The Highwayman Chapter 3

(Chapter 1 is here.)

 

3

 

Wednesday morning arrived, and Father sent me into Leighton, but a mile’s walk from the Parsonage, to call on Mrs. Burgess and renew our invitation for that evening. I was putting on my bonnet in the foyer when a knock came at the door. Banks, our housekeeper, opened it to reveal Anthony.

“Oh, begging your pardon, I see I have caught you on your way out,” he said.

I gave a curtsy. “I was just on my way to Leighton. Will you walk with me?” Mrs. Simmons gave me a knowing look as I passed through the doorway.

Anthony was silent as we made our way out the gate and down the lane toward the village. It was a beautiful morning, with the sun providing unexpected warmth. Our way was bounded on one side by blackthorn hedges, now alive with the calls of the linnet, while the masses of delicate white flowers gave off a musky, sweet scent. On the other side, Holbourne’s pastures sloped upward from the valley through which the lane ran, shining a brilliant green.

As the silence lengthened, I couldn’t help remembering the games Anthony, Jamie, and I would play in those meadows when we were children. Anthony would organize games of pretend in which he played some hero of legend, usually King Arthur, while Jamie was Galahad or Parsifal or Lancelot; I, of course, was Guinevere, or perhaps some maiden in distress, guarded by a dragon. This was all fine for a time, for at that age I could imagine little for Guinevere to do but weave crowns of daisies. As collecting flowers was one of the things I liked best, along with watching the bees and the birds flit about, or any other activity of nature, this did not often trouble me. Yet there were times when I wanted to do more, to pick up a stick and join in the play-fighting, or to imagine we were all tramping off to the Holy Land together—for one of the Earl’s forebears had won renown and a title by fighting in the Crusades, creating another scenario for Anthony and Jamie to reenact—but always the answer was no.

“That would make you a camp follower, Lizzie,” Anthony would say. “Your father wouldn’t like it.” He and Jamie, both older, seemed to know what a camp follower was, but would never tell me.

“But what if I were Merlin?” I would demand.

“Merlin was a boy!”

“How do you know? He wore skirts, did he not?”

Anthony would glare at me then, deeply offended; these were but games for Jamie and me, but Anthony took them seriously, as training for his future position as Earl. Lacking a damsel in distress, he could have no opportunity to demonstrate his chivalry.

Later, we put aside such pastimes and Anthony went off to Eton and then Oxford. We saw each other when he was home on vacation, at parish functions, or sometimes when out riding, though on the latter occasions Jamie and Anthony would be far ahead. At the infrequent assemblies in Leighton’s village hall, I was careful to allow him two dances and no more, for by this time I had recognized that I would never be Anthony’s Guinevere.

Anthony must have been remembering those days of childhood as well, for at last he broke the silence by saying, “Elizabeth, I have been meaning to apologize for my behavior when the highwayman assaulted you.”

“Apologize? For what should you apologize? We were all of us in danger.”

“Yet I should have prevented his assault on you. It is a moment I will regret for the rest of my days. When I think that we used to play games of chivalry in this very spot, and then when the opportunity for true chivalry arose, I was not up to the challenge.”

I stole a glance to see him staring dejectedly at the lane before us. “Perhaps, in such a situation, a woman can get away with what a man could not. Had you provoked him more than you did, he might have shot you. And you did challenge him to a duel.”

“Empty bluff and bluster. I knew he wouldn’t honor such a challenge. No, it was my duty to protect you, and I failed. And now Father bids me to follow him to London.”

The silence lengthened once more. “You depart today, do you not?”

“We leave within the hour. I wanted to pay my respects before leaving.”

“It is most appreciated,” I said, employing that cautious reserve through which I had always hoped to safeguard both our hearts, though now my preoccupation with the highwayman also played a part. I was searching for a different subject for our conversation when he went on.

“Elizabeth, is there no chance your father will send you to London for the latter part of the season?”

I allowed him half a smile, careful not to let my gaze linger too long on his bright blue eyes or the smooth skin of his high cheekbones, tanned from his recent outings afield. “I’m sure he’s worried that an eligible bachelor would capture my heart and take me far from home.” Anthony knew as well as I that Father had not the means to send me, along with Mrs. Simmons, to London. “No, he is happy that I content myself with Devonshire society. It does not trouble me.”

He was silent for several moments more, then said, “I wish I could stay in Devon. Town is not for me—too crowded, too many people to know and their ranks to keep track of. I prefer it here in the country. I don’t see what London has to offer, and I grow tired of having my every move directed by my parents.”

I kept my attention on the lane ahead of me, unwilling to lead him farther into danger. “What is there to occupy you here, now that the sporting season has ended?”

But my efforts were of little use. He stopped in the lane and placed a hand on my arm, his voice low and filled with meaning as he replied, “More than you know, Lizzie.”

That was the moment at which, to please Father and Mrs. Simmons, I should have turned my pleading eyes upon him and asked, in all innocence, whatever could he mean? Following which, he would no doubt pour out his heart and kiss my hand, pledging that he would stand up to his father in choosing a mate. But I knew how that would end, for I was sure that Anthony had not the heart to defy his father for long. And even if he did, where could it lead? For it was well known that the bulk of Holbourne’s lands were free of entail, and Lord Highdown could dispose of them as he wished, leaving Anthony the poorest Earl in the kingdom when he took the title. Would Anthony commit himself to a life of relative poverty and humiliation in order to marry me? I was certain not. The inevitable result would be heartbreak for us both, the loss of our friendship, and my own reputation sullied as the foolish girl taken in by the frivolous romances of a nobleman.

Now I was glad for all my father’s training, as it allowed me to steady myself for what I must do. “Come now,” I said, masking my true feelings with more playfulness than I felt. “I haven’t a doubt that you will be a great hit in the ton. Half the eligible girls will be falling over themselves to capture your attentions. You will make your parents very happy and proud.”

For a moment he seemed to consider defying his parents’ wishes, proclaiming allegiance to his own heart, but then his expression grew more determined as his upbringing as a gentleman and heir to the Earldom asserted itself. “You have always been my greatest friend, Lizzie. You always have much better sense than I do.”

“You sound as if you are off to war! I hope we will be the best of friends for years to come, when our children are playing together on family visits.”

I gazed at him as calmly as I could, then we continued our walk, maintaining our silence until we reached the joining of the lane that led to his family’s estate, where we bid our farewells. I continued toward town, conscious of a certain hypocrisy in urging my friend to ignore the demands of his own heart, when I could not quiet my own thoughts after one kiss from a stranger, and a rogue at that. I was glad to have the distraction of a new acquaintance to divert my attention as I approached Mrs. Burgess’s house in town.

 

* * *

 

Mrs. Burgess greeted me cordially in her parlor, rising from her embroidery work; again I noticed how tall she was. She wore a white morning dress, with her brown hair done up in a mass of curls at the top and a fringe falling in back to the base of her neck. She mentioned how glad and grateful she was for the invitation to dinner that evening, her smile lighting up her whole face, the skin around her brown eyes crinkling.

I asked her how she had hit upon Leighton as a site for her new abode.

“Oh, I am only a tenant here for now. I had thought of finding a fine house in Exeter—or, that is, my brother had thought of finding one for us—but I found the air unhealthy, and I was troubled by the recent riots. Perhaps soon I will find a house within my means in the country hereabouts. In the meantime, I am glad to find such welcoming and congenial neighbors.”

At this point we were interrupted by the elderly housekeeper bringing in the tea things.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Mrs. Burgess said, as she set about pouring the water. “I know it’s not the time for it, but I thought you might enjoy some refreshment after your walk.”

I consented, though I thought it an odd time of day for tea, and we continued talking about village life and the weather for several minutes more, until I realized I was in danger of overstaying my visit. As I was making my excuses and rising to leave, Mrs. Burgess reached across the space between our seats and placed a restraining hand on my arm.

“Oh, please, don’t rush off. The Captain and I never held with these rules of decorum that require visits of such a length and no longer. If we are enjoying each other’s company, why should you not stay as long as you like?” She said it with such energy and affability that I could not deny her. “Besides, you haven’t finished your tea, and I have yet to learn what are your favorite books and music, and what beaux are vying for your attentions at present.”

“Oh, I have beaux without number,” I said with a casual air.

“Well, of course you do! With such a fine manner and attractive—” She broke off as I looked at her steadily. “Oh, you mean you have none! You quite took me in.” She smiled, as if pleased to have been gulled in this way. “But you have no suitors? I find that difficult to credit.”

I mentioned the light populace of our region of Devonshire, and the surprising plenitude of young ladies compared to gentlemen. I did not mention Anthony. “But in truth, it is not a topic to which I give much thought,” I said, hoping not to continue a subject on which I had too much discourse with my other friends.

“I agree. Too much contemplation of one’s prospects can be gauche.” She offered me a slice of cake, which I declined. “And what of your family? Mrs. Simmons said your brother is overseas?”

“Yes, these past two years. He was in India the last we heard. We are grateful his ship has avoided engagements with the French, though he regrets the missed opportunities for action and renown.”

“And your mother?” she asked. She took a sip of her tea, as if she had just asked about the weather.

I looked down at my own cup. “She passed when I was eleven.”

“That must have been difficult.”

I nodded, staring at the swirling patterns my spoon was making. Thus far I had enjoyed this unusually intimate introductory visit, but now we had entered on a topic hardly appropriate for such an occasion.

The silence between us lengthened. “I lost my own mother when I was eight,” Mrs. Burgess said. “It took me some time to realize she was gone forever. Did you find that with your own loss?” She gazed at me with more concern than really proper from a near stranger.

“No—perhaps because I was older.” To distract myself from this discomfiting conversation, I turned my attention to a drawing that hung over the fireplace. It showed the mustering of a hunt before a grand manor house. But for the perspective being off, it would have been a lovely scene. This was the price of my education in drawing—instead of simply enjoying another artist’s performance, I must always consider its technical merits. The drawing must have come as part of the furnishing of the house, I thought.

I was ready to ask about it when Mrs. Burgess went on. “Nothing can replace a mother’s love, can it?”

Really, this was too familiar. “Mrs. Simmons has taken good care of my brother and me,” I said at length.

“Of course she has. I could see the love with which she spoke of your brother on the day we met. I had a governess as well, a kind, matronly woman. But it cannot be the same, can it? The loss of a mother at such a young age—it must change one in some irrevocable way, mustn’t it?”

I looked all about the room as I struggled to formulate an answer. “I hardly know. Father—Father praised me for bearing the loss so well. If I mentioned her, he would cut me off by exclaiming over the bravery I had shown up to then.”

“So it did change you.”

I nodded. “I became the brave little girl Father wanted me to be.”

“And you never grieved for your mother.”

It was impertinent of her to speak as if we were already intimates; yet, seeing the tender look she gave me, I felt none of the impropriety of such familiarity. “No,” I whispered, my lip trembling. How quickly she had pierced my reserve!

She reached out to put a hand on my arm. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to make you melancholy. It’s just that I’ve grown so used to talking about my mother and her loss; I didn’t realize it wasn’t the same for you.”

It was strange to realize that, in nine years, no one had shown as much concern for my mother’s death as this woman of the briefest acquaintance. As unusual as it was, I could not think it wrong. I left her house after overstaying my visit by three quarters of an hour, thinking she would make a welcome addition to the neighborhood.


 

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