“The Leopard Clause”
by Rachel Heffington
Lord of the Earth.
The category sat well with him, so Banistre Cleveland tried it aloud: “I am a Lord a’ the Earth.” Not too loudly of course, because it wasn’t quite the sort of thing a suitably grief-ravished nephew said upon coming into a sizable inheritance. But this was Middleburg. This was Eden-pure air and grass greener than envy. This was plump, pedigreed horseflesh going more per ounce than gold, and long, low stables rife with barn-swallows. No one would hear him, and if they did, no one would care.
“Lord a’ the Earth,” Banistre repeated. He spread his palms along the rail fence and collected several splinters.
“Enjoying the view?”
The intrusion of a fellow human jarred Banistre’s heady mood. He turned, nursing his injured hand to face the offender. Silhouetted like one of Satan’s finest, all angles and intelligent movement, stood the Hon. Phillip Dean Wicks, attorney at law. This Wicks, Banister’s late uncle’s solicitor, specialized in adding his presence unannounced. Banistre felt an immediate weakening of his lordliness. What was he after all but a half-baked law student with a palmful of splinters and a recently acquired estate? But there was an estate, and the positive implication of that word buoyed him. Mr. Wicks couldn’t frighten a Lord a’ the Earth. Banistre shifted to allow for Mr. Wicks’s joining him at the fence and nodded down-pasture to where a fat mare cropped turf.
“She’s ready to pop,” he offered.
Mr. Wicks squinted. “I believe ‘foaling’ is the official term.”
“Ah, yes. Foaling. It’s got to be hell, bringing one of those kick-boxers into the world.”
Mr. Wicks said nothing.
“I mean,” Banistre fumbled with a piece of fence-rail under his skin, “it’s purely marvelous, how all them arms and legs are all jumbled up so neat and quiet inside. Like a Jacob’s Ladder, I’d imagine. And then a bit of a struggle later and you’ve got a foal racing around like the Triple Crown was his natural right. Fascinating.”
Mr. Wicks turned a dark, intelligent eye to him with that smile that always made Banistre recall how bad his Latin was.
“Indeed,” the lawyer said, “Is animal husbandry an interest of yours?”
“Animal...husband...” Banistre fell into a cold sweat. “What...I mean, oh! Of course. Yes, well, I do go in for a bit of it. Just enough to feel my way around the paddock, so to speak.” When nervous, and he found Mr. Wicks particularly inspirational in this respect, Banistre got chatty. “I don’t want to be one of those heirs who can’t hold his liquor and flirts with ruin and plays the dames.”
If Mr. Wicks thought well of him for this rare bit of philosophy, he kept well away from outward applause.
Banistre pulled out the first splinter triumphantly. “I will be a wise land-owner and know what crop per acre my land is bringing, and who’s bred with whom and what a bad drought we’ve been having lately, don’t you know.”
“Just so.” Mr. Wicks put a hand into his breast pocket. If he had suddenly brought out a mother o’ pearl-handled revolver, it would have suited his elegant style of darkness, but he did not. A sheaf of papers appeared, which Mr. Wicks undid with a refined snap and put into Banistre’s hands.
“Before you begin your wise reign, O, Jehoshaphat, you might find these of interest.”
Being a law student, Banistre ought to have made sense of the legal jargon; being a simple man, he could not.
“I see,” he said, and handed the papers back with a tepid smile.
“Unusual clause, isn’t it?” Mr. Wicks had obnoxiously virtuous hair, as if it dared not defy the style in which he set it of a morning. “My client favored what I call ‘creativity’ in his dealings. Bad luck for you, though, my man.”
Under his shirt, Banistre felt his body go a startled shade of boiled crayfish. “Just to be really sure I’ve got it down, d’you mind explaining it in laymen’s terms? My people will want to know,” he hastily added.
A sharp-eyed grin from the solicitor. “In the simplest words: you’re out of an inheritance.”
Banistre choked, presumably on an inhaled may-fly. “Oh. Well....drat. Just like that, huh?” Something had gone wrong with his breathing. “And who’s the lucky fellow to take my place?”
“Uncle Sam. The Government. That is, unless you are able to defy death and answer the Leopard Clause.”
“Surely you noticed?” Mr. Wicks unsnapped the papers again and pointed to a section of print circled several times in red pencil. Anyone ought to have seen it. “In this clause, your romantic-minded uncle detailed the conditions of your inheritance.”
“That he die?”
“That you kill (and have attractively taxidermied) the Leopard of Harbaryaband.”
Banistred laughed a great, booming “HA!” which startled the brood mare and sent a barn-swallow kiting away.
“Are you a big-game hunter, Mr. Cleveland?”
“I’ve never shot anything larger than a woodchuck,” Banistre confessed.
The spirited eye of Philip Dean Wicks seemed to declare things about its owner: “Lions,” it cried. “Panthers.” And in the left-hand corner, if one could stand the exposure for so long, a sort of glint hinted at “Rhinoceros.”
“But I’m terrified of large animals," Banistre babbled. "And diseases like Malaria. I’m not rich and I’m not English and I’ve never been to Africa, let alone had any desire to go!”
Mr. Wicks refolded his papers. He clamped a resolute palm on Banistre’s shoulder before sauntering off. “It’s a good thing for you, then, this particular leopard hails from India.”
Banistre’s mind had gone spinny. “But...all those idols!”“Staying?” Mr. Wicks called back, his nose, hair, chin, limbs all sharpened by the back-light. “I’d come along if I were you. You’d best get yourself outfitted.”