Stakes and Satiability – Part 1
About a week ago my friend Vikram Bath levied a challenge to me:
Now, the interesting thing about this challenge is that not only had I been reading voluminous amounts of Austen for my Pride and Prejudice piece, I had already intended to wrap up my Valentine’s Day project by sharing a fictional romance story that I’ve tinkered with for four years and never managed to come up with an ending I liked (I figured maybe the pressure would kickstart my creative juices). But this idea of Vikram’s, once it got into my head, wouldn’t leave me alone. By the very next day I had put equal parts Austen and Stoker into the blender, added a dash of general atomic weirdness, and found the resulting melange entirely edible.
It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that any single writer in possession of a good story must be in want of putting it on paper, and so I couldn’t help but start writing, backburnering my other romance for a different holiday, Arbor Day or Talk Like a Pirate Day, perhaps.
So here you go, a vampire story in the style of Jane Austen, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Gazing upon the beauty of the English countryside is akin to viewing a mosaic – a whole comprised of many fragments. The inclusion of a single damaged tile ruins the effect; the defect draws the eye like a speck floating in a pot of cream. In the South Riding of Yorkshire, this flawed piece was Quixtridge Hall.
Quixtridge, while handsomely built and pleasantly situated, had stood vacant for some years, the lands under the care of a patchwork-quilt of retainers, yeomen, stewards and functionaries, the house left in the hands of servants who grew less loyal and less diligent as years passed without them ever having seen their master. The grounds were not as they once were, neither as neat nor as productive; the grand Tudor house, constructed from medieval stones gleaned from a crumbling monastery, while still among the grandest in the region, was far less grand than it might have been under the watchful eye of someone who actually cared for the property. The neighbors clucked their tongues and shook their heads as Quixtridge decayed, but nothing could be done till the manse passed into the hands of another.
Christopher Blackabee, who was one of those neighbors, cared not a whit for vacancies and occupancies and the values of properties. Christopher Blackabee cared only for the intensive studies he made of the natural world, insects most particularly. His most prized possession was a rather tattered edition of Edward Donovan’s The Natural History of British Insects and his second-most prized possession was an even more tattered copy of Donovan’s Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Various Subjects of Natural History. He prized the latter less only because he’d read it so often he’d committed it to memory, no longer requiring the book itself to reference its contents.
While he felt very much at home with creatures of six and eight legs, of no legs and many legs, and held no grudge against those with four, amongst the two-legged, he was considered by those who consider such things, an exceedingly peculiar gentleman. Some went so far as to call him hobbledehoy, though he found that reprobation to be quite unfair, as he wasn’t clumsy at all, merely a bit awkward, mostly due to him having grown from a stripling to a man of over 6 feet in a matter of months. He was painfully aware of the fact that most of his fellows, when pressed to give an opinion, claimed to dislike him, although once he’d surpassed the age of majority he’d found social censure no longer troubled him as acutely as it had in his youth.
The Blackabee family had sequestered him in a set of spacious-if-dimly-lit rooms in the cellar of their family home Chatsfordshire Park, and despite his rooms being dank and dark Christopher was very fond of his living quarters, since no one bothered him there. Had he been born but fifty years later, he would have fit in brilliantly amongst the Victorian gentlemen collecting beetles and debating evolution and hunting for dinosaur bones, but Christopher had been born too soon, and had never heard of dinosaurs…a pity, for he surely would have been fascinated by them. As for Darwin, he was yet an infant in the cradle as Kit Blackabee stared upon the lowly beetles of which both men were inordinately fond.
As Christopher carefully tugged free a strand of silk from the spinnerets of a spider he had dazed insensible with sweet vitriol, Susanna entered, smelling of outdoors and with roses in her cheeks, bringing, as she always did, a breath of cheer with her. She swung off her bonnet, revealing a thick headful of dun-colored hair, neatly and fashionably styled, parted down the middle and with corkscrew curls dangling aside her cheeks. “You’ll never guess what has happened, Kit!” she said breathlessly.
“You’re quite right, dear Sister, I shall never guess.”
Christopher, who was often called Kit, was the youngest of far too many children, and luckily he had grown up entirely forgotten, save for Susanna, who was closest to him in age and mutual affection. Their father, Lord Edgar Blackabee, was a man of prodigious appetites, and like all the Blackabees, had never known when to quit. He had five wives and each of the five wives had provided the lord with numerous offspring before dying to make way for another, thus by the time Kit and Susanna had been born, there were so many children underfoot that they’d had to fend for themselves as soon as they were capable – indeed, probably a little before they were capable, and had stayed alive due to a combination of good sense, good health, and luck. The neglect at times dismayed Susanna, who as a child longed for the affections of her parents, and as an adult would have liked to find a husband; without a dowry to speak of she was not much in demand despite her fine qualities. But it was a desirable state of affairs as far as Kit was concerned, for he valued his liberty above all else. Lost in the crowd, he was left alone to pursue his academic passions, his elder brothers having taken all the available commissions and postings and patronages and parsonages leaving him nothing but many idle hours in which to wander and muse and pin moths onto white flannel.
“Nathaniel Slaughter has returned!”
“Returned from the dead? Well, that’s quite a trick.” Kit found his interest growing despite his initial reticence. Nathaniel Slaughter, the sole heir to their nearest neighbor Quixtridge Hall, had disappeared whilst adventuring in India decades prior. The Blackabee family had oft lamented, only half in jest, that since they had far too many heirs and the Slaughters had none, one of them should move in to Quixtridge and claim it as their own.
“He was alive all this time, but he’s come back again now, and Kit, he has three daughters!” The only thing Susanna Blackabee wanted to see more than her own wedding, was that of her younger brother. Although dear Christopher was blissfully unaware of the fact, and thus not at all encumbered with the flaw of vanity – vanity being a particularly unattractive quality in a man – he was quite handsome, with a brooding, romantic countenance the sort women swooned over, yet with a warm nature that belied his melancholy features. He rarely grew angry and smiled easily, having the cheerful nature being born the baby of a large family tended to bestow upon boys in particular. If only he didn’t perpetually seclude himself away in the cellar of Chatsfordshire molesting spiders and prodding at reluctant earthworms he would have been well received in society. To Susanna’s way of thinking, her brother’s obsession with trifles like bones and bugs and books was unseemly, and she believed the best thing in the world for him would be his discovery by a pretty girl who would make him forget all his scientific nonsense and join the human race before it had run on so far ahead of him that he could no longer catch up.
“Three daughters, well. Fetch me my horse, and quickly, Susanna; fetch the vicar while you’re at it, for I shall be married come nightfall.”
“Perhaps not by nightfall, but maybe Christmas?” Susanna was teasing, but Kit was well aware that she meant every word of it.
“The only woman who has ever seemed deserving of my affections is you, Sister.” Kit kissed Susanna’s hand and grabbed his hat to flee out of doors before she could formulate a reply.
Much to Kit’s dismay, only a few days later he found himself being dragged to Quixtridge Hall quite against his will and over his strenuous objections. Susanna had showered their eldest brother, Stephen, who had taken their father’s place as head of household upon the elder’s death, with entreaties until Stephen forced Kit to accompany her on a visit to the Slaughters. So accompany Kit did, although not without sulking. Susanna barely noticed, so intent she was upon her own excitement.
Although it was a lovely day, they took the carriage to Quixtridge rather than walking or riding, for there had been rumors of gypsies in the area, and it was best not to take the chance of encountering them. “I wonder if Nathaniel Slaughter is a nabob,” Susanna eventually gushed into Kit’s black silence, unable to contain the words burbling inside of her any longer.
“Sister, I have no idea what a nabob is, therefore I cannot shed any light for you upon Nathaniel Slaughter’s status regarding nabob-ery or lack thereof.”
“A nabob is a man who made a vast fortune in India by less than scrupulous means and then comes back to England again to spend it profligately! You know that, of course, Kit.”
“Seeing as that Nathaniel Slaughter had a vast fortune to begin with, I shall assume his scruples are of the highest standard until I am shown evidence to the contrary.”
Quixtridge Hall, in keeping with its Tudor design, had been built in the shape of an “H”, with two long wings embracing a courtyard between them in the front, and a garden in the back. Kit and Susanna could not see the garden and in fact had never seen it, since Nathaniel Slaughter had been gone so long they’d never been invited inside the house, but their father had often played there as a boy. The front courtyard was covered with a layer of crushed limestone to keep dust down, and planting-beds lined the margins between stone and wall. In the beds, evenly spaced and neatly trimmed boxwoods grew. Kit recalled that the last time he’d passed Quixtridge the boxwoods had not been so neatly trimmed, and surmised that Nathaniel Slaughter had begun to restore the grounds to their former glory.
The door swung open before them, and Kit and Susanna were surprised to see a very tall, heavily muscled Indian man of perhaps forty, with a full black beard dangling down upon the breast of a pristine snow-white overcoat trimmed with gold, and a bright blue turban atop his head. “Oh my,” Susanna blurted before she could stop herself. “It is a man from India, Kit.”
“I see that, Susanna.” Then he said to the man, “Good day to you,” and he paused, expecting the man to speak his Christian name so Kit could properly address him as one addressed servants, but he remained silent. “We’ve come to call upon the Slaughters.” The man extended a hand and invited them inside.
They were shown to a parlor located as far as possible down one of the wings of the “H”. It should have looked out over the front courtyard, but every window in the room was covered with heavy drapes of a deep red velvet. “What a shame,” Susanna mused. “It was such a lovely day outside. May we open them to let some light into the room?”
The tall man looked at her and blinked. He seemed amused by their question. “No,” he replied.
Just then three young women burst into the room. More accurately, one burst, one glided, and one followed after. The first was red-haired and small of stature, the second was tall and golden-haired, and the third had hair as black as night and stood somewhere in between. The Slaughter sisters, Kit presumed. While all of them were unusually beautiful, they looked nothing alike; indeed, the third girl had facial features not unlike their servant, thick black brows, a Cleopatran nose, a full, round cheeked, oval face. Her hair was so long and straight and heavy it hung all the way down her back; she wore it scandalously loose and flowing about her shoulders, rather properly pinned up in the fashionable neo-classical Greek style worn by her sisters and Susanna. Kit, who had an eye for subtle commonalities of feature, was stunned at how similar the girl and her manservant looked – they very nearly could have been brother and sister. But her skin was pale like her sisters’, pale as milk, and her eyes, like theirs, were blue, lighter than the sky at dawn. Kit didn’t think he’d ever seen eyes so completely devoid of color, let alone three pairs of them.
“Goodness,” the red-haired girl exclaimed abruptly. “We’ve lost Charlotte!”
“Charlotte is our bosom friend,” the golden-haired girl explained, and poked her head back into the hallway. “Come along, Charlotte, you silly goose!” After a moment another girl, beige and unassuming, thoroughly average in every way, or perhaps she only appeared average next to the Slaughter sisters’ unusual beauty, wobbled in. She seemed rather dazed. The golden-haired girl made excuses for her friend’s lassitude. “You must forgive Charlotte, she’s been quite ill.”
“But she’s getting better now,” the red-haired girl replied.
“Yes, much better,” the golden-haired girl agreed. “She’s had the green sickness.”
“Yes, the green sickness, isn’t that right, Charlotte?” the redhead prompted.
“The green sickness,” Charlotte breathed, and Kit found himself quite concerned the poor thing would faint right there in front of him.
“Shall we sit down?” he asked, for the benefit of Charlotte.
“Yes, let’s,” Charlotte said quickly, and flopped onto a divan before anyone else had agreed.
“Will that be all you require of me?” the servant asked.
The raven-haired girl spoke at last, with an authority in her voice that her sisters lacked, even though she looked to be the youngest. “Yes, Singh, and could you please look in upon my father? If you don’t mind?”
“Of course,” he replied, and then after a long pause spat, “Ma’am”, with a look of intense distaste, as if the word was made of poison. Then he bowed and exited.
“My dear father is resting. The journey took a toll on him,” she explained.
“He just ate a very large meal, isn’t that right, Charlotte, and he gets dread sleepy after eating,” the red-haired girl declared.
“Yes,” Charlotte agreed, with all the enthusiasm of a damp handkerchief.
“He ate so much that dear Singh had to stop him from overindulging,” the golden-haired girl exclaimed, and the sisters all laughed, but after a moment the raven-haired girl stopped and frowned as if she had forgotten herself. “It will be a miracle if he doesn’t have terrible indigestion, isn’t that right, Charlotte?”
“Girls, you’re being inexcusably rude,” the raven-haired girl admonished the others. “Think of it from Charlotte’s perspective.” Her sisters went quiet, but still seemed terribly amused.
“I find it quite admirable, you treat your servant so respectfully,” Susanna said, thinking to change the subject.
“Oh, Singh?” The raven-haired girl asked. “He’s not our servant. Not at all. If anything it’s the other way ‘round.” Before Susannna could ask her to elaborate, she continued. “But we haven’t even properly introduced ourselves, you must think we lack manners entirely. Sisters?”
“You may call me Grace Slaughter,” said the golden-haired girl.
“And you may call me Patience Slaughter,” said the red-haired girl.
“And what shall I say?” the raven-haired girl asked her sisters, in a peculiar way, almost as if the other girls had made up their names that very moment and she wasn’t quite prepared to do the same. “Hope? Faith? Charity, perhaps? No. Mercy, I think. Mercy Slaughter.”
It was odd the way she said it all together at the first, as if her name was actually “No Mercy.” There was a kind of mad glee in her manner, as if she’d done it apurpose, and Grace and Patience tittered girlishly as if it had been her intention to amuse them by giving her name in such an odd fashion. But before Kit had time to consider what that meant, if anything, his sister had begun to speak, telling the Slaughter sisters her name, and Kit’s name, and the names of all their siblings and their siblings’ wives and husbands and offspring. Kit had great admiration for Susanna’s ability to keep all their relations straight, although not enough admiration to follow suit. “Perhaps I should have written this down,” Charlotte exclaimed weakly, and the sisters burst out laughing at that.
“Charlotte is so terribly witty, isn’t she?” Grace said. “She has us laughing all the time. Laughing and laughing.”
Kit looked at the poor wilting girl and couldn’t imagine she had energy for wit. Over the course of the afternoon, Charlotte seemed to recover somewhat with the liberal application of pastry and tea that the Slaughter sisters all but forced upon her, but still seemed shaky and delicate.
In due time Susanna, under the guise of nattering aimlessly, deftly managed to turn the conversation around to marriage, still hoping to forge an attachment between her brother and one of the Slaughter girls, although hopefully not their friend Charlotte, who looked so peaked that she wouldn’t survive a honeymoon. The Slaughters might have been dreadfully pale, but their paleness was the sort considered beautiful, like the finest china or the consumptive heroine from a romantic novel. Charlotte was pale in a greenish-gray sort of way and Susanna didn’t want her precious Kit anywhere near the sickly thing. “Tell me, girls, do you have plans to marry now that you’re back home again in England?” Susanna did not pause to consider that India was the only home the Slaughters had ever known.
“I plan to never marry,” said Mercy Slaughter, much to Susanna’s surprise. “I don’t wish to.”
“Neither do we,” said Grace and Patience, together. Charlotte coughed again and Patience all but shoved another cake into her mouth.
“Never marry? But whatever shall you do when your father dies? How would you support yourself?” Because she’d never been above listening to gossip, Susanna was fully aware that Quixtridge had been entailed away to a distant cousin of the Slaughters if Nathaniel produced no male heirs; gossip aside, most knew the state of affairs, since the man frequently made noise about having Nathaniel Slaughter declared dead rather than just missing so he could get his hands upon the place. “Perhaps your father shall marry again, and have a son to inherit, and he shall look after you?”
“I don’t worry about my father dying overmuch,” Mercy explained. “I do not expect that to happen for quite some time.”
“Not for quite some time,” Patience echoed.
“What of you, Miss Blackabee?” Grace asked, pointedly. “Have you any prospects?”
Susanna blushed and Kit felt rather sorry for her, knowing that she’d brought the subject of marriage up generously intending to help him, and as the Slaughters seemed thoroughly disinclined towards the prospect, it had served only to embarrass her. “Well, not just yet, but for myself it is less of a concern because I have so many elder brothers to provide for me. Even should I end up a spinster, I shall have food upon my table and coal to warm my hands by.”
“What of your brother?” asked Charlotte. “Have you set your cap on anyone, Mr. Blackabee?”
“I have no desire to marry,” Kit explained. “My siblings have already produced all the heirs one family could ever need, and I haven’t the means to provide for a family anyhow.”
“Surely you could marry a wealthy woman, Kit,” Mercy Slaughter suggested. “Perhaps she could provide for you, if she had her own income.”
“Who would have him?” said Grace, with what felt to Kit to be an altogether inordinate amount of disgust. “He has but nothing!”
“No title, no land, no money, no prospects,” Patience continued, and Kit tried not to take offense.
“Except himself,” Charlotte stated. Then she started to cough again and Patience patted her on the back soothingly. The three Slaughter sisters stared at Kit in the manner he himself might have inspected a bug he was studying, trying to see what Charlotte had apparently seen in him.
“He is rather pleasing to the eye,” Mercy murmured. “Now that you come to mention it.”
He felt a flare of heat rise in his cheeks and knew not what to say.
“I think Kit shall marry for love, someday,” Susanna interrupted, and smiled at her brother fondly. “Someday. He is quite lovable, even if I’m the only one who’s ever seen it. Now tell us, new friends, why have you returned to England after all this time?”
“Father’s business,” said Patience.
“Charlotte’s illness,” said Grace at the very same moment.
“There were many reasons,” said Mercy. “Chief among them, India was too hot.”
“Yes, far too hot!” Patience said. “You wouldn’t believe the heat!”
“It really was terribly hot,” Charlotte agreed, having regained her breath from the coughing fit.
Mercy continued and Kit had the impression she was the cleverest of the three sisters; if not cleverest, certainly the strongest of will. “It made more sense for us to come back to England, and live here in the country, where people are always coming and going, and coming and going…”
“And going,” Grace said, tucking a strand of gold behind her ear.
“Sometimes they aren’t even missed when they go,” chirped Patience.
“Due to the heat,” Mercy concluded with finality.
Despite Charlotte’s questionable constitution, and their strangeness which Kit and Susanna later attributed to the poor girls having been raised in the depths of India without a mother to instruct them in the social graces and thus easily forgave, the Slaughter sisters and their friend were delightful. On the whole the afternoon was an enjoyable one although Kit would have vastly preferred to be left alone to walk the moors collecting specimens.
In fact, later that evening, not wishing to have wasted an entire day upon socializing when he could have been out hunting insects for at least part of it, he ventured out to do exactly that. After a day spent pent up in carriages and parlors, his body craved activity, and so he meandered rather farther than he’d intended. As the sun sank below the horizon he was far along the way towards Quixtridge.
Part Two of Stakes and Satiability, coming soon to an Ordinary Times near you!
Want to read some other horrible sort-of romances I wrote on a challenge?
Women in Fridges: A Cold Day in Hell (this one is a bit scary/triggering in parts)