Bright and Brittle

The rattle of coach wheels filled the cobblestone street. The dark phantom of a vehicle moved toward the Café LaFronte. Steam billowed from nostrils thrown wide as the steeds pulled through the frosty air. The coach came to a shuddering stop in front of the shabby café. The black, silk hangings were drawn back from the coach’s circular window and a narrow, pale face appeared from behind them. The sharp eyes scanned the street and then withdrew, the dark hangings dancing back into place like the garments of a ghost.

Outside the coach a single, dim streetlight stood noble and resolute above the muck filled street. Underneath the sole source of light stood a tall man of sturdy build, he leaned against the noble light post, lest his weight might cause it to bend. This tall observer watched as the coach door opened, and the small, pale phantom stepped forth, hurrying into the café. There were hurried words in French, candles were lit in the windows, and the small, dingy place sprang to life. All sorts of characters, sailors, muggers, Jacobites…even two young scholars came swiftly, as dogs to a whistle.

The phantom sat at a small table, nearest to the stage, but farthest to the right. In his long fingers he held a delicate glass filled with a pale colored wine. His bright blue eyes, full of life, searched the stage. A deep chair with voluptuous, red-velvet upholstery creaked. The phantom of a man looked across the table to the chair that had so long sat vacant. It was now occupied by the tall, sturdy-looking stranger.

“Good evening,” said the stranger.

“Evening,” moaned the phantom.

“Lovely night.” the stranger commented.

“So it is.” The phantom responded, hoping that if he agreed the stranger would stop conversing. His effort was of no avail.

“Do you know who the singer is tonight?”

“Same as every night.” The phantom ran his thin fingers along the table’s edge.

“Then you do know?” The stranger responded, elated. “I mean, good sir, do you know who the singer is?”

“Of course I know.” The phantom responded. “She is Octavia Gambols.”

“That is her name then, but not who she is.” A twinkle danced in the green eye.

“She is a singer.”

“So she is.” The stranger agreed. A waiter asked him what his pleasure would be.  “I’ll have a wee glass of Scotch, good man.”

The phantom took this moment to gulp down the rest of his wine; he asked the waiter to bring him another glass, hoping to delay the strange conversation.

His efforts were once again fruitless as the stranger asked him another question. “Pardon me, dear sir, but as of yet I do not know your name. If it pleases you, will you reveal to me who you are?”

“I am Henry Sutcliffe, Lord Treasurer.” The phantom replied, inserting his name and title, knowing the stranger would not relent until he knew.

“So you are.”

“Your meaning?” Lord Sutcliffe asked as he watched the stage eagerly, the time was drawing near.

Ignoring Sutcliffe’s question, the stranger asked another, “What interest do you hold with this singer, this Octavia Gambols?”

Lord Sutcliffe sighed. He had just downed his third glass of the pale wine, while the stranger had not drunk a single drop of the Scotch before him. Lord Sutcliffe locked his eyes upon the door from which he knew Octavia would enter. He willed desperately that she should come out and sing her glorious song. He bent all his will to this objective, but all his will was useless. She did not appear and he downed a fourth glass of the pale wine. He looked at the stranger with his bright eyes; sorrow dimmed them as he began to speak. “Friend, I do not know who you are, but I am about to confide in you many things, things that I can no longer bear in solitary consideration. What do you swear upon to keep these things between you and me?”

“I swear upon your honorable title. Now confide in me, good man Henry.”

“Octavia Gambols is my one true joy in life. I live in a world of champagne, parties, flirtatious ladies, and vast piles of money. I work among glimmering gold coins all day long, but I am never happy and there is no light in my life until I come here, nay, until she sings within this shabby building. She is bright. Everything else in my life is without light,” here the phantom laughed without mirth, “like that street light outside.

“Yet this joy of mine, Octavia, is brittle. She is bright and brittle. I fear that if I seek her as my own, which is my final, greatest desire, I might break her, harm her in some way. If I take her as my own, my life will corrupt her, yes, even the life of a lord will corrupt that bright joy, though she dwells here among sailor and scum.”

The stranger nodded his head with understanding, and then looked Lord Sutcliffe in the eye. “Hear this, friend, and pursue this joy with prudence. Treasure this joy while you can, but remember always that the joys of this world are not made to last.” The stranger rose from his table as Octavia Gambols walked onto the stage. “Goodnight, Lord Sutcliffe.”

“Goodnight, dear friend,” responded Lord Sutcliffe sincerely, holding the stranger’s gaze for a brief moment before his eyes and ears turned their attention to the singer. At the end of the performance the small, round table closest to the stage, but farthest to the right, was occupied solely by an untouched glass of Scotch.

~A short story by Joshua  A. Spotts

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