An Aghast Audience

For a moment, a pin falling on a carpet from the height of an ant’s back could have been heard in the still silence. The air itself seemed frozen, not daring to cross the room for fear of disrupting the stunned tableau. Everyone was still, their faces covered in amazement, horror, amusement, and confusion.

Then, as a unit, Edmund saw each of his cousins begin to struggle desperately, aching to cry out, but daring not to, as they cast furtive and surreptitious glances at the three Family Heads, trying to discern what the appropriate reaction might be.

“WHAT?” Tricknee finally broke the silence. Quick as lightning, Edmund spun his head to look Tricknee squarely in the eye, speaking quickly before he could interject further.

“I am sorry for revealing this sooner than we had planned, Mister Tricknee, but I simply didn’t feel right keeping such important news from our honored guests. I understand your anger and apologize, but this is something that everyone should know, and as soon as possible. Don’t you agree?”

Edmund held Tricknee’s terrible gaze. In the depths of his iris he saw the thousand unnatural tortures Tricknee was planning for him, and the slow and inexorable death that would follow. Edmund desperately wanted to look away, to cast his gaze around the room and see what the others were thinking, but he dared not. If he looked away, all would be lost.

“Settling your feud with the Mouldes?” Patron Vanndegaar mused, scratching under his patch. “The Heir to the Moulde estate marrying a Bonne? Intriguing, I must say; I would have thought your families would take your foolish little grudge to the grave.”

“I agree,” said Matron Cromley, her soft smile widening ever so slightly. “Tricknee, that’s a spot of forward thinking I wasn’t expecting from you.”

Tricknee was thinking, Edmund could tell. Everything depended now on how well he had predicted Tricknee’s behavior. Would he ruin everything just to embarrass Edmund by calling him a liar in front of the family heads? Or would he play along while trying to discern exactly what Edmund had planned?

They stared at each other for what felt like minutes while Edmund tried to breathe. Then, for barely a second, Tricknee’s eyes flicked towards the heads of the families.

“I imagine not,” Tricknee said smoothly, though Edmund could hear the slight knife-point hidden in his tone. “Well, you’ve started this little show, boy, why don’t you finish it? Our guests are obviously curious as to what could possibly convince me to allow you to marry my granddaughter.”

“A good point, Master Edmund,” Junapa said sweetly, her voice trembling slightly. “What… on earth… could be going through your head right now? What could the Bonnes give the Mouldes that we don’t already have?”

Edmund’s Notebook 19: Rebuttal

https://www.flickr.com/photos/twm_news/7447732100/

Image: A Young Scholar, Tyne & Wear Archives; Museums

Excerpt from “The Final Word in Sir Edmund Moulde’s Poetry and Prose” by Sir Wather Krink, PhD, DFA:

Oh don’t give me that, you pompous old windbag. If you had half a mind, you wouldn’t suggest that Sir Edmund Moulde’s journey is one of divine mandate? Of course not! Everyone can rise from obscurity and poverty to become something better than their humble beginnings suggest! All it takes is the adoption by someone with incredible resources and social power! I can do no less for evidence than direct you to Sir Edmund Moulde’s entire collection of poetry, as to select a single poem would do nothing but demean this great man’s legacy! You hag!

Edmund Shocks Them All

They were unreadable.

Even Patron Vanndegaar, who seemed to be quite resistant to Tunansia’s attentions, had neither amusement nor disgust in his face. They were perfectly stoic, keeping their reactions aloof from prying eyes.

It almost felt to Edmund like he was back in the tunnel, groping in the dark and hoping that each step was as steady as the last. He thought he had covered everything, but he could tell he was simply not on the same level as they were.

Edmund tried to steel himself; if he failed, he would be back at the orphanage, and no worse off than he had been half a year ago. If he succeeded…

Tricknee burst in through the door, interrupting Edmund’s thoughts. He scuttled across the floor, his bent posture and twisting limbs looking all the stranger with the long silver and gold white-tie suit that hung loosely over his spindly frame. He quickly took the hands of the family heads, and then threw himself into a chair next to the fireplace, scowling at the room.

“Right then,” he snarled, clasping his hands together. “Are we going to eat or not?”

“And hello to you as well, Mister Bonne,” Patron Vanndegaar sighed, carefully extracting his arm from Tunansia’s grasp, and then catching her as she began to faint.

“Where is…” Edmund started, before catching himself and speaking slower. “Is Googoltha going to be joining us this evening?”

“Pha!” Tricknee waved a hand like he was swatting at a fly. “That little brat can barely handle a spoon yet. If she wasn’t my granddaughter, I’d kick her into the kennel where she belongs.”

“Grigori might find your caustic behavior boorish, Tricknee…” Matron Scower cautioned.

“My dear Patron Grigori Bonne,” spat Tricknee, saying each word as if he could draw blood from them, “can go sit on a gate-spike. I’m old, hungry, and I don’t give a damn about much else at the moment.”

“I doubt the Bonne family is quite so poor as to be unable to afford manners,” sniffed Matron Cromley. “This evening will go much more pleasantly if we all remember our manners.” She looked around the room, daring anyone to disagree.

The brief pause while everyone considered her words was all Edmund needed. He cleared his throat, stood up, and moved to stand in front of the fireplace.

Instantly, all nine pairs of eyes in the room were locked on him. He could feel the humors bubbling in his body as his heart began to race. For a moment, he couldn’t speak–his throat closed and his breath caught, threatening to choke him rather than let out the words he was about to say.

Slowly, he let his breath escape his lungs. He wanted to run, to escape back to his room. His muscles tensed to hurtle him out the door…

…when the image of Orpha Moulde’s skull swam into his mind. Closing his eyes, he thought of the flaming skeleton, and the ticking watch.

His throat opened. Pulling himself up to his full height, he spoke aloud to his waiting guests.

“I invited you all here to inform you of the arranged marriage between myself and Googoltha Bonne, to be consummated in ten years.”

Delaying

Edmund turned back to Matron Scower, her voice still echoing in the room.

“I am becoming quite irritated with you, Master Edmund. Either you tell us immediately why you have asked us here tonight, or I will leave this house forthwith!”

Edmund’s heart skipped a beat, fluttering up into his throat. He was only gratified by the comparable looks of horror that flashed across the faces of all of his cousins as well–they didn’t want her to leave either.

“I must beg you for patience, Matron Scower,” Edmund said, breathing deeply like Kolb had taught him. “Ordinarily, I would have explained myself at once, but I have a very important announcement to make, and I would like everyone present to make it.”

“Need I remind you of our opinion of surprises?” Matron Scower said, icily.

“Oh, don’t listen to her,” Matron Cromley smiled warmly. “I love surprising other people. It’s the look of shock on their faces, you know–it’s really my favorite thing. But I must say that as much as I am enjoying this parade of people, the carriage ride from Cromley Manor was quite long and I am famished. I hope you don’t think it rude to ask how many we are waiting on before we head in for supper?”

“Tricknee will be joining us, along with his granddaughter, Googoltha,” Edmund said, hoping he was right. He was about to continue when Kolb swept in front of him with a grand bow, and asked Matron Cromley about her hair.

Edmund was irritated at the intrusion when he suddenly realized what was happening. It was no accident that his cousins had entered the room so erratically–they were stalling for time. Dinner probably wasn’t ready yet and they needed to keep the Heads happy, or at least distracted, until dinner was prepared. Or, Edmund thought sourly, until Tricknee arrived and it became Edmund’s problem to keep them entertained. Edmund remained quiet while the others attempted to talk amongst themselves.

Junapa and Matron Scower were conversing with short clipped speech, each seeming unwilling to engage in too much discourse with the other, but equally unwilling to let the other mingle with anyone else. They somehow managed to have a complete conversation while pointedly looking everywhere in the room except at each other.

Kolb and Wislydale were speaking with Matron Cromley, trading stories and talking in animated movements that hid exactly how little they were saying.

Tunansia had managed to corner Patron Vanndegaar, making him look quite uncomfortable as she talked incessantly about his fine clothing and dashing airs. Sometimes she would ask a question about his scar, or cane, and he would start to reply, only to have Tunansia blush and giggle with such ferocity that he was forced to offer her assistance.

Pinsnip didn’t speak to anyone at first, instead keeping his back to the wall and slowly circling the room, his eyes periodically darting from group to group. Finally he sat down awkwardly next to Junapa, and stared at the floor.

It was fairly easy for Edmund to read his cousins; he had lots of practice. Reading the Heads of the Families, however, was another matter entirely.

Everyone Together

Wislydale, for his part, didn’t seem quite as nervous as Junapa or Kolb. He was dressed in the fine white-tie outfit Edmund had chosen, rimed with bright gold trim and sporting a deep cut neck. The collar was wide and sweeping, giving him a coiffed look. He looked clearer eyed than Edmund had ever seen him. He strode into the room confidently, reaching out to Patron Vanndegaar and shaking the reluctantly offered hand.

“Samsuel, old boy!” he said, a small smile playing about his lips. “Good to see you again.”

“I wish I could say the same,” Patron Vanndegaar said through gritted teeth. “Hasn’t Grigori kicked you out of the Bonne family yet?”

“Not at all, old chap,” Wislydale shrugged. “My dear Patron seems to agree with me that it’s best for the family if I keep the name. Less scandal all around, what?”

“Am I to take it Tricknee is around as well, then?” Matron Scower sniffed, looking back towards the door. “I seem to remember hearing you both tend to follow one another around, these days.”

“Someone has to keep an eye on the old fellow, what?” Wislydale gave a stiff bow to Matron Scower, his smile slipping. “And Patron Bonne thought who better than the goat’s own son? Ah! Tunansia, how… splendid you look?”

Edmund looked to see Tunansia walking into the room, her usually scowling face forced into an unnatural smile. It was unsettling, seeing her trying to look pleasant. Gone was the same thin yellow dress she had worn almost every day that Edmund had seen her, But she was not wearing the bright blue dress Edmund had picked for her. Instead, she was wearing an elaborate pearl dress covered in purple ribbons, and a large bow sat slightly lopsided on her head. She walked unsteadily through the room, heading straight for Patron Vanndegaar, her arm outstretched like the reaper claiming its victim.

“Patron Vanndegaar,” she said breathlessly when she reached him. “I’m so pleased…”

Edmund stared. Was she purposefully making her voice higher? Patron Vanndegaar seemed as bemused as Edmund as he slowly took Tunansia’s hand and gave a small bend at the waist. Instantly, Tunansia’s face blossomed into a sincere blush, and she fumbled at her waist for a ornate lace fan, flipping it open and fanning herself as Vanndegaar dropped her hand.

Well, thought Edmund, I wasn’t expecting that.

A movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention, enough to see Pinsnip slip his way in, with his angry glare locked on Edmund. The others didn’t seem to notice him; or if they did, they didn’t care to react. He was wearing most of what Edmund had purchased for him. The suit was remarkably similar to what he had worn when he first met Edmund, tall and black with the collar that passed his ears. Oddly, though, he was not wearing the tall silk hat. An odd protest, Edmund thought. Pinsnip slipped to a corner of the room and sulked, his hands combing over his jacket sleeves and collar, like a nervous fly.

“Enough!” Matron Scower shouted, her eyes flashing.

The Mouldes make an Entrance

Edmund was spared the need to reply as the door opened revealing Junapa and Kolb in the clothing he had purchased for them.

Junapa looked incredibly elegant. She wore a long black gown that was covered with lace and small pearl buttons. The neck was tight and long, surrounded by a web of white thread that gave her shoulders the look of light snow on the dark branches of an old tree. Her hair was held in place by a large net of pearls and silver that also bore a single clear jewel rested squarely in the middle of her forehead. Along the edge of this net was a wide headdress of small raven feathers. She held a bright paper fan that was painted with a rolling seaside view that practically glowed against her slim figure.

Kolb was dressed in a marvelous coat that looked black, but shimmered red in the gaslight. His tails were long, and his lapels reached out almost to his shoulders. His jacket was open, revealing a smoky blue vest with a long silver watch chain that dipped almost to his knee. His limbs were tightly gripped by the clothing, framing his tall strong body in black, while his dark shoes glimmered as he walked. He had combed his hair, and pulled it back into a dashing ponytail that rested on his shoulder.

They both swept into the room, arm in arm, polite smiles plastered painfully on their faces.

“Good evening,” Junapa trilled, a faint note of panic still plain in her tone. “I’m so glad you three could join us for supper.”

“Indeed!” Kolb said, his hat brushing the carpet as he swept it off his head in a deep bow. “It is an indescribable honor to have your illustrious personages grace our humble home with such… such grace, poise, beauty, pomp, lucre, class, comfort, propriety, generosity, and humility.”

“Yes, quite,” muttered Patron Vanndegaar, scanning their clothing up and down. “I can imagine you don’t get those qualities much around here.”

“Samsuel,” snapped Matron Cromley. “There is no need to be rude. I, for one, am delighted to see you both again, and looking so well! thank you both, Misses Knittle, Mister Popomus.”

“Now,” Matron Scower sneered in frustration, her voice sharp and cutting the others dead, “If there are no further interruptions, I reiterate my question. We are intrigued to know why we here, boy!”

“I should think we are a bit intrigued, what?” Wislydale said grandly.

Matron Scower looked ready to explode with fury as Wislydale walked into the room with–no! Without a glass of liquor in his hands.

Edmund was amazed. He hoped this was a good sign–that he had thrown everyone off balance enough with the sudden arrival of the Heads of Family. With luck, his cousins would be far too focused on their own behavior and not embarrassing themselves to pay much attention to him, and what he was doing.

The Heads Decide to Stay

“It’s true, our family has had to struggle in the recent years,” Edmund said as slowly and calmly as he could manage. “But we have turned a corner, I think, and you will no doubt see more of us in the years to come. I asked you here to share a lavish meal with us in celebration of that fact.”

“How lavish?” asked Matron Scower, her lips twitching. Edmund shrugged nonchalantly. His confidence was slowly returning.

“Well, I left most of the details to my servants. I know there will be some soup–I think a Bouillabaisse.”

“You are serving us Bouillabaisse?” Matron Cromley said, somewhat admiringly. Edmund nodded. “Well, I can only say it would be quite rude for us not to stay for dinner.”

“Indeed,” Matron Scower sneered. “Especially since they must have bankrupt themselves to make it–though I wouldn’t be surprised if a tavern in the city has just found themselves a meal short. And I note you have not answered the question as to why only three of the Nine Families are here to celebrate?”

“Four,” Edmund bristled. “I am Matron’s son, and heir to the Moulde Estate.”

There was a pause while the three elders thought for a moment, their faces completely unreadable.

“Of course, my dear,” Matron Cromley smiled soothingly. “I’m sure Lerriet didn’t mean to exclude you, but I must say, and I don’t mean to be rude, but while I’m sure all three of us have heard of you, I dare say none of us know anything about you.”

“Mander doesn’t speak to anyone much,” Patron Vanndegaar said, running his tongue over his teeth. “But I am sure we would have heard of a newborn child. Am I to take it you are adopted?”

“Poppycock,” Matron Scower sniffed, waving a hand dismissively. “Mander wouldn’t adopt anyone–it’s terribly common. No, this is undoubtedly some long lost relative… perhaps the son of some illicit affair with the gardener, or a distant cousin’s descendant.”

“I’m a Moulde,” Edmund said, firmly. “Adopted, long lost grandson, whatever you may think, I am the Heir to the Moulde Estate, and it is as the Heir that I asked you here.”

“No, it was as Matron Mander that you asked us here,” Matron Cromley corrected, holding up a thick finger. “And I have to say, that is starting us off on quite the wrong foot.”

“I wasn’t sure you’d come otherwise.” Edmund explained.

“We don’t lie to each other,” Matron Scower said forcefully. “You should know that by now, as Heir. Lies are always found out in the end, and I repeat, none of us appreciate surprises. Though I must admit I’m learning quite a lot about you already; you are apparently good enough to have gone this long without answering my question. You only sent three letters; you wanted us three specifically. Why are we really here?”

Edmund Tells The Truth

“Matron didn’t send your invitations,” Edmund said. The heads of the three families looked at him in subdued impatience. “I did. I signed Matron’s signature to your letters.”

“That was plainly obvious, boy,” Matron Scower spat, her small mouth pursed in disgust. “You bungled the handwriting quite terribly.”

“Though it was nice to see her name written so straight and clean again,” Matron Cromley sighed. “It reminded me of our childhoods quite strongly, you know.”

“Even so, we almost didn’t come at all,” Matron Scower continued, “after we realized you hadn’t sent letters to the rest of the families.”

“I apologize for any insult,” Edmund said quickly, his voice sounding far too high pitched to his ears. He tried to lower it, but somehow couldn’t. “I didn’t know I was supposed to invite everyone; I was under the impression the others wouldn’t come.” The quick looks exchanged by the three elders told him that they all agreed with his assessment.

“Dear god, boy, you don’t invite them all to come,” Patron Vanndegaar snorted, slipping his cane into his other hand. “You invite them to damn well stay at home.”

“I didn’t know you could do that,” Edmund said, slowly. Matron Cromley smiled, and patted him on the head.

“Well, we generally like it a bit more formal than that,” she said, kindly, “but it’s just common courtesy, and it does make sure we all know what’s going on.”

“So there aren’t any nasty surprises,” Matron Scower hissed. “And you won’t want to have any of those, would you my boy?”

“I cannot say I wasn’t expecting something of this nature,” Patron Vanndegaar rolled his one good eye. “Brash headstrong foolishness, a clumsy gambit that falls apart in the opening volley… Mouldes are hardly ones for straightforwardness at the best of times… and I think it’s clear this is not the best of times for the Mouldes.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Edmund said, feeling slightly bolder. This was a conversation he had played in his head before.

“Don’t keep thinking we’re fools, boy,” Patron Vanndegaar stepped closer, his thick cane hitting the ground with a solid crack. “Matron hasn’t invited anyone to Moulde Hall in fifty years, and it’s clear why. If the estate had any money at all, there would be servants, decorations, hors d’oeuvres, live music… a proper evening. Not this…shoddiness.”

“I think it’s encouraging,” Matron Cromley smiled. “It shows they’re trying to buck their thieving ways. The old Mouldes would have stolen everything they could to make a real show of it.”

“True,” Matron Scower grumbled, “but what you see as improvement, I see as a lack of organizational skill.”

“I agree,” Patron Vanndegaar thumped his cane on the floor. “The fact is they would have stolen an evening if they were able. Further evidence of their degradation. The sooner we are gone, the better.”

“Then…” Edmund paused. “Then why did you come?

An icy chill filled the air.

“We’re polite,” Matron Scower said, icily.

A Failed Subterfuge

“This sitting room hasn’t changed much since I saw it last,” Patron Vanndegaar muttered disapprovingly, lifting his cane to poke aimlessly at a small candlestick that squatted calmly on the fireplace mantle. “Not much for keeping up with the times, I suppose.”

“Not a bit, really,” Matron Cromley sighed as she settled into a wide settee. “I must say, though, it still shows a great deal of character. I remember when Matron Moulde and I once sat in here when we were young, playing at tea. She would always claim she had poisoned me, and then I had to flop about on the floor like a fish. Ha! It was quite amusing.”

“Did you ever poison her back?” Edmund asked, clasping his hands in his lap. Matron Cromley giggled.

“Oh my, no. I would always stab her in the back with a letter opener. Much more satisfying, I thought.”

“Can I have Ung get you anything?” Edmund asked, remembering his hostly duties.
“No,” Matron Scower shook her head, grimacing. “I will wait for supper.”

“I think we’ll all wait,” Patron Vanndegaar said, bending over painfully to look into the fireplace. “I, for one, won’t eat anything I can’t see you eat first.”

“Now, Samsuel,” Matron Cromley groaned theatrically, “Don’t you go on with all that. I can’t imagine the young lad wants to kill us–he seems like such a smart boy.”

“Does he?” Matron Scower said, her tone making her opinion clear on that point. Her eyes slowly traversed the room until they landed sharply on Edmund. “And yet he faked the invitations so poorly.” Edmund felt his blood begin to chill.

“Exactly,” Patron Vanndegaar began to pace the room. “And I wouldn’t put it past a young and… foolishly misguided heir to think that throwing our three houses into disarray by ending our lives would improve his standing. It’s been tried before, after all.”

“Yes,” Matron Cromley nodded sadly. “And it didn’t go well for the poor lass, did it? Do you know if they ever found her?”

“Some of her,” Matron Scower said, her eyes still focused on Edmund.

Edmund felt sick. Everything was falling apart. He had been so careful too, making sure he copied Matron’s handwriting as perfectly as he could from an old letter, and double checking the spelling and proper names and titles…

“I think you had better tell us what this is all about, boy.” Patron Vanndegaar muttered, glaring out from under his sharp eyebrows. Edmund desperately tried to think of something to say, some exaggeration that could salvage his crumbling evening, but as he looked at the heads of the three families, their eyes were cold and clear, proclaiming in no uncertain terms that they were better at this than he was.

Edmund swallowed, and took a deep breath. He would have to tell the truth.

Scower, Vanndegaar, and Cromley

“Matron Lerriet Scower,” he said, taking her hand gently. “It’s so nice to have you here, at Moulde Hall. Please enter, and I hope you enjoy your stay.”

Matron Scower’s eyebrow raised sharply, and then fell almost as quickly. Edmund smiled internally, pleased he had made an impression. He couldn’t tell if it was a good one or not, but that almost didn’t matter–he needed to be noticed first. Matron Scower gave a sharp nod, and stalked through the door, completely ignoring Ung and Mrs. Kippling, who both kept their heads bowed respectfully as she passed.

The second family head had a full mane of brown curly hair that fell from under his cap like a muddy waterfall. He had a patch over one eye that barely covered a vicious scar that ran down towards his jaw, and he walked clumsily, leaning heavily on his thick black cane. He reminded Edmund a little of Kolb, though there was no glint in his eye nor spring in his step.

“Patron Samsuel Vanndegaar, it’s so nice to have you here, at Moulde Hall,” Edmund stuck out his hand, only to withdraw it lamely when no hand was returned. “Please enter, and I hope you enjoy your stay.”

“Poorly said,” Patron Vanndegaar said, sniffing disinterestedly. “But you may deliver my thanks to Mander before dinner. I doubt I shall offer them again this evening.”

Edmund nodded as Patron Vanndegaar slowly walked up the steps to the front door, his large black cane loudly punching the ground.

The pleasure Edmund had felt at making an impression was quickly shifting to dread–while mere seconds ago impressions had been all well and good, now he was concerned that a poor showing would not help him any. He knew he was going to have a long way to convince the other family heads of his legitimacy, but it was not going well so far and that distance seemed longer then ever.

He put another smile on his face as the third and final family head approached.
“Matron Hagetha Cromley,” he said to the enormously fat woman who was waddling towards him. “It’s so nice-”

“Yes, yes,” she puffed, wiping her brow with her white blouse’s sleeve. “I heard you the first two times. You must be Mander’s new heir, I suppose? And she must be just too busy to come down and say hello? Busy looking for some stone to draw blood from?”

“Not at all,” Edmund said, trying to decide if he should extend a hand or bow. He decided on neither. “She is feeling ill and won’t be joining us for dinner. She asked me to host instead.”

“Did she now?” Matron Cromley smiled. “How kind of her. I’m sure you’ll be an excellent host.”

Edmund followed as Matron Cromley began to pull herself clumsily up the steps. He hoped she was correct.