Yesterday, I wrote about my own experience with the artistic mad genius moment (you can read it here). During my experience, I created a novel that might be unpublishable called Maxmillian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare (One of my favorite of my works, to be honest).
Today I thought it would be fun to share the first chapter from this work. I hope you enjoy it.
The Dreaded Invitation
It is with great trepidation and very little pleasure that I begin this next chapter in the life of the great Maxmillian Standforth. For many long months I have debated with my soul and conscience on whether to share this work with you, faithful reader. But in these hard times, my wallet and empty stomach has forced me to share this chronicle no matter what misgivings I may have at the task ahead. Yes, hard times have forced my unsteady hand and pen, but I will share no more of that now. No, it’s not important. If it comes, it will come later in these pages. For now, let me warn you of the morbid and sad tale ahead of you. This is a tale filled with horror, dear reader- dark passages, ghostly apparitions, and deaths I would give my last shilling to forget. A tale, I am sad to say that even tested the mind of one of our country’s greatest citizens…. The outcome of that test you will see shortly if you dare continue.
This story begins in the later end of 1864. I had been in the employment of Master Standforth for four years and we had already shared the adventures you have read in the previous installments. The world was changing, nervous on what was to come. While our papers were filled with the exploits of the war in the colonies, our London was growing darker under the ashes of our rising industries. There were new financial barons rising, challenging for the first time the noble classes that have ruled our empire for centuries. You could feel the uncertain change in the air, in the heavy fog and rain.
It had been a quiet three months in my employment with hardly an adventure in sight (Save the odd uncomfortable position that a rambunctious Maxmillian can bring to an evening). My job followed the simple monotony of delivering the morning paper (which he never bothered to read), taking care of his horse (Miss Elizabeth), being ready for the possibility of another evening outing (For his drinking and social visits to friendly female establishments) and doing my best to stay out of the path of his beautiful maid, Miss Maggie Collins. After the exposure of my true emotions to her in our last adventure, I have been avoiding her as best as I can… and sadly- I must admit- I have been very successful at it.
So it will come as no surprise to you my astonishment one morning when I found her quietly watching me from a short distance as I brushed the mane of Miss Elizabeth. How long had she been there? Her small and delicate hands were carrying what looked like the mail. Did she stop to see me on the way back up to the rooms? I jumped at the striking vision, did my best to regain my composure and gave what I could only hope looked like a welcoming smile. “Can I help you, Miss. Collins?” I asked with the short hint of a bow of the head.
She looked down at the single envelope in her hand and back up at me. She placed it carefully in her pocket and looked back up at me. “He wishes to see you.” She nodded back to the house.
She was delivering a message; it wasn’t a social visit. That fact did relax me a little, but only a little, while also pulling at my tender heartstrings. This visit was not by her choice. “Did he give a time that he will be expecting me?”
“No,” she said and turned to retreat to the house. “But I would recommend sooner than later.” She paused and then exhaled a great sigh. “He has his pistols out again.”
“Bob! My good man! Name a great painting!”
It was an odd question to receive upon entering a room, even when one has been in the employment of Maxmillian Standforth for four years; however, the question had an odder feeling for me since he was waving two loaded pistols in the air as he asked it. He had always been fond of those particular weapons- they were a gift from an earlier happy client in a case that took him to the now ungoverned and degenerate south of the colonies. What he always added at the end of the little story is that he didn’t need to be given the pistols- the client’s wife had made more than enough of a “payment” for his investigative work.
“Excuse me, sir?” I asked, trying to stay out of the line of the waving arsenal in front of me. His excitement was strange and he bounded from spot to spot in his dirty and luxurious rooms. The living room had the thick smell of tobacco, alcohol and something else I care not mention. It had clearly been too long since his mind was truly active.
“A painting, my good man, a painting! Name one!” He exclaimed quickly.
“Well, I’ve always been fond of the Italian Renaissance.”
Maxmillian stopped in his agitated (And possibly) drunken movement and gazed at me closely. “You know that makes perfect sense,” he said slowly.
I did not have to time to register what that exactly meant, since he was in motion again- Waving me into the room with one gun and then showing me an empty artist’s easel in front of him with the other. “Oh,” I sighed, greatly relieved. “I see, you wish to paint a famous painting.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head quickly, “I plan to shoot a famous painting.”
I sat down on his dirty and extravagant couch and looked up at my master with a stunned expression- my natural expression whenever in his presence. “You wish to shoot a famous painting?”
“Yes!” He said. His red velvet bathrobe swished in the air as he threw a pile of books off a chair nearby me and sat down with a flourish. He was always dressed in the height of fashion, even when attired for merely lounging in his filthy rooms. Immaculate and messy had a strange meeting in those rooms, a glimpse into my master’s mind. “It’s a wonderfully devilish plan! First we’ll steal the painting.”
“Steal a work of art?”
”Oh, yes, it sounds hard, but I’m sure we will be successful. We are two cunning individuals,” he said with a little devilish laugh and then continued to speak in his normal quick pace. “Maybe a week, possibly two. Yes, I can see it going longer than two. Don’t you think it would take that long to plan and execute? Seems proper to me. We might have to go undercover. A cleaning crew might be best. We could sneak it out in the trash. Or maybe we could try to be security guards- they could just give us the keys.”
“That’s not my confusion, sir.”
I paused and said as simply as I could. “Why would we want to?”
He seemed shocked by the question. “My good man! For the adventure of it!”
I shook my head and then said slowly. “I still do not understand.”
Maxmillian nodded his head looked away and then back at me, choosing his words carefully. “Bob, art is an illusion.” He spoke in a fashion one would use in addressing a child.
“I don’t…” I began to say.
“Understand?” he finished for me. “Yes, well, I see that. Let me go into more detail. Art is an illusion of reality. It’s a lie. You believe what you want to believe about it. You see beauty because you decide to see beauty. You decide to see what the painter wants you to see. You want to see Jesus our savior- you see him suffering or blessing some wayward child. And in choosing to acknowledge the image you can then decide if you will or will not feel for it. Lie, lie, lie! You see, Bob, you decide on some level to feel for it; you want to feel for it… but it’s not real, Bob, not real at all. See at the heart of the quiet exchange between you and the artist there is one inescapable truth- it is an illusion, fake.”
“It’s an interesting theory,” I said carefully. “It still doesn’t explain your wish to destroy a treasured masterpiece.”
“A theory!? Pish!” He paused and then leaned back in the chair and with a moan exclaimed. “Fine then, I am bored.” He moved his head up to look back to me, his wild eyes flaring with excitement and glee. “And think of it, Bob, they might hire me to solve the crime. Wouldn’t that be fun? We could frame anyone we want for our own crime! Who would you like to put in a cell? You can have first pick!”
It was moments like this that called for my pipe and tobacco, but there were back in the carriage house. All I could do was look away and back at the eager eyes of my employer- then restate the obvious again in the hope of bringing back a piece of his sanity. “So you would destroy a classic work of art, a masterpiece, out of boredom?”
He turned his head to the side, confused. “By your tone I believe you are questioning our venture.”
I began to stutter as I prepared my response, but he waved it off my prattle nonchalantly. “No more, no more, Bob, I know your opinion. I hear, I hear.”
He jumped back to his feet and walked over to the easel with the blank canvas in front of it. He stared at it intensely as he spoke, “It would be so easy, Bob, so easy. We steal the work. We bring it back here… I then…” He crookedly pointed both his guns at the canvas and shot!
I jumped at the noise. In the street outside, I could hear a crowd erupt in surprise-some screamed, others began talking loudly. I immediately imagined the people jumping to the ground, some covering their children for protection. Someone called for a constable. Maxmillian, who is usually always well aware of his surroundings, didn’t pay any attention to the noise outside, but had turned back to me and said ever so casually, “And then we put the painting back. So again, I ask, Bob, what is your favorite painting?”
Luckily I was saved from answering the question put forth by the harsh clang of the front door bell.
“Fast today. That will be a constable,” Maxmillian sighed. “Bob, could you help me? Behind you on the mantelpiece will be my purse, pray, remove a few pounds as a bribe. Thank you dear fellow.” He waved one of the smoking guns carelessly in the direction. “Not too much, I do plan to go drinking tonight and some cards may be played. I have a knack for losing when I have been drinking.”
I nodded in understanding- And as I got up and slipped five pounds from his purse, he continued to walk around the destroyed easel (Picturing Mona Lisa or some other great work in a similar state). Yes, that should easily be enough for a bribe. Knowing this to be my master’s home they wouldn’t expect any less.
As I awaited the sound of footsteps on the steps, Maxmillian continued with his radical idea. “We could hit entire movements! Think of it, Bob. We would be the terror of the art world. Destroying little illusions left and right. ” He laughed with a chuckle. “We might even steer people back to the museums. Swarms of people desperate to see what masterpieces were damaged next.” I could hear the soft steps of Maggie approaching on the stairs. I instantly straightened up and moved closer to the door. My master paid no attention to the approach and continued speaking to himself. “We could move on to sculptures, just imagine the fun a carefully aimed bullet will have with that? We could shoot the fig leafs right off.” He was certainly enjoying himself. He stopped and nodded with a twinkle in his eyes. “We could even start to terrorize living artists…” he giggled as his mind filled with many new devilish thoughts and turned back to the destruction.
Maggie sneaked in with little sound. There was no nod or greeting, this exchange being well practiced. As I handed her the bribe (My hand softly gracing hers) she handed me a letter, nodded towards it with a quick meaningful and fearful expression and exited.
My heart skipped a solitary beat before I realized it was not addressed to me, but my very distracted master (It was also not the letter she was holding this morning). When I saw what it was I quickly stuffed it into my pocket and said a silent prayer that Maxmillian did not see my quick burglary. Please don’t let him see. Please. Please….
I flinched at the exclamation and then quickly lowered my head.
I had failed.
He walked forward towards me. “I may be slightly drunk with a questionable venture in front of me, but there is no possibility I would miss such an obvious ploy.”
“Please, sir, I beg you,” I stuttered nervously. “Forget what you have seen. It would be the better choice, the wiser choice! I will destroy the letter and you can play innocent.”
“Play innocent? Ha! Do you remember whom you are speaking to?” The idea made him laugh. He stood in front of me with a smirk on his face. “Bob, I will trust you with my secrets, my tales and even my life, but my mail, dear fellow, is a different story.” And he held out his hand.
It was with a deep sigh that I reluctantly pulled the invitation out of my pocket and pushed it into his awaiting hand.
His eyes, like mine were quickly drawn down to the return address on the envelope. There was a quiet pause. “Oh,” he said stoically, the silence replacing the energy that seemed to be escaping from the room.
“I did warn you, sir.” I said awkwardly.
Maxmillian silently and ever so quietly stepped away from me. His body had changed with the burden of the letter. Where once his excitement controlled his entire thin frame, now his body hung heavy under the weight of his shoulders and his fallen head. He placed his smoking pistols on the couch then stepped towards the window. He tapped the envelope against his hands as he stared down at the street below him. Was he considering throwing it out?
“It would be so easy,” I thought. “They wouldn’t know… Just say it didn’t arrive. Throw it. Just drop it like a forgotten nightmare in the light of dawn…”
He didn’t. Something within him controlled that easy urge- and with a bravery I couldn’t help but admire he opened the cursed invitation from his mother.
Below our room we could hear Maggie talking loudly to someone at the door-neither of us paid attention to the words both drawn to the documents in Maxmillian’s hand. As he read the invitation I moved across the room, doing my best to read the accursed documents over his shoulder. It was an invitation to a gala in two night’s time. “It’s a trap,” I said immediately.
“Most assuredly yes,” Maxmillian nervously whispered in response (As if she was able to hear from her estate many miles away). “She wants something but what?” He gripped the letter tightly in his clenched hands and began to pace his rooms.
“She wouldn’t have a party to speak of your adventures. That is hardly an argument she would want displayed to the judgmental public.”
Maxmillian nodded. “Yes, I agree.”
“And it’s not Christmas.”
“Bob, you simpleton, I know it’s not Christmas!” He grunted harshly.
Below, the loud conversation between Maggie and what sounded like a man was beginning to grow. It was at this moment that it started to truly draw my attention. Was she in danger? I tried my best to listen to her argument while watching my troubled master-Ready at a second to bound out of the door and down the stairs to the front door and her aid.
Suddenly Maxmillian stopped and clapped his hands, taking me by surprise. “That’s it!”
“What’s it?” I asked, surprised.
He turned to me with a laugh. “It’s obvious, my dear man, completely obvious.”
“Think of it, Bob. Why dare to have a public party in London with her notorious son in attendance unless it is in the hope of changing his ways… She wants to make a match!”
My immediate reaction to that statement was to laugh, but it was too risky. I covered my mouth and bit my lip as I simply asked. “I’m sorry, I must have misheard you.”
“Grandchildren, Bob, she wants grandchildren.” He laughed and raised his finger mockingly. “The great Standforth name must live on and since her and my father’s loins have dried up decades ago, it’s only right that she will attempt to push me into the fray.” He lowered his hand with a heavy thud to his side. “Fatherhood is an adventure, Bob that I think would be too great a burden for me. No, no, this can not be.” He actually looked scared at the thought. He shivered.
There were steps on the stairs leading to our rooms. They were heavy steps followed by the quick delicate steps of Miss Collins. Maxmillian and I both turned to the door as a young mustached constable pushed himself boldly into the room. “Sir, I must protest.”
Maxmillian and I exchanged glances.
This was something new… very new.
Maxmillian nodded to his purse and I moved towards it to withdraw more funds.
“No, no,” the constable said as I attempted to hand more money to him. He pushed the money back into my hands along with the five pounds from earlier. Behind him I could hear the annoyed sigh of Maggie. This was unheard of- A true first. “I cannot be bribed, sir.”
Maxmillian stared aghast. He stepped towards his couch and sat with mouth agape. “You won’t take a bribe?”
“No,” the constable responded.
“Not even a large one?”
He did not bother to answer that question. The constable straightened up. I studied him as he stood near me. His uniform was immaculate and his mustache was perfectly trimmed. His bobby hat was under his arm and his hair was parted with a precise and trained touch. A hair would never have attempted freedom in such a situation. “I am an officer of her majesty’s force and a former member of her royal army. This attempt at bribery is insulting, not only to me but the force, the country and her majesty.”
Maxmillian paused watching the man with the irate eyes in front of him. “I would hate to insult the country and her majesty, ” he said slowly. He then looked at me with a small glint in his eyes.
It was at these words that the constable began to realize whom he had been speaking to and the fact he was in clearly the presence of a class higher than his. He stood even taller, if it was possible. Careers were destroyed for less and he knew it. If it was to come, he must have quietly decided, he would take it as an officer and as a gentleman.
Maggie sighed annoyed and retreated down the stairs. She was clearly uninterested and unimpressed…but this was not true of my master. “That is incredible, I am speechless, sir, ” Maxmillian said with a wave towards his other couch. “Will you join me?”
“I can’t, sir,” The Constable said, “I’m on duty” and began to take a pad of paper out of his pocket. He was going to write a ticket. “I will have to fine you, sir.”
“What is your name, officer?” Maxmillian said and began to stand.
“Lt. Montgomery Bradshaw,” the Constable responded out of the side of his mouth as he concentrated out the form in front of him.
Maxmillian glanced over to me. “You see this Bob. This man, Bob, incredible.” He said. He then laughed as he approached the two of us. “Remember, Bob, what I said about art as an illusion of reality. Look at the man in front of you- he is just the same, a carefully created illusion, created by our country, our society. My mother would have loved to see this, both this fine constable and the action he is attempting- Her most deserving son finally getting in trouble with the law. It takes…” he stopped and his smirk returned to his face. “My mother.” He looked at me again quickly with a spark in his eye and back to the Constable. “Lt. Bradshaw, do you have plans for Friday evening?”
“Excuse me?” Lt. Bradshaw looked up from his form, surprised.
“Are you married?”
“Married? No, sir- not married, no, sir.”
“Then I ask again, are you free Friday?”
Bradshaw looked over at me as if I would explain the questions in front of him. To have the question of a free evening added with a question of matrimony from a man in his morning garb, well, who knows what the poor man could be thinking? I only shrugged my shoulders so he looked away from me and around at the apartment stopping his quick glance on the smoking guns sitting on the couch.
Maxmillian evilly placed the invitation on top of Lt. Bradshaw’s forms. Bradshaw looked down at the invitation in front of him. “My mother, Lady Standforth, is having a gathering in the hope of roping me into a marriage and in the process bringing forth a mountain of little heirs. It’s a well-orchestrated attack as you can imagine from someone as well connected in society as my mother. All the best families and their single young daughters and probably not so young daughters will be there. Nobility and desperation at it’s finest, if you will. And you my dear friend fit that proper society much better than me. Much better than I ever could, to be honest.”
“Are you inviting me to this gathering?”
Maxmillian turned to me. “He isn’t quick, but that is more than satisfactory.” He turned back to the officer. “Yes, I am inviting you. You are exactly the type of people my mother wishes the high society was filled with.” He paused and then added quickly. “And with your presence there, I will have an easier time being myself, if you understand my gist.”
“You are inviting me to be a distraction?”
Maxmillian laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “You are catching up. Excellent. Distraction yes, but more as a challenge. Whatever the case, dear boy, don’t worry about me. Think of the opportunity, man- Dukes, duchesses… and their rich daughters.” He leaned forward. “Rich and connected. Society is calling you. The empire is knocking on your door.” He waved his hand, imitating the motion of a knock. “Could you turn down the chance to say hello?” He leaned forward with a wink.
A strange smile began to cross the firm face of Lt. Montgomery Bradshaw of her majesty’s army and forces. He looked between my master and me a second time and smiled. “Friday, you say?”
Maxmillian laughed and patted him on the shoulder a second time. He walked away pointing back at the officer. “That’s the spirit, for good of the country and all. It’s not for two days. Until then we have to get you prepare! You have to be trained! You will need attire as well, a proper suit.”
“I have a suit,” the Officer interrupted. He looked at me and repeated, “I have a suit.”
“I’m sure it is nice,” Maxmillian said, “But you need a proper one. This is a different field you will be rooming in. This is not another night at the local opera house, my good officer.” He stopped in front of the destroyed easel and eyed it slowly up and down and smiled. “If I can’t destroy an illusion, Bob, maybe I can create one…”
The next two days were spent playing in Maxmillian’s new expensive and trivial game. He was an artist, creating merely a portrait of the perfect man and we would ride from saloon to store to gentleman club preparing the art. Bradshaw was able to get the two days off of work (Thanks to a note from Maxmillian) and allowed the pampering to go on, living in the dream Maxmillian created of easily seduced young women with rich, important fathers.
We began with his look. Hair was cut, nails prepared. He was taken to a Turkish bath, and cleaned (“Men aren’t greased into place, they are cleansed into it.”). A new suit and coat was furnished by London’s finest tailor along with the newest shoes (“Remember, my man and remember well- if you can choose something better, choose something better!”).
After that was completed, Maxmillian went on to speech. He was taught to speak. What words to use (“Maybe it would be best Bradshaw if you kept silent unless addressed, even then… concentrate on short sentences.”). What words to avoid. How to prepare one’s response- What is proper to say in a given situation? How to order food. How to eat, how to drink. (“Slow, slower, it is not going anywhere, eating is a joy. Savor, don’t conquer your plate.”) There was nothing that wasn’t discussed. And they were practiced and rehearsed over and over again into the late evening as Maxmillian paced in front of his new game repeating, “Again, man, again.”
He learned to walk like a gentleman and even dance like a gentleman. It was then that Maggie’s acting duties were called into action and she perfectly played the part of a young target as our officer bowed ever so gracefully in front of her and then took her onto the floor of Maxmillian’s great library- The hired string quartet playing the popular melodies of the day.
Maxmillian stood alongside me as we watched the lovely couple dance. He held a cane in his hand and tapped in on the ground in tempo with the music for the benefit of the inept dancing of Bradshaw. He leaned in towards me, not missing a single beat. “You know Bob, I think I would have escaped the confines of England if it was not for this game that was placed in front of me,” he smiled at me and patted my back. I did not respond. It was too difficult for me to look away from Maggie, so perfectly dressed, looking like the queen I thought her to be. Why had things changed between her and me? It was a question I could never escape for long in my mind. How I wish it was I taking her in my arms, leading her across the floor.
Maxmillian continued his ravings without any concern to my distraction. “When I held my mother’s invitations my first thought was to run and I was overcome with a beautiful image of you and I in Paris sitting in a little outdoor café discussing French literature. Maybe we could work on a book together? No more crime, just you and Maggie as my faithful servants relaxing… away from the smog of England, the dark alleys, the crime, the filth, the disease, the murders…” He paused saving his graver voice for the last part of his speech. “…away from my mother.”
The quartet ended their song and Lt. Bradshaw began to politely bow to Miss Collins. Maxmillian banged his cane against the floor to bring the attention to him. “Again! Begin again! We strive for perfection!”
Without an argument Bradshaw and Maggie bowed to each other again and began to dance as a new waltz started.
“And then the officer inspired me to stay, ” Maxmillian continued as if there was not an interruption, his cane once again banging out the tempo. “Yes, what a wonderful game. I couldn’t pass it up. An extravagant game. And if I played my cards right I should lose gloriously.” He leaned further in and said.
This truly caught my attention. I gasped in surprise. “You mean to be caught now?”
Maxmillian laughed loudly. “Yes, I realized, dear fellow it would be much more fun.”
I looked at Bradshaw (Feeling suddenly very sorry for the man) and back to Maxmillian. I couldn’t think of what to say.
Maxmillian patted my back. “You shouldn’t look so shocked, dear boy. Losing can be an artform too.”
Bradshaw looked over at Maxmillian confused at hearing the word “losing”- he looked as if he was about to say something, but Maggie reached up quickly turning his attention back to her and the task at hand.
Maxmillian looked between my gaze and Maggie. He sighed (I’m sure whispering something under his breath), shook his head and walked out to the dance floor to study the “lesson” more closely.
For me, I still stood silently- very silently- on the side watching that graceful angel dance as long as my heart would let me… and then departed alone to my quiet room.