Copyright © 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 second story in a two-story sequence called Rebeccah and the Highwayman. (The first story was 'A Meeting on Shooter's Hill'). 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.
Foul language alert. Sorry, but felons don't speak as if they are taking tea with the vicar. :)
REBECCAH AND THE HIGHWAYMAN:
IN THE SHADOW OF TYBURN
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Clover greeted her stall and the inhabitants of those on either side of it with a contented nicker. Kate grinned at the mare. Conditions at the Dutton stable in St James's Mews had been good, but there was nothing like familiar surroundings and smells, she supposed.
"Glad to be back, eh, girl?" She patted the smooth black neck, but Clover tossed her head and pulled away. She was either still annoyed with her owner or impatient to be untacked. Probably both, thought Kate.
"Get away from that horse!" came a trembling voice.
She turned to find herself face to face with the lethal end of a pitchfork. "And a good morrow to you too, Tom." She arched an eyebrow.
The stableboy blinked at the highwaywoman, then flushed beetroot red. "Beg pardon, Madam. I didn't recognise you." He lowered the pitchfork.
"Took me for someone's manservant, did you?" She gestured at her borrowed wig and blue coat. He nodded. "As you were meant to." She winked.
His eyes lit up with curiosity but he knew better than to try to satisfy it. He licked his lips and said instead, "Shall I untack and feed her?"
Clover returned Kate's enquiring glance with a dark one of her own. "That would be a kindness, Tom. For she hasn't forgiven me for letting someone else ride her and I have no hankering to have my feet stamped on."
She felt in her pocket for a coin before remembering the coat wasn't hers. Her own was sadly crumpled when she withdrew it from her saddlebags she hoped the worst of the creases would shake out. Rummaging in a pocket produced a half-a-crown and she flipped it to the waiting stableboy, who tucked it in the pocket of his dirty apron with a murmur of thanks.
He put down his pitchfork and set to work untacking Clover. As though to emphasise the personal nature of her grudge, the annoyed mare was as good as gold.
Kate sighed, slung her saddlebags over her left shoulder, then winced and slung them over her right shoulder instead. At the livery stable exit, she paused and turned.
"I likely won't be needing her again until tomorrow night," she called.
Tom looked up from placing Kate's saddle in the corner of Clover's stall and gave her a nod. "Very good, Madam."
Kate stopped at the top of the last flight of stairs to catch her breath and reflect on how out of condition she had become. As she gazed at the door to her landlady's rooms she felt a strong inclination to turn round and go back the way she had come. She squashed it, squared her shoulders, and reached for the door handle.
Alice was sitting down, which was just as well. When she saw the tall figure standing in her doorway, she swooned and slumped forward across the table and open account books.
"Alice!" Kate rushed forward, took a cold, limp hand between hers, and tried to chafe some warmth back into it. "'S Death! Are you unwell? Alice!"
But already, red-tinged eyelashes were fluttering open and colour was returning to cheeks so pale the freckles stood out in stark relief. A thankful Kate helped the other woman sit up.
"You're alive!" Relief filled Alice's eyes, and a smile curved her mouth. Her obvious delight at Kate's return made Kate feel ashamed, as did the dark shadows beneath Alice's eyes. "Won't you kiss me?"
Alice raised her face invitingly, and Kate obliged, though her kiss was clearly more perfunctory than the older woman would have liked. Kate straightened, pulled off the borrowed wig, which itched abominably, and scratched her scalp.
"Why are you dressed like a footman?" asked Alice, registering Kate's apparel.
"It's a long and convoluted tale and I will tell you about it later." She eased herself out of the blue coat and hung it over the back of a chair, aware that Alice was watching her every movement.
"And why are you favouring your left shoulder?"
For answer, Kate loosened her cravat and unbuttoned the top buttons of her shirt to reveal the bandage beneath.
"Oh!" Alice's hand flew to her mouth. "I knew something was wrong. Why else would you not return to me? Why else would you send no word?"
The landlady's words piled guilt on top of shame, and Kate concentrated on rebuttoning her shirt. "Fellow was handier with his pistol than he had a right to be," she joked.
"Who shot you? Josselin? A dragoon?"
"Neither." Kate grimaced. "A fellow Tobyman, would you believe? Whoever said there is honour among thieves was talking poppycock "
"You're lucky he didn't kill you, Kate."
"I keep telling you it's too dangerous." Alice stood up and began to pace. "But do you ever listen?"
"Night after night dashing 'Blue-Eyed Nick' " her tone was mocking " must risk her life, and for what?... Danger? Excitement? Some inner compulsion to get your neck stretched? And what about me, Kate? Stuck here, waiting, worrying about what might happen to you. Do you ever, for one second, spare a thought for what I must be going"
The landlady stopped midsentence, and looked at Kate.
"I'm sorry for causing you any distress. Truly. 'twas wrong not to let you know sooner that I was well, though the truth of it is I was incapable of doing so for several days. ... But what's done is done, and there is no point continuing in this fashion. Come now, we are friends, are we not? Let us not fall out over this."
"'Friends'!" Alice's mouth twisted.
A sudden wave of weariness washed over Kate. She pulled a chair towards her and slumped onto it.
"Kate?" She looked up to find a concerned Alice bending over her. "What is it?"
"I have tried to do too much today, that is all." She managed a reassuring smile. "A little rest and I will be my old self once more."
"Your wound ..."
"Nearly finished me," admitted Kate. "But do not fret. I am over the worst, and fast recovering."
She stood and made her way through to the bedchamber. Sinking onto the edge of the bed, she made a half-hearted attempt to take off her boots. Alice had followed her through, and she tutted, turned her back towards Kate, straddled each leg in turn, and eased off the boots.
"Thank you." Kate stretched out on the bed and closed her eyes against the daylight coming through the sash window. But her hopes for peace and quiet were shattered as Alice began to cluck around her like a mother hen.
"Aren't you going to take off your shirt and breeches?"
"Would you like me to make you some broth? This weakness could merely be hunger."
"I'm not hungry."
"Perhaps your wound ... How is your shoulder?"
Kate suppressed the urge to hide her head under a pillow. "It aches a little."
"I could change the bandage..."
"That is unnecessary."
"You look flushed. Shall I get you a cold compress for your brow?"
"Then let me brush your hair. You might find it soothing."
Kate opened bleary eyes. "Just let me rest, Alice. I am tired to the bone."
The other woman looked affronted. "I was only trying to help."
That response mollified Alice a little. "Very well." She pushed a stray strand of red hair behind one ear then pulled up a chair beside the bed and sat down. "I shall sit here, as quiet as a mouse, and keep you company while you sleep."
Silence fell, but even that seemed pregnant with Alice's desire to be of service. Kate wondered if her landlady would be even more offended if she asked her to leave the bedchamber. Fortunately, before it could come to that, there was the sound of knocking from the other room.
"Who can that be?" wondered Alice crossly. Kate didn't open her eyes but she could hear the flounce in the other woman's step as she rose and went to investigate the caller at her front door.
An indistinct murmur of voices drifted through. Whatever the conversation concerned, it ended with Alice shouting, "Oh very well, Mr Wilson. I'll see what I can do. But really, I do think you could have made some effort to sort it out yourself before coming whining to me."
Quick footsteps approached. "I have to go out, Kate," said Alice. "To fetch the nightsoil man. I'll be as quick as I can."
She kept her eyes closed. "Is it the cesspit again?"
The two cellar rooms were the cheapest lodgings available in the 4-storey tenement building that Alice had inherited from her late husband. They also had the quickest turnover of tenants. The reason for both wasn't hard to find. The rooms lacked light, were damp and low-ceilinged, and when the cesspit in the back yard got too full (which happened whenever the nightsoil collection man fell behind schedule) were prone to invasion by turds. Evidently, the Wilsons had just learned of this last drawback firsthand. Kate pursed her lips. That probably explained the pungent whiff she had detected as she came up the stairs.
"Will you be all right without me?" asked Alice.
"Of course. Go."
"If you're sure ..."
"I am. Fetch the nightsoil man."
"Very well. Try to get some rest while I'm gone, my dear." And with a last solicitous murmur, Alice departed.
Kate waited until she heard the front door slam before uttering a fervent "Thank God!" Then with a blissful smile she settled down to sleep.
She woke to find that night had fallen. As the wisps of a very pleasant dream involving Mistress Rebeccah Dutton fled, she heard movement in the other room and realised it was Alice's return that had woken her.
A face peered round the door. "Are you awake?" Kate yawned and nodded. "How do you feel."
She took a quick mental inventory. "Better. I told you all I needed was to rest."
"Thank heavens!" Alice entered, bringing a faint whiff of nightsoil with her. She crossed to the ewer sitting on the dresser, poured some water into the basin, and washed her hands.
"Did you solve the Wilsons' problem?" asked Kate, remembering.
The landlady nodded. "Of course the nightsoil man claimed it wasn't his fault. It never is." She shook her head but she was smiling as she turned and rested her gaze on Kate. She tossed aside the towel, and came and sat beside her on the bed. "It is so good to have you here." She took Kate's hand in hers and held it to her cheek. "You gave me such a fright."
"I know, and I'm sorry for it."
"Promise me you won't do it ever again."
Kate looked up at Alice, perplexed. "You know I cannot. Such things are beyond my control."
The landlady dropped Kate's hand. "You mean you won't." Her tone was sulky. "The truth is, you love robbing coaches more than you love me."
Kate sighed but said nothing. And when the reassurance she had angled for wasn't forthcoming, Alice's gaze became reproachful then a little resentful. But Kate was growing tired of the older woman's need for their relationship to be more than it was. Perhaps this increasing clinginess was because Alice too could sense that their time together was drawing to a close.
She longed to get it out in the open, to say, "Let's not ruin things now, Alice. Let's make the most of the time we have left," but feared it would only make matters worse.
Perhaps I should just get up right now, collect my belongings, and leave.
But it was dark outside, and she had nowhere else to stay, and Alice, her mood as volatile as ever, was removing her skirts and underthings in a playful, seductive manner, revealing the voluptuous body beneath.
As the other woman clambered into bed and began to unbutton Kate's shirt, Kate hesitated. Alice sensed it and paused. "Are you too tired still?" The hurt in her eyes was obvious, and Kate knew that, even though her heart wasn't in it, she couldn't refuse Alice's offer.
I may not be able to love her, God help me, but at least I can do this for her.
"Of course not." She smiled, finished the unbuttoning Alice had begun, eased her shirt off over the bandaged shoulder, and threw the garment to one side. "Help me strip off my breeches, will you?"
"Gladly," giggled Alice.
"That house there," said Kate, pointing. "See?"
The urchin glanced at the elegant town house on the far side of St James's Square. He scratched his nose then nodded.
"Good." She handed him the parcel containing the livery and wig, then a sixpence that disappeared into the pocket of his breeches as if by magic.
"Now?" He cocked his head in query.
As he touched his greasy forelock and darted off to do as she had asked, she ducked behind a tree and watched his progress. He paused at the top of the steps leading down into the Duttons' back yard, then disappeared down them. A few minutes later he was back, minus the parcel. He glanced over to where he had left Kate, then jammed his hands in his pockets and strode off, whistling.
Errand completed, Kate could have gone about her business, but the impulse to see Rebeccah one more time held her in place. She blinked as a figure appeared at the top of the Duttons' back steps a dumpy middle-aged woman in maid's uniform.
Rebeccah's maid scanned the square, her gaze pausing at Kate's tree before continuing. Either she couldn't see the highwaywoman hiding behind it, slouching to disguise her height, or Kate's skirts and the plain white cap pinned over her upswept hair had made her unrecognisable to someone who had only ever seen her in men's clothing. Whatever the reason, Mary shook her head and disappeared down the steps, and Kate let out her breath.
Minutes passed, and still Kate lingered. When a coach and pair turned into the square and pulled up in front of the Dutton residence, her hopes rose that she might at last catch a glimpse of the fair-haired young gentlewoman with the enchanting green eyes. But a plump, self-important-looking young man in clothes a size too small stepped down from the carriage and made his way to the front door. After doffing his tricorne and speaking to the footman, he was given admittance and the door closed behind him. Kate wondered who he was.
Her loitering was beginning to attract curious glances from passers-by, she realised. It was time to move on. Reluctantly, she left her hiding place and headed in the direction of Pall Mall, with the idea of taking a stroll in St James's Park as she had no wish yet to return to Alice's house in Covent Garden and some gentle exercise after her recent illness would do her good.
The fact that she was a woman alone, and her attire was neither of the best quality nor the latest cut, drew disdainful glances from the fashionable couples walking along the tree-lined avenue, but Kate ignored them, preoccupied as she with her memories. For her time in the sickroom had been a surprisingly agreeable one, especially when she had Rebeccah all to herself.
But I must put her out of my mind, she chided herself. For there is no future in this. So saying, she stopped, drew in a breath, and made a deliberate effort to take in every aspect of her surroundings. As if the Fates themselves were mocking Kate and the resolution she had just made, along the avenue, heading straight for her, came a familiar figure in a blue mantua.
It was a moment before Kate could collect her wits, unfreeze her limbs, and seek cover. A red deer grazing behind the flowering shrub she had chosen shied and scampered away. Kate wondered if her expression was as startled as the deer's. Her heart was pounding as she peered between the branches, trying not to sneeze as pollen drifted up her nose.
Rebeccah had not seen her, of that she was sure. The young woman was deep in conversation with her companion, a handsome man of about Kate's age or a little older. From his expensive, well cut clothes and assured demeanour, he was one of the gentry.
The pang that shot through Kate surprised her with its intensity, and her lips curved in a rueful smile. Just reward for the way I have treated Alice. The gusting breeze blew the man's words to her straining ears as he passed the bush.
"But my dear Rebeccah," he was saying. He must be an intimate acquaintance to address her so familiarly. "Your happiness is my first concern. You may rest assured that I will do everything within my power to " But he passed out of earshot then and left a frustrated Kate wondering whether to follow or not.
For I doubt I shall hear much to my liking. He is at least a close friend if not a suitor. And by her manner she is not averse to his attentions, Devil take him!
Then she cursed herself for her selfishness. For did she not want every happiness for Rebeccah? And was the young woman's companion not exactly the kind of fellow who might be best expected to provide it?
But as Kate turned, shoulders slumped, in the direction of the Park's exit and headed back towards Covent Garden, she couldn't help feeling aggrieved that Rebeccah had given her no inkling there was a suitor on the scene. For did I not kiss her, and did she not act as though she enjoyed it? And have we not only saved one another's lives but also exchanged intimacies about our pasts?
The realisation that she was behaving in a manner every bit as sulky and clingy as Alice made Kate stop and laugh out loud, attracting the wary glance of a woman selling brightly coloured ribbons. Determined not to lose control of her emotions again, Kate took a calming breath, gave the hawker a reassuring smile, and resumed her walk.
Face it, you fool. We move in different circles, and our paths are unlikely ever to cross again. Rebeccah must get on with her life, as I must get on with mine.
Talking of which ... Her purse was sadly empty; she must set about remedying that tonight. And tomorrow, well tomorrow would be a much more sombre affair. For she must go and see her good friend, John Stephenson, hang.
"But surely you have an idea of the man you'd like to marry." Thomas Stanhope, tucked Rebeccah's arm more firmly in the crook of his elbow. "All young women dream of their ideal suitor. Come now, don't deny it, for I know it is so. Caro has admitted as much." He grinned. "Fortunately, her daydreams centred themselves on me. Or so she claims."
Rebeccah rolled her eyes. "I thought matrimony would cure you two of all that billing and cooing, but you are worse than ever."
He chuckled. "If you mean by that that I am a fortunate man, I know that already."
Thomas's young wife was confined to her room with her monthly flowers, but she had insisted he keep their rendezvous with Rebeccah. Caroline had not forgotten her promise to her old schoolfriend she had instructed Thomas to find Rebeccah a husband from among his acquaintance. And he was taking the job seriously.
It was touching, really, how concerned he was to take Rebeccah's feelings into account being so happily married himself, he wanted the same for her. But it was also slightly awkward. She could not tell him, after all, that her daydreams involved a certain blue-eyed highwaywoman.
"Paint me a picture of your ideal husband, Rebeccah."
"I fear I cannot."
"Young or old? Fat or thin? Tall or short?" His eyes danced. "You must have some partiality. I cannot imagine a gout-stricken old gentleman of four-and-eighty would suit, for example."
They waited for a coach and four to trundle past then crossed the road and continued along the avenue. "Then you are wrong for he sounds perfect. He would not live long beyond our wedding day and I would be a merry widow."
"Tsk!" Thomas pretended to be shocked. "How can you expect me to find you someone," he resumed, his tone plaintive, "if you will not give me any indication of your requirements? You cannot surely be intending to marry someone you dislike? That would be insupportable."
"Is that not a woman's lot?" asked Rebeccah.
"Oh, very well." She relented. "The person I see in my daydream"
Rebeccah ignored his triumphant exclamation. "is a little older than me, but not by much. More experienced in the ways of the world ... but not to the point of dissolution."
Thomas smirked. "Very wise."
"He is tall, has dark-hair, high cheekbones, and the most striking pale blue eyes. He rides and shoots well ... indeed he is an excellent marksman."
"This is beginning to sound like that highwayman of yours Caro is always going on about. What's the fellow's name?" Thomas snapped gloved fingers. "I have it, 'Blue-Eyed Nick'." Rebeccah hoped she wasn't blushing. "I can see that he would be attractive to a young lady, but he is hardly a suitable match, my dear."
"I never said he was. But may I not be allowed to use him even as the model for my ideal husband?" she asked, with some asperity.
"I beg your pardon. You may indeed. Pray, continue." They had reached a bench, and he indicated that she might like to sit for a moment. She nodded and made herself comfortable. He sat next to her.
"Very well then. My ideal husband is gallant and dashing, brave and considerate, witty, goodnatured and fond, and on occasion a rogue. I am always the centre of his attention or at least he makes me feel so. He respects my person, my feelings and my property, and does not abuse them or take them for granted, even when they are considered his by law."
Thomas nodded. "You have not mentioned wealth or connections."
She considered the point then said deadpan, "A hovel would suffice, Thomas, for I will be unaware of my surroundings while in his company." He snorted, and she continued with a smile, "I do not require that we move in court circles, nor that we live in a mansion in a fashionable part of town, or even in the height of luxury. I ask only that our life together be a happy and comfortable one." She looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "Well?"
"A modest requirement indeed." He sighed. "And yet I fear that at present I can think of no one amongst my acquaintance who remotely fits this description. Now if you had said your prime requirements were laziness, an overfondness for wine and gambling, and a tendency to selfishness and vanity... Well then the choices would have been too many to list, but as it is ..."
She put her hands on her hips. "You asked me to specify my ideal husband's attributes and I have done so."
"And see what good it has done me." He shook his head in mock chagrin then pulled out his timepiece and glanced at it. "But we should be getting back, my dear. For I want to see if Caro is feeling any better."
She smiled at this display of husbandly concern. "Of course."
They stood up and resumed their stroll, and Rebeccah let her friend's husband tuck her arm through his once more.
"If you were not already taken, Thomas," she said, "I think we would have suited. For we are friends and comfortable with one another, are we not? And that is a great deal more than many couples can say." He made her a mock bow, and two women passing raised their eyebrows and tittered. "You may tell Caro that you have done your duty, but that my requirements are impossible to fulfil. And then we can all resign ourselves to the idea of my becoming an Old Maid. Indeed the prospect no longer daunts me but rather is becoming more enticing by the day."
Thomas looked shocked at the very idea. "Do not give up hope yet. For someone as sweet and goodnatured as you, there is a suitable husband out there, I am certain of it. It is just a matter of finding him."
Her, corrected Rebeccah sadly, but she managed a smile for her companion. For I have already found and lost her, I fear.
"May I take those, Madam?"
"Thank you, Mary." Rebeccah removed her wrap and gloves and handed them to her maid. "Whose coach and pair is that outside?
Before her maid could answer, the swish of skirts, clatter of shoes descending the stairs, and murmur of voices announced her sister and mother.
"Did you enjoy your walk, Beccah?" asked a smiling Mrs Dutton, reaching the bottom of the stairs and coming across the hall towards her youngest daughter.
"It was very pleasant "
"Never mind that," interrupted Anne. "I have some news." From her flushed cheeks and glittering eyes that much was evident.
"I have accepted Mr Ingrum's offer of marriage."
"Is that all?"
Anne's eyebrows shot up. "What do you mean 'Is that all'?"
"Indeed, your response to your sister's news does leave something to be desired, Beccah," chided her mother.
Rebeccah flushed. "I beg your pardon, Anne. That was unpardonably rude of me. I wish you and Mr Ingrum every future happiness."
"Thank you," said her sister, mollified.
"Have you set a date?"
"Not yet. He is discussing the matter with his parents. But it will be soon, I wager, for he seems eager."
And why should he not be eager, when he will be getting his hands on Papa's business and fortune? wondered Rebeccah. But she kept that thought to herself.
"May I ask," she said instead, "what made you opt for him rather than your other suitor? Before your stay in the country with Anne Locke I would have said you favoured Mr Filmer slightly."
"True. But a lengthy conversation with Anne persuaded me otherwise."
Rebeccah could imagine the two friends huddled in a corner, heads close, gossiping about her sister's suitors, itemising their every plus and minus, then totting up and comparing the grand totals. What had swung it in the end? The smart Bond Street townhouse Ingrum's parents had recently purchased and that would in due course come to him?
But several of the servants were lingering within earshot, among them Titus, whose normally handsome countenance was this morning marred by a frown like a thundercloud. She took her sister's elbow and said, voice lowered, "Should we not adjourn to the parlour where it is more private?"
For a moment Anne looked baffled then she glanced at the lurking servants, becoming visibly smug at the sight of the disgruntled footman. "Oh, I have no secrets from them." Her tone was dismissive.
It dawned on Rebeccah that Titus was annoyed about her sister's forthcoming marriage, and what's more that Anne was flattered by his reaction. From the start Rebeccah had feared that Anne's encouragement of the handsome young footman, who had taken to following her around like a devoted hound, would mislead him, and it looked like she was right. How cruel on Anne's part to raise Titus's hopes. And how foolish on his to entertain such ambitions. She pursed her lips in disapproval.
"Besides, the parlour is occupied," added her sister as an afterthought.
"Oh?" Rebeccah turned to her mother, who nodded.
"You have a visitor," said Mrs Dutton, meaningfully. "Come all the way from Chatham."
"From Chatham?" Rebeccah's hand flew to her breast. "Oh, you cannot mean ..." Her heart sank. "Is that Mr Dunlop's carriage outside? But I gave him no encouragement, Mama, I swear. Surely he cannot "
But the other women were nodding, and Anne's expression was almost gleeful as she said, "Just think of it, Beccah, we could have a double wedding. Me and Frederick, and you and ... what is Mr Dunlop's Christian name?"
"I think it may be Edmund," said Rebeccah faintly. "How long has he been waiting?"
"A quarter hour," said Mrs Dutton. "So you had better see him without further delay, my dear."
"You know I cannot accept him."
"I know nothing of the kind." With a shooing motion, Mrs Dutton urged her daughter towards the parlour. Rebeccah refused to budge, but her mother's hand in the small of her back propelled her forward.
"But I don't love him," she hissed. "And did I not tell you he wants a brood mare rather than a wife?"
"Bless me, are we back to that old song? A woman must learn to count herself lucky if her marriage brings her security and good company." Rebeccah's mother glanced at her, saw the stubborn set of her jaw, and sighed. "But I collect that you will do as you think fit, as always. Keep in mind, though, I beg you, that at three-and-twenty you are not getting any younger, Beccah, and another marriage proposal may not come your way."
That thought didn't depress her as it once might have. Of more concern was her mother's obvious worry at her gloomy prospects. "Mr Stanhope has promised to look for someone suitable amongst his acquaintance, Mama," she offered by way of a sop. Then she felt duty bound to add, "Though he does not hold out much hope of success."
"Mr Dunlop is still waiting," reminded Anne.
With a tart "Thank you, I am well aware of that," Rebeccah took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and reached for the handle to the parlour door.
"Mr Dunlop. What a pleasant surprise," lied Rebeccah, as the young man with the fleshy jowls put down his sherry glass and rose from the sofa.
"I hope it is." His smile was jovial. "I sincerely hope it is." She blinked at him in puzzlement. "Pleasant, I mean."
"Ah." She found it difficult not to stare at his waistcoat, which was strained so tightly across his ample stomach she expected at any moment to hear the ping of buttons. "I am sorry to have kept you waiting. But I see that you have had some refreshment. Please." She took an easy chair opposite the sofa and gestured for him to resume his seat. "How may I help you, Mr Dunlop?"
Her heart was thumping so hard she felt dizzy. Her Chatham suitor didn't look any more comfortable. Sweat beaded his temples and he eased a forefinger round the inside of his cravat. For a moment he was silent, then he cleared his throat and began.
"I won't beat about the bush, Rebeccah. I may call you that, may I not?" He gave her no time to demur. "I much enjoyed our talks in Chatham, and I fancy you felt the same." Rebeccah suppressed a snort. "Which leads me to believe, that you and I would rub along together tolerably well." Dunlop's smile broadened. "So I have come to ask for your hand in marriage." When the expected response didn't come, his smile dimmed, then vanished.
Rebeccah looked down at her lap, examining a suddenly fascinating fingernail while she considered how best to answer him. Should she tell him he had totally mistaken her feelings, that he was in fact the most boring man alive? But she had too much consideration. The silence stretched.
"Well?" Dunlop sounded indignant. She looked up and saw that his expression matched his tone; he had gone quite redfaced it didn't suit him. "May I not have your answer?"
"Mr Dunlop, I hope you will believe me when I tell you I am aware of the very great honour you have done me in asking for my hand."
"Harrumph!" But her compliment seemed to lessen his irritation a little. "And?"
"But I must regretfully decline."
"What the devil?" If intemperate language in front of a lady weren't sufficient evidence of his inner turmoil, his getting up and pacing was. "I was invited in, given to understand by your mother ..." He stopped pacing and stared at her. "Was I got here under false pretences? It won't wash, Madam. It won't wash."
'Got here?' Rebeccah suppressed an indignant retort and instead crossed her fingers. She could be excused a lie if she was trying to spare his feelings, couldn't she? "The truth is, Mr Dunlop, my mother was not in possession of all the facts."
His gaze sharpened. "And what facts are those, pray?"
"That my feelings are already engaged elsewhere."
"Was this the case when we met at Chatham?"
"No, Sir. Indeed we came to our agreement only this morning, while I was walking in the Park." She hoped her cheeks weren't as red as they felt. "It is unfortunate we had no notion of your intention to come today, Mr Dunlop. For if we had we should certainly have dissuaded you."
"Good God!" He tugged his waistcoat straight, and a button pinged into the fireplace. Rebeccah bit the inside of her cheek to keep from bursting into hysterics. "Do you mean to tell me, that I have travelled all this way, risking hours of discomfort, highwaymen and Lord knows what else, and this is to be my answer?"
"I fear so. I can only apologise once more for the gross inconvenience you have suffered."
"Well, 'tis of no matter." He sniffed. "There are plenty of other sensible young women," he eyed her meaningfully, "who will be only too eager to become Mistress Dunlop."
"I'm certain of it." She stood up to ring the bell for a footman, but Dunlop pre-empted her by crossing towards the door, evidently eager to put as much distance between himself and this ungrateful family as he could. It opened, revealing a flustered-looking Anne and Mrs Dutton, who both pretended to have been passing by the parlour at that very moment.
"Oh, are you about to leave us, Mr Dunlop?" Mrs Dutton feigned surprise. She didn't ask him how his interview had gone if she hadn't already heard everything through the door, one look at his face must have told her.
"Indeed I am, Madam. Good day to you."
He accepted his tricorne, gloves, and cane, which the senior footman had hurriedly retrieved, and strode out the house towards his waiting carriage.
"Well I never!" exclaimed Anne, as the front door blocked their departing visitor from sight. "He looked as though he'd like to horsewhip the lot of us." She turned to her sister. "I take it there is to be no double wedding?"
"No." Rebeccah sighed. "Just as well. For a man as blind as he is to a woman's true feelings could not make anyone a good husband."
"Mistress Rebeccah?" called Mary, hurrying up the stairs after her.
Rebeccah paused while her mother and sister went on ahead to the drawing room on the first floor. "What is it?"
The maid checked to see they weren't overheard before lowering her voice, "While you were out walking, a parcel came."
Rebeccah blinked. "A parcel?"
"Yes, Madam. Containing Will's coat and wig." She held Rebeccah's gaze.
The implications made her pulse quicken. "Oh! Was she here?" Both women knew who she meant.
"A boy delivered it, Madam. Said he'd been paid to. ... I took a quick look round the Square, to see if there were any ... loiterers. None that I could see." Rebeccah's disappointment must have shown in her face. "Just as well," consoled her maid at once. "With the thieftaker due to make his report to your sister this afternoon ...." She trailed off.
It would be too dangerous. "Indeed..... Was there a note? In the parcel, I mean?"
She bit her lip in frustration. "What? Nothing? No mention of how her wound is?"
Mary smiled and pressed Rebeccah's hand. "Don't fret about that, Madam. I know my wounds, and that one was healing well. She'll be right as rain in no time. You mark my words."
She sighed and felt an overwhelming longing to see the highwaywoman again, if only for a moment. "I hope so, Mary."
"Beccah, where are you?" came Anne's voice from upstairs.
"Oh pish! I must go." She paused and turned back. "You will let me know if you should hear any more from her?" she whispered.
Mary nodded. "Of course, Madam. At once."
It was 1 o'clock when Kate set off for Tyburn. If she was honest, it was a relief to be able to leave her rooms at last. All morning Alice had indicated her disapproval of Kate's intentions with her constant black looks, silences, and flounces. And all morning the church bells of London had rung, muffled as befit the occasion, announcing that a 'collar day' was in the offing.
As she made her way north through the bustling rookeries of St Giles, then turned west towards the Oxford road, she wondered how John Stephenson was faring. Would he choose to wear his Sunday Best as many of those condemned to die did?
Kate had known her fellow highwayman since she was seventeen. After her escape from Newgate, she had let Fortune's tide sweep her where it would, before ending up at a shabby coaching inn on the outskirts of London. There, to her surprise she found herself very much at home. The footpads and highwaymen who frequented the Old Magpie had been wary of her at first, but soon became friends. Among them was Stephenson, who knew a fast horse she could hire cheap, and who first coined the name 'Blue-Eyed Nick'.
Stephenson had taught Kate everything he knew about the rattling lay: how to assess a likely cully by his clothes and the weight of his luggage (the Old Magpie's yard was always abustle with coaches and passengers); which routes certain drivers preferred; and the perfect ambush sites. He had even asked her to go into partnership with him. But after Wildey, she found it difficult to trust anyone, and so declined.
And now, she would have to watch her friend die.
That she could do nothing to help Stephenson escape his fate on the Triple Tree was galling. She hadn't even dared visit him in Newgate for fear of discovery Samuel Josselin was sure to have set someone to scrutinise all the condemned highwayman's visitors. Stephenson wouldn't hold her absence against her, Kate knew, but still... It had made her even more determined to offer him moral support as he went to meet his Maker, which infuriated the red-haired landlady.
"How can you? He'll be waiting for you there."
"Ay. But if I wear skirts, Alice, the chances are good Josselin won't recognise me."
"You cannot be sure of that."
"Nothing in life is certain. But Stephenson is my friend, and I owe it to him to witness his end. You will not dissuade me, Alice, and there's an end to it."
Kate hitched up her skirts and stepped over a pile of horse dung. The man crowding her heels let out a curse and halted to scrape the mess off his shoes.
Ten minutes brisk walking brought her to the Oxford road and she turned west onto it and started forcing her way through the people lining the route along which the hanging procession would come. Some were standing on carts or barrels brought specially for the purpose. Some hung out of the windows of the houses on either side of the road. The balconies were mostly full, Kate saw, peering up at them, and some sightseers were even climbing out onto the rooftops in search of a better view. There was a carnival air to the proceedings. The shouts and laughter of families bent on a good day out combined with that of the hawkers crying their pamphlets, rotten fruit, flowers, and gin. Kate grimaced at the racket and increased her pace.
Paper crunched under her shoe and she glanced down and saw it was one of the pamphlets the hawkers were selling. She picked it up, smoothed it, and squinted at the crabbed print, made even more illegible by the smudged impression of someone's boot heel.
'A full and true account of the discovery and apprehending of the notorious highwayman, Jack Stephenson, as told to the Ordinary of Newgate,' she read.
Prison chaplains were known for embroidering prisoners' last words, sometimes even fabricating their story entirely the more bloodcurdling the tale, the better it sold. Sure enough, as she scanned the account, she saw that not only had her fellow highwayman apparently committed some of the robberies that should be laid at her door, the thieftaker's part in his capture had been inflated after all, it was sheer fortune that had led to Stephenson's capture at the Rose and Crown. And if Josselin hadn't been looking for me in the first place ...
"Devil take him!"
She crumpled the pamphlet into a ball and hurled it into the gutter. A roar from the crowd a hundred yards back down the road announced the arrival of the hanging procession. I'd better hurry.
"What d'ye lack, what d'ye lack?" sang out a bent old woman selling flowers.
Nothing you've got. Kate brushed past her, evaded a red-cheeked pedlar whose coat was lined with laces and coloured ribbons, eased past the stall of a plump ginger-cake seller, then sidestepped a family bent on enjoying the hanging fair. The sullen oldest boy was clutching an armful of rotten vegetables; his squint-eyed father had brought along a dead cat. At least such missiles would be softer than the cobblestones some onlookers had levered up. Fortunately, Stephenson should be safe from the crowd's fury there was nothing the mob liked better than a glamorous highwayman.
Up ahead, she spied the fearsome silhouette that was her goal. Some called the massive triangular wooden gallows the Triple Tree and others the three-legged mare. Many of the sightseers gathered around it had arrived early to be sure of their place and had been drinking steadily the gin hawkers were doing a roaring trade. Scuffles and brawls were inevitable as those the worse for drink jostled for the best places. Kate dodged a flying bottle, stumbled into a barrow, and nearly sent the man standing on it flying, then elbowed her way towards the gallows.
The jeers and catcalls were growing louder as the hanging procession drew closer. Kate found a suitable vantagepoint by a wall, from where she could see the scaffold and the horse-drawn cart waiting beneath it, but be reasonably hidden from view herself. With a growl and a forbidding glare she evicted its current occupant, then settled back to wait.
Though the City Marshal dismounting from his horse and the Under-Sheriff accompanying him were magnificent in their uniforms, Kate had eyes only for the two carts that had halted a few yards behind them. Flanking them on all sides were peace officers, constables, and javelin men, trying to hold back the rabble with their staves
Kate shaded her eyes and peered at the first cart. Four coffins were stacked at one end; at the other stood the Ordinary and four prisoners: a hard-eyed harlot, her face freshly rouged; a weeping boy who could be no more than twelve; a rat-faced little pickpocket who Kate had seen several times at the Rose and Crown; and John Stephenson.
Her fellow highwayman looking dashing in a new tricorne, his boots polished and his coat, waistcoat, and breeches freshly laundered. He smiled and nodded at the crowd, who began to cheer and chant his name. After a moment, his gaze found Kate's. His eyes flicked to one side, then moved on. She puzzled over that then followed the direction he had indicated. The stocky figure of Samuel Josselin was standing with a group of peace officers, his arms folded, his small eyes alert.
Devil take him! She looked away.
"Let them hang," chanted the impatient crowd, as the prisoners from both carts were transferred to the wide cart beneath the gallows and urged by the Ordinary to say one last prayer and a psalm. Then the cordon of constables parted, and the relatives were let through, to scramble up and say their farewells. The buxom young woman Stephenson had been bedding for the last two years was among their number. Moll's face was blotchy from crying, and she hugged her highwayman lover fiercely.
Kate couldn't bear to watch their embrace or the reunion of the weeping boy with his tearful mother and silent father. She looked away, and when she looked back Moll and the other relatives were being herded back into the crowd.
The hangman began to hood the seven prisoners. While Stephenson waited his turn, he glanced at Kate again. She tried to will strength into him for the ordeal ahead, and mouthed "Fare well, old friend." He nodded, then his eyes sought the weeping Moll once more, until the white sack covered his head.
As the black-masked hangman checked each prisoner's halter before tying it round the huge beam above, Kate could almost feel a rope resting around her own neck. A hawker came with earshot, and she called him over, bought a jug of ale and took a swig to ease her dry throat. The crowd hushed, every breath held in anticipation. Then the hangman whipped the horse, and the wide cart surged forward, and to a collective cheer, seven halters snapped taut.
Kate balled her fists and stared at the dangling figures now writhing like marionettes from the massive beam. The constables stood back and the hangers-on lunged forward, trying to hasten their loved one's end by clinging onto their legs or banging their chests.
Moll was trying to do the same service for Stephenson, but it clearly wasn't enough. Kate didn't even think about it. She fought her way to the front, shoving aside anyone too slow to get out of her way. When she added her weight to Moll's, the girl looked round in surprise then nodded her thanks. But even with Kate's help, Stephenson's limbs continued to jerk.
"Christ's wounds, he's strangling! What shall we do?" cried Moll.
Kate thought quickly. "Lift him," she ordered. "I'll count to three, then you give one sharp tug. Understand?" The girl nodded.
Kate took a firmer grip on her friend's legs and heaved him up. "1," she said through gritted teeth, for Stephenson was not a lightweight. "2..."
On "3." both women gave a tremendous tug. Kate couldn't hear the snap of Stephenson's neck, but she felt it. Then something warm and wet soaked his breeches and his legs stopped jerking.
She closed her eyes and murmured a brief prayer. "God speed, my friend." When she opened them again, she found Samuel Josselin staring straight at her.
Though fifty feet separated her from the thieftaker, Kate's heart pounded. Perhaps it's a coincidence. She dropped her gaze, hunched her shoulders to make herself appear shorter, then peeked at him again. He was still staring at her, but now his forehead was deeply furrowed.
Hellfire and damnation!
Kate grabbed the weeping Moll to get her attention. "I have to go." But even as she sought the cover of the crowd, Josselin was signalling his men to follow her.
CONTINUED IN PART 2
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