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THE LAST HAMLET or The Readiness Is All - 42 THE MAKING OF A CONSPIRACY

THE MAKING OF A CONSPIRACY

There was no time to be lost, for who could say when the Archdraxite might turn threats against the Queen into action? Even before he had got back to his rooms after visiting the prisoners, Rollo had sketched out an idea or two for the 'springing' - a term he remembered from the days when he still read Draxy novels - of the royal captive.

Terson and Rollo had been pages together, and working colleagues ever since. They had met regularly at household briefings, and not infrequently at Nell's teas; but of personal socialising between the two of them there had been none, not even when they had been children. For Rollo, the boy Terson had always seemed a little too rough, whilst Terson had always thought Rollo to be rather 'sniffy'.

After that odd business of the signature forging earlier in the day the guard captain was not altogether amazed to find in his letter box, on his return from lunch, a wax sealed letter whose designation was penned in the neat, slightly fussy hand, that betrayed the authorship of Her Grace's Butler. The Captain poured himself a generous slug of his own made damson gin - he thought he might just need it! - plonked himself in his favourite deep armchair, and broke the letter's seal. This is what he read:

My dear Terson,

It is incumbent upon me to convey to you my deepest gratitude for the good offices you so courteously exercised today on my behalf. The guard whom you entrusted with my safe keeping and guidance executed his duties faithfully, and he contributed in no small measure to the success of what was, essentially, an errand of mercy sanctioned by Her Grace.

We have known each other these many years, my good captain, and it has long been a matter of regret to me that our several and peculiar duties seem to have prevented us from indulging in that degree of social intercourse which might, given the senior rankings we respectively enjoy, have proved profitable to each, and delightful at least to me.

I have the pleasure, humbly assumed, of endeavouring to set past neglect on my part to rights, by inviting your good self to partake of refreshment with me this same day in the evening in my rooms. If you are able to view my poor request with favour, may I anticipate your company at about the eighth hour of the afternoon? You may be assured that if this too tardy invitation affords you none of the gratification from which it proceeds, the high esteem in which you have always been held by yours truly will be in no way diminished.

I am, sir, your most humble servant,

Rollo.

"Why," said Terson out loud as he laid down the letter, "you cunning devil! And I thought I would have to approach you. And I bet you offer me muffins!*

* The treats the Captain anticipated were those soft bread delights of old Steefax, not the fruit and chocolate buns once imported from Ee-arth.

*

Although he thought he had probably got it about right - sufficently absurd without being certifiably manic - it was a rather nervous Rollo who heard the confident rat-a-tat of the brass knocker at one minute after eight. He went into the hall, advanced butler-like, and opened the door. "My dear fellow," he said, "how exceedling kind of you to come. Your acceptance of my no doubt presumptuos invitation is immenesely gratifying to me."

The Captain had a frightful struggle against rising mirth, and he replied to the greeting with a cough - "Don't mention it" - cough sandwich.

"Please make yourself comfortable."

Terson responded to this suprisingly straightforward invitation by sitting in the nearest to him of two black leather armchairs. He found the room, on a quick inspection, to be more or less as he had imagined it would be: the sober colours, the old fashioned lace curtains, the traditional furniture, the old prints on the walls, the precisely placed ornaments, the polished black-leaded grate wherin burned a cheerful cool of evening autumn fire, the uniform length black wax candles neatly trimmed, burning unflickeringly in the solid, polished, brass candlesticks, all bespoke Rollo, Butler to Her Grace the Archdraxite of All Steefax.

"This is very good of you, Mister Rollo."

"Not at all, Captain Terson, for the beneficence proceeds entirely from your own good self."

"There will, of course, be muffins?"

"Indubitably, old boy. How extremely perspicacious of you."

That did it. The two men looked at each other, the masks fell away, and they began to laugh; oh, how they laughed, until the tears flowed down their several cheeks. While each was afterwards dabbing his eyes, the Captain said, "I most earnestly hoped there would be muffins; for if you are going to conspire with someone, well, you ought to do it over muffins, don't you think?"

Over plates of the butter-drenched, bite-sized, proper muffins, and slices of Rollo baked rich fruit cake, and cups of strongly brewed Moonbase Pekoe, the two men took their first easy steps towards a friendship which would prove a delight to themselves, and a powerful benefit to others.

*

"Now, pretending to be fooled by your forgery..."

"And I thought I might have got away with it."

"...bought me a little time. Your wish to see the prisoner might have been nothing more than simple courtesy. I needed to know if you had a mind to go further."

"And I had to be sure of you. The Queen helped me there."

"Did she?"

"She thought well of you. She remembered - some kindness."

When Rollo had been told of the Bagwort business he was too shocked to to speak, for a while. Eventually he said, "Have we been wrong, Captain, these past years?"

"I hope not. Life has been very good for us here."

"Better than for those outside?"

"All Steefax was to share in the Draxy Palace dream."

"Whether they wanted to or not."

"We have been complacent."

"But not any longer. I could put the kettle on again?"

"If you like."

"Or something else?"

"Something else sounds good to me."

"I believe I may have a drinkable vintage."

It was most definitely a two bottle problem. After an agreeable couple of hours, our conspirators had come up with a plan to first rescue the Queen, and then to take her into safe hiding. The relation of a merry little chapter of accidents experienced by the Captain on a day out, played no small part in the planning of stage two of the operation.

****

The following evening, shortly after eight o'clock, the Archdraxite returned from family time to find Captain Terson waiting in her hallway.

"Captain, what may I do for you?"

"I know the hour is late, Your Grace, but the Queen has expressed a desire to see you."

"You have visited her?"

"She is in my care, Your Grace."

"Of course."

"There is something she wants to discuss with you."

"Then of course I shall see her."

"She said there would need to be a witness, Your Grace."

"I shall take a guard."

"Someone with authority, she said."

"Then I suppose it had better be you, Captain."

"Very good, Your Grace,"

"We shall go after breakfast."

"She is greatly disturbed, Your Grace. Though I see no sign of the weakening mentioned in the bulletins."

"Do you not, Captain?"

"I wonder if the physician might have misinterpreted the symptons of distress and grief?"

"So, we are all to be our own doctors these days, are we?"

"Your Grace will be able to make her own judgment."

"No doubt."

"I think it would be best for you to see her tonight, Your Grace,"

"Very well, Captain. I have work to finish here, first. Shall we say ten o'clock?"

"A little earlier might be more convenient, Your Grace. The guard changes at ten."

"Of course. Then meet me here at a qurter to, will you?"

"Thank you, Your Grace."

So far so good.

When Terson had visited the Queen shortly after she had had her tea he had coached her in the plan he had worked out with Rollo. With tinglings of excitement, alternating with stabbings of terror and panic, Cilla clung to the Captain's parting words: "This very night, Your Majesty, this very night."