The General's Answer to James (alternate version)
The next morning James arose well rested and ready to meet any challenges he should face. He dressed with care and then breakfasted quickly before attending to the most pressing estate matters. By eleven o'clock he had discharged all his duties and was upon the Sidfords' imposing doorstep, ringing the bell . . .
Before he had time to blink the doormat dropped away beneath him, and as he fell he felt something tighten around his ankles, and he was spun upside down as his descent was arrested by the slipknot that bound his feet. Blood rushed to his head, and he blinked up at the shaft of light coming in through the opening above as a panel was slid across to seal him in. He was about to yell when he heard something to his left. He looked over and saw flint being struck into a torch, and as the flame took, recognised Emily's father. He was dressed in labourer's pants and lacked a shirt to hide his hairy torso. For a man of his age, however, he was surprisingly solid. James never would have guessed it. He smiled pleasantly and tried an upside-down bow. "I see you understand the reason for my visit, sir."
Old man Sidford stepped up to James' dangling form, then smote James in the face with the sputtering torch. "Aye, I do. There's not an action taken on this property that I don't know of.
James choked momentarily on the blood that was filling his upended nostrils, and spat out a tooth and a half. "Truly, sir, I do think you should reconsider. I am a more than reasonable match for your daughter."
Sidford took James' docile wrists and began looping them in bailing twine. "You'll have to do better to prove your worth, lad. Did Emily ever tell you about Jonah?"
James coughed out a thin spray to clear his airway, and wheezed "Jonah, sir?"
Old Sidford tied James' wrists fast to an iron ring set in the dirt floor, then lifted his torch to the far wall where a skeleton hung from manacles by the wrists. Several of the ribs were broken, and the legs were broken off at the thigh. While James was taking this all in, Sidford lashed out and kicked him straight on in the stomach, then belted him once in each side with the torch. James tried to double over, but only pulled his bonds until they cut into his flesh. He could feel where the torch had burned through his shirt.
"Jonah though he was good enough too, swore he was, but after only three days was begging for his life." He paused to jab James in the chest with the torch, leaving it against his body for a few seconds, then kicked the flames out as James' shirt caught fire. "Now what kind of resolve is that? The man who marries my daughter must be willing to put her before himself in any situation."
James was having trouble breathing, not to mention following the conversation, and was shocked that Emily had neglected to tell him of Jonah. To have one's intended father-in-law show some temper was to be expected, but to have one's intended wife hide a past love, that was reprehensible. However, he had greater concerns at the moment. He swallowed to prevent choking again, then wheezed out in gasps between fat lips, "I implore you sir, only give me a chance and I will prove myself worthy. I assure you I will do everything in my power to..."
James was cut off by a boot to the skull, which knocked him cold. Sidford grumbled in frustration and sloshed a bucket of stale water over the limp James, but when this had no effect, he muttered something about soft lower country gentry, and left via the cellar door.
James woke with a start to find himself cold, soaked, and aching all over. He could feel more broken teeth now with his tongue, and couldn't breathe through his nose at all. There wasn't so much as a trace of light, and at the recollection of having swallowed so much of his own blood, vomited profusely, only to have it dribble down his face and into his hair. His hands and feet were numb, and he couldn't move any part of his body. He needed a plan. He began to wriggle, to see how much play he had, when he felt something drop past him and slip past his fingers to the dirt below. Of course, his boot knife! It was ungentlemanly to carry such a rough tool, but he found it useful in the course of his duties to have a blade on hand, and had taken to carrying one in just such a concealed manner. If he could only reach it. He strained his body as long as it would go, trying to get some circulation back in his hands, when he slipped straight out of his boots and tumbled to the floor. Oh, bless Gabriel Oak and his oversized boots! These had been a gift, and had been crafted by a cobbler favoured by Oak. James fumbled in the dark for his knife, then cut his hands free and felt the blood rush back into his fingers. He crammed his feet back in his boots and lay sprawled on the floor. His head ached, his body was stiff with cramps and bruises, and he was dizzy from being upside sown for so long and nauseous from the smell of blood and vomit. He tried to relax and clear his head. There was no way to tell when the general would return, and he had to be ready. Knife in hand, James crawled to the first wall he came to, then eased himself onto his feet and followed it slowly to his left, feeling for the door. Instead his hand bumped into something smooth and dry which fell to pieces and fell from the wall to his feet as he explored it. Jonah's skeleton! How could that blasted girl have hidden this man from her? But now was not the time for such worries. Besides, surely she had some explanation. Best not to worry until he had heard her tell it. Then he could worry as much as he deemed necessary. Until then, Jonah was likely to be his only ally.
"Sorry, old boy, but I need your help on this one. You were obviously someone important to Emily, so I think I can trust you." He bent down and felt through his love's old suitor's remains until he found what was likely a humerus. It was light, but of a decent length, and had a solid knob at one end. All there was left to do was find the door and wait. Unfortunately, before the door could be found, it was opened. The sudden light blinded James, bur he launched himself in the direction of the illumination. Old Sidford's military training, however, was sufficient to deflect the blind attack. James lashed out with bone and blade savagely, but his assault found no purchase. General Sidford ducked Jonah's arm and dealt James a jarring blow to the ribs.
"Good effort boy, but not good enough. And to think I had hope for you." Sidford took the torch in both hands and swung with all his might in a downward stroke at James's already battered head with sufficient force to stove it in like a pumpkin under a cart wheel, but James, anticipating such a manoeuvre, dropped to his knees and reached for the source of the light with his blade, taking the general in the thigh. In his alarm at the landing of such a swift strike, Sidford dropped the torch and bellowed. James, sensing the opportunity, swung Jonah's humerus into his desired father-in-law's knee, then tackled him through the doorway. With the torch behind him, his vision cleared, and he delivered such a flurry to the general's face and throat that he broke both his own hands in the process, and fell over from sheer exhaustion. The general, relieved of this weight, rolled on his side and coughed up a few teeth of his own. Seeing that the father of his love still breathed, James deftly slid off one of his own boots, and raising it high between his bloody, twisted fists, prepared to pummel this man while he could still draw breath. He was about to grant Emily her inheritance when her father cried out and held a defensive arm over himself.
"Enough! I concede! You may have her."
James dropped his boot in surprise.
"Any man who can defend himself so is worthy of my daughter's affections. Please, help me to my feet."
And so James helped General Sidford up, and the two of them, limping and leaning on each other for support, stumbled through the darkness and up to the house, where they discussed the necessary arrangements over a glass of brandy and a cup of tea.
© 2003 Copyright held by the author.