The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 20, No. 4

The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies

by Jo Lloyd

The companions
HM has been deceived by the dainty manners of first acquaintance, when Cassandra nibbled his fingers and blew nose kisses into his palm. Now she flattens her ears, twitches at the reins. Every hoof she sucks from the ground aims another clot of water at her rider. HM happens to know that horses, like all creatures intended to run for their lives, can observe their full compass round, so when she turns her head back, it is not to look but to make by–our–lady sure he sees her look. Raindrops have beaded on her lashes and whiskers, transforming her into some frosted basilisk of the great northern ocean, risen to recite the charges against him.
     Behind HM rides Shiers, also sulking, on a cow–hocked bay. Shiers has tunneled deep into his habitual melancholy to uncover a seam of stygian gloom. With every new set of accounts or assay report, his head has sunk further between his shoulders, threatening to reduce him to one of those nipple–eyed monsters of Ethiop. He may not even have understood the fine details. His mind is blunt, a maul at best, or a crowbar. For this reason, he has been HM's most trusted employee yet tedious companion, the more so right now for his rheumatic affliction. He sniffled and sneezed through a passable supper at the inn and then again through a more doubtful breakfast. Aeolian fanfares accompany their progress along the puddled track.
     At the front of this small cavalcade rides the man who calls himself Tall John, his feet dangling past the belly of a gray pony that is first cousin to a sheep. Tall John wears a short hood or perhaps a long hat of coney fur, which covers his neck and his ears and merges around his face into a grizzled ruff where, HM surmises, the coney stops and the man begins.
     Since leaving the highway, they have slithered up and down and around so many hills that every six yards ridden marks one gained. Each ascent reveals more hills—bare, treeless wastes of sorrel and mauve, rainclouds tumbling down their slopes like the smoke of burnt villages.
     The bay slips, and Shiers curses. "How much longer must we wade through this by–our–lady swamp?"
     "Pish!" says HM, to assure anyone listening that in him, at least, dwells the true spirit of an Adventurer. "Pash!" he adds, more quietly, because perhaps Tall John, with his fur–coddled ears, has not heard.
     But Tall John looks back at them, with an expression that suggests their exchange has disturbed the grasshoppers in his head.
     "A journey is as long as it is long."
     "Indeed," agrees HM, noting that once again this could be the wisdom of a rustic savant, the subtlety of a cozener, or the rambling of a lunatic.
     It was Shiers whom Tall John approached first, with a tale that he could not be persuaded to elaborate or even repeat. When Shiers explained the finder's fee and its conditions, Tall John stipulated that HM must be of the preliminary party, plus Shiers, and no one else.
     So here is HM, founding director and deputy governor of the Company of Mine Adventurers, former comptroller of the Middle Temple, former member of Parliament, knighted by His Royal Majesty King Charles II, in sodden garb on a sodden horse trailing through the sodden by–our–lady wilderness after either a simpleton or a crook.
     It is clear to HM that Tall John belongs to that most disagreeable class of humanity, those who refuse honest employment, choosing instead to scrape a living off the land, like animals. They take anything they can eat or burn or sell: berries, acorns, bracken, scraps of fleece, leaves, peat, sand. They trap and fish, empty birds' nests, pull the very stones from the ground. And with all this, account themselves a second Adam, more free than a freeborn gentleman.
     This morning, in the stable yard of the inn, Tall John observed the preparations in silence. HM still prickles from the smirk he recognized as he took up his reins. A look–at–you–fine–sir–in–your–fancy–sleeves–and–neckcloth smirk.
     Smirk while you can, Mr. Coneyhead, HM thought, we'll see who is fine in the end.
     Tall John looks back again, and HM sits up straighter, like one who has studied not only horsemanship but also fencing and archery (has Tall John studied fencing and archery? HM thinks not), and reminds himself that before getting mixed up with the Mine Adventurers he had single–handedly restored the fortunes of his wife's family and hauled the estate into the modern age. He has put occupation into the hands of the poor and gruel into the mouths of their young, even provided them with ministers and teachers at his own expense (that is, at the expense of the Company, yet is that not the same thing, almost?).
     He brings to mind, as he is wont to do in moments of doubt, his favorite poem, a lengthy ode on the subject of HM and his mineral pursuits (is there an ode to Tall John? again, HM thinks not), certain flattering lines of which he has committed to memory: "a genius richer than the mines below," "with virtues bless'd and happy counsels wise," "commanding arts yet still acquiring more."
     It is comforting to remember, as the rain pools in the toes of his boots, that he is "with virtues bless'd." For it is common knowledge, among Adventurers as among rustics, that the signs they seek are reserved for the righteous.
     HM wishes, above all, to be seen as righteous. Everything he has ever done has been for the good of his children, the nation, the deserving poor. It wounds him when his altruism is not acknowledged. When, instead of "Thank you very much, HM" or "HM has done a fine job," he must suffer, "Where are the receipts?" "Where are the accounts, the evidence?"
     But if today's expedition finds nothing, then he has been cheated, and will look a fool. And there is nothing he hates more than to look a fool.

To read the rest of this story, and others from the Winter 2016/2017 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.