Blame It on the Duke(2)

By: Lenora Bell

A deep voice sounded from the stage, drowning his words. “Ho, there! Comely Venus! Have you seen my son?”

Nick glanced up sharply, sloshing brandy over his cuff.

His father balanced on the prow of the ship, swaying in time with the lengths of billowing silk waves. For some reason he was wearing evening dress, though his cravat had come undone and his white hair was standing on end.

Lear snorted. “Slumbering in his bed, eh?”

“How the devil did he climb up there? And where’s his caretaker?” Nick scanned the room for Mr. Stubbs, whom he’d hired from an agency after too many nurses quit because of the duke’s amorous advances. His father’s mind may have weakened, but his predilection for buxom older ladies remained firm.

“Young lady, you ought to put some clothing on,” the duke called to Venus.

Venus made surreptitious silencing motions, striving to maintain her beatific smile as the audience laughed.

“You’ll catch your death on that clamshell in your altogether,” the duke scolded loudly.

Her moment of triumph was quickly evaporating.

“He’s liable to break his neck,” Nick said. “The ship’s not meant for anyone to stand on.”

It was only a shell made from rotting old timber and mounted on wheels. Nick had rented the ship, as well as an entire theatrical troupe, for the evening from a theater on King Street.

“Help me fetch him down.” Motioning for Lear to follow, Nick headed toward the stage.

“Thar he be!” the duke thundered, pointing at Nick.

“Come down from there,” Nick called.

“Come and fetch me,” the duke crowed.

More laughter from the onlookers.

Venus pouted and stamped a dainty foot on her plaster clamshell.

Which made the audience laugh even harder.

That’s when the harpist seated to the left of the stage decided this had become a comedy and began improvising a rollicking sea shanty. The violins joined in, to the spectators’ vast amusement.

Hearing the change in the music, the duke glanced up with a gleam in his faded gray eyes and began to dance what looked like it was meant to be a hornpipe.

Nick’s blood froze as his father tottered precariously on the rolling deck.

He vaulted onto the stage with Lear close behind.

“Distract him,” Nick said urgently. “Keep him talking. If he’s talking, he’s not dancing. If he’s not dancing, the ship might hold.”

“Aye.” Lear nodded. “What are you doing up there, Your Grace?” he called. “Why don’t you climb down?”

“Hullo, Cap’n,” the duke said in a jovial, booming tone of voice. “I needed a platform. I’ve an announcement to make. Where’s my son? Wasn’t he with you?”

Nick’s boot became tangled in the green silk stretched across the stage. He wrenched free and raced for the ship.

“Speech! Speech!” called someone from the audience.

The inside of the ship smelled like piss. An actor or two must have mistaken it for the privy. The smell made Nick’s eyes water as he climbed the rickety ladder that the duke must have used to reach the deck.

“I played a game of cards tonight,” Nick heard the duke proclaim. “Not supposed to gamble. ’Tis a sin, I know.”

“Had a lucky night?” someone shouted.

“I lost.” Nick heard the familiar sound of confusion in his father’s voice. “Rather badly, I’m afraid.”

The sound of the spectators’ hilarity was muted from inside the hollow hull of the ship.

“How much did you lose?” Lear kept the conversation flowing, stalling for time as Nick had instructed.

“Not how much . . . whom,” the duke replied.

Nick gripped the ladder’s wooden slats. He’d have his father down within seconds.

“Fine then, whom did you lose?” Lear asked.

“My son,” boomed Nick’s father. “Gambled him clean away.”

What in hell was that supposed to mean?

Nick took a deep breath. It couldn’t possibly be true. The duke suffered from delusions and this was merely a new one.

Nick grabbed hold of the duke’s boot, and his father stuck his head down the opening. “That you, Nicolas?”

“It’s me,” Nick said grimly. “Now clasp my hand and I’ll help you down.”

“No,” his father said stubbornly. “I’m making an announcement.”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Hush. My audience awaits.” His father popped his head back up the opening.

Nick sighed. Bodily force it was, then.

“As I was saying, I lost the marquess at cards,” the duke proclaimed. “To a wealthy baronet. So you see, fair Venus, he won’t be yours much longer. He’s to be married to Miss Alice—”

The end of his announcement grew garbled as, with one swift tug, Nick grabbed his father’s boots and pulled him into his arms.

Not a moment too soon.

The rotting deck splintered as Nick carried his father down the ladder.

Nick shielded the duke as a wooden beam jarred across his back.

Safely away from the collapsing ship and off the stage, Nick placed an arm around his father’s shoulders.