Warnings See part 1.
IN THE SHADOW OF TYBURN
The clock on the landing struck six o'clock.
"I cannot apologise for my daughter enough, Mr Ingrum." Mrs Dutton's voice floated up from the hall. "It is very unlike her to miss an appointment."
"Indeed it bodes ill for our future," came the answering growl. "Please tell her I called and was disturbed to find her not at home as arranged."
"You can be assured I will, Sir."
"Thank you. Good night, Madam."
"Good night to you, Sir."
At the sound of the front door closing, Rebeccah left the second floor landing, where she was eavesdropping, and made her way back to Anne's bedchamber. Where in heaven's name was her sister? Anne had made no mention of going out, and indeed her favourite walking dress and shoes were still in her dressing room.
A shadow loomed and she turned to find her mother, still a little out of breath from climbing two flights of stairs, standing in the doorway. "He was not pleased," she said, entering.
"So I heard."
As Rebeccah had done before her, Mrs Dutton surveyed Anne's room, her gaze troubled. "Are you sure you have no idea where she has gone, Beccah? Anne would not upbraid you for revealing her secret if she knew how worried I am."
Rebeccah threw her an exasperated glance. "Mama, as I have already told you half a dozen times, I have not the least idea." She chewed the inside of her lip. "Perhaps Nancy ..."
Her mother's brow cleared. She crossed to the bell pull and tugged it. But it was a breathless Will rather than Anne's skinny maid who appeared a few minutes later.
Of course, remembered Rebeccah. It's washday and all the female servants are up to their elbows in soapsuds.
"Will you fetch Nancy, please?"
While the footman hurried off to do her mother's bidding, Rebeccah prowled round the bedchamber and the adjacent dressing room once more, looking for clues to her sister's current whereabouts, and feeling a growing sense of disquiet. Anne's velvet slippers were missing, which meant she must still be wearing them. And a drawer in the tallboy was half open. She knelt, pulled it fully open, and began to riffle through the neatly folded garments.
A sound of puffing and panting drew nearer, then a skinny young woman in an apron, her mousy hair coming adrift, hands red and chapped from much scrubbing, came into view.
She curtseyed and took a moment to catch her breath before saying, "You sent for me, Madam?"
"Yes, Nancy," said Mrs Dutton. "Do you know where my daughter is?"
The maid's gaze slid to where Rebeccah was kneeling by the tallboy. "Um, isn't she there, Madam?"
Mrs Dutton rolled her eyes. "I am referring to Anne."
Nancy flushed. "Beg pardon, Madam.... In that case, no, Madam. "
"When did you last see her?"
"At dinner, Madam," answered Nancy promptly. "She said she knew I would be busy helping out with washday, but that was all right because she would have no further no need of me until nearer to her appointment with Mr Ingrum. And then I was to come to help dress her and pin up her hair."
Rebeccah got to her feet. "And did you?"
Nancy looked at her. "Um, no, Mistress Rebeccah. Truth to tell, I got so caught up in all the scrubbing and rinsing, I lost track of the time. ... I knew Mistress Anne could send Will for me, you see," she added. Her brows drew together. "But she never did."
She gestured at their surroundings. "Do you see anything odd about this room, Nancy?"
The maid cocked her head to one side. "In what way, Mistress Rebeccah?"
She pointed at the open drawer. "If I don't miss my guess, there is a garment missing from that drawer. Do you know what it was?"
Nancy crossed to the drawer, knelt, and as Rebeccah had done moments before began to go through its now not-so-neatly folded contents. After a moment, she looked up.
"Her newest nightgown is missing."
Rebeccah's heart sank. "Nightgown," she repeated. "Are you certain?" Nancy nodded and got to her feet. "Is anything else missing?" Thoughts dark, she watched the maid inspect the adjacent dressing room.
"Her hairbrush," said Nancy at last. "And her slippers." She turned an expectant look on Rebeccah.
"My dear." Mrs Dutton's voice was anxious. "What are you thinking?"
"That her departure was a hasty one," said Rebeccah. "For she is still wearing the clothes she wore at dinner. And that " her voice cracked " she planned to be away overnight, for she has taken her nightgown and hairbrush with her."
Her mother looked horrified. "Surely you are not suggesting an elopement!"
"It bears the hallmarks of something of the sort, Mama."
"But Mr Ingrum ..."
"Is not so accomplished an actor," mused Rebeccah. "No, I do not think it is Mr Ingrum she has eloped with."
"Mr Filmer then? Or another suitor? ... Nancy?" Mrs Dutton confronted the maid, who would surely be the first to know if such were the case. But Nancy shook her head, and her consternation looked genuine.
"The mistress had her sights set on Mr Ingrum, Madam. Weren't no other suitor." Her certainty was cast iron.
Rebeccah considered what she knew of her sister and the scant clues she had unearthed so far. "I am of the same mind. Which means," she continued heavily, "that her absence may not be a voluntary one."
"What?" At this, her mother turned so pale that Nancy took her by the elbow and helped her to a highbacked cane chair. "What can you mean, Beccah?"
"What I said." She turned to the maid. "Nancy, did any of the servants see my sister leaving the house? And if so, was anyone with her?"
"Not that I know of, Mistress Rebeccah. But then, we've been run off our feet with washday. And as if that weren't enough, some of the male servants went to see the hanging, so we've been short handed. What with that and Titus coming back drunk..." She trailed off, obviously chagrined at revealing this last snippet.
"Titus?" Rebeccah's ears had pricked up at his name.
The skinny maid sighed. "I'm not normally one to go telling tales out of school, Mistress Rebeccah, but the past couple of days he's been like a bear with a sore head. Coming back drunk from Tyburn was the last straw as far as Mr Danby was concerned."
"The butler disciplined him?"
"Ay. Told him to pull himself together sharpish or he could find himself a position elsewhere."
"George said that!" said Mrs Dutton faintly.
Anne and Titus! Rebeccah didn't like the picture these puzzle pieces were forming. "And have you seen Titus since, Nancy?"
"No, Mistress Rebeccah."
Anne wouldn't willingly elope with her footman, would she? Which meant he must have coerced her somehow. But what about the slippers her sister could not walk far in those. Perhaps he had hired a sedan chair to convey her. "Thank you, Nancy. That will be all. Please don't mention this conversation to the others."
The maid glanced at Mrs Dutton, who nodded confirmation. "Very good, Madam." She curtseyed and left the room. Only when the receding footsteps on the stairs had faded did Rebeccah resume the conversation.
"Titus has her," she said flatly. "There is no other explanation."
"Bless me!" Her mother looked ill at the thought. "Is that what you really think has occurred?"
Rebeccah nodded. "An unlicensed marriage would transfer Anne's fortune to her husband, would it not?"
"He would force her to marry him?"
"Yes. In revenge for the humiliation and pain she has visited on him in recent weeks."
"How can you not have noticed, Mama? At every turn, Anne treated Titus as her favourite, encouraged him to dote on her. ... Then, as if his feelings for her were of no account, she blithely announced she was to marry Mr Ingrum."
"Even so." Mrs Dutton wrung her hands. "We cannot let this happen, Beccah. We must tell the constables."
Rebeccah bit a fingernail. "And have it bandied about that Anne and her own footman ... Mama, we cannot. Her reputation will be ruined, if it isn't already. Besides, what good will the constables do? By the time they run him to earth, a crooked clergyman will already have performed the ceremony and Titus will have ..." She couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence.
"Consummated their wedding to make it legally binding," murmured her mother.
"Yes." Rebeccah began to pace. "We must act quickly if we are to save her." It may already be too late. "Oh, if only there were someone who knew where Titus might take Anne, or where clandestine marriages are enacted."
She stopped, remembering a pair of pale blue eyes and an offer of help should she ever need it. The address Kate had left with Mary had been somewhere in Covent Garden, hadn't it? Not a very salubrious area, especially at this time of night, but 'needs must ...'.
Rebeccah became aware her mother was looking at her in bewilderment and gave her a reassuring smile. "I know someone who can help us." She strode to the bell pull and tugged it.
Shock brought her mother to her feet. "The highwayman? Have you lost your wits, Beccah?"
"No, Mama, I think I may have found them."
A little while later a panting Will appeared in the doorway. "Tell Robert to bring the carriage round from the mews at once," said Rebeccah. "And tell Mary that I will need her to accompany me."
"Very good, Madam."
"But where are you going?" asked her mother.
"To Covent Garden, of course."
Rebeccah gave the peeling tenement a dubious glance then turned to her maid. "Are you certain this is the correct address?"
Mary nodded. "Ay, Madam. You're to ask for the landlady, Alice Cole."
"Very well." Rebeccah reached for the door handle, which turned as the coachman anticipated her need. "Thank you, Robert." She let him help her down from the carriage, watched by two wide-eyed children playing on the pavement a smart coach-and-four must be a rarity in these parts. Mary made to follow, but Rebeccah held up a gloved hand. "No, Mary. Please wait for me."
"I am sure I shall be quite safe." She smiled up at her indignant maid.
Muttering darkly, Mary sat back down. Robert closed the carriage door with a click, and gave Rebeccah an enquiring glance. She shook her head.
While he went to settle the restless horses, she lifted her skirts and took the two steps up to the tenement's front door, which was slightly ajar. Pushing it open with a ginger forefinger, she stepped into the gloom, then wrinkled her nose at the faint aroma of nightsoil.
A flight of stairs on the left beckoned. She grasped the wobbly banister and began to climb. It wasn't long before her gloves, clean on today, were as grubby as the children's faces had been.
Several doors opened off the first landing, but there was no indication who lived there. She was wondering whether to knock on each in turn when the nearest one opened, and a grey-haired old woman with a basket of washing on her hip came out, pulling the door closed behind her.
"Excuse me," said Rebeccah.
The woman paused. "Eh?" Rheumy eyes raked Rebeccah from head to toe and an eyebrow arched. "Bit out of your way, ain't you, dearie?"
"Can you tell me where I may find the landlady, Alice Cole?"
"Alice Red, more like." The woman cackled at her joke and shifted the basket to the other hip. "Not the next landing up but the one after that."
"Thank you." Rebeccah continued up the stairs....
This must be it.
There was only one door on this landing the others had been boarded up and the main stairs ended, becoming a steep flight of narrow steps leading up to the roof.. Rebeccah took a moment to catch her breath, then rapped her knuckles on the door. She was just beginning to think there was no one home, when she heard the faint thump of footsteps and the door creaked open.
A middle-aged woman with a sulky expression and tousled red hair eyed her. "If it's lodgings you're after," she said, "we're full up. Come back in a fortnight."
The closing door paused. "Well?"
"I don't want lodgings. I'm looking for Kate. Is she in?"
The landlady's gaze sharpened. "Who told you Kate lives here?"
The woman folded her arms. "Did she now? And what does she look like."
Rebeccah blinked at this odd question. "Very tall. Raven black hair. Striking blue eyes. ... Please. There's no time to waste. Is she here or not? I need her help."
"She's out." The tone was one of grim satisfaction.
Rebeccah bit her lip. "When will she be back?"
"Couldn't say, I'm sure."
"Then may I come in and wait for her?"
The unreasonable refusal made Rebeccah blink. "But surely ... I wouldn't be any trouble."
"So you say. But I don't know you from Adam." The door started to close once more.
Panic overtook Rebeccah as she saw her only means of helping Anne beginning to disappear. "No, wait. Please. Will you give her a message?" Surely even this unpleasant woman couldn't refuse to do that?
Alice Cole pursed her lips, then said grudgingly, "I suppose so."
"Oh, thank you, thank you. You don't know what this means to ... Do you have a pencil and paper?"
Rebeccah resisted an urge to shake Kate's landlady by the scruff of her neck. "Then will you tell her the following: Rebeccah Dutton needs her help, and there is no time to waste." The other woman's expression was unfathomable. "Have you got that?"
Alice Cole nodded.
But what if she forgets my name. What if ... "And please give Kate this." Rebeccah pulled off her glove, then tugged off the garnet signet ring that had been her father's. She held it out, and after a moment the other woman accepted it.
"No time to waste," repeated Rebeccah, at a loss as to what else to do.
"I heard you the first time," said the landlady. And this time, she did close the door.
Resisting the unladylike urge to swear, Rebeccah turned and stamped back down the stairs. What on earth did Kate see in that woman?
As she emerged onto the street, the children, who at their age should surely have been in bed, looked up from their battered spinning top. Robert jumped down and rushed to open the carriage door for her.
"Thank you." She let him help her up.
Mary's face fell when she saw her mistress was alone. "Wasn't she there, Madam?"
"No," said Rebeccah shortly. She banged on the carriage roof and called, "Home, Robert."
"Very good, Madam," came his muffled reply, and seconds later the coach lurched forward.
Inside the carriage, silence fell. Eventually a tentative Mary asked, "If she wasn't there, Madam, then may I ask what "
"I left a message for her."
"Ah." Mary sat back in her seat. "For your sister's sake, let's hope she receives it in time."
"What kept you so late?"
Kate looked at the bed. Alice, who had been sleeping when she tiptoed in, now lay propped up on one elbow. "Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you. And don't you mean early? For it is two in the morning." She threw her sopping skirts to one side. "I ran into that whoreson, Josselin." The expected comment didn't come, so she threw the widowed landlady a wry glance. "You may say 'I told you so'."
Alice merely looked at her. "He recognised you?"
Kate nodded. "These damned blue eyes, I think." She removed shoes that would never be the same again and peeled off torn stockings. Her garters were nowhere to be found. "Took me a while to shake his men off." She removed her cap and let down her hair.
The chase back from Tyburn had exhausted her. Not wanting to lead her pursuers back to Alice's house, she had taken a roundabout route, along rubbish-strewn back streets and once even through a crowded snug bar. Under arches and over rooftops she ran, evading lecherous drunks and cursing harlots. With every step she wished she were in breeches and on horseback instead of wearing flapping skirts that sopped up puddles like a sponge and shoes that were a danger to her ankles.
In a Soho alleyway, two of Kate's pursuers trapped her, their staves coming close to braining her. But the commotion outside his premises attracted the attention of a Huguenot silk weaver working late. His "Qui est la?" changed to "Oof!" as Kate scrambled through the sash window he had opened and made her escape out the back way.
At Charing Cross, one of Josselin's men grappled with her, and they rolled to and fro on the pavement, until something hard in her back proved to be an empty gin bottle which made a useful cosh. She untangled herself from her limp assailant, staggered to her feet, then took off running once more. Another of her pursuers sought to come to grips on the banks of Thames, but she toppled him head first into its stinking waters and didn't linger to see if he came up again. Not long after, she managed to give the last of her pursuers the slip, and turned her limping steps towards Covent Garden.
Kate poured cold water into the basin and began to soap away the dirt and sweat.
"So now Josselin knows you in skirts too," said Alice.
"Ay." She winced as the soap found every scratch and burst blister. "Perhaps it would pay me to leave London for a while." She yawned.
She towelled her feet dry, then snuffed out the candle and crossed to the bed. The feel of cool sheets against bare skin as she slid in beside Alice was wonderful, and she groaned with relief. The other woman looked at her, opened her mouth, then closed it again.
"What?" Kate arched an eyebrow the only body part she had the energy to move.
"Nothing," said Alice. "You look exhausted."
"I could sleep for a week." She closed her eyes.
In the event though, Kate was too wound up to manage more than a couple of hours of fitful sleep. She kept waking in a sweat from dreams in which she was a fox, her attempts to escape the dogs baying at her heels constantly thwarted by the huntsman's bugle. The fourth time she woke, her pounding heart slowing as she took in familiar surroundings, the sparrows were chirping in the eaves, so she gave up and simply lay, resting and thinking about alternatives.
Could she bear to be away from London, even for a week? Her friends and dependants were here, and so was her livelihood. But who will look after Mama and Ned's family if you are in jail, eh? And then there was Rebeccah. How long before she marries her suitor and forgets all about you?
That thought depressed her, and she pushed it away and rolled over. A chink in the calico curtains had allowed through a stray sunbeam, and on Alice's bedside table something was glittering a deep, rich red. Careful not to wake the snoring woman, Kate reached for it.
The object in her palm was a garnet signet ring, carved with the initials JD. Kate could not have been more amazed if Queen Anne herself had burst into her bedchamber and told her that Kate was the rightful Queen of England. What was Rebeccah's ring doing here, of all places?
Anger replaced shock, and she turned and shook Alice none too gently. "Wake up." The snores stopped and dazed grey eyes looked at her. "Where in blazes did you get this?"
Kate thrust the ring into the landlady's face, and Alice's eyes crossed as she tried to focus on it, then widened. Her cheeks pinked. For Kate that was evidence enough.
"Rebeccah Dutton was here, wasn't she? She came to see me and you kept it from me."
Alice pushed away Kate's hand and sat up. "I was going to tell you about it last night." Her tone was petulant. "But you were exhausted."
"When did she come? What did she want?"
"Give me a moment, will you?" Alice rubbed the sleep from her eyes. "It was early evening. I forget exactly when. She didn't say much, only that she needed your help, and that there was no time to waste." Kate's expression made her add quickly, "But I set no store by that. These gentlefolk with their airs and graces. Everything is urgent with them, and if they can't have it this minute it's the end of the world."
Kate threw back the bedclothes and got out. "Devil take it, Alice!" She drew back the curtain to let in the light. "How could you not tell me of this last night? Rebeccah would not lightly ask for my help." She pulled out the chamberpot and used it.
"Well, how was I to know? It's not as if you've ever talked about her." The landlady's resentment was obvious.
"That I told her how to reach me should have showed you I trust her." Kate crossed to the chest of drawers, grabbed her breeches and hose, and began to dress. "I only pray I'm not too late."
"You can't go out in those," objected Alice. "Josselin "
"Will recognise me no matter what I wear." Kate tied her hair at the nape, bound her breasts with a strip of cotton, then pulled on her shirt and waistcoat.
A mutinous silence fell while she continued dressing, then Alice muttered, "Why did you not tell me of her?"
Kate stamped her feet into her boots, tied her cravat, and reached for her coat. "There was nothing to tell."
"Liar! Your eyes light up at the merest mention of her. And it's obvious you can't wait to go to her."
Kate tucked the ring safely in her waistcoat pocket. "She needs my help." What kind of trouble can Rebeccah be in that she needs to come to me?
Striding through to the other room, she took the baldric from its hook and settled it over her shoulders, making sure the sword slid smoothly in its scabbard. If she were ill she'd send for an apothecary, wouldn't she?
A barefoot Alice appeared in the doorway. "After all I've done for you ... given you the run of my rooms, not to mention my bed."
Kate glanced at the other woman in irritation. "I owe Rebeccah my life."
Alice blinked. "Your life! Yet you did not mention her once."
Because I knew you would be jealous, thought Kate guiltily. And because I wanted to keep her to myself. "Well you know about her now."
Alice folded her arms. "Ay. But only because she came here in person. When were you planning to tell me about her, Kate? Or weren't you? Were you planning to sneak off to her bed one night and never come back?"
"Alice," warned Kate. She had no time for this now. She crammed on her tricorne, slung her saddlebags over her shoulder, and reached for the door handle.
"She may be younger and richer, her skin smoother, eyes brighter, her figure more shapely, but I warn you, Kate, she's not one of us. She can't possibly understand you the way I do. You're nothing but an exotic specimen to add to her collection. She'll tire of you, and then where will you be?"
Kate paused. All she had to do was lie to Alice, soothe her wounded feelings, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. The other woman's eyes widened and she pressed a hand to her breast.
"Oh! You never did love me, did you?"
Pox on it! What a time to have this conversation. "Alice ..." Kate began.
"No." The other woman's tone was bitter. "Your silence is eloquent enough. But if you go to her, don't expect me to take you back."
Kate pursed her lips then nodded. "Very well. I never meant things to end badly between us. But if that is what you wish ... I shall send for the rest of my things as soon as I am able."
She pulled open the front door and started down the stairs two steps at a time. Halfway down, an anguished cry wafted down the stairwell to her.
"Kate," wailed Alice. "Come back. I didn't mean it. Don't leave me!"
But it was too late for that. The words that had passed between them could not be withdrawn or forgotten, even had Kate wanted to, and right now Rebeccah needed her help. Clenching her jaw against the increasingly frantic cries, she continued down the stairs.
Fruit and vegetable traders were wheeling overflowing barrows or setting out their stalls when Kate rode through the marketplace. Curious glances followed her, and she resisted the urge to hunch her shoulders, though she did pull her tricorne lower over her forehead. Without her mask she felt vulnerable, but it would attract unwanted attention and Josselin knew what she looked like now anyway.
"After this, perhaps we'll head for York for a while," she murmured, patting Clover's neck. "Think you'd like that?" The mare ignored her and concentrated on keeping her footing on the cobblestones.
Kate headed left into St. Martin's Lane, then right, taking back streets to the Hay Market. She liked this time of the day. London was waking up, and yawning servants were flinging open shutters, slopping out chamberpots, dragging in the sea coal, queuing at the pump for buckets of water, or greeting the milkmaids with their heavy churns.
At the entrance to St. James's Square, she dismounted and walked the rest of the way, using Clover as a shield against prying eyes. At the top of the steps leading down to the Duttons' back yard, she looped the mare's reins through the railing. "Wait there," she ordered, and started down.
The back door was open, and from the kitchen she could hear the chatter and bustle of the servants. She was about to go in when a skinny young woman in an apron blocked her path. She was carrying a covered chamberpot.
The two gaped at one another, then the maid said tartly, "And what do you want?"
Kate used her gruffest voice. "Is Mary at home?"
The maid shifted her grip on the chamberpot and yelled to those indoors, "Mary. There's a ... a gentleman to see you."
"Gentleman? At this hour? Pull the other one," came a familiar voice, growing louder as its owner approached. "If it's that rogue who sold cook those pies more gristle than meat, they were! I'll give him a piece of my Oh, it's you!"
"Know 'im, do you, Mary?" The maid grinned at the dumpy woman who had appeared in the doorway.
"None of your business, Nancy. And are you going to stand there clutching that chamberpot like it's your own babe or empty the smelly thing?"
With a last curious look at Kate, Nancy flounced off, presumably to find the cesspit.
"Good morrow, Mary." Kate tipped her hat. "Your mistress sent for me."
"Indeed she did. But you took so long about it she has all but given you up." Before Kate could explain, Mary tugged her inside.
"My horse," she protested.
"Will," said Mary, as she led Kate through the kitchen and towards the servants' stairs, "keep an eye on the horse outside, will you?" The footman looked up from polishing the silver, blinked at Kate, then smiled and nodded.
"Oh, she'll be so glad you have come at last," said Mary, puffing as she climbed the narrow steps. "She hasn't slept a wink all night. She is at her wits' end." She hustled Kate into the parlour.
"What is it? What is wrong?" And why has she come to me and not asked her suitor for help? But Mary had already pulled the door closed and darted away to fetch her mistress.
Kate tried to still her impatience by examining her surroundings. The room was large and pleasantly airy, with a fine plaster ceiling and newfangled wallpaper rather than wainscoting. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the looking glass between the two sash windows, grimaced, and turned away, just as the rustle of skirts, murmur of voices, and sound of hurried footsteps alerted her that someone was coming.
The door swung open and Rebeccah entered. Kate's heart leapt in her chest at the sight of the young woman.
"You came!" Pale cheeks flushed with colour as Rebeccah gazed at Kate. "I should have known better than to doubt you. Forgive me." She held out both hands, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world for Kate to move forward and grasp them.
With a pang she noted the dullness of once sparkling eyes, and the presence of deep shadows beneath them. "What is it, my dear? What has brought such a frown to that pretty face?"
Rebeccah glanced at the watching Mary, who nodded and left them alone together. "It is my sister. She is missing." Green eyes glistened.
"Missing?" Kate led Rebeccah over to the sofa. "Since when?" She released Rebeccah's hands, until they were both sat down, then clasped them again.
"Since yesterday evening. ... Titus is missing too."
The name meant nothing to Kate. "Titus?"
"One of our footmen. Anne's favourite."
"Their coach has been delayed?"
"No." Rebeccah took a deep breath. "Titus went to see the hanging and came back the worse for drink. Indeed his inebriation may be the cause of this, for I cannot believe even he would have done something this outrageous otherwise."
A memory surfaced of a handsome young footman, his mouth stuffed with Kate's kerchief to stop his swearing. "Ah. I recollect the man. His teeth once bruised my knuckles, I think." Rebeccah nodded. "But your sister? Where was she last seen."
"In her bedchamber. But when her fiancé, Mr. Ingrum, came to call, she could not be found."
"I see." Kate's mind was whirling. "And you think Anne and Titus ..."
"Are together, yes. But not willingly."
"Not willingly!" repeated Kate.
"He must have taken her from here against her will, conveyed her somewhere in a sedan."
"Some of the chairmen are friends of mine," said Kate. "They could find out where she went." Then she grimaced. "But I fear that horse has already bolted."
Rebeccah gave her a stricken look. "I know. They have been alone together the whole night, Kate! Anne must surely be ruined by now." She searched Kate's face. "Tell me I am being foolish. That this is all but fantasy on my part."
"Alas, I cannot. For your sister is an heiress, is she not?" Rebeccah's groan was answer enough. "But all may not be lost," said Kate, thinking aloud. "For your footman was drunk when he took Anne from here."
"How does that help us?"
"When a man drinks too much he is incapable of," Kate searched for the word, "performing. In short, it is unlikely he was able to force himself on your sister." Rebeccah winced and Kate gave her hand an encouraging squeeze. "And that it was so late in the day when he took her may also count in your sister's favour."
"Fleet weddings are only legal between the hours of 8 and noon." She glanced at the parlour clock and saw it was still only 7.30 am. Thank the Lord I woke early! "It is true that some marriage houses do not wind their clocks, so that for them it is always morning, but they are unlikely to have been still open when Titus reached them."
It was Rebeccah's turn to glance at the clock. "Then we have half an hour until they open for business."
Kate released Rebeccah's hands and stood up. "Ay. There is no time to lose. I must get to the Rules of the Fleet." Her suitor would not be able to help her in such a place, but I can.
"I'm coming with you." Rebeccah stood up too.
"The Rules are no place for you, Rebeccah. Why, the stench from the Fleet Ditch alone "
"I am not so delicate a flower as you think." Green eyes flashed.
"Kate, think. If you manage to rescue Anne from Titus, do you think she will willingly come with the very highwayman she has set Samuel Josselin to catch? Is not she more likely to scream and struggle and attract the attention of the constables?"
Kate scowled. Rebeccah had a point. "Very well. But we must take your carriage and I need a pistol from my saddlebags. Oh, and Clover must be stabled."
Rebeccah gave her a brilliant smile and tugged the bell to summon Will.
Kate tapped her booted foot as Rebeccah specified what she wanted. While the footman went to do his mistress's bidding, Rebeccah disappeared upstairs with Mary to change into more suitable attire.
When Will returned with her saddlebags, Kate thanked him and busied herself loading one of the brace of pistols. Then she tucked it in the waistband of her breeches. Shortly after, Rebeccah reappeared, clad in her wrap and walking shoes.
"Ready?" asked Kate.
There was a soft knock at the door. It opened and the maid popped her head round. "Robert has brought the coach, Madam."
"Thank you, Mary." Rebeccah turned and gestured to Kate, who strode past her, and for the first time since she had been at the Dutton Residence used the front door.
Robert was waiting by the carriage. After a perplexed moment he offered Kate his hand, but she declined his assistance and stepped up nimbly. Seconds later, Rebeccah was settling in next to her.
The door slammed closed, and Kate felt the coach sway as Robert climbed up into the driver's seat. "May I?" she asked.
She rapped her knuckles on the coach roof. "The Rules of the Fleet, Robert. As quick as you can."
The stench was appalling a mixture of fish guts, offal and Lord knows what else. Rebeccah clapped a gloved hand over her nose and mouth.
"Don't say it," she warned, seeing Kate's grin.
"Wouldn't dream of it." The highwaywoman looked up at the coachdriver. "Robert, it would attract less attention if you were to drive around for a while. Can you contrive to return here every " she arched a dark eyebrow at Rebeccah, " twenty minutes or so?" Rebeccah nodded.
"Very good, Madam." The coachman flicked the reins and the horses started forward.
Rebeccah watched the carriage trundle up the Farringdon Road, taking with it all that was familiar and civilised, then sighed and squared her shoulders.
"Let's start there," said Kate.
Rebeccah followed the direction of the pointing finger to the buildings close by the Fleet Bridge. She frowned in puzzlement until she saw that next door to the China shop stood a tavern named the Hand and Pen, and in its window was a sign: a man's hand joined with a woman's, bearing the legend 'Marriages Perform'd Within'.
Kate started forward, and Rebeccah hurried to keep up with the taller woman, lifting her skirts to avoid the filth. They made their way past a clutter of stalls where traders were selling ripe cheeses, pigeon pies, and cages of raucous hens, then past a barrel full of splashing carp. Overhead, a gull mewed.
"Won't let you fuck her till you tie the knot, eh?" called a winkle-seller, noticing their destination. The corner of Kate's mouth twitched.
"Got yourself a fine strong fellow," said a woman selling carrots from a barrow. She winked at Rebeccah. "I'll wager you're looking forward to the wedding night." Rebeccah wondered if her cheeks were as red as they felt.
"Ignore them and keeping walking," advised Kate.
It was a relief to finally enter the Hand and Pen, but only for a moment. A smelly fug of pipe smoke and alcohol replaced the stench of the Fleet Ditch. Then a blowsy landlady was coming towards them, asking, "You two wanting to get hitched?"
Kate took Rebeccah's hand without asking, adopted the gruff voice she used for Blue-Eyed Nick, and said as though agreeing, "Is the Parson free?"
The landlady's grin was gap-toothed. "Ay. Follow me."
Wolf-whistles and lewd comments followed them through the bar, as the landlady led them to a private room at the back. Rebeccah's cheeks flamed afresh but then Kate's hand squeezed hers, and for a pleasant moment she was distracted by how right it felt. Then thoughts of why they were here returned, and with it overpowering anxiety for her sister's wellbeing.
Pray God we find some trace of Anne before it's too late.
"Here we are." The landlady ushered them into a dingy 'chapel', a small room, empty apart from a table on which lay a stub of candle and a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, some chairs, and a clock. She halted, folded her arms across her ample bosom, and looked at them.
"It'll be half-a-crown," she warned. "Seven-and-six if you want a certificate and entry in the Fleet register." Kate dropped Rebeccah's hand Rebeccah felt the loss at once and pulled some coins from her coat pocket. The landlady glanced at them. "Good." She pursed her lips. "But where are your witnesses?"
"They're late," lied Kate. Rebeccah glanced at the clock, whose hands seemed to have stopped at 9 a.m.
"If they don't turn up," continued the landlady, "we can provide a couple, but it'll cost you."
"Right. I'll fetch the Parson." With that, the woman left them alone together.
Kate turned to Rebeccah. "How are you faring?"
She forced a smile. "As well as can be expected until we have Anne safe."
"We'll find her." Blue eyes pinned her. "Don't lose heart."
The door creaked open and in came a fat little man in a soiled surplice carrying a pile of blank marriage certificates, almost certainly fake, under his arm. Such was his girth, he looked like a black and white cannonball. He beamed at them. "A fine day for a wedding, ain't it?" There was ale on his breath.
He placed the certificates, which carried the royal arms but lacked the official stamp, on the table beside the prayer book, then turned and appraised the two women. "A handsome couple you make too." Rebeccah didn't dare look at Kate.
The parson's gaze turned calculating. "Has the tavern keeper told you my charges?"
"Yes," said Kate.
"Good." He rubbed his hands together. "Now, will you be wanting just the basic ceremony or the certificates and a register entry too?"
"Neither. For we are here not to marry but to gain information."
"What?" His smile disappeared. "Do you mean you have got me here under false pret"
Kate flipped a silver coin and caught it, earning the parson's undivided attention. "You can still earn yourself a shilling."
He licked his lips and considered. "Make it a shilling and sixpence."
"Agreed." The highwaywoman pulled out the additional coin. "In the last twenty-four hours have you married a couple by the name of Anne Dutton and Titus " She paused and glanced at her companion.
"Ward," supplied Rebeccah.
The parson's gaze turned inward and Rebeccah held her breath. "Don't think so," he said at last, dashing her hopes.
Kate jingled the coins. "'Think' isn't good enough, Sir. Don't you record all the particulars in your pocket book?"
The little man hesitated then nodded.
"Hand it over."
His cheeks flushed. "Hanged if I will! It's private."
Kate chuckled. "I won't tell anyone if you've insulted them. My word on it."
"Why should I take your word if you won't take mine?" he grumbled.
Kate pretended to consider, then pulled out another sixpence. "Is this a good enough reason?"
There was a pause, then he grunted. From somewhere he produced a ragged pocket book and handed it to Kate. She passed it at once to Rebeccah, and while Kate gave the roly-poly parson his two shillings, a trembling Rebeccah opened the pocketbook.
The light was poor so she moved a few steps closer to the dirty window. The pages were foxed, the handwriting crabbed and in places almost illegible, made more so by bad spelling and ink blots. Each entry noted the details of the couple getting married, and included personal remarks, such as 'NB The woman was bigg with chyld, and they wanted the certifycate antidated.' She glanced up and saw both Kate and the cannonball watching her.
"The most recent entries," reminded Kate.
"Sorry." Rebeccah riffled through the flimsy pages until she found the entries for yesterday and today. Anne's name was nowhere to be found, and none of the jotted descriptions matched her or Titus. With a sigh she closed the pocket book.
"Nothing?" asked Kate.
She shook her head.
"Ah well." The highwaywoman took back the book and handed it to the parson. "Our thanks, Sir."
He sniffed, tucked the pocket book and certificates under one arm, and sauntered out, presumably to quaff more ale. After a moment, Kate and Rebeccah followed him.
"What about the wedding feast?" called someone as they made their way back through the smoky bar, which was busy even though it was still early.
"Ay." The blowsy landlady gave them a hopeful smile. "Our bride cakes are a bargain at sixpence."
Kate shook her head and strode on. Rebeccah hurried after her, catching her at the street door. Together they emerged into the open, the stink of the Fleet Ditch making Rebeccah want to gag.
"What shall we do now?"
Kate took her elbow and urged her towards the first of the streets adjoining the Farringdon Road. "Thirty-nine to go," she muttered.
"Pardon?" Rebeccah blinked up at her.
"There are about forty marriage houses in all," explained the highwaywoman, with a look of apology. "Come, my dear. We have no time to lose."
Rebeccah's feet hurt. In the last hour they must have covered miles, tramping up and down the streets and stinking alleyways that surrounded the Fleet Prison, entering each tavern and brandy-shop that doubled as a marriage house. The Red Hand and Mitre, the Swan, the Lamb, the Horseshoe and Magpie, the Bishop Blaise, the Two Sawyers, the Fighting Cocks, the Bull and Garter, the King's Head ... her own head was spinning with their names, and if she never saw the inside of another marriage house it would be too soon. But what choice did she have? They had still found no trace of her sister.
"Don't give up hope yet," counselled Kate. "That we have not found Anne could be a good sign. For your footman will have woken sober this morning and may have had a change of heart. Even now, she could be safe at home."
Rebeccah pursed her lips. "Do you think so?"
The highwaywoman hesitated, then sighed. "No. Titus could also feel he has gone too far to retreat."
"Alas, knowing him, that sounds all too likely. But thank you for trying to raise my spirits." Her back ached from all the walking but a rest was out of the question until they found her sister. "So. Where shall we try next?"
Kate resettled her tricorne, took stock of her surroundings, then pointed. "There."
At the end of the alleyway was the most unprepossessing marriage house yet. The windows were so grimy you could barely see through them, and the sign of the joined hands had faded until it was barely visible. Rebeccah squared her shoulders and marched towards it. Kate's longer legs easily overtook her, and she opened the door with a flourish and ushered Rebeccah inside.
"Can't go in there," growled the bearded man behind the bar, as Kate headed towards the back room. "Parson's busy." She ignored him and pressed on, Rebeccah hard on her heels. "Are ye deaf?" He came out from behind his bar, hands bunched.
Kate stopped and turned. "No. I heard you." Her tone was measured, but there was something dangerous in the blue gaze that made the landlord stop, uncertain, and Rebeccah draw in a sharp breath.
"Tom," called the landlord, his frowning gaze fixed on Kate. "Sam."
At his summons, two unsavoury characters looked up from their playing card, then lumbered to their feet. One produced a club and began to smack it rhythmically against his palm.
Kate rested her hand on her sword hilt and arched a provocative eyebrow. The morning's frustrations had worn away the last of the highwaywoman's patience, realised Rebeccah with a jolt, and she was spoiling for a fight.
"Please, there's no need for violence." She stepped forward, hands raised palm outward. "We just need to ask the parson something and then we'll be on our way."
Thwack, thwack went the club, while the landlord regarded Rebeccah with puzzlement. A well-bred young gentlewoman must be quite a rarity in a rough establishment like this. "'At's as may be, Madam," he said. "But I don't like yer friend's manners. 'E needs teaching a lesson."
"Are you volunteering?" asked Kate with a sneer.
"Oh, stop it!" A cross Rebeccah backhanded the tall woman in the belly, eliciting a surprised grunt. She turned back to the landlord. "You'd be wise not to cross h...him. Don't you recognised him?" She jerked a thumb at Kate.
"Now ye come to mention it, there is something familiar." The man scratched his beard. "'Anged if I can put me finger on it, though."
"Imagine a mask," said Rebeccah helpfully, "and those blue eyes peering through the eye slits at you."
The landlord's eyebrow's shot up and he took a nervous step back. "'S wounds, but 'e's the spitting image of Blue-Eyed Nick!"
The two bouncers looked at one another, then at Kate. They seemed less confident than they had.
"His reputation as a crack shot is well deserved," added Rebeccah, for good measure.
The landlord bit his lip. "A word with the parson's all ye want?" Rebeccah nodded and glanced at Kate who after a pregnant pause nodded too. "And ye'll pay for breakages?"
"Ay," growled Kate, and to Rebeccah's relief she let her hand drop from the sword hilt.
"Very well." The landlord retreated behind his bar. "Let 'em through, lads." Tom and Sam exchanged a glance, shrugged, then went back to their cards.
Rebeccah smiled warmly. "Thank you." The landlord gave her a grudging nod.
After a moment she and Kate resumed their progress towards the back room. Kate turned the handle, and opened the door.
There were five people in the make-shift chapel a lean as a whippet parson in a black coat and hat, an overrouged harlot in a red gown and a chap-handed washerwoman in a mantua that had seen better days (presumably the witnesses), a wide-eyed Titus Ward, and a young gentlewoman wearing velvet slippers.
At Rebeccah's glad cry, her sister turned, and would have fallen had the footman beside her not steadied her. "Beccah!" Her voice was slurred, her movements uncoordinated.
"She's been drugged," said Kate. "Look at her pupils."
Anger surged through Rebeccah and she rushed forward. Titus cursed, hooked an arm round Anne and pulled her in front of him like a shield.
"You're too late. She's my wife." He glanced at Rebeccah's sister and grinned. "Aren't you, my love?"
Lord save us! Rebeccah halted, feeling as though she had been hit in the stomach.
"I'll make her your widow if you don't let her go," threatened Kate, pulling out her pistol. A loud thud was the open Book of Common Prayer falling from the startled parson's fingers.
"The Devil you will!" From somewhere Titus produced a wicked looking knife and pressed it to Anne's throat. Her eyes were glazed and she remained statue still.
Better paralysed terror, thought Rebeccah, than an attempt to free herself that would surely put her life at risk.
"Release Anne I said." Kate cocked and aimed her pistol at the only bit of Titus now visible the top of his head.
"No!" Rebeccah stretched an arm towards the highwaywoman. "You could hurt her."
"Don't you trust me?"
There was hurt in those blue eyes, and Rebeccah remembered the words she had spoken so blithely a few moments ago: 'a crack shot'. Did I mean that? A memory surfaced, of a masked rider galloping across the heath, and a pistol shot tearing apart the night and saving her from harm. Wordlessly, she let her arm drop. Kate nodded then turned her attention back to Titus.
"For a start, why should we take Titus's word for it?" Kate glanced at the trembling parson. "Have you pronounced them man and wife?" He opened and closed his mouth like a fish. "Speak up, man."
"N... not yet." His reply was almost drowned by Titus's shout of "Liar!" He frowned at the footman, then continued rather prissily, "The gentleman had made his vows, 'tis true, but the lady had yet to make hers."
"Ah. Not wed then." Kate gave a satisfied nod. "A close run thing, though, and no thanks to you." Her voice dripped contempt. "Could you not see that the bride was being forced against her will?"
The indignant parson drew himself up to his full height. "She seemed amenable. I thought "
The tension proved too much for the harlot hired to witness the marriage. She shrieked, lifted her scarlet skirts and dashed out the open chapel door; after a moment's hesitation, the washerwoman rushed after her.
"Christ's wounds!" yelled Titus. "Come back, the pair of you. I paid "
Kate lunged past Rebeccah and yanked the distracted footman's knife hand away from Anne's throat. "Take her." Tearing Anne from his grasp, Kate shoved her towards Rebeccah.
"Oof!" The collision almost sent both sisters flying.
Preoccupied with steadying a shrieking Anne the sudden wrench had penetrated her drug-induced stupor Rebeccah was only peripherally aware of what was going on. She heard a sickening crunch, then what sounded like something heavy crumpling to the floor.
By the time Anne was calm again and Rebeccah was able to take in her surroundings, Kate was standing over a supine Titus, his nose oddly flattened, his chin, cravat, and waistcoat drenched with blood. The knuckles of Kate's right glove were also bloody.
"Is he ...?"
"Dead to the world, maybe, but he'll live." Kate flexed her fingers then tucked her unfired pistol back in the waistband of her breeches.
Rebeccah couldn't think what else to say so contented herself with, "Oh."
"Where am I?" slurred Anne. "Is Titus here? I seem to remember ... " Her brows knit, but after a moment her eyes lost their focus and dreaminess returned.
"There, there, my sweet." As Rebeccah chafed her sister's hands she felt the presence of a wedding ring. It was cheap and nasty, and she eased it off and flung it at the footman it bounced off his waistcoat and skittered into a corner of the chapel with a clink. "You're safe now." She turned a concerned glance on Kate. "What drug can he have used?"
"Poppy juice, I expect. It'll wear off." Kate addressed the parson again. "Give me your pocket book. There must be no record of this."
"What?" He gaped at her.
"You heard me." She held out her hand and tapped a booted foot. Reluctantly, he produced the slim volume. Kate flipped through it, found what she wanted, and tore out a page.
"You can't "
"I just did." As the parson subsided, muttering, she put the folded page in her waistcoat pocket then handed back his book. "Anything else?" He gaped at her. "Signatures, certificates ..." He shook his head. "If I find out later that you're lying ..." Her glare made him flinch.
"That's everything, cross my heart."
"I don't feel well." Anne's murmur reclaimed Rebeccah's attention. Her sister's complexion had gone a greenish-white, she saw with some alarm.
Somehow Kate was on the other side of Anne, draping her arm over her shoulder and helping Rebeccah to support her to a corner, where she was violently sick.
"That's pleasant," said the parson.
Kate ignored him and said over Anne's bowed head, "She'll feel the better for it."
"Will she?" asked Rebeccah.
Stumbling footsteps and the parson's exclamation made them turn. Kate was the first to glance to where Titus no longer lay and put two and two together. She cursed, and began to free herself from Anne.
"Leave him." Rebeccah was glad to see the back of the footman.
"He has too much of a head start, and besides we must get Anne home and into Mary's care."
The tall woman hesitated, clearly torn between wanting to chase the footman and to help Rebeccah with her sister. In the end, Rebeccah's needs won. "Very well." Kate took a firmer grip on Anne's arm and between them they got her to the door. The Parson didn't offer to help.
Glances and muttered asides followed their progress through the bar towards the tavern exit. Tom and Sam glanced at their bearded employer for instructions. The landlord blinked at the two unevenly matched figures supporting a swooning woman between them, shook his head, and went back to mopping his counter top.
Rebeccah was glad she had Kate to help her Anne was heavier than she looked, and on her own, Rebeccah would have been struggling. She tightened her grasp on her sister's waist, and noted with relief that Anne's colour had improved. Kate must have been right about the vomiting.
"They say that's Blue-Eyed Nick," stage-whispered a bulbous-nosed drinker, looking away when Kate's keen blue gaze raked him.
"Lud!" exclaimed his companion, a woman whose numerous patches drew attention to her pock- marked cheeks rather than the reverse. "She's wearing slippers!"
Anne squirmed in Rebeccah's grip. "Do I know you?" Rebeccah was about to answer when she realised that her sister's unfocussed gaze was fixed on the highwaywoman. But Kate merely grunted, and to Rebeccah's relief after a moment Anne lost interest in her and began to sing a lullaby that had been their father's favourite.
"Hush, dear," said Rebeccah. "Quietly now." Anne's smile was groggy but she obediently muted her singing to a hum.
"Too much gin, if you ask me," called a cardplayer.
"No one did." Kate glared at him, and he turned hastily back to his cards
They emerged outside into the everpresent stench of the Fleet Ditch.
"Ugh!" said Anne, and Rebeccah couldn't help but agree with her.
"Which way?" Rebeccah's sense of direction was weak at the best of times.
Kate pointed, and the two women took a firmer grip on the invalid and set off along the pavement, attracting raised eyebrows as they went. After a while, Anne was able to support some of her own weight, which made the going easier.
Rebeccah began to recognise her surroundings. Let Robert be there with the carriage, she prayed, as they turned into the Farringdon Road. But there was no sign of the coach and four. A church bell chiming 12 o'clock surprised her enough had happened to her today for it to seem like late afternoon.
"If he doesn't come soon," said Kate, "we should find some small beer for your sister. She needs to drink something."
"Small beer," repeated Anne, before resuming her humming.
"What about coffee?" asked Rebeccah. "They say it makes one more alert."
"Even better," agreed the highwaywoman. "There's a coffee house just around the corner."
"Coffee," said Anne.
Before Rebeccah could reply, the clipclopping of hooves brought her to a halt. She shaded her eyes against the sunshine. The Dutton coach and four was heading towards them, with Robert at the reins.
"Thank God!" She exchanged a relieved smile with Kate.
Then the carriage was pulling up beside them, and Robert was climbing down. Before he could help, Kate had got the carriage door open and handed Rebeccah up.
"I'll pass your sister up," she said, as Rebeccah took her seat, then turned arms outstretched. "Ready?" A powerful hand boosted Anne's rump.
Once more, the sisters fought to keep their balance. It took them a moment to untangle themselves, straighten their dresses, and settle themselves more comfortably, and by then, Kate had closed the carriage door behind her and was taking the seat opposite.
Rebeccah took a moment to luxuriate in the fact she was sitting down at last, then rapped her knuckles on the carriage roof. "Home, Robert."
"At once, Madam." The coach lurched into motion.
"I know you, do I not?" Anne was staring at the highwaywoman again.
"Of course you do, dear." Rebeccah threw Kate an anxious glance. "It's a good friend of ours,"
Anne grabbed Rebeccah's hand. "Look!" Her voice was urgent.
Rebeccah followed the direction of her sister's gaze and saw that Kate's coat had come open, revealing the pistol tucked in her breeches. Kate closed her coat at once, but it was too late.
"It's that highwayman," continued Anne, her voice a quaver. "What was his name .... Blue-Eyed something?" She was looking at Kate like a rabbit at a stoat.
The grip on Rebeccah's hand was almost painful. "Don't be frightened," she said. "He's helping us. Remember? He rescued you from Titus."
At the footman's name, Anne's gaze turned inwards. At least she was no longer staring at Kate. "Titus said I am to marry him." She frowned. "But that cannot be right, can it, Beccah?" She gave her sister a pleading glance. "For I'm to marry Mr. Ingrum, am I not?"
"Indeed you are." At least Rebeccah hoped so.
"Oh, my head aches." Anne rubbed her temple. "Why does it ache so?"
"Because you have been ill." Kate's intervention drew a startled glance from Rebeccah. "But you will be better shortly. We are taking you home and Mary will soon be on hand to take good care of you."
"Mary?" The mention of the plump maid who had nursed the Duttons through numerous illnesses seemed to calm her, and Rebeccah turned a grateful glance on Kate.
Anne's eyelids fluttered closed. Soon after, soft snores filled the carriage.
Rebeccah exchanged a relieved smile with Kate and relaxed back in her seat. In the peace and quiet, she had time at last to consider the worrying subject of her sister's maidenhead. Would Frederick Ingrum still marry Anne if Titus was found to have violated her? She looked up, and found Kate watching her.
"Her fiancé will undoubtedly still marry her," said the highwaywoman, somehow divining her thoughts and keeping her voice low so as not to wake Anne, "for her fortune is intact even if she is not."
The logic of her reply struck Rebeccah. "And that her fortune is intact is thanks entirely to you."
"And to you," countered Kate, with a smile. "She is fortunate to have such a quick witted sister."
Rebeccah pinked at the compliment. "I would feel more content," she continued, "if I could be certain that she will not forever bear the scars of this ... ordeal." Kate nodded her understanding. "To think of my sister helpless and alone with that despicable..." She trailed off, unable to put her outrage and disgust into words.
"If Titus did force himself on your sister," said Kate, "it will have been while she was under the influence of the poppy juice. She will have little memory of it and hopefully no lasting distress."
"I hope for her sake you are right."
The coach began to slow, and Rebeccah looked out the window and recognised her surroundings. "We're almost there."
Kate didn't reply, and Rebeccah remembered with a jolt of distress that the house in St James's was not Kate's home and her departure was imminent. The urge to express her admiration and gratitude before it was too late overwhelmed her, and careful not to disturb her sister, she reached forward and pressed Kate's hand.
"Thank you from the bottom of my heart."
The eyes that met hers were gentle. "I need no thanks, Rebeccah. I owed you my life, remember?"
"Oh, if we are keeping score, I owed you mine before that."
"Well." Kate shrugged and smiled.
"Don't 'well' me, Kate. You are the ...the truest friend I have ever known." The light in the carriage was dim, but Rebeccah would have sworn that the other woman was blushing. "You always come to my aid in my hour of need," she continued. "The Duttons are in your debt and if there is ever anything we can Oh pish!"
For the coach had given a lurch and stopped, waking Anne and putting an end to any more conversation of an intimate nature.
Anne yawned and stretched and looked about her. "Are we home, Beccah?"
Rebeccah exchanged a rueful glance with Kate. "Yes."
Then the handle turned and the carriage door opened, and the coachman was looking up at them, and holding out his hand.
"My dears!" Mrs Dutton rushed across the hall towards Rebeccah and her sister, arms outstretched. "You are both safe. As the hours passed without news I had begun to fear the worst. ... I was never so relieved to see you in all my life!"
She engulfed Anne in a hug, then held her at arm's length. What she saw made her frown.
"We think it is poppy juice." Rebeccah beckoned to Mary, who had appeared from downstairs to see what all the commotion was.
"Poppy juice!" Her mother pressed a hand to her throat. "By all that's ... The ruffian!"
With a glance for permission to Rebeccah, who nodded, Mary took Anne's hand, talked soothingly to her, and led her away. They started up the stairs to the bedchambers, and Anne's own maid, Nancy, hurried to help. As Rebeccah watched the three women ascend, it came home to her that her sister was safe. The tension in her neck and shoulders that had been with her since the discovery last night of Anne's absence eased, and a wave of giddiness swept over her.
"Breathe slowly and steadily," came Kate's voice in her ear, and a firm hand took her elbow. Rebeccah did as she was bid, and her racing heart began to slow. Her vision cleared.
Kate smiled, released her hold, and took a step back.
Mrs Dutton's attention had been all for Anne. Now it switched to Kate, and her eyes widened at the sight of Blue-Eyed Nick without his mask and kerchief standing bold as brass in her hall. She licked her lips, but to Rebeccah's relief didn't burst into hysterics, and when she found her voice, sounded almost calm.
"Will told me you had succeeded in finding the highwayman while I slept." Though she addressed the remark to her daughter, it was Kate she kept in her sights.
For all the world as though she is some dangerous beast who might attack at any minute, thought an amused Rebeccah.
"Why did you not wake me?"
"You had been up all night with worry, Mama," chided Rebeccah. "I thought it best to let you rest."
"Well, it is true I was quite worn down by your sister's disappearance," conceded Mrs Dutton, "so I will forgive you this once." To Rebeccah's astonishment, she made Kate an elaborate curtsey. "If my daughter has not already made it clear (and I hope I have taught her better manners) we are in your debt, Sir. Please let me express my profound gratitude."
Kate tipped her hat and said gruffly, "Think nothing of it, Madam."
"Indeed I'll do no such thing," said Mrs Dutton. She paused, then added, "Would you care to partake of some refreshment with us? A dish of tea, perhaps?" If Rebeccah had been sitting on a stool, the shock of this polite invitation would have toppled her off it.
Kate's lips twitched. "That is kind," she said. "But ... another time, perhaps? For I have stayed too long and must take my leave of you."
For the past few minutes she had looked increasingly restless, and now the reason for it dawned on Rebeccah Kate felt too exposed and vulnerable here. And who could blame her? Hadn't the eldest daughter of this household, the very one she had just rescued from an unwanted marriage, in fact, hired a thieftaker to go after her? The unfairness of it made Rebeccah wince inwardly.
"As you wish," said her mother, looking both disappointed and relieved. "Another time, then."
Silence fell and everyone looked at everyone else. "Er ... The whereabouts of my horse?" prompted Kate.
Will cleared his throat. "If I may be of assistance?" Mrs Dutton nodded her permission, and the footman stepped forward. "Clover is stabled in the Mews." He glanced at Rebeccah then back at Kate. "Shall I fetch my spare wig and livery?"
Rebeccah's mother looked mystified. "Your wig and livery?"
Before Rebeccah could enlighten her about the makeshift disguise they had used previously, a loud hammering at the front door pre-empted her.
"Open up in the name of the Law," came a man's muffled shout, between the blows. "We know Blue-Eyed Nick's in there. Surrender the highwayman or it will go the worse for everyone."
Rebeccah turned an appalled glance towards Kate, who bit off a curse and dashed for the stairs leading down to the basement.
"Faith! What are we to do, Beccah?" Mrs Dutton had gone pale.
Rebeccah stared at her. "How can you possibly ask that after what has happened, Mama? You must not let them in!"
"But if we do not ... Oh, if only your father were here!" She composed herself and considered her daughter's suggestion. "But you are right, my dear. It would be poor thanks indeed." She turned to the butler. "On no account, George, are you to give them admittance."
He bowed his head. "Very good, Madam."
Rebeccah threw her mother a grateful glance, then hurried after Kate, but no sooner had she started down the narrow steps than she saw Kate hurrying back up.
"They've come in the back way." Her expression was grim.
"Oh!" Rebeccah pressed herself against the wall to allow Kate past. The highwaywoman headed for the stairs to the rest of the house, taking the steps two at a time with long, booted legs. With a glance at her mother and a helpless shrug, Rebeccah lifted her skirts and followed, finding Kate on the first landing, examining her surroundings.
"What do you intend?" panted Rebeccah, as Kate resumed her ascent and she struggled to keep up.
"If I can escape across the roof to one of the neighbouring houses ..."
"Is that not dangerous?"
Amused blue eyes turned to regard her. "More dangerous than falling into Josselin's clutches?"
"I see what you mean."
Shouts from below indicated the intruders were swarming into the hall. Her mother's voice rose in protest, and Rebeccah's heart swelled with love for her parent. The hammering at the front door stopped.
They must have let their colleagues in.
"I am sorry to involve your family in this." Kate stopped at the next landing, spotted the door to Rebeccah's bedchamber, and headed for it. Inside, she crossed to the window and peered down at the square. "Devil take it!" Her shoulders sagged.
"What is it?" Rebeccah hurried to the other woman's side and gazed down. The last time they had both stood here looking down seemed an age ago. The square was crawling with unsavoury looking men clutching staves and clubs Josselin's bully boys. Residents from some of the other houses had gathered too, curious to see what was going on.
"See those fellows there?" Kate pointed a gloved finger. Rebeccah did but was none the wiser. "They're guarding the front and back of the houses adjacent. Even if I make it across the rooftops, it will do me no good."
Rebeccah looked at her. "What are you saying?"
"That this time Josselin has got me. Fair and square."
"But you have your pistol. Can you not shoot your way out?"
"And risk some innocent getting caught in the crossfire?" Kate shook her head.
A suddenly shaky Rebeccah crossed to her bed and sat on the edge of it. "This cannot be happening!" She rubbed her eyes with the heel of one hand and pursued a thought that had been nagging at her. "How did Josselin know you were here?"
"Titus." The bed sagged as Kate sat next to her. "He must have deduced I would bring your sister back here, and run straight to the thieftaker."
"And I told you to let him go." Rebeccah stared at her in horror. "This is my fault."
The blue eyes were gentle. "No, my dear. I should have hit him harder."
"But if I hadn't asked you to help me find Anne "
"Then your sister would be in dire straits indeed. I am glad you came to me, Rebeccah. Glad that I was caught in the act of being a Good Samaritan rather than a thief."
The resignation in her tone struck Rebeccah like a blow. "You talk as if it is all over," she accused. "As if he has already caught you."
Kate arched an eyebrow. "He has as good as."
"No." Rebeccah surged to her feet. "Use me as your shield, Kate, the way Titus used my sister. Threaten to shoot me if they do not allow you free passage."
"And risk your life?" The other woman shook her head. "Never. Besides ..." She gave a wry smile. "No one could possibly believe I would harm you. But I thank you for your generous offer, Rebeccah. Indeed I do."
Rebeccah stared at Kate in growing despair. "If you will not use me, then one of the servants, perhaps. I'm sure Will "
The highwaywoman stood up. "Stop this, Rebeccah." She rested her hands on Rebeccah's shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. "Think! Do you suppose Josselin cares whether anyone in this household gets hurt? All that matters to him is the reward he'll get for catching me."
"Your wish to save me warms my heart, but you must face it, my dear. He has me boxed."
"No!" Rebeccah threw herself at Kate, pressing her face into her shoulder and beginning to sob. After a moment, Kate's arms came round her and held her close.
"There, there," soothed Kate, her breath warm against Rebeccah's ear. "It was always on the cards that it would end this way. At heart I knew it, and so must you have. But I am glad it did not come before I had made your acquaintance. Very glad."
Kate's shirt and coat were now quite damp. Rebeccah pulled back and looked up at the other woman, her vision blurry. "There must be something we can do."
"Ask for a free pardon from the Queen herself perhaps?" joked Kate. She wiped away Rebeccah's tears with a finger. "Tsk! Your pretty eyes are quite red with weeping."
For several minutes the sound of men's voices and booted feet clumping up the stairs had been growing louder, now came sounds of movement outside the room as they plucked up their courage. The two women exchanged a glance.
"They must have got past Mama," murmured Rebeccah.
"Ay." Kate pulled out her pistol and handed it to Rebeccah. Then she took off her baldric and sword. "Take these, so there can be no misunderstanding."
They were heavier than she expected and she almost dropped them. After a moment, she discarded them on the bed.
"Kate!" She whispered, barely able to get the words out round the lump in her throat. "Please don't do this."
"Hush. Be brave now. It's almost over." Kate took another step away from her. "You can come in now, gentlemen," she called. "I am unarmed and willing to surrender."
A man peered round the doorway, his face ruddy, his wig askew. His gaze skipped over Rebeccah, and settled on the tall figure of the highwaywoman. Kate held her hands clear of her body so it was obvious that she was unarmed.
"Looks all right," said the ruddy-faced man to someone out of sight. "Come on." And with a rush, the room filled with his companions who pushed Rebeccah aside and surrounded Kate in a circle that kept them just out of arm's reach.
On the surface Kate appeared calm, almost somnolent, but Rebeccah could see the wariness as she eyed the rank-smelling thugs surrounding her, some smacking clubs into meaty palms. Should they choose to beat her to a pulp, there would be little she could do.
"Do not hurt her, she is unarmed," blurted Rebeccah. "Her weapons are over there." She pointed to the bed.
"We'll not hurt her more than she deserves," came a deep voice, then a man she hadn't seen before entered the bedchamber.
Elegant clothing couldn't disguise the brute beneath. Something about the new arrival's solidity, the pugnacious set of his jaw and broad shoulders perhaps, put Rebeccah in mind of a bull terrier.
"Josselin." Kate's eyes sparked with hatred. But her obvious dislike seemed only to amuse the thieftaker.
Something clinked, and Rebeccah saw that Josselin was holding a pair of shackles. He handed them to one of his men. "Put those on her."
The man took them and edged forward, clearly reluctant to leave the protection of his fellows. His eyes were fixed on Kate's face, and she arched an eyebrow at him, then smiled mockingly and held out her hands. He grunted, checking as though for a trap, then slipped the shackles over her wrists and began to fasten them.
Seeing the highwaywoman accepting her fate so meekly sent a pang through Rebeccah. If it weren't for me ....
Once the tall figure was safely shackled, the tension in the room eased perceptibly.
"Told you Blue-Eyed Nick's reputation was overrated," said Josselin, looking at his men with an air of triumph. "Let's get her to Newgate, where she belongs. Bring her."
He turned and strode towards the door, then paused and looked back at Rebeccah. "Shall I tell your sister the good news, Madam, or will you?"
For a moment she didn't know what he was talking about. Then it clicked. Anne hired him to capture Kate. He has completed his task.
She strove for dignity. "My sister is indisposed at present. I will tell her."
"As you wish." He nodded and disappeared from the room.
"Come on, you. Get moving," said someone.
It was Kate's voice, and Rebeccah turned and saw a club had thumped into Kate's kidneys, forcing her forward. "There's no need for that!"
The owner of the club sneered at Rebeccah, but he didn't use it again. Kate smiled her thanks as she let herself be escorted from the bedchamber. Frozen by misery and helplessness, Rebeccah stood on the landing, watching them descend, then, she followed.
Her mother and the servants were waiting in the hallway, white-faced but unharmed. A mute Mrs Dutton held out a hand to her daughter, and Rebeccah hurried to her side and clasped it. Together they followed the prisoner and her escort outside. A cheer went up from the watchers when they emerged into the square, where a cart now waited, its horse looking bored.
"They've caught Blue-Eyed Nick," yelled someone, and the news spread rapidly through the knots of onlookers gathered there.
Kate halted by the cart, and glanced back to those waiting on the front step. Rebeccah raised a hand. Kate nodded, her gaze understanding.
Josselin drew one of his men to one side and spoke to him. The man nodded then turned and strode towards Kate, grinning and smacking his club into his palm. Kate said something sharp and tried to back away from him, but the cart blocked her path. The man raised his club and brought it down.
"No!" screamed Rebeccah, as Kate crumpled under the vicious blow to her head. Only her mother's grip prevented her from running to Kate's side.
"You cannot help him now, Beccah," said Mrs Dutton, her voice sharp. "Come away. Your sister needs you."
She watched Josselin's men throw the limp highwaywoman into the cart, as though she were a sack of potatoes, then turned on her mother. "Why should I care what happens to Anne?" She was trembling with fury. "After what she's done to Kate?"
"'Kate'?" Her mother looked at sea. Then she gave Rebeccah a little shake. "Tsk, Beccah. You are upset, so I will make allowances for your unkindness to your sister. I said only that we cannot help your friend now. If we put our heads together it should not be beyond us to find some way to help later. Now come inside. The neighbours are staring."
Still trembling, Rebeccah allowed herself to be ushered indoors.
CONTINUED IN PART 3
Return to The Bard's Corner
Return to the Australian Xena Information Page