The Highwayman

The Highwayman’s Quarry – Celia’s Role in As You Like It

(One in an occasional series of posts on the background material for my novel, Daring and Decorum.)

As You Like It
Poor Celia, left forlorn when her BFF goes off with Orlando. (That’s her beneath the green arrow.) (Screenshot from HBO.)

There’s an incredible tracking shot in Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 film adaptation of As You Like It that perfectly sums up my feelings about the character of Celia and the treatment she receives from the pen of The Bard. It happens in Act III Scene ii, the one in which Celia and Rosalind (dressed as Ganymede) first encounter Orlando in the Forest of Arden.

The shot begins on a boardwalk crossing a wetland. Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) has just told Celia (Romola Garai), “I will speak to him like a saucy lackey, and under that habit play the knave with him.” Rosalind and Orlando (David Oyelowo) proceed along the boardwalk, leaving Celia trailing behind as they trade quips about time and the love notes Orlando has been pinning to the trees. Celia seems to suffer from the fatigue she felt when she and Rosalind first came to the forest, or maybe she’s just appalled at her friend’s behavior. The camera loses track of her for a while as Orlando and Rosalind step onto dry land, but we soon get another glimpse of her in the background, now sitting on the boardwalk. Orlando and Ros circle around the wetland, then stop to face each other as they enter into their bargain, in which Orlando will pretend that Ganymede is Rosalind, and woo her in that guise. The pair stand far enough apart that in the far background between them we see poor Celia, now just an infinitesimal dot.

Yes, brilliant, Mr. Branagh! The blocking highlights the problematic nature of this scene (which leaves Celia with nothing to do for 130 lines of other characters’ dialogue) and also the problematic nature of Celia and Rosalind’s relationship.

Fiction The Highwayman

The Highwayman’s Quarry – Swordplay

Errol Flynn sword fight image
“If this were a real sword fight, we’d both be bloody messes by now.”

(One in an occasional series of posts on the background material for my novel, Daring and Decorum. See the rest of the series here.)

When I decided to include a sword fight in Daring and Decorum: A Highwayman Novel (and how could I not, with Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword as a primary influence?), I faced several problems.

First, how realistic should the fight be? A duel with swords in the 1790s was nothing like what we might imagine from swashbucklers such as Robin Hood or Pirates of the Caribbean. As these two articles by fight choreographer Terry Kroenung point out, they were vicious, bloody affairs, and much deadlier than duels with pistols.

Hollywood has corrupted our concept of the sword duel.  It too often presents us with a pair of evenly-matched, exquisitely-talented, professionally-trained fencers whose icy demeanor never cracks as they thrust and parry with elegant abandon, like a pair of psychic ballet dancers. While that makes for good theatre, it would not have been the norm in late Georgian England.

Fiction The Highwayman

The Highwayman’s Quarry – The Music

Dick Turpin, one of the most famous of highwaymen
Dick Turpin, one of the most famous of highwaymen

(One in an occasional series of posts on the background material for my novel, Daring and Decorum. See the rest of the series here.)

I thought I’d post a collection of songs and other music that influenced or actually appear in Daring and Decorum: A Highwayman Novel. Most of them have to do with highwaymen, of course, but a couple are socialist/labor folk songs. I’ve also included some of the pieces Elizabeth and her friend Rebecca might have enjoyed.

First up is the Roches’ version of “The Road to Fairfax County.” I believe it was the first song I ever heard about a woman falling in love with a highwayman. After robbing her, this highwayman gives back all her money, which probably influenced me to have my highwayman return Elizabeth’s necklace, scaling a drain pipe to enter her bedchamber in the middle of the night. (When updating this post with a better version of this tune, I found out that Maggie Roche passed away since I first posted this. RIP, Maggie!)


Wow, bleak, huh? What he gets for stopping to dally with a woman instead of keeping his wits about him, if you ask me.

The Highwayman Fiction

The Highwayman Chapter 3

(Chapter 1 is here.)




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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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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Fiction The Highwayman

The Highwayman Chapter 1

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.



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