Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

Tis well, sir, that you hunted for yourself; Tis thought your deer does hold you at bay.

—Act V, Scene 1

Elizabeth woke well before the first rays of dawn touched London rooftops. The dull throbbing in her head from the night before had grown into searing pain, her eyes and chest uncomfortable from prolonged weeping. She rolled over listlessly in bed and looked about the dark room, her eyes dimly discerning the shadows of her rage. Fuzzily she ran her hand across her brow as if to pull her thoughts together.

She lurched sideways out of bed. She had made plans last evening, plans for this dark morning. She pressed the heels of her hands against her agonizing temples and sat down again on the edge of the bed.

A soft scratching at her door roused her.

“Mistress?” called a quiet voice, “be you awake?”

Elizabeth rose and hurried to the door. “Shush, yes I’m awake.” She unlocked the door to let her maid slip in with a tray of hot chocolate. “Well?” she asked.

“I doubt anyone be rising early today with all the hue and cry of last night. His lordship drunk himself into a stupor, he did, and had to be carried to bed. I saw the butler remove an empty spirits bottle and confide to Mr. Cranston it were brandy. Like as not he’ll have an awful head.”

“It couldn’t be any worse than mine,” Elizabeth said dully as she sat down on a small sofa by the fireplace.

“Can I fetch you some lavender water, my lady?”

“No, I doubt it would help.”

“Well here, drink your chocolate while I stoke the fire bright again,” soothed Ivy. “Are you still determined to return to Larchside today?”

Elizabeth watched the woman deftly rekindle the fire “Yes, and I’m not going to wait upon a carriage either. I intend to ride back with only a small portmanteau of necessities.”

She raised a hand to forestall Ivy’s objections “You will have to follow as best you can with the remainder of my things. I’m certain my husband will not stop you; however, if everything continues in disarray, it may be a few days before you are able to come.”

“I understand, my lady.”

“Help me get into my riding habit, then while I pack a few items, you run along to the stable and see if you can get a horse to be saddled for me.”

“Oh, that won’t be no problem, ma’am,” she said brightly, “seein’ as how Thomas is kinda sweet on me.”

Elizabeth laughed hollowly as her maid twitched the skirts into place and fastened the hooks. “Good, and keep it quiet. Though I do not think my husband will follow, I do not hold the same faith in his not trying to stop me.”

“Don’t you worrit, my lady, we’ll get you off right and tight.”

Patches of cold wet fog still clung to the road and laid low in the valleys as Elizabeth, followed faithfully by Thomas, rode toward Larchside. Despite her depressed spirits, she was amused by the young groom’s dogged insistance that he accompany her. She had even tried to order him to remain behind, but with an apology he refused. Her maid’s estimation of him climbed considerably and both were surprisingly voluble in their instance. They wore down her resistance finally by a blunt admission on Thomas’s part of reluctance to being available to answer questions when her absence was discovered and the reminder that there was no one now at Larchside who would see to her horse. He promised to be discreet and not trouble her with his company and so rode silently behind, leaving Elizabeth to her own thoughts.

In truth, her thoughts were as murky as the day; the weather, she mused, was much like it had been the first time she’d journeyed to the manor. She’d come last time bottled up with anger and fear for what was to be. Today she traveled with anger and fear for what was not. How ironic for her to come full circle and the property, once considered a prison, now represented a haven.

Her headache found relief in the cold morning air, and with that relief and the long miles to travel came an opportunity for objectivity. A nagging little belief that perhaps she’d been too hasty in her anger wormed its way into her thoughts. Justin freely admitted his guilt in the past. His explanation, though not terribly flattering, did ring true.

And he had not strived to wrap up his actions in clean linen, to make them flattering to her ears. In all, he talked as though his guilty actions were a distinct part of the past and that at some time he had suffered an attitude change. Of course, suffered might be precisely the correct word, and he regretted any softness he might have begun to exhibit and thus felt no compunction in setting her up once again for the entertainment of society. Still, though he displayed some of the blind arrogance of the privileged, when his errors were presented to him, he did not retreat into stubborn denial as so many were wont to do.

Regardless, there remained the matter of the last wager. If he had regretted his previous behavior, would he have engaged in such a heartless bit of foolery? Her spirits sank again for she could not believe the sincerity of his remorse if he continued to treat her like a stage character and an object for sport.

The worst of it all was she could not tear her love felt for him from her heart. Nonetheless, she would not again allow him to get close enough to harm her. If she were lucky, he might divorce her or at least allow her to live her life alone. She sighed audibly and her mare’s ears twitched at the sound. She smiled and leaned forward to pat her neck. “We’ll be home soon, and though you won’t be quartered in the best stable, it will be dry and provide a full measure of oats.”

The animal’s ears flicked again in response to the sound of her voice as they turned down the lane before Larchside.

Elizabeth viewed the manor with satisfaction as she slipped from her horse’s back and handed Thomas the reins. The morning sun was burning off the gray fog while a light autumn wind chased clouds away revealing a warm, welcoming building instead of the foreboding edifice she had faced on her wedding day. She smiled, albeit sadly, and vowed she would make her own form of happiness here.

“After you’ve seen to the horses, please slip over to the Humphries’ and ask Mrs. Geddy if she would be so good as to return to her duties. I’m famished and I’m sure you must be as well, though not, I warrant, hungry enough to stomach Mrs. Atheridge’s fare!”

Thomas chuckled. “Nay, my lady. Don’t worrit, if I know Mrs. Geddy, she’ll nip o’er immediately and cluck and fuss ’cause she weren’t here before you.”

“Yes, that’s most likely true. Now the question is if I can rouse the Atheridges to let me in.”

But even as she spoke the front door to Larchside flew open and Mary Geddy, wrapped up voluminously in cloak and shawls, ran down the steps.

“Oh, milady, milady! It’s reet glad I am to see you. The most dreadful thing has occurred, and I think he done it deliberately and I’m mortal scared,” wailed Mrs. Geddy, grabbing Elizabeth’s hands and wringing them between her own.

“What is it, Mary? Who did what?”

“Mr. Tunning, milady, he’s gone for the magistrate. He says it’s deportation for Gerry and maybe all o’ us, too.” Mary’s words came out in a rush, her color high and her spry little body trembling.

“Deportation? For what?” Shock and concern in Elizabeth’s face gave way to incredulity. Thomas stood rooted in his spot, the reins of their horses held loosely in his hands as he listened, his eyes fairly bugging out of his narrow face.

“Poaching. He says he caught Gerry removing a rabbit from a trap in the woods, but milady, Gerry wouldn’t hurt no animal, he loves’em.”

“That’s certain true, everyone around knows that,” put in Thomas.

Mary threw Thomas a look of thanks and continued: “No one weren’t more surprised than my Gerry to find the poor creature in the trap and he were freeing it, it being caught by only one leg.”

“I see,” said Elizabeth. “When did this all occur?”

“Early this morning.”

“He often goes out early to see the animals,” Thomas said.

“And is this generally known also?”

Thomas looked uncertain. “I think so, my lady. I mean he’s done it since we were young and sometimes he’d drag one or another of the lads with him if he knew a mother with her young were bound to be out feeding.”

Mary nodded vigorously.

“Hmm,” Elizabeth mused thoughtfully. “Where is Gerry now?”

“Why, here milady. Mr. Tunning has him locked up in my pantry, he does, and is scurrying off to fetch the magistrate. I was just talkin’ to him through the door when you rode up. Can you help him?”

“Definitely. Now don’t worry. Tom Tunning will not have anyone deported while I’m here.” She squeezed Mary’s hands reassuringly. “Thomas, take the horses to the stable and see to them, then step up to the house. I know this is all very traumatic for Mrs. Geddy, but not so traumatic she can’t fix us all a nice breakfast, I’ll wager.”

“Oh, milady, you know I would if I could, but the pantry’s locked—”

Elizabeth laughed. “Don’t forget, I am mistress of this manor and have a nice size ring of keys, and besides, I’m sure that grandson of yours is hungry, too. We’ll all have a nice breakfast and await Mr. Tunning's return.”

“Yes, ma’am,” cried Thomas delightedly before he turned, leading the horses at a jog to the stables.

Tears welled up in Mary’s eyes. “Oh, thank you, milady, thank you.”

Elizabeth put her arm reassuringly around Mary Geddy’s shoulders and led her into the house.

When Mr. Tunning returned an hour later with the local magistrate, it was a jolly party he found in the kitchen for Elizabeth, shelving her own troubles, endeavored to raise the spirits of her people with tales of London sights and eccentricities. She presided over the breakfast party with grace and humor, setting at ease Mary and her grandson. At first they were all frigidly formal with her, Mary scandalized that Elizabeth should choose to eat with them. When they relaxed and accepted her company, they were a merry group and laughter rang through the kitchen.

The Atheridges vehemently protested Gerry’s release from the pantry and attempted to cow their fellow servants; however, Elizabeth summarily dismissed them from the room with warnings they’d be ill-advised to continue their rhetoric unless they wished to find themselves dismissed from Larchside entirely.

Though the kitchen party congratulated Elizabeth on routing the Atheridges, it did put her to mind of the biggest obstacle remaining to her discovering happiness at Larchside, to wit, Tom Tunning. He had been a thorn in her side since they’d met. It was clear he viewed her as a nuisance rather than a threat to his position, and it galled her to admit she did not have the power to be a threat. It was obvious he knew she was the butt for society’s entertainment and as such, a nonentity, or worse, free game, Tunning, she realized with a heavy heart, was a matter she would have to take up with Justin, particularly in light of his current activities.

It was clear to Elizabeth that Gerry was being framed for poaching. The question was by whom? Her obvious candidate was Tunning, for he had contrived the past month to rid Larchside of his family’s presence. In fairness, she knew she could not accuse without evidence. She was still puzzling her course of action when Tunning and the magistrate, followed by the smug Atheridges, stepped through the kitchen door.

“What is going on in here?” he roared. He strode over to Gerry, hauling him from his seat by the collar of his shirt. He shook him like a rag doll. “Why is this miserable poacher sitting here? He should be locked up!”

“Get your hands off of him,” Elizabeth ordered, rapping him smartly on the arm with a long-handled wooden spoon.

Startled, Tunning fell back. “What are you doing here?”

“Eating breakfast,” she snapped, “though it’s hardly any concern of yours.” She rose from the table, gracefully extending her hand toward the magistrate. “I am the Viscountess St. Ryne, and you are—?” she trailed off while smiling with just the correct degree of civility.

“William Pfoffler, my lady, the magistrate of this county.”

“I understand we have weighty issues to discuss.”

Mr. Pfoffler inhaled deeply. “So Mr. Tunning led me to believe.”

She nodded her understanding. “Let us adjourn to the library. I believe it is a much more fitting background to discuss this matter.”

“There’s nothing to discuss!” Tunning blustered. “I caught this lad red-handed. He needs to be clapped in irons.”

Elizabeth pursed her lips and frowned. “Mr. Tunning,” she said warningly.

“If her ladyship wishes to discuss the ramifications of this offense, we shall, of course, do so,” placated Mr. Pfoffler.

“Thank you. Thomas, you may return to the stables for now.” He touched his forelock and scrambled out of his seat.

“Your arm?” she requested the magistrate.

Smiling benignly at her, he extended his arm and led her out of the room followed by a scowling Tunning and the rest.

In the library Elizabeth sat behind her desk, ordered Atheridge to lay a fire, and encouraged Mary to one of the seats near it. Atheridge began to object but was forestalled by the quelling look on the Viscountess’s face. He and his wife moved to stand by the door only to be summarily dismissed from the room. Though Tunning glowered, the magistrate nodded approval forcing the estate agent to hold his tongue.

“Now, what exactly is the nature of the charges?” Elizabeth asked the magistrate.

“Poaching, and it’s a serious crime, my lady. Just this year the government made it punishable by deportation to Australia.”

“Should still be a hanging offense,” muttered Tunning.

Elizabeth pointedly ignored him. “I would like to know the circumstances which prompted this charge.”

“Mr. Tunning claims he caught young Gerry Humphries here with a snare in one hand and a rabbit in the other.”

“I see. And when did this occur, Mr. Tunning?”

“At dawn.”

“You were up early. Why?”

“My actions aren’t in question; it’s this dog you should be asking.”

“You are being unaccountably difficult, Mr. Tunning. All right, maybe you’ll answer me this: did you see Gerry set the trap?”

“Well, no, I don’t know when he did that. Probably the night before when I was busy with the accounts.”

“So how can you say for certain he set the trap?”

“Makes no matter, he must a known it was there.”

“Why? Isn’t it possible he could have stumbled upon it?”

“Impossible, not in that part of the woods.”

“But you were there, too. If he hadn’t found it first, might not you have? And if you had freed the rabbit and someone saw you, should they call you poacher?”

’‘You’re forgetting one thing. There’s the matter of the poacher’s bag lying not far from the trap.”

“Poacher’s bag?” Elizabeth looked quizzically at Gerry who shrugged his bewilderment.

“Yes, ma’am. Mr. Tunning took me to the scene of the crime this morning before we came here, and I found it under a bush with two traps and another rabbit.”

“Found this morning, you say, after Gerry was locked in my pantry?”

“Yes, just before we came here.”

She looked at Tunning and nodded thoughtfully. “Clever. You were certainly thorough when you constructed this crime. What puzzles me is why you are afraid of the Humphries.”

“What!” roared Tunning.

“You see, Mr. Pfoffler,” said Elizabeth, ignoring Tunning, “Gerry is well known in the neighborhood as an animal lover who often goes out early to view the animals in the woods. He would be the last person to set snares to capture rabbits. Someone who knew of his habit could easily frame him for poaching. It strikes me odd that Mr. Tunning should be about so early in the morning and just so happen to be in the proper location to view Gerry with snare and rabbit in hand, particularly when one knows Mr. Tunning has been encouraging the Viscount to turn the Humphries out of the Home farm. He claims they are a bad lot yet, inexplicably, the Home farm is in the best condition. I contend our estate agent has manufactured this incident as a means to destroy the Humphries.”

“My lady, that’s a serious accusation.”

“You Jade,” growled Tunning.

“Mr. Tunning, please!”

“Oh, his lordship has his hands full with this one, he does. Do you know, sir, what society calls her? The Shrew of London, I can see you’ve heard the title. It was bestowed on her for being the most unmanageable and contrary female. The Viscount deserves our sympathy. She will do whatever runs against his lordship’s best interests. He even gave me explicit orders when he was away to have charge of all monies. She wasn’t to have a farthing, that’s how much he don’t trust her.”

“That will be enough, Mr. Tunning,” ordered St. Ryne coldly.

All eyes turned in shocked surprise at the sound of his voice. He stood by the library door, his arms folded across his chest, his dark eyebrows furrowed to a straight bar above his eyes.

“Justin!” exclaimed Elizabeth.

His face softened slightly when he looked at her. “Poor Bess. Did you truly think I wouldn’t care if you left?”

“I—I—” she began in confusion.

“Later, my love. Thomas apprised me of the problem when I arrived.” He turned to Pfoffler. “You must be the magistrate.”

“Yes, the name’s Pfoffler, William Pfoffler.”

“Thank you for coming to investigate this sorry situation. It would not do at all for a miscarriage of justice to occur from undue haste.”

“Yes, yes, quite right, my lord.”

“Then I’m sure you’ll understand when I suggest you allow me to investigate the charges before we haul young Gerry here off to prison to stand trial. I’m sure later today or tomorrow will be just as timely.”

“In—investigate!” sputtered Tunning. “My lord, I don’t know what that groom told you, but I caught him with the goods in hand! There isn’t anything to investigate.”

St. Ryne eyed him coldly. “You seem overly anxious to prosecute, Mr. Tunning. May I remind you that the property from which he allegedly poached was mine, and on my property I decide if the law has been broken or not.”

“Of course, my lord, but I tell you—”

“Enough! We will discuss it later.” He turned back to the magistrate. “Now, sir, as we were discussing, I’d like a little time.”

“That’s all well and good, my lord, but what do we do with this miscreant? We can’t let him go, he may run off, and then where would I be? No, no, my lord, can’t have that. It would look bad in the county.”

St. Ryne smiled congenially. “You’re a shrewd magistrate. I can see we are lucky in your services. Why don’t you take him into temporary custody then. Yes, just the ticket, and, of course, anyone in temporary custody is well fed and cared for, to say nothing of dispensing with shackles.”

Mr. Pfoffler scratched his head. “I suppose I could do that-”

St. Ryne drew the magistrate aside to whisper in his ear. “Between us, Mr. Pfoffler, I would appreciate it. I will admit I was in my cups last night and this morning have a devil of a head. I plead time to recover before I can think property.”

Mr. Pfoffler laughed heartily and clapped St. Ryne on the back. “In that case, I’m happy to oblige. It’s nice to see we have people who care to see justice properly executed. Under the circumstances a little time will be all right.” He leaned closer to the Viscount. “I tell you, my lord, it’s not a pretty coil, and I’m obliged in your interest. In truth, I don’t know who to believe.” He crossed to Gerry standing by his grandmother. “Come along, Humphries.”

Mary grabbed Gerry’s hand to hold him to her. “Oh, no, please,” she pleaded, looking from the magistrate to the Viscount.

Embarrassed, the magistrate gruffly cleared his throat. “Here, here, now. None of that.”

Mary dropped her grandson’s hand and fled to the Viscount’s side, dropping down on her knees before him. “Please, milord, please don’t let him take my Gerry.”

St. Ryne pulled her to her feet. “It’s all right, Mrs. Geddy. The magistrate will take good care of Gerry. I do not mean to seem unfeeling; we just need time to sort everything out. Now run along to the kitchen and see if you can get me some coffee. I would like to begin to sort through the situation.”

Mary looked anxiously at Elizabeth who, after casting a speculative glance at her husband, nodded her reassurance.

Mary murmured acquiescence and thanks then bobbed a little curtsy before dejectedly leaving for the kitchen. The magistrate and Gerry followed behind her.

When the door closed on them, Tunning harrumphed and turned to St. Ryne. “You had me worried there for a while, my lord. I thought you might be too soft, listening to those women. Now I see the right of it though. Clever to get the magistrate to take Humphries away as he did, got that Geddy witch out of here right enough. Don’t worry about her in the future; I’ll see she doesn’t bother you again.”

“Mr. Tunning,” began St. Ryne.

“How dare you,” seethed Elizabeth interrupting him. Her fingers curled around the inkstand on the desk, her knuckles white. “Before you harm anyone in that family, I’ll see you in Hell!”

She picked up the inkstand to hurl at him.

“No, Bess!” St. Ryne yelled, rushing to wrest it from her grasp.

He turned to the estate agent. “I have had enough of you. For too long I’ve put up with your sly behavior and your unwarranted maligning of people thinking to uncover the problem. No longer will I do so. You’re fired! Clear your things out of the estate manager’s cottage and get off our property.”

Tunning’s face became mottled with rage. “You’ll regret this!” he stormed, clenching and unclenching his fists. “It’s your entire fault, you hell-spawned Jade!” he snarled, lunging for Elizabeth.

She screamed. St. Ryne grabbed Tunning by his coat, swung him around, and slammed his fist into his jaw. Tunning fell heavily. St. Ryne stood over him; his feet planted firmly apart, his hands still balled into fists. His breathing was ragged, the only sign of the violence he held in check.

“Consider yourself lucky to get away with your life. Now get out, and I don’t ever want to see your worthless carcass again.”

Tunning scrambled out of his reach and got up, glaring daggers at Elizabeth. He yanked open the library door revealing Atheridge standing there, his right hand raised to knock, his other holding a tray with coffee and rolls.

“Oh, Mr. Tunning,” began the startled Atheridge.

“Get out of my way,” snarled Tunning, shouldering him aside and almost upsetting the tray.

“What?” Atheridge uttered, glancing from the raging Tunning to St. Ryne’s implacable visage.

“Mr. Tunning is just leaving. He will not be back,” informed St. Ryne coldly.

Atheridge’s eyes became as big as saucers in his pinched face. He nodded once in deference to the Viscount then scurried to lay out the coffee. The Viscount and Viscountess stood immobile until he had completed his task and fled the room.

St. Ryne’s shoulders slumped and he ran a tired hand around to the back of his neck to ease tight muscles.

“Thank you, Justin,” Elizabeth said softly.

“For what? Did you think I could possibly stand there and let that idiot harm you? Oh, Bess, Bess,” he sighed, “what a low opinion you must truly have of me.”

“I believe I have just cause.”

“Yes, I know you believe that and I don’t know what to do to convince you otherwise.”

He was not up to dealing with justifications and recriminations. When he had found she’d left London, he’d been like a madman and like as not more shrewish than Elizabeth had ever been in her life. His only peace of mind came from the knowledge that Thomas had accompanied her despite her protests. He must remember to reward the young man for his diligence. For now, he would deal with the tumult he discovered on arriving at Larchside; time later to broach their estrangement.

“What is your summation of this poaching charge?” he asked tiredly, easing down into one of the wing chairs, his legs splayed out casually before him.

She came around the desk to pour coffee for the two of them. “I believe Tunning framed Gerry.”

“Why would he have cause to do that? For that matter, what is it Tunning's been up to anyway?”

She compressed her lips, shaking her head in bewilderment. “I don’t really know, at least with any certainty; however, I believe he was collecting some type of blood money from the tenants around here and collecting fees from the merchants and trades people who had business with the estate.”

“I can understand the payoffs from those who buy from or sell to the estate, but could he have gotten such control over the tenants?”

“I don’t know, but what I do think is that Humphries was not one of those from whom he was able to collect.”

St. Ryne shifted straighter in his chair, shaking his head dolefully. “It’s a bad business, Bess.”

“Yes, and nearly impossible to prove unless one of his victims comes forward, and then it’s his word against theirs.”

St. Ryne was silent a moment, then: “Do you think the Atheridges were in on it with him?”

“I’ve wondered, but they could just as easily have been among his victims or merely sycophantic for their own protection.”

He grunted in agreement.

“But what about Gerry, Justin?”

He stretched. “I think it would be best if he were left in Mr. Pfoffler’s care until tomorrow. I know Mrs. Geddy won’t like it, but I don’t trust Tunning not to plan some sort of revenge action, and Gerry would be a likely target since indirectly he caused Tunning's downfall.”

“You may be right.”

“And what about us?” he asked, then cursed his wretched tongue. It was too soon. He saw her stiffen, the liquid light in her eyes hardening to gold metal. Inwardly he moaned her name as she visibly retreated into herself.

“There is no us, just the shell of a comic play that’s over.”

“Please, Bess, don’t do this.’’

She blinked at him. “It’s done.”

“No!” he implored, but she turned her head away from him to take another cup of coffee. He could see that she intended to ignore his presence.

A slow anger flared within him, feeding upon itself as it grew. He surged out of his chair to stand over her. She studiously kept her eyes averted.

“You are a hypocrite, my love, you who claim to hate plays, for you are playing now and with your willful play are throwing away our chance for happiness. Go on, punish me, I admit I deserve it, but as you do so, admit you are also punishing yourself. Please forgive me if I quit your presence and return to London. I see no gain in remaining to be continually flogged by your wretched pride!” He turned on his heel, his face a study of anger and misery, and rapidly quitted the room.

Elizabeth looked up as he left, part of her not really believing he would. She rose from her chair and started for the door, her hand outstretched. Then she heard him open the front door and shout for Thomas to saddle his horse, and her hand fell to her side. With heavy steps she walked to the window and watched him mount then gallop down the drive as if all the dogs of hell were nipping at his heels. Her mouth silently formed the words “I’m sorry,” but there was no one to hear.