Sunday, November 27, 2011

It was midnight, but it was still a long way to go until the end of the night. Dr. Jekyll knew well enough not to expect this particular crowd of guests to begin leaving until two thirty, which would mean it would be rude for him personally to run on home before three.

Ordinarily he would not mind, or at least, he would not mind this much. A party held for Sir George Lanyon was the illustrious sort of gathering he would have genuinely looked forward to. But it had been a long week, stressful in more ways than one, and more than anything he wanted rest. But he knew he couldn't--no, not when it was so vital that he get a chance to talk to Sir George himself.

For over a year now, Dr. Jekyll had been planning something. No, it was nothing to do with his personal interests in the duality of man--that he knew well enough to keep out of the public eye--this was something new. Something exciting, a wonderful collaboration between men of science. But it was a project of such a scale that they would require backers and support. The support, as it were, of Sir George, so well connected, so influentially poised on so many important boards.

But Sir George had been occupied all night, and appeared in a foul mood on the rare occasion when he was free. Dr. Jekyll began to despair of an opportunity to speak with him. He was tired and anxious and beginning to be in dear want of something to drink. It would, of course, reflect badly on him if he were to make a mad dash for the refreshment table and guzzle down glass after glass of champagne. But it would not be unreasonable for him to slip out of the ball room for a moment to have a quiet drink on his own.

The practice was not unknown to him. In fact, it was becoming increasingly more common, year by year--high society began to lose its gleam, every once in a while, and he would find himself feeling just a spot empty inside. He would begin to wonder if his life were lacking in genuine friendship, whether all these flighty acquaintances and business connections really meant anything at all to him. This brief crisis could easily be remedied by a good glass or two of scotch, and he would return with spirits restored and doubts brushed to the side, where they belonged. That was just what he planned to do now, as he discovered for himself a deserted corridor leading to a deserted waiting room.

Except that someone was already there.

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Jekyll didn't exactly have a start, but he did stand up a little straighter, using a particular blank smile reserved for people he had yet to categorize properly. And this man was giving him no help in that department.

What he could gather of the man was this: He had a pale complexion and a shock of red hair. He seemed to be about the same age as him, or perhaps just slightly older. He had been there for some time, judging from the half-drained bottle on the table, and he didn't appear to mind, particularly, that someone else had barged into what was clearly intended to be a one-man drinking party.

Still, the silence was uncomfortable, and propriety soon forced Jekyll into conversation. "Terribly sorry about that," he began, for which he received a silent shrug. "I . . . don't believe we've met. My name is Henry Jekyll."

He extended a hand. The stranger raised an eyebrow before taking it. "Ah, yes. I've heard of you. You're the bloke looking for the grant for your scientist friends."

Henry detected just the slightest patronizing tone in the man's voice, but it wasn't anything he hadn't dealt with before. He tried for a dash of humility: "That is my hope, yes, but we can't expect too much." He paused, hoping the man would return the introductions, but he said nothing. "Are you from around here? I feel I haven't seen you."

"No, I imagine you haven't," said the man, a smile playing on his lips. "I have been traveling much these last few years. And, as you may have inferred, I do prefer to avoid social functions such as this." He kicked back what remained of his current drink. He seemed subdued but not at all drunk, and he filled his glass slowly, delicately, as if it were the only activity he had to occupy himself with all night.

"I sympathize completely," said Jekyll, who really didn't, but who tended to agree impulsively with others in order to set them at ease. "Parties are all fine and well, but this late in the Season, they do begin to drag a bit, don't they?"

"Whenever don't they? They're nothing but dull conversation and duller people. It absolutely astounds me that there are actually people who willingly hop from house to house, night after night, repeating this ridiculous ritual! Really, you would have to be a complete imbecile to enjoy something like this." He said all this with that amused smile intact, as though he were a biologist making observations on a pack of monkeys.

Jekyll tried to keep the surprise out of his tone. "That's a little harsh now, isn't it? I wouldn't be so quick to condemn the most celebrated social events in all of London. There is surely some merit in it, wouldn't you agree?"

"I see. I suppose if I had wasted my entire year licking the boots of potential sponsors, I would want to believe there was some merit in it as well." He had guessed, correctly, that his new companion was one of those very 'imbecile's he was talking about.

Jekyll's expression lost some of its pleasant demeanor--clearly, there was no point in maintaining his usual friendly facade in front of this man. He had dealt with people like this--cynical, belligerent people--and put up with them before, but those were powerful people, important people who needed to be persuaded and coaxed. This man was surely no one of consequence, or else he would have heard of him. And with no incentive to impress him, there was no point in feigning friendliness either.

"I believe I'm beginning to see why you don't enjoy parties," he said lightly. "If you're this charming with everyone, I can't imagine you're invited often." He opened the door, checking to see if anyone would catch him exiting through it. "Bitterness doesn't become you very well, I'm afraid. Enjoy your drink." And he shut the door behind him.

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He was pleased for having gotten the last word, but his spirits were dampened on the whole by the unpleasant conversation. It had distracted him enough that he had barely felt like having a drink at all. On the bright side, he was now feeling enough stubborn pride that he didn't feel he needed it anymore. He drifted into a circle of ladies surrounding the fireplace and managed to put the strange man out of his mind.

Sir George continued to be occupied for nearly an hour after that, but after his recent encounter, Jekyll was more than happy to wait patiently for an opportune moment. When he sensed this moment about to arrive, he carefully made a path to him, slow enough so that his approach might appear casual, but not too slow so that someone snatched him up before he had his chance to talk.

"Henry!" growled the old man. "So glad you could come!" His face had a naturally stern look to it, making the greeting a little unnatural. They exchanged pleasantries, Jekyll allowing Sir George to lead the conversation at first. He was, in fact, spared the task of having to weave his new project into the conversation naturally, when Sir George said: "And I hear you've got a certain . . . matter you wish to take up with me."

His tone was not quite as pleasant on the subject as Jekyll might have hoped. It sounded guarded, perhaps a little suspicious. He knew Sir George to be a conservative man, though, and he had prepared himself to be persuasive. Confident, he was about to begin his speech to charm the man into support when he spotted someone walking up behind him.

True to his character, the red haired stranger showed no qualms in barging straight into their talk. "Henry!" he announced, in a mock tone of Sir George. "So glad you could come!" And in horror, Jekyll watched as the stranger patted Sir George jovially on the shoulder, prompting the stoic old man to laugh.

"Oh, so you two have met already, have you?" chortled Sir George.

"Oh, well--" stammered Jekyll, just barely managing very forced smile across his face.

"Not properly, then? Ah, it's too be expected! Our Robby will never learn manners as long as he lives." He exchanged glances with the stranger, smiling. The stranger's affectionate smile was not all too different from his insulting, amused smile, and they both came off as rather sly and eerie. "This is my son, Robert Lanyon."

And it was a wonderful thing that Dr. Jekyll had been doing this sort of thing long enough that the correct, polite exchange of introductions was automatic, because he felt as if the bottom had just dropped out of his stomach.