Bright blue skies mocked Smirke’s sneer as he gingerly stepped out his front door and down the steps to the street for the first time in three weeks. He was desperate to interact with a human being he wasn’t forced to pay to speak to him. Not one of his cronies had acknowledged his secretary’s letters informing them that he’d been attacked and required their immediate attendance. Smirke’s valet Woods had, had the unenviable task of entertaining his sullen employer, a predicament equally loathed by both men. Woods’s only escape came by hiring whores to shower the pretty bedridden brute with flattery.
Smirke’s insatiable vanity was the offspring of an innate need to be rapturously adored. The need had come fully fledged from the womb, defying his parents’ attempts to dilute it. Unfortunately the innocent need had warped into narcissistic mirror gazing. Absorbed by his reflection, Smirke had never learned to notice let alone love other people. They existed to worship him so why didn’t they? It was the imponderable question. Deep down Smirke knew that the answer would probably relate to one of his mother’s lectures. Life was too short to be wasted on reforming his ways. Life was for instant gratification not some stupid ethereal untouchable reward for being good.
Sneering at the passing traffic, Smirke flinched as he tried to flex his right arm. The need to question the Lord St. Valentine was the perfect excuse to find entertainment or at least someone to talk to. He snarled as his two footmen assisted him into his carriage, jolting his healing shoulder. He kicked at their retreating backsides in fury and screamed at his coachman to drive slower as the man whipped the horses into a gallop. The florid yellow coach decorated with swirling black and gold lines bounced out of London and after an interminable hour spat out its blanched occupant.
Relieved to be standing still, Smirke eyed the typical small brick house sitting proudly on the main street with distaste. He could appreciate the symmetry of the small house; three upper windows sitting squarely over the centered door and two matching side windows, but it was so homogeneous. It could have been any shop keeper’s house in any town, but it was proof that the penniless Viscount St. Valentine had either found some luck or a wealthy matron with a taste for beautiful red haired young men. It was common knowledge that the perpetually drunk Sin Valentine was not above bartering his flesh for a valuable token of appreciation. Smirke followed his footman to the door and ignored his servant as the door was rapped. A few minutes later a manservant opened the door with the respectful subservient expression Smirke could never get his own servants to adopt. “Yes Sir?”
Smirke held out his card, “Inform Sin Valentine that the Honourable John Smirke wishes to see him.”
“Very good Sir, if you’ll wait in the hall I shall enquire if his Lordship is feeling well enough to receive.” Smirke stepped inside and unthinkingly closed the door in his footman’s face as he eyed the small hall with a reluctant artistic eye. Someone’s purse was being emptied; upstairs workmen were hammering nails while the air smelled of fresh paint and polished wood.
The pale yellow walls drew in the dim sunlight while dove grey accents softened the brightness. A pattern of black framed mirrors anchored various shapes of light in-between small family portraits along opposite walls. It was a welcoming space, almost feminine. The fitted grey and yellow felted wool runner on the floor gracefully pulled the eye up the small staircase proclaiming the presence of money. Sin Valentine was definitely selling his services. Carefully holding his right arm against his body to protect his throbbing shoulder, Smirke stepped over to admire himself in the largest mirror and cringed in irritation. His pretty face was unpleasantly haggard after endless boring weeks in bed. Two black scowls rippled in tandem as his thoughts were dragged back to the fact not one of his friends had called to learn if he was alive or dead. Black marble eyes chilled with thoughts of revenge. Tired of waiting, he impulsively opened the parlour door and stepped inside.
“…tell him to go to the devil.” The Viscount St. Valentine reburied his nose in his book without another thought for his unwanted caller.
“I never expected such rudeness from a sober Galahad; perhaps your manners were pickled along with your liver?” Smirke watched the copper waves jerk in his directions, the beautiful pale features frozen in a look of resentment.”
“Do you often push your way into other people’s houses?” The young lord’s face twisted clearly regretting his choice of words.
“One ill turn deserves another.” Smirke’s attention was already turned to the room. He admired the grey on grey streaked marbled affect and how the red floor length curtains and Gainsborough chairs picked up the red streaks in the dark grey marble mantle and fire surround. Impressed, he looked up to inspect the small Venetian glass chandelier suspended from a simple moulded ceiling and back down to the two red leather chairs anchoring a pale grey wool rug woven with a red Greek key symbol. His eyes were pulled back towards the fireplace and the 17th century tortoiseshell mirror and matching silver candlesticks standing guard either side. “Who’s your decorator?”
“I’ll tell my milkmaid you admire her taste.” Smirke narrowed his eyes at the insolent reply. “I’d love to exchange stories of decor disasters and throbbing shoulders, but I’m in the middle...”
“I want some information.” Smirke sauntered over to the fire and carefully lowered himself into the unoccupied chair. Finding it comfortable, he stretched out his legs and rested his feet on the fire fender.
“I want some privacy in my own home.”
“What were you doing at The Monument?”
“The Monument to the great fire you half-wit. The monument you were draping before you tried to enter my carriage stinking of cheap spirits forcing my footman to slap you.”
“Oh yes, that monument. I’d have two sound shoulders, but for your footman. How was I to know you were picking up one of your victims, I mean lovers? What possessed you to pursue a pistol waving lunatic? Are you having problems finding sane women to share your bed?”
“Who I bed is none of your business.”
“My being sick all over a public monument isn’t any of yours.”
“Did you learn the fiend’s name?”
“But of course, I made sure she introduced herself before I was sick on her shoes.” Smirke’s reflex to call the younger man out was watered by the man’s beauty. There was something mesmerising about the emerald green eyes set into perfect pale features. Smirke wasn’t a man who normally admired other men; it brought to mind several unpleasant memories of school he tried hard to forget. As a beautiful person, St. Valentine was an acceptable companion as long as he didn’t say anything too insulting. “No, I did not learn her name. Go away I’m reading.”
“I intend to find that pustule who shot me if I have to lift every skirt in London to find him!”
“I thought it was a woman.”
“That was not a woman! A woman couldn’t calmly walk into my house, threaten to turn me into a castrato and then shoot two unarmed men! What’s so funny?”
“I was just thinking how you and I would make a great pair of bookends in porcelain with our arms in slings. They could call us ‘Heaven and Hell’. I’d be Heaven…”
“I think you’ve pickled your brain!”
St. Valentine was smiling at the fire causing envious bile to rise into Smirke’s throat. Even with his left arm tucked in a large handkerchief tied around his neck, St. Valentine appeared be enjoying perfect health. There wasn’t even a shadow of the alcoholic fool who stumbled through Society, stuffing himself with free food and drink. Sin Valentine looked virile; a battle weary prince who’d been called home to claim his inheritance. An image rolled out on the easel of Smirke’s brain demanding to be recreated with oil paints. He shook the thought away with a disgusted sneer and relaxed in his chair. The moment he gave in to the desire to paint he’d become the laughing stock of Society. He sneered at the thought and wondered how Sin Valentine’s hovel could feel so comfortable when his own houses felt like crypts despite his best efforts to brighten them.
“What are you having for dinner?”
“I’m in need of company.”
“Hire a whore.”
“Whores are boring; they stare at you with dead eyes and then do anything in any position without a murmur. My man Woods refuses to wash me, forcing me to hire whores to help me bathe. The one sent this morning nattered on about some sickly child in need of a physician as if I was the parish philanthropist. What do I care about some dying brat? The stupid cow didn’t once admire me and when I told her to wash my legs she…”
“Don’t you have some cronies who pretend to enjoy your company?”
“The boring prats are all off whoring in the country. Is your book any good?”
“Yes, if you hurry you can buy your own copy before the shops close.”
“I hate reading; read it to me and put some feeling into the words.” Smirke’s eyes were already closed as he settled into his red chair.
“Stay if you won’t leave, but if my milkmaid comes you’ll be out the door with my boot in your backside!”
Smirke’s black eyes momentarily glinted irritation before hooding over. “If your milkmaid shows up, ask her if she’s free tomorrow morning. I long to be bathed by someone who can appreciate true beauty…what’s so funny about that?”
“I was imagining my milkmaid’s response to your invitation. Do you want me to read the story or listen to you moan about your boring life?”
“Read me the story. It has to be more exciting than sitting at home listening to another hungry whore try to fleece me with creative flattery. You know the routine.” Smirke cracked open his eyes and glanced at the beautiful profile, slightly pinched lips the only sign St. Valentine understood the implied insult. “How much are you charging these days? Do you enjoy bedding old women or do you just close your eyes and pretend their debutantes?”
“Why? Are you looking for a few tips to start a business?”
Smirke glared at the calm profile, “I’m just curious. You seem to have suddenly come into some money.”
“I’ve found honest employment.” The mesmerising emeralds slowly turned and acknowledge Smirke’s existence with distaste, “You’re not trying to pander me are you?”
Smirke’s pale face nearly burst into flames, “No!”
“Good.” The green eyes studied Smirke and then calmly returned to the book. “Do you have any laudanum? My wretched footmen shoved me into my carriage as if I was on my way to Tyburn.”
“You rang My Lord?”
“Mr Smirke would like a drink infused with a morning dose of laudanum. Inform his servants to return in six hours time and if my milkmaid comes tell her I’ll be in need of cream tomorrow.”
“Very good My Lord.”
“Thank you Foster.”
Smirke looked from the exquisitely mannered Foster and back to his red haired master. “How do you get him to talk to you like that?”
“He’s so polite. Where did you find him?”
“At school, his father wagered away the family living and killed himself.”
“How much do you pay him?”
“As much as I can afford; that’s what friends do.”
“But he’s your servant…”
“Who’s serving who? Are you going to natter on about your awful life or let me read the story?”Go to chapter 4