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Rated: E · Short Story · Drama · #2316695
Her Grace and a retainer face an insurrection.
Her Grace and a retainer face an uprising.

Twilight of the Gods

The Duchess of Moretonshire, Her Grace Jane de Saville Burnley Compton-Arden, was fairly typical of her breed in those last days of a fading aristocracy. In a stoic refusal to consider the future, she moved about the decaying house and grounds with an air of purpose and determination, emblematic of that long line of ancestors that had combined to produce herself and her husband, the Old Duke.

She seemed to be everywhere on the estate, overseeing the daily operations of the house, getting involved in the constant battle against a return to the wild in the grounds, a tall, slender figure in washed out, flowing dress over wellington boots, a wide-brimmed straw hat that had seen better days, and gardening gloves. Though seen often in the company of the groundsman, John Baines, it was Her Grace that did the actual work of hacking back the overgrowth, keeping the lawns trimmed and nurturing the seedlings in the greenhouses. John gave her advice when required but otherwise kept to the job for which he was employed, the raising of the pheasants in preparation for the season, care of the stables and woodlands, guarding against trespassers and poachers.

It was Her Grace’s choice to spend most of her time and energies in the gardens. Now that the children were all grown and departed for high power jobs in the city, Her Grace found some relief from such concerns in the mindless labour and endless repetition of outside work. Those few house servants remaining through habit and a need for security were quite capable of keeping the place going and besides, in the groundsman she had a conversational partner whose interests aligned very closely with her own. Their discussions of growing things and farm management were important to her peace of mind.

The sad fact was that the Old Duke had never moved on from his once youthful enthusiasm for the privileges of his rank. In his dotage now, his thoughts dwelt invariably on such matters as riding and hunting, grand balls in other stately homes, raucous parties in university colleges, and tearful nostalgia sessions with old friends from various wars. Her Grace still loved him for the dashing young hero he had once been but there was more peace for her now in the soil of the estate.

It was inevitable that her secluded world should be shattered sooner or later. In the cities the storm of revolution was gathering strength and every day brought news of fresh horrors and shocks. The little backwater of their attendant village, Ambly, stayed undisturbed for a while but concern began to weigh heavy in the atmosphere. Daily, it seemed that the Old Duke harumphed at some new aberration reported in the papers.

It was on a morning like any other, with no sign of trouble in the air, that the groundsman appeared at the kitchen door asking to see Her Grace. He waited patiently, if a little grim-faced, as the cook disappeared into the depths of the house in search of the lady. The Old Duke wandered into the kitchen with an empty ketchup bottle in his hand. He stood for a moment, looking around as though seeking a suitable place to leave the bottle, then spied the groundsman at the exterior door.

“Hullo, John,” he said brightly. “Bit early to be calling on the old girl, ain’t it? Don’t think she’s finished making up her lists as yet.”

The groundsman touched a finger to his forehead as he answered. “Aye, Your Grace, but there’s business needs attending to fairly urgent today.”

“Nothing I can be of assistance with, I suppose?” The Duke liked to show willing, even though he knew they would not ask anything of him these days. He was happy to leave the running of the show, as he put it, to his wife, and to relax into his memories and dreams in the background.

John knew what was required of him. “I don’t think so, Your Grace. Her Grace likes to know everything that’s happening on the estate, and I’m happy to take her advice on such matters.”

“Ah, good, good. Carry on then, and give ‘em hell.” The Duke shook an encouraging fist in jest, turned and shuffled off, forgotten bottle still in hand.

Then Her Grace was at the door, a concerned look on her face. “What is it, John? No, no need to apologise. I was coming down to find you in a few minutes anyway.”

“It’s bad news, I’m afraid, Your Grace.” He looked past the Duchess at the cook hovering behind her. “Best we discuss it out here, I think.”

The two of them moved out into the wide open area at the back of the house. In one of the dark kitchen windows, the cook’s pale and anxious face looked out at them.

“I were down in Ambly early this morning,” said John. “Normally, only the baker is open at that time, but the streets were full, to my surprise. I held back to listen and watch. There were one fellow standing on a box, stirring them up. You knows the sort of thing, it’s all over the telly these days. And they were mostly agreeing with him, you could see it in their faces.”

“Just a minute, John,” interrupted the Duchess. “Who were they? From the village?”

The groundsman looked at her sadly. “Aye, there were some there. But most of them I didn’t know. One or two townies that I recognised, but lots of them I’ve never seen before. From the city, I’d guess.”

They exchanged worried looks before John continued, “Any road up, it seems they have some silly idea of marching up here and throwing you out of the house and all. What would be the point, I don’t know, but they seem to think they deserve to have what your family have had for so many generations. You know the sort of thing, Your Grace. Robber barons and all that nonsense.”

“So they’re marching now?” Her Grace looked at the side of the house as though expecting the mob to appear around the corner at any moment.

John shook his head. “They were just getting ready when I left so they might have started out by now. It’ll be a while before they get here, however.”

“What shall we do, John?”

“Best is if you keeps everyone in the house with the doors and windows locked, Your Grace. Might be an idea to get them upstairs in case any of these idiots manage to break in. I’ll meet them on the road and see if I can persuade them to turn around.”

The Duchess looked sharply at him. “Alone?” she asked. “I could come with you. Might give us a bit more authority.”

“Authority is not what they’re wanting right now, Your Grace. Leave them to me and we’ll see if I can get some sense into their heads.”

“Oh, John, that is so much to ask of you. I really feel as though it’s my duty to deal with it.”

“Not while there’s breath in my body, it ain’t, Your Grace. Protection of the estate is my job and I intend to do it.”

The Duchess looked at him for a moment and noted the set expression of his face. “All right, John, but I shall be watching from the window and if things start to go wrong…”

“The village folk will listen, Your Grace. They’re a good lot at heart. And I reckon that’s all I need.” He gestured at the house. “Best get the place locked up now, Your Grace. We ain’t got much time.”

The Duchess nodded, turned and hurried back into the house. Once there, she collected the cook, leading her through the house to the Old Duke’s study. Greaves, the butler, appeared on the way and was sent off to begin locking the doors and windows.

She expected more of a fight shepherding her husband upstairs but he seemed to have caught her air of urgency and followed her dutifully, putting up only a muttered rearguard defence of his usual morning routine.

Once they were all assembled in one of the large spare bedrooms, she explained the need for this sudden disruption to their peace and they all gathered at the windows to watch whatever transpired.

The lone figure of the groundsman stood waiting, several hundred yards out along the drive, eyes riveted on the line of trees that hid the approach from the village. The Duchess wondered whether she had sent the man to his death.

And then a dark mass of movement emerged from the shadow of the trees.

There were about sixty of them, walking as a confused mass in grim silence towards the house. Some of them brandished implements that resembled ancient weapons of war, but there were no firearms or blades amongst them. It was clearly a hasty and last minute affair, undertaken in a brief moment of enthusiasm and without a plan apart from doing something.

The groundsman stood impassive, patiently waiting in their path.

As the group approached the lone figure, shouts began to ring out and the pace slowed. John yelled something back at them and they halted, clearly uncertain of what they needed to do next. Then one man stepped forward from the crowd, megaphone in hand, and began to speak through it.

To the watchers in the house, the sound was echoing and garbled so that they could not understand what was being said, but John was attempting to be heard over it. Then one large man emerged from the crowd, ripped the megaphone away, and said in a loud and clear voice, “Let the man speak.”

“”That’s Will Chalmers,” said the cook. “Used to be Ambly blacksmith till he closed it down.”

John was talking now, arms waving occasionally in demonstration of a point, and the crowd was silent, even the leader kept from interfering by the great bulk of the blacksmith. The onlookers could not hear what was said but many in the group were beginning to look uncomfortable, turning this way and that, and starting to drop back a little. Eventually it became a general movement, then all of them turned and began to walk away.

The groundsman went silent and watched them go. When they had disappeared back into the trees, he walked back to the house.

The Duke and Duchess and the staff were waiting for him at the front door. The groundsman’s boots crunched across the gravel drive and then a whoop went up and they crowded around him, patting him on the back, shouting his praises, and cheering. It was some time before he managed to extricate himself and return to his usual tasks on the estate.

In the evening, Her Grace found him in the pheasant cages, doling out the feed and humming to himself.

“That was a brave thing you did today, John,” she said.

“No more than me duty, Your Grace” he replied.

“We are truly grateful even so,” she insisted. “But, John, how did you do it? What did you say to them?”

“Oh, just a bit of history, Your Grace. I knew the villagers would understand, but when the others began to see it too, the day was won.”

“History, John? Surely there was more.”

John turned to face her. “Just a bit, Your Grace. There was my history and me father’s. And his father’s before that and their wives. And me ancestor’s and the villager’s and even some in the town. They’ve all served in their way and known how your family has kept and cared for them for hundreds of years. In the end they were all looking guilty and some were even crying. It’s like I said, there’s good people amongst ‘em.”

“You’re so good to us,” said the Duchess. “I shall have to call you Gunga Din from now on.”

“Only me duty, Your Grace. Just me duty.”

Word count: 1,999
For What a Character!: Official WDC Contest, March 2024
Prompt: Write a story where a sidekick/supporting character steals the show away from the main protagonist.
Note: The name Gunga Din comes from a poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling. The particularly relevant lines are the last:
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
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