Fiction The Highwayman

The Highwayman Chapter 2




That Sunday week, Father discovered a pair of new parishioners in the receiving line after church, a handsome young gentleman and lady. “Ah, newcomers!” he said warmly. “We are always most gratified at any addition to our flock.”

“And we are glad to receive such a warm welcome,” said the man, who appeared to be in his late twenties, dressed in a blue tailcoat of a modern cut and new boots. “I am Thomas Nighthorn, and this is my sister, Mrs. Burgess.” The latter was a woman considerably younger than her brother, and nearly as tall as he. She wore a fine chemise dress, though not in the latest fashion; a mass of light brown curls peeked out from beneath her bonnet.

As the pair were the last through the line, we had the opportunity for further conversation. It soon came out that Mrs. Burgess was a young widow, and had moved from London for her health. “The air in town did not agree with me,” she said, though she had not the look of an invalid; rather, the smooth skin of her cheeks bore a healthy glow. “I remained only because my husband was stationed at Deptford. But, alas, we lost him in the Glorious First of June.”

“Your husband was in the Navy?” asked Mrs. Simmons.

“Yes, he was captain of HMS Eagle, which took many casualties in that great battle.”

“Oh, you poor thing,” said Mrs. Simmons, “widowed at such a young age, and all alone here, save for your brother. When will we see the end of these wars? There’s scarce a family has not been touched by them. We are missing our Jamie, Miss Elizabeth’s brother, who is in the Navy as well.”

“And what will you do now?” my father asked.

“We have taken a small house in Leighton,” Mrs. Burgess replied. “Unfortunately, Thomas’s business keeps him much occupied in London. I will attempt to make myself useful in some way. I’m sure you can recommend charities to me, Mr. Collington.”

“Indeed I can, and they will be glad to have your assistance,” Father replied. “My daughter also has a passion for aiding the poor, and never fails to make the rounds of our less fortunate neighbors.” Father hesitated only a moment before going on. “I hope the two of you will join us for dinner on Wednesday. I am sure we can arrange for half a dozen guests from the neighborhood to expand your acquaintance. Perhaps Lord Burnside and his family will consent to join us.” He turned to Anthony, who stood nearby, and gave a slight bow.

That gentleman, always careful of his manners, dipped his head in return. He was of middling height, with blond hair grown shaggy about the ears in the fashion that had become popular since the levying of the powder tax. His fine tailcoat, waistcoat, and breeches were all of muted colors, greys and whites. “As much as I regret missing any opportunity to welcome newcomers to our neighborhood, I must sadly decline, for we will be off to London for the season that very day.” His blue eyes, full of earnest regret, slid from Father to me as he finished delivering this news.

“And I must regretfully answer in the negative as well,” Mr. Nighthorn put in, “as I return to London tomorrow. But I am certain my sister would be glad of the company.”

“Indeed I would,” she said. “But you are too kind, Vicar. Please, do not put yourself out to gather a large party on my account. I will be quite content to further my acquaintance with you and your charming daughter.” And here she turned to smile at me, leaving me to wonder what I had done that she could have found so charming. We parted soon after.

The news of Anthony’s departure for London and its accompanying reflection—that he was likely to be surrounded by dozens of marriageable girls in that city—gave me only a moment’s pang of jealousy. Unlike Father and Mrs. Simmons, I had long since ceased to think it likely a match could be made between us. Anthony and I had known each other from a young age, as the Parsonage and the parish church sat on the eastern border of Holbourne, Lord Highdown’s ancestral estate. He was a good sort, always the perfect gentleman, attractive in both person and manner, and attentive to my family’s needs as a friend and neighbor whenever he was in the country. Two years older than I, he had only recently returned from a sojourn in the Inns of Court. Studying the law was quite unusual for a first son, of course, yet it was no surprise to anyone familiar with Anthony’s zeal for making himself useful to his parish and his nation. His father had only allowed him to pursue such an odd course once he was convinced Anthony had no intention of demeaning himself by actually joining the bar; perhaps Lord Highdown felt that some knowledge of the law would be helpful to his son in one day managing the family estates.

As the patron of father’s living, Lord Highdown had always humored our friendship, though we were of differing ranks. He even went so far as to tolerate our continued use of each other’s Christian names long after it was proper, precisely because a match between us was impossible. Despite the attention he paid to the outward forms of charity and magnanimity, Lord Highdown was of an imperious nature, always conscious of rank and wealth, and confident in his ability to rule his son. The Earl clearly had grander ambitions for his son than an alliance with a vicar’s daughter. Whatever Anthony’s feelings toward me might have been, a connection with my family could offer neither money nor status; nor did I sense that spark of passion within Anthony that would compel defiance of his father’s wishes.

To all of which, Father and Mrs. Simmons had counselled patience and a willingness to put myself in the way of Anthony’s affections. My future security depended on it, they said, as few other eligible bachelors lived in the vicinity, and opportunities of meeting those beyond our neighborhood were scant. Father regretted not being able to send me to London for the season, but that was for families with better connections and greater fortunes than our own. For her part, Mrs. Simmons persisted in enumerating the qualities of my person that should have given me confidence in attracting a young man such as Lord Highdown: my long black hair, dark eyes, clear complexion, and what she insisted was a fine figure, which she constantly urged me to show off to better advantage. Whereas I felt I was not of such a height as to achieve true elegance, she held that this was all to the good, as Anthony could hardly be considered tall.

And so Father and Mrs. Simmons persisted in believing that a match with Lord Burnside was my best chance for an establishment in life, despite its slim likelihood. In every other respect, Father was a sensible man, yet on this one topic, he persisted in letting his care and ambition for me cloud his better judgment, in contradiction to all he had ever taught about governing emotion with reason. From this I concluded that the cares and demands of parenthood were enough to unbalance even the most composed of minds.

Since our mother’s death, Jamie and I had been brought up by Father to meet whatever life put in our way, all of its highs and lows, with equal reserve and composure. With a clear-eyed view of my prospects, I could readily admit how this approach to life could aid me, and I endeavored to follow it, succeeding to a great extent in outward appearances, if not in my inmost thoughts. For, as I looked around me at what life was for women of my state, I could not help but admit a certain restlessness, one which all my self-command was barely sufficient to master. In conversation with the five or six female friends my own age in the neighborhood, I always remained polite and amiable, while inside I chafed at the insipidity of the conversation, the constant talk of the latest fashions, the prospects of any new young men coming to the neighborhood, or which girls had been recently engaged. Surely there must be more to life than an endless list of ornamental acquisitions gained in hopes of finding a match with a partner of indifferent affection. There must be more, once such a match was gained, than shallow conversation and entertainments within a social sphere of six or eight neighboring families, more than endless rounds of visits and balls and good works which did little to relieve the sufferings of the poor.

Nor did an advance in rank offered by a match with Anthony promise a necessary improvement, for not even a young lady of twenty, raised in a small parish in Devonshire, could remain ignorant of the scandalous pursuits by which the higher nobility sought to relieve the tedium of life. Only in those ranks inferior to our own did I see a style of life unmediated by rigid social convention. Perhaps it was a romantic notion of mine, but I imagined that the common people we met in the village and the countryside had a freer form of life than our own.

Thus, if I attended those pursuits by which a young woman makes herself acceptable in genteel society—needlework, drawing, music, and reading—with an air of perfect concentration and enjoyment, this did not always mean that my mind was not engaged elsewhere; for I found I had a knack for making idle conversation or practicing at the pianoforte while my thoughts drifted to exotic scenes from a travelogue I had been reading, or to the moors where I delighted in taking long walks. In inclement weather, I found my composure challenged to the utmost, but on fine days I always took the opportunity to relieve my restlessness with lengthy rambles, during which I delighted in sketching my favorite flowers as the blooming season progressed. Father had encouraged me in this pastime, for he was a botanical enthusiast himself, and when I was young had liked nothing better than pointing out flowers on our walks together. In recent years he had not the energy to accompany me, but he never objected to my walking out alone, for he was always glad to see my sketches and to help identify my discoveries.

But among all my improving pursuits, it was in my riding lessons that I found myself most fully engaged. Lord Highdown had been kind enough to allow me the use of a well-trained mare at any time of my pleasing, along with the expert instruction of his groomsman. I often took advantage of this generosity, relishing the freedom of the wind rushing past my cheeks as we cantered over the moors, wondering how far I might go if I chose to ride in a single direction for an entire day. My favorite were the fox hunts, to which Jamie and I had often been invited. I cared nothing for the fortune of the sportsmen—in truth, I preferred it when the poor fox got away—but I thrilled at the wild chase across fields and over hedges and streams. Of course, riding aside, I could not truly keep up with the men, but I prided myself on my ability to take small jumps. None observing me might have guessed at the joy I felt on these occasions, owing to the reserve which Father had instilled in me.

If, on this Sunday morning, Anthony’s announcement caused me little pain, it was no doubt in part due to that same self-mastery. At the same time, my thoughts were engaged elsewhere, as they often had been over the week that had passed since our encounter with the highwayman. The intervening period had given me much opportunity to ponder the loss of the necklace, as well as the feelings the experience had occasioned. It was only with difficulty, and not always with success, that I could keep my mind from wandering back to that event. I did not dwell on the fear and danger posed by the highwayman brandishing his pistol at me, nor on his effrontery in assuming I was Anthony’s possession, to be looted as easily as Anthony’s purse. Neither, as much as I sympathized with my companions, was I preoccupied with the humiliation Anthony had undergone, nor with the fear Mrs. Simmons had endured.

No, it was to those moments during which the highwayman had so lewdly assaulted my person that my thoughts continually strayed, much as I attempted to draw them back to their proper course. I could hardly admit to myself that his kissing and his roving hand had occasioned something of the same thrill I experienced while riding—that, and something more. It was unthinkable! Every consideration of sense and morality counselled that such feelings should be prompted only by one to whom I had been promised in marriage, and certainly not by a rogue with a pistol. Yet such rational considerations held little sway, for it is a truth seldom acknowledged, that those things which one should not want, are the very things one wants the most.

And so it was that I met the prospect of Anthony’s departure for London with an equanimity of which my Father should have been proud, though for a reason he could never have expected.

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