“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune is in need of a wife”; so wrote one of our humorous and astute chroniclers of upper class life in the present day.
The year is 17... ; what the clever and erudite young lady failed to observe was that this universal law applied only to single men who had acquired their fortune by inheritance and land. Cyril Browne was not such; when he arrived at Lower Sugden and rented the Palmer’s House (a large and well-architected house built in original isolation on the banks of the Laycock – for old Sir Palmer was a keen fisherman – now on the edge of the burgeoning town) for the summer therefore the new middle class tradespeople were all a twitter. The landed aristocracy of the region affected not to notice. By aristocracy, here we mean those who held sway in the upper echelons of society in the county, not the actual families attending the House of Lords of which there were only three local to the town. By ‘affected not to notice’ we mean the ladies gossiped about Mr Browne over their cups of tea during their interminable ‘visits’ to one another and bemoaned the fact that such an undeserving man could have acquired so much wealth; wealth that would be far better put to use in preserving the crumbling piles and festering estates of the land-rich and money-not-so-rich gentry.
For Mr Cyril Browne was acknowledged, grudgingly by some and effusively by others, to be generously, even obscenely, blessed with filthy lucre. The upper classes pretended that wealth, actual financial wealth, was something they did not lower themselves to consider; the middle classes were more honest in this regard and saw the attainment of wealth as a respectable, even a godly, aim. That they were often then willing to mistreat those who had no spare resources to bide them over the lean times was more a reflection of their unspoken fear ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. Mr Browne had acquired his money not by marrying some rich heiress, not by having a great and lucrative estate settled upon him, not by discovering vast coal reserves under his land and performing a volte face from distaining industry to welcoming its despoliation of the beauty of the countryside (as several landowners had been lucky enough to do); instead he had acquired the independent wealth by hard work, risk taking, hard-nosed business and yes, a good hand dealt by Lady Luck. When he bought into a nearly worked out gold mine in the colonies, the discovery of the continuation of the seam after a fault line was fortuitous and turned a ‘white elephant’ into a ‘money tree’. When he bought the ‘Sephora’, it was then lost to communication for long enough for the insurers to agree to pay out on the insurance. That it re-appeared, still intact and still loaded with its valuable cargo of spices, meant that it arrived at a time of famine (from the nutmeg perspective) and attained great value. Mr Browne was sharp but not overly immoral in his practices. The Sephora was not some coffin ship designed to sink for the insurance money (and the Devil take the crew), it was well-found and survived the storms of the Southern ocean and made landfall where the crew repaired her to continue her journey. He had no desire for men to die for his good fortune, but he did desire a fortune.
So Mr Browne was ‘in trade’ and that, most nobles felt, put him beyond the pale in the rarefied (or stupid) mores of the time. He didn’t care hugely. He had come to Lower Sugden to find a place to establish himself. His money in the bank was large (indeed, he owned the bank), now he saw a necessity to put some of it into land. The estate of Chalfont St Lawrence was, reputedly, likely to become available soon. He was laying his plans like a well-organised general. Exploring the land, reconnoitring the lie of the place. The snobbery of the estate owners he could ignore; most of them owed large amounts to the merchants of the town, when Cyril Browne sent his newly appointed housekeeper to buy material and food for the house, she paid with cash. In a flash he had won over the tradespeople. They would willingly have given him credit (and then poorer quality goods if he failed to pay), but by paying cash he endeared himself to their hearts. For most of the landed upper classes were really parasites, bleeding the middle class for some perceived respectability granted by having Lord Fauntleroy or some such as a customer. The poorer people, who had to pay cash, kept the tradesmen solvent.
Given that land was regarded as the bedrock of good society, you, dear reader, may be wondering how the estate of Chalfont St Lawrence might become available in its entirety. The estate had been in the same family since the Glorious Revolution – when the old Lord Chalfont was forced to flee the country after siding with James II and the Lordship was re-established as Lord St Lawrence and awarded to Sir Archibald Peevor for services rendered to the Queen (the least said the better) – they had three other estates acquired over generations by marriage. The current Lord St Lawrence was a keen gambler, and unfortunately a bad one. His son was, if anything, keener, and worse. Together they had lost all the ready cash in the family, and independently they had both offered the estate of Chalfont St Lawrence as surety for bets which failed spectacularly; the younger had bet on a horse which appeared to run slower than its jockey could walk and the elder had bet a massive amount on a hand of cards convinced of their insurmountable superiority, only to discover that another had an even more insurmountable hand. That they had both offered the same property was, it might be whispered in legal circles, tantamount in some vague though obviously unfortunate and mistaken circumstance to be fraudulent. These same legal circles who were determined to see the good in these miscreants, were the same who would order transportation for life for the theft of a chicken! But of course quality will out and so it would be some considerable time before a judge would give a finding against such an august and reputable family as the Peevor-Danbys (Danby being one of the families who provided an extra estate as part of the marriage settlement). The finding would have been inevitable eventually since there was no doubt that two letters, signed and sealed, were in existence offering the same property as surety. Mr. Browne had acquired them both at ten shillings on the pound. In other words he had bought both promissory notes at 50% discount (because the owners similarly preferred ready cash to future riches) and effectively found himself with guarantees to the value of the estate (both promissory notes being approximately the value of the estate in the first instance). That he had them he had not mentioned to anyone and had sworn the previous owners to secrecy (actually he had told them with medical exactitude what his knife would do if they breathed a word that they had sold the notes).
A charity ball in aid of raising funds for the new hospital for the poor and destitute was the next event to raise his profile. The usual practice at these events was to subscribe some significant sum and then if the committee were lucky half of the subscribers would eventually come up with the money. The ball had been a money raising venture for the past 4 years and the target for building the hospital was 75% achieved. Soon building work could commence. Mr Browne owned a building firm of some skill, experience and reputation. Yet he also did not wish to undermine his status with the local tradesmen and artisans. He subscribed the remaining 25% of the funds and offered the services of his building firm to perform much of the work at cost, providing that the local stonemason was employed to provide the embellishments, and the labouring classes were employed to do much of the unskilled work. Why should he care about the labouring classes? Because they would spend in the pubs and shops. A kind of trickle-up theory. He made sure that his firm received the plaudits for work well done, and the freely employed received the blame for poor quality. All this was in the future. The fact of his most generous subscription was in the present, and the fact of his delivering the money within the week was remarked upon even more.
This was the bait; it had been intended to get him noticed it is true, but Lord St Lawrence thought he saw a way out his monetary shortcomings and invited the ‘gauche arriviste’, as the family saw him, to a pleasant weekend of dining and gaming.
The dining – peacock, pike, venison etc. – was pleasant but not the way to Cyril’s heart, he was used to eating a pasty in Cornwall or neaps in Scotland. He liked food but was not obsessed by it; that was why, at 41 years of age, he was still the same weight as at 22 and still could wear the same breeches. In this he was unlike all the other men of the superior classes over the age of 30, except Colonel Webster who ate like a horse but exercised every day from dawn till dusk.
Let us take a break from our story to describe the protagonists, though it may lead you to think you see the ending.
Cyril Brown – self-made man as already described, light brown hair (blond when born, he still thinks of himself as such, though no new acquaintance would ever suggest that), fully six feet and as happy to walk building sites and mines in old, dusty clothes as to frequent drawing rooms in comfortable houses. He is fit, handsome and quiet. His calm, quiet attitude is sometimes taken for shyness (diffidence in the face of his betters), sometimes for stupidity (he cannot discuss Virgil’s Iliad in Latin), but in practice is a demonstration of his self-confidence. If he knows he is right he feels no need to argue his point to prove a silly man wrong.
Lord St Lawrence and son may be described together. Peas in a pod, both are five foot ten inches of arrogant, often ill-tempered laziness. Both look the part in their rich clothes though they both carry more pounds than they should. Both have only one passion – gambling – which is unfortunate since they are a poor judge of the odds in a race or a game of cards. They weren’t actually stupid, but they were ignorant, and, with their social standing, few had the authority to tell them how ignorant they were.
Martha - The second Lady St Lawrence is a beauty, and arrived with a significant fortune which the gouty old fool lost in card games of stupendous idiocy. He had even lost £500 on the turn of one card (though he would have won £5000 if his card had come up, the balancing odds were not in his favour). As tall as her husband, she had kept her figure and always drew admiring glances for that and sympathetic glances for the fact of her dissipated husband. Their union had not been blessed with offspring – perhaps because she was only married for her fortune and her husband rarely found his way to her chamber. She was aged 30 now; she had had seven years to reflect on her own particular stupidity in marrying this man. She acquired a title but little else of value; she and her two step-daughters tolerated rather than loved each other.
Sophia – aged 21, eldest daughter by Lord St Lawrence’s first marriage, slightly taller than her step-mother, and serious and sensible. Pride in her family history and name was thankfully balanced by a kinder nature than her sister. Accepting now that there would be no money for marriage she was dedicated to running the estate efficiently and effectively and keeping any profit out of Lord St Lawrence’s pocket, not always successfully. It was often commented that many a silly noble would have made a good match in marrying her for she had brains enough for two; but she had no fortune. When she walked people watched as she was elegant and slim with a figure that was desirable. Though she affected to be reserved, she had an emotional nature which craved carnal love but was coming to terms with the unlikelihood of ever experiencing it.
Celeste – 18 and chalk to Sophia’s cheese. Shorter, blond and fuller figured. Not stout, you understand, simply that her body showed the curves of a buxom milkmaid rather than a straitlaced vicar’s wife. The third and youngest child, born to the first Lady St Lawrence before she expired from the ill-defined ‘grey disease’, she had been spoilt by father, step-mother, staff and village. It meant she had grown up wanting for nothing, ever. She was imperious, arrogant and not particularly bright – and people were inclined to say how much like her father she was. She regarded people ‘in trade’ as beneath her notice and made no secret of that fact. Her rudeness was unfortunately balanced by her good looks so she got away with more than she should have. She could reduce most men to compliant serfs by batting her eyelids and perhaps leaning forward a little, revealing an extremely impressive décolletage.
Other characters such as may impose themselves upon our story we shall introduce at the time if necessary.
“Mr Browne, come, join us for hand of cards will you not?” Lord St Lawrence invited the visitor to joining his gaming table where friends, neighbours and his son were happily winning and losing small amounts of money. None were of any good standing in the gaming world, a fact of which they were mostly ignorant, considering themselves to be clever and daring men-of-the-world. Lord St Lawrence had just slapped a footman across the face for serving him from the wrong side, his face puce with fury at such a faux pas; however the anger passed quickly since the person concerned was barely qualified to call themselves a person, they were only a servant after all.
Cyril Browne put a marker in his book and closed it, silently sighing, “I am not a frequenter of card tables sir, I may add little to the sport I fear” Lord St Lawrence laughed (thinking that was exactly the kind of sport he wanted) and assured Mr Browne that he would be learning amongst friends.
The rules appeared complicated and extensive and Mr Browne reiterated that he was not an experienced gambler. “No matter Mr Browne, this is simply a matter of some light fun, we do not wager large sums” Lord St Lawrence’s son re-assured him with an almost patronising air, perhaps he was unaware of the financial value of the guest. With open bidding he could have outbid the table at every hand and won regardless of the strength of their cards.
The game commenced and, after five hands Mr Browne was down £100. The party broke up for bed and, not for the first time, Rev. Jewson - a corpulent man of only 35 – wished he could lay his hands upon the young Celeste. Celeste, aware of the man’s desires, shuddered that she should ever find herself obliged to accept an offer from this sweaty, balding ball of a man. He wasn’t ugly, just overly endowed with fat due to his sedentary lifestyle and enjoyment of food. He had been seen to eat five rashers of bacon, three kidneys, black pudding, white pudding, a boiled egg, a fried egg and half a loaf of bread for his breakfast that very day; considering his exercise after that consisted of walking from the breakfast room to the gaming room it is not a surprise that he was expansively overweight. That at least, Celeste thought, might give room for hope, he might die early and leave a young widow, but then she had not thought this properly for, when he died, so did his income. She would have to enter a home for widows of clerics and spent the rest of her days talking to old biddies. Still, she was practical enough to realise that even he might be better than actually having to work for a living, for both daughters were wholly aware of the parlous state of the finances of this long-standing family. The prospect of being a governess, subject to the rules and regulations of some imperious family matriarch filled her with horror and she resolved yet again to try and make a rich, handsome scion of a respectable nobility fall so much in love that her lack of funds would not dissuade him. Still, she thought, perhaps the Very Reverend Jewson (to give him his full title) might one day become the Bishop Jewson? No need to put him off entirely. She was venal, but then she had not been brought up any other way (but, I hear you say, her sister seems not to have acquired such poor traits). She did not relish the idea of him riding her though. She tried not to think of that as it was unladylike and involved imagining the reverend au naturelle.
The following day followed much the same path, though the stakes for the card games had mysteriously increased and Mr Browne found himself owing fully 850 pounds by the end of the evening. This figure was spread between several players so had little effect upon the estate finances, and little enough impact on his own bank balance since his normal current account alone often carried several times that as ‘petty cash’. He expressed himself hopeful that he could win the money back on the following day, and was reminded that the following day was a Sunday. No gambling could take place then, not least because the vicar was engaged in church services (and buggering choirboys, but that is irrelevant to this narrative), but also of course because it was the Lord’s Day. The assembled party assumed that Mr Browne was ignorant of such polite behaviour and also that he was caught in the man-trap of addiction to recoup his losses. In practice the opposite was the case and the St Lawrences were about to discover they it was who had been drawn in to the gambling pitcher plant.
The day dawned brightly and Mr. Browne astounded the audience at breakfast by saying he had just walked up Bingly Top. Many had only surfaced in time for a light breakfast of sausage, kidney, black and white puddings, bacon and eggs. Browne had risen at dawn and seen the sun rise over the Sisters of Mercy (two hills to the East). In fact he had nearly abandoned his project then, seeing the beauty of the world and the ugly venality of the life he led in clear perspective. But he returned to the lower world of purgatory and with a good and worthy appetite. Sophia found herself warming to this man who was indeed his own man. They attended church in the morning, and the old, the lame, the sick, the rich, the poor, and the hypocrites all received the unction of communion together; it was a small statement that all were equal to God. They returned to quiet pursuits and discussions. Sunday, then proceeded slowly, calmly, almost boringly, aside from the fact of Celeste publicly and loudly refusing to be taken in to dinner by Mr Browne (she had her standards!) and Sophia finding that his stoic and calm reaction to this insult raised sympathy in her heart.
Monday started with the usual stately perambulations round the garden, reading books of poetry in the library and Mr Browne sequestering himself in his room for three hours to answer correspondence. Apparently business never slept and he had to maintain his various enterprises by constantly communing with them. The landed estates simply slumbered or sleep walked to moderate success where Mr Browne galloped to business victories and cleared fences of financial obstacles. The gaming began as the previous evenings had, Lord St Lawrence proposed, in the interest of enabling Mr Browne to recoup his losses (and convinced that he would not) that the maximum bet should be raised to £5000. No one demurred, but then all at the table, except Mr Browne they thought, reckoned that he, Browne, was the mark to be fleeced unceremoniously. There were two tables; one for the serious gamblers and one for the ladies, the gentleman of the cloth, and one or two other less brave gamblers. That allowed this latter group to win and lose trifling amounts safely.
The first hand proceeded like most of the others and Browne lost £2000, the second broke with this tradition and presented him with modest winnings of £50. The third he lost again, but he threw his hand in early and lost little but more respect “I shall never get the hang of this I fear” he said. The fourth hand he grimaced, sighed, rearranged his cards, grimaced again and finally declared “5”. In a flash the man to his left said “I will match your £5000 sir”.
Cyril looked shocked, perhaps he had meant only £5, still, the bet was made and accepted. When the betting returned to himself he made a great show of hesitation, and then raised by £5000. There was a slight, but audible gasp. Was he attempting to out bet them? Surely he was. He had only wished to bet £5; still, the bet was high ... but the players who had thrown in their own large bets all realised they could ill-afford to lose. There had been an agreement – a highly immoral, unprincipled, and quite possibly illegal agreement – that whoever won from this tradesman-chancer would simply repay the losses the others had bet and keep only the winnings from Mr Browne. Now he had raised the stakes and none could really afford to lose to him. They all stayed in for another round. He, Browne, took a single card and sighed loudly, then shrugged and raised a further £5000. The poorer nobles realised they had been drawn in to a trap, accepted the inevitable and dropped out. Only Lord St Lawrence, his son, and Mr Browne stayed in. Only the two St Lawrences were too dense to see. And Mr Browne piled on the pressure by raising and seeing rather than simply seeing them. Both St Lawrences were in for £15,000; would they stay the course? They weren’t good gamblers, they both stayed in. The hands were shown and Cyril Browne smiled. The trap had worked a treat. He had had a winning hand in the first game of the evening but had deliberately thrown it away. After that his hands had been exactly what was needed to prime and spring the trap that now had both St Lawrences in its grasp.
“Another hand gentlemen? Or shall we call it a night? I fear I have a fairly early start tomorrow; pleasant as this is I needs must visit London before journeying to France on business”
If he left tomorrow they would have no chance to recover the losses. They had to persuade him to play on – precisely his intention. Lord Darnley of Ipswich Parva recognised that they were playing a skilful gambler and challenged Mr Browne later “I said I did not play, not that I could not play” was his explanation. Lord Darnley could have informed his distant relative (second cousins by the distaff side) but St Lawrence wasn’t a likeable man and, like most in the room, Darnley held in his heart a resentment of a past insult; he kept silent. The table now retired to another room, and only Lord St Lawrence and Mr Browne sat at it. There was little point in both the father and the son losing the family money to the same man.
The cards were dealt and played and Mr Browne lost. If St Lawrence had had any sense he would have seen this for what it was, a play on the rod. Allowing the fish to swim a little before reeling in the loose line when the opportunity arose. The fish was caught on the hook and would not escape now. Thinking his luck was changing, St Lawrence mounted a large bet the next time, and saw his small winnings from the previous game evaporate. “Here, I’ll make a promissory note for the estate. You know I’m good for it” Actually Browne knew the opposite, but let it stand and they watched the cards fall as they might. Two more games, increasingly desperate bets and poor ill-considered play meant that the estate value had once more been used up.
“But, sir, I think I have a guarantee for debts drawn on the estate already. I purchased them from Baron D– and Lord C–” he named the people, but we need not concern ourselves with these parties. “I am confused sir, how comes it that you have used the same surety for a third time?”
Lord St Lawrence was variously outraged at being tricked, insulted for being called a fraud, and embarrassed at being caught. He was in a quandary. He had no rights to use the other estates as surety (a condition of their entailment) and anyway they were small in comparison. He had nothing left to offer ... unless...
“Sir, let us sleep on this, I must importune you to stay at least one more day to allow us to ... to regularise the situation”
Cyril Browne went to bed content; he had no doubt that the estate was now his. There was no room for manoeuvre and he had not had to go to court for the years it would take to get the legal system to back his claim. If there had been a risk it was that he could have lost at cards, but he understood odds and statistics and it had been plain from the first hand that his opposing players did not. From then on he had been confident of success.
The following day seemed strange. Everyone was polite, but he sensed there was something different, not resentful, more as if Lord St Lawrence had found an escape. “Mr Browne, a word in the study?”
They proceeded to the study and there Lord St Lawrence prevaricated “Ah, yes, just so. Lovely weather is it not? My daughters do so love this weather for walking in the garden. You must let them show you the roses, for which we are justly famous I believe”
Mr Browne was experienced in negotiation and simply let his opposite prattle on for a while, let him come to the point in good time; and so he did. “The fact is sir, my daughters are both of marriageable age and, I think you’ll agree, quite comely. Take after their mother you know, yes, yes, quite.
I wonder sir, how you would feel about taking my daughter in marriage?”
“I am honoured you should consider me Lord St Lawrence since I am only a commoner, only, I wonder which one you mean?”
“Which one would you want? We could play a hand for her, you win and get a noble wife, I win and keep the estate. What do you say?” Not the approach of a loving father – he was offering either daughter as stakes in a game of chance; but then perhaps all marriage is only that?
“I had not thought of marriage to be honest, and am not sure what the benefit to me your offer has. If I win I gain a wife and your family keep the estate through that marriage. If I lose you appear to intend me to lose both the winnings from yesterday and the notes from previous? Such is putting a high price upon your daughter sir.”
Lord St Lawrence’s eyes swivelled to the right, out of an alcove stepped the two ladies concerned. “I had suggested you might say that” said Sophia. “Without a dowry we are of little value, and with it we would have no need of the offer in the first place”
“I did not mean to imply you had no value Lady Sophia, please believe me”
“It is no matter. I propose the following. There are three notes are there not?” The two men nodded. “Then let each be a stake against one of us.” Before any could point out that there were three notes and two ladies, she continued “Lady St Lawrence has suggested that she be the third stake. Is that not so Mama?”
The stately figure of Martha, Lady St Lawrence stepped from the alcove too. “It is. Do not look askance husband; you have created this crisis by your own actions.
Mr Browne, should you win Celeste, you will marry her, should you go on to win one or both of us, we will be your mistresses. You would not be disappointed I assure you, as far as I’m concerned at least. The other two are untried goods, so if you fail to be satisfied it will be because you have not trained them well. I have no intention of living on our Scottish or Irish estate, and Little BrookHampstead is so small as to be untenable for more than you, husband.”
Cyril Browne was, for once, nonplussed. He had not expected the women folk to be bargaining chips in this. He was attracted by the excitement, but then stopped and considered. He could have women when he wanted them. His finances allowed for very high cost courtesans, ones who were unlikely to be diseased. Yet, balanced against this was the prospect of respectable marriage and the option to teach the younger daughter some manners. Balanced again was the fact that he would lose nothing in the first round since he had bet and won here, the other two notes he held, these he had paid for and their loss would be financially considerable. Yet not impossible. Lastly, he was fairly sure he could win. “Sir. Ladies. You have yourselves a competition. Subject to these rules: we must have a neutral umpire, perhaps the vicar would be as trustworthy as anyone? No-one else need be present or aware of the nature of the wager. That at least seems fair to the ladies. If you win, sir, no-one needs to know that you bet your wife and daughters to do it. If you lose we can prepare a story which none will believe but yet few will be able to disprove.”
The bet was made. The game would happen in one week’s time when the other house party members had returned to their more boring existences. None would know what an exciting game they were missing.
For all concerned the week passed far too slowly. Cyril was astounded at himself for being so excited. He was used to business deals and taking things to the brink but this was a first; and he had to admit the three women on offer were eminently worth winning. He had already decided that Celeste would be best in bed, she had clear and prominent attributes, and luscious blonde hair. Her sister on the other hand, beautiful and lithe though she was, also had a sharp brain; she could safely be left to manage the estate he felt. That he would happily bed her as well was an added bonus. Martha was elegant and lovely to look at, he felt sure that elegance would extend down to her skin; but again she had the added advantage of knowing ‘people who matter’; she could be his introduction to the next layer of society. Not that he was so concerned by the social standing, but he was interested in the business benefits he might acquire through her. Yes, this was a bet worth chancing an arm for. The three women were bemused, they had all willingly put themselves forward as stakes in a game of cards, if the family lost then they would be little more than whores to this Mr Browne – though Sophia and Martha realised that normal marriage was little more than unpaid prostitution in many instances; Celeste had been persuaded this was the only way to try and secure the estate and, if it all went wrong, then at least she had a husband with money. She intended to cow him with her superior status and arrogance. Lord St Lawrence was convinced that this time at least his luck would change. He had no reason to think that, he just did. That was why he was a hopeless gambler, he believed it was all luck and he hoped against hope that it would all come right. The Rev. Jewson was conflicted, should he ask the bishop for guidance? He had never had such a strange request, and the bet included the lovely Celeste. And yet, the requestor was Lord St Lawrence and he was a man to be respected. Eventually he opted to do what the Church of England always does when a difficult decision is called for – nothing.
This then was the game of all games. Fortunes and lives were at stake. If the St Lawrences lost the estate would be saved (and with it the jobs of all who worked there) and the ladies lost, if they won then it would be a matter of time before the estate was destroyed by their profligate gambling.
The initial deal was not auspicious for either. The highest card either held was a seven! There was no opportunity to throw in the cards in this game. Each game carried a stake – part of the estate against one of the ladies – and an agreed two rounds of calling for new cards. The vicar dealt the cards slowly and clumsily, Lord St Lawrence took a chance and threw all his cards in for replacements; Mr Browne requested two. After the second round (one card each), they laid their cards on the table. Cyril Browne won by virtue of two fours against a pair of twos. Both players laughed at the ridiculousness of such high stakes for such low cards.
The second hand was much better – for Lord St Lawrence – he was dealt three tens in his hand – and he tried for a fourth (the odds were quite small and he didn’t get it, still three of a kind was good). Cyril’s hand was never better than a pair of fives, perhaps his luck had deserted him?
Lord St Lawrence was convinced that the gods were on his side now and suggested they make the final hand all or nothing. All the ladies (one won by Cyril, two still in the gift of the family) against all the promissory notes (two owned by Mr Browne, one already won by Lord St Lawrence). Cyril had much to lose, but he could afford to; Lawrence St Lawrence had much to lose and could ill afford to lose it. Yet he was the one raising the stakes.
“I hardly think that wise St Lawrence” said the Reverend “This is a game of chance, you might lose”
“Stuff! When I want religious advice I don’t ask a gambler do I? What do you say Mr Browne? All or nothing?”
“If you are sure sir, I am willing to chance it” He had calculated the odds as slightly in his favour. If the chances were simply based upon random selection of cards then he had no more chance than the next man, but since he considered himself (rightly) a better card player, he thought that even with this skewed game he would have better odds than the man opposite.
The hands were dealt, painfully slowly, by a man more used to handing out hymnals than cards. St Lawrence had two pairs, twos and eights, his luck held when he was granted a further eight. Three eights and a pair of twos. After the customary second round of requesting cards, St Lawrence triumphantly turned his cards over, Browne did the same, three jacks.
“My hand I think sir” St Lawrence declared.
“Ah, no, not so my Lord” the vicar, appointed as neutral (though still smarting under St Lawrences’ sharp tongue) “three Jacks beats three eights, the twos don’t signify I’m afraid” St Lawrence grew apoplectic. Naturally Mr Browne, the most expert player in the room, concurred with Reverend Jewson, though he knew it was correct in any case. The vicar left the room and consulted the younger St Lawrence, not informing which hand was which. Lawry (to his friends) confirmed the vicar and Cyril’s interpretation and St Lawrence went beyond fury to speechless rage. His stupidity and addiction had lost him his estate, his daughters and his wife. Browne asked him to stay for the wedding but then to vacate on the same day. It might seem harsh, but he would have felt uncomfortable taking the girl’s cherry with her father sleeping nearby; he was, when it came down to it, middle class, with middle class morals. Upper class morals would have shafted the girl and her step-mother with the father/husband in the next room.
All this time the three female stakes in the game had sat quietly watching, now they realised the awful reality of their situation. The elder daughter allowed her controlled nature to slip for once and began to quietly weep. “What the devil are you crying for? I’VE LOST MY ESTATE!” shouted Lord St Lawrence, somehow, even now, convinced that it wasn’t his fault.
The wedding was hastened by the reverend getting special dispensation from the bishop. He implied there were ‘special reasons’, which was usually taken to mean ‘with child’. He did not feel that his part in the gambling of girls’ chastity covered him in much glory and opted not to give the full or proper reason, just leaving the question implied. And so a week after the infamous game, Lady Celeste St Lawrence became Lady Celeste St Lawrence-Browne. Browne was happy to acquire the St Lawrence name too as it raised his status a little more. The male St Lawrences left soon after the wedding during the celebrations for the estate workers and house staff (who already knew the reason for the rapid progression to marital bliss – little escaped truly good staff) paid for by Browne.
“Well, I think I may call you Celeste now you are my wife, I hardly think Lady Celeste is appropriate”
“I would rather we maintain the proprieties Mr Browne, Lady Celeste is my rightful title.”
“Hard Cheese! As my foreman would say. You are my wife and I shall call you Celeste. My name incidentally is St Lawrence-Browne, I would thank you to remember that. I have been honest and gentlemanly and not taken either of my newly won, let us say acquired, mistresses to bed before you, and have waited until we are lawfully wed to take yourself first, as would seem only right. I now think you must expect a night of activity, for I am sorely in need of satisfaction. I have been thinking of your body ever since I won the game”
“Sir! Such talk is not appropriate!”
“Wrong again! I will speak to you as I wish and take you as I wish and you will enjoy it if you will or make pretence to enjoy what you do not. Is that clear? I will have no tears, no crying if your cunny is sore” She blanched at the word cunny, she had never heard the word used about her before, though one of two servants had whispered what they would like to do to her cunny after she had taken them to task for some minor error. “Now madam, let us have no more of these clothes, I am ready for action and would have at the fray!” he was being deliberately brusque with her, either she would rebel, and he would have the pleasurable task of taking her unwilling or she would fall under his control and he would have her. Actually, either way he would have her several times and in several positions he felt. He was fairly sure she was unaware of the storm that was about to engulf her.
“No sir! I shall not be treated this way!” He launched at her and she was taken by surprise. The bedroom they were in had been hers until they had married that day, he had walked in and dismissed the maid and made sure she left the outer room too. Then he had locked the door quietly, she had not realised this and broke free and ran to the door. As she pulled on it unavailingly he reached her and took her arm, twisting it, not too painfully behind her and then turning her to his face, she tried to bite his lip.
Moments later she found herself pinned face down on the bed and a knife cutting her expensive dress from neck to waist. Forced onto her back the front of the dress was pulled away and the knife proceeded to make short work of all the other layers until her impressive breasts with, it became apparent, large red discs and dark brown nipples, were laid open to his view. She struggled and then found his hands pushing her down, a hand squeezing each breast hard and painfully and then shaking them. He liked their wobbly appearance. The knife was by his feet, he bent to pick it up to cut the rest of her clothes off and she made a leap to escape again, where she intended to fly to was doubtful since the only entrance was locked; but it was moot anyway as he grabbed an ankle and twisted, she fell back onto the bed face down. The knife cut away her clothing and her naked bottom appeared.