Stakes and Satiability- Part 2
Looking for Part One of my Jane Austen-meets-Bram Stoker mashup? It’s here:
Not wishing to have wasted an entire day upon socializing when he could have been hunting insects for at least part of it, Christopher Blackabee had 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 towards Quixtridge Hall.
By road, Quixtridge and Chatsfordshire Park were several miles distant, but overland it was less than two miles across the Westcott Low Moors. The Westcott Lows were a vast expanse of small rolling hummocks covered in mosses and heathers and sedges, interspersed with low fens where water, stained rust-brown with tannins, collected into fetid puddles teeming with nymph and naiad. The Lows extended out in every direction as far as the eye could see, and one could have easily become disoriented upon them but for the placement of several dozen cairns one could use as landmarks to plot their way back home again.
If one headed east from Chatfordshire over the Westcott Lows, eventually they would reach the sea some thirty miles away; one fine summer’s day Kit had set out to walk the distance, sleeping out of doors under the stars. He spent a lovely few days upon the rocky coast looking at sea stacks and chasing crabs and poking at kelp with sticks, marveling at the sheer magnitude and vast diversity of life on earth. He meandered back home nearly a fortnight later, craving buttered toast, with several dozen new insects and some very nice seashells for his collection. He was surprised to find his family in a panic over his whereabouts as he hadn’t even thought he’d be missed, since he never usually was. His father, who had been still living at the time, had made him vow never to go so far again, and Kit reluctantly agreed, but he often recalled the pleasant journey and longed to make it again.
Kit had just knelt down to inspect some small white wildflowers he’d never noticed before, presuming they might have a novel pollinator he’d not discovered yet when he felt a sort of perturbation. The hairs rose up on the back of his neck as if someone were standing behind him, yet he wasn’t startled by it, because somehow he knew who it was although they were not yet visible. He felt quite convinced that it was raven-haired Mercy Slaughter approaching, although he wasn’t precisely sure how he knew it. But by the time he looked up, he saw her black hair, and then the rest of her, rise over the crest of a nearby hill. It was as if she rose out of nothing, smoothly, not unlike the way the moon rose quickly enough so if you looked away only for a moment, it was noticeably higher in the sky.
“Hello, friend neighbor, am I bothering you?” she asked.
“No, not at all,” Kit said as he stood and attempted to dust off the knees of his trousers, finding to his dismay they were soaked through with tea-colored groundwater and ruined. If he’d been pressed into it – and Susanna had certainly tried to do just that during the carriage ride home – he would have to admit he found Mercy Slaughter not only the most charming, but also the prettiest of the sisters, despite her peculiar hairstyle. Or perhaps because of it; he lost control of his better instincts for a moment and envisioned running a hand over her head and down her back to experience the sleekness of a woman’s unbound hair beneath his palm. He imagined it so vividly his palm tingled, and he flushed with mortified shame. Thankfully Miss Slaughter did not seem to notice. “You’re not out here alone, are you?”
“Yes,” Mercy replied cheerfully. Kit thought she seemed less pale than she had earlier. Undoubtedly the brisk air had brought her color back. “There were some sheep grazing yonder, and I was…admiring them. From afar. From quite far away, at a distance, is what I mean to say. I did not get close to them; I just observed them as they grazed. I had never seen such strange sheep before, the sheep in India are rather differently formed. I grew curious and watched them. From a distance. Is it not allowed?”
“There have been reports of gypsies,” Kit explained. “Gypsies on the moors.”
“My, I hope to meet them,” Mercy said.
“Good heavens, whyever for?” Conversing with gypsies was against the law in England; perhaps Miss Slaughter wasn’t aware of the legal question, having only just arrived in the country.
“When should I ever have another opportunity to…” she hesitated as if searching for the proper word. “…experience a gypsy?” Then she laughed at him, AT him, and he realized he must have been gaping at her incredulously. “Why have you taken such a chance with your precious and delicate self, Mr. Blackabee, out here on the moors all alone? With gypsies on the loose? How very foolhardy of you! I must say I do admire your courage, facing such a threat!”
Kit had the distinct impression Mercy Slaughter was mocking him, though he knew not why. “I have, er, well, I suppose you could call it a collection. Of dried plants, and animal bones, and insects? Most especially insects. And this time of day is generally a productive time to find them.”
“Dead?” she exclaimed, with an eager, curious countenance. Her thick dark brows raised high above her eyes as she peered at him. “Are you telling me you collect dead things?
“Well, er. Yes, I suppose you could say that. I study the natural world, you see, and I’m always hunting more specimens for my collection. It’s worth the risk of encountering a gypsy or two,” he said, with false bravado.
“Heavens, why didn’t you say anything about that earlier? Letting your sister drone on and on about your third cousin twice removed when we could have been talking about dead things?”
“I haven’t found people are often interested,” Kit replied politely, but the truth was his family had warned him off discussing the topic in polite company often enough it had become second nature to keep his scientific interests secreted about his person as if they were a pocketbook stuffed with money or a sack of precious jewels.
“I haven’t found people are often interest-ING,” she retorted pertly. “Would you like to see MY collection? It’s really more of a menagerie, I suppose. If you study the natural world, surely you should love to meet my dear pets; they are even more interesting than an errant gypsy, not to mention far more frightening. While I haven’t seen your collection, of course, although I admit I hope for an invitation to do so at a future point in time, I suspect my wee friends shall put your collection to shame?”
Kit was at a loss. He felt apprehension; on the one hand a beautiful woman had taken an interest in his collecting, something he’d never thought could actually happen, but that deep down he’d long hoped for, and yet…And yet. The invitation felt perilously spontaneous. He wondered what sort of menagerie a person by the sinister name of Miss No-Mercy Slaughter might want to show him and for reasons he didn’t quite fathom, he wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about the prospect. “Er,” he began.
But before he could protest, she flung her hands into the air with a spirit of utter physical abandon the likes of which he’d never seen a woman display in his life. Within a matter of moments Kit heard a perfectly dreadful sound as he was entirely surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of bats of various shapes and sizes flapping their membranous wings and screeching from their ugly flat betoothed faces. He had not known there were so many varieties of bats in all of England and they were appalling in their multiplicity. The awful creatures circled around him and Mercy Slaughter as if the two of them stood at the eye of a chiropteran whirlwind. Her long, loose black hair moved from the breeze the creatures stirred and he had to suppress an urge to fling himself over her to shelter her from the hideous things..
Despite his frequent encounters with nature, Kit had never gone in much for bats; they seemed like the sort of creatures who might bring with them sickness and ill luck, not to mention the fact that they ate his beloved insects. Entirely aside from the bats themselves, there was something decidedly unnatural about a person who could raise their arms and bring animals to their side. He looked at her and was perturbed to find her smiling broadly, smiling in delight. Suddenly the queerness of what was transpiring struck Kit and he frowned. Mercy must have detected an air of disapproval and she dropped her arms with a chastened expression as if she realized she had done the wrong thing.
The animals flew back off again into the night, save one that swooped in between them and plucked a moth from midair, before departing in pursuit of its fellows. Kit felt a bit queasy. “Did you…were you somehow able to call those bats?”
“Everyone in India can do it,” she claimed. “It’s a simple trick, like snake charming.”
“The bats I knew in India were lovely, marvelously tame. I haven’t gotten to know these bats yet. We’ve only just met each other. I do hope we can become good friends in time.”
“Like you and I,” Mercy blinked several times, tugged a lock of her hair, and blushed furiously, as if crestfallen by Kit’s lack of enthusiasm. He was surprised that as pale as she was, she was able to blush crimson, but she was. She frowned with one side of her mouth. “Well, I suppose I’d best head back to Quixtridge, then. I wouldn’t want the gypsies to get me!” she said, as if trying to change the subject.
“Please, let me see you home,” he offered. The thought of a defenseless girl walking the moors alone under threat from both gypsies and inexplicable clouds of bats dismayed Kit greatly regardless of how peculiar she was.
“There’s no need, truly,” Mercy protested. “And then I’d have to worry about YOU, walking all the way home again, alone yourself. With gypsies about.”
“Please, Miss Slaughter, I must insist. Gypsies or no.”
“I suppose I could convince Father to send you home in a carriage,” she murmured. “That might be for the best anyway, to be honest.” To Kit’s surprise, he detected a note of genuine concern in her voice. Even more surprising, she tucked her arm through his in a familiar way and strode off towards Quixtridge Hall. “You must be more careful out here on the moors, Christopher.” she urged. “You shouldn’t be out here at night, so far from the safety of your home. Do you promise not to do it again?”
“I’ve always come out upon the moors at night, Mercy. Ever since I could toddle my way free of the nursery.”
“Perhaps so, but I don’t think you should do it any more. Especially not so near to Quixtridge.”
“Because of gypsies? I thought you wanted to meet one?”
“No, not gypsies. Animals. Wild animals.”
“My dear girl, I assure you that whatever manner of predatory animals used to live on the moors have been hunted to extinction long ago.”
“Imagine a type of animal you have never seen before. An animal from India. A dangerous and hungry animal, a naughty animal that does not do as it’s been told.”
“A tiger?” The notion that the Slaughters might be in possession of an illicit tiger thrilled him to his core. It seemed entirely reasonable that a girl who could summon bats might also own a tiger. “Have you brought a tiger back from India? Might I see it?”
“Like a tiger, but not a tiger,” she said, and she seemed rather vexed for some reason. “And no, you may not.” She shifted her arm and pulled in closer to him, and Kit felt his heart beating quickly for an entirely different reason than gypsies and tigers and he recalled of how she’d called him pleasing earlier that day, recalled it very warmly. “Tell me of your dead things, Mr. Blackabee.”
For the rest of the journey Kit did exactly that, and was exceedingly gratified to discover that Mercy Slaughter appeared to have a legitimate interest in his peculiar hobby. She peppered him inquisitively with dozens of insightful questions regarding his scientific aspirations and claimed repeatedly to wish to see the collection for herself, and he invited her to do so at the first available opportunity, intending to impress Susanna into service as a chaperone, for he couldn’t have Mercy Slaughter in was essentially his bedchamber unsupervised and his older sisters were too squeamish about what they referred to as his “creepy-crawlies”.
It occurred to Kit as they talked, that as odd as he was himself considered even to those who ostensibly loved him, perhaps a peculiar girl with a very improper hairstyle might make him a fine match, and surely bats might be something a fellow could grow accustomed to over the course of time. Before he knew it they had arrived at Quixtridge, and it felt far too soon for his liking.
As they approached the hall’s entrance across the graveled courtyard, with the arms of the “H” extending on either side of them in an architectural embrace, Grace Slaughter appeared before them as if out of nowhere, and Patience Slaughter appeared behind with equal suddenness. Mercy still had hold of Kit’s arm and he felt her tense up and clutch him closer, as if she was reluctant to be parted from him. He had the oddest impression that she was frightened of her sisters; strange, as earlier she’d seemed the leader of the three, not to mention having been utterly unafraid of the terrors of the moors at night. “Let me pass, dear sister, or I shall call for Singh.”
“You may pass,” Patience said. “Our friend Kit may remain.”
“Let US pass,” Mercy corrected.
“Why do you need to pass so urgently, beloved one?” replied Grace, and she smiled widely, revealing her gleaming teeth, which seemed rather more numerous than they had earlier in the day, and sharper.
“I wish to speak to my father,” Mercy replied. And then she shouted in a slightly panicked tone that Kit found entirely unnerving, “Singh! I need you!”
“Oh, you’re no FUN,” Patience hissed, and Kit gave a start as he realized she was standing only a few inches behind him. “Don’t you want to share?”
“Sisters are meant to share,” Grace said reprovingly, a pout upon her pretty face.
Then there was a sudden thump like a heavy box dropping and a man stood before them. He had the mien of a gentleman and as he was somewhat older than the Slaughter sisters, Kit assumed he was Nathaniel Slaughter. The man had a full head of wavy brown hair pulled back in a queue, and although his features marked him as a naturally-ruddy-complected man, prone to become florid, his skin was ghastly pale like his daughters. He didn’t seem quite old enough to be the girls’ father, but in the heat of the moment Kit failed to fully appreciate the fact. He was more confused by where the man had come from – he had seemed to fall from the sky. “Father, send them away, I wish to speak with you,” Mercy begged, confirming Kit’s supposition as fact.
“Mercy, where did your father come from just now?”
“He came right out the front door, Kit, didn’t you see?” To which Kit said nothing, because he hadn’t seen that, not at all. What he had seen was Nathaniel Slaughter jumping down from an open window two stories above and landing on the ground with the ease of a cat, but that couldn’t have been what had happened. “Please, Father?”
“My dear, have you made another friend? Between your sisters’ dreadful habits and your ever-expanding circle of friends I shan’t imagine our time in England will end any differently than our time in India.” Singh came around the corner of the house, his thick brows knitted together, his fists clenched and chest puffed as if he was angry or perhaps ready for a fight. His topcoat was open at the throat rather than buttoned high and neat like it had been earlier in the day; under his clothes, the man wore a large blood-colored ruby on a thick gold chain around his neck. The reason it attracted Kit’s attention is that it seemed to be glowing ominously, but of course that was impossible. Gemstones didn’t glow with mystical energies. The gemstone was undoubtedly just reflecting the light of the rising moon even though it was tucked away within Singh’s coat where moonlight could not possibly have reached it. Once Singh appeared, Patience and Grace mewled and grumbled and protested but slunk away, into Quixtridge Hall. “You are my favorite daughter, Mercy,” Nathaniel Slaughter stressed the name Mercy as if it was foreign to his tongue, and unwelcome, ”but at times you do try my patience.”
“I’m sorry, Father. May we send Kit home with Singh in the carriage?”
“I scarcely see that we have any choice in the matter, now. Mr. Singh?” Singh nodded once and stalked off towards the carriage house. Nathaniel Slaughter turned icy blue eyes upon Kit, aside from their pallor, the only feature the members of Slaughter family seemed to have in common. “I think you’d best find another girl to court, my boy. Her sisters do not like you, or perhaps it is more that they like you far too well.” Mr. Slaughter made no attempt to be cordial, none whatsoever. Kit did not know what to make of it; he’d never been treated so rudely by a person he wasn’t related to.
“He’s not courting me, Father, I just met him as I strolled upon the moors,” Mercy interjected. “He insisted upon seeing me home. He was concerned for my safety, because of gypsies.”
“Gypsies?” Nathaniel Slaughter repeated, and it seemed like he was nearly about to laugh. “You certainly were in grave peril, then, weren’t you, daughter? Gypsies on the moors!” He said it as if it was the most ludicrous thing he’d ever heard.
“In the moment it seemed wiser not to argue,” Mercy explained. “I supposed it was what a proper English girl might do in such a situation. I had intended to seek your guidance on the matter before I encountered my sisters…but.”
“Indeed. I understand. Go inside, now.” Kit was a bit surprised when Mercy obeyed her father without argument. She seemed like the sort of girl who embraced a spirit of independence and thus argued with her father incessantly whenever he attempted to direct her, even when it was for her own good. Nathaniel Slaughter bestowed upon Kit a considering expression and Kit took note of how unusually young he appeared. He should have been at least as old as Kit’s late father, well into his sixties, and yet he looked barely older than Kit himself, although he comported himself as an older man would and dressed the part as well. “I don’t know what your intentions are regarding my daughter, young man, but she’s not for you.”
“I had no intentions whatssoever, apart from a conviction that a woman should not wander alone at night. As her father, you might wish to impress upon her that fact.”
“That one can take care of herself. Better than you, I’ll warrant. I don’t expect to see you again, Mr. Blackabee. If you have developed affections, turn them elsewhere; believe me when I tell you it is for your own good.”
Singh had returned, driving an open-roofed phaeton, and Kit climbed up into it, settling beside the large man, who immediately chucked the reins and they were off. As charming as Kit found Mercy Slaughter, he found himself exceedingly distressed by the rest of the Slaughter family and was happy to quit them, happy to return to his cellar full of books andbugs, with no one chattering at him regarding interfamilial tensions that he didn’t understand.
As the phaeton rattled down the lane towards Chatsfordshire Park, Kit noticed a reddish blur in the trees moving alongside the wagon. He tried to tell himself it was a fox, but it was far too large to be a fox. A dog, then, with rufescent fur – a setting spaniel perhaps, intent on chasing the phaeton as it would have pursued a pussycat. But deep down inside himself Kit was not so sure. He recalled what Mercy had said about an animal like a tiger, but not a tiger, and the thing he saw was quite large. Then he noticed a second blur on the other side of the phaeton, a golden yellow blur. He was so surprised he forgot himself and leaned forward to peer at the yellow dog, to try to see if it was actually a dog, or if it was what he thought it was.
Who, he thought it was.
He thought again of Grace Slaughter smiling with such an unusual array of teeth. If she had looked that way earlier in the day, surely Kit would have noticed as she nibbled watercress sandwiches and Shrewsbury cakes not 2 feet away from him.
Like a tiger, but not a tiger.
Upon finding oneself in such an unlikely situation, a good many people would have harrumphed and muttered “that’s impossible”, going blind, deaf, and dumb in every sense of the word. But Kit, due to his scientifically-inclined mind, refused to declare anything impossible without adequate consideration, when it might be an entirely natural phenomenon previously undiscovered. Christopher Blackabee believed those words Hamlet uttered to his confidante Horatio, that there were more things in Heaven and Earth than had been dreamt of in any philosophy. He further believed in Ockham’s Principle, believed that the simplest explanation tended to be the correct one, even if it required one to believe in a divine miracle, which appeared to be what was occurring before his very eyes. A miracle, albeit perhaps not of divine genesis.
Singh scowled, as if enraged that Kit had noticed his pursuers, but perhaps he was merely enraged the sisters had dared to pursue in the first place. “If you are with me, they cannot hurt you,” Singh said reassuringly, although his soft tone did not at all match the intimidating glower upon his face. Kit noticed from his peripheral vision that the ruby around Singh’s neck was indeed glowing, and brightly; it was quite surprising that the existence of a mystical light-producing gemstone seemed the least interesting thing that was happening that moment.
“Could they hurt others?” Kit asked, thinking of his brothers and sisters and all their innumerable children and the tenant farmers out mending their fences and tradesmen upon the road and passersby and even the gypsies wandering about, any of whom might suffer from an encounter with Grace and Patience Slaughter.
“They’ve been warned,” Singh replied, but Kit didn’t find that terribly reassuring all things considered. Even less so when the dogs ran on, far past the point any sensible dog would have tired and gone home to lay down, and the last lingering shred of doubt that he might be dealing with animals created by God’s hand evaporated. The demonic creatures sped alongside the phaeton, vaulting over expanses, leaping obstacles with incredible ease, and in one moment when he stared at the red beast too long he was certain he caught a glimpse of a gruesomely familiar smile hovering in midair.
Despite his fear, which felt like a faraway thing happening to another person in another world, Kit found himself possessed by a crushing scientific curiosity. As the miles passed, this terrible curiosity grew exponentially and began to manifest as a grotesque but undeniable desire to be caught. Some part of him, and it was not a small part, actually wished for the phaeton to crash or be forced to halt so he could discern the true nature of the things chasing him. Were they dogs, or were they women running upon all fours, or were they another manner of beast entirely? Why were they discouraged by the presence of Mr. Singh and how did the luminous ruby fit into the equation? How was it that Mercy Slaughter could call bats to her, and why was she not afraid of gypsies, but was afraid of her own sisters? How could Nathaniel Slaughter jump from two stories without a scratch, because he had done so regardless of what Mercy had claimed, and why was it that Mr. Slaughter appeared as a young man even though he had to be approaching his dotage? And what of poor Charlotte – was she a captive, or a volunteer?
Kit thirsted for an opportunity to study these peculiar creatures he had encountered, to investigate and describe them and present his findings before the Royal Society to thunderous applause. While he had read multiple folktales regarding fiends that prowled in the dark of night, the Slaughters did not seem to fit into any of the known categories; he longed to know more about them even if his voyage of discovery only lasted a few sweet moments before they rent him limb from limb and he was never able to tell a soul of his findings. The temptation to demand Singh turn the phaeton around so he could fling himself at Mercy Slaughter’s feet begging her to tell him what she was, was near overwhelming.
But before he managed to work up the courage or the madness to do such a thing, they had arrived back at Chatsfordshire and the hellions, whatever they were, disappeared. Singh gazed levelly at Kit for a time before speaking, almost as if he’d known what Kit had been thinking and didn’t half-trust in his sanity. “Have you read much in the way of Greek legend, Mr. Blackabee?”
“Yes, as a boy,” Kit said and gulped with anticipation, praying Singh was about to regale him with a story of harpies or sirens or some such, and answer at least some of his myriad questions.
“Then you will be familiar with the tale of Pandora,” Singh replied, and Kit felt his hopes pop into nothing like a bubble of soap stuck with a fingertip. “Man’s quest for knowledge can surmount the natural barriers that protect his innocence, and indeed, safeguard his very soul. God renders the examination of some things forbidden for a reason, Mr. Blackabee, as Pandora and your paragon, Mother Eve, learnt to their great dismay. Do you understand me, Sir?”
“I understand you very well, Mr. Singh.”
“Stay inside, at least for this evening. If you value your life. And stay away, forever.”
“Forever?” Kit stammered, thoroughly appalled by the thought of never seeing Mercy Slaughter again, a visceral reaction that seemed quite disproportionate given their brief acquaintance.
“Sisters are prone to jealousy, Mr. Blackabee. Some cannot bear to know that one of them wants something that they cannot all have.” Kit disembarked and Singh called after him. “Speak a word to another, even in jest, and I shall let them have you.” He chucked the reins again and the phaeton sped off.
Despite suffering from an utterly malignant curiosity, Kit heeded Mr. Singh’s words and wasted no time in going indoors, where he shut himself in his cellar and barred the door. He set about writing a very thorough scientific description of the Slaughter family with much speculation regarding their origins included in his footnotes, until he fell asleep at his desk with his head on one hand, and his other hand still gripping his pen, in the midst of sketching Mercy Slaughter. There he remained for the duration of the night.
Part 3 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)