Authors: Patricia Veryan
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Had we never loved sae kindly
Had we never loved sae blindly
Never metâor never partedâ
We had ne'er been brokenhearted.
The only light came from the steady flame of a candle on the solitary table in the centre of the room. The circle of light was feeble and left the corners of the room shrouded in blackness so intense that it was as if the candlelight shrank in upon itself and abandoned the uneven struggle to pierce the gloom. Although it was springtime, the room was chill and clammy, and the smell of mould permeated the air.
Six men were seated at the table. They were as so many graven images, each wearing a dark cloak, hood, and mask, so that only the gleams from the eye slits testified to the existence of life.
The man at the head of the table moved in his chair, and the candle flickered. Faint as it was, it drew sparkles from the miniature figures that were placed on the table, one before each man. Fashioned from jade or quartz, and about three inches tall, they were somewhat reminiscent of tiny gravestones with rounded tops. On each piece was carven the crude outline of a human face, this taking up most of the figure, with a suggestion of squat legs beneath. Scattered about the face were brilliant gems. Although identical in size, each figure was unique. One was of pink jade set with large rubies; another was of lapis lazuli and sapphires. The pale green figure was jade also, enriched by the blue-green glow of emeralds; and there was a golden crystal inlaid with three topazes, and a glittering quartz studded with two fire opals. The figure at the head of the table was amethyst, lit by the cold fire of four superb diamonds, and it was the man seated there who now spoke, his voice thin and colourless.
“What is it that you judge to be foolish, Sapphire?”
The occupant of the lapis and sapphire position shrugged and said irritably, “All this drama and ritual. Damned nonsensical, was you to ask me. We know who we are well enough, Squire. Why the frippery masks and the elaborate secrecy? Like so many children playing poppycock!”
At the right hand of the man at the head of the table, a large individual toyed with the jade and emerald miniature before him. “You may
you could name us all, Sapphire,” he said. “Though I fancy you'd be wrong in one or two cases.”
“And even were you right,” interposed the man with the ruby symbol, “how could you prove it, were you ever required to do so? Have you ever
seen the face of any one of us while seated at this table? Could you swear in a court of law as to the true identity of any member our League?”
“Perhaps,” said the man called the Squire, his voice very soft now, “Sapphire would prefer to come unmasked, so that the rest of us may be sure of
identity, at least.”
There were some chuckles, and Sapphire drew back, disclaiming hurriedly, and saying he'd not looked at it in “just that particular way.”
The Squire sprang to his feet and leaned across the table. “Then do so!” he snapped. “Far from being children at play, we are patriots, each one of us! Sworn, at great personal risk, to better this dear England and ensure her future well-being. Charles Stuart sought to seize the throne, and had he not been ill-advised and inexperienced, might well have succeeded. We
succeed, because we aim not merely to rid ourselves of this German upstart who calls himself our king, but to do away with kings altogether and create a true republic.”
“The people will be behind us, once we're ready,” put in the harsh voice of the Opal member. “They don't like German George above half! Who wants a king who cannot speak English? Who cares not a button for our land and would rather be back in Hanover, and who has made German the only language spoken at Court!”
The slight member with the Topaz symbol said, “We've done well. The Merriam and Albertson estates are safely in our hands and already being prepared.”
Sapphire grunted. “We bungled the Rossiter business.”
“Very true,” said the Squire, sitting down again. “'Tis well we have you among us, Sapphire, if only to keep us from becoming complacent. The member whoâer, failed in that instance has paid the price. Else you, my dear friend, would not be here.”
There was another burst of laughter, and Sapphire joined in, though rather uneasily.
Ruby said, “Sapphire reminds us, Squire, that young Rossiter and his unpleasant friends interfered with our plan, brought about the death of a valued member, and caused another to leave the country.”
“We must expect casualties, apparently,” said the Squire. “Even so, we achieved our objective, and Sir Mark Rossiter, one of England's great men, was disgraced and discredited.”
“He has now been judged blameless,” demurred Opal.
“By some, perhaps.” The Squire gave a gesture of impatience. “But most people remember the bad and forget the good. Sir Mark's veracity has been tainted. When the time is right he will be judged just another thieving aristocrat.”
“We all, I believe, are aristocrats,” interjected Topaz in his soft voice.
“And will be the
aristocrats when we succeed,” said the Squire. “Save that we shall be called Rulers, and our combined knowledge and expertise will prevail to guide this island and ensure that every common man has the opportunity to rise as far as his neighbour.”
“And no further,” murmured Ruby.
Over the burst of laughter, Emerald said, “Nonetheless, we have a debt to pay, and time passes. Our enemies should be shown the error of their ways, Squire.”
All heads turned to the man at the head of the table. Leaning back in his chair, he said thoughtfully, “Exactly so. The ringleader is now honeymooning in Europe.”
“True, but Rossiter has, to an extent, already been punished,” said Ruby.
“ToÂ â¦ an extent,” murmured the Squire. “Of his friends and allies, Lord Horatio Glendenning's loyalty to the throne is, to say the least, questionable, which could work very nicely to our advantage.”
Sapphire said curiously, “Did the young fool really fight for Stuart's cause?”
“Very likely,” said Topaz. “And is an obnoxious creature. What of this fellow Morris, Squire?”
“Lieutenant James Morris is of an old landed family, but there is no longer a title, and the estate is of no interest to us. He can be dealt with simply enough, but 'twill do little to advance our Cause. As to August Falconâ”
There were several scornful exclamations, and the Squire chuckled. “Half-breed he may be, but do not forget, gentlemen, he is as dangerous as he is wealthy, and Ashleigh is high on our list.”
Sapphire's hand on the table clenched. “I've a long overdue score to settle with the Chandlers. When do we attend to them, Squire?”
“In due time, my friend.” The Squire nodded to Emerald, who took a large folded document from a case on the floor beside him and spread it on the table. They all stood and gathered round. The rough map included a directional arrow pointing north, but in other respects it left much to be desired, for it lacked topographical detail and appeared to contain only large areas outlined in red, each having a neatly printed name and connected by lines to adjacent blue circles marked with initials.
“Do you know, gentlemen,” murmured the Squire, tapping one well-manicured fingernail on the diamond emblem he held, “were we to proceed in the order of rank, and were we to handle the matter rather”âhe laughed softlyâ“shall we sayâdeviously? We could chastise an irritating, but obligingly reckless young fellow, and in the process a most delectable plum might just chance to drop into our hands.”
Below the mask his thin lips curved in response to the enthusiasm of his friends, and he leaned forward. The comments became a shout of endorsement as he set the diamond figure on one of the outlined areas on their abbreviated map. An area wherein two words were neatly printed: Glendenning Abbey.
Short Shrift was bustling, its single street crowded, most people afoot, but a few horsemen venturing cautiously among the boisterous throng. No less boisterous was the breeze that ruffled the chestnut trees, sent the ladies' skirts billowing, made mischievous snatches at wigs and bonnets, and flapped the many tents and awnings that had transformed the three-acre patch of turf known as the Village Green into a maelstrom of activity.
To designate Short Shrift a village was a matter of pride with the inhabitants and a topic sure to inspire scornful derision among the inhabitants of surrounding villages. Located in the beautiful rolling country west of Basingstoke, Short Shrift could boast only a baker's dozen thatched and whitewashed cottages. In response to sneers that it didn't even have a proper street, the inhabitants would point out that the lane curved “right pretty like” and, before their discreditors could add more insults, would unfailingly declare that Short Shrift was destined to grow. Rapidly. How could it fail? Already it had an “inn,” which was (occasionally) a stop for the Oxford to Southampton Portsmouth Machine, or, as silly foreigners from London now called it, a “stagecoach.”
It was in the stableyard of the Spotted Cat on this sunny May afternoon that a horseman dismounted and glanced about for an ostler. On a normal day ostlers would have come running to take the splendid chestnut mare of this dashing young gentleman of Quality, but this was a far from normal day. The shabby old inn was crowded, and the host and his wife could scarcely run fast enough to accommodate the patrons who thronged the tap, pushed their way into the coffee room, and overflowed into the dusty corridor and dustier vestibule.
Therefore, the rider was neglected, and might with some justification have been annoyed. Horatio Clement Laindon, Viscount Glendenning, was an amiable young man, however, as the laugh lines at the corners of his green eyes attested. Of no more than average height, his lean figure and broad shoulders spoke of athletic pursuits, and although he fell short of being named handsome, his features were sufficiently good as to cause most female eyes to appraise him with interest.