Excerpt from Viscount Vagabond
Catherine Pelliston had never beheld a naked man before. She had never, in fact, observed a man in any state of undress, unless one counted the draped figures in Great Aunt Eustacia’s collection of classical statuary. Those, however, had been carved stone, not at all like the large, all-too-animate male who was breathing alcoholic fumes into the stuffy room. Even Miss Pelliston’s ramshackle papa, so careless of all else when in the latter stages of inebriation, remained properly—if not neatly—attired in her presence.
The figure floundering near the door, on the other hand, had already torn off his coat and neckcloth and flung them to the floor. At the moment, he seemed to be trying to strangle himself with his shirt.
Miss Pelliston was possessed of an enquiring mind. This must explain why, despite the extreme gravity of her present situation and the natural modesty of a gently bred woman, she gaped in fascination at the broad, muscular shoulders and equally muscular chest now exposed to her view. Her analytical mind automatically began pondering several biological puzzles. Was it usual for the masculine chest to be covered with fine, light hair? If usual, what possible purpose could such growth serve?
As she posed these questions to herself, the object of her analysis yanked his shirt over his head and tossed it into a corner.
“Gad, what a curst business,” he muttered. “Makes a man wish he was a Red Indian. A few hides to throw on and off and none of these infernal buttons.”
Apparently in search of the buttons, he bent to peer owlishly at the waistband of his pantaloons—-and overturned himself in the process. He fell face forward with a loud thud.
“Deuce take it!”
Not at all disconcerted, the stranger struggled clumsily to his feet again. He squinted into the flickering shadows of the room, his gaze flitting confusedly from one object to the next before finally fixing on her.
“Ah, there you are,” he said, staggering with the effort to remain focused on one spot. “Give a chap a hand, will you?”
To bring her mind from abstract theory to disagreeable actuality required a moment. In that brief time the man succeeded in locating a trouser flap button and commenced a mighty struggle with it. The implications of this contest were not lost upon the stunned Miss Pelliston, who promptly found her voice.
“Help you,” she repeated at a somewhat higher than normal pitch. “I should think not. In fact, I am certain it would be best for all concerned if you did not proceed further with—with your present activity. I fear, sir, you are laboring under a gross misapprehension—and no doubt strong drink as well,” she finished primly.
“What the devil did you say?”
To her relief, he stopped what he was doing to stare at her.
Relief swiftly gave way to apprehension as she realized what he was gawking at. The dreadful old harridan who’d abducted her had taken Catherine’s clothes, providing in their place one tawdry, nearly transparent saffron gown with a neckline that drooped below all bounds of propriety. Her cheeks vermilion, Catherine hastily jerked the dingy coverlet up to her chin.
To her dismay, the great, drunken creature burst into laughter. His laugh was deep and resonant, and in other circumstances Catherine might have appreciated its tonal qualities. In the present case, the sound made her blood run old. His laughter seemed to fill the entire room. He seemed to fill the room. He was so large and overpowering, so male—and so very drunk.
God help me, she thought. Then she recollected that Providence helped those who helped themselves.
Gathering the coverlet more tightly about her as though it were the courage she felt fast ebbing away, she spoke. “In your current state of intoxication, a great many matters are bound to strike you as inexpressibly amusing. Nonetheless, I assure you, sir, that your guffaws are hardly appropriate to the present situation. I am not a—a—what I seem to be. I am here against my will.”
Many people have nervous habits which grow more pronounced in times of agitation. Miss Pelliston tended to become preachy and pedantic when she was agitated. Her papa found this characteristic so unappealing that he had been known to toss the occasional bottle or mug in her direction. Since he was usually three parts disguised in these cases, he never struck her. He didn’t particularly want to strike her. He only wanted her to go away.
Catherine cringed, half expecting something to be thrown at her as soon as the words were out of her mouth. When no object came flying past, she glanced up.
The man smiled—a crooked, drunken smile displaying a set of perfect, white teeth that made him look like a lunatic wolf—and advanced upon her. For a moment he swayed uncertainly over the bed upon which she seemed to be riveted. Then he dropped heavily onto it, raising a cloud of what she hoped was merely dust, and making the frame creak alarmingly.
“Of course you are, darlin’. They’re always here against their will, to feed their poor starving infants or buy medicine for their aged grandmothers or some such tragedy. But enough of this game. You’re here against your will and I haven’t any, which puts us all square—and friendly, I hope.”
He reached out to dislodge her fingers from the coverlet. She pulled back and leapt from the bed. Unfortunately, he was now sitting on a comer of the coverlet. She could retreat only a few feet unless she chose to relinquish her makeshift cloak.
“Now where did you think you’d go?” he asked, having watched this exercise with some amusement. “What’s got into you, dashing about to make a man’s poor, tired head spin? Come, sweetheart.” He patted the mattress. “Let’s be comfortable.”
“Good grief! Don’t you understand?”
“No,” came the cheerful reply. “I didn’t come here to understand—or to talk. You’re making me impatient, and I ain’t even patient to begin with. Oh, all right. I’ll chase you if you like.” He started to get up, changed his mind, and slumped back against the pillow in a half-recumbent position. “Only it’s such a bother.”
Miss Pelliston realized that getting this drunken creature to understand her predicament and provide assistance was an unpromising endeavor at best. On the other hand, she could not afford to wait for another potential rescuer. Even if she got this one to leave—which was more than likely, if he was the impatient sort—what sordid species of humanity could she expect to darken the door next?
Catherine took a deep breath and spoke. “I have been brought here against my will. I was most foully deceived and abducted.”
“Ah, abduction,” said the man, nodding sleepily.
“It’s quite true. Shortly after I disembarked at the coaching inn, a thief made off with my reticule. Mrs. Grendle, who was nearby, appeared to take pity on me. She seemed so kindly and motherly when she offered to take me to my destination that I foolishly accepted. We stopped for tea. I remember nothing that happened after, until I woke up in this very room to find all my belongings gone and that odious woman telling me how she meant to employ me.”
“Oh, yes.” His eyes were closed.
“Will you help me?” Catherine asked.
“What would you have me do, sweeting mine?”
She moved a step closer to the bed. “Just help me get out of this place. I can’t do it on my own. Heaven knows I’ve tried, but they’ve kept the door locked, and you can see there are no windows. Moreover, before you came she promised unpleasant consequences if I made a fuss.”
One unpleasant consequence was a burly fellow named Cholly, whom Mrs. Grendle had assured her was eager to teach Catherine her new trade if the young lady was unwilling to learn through trial and error on her own. Miss Pelliston preferred not to speak of that. Instead, she watched her visitor’s face. She wondered if he’d gone to sleep, because he didn’t answer or even open his eyes for the longest time.
So long a time was it that she began to wonder if she was going mad. Perhaps she’d never said a word and had only imagined herself speaking, as so often happened in nightmares. Perhaps, she thought, her heart sinking, he believed she was mad. A choking sob welled up in her throat. In the next instant she gasped in surprise as she found herself gazing into the bluest eyes she’d ever seen.
They were deep blue, the color of the late night summer sky, and framed with thick, dark lashes. Once more her analytical mind began running on its own as she wondered what on earth such a fine-looking young man was doing in this low place. Surely he had no need to pay for his sport. As she thought it, she blushed.
“Just escort you out of the door, is that all?” he asked.
“May a chap ask where you propose to go, with no clothes and, I take it, no money?”
Oh, heavens—he might actually help her! The words spilled out in a rush. “Why—why, you could lend me your coat, you see, and take me to the authorities, so we may report this dreadful business. I’m sure they will see justice done, and at least my belongings will be returned and I can go on as I’d intended—to find my, my friend, you know, with whom I was to visit.”
Her sensible plan of proceeding seemed to leave him unimpressed—or perhaps was beyond his limited intellectual capacity—because he looked blank. As she was about to repeat the information in simpler terms, he spoke.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Yes. Of course I am.” Noting a suspicious twitch at the corner of his mouth, she drew herself up and continued with more dignity. “This is hardly a joking matter.”
The piercing blue gaze travelled from the fuzzy light brown curls that formed a fairy cloud about her head down to the bare toes that poked out from the frayed border of the coverlet. After another interminable silence, the man got up from the bed, yawned, stretched, and yawned again.
“Oh, very well,” he said.
Mrs. Grendle was a plump woman of uncertain age and below-average stature. The inches Nature had denied her were compensated in part by an enormous mass of rigid curls, dyed apparently with shoe blacking and heaped upon her head like so many unappetizing sausages. Her lips and cheeks were carmine, and when she smiled, as she did now in her effort to understand what her customer was proposing, the paint on her face cracked, loosening flakes of white powder which fluttered down upon her enormous, creased, and also thickly painted bosom. As she finally comprehended her client’s request, the smile twisted into a ferocious scowl, showering more flakes onto the eroded white mountainside.
“Cholly!” she cried. “Jos!”
Two burly minions came running at the summons.
“Put him out,” the brothel keeper commanded. “He’s mad. He wants to steal one of the girls.”
Cholly and Jos obediently laid their greasy hands on the client’s shirtsleeves. The client looked down in a puzzled way at first one filthy paw, then the other. As his gaze rose to the faces of his assailants, his fist did also. He cracked Cholly on the nose, and Cholly staggered back. The customer then grasped Jos by the neck, lifted him off the floor, and threw him onto a large piece of obscene statuary. Jos and the statue crashed against the wall. The statue crumbled into fragments and Jos sank unconscious to the floor. Cholly, his nose bleeding, advanced once more. The stranger’s fist shot out again with force enough to hurl Cholly back against a door frame. There was a sickening crack, and Cholly also sank to the floor.
Mrs. Grendle had not survived in a hard world by fighting lost causes. She studied the wreckage briefly. Like any experienced commander, she must have decided that a change of tactic was required because, when she turned to her guest, her painted face was sorrowful.
“Here’s a beastly mess you’ve made, sir, and me a poor helpless female only trying to earn my bread. A sick mother I have as well. Now there’ll be the surgeon’s fees for these two, and that fine statue which my late husband brought all the way from Italy, not replaceable at any price.” She shook her head, setting the sausages atremble. “And when I think of the time and money spent on this ungrateful young person, I could weep.”
“Yes, yes,” the tall customer agreed impatiently. “How much to cover your costs and hurt feelings?” He drew out his purse.
The purse seemed a heavy one.
“Two hundred pounds,” said the bawd, her voice brisk again. “One hundred for the girl and another for expenses.”
Catherine, who’d shrunk into a corner to avoid the flying bodies, now ran forward to clutch her rescuer’s arm. “Oh, no. Good heavens—pay her? Reward her for what she’s done? It’s—it’s obscene.”
“Don’t scold, darlin’,” he answered, pushing her behind him before returning his attention to Mrs. Grendle. “Two hundred pounds is a trifle steep, ma’am. That ugly piece of plaster must have driven scores of customers away. It certainly scared the daylights out of me. Those chaps would be wanting an undertaker if I weren’t in such a jolly mood, so there’s more bother I’ve saved you. As to the girl—”
“A fine, healthy girl,” the procuress interrupted.
The man glanced at Catherine, who flushed and clasped his coat more tightly about her.
“She doesn’t look so healthy to me,” he said. “She’s awfully skinny—and I suspect she’s bruised as well.”
“If you wanted a plump armful, why didn’t you say so?”
“Twenty pounds, ma’am.”
“How dare you! She’s cost me that much in food and drink alone. Not to mention her gown. Not to mention she hasn’t earned a farthing.”
“Then I expect you’ll be glad to see the back of her. Thirty pounds, then.”
“On the other hand,” said the client as though he hadn’t heard, “I could take her away without this tiresome haggling. I imagine you wouldn’t like to bother the Watch about it.”
Mrs. Grendle accepted the sum with much vivid description of her customer’s want of human feeling and diverse anatomical inadequacies. He only grinned as he counted out the money into her hand.
The much-tried madam’s forbearance was further tested when Catherine shrilly demanded the return of two bandboxes.
It took another twenty pounds to jog Mrs. Grendle’s memory on this matter, but at length all the money was paid, the boxes collected, and Catherine, having hastily thrust her naked feet into her half boots, followed her rescuer out into the night.
“Where are we going?” Catherine asked, as she hurried after her gallant knight, who was zigzagging briskly down the filthy street.
“My lodgings.” He threw this over his shoulder.
She stopped short. “But the authorities—I thought we were going to report that odious woman.”
“It’s much too late. Authorities are always cross if you bother them in the middle of the night. Besides, you got your things, didn’t you?” He stopped to glance impatiently at her. “Are you coming or not?”
“I most certainly cannot come to your lodgings. It isn’t proper.”
The young man stood and surveyed her for a moment. The crooked smile broke out upon his face. “Silly girl. Where else do you ‘spect to go dressed in my coat and little else?”
A large tear rolled down the young lady’s thin nose.
“Oh, drat,” he muttered.
Another tear slid down her cheek.
He heaved a sigh. Then he strode towards her, picked her up, flung her over his shoulder, and continued on his way.
“There you are,” he announced as he deposited her in a chair. “Rescued.”
“Yes,” Catherine answered breathlessly. “Thank you.”
She looked about her. The room was very dingy, dingier than the one she’d recently escaped and in a far worse state of disorder. Her rescuer was increasing the disorder as he searched for a drink. The quest apparently required a great deal of thrashing about, the flinging of innocent objects onto the floor, and the opening and crashing shut of what sounded like dozens of drawers and cabinet doors.
At last he found the bottle he sought. With more bangs, bumps, and oaths, he succeeded in opening it, and broke only one glass in the complicated process of pouring the wine. After filling another none-too-clean tumbler for Catherine, he sat down at the opposite end of the cluttered table and proceeded to stare her out of countenance while he drank.
“You seemed nearly sober only a short time ago,” Catherine finally managed to say. “I wish you would try to remain so, because I need your help.”
“Had to be sober then. Business, you know. It wasn’t easy, either, arguing with what looked like half a dozen old tarts at once. Those nasty black things on her head. Damn me if I didn’t think I’d cast up my accounts then and there.”
“Which should indicate to you that you’ve had a sufficiency of intoxicating beverages, I would hope,” Catherine retorted disapprovingly.
As soon as she spoke, she winced, expecting a volley of missiles. None came. The blue eyes only widened in befuddlement.
“How you scold, Miss—Miss—why, I’m hanged if we’ve even been introduced.”
He jerked himself to his feet and made a sweeping bow that nearly sent him and the table crashing to the floor. At the very last instant he regained his balance.
“Curst floor won’t stay put,” he muttered. “Where was I? Oh, yes. Introductions. Max, you know. Max Demowery, at your service.” This time he managed his bow with more grace. “And you, ma’am?”
“Catherine. Pe-Pettigrew,” she stammered.
“Catherine,” he repeated. “Cat. Nice. You look rather like a cat my sister once had—leastways when it was a kitten. All fluffy and big eyes. Only the little beast’s eyes were green and yours—” He leaned forward to peer intently into her face, causing Catherine’s heart to thump frantically. “Hazel!” he cried in triumph. “Odd color, but no matter. It’s time we went to bed.”
“To—to bed?” she echoed faintly.
“Y-yes,” he mimicked. “More comfortable, you know.”
She looked about her again. As far as she could ascertain, his shabby lodgings comprised two rooms. There was no bed in this one. Her face grew warm. “Well, then, good night,” she said politely.
Mr. Demowery considered this briefly. “I’m foxed, darlin’, so maybe I’m not hearing straight—but that sounded om’nously like a dismissal.”
“You expressed intentions of retiring.”
“And you ain’t ‘retiring’ with me?”
“Good heavens, I should hope not. I should not be in your lodgings in the first place. It’s most improper.”
“Sweetheart, I can’t decide,” he began slowly, after he’d mulled over these remarks as well, “whether you’re insane or horribly ungrateful. Didn’t I just pay fifty quid for you?”
Her face flushed, this time with indignation. “You have preserved me from a fate reputed to be worse than death. I asked you to do so. It’s completely illogical that I should express gratitude by doing exactly what I wished to avoid in the first place.”
As he stood gazing at her, his puzzled expression gave way to a rueful smile. “Very complicated reasoning, m' love. Too complicated for me.” He lifted her out of the chair, and, oblivious to her startled protests or the two small fists pounding on his chest, carried her to the bedroom and dropped her onto the bed.
“I will not cooperate,” she gasped.
“No, of course you won’t. It’s just my luck, ain’t it, this night of all the rest?” He turned and left the room.
Catherine lay upon the mattress, frozen with apprehension. Less than an hour before, her main concern had been escaping a place that could have been one of Dante’s Circles of Hell. Now, evidently, she’d leapt out of the pan into the flames. She’d left home for excellent reasons with a logical plan. Now she could not believe she’d been so naive, so horribly misguided. She had fled what promised to be a life of wretchedness and rushed headlong into what had speedily become the most horrid two—or three or four, she hardly knew—days of her existence.
Despite his drunkenness and apparent penchant for squalor she had believed that her benefactor was not entirely sunk to the depths of depravity. Yet, instead of taking her directly to the authorities, he’d carried her over his shoulder like a sack of corn to his lodgings and clearly expressed intentions of bedding her.
Perhaps he too meant to drug her. Maybe even now he was preparing some foul concoction and would come back to force it down her throat. Catherine scrambled out of the bed and ran to open the window. It was stuck shut. Furthermore, there were three floors between herself and the ground and no visible means of descent.
Her panicked gaze darted about the room. She dashed to grab the basin from the washstand. Let him try, she told herself. Just let him try.
And if she did somehow miraculously succeed in overpowering a man nearly twice her size, what then? Where would she go, alone, in the middle of the night in this alien, hostile city? One crisis at a time, she counseled herself, as she crept to the door. She tried to close it quietly, but it would not shut altogether. Frustrated, she looked for a position from which she might take her attacker unawares.
At that moment she heard from the room beyond the terrifying noises by means of which primitive man once warned away the creatures skulking near his cave at night. She crept closer to the door and listened. It was true. Mr. Demowery was snoring.
For all that the sound might have in bygone days frightened away wild beasts, Miss Pelliston found it reassuring. She would wait another quarter hour to be absolutely certain he was asleep for the night. Papa was known to lose consciousness over his dinner—apparently dead to the world—then suddenly start up again minutes later, quarrelling with her as if he’d been awake the whole time.
Catherine was very weary, and the steady rhythm of that snoring made her drowsy. She looked longingly at the bed. She would lie down only for a few minutes and think what to do next. The few minutes stretched into half an hour, at the end of which Miss Pelliston too was fast asleep.