Today, I welcome Steven Neil to the stage with an excerpt from The Merest Loss.
Steven is giving away (3) Signed Paperback copies of “THE MEREST LOSS.” For your chance to win, be sure to leave him a comment below.
From Steven Neil, the author of THE MEREST LOSS
A story of love and political intrigue, set against the backdrop of the English hunting shires and the streets of Victorian London and post-revolutionary Paris.
Critical plot turn and a character emerges
In chapter seven of The Merest Loss a critical plot turn occurs, when Nicholas Sly enters the narrative and changes the direction of travel of the novel. Not only does the personality of Sly show itself, but the way Harriet responds shows how her own character has developed.
In Nicholas Sly’s wood-panelled office, two people sit across from each other at a large, plain desk. There is a fire laid in the fire grate, but it has not been lit. The room is chill. There has been a brief exchange of words. Sly looks at Harriet Howard over his half-moon glasses. He is a big man, thick-set and heavy-jowled. He is dressed all in black. His stomach protrudes and the thin, stockinged legs, sticking out from his frock coat, give him the appearance of a plump, black cockerel.
‘You’re asking me to be a courtesan,’ she says.
‘I am asking you to be a patriot,’ he says.
‘You’re asking me to spy for a secret government service?’
‘Oh Miss Howard, don’t be so melodramatic. Her Majesty’s Government does not have a secret service and it does not employ spies. We are asking you to place yourself in our care and to be available to entertain the company of certain, distinguished gentlemen when we require it. Otherwise, you are free to proceed as you wish … but with certain restrictions of course.’
‘And what would these restrictions be?’
‘So you are accepting our proposition and we are now discussing the arrangements. Is that correct, Harriet?’
‘No sir, I am not. You’ve apprehended me without warning and brought me here against my wishes. My answer is no. I would be grateful if you would allow me to leave. And you may not call me Harriet.’
‘Ah, Miss Howard,’ he says. He lets out a long sigh.
Minutes pass. He looks at her more closely. She is young, slim and elegantly dressed. He is struck by her red hair, which hangs in ringlets and frames a pale face, with piercing, brown eyes and high cheekbones. He notices that her features are not augmented with the powder and rouge that are the order of the day. He considers that she is not quite what he expected.
‘I rather hoped all this would be unnecessary,’ he says. ‘It is most irregular that you need persuasion.’
‘I have nothing further to say.’
He sits forward at his desk and rests his chin on his hands, which he has clasped together, as if in prayer. She looks towards the window and sits upright. There is a slight pout at her lips.
‘I want you to think about this carefully,’ he begins again. ‘We have taken an interest in you for some time now. We know a great deal about your situation. You have received an excellent education, you are an accomplished horsewoman, you speak French tolerably well and I am told that men of a certain type find you attractive. The Duke of Grafton and Lord Normanby speak very highly of you. I rather hoped that you would wish to use your talents in the service of Queen and country. It is an honour to be asked.’
‘I will not be at anyone’s beck and call. I will not be bullied.’
‘You will have a great deal of freedom. Rather more than might be imagined. We can arrange somewhere superior to live. There will be a dress allowance. You will be able to attend all the balls one could wish for. Lady Blessington will look after you and introduce you properly into London society. It is a wonderful opportunity for a young lady in your position.’
‘You know nothing about my “position” as you call it. I have a career as an actress. I am making my own way in life. I wish to make my own choices.’
‘An actress, Miss Howard. Are we talking in euphemisms now?’
‘Do not patronise me, sir. I have made my reputation through hard work.’
‘Oh, my word. Reputation is it? Hard work? I have no doubt your efforts are appreciated.’
‘My answer has not changed.’
‘You drive a hard bargain, Miss Howard. Time was when a young lady like you would be happy to join us. I always find it quite distasteful to talk about money, but you are rather forcing my hand on the matter. You will receive a generous allowance, on top of the arrangements I have already explained. I cannot name a figure, but it will not be unacceptable, I believe.’
‘I am not interested. I have nothing more to say.’
‘Come, come. It is not as if I am asking you to do something you have not done before. We are simply improving the terms, so to speak.’
‘Do not press me. You have my answer.’
‘You are beginning to test my patience. We can perhaps see our way to the provision of a personal maid if that would help, but really we are reaching the end of our negotiation on the matter.’
Nicholas Sly’s brow creases. He is accustomed to acceptance. He wonders where the young woman, little more than a girl, is finding the confidence to cross him like this.
‘I am going to give you one more chance. There is nothing more on the table. If you resist our offer, you will not find us so convivial the next time.’
The light at the windows fades and a servant arrives with a taper, to ignite the oil lamps. Sly holds up his hand, palm outwards, and the servant backs away through the doorway. He snaps a match into a sulphurous flame and lights one candle, on the desk in front of him. He watches the candle sputter and smoke, as the tallow begins to burn off. He waits.
‘I will not bow to threats,’ she says.
‘You and I are going to meet again and I will not be so conciliatory. You are a very foolish young lady. I see that you do not have the wit to understand what is being offered. I am very disappointed.’
‘Perhaps I am not what you are looking for.’
© Steven Neil
Steven has a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics, a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the Open University and an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University. He has been a bookmaker’s clerk, bloodstock agent, racehorse breeder and management consultant amongst other professions in his varied career. He is married and lives in rural Northamptonshire, England. The Merest Loss is his debut novel.
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