The Baronet had asked the question to intimidate his attorney, who read in his eyes that his loyalties were being tested. With head cocked on one side, Sir Walter went so far as to hold out a hand. It was a gesture saying, Things are not past mending if you join us now. ‘Come,’ he said beckoning, yet Eagle remained. ‘Come,’ he repeated louder, his eyes narrowing.
At his elbow sat Charles, whose enjoyment was marred by Eagle’s obstinacy. The son’s world was being threatened by the woman in Eagle; he sensed it and he feared its power. He’d seen the glances Eagle had shared first with his mother, and then with Augusta. ‘Stay – we dare you,’ their faces seemed to say. ‘We dare you, butterfly-boy, lover of oppressed negroes, to be a better man and stay.’ What if Eagle should do the unthinkable? – side with the women against their men? How could any man find fault with dominant masculinity? Such behaviour was anathema.
But to have stayed would have taken a rare bravery, as great as a soldier’s in the heat of battle. And so Eagle, who might have been blessed among the Stanhope women, took the easy way out and chose the company of their men. Thus did he take Sir Walter’s clammy hand and rise from the table. The Baronet’s composure was only slightly ruffled, for he, unlike his son, had been baked harder in the oven of his rightful governance. His eminent sense of himself as a man, and what he stood for, was resilient as the granite cobbles of the streets he strutted upon so arrogantly; he was as high in his opinion of himself as the plinth he could already see himself gracing. He refused to be troubled by something which his mind could scarcely acknowledge: that an odour of defiance had blown through his draughty hall.
Cowardice was Eagle’s tune, and he had played to the gallery of decorum. The musicians were cowards too, for when ordered to follow to the drawing-room, follow they did, humbly and obediently. In the drink-lathered atmosphere of the ensuing hours, they, like Eagle, witnessed the underbelly of polite society and its so-called quality people.
Sir Walter in his drunkenness decided to teach his young attorney a lesson. He was to learn the art of the good bottleman, as performed best: behind the closed doors of a gentleman’s private rooms. The other male guests had nothing to learn in the Baronet’s eyes, for they behaved with all the rowdiness expected of them. The frightened musicians were to serve as material for Eagle’s lesson; they were to have their lowliness anatomised before their assembled betters.
The evening had hours to go, and the men would have their music non-stop. ‘If music be the food of love, play on!’ said the Baronet, slumping down in an armchair and motioning the players to commence.
‘Or rather if love be the food of music, fuck on!’ said Charles, with ambiguous glance towards the doors, where the women were gathered beyond.
When the raucous laughter had subsided, the Baronet crossed to where his footmen had laid the table with bottles and glasses. ‘If there is any lull in the playing,’ he said, pouring the drinks, ‘feel free to let them know your displeasure.’
None took advantage more than Charles, who threw a bottle at the cowering musicians. ‘Go on, blow your lungs out!’ he yelled at the oboe player, and ‘Let’s see the blood spurt from your finger ends!’ he shouted at the fiddlers.
‘Drink up, John, and enjoy the fun!’ the Baronet repeatedly commanded, giving him to think, as he refilled his glass, that he would rather smash the bottle in his face. The evening was one of the most frightening he had spent, but his torment was nought compared with the musicians, whose exhaustion by two o’clock threatened to kill the eldest, a slender-framed man in his seventies. His life was saved by the timely appearance of Augusta, who, sensing the mischief afoot, took it upon herself to beguile her kin on the harpsichord. As the drunken men were diverted by her playing, rocking their heads and stamping their feet like overgrown children, opportunity was taken by Lady Stanhope to assist the players to freedom. Eagle daren’t look at her for fear of what she thought of him. Hopelessly intimidated by his employer, he had sat passive throughout the men’s ordeal. Not a word of protest had he made at the odious behaviour. Now, in the women’s presence, he felt only shame. Mr Wright’s wife aside, for she was too much her husband’s woman to be a person in her own right, the women had shown by example that femininity was nobler; that it was more civilised, more intelligent, and far less physically painful.
And yet Eagle mustn’t be hasty in his good opinion of these Stanhope women. Of the mother he had yet to be certain in his judgement; and of the daughter he must remember the cruel streak she’d displayed, most tellingly of all on Gallows Hill. Even now she was not all she seemed: the same creature who had burst in with such a look of abhorrence; the same creature who had played sweet mother of mercy in helping to liberate the persecuted minstrels – that same creature was now responding to her brother’s ogling with a loving smile, and was asking him to join her at the harpsichord. Despair bred despair when Eagle saw him accept, sit down on the stool beside her and join in a favourite duet. The long-case clock behind him was chiming three as they finished their playing in a laughing embrace. A bitter message in the chimes said, What an ungodly threesome you, her and he have become!
As for Sir Walter, he had his own message to give as he saw his attorney to the door. ‘Good-night, John,’ he said, frighteningly sober of a sudden, and squeezing his arm affectionately as he’d done of old. ‘Know your station from now on, and be always the good boy I took you to be.’
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