They unpacked the picnic hamper on the dusty floor of the ballroom. There were 9 bottles of Bollinger inside and 6 glasses. No wonder it weighed so much, thought Jack, Leo was replenishing his cellar. He was surprised when Leo handed him a flute and filled it up. Was he joining their club? Hennessy’s words returned: they’re not your friends.
“The first of many,” said Leo.
“As always,” said Ralph, raising a glass to toast.
“Not this,” said Leo, indicating the champagne. “I mean more of them.” He waved the bottle towards the bear looming silently over them.
“You looking to collect more bears old chap?” said Toby, arching an eyebrow.
“Not just bears, all species. I want to fill this hall with the good, bad and ugliest. Lions, tigers, panthers, apes, sharks, you name it. An exhibition of the most dangerous beasts on the planet, and the stories of their downfall. A grand display to put Foxglove on the map as a destination house, just like it used to be.”
There was silence. Blake started to giggle, but faltered. Ralph and Toby looked at each other bemused. Jack realised why he’d been invited down. Leo wasn’t joking. He was premiering his plan in all it’s stupid, senseless, misguided, out of touch glory.
“This house was one of the most popular in the country back in it’s day, and I’m going to bring that day back. Clean up the maze, open up the gardens again, fill this great hall with exotica and ripping yarns of far off lands harking back to the grand era of Victorian adventuring. There’s a market for this. We’re in a post-Brexit, post-Downton world now, the masses crave a nostalgic return to the patriotic trumpets of the British Empire. Put the house on show for a few months in the summer, maybe at Christmas, and they’ll come flocking. This place is history, and people want to see it great again.”
IT WAS THE STUPIDEST PLAN JACK HAD EVER HEARD
“Is money really that tight old chap?” said Toby. Blake chewed her lip.
Leo laughed. “It’s not about the money, it’s about the name. Winchester and Foxglove used to mean something more than just wealth or land, the guys on these walls won wars, they built bridges and banks. I want to remind people of that. It’ll my contribution to the family firm. And I’d like you to help me do it. All of you.”
He turned to Jack. “Especially you. A world tour collecting prizes to fill this hall. It’ll be well paid, but certainly dangerous. What do you say, willing to be a baitman again?” He raised his glass.
It was the stupidest plan Jack had ever heard. To travel the world shooting wild animals on the pretence of repeatedly saving an employee’s life, for the corpses to be stuffed for display in a country house ballroom in a bizarre pastiche of colonial heroism. Leo’s protective bubble clearly hadn’t been pricked by philanthropism, animal rights, environmental causes or basic decency. The delusional heir had brainstormed a monstrously egocentric folly completely at odds with contemporary society, doomed to failure in a myriad of ways. Jack raised his glass and smiled.
“I’d be honoured,” he said.