The Seven Swans: The High­way­man’s De­cep­tion

Pulp Literature - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Mel Anas­ta­siou

How far will Spencer Stevens, then and now, go to win back his long-lost love? Be­lea­guered, kind, flawed, and un­tal­ented at DIY, Spencer is an un­likely hero. In this new­est ad­ven­ture, forty years, five thou­sand miles, and a cou­ple of mar­riages sep­a­rate him from Holly. But it seems the Seven Swans Pub will stop at noth­ing to send him into per­ilous times and hone him into a hero who will brave a sec­ond chance at find­ing hap­pi­ness.

The Seven Swans, Book 4: The High­way­man’s De­cep­tion

Chap­ter One

When it comes to fix­ing up a ter­ri­ble old build­ing on the side of a canal, I’m the last man on earth to brag of any kind of do-it-your­self abil­ity. A Cana­dian ex­pat since the age of twenty, I’ve lived in Lon­don ever since. And in Lon­don, there was no do-it-your­self. For ex­am­ple, if you could af­ford a gar­den, which I never could, you em­ployed a gar­dener. If you want an up­date in your loo de­sign, you call a fel­low in to shift the pipes around and knock out the plas­ter and then ea­gerly paid some­body else to put the plas­ter back in the walls af­ter it.

But there are a few things in this good old world that ab­so­lutely any­body can do. Dab paint on dirty brick is one of them. So, I

stood on the canal side of the derelict Seven Swans, where my hand­i­work was most likely to be en­joyed by pass­ing nar­row boats. A herd of friendly hang­ing baskets from Wilko clus­tered about my feet, I dabbed at the plas­tered brick and felt my­self master of my demesne.

As the dirt dis­ap­peared be­neath my brush­work, I fan­cied my­self alone, but an in­take of breath from be­hind me proved me wrong. I turned and greeted Stan, the ag­ing an­gel who had agreed to come out of re­tire­ment to help me fix up the place.

His pal Eus­tace turned his head atop his skinny neck to and fro in a sor­row­ful no. “You can’t do that, old son. Not and keep to the law.”

There’s al­ways some­body who wants to tell a man his dreams are im­pos­si­ble.

I gave Eus­tace that busi­ness-like ric­tus that passes for a smile from a man heav­ily oc­cu­pied with im­por­tant af­fairs and kept dab­bing. Eus­tace, I re­minded my­self, never seemed to know much of any­thing. He was more of an agree-er. Stan was the man with the knowl­edge. I took Stan’s si­lence for ap­pro­ba­tion. Then Stan spoke. “Where did you get that paint?” “Wilko,” I said. “Their best line,” I lied. “Ah.” Stan nod­ded. “Well, you’d best scrub it off then.” “You might re­turn that paint,” Eus­tace said. “But your paint­brush was soiled touch­ing the wall, so there’s some dirt in it, isn’t there?” “In­deed.” Stan stared glumly into the paint can. I gazed from one old fel­low to the other. It was clearly a case of two men stand­ing about a build­ing project and pre­dict­ing neg­a­tive out­comes. Not un­usual in the UK. To be ex­pected, in fact.

“It’ll be all right, I’m sure,” I said po­litely. “I’m just fresh­en­ing the place up. Cheap and cheer­ful, isn’t that what you say here?” “Oh, yes,” Stan an­swered. Eus­tace added, “But this build­ing is Tu­dor.” “From Tu­dor times, in fact,” Stan clar­i­fied. “From the time of Good Queen Bess.”

I re­mem­bered her. My princess, when I lived the dream of a labourer and solved a mys­tery that saved her lovely life. “That’s why I’m fresh­en­ing it.” It was al­most the truth. “In her hon­our.”

“I’m sure she’d like it,” Stan said, “as would Her Majesty nowa­days. But the fact is that this build­ing is listed.”

I dipped my paint­brush into the mid­dle of the pot. Out­door acrylic, mid­dle range low gloss. A clas­sic Vic­to­rian cream. Not shiny. Taste­ful and un­der­stated. It would look well with the petu­nias in their hang­ing baskets. I said, “Listed, eh? To the right or to the left?” “Ooh, cheeky,” Eus­tace ob­served. “He’s young,” Stan said. I was sixty, but in the mid­day sun, with a paint­brush in my hand, re­belling against the ad­vice of those older than I was, I felt young.

“My nephew would bend your ear on this very sub­ject.” Eus­tace sucked his up­per lip. “Let’s keep neph­ews out of this,” I begged. Stan said, “Look, put down that brush and give us your ear be­fore you in­cur the wrath of the law.”

The wrath of the law! For touch­ing up a bit of wall on a sunny day? Noth­ing more licit in the world of DIY, I thought. But I was build­ing up a thirst. I opened the cold chest I’d bought along with the paint and pulled out a fizzy wa­ter for each of us. I handed them round.

Eus­tace took a sip and made a face. “It’s not Guin­ness, is it?” “I’m afraid not.” Stan took a long slug of fizzy wa­ter and belched silently be­hind his fist. “Look, for a listed build­ing you can’t be daub­ing any old muck around. It has to be paint from Tu­dor times.”

“How am I sup­posed to get Tu­dor paint?” I sat my­self in the grass near the canal. “Take the Tardis back five hun­dred years?”

Eus­tace chuck­led. “I won­der what they’d make of you back then? Burn you at the stake, most likely.”

“Be that as it may.” Stan pointed his finger at the Seven Swans. “That’s a na­tional trea­sure, that is, and they’ll have your arse if you don’t paint it with the cor­rect paint. It’s got to be made to the recipe of the time for paint. Tu­dor-era paint.”

I tossed the paint­brush from one hand to the other and eyed the wall. It looked like ev­ery matte cream-coloured wall in Bri­tain. “How will they ever know if I use the wrong paint?” “Oh, they’ll know.” Eus­tace nod­ded. “There’s an in­spec­tor, my poor old son,” Stan said. “He knows ev­ery­thing.” “How?” I asked again. “Well, in this case it’s easy,” Eus­tace said. “The in­spec­tor’s my nephew.”

“And how would your nephew know?” Even to my­self I sounded a lit­tle dan­ger­ous.

“Well, I did just hap­pen to men­tion it. At Sun­day din­ner, it was, in pass­ing, that I told him you were do­ing up the old Seven Swans.”

I tossed the paint­brush at the paint can. It missed, and left a smear on the bro­ken con­crete tile near­est the pub wall.

Well, there were still the flow­ers. “Do I have to have Tu­dor

plants too?”

“I no­tice there’s a red rose by the door­way,” Eus­tace said. “It’s not re­quired, but it shows will­ing.” “Bah,” I said. “You seem a lit­tle out of sorts,” Stan said. “Maybe you don’t have the bot­tle for se­ri­ous ren­o­va­tions. Good to know, be­fore I get down to se­ri­ous work. I’ll not have you nit­pick­ing ev­ery de­ci­sion I make.” “I say, Stan,” Eus­tace protested. “Go easy.” “There’s a lot to know with listed ren­o­va­tions. You can’t just put up any old thing.”

I thought of the ply­wood bar in­side the build­ing. That shabby struc­ture was the ex­act def­i­ni­tion of the phrase putting up any old thing. And it was a dis­gust­ing eye­sore. I pic­tured the fool who had got away with putting up that ply­wood bar in the face of listed build­ing reg­u­la­tions, a fool with no love for the place. In my imag­i­na­tion, he had egg on his trousers, he was chew­ing gum, and he had his shirt un­tucked and hang­ing down be­hind. I tucked my shirt in. “How do I find out about the reg­u­la­tions?” “I’ll get my nephew over. He’ll tell you.” Eus­tace picked up my phone. “You read up in fo­rums. Go on and read about all the prob­lems pub own­ers have had ren­o­vat­ing Tu­dor-era pub­lic houses. Then af­ter a while you give up, come to the Bearded Lamb in the vil­lage, and buy Stan and me a Guin­ness each and two for your­self.”

“That’s about right,” Stan said. “Maybe two for Eus­tace and me and three for your­self.” I said, “I don’t drink. I’m an al­co­holic, if you’ll re­mem­ber.” “Poor lad,” Stan shook his head. “Poor old fel­low. Come on, Eus­tace, let’s go and talk to that nephew of yours. Maybe he

knows some­body who will work paint and plas­ter in­side this man’s bud­get.” “A drug ad­dict or some­thing?” Eus­tace said. “Or a stu­dent.” “Or a stu­dent drug ad­dict,” Eus­tace added. “Can we stop by on our way and get a pint?” This last was whis­pered.

“Thanks,” I said af­ter them. I got up and set the top back onto the paint can. Then I picked up one of the petu­nia baskets by its hook and chain and strung it on a lower branch of a nearby wil­low. The weight was too much for the limb and it thumped to the ground and lay side­ways. One of the petu­nias was bro­ken, and the rest looked as though they’d rather be back at the shop. I sat down on the canal verge and wished that I hadn’t been such a drunk­ard in my thir­ties, so that I could be one now.

Chap­ter Two

I sat down on the tufts of grass at the river’s edge, took off my shoes and socks, and slipped my feet into the wa­ter. It was bloody cold, of course, but I made my­self hold them sub­merged. The wa­ters moved gently, as they tend to do in Hert­ford­shire, with its rolling hills and com­plete lack of moun­tains. In the green-fil­tered light and brown­ish wa­ter of the river, my feet hung like dead trout. The hair on my toes and the bridge of my foot stood out darkly against white skin. When had I last gone bare­foot out­doors? No­body goes bare­foot in Lon­don. It’s a Browns-san­dals town in sum­mer and shiny Chelsea boots oth­er­wise.

The last time, then, might well have been the sum­mer that I met Holly—met her and lost her, that is. We lay to­gether in my light­weight tent in an or­chard on Crete, with our black­bot­tomed feet and an­kles wo­ven in and through each other’s.

I heard her laugh, then. I heard her say, Oh, Spencer, re­ally? Like you didn’t let go of An­gel­ica? Or are you all alone on a tree-shad­owed river­bank, feel­ing bad about your life and your own cold toes?

I closed my eyes and re­mem­bered how brown her skin looked in that lit­tle tent, and how her breath smelled like the ap­ples she loved to eat. The leaves on the trees by the river’s edge whis­pered, and on the other side of the thicket a nar­row boat was ap­proach­ing, the engine rum­bling, ropes squeak­ing against the gun­wales. A dog coughed, and his col­lar jan­gled. It could have been forty years be­fore, and what if I opened my eyes and my life was a dream and I was twenty and Holly was at my side? If I sat per­fectly still, per­haps the past would work magic. If I didn’t move, didn’t think of any­thing like com­put­ers or mo­bile phones or … With ex­as­per­at­ing tim­ing my phone rang. I peered down at the caller’s name, sighed, and an­swered. “Want me, An­gel­ica, do you?” I ex­pected in­vec­tive, but re­ceived si­lence. “An­gel­ica? You all right?” I heard my ex-wife sigh. “I sup­pose so. Do you think, like By­ron, that vene­tian blinds are a sim­ple and el­e­gant dé­cor solution for a down­stairs toi­let win­dow?”

“Do you care what I think?” I gazed around at the ver­dant wa­ter­way. Over­head birds sang, and the wa­ter gur­gled. An­gel­ica clicked her tongue. “Yes. Well?” I knew what she wanted me to say about vene­tians, and I

knew I would earn top An­gel­ica points by say­ing it. But I had made a prom­ise to By­ron to leave my ex-wife alone, and so far, I had kept it.

I said, “An­gel­ica, you’re a sixty-year-old wo­man, right?” Too late, I re­al­ized my er­ror. “I mean, I am too. Not a wo­man, but you’re a wo­man. Sixty. A beau­ti­ful one.” “Hmm.” “How would a per­son get in con­tact with a beau­ti­ful six­tyyear-old wo­man like your­self if you were some­where out there in the world?” “This is about that Holly of yours, isn’t it? You’ve got a nerve.” “May I re­mind you, An­gel­ica, that you left me?” I ex­pected a re­ply to the ef­fect that I had kept Holly’s photo in my wal­let avail­able for di­rect ac­cess, for forty years. But there was only si­lence. And the faint sound of tap­ping. I was about to tap end call when An­gel­ica snapped. “There.” “Where?” “I don’t know ex­actly where. Looks like some­where in the United States. There’s a Holly Wilk­er­son Odell. With blonde hair.”

I leapt to my feet, al­most off the bank. “Is it … ?” I stopped my­self be­fore say­ing my Holly.

An­gel­ica said, “I don’t know. I’m not about to friend the wo­man you car­ried about next to your bot­tom for forty years.” More tap­ping sounds came from the phone. “Can you de­scribe her to me?” “No. But I have made you a Face­book page.” An­gel­ica sounded bet­ter pleased with this action than I would have ex­pected. “And I have sent her a friend mes­sage. And, there’s a fel­low our age on her ban­ner. Could be her brother, of course. Now down­load

the Face­book app and to hell with you.”

As An­gel­ica hung up on me, I heard By­ron hail­ing me from the far side of the canal. He said, “Why aren’t you paint­ing?” I held up my phone. “An­gel­ica just called.” “Damn you!” “She just wanted to know my feel­ings on vene­tians.” “Win­dow treat­ments are the thin edge of the wedge.” By­ron added, “You promised.” “I kept it, too.” He gave a long low sigh, like the sound of a dis­tant air­plane. “I know.”

I ex­plained about the Face­book page, and he said that he would in­stall the app, so that I could see Holly. I men­tioned that there was a man in the pic­ture. He said, “He’s prob­a­bly her hus­band. So, don’t hope too hard.”

By­ron was right. Still, the thing about hope is that it will have its lit­tle way.

I left him fid­dling with my phone and ram­bled off, around the out­side of the Seven Swans, to a spot where the sun­shine was strong enough to con­vince me that al­though it was April, June would soon be here. I sat down on the ground where grass met brick wall and leaned back. I pushed up the sleeves of my jacket to get a lit­tle more sun on my skin. It felt good. I tell my­self stories, and just now could imagine that I had ev­ery­thing I wanted, in­clud­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of find­ing Holly and a life free from ne­ces­sity.

I pic­tured my­self a luck­ier fel­low than I was. Younger. Rich. Full of der­ring-do.

I wres­tled my wal­let out of my pocket and took Holly’s pic­ture out. I looked down at her. Why did I ever let you go? I

won­dered. How could I have al­lowed you to get on the bus in Her­ak­lion? I should have stuck to you like glue, should have gone home with you to Eng­land, should have taken you back to Canada with me. I am wiser now, I thought. If I could be as old as I am on the in­side, but go back in time and be twenty on the out­side, I’d have the courage to hang onto my lovely Holly and never let her go.

I closed my eyes.

Chap­ter Three

I call her the Lady High­way­man, but Char­lotte Ram­sey is known to all in Buck­ing­hamshire as the Swan, be­cause she is grace­ful, and be­cause peo­ple be­lieve she’s mute. When she is the Swan, ru­mour says her hus­band lets her out of her tower room in their manor house only to pa­rade her about his lands in their el­e­gant car­riage, while his small farm­ers stand by the side of the road, mud caked to the knees, press­ing their hats to their hearts. I’ve been away from my home here for two years learn­ing the law, and so I meet her for the first time at night, and in the free­dom of this moon­less night, on horse­back, she wears no lace or silk, and no gen­tle­woman’s soft curls and bows

around her head ei­ther. Her hair is tweaked straight back and clubbed at the neck. A cloak of coarse red wool that looks black at night en­folds her nar­row torso, and she wears men’s trousers stuffed into men’s boots and stir­rup leathers for a belt. A pis­tol shines at each hip.

As for me, I’m out this night rid­ing on my horse Net­tles, free for the first time in the week since my hang­dog re­turn from Lon­don, my par­ents hav­ing left me for a few days in Lon­don. They bade me lock our doors and stay in­side with the ser­vants, but ser­vants are paid to watch the house and I am not. Thus, I think it fair to take my sturdy old mount and go off on my own.

That first night on the road to Ayles­bury, Char­lotte Ram­sey only speaks to me be­cause I’m a high­way­man, too, or at least I’m con­sid­er­ing be­com­ing one. She trots past me and draws up her horse. She looks me up and down, from my spurs to my face to the cock of my hat. Her eyes shine like the stars over­head.

Here is what she says to me: “I can see in your love-struck gaze, sir, that you are too soft-hearted for a high­way­man.”

And the first thing I say to Char­lotte Ram­sey, is, “Your pis­tol butts are too well pol­ished for cau­tion, Lady. Even starlight will give you away.” “Are you Jack?” she asks me. “I might be Jack,” I an­swer cau­tiously. Cau­tion was my tu­tor in Lon­don, where they tried to teach me law. But al­though I learned to speak Cau­tion’s lan­guage, I’ve not yet learned al­ways to fol­low its course, so here I am in the black of night, un­armed, fac­ing a wo­man who scolds and puts her hands on her pis­tols, clearly ready to pull them out and fire.

She says, “If you are By­ways Jack, then you’re a mur­derer many times over, and you will be sorry you’ve brought your

black heart to Buck­ing­hamshire, for the men of the county are out to hang you this very night.” I say, “Then surely I’m not Jack.” “You don’t sound en­tirely cer­tain.” She pulls out one of her flint­locks and points it at my waist­coat.

Net­tles is old but not a fool, and at the sound of the pis­tol cock, he takes a step back­ward, one shoe crunch­ing on rock at the side of the road. I am not armed. I’m de­bat­ing whether to tell her so — it would prove that I am cer­tainly not the high­way­man By­ways Jack, but ad­mit­ting that I with my Lon­don ways had come out with­out so much as a rusty matchlock would also put me at a cer­tain dis­ad­van­tage with a pis­tol­friendly wo­man — when a noise of fu­ri­ous rid­ing makes it­self heard and we turn to­wards it. Then, like dancers at a ball who know each other’s move­ments, we race into the dark­ness of the trees.

We see the dozen or so mounts tear by, all the rid­ers but one well-cloaked. We are close enough to make out the fea­tures and form of the man in the mid­dle of the group tied by his neck to his horse. The moon gleams, and the branches drop a lit­tle in the breeze of their pass­ing.

Now, I don’t claim to know much, but I do know that men on horses gal­lop­ing past with a cap­tive tied at the neck is not a scene to be men­tioned in po­lite so­ci­ety. Ei­ther they are a cut­throat gang with a vic­tim, in which case there but for the grace of God go I; or they are vig­i­lantes, pro­tect­ing the peace from a lone brig­and, in which case thank God that the county Jus­tice didn’t call on me to join the vig­i­lantes. This would be a very good mo­ment to make the safe choice of a po­lite good­night and of­fer to see the Lady home.

In­stead I ask, “Who was that cap­tive, tied by the neck?”

“That was By­ways Jack. So you’re not he. But are you a high­way­man?”

I know what I am: an unin­spired stu­dent of the law. But, in a preg­nant mo­ment like this one, be­fore my an­swer is given, I might be any­thing in the world — a for­eign prince, an ac­coun­tant, or a bold and un­cap­tured high­way­man. To make this mo­ment last, I smile and say noth­ing.

She growls like a lovely dog. “Have the courage to tell me truly. Are you one of us?”

This is the mo­ment to tell her that I’m un­armed, but I let it pass. They teach you logic at law, so I ask my­self, how difficult can it be to be­come a high­way­man? It’s not as if I’d have to reg­is­ter my­self with a guild.

I de­cide on the spot to trans­form a lie into the truth, if only for this one night.

I say, “Look at me, mounted at mid­night, at which hour there is no pos­si­ble er­rand that could send an hon­est man about the roads. Of course I am a high­way­man. How can you doubt it?” “I can doubt any­thing, thank you very much, sir.” I bow. She says, “There are only two rea­sons to be­come a high­way­man. One is blood­lust. The other is de­sire for money. Which is it for you?”

I look at her in her ho­ley wool and leather straps, face sil­vered by moon­light, eyes like stars, and do not tell her my thought, that here is a third rea­son to be­come a high­way­man. But I say, “Be­cause I want money.” And that is true enough. She nods sharply. “And, how many for­ays have you un­der your belt?”

I say, “I tire of all these ques­tions.”

“That means a thou­sand for­ays, or none. I wa­ger none. Come. We will pur­sue your first ad­ven­ture. And, if you care for your neck at all, si­lence is the rule.”

She urges her horse to­wards the road. I fol­low, an­tic­i­pat­ing that she will turn right, in the op­po­site di­rec­tion from that the men with their cap­tive took. Why chase af­ter hang­ers of high­way­men, when one is a high­way­man one­self? As well, it’s only log­i­cal to fill the vac­uum that By­ways Jack left when he was cap­tured. But she di­rects her mount left. And as she does so, I see clearly that the only sen­si­ble move is to save be­com­ing a high­way­man for a less dan­ger­ous night. I should gal­lop right to­wards home, climb into my bed, and al­low the warm hand of sleep to set­tle upon my fore­head.

Char­lotte waves me to­wards her. I mount, but stop still at the side of the road, my hand on Net­tles’s can­tle, gaz­ing from left to right and then back again. My hes­i­ta­tion isn’t due to only her beauty, for there are, at a con­ser­va­tive count, a thou­sand beau­ti­ful women in Lon­don. There’s also the fact that al­though my family is wealthy, I do se­cretly need money quite fiercely, hav­ing gam­bled away ev­ery penny of the stu­dent’s al­lowance my fa­ther be­stowed upon me. Gah! I head left, af­ter Char­lotte. Char­lotte casts a bright look over her shoul­der at me and then kicks her mount to a gal­lop. I fol­low her out of the woods, past Sel­don’s prop­er­ties, and then off the road through woods striped black and sil­ver with trees and shad­ows. There she reins in her horse, and I rein in Net­tles. I know the area well enough, and am not com­forted by the thought that nearby is a sturdy tree from which, in a pinch—when there’s no army nearby to do it for them — the good cit­i­zens of these parts have

for hun­dreds of years hanged cut­throats and other rogues. We dis­mount, and Char­lotte opens the large wal­let tied flat against her sad­dle. She shows me how to tie a spe­cial knot, which she calls the High­way­man’s Hitch. And so, I learn the first se­cret of the high­way­man’s trade, which is how to tie a quick-re­lease knot against a per­ilous get­away. I mur­mur, “A neat trick.” Char­lotte gives me a look that re­minds me of her si­lence rule. We leave the horses at our backs and make our way from shadow to shadow the fifty yards or so to the clear­ing where I have from time to time seen men, and once a wo­man, pen­dant from this tree. None are hang­ing there just now with black­ened skin and pointed toes, but the men we saw ear­lier on the road are gath­ered be­neath its branches. A few are hold­ing the horses for the rest. The rest are hold­ing Jack, or watch­ing him. One man is try­ing the lower branches of the tree for strength, with the clear goal of climb­ing it.

The trees thin about us as we near the clear­ing. Char­lotte throws her­self to the ground and creeps closer. I fol­low. We pause be­hind a fallen branch, hap­pily far enough away that the vig­i­lantes aren’t likely to see us in the shad­ows, and watch the prepa­ra­tion for hang­ing the high­way­man, rogue, and mur­derer By­ways Jack.

As if she reads my thoughts, Char­lotte breaks her own rule of si­lence. She mur­murs, “Do we feel sorry for By­ways Jack, who kills and robs for blood­lust? Was he not once a pretty child at his mother’s knee? Still, he’s a black-hearted fel­low.”

“What proof have you of his crimes?” I ask. As a stu­dent of the law, I’m not overly fond of ex­e­cu­tions with­out tri­als.

“My hus­band has told me all the re­ports of By­ways Jack

and his crimes. That’s my hus­band over there. With the white waist­coat un­der his black cloak.”

Moon­light il­lu­mi­nates not only her hus­band, but the dozen or so men around him by the hang­ing tree, sev­eral of whom have hold of By­ways Jack.

“So is this my first les­son in your trade, then? Be­ware of be­ing caught, young high­way­man? See the fel­low dan­gle, next time it might be me?” “No. Now, lis­ten, you …” I tell her my name. “I know who you are, Spencer. You’ve been study­ing in Lon­don since be­fore I wed Hugh. Your par­ents dine with us.”

“And you are Char­lotte.” It seems a lit­tle late for introductions, but we high­way­men must choose whether to be low or high be­haved. “The Lady Char­lotte, who can’t speak or hear.”

“Ha.” Char­lotte casts a self-sat­is­fied look at me. “Un­less in dis­guise, as you see me now, I’ve not said more than twenty words aloud to the world since the day my family ar­ranged for me to marry Hugh. I thought that might end things be­tween us, but a wife who won’t speak suits him to the ground. He has tastes that keep him away nights, and, as you see, so do I.” “How did he ever win you? With money?” “Like his loyal wastrels?” She laughs. “No, with con­jur­ing tricks.” I stare. “It’s true. He would pull flow­ers out of my ears and silk sleeves out of his nose. I thought with clever gen­tle hands like that he would be kind to me. And now you know what no one does, for I must trust the fel­low at my side when we are on ad­ven­ture, sir.”

Ly­ing on my stom­ach, in the moon’s shadow, I make a hor­i­zon­tal bow. “Your ser­vant, madam. And now that I know your

se­cret, it’s only fair to tell you mine: I have gam­bled away the al­lowance my fa­ther gives me.” I de­cide to tell her the rest. “Along with the best part of my fu­ture in­her­i­tance.”

Over at the hang­ing tree, two men are search­ing Jack’s cloak, pulling it out from un­der his bonds, call­ing out and toss­ing to others var­i­ous items they find in his pock­ets.

Chap­ter Four

There’s a lot of chat­ter go­ing on among the Baron’s men now, af­ter their ear­lier si­lence. We’re too dis­tant to hear what they’re say­ing, but from the laugh­ter, at least one of them is easy with his jokes. The kind of man Char­lotte’s hus­band is likely to in­vite to din­ner, to keep the ban­ter clever and light. Just over the Baron’s head, a man is scram­bling up the hang­ing tree, and

there is some busi­ness go­ing on with the rope dan­gling and tan­gling in the branches.

“Who are those others with your hus­band, those younger fel­lows rush­ing around with ropes, and two up the tree? I can’t make out their faces.”

“You must know them. They are of an age with you, give or take, and many were born around here, to wealthy fam­i­lies. They are my hus­band’s men. I call them the wastrels.”

It is what my fa­ther will call me, when he learns I’ve lost his money. “What makes them so loyal to the Baron, then?” “He lends them money.” “Tied, then. But not loyal.” “He lends them money at a low in­ter­est. They re­deem themselves in their fam­i­lies’ view. And they pay him back.”

“Do they?” I try to imagine how I would pay back such a loan, un­less by a life of crime. “How?”

“I don’t know. He en­joys their loy­alty, and as far as I care, they’re wel­come.” She glances at my side and frowns. “Where are your pis­tols?”

That’s right — I haven’t told her I’m un­armed. “You said to be quiet. Pis­tols aren’t quiet.” “Do you have a knife?” I shake my head. She rolls her eyes and passes me a hunt­ing knife, un­sheathed. “When you catch him, find out whether he still has my neck­lace, that he stole from my hus­band. It was my dowry jew­els. Sap­phires and a dan­gle shaped like a star.” I blink down at the knife in my hand. She crawls a lit­tle way off to the left and ges­tures me to pro­ceed to the right. “You do at least know what to do with that knife?” she hisses.

I had thought we were here to watch the mis­er­able bound crea­ture die. But I do know what to do with the knife.

I hiss back, “You said your­self By­ways Jack is a mur­derer. So why rescue him?”

I ex­pect her to say, for hon­our among thieves. But in­stead she an­swers, “Be­cause he was once a pretty child at his mother’s knee.” She crawls away, swal­lowed by the shad­ows of the trees and bushes at the edge of the clear­ing. And she screams. All the men be­neath the tree start and turn to­wards the sound. Char­lotte, still en­tirely hid­den from view, screams again. Some of the men, her hus­band among them, be­gin to run across the clear­ing in our di­rec­tion, and I hear the rat­tle of brush that is Char­lotte, call­ing for help, lead­ing the men away from By­ways Jack un­der the tree. I curse her idea, for to run across the clear­ing would give me away in the moon­light, as much as if I showed my­self at noon on a sunny Easter Day. The only way to reach him is to travel around the edge of the clear­ing. I clutch the hunt­ing knife in my right hand and raise my left to cover my face so that its pale shape doesn’t draw the in­ter­est of the two or three vig­i­lantes who are still un­der the tree with By­ways Jack, hold­ing the ropes they mean to hang him with. I hope that my dark cloth­ing and the move­ment of the shad­ows around the perime­ter of the area, of branches thrown up and down by breezes, will cover my ap­proach.

The Lady’s scream sounds again, from be­hind me now, and I curse as the men un­der the trees turn their heads in my di­rec­tion. One of them calls, “Can you see her?”

I re­al­ize they’re ad­dress­ing me. I make a neg­a­tive ges­ture and dive back un­der the trees, hur­ry­ing to come out be­hind them.

When I do, their backs are to me, for how long I don’t know, but Char­lotte screams again, and some of the men call out for the Lady, as well, and that keeps these fel­lows stand­ing guard look­ing out­ward. Just be­hind them, nearer me, I see By­ways Jack, his hands tied be­hind him, star­ing out­wards as well. I slink up be­hind the hang­ing tree, keep­ing its mas­sive trunk be­tween me and the Baron’s men. I ex­am­ine as well as I can from a few feet away the thick ropes that bind his arms and legs. I test the blade of Char­lotte’s knife with one thumb. It’s sharp enough to skin eels, but can I count on hav­ing at least thirty se­conds to slice through those bonds with­out the guards turn­ing? In the si­lence af­ter Char­lotte’s scream, one of them turns back to By­ways Jack, tugs at his bonds, then turns away again. I re­mem­ber the man up above, and look up to see his sil­hou­ette seated on a branch over the heads of the guards, ropes looped about his arms, watch­ing the woods across the clear­ing.

Char­lotte screams for help again. Bushes crash. Some­body shouts, “I see her.” I slip the knife into my belt at my back, grit my teeth, and dash for­ward. I catch Jack by the ropes bind­ing his arms and yank him back into the bushes, both hands be­hind me to haul his weight. I feel like a whipped ox on the har­row. Still, I give the black­guard credit: he doesn’t make a peep while I do it, and I take some credit too, for he weighs about what I imagine my horse Net­tles weighs. No cry of dis­cov­ery has yet rung out — Char­lotte is giv­ing her noises a good sol­dier’s ef­fort. I hope it’s not be­cause she’s been caught, but there’s noth­ing I can do but fol­low her wishes, drag­ging the thief and mur­derer over logs, through at least one holly bank and white-blos­som­ing, sharp-fin­gered hawthorn. At last I can’t hear Char­lotte or the men, nor can I drag him fur­ther. I cut his bonds at wrist and

calf. He stands up free.

“Thank you. That was not a happy ride, but I’m a happy man for it all the same.” He pats his hips, ap­par­ently look­ing for his weapons, but of course they were taken. He reaches into his boot and pulls out a tiny pis­tol, al­most too small for his hands, and points it at me.

“It’s a lady’s gun, sir,” By­ways Jack says, “but it kills very well in­deed.”

“I’ve heard of these.” I clear my throat and reach be­hind me for the Char­lotte’s knife. “I un­der­stand the shot, if it pierces a man’s mid­sec­tion, takes longer to kill him.” “A good weapon for vengeance, re­ally.” I agree. “But I’m not sure why you want vengeance upon me, your res­cuer.” Knife hand be­hind my back, I grip the weapon firmly. It will not be a fair fight, for he is a tried-and-true high­way­man, and this is my first night at it. How­ever, there is such a thing as be­gin­ner’s luck.

He smiles, and I can see the hole where one of his teeth has been knocked out, and blood on his lip. Aside from his in­juries, he is quite hand­some, and his looks com­bine with strength, poise, blood, and his pis­tol to cre­ate a fear­some sight. He waves the pis­tol at me. “I don’t want to kill you.” “What, then?” I shift my bal­ance slightly, heft­ing the knife. He holds out the pis­tol. “I want your knife. Much hand­ier for the get­away road.”

Be­hind us, I hear the un­mis­take­able shouts of hunt­ing men. I’m not go­ing to stand here ar­gu­ing with By­ways Jack un­til they over­take us and hang us both.

I toss him my knife. “Have you got a lady’s neck­lace — sap­phires, with a dan­gle star?”

“Never seen it. On my hon­our. There must be an­other high­way­man out there, for the news of my ar­rival here in Buck­ing­hamshire trav­elled so quickly that they caught me be­fore I could make tup­pence.” “Am I meant to be­lieve that?” “Just as you like.” He hands me his small pis­tol. “Here’s the plan. I’ll go right, you go left. If they catch one, the other is free, and if they nab both of us, we’ll be well met again in Hell.” He tears away silently through the un­der­growth in his cho­sen di­rec­tion, and I in the op­po­site. It takes me much of the night to get home.

Chap­ter Five

I wake up with my sheets wrapped around me in knots, damp against my chilled back. I wake up wish­ing I were not what I am, a was­trel like those fel­lows who hang about Char­lotte’s good knight of a hus­band, tied up in debt and doubt. But I am their in­fe­rior in courage, for they have the stom­ach to ad­mit their wrong to the Baron and ex­change their pri­vate shame for pri­vate loans at nil per­cent. Worse, I am not afraid of shame, I am afraid of los­ing my fa­ther’s re­gard. What’s left of it.

So I lie here star­ing at the ceil­ing and ask my­self, What it is that I want? I’m not a very ex­cit­ing fel­low, but per­haps that’s why I want to be a high­way­man. Ex­cite­ment is like a shin­ing jewel some­body else owns. That’s how I earned so much debt, sit­ting up late in the smoky dens of gam­blers quicker and clev­erer than I. I can’t blame it on luck, even ly­ing here in my tan­gled bed­clothes,

us­ing my toe to push open the case­ment win­dow and let in the April morn­ing air. I be­lieve, as some be­lieve in sal­va­tion, that we’ve all got the same luck, so those other no­ble and near-no­ble gam­bling men must have been quicker and clev­erer than I.

A wand of ivy, part of the big vines climb­ing the wall up and around my win­dow, taps on a di­a­mond-cut case­ment pane and re­minds me of my own ques­tion. What do I want? The an­swer is To be a high­way­man and make a lot of money so that I am my own man. And what that means is to be hanged pretty soon, for de­spite Char­lotte and my suc­cess­ful rescue of By­ways Jack, af­ter one night I have not a cent more to my name, and I have lost my horse Net­tles as well. For I re­mem­ber that I per­force left him hob­bled to a stone on the far side of the clear­ing where stands the hang­ing tree. I want my horse. For I can lie about where I was last night, and I can omit all men­tion of hav­ing gam­bled away my fa­ther’s al­lowance. But I can’t hide the fact that Net­tles is miss­ing.

I fight free of my bed­ding and throw it in the di­rec­tion of the win­dow. I walk across the floor bare­foot and in my shirt­tails to look out­side, gaz­ing out from my room at the green sward be­low, which sep­a­rates our home from the woods, and be­yond which lie the es­tates of our neigh­bours, in­clud­ing many a young was­trel like my­self, and the Baron’s es­tates, where lan­guishes si­lent Char­lotte, when she isn’t be­ing a gar­ru­lous high­way­man. I imagine pol­ish­ing my boots and walk­ing away through the woods to ask the Baron for a loan, at nil per cent, with which to pay my next season’s board­ing fees, and which I will re­pay once I be­come a lawyer and sil­ver flows into my palm like rain onto a fam­ished farm­land. I won­der whether it’s not a sign that I’m a lucky man that I can slip along the quiet lanes of life and take safe choices, and that these are al­ways of­fered me. The Baron’s gen­eros­ity is

just an­other sign of my good luck. I’m rum­mag­ing in my trunk for my shoe brushes, to spiff my­self be­fore ap­proach­ing him for money, when I hear Net­tles’s whinny from out­side be­low. When I run to see, he’s on our green, un­hitched, graz­ing on my mother’s mint gar­den.

I dress my­self, not­ing that my shirt smells some­what, but not un­en­durably, of ner­vous per­spi­ra­tion af­ter my rescue of By­ways Jack. His de­nial of our lo­cal rob­beries sticks in my craw. Not be­cause I think he was ly­ing. I do not. I’m wor­ried for Char­lotte, be­cause who­ever per­pe­trated the rob­beries may still be out there. Last night be­fore I slept I imag­ined my­self find­ing him and tak­ing back at pis­tol-point Char­lotte’s dowry neck­lace with the star dan­gle.

But now, in the light of day, and all dreams aside, I want my neck to stay the length it is, not stretched by any baron’s rope. So I hang about the woods for much of the day, only re­turn­ing to eat at lunch and din­ner. I mean to tell Char­lotte, when she comes for me, that I will not go with her to be a high­way­man.

But she does not come. And by night­fall, I am so bored with be­ing my­self, and so daz­zled by my mem­ory of Char­lotte, her hair and eyes sil­ver in the moon­light, that I tuck By­ways Jack’s pis­tol into my boot, mount Net­tles, and ride out to tell her that I will.

I find her eas­ily on the road near the hang­ing tree. Her hair still shines sil­ver, and her cloak is still ragged enough to dis­guise her wealthy iden­tity. I hope. She smiles when she sees me. “You don’t mind if they hang you?” she asks. I an­swer, bold as a sabre sword, “Not tonight, for I haven’t robbed any­body yet.”

“You freed By­ways Jack. If he’s caught, he will turn you in.”

“Do you think so? I don’t. He seemed a gentleman to me. Or once was, at least.”

“So did you come to talk about rob­bery, or do some?” She ges­tures with one gloved hand at the road, dark be­fore moonrise.

I look at her. I think of the money. I say, bold as gold guineas, “Was I afraid last night?”

“I’ll tell you what.” Char­lotte’s horse moves rest­lessly, as if ea­ger to be off and hold­ing up coaches. “Take this.”

She tosses me some­thing black, a lit­tle larger than my two hands to­gether. I hold it up. It is a mask. She puts her own mask on, and it cov­ers her eyes, but I can still see bright­ness there, and her smile.

She says, “This is good. Us to­gether. Be­cause … Well, stu­dent of mine? Why?”

I say, “Be­cause the law, or the vig­i­lantes, will be look­ing for a mar­ried cou­ple of thieves, and they will search the inns and barns for such a pair.”

“Right. And you can search them and take purses and jew­els, while I hold them at pis­tol-point. You be­ing care­ful not to … ?”

Not to … what? I pic­ture the scene, Char­lotte stand­ing, one trousered leg out­stretched, a shin­ing pis­tol in each hand pointed at a half-dozen or so quak­ing coach rid­ers. Me gently re­mov­ing items of value from their per­sons. I scowl. And then it comes to me. “I must be care­ful not to come be­tween your pis­tol and …”

“And our vic­tims.” She peers at me. “You don’t like the word vic­tims.” “It makes them sound dead,” I say. “That’s en­tirely up to them.” But she laughs. “I’m not about to kill any­body,” I tell her. “That’s my worry, that they’ll see right through me.”

“I told you, you’re too soft-hearted for a high­way­man. That’s why you have me, and I have the pis­tols.”

I do have a pis­tol. By­ways Jack’s pis­tol, snug in my boot. Loaded. The thought of it em­bold­ens me still more, and I ask how many for­ays she has made, on her own, be­fore me.

She hes­i­tates, and I laugh. “None at all? And you, such an ex­pert thief?”

“I prac­tised and scouted and learned the hours the coaches are likely to travel, and their routes,” she protests. “I needed a part­ner. Now I have one.” “You do in­deed, Lady. I apol­o­gize for laugh­ing.” “I’ve done all the hard work, and you will reap the ben­e­fits.” “I cer­tainly hope so. It seems to me that be­gin­ner’s luck is more and more in play in this high­way­man’s life.”

We gal­lop to­gether along the road to­wards the county border, well-shad­owed by trees. I won­der where we are go­ing, but I know as if I’ve al­ways known that Char­lotte will not pause in her rid­ing to an­swer me. She keeps her seat like a huntress queen, and I don’t need to see her face to know the scowl­ing joy upon it. Be­neath me, Net­tles clat­ters on, mov­ing with the strength of a younger horse than he is, as if he likes the life of a high­way­man’s horse. And well he may, be­cause what is gold to him com­pared with the scented dark­ness and open road?

Char­lotte turns her mount off the road past the Mon­tagues’ place. The man­sion win­dows are dark, as if all are asleep, but I’ve known their son Ed­ward since child­hood, and he is as much a was­trel by na­ture as I am, per­haps more. I want to ask Char­lotte whether Ed­ward is one of her hus­band’s men, but I keep my tongue and ride my horse af­ter her. We ride across the bridge that leads to the Lon­don road and as we reach the county cross­ing,

Char­lotte leaps from her horse and I do the same. We lead our mounts into the un­der­growth and stand hid­den from the road as she hob­bles our horses again. The whole busi­ness is rather thrilling, and noth­ing has even hap­pened yet. “What now?” I ask. “Be si­lent and lis­ten,” Char­lotte says. “Do you hear horses?” I lis­ten. But there are only branches click­ing to­gether in the light April breeze, and our own mounts, and Char­lotte’s breath­ing close at my side. “Are we lis­ten­ing for the vig­i­lantes?”

I feel a small move­ment at my side that is Char­lotte nod­ding. “They know as well as we that By­ways Jack isn’t likely to re­turn. The vig­i­lantes be­lieve their job is done. So our chance tonight to get some money from trav­ellers is good, if a late coach comes through.” “Yes. But your hus­band is rich. Why do you want money?” “Why in­deed. Have you met Hugh?” “Do you mean you wish to es­cape mar­riage to him?” She laughs. “Per­haps. I rather en­joy this night-time game, though.”

We stand and wait. The night is not warm, and I gather my coat around me and stand close to Net­tles for warmth, and Char­lotte does the same with her own horse. We stand some more. We lis­ten: to the breeze, to a black­bird in the dis­tance up late and singing hard. And at last we hear the hoof beats and the jin­gle and crack of a coach­man’s whip that mean a coach is com­ing. I jerk for­ward in an­tic­i­pa­tion, and Char­lotte puts a steady­ing hand on my shoul­der. “Let me do the talk­ing,” Char­lotte says. “That is good sense. Since you never speak, your voice will not be rec­og­nized.”

“And I en­joy the talk­ing,” Char­lotte says. “I have a bold way about me when I wear a mask.”

“Only when you wear a mask?” I joke. The coach is near, now. Un­seen un­der cover of trees and un­der­growth, un­seen the moon has cleared the hori­zon and lights the scene be­fore us. “Ready on my count of three. One. Two.” I be­gin my leap to land in front of the ap­proach­ing coach. She thrusts out her arm and stops me.

“It’s my hus­band’s car­riage,” she hisses. “Some­one of his guests may rec­og­nize me.” “Damn,” I hiss. And, “Sorry.” “Blas­pheme away,” she says over the noise of wheels. “We’re high­way­men, not min­is­ters.”

But the coach­man pulls his horses up just about where we would have halted. The Baron’s coach­man leaps down from his seat with a creak of leather against wood and the rat­tle of stones un­der the soles of his boots. In two steps, his coat swirling around him, he has the coach door open and hauls one of his pas­sen­gers out. The fel­low falls on hands and knees in the grav­elled road and vom­its loudly.

“Bet­ter out than in, young fel­low,” the coach­man says in sur­pris­ingly cul­tured tones. “And bet­ter out of the coach than in it. I ought to leave you here.” I look ques­tion­ingly at her, but she shakes her head. I keep still. The drunken fel­low mum­bles thanks as the coach­man hauls him, droop­ing, to his feet. I can make out a cou­ple of pas­sen­gers in­side the coach, peer­ing out. The young fel­low wipes his mouth with his sleeve and makes for the open coach door. I have felt like he does now and then, and I’m sure he’d give a limb just at this mo­ment to lie down on the bench seat within and fall asleep.

But the coach­man, who no doubt has enough to do with­out clean­ing sick off his em­ployer’s leather seats, pulls him round to the back of the car­riage and hoists him onto the foot­man’s perch. He bids the drunken fel­low to hold on tight. But no sooner has the coach moved out of sight than we hear the thud of a fall­ing body and a shout of agony, fol­lowed by the di­min­ish­ing noise of horses and coach rid­ing away in the dis­tance.

We leap up and, leav­ing our horses, run to­gether along the road to­wards the cry. “Masks on or off?” I gasp. “On,” she an­swers. “And I will stay out of sight. If the coach re­turns I must hide my­self quickly.”

“Will the pas­sen­gers rec­og­nize you?” I ask. “When you’re wear­ing your mask?”

“The pas­sen­gers might not, but the coach­man may. That was my hus­band, en­joy­ing him­self with whip and bri­dles, driv­ing his own coach.”

Chap­ter Six

I know the fel­low ly­ing on the road­way by sight. He’s the son of a man with a lovely big house in town. His name is Hal, and he is sprawled so wide across the grav­elly road­way that for a mo­ment I fear he’s dead. But he moves his hand, and then his arm, reach­ing up in­side the breast as if to check for money, or a gun. I touch my mask to be sure it cov­ers my eyes, tug up the col­lar of my coat, and pull down the brim of my hat.

“Hal?”

“I have the money safe with me, fa­ther,” he mum­bles, his eyes shut tight. His breath is red with wine. “And at very low in­ter­est.” At the sound of his voice, I hear Char­lotte draw the horses closer. “Wait here, and I’ll take care of you,” I tell Hal. I run for Net­tles and make Hal get up on my horse, which must be a com­i­cal strug­gle for Char­lotte to wit­ness. I leave Hal draped across Net­tles’s sad­dle and ap­proach her in the shad­ows. “Will we try again to­mor­row night?” “Yes.” “Do you vow it? Come hell or high wa­ter?” I ask. “Or both to­gether. I wouldn’t miss our next try for any­thing.” I ride, with Hal snor­ing in front of me, to his fa­ther’s house. I set him down out­side the door. He thanks me, call­ing me Sir High­way­man. I am climb­ing back into Net­tles’s sad­dle when he be­gins to pat at his coat breast again. He lets out a cry of fury. “Thief! Where’s my money?” He takes hold of my heel. “I didn’t take any­thing from you.” I jerk free, and he snatches at Net­tles’s bri­dle. “You stole the Baron’s loan to me. You’ve taken it, ev­ery penny.” “You’re still drunk.” No doubt the money he’d bor­rowed from the Baron at a low in­ter­est is some­where about him. Still, to be sure, I ride back the way we came and search the place he fell, but find noth­ing there. Per­haps Char­lotte picked it up. I will ask her to­mor­row night.

But when night fol­lows day, and I ride out to meet her, she isn’t at the hang­ing tree. I wait two full hours, un­til moonrise, and then ride through the woods to the Baron’s house to find out why.

Chap­ter Seven

Not ev­ery­thing gos­siped in town about the Baron’s Lady is true. For ex­am­ple, I know now that Char­lotte can speak and hear. But she does live in a tower in the older sec­tion of Baron Hugh Ram­sey’s great house. I stand look­ing up at it, hold­ing Net­tles’s reins, and af­ter a mo­ment there is a rus­tle in the trees by the near side of the great house. I turn to greet her.

But I hold my tongue just in time, for it is not Char­lotte. Her hus­band the Baron joins me. “A good night, Spencer,” he says. “You know me?” I ask, glad it’s dark so he won’t per­ceive my ner­vous­ness. “I know your fa­ther.” “Yes. Pleased to meet you.” I was ready to be a high­way­man tonight, and now must act like a stu­dent. I can see that some sort of ex­pla­na­tion is nec­es­sary for my pres­ence on his grounds. At night. I say, “I am in­ter­ested in stars and their for­ma­tions.” “Do I have the best stars, then?” He ges­tures at the sky above his prop­erty. I shrug. “I fol­lowed a fall­ing star and it led me here.” “I hope you wished on it.” “I’m more of a sci­en­tist. And a man of law.” He laughs, and it sounds gen­uine. “You have lovely grounds,” I add. “I sup­pose you come out of­ten?”

“Oc­ca­sion­ally. A man should look at what is his.”

The light in Char­lotte’s tower goes out. He says, “We are lucky to be men, with large con­cerns.” “Like fi­nance,” I sug­gest. “And jus­tice,” he agrees. I see a dark fig­ure mov­ing in the ivy, mov­ing down. To draw his at­ten­tion from the tower, I point up at the sky. “Do you know the name of that star?”

“No.” He’s not look­ing at the star. He’s peer­ing at Char­lotte’s tower. “Spencer, what are you do­ing here? Why have you come?”

Why would I come to his prop­erty? “I am here to ask you for a loan.”

He gazes thought­fully at the tower. “Come to­mor­row night. I take it you would like to leave your fa­ther out of things?” “That would be ideal.” The black shape is out of sight. He says, “The ivy on that tower must be dealt with.” I clear my throat. “I think it looks lovely.” “I do not. I think I will go and say good­night to my wife.” I want to say, Let her sleep. But that would sound pro­pri­etary. As if she were mine and not his.

As if I had spo­ken, he an­swers thought­fully, “I found some­thing of hers. I be­lieve she will sleep bet­ter if she has it back.” And al­though there is no rea­son to show this thing to me, he holds out a hand­ful of di­a­monds, the star-shaped dan­gle hang­ing over the side of his palm. “Pretty,” I say. I stop my­self from say­ing an­other word. “Come to us at eight o’clock. We’ll num­ber about a dozen for sup­per.” He puts the neck­lace in his pocket.

As he leaves, he raises a hand in farewell. I hear a crackle in the bushes.

She says, “Hail, col­league of the night.” I say, “Char­lotte. I think your hus­band saw you climb­ing down the ivy.”

“No. How could he be sure?” She moves closely and grips my arm. “The trees are mov­ing in the wind. I might have been a shadow.” “Per­haps. But he’ll soon know. He’s on his way to you now.” She wastes not a sec­ond run­ning through the shad­ows, and I soon see her form swing­ing up the vines and through the win­dow. The lamp comes on, and Net­tles and I make our way home.

Chap­ter Eight

The ivy is chopped down from Char­lotte’s tower when I re­turn the next night to get din­ner and a loan at low in­ter­est from the Baron. Char­lotte will not be leav­ing by the win­dow, tonight or any night.

I stand in the Baron’s foyer while the Baron’s ser­vant takes my coat and hat. I watch where he hangs it, in a vestibule just in­side the front door, among a lot of other coats much like mine, with the bit of an ex­tra cape about the shoul­ders that all we young men are wear­ing this year.

“Please join the others,” the ser­vant says, and maybe I’m imag­in­ing the scorn in his tone. “In­deed, that’s what I’m here to do,” I re­ply. My boots are not what the world ex­pects from evening dress, but when I en­ter the Baron’s li­brary and see the young was­trel guests stand­ing about, busily drink­ing from the Baron’s

de­canters, I’m not alone in wear­ing boots. I doubt whether the others have a high­way­man’s mask and a small pis­tol tucked into their boot-tops, though.

I’m swarmed by these young men. Some are friends of my youth Ed­ward Mon­tague, and a cousin of the Sel­dons I re­mem­ber from long ago. Sev­eral are new to the area, and one is the young fel­low from mine and Char­lotte’s ad­ven­ture two nights ago. Hal is sober tonight. He looks mis­er­able, al­though he has friends all around him. The li­brary is ablaze with light from many-armed can­de­labras. Through a pair of dou­ble doors there stands the great din­ing ta­ble, set for the com­pany. Be­yond is a line of the new French doors. It is cer­tainly a grand dis­play, and a great im­prove­ment upon the house as it looked when the old Baron had it: grey, cold, and on the shabby side.

Sit­ting at ta­ble alone, ap­par­ently await­ing the guests, I see Char­lotte. She’s dressed as the Baron’s Lady, in lace and her hair in curls, her starry neck­lace around her neck. I don’t think she sees me.

I count a baker’s dozen of us young men here in the li­brary. The Baron must be rich in­deed to af­ford all this and give loans at low in­ter­est to all of us here. He must have in­her­ited the money, but from whom? Not the old Baron, un­less all this money was in a trea­sure chest, un­spent. I sup­pose it’s pos­si­ble.

“Here’s to Spencer,” Ed­ward Mon­tague says aloud, and the others raise their glasses.

“Do you know Hal?” Ed­ward asks me. “Poor fel­low! Robbed two nights back, and all the Baron’s loan mon­eys in his pocket.”

“Don’t worry, dear Hal,” the Sel­don cousin says from be­hind his cup of red wine. “It’s a tragedy, of course, but Ram­sey will give you more time to pay. And an­other loan, if you want it. Same low in­ter­est.” Hal looks up hope­fully. “It hap­pened to you, too, didn’t it?” “Yes. And to Mon­tague here.” I look from one to the other. “Should I fear rob­bery too, if the Baron lends me the money I need?” “No more than the rest of us,” says the fel­low with the wine. “No less than the rest of us,” says Mon­tague. “But, never worry, Spencer, there are other so­lu­tions.”

“The rash of house­hold rob­beries,” Hal says gloomily. The others laugh at what is clearly an in­side joke. A voice says, “Wel­come all. Come in to sup­per.” The Baron stands in the door­way smil­ing, his eyes search­ing the crowd. His gaze alights on me, and he steps to­wards me, tak­ing my hand and mak­ing me a spe­cial wel­come.

He leads me into the din­ing room shin­ing with dark wood and white dishes, and pre­sents me to Char­lotte.

Char­lotte nods to me, to all of us, but of course she doesn’t speak. Her hus­band doesn’t stop. As soup is served to us all out of a tureen shaped like a wild boar with leaves for ears, the Baron holds us rapt with stories of the ris­ing of 1715. Then, over the meat and more wine, he tells of his good luck when so many about him lost their mon­eys to the South Sea Bub­ble. The French win­dows that will in warm months stand open to

the grounds be­gin to steam a lit­tle, and I think about the size of this prop­erty and how much it must cost to main­tain it. I ask, “How did you man­age to hold your for­tune, my lord?” He replies jovially, “I didn’t gam­ble it away, young man.” The whole bunch of us laugh in what ought to be, but is not, a sheep­ish man­ner. Char­lotte smiles into the glass of wine be­fore her and toys with her food.

The Baron takes a last bite of beef be­fore the plates are cleared. He says to the ta­ble at large, “What do you say, the lot of you? Do you agree that Spencer here is a good risk and a hearty fel­low who will re­pay what is owed?” Hal looks gloomy, but raises his glass with the rest, say­ing, “Aye.” By the time we’ve fin­ished our sup­per the wine is sit­ting heav­ily, but so is the beef, so I’m keep­ing upon my feet. Char­lotte hasn’t eaten, but I think I’m the only one who’s no­ticed it. It doesn’t mat­ter. Af­ter two hours with the Baron and his young was­trel friends, my mind is spin­ning with po­ten­tials.

The Baron rises at the end of the ta­ble. He smiles at ev­ery­one, end­ing with me, and beck­ons to a ser­vant, who stands ready with a tray upon which stands a very large wine glass — it looks as if it could hold sev­eral cups — and a leather wal­let, with his ini­tials on it. He says, “Drink the wine and take the money.” I thank him, and the ser­vant sets the wal­let and the wine in front of me. This is truly an enor­mous wine glass. No won­der Hal was drunk the night Char­lotte and I found him, the night he said we robbed him. I gaze from the wine to the wal­let to Char­lotte, smil­ing and si­lent on the far side of the ta­ble. I want to ask her just how her spendthrift hus­band got so much money to lend these young men at low in­ter­est.

And why should he lend us this money, any­how? For his is not the mien of a phi­lan­thropist. Fur­ther­more, while I see that he likes be­ing the cen­tre of this youth­ful gath­er­ing, he’s not one of those fel­lows who needs adu­la­tion but sim­ply en­joys it as he en­joys good beef. There­fore, there’s some­thing more go­ing on in this room.

Is the Baron putting to­gether an army for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, or form­ing some sort of over­seas ad­ven­ture, a new com­pany in for­eign lands? No, for of all the peo­ple in the world to choose for a bold en­deav­our, these young fel­lows are the last an in­tel­li­gent leader would choose. They are, like my­self, good for noth­ing but bor­row­ing funds at a low in­ter­est and then ask­ing for more. But how do we pay back our loans? A rash of house­hold bur­glar­ies. The young fel­low’s laugh­ter at their men­tion. What if they would steal items from their own homes and sell them, prob­a­bly in Lon­don, to pay back the Baron? And then, be­ing short of funds again, they would do it again. Which serves them, but it still doesn’t ben­e­fit the Baron. He is re­ceiv­ing only a very small in­ter­est from each. Not enough for him to bother with us. Not enough for splen­dour. Un­less … I stare down at the wal­let. I re­mem­ber that the Baron is good at con­jur­ing tricks. And that Hal, like the rest of these fel­lows, had drunk from this enor­mous cup. He was reel­ing and vom­it­ing when we saw him climb out of the Baron’s coach. Hal had Baron’s loan wal­let on him while he was be­ing helped by the Baron onto the back of his coach. And then, when Char­lotte and I found him, he’d not had the wal­let any­more. And it must have been so for others who had drunk from the cup.

I stare at the Baron. What a clever man he is, for it’s rather

good busi­ness to lend money at small in­ter­est and then steal the loan back. When the young fel­low robs his family to re­pay the loan, the in­ter­est is a lit­tle more than a hun­dred per­cent, and this cir­cle of fel­lows from good homes with bad spend­ing habits will only grow. The Baron and his lady will only grow richer.

I sip at the large glass of wine, toast them both, and ask to be ex­cused to make room for more wine, which re­mark is taken with good cheer by all. I flee the din­ing room and find the vestibule, luck­ily free from ser­vants. I put on my coat, pull my mask out of my boot-top, and put it on, fol­low­ing up with my hat. And I take out my pis­tol, and hold it ready.

Chap­ter Nine

I run out of the Baron’s vestibule, out the front door and round to the left to the grounds in front of the din­ing room. My coat flies out around me, and I fire my pis­tol at the sky. I hear, from in­side, the cry of “Thief!” Others shout, “It’s he! The brig­and, the rob­ber, the high­way­man!” The din­ing room French doors bang open, and as the Baron and his men pour out in pur­suit, I’m al­ready back in­side the front door. I run through the li­brary and into the din­ing room, where Char­lotte sits alone. She is laugh­ing, and I want to laugh too, but the men will soon re­turn.

“I’m go­ing to leave Buck­ing­hamshire,” I say to Char­lotte. “Do you want to come with me?” She nods. Still she doesn’t speak. We both look at the open win­dows. And to the wal­let.

“Shall I take it?” I ask. For this is still her din­ing room, un­til she leaves it with me.

For the first time tonight, she speaks. “Of course, take it. Are we not high­way­men?”

And she hur­ries me out the back way, to our horses.

Chap­ter Ten

We gal­lop hard for the first hour, through the se­cret ways Char­lotte knows from her nights out­side. We ride along the Lon­don road, lis­ten­ing for hoof beats be­hind us. I won­der how soon we’ll have to make a dash into the coun­try­side to evade the Baron and his men. But he doesn’t come, and now our horses ride side by side, and she of­fers me her hand. I take it. “Per­haps the Baron doesn’t want to lose face by telling peo­ple that his wife has left him.” “He is proud like that,” she says. “Or it could be that he knows that we know that he’s milk­ing those young wastrels, and doesn’t want to spoil his fu­ture gains. Per­haps he’s stopped any chase al­ready, and will let us go to Lon­don, and write us off as a loss.” Char­lotte says, “I don’t want to go to Lon­don.” “We’ll have your hus­band’s money to live on.” “I don’t want his money.” There’s a pause. I don’t say, Then why did you tell me to take it? In­stead, I say, “Char­lotte, money is like the river up ahead. It flows through and around peo­ple, with­out tak­ing on the shape of them. Money stays pure, though peo­ple don’t.”

She shoots a nar­row look my way. “Well, I don’t want it. And any­way, we have my neck­lace to sell.” I sigh. “Lucky you got it back.” “He prob­a­bly pawned my dowry neck­lace to get his first loan,” she says. “He was be­com­ing so rich that he re­deemed it and gave it back to me.”

I agree. She falls si­lent. I nu­mer­ate to my­self the rea­sons why we should keep the wal­let with the Baron’s money in it. But she is so lovely, and I am so lucky to ride be­side her with my hand in hers, that I agree. “If you don’t want to go to Lon­don, then where? Shall we keep to the coun­try­side and be high­way­men?”

“No, for as you’ve pointed out, my hus­band, when he was steal­ing back his loans, was a sort of high­way­man, and then we’d be like him.”

“Yes.” I re­mem­bered how her hus­band had tried to hang By­ways Jack and pin the rob­bery on him.

She points ahead. “I have de­cided that when we cross that bridge, he will no longer be my hus­band.” I nod. “But you’ll have ex­plain that to the priest that mar­ries us.” “No, for I have also de­cided that you and I will be mar­ried when we’ve crossed that bridge.” “Right.” I sigh. “What do we do with the money, then?” “Throw it off the bridge,” says Char­lotte. “That way, we will be free of the Baron en­tirely by the time we cross to the other side of it.”

I bow. We walk on un­til we reach the mid­dle of the bridge. Once there, I see we are not alone.

A sad-look­ing fel­low of about forty, wear­ing a city clerk’s garb and a hat too big for him, leans over the wall of the bridge,

look­ing down into the black wa­ter. “Here’s what we do with the money,” Char­lotte says. I gaze at her with awe. “A per­fect thought, wife.” “I’m not your wife un­til we cross the far side of this bridge.” She halts her horse and climbs down. I fol­low. She says, “Why so sad, sir?” He looks up at her. He takes off his hat. “Lady, I want to go back to Lon­don.” She smiles. “What’s stop­ping you?” He can’t help smil­ing back at her. “A gen­er­ous in­her­i­tance sends me to Hert­ford­shire.”

Char­lotte’s face falls. I squeeze her hand, for I know that she wanted to sur­prise him with the Baron’s money, and the news that this sad fel­low has money al­ready is a heavy dis­ap­point­ment.

But the man in clerk’s cloth­ing is shak­ing his head no. “If only it were money, I’d be danc­ing over this bridge in­stead of wish­ing it were high enough to jump from. No, I’ve in­her­ited a build­ing and a busi­ness in the coun­try.” He reaches into the bo­som of his coat and takes out a folded bit of parch­ment and makes as if to throw it into the river. “Sir, can’t you sell it?” “Not tonight, I can’t. And by to­mor­row, I’ll be caught up in the busi­ness way of think­ing, and go to Hert­ford­shire in­stead of Lon­don, and live a life in the coun­try, and marry a widow with pushy chil­dren, and live my life sec­ond best.”

I take the Baron’s money from his leather wal­let. I toss the wal­let off the bridge into the wa­ter. “You can live in Lon­don with this,” I say. “Go on, take it.”

“If you’ll take the busi­ness?” When we nod, the look in his eyes is like an an­gel’s bless­ing upon our less than licit be­trothal.

He has pen and ink, and, busi­ness done, we stroll to­gether to the end of the bridge, lead­ing our horses. As luck would have it, the late coach from Whistler’s Inn passes soon there­after, and we see him safely on­board it. Then we kiss, for we are mar­ried now, says Char­lotte. “And, what are we?” I ask. “Mar­ried,” she re­peats. “I know that, but what are we in Hert­ford­shire? What did we buy?”

She holds the doc­u­ment out to catch a pool of moon­light to read by. “We are pub­li­cans.”

“Are we?” I blink. I try to imagine the pre­vi­ously si­lent Char­lotte at a bar, pour­ing drinks for trav­ellers and chat­ting hap­pily and at length with the trade. “Will you like that?” “I will, if you will.” “We’ll have to give up our guns,” I say. “We can keep a pis­tol be­hind the bar,” she al­lows. “In case of rob­bers.”

“Done,” I tell her. “But let’s not shoot By­ways Jack, no mat­ter what.” “Done.” “And, one more thing.” I’m not at all sure how she will feel about this. “I would like to re­turn the Baron’s loan, in­clud­ing the low in­ter­est.” “He doesn’t need it. Or de­serve it.” “I’m a stu­dent of the law, Char­lotte. Or, I was. We can send it se­cretly, by mes­sen­ger, at night.”

Char­lotte’s face lights. “Oh, Spencer, let’s take the Baron his money our­selves, from time to time, masked and at mid­night.”

“We’ll ride across the county lines un­der the moon, in hon­our

of the black and mem­o­rable nights we rode out to­gether into peril and crime.” “Done and done and done.” We mount up with a swirl of skirts — hers — and coat — mine. And we gal­lop off along the moon­lit road to Hert­ford­shire.

Chap­ter Eleven

The sun had gone be­hind a cloud. I shiv­ered and re­al­ized that By­ron was shak­ing me awake.

“Stop that, con­found you.” I gazed up at him. I was not fully my­self still, and asked him, “Why don’t I meet you in these mys­ter­ies in time, By­ron?”

He peered at me. “Are you go­ing around the bend, old pal?” “Well, I guess you’re a was­trel …” I held up my hand as he be­gan to protest. “And so am I. Did Eus­tace get in touch with his listed-build­ing-in­spec­tor nephew?”

“I’ve no in­for­ma­tion on that score, but you have a friend re­quest on your new Face­book page. From An­gel­ica. That was quick.” He scowled at me. “Shall I ac­cept?”

I sighed. It had never been difficult to en­cour­age An­gel­ica when she was with By­ron. “No.”

“Good.” He swore. “I’ve ac­cepted by ac­ci­dent! Now, there are two more friend re­quests, and brace your­self, they are from a wo­man and a man who look from their pic­tures to be about our age.” “Where?” “In the States.” “Heav­ens above.” I sat up. “Is it Holly?” “Pos­si­bly. And it looks like the other is her hus­band. Mor­gan Odell, mar­ried to Holly Wilk­er­son.”

Above our heads a heron cried and dived out of a tree at some kind of prey — a fish, go­ing about its own busi­ness with no idea of be­ing snapped up for a snack, or a frog, hap­pily singing its gut­tural song. I sighed. “Okay. How do I ac­cept Holly’s hus­band’s friend­ship?” “The ac­cept but­ton, here.” I hes­i­tated. I reached out my hand for the phone. By­ron pulled it away from me. “Look, Spencer. As an ac­tual, in-the-flesh friend I must in­ter­vene. We hoped Holly would not be mar­ried. And Holly is mar­ried. I’m wor­ried that you will be sad, and if you are sad, you will drink.”

“I’m not sad. Why would I be sad?” I asked bit­terly. “I have

a new friend with a won­der­ful wife.”

By­ron’s eye­brows rose. “I say. Would you come be­tween man and wife?” Now, By­ron him­self had come be­tween man and wife. “I’m just go­ing to make sure Holly’s happy. Does she look happy?” To­gether we leaned over the phone and gazed down at the pic­ture of Holly at sixty. “She’s pretty,” By­ron pro­nounced. “That wasn’t my ques­tion.” “She’s smil­ing.” But he sounded doubt­ful. “Still, if you’re be-friend­ing her hus­band, old sport, re­mem­ber what’s cricket.”

“Cricket, for­sooth.” I shot him a look. “Let us not for­get that I’m still mar­ried to the wo­man you’re living with.”

He coughed. “Re­gard­ing that touchy spot be­tween us, I think we agreed that points are about even over the course of a long friend­ship.” He am­bled off to­wards the canal, phone out, no doubt call­ing An­gel­ica to give up the vene­tian blinds.

I sucked my lip and stared down at Holly’s lovely face. At sixty, I’d still know her any­where. I’d still know her smile. And for once, I was glad that our re­la­tion­ship, at twenty, had not been with­out fric­tion and mis­un­der­stand­ings. Be­cause I knew her face when it was truly happy, and I knew how she looked when she was only pre­tend­ing to be. And Holly, in this pic­ture, seated by her hus­band, was pre­tend­ing.

The ques­tion was, for how much longer was she plan­ning to pre­tend? For­ever, or just for now?

I looked down at the smil­ing fel­low at her side. Ex­actly what had this Mor­gan fel­low done to make Holly pre­tend? I thought of the Baron, who was real and not real. And re­mem­bered Char­lotte, who looked so much like Holly. I looked up at the

brick­work of the Seven Swans and asked aloud, “These lives I lead from your past must mean some­thing, mustn’t they?”

A black­bird sang out, tune­fully and at length. The Seven Swans, nat­u­rally, stood si­lent.

I pressed ac­cept. Holly and Mor­gan Odell had a new friend.

Spencer Stevens will re­turn in ‘The Bridge­wa­ter Canal Mys­tery’ in Pulp Lit­er­a­ture Is­sue 16, Au­tumn 2017.

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