Last night’s events are a blur for Lord Peter Stone, who awakens and discovers he has alienated half of London and his wife with his elitist ideals. With an angry crowd on his doorstep, Peter uses his powers of persuasion to win back the admiration and love of his supporters, yet he learns their support has less to do with him and everything to do with his wife.
“What happened last night?” Lord Peter Stone, the Marquis of Burlingham, cracked open heavy eyelids and groaned. London’s feeble October sunlight streamed through the windows causing the blinding pain in his head to worsen.
“James,” he croaked. “Bring me a tonic.” He waited. The deafening crescendo in his head increased to a roar, but no tonic miraculously appeared in his hand. For minutes, he lay there debating whether to fall back to sleep or rise to find his inattentive valet. The pressing need of his bladder convinced him to arise, lest he soil himself where he lay.
Rolling over, he winced as every muscle in his body screamed in protest, but he pulled himself up and staggered, sightless, to the door. Clutching the frame for support, he opened his eyes, only then realizing he was not in his room. The familiar wood lined walls and lingering aroma of cigar smoke did not belong in his bedroom, but his study, and his bed had been the floor. No wonder his body ached. A quick assessment of his person revealed even more astonishing news. He remained dressed in his evening clothes, which were at this point badly wrinkled and stained.
He lurched down the front hall to the water closet and relieved himself. Then staggering out of the small room, he called, “James! Where are you, man?” There was no response.
“Gerard!” he yelled, hoping the butler was nearby. “Find James and tell him to attend me at once!”
His cry echoed throughout the marble hall, a lonely, desperate reverberation swallowed by the vastness of emptied rooms. Alone and miserable, he sunk into the nearest chair and cradled his head in his hands, praying someone, anyone, would find him and bring him a tonic.
“They’ve all gone, Peter. They left sometime last night.”
His servants, gone? “Hudson, thank god, it’s you.” If anyone knew what had happened last night, it was Timothy Hudson. His oldest friend, they had met at Harrow, and before his marriage to Lady Sybil, was an eager participant in his plans for evenings spent on debauchery and drunkenness.
“Drink this.” His friend thrust a small tumbler of foul-smelling liquid under his nose, but he did as ordered and swallowed it in one gulp.
“What happened to me, Hudson? I awoke on my study floor, a pounding headache hammering away in my skull and no memory of last night’s events.”
“Do you recall the dinner party you hosted?”
Hazy remembrances of loud laughter, rich food and a tense debate resurfaced.
“Vaguely, but refresh my memory. I’m lucky to have located the water closet this morning, let alone remember the events of yesterday eve.”
“Does the National Society bill ring any bells?”
Either the hair of the dog he had downed was working, or Hudson’s question had jarred his memory, because this bit of information he knew.
“That’s my wife’s cause, the bill to educate the poor. She wanted me to support it despite my objections, and asked me to invite those key members who remained undecided to dinner.”
“They were all there, too. Braddock, Radcliffe, Abel. Even Clarke showed. If you recall, your plan was to wine and dine them and then persuade the gentlemen to support the bill.”
“Did it work?” Given his physical condition, the fact all of his servants were missing, and Hudson’s grim expression, he already knew this bit of information, too.
“It was going brilliantly. Lady Sybil outdid herself in preparation. The food was delicious, the conversation was stimulating. You’re a lucky bastard, Stone. She’s beautiful, talented and a wonderful hostess. How a conceited ass like you managed to snare such a sweet women-”
“She’s a treasure, I know, but tell me what happened?” He waved his hands, urging Hudson to continue.
”By the time the ladies had gone through, you were on your fifth glass of port.”
“Good god, no,” he said, afraid to hear what came next. Port was not his usual drink of choice, knowing the adverse effect it had on his ability to think, but as a good host, he had served it for the other gentlemen.
“It all would have been fine, too, but then you opened your mouth, and instead of persuasive diplomat you came off as elitist lord.”
“What did I say?”
“I believe the exact phrase you used was, ‘Those who are titled rule by divine right, and those of inferior birth would do well to recognize us as their betters.’”
He groaned, burying his head in his hands.
“Wait. It gets better. When I presented the argument of the French uprising, citizens whose birth deemed them inferior, and asked how well suppressing the masses worked for the French aristocracy instilled with ‘divine right,’ you told the assembled gentlemen, ‘England will not fail because we Englishmen are more civilized than the French, and would never behead a monarch when banishment accomplishes the same purpose.’”
Hope fluttered in his chest. Maybe he hadn’t ruined the evening after all. “That should have appeased Clarke and Abel, at least. They are two of the oldest families in England, and have probably hated the French since the Norman invasion.”
“You would think so, but no.”
“Let me guess. There’s more.”
Hudson nodded. “I countered by saying it was impossible to ignore the parallels between our society’s decaying social structure and France’s, and that’s when things really started to deteriorate.”
“How bad was it?”
“Here, read it for yourself.” Hudson handed him a newspaper. “You’ve insulted quite a few people last night, Peter.” He pointed to the pertinent article.
“The Lady of Light?” he asked his friend. Then he looked closer at the newspaper. “Why is there a rendering of my wife on the front page with a halo over her head?”
“Read,” Hudson ordered.
9 October 1811
The Lady of Light
Though the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent Bill of Rights of 1689 saw an end to ‘divine right of kings,’ certain members of the aristocracy retain the archaic, entitled ideals of King James’ rule from almost a century and a quarter ago. At a recent Mayfair dinner party, several guests were shocked to hear their host, the Marquis of Burlingham, declare to the assembled party that those of noble birth have been charged to maintain order among the populous by keeping them in their rightful place. As a member of Parliament and a supporter of the upcoming National Society for Education Act, one has to wonder how Lord Stone can simultaneously support a bill that would educate thousands of poor children across England and Wales while condemning them to their rightful, subservient place.
“This was taken completely out of context,” he huffed. “I’d never have said those things aloud if I hadn’t been foxed!”
“No, you would’ve only thought them.” To his angry glare, Hudson merely said, “Keep reading.”
Many guests, including Lords Abel, Braddock, Clarke and Radcliffe, said that Sir Timothy Hudson, a longtime friend to Lord Stone and a guest at last night’s party, attempted to diffuse the tense situation and help his friend avoid embarrassment by urging him to reconsider, saying he was but a man as any other. However, by this point, Lord Stone was well into his cups and too agitated to be cautious. It is said he told Sir Hudson and the gathered members of Parliament, he was born to be a god among men! To say the guests were shocked is an understatement. Lord Braddock rose and immediately left the party saying, “The Church of England only sanctions the worship of one God, and Lord Stone is not He.” Others soon took their leave, including the lord’s esteemed wife, Lady Sybil Stone.
“I’ll be lucky if I’m not excommunicated for a remark like that. No wonder they all left.”
Hudson was right; he was in trouble. To be sure, some would hail him a hero, secretly, of course. It was perfectly acceptable to think the things he said, but it was very outré to say them. This paper painted him as a ridiculous joke, and he’d be lucky if anyone would take him seriously now. All his hopes for distinguished service vanished. He had been the shining star of Parliament, too. With his golden tongue and rousing speeches, there wasn’t a man he couldn’t persuade.
After this, his career would be over, and he and Sybil would need to retire to his country estate. That’s when he saw his wife’s name in the paper and all thoughts of failed careers, ostracization, and the humiliation his faux pas had caused fled his mind.
Across the street from her opulent, Mayfair mansion, Lady Stone stands alone, the lamplight’s glow illuminating her blonde curls and pale, angelic face. Blue eyes shimmer with unshed tears as she huddles for warmth against the chilly October morning. A lone protestor against her husband’s arrogance, Lady Stone waits. But for what? An apology or an admission of guilt? Or maybe she waits for absolution from the poor, those uneducated masses who have been ignored far too long. Though she says not a word, her brave actions are testament to her pure heart and noble ideals. No matter how long she waits, she will not be alone. Dozens of London’s citizens have joined her vigil, rallying around “The Lady of Light.”
“My wife is outside?” he asked. “Has she been there all night?”
“Yes, but she wasn’t alone the entire time. About an hour after she left, the servants followed. They were understandably offended at some of your remarks.”
He raced to the front sitting room and pulled back the curtain where a teeming crowd swarmed the street in front of his house. “And the others? When did they come?”
“They’ve been trickling in all morning, but most arrived after the morning newspaper circulated. She has quite a following.”
“Whatever is she doing out there? I didn’t insult her, too, did I?”
Hudson shrugged. “You’d have to ask her. I stayed with you until you passed out, and only now returned after I read the paper.”
Flinging open the window’s sash, he found his wife standing underneath the lamppost as the news report had described. “Sybil! Come inside.”
The crowd booed and hissed, but he ignored them, and stared at his wife, hoping she understood and would obey. Instead, the contrary female tilted her nose in the air and ignored him!
“Her ladyship is not going anywhere. Not until you apologize.”
“Maggie? Is that you?” He peered amongst the unfamiliar faces until he found his wife’s rotund lady’s maid, Maggie O’Brian. On a good day, Maggie disliked him, but today, fire burned from her beady eyes searing his soul with their intensity. An unsettling feeling of guilt clawed in his chest, and he wracked his brain trying to remember what he might have done, aside from ruin her dinner party.
It must have been horrible. But what could it be? He couldn’t admit he had no memory of last night, so instead he acted the fool, praying Maggie would fill in some of the missing events. “Apologize for what?”
“Her ladyship has instructed me to say you know what you did.”
He tried another tactic to bring Sybil in, pandering to her more delicate nature. “It’s cold outside, my dear. Come in and warm yourself. I’ll have Cook brew you a hot chocolate.”
Maggie’s arm shot around Sybil’s waist in a trice. “She ‘as ‘er fur, yer lordship. Besides, Cook’s out ‘ere by us.”
“Go back inside, you rotter!” someone in the crowd yelled. A rotten tomato struck the window, and he slammed the sash with a bang.
“They are hurling rotten fruit at me.”
Hudson shrugged. “I told you. You made a mess of things.”
“What am I going to do? These people need to leave.”
“I suggest you do what you know best. Give them something new to talk about.”
Hudson was right. If his words had put him in disgrace, then his words would help him rise above this humiliation. Reopening the sash he commanded the attention of the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen! May I have your attention, please.” In beautiful, flowing rhetoric, he delivered the speech he had prepared for the debates on the National Society bill. Extolling the virtues of an educated citizen, he quoted Rousseau, telling the teeming masses England needed her people to be literate and trained so they would be prepared to serve the State. He engaged their patriotism and urged them to consider the plight of France, cautioning them an ignorant population is a discontent one. He even went so far as to shed a lone tear, congratulating himself when he saw several others in the crowd do the same. At the conclusion he bowed his head and said, “I apologize for my foolish words, but know I will do whatever it takes to ensure our children receive a basic education.”
Loud applause erupted, and he beamed. A low murmur arose from the press of humanity, and soon he heard his name, chanted over and over again. His people were calling for him! Shutting the sash, he raced past Hudson, through the front door and outside to the waiting crowd. They embraced him and hailed him a hero, forgiving his poor judgment and loose tongue. His confidence soared; the Golden Boy was once again on top of the world.
He spied his wife underneath the lamppost, her position firm, never wavering. Jostling past the dispersing crowd, he approached her.
“My lady wife, can you forgive me?” He took her hand and grazed her knuckles with a kiss.
She hesitated, but smiled, and Lord Peter, a man accustomed to being beloved by all, took her smile as the absolution he sought.
“Wasn’t I superb, my dear?” he whispered into his wife’s ear, all the while waving and smiling to the crowd. “Think of it. I could be Prime Minister. After all, only I could take a disaster like this and turn it into a cause half of London is rallying behind.”
Ignoring his proffered arm, she stooped down to pick up a discarded newspaper and slapped it against his chest. Her haloed visage stood apart from the thick jungle of words, a shining light amidst the printer’s black ink. He stared at the paper, awareness crashing down upon him with a force that buckled his knees. “It was you,” he whispered.
She did not speak, only surveyed him coolly with her blue eyes. Then she stepped outside the lamppost’s golden light, and the remaining congregation hushed and parted. He stood to bow as his wife, his queen, sashayed home.