ReluctantBerserker-The300

Can we talk about that cover for a moment? It’s probably my favourite cover out of all my books and is by the inestimable Kanaxa

We worked hard on getting this cover right – by which I mean that Kanaxa worked hard, and I kept saying things like “can you make that helmet look more like a spangenhelm,” and “can we make it a round shield please?” But as a result of that unflinching back and forth we ended up with a cover that is not only beautiful but is also a kind of microcosm of the book itself.

Say “Early Medieval England” or “Viking Age England” and most people will think “Dark Ages.” It conjures up visions of grim horsemen, battleaxes, snake-prowed Viking ships running up the beaches, disgorging angry armoured men. Burning villages, looting, rapine, war. A bit like the Vikings TV series where everything that isn’t bloody is brown.

That would naturally make you think of dark colours, maybe some battlements, flames against a lowering sky and an atmosphere of oppression and threat.

And that was exactly what I didn’t want for the cover of this book.

I understand why so many people who write books set in this period focus on the battles between Saxon and Viking, the war and terror that that implies. After all, they tell you as a writer to focus on conflict and what more obvious conflict is there than two bunches of people trying to kill each other with swords?

But I wanted to do something that was a bit less obvious.

You see I love the Anglo-Saxons. I have done ever since I discovered that they were the closest thing to the Rohirrim you could get in the real world. I studied Anglo-Saxon art and archaeology at university and did a Masters degree focussing on the Saxons’ pre-Christian beliefs in magic, medicine and the gods. As a result of which I read most of their extant literature (in translation.) I even learned to read Old English, although I have thoroughly forgotten it by now, so that I could begin to appreciate the way they used their beautiful language.

For the last twenty years, I’ve been a member of the Saxon, Viking and Norman reenactment society Regia Anglorum, which has certainly helped me when it came to getting the small details of this book right. For example, here I am by the fire playing the same kind of bone whistle that Leofgar carries up his sleeve in the book:

And yes, I know exactly what it’s like to sit in a longhall on a cold winter’s night with your eyes streaming from the smoke, smelling like you’ve been kippered, and hearing the wolves howl outside. Even the wolf part is true – Regia has a longhall in Kent, just outside a nature reserve on which there are wolves. Close enough to hear it when they sing.

I love the Saxons’ art, the amazing colours and brightness of their illuminated manuscripts, the gold and glitter and garnet of their jewellery. I wanted some of that sense of light and colour in my cover and by Jove I think I got it.

I love the thoughtfulness and romantic melancholy of their poetry. They felt that they lived in a diminished age, that great things had happened in the past and nothing now lived up to it. They built their wooden halls in the shadows of Roman walls and made songs about “the ancient works of giants.”

They had a cooperative and really quite egalitarian society – much better for women’s rights, social mobility and the treatment of peasants and slaves than the Norman culture that replaced them.

So what I wanted in this book was to show that society working, in the last years before the Viking raids began to turn into a Viking invasion. I wanted to show that society at peace, so that I could look a bit closer at the kinds of things that war doesn’t leave time for: music, magic, gender and the social construction of masculinity.

We know very little about how the Anglo-Saxons treated gay men, so I’ve had to borrow from what we know of the Vikings’ attitude. I feel OK about this, as the Angles were essentially the same stock as the Vikings, they shared the same gods and many of the same words. They shared a past. It’s not a stretch to think that their beliefs about sex were similar.

It’s both good news and bad news. On the one hand no one is thinking same sex relationships are unnatural, illegal or damned. On the other, it’s a proof of your masculinity to be the top, but woe betide the bottom. He is the object of ridicule and the same kind of contempt that Victorian society dealt out to fallen women.

So there’s a conflict. How the hell do you negotiate a relationship of equals in a culture that’s preoccupied with the assumption that one of you must be the bitch? If you’re a well respected, high born, dangerous warrior, can you ever dare to be some man’s boy? And if you’re poor and beautiful and dependant on charity from your local warlord – like an itinerant bard – how do you get him to accept that you will never submit to him because you’re just as much of a man as he is?

These questions and many more are answered in the story, which does in fact contain numerous sword-fights, fist-fights and other types of conflict both magical and mundane. War, after all, isn’t the be all and end all of everything. Even a society at peace is not necessarily free of bandits, backstabbers, supernatural horrors and men with lethal levels of entitlement.

~

Alex Beecroft is an English author best known for historical fiction, notably Age of Sail, featuring gay characters and romantic storylines. Her novels and shorter works include paranormal, fantasy, and contemporary fiction.

Beecroft won Linden Bay Romance’s (now Samhain Publishing) Starlight Writing Competition in 2007 with her first novel, Captain’s Surrender, making it her first published book. On the subject of writing gay romance, Beecroft has appeared in the Charleston City Paper, LA Weekly, the New Haven Advocate, the Baltimore City Paper, and The Other Paper.

She is represented by Louise Fury of the L. Perkins Literary Agency

You can find her at her website, or on Facebook or Twitter.

This is Tom’s mother from Promises Made Under Fire. Very different kettle of fish from Mrs. S.

Mother met me at the station, full of smiles and news. Father’s back playing up, her head much better, thank you, scandal about the neighbour’s son, who’d somehow mysteriously moved to Ireland.

“And your friend Ben—he asked me to apologise for his not being here to meet you but the silly boy’s gone and got mumps.” She slipped her arm in mine. “So he’s strictly persona non grata.”

She didn’t need to add why—any of my platoon could have told you the risk to a man’s wedding tackle. What the hell had I done to get such a run of luck?

“Have you any plans? Apart from rattling around at home?” Mother squeezed my arm, her hand seeming so tiny against my uniform coat. I patted it.

“I’ve a commission to fulfil. No, don’t worry.” I patted her hand again. “It’s not the army. You remember Foden?”

Of course she did, the way she paled at the mention of the name and gripped my arm tighter. She’d have remembered my tears, too. I hailed a cab and carried on. “He left a letter asking me to make some visits on his behalf. Least I can do.”

“You always were a good lad,” Mother said as we bundled into the cab and gave the driver our address.

Good lad I might be, but I wasn’t looking forward to doing this particular duty. “He wanted me to visit his mother,” I said, looking out of the window, unseeing. “Do you think I should write to her and make an initial introduction, rather than just turn up on her doorstep?”

“It would depend on her character. If it were to bring her distress rather than comfort, she might prefer one dose of it.”

Only one dose of discomfort for me, too; I’d forgotten how wise Mother was. “I have no idea. She’s a cook, up in London.”

“A cook?” A brief look—surprise tinged with quickly hidden disdain—crossed her face.

“It will have hurt her as much to lose her son as it would the lady of the household.” The anger I felt shocked me.

“I’m sorry. You’re quite right. You’ve always said that bullets don’t make any social distinctions.” She suddenly produced a mischievous smile. “And since the ‘to do’ with the lad next door, even Father says you can’t tell how brave someone is from the school he went to. He’s very proud of you, you know.”

Ah, mothers. Every hero has one—or does he? It’s a sad fact that for most of the time in which historical fiction is set, it wasn’t uncommon for mothers to say a final farewell to their sons rather sooner than we’d hope in today’s world of antibiotics and modern hygiene.

And as if childbearing itself weren’t perilous enough in less enlightened times, there’s the further danger of narrative demands—after all, where would Harry Potter have been, if his parents had lived? Not, one suspects, the star of seven ever-more-bricklike tomes. In fact the number of fictional orphans is so suspiciously high, one might be tempted to suspect some sort of juvenile murder ring going on.

But never fear. The fictional historical mother isn’t extinct, merely somewhat endangered. And often, due to the smaller circles in which people moved in former times, rather more closely involved in her son’s life than might be the case nowadays, both in happy times:

PoachersFall_postcard_front_DSP

Mam came bustling down from upstairs, looking bright herself in her Sunday best. “Oh, that’s a beauty, Danny. Will you stay for supper with us now?” There was a furrow in her brow as she said it, so Danny reckoned he knew what the answer had better be. – Keeper’s Pledge

And also in times of worry:

“Mam, you know me and him have been, well, close?”

She nodded, tight-lipped. It wasn’t something they ever spoke of.

“I think it’s over, Mam. I can’t risk my job, not when like as not he’ll be looking for a reason to fire me. What’d we do then?” He tried to keep his voice steady, Lord knew, but the pain was too great not to let it show a little.

“Oh, Danny.” Mam put down her sewing and rose to lay a gentle hand on his arm, then gathered him to her. “Oh, love. Hush now. Don’t you worry. I’ll not say another word about it. You just do what you think is best.” – Keeper’s Pledge.

And maybe this close involvement, with children staying in the area their parents had grown up in, helped sons see a fuller picture of their mothers. Including the astonishing fact that mothers were once young themselves. Here’s Danny from Poacher’s Fall and Keeper’s Pledge talking to Philip about his mother:KeepersPledge_postcard_front_DSP

“[Mam’s] always loved having a bit of mistletoe in the house come Christmas. Says it reminds her of how she met my da.”

“Oh? That was at Christmas? At a dance, I suppose?”

“There, sir, you’d be supposing wrong. See, she was the second chambermaid here, back when old Mr. Luccombe was alive, God rest him. Maybe you’d remember her? Right pretty she was, by all accounts. Helen Braithwaite, as was.”

Philip shook his head absently. He’d never really paid much attention to the chambermaids.

“Any road, she’d been sent to ask the men to cut some mistletoe for the hall, here. And it happened it was my da sent to get it for her. Now, Da being Da, he tells her she’s to come with him to get it. So he takes her out into the woodland, out to that very oak tree I came a cropper on. ’Course, I reckon it’s grown a bit since then,” he added, grinning.

It seemed to be infectious. “So I suppose he shinned up the tree and fetched the mistletoe, whereupon she was duly impressed and agreed to let him court her?”

Costessey’s grin had turned wicked. “Well, she never did go into detail, mind. But they were wed the following Easter, and I was born in time for harvest that year.” – Poacher’s Fall.

Which leads us on to another aspect of mothers. One of the perks of having grown-up (or nearly grown-up) children is, of course, being able to embarrass them and/or anyone they bring home to meet the parents. Here’s the reserved George meeting his friend Matthew’s mother for the first time in Dulce et Decorum Est:

DulceetDecorumLG

Matthew’s mother was an unusually tall woman, thin as a beanpole and as energetic as a whippet. She greeted her son with a kiss that left him with powder on his shoulder and a faint lipstick mark on his cheek. She then proceeded to bestow the same honor upon George, rather to his discomfort. “Welcome to our home, dear. So glad that Matthew’s found such a good friend in London—a mother does worry so, particularly when—”

“Mother!”Dulce et Decorum Est

***

JL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea.  She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again.  Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.

JL Merrow is a member of the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet organising team.

In False Colors John Cavendish’s relationship with his mum, although off screen, is a big factor in the way he approaches life. It’s one of the many things he has to work through in the process of allowing himself to fall in love.

~*~*~*~

As everything paused on a high note, clear and perfect, John’s delight escaped in a gasp of breath, and at the sound Donwell’s eyes snapped open.  With a convulsive heave backwards, he drew the flute to his chest as if to protect it, slamming his heels into the sea-chest and scrabbling to rise.  “Oh!  Oh, I’m….  I’m sorry sir, I didn’t know you were there!”

 “No need to apologize, Mr. Donwell.”  John smiled, not only the music making him radiant.  It was pleasing to have the upper hand for a change; to wrong-foot his over-bold lieutenant.  “Rather I should ask your pardon for disturbing you in the middle of a performance.  I have a most untutored reaction to music.  What was it, may I ask?”

“Surely you know Telemann, sir?” Donwell’s dark brows arched with surprise as he straightened up, freeing space enough for John to walk in.  In his new mood of confidence, John did so, and found it pleasant to revert to the comradely visiting he had done on board the Admiral’s first rate.  There, they had been in and out of one another’s cabins all the time, borrowing books and stockings, taking a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with each other.  It had been, indeed, a little too sociable for John’s tastes, but now, after a fortnight of solitude, he thirsted for company. 

“It is not possible to underestimate what I know about music.”  The canvas partition wall creaked beneath John’s weight as he cautiously leaned against it.  A small part of him quailed at opening the details of his family life to such a stranger, but Alfie’s honest, good-humored amusement encouraged him.  Whatever else he felt—this itch of over-awareness which made every conversation a little too intense—distrust was not part of it. 

Indeed, the desire to put Donwell on the next ship to China weighed equally against the desire to tell him all and keep him close.  If it puzzled John which instinct to trust, he thought he should probably choose the more humane.  “My mother did not approve of it.  ‘Snare of the devil,’ she said.  It was not played in our house.”

“Your mother did not approve of music?”  Donwell had clearly been very startled indeed; his face only now began to change from boyish openness to the urbanity of an adult.  In all the layers thus revealed, John was startled to see pity. 

His temper flared instinctively. “Why should she?  Is it not used to set the scene for debaucheries?  Balls, where young people may lose their innocence.  Theatre and opera and dancing that dazzle the senses and make the heart forget true morality?  It would be a more steadfast, sober world without music.”

In his zeal, John stepped forward.  Donwell did not retreat, but stood there, apparently relaxed, his thumb moving gently over the curve of the flute.  “And a poorer one.”

Fists tightening almost against his will, physical fury swept through John, clear and glorious as the music.  Breathing hard, he could almost feel the smack of his knuckles into Donwell’s mouth, where a small, startled smirk turned in the end of the man’s lips.  Infuriating!  How dare he?  How dare he laugh at me?  They stood so close he could feel the warmth of Donwell’s shin on his own calf.

Watching that little knowing smile light up Donwell’s smoky amber eyes, John breathed in sharply and turned away, fighting down the urge to wrap his hands around the other man’s neck and choke some reason into him. 

What the…?  Where had that violence come from?  Shame flooding him, he stepped back, head bowed, appalled at himself.  It wasn’t even as though he didn’t agree.

“Forgive me.  ‘And a poorer one, sir.’”  Donwell too retreated, hopping up to sit on his cot, ceding John the two paces of floor and the sea-chest seat. 

For a man who has given in, he looks altogether too triumphant, John thought, sitting down on the chest with trembling legs and a tender conscience.  “You might be right.”  As his racing heart slowed, he attempted a reassuring smile.  God alone knew what Donwell must think of him!  He himself had no idea.  “Though it shows a filial impiety in me to allow it.”

John’s mother disapproved of many things in which he himself could not see the harm.  Had the music not – only a moment ago – made him feel closer to God?  Prompted him to worship?  How then could anyone say it was a snare?  It disturbed and grieved him that she made her life more unhappy than it needed to be, but at times it was hard to avoid the thought.  “I do sometimes fancy it is ungrateful—in our quest for purity—to disallow ourselves the things which were created to give us joy.”

7-December 1855
Dear Hohenheim,

It seems that a vast period of time has passed.  Another vision ensues.  I see myself in youth, curled into the hard windowseat that looks down into the Hauptmarkt from my room, and occasionally the front door rattles  as a customer enters or leaves.  It is my birthday, and I am ten years old.  Held in my hands is the too-difficult text of Byron’s Manfred, not yet available to me in German, and so I labor over the English original.  Why must he be so metaphorical?  Can he not, for my sake, use less flowery words, so that I am not constantly jumping up to the dictionary?  As I study, a sound comes to my ears.  It is my mother, singing.  She must be brushing her hair, now.  I am drawn away from the puzzling beauty of Byron’s verse to the irresistible beauty of her voice.  She does this because she knows I am listening.

I wander down the main stair, toward the singing voice as it grows louder and more compelling to my ear, and as I do, I realize that something impossible is happening.   It is I, indeed, and I am yet ten, but the angelic voice of my mother is singing “Der Gärtner” which I did not compose until 1842! nor publish until 1851.  Then – the singer cannot be my mother, else she herself composed it in 1820 or before,  and I took it down later from memory.  But this cannot be, because I, here in the finalized Present, know that my mother never composed a tune nor invented any single piece of music, and she learned anew only what I wrote, and then only my student compositions; for my true work did not come until later.  So it cannot be.

By the time I reach the bottom of the staircase I behold the beautiful newness of the paint, the grand doors that lead into what is no longer my father’s shop but is now a concert hall!  Just as had been done to Ha’s library in the Future!  This is my house, indeed, and on what is now a stage, where once lay stacks of cartons of books and Zeitungen, there stands in slimmer guise, with wildly loose hair running free, my mother!  Practicing with a chamber quartett!  She never wore such a seductive coiffure in 1820, certainly!  This is my birthday indeed, for I see she is rehearsing this concert as a gift to me.  I enter the room, and milling about are others, dressed for the concert, listening to the rehearsal as they arrange flowers near the stage, and set the chairs in the hall.  It must be some hours beforehand.

I stand rapt, listening.  The casements are finished in beautifully polished blond wood, the walls shine with bright stucco, new-applied.  The Flügel on the stage shines with a rich sheen.  This Future is wealthy beyond the dreams of the greediest composer’s avarice! And this room, yet another shrine to chamber music.

Do you vouchsafe for me this vision as answer to the pages of bitter regret just past, Hohenheim?  For what could touch me more deeply, or move me more joyously than to see my mother once again, so radiant?  In voice, perfect, sweetly singing a piece I had composed specifically in her memory?

There is a joy in me difficult to contain, now, for I love her utterly.  She is the incarnate presence of the Angel, to me.  Despite her moods and petulances, she never said single word of harshness to me.  She loved me unrelentingly, constantly.  She told me once that she had prayed in song to God to send her an angelic child, to bring her inspiration to sing, and she knew when she was confined with me, that she had Song within her.  During that pregnancy she sang continually.

She, my Beloved, was my first Song, and I ill tolerated parting from her.  Oh joy, mixed with sorrow!  For here, again, she stands.  No more than five and twenty years old, and if possible, her voice more brilliantly colored.  And standing at the door, invisible in the Ghost Realm, I weep for the soul-stirring vision of her..

It is my birthday.

The moment chimes, the audience – a hundred, more! pack into the room, some with flowers in hand, with smiles, greybeard men, grey-haired women, youths, and here and there a serious-faced child – a violinist the one, another a pianist.  I can read it in their faces.  Students at the Konservatorium.

Since when has this dull town had a musical Konservatorium, I wonder?  Oh dear, it is named for me! I learn.  The house, the plaza, the school… how incredibly embarrassing.  To go from obscure neglect to a cult-like fame in death.  A man should never live to see himself become a figure of reverence.  It is not me, it was never me… erect monument instead to the faceless Angel of the Wellspring!

I am rather ashamed to realize how few of my characters seem to have mothers! But here, from Captain’s Surrender, is Peter Kenyon working through his grief at apparently having lost his lover, while remembering to reassure his mum that although he’s a prisoner of war, he’s still doing fine.

~*~*~*~

“May I write to my friends in Bermuda?” Peter asked after another pause in which both men felt they should be saying something but neither knew what. “I…there is unhappy news to tell to many, which I would wish them to hear from a more sympathetic source than the naval gazette.”

His calm began to fracture at that sentence; he could feel the cracks spreading out from it, as they spread from an incautious foot stepped on thin ice. He was fragile at present, but beneath him the cracks were widening above the plunge into icy depths. He tried to ease away from the flaw but could not. It spread and spread beneath him, and he tensed for the sudden final break.

“Of course. Just go on into the drawing room. I’ll have Nancy bring you paper. I heard about the fight, of course. Don’t let my wife hear me say this”—he shook his head at the thought, his eyes shining—“but that must have been something! A French ship of the line and a little, tiny thirty-two? Hoo! I don’t mean to be unpatriotic, but that was a brave man.”

“Yes.” Peter was startled into a small smile. “Yes, he was. He was my particular friend, but I had no idea he intended anything so rash or so…so glorious.”

“Your friend, was he?” Ward rocked back on his heels. He wore no wig, so to Peter he seemed always informal, but the look in his pale eyes was unmistakably kind. “Well then, I won’t say that all this could have been avoided if Westminster had chosen to treat with us like civilized men. How they ever thought they could beat us into submission is probably as much a mystery to you as it is to me. So go and write your letters, son, and mourn your dead. You won’t be the only man doing the same.”

 

Peter considered the justice of this rebuke as he worked his way through the letters of condolence. His handwriting grew progressively shakier as his grief insinuated itself under his guard.

He had never failed in anything, and yet when had he ever done anything but what was expected of him? He had great sympathy for the colonists’ desire for self-rule, but when had he ever said so? When had he ever stood up for those things that really meant something to him? He had not. He had chosen always do to what everyone else thought was right, not what his own heart told him.

And in doing so—he put the pen down, rubbed his stinging eyes, telling himself it was fatigue that made them burn—he had rejected the one thing in his life that had ever made him completely happy.

He looked out at the sea, the ships in the harbor visible and yet so far away, and wondered if he could pray. He wanted to pray, “Oh, God, please, don’t let him have done this because of me, because I hurt him, because I put an end to something that he said must end.”

Pulling a fresh sheet of paper towards himself, he took up the pen again and began to write. My dear Mr. Summersgill, I am happy to inform you that I am alive and well, though confined. I am under house arrest in the dwelling of a worthy gentleman of Boston named Mr. Ward. I am quite comfortable and lack nothing but my freedom.

I am including here my wish that you should have power of attorney over my small estate in Bermuda and beg leave to ask you to see that my servants are paid and are not in distress in my absence.

Peter wondered if he should express some conventional sentiments of attachment to Emily, but his disordered thoughts rose up against such base hypocrisy. When the world lay at his feet, it had seemed natural that every prize should be his, but now he wondered if she even liked him, and more, he wondered if—beyond a basic physical appreciation of her charms—he even liked her. How much did he know about her? Not half so much as he had known about Josh, and he had cared not half so much to know.

Please pass on my love to my mother, and the reassurance that I am as well as it is possible to be, though I may not be able to send her the bird-of-paradise feathers she asked for in her last. My regards to Emily, and I remain, sir,

Your most obliged servant,

Peter Alexander Kenyon.

From Lessons in Discovery. Orlando has lost his memory following an accident and can’t remember what Jonty’s Mama is like. He has a shock coming.

“Jonathan! Orlando!”

A voice that seemed to have been designed to penetrate concrete at two hundred yards rang through the college court. It was Sunday morning and the broomstick had obviously landed successfully. Its arrival had been anticipated by the two fellows so they were lurking around to greet the pilot.

“Mother,” Jonty whispered to his companion, before saying in a tone as hearty as hers, “Mama! You’re looking ridiculously well. What has the doctor been giving you to make you look so young?” He was scooped up into his mother’s arms and had the breath squeezed out of him.

“Looking thin again, dear.” Mrs. Stewart always seemed to think that her son was on the brink of starvation, even though he was more muscular and well set up now than he had been this last year. “Dr. Coppersmith, you look positively emaciated.” She grabbed Orlando and squashed any answer out of him, too.

Orlando was stunned. His own mother had never shown any such physical affection for him and the perfume-soaked, genial embraces of this ample lady were a complete shock. He knew he’d met her before although he had no recollection of the events and he’d no time now for reflection, with Mrs. Stewart thrusting an arm through those of both her son and his thin and starving friend and insisting that they go immediately to the Blue Boar for a jolly good feed.

She was most sympathetic over lunch, a meal taken in a quiet room away from the noisy masses so that the recovering invalid shouldn’t be overwhelmed. She’d asked, with great concern, about Orlando’s condition, gently talking him through the times he’d been her guest, the pleasure it had given her to receive him. “Because it has always been a delight to us whenever Jonathan has brought you home. I think of you rather like a son now, which of course must seem very odd today when you no doubt regard me as a stranger. But one day you’ll remember everything, dear, and then it will be like old times.” She beamed.

Orlando thought how much Mrs. Stewart resembled Jonty and how lovely she must have been at the same age. A sudden, small voice in his head informed him that his friend was beautiful now and when he looked at Jonty he realised it was quite true, which was another terrible shock. He had never really considered before whether anyone was eye-catching and he’d now done it for two people within a minute.

They finished their meal with a wealth more gossip and made their way back to Jonty’s set for a cup of tea to refresh them and to give Orlando a chance to collect his thoughts.

Mrs. Stewart insisted that there was nowhere better to take a cup than in front of one’s own fire. She was now ensconced on Jonty’s sofa and her thoughts ran to old acquaintances.

“So you met old George le Tissier on Jersey. I wonder if he remembers me?”

“I don’t think that anyone would ever forget you, Mama.”

“Especially true in this case. Not my most shining moment, Jonathan, I positively disgraced myself.” Mrs. Stewart blushed, something that seemed out of character.

“Whatever did you do?” Their interest was piqued, their appetite whetted at the thought of what revelation might come from this lady’s lips. Jonty in particular was intrigued at the thought of his mother disgracing herself in any way.

“It was a grand ball. A very big occasion, all the handsomest young men were going to be there, including George who was a subaltern at the time. Not that I had eyes for any of them except your father—that’s why I was so excited. Richard Stewart was going to be present and we’d arranged in advance to have several dances together. Got out my best bib and tucker and set off. Within a quarter of an hour of arriving there, a young man I’d taken a waltz with, I can’t remember his name, the ill-favoured surly thing.” She glanced surreptitiously at the often surly thing on her left but he was looking remarkably sweet and kind today. “Anyway, he drew me off into a corner, said he’d never loved anyone the way he adored me, proposed a marriage within three months and when I refused to take up his offer, threatened to kill himself. I spent twenty-five minutes trying to talk him out of it. Meant that I missed my first dance with your father, so I was rather miffed. When I tracked Richard down to apologise he hooted with laughter. He said he knew the chap and that he’d done the same thing numerous times—the suicide threat was all a big bluff of course. I was livid. Your father had to hold my hand and try to get me to calm down. I was all for going and tweaking the chap’s ear, but I suppose the hand-holding made it all worthwhile.”

“It always does.” Jonty smirked slightly and there was a suggestion of a blush on Orlando’s cheeks. How odd, Jonty reflected, wondering if the embarrassment was due to subconscious memories.

Mrs. Stewart sailed on undaunted. “Then blow me down if three dances later a similar thing didn’t happen, though I remember the chap’s name this time. Samuel Parker, and he was a toe-rag. We were walking through the portrait gallery at the back of the house en route to get an ice when he plighted his troth. I gave him the old ‘thank you but no thank you’ and he pulled me behind the arras—I can see you sniggering, Jonty and it doesn’t become you—and started to take the grossest liberties. All he got was a black eye—it was a real shiner, I was rather proud of myself—and he departed. Then I had to go and find Richard again and explain why I’d been late for our next dance. Had the suspicion that he thought your dear mama was a bit of a flibbertigibbet, but he held my hand once more and called me his ‘dear little peach’. I can see you smirking again, Jonty, and if it happens a third time I will have no hesitation in taking you across my knee and spanking you. Anyway, I was furious, furious beyond all measure. So when poor George le Tissier came up all beaming with excitement and asked for my hand, I forgot myself entirely. It was pent-up anger, and I am not proud of myself. Now, are you ever going to make me that cup of tea or will you watch your poor mother sit here, wasting away parched and drained?”

“Mother, I won’t even put the kettle on until you tell me what you did that was so bad.”

“Laid him out, dear. One great big punch and goodnight sweetheart. Now that ends that trifling matter and you need to address the greater one of my desiccated throat.”

When Mrs. Stewart was watered sufficiently to be able to attempt the return journey, Summerbee, the porter, found a cab (she wasn’t inclined to fly the broom). With many a kiss, hug and wave she was sent on her way.

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