John Carter’s Conundrum

London, 1785

When John Carter stepped into the darkened room, the depressing scent of dust and bodily decay assailed his nostrils. He inhaled and caught a welcome waft of camphor. Though cloying, the laurel wood oil made the air marginally more breathable.

“Close the door behind you!” croaked a thin voice from the depths of the gloom. “The drafts are going to be the death of me.”

“We wouldn’t want that,” Carter replied mildly and did as he was told.

“Hah!” rasped the voice. “I’m dying anyway. Now sit down!”

Thoughts of death had crossed Carter’s mind when he had received, earlier in the day, a summons to the magnificent home of Lord Avery, Fourth Duke of Bradford, on Portman Square. He had become sure of the deathbed scene awaiting him when, upon being ushered into the foyer, the senescent butler had not led him to a receiving room on the ground floor but rather up the grand staircase to the family quarters.

His eyes, adjusting to the candlelit dimness, observed the man shrunk to child-like proportions in the capacious bed on the far side of the room. The body tucked below the covers was frail. The arms, crossed atop the covers, resembled plucked chicken wings. The head, well on its path to skull, sprouted the last wisps of white wiry hair, eyes and cheeks sunken, the whole covered by skin paper-thin.

“No, not that chair,” the duke snapped when Carter moved to seat himself at a respectful distance. “This one, next to me.”

“Yes, Your Grace, certainly,” he said, still in mild tones.

“There, that’s right. I want to see you. Not that there’s anything wrong with my eyesight. Or my hearing! It’s rather my heart.”

“I didn’t know.”

“You wouldn’t have,” the duke grumbled, adding with admirable spirit, “And now you do!”

“I’m sorry.”

“It happens to everyone,” the old man said with an indifferent shrug, but a candle flame caught an errant glint in his eye when he noted, “There’s something to be said for knowing a man is going to meet his Maker. It’s …” he trailed off then coughed. “Well, it puts a man in a frame of mind to do whatever he wants.”

Carter blinked and ventured, “And what you wanted was to see me?”

“Silly question, lad,” the duke snapped. “The obvious answer is Yes.”

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