The Adventures of Lady Belindabyraven5©
A True Relation of the Adventures of Belinda, Lady D'Airing, and her faithful servant Groat
Notar bene - although the dramatis personae herebelow included are based upon some real people, living and historical, any resemblance between them and the people of the story is purely coincidental.
Prologue - Our story is set, gentle reader, in a time of great tribulation for these fair Isles of ours. Cruel and bloody civil war has ravaged the land, and the afflicted populace seek to put their lives back together again. All have felt the shadow of the sword in some way, from the lowest to the highest in the land and it is to the home of one of that has been counted among these 'highest' that we go now - Castle D'Airing, deep among the fields and vales of Shropshire.
It is early morning one fine and sunny March day.
Part the first: A fayre lady, her distresse
Groat's first inkling that it was going to be a bad day was when he found that rats had been at the barley in the store. Counting the remaining sacks he found that several of the bags had been chewed at the bottom and precious barley had been stolen. Cursing all such parasites upon humanity he made a note in his scrawled writing to put one or two of the estate's boys about the work of catching them, and failing that, and more expensively, a rat catcher.
Just then his threats upon the rodent world were drowned by the arrival of two people both clamouring for his attention.
"Groat! Groat!" Her ladyship's mellifluous tones cut through the morning air, as she sought her steward.
At the same time a small boy ran into the store room at full pelt. "Mister Groat! Mister Groat!" He shouted, then came to a skidding stop, struck dumb as he realised who else was present. Both of the adults looked at the boy.
"Well? Speak lad." Groat said, not unkindly. The boy found his voice quickly, aware of his audience.
"Begging your pardon, your ladyship, Mr Groat, but I'm to tell Mister Groat that there's troopers approaching the house, about ten of 'em." The lad bobbed and twitched at speaking to the lady of the house. She thanked him graciously for performing his errand. This only made the poor boy twitch and bob even more as he ran off backwards, twitching and bobbing, until he could politely turn and run properly.
"Richard Hopwell's boy, mistress." Groat said automatically, knowing his mistress would ask.
Lady Belinda nodded absently, "I wonder what they want," she mused, her own errand forgotten, as they walked back to the house.
"I'll receive in the Solar, Groat." She said as they entered, leaving Groat to change his jerkin for a doublet.
As the clatter of hooves filled the stable yard with echoes of the horses that had been taken away by two armies, Groat went about his business. His principal aim was to keep the troopers busy in the yard, if they roamed the house as they were wont to do they could get up to no end of mischief. Fortunately the first person he saw as he entered the big kitchen was Maggie Thorne.
Behind his back they called themselves the 'lame ducks', many of the staff that now ran the big house behind the scenes were refugees or victims of the war. All had been given a home at the castle, and though Groat knew some were not to be trusted, he knew most were as loyal as he was. Maggie was such a victim, homeless and penniless, rough as a bear's arse, but she had a heart of gold. Groat took the girl to one side. "Maggie, draw a couple of pitchers of beer and make sure that our guests are properly entertained."
"Right you are Mister Groat. Not to leave the yard sir?"
Groat smiled, Maggie would take care of the troopers, he could rely on her.
As young Hopwell had reported there were ten of them, Parliamentarian troopers, all well armed, each man having two pistols hanging from the front of his saddle, and a long sword at his belt. What the boy had not said, was that one of the ten riders was an officer. Groat reckoned he knew who it was as well.
Colonel Gregory Duckett, who was reported to have the ear, and the favour, of general Cromwell himself. In as much as Groat found most Parliamentarians objectionable, what he had heard of Duckett particularly annoyed him. Groat's ear about the district had already informed him that Duckett was buying land from various estates, profiting from the losses of the former royalist supporters. To add to this a previous visit by some of the colonel's troopers had brought the first rumours, subsequently confirmed, of the man's interest in the eligible mistress of Castle D'Airing. A match with Lady Belinda would increase his social respectability as well as his influence. Groat had not been impressed by the idea.
"Scrope, isn't it?" The colonel asked as he got down from his blowing mount. Groat was a burly man, well-over weight, but the corpulent Duckett made him look like a stripling. Like Groat, the Colonel had obviously been forewarned.
"Groat, your excellency." Groat kept his tone proper.
"That's right, same as the coin, ain't it? Is your mistress home? I'd have requested an appointment, but we were merely passing."
Groat knew precisely what 'merely passing' meant. Over my dead body, Groat silently vowed, over my dead body.
With the colonel puffing and wheezing up the staircase behind him Groat led the parliamentarian to the long solar that ran the width of the great house.
Offering the colonel a seat, he noted a door opening and sprang into place.
As his mistress stepped into the room Groat watched the colonel stand as, his chest swelling with pride he announced "Colonel Duckett - may I present my mistress, Belinda, Lady D'Airing."
As Groat turned towards his mistress the early sunlight through the window illuminated Lady Belinda's pale blonde hair. Gracefully she advanced down the wide room, her smile radiant and her hand held graciously for the colonel to kiss.
Groat had never loved her more than at that moment. It was a love that Groat knew would never, could never become public, there were too many barriers between them, it was a love that was as secret as the D'Airing silver plate, secreted behind a wall in the castle cellars. None of which bothered the big man over much, Groat was content to serve as faithfully as he could.
As one of the young lads that Groat was training for service brought wine, Lady Belinda dismissed them both, to talk to the colonel privately as social equals.
As he left the room, Groat caught the colonel's eye, anger boiled in his heart and fleetingly he thought, 'One false move fatboy, and the whole war starts again!'
Part the Seconde: A Slippe of the Lips
Back in the yard the big man found the soldiers chatting about their work, each desperately trying to impress Maggie with their tales of soldiering. Groat had no problems with the troopers themselves, they were just simple men doing their jobs. He found it hard not to smile, as these so called 'godly' men proved just as susceptible as any other to Maggie's girlish but nonetheless ample charms.
"Cor!" She said breathlessly as she poured Groat a pot of the beer, "You must all be such important men you riding round with the general and all." She said deliberately promoting the colonel.
The corporal in charge of the detachment, who obviously saw himself and Maggie riding out together somewhere, drew himself up with a broad grin. "The 'general'," he said, keeping the colonel's new higher rank, "The general, he don't go nowhere with out us'n. We're hand picked men, we're. They reckon, you know, they reckon it was the likes of us that they based this New Model Army on, they do. That's how good we are an' all."
Groat nearly breathed his beer back into yard. Soldiers. Lord, where did they find them?
"What do you think of that then Mister Groat? They modelled the New Model on these men, we're ever so pleased to have you visit," Maggie simpered.
"They call on us for all of the tough jobs, they do," chimed in another trooper. "Even this pay convoy they're bringing through for Ireland, we're up for that too!" The others nodded, before the corporal realised what had been said.
"But you ain'tn't to tell no one about it if you please, Mister Groat, nor you too Maggie."
Groat's smile was honesty inviolate as he swore his and Maggie's silence.
Part the Thirde: Plans are made
In the solar the troopers' commander had concluded his business and was preparing to leave. The lady he had been visiting gathered herself from the letter that the colonel had delivered, attempting to act out her social role, despite the shocking news that it contained.
She summoned the servant who waited just outside the door.
"Conduct the Colonel to his men, and tell Groat to come to see me." She said, her voice taut with barely contained anger.
The servant did as he was told. And as soon as he had seen the soldiers away from the gate Groat made his way to the solar.
"Not here Groat, we must talk." Lady Belinda took the steward and led him down into the garden, away from the house.
"God damn their eyes, Groat! God damn them all to a burning, festering hell where I hope they rot and burn for all eternity!" Groat winced at her ladyship's command of the common tongue, he blamed her upbringing in a house full of men.
"God damn whom mistress?" He asked placidly. When the lady Belinda was like this he usually found it better to be his calm to her fury. The ill-matched pair walked along the terrace in front of the house, he hulking and seemingly slow, she smaller, and appearing more delicate. Groat led her ladyship away from the house, there were ears among the servants that he did not trust at all. The big man's calm and solid disposition began to calm the angry noblewoman.
"Those pox-ridden whoreson knaves who call themselves the Committee for Shropshire."
"And what is it they're wanting now, mistress?" he enquired through the tirade.
"Money, Groat. Bags of the damned stuff. Bags that we don't have. Because of my father's 'delinquency', - fighting for the King makes him a delinquent - when half of those wracked, back-biting, pulpit hugging clawbacks were safe away from all harm. Anyway they've fined us five hundred pounds."
In his position as steward of the house, with a responsibility for the accounts Groat knew immediately how much money the D'Airings didn't have. Five hundred pounds was a huge fine, and one that they really had no chance of paying.
"Where do they expect us to get it from, mistress? If we dip into the 'reserve' and they realise, they'll take it all." Groat referred to the hidden silver.
By now the lady Belinda's temper was calming and she began to turn her sharp mind to the problem. Briefly they talked of disposing of property, but in England in the closing months of a brutal civil war property was power. While crops and profits varied, rents were a steady income, money could be borrowed against land, something they might have to consider. Disposing of some of the estate would severely hamper any hope they might have of recovering the D'Airing family fortunes. Besides that, speculators like Duckett, men and families with no interest in the county were acquiring land such as theirs, that was being disposed of by imposed on and impoverished royalist families. That bothered Groat, it was against the natural order of things for tailors and vintners to be as powerful as families such as the D'Airings, who could trace their lineage back to the Norman Conquest
"There's always Sir Byron, mistress," Groat suggested. Sir Byron Fox was his mistresses' most ardent suitor, although he too was being prosecuted for his stand in the late war, his estates were extensive and Groat knew that he would do anything for the affections of Belinda, Lady D'Airing.
"Fie, shame on you Groat! 'Tis improper to suggest such a thing." Groat mumbled an apology, against giving offence, but her ladyship went on, "Besides Sir Byron is as hard pressed as we are with these impositions."
As she waved the letter, announcing the imposition like a fan, Groat realised that his mistresses' sharp mind was racing to solve this latest problem.
"The first thing you'll do Groat is instruct that leech lawyer of ours to launch an appeal, against this, we'll try and buy some more time. Secondly we'll try and raise some money on another mortgage to pay part of it, say some three hundred pounds. Then thirdly..."
"Yes, mistress?" Groat asked hopefully.
"There is no thirdly yet, Groat but there will be soon."
In fact the lady Belinda had already begun to hatch a 'third'. During their conversation the repulsive Colonel Duckett had echoed the actions of his men. In trying to impress the lady with his military importance, he had hinted at the role he had to play in the transition of the pay convoy. Lady Belinda had noted it through a mask of politeness, but given it little mind, until the man had delivered up the letter. Sanctimoniously he announced that it 'pained him mightily to do this', - though he still went on and did it - and he told her solicitously that 'if there was anything he could, she should not hesitate to ask'. But as she had read the details enclosed in the letter, the words 'pay convoy' had crossed her mind more than once.
Belinda cursed her luck not to have been born a man, if she had been then many of the problems she faced would not have existed. She'd have gone with the King to his wars and the keeping of Castle D'Airing would have been somebody else's task. She caught her thoughts though, that responsibility, however irksome, was an important part of her life. The lady Belinda was aware that with her father and two brothers in exile on the continent the responsibility for the house, Groat and all those who depended on the family for their livelihoods, all the estates and the future of the family rested with her. It was a sobering thought.
It probably would have come as no surprise to lady Belinda that loyal Groat was having similar thoughts. Whilst he fully intended to carry his mistresses' instructions, Groat was already giving consideration to alternative sources of income. Larceny, he told himself was merely a means to an end, somehow he would keep the family's estates and fortune away from the hands of the speculators. The house without Belinda Lady D'Airing and her heirs was unthinkable. Just then Lady Belinda herself said something which struck a resounding chord in Groat's faithful heart, "Desperate times, Groat, and desperate times call for desperate measures."
"Amen to that mistress, amen," Groat muttered.
Part the fourthe: Events are put in Hande
The following day Groat announced that he was going to try to buy more barley. It was, he said, going to take all day and he would be taking one of the horses for his journey.
Groat started his journey to Shrewsbury by stopping off in the village of Myddle, nearby. In particular he made a stop at the tavern run by one Thomas Jukes. Groat had known Jukes for many years. Despite his overall air of respectability Jukes was a man who knew where to get things, and who to speak to. Groat approached the conversation carefully, by asking if anyone locally had any spare barley to sell. He was after at least three strikes, each strike a little over a bushel. Jukes shook his head, just for once he didn't know, which Groat had been counting on. There had been a demand recently and most of the local farmers were hoarding what they had.
"Still," Jukes said cheerfully, "Will you not take a drink now, Groat?"
Groat paid for his drink and as the tavern was still quiet he stood and talked to the owner, passing time. Finally as he reached the bottom of his drink, he asked quietly, "Does Pickstock still trade horses?"
Jukes looked at him quizzically.
"I've heard he might." He said cautiously.
"I need a good mare."
"Castle D'Airing in need of horse flesh?" Jukes was puzzled and a little intrigued.
"These bloody soldiers have had all our best stock, we need breeders, and I'm not too particular where they come from."
"Call by his place, it's just over Houlston way, and see him, he might have something you can use."
"Thanks very much," said Groat as he made his leave, "I might do just that."
And that was what Groat did, arriving at the shoddy cottage, over-grown and ill-cultivated just about noon.
"Mister Groat isn't it?" George Pickstock looked up at the man on the horse.
"That it is George, and I have business to discuss, if you've aught for selling."
Pickstock looked at him askance.
"Might have." He said monosyllabicly.
"Only I'm looking for a mare. In primis for breeding stock, but she should be a good riding beast as well."
"Oh I don't know about that..." George Pickstock began to protest. "That's not the sort of thing I do anymore."
"I've got good money for her - if you've got one, George, but I need one soon and no questions to be asked."
"Well ... if I was the sort of man that did that sort of thing - which I won't say that I am - I'd be the sort that kept close as an oak anyway."
Groat fixed him firmly with his best glare. "Well if I was the sort of man that worried about a man like you not keeping his mouth shut, I might also be the sort of man that took great exception to loose lips, George, mightn't I?"
George thought about this one for a moment, working out whether it was actually a threat or not, then he nodded his agreement, "You might, Mister Groat, you just might."
Groat clapped George on his back, "Good George I'm glad that that's all settled."
George was still not sure what had been settled, but he went along with Groat anyway.
"Actually Mister Groat, this is your lucky day, because I do happen to have something that may interest you, and what do you know? It's as legal as Church services."
Groat raised an eyebrow.
"As true as I stand here, Mister Groat." Pickstock crossed himself quickly, "I took her as winnings in a game of dice from some drovers. See for yourself."
The mare was a specially fine animal, a solidly built chestnut with white socks on her front legs and a plain, but pleasant, unmarked face. Her legs were sturdy and her coat was in good condition, she walked over to Groat and looked at him as carefully as he looked at her.
Groat entered the paddock and examined the mare's teeth. She stood patiently as he lifted her each leg and checked the underside of her hooves, finally Groat had George walk and trot the mare up and down the length of the small paddock.
That done the two men came together again, they both turned and looked at the mare.
"George," Groat drew the smaller man to him, "George, I hesitate to ask what kind of drover allows a horse like that to get away, or whether the dice were loaded or not, but I want her. And if someone comes looking for her George, I shall come looking for you."
"You're not very good at this horse trading thing are you mister Groat?"
"No George I am not."
"You don't say things like 'I want her', you hum and har a bit."
"Well all right George, we'll assume that all the rest of it has been done, and you tell me what you want for her. Then I shall tell you what I'll pay for her. Then you sell her to me. And then if anyone asks me what I paid for her I tell them that you got the best of me."
Once again George Pickstock's brow furrowed in deep thought.
Pickstock was not what you'd call a major criminal, Groat knew that. He did associate with some complete villains, but was not himself of sufficient status to rate the attention of the Justice's men. Groat on the other hand, knew more than enough of what went on around the district and, despite the impoverished state of D'Airing finances, he was a man with a lot of power, so that he had the situation completely under control. And more than that he bulked alarmingly over the smaller George Pickstock. After a minute or so Pickstock arrived at the same conclusion under his own power.