The atmosphere of conviviality that prevailed at the dinner table that evening was marred only by a slight sense of ennui. Predictably enough the butler, Reynolds, had developed an inexplicable penchant for gargling mouthwash in the presence of milord; and this was sufficiently vexing to cause Mrs. Widgeons to let fall the sherry decanter precisely into the lap of Aunt Gregoria, bringing about a most awkward how-d’ye-do; but on the whole no untoward eventualities intervened to relieve the soiree of its suffocating miasma of inspissated gloom. Further conversation was prevented by the entrance of twelve machete-wielding dwarfs, who proceeded to hack the company to pieces without any sign of compunction.
Upon reflection, reflected Aunt Petunia as she sat in a silent passion upon her ample Regency prie-dieu the following Whitsunday, it would perhaps have been better to renege. The frazzled complexities of her agonized mind could not easily be reduced to a state of mere whimpering abjectitude; but nonetheless it was a matter of the utmost consternation to her that such a regrettable proceeding should have been seen fit to be resorted to. Vulgar, she called it. Especially given that a farrago of more elegant methods of acquitting oneself suggested itself at once to her far-ranging mind: ampullae of absinthe spiked with belladonna; a silken garotte; even hypnosis might have answered, given the extreme suggestibility of what these nouveau-riche louts almost charmingly called their minds. Murder by mesmerism: yes, now that would have been something to mention to Count Oswald when next they met: she could see the almost imperceptible but unmistakably approving slant of his monobrow as he raised the gadrooned goblet to his fleshy lips, or would have done; nay, would and should and shall, should she ever now be granted the very mingled pleasure of his company again by an ambivalent Fate. But over this potentiality there hung as it were a miasma of the most nephelidious doubt.
As it was, she considered that what might be called the political situation presented as it were a bramble of the thorniest quandaries. Like Balaam’s ass, she hesitated between two equiponderous courses, though neither of them palatable; indeed both festered with maleficent maggots, so to speak. There was the Law; one could appeal to that; many people did, she knew, although she had never been able to see them otherwise than as the most squalid poltroons. The jejune caviling, the obsequious kowtowing to pimply potentates in wigs, above all the interminable dilatoriness of the crawling juggernaut of Procedure, were all infinitely repulsive to her proud piratical mind. A flash of rapiers in the moonlight was the proper, the only satisfactory method of resolving such disputes, she thought; certainly not the droning dialectic of borborygmous barristers, as endless as it was infantile. No, not for Petunia de Grimsby the law and its petty vexations. Not to mention its inherent and quite scandalous unpredictability of outcome.
Well, that left private justice. But private justice had its own perplexities.
She was enumerating these to herself for the umpteenth time when a discreet knock heralded the arrival of Sir Wolfgang, who had let himself in, at her instance, by the scullery door to avoid inquiry. She brought her intellectual and intestinal efforts to a hasty conclusion and emerged to greet him.