MISFORTUNE
Wesley Stace

Lady Eleanor Loveall sat up in bed and awaited the arrival of her son. Her useless body had been positioned this way (after much struggle and cursing) by Nurse Anstace Crouch, her hawkish help.

In the seated position, Lady Loveall did a good impression of someone in control of her every limb. Crouch had placed diamonds on the folds of her mistress’s neck but they fell awkwardly as though the skin rejected them. The maid fussed around Lady Loveall, trying for a perfectly balanced effect as she choreographed the reluctant jewels. A dog nestled on either side of Lady Loveall, who was dressed entirely in black lace. Her fleshy face emerged from the tangle of weeds like a gnarled and chubby hand from a gentleman’s sleeve.

The counterpane of The Great Bed, purple velvet edged with a delicate blue and yellow sarcenet, was heavily weighed down by the family arms embroidered upon it. Originally this bed had boasted four posters, but its occupant could not bear to have anything obscuring her view of the world beyond, however slightly, and the two at the foot had been removed. She lay beneath a flying tester of black satin in The Great Bed that had witnessed the conception of both of her children, the living and the dead. The cloying smell of Patchouli, which fragrance had more than once caused the young Lord to recoil as he turned the corner, enveloped her and permeated the furthest reaches of the bedroom.

This night-time visit was extraordinary. Her son was allowed to see her in her bedroom (the only room she ever occupied) only with a formal invitation. Upon request of an interview by an interested party (son, housekeeper, visiting member of the nobility), the formal invitation was duly proffered for two hours later, or, in truly exceptional circumstances, half that. In this instance, The Young Lord had requested an immediate interview. Lady Loveall braced herself for the imminent visit of her son with an interminable list of orders to the maid. Her only remaining physical capability was the exercise of her vocal cords and, in order to avoid atrophy, she took great pains to keep them in constant use. Her mind was always active and her voice only slightly less so. She talked in her sleep more than some people in their waking hours.

Today, she was unusually agitated. From an entirely different source, she awaited word of the execution of an unsavoury piece of family business, news she had hoped to be delivered while her son was attending to her business in London. But word had not arrived and this unprecedented request from The Young Lord merely emphasised that she was still on tenterhooks, that she had been disobeyed on one front and ambushed on the other. What on earth hour was it anyway? And why did her son need to speak to her at such short notice? There was not even time for a visit from the resident hairdresser and Lady Loveall felt a sudden longing for the irritation that accompanied the white powder and pomatum on her forehead.

As her son entered, she noted signs of their unorthodox haste: a hairbrush awry on the ivory table, a bunched curtain where the sash would normally have been neatly tied, and telltale amounts of terrier hair on the black and white tiling that made a chessboard of the room. A half-finished decanter of orgeat stood on her bedside table, the stopper still spinning on the silver tray. It came to a stuttering rest.

Lady Loveall raised her eyebrows when she saw him enter the room with such gusto. Now it seemed to her even more like a surprise attack. She would make him wait.

Lady Loveall had grown accustomed to her son’s listlessness and resigned herself to their one-sided encounters. She allowed him alone to wear colour around the house because it was one of the few urges he seemed to have. At her behest, the servants had reported to her daily on his routine but after years this had become a wearisomely short list of hours spent alone in The Doll’s House and Anonyma’s Library.

“Mourning, do you not understand,” she had told him, “is for show alone. A few natural tears soon after the trying event, even tears cried alone, are quite acceptable. But to prolong the agony for so long, Sir, is woeful.” She had been most pleased with this little speech, and had Crouch take it down in dictation before delivery. Most galling of all was the resigned and intensely private nature of his suffering. To show distress, whether you felt it or not, seemed acceptable—but to be distressed and not advertise it! The authenticity of his anguish baffled her.

Why was he like this? Where had she gone wrong?

She had wondered, in her quiet moments, whether there was possibly a taint in the Loveall blood. It was her greatest fear and she barely dared voice it to herself, although perhaps it should have been no shame in an age when royalty itself was growing ever more imbecile by generation. Try to change him as she might, it was obvious that Geoffroy, this paragon of foppery standing in front of her, was one of the lesser Loveall,* the less-than-normal Loveall. The ruthlessly attractive vigour of Sir Lothar Loveall, her father-in-law and the man to whom, as a very young woman, she had initially been attracted before she had even met his son, had clearly skipped two generations and would possibly die out altogether.

Lothar, the so-called Bad Lord, had been a force of nature up to the very day when, his black beard white with powder from kisses won (willingly or unwillingly, it was all the same to him) from every girl within lipshot—even his own daughter-in-law!—he had succumbed to a massive embolism. Of course, he had died happily, or, as was tactfully noted in The Post Boy, “in his sleep.” Pretty Jennie Hoskins had been found pinned beneath his bulk, on top of the Austrian grand piano. The new Lord Loveall had been well disposed to her because, despite the painful awkwardness of her situation, she hadn’t screamed, not wishing to bring attention to herself or her master. The new Lord had only found her because she’d had the presence of mind to play a melody on the few keys available to her until somebody heard. She was lucky and so were the Loveall—only the next Lord noticed a piano being played.

Till his last gasp, Bad Sir Lothar had lived up to his name. Lady Loveall still referred to him as The Bad Lord (he had demanded it even during his lifetime) but memory had, if possible, improved him. Now he seemed worse than ever. How he would have despised Geoffroy!

Lothar was the great man whom she took as her inspiration in her battle to secure the Loveall line. He had gone so far as to divorce his beloved first wife, Catherine Aston, when her inability to produce a successful heir had become apparent. Within the year, her replacement, Isabelle Anthony, a mouse-haired girl with wide hips and a toothy smile, named “the child bride” rather for her intellect than her years, gave birth to the male whose arrival the family had begun to think impossible, a child who grew to be The Good Lord Loveall, Lady Loveall’s now deceased husband. Only Catherine Aston, who remained Lothar’s ever-present companion, was allowed to take care of the baby, although she was neither his mother nor the current Lady Loveall. Isabelle had no idea how to fill her time except produce another baby, so she might have one to play with herself, and this endeavour produced the hateful Elizabeth Osbern, née Loveall, Lady Loveall’s sister-in-law and nemesis.

This admirable Lothar had stopped at nothing until he was sure of success for his family. But Lothar had superior materials at his disposal, and he was himself active, relentlessly so, able to reinvent the world around him to suit his designs. All she had were her invalid frame, her weak son, her emaciated maid, and a mind already tormented by other family matters. Sometimes she wondered if it was all in vain. No! She would not give in gracefully until the dynasty was secure.

If she had seen the merest hint of the Bad in Geoffroy, she might have slipped away happily. But there was none. Her son was neither good nor bad. As far as she could see, he was and did very little. It seemed that he was prepared to float through life, borne on the wind like Count Zambeccari’s hot air balloon. His resigned nature, his delicate sensibility and his casual acceptance of his lot (all a cruel parody of his father who, though a good man, had not been weak) meant that he only did the things he had no choice but to do. It was as though he was too dead even to die. He had once suggested a skull in every room as a Memento Mori, but his mother had observed that a Memento Vivere might be more the thing.

To see this indifferent Geoffroy standing at the end of her bed so full of himself, bursting with news, was almost too much for her. She decided to prolong the moment if only to torture him. She waited until he was close to speaking and then stopped him with a firm word.

“Geoffroy!” she said, elongating the two syllables, singing them through clenched teeth. She pronounced it “Geoff Roi”, as though it were two separate words. Her son remembered himself. There were rules of etiquette even at this extraordinary bedside session.

“I hope you are feeling well this evening, my Lady,” he said stiffly, anxious to give the lines their due, more anxious to continue.

“Feeling well? I am not feeling at all, sir. I am totally numb. Crouch! Anstace! Here!” Lady Loveall swivelled her eyes around as the maid hurried to her side. Where Lady Loveall was all useless flesh, Crouch’s skin stretched drumlike over her bony skull. This thin casing was in such short supply that it seemed barely able to meet its owner’s needs. In order that her short upper lip hid any of her top teeth, she had consciously to manage it. This manoeuvre did not bring the beak itself any lower so her nostrils appeared constantly stretched, two symmetrical red bullet holes in her face, and somehow bigger than her eyes.

“You see this poor creature, this bag of bones. She feels for me. She moves me. Crouch! My hand.” The maid took her right arm and lifted it in the air. The skin was so coarse that it appeared wrapped in wet gauze.

“Look at my hand, sir. Look at it!”

Lord Loveall shuffled but kept his eyes fixed on the inanimate hand. This was not a new routine. He resigned himself to a wait:

“Anstace! Drop it!” and the maid did. The arm and its attached hand flopped to the bed, falling so deep into the upholstered counterpane that the bed let out a wheezing exhalation, relieved to receive the arm once more. To Lady Loveall, the effect was a pleasing one. “That, sir, is how I feel!” The arm lay there and twitched once. “That is my arm, sir, my arm, but it doesn’t listen to me anymore. It is beyond my control.”

“My Lady, Mother, I want to tell you…” The admirable firmness with which he had begun the sentence faltered fatally when he realised, to his anxiety, that his mother had not finished speaking. She was just readying herself to read many more things into her limp arm. And he had interrupted her.

“Stop!”

She interjected the word so quickly and with such finality that Loveall expected a slight jolt as the world reconsidered its movement around the axis.

“I said: it doesn’t listen to me anymore. It is beyond my control. I am making an observation!” She changed the subject briskly. “You were employed by me to consult the Master At Chancery about urgent family matters. You have returned. Your first order of business would be, I presume, to report to me upon the outcome. Am I correct?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Loveall but declined to answer further.

“And?”

“All was well, My Lady, all is always well,” Loveall said testily. It was a tone that his mother had not heard from him before. She felt the nerve ends on her head tingle gently. She was faintly impressed by this decorous attempt at rebellion, though she would not let it show. Nurse Crouch caught her eye as she checked her mistress’s reaction. Loveall had found heart. “Mother, there is nothing urgent to resolve. Your effects will be divided as you have specified. I come with news that will put this and many other affairs into perspective.”

His mother pouted and her lower lip protruded grotesquely. She was as still as a gargoyle and she eyed her son so fixedly that he was rooted to the spot.

“Is it war, sir?” It was not war. “Very well. This information that is so important, sir.”

Loveall, who seemed to have spent his entire life waiting, realised that there was no reason to wait any longer. After a deep breath and a glance over his shoulder, he bowed as gracefully as a man can and announced: “My Lady, may I present the next Lady Loveall.”

Through the door came the badger-legged Hood, pushing before him a baby carriage of astonishing splendour. Its beaten gold shone like sunlight and made the room seem brighter around it. The smooth suspension of this beautiful machine had lulled The Great Lord Loveall and all subsequent Loveall to sleep and it rocked gently from side to side as if it were the most perfectly balanced hammock. Its progress across the floor was almost completely silent, merely the softest whistle of moving parts lovingly greased and combining in perfect harmony. Generations of governesses could sing its praises. Hood stopped the carriage and bowed to Her Ladyship. The silence waited nervously to be broken.

Loveall looked down at the baby, still a very red baby, far from the pink of health, and back at his mother. She had not been expecting to see the next Lady Loveall, much less see her delivered for view in a baby carriage. She felt powerless and moved her head what little she could to improve her view. The entire movement possible to her was no more than an inch from side to side and she twitched maniacally as she strained to see, her eyes betraying her disquiet. She could hear a human gurgling but she could not yet see anything at all. Maxwell and Randal growled threateningly at the mechanical monster causing their owner’s consternation. Lady Loveall had had enough of this game. Her son had tried her patience too long. He was useless to her and the entire family. She was now entirely clear about this.

“Sir, you can not marry a baby!” she shouted. “I have attempted arrangements with many women for you, but all were of a marrying age. None were younger than twelve. Until females have attained a certain age, sir, one can not tell whether they will be appropriate as the future bearer of the Loveall line.” And, as an afterthought, “Crouch, clear the room. Get rid of them.”

“Madam, you misunderstand. I will not marry anyone.” This time his confidence did not fail him and he continued without fear of interruption, until he found himself talking in a raised voice which, almost immediately, caused a tickling at his throat. “This is not the future Lady Loveall, my wife, but the future Lady Loveall who will inherit our name. She is my daughter.”

Behind the baby carriage, Hood, the young Lord’s manservant, cleared his throat pointedly, but went unnoticed. It would have been an ill-advised moment to speak. Geoffroy coughed to ease his discomfort and looked longingly at the decanter.

“How, sir?” Lady Loveall asked in her most piercing tone, as servants in the nearest quarters of the house stopped their work, lifting their fingers to ensure silence as they strained to hear. “Have you read this baby into being? Found it in the library? Did you bring it to life in your dollhouse? I cannot believe for a moment that you have created it in a natural way. I dare not think that it is the offspring, the happy bastard, of a liaison between you and one of the comely female servants I have purposefully placed like sirens around the house but whom you have pitifully and unmanfully failed to notice!”

“I found the baby, mother. I saved her life. She was in a bundle of rags in the mouth of a stray dog just outside the city. Mother, I have needed to find something to which to dedicate my life and now I have found this child. I shall bring her up as the next Loveall, as my own, as our own. My Lady, meet your grand-daughter, the saviour of our family. The baby, Hood!”

A doubt had arisen in Hood’s mind, which he tried to convey with a widening of his eyes. Loveall, however, was not paying attention and accepted the newborn into his hands to present to his mother.

“The new Lady Loveall.” He held the baby up to the heavens and approached. The old Lady Loveall’s mind was working harder than it had since the day she had taken to her bed. For the first time in many years, she was forced to improvise in a scene not of her making.

“Crouch, the baby. Bring the baby.” She spoke with staccato brusqueness, tapping the words out like Morse code. “You have found this baby, sir?” Facts needed to be ascertained. Her heart pounded and an unattractive vein bulged on the side of her neck, as her face turned red.

“Yes.” Loveall said, slapping away Nurse Crouch’s greedy claws. “Anstace, carefully!”

“Hood, were you there?” She strove to put the pieces in order.

“Erm, I was there, madam,” said Hood. “But I should say…”

“Silence!” She was thinking aloud as Crouch brought the child slowly towards her. “The baby is left for dead and you find her. She is now ours and no one will lay claim to her. The baby was left for dead, Hood?”

“Almost certainly, ma’am, but…”

“A birthmark. Any identifying mark. We must look. Does anyone know? Did anyone see? Are you sure?”

“No one, madam, I am sure,” answered Hood. “But there is one issue…” Hood was trying his utmost to be heard within the strictest confines of decorum, but Lady Loveall overpowered him.

“Thank goodness for good sense. Get Hamilton’s son. Immediately. She is ours. You will arrange a great marriage for her, Geoffroy. I will be gone by then. My son, you have done well.”

“Madam, she will marry only for love or not at all,” Loveall answered finally. The praise was irrelevant to him. It made him feel nauseous even now as he watched his mother readying to infect the little innocent with her touch.

All eyes were on the handing over of the baby to her new grandmother. Lady Loveall received the baby near her and peered at it, brand-new, bruised, unhappy. Nurse Crouch lifted up Her Ladyship’s hand and poked one of her mistress’ useless fingers into the red face. Geoffroy blenched but to his surprise, the baby did not immediately scream.

“Birthmark,” his mother said. Crouch lifted the dress to see what lay beneath. Hood cleared his throat once more, with greater force. Lady Loveall peered carefully, appraisingly, and then looked up at Geoffroy with surprise. Surprise turned to approbation, approbation to admiration, admiration to love.

“You are a clever young man, my son.”

“My Lady?” Loveall had nothing to say, unnerved by this new tone of conciliation.

“What was your plan? How long were you to keep this a secret?”

“I have brought the baby straight to you, Mother, as soon as she was dressed.”

“Why the pantomime? Why do you persist?” She was half-smiling, half-questioning. Loveall was flummoxed. There was no humour and no answer. Hood coughed in a way that sought urgent attention. It was time to interrupt.

“Madam, I fear that the young Lord may not yet know,” he said with the utmost deference, and a subtle bow in the direction of his master.

Lady Loveall was smiling broadly. The motions and expressions left to her had necessarily become quite absurd in their hyperbole and Geoffroy had never seen her mouth open so wide. The effect was hideous.

“Geoffroy,” said his mother with a horrible condescension. “You have sought to surprise me. Now it is time for you to be surprised, for you to meet someone. May I introduce you to the new Lord Loveall, Geoffroy? The baby you have found is a boy.”

Loveall looked at Hood, who felt best advised to avoid his gaze, and then screamed. He stared at his mother, gasped and yowled again like a cat whose tail has been caught in the door. The dogs on the bed, surrounding the grinning gorgon, howled too in celebration.

“It’s a girl!” he pleaded. “It is my Dolores!”

“No, Geoffroy, it is better this way. You have done well,” said his mother with relish. “Call the baby anything you will but look at this, look! Proof, even to you!”

Crouch spotted her cue and lifted the baby upside down, holding him firmly by his legs, so his beautiful christening dress fell around his head. There hung the small but unmistakable pink twig.

Loveall threw his head back, screamed again in despair and fled from the room, howling “Dolores! Dolores!”

“It’s a boy, Geoffroy,” his mother shouted after him. “A boy!”

She started to laugh hysterically, as her maid righted the baby and laid him on the bed. Lady Loveall listened to the frantic progress of her son’s retreat and screamed after him, “It’s the new Lord Loveall! You wouldn’t have brought it home if you’d known. Nothing you do ever works. Nothing! Nothing!”

His mother’s voice echoed through rooms and down walls, bouncing like a ball through gallery and hall, but whether Geoffroy heard her is impossible to say. Her heart pounded victoriously until it could pound no faster, and Lady Loveall realised in an instant that all her prayers were answered.

 

This piece is an excerpt from Wesley Stace’s debut novel Misfortune, an epic Dickensian comedy about a boy raised as a girl by a feuding family of wealthy aristocrats in 19th century England. Misfortune, which will be published in April, was selected by the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers program.

Born in Hastings, England, and educated at Cambridge, Stace is a celebrated musician and songwriter who performs under the name John Wesley Harding. He is currently at work on his second novel and his fourteenth album. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

 

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