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It was the year 1684 at the King's Head Tavern in Fleet Street that two men sat over a game of cards. Not an unusual occur-rence, one might think, but not so for these two men. This was no ordinary game of cards.
Alone in a small room, they sat opposite each other at a liquor-soaked table, the flickering flames of the candles playing on chiselled features. The atmosphere was thick and tense as each man sat with bated breath, waiting for the turn of a card- a card that would decide the fate of one of them.
The older man, Henry Barrington, who sat so still he was like a figure carved in stone, had gambled and lost almost everything he owned to the other man, who watched him closely, quietly confident, and who had remained cool and perfectly calm throughout the two hours they had been playing.
Marcus Reresby had at last caught up with Henry Barrington at this tavern, which was used as a rendezvous, a rallying point for the political Green Ribbon Club, republicans and exclusionists alike. Marcus's deep hatred for this man, whom he knew to be in some way responsible for the cold-blooded murder of his father, was intense. In his search for proof of Barrington's guilt and the identity of his partner in crime, he had discovered that his father's death was directly connected to Barrington's involvement in a plot to murder King Charles and his brother James, the Duke of York.
When challenged, Barrington had arrogantly denied any part in the murder, but Marcus had proof of his guilt. He could see it in Barrington's eyes, and in something else. Marcus had realised that there was one thing Barrington was powerless to prevail against: fear. Barrington was afraid-primitively, abjectly afraid, and this feeling dominated any other feelings he might have. But who was he afraid of?
One way or another, Marcus would discover the truth, but meanwhile, knowing of Barrington's passion for gambling, to avenge his father's death he meant to deal Barrington a blow where it would hurt him most-his wealth. It was well known that Barrington was an extremely rich man, with considerable properties and shares in several trading companies. He relished what he had acquired and longed for more with an avarice that knew no bounds.
Henry Barrington had been educated for a legal career. He was a dangerously ambitious man, ruthless and unscrupulous, motivated by greed and ambition, but because of his controversial republican beliefs and connections among the Whig Party- those discontented with the present government, who used concerted efforts to exclude the Catholic Duke ofYork from the throne-he had been unable to achieve further advancement.
Sweat beaded Barrington's brow as he stared at the last card in his hand. Marcus Reresby was a strong aggressor and now Barrington found himself defenceless. Reresby had remained in control of the game throughout, calmly watching his victim, showing no sign of emotion other than impatience at Barring-ton's tardiness.
'You dawdle, Barrington,' Marcus uttered bitingly.
Barrington flung the card on to the table. His face was taut with anger and he had to fight the urge to reach out and throttle the man opposite, to wipe away the smug, satisfied smile that played on his lips. Placing his hands on the table, he half-rose out of his seat, determined to leave with as much dignity as he could muster.
'Wait.' Marcus's voice was razor sharp in the quiet of the room. 'We have not quite finished.'
Barrington remained still, eyeing his partner warily, wondering what new game he was playing.
'You have a daughter, Barrington,' Marcus said slowly, 'a daughter of divine beauty, by all accounts.' It was well known how much Barrington had worshipped his wife. After she had died, he had kept their only child, a daughter, at home. He was evidently protective of her and in no hurry to marry her off, and it was clear that he must care for her deeply. For Marcus to include the girl in his revenge would be to deal Barrington the final blow.
So, that was it, Barrington fumed inwardly. Not content with taking everything he owned, Reresby wanted his daughter also. 'What of her?'
Marcus's expression remained unchanged. 'I am interested to know what will become of her now she has no inheritance.'
'That is no concern of yours, Reresby.'
'Then I will make it mine,' Marcus drawled, stretching out his long booted legs.
'Explain what you mean by that.'
'I mean that I am feeling generous so I will give you one last chance to salvage something out of all you have lost. We cut the cards one more time, for your daughter's honour.'
Barrington's eyes narrowed. 'Are you suggesting that I should stake my daughter?'
'Exactly.' Marcus's voice was dangerously quiet. 'I said I was feeling generous. If you draw the highest card, I will let you keep your property for as long as you live, but I will take your daughter as my mistress and keep her for as long as I choose.'
Barrington glared at him. 'Never,' he hissed. 'And why go to the trouble of ruining me only to hand it all back if I win?'
'I have not finished. If I have the highest card, you will sign a confession of treason, whereby I shall hand it over to one of the Secretaries of State and you will face the full rigour of the law.'
'Ah, so, that's your game. And my daughter?'
Marcus smiled. 'Will remain as chaste as she is now.'
A self-satisfied smile played on Marcus's lips, but his eyes lost none of their deadly glitter as he continued in a lazy, almost indifferent voice, 'Whichever card you draw you cannot win, but if you accept my wager and you draw the highest card, you have the opportunity to enjoy your property for as long as you live.'
A muscle twitched at the side of Barrington's mouth. 'While you make free with my daughter. Why should I accept your wager?'
'Because you are a gambling man, and it is rare for you to turn down a bet.'
Barrington loathed the thought of satisfying any part of Reresby's desires. Reresby had sprung a trap from which there was no escape-unless, he mused deviously, and not for the first time, he went to join his fellow conspirators in Holland. As a lesser member of the conspiracy, and now that his accomplice had permanently removed Reresby's father, the only positive witness who could testify against him-since to sustain a charge of treason it was necessary for the prosecution to produce two witnesses-he had considered himself safe from arrest.
Barrington stared down at the table, concealing his thoughts as he pondered on the options open to him. His opponent knew he wouldn't, couldn't afford to refuse his challenge, and this was one occasion he desperately wanted to win. The alternative was unthinkable. Although, he mused, thinking of his daughter, perhaps all was not lost and it might be possible for him to turn the tables on Reresby.
Ever since Catherine had been born, contrary to what everyone thought, he had been trying to forget that he had a daughter. He had been forever hounded by her presence. To others he always spoke of her with affection, and only those close to the girl knew the true nature of his feelings. Clearly Reresby thought he doted on her, otherwise he would never have included her in his revenge. Well, let him think that. It made it easier for him.
'You insult me, Reresby. My daughter is an innocent.'
'If you refuse the wager then you will face the consequences.'
'I fear you are being overzealous in your determination to bring me down,' Barrington said, lowering himself back into the chair, beginning to feel a little easier now he had something to barter. 'I have some conditions of my own.'
'If I win, you will allow me to keep my property in my lifetime, and you will wed my daughter. You will not dishonour her by making her your mistress. As your wife she will not be destitute when I am gone.' Not once did he give a thought to his lovely Catherine's feelings, or to what she might say if she knew her future was about to depend on the turn of a card.
Marcus's look was scathing. 'What? And be burdened with her for the rest of my life? I think not, Barrington.'
'You might, when you hear what I have to say. On my terms, should you win, then I will tell you everything about your father's murder-including the name of the man who wielded the knife.'
Marcus became still. Barrington's words hung in the air between them. This was something he had not bargained on and was more than he could have hoped for. If he refused, Barrington would gain the upper hand. If he took the wager and lost, Barrington would escape ruin in his lifetime and Marcus would have to marry the daughter of one of his father's murderers. At first this was unthinkable, but on consideration, he knew he could not refuse the wager, even though it was heavily loaded. His chances of winning were even, and the desire to know at last the name of the man who had murdered his father was too great to resist. He nodded. 'Very well.'
'There is just one more thing, Reresby.' Marcus waited, watching him closely. 'If you win, I refuse to sign a confession of treason. I will tell you about your father's murder, and you will give me your word that you will not stand in my way when I leave England.'
'You have it. There is a chance that one of your fellow conspirators will betray you anyhow, so in the end you may have to forfeit your life. But I am a gentleman, Barrington, and like my father before me I honour the name I bear. I will keep my part of the bargain. I do not renege on my word. However, whatever the outcome of the final card, I shall keep what I have already won. All your wealth and properties belong to me, though I may allow you their use before your death. You agree?'
Barrington nodded. 'I shall extract from you one more proviso,' he said, 'that, should I draw the highest card, and after you wed my daughter, you will leave her with me to live out the rest of my life in peace, and only when I am dead will you claim what is yours.' For some reason unknown to him, he could not bear the thought of any form of intimacy between Catherine and Reresby. Perhaps it was the haunting memory of his wife, and that when they were reunited in the afterlife and he stood before her, he would be horribly punished for the coldness he had shown towards their daughter.
Marcus nodded. 'I agree.' He knew he would not have very long to wait for Barrington's demise. Barrington was an ill man, gaunt and with a liverish tinge to his flesh caused by a growth eating away at his insides. Whichever card Barrington drew he was already doomed.
Experiencing a feeling of heightened awareness, taking his eyes from his opponent, Marcus looked towards the door. He became very still, convinced in that animated, lingering moment that someone unseen observed the play. What he saw beyond the open door was a disappearing shadow and then nothing but the bleary ochre glow that seeped from the candles. Thinking no more of it, Marcus turned his attention on Barrington once more.
Slowly and with trembling fingers Henry Barrington reached out and cut the deck, turning it over. It was the queen of spades, a high card. The rope at Tyburn, which had begun to tighten about his neck earlier, began to slacken. Next it was Marcus's turn and Barrington waited, sweat oozing out of every pore in his body as he watched him reach out with slow deliberation. His eyes stared at the upturned card Marcus placed on the table.
It was the knave of hearts.
Marcus had lost.
Barrington smiled thinly at his opponent, smug in his triumph. 'The die is cast, Reresby. You cannot retreat. I think your pride and need to avenge the death of your father has led you into something you will bitterly regret.'
Marcus knew he was right.
Riverside House, the home of five generations of Barringtons, was beautifully situated upstream above Richmond on the banks of the River Thames. With gaunt old trees standing sentinel around the entrance, it was a graceful, impressive house built of red brick in the Dutch style. Inside it had a warm, comfortable feel to it, and Henry Barrington had spared no expense in the furnishing, with pieces collected from all over the world, colourful tapestries woven in Brussels and pictures painted by only the finest artists adorning the walls.
The night was black and the hour late when two carriages came to Riverside House. Seventeen-year-old Catherine was sound asleep, swallowed up in the warm comfort of her big four-poster bed. She was blissfully unaware of the dark-clad men striding quickly towards the house, the crunch of their boots striding over the frozen ground disturbing the silence of the night. Her maid, Alice Parks, shaking her, wakened her some time later.
'Catherine, wake up,' she whispered urgently.
Catherine's eyes opened and slowly, like a cat, she stretched her limbs full length in the bed. 'Alice! What is it? It's still the middle of the night,' she mumbled drowsily, turning over and pulling the covers over her head, wanting to be left alone to dream of her love, Harry Stapleton.
'Come, wake up,'Alice persisted, giving her another gentle shake. 'Your father is home and wishes to see you at once.'
At the mention of her father, Catherine came awake immediately. 'Father? But it's so late,'she said, sitting up straight and pushing the covers back.
'Be that as it may, he's home and in no mood to be kept waiting.' Alice held out Catherine's robe. 'You are to go to the chapel-and you should know that he is not alone.'
Without further questions Catherine thrust her arms into the loose-fitting sleeves of her robe, fumbling with the buttons as she slipped her feet into her soft slippers. Her young heart hammered in her breast as she sped along the length of the long gallery and slipped down the stairway that led to the chapel. On reaching the small chapel-draughty, and smelling dank and musty from disuse-she shivered when the cold air hit her. Partly hidden by a gilded rood-screen, she paused a moment to observe the scene. Shadows danced on the walls from lighted candles, casting a dull glow over the large box pews in the chancel and the raised pulpit.