Byron: The Cybernovel

The Frame Breakers


Death Duties

August 1811

Mamma

Sunshine glittered off the gilt trim and the polished varnish of the elaborate funeral coach looming in the sandy roadway. I leaned against the cool stone coping at the top of the stair well and watched the fidgeting horses. The black ostrich feathers undulated in their places at the four corners of the carriage roof. Mamma has always disliked ostentatious fashion, but is — was — strict about etiquette — especially the deference due to rank.

The air was hot, still and oppressive. Strong smells of dust and mould rose from the ancient stones. Impatient, I shifted my weight and glanced up at the sunlight glowing on the golden walls of my home — the Abbey — toward the ancient carved Madonna niched in the crest of the windowless arch, whose blessings, it seemed, had escaped me. Beyond the garden trees, the sunlight dazzled on the surface of the upper lake where my ducks and swans paddled and dipped, unaffected and careless.

A peacock screeched.

I was uncomfortable, but far more so from the bustle and bother — and the waiting — than from grief. At last, four of my strongest tenants wearing tall hats wreathed with black crepe, came through the doors and sweated my mother's coffin down the long flight of stone steps. Her body shifted inside the casket, causing them to adjust their hold and I suppressed a shudder. They rather unceremoniously loaded the casket into the hearse and, mounting the box, drove away towards Hucknall.

I had no intention of going to the burial — I had said all the goodbyes that were any use, long before.

I had not seen my mother's smile, nor heard her laugh, for a long time; nor had I watched her final illness. I had been abroad for two years and had returned to London to hear one day of her danger and the next of her death.

I had sat beside her corpse the night before, and wept bitterly. There in the dark, I refused to remember her embarrassing me, scorning me, insulting me — her fierce anger. I just remembered her equally fierce love and I had felt utterly alone and wretched.

* * * * * *

When I could no longer see the last of the mourners' carriages I turned back into the long cold stone hall that was — now — home to me alone. In the shadows, a little housemaid that I did not recognize, started up in a flurry of starched linen, scurried to the stairwell and went down to the kitchen. Intrigued, I followed her. The cook did not curtsey when she saw me, but clucked with disapproval.

"My Goodness, Milord. Are you not going then?"

The pretty housemaid was nowhere to be seen.

"No, I wasn't here to hold my mother's hand. What good will it do to watch her get lowered into the crypt? Funerals are for the survivors — but this survivor wants soup, not sympathy."

I picked up a huge spoon and stirred something on the back of the fire that smelled wonderful. I pulled a stool up to the wooden table and ate as she bustled around me. The pestilential crowd of mourners would be back again soon. I would have to try to be civil. The soup was hot and deliciously full of vegetables — I began to feel better.

* * * * * *

The last of the guests had said their goodbyes, the last carriage had driven off and all was peace and quiet again. On my way to my rooms, I paused under the portraits of my distinguished ancestors and was deeply saddened that, in all likelihood, I must abandon them and sell my ancestral home. My debts were astronomical. The only salvation would be for me to find a rich merchant who was willing to marry his daughter to a dissolute peer in order to ennoble his grandchildren. Depressed and sullen, I trudged the long halls and up the stairs to my own rooms — I claimed it to be a half mile walk. The Prince of Hyperbole!

When I finally got up to my suite, my man, Fletcher, had a hot, fragrant and soothing bath ready. After a vigorous rub down, I climbed into bed — and lay awake for a long time watching the candle light flickering against the bed hangings. I never sleep in the dark — and always leave my loaded pistols on the mantle across from my bed.

My room was at the top of the house, almost inaccessible — but I would have felt relieved if Robert had been sleeping outside my door as he should have been. He hadn't been at Newstead when I returned but I was sure he wasn't avoiding me. As I drifted into sleep I considered that I had always been volatile and impulsive — unable — no, unwilling — to control myself. Well, circumstances seemed to be doing it for me.


Bessie

By the time I interviewed that new girl, I had only retained a few of my mother's women. She came into the room like a little forest creature, pale, shy and ready to bolt. I spoke as softly and gently as I could.

"What is your name?"

"Bessie," she whispered.

"Do you wish to stay on here at Newstead? There will be a lot of work and few people to do it."

"If you let me — I have no where to go and no one to go to — otherwise."

She had forgotten to address me as "my Lord". I did not mind, but few people would abandon the expected formalities unless they were very upset.

"Why did you run off when you saw me? Am I so terrible?"

She looked astounded that I would ask. There was a long silence as she looked at me.

"No, no, not terrible, now I see you — close up like — but they warned me ." She stopped.

"And what did 'they' warn you about."

The words came tumbling out, "They say you are a very handsome man but a bad man — a wicked man. You seduce the housemaids and leave them ruined. You do awful things to them — get them with child — you are merciless. I must avoid you — run away — not even look at you."

"Hmmm — true — in part." I agreed. "Not completely true, though." I added. " I try not to seduce. I have never made love to anyone who did not want me to. I hope. I do not 'abandon' people, either. In fact they usually abandon me. I have the scars on my heart to prove it. You are a widow? You are a very young one. How old are you?"

"Seventeen — we was married a year and a month."

She was, now, close enough for me to see that I had been right. She was very pretty; a full cheeked, pink complexioned blonde, with plump, soft hands and those large blue eyes that always spell disaster for me. "Very well, you can continue in my service for now. I will probably find a more suitable position for you in a few weeks, though, with one of my lady friends in Southwell. That will be all. Thank you, Bessie. — and remember, 'handsome is as handsome does' — I try to live by it." She went out a little less timid and shy than when she came in.

The next afternoon, my feelings of loneliness and frustration were overwhelming. I felt wretched.

Robert had returned with mysterious excuses for his absence. I was strangely apprehensive, as there had recently been riots and disturbances in Nottingham. The stocking knitters and lace makers were suffering such great poverty that they were on the verge of starvation. Robert sometimes suffered from excessive enthusiasm.

I asked him to join me in some sparring on the lawn, as violent exercise lifts my spirits, if only temporarily . Robert was fast, but he had grown a lot since our last bout and I was in different places than his fists remembered. I thrashed him — gently. We collapsed laughing on the grass. We lay there for a few moments looking at the clouds making shapes in the sky. "Tell me what you see. Do you see victory? Or disaster? — for your cause?"

He stared at me intently for a moment and then, shaking his head in dismay, roared with laughter. "You know me, too well, Milord. Victory, surely. It will, mayhap, take some time."

I rolled onto my stomach. "How many are you? How are you organized — what do you do? Who is in charge? Do they know what they face?" He soon had me convinced to accompany him to the next meeting.

"You will have to be sworn."

"To what oath?"

"To never reveal names nor plans on pain of death."

"Will they appreciate a Lord in their midst?"

"We durst tell them. You must be plain Mr. Gordon."

I looked up at the house. Little Bessie was in the window looking at us. I found I was wondering which one of us she was watching so closely.

The next morning Robert and I went fishing in the lake.

He got so tangled in his line playing a great ugly pike, and I got so twisted trying to rescue him that we both fell in the water. I swam to shore, and went up to change my clothes. That damned half mile walk again. I stripped off in my dressing room, but I knew calling for Fletcher would be wasted effort because he'd gone into town. I walked into my bedroom, naked as the day I was born, towelling my hair dry. I heard a muffled squeak and, after I moved the towel off my face, there was Bessie. She was on the top of the steps next to my bed and had stopped in the action of shaking a pillow down into its' embroidered case. Her eyes were wide open; her glance fixed at my middle. Her look, and I might add, her squeal, immediately animated that part of my anatomy. I have been totally unable to keep it modest since I was ten years old and it appreciated this situation and the setting — instantly alert to the evident possibilities. Vicious thing. Bessie was entranced. It was evident she was a lonely widow.

I covered my erring parts with the towel and backed out of the room. I'd give her some time to consider the probable eventualities — if she wished them.

I was suddenly painfully aware that, in my great cold house , although among many people, I was alone. There were only a few I knew and fewer that I loved — I stayed late that evening writing letters. One was to the mother of my bastard son.


Lucy

My dearest Lord Byron had been far away in foreign lands for more than two years, and I must admit, I had not expected to ever see his crest on the seal of a letter again.

The minute I saw it, I burst into tears. Mother saw me holding it next to my heart and she knew it had to be from him. She turned white and sat down with a thump on the nearest chair. In my fright over her — she's had a bad heart for some years — I forgot my fear for myself and William and went to kneel by her.

"Open it, quick, Luce" she said. "He can't take him away from us now, not after all this time."

I dabbed at my eyes with a corner of my apron and snapped open the red wax. It was his handwriting — almost impossible to read as always, — not from the solicitor, thank God. It was a very short message and I read it quickly. "He wants me to come back, Mam. His mother has just died, he's let her house staff go and he wants me to come back again as head housemaid."

"I know what that means. You mustn't go, Lucy. He'll do it to you again, mark my words. That's all he said?— nothing about little Will?"

"No, not really."

"Well, what, then?"

"'I trust all are in good health in your family, especially your mother and little boy', That's how it ends."

"Your little boy! Has he no fatherly feelings? Don't go back to him Lucy. He's a wicked heartless man and you know you've no self control — I'll be a grandmother again in no time."

"I'm not a foolish girl anymore, Mother. Besides, another child won't worsen things. He treated me well until he went away and supports us all, now. Who knows, he may keep me with him for a long time. Being the mother of a Lord's bastard is not too respectable, but there's worse lives."

Mam gasped in outrage and I fell silent. I hadn't been completely honest with her. I had hoped and prayed to hear from him. I thought that perhaps one day he would want to see his son. I never expected he would want me again. He had written 'I am wretched and alone in these echoing halls. Come to me, my dearest Lucy. Come as a comfort to me.' How could I refuse my fondest dream? He had also added, ' Do not bring the child'. I didn't mind that. Little Will was better off here. His father wasn't going to acknowledge him, so better not to know his grand life. I also knew he would want me to be available and pliant with his friends again. Just as well not to have a son around. Even a four year old has eyes and ears and can tell tales. I couldn't wait to leave.


Lust

I was achingly alone and wretched and Newstead continued to be cold, dark and silent. Lucy had written to say she would soon be with me but I paced the corridors, tried reading, tried drinking, tried anything to lift my mood. A day or two after my bedroom encounter with Bessie, I passed the pretty little housemaid in a corridor. She looked up at me and dropped a deep curtsey with a decidedly inviting look in her eye — and a small shy smile.

I stopped, stepped close and put a finger under her chin, lifting her face. She seemed strangely more plump and buxom now than I remembered her being just a few days before. She smelled like ripe peaches. I supposed it was the effects of awakening desire. I wasn't sure if it was her desire or mine.

She looked far into my eyes, magnetized. I recognized the expression. Her eyelids fluttered and her breathing became irregular.

I spoke low and softly, "When you want me to, and not before you ask. You should make up your mind soon, though. That housemaid they said I abandoned so cruelly, Lucy by name, is arriving soon to take over the position of housekeeper. She will leave my child with her parents, who are very well taken care of — as a result. She does tend to be rather jealous, though, and might — interfere."

I resisted the urge to run my finger down her throat. I hoped her resolution would break down soon. I'd been celibate far too long.

Her breathing became heavy and she shut her eyes.

I didn't kiss her although her lips were slightly parted and she wanted me to. "Do you understand, Child? You must say it. You must ask me to come to you. When you do, I will come to your room."

"My room, upstairs in the attic, you'll come to me?" She opened her eyes wide, shocked.

"Yes, I know the way well. I've been there before — with Lucy — and others. Say it. You are aching, I can tell. Poor little Bessie. Let me come to you. I will be very gentle. We will know ecstasy, as close to paradise as this world allows."

She took a step backwards and shook her head. I pushed her cap up and kissed the top of her forehead, as one would kiss a child, and walked on.

* * * * * *

One evening later that week I was sitting alone in the library after dinner. Because the sky had been clear for several days, the nights were becoming cold. The fire was lit and I was finishing a late glass of wine, smoking a cigar and dreamily watching the centres of the coals changing colour in the grate.

I heard a soft sound at the far door. Bessie came into the room. She stopped just inside the room, curtseyed and then appeared to be about to run off again. I beckoned to her and, with a small gasp, she crossed to me and knelt on the carpet between my knees. I took her hands in mine. Her fingers were very warm and she was shaking.

"My Lord, I can't help myself. I've tried to put you out of my mind but I can think of nothing but you. I'm so ashamed." She bent her head and began to cry. She sobbed, "— I want you to — come to me."

"Don't weep, little one." I wiped her tears and kissed her cheek. "— don't be ashamed. Love is goodness not evil. You are not married and I am not either. So, for us loving can be no sin." I removed her white lace cap and her hair pins. I stroked her hair after it fell around her shoulders. She continued to cry softly and snuggled her face into my shoulder. Deeds, not words, are the language of love, and she did not seem to be very fluent. She was very shy for a woman married for more than a year. I envied her husband, but not for his untimely death. I made a sincere prayer for the peace of his soul — and for his forgiveness. I sent her away to wait for me in her bed.

Long after midnight I took a candle and climbed the stairs to the servants' rooms. I slipped off my coat and vest and after taking off my boots, trousers and small clothes, I held up the light to look at her. A modest country girl, she was sweetly asleep wearing her shift and cap. I pulled back the counterpane and sheets. So far, her plump little pink feet were all I could admire.

As she awoke, she resisted prettily, but ineffectually, as I removed her night clothes. Her skin was like cream satin in the flickering light. She slid back into the pillows, trying to cover herself with her hands and hiding her blushes. Climbing onto the bed, I kissed behind her knees and the backs of her silky thighs and she giggled and wriggled. The scent of her arousal was intoxicating. I suddenly realized how much I had missed this pleasure and my body responded with a powerful surge of need. My hands moved over and under her curves as I followed her into the piled pillows. I touched and pinched, kissed and suckled. She sighed deeply and opened to me. Lost to ecstasy she lifted her face, heavy lidded in surrender.

I kissed her mouth and was deeply and desperately kissed in return. I was startled to feel her hands searching and embracing. She discovered that I was ready. Suddenly pulling me deep into her with both arms and legs, she enveloped me in love. I don't clearly remember the next moments but I was a little ashamed by how quickly it was all over, due no doubt to my lengthy celibacy. I lay back , contented and comforted. She caressed me with her hands and mouth for a few minutes, but soon, smiling smugly, she fell asleep in my arms.

I found my room very chilling when I returned to it.

Soon, I was enjoying quick contact at any time and in any place in the house. I swear she was waiting in the halls to waylay me. Once a woman's lust has fully formed and possessed her she can become a trifle tiresome. I had to resort at times to checking to make sure the halls were deserted before I ventured down them. Lucy arrived soon after and was furiously jealous, but I made it up to her.


Scrope

Th' name's Davies, Scrope Berdmore Davies. I've known his Lordship for a deal of years. My lamented friend Matthews moved into his rooms at Trinity, y'know, in 1807 — after Lud B'd got curs'dly dipped — so strapped for cash he'd had to run home to Mamma and hide away in the social wastes of the Midland counties.

God! I really had to laugh when the proctor of the College warned us not to disturb anything in the rooms which His Precious Lordship had recently spent a fortune redecorating. Byron was reported to be a young man of most tempestuous passions and would most likely thrash us if there were sticky plebeian fingerprints found on his new wallpaper when he returned. Well! Byron had a high reputation among us other Cantabs for having had a snit over the "no dogs in residence" rule, and then bringing in a pet bear. I wasn't utterly sanguine about the condition of said wallpaper. However, it seems the bear had lived out — and the wallpaper was magnificent. This was my introduction to the singular young man who later formed one of our tight little group of carousers

I arrived at his ancestral pile in the third week of August 1811. It was not new to me. I had spent some sweet sensual times there in years past, with surfeits of wine, women and wagers, in company with the kind of men I like — wits, rakes, dandies and one or two fools. I expected this was going to be a very different sort of visit.

Oh! by the bye, don't botch the pronunciation of my name — a witticism of Byron's helps get it right. He once said that I should marry, that way I could at least raise some little scruples. My name rhymes with "hoop" not "hope" — although, as I live by cards and dice it should do.

He came out to meet me just after I drove up. He looked fine — pale and handsome and strong as an ox. He has always over dramatized his illnesses of mind and body. His groom took over my carriage and horses and, arm in arm, we went up the stairs to the house.

"Well met, B. Watching for me, were you, like a love sick swain? I'd not have come if I'd have known."

"Damn me, for a fool, Scrope you know I was. I have been sitting out here anxiously waiting for a sight of you for hours. I'm most desperate for a friend. I'm bewildered, confused, surfeited by death and in need of a laugh that's not hysterical."

"Zounds! Milord, are you not in the bosom of your family in these trying times?"

"Spare me! — elderly aunts and hopelessly silly cousins. "

"Southwell friends then?"

"Elizabeth Pigot and her mother, the Reverend Becher, a few tenants and servants — people to talk with but no one to seriously drink with — and that's what I need. I'm most delighted you're here at last. In memoriam of those joyous evenings we spent in this house with Matthews and the others, we'll get filthy drunk."

"If you insist — do you still have any of that unparalleled red Hermitage?"

"Half a dozen — we'll have it with dinner — and pour a libation to Matthews' memory in champagne."

"Capital! at least two of the wine and a couple of champagne — and a libation is appropriate — as long as it's poured down my gullet. Old M. wouldn't want us to waste any, I'm damn sure.

As far as the champagne goes — La! Sir. It should never be downed to no purpose. Do you have any promising tid-bits for savouries after dinner? I hope your shrine is, as formerly, full of the "peni tento" because, Lord Abbot, in my need for consolation, I hope to avail myself of tender succour at the hands and other parts of the nuns of your holy house."

"You have my blessings in your carnal devotions, my son. As a matter of fact — Lucy is back. She was not adverse to you on your last visit, I recall. I remember you, in monkish robes, chasing her down the long gallery — and not coming back for some time — and when you did come back you were wreathed in beatific smiles. You must have achieved rare success in your devotional exercises. Make Lucy happy — keep her busy — as I have a newer maker and unmaker of beds — a local lonely widow. We have been helping each other through our grief. Strong emotion always improves devotions — or so I find"

"My Lucy!"

"No, my Lucy, and don't you be poaching — but my friends have always had the freedom of the demense and I'm generous with the hunting on this estate."

We spent a jolly evening talking and laughing and when the wine was gone — so were we. We went to bed alone — at least I did. It was just as well — by then I needed a long sleep.

* * * * * *

The next afternoon, I challenged B to a game of tennis. Now, tennis is my game, but as he has a problem with a foot I play him left handed — just to even things out a little. When he was beating me three games to one, a boy — no a young man — came running across the lawn up from the road. It was Robert Rushton. Byron calls him his "protégé" (whatever that means). We stopped playing and B walked over to him

"What was that all about?" I asked after the game (which I won, naturelment).

"What?"

"The furtive discussion with Robert. That was him? He's grown a lot. Not a sweet boy any longer — I suppose you regret that?"

Byron looked at me with a quizzical expression on his face. "I still love him if that's what you mean. But — our relationship has changed , and you can never understand because you've never felt that kind of love. I'm going to really miss old Matthews. He understood it and he helped me to be less agonized with it, with what I am — In some ways he didn't even understand me. He thought I was shamming when I went with women. But I'm not, I hate anything that's not perfectly mutual. Unfortunately, I have an unruly heart that leads me into the most ludicrous and constant temptation. And then there's simple lust — that other unruly part of me. I lust after anything beautiful that will stay still long enough to be caught!"

I'm no beauty, but at that I made a face and ran away screaming, up to the house, with Byron after me laughing uproariously.

That evening he made excuses and went out leaving me on my own. I went in search of Lucy.

I left for the spa country a few days later. Byron wasn't able to pay out his debt, but he made me an executor of his will. Amazing! A British Peer with thousands in income who didn't have any ready money. Perchance, my lot in life wasn't so bad after all. I offered him some cash, which he wouldn't take. We practised pistol shooting in the long gallery on my last day and I let him win fifty pounds from me. That wasn't easy, as we are both crack shots.


Meeting

When Robert interrupted my game of tennis with Scrope, he had brought a message to meet that night at the old church in Hucknall. At a few minutes after midnight several of us waited in the church yard while our horses snorted and fidgeted. Then, without any signal that I detected, we started down the road away from town.

Some time later we rode down into a quiet valley with a small stream running through it. We forded the stream and then all dismounted and entered a very low stone cottage that seemed to have been there for a thousand years. It was very small, dirty and appeared to be abandoned. There was a rickety table in the back with an odiferous oil lamp sending flickering and smoky light up the walls. The room was full of men — about twenty or more. I and two others were immediately challenged.

"Who speaks for thee, strangers?" asked a slight, grey haired man standing beside the table. I realized, when he moved further into the light, that he was carrying a long barrelled pistol in his hand — of a very old and disreputable sort.

"This be my brother in law from over Calverton," spoke up one man, indicating a big strong fellow on my right. The small man asked, "Willing to swear the oath, is he?"

"Aye, and I to carry out the sentence of death if he breaks it."

I became aware of Bob Rushton, looking very young, but upright, standing slightly behind me. He stepped forward and said, "And this is Mr. Gordon. I'll vouch for him. He's been travelling out of the country for some time, but he'll swear our Oath, — and keep it. He's a keen fighter and a clear shot."

"We not be needing fighters, but men of sense and strength and strong purpose. What say you, stranger?"

"I will swear your oath, — and keep it, but not from fear of death, but because I honour my word."

"What is your interest in our cause?"

"The interest of all men who have been waiting too long for justice — and food."

"Your talk's not from these parts."

"I've been such from ten years old, but I was raised a child in Scotland."

He turned angrily to Robert, "Who have you brought amongst us? Does he know the secret?"

"Yes."

He aimed the pistol at Robert. "Thou hast periled our lives!"

Robert spoke quietly, but firmly, "Put it down! He's in our power. He comes alone with me, and cannot escape us. He is forsworn a traitor by his very being here, as are we. He came not in ignorance, but in determination. He will not swerve."

"What part would you have him take with us?"

"It may be, what he was born to — chief."

An ugly murmur rolled around the room. Someone whispered my name.

I stepped between them. "Not so. It is not my wish. I will assist with arms, advice, encouragement." I looked around the room at the desperate, proud men I had joined. "I come here to strengthen the strong. We have a chance to renew the old times of truth and justice by fighting to gain equal rights for everyone. We will be the supports of a new Commonwealth, giving and taking strength like walls supporting a heavy roof, so that none can be removed without collapse. I am one of you. If you think not — fire! — I would rather die by a free man's hand than live another day as the willing subject of a tyrant. I am not, and never have been such a man. True, I am a man of property but I appeal to any here who know me — they can tell you if I am an oppressor, or a man who feels and thinks for my fellow men."

"Is't so?" the leader asked. Robert answered "Yes, or I would not have brought him ."

"I know this man," spoke a voice from the back of the room.

"And I", came another two voices from the crowd.

"Well?"

"He is well known in these parts — a land owner, but a just and fair one. If he says he will support us and will swear the oath — I vote to accept him."

In spite of some mutters of disapproval, the pistol was lowered.

A tattered dog eared book was lying on the table whose bindings might at one time have been dark blue leather, but now was a rusty green. The older man handed it to me — I saw that it was a New Testament. "What is your name?" he asked, taking my other hand in his.

"George Gordon." I answered.

"Art thou willing to become a member of our society?"

"I am."

"Then say after me: I, George Gordon, of my own voluntary will, do declare and solemnly swear that I never will reveal to any person or persons the names of those who comprise the secret committee, their proceedings, meetings, places of abode, dress, features, complexion, or anything else that might lead to a discovery of the same, either by word, deed, or sign, under the penalty of being sent out of the world by the first brother who shall meet me, and my name and character blotted out of existence and never to be remembered but with contempt and abhorrence.

And I further do swear to use my best endeavours to punish by death any traitor or traitors, should any rise up among us, wherever I can find him or them, and though he should fly to the verge of nature I will pursue him with unceasing vengeance. So help me God and bless me, to keep this, my oath, inviolate."

I repeated the framebreakers' oath. The other strangers did the same and the meeting began.

"We strike next at the house of one well known to many here. We will take action ag'in' a stubborn, heartless man, one who has not paid a penny in wages in many a month, yet still demands work. He's converted his entire manufactory t' turn out the poor quality stuffs we know t'will be the destruction of our livelihood — He tells everyone who'll listen his intention to stop us and considers himself protected by loud talk."

Another man spoke up, "Our great need is for good weapons. Those we got are old and more danger to marksman than target." This was followed with several inquiring looks at me. "I can supply some long guns and a couple of sets of pistols, but I understand you avoid violence to persons — only attack property."

"Guns are necessary to stop retaliation by the manufacturers — and for discipline of hot-heads amongst our own members," answered a tall young man standing next to Robert.

A big man near the door asked,"We who are sworn are protected within the brotherhood but how do we stop our neighbours — those not sworn — from turning us in?" There was a long silence.

I spoke. "Even here we are not safe. Torture and threat to loved ones can loosen the most loyal tongue. I propose that, from here on, the oath be administered in private, from one brother to one brother only, and that henceforward each member be addressed by a number — no names. In addition, all should conceal their faces at all times." This was agreed to.

The first man stepped aside and another conducted the remainder of the discussions. Robert explained later that there were at least two chairmen at each meeting who had been chosen by lots. This prevented anyone from taking too much power or being considered as responsible for the actions of the group. Detailed plans were made for the raid the following week which were clear, simple and likely to be effective. There was very little argument. Timing, access routes and actions were assigned and the meeting was over. It had all taken less than an hour. The delegates dispersed swiftly and silently.

I rode back to my mansion wondering what I had done.


Ludd And London

February 1812

Holland House

The darkness of the night was unimportant to the guests arriving at the ball in London, as footmen carrying dozens of candles were lighting the entrance. Two men who had spent the evening at the theatre, stepped down from a carriage together. They made their way into the vestibule where they were surrounded by a huge crush of other ladies and gentlemen of the political and artistic leadership of Britain.

As the two men walked up the elegant stairs of Holland House they were preceded and followed by a wave of excitement. Women stopped their fans in mid-wave, and frankly stared. Men turned and halted in the middle of important social and political discussions to watch them pass.

The older man, strangely built with a huge, oddly shaped head was well dressed and famous. He was an influential banker, and a successful poet, but it was his companion that was causing the stir.

George Gordon Lord Byron, Baron Byron of Rochdale was twenty four years old. From his favourite sports of swimming and fencing, he was well built in the arms and shoulders and slim in the hips but was of average height.

As he was in mourning for the death of his mother, he was wearing slim black trousers, a low black waistcoat and a short black jacket. Long slits in his jacket sleeves which permitted his embroidered linen shirt cuffs to show, moved elegantly as he walked and showed off his graceful hands. His neck-cloth was tied loosely at his throat and pinned with an engraved jet brooch. He was a friend of Beau Brummell and as a member of Watiers, the Dandies club, he knew the importance of exquisite linen and perfect tailoring.

The dark clothes set off his beautiful dark hair, cut in very short curls. The ladies who were close enough for a good look were amazed at the length of the black eyelashes which fluttered on his aristocratically white cheeks. Particularly so as, at the moment, he was so nervous from being shy he thought he was going to puke.

"My God, Rogers. Slow down, for pity's sake. Damn you, you forget I have trouble with stairs!"

"Not for a moment, but we must run this gauntlet of the bon-ton to the top and then you'll be safe again for a while."

With a foot crippled from birth, Byron had developed a limping gait that permitted him to keep up as long as a companion didn't run — or gallop upstairs.

"In the name of the Devil, find me a basin, I'm going to spew," he hissed.

"Not here, not now. If I remember rightly you didn't eat any lunch to speak of, as is usual, so there's nothing to come up."

"Only my guts!"

Byron looked around desperately for a quiet corner, preferably with a large vase, but a liveried footman in a powdered wig officiating at the top of the stairs asked their names and before he knew it he was being introduced to one of the most influential and important couples in the country. He swallowed the bile in his throat and tried to smile.

Lady Elizabeth Holland was a startlingly beautiful woman . She was no longer young, but with her hair dressed high with feathers and jewels and a fashionably high waisted, short sleeved gown of pale blue silk with an low neckline full of sapphires that emphasized her voluptuous figure, she was still very attractive.

The banker, Sam Rogers, made a shallow bow and quickly kissed her hand. He moved forward to greet Lord Holland. She held out her hand to Byron, who was very pale.

His eyes were lowered and she sensed his bashfulness and discomfort. He bowed low and took her hand in his. Although his fingers were long and graceful, his hand was small. He placed his thumb on her finger tips and squeezed almost imperceptibly. Then, without looking up, he gently lifted her fingers to his lips. She became uncomfortably aware of the firm full warmth of the lingering kiss. Very slowly, he raised his eyes. They were a most astonishing colour — very light blue, perhaps green, — no yellow-grey — and appeared to glow with internal light. Opening them innocently wide and looking straight at her, he raised one beautifully arched eyebrow and flashed an intimate and dazzling smile. She was immediately aroused.

His voice was rich, complex and musical, with a slight burr, and so soft as to be almost inaudible. "Your most obedient, and entranced servant, Lady Holland. It is a great honour as well as pleasure to meet you. Be assured that I find the reports I have received of your charm and beauty were not in the least exaggerated."

Lady Holland could not find her voice.

Byron turned towards Lord Holland and shaking his hand, nodded his respects, thanking him for the invitation. "May, I meet privately with you, later, to discuss my speech for next week? I have some ideas as to the topic I wish to speak on."

The next guests were being introduced, but Lady Holland continued to follow Byron with her eyes. He did not look back.

Byron walked into the salon and paused beside a marble column topped with a statue of a fleeing nymph. Rogers had disappeared. The room was filled with women — complex coiffures, elegant profiles, swanlike throats, swelling white bosoms, the flash of well turned ankles and satin slippered feet as far as the eye could see.

Rogers was returning. He was not escorting the two ladies who were with him — they were forcibly towing him across the room and almost upsetting the furniture and destroying a fortune in objects d'art in the process.

Lord Byron's recent return from his journey to Greece and Turkey would make his conversation oh! so extremely interesting — and, in spite of his reputation as a dissolute libertine, he was so very, very handsome.

Byron sighed in resignation, — they were not very pretty, but they were the first.


Huddersfield

In the now completely dark street in Huddersfield, a sharp whistle came from someone in the silent crowd. Several men moved swiftly away from the targeted house down the neighbouring streets to act as lookouts. They would create a scuffle and set up a shout if the patrol came around. Two more walked up to the house and took up positions on either side of the doorway. Their faces were covered, caps concealed their hair and they were dressed in exactly the same clothes. They both carried weapons, one a pair of pistols and the other a carbine. Their intense excitement made the men feel as if a lit match would ignite the air.

A second whistle sounded and two more men, these very powerful and strong, walked forward and struck at the door with large axes. It immediately splintered and broke open. Quietly and in good order, the remaining men entered the house and swiftly moved through it to the cropping room.

Upstairs, in the front bedroom, the owner, a stocking manufacturer, woke up with a start. His wife sat up beside him, terrified by the destruction of her front door and the sounds of many booted feet marching through her house. Pushing aside the bed curtains, he scrambled out of bed in his nightshirt and cap and tried to light a candle with shaking hands, but a gust of cold air coming up from the space where his door had been blew it out again.

In the cropping room, men wielding huge sledge hammers smashed all the stocking frames into fragments. They turned and filed out of the room and out of the house and out of the town. It was all over in moments. No one was hurt. No one was seen. The hated machines were destroyed again — until more could be made.


Whore House

Much later in the evening, as they reached the door of his carriage, Rogers took Byron by the hand. They were among the last to leave the party at Holland House, so there was no one close enough to hear their conversation. "Had enough of women?" Rogers asked, stepping familiarly close.

"No, that's an impossibility," answered Byron, deliberately releasing himself from the intimate touch.

"You won't join me then?" Rogers sighed.

"At a molly's? No, I'm done with that. I satiated myself with sweet boys in the Orient. I'm one of Priapus' blest — I can find relief with both sexes. On the other hand, neglected by Eros, I rarely find love with either. I'm going to visit an old friend."

"At four in the morning?"

"She's a bawd, and even if abed, will be glad to see me. Perhaps more so. I'll take a cab. Good night, Samuel, and happy hunting, but promise me you'll be careful."

Byron sat back in the uncomfortable seat of the hansom cab after directing the driver to a street in the vicinity of Covent Garden. A miasma of old leather upholstery, tobacco smoke and cheap perfume surrounded him. "Appropriate," he thought.

At the elaborate doorway of the brothel, he handed the cabby some coins and asked him to wait.

"Wot, Sir, In a hurry, now, are you?"

"No, I just don't want to try to find another cab in a couple of hours."

"I hopes you've got lots where this came from, then. They'll drain you dry in more ways than one in this place. If you get my drift. Very expensive, I've heard tell."

Byron laughed, "True, but as I've been welcome here since I was fifteen, I'm sort of one of the family."

"Have ye now, then, Sir?" The cab driver was impressed.

* * * * * *

When I left Lord Holland's party it was not long before dawn. I knocked on the door of Philomena's the most expensive and therefore exclusive, sporting establishment in London, with a little trepidation. A sleepy young housemaid opened the door, pulling a shawl around her and holding up a candle to see who had knocked. She did not recognize me and was about to shut the door in my face.

I stepped into the doorway

"Tell Madame that her petit canard is here."

"Who, Sir?"

"Her little duck."

"Madame is sleeping."

"Alone?"

"None of your affair — I'd say. Begging you pardon, Sir"

"Then she is alone — for the moment. Shut the door and go back to sleep, there's a good girl."

I smacked her bottom through her cotton shift and went up the darkened stairs to a bedroom on the second floor. "Still the last door on the left?" I whispered back down the stairs.

"Yes, Sir. But she'll be right angry with me for letting you in, I'm scared t'death."

"Oh, I'll make it up to you — somehow." I'd seen her eyes dilate when she'd seen my face in the candle-light and heard her squeal when I hit her. No charge for a housemaid even in a whore-house. "And we'll both enjoy it, I'll bet," I thought.

I opened the bedroom door quietly and walked across the room. I quietly took off my coat, waistcoat, shoes and stockings and folded them over a chair. I left my shirt and breeches on, as I was not sure how welcoming my reception would be. It had been more than two years since I had last been here. There was a candle in a silver holder on the bedside table next to a book of poetry in French. I lit it and carried it to the bed.

Pulling back the curtains, I looked down at the woman asleep there. She was in her forties and very beautiful. Her features were so delicate she looked like a porcelain doll. Her soft lips were sweetly open as she breathed in her sleep. Long dark eyelashes fluttered as she dreamed. Her head, which was covered with rich black curls, was resting on one slim arm which was raised behind it, exposing one round breast. Her skin was exquisite, transparent over her throat and shoulders, blushing on her cheeks and like white satin on that exquisitely shaped breast exposed by the fall of the coverlet. "Sleeping naked, still, Maman!" I whispered, realizing I was already responding physically to her beauty. I then began to quack like a duck. Very loudly.

She woke up with a start, pulled the bedclothes up to her neck and burst into a torrent of invective in French. As soon as she was awake enough to see who it was, she laughed a tinkling silver laugh, threw her arms around my neck and kissed me, hard. "Cher petit Canard! It is too long since I have seen you."

A long time later I came up from under the bedclothes. Pulling off the rest of my clothes and throwing them on the floor, I completed our reunion. Much later still, she lay back against the pillows and caressed my hair. "You were an excellent pupil, mon cher."

"Delicacé ensure every success, Milor!" I said. We both laughed.

* * * * * *

I woke to the sound of the door being opened. The little housemaid stepped into the room with a breakfast tray of chocolate and pastry. She looked surprised to see me still in her lady's bed.

"Oh, Sir! Sorry, Sir. I'll fetch you something directly. Madame doesn't usually . . . I mean . . . in the morning . . . I need only bring one breakfast . . . usually. " Her voice trailed off.

A sweet, French accented voice came from the rumpled bedcoverings, "You must say 'My Lord', Sally, — not 'Sir' to this gentleman — and he doesn't eat . . . breakfast." This was followed by muffled giggles, a couple of gasps and a low choked groan.

Sally put the tray down on the bedside table. I raised my head from my delicious task and asked her to open the bed and window curtains to let in some air and light. "Very good, Sir . . . My Lord," she said. She did so, looked disapproving, curtseyed and left — with the pot of chocolate. No sense in letting it get cold.

* * * * * *

At ten o'clock, clothes half on and half off, Byron rushed out of the door, kissing the surprised maid as he passed her in the corridor. The cab was still waiting, the driver hunched over his reins. "My God, Man, I'd forgotten you were here."

"Well, you'll be needing a ride, Sir. I'm thinking. I dare say you can't walk too well by now."

"I can never walk well, but after a night of sport — well, I am grateful you are here. Take me to number eight St. James' Street and, as I have an appointment at eleven make it fast."

At home, Fletcher was waiting.

"My olive coat, dun trousers and a bath as fast as you can. I'm lunching with a cabinet minister."


Horror

The government of Great Britain was Tory. Byron was not. He handed his cane, gloves and his hat to the footman and was shown into the library.

"Come in, Lord Byron. Welcome. I hope I did not surprise you by referring to the treasures of Cerigo at Lady Jersey's."

"I must admit you did. I had expected to report to someone at a much more modest level of influence."

"Please be seated."

They spent the next hour over luncheon discussing the war in the previous year in the Ionian Islands near Greece.

"Do you have some poetry that you wrote there? I can show it around as the fruit of this meeting?"

"Yes, Sir, a little lyric — a love song called "Maid of Athens, Ere we Part" that incorporates an affectionate greeting in Romaic — Zwh mou, sas agapv — zohn mou sas agapo — which means "my soul, I love you".

Maid of Athens, ere we part,
Give oh give me back my heart!
Or since that has left my breast,
Keep it now and take the rest!
Hear my vow before I go,
Zwh mou, sas agapv

By those tresses unconfined,
Woo'd by each Aegean wind;
By those lids whose jetty fringe
Kiss thy soft cheeks' blooming tinge;
By those wild eyes like the roe,
Zwh mou, sas agapv

By that lip I long to taste;
By that zone encircled waist;
By all the token-flowers that tell,
What word can never speak so well;
By love's alternate joy and woe,
Zwh mou, sas agapv

Maid of Athens! I am gone:
Think of me, sweet! When alone.
Though I fly to Istambol,
Athens holds my heart and soul:
Can I cease to love you? No!
Zwh mou, sas agapv"

"Charming — the ladies will love it."

"Isn't that 'damning with faint praise'?"

"Perhaps. " He walked to the window and looked out. There was a long pause before he spoke again.

"When you were out of the country it was reported to me that you were only appearing to act on behalf of Britain but were actually operating as an agent for the French government. That we were not to trust you. That you were a traitor. What do you have to say?"

Byron became even paler than usual.

"It is well known that I am an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France; that I admired the ideals, but not the excesses of the Revolution there. My parents lived in France in the '80s and saw the abuses of the Ancien Regime at first hand. However, I am a Peer of England, Baron Byron of Rochdale and about to make my first speech in the House of Lords."

The Home Office Secretary turned with his back to the window, Byron could not see his face. He continued his accusations. "You have been heard to say you detest this country and cannot wait to leave it again.'

"True."

"That you feel more French than English."

"No, — Norman — I have said I am Norman and Scottish, not English. Which is true."

"William of Normandy, the Conqueror, was French."

"That was seven hundred years ago."

"Exactly."

"What are you getting at, Sir?"

"My Lord, you are dissolute, a sodomite, and quite possibly a traitor. You openly kept catamites in Greece. You attempted, on your return from abroad to find the man who, when a boy, was your constant companion at Cambridge — to re-establish your criminal contact with him. You spent last night with the French whore known as Philomena. Be careful, we are watching you. The penalty for sodomy is banishment — or hanging."

Byron was white hot with fury. He rose to his feet and began to walk to the door.

"My Lord!" There was a strange timbre in his voice.

Byron turned. "Yes?" he said, smiling coldly. Suddenly he looked very unpleasant — and dangerous. His greenish-yellow eyes were cruel. He looked like a snake about to strike.

"We may have some — assignments — for you. "

Byron forced himself to appear calm. "What sort of "assignments" would that be?"

"Sit down, again, please, Lord Byron, and have some more wine. I am sorry to be so harsh, but I needed you to understand what your position is. Your estate is near Nottingham?"

"Yes, Newstead Abbey, a little to the north."

"There have been serious disturbances of the peace in that area for the past year. We, in the government, are very concerned. We want you to help us bring these rebels to justice."

"And how would I do that?"

"Gather information on them."

"Hunt them? Betray them?"

"Yes."

"And your government has just placed a bill before Parliament to hang these men if caught. I would be betraying them to their deaths?"

"Possibly."

Byron controlled himself, thought carefully for a minute and sat down. He took a deep breath, composed a more pleasant expression and asked, "What, exactly, would you expect me to do?"

The Minister smiled to himself.

* * * * * *

After Byron left the study, a hidden door opened in the wall. A man stepped out into the room. "Was he sincere? I didn't see compliance in his eyes."

"Who can know? When you force a gentleman to do something he despises — what would he look like? Besides, he's not a gentleman."

"Can we trust him?"

"Of course not, that's exactly what I mean. We must do something to convince him we can control him."

"What?"

"I don't know. Yet."