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‘Of Bobby Shafto and the Vision’, by Chris Milner

Short stories
Brancepeth Castle Gatehouse

Could I accept such an invitation? There, at the end of the day? With the castle’s curtain wall a silhouette against the slowly-fading twilight, embracing us in its mystery? With the carriage waiting? With my fiancée so close by?

Bridget and I were at Brancepeth and in the closing scenes of Gilbert’s wedding to Emma Bulmer. We must travel back to Whitworth, a long journey, to be rendered far longer I knew by the scolding I was to receive. And why? As ever, it is what sneaks in when you spy someone comes close to taking what you hold most precious. It is that old friend, the little green worm. It is jealousy.

But I have begun at the end. Let me tell you how it happened.

My good friend, Gilbert deNeuville, was to marry and my betrothed and I had been invited to the wedding. If you must marry, then Brancepeth Castle is most decidedly a wonderful setting.

The ceremony had been in the enchanting parish church, set close by the castle, with white-washed walls, an ocean of blooms and an extraordinary reverend who kept us all amused until Emma and her father, Lord Bulmer, finally arrived.

“What a gorgeous little chapel,” Bridget had gushed after the service, as we followed the newlyweds through the wildflower meadow and back up through the gatehouse. “Maybe, we might marry here, Bobby. What do you think?”

This was Bridget’s most well-travelled topic and one which chose to ignore my own intention to return to sea at the earliest opportunity. So, as ever, I was wary of hasty commitment on such a question and said nothing.

“And wasn’t Emma just stunning?” she continued to coo.

Yes, Emma was stunning, though my own eye had been taken by a vision with long, dark hair and sparkling, azure eyes who had arrived alone, much after the service should have started, and who had sat opposite, with the bride’s party.

I discovered the Vision’s name soon afterwards, while Bridget was chattering around her own circle. As Gilbert’s best man, I was called to stand duty in the reception line, as the guests came up the grand entrance steps to the ballroom. Eventually, her turn came.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” I said. “Have you come far?”

“No, not far today, for I have been visiting friends. Though I live away, in Yorkshire, so this has been quite a trip for me.” And added, “I’m Anne Duncombe.”

“Well, welcome to Brancepeth, Miss Duncombe. My name is Robert, Robert Shafto.”

The wedding breakfast had been arrayed in the Armour Gallery, a long, narrow room. However, it had been set out with half the guests seated to our left, and half to our right, presenting the speakers with some difficulty in addressing them all.

One option in making your toast was to boom sonorously and stoically, like the Master of the Hunt, trusting volume to cover all the given ground. This was Lord Bulmer’s approach. Sitting a few places along from him, I spent much of his address wishing I’d been sitting a few places further along. Lady Bulmer, at his side, looked unmoved. But then she was, perhaps, a little deaf.

Another option was to deliver your speech in a different language, thereby denying both ends of the room equally. This was Gilbert’s approach. I know he’s mastered many Anglo-Saxon ways since the deNeuville’s came over from France, but this must have been an irresistible opportunity to remind us all of his Gallic heritage. Anyway, few followed his weeping and gushing remarks or understood his toast to the Maids of Honour.

The final option, which I settled on, was to give two speeches, addressing each end of the room in turn and dividing the verbal feast accordingly.

My opening reflection was on the challenges that marriage brings – with my admission that my father hadn’t spoken to my mother for three weeks now because he couldn’t get a word in edgeways.

This was warmly greeted by the friends of the bride and groom, including the Vision, on my right; but viewed with distaste by their families sitting, as was Bridget, to my left. Thus, my course was set.

“Marriage, I’ve heard, is like a game of cards,” I smiled at the Vision. “At first all you need is two hearts and a diamond. But as time goes on, you start wishing for a club and a spade.”

“You can tell when it’s an emotional wedding,” I offered Bridget. “Because, as you see, the cake is in tiers.”

“There are three rings in marriage,” I warned those on my right. “The engagement ring, the wedding ring and the suffering.”

And then, to Bridget: “I’m out of my depth here. I’m in the presence of something which can’t be bought but…”

To the Vision: “…but which can be stolen with a glance. Something which is worthless to one but…”

To Bridget: “…but something which is priceless to two.

“It is love. Love is our toast here. To Gilbert and to Emma,” and my duty was done.

And then, when the music struck up, there was dancing – riotous, energetic dancing. The Ballroom filled with the strains of a handsome small orchestra and I did my best to live up to my reputation and danced every measure. Naturally, as was proper, I accompanied Bridget. But there were times when she preferred to gossip, so I took the floor with an acquaintance. And there was one time, not by chance you may assume, with that Vision.

“I see you are a man who enjoys riddles,” she observed as we stepped out.

“Quite right,” I replied, admiring her even more.

“Then answer me this, Mr Shafto,” pausing and smiling. “What dances and skips? What’s read in the eyes, but cheats with the hips? Once it meets its match, it’s easily caught, but dies if it’s bound and strung up too taut.” At which, I grinned, knowing the answer all along.

“And your heart, Mr Shafto? Is your heart bound and strung up too taut? Or do I still detect movement in your hips?”

“You’re very direct, Miss Duncombe.”

“Of course,” she replied. “I’m from Yorkshire.”

And then later, as Bridget and I made our excuses to the newlyweds and looked for coats and carriage, along came that invitation.

Bridget was farewelling her friends. Miss Duncombe was at the top of the stairs, awaiting me.

“So sorry to see you go,” she said. “Perhaps you’d care to visit us in Yorkshire some time?”

What could I say? What could I say here, with my betrothed so close?

Seeing me hesitate, she offered me another riddle. “I’m always in front of you, but you’ll never see me.

So, what am I, Mr Shafto?”

“You are the future, Miss Duncombe. My future?”

“Indeed,” and, with a nod up the steps, “or is Bridget Belsayse the future you really want?”

I smiled again at her directness. Must I choose?

“I’m to go to sea soon,” I said.

“Is that so? Well, perhaps then you’ll come and visit me upon your return.”

So saying, she smiled again and was away, slipping back among the dancing throng in Brancepeth’s splendid ballroom.

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