The Violet Phantom and the Yellow Conquistidor: Part 1
It is May, 1808, and the wars between France and Britain have been raging for several years. Napoleon has, just a year prior, enacted the Berlin Decree in hopes of damaging the economy of Britain. It is at this time that a fearless hero and military conqueror emerges, such as has never been seen before nor will ever be seen again in the annals of history. This is his story.
Austen Slaymaker inhaled deeply as he cantered across the vale on his lively chestnut mare. It was a pleasant spring day, and he found the fresh air invigorating after hours of indoor drudgery directing servants to draw his bath, adjust his cravat, and butter his crumpets while he read the Weekly Dispatch for his dose of political caricature.
But before long, Slaymaker’s stunt of serene contemplation in the English countryside was broken by a loud chorus of honking. Lo and behold, a flock of geese came flapping in for a landing in a nearby pond, spooking Slaymaker’s stalwart steed and sending him speedily sightseeing across the shireland. Clinging onto his saddle horn for dear life, the rider decided that it might be prudent to bail out before his mount charged through the wooded glen. Slaymaker leaped, tumbled, and soon found himself flat on his back, cloud-gazing in a patch of heather. Just as he began to identify strange shapes in the fluffy white matter floating across the sky, his incoherent thoughts were interrupted by the voice of a little girl.
“Are you alright?”
“I asked if you were you alright,” repeated the little girl.
“Oh yes, I think so,” he assured her, rubbing his head. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Emily De Lacy. What’s yours?”
“Oh, the name’s Slaymaker, Austen Slaymaker. Can you tell me where I am?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” she sighed. “I’ve been lost for about an hour.”
Slaymaker struggled to his feet, dusted off his white riding pants, and extended his hand to her. “Well, at any rate, its a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Emily. I suppose it’s our lot to find our way together.”
But try as they might to find the long road home, the hours wore on, and all the familiar landmarks – trees, pond, hills, waterways – began to repeat themselves. As twilight descended, they found themselves staggering through a marshy woodland without the foggiest idea of their actual location. Wearied by their exertions, they both sat down on a mossy log to ponder their sorry situation.
“Are we going to die out here?” queried Emily.
“No, no, certainly not,” assured Slaymaker, trying to sound cheerful.
“My feet hurt,” moaned Emily, seemingly distraught and close to tears.
“I can carry you piggyback,” suggested Slaymaker.
Emily accepted the gallant offer, jumping on Slaymaker with a jolt, even though he wasn’t completely prepared for the sudden weight. Nevertheless, he steeled himself to bear the load and continued on into the pitch-black woods, aided only by the light a partial moon.
Another half an hour slipped away, and the gentleman and the little girl were both feeling increasingly hungry, soggy, and exhausted. Slaymaker tripped over fallen logs and underbrush, his boots sinking into the swampy ground and his fine riding pants getting muddier by the minute. He was just beginning to tire of having leafy branches hitting him in the face and feeling the weight of Emily on his back, when he spied a strange moving light off in the distance. Encouraged by the sight, he headed towards it with renewed energy.
As they approached, a lantern-bearing figure called out, “Who be ya?”
“Oh, Jacob, it’s me, Emily!” she yelped.
“Where’ve ya bin, m’lady Emily…? And who’s this ‘ere?” the approaching yeoman farmer inquired, gesturing towards Slaymaker, suspiciously. Slaymaker managed a faint smile.
“He’s a friend, Jacob,” explained Emily.
“You ought to be gettin’ back t’ the house,” Jacob insisted, his brow knitting into a frown. “The fam’ly has been worried sick.”
The two lost sheep were more than happy to follow their newfound shepherd back home, with his lantern held aloft.
When they finally reach the house, Slaymaker was astonished at how grandiose it was, and he began to realize that Emily came from a very prominent family indeed. In comparison, he would no doubt be considered a mere member of the impoverished gentry, even if his father’s manor and staff of servants were nothing to scoff at either.
Emily finally jumped off of Slaymaker, and ran ahead to greet several young women who have emerged from the house with excited shrieks of greeting. Slaymaker, who had just begun to admire the bevy of pretty faces, was suddenly set upon by a large and over-excited Great Dane that bounded out of the house, leaped on top of him, and knocked him down the porch stairs.
“Oh, Hermes, get away! Look at what you’ve done to this poor, helpless man!”
Slaymaker, flushed with embarrassment, was promptly picked up by Jacob and the butler carried indoors to have the scrape on his head attended to.
As everyone rushed inside, a stocky, balding man in a smoking jacket came hobbling down the spiral staircase leaning on a cane, and bellowed: “What’s all the racket about?!”
It was Colonel Isaac De Lacey, the father of the family and former officer in the King’s Service during the American Revolution.
“This is Mr. Slaymaker, Papa,” Emily spoke up. “He helped me find my way home. Or at least he tried to, but then we wound up more lost than we were to begin with…”
“Slaymaker?” the man repeated incredulously
His mind flashed back to an old acquaintance by the same name, a Sir Rodney Slaymaker, who had served as a diplomat in France before the events of the French Revolution. He had been involved in a scandal with a French gypsy woman who had borne him a son. This same son Rodney had brought back with him to England to raise as a gentleman. Now Colonel De Lacey began to wonder about the man lying prostrate on his sofa, being tenderly cared for by his four adoring daughters.
“Could he be? No, no…or maybe…it could be…” he mumbled under his breath.
Either way, he was happy to see Emily back safe and sound. He was also comforted by the sight of his one sane daughter, nineteen-year-old Jane, sitting stoically in the corner, ignoring all the fuss over the handsome young stranger and continuing to bury her nose in a book about military tactics.
She was not the most glamorous of the bunch, what with her frizzy, auburn hair, freckled face, spectacles, and blandly-colored, formal attire. But she had always been her father’s favourite child because of her level-headed, unromantic approach to life and her keen interest in all things related to his military profession. Besides, she was only one who had the same distinctive violet-blue eyes of her late mother, Lydia Crost De Lacy. When the colonel looked into them, he felt that his beloved wife was not gone after all, but lived on in Jane. Due to her personal peculiarities and lack of interest in the panoply of eligible manhood, De Lacey was happy to assume that after all her sisters had been married off, she would remain single and be his companion and care-taker in his old age.
Just then, the butler walked into the room and intoned: “Supper is served.”
“This is a lovely meal, Mr. De Lacy,” said Slaymaker, slurping a spoonful of cheesy onion soup. “Please give my compliments to the cooks for the excellent supper, and especially for cutting my Pumpernickel bread into triangles without crust, and buttering it, as requested.”
Mr. De Lacy snorted contemptuously in reply.
Frances, the second-eldest daughter, unable to contain her curiosity, piped up, “Mr. Slaymaker, where on earth did you get that scar on your face?”
He touched his cheek in a self-conscious and slightly theatric manner, breathed in deeply, and stammered, “I…I received it during my time in…in Ireland.”
Julia, the second-youngest daughter, jumped in enthusiastically, “You served in the British Army!? How exciting!”
Slaymaker, taken aback, asserted, “Oh, yes, of course, my service in the Army…it’s been quite a few years, but…”
The eldest daughter, Lydia, inquired, “Were you struck by a sword or a bayonet?”
“Oh, it was by sword…uhhh… in a duel,” Slaymaker elaborated.
“A duel? How romantic!” exclaimed Frances.
“Was it over a lady?” asked Julia.
“Yes, there was in fact a lady present,” replied Slaymaker with a bashful grin.
Truth be told, Slaymaker, in his youth, had a particularly bad habit of gesticulating with his utensils while talking at the dinner table. In one unfortunate episode, when he was staying in his aunt’s estate in Ireland at the age of twelve, Slaymaker was involved in a lively conversation with her about whether cats were superior to dogs. He accidentally slashed himself in the face with the knife he had been trying to eat peas with, leaving a large scar from the corner of his mouth to his cheekbone. But for the moment, encircled by so many charming young ladies, Slaymaker felt that a little imaginative improvising on such a commonplace tale of domestic tragedy could be forgiven.
Mr. De Lacy now directed the food – roast beef, potato dumplings, with plenty of gravy, and a garden vegetable medley – to be placed on the table. As they delved into the main course, Mr. De Lacy, suspicious of what Slaymaker had said a few moments earlier, exchanged a questioning look with Jane, who was seated next to him.
“What regiment did you serve in, sir?” the master of the estate inquired.
“Umm…uhhh…the Household Irish Lancer Yorkshire Regiment…?” Slaymaker decided in a less than confident tone.
“Well, that’s quite impressive,” Jane remarked, sarcastically. “They are a highly-decorated regiment.”
“Yes… umm… thank you, Miss Jane,” Slaymaker responded, wondering if his lucky guess had seen him through the uncomfortable situation after all. Deciding not to press his luck he hurriedly tried to change the topic. “So, ladies, do you enjoy the poetry of William Blake?”
The subject of poetry in general managed to hold sway through the rest of the main course and continued as dessert – glazed strawberry shortcake with crystallized violet petals, apple fritters with brown sugar, and spiced cider with cinnamon stirrers – was served. Slaymaker always had a keen sweet tooth, and now he overindulged, becoming more and more hyperactive in his manner of speaking as the night wore on. This did nothing to make him quicker on his feet, and Mr. De Lacey took full advantage of this.
“You should know, Slaymaker, that there’s a regiment being raised just now by a local businessman,” the old soldier remarked. “It will be heading off to Spain in the coming weeks to do battle with Napoleon’s French frogs. The regiment is looking for qualified men to purchase commissions, and you strike me as someone who would quite admirably fulfill that requirement.”
Jane gave her father a scolding look, which was nonchalantly dismissed with the shrug of his shoulders. De Lacy had a deep-seated dislike of the French because they had aided the rebels during the American Revolution. Due to Slaymaker being half-French, Mr. De Lacy was none-too-fond of him either, and had just decided that it would serve him right for his wild fibbing to make a tour of duty abroad and see some real fighting. But Jane felt differently. In spite of the young man’s nonsensical bragging and obvious incompetence, her motherly instincts went out to him, and she instantly disapproved of her father’s intentions.
Surrounded by girls and suffering from sugar craze, Slaymaker was clearly put on the spot by De Lacey’s suggestion that he go for a soldier. He knew he couldn’t fight. He was allergic to fighting. And yet…how could let everyone down? At this point, fate intervened and made his decision for him. While in the middle of cracking a walnut with a decorative nutcracker (appropriately, in the shape of a redcoat officer), he accidentally caught his thumb in its jaw.
“Did you say yes, sir?” inquired Mr. De Lacy.
“Uh…I…yes…?” Austin muttered, desperate to save face and extract his aching thumb at the same time.
At once, his gallery of admirers became overjoyed.
“Our hero!” squeaked Emily.
“You’ll probably take the eagle touched by Napoleon himself,” prophesied Frances.
“And the French will surrender out of shame!” Julia finished, clapping her hands in sheer romanticized bliss.
Jane, meanwhile, quickly excused herself from table, and went to her room to hatch a plan. She had always been at her most mentally agile during a crisis, and now was no exception.
The regiment in question was being raised by a local businessman, Samuel Fisher, a cotton mill operator, who De Lacy despised. Fisher, years prior, had gotten on Colonel De Lacey’s bad side, by chopping down one of his favorite trees that was on the border of their two respective properties. So the legend went, it had been planted by Colonel De Lacy’s distant ancestor, who came over during the Norman Conquest, a little over 700 years earlier.
Now, De Lacy realized that he could kill two birds with one stone by passing off Slaymaker to Fisher as a qualified officer. He firmly believed that the result would be the convenient removal of the half-French upstart he so disliked and the destruction of Fisher’s regiment, putting him in a permanent state of national disgrace. If in the process they managed to do away with some of Napoleon’s French in the process, well…all the better!
So the day after his memorable dinner at the De Lacey manor, Slaymaker was promptly marched off to Fisher’s muster at his mill south of Bristol where he took part in the signing of his commission and joined in the parade of fellow red-coated recruits down to the docks at Southampton to board the vessel bound for Spain. Now that his sugar hype had worn off and female adulation had blown over, however, Austin found it difficult to view the whole experience in anything but a decidedly negative light.
Jane did come by to see the newly-formed regiment off, and shook Austin’s hand in a very comradely fashion, but she noticed that it did little to improve his obviously melancholy mood. She continued to watch as they marched down and road to the trill of fife and the rattle of drum, until the recruits and become nothing but a mere red speck in the distance.
Just then, who should come galloping up to the mill but Sir Rodney Slaymaker, in a state of total panic. Spotting Jane, he called out, “Miss De Lacy, I just caught wind of the horrific news that my son was thinking of joining the Army!”
“Er…yes, he was,” she answered, and gestured indicatively down the road that the soldiers had taken.
“Noooooo!” shrieked Sir Rodney histrionically. “I’m too late! He’s doomed! He was such a dear little boy, always so pleasant – and scatter-brained – he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. Oh, Fate, why hast thou turned thy wheel thus?!”
“Sir Rodney, never fear,” Jane consoled him with a sly smile, picking up a leather pack that had been laying in a pile of straw and slinging it across her shoulders. “Your son will have all the protection he needs.” With that she mounted a nearby horse, and galloped off in the direction of the wharves.
That very evening, the ship bearing Slaymaker and his comrades, HMS Warrior, raised anchor and sailed out of the port of Southampton and into the twilight mist. Given good weather, the voyage usually took five days, and good weather was with them as they set out. Nevertheless, Slaymaker found it impossible to sleep in his rough hammock rocked by the waves, with nothing to do but ponder his plentiful problems. Hence, as darkness settled over the brooding sea, he staggered up on deck, trying to find his sea-legs but only finding that we getting more and more seasick.
When he was just about reaching the end of his rope and was turning a dreadful shade of green, he heard an urgent-sounding whisper that seemed to be coming from a woman: “Austen, over here!”
“Where?” questioned Slaymaker, turning around and around, and getting himself more sick.
“Over here…by the pinnace!” said the voice again.
Slaymaker groped towards the small boat on the larboard side of the weather deck, and he was quickly pulled down by someone’s hand.
“What in the name of Hermes…mmm…” Slaymaker was interrupted by Jane’s sudden move to cover his mouth.
“You’ll alert the watchmen on duty if you aren’t careful!” she chided him in an annoyed voice.
“Sorry,” Slaymaker apologized. “I had no idea it was going to be you…you…what are you doing here?” demanded Slaymaker. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he realized that she was dressed like a seaman and had a leather pack slung over her shoulder.
“Simply put, I’m here to warn you about the small detail of my father’s ill intent,” she explained.
“Ill intent?” he repeated confusedly.
“Yes. My father doesn’t like Fisher…or you…and he thinks that having you in a position to be an officer in the regiment will send one of you to inevitable disgrace and the other…to inevitable demise.”
This final fact was too much for Slaymaker’s already weak stomach, and he promptly leaned over the edge of the pinnace and threw up. She patted him on the back and inquired, “Are you very ill?”
“No, no, all better now,” Slaymaker panted after recollecting himself. He turned around, and Jane could see that his face had gone from sea green to snow white. “How…how can I handle the business at hand? What…what can I hope to do…?”
“Well, you’ll just need to prove my father wrong. I can tell that you have the seed of greatness in you…even though it may be hidden behind appearances. All it needs is some watering and tending, and it shall bloom forth in no time.”
Slaymaker, deciding to be pleased with the overall of the assessment, beamed brightly.
“That’s why I’m here,” added Jane, “to help that process along.”
“But…but you’re only a girl!” objected Slaymaker. “This isn’t right, Miss De Lacy; I must tell the captain.”
Jane smiled coyly. “I’m fairly certain that my gender precedes my knowledge on military matters. But of course, you must do what you feel you must do. Do you think you might need some help narrating your experiences serving in the…ehem…’Household Irish Lancer Yorkshire Regiment’?”
Slaymaker stared back at her, realizing her full intent to carry out the implied threat. Finally resigning himself to his limited options, he took it all on the chin and responded in a hushed tone: “Well, shall we get started?”
To Be Continued…
By Rosaria Marie & Byrnwiga