Strangers at Dawn

By: Elizabeth Thornton

Oxford. Those were the days, those golden, halcyon days of their youth.

“I wish to propose a toast,” Max said, and was appalled at the crack in his voice. Maybe he’d had too much to drink as well.

“Lud, save us,” drawled Ash Meynell, the dandy of the group. He gazed at Max through his quizzing glass. “I think the man is still alive.”

This remark set everyone off, and they began to harangue Max for his dismal performance against Mighty Jack. Max took it in good part. In fact, these friends were so comfortable with each other that trading insults had become an art with them.

“To Oxford,” he said, raising his brandy bottle.

“Oxford,” they chorused, then guzzled down great, healthy swigs from the bottles that were passed around.

From the floor of the coach, a voice said musingly, “Refresh my memory. Did any of us ever graduate from that august establishment?”

A chorus of no’s answered the question.

“Were we supposed to?” asked Ash, training his quizzing glass on the body on the floor.

Tony Palmer hoisted himself into a sitting position. “I was,” he said. “Don’t ask me why. My father didn’t graduate either, but he expected better from his son. There was an awful scene when I was sent down.”

This brought on a series of reminiscences about their years at Oxford, then led, in a convoluted way, to a round of toasts to the king, fox hunting, actresses and opera dancers in general, and finally, and more soberly, to “absent friends.”

Three of them were now, sadly, married and obliged to accommodate their wives’ wishes instead of their friends’ wishes. There could be no bachelor parties in Brighton for married men. It was a great joke among them that the only thing married men were good for was gout, and no one wanted to contract gout before his time, if ever.

Max caught sight of the landmark he’d been looking for, the old church of Saint Laurence, and he roared, “Driver, stop the coach.”

His friends were so stupefied by this sudden turn of events that Max had clambered out of the coach before they had come to themselves. When they protested, he held up his hand to silence them.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “the carnal delights of Madame Caper’s establishment are not for me. You may have noticed that during our bout, Jack Cleaver practically unmanned me. Frankly, I’m still in agony, and if I attempt the acrobatics you so graphically described, I may never rise from my bed again.”

“What he means,” said John, “is he can’t get it up.”

When the laughter had died away, Max said, “I can’t argue with that. I’ll meet up with you in Brighton, then.”

“That’s what you said last year,” drawled Ash, “but you did not show. Do you know what I think, Max? I think you’re becoming a prime candidate for gout. My mother tells me it happens to all Corinthians sooner or later.”

This provoked a howl of protests. When there was a momentary silence, Max said, “Ash, you should know me better than that. I’m too careful to come down with gout. I’ll make it to Brighton, though I can’t spare more than a few days. My business is taking me to Exeter for the next month or two, and I can’t get away for longer than that.”

“What business?” a slurred voice demanded.

“Didn’t you know? Max has made an offer for the Exeter Chronicle,” replied another. “He’s on his way there now.”

This brought to mind a bawdy drinking song on Exeter’s accomplished equestrians, and before the coach moved off, five lusty voices were braying the lewd rendition at the top of their lungs.

Max winced as he turned in the direction of the High Street where the Black Swan was situated, and he delayed for a moment to take stock of his injuries. He ached all over, his nose throbbed, and his jaw felt as though it had been hit by a brick. The important question was, however-could he still perform? It was one thing to put his friends off, and quite another to put Deirdre off. She might fly into one of her famous rages if he were so boorish as to plead a headache or that he was feeling under the weather.

Bloody hell! He hadn’t invited her to accompany him to Exeter, knowing she would only get in the way. But her doddering old husband, Sir William Honeyman, had gone off to his estate in Kent, and Deirdre had surprised him by turning up at the Black Swan. She’d known by the look on his face that he wasn’t pleased to see her, and when he’d gone off to meet his friends, there had been a ferocious argument. If he put her off now, there would be a scene, and he wasn’t in the mood for scenes.

Put her off? He was beginning to sound like an octogenarian. Of course he wasn’t going to put her off. A man would have to have two feet in the grave if Deirdre couldn’t revive him. He would perform if he died in the attempt.

At least he would die with a smile on his face.

The Black Swan was in darkness except for the lantern hanging at the front porch. Max made his way through the arch that led to the courtyard. There were more lanterns lit here. He didn’t expect to meet anyone at two o’clock of the morning, nor did he. Reading was a country town, early to bed and early to rise. All the inns locked their doors shortly after sunset. But he’d taken that into consideration before he’d gone off with his friends.