Hello everyone! I am sure you all would be overjoyed and quite interested to hear (if you haven't already) that today is Charles Dicken's 200th birthday! I could not let such a monumental occasion go by without applauding it, so here's my clapping for the day:
I wanted, again, to remind you to hurry and send your entries for my contest to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please don't hesitate! Also, look out for a fabulous interview tomorrow! :)
Now for the real business of this post. It came to my attention [rather abruptly, in fact] that the "Heigh-Ho for a Husband" contest [apart from the name, you'll understand] is not only for women. Any fellow who reads this blog could enter the contest, and I'd give them a fair chance. I promise! :D And just to show my good humor and good intentions, I wrote you fellows [and any girls] a piece that I hope you enjoy.
“A Meager Mind”
By Rachel Heffington
“Let it never be said that a meager mind induced me to marriage.” Charles Buxworthy ground the butt-end of his cigar into the lap of a china shepherdess on the mantelpiece and turned about, viewing his listener with a mocking smile.
His friend lazed back on the sofa and crossed his feet. “A meager mind, Charley-boy?”
Charles crossed his arms and paced from one end of the red hearth-tiles to the other. “Isn’t it a rule with gentlemen that the only ones who marry are the ones who haven’t enough wit about them to survive the scramble on their own?”
“Come now, Charley—you can’t tell me you’ve never heard tell of the blessed state of matrimony?”
Charles scoffed. “Really, ‘Dolphus. If you are going to soften into a sap all at once I’ll turn you out on your botto this very moment.”
“And that would be a shame, for I am not sure Emma would like to see me banged up in such a fashion the day before the wedding.” Adolphus grinned at his bacheolor-companion and smoothed the blue wool of his coat-sleeve. “Rather an improvement, don’t you think? Emma’s done me up nicely ever since she found out that you do the tailoring around here.”
Charles felt his blood rush to his face at this slight upon his appearance, and he fervently wished that the wild-haired fellow with the limp cravat who stared him out of countenance from the mantel mirror was not his own reflection. “There’s the devil to pay once you leave, ‘Dolphus.”
Adolphus threw back his head and laughed loud and long. “Why? Because I was the richer debtor to our landlady? Don’t worry old boy. I plan to pay the Aged Lady before I cart my baggage out.”
“And I’ll have to follow close behind—you haven’t any spare rooms in Wimpole Street, have you?” Charles rushed to his friend’s side and placed a muddy boot on the much-abused arm of the sofa.
Adolphus grimaced. “Not a single one that will bear your living in it—Emma’s having them all papered and furnished and painted and I know not what else.”
Charles, thoroughly disgusted with the state of his friend’s hitherto good sense, threw his arms out and scoffed. “And you will bear this meddling that interferes with aiding an old friend in need?”
Adolphus raised an eyebrow and fingered the gold ring on his left hand. “Need and want are two very different things, Charley-boy. You need a roof—you want cigars and expensive gloves, and port wine at every meal. Pay your debts before you turn your livelihood into pocket-change, I beg you, and you won’t find yourself boxed in.”
Charles bit his lip, too vexed with his companion to further the conversation. The dusty-faced clock on the mantel showed two hours till dinner-time, and until then—when he would have to recite a speech and play toast-master at the rehearsal dance—he had to bear the love-sick swain as best as he could. He stole a sidelong glance and frowned at the satisfied, exulted look on Adolphus Carriagehill’s face—the look that had stolen his friend’s attention from him long before Charles had ever had to endure lengthy discourses on the beauties, the charms, the talents, the witticisms of the fabled Emma Downey. He hated Emma Downey. Hated her for being beautiful and charming, talented and witty. He and Adolphus had bached it together ever since Law school and it wasn’t every day you found such a good-natured fellow to room with. They were more than friends—they had been brothers. And the idea of giving Adolphus over to a pretty, winsome angel with soft arms and forget-me-not eyes was odious. He’d rather be hanged.
“Have any more cigars, Charley-boy?” Adolphus’s lazy, quiet drawl sifted through the disgruntled silence of the room and pricked Charles’ temper. He hurled the paste-board box of cigar-ends at Adolphus as a pouting child might hurl a toy. Adolphus looked round and smiled patronizingly. “Tut tut, Charley, my good fellow—bachelordom making a cross-patch out of you?”
“Oh do be quiet.”
“No. No, you cannot refuse a bridegroom the right to talk—especially when you are acting as his best man.”
“Oh hang the best man.”
“Not till after the wedding, I’m afraid, my dear chap. Then you can choose the day and the hangman and I’ll tie your noose for you. But till then you’ll have to bear my prattling.”
Charles was outraged at Adolphus’ obvious amusement. What humor one could find in such a situation was beyond him. He wished he had a dozen cigar boxes to hurl at the back of that finely combed head. Adolphus looked round again, then grunted and shifted himself. “Gives one a devil of a crick in his neck to play peep-bo in that fashion. Now listen, Master Congeniality. Emma and I are convinced you are ailing.”
“There’s nothing more wrong with me than you,” Charles muttered.
“Are you intimating that I am ill, or I am the illness?”
“Both, if you continue talking along in this stupid manner.” If Adolphus didn’t shut his gob directly he’d burn his tuxedo and cummerbund immediately and refuse to attend the wedding. Women made a hash of everything good in this life.
“All jesting aside, Charley, Emma and I have decided between ourselves that we will get you married.”
Charles ground his teeth. “You just try.”
“Oh, we intend to, believe me. There’s a dear angel of a girl who is Emma’s intimate friend—her name is Arianna Sandistone and—”
Charles covered his eyes with his hand and cracked his spine against the sofa-back. “Oy what a name!”
Adolphus bit the end of a cigar and made a face. “What rotten tobacco you indulge in—anyhow, Arianna Sandistone is a perfect beauty—second only, I believe, to Emma (for no one could rival her in form and figure) and I intend to introduce you.”
“Well I decline the favor.”
“But you will have it nevertheless.” Adolphus swung himself up from the sofa and straightened his cravat in the mantle-piece mirror. “As it is, I remembered I have an errand to perform and so I will leave you to your agonies. See you tonight! Oh—and Charley?”
“What?” Charles growled.
“Do try to come clean? I’d hate to have my best man wearing a gravy-spattered cravat or inky fingers.”
* * * *
Charles Buxworthy had seldom paid such attention to his appearance than he did that night. Not for any Arianna Sandistone in the whole of London, but because Adolphus was a good sort of fellow—the best, really, and he would never intentionally disgrace him. Strapped into his tuxedo, immaculate gloves stuffed onto his hands and hair combed and waved in to the dandiest degree, Charles stepped out of the hired chaise at the steps of the Lilliburt Club. Torches lined the marble steps leading up the ornate doors which were cracked just enough to emit a faint stream of music and laughter and the clink of champagne glasses.
Despite his dire feeling about the whole of the evening, Charles’ blood quickened at the familiar lure of a party. He was always his best when out in Society dancing, laughing, making witty banter with anyone who would listen—in addition, he could eat and drink at someone else’s expense and thus save the morrow’s ration of bread and meat. In the Season he seldom ate more than two or three meals at home, and—apart from the usual expenditure in new gloves—it was the cheapest of all times of the year.
The sounds of gaiety drove the last lingering rays of discomfort from Charles’ mind. There was all day tomorrow to rue Adolphus’ marriage—he intended to enjoy himself. The lackey at the door directed him to the ballroom off the corridor, and Charles paused on the threshold, enjoying the sights of an evening in full swing. Ladies, gorgeously appareled in silk and diaphanous gowns, long trains swept over their arms, danced with gentleman in immaculate suits. The orchestra at the end of the hall played a slow, wistful air and the couples waltzed in time to the music.
Her brow is like a snowdrift....her neck is like a swan…the familiar words coursed through Charles’ mind as he recalled his pretty Scotch nanny singing to him as a wee boy. …and her face it is the fairest that e’er the sun shone on…that e’er the sun shone one and dark blue is her e’e…Charles slipped through the whirling couples and took a long-stemmed glass from the waiter standing hard by…and for bonny Annie Laurie I’d lay me doon and dee…Charles drained his glass and eyed the couples, keeping watch for Adolphus and his dreaded bride. Ah. There they were by the potted palm. He crossed his arms and glared at them, taking in each piece of Emma’s attire with a practiced eye and discounting it in his mind. French silk? Ah. She was an expensive woman and would drain the Carriagehill Coffer to be sure. Brussels lace? Likewise. Ugh. And that feather, though very attractive, had cost a pretty penny if he was any judge.
Gradually, like soot drifting over the clean air, speckles of melancholy clouded Charles’ vision of the fun to be had at this sort of party. He growled to himself over the unfairness of it all and beat his foot to the tune of the song. The fiddle sang out the last notes of the song and the dancers broke apart, the charm of the scene disbanding as quickly. Charles continued to glare as Adolphus and Emma approached. The both of them were beaming like a pair of diddled geese, and Charles wished his friend could see how utterly stupid he looked.
“Charley-boy you do me credit.” Adolphus brushed a finger against Charles’ black suit.
Charles nodded stiffly and extended his fingertips to Emma who touched them and giggled.
“Charmed, I’m sure,” Charles said with obvious difficulty in meaning it.
Emma snuggled closer to Adolphus’ arm and giggled again. “I hope we shall be good friends eventually—Arianna and I will reform you.”
Charles puffed his chest out and shook his head till his stubborn curls came loose from their coaxed tameness. “Never madam.”
“Never to be friends? Well that is too bad.” Emma had that same hidden laughter in her eyes that he hated seeing on Adolphus’ face.
Charles felt himself flush hot. “I meant, madam, that you shall never reform me.”
Emma laughed. “Very well, you stubborn beast. We ought to lock you up in the Zoo and charge pennies for the children to see the Cross Old Bachelor.”
Charles nodded and grumbled within himself over “Cursed foolishness.” Emma and Adolphus sauntered off across the room, arm in arm, and the fiddler started another tune. This time the music inspired Charles with a devilish feeling of fun and derring-do. He would show Adolphus that he didn’t need any help having a good time on his own. Why did he need a brother and a friend to enjoy himself? He didn’t need one, that’s what. Charles scanned the room to see where he would begin.
It was a reel the fiddler played and he needed a vibrant partner—a girl who had some spark about her and could dance with life in her feet. He looked into every feminine face that passed but none caught his fancy. They were all too insipid, too calm, too befeathered and beruffled to suit his purpose. Charles looked longingly at the door to the cool, dim corridor, but he was startled to see a perfect Juno silhouetted, blue and white, against the dark doorway. She carried a little blue fan and her dark hair shone under the lamplight. But all these things fell to the wayside of Charles’ sight when she lifted her lashes and—from across the room and the dozens of whirling couples—she looked at him and laughed. That was the sort of girl he needed. Charles ducked past the dancers, wove through the waiters, and arrived at the young lady’s side breathless and panting, cheeks hot and cravat askew.
“Do you have a partner?” he asked.
The girl laughed again and her eyes were full of fun. “That isn’t the way to ask, you know. A girl doesn’t like admitting she’s unengaged.”
Charles bowed low. “My apologies madam. May I have the honor of this dance?”
“Are you a good dancer?” The girl fluttered her fan and laughed at him behind it.
What a saucy miss this was! Charles glowed inwardly. This would show Adolphus. “A tolerably good one,” he answered. “Especially for a reel.”
The young lady looped the blue of her skirt into her arm and put out her small white hand. “Than by all means, Monsieur, you may have the honor.”
Glowing with pride, filled with triumph at having secured the bonniest and brightest lass in the room, Charles led his conquest to the top of a line of dancers and bowed to her. By George she was the prettiest little woman he’d seen for many a day—and she was devilish charming too, the way she held her laughter in her eyes. And the way she danced! Charles laughed gleefully to himself over the way he would be able to flout Adolphus’ patronage when it came time to be introduced to that horrid Arianna Sandistone—he had already found the best girl in the room.
The music whirled on and Charles and his beauty wove in and out of the other dancers, finally coming together at the climax of the dance. She curtsied, her breath coming quick and happy between her rosy lips, and a wild, gypsying pink surmounting her cheek. Her black lashes swept her lids as she glanced upward and she laughed at Charles. He could hardly believe such a charming person was actually laughing at him. For him. It made him feel a king all at once.
He kissed her hand and smiled. “May I have the honor of knowing your name, my lady?” he asked, waiting to hear what he vowed would be the name he’d adore from this moment unto eternity.
The girl laughed again and curtsied low, then plucked a blue sprig of larkspur from her hair and offered it to him. “My name, good sir, is Arianna Sandistone.