The Monkey King of the Pearl Sea
In which a pleasant family dinner is enjoyed.
Dinner at No.4 Starvecrow Place was, of course, always a formal affair. Dress was formal and not to be compromised on - there had been the occasion when a cravat had been deemed to be too casually tied and Words were said. In private naturally as causing a scene would have been intolerable. Standards must be maintained.
Seating plans secured the level of formality; there would be no hint of casual familiarity here, even if they were family!
Lord Dunrleigh was not present every evening, despite ostensibly still residing at the family townhouse - he was often absent, overnighting at his gentleman’s club, or at least that was what
he told his family members. It never occurred to Lord Durnleigh
to inform his family or the household staff when he would and wouldn’t be present as naturally he thought that the universe revolved around an axis that was centred on his own august personage, and everyone else should automatically and swiftly respond to his needs.
Lord Durnleigh’s arrival back at the townhouse was noted only by Grundle the butler whose murmured greeting was ignored as Lord Durnleigh swept past him and on to his rooms. A more friendly nod passed between Grundle and Dewbury, if the slight inclination of both heads could be described as friendly.
Safely ensconced in his suite of rooms, Lord Durnleigh and Dewbury began the protracted and delicate procedure that entailed Lord Durnleigh’s ablutions and toiletté. While Britain boasted a mighty and ever-expanding empire and was the undisputed leader of the world, it was somewhat lacking in the availability of clean, hot water. Bathing was conducted either in lukewarm water at best - and therefore with some rapidity - or after considerable time and effort (although not on Lord Durnleigh’s part) of several staff to prepare sufficient hot water for their master’s needs.
Once Lord Durnleigh had been bathed, dried, scented and dressed to his satisfaction, he descended to the parlour for the painful duty of socialising with his family before dinner was served. He girded his mental loins in preparation, as he had long ago concluded that apart from being British and having a blood connection, there was nothing that remotely connected him to his family. Luckily, an exceedingly stiff upper lip and the structure of social etiquette allowed him to freely converse and interact with his relations without the need to develop anything bearing any resemblance to fondness.
Entering the parlour - an room overstuffed with knick knacks that had been declared beautiful by his dear, departed mother, and since left in place as a memorial to her monumentally bad taste - Lord Durnleigh observed that his family were already at their insipid best. The conversation was muted and no doubt unbearably dull and Lord Durnleigh’s thoughts began to stray to more interesting things before he had even accepted the small (and scandal-free) glass of sherry that was offered to him.
Although tempted to down the meager offering in one gulp in an attempt to form an alcoholic barrier between himself and the evening to come, Lord Durnleigh was made of much sterner stuff and as society demanded, barely wetted his lips and entered the familial breach.
Lord Durnleigh glided up to the conversation that was taking place between his brother and sister. ‘Conversation’ may have been a somewhat overgenerous term to what was more accurately a monolog being delivered by his sister, The Lady Iolanthe Durnleigh. Her less than rapt audience was The Honourable Tobias Durnleigh, the glaze over his eyes going unnoticed by Lady Iolanthe as she spoke with quiet fervour on the topic of that season’s choice of must-have colours and fabrics.
A contribution on his part was not wanted or needed at this juncture and this allowed Lord Durnleigh to cast his eyes over the other occupants of the room: his father The Earl of Burnsall nodding politely along, but like his younger son completely ignoring whatever was being said by his Aunt Viola. Considering that his Great Aunt Viola could be at turns either astonishingly fierce or doddering - and the change between either state was mercurial at best - it showed great wisdom on the part of Earl Burnsall to keep himself removed from whatever was being proclaimed at that moment.
Also in attendance were his Aunt Grace (who was ironically completely lacking in the attribute) and his cousin Agnes, a girl so wet that any prospective fiancé had best be a prince to take advantage of her unfortunate frog-like appearance and tendencies. To make matters worse, Agnes was wearing a rather unfortunate shade of green that did nothing to disguise her amphibian resemblance. The word ‘toad’ was springing to Lord Durnleigh’s mind.
Considering the alternatives, Lord Durnleigh decided to remain
with his siblings and be bored rather than venture forth to be
either berated or confused by his Great Aunt Viola, or to attempt to bring his conversation down to such a level that did not scandalise or produce a fit of the vapours and accompanying hysterics in his Aunt and cousin. The thought of deliberately eliciting an episode
of hysterics to liven the evening up did pass through his head, but this early in the proceedings and the resulting chaos would disrupt the serving of dinner and that would never do - a man had to eat after all.
The arrival of Grundle to announce that dinner was served saved Lord Durnleigh from having to endure any more of his sister’s in-depth analysis of the benefits of having an entire wardrobe consisting of chartreuse-based clothing. Bowing to the pressures of fate, he manfully offered his arms to his Aunt and cousin to escort them to the dining room. It took no small amount of fortitude to endure the simpering that followed and he considered the evening to already be a success in that he was able to offer some banality in return. It was with no small amount of relief that he was able to deposit the ladies at their places at the table and then take his own at a position considerably higher and thankfully at at distance from theirs that forbore further conversation.
The Earl of Burnsall, being British and male living in the Victorian era, was not the most demonstrative of fathers, and this was tampered by the less than enthusiastic participation of his heir apparent in the affairs of his various estates. Thankfully, being a prudent man, his appointment of various shrewd stewards ensured that Lord Durnleigh’s lack of involvement did not have dire consequences for the family’s fortunes. As such, a paternal nod and mumbled,
“Good evening” was all that was really required from either of the gentlemen.
“I assume you’ve been lodging at Stones these last few nights?” asked Earl Burnsall, just for form’s sake, as as long as he wasn’t causing a scandal he didn’t really care what his son did.
Lord Durnleigh murmured an affirmative. It was not uncommon for him to stay overnight at his gentleman’s club, especially when the thought of actually having to interact with his family was simply too much for him to bear. At least at Stones he was assured a good meal, genial company if he wanted it and privacy, perhaps its most attractive quality.
Although Lord Durnleigh was an accomplished liar, he had learned early on that fabricating stories to back up his alibis could backfire on him - one notable lie had actually necessitated him working with the estate stewards for a whole two days afterwards in order to prevent him from being found out, and that had been as close as Lord Durnleigh had ever wanted to get to an honest living.
The conversation around the table, such as it was, ground to a halt during the fish course as stewed eels demanded the attention of nearly everyone to process in anything like a civilised manner. Only the Lady Iolanthe, now waxing lyrical on the subject of Elderflower blossoms being the must-have accessory and the sheer horror of having seen an acquaintance trying to make do with Baby’s Breath - causing the young ladies of the scene to declare the unfortunate floral vicim dead to society - managed to keep up anything like a coherent stream of conversation. As ambivalent as Lord Durnleigh was to the deeper levels of meaning associated with flowers, he was somewhat grateful for the distraction. While the Starvecrow Place cook could and regularly did work wonders in the kitchen, very little could be done to disguise the basic nature of eels, and Lord Durnleigh was able to concentrate rather more on Lady Iolanthe’s tale of floral woe than the dish in front of him.
It was not without a politely-stifled sigh of relief from those around the table that the removal of the offending eels and the pouring of claret signalled the end of the difficult part of the meal and the heralding of the meat course. Such was the lightening of the atmosphere after the Eels of Doom, that conversation began to spring up once more. Aunt Grace seemed to be returning to a familiar topic, that of Agnes’ - hopefully - impending nuptials. That Agnes had neither a fiancé nor even a suitor at that point did not deter either of the ladies, as they both appeared convinced that one would appear forthwith. Lord Durnleigh wished them both luck with that. Perhaps Aunt Grace should start taking Agnes to the balls frequented by the more lonely and desperate of bachelors?
The Honourable Tobias Durnleigh had battered his way past Lady Iolanthe’s arguments about flowers and was now boring her on some tedious subject or other. Lord Durnleigh was well aware that his position of firstborn and heir gave him great license and freedom, freedom that was not necessarily available to his brother, but must Tobias be so dull about it all? Enthusiasm for a subject did not disguise its dullness to anyone who had to listen to Tobias drone on, and so it was with no small amount of desperation that Lady Iolanthe turned to her elder brother as a potential escape.
Perhaps it was the eels that distracted him. Perhaps it was the third glass of claret that made him a little less guarded than usual, so when Lady Iolanthe innocently asked Lord Dunleigh what he had done that day, he actually told the truth for a change.
“I went to the British Museum if you must know.” said Lord Durnleigh in a calm tone. It was only after the words had left his mouth that his brain caught up. It was a good thing for Lord Durnleigh that not only was he very good at lying, he had also had ample time to practice the skill of keeping a straight face when he might desperately wish to convey another emotion, but then again, he was British, and emotional stoicism was in his blood.
“You never did!” came Lady Iolanthe’s somewhat shocked response. Glancing up from his saddle of mutton, Lord Durnleigh noticed that his comment had attracted the attention of nearly everyone at the table. Great Aunt Viola however appeared to be greatly enjoying the mutton and was ignoring everyone.
“Why on earth did you go there?” asked Lady Iolanthe, apparently disturbed at this revelation. “I mean, you, at the British Museum?”
“Did you accompany someone else who actually wished to visit?” chipped in the Honourable Tobias.
“Oh! Was it a lady of quality?” asked Aunt Grace, who was clearly having visions of an impending wedding, as only something of such seriousness would have obviously forced Lord Durnleigh into such extreme social situations.
Earl Burnsall, being made of blunter stuff asked,
“Did you lose a bet at Stones?” which caused mild shock from the ladies at the thought of both engaging in a wager and the thought of losing in such an ignoble endeavour.
While any of these openings should have given Lord Durnleigh ample room to manoeuvre and construct a believable tale, he was actually experiencing genuine indignation at their disbelief. This is what comes of telling the truth he thought to himself, his righteous ire rising as for once he did not really have anything to hide. True,
he did not want to discuss the map with his family as that would raise questions to its origins that he did not want to answer (truthfully at least), but a visit to the British Museum should not cause this level of incredulity!
“A man cannot go and educate himself?” he responded archly, while at the same time neither confirming nor denying any of his family’s theories on the nature of his visit. Aunt Grace did appear to be disappointed that a lady was not apparently involved in the tale, and Agnes displayed a little relief that Lord Durnleigh’s imaginary upcoming marriage would not overshadow her own imaginary upcoming marriage.
“Of course he can - education is a fine thing,” said the Honourable Tobias, “but when did you become interested in educating yourself, and especially about the wider world? I thought all you wanted to educate yourself on was the breadth and depth of the wine cellar at Stones.”
“Perhaps I have exhausted that avenue of educational pursuit Tobias and am now broadening my horizons.” replied Lord Durnleigh, who thought that the chuckle his brother had added to the end of his statement had been a low yet accurate blow, and frankly beneath his dignity.
“‘Broaden your horizons’? Are you feeling quite well?” asked Lady Iolanthe with some concern in her voice.
“Quite well thank you” said Lord Durnleigh, despite those stewed eels he thought. Trusting to truth again, even in the face of the attention his last truthful utterance had created, he added, “I found the exhibits on South East Asia most fascinating. Dr Membly-Hawls and I had a most-enlightening conversation.” Skirting rather closer to the truth than was perhaps prudent considering the time he spent with Asian ‘artefacts’ at the House of the Grey Dragon, Lord Durnleigh declared archly,
“I have a long-standing passion for the Orient.” which caused several members around the table to drop their jaws in shock and disbelief in a most indecorous manner.
Such blatant gaping had never before been seen in Starvecrow Place, despite the many occasions when Lord Durnleigh’s behaviour may have warranted it, but this was almost beyond the pale!
Once again, it was Lady Iolanthe who recovered first in order to challenge her obviously delirious elder brother.
“You discussed the Far East with Dr Membly-Hawls?” disbelief dripping from every syllable. In one of those mercurial changes of mood that Lady Iolanthe was notorious for, she added, with only a hint of gushing in her tone, “How was dear Hector? I haven’t seen him in simply an age!” It was well known in the family and in an unfortunately wider social context that the Lady Iolanthe Durnleigh was very fond of the good doctor Membly-Hawls.
“Hector is his usual self - far too wrapped up in his studies to know what day it is. Really must drag him out of his dungeon study. And yes, we discussed the Far East. Mythological figures, economic history, languages, that sort of thing you know.” said Lord Durnleigh, blithely waiving his fork in a display of obvious enthusiasm for the subject. His family were still in a state of shock at the revelation that Lord Durnleigh was apparently interested - and now knowledgeable - on a subject other than himself and his immediate concerns! This truly was an age of wonders!
“In fact, I shall be seeing Dr Membly-Hawls again soon, shall I pass on your best wishes to him?” asked Lord Durnleigh of his sister, knowing full well that this should further distract her from needling him about today’s visit to the museum. Sadly, Lord Durnleigh had underestimated both the strength of his academic revelation and
his sister’s fascination with it.
“You’re going back? Whatever for? Isn’t one visit to the British Museum quite enough to satisfy your curiosity?”
“Of course I shall return - my passion for the Orient knows no bounds!” replied Lord Durnleigh, not entirely untruthfully, as his passion for opium - undisputedly a product of the Orient - was
very strong indeed. Perhaps unwisely he added “Dr Membly-Hawls
is conducting a piece of research for me. I shall have to go and see him to hear his findings.”
If this were any other social situation and the same number of shocks had been delivered in raid succession, the ladies present would have had every right to all have had fits of the vapours, hysterics, fainted or possibly - if skilled enough - all three. It was quite possible that in certain circles, some of the gentlemen may have had hysterics too, and Britishness be damned - there was only so far that a stiff upper lip could take one after all.
This was Starvecrow Place however, and despite the gaping that Lord Durnleigh’s alleged love for academia produced (now brought under control; momentary lapses in decorum might be excused,
but all those present at the dinner table had received much stricter training than to allow for more than that) the rules of etiquette demanded more appropriate responses.
“You are researching something with Dr Membly-Hawls?” enquired The Honourable Tobias, who didn't quite succeed in disguising the incredulity in his voice. He had quite forgotten the excellent mutton in front of him; Cook would be distressed to learn that her culinary efforts had been usurped by mere conversation.
“It’s a collaborative project, yes.” replied Lord Durnleigh with no small amount of smug pride in his voice. As this was the normal tone for Lord Durnleigh however, it wasn’t remarked upon or noted. Now that the smallest bit of truth was out there, he could fall back on his usual habits and begin to be somewhat more creative. “Who knows father,” he said, turning to the Earl of Burnsall, “It may even lead to some favourable connections in Ratnapore.” With a small chuckle at this obvious hilarity, Lord Durnleigh returned his attention to his dinner.
A delicate yet pronounced rattle of cutlery on china preceded the shocked gasp from Aunt Grace.
“Really! Such a thing to talk about, let alone in civilised company!” She was clearly building up her righteous indignation, either to give Lord Durnleigh a scolding or to metamorphose it into a high-level fit of hysterics - and if that happened, it was more than likely that Agnes would limply follow suit. “Ratnapore!” she continued, in a fierce stage whisper, as if this would protect the delicate sensibilities around the table. “Nothing but a den of thieves, pirates and murderers!” At this point, it was unclear whether she was saying this as a condemnation of the city in particular, or whether it was just a reinforcement of her attitudes to anywhere that wasn't coloured pink on a world map. Strangely enough, Agnes’ attention seemed to perk up considerably at the mention of the scurrilous inhabitants of the trading port.
Despite her mother’s obvious views on the matter and the rising flush on the Earl of Burnsall’s face indicating that he was none too pleased with the direction that the conversation had taken, Lord Durnleigh was rather impressed with his damp cousin when she piped up in a stronger voice than he ever recalled her using,
“Pirates!” she gasped “How romantic!” at which point the rest of the diners swept their gaze to the obviously mad woman in their midst. “Just imagine being swept off to sea by a dashing Captain!” Had she not still had her knife and fork still clutched in her hands, they would no doubt have been clutched over her heart as she indulged in a romance-fuelled reverie. There was the distinct possibility that the would have swooned as well, to display the depth of her feelings
on the matter.
“Oh Agnes!” snapped Aunt Grace. “Don’t be ridiculous! Cutthroats the lot of them - no place for a lady of quality!” just the thought of a lady in the presence of pirates was doing more to push Aunt Grace close to the threatened fit of hysterics more than anything else. “Think of the scurvy alone! You’ve been reading those tawdry novels again, haven’t you. Such ideas they put in your head!”
In a somewhat transparent display of timidness, Agnes bowed her head to such chastisement, but Lord Durnleigh was not the only
one to notice that Agnes still had a soppy smile on her face.
“Really,” began Aunt Grace, sweeping her gaze around the table for moral support in her tirade against cheap novels, romance and pirates “Young ladies should have more important things on their minds - like the upcoming social season and securing invitations to the most advantageous of balls. Not silly fantasies.”
Aunt Grace’s and Agnes’ idea of what was important were at odds
it seemed, and again, Lord Durnleigh had to give his young cousin credit for having such ideas in the first place and to sticking to her guns in pursuing them.
A hereto unheard voice in the stimulating conversation unexpectedly made itself known,
“Ratnapore! Wonderful place, so exciting. Why, there was one occasion when I found myself in a very stimulating game of chance with sea captain, a monk and a lady who had to work all hours of the night the poor dear.”
If there was any more flabber to be gasted, it was displayed at this point as the diners swivelled their heads in a most common manner towards Great Aunt Viola. The faces displayed reactions from blatant disbelief at the doddering biddy’s wandering mind to shining wonder at such marvellousness coming form one’s own relative. Lord Durnleigh’s own face - usually so under control - portrayed mild consternation and a certain level of calculation that was fortunate to go unnoticed.
“Yes dear, it was very exciting.” said the Earl of Burnsall slowly and clearly, patting his aunt gently on the hand. The rest of the table waited with bated breath for more improbable revalations, but Great Aunt Viola - whose moods were able to change quickly in the best of circumstances - seemed to be lost in a happy memory of her colourful friends. The light flush on her face attested to the jolly nature of the memory.
The Earl of Burnsall had had enough.
“I’ve had enough.” his stern gaze swept from Aunt Grace and Agnes to his eldest son. “Pirates and ships - far to close to being ‘trade’ if you ask me, and therefore not a suitable subject for conversation at dinner! Let us return to more civilised matters.”
While the diners knew that a certain level of license was permitted in Starvecrow Place - Lord Durneligh’s youthful activities had gained it a reputation for the unexpected: The Potato Incident alone meant that the reactions of the household were sharper than average - they knew that when the Earl put his foot down, metaphorical or otherwise, a line had been crossed.
Aunt Grace, always ready with a handful of inane but safe conversation starters began wittering about an upcoming ball and the probable need to let Agnes’ gown out.
The Lady Iolanthe - of course her father’s favourite and therefore the most able to bend, circumvent and test his will, never one to let something go easily turned to her elder brother,
“You know, I think I will accompany you when you visit dear Dr Membly-Hawls again - when did you say you would be returning to the Museum?”
“I didn’t.” said Lord Durnleigh. “Dr Membly-Hawls is doing some work on an artefact for me and he shall inform me when he is ready to tell me of his findings.”
“An artefact? Good Lord, you’ll be donating objects next, and then before you know it you’ll be an official patron of the Museum!” Lady Iolanthe seemed to find this concept most amusing, but rather than appreciation for her witticism, all it earned her were glowers from both her elder brother and her father - it seemed the limit of decency had finally been reached, which was perhaps a good thing as the staff had cleared the mutton away and were brining in raspberry cream for dessert. Nobody wanted dessert to be spoiled by any indelicate talk; they had battled their way through stewed eels and mutton and deserved the reward of raspberry cream for their fortitude.
Lord Durnleigh mused on the meal’s conversation. It seemed that
he may have to cultivate an actual interest in culture and visits to
the museum! What a man had to do in order to attain wealth beyond his dreams - it was almost too much to be bourn! Yet Lord Durnleigh was made of sterner stuff thanks family realised, in fact stuff more stern than even he realised at this point. If it became known that he regularly visited the British Museum and had a passion for the Orient, better for that to be known than his true passion of certain things Oriental to be known.
He wondered how long Dr Membly-Hawls would need to work on the map. The sooner his translation was complete, the fewer visits he would have to make; perhaps his reputation, somewhat blurred and shaky as it was would not have to be blurred any more than necessary.
It was while his thoughts wandered over the map and what the good Dr might be able to tell him about it and as he ate his raspberry cream with a good approximation of filial respectability that thoughts of other Oriental objects began to creep into his consciousness. Despite spending not inconsiderable time at the House of the Grey Dragon in the past few days, a familiar itch was beginning behind Lord Durnleigh’s eyes, an itch that he knew from experience would only spread, accompanied by other more unpleasant symptoms. He knew that he would be able to function with some semblance of normality for a day or two before the desire and the need to return to the den would become too much. A day
or two to make some arrangements for funds to be made available quietly and without fuss. A day or two in which he would have to play the role of the dutiful son, all while trying to ignore the growing urge to smoke, recline and lose himself, to forget the banal inanities that this evening had typified.
Lord Durnleigh finished his excellent raspberry cream and felt a measure of anticipation for his next visit to Madam Wei, but hoped that his next visit would not be quite so interesting as his last visit had proved to be.