Death's a Stage 




 


"My dear, Litchfield, I did not choose this life - it chose me," a well-heeled fop said to his young host as two elegant ladies joined the pair of men in the drawing room. "And now you'll probably spread your nonsensical theories to Levinia! Well, my dear chap, do your worst, but she'll never leave me for you," he added with a devilish wink toward his fair-eyed fiancée.

"Always the ladies' man, eh, Roderick?" asked the more dashing man's host with unsmiling eyes. Levinia ignored the argument and gently graced a once grand divan beside her laughing companion. The pair's silken skirts rustled softly, causing Roderick to smile. "Perhaps you will undo yourself one of these days, Lord Ashton," the host continued. And then that mask of yours will permanently drop."

"A fine thing to say to someone who could buy and sell you in a heartbeat, Litchfield, but I shall ignore it. The chill of the night air and the brightness of the harvest moon have softened my patrician heart, else I should have to call you out."

"Or worse," the man replied beneath brandy-soaked breath.

Levinia's pale blue eyes implored him to cease, but Ashton could not resist the smaller man's challenge. "Worse?" he asked. "You, sir, invite me to dine with you in this pitiful shack you call a country house, serve me a brace of disappointing grouse followed by a modest brandy, and then you dare to call me to account for my avocation? Yet, you do not stop there! Nay! You must continue the abuse by insulting me before these porcelain-skinned doves, forcing me to unsheathe my claws! Not a kind act, host. And you tell me I shall do worse to you, yet your simple mind cannot grasp the true meaning of that insult. Shall I demonstrate?" he pressed, stepping closer to the underweight host.

"Roderick, please!"

The tall, muscular man stopped, his polished boots black upon the marble floors, and his mood all the blacker for the evening's sour turn. "Levinia, my darling girl, bids me stop, and like an automaton in a hackneyed play, I must therefore stop, obedient and without will."

"Lord Litchfield meant no harm, Roderick. Please, let us play a game or something cheerful!"

"Yes, Lionel, what say you?" seconded the younger man's sister Melanie. "Let us have a game - or perhaps a story! That is what you do, isn't it, Lord Ashton? Weave magical tales?"

Roderick Lord Ashton turned toward Lady Melanie's clear and unwavering voice and bowed, a deep, sweeping bow of theatrical proportions. "For you, my dear Lady Melanie, I should bear any and all castigations, save those which would call you all but fair and true. Were I not already promised - albeit it from a childhood match - I should soon call your brother my own kin, but alas it cannot be so, for I am much in love with the graceful Levinia, am I not, dearest?" he asked, setting two dark eyes upon Levinia's pale but lovely face. She demurred, her chin dropping toward her thin lap and white hands. "How like a doe you look, my dear! Like a fair and innocent fawn, caught within the sharp eyes of a bowman's gaze!'

"You leave me nothing to say," she whispered huskily, her fawn's voice barely audible, barely human.

"Then I shall speak for us both!" Ashton crowed, striding to the fireplace, where he bent low to light a pipe. "Very well. I shall offer a tale for Lady Melanie!" he announced. "A tale fit for such a night as this. A night when owls shiver 'neath hateful boughs and even the wild wolves tremble. It was on such a night - aye, 'twas on this very night, the eve of All Hallows, when a Scotsman named MacDonald ventured forth from his wedding bed to chase a ghost."

"A ghost?" Melanie echoed excitedly. "How marvelous! Do continue, Lord Ashton!"

The dour host raised an auburn brow and waved his guest onward. "Yes, Roderick, do continue," he repeated, beating one fist against his thigh.

Grinning widely, the storyteller bowed once more. "For you, dearest Melanie, I shall perform in finest fashion. To begin where all tales must, I should take you back to a time when only the most caustic and cauterized soul did not believe in ghosts. Today's learned scientist assures us apparitions are merely a shifting shape within the fabric of our own animal brains - ephemeral at best, medicinal at worst. But long before our modern world grew sullen and scientific, our savage ancestors gaped in unschooled awe at the mention of fetches and faeries. A fetch! Such a noisome thing - for it reeked of death and ownership! Fetch of one's self, you see, for it is but a peek into the future - a foreknowing of death to come.

"And such it was that MacDonald saw that very night. You will remember, of course, that Angus MacDonald, youngest son of Fergus MacDonald and laird of a rundown castle near the foot of the Highlands, had wed in his third and thirtieth year a bashful maiden named Lady Violet Fergusson, twice his cousin, and thrice his station, but scarce half his age. Poor Violet, orphaned when her father succumbed to an embarrassing wound suffered at the harsh hands of Longshank's bloodthirsty Englishmen upon a field of muddy green and bloody red. The hapless child knew no better than to marry Angus, for she lacked living parents to advise her, and her inherited dowry glittered with all the riches of her father's royal family - a point which Angus had many times considered, though he vehemently denied it.

"So it was that our darling maiden fell victim to Angus's muscular form and sickeningly sweet love talk, and she pledged her troth and her wealth to him on this very night, long ago. Angus wasted no time sealing the bargain with rough lovemaking, all too soon abandoning his child-bride to her tear-stained pillow whilst he roused himself anew with an eager kitchen maid. It was while in the throes of this unholy passion that the ill-mannered groom beheld the aforementioned spectre or more properly his fetch, for the ghastly minion of hell peaked through the kitchen window with eyes not merely akin to Angus's but identical in every way!"

Melanie twitched and held tightly to Levinia's pale hand. "Oh, don't! You mustn't go on! It's too frightening!" she giggled. Levinia sighed and stared into the flames. No one noticed Litchfield's dark countenance or his bleeding hands, so fiercely did he clench his fists to keep from striking his rude and damnably talented guest.

Lord Ashton laughed, intentionally ignoring his host. "Ah, my dear Melanie, you must permit me to finish! Listen now. Whilst the anguished new bride wept into an empty bower, our unlucky bridegroom stared wide-eyed into his very own face. Tossing aside his lusty maid, Angus pulled up his trousers and dashed into the night, intent upon throttling the rude doppelganger. That night, the moon shone brightly, casting long shadows upon the rocky soil that led to the promontory near the edge of Angus's property. A long and twisting lane followed the cliff, and upon its misty stones ran the spectre, its own laughter shaking the very heavens it so defied.

"Angus ran on and on into the moonlight, ever faster with each long stride, though his heart pounded from whiskey and women. Before him, his own ghost taunted him to follow, turning back again and again, motioning him forward, closer and closer to the jutting promontory.

"Oh, please, Lord Ashton! Tell! Does Angus fall to his death and leave all his property to poor Violet?" begged Melanie, her hand to her slender throat.

She would never hear the answer, for suddenly, all jumped at the sharp report of a dueling pistol, taken hastily from a wall-mounted cabinet, smoking now in the trembling hand of Lord Litchfield.

Roderick Lord Ashton laughed for a moment, not knowing how else he might respond, and his snuff-stained fingers traced a singular hole in his blood red waistcoat.

"Well, well," Ashton quipped. "I suppose that shows me," he said with a fading grin, and his silk-covered knees buckled beneath his dying body.

Melanie screamed and leapt to her feet, but her brother had already re-loaded the pistol and its second round seared into her forehead and quickly shut her ruby lips forever. Levinia rose quietly, observed the bloody scene, and then looked up shyly.

"Nicely done," she said with a devilish smile. "Now, let's do it once more."

"No!" Litchfield screamed, clutching the pistol and hastily slamming a ball into the chamber. "Not again! Not ever again!" he shouted as Levinia moved toward him, her fingers grown long, and her mouth twisting into its natural demonic shape.

"Go on - shoot," she dared him, stepping over the cold bodies. "Finish it."

Litchfield shivered and closed his eyes, wishing for the thousandth time that he could choose differently. But as before, his eternal choice had already been made, and his trembling forefinger twitched against the trigger, forcing hot lead into his agonized brain.

As he died, Litchfield knew he would revive, just as before, just as always, as he would into eternity.

"Damn you!" he muttered as Levinia dipped a taloned finger into the blood that oozed from his wound.

"Too late," the thing called Levinia laughed. "You should have realized what I was that night so long ago, human. But like so many of your kind, you cannot see past your own nose. Now you are doomed to relive these final moments, forever and ever and ever."

Within seconds, the man once called Litchfield reformed, his memory intact but his ability to change his destiny obliterated.

"My dear, Litchfield, I did not choose this life - it chose me," Lord Ashton said as the infernal play began anew.

The man once known as Lionel Lord Litchfield shivered. No, my dear Ashton, it chose me, he thought helplessly. It chose me.

The End