Excerpt from The Devil's Delilah
Rain drummed furiously against the sturdy timbers of the Black Cat Inn. Within, its public dining parlor, tap room, and coffee rooms overflowed with orphans of the storm. From time to time a flash of lightning set the rooms ablaze with glaring light, and the more timid of the company shrank in terror at the deafening cannonade of thunder which instantly followed.
“Filthy night, sir,” said Mrs. Tabithy, approaching one of her guests. “There’ll be a sight more of them”—she nodded toward the group crowding the main passageway—”unless I miss my guess. If you’d come but a quarter hour later I couldn’t have given you a private parlor, not if my life depended on it.”
“Very kind of you, I’m sure,” said the guest, gazing absently about the room.
His hostess eyed the thick volume in his hands and smiled. His mien was that of a gentleman. The quality and cut of his attire, despite its untidiness, bespoke wealth. He was a good-looking young man—not yet thirty, she would guess—and, judging by both the book and the rather dazed expression of his grey eyes, one of those harmless scholar types. This fellow would offer no trouble at all.
“Just down that passage,” she said aloud. “Third door on the left. I’ll send Sairey along to you as soon as ever I can—but she has her hands full, as you can see.”
The young man only gave a vague nod and wandered off in the direction she indicated.
His hostess had guessed aright. Mr. Jack Langdon was a quiet, bookish sort, too preoccupied with his own musings to take any note of the service accorded him. At present he was more preoccupied—or muddled, rather—than usual. This was because Mr. Langdon was recently disappointed in love.
Retiring by nature, he was now sorely tempted to betake himself to a monastery. Unfortunately, he had responsibilities. Therefore he was taking himself to the next best refuge, his Uncle Albert’s peaceful estate in Yorkshire. His uncle, Viscount Rossing, was a recluse, even more book-minded than the nephew. Jack could spend the entire summer at Rossing Hall without once having to attempt a conversation. Better still, except for servants, he need never see a single female.
Sadly contemplating the particular female who had cast a blighting frost upon his budding hopes, Mr. Langdon lost count of doors and opened the fifth.
The room was exceedingly dim, which was annoying. He could not read comfortably by lightning bolts, frequent as they were. He’d scarcely formulated the thought when the lightning crackled again to reveal, lit like a scene upon the stage, a young woman pressing a pistol against the Earl of Streetham’s breast.
Without pausing to reflect further, Mr. Langdon hurled himself at the young woman, knocking her to the floor and the earl against the wall. Lord Streetham’s head cracked against the window frame and his lordship slid, unconscious, to the floor.
The young woman remained fully conscious though, and in full possession of the pistol. As Jack grabbed for it, she jammed an elbow into his chest and tried to shove him away. He thrust the elbow away, and went again for the weapon. Her free hand tore into his scalp. He tried to pull away, but she caught hold of his ear and yanked so hard that the pain made his eyes water. While he struggled to pry her fingers loose, she brought up the hand wielding the weapon behind his neck. Just as the pistol’s butt was about to slam down on his skull, Jack seized her wrist. He squeezed hard and the weapon dropped to the floor a few inches from her head. He lunged for the pistol, but her nails ripped into his scalp once more, jerking him back.
Mr. Langdon was growing distraught. To have assaulted a woman in the first place was contrary to his nature. Now he seemed to have no choice but to render her unconscious. He knew he could, having been well-trained at Gentleman Jack’s, yet the idea of driving his fist into a feminine jaw was appalling.
While he struggled with his sense of propriety, she struggled to better purpose, punctuating her blows with a stream of choked oaths that would have shocked Mr. Langdon to the core had he been able to pay full attention. He, however, had all he could do to keep her down. He prayed she’d tire soon and spare him the shame of having to beat her senseless. But she only writhed, elbowed, scratched, and pummeled with unabated ferocity.
Mr. Langdon’s prodigious patience began to fail him. In desperation, he grabbed both her wrists and pinned them to the floor. She cursed vehemently now, but her heaving bosom showed she was finally weakening, though she continued twisting frantically beneath him. That is when his concentration began to fail.
The form beneath his was strong and lithe, and he became acutely aware of supple muscles and lush curves. As her writhings abated, a warmth more beckoning than the heat of combat began to steal over him. In a moment it had stolen into his brain, along with a host of other inappropriate sensations, all of which loudly demanded attention.
Mr. Langdon attended and—alarmed at what he found—hastily lifted his weight off her. His adversary promptly thrust her knee against a portion of his anatomy.
Jack gasped and rolled onto the floor, and the young woman scrambled to her feet, grabbed her pistol, and dashed out of the room.
Moments later, as Jack was struggling to rise, he heard a low groan and saw the earl painfully raising his head from the floor. Jack crawled towards him. Blood trickled past Lord Streetham’s ear along his jaw line.
“My lord, you’re hurt,” said Jack. He fumbled in his coat for his handkerchief.
Lord Streetham pulled himself up to a sitting position, clutching his head. “Damned madwoman,” he muttered. “How was I to know she wasn’t—what are you doing?” he cried.
“Your head, My lord-”
“Never mind that. Go find the she-devil. I’ll teach her to—well, what are you waiting for?”
From his earliest childhood Jack Langdon had run tame in the earl’s house, dealt with on the same terms as his lordship’s son, Tony. Jack had played with Tony, studied with Tony and – periodically – been flogged with Tony. When, therefore, Tony’s father told Jack to do a thing, Jack did it.
He stumbled to his feet and out of the room.
“Well, Delilah, and now what have you been up to?” said Mr. Desmond as he coolly studied his daughter’s disheveled appearance.
Delilah glanced at the pudgy little man who stood, perspiring profusely, beside her papa. “Oh, nothing,” she said, airily indifferent to the scene of carnage she’d recently left. “A misunderstanding with one of our fellow guests. Two, actually,” she added, half to herself.
“Good heavens, Miss Desmond, it appears to have been a great deal more than that. I hope one of the gentlemen has not behaved uncivilly. A terrible thing, these public inns,” said the damp fellow. “You really should not have come unattended. Your maid –”
“My maid has a sick headache, Mr. Atkins, though I have told her repeatedly that only women of the upper classes are permitted the luxury of megrims. I fear she has aspirations above her station.” Miss Desmond impatiently thrust her tangled black curls back from her face.
“Mr. Atkins is right, my love. You should not have come.”
“Of course I should, Papa. The matter nearly concerns me—as I hope you’ve explained to Mr. Atkins.” She turned to the small man. “I believe Papa has already informed you of his change of plans. Therefore I cannot think why you have travelled all this way on a fruitless errand.”
“Oh, Miss Desmond, not fruitless, surely. As I was just explaining to your father—” Mr. Atkins stopped short because at that moment the door flew open.
The woman Jack sought stood with her back to the door, but as he drew on his remaining strength for a second assault, he heard a low, lazy voice say, “Ah, the guest in question, I believe.”
Mr. Langdon stopped mid-lunge as his gaze swung towards the voice. There were others in the room. Two others.
One was a small, rather plump, exceedingly agitated creature with a moist, round face. At the moment he was nervously mopping his forehead with his handkerchief.
The other—the voice’s owner—was a tall, powerfully built man with a darkly handsome face and riveting green eyes. He stood coolly, almost negligently, surveying the intruder, yet his very negligence was threatening.
It occurred to Mr. Langdon that when and if the Old Harry took human form, this was the form he must take. The man exuded force, danger, and something else Jack couldn’t define.
“I beg your pardon for interrupting,” said Jack, bracing himself for he knew not what, “but I’ve been sent to apprehend this woman.”
“You apprehended me once already,” said she. “This smacks of obstinacy.”
“Ah, it is the guest,” said the satanic-looking fellow. He took a step towards Jack and smiled. The gleam of his white teeth was not comforting. “My dear young man, you must give up your pursuit of my daughter. She objects to being pursued by gentlemen to whom she has not been introduced. Objects most strongly. She is likely to shoot you.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Jack. “She just tried to murder the Earl of Streetham.”
“Dear heaven!” cried the small man. “Lord Streetham? Oh, Miss Desmond, this will never do!”
“No, it will not,” the man who claimed to be her father agreed. “How many times have I told you, Delilah, not to murder earls? Really, my dear, it is a very bad habit. Steel yourself. Overcome it. Mr. Atkins is quite right. Won’t do at all.” He turned to Jack. “My dear chap, I’m terribly sorry, but my daughter’s violent tendency is a fiend we continue to wrestle with. Rest assured that I will speak very firmly to her later. Pray don’t trouble yourself further about it. Goodbye.”
Though this response was hardly satisfactory, there was something so assured in the man’s tones that for one eerie instant, Jack, half convinced he was acting in a comic play, very nearly took his cue. He had even begun to back out of the room when he felt the young woman’s gaze upon him. He turned towards her and froze.
In the heat of battle he had become conscious of her lush person. Now he saw that her heavy black hair framed a perfect oval face startlingly white in contrast, smooth and clear as his mother’s precious porcelain. Her eyes, the grey-green of a stormy sea, had a slight upward slant. As she watched his baffled face, her generous mouth curved in an enigmatic, maddening smile that made his heart lurch within him. Jack suddenly needed air.
All the same, he could not retreat. This young Circe had attempted the worst of crimes.
“I’m very sorry, sir, but I’m obliged to be troubled,” said Jack, attempting similar nonchalance. “I’m afraid this is a matter for the constable.”
“Dear God!” Mr. Atkins sank into a chair.
“As you like,” said Miss Desmond. “I wish to speak to a constable myself. Perhaps he can explain why your Lord Streetham is permitted to wander about public inns assaulting defenseless young women. He cannot be very successful at it, since he requires accomplices. I shall recommend he find a hobby better suited to his limited skills.”
“Assaulted you! You were holding a pistol to his heart.”
“Ah, now I understand. His lordship is a tall man?” Mr. Desmond enquired.
“Yes, but that –”
“There you have it. She could not hold the pistol to his head. Much too awkward. As you can see, Delilah is scarcely above middle height.”
“This is hardly a time for humor,” said Jack, much provoked. “Lord Streetham lies bleeding only a few doors away.”
“There you are mistaken,” said Delilah’s father. “He is bleeding slightly, but he is standing directly behind you.”
Jack whipped around. Sure enough, there was his lordship, leaning weakly against the door frame and pressing a handkerchief to the side of his head.
Mr. Atkins scurried towards the earl. “My lord, you are hurt. Here, take my handkerchief. Shall I send for a physician? Shall I send for water? Shall I send for brandy?” The man continued babbling as he alternately thrust his handkerchief in the earl’s face and mopped his own moist brow.
“Who is this person?” the earl demanded. “Why does he wave that filthy rag in my face?” He nodded to Jack. “Remove him, Jack. This is a private matter.”
‘Mr. Atkins did not wait for removal. He shot past the earl out of the room.
Lord Streetham’s icy glare now fell upon the dark gentleman, who produced another gleaming grin. The earl’s hauteur faltered slightly. “So it is you, Desmond,” he said. “When I heard that voice I was certain I’d passed over. Where else but in Hades would one expect to see you again?”
“But not, surely, where you’d expect to find yourself, eh, Marcus?” Mr. Desmond returned. “You are, I promise, still in this sad world, and this poor hostelry is hardly the Other Place, though the Devil himself takes refuge here from the storm.”
Lord Streetham manufactured a taut smile. “Then I may take it this young woman belongs to you?”
The green eyes glittered. “Young lady, if you please. This is my daughter, Delilah.”
“Daughter?” the earl repeated weakly.
The tension in the air was palpable. Once more Jack braced himself.
To his amazement, the earl’s hauteur vanished completely, replaced by an expression of solicitude. “My dear young lady, a thousand apologies,” he said. “The poor light—and my eyes are not what they used to be. I took you for that saucy maid. A terrible misunderstanding.”
Miss Desmond stared coldly at him.
“Nearly fatal, actually,” said her father. “Now I suppose I must call you out. How tiresome.”
“Too tiresome, Papa,” said Miss Desmond. “His lordship has apologized. I am unharmed.” Obviously, his lordship was not, but the young lady tactfully forbore to mention this. “Now if his accomplice will apologize as well,” she added with an amused glance at Jack, “we might all continue peaceably about our business.”
Jack was certain that some sort of signal passed then from daughter to father, but he could not perceive what it was. A flicker of an eyelid... an infinitesimal movement ... or even—impossible—no one could read another’s mind.
He looked to the earl for guidance.
“A misunderstanding, Jack,” said Lord Streetham. “That’s all.”
All. He, Jack Langdon, had violently assaulted an innocent young woman who had only been attempting to defend her honor. He wished the floor would open up and swallow him, but as floors are rarely accommodating in this way, he reddened with mortification instead.
“I—I do beg your pardon, Miss Desmond,” he stammered. “I’m dreadfully sorry—and—and—” Abruptly he recalled the appalling urges she’d aroused. “I hope I caused you no injury.”
“Oh, no,” she answered soberly, though her eyes were lit with amusement. “And I trust I caused you none.”
Mr. Langdon’s color deepened. “N—no. Of course not.”
“Very well, Mr.—?”
“Langdon,” the earl impatiently supplied. “Jack Langdon. Known him since he was a babe. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Very well, Mr. Langdon. Apology accepted.”
Mr. Langdon begged pardon of the room at large, then fled.
He found the correct parlor this time and sat staring at the table for half an hour before he remembered that he’d dropped his book during his scuffle with Miss Desmond. Reluctant to risk bumping into any of the witnesses to his humiliation, he sent a servant to retrieve the volume.
Once it was safely in his hands, Jack relaxed somewhat, and even managed to order his dinner without stammering. This was about all he could manage. He ate his meal without tasting it, and read his book without comprehending a syllable. The storm continued with savage fury, and he noticed nothing. Hours later, when all was quiet within and without, he crept to his room and stared at the ceiling until daybreak.
While Mr. Langdon was trying in vain to find oblivion in his book, and Miss Desmond was recounting her adventure to her papa, Lord Streetham was relieving his own frustrations at the expense of the hapless Mr. Atkins. After berating the poor fellow unmercifully for nearly revealing their connection, his lordship proceeded to an unkind analysis of this relationship.
The world knew Lord Streetham as an enthusiastic book collector. Mr. Atkins knew him as a secret partner in his publishing business. That this was a closely guarded secret was perhaps because of the firm’s tendency to offer the British public some of the naughtiest volumes ever to be hidden under mattresses or tucked away in locked drawers. Despite readers’ regrettable affinity for anatomy manuals, directories of prostitutes, reviews of crim con cases, and guides to seduction, the business had not done well of late—as the earl was at present pointing out.
Atkins was obviously a failure, his lordship observed, perhaps a fraud as well. Be that as it may, he now had leave to plunge into bankruptcy solo. In short, Lord Streetham proposed to cease tossing good money after bad.
“But, my lord, to give up now—when a brilliant success is practically in my grasp—virtually in the printer’s hands.” Mr. Atkins squeezed his eyes shut and bit his lip. “Oh, my. I had not meant—oh, dear me.”
Lord Streetham paused in the act of bringing his glass to his lips and studied his companion’s face over the rim. Then he put the glass down and fixed his pale blue eyes on the publisher.
“What hadn’t you meant?” he asked.
The man only stood speechless and terrified, gazing back.
“You’d better speak up, Atkins. My patience is quite at an end.”
“My—my lord, I c—cannot. I’m sworn to s—secrecy.”
“You have no business secrets from me. Speak up at once.”
The publisher swallowed. “The memoirs, my lord.”
“I am not in the mood to catechize you, Atkins, and you are provoking me.”
“His memoirs,” the publisher said miserably. “Mr. Desmond has written his memoirs and I have paid him—partially, I mean, as an incentive to complete them speedily. That is why I am here. I learned he was travelling to Rossingley to visit relatives, so I came up from Town to—to spare him the trouble of bringing them to me.”
“Written his memoirs, has he?” Lord Streetham asked as he absently poured more wine into his still nearly full glass.
“Yes, my lord. I saw them—at least part of them—myself. He had written to ask whether I had any interest, and naturally, being familiar with his reputation—as who is not?—I made all haste to examine the work. I had to travel all the way to Scotland, but the journey was well worth my while, I assure you. All of Society will be clamoring to read Devil Desmond’s story. We’ll issue it in installments, you see, and—”
“And have you got them?” his lordship asked.
Mr. Atkins was forced to admit he had not because Mr. Desmond had raised difficulties.
“Of course he has,” said the earl. “If you know his reputation, you should know better than to give Devil Desmond money before you have the goods in your hands. You are a fool. These memoirs do not exist. He showed you a few scraps of paper he’d got up for the purpose, and you were cozened.”
The publisher protested that the manuscript must exist, or Miss Desmond would not have been so eager to interrupt the meeting with her father. “He’s ready to publish,” Atkins explained, “but she won’t let him. She’s afraid of the scandal. The girl’s looking for a husband, you know. That’s why Mr. Desmond has returned to England.”
The earl sneered. “Devil Desmond’s daughter? A husband? The wench must be addled in her wits. I suppose she means to find herself a lord—a duke, perhaps?” Lord Streetham chuckled. “Silly chit. What’s one more scandal to her? As it is—but no, ancient history bores me. Still, the public dotes on such sorry tales, and you are correct. These memoirs, if they truly exist, are certain to be popular. Unfortunately...” He paused and lightly drummed his fingers on the table.
“People change, Atkins,” said the earl, without looking up. “Some of those with whom Desmond consorted in his wicked youth have died of their excesses. Those who survived are today men of prominence, highly respected. They will not take kindly to such an exposure of their youthful follies. If you are not careful, you will be sued for libel.”
“My lord, I assure you—”
Lord Streetham continued, unheeding, “Furthermore, libelous or not, there may be information that would destroy the peace of innocent families. We can’t have that.” His lordship sipped his wine with an air of piety.
Mr. Atkins panicked. “Oh, my lord. For fear of a few domestic squabbles you are prepared to deprive the world of these recollections? I promise you, they’ll be pounding at the doors every time a new installment is announced. I beg of you, my lord, reconsider.” Tears formed in the publisher’s eyes.
Lord Streetham reflected for several agonizing minutes while Mr. Atkins mopped his brow and waited.
“Very well,” said the earl at last. “It would be wrong to deprive the public. He has lived an extraordinary life. You may publish, if you can—but on one condition.”
“Anything, my lord.”
“I must approve the material first. A bit of editing here and there will do no harm, and may spare some of my colleagues considerable pain.”
Having agreed to accept any condition, Mr. Atkins could hardly quarrel with this modest request. Some time later, however, as he took himself to bed, he bewailed the cruel fate that had brought Lord Streetham to this accursed inn. By the time his lordship had done “approving” Devil Desmond’s memoirs, they’d look like a book of sermons, and Mr. Atkins would consider himself very fortunate if even the Methodists would buy them.
Lord Streetham took to his own bed in bad humor. He might have known this would be a night of ill omen from the start, when his mistress had failed to appear. Then, when Desmond’s chit had entered his private parlor, he’d mistaken her for the tart, and nearly had his claret spilled. After that, he’d narrowly escaped certain death at Devil Desmond’s hands, had had to truckle to the monster—with Jack Langdon, the soul of rectitude, a witness to the whole tawdry scene. Worst of all were these curst memoirs, whose pages must surely reveal secrets of his own to the unsympathetic London mob.
His lordship was not altogether easy in his mind about the publisher, either. The choice between certain success and certain ruin is not a difficult one, and a desperate man is not a patient one. Suppose Atkins betrayed him and made off with the manuscript? Suppose, even if he didn’t, the book was so scurrilous that editing would not be enough? Perhaps it was safest to destroy the work altogether. With these and hosts of other, equally unsettling questions did Lord Streetham while away the long, dreary night.