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Of Love, Biscuits, and Free Will

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There will be today, there will be tomorrow, there will be always, and there was yesterday, and there was the day before...

 

Leo Tolstoy. “War and Peace”

 

The bloodstains on the floor form a pattern. The trick is not to step into any of the red splashes. Right foot back. Left foot to the side. Right foot forward. And not to trip over a dead body in the middle of the room. Too late? Oh, well. What Louis lacks in elegance, he makes up for in spades with doggedness.

 

Dennis makes himself a cup of tea and sits back in his arm-chair. Milk, no sugar. Sometimes he takes half a spoonful but that’s for when he’s got no biscuits. Dennis is an expert dunker. He can dunk a biscuit into a lacerated wound and it would not need rinsing afterwards. He prefers tea though.

 

A record is spinning in the gramophone. Louis continues shuffling his feet over the blood-sprayed parquet with all the sophistication of a goose gliding across a frozen pond. Left foot forward. Right foot pivot to the left. Trip over the dead girl again. Start cursing like a drunken sailor.

 

Dennis shakes his head and looks down at his book. It says there: “The presence of the problem of man's free will, though unexpressed, is felt at every step of history.” Dennis would like to ponder as he submerges half of his biscuit into his cup of tea and bites at the warm, soggy dough, what on earth possessed him to start teaching Louis how to dance the tango. Again.

 

Louis first got the idea when he hooked up with that German revue starlet in Berlin in 1939. They listened to Rosita Serrano and he thought it would be bloody romantic. It ended up being just bloody, and not only because his inability to tell La Cumparsita from El Choclo annoyed the hell out of Dennis who somehow found himself in the middle of all of Louis’s flings.

 

“If the consciousness of freedom were not a separate and independent source of self-consciousness it would be subject to reasoning and to experience,” the book offers, “but in fact such subjection does not exist and is inconceivable.”

 

After the fifth fiasco, it finally occurs to Louis to move the body. Dennis sighs quietly. The record starts skipping. So does Louis. Fergus peeks into the room, knits his eyebrows and withdraws. He reappears a moment later, accompanied by Hal who is wearing an equally quizzical expression. Dennis shrugs silently.

 

Fergus murmurs something along the lines of “let’s leave Odette and Odile here to it” (another radical case of imperiti de arbitus judicant, ut caeci de coloribus) and vanishes to the accompaniment of Dennis’s displeased growling. Contrary to popular opinion, Dennis can actually talk. He speaks seven languages (two of them deader than he is). Some say he keeps silent because Hal bit off his tongue during a temper tantrum. That could have worked if Hal had actually thrown temper tantrums instead of cold-bloodedly killing those misfortunate to have fallen out of his favour on the spot. And if his idea of acceptable personal space had been more than half a millimetre. Others suggest that he has made a vow of silence. These are usually the same people that support the idea of Dennis having been a wandering ascetic in the pre-revolution Russia. (To clear things up: Dennis was recruited in Venice, he speaks perfect English and his nationality will forever remain a mystery; his resemblance to Leo Tolstoy is purely coincidental.)

 

Dennis resets the record. Somebody screams outside. Hal and Fergus are enjoying themselves.

 

“Having learned from experiment and argument that a stone falls downwards, a man indubitably believes this and always expects the law that he has learned to be fulfilled.”

 

Having learned from passive observation that Louis will never not step on his two left feet, Dennis believes that his tea time is unavoidably ruined. With a grunt, he puts down the cup and the book and joins Louis on the dancefloor. He grips Louis’s hand firmly and addresses him a pointed look that spells: if you step on my freshly polished shoes, I shall reveal my nasty side.

 

The music purls and peals out in chirpy trills. Despite his general bouncer-like manners, Louis can be gut-wrenchingly romantic, hence the persistent shuffling of feet in the ballroom. In Dennis’s expert opinion, this is something to rival Hal’s one thousand tulips. Flowers and sweets are classic, but nothing says romance like a talentless Louis-shaped man-mountain trying to fashion himself into a dancer.

 

Hal, apparently, holds the same opinion, which is evident from the look on his face when he peeks into the room again. But then, Dennis has never learned to correlate his lord’s facial expressions with his thoughts (he strongly suspects that a cryptographer capable of that was not born yet), so that sharp bend of eyebrows might as well symbolize perplexity or, perhaps, signal brutal punishment in the making.

 

Having made sure that Louis has memorized the steps, Dennis pulls away, collects the discarded body and shoves it into Louis’s arms. Louis gives him a puzzled look. Dennis shrugs. So what if she’s dead? At least they are more or less on the same level, technique-wise.

 

Louis doesn’t argue. He twists and spins his compliant partner around, and her legs shoot up with an effortless, uncontrolled grace. She’s got nice legs.

 

Dennis looks down into the book. It supplies: “A man having no freedom cannot be conceived of except as deprived of life.” Vice versa must be true as well, yet Louis’s dancing partner disproves that by willfully flying out of his embrace, skipping over the floor like a pebble over the water surface and slumping in a heap of limbs by the wall. Behind the door, Fergus bursts out laughing.

 

“I bet he’ll drop the living one too,” he says.

 

Hal saunters into the room, wiping his bloodied lips with a handkerchief. Fergus ambles after him, a huge grin splitting his face. Louis glowers at the latter and bows clumsily to the former. Hal nods briskly and declaims:

 

Give me women, wine, and snuff

Untill I cry out “hold, enough!”

You may do so sans objection

Till the day of resurrection:

For, bless my beard,

 

he tugs playfully at Dennis’s beard,

 

they aye shall be

My beloved Trinity.

 

Louis bogs down, trying to make out if that was a quip.

 

“Dennis here is a fine teacher, aren’t you, Dennis?” Hal smiles at him teasingly. “So I would say… he’ll bite her first. Right during the dance.”

 

“Nah,” Fergus drawls. “He’ll drop her first.”

 

“I stake twenty pounds on the bite.”

 

Fergus smirks. “Make it thirty. I’m feeling lucky.”

 

“Man’s actions proceed from his innate character and the motives acting upon him,” Dennis reads.

 

That is as true about Hal as it is about any of them. Lord Hal is a gambler, a calculative risk-taker and planner of win-win strategies. If Louis kills the girl during the dance, it can be seen as romantic. If he drops her, it will prove that romance is dead, and Hal isn’t a great believer in eternal values and he is still a bit grouchy about Ivan getting married.

 

It’s true about Fergus too. In the sense that Fergus is a tosspot.

 

Louis doesn’t really have any “innate character”. He wears his character on his sleeve, which is why he is advancing towards Fergus now, making Hal turn to Dennis and suggest another bet. Louis is bigger than Fergus and more pissed off, so Dennis coolly backs him up. Other than that, ce n’est pas son affaire at all.  

 

Dennis makes two new cups of tea and nudges one of them towards Hal. Hal likes his tea black. That probably says something about him too, but Dennis has passed enough judgement for one day. He sits back, takes another biscuit and calmly waits for Fergus to be beaten into a pulp. Or vice versa. The reading hour is ruined either way, but at least there is some entertainment.

 

July 3–5, 2012