, had recently become enamoured with a mountebank astrologer and was taking every opportunity to influence ma Cherie with the frequent application of scented oils, candles and drawer-liners whilst I concerned myself with the vitally important business of ruling the country.
“Petros!” I called in my manly baritone.
Mendlesohn who, as was his wont, lurked in the shadows beyond the door, answered my summons. “Sir?” His dark hair flopped loosely over his brow in a most ungentlemanly way.
“Prepare my carriage. I have been invited to dine with the Baron in Vauxhall Gardens.”
Mendlesohn was immediately alert – there was a definite erectness in his stance. The Baron had this disconcerting effect on us all. I fixed him with my uncommonly blue eyes. “You shall accompany me, disguised as my valet. Breathe not a word to McAllister. We travel alone.”
Vauxhall was a cacophonic symphony of smells and colours. The bright, cheap dresses of les demoiselles de la nuit; the frivolous, surging swell of the orchestra; the platters of pork pies and Wet Nellies – all converged to create a sensational dizziness. O, if only I was an ordinary man, with ordinary responsibilities and ordinary needs! But – no! – I was destined for greatness and being a slave to my destiny I must but accept my lot with the humility for which I was rightly famed.
“You’ll take an ice.” My dining companion growled at me, his dark eyes twitching slightly under ungroomed brows.
“O, well, mmm, my tailor –". My carefully polite hesitancy fell on the Baron’s barren ground.
“It wasnae a question.” He grunted at the hovering waiter and almost immediately a crystal bowl of iced cream appeared before me. It was dusted with sherbet and crowned with an impressive log of dark chocolate. Was this a subtle indication? A codified message of his intentions towards me? But, still - the rare cocoa bean! I licked my lips like a snake that had last caught a mouse many months past.
“My Lord.” Mendlesohn was at my elbow, hissing in my ear.
“What is it, Petros?”
His breath lisped against my cheek. “You must not eat the chocolate, my Lord.”
“Good heavens!” I was suddenly unnerved. My linen napkin came adrift from my collar and floated to the floor.
The Baron stooped to retrieve it then fixed me with his one good eye.
I feigned a cough and, whilst my hand covered my mouth, directed a question at my Camp Aide. “Is it poisoned, Petros? Have you uncovered yet another vile plot?”
Petros shuffled closer and mimed wiping a spot of gravy from my cravat. “No, my Lord,” he muttered under his breath. “You cannot eat the chocolate because it will appear greedy.”
“What? No chocolate with my iced cream? But I always have chocolate with my iced cream!”
“No, Sir. You are amongst common people. You must live like common people, do whatever common people do.” Mendlesohn stepped back from my chair and imperceptibly nodded towards the neighbouring tables.
I looked at my dining companion. The waiter had brought another bowl of iced cream and set it before the Baron. His portion was decidedly more prudent, one scoop, uncrowned by sherbet or chocolate: a very plain – nay, Presbyterian - iced cream.
I had been fooled by his kindness, tricked into accepting his hospitality and now I was in a supremely awkward position. The chocolate log lurched backwards, whilst the iced cream melted like so many angry tears. This scheming Scotch scoundrel! This wily, plotting Caledonian!
I swept my bowl to the floor where it shattered into a million glittering pieces and rose majestically from the table. Leaning forward, I said in carefully polite tones: "With that chocolate log, Baron, the battle lines are drawn. May the best man win!"
To be continued