© 2004 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This is the first story in what will eventually be a two-story sequence called 'Rebeccah and the Highwayman' — which means that, though it doesn't leave you in mid air, there is more to come ... when I get around to writing it. <g>
It depicts a loving relationship between two consenting adult women.
Though I researched the period in which this story is set, there are bound to be anachronisms. Most are due to oversight and laziness on my part, but some are deliberate, to suit my plot.
REBECCAH AND THE HIGHWAYMAN:
A MEETING ON SHOOTER'S HILL
(Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )
"Turn around," said the Ordinary of Newgate, shouting to make himself heard above the mob's heckles and catcalls. Kate did so without reluctance — far better to look at those who had travelled miles to attend Tyburn's Hanging Fair than the Triple Tree.
Hawkers were selling snacks and gin, and pretty girls in white were distributing flowers and oranges from baskets. That group of keen-eyed men must be surgeons seeking specimens for dissection. As for that old woman doing a brisk trade in flimsy pamphlets.... Kate squinted and made out the title: 'The Confessions of 'Blue-Eyed Nick', the female Highwayman.' No doubt a luridly exaggerated account of her exploits. She curled her lip.
"Here come your visitors." The guards around the cart parted to let through a group of four. She blinked down at the familiar faces of her parents and brothers. "Say your farewells and be quick about it." The Ordinary jumped down and went to talk to the hangman.
"Kate." Her father was gazing up at her, his expression sad. Beside him stood her mother, eyes bright with intelligence, the way they had been before grief and hardship fogged her wits.
"Thank you both for coming," managed Kate.
"What, no word of welcome for me?" Her younger brother was still wearing the uniform he'd died in at Blenheim.
"You are welcome indeed, Ralph." The ragged wound in his temple made her wince. "Does it hurt?"
He shook his head. "Not any more."
"And are you glad to see me too?" Eyes as blue as her own regarded her.
"When am I ever not, Ned?"
The ruggedly handsome face crinkled into a smile. "Bless you. Couldn't miss a good hanging, could I? Especially when it's my sister's."
Yet it's odd how I am the only one hanging today, thought Kate. For this cart is wide enough for eight.
"We've come to say our farewells," said her father, "haven't we, Mother?" His wife nodded.
"To give you a good send off," said Ralph.
"And provide a friendly face in the mob," added Ned.
Their kindness humbled Kate. "Thank you." She paused then said gruffly, "I'm sorry for ... everything."
Her father sighed. "Too late for that, I fear."
Ashamed, she ducked her head, and when she looked up again, it was to see the Ordinary coming towards her, shouting, "Hurry along now. The time for farewells is over." He scrambled up onto the cart.
Kate watched with blurred vision as her family were escorted to the edge of the crowd, and scanned the people standing either side of them. A familiar face stopped her in her tracks.
"You may give your speech now," said the Ordinary in her ear.
Ignoring the prison chaplain, she glared at the handsome figure in the expensive clothes and brand new wig. He gave her a mocking smile, and doffed his hat. Rage bubbled up inside Kate and her hands balled into fists before she remembered — Wildey was dead. The shot from her own pistol had taken his life.
"Your speech," repeated the Ordinary, impatience seeping into his voice.
She glanced at him. "I have none."
His cheeks flushed with annoyance. "You had plenty of time! To the nub of things then." He jumped down and signalled.
The hangman secured the other end of the halter looped round her neck to the massive beam above her. He hopped up onto the cart and came towards her, a blindfold in his left hand.
"Take a last look," he advised.
She tried to fix her family's faces in her mind. Her father and brothers' eyes were glistening, and her mother was holding a handkerchief to her nose.
"Goodbye," mouthed Kate. Then the blindfold stole the view, leaving her feeling alone and vulnerable.
"Get on with it. We haven't got all day!" yelled someone in the crowd, triggering laughter. Nearby, the Ordinary had begun to pray loudly for 'this wretched sinner', and above her a crow cawed.
The cart rocked, and she knew that the hangman had stepped out of it. She tried to still the trembling that had overtaken her. Then a whip cracked, and a horse whinnied, and a great yell went up from the crowd as the cart lurched forward.
Kate would have gone with it, but for the noose around her neck....
Kate woke with a gasp, and sat up. Her heart was threatening to pound its way out of her chest. She took in the familiar surroundings with a sense of relief, and wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of one hand,
"Are you well?" asked the red-haired woman lying next to her.
"A bad dream, that's all." Already the nightmare of Tyburn was fading. "Remind me not to have oysters for supper again."
Alice wrinkled her nose and grinned. "It wasn't the oysters made you sleepy."
Kate laughed, leaned over, and pressed a kiss against a soft cheek. "No indeed," she said. "And very agreeable it was too. Thank you."
Before she had caught the widowed landlady's eye, Kate had rented a room on one of the lower floors of the 4-storey tenement building in Covent Garden. The room was cheap; it was also cramped and dark (Alice's husband had bricked up one of the windows to save on tax). And as for 'fully furnished', it boasted only a couple of benches, a table that wobbled, and a straw mattress placed directly on the floorboards. Sharing Alice's rooms on the top floor was a marked improvement, as was sharing her soft bed and even softer favours. And to cap it all, Kate still paid the same rent.
Her satisfied chuckle made Alice raise an eyebrow, then she rolled out of bed and crossed to the sash window raised to allow cool air into the August-hot room. Dusk was falling at last.
"Are you working tonight?" came Alice's voice as Kate assessed the hour and the weather.
She stretched then nodded. "It's a fine dry night for it." She returned to the bed, stooped and pulled out the chamberpot.
While Kate relieved herself, Alice slipped into her robe and went through to the other room. She returned clutching some scraps of paper.
"For you." She put them on the table next to the basin. Kate grunted her thanks, finished wiping her armpits with a flannel, and dried her hands.
While Alice used the chamberpot, Kate sorted through the notes her hired informants had slipped under Alice's front door while she was otherwise engaged. Most of the almost illegible scrawls she discarded instantly. The one from Edmund Speke at the Bull Inn posthouse on the London to Dover road was promising except that she had left it too late. She tapped it with her fingernail and pursed her lips.
"A likely prospect?" Alice covered the chamberpot with a cloth and shoved it back under the bed.
Kate reached for the shirt she had draped over a chair back. "Would have been. According to Speke, a passenger on the Canterbury stage had two bags of gold with him." She shrugged and finished buttoning then reached for her waistcoat, hose, and knee breeches. "Still, Shooter's Hill is not a bad idea. Haven't been there for a while."
Alice's brows drew together. "You will be careful, won't you? I'd hate to see that handsome neck of yours stretched."
"As would I," agreed Kate with a smile.
She tied her cravat and went hunting for her boots. One was under the bed where she had flung it earlier. With a grunt of effort she tugged them on. While she shrugged into her coat, slipped her baldric over her head and settled the sword at her hip, her landlady set about dressing.
"Help me with these," ordered Alice, indicating her stays.
Kate complied, then watched appreciatively as the older woman stepped into her stockings and petticoats and pulled on the green silk mantua Kate had bought her last week. It complemented her red hair, and Kate told her so. Alice dimpled and blew her a kiss.
She glanced out the window once more. Night had fallen in earnest. She had better get going. Slinging her saddlebags over one shoulder, she grabbed the tricorne from its hook, and settled it on her head. Alice followed her through to the other room without speaking.
As she reached for the front door knob, Kate was already preoccupied working out the route she must take if she were to avoid the night watchmen that patrolled the streets of London. The Charleys were frequently old and decrepit, but why take any chances?
She was half way down the first flight of stairs when it occurred to her that she had forgotten something. Pausing, she peered back up to where Alice was standing silhouetted in the open doorway, watching her.
"Later, my dear," she called, raising a hand in farewell.
"Take care," came the soft reply.
Clover flicked her ears forward, nudged Kate in the chest, and nickered a greeting.
"Miss me, did you?" Kate brushed away the oats the mare had deposited on her waistcoat and patted her neck. From the sleek look of her, she had been recently curried.
She glanced round and saw a stableboy in a dirty apron lurking close by, his attention split between Kate and his pitchfork.
"Tom," she called, digging her hand in her coat pocket and pulling out what felt like a crown. "Catch."
He dropped the pitchfork and snatched the spinning coin out of the air. A grin split his grubby face as he saw what it was worth.
"That's for taking such good care of my horse."
With a shy grin, he tucked the five shillings into his pocket, retrieved his pitchfork and resumed tossing straw into an empty stall.
It was no wonder Clover was a favourite with the boy, thought Kate. She was a good-natured beast though she had her moments of mischief. The other stalls were occupied either with temperamental thoroughbreds, whose owners had come up to town for the season, or nags wearing themselves out pulling Hackney carriages.
"Let's get you tacked up," she told Clover, who nodded as if in agreement.
Kate fetched the heavy saddle from its place in the corner of the stall and settled it on the mare's back. As she tightened the girth, Clover tried to eat her cravat and then her cuff, and settled for lipping her ear.
"Not enough exercise, that's your problem," chided Kate, wiping slobber from her ear with a grimace. "We're going to remedy that."
She threw the saddlebags over Clover's neck, took out the brace of pistols, checked they were loaded, and put them back. Then she climbed into the saddle and with a light touch on the reins and soft press of the knee, urged the mare into motion.
As they passed Tom he raised a hand in farewell, and called, "Good luck." Kate had never told him her occupation, but he had almost certainly guessed. His discretion was another reason why she paid him well. She returned his wave with a smile, then horse and rider emerged into the night air....
It took Kate a while to reach the outskirts of the city because of her circumspect route. It was a relief finally to join the London to Dover road, deserted after dark, and to let Clover break into a gallop.
As they sped through the night, dwellings became fewer, and cultivated fields changed to patches of heathland. Kate took off her hat, the better to feel the breeze in her hair, but redonned it when she reached Blackheath.
In daylight, the soil and vegetation of the heath were darker that that of its surroundings, hence the name. But at night everything was black, except to the north where the waters of the Thames reflected the gibbous moon.
Slowing Clover to a canter, then a trot, Kate urged the mare off the highway and towards a favourite copse near the base of Shooter's Hill. There, she dismounted and let Clover crop leaves and a clump of grass.
Kate pulled her mask and kerchief from her saddlebags and put them on, leaving the kerchief loose around her neck for now. She pulled out the brace of pistols and stuck them in the waistband of her breeches, then flipped open the lid of her pocketwatch and squinted. Almost ten o'clock.
In her saddlebags were her clay pipe and a tobacco pouch filled with her favourite Mild Virginia. She found them and sat on a log, smoking contentedly, though the fragrant curl of sweet-scented smoke drew a nicker of protest from Clover. When the pipe was finished, she pondered whether to fill herself another one, but instead hummed folk songs and tried to identify the constellations.
She was beginning to think that everyone was abed and that this was a wasted journey when the hooting of an owl and bark of a fox were followed by a faint rumbling. Ironbound wheels on the highway? Kate squinted dark-adapted eyes and stood up. Surely that was the glimmer of carriage lights?
She pulled the kerchief up over her nose and mouth, retrieved Clover, and mounted up. As the vehicle drew nearer, it became clear that it was a private carriage — a coach and four with a footman clinging precariously to the back.
"What do you say, Clover? Should Blue-Eyed Nick see what valuables they're carrying?" The mare pawed the ground, and Kate laughed and patted her neck. "You're as impatient as I am, aren't you? Very well. Let's go to work."
Rebeccah tried not to belch pickled onion. Having something to eat at the last stop had been a mistake. At the time her grumbling stomach, without sustenance since breakfast, had seemed pathetically grateful for the ploughman's lunch and cup of small beer provided by the shabby coaching inn, but now ....
She pressed her handkerchief to her lips and stifled a groan. It didn't help that she had a headache, and that Anne would keep prattling on about nothing in particular. Right now she was boasting of the admirers she had attracted while in Chatham, and speculating how jealous her two London suitors would be. Which led on to how much they must have missed Anne, and what they would be willing to do to prove themselves worthy of her hand.
Rebeccah ground her teeth. Since it was plain to anyone with the least ounce of sense that her sister cared neither for Rupert Filmer nor Frederick Ingrum (in fact she doubted if her sister could care for anyone except herself) she wished Anne would just toss a coin and get the decision over with. It wasn't as if either man were after her for her sweet nature, after all. Once Anne married, her husband would own her and all she brought with her — in this case their father's lucrative business and much of his fortune.
I will never marry except for love, resolved Rebeccah. As if that is likely! She gave an inward sigh. You know very well most men ignore you when they learn how small your portion is. A familiar stab of resentment flared, and she clamped down on it. Papa said it was for the best, she reminded herself. In order to keep his business in one piece.... Ah, but was it best for Mama, Anne, and I?
The carriage jolted and lurched, and Rebeccah shifted in her seat. Carriages were fine for short trips around London, but the terrible state of the highways made long journeys an ordeal. Rebeccah's maid threw her a sympathetic smile. Anne was too busy talking to notice her sister's discomfort, and their mother was staring out at the stars — it was a remarkably clear night and she had drawn back the curtain.
Mary had been the obvious choice to accompany them to Chatham. Though she was dumpy and rather plain looking, she was competent and reliable (though she did have a distressing tendency to speak her mind) and had been with the Dutton family the longest of all three maids. The choice of footman had been less straightforward. Rebeccah would have preferred Will to come with them, but they had a lot of luggage and his back had been plaguing him. So when Anne suggested the recently hired Titus, who was younger and stronger (and also, as Anne was fond of pointing out, more handsome), and their mother had voiced no objection, Rebeccah had reluctantly agreed.
Titus hadn't done anything to make Rebeccah dislike him. Indeed, he had done everything required of him and more while at Chatham. But though his sheep-eyed adoration of her sister might endear him to Anne, it made Rebeccah uneasy. At least he wasn't travelling inside the carriage with them. Armed with the flintlock pistol provided by his employers, he was keeping a sharp eye out for highwaymen and footpads.
That thought made her raise the curtain beside her and peer out into the darkness. They were crossing Blackheath she saw with some trepidation. Robert, the coachman, always carried a blunderbuss with him, but still ...
"Not long now, Beccah," said her mother with a smile. "It was nice to stay with your Uncle Andrew and see your cousins, but it is nicer still to be going back to one's own home, don't you agree?"
Had it not been for the carriage's rear wheel, which a rock had splintered beyond mending, they should have been home three hours ago. But it had taken the coachman longer to locate and fit a replacement than he had bargained on. When Rebeccah realised they would not be home until well after dark she suggested stopping at a coaching inn for the night. But inns were not the most hygienic or comfortable of places, and both her mother and sister had voted for travelling on.
She let the curtain fall, and willed the horses to go faster. To her astonishment, they did. "I beg your pardon!" The increased swaying and rocking motion had thrown her against her sister, who crossly shoved her aside.
"What's Robert playing at?" huffed Anne, straightening her dress.
It was hard to tell above the clattering of the carriage wheels and the clipclopping of the horses' hooves, but Rebeccah could have sworn she heard a shot. Her heart began to pound. Distant shouts were followed by the sound of a horse whinnying. The coach began to slow, then, from close by, came a loud bang.
So suddenly it almost threw Rebeccah to the floor, the carriage stopped. From outside came the sound of cursing and scuffling.
"Robbers!" Mary's eyes were as round as saucers. "They'll cut our throats."
Anne crossed herself with a shaking hand. "Why couldn't we have decided to stay at the coaching inn?"
Why indeed? thought Rebeccah. But now was not the time for recriminations.
"If only your father were here," murmured their mother, ashen-faced.
Had John Dutton been here he'd probably have been at as much of a loss as the rest of them, reflected Rebeccah wryly.
"We must stay calm," she said, though such a thing was easier to say than do. She had heard terrible tales of horses slaughtered, of victims robbed, beaten, and left for dead, but she kept that to herself. "Robert and Titus may yet succeed in driving them off. And if they do not, well ... if we give them what they want, they should have no reason to harm us." She didn't dare pop her head out the window to see what was going on. A horse neighed, and the carriage lurched forward then stopped.
Silence descended. Rebeccah clasped her hands tightly and exchanged a frightened glance with her mother and Mary. Anne had closed her eyes and was muttering 'The Lord Is My Shepherd' under her breath.
The carriage rocked. A series of thuds followed.
"Our luggage?" wondered Rebeccah aloud.
Anne looked outraged. "They'll smash that decanter Uncle Andrew gave Mama."
"It doesn't signify," said their mother. "Andrew can buy me a new one."
Then came a long pause that seemed to go on forever.
Anne's eyes blinked open and she looked round hopefully. "Perhaps they have taken what they want and gone —"
Footsteps crunched towards the carriage. The handle beside Rebeccah turned and the door was wrenched open. Rebeccah put a hand to her mouth and shrank back in her seat.
A stranger peered into the carriage, one hand resting on the sword hilt at his left hip, the other brandishing a pistol. "Ladies." A kerchief over the bottom half of his face muffled his voice. Behind his mask his eyes were bright and startlingly pale, though it was hard to make out their colour in the moonlight.
Mary let out a gasp. "Blue-Eyed Nick!" Oddly, her terror seemed to ease at the sight of him.
"You have heard of me, Madam?" Amusement coloured the intruder's voice as he turned to regard the maid. "I'm flattered." He doffed his tricorne and bowed, and Rebeccah saw that, regardless of the fashion for wigs, his hair was his own, long, and black, and tied at the nape of his neck.
"My apologies for any inconvenience," continued the highwayman, straightening, "but I must ask you to hand me your valuables." He turned once more to Rebeccah, and thrust his upturned hat at her. "Let's start with you, Madam. That pretty trinket around your even prettier neck."
Her hand rose to her pearl choker necklace, then stopped as a thought occurred to her. "Our coachman and footman," she managed. "Are they hurt?"
"Give him what he wants, Beccah" urged her mother, her voice fearful.
"They were well the last I saw." The man's tone was neutral. "If you would care to step outside and see for yourself, Madam?" He put his hat back on and held out a gloved hand.
"Stay where you are," hissed Anne. "Who knows what the blackguard will do to you once you are in his clutches."
The eyes behind the mask grew cold. "You have my word, she will not come to harm."
"The word of a murderer?"
The highwayman ignored Anne's question and turned his pale gaze on Rebeccah once more. Suddenly the cramped carriage that she had longed all day to escape had never seemed more desirable. Robert and Titus. She sucked in her breath, and with as dignified an air as she could manage, took the proffered hand, glad it was gloved since in the confines of the carriage she had removed hers.
Her fears that he might take liberties with her person proved unfounded as he handed her down to the hard ground and stood back. Only now that they were on the same level did she realise how tall the fellow was.
He gestured towards the rear of the carriage. She followed the direction of his pointing finger and saw two figures lying there, hands bound behind their backs. Beside them lay the Dutton luggage, which had been opened and rifled, and the servants' discharged weapons.
"Your pardon, Madam," called a dejected Robert. "He was too much for me."
Movement in the open doorway of the carriage proved to be her mother peering out. Rebeccah gestured reassurance and glanced round. A single black horse was cropping the grass by the side of the road. One man managed to best two?
"A lurching seat and a trembling hand can throw off a man's aim," said the highwayman, as though divining her thoughts. "Do not think too badly of them."
The comment brought a string of obscenities from Titus, and Rebeccah felt her cheeks heating in response. Pulling a kerchief from his pocket, the highwayman strode over, stooped, and stuffed it in the footman's mouth. Titus continued swearing, but now Rebeccah couldn't make out the words.
A highwayman defending my honour, she thought, with a sense of unreality. Bless me!
"Now we have settled the matter of whether I am a murderer," continued Blue-Eyed Nick, "perhaps we can get back to that trinket?" He took off his hat once more, upturned it and held it out.
His effrontery triggered her temper. "Perhaps not a murderer, Sir, but a common thief who preys on helpless women," she blurted, then wished she hadn't. But the eyes behind the mask crinkled with amusement not anger and she let out a breath in relief.
"Thief I may be, but common?" He chuckled. "As for you, Mistress ... Rebeccah, wasn't it?" He seemed to relish saying her name. "'Helpless' is not the first word that comes to mind." Again he waggled the hat.
She remembered her instructions to the others. The highwayman was behaving pleasantly enough, if verging on the familiar, but who knew what turn his temper might take if she didn't give him what he wanted? Best not to try his patience. She reached up and undid the clasp, then dropped the pearl choker necklace into the hat.
"Thank you. Those too." He pointed at the matching peardrops in her ears. When they had thudded into the hat alongside the necklace, he picked one up, examined it, and said, "Exquisite."
"Your opinion, Sir, is irrelevant." Was that a snort of amusement? To her annoyance, her cheeks grew hot.
"Are you well, Beccah?" It was Anne this time peering out of the carriage.
"I am," called Rebeccah. "And Robert and Titus are both safe, though bound."
Anne turned to relay the information to her companions.
"The ring too." The highwayman pointed to the signet ring.
The pistol came up and he took a step towards her. "I did not give you a choice."
"Take it by force if you must." Hot tears spilled down her cheek. "But I will not give it willingly. For it was my father's and he is dead."
It had started out as any other Tuesday. Distant shouts of "Four for sixpence, mackerel," and "Cherries ripe-ripe-ripe," had woken Rebeccah, and she threw back the sheets and stretched, then walked through into the little dressing room that adjoined her bedroom to use the close stool. Back in the bedroom once more, she rang for her maid, crossed to the window and drew the curtains.
The streethawkers were standing by the Square's central garden, looking daggers at one another and striking poses to display the wares in their wicker baskets to best advantage. Rebeccah scratched her head and yawned, and pitied a little milkmaid going from house to house with her heavy pails.
As she gazed down at the bustle two floors below, her thoughts turned inwards. Perhaps she should go shopping? Father's birthday was fast approaching and she had yet to buy him a present. He could always use more gloves.
"Twelve pence a peck, oysters," yelled a new voice. A crookbacked little man had joined the other streethawkers and was receiving resentful looks. A liveried footman appeared and hurried towards him, examined the contents of his basket, then beckoned him towards the basement of one of the houses.
Someone's having oysters for dinner.
A knock at the bedroom door made Rebeccah turn. "Come in."
The door opened to reveal the plump figure of her maid. "Good morrow, Madam." Mary took a firm grip on the ewer and curtsied.
Rebeccah smiled. "Good morrow to you, Mary."
"Am I to dress you now, Madam?"
She nodded and led the way through into the dressing room. Mary busied herself filling the basin on the washstand with hot water from the ewer.
"I thought ... the brown faille?"
"A good choice, Madam."
While Rebeccah washed and dried herself, and put on her stockings and shoes, Mary took the embroidered gown from the rack and shook out its creases.
"I might buy my father some gloves for his birthday." Rebeccah allowed herself to be eased into her corset, underskirt, overskirt and stomacher. "What do you think?"
"I'm sure anything you buy him will be appreciated, Madam." The maid combed Rebeccah's hair and pinned it up. She cocked her head to one side to assess the result, and gave a nod. "There."
Rebeccah glanced at her reflection in the looking glass. "Thank you, Mary. That will be all."
"Very good, Madam." Mary curtseyed and hurried out.
Rebeccah's father was just finishing his dish of chocolate, his close-cropped head looking naked without its wig, when she descended to the dining room on the first floor.
George the butler bowed at Rebeccah's entrance, and murmured, "Tea, Madam?" He knew she preferred it to chocolate. Receiving an affirmative, he hurried away.
"Morrow, Beccah." Her father gave her a fond smile. "You are the first down, as always."
"Good morrow, Papa." She kissed his cheek, pulled out a chair next to him, and sat down. "Are you well?"
"Indeed I am. Shan't be able to keep you company this morning though, my dear, for I have business to attend to. That ship from the West Indies has finally docked."
She helped herself to bread and butter and a couple of slices of cold mutton. The butler reappeared with a steaming pot of tea and poured Rebeccah a dish. She nodded her thanks and began to eat.
"And what are your plans for today?" Her father wiped his lips on a napkin.
Rebeccah finished chewing then swallowed. "I expect Anne and I shall go shopping."
"You young women and your shopping." He gave her an indulgent smile and stood up. "Then I shall see you at dinner."
With that he left the dining room and she heard his shoes clattering down the stairs. Ten minutes later her mother and still bleary-eyed sister joined her and she forgot all about him.
After breakfast, Rebeccah and Anne drove to the Royal Exchange. While downstairs it was the noisy haunt of merchants like her father, its first floor boasted an array of nearly 200 small shops, most specialising in apparel. Anne bought herself some silk stockings shot through with gold and silver thread, ribbons, and a fan. Rebeccah contented herself with finding a pair of snug-fitting gloves, and the Jessamy butter her father liked to use to give the leather suppleness and fragrance.
Mission accomplished, they drank tea in an India House and returned home in time for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. When her father didn't appear for his dinner as promised, Rebeccah wasn't unduly perturbed. Quite often business detained him. He was either at the Docks, supervising the unloading of cargo, or at the Exchange, or reading the papers and gossiping with his friends in Lloyd's coffeehouse.
She spent the afternoon playing cards with her mother, taking a dish of syllabub, and keeping a weather eye on Anne, who since it became known that her father intended to settle his business and the bulk of his fortune on her, had started receiving calls from admirers. Rebeccah didn't think much of any of these potential suitors for her sister's hand, but then Anne's tastes had always differed from her own.
When suppertime came and went, though, and it began to grow dark, and there was still no sign of her father, Rebeccah began to worry. From the constant glances towards the door, her mother was concerned too. When at last the senior footman came to announce a gentleman, "a Mr Edgeworth," her heart gave a thump and her mother's face paled.
"Isn't he father's clerk?" asked Anne. "Whatever can he want at this hour?"
"Show him in, please, Will," ordered Mrs Dutton, standing up. Her mother's hands were visibly trembling, and Rebeccah stood next to her and gave them a comforting squeeze.
"It may be nothing serious," she cautioned. Her mother didn't answer. Her gaze was fixed on the door, which opened to admit the slightly oldfashioned young man Rebeccah had met once at her father's place of business. He took off his hat, bowed, and regarded the three women gravely.
"Mr Edgeworth," managed her mother. "To what do we owe this honour?"
"I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Mrs Dutton."
Anne's eyes widened. "Why, what has happened?"
Her mother sank into her chair and Rebeccah threw her a concerned glance, before motioning Edgeworth to continue. If the news is as bad I fear it is, I must be strong for all of us, for certainly Anne and Mama will not take it well.
"This morning ... at the Docks ... Mr Dutton complained of griping pains in his chest and left arm, but the attack passed and he thought no more about it." Rebeccah wondered if Edgeworth's tricorne would survive the violent kneading he was giving it.
"Is he dead, Sir?" Her blunt question drew shocked glances from everyone in the room.
"Uh ... " Edgeworth grimaced. "Yes, Madam. I regret to have to inform you that at 3 o'clock this afternoon Mr Dutton passed away."
Her mother's wail almost deafened Rebeccah, and she turned to comfort her. But Anne beat her two it. The two clasped one another as though it were all that stood between them and insanity. And perhaps they were right.
So. Papa has gone to join dear William. A lump formed in Rebeccah's throat. No more would he stride along the London streets, avoiding sedan chairs, calling out greetings to friends and acquaintances, doffing his tricorne to the ladies, and always tap ... tap ... tapping that ivory-topped walking stick of his.
He'll never see the gloves.
"I can assure you that everything that could be done was," continued Edgeworth, trying not to look at the weeping women, and mangling his hat still further. "We sent for a physician, but by the time he arrived there was nothing he could do."
"I am sure you have nothing to reproach yourself for, Sir," managed Rebeccah. She blew her nose and stood up straighter. Papa always said I was the strong one. Now is not the time to prove him wrong. There are preparations to make. "May I enquire where... he ... is now?" In other circumstances, Edgeworth's open relief at her self-possession would have made her indignant.
"I took the liberty, Madam, of conveying your father's... ah ... mortal remains here. They are outside, in a carriage."
"I see." She gnawed her lower lip and considered. Her father had always said his clerk was a fount of knowledge. "May I ask ... do you have any advice as to an undertaker?"
Edgeworth produced a small rectangle of card from the pocket of his coat. "I can vouch that this is a reputable firm, Madam."
She took it and glanced at the morbid picture of a shrouded figure. Eleazor Malory, Joiner .... Coffins, Shrouds, Palls, and all things necessary to funerals .... "Thank you, Mr Edgeworth. I can see why my father relied so heavily on you." He shuffled his feet at the compliment.
"Shall I ask the footmen to bring Mr Dutton into ... um, the Parlour?"
Rebeccah glanced at her sobbing mother and sister and saw no help would be forthcoming from that quarter. "If you would be so kind." She tapped the card. "And if you would also be so kind as to ask Mr Malory to present himself at his earliest opportunity?"
"As you wish, Madam." He bowed then, and excused himself, and Rebeccah set about comforting her mother and sister and getting them both to bed.
Much later, after the undertaker had been and gone, she went down to the parlour to gaze at her father's body, now laid out in his Sunday Best, and to give vent to her grief.
When the worst of the storm of weeping passed, she noticed the garnet signet ring glinting in the candlelight. Her father had known she admired it and promised she could have it when he died — so she removed it and put it on.
From that day to this, the ring had never left Rebeccah's finger.
"Have pity!" Her heart raced. "It can mean nothing like as much to you as it does to me."
For a long moment, the highwayman's eyes drilled into her. Then he gave a single curt nod and stepped back. "Very well. You may keep the ring."
There was a roaring in her ears, and she felt distinctly giddy. A hand under her elbow steadied her. "Are you well?" She waited for her heart to slow. "Mistress Rebeccah?" Since he seemed set on an answer, she nodded. After a moment more, the supporting hand withdrew.
She wiped away the tears, conscious that her nose must be red, and her cheeks unbecomingly flushed, and then annoyed with herself for being concerned with such matters.
"Let us return to the carriage," said the highwayman, gesturing. "I still have business with your companions."
He helped her up, and while Rebeccah took her seat proceeded to deprive her sister of a pearl necklace and bracelet (a gift from Mr Ingrum), and her mother of her purse, her watch, and a diamond hairpin.
Mary had only sixpence in her pocket. The highwayman flipped the coin, caught it, and handed it back to the maid with a bow. "Your need appears to be greater than mine." Anne frowned at this show of favouritism, but said nothing.
By now the tricorne was full of Dutton jewellery and the highwayman whistled to the black horse, which trotted over and stood quietly while he emptied the contents into a saddlebag. He donned his hat, put one booted foot into the stirrup, and mounted up.
Rebeccah gaped, as he drew his sword and rode towards the rear of the carriage. He cannot intend to hurt them now, can he? She leaned out the door and peered towards the two servants.
"Stand up," she heard Blue-Eyed Nick order. Made awkward by their bound wrists, the coachman and footman struggled to their feet. "Turn around."
Moonlight flashed on honed steel, and Rebeccah put a hand to her mouth as the rapier snaked out and sliced cleanly through their ropes. Her gasp drew his head round towards her, then those pale eyes were holding hers once more. The kerchief hid his expression, but she thought he was smiling.
"Has the rogue gone yet?" hissed Anne behind her.
He touched his sword to his hat in a mock salute and rode away.
"Did you hear me, Beccah?" Her sister's voice was impatient. "Has that vermin gone?"
The highwayman increased his speed to a canter, then to a gallop, and disappeared into the darkness. Rebeccah stared after him, puzzled by the conflicting emotions he had stirred in her.
"Yes," she murmured. "That vermin has gone."
Home at last, thought Rebeccah.
As the coach and four rumbled around the central garden in St James's Square, she saw that while most of the houses were dark, their residents presumably snoring in their beds, one had all its lamps blazing. The carriage had barely pulled to a halt in front of it when the front door opened and servants wearing relieved smiles poured out to greet them.
They handed down the occupants, and helped Robert and Titus to unload the luggage and carry it indoors.
"We feared something awful had happened to you!" exclaimed the butler, as Rebeccah followed her sister into the hall, the tension in her shoulders easing as familiar surroundings engulfed her.
"Something awful did," said Anne, allowing her maid Nancy to relieve her of her wrap and gloves. "A highwayman attacked us on Blackheath, and we are much the poorer for it."
Nancy's eyes widened.
"No one was badly hurt," added Rebeccah hastily. "Robert took a black eye and Titus has split his lip, but other than that we are safe and sound." She handed her gloves to Mary.
"Something to calm our nerves wouldn't go amiss," said Mrs Dutton, joining her daughters in the hall. She discarded her outergarments and started up the stairs. "We'll take brandy, George," she called. "In the drawing room, if you please."
The butler nodded.
Rebeccah grimaced. "Sherry for me, please." She started up the stairs after her mother.
For all it was a warm night, a fire was burning in the drawing room hearth. Her mother stood rubbing her hands in front of it, as much for the comfort of routine, Rebeccah suspected, as to get warm. She crossed to one of the easy chairs and sank into its depths, easing off shoes that had grown tight, and wiggling her toes.
The butler entered, with a silver tray on which were several full glasses. Rebeccah accepted hers with a nod of thanks, took a sip — the lingering taste of pickled onions made the sherry taste rather strange — and stared into the flames.
"Bless me, what a day!" She pressed a hand to her aching temple.
"Indeed." Anne took an easy chair beside the fire. "A broken carriage wheel and a highwayman." She sipped her brandy and gave a ladylike shudder. "And to think that only this morning we were breakfasting in Chatham, with no thought of the ordeal ahead."
"Just as well," said their mother. She drained her brandy and reached for another. The butler's face remained impassive.
A knock at the door proved to be the senior footman. "Excuse me, but Mary has just told me what happened, Madam. Do you wish me to inform the Sheriff of your losses? If so, we should lose no time."
Mrs Dutton blinked at Will then looked to her two daughters for advice.
"Indeed we should, Mama," said Anne. "The sooner that rogue is brought to justice, the better."
"Yet we were robbed after dark," objected Rebeccah. "So recompense for 'daylight robbery' will not apply. Is that not correct, Will?"
"I fear so, Madam."
"Disgraceful!" said Anne. "But the sheriff can at least set the constables after the fellow. 'Blue-Eyed Nick', indeed!" She gulped her brandy too quickly and spent the next minute coughing.
Rebeccah considered Mary's instant identification of the highwayman, presumably from the paleness of his eyes. "It will make little difference, for I suspect the constables know of him already." She turned to regard her mother who was still standing by the fire. "Tomorrow is surely soon enough for any notification." She took another sip of her sherry and thought longingly of her bed.
"We must also post a reward for the return of our property," added Anne.
Rebeccah opened her mouth then closed it again.
"You do not agree, Beccah?" asked her mother.
"In my opinion," she said, aware that all eyes were on her, "it would merely be throwing good money after bad. For even if our property should be found ... which is unlikely ... the finder's reward would swallow up half its value." She glanced down at her finger, where the garnet ring glinted red in the firelight. "Though I regret our losses, Mama, you must admit that nothing he took had any sentimental value."
"My necklace and bracelet were a gift from Mr Ingrum!" protested Anne.
"Precisely." Rebeccah's murmur elicited an outraged stare.
Mrs Dutton sighed. "There is some sense in what Beccah says, Anne." She put her empty glass on the mantelpiece and turned to the waiting footman. "A message tomorrow morning will be soon enough, Will. Thank you." He bowed and left the drawing room. "As for you, George, you may tell everyone below stairs that we shall be retiring shortly."
"Very good, Madam."
When the butler had collected the empty glasses and departed, Mrs Dutton gave Rebeccah and Anne a rueful smile. "For we are all more than ready for our beds, aren't we, my dears? But if I don't dream of being robbed and ravished by some masked villain, it will be a wonder!"
CONTINUED IN PART 2
Return to The Bard's Corner