Two besuited figures, one substantially larger than the other, sat in high, wing-backed, leather chairs, enjoying their glasses of brandy, as they watched the crackling flames dance in the fireplace before them.
Away to one side, squeezed rather uncomfortably into the far corner of the room, in fact, sat two other suited figures, both similarly mismatched in terms of their relative scale. The larger of the two cast a longing glance towards the two chairs and then turned to frostily regard his colleague over the top of his tumbler.
“Would’ve been nice to have sat by the fire on an evening like this,” he said, his voice rumbling like a troll gargling granite. “But someone had to go and have the last slice of apple pie, didn’t they?” he added somewhat petulantly.
“Sorry, FT,” said Maxwell, mopping up a lone droplet of cream hanging from the tip of his waxed moustache. “But you know how much I adore apple pie and it would have been a crime to have let it go to waste. And we did manage to get seats in the drawing room, unlike those poor chaps over there,” he continued, pointing to a glum group of ex-diners, huddled miserably over the Deluxe Scrabble and Cluedo boards in the Games Room.
The ‘slum’ end of the informal dining room at Haggrid’s.
“I just fancied warming my bones a bit, that’s all. I’m not getting any younger, you know. And in our line of work, you’ve got to learn to take your leisure whenever you can,” said Fotherington-Tomas, snapping his fingers to summon a passing butler to bring him another brandy.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you, FT,” said Maxwell, regarding his long-time friend with concern. “I mean, it’s not like it’s the depths of midwinter and we’ve been here for most of the day, bathed in centrally-heated bliss, so I can’t really see how you’ve got any reason to be chilled, let alone so miserable.”
By here, Maxwell was referring to Haggrid’s, the oldest and most exclusive gentleman’s club in all of London Town. Founded in fourteen-forty-four, by the son of a Spanish whelk-peddler, it was steeped in history and more than a little mystery to boot. Rumour had it that the Lord Chief Mason kept a private room on the top floor of the building, for his mistress and her pet chinchilla, while others said that there was a fully functional, antique S&M dungeon located in the basement. Both were absolutely true, of course, and a lot more besides, but the only things that really mattered were that the male heirs of the Fotherington-Tomas clan were granted membership in perpetuity, because of a blood-debt owed to them from way back in the early fifteen-hundreds, and that the club was so catastrophically old-fashioned that it insisted on painting its blackballs white.
The lesser drawing room at Haggrid’s.
“You wouldn’t understand, Maxwell. After all, you were only in your first term at Oxford, when it happened,” said Fotherington-Tomas morosely.
“When what happened, FT?” said Maxwell, his eyebrows lifting in anticipation at the thought of his beloved mentor sharing some rare and long-suppressed angst that was gnawing at his indomitable soul.
“Well, it is forty years to the very day, that I first met Doctor Mephostus, if you must know,” replied Fotherington-Tomas, with an unusually distant look about him.
“I never knew that Doctor Mephostus was at Oxford!” exclaimed Maxwell. “You never mentioned that before.”
“Like I said, you were only in your first year and studying History of Art, if I remember correctly, so there would have been little chance that your paths would have crossed,” said Fotherington-Tomas, taking a large swig of brandy from his glass, as if to gird his loins before beginning his confession.
“Ah, yes. History of Art. The noblest of all the academic pursuits,” said Maxwell fondly. “Two hours of lectures a week and a stipend that you could drown a rugby team on. I must admit that I don’t recall it too clearly these days, although I do believe that my initials are still to be found carved in a lintel above one of the cubbies in The Lamb and Flag.”
“That particular admission wouldn’t surprise me in the least, knowing what a rascally rapscallion you were back in those days,” answered Fotherington-Tomas, with a mixture of admonishment and admiration in his eyes.
Oxford University, as seen from the rear.
Fotherington-Tomas drained his glass and then indicated to the steward that he should bring him yet another and one more for Maxwell besides.
As the drinks were placed delicately down on the tiny oak table that separated them, Fotherington-Tomas continued:
“Yes, Mephostus was indeed an Oxford boy. An old Mortonian, like myself, in fact. We used to knock around together quite a bit back then. Along with old Aldo Passlington, the Yorkshire Yippmaster, don’t you know? He was studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the time. Aldo, that was, not Mephostus. We were quite the inseparable threesome, until Aldo’s tastes turned a bit too militant for my liking and he started drinking in The Three Goat’s Heads.”
“Another nugget of glimmering information that I was hitherto unapprised of,” said Maxwell, settling himself into his seat, as the story began to unfold.
“Indeed, but it is Mephostus that is the subject of my woes this evening,” said Fotherington-Tomas, swirling his brandy slowly around in his glass and watching the legs of alcohol, as they dribbled down the glass towards the dark, amber meniscus below. “At that time, he was a brilliant young chemistry student, indentured at the Dyson Perrins Workhouse for Boys, on South Parks Road. And when I say brilliant, he was far ahead of anyone else in his year, and well beyond most of the seasoned Dons who were tutoring him. At one point, they were actually fighting each other in the street, for the honour of having him do his doctoral thesis under them. How wrong that went in the end, especially when that poor organ grinder and his monkey came around the corner…” his voice dropping into silence, as he lost himself in the depths of his glass.
Maxwell took a sip of his own brandy, enjoying the warm smell of the time-aged liquor, as it hit his nose and wormed its way smoothly down his throat. He remained silent, watching Fotherington-Tomas, until the great man suddenly jerked himself from his personal reminiscence and carried on.
“We were the best of friends, old Mephostus and I, at Oxford. I was just finishing my first degree in Zoology and it was he who convinced me to contemplate the study of chemistry for my D.Phil. Well, not pure chemistry, to be absolutely precise about it. Rather the biology of chemistry… and not biochemistry, before you ask. No, we were going to open up a whole new field of human endeavour, Mephostus and I. We would have been Nobel Laureates, for sure, the pair of us. Were it not for the incident.”
The Dyson Perrins Workhouse for Boys. Allegedly modelled on a prison in the Alsace.
“Incident?” queried Maxwell, setting his empty glass down on the table as quietly as he could, so as not to disturb Fotherington-Tomas from his memories.
“Yes, the incident. And how very unfortunate it was for the both of us, upon reflection,” said Fotherington-Tomas, with uncharacteristic sadness in his voice. “We both played rugby for the College and bloody good we were, too. I was in the front row, while he was one of the most talented scrum-halves that I have ever seen on the field. You should have been there, Maxwell, we were truly something to behold. The way that he could run rings around men thrice the size of him was nothing short of amazing. He could have played for England, had his heart been in it, which for a short while, at least, I believe that it was.”
“Anyway, we were both in our final year, when the bi-annual Army versus Oxford rugby match was announced. Naturally, we were both selected for the team and never before, or since, for that matter, have two men trained so hard for an amateur sporting event.”
“So, it was an injury that did him in, was it?” asked Maxwell, daring for just a moment, to interrupt the human mammoth in his captivating monologue.
“No, nothing of the sort!” roared Fotherington-Tomas, causing several of the older members in the establishment to clutch their hands frantically to their chests, for fear of having another heart attack, and so soon after dinner too.
“No, Maxwell. We were both at the peak of physical fitness, when we took to the field that day. It was a glorious June afternoon and a sizeable portion of the University had turned out to watch us play, including, I should point out, most of the chemistry professors from Dyson Perrins. The Army team were predominantly from the Household Cavalry, with a few Royal Marines thrown in to bolster the back row, but what we didn’t know, was that there was a minor Royal, the nephew of one of the Princes or some other, playing on their side. It was a great game, with plenty of playful gouging going on, and a bit of harmless biting in the mauls, of course. Then, just after half-time, Mephostus was sent off for a high tackle on the Royal in question.”
“The rotter!” said Maxwell. “I knew that he was no good, even from the start. What a terrible thing for him to do and to a member of the Royal Family at that!”
Rugby. A game played by men with odd-shaped balls.
“Far from it,” replied Fotherington-Tomas, darkly. “It was the referee’s fault. It was never a high tackle, not even close to being one, but the foolish fellow couldn’t bear the thought of impugning the good name of the Monarchy, so he castigated Mephostus in the only way that he knew how, with a red card held stiffly aloft, for all to see.”
“Two sides to every story, eh?” said Maxwell, summoning the waiter for another glass of brandy for the pair of them.
“Yes. And we were left without our best scrum-half in the process. We ended up losing the match because of that decision and from that day on, Mephostus swore to bring down the entire Royal Family. If the referee had only made the correct decision, then I wouldn’t be left where I am today, battling a nemesis of considerable guile, who was once my very best friend in the world.
I tried to remonstrate with him in the changing rooms after the match. Mephostus, that was, not the referee, but the damage was done. I don’t mind admitting that he frightened me to the very core, such was the bitterness with which he took the referee’s decision. I have never heard such vehemence from the lips of an Englishman in all my life and that is God’s honest truth. It changed my opinion of him in an instant. You know me, Maxwell, old boy. I stand for Queen and Country, no matter what the cost. And to hear the blasphemous slander that was issuing from his lips on that day, with only an Egyptian cotton towel wrapped around his waist, turned my heart into stone. I remember slamming his bony frame against the wall of the changing room, as I left the building, and never again did I spare even the most-paltry word of acknowledgement for his existence as a man born of English parents.”
“I understand your position completely, FT. But, you did indeed make a mortal enemy of him on that day. And the problem with Doctor Mephostus, as you know only too well, is that you can never predict where he is going to strike next.”
“Indeed, Maxwell. Indeed. He’s proven to be as slippery an eel off the pitch, as he was on it,” said Fotherington-Tomas, draining his glass with a single gargantuan gulp.
“What was that, FT? I didn’t say anything,” replied Maxwell, reaching for his glass.
He was but inches away from the table, when Fotherington-Tomas’ suddenly dashed his glass onto the floor and began scrabbling at his bow tie.
“Poison, Maxwell! Don’t touch it!” he gasped, as his round, moon-like face began to redden, and his eyes bulged alarmingly from their sockets.
“The waiter! It must have been Doctor Mephostus in disguise!” cried Maxwell, scanning the room for any sign of the ancient, grey-haired manservant, who had delivered their drinks.
Fotherington-Tomas started to tremble, as Maxwell watched on in horror, his face as pale as his dear friend’s was red. With every passing second, the trembling grew more and more fitful, until Fotherington-Tomas was jerking around in his seat, like a condemned man riding the blue-limned lightning of the electric chair.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the shaking stopped, and Fotherington-Tomas sat bolt upright in his chair, his eyes staring fixedly ahead, as his breathing slowed almost to a stop. Maxwell watched on, transfixed, as beads of perspiration broke out on Fotherington-Tomas’ forehead and began running down his face. Very soon, a small pool of sweat appeared beneath the vast man and Maxwell became aware of an extremely unpleasant odour hanging in the air between them.
Casting his eyes around the room, to see if any of the more antiquated members had passed wind and not admitted it, he noticed that the hubbub, which had accompanied his mentor’s initial shocked outburst had died away, to be replaced by an almost reverential silence, as every pair of eyes in the room fixed themselves on the pair of them.
After what seemed like an age, Fotherington-Tomas’ glassy-eyed stare faded, and his breathing returned to something approaching normality. Rolling his shoulders in displeasure at finding his clothes soaked through with sweat, he shook himself and rose from his chair.
“Are you alright, FT?” asked Maxwell, his voice sounding like a bomb going off in the wood-damped silence of the oak-panelled drawing room.
Morton College, Oxford. Home to both Fotherington-Tomas and evil Doctor Mephostus.
“Had a close call there, Maxwell,” said Fotherington-Tomas, trying unsuccessfully, to mop his face dry with his sodden handkerchief. “But thankfully, I was able to force the poison out through my pores, before it could attack my nervous system.”
“Another victory for the training of Abbot Victor Falangies, eh?” said Maxwell, handing his own, unspoiled handkerchief, to the dripping form before him.
Before Fotherington-Tomas could reply, the room erupted into a cacophony of cheering and rampant applause, as the assembled members of Haggrid’s rose to their feet, to give their most celebrated brother a standing ovation, in honour of the magnificent show of mind over matter that they had just witnessed.
“Enough. Enough!” boomed Fotherington-Tomas, waving a shovel-sized hand in the air to silence the crowd. “Thank you, my dear fellows. Thank you. But it was really nothing, nothing at all. Now, if you will excuse me, Maxwell and I have a villain to apprehend.”
At that moment, there was a polite tug on his arm and Fotherington-Tomas span around to find himself face to face with a butler bearing a small silver tray. For a second, Maxwell thought that his mighty colleague was going to strike the man, but he regained his immaculate composure, when the terrified fellow managed to stammer out: “Telegram for you, Mister Fotherington-Tomas, Sir.”
“Thank you,” said Fotherington-Tomas in a perfunctory tone, as he lifted the small, yellow envelope from the tray and opened it.
Once again, the drawing room of Haggrid’s fell silent, as Fotherington-Tomas’ eyes scanned the narrow type printed on the telegram. Then, placing the missive back down on the silver tray, he turned to Maxwell and said: “My friend. I am afraid that capturing Doctor Mephostus will have to wait for another day. It would appear that we have been summoned by Her Majesty to make all haste to Paris and from there, to Mont Blanc.”
“Mont Blanc. Whatever for, FT?” asked Maxwell, still glancing around the room for any possible sign of Doctor Mephostus in amongst the servants.
“She didn’t say. But for us, my dear fellow, ‘all haste’ can mean only one thing. And that’s a trip on the Eurostar, followed by the Orient Express!”
Will Fotherington-Tomas get to the Orient Express on time, especially seeing as Network Rail has reported fresh leaves on the line? What hideous peril awaits the brave duo at Mont Blanc? And what of Doctor Mephostus? Will he ever be apprehended, and the safety of The Realm assured? Stay tuned for the next exciting instalment of, The Adventures of Fotherington-Tomas… whenever that might be!