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The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (7th Installment)

February 24, 2018 06:20PM
PART EIGHT

“Your Lordship, you have no choice after being treated so disrespectfully. You must meet him.”

“But he said he wouldn’t fight a duel,” replied Rockwell petulantly. “If he agrees to a duel, and I kill him, I can plead extenuation and provocation. But if I just shoot him down while he’s unarmed, and hasn’t agreed, I could be charged with murder.”

“What of it?” said his advisor. “Do you think the House of Lords would convict a Marquess for dealing out a well-deserved death to an upstart Jonathan who had the unmitigated audacity to strike you, more than once, to break your nose, to knock out several of your teeth, because he refused to do the honorable thing?”

“Perhaps not,” agreed Rockwell.

“He did say, M’Lord,” said the third person in the room, young Stickley, who had, at Rockwell’s request, delivered the challenge to O’Brian, “that he would be armed. He only promised that he would not draw a weapon until you had the chance to strike the first blow, should you choose to. If that blow was not a fatal one, he would, at that point, feel himself free to defend himself.”

Rockwell, turned to the young hanger-on, wealthy in his own right, but the mere fourth son of a newly made baron, and therefore having only the most vestigial claim to aristocratic origins. A toad-eater, but his money made him useful.

“The first blow will be fatal, Stickley. Of that I can assure you.”

Rockwell’s advisor smiled at Rockwell and Stickley and nodded in agreement. At this point, the last thing he needed, after years of waiting, after doing away with Bingley, was competition. And not just competition, but competition from a very competent protector. With luck, this dolt Rockwell would do for O’Brian and clear the way for him.

*


Jane walked into the music room that evening after dinner, drawn by the sound of the pianoforte playing, accompanied by a mellifluous baritone. She entered to find Mr. O’Brian at the pianoforte, from which he was telling a group of children, including young Thomas and little Beth, as well as Lizzy’s children, Bennet and Janey, the story of “Beauty and the Beast,” accompanied by songs supposedly sung by the various characters.

All of the children were entranced by the huge, yet gentle man, as he sang of servants turned into objects welcoming Belle with a song called “Be Our Guest,” or talking behind the back of the Beast and Belle with one called “Something There,” or the housekeeper, turned into a tea kettle, observing the couple, against all odds, slowly falling in love, singing about “a tale as old as time.”

Some of the parents, including Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, were also listening to the story, and enjoying it almost as much as the children.

When he had finished the story, of course the children clamored for more.

One little girl, who had obviously enjoyed Mr. O’Brian’s performance, nevertheless professed a lack of belief that a beautiful girl could ever actually fall in love with a beast.

“Well, young Miss,” said O’Brian, “the thing was Belle could see deeper than the surface. After she got to know him, she knew that there was a good man with a good heart underneath what appeared to be an ugly, ferocious beast. And she turned out to be right when he turned into a handsome prince.”

“It could never truly happen, though,” the little girl insisted.

“Well, there’s no magic that can turn a handsome man into an ugly beast, that’s true. But I once heard a story about a man who acted beastly, and caused the woman he loved to reject him, but in the end, she was able to see that he was truly a good man, and eventually they fell in love.”

“How could he be a good man if he was beastly to people?” asked the little girl.

“He was uncomfortable around those he didn’t know well. He’d grown up mostly alone, and wasn’t used to the company of those who weren’t servants or family. And since he was an only child until he was close to being grown up, there weren’t that many people his own age to play around with. You could say he was kind of shy. Only the shyness came out as a superior attitude toward others.”

“What happened?”

“Well, he was visiting a friend in a small community, and in that community there was a family with five beautiful daughters. One of them, the second oldest, was very lively, and intelligent, and loved debating.”

“What’s debating?” said another of the children.

“Arguing for fun to see who wins. Not being angry, but more like a game, with rules. In universities, they even have debating teams. And it happened that this young man, whom everyone thought was beastly, including the young lady, loved debating, too. And, in the course of their debates, he fell in love. But the feeling scared him.”

“Why?” asked Thomas.

“He’d never been in love before. He didn’t know how to handle the feelings. So he ran away. But they met again some months later, and this time, having come to terms with the feelings he had, he actually blurted out a proposal of marriage to her one night.”

“What did she say?” asked the little girl.

“Well, you have to understand, he wasn’t very experienced at proposing. And he was used to girls kind of making it clear that they would be happy to marry him if only he’d ask, because, even though he acted beastly to people, he was very handsome, and very rich. So when he proposed to the girl he’d come to realize he loved, he made a very bad job of it. Instead of telling her why he loved her, he told her about how her family was a step down for him (he was a duke’s godson or a marquess’s grandson or something like that), and it had taken an effort on his part to actually bring himself to confess his love.”

“He didn’t!” said the little girl.

“Oh, he sure did, young Miss. Now he didn’t mean to be insulting. He was just trying to be honest. But, without meaning to be, he was honest in a very hurtful way. On top of that, the girl had found out something about him that she held against him very deeply.”

“What was that?” asked Thomas.

“Well, the friend he was visiting had fallen in love with one of the other sisters, and asked for advice. And he told his friend he didn’t think the other sister was really in love with him, but was just being nice. So the friend never proposed. Thing was, the sister really was in love with him, so this made the girl very mad on her sister’s account.”

“Did she turn him down?” asked the little girl.

“Turned him down flat!” said Mr. O’Brian. “So he wrote her a letter explaining things a little better than he had in his proposal. She read the letter. Read it several times. And the more she read it, the more she came to see that this beastly man probably was really a very nice man underneath. But by then they were both separated. She went to her home and he went to his.”

Jane, who by this time, had figured out who the real-life counterparts to the characters in Mr. O’Brian’s story were, sneaked a glance at her sister and brother-in-law. Darcy looked a little troubled, though not angry. Lizzy, not untypically, was delighted at having her story turned into a kind of fairy tale.

“Now this fella was real sad,” said O’Brian, “’cause he thought he’d lost the one lady he’d ever loved forever. Now, unlike Belle, and the Beast, and all the other folks in the story, he didn’t sing about it. But if he had, this here song probably expresses what was going through his mind, and through his broken heart, pretty well.”

With that, O’Brian launched into a song that started with “I was the one who had it all. I was the Master of my Fate. I never needed anybody in my life. I learned the truth too late.”

The rest of the song spoke of the heartfelt yearning for a lost love, and how he would always feel that the one girl he’d loved, even though he’d lost her, would always be inspiring him to be a better person, to be worthy of her. It was a beautiful song, beautifully sung.

After he finished he turned to his audience.

“Well, some months later, y’know what happened? The girl was in the gentleman’s neighborhood, and they bumped into each other quite unexpectedly. He invited her, and the relatives she was travelling with, to dinner that night, introduced the lady to his sister, and did everything he could to show that he was trying to be a better man. He wasn’t all that good at being a better, more friendly man yet, but she could see he was making an effort. More importantly, she could see he was being sincere. Do y’all know what that means?”

The children shook their heads.

“Means he was being honest. He was really and truly trying to be a friendly, polite man. Wasn’t just putting on an act to impress her. And she began, just a little bit, to fall in love with him, too. And by the end of her visit, which was several days long, she had fallen completely in love with him.”

“Did he propose again?” asked the little girl.

“After a while,” said O’Brian. “There were some obstacles they had to clear through first, but this fella was a real capable kind of man, and, when all was said and done, those obstacles weren’t really that much of a problem. So he finally proposed a second time, and this time she accepted, and she and he got married.”

“Did they live happily ever after?” asked the outspoken little girl.

“They sure did, young Miss,” said O’Brian. “Fact is,” he went on turning to look at Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, “I’m pretty sure they still are living happily ever after.”

They both smiled widely, though Darcy still looked a little uncomfortable.

*


“You have a way with children, Mr. O’Brian,” said Jane afterward.

“Well, they say the boy’s the father of the man. I had a good childhood, Mrs. Bingley. So I guess I still relate well to children.”

“Well, my little Thomas is certainly an admirer. I think Beth is quite taken with you, too. When she’s able to talk, I’m sure she’ll confirm that.”

“Your kids are quite wonderful, Mrs. Bingley. I envy you.”

One of those awkward pauses came up. The kind that two people in love who haven’t quite admitted it to themselves, let alone to each other, sometimes bump up against in conversation.

“Mrs. Bingley,” said O’Brian, changing the subject, “in the next few days you might hear some things about me. I want you to hear them from me first. I don’t think you’ll approve. I don’t approve myself. But at least you’ll get the straight story from me.”

“What do you mean, Mr. O’Brian.”

“Sholto challenged me to a duel.”

“No!” she said, horrified. “You didn’t accept, did you?”

“Absolutely not. I’ll kill in a war, or when I’m attacked, but I won’t meet a man for what amounts to a sporting event with deadly weapons. It’s barbaric. I said as much to Sholto’s representative.”

“Then what do you think I might disapprove of?

“I don’t really mind if I’m denounced as a coward, ‘cause I know I’m not. But the earl convinced me that I’m not alone in this. I’m not just a policeman or a soldier. I’m a diplomat, and I represent the United States. It’s one thing for people I don’t even know to call Mike O’Brian a coward, when I know it’s not true. It’s another thing that have them say that about a representative of the United States, and have people actually thinking it’s true.”

“So you are going to duel him?”

“No. But I’m going to meet him and let him take a shot. I won’t respond until he’s struck the first blow. It won’t be a duel. But I’m still putting myself in danger needlessly for no other reason than public opinion. It doesn’t sit well with me. And I know it won’t sit well with you, but I wanted you to hear about it from me.”

“But, Michael,” said Jane, unaware that, in her concern she had finally addressed him by his Christian name, as he had invited her to do many times, “he’ll kill you!”

“He’ll try. Turns out I’m kinda hard to kill. Especially for a low-down slinking skunk like Sholto. Question is, will you be able to bear looking at me afterwards? Not sure I’ll be able to look at myself in the mirror. Wouldn’t blame you if you shunned me.”

Jane looked into the sad eyes of the man she had been growing closer to with each meeting. She sighed at the fancied necessity for the meeting with Sholto, but to a man who was in a violent profession, a man who had been a soldier, she presumed not to censure it.

“You are quite right that I can’t really approve of your course. But I see that your diplomatic status puts you in a difficult position.”

She paused, looked down, then turned to him and held his eyes with hers.

“I’ll not shun you, Michael.”

(TO BE CONTINUED)
SubjectAuthorPosted

The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (7th Installment)

Jim D.February 24, 2018 06:20PM

Re: The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (7th Installment)

KateBFebruary 24, 2018 10:01PM

Re: The Predator, the Prey, and the Protector (7th Installment)

Shannon KFebruary 24, 2018 07:33PM



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