Here was no fop or dandy. His dress, although cut by a master's hand, was casual with no sign of the fripperies affected by the Macaronis. However, when occasion dictated, he was known to dress to perfection as many would attest. He had an assurance of manner brought about by matter of birth but even at an early age, was widely known as a wild youth. He was well respected amongst his contemporaries who hailed him as a top rate fellow but his escapades were eyed askance by the older members of the haut ton who lamented his rakish ways. Some, who professed to be in the know, likened him to his sire the Duke of Lear when in his prime. However, no such accusations could be laid at the Duke’s door now as, entering his fifty-sixth year, he represented the epitome of respectability.
The young Earl put aside his rapier, placing it on a small table set against the wall and stood with hands on hips laughing at his friend. “You were ever weak livered John,” he mocked. “Too easily intimidated.” Looking at his companion’s sullen countenance he relented. “Come, don't hold it against me, it was just too tempting. If you could have but seen your expression. It was priceless.”
Wroxham gave a reluctant chuckle as he rolled down his sleeves. “Damn you Dominic, you always know how to take a rise out of me. Though I swear you will take your scapes too far one of these days. Then where will you be? As like as not, up before the magistrate on a murder charge!”
“You exaggerate my friend,” continued the Earl in good humor. “You were never in any danger, I assure you. I was in full control of my blade at all times. Now stop your witterings. I have a mind to go to Ridley’s. Do you accompany me?”
“If I must, though I can't help but deplore your taste, surely you could find a more suitable gaming hell to enjoy your patronage?”
“Not one that plays so high at this time of day. By-the-bye, I have an assignation with La Belle tonight so I needs be away before midnight.”
“Another of your affectations I deplore,” replied Wroxham with some distaste. “Could you not be more discerning in your choice of mistress? I would have thought her artifice to have bored you.”
“She will reign only as long as she amuses me,” assured the Earl, drawing on his well-fitting boots. “I am well aware of her faults and promise you her days are numbered. I begin to tire of her already and will not tolerate her foolishness for much longer.”
“Then pay her off now and have done with it.”
“Once I have a replacement, I assure you I will. So for pity's sake have done with your complaining. Be certain I know what I'm at.” Taking up his coat Vale shrugged into it and led the way out of the gallery toward the sweeping staircase. “We but call at my rooms to enable me to change and then we away to Ridley’s,” he said, as Wroxham came abreast of him. “I must recoup some of my losses. I dropped enough blunt last night to buy a kingdom and should it come to my most estimable sire's ears, he will try to rusticate me.”
“You play too wild Dominic; you’re reckless in your choice.”
“Which, admit, usually pays off. You play like an old woman John.”
“Your opinion of me is forever poor, I wonder you put up with me,” sneered his lordship, not now in the best of humors. “Perhaps it would be better if I relieved you of my company?”
“Don't put yourself into such a taking,” laughed the Earl, negligently laying his hand on his friends shoulder as they descended the stairs to the hallway. “You ever were a hen-worrier, though truth be told, I need you at times to keep my head level. Come; cry truce and we will make what best we can of the remainder of the day.”
* * *
Leaving La Belle’s house in the early hours of the following morning it was seen that the Earl was not at all in the best of moods and appeared, by the slight rolling of his gait, to be somewhat in his cups. At last, he had ended the affair, completely ignoring her protestations of undying love and devotion, confirmed that the only love and devotion she ever felt was for herself alone and assured that she had already secured a new protector. He was no fool, the affair had run its course, there remained no novelty in her ploys and her charms had decidedly waned. Indeed, he was amazed that he had ever found her worthy of any notice.
It did not help matters that he had again lost heavily at the gaming tables, everyone exclaiming at his bad luck. It was rarely seen that Vale did not recoup, but on this occasion, he was not able to come about, a fact that served to blacken his mood.
Cursing his bad luck, he made his way through the dark streets toward his apartments, resolving to evolve some fail-safe scheme. He would not go to his father and he would be damned if he would start to issue notes of hand. A wager he was sure to win seemed his only chance, one that would not involve the laying out of any blunt - but what?
So engrossed was he in his musings that, approaching the steps to his apartments, he failed to see the form huddled in the shadows of the doorway and was startled as it attempted to push past him.
“Ho, young sir, what are you at,” he exclaimed, grabbing the youth by the throat as he would retreat and pushing him back against the darkened doorframe.
“I would beg your pardon sir. I was but seeking some kind of shelter from the elements,” replied the youth in a small gruff voice. He attempted to pull his tricorn further over his face and wriggle free from the iron-like grip that pinioned him to the door, but to no avail. Dominic’s hand held him securely.
“You do not fool me so easily young sir,” scorned Vale. “You would way-lay me, but I tell you to your teeth, you would be sadly disappointed if you knew the contents of my pockets.” Without releasing his hold on the boy's neck, with one hand, he turned out his pocket linings as proof.
Clawing at his retaining hand, the boy tried to kick his shins, but even in his inebriated state, the Earl demonstrated a nimbleness his condition would have belied. “Spitfire,” he exclaimed, but then, as the fitful moon illuminated the half of the boy’s face that was visible beneath the tricorn, he drew in his breath at the cuts and bruising he saw there.
“I take that to be the retaliation of your previous victim,” he mocked, but he slackened his hold on the boy’s throat and instead took hold of his shoulders, attempting to turn him more fully to the light. “How old are you,” he demanded, for his would-be assailant seemed no more than a child.
“Eighteen,” came the reply, as the youth calmed slightly, reasoning that if this man had intended him any real harm, his body would have been in the gutter by now.
Examining his face, the Earl again drew his breath in sharply and freeing one hand sought out his key. As he opened the door, he ignored the youth’s plea to be set free and pushed him roughly inside. Once inside the dimly lit hallway he gained access to his ground floor rooms and propelled the boy inside. The youth having no comparable strength to prevent his actions stumbled as he crossed the threshold, catching at the doorframe for support, but Vale prised his fingers free.
“Stand still, don't move,” he commanded as he locked the door behind him. “Wait now while I light the candles.”
“Let me go, sir, please let me go,” pleaded the youth. “I truly meant you no harm. See, I don’t even carry a weapon.
Vale was surprised at the cultured tones of the boy. Here was no ruffian, and unless he was much mistaken, this was a gentleman’s son. Taking a taper he ignited it from the lamp left for his use and lit the candles in the sconces set about the room. He knew they would not be interrupted as his man was under instructions not to wait up for him and slept as one turned to stone.
“Sit there,” he commanded, pointing to a chair set at the table, the effects of the brandy he had drunk earlier still very much in evidence. “Now face the light.”
The boy sat still, ignoring the command.
“Face the light,” commanded Vale in an awful voice. “Do not defy me or it will be the worse for you. I will not be ignored.”
The youth turned toward the candles but attempted to shield his face with his hand. The Earl relented slightly. “You have obviously been badly beaten,” he said in a somewhat quieter tone. “One would not suspect so slight a youth of being a pugilist.”
“I am no pugilist sir,” said the boy, attempting to smile but pressing his hand against his cheek, as if the movement pained him.
Vale's attention was riveted on the boy’s face then he ran his eyes over his slight figure. “You say you are eighteen?”
“You are not a very robust eighteen. Where do you come from?”
“Nonsense, everyone comes from somewhere.”
“I do not sir. Please let me go.”
“If you come from nowhere, where am I to let you go to?” enquired the Earl with some aplomb, marveling, in his present inebriation, at his own ingenious.
“I but wish to relieve you of my presence sir. I will trouble you no longer.”
“I will let you go when it pleases me to let you go. Now, take off your hat and that disgustingly dirty coat which is far too big for you.”
Again, the youth did not move to remove the garments but clutched the coat even tighter about his figure.
“Am I to remove them?” asked Vale, moving forward menacingly.
“I am quite capable, sir,” replied the youth, hesitantly removing the offending garment to reveal a surprisingly white shirt and clean breeches beneath.
“Now the hat!”
“Must I sir?”
With a great reluctance, the youth reached up to remove his tricorn and a riot of golden curls tumbled from beneath.
Vale stood riveted as the girl turned fully to face him. “My god,” he breathed, staring into her blue eyes that peered between swollen lids, “I suspected but thought I was imagining it. ’Pon faith, a wench.”
“Then let me go sir now that you know I cannot possibly pose a threat to you. I will go quietly and you will not even know I have been here.”
“What is interesting though, my dear, is the fact that you did find your way here. How come you by the bruising? Am I to suppose you fell foul of a former lover?”