The Solitaire Club

four-cards

“I don’t quite see what you are trying to achieve here,” said the Lady, fairly calmly, considering there was a pistol aimed between her eyes.

The Highwayman’s eyes gleamed behind the mask that he wore, and he smiled coolly at the Lady, his voice matching hers for calmness. “Nothing, my lady. Simply allow my man to take the reigns, I’ll lower the weapon, and we’ll say no more about it.”

“I could call for my servants,” the Lady observed. “They’d come running and you’d be arrested.”

“And you’d be dead,” he replied. A pause. “You won’t call. Step into the carriage, my Lady.”

Their standoff continued for a minute more, before the Lady raised a gloved hand and rapped against the roof of the carriage. “You are excused, driver. Wait inside for my return.” Her eyes did not leave the man’s as she spoke. “And I will return.”

The carriage shook a little as the Lady’s own driver got down from her seat to be replaced by one of the highwayman’s gang. The Highwayman opened the door, allowing his other two associates into the coach – a young and nervous man shuffling a pack of cards and a bored looking, redheaded woman – then with a rattle and whinny from the horses they moved on. The Highwayman drew the curtains and withdrew the pistol, folding his hands over it in his lap, ready in case the Lady made a wrong move.

“A little privacy, my lady. Now, where were you going?” His mask was carved wood, beaked like a bird’s and trimmed with black feathers. Venetian, at a guess. The redhead wore a mask too, scarlet and yellow, whilst the young man hid behind his pack of cards. The Lady could not speak for the driver.

She leant back in her chair, more relaxed now the pistol was not aimed at her. “I was going to the Solitaire Club.”

“Never heard of it.”

“The rich and influential meet there nightly for drinks and games. Men like you don’t frequent such places.”

The redhead smiled and laughed. “Such presumption!”

“Hush, girl!” the Lady snapped. “I’m sure he doesn’t pay you to talk. Your friend would like the Solitaire Club,” she added, nodding towards the timid youth whilst the redhead sank into the cushions to sulk. The Highwayman shot her a bright green glare which silenced her and brought her back to obedient attention and he gave a cry of amusement.

“Onwards, driver!” he called. “To this Solitaire Club. I am intrigued to see what exactly lies behind its doors, and why my Lady wishes to visit. A gamblers’ den? Now why would a noble beauty such as yourself want to visit a place like that?”

The Highwayman’s eyes flashed as she took a deep breath, trying to calm her anger, and he grinned. He reached out towards the pendant that hung around the lady’s neck – a heart-shaped ruby on a delicate gold chain – but she smacked his hand away. “How dare you!” she cried.

“I was merely admiring it,” the Highwayman told her, feigning hurt.

“You can admire all you like,” the Lady responded. “But you cannot touch.” She cupped the ruby in her hand, aware of the youth’s greedy eyes and the redhead’s envious frown. “A family heirloom,” she explained. “Passed down from mother to daughter for generations of my family. Its worth more than you would make in half your life, I’d wager, were you an honest man.” Now she smiled, a hint of triumph in the expression. She had irritated the man, she could tell, and it took him a little while to regain his composure.

“Funny you should mention wagers,” he started, but was interrupted by the rattle and bump of the wheels on the cobbled street as the horses slowed and finally stopped, and the driver called down from his seat – “We have arrived at the Solitaire Club, master!”

A few moments later the driver opened the door and out leapt the Highwayman. He clasped his gloved hands together, fidgeting like an excited child. He offered his hand to the Lady but she ignored it and clambered down into the street unaided. She also paid no heed to the offer of his arm, leading the way into the Solitaire Club, through heavy oak doors guarded by servants in fine silk uniforms. She knew they recognised her, and hoped that the doors would be shut on the Highwayman and his cronies, but when she glanced behind her she saw that they had somehow got inside, all but the driver, whom she assumed was staying behind to look after the carriage and horses.

The Lady found herself hounded through the haze of smoke and chatter towards one of the small round tables, draped (as all the others were) with red silk, decorated with flowers and gold detail. She mustered her dignity, sitting gracefully and tapping her long, gloved fingers against the silk. “What were you saying about wagers?” she asked, as the Highwayman took his own chair opposite her. Though they were now indoors, he did not remove his mask.

At a gesture from his master, the youth laid his pack of cards upon the table.

“I propose a game, my lady,” the Highwayman explained with a smirk. “It seemed an appropriate setting. “Fetch us drinks!” he commanded the youth and the redhead, who scurried away.

“What is the wager?”

“Your necklace,” the Highwayman replied. The Lady’s hand went to the ruby and he backtracked. “Ah, I see we must aim higher. If I win, I get the pendant and I walk free. If you win, I shall turn myself in to the police, and you will have the satisfaction of seeing me hang. What do you say?”

The Lady narrowed her eyes at him, and her hand strayed to the cards. She was well practiced in most games, and was confident that she could beat her opponent. After all, she thought to herself, when would a Highwayman have time to practice at cards?

“A wise decision,” he informed her. As he began to shuffle the pack, the Lady turned the pendent in her fingers.

“There is a story behind this ruby,” she told him. “Would you like to hear it as we play?”

The Highwayman leaned forwards, his green eyes twinkling. “I’m fascinated…”

The youth and the redhead returned with the drinks. The Highwayman dealt the cards, and the Lady began to speak…

‘My ancestor, the Lady Vivian Lovelace, the great grandmother of my great grandmother, was given the pendent by her lover.

‘His name was Jack, and he told Vivian that he used to be a lord, but cutthroats and traitors had chased him away from his home and taken his title from him. Now, he was a thief, and he was slowly stealing back each of his family heirlooms, which the usurpers of his nobility had sold…’

Nearby, a group of men laughed heartily at a joke their friend had told them, then the noise faded once more into the light buzz of chatter. The Lady shuffled her cards, pleased with her hand, one eye on the Highwayman, who was leaning back casually in his chair.

“I’m not boring you, am I?”

Smirking, the Highwayman reached for a card from the pile in the middle of the table. “Not at all. Do carry on.”

The Lady cleared her throat and continued:

‘Soon, Vivian was leaving her husband’s side most nights in order to be with Jack. He was far more exciting than Lord Lovelace ever was. He had been in duels, and won, and he bore the proof of that in a scar that curved around his left eye like a crescent moon.

‘Jack was not a sentimental man, and not one to bring his lover trinkets. However, one night, all that changed. He gifted Vivian with a ruby pendant on a golden chain, as a symbol of their love. Vivian promised to wear it always, and she kept that promise. But, of course, Lord Lovelace noticed that something was different. Eventually he confronted Vivian, demanding to know where she had got the pendant. Vivian could not say it was a family possession, for she had no living relatives, so she lied and said she had bought it.

‘But Lovelace was clever. He knew they did not have the money to afford such a jewel. And so, he lay in wait, and when his wife left at night he followed her, and saw the lady with her lover at their meeting place, at the crossroads just outside of town. But he did not confront them. Instead, he made a note of their hiding place, and informed the Captain of the Guard, who had long been searching for this thief.

‘The next night, when they met each other at the crossroads, Vivian and Jack found that they were surrounded by policemen, with Lord Lovelace leading them. Vivian, scared of the consequences of her actions and her husband’s anger, ran to his side. Jack stood proudly at the crossroads, declaring that he would not rest until his family’s possessions were returned to him once more, before the Captain of the Guard shot him down.

‘Lord and Lady Lovelace left their town and moved to another part of the country. For the rest of their lives they kept up the story that the thief had seduced Vivian using dark magic, and now he was dead she was free of the spell.

‘As for the thief? He was buried where he had died, at the crossroads, and to this day his ghost still haunts those roads, seeking to reclaim what he had lost.’

The Lady put down her hand of cards upon the table, smiling proudly.

“An interesting tale,” the Highwayman said. “I’ll be sure to remember it. It would make for the most interesting dinner parties.” He smirked and placed down his own hand, draining his drink. “Well, what do you know? I’ve won.”

The Lady gasped. “Impossible!”

“Quite possible.” The Highwayman pushed back his chair and held out his hand. “A deal is a deal, my lady. The necklace.”

With shaking hands, she removed the pendant and handed it over, her heart slowly sinking. She had been duped, and she felt ashamed. As the Highwayman made to leave the club she followed him to the door, demanding, “Is that it? All this for a story and silly trinket? Nothing more?”

“Nothing more.” The Highwayman confirmed. He made her a mock bow. “I thank you for your company, my lady. I shall treasure this jewel and your story.”

The Lady stood, fuming, in the doorway. “I’ll see you hang,” she spat. “You are a thief, and a fool. Why go to so much trouble for a simple necklace. You know you can’t sell it on, people will recognise it, so it isn’t worth the effort you spent to take it from me! What did you hope to profit from this pointless game?”

The Highwayman laughed. “Profit? Oh, my dear lady,” he replied. “That wasn’t what I was really after at all.”

He left the Lady alone in the Solitaire Club – amongst the silk and velvet and choking scent of opium – and led his men to where he had kept their horses. It wasn’t until they were safely away from the city and out on the open road that he stopped and examined his winnings. The pendant felt heavy about his neck, but the weight was somewhat comforting.

“I thank you for your company my love,” The Highwayman whispered to the air, caressing the pendant. “And for returning this gift.” He removed his mask at last, exposing his face to the air, his sharp green eyes and the scar that curved around his left eye like a crescent moon.

At that moment, the driver, the youth with the cards and the red-headed woman all dissolved into dust that drifted away on the wind; and the Highwayman’s grey horse reared and whinnied and cantered away to the east and the sunrise.

(written 2011)

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