Legion let rip a wolf-whistle that tore through the room. “Damn and thunder!” he cried, rounding on the others. “Did you see that!” He sought the table and fixed upon Buttercup as a likely victim. “You—sneaking knave! You did not breathe a word of it—you let him hurl it in our faces and left us to look like complete fools in front of that—that thing!”
Buttercup, one ankle crossed over the other, and both tucked under his chair, sifted a thimbleful of soft brown sugar granules into his palm, looking like pieces of a smashed topaz, and shook them into his steaming cup. “It was not permitted me to tell, and so, naturally, I did not say anything,” he replied coolly.
“Oh! is that not just like him!”
Rips, glancing aside long enough to draw his spoon into view, reached for it and began stirring the brown cream with which Buttercup had recently favoured him into his own drink. “Calm down, Legion. It is not as if it were not of a piece with every other prank Adonis has pulled.” His mouth twisted slightly. “Let the man vaunt a little. The creature is worth it.”
“Hmph!” Legion resumed his seat, from which he had thrown himself in the wake of Adonis and the little golden warrior who had walked beside him. “Art one to speak. Nothing stirs your blood, Rips.”
With a swift, quelling look the Rose silenced Legion. The young man coloured a little, but Rips, nothing daunted, continued to stir his coffee twice more, tapped off the spoon, and laid it on the side of the saucer, all the while painstakingly scanning lines in the Land-Owner’s Codex which he held propped open in his right hand.
The Rose attempted to kick up a little more liveliness in the conversation. “Well, Hurley,” he demanded of the stolid young buck across the table from him, “what is the creature like? Surely you should know by now.”
“She plays a wicked set of marteaux des chevaux,” replied Hurley rather exultantly; “I know she looks willowy, but once she gets astride that bay mare of hers and you put a weapon in her fist, she is a positive Amazon. And she can dress you down prettily with that blade she has got behind her teeth,” he added, rueful.
Legion flung his head horse-like at him. “I saw the look she gave you! How long did it take her to put you in your place?”
“Not long,” said Buttercup.
“Light of the sun! what a monster! An’ sure I’ve watched Adonis turn heads—he can’t really help that—but I have never yet seen a chit to match him. He does not take easy to the rein and I’ll be damned if he was of a mind to submit to a girl beneath his abilities. From the look of her, I would not want to attempt saddling her, but imagine trying to bridle him! She must be a fire-eater of the first class! What must that be like!” he added, incredulous and quizzical at once.
“Not unlike making love to a thunderbolt, I imagine,” mused Rips without raising his eye.
Horsefeathers, who had not spoken a word through the whole interchange save when he had risen to extend his greeting to the Amazon, took up the carafe to refill his cup and said, turning his head a little into the sunlight so that the myriad of freckles on his face sharpened in the glow, “Why, what kind of chit answers to your taste, Legion?”
“There’s a pregnant question,” quipped the Rose.
Legion catapulted his chair back onto its hind legs. “Give me a moment,” he demanded, nursing his coffee between his palms. His head backflung revealed a little puckered scar at the base of his jaw, pinkish and warm, where a chin-strap rubbed. His eye sought among the lime-washed rafters of the coffee-house for the image he wanted.
“Amazons are all well and good,” he admitted at length. His heel slipped—his chair shunted forward and came down with a bang. “Personally, I think I would rather take a more temperate girl. It must be exhausting keeping pace with such a fiend. No, I’m far too pleasant-humoured for that. I’ll take a pretty, good-tempered skirt-train.”
The patch lifted briefly from the book, the eye narrowing. “Not unintelligent, I presume.”
“An’ sure! I cannot abide stupid women. There are hordes enough of them to fight through at galas and parties. They flock. Bitterly regretful I find myself to discover I can no longer throw Adonis into the mêlée just to get the biddies off my elbows.”
Hurley’s hard, uncompromising face folded into the fulgurant smile which was peculiar to his family. The dancing, dangerous light jinked from eye to eye. “It is a trial hard to bear that one is so unutterably handsome.”
“Do not mock it. I know where I fall in the studbook—and so do the biddies!”
“All right,” said the Rose, “assuming you can keep your head above water, what sort of skirt-train would you fancy, Hurley?”
The buck laughed harshly. With his heavy hand cupping the rim of his mug—Buttercup looked on, apprehensive, waiting for the china to shatter—his eye scanned the tabletop, brows clenching, looking for a picture even as Legion had searched the ceiling. “Forswear,” he murmured, “cans’t see around my mother’s face!”
“Are not like to find her type!”
“No… Oh,” the wrestler’s shoulders lifted, dismissive, “a buxom girl, sturdy and good-tempered.”
“You would not take a fire-eater?” asked Horsefeathers, quietly surprised.
Hurley turned to him. “Oh, I imagine I would, if I fell for a girl who was a fire-eater. She needn’t change for me. I come from such a pack of fire-eaters, what difference is one more? But since you are asking me now, she is not a bad portrait of my ideal.”
The young men slewed round to view the destrier-creature which was serving a table at the other end of the room. She had a carafe of steaming coffee on one hip and a wooden tray of brown cream bottles against the other. Pleasant-faced and deep-chested, like a spice-ship under full sail on the sea, she cut a soft, solid, rustic figure against the light-washed stone walls.
“I can see that,” mused Legion.
“Yes, but you do not see a lot of girls her like among the Upper Ten Thousand,” put in Buttercup; “and that is more to the point.”
“Tush! There are bound to be some. Don’t tread on a fellow’s hopes and dreams.”
Rips had the misfortune of discovering their carafe was empty at that moment. He lifted it and caught the eye of a passing serving girl, who took the message and whisked off for a fresh jug. But as the gentleman put the carafe back down and readjusted his chair, the chape of his scabbard clawing on the stone flags underfoot, he drew his fellows’ attention, and was borne down on by Legion.
“Do we have to take the Codex away from you, or are you going to come willingly?”
The eye came up, brow a little perplexed; Rips gazed around on the others’ faces canted back at him. “I’m sorry—was I going to the altar now?”
“No, but who would you have stand by while you were?”
He looked back down into his book. “I have not yet met her.”
“Naturally,” conceded Hurley, jerking his head at him. “But what sort of girl would she be?”
Rips sighed and turned his book face-down on the tabletop. With his large hands flung down over his knees he leaned back, jawline set. “I have no patience with children, and I have almost no patience with women. I have yet to determine which is the stupider.”
The Rose looked at his hands clasped before him on the table top—glancing his way, Buttercup saw him begin to circle his thumbs: quiet apprehension bloomed in his breast.
“Perhaps,” Rips went on bluntly, “by some grace of God, there is a woman out there agreeable to my nature. I should almost pity her, for I am not sociable by temperament, nor, to be honest, am I a very agreeable bedfellow. I am not in the habit of saying what I may think, and when I do, women do not generally take it well. In passing acquaintance they may think me by-the-book, if they take the time to spare me a thought, and all the better for them. I will always do my best to present an admirable visage to any woman with whom I must stand up, but I am not deceived into thinking many of them would appreciate an extended acquaintance with me—nor do I suppose any woman would appreciate my offer.”
The others stared at him, listening to the bruising of the beaten silence. The serving girl brought the coffee, set it on the table, and went away perplexed, the heated atmosphere lifting the hair on the back of her neck as she retreated.
Buttercup bit his lip a moment, released it, and then said, without looking at Rips, “Did something happen?”
With the sense of a turtle snapping back into its shell, Rips took up his book again. “No. Nothing which has not been happening for the past twenty years.”
“That!” exploded Hurley. “I had not expected you to put any stock in that, sir. It is not like you.”
“Forgive me if it turns out that it…impacts…certain aspects of my future.”
Buttercup lifted his head like a stallion catching the first scent of battle. Though he was six years the other’s junior, he said levelly, “Forswear! We are none of us of a morbid disposition. When once you have got through the chaff, sir, you will find a girl worth your while. It is in my mind that you are not meant for a fire-eater or a buxom maid, but a lady through and through. You have much to recommend you, and much which a lady desires. You know this as well as the rest of us. So cease at once to be dark and pitying!”
“Even Buttercup,” said Horsefeathers with a little rueful smile, “has a mouthful of fangs.”
Hurley struck Buttercup between the shoulder-blades. “A’come, cub! Let him have it. No more nonsense, Rips. Depend upon it, we will find you a bonny set of braids.”
“Mercy,” replied Rips in wry monotone. But his temper was a little better set, and the Rose left off twiddling his thumbs with a heave of relief.
Buttercup relented a fraction. “I do not take it lightly. ‘Twould be a fool if I did. But if you have not the knack of being alone—which I do not believe many men do—then you had better strip off your braces and roll up your sleeves, and get down to the business. You are not one to be afraid of it.”
The Rose said, “He is not afraid of it—pardon me for speaking,” he interrupted himself, turning to Rips.
Rips shook his head and held out his hand.
The Rose turned back to Buttercup. “He is not afraid of it, but women can be such a nuisance until you have sifted through the chaff.”
The lad smiled cannily. “I was not seeking confirmation when I said Rips is not afraid. Rips—God help him—is not afraid of anything, nor waits for anyone’s affirmation. He is man alone. But not all alone, I think. Only I think that a like man and a like woman would be a fair thing to see among the gilt and glitter of the Upper Ten Thousand, and I do say I look forward to that occasion.”
Thrown into this light, Rips himself nodded, temper all but completely restored.
Choosing to capitalize on this victory, the Rose lifted his fresh cup of coffee to his lips, the steam gently glossing over his upper lip, and said, looking down into its whirling depths, “I have my eye on someone.”
They rounded on him. “Oh? Who? Do we know this ill-fated lass?”
“As a matter of fact,” he said after he had lightly scorched his tongue, “you do not. She is from home, and has never set foot within these hallowed city walls. Sooth, she is not yet out, but she comes of age around Christmas and is going to be presented at Easter. You may meet her then, if you behave.”
“A young filly! Does she like the taste of a gilt bit?”
The Rose laughed shortly. “How should I know? She has never said. She comes with gilt stirrups as is. But we get on pleasantly, and I imagine we will do very well together.”
Buttercup asked, “She is fond of you?”
“I know it is some stretch of your imaginations to believe it, but she is.”
“No, I am quite pleased to hear it.”
The Rose trained a little wry smile on Buttercup. “You are pleased to hear fair news about any of us.”
“You are all of close interest to me,” the young gentleman replied frankly. “I would see you all happily settled.”
“Well? And what about yourself?”
But Buttercup, with a knack he had got from his father, let the question slide from him like pebbles from a tipped palm. “Horsefeathers first. You have had some dealing with women. What is your opinion of your sort of girl—seeing as,” he added with a sudden glint of slyness, “you have begun the whole affair.”
Horsefeathers settled his chin into his palm, long face drooping softly into a thoughtful expression. “Not a fire-eater, certainly,” he said presently, decisively. “God ha’ mercy, not that. I have been kicked too many times in the gut by that sort. I will take a pleasant-tempered girl with a ready wit, brunette, with hazel eyes and a touch of padding. Nothing too skinny.”
“That is specific,” remarked the Rose, brows rampant.
Hurley growled, “He is gammoning you. Really, Horsefeathers!—to heel!”
But Horsefeathers took his hand out from under his chin and held both palms up beseechingly. “But that is the picture I have in my head. No dashing it. As soon as I find her, I will tell you.”
“And now,” said Rips without looking up from the Codex, “Master Buttercup will set his neck to the block and answer the question.”
The young man spread his hands on the tabletop before himself, his smoking black cup of coffee between his thumbs, and watched the symmetry of it with a tiny smile at play upon his lips. “I will set my neck to the block and I will answer the question. I will take…a silly girl.”
If he had asked for a fire-eater they could not have been more surprised. Even Rips came out of his book, patch throwing light off its velvet curve, brows collecting shadow.
“Verily!” cried Hurley, flinging his elbows on the edge of the table and folding his arms. He canted round to get a look at Buttercup’s quenched, amused face. “This is news. You—silly? Why, there is no one less silly in my acquaintance! What would make you do it?”
“Vanity, probably,” Buttercup admitted. “But while I am perhaps not generally amusing—you will have to tell me—I have a great appreciation for humour, and with a little, silly bird of a wife I should be quite happy. I should like to look after her, and she should like to be looked after, and together we would gambol along quite happily, I think, in great defiance of the majesty of the Upper Ten Thousand.”
There was a brief, thoughtful silence.
“Damn and thunder,” said Legion warmly, presently. “I suppose I can see that, after all.”
The pale clairvoyant eye lifted from the hands. “Can you? That is good. Like Adonis, I, too, like to think my choice of wife is acceptable to my fellows. Hurley—” he added, swinging round—
—And at that moment the great bell of Songmartin Tower went off, crashing through the autumnal stillness of the shaded lane and quiet, shaded coffee-house. The high tolls and stalling hollows echoed in the crisp air, shaking it like summer thunder.
Hurley swore and leapt to his feet, disentangling his sword as he came. “Scorpio! History! I’ll be late if I don’t show my heels.” He drained his coffee, nearly choking on the heat, and slammed the china to the wood. “I will see you after fencing.”
“Boxing today, Hurley?” Legion called after him as he plunged toward the door.
“Five o’clock!” came the bull-throated answer.
The door crashed in the wind.