The Virgin and The Bull
Genre: Noir Romance, Suspense Thriller
Suicide, rape, murder — Love is a serpent more subtle than any of the field.
Twenty-three year old Charles Macgregor had everything going for him, so why did he choose to take his own life? As the Sheriff-Depute of Edinburgh reads through his collected letters, he uncovers a breathtaking story of femmes fatales, jealous rivals, and love gone violently awry.
An artful and intellectual thriller told with a noir style, The Virgin and the Bull shocks and startles with tense plot, lurid sex and vivid characters amidst a seductive and scary vision of Old England and Scotland. The frisson is out of this world when the fiery anatomist Macgregor risks life and limb to fulfill his desperate desire for the dangerously beautiful Constance Fawkes, pitted against her mad father and the more-than-meets-the-eye “virgin” priest, Francis Exenchester.
“Erato did a superb job… the pace is right on point… highly intriguing… It blows your mind.” - T. Renee, author of Hearts On Fire.
We reached the turnpike at Holloway a while past midnight. The road was dark and desolate as one might expect for such a late hour. We had the moon’s gray light to guide us only, for there are no street lamps out of London. We stopped to water the horses at the circular watering hole, and we took a while’s rest; after which we bound for the gates, at which we paid our toll and were let through to continue our flight from the tyranny of Fawkeses and Exenchesters. I cannot describe our delight at that moment! The joy we felt at that event, at our first great landmark passed and our one degree nearer to the sweet destiny that is planned — that joy was indescribable. In the moonlight, our bright, hopeful smiles were plain to see. We were lost in thoughts of our future bliss, dreaming of the bright days before us, and scarcely did we observe the empty countryside all around. The cold of the night seemed like an enchantment, the empty unpaved roads may as well have been strewn with roses and perfume to welcome us to our destination. We exchanged a bit of idle and hope-filled talk, but we did keep riding at a good pace in order that we not fall tardy to our intended timeframe. After a time our horses seemed to grow less enthused for the journey ahead, and we slowed a bit. I already had laid plans that we should change the horses out in Barnet, a town not too much distant from us, so I felt no distress at this. We were entering then the Finchley Common, a wooded area, very enclosed by trees and shrubbery. I have since learned that it is not a path which is generally considered safe to travel by night.
Evidently we were not so much alone on the path as I should have expected at the late hour. I believed I heard some whispers about us, but at the time I dismissed it as my own imaginings, or mishearings of some forest creature’s call. Constance, too, began to complain of hearing odd sounds, but there was no use in stopping to investigate their origin, even if we should have recognized their significance. Then, as if from thin air, two men on horseback appeared upon the road behind us.
At first, I thought they might be fellow travelers, connecting to the road from some obscure passage which had been overlooked by us in the darkness. They rode very fast, and I called out to Constance that we should move to the side, that they might pass us. She agreed, and we directed our horses as such. But alas! These two men of the road, rather than move along the open way, pulled their steeds to a halt before us, and drew forth pistols. We were told to stand and deliver, our property or our lives.
My heart sank. My optimism was now turned against me, for I had fallen into the trap of these highwaymen, and had directed Constance too to follow.
We were ordered to dismount our steeds and present our silver. Constance was so terrified at this that she screamed aloud. At this terrible sound, my heart raced and my whole body was cast into a burning desire to defend her, and myself. Henry: it was as if the world around me had slowed, like observing the hands of a watch left too long unwound. I have not found it necessary to physically fight since we were bairns staging rivalries with the laddies in the next neighborhood. I had no arms with me, and can scarcely shoot a gun even when I do possess one. I found myself to contemplate the situation — I am certain I could have not spent so much time in pondering as it felt I did. I considered, first, that what money we had was all that we had; to lose it would have required the termination of our journey and all our plans for the future, for we had only scarcely passed out of London, and would we be robbed at this moment, we could not hope to reach Gretna Green at all. That would obligate our return to Richmond, to Fawkes, to a life of being barred from one another’s company. Such an outcome could not be allowed — must never be!
But then, what means did I have to prevent it? I had no weapons, whereas it was evident that our tormentors were very suitably equipped for their chosen profession. Must I really be called to turn over all of my hard-won silver and abandon all my hopes and cherished dreams? Or was there any other way that I could preserve myself and bring Constance safely with me?
I raised my hands as if in peace, and called out to them: “I shall deliver. Allow me to dismount.” I looked to my Constance, frustrated that there was no means to communicate to her my intentions, without revealing them to the enemy as well. I put my leg over the saddle of my horse, as if I were prepared to dismount. Yet that is not the action I performed; rather, I leapt upwards with both feet upon the saddle of the horse, and jumped, then falling violently upon the beast of the first highwayman. This was, I perceived, my only hope for victory against these rogues — my wish was to beat the man senseless, and perhaps relieve him of his weapon. When I seized him, he was properly startled, and in his fright he fired his pistol without meaning to — fired at nothing, and hit nothing. His gun’s one and only bullet was spent. His horse became startled, though being an obedient beast and probably much accustomed to gunfire, it did not rear up or run, but it rather circled and shook itself, attempting to throw me from its back as I wrestled with its master. I was at risk of a fall, for certain; but with pure tenacity I held my opponent and prevented his striking me a single blow with hand or fist. Yet circumstance was rendering me unsure of my continued hold, for the saddle — plainly not meant to bear the weight of two struggling men — was beginning to slide sideways and would surely pull down one, or both of us, in a short time.
As we writhed, I heard Constance to call my name. I called back to her, scarcely aware of what I even said, but my full intention was upon overcoming the villain with whom I grappled. I instructed her to flee, and though she hesitated, she obeyed my command and sent her horse galloping off amidst the commotion. Constance has since revealed to me that the second highwayman had aimed his pistol for me, and she had been seeking to warn me when she called out; but her alarm was unneeded, as the horse upon which I was fixed was too busily spinning in circles, he such could not aim his weapon sure enough to find it worth his bullet.
I knew this not, at the time, and was only puzzled by my most evident challenge. My opponent had recognized the futility of his endeavors to knock or slap me, and thus begun to strike me about the head and face with his empty pistol, which with so much sturdy metal and wood in its construction, is no meager thing to be hit by. Yet I could do little else than to maintain my grip upon him, even as he painfully struck, and in short order my efforts were repaid when at last the horse succeeded in shaking the both of us together from its back. I was first to land upon the dirt, still a-cling to my enemy, and he tumbled after. I felt my very guts jostle from the force of the impact.
I was no longer obliged to reserve my hands to hold my opponent, and thus at last could I return his blows. I have observed from childhood that to hit a man in his face will often wet out his battle-lust, and thus I balled my fist and struck with all my might. I was not without effect: blood was sent spraying from the criminal’s mouth and nose. And yet this impact did nothing to hinder his urge to fight me. He struck me back every bit as viciously, and hit me on the forehead with his pistol so sharply that my world nearly went blacker than the night had already rendered it; yet I did not fall senseless, but rather I discovered myself so badly bleeding from a wound in my scalp that the gush of it was ever running into my eyes.
Without thought of it, I curled my legs inward and, by use of both feet, I struck out at the highwayman and pushed him away. I did not tarry further before I sought to seize this chance to raise myself from the dirt — but as I moved to stand I discovered I had become entangled in my large traveling cloak! The cloth which was trapped beneath my knee seized me by the shoulder and pulled me back to the ground.
Now, throughout all this, the second highwayman had been merely an observer to the skirmish, waiting with his gun aimed but making no other activity. I suppose, however, he must have now found me in a worthy condition to receive his bullet. I only knew, as I sought to disentangle myself from my bulky garments, that I heard the sound of a gunshot and felt a slight pull upon my clothes. I did not feel any wound to my person, and I realized a moment later that he had shot only my large cloak but missed the body within it. As terrifying as I ought to have found this brush with murder, I felt only relief and I dare say even a sense of rejoicing, for I was aware that, now, neither of my opponents bore loaded firearms. I disentangled myself from the cloak and ran with no hesitation back toward my own horse. Notwithstanding that, the fact remained that my primary opponent had not been removed from the activity entirely, and he pursued me. From behind he seized me, and forced me again to the dirt. I landed upon my face and was nearly knocked senseless at this painful impact. My tormentor was now sitting upon my back, and as I recovered myself he called out to his friend by name: “Noah! Your knife!”
This second villain, seemingly named Noah, dismounted his horse to present the dastardly tool. My primary opponent, in the meantime, amused himself by kicking me and stomping upon my back. I could hear an internal crack from within my body, and despite the pain my mind was compelled to a recollection of my anatomy lessons, as I wondered which of my rib bones had been just broken by the monster atop me. My breath began to ache. In my agony I flailed somewhat, and my hand — by utter chance — landed upon a sizable stone in the road, not so large that I could not lift it in one hand. I recalled our childhood fights in the streets, and that a well thrown rock had often done more damage than was intended. I was not oriented well enough to throw it at anybody but I grasped it and waited for my opportunity to utilize this new weapon.
When Noah arrived to his friend, to present him with the fatal instrument, my tormentor was obliged to turn away from me to receive it. This afforded me the chance I had sought — I turned upon my side (which was an agonizing thing to do, but knowing that the pain of death would be so much worse, I resolved to endure it) and with the stone in hand I lashed out and struck the first villain upon the knee with such force that he fell, and perhaps his joint was even put from the socket. He came down screaming — but he did not yet have the knife in his hand. It was still in the grasp of his companion in treachery, this Noah, who changed his course and now lunged himself at me.
As Noah was standing whilst I was upon the ground, this was a not inconsiderable distance through which he had to cut. I was thus granted time enough to move away by rolling, and Noah’s knife struck nothing but dirt.
Now the first villain, who was injured, but perhaps like me too desperate to be fully sensible of it, crawled to my side and locked me in his grip so I could not move away. As he clung to me he screamed, “You fool, is the money worth your life?”
Continuing the words of his friend, the other remarked, “It matters little, for we would have killed him all the same.”
I answered that the money was worth more, and with the stone in my hand I struck my prehensor again in the face, which caused him to release me from his grip. With one more swing of the stone he was rendered insensible, and fell down as if asleep.
I was able, this time, to rise to my feet. I was now filled with a painful fire that urged me on to battle, and I lunged directly for the wretched Noah, who had by this time retrieved his knife from the ground. He slashed at me — and, dear Henry, for all the times you have laughed at me for that I so sentimentally keep a copy of Fergusson in my breast pocket, I now owe my life to it. It ensured that nothing more than the leather cover was sliced, and my skin was not so much as even scratched. Bless that bard!
Noah and I were left face to face. Before he could again swing his blade, I struck with my stone, and bashed him across the face. Had I not been in such a fury, I might have thought it too horrible a deed — but I had been reduced to the animal, and I felt no mercy for my fellow man in this instance. By my blow, I had broken the zygomatic bone of his skull, and thereby his eye quite near fell from his face. He went to the ground in an agony of shrieks, dropping his knife and now making no more effort to retrieve it. Though he had received fewer injuries than any of us in the fight, his were perhaps the most debilitating. But I knew that I must not dwell over any of this — I turned immediately and ran (or near as I could manage resembling a run) for my horse. As I made this mad shamble, I began to consider my next course. Naturally, I knew I must find Constance — she was safely away someplace, but I knew not where. I knew that I must search for her, but as I plotted my course I was attacked with dream-visions of these two highwaymen mounting their own horses and coming in pursuit of me once more. To think that I could again lead Constance to danger was intolerable, and so — I saw the villains’ horses. As the criminals were left to licking their wounds, I took both mounts by the reigns; I led the animals beside my own. Once I was mounted, I led the two horses of the villains away with me, and abandoned those wicked men to this desolate road of which they had made such terror.
A ways up the path — nearer than I should have imagined — I discovered Constance. She had hid within view of everything, her horse concealed in some copse nearby. Our relief at reunion was rather tempered by the real fear for our situation, and with each of us leading a horse we proceeded the distance onward to the little village of Barnet.
Be taken to another ERA with ERATO.
Erato is a hispanic American author of historical fiction. Her stories are often set in the Georgian/Regency period, taking the characters past the traditional bonnets and balls into gritty cities, forced marriages and painful love affairs.
The name Erato belonged to one of the nine muses of Greek mythology: that who ruled love stories. No, it's not the same word as erOtic; literally Erato is "the Lovely," from Greek erastos "loved, beloved; lovely, charming." The author's own given name being that of a different muse, the name Erato was chosen as the nomme de plume that seemed especially fit for writing historical stories with a romantic theme, though she also writes historical novels without strong romantic elements. Her works are normally highly researched, subversive, and can tend toward humorous even when telling of tragedy.
The book The Virgin and the Bull opens with a suicide, and the theme continues a bit throughout the remainder of the story. I recall reading The Sorrows of Werther for the first time and marking that the narrator describes Werther as destroying a lot of papers in the days before he kills himself — clearly trying to hide any embarrassing letters, drawings or writings. That seems very natural. Were I certain I would die tomorrow there’s probably a ton of embarrassing stuff I’d be trying to hide or destroy. Striving to secure my immortality in some way through making the memories of me more agreeable.
The characters in The Virgin and the Bull are all kind of Frankenstein’s monsters of people I’ve known and of characters in other books and films, some of which are my own. I had actually decided to write The Virgin and the Bull when recalling another book I’d written called In the Fire, which had in it a character named Richard Kensington. He was kind of a gloomy emo kid, but landed in a Georgian/Regency setting. I wanted to see some more of him, and so I began this book — which has a similar plot setup, even copies a couple passages from In the Fire — and established Charles Macgregor to be the new Richard Kensington.
I think I was only a few days into the writing before it became clear that Charles had a rather different personality from Richard. Even when the plot required they do the same actions, their manners and reasons for it were always just a little different. I suppose their beloved literary choices influence them a little. (My heroes seem to be book nerds much of the time. Are you surprised?) Like I said, I wanted to make a similar character to Richard Kensington, who had been a devout Werther fan, and he always carried the book with him. When I needed to give Charles Macgregor a beloved book of his own, I chose the poems of Robert Fergusson, which are already much less mopey than Goethe’s semi-autobiographical prose. That kind of shifted Macgregor right there from a mopey goth right out of a Tim Burton movie to more of a sentimental poet. He’s a little less emotional than Kensington; even when he hits peak outrage, he’s a bit more collected in his thoughts and more hesitant to act than Kensington would be in the same condition. So, in effect he was a failure in copy-catting that character, and became his own separate entity. Macgregor also has a lot more personality borrowed from men I have actually known… and I suppose in the end, really, he’s still more like me than like anyone else. It’s famously difficult for writers to not overlay a big piece of themselves on their characters, even when they wish to write somebody disagreeable or who behaves very unlike how they would.
The characters in Virgin and the Bull have been praised as “dynamic and interesting” — and one should hope, for they very much carry the story in this epistolary novel. The thrilling tale of love turned criminal is told in first-person by its cast, which consists primarily of:
Charles Macgregor - a handsome Scottish anatomist
Henry Macgregor - his brother
Constance Fawkes - a temptress, with a fondness for novels
Samuel Fawkes - a famous anatomist, father to Constance
Deborah Fawkes - Samuel’s wife
Francis Exenchester - rector at Mortlake, wealthy younger son of a noble family
The Sheriff-Depute, who signs his name H.A.
There were many little things that were edited out of Virgin and the Bull during rewrites, from draft to draft; and a few pieces like the ending were rewritten or replaced many times over.
The final two large cuts that I made were to remove a letter from Mr. Fawkes to Mr. Macgregor, which I found was not only redundant in content, as Macgregor reiterates most of the important information himself in his next letter, but that it also made Fawkes seem kind of excessively melodramatic in his villainy. The other major cut was to trim down the “leek scene” by about half, getting rid of most of the conversation as it wasn’t really important to the story — and while it was not improper to share in the characters’ embarrassment in the scene, it was nevertheless a little too unpleasant to read on and on (the scene is supposed to be somewhat shocking, and is based on a real event I’ve known, but it just did not need to extend in back and forth conversation for that extra two pages.)
The big sex scene was almost totally rewritten multiple times over. At one point it was by far the longest scene in the whole book, clocking in at about 10,000 words. A big reason for that, was that for a time it was virtually the only scene in which Exenchester could show off his personality and where Constance was interested enough in him to report on any of it. (It was a bit of a problem throughout the story that the letters are mostly written by Charles Macgregor and Constance, meaning all we got to see of Francis Exenchester was whatever they wanted to report — and they often do not have a full or accurate understanding of what he is doing or thinking.) Eventually I gave an epilogue to Exenchester, and that allowed him to convey some things about his character and thought process outside of that scene, and consequently the word count was significantly deflated. The sex scene is actually a very important event in the book, as pretty much everything that happens from that point onward is a reaction to what Constance and Francis did in bed. I was finding when I would revise it, if I went “Oh, maybe we don’t need to hear all Exenchester’s dirty 18th century bedroom talk,” and I tried to make it tamer, Macgregor’s reactions would also be tamer in the final battle; whereas making it dirtier caused more intense and violent reactions. It sometimes caused the whole end battle to have to be rewritten, to accommodate the new mood.
The Virgin and the Bull is a bit of a departure from my other works, which tended to be comedies or at least dramadies, and sexually pretty tame. They say it’s bad business for an author to be inconsistent in her genre, because fans want to know what to expect; but I thought it was worth taking a risk for this story. Rather than evoking Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, this is more like a Georgian version of the show Versailles. I knew it was a daring thing to do, as when I went looking for publishers, most wouldn’t even look at the manuscript due to the presence of a rape scene (supposedly a big no-no in the current book market, even if George R.R. Martin seems to get away with it aplenty.)
It was not until I began to write the Author’s Notes for Virgin and the Bull that I realized how much of an influence Walter Scott’s writings had held over the work. It’s peculiar, especially, as I would not incline to say I had read very much by him; in fact I’ve yet to complete an entire book by him. Yet the manner of constructing and displaying the story seems to have been much influenced by his techniques, as well as the ways modern editions of his work are put together — the footnotes, for instance. Of course I also used Scott’s actual letters to help guide Macgregor’s writing style, since they’re from a similar time and place.
What really came as a surprise, however, was when I finished the story and realized that it was, in fact, a noir thriller — something like the film Touch of Evil. The crimes are sometimes things we either wouldn’t think of as crimes today (for instance, a Gretna Green elopement) or that aren’t much of an issue in our culture (people living together before they’re married) but which in the book’s setting would have been as scandalous as all the shootouts.
I am hoping this book will find the right audience of people who will delight in the lurid sex and extreme violence, and not be put off by prejudice against “historical fiction.”
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