The Seven Swans: The Highwayman’s Deception
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
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.