The man edging his way along the parapet was not feeling as confident as he had done in the daylight. Then it had seemed amply wide enough, firm enough, and safe enough for his plan. Now he was perceiving that in the dark and damp the width held less of a safety margin than he had expected. Now, 40 feet up, with a guarantee of at least a broken bone or two if he fell and hit the gravel below; to be found the next morning embarrassingly incapacitated, he felt that death in a fall would be preferable than trying to make up a believable explanation of why he fell from the ledge on the unmarried lady guests wing of the house. Still, the cat burglar continued to edge along, it was too late to back out, at least too late for his pride to allow him to.
Cliff Muchant was slightly a fish out of water, he was used to dealing with people who you wouldn't want to meet at night in a dark alley; he was used to closing a factory and putting people out of work; he was tough, ruthless, and perhaps unusually, also well educated. This latter explained his presence, the former explained why he was slightly uncomfortable mixing with the well-heeled, bejewelled, landed nobility at this house. House? Or Castle? He still hadn't decided. It was called Arbot Abbey, but that predated even this family's residence. They hadn't taken it over when Henry The Eighth was doing an early Thatcherite revenue raising through privatisation; it had been another hundred years before Baron Maynooth (now the family were the Dukes of Arbot) had acquired the property through marriage. But still, that was several more generations back than Cliff could even trace. His family started with John Muchant, merchant (his grandfather, who had made an honest living selling corn), proceeded through John Clifford Muchant (after his maternal grandfather) who added a printworks to the small empire, to himself, Clifford John Archibald Muchant. He had gone to Oxford on a partial scholarship via the local grammar school, hence the good education; even before leaving Oxford with a good degree he had started in business. He had specialised in less honest, or at least less socially acceptable, businesses such as providing transport (not procuring, simply enabling ingress and egress) for young female visitors to male undergraduates, or oiling the wheels when a student wished to come back to halls late. By graduation he was importing champagne direct from chateau, negotiating good prices and passing some of the substantial savings to 'impoverished' aristocratic students whose parents sought to limit their ability to dissipate their lives. Now, seven years after graduation, he was richer than many of the noble houses present at this visitation; money he had made by fair means and foul, sailing closer to the wind than others, and crossing lines that others opted to leave uncrossed. Not exactly breaking the law, but selling opium to the Chinese or guns to the Confederates had been high risk and high profit operations with questionable morals; though he always maintained that selling to the breakaway states had been a moral choice, he was not supporting slavery but was supporting the rights of states to democratically decide to leave the Union; either way he made a lot of money. A friend of his maintained that principles without profit was a luxury few could afford. Until, that is, he had a riotous love affair with Chantelle DuBois of Georgia and it was clear that he was no longer welcome in Richmond, Virginia; that was a lesson not to mix business with pleasure which he learnt well. Still, he had often mused, seeing her heaving bosom unclothed had alone made it worthwhile.
He had met Linton Parlish, third Baron Lough Rigg (the title of the second son of the family) at university. Initially their paths hadn't crossed, Clifford being a scholar and Linton a gentleman, but then one night he had aided and abetted in hiding Daisy Malone, one of Linton's 'friends', from the eagle eyes of Screw Yew (Screw was the term for the security cum doormen of the college, that this one was called Oaktree made it inevitable that his nickname became what it was). Daisy was a friend of many a student, whilst not a professional woman, she was known for her flexible attitude to morals; when Mr Oaktree came a-calling to Linton's rooms, she had slid out of his window and Cliff had just naturally pulled her in through his window before her slightly dishevelled female appearance was noticed in the quad. Thus, Screw Yew found a pair of women's drawers, but no woman in Baron Lough Rigg's rooms, the student was not rusticated (sent down in disgrace), and Linton and Cliff (and Daisy) became firm friends.
Their initial loose friendship was cemented by a somewhat scholarly and academic discussion one afternoon with a group of students concerning Mr Darwin's published work. That Clifford and Linton both took the same position, for the same reason (that, whether it made sense or not, it was fun to goad the mindless theology students), helped; that they were both pitched into the river by the increasingly irate opposition (who were simply not intellectually up to the task of arguing with two such intelligent people) completed the task. Linton insisted on taking a dripping Clifford to the pub for a drink to show off his new found chum; Clifford was on the ball enough to realise that a small summer cold was worth solidifying this friendship. Cliff had worked quite hard at university and received a respectable degree, Linton had worked hardly at all; but, in addition to being handsome, well-born and rich, he was blessed with an usually high intelligence and therefore they graduated with the same grade of degree; something that Cliff suggested proved there was no God since he deserved it and Linton clearly did not.
They kept in touch over the intervening years, but initially it was clear Clifford's class was not welcome at the annual summer house party event, then their paths diverged for a while (Clifford's to become really quite rich, Linton to consider the priesthood, then agriculture, then the army). Now, though Linton had invited his friend, and his friend at least felt confident enough to accept; though nervous that he might use the wrong fork or pass the port the wrong way.
He had been right to be nervous. Lady Arbot was an inveterate snob and insisted on pretending that Clifford was a man's man (a butler brought by one of the visitors) and asking him to run little errands for her. He didn't take offence, he wasn't that type. He laughed about it with some of the more amenable butlers (and two rather attractive maids, though he suspected that separating them would be difficult. He was contemplating attempting a threesome with them), which gained him some valuable information concerning their employers). Lord Arbot was fine, he had served in the army and considered the ordinary Englishman a fine fellow (though he had managed to have quite a few shot by his own troops in an unfortunate accidental affair which was swept under the carpet and made into an excuse for deposing the Rajah of Bankoo, who had nothing to do with the incident); when he discovered that Cliff knew something of whisky he was immediately entirely acceptable. Clifford had bought the Bunagh Distillery, intending to move production from the island to minimise costs, in an unusual move he had changed his mind when he discovered that the distillery employed 37% of the island workforce (an easy percentage to calculate since Bunagh had precisely 100 able bodied men living on it). Instead he had invested in the place, created Bunagh Classic Malt and started what became a fashion for expensive special malt whiskies for people with more money than sense.
Other visitors varied; some accepted him as another guest of equal value and estimation to themselves (and his anecdotes of riding the range in America or gun-running to the South certainly provided more colour to a conversation used to discussing golfing handicaps); others were less welcoming. Eloise, Lady Perview took her lead from her mother. Her mother, Hermione, Lady Perview (confusingly both had the same title), was heard to remark concerning the 'arriviste' and when Eloise was introduced she strutted off with barely a word. She maintained she had said 'charmed', but others nearby said she had simply harrumphed and walked away. Clifford was not offended, nor particularly surprised, he had met such attitudes from the old upper class before; people willing to use nouveau riche when it suited them, but feeling infinitely superior at other times. Eloise's sister, Julia, who also sported lustrous blonde hair, blue eyes and an elegant, eye-catching walk (as well as a most acceptable visage) was of a different mould. She was happy to talk to all at the house party and, although she wasn't quite such the society goddess that her sister was, Clifford began to form an attraction for her almost immediately.
.... There is more of this story ...