Beyond “Once Upon a Wager” (Or “An Imagined Conversation at a Dinner that Never Happened”)

By Julie LeMense, author of Once Upon a Wager

Once Upon a WagerThe players:

Annabelle Layton: our heroine
Frederick Layton: her father, obsessed with butterflies
Sophia Marchmain: her irrepressible aunt, newly arrived from London
Estrella Simperton: her encroaching cousin, with designs on Annabelle’s money
Augustus Simperton: Estrella’s son, with designs on Annabelle’s person

The scene: An Uncomfortable Meal

“Annabelle will so enjoy the London Season,” Aunt Sophia said as the first course was served.

“Well, if the point of it is to find her a husband, the exercise is redundant,” Estrella replied. “She and Augustus are already such a charming couple.”

Annabelle was nearly vomitous at the thought.

“But the Season will offer her a host of new friends and opportunities,” Aunt Sophia said.

“Life here in Nuneaton can not afford the same.”

“You are mistaken, Lady Marchmain. It is our home, Astley Castle itself, that can not afford the extravagance.”

“May I ask, Mrs. Simperton, why you’re concerned with the finances of an estate that does not belong to you?”

“Everything we do here, we do for Annabelle,” Estrella said, bristling. “Those new to the notions of family and responsibility will hardly understand.”

“How long have you been here then, sacrificing your own interests?”

Estrella shifted uncomfortably. “Two years or so.”

“Certainly, the Laytons would never be anything less than kind to their guests,” Aunt Sophia said, eyes narrowed. “Even those who have overstayed their welcome.”

“But we enjoy the Simpertons, don’t we Annabelle?” Father said, joining in on the conversation. “Estrella reminds me of the Large Blue Butterfly, one of Britain’s rarest specimens.”

“How very kind, Sir Frederick,” Estrella said, obviously pleased by the distraction.

“Although I hope it is not her size that calls me to mind.”

Were that the case, it would be called the Gigantic Blue Butterfly. But Annabelle resisted the urge to announce that.

“Oh, no, Mrs. Simperton,” Father continued. “She is quite small, though she is larger than any of the common species.”

“Well, then I am glad not to be considered common. Tell us more.”

“Her color is quite spectacular. When heavy with eggs, she seeks out a patch of wild thyme plants.”

“I have always been strangely drawn to the scent of wild thyme,” Estrella mused.

“Ideally, when the eggs hatch into caterpillars, each will have its own flower bud to feed on.”

“What do the poor dears do if they can’t find a flower bud?”

“It is more a question of whether or not they have to share the bud’s seeds with another caterpillar.”

“Surely, like all good family members, they learn to share,” Estrella said, staring pointedly at Aunt Sophia.

“Actually, when there is more than one per bud, they become cannibals, eating each other until only one remains.”

“What in the world . . . .” Estrella exclaimed, blanching visibly.

“After this process, the caterpillar will molt, and then fall to the ground, seeking out a crevice in the earth.”

“We have heard enough, Sir Frederick!”

But Father was thoroughly engrossed in his topic now. “She oozes liquid from a gland at her tail end–a sensual lure, if you will. Her scent draws the worker ants out, and soon, there is a veritable feeding frenzy, as they cover her body, licking her all over.”

“How improper this conversation has become. Please desist!“

“Now she smells like one of their larvae,” Father continued. “The ants carry her into the chamber containing their young, and then she eats them all. It’s the most spectacular display of trickery in the whole insect kingdom!“

“I have never been so insulted in my life, Frederick,” Estrella sputtered. “Come Augustus, dinner is concluded.”

She pushed back from the table, her chair groaning in protest, and stormed from the room, Augustus following in her wake.

Aunt Sophia’s peals of laughter followed them. “Oh, Frederick,” she chuckled, motioning for another glass of wine. “You have a far more sophisticated grasp of this household than Mrs. Simperton gives you credit for.”