And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.
– Alfred Noyes, “The Highwayman”
The first time I encountered the highwayman, his hand was upon my breast and his tongue was in my mouth. The rogue and his accomplices had stopped our carriage in a dusk-darkened wood, no doubt attracted by the lavish nature of the coach-and-four, with its elaborate gold trim and yet more elaborately bedecked footmen.
“Have no fear, ladies,” said Anthony Cranford, Lord Burnside, the son of our neighboring Earl, as he reached for the door. “I’m sure these louts want only my purse.” Anthony—I call him by his Christian name, for we were old childhood friends—had kindly offered to convey me, along with my companion, Mrs. Simmons, to Exeter on a shopping excursion. We were late in returning, as he had been detained longer than expected by his own business in town.
Before Anthony could open the door, however, it was thrown open from without, and there stood the masked villain, holding a pistol aimed upwards at Anthony’s chest. He wore the dress of a gentleman: a finely-cut coat of claret velvet, buckskin breeches, and high leather boots, a large cocked hat topping it all. With a black crêpe cloth covering most of his face, only his eyes were visible, eyes that seemed calm, almost merry, as they surveyed the interior of the carriage.
“Yes, ladies, have no fear, for I never harm those whom I rob, as long as they cooperate. If you’ll just return to your seat, my lord.” As Anthony resumed his place across from us, the highwayman’s gaze swept over Mrs. Simmons and then myself, at which point he brought up short.
“Oh, my, what a pretty—bauble.” His eyes swept from my face to my throat, and lower, then back again. “Your necklace, I mean,” he said, giving me half a wink. I caught my breath at the frankly appraising manner with which he had surveyed my person and at the knowing look he now gave me, for I was unaccustomed to being treated with such lewd impertinence.
He held his free hand out to me. “Now, if you’ll just hand that necklace over, I’ll proceed to his lordship.”
My hand went to my throat, almost of its own accord. “This is my last memento of my departed mother. I will not part with it.”
The highwayman only laughed, then spoke in a voice that attempted gruffness more than achieving it, like a boy straining for the tones of manhood: “Then I’ll have it, with interest.” His boot leather creaked as he stepped up onto the runner of the carriage and leaned in through the doorway. I felt my color rising as he placed a gloved hand on my cheek, his eyes gazing into my own with that merry, knowing glint, as if he knew just what feelings his bold manner was provoking.
Mrs. Simmons, seated next to me, took me by the arm and tried to pull me from the rogue’s clutches, to no avail. Nor could Anthony restrain himself. He rapped on the floor with his walking stick. “Look here! Take our valuables if you must, but leave the young lady in peace.”
The highwayman levelled his pistol at Anthony. “Oh, I will have your jewels and your coin, Lord Burnside, but I’ll hazard the young lady is the most valuable treasure in this carriage. Now if you’ll just toss that stick out the window—we must avoid violence where we can.”
Anthony hesitated a moment, then did as commanded, leaving the highwayman free to return his attentions to me.
I don’t know how he managed it, what with leaning through the carriage door and keeping the pistol aimed at Anthony. With his free hand, he lifted his crêpe mask and placed his lips on my own, just as I gave a gasp of surprise. His tongue entered my open mouth and began exploring within in a most lascivious manner. I couldn’t help noticing he was remarkably clean-shaven, with none of that scratchy, three-days’ growth of beard one associates with a ruffian. Too, he must have been fastidious in his toilette, as I caught a scent of rosewater. While his tongue was busy in its explorations, his free hand was having its pleasure at my breast. At first I felt only shock at such astonishing behavior, but then such a feeling came over me as I can hardly describe: a warmth flooding through my limbs as my heart beat faster—if that were possible—and my breath coming rapidly.
Leaving off with his kissing and groping, his hand went to the back of my neck and deftly undid the clasp of the necklace. While he performed this operation, his eyes remained fixed on my own; even in the dim light, they were alive with a merry glint, as though robbing carriages and molesting their occupants were the most exalting occupation in the world. And something more: those eyes saw deep into me, as if they knew with a certainty the feelings those lips and that roving hand had caused.
For my part, where I should rightly have felt fear, I felt something else entirely. Before I could check myself, I slapped him hard across the face, the blow softened by the cloth of his mask.
“Lizzie!” exclaimed Mrs. Simmons. “Do not provoke him!”
Yet the highwayman seemed to smile all the more, judging by the deeper crinkles around his laughing eyes. “What a remarkable young woman!” he said as he pocketed the necklace. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, my lady.”
He dipped his head to me, then turned his attention to Mrs. Simmons. “And you must be the young lady’s governess, if I’m not mistaken.”
Mrs. Simmons, trembling slightly, replied, “Yes, or a lady’s companion, if you will, as Miss Elizabeth is done with her tutoring.” I placed a hand on her arm to calm her, as her fright had evidently made her chatty, but she kept her hands clutched tight together in her lap.
“Very well,” the highwayman said with an air of gallantry, “then I’ll have nothing from you, and that wedding band you’re so assiduously hiding may stay in its place. Now, Viscount Burnside, what baubles do you have about you today? Ah, yes, you must have a valuable watch in your pocket, judging by the gold chain adorning your waistcoat. It will do nicely, I’m sure, and please spare us the stories of its importance as a family heirloom.”
Anthony looked over at me as he reached for the watch. “Elizabeth, I promise I will do whatever I can to apprehend this rogue. I won’t rest until I have gained satisfaction for this insult to your honor.”
“An insult!” the highwayman exclaimed in mock umbrage. “I believe she rather enjoyed it, my lord. It seems she’s never been properly kissed ere now—surprising, considering the two of you appear to be on a first-name basis.” As he looked at me, I felt my cheeks flush an even deeper red. He turned back to Anthony. “You don’t mean to tell me you haven’t sampled the wares before completing the purchase?”
Anthony had the watch out and was ready to hand it over, but now he clenched it in his fist, ready to strike out at the rogue. “You will not speak of Miss Collington in such a—”
“We are old friends, nothing more,” I interrupted, hoping to calm the situation as much as to correct the highwayman’s mistake. For, contrary to the style the highwayman had given me, I was not of the nobility. My father was Vicar of Leighton Parish, of which Anthony’s father, Earl Highdown, was the patron. As I was neither wealthy nor of ancient, noble lineage, there could be no question of our marrying, Anthony’s increasing affections and Father’s and Mrs. Simmons’ hopes notwithstanding.
My statement had rather the opposite effect to what I had intended, spurring Anthony to yet more gallantry. “If you are any kind of gentleman, you will settle this now, with pistols at twenty paces.” That such a challenge to an inferior violated the nobleman’s code of honor—and that Anthony seemed to have forgotten it—could only be explained by his anger on my behalf.
The highwayman regarded Anthony wryly for a moment, then gave a snort. “Of all the countless noblemen I have robbed, you are the first to challenge me to a duel. I suppose I should feel honored that you would treat me as your equal.” Here he ironically tipped his hat. “But who will be your second? And where are your pistols?” When Anthony merely shrugged, he laughed out loud. “And do you propose that I loan you the weapon with which you would send me to the undertaker?”
Anthony raised his chin, managing to look superior to the rogue. “Very well then, name the time and place and I will meet you to have satisfaction. You have my word not to warn the Constable of our meeting.”
“Anthony, let him take your watch and be gone,” I said.
“Miss Collington is right. We highwaymen leave the dueling to our betters. Now, the watch, if you please.”
“I should have known a rogue would have no honor.”
“Honor, is it?” For the first time, the humor went out of the highwayman’s gaze and his voice took on an edge as hard as the single diamond he wore in his cravat. “And do you lords call it honor when you enclose the commons and hoard your grain, driving the price of bread beyond the reach of the common laborer? No, that is theft, as surely as this. Now hand over that watch before I forget that I never harm my marks.”
“Anthony—” I wanted to reach out to him, but the highwayman was between us. The moment stretched on as Anthony glared at the rogue.
“Very well,” he said at last, handing the watch over.
“That’s right, my lord. And now your purse. I imagine it’s considerably lighter after your excursion to Exeter.”
Anthony brought the purse forward. “I’ll see you hanged for this!”
The highwayman gave an exaggerated sigh, his humor returning. “A sentiment one hears all too often in this trade, I’m afraid. Fortunately for me, it has yet to be acted upon with any effect. Now, ma’am, those packages beneath your seat.”
Tossing the items to his waiting associates—yards of good muslin and a new set of silver spoons, for Father and Mrs. Simmons hoped to entertain Lord Highdown and his son in grander fashion than we had done in the past—the rogue made his farewell: “Ladies, gentleman, we thank you for your kind patronage, and may you have a safe journey home.” A moment later, the thunder of hooves carried the outlaws away.
Instantly Mrs. Simmons turned to me, clutching my arm. “Miss Elizabeth, are you well? Did he harm you in any way?”
“It was quite a shock,” I said, my hand to my breast, as if to calm my fear, “but no, I cannot say that he harmed me.”
The coachman returned Anthony’s walking stick and checked to see if we were well. “To the vicarage, Shaw,” Anthony ordered. “We should get Miss Collington home as quick as may be so she can rest.”
I accepted Anthony’s and Mrs. Simmons’ unnecessary attentions as gracefully as I could. When their talk turned to the state of the roads and the advisability of better arms for the footmen, I let my thoughts wander over the strange events, not at all sure that rest was what I most needed at the moment.