Chapter Ten

His mouth opened in startlement, and for a moment–five heartbeats, not that I was counting at all, mind you–he responded. His hands came up to clasp my arms, his lips went soft and pliable, he sighed and I drowned in warmth, moisture, heat.

And then he broke away and leapt back several steps, staring at me with his eyes wide and green and his face pink as a rose.

“Sir–” he stuttered, just as I cried out, “No!

We stood still for a few more heartbeats (approximately five thousand four hundred and seventeen, at a loose estimate), until finally Boyd straightened fully, folded his hands before him, and lowered his eyes.

What was I feeling at that moment? Well, it is pretty difficult to describe, really, and I never know just how much detail to insert in these things. On the one hand, I could go on for quite a few syllables about how my heart shattered into a thousand pieces, much like a glass being assaulted by a really determined shrieker at the opera house. I could detail exactly how the misery made my stomach twist sickeningly, how my fingernails dug into my palms in a frenzy of regret and dismay, how my very ankles seemed to curl up in terror.

Or I could simply let you know that it was a jolly rotten feeling altogether, and allow you to draw your own conclusions.

“I am so sorry, Boyd,” I managed to say at last. “I hope I have not forever ruined your good opinion of me.” I smiled a little, a sickly stretch of the lips at best. “Not that you could ever have had much of one, considering the scrapes you’ve continually fished me out of.”

“Sir.” Boyd looked up at me. “There’s no need to apologize, and no need at all to speak so. I have done everything I have done out of the utmost respect and affection, and would do it all again five times over.” He drew in a deep breath, and I saw with a pang how white his knuckles were where his hands were clasped together. “Under… other circumstances…” He trailed off, his eyes sad and wide open and bright; it was the clearest glimpse I’d yet had of the soul that lay beneath his serene exterior. “Under other circumstances,” he repeated, “I would welcome your attentions, sir. I must apologize for my behavior earlier this afternoon–it was inexcusable, and I should have immediately tendered my resignation.”

“Which I would just as immediately have thrown out the window as ridiculous,” I said hastily.

He looked down again, a small smile flickering and then gone like a candle’s flame. “Thank you, sir.”

“I cannot do without you, Boyd,” I said softly.

“You never shall have to,” he replied.

“But…?” A race of blithering idiots, we Monaghans, but if my heart was to be broken, I would have it done thoroughly. I had to hear him say it–I had to hear the negation from his own sweet lips.

“But as long as I am in your service, I can never be more than your gentleman’s gentleman, sir.” He met my eyes again and I saw the diamant pride behind his words, the iron will and crystalline intellect that could not bend without changing what he was, and what I loved.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” I whispered.

“I know, sir,” he said. “But it does to me.”

There seemed nothing left to say, and so we looked at one another for a few more moments and then left the dressing room.

~*~*~*~

The scene that greeted our eyes was distracting enough; it involved more of Bloomers’s skin than I had seen since our merrier days at St. Kitt’s, enough of Doodle’s to last a lifetime, and tangled variations upon such that would have satisfied the most curious voyeur. It was the work of a moment to bundle the newly created lovebirds into their trousers and send them out the door, still attached at the mouth.

Boyd and I puttered around the room quietly, tidying up the frightful mess they’d made–mostly overturned furniture and the like, but that red punch would never come out of the carpet, and I shifted a wing chair accordingly over the stain. He bundled up the stray socks and pants he found and dropped them into the laundry chute, then stood irresolutely at the door. He cleared his throat and I looked up mournfully.

“Will you be needing anything else, sir?” His voice was almost back to normal.

Your love and devotion for as long as we both shall live, I thought, but it was half-hearted at best. “No, Boyd, hopefully Bloomers and Wood have provided the last of the evening’s entertainment. I think I’ll just settle down with some music and a book, don’t you know.”

“Very good, sir. Please don’t hesitate to ring if you should need me again, sir.”

I need you right now. I shall always need you. “I shan’t, Boyd. Thank you.”

And he was gone; apparently the stresses of the evening had not affected his ability to disappear like a magician’s beautiful assistant.

I considered a bath–I didn’t actually need Boyd there to run the water, of course–but the thought of the bath led to thoughts of Boyd and of what I had thought about the last time I’d been in the bath and… I simply couldn’t face it. I changed into my pyjamas and dressing gown and put on a phonograph (a new fellow called Duke Ellington, quite the up-and-comer in New York), and then settled into a chair with a fag and a drink and a book.

The music went unheard; the fag burned itself to ashes in my motionless hand. The drink got all watery and warm and the book lay untouched upon the arm of the chair. Mostly I was just sitting, staring into space, trying to figure out what had happened and what I would do next.

I could not be expected to stop loving Boyd; it was as likely as Aunt Philippa deciding I was really a decent chap and not a waste of oxygen, as likely as Bloomers developing a brain, or Wood developing a conscience. It was, in short, improbable at best. I think perhaps I was shocked–shell-shocked, they call it don’t they, when something so large and frightening and terrible explodes right beside one? Shell-shocked. I’ve always been a thick-headed sort of cove, and I rather suspected that it would take some little time for the true misery of the situation to sink into my soul and blight it really completely. Until then I supposed I would sit there in a sort of daze, staring into space and being generally of no use to anyone at all. Well. Of less use even than usual, I should say…

My reverie was interrupted by a timid knock upon the door, followed immediately by a sharp, business-like rapping.

I sighed and stood, tightening the sash on my dressing gown. “I say, Bloomers, Boyd’s already put your clothing down the laundry chu–oh. Ah.” It was not Bloomers at all; it was Liv and Miranda, and I swallowed my irritation with an effort. “Pardon me, I thought it was someone–”

Miranda breezed in. “Yes, yes, you can tell us all about your naked orgy with Orlando another day, Dommie.” I backed away in a hurry as Liv swung into the room, escaping with only a cracked shinbone. Miranda settled herself into a chair–my chair, naturally–and Liv claimed another, the crutches falling in a noisy clatter to one side. “Liv’s got something to tell you.”

I closed the door. “Yes, won’t you come in,” I chirruped with patently false cheer, shooting daggers at the back of Liv’s head and the front of Miranda’s. “Absolutely delighted.” What had Boyd meant to do about this? He’d never come up with a plan, but if ever I’d needed one, now was that ever. “Can I fetch either of you lovely ladies something to drink? Sherry? Gin?” Cyanide?

“No, no, none of that,” Miranda said, waving her hand. “Come and sit down. Liv, spit it out.”

I trudged dejectedly to the indicated Settee of Doom and perched upon it.

“Dommie, first of all I just want to say that I really do care for you,” Liv fluttered. She gazed moonily at me with her big glowy eyes all concerned and misty, and I felt a tiny sprig of hope unfurl within my breast. Could she have come here to let the trout off the fishhook?

“And of course I do want to marry you.” Ballocks! I sighed. “But I think it only fair–Mirrie and I do–” she glanced telepathically at Miranda– “to do so under honest and open conditions.”

What was all this?

Liv hesitated a bit here, and Miranda leapt into the breach–fantastic soldier she would have made, if she hadn’t come from the womb with the wrong equipment. “The thing is, Dom, you are about as interested in Liv here as I am in you.”

I opened my mouth to say something gallant and protestatory and all that, but my better judgment put in an unexpected appearance here–where had the damned thing been?–and I merely shrugged, closing the old yap again without a word.

“You’re interested in a different kettle of fish, aren’t you, Dommie?” This shrewd statement was backed up by one arched blonde eyebrow and an insouciantly swung ankle; giving up all pretense at either falsehood or knowing what in blazes was going on, I just shrugged again and nodded. “Well. So is Liv. And so am I.” Miranda leaned over and patted Liv’s knee lightly, aiming the old eyebrow at me. Miranda might never be a mother, but she would make a fearsome aunt one day, I could see.

“Oh, rather,” I managed to say. “Fascinating. But just what do I have to do with the price of beans in Birmingham?”

“We need a beard, Dommie,” Liv said simply. “My father is absolutely insistent that I should get married, and Miranda’s is just as bad, though she can escape him a bit better, wonderful rider that she is.” She simpered at the equestrienne wonder, then looked soulfully back at me. “If you and I get married, the three of us can retire to my family’s estate in Lincolnshire and go our separate ways–you can entertain yourself however you’d like, as long as you exercise a reasonable amount of discretion, and when someone likely and as kind as you yourself are comes along, Miranda can marry him.”

“It’s a foolproof plan,” Miranda said cheerily.

“It certainly is not,” I said, standing up. I’d heard enough. “I’m afraid there are few foolproof plans that are proof for the Monaghans.” I glared down at the two potty birds staring back up at me. “Your idea does not lack merit,” I said icily, “but the fact is, I never did want to marry you, and with what you have said to me today, I certainly never will marry you. Ever. At all!” And I crossed my arms and breathed heavily through my nose just to drive the point home.

Miranda looked at Liv, and Liv looked at Miranda. Both of them stood, Liv leaning heavily upon Miranda’s arm. “We are sorry to hear that,” Liv said sweetly.

“Very sorry,” Miranda put in. “It will be so much less pleasant for you to marry her if you do so unwillingly.”

“I am not going to marry her!” I strangled. “Are you hard of hearing?”

“But Dommie,” Liv chirped. “Think of how much a breach of engagement lawsuit would cost you.” She shimmered at me, her eyes huge with false concern, and I felt myself freeze from balls to belly.

Boyd! What would Boyd do? “In that case,” I pronounced, drawing myself up, “perhaps you should think of just how your fathers would react to the juicy columns in the gossip rags when I tell the whole sordid story.” Ha!

They both went motionless at this riposte, and we stood there in a sort of frieze for a while: Two Ladies and a Gentleman Upon the Verge of Bloodshed, it might have been called.

Miranda spoke first. “We appear to be at an impasse,” she said coldly.

“We do.” I agreed, proud of how chilly I managed to keep my voice.

“Have you any idea how to resolve the issue?” Liv asked timorously.

Miranda and I eyed one another edgily. “No,” she admitted, and I admitted the same.

But…

“Boyd,” I said suddenly.

“I beg your pardon?” Miranda and Liv both looked puzzled.

“If anyone can fix this mess, it’s Boyd,” I informed them with the utmost certainty. I broke the frieze and reached for the bellpull, giving it a hearty yank. “His brains are the best in the biz–Aristotle could have taken his correspondence course.”

There followed a pause, the kind of time that any stage director in the world would have filled with some business or other–a song, a dance, a bit of vaudeville and plenty of leg, one hopes; my room, sadly, remained song-and-danceless, and the three players currently treading the boards made a sad show of it, indeed, wandering aimlessly about or sitting silently in chairs. Therefore I shall skip over that time–dead air, I think they call it–and get right to the juicy stuff.

When Boyd entered the room he did not appear at all surprised to see Liv and Miranda; then again he had not appeared at all surprised at other times in our years together to find me, for instance, handcuffed to a table lamp, or wearing lacy pink knickers, or, upon one memorable occasion, in both conditions. No, Boyd was almost unsurprisable, unless of course one kissed him. I sighed and swallowed heavily and braced the old frame for the serious business at hand.

“You rang, sir?”

“Boyd, we’ve a bit of a sticky wicket here, and I thought perhaps your brains could help us get unstuck.”

“I shall endeavor to do so, sir–perhaps you and the ladies could convey the situation to me?”

I spoke; he listened. Miranda spoke; he listened. Liv spoke; he listened. When pretty much everyone had spoken except him, he stood with his eyes on the carpet and thought about what we’d said, oscillating slightly upon the balls of his feet as he so often does when deep in the arcana of the old mental processes.

“Well?” Miranda demanded after an indecently short time.

“I say, old fish, give him a chance,” I jumped in hotly. “He’s hardly had time–”

Boyd cleared his throat and we turned in unison to look at him, rather like the soldier chaps on that clock outside the store, you know the one, just down from the Ritz, on Picadilly Street. “I believe I have a proposal which might be attempted,” he said to our expectant faces.

“Well,” Miranda said. “Tell us!”

And he did.

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