“Oh darling, can’t I come?” Winnifred asked shrilly.
“Women are not allowed, my sweet. It’s a gents only party. Besides, we play cards all night, we drink and we smoke.” His wife shot him an aggravated look. He hastily added, “and we debate and talk business. Naturally.”
“Don’t take me for a fool, Edward Julius Hogarth!” Winnifred retorted. “I know perfectly well you and your company will do nothing but misbehave. Please try not to lose at gambling tonight. I was growing rather attached to our dear Jane, the maid you lost during the last game.”
“I won’t, darling.” He sighed, anxious to be loosened from his nosy wife’s grip.
“Do give my best wishes to Margaret. Will you, Edward? I know she’s a hostile woman, but she’s the closest thing I have to a friend.”
“I will, darling. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must leave, the carriage is waiting and I’m running rather late.”
He kissed her on the cheek and scurried out, relieved to be released from her grasp.
Edward ignored the footman and was briefly startled by the horses as they pulled away.
He looked back, out of the carriage to his estate. It was a shame they always had to play at Blithely’s house. At least this way Winnifred was not poking around. Margaret Blithely kept to herself and let her husband and his friends do as they pleased.
Tonight, Edward Hogarth felt lucky. He would not lose his money or any other coveted possession. He would just have to take it easy on the wine and ale. Then he should be fine. Maybe he should leave the snuff-box too. While he thought about abstaining, he was already fidgeting with the snuff-box in his pocket. Surely a little pick-me-up couldn’t hurt? Edward mused.
It was quiet on the road, during the entire trip he did not encounter another soul. Which seemed logical considering there were only a handful of houses on these wide-ranging lands in rural England. Edward let the scenery pass by, unimpressed. Another dull trip in his dull life. Maybe he needed to do something with his fortune, or expand it. He just could not be bothered. His father had already done the work so why should he? However, he did want more.
Except he was too lazy to move mountains, let alone a pebble.
He would just have to play his cards right tonight, literally. If he could just get his friends more intoxicated than himself, he might find a way to win big.
The carriage came to a sudden halt. When he looked outside, he could see Blithely Abbey. An exquisite building, forming an L-shape. The façade looked like a Greek temple, the marble pillars shining splendidly in the faint sun. The host was already waving at him, standing on the steps. His gloved hand was held at eyebrow height, held against the sun. What a ghastly sight. Edward quickly took another sniff. He felt a sudden rush of clarity. He was ready.
Edward stepped out of the carriage and instructed his footman to wait for him. He walked towards the beautiful building, looking rather striking.
Lord Blithely eagerly walked towards him, looking pristine in his black dress robes, made with silk and lace. He always dressed extravagantly. His hair was parting on the side and neatly combed back.
“Sharp man, sharp man. Always on time.” Blithely said as the clock struck 6 pm. “Lovely to have you dear fellow, lovely.” He shook Edward’s hand enthusiastically.
“Hello Nicholas, how are you? How’s Margaret? My Winnifred sends her love.”
“Well, same old, same old, old chap. The usual. Insufferable as always. And it doesn’t get better with age if you catch my drift.” Blithely chuckled. “Anyway, she allows me to live this life. I myself haven’t got a penny as you know, but luckily I don’t have to work, because she has all the money in the world! Shall we wait in the hall for the others to arrive? I have an excellent Scotch waiting for us.”
Edward Hogarth could not say ‘no’ to that.
“My Edward, isn’t that your old maid? I must say the Blithely uniform does wonders for her figure.” Sir William Edborough spoke cajolingly as he winked at Jane, Edward’s former maid whom he had lost to Lord Blithely in a game of cards. Edborough threw his arms around her waist and whispered something in her ear.
Jane flushed and the other maids giggled softly in their hands. The butler scowled at them, flushing too at their inappropriate behavior.
Edward looked exasperated, but he did not retort.
Edborough jovially shook hands with Edward and their host. The hall was entirely made of marble, the floor, the stairs, the walls, and the ceiling. In the middle of it hung a sparkling chandelier, twice as big as the host himself. The entire staff stood neatly in line in front of the stairs, waiting. Each of them slightly curtsying upon every guests’ entry. The lengths the Blithelys went to show off their wealth.
“You there,” Edborough yelled at a tall and pale footman, “fetch me a brandy will you.” The poor lad scurried off under the scrutinizing eyes of the butler.
“I do detest the fact that it’s a gents only night Nicholas, my fellow. I’d rather like to get my hands on a ripe and blonde virgin tonight.” Edborough winked at the others.
“Well, the night is still young Edborough. Keep it in your pants for the moment. First, let us have a good meal and a civilized conversation. And we must play some cards, of course,” Nicholas Blithely replied. “When I have stripped you gents of your money and most prized possessions, I’ll let the entertainment for tonight join us in the library.”
A tall and thin woman walked down the stairs. She wore a crimson gown with golden embroidered patterns of roses. Her black hair combed upwards and was held together by a diamond tiara. However, her dress and jewelry could not hide the fact that Margaret Blithely was not an attractive woman. Not at all.
She lacked the soft and glowing skin of other high society ladies, their sophistication, and general femininity. She was clumsy in her movements. Her face disclosed perpetual annoyance, making her expression hard.
“Margaret, my darling, say hello to the gents,” Blithely said jovially.
“Nicholas, I expect you to take responsibility for both our guests and possessions tonight. I will not bother you again. I will reside in my study to read and would prefer not to be disturbed. If at some point your party drowns out my thoughts, I will end it.” She pulled her dress up somewhat and started her ascend on the marble stairs again.
“My Winnifred sends her love, Margaret.”
“It’s Lady Blithely, Nicholas. And thank you,” she said curtly as she turned around.
Edward rolled his eyes. The nerve of that witch.
The gentlemen were lost for words and waited in silence for the last two guests to arrive, Lord Anthony Sullesby and his friend Barnaby Holcroft, a newcomer. Both Nicholas and Edward felt optimistic about that, happy to have new prey for the game tonight, another bank account to empty.
The five gentlemen stood in front of a fireplace which matched their height. The fire was crackling wildly. The butler handed them each a glass of Scotch.
“This one cost me a fortune. Actually, it cost the person I won it from a fortune,” Mr. Blithely said while eying Lord Sullesby.
“Yes, Nicholas, it cost me a fortune, but now I get to drink it anyway,” Sullesby replied as he winked at him.
“Do you smell the vanilla, citrus, and honey? Hold up your glass, see how dark the fatty liquid is. It’s a gorgeous whiskey, really,” Blithely spoke dreamily.
“As long as it does the trick, right?” Edborough said as he downed the entire glass in one go, causing a look of horror from both Blithely and Sullesby. “Don’t have anything stronger?” Edborough continued as he reached for his snuff-box.
Nicholas looked at him in disbelief, but one of the footmen was quick on his feet and poured old Edborough some brandy.
Edward looked at the scene indignantly and exchanged looks with the newcomer. “What is it you do exactly, Mr. Holcroft?”
Barnaby Holcroft was a short and sturdy man, who seemed to be permanently flushing from his nose to his ears. His thick brown hair encapsulated his entire face, the hair on his head leading to an enormous beard. “I’m in the newspaper business in the city.”
Edborough shot Hogarth a look of discontent saying ‘new money’.
“How… interesting. And how do you know our Sullesby?” Edward replied.
“Played a couple of rounds of cards with him at the ministry in the city. Good lad, good lad. Although he nicked all my money on those nights.”
Sullesby turned around as he heard his name. “Do you feel lucky tonight dear Holcroft? Aren’t you afraid we old chaps might win some of that hard-earned newspaper money of yours?” Edward could not help but notice a hint of disdain in Sullesby’s voice.
Mr. Blithely’s lips turned into a cunning smile.
“You’re welcome, old friend. It’s like bringing a pig to a slaughter,” Sullesby whispered slyly to Blithely.
“Dinner is served, gentlemen,” the butler said.
“I’m absolutely starving,” Edborough said. “Fetch me another bottle of that delicious brandy will you?”
Mr. Blithely and his guests shuffled to the dining room. The room was gorgeous and spacious, with a wondrous fresco ceiling above the large dinner table. The five gentlemen only occupied one-sixth of the dinner table, which was neatly set.
Edborough was walking around with the new bottle, filling his fellow gentlemen’s cups.
“Easy William, I’d like to make it to dessert,” Blithely said, “not to mention, I’d like to win some money.”
The footmen prepared the plates for the first course. After they had finished, they waited at the other end of the dining room, forming a perfect line next to the butler.
“Gentlemen, welcome once again to our beautiful home. As you can see it pays to have a wife with money,” Blithely chuckled. “It pays she isn’t fond of my company too. Now, let’s enjoy our entrée as I invite a special guest to entertain us during this course. Please welcome Aikichi.”
A woman walked in. She wore a purple kimono with a white obi. Her black hair up and shiny. Her face as white as the tablecloth on the dinner table, her lips red. The men were silent. Even Edborough.
Another woman walked in, though bleak in comparison to the geisha. She carried a square instrument with strings at the top. She sat down cross-legged and started playing. The geisha moved and danced. The men ate quietly. Their eyes fixed on the graceful geisha.
When the song was over, the geisha bowed slightly. Slowly, she walked towards the men. A box of cigars in one hand, a lighter in the other. One by one she handed them a cigar and lit it in silence. Smoke whirled around the men.
“Last year Margaret and I went to Japan. When we were in Gion, we encountered these beautiful women in a tea house. Apparently, there is a small community living in the city. I had to pull some strings, naturally,” Blithely said.
When the geisha lit Edborough’s cigar the silence was broken by the sound of Edborough’s mouth pressing his lips on the geisha’s hand. He winked at her and mumbled something to her. The geisha did not react, but merely bowed and walked away.
“Tell me Blithely, will that beautiful creature stay around tonight? I’d love to rip that robe from her body and bare that white skin,” Edborough said as he poured in another glass and emptied the bottle.
“More!” Edborough yelled as he raised his glass. “To Blithely.” The other gentlemen followed and toasted. Their host looked content.
After the performance, the men enjoyed their ten-course dinner. Every course was accompanied by at least one bottle of wine, carefully selected by the host himself. Soup, pigeon comport, fricandeau veal, pork griskins, French pie, small ham, bottled peas, house lamb, ox pallets, duck alamode.
The group of gentlemen was rapidly getting drunk. Edward felt queasy. He had eaten too much and had drank too much too. He was barely able to follow Mr. Holcroft’s rambling about an insubordinate journalist. He hiccupped, and thought about the upcoming game and that he really ought to stop drinking. He reached for his snuff-box.
Edborough was starting to have even more fun. He liked these nights with the lads, albeit that they only became fun after some firm drinking. He’d supply them happily with more brandy paid for by the lady of the house.
Sullesby and the host were in a deep conversation about women overseas, how they differed from the stiff women in their home country. Sullesby was particularly fond of Indian women he told Mr. Blithely.
The host got up and spoke to the assembly of men. “Gentlemen, I hope you have enjoyed dinner. Now, I would like to suggest we move to the library where a table is set up to play some games. You’ll find the finest liquors will be served, as well as a surprise dessert,” he said with a wink. “So without further ado, be prepared for me to win your money,” He laughed richly.
The men followed Blithely to the library, a spacious room overlooking the gardens. Two of the walls in the room were entirely covered in books, waiting to be read in their mahogany shelves. In the middle of the largest wall, in between the bookshelves, was a fireplace, it’s fire cracking wildly. Across the room were several sofas and armchairs. On the remaining wall, a life-size portrait of Margaret Blithely was displayed. She wore a dark green gown, with a silver embroidered flower pattern on the fabric. Her dark hair covered by an equally dark green hat with a black feather attached to it. She slouched lightly, her expression was indifferent and her eyes dull.
Edward took it all in: the wonderful house, the excessive furniture, the food, the staff, the liquor. He had the feeling that Mr. Blithely was slowly preparing them for slaughter. Their host did not seem to be showing any form of drunkenness, not in the slightest. Edborough however, was another story.
“Seems like your wife is joining us after all. The center of the party as per usual,” Edborough joked while he sipped his whiskey.
The five men took their places at an oval table. A stack of cards lay in the middle. The butler came in carrying a tray of bottles, pastries, and five snuff-boxes.
“You may leave us now, Bates. I’ll ring for you if we need anything. And please send the entertainment down in about two hours. Thank you,” Mr. Blithely said dismissively. “So, gentlemen, it’s time to place your bets. Have a sniff, have a drink. Let’s play.” His eyes twinkled.
Blithely shuffled the deck of cards and explained the rules to Holcroft, oblivious to the fact that the man had played this game countless times.
Edward was enjoying a pastry with some hot coffee. Edborough was doing the same, except he poured some whiskey in his coffee. After that, the old man looked across the room, cross-eyed, trying to find more glasses to fill. Edward passed on the refill to the grievance of the old drunk. He felt drunk enough already and he was adamant about winning some money tonight. Even though Edward had inherited some money from his parents, money in house Hogarth was starting to run thin, especially if he would keep on gambling.
“Gentlemen, place your bets, please,” Blithely said as he looked around the bets. “Is that all? What’s the fun in that? I don’t play for pennies, chop chop, throw in the big guns.”
Edborough obliged and tossed a shilling on the table with a dismissive gesture. He reached for his pipe and started putting in some tobacco before he lit it.
Edward gulped. Oh my, I must win quickly, otherwise I have to drop out soon, they mustn’t know, he thought. They mustn’t know about my financial troubles.
Edward and the other men obliged. Sullesby and Bancroft looked indifferent. Edward asked for tobacco from Edborough. Smoking relieved some of the stress he was feeling.
After about twenty minutes, Edward had won his first game. He relaxed. Twelve shillings was a good round, a very good round. Edborough held up a bottle and offered to fill Edward’s glass. Edward allowed him, a small celebration.
“Very well, my dear Edward, I have to keep an eye on you tonight!” Mr. Blithely said jovially. Although his expression did not match his tone. He looked worried.
By now all of them were smoking, the table wrapped in a mist of smoke. All were smoking a pipe, except for Mr. Holcroft. He smoked cigarettes, much to the disgust of the other gentlemen. They looked at him in surprise, slightly alarmed even.
“What is that you’re smoking, young man?” Lord Edborough asked.
“This is a cigarette, you must’ve heard of them. Everyone smokes them in the city. Even the lords and ladies who pay their visits to the city.”
“Fascinating,” Edborough said. “Let me try once I finish my pipe.”
They played another game. Edward won again. Feeling good about himself, he took another sniff and another drink. Edborough was already slouching, his hand supporting his head on the table. He looked at the third game, but he had no idea what was going on. He just bet, then hiccupped. Such an easy way to win money, Edward thought.
Lord Sullesby was more prudent, even though he had difficulty focusing as well. He folded before things got ugly. Only young Holcroft and Blithely were still focused on the game.
The third game was by the host. He smiled smugly and took another sniff from the box, followed by a pastry and a glass of whiskey. He poured some for the other men too and toasted.
They played more. Two more won by Edward, another by Blithely. Even Holcroft grabbed one. Then came a knock on the door. Edborough let a loud burp escape. He himself seemed not to be bothered in the slightest.
The butler opened the door as five women walked in. “Gentlemen, may I present our dessert?” Mr. Blithely said.
Edward exchanged a surprised look with Mr. Holcroft. Had he hired whores for the night? Oh my, I hope Margaret doesn’t surprise us with a visit. She’d tell Winnifred. Edward was worried already. He refilled his glass. Was it a tactic by the shrewd Blithely to get them off guard? They were already playing with pounds. And even though Edward had won 31 pounds, he could lose it all.
The women seducingly glided towards the men, however, their movements were quite ungraceful. Edward thought that they were gorgeous. He wiggled in his chair. They wore simple dresses, revealing ample amounts of skin, way too much for a lady to be showing in a library room.
Sir Edborough perked up and slapped his hand on his lap, a gesture to one of the women to sit on it. He whispered something in her ear and she giggled.
Some chairs were added and the women sat in between the gentlemen. Following the game. Drinking wine. Teasing the men.
Edward felt fingers caressing his cheek. He flushed and drank some more. Edborough was feeling up the woman on his lap. The woman next to Sullesby was nibbling his ear. Blithely shared a kiss with his woman. Holcroft felt even more uncomfortable than Edward. He said: “I am happily married, please leave me alone.”
Edborough and Blithely laughed at him. “Perk up my boy, it’s not every day you get to be with such divine women as these. We won’t tell,” Edborough winked at him. “Have another one, lad. Loosen up.”
“Let’s play another round, shall we? Let’s raise our bets. Shall we say to one pound?” Blithely said silkily.
That was his plan all along. Get us drunk. Distract us with women, liquor, exotic dancers, cigars, and food. Edward had to admit it was working. Focus.
It was an exciting game. Edward and Blithely were the last remaining players, Edward had bet all his winnings and went all in. The woman sitting next to him made him nervous, he kept drinking. Blithely was relaxed. His shirt was unbuttoned and with his spare hand, he touched his woman’s breast. Edward felt highly uncomfortable. He tried to hide it by drinking and keeping a straight face. At last, Blithely met Edward’s bet.
Now all ten heads were eagerly awaiting the result. Even Edborough stopped fooling around with the woman on his lap.
Edward turned his cards, they were good, really good. So far he had been on a winning streak. Then the host turned one of his cards, people were on the edge of their seats. He smiled deviously before he showed the second card. Blithely had won. Edward had lost all of his winnings and the money he brought with him to bet. He cursed and jammed his fists on the table. The other men looked startled. One of the women squeaked. Mr. Blithely laughed luxuriously.
“You got overconfident, Edward. Such a pity. With all the money I won from you and the other lads here, I could almost buy myself a new carriage.”
The carriage! That’s an idea. But Winnifred forbade me from losing any more of our possessions. However, I can win it back! I know I can, Edward thought. He took a gamble.
“Gentlemen, now that we have warmed up, shall we say we make it interesting? Let’s raise the stakes. Starting bets are ten pounds.”
Edward almost choked in his whiskey. “I’m betting my carriage tonight, that will give me an easy hundred pounds. What say you Blithely? Are you up for it?”
The host’s eyes glimmered, his mouth turning into a wry smile. “Naturally. But are you sure, Lad? I’d hate to see you have to walk home to your estate. It would take you hours by foot.” He chuckled. Edborough too, although he probably was not aware of the joke. He had zoned out with his whore and they were up to a point that they ought to look for a more private place to fool around.
“Holcroft, Sullesby, Edborough, are you in?” Edward asked.
“I’m not, dear fellow, I’m not particularly good at this game, and we have a holiday coming up. No, better not, Lad,” Sullesby said as he turned to the woman next to him, grabbed her hand and directed her out of the library to a more private room.
“I’m in, let’s have some fun,” Edborough said while his hand slipped into the garments of the woman next to him.
“We had a good year with the paper, let’s make things interesting,” Holcroft said.
“All right fellows, place your starting bets. Let the game begin,” Blithely said.
Edward’s palms were sweaty. Was he really going to bet his carriage? But he was determined to make a win tonight, he had to. He turned to the whore who was appointed to him. “I’m sorry dear, but I must focus. Please leave me, grab a book from the shelves and read by the fire.”
She eyed him dumbfounded but did as requested.
The other gentlemen smirked.
The first few cards were put on the table. Edward lightened up, he had a good hand so far. Edborough called, as did Blithely. Holcroft took his time and eventually decided to raise the bet. Edborough folded and switched his attention to the girl on his lap, she moaned softly in his ear. What a horrifying spectacle, Edward thought.
Another card was turned. Edward straightened up. Still, he had a good hand, with a small chance of having a great hand. To be on the safe side, he called. However, that was not the intention of the gentlemen who remained playing with him. Blithely raised. Holcroft met him and raised the bet even higher. Edward gulped. All or nothing. He met the bets. His entire carriage was now on the table.
The last card turned. Edward groaned. That meant another fight with Winnifred. Edborough handed him a bottle, he did not even care to pour it into a glass. But the game wasn’t over yet. To everyone’s surprise, Holcroft had won a small fortune. He gloated, much to the detriment of Blithely whose mood had darkened highly. He jumped up in rage, throwing his cards on the floor. He walked around the room, picked up an antique, blue vase and threw it on the wall, next to his wife’s portrait. It hit the wall hard and loud, smashing into hundreds of little pieces. Old Blithely panted, red in the face.
Everyone looked up in surprise. Edborough started laughing uncontrollably. “This is turning into quite a party, my friends. Let’s cheers to that!” He was barely audible through his alcohol-infused tongue.
Mr. Blithely took a deep sniff from his box. Then, the door opened with a thud. The ominous figure of Margaret Blithely entered the library. She looked at the rubble on the floor. Her upper lip twitched.
“Nicholas, I warned you. Disturb me and that’d be the end of your assembly. Leave!” she spoke calmly, but with an undeniable menace. “And you ladies, have some dignity will you. I suggest you leave these disgusting pigs.” She sighed, turned and walked out of the room.
Blithely stood there, spinning, still enraged.
“Fuck that witch,” he said. The whores gasped.
“Shall we play again? You need to let me win back that money, Holcroft.”
“Let’s make it even more interesting. I will bet you a thousand pounds. All or nothing,” Mr. Blithely said.
“Nicholas, you shouldn’t. You can’t!” Edward said in awe.
“I can. You know, Edward, money is the biggest distraction put on us humans. However, it’s a great distraction,” Blithely said with a wink.
“Butler! What’s his name? You there,” Edborough bellowed, “bring more whiskey and some snacks will you. We are going to need it.”
Holcroft remained relaxed. “Sure.”
“WHAT?” Edward cried. He rather had the whore sit on his lap than to continue this evening. This was absurd.
“Edward, shuffle the cards and deal,” Blithely said. Taking his seat.
The men did not even notice that the women had already left.
Edward borrowed a cigarette from Holcroft and smoked while he dealt the first round. To everyone’s surprise, Holcroft raised with another thousand. Blithely followed, his eyes bulging.
Another card, another thousand-pound raise. Edward did not dare to breathe.
There was one more card to be dealt, and the men could still raise.
Holcroft waited. Blithely was looking like a madman. Holcroft spoke: “I will raise one more time. I bet you my house in London, against this estate.”
Edward felt the room closing in on him, the air being pushed out of his lungs. This was not happening. This was madness. What was the newcomer thinking?
Blithely briefly hesitated, but agreed.
Sir Edborough stood up, although he needed support from the chair to stand straight. Edward was afraid to deal the last card. Blithely looked beside himself. Holcroft looked like he just had a good bowel movement.
Edward dealt. Both players turned their cards at the same time. Blithely looked like he was about to erupt. Holcroft laughed. “Never underestimate a professional, Blithely. I may not be a lord, but I know how to take a gamble.” He winked at Edward.
Blithely exploded. Throwing the table upside down. Drinks, food, and bottles fell to the floor. Edborough fell on the floor. Edward helped him up and moved away from Blithely.
“You won’t have this house, madman. Leave!”
“A bet is a bet,” Holcroft said.
Blithely raged through the library throwing over tables, books, and chairs. He launched a sculpture through the window. Glass broke all around.
“Nicholas, look out, there are candles on the—“
But it was too late. Infused by the spilled alcohol, a fire started blazing. Edward took Edborough by the hand and ran through the terrace.
The fire spread quickly. Flames licking the books on their shelves. The portrait of Mrs. Blithely scourged by the flames.
“Blithely, Holcroft, come out!” Edward screamed as Sullesby and his woman fled the premises.
He was too unsteady on his feet to dare going back in. Edborough looked at the flames in amazement. Then, he fell asleep on the grass.
Holcroft and Blithely stepped out. Ash covering their suits. They coughed hoarsely.
“Margaret!” Mr. Blithely yelled. He looked at his house, quickly being devoured by the fire. Bricks and possessions. He went into the flames again, screaming his wife’s name.
- The End -
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