Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

This is the way to kill a wife with kindness . . .

—Act III, Scene 3

Elizabeth’s fingertips drummed restlessly, the only outward sign of her agitation. Before her on the gleaming desktop lay a short missive from St. Ryne. He had been gone two days and one night. Idly she speculated on the gossip his presence in London engendered. None to her advantage, she was convinced. Of course, the viciousness of the gossip depended entirely on whether or not St. Ryne really was in London and not elsewhere in the arms of some fair Paphian. It was particularly galling to realize she did not know her husband well enough to know if he had leanings in that direction, let alone whether he currently sported a mistress.

The letter, at least, indicated he’d seen to some business in London for he spoke of the various tradesmen and craftsmen she was to expect to descend like locusts upon the morrow. It appeared, therefore, that he had every intention of restoring Larchside to whatever pretentions of bygone splendor it might have possessed. She wondered at his efforts. Larchside was not an overly large manor house, and she surmised he possessed several finer establishments to say nothing of his expectation, not that she was one to live upon expectations for she’d never had any in her life, monetarily or emotionally.

Such thoughts, of course, always brought her full circle to the mystery of their marriage. Despite his recent eccentricities, St. Ryne had always been referred to in her hearing as a man of great address and elegance of manner, not in the least condescending. All in all, the polite world considered him an ideal catch.

Why he had never married was a large question in Elizabeth’s mind, though larger too was the question, why her? She was very much alive to the fact that it was not a match his family condoned, for his parents had been conspicuously absent from the wedding. The marriage became more and more curious when she fully assimilated that distressing fact. For herself, she had to own, she was strangely content. Even fencing with St. Ryne was more enjoyable than living at Rasthough House had ever been. Here, too, she was mistress. Her brow descended and a slight frown bent her lips. Unfortunately, it did not appear that the Atheridges or Tunning saw her in quite the same light.

Tunning would be here soon.

She turned slightly in her chair to look out the tall windows. The ivy that had almost obscured the glass had been pulled away that morning. Now she could look out onto the small park surrounding Larchside. The late afternoon shadows were lengthening, and the two men sent to scythe the lawn were dark silhouettes, their blades catching the sun’s light on the upswing then descending into shadow in a rhythmic dance. Watching the cadence of their motion calmed her, and she could once again view her accomplishments objectively.

Although still somewhat shabby, Larchside was now clean. Elizabeth had made careful inventory of the manor and the condition of each room and its furnishings. Hangings, upholstery, painting, and wallpapering were needed in every room. Some rooms would also need the hand of a skilled plasterer and one bedroom that of a glazier. It would not be an inexpensive proposition to bring the manor house around, to say nothing of the tenant farms. To what extent did St. Ryne expect her to spend the ready? She chewed her lower lip in thought. It would probably be wise to choose the middle road, still in all, it would be costly.

Damn the man! What did he want from her?

She grimaced suddenly when she saw Tunning ride up to the manor. She’d seen more applicants arrive over the past half hour. Soon she would be forced to sit through another nerve-wracking session with Tunning and his idea of servant material. Yesterday she’d been appalled at what she privately considered the dregs of human life being put forward to her as servants, to say nothing of the children! In the spirit of fair-mindedness, she thought perhaps this was merely an example of the difference between country servants and those available in the metropolis, though she did not remember any quite like this on her family’s estate.

That morning, however, she had done some judicious questioning of the couple of village women still cleaning at Larchside. Their comments, or rather hedging lack of comments, spoke volumes to Elizabeth. She didn’t know why Tunning should be trying to make a May game of her, but she would not acquiesce easily. It had been her intention to leave her shrewish temperament toward others behind her in London; however, Tunning might become an exception, particularly in light of the incident that occurred that morning in regard to the estate room.

It had been her thought to go through some of the old household records to find mention of suppliers in the area who had done business with Larchside in the past. They would be among the first she would approach with her custom. Her mind busy with lists of necessities, she almost slammed into the door when it inexplicably did not open under her hand. Jiggling the doorknob confirmed her suspicion. The room was locked. At first that circumstance was a mere annoyance, for it meant she must sort through the ring of keys at her waist for the proper one. Her mild annoyance rapidly turned to profound irritation when she discovered the key was not on her ring.

Muttering under her breath at the slipshod practices of Larchside’s supposed caretakers; Elizabeth went in search of Mrs. Atheridge for the missing key. She had not liked the smug, triumphant look that appeared on Mrs. Atheridge’s face at her query, nor had she liked the way she clasped her hands before her and rocked back on her heels. If the housekeeper had been a cat, she would have expected to see feathers or a mouse’s tail sticking out of her mouth. “I’m sorry, my lady, I don’t have it.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes heavenward. This woman was determined to be an obstructionist. “Well, where is it kept?” she asked patiently.

“I can’t rightly say, as Mr. Tunning keeps the key.”

Startled, Elizabeth spoke her first thought. “Why?”

Mrs. Atheridge shrugged and repeated her last statement causing Elizabeth to grind her teeth.

“And the outside door as well?” she finally asked.

“Yes, my lady.”

Elizabeth dismissed her, then went to her room to change her thin slippers for kid half-boots and to collect her pelisse. Already deducing what she would discover, she proceeded nonetheless out the front door of the manor and around the side to the estate room entrance. It, too, was locked.

She went for a walk then to clear all the cobwebs from her mind. The air was cold but the day was clear and crisp.

She climbed a hill at the back of the estate and discovered from there she could see much of the surrounding countryside. The village was not far away. She saw its stone church at the end of the road through the bare tree branches. To the north was a farm with neat buildings and well-maintained hedgerows. From her vantage point it stood in sharp contrast to the surrounding acres. Due to its proximity, as much as to the curving dirt track leading from it to Larchside, she took it for the Home farm.

Looking at it and its neighbors, Elizabeth couldn’t help but wonder how much of what Tunning said was truth and how much fabrication. The feelings he aroused in her breast made her believe it was the latter. But why? Well, Larchside’s restoration was nicely underway. It was time to turn her attentions elsewhere, and seeking the answers to this riddle was as good a direction as any.

Since the cold was beginning to numb her feet, she’d returned to the manor and the questions that lay there.

Atheridge rapped on the library door breaking her train of thought. “Mr. Tunning is here, my lady.”

“Show him in,” said Elizabeth, a calm, neutral expression possessing her features. It was time for a confrontation with the slimy toad, on her terms.

Tunning scurried into the room, rubbing his cold-reddened hands before him. “Ah, my lady, ready and waiting are you to begin?”

“As you see.”

He laughed heartily. “That’s what I like about you, my lady, always straining at the bit, and a sweet goer you are to be sure.” He winked broadly at her and laughed again at his witticism, then his lips curled into a leer. “To be sure, it is a real mystery why the Viscount would take his leave so sudden with a woman like you to warm his bed. Perhaps he doesn’t appreciate you properly.”

Elizabeth seethed, though the only outward manifestation of her emotional state was the white knuckles of her clenched hands. She had considered Tunning coarse, but never in all her dealings with the man had she imagined he could so far forget himself as to speak to her in such a manner. Could he actually have the effrontery to believe she might turn to him as a substitution for her absent husband? The idea was mind-boggling and left her momentarily bereft of speech.

“Oh, now I’ve gone and embarrassed you.” He swaggered toward the desk, a ridiculous lugubrious expression on his face. “Don’t you fret, my lady, old Tom Tunning's not one to be a gabble-box, but should you ever need a shoulder to cry on, mine are right broad.” He reached out to touch her shoulder.

Elizabeth shied out of his way, her jerky action toppling her chair.

“Now, my lady, no need being shy,” Tunning said, mistaking her action for coquetry. He extended a hand to help her up, a self-satisfied smile plastered across his face.

“Don’t you dare touch me you slimy toad!” she cried, giving voice to her image of him. She scrambled to her feet, placing the width of the desk between them. “How dare you infer, let alone think, I should be interested in you. Your insolence knows no bounds. Get your fat, sweaty person out of my sight!”

Tunning's face darkened. “Don’t you go getting high-and-mighty. From what I heard tell, you’re just run goods. You best remember who holds the purse strings around here and sweeten your tongue a bit. That fancy husband of yours left fast enough no doubt for more sprightly game.”

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed, gold flame shooting out through her dark lashes. “You may hold the purse strings,” she said icily, “but you don’t control me. You would best be advised to rethink your attitude before I have you thrown off this property.”

Tunning laughed in her face, though something about her expression gave him pause.

“Tunning, Larchside is mine!” she spat. “It was part of my marriage settlement. Didn’t St. Ryne tell you? How remiss of him. So you see, ultimately, I am your employer. This time I am inclined to give you mercy, indeed, I fear your ignorance warrants it. Now get your carcass and those sorry excuses for servants you’ve brought here out of this house.”

Tunning's mouth opened and closed like a toad catching flies. The his beady eyes narrowed even more as his face took on a choleric hue. “You’ll rue the day you jibed at Tom Tunning!’’

Elizabeth, struggling to hide her trembling, merely lifted her hand and pointed to the door.

Tunning stalked out, slamming the door shut behind him.

Elizabeth’s breath came out in a rush, her limbs suddenly as weak as a rag. She stumbled to one of the wing chairs and sank into it. Raising her hands to her face, she let out long, shuddering sobs. It galled her to know she truly had no power over Tunning; it was all a farce. For all her bravado, St. Ryne could easily negate her words. She had no idea if he would even believe her if she were to relate the tale. She cringed even to contemplate Tunning's next actions if he were to divine the hollowness of her words. He could make life akin to Dante’s Inferno.

She slowly lowered her hands from her face, balling them into fists that impotently pounded the chair arms. She wanted nothing so much as to scream her frustrations at the top of her lungs. She could not, however, afford to let Tunning hear of her immature behavior via the Atheridges. Ah yes, the Atheridges, Tunning’s spies. It would not do to show any sort of weakness to them. She must get her tears under control, her breathing regular, make it appear she was totally unmoved by the scene in the library, for she’d wager they’d know of it.

She leaned her head back against the chair and closed her eyes, willing each muscle in her body to relax. What was she to do? She still was without servants and now, and she distrusted Mrs. Atheridge wouldn’t poison her deliberately versus accidentally as her current cooking ability threatened to accomplish. There seemed to be many decent people in the village for all who came to help at Larchside had been good folk. How could she find others to assume permanent positions in her household? Who would know everyone in the area?

Her eyes flew open. The vicar! A vicar would know his flock. Perhaps he even knew some of the skeletons rattling around, like Tunning and the Atheridges. No doubt he would be expecting her to make a duty call anyway. Perfect. Tunning could not rant and rave at suggestions from a man of the cloth.

“Oo-oo,” Elizabeth mouthed silently, a devilish light glowing in her eyes. Tunning was about to receive the first comeuppances at her hand and if she played her cards right, he could not complain to St. Ryne.

The next morning, Elizabeth felt beset by locusts. Not only did tradesmen and craftsmen arrive to push and pull for her attention, but also her trunks of personal belongings arrived. So busy was she that it wasn’t until nearly teatime before she could slip away to trek down to the village and the little stone church she had seen the day before.

A brisk fifteen minute walk brought her to the rectory and moments later she found herself in a cheery little parlor facing a kind-looking white-haired gentleman.

“I am delighted, simply delighted by your visit. My oh my, are we now to discover our sleepy little village in the guidebooks as one of the country seats of a Viscount, heir to an Earldom?” he teased. A tittering laugh followed his words, and Elizabeth could not help but laugh with him.

“I wouldn’t know, sir, what these publishers deem interesting.”

“Oh, anything for a shilling, my dear, anything at all,” he assured her, his watery blue eyes fairly bulging.

“And what’s anything for a shilling, Father?”

Elizabeth whirled around to see a well-set-up gentleman in modest attire standing by the door.

“Ah, David, there you are. Let me make you known to our new lovely patroness, the Viscountess St. Ryne.” He turned back to Elizabeth. “This scapegrace young gentleman is my son, David Thornbridge.”

Elizabeth heard the warm pride in the vicar’s voice and her eyes pricked with tears. Oh, to have a father with such sensibilities! She willed the telltale moisture away and gracefully extended her hand.

“My Lady,” young Mr. Thornbridge murmured with just the correct degree of deference in his tone as he made his leg.

Elizabeth was impressed. She inclined her head slightly. “You are not, Mr. Thornbridge, a man of the cloth like your father?”

“No indeed, my lady. I am a manager with Waddley Spice and Tea Company in London.”

“Ah, I have heard of them.”

“They are very successful, my lady.”

Elizabeth’s eyes danced merrily. “To be sure.”

Not for the world would she divulge to this serious gentleman quite how she knew of Waddley’s. The Honorable Mrs. Cecilia Waddley, sole owner after the death of her husband, had been born the Honorable Miss Cecilia Haukstorm, granddaughter of a Duke, niece of an Earl. She had virtually been sold into marriage to the highest bidder to pay her father and brother’s prodigious gambling debts. Though she had been cut off from society at her marriage, her widowhood saw the doors reopen to her, for not even the highest sticklers continued her omission from their invitation lists. She was a delightful ninny hammer, though given to blue megrims, vapors, and sundry other ailments she swore were constantly threatening to take her life from her. Her dramatic highs and lows were considered by society to be as entertaining as Elizabeth’s own tantrums had been. No doubt they were filling her place to a nicety.

“You are lucky to get time away from your ledgers and quills.”

“My, ah, my employer is considerate of familial obligations to the point of insistence.”

“Yes,” Reverend Thornbridge said, the twinkle in his eye belying his frown, “and here I thought I’d managed to get rid of this young whelp.”

Elizabeth laughed delightedly. “You don’t fool me in the slightest, sir. You’re as proud as a peacock of him.”

“Please don’t tell him that!” David exclaimed. “You’ll start him spouting off about the sins of pride and you’ll never get out of here.”

The Reverend Thornbridge harrumphed. “Now don’t you go listening to my boy here. Too much city in him to my mind. Seems to me he’s the one who needs the lecture.”

David Thornbridge groaned, but his father chose only to spare him a quick sliding glance before continuing. “But tell me, my child, is there any way I can be of assistance to you in adjusting to your new home?”

“Actually, Reverend, there is. I am in need of servants. Many of the villagers have come to help clean the manor, and they’ve been good, decent people. Unfortunately, the people who have come to interview for permanent positions do not seem cut of the same cloth.”

“Let me guess, the people who have come to apply have all been brought to you by Mr. Tunning,” David suggested drily.

“David!” scolded the reverend.

“No sense wrapping it up in clean linen, Father.”

“No, please, Reverend Thornbridge,” interposed Elizabeth. “David is not implying anything I haven’t already guessed.” She sighed. “There is definitely something strange going on, though I don’t know precisely what as yet. Nonetheless, I still need servants, and as you surmise, I do not want any of Tunning’s ilk. The problem is it appears none of the village people will come forward to me directly.”

The reverend frowned. "I know. I can’t tell you all as I don’t have facts, only suspicions. But I can make a suggestion.” He spoke slowly, capturing her full attention with his eyes. “If you are planning to visit any of your tenant farms, you may wish to talk to Mary Geddy.”

Out of the corner of her eye Elizabeth saw David Thornbridge suddenly smile and nod, and this piqued her curiosity. “I’m afraid I don’t recall meeting anyone by the name of Geddy. Could you give me her direction?”

“She lives with her daughter and son-in-law, Ellie and Nat Humphries, and their son Gerald.”

“They’re at the Home farm!”

“Yes, but remember to visit them when you’re making your rounds.”

Then Elizabeth understood. She wasn’t to appear to seek out Mrs. Geddy, only to discover her. It was obviously for someone’s protection, but from whom and why? “Isn’t it fortuitous,” she said brightly, “that I’m planning just such a round of calls for tomorrow?”

David’s smile widened into a grin. “Yes, isn’t it? It is a great deal too bad I have to quit the neighborhood tomorrow. I should have liked to be around for this.”

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow in inquiry and even though neither Thornbridge was inclined to say more, she felt she had discovered allies.

The next morning, a self-satisfied Elizabeth trekked down the well-worn lane to the Home farm. She had taken the reverend’s suggestions and visited the other farms. She was saddened to discover the tenants there a cringing lot. She promised herself she’d see that attitude changed. She hoped she would not find the same feeling at the Home farm. She glanced up from the ground before her to see its neat buildings in the distance. No, they would certainly be as different as their farm was from the others. She had high expectations for this visit, and her steps hastened.

A grizzled man and his younger image came out of the bam. Elizabeth smiled warmly. “Mr. Humphries? I am the Viscountess St. Ryne.”

“My Lady,” he said formally, touching his forelock. His son followed his example.

“Oh please, do not stand on such ceremony.” She was perturbed by his aloofness. “I just wished to make myself known to you. Is Mrs. Humphries about?”

The man turned to his son. “Fetch Mother, Gerry.” He instructed him like he was a child of ten rather than a strapping young man of some twenty plus years.

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow at his lack of a direct answer but murmured a polite thank you before attempting to engage him in conversation. “You are to be congratulated; this property is very well maintained.”

“Only as it should be,” was the taciturn response.

“Yes, so one would suppose.”

A cough was her only answer. She would have commented further in hopes of drawing him out if two women hadn’t followed Humphries’s son out of the house. The eldest and the smallest, a spry, silver-haired woman with snapping brown eyes and the bloom of youth still on her cheeks, quickly brushed past him, muttering admonitions to pick his feet up and stop slouching.

“This be gentry proper, get along with you now and mind your manners,” Elizabeth heard her say in the peevish tone that only the old used in the presence of those they loved. Elizabeth was brought to mind of her own nurse, Hattie, and she knew instantly she would like this woman.

“Milady, we are that much honored.” The woman bobbed a curtsy then grabbed her hand and patted it with her other. “Reet welcome you are to be sure. Now come along, come along inside and rest yourself and have a sip of cider maybe? Oh, this be my daughter, Ellie, and that lump who should’a brought you in first off is my son-in-law, Nat. That’s my grandson, Gerry. Oh my, I almost forgot myself. I’m Mary, Mary Geddy, and I must say you sure are a pretty sight for these tired old eyes. But come along.” She turned suddenly to Nat and her grandson. "You two wash up and come visit awhile, too, and no argle bargle.”

“Oh, please,” Elizabeth finally managed to interject, “I don’t want to interrupt your routine.”

“Now don’t you go frett’n yourself, milady. A half hour or hour ain’t going to make a ha’porth of difference to the work around here, and we’ve got to see you property welcomed.” She ushered Elizabeth inside the farmhouse, made her sit in the rocker by the fire, and fussed over the placement of a cushion at her back before bustling over to the pantry for mugs and sending Gerry for the jugs of cider kept cool in the stream running behind the house.

Mrs. Humphries, a placid, plain-faced woman, came to stand before Elizabeth. “Don’t mind Mama, she was once a housekeeper in a great house and much given to ruling the roost.”

Elizabeth shot Mrs. Geddy an excited smile. “You were a housekeeper?”

“Aye, and afore that a cook.” She poured some of the cool cider into a mug and handed it to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth sent a silent thank you to the Reverend Thornbridge. “Then perhaps you are just the person to advise me."

"Me, milady? Gracious, what would a poor body like me be doing giving a great lady like yourself advice?”

Elizabeth smiled. “You do yourself a disservice. Larchside needs servants. So far, the only candidates I’ve seen have been woefully inexperienced or-or—”

“Not the type you’d like to see cross the threshold, I’d wager.”

“Mother,” growled Nat Humphries.

Mary Geddy waved her hand dismissingly at her son-in-law and pooh-poohed his unspoken admonition to hold her tongue.

“I was wondering if you would know of persons in the area who would like to enter into service. My case is desperate. Besides chambermaids and footmen, I require a cook and an abigail for myself, or at least some young woman with clever hands whom I could train for such a position.”

Mr. Humphries grunted. “And what would Mr. Tunning say to this?”

Elizabeth’s hackles rose. Everywhere she turned that man seemed to have a stranglehold, and it appeared everyone considered his control should extend to her person as well. She raised an eyebrow in faint hauteur. “My good man, Mr. Tunning is merely an employee. What right has he to say anything?”

“Pay no mind to Nat, here,” Mary assured her. “He and Mr. Tunning never have seen eye to eye and rightly never will. We’re not favorites with your estate agent, milady.”

“I know, and that puzzles me, for yours is the best run and most profitable farm.”

“That’s cuz our Nat here ain’t one to be gulled.”

“Mother, that is enough.”

"“No it ain’t and don’t you try to say how it is.” She turned to the Viscountess. “I say look to your estate books if you want answers. I’d lay odds not all them numbers match the quality of the work being done.”

“Hush your tongue, woman!” roared Mr. Humphries.

Mrs. Humphries looked pained and stood kneading her apron in her hands.

“Mr. Humphries, please. I know something is dreadfully wrong, but if everyone continues to sidestep the issue, I’ll never be able to cure whatever disease it is that plagues Larchside. I desire help not avoidance, and I’ll pay well for it. Mrs. Geddy, could you see your way clear to coming to Larchside as my cook, if not permanently, at least until I can make other arrangements? If I have to stomach many more of Mrs. Atheridge’s meals, I daresay I shall expire.”

“That I would believe.” She reached over to pat Elizabeth’s hand. “I should be that delighted to help out and I’m not afeered like some folks I know,” she said glaring at her son-in-law.

“Mother,” he said, “you know it is not a matter of fear, it is a question of what good could possibly come of it.”

“Would it help you to know, Mr. Humphries, that Larchside was deeded to me as part of my marriage settlement? While it is true Mr. Tunning handles the accounts, my husband directed Mr. Tunning to come to me in the event of there being any problem in the management of the estate during his absence. So you see,” she said with a smile, “even Mr. Tunning is subject to my authority.”

Elizabeth was pleased with the way she could use her husband's parting words to Tunning to her advantage. She only hoped these good folk did not hear the hollowness in her voice.

“That’s settled then,” Mrs. Geddy said. “And when would you like me to begin, milady?”

“Tomorrow morning?”

“Tomorrow morning it is. I’ll also see if we can’t find your ladyship some better servants.”

“That would be greatly appreciated.”

The two women exchanged looks of mutual satisfaction while Mr. Humphries, though not pleased, merely shook his head in resignation.