Miss Lavinia Letitia Lamont, ‘Topsy’ to her friends. I roll the name around my tongue, savouring the clipped consonants and flowing vowels. Never has a daughter so graceful, been born to a father so dull. The Major as he was known to every Tom, Dick and Harry in the shires, liked to brag of his influence in military circles – a claim so palpably spurious as to bear comparison to an overripe banana – infirm, unsound and on close inspection messy.
I open the throttle on the Bentley, and, sending the rooks skywards over the encircling woods I roar through the archway and onto the gravel, a rapid application of the handbrake sending a hail of pebbles lashing across the front of the Hall.
Inside, Lavinia twinkling a welcome across the room. I survey the competition. Algernon Alabaster Anderson, the half wit huntsman, grinning like a mental patient. Sebastian St.Clair Savage. A prancing poltroon, hysterical and half baked. Lavinia approaching, her smile lighting up the room. I catch a glimpse of myself in the glass, an imposing sight, darkly handsome, sideburns greying, giving a measure of gravitas, the scar on my right cheekbone hinting at some devil may care tomfoolery in my mysterious past.
Good god in heaven! She appears to be nursing a rat!
“Topsy, how very good of you to invite me along – I fancy a dish of tea, and may I enquire, the little friend? acquired whilst visiting the henhouse? Hmmm?”
My lupine smile, a wolf in sheeps clothing. Lock up your daughter Major Lamont, for the Oatenshaw charm has a powerful gravity.
“Why Peregrine, you are dreadful!”
Lavinia giggling coyly, the rat gazing at me with limpid eyes.
“This is Bugsy! Introduce yourself to the little chap..”
Playing along with this ridiculous charade, leaning forward, gripping a tiny paw between thumb and forefinger. The creature blinks and cocks its head, a pink tongue licking its lips. For all the world it could be smiling.
I make for the tea trolley, pausing only to ensure an abrupt collision with the hapless Hugo, balancing one too many teacups aloft. A very satisfactory crescendo of breaking china. A movement on the edge of my vision, Bugsy, gazing big eyed across the room at me, head cocked to one side, tongue hanging out, a repulsive creature only to be endured in service of the lovely Lavinia.
Helping myself to an Earl Grey, a robust confection, lightly perfumed, easy on the palette. Casting my eye around for the drinks cupboard, where I fancy an Amontillado or even an Armagnac may be found. Tipping my tea into an unattended handbag, I slide across the room, checking my visage in the glass as I do so, a double fronted cabinet, surely housing the sherry, my goal.
The rattle of claws on the parquet, it’s Bugsy, positioning himself between the drinks cabinet and me, he looks at me, head cocked, lips drawn back, tiny teeth bared – a high pitched rattle issuing from the tiny throat. Around me the conversation dies, people turn around and stare.
“I say Oatenshaw! You’re not going to be bested by a Chihuahua are you old chap?”
The laughter rolls around the room like fog. My mood perceptibly darkens – its time to deal with this bloody dog. Bending forwards, I loom out of the clamour towards the animal. My hand, palm inward, outstretched. A peaceful emissary I want him to think – in a minute I’ll have him, then curtains for Bugsy…
The dog gazes at me, drops its head to one side and begins to trot towards me, its head down, eyes fixed on mine, panting. Is the bloody animal drunk I think, wondering now if this ghastly charade is a price worth paying for an audience with the lovely Lavinia.
Just six inches away now, the crowd, silent now, engrossed in this display of animal magnetism – “He can charm the birds out of the trees” I hear somebody whisper. Soon Bugsy will be within my grasp, a quick flip, a broken neck, such a terrible shame Peregrine, the two of you were getting along so well…
I bend lower, hand outstretched, Bugsy motionless, those limpid globes gazing up at me, head to one side – I swear the beast is smiling!
I freeze, Bugsy with a low growl, darts forward and clambers onto my leg, front feet clasped tightly around my calf – and to my horror begins a twitching of the hind quarters and a rhythmic nudging against my calf. Mortified, I spring to my feet, reaching out for the poker, Bugsy in seventh heaven, pumping vigorously against my brand new calfskin boot. The howls of mirth form the assembled audience enraging me, I raise the poker high above my head, and …
“Peregrine, what on earth are you’re doing?” Lavinia’s horrified face.
Dragging the lovestruck hound, still fastened, limpetlike to my leg I scramble for the safety of the sofa , the guffaws ringing in my ears. Livid, I club Bugsy viciously across the head, succeeding only in cracking my own kneecap. With a ghastly groan the beast completes his amorous mission and with dignity scattered to the four winds, I barge past the cackling cronies and make crab like for the door.
I’m through the door and onto the gravel, humiliated and broken, banjaxed, a chihuahua’s pitiful paramour. I haul myself painfully toward the Bentley, thinking bitterly that compared to this, even France was not so bad.