Story by Garry Kilworth / Illustration by Toe Keen
From the bay window where the four of us were wont to sit I watched as Viscount Standish Beaummond entered the gentleman’s club, Whites, located at 37-38 St James Street, London. This exclusive establishment was founded by an Italian, Francesco Bianco in 1693, and was originally located in Chesterfield Street as Mrs White’s Chocolate House. Now, in the year 1814, it was the haunt of aristocratic and upper class gentlemen, many of whom were incurable gamblers of somewhat raffish behaviour. Indeed, the viscount was one of the leaders of this devil-may-care group. He wagered on the most outlandish of activities and was known amongst the more staid set as a rakehell, and even his best friends regarded him (rather enviably) as a dilettante. It was said that no woman could resist his charms. A roué such as Casanova, or even Don Juan was considered amateur when it came to the art of love, when compared with Viscount Beaummond. Having said that, he was no fop or dandy, no macaroni, but a man’s man, who could ride, hunt, shoot, fence, box and duel with the best. It was true he dressed at the height of fashion and followed the latest folding of a cravat as religiously as the next gentleman, but there were only two fobs on his coat at any one time, no extravagant designs decorating his waistcoats, no outré garish colours to his breeches and his hairstyle could almost be described as sober unless one viewed it alongside that of a clergyman or bank clerk.
Beau is my best friend, so this short yet honest description of him is as close to the truth as you will ever get this side of Judgement Day. I waited until I knew Beau had handed his cane, hat and cloak to an attendant and then went to meet him in the foyer. He smiled at me warmly and shook my hand when it was proffered.
‘St John, how well you look. The Autumn fades to horrible Winter, but you keep Summer in your complexion.’
‘Thank you, Beau. And how are you?’
He removed his gloves and tossed them back to the attendant standing in the doorway. Then with a wry smile Beau said, ‘Alive I hope. I was called out by General Willoughy this morning. Refused of course. Can’t be duelling with every Tom, Dick and Harry over a woman’s virtue. I’d never be without a sword or pistol in my hand. Anything else, you know St John, and I’ll willing step out at some horrible hour of a grey dawn to partake of pistols for two and coffee for one, but not this continually wretched complaining about my dalliances with willing ladies, who I can assure every one of you, go into such liaisons with their eyes wide open.’
I knew Beau never seduced women under the age of twenty-one, though I’m sure there were many such females who wished he would. Moreover he was extremely discreet and even his closest friends never knew the details of his romantic diversions. His honour was unimpeachable so far as secrecy was concerned and he loathed men who bragged about their amorous escapades even though they might do so to a very closed circle of friends. It has to be said, Beau loved women, thought them the most wonderful gift of God, and would not compromise one of them if the Devil himself had threatened to rob him of his soul. He protected their reputations as best and as ably as he could, and was for the most part successful. You might think that in telling me he had been called out by General Willoughby he was giving something away, but General Willoughy was unmarried and had no daughters, so the statement was more of an enigma than a revelation of any kind.
‘Come and sit down, Beau. Simon and Frederick are waiting. We thought we might get in a few hands of Chemin de fer before leaving for the theatre.’
‘Excellent planning, young St John. Lead on, lead on.’
It was not difficult to understand why Beau was so irresistible to women. He was utterly charming, well-bred, handsome as Michelangelo’s David with wide shoulders and a slim waistline, wealthy, landed, fashionable. He could handle a coach and six to an inch, had a wonderful sense of humour with a smile that would melt a statue of Genghis Khan, was a marvellous raconteur, had served as a captain in the 12th Hussars, rarely lost at the gaming tables…in fact he was perfect for them. Not all men liked him of course. Many were eaten away with jealousy and envy at his accomplishments and talents. Our small circle adored him, however, though Simon – whose father was the Bishop of Salisbury – quietly disapproved of Beau’s philandering, even though he knew his friend could not help himself.
Beau had indeed seduced nuns, princesses, courtesans of exiled French nobles, wives of the gentry, milkmaids, chambermaids, daughters of Russian ambassadors, leading ladies of the theatre, chorus girls, schoolteachers, lusty-stolid-chunky horsewomen whose previous sexual experiences had been gained only from the skilful use of the saddle when trotting their mounts, oh – the list is endless. So far as I knew – and I’m sure I would have known – he had no children. I believe that for some medical reason Beau was sterile, which for a man with his passion for females, was probably the greatest gift his birth could have bestowed upon him.
Once Beau had sat down, Frederick, who had only just turned twenty and therefore regarded the thirty-five year old Beau as a god, asked Beau about the style of his cravat.
‘It’s the very latest, young Freddie,’ Beau answered. ‘It’s called the Waterfall. Invented by George of course. Difficult though. Took me a good two hours to perfect it.’ He turned to Simon. ‘I hope the Lord will forgive me for wasting valuable time on such fripperies when I finally meet him – should that be my fortune.’ Beau sighed. ‘Though I expect I’ll be meeting the other fellow, if I don’t change my ways.’
‘George’ was of course Beau Brummell, the fashion plate for us all, but we never referred to him by his nom de guerre, since our Beau had been using the sobriquet long before Mr Brummell.
‘You’ll never change your ways, will you Beau?’ said Frederick, whose hero worship was a little painful to watch sometimes. ‘You’ll always be – well, who you are?’
‘I can most certainly confirm I’ll always be who I am, Freddie, you can rest assured.’
We laughed, Frederick blushed, and then Simon ordered drinks and we settled down to a game of cards. The stakes were deliberately kept low because of me. My income was a fraction of that of the other three. There was an unspoken agreement, I’m sure initiated by Beau, that no loss should exceed ten pounds on any one evening. Beau especially despised those wagering fools who lost their estates on a turn of a card. There were those who would bet their fortunes on which raindrop would reach the bottom of a window pane first, with the loser excusing himself before going to the club’s washrooms and shooting themselves in the head. Beau thought the worst part of such an incident was the thoughtless mess it left for the poor staff of White’s, who of course had to clean blood, bits of skull and brains from the walls and mirrors, and probably ceiling before anyone could use the toilets.
Frederick was ever curious about Beau’s latest amorous escapade and was always foolish enough to test Beau’s resolve never to divulge details.
Some of the names of course we guessed at, having seen him with certain belles at the opera or dinner parties, or attending the balls at Almack’s Assembly Rooms, where the prudish dowagers who controlled Almack’s – it was by invitation only – arranged an evening of dancing for acceptable and respectable members of high society. Most of the ton were forgiving of his ways, even betting on Beau’s next conquest of an incomparable Miss Fitzwilliam or a nonpareil Mrs Somersby-James, but there were of course many who disapproved of someone they regarded as a libertine. The powerful and stern Viscountess Castlereagh, who currently headed the committee running the Assembly Rooms was among those who thought Beau the worst kind of gentleman and often failed to send him an invitation.
‘I tell you what,’ said Frederick excitedly, as we cleared away the cards ready to leave the club, ‘I bet Beau could seduce an angel if he wanted to.’
We all stared at Frederick. Beau said, ‘All women are angels, Freddie.’
‘Yes, but I mean a real angel. One of God’s creatures.’
Simon looked a little disapproving. ‘I say, Freddie. That’s close to profanity.’
‘In any case,’ I chipped in, ‘even if you believed in the reality of angels, they’re all males, aren’t they? From what I learned in my studies at Oxford, and along with the rest of those subjects I’ve tried hard to forget, the angels all had names like Gabriel or Michael.’
‘Or, as some would have it, completely without the plumbing of either male or female of us ordinary mortals,’ said Beau.
It was Simon, son of a bishop, who put us all right.
‘Zechariah 5.9,’ he said.
‘Dear boy,’ murmured Beau, ‘do quote chapter and verse.’
‘Then I looked up – and there before me were two women, with the wind in their wings. They had wings like those of a stork and they lifted up the basket between heaven and earth.’
‘Perhaps they weren’t angels,’ I argued. ‘It doesn’t say they were.’
‘How many ordinary women do you know with wings like storks?’ replied Simon. ‘Zechariah might not have employed the word angel, but in the context he used they were most certainly heavenly creatures, messengers of God.’
We all looked at Beau, who shrugged, gave us one of his famous charming smiles and said, ‘If I can find an angel . . .’
‘Excellent,’ I cried, ‘now who will wager on Beau being successful. Personally, much as I like the fellow and much as I am always amazed by his success with the ladies, I believe this time he’s doomed to failure. My ten pounds says so.’
‘Mine too,’ Simon said.
‘And mine,’ added Frederick.
Beau looked at us with disbelieving eyes. ‘What? You are betting on my failure? My dearest friends? Then I shall take all three bets myself and be thirty pounds to the richer when you meet me at the club next Thursday. Now, shake a leg all of you, we shall miss the first act and I hate making an entrance in the dark.’
We met at White’s indeed not a week later, but a whole two months after the decision to send Beau out in search of a creature of the supernatural world. He refused to give any explanation for his tardiness, but said his tale would reveal all. For more than eight long weeks I had been concerned for him. One really should not meddle with the forces of light any more than the forces of darkness. In fact, the former is probably quite a lot more dangerous than the latter, when you consider that the Almighty commands a far higher status than Lucifer. These are powerful beings and I’m not sure the Good Lord would be any too pleased to have one of His female angels dallied with in any way. Fathers can get pretty annoyed with young men who try to seduce their daughters and this would be one of the daughters of the most puissant Father of them all. He made the world, so they say, and presumably the creatures on it are but flies to Him. If one of them irritates Him, it would not be surprising if they were savagely swatted by his almighty hand.
However, my friend duly appeared at the club. Apart from his slightly wan complexion and a certain frailty of movement, Beau appeared quite as he always has been, calm and collected, happy to see his good friends. However, I am his oldest and closest friend and I could detect in his demeanour and pallor a hidden ailment. Something told me Beau had been through an experience, perhaps not yet over, that had shaken him to the core. There was a slight trembling of the hand. A distant look in the eye. Beau was extremely troubled, though I’m sure the others in their excitement failed to notice this. I said nothing, for I had the feeling that Beau was going to reveal all within the next half-an-hour or so.
‘Simon, Freddie and you, my dear St John – I see you wait attendance on me. How good of you all. I have missed my friends.’
‘Well?’ cried Freddie, impatiently. ‘Did you make your conquest?’
‘Conquest?’ Beau winced. ‘I dislike that term immensely, Freddie. It makes it sound as if I’ve stormed the bastille. Wooing a young woman is an art, not an act of war or rebellion. In the end, the lady has to enjoy it as much as the gentleman. She is not an obstacle to overcome, but a person to gently persuade.’
‘Well?’ cried Freddie. ‘Did you persuade her?’
Beau smiled, then took out his wallet and handed each of us a ten-pound note.
‘You couldn’t summon one?’ I said. ‘It was an impossible task after all.’
‘Oh,’ said Beau, sitting on one of our velvet covered chairs in the bay window, ‘I found my angel all right.’
‘What?’ whispered Freddie. ‘You met an angel?’
‘Indeed I did, my friend, and she was utterly, utterly beautiful. You could not imagine how lovely she was. Solomon himself would have spurned Sheba on seeing my angel. One glimpse of my angel and David would never have become an adulterer and malefactor but would have left Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah the Hittite, to enjoy a long and happy marriage. There would have been no Greek-Trojan war if Paris had seen my angel before he ever laid eyes on Helen and perhaps even after, and all three – Solomon, David and Paris – would have died, would have wasted away with longing for a female none of them could ever hope to have as a lover.’
‘Oh,’ said Simon, wistfully, ‘as beautiful as that.’
‘My dear boy, you have not the imagination to conjure the image.’
‘So,’ I said, eager to hear the whole story, ‘you did manage to find one.’
‘Indeed.’ Beau took out a silver snuff box and took a pinch, then offered it around the circle. ‘My own receipt,’ he said. ‘A blend of Moroccan and Tunisian.’
‘How – how did you summon her?’ asked Simon, his nose twitching with the effects of the snuff. ‘Was it difficult.’
‘Not that difficult I suppose,’ replied Beau. ‘Not after I’d asked your father what I should do.’
Simon went pale and looked agitated, as well he might.
‘My father?’ he repeated.
‘Well, where else does one go to find out about summoning angels, but to a clergyman? And bishops, you know, are pretty high up the chain. If a bishop doesn’t know, then who does?’
‘But . . . but . . .’ Freddie stumbled over his words.
‘Oh, don’t worry, my boy. I didn’t tell your pater I was going to seduce her. I said I wanted to discover whether my grandmother was happy in the place to which she had recently been sent by the grim reaper. Your father seemed quite sympathetic and told me he knew of a ritual, but had never dared to use it himself. He wrote down the instructions and then left me to it.’
‘Where were you?’ I asked.
‘At that precise moment in Salisbury Cathedral, but I decided it wasn’t an appropriate place for the kind of thing I had in mind, so after I had visited an apothecary and a market I took my team and drove out into the countryside where I found a ruined abbey. It was by that time almost sunset and probably an appropriate moment to summon supernatural creatures from their resting places. I settled myself within what had once been the chapel, but is now just a broken, roofless edifice. There I took out a dish and filled it with the petals and leaves of certain wild herbs. Then I fashioned a circular sigil, which was divided into four quadrants, each quadrant decorated with a different enochian symbol.’
It was Freddie who had now turned pale and I remembered he still believed in ghosts, his ancestral manor being inundated with them.
‘Finally,’ continued Beau in a low voice, ‘as the twilight faded and the gloaming fled into the hollows of the surrounding hills, I lit four holy candles with a taper and placed each one on the edges of the four quadrants. The light, my dear friends, was ghastly. It seemed to produce shadows that were almost solid in appearance and I do not mind admitting that at that precise point in time I was considering turning on my heel and using my greys to escape to a more convivial atmosphere. However, I gathered up my courage and began the incantation given me by your father the bishop, Simon, a strange ritualistic chant that would have the hair on the backs of your necks standing on end. Indeed, the very air seemed be charged with some kind of physical phenomenal energy – electricity, if you like.’
We were all leaning forward, eager for the rest of the story.
‘My dear friends, you have no idea of the shock I underwent when she suddenly appeared out the darkness of the heavens. Until the moment that I heard the swish of her beautiful white wings and saw her lovely form descending, I was certain that all these chants and rituals were mere games and that nothing would come of them. I knew I had to try, of course, since I had been given the task – but in all honesty I was until that point laughing at myself and the ridiculous antics I was going through.
‘However, there she was, enchanting, exquisite, astonishingly graceful.’
‘Ravishing?’ blurted Frederick.
Beau frowned. ‘No, wrong word to use, Freddie. There was nothing about her that would place her on so low a plane. Actresses are ravishing, but not angels. Angels have a purity of form about them which rejects any lascivious thoughts. Her beauty was that of a sunset over a tropical ocean island, or freshly fallen snow on a mountaintop.’ His expression became dreamy. ‘She drifted down on these enormous wings and stood before me as if a dream had become manifest. I was so stunned by her loveliness I had difficulty in breathing. Yes, it is a cliché, but she did take my breath away. I simply stood there and drank her beauty in. After a while I spoke to her, and she replied, and we settled down to talk with one another.’
‘Talk?’ cried Simon. ‘Talk?’
‘My dear Simon,’ continued Beau, patiently, ‘how do you imagine one begins a seduction? By leaping at the lady like a farmyard cockerel?’
Simon looked suitably abashed and murmured, ‘Sorry, Beau. No, of course not.’
‘Well, anyway, things proceeded, and eventually after several hours we got round to the idea of making love. I put it to her that it was indeed, a wonderful physical experience that could be shared between a man and a woman – in this case of course a mortal and an angel – which was usually very fulfilling and completed a union of souls. I told her that my understanding was, from my earlier liaisons, that both participants enjoyed the act equally, each reaching a sensation of ecstasy unrivalled by any other. Yes, I said, the act itself is physical, and naturally if the two participants are quite deeply in love, the feeling would no doubt be heightened beyond that of any other, but even with casual lovers there is a spiritual reward which accompanies the act and often remains in the afterglow.’
Beau paused at this point and took a glass of water. He actually looked emotionally drained and now the others could see it too. We noticed how his hand shook as he lifted the drinking glass to his lips. We stared into those eyes which now had a terrible haunted look. Beau had clearly been through an experience which had shaken the foundations of his being. I had seen men come home from the Napoleonic Wars with similar mental anguish written on their faces. Beau was not the man who had left us two months ago. His character had been drastically altered. He was still going through an internal torment which was shredding his very life force.
‘The upshot of it all,’ he said, in distant voice, ‘is that we did indeed make love on that grassy carpet of the ruined abbey. My persuasive powers did not fail me, though I now wish to God they had . . .’
‘But,’ interrupted Freddie, ‘you told us you had failed. That is, you said you had not won the wager! Yet you now maintain you made love to an angel.’
‘Dear, dear Freddie,’ replied Beau in a broken voice, ‘one can never make love to an angel. It is of course, utterly impossible. I should have seen that. I’m an intelligent man. Yet I was carried away by my ego. Foolish, stupid vanity which leads us down paths that end in a ghastly pit. The very moment we held each other in our arms and began, she fell from grace. She was no longer an angel. She had fallen, dear friends, she had fallen.’ A sob escaped Beau’s lips and now we could all see that a recent illness had obviously overcome him. ‘The female I made to love was not an angel any longer, but had instantly become a demon. Heaven had cast her out. She had become one of the damned. I was making love to one of Lucifer’s tribe. We were both consumed, not with love, but with lust and when that happens there is no wonderful afterglow, but a terrible, unbearable emptiness. Once we were done my wretched soul was barren of any feeling but disgust with myself.’
We were silent for a long while after Beau had finished his account. Around us the room was in a normal state of civilized activity. Men were playing cards, or drinking and talking together, or rustling a newspaper alone. Waiters were answering summons with formal smoothness and quietude. On the odd occasion there would be a greeting called to a friend who had just entered, or even raised voices as some members were in a political or moral argument. Only in our corner was there this deathly stillness while we tried to process what we had heard from Beau.
‘So,’ said Simon, breaking the silence at last, ‘you were responsible for the downfall of an angel? She has gone to join the other demons in hell?’
‘She must take part of the blame,’ Freddie argued. ‘She agreed to the liaison.’
‘No, no,’ murmured Beau. ‘The fault is entirely mine.’
‘I doubt though,’ I said, ‘you will wish to continue your career of seduction of the fairer sex.’
‘My dear St John,’ said Beau, as I stared into eyes which I now believe I had recently witnessed all the ages of mankind passing by, ‘you don’t think one can make love to a demon and retain one’s ability to perform the act ever again, do you? The culmination of the love-making, our simultaneous orgasms if you will permit me to put it crudely, coincided with the total burning of my loins. I had thrust my manhood into a furnace. I was in intense mortal agony. The shepherds in the distant hills could hear my screams.’ He let out a hollow moan that could be heard throughout the whole of White’s as he concluded, ‘I can never again lay with a woman.’
Over the next few weeks we saw a malignant change in Beau that was both startling and appalling. His cheeks became sunken until they were shadowy hollow in his face. His once soft eyes took on the consistency of chalcedony: stone-cold, cruel, penetrating, devoid of any compassion or amity. The lips often curled back to reveal rapidly yellowing teeth. Brutish sounds came from his throat, where previously nothing had emerged but eloquence. He became brittle and spiteful in character and quarrelled with anyone he believed was slighting him. One by one we fell away from him, until there was only Freddie who would bear his company. Dear Freddie, who would take any insult or foul oath from his hero Beau, so long as he could be with him. Then one night, at a card table in Whites, Beau accused Freddie of cheating. Naturally Freddie objected in the most hurt tones and at that moment Beau sprang up and drove a silver paperknife through Freddie’s right eye, on into his brain, killing the hapless young man instantly. None of us went to the hanging, though the public was admitted to a gallery, and it was rumoured that Beau’s last bitter words were, ‘I know where I’m going but my one comfort is knowing that she’s already there.’
“A Bad Night” by Michael Landry
Illustration by Cesar Valtierra