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Ravensdale

RAVENSDALE

 

&By
Lucinda Elliot&

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Ravensdale

Copyright © 2014 by Lucinda Elliot. All rights reserved.

Fourth Shakespir Edition: 2016

 

Cover and Formatting: Streetlight Graphics

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

I dedicate this book to my mother Doris Martin

and to my late father, Philip Martin

With love and thanks

&Acknowledgments&

I would like to thank the many people who have helped me

with support, information and suggestions, including

Jo Danilo, Robert Gregson and Robert Wingfield of INCA for their suggestions and invaluable help, Rebecca Lochlann, Jenn Roseton, Nat Wieckzorec, Curator at the National Army Museum and many others

&1. The Disgraced Heir&

April 1792

Introducing the Disgraced Heir to an Earldom Turned Outlaw

And the (Must Have) Spirited Heroine

&&

E&ven before the shooting started, &Isabella Murray recognised Reynaud Ravensdale the outcast.

As he rode up the hill towards the burial in the churchyard, either out of respect or bravado, he whipped off his hat. Isabella saw at once that he might have been the twin of his cousin, who now stood by the late Earl’s grave. Though the outlaw son was muffled in a greatcoat, she noted his athletic movements. Even at the distance, she was startled at the similarity of their Grecian features

Isabella felt sorry for the disgraced son. It must be miserable to watch a father’s funeral from a distance. That remained true, even if the late Earl had been a drunken aging roué in the habit of laying into his neighbours with a horsewhip.

As he approached, Ravensdale’s unusually long and heavy-lidded eyes glanced without interest at what he must take to be a plump boy. This afternoon, Isabella was out on one of her jaunts, straddling a horse in her brother’s cast-off riding clothes, her hair hidden under the hat.

As Ravensdale stared impassively at the funeral, heads in the crowd standing outside the graveyard turned to stare at him. Isabella could sense the rumour spreading: ‘It’s the disgraced heir who shot that Captain!’

Another rider appeared, galloping up the hill towards them, yelling and frantically waving his hat.

Ravensdale swore as he whipped out his pistol. “Get out of it!” he shouted to Isabella, turning his horse. A group of redcoats came into view behind the second rider.

Shots rang out. Screams and shouts came from the crowd, and people threw themselves to the ground.

Isabella was too busy fighting her rearing horse to take Ravensdale’s advice and make for the copse of trees hard by. Meanwhile he was off down the hill, firing at the soldiers and roaring some order to his accomplice.

There was more shooting and yelling and swearing. As Isabella brought her mount under control, she was sorry to miss the expressions. She liked learning the sort of language not commonly used before nice young ladies.

The outlaws jumped the hedge at the bottom of the field, and the pursuit died away into the distance.

“Well, he’s got a fine horse for an escape,” Isabella told her own mount as she made off for home. “An Arab cross, I’d say. I suppose that was one of the band of highwaymen he’s said to lead as the gallant Mr Fox.”

She rode at a gallop back to the great house her father had bought on becoming a baronet, taking as many hedges as she could on the way.

She told the horse, “I suppose poor Mama will have some new scheme afoot for marrying me off, as befits our new status. She’d have had poor father at the old toper’s* funeral too, only that throw from your stable mate kept him inside.”

She sighed. “What a bore it is! I wish she’d have done and let me be an old maid. I’ll have to get a cat; pity I’m so bad at knitting, eh? Now here’s a high hedge with a tricky ditch: have at it, girl!”

As they landed safely, Isabella patted her mount’s neck, “Well done. You know, in some ways I’d rather have the hazards and discomforts of an outlaw’s life, than the boredom of my own as a respectable young lady.”

[_ _]

The Disgraced Earl Turned Outlaw’s

(Must Have) Devoted Follower

&&

“You think they’re still after us?” Longface glanced back as he and Ravensdale made their way down the bank of a stream in the middle of a birch wood.

“How should I know, you looby? If we’ve shaken ‘em off so damned easy, I’ll be amazed.”

They rode on some way without speaking. As the horses scrambled up a bank, Ravensdale suddenly grinned, shaking off his gloom. “There’s a piece of fancy shooting; they’ve winged your hat.” He reached out and snatched it off his follower’s head, his smile fading as quickly as it came. “It’s not conspicuous or anything. Damned idiot, you’d have shambled into an inn like that.”

“How’d it stay on my knob?” Longface stared at it.

Reynaud Ravensdale laughed heartlessly: “I thought I saw it dance up and down. Lucky escape for you, eh?”

Longface burst out, “I call it foolishly quixotic, risking your neck like that to attend the funeral and then uncovering yourself. Paying your respects to your father was all fine and proper, but not sensible. It weren’t as though you hadn’t seen him before he died.”

Ravensdale scowled and said nothing. Perhaps he was being resolutely silent.

Longface went on, “It’s no good giving me one of your haughty looks, neither. How many times have I told you, it’s all well and good to be a viscount – well, now you’re an earl – but it don’t do you no manner of good now, so you must set aside them aristocratic ways. I’ve told you a thousand times.”

“Try a million, Longface.”

“No, but you’ll need telling one million times more, Mr Fox*, though being discreet, I never speak of what’s known to me in front of others. Someone must’ve tipped off the redcoats.”

“That’s clear, seeing they don’t have the wit to find us out for themselves. Then you obligingly led ‘em to me.”

At this, Longface couldn’t contain himself. “Me? Nobody followed me – and me risking my neck to warn you of the ambush you wandered into unawares!”

Reynaud Ravensdale or Mr Fox stared at him, eyebrows raised. “You idiot. I told you not to tag along. On the matter of your idiocy, by the by, how much d’you have in your purse*?”

Longface searched though his pockets, his jaw lengthening.

Reynaud Ravensdale suddenly hissed, “Quiet! What’s that?” They paused, staring back, and went on listening for another minute.

“I only hear woodpeckers going at it.”

They started their horses forward again. Longface searched his clothing a last time before admitting, “The confounded thing’s gone.”

Ravensdale made a coarse joke. “Jack and I had better sense than to lose our money that way. None of those wenches in that den was to be trusted from any point of view. Twice over I caught that ladybird perched on my knee with her hands in my pockets, and she laughed in my face.”

Longface looked even more mournful. “I’ll have to wait and see, then. Lucky we’re headed towards town and medical advice.”

As his chief snorted his contempt, Longface went on, “Pshaw! It’s nothing that a spot of mercury* won’t cure. What’s the point of guarding our health? We’ll be dangling at Tyburn before we’re thirty.”

“I always forget you’re short of thirty.”

Longface winced. “It’s these teeth missing that age me.”

Ravensdale didn’t bother replying. They rode on in silence for some minutes, and then he began almost gently, “What you say makes me think, Longface. For your sake, we should go our separate ways. I’m a careless rogue, and a danger to be about. You had best save your skin and leave villainy while you can. You have those papers. Start again and lead a decent life.”

Longface shook his head. “No, not until at least after the next great takings. I’ve not enough put by to live comfortable and marry a self-respecting woman.”

Reynaud Ravensdale made another coarse joke about an unexpected wedding present Longface might give a bride if he didn’t take more care. As Longface flinched again, he added more suavely, “Longface, I’m urging you to look out for yourself.”

“No, I ain’t leaving you. I’m older and wiser than you and them others, and I can make due allowance for your youthful impetuosity.” He liked the sound of that, and repeated it.

His companion was unmoved. “Listen, you simpleton, as your chief I’m telling you to go away now.”

Longface shook his head, smiling gently. “Not until the time is right.”

Ravensdale scowled. His horse, picking up his mood, turned round and snapped at him. He hit it, cursing.

Longface murmured up at the beech trees, “I don’t take it amiss; he ain’t bad hearted; just a wild young buck what’s unhappy how things is turned out.” He examined the bullet holes in his hat. Suddenly he asked his robber chief, “Do you have a sister?”

Ravensdale glared: “What’s that to you, looby?”

“I dunno. I miss mine, sometimes.” Longface thought of Meggie’s disappointment that he hadn’t stayed working in haberdashery, and her warnings against a life of crime. Then he spent longer thinking about the hot cakes that she always made.

Suddenly, Reynaud Ravensdale spoke, as if he couldn’t stop himself, though despising himself even as he said the words, “I’ve a girl cousin who was as a sister to me.”

As the trees began to thin, he turned on Longface: “Take that damned thing off before we get back to civilization.” He gave a bitter laugh: “Civilization? That is one place where we shan’t call in.”

[_ _]

September 1781

Back in Time: The Conniving Cousin’s Story

&&

Edmund Ravensdale – aged twelve, still unable to credit that his father is dead, that he’s the head of his family now – stands gazing on the incredibly grand front entrance of Ravensdale Court.

Seven-year-old Marie clutches his hand tightly. Yet, though she’s lost her parents so much younger than he has, she looks about with shy curiosity rather than dread. She can’t imagine a world in which she isn’t loved. She’s no idea of the sort of household they’re entering.

It’s early autumn. The glow of the setting sun lights up the countless higher windows of the front of Ravensdale Court. None of the family has troubled to come out to meet the new additions. Only a group of servants is at the door to greet them: the butler, the housekeeper, Mistress Stone – whose face lives up to her name – footmen, maids, and the Viscount’s former nurse, now to be Marie’s.

This is their new home. Edmund wonders how it’s possible to think of such a place, with those giant colonnades along the front, as ‘home’. The old nurse waddles up to take Marie’s hand from him. At this, some of her misplaced confidence crumbles, and she looks unsure. Edmund promises that he’ll visit her in the nursery later.

A footman with astounding calves carries Edmund’s luggage up to a huge room. For all his size, the man must remember being a boy himself, as he tells Edmund by way of comfort that the bell will ring soon for tea. Edmund hopes that the footman hasn’t seen the shaming tears that blur his eyes. He walks over to the window, pretending to admire the view.

Landscaped gardens with formal walks, vistas and follies stretch away to a lake in the massive park. In the distance, the chalk hills of Buckinghamshire rise out of the autumn mist. Then, through the blur, Edmund sees a maze not far from his window. It’s a fine one, promising fun for himself and Marie.

Recently, he read the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, so that, when he hears a crashing and roaring, for a second he almost connects it with the labyrinth and an enraged beast.

The footman laughs. It is not a happy laugh; none of the laughter at Ravensdale Court tends to be happy. “Them young rascals is for it again.”

The man goes through the doorway and gazes down the wide staircase into the great hall. Edmund peeps round him. Two boys of about his own age hurl themselves across the hall and through a doorway to the side as if a man-eating bull was truly after them. Certainly, the enraged human figure close on their heels, face twisted with rage, waving a riding crop and roaring out oaths, is nearly as bad.

He bawls to someone unseen, “Hold ‘em, damn you!” and flings himself through the door after the boys. Sounds of furious thrashing float up the stairs along with more swearing. The man below can only be His Lordship the Earl of Ravensdale. Edmund notes there are no cries for mercy or of pain.

The footman meets Edmund’s eyes, nodding approvingly. “Game couple of youngsters. Take care you don’t annoy His Lordship, or you’ll be in for a dose of the same.” He leaves. The dusk comes on. Edmund goes down to tea.

This is served in a lesser but still outsized dining room. About the table are some minor family members and the higher grades of dependant who always come with a great household. One is a man who looks as if a giant spider has sucked out all his juices, though he can’t be out of his thirties. A woman reminds him of a greedy parrot as she dips cake into her dish of tea.

They take little notice of him. Though he’s formally introduced, Edmund’s too dismayed by the brutality he has just seen to take much in about them.

His own parents were kind. They almost never had him whipped, let alone made him see a hanging or a swaying gibbeted* corpse as a warning.

Later, he goes to try to jolly along Marie. She’s settling in fairly happily. The old nurse is pleased to have a little girl after a succession of boys. Edmund has this comfort, anyway.

The Earl’s son and nephew are missing for the rest of the day. Edmund hears later that they were locked in an isolated room, but escaped through the window and out over the roofs to get up to further mischief in the village of Ravensdale. Perhaps they did this as a matter of principle, as they must be bruised all over from such a thrashing.

Meanwhile Lord Ravensdale sleeps off his drunken fury. He awakes no angrier than he has normally been for the last eleven years with a fate that stole his young wife from him within a year of marriage, leaving him with his new-born son Reynaud.

Since her death, he’s damned heaven and earth, forgotten her trust in their future reunion, and worked tirelessly to destroy himself. His furies are the terror of the neighbourhood. He lays his riding crop across the shoulders of any commoner who annoys him, and that is easy. If provoked by a gentleman, he challenges him to a duel, and then shoots into the air with a blasphemy. Then he stands, arms folded, awaiting his fate. Nobody’s dared to shoot him so far. Someone may yet.

The next morning, as Edmund readies himself for breakfast, his cousin the Viscount and his Dubois relative swagger in, hiding their stiffness.

“So, you’re come to join us, Cousin. You can shoot and ride, of course?” Reynaud Ravensdale is so like Edmund that he could almost be a twin, yet nature has given him the finishing touches left out in Edmund.

The young heir’s features are as finely cut as if done by a master sculptor, yet even at eleven, there’s no effeminacy in that face. His hazel eyes are still more long cut and heavy-lidded than Edmund’s own, the lashes heavy. His thick, waving hair is a gleaming pure chestnut rather than bright brown like Edmund’s, contrasting with the sweeping dark brows. These are now raised in haughty enquiry. Thrashings or not, the Viscount knows his status.

In contrast, lanky, fair-haired, slant-eyed, freckle-nosed Émile Dubois is all good humour as he smiles on Edmund. “Le Diable, but he’s the spit of you, Reynaud. This could prove useful.”

Reynaud laughs: “Damn me, he is, too.”

Edmund is dismayed by their casual swearing; still, what with the example he heard from Lord Ravensdale yesterday, he can’t be surprised. Lord Ravensdale goes on, “You’ve a sister, too?”

“Marie is in the nursery.”

Émile says, “We’ve just time to pay Mademoiselle a visit before going down to le petit déjuner.” Reynaud Ravensdale’s brows shoot up, but Edmund is to learn that Émile dotes on his own small sister; perhaps he misses her. Edmund will find out, too, that Émile, though the younger by over a year, has a strong influence on Reynaud. Now the arrogant Viscount agrees at once, “Come, then.” He hides his grimace as he turns about.

Marie, honoured at this visit from such great boys, greets them with a solemn curtsey. Her delight in them pleases them in turn, and she’s soon adored by both, for which Edmund is thankful. Her belief in a world where everyone loves her remains intact.

Soon, Marie is the one softening influence on the benighted household, with even the terrible Earl of Ravensdale indulgent towards her.

&2. The Earl Highwayman&

May 1792

The Earl Highwayman

Must Meet the Spirited Heroine During a Hold Up

&&

A&s Sir Wilfred’s carriage rattled &along the pot-holed lane past the densest part of the beech woods on the way back from Wycombe*, a mounted figure with a dark scarf tied over the lower part of his face cantered out, roaring, “Stand and Deliver!”

Mistress Titmarsh screamed. Isabella was furious: “Damn it! Lord, if only I’d brought Dicky’s blasted pistols! Stop, Henry, it’s the only bloody thing. Damn it again!”

If Lady Murray had allowed her to gallop to town on her horse, instead of lumbering along in the carriage with Mistress Titmarsh as chaperone, she would have tried to outride the robber. She glanced about, looking for something heavy that she could use as a club. If there was only one man, she might take him by surprise yet.

Mistress Titmarsh fell back against her seat as two other horsemen with scarves over their faces came out of the woods. Henry reined in the horses. A lithe young man with a hat pulled down over his hair, pistol drawn, darted up to seize them.

The first man thrust his gun in at the window. He too, wore his hat pulled down over his hair, but Isabella could see enough of his reddened, unshaven face to dislike it. She wondered if this was the group headed by Mr Fox, said to be active in the area. If so, he wasn’t to be seen himself.

Neither was the famous gallantry towards women: “Out, bitches, or I’ll have your dirty hides.” The burly man wrenched open the door. Isabella jumped out, turning back to murmur reassurance to Mistress Titmarsh. He bawled louder, waving his gun: “I said out, filthy cows!” Mistress Titmarsh shrieked.

The man by the horses shouted, “Cut that! Treat ‘em gently!”

“You’ll only make her slower, bullying her,” Isabella reached back in the carriage to help Mistress Titmarsh.

The man glowered: “Shut your mouth, you ugly hellcat!”

Henry was holding the horses and looking indecisive. The lithe man ran up. “Oi, Filthy, I said hold your noise or I’ll make you! – Beg pardon, Ma’am, he ain’t got manners. – We’ve stopped the wrong carriage, anyhow. Only women here and the driver.”

“Let ‘em go,” a man further back spoke through the scarf muffling the lower part of the mournful length of his face.

A furious yell and the sound of running footsteps came from further back in the trees.

The unshaven man stared at Isabella’s neck. Suddenly he snatched at her necklace, snapping it. Mistress Titmarsh, screaming, fell against the carriage. The lithe robber and Henry shouted, starting forwards. As the man’s hand brushed against Isabella’s bosom, fury boiled up in her. She punched him before she knew it and he went sprawling among the tree roots by the side of the road.

The others broke into delighted laughter: “Serves him right!”

The man jumped up swearing, hat off, his black hair disordered, kerchief askew to show a bristly face purple with rage, eyes bulging: “I’ll kill you!”

Isabella launched herself at him, ducking his blow and hitting out again. In the same moment, his fellow robbers fell on him, pinning his arms. As he struggled and swore at ‘Flashy’ and ‘Longface’, there was a louder angry shout and more snapping of twigs. Another figure dashed up.

Isabella’s cynical head said: Enter the hero, belated but ready to right matters.

The new arrival wrenched the burly man from the others by his collar, hitting him several times so quickly Isabella couldn’t see the moves he used. He threw him forwards and the man fell to the ground, dropping the necklace. The new arrival raged, “Filthy coward! Get out before I kill you!”

‘Filthy’ put up no fight. For some moments he lay, unable to get up. Then, he finally hauled himself up on his hands and knees. The enraged Chief Bandit kicked him, so that he went face downwards in the mud again. He staggered up, his bristly face and shirtfront smeared with mud and the blood dripping from his nose, and shambled towards his horse, followed by jeers from his companions.

The new arrival whipped out his pistol, firing so that the bullet whistled just by him. “Faster, before I change my mind!”

The man sprawled onto his horse and urged it on. It trotted up the road, while ‘Flashy’ helped the sobbing Mistress Titmarsh over to a tree stump.

“Mr Fox, I suppose?” Isabella spoke coldly as the man stooped to retrieve the necklace on the ground and handed it to her.

Like the others, a hat pulled low, and a dark kerchief over the lower part of his face, mostly hid his features. Like them too, he was dressed in the clothes of a well-off commoner. For all that, Isabella knew him by those long and heavy-lidded hazel eyes and the little she could see of the bridge of his Grecian nose. Now that he had no greatcoat, Isabella saw that he was slim, muscular and broad in the shoulder. Those eyes, darkened by shadow, glittered piercingly beneath the brim of his hat.

She went on, “I’m happy you escaped that mean-spirited ambush at the funeral, Sir, yet the ugly way that we’ve been used makes a mockery of your band’s reputation for gallantry.”

When he spoke next, he had changed his voice. Now he used what Isabella thought was a poor attempt at a West Country accent. “You think you saw me at a funeral, Ma’am? Anyway, I can’t apologize enough for that disgusting attack. I hope he didn’t hurt you?” He turned furiously on the others. “What did you loobies mean by letting him lay hands on her? You know my rules.”

“You saw we grabbed the sod,” Flashy pointed out, “but the lady laid him out first with as fine a jab as ever I’ve seen.”

“You should’ve knocked him down before. He’s damaged your necklace, Ma’am; I must recompense you. It’s not our way to prey on ladies.”

The stinging at her neck where the robber had snapped the chain of her necklace sharpened Isabella’s anger. Her knuckles were throbbing too now, and she saw they were bleeding. “That seems to have escaped your fellow’s notice. How can your rules guard against that, when the blood is heated by excitement and drink?”

Mr Fox didn’t seem put out, continuing suavely, “You’ve cut yourself, Ma’am; allow me.” He took her hand and dabbed at it with a handkerchief, while ordering the others, “Some wine for the ladies.”

He took her arm and led her under the shelter of the trees. Isabella supposed he wanted to lessen the risk of discovery. Mistress Titmarsh still sat on her tree stump, moaning and swaying, while Flashy bent over her.

Longface produced a bottle of what looked like spirits, filling a grubby stopper that doubled as a glass. Their chief spoke sharply, “I said the wine, you fool! I had some earlier.”

“It got knocked over while you were away doing that lying under a tree and debating with yourself stuff you go in for*,” Flashy said. As his chief drew back offended, he went on, “I’m sorry, ladies, for our – what’s the word, Chief, I heard you use it lately?” he snapped his fingers. “Deficient hospitality, that’s it.”

“It were a shame, but a nip of spirits will set ‘em to rights.” Longface still offered Isabella the smeared stopper of brandy, showing his missing front teeth in a placating smile.

His chief snorted, “Get away with that filthy thing.” He still had Isabella’s arm, and she tried to free it. He looked startled as he let go, as if he imagined that she would allow him to carry on holding it indefinitely. Perhaps the ladies usually did. Her anger competed with her urge to laugh at Long face’s offended look.

“Could I talk to you?” she turned to Mr Fox. He seemed to think that she meant him alone, and made to walk away with her. She added, “To you all?”

“We’re all attention, Ma’am. Shall we sit?”

“As you wish.”

“Hear the lady out,” Mr Fox stood back.

“Don’t, Isabella! Let’s be away at once,” Mistress Titmarsh moaned from her tree stump, “Whatever will Sir Wilfred say?” Henry came and stood next to her, murmuring soothingly.

They all looked at Isabella, who began quickly, “I may be a woman, but I know how the law, far from being a refuge for the powerless from the greedy and unjust, is more often their scourge. After all, it’s made by wealthy landowners who often abuse their privileges.”

Longface’s jaw had dropped so far he looked as if he was trying to catch flies. Over his scarf, Flashy’s eyes widened, so that Isabella noticed their astonished blue. Isabella couldn’t see the effect of her words on Mr Fox, as he was standing to her side, but he murmured, “Fairly spoken, Ma’am; my sentiments exactly.”

“It’s no wonder you despise the law, while knowing too well the savage punishments for using outright rather than underhand robbery.”

The man with the long face shifted dismally from one foot to the other. Flashy stood staring in amazement, looking so vigorous that the idea of his body swinging lifeless from a gallows or gibbet seemed absurd.

Picturing this spurred Isabella on, “Everywhere, landowners enclose land, driving the people from the commons* which have been theirs for centuries, sheltering behind the form of the law and these brutal punishments. It’s like a farmer putting up a scarecrow; the bolder birds ignore it, while the timid ones will keep away.”

The bandits stirred restlessly. Isabella hurried on, “The gallows and the gibbet are the scarecrows that keep the majority, the hungry birds, from taking back what’s been stolen from them. They admire your bold defiance: it’s in your interests to join with them. You could revive the traditions of Robin Hood, sharing part of your booty with them. That could lead to great things.”

Isabella turned at a gasp. Mistress Titmarsh gawped, eyes like saucers.

Mr Fox applauded and smiled. “I thank you, Ma’am, on behalf of us all, for so pretty a speech on your beguiling notions.” He took her hand and kissed it. Those hazel eyes, though shadowed by the brim of his hat, said clearly as he looked up at her, ‘Now, be a good girl and stop prating; we can spare no more time for your sweet imaginings.

Disappointment flooded over Isabella. Even as he still held her hand, squeezing it thoughtfully, she took him up more sharply than she intended, “But Sir, you’re wrong to ignore these possibilities. There’s increasing despair all about, while the law turns a blind eye.”

Longface said gloomily, “I wish the law would turn a blind eye to us, instead of setting them Runners* on us. Like terriers, they are, snapping at our heels.”

Mr Fox ignored him. Frowning and releasing Isabella’s hand, he spoke less suavely. “I’ll hazard, Ma’am, we leave as much in the poor box as your own family.”

Isabella flushed. “No doubt you think me a talking hypocrite. I was in the village of Ravensdale yesterday, and saw real misery. I emptied my purse, but my parents aren’t generous with my allowance, because they know where I will go. You men are independent; do please, think of spreading your largesse there.”

The mournful man frowned, “’Largesse’?”

“I reckon by that she means ‘plunder’,” Flashy told him.

“You used those slighting terms about yourself, Ma’am; I didn’t,” Mr Fox sounded impatient, “Your romantic ideas do a sheltered young lady credit, but sadly ain’t practical. Yet, I want to make amends for that coward’s attack on you. To please you I’ll see we do what we can to help at Ravensdale Village. Will that suffice?”

Flashy cheered: “Well said! We can’t let ‘em starve.”

Face burning, Isabella gave as sarcastic a curtsey as she knew, saying between clenched teeth, “I thank you, Sir.”

Henry was coming over, supporting Mistress Titmarsh. Mr Fox offered Isabella his own arm. She took it automatically, glowering. He patted her fingers soothingly and perhaps equally mechanically. The party moved towards the carriage.

Flashy had to join Henry in helping Mistress Titmarsh into the carriage, while Fox kept firmly hold of Isabella’s arm. She wondered if he thought she might run wild again, flooring someone else. “I hope you are recovered? Do let me give you something for the repair of that necklace.” He dug about in his pockets.

“No, Sir, please add that to what you give the people in the village.”

Mr Fox handed her up and made another bow, but seemed unable to stop staring at her. Perhaps he thought her mad. Meanwhile Henry exchanged a few words with the cheerful Flashy. Then, with some cheering from the robbers, they were off.

As the carriage rattled up the road, Flashy waved his hat in his enthusiasm. Streaks of bright fair hair showed through the dull brown of the rest.

Fox stared after the carriage. He looked not only sour, which wasn’t unusual, but astounded, which was.

His second-in-command grinned, “What a rumpskuttle*, eh? First putting that jab on that sod and then giving us a sermon. A grand piece of entertainment.”

“These women and their fanciful notions,” his chief said, “A likely tale, eh, Flashy, that you’d all agree to hand over our entire takings to the poor? We give a portion.”

“I don’t know so much,” Flashy grinned, “Once in a while, I wouldn’t mind; it might even serve to help us, like she said. Hey, she gave him as fine a dig as ever I’ve seen, and me and Suki have just seen Milling Moll give them all a round in the fair.”

His companion scowled at him. “Your yellow hair’s showing through the dye again. Get it done tonight.”

Flashy grunted. “I don’t think she were a tittle-tattle, anyway. I wouldn’t trust her woman that said something about ‘Sir Wilfred’, though.”

“Never be fool enough to place your full trust in any woman.” Mr Fox suddenly rounded on them. “What were you all about, letting that cur maltreat her while you moved as laggardly as a lot of snails? And I should have shot him on the spot.”

He refused to listen to any excuses, ranting at them, while they longed for their dinner.

[_ _]

The Spirited Heroine

Meets the Conniving Cousin

&&

As Isabella and Henry the coachman supported Mistress Titmarsh past the startled footman who opened the door at Wisteria House, she shrieked her loudest yet: “We were attacked by robbers!” She began to droop.

The coachman started back at the first scream. Isabella held on, keeping her upright; Mistress Titmarsh insisted on sinking to the floor, and fought her, still screaming. Finally, Isabella, ears ringing, let her go.

Most of the household appeared. Lady Murray arrived at Mistress Titmarsh’s words, “We scarce escaped with our lives!” A man Isabella recognised from the funeral as Edmund Ravensdale followed her. He had called to see Sir Wilfred on business. As he was late in returning, Lady Murray had been entertaining him in her fine new drawing room.

Seeing her mother’s eyes widen at the sight of her tumbled hair and torn dress, Isabella shouted above the noise: “No harm done, Mama! We’re unhurt, with no money taken!”

The hefty first footman came to lift up Mistress Titmarsh, while the cook ran for the hartshorn*. Isabella shook her head to clear her ears, still ringing from the screams. “Some wine for Mistress Titmarsh, please, and brandy for me,” she told the parlour maid.

For once, Lady Murray was too distraught to notice one of Isabella’s outrages. “Heavens! Thank you, Mr Ravensdale, if you would kindly help my daughter into the drawing room.”

He was already offering his arm. Isabella laughingly made her curtsey, and seeing his eyes on her cut neck and knuckles and ripped gown, said, “Good afternoon, Mr Ravensdale; I’m afraid I lost my temper with one of the robbers, and hit him. Well, so did his chief.”

“And so did I,” Henry the coachman discovered.

“Those cuts need bathing, Ma’am,” said Edmund Ravensdale, as he led Isabella into the drawing room. As the sturdy footman laid Mistress Titmarsh down on a chaise longue, she let out another shriek: “We shall all be murdered in our beds!”

“I shan’t,” Isabella said, “I’ll bludgeon them with my candlestick first, and so will you.”

“Isabella, please sit down; you hardly know what you say,” Lady Murray cut in.

“Miss Isabella shows a fine spirit, Ma’am,” Edmund Ravensdale appeared to be trying to hide his smile. “Ah, here’s the wine.”

Isabella seized and downed the glass of brandy on the tray the parlour maid brought in before her mother could stop her.

“My goodness, Isabella, you are clearly overwrought! You know you never touch brandy.” Lady Murray’s tone showed anxious concern, while, her back being turned on their guest, she frowned a warning at her daughter. She might like a nip of it herself, but would never have admitted to it in polite company. She smiled round at Edmund Ravensdale. “You must forgive us, Mr Ravensdale; we are all of a dither.”

“Brandy makes a fine restorative in an emergency such as this,” said Mr Ravensdale imperturbably, his look indicating admiration rather than dismay. With her heavy mane of hair falling in disorder to her waist, and black eyes flashing, Isabella looked alarmingly wild. “Would you know these men again, Miss Murray?” he asked.

“Not at all, they were all muffled.”

Mistress Titmarsh opened her eyes. “It was that Mr Fox and his terrible band of robbers. Isabella bandied words with them shockingly. She told them the law was all wrong. And dear Sir Wilfred a magistrate!”

“Nonsense, Titmarsh, you are still vapourish. Do go and lie down,” Lady Murray said sharply. “I hope Mr Ravensdale will excuse the foolishness you both talk. It’s the shock, Sir.”

At the mention of Mr Fox, Edmund Ravensdale stiffened. The momentary look that came to his eyes was inscrutable, but Isabella decided that she didn’t like it.

Just then, Sir Wilfred, followed by Isabella’s younger brother Dicky, joined them. They already had the tale from the footmen.

Dicky was all for going and shooting it out with the robber band at once, cordially inviting Edmund Ravensdale to join him.

Sir Wilfred held forth to Edmund Ravensdale, “I’ll have the lot of the damned rascals hanged, Sir, as I’m alive! Only see the state to which they have reduced poor Titmarsh. My daughter’s made of sterner material. ”

“But they didn’t rob us, Sir, and Mr Fox turned the man who held us up out of the gang,” Isabella objected, while Lady Murray made frantic signs behind Edmund Ravensdale’s back.

“What d’you mean, Ma’am? – Quiet, Isabella, you don’t know what you’re talking about. – Stop that nonsense, Dicky, you young dog, you aren’t going to go and shoot it out with anybody. – Ah, sorry, Sir, of course, they say that this Fox is your own cousin. the new Earl. Well, if ever the law catches him, then he’ll have his trial at the House of Lords, eh, and ten to one he’ll be acquitted on account of being a lord, or get off with the lightest punishment*. Have some more wine. You’ll stay to dinner? ”

Now Isabella could hardly blame Edmund Ravensdale for looking furtive. “I hope, Sir, that the rumours that my unhappy cousin and the highwayman Fox are the same man will yet be proved wrong. I can only say how much I regret that the ladies have suffered this shock at the hands of these highwaymen – whoever they are.”

Isabella said to the robber chief’s relative, “I’m well enough, thanks to that brandy. Sir, I’m happy you agree with me about that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must help Mistress Titmarsh to her room.”

While Dicky sulked and watched them all from beneath his brows, Edmund Ravensdale took and kissed Isabella’s hand – the battered one. As his lips touched her skin, she felt a strange thrill – not quite the same as the one she had at the touch of his cousin’s. With both, this thrill signified to her some form of animal warning – and something else that subtly differed in both cases; she wasn’t sure what.

“I shan’t impose myself on your family today, Sir,” the respectable cousin told her father. “But I would be delighted to accept your invitation at another time, and I do hope to have the pleasure of the company of you all at Ravensdale Court, when my sister and I are out of mourning.”

He took and kissed Lady Murray’s hand, trying not to wince as she let out a shriek of laughter. As he went out with Sir Wilfred and Lady Murray into the hall, Isabella heard him accepting an invitation to dinner the next week.

“That was sweet of you, Dicky,” Isabella said, ”but it’s far too quixotic when there’s four of them – well, three now.”

“You talk about quixotic, Isa, when you’d no more sense yourself than to start a mill* with one of those robbers? I never thought you’d be mad enough to try to use that pugilism I showed you. What will you do next?”

The cook having been out of the kitchen at a crucial time, the Murray family’s dinner was burnt.

Sir Wilfred ranted over charred beef on the inefficiency of the patrols* and the Bow Street Runners, on hanging, drawing and quartering, flogging and deporting to the colonies.

His audience didn’t point out that there would be no sense in flogging or deporting a corpse. Dicky continued to sulk about being cheated of a gun battle with Mr Fox’s band and Isabella comforted herself for her failure to inspire the highwaymen with another filched glass of brandy. Lady Murray, however, was thankful enough for Isabella’s escape not to rebuke her for her unladylike conduct in front of Edmund Ravensdale; she calmed her nerves by also taking a secret nip of brandy.

 

The next day, Mistress Titmarsh had recovered enough to report to Lady Murray two far worse instances of Isabella’s unladylike conduct: her fisticuffs with one of the ruffians, and her shocking speech encouraging them to defy the law.

Lady Murray refused to believe it. She said that, seeing Mistress Titmarsh had told them she’d been more dead than alive during the hold up, she couldn’t have heard properly. Mistress Titmarsh retaliated by putting too much sugar, or none at all, in their tea.

Isabella admitted to the assault and to suggesting the highwaymen follow Robin Hood’s example. Her parents – as so often before – were stunned into silence. Meanwhile, the story of Miss Isabella’s knock down punch was the talk of the servant’s hall, though Henry now remembered knocking down two of the robbers himself.

 

For Isabella, the worst part of the adventure was how all the female callers who called to condole with her on the misadventure pestered her for details of Mr Fox, said to be the Disgraced Heir.

They longed to know all about how he looked and how gallant he had been. None of them was interested in the moves he had used to knock down his gang member, while for Isabella that was the most intriguing thing about him.

“It must have been terrifying, you poor dear, with that dreadful man tearing your necklace from your throat,” Miss Amelia Allsopp sympathized. “I’m happy Mr Fox restrained him.”

“So was I,” Isabella tried not to sound sour. She was fond of Amelia. Lady Wilfred had forbidden her to speak of her unwomanly brawl with the robber outside her family, or to mention it again inside it.

“But the robber chief behaved as gallantly as they say?” Miss Caroline Smithers wound a curl about a finger. Isabella wasn’t fond of her, while Dicky thought her wonderful. Isabella dreaded having her as a sister-in-law.

“He gave the lout a drubbing, drove him off and apologized profusely, trying to give me money to repair the necklace.” Isabella envied the speed and ferocity of Mr Fox’s attack. He must been trained by a professional. Pugilism was a male skill she’d tried to learn, and been palmed off with a couple of laughing displays from Dicky. As with shooting, her brother had taught her a little, finding even that a joke.

Caroline squealed: “I would have fainted away.”

“Do tell us of his gallantry, Isabella,” Amelia pleaded; “That is, if you weren’t too shocked to take heed. We’ve all heard that he cuts a dashing figure. How did he appear?”

“He appeared vexed,” Isabella was determined not to give away how she’d recognized Mr Fox as the Disgraced Earl. Still, her audience looked so disappointed that she relented. “He was rather taller than me, and I’m tall enough – and his build was slim, but strongly made.”

The other girls cast down their eyes, though Isabella was sure their imaginations were busy; she added wearily, “He was solicitous and went in for much hand kissing.”

“But did you see nothing of his features?”

“Very little; they all had their faces hidden behind black scarves and their hats pulled low.”

“I wonder if he is truly the wicked Viscount – now the wicked Earl.” Miss Caroline mused. “Everyone says how he and his cousin Mr Edmund Ravensdale are as near alike as twins.”

“From the little I could make out I found him nondescript myself,” Isabella, determined to be fair, added, “He was good looking in an insipid fashion.”

“Everyone agrees how handsome and charming Mr Edmund Ravensdale is, and his cousin is said to be even better made,” Miss Amelia said.

“I never heard yet of any unmarried man of standing – let alone an aristocrat – who wasn’t handsome and charming, unless he was so ugly and rude it couldn’t be talked away.”

Isabella’s younger sister Selina, who had sneaked in from the schoolroom, said, “Isabella was too busy haranguing them to notice Mr Fox’s appearance. I’d have had more fun myself and asked for a dance. It’s a shame I was away at a party.. In contrast to her older sister, she had highly romantic ideas and read novels whenever she could.

Miss Caroline stared, “Haranguing them?”

Ignoring Isabella’s look, Selina went on, “She lectured them on not being enough like Robin Hood in giving away their plunder to the poor.”

The others squealed again. Miss Caroline said, “Isabella, you are a quiz! You’re lucky that they didn’t take you at your word and keep your jewellery to give to the needy.”

Isabella reddened. “Then they would have been welcome, for then Mama couldn’t have forbidden my using it for that. I shouldn’t have such fripperies when people are in need all about. Anyway, for all the heed the robbers took of me, I might as well have not spoken.”

“You would certainly have done better to keep silence, rather than say such things as that,” said Amelia. “But I have to admire your nerve; I would have been too terrified to say a word.”

“Surely you didn’t expect them to agree to your wild ideas? They wish to live well while they can,” laughed Caroline Smithers.

Isabella said bitterly, “I can’t see why this outlaw is thought to be so romantic. If he did steal from the rich to give to the poor, it would be different. He may be gallant enough not to prey upon women, but after all, he and his band of robbers work on the sordid business of lining their own pockets. What is romantic in that?”

“Why, in his story, you unfeeling creature!” laughed Miss Amelia. “That is the very stuff of romance.”

“It is absurd, how real life sometimes follows the clichés of fiction, especially in this case, if Mr Fox really is the Disgraced Heir,” Isabella said acidly. “Here we have all the ingredients of a novel. The Wild Young Heir, the Sweet Young Maiden who Believes in Him, the Tipsy Quarrel, the Challenge, the Fatal Shot. Now the Wild Young Heir, back from a sojourn abroad, Lives as an Outlaw, but seeks to Clear his Name for all that.

”Well, we have a cousin, and a Conniving Cousin is nearly as good as a Wicked Uncle for the Villain of the Piece. We only need the Plot Uncovered, the reinstatement of the Wild Young Heir – chastened, but still wild enough to stir the ladies’ pulses – and his marriage to the Sweet Young Maiden who Believes in Him and Happy Ever After. There! We have the romance complete.”

Isabella no sooner finished speaking than she felt a stab of shame. Her annoyance with both the cousins for their different forms of gallantry was inexcusable. The other girls’ sentimentality was only the norm, and she had no excuse for impatience and sneering remarks.

Caroline Smithers threw up her hands: “Surely you don’t suspect Edmund Ravensdale of playing an underhand part in that tragic affair years back? Why, I met him recently, and I assure you he is quite the perfect gentleman, and incapable of such behaviour.”

Selina was appalled. “Amelia’s right; you are quite heartless, Isabella, making sport of such a sad tale! I’m sure that poor Lord Ravensdale has been entirely misjudged.” She looked mysterious.

“Well, I’m sorry,” said Isabella, thinking of Reynaud Ravensdale’s gentle treatment of her, tiresome as it had been, and Edmund Ravensdale’s suave refusal to be shocked by her actions. “I was only letting my tongue run away with me, as usual. No doubt I misjudge them both.”

Yet, recalling that quality of evasiveness at the back of Edmund Ravensdale’s eyes, Isabella wasn’t sure that she misjudged him at all.

“Anyway,” said Amelia Allsopp, “Lord Ravensdale can’t marry the Sweet Young Maiden he had chosen; she married the heir of a man in sugar only months after the Viscount turned fugitive.”

Selina mourned, “How unfeeling of her! And you know, it was much easier to live as an outlaw in olden times. Then, there were still great forests, so they could camp in a woodland glade, like Robin Hood again. Perhaps the once heir of Ravensdale is reduced to living in sordid taverns.”

 

When her visitors had left, Isabella looked for Dicky. The youngest footman directed her to the library. “He’s with Sir Wilfred.”

“What? Have they both had a brainstorm? Surely, they can’t be looking at the books? It’s Simon, isn’t it, and you’re new to the post? I trust you aren’t overworked?”

The boy reddened, gulped, and finally got out, “Yes, Miss; no, Miss.”

“Hmm. Do let me know should anything trouble you.” Isabella went on her way, followed by his gaze. She was concerned, too, about the overworked kitchen maid. From then on, he worshipped her. Those who called her a strapping hoyden* forgot that a goddess should be made on a larger scale than should a mortal.

The library, unlike the reception rooms, had a dusty, neglected look. The previous owner hadn’t been any more of a reader than Sir Wilfred, Lady Murray or Dicky. They had inherited his librarian along with his library, though Isabella hadn’t yet met him there.

“This blasted place is a mess!” Sir Wilfred was saying as Isabella came in. “Look here; there’s even some book without a cover in this pile the floor. We can get rid of that, anyhow.”

“Mouldy old thing,” Dicky gave it a shove with one foot.

“Pray don’t, that’s a sixteenth century treatise on humours,” Isabella rescued it.

Dicky said, “If it’s as old as that it won’t be much use and we might as well throw it out.”

Sir Wilfred smiled. “Isabella, the person we need. This cursed librarian fellow ain’t to be found. You spend enough time in here to know; where are the books on the hunt? Your brother’s got the face to dispute with me about rearing of hounds.”

“I haven’t been able to trace the catalogue, Sir, but let’s see if we can find a book without.”

They were still searching and dislodging clouds of dust, when the librarian appeared in the doorway. Perhaps the other staff had warned him. His face was flushed, his clothes rumpled, and his manner vague. “Sir – Sir, yes,” He hiccoughed, swaying on the spot.

Isabella avoided Dicky’s glance, worried that she might collapse into laughter.

“The damned man’s drunk!” Sir Wilfred was as outraged as if he never came up to the drawing room slightly befuddled from his port. This, along with an obsession with hunting, was one of the many ways of the local squires he had been happy to take up.

The librarian rocked on his heels. “No, I’m moderate in my habits. Sir. Wilfred. Yes. Moderate.”

“You wretched buffoon, how dare you stand there in your cups blathering at me? This is the first time I’ve caught sight of you since we came, and by God, it’ll be the last! What have you been about between then and now, eh? I can guess the answer to that by the shade of your nose. Get out!”

The librarian went on looking vague and rocking back and forth.

Isabella spoke quickly, “If you haven’t seen the librarian, Sir, perhaps it’s because you don’t often come in here. I think he should be allowed off with a reprimand.”

“Quiet, girl. You’d have thieves and murderers let off with a reprimand, if I know anything about it. What have you to say for yourself, Sir?”

The librarian looked at him thoughtfully, and then rocked the furthest yet. This was disastrous. He overbalanced.

He clutched at Sir Wilfred, who overbalanced too, snatching wildly at the shelving behind and dislodging books and a spectacular amount of dust. Dicky, lunging to steady his father, slipped on a book, upturned a table stacked with more and fell too. They toppled into a heap, joined by the table.

As the first footman glanced in, astonished by the noise, a last book, teetering on the shelf, tumbled down as if eager to join the others, landing squarely on Sir Wilfred’s head.

Dicky and Sir Wilfred were voluble. The librarian kept a dignified silence, lying, eyes closed, covered with a blanket of books and dust. After some moments, despite the uproar around him, he began to snore.

&3. An Incorrigible Rogue&

May 1792

The Incorrigible Rogue

Always Keeps his Word

&&

Mr Briggs, the good-looking young Curate (who gave the local young ladies another sort of romantic dream from those about Reynaud Ravensdale), tormented himself over his donations book. He hurt his teeth gnawing on his pen, while uncharitable thoughts pecked at his mind about the Vicar quoting an empty phrase about the suffering of the poor in this vale of tears whilst eating a hearty dinner.

He was glad of the distraction of a tap at the study door. His sister looked in. “You’ve a visitor.” She added in a hiss, “He’s strange, and wouldn’t let the girl take his things. He’s muffled, and I’m sure that moustache is false! We’ll be in directly if you need us.”

The visitor came in, a tall figure shrouded in a greatcoat, collars pulled up, scarf up to his strange moustache and hat pulled down over his eyes, though the day was warm. Mr Briggs agreed about the moustache, which was large and ginger, and contrasted ludicrously with the formal wig over which the man had jammed down his hat.

“Thank you, Mr Briggs, I can’t stay,” the man answered the Curate’s offer to sit down. Though he spoke with what he seemed to think was a West Country accent, Mr Briggs recognized his voice.

He was clearly used to being obeyed. “I want to give this for the relief of the poor, especially about Ravensdale Village. I don’t want it to wind up in the Vicar’s pockets or repairing the church roof, so I come to you. May I have your word of honour it goes to the poor?”

Mr Briggs supposed he ought to defend the Vicar, but was too astounded as the man brought out some bags of gold coins.

“Your word on it,” the man handed them over.

“You have it,” Mr Briggs stared at the money. “Sir, this is a great sum. Are you sure that you wish to part with it all?”

“You think me a madman. You may not be far wrong, but it’s no great sum to me. Remember, I count on your discretion. I must be on my way.” As he span about, his moustache dropped to the floor like a heavy dead insect.

Mr Briggs knew that profile well, partly hidden though it was. He spoke gently, “Sir, wait.”

Mr Briggs’ visitor paused.

“Your generosity overwhelms me. May I say a few words?”

The man sighed, not looking at him. “Be quick about it, then.”

“I wish to remind you, that what prompted you to do this was a good thought. And I would further remind you that all of us sinners are in need of Divine mercy, and we need never despair of finding it when we ask for it.”

The other trampled on the fallen moustache moodily. “You’re no hypocrite; that is why I chose to give this to you and not to that fawning windbag. Goodbye.”

The next moment, he was outside the small front garden, untying his horse.

Mr Briggs remembered Reynaud Ravensdale at twenty. By chance, he had been at Ravensdale Court on the day Lord Ravensdale sent his son away. He had come with Edmund Ravensdale into the main hallway as Reynaud plunged out of the study and stood, chest heaving, against the door.

As he had turned his wild gaze on them, his eyes met his cousin’s, and a strange look had passed between them, with many shades of meaning. Edmund had flinched. Mr Briggs had thought what fools humans are, to search for the meaning of the universe, when the mysteries of the human heart remain an enigma. He had longed to say something to the young rascal to keep him from despair.

Still, he was only a curate, though he wrote the Vicar’s sermons, and as he struggled for the right words, Edmund Ravensdale had touched his arm to urge him on.

Now Mr Briggs murmured, “I failed you then. Now I’ve failed you again in not somehow turning you from your course.”

[_ _]

The Outlaw Seeks to Clear His Name

And Suffers Romantic Afflictions

&&

In a fairly clean and comfortable inn – which Selina might think sordid – the young and pretty landlady, once maidservant at Ravensdale Court, couldn’t get over her shock at the sudden appearance of Reynaud Ravensdale, otherwise Mr Fox.

She hurried him and his pot of porter into her private parlour, exclaiming in an urgent whisper.

“So the disguise didn’t fool you, eh, Kate?” he grinned ruefully. “I thought this ridiculous moustache was a fine piece of artifice, along with my hair dyed. Well, I’ve got wigs – but they’re infernally hot in this weather.”

“I know you too well. Well, it’s lucky the Ravensdales isn’t as well known by sight this way, as you’ve got so much of the family likeness. Such a turn you just gave me! It’s madness to linger here, with a price on your head; I heard from Tom you were back for the late Earl’s funeral.”

“I called on him on the quiet before that, too, with only Marie and one footman in the know. Well, Kate, I have my reasons for staying. I was hoping to find out what goes on with that murder charge. From what I hear, things are the same. I know you were one of the few who believed that what happened that cursed day was an accident, and I wanted to ask you a couple of things.“

She huffed. “I wish I could give you good news, Sir, but I haven’t heard anything new. I call it clean unfair, and so I’ll tell any judge. It’s a shame you has to live so outrageous, with you the new Earl now and all.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You call helping honest innkeepers in evading those iniquitous excise taxes* ’living outrageous?’ I’m only sorry that here you’re too far from the coast to benefit much from our philanthropy. Never mind, I’ve brought some stock left over from my last trip that Tom might find useful. As for my taking to the High Toby*, my dear, my band target the rich and the corrupt, who’re no better than thieves themselves.”

His mischievous grin faded suddenly, and he rose abruptly to pace about. “It may be we play some part in redistributing the nation’s wealth from rich merchants to the needy, but I don’t like to talk loud of it, and it seems it’s not enough for some.” He brooded a moment before saying, lightly again, “I had an idea Gentlemen of the Road receive a hospitable welcome here.”

Kate dimpled. “Tom will take that present most kindly, Sir, our thanks. For sure, we’ve always found them Gentleman of the Road most open handed. What must I call you, now?”

“Any name you can think up for being such a cursed idiot that damned day, down to standing opposite Harding with my pistol on full cock, so that when I stumbled…Foxton will do for a name.”

“Well, you did always have a hot temper, but I’ve always said how you’d never have shot the Captain like that without warning. As for shooting him down just before you were about to have one of them duels with him, what would be the sense in that, when all know what a fine shot you are? I’m always hoping something new would come to light, but nothing has, worse luck.”

He shook his head. “Maybe it’s a foolish dream to think of somehow clearing myself, but it’s hard to give up on it. Something about the whole thing makes no sense. I could have sworn when my pistol went off, from that angle, it couldn’t have done more than wing Harding.”

She nodded. “I still say I heard three shots that day. Them others as ran up the walk with me must have had their ears stuffed up with cloth to hold they heard but two.”

“I’ve always sworn there was a shot seconds before I stumbled and like an idiot, set off my own pistol. But as my filthy luck would have it, just after that the farmer up in the field above fired on one of the mad foxes. That muddled everyone.”

She tossed her head. “Not me, though. Poor old Withers and Dame Vickers were so of a dither they always would have it that Mr Edmund came out from that hidden walkway hard by the one we ran up before them shots rang out. I’ve always said he came out after.”

Her eyes met his searchingly. “There’s another thing, Mr Edmund looked odd. He seemed as if he was holding something back, begging your pardon. And I’ll be frank; I think you do too, Sir.”

“Such as?” He kept his eyes on hers, his tone casual.

“I think you shelter someone,” she fiddled with her apron, and then met his eyes again, “And I always thought it most unfeeling of Miss Georgiana as was, to go and marry that Sweetlove gentleman just weeks after you had to turn outlaw.”

He shook his head. “I freed her of her engagement to me. After all, what sense was there in her waiting for me to clear myself with the evidence all against me? Who’d believe my story?”

“Perhaps the lady owed you some gratitude, Sir, in the circumstances?” Kate went on huffing. “And perhaps she could have remembered more clearly what happened that day, if she’d a mind. But I’ll say no more on it, save that I’m guessing that shot –”

They turned at sounds of raised voices and scuffling from the direction of the formerly empty taproom. An angry voice shouted, “Sneaking rascal! If you want to know something, why don’t you come and ask me straight instead of poking round like some bloody rat?”

“Hide yourself,” she hissed. “That’s my Tom back, and sounds like there’s thief takers on your trail already.”

Reynaud moved over to the window. Glancing out, he saw nothing suspicious. He was just opening it when he heard a well-known voice raised in protest. “Looby,” he muttered, and strode through to the taproom.

Here, the hulking landlord had hold of a struggling Longface. “I protest, Ma’am!” he told Kate. She urged, “Let him go, Tom; we’ve got nothing to hide from these hounds.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr Watts,” Reynaud said affably, coming forwards. “This is only a fellow rogue who suffers from worse damned luck than I do.”

 

Some days later, Ravensdale, alias Mr Fox, alias Foxton, was failing to eat a plate of beef, while Kate, who detested waste, planned to save it for someone else.

Opposite Ravensdale, Longface and Flashy Jack, who had called over and stayed to eat on his way to London, had already finished theirs. Longface, chewing on a piece of bread with his remaining teeth, gazed mournfully across the table.

His chief threw down his knife. “Why do you stare at me like a looby? What ails you?”

Longface shook his head silently.

Kate’s younger sister Suki came from the back. Seeing her, Flashy Jack, his bright fair hair dyed brown again, took his porter over to stand at the bar.

Kate came for the dirty plates. “Meat not to your liking?” she asked Ravensdale, who had gone to stand gazing out of the window, arms folded across his chest.

“It was well enough.”

“You keep on leaving your food.”

The landlord Tom Watts turned, looking shocked. He was so strapping and healthy that he didn’t remember when he had last left his own. “You don’t want to get anything like that. I’ve known cases, strong men one month, invalids at the fireside the next.”

Mr Fox scowled and said nothing. Longface stared at him even more anxiously.

“Have you got guts ache, Sir?” Kate determined to speak plain, though he was a lord, and her former young master.

He kept silent, glowering into his beer.

Flashy Jack joined in. “He’s holding on round the chest. It could be lung trouble. That can be caught early. I knew a man, fading away with it, till his wife had him gargle some rum every day. That set him to rights.”

“He ain’t got a cough,” Kate pointed out.

They all looked at Mr Fox, who shifted under a scrutiny which seemed to go through to his innards.

“I hear you don’t cough until that phlegm sets in. Then you’re soon spitting blood.”

“Mercy!” Suki knew that they’d all end on the gallows, but this was immediate.

The robber chief, only kept silent until now through reluctance to be rude to the women, turned on Jack: “Hold your noise, damn you! My insides are my own affair.”

Kate, undeterred, held up one finger. “I know the very thing, whatever it is. That cure I got from that pedlar works on anything. I’ve even tried it on baby there.” She smiled on her infant, sleeping in his cradle at the side of the bar.

“Well, you shouldn’t give it him, Kate. Those medical poisoners have caused more deaths than any honest rogue.” Mr Fox made for the door and stood outside – still slightly hunched, though now avoiding holding onto his chest – and gazing across the yard at the hens scrabbling in the dust.

“There’s no pleasing him at the moment,” Kate went back to collecting the dishes.

“There ain’t any pleasing him these last few weeks,” Jack turned his attention back to Suki.

A bewigged and fussy figure came up to the door and asked Mr Fox, “Do you work here, fellow?”

“I don’t, but Master Watts is in there,” Mr Fox spoke more politely than might be expected.

The other glanced about, pulling up his collars. “Hmm. I was recommended this inn. I’ll stay to quench my thirst, anyway. I’ve become too used to comfort in Sir Wilfred’s service.” He gazed sadly through the door.

Mr Fox was suddenly alert. “You work for Sir Wilfred?”

The befuddled librarian, surprised at the roughly dressed fellow’s commanding air, smiled graciously. “Sadly I work there no longer, my good fellow; but until yesterday I was his librarian. After a misunderstanding, Sir Wilfred needs another librarian, while I am cast out on the world.”

Mr Fox eyed him keenly, “Did you train as a librarian?”

“No, no, I was a tutor of Latin. I think it was that which impressed Sir Wilfred, who’s no scholar himself.” The man went in.

Mr Fox brooded as he finished his porter.

 

Longface, holding a juicy treat for his horse, told it, “We ought to be on our way, like Jack, now we’ve got that prize, yet he stays.” He dropped his voice and the horse rotated its ears, as if anxious not to miss a word. “He says, they would expect us to flee the area, so we shan’t, and we’re safer here than on them Runners’ home ground round London, though Jack’s happy enough to take his chance there. Too many patrols round them heaths nearer to Town and all, he says.”

The horse nudged Longface’s arm impatiently as he went on, “Then, I know he’s been about searching for folk as might help him in that Clearing His Name stuff, and fair put out he looks whenever he comes back from one of them jaunts, too. However, it ain’t only that; this is different. He’s up to something. I owe it to the Young Hothead to keep an eye on him.”

The horse snatched the juicy treat and began to chomp and drool.

“You greedy mare! You was only meant to have half that! Tell me, what’s he about, eh? Sneaking off on his own half the day and coming back looking sick. Whatever it is, it ain’t healthy – and here he comes now!”

The horse chewed and drooled even more, while Longface hid himself behind some bales of hay.

Mr Fox, coming in, stopped to stare as the horse’s saliva splattered down to the floor. “What’s the matter?” He shook his head. “You’re rabid, you poor beast, we must shoot you.” He started backwards as the horse swallowed violently, shaking its head in a cloud of spray.

Longface broke his cover: “Over my dead body! She’s in difficulty eating a treat, like you at your meat back in there.”

Mr Fox shook his head again. “Longface, why didn’t you divide it? Why am I saddled with an idiot?” Suiting his action to the word, he went over to saddle his own horse.

“If I’m an idiot, I ain’t the only one; we should leave now.”

“You can leave whenever you like.” His chief led his horse out of the stable.

“Fair distracted, didn’t take in my own horse was tacked up.” Longface gave his chief a short start, and then followed.

He found it easy to shadow his chief unseen by him, using a trundling farm cart as cover. They went uphill, south eastwards and through open country for some miles in the direction of Speen*.

When Mr Fox turned off at a lane, Longface had to leave the covering rattle of the cart to follow him at a greater distance. Coming up to parkland abutting the road, Ravensdale urged his horse backwards and jumped the wall.

Longface did likewise. Mr Fox rode some way through a small wood, and then tethered his horse. Keeping his distance, Longface did the same. He followed Fox invisibly until the trees thinned and the back of a fine modern mansion came into view.

Mr Fox stole some hundreds of yards through a park towards a back garden separated from the park by a ha-ha*. Jumping the ditch, he vanished amongst the shrubs and bushes. Longface, following more cautiously, nearly twisted his ankle.

Suddenly, Mr Fox sprang behind a bush. Longface leapt behind a lilac tree. The strapping wench who’d knocked down Filthy Fred came round the side of the house, holding a pair of pistols, and made for a target fixed to one of the shrubs.

She wore a pale lemon dress with a matching floppy bonnet contrasting with her dark mane of carelessly piled up black hair. Longface supposed that she looked quite pretty. The sight of her had an astounding effect on his companion, who reeled on his feet and ogled like a madman.

She went over to a bench and began to load the pistols. Longface shuddered. She got into difficulty with the wadding in the first, and after struggling for a while, shocking Longface with her language, threw it on the bench and marched about the rose garden in a temper.

Here Mr Fox showed the full extent of his madness. He stole up to the bench, and hammered the wadding securely into place, darting back as the girl turned.

Longface awaited discovery. On seeing that the pistol had been loaded, the girl merely raised her eyebrows and smiled. Then, she moved towards the target.

Longface, behind a bush nearby, threw himself to the ground, covering his head with his arms. The shot rang out. Looking up, he saw that she had hit not far from the centre of the target and was smiling happily.

Longface, startled at how charming her smile was, dreaded its effect on the deranged Mr Fox, who flushed and quivered.

The next half hour was both dull and nerve racking. The besotted outlaw dodged from bush to shrub, yearning eyes fixed on the strapping wench, while she practiced her shooting, singing happily as she loaded the pistol, swearing savagely when she bungled her aim.

Longface dreaded that she must see one of them, but Mr Fox was good at hiding. Once he sprang to the bush behind which Longface had already rolled. One of his booted feet came down on Longface’s favourite neck cloth. Longface felt at his last gasp when his tormentor finally moved, leaving him panting, with torn neck cloth.

At last, a maid came out to speak to the girl. In frozen horror, Longface heard the words, ‘Mr Ravensdale’. Could this be the cousin who rumour had was mixed up in the then Viscount’s disgrace?

Miss Isabella agreed to be led in, the maid fussing about her heavy dark hair tumbling down, one piece having snaked as far as her waist. On her way into the house, Mr Fox’s goddess dropped a lace edged handkerchief. Of course, as soon as she had gone in, he darted to snatch it up, sniffing it ecstatically and fondling it as if it were the girl’s’ own flesh.

Then he staggered over to a tree, and beating his head on it, muttered of ‘Outlaw’ ‘Cozened, by Hell and the Devil!’ and ‘Disgrace’. Longface gaped to see his proud and hard chief go in for such a display. Then, he began to fear that the young hothead might do himself an injury.

He supposed he was disgraced himself. The emotional effect was the same, but as after his father’s ruin his goods amounted to half a donkey and some silver, the practical effects weren’t. Meggie was lucky to have had any solvent man offer for her after that, even if her husband was a misery.

He started forward to stop Fox just as the outcast pulled away from the tree, to steal round the side of the house. Here great windows opened on to a long terrace. With bleeding forehead and wild eyes, Mr Fox hid behind one of the rhododendrons, staring across at the windows, one being that of a drawing room. Longface feared even more for his sanity, wondering if they would ever leave.

After a while, the outcast’s patience was rewarded. Several family members came into the room, including the hefty wench, now dressed for dinner in ivory silk, her hair up again. She did look well, and the outlaw groaned aloud. Then Longface’s fears were confirmed: an upright, tall, vigorous young man who could almost have been the outlaw’s twin entered.

A woman’s voice came stridently over the lawn, repeating, ‘Mr Ravensdale’ as if she could never say it often enough. Soon, this other Ravensdale came up to the piano near the window and Miss Isabella sat down to accompany him while he sang in a fine baritone:-

[_ _]

‘Where’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade;

Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade;

Where’er you tread, the blushing flowers shall rise,

And all things flourish, where you turn your eyes…’*

 

Mr Fox writhed. Longface felt his pain. Miss Isabella laughed with his cousin as they finished the song, and so the outcast’s torment wore on.

Then Edmund Ravensdale came out on the terrace to take a turn in the air alone.

Now the outlaw’s hand crept to this pistol, and he took aim. The only thing that stopped Longface from throwing himself on him was a strange sense – he knew not from where – that something of the sort had happened before when Mr Fox was Reynaud Ravensdale, and it had turned out badly. He stared frozen instead.

Then his chief’s fingers touched the girl’s handkerchief and thrust his pistol back into his belt. His cousin went back in. The robber turned away hunched. On his way back towards his horse, he murmured once:-

[_ _]

‘Ye Gods, and is there no relief from Love?…

On me love’s fiercer flames forever prey,

By night he scorches, as he burns by day.’

 

Longface, dolefully chewing on a piece of grass, muttered, “He’s gone fairly off his chump.” His chief had never stooped so low as to quote poetry before, even if he did waste his time reading sometimes. He had always been matter-of-fact in his approach to women, before meeting this hussy.

After a few more steps, Mr Fox stopped. So did Longface, but the other, without troubling to turn round, called him.

Sheepishly, Longface approached, amazed that his chief had spotted him. Still, Mr Fox had the sharp eyes needed for their trade.

Fox was too distracted even to be angry. He muttered, “Now you know.”

Longface met his eyes, and turned away. “I’m sorry,” he offered. He had once known the torments of love himself.

On their long, silent ride back to the inn, Longface tried to think of some comfort to offer, but found none. Perhaps, ‘There must be other strapping wenches with gypsy looks and a liking for fisticuffs and shooting,’ wasn’t tactful. To suggest Kate’s cure might spark off a fit of rage. So, he kept a discreet silence, fingering his torn neck cloth.

As they drew into the inn yard, Longface’s chief spoke. “We’ve got our prize; Jack is away to Town. Now’s your chance to retire into respectability, Longface, for I’m going for a lawful occupation myself.” To Longface’s amazement, he grinned like his normal self.

 

Late that night, when all was still in The Huntsman, Reynaud Ravensdale appeared downstairs, light in hand, looking for something. He searched first in the bar, then in the kitchen. At last, his eyes fell on the brown bottle of the peddler’s cure, also known as The Famed and Marvellous Elixir, which stood next to the teapot. Finding a big spoon, he gulped down a large dose. Then he stood, awaiting results.

These came speedily. His eyes widened, his face drained of colour, his breathing quickened, and he swallowed and looked very ill for the next five minutes. Finally, recovering enough to speak, he swore heartily, poured the bottle down the sink, and trudged back to bed.

 

April 1789

Back in time: More of the Conniving Cousin’s Story

&&

Back at Ravensdale Court from Oxford, Edmund meets Withers the butler coming out of the library with a tray. “Is there a fire lit in the library?”

“To be sure, Sir. The Viscount’s in there.”

“In the library? What’s come over him?”

“His Lordship’s been using the room since his riding accident. You heard of that over at Oxford, Sir?”

Withers assumes that all the world must hear of the Viscount’s daredevil exploits. His tone is admiring and indulgent, as the servants’ voices always are when speaking of the Earl’s wild young heir.

While some of that goes with his status, the staff glory in how he excels at all manly pursuits, his fearlessness in the chase, his skill at shooting. They’re even proud of the rumours of his challenges and drinking contests among his wild set up in town. Edmund is only surprised Reynaud has the sense to play for low stakes at cards.

“No; I trust he wasn’t badly hurt?”

“Luckily not, Sir. Still, it was a close thing…”

Edmund pretends to listen, while the butler gives another example of Cousin Reynaud’s recklessness in going out on fearsome mounts. He sometimes wonders why the Earl’s own example hasn’t disgusted them all with wildness; they don’t seem to connect the two.

Edmund has noticed – several thousand times – how the neighbours, as well as the staff feel less warmly about Edmund himself. They might have discounted his inferior status if he’d been as devil-may-care as Reynaud.

Though he and Reynaud grew up together, and Edmund joined him more often than he liked in scrapes leading to roaring and thrashings from Lord Ravensdale, he could never be as blasé about those as Reynaud, or Reynaud’s chosen companion Émile Dubois.

Edmund can’t shake off his weak longing to win affection from the terrible, isolated roué. This lingers still, though now he lives at Oxford. He knows that his uncle despises Edmund’s life of academic study as much as his lukewarm attitude towards hunting, shooting, drinking and wenching.

Marie sits mending on a stool by the fire. Reynaud lounges in an armchair, a jug of mulled wine steaming by his side, his damaged leg raised on a footrest as he reads to her. From the butler’s account, he was lucky to come out of that fall alive, let alone to escape with bruising and a minor leg injury. Edmund doubts Reynaud thinks so. He always laughs that he has nine lives, forgetting how he’s already thrown away a hundred.

Marie comes to greet Edmund. He kisses her. “What are you reading?”

“’The Iliad’.” Reynaud tests his leg by getting up.

Marie turns from Edmund to look at him in concern. “How is it now?” Edmund feels a stir of resentment at another sign that Marie is as fond of her cousin as she is of her brother. Yet, with Reynaud being so careless and attractive to women, Edmund knows that he should be grateful that she does think of him as another brother. That brings him on to another worry, about which he’ll confront Reynaud as soon as he can.

Reynaud smiles at Marie, “It’s near mended. The thing now is to walk on it. I’ve been stuck here three days, Edmund, champing at the bit to get out again.”

“The butler told me of your fall. You’ll never learn. But isn’t ‘The Iliad’ violent subject matter for a lady, Cousin?” Edmund raises his eyebrows at him. That is typical thoughtlessness from Reynaud; He probably fancied reading Pope’s translation himself, and included Marie without a second thought.

“Marie don’t mind a bit of blood and gore, do you, my sweet?” Reynaud walks stiffly past him. “Hey, remember how as brats we enjoyed doing those translations of Homer? Then as now, I thought I’d love to have lived back in those times.”

Edmund can believe it. Reynaud would delight in living unchecked by law-and-order. As for himself, he sees both the horror and the appeal of that. He frowns, remembering how Reynaud was once better at Greek and Latin than he was, but was never interested in cerebral activity. After his Grand Tour*, he was happy to join the Guards and forget about study forever, while Edmund went on to Oxford.

“Do you want some of this mulled wine, Edmund? You look tired from your journey. I suppose it’s time to ready ourselves for dinner,” Marie starts putting away her mending. “Thank you for reading, Reynaud. Anyway, you’ll have some new faces for dinner tonight. Those new Toothill people, you recall, Edmund? I hope His Lordship’s gout isn’t too painful.”

This is her way of saying that she hopes that His Lordship won’t swear at the guests or drink himself senseless after dinner.

“Well, he’s got me to rival him in hobbling,” says Reynaud. “I’d forgotten about this Toothill family. Silly name, eh? But I’ve heard that the daughter is monstrous pretty, Edmund, so that’s something…Harding’s late.” He goes over to the windows, as if staring out could hurry him.

Meanwhile at the mention of Captain Harding, Edmund glances covertly at Marie. Her look gives nothing away. Shutting the door behind her, he turns to Reynaud.

“Reynaud, I don’t like Captain Harding.”

Reynaud draws himself up, haughty at once: “So you’ve said, Edmund.”

Edmund paces restlessly, a family characteristic they share. “I don’t like his interest in Marie. Remember how you told him over dinner that time about what poor Émile used to say on your both needing a wife to reform you?”

Recalling how Émile had said, ‘Vraiment, it would be ungallant to cheat this paragon of all due credit in our reform, so we owe it to her to be as rascally as we can in the meantime,’ Edmund hides a smile.

Reynaud smiles himself at the mention of his favourite cousin. Then, despite his injured leg, he paces too. “Don’t call him ‘Poor Émile’. If I know him, he’ll escape his pursuers.”

That’s another thing: Edmund wants Reynaud to look like that when thinking of him; and he’s sure that he never does. He goes on, “Harding seemed struck by what you said. After that, he started paying court to Marie. I don’t want him singling her out. She’s too young anyway.”

Reynaud’s pupils dilate and he draws himself up. It comes to Edmund, as so often, how much he dislikes – no, detests – that haughty air. He objects even more to Reynaud’s next words, “Marie has left the schoolroom, Edmund, hadn’t you noticed? Of course, she’s too young to accept any man for a year or so yet, but Harding’s a good fellow enough.”

He speaks as an astute judge of character. Edmund is sure it would never occur to him to pick a friend for any quality other than being a good companion on a wild night out.

Captain Harding’s just the type for those; he can crown a tale with a careless quip, making the table roar. Edmund envies him that. He envies Reynaud even more the way he can live unthinking in the present, gaining affection and undeserved admiration wherever he goes.

Reynaud goes on, “If I saw him or any man treat her lightly, I’d knock him down and call him out, but he’s serious about her. He’s even spoken to my father.”

Edmund draws in his breath. He had no idea that Captain Harding was interested enough in Marie to have gone that far. The idea of that old libertine as guardian of anyone’s welfare – save that of a monkey – has always struck Edmund as grotesque, and never as much as now. “What did my uncle say?” He keeps his tone neutral.

“He told Harding he must wait.”

Even in his relief that the Earl is still capable of acting sensibly now and then, Edmund feels a stir of belated anger at the possessive way Reynaud just spoke of Marie. “Surely it’s my place to resent any man’s treating my sister lightly, Reynaud?”

Reynaud snorts: “You wouldn’t stand a chance with Harding; he’s a damned fine shot.”

This is only the truth. Edmund was never interested enough in shooting to try to refine his skill to Reynaud’s own level, even supposing he had the natural ability. He’s heard, too, that Harding is near as fine a shot as Reynaud himself. Nevertheless, Edmund is as angry at Reynaud’s words as if people complimented him on his shooting every day.

All he can manage as a retort is, “We shall see, Cousin.” He resolves on the spot to do an hour’s shooting practice daily.

Reynaud – insensitive though he can be – senses Edmund’s anger. He even makes a half-hearted attempt to placate him. “Anyway, there’s no cause for us to fall out over the matter. Why, it don’t even apply. Harding’s intentions are good enough, and it’s for Marie to decide if she likes him. Don’t forget, Edmund, women like a man the more for being a rogue; you might try it and find out yourself.” He grins teasingly.

“They’re not all such fools.” Hating Reynaud’s smile – which seems to taunt Edmund smugly about his own limited success with women – he squirms in defeat.

He knows that Marie does like Harding. She has a naïve belief that as a rascal he must be like Reynaud or Émile Dubois, the rascals she knows. Edmund is sure that Harding is a cold hearted, cynical dog.

Edmund has already made the mistake of trying to warn her against Harding. That only led to Marie defending him, while Edmund cursed himself for improving the wretch’s chances by attacking him.

Now he and Reynaud stand facing each other, on the verge of quarrelling further, or making up. Edmund senses that this moment is important for the future of them both, though he can’t guess why.

The faulty grandfather clock breaks the spell by striking twelve, which they translate as four o’ clock. Reynaud grins again, “Now for these Toothills, eh, Edmund? It ain’t fair to expect much of anyone with a name like that, and there’s little enough chance this Miss Georgiana is the beauty they say.”

&4. Infallible Disguise&

The Outlaw Must Adopt an Infallible Disguise

&&

“T&hey’re determined to marry you &off this year and make an end of it, with you coming up three and twenty,” Dicky said. “I’m sorry, Isa, it’s hard on girls. But that’s the way things are, and there’s nothing to be done about it.”

Isabella snorted. “And I’m determined not to be married off, Brother. I’d rather be an old maid or a governess than marry someone I don’t like.”

“But you find fault with all of ‘em. I don’t blame you about old ginger Simms, who you topped by head and shoulders and never could hold his liquor, but Captain Johns was a man at least, a fine shot and could handle a horse a treat.”

“He also laughed at everything I said.”

“I don’t blame him, Isa. You talk a deal of rubbish. Only you could floor one of those robbers and take ‘em to task for not playing Robin Hood. Mercifully, you got away with it, but I am not training you further with firearms, or things must end with you getting shot yourself. If you won’t marry, then I want you to live to be an old maid, plaguing me and the woman I choose about household matters.”

Isabella sighed. “You at least can choose, after a fashion. So you’re determined not to help me further with the shooting?”

“No, I won’t, and our father’s downright unreasonable to forbid me taking a few friends to pay those thieves back in their own coin.”

“Ah, Dicky, they’ll be long gone. Even the Disgraced Earl must have taken himself off to be wicked elsewhere. I suspect our father has set a thief taker on them. I wish he hadn’t, for how is stealing and sheltering behind a gloss of legality better than robbing outright?”

Dicky distracted himself from his disappointment in being forbidden a shootout with the band of robbers: “Do you know our mother has her eye on Edmund Ravensdale for you? Seems she thinks he showed signs of admiring you, though she’s put out how you wouldn’t sing for him when he asked.”

“You know I won’t sing for anyone, though I’ll play. Mama shouldn’t raise her hopes. All the mothers of eligible girls in the neighbourhood are setting their sights on Edmund Ravensdale. After all, he has charge of Ravensdale Court in his cousin’s absence, which must last his life span, and he’s the next in line to the title besides. Most of those young ladies are better born than I am, too.”

Isabella smiled in relief at this thought. She was hardly given to fancying that men admired her; still, Edmund Ravensdale had made his admiration so obvious, that even she couldn’t fail to notice it. “Anyway, I don’t like the expression in his eyes. He looks as if he suffers from inner torment of some sort. It’s unsettling.”

She winked. “Well, I’m off to the library, where I may yet find hidden about the shelves, the man who dreams of a swearing hoyden who likes her glass of brandy.”

As Isabella entered, a bewigged and bespectacled figure sprang back from the shelves. For a second she thought it was the former librarian, and then realized that it was the new man Sir Wilfred had hired.

He came towards her slightly bent, though with a startlingly vigorous stride, and as he made his bow, his wig slipped, revealing bright chestnut hair at the back. She had never understood why a man with a full head of hair (unlike her father) would wear an old-fashioned wig.

She looked at him without interest, but sensing his agitation, tried to put him at his ease. The poor man was even trembling as he looked at her. Perhaps Sir Wilfred had warned him roughly against taking advantage. “I’m happy to meet you, Sir. I trust that you settle in comfortably?”

He reddened; his voice came quietly, “Very well, I thank you, Ma’am.” Isabella thought she had heard that voice before somewhere – though, surely then it had sounded much stronger – but she was too preoccupied with thoughts of pistols to bother about where. She went on, smiling, “There’s much to do and a powerful amount of dust.”

“In–Indeed, Ma’am,” the poor nervous fellow stammered a little.

Isabella spoke even more gently, “Sir, have you come across any books on pistols during your short time in our library?” She was concerned she might alarm him by talk of firearms.

His eyebrows – startlingly well shaped – shot up behind his glasses. “Pistols, Ma’am?”

“Yes, firearms. I’m looking for a book on them, and no doubt you’ve noticed that the catalogue is missing, unless by some miracle you’ve found it.”

“I’m entirely at your disposal, Ma’am.” The man bowed again and stood gawping at her as if at some object of wonder.

“Shall we look, then?” she encouraged him.

He flushed again. “Ah – at once Ma’am! Forgive me; I was trying to guess where they might be. I must look for a section on outdoor activities.”

“There’s one on the hunt, the only shelves which are free of dust apart from the romances.” Isabella led him over.

He pushed his glasses down to the end of his nose and glanced up at the top of the shelves: “Sixty Years of Church and Chase’ ‘The Water Dog’…Ah! – ‘[Armament’ _]and there’s [‘The Pistol’._]”

Unlike his predecessor, he seemed interested in his work, and flashed a happy smile on her. She was startled at the whiteness of his teeth, the brightness of those heavily lidded and lashed long hazel eyes smiling over the glasses. Now she came to notice it, they regarded her with an almost insane tenderness, and seemed familiar. She smiled back, happy to have found a book on pistols.

He trembled slightly again, then pulling himself together, said, “I need a ladder.” He glanced about.

“There’s one by that man over there.”

He started almost guiltily. She gave the belly laugh that appalled Lady Murray, “I meant that statue with the huge nose.”

He laughed too, and seeing her look at him, pushed his glasses back into place. He made for the ladder with surprising speed, though still bent over, and carried it over as if it weighed no more than a book. She saw that he was strongly made, which was odd in one with sedentary work. Perhaps in his last place he’d had to climb up and down ladders all day.

Certainly, he scaled the shelves in a couple of bounds and balanced, one foot on the top rung and one on a shelf, to pluck out several books. This dislodged a cloud of dust, which enveloped him. He began to sneeze violently. Perched up high as he was, Isabella feared for his safety.

He nearly bent double with the force of his sneezing. His wig seemed in danger of coming off, and he snatched at it and almost overbalanced. His glasses fell off, and Isabella lunged to catch them.

“Take care, Sir!” Isabella saw herself having to catch him too, and glanced about for a rug to soften his fall.

He went on sneezing, blinded by streaming eyes, searching for his handkerchief, wobbling and trying to get out an apology.

“Never mind that! Do try and steady yourself!” Isabella cried.

Somehow, he stayed aloft through every lurch. Recovering from the paroxysm, he wiped his eyes, blew his nose, and spent a long time apologizing.

“You’re hardly to blame for being troubled by the dust, Sir; do come on down,” Isabella coaxed him. Fearing his having another sneezing fit, she beckoned to him.

He sped down with the books. She handed him his spectacles. He thanked her so passionately, gazing at her with such a look of seeming adoration, that she wondered if he were deranged. She felt his gaze intent on her as she glanced through the pile, selecting a couple. He stirred uneasily, and cleared his throat a couple of times. Finally, he spoke: “Ma’am, forgive me if I seem impertinent – but may I speak plain?”

She smiled. “Please do. I wish more people did.”

“Then, Ma’am, forgive my impoliteness – but firearms being so hazardous – I hope that someone familiar with them assists at your practice?”

Isabella’s lips twitched. For all his muscular build – she now noticed his brawny forearms under his rolled up sleeves, his muscular shoulders straining against the material of his shirt – the poor fellow seemed so nervous that it seemed absurd that he was concerned about her using firearms. “Sadly, I haven’t any offers of help.”

He brooded. She realized that under the fussy wig and glasses, many people would think him handsome. Why, those classically proportioned features were regular to the point of being dull, apart from those beautiful long, heavy lidded eyes…

Isabella started. Surely, those eyes belonged to – but how could they?

He said, “I have some experience of firearms myself, Ma’am. I hope you won’t think it forward of me to offer –”

“– That is kind of you, Sir.” To suspect this timid man of being Mr Fox was ridiculous. It was just those eyes being so like the outlaw’s, and now his claiming to know about firearms, that made her suspect him.

“Of course, I don’t wish to do anything that goes against your parents’ wishes.”

She wondered if he would be of any use, and spoke cheerfully, “Don’t trouble yourself, Sir; I’ve been handling firearms some while, though of course, I’d be grateful for your help.”

He bowed again, and taking her hand, kissed it passionately. “I’m entirely at your disposal.”

It seemed that he would go on kissing her hand all day – again. Now she was sure who he was. The touch of his lips felt just the same – surprisingly nice, in fact.

She tried not to stare as thoughts whirled in her head. What was she to do? He could be here for no good purpose. She pulled away her hand.

Now the clock was striking. Isabella made to escape, pausing to say breathlessly over her shoulder, “We must speak on this again, Sir.” Hardly knowing what she said, she went on, “You dine with us, of course? We’re all of a dither today, with Mr Ravensdale to dine and his sister too.” She realized what that must mean to him as his eyes dilated behind the glasses, he stiffened and breathed quickly.

She added, eyebrows raised, “I hope all may go well.”

She was sure she didn’t imagine his meaningful look as he bowed again. “Your wishes must be mine, Miss Murray.”

 

Lady Murray had avoided inviting any young lady more striking than Isabella to this dinner. As they were dressing, she went twice to check on Isabella’s dress and hair, and she even donated her pearls.

“Now, Isabella, I’m relying on your not to be awkward. You look very well. I declare if you weren’t over tall and hefty, you would count as a most handsome young lady. As it is, you’re at a disadvantage, and must rely on charm to beguile the men. How many times have I urged you those dreadful abrupt airs must disgust them all? So unwomanly! If only you would copy Miss Caroline’s ways! And that reminds me: if Mr Ravensdale asks you to sing, you must oblige him.”

“But Ma’am, I’ve forgotten how.”

“Nonsense, that’s typical of your disobliging ways. Years since, you used to sing well enough, after all. You were always singing when we used to know that Langley family. – Humph! They had such high notions of themselves, yet Mr Langley hasn’t been created a Baronet, has he? – You’ve only persuaded yourself that you can’t sing now. I’ll be angry if you refuse Mr Ravensdale’s request.”

Over dinner, the Vicar talked to those on either side of him about his Curate Mr Briggs. “I fear he verges on Enthusiasm*. He’s sound enough in doctrine, but he takes his sympathy towards our lowest class of parishioner too far. I suspect he gives most of his income to them, cutting such a sorry figure in his old coat and battered hat, that I’m often ashamed to own him my Curate.”

The laughter came as surely as the sunrise. “Lately, though, he seems to have come into some money. Though he’s still a ragamuffin, the villagers have been feeding well, and I hear that many have paid off their debts to the shopkeeper, while Miss Briggs has bought things for her little school.”

“I’m happy to hear it,” murmured the librarian, who sat at the bottom of the table with Mrs Titmarsh. As he’d walked in with her to dinner, she had told him of her nervous palpitations since that encounter with the band of robbers, with even her left toe affected. He looked concerned, and she thought him a nice young man.

Now, while she chatted to him, he gazed up to where Mr Ravensdale and the family sat at the top of the table.

“It’s nice to see Mr Ravensdale and his sister out of mourning for the late Lord Ravensdale. Naturally, Sir Wilfred and Her Ladyship would welcome a match between Miss Isabella and Mr Ravensdale above anything.

“Is your soup not to your liking, Sir? Does Miss Isabella like him? What a blunt question, Sir; I don’t have her confidence, but all the young ladies think him handsome and charming. Do you know, Miss Isabella has the most cutting tongue! When her friends quizzed her about this wicked highwayman, Mr Fox – said to be the Disgraced Earl, of course – asking if he was as dashing as they say, she said that she hadn’t noticed it; that from the little that she could make out beneath his disguise he was ‘Nondescript’. Dear me, how you choke on your wine, Sir…Are you recovered?”

“I hope there’s some of the entrée left by the time it reaches us…Have you always worked as a librarian, Sir? You were involved in raising taxes? Did you work with the Excise Department*? You met them from time to time in your line of business? The entrée comes at last…Excellent…You don’t enjoy this either, Sir? You gaze so on Miss Isabella, I’ll believe she’s made a conquest of you… Forgive me, but you remind me of someone – Oh, I put you in mind of the French Queen? Alas for her tragedy, and surely you flatter me…”

[_ _]

The Maiden who Believes In

The Disgraced Earl Turned Outlaw

&&

As the ladies withdrew, Marie Ravensdale made an excuse to go down to the end of the table. As she passed the librarian, she dropped her handkerchief.

As he stooped to retrieve it she said, “Thank you for Discovering it for me, Sir.” At her stress on ‘discovering’ he reddened.

Two minutes later, he joined her out on the terrace. She rushed up to put her arms about him.

He hugged her in return. “Do you really forgive me over Harding, as you said before? We had little enough time to talk then. I always dreaded you hated me over it.”

“I couldn’t ever hate you, Reynaud, and of course I believe you that it was an accident. I don’t care what they say.” She added solemnly, “I’ve grown up since, and I think I was mistaken in poor Captain Harding.”

He smiled. “I’m happy over that. It was the accident I said, but I can’t tell the whole story, Marie.” He kissed her cheek and drew her back to look at her. “You’ve grown up into a fine lady.”

“I’d have known you anywhere, for all that wig and glasses and the stoop you keep forgetting to put on. Whatever are you about, coming here pretending to be a librarian? I wonder Edmund didn’t know you at once. – Ah, Reynaud, it’s been dreadful, not knowing what will become of you, and when you might be taken. – You shouldn’t still be in the country, let alone here in such a ridiculous disguise. Whatever do you mean by it? You must be recognized.”

“Edmund didn’t even notice me at dinner. I should have known that you’d be another matter.”

“I think he was too preoccupied with his own affairs, especially pursuing Miss Isabella, to look down at the bottom of the table.” She saw him pale at her words as she rushed on, “But that luck can’t hold. Reynaud, surely you don’t scheme to do some unworthy act to these people?”

“Do you really think I’ve changed so much? Robbing Sir Wilfred’s coach on the highway would be one thing, if there hadn’t been only women in it; abusing their hospitality would be different.”

“I believe you. But why –”

“I have my reasons, my sweet.”

She knew what his look meant. “Would they have to do with Miss Isabella? So much for your saying that you’d never get over Miss Georgiana’s marrying Mr Sweetlove.”

He looked abashed as he took her hands again. “I didn’t think I could. Marie, if you knew how I long to undo all that happened that day, so everything could somehow be put right again, and Harding alive! I can’t tell you the whole story, though, as I told you before…”

She squeezed his hands in return. “For the moment it’s urgent that you leave.”

“I can’t. I’m besotted with Miss Isabella, Marie. My feelings for Georgiana were as nothing to this. Even looking at Miss Isabella from afar, exquisite torment as it is, is better than not seeing her at all.”

He held forth, pacing, while she tapped her foot.

 

Isabella paced too, wrapped in thought, while Miss Caroline played for them. The dining room was directly below, and the sound of guffaws from Sir Wilfred and the male guests drifted up.

Lady Murray approached. “What do you mean by striding about in this unladylike manner, Isabella? It’s shocking that at your age I have to remind you to entertain our guests. When Miss Caroline finishes her piece, you may play for us.”

“Beg pardon, Ma’am.” Isabella went up to join one of the chatting groups, and tried to take in what they said. Their everyday talk of bonnets made her ideas seem the more ridiculous, until she reflected that they would very likely chat like that just before the end of the world.

At last, the men came into the drawing room, still laughing. Isabella saw that the librarian wasn’t with them. She had been edging to the door, and now slipped out among the group, hiding herself as much as possible.

Edmund Ravensdale drew back. “Miss Isabella, you leave us?”

“Only for a little while.” He probably thought she needed the closet, and asked no questions as she escaped.

Acting on an odd hunch, she went towards the terrace. On the way, she passed Marie Ravensdale, whom she realized had been missing from the drawing room. The girl, biting her lip, murmured shakily, “Miss Murray,” while Isabella smiled vaguely at her.

She went swiftly to the terrace. The librarian was walking there, where she liked to stroll after dinner herself. Seeing her, he froze. Her own glance falling on the high hedge that sheltered the lawn behind, she saw a long and melancholy face peering through a gap, framed by foliage like the nature god the Green Man. As she stared, finding that face familiar too, it was withdrawn.

The bandit turned librarian bowed gracefully. He had taken off his glasses, and his likeness to Edmund Ravensdale startled her. His features were still more sculpted, his mouth wider. His eyes were the same shade of hazel, but wider too and set further apart, more heavily lidded, and a striking feature in a face she thought regular to the point of being dull.

“Do you have us surrounded by your men, Your Lordship? It’s a shabby trick, to abuse our hospitality like this. I was so angry I was tempted to come armed, but that would have been idiocy with a robber.”

He stared, and then said huskily, “Believe me, Miss Isabella, I’ve no such intentions. That blundering associate trying to hide in the hedge came to check upon me, thinking me deranged.”

Isabella tended to agree. “Do you mean mischief to your cousin?”

He went in for some heavy breathing and lip biting. “Why do you say so?”

“It’s rumoured that he was involved in your – er – your misfortune.”

“I feel I could kill him for having the chance with you that I’m denied, it’s true, and I’ve wondered since if my disgrace was through an act of his – but I’ll leave him untouched if you wish. I didn’t come here for that, but to see you.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m in love with you. I knew you to be unique among young ladies when first I set eyes on you, when you laid out that disgusting lout, and from your later speech to my men.”

“My goodness!” For once, she used a ladylike expression. She also suddenly felt exhausted, and found herself thinking of the dull talk and tea in the drawing room with longing. Absurdly, she added, “Actually, the first time you set eyes on me, you thought I was a boy.”

As he stared, she explained, “You know, at the funeral. “

“So that was you! It makes sense, though. You acted cool as ice when that firing started. Nothing nervous about you.”

“But this talk of love is absurd. You don’t even know me.”

“It’s been creeping up on me ever since you showed such spirit back at the roadside, overwhelming me before I knew it.”

She thought his taste extraordinary. “I hope you don’t do the same by your cousin.”

“As you wish me not to, I’ll never hurt a hair of his head. I’m yours to command.”

[_Like the genie in Ali Baba. _]This speech seemed to Isabella straight from one of Selina’s novels. She was quick to say, “Of course I don’t want you to hurt him!” As for the rest, she could only stare.

The robber paced and groaned, turning wild eyes on her. She noted that he’d given up both the attempt at a different accent and the hunched posture. “Do you care for him?”

“I’ve only met him twice.” Isabella saw at once that would hardly reassure him, seeing that he’d only met her once himself before developing this insanity.

“Could you – come to care for him? I heard your parents plan a match with him for you.”

“In that, they join many other parents. No, I don’t believe that I could like him well.”

He drew a heavy sigh, seeming a little placated. Isabella’s lips twitched. She reminded herself that even if he was deranged, this was deadly serious for him.

“I can’t aspire to you in my disgrace,” he said. “A ruffian such as me shouldn’t presume to address you at all. As a wild young buck I threw away my inheritance, and what could I now offer you but a life any decent woman must despise, that of an outlaw’s wife?”

Isabella supposed she ought to say that she was Very Obliged by his Flattering Regard, but didn’t know how to put it.

Meanwhile, he paced some more, and then turned about, face reddening. “Forgive my presumption in asking this, but your kindness may soothe my anguish during my wretched life as an outlaw. Were my position different, could you care for me?”

Isabella replaced her, ‘Really, I’ve no idea,’ with the tactful, “Perhaps, Sir, had things been otherwise, I might in time,” on the lines that her mother had taught her. After all, he was talking about a hypothetical situation.

 

So far, she had seen him mainly:-

 

Having gun battles with the military

and

Beating unpleasant fellow robbers

and

Sneezing in the library.

 

However, when not doing these things, for all she knew he might be quite nice.

He sighed again, “I’m a worthless wretch.”

“Perhaps no more than any of us, and we can all aspire to do better. Sometimes, sadly, I aspire to do worse. – Watch out for the gnats, Sir!” The gnats under the overhanging shrubs at the edge of the terrace were a menace at this time of day, and he had just walked unseeing into a swarm.

He drew back and kicked moodily at a patch of moss. High in the trees, where the leaves were still golden in sunshine, two wood pigeons warbled exchanges. He said, “You remind me, I did as you asked. I gave money to Mr Briggs the Curate at Ravensdale, to distribute among the needy. You would have had us go direct, but we’d only have been mistaken for lunatics or strolling players with fake coins.”

Isabella hadn’t connected his promise with Mr Brigg’s increased funds for charity. She smiled, “Thank you, Sir. I’m obliged.”

This set him off again: “Your smile is so lovely; give me another.”

That wasn’t difficult, as she found his histrionics so ridiculous. It was unlucky for him, when so many young ladies with a romantic streak would give their eyeteeth to have him at their feet, that he had chosen to worship the least romantic he could have found.

He said, “I must speak now; we may be disturbed at any minute. Miss Isabella, I dread that your parents may force you to marry my Cousin Edmund. There was an air of collusion between your father and my cousin over the port tonight that I couldn’t bear to watch.”

Isabella, about to laugh that off, suddenly bit her lip. Recently she’d noticed a hardening in her parents’ attitude when they nagged her about the need to find a suitable husband now she was twenty-three. Lady Murray had a stern look when she mentioned Mr Ravensdale.

“I must hope that another young lady cuts me out.” She spoke lightly, but he saw her look change.

“Don’t count upon it. Lovely Miss Murray, I must speak plain; as a highwayman and fugitive from justice, I don’t merit you; but I suspect that my cousin doesn’t either, and I hope I don’t say so purely because the thought of his having you, of all men, would most rend me with anguish.”

“So he did conspire against you, as some say?” Isabella thought unreasonably of the strange expression that had risen in Edmund Ravensdale’s eyes when Mr Fox was mentioned.

“I’ve no evidence to support my miserable suspicions. But leaving that aside, I think he would make one as spirited as you are wretched.” He was off walking again. “I’m glad I’ve some supporters. May I count your lovely self among them? It would cheer me in my dismal existence.”

Isabella was surprised that he called his life wretched. People saw a highwayman’s life as exciting if not romantic. Despite the increase of toll roads* and the bounty hunters*, there were still many who aspired to that short but adventurous career. Still, few of them tended to be disgraced aristocrats. She supposed she was a supporter of his, and it was only kind to reply to his question with, “You can, Sir.”

As images of alternative futures closed in on her, she paced about herself.

The first was of herself as an old maid, a dependant* on her brother and a future wife. If that was Miss Caroline, she might well grudge Isabella the sugar in her tea.

This was better than the second, which was a vision of herself, tied to the good-looking but strangely reserved Edmund Ravensdale, perhaps forced to watch him carry through enclosure of the common land. She’d be toadied to on all sides and unable to speak her mind.

The third was of herself as governess to some cheeky brats, living in respectable misery in a garret, dreaming of opening her own little school. Perhaps though, she might find work as another Mistress Titmarsh; there she would be companion and drudge to an irritable matron, sewing from morning to night.

Her vision of herself, riding up to recover her now husband Reynaud Ravensdale’s body, mutilated, tarred and swinging from a gibbet, seemed almost preferable. That horror would at least rise to the heights of tragedy. She saw she must have been picking up Selina’s ideas.

Besides, she realized that she found the thought of a wedding night with him – as long as he didn’t wear his silly wig and glasses to bed – far nicer than the idea of the one with his cousin. She couldn’t say why; it was just the way he affected her, if only because his eyes were so beautiful.

She stopped by him as he stood staring at her, those eyes wild. “Thank you for offering your help to me, Sir. I hope to persuade my parents not to force me into marriage. You ought to leave the country now, as you did before. You endanger yourself by lingering. I believe my father has employed a man to hunt you down. Besides, it can only be a short time before we’re drawn into war with France.* You must flee abroad before that.”

“Yes, I was abroad till word came to me of my father’s decline. But the devil take me if I leave now! You don’t realize how I’ve followed your movements – how I’ve stood in your garden and seen my cousin come to call. I longed to undo the past, so I could be in his place and acceptable to your parents.

“Now your words give me hope that there’s a small chance that I might yet make you mine – selfish rogue that I am – and you ask me to leave? Ask rather that I shoot myself on the spot. By Hell, I so longed to wing him when I heard him sing while you played that song, Where’er You Walk. But as I reached for my weapon, my fingers touched your handkerchief; I’ve always had it about me since you left it in the garden.”

Isabella was just thinking of asking nicely for his pistol, when a voice called her name.

He glanced round. “Someone looks for you, but wait a moment. I may be discovered at any time. They close in on me, and I may have to leave without a farewell. If you need my help, leave a note for Mr Fox at The Huntsman in Wycombe, and mention ‘The Pedlar’s Cure’. That will bring me betimes. Meanwhile I’ll try and find an accomplice amongst the staff.”

She stood, for once speechless, as he took her hand to kiss. He went on kissing it, delaying for a dangerously long time before dashing to the end of the terrace and disappearing round the side of the house. She hoped he remembered to put his glasses back on.

[_ _]

The Conniving Cousin

Must Scheme for the Heroine’s Hand

&&

Mistress Titmarsh came up as quickly as her stiffness permitted. “Miss Isabella, Her Ladyship is angry at your quitting the company. Did I see someone with you?”

“Perhaps you did; the ghost of the old jilted lover said to patrol the grounds of a night,” Isabella was annoyed at the fake sound of her laugh. She had always thought she would make far better job of dissembling than the heroines in novels. “I had to come out for air. I near fainted in the drawing room. I told Betsy not to lace me so tight, but my mother would have my waist down by another inch, though she’ll never make a sylph of me.”

Mistress Titmarsh fussed and nagged. Behind her back, Isabella once more saw the face staring through the gap in the hedge. She made a sign for its careless owner to go away. The jaw dropped. It vanished as Isabella followed Mistress Titmarsh back to the drawing room.

Upstairs, Dicky was the first to speak to her. “Hey Isa, Mistress Titmarsh was in a dither about you, but we know you’re never ill. Come and accompany Miss Caroline in that Mozart Sapete * song.” He flushed like the bandit turned librarian. Isabella dreaded Miss Caroline for a sister-in-law. After all, she had a fine dowry, and as her family’s links with trade weren’t too close,* unlike their own, the only objections to the match would be hers and Selina’s. Nobody would care about those.

The world seemed to Isabella suddenly full of amorous madmen. She huffed as she went to the piano, where Miss Caroline tossed her head at Dicky’s approach. Edmund Ravensdale joined them, beating Dicky to the piano to stand and turn the pages of the music.

Miss Caroline managed to bat her eyelashes and smile at both men while singing sweetly. Isabella felt like asking her if she could pat her head and rotate her ankles at the same time, too.

Edmund Ravensdale sometimes looked piercingly at Isabella as she played. Absurdly, she feared that he somehow knew all about the meeting between herself and Reynaud Ravensdale. Now she cursed herself for not warning the librarian/brigand when she had the chance, how it could only be a matter of time before his cousin knew him. She only hoped that Edmund Ravensdale hadn’t noticed the new librarian at the bottom of the great dinner table.

They finished performing. Isabella joined everyone in praising Miss Caroline’s singing, while Marie Ravensdale replaced her at the piano. Dicky monopolized Miss Caroline, while Edmund Ravensdale edged Isabella towards the window.

Outside, a blackbird put heart and soul into its song. She wished that she could be outside herself, but no doubt where’re she walked, she would be shadowed by the inflamed Lord Ravensdale.

He must have been the one who had loaded the pistol for her that time, not Dicky playing a trick on her. The idea that he had spied on her from behind hedges, watching her and longing to shoot his cousin, sent a shiver up her spine.

Her companion saw it. “How are you, Miss Isabella?” Unlike the histrionic bandit, his voice was coolly polite, with only a flicker of warmth in those unreadable eyes.

Of course, he was too correct to mention her absence. Picturing his look if she said, ‘Sadly afflicted with a flux of the bowels’, she had to smile. “Very well, I thank you, Sir.”

He spoke to her of music, going on to try to discuss books. “I hear that you are a reader. I wonder how you find your new library?”

“I find it third on the left off the main hall. The stock is mixed.” Isabella was eager to get the subject off the library, and saw a way of doing that and making herself repulsive to him.

“I’ve found a book on the misery the enclosure of the common land brings to the rural population. It argues that talk of doing away with ‘uneconomic’ practices hides a relentless drive to depopulate the countryside, with the rural population forced into the towns and cities to work in the great workshops that spring up all about.* Then, with no access to land or animals, and relying on a dismal wage, they live merely to work.” She stared at him challengingly.

He showed no annoyance. Instead, he looked like an indulgent full-grown dog being nipped by a puppy (she’d make a large one). “You oppose enclosures, Miss Isabella? Yet, a rural labourer’s life is no easier. Your author paints a dismal picture, but only of one possible future. With increases in the profits from the land, we can all benefit. Still, at Ravensdale Court at least, the enclosures issue is an academic one, as it seems to be a legal minefield whether it could go ahead with its owner absent.”

Isabella smiled her relief. “Certainly, it might be possible, given unusual generosity from the landowners, for both themselves and their tenants to come to an agreement over land use, but while –”

Sir Wilfred came up, eyebrows lowering at her. “What’s this talk of running estates? In challenging you, Sir, my daughter surely teaches her grandmother to suck eggs.”

Edmund Ravensdale smiled. “I find Miss Isabella’s charming opposition stimulating, Sir.”

Sir Wilfred looked relieved. Isabella might have liked Edmund Ravensdale’s speech without that ‘charming’. Her father said, “This is due to the strange ideas she’s picked up by rooting about in the library, when she should have been about her sewing.”

As Isabella glowered, Mistress Titmarsh came up to ask if Mr Ravensdale wanted coffee or tea. This vision from a possible future of her own made Isabella desperate for a dish of tea.

&5. Passion&

The Outlaw and His Passion

&&

A&t the top of the &house, where Reynaud Ravensdale had been given a room, he paced the corridor, sighing and groaning. Once he said aloud in anguish, “’Nondescript’!” His eyes flashed, and he looked rebellious. He was even unromantic enough to mutter something about ‘the thankless hussy’. Then at once, his gaze softened, and he murmured, “But I must love her still.” He groaned louder.

A feeble voice, which could be either male or female, called, “Come in!” He started back, and realizing he had disturbed some ancient dependant of the Murrays, stole to his own room.

He gazed from the window over the grounds where he had lurked in hope of catching sight of his beloved, to the hills beyond, lit with evening rays and ringing with birdsong.

He sat down at the small, wobbly table and began, with many sighs and crossings out, to write a poem. As he had more practice at shooting, swordsmanship, riding, carousing, fisticuffs, roistering about, wenching and the like, the result was not impressive:-

[_ _]

‘My Wild Goddess or Dark Angel, you have subdued me quite;

I Burn for you through endless days, I sigh for you all night;

Those gypsy eyes rebuke my crimes and tempt me to my fate.

I curse the follies of my youth now that it is too late…’

 

He scowled and suddenly threw down his pen, perhaps realizing that it didn’t compare well with ‘Where’er you walk.’ His stomach rumbled as he stared down at his verses again in the fading daylight. Now he looked even more regretful. Perhaps, though, at that moment he was haunted, not by a vision of his wild youth and lost chances, but of the food he had pushed away untasted at dinner earlier, and over the last few weeks.

He paced about, but his stomach went on rumbling. He crept downstairs in search of a kind-hearted serving maid.

He went down to the kitchens. Once, he used to do the same thing at Ravensdale Court as the young Viscount. Then, the staff had given him treats, admired his appetite, and laughed over how he eyed the girls from the earliest age, saying how he took after his father and grandfather.

He heard a melodic voice, and glanced through the half open door. The cook sat by the stoked up fire, singing as she knitted a shawl, but her florid square face was hard, her lips tight. After looking at her for a moment, he went on. He peeked in through the scullery door to see a little maid asleep with her head on a stool, and he drew back, finding himself near a door that surely must lead to the larder.

As he opened it eagerly, a boy climbing the shelves started, lost his hold and fell on him. Ravensdale just managed to catch him, toppling backwards, cursing and rapping his head against the wall behind.

“Don’t tell the butler, Sir! I didn’t mean it!”

“Don’t fear me, I’m famished myself. Do you think you can reach that pie if I give you a leg up?”

Two minutes later, they were eating large slices of the meat pie. “You’re the library gent,” the youngest footmen said, “I’ve heard the maids say how you’ve got the best muscular shanks and should be a footman.”

“I’m happy that some women here admire my looks,” Ravensdale smiled bitterly. “But don’t they feed you well, boy?”

“Not so bad, but I’m always hungry. When I saw that pie going up earlier, I said I had to have my slice; it would be worth a whipping.” He paused, going bright red. “Most days Miss Isabella gives me a big slice of cake.”

“That is kind of her,” Ravensdale smiled again, quite differently.

 

For the rest of the evening Edmund Ravensdale flattered Isabella with his attentions. Her outburst about enclosures didn’t seem to have nettled him, and she thought that she could come to dislike him quite easily. She also thought that he liked Miss Caroline as much, if not better than he did herself. It must be the dowry that fanned the heat of his feelings. This gave her some hope.

Dicky noticed this interest in pretty Miss Caroline too, and almost glowered at him. Isabella felt guilty as she tried all sorts of subtle tricks to bring Edmund Ravensdale and Miss Caroline together. She only partly succeeded. She comforted herself that she was trying to save Dicky from marital unhappiness besides as herself.

She came up with Edmund Ravensdale just as Dicky was telling Caroline about a play he had seen when he was last up in Town. “Fool title – ‘[_The Unknown Love or The Unknown Betrayal’, _]but a good tale – Ah, Isa.”

Isabella laughed. “An absurd title, Dicky! Don’t you think so, Miss Caroline?”

Miss Caroline only giggled.

Edmund Ravensdale said, “Titles can be misleading. What was it about?”

Dicky almost glowered at him. “I was just saying to Caroline, Isa – it was a good yarn, all about a baron turned pirate…”

Before leaving, Edmund Ravensdale booked two dances with Isabella at the coming ball. He also looked meaningfully at her and kissed her hand. She pulled it away sharply at the tingling feel of his lips on her skin. It wasn’t that she found him repellent, and yet there was an odd thrill of alarm.

She had felt a thrill of alarm too with his outlaw cousin, similar to that she sometimes had when standing too near a sheer drop, and yet it was subtly different from her sensation when the respectable cousin’s lips touched her skin. Still, in both cases, she knew it was a warning of danger.

Another good reason for not marrying Edmund Ravensdale was her dread that the inflamed Reynaud Ravensdale (who after all, didn’t have a history of acting reasonably when provoked) might shoot his rival down on his way to or from the wedding.

As Isabella blew out her candle that night, a comforting, even exciting, thought came to her:

If my parents insist on my marrying a man I don’t like, so that I’m forced to play the part of the heroine and run away, then I’ll be damned if I don’t go in for highway robbery myself, dressed as a man. I’ll share the bounty with the poor as best I can. It’s likely enough I shall soon end up at Tyburn. Still, I shall have a real life in the meantime. I must make sure that I get some shooting lessons from Reynaud Ravensdale, though first I must do my best to persuade him to leave.

This put her mind at rest. Despite the excitements of the day, she fell asleep easily.

[_ _]

Growing Conflicts

&&

The next morning, Isabella had no chance to have any more talk with The New Librarian/Temporarily Retired Highwayman/Disgraced Earl.

At breakfast, at the sight of Isabella in her pale yellow morning gown, his jaw dropped and he slopped the dish of tea Mistress Titmarsh handed him. After breakfast, Lady Murray had tasks for Isabella to do with the coming ball. Isabella was only able to escape to the library when her mother went to dictate a letter to Mistress Titmarsh.

Her admirer was rearranging the shelves. At the sight of her, he changed colour and rushed up to kiss her hand. It was impossible for her to see in him the Ravensdale who was the terror of hanging judges and corrupt officials. In this mood, he reminded her of a puppy she used to have, though it would rush up to lick her hand rather than kiss it. As always, as his lips touched her skin, there was that strange warning thrill, somehow different from the one she had with his cousin.

“You are so beautiful today,” he breathed, and she wondered if he really did need glasses after all. There was no accounting for taste. She began again to try to convince him to leave for his own safety. He made dramatic speeches; marched about, worked himself up at the idea of her being forced to marry his cousin, and generally wouldn’t listen to her.

Isabella said, “If you won’t consider your own safety –”

“Pshaw! I would hardly have chosen to go in for highway robbery, if I gave a damn for that –”

“–You might consider my feelings. You insist that you’re here on my account. How shall I feel, if you are caught? I must blame myself.”

She was annoyed that she had to go in for feminine coaxing. Still, it had some effect, as he looked struck. “I never want you to suffer a moment’s uneasiness on my account, Miss Murray. Every moment I spend under your roof is one more happy memory for me. Every chance I have to gaze on your face or hear your voice is bliss to me.”

She thought it was a shame that more people weren’t of the same opinion. Then she thought of palming him off with a portrait. Though he wouldn’t hear her voice that way, most men would consider that a blessing. One hung on her mother’s sitting room wall that she was sure wouldn’t be missed.

“If you refuse to behave reasonably,” she began – though realizing at once how absurd it was to say this to a highwayman – “Then I have a request. Will you teach me to shoot? Please don’t try and dissuade me, as I’ll go on practising without your help.”

He looked shocked, but agreed. She found the idea of shocking a terrible outlaw amusing, and added wistfully, “Perhaps you could give me some lessons in pugilism, too.”

Here he stood firm, “No, Miss Murray, you might do yourself an injury.” He spoke as to a bold and careless child.

She said, “I might have need of them, in case I meet again with that former member of your band.”

He looked so mortified that she was sorry. “I’ve cursed myself for that countless times since,” he muttered, “It must have given you a fine notion of our treatment of women. He duped both Jack and me, never showing us such ugliness before.”

“I envied the way you punched him so many times within seconds.”

This didn’t pacify him; he did some more pacing: “I wish I’d shot him dead on the spot, as I had half a mind. If I see him again, the devil take me if I don’t.” He only looked slightly comforted by the idea.

“Never mind; in case I have the bad luck to run into him again, you must teach me to do as much myself.”

 

“I must remember that trick with the wadding,” Isabella said to her weapons tutor later on.

She was glad that in this role, he gave up quivering, changing colour, gawping, declaring himself, making histrionic speeches and the rest. Instead, he gave her brisk instructions, his manner almost domineering. She much preferred him like this, and could easily see how he came to be a leader among his fellow brigands. She was reminded of how decisive he had been when she had met him as robber chief. Then, his lordly gallantry had been infuriating.

He astonished Isabella by his skill at shooting. He could put a shot through the centre of the target at a distance which she knew from Dicky was impossible for most marksmen.

She applauded while he laughed, flashing those gleaming teeth he had in common with his cousin. Bright hazel eyes glowing, he told her stories about shooting. For instance, of when he and Captain Lightfoot in the Guards had a bet who could shoot the heads off so many bottles in two minutes, with so many pistols, and you should’ve seen Lightfoot’s face fall when Ravensdale outdid him.

Isabella felt two things then. One was a pang at how his life had turned out. She quickly put that feeling aside. The other was envy for such roistering fun.

She could lay a wager with her friend Amelia Allsopp, on who could thread so many needles in two minutes for a glass of cordial. That would require as much skill, but who would be impressed? She sulked in silence about how women were made boring by their upbringing. Then she wondered, as so often before, if she was mad, as nobody else seemed to think like this.

She ought to be grateful that Ravensdale seemed to admire her unladylike ways, for in that he must be in the tiniest of minorities. Still, who wanted to marry an outlaw?

Other young ladies might thrill at the romantic idea; doubtless, some dreamed about it. Surely, though, the other girls’ stories never went further than their wicked outlaw admirer stopping the wedding procession to which she was dragged, fainting, to forced marriage with the suitor foisted on her by her family*.

Being chased about the country by Bow Street Runners and visiting him in his last days in prison with one child inside, one at the breast and one whining at her feet, and then watching him mount the scaffold was the probable end of his tragedy, and only the beginning of his family’s. Then, if the authorities made him to plead guilty – maybe with illicit help from methods about which she had rather not think – all his money would be forfeit to the crown, and his family left destitute.

That was an appalling future.

Yet, equally daunting was the prospect of marriage to Edmund Ravensdale, and being a governess or a companion was as bad.

Becoming a Gentlewoman of the Road had far more allure. She would make damned sure, too, that she gave much of her money away and hid the rest before she was caught.

Isabella went back to concentrating on the shooting lesson. The butterflies danced over the grass and the bees hummed about the wild flowers, and during those hours, time and change seemed impossible.

[_ _]

May 1792

Confrontation

&&

Edmund Ravensdale sprang up the front steps of Ravensdale Court, whistling.

The footman who opened the door for him was the one with the splendid hefty calves with whom he had heard Reynaud and his fellow scapegrace getting a thrashing from the late Earl on his first day at Ravensdale Court years since.

The man handed him an invitation that a messenger had just delivered from Lady Murray. It was an invitation to their first ball at Wisteria House.

Edmund passed some remark about the weather to the man, as became an amiable master. The man smilingly agreed. Edmund sauntered on to his study, where he liked to relax with a glass of wine and a book before getting ready for dinner.

This room, formerly used by the steward, he had recently made peculiarly his own, though formerly, he associated it with painful memories connected with the late Earl.

That was the last thing he thought of now, as a tall, spare, lithe figure in working man’s clothes emerged from behind a screen and strolled towards him, calling him by name.

With the hair dyed darker, and the false moustache, Edmund found himself staring stupidly at his visitor for a moment before he said, “Reynaud,” and looked down automatically at the pistols thrust in the outlaw’s belt. “You entered –”

“Through the window,” Reynaud spoke as if that was a perfectly normal mode of entry to a room. “That spares anybody but you the burden of keeping silent, Edmund.”

Last night, Edmund had endured one of his recurrent dreams about Reynaud, where he heard him talking, felt his presence, and yet on waking could remember nothing of what he had said. Reynaud’s sudden appearance now seemed almost a continuation of that.

“You came before,” Edmund suddenly realised as he stared at Reynaud, “A couple of times, before your father’s death.”

“You happened to be out,” Reynaud stood looking at him, hostility flickering at the back of his eyes, combined with what Edmund realised was suspicion.

Edmund moved over to the sideboard almost automatically. “It seems absurd to offer you a drink in your own house,” his laugh sounded weak in his own ears.

“Don’t trouble. I want to get on with what I must ask you. I don’t like suspecting my own cousin of acting against my interests.”

Edmund turned at that. “What do you suspect, Reynaud?”

“I think you saw more that day than you admitted to,” Reynaud’s breathing came quicker.

Edmund stared at his cousin’s boots. “Where did you put your horse?” he asked, as if this was a matter of greater importance than his cousin’s suspicions of him.

Reynaud swore: “Out of sight. I heard three shots that day, Edmund; you were always equivocal about how many you heard when you joined the servants running up the path. I’ve been lingering about the district because I’ve never lost hope of clearing myself of the murder charge, and I had the idea you might have wearied of keeping silence.” His clear eyes met Edmund’s, who stirred under their resentment.

“But Reynaud, don’t you keep silence yourself about something that happened that day?” Edmund’s tone was measured.

Reynaud scowled. “I was a damned fool that day from start to finish. I’ve cursed myself a million times for standing with my pistol on full cock, but I was only ready to wing Harding. When I stumbled – for whatever reason – I don’t see how, from that angle, that shot could hit him in the trunk. ”

Edmund bit his lip. Suddenly he placed the card he was holding on a nearby side table. “Cousin, it is good to see you again, even in these dismal circumstances. I’ve been debating what to do about the inheritance, and to get funds to you abroad, but now, seeing you –”

Reynaud’s eyes had automatically followed Edmund’s movements as he put down the card. As his gaze fell on it, he stiffened and stopped attending to his words. Breathing quickly, he rushed on, “That’s an invitation from Lady Murray to their coming ball, eh? I hear they’re after you as a match for – for their daughter. You can’t really want the match yourself! She’s too wild by far for a quiet fellow like you. ”

Edmund was too distracted to wonder how Reynaud knew of the Murray’s plans. “Of course, you met her, didn’t you, when your gang held up her carriage? Why, Cousin, she seems to have made a strong impression on you from only one meeting. Surely you must have met any number of ladies that way?” He laughed. “But I don’t suppose many reacted to a robbery as she did. I was at Wisteria House when she arrived back, tousled and defiant. But she is nothing like the former Miss Toothill, Reynaud.”

Reynaud flushed, his eyes sparking. “That hold up was a stupid mistake. Mr Fox’s band never targets women. I hoped everyone knew that.”

Edmund cut in, “Never mind that now, Reynaud. Your career as Mr Fox is madness; you can’t last that way long. What I want…”

Reynaud, not heeding his words, rushed on in a furious whisper, “I’ve thought you saw something of who fired that other shot. – Proving that was the fatal one is the only chance I have of clearing myself. – But why would you help me? You’re set up damned comfortable, taking my place here, and now you’ve got a fine inducement to keep your mouth shut in Miss Isabella Murray and her dowry. – You’re the next heir, and with any luck I’ll be finished off one way or another soon enough. – Damned sneaking cur!”

He bunched his fists, eyes blazing. He looked as if he could hardly keep his hands off Edmund, who, eyes dilated in fury, hissed: “Silence! I won’t hear this!” They glowered at each other, wild-eyed.

Thoughts whirled in Edmund’s mind. “Why do you begrudge me courting Miss Murray? Is it because you can never marry a respectable woman yourself, and take your place here, or –” he suddenly discerned something else in his cousin’s gaze, “Did she make such a great impression on you that you’re jealous?”

Seeing the confirmation in the outcast’s looks, he forced a laugh. “Sadly, I doubt she’s wild enough to relish life as an outlaw’s wife.”

Reynaud made no denial. Instead he sneered, “It didn’t take me long to see that a lively girl like that’s no match for a dull dog like you.”

For some moments, they went on glaring at each other. Reynaud looked on the point of seizing Edmund and shaking him, or even of knocking him down, while Edmund seemed equally eager to retaliate.

Then, suddenly, Reynaud turned away again, muttering, “Once again, Go to the devil!” Then he was at the window.

“Stop –” Edmund muttered between his teeth, but Reynaud was already outside. The sweet early summer breeze wafted through, mixing with Edmund’s bitter thoughts.

 

More of the Robber Chief’s (Must Have)

Infallible Disguise

&&

Incredibly, over the next few days, Isabella and the Disgraced Earl settled into a routine. He tried to hide his passion at the sight of her in a morning gown at breakfast, though stirring his tea with his fork. Mistress Titmarsh puzzled over who it was he resembled, she couldn’t quite think. He would tell her she was the image of Marie Antoinette herself, and she’d sigh, “The poor French Queen.”

Isabella usually called in at the library during the mornings to urge him to leave, while he refused and made passionate speeches. She wondered if she was getting too fond of these.

He told her how he counted each minute of the morning until they met him in the far paddock.

There he would talk sense about pistols and targets. He made her laugh with his stories, often unintentionally. She didn’t think he be happy to learn that in some ways, he reminded her of her brother.

Then, over dinner, the librarian would wilt. He excused himself early from the bottom of the table at Sir Wilfred’s sessions with the port and brandy to go and take ‘air’ on the terrace or the rose garden. “Damned fellow’s scared of a drink!” Sir Wilfred jeered. “Either these librarians are tosspots or they can’t handle liquor at all.”

Isabella usually took pity on her desperate admirer, slipping down to join him in the secrecy of the rose garden. He picked her blooms and she sniffed them and again urged him to flee abroad, while he cursed his fate. He insisted he was still searching for information to help him clear his name. This seemed hopeless to her, and now he seemed less optimistic himself.

Once, he said, “I never saw the sense in poetry before I met you, not even with –”

“Miss Georgiana?” Isabella had once seen the former Miss Georgiana Toothill at some public occasion with her now husband Mr Sweetlove, who’d had some business connection with Sir Wilfred before Sir Wilfred’s semi-retirement into the gentry. Isabella had thought her pretty but insipid. Her appearance seemed unsuited for the heroine of such a drama, with her simpering face. Isabella wasn’t sure that she didn’t lighten her hair, darken her eyebrows and rouge her cheeks. This memory gave her an even lower opinion of Ravensdale’s taste then his obsession over herself.

His eyes darkened. “I can guess what you have heard.”

“I know how judgmental people are,” Isabella said ambiguously.

“Do you think me a murderer, Miss Isabella?”

“You don’t seem like one to me.” She thought about the gun battle with the soldiers. He didn’t appear to count that; still, he needed encouragement, after all. Sometimes he seemed on the point of telling her the story of the fatal duel – or rather, of the fatal shooting before the duel – but something always interrupted them.

Now, he went in for some fervent hand kissing. “If you believe in me, then that’s a great comfort to me – Got you, you rascal!” He squashed between his fingers a mosquito, which had landed on her neck.

“Thank you, Sir,” she laughed.

 

Dicky would be even less pleased than Ravensdale to know that Isabella thought in some ways they were alike. He said one morning as they left the breakfast room, “Isa, do you think that librarian fellow’s quite the thing? The way he ogles up the table at you with his eyes popping behind those eyeglasses makes me think he’s a bit funny in the head. D’you think he’s got the nerve to have an infatuation about you? I asked our father about him, but he said he came with excellent references. Still, so did that other toper.”

“He’s only nervous.” Isabella wondered how her admirer had forged those references; perhaps in the future, she might need to do the same thing.

Selina said that sometimes at night she heard the librarian groaning and pacing up the passage. “At first I thought it must be a ghost, so I took my candle and went out to confront whatever dread being it might be. Imagine my astonishment to come upon the librarian, clad in a rich robe. He said he suffers from sleeplessness.”

“So will you, if he makes clamour enough to disturb you down the corridor every night,” said Dicky. “I told you he was addle-pated, Isa.”

[_ _]

April 1789

Back in time: More of the Conniving Cousin’s Story

&&

Seeing Miss Georgiana Toothill, Edmund tries not to stare. She isn’t just ‘monstrous pretty’ – she’s beautiful. He feels like breaking all the rules of civility and rushing up to tell her so. That’s absurd, when she can’t fail to know it. Of course, she has the sense to pretend she doesn’t.

As she approaches him, her blonde, rose tinted, light footed voluptuousness, set off by her low apricot dress revealing the tops of her round breasts, makes Edmund shift uncomfortably, and he knows himself to be cold as far as women are concerned.

He sees no special depths in those clear blue eyes. She may look like an angel – a curvaceous one – but a warning to all suitors lurks across the room in the stout, florid shape of her mother, tittering on the chaise longue by the great fireplace. There is another in her lounging father. He has as much personality as an elegant piece of furniture.

That aging roué Lord Ravensdale can’t keep his eyes away from Miss Georgiana, try though he might. She turns sweet smiles on Edmund and Lord Ravensdale, while Marie chats to her of local drives. After all, it makes sense to encourage all admirers, and Edmund is the Earl’s nephew.

Then the young Lord Ravensdale comes in, late – in line with his belief that there isn’t much to be expected of anyone called Toothill – and Miss Georgiana redirects her attention. Her Mama will have told her to try and win the Earl of Ravensdale’s heir.

She doesn’t need to try. Her conquest of Reynaud – who fancies himself a man of the world, particularly about women – is immediate and complete.

His jaw drops; his eyes pop. Edmund supposes that he’s falling in love at first sight, and for the first time that Edmund’s every heard of. His swaggering arrogance disappears. Edmund might have felt sorry for him, if he could feel anything for him now but bitter anger.

Reynaud stammers as he’s introduced to Miss Georgiana; she makes some joke, and his laughter comes out on a strange note. As he jumps to offer her his arm when dinner is announced, he treads on her foot. She lets out a squeak.

“I beg pardon, Ma’am – I hurt you, what a fool – it’s this damned leg – beg pardon again, language – hurt it in a stupid riding accident – I do apologize for my clumsiness –” he looks as if he yearns to offer to rub her toes, though such a familiarity would never do.

She dimples, turning wide light blue eyes on him: “Pray don’t apologize, Your Lordship, it scarce hurt at all. I do hope your leg heals well? We heard of your riding accident. It made me shudder. Your riding and hunting escapades are the talk of the neighbourhood.”

“Did it, by Gad? But it’s nothing. I am carried away in the excitement of the chase, you know. Are you sure I didn’t hurt your foot?”

She assures him he didn’t. “Then you won’t be dancing at the Lennox’s coming ball, My Lord? A pity.”

“Of course I’ll dance, that’s days away! I hope you’ll pay me the honour of one with you?”

“I think I may be free for one or two, Your Lordship.”

Unable to keep his eyes off her, he nearly runs up against his father, who has paused for something. The Earl only clicks his tongue. He wants to marry Reynaud off to ensure of the succession before he drinks himself to death. Seeing the effect this Toothill chit has on his heir, he’s pleased enough to be on his best behaviour. He’s heard she has a good enough pedigree and a fine dowry.

In the great echoing dining hall, with the heads of the slaughtered stags of yesteryear staring down on them, Miss Georgiana is lovely under the lighting of the chandeliers. The glow brings out the golden gleams in her piled up hair, and the pearly tones to her skin.

Edmund finds the looks of goggling, helpless admiration Reynaud turns on Miss Georgiana so absurd that it checks him from staring himself. Captain Harding grins cynically into his plate, but spares a real smile now and then for Marie. Edmund watches him coolly, while Harding sneers under the clipped black moustache, which Edmund thinks completes his resemblance to a stage villain. The Earl is careful to say nothing offensive. This means he says almost nothing.

For all Miss Georgiana’s smiling encouragement, Reynaud’s misfortunes continue. Whether it is his nervousness or a malign fate that make him clumsy, everything conspires to make a fool of him now, when he is desperate to make a good impression.

He puts his elbow in the sauce and he drops a glass of wine. The footman starts forward to mop up the mess, trips on something, and plunges headlong into the tipsy cake. The butler’s eyes flash, Lord Ravensdale curses – mildly for him – and Marie says it isn’t the man’s fault. Miss Georgiana can’t hide her giggles, while Reynaud bites his lip.

Later that evening, when the guests have gone, Reynaud stands beating his fist against the massive fireplace in the blue drawing room, swearing as fluently as does his father.

Marie, passing by, comes in to take his arm and pat it. “Don’t fret, Reynaud. Miss Georgiana likes you, I can tell.”

“You think she does?” His yearning eyes hang on her female understanding.

She has to laugh. “I’m sure of it. I hope I can be bridesmaid?”

&6. Forces of Justice&

May 1792

The Forces of Justice Close In

&&

“I&f this ain’t a Bow &Street Runner or some other thief taker, then I’m a Dutchwoman,” Kate told Suki, as they watched the short, stocky, dapper man came up to the Inn door. “Good morning, Sir. What will you have?”

They knew he was staying with their rivals in The King’s Justice up the road. The landlord there prided himself on running a respectable house. The tenants of The Huntsman knew he was jealous, because he didn’t have such open-handed customers. The man was even applying for a licence to have his premises made into a gaol, possible future lodgings for some of the regulars at The Huntsman.

The customer glanced about with hard pale grey eyes, fixing them on the baby, who let out a wail. Kate picked him up. “Serve the gentleman, Suki.”

“A tankard of porter. A fine infant; is he your only one?”

“Seeing as I was only married fifteen months come Saturday, yes, Sir.”

The man wetted his moustache. “Has Reynaud Ravensdale been in lately?”

“Ravensdale?” Kate laughed. “You can’t mean that Lord? The gentleman has high notions of our patrons, Suki. Yes, Sir, him and the Prince of Wales, they came in together.”

The man’s eyes hardened still more. “Exercise your wit, Mistress, if you will, but Lord or no, now he’s an outlaw, and lower than the merest farm hand, a wanted murderer with a price on his head for highway robbery. I hear tell he’s been seen hereabouts.”

“By who?” Kate looked outraged. “That old harridan over the way, I’ll be bound. There’s so many sightings of that Ravensdale in different places, he must have a better horse than Turpin’s Black Bess to get about the way he does, is all I can say. What did they say he looked like?”

The man took some swallows of his drink before he pulled out a printed bill. “Here’s the official description, and not so helpful, with him having medium colouring, and no distinguishing features, save it does say, ‘noticeable eyes’ whatever that means. Tall, it says, and spare though strongly made, and he has a fair trick in disguise. When he stayed with you, I think his hair was dyed and unpowdered and it was described as brown.”

“Could be anyone,” Kate gazed at him with her jaw slightly dropped. “Does he have the trick of adding pock marks to his face, makes him look fair ugly? Remember, Suki? There was a man stayed who looked like that, brown hair and so on, said he was going Reading way.”

“Or maybe,” Suki looked struck, “It could’ve been that stout man that would never take off his coat? He could have stuffed in pillows underneath his waistcoat. I remember thinking his thinnish face went ill with his body. I mind he rode a dun coloured horse and went up north.”

The man snorted: “Do you take me for a fool? Have a care, mistress; the magistrates don’t like to renew licences for those who harbour known highway robbers. Where’s the master of the house?”

“This is a respectable house, and I’ll give my mind to anyone who says different,” Kate said angrily, while Suki tossed the bright blue ribbons Flashy Jack had given her in defiance. “The master’s away on business; he ain’t due back till tomorrow at the earliest.” Kate looked squarely into those judgmental eyes, which seemed to know the purpose of that trip.

The baby let out a furious wail.

“Now see what you’ve done! They understand more than you think, and he don’t like you coming in here making out we ain’t fit to run a decent establishment.”

Suki clicked her tongue. The man actually looked abashed, before draining his porter with a business-like slurp. “I play my part in keeping the world safe from marauding thieves and murderers like His Lordship Reynaud Ravensdale, and if you’ve nought to hide you won’t mind my questions, nor your baby neither.”

They all turned about at a crash. The one time librarian at Wisteria House tottered into the yard to collapse on the bench. The thief taker nodded to the women. “I may call in again.”

“Do, Sir, and we promise to keep a sharp look out for His Lordship.”

The man paused in the door, saying to Suki, “Look out for his fellow robber John Gilroy too: tall, fair hair, quite the swell and a ladies’ man. He’d have an eye for a pretty wench like you, miss; you and half the girls in London if I hear right.”

He must have been disappointed at her indifferent shrug.

Kate snorted: “Be serious, Sir! As if we don’t get young men in here all the time, making up to her, and half of them called Jack or John.”

 

Isabella shot through the centre of the target at a respectable distance, and turned dancing eyes on her tutor. His own kindled and she quickly distracted him.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you: surely Gentlemen of the Road aren’t generally such fine shots as you?”

He laughed. “Not most of ‘em. I’ve heard many a tale of highwaymen missing their target by yards and shooting their fellows, while one looby shot himself through the foot as he aimed for the post-boy, and well served too. It’s a mean thing to fire on a man who is only trying to make a living.”

“How about soldiers?” she wondered, watching as he hammered the shot and wadding home, remembering the first time that she had seen him, in that shoot-out with the redcoats.

He sobered. “I always try and aim away from the trunk, though that’s not so easy with a moving target and in a hurry… Speaking of loobies, it’s that idiot again!”

She followed his gaze, and saw a long, doleful face topped by an ornamental wig even sillier than Ravensdale’s, poking about a tree.

To her horror, this time Ravensdale did aim for the trunk – of the tree. He roared with laughter as bark shot up.

He went over, still laughing. “You damned fool; did you think yourself well hidden? You might as well have painted a target on your afflicted forehead.”

Longface spluttered, “You near shot my bonce off!”

“It would make little difference to your intellect, and might improve the look of your wig. Why do you interrupt Miss Isabella’s firearms lesson, poking it round the shrubs?”

“Surely Sir Whatsit ain’t picked you particular for that?” gawped Longface.

“Be off with you, looby, I’m busy.”

Longface was startled to see how different Ravensdale was now, with his devil-may-care high spirits buoyed up with true happiness. For all his outrage over the shot, he was sorry to spoil his chief’s fool’s paradise. “It’s them Runners closing in. They’re in Maidenhead. Now some man’s been snooping about at The Huntsman.”

“Then you’d best get yourself a better disguise,” Ravensdale twitched the wig down over Longface’s eyes, laughing again.

Though Isabella tried not to overhear, her ears picked up his words. She wondered why he kept on this ineffectual companion he despised.

“It’s too risky, your being here,” mourned Longface. “The family mayn’t know you, but ain’t your cousin a regular visitor?”

Ravensdale said smugly, “He doesn’t know me at all.”

Longface shook his head. “It’s too risky. And all due to this mania about this girl! Before, you always had far more sense than Flashy over skirts.”

Now Ravensdale looked annoyed: “Stop whining, and get a better wig at least; that one looks like a heap of straw balanced on your head.”

“And yours looks like the centrepiece of that grand dinner table.”

Ravensdale looked even more displeased. Longface went on, “You ain’t going to shoot your cousin, are you?”

“Never, as I promised Miss Murray I wouldn’t,” Ravensdale said airily, “Even though her parents do aim to push her into a match with him.” He gazed back at his goddess. She, flushed and bright-eyed, pistol in hand, bonnet hanging by its ribbons, with her heavy dark hair uncoiling to fall down her back, looked alarmingly wild to Longface. Ravensdale murmured, “In such a case I must rescue her.”

“Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” Longface moaned. His chief took a swipe at his head, which Longface ducked. “When I want your banalities, I’ll ask for ‘em. You were probably followed, too.”

Longface glanced about guiltily. “Never! I took care and doubled back twice. This is going to end badly for you.”

Ravensdale laughed. “Of course it is. Things are going to end badly for us both, in our blood on the road or with a stretched neck and wet breeches on the gallows, as Mistress Kit would say. Haven’t I told you a thousand times to get out while you still can?”

He strode away. Longface sighed. The young idiot’s hefty goddess trod heedless on the meadow flowers while the butterflies sparkled about her head, joying in the afternoon sunshine. She had eyes only for the target, and as her acolyte came up to her with such a look of adoration as would stop time, she didn’t see it, and time wore on after all.

 

Isabella and the disguised highwayman’s routine was broken by Edmund Ravensdale’s invitation for the Murrays to spend a half day at Ravensdale Court, stopping overnight. Lady Murray was usually bad at answering letters. In the week before the visit, she had Mistress Titmarsh write to dozens of people just to mention it.

She had been nagging Isabella about her posture, her tone, her curtsy, her conversation and everything else since Edmund Ravensdale first showed some interest in her. Now she worried Isabella so much that Isabella thought that any sort of life would be better than being in the same house with her mother after refusing an offer from him.

Reynaud Ravensdale was so histrionic in the rose garden the evening before the visit, that Isabella dreaded that he might forget his promise, follow them on horseback to Ravensdale Court and shoot his cousin dead as he came down the steps to greet his visitors.

He had been histrionic enough about Edmund Ravensdale’s calling in unexpectedly, staying for tea, and asking Isabella to sing ‘Where’er you walk’. Then Ravensdale had cursed his cousin nearly as much as his unhappy fate. Now he excelled himself.

He broke off to inform her, “You know how I’ve been asking around to see if anyone knows anything that might help me clear myself of that cursed charge? Well, I called in on him a few days back, in a different disguise, of course. We fell to quarrelling.”

“Lord, what a risk to take, if you don’t trust him! Now he knows you’re staying here, and –”

“I didn’t tell you, because I knew you’d think that, but he doesn’t know me in this disguise,” the outlaw said dismissively, “And he never condescends to look that far down the table. I don’t think he’d be cur enough to turn informer. But I’ve always thought he was holding something back. Now I’m sure of it. He pointed out I was too, but my reasons are different. I’ll tell you as much as I can of what happened that day, but first, tell me you won’t give in and take him. He gloated about how he can ask for you, while I can’t.” He snorted in rage.

“You must calm down and stop tormenting yourself like this,” Isabella urged as he paced about. “There is no need to be jealous of your cousin, I don’t even like him.”

He turned flashing eyes on her. “That means nothing. You may be sure if a woman likes a man then he stands no chance of winning her love at all.”

“Who told you that? Some cynical rake who thinks he knows all about how women feel?”

He stood glowering at the sundial, his arms folded across his chest. “I thought it out myself.”

She had an absurd vision of his doing that in between holding up coaches. “It’s nonsense, but anyway, I can’t take to your cousin.”

He gave her another tormented look. Isabella found this interview so unpleasant, that she almost wished that she could go and hide behind a bush somewhere, as he had when he watched her, or his toady Longface.

He groaned aloud and a blackbird, singing on a nearby bush, paused to look at him before warbling again. “But you haven’t said that you could take to me, either.”

She certainly couldn’t take to him in this mood. “Perhaps I could in time.” That was all a lady was expected to admit, anyway. The moment she had said that, she felt sorry for her duplicity. His eyes lit up with such joy that she flinched.

“But fate won’t allow us that time,” she added hastily. “As ever, I urge you to think of your safety. It must be only a while before your cousin knows you.” Another possible future came to her as the writer of romances. She had come by enough material in the last week to fill a dozen.

“Your parents might insist on your marriage and you may fear to entrust yourself to me.”

“Entrust myself to you, how?” she asked warily.

He carried on dreadfully at that: “You cut me to the quick with your evasions!” He rushed about, and a malicious deep red rose bush caught his sleeve in its thorns, and pulled him up short. While not cutting him to the quick it ripped his clothing. “Damn ye!”

As he struggled to release himself, Isabella came over laughing to help him. “Calm yourself, Sir; you have my word that I shall never marry your cousin, if that’s any comfort to you. Let me detangle you from these thorns at least.”

Standing so close to him, it came to her again how most women would say he was very handsome, if you could see past the ridiculous wig. In their private talks, he put his glasses in his pocket, and she wondered at the regularity of his features. It was as if someone had drawn them with mathematical precision.

He smiled reluctantly. “That’s some comfort to me. If only I could hear you promise that you would marry nobody but me, then I must run mad with joy, but that’s selfishness in me. Things being as they are, you would have to be in a desperate way to think of it.”

“It is ironic – turn about, Sir, this is like a dance – when you are a true aristocrat, while my own family are from trade. – Hold up your arm.”

“I must have fallen in love with you, were you a scullery maid.”

“There, Sir, you are free,” she smiled at him.

“No, I’m enslaved. You mentioned dances. Will you honour me with one at this coming ball? Sir Wilfred wishes us hirelings to come along. He’ll be amazed at my boldness in daring to ask you.”

“Which one would you like and I’ll mark my card? My father knows how I like to dance with a man taller than me.”

“The last,” he saw that she was preparing to leave, and added, “My cousin may urge his suit; your promise, lovely Miss Isabella Murray.”

“You already have it.”

Sighing, he kissed her hand for a long time, murmuring romantic things. Until now, during these talks, she had always thought what a relief it would be when he left. Now she wondered if instead, she might miss her daily dose of worship. Besides, the circumstances of his leaving didn’t bear thinking about.

“Now I’ll tell you what happened that cursed day,” he told her. Then, again, they were interrupted. They heard Mistress Titmarsh’s voice calling for Isabella.

[_ _]

More of The Conniving Cousin

&&

Edmund Ravensdale sprang down the steps to meet his visitors. Like his Cousin Reynaud, he was lean and fast moving, though not as muscular, perhaps because he didn’t have to do so much fighting. Today, heir to an earldom or not, he looked handsome enough to please almost any girl but Isabella. Even she noticed his glow.

As Lady Murray later wrote to everyone she knew, he was every inch the charming young gentleman making his guests welcome. His eyes widened at the sight of Isabella in her new salmon pink gown. Seeing how her mother’s two hours of poking and pulling at her had paid off, Isabella was careful to answer his welcome in a loud, vulgar tone.

His disgraced Cousin Reynaud didn’t appear, pistol in hand, dramatic speech on his lips, to shoot Edmund Ravensdale down as he led them up the steps. Instead, Marie Ravensdale came out to greet them warmly. She was so charming that Isabella was sorry for the loutish act she planned.

Isabella noted again how Marie had the hazel eyes and a more delicate version of the regular Grecian features of her male relatives, and thick, waving bright brown hair like her older brother. Isabella mused that she had only caught a glimpse of her besotted admirer’s chestnut hair when his wig slipped.

It was a shame that the wild young heir hadn’t fallen in love with his cousin, rather than Miss Georgiana. Perhaps she looked too like him. If only he had wanted to marry her instead, it might have saved everyone a lot of misery.

Footmen took the guests’ luggage and led them to their oversized rooms. Isabella’s had a view of a maze. She gazed down at it, imagining the cousins as children rushing about in it, safe there from the furious outbursts of Reynaud’s father.

When the bell rang for tea, they were taken to a garden room where the great windows gave a view of the ornamental lake. The tea pleased Dicky almost as much as the chance to view the stables. There were cherries, china tea, a selection of cakes, and other luxuries.

Isabella chewed heartily and talked in a loud, silly voice. She was pleased to see Edmund Ravensdale and his sister blink. Lady Murray scowled at her and then delighted her by asking the price of all sorts of antique features. Edmund Ravensdale smiled and said he would see if Withers the butler knew. Dicky and Sir Wilfred ate instead of talking.

After tea, Edmund Ravensdale took them for a short walk about part of the grounds. Lady Murray soon leaned wearily on Sir Wilfred’s arm. Isabella marched along, whistling. Edmund Ravensdale walked by her side, still smiling. Her hackles rose. Her parents must have increased her dowry for him still to do that. The house and grounds were so magnificent, that she couldn’t help thinking how nice it would be to live here.

As they passed a sheltered pool of carp, the others stopped to watch them. Isabella sped up a manmade hill to a folly. Edmund Ravensdale caught up with her, offering his arm.

“No, thank you, Sir, I’m as strong as a horse, with an appetite to match. What a delightful view, Mr R! Did you know my grandfather had a view of his own workshop? I believe he used to train a telescope on it to make sure none of his workers were lazing,” she guffawed. To her dismay, he laughed too.

“You’re very like your cousin,” she added. She thought that any difference between them was all in the outlaw’s favour. Apart from wider set eyes, his lips were firm rather than pressed tight like Edmund Ravensdale’s, and his skin had a healthier glow. Perhaps that last feature came from being out in the open air so much, waiting for rich merchants by deserted heaths and thickets.

Edmund Ravensdale finally did look dismayed. “I didn’t realize that during your distressing encounter with him, he had his features uncovered enough for you to make them out.” He had never mentioned that meeting before, but she knew he must have heard of it.

“Part of your cousin’s face was visible then, but I’ve seen him, anyway.” She realized that speech was unguarded; she must be careful.

“People always said we were more like brothers than cousins,” he sighed.

She didn’t believe his sigh. “And still are?”

“Ah, Miss Murray, when you have a relative an outlaw, you come into the way of thinking of him as already dead.”

“You could help him, surely?”

His eyes, always guarded, became more so as Isabella’s met them. “I tried more than once, and he told me to go to the Devil.” Isabella could picture it. He went on flatly, “It was typically reckless of him to return from abroad. He came to watch his father’s funeral, with the soldiers on his heels, and only just escaped. It is only a matter of time before they or some thief takers close in on him. Then we know what must follow.”

She spoke softly, “Many call our legal punishments ‘The Bloody Code’* and they are barbaric enough. Forgive my interference, Sir, but I must urge you to use your influence both to help your cousin and for the reform of the law.”

He straightened, as if someone had pulled him up by strings. “Any charge from you is a pleasure to me, Miss Murray.” He looked anything but pleased.

“Sir, you must act on this, and whether or not I urge you is irrelevant.”

He said coldly, “You seem very concerned with my cousin’s fate. I’d no idea that your meeting with his band had left you taking the same romantic view of his activities as so many other young ladies.”

For the first time in years, Isabella felt the colour flood her cheeks; she was amazed. “No, Sir. But I detest the savagery of the penal code.”

“Quite rightly,” Edmund Ravensdale bent to kiss her hand, as Reynaud Ravensdale had done himself so often. This time her inward tingle at the touch of his lips on her skin felt entirely different from the stir in her insides at the caress of the disgraced lord turned bandit’s. She wasn’t sure if it was resentment at Edmund Ravensdale’s attitude, but she pulled away her hand quickly.

He seemed not to notice as he went on smoothly, “But let’s not dwell on this distressing subject any longer –” he broke off as Dicky climbed up the hill to join them. “Begging your pardon, Sir, but about the fishing…”

 

When they went to dress for dinner, Lady Murray appeared in Isabella’s bedroom, huffing. “Isabella, you’re doing it on purpose; Stop it at once!”

Isabella went on smoothing out her gown. “Beg pardon, Mama?”

Lady Murray glared. “Don’t act the innocent with me, Miss. When did we bring you up to act so unwomanly, guffawing and whistling? I’m warning you, my girl, act the lady. If you throw away this chance of a lifetime, I’m done with you.”

Isabella’s reply was cut off as a maid with the hot water scratched at the door. With a warning look, Lady Murray left.

 

At dinner, Isabella talked across the table, ate heartily, used slang and guffawed. Lady Murray’s bosom heaved. Now Sir Wilfred noticed and scowled. Edmund Ravensdale watched her keenly, and she hoped he was disgusted. His sister seemed dismayed, and even Dicky looked startled.

Isabella whistled audibly as she slouched after Marie Ravensdale to the drawing room, wondering if steam would burst from her mother’s ears. She almost felt sorry for her parents. Still, they left her no choice. She realized that life would be intolerable for her at home after this.

Brooding on this, she made no attempt to join in the talk, and whenever Marie Ravensdale tried to draw her in, said, “What?” or “Lawks, I don’t know!” Her hostess looked puzzled; Isabella supposed that she was wondering how she had never noticed this loutishness before.

When the gentlemen joined them, Edmund Ravensdale asked her to accompany him on the piano. She got up gracelessly. “So long as you don’t want me to sing, Mr R! I don’t, you know. I hate singing.” She trod on the hem of her dress, and let out a hoot. “Lord, there goes my new silk, and it set us back a pretty penny!”

Lady Murray’ hands twitched, as if she would like to box Isabella’s ears, while Sir Wilfred looked as near thoughtful as he could. Edmund Ravensdale smiled on her so warmly that she was astonished. “Those wretched floorboards, I must have something done about them.”

And so, the visit wore on, a time of supposed pleasure with everyone’s pleasure spoiled.

 

Meanwhile, back at Wisteria House, their outlaw librarian paced, and sighed, and disarranged his wig attempting to tear his hair. He went to the rose garden in the evening, where he had so often paid court to his beloved, while she looked on him as kindly and as unmoved as a goddess.

He groaned that he would shoot the damned wretch at the altar, if it came to that, it was no more than he deserved. Then, possibly remembering his promise to Isabella, he went and beat his fist upon a tree instead. A squirrel ran down the trunk and tried to bite him and he turned away to write some more bad verse.

 

April 1789

Back in time: More of the Conniving Cousin’s Story

&&

Edmund Ravensdale tells himself that Miss Georgiana Toothill can’t possibly be as lovely as he remembers her. When he sees her at the Lennox’s ball, she’ll look far less desirable. Women usually do to him on a second meeting. Surely then, this foolish longing will melt into indifference and he’ll regain his peace of mind.

Meanwhile, Reynaud probably suffers more. He’s still at home, recovering from that latest hunting accident. Edmund is vaguely aware that he goes in for a lot of solitary walking in the gardens – though that might be exercising his leg for the ball – and he asks Marie to play sad songs after dinner.

Still, Edmund scarcely takes in Reynaud’s lovesick symptoms. He’s still too furious with him for refusing to see how unworthy his friend Harding is to be a suitor of Marie’s, and implying that Edmund is a dull dog himself, besides dismissing his shooting prowess. He doubts if the thoughtless young Viscount would notice his cousin’s anger, even if he could think of anything but Miss Georgiana.

Edmund’s hidden fury torments him like an abscess, throbbing beneath the surface of his composure. He begins to feel that he hates Reynaud.

As the family party enters the ballroom, Reynaud’s intake of breath warns Edmund just how lovely Miss Georgiana looks. Then he sees her, talking to a couple of sharp-eyed dowagers, every inch the happy, guileless maiden.

She looks still lovelier in her white ball gown, her mother’s pearls glowing against her delicate flesh, than Edmund thought possible. A pang of foolish yearning shoots through him. He takes a mean pleasure in Reynaud’s anguish of desire, which makes his own seem less.

Miss Georgiana’s other admirers have her for the first dances. One is Samuel Sweetlove, the fittingly named son of an upstart sugar merchant. He is nice looking, though not extravagantly handsome like Reynaud. He has had a gentleman’s education and is a fair rider and shot.

He and Reynaud have always been friendly, but now, as Reynaud watches his rival enjoy Miss Georgiana’s smiles, he looks as if he wants to shoot him on the spot. Reynaud’s own opening dance is with Marie. It’s her first ball. He is meant to be encouraging his young cousin, but is too distracted to say much. Marie has to smile.

When Captain Harding, up again at Ravensdale Court for the ball, claims her for the third dance, he tells Reynaud one of his best jokes. Reynaud merely grunts, glancing round for Miss Georgiana.

Harding jeers, “What ails you, Ravensdale? I’ve never known you so tongue- tied.”

Reynaud mutters something and rushes off. Soon afterwards, he is in a state of bliss, leading Miss Georgiana through a country dance.

Marie, seeing him, smiles again. Captain Harding follows her gaze. “That rascal’s certainly in love. I always say one must aim for many experiences, so I ought to try it myself, and now I think falling in love wouldn’t be as difficult as I once believed. That is, if a certain young lady was to give me encouragement. What do you say, Miss Ravensdale? Do you bid me fall in love?” He smiles down at her.

Murmured though these words are, Edmund, next in line in the dance with a normally talkative partner, hears them through one of the sudden hushes that can fall on a room full of dance music and talk.

He hears Marie’s light reply, “I think you too much the cynic, Sir.”

Edmund isn’t sure what Harding’s response is, as the music and voices start up again. Anyway, he sees Marie blush. Then he realizes he has made some wrong move in his set. Apologizing, he returns to dancing with a mechanical smile on his face.

Since seeing Miss Georgiana again, his nerves feel as if they protrude from his body by inches, or that his skin has become very thin.

He’s booked a dance with her, as she had one to spare for him. He doesn’t know if this interlude of closeness will make things better or worse.

He’s noted already what a skilful dancer Miss Georgiana is. There’s no need for him to be entertaining, either, as she makes cheerful remarks at the right intervals as she moves gracefully about.

“Everyone says, Sir, how like you and Lord Ravensdale are, though your characters are so different.”

“In what way do we differ?” Since his quarrel with Reynaud, Edmund is even more inclined to see this as an invidious comparison. He takes a morbid interest in seeing how she will reply.

She smiles at him warmly. As his heart jumps stupidly, she says, “It’s clear you’re the more serious minded, Sir. At Oxford you must read a good deal of great books?”

“Not nearly so much as I ought.”

This has anyway been true this last week. Edmund has spent over an hour each day on target practice in a distant paddock, wasting shot and startling birds and cattle.

Sometimes a forelock tugging farm worker has passed by. Edmund then envies these men those empty heads, which surely have never buzzed with conflict, of passion unreturned – and he’s not just thinking of Miss Georgiana.

His shooting hasn’t improved as much as he hoped. He also wonders how Reynaud can find it so fascinating. No doubt, Reynaud would say the same about studying the classics.

Edmund adds now, “Reading is only one interest among many with me.”

“Now, I’m a great reader; I am so glad of the circulating libraries. Have you read, ‘The Black Knight of Kingston Abbey’ or ‘The Curse of the Counts of Smithies Hall’, Sir?”

He has to smile. “I can’t say I have. I take it you’re a romantic?”

“I confess I am. Lord Ravensdale says now he realises in some ways he’s one, too, though he never knew it before.”

While Edmund tries not to stiffen at the half declaration this speech implies, Miss Georgiana pulls an innocent face as if she has missed the implied meaning.

Although Edmund suspects that Reynaud would admit to being a frog if it pleased Miss Georgiana, this particular one is no more than the truth. In a way, he is a romantic. For instance, tales of dark passion, especially the ones about his distant ancestors, which the old nurse knows, have always stirred Reynaud. He likes stories of outlaws and desperate scorned lovers maddened by a longing for revenge.

It seems not to have struck him how his father gives him a daily example of where such an attitude can lead; one generation seemingly learns nothing from the mistakes of the last; and so, Edmund supposes, things will go on until the end of the world.

Edmund hopes to prolong this sweet torment by taking Miss Georgiana in to supper. Somehow, he loses her in the confusion of moving bodies as the dance breaks up and the guests make for the great open doors. It is Reynaud who takes her in for the refreshments.

Edmund tells himself, looking on Miss Georgiana’s unblemished back as she walks ahead on Reynaud arm, all light chatter now, so that he realizes how lacking in animation she was when she danced with him: ‘She’s just a light minded coquette; I can’t be such a fool.

He tells himself this repeatedly.

It makes no difference.

The evening wears on. Reynaud dances twice more with Miss Georgiana, one of her other partners having missed the ball. Edmund dances with Marie. She is flushed and animated, and Edmund detests the smug looks Captain Harding turns on her from across the room. He hates his moustache, his hollow cheeks, his Guard’s swagger, his drawl; he hates, in fact, everything about him.

Meanwhile, he catches a glimpse of Samuel Sweetlove glaring at Reynaud. Now he’s the one who longs to shoot his rival. Edmund also notices a hefty girl treading hard, and intentionally, on some other girl’s foot. It’s probably been a typical ball, with masked passions boiling like a kettle. Edmund’s never noticed these hidden rivalries before.

He wonders if Marie will see some change in him, but she shows no sign. He finds this strange. She can usually tell when he is sad, as when their pet parrot, speechless all its days, flapped violently, shrilled: “They close in on me!” and dropped from its perch.

&7. Heroics&

June 1789

Heroics from the Outlaw Earl

&&

“W&hat the Devil do you &mean by coming to me with such tales?” Sir Wilfred raged at Morpeth, his face suffused. “The timid librarian that Reynaud Ravensdale everyone says has turned highwayman? I never heard such lunacy! Do you take me for a complete fool?”

Morpeth was silent on this last point. “I was startled at the effrontery myself, Sir. But he’s accomplished at disguises. He’s taken in many a one with them. You may have heard how he took all the brandy in that magistrate’s cellar in the guise of an exciseman. Then, that other time, he surprised a certain assize judge as he was about something so outrageous that –”

“Stop rambling! The wretched fellow came with excellent references. It’s ten to one we can have this matter cleared up in minutes.” Sir Wilfred moved towards the bell pull.

Morpeth restrained him, thinking again how well the vulgar fellow suited his new role as a country squire. “We must act cautiously, Sir. He will go armed at all times. Remember, he’s a dangerous killer, and members of his band probably lurk nearby. I followed one of them from town, and watched him loitering about the park boundaries. Another piece of information led me to put two-and-two together.”

Sir Wilfred choked out, “We’ll get to the bottom of this, by God. Do the ruffians plan to rob us and murder us in our beds? I’ll put a bullet through the conniving scoundrel myself –”

“Sir, please have a care. As I say, he’s an excellent shot and highly dangerous. We must act with care; the magistrates –”

“I’m a damned magistrate myself. Of course, I’ll take on the ruffian who held up my daughter. I’m going to the gun room. Coming?”

Morpeth saw that Sir Wilfred was beyond his control. “Very well. If we find out where he is, we can try and surprise him.”

 

Isabella, coming through the far paddock gate, smiled as her admirer rushed up to meet her, looking as if he would have his most dramatic outburst yet.

She said, “I couldn’t get away before. You should have seen how I acted at Ravensdale Court, but my parents scold me so little it puzzles me–” she broke off, noticing the horse, saddled and tethered to a sapling. “Why! You’re leaving?”

He caught her hands. “They close in on me, and I must leave. A thief taker is with your father even now. Tell me that you haven’t come back from your stay with my cousin more favourably disposed to him?”

“A thief taker? My God, you must get away now!”

“Give me an answer to my question first.”

“No, I don’t like him any better – you must go.”

He went in for a lot of hand kissing, and even in her panic, she noted the warm feeling that stirred in her at the touch of this Ravensdale.

“Thank you for the shooting lessons.” She realized that that was incongruous, but still, she was grateful.

He stared incredulously. “But I would do near anything for you. These times spent with you have been bliss for me. Remember your promise to leave word at The Huntsman, and mind to mention The Pedlar’s Cure as a code, and I’ll come at once. If you can’t leave the house, use the youngest footman as messenger, for – why, here he comes.”

The youngest footman rushed through the gate and up to them, gasping, “Sir, they’re on to you! They search the grounds armed –”

“I know it, boy. Get you gone.”

“I knew you were too good to be a librarian,” the youth said admiringly. “Can I come with you?”

“Don’t think of it; keep a clear conscience. I would speak with Miss Isabella alone.”

The boy went to the gate, but loitered there.

The robber said, “Your promise that you’ll leave word at The Huntsman in town, should your parents try and force you into marriage with my Cousin Edmund. But let me have one kiss.”

Isabella didn’t object, but feared that he would go on kissing her until he was taken. “Be quick, then!”

His lips came down on hers, stirring strong enough feelings to astonish her. It was quite as good as with that other so long ago, who… Ravensdale’s lips parted hers and she was insanely tempted to linger herself. She pulled away. “You have to go!”

“Your promise or I don’t leave.”

“All right, I promise!” Her life had become unrecognizable to her. It became even more so as she heard the cracking of a twig, the boy whistled, and she saw Sir Wilfred emerge from behind a tree in the wild garden below.

“Away from me, they may fire on me!” Ravensdale made for his horse.

Dicky broke his cover, rushing up to the field, and shouting: “Let her go!” Now Sir Wilfred and a short, stocky man ran towards the hedge too, weapons raised.

Ravensdale shouted back, “Hold your fire, you fools – let me get away from her!” He sprinted away from her.

Time seemed to stop as Isabella saw the stranger dash forward, aiming his pistol at Ravensdale.

She found herself starting forward, only to trip on the hem of her skirt, as if fate was paying her back for her pretence at Ravensdale Court. “No!”

Ravensdale zigzagged towards his horse while all three fired on him, Sir Wilfred roaring: “Kidnap her, would you?” while the other man cried out in seeming fury.

Birds shot up from the nearby shrubs as the shots went wide. Isabella remembered what she’d forgotten in her horror, the difficulty of hitting a moving target. Ravensdale leapt on his horse and spurred it on to clear the hedge. As he turned to shout, “Don’t mistreat her for my tricks!” The thief taker and Dicky fired on him with their second pistols, swearing as they missed.

The highwayman galloped up the lane in a cloud of dust. Sir Wilfred dashed forwards to fire after him, though he was now far out of range.

Dicky breathed heavily: “Isa, are you unharmed?”

“Of course I am. He wasn’t kidnapping me; he could have done that at any time these last weeks.” Isabella was astonished all over again to find herself playing the part of the heroine from a novel. Still, she had been doing little else for the past fortnight.

Her father and brother stood amazed, getting back their breath and staring at her. The thief taker’s eyes were like bullets as he came over. “How much did you know about that outlaw, Ma’am?”

“Outlaw? Oh, naturally, he told the entire household he was an outlaw. What do you think?”

“Don’t you interrogate my daughter, Morpeth,” Sir Wilfred raged. “I’ll handle this. Isa, do you realize you could have been killed? Didn’t you know the villain from before? What exactly was going on?”

Isabella irritably tied her bonnet strings, hating Morpeth’s raking gaze, which tried to penetrate her heart. “I went to the library for a book on shooting as neither of you would coach me further. The librarian feared I would hurt my little self and said he had some shooting experience, in which it seems he spoke true. In the absence of another weapons tutor, I asked him to coach me.”

Morpeth’s eyes drilled into Isabella’s. “How singular, Sir Wilfred, that he should have his horse at the ready.”

Dicky and Sir Wilfred looked furious, but said nothing, refusing to voice their suspicions in front of him.

“It was fair enough to assume he had some business in town,” Isabella tossed her head.

Morpeth asked them generally, “And what purpose had he to pose as a librarian?”

Isabella shrugged. “Perhaps he’s fond of books; some people are.”

Sir Wilfred wheezed with rage, “This is no laughing matter, my girl! The villain must have planned a robbery, along with his band. You say you followed one of them here, Morpeth? Let’s get Isabella safely back to the house. For all we know, we may be surrounded and damned lucky they didn’t fire on us when the shooting began.”

“He did admit to stealing part of a meat pie, being anxious that the youngest footman might get the blame. He said he was enjoying himself here. I see he didn’t return your fire.”

Isabella bit her lip as Morpeth’s eyes bored at her again. “Many have a foolish belief that so called Gentlemen of the Road are gallant, romantic figures. Ravensdale’s story as the outlawed Lord Ravensdale turned into the highwayman Mr Fox strikes many young ladies as being even more romantic.”

Isabella snorted: “And that foolish wig and eye glasses must stir any young lady’s heart. Has it been proved that Lord Ravensdale and Mr Fox are the same man?”

Morpeth’s eyes went even harder. “That was certainly the fugitive Earl. All know he’s a highway robber and former smuggler besides being wanted for killing Captain Harding.”

As they walked back to the house, Sir Wilfred talking with Morpeth, Dicky squeezed Isabella’s arm. “Isa, this is beyond anything. You’ve got a good memory for faces, so how come you didn’t know him again?”

“You forget he had a scarf tied over his face and spoke in a disguised voice the other time I saw him. That is, if he and Mr Fox are one and the same, as Mr Morpeth insists. After all, this disguise was good enough for his own cousin not to know him.”

 

A couple of the gardeners saw the end of the drama from the orchard, and told a footman.

He rushed to Lady Murray as she came downstairs, lecturing Mistress Titmarsh on the hardships of holding a ball in a new mansion.

“Ma’am, that librarian was that highwayman Ravensdale! He was caught in the paddock trying to kidnap Miss Isabella, there was a gun battle, and he escaped.”

Lady Murray shrieked and swayed on the staircase. Mistress Titmarsh ordered the footman to go for the salts. Still, she went on talking to him, gasping and swaying too the third stair: “He seemed so harmless a young man! He was organizing the classics section so well. He sneezed in the dust, but he quoted from ‘The Iliad’ and found my best needle by the shelves. He must have planned this villainy as he gazed so upon Miss Isabella. Is no-one to be trusted?”

 

Sir Wilfred was closeted with the thief taker for an hour. Then Morpeth took a slow walk about the house and grounds.

Miss Granville, Selina’s governess, led Isabella to her bedroom, half in disgrace, urging her to lie down. From her window, Isabella watched Morpeth loiter past.

As if sensing her eyes on him, he paused and stared up.

“Damn him!” she muttered, and wished one of the birds nesting in the eaves would make droppings on his head.

She was sitting down to write a note, when Sir Wilfred knocked.

He told her, rubbing his hands nervously, that her mother and Mistress Titmarsh were both indisposed, and then asked after her own health.

“Sir, you know me to be shockingly robust and incapable of a faint, even when our librarian is exposed as a bandit, though so moderate in his drinking habits. I see your thief taker lingers about the house.”

“I can’t understand your facetious attitude, daughter. That blasted murderer’s played on your sympathies, I see, whatever you protest. Yes, I hired Morpeth after those cutthroats held you up – would you have me sit down quietly under it? The fellow’s done well too, in tracing Ravensdale as he did.”

“The man who tried to rob me, Sir, was known as Filthy Fred, and Mr Fox threw him out the band for it.”

“Morpeth’s following up on the others, too. One piece of information led him to London after the second in command, Johnnie Flashy or some such name, but he hid himself in some rookery* or other. The villain who led Morpeth here is still in the area, and he may catch him yet.”

Isabella sighed at Longface’s hopelessness.

Sir Wilfred paced about as if in imitation of his temporary librarian, finally saying sulkily, “Why do you insist that it isn’t proved that Lord Ravensdale and Mr Fox are one and the same? Everybody knows so.”

He scowled even more. “I’m not going to ask you for any more details. I can’t credit there was an understanding between you and this murdering robber. Morpeth had the damned nerve to hint – the wretch lacked the face to say it outright – that the villain may have had some romantic appeal for you.

“If he knew you, he’d never talk such nonsense. I laughed in his face and told him, ‘I know my daughter, you insolent fellow.’ You and romantic notions can never mix, so I need have no fears on that score, as I might for many other of the young ladies hereabouts, had that rogue imposed on them.

“Morpeth had the insolence to mutter something under his breath, and I was of a mind to send him packing with a box on the ear. Still, these bounty hunters are the lot of them a miserable crew. Besides, as that robber scoundrel had the nerve to impose himself upon us as a librarian while planning some disgusting raid, we have no choice but to continue to work with wretches like Morpeth.”

“I can’t say anything further about him, Sir, though I don’t believe he planned to rob us.”

The thought of telling anyone else the story of Ravensdale’s insane passion for her disgusted Isabella; it seemed a mean betrayal.

“I see the man has won your sympathy, foolish disguise or not. As he duped his own cousin with it, I can only suppose he took you in too,” Sir Wilfred brooded.

“And that brings me onto the subject of Edmund Ravensdale and his suit. Over our port at Ravensdale Court I apologized for how you acted so unaccountable – said your mother and I was clean at a loss what had come over you. He pleaded with me not to scold you over it. He even said he admired the spirit you showed. It was beyond me, but he insisted that he knew you to be an independent girl, saying that a scolding from us would only set you against him still more. Talked of how you needed time for him to press his suit slowly and suchlike.”

At which point he tapped his copy of Machiavelli.

“No doubt I should be grateful to him.”

Now Isabella imitated the outlaw and paced about restlessly. “So you and Mama are still resolved to marry me off to Edmund Ravensdale, Sir?”

Sir Wilfred blustered, “But daughter, you must needs marry someone. As no other man has yet pleased you – I can’t count that little flirtation with that Langley boy when you were quite a child – it might as well be Edmund Ravensdale as anyone.

“Why, from all I hear, all the other young ladies think him handsome. With his being next in line to the earldom – and that cousin of his can’t last long – they’re all setting their caps at him. You’ll never have such a chance again.

“As I told your mother, if the fellow was old, ugly and disagreeable, or if you preferred someone else – so long as he was acceptable – then it would be different, but you don’t.”

Isabella stopped to face him with the heresy, “Yet, why do I have to marry anyone, Sir?” She had always disliked asking for money from her parents, but now went on, “You can easily make comfortable provision for me without, so I can live independently of any man.”

Sir Wilfred’s round eyes popped. “No woman in her right mind would choose to be an old maid! Your mother’s urged how if we let this chance pass by indulging your wilfulness, you’ll regret it when the flow of suitors dries up. It soon enough will, save for vulgar fortune hunters, who would take any woman for her money. She’s as sure as I am that you’ll come to like Mr Ravensdale in time.”

He muttered a bit more, red-faced, about adjustments and Understandable Maidenly Jitters.

Isabella flung at him, “I’ve never had a maidenly jitter in my life! If I found him repulsive as a man, I would say so, Sir, though it isn’t a topic one wishes to pursue with a father. I distrust his strange tension, his whole attitude, his –”

Sir Wilfred referred her to her mother and hurried off.

Isabella went to gaze down into the garden, wondering if Morpeth still lurked there as his prey once had. She sat down again to write:

 

“Dear Friend,

[_ _]

[_ I know you will play outside though your guardians watch over you. Believe I will not make friends with the boy we talked of. I must keep my word to join with you in boys and girls come out to play at the party. Still, I beg you believe I can play alone more happily and would rather you did not risk punishment from George* and his friends on my account. _]

[_ _]

Yours Very Truly,

Bubbles.”

[_ _]

Selina stole in, giggling. “Isa, as you’re safe now, I can say how it’s too exciting! That old stick Miss Granville won’t tell me a thing, but the maids have. Only think; I always wanted to meet Ravensdale, and here he was searching out maps for me, and I never knew him.”

Isabella laughed. “Do you agree with me now that his famous good looks are nondescript?” She felt a stab of guilt at dismissing her devoted admirer like that, when he had taken such risks to protect her.

She soon forgot guilt about Ravensdale as she sensed the wrench of her coming parting with her siblings.

Selina, ignoring Isabella’s shabby criticism of this romantic figure, rushed on, “Could it be he wished to amend his ways, and earn an honest crust? Perhaps while his men, abandoned wretches all, celebrated in insentient joviality, he stretched alone under a tree, tormented by conscience, and came by this plan.” As she stood, looking dissatisfied with the last words, Isabella kissed her with rare warmth.

 

Early the next morning, Isabella marched through the dew soaked park. The birds made the surrounding hills ring with song, and the bees hummed. She chewed on a piece of bread she had secreted for this walk to town, and whistled a tune.

She was wearing her oldest clothes and had her hair hidden under a large bonnet, but couldn’t conceal her height. Like Mr Fox, when she tried to stoop, she kept forgetting. Like Longface, but with more reason, she prided herself on taking care to throw off any spies.

By a couple of diversions, she arrived at The Huntsman _]just as a serving wench with striking blue ribbons in her hair was opening the shutters. The girl stared as Isabella said brightly, “Good morning,” adding softly, “[_The Pedlar’s Remedy.”

“What, Miss?”

Isabella felt irritated. “I said, ‘The Pedlar’s Remedy.’ I want to leave this note for a customer.”

“Is you called Miss Isabelle or some such?” the girl’s sharp eyes were keener.

“Yes,” Isabella glanced about under cover of fixing her shoe, “Can you make sure he gets it as soon as may be?”

The girl took the note, her gaze wandering over every inch of Isabella as if looking for some secret. Then, giving up the search, she thrust the note into her pocket and went through the open door.

As Isabella started out of the yard, she heard her telling someone inside, “Lawks, Kate, I’ve just seen her as You Know Who is so mad for, and she ain’t even pretty –”

“Where?” There was a scuffle as the other woman rushed out to see. Isabella felt their critical gaze on her as she hurried up the road.

[_ _]

The Outlaw Earl’s

Unappreciated Devoted Follower

&&

“So, you’ve found me out,” Reynaud Ravensdale flashed his teeth in a sneer at Longface as he came up to the bench in front of another inn, where Ravensdale lounged in workman’s clothes.

Longface had to admire the way Ravensdale wore his rough clothes; he supposed it was that ‘distinguished’ look these aristocrats were supposed to have. His longish wavy hair was darkened by the dye, and he had grown and dyed a moustache. Longface envied his chief the teeth he showed in that nasty smile. He was sure he could have had the same reaction from women himself, if he only could flash such a set at them.

As if to prove this, a buxom wench came out with Ravensdale’s drink and some food, bridling and smiling as she served him. Noticing Longface, she asked him if he wanted anything.

“A pint of porter, lass.” It must be the gaps in his teeth that made women cold to him. Maybe he could get a couple of made up ones to fix into place. He vowed if and when he saw Flashy Jack again to ask him if he had heard of anything like that up London way.

Longface was proud of his own disguise, which included a new outfit and his hair powdered and tied back. “I couldn’t leave you to do more foolishness,” he reassured his fellow villain.

“No such luck. I take it the Runners and Morpeth are hot on your heels?”

“It ain’t fair to blame me for them turning up at that Sir Wilfred’s,” Longface looked like a snubbed hound, “They must have had the luck of Old Nick to escape my notice, when I took every precaution, as now.” He smiled in self-congratulation. “I was sorry you had to leave that grand house. It must have been like old times for you living there, though it were too risky by far. Too risky by far.”

“Unlike being saddled with you,” Ravensdale snapped. “You must have used up half of these nine lives of mine, but I can’t complain; I’ve squandered a couple myself. I had a fortnight in her company before you ruined things.”

Longface shook his head, “It was pure lunacy to do what you did, but I was hoping it would aid you to get the better of this here hopeless infatuation.”

Ravensdale gave him a filthy look, chewing sullenly. Longface was glad to see that at least he had some appetite back.

The barmaid came out with Longface’s tankard, stealing a flirtatious glance over her shoulder at Ravensdale as she went inside; Longface saw his chief give her a wink.

He fortified himself with a drink before going on, “You must face the truth; it’s hopeless. No respectable woman in her right mind is going to take up with you with a price on your head – Lord or not.”

Reynaud threw down his knife and glowered at him: “Hold your infernal chatter; I don’t want the benefit of your sagacity. Nor do I want you following me about any longer.”

Longface finally took offence: “Now then, you ain’t no proper aristocrat no more to act so haughty like. You’re an outlaw.”

The other stood up. “As chief of our crew of bandits, I’m dismissing you with full dishonour. I can’t risk having you about any more for my own reasons.”

Longface’s jaw fell. Reynaud turned away, whistling as he made for the door. Longface recognized that tune. It was the one Edmund Ravensdale had sung while the rumpskuttle played and his besotted cousin had lurked, desperate in the gardens.

A riot of emotions surged through Longface. The strongest was a fierce jealousy, though he couldn’t have said whether he envied most Mr Fox or his love object. Humiliation and anguish at this careless dismissal tore through him too. Fox had jeered at him countless times, but Longface had always told himself that he didn’t really mean it.

He shot after him, “She can’t have accepted you?”

Ravensdale’s shoulders tightened, but he turned back to Longface calmly. “That has nothing to do with you; see to your own affairs.”

Longface downed the rest of his porter, a bleak look in his eyes. He scarcely took in the two men in workmen’s clothes who came up to stand across the road, sometimes glancing over to the inn.

Ravensdale stopped, softly giving a different whistle, their alarm whistle in imitation of a robin. “Out!” Longface caught his hissed order.

Mr Fox was suddenly drunk. He stumbled towards the right side of the yard, sobbing. “Leave me then! It’s a hard life, and nobody cares for me!” He stopped to double up, retching loudly.

Longface made briskly for his horse, knowing he mustn’t be seen to reach for his weapon. Still, he wanted to impress the robber chief, not be rescued by him. It was typical of the young hothead to put himself at risk by acting out this diversion. Longface knew Mr Fox to be by far the better shot, and he’d had his orders to make his escape. A follower’s right to query his chief’s actions weren’t part of the general understanding between members of a robber band.

Still, in the absence of any other close love objects, Longface loved Reynaud Ravensdale, and his heart yearned to see him place himself so recklessly in danger. Suddenly defiant, he stopped, stealthily reaching for his pistol.

The men broke off from laughing at the drunken Fox as he straightened and fired. As Longface wrenched his own weapon free of his belt, he somehow found time to suppose that his chief meant to miss. His aim was invariably accurate at such a distance, while this shot went over the men’s heads.

They sprang apart, ducking, fumbling for their weapons and shouting.

Longface fired. Fury made him savage, and he aimed to hit, but he missed the moving target. Then he and Ravensdale were snatching at their horses’ tethers. A shot slashed across the nearby bench, shattering Ravensdale’s plate, hurling the pieces across the yard and narrowly missing a butterfly dancing upwards before thudding into a post.

Scrambling on their mounts, Longface and Mr Fox galloped down the narrow alleyway by the side of the inn. Another shot whistled by them, tearing across the leather of Fox’s saddle.

Through the commotion, Longface heard the cries inside the inn. For all her scorn of him, he felt sorry for the pretty wench who’d been having such fun flirting with a handsome customer just now. A foolish male head poked out of one of the windows.

They cleared a low hedge and galloped across the open fields behind. One of the Bow Street officers was mounted in pursuit, yelling. Now Longface had his second pistol and turning back, fired wildly.

The man’s hat leapt up as if saluting them. He yowled in dismay and plunged forward. Longface hooted in triumph. Ravensdale, looking back, saw it too.

They both laughed as they outdistanced their pursuer, vanishing, as on the day of the late Lord Ravensdale’s funeral, into the woods close by.

Longface remembered how, after that other escape, Ravensdale had tried to dismiss him, as if it were possible to dismiss a friend. Now, once again, they urged their horses into the beech woods surrounding the town, like a replay of time. Ravensdale had been unreasonably angry with him on the day of the funeral, blaming him not only for the soldiers’ appearance, but because Longface had accidentally shot a horse. Ravensdale was nearly as scrupulous about treating horses well as he was with women, and in Longface’s opinion, with better reason.

After they had made their way as swiftly as they could through the trees for a while, Longface broke the silence. “I wonder if they’re after us still?”

“Why do I feel this has happened before?” Ravensdale turned on Longface in controlled fury. “It may be that they’ve lost the trail until the next time that you obligingly lead ‘em to me. We may not be so damned lucky again, so I’m doing you a favour in turning you out of my band to retire and live to lose the rest of your teeth.” He suddenly smiled, reminding Longface agonizingly of that better side to his nature, which Longface would never see again. “Congratulations, they didn’t even get your hat.”

Longface burst out, “It ain’t fair, blaming me for the trouble you bring on yourself with your hot headed ways. They could have been following you for days before they happened to spring just after I arrived. After you would go impersonating librarians at that house, everyone knows that this girl’s as a magnet to you and it’s easy enough to track you down in the area. I even heard talk that you called out as they fired on you in that paddock: ‘Shoot then, and be damned to you! If I die in her arms I die content!’ and suchlike.”

The Disgraced Earl reddened. Even with his liking for dramatic speeches, he recognized that one to be in poor taste, though the mention of being in Isabella’s arms – even to die – made him quiver.

He aimed a cuff at Longface’s head: “I said no such thing, damn your insolence! Which satirical fool dared to tell such a story against me? If I hadn’t other pressing business, I’d make him swallow those words.”

Longface ducked back to avoid the blow. “Young Hothead! Clearly, them Runners were shadowing you this while, and they just chanced to come on us after we met today.”

“As the Redcoats just chanced to come upon me at the funeral? I won’t dispute this with you,” Mr Fox drew together the shreds of his dignity. “You choose to put it down to bad luck that the Runners and thief takers always come down on me directly after you appear. In that case, I don’t need your bad luck as well as my own. Before, I never gave a damn what happened to me, but I have someone to look out for now, and I haven’t the time to look after you, too. I tell you: retire and live to lose the remainder of your sorry teeth.”

Longface writhed. “How long d’you imagine you’re going to live, if you burden yourself with this foolish young rumpskuttle?”

Mr Fox’s eyes flashed and his face reddened. “You dare to speak so of her to me? You ain’t even fit to clean her shoes! No more am I, but I at least know it. Get out of my sight before I floor you.”

Longface drew his horse back. He saw that he must fall out irreparably with his chief, and he might as well try to warn him, hopeless though it was. “What sort of life will the foolish girl bring on herself if she runs off with you? You must either clear your name if you can – though it don’t look like you’ve had much luck at that – or leave the country before they hang you.”

“I told you to hold your noise, or I shan’t be able to keep my hands off you. Get out of my sight. We’ve lost those men now, and if you’ve any sense, you’ll give up highway robbery. Surely you can’t be quite so bad at any other trade.” The impetuous young fool wheeled his horse about and rode briskly through the thinning trees away from Longface’s care.

&8. Abduction&

June 1792

The Heroine Must be Carried Off

By the Outlaw

&&

T&here was a terrible atmosphere &at Lady Murray’s first ball at Wisteria House. Isabella, wearing cream silk, felt all eyes on her and heard the buzz of whispers. Of course, the story of the Outlaw Earl Librarian’s attempt to abduct Isabella Murray was the topic of the night.

Given her hoydenish ways, many questioned Ravensdale’s taste. One version going about held that the wicked chief of bandits had tried to carry off Isabella at gunpoint, and she was only saved by the heroism of her father, brother and a stranger. Some said Mr Fox wanted a ransom; others that he had been driven away as much by a box on the ear and a scolding from Isabella as by the fusillade.

Isabella’s special friend Amelia Allsopp’s family arrived early, now back from a visit to Berkshire. Amelia hurried over to take Isabella’s hands: “My dear, what goings on; such a sequel to your holding up! And such an extraordinary thing for the villain to do – that gun battle must have been terrifying.”

“It was more of an ambush,” muttered Isabella. “It’s good to see you, Amelia.” Realising that she wouldn’t see Amelia again after tonight, she bit her lip. “The tattling jars even my unfeeling nerves, and as for my parents’ plans about Mr Ravensdale, well…”

Isabella had told Amelia all about that before she went away, and now she patted her hand. “Isa, please hold firm. He may be handsome and charming, but if you truly can’t like him, it won’t do.”

Edmund Ravensdale arrived, with Marie looking better than ever in mauve. Isabella saw even Dicky, who normally had eyes only for Caroline, look admiringly at her.

Everyone watched Edmund Ravensdale as he came over to Isabella. What did he make of the goings on between his disgraced cousin and this gentrified tradesman’s daughter he had honoured with his attentions? He gave no sign of noticing an atmosphere as thick with rumours as a squire’s dining hall over port was thick with curses.

Isabella found her cool admirer’s eyes as unreadable as ever. She couldn’t imagine what he made of her actions and didn’t care. Tonight, he looked as handsome as his sister was pretty. If she hadn’t seen at least part of a better version in Reynaud Ravensdale (despite the silly wig and glasses), she would have found Edmund Ravensdale very handsome.

“Miss Murray,” she had that familiar warning sensation as he bent to kiss her hand. He smiled (his family all seemed to have perfect teeth) and she smiled vaguely back as he paid her some compliments, not too familiar for someone who wasn’t engaged to her – yet. She could sense the envy of the other women.

The musicians struck up, and he offered her his arm to lead her out into the middle of the ballroom. She felt like groaning as everyone turned to watch them open the ball. His talk was light and casual. No doubt, he had heard a version of the bandit turned librarian tale with her as a romantic fool and his cousin as her abductor: – but he was all discretion.

She detested this discretion. She knew she would have been equally angry if he had spoken about it. Since her parents had decided to marry her off to him, he couldn’t please her whatever he did. She hadn’t objected that much to him before that, save for disliking his enclosure plans.

She was determined not to talk. He soon said, “You’re understandably quiet this evening, Miss Murray, with all this tiresome stir. Of course, I shan’t press you to confide in me about my cousin’s latest drama. Still, the man who wins your trust will be truly lucky.”

Reynaud Ravensdale had never told her his version of the story of his disgrace. During their talks in the rose garden, just as he had worked himself up enough, sighing, to confide all to her – or most, as he also said that honour stopped his telling the whole – something had always interrupted them.

Isabella had been thankful. No doubt, she would have found the story so hackneyed that even as she felt for him, she couldn’t have hidden a smile. That would certainly have made him snort and pace. Perhaps it was a pity things hadn’t happened that way: then he might even have taken his outraged pride off, and she wouldn’t be stuck with him escorting her tonight. She saw what an irony that was, when she’d always prided herself on her independence.

“Good,” Isabella now told Edmund Ravensdale ungraciously. Even more nettled with him, she went on a moment later, “Everyone talks of that, so there’s no need for you to make us the exception. Rumour gives me dismal motives. I trust the unflattering stories about the role you played in your own drama with your cousin three years back, are just as undeserved.”

He didn’t miss a step. “Do you indeed trust me on that?” His look seemed oddly both more and less guarded than Isabella had seen in him. It was as if some undisturbed surface veneer was breaking away from the moving depths beneath, like a melting glacier. She dismissed such fancies as he said, “People are always judgmental.”

“Sometimes rightly,” she said nastily.

His melting glacier look vanished; he even smiled.

Whatever that smile revealed – a smugly respectable citizen or a smiling villain – it annoyed her. She wanted to ask once more that he do his best to help his cousin, but knew it would be so much wasted breath. She went on dancing grimly under the watchful gaze of the guests.

This scrutiny was even worse than she had expected when planning her escape. She had relied on being able to make her break for freedom unnoticed, when the crowd moved over to the dining hall for supper. Now she feared that she wouldn’t be able to do that after all.

He said, “Let’s speak of more pleasant matters; this is a delightful room.”

“Oh, yes. My grandfather would have said that you could store a fair amount of materials here; he always thought of large spaces in terms of storage and workrooms.”

He had the nerve to laugh.

Even in her anxiety, Isabella’s was glad that though strapping and unladylike, she had never been graceless or uncoordinated, so that she could dance under a nervous strain without making mistakes. They came on Marie Ravensdale dancing with Dicky, both of them looking happy.

She knew the jealous eyes she felt on her and Edmund Ravensdale weren’t only from people who wanted the outlaw’s earldom for their own families. She could feel the burning gaze of the Earl himself watching them through the windows.

She couldn’t always keep from glancing over. Once her partner followed her gaze, and she muttered, “I thought I saw a night bird flit by.”

She dreaded this drama might even reach a note of tragedy, with the outlaw forgetting his promise to her, and firing through the window, so that Edmund Ravensdale collapsed wounded on her ivory dancing slippers. However, the dance ended without incident, and Isabella made her cold curtsey.

There was still no getting rid of Edmund Ravensdale. They both had the next dance free, and he stayed with her. Her face still being red with anger, he took her fan and swished it up and down. Isabella could sense Reynaud Ravensdale’s quivering rage outside.

A couple of people came up to talk. These included a business associate of Sir Wilfred’s. As his eyes were always prominent, Isabella couldn’t tell if they were popping more than usual over her role in the bandit/librarian episode.

Finally, Isabella’s next partner, a lively young doctor, came to claim his dance. He too kept up a deafening silence on the scandal. The ball wore on: Isabella yearned for the supper more than she had longed for any meal since she was ten and knew that there would be jam tarts for tea.

When the crowd moved over to the dining hall, Isabella hid herself behind a couple of stout matrons. Her nerves tingled as she saw Edmund Ravensdale looking about for her.

Then she giggled, seeing him caught by Amelia Allsopp’s chatterbox sister. As the crowd spread across the hall, Isabella broke free and walked briskly down the corridor, nodding at the footmen she passed, then lifting her skirts to sprint up the stairs.

Upstairs, Isabella gained the little lobby off the main landing, which led to the spiral staircase down to the library. Though she was good at changing quickly, she knew that struggling unassisted out of her ball gown, stays and petticoats and into her male clothing was going to take long enough for her to be missed. Someone would come looking for her.

She ran down to jam the doors leading to the library with a wedge of wood, and then did the same to the door leading to the lobby. Then she pulled her clothes out from where she’d hidden her baggage by the side of the stairs, and began to pull off her clothes.

As she stepped out of her ball gown, she had to fight an urge to put it back on and go back down as if nothing had happened. But the die was cast; the highwayman waited outside and she’d given him her word, dreading what he might do otherwise.

She wished that she hadn’t. If only she was starting out on this adventure alone – there was something so feminine and feeble about being escorted by a man. Besides, she didn’t want to exploit his insane passion for her, however useful he might be for her plans.

Her male outfit was the old riding one of Dicky’s. So many times, she had sneaked out in it, her mane of hair hidden under a hat, straddling a horse to gallop and jump hedges and ditches, never thinking the time would come when she must use it to run away.

Her fears proved right. She heard her mother calling for her irritably, opening doors. She must have some demand or lecture to give, or she’d have sent Mistress Titmarsh. Then Lady Murray gave an angry snort as unladylike as any of Isabella’s own, and her footsteps retreated down the main stairs. No doubt, Mistress Titmarsh would be up next.

Isabella nipped into her mother’s sitting room to leave her note. Suppressing an unmanly sob as she posted another under Selina’s bedroom door, she told herself, “I never cry.”

Her heart somersaulted as she heard a man’s tread coming upstairs. She dashed back to the lobby, the hairs standing up on the back of her neck, as in some old game of hide-and-seek with Dicky hot on her heels. The footfalls went up the main corridor.

Having jammed the door behind her, she took up her baggage and retraced her steps down the spiral staircase. She met no one on her way to the side door and out into the soft night.

It being midsummer, it was still twilight, the sky deepest blue. The near part of the grounds was lit by both moonlight and the coloured lanterns hung by the terrace and the rose garden. Isabella whistled to keep up her spirits as she walked swiftly into the darkness up the path to the summerhouse.

Suddenly, a figure loomed up behind it, shorter and broader than Reynaud Ravensdale. In horror, Isabella recognized Morpeth. She felt like screaming missishly. He closed in on her.

“Young Sir!” In the dusk, her eyes met his glittering ones as he added, “Or should I say, ‘Miss Murray?’”

Isabella put on her deepest, most loutish tone yet, though she knew it was hopeless. “What? I’m no girl!”

“It’s no good pretending, Miss,” there was a sexual note to his voice now, which disgusted Isabella, “If I take your hat off, that black mane of yours will come tumbling down.” He seemed to find the idea exciting, and moved closer.

She said archly, “Sir, don’t give away my prank. That ball was so dull, and I only meant to take a short ride to leave these things with a villager. Will you keep my secret, Mr Morpeth?”

He reached for her free hand, but she drew it behind her back. “I think you’re meeting someone, young lady. Your lover –”

Isabella’s punch caught him squarely on the nose. Blood spurted out as from a tap. He didn’t go down, though he rocked on his feet. Rage flashed into his eyes, as with Filthy Fred. She dropped her luggage. He raised his fists and as she moved in to block an attack, Reynaud Ravensdale was on him, throttling him from behind with one forearm.

Isabella heard herself urge, “Don’t kill him!”

Ravensdale punched Morpeth twice and released him, so that he fell at their feet like an inanimate object.

“This has happened before,” Isabella said.

“Miss Murray, I must teach you how to put ‘em down so they stay down, though having a lady’s wrists, you might find that hard. I can’t always have the honour of finishing the business off for you, if you will insist on having these mills with men, much as I would like to be.”

“You recall I asked you to and I hope you will,” Isabella regretted those words at once.

She meant that she hoped he would be able to teach her to ‘knock ‘em down so they stay down’. From his eager look, she saw that he thought she had said that she hoped he would always be about her. However, like the robber chief he was, he put aside emotional matters, staring down at Morpeth.

“What can we do with the coward?” he muttered. He bent down to truss the man up with a piece of rope he’d taken from somewhere. She wondered half hysterically if there was some suggested kit of Necessities for Outlaws, which included a piece of rope. He went on, “He tried to shoot me in the back that day in the paddock, and he just tried to lay hands on you, so it would be fair enough to kill him off. Still, you’ll forbid me.”

“Of course you mustn’t kill him! We must tie and gag him and put him somewhere.” Isabella saw Morpeth watching them. His dull, glassy eyes put her in mind of a suffering reptile.

Reynaud Ravensdale pulled open Morpeth’s jaw, thrusting his handkerchief into his mouth. “Hear that, cur? You owe your life to her. Don’t tempt me by giving any trouble.” He began to drag the man towards the summerhouse. “I know what I’ll do; I’ll strip him and hang him upside down like a piece of game.” He grinned cheerfully, as at a schoolboy jape.

“Ugh!” said Isabella.

“I’ll spare your blushes, don’t worry.”

Her accomplice dragged the thief taker into the summerhouse, and roughly ripped off his clothes to his underwear. Isabella thought what an unappetizing figure Morpeth made. Her only familiarity with the naked male body was through paintings and statues based on Greek and Roman styles, and his thick-waisted, short-legged proportions weren’t exactly like those.

The man lay unresisting, making gagging noises.

“He may vomit and choke. I think you should remove that gag. I don’t want you pursued for his death, too.” Isabella prided herself on making the plea so tactfully.

Reynaud wrenched it out, swearing. “You plead for this brute persistently, my sweet Miss Isabella. He’ll yell the place down when he thinks himself safe, but I’ll do as you bid me. Now I’ll hoist him up with the aid of his dirty shirt.” Putting his booted foot on it, he ripped it across and began to tie knots on it. Isabella was intrigued. “Surely those are sailor’s knots?”

“I learnt them back in my smuggling days.” Reynaud Ravensdale hoisted the man up like a dead carcass, and laughing savagely, gave him a push, setting him swinging. “Give my regards to your fellows.” He paused. “Now, listen, swine. You wouldn’t understand this, but I’m not taking Miss Murray off to ruin her. I want to marry her, though she aims to live independent, and so you may tell her parents.”

Isabella was glad that he realized this.

When they were some yards off, the man did shout. Isabella didn’t understand what he said, choked as his voice was, though she caught the words ‘Harding’ and ‘Cowardly Murder’.

Her companion whipped about in rage: “That’s a damned lie! I’ve a mind to drill you instead!”

“Ignore the prating fool,” Isabella took his arm, urging him away. They left Morpeth silent, as Reynaud led her to the horses. The sounds of the ball drifted to them as he made to lift her onto her mount.

“Take my leg,” she said. He did – though his breathing quickened at this intimate touch – and she vaulted astride.

“Of course, you’re used to riding astride a horse, as when we met,” he smiled.

As they rode out of the gates, she asked, “Where are we going?”

“I’m sorry that it’s a long ride. We’ll go to some friends in an inn not far from the village of Kensington, some miles west of London. We’ll take a detour as much as we can, as your male relatives will try to overtake us. Mr and Mistress Kit are a fine couple, if you can accustom yourself to their rough manners, and they’ll put us up.” He added, seeing her doubtful look, “Mistress Kit can stand chaperone; she’s dragon enough.”

Isabella doubted that a woman who took highwayman lodgers as a matter of course could fairly be called a chaperone. She was sure that staying in the same inn as him was enough to ruin her in society’s eyes, doubtful chaperone or not.

Then she realized for the first time that Morpeth having caught them making off together, her reputation would be in shreds, anyway.

 

May 1789

Back in time: More of the Conniving Cousin’s Story

And a Proposal

&&

Edmund Ravensdale knows before he breaks the seal that Marie’s letter will be about Reynaud’s engagement to Miss Georgiana.

He rips it open, hands shaking, dreading that in the general romantic atmosphere, Marie might have accepted Captain Harding.

That, at least, hasn’t happened.

Through this second hand account, Edmund can easily picture the scene of Reynaud’s histrionic proposal.

This came about as dramatically as in Edmund’s bitter imagination.

Reynaud just happens to find Miss Georgiana alone at the window of her sitting room, her chaperone having been called away.

He draws up all his courage as she turns about with a shy smile. “Your Lordship, you startled me –”

“No, don’t go!” He’s in the room in a bound, taking her hands, joining her in the pool of golden sunshine, which highlights specks of dust into precious jewels. “I must speak to you.”

She raises tender blue eyes in alarm. At his expression, she blushes and stares at her feet. He drops to the floor, trying not to ogle those well-turned ankles, as he makes his declaration. She would scorn a prosaic, upright stance. Anyway, that smacks of arrogance.

He adds that he knows he is a rascal, not nearly good enough for her, in fact, something of a wretch, but if he were to promise to reform, might she – and her parents, too, of course – consider his suit?

She flutters, swaying. He escorts her to a chaise longue and goes down on his knees again, only to meet the eyes of a maidservant peeping through the half open door.

Miss Georgiana raises her sweeping dark lashes. Seeing the girl, she waves her away with a quick frown. Then she gives in again to her emotion. “Your Lordship, I am so honoured. I never dreamed that you felt so strongly –”

He tells her just how strongly he feels, ending with, “May I hope?”

She murmurs, “Your Lordship – I can scarce speak – I am so flattered that you single me out above other young ladies, and consider me worthy to be your future Countess. Alas! I must struggle with my own inclination, as well as with you –”

He says, “What? You’re turning me down?! Don’t tell me you’ve accepted that dog Sweetlove? By hell, I’ll put a bullet through him if it’s the last thing I do!”

She sways some more. “Mercy! What of your promised reformation?”

“That was before you Blighted My Life. I’ll be ten times as bad from now on, if you reject me –”

She gasps.

Encouraged, he goes on: “Twenty times as bad – no, a hundred. I’ll run wild. My heart shall be as a stone.”

She puts her hands on her bosom: “I must be as a stone myself, were I unmoved by this desperation! My maiden’s heart quails before it. – Lud, Sir, but I’ve not accepted Mr Sweetlove, nor bid you lose hope.”

“What?” he leaps up. “Then I’ll reform at once – no duelling, just one glass of brandy after dinner, no cursing, I’ll never fall asleep in church again…”

No doubt, he is glad that respect for her innocence means he can avoid mentioning his other vices. Down on his knees again, he does some abject hand kissing. “Tell me that I can be very hopeful.”

“I’m overcome, My Lord. How can I withstand such –” she breaks off, frowning. Now, the second footman, alerted by the chambermaid, stands staring through the half open door. She waves him away, too.

“Sir, I give you leave to hope, and that is speaking to the man, not my Lord and superior – but I can say no more. I tremble at your reputation, but I cannot withstand your ardour. Pity my feminine weakness, I grow faint…”

“Faint? Forgive me my violence, my darling; I’ll ring for some wine!” He leaps to the bell pull. Three servants collide as they rush in at the door.

 

Reynaud fixes Edmund with his abnormally clear eyes, his brows up. Edmund thought he had managed to sound hearty as he congratulated him, too.

“You don’t like it. Not as if I give a damn for your opinion, but I suppose you think I’m too wild to get married. You never heard of sowing your wild oats, Edmund?”

Edmund has met him in the gun room, cleaning his favourite pistol, shirt sleeves rolled up over his strong forearms, the material caressing the muscular development about his shoulders.

“That is for Miss Georgiana to decide, Cousin,” Edmund says coolly.

Reynaud pulls the quizzical expression Edmund knows so well. “Odd how people can drift apart, eh?”

Edmund’s heart gives a jump and wrench. He wants to say something, but can’t speak. He broods long over the arrogant Viscount’s words, when no doubt Reynaud has forgotten them before Edmund is halfway out of the door. Did his cousin once think of them as being closer than Edmund ever realized? Does he miss Edmund’s confidence since their quarrel? Could it be he cares more for Edmund more than he shows?

However, Edmund’s unrequited love for Reynaud is an old tale of humiliation. His passion for Miss Georgiana stings fresh. He may jeer at Reynaud’s passion, but he longs to cast himself at her feet, too. He’d promise to carry out one of the Labours of Hercules each day, if she would only break off with the rascally Viscount and take him instead.

But when he sees Miss Georgiana next – at the first ball held at Ravensdale Court since Reynaud’s mother’ death, held in honour of his engagement – he bows formally over Miss Georgiana’s hand and wishes her joy.

She says, “Ah-Heh, Ah-Heh!” followed by a gurgle. It’s a tiny comfort to Edmund that Reynaud will hear that laugh every day soon, and surely – insensitive though he can be – it must come to annoy him.

[_ _]

June 1792

The Fainting Maiden Must Surrender Her Heart

to the Robber Chief (Or Maybe

The Other Way About)

&&

The ride to Kensington, in bright moonlight, seemed endless to Isabella, who normally loved riding. Their detour extended it. She wondered idly what would happen should they meet any of Mr Fox’s fellow Gentlemen of the Road who routinely terrorized the roads from London. They met none.

Tormented over what she had just done – though there was no going back on it now – she said little. He was quiet too. Now and then, he smiled at her. He seemed to be monitoring her, as he exclaimed a couple of times, “You’ve fine stamina for a young lady.”

Even so, she was beginning to droop when he said, “We’ll stop here and rest a while. I think you tire now.”

They tethered and watered their horses outside a tiny inn, open in the small hours. Isabella did her best to stride manfully, if stiffly, as they went inside. He spoilt her pleasure in her disguise by murmuring in her ear, “Miss Isabella, you’re far too pretty for a boy, and I won’t be ungallant enough to comment on your womanly shape.”

“You mistook me for one when first you saw me,” she reminded him.

“Only through being distracted by the funeral and that slight unpleasantness with the redcoats.‘’

There was only one other customer inside, an elderly man who glanced at them without interest. They ordered bread, cheese, and beer, and went through to sit in a small snug room where a low fire still smouldered in the grate.

As landlord’s served them, he said, “You run a risk, travelling at night.”

“We had no choice,” Reynaud Ravensdale stretched lazily. “Have there been robberies hereabouts of late?”

“Ain’t there always? Did you hear of Mr Fox’s band holding up that rich merchant? But perhaps you come from far off.”

Ravensdale bit into his bread and cheese. “The merchant was a fool to travel with his wealth, then.”

“Sure he was travelling under armed guard, but they soon became an unarmed guard, and Mr Fox, having fleeced him, tied him and his fellows back to back in a circle and so left them.”

“A great prankster,” Isabella’s companion said.

The landlord laughed and left to do something to his takings, far enough away for them to talk quietly unheard.

Mr Fox smiled happily, “I must be glad of that swine Morpeth’s finding us out for one selfish reason: to save your reputation, now I have to ask for you. Before, I was held back by only being able to offer you life as an outlaw’s wife, but now fate has forced my hand.”

Isabella felt rebellious. “Must he assume that we were eloping? I’m dressed as a boy!” It seemed absurd to play the female role of running off with a man when dressed as one.”

“Women elope in plays dressed as boys for ease of movement. The thief taker – and all the world – will assume we’ve eloped.”

Isabella, who had been biting hungrily into her bread and cheese, put it down. “Thank you for your gallantry in making that offer, but I hope to live independently, as you said yourself earlier.” She realized that it was an ungracious response. After all, outlaw though he was, he was still a lord to her newly gentrified merchant’s daughter. She added, “I thank you again.”

His long and heavily lashed eyes dilated “Gallant? Live independently?” He seemed unable to make sense of her words.

“It’s kind of you to care for my reputation,” Isabella ploughed on, wondering what he thought of his own, and tactfully making no mention of the scandal of marrying a suspected highwayman, “But it will be mud anyway when I follow my goal.”

“What goal? I assumed you meant to apply for some dismal post as companion or some such. Of course, I would try to assist you, but above anything, I dreamed – though I know, I’ve little enough to offer – that you would agree to be my wife. Now it will come out how you’ve been seen making off with me, it’s unavoidable.”

“But I want to be a Gentlewoman of the Road.”

His eyes dilated. “Damn me, you can’t be serious!”

Isabella fought back an urge to laugh at having shocked a man wanted for highway robbery himself.

“I hoped you’d give me advice on your trade.”

He looked outraged: “So that is why you wished me to teach you to shoot! Please forget any such romantic ideas; you would be killed at once.”

Isabella’s black eyes flashed at the suggestion – from him, of all people – that she – of all people – had romantic ideas: “There have been highwaywomen.”

“There have: strumpets and cutpurses. Besides, that was in easier times; the patrols and tollgates make for much danger now.”

His tone of jeering superiority nettled her: “I don’t see what their character has to do with it – they learnt your trade.”

“It has everything to do with it. They were brutalized thieves already. But you, who are so tender hearted, for all your brusque ways! It’s horrible as well as ludicrous. You’ve no idea of the sort of lifestyle a highway robber leads. You could never endure forcing people to hand over their monies at gunpoint, even apart from all the other difficulties. Miss Isabella, please give up this wild fancy. As I would hate to think of you working as some drudge, it’s much better that you marry me. You wouldn’t survive your first attempt: I can’t permit it.”

She lost any desire to spare his feelings. “You’re in no position to dictate my actions, and I don’t want to marry you.”

He drew back, eyes blazing, biting his lip. He breathed heavily, clearly struggling to control his feelings.

As he had trampled all over her dreams, she didn’t feel as sorry for him as she should. She was even heartless enough to go back to her bread and cheese. He looked as if he might leap up and walk out at any moment. She hoped that he would.

She looked at him, noting objectively his broad shoulders, lithe build and almost ridiculously handsome face, with the sculpted features and wide spaced, heavily lashed eyes. His hair, long now and dyed darker, was tied back and he wore a moustache, she supposed his own. Her verdict was her usual one: he’s very good looking, but his features are regular to the point of being nondescript.

After visibly struggling with himself, Ravensdale muttered, eyes downcast, “It’s true, I’m no longer any great catch, a fugitive with a price on my head.”

As Isabella tried to swallow her anger and be kind enough to disagree, he went on, voice husky, “You told me before that I could hope. Did you mislead me – or do you now realise that you can’t return my feelings?”

She saw the only thing to do was to be blunt. “It isn’t in my make up to fall in love. I’m truly sorry if I misled you. I spoke ungraciously just now. I’m sure you’ll soon get the better of this.”

He bit his lips. Not liking to watch his anguish – which for all his histrionics, did seem to be genuine – she glanced about the room at the hanging jugs and daubed picture of a foxhunt on the walls. On looking back at him, and seeing him still struggling with himself, she added kindly, “I like you as well as I could like any man. I think you very nice really, and I’m sure that you’ve been misjudged.”

She didn’t think she could have been fairer, yet at these words, eyes sparking, he breathed as if he had just run a mile, and flushed with rage. He shifted in his seat, so that she hoped he was leaving after all. Then he sat down again, and muttered almost brokenly about devils and damnation. He was even unromantic enough to add something about ‘sauciness’.

As she couldn’t make things worse, and he was still sulkily in her company, Isabella plunged on, “So many women see you as a romantic figure. It’s unlucky you set your sights on one without a shred of romance in her. Anyway, now I’m no great catch myself. I’ve never been a beauty, and now I don’t even have my portion to recommend me.”

He stared into her face for perhaps a minute. She wondered if he was looking for defects. If so, she could point out several herself, but this was the first flash of mean spirits she had seen in him.

It seemed she was wrong; when he spoke, it was in his former, besotted tone. “I find you wholly beautiful; I must take you on any terms. Your talk of other women is absurd. I’ve loved you since I saw you and will love you until I die – whenever that may be. You say that you can’t love me; but think, Miss Isabella! I can at least leave you my plunder; I’ve taken steps to make damn sure the Crown won’t lay hands on it.”

She was silent, dismayed. His voice still intense, he asked her if she wanted more beer. She did, to cope with his nonsense.

The landlord – who had bitter prejudices against men who liked men – treated Ravensdale coldly as he served him, tossing his coins aside. Ravensdale was too preoccupied to notice.

Returning to Isabella, he began, “Morpeth having seen us, it will be about three counties by tomorrow that you’ve eloped with me.”

“I had to run away, so I’ll be a highwaywoman and there’s an end to it. Your being shocked is strange, seeing you’re one yourself.”

“Not by choice,” he drew himself up haughtily, “Your being a woman makes it a hundred times worse.”

Isabella said, “Why?” As he stared, she went on, “I would rather be shot or taken – with the chance of giving some money away to the wretched and dispossessed – than to lead a dismal existence of the sort open to respectable females. Yet, as you say, I’m ruined anyway. Thank you for training me with the pistol and for overcoming Morpeth, but nothing that you can say can change my course.”

He sighed. “This is due to my own actions. I never thought that you, whom I worship, would follow my wretched example! Always, I’d imagined that the woman to whom I gave my heart would help in my reformation. I was bad enough before.”

“You would certainly do better to pursue a conventional Good Angel, but I had thought on this before I met you, only holding back on my family’s account. My parents’ insisting on my marrying your cousin freed me from that, and –”

“That ain’t it!” He broke in. “I want to marry you because I love you. I’m too selfish to let you go. I see you are determined on this wild scheme, and I must care for you as you don’t care for yourself.” As she was thinking that he was in no position to speak of not caring for oneself, he shot at her, “Suppose I hadn’t been disinherited, would you have married me?”

“I’d be reluctant to marry any great landowner, suppose I had a string of them clamouring for my hand; the whole system seems wrong to me. Do you support enclosures?”

He stared. “Enclosures? What the devil have they to do it? Ah, those ideas of yours! Not me; in so far as any such ideas entered my head back in those days, I’d have left the land with the villagers.”

“I’m glad of that,” she liked him enough again to smile at him.

This made him sigh aloud. “I’d dreamed of somehow clearing myself of the suspicion of murdering Harding, but as I can’t speak out without betraying another, I realize I must go abroad again. Suppose you had some success as a highway robber,” (he was clearly only humouring her by saying this) would you then escape to safety abroad before –” he flinched, “it was too late? Our fellow robbers always delay too long and are taken.”

“I suppose so.”

He leaned forward. “Then, will you marry me if I promise to help you in your strange ambition? If you try and love me a little in return, you can make me very happy.”

Isabella tapped her foot, touched despite not seeing why it was up to her to make him happy. “I must say what delicately brought up young ladies wouldn’t mention, how that would lead to children born into terrible circumstances. I couldn’t agree to that, even if I could return your feelings.” Some remnant of Lady Murray’s training made her add, “Don’t think me unaware of the honour you pay me.”

He only winced in mortification for a moment, before he said, politely avoiding her eyes, “I would do my best to ensure that we didn’t have children until we were safe abroad. I don’t know if respectable young ladies can hear of such things.”

Isabella, who had overheard two of the maids’ coarse discussion about how this was done, even blushed. He was too gallant to look closely at her while her cheeks cooled. Then he said, “Will you take me, Isabella?”

After a minute she said, “Very well, I will.”

Her besotted admirer released his breath in a sigh.

&9. Ruination&

The Heroine in Danger of Ruin

&&

“A&re you sure that she’s &gone?” Lady Murray showed no sign of keeling over on the stairs, though Mistress Titmarsh had her salts ready.

“None, Madam. I found this note in your sitting room.”

Lady Murray ran her eyes over the note. Tightly laced as she was, she still didn’t collapse. “She’s an undutiful girl! She’s gone off, saying she won’t marry Edmund Ravensdale. A handsome young heir to an earldom, not good enough for Miss, it seems. Fetch Sir Wilfred and Dicky. We may yet be able to bring her back.”

Five minutes later, Sir Wilfred broke off from swearing to say, “It’s a fair bet that she’s taken the London Road. Dicky, call for our horses. Try and hold the fort here, Ma’am. With luck we may avert disaster.”

“Wretched, thankless girl!” Lady Murray said for the twentieth time, “Can she have ridden off on her own? Mercy, she may have her throat cut by some robber!”

Dicky paused in the door to say over his shoulder, “Isa’s surely taken a pistol, Ma’am, and I hope that Fox taught her to use it well… If she’s ridden off alone, we can pass it off as a jape.”

“Go down, Titmarsh, while I collect myself,” Lady Murray said when the men had gone. “We must seem normal, do you understand? Stop pulling that dreadful face! – Why do you linger? Go at once!”

Mistress Titmarsh went back to the ballroom, wearing a fixed smile so strange that everyone was struck. One wag said that she was tipsy; another, that she had a wicked scheme afoot; Miss Caroline told the man who had replaced the absent Dicky as her partner, that Mistress Titmarsh had brought some suitor up to scratch and planned a public announcement.

Lady Murray was so vivacious, as she explained to groups here and there that Sir Wilfred and Dicky were ‘Called away to deal with a tiresome household problem’ that people began to talk. They talked more, as Isabella continued absent.

Edmund Ravensdale came in between dances to ask if there was any problem, with which he could help.

Lady Murray cleared her throat. Before she could answer, the public announcement came, and not from Mistress Titmarsh.

Morpeth staggered up to the open doors at the end of the ballroom in his underclothes, befuddled and dirty. What he said was always disputed.

Miss Amelia, who was near, insisted that he said, give or take a few oaths: – “Trussed up, by h—, like a D——d b——-d pheasant by that d——-d murderer, but by C——-, he won’t save his G—d D——d hide from the gallows that way! I’ll send him to the devil if I swing for it my G—d D——d self!”

 

“If you must go round eloping with girls dressed up as boys – and to my mind, with that rump, she don’t make a likely boy neither – just like something out of a play, I don’t see as why you has to come knocking us up at all hours.” Stout Mistress Kit, front* askew and in a robe, huffed and glowered at Reynaud and Isabella.

“Now, Dolly,” the even stouter Mr Kit cut in, “It’s up to us to help the young couple.”

Mistress Kit snorted. Isabella thought that she was doing a good job of hiding the good nature Mr Fox had mentioned.

He smiled imperturbably, “I was hoping that you would congratulate us. You were telling me not long since how I should get married. Go on, Dolly, and fetch us some wine for a toast. Poor Miss Isabella is weary from the long ride and the fight with the thief taker, though that’s an everyday matter for me.”

“I didn’t mean no elopements,” Mistress Kit went on huffing.

“I call it fair romantic,” said Mr Kit, who had somehow retained opinions of his own.

“I call it plain foolhardy,” Mistress Kit turned to Isabella, “What wild notion has overcome a young lady like yourself, Miss, to cast in your lot with a Gentleman of the Road? Whatever silly folks say, there’s nothing romantic about a young man’s ending his days with a stretched neck and wet breeches on the gallows, and the women and children left starving, all the money having gone to the crown.”

Mr Kit said, “Now, don’t talk so gloomy, Dolly. I’m still alive, and young Fox may have the same luck as me.”

Fox, stroking Isabella’s fingers under the table, didn’t look as if he found this prospect a glowing one.

Mistress Kit got up to fetch the wine, snorting, “They’d have to build a strong gallows special for you, these days. Luck? Don’t you talk to me of that: once we kept a household with staff and a carriage, and now we must needs keep an inn.”

[_ _]

The spilt blood is congealed on the path and grass. It’s no matter for surprise, not even a sight new to her. She saw it on the road after all, when their friend was shot, but this – this makes Isabella’s knees weak, knowing the story it writes on the ground.

Stunned horror and nausea rise in her throat, but then tearing grief rushes up from her heart as sobs. Then she is running through a wood, and catching sight of the figure she knows to be the man who did this, she finds the relief of rage and raises her pistol…

 

Isabella started awake at the sound of women’s raised voices outside, the clinking of a pail and violent sweeping noises. She was under a nasty, rough blanket and a coarser sheet than she was used to.

Her eyes took in the room, small and comfortless to her, though it was part of the two rooms where Mr Fox had lodged before. He had asked them of Mistress Kit as a favour, and it seemed they were referred to grandly as ‘The Guest Chambers’. Isabella looked with dislike at the great oak beams across the ceiling, which darkened both the room and her mood.

As for Lord Reynaud Ravensdale or Mr Fox, he had a bed in the same room as an actor until the wedding day.

He had lingered outside Isabella’s room while she dozed to the sound of his sighing and pacing. Finally, Mistress Kit’s voice came sharply: “I hope you aren’t thinking of intruding yourself in there before your wedding night, young man? I’ll have you know that this is a respectable house.”

Isabella could picture the Disgraced Earl drawing himself up, “I need no advice on how to act the gentleman towards Miss Isabella.”

“I’m happy to hear it. Now Sir, you may take yourself to your own quarters to rest, instead of acting so peculiar out here. Breakfast is at the usual time, but I take it you’ll be rising late.”

Isabella hadn’t even been able to raise a smile as she dropped into an exhausted sleep.

Now, as she thought of how she might never see her family again, the tears came to her eyes. Then her own advice to her younger sister in her parting note, ‘Never be afraid’ came back to her. She muttered aloud, “Don’t you dare to whine!”

Through a grotesque accident, she had eloped. She despised herself for weakening towards her besotted admirer, instead of insisting on taking her own course. She thought sourly that anyway, if he didn’t keep his word, she’d leave him at once.

Other women who eloped must see the man through the rosy glow of infatuation. She regarded this character from a romance with whom she had thrown in her fate with mild kindness. He had classic good looks, and she found him appealing enough as a man to have no qualms about their wedding night.

Still, she thought his courage and magnanimity only just outweighed his liking for histrionics. He could be overbearing, too. He might be her besotted admirer now, but he expected to get his own way normally. She knew she should predict his future treatment of her not by how he was with her now, but by how he treated others. She had no idea how they would get on, and couldn’t picture their future life together at all.

Realistically, it must be short, whatever his plans to escape abroad, and it scarcely seemed worth worrying about. She agreed with Mistress Kit about that, at least.

She could, of course, have married Edmund Ravensdale and made her family happy. She frowned, trying to work out in an unmaidenly way whether she would have enjoyed the wedding night with him. She’d never been able to tell if the tingling sensation he gave her, – somehow different from the ones with his cousin – meant that she found him attractive or not.

The two of them were nearly as alike as twins. Nevertheless, there was something about the respectable cousin’s expression, his tone, his personality, that made her draw back from him, even if she could have dismissed Mr Fox’s occasional dark hints about whatever part his cousin had played in his disgrace.

On the whole, she thought that wedding night would have been a chore.

Then, if he were allowed to enclose the common lands about Ravensdale Court, Edmund Ravensdale would have caused a tide of misery, which she would have tried to stem. No doubt, he would have chuckled indulgently at her. In time, she might have found out the shabby secret she suspected he hid with such suavity, joining him in hidden shame. She would have tried to expiate it by good works, hosted grand dinners and produced children, rather than the children growing out of a coming together in joy.

She would have been wretched. After some years, her spirit must have failed.

So, Isabella, spirits restored, jumped up to deal with her future rogueries just as the maid Bridget brought up her hot chocolate.

The girl looked at the tousled Isabella in her nightdress with envy and admiration. Isabella guessed that here was another of Mr Fox’s admirers.

“Mr Fox takes cold meat and small beer downstairs, and begs that you join him. But Mistress Kit said to leave you to snore, as you’ll be tired by the excitement of yesterday and he’ll have a weary wait before you finish your rouging and powdering.”

Isabella laughed. “Not I. Tell him I’ll join him betimes when I’ve made myself decent, though I’ll have to leave my hair down.”

“It is lovely hair you have, too;” the girl admitted, “Like a curtain down to your nether parts, if you’ll excuse me for mentioning them.”

“Why not mention them?” Isabella winced as she moved. “Today my rump is as sore as can be from our long ride yesterday.”

The young maid giggled, won over.

Ravensdale nearly spilt some of his beer at the sight of Isabella in her morning gown, with her hair down. The man whose room he shared, a part employed actor, had insisted on joining him for breakfast when he wanted to be alone with Isabella. Now the actor rose to bow to Isabella, while Ravensdale jumped up to place a chair for her, asking how she had slept.

Isabella reminded herself that Fox had told her she was now called Bess Green and he was Foxton.

The actor said, “Servant, Ma’am. Tobias Goodenough. So you’re to marry this young rascal Foxton against your parents’ wishes?”

Her fiancé glowered.

“I believe I am,” Isabella smiled at how little the man knew of how much of a rascal this was.

The actor heaved a sigh. “You do right.” He proffered a hand to Ravensdale, who took it, eyebrows raised.

“Ah-humph!” Mistress Kit scrutinized Isabella as she handed her a plate. Whatever her eyes sought, she didn’t seem to find it. She said, “Ah-humph!” again as she left. The actor made Ravensdale fidget through some talk about the theatre and then left too.

“I thought we’d never be rid of that babbling fool! Now I have you to myself. You look so lovely this morning…” He talked about this, his luck in having won her and his devotion until Mistress Kit came back.

“Well, my love, remember now you’re Bess, and to everyone but the Kits’, I’m Foxton the Former Footman. I must go out to arrange for the marriage licence. I know someone who can smooth things over. I must buy you a ring, too.” His eyes glowed.

“I’ll come,” Isabella was eager to explore the area and escape from Mistress Kit’s disapproval.

“Not until I’m sure we’re not still followed. Longface and I had a bathetic encounter with a pair of Runners a couple of days back, and they may still be on my trail.”

“What has become of Longface?” Isabella wondered.

“I can’t say, though I advised the fool to take up lawful employment.”

“The poor fellow seemed much attached to you.”

Ravensdale grinned. “He was as hard to shake off as a burr, and the bumbling oaf somehow deluded himself that he advised and protected me. At last I’ve rid myself of him, I hope forever.”

“Them Runners is a menace,” Mistress Kit nodded agreement, “Won’t leave an honest rogue be.”

“Morpeth was much the same,” said Isabella.

Ravensdale laughed. “With any luck he’ll be out of action for some days.”

“You’re in disguise, and I should be too, or I’ll add to your danger,” murmured Isabella.

“A false moustache, perhaps?”

“I would like that…Well, some change to my hair.”

“I could have the very thing,” Mistress Kit said. “My daughter did some amateur play acting, and we still have some of her props and very likely some false hair, too.”

Fox frowned. “Must you cover that beautiful hair with some tawdry disguise?”

Mistress Kit drew herself up. “Tawdry, young man? I’ll have you know that them tawdry notions and my girl have nothing akin. The apothecary’s assistant always said she was a lady born, and he knew what was what. He could mix a potion as well as any this side of the Thames.”

He smiled. “That being so, Mistress Kit, Miss Isabella will be grateful for any of her props for a disguise.”

Mistress Kit was not to be mollified. “Tawdry!’” she muttered under her breath, and left for the taproom, where Mr Kit stood polishing something.

Isabella, looking at her besotted admirer, was thinking how outstandingly good-looking he was, and even more so today, with his eyes sparkling and his colour up.

She wondered if she would ever melt and supposed not. There must be something wrong with her, to be unmoved by him. “I think the hair piece a good idea, Sir – Mr Foxton. I fear that now you’ve offended Mistress Kit.”

He reached over and stroked her hair. “I can’t endure for you to have this dyed – my Bess.” He laughed. “It’s easier for me to disguise myself, Nondescript as I am.”

“Oh, Lord, who told you that?”

“Poor Mistress Titmarsh. I hope I improve on acquaintance, Ma’am?”

“She mistook my meaning. I meant that your features are so regular that you have no distinguishing marks for a description – Damn it, that sounds near as bad… For instance, I have one eyebrow slightly higher than the other and a mole over it.”

“A beauty spot I’ve been longing to kiss, and now we are at last alone I shall. We’ve been engaged since yesterday, and I haven’t even had so much as one kiss.” He began to kiss her.

Isabella found that as nice as she had the other time with him. After all, she had once enjoyed kissing another – but she thrust that thought to the back of her mind.

 

Meanwhile, Mistress Kit was saying, “He’s fair besotted. I never thought such a haughty one would be taken so bad with love, but if Madam has any strong feelings for him, I’m a Dutchwoman.”

Mr Kit was more optimistic. “Women takes longer to Heat Up. You did yourself, Doll.”

“That sounds fair improper. I say this now, and you mark it: if she falls for him as he’s fallen for her, then you can expect to come across me in the pages of a one of them foolish Gothic novels, with bloodsucking bats, maidens taken hostage by wicked brigands on deserted mountainsides, true love triumphing and suchlike nonsense*.”

[_ _]

The Spirited Heroine

Goes on Being Spirited

&&

In Mr Fox’s absence, Isabella astonished Mistress Kit by offering to help in the bar.

“Mr Fox would never approve of that. Besides, you were brought up soft, and won’t cope with such work and such coarseness.”

“Surely my being your barmaid is a good disguise, if I do something with my hair? Mr Fox must see that. In fact,” Isabella smiled wickedly, “I think he ought to work there too. I’m no fine lady now, and I’ll do my best to pick the work up quickly, if Nell can show me the routine. Don’t fear my fainting if the customers swear; I will just swear back.”

So, when Reynaud and Mr Kit came through the doors of the tap room some time later, they stared at the tall, strongly made new barmaid with the brown front and two brown curls dangling at each side, the rest of her jetty hair piled loosely under a mob cap.

Her bold black eyes sparkled as she came to serve them, and Nell guffawed. Mr Kit slapped his thighs at Mr Fox’s dismay on seeing his beloved as a serving wench.

Charmed by the sight of her, he said as he rearranged her mob cap, “From such a pretty wench as you, I’ll take anything. But I’m not happy to see you where any drunken man can insult you.”

Mr Kit came up. “Any fellow who would insult a young lady as charming as Miss here ain’t the sort welcome in this bar, and I’d throw him out myself. Besides, Nell don’t take no more nonsense from anybody than Dolly.”

Mr Fox looked unconvinced. “I’ve a mind to come and keep my eye on you.”

“Perhaps the work might suit you better than a library, there’s not so much dust here,” Isabella smiled on him so that he nearly spilt some of his drink.

“Maybe he would be no good at it after all, too grand,” Nell winked at her.

“Will you bet on it?” Mr Fox rolled up his sleeves: “Instruct me.”

They did well for two hours. Then, Mr Kit, coming back from finishing a useful business deal, opened the door to have a loutish market gardener fly past him, eyes popping and still clutching his jug of porter.

 

While the cloud of social disgrace hung over Wisteria House, the neighbourhood revelled in this new scandal following on from the wonderful story of the Outlaw Earl Turned Librarian.

‘Have you heard that Miss Isabella Murray has eloped with the Highwayman Fox – who everybody knows is the Disgraced Earl? Of how he beat and stripped the thief taker who’d surprised them, so that he stumbled into the ball half-naked? You haven’t? Where have you been?

‘Now poor Miss Murray is ruined, and it’s only a matter of time until the robber is brought to the gallows. And she always sneered at romance! Clearly, that was envy all along. Now, who will deign to marry into that Murray family, for all their money? Poor Mr Ravensdale! Still, he is a fine enough catch; he’ll soon find consolation elsewhere.’

 

Dicky was not only upset about Isabella’s disgrace; he dreaded the affect it would have on his chances with Miss Caroline Smithers.

He called to pay his respects to her family a couple of days after the ball. At first, when the footman admitted that Miss Caroline was at home, Dicky was elated. He hurried into the sitting room.

As ever, a parrot squatted on its perch, dropping feathers. On Dicky’s entrance, it was sarcastic: “Who’s a pretty boy, then?”

“Sit down, Mr Dicky. There’s a good boy,” Miss Caroline’s ancient great aunt said vaguely.

Dicky supposed the last was meant for the bird.

“Fine weather,” Dicky muttered.

“God bless you,” the parrot was genial.

Miss Caroline, coming in, greeted Dicky coolly. Now he saw that he’d lost any chance with her. Her face was closed against him, though the doors weren’t. He was startled at how different this made her look, nearly admitting to himself that in middle age she would have a big chin.

She spoke of trivialities for some minutes, helped by occasional contributions from the parrot, while Dicky muttered replies almost as fatuous as the parrot’s. By then the great aunt was dozing, so Dicky could say, “We’ve not been able to trace Isabella.”

“Mercy, how sad! It’s altogether shocking.” Caroline’s hard eyes and lips told Dicky everything that he didn’t want to know. He got up abruptly, bumping into a side table, and stood staring down at her: “I must be on my way. We daily expect news of their marriage.”

“Can outlaws marry?” her eyes brightened.

“Naughty Boy! Naughty, Naughty, Tut, Tut!” said the parrot.

“Damned if I know,” Dicky had mumbled, making no apology for his language, adding before he could stop himself, “You were Miss Isabella’s friend.”

“I must forget that now,” she answered serenely.

“Damn your eyes, you scoundrel!” the parrot burst out as Dicky blundered through the door. “Hang me up like game, would you? Curse you for a son of a –” It broke off with a squawk as a ball of wool hit it on the beak.

 

Back at Wisteria Lodge, Dicky and Sir Wilfred dined alone. Lady Murray and Mistress Titmarsh were indisposed again, and Selina tearful in the schoolroom, lectured by her governess Miss Granville.

Sir Wilfred cursed, swore, and drank too much wine. “The two men are near as dammit identical, as far as I can see, so why does she have to go running off with the outlaw, bringing shame on us and ruining her sister’s chances? She might just as well have settled for Edmund Ravensdale and kept everyone happy.

“Lord or no, there’s no chance of Reynaud Ravensdale being pardoned. She must know that, so the estate’s as good as Edmund Ravensdale’s in his cousin’s lifetime, which shan’t be long, and then he’ll be the Earl himself.

“And what is to happen to her? It’s near as bad if they marry as if he’s ruined her. I wish I’d shot the damned wretch when I had the chance, the dog.”

Dicky had been upset enough by Isabella’s disgrace. Now the interview with Miss Caroline made him feel that life was hardly worth living. He muttered, “If it was any other girl, I’d say it was some romantic fancy, but not with Isa.”

“What’s that? I can’t hear you, boy!”

Dicky repeated himself and Sir Wilfred swore some more.

 

“There’s no need to take that attitude,” said Mistress Kit, “And it’s no good giving me one of them haughty looks neither. You won’t like what I must say.”

Reynaud Ravensdale glowered. “Then why say it?”

“You know it’s for your own good, and no pleasure to me. With no-one else to advise you, I must, gentry or no, though I suppose a Disgraced Earl, as I’ve heard you is, ain’t the same as a proper one.”

“Gentry?” Reynaud’s eyebrows shot up. “Well, as you like, Ma’am. You’ve been good to me after your fashion, and to my future bride too, so if you must speak, do.”

Stout Mistress Kit crossed her hefty arms. “I see you is fair besotted with Miss. Now, I like the girl. She don’t give herself airs and graces, unlike some, and she picked up that bar work speedily, but – if she loves you, I’m a Dutchwoman.

“You may scowl and draw yourself up like a wasp had burned your rump, but I’ll have my say, for I’ve become fond of you, for all them scornful ways you has. Now, if you must go getting married for sentimental reasons, then it don’t make any sense for the sentiment to be all on one side.”

Before she had half finished, he was marching about, breathing hard. It was a minute before he could say in a shaking voice, “You try my patience, Mistress Kit.”

“You may not credit it, young Fox, but it goes hard with me to say this to you. Yet, nobody else will. My Kit was adamant it weren’t his affair. But you’re laying up a misery for yourself. You marry this girl for romantic reasons; but from what I can see, she ain’t marrying you for reasons of sense or romance. I ask you plain: do you have to marry her?”

She remained unimpressed as Reynaud breathed hard, turned a thunderous look on her and demanded, “What do you mean by that, Ma’am?”

Mistress Kit said blandly, “And now, if I was a man you would knock me down. Why, is there any way that she can go back to her family? It might be the best thing if it can be done.”

“No; we were surprised by that snake of a thief taker, Morpeth. I’m obliged for your advice, Ma’am, which I know is well meant; but I didn’t seek it and I want no more of it, if I’m to remain in your house.”

“With all this stamping and snorting, you mind me of the horse that used to pull the dray cart, name of Tumpkins. Such a carry on if he was kept waiting above five minutes! Even a carrot wouldn’t quiet him then.”

She looked thoughtfully at Reynaud Ravensdale, perhaps thinking of offering him one, too. “I wouldn’t willingly go to upset you, Mr Fox. I only meant that if you’ve done what you fine folk call compromising her, and she thinks you must wed, but is in two minds about it, maybe we can think something out.”

Perhaps it was being compared to Tumpkins that made The Disgraced Earl of Ravensdale scowl even more than he had yet – but more likely, it was the thought that his beloved’s coldness to him was obvious even to Mistress Kit. He muttered, “I tell you, I want none of your advice, and no more does my fiancée.”

He left the room at speed, rushing out of the house without even his hat, though as always, he had his pistols at the ready.

Mistress Kit was sorry. She was as fond of Mr Fox as she was irritated by his superior ways. She saw that he was hopelessly in love, and resolved to tell Miss straight just how many young ladies had made a play for him.

She thought of pretty Moll Deare, who could make a better rabbit pie than anyone. Then there was that time he had been wrongfully imprisoned, escaping through a legal quibble. That genteel lady who’d even visited Mr Fox in gaol – her tears not stopping her from making cow’s eyes at him.

[_ _]

June 1789

Back in time: More of the Conniving Cousin’s Story

&&

Edmund thinks Lord Ravensdale looks purely terrible as he stands lowering in the doorway of the steward’s room. The Earl’s face is yellowish with undertones of green, his bloodshot, swollen eyes flecked by bile; his roseate nose shows hints of purple. “What are you about, poking into these damned books? Why ain’t you out with the others after the mad foxes?”

A year or so ago, he would have gone himself. Now his hands shake so that he has given up shooting. A mad animal might not be impressed by his firing into the air.

Edmund’s face burns. He realizes that Lord Ravensdale thinks he has held back out of fear. It was hatred of Captain Harding – up with Reynaud yet again from Town – that kept him from joining the careless, joking pair as they set out to deal with the menace.

Besides, it wasn’t only his feelings about Harding that kept him away.

For years, he’s tried to suppress his tormented love and hate for Reynaud, while it’s gathered force as some genie of legend shut up in a bottle. Now it threatens to explode out into the world at any moment.

Curiously mixed up with it all is the new passion for Reynaud’s own love object, which keeps Edmund from sleep and enjoying his food. Still, as he appears more or less normal, nobody notices his torment. He begins to think that no one would care if they did know – not even Marie.

Of course, she’d fussed about the others going after the foxes, clasping her hands: “What if you’re bitten?”

The young guardsmen swaggered more at her tenderness. “Then we shall foam at the mouth at the sight of our port, hey, Reynaud?” Harding grinned.

“Don’t fret, we shan’t let any of ‘em surprise us,” Reynaud smiles, pinching her nose.

Miss Georgiana is calling later this morning. Her old governess will fall asleep in a chair in the anteroom, while Reynaud kisses Georgiana quietly and tells her that he can scarcely wait for their wedding day (meaning the night).

Now, at Lord Ravensdale’s taunts, Edmund throws down his pen and leaps up from the desk. The violence of his movement makes his uncle blink, though Edmund keeps his tone calm, even amiable. “I must join them, Sir.”

He dodges past the old roué, worried even in his rage at how, close to, his uncle’s face looks even worse – he can’t live long, surely, looking like that – and rushes up to the gun room.

It is an overcast morning; the grey sky threatens rain, while the enclosing hills are part hidden by mist. As Edmund jumps the ha-ha, a cacophony of crows whirls high above him, seeming to address him.

How absurd that the ancient Greeks tried to predict the future through the activities of birds! Yet, if someone told Edmund now, that a noisy group of crows means success in love, a desperate part of his mind would snatch at it. Since meeting Miss Georgiana, he would half believe anything that offered him hope.

As he walks on, his inner torment swirls between him and the world outside. All the time, he knows that he should be alert, just in case he does come on one of the mad foxes.

The locals are in terror of them since one sprang out at a farm boy. He’d saved himself by throwing a piece of bread at it, so that it lunged at it, worrying it while the boy fled.

Still, the first supposed sighting of a fox foaming at the mouth was days back; very likely all the wretched creatures are already dead. As he walks through the field, Edmund can’t stop his mind giving him one picture after another of Miss Georgiana’s glowing beauty, her –

A shout of warning cuts through the air.

Turning, he sees Reynaud and Harding at a distance, raising their pistols, aiming to his side. He spins about. He senses what will be there even before he hears the low growl.

The fox watches him, eyes mad, foam dripping from its jaws and flecked over its coat. As he levels his gun, it leaps and a shot rings out. The fox undulates in mid-air to drop, jaw gaping, eyes going out.

Edmund looks up. Reynaud and Captain Harding are still so far away that Edmund would have thought it out of range. Yet, Reynaud’s pistol smokes and Harding throws up his hat with a cheer: “Prettily done by Gad, Ravensdale!”

“Hell and the Devil, I thought I’d miss that one.”

They laugh.

Sick horror floods over Edmund as he realizes his narrow escape from a horrible death. Then the humiliating knowledge comes on him that he owes it to Reynaud. The arrogant Viscount lounges casually towards him as if it meant nothing to him more than an outstanding shot. Instead of gratitude, sour resentment rises in Edmund like bile.

They meet, the others still laughing and joking. Captain Harding proffers his hip flask. Reynaud doesn’t even take a nip – possibly bearing in mind his promise to Miss Georgiana about taking only one glass of brandy after dinner. Harding takes a good few gulps.

Edmund declines. The thought of taking anything from Harding disgusts him.

Thanking Reynaud is one of the most difficult things he has ever done, although recently, life is suddenly as complex as he once found the maze in the grounds. “Thank you, Cousin. If you’d missed, it would’ve been me foaming at the mouth.”

This nonchalant thanks is all in line with their bravado and accepted with nods. Yet Edmund sees the contempt in Harding’s eyes. No doubt, he’s wondering what Ravensdale’s sorry cousin meant by daydreaming on a hunt for rabid animals. Words fail him. Edmund senses this has confirmed Harding’s opinion of him as a sapskull*.

They set off together in search of the other foxes, Edmund hiding the jelly of his legs. Now, too late, he’s alert. Even as his eyes cast about, he prays for one live, demented fox to hurl itself at Reynaud. Then he might repay the debt. He couldn’t say whether this longing is born out of hatred or love.

They see something reddish brown lying in the middle of a field. Another fox lies on its back, stiff paws upraised, muzzle gaping. That it has died out in the open is proof enough of its madness.

They are now near the empty Dower House, where Reynaud will take his bride. Certainly, no one sane would choose to live under the same roof as Lord Ravensdale, even in a mansion as huge as Ravensdale Court.

Captain Harding glances at the building. “Preparations for Miss Georgiana go ahead, then, eh, Ravensdale? These women and their demands.”

Commonplace enough as this remark is, Edmund senses the contempt for women underlying it. More than ever, he detests Marie’s involvement with this man.

Reynaud senses nothing. His eyes brighten and the corners of his well-shaped lips curl at the mention of his love’s name. He reaches for his watch (though never, of course, ceasing to be alert for danger). “She’s coming over now. Let’s leave this for now and join the ladies to eat.”

During the walk back to the main house, Edmund dreads Harding’s telling the adventure to the Earl and the women. He wants to go off on his own, but the others would put that down to nervousness over his narrow escape, and that would be another humiliation.

This meal shared with the girls is even worse than Edmund imagined. He is never to forget it: Harding’s recounting the story, his cold, taunting eyes sometimes meeting Edmund’s; his own assumed calm; Miss Georgiana and Marie gasping with fear; their melting glances of admiration at Reynaud, who downs his cold beef with all the appetite Edmund lacks. It all seems never ending.

“Damned good shot, I have to give it to the rogue – amazing accuracy at that distance – as quick as lightning, too. I was just raising my pistol.”

Edmund’s sure that Harding repeats this over and again. This is unusual for him, notorious wit as he is. Edmund wonders if he’s slightly drunk, though he can’t have taken enough to turn his strong head at this lunch. He must have had far more from his brandy flask than Edmund realized. Perhaps he was drinking even before that.

Though Edmund hates the pair of them passionately, he despises himself most.

Of course, today has to be the one time that the Earl takes a meal in the middle of the day. He glares at Edmund. “That comes of nosing about in those account books all morning like some blasted clerk.”

The only thing Edmund can do is to pretend to be unmoved by any of it. Meanwhile, the genie-like power of his feelings threatens to launch him from his seat to commit some outrage – tearing off Harding’s moustache, perhaps, or thrusting the hero of the hour’s face down into his plate and rubbing it briskly about among the meat scraps.

At last, the meal ends. Marie rises early, as she has some business at the rectory, Edmund hasn’t taken in what. Miss Georgiana rises to visit somewhere unspecified, as ladies do after meals. Lord Ravensdale goes to doze in his study. Reynaud leaves to check on something in the gun room – the remaining supply of heroics left to him for the rest of the day, perhaps.

Edmund wanders, tormented, lost for purpose, over to the window at the end of the corridor near the drawing room. Outside, blackbirds peck about in the grass on a side lawn, happily unaware of the complex torments of human life.

Edmund finds his own life suddenly intolerable. In his contained rage – so different from the rages that would have contorted him within weeks, if that fox had savaged him – he even thinks of going to sea. As a boy, he’d dreamed wildly of becoming a buccaneer*.

Miss Georgiana and Harding’s voices drift through the open door of the drawing room. Harding’s sudden laugh rings out. Edmund hates that laugh. He curses the day that careless, unthinking, arrogant Reynaud Ravensdale brought him back here.

“You insult me, Sir!” Miss Georgiana’s voice, sharp and clear, startles Edmund back to the present. He turns, hearing Harding laugh again, and sees Reynaud stride rapidly up to the door, to pause at Harding’s next words.

“How so? It’s true enough. No woman’s to be trusted, least of all one who’s been as spoilt as you. I at least, have the sense to look for a chit who’s too young for that, and I may have found her in little Miss Marie, but I’m not sanguine. Even she –”

Edmund finds himself rushing to the door. Reynaud leaps through it and blocks the way: “Insult you, Miss Georgiana? Please leave us.”

“Oh, Reynaud, don’t fight over this –”

“Miss Georgiana, please leave us,” Reynaud speaks through his teeth, holding the door open.

Edmund has to stand back to let her pass. She sobs at him: “Do stop them fighting!”

“I will indeed, I shall fight him myself.”

Harding – whom Edmund now sees is half drunk – sneers like a stage villain, his teeth flashing under his hateful black moustache: “You dupe, Ravensdale. You all cower from the truth behind your idols’ dirty petticoats.”

Reynaud’s blow knocks him backwards. He rocks on his feet, blood coming bright against the darkness of his moustache; unable to regain his balance, he falls, rattling the fire irons.

Reynaud shouts, “You miserable cur, if you open your damned mouth once more I’ll shoot you on the spot!”

Even as he starts forward, Edmund realizes that his cousin does have his pistol.

Harding’ draws out his handkerchief and rises from the floor. His voice comes slurred by his bleeding nose. “You will pay for that with a bullet, Ravensdale. Your lucky shot earlier don’t mean a damn; I can drill you at any time. Yet it’s a pity, for I like Miss Marie well, and if I drop you, that ends my chance with her. ”

This speech seems to Edmund so suited to Harding’s moustached, villainous look, it’s as if he is acting a role in a play. Even as he thinks this, Edmund plays his own part, trying to get past Reynaud, raging, “You, marry my sister?”

Reynaud shoves Edmund back, shouting him down: “Meet me in five minutes, you damned sneaking coward! The far paddock. Where’s your weapon? ”

Harding did hear Edmund; now his glance rests briefly on him, as on a droning insect. “I’ll let the Mollie* live.” He returns his glare to Reynaud, “So then, that far meadow in five minutes, you idiot.” He turns on his heel and steps out through the great low window.

Reynaud rushes out of the door, nearly bumping into a staring footman in the hall. Edmund hears Miss Georgiana’s voice break out in pleas as she runs up to him.

A storm of rage hurtles about Edmund’s head. He jumps through the window after Harding, shouting: “You, Harding, stop!”

Harding strides on. Edmund runs to grab his arm.

“Get off me!” Without even looking at him, the wiry Harding wrenches his arm free, hurling Edmund to the ground.

Edmund finds himself sitting in a dried puddle, shouting threats and abuse while Harding strides away, wrenching open the door in the arch in the wall leading to the back drive. Edmund hears the end of his own sentence: “You disgusting hound, meet me! I challenged you before my cousin!”

Then, Harding does glance back at him. Edmund is forever to remember him, poised in the door in the wall, contempt painted on his face: “I didn’t hear you, Ravensdale.” He laughs sneeringly: “You don’t want me to hurt your pretty cousin, is that it? He’s as near beautiful as men come, eh? I’ve seen you gaze yearning on him when you thought nobody saw – pity for you it’s the petticoats he likes. Have a care, Sir; men like you end up in the pillory.*”

&10. Melting Cousin&

June 1792

The Conniving Cousin Melts a Little Over the Heroine

&&

E&dmund Ravensdale looked almost passionate. &“It’s unaccountable!” he said for the third time. Marie Ravensdale raised her eyebrows, and said, “But does it come as such a surprise to you, Edmund?”

Edmund was marching about in the manner of his outlaw cousin. Now he turned. “Only because it’s Isabella Murray. Cousin Reynaud could always beguile the ladies, but it’s unaccountable for a woman of sense, if strong feeling, like her, to act so foolishly. I forget, though, you saw her mainly when she was putting on a vulgar act to defy her parents.”

Marie cleared her throat. “But Edmund – I’m sorry to say this, but if she was willing to put on that act, she must have been determined against you?”

He looked stung. She added hastily, “It is all very strange, as you say.”

“It may be that this elopement isn’t a sudden thing. I remember when I showed the Murrays over the grounds, Miss Murray urged me to help our unhappy relative. She passed her interest off as disgust with the Bloody Code. Clearly it was a more than that.”

Thinking of Reynaud’s visit, he brooded. He had kept that a secret from Marie, knowing how she would reproach him for quarrelling with Reynaud rather than helping him. He felt guilty enough without that. He said carefully, “I was a fool not to have guessed how they must have been in contact since his gang of ruffians held up the Murray’s carriage weeks since.”

Edmund went on, “Of course, turning up in her house in disguise is just the sort of idiocy that would appeal to him. But it’s still unaccountable in her, Marie! She laughed about some footling novel her sister was reading called, ‘The Heir Misjudged and Disgraced’ or some such thing. Now she acts just like the heroine in such nonsense! You may rely on Cousin Reynaud to play his own part in the drama with a will.”

Her lips twitched, and to her astonishment, his did too. “Yes, I do see the whole situation is laughable. How absurd that I didn’t recognize him, even in that strange wig and eyeglasses! I noted, ‘I know that line of nose and chin’ when I glanced down the table once or twice. I never thought that it belonged in my own mirror.”

He noticed her reddening, and suddenly pounced: “Marie! I believe you knew him all along. ”

Now it was her turn to rise and walk about. “Supposing I did, Edmund, what was I to do? I couldn’t betray him. I was sure his purpose there wasn’t sinister, and so –”

He said sourly, “I see. You always were particularly fond of the rascal. In this case, he might as just as well have been your brother rather than I, with the partiality you have shown towards him.”

She stood up. “That’s quite unjust, Edmund. I was in an impossible position. I had no idea about Miss Isabella’s feelings towards either of you, though she behaved so strangely during her visit that I urged you, as well you know, to reconsider the match.”

Edmund Ravensdale took another walk, and then paused at the windows, staring out at the maze. He remembered rioting about in it as a boy with Reynaud and sometimes, on his visits from France or Dubois Court to the north of the county, Émile Dubois. Still, this had no softening effect on him.

Having let his normal self-control slip with the only person who had sympathized with him in his humiliation – at least in words – he demeaned himself further: “That swaggering, selfish, arrogant fool always won people’s hearts; they never look deeper than to be amused.”

“If that was at all true of other people, you should know it never has been true of me. Edmund, it’s all so unlucky, following on from your both liking Miss Georgiana. To be sure, though, if anyone suffered most over that apart from poor Captain Harding, it was Reynaud –” she broke off, feeling she had been insensitive.

Her brother always looked wretched at the mention of the captain’s death and that miserable day. She had often sensed that he suffered over it more than she did, and she couldn’t understand why, when he had disliked Captain Harding, warning her against him, and his sympathy for Reynaud and his enforced flight was so limited.

For her own part, perhaps because she had been so young, her roguish admirer was never truly real as a man to her, more Reynaud’s friend destroyed than her suitor.

Edmund now said, “I hope you don’t believe I’ve been unfeeling to you over – over the Captain’s death. I know how he distinguished you. I’m sorry to speak plain: I hope you begin to see the cold-hearted villain he was. The scorn he voiced that day for women was his true opinion. People thought he was joking, but he meant his bitter gibes.”

“I don’t believe he wanted to think like that, though.” Marie frowned, still more puzzled about what it could be that so distressed him about that day, but then abandoned trying to unlock the mystery.

Edmund’s motives were sometimes as obscure to her as they had been when she looked up to him as wonderfully old and experienced.

“But never mind about Captain Harding, now, Edmund –” Marie began, but Edmund cut in with unusual rudeness.

“How do you know I cared for Miss Georgiana? I had a weakness for her, I own. I was fighting myself over it. No, don’t explain your female intuition. We were all fools; I only hope she’s happy with her sugar merchant.”

“I’m sorry to say I hope that she isn’t,” Marie retorted, “Even though I know she wasn’t to blame.”

“I don’t wish our talk to turn into yet another discussion about our idiotic cousin and his misfortunes, Marie. If only he hadn’t come back into the area, we would all have been saved a deal of trouble. Still, his chief talent was always for creating as much of that as he knew how.”

Marie came to join him at the window, putting her hand on his arm. “I’ve often wished that you would be more open, Edmund! It isn’t weakness to admit to a sense of grievance over Miss Isabella’s going away with Reynaud. I think she beguiled you more than a little. Your overlooking her vulgar act during her visit shows how you did like her.”

“I think this openness you urge on me a weakness, and I’ve given in to it too much today already,” Edmund said sourly. “But to answer your question, Marie, I don’t know what my feelings were for Miss Isabella. I admired an untamed quality in her, which made me overlook every impropriety up to this last.”

Suddenly, their replacement parrot, who spoke but rarely, shrilled, “Like a foxhunt, it was.” As Edmund glared at it, it added, head on one side as if assessing him, “Be Lucky, Your Honour.”

They turned at a scratching at the door. A footman announced: “The guests are come, Sir. I showed them into the front sitting room.”

“I’ll be along now.”

Marie said, “I’ll join you soon.”

As her brother went out, she stood staring at the maze where she had often deliberately lost herself as a child.

The servants had a horror of it. The story went that it was haunted. Many years before, the second Lord Ravensdale had been found stretched out dead of an apoplectic fit in it. The fact that he drank three bottles of strong wine a day wasn’t thought relevant. From then on, the maze was said to have a curse on it, and so the servants had sent the boys in to find little Marie, rather than go themselves.

Edmund would wear himself out searching and calling. Reynaud would bring in some hardbake*, and sit teasing Marie that he was eating it all. This never failed to bring her rushing from her hiding place within two minutes.

[_ _]

June 1792

Too Stubborn

— Even for a Spirited Heroine

&&

Somehow, as they waited for the wedding, Isabella and Mr Fox settled down into a routine at the inn in Kensington as they had at Wisteria House.

At first, she dreaded her father and brother turning up at any moment. Even worse, Morpeth might appear, burning for revenge. As the days passed and none of them came, she relaxed a little.

She wasn’t looking forward particularly to marrying Reynaud Ravensdale. With detached surprise, she realized now and then that she would then be the Countess of Ravensdale. This was a bitter irony; normally, there could nothing that her parents would have liked more.

She felt that she had been weak in agreeing to marry him. She wished that she had gone out and done her best as a Gentlewoman of the Road by herself.

Yet, as she saw how clumsy her shooting was, compared to his; she wondered if he was right to say that she would have been shot down on her first attempt. Then she remembered that he was famous – or infamous – as a brilliant shot, and felt resentful.

Still, there were all the other aspects of the trade. He was certainly right in claiming that it was becoming more hazardous, with the patrols and the tollgates.

Meanwhile, she enjoyed helping behind the bar. The others said it was the novelty, but it was also something to distract her from missing her family. When alone, she shed tears over that. Mistress Kit only saw Isabella’s outward calm and her indifference towards her besotted admirer, and thought her heartless.

Mr Fox knew otherwise. Once she had let go. She was sobbing with her head on her arms at the windowsill in their private sitting room, when he came into the room. She only realized his presence as he knelt down on the floor behind her.

“You weep over your family,” he said, “And it goes to my heart, because I know that sorrow myself so well, and I’ve played my part in your separation from them.”

She blew her nose. “It must have come to my leaving them anyway.”

He took her hand and kissed it. “I will anyway cherish you.”

She wished she could make the same promise. She didn’t turn about, ashamed of her reddened face and swollen eyes.

Mr Fox snorted at his beloved working as a tavern wench, but couldn’t object to it as a practical form of disguise. In his anxiety to keep her from insult, he even joined her now and then.

This wasn’t successful. Following on from the market gardener, he threw two more customers through the door in as many days, and refused to serve several more, insisting that they were too drunk to be fit for a respectable female’s company.

Nell bent double with laughter, and Mr Kit shook his head and said they would have no trade at this rate.

Besides this, when one thirsty and weary traveller shouted at the new man for service, he got from this arrogant barman, as he later told his friends, ‘Such a look as you’d think it was some lord I’d called to wait on me.’

“I’m causing you to run through a series of occupations. Librarian, weapons tutor, and Mr Foxton, the former footman,” Isabella said, as they went out for her daily target practice in a nearby field, with her pistol modestly concealed in a basket. “But you shouldn’t be so concerned about my meeting with coarseness. I must come by enough of it in our trade.”

This didn’t seem to mollify him. He looked dissatisfied, and she hoped he wasn’t on the brink of another outburst about having destroyed his future, and therefore what he could offer her. It came to her that she hadn’t heard him express much regret about Captain Harding’s destruction, whatever Mr Fox’s own role in that.

They passed a man leaning against the inn wall as he noisily relieved himself. Mr Fox looked outraged, moving to shelter Isabella from the sight. As they came up to the field, he said, “I gave you my word, but I wish more each day that you would reconsider joining me.”

“I shan’t, so please don’t start on that tack again, now we have an agreement.” Isabella’s eyes flared. If he did try to back out of his part of their understanding, it would be just as well if he did it now, before they were married. Breaking away from him would be less complicated now.

He drew back, looking stung, and sulked briefly. She ignored this, sniffing at the wild flowers in the hedgerow and listening to the song of the birds instead. It was another such summer’s afternoon as they had enjoyed in the meadow at Wisteria House, when time seemed to stop for joy of the day.

After a while – as Isabella refused to notice his indignation – he tried to swallow it. When he next spoke, it was lightly, “I’ll take a bet that you won’t enjoy the real business of highway robbery. I suspect you have a tender heart after all. I see signs of it every day.” He grinned.

I fear not enough, so far as you are concerned, My Lord.

“We each gave our promise on that.”

“We did,” he lifted a bramble for her. She pulled up her skirts and jumped carelessly over the stile, ignoring his proffered arm. He sprang after her. “And I’ll keep my word, though it stands to reason I want you as my wife, not as a fellow highway robber.”

Isabella didn’t see that it stood to reason at all. Still, her thinking on this point, as on so many others, was eccentric.

Her shooting lesson went perfectly. As her shot tore through the target at the longest distance yet, her tutor robber pulled off his hat and waved it wildly, as Flashy Jack had on the day that they had first met. “Excellent! We’ll make a crack shot of you yet!”

She beamed at him. “I want to try again!”

“No, no more for today. You tire; always end on as good a note as you can.”

“You sing and I don’t, so you should know.”

He looked round from dismantling the target. “Won’t you join me in a song now, to celebrate your prowess, my sweet?”

“No: I never sing. Look, a man watches us.”

Ravensdale amiably greeted the man staring them over the hedge. He reminded Isabella of Longface, with his lantern jaw, missing teeth and slightly confused look. If he put Ravensdale in mind of him too, he showed no sign of it. He strolled over to talk, while Isabella tied on her bonnet.

“Women and firearms don’t mix.”

“We have no choice, friend,” Mr Fox told him. “With the way the roads are still infested with robbers, despite the toll roads, a lady must learn to defend herself too.”

“Them robbers is nasty,” the man shook his head.

“There’s no doubt that they can be. What are you about, dropping your money so? What do you mean, it’s not yours? It ain’t mine, though if I was less honest I’d say otherwise.”

As the man went off, the coin in his pocket, Mr Fox laughed. Isabella liked him in this mood, as she had back home, when he wasn’t being a dramatic or romantic figure at all. “I’m happy my aim improves; I’ve no wish to be a liability to you,” she said.

His eyebrows were up. “A liability? I’d never think of applying such a term to you. Longface was a liability; you are my darling. Come here and let me kiss you.”

“If you come here, I might let you kiss me.” As she stood listening to the chirping of the crickets in the afternoon heat, Isabella realised, as if for the first time, how they only had each other.

She remembered how he had asked her to try to love him a little in return. She saw that they must try to make each other happy. Thinking this, she walked to meet him halfway, and he laughed, and began to untie her bonnet strings again.

 

“Only a couple of days,” the Disgraced Earl told Isabella some while later. They were lounging against a hillock near the hedge, her head against his muscular shoulder, which made a nicely firm resting place. “Then you shall be mine. But if only I had acted other than as a fool three years back, how much happier things could be! I would have had your parents’ consent and would be carrying you over the threshold of Ravensdale Court, as you deserve, instead of rooms in a common inn.

“My only problem then would have been winning you over. As it is, it’s my main, but hardly my only, concern. You marry an outlaw, chased about the country by Bow Street Runners and thief takers.

“We mustn’t linger in the country long, or they must take us. I always used to laugh and say I had nine lives, but I don’t feel that you have. Yours is too precious, while surely I must have squandered most of mine, which is a lesser consideration. I won’t press you further not to join me as a robber; still, that you might come into danger through me is intolerable to me.”

“You remember my saying I was ready to kick over the traces before we met,” Isabella spoke lightly. “Also, my father, though more indulgent than my mother, had warned me that they would allow me to turn down three suitors, but I must take the fourth, if he were acceptable in looks and address. I had decided I couldn’t endure to be married off so, and the fourth chanced to be your cousin.”

He scowled. “I suffered agonies, as I stood in the garden, watching him pay court to you. I yearned to wing him then, for all our shared boyhood. If my fingers hadn’t touched your handkerchief –” he broke off, and Isabella knew that they were both thinking of the same thing.

Finally, he said, “I haven’t told you about Captain Harding’s shooting. I should have told you before, but I hate to speak of my idiocy. Hell and the Devil! Besides, in telling you that miserable story, I must speak to you of another young lady.

“I make no claims to understanding the female heart, but it seems to me that any man who speaks warmly to his future bride of another woman is a prize fool, and storing up deserved trouble for himself, while it’s a shabby thing for a man to speak slightingly of a previous love.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever liked you so much as at this moment,” Isabella kissed him on the nose, but he flinched back, looking annoyed:

“I don’t want you to like me at all! Remember what I said on how far ‘liking’ takes a man into a woman’s affections.”

“Remember too, how I disagreed with you,” Isabella was stung at this reaction to her unusual warmth, but went on, “Of course, I knew that the duel was to be over Miss Georgiana, your then fiancée.”

He sat up fully, and held her at arm’s length, looking at her with a sort of anguish and entreaty that touched her. “What else did you hear? But tell me first – do you suspect – even slightly – that I[_ _]would act against all honour, even in such a rage as I was? Others may believe what they choose, but for you to believe it –”

She shook her head and had to smile. “Not for a moment. I believe that you would indeed act (she had seen him at it often enough), but never against all honour.”

He relaxed slightly, sighing. “I am happy to hear you say that. Now tell me what you heard. It’s generally believed I shot Harding down in a fit of rage at some taunt of his, before we began.”

“The story that I heard came from my friend Anne and my sister Selina. By the way, Selina’s a great supporter of yours, insisting that you are misjudged.”

He said wryly, “Then I’m grateful to Miss Selina, and if ever I’m in a position to repay her for her support, I will.”

Isabella didn’t want to think of Selina. She went on, “She heard how the servants came running, along with your cousin. Captain Harding lay dying and said something about, ‘Shot before the damned duel’, and something about a woman’s name –‘Mollie’, I think, – but that it made no sense. You were bending down to him; Miss Georgiana was half fainting, and saying, ‘He didn’t mean to shoot!’”

He released her and got up to stand staring at a tree, arms folded. “I slipped and my pistol went off accidentally. Yet though in that moment all was confusion, I could have sworn, even then, that the angle was such that the shot could not have hit his trunk, and that I heard a second shot.

“But who would believe in such a co-incidence? Though I never meant to do more than wing him, why should anyone take my word for it? One of the servants had heard me shout in my rage how if he spoke again, I’d kill him on the spot. That man left us that same week, and talked much.”

“That was bad luck,” Isabella murmured.

He turned to lean against the tree. “Up in the meadow above, Farmer Bright fired on what he took to be one of the rabid foxes Harding and I had been after earlier that day – as near as dammit at the same time. He said he hardly noticed the noise of the other firing, but then the beast ran off and he took in what was happening below.

“Edmund and the servants came running. Some said they heard two shots, some, one, others hadn’t counted – all was confusion. As I crouched over Harding, realizing that my life was slipping away as well as his – I knew none would believe my story. Edmund and a couple of servants came in time to hear his last words. I didn’t trouble explaining what I sensed.”

“And your cousin?” asked Isabella, remembering how strange Edmund Ravensdale had looked when he had heard Dicky telling Miss Caroline about that play with the title ‘The Unknown Love or the Unknown Betrayal’.

Their eyes met. “The servants came with him. He said he couldn’t distinguish one shot from another.”

“Humph. And the duel was over Miss Georgiana?”

“Harding insulted her: he was a cynical dog. Of course, I resented that.”

“I wonder she didn’t speak out in your favour,” Isabella said tartly.

He paused again, smiling sourly. “Miss Georgiana confirmed that I staggered and my pistol fired accidentally. Still, she was hardly in a state to notice the order of events, and people scarce took her view as impartial. I was glad to spare her appearing in court, anyway.

“As he was a peer, she supposed that court would have been the House of Lords. She couldn’t help wondering if he had been quite as glad to spare his lost love, after she married the sugar merchant’s heir.”

He got up and cursed fate, then turned. “Isabella, would you marry me without hearing any more of it? I can’t tell you more without breaking my word. I wish I hadn’t given it, as I would rather have no secrets between us and let you know the whole dismal story.

“Still, whether I went round telling the world my version or no, made no difference to the chances of my being cleared of Harding’s murder, though I have longed to speak out, more than you can imagine. Few believe me anyway: that you are one of those is a blessing indeed.”

She went over to him and taking his face between her hands, kissed him. “Yes, my dear. I do believe you.”

I suspect Edmund Ravensdale keeps silence about something, just as you do, but for less admirable reasons. I’m sure yours involve Miss Georgiana. Very likely, at this late date nothing can be proved. Still, I wish I could confront the Conniving Cousin over his duplicity.

She said aloud, “It makes little difference, anyway. Would you mind my asking; what do you feel about Captain Harding’s death?”

He stopped still. “Sometimes, when something funny happens, I think, ‘[_That’s devilish funny; I must tell Harding’. _]Then I remember, and it’s like a dousing in iced water.”

“I should have known you’d feel so.” She brooded a moment. She knew from Dicky that the jury would probably acquit a man who had acted according to the code of honour in a duel. One who was suspected of shooting his opponent on the way to that duel was a different matter, whatever the provocation. So, in becoming a fugitive, the then Viscount might have done the best thing.

She found herself disliking Miss Georgiana for causing all this trouble. Then, she rebuked herself for blaming the woman as people always did.

He lifted her and kissed her passionately. She kissed him back, forgetting all about Miss Georgina. As she caressed his lips with hers, the vague thought came how lucky it was that she enjoyed this as much with him as she had with another so long ago.

Her present admirer said, “There’s no-one like you. You’re too good for such a wretch as me. I know well that if you set the law at naught, it’s for moral reasons that your delightful gypsyish head has worked out as abstract theory, knowing nothing of the brutal reality.”

It was her turn to sulk. She wandered off in silence to gaze at the butterflies. He came over to kiss her hand. “Meeting you more than makes up for any misfortunes I’ve brought on myself.”

They went home to dinner with Mr and Mistress Kit and the other long-term guest, Mr Goodenough.

 

During this time, Reynaud took Isabella out to public assemblies. She enjoyed these trips. He was always in high spirits and a good dancer. He’d shaved off his moustache, but kept his hair dyed a darker shade.

“I’ve never seen you with your own hair colour,” she realized, as he led her through a country dance (she always resented being led, wishing to lead herself, another of her strange ideas). “The first time we met, you had your hat pulled low; then at Wisteria House you had it covered with that ridiculous wig, though I saw reddish brown hair at the back. Do tell me what colour it is?.”

“Nondescript?” his eyes twinkled.

“You won’t let me easily forget that!”

“People called it ‘chestnut’. Anyway, it’s nothing like as striking as your lovely black mane. It’s damnable that you must have it partially hidden by those hairpieces.”

Isabella had wanted to dye her own hair, but as it was so dark, Mistress Kit said it would have to be lightened, and wouldn’t look natural. Isabella’s admirer was relieved. She worried that it increased their chances of being identified.

[_ _]

June 1789

Back in time: More of the Conniving Cousin’s Story

&&

The door of the arch slams behind Harding. Edmund sits on a dried puddle, uncaring of the mud soiling the back of his breeches.

Edmund has never thought such anger possible. It tears through his mind like a hurricane, overturning structures erected for life, flinging aside everything in its path, relentless, merciless, unstoppable.

He sits in the mud trying to fight the blast.

He loses.

Captain Harding’s cold eyes have seen Edmund’s secret longing for Reynaud; his low mind has filtered the information. He’s said those words – nothing can ever undo them, and Edmund’s humiliation is complete.

Ironically, Edmund now longs for his cousin’s fiancée as much, if not more, than he desires that wicked, swaggering, oblivious rogue himself – but that is just another sorrow and humiliation. Harding, insensitive though he may be, has somehow discerned what Edmund has always kept hidden, for a long time even from himself – and trampled it in the mud. Nothing can put that right but duelling with Harding himself, and the wretch won’t accept his challenge.

Edmund suddenly leaps up. Indifferent to the absurd figure he must cut in his mud stained breeches, he rushes back into the house, heading for the weapons room.

He passes only one little maid on the way. She looks scared – maybe at his expression, but very likely, she heard the shouting and threats earlier, while Miss Georgiana’s hysterics must have roused the whole household. She’s vanished too. Edmund thinks he hears distant sobs, but he’s not sure these aren’t in his head.

All is quiet; it seems to Edmund, unnaturally so.

Of course, it’s probably dinner hour in the servants’ hall. In his distraction, Edmund has forgotten what time that is.

The Earl of Ravensdale hasn’t come roaring from his lair. No doubt, he sleeps off his morning’s self-destruction in his study near the back of the house, oblivious to the threat to the succession to his domain.

The weapons room is empty. Reynaud has already gone to stride up the paths, jump the ha-ha and spring over the turf to meet Harding.

Edmund loads his favourite pistol, thumping down the wadding with curses. He hates Reynaud nearly as much as he hates Harding, hates him with a burning passion of jealous envy, wants both him and Harding underground and his torment buried with the pair of them.

A strand of reason, still intact after the whirlwind of rage surged through Edmund’s mind, warns him that he is acting madly. If he sets aside his humiliation at Harding’s guessing his love for Reynaud, what he longed for has happened. Marie should be safe from Harding through this duel, even if he and Reynaud only wound each other slightly.

Yet Edmund can’t be sure. On the walk to the top meadow both may calm down enough to decide to shoot up into the air. Possibly, Harding might sober up enough to apologize to Reynaud. They may even stay friends, duel or not.

Intolerable pictures flash through Edmund’s mind…

He sees the Captain’s sneering look at him: ‘I’ve apologized to Lord Ravensdale, you know. It’s all settled.’

He pictures his own shaking rage: ‘But not to me, Harding. What of my own challenge?’

Harding will laugh scornfully: ‘No, damn me, come to think on it, I ain’t. I apologize for saying you were in love with the Viscount here.’

Edmund can hear Reynaud’s incredulous laugh, see understanding dawn in his yes, dread the coming look of suspicion…

Edmund puts his pistol in his pocket and marches along the corridors and out via a side door. He meets nobody. He sees nobody on his way through the grounds, save a distant gardener in the woods, hacking at a fallen log.

He takes the hidden walk between two high hedgerows that runs parallel to the main one leading past the walled orchard, up to the fields. This has always been his favourite. since he used it for imaginative play as a boy. He goes that way automatically now.

He hears sobbing breaths. Through the bushes, he sees Miss Georgiana rushing up the other path, skirts raised in one hand, her golden curls tumbling loose as she runs.

Then he’s at the top of the path. Here the view opens out, though this walk is still sheltered from view by a planting of ornamental shrubs.

Reynaud and Harding are in front of him at the bottom of the paddock. Reynaud is just over the ha-ha, Harding some yards in front of him. They stand facing each other, readying their pistols, their posture showing that there has been no reconciliation. Suddenly, Harding shouts out a series of taunts about jades and dupes.

At the same time, Miss Georgiana calls out as she rushes up from the other path, jumping over the ha-ha in a whirl of petticoats. She scrambles up the side of the ditch to throw herself at Reynaud, wailing, wrenching at his right arm.

&11. The Wedding&

June 1792

The Wedding[]

&&

T&he day came for which &Mr Fox paced and sighed, and he and Isabella went to be married, using altered names. Isabella wondered about the legality of the union. Shockingly, she didn’t care really.

Mistress Kit and Nell were superstitious. They insisted that the groom not see the bride before the wedding. Isabella wore the lemon coloured dress that Mr Fox loved (one of the few she’d taken with her on her flight) with a matching bonnet, which he insisted she have made up. She left off the false front and hairpieces that he detested. This might increase the chances of discovery, but he had pleaded for her to have it that way on their wedding day.

She was haunted by a ridiculous picture of Morpeth rising from the back of the church, pistol in hand, to challenge them at the end of the ceremony.

Mistress Kit, front severely curled and laced alarmingly, came up as Bridget finished Isabella’s hair. She took over, sending the maid off on some errand. Isabella, uncomfortable enough in her own stays, wondered Mistress Kit didn’t burst out of hers.

Mistress Kit placed a hand at either side of her hefty waist, huffed, and began: “Young Fox is fair besotted with you. There’s this here Becoming Modesty, but while I like you, Miss Isabella, I see that ain’t how things are with you, and I think you lack warm feelings toward the gentleman.

“If you swear yourself to him in this ‘ere ceremony, it’s only right that you try and make him happy. Don’t think I haven’t told him this, but he were affronted and stalked out. I’ve held my peace since, but now at the last I must speak out, even if it means your not turning up and humiliation for the rash young buck.”

Isabella frowned. She might like plain speaking in general, but she was no more fond than normal of being seen in a poor light. Besides, she’d thought she was acting much more warmly to Reynaud lately.

She said blandly, “You are so right, Mistress Kit. It’s unlucky that he’s fixed on me, when any number of other women would appreciate him far more.”

“Are you sure you act for the best in going ahead with this? You’re letting yourself in for a hard enough life; you would be if you doted on the young rascal.”

Isabella smiled. “I thank you for your concern, Mistress Kit, but we’re of an age to know our own minds. I’m not one for excessive sensibility. He knows that.”

“This here ‘excessive sensibility’ don’t sound a useful quality in an outlaw’s wife. I didn’t mean none of that.”

“Then we’re in agreement, Mistress Kit. Come, you can’t scold me into being in love; I’ll do my best to be good to him.”

Mistress Kit removed her hands from her waist. “There goes the church clock, and time to leave.”

In the church, Mr Fox, wearing a blue coat, looked more handsome than ever. He had as best man another scoundrel known as Feet. Feet looked cadaverous enough to be in need of Kate’s Pedlar’s Cure, but he smiled warmly. Nell, flowers in her bonnet, was Isabella’s matron of honour.

After the ceremony, Isabella realized that she was now not only – incredibly – married to Mr Fox the outlaw, but was now also the Countess of Ravensdale. This wasn’t a title her mother was ever likely to boast about.

Morpeth didn’t appear. Instead, they went back to celebrate in a private room at the inn.

Feet was just urging everyone to raise their glasses to the bride and groom when the door flung open.

Isabella’s heart jumped. Then she recognized Flashy Jack, streaks of bright blond hair showing through the brown dye, standing there laughing with his hat in his hands. “Fox! When they said there was a private wedding party, I never thought it would be yours.”

Reynaud came over to clap him on the back. “Flashy! You’re just in time to drink our health. The last word I had of you, you’d shaken off two thief takers chasing you hot foot to town.”

“The loobies followed me into the streets round St Gilles’*, and had no more sense than to try and take me in the Black Bull. They soon came out again with boots at their rumps. But enough of that. So, Mistress, may I salute you?”

Nell handed Jack a glass, and kissing Isabella, he said, “Sure we’ve met before! You’re the young lady who put down Filthy Fred with as pretty a straight jab as ever I saw.”

Isabella laughed too. “I don’t even remember striking him, I was so angry.”

Mr and Mistress Kit, for perhaps the first time in their lives, looked shocked.

Mr Fox glowed. “That’s how she conquered me; that and pointing out the error of our ways in not making common cause with the poor and downtrodden.”

Mistress Kit clicked her tongue. Highway robbery was one thing; calling the social order into question was quite another. She shook her head. Somehow, such notions fitted in with Isabella’s indifference to Mr Fox’s manly charm.

Flashy Jack went on, “And after that, this rogue groaned of a night and left his food, so we feared him in a decline. Now that’s all explained.”

The others called for a speech. He rose and smiled all round. “Not wishing to speak indiscreetly – you never know who may be listening – I’ve known Mr Fox here two years, and he’s as sturdy a man in a times of hazard as any I’ve met. He’s as fine a companion for a good evening in the tavern, and will carry you home if needed, and did as much for me once, as I would do for him, and that’s what I name a gentleman. He deserves to marry the woman he’s set his heart on. The new Mistress Fox is a woman of spirit, as is needful, and I wish them all the joy in the world. Their health, everyone!”

Feet broke into loud applause. “As fine a speech as ever I heard!”

Later in the wedding feast, Flashy Jack asked Mr Fox, “Where’s Longface? He always followed you like some faithful hound. Ain’t he invited?”

Mr Fox grinned. “I’d tried to escape his plaguey devotion this past year, while he led the thief takers and troops to me over and again, as you’ve seen now and then yourself. I heartily cursed him, telling him to go, but there was no more shaking him off than a leech. Now at last, I’m free of him.”

Isabella felt a pang for Longface. Mr Fox went on, “Last time he turned up in the company of two well-wishers from Bow Street – invisible to him, of course – and they near as dammit had us both. That was the day before Miss –” he corrected himself delightedly, “I mean My Wife, was to come away with me. I told him that now I had someone else to look out for, I couldn’t be burdened with him any longer, and at last the fool accepted his dismissal.”

“The poor fellow,” murmured Isabella.

Mr Fox laughed some more. “I told him once again to take up some trade for which he has a little more talent, poor idiot. Your health, Jack, and let’s drink another one to the loveliest woman in the world.”

“If you toast such a woman, that will make me feel neglected on my wedding day,” laughed Isabella.

Her devoted admirer murmured, “You deserve that title, and I wish all the others I give you counted for something.”

 

Isabella was impressed with the ease with which her groom carried her over the threshold of their rooms, hefty though she was. Dicky had cursed her weight when he’d once had to give her a piggyback on a walk when she had twisted her ankle.

She held the candle, though they hardly needed it in this west facing room at midsummer, even so late. She felt like giggling. “Please don’t apologize for this not being Ravensdale Court. Bridget has decked the rooms out with flowers, and these are Mistress Kit’s prized Guest Apartments. Things are as they are, and we must enjoy them as best we can. Had you kept your status, you would have been long married. And even if you weren’t, you would never have looked at me.”

“Haven’t I told you that I must love you, if you were a kitchen wench? But your kind words partly reconcile me to not being able to offer you everything that I have.” He paused to kiss her nose before placing her gently on the bed.

“What a handsome rascal you are,” she smiled. This was certainly an unbecoming speech for a bride. She should have her hands covering her face, while pleading for her hartshorn.

Instead, she ran a hand down his face, thinking how nature had risen to the rank of a master craftsman in making it. It was such a superior work to those ill matched ones churned out by the thousand. He had none of the irregularities of feature given to almost everyone else, and seemingly no flaws.

From what she’d seen of his build, this ridiculous perfection seemed to be true of his spare, muscular body as well. She was about to find out in detail.

His handsomeness was so astounding, it was a tragic waste that she could only admire him for it, not love him warmly.

Still, she’d made no attempt to hide her lack of real tenderness for him, so he was in no position ever to complain about that.

“I’ll be back in ten minutes. Don’t fear that I shall act the brute,” he said.

She agreed, “That’s something I’m sure I shall never see in you.”

He caressed her face. “It’s so hard to drag myself away, but I must give you some time to yourself.” He went out reluctantly.

He must think he must give her some time to prepare for the horrors of the consummation, but unladylike as ever, she thought that would be fun, if her sensations when they kissed were anything to go by. For all that, she downed the large measure of brandy she had in readiness.

As she finished combing out her hair, he came back in, wearing what she had heard called as ‘a rich robe’ and catching his breath at the sight of her in her frilly nightdress with her black mane of hair falling about her.

“You look incredibly lovely, so. I can scarce believe my luck in having you mine… My Isabella, I will, as I said, do my best to make sure that you’re not with child before we are safely out of the country –”

“Yes, it’s best,” she tried to sound regretful. She wasn’t. She wanted some adventures, not motherhood.

“–Though if they come for me, I work to ensure too that my ill- gotten gains don’t go to the Crown rather than you.” She knew that he meant ‘when’ not ‘if’ and felt a pang for them both.

Now he was in full romantic flow, kissing her hands and making declarations, assuring her that though their time together might be short, he would love her more during it than most men loved their wives in a score of years.

“Before, I thought myself cursed unlucky, but you change everything. Now I know I’m the most fortunate man living. I never thought to have you mine; I dreamed of it, believing those dreams to be hopeless.

‘When I passed myself off as a librarian to be near you, it was bliss for me to feast my eyes on you, to talk to you sometimes.”

[_Despite the dust there. _]Isabella tried not to smile at the memory of his sneezing fit. She wondered, as she had before, if romantic love was a form of madness. If so, it was a common malady, though he seemed to be suffering from a severe case.

As always, Isabella didn’t know what to say to these effusions. She had to say something. She couldn’t always keep silent, smiling graciously like some rather plain goddess acknowledging worship from an acolyte. “I’m happy you think so,” was the best she could do.

Massaging her fingers, he went on, “I would lie awake of nights and rise to pace my room in torment…”

Isabella thought that if he was sharing the said room, it must have been a torment to the other occupants, too.

“…The owls called, and I felt as wild as they. One moonlit night back in Buckinghamshire, it seemed to me that the bird summoned me – well, didn’t the heathens believe the owl to be a messenger of a goddess, or some such thing? I remember some tutor saying so. I went out into the silver light. It seemed to me that the world was young again, with the old forces back, and that she could grant my wish, this goddess, and so I implored her.”

“I hope you took your pistols?” said Isabella.

“I’m never without ‘em. Mark you there’s a couple under the bed, there. – Suddenly, it seemed to me that my wish was granted –”

“Well, that was one good thing,” said Isabella.

“–Oddly soothed, I came back to the door, and who should be standing there but the landlord, blunderbuss at the ready. ‘Hold your fire,’ I said, ‘It’s Fox. Leave it to the Runners or the troops to blow my head off.’”

“What is this blasted foolishness, or were you out for a prize?”

“I believe I have gained one. As we went inside, I knew I would have my wish.”

She caressed his shoulders. “I don’t deserve such adulation.”

“You’ve no idea how I adore you. I can’t put it into words.”

This, however, didn’t stop him from trying as he kissed and fondled her. As she kissed him back, thrills ran though her; her instinct had been right; this wedding night was going to be all pleasure.

An owl began to call suddenly close by, and he said, “You see?”

As he unfastened the bodice of her nightdress, the owl went on circling and crying above.

 

In the pale light of dawn, the candle guttered. Isabella stirred; coming out of the sated doze into which she had finally drifted, and stretched and smiled.

She watched the flickering shadows, murmuring: – “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick*.”

Mr Fox, looking younger with his face relaxed in sleep, still had hold of her hands. She wondered mischievously if he made a habit of that with bed companions, to safeguard his money. Yet, this hold on her hands was tender; sometimes he surfaced from sleep enough to caress her fingers.

It reminded her of when he had led her back to her carriage, after she had failed to stir his robber band with her speech about making common cause with the poor. She smiled as she remembered Flashy Jack’s startled look, and Longface’s offering her the grubby stopper that doubled as a glass when Fox told him to pour her a drink, and her admirer’s disgust. She hoped that Longface had found a safer way to live, fearing that the poor fellow wouldn’t succeed at anything.

She went on to wonder about the oddness of fate.

A moth fluttered up to the flame.

Now she gently pulled away her hands, and Ravensdale muttered, reaching for them again. She said, “I’ll be back betimes,” and jumped up to blow out the flame.

Then, suddenly feeling an urge to make sure the fragile life survived, she went to open the window to drive out the moth. As it fluttered away in the grey of the dawn, she saw a dog fox trotting up the opposite side of the lane with a brisk air. It paused at the sound as she drew back the casement, and she laughed. “Good morrow, Reynard.” It stood still, staring, and looking as if about to speak.

The other Mr Fox sat up. “What are you about, my sweet?” The spell was broken: the fox loped away in a streak of red.

“I was rescuing a moth and saw one of your relatives.” Isabella came back to the bed.

“You look so lovely dishevelled, you wild creature. But – rescuing a moth?” He laughed and took her gently in his muscular arms (she supposed they had become that way from carrying pistols about and knocking down loutish fellow brigands). “Ah, haven’t I told you I knew you have a soft heart after all, though so sadly hardened against me? I’ve already noted your pity for that fool Longface. Now you can’t deny it. Lord, moths! And you wish to do highway robbery, my sweet? Yet, I’ve promised not to dissuade you, and I shan’t.” He stroked her arms. “Such a tender skin, can it go with a manly heart?”

Now he began tickling. Isabella was soon helpless as she writhed and giggled. “Stop – No – Not about my waist!”

He stopped, and said, kissing her nose, “Do you know, my love, what an ugly sight it is to see someone’s eyes full of fear with the barrel of a cocked pistol between you?”

“Moths are different from humans.”

“I believe they are,” he snorted with laughter, “But I begin to think you a little missish after all, my adored one.” He tenderly pinched her nose.

Black eyes sparking, she reached up to nip his back, and hard, so that he twitched, though she was sure he viewed it as he would a nip from a kitten. “You may laugh; still, you must see that the cases aren’t the same. Wild creatures are innocent, like infants. That’s why I can feel differently about corrupt humans, such as greedy merchants, who think themselves civilized. Anyway, you must have met women enough with manly hearts during your adventures. So many adventures you must have had! I’d like to hear more of some.”

“I know I never met with such a woman as you, my love. I enjoy relieving those greedy merchants and dignitaries of their ill-gotten gains myself.”

Settling her head down on his shoulder (also very muscular, perhaps from hefting casks about like a drayman in his smuggling days), he went on, “You saw a fox? I used to enjoy chasing ‘em. But sometimes, when one had given me or Cousin Émile a hard run, we’d try and call the hounds off and let it go, though that’s no easy task.

“Edmund was always wild that I beat him to the quarry. I mind me one day a dog fox led us a furious chase. We left the rest of the field far behind us, and the hounds were confused, then…”

He went on to tell her a hunting story. She hated foxhunting; she began to doze. Disjointed phrases sounded on her ears: ‘Edmund rode hard to overtake me,’ and, ‘The stream was up to its banks.’

She roused at his words, ‘…And so it escaped Edmund after all.’

Then he laughed. “Poor old Edmund! You know, I sometimes thought he didn’t want to be himself and wanted to be like me instead, and a rogue by nature. But he was so wrong, my darling. He was always worth two of me, but he didn’t see it – and so maybe he came in time to act as if he was only worth half. But no more of that.”

She said, eyes still closed, “I’d dispute that he could ever be worth two of you. Incorrigible rogue you may be, but you’re an honest one. I have strong doubts about your cousin.”

He was silent a moment as she went on, “You and your Cousin Émile were right to spare those foxes. I wish you’d spared them all. Isn’t Émile the cousin you say is now hunted himself in France, even as you are here in England? I trust both foxes get away. You’re pursued by a reptile in that disgusting Morpeth.”

“Then he should beware, for I’ve heard tell foxes eat lizards and such,” he laughed and made to tickle her again. “Now beware your waist!”

“What of yours?” Isabella launched a counter attack.

[_ _]

July 1792

Unwomanly Behaviour

(This heroine is out of control)

Gentlewoman of the Road

&&

Mr Fox and Flashy Jack Gilroy, the dinner finished, opened a bottle of claret, and lounged back in their chairs.

Isabella sensed they hoped that she would withdraw, as a lady should. She had always resented having to do that, and so missing the interesting parts of the talk that followed, though guessing she missed a lot of nonsense, too.

Since staying at the inn with Reynaud, she had taken to sharing an after dinner drink with him, lounging herself in one chair, her feet up on another. Sometimes, she allowed him to stroke her ankles, with which he seemed specially besotted, though she thought that they could be a lot more slender. At these times, they seemed able to talk more openly than at any other.

Withdrawing seemed absurd in a future Gentlewoman of the Road. Still, as she guessed that Mr Fox would be breaking the news to Flashy that she would be a member of his band, she ought to spare them her presence.

Today, there was something conspiratorial about them. This made her suspect Mr Fox more than ever, of putting off fulfilling his promise to her as long as he could.

As she rose, Reynaud leaped up to open the door for her. She murmured, “I hold you to your promise.”

“You’ve no need to remind me, Isa,” he kissed her hand and then squeezed it, unwilling as ever to let it go.

Closing the door behind Isabella, he turned to Flashy Jack. “I don’t know if you heard that exchange, but I’m in trouble, Jack. To honour my word I must take my wife a-robbing with me.”

It being a dismal, wet day, a fire burned brightly in the grate. Jack dropped the taper for his pipe that he was lighting at it. “The Devil!”

“That’s what I’ve thought so many times myself. It was the only way I could persuade her to wed me, or else she would have plunged into our trade alone, getting herself killed or taken for a certainty. I couldn’t endure it, and had to have her at any cost.”

Flashy Jack whistled. “I like your wife, Fox, and wouldn’t speak against her, but this is beyond anything I ever heard. Women ain’t made for such goings on, save for those manly ones who live like men.”

“I know it well, though Miss Isabella – My Wife, I mean – would dispute that. So you see, Jack, I have a new partner, who is inexperienced and – though she would berate me for saying so– also disadvantaged by being a woman, with their tender natures. I wouldn’t inflict such a team on you. I’ll be thinking mainly of her safety, not of the safety of my whole group, making a poor leader.”

Jack, holding another taper to his pipe, puffed silently. Suddenly turning about, he grinned, “I want to join you anyway.”

Mr Fox smiled. “Our last prize was good. If you have an iota of sense, you’ll retire. I urged as much before. Take your recent narrow escape from the Runners in St Gilles’ as a warning. Unlike some of our late colleagues, don’t keep putting it off until you’re taken. A likely man like you’ll succeed at whatever you turn your hand to.”

“Ain’t you thinking of doing the same, now you have a wife and before you know it, a family?”

“I do scheme for that, Jack, and I’ll try not to follow the fate of our late fellow thieves myself, particularly with her to think of. Meanwhile, I’ll have to shoot for both of us, eh?”

“You’re good enough for that. Still, strange as she is, I like your choice. Longface was slow but loyal, and we always kept him at the rear. We can do the same for her. She ain’t lacking in pluck. I remember her taking us all to task on the sharing out of our plunder, that day we held up her carriage.”

Reynaud’s eyes fired at the memory. “She enslaved me then with her spirit and untamed ways, and has ever since. Now no women with coquettish airs and missish ways could do for me. I even become used to her habit of mocking me.”

Jack looked shocked: “She makes sport of you?”

“She makes light of many things, Flashy, and I think doesn’t mean half of it. But I knew her to have high principles from how she acted that day, when from the distance, I saw her helping that other woman down while that cowardly dog bullied them, and I thought I must burst with rage as I sprinted up.”

Jack, now on solid ground again, smiled. “I don’t know what it was with Fred. At first, he seemed a good enough fellow, but he turned vicious that day. I’ve heard he’s done worse since.”

Reynaud scowled. “If ever I get my hands on his damned hide, I won’t answer for myself. But this brings me back to the question of my aspiring Lady of the Road. I must turn your offer down, Flashy. It’s devilish good in you, but I wouldn’t have you risk your neck with us.”

Jack got up and stood sighing aloud. “Fox, I Stand in Sore Need of Distraction. I’m having to fight myself, every hour of every day.”

“Ah, so you’re in love;” Reynaud first smiled and then sighed too. “As Longface used to say, ‘It’s a great pity as them women was ever invented’.”

 

Distant thunder rumbled. Isabella saw how fitting this was. The sky was livid, and Flashy Jack, glancing up, said, “If that blasted lot comes down, the roads will be flooded in half an hour.”

They had already been waiting for over an hour with the threat of rain, on edge for the coach to come. Isabella had to struggle to join in the banter of the other two. She cursed herself for cowardice as a nausea of apprehension rose in her.

She had never guessed how big a part nervous anticipation and boredom played in a highwayman’s lot. She was already weary of the view opposite, of the fields and the distant village with the clock tower, of watching the plants and wild flowers at the side of the field opposite stir in the breeze or from visits by bees.

Once she saw a field mouse scurry past. She wondered about the miniscule life continuing oblivious of the drama so important to the group of humans, just as she would be unknowing were a mouse outside her window to be taken by an owl or a fox.

A couple of drops fell. For some reason, Isabella had never pictured carrying out a highway robbery in the rain, though given the climate, that would be a common discomfort. She had thought of chill, swirling dawn mists, and icy cold, but not rain.

“Damn my eyes, that coach is late,” muttered Jack, as the church clock struck the hour.

“Here we are!” Isabella’s female ears picked up the sound of distant hoof beats and wheels before those of her tutor highwaymen.

“Ready your pistols! Wat, remember, keep back and guard the rear.”

Wat was the name that Isabella’s companions in crime had been calling her since yesterday, when Reynaud had said that she would have been all for that fellow who led a peasants revolt sometime back in the Middle Ages – Wat Tyler. She reminded herself how she must never use names in the middle of a raid – that if in an emergency names were needed, Flashy and Fox were the ones to use.

They were already wearing the new strange headgear that Isabella had made for them out of one of the wigs that she had bought from Mistress Kit. They pulled up their scarves. Isabella, seized by a sudden urge to laugh wildly, remembered hearing somewhere that some highwaymen did just that.

As the carriage came into view and Fox rode out, yelling, Isabella felt she would never forget how the driver’s jaw dropped even as he reached for his pistol, and Flashy Jack pushed her behind him. The carriage slowed. They roared at the guard to drop his weapon, and her heart lurched as Fox sprinted to hold his pistol to the driver’s head. Flashy ran up to thrust his own head in at the window: “Out and quick about it! Ah, would you?!”

Another shot sounded. Flashy had the door open, and was struggling with an angry, youngish man, cursing and gaining another weapon. The other male passenger screamed. That note of fear set the horses plunging even more as Isabella slashed their harness. It sent a stab of disgust through her for them all.

Now she was riding forward to tie up the driver, who looked at her sadly. Mr Fox was bundling the stout merchant onto the road. As the highwayman roughly searched him for weapons, the man gabbled, “Don’t fire – don’t shoot – here, take all I have,” and offered his purse.

It had all seemed fair enough when Fox and Flashy Jack had let Isabella in on the plan. That, as fitted her status as a junior partner in crime, had been after they had talked it over (and she knew well that she must learn more quickly than any man to stand a chance of ever being more than a junior criminal). They had information from an innkeeper about this merchant, and said that if anyone deserved to be robbed, it was he.

Fox had told her, laughing, of how this man had made his fortune through every sort of meanness. He was notorious for bullying his underlings, grovelling to his superiors and lechery towards his housemaids.

Now he was just a man, fat, sweaty and scared.

“That ain’t it all,” said Fox, using the West Country accent he had so often forgotten when posing as a librarian, “The rest or I fire.”

The man’s fat face trembled; his money was everything to him: “I swear that is all we have.”

Meanwhile, his clerk set up an outcry about divine punishment and hellfire.

“I’ll warrant we meet you there,” grinned Jack.

“Keep ‘em covered.” Fox reached through the open door of the carriage and delved about. Isabella saw the merchant eye him and his hand begin to inch into his waistcoat. She brought one booted foot down on the man’s wrist even as Flashy Jack yelled.

Fox turned fully. In a moment, Flashy had ripped open the waistcoat and the concealed pistol fell out. “You would, eh, guts?” His tone was almost playful.

Fox smiled on Isabella, “Well spotted.”

Isabella wondered that he could smile at his narrow escape. Yet, the whole career of highway robbery was a series of such near misses.

“You miserable Pharisee! You are thieves too, but you cower behind the law.” She was suddenly angry at the clerk’s outcry.

Flashy Jack paused, noting the merchant’s alarm at his attack on the waistcoat. “Oi, I’ll have this!” The man began to sob aloud, rolling about clumsily as Jack tore the garment from him.

“Lord, this is heavy – a prize in here for sure.” Fox reached for his knife, and slashed the waistcoat a couple of times. Gold coins spilt out onto the road.

“You will plead for mercy, and in vain, as we do now –” the clerk broke off as Jack stuffed an unlit pipe between his teeth.

Five minutes later, Fox’s group was riding away, leaving their victims bound together, with the horses shooed off into the fields. According to his usual custom, Fox left the victims with some money and polite thanks.

As they galloped away, Isabella felt a first stir of excitement, though it may have been the hairs rising on the back of her neck at the thought of pursuit. When they were about a mile away from the scene of the crime, the rain came.

Soon they were soaked, but now they were all in high spirits.

“If they ain’t got free, that stinking fellow’s having a bath,” said Fox, and they all laughed. “Nice ride, eh?” he went on, “You’ll need some mulled wine when we get back home, Wat.”

They were taking a short cut across a field full of fleeing and bleating sheep and lambs. It seemed to Isabella that they looked on the intruders as strange predators. The field was soon a mire, and the roads were nearly as bad, the pot-holes full to overflowing. Jack and Fox, who both had fine voices, took it in turns to sing, while Isabella whistled an accompaniment. They sang, ‘Let us Take to the Road’ which coming as it did from ‘The Beggar’s Opera*’, Isabella thought fitting.

 

Let us take the road.

Hark! I hear the sound of coaches!

The hour of attack approaches,

To your arms, brave boys, and load.

See the ball I hold!

Let the chemists toil like asses,

Our fire their fire surpasses

And turns all our lead to gold.’

[_ _]

“Now it’s your turn,” Fox turned to Isabella.

“Do sing me another.”

He sang for her, ‘Where’er you Walk’. Isabella knew he meant every word for her, though she thought she looked even less worthy of such worship than normal, wet and bedraggled as she was. She remembered how when Edmund Ravensdale sang it and she had played, the outlaw had been lurking nearby. She thought Reynaud sang it much better than did his cousin.

Now Jack was subdued, and by the end of it, so was Mr Fox. Isabella said, “Thank you.”

“Now one from you for me,” he urged her.

“No, I never sing.”

They continued on their wet way back to the Black Ram Inn.

 

Isabella dried herself before the fire. Ravensdale began to comb her hair out. “Such a mane as this is; I still wonder at it.”

“My best feature.” Isabella took a sip of her hot toddy.

“One of many,” her admirer insisted, “What of your wonderful bold black eyes?”

He looked, as usual, incredibly handsome himself in his robe, his longish waving hair drying from his bath, and the lights of the fire bringing out reddish gold glints in the hair on his half bared chest.

Earlier, she had noted again the blue dents on the front of his shoulder. She stroked them anxiously. “You say these blue scars are bullet marks?”

“Lucky they didn’t go in further down, eh? But then, I always said I had nine lives.”

“And in need of more, if today is anything to go by. Even if you have, you mustn’t be careless with them.”

“Too late,” he laughed, “I must have used up most already.” He parted her hair, and looked into her face. “But now I have something to live for. You were quick today, that huckster might have had me else.”

Isabella looked down at her toes. “His hand shook so, he very likely would have missed, even at that range.”

When she looked up, her partner in crime was watching her, but it seemed in his role as her robber chief rather than as her lover, as he said, “Those scared faces coming back to you, eh? It’s not pretty.”

She flushed as he went on, “You have to put ‘em aside. That was easy enough work today. Only men in the carriage. No women or children lamenting.”

“Humph!” she said. “Was I tender and missish today, Sir?”

He laughed and didn’t answer. She found this provoking. Secretly she agreed with him that she might well have saved his skin.

A knock came at the door. It was Bridget with tea. Isabella, who had hidden her male clothing under a big cloak when they came in, wondered if the girl looked at her oddly, as she set the tray on the table.

Ravensdale took up a lock of her hair and let it slip through his long fingers. “Did you ever see such a lovely mane of hair, Bridget?”

“And a trial to dry. Whatever possessed you to go out riding in such weather?”

&12. Foxhunt&

July 1792

&&

Morpeth – whose hair had only ever been described as ‘lovely’ by his mother when he was a baby – stood looking in disgust at Filthy Fred and the woman in bed with him.

This squalid room and frowsy companion didn’t make the sort of picture that people had of a Gentleman of the Road’s lifestyle. Nor, Morpeth thought, could anyone could call Filthy Fred a gentleman. Like Dick Turpin of legend, he had come from a trade and put on no gallant airs.

Morpeth kept an uneasy eye on the brimming chamber pot, dreading a dousing. He was sure that deadly illnesses could be passed on through urine. “I warn you, I’ll shoot if you go anywhere near that jordan.”

As so often when confronting lawbreakers, he wondered at the spendthrift ways that led them to squander the money almost as soon as they stole it. Usually, they made no lasting gain from their crimes and went to the gallows sooner rather than later.

Filthy Fred stopped swearing long enough to say, “I ain’t seen him in weeks. If I saw the dog I’d shoot him down myself.”

“Why protect him? He’s done you no favours,” the woman cut in sharply. The harassed look on Filthy Fred’s face showed how well he knew that scolding tone as she went on, “The last I heard of him, he was out west, Wycombe way, and I heard he lured away some rich girl, only her family disowned her.”

Filthy Fred said, “That’s old news. It was the same jade as flew at me, trusting to the protection of the men. If ever I see her again I’ll serve her out too.”

“Then why not tell me where he is? There’s a handsome reward out for information leading to the capture of Lord Ravensdale – I mean Mr Fox.”

As Fred fondled his bristly chin, Morpeth thought how like a crab he was, with that covering of stiff black hair. “You want to follow that Longface bloody fool; he’ll always lead you to him.”

“No, they’ve parted company.”

The woman moved suddenly, and Morpeth sprang away from the chamber pot, raising his pistol: “Stop or I fire!”

“Come back later today, and I might have something to tell you,” she said.

 

Unlike many highwaymen, Fox and Flashy set the horses loose instead of shooting them. Isabella liked that.

“When we have a carriage full of women and infants, we send them on their way as quick as may be; we can’t stand it,” Mr Fox told her.

When she saw this over the next weeks, she quite loved Mr Fox and Flashy Jack for their tenderness.

The second time that they set up an ambush, they rode home empty handed, having accidentally stopped a coach loaded with women and children, which they sent off again at once.

On their third trip, they were just about to give up and ride off when a grand carriage trundled into sight. They relieved a local dignitary of some of his wealth.

As he was a well-known upholder of the Bloody Code, Fox and Flashy made a point of taking his boots and breeches too.

“You ruffians!” he raged, “but you’ll stand on the cart at Tyburn soon enough.”

“I’ll warrant we’ll keep our breeches on, though we may yet wet ‘em when our necks are stretched like a friend of ours says,” grinned Jack.

“Damn you for a prating hypocrite! How are you any less a robber than us?” Isabella deepened her voice as usual. Even so, she only passed as a well-grown youngster with their victims.

“I’m not a thief; I don’t break the Ten Commandments.’” The man drew himself up. “You go to the devil young, my boy. Think on your sins.”

“Think of yours; I wonder how often you bear false witness?”

Fox came over to gag him: “His attempts at conversation are tiresome. I’ll pen a note and attach it to him so that he can entertain people better.”

“Shameless criminals, headed for eternal perdition!” the man’s wife chorused.

At first, she had been terrified. Then, after they had soothed her, she joined her husband in abusing them; noting that they wouldn’t take anything belonging to her, she claimed that everything did.

As every second wasted increased the chances of capture, Fox decided, “We must divide everything in half, Ma’am, as it seems this man has nothing to call his own.”

She began to weep as Fox wrote out a notice for her husband;- ‘ I am a Prating, Lying Hypocrite’ and fixed it to his hat. As with that other magistrate Isabella had heard of, they set him, hands bound, backwards on his horse, sending it away with a couple of slaps and shouts.

They bowed to the woman and galloped away from her cries of, “Help, Murder!” as she ignored the coachmen’s pleas of, “Ma’am, untie us, the robbers have gone!”

 

Another time, Fox, thrusting his head in at the carriage window, was greeted by gunfire. Isabella felt her knees turn to jelly, then realised that the weapon had misfired.

Once, a woman screamed as Flashy thrust his head and weapon in at the window. Seeing that she was far gone with child, he and Fox apologized, shouting to the coachman to drive on.

She roused at this: “No, wait, coachman! Sir, I see you are gallant rogues and I must have my dance. Isn’t that what you Gentlemen of the Road do? Pray don’t disappoint me. I may not have another such opportunity.”

A thin young man reddened, exclaiming: “For shame, Nancy!”

Flashy Jack looked concerned. “Ma’am, you are scarce in a condition –”

“Nonsense, I can manage a turn or two before the baby arrives. Help me down.”

So, helped down by the two robbers, she had a gentle dance with both men, while Wat whistled a tune. “Thank ye, I cannot dance, Ma’am,” Isabella said, when the woman glanced at her. Fox and Flashy kissed her hand and helped her back in the carriage, laughing. Her young husband looked ready to cry.

“She’ll be in trouble now,” Jack grinned. as the carriage clattered away.

“I think she is the forceful one in that union,” said Isabella. “You dance as well as ever, Fox, and Flashy excelled too.”

 

That night, Isabella said, “We must go out dancing again soon, Mr Fox, though so often you are out and about with Flashy of a night, gathering information for our daytime raids. I weary of staying at home, making disguises.” She held up one of the false noses she had been making. He tried it on, and they both yelled with laughter.

They went to a public ball a couple of evenings later. Isabella wore the plum coloured ball gown Reynaud had insisted that she have made up.

Mistress Kit, coming in to admire their clothes before they set off, gave her a Meaningful Look. “One would never guess, seeing you now, what you are about at other times.”

Isabella kept her face blank: “Namely, Mistress Kit?”

“Come Mistress Fox, I must be a fool if I didn’t have my suspicions, but I have nothing further to say.” Isabella thought that she saw a glint of humour in her eyes. Then Mr Fox came in, eyes widening at the sight of Isabella in her gown. Isabella glowed with pride at his dashing appearance, while Mistress Kit said no more about her suspicions and her silence.

They went as a party with Jack and a distant woman cousin of his to see Mr Tobias as one of the brigands in ‘Two Gentleman of Verona*’.

They all agreed that he was terrible. Still, Isabella cajoled Fox and Flashy to pretend he was good.

“You cut a fine figure last night,” Fox told him over breakfast the next morning.

“A minor role, but it keeps one’s hand in.”

“If I came upon so terrible a villain when riding out,” grinned Jack, “Curse me if I wouldn’t give up my valuables at once. I believe it was the curling black moustaches that did it, eh, Fox?”

Mr Kit, seized with a fit of coughing, had to leave the room, while Isabella scowled at them over Mr Tobias’ shoulder.

The people at the inn thought that Fox’s band sold herbal cures. Isabella, who was interested in herbs anyway, went out to gather them from the nearby fields and had Bridget hang them up to dry in the kitchens.

“I hope they’re less savage than that foul brew ‘The Pedlar’s [Remedy, _]which Kate at _The Huntsman used to swear by,” Mr Fox grinned to Flashy.

Isabella said, “I think we can be sure of that, though I hope myself that you never have need of them.”

 

“Pray do not leave us destitute,” the landowner’s sister pleaded.

“Ma’am,” said Fox, in his disguised, though still musical voice, “if we didn’t know your husband to have many times more than we take from him today, we wouldn’t hold up your coach at all.”

He was using the West Country accent on which he prided himself, though Isabella thought it ridiculous. Sometimes Flashy Jack put on a generic northern one, which always made her laugh. Sometimes, she liked to try herself for a hint of French.

Fox handed the woman back some money. “Calm yourself, Ma’am; we’ll be done betimes.”

The woman sniffed, “My handkerchief –”

Fox caught her hand. “Ma’am, you disappoint me!” He nodded to Isabella, “Search the lady.”

The squire raged, “Cowards! You dare lay hands on my sister, you stout brute of a boy!”

“We only want her weapon. I’m little enough of a man, Sir, that is why they choose me,” Isabella winked, letting him come to what conclusions he liked about her manhood.

As Isabella struggled to take the weapon from her quilted petticoats, the woman cursed and trod on Isabella’s toes, and Isabella was glad of her riding boots. Just as she began to dread that she would have to rip the woman’s underclothing apart, she found the pistol.

“You wicked puss, Ma’am, to try and shoot my poor friend so,” Flashy Jack wagged a finger at her.

The squire’s sister cursed them all for cowardly knaves. She kicked Isabella’s shins, and Isabella wasn’t sorry to hear the petticoat tear as she wrenched the weapon free. The woman shrieked as if it had been her flesh.

This episode ended strangely. The woman, standing in her torn clothes, had been eying Flashy Jack since his banter. Now she said, “I would kiss you.”

“Don’t come near her, she wants to see your face!” Isabella was alarmed, but Flashy Jack came over.

“Close your eyes,” he told the woman. Then, raising his scarf, his back to her brother, he kissed her lips. The squire flushed almost as red as the dancing woman’s husband, and gawped.

The kiss was long; the woman seemed an expert. Isabella warned, “Take care! She’s distracting you for a purpose.”

Flashy Jack drew away reluctantly, pulling down his scarf. “She’s succeeded.”

“Harriet!” the man was lost for words.

His sister was unabashed. “I tried to save the money while you shook like a jelly, so it’s only fair I have some sport. As for you,” she turned to Isabella, “You’re a nasty boy with a fat rump and none of the ladies will have an eye for you.”

Flashy Jack and Fox gave way to a burst of laughter.

“Are you ever in London?” she turned to Jack. “We often take that first house in Wimpole Street for the season. Everyone knows the Freeman’s there.”

Fox sighed with impatience. “We must be away.”

The squire wheezed between his teeth, “If you dare to show your face there, you villain, you’ll find yourself up before a magistrate before you know it!”

“Ah, but shall you know him again?” the woman laughed.

 

As they made their way home, after a first quick gallop to put miles between themselves and the scene of the crime, Fox said, “You’d be a prize fool to walk into that one.”

“With luck, when I finish the false noses, nobody will want to kiss any of us,” said Isabella.

“I Stand in Sore Need of Distraction,” sighed Jack, “And you ain’t one to talk, seeing as you met your wife on a raid.”

Fox rolled his eyes. “I’d say more about where you stand, were she not by.”

 

“I suppose,” mused Isabella later to Mr Fox, “Women admire the qualities from which their bringing up excludes them, and the same is true of men. Still, males yet value the masculine qualities of strength and dominance most of all, except when they’re in need of the nurturing at which women excel.”

His finely shaped eyebrows shot up. “Surely women are by nature more tender than men?”

“Would a nasty boy with a fat rump know? It’s commonly held that what is arranged by our civilization was given by nature.”

He rose and paced about. “You’re not made for this. It’s a constant agony for me watching out for you. Truly, we mustn’t delay long in leaving the country. But our coffers are still in need of filling, as you insist that we give away so much of our takings to the needy.”

Isabella got to her feet, flushed. “We must give away a big portion of our bounty, or we’ll be no better than common thieves. But, on what you just said, I hoped that I’d become skilful enough not to be a liability; haven’t I saved you more than once?” She realised that even mentioning that, detracted from her stature as a Gentlewoman of the Road, and her bosom heaved in annoyance.

Mr Fox’s eyes widened at the sight of her so flushed and passionate, but he wrenched his gaze away. For her part, Isabella refused to appreciate how appealing he looked half dressed, his shirt undone. She was annoyed that he seemed to have forgotten her saving him on her first raid.

Her indignation mounted as, going over to look out of the window, he said, “That the bumbling fool had a weapon doesn’t mean that he could have hit me, even at close range.”

Isabella’s bosom heaved yet more. It was lucky that Mr Fox had his back turned or the sight might have overpowered him. “Perhaps I could say the same of the times when you believe that you’ve saved me.”

He snorted quietly, yet snorted nevertheless.

Isabella clenched her fists, “Naturally, it was foolish of me to expect you to judge me fairly in this male occupation. So you do regard me as a liability?”

He turned about, “Haven’t I said I could never see you in that light?” Taking in her flushed cheeks and heaving bosom, he approached eagerly but warily. “You’re becoming proficient,” he murmured, circling her as one closing in on a wild animal.

“Then why did you snort? Or refuse to acknowledge the times when I’ve saved both you and Flashy just as you’ve saved me?”

“I didn’t put it tactfully, my love. I’m distracted by my concern for you.”

Isabella wasn’t convinced.

“You know I have taken care to have my gains hidden in different places. The time fast comes when we must go and try and reclaim them,” he said. “We mustn’t make the same error as all robbers, who beguile themselves with the notion of that one final raid until they come to it indeed, and are shot or taken.”

Isabella bit her lip. “But you must tell me of my inadequacies, and how I can improve; I hope you don’t often risk yourself to cover for my mistakes?”

He came up to fondle her hair. “Such lovely jetty locks you have, contrasting with so creamy a skin.”

“That’s nice, but you and Jack mustn’t put yourselves at risk for me; promise me that you’ll tell me of my mistakes, so that I may work upon them? Tell me of any I’ve made recently.”

Maddeningly, he refused to say. “We must all look out for each other; that you are the bravest woman I have ever met goes without saying.” At that point, he changed from the outlaw into the romantic lover, and there was no getting any sense from him at all. “Of course, I value your life far more than my own miserable carcass…”

Isabella thought it odd that he could recognize histrionics in poor Mr Tobias on the stage, but not in himself.

 

“What did Jack mean, he ‘stands in sore need of distraction?” Isabella later roused him from a doze to ask.

“It’s that wench Suki from The Huntsman. He was enamoured of her, and still is, but she would allow him nowhere near her until he promised to stop highway robbery.”

Isabella wondered if that was the girl who had been amazed at Isabella’s own effect on Mr Fox. She thought of all that they risked each time they rode out, and of her own possible inadequacies. “I think he should. And you’re right, and we should all retire very soon. Surely, we have money enough, as you have funds put by.”

 

When she raised the matter of her lack of skill again later, her tutor highwayman sighed, rolled his eyes and told her that she was becoming adept at their trade, he was sorry to say, even admitting that she had saved him more than once.

Still, Isabella brooded silently, and lost much of her reckless sense of adventure.

 

On their next outing, they were all in high spirits, joking about their ridiculous false noses, which they worn projecting over their scarves. Then, as they held up the coach, a guard fired wildly, hitting Isabella’s horse, Dancing Davies, who fell and thrashed.

Thrusting Isabella back, Fox and Flashy rushed the man, overpowering him. When the guards were safely tied up, Isabella was about to shoot Dancing Davies, but Fox took over as the better shot.

In rage, he and Flashy stripped the guards and the male occupants of their wigs and down to their underclothes. Fox then tied them to the dead horse with a series of sailor’s knots.

A young woman shed tears over the horse, “I know how you must feel it; I love my horses too,” and she kissed his cheek, his grotesque false nose seemingly not repelling her. He glanced at Isabella, but she was packing up their gains. He looked ruffled rather than relieved, as he always did when Isabella didn’t notice, or smiled when the women flirted with him.

Isabella’s tack was torn. To save time, instead of stealing and tacking up one of the carriage horses, Reynaud took Isabella up on his own mount. She was worried about their weight, but he assured her that his mount was strong enough, and they escaped at a trot rather than a gallop.

 

Isabella runs in terror from a viper. Suddenly, she turns to face it, only to find that it has vanished, while she stands sobbing as if she will never be able to stop. That is astonishing; she almost never cries. Then she sees the blood spattered on the ground.

 

She started up from her dream. Ravensdale was waking too, muttering, “They close in on me.”

Though still half caught up in her dream, she tried to dismiss the chill that seized her at his words.

Seeing the wall at the end of the bed so close in the dawn light – she had never got used to these normally sized rooms, and surely, raised at Ravensdale Court as he had been, they must seem even smaller to him – she asked, “Do you mean the walls?”

Their eyes met. His were still bemused through sleep; somehow, their dazed look alarmed her, as in one of these premonitions in which her old friend Miss Amelia believed. Isabella’s chest tightened painfully. She still wanted to sob aloud, but thrust it all aside, burying her face in her pillow, seeking the refuge of sleep.

[_ _]

Now, the snake is back again, though slipping back into a dream isn’t a thing that should happen once you have fought your way out of it. Isabella dreads meeting its inscrutable beady eyes. Then, as her own eyes met their reptile coldness, its voice is almost pleading as it speaks in a human voice, ‘‘Mistress Fox…”

 

She awoke gasping, looking guiltily over to her fellow robber sleeping by her side, ashamed that he might have heard her gasp of fear.

He wasn’t asleep, for he murmured, “So, you are a little scared after all?” and took her in his arms.

“No, I had a foolish dream,” she forced a laugh.

She had held him soothingly like this a couple of times, when he had groaned ‘Harding’ in his sleep, and she had felt for him. He had warned her that he sometimes had ‘damned fool dreams’ of Harding, and of Edmund, too, and to take no notice of him if he did groan in his sleep. The stirring, yearning urge holding him in that way gave Isabella had made her uneasy then, as did his holding her now. She wriggled out of his embrace.

[_ _]

September 1784

Back in time: An Episode from The Impervious Heroine’s Past

&&

“Do you suppose, young lady, that you’ll get many offers if you go on acting the hussy?” Isabella’s mother – not yet Lady Murray – huffs.

“Shouldn’t think I’ll get any, anyway.” Isabella says loutishly. “Who cares?”

“Ma’am, she deliberately provokes you,” says Mistress Titmarsh. “There’s the tea bell!” She speaks anxiously, as if the tea bell were a dread summons from a deity.

“Then let us go down.” Mistress Murray rises, sighing deeply. “Isabella, I expect you to behave the young lady – as much as you are able — with our guests.”

Mr and Mistress Langley are much as Isabella expected as she makes them her curtsey. They are heavily bewigged, stout, florid and prosperous looking.

Paul Langley is surprisingly slim and aesthetic. A quarter of a century back, Mr Langley might have been that shape, with the same quick, light movements, and perhaps the same fair colouring.

Paul Langley smiles in open pleasure as he greets Isabella. It is a funny thing, but as they look at each other, she feels that they know each other already.

The usual endless games of cards follow on from tea. On such an afternoon as this, these always make Isabella claustrophobic, with the sunshine and the birdsong outside wasted.

The men play together, tempted into talk of business now and then. The matrons murmur over their hopes for their offspring. These, of course, include marriage.

“Already, we have a good match lined up for him,” Mistress Langley, who is too tightly laced, belches. “Your pardon.”

Mistress Murray’s heckles rise. She suspects that Mistress Langley noted the looks that passed between the two youngsters as keenly as she did herself, and might even be warning her off. Such insolence, when the family has no more claims to a genteel pedigree than her own.

“Yes indeed, Ma’am,” she drawls, “And we’ve high hopes of Isabella. Why, if any of my husband’s schemes come to fruition, we’ll be able to make most handsome provision for our daughters.”

“I pray you may, Ma’am.” Mistress Langley’s prayers for the success of her own husband’s business schemes each night are so fervent that she often has no energy left for any others.

Isabella believes that she has sneaked out unseen from her table with Mistress Titmarsh, until she hears light footsteps coming up the hall behind her. Then, Paul Langley is with her, smiling mischievously. “Shall we defy convention and escape together, Miss Isabella?”

Suddenly, the afternoon is twice as bright to fifteen-year-old Isabella, and she doesn’t know why. Neither does she understand why she finds Paul Langley’s irregular features so attractive that they seem preferable to regular ones. Isabella – unlike her sister Selina in time to come – never reads romances.

[_ _]

July 1792

Hazards and the Impervious Heroine

&&

The days and nights passed quickly. The summer advanced, yet somehow it seemed impossible that this time would ever end.

Sometimes Reynaud was Mr Fox, the chief of their robber band. Sometimes he was Isabella’s weapons tutor; often, as Foxton, he was Flashy’s cheerful companion in the bar. When they were alone together, he was her tender and passionate lover, and at night she far preferred his physical to his emotional worship of her. She saw her own glowing look in the glass when she got up in the morning.

Often while Fox and Flashy went out to seek information, Isabella worked behind the bar as Bess the Barmaid.

Fox disliked this nearly as much as he had her robber ambitions. Often, she would turn about, to find that arriving back at the inn, he had grudgingly joined her in working behind the bar.

Isabella went on making different disguises for them. Sometimes they rode out dressed as farmers, sometimes as clerics, sometimes as merchants. For this, she spent a lot of time sewing, just like any proper young lady. Besides the false noses, she made false eyebrows and moustaches. She enjoyed wearing hers.

On the way back from a raid, knowing that the alarm would be out for two men and a youth, they would stop behind a bush for Isabella to change out of her male clothes.

There was a constant threat from the patrols. Once they hid in a wood, while soldiers passed by only yards away. Fox was always planning escape routes that avoided the tollgates.

All this time, Isabella sensed her worshipper becoming resentful. He was like an acolyte who had been worshipping a goddess who stayed in stone aloofness, deaf to his prayers.

She thought it typical of him that, having married her despite her warnings that she couldn’t return his feelings, he now blamed her for the unhappiness she had seen that must bring on him.

Her emotional coolness clearly disturbed him more as time went on. Sometimes, when he was being tender, she was at a loss what to reply to his declarations, and said, “That’s nice.” During his love talk at night, she had an unlucky habit of dozing off.

This tension between them was worse, because other women tended to act so foolishly about him. Isabella saw his effect on the women in the carriages they’d held up, who somehow saw beyond his false nose. As soon as the robbers had reassured them, with Fox and Flashy even dancing with some if they felt playful, they would purse up their lips and giggle. A couple had even managed to faint into Mr Fox’s arms – open eyed – as he strode past collecting the men’s valuables.

Even when Reynaud was anonymous in the public assemblies, Isabella had seen women looking admiringly at him. They bridled when he spoke to them and they found his jokes hilarious. As they were the same with Flashy Jack, she supposed that both took that to be women’s normal behaviour. Poor Longface could have told them otherwise.

Isabella smiled at these absurdities. She guessed that Reynaud resented her lack of possessiveness. She didn’t see why; the jealous wives she’d seen reminded her of gaolers.

She had hoped that he would soon lose much of his worship of her, and start behaving sensibly. He hadn’t. He was still besotted, if souring.

 

One night, after a hard day’s robbing and some discreet distribution of their takings, she began to doze during one of his romantic speeches.

He was saying, “I have at least had the bliss of having you mine…”

She murmured, “That’s nice,” and remembered no more.

Then his insisting on something wakened her: “Can I at least count on you for that? It’s not so much to ask.”

“What – What?” she mumbled. She heard his outraged intake of breath. She could sense him glaring at her in the dark as she resurfaced from sleep. He was speechless with fury.

Isabella felt guilty. She put one hand on his shoulder, feeling the muscles rigid. “I’m sorry, I heard some of it, but I missed what you wanted me to do, particularly?”

“I was asking you to mourn me for six months,” he said between his teeth.

She froze. “If it comes to that, I shan’t save myself. We can swing side by side from a gibbet. But as you say, we mustn’t let ourselves be taken by delaying too long.”

He was only slightly mollified. “You hear me as your robber chief, never as your lover.” He turned away. She was no longer sleepy, and lay awake a long time. She sensed he was awake too, but neither of them said anything. She felt miserable, and was sure he was even more so.

She said once, “I said how things must be between us.” He didn’t answer; from his breathing, she couldn’t tell if he was asleep or not.

If I were to return his feelings, it would be falling into a form of madness, where I worshipped him as a lesser god. Well, it looks as though he’s now ripe for apostasy in his worship of me.

[_ _]

The next morning, Ravensdale was still sulking. Isabella woke as he closed the bedroom door. She felt dismal as she sipped her morning chocolate.

When she got downstairs, Tobias Goodenough was quoting from a play she didn’t recognize, while Ravensdale, sour over his small beer, looked as if he would like to gag and bind him. He scarcely glanced at Isabella as he rose to draw out a chair for her.

Mistress Kit watched them in silence; Isabella found herself blushing at the rebuke in the tilt of her brows.

 

“Mr Fox looks fair thunderous today,” Mistress Kit told Mr Kit behind the bar later, “I always said No Good would come of such unequal feelings.”

“She warms up well enough,” said Mr Kit, as if talking of a kettle. “Some females takes their time, but then they’re positively doting.”

Mistress Kit put her hands on her hips. “Oh, yes? You speak as if you know all about it. I don’t like that look at all. Don’t dare to boast of your previous Immoral Relationships.” She left with a measured tread.

“There’s no pleasing these women,” Mr Kit rolled his eyes as he turned away, “More hot water, Sir? Certainly.”

Ravensdale sulked for the rest of the morning, avoiding Isabella. It rained dismally, and while she worked in the bar, he went out somewhere.

When the rain stopped at last, she was on her way out to do her target practice alone when he came up behind her, taking her arm. “There’s something we mustn’t miss.”

 

Isabella felt what her old friend Amelia Allsopp would call ‘a sense of foreboding’ as they rode to expedite this next crime. As they went along the lanes to the agreed place, Flashy Jack sang, ‘Heigh Ho the Holly, this Life is Most Jolly*’, which Isabella thought an odd choice of song for the season.

Fox joined in. It was a glorious afternoon. The sky was deepest blue, and the birds sang loud.

When Mr Fox sang the words, ‘Most loving mere folly,’ Isabella wondered if he was coming to believe it himself, at least about her.

As they waited, she said, “Let me go first – that’s long overdue.”

They didn’t deign to reply. As usual, she was the first to hear the rumble of the coach wheels and the rhythm of the horses’ hooves. As she started forwards, Mr Fox blocked her, while Flashy Jack rode out to shout a warning.

As the carriage slowed down, the guard aimed and fired.

This had happened often enough. Until now, they had been lucky: now Flashy Jack flinched and cursed as the blood welled up through the side of his coat.

Fox fired back. The guard dropped the gun with a howl, clutching at his arm, which Isabella supposed was broken. The other guard, seeing the sureness of the robber’s aim, threw his own weapon to the ground.

The injured guard moaned throughout. Isabella wished that he wouldn’t. Jack went on as if nothing had happened, though bleeding heavily. As they tied up the guards, the injured one fainted, and so they left him stretched out on the ground.

By that time, Jack was losing enough blood to alarm Isabella and even Fox. It soaked through his shirt and waistcoat and dripped on the valuables as they collected them.

They removed his bloody shirt. It was a flesh wound, the bullet having scored across his upper ribs, but a nasty gash.

They took off his bloody shirt to tear up for bandages. It was thick cotton and hard to rip. Isabella cursed as she wrenched at it, one booted foot holding the sleeve on the ground, dismayed by the great patches of gore, but determined not give Fox any cause for calling her squeamish.

She realized how convenient it would be to have petticoats to use instead. No doubt, Mistress Titmarsh, Mistress Kit and others would insist that came of dressing and acting like a man. Still, had Isabella been womanly, she wouldn’t be with them at all to do a better job of stopping the flow of blood than Mr Fox.

“You should tend to the guard, too; he might die!” A callow youth urged them.

“Hold your noise; he’s not losing much blood at all; he’s lucky I only winged him, seeing he shot one of my men.” Fox looked hard at Jack, “We’d best be away, or we’ll be carrying you home.”

Isabella thought that Jack deserved a highwayman’s award for courage beyond the call of duty for staying upright on the saddle, though she and Mr Fox kept close, in case he should fall.

They passed a few other people on the road, who probably thought him half-drunk. To hide the blood, they had to swathe him in Isabella’s great cloak. Isabella kept checking behind them, but the gore went no further than the saddle and the horse.

As they sneaked through the back door, holding Jack up, Mistress Kit and Nell appeared, summoned as if by some instinct. Nell let out a squeal and Mistress Kit raised her hands. “If he ain’t in his elements, then he’s been shot.”

“Nothing serious, ladies,” Fox was suave.

Without Isabella’s cloak, there was no hiding her male clothes. The other women stared. They may have long suspected that she was involved in the raids, still, seeing her in full Gentlewoman of the Road regalia, pistols in her belt, took their breath away.

Mistress Kit clicked her tongue: “I’ll say nothing, Mistress Fox – my lips are sealed.”

“Of course; ain’t they always?” Mr Fox smiled. “Ah, Mr Kit; we need your skills.”

&13. Female Spirit&

The Heroine Must be Spirited

In a Feminine Way

&&

I&sabella wanted to send for &a doctor for Jack. They knew one who was discreet, but the others said there was no need. The bullet hadn’t lodged in Jack’s flesh; he’d run a fever for a day or two, and then be nearly as good as new in a few more.

There was no shortage of women ready to nurse him. Mistress Kit, Nell, Bridget, the little maid and the girl who helped when they were busy were all eager to do it. Isabella guessed that they would have been less so, had the patient looked like Longface.

She worked hard to help Flashy’s recovery by making up poultices for the wound and herbal draughts to reduce the fever. She went out gathering the plants in the nearby fields, used some of her dried ones, and went to the market for those she couldn’t find.

Reynaud came to the fields with her, and was impressed with her knowledge of plant remedies. He seemed to have partly forgiven her for the injury she had given him a couple of nights since. “You should set up as apothecary, sweetheart.”

“I may yet. Now, which bark to try to reduce the inflammation?”

“But that must be abroad, my sweet. We’ll take Jack’s narrow escape as a warning; we’ll delay no longer. I’ll go tomorrow to Epping Forest* to get some monies I stored there.”

“Surely you’re right. You know, it should have been I who was shot, not poor Jack. It would have been, if you hadn’t stopped me from taking my turn to approach the carriage first.”

He groaned, “Don’t make me think of it! A great anxiety you’ve been to us, too. I’ve often run near mad over your eagerness to have your pretty head shot off. Your folly has been the greatest spur for me to call an end to our villainies. I’ll go betimes to collect the monies. Mr and Mistress Kit will keep Jack safe while he can’t watch after himself, in case The Black Ram has a visit from The Runners or our friend Morpeth.”

“I hope Morpeth’s lost track of us. But I want to come with you, particularly if there is danger.”

“No: and there’s an end to it.” No doubt he noted the spark in her eyes, as he added, “You mustn’t desert your patient; he needs your remedies. Take it from me, I’ll be safer alone.

Isabella began to pace as if she had taken lessons from him in histrionics as well as shooting. After a few turns, she stopped, and went up to him. “Very well, then, my dear. I don’t like how you think it safer not to let me come. Still, go alone if you must. But do take care amongst all our fellow outlaws.” She kissed him. “I’ll see about packing you some things.”

He held her by the shoulders, looking into her eyes, murmuring, “Why so suddenly the obedient wife, my Lady of the Road? I expected a battle with you.”

“I’m not in a mood for one today. Your arguments make sense. Now, we need some more bark for the poultices.”

He released her, frowning. “Take Bridget and go up to Town. Call in on that parson who’s been helping us redistribute our ill-gotten gains, but keep some money to shop for anything you may need for abroad. We’ll be away to the south coast in a couple of days.”

 

“I want none of your strictures, Your Reverence,” the young Squire told the Vicar. “My wife knows what’s what. I’ve given her my status, and by God, that’s enough. Abigail from the tavern knows her place too, which is to please me. Distinctions of rank were ordained by God. You’ll find it in your scripture somewhere, I hear, and –”

He paused as a masked figure swathed in a great cloak, wearing a strange wig and eyebrows and a false nose rode out, waving a pistol. He shouted for them to stop in a clear, young voice.

“What in hell’s name – don’t say it’s a highwayman – Fire, you, lad!”

The guard lost his nerve. He pulled up the horses, hurling his weapon down by the robber’s feet, as the carriage rolled to a stop.

“Down,” the youth ordered, “No tricks or it will be the worst for you. Loose those horses.”

The Squire swore as the guard freed the horses, sending them on their way with slaps and shouts. As the youth thrust his weapon and his head in at the window, he whipped out his own pistol and fired.

The pistol misfired in a burst of flame. The youth clapped his own to the Squire’s head. “Out, curse you, quickly!”

“Try and grow a beard firstly, boy,” though the explosion had scorched his hand and sleeve, the Squire thrust the youth’s pistol aside calmly.

The youth fired across the carriage, the bullet cracking into the far wall. The Squire yelled, “My bloody carriage!”

The Vicar said, “Very well, my fine Sir, calm yourself,” and stepped out of the other side.

“But it’s raining, my lad,” the Squire said.

The youth pulled out another pistol. “Do you force me to shoot?”

The Squire climbed out swearing. “Insolent boy! Mama will whip you.”

“Give me your purse.”

“Come for it, you filthy robber.” The Squire folded his arms. The youth’s eyes flashed over his scarf. He fired again at the carriage. “Damn you for a grasping lecher!”

“Please be sensible, Sir,” the Vicar pleaded. “We can avoid violence if you don’t provoke him.”

The guard moved. The youth jumped back, pointing his weapon. “Hey!”

“I must make water,” the guard opened his breeches. As he noisily relieved his bladder, the robber swung back on the Squire.

As the youth came up to him, pistol in hand, the Squire lunged, punching him in the belly.

Half-winded, the youth staggered, his face draining of colour. Then, black eyes blazing, he caught the Squire with a short jab in the upper chest. As the Squire stumbled in turn, gasping, the young robber pushed him over sideways, stamping one foot down on his back, the barrel of his pistol to his head. Even so, the Squire still nearly overbalanced him as they struggled together, cursing.

The Squire wheezed, “By God, you stink of blood, you disgusting young hound!”

In horror, the Vicar made out faint bloodstains on the youth’s enveloping dark cloak.

The youth laughed nastily: “Be warned, Sir; that was the last person who tried my patience.”

The Squire hurled his purse in a jingle of coins into one of the deep puddles in the ruts on the road. “Damn you for a coward!” he raged as the Vicar handed his over without argument. “If you’d shown any fight, we could have overpowered him.”

The youth cocked his head at something inaudible to the others. “Thank you. Farewell, gentlemen.”

He moved backwards rapidly, splashing through the puddles, snatched up the Squire’s purse and made off sideways, pistol still trained on them.

“After him, damn you!” roared the Squire as the horse galloped away.

“Don’t you mean, ‘her’?” smiled the Vicar as another coach came lumbering into view.

 

Isabella, red faced, swore as she cantered through the rain and the mud holes. She told the horse – poor Dancing Davies’ replacement – “Damn me, I wish I had time for a nip of brandy! That was close; I nearly didn’t carry it off.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Nobody after me yet – depends who’s in that other coach. By God, he knew I wouldn’t shoot him dead, and now I wish I’d winged the arrogant swine. I may be tough for a female, but that’s not tough enough, eh? He near as dammit had my weapon.”

She took a long diversion through the muddy fields, stopping under a dripping tree to pull off her cloak, wig, false eyebrows and nose. “That man was right; this does reek of blood. Poor Jack, he lost a fair bit. I hope his fever goes on lessening. I must get back as soon as I can.”

Now she realised, with a lurch of the heart that she – amateur that she was – had dropped the bag carrying her woman’s clothing as she cantered her horse over the fields. She still had it when leaving the scene of the crime. She decided turning back was too risky. She was glad to find a crumpled hat in her saddlebag under which she could hide her hair.

On the way back, she fretted at being away so long at this exploit, while leaving Flashy Jack for hours without a new poultice.

Halfway back to The Black Ram, she came on some hovels, huddled together as if for warmth in a desolate marsh of a field.

She tethered her horse. Taking a handful of coins from her plunder, she approached the sorry huts. The first seemed occupied and stank even from the outside. Holding her nose, Isabella shoved a couple of coins into through the sides of a boarded window, smiling as she heard them drop to the floor.

Sensing eyes on her, she turned. An ancient looking woman stared from a door, ragged, grubby small children peering round her skirts. “Greetings, Mother, I’m returning taxes,” Isabella placed four coins in her wizened palm. The children broke into a hubbub of excitement, while the woman swatted backwards at them with her free hand.

Isabella strode on to the next hovel. A young woman gazed out of the door, her open mouth as toothless as that of the old woman. Isabella said, “Taxes overpaid returned courtesy of the parish.”

Although the last hovel looked ready to fall down at any moment, the absent owner had sealed up the cracks. Isabella moved round the back and shoved some coins under an empty sack of something mouldering and unidentifiable.

As she mounted her horse, the two women still staring wordlessly, a pack of tattered small children shot out of the meadow. They chased after her through the drizzle for a good half mile, hooting. She rid herself of them by throwing some hardbake back to them and left them fighting over it.

As Isabella came into the inn by the back way – passing one of the kitchen cats as it pawed a torn dead rat – Mr Kit came out of the back door, holding a barrel. She dodged out of sight, but he caught the movement and called out. She had to show herself.

His eyes goggled. Though he had seen her dressed as Wat the Wicked the other night, the sight of her unescorted now struck him dumb.

She put on a casual tone. “How is Jack? Does the fever still subside?”

“You’d best ask the women.” He put infinite reproach into the words.

 

Ravensdale pushed the door shut behind him and leaned against it. Isabella just had time to register how her heart jumped at seeing him, and how with flashing eyes and heightened colour, he looked better than ever. Then he began on the worst histrionics yet. The script might be unfamiliar, but he must be an expert in making them up as he acted them out.

He began by Staring at her Wordlessly, chest heaving. She felt like telling him that Mr Kit had done that better, perhaps because he had more bulk. She said blithely, “Welcome back, Sir. I’m happy to see you, but not to see your temper.”

“Madam, you try me,” he gave her anguished look. She wanted to applaud his skill as a dramatist. He went on, “I can scarce credit what I have heard.”

“Do you mean over my skill with the poultices? Jack mends apace; I surprised myself.”

He groaned aloud. “You mock my devotion. You cast my care for you back into my teeth.”

She shuffled her feet. “How so?”

He began to pace. “I don’t complain of your obliviousness to my love talk; I’m used to that humiliation –”

Isabella thought that was anyway one good thing.

“ – Yet to ride out alone – to risk having your silly head shot off, and being pursued back here, with Jack still in bed. You Stupid, Stupid Woman.”

“I could hardly lead them back to Jack had they shot off my head.”

He refused to acknowledge this footling argument, breathing fast instead.

She admitted sourly, “It was inexcusable of me to drop my change of clothes, I know. I’m heartily sorry for that. Still, I wore a wig and false nose and so on. So I’m demoted from an object of worship into being a mentally incompetent female? I suppose it was a long time coming, like the London stagecoach.”

He glowered at her wordlessly.

She glowered back, but not wordlessly. “You Stupid Man.” She said this slowly and clearly, so he had every chance of taking it in.

He did. His eyes dilated. Deprived of speech, he took some exercise about the bedroom, then paused by the window and broke out into furious muttering. She thought she caught the words, ‘insolent’ and ‘baggage’.

“I took great care that I wasn’t followed.”

He whipped about: “I seem to have heard that before from Longface.”

Now, it was Isabella who quivered with insult. “And you’ve jeered at his incompetence often enough.”

He ignored this. “I’ve striven to protect you by keeping you as a femme covert* – but now this!”

“You and Jack have been truly gallant – but I don’t want to be protected! I had to prove myself just this once. I made a fine purse, too. What is a femme covert?”

“While you were out with us, that was my one comfort. Did you know, my love, that I’ve played a trick upon you?” He smiled condescendingly.

“How?”

“In law, my sweet one, as my wife you are a femme covert, which means that I’m responsible for every crime you commit in my presence. You’re assumed to be under my control, you see. A fine irony, eh? I might as well try to control a wild mare. But you don’t have separate legal identity, it being merged into mine.”

“Damn it! I should have guessed, should have known. That is why you were so eager to marry me!” She was touched, even in her indignation.

His smile was bitter now. “There was the minor matter that I wanted to marry you, thinking you quite wonderful.”

“So you’ve since changed your mind about that?”

He gave a Mirthless Laugh. “I have kept wild ruffians in order, and I cannot control my wife.”

“You would have that in common with the rest of the world, if we women had any sense, and tried living for ourselves, rather than getting our excitements at one remove through you men. When will you treat me as a friend and a confidant rather than as an object of worship or some great child?”

He stared at her as at some extraordinary being speaking in an alien tongue. “Madam, I have worries enough, and have little enough time to deal with your tantrums at present.”

My tantrums? Ye Gods!”

He looked at her with positive dislike: “You have the temerity to speak of trust; you promised to obey me as your chief, and broke your word in sneaking out alone. I see I must negotiate with you.” He clearly found the idea as bizarre as that of treating with a horse. “May I ask you to keep to your word now and not go out robbing alone?”

“I didn’t sneak out, I strode out as unwomanly as dammit – but yes, I shan’t go out again by myself. I wanted to do it the once; I got no pleasure from it. You are right in saying we should all of us retire.”

He stood, arms folded, not looking at her. “The thought of returning to your arms sustained me through brutal enough episodes over in Epping Forest, and now I’m cheated of that delight.” He turned on his heel and exited.

Isabella, though sad for them both, had to suppress a stir of admiration for his talent as a playwright. Though the Disgraced Earl might retire from being a brigand, he would always have a source of income to hand – that of the writer of dramas such as: ‘Rooksmeadow, Or the Rogue Turned Robber’.

She glanced at the clock. It was time to renew Jack’s poultices. She was glad, as she didn’t want to think about Reynaud’s last words.

 

Jack had insisted on getting up. He sat painfully in a chair, dramatically pale and chaffing at being stuck in the house. He grinned at Isabella, shaking his head. “Mistress Fox, what have you been about? Fox is fit to be tied at your pranks! And me all unawares.”

“The story may serve to keep your mind off the sting as I treat the wound. Pray remove your shirt… Well, I held up an arrogant squire and a vicar, and guess with what they threatened me? Neither with hellfire nor the gallows, but with my Mama…”

 

For the rest of that day and the next, Reynaud treated Isabella coldly. He avoided speaking to her, though he was cheerful enough with the others, and laughed over pots of ale with Jack, who was quickly getting stronger. He turned his back on Isabella at night.

She worked in the bar, moving through an atmosphere of disapproval from Mr and Mistress Kit and Nell. They said nothing, however; her actions were beyond words. Sometimes Reynaud glanced in, arms crossed, to make sure that she wasn’t being treated insultingly, and withdrew, still silent.

Isabella, longing for a confidant, made one of her new pied mare, Judy.

“I believe I’ve brought him nothing but unhappiness and danger,” she said, and the horse snorted.

Reynaud wouldn’t be flattered to hear that just as he had put Mistress Kit in mind of the dray horse, Tumpkins, so now this one made Isabella think of him. Judy revolved her ears and Isabella had to smile, imagining Reynaud doing that.

She handed over part of the treat, which, unlike Longface, she had already divided. As the horse chomped on the carrot, she sighed. “As I have always urged him to go abroad and now he agrees, I must go with him, I suppose. Yet, he gets little enough pleasure from my company now. But I would so like to do one thing before we go. Oh, all right!” She handed it another piece,

“This has nothing to do with highway robbery – with which I am heartily disgusted – it’s to do with Edmund Ravensdale, for I – Oh, very well, you soulless creature! Here’s another bit.”

 

That night, Isabella awoke from a dismal dream of searching for something in a dim room, sensing a movement. Sitting up, she saw Reynaud over at the window, staring out at the moon looming bright through the open curtain. She stole out to join him, placing her hands on his shoulders. He didn’t relax under her touch.

“Are you looking at one of your relatives?” she spoke lightly.

“No. I was thinking of that time when I believed my wish for you was granted. I was wrong; I had only the form of it. That moon seems so near you could reach out and touch it, and it looks warm too, but that’s an illusion. That’s how it is for me with you. Yet, I’ve only myself to blame; you warned me often enough how things must be.”

“You’re wrong; I am here, caring for you more than you realise, and you know well enough I’m far from cold.” She moved closer, tightening her arms about his neck.

His muscles tightened under her touch. Isabella moved to look round at his face.

At his expression – in the bright moonlight, he looked as if he was eating live wasps – she drew back in dismay. She couldn’t dismiss this as mere histrionics.

“You can’t return my feelings. You have a tepid liking for me. I find that the most insulting thing of all. The bitterest part of this torment – this unrequited love, which I never knew before – is your dreadful equanimity. You told me the night you came away with me that you liked me as well as you could like any man, that you think I am Quite Nice Really. You’ve been kind to me. You’re very kind to Jack, too: ah, yes; you took excellent care of him. You’re kind to Bridget. You’re even kind to lower creatures, moths especially. Your feelings towards me are no stronger.”

“That’s absurd. Of course, I’ve come to care for you more than for other people or moths! But romantic notions and sentimental excess are foreign to my nature.”

He glared round at his goddess, careless of punishment for apostasy. “You don’t regard anyone unkindly – except maybe enclosing landlords and hanging judges – you even reproached me for unkindness to that idiot, Longface. You’re very kind to me, after your fashion; and as you say, I’ve nothing to reproach you with, for you warned me.”

As Isabella puzzled over what to say, he went on, between clenched teeth, “I don’t want your kindness. Don’t exert yourself to dissimulate, Madam. Leave me alone.”

“I’m not dissimulating.” Isabella put her hands on his shoulders again, but he shrugged them off, and turning abruptly, went to stretch himself out on the bed.

She asked in a flat tone, “When do you want us to leave for the coast?”

“The day after tomorrow. I have to settle some affairs back in Wycombe first.” He lay in the pool of the moonlight, staring at the ceiling.

She sat gazing dismally out at the moon for a time, and then went and stretched herself at the other side of the bed, and they both lay in the moonlight, not touching.

 

“Mr Flashy, gone, leaving this note.” Mr Kit passed it over to Ravensdale.

He cursed and read aloud:

 

F,

[_ _]

The sting in my mind is far worse than any wound. I must soothe it in the way you know. I wish you every good fortune. Kiss your kind wife goodbye from me and give her my greatest thanks for those poultices. Tell her from me, now I am at a safe distance, that she makes a better apothecary than beast of prey, and if she must needs take up a trade, it should be that one. Don’t delay with your travels.

[_ _]

FJ.’

 

“The idiot! And yet, she’ll make him retire – and that is the best thing.”

“What? Some wench no better than she should be, I’ll be bound.” Mistress Kit huffed. Perhaps, as with Fox, she had intended Jack for the woman who made the excellent rabbit pie.

“Suki in [The Huntsman. _]I knew he was sweet on her all along; the stir he made about getting her those ribbons just the right shade of blue for her eyes! But I think the fool will rush to marry her.[”_] Ravensdale spoke as if astonished at such impulses. Isabella pulled a face.

“A tavern wench?” Mr Kit looked doubtful.

“Ah-humph!” Nell’s eyes sparked, “A-humph!”

“Er, pardon, Nell, I didn’t mean –”

“I’m worried about him,” said Isabella, too distraught to wonder if Nell was reminding Mistress Kit of Tumpkins, the dray horse. “He’s only just back on his feet, and to ride all that way! That wound was just closing; it may open again. He might collapse on the road. When did he leave?”

“He was gone when I rose, an hour since,” Mr Kit said. “Young fool, eh?”

Ravensdale frowned. “He left without giving me time to pay him monies I owe him.”

“We must go after him,” said Isabella.

“Don’t be ridiculous; he’s no weakling; you saw how he kept his saddle on the way back after being shot.” Ravensdale paced about. “But I don’t like owing him money, and should go to Wycombe anyway. You’re right: I’ll take a quick breakfast and follow.”

“I want to come too. I can be ready betimes.”

“As you wish… No breeches,” he added in a murmur, as they sat down to rush their breakfast.

 

In the bar of [_The Huntsman, _]the baby was cranking himself up with the noises and movements he made on waking, before bawling in earnest. The figure of a man muffled in a greatcoat and hat pulled low over his eyes, for all the warmth of the morning, came up to the door.

Suki, alone in the bar, noted his lurching walk. “Half in his cups,” she crossed her arms, ready to greet him ironically. Then she suddenly tensed. Something about the figure made her heart miss a beat. She told herself that it couldn’t be Jack Gilroy, whatever face he’d pulled when they’d parted. Jack had too much choice in the way of women to remember for long any wench who’d held out against him.

She knew those eyes. Coming up to the bar, he had to lean on it. She realized he wasn’t drunk. He pulled off his hat. They stared at each other.

“Jack! You’re as wan as a ghost. What ails you?”

“Never mind that now – have you got anyone else?”

Suki rushed round the bar; the baby’s noises were turning querulous, but she didn’t hear them. “Jack, what have you been doing ? – Yes, I’ve had half a dozen proposals since you went, but I couldn’t make my mind up – you’re hurt!”

“I’m on the mend thanks to Mistress Fox’s herbs.” He took her stiffly in his arms and she reached hers up. They fitted about his neck as if they belonged there as – she didn’t care what anybody said – the hangman’s noose didn’t. “I’ve come back to say I’ll make that promise if you’ll have me.”

Five minutes later, Kate came in cursing: “Suki, why don’t you pick Baby up – and it’s even empty in here – Why, what are you about, carrying on like some slut while Baby cries? – Lawks a mercy, it’s you, Master Jack!”

 

Tom Watts gazed out of the bar window.

Kate over by the bar, asked, “Is that bloody man sneaking round again?”

“Mem?” the baby said.

“Yes, my precious… Is that thief taker back?”

“No, but he’s been sniffing about most days, the dirty hound. We did right to get Jack out as soon as could be. Lucky he’s the sense to ride a horse that don’t stand out. I had to laugh to see him lean on Suki’s shoulder as they went out, with her a good foot shorter than him. Sure, them gunshot wounds ain’t nice.” He winced.

“Dame Morris has always given him a bed.”

Tom shook his head. “And not her alone, neither. To my mind, the girl should wait and see. If ever I saw an incorrigible rogue, there’s one.”

The baby let out a howl.

Kate clicked her tongue. “There now, you’ve upset him. He’s always liked Jack since he gave him that set of corals* for teething. What d’you mean by talking so high and mighty with your in-corri-whatsit rogues? Our father said the same of you, only he didn’t put it so fancy.”

“I didn’t mean to speak against him. I like Jack,” Tom apologized to his baby’s round-eyed gaze. “It’s that there once librarian from Sir Wilfred’s, always using long words… speak of the Devil, here’s another one.”

“What, a thief taker?”

“No, another of Fox’s lot. It’s that Longface, in the silliest wig you ever saw.”

Kate stared as Longface came through the door. “He’s grinning like a loon. What ails him; is his wits befuddled?”

“I’m going to look out for them Runners – when that fool turns up unexpected, they’re never far behind. Good thing we got young Flashy out, him being as weak as a kitten.”

Longface was eager to show off his new teeth, which fixed into place. It was true that they were far whiter than his others, and the contrast was striking, but Longface, confident of the effect of his new smile, beamed on Kate. She was gazing on him as if hypnotized. She even giggled, which he’d always heard was ‘encouragement’.

Perhaps she was seeing him in a new light. Certainly, he saw himself in one, since he had bought a new suit of clothes with a dashing hat, which he wore at an angle copied from Flashy Jack.

He hoped he was shaking off the gloom that had tormented him since that Young Hothead Fox had dismissed him so ungratefully.

Delving deep into his own mind – an unusual thing for a former Idle Apprentice* to do, let alone a farmer’s son – Longface had even wondered if that arrogant young buck’s contempt for him had been catching, so that even Longface himself, who knew his own wisdom, had picked it up. It had somehow drawn in similar scorn from others and bad luck from all sides.

“You look different, somehow,” Kate’s voice wobbled. Maybe she was struck.

Tom, standing nearby, made a snorting noise and buried his mouth and nose in his handkerchief.

“Perhaps I’m changed,” Longface flashed another smile at Kate. This was risky. The last time he had smiled too broadly at a wench, one of the teeth had dropped out and she had screamed. Adopting Flashy Jack’s bold careless air, he leaned on the bar. “Now that Young Hot-Head and I have parted ways, I can come into my own.”

“Your own what?” Tom turned round from the window. “Look out for that thief taker Morpeth, he’s been sneaking about lately.”

Longface was spared the trouble of answering by Kate’s question, “So you ain’t seen any of our old friends?”

“Not this while. We’ve all heard tell of how foolish Fox carried on. It were one reason why I knew it had come to the parting of the ways between us, though I were concerned at the risks he would take without a wiser head to guide him.”

Looking up, Longface saw Tom turning from the window to wriggle his eyebrows at Kate, who let out a snigger purely insolent. Even the baby on her arm began to gurgle, though he was kind enough to look at Longface with pity rather than scorn.

Anger stabbed at Longface. Even his new teeth and his fine stride in these new boots couldn’t guarantee him the respect that he deserved from these fools. He spoke sharply: “I heard tell how that other young looby, Flashy, was chased by them Bow Street ferrets all the way to London. Not me; I see ‘em coming as if I had eyes in the back of my head.”

Tom turned from the window, and renewed scrutiny of the front yard: “’Tis just as well, for if I see that Morpeth coming up, for sure you do.”

Longface – nonchalant swagger forgotten – was rushing for the side door when one of his beautiful new teeth jumped under the table. His blood ran cold, but he couldn’t bear to lose it. He lunged for it, wasting precious seconds.

Kate hissed, “Get out of it!”

He had it. Then it slipped between his fingers and bounced away.

Now Tom stood in the front door, greeting Morpeth heartily.

“Let me through in the King’s name!” Morpeth shouted, drawing his pistol.

“Don’t shoot, we’ve a baby here!” Tom shouted back.

“Yes, the baby! I’ll come without a fight.” Longface rose to his feet, the precious tooth in his hand. He would anyway cut a fine figure on the gallows. He had sometimes wondered how he would feel when he was taken. Now he knew. His head was as empty as it had been when he used to walk behind the plough.

 

“Yes,” Tom Watts said to Mr Fox, “That dirty hound got him at last, so take care, Fox. He might talk. I hope Morpeth ain’t on to Flashy too, ‘cos he’s in no state for a quick escape. Shame too, with all his fine plans of living honest and marrying Suki.”

Isabella bit her lip. Ravensdale swore. “Did Longface go out on his own? I hoped he’d taken my advice and gone in for something safer.”

The innkeeper shrugged. “They’re holding him at The King’s Justice over the way, poor idiot, waiting on the magistrate. Only minutes before, he gave us such a laugh by coming in flashing a new set of clothing and some artificial teeth he’d stuck in.”

Isabella saw Ravensdale flinch. She thought that he deserved a stinging conscience; he should have been nicer to poor devoted Longface. He said, “The Justice? Then his sister’s farm is nearly opposite, the poor devil.”

“There’s other dirty dogs sniffing round these parts,” Tom went on, “Them Runners is back again.”

“Kate,” Ravensdale said, handing her a package, “This is Jack’s, and I hope, Suki’s, too. We shan’t stop.” He paused to smile on the baby. “Don’t give this young fellow any more of that Pedlar’s Cure, Kate. I took a sip of it once and it near killed me.”

“So you did take heed of my advice, after all,” smiled Kate as he handed her the bag. “Did it mend your guts ache?”

“Not for long. I have it again.” Ravensdale scowled out of the window and turned coldly to Isabella. “After you, my lady.”

 

“It is isolated enough here,” Isabella spoke with her lips close to Mr Fox’s ear – though there was nobody within two miles – as she looked about the tall beech woods. “I can imagine living as Robin Hood and a No Longer Maid Marian in this forest, with Mr Kit as Friar Tuck.” Breathing in the scent of his skin, she was tempted to kiss him.

Then memory came as a stab, as she recalled Selina saying that outlaws had to live in sordid taverns nowadays. She went on hastily, “Is the greater part of your treasure buried here?”

He seemed for once to be brooding, rather than alert to the present. She had never seen that in him before as Mr Fox, Chief Highwayman.

Even as the Disgraced Heir in histrionic mood or as Desperate Lover he was alert to his surroundings while he went in for dramatic speeches. Now, he turned on Isabella eyes dark with resentment. “What? It’s as I said before. I secreted several hordes, so the authorities shouldn’t find it.”

A clumsy woodpigeon flapped up into the dazzling light about the treetops. “Now, quiet a while. I must get my bearings.”

He did some pacing and muttering, but this time, on a mercenary theme rather than a dramatic one. “The oak struck by lightning… Three paces to the west…” Isabella had to smile. This was certainly the stuff of novels.

The sun was some way to the west; it was late afternoon. Isabella shifted uncomfortably. She was stiff after this last ride coming on top of the long one from Kensington.

She remembered how Dicky, as a boy, used to bury coins and make elaborate maps that never helped him to find them again. Tears misted her eyes and she bit her lip, giving herself a mental scolding.

You probably shan’t see any of them again, so you’d best get used to it. Think about something else.

Reynaud was saying, “The holly…” Isabella’s head supplied: ‘[_Heigh Ho, the Holly’, this Life is Most Jolly’ _]as another memory rose, that of Flashy Jack singing that as they waited by the road on the day he had been shot.

She wasn’t finding life jolly herself now; she wondered if she ever would again.

“You must be careful,” she said suddenly, “With poor Longface taken.”

He glanced at her, face inscrutable. “Perhaps, Ma’am, you would think yourself well rid of me.”

She couldn’t speak for a moment. “How can you say that?”

But he was striding out measurements, and ignored her. “Yes, that new bush confused me.”

“That was a dreadful thing to say!”

“Was it?” He went for his shovel.

“Particularly now, when there’s so much danger – and after you’ve tried so hard to shelter me from your own risks. Still, as I went out by myself, femme covert or not, that robbery may catch up with me yet. I’m glad to share your hazards.”

He went on silently digging. She picked up a small trowel and joined him.

Soon, his shovel clattered against something solid. He beamed with satisfaction. Isabella realized how she missed his smiles; the tender ones, and his devil-may-care grins too. Now, though, his smile was for himself. He’d taken off his coat and it hung on a tree besides her bonnet and the wig he’d been wearing for a disguise. The thick, waving hair about his brow was damp with sweat from the effort, which further brightened his eyes and skin. His good looks astounded her all over again.

“I do wish you’d brought me a spade, too.”

He made no answer.

A few minutes later, they were lifting the lid of the heavy chest. “Surely you didn’t carry this here?”

“No, I made a couple of journeys by pony and trap. It’s lucky that I have that locking desk in the back room at [The Black Ram _]for our prizes, too[._]”

A squirrel on a nearby branch suddenly began chattering at them in seeming rage.

“The rascal thinks we are about to steal his own plunder,” said Fox, and she had to laugh. Their eyes met. “You’re wrong,” she said.

“About the squirrel?”

“No; in saying the awful thing you did. Now, I want to answer you –”

He snorted and turning away, cut in with unusual rudeness, “This is no time for explanations. Now, Isabella, I want you listen to me for once. I want you to go back to our lodging house, and occupy yourself as best you can with something other than highway robbery while I call in on someone. I may be a few hours.”

“I want to come with you.”

She had been trying repeatedly to get him to meet her gaze. Now he did. His look was still as cold as it had been ever since their quarrel. “No, and there’s an end to it. Trust me; you wouldn’t like the company.”

“Why go at all? I don’t say this often, but now I have a bad feeling.”

“I’m sorry to hear of it, Madam. They may have some of that ‘Pedlar’s Remedy’ back at the lodging house.”

Isabella was always to remember the dismal combination of her sense of foreboding and the discomfort of the earth under her fingernails during the short return drive to their lodgings, which now seemed endless. It was in a cart drawn by a borrowed horse, as their own mounts were resting after the long ride from Kensington.

They were almost back at the lodging house when she said, “Reynaud – Please don’t go.”

He gave her a haughty glance. “This act of sensibility doesn’t suit you, Isabella.”

“It isn’t an act.” Her voice came out choked. He behaved as if she hadn’t spoken, so that she wondered if he had heard her at all.

&14. Heroics and Repentances&

July 1792

&&

E&dmund Ravensdale paced in Ravensdale &Court’s great gallery as the wind rose outside. “Blow, blow, thou summer wind,” he smiled sourly.

He strolled over to stare out of the window and sang:

[_ _]

“Heigh ho, sing heigh ho, unto the green holly:

Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly…”

 

He stood for some time shaking his head, staring out over the grounds and the park and listening to the wind. Then he turned to face the gallery, with the family portraits hanging along the walls.

Edmund moved quickly past the recent ones, the boards creaking under his feet. He slackened his pace as he gained the part of the gallery with the older ones. Here, the heavy lidded men and women of the court of Charles II, with the men in periwigs, were so stylized that they showed no individuality.

He spun about and retraced his steps.[_ _]Biting his lips, for the first time in three years he looked fully at the massive portrait of his uncle, the late Earl, Gaston Ravensdale.

Painted within weeks of his wedding, it showed a young man in gorgeous robes, slim, straight, startlingly handsome, but above all, exuding happy belief in the future.

Opposite him was Reynaud’s long-lashed, wide-eyed mother, Antoine Dubois’ younger daughter. Edmund shifted on his feet under the reproach he felt in that gaze.

After facing her, it was almost easy to turn to look at the twenty-year-old Reynaud, painted shortly before his misfortunes began. The painter had caught the arrogance of his stance and glance, the curl of his lip, those lengthy, long-lashed eyes, heavy lidded by nature, not through the fashion of the times.

“Ha!” Edmund turned away. “The villain of the piece suffers fitting mental torment.”

He span round at the sound of footsteps. No bell pull being nearby, he shouted. The old butler, Withers, came stiffly into view at the end of the corridor.

Edmund fingered the sealed envelopes in his pocket.

“Gothic weather, eh, Withers? What do you think of:

 

‘Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,

That dost not bite so nigh

As benefits forgot:

Though thou the waters warp,

Thy sting is not so sharp

As friend remember’d not?”

[_ _]

Withers stared. “It won’t freeze at this time of year, Sir.”

“I do envy you that lack of imagination,” Edmund smiled, but suddenly added, “You were always fond of Cousin Reynaud: one of the many, Withers. You don’t complain, though you’ve always missed him. I suppose you trust in a merciful Creator to plan all things for the best. This is by way of a bit of philosophy, Withers. I don’t usually indulge in it.”

Withers shuffled. Edmund could see him thinking: Mr Edmund has overset himself; so early in the day, too. Since the Young Heir’s disgrace, he often takes more than he should, though he used to be so moderate in his drinking. I hope he isn’t heading the same way as the Late Earl. The whole family seems to be going to the devil, save for sweet Miss Marie.

Edmund was sure himself that Marie didn’t understand Going to the Devil. Even he wouldn’t be able to corrupt her. If he appeared to her, she would greet him kindly, saying he must be lonely.

“Withers, take this,” he held out some coins.

The ancient retainer drew back, affronted. “Really, Sir –”

“I insist on it. Aha, horse hooves! Who can it be? Surely, Marie isn’t back from her visit so soon? I –”[]

Withers was at the window. “No Sir. It’s some young woman, and not even bothering to take her horse round to the stables, tethering it to one of the statues!”

Edmund went to join him at the window. Then he gave a strangely excited laugh. “Ha! Withers, doesn’t she look familiar to you? Never mind, I’ll see her in the front drawing room.” He went over to the mirror, and stared in earnestly, then suddenly turned to Withers with an even wilder laugh. “Happy times will be back again, you’ll see. The Wheel of Fortune has turned full circle. That’s a reference to Tarot cards, by the by.” Edmund’s fingers went to the envelope in his pocket again.

Withers didn’t trouble to reply. His stiff joints creaked nearly as much as the floorboards as he made his bow and turned away.

 

Longface demeaned himself to the stony Morpeth. “You might let me have my pipe; that’d be humane. Humane, that’s it. I say you might let me have my pipe.”

“There’s no fire. They won’t let you have your pipe on the scaffold.”

“A good reason why I say you might let me have my pipe now.”

“I might let you have your pipe – and lighted – if you were to Tell Me a Few Things. About your friend Fox, for instance – or should I say, Lord Ravensdale?”

“Yes, I know lords and dukes and such. Lord Ravensdale used to clean my boots.”

“– Or one Flashy Jack Gilroy.”

“He’s got a silly name, whoever he is. I say you might let me have a jug of ale. I’ll pay you.”

“Shut your mouth, damn your eyes! They may let you have a pipe and a jug of ale, when you swing in a gibbet over by the London Road.”

“My tarred and eyeless carcass will have a nice view of the hills from there.” Longface sighed as he turned his living eyes once more to the assortment of barrels and old bottles across from him, the pieces of wood nailed across the small barred window keeping out all but a fitful greyish light.

He had already traced the pattern of the cracks in these boards many times over. He thought now that one of the worst things about imprisonment in the basement of The King’s Justice was the lack of things to look at. Somehow, there was both a draught and a rank stench.

The chill and damp would be cruel in winter. It was bad enough now, on this windy afternoon that had gradually taken over from the golden promise of the summer morning.

 

“Reynaud, I want to come with you,” Isabella was standing, fists clenched, as he walked out of the door. He’d taken off the wig he’d been wearing, surely exposing himself to more danger, while ignoring her protests. She started forward to kiss him, but he didn’t appear to notice.

“No, you’d only get in the way.” He went out without looking back.

As soon as Isabella had adjusted her false hair and put on the nondescript beige bonnet and pelisse she had brought, she had Judy tacked up again. She felt sorry for the overworked horse. She felt even sorrier for herself as she stiffly mounted and set off as she had planned.

She had to bite back the tears as she passed the turn off that led to Wisteria House, tormented at being so near to her family, and yet forever cut off from them. She longed to see Selina or Dicky once more; she knew she mustn’t try. She must carry out the mission she had planned, though she knew too, that the chances of success were pitiful.

Besides, her sense of foreboding about Reynaud persisted, a nagging mental ache. It dulled the freshness of the breeze that caressed her face with a tingle like a lover’s touch, the shifting colours of the surrounding hills and the afternoon song of the birds as she rode to Ravensdale Court.

Obviously, whatever he was up to was hazardous. It might be bound up with Longface’s capture – yet surely, he wouldn’t bother to try to free a man he despised, whom he so often had warned to give up robbery? Suddenly, she dreaded that those nine lives Reynaud boasted of might have run out at last.

Would Longface talk? She thought that depended upon how much pressure was put on the poor fellow. She knew from Reynaud and Jack that a few years ago, that would have been literal pressure under ‘The Press’. That was illegal now, but she wondered if it still wasn’t done on the quiet.

By the time Isabella came up to the great lichen covered, lion topped posts, she was dry eyed. She noted thankfully that the lodge was empty, the great gates standing open. Edmund Ravensdale had said something about that – she’d forgotten what, economy or a sudden death, perhaps.

Accordingly, nobody noticed as she entered the gates. She rode up the long drive past the lake, noting the folly on the hill close by, where she’d challenged Edmund Ravensdale about helping his outlaw cousin.

She thought it was lucky that she had never had any respect for family, titles or honours, so that it didn’t even seem odd to her now that she was Lady Ravensdale, returning to the ancestral home of Lord Ravensdale in such circumstances.

Isabella went up to the front of the impossibly grand mansion, passing the maze, and picturing Reynaud and Edmund Ravensdale, his favourite cousin Émile Dubois and the now ladylike Marie rushing about in it as youngsters.

She dismounted slightly to the side of the house, feeling eyes on her. Here stood a group of statues of Ancient Greek heroes. Isabella used Achilles’ arm to tether Judy. The horse sighed long and loud. “I know you’re tired,” said Isabella, crossing her fingers childishly. “Wish me luck.”

Perhaps I’ll have to fight my way out if he tries to detain me; how bathetic. It all depends how right or wrong I am in my hunch. Oh Lord, this sense of foreboding worsens by the minute.

[_ _]

Longface sat, staring now at his drooping hands. Everyday sounds drifted down to his new basement home. He heard footsteps above; brisk voices; the sound of a horse coming up in the street. Now more footfalls sounded above. He shifted at these cheerful, everyday sounds no longer part of his life.

A confident male voice called for service. It even sounded like Fox.

The basement door opened in a flood of light. The landlord of The King’s Justice, archenemy to the people at The Huntsman, was at the head of the stairs, his voice unctuous: “Mr Ravensdale to see you, Morpeth.”

“Faugh! It reeks down here. Close the door, fellow, but don’t lock it. I assume this thief taker has the prisoner tied?”

“Yes, indeed, Sir. As I was saying, I was speaking to the Justice about a licence for setting up a gaol proper –”

“I’ll call you if I need anything. Just push the door to, no point in letting the reek out, eh?”

It’s only wishful thinking; this cousin’s voice is so like Fox’s.

The man was on Morpeth in a bound, grappling him for the pistol with one hand, clapping his own to his head with the other. “Don’t yowl and give me more cause to shoot you. Longface, where’s your weapon?”

Glowing, Longface untied his legs and covered Morpeth with his own pistol while Fox gagged him and quickly bound his hands.

“These sailor’s knots come in handy,” Fox grinned, only to look bleak at the next moment.

Longface, knowing nothing of how trussing up the thief taker must bring back to Ravensdale memories of eloping with Isabella, grinned as Morpeth made an enraged noise. “Could be he’s asking for a pipe.”

As they emerged, they saw the innkeeper, his back to them, standing in a sort of cubbyhole off from the bar, opening a bottle of wine to offer to Mr Ravensdale. Longface never forgot his look as he felt the pistol in the small of his back and Fox shoved a cloth in his gaping mouth. Moments later, hands bound, he was pushed into the basement to join Morpeth.

Longface and Fox left by a side door and walked briskly round to the front where Fox had the horses loosely tethered.

A quick glance up and down the street revealed nothing suspicious. It being market day, the pub and the road were busy. Groups of servants and labourers stood talking by the pub, some clutching pots of ale, while the smell of farm animals drifted up from the market. Two youths in servant’s livery, wrestling together in the road, glanced up in a suspended moment as the men came out of the inn.

Longface laughed and vaulted onto his horse as if he was ten years younger.

A shot rang out.

Fox flinched and fell against his horse, the blood welling through the torn cloth of his coat, high up on his back near the shoulder.

Longface whirled about, to see the Bow Street Runner whose hat he had mutilated on the day that Fox dismissed him.

The Runner was a long way down the street, darting behind a pile of refuse, smoking pistol in hand. At that distance, he had been lucky with his shot.

Rage at this unfair stroke from fate tore through Longface, forcing his arm up to fire at the visible part of the man, even as he knew that it was out of his normal range.

The shot did hit the rubbish tip. Some hideous piece of refuse – the hindquarters of a dead dog, possibly – leapt up and down, as if returned to life. Now the frozen moment passed; panic broke out; a male voice shouted; women and children screamed; figures darted about.

Fox staggered up to take aim as the man’s pistol poked round the side of the mound of rubbish. With a retort and a burst of flame, the pistol skittered across the ground and the man howled. More screaming followed. Longface felt like telling them that there was no need to worry; Mr Fox didn’t miss.

Fox was lurching onto his horse, and then they were off down the street, his blood dripping on the cobblestones. Longface saw the heads bobbing to the window of the tavern and back again, the blurred faces of the staring crowd. Fox even managed to swerve his horse to avoid a woman standing in the middle of the street, a child and a basket of hens in her arms.

“Down here,” Longface called, “Through these trees to the fields.”

Again, it was like old times, but with an alarming difference.

Now they were away from the busy street and heading out of town. At last, Longface could ask, “Is it bad?”

Instead of replying directly, Ravensdale said, “Well, Longface, those Runners weren’t far behind, eh?”

Longface was glad to hear him speak. His lungs anyway hadn’t been pierced.

That sarcastic tone recalled former times again, but the blood came fast through the back of his coat.

“It’s not far. Hold fast,” Longface urged, as he led the way into the small wood that opened onto the fields belonging to his sister’s farm. “I know a place where we can get help.”

Since his reform and her husband’s long visit to his relatives up north, Meggie had let Longface come to visit again.

What she would make of his turning up with an injured fellow bandit, he couldn’t imagine. Still, when he’d last seen her, she had said she would be out at the market today. He would deal with the problem if they managed to get there.

Meanwhile, Fox’s blood dripped down from the saddle, splattering on the foliage as the horses pushed their way through, leaving an unmistakable trail.

“The stream,” said Fox.

“Of course! To the right.” The stream carried away drops of Fox’s blood as the horses picked their way over the glittering pebbles in its bed, Overhanging branches caught some of the gore and Longface cursed. He could hear no sound of pursuit yet. He wondered when the people in the ‘The King’s Justice’ would dare to investigate the basement. He wondered more when his chief – or one time chief – would collapse.

When he saw the roofs of the farm across the field, Longface felt the same surge of relief as he had as a child, coming home hungry from the fields of a dank winter afternoon.

As they urged their horses up the bank, Fox swayed in the saddle and swore. Now his voice was hoarse. “Longface, I wanted to say – you’re a good fellow, and loyal. I’ve been too hard on you.”

“There’s no need of this sort of talk,” Longface was alarmed, “Your wound probably ain’t that serious.”

“I don’t like to bring trouble on these people – is it your sister? Our friends must be hot on our heels, and I can’t go far in this state, Longface. Looks as if that was the last of my lives, eh? Damn that Runner! You’d better save yourself. I’ll keep ‘em busy for a while here while you make your escape.” He smiled nastily.

“No, if you stop here so do I; then they’ll take us both, so you might as well come with me. You’ve saved me many a time. The family have taken my money often enough, too.”

This was true, though Meggie’s husband seemed to accept her story that she made all these extra sums from her dairy and hens. Longface was pleased with the force of his arguments.

“Put me in an outhouse, then, and make it clear they’re to know nothing of my being there,” Fox muttered.

The back of his coat and the saddle were covered in gore now. Just as Fox and Isabella had once rode close by Jack, now Longface rode close by Fox. He didn’t fall, though by the time they came to the deserted farmyard, he was semi-conscious. He half tumbled out of the saddle as Longface made to help him down.

Longface took Fox through the entrance to the dairy. He made no objection, but now he was leaning on Longface, his head drooping on his shoulder. Perhaps in his daze, he thought that they were entering an outhouse. As Longface supported his chief brigand inside, there was a clatter of pails and a muffled exclamation; a figure rose up from the churns. Meggie was back in the dairy after all.

“What – Jem, what’s this?”

“You’ve got to help us, Meggie,” Longface felt his tongue thick and heavy in his mouth.

Blood drops spattered onto the floor.

“Lawks a mercy!” She started forward, and then stopped. “He’s one of your robber band!” She looked in terror at Fox.

The outlaw roused slightly, raised his head, and looked at her. The eyes weren’t savage at all, but darkened by pain and bemused.

Meggie was a firm supporter of law and order; she prided herself on her respectability; she went to church every week, with her cap properly starched. Her brother might have gone to bad, but she made up for that, though she did accept presents from him. She prayed for King George every night, cursed the rabble who had taken over France and called her husband ‘My Master’.

But now, as she opened her lips to speak for Her Master and get the murderous ruffian out of the house, dumping him in a distant barn and leaving him there to live or die as he thought fit, she said instead, “Come, my lad, we’ll put you somewhere comfortable.”

He muttered something about, “Outhouse.”

“That’s right,” Meggie and Longface supported him swaying through the door to the house.

 

“Lady Ravensdale – it is Lady Ravensdale now, isn’t it? Welcome to Ravensdale Court.” Edmund Ravensdale was at last in the drawing room.

Isabella had paced here, infuriated by the measured tick of the great clock, since the wooden faced footman with the hefty legs had shown her in.

Edmund Ravensdale went on, “Can I offer you any refreshment? You look weary. I never thought to see you again.” He seemed to be looking at her with admiration, and suddenly added, “I would know you again anywhere!”

The stir in his eyes made her uneasy. However, she was too taken up with her own feelings to be able to analyse his, or at least, those other than the ones to which she wished to appeal. She saw again, as she had before she eloped with his cousin, that he desired her.

He shook his head at her slight flinching away. “I said to you once, happy is the man who has your confidence.”

“Sir, I’ve come on a fool’s errand, as histrionic as that of any heroine in a tale; but I had to come on it, anyway. You know it’s our last chance. You see you do have some of my confidence, or I shouldn’t have come at all –”

“Are you sure I can’t offer you some refreshments? You look weary, Cousin Isabella.”

“No, I thank you. It wasn’t only a foolish wish for adventure that led me to linger in this country, instead of urging Reynaud to go abroad again. I hoped that somehow he would yet be cleared of the murder of Captain Harding. Were that so, I’ve heard that there is no firm evidence linking him with the highwayman Mr Fox.”

He looked at her keenly and inscrutably. She began to hate that look all over again, and to sense the coming failure of her wild scheme. That she had expected it didn’t make the sting any less.

“Lady Ravensdale – I do believe you come armed to confront me! Perhaps you plan to clap a pistol to my head, demanding the truth?” His tone was actually waggish, as if he took on the character of the Smiling Villain. “That is so outrageous and adorable! Still, I shouldn’t say such things to my Cousin’s wife. No doubt my danger is serious enough, as certainly Cousin Reynaud has given you more shooting lessons.”

How weird and unpleasant the strange urges of men can be.

“No,” she returned gloomily, “I only came armed as I feared I might be detained as a suspected highwaywoman – mistakenly, of course.”

“You feared I would do that?” he asked softly. The suave villains in Selina’s novels used just such purring tones.

“Only a bit,” she said flatly. “As I said before, I do have some confidence in you, and yet – I wish you would tell me exactly what happened that day.”

“Surely my cousin gave you his version of those events?”

“He wouldn’t tell me it all, because I think he made some vow to protect Miss Georgiana.”

“That was his motive for keeping silent. I suppose he told you how I arrived with a group of servants, and said that I couldn’t say how many shots there had been, when the farmer had fired in the field above?”

They stared at each other for a while. Again, the clock’s measured count of the passing seconds provoked her.

“Mr Ravensdale,” she burst out suddenly, “You told me how more than once you offered Reynaud help – you didn’t say of what sort – and he told you to go to the devil –”

“Ah, yes. Firstly, I sent him a message, saying that I wanted to see him, though I wanted as much for him to be safely abroad. He was on his way to the coast at the time, and sent back that reply.”

For some reason, he seemed to think that he should excuse this piece of ungraciousness, adding, “Certain news had just reached him that soured his temper.”

Isabella supposed he was tactfully referring to Miss Georgiana’s engagement to the sugar merchant’s heir.

Now he looked guarded again.

She went on, “I came here histrionically on impulse, as I said, to ask you exactly what happened that day, but also I wanted to tell you that you’re wrong about what I sense you believe Reynaud thinks of you, whatever he may have said in temper.”

She sighed. “Do you know what he once said to me? ‘Edmund was always worth two of me, but he didn’t see it – and so maybe he came in time to act as if he was only worth half. But no more of that.’”

Edmund Ravensdale’s face worked: “Oh, my God!” Hands to his head, he rushed away to the window, just as an urgent scratching came at the door.

“What is it?” Edmund Ravensdale shouted after a minute, his voice shaking.

Two junior footmen appeared, one young, one impossibly young. The bigger one said in a rush, “Sir – Mr Withers said you must know – there’s been an ambush in town.”

For the first time in her life, Isabella groaned in terror and felt on the verge of hysterics. She wished she hadn’t made any sound, as the youth paused in his story to stare at her. Edmund Ravensdale gazed at him, wet face pale: “Go on, boy! Is anyone killed?”

“They say Highwayman Fox came to free one of his men – Jem Higgins they said as is known as ‘Longface’ – as was held at [_The King’s Justice _]and there was shooting and they hit Fox, yet they got away, with bleeding like a stuck pig.” He gasped as the tall woman seized him frantically, eyes dilated, face as white as powder, crying: “Where is he?”

“He escaped–” The boy plunged backwards, as Isabella dropped him and rushed past him through the door.

“Wait! Wait!” Edmund Ravensdale began after her, but tears misted his eyes, and she was already rushing down the passage.

The boys gloried in this drama, following on from that wonderful gun battle between the robbers and the Bow Street Runners. Now here was something better than a play, with their aloof master in one of the main roles.

“Cousin Isabella, I beg you, wait!” Edmund Ravensdale sprinted out of the front door in pursuit. But already, she was dashing to loose her horse, hurling herself on it in a flurry of petticoats, and urging it on wildly down the drive in a clatter of hooves.

Withers, enraged that the boys had rushed in to their master, had been on his way to restore authority when the uproar broke out.

Now, he thought Edmund Ravensdale must have gone mad as he dashed back into the hall, pulling a letter from his waistcoat pocket: “Withers – I want this delivered by hand to Judge Jenkins, and urgently! It must be placed in his hands –it’s a matter of life or death – don’t fail me! Send one of the footmen. Remember, the Judge must see it!”

He hurled himself up the stairs even before Withers could say, “Very well, Sir.”

Withers aimed a box on the ear at one of the young footmen. “How dare you burst in so on the Master?”

The boy leapt back, but paused to complain: “I was hoping to get some cake for such a grand tale.”

“Insolent brute! Run for the first footman now –” Withers lunged at the other boy, nearly falling on his face as the youngster jumped out of reach and sped away.

 

Longface was pleased how angry his absent brother-in-law would be that he was using his best wig and reading glasses as a disguise.

He said hopefully, “Meggie, if they do track us down, you can always say Fox is a relative trampled by a horse, or something. I’ll climb down into the well.”

“Did the horse shoot him too? But there was no point in putting him in an outhouse; if they come they’ll search there.”

“Maybe they’ll miss us; it’s not as if they’re that bright,” Longface tried to reassure them both. “I’ve got to go and get the sawbones to get that shot out of him. Lucky he can be trusted. On the way, I’ll think of somewhere to hide Fox.”

Panic surged in Meggie, threatening to engulf her. “If they come for you both, it’ll be all over.” She imagined the neighbours she’d cut for idle ways, jeering at her as she was given a public lashing. Would she be put in the stocks?

“We’ll say we forced you to shelter us at gunpoint.” Longface went down the stairs.

Jem can’t be a bad man to promise that, yet My Master says he is.

The ruffian in the bed was muttering at her, and she went over with the well water she had brought him. He reminded her of a youth she’d once nursed through a bad fever.

A thought – obviously put straight into her head by the Devil himself – burst into her mind: What if they didn’t deserve to hang any more than some judges and generals? What if the law was wrong at times? What if the vicar was sometimes mistaken, and all the church too?

These wicked thoughts clearly came from going against her conscience and taking pity on the terrible robber. She didn’t care. As she raised his head to sip the drink, she murmured to him kindly.

 

Morpeth painfully flexed his wrists and stopped swearing to say, “Your people leave us in there for nigh on two hours and dare to give us some idle tale about thinking you was gone out? A nice loyal staff you’ve got! They’re probably in league with these ruffians, too.”

The barmaid bridled, “We thought the master had stepped out to market. This house isn’t like that den of thieves down the road where you caught that fool Higgins skulking.” She stalked off.

Morpeth made a jeering noise after her, as he went on moving his arms. “I’d have held him better in an open field. As soon as I get the feeling in my hands back, I’m after them. As you fell for Ravensdale’s tricks, you can explain to the magistrate why he’s had a wasted journey.”

The landlord quailed. “How was I to know? The man was so high and mighty and sure of himself.”

“Of course; he’s a lord, ain’t he?” Morpeth walked out to the road, where the landlord joined him. “There’s blood here; he won’t go far if that keeps up. I’m not letting anyone else get Ravensdale after I’ve been on his track so long.”

“Rather you than me, then; he’s said to be a fine shot, and you know what they say about wounded beasts. Are you sure Fox is really that earl?”

Morpeth didn’t bother replying, but moved off, following the trail.

The splashes of blood were easy enough to follow up the road as far as the woods, but then he lost track of them. As he trampled about, breaking sticks and cursing, he saw one of the two men who had also been after the prize some weeks, standing gazing over the stream.

As Morpeth paused, irresolute – should he ignore the man or offer to join forces and share the prize? – a sob alerted him.

A woman swayed up behind him to the left, stumbling, pausing to dash the tears from her eyes with the back of one hand, pistol in the other. With her bonnet hanging by its ribbons, and the hairpieces partly covering the dusky mane of hair tumbled down from its knot, the former Isabella Murray looked more wild and gypsyish to Morpeth than she had yet.

Every day since she had knocked him down, he had gritted his teeth over the humiliation. He had detested her, swearing that even if it killed him, he’d track down her lover who’d hung him up like a piece of game. Now he felt a strange, illogical stab of sorrow for her and – for the first time – for his quarry too.

He jumped behind a bush to hide from her, just as Ravensdale and Longface had once done themselves in the garden at Wisteria House.

 

Isabella sighted the Bow Street Runner suddenly. He stood partly hidden by bushes, not far from the stream, examining the leaves of a shrub. He was, of course, following the same trail of Ravensdale’s blood that she pursued herself in a stupor of horror, and as she knew the other thief takers would too.

Suddenly, this enraged her: “Swine!” she heard herself scream, raising her pistol. The tears blurred her eyes and her aim was wild.

The man howled as the shot tore across the seat of his breeches, hitting the bough of the tree behind him, sending up a spray of bark. He stumbled, yowled, and turned to see her, fumbling for his gun.

“Swine!” she shouted again, snatching for her other pistol. Eyes dilating, he dodged behind a tree, spots of blood showing through the torn cloth at the seat his breeches. With another yell of rage, she was after him, but he vaulted over a bush and ran into the group of trees beyond.

He was gone. The cracking of twigs from his retreat still sounding in her ears, Isabella made her way down the bank to the stream, infuriated by the tears that blurred her vision.

“Oh, where are you?” she groaned aloud, pulling out her handkerchief and scrubbing them roughly away. She blew her nose and looking up, saw the distant roof of a farmhouse. Surely, it must be the one Reynaud had said in ‘The Huntsman’ belonged to Longface’s sister.

Looking about for a way to get across the steam, she saw a rock in the middle of the smooth flow. She pulled up her skirts and jumped, soaking one toe. Leaping again, she gained the bank, wetting one heel. “Damned women’s clothing.” She scrambled up the bank and rushed over field and stile to the farmyard.

This was deserted save for the inquisitive, pecking hens and a crowing, arrogant rooster perched on an outbuilding roof. She hammered on a door, suffering torments through long moments. She heard a stirring within, even the splash of distant water falling from somewhere.

What if the occupants kept her out, with Reynaud lying wounded only yards away? She beat on the door again, shouting.

“Who is it?” the voice of a woman neither young nor old came from inside.

“Jem’s friend’s wife!” Even in her torment, she found it odd to define herself in that way.

The woman who opened the door had an impeccable cap and tightly pursed lips, but her eyes were full of fear and concern.

“Is he there? I’m Mistress Fox.” She waited for the woman to scream, for the horrible realization that she had come to the wrong house after all.

The woman stepped back. Isabella followed her into a flagged passageway. Opposite her hung a text embroidered in blue: ‘Not a sparrow falls without Our Father.’ Her eyes read it without her brain taking it in.

The woman led her upstairs. “Is it bad?” Isabella asked through quivering lips.

“There’s shot in his back.”

Isabella followed the woman up to a bedroom. Evening sunshine had broken through the clouds, brilliantly lighting it. It fell on the bedstead, dazzling its occupant, who shielded his eyes with one arm draped across his face. The woman stayed in the passage as Isabella ran to pull the curtain further across.

She had expected Reynaud to be lying back, looking pale, dishevelled and pain racked, and he was. As she had expected, he was stripped to the waist and roughly bandaged, with blood seeping through to stain the sheets. She had imagined the heavy smell of blood in the air of the warm room.

For some reason, she hadn’t expected him to be half-conscious. As she fell on her knees by the bed – just like any of the heroines of Selina’s books – and fought back tears like them, too – he seemed to be pulling himself back from far away. He blinked as if thinking his eyes played him tricks.

She took his hand, which struck her as too warm, as Jack’s skin had been. The fingers closed about hers, but she wasn’t sure how far this was automatic. She said, “Oh, my love – I am so sorry for everything – what can I do? It’s bad, isn’t it?”

He muttered hoarsely through cracked lips, “Isabella – how are you here?”

“I tracked my way,” her voice was shaking grotesquely, “Shooting a Bow Street Runner doing the same, damn them. If it was the one who got you, I wish I’d killed him.”

Her eyes sought his bemused ones desperately for signs of the tenderness she had so recently taken for granted. Then her tears burst out again, blinding her. Unlike with the heroines of novels, her nose ran, so that she had to grope once more for the damp handkerchief.

“Shot him? Then you’re done for too,” he groaned.

“They can take us together. Reynaud, can you forgive me? I suppose you don’t love me any more – I can scarcely blame you for that – but you thought me heartless, and now I know I love you. Oh, why was I such a fool before?”

As she spoke, even through the blur in her vision, she saw the stir in his eyes and felt his fingers tighten on hers. “Love me?”

“Ah, yes – do forgive me!”

“What for?” He seemed genuinely puzzled. Perhaps his causes for grievance had slipped his mind. If so, she was only thankful.

“Kiss me.”

She leant over while he shifted painfully, making sure she put no weight on him, and kissed him, sighing in happy relief. Then her heart lurched at how different his lips tasted.

He moved painfully again. “Of course, I still love you; couldn’t stop. Now save yourself, my darling; leave me and get out of the country.”

“No, they can take us together.” She bit her lips again, thinking of how often he had said they mustn’t make the same mistake as most highway robbers, making just one more raid until it was too late. Still, his error had been the rescue of his despised follower.

“I’m speaking like the heroine of one of sister Selina’s novels, and I don’t care.” She caressed his face, “You went to get Longface. I should have known you wouldn’t leave him.”

He muttered, “I’m sorry, Isa… Missed seeing that Runner, devil take him and his lucky shot… I’ll tell them I put you up to it all.”

She went on caressing his face, “Then I’ll say how I went out alone too. Ah, I do love you. If we ever have time, I’ll tell you why I was so hard hearted. Somebody betrayed me, years ago. But that is no excuse: Miss Georgiana betrayed you, and you risked loving me still.”

At that, his lips twitched, though his voice came out hoarser than ever, “Didn’t have much choice, you wild mare.”

The term made her think of how, seeing the crowd gathered outside The King’s Justice, she had tethered her own mare in the deserted yard of a nearby house. Coming up unnoticed, she had trembled as she saw the spilt blood, as her bad dream back at Mr and Mrs Kit’s inn came true.

Now she tried to speak cheerfully, “That old story can wait, my love. Let me see the wound.”

They started at a rap at the door – Reynaud biting his lip at the movement – and heard the woman’s intake of breath from where she stood halfway down the stairs. Reynaud tightened his hold on Isabella’s hand, while she squeezed his. They stroked each other’s fingers. “You need that shot out, whoever that is,” she said.

She went weak all over as she took in Longface’s voice, “I’m back with Dr Merry, Meggie.”

&15. Confession&

The Conniving Cousin’s

Inevitable Confession

&&

E&dmund Ravensdale, his luggage packed, &though he was travelling light, rode up to the front yard of ‘The King’s Justice’. There were excited crowds milling about – villagers and others who’d come to town for the market, who stayed to talk over the latest drama surrounding Fox and his band of robbers.

As Edmund came up, some people recognized him, making gestures of respect.

As he dismounted and tethered his horse, he took in the patches of dried blood on the ground. A florid, stocky man who he vaguely thought might be the local grocer held forth, “I say we should raise a group and go after them.”

Nobody volunteered. An idealist would say it was through compassion for the wounded outlaw. Edmund was no idealist.

As he approached the crowd, it seemed to him that people looked at him oddly. He wasn’t surprised. They had only seen him half-alive. He knew he looked different now.

In casting off his cowardice and compromises, his excuses, like a snake squirming out of its old skin, he had wakened to real life. Suddenly, all the colours about him were brighter; the outlines of objects seemed sharper. Now, he tasted the joy of being as devil-may-care as he had always longed to be. Life took on savour as never before. His only regret was Marie.

He said, “Are you talking of the man who got himself shot freeing the prisoner earlier? Do people know where they’ve gone? Are the thief takers close on their heels?”

The florid man said, “They rode into yon woods, Sir, but they won’t go far.” He nodded at the dried blood on the ground, and one of the women clicked her tongue. “There’s at least five thief takers on their heels.”

“I think I’ll take a look myself. Can you describe this Fox?”

The man stared, and another of the crowd, pulling his forelock, spoke up. “With respect, Sir, everyone knows that Mr Fox and the Earl of Ravensdale are one and the same, begging your pardon.”

Edmund laughed. “You fools: why are you so sure that the Earl is Fox and that it was Fox who freed the prisoner? Yes, my reckless cousin made a stand for one he thought wrongly imprisoned, and typically took it too far. For all that, Lord Ravensdale isn’t Mr Fox.

“Think – Fox is fond of disguises; descriptions of him change all the time, save he’s tall and spare – like the two of us – with light brown eyes, like both of us too. That’s because I’ve been Fox all along, my good people. The Villain of the Piece reveals himself at last.”

There was some weak laughter, but gasps and alarmed looks, too.

Grinning as he looked round at the frozen faces, Edmund went on, “I freely confess – so bear witness – that I’m the one who shot Captain Harding too, driving Lord Ravensdale into exile. Since then I’ve taken to highway robbery to swell my moneybags – and by way of diversion, too. After all, things can be slow in these rustic areas.”

Someone laughed nervously. Nobody else joined in.

After a stunned silence, a woman curtseyed. “You jest, Sir?” Her statement came out a question, her wide eyes pleading.

“I wish I did.” A tide of regret – he was sure the first of many – swept over Edmund for all that he must lose, especially Marie’s good opinion, but he withstood it. “I’m a murderer and a scoundrel, but at least I admit it at last.” He laughed wildly, teeth and eyes flashing. Some people jumped, as if they feared that he might bite them. A small child burst into tears.

“Don’t cry, sweetheart, you’ve nothing to fear. All know that Mr Fox is gentle with females and infants.” Edmund pressed a coin on the child and turned away. As he strolled to his horse, he expected somebody to challenge him or even to rush him.

Nobody moved.

As he mounted and urged on his horse, a hubbub of talk broke out:

“I don’t believe it; he was playing a jape on us!”

“The Squire acted most odd – is he ill?”

“Mr Ravensdale – that robber? But how he laughed – is he in his cups?” and so on.

He hadn’t gone far into the woods, before he saw the two thief takers who had been about the area on and off since the ambush at the late Lord Ravensdale’s funeral

He dismounted, loosely tethered his horse, and came softly up to them. They reminded him of Morpeth in being nasty, brutish and short.

He had always wondered what went on inside the heads of thief takers, if anything. He supposed that they saw themselves as doing a worthwhile job in catching known criminals. Though they must know how many constables, magistrates, judges and members of parliament were unknown criminals themselves, the injustice of that wasn’t their concern. No doubt, they liked the excitement of their work.

Today, one of them at least wasn’t enjoying his work, as he showed the blood spattered torn seat of his breeches to his colleague: “It was a crazed big strapping wench, with eyes like a mad animal! Fair made me lose my nerve, I’ll admit it. She shot across my arse – does it still bleed? It stings like fire.”

“That’d be that Sir Wilfred’s daughter that ran off with the bandit weeks since. That graze don’t look much,” his companion leant on a tree, doing something to his pistol. “You don’t need to get the idea I’ll look any closer at your horrible bum, neither – Agh!”

“Drop it, or I’ll shoot! I’m the real Fox, so don’t trifle with me. You drop yours too, or he’s dead!”

They froze. The man Edmund had seized from behind the tree dropped his pistol at once. After his previous lack of sympathy, Edmund didn’t blame his injured colleague for hesitating before letting go of his own weapon.

Edmund said, “Kick it over, there’s a good thief taker. That’s the way. Now come here.”

The free thief taker stammered, “Sir? Have you run mad?”

“Let’s pass over your predictable reactions. You’ve been chasing the wrong man. I’m the real Fox, and Captain Harding’s killer to boot. I’ve just sent a full confession by hand to Judge Jenkins and to make sure, posted a copy to the local magistrate.”

“That don’t make sense; you ain’t been shot. You are Mr Ravensdale, ain’t you? Must be: they say you and the outlaw is near as like as twins.”

“That was my foolhardy cousin you shot, driven by a sense of noblesse oblige to free that wretched oaf. Now, bind your colleague up snug and tight. No tricks, or I’ll shoot you dead just as I did Harding, who insulted me and wouldn’t duel like a gentleman. Here’s a nice length of rope, I brought it with me just in case… Those are good knots, well done, little man. Now face the tree yourself.”

The man was on him almost before Edmund saw him move. Edmund staggered backwards, dropping his pistol, which fell into the middle of a bush.

The man fought savagely. He nearly gouged out Edmund’s left eye, narrowly missed his nose with a head butt and half winded him with a knee to the belly.

Edmund seemed to hear Reynaud’s voice, “Left jab!” and he got in a left jab that rocked the man. Shaking his head, the man snatched up a stone on the slope next to them.

They swayed, grunting like cavemen, while he strove to smash it down on Edmund’s head and Edmund struggled to overbalance him. Edmund felt his arms giving way; the strength of these short, stocky men could be incredible.

Suddenly inspired by a sudden vision of wrestling with Reynaud, he dropped his weight to the side, toppling them both, so the stone smashed into the trunk of the tree just to the right of Edmund’s head.

As his arm came free, another shouted order from Reynaud sounded in Edmund’s head, and he caught the thief taker with another jab followed by a savage uppercut. The man dropped like a stone himself. He hadn’t had the advantage of sparring with Reynaud, who’d liked to go in with experts. As he drew out his second piece of rope, Edmund murmured, “Thanks for the advice, Cousin Reynaud. I deserve your help little enough, after my treachery,”

As he tied his half-conscious opponent to the other side of the tree from his first victim, he told him cheerfully, “That was a nice little fight. You’re a brave fellow, so I’ll only gag you loosely, as I don’t want you choking.”

He began to sing again: “…Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly…”

[_ _]

Longface was astonished to see Isabella. If Tobias Goodenough, the actor back in Kensington, had seen Isabella now, and known her real name, he would have quoted from Shakespeare too with, ‘Oh, pretty Isabella, I am pale at my heart to see thine eyes so red’.

Longface hadn’t had the benefit of his company; as he saw her red eyes, he thought it served the arrogant hoyden right.

Even from the distance, he’d noted her coolness towards her handsome and gallant, if villainous, admirer, the man over whom so many other women swooned. It had seemed to him as if she thought Mr Fox’s adoration no more than her due. Longface had clicked his tongue over her unwomanly ways besides. He thought her as bad a choice as the Young Hothead could have made. Still, he was pleased for Fox to see her here, and duly repentant.

“She may well cry and be sorry, the thankless jade,” he told Meggie, “I was doing my best to persuade the young fool to leave the country again, but he must needs take up with that rumpskuttle and here we all are now.”

“She seems a properly raised up young lady,” Meggie shook her head. “It’s all beyond me.” She recalled something that in her shock had slipped her mind. “Is it really true that he’s that Wicked Earl?”

“No point in denying it now, I suppose.” Longface went to stare out of the window.

“I declare. Fancy, Lord Ravensdale in our place. Should I call him ‘Your Lordship’?”

“I don’t suppose he’ll notice what you call him.”

Dr Merry put his head in at the door. “I’ll need you, Jem, to hold him down, while I get that shot out.”

“Can you get it out, then, Sir? Is no vital organ pierced?”

“No, the shot didn’t go in far enough. A little deeper and it would be a different story. He’s a strong young rascal; it would take more than that to finish him off, if it doesn’t fester too much.”

As they came into the bedroom, the doctor repeated to Isabella, “This won’t be a pretty sight; if you will stay then no fainting. I’ve got enough on my hands.”

“I’m staying.”

Reynaud looked shocked, muttering hoarsely, “You don’t want to see this, sweetheart.”

She stayed to hold one of his arms, while Longface took hold of the other.

Then she held fast, biting her lips until they bled, while Reynaud first writhed and finally groaned aloud. She gasped in relief when he sank into semi-unconsciousness.

“Done,” Dr Merry said proudly, holding up a blood-soaked object or objects. Isabella gently raised Reynaud’s head and held to his lips the portion of spirits that Longface offered from the flask that she remembered well.

She moved over to the stand behind the curtain shielding the window, so that she could covertly mop away the tears misting her eyes. She was astonished that she should be so much more appalled by Fox’s suffering than she had by Jack’s. She supposed that this strange feeling of love had to do with it.

As her eyes cleared, she saw a figure on the hillock opposite the window.

Morpeth.

[_ _]

Morpeth patted his pockets, annoyed that he didn’t have his pipe or a means to light it. He’d thought he had found it, but it turned out to be Longface’s. It seemed to him that on every occasion when he could really have done with a smoke, he couldn’t have one.

It had been so when his father had died, and when his wife had told him that she was off with her first sweetheart and that was the end of the matter. He glanced in disgust at the pipe. No, he believed that saliva was nearly as bad a source of contagion as urine, and Longface’s mouth didn’t look healthy at all.

“Those Runners is either more stupid than I thought, or something has happened to them,” he muttered, pacing. “But that’s well enough, I suppose. It gives them two inside more time together. It’s odd; I never would have called myself sentimental. You live and learn.”

He started as a mounted figure came up from the woods. “What the devil – it looks like – Yes, it’s Mr Ravensdale. But he doesn’t look like himself neither; I’d have taken him for the highwayman.”

Edmund jumped down from the horse. “Very well, Morpeth, let’s get this over with at once. I’ve been through it twice: I weary of the sorry tale already. I hope your understanding is better than the dolts I’ve met so far. You should be after me – not my cousin – I’m Highwayman Fox – not my cousin – I’m the one who shot Captain Harding – not my cousin. I’m the Conniving Cousin, and the Villain of the Piece. Anyone who read novels would have suspected me at once. Is that all straightforward?”

“No. Why does the Earl lie shot in there?”

“That brilliant objection was raised by the Runners I left bound up in the wood. Because the Earl did get shot while freeing our mutual friend Higgins – sometimes known as Longface – from where he was being held in The King’s Justice.”

“You left them bound?!”

“I’ve sent my full confession to Judge Jenkins and the local magistrate, and sounded off to the populace for good measure. I’d love to see Reynaud one last time, though. He’ll probably want to kill me when he hears the truth, and I only wish he were in a condition to do it. I just hope he gets the better of his injury.”

Morpeth snorted, “You concoct this wild tale to gain time for him. Why would you confess three years later?”

Edmund grinned savagely. “You’d need a conscience to understand why it becomes a living hell to exist with a bad one for so long.”

Morpeth drew himself up. “What makes you think I don’t have one? Why d’you suppose I’m loitering here? To give those two some extra time together.” He snorted too. “If you’ve really done what you’re trying to make out you have, you’ve a damned nerve to give sermons to me about anything.”

“I beg your pardon, Morpeth. You are in the right, and I’m not only a villain, but also a self-righteous one. I think I’ve done you an injustice, though not as bad as the one I’ve done to Cousin Reynaud.”

Morpeth eyed him in silence for some moments. “You know, I begin to believe your strange story, Sir, though much of it makes no sense. Doubtless, the two of you were in touch through that dolt, Higgins. What’s more, I don’t think you’ll come without a fight.”

Edmund glanced behind him. “Those hills… The world is a beautiful place, Morpeth. I wish I’d seen more of it. Still, I shan’t be alone in that; when we’re drawn into the war spreading across the continent, young men will only take their Grand Tour of Europe as soldiers.”

They looked at each other. “I suppose you were hoping to get here before me,” Morpeth said. “Apart from seeing Reynaud Ravensdale, what were your plans?”

The other grinned. “You’ll laugh, but I was going to run away to sea and be a buccaneer.”

Warmth stirred in the depths of the thief taker’s eyes. “That was what I dreamed on as a boy!”

“How our childhood dreams of adventure give way to sordid reality, eh, Morpeth?” Edmund smiled fondly across at the farmhouse. “It’s strange; only five minutes since I was ready to fight a whole army of thief takers, but now I don’t much care. Come, I can’t bear to see poor Reynaud after all. Let’s release those prisoners in the woods and then you can all place the villain of the piece under lock and key.”

 

“Edmund’s gone, Isa,” said Reynaud, suddenly rousing from a sort of stupor. “I saw him in the woods, too.”

Isabella felt his forehead anxiously. Though the fever was setting in now, it didn’t seem hot enough yet for him to be delirious already. It must be the blood loss and the pain.

Odd, we didn’t tell him his cousin was there with that snake Morpeth. I hope Meggie hurries with that tepid water for me to sponge him down. Then I want to go out for some herbs from the kitchen garden to treat the wound.

Reynaud added, “He was fighting those Runners in the woods, before. I told him to get a jab in, then an uppercut.”

Isabella sniffed. “Good advice, my darling… Come in!” she called, hearing scratching at the door.

It was Meggie with the tepid water. “How does he do?”

“The fever starts. I so wish I had one of my poultices for the wound! I’m going out for some of your herbs.” Isabella added more softly, “Your garden is hidden by the walls of the outbuildings.”

Reynaud’s fingers instantly clamped down on hers. “Give me your word you’ll stay inside, hussy.”

“Leave go, my love. You become feverish and I must bath you.”

He kept hold of her hands: “Your word you don’t risk yourself out there!”

She tried to distract him with kisses, but it was no good. For all his weakness, he kept a firm grip on her hands, until she had to promise not to go out.

[_ _]

The Cousin – No Longer Conniving

&&

When Edmund Ravensdale and Morpeth sighted the Bow Street Runners in the distance, still bound to the tree, Morpeth turned a scornful look on his companion. “No initiative. I managed to get free, though your cousin had me trussed up. hanging upside down like a piece of game.”

“Yes, I heard your colourful speech as you entered the ballroom,” Edmund grinned at him, and then stopped as stark reality came back to him. He added sourly, “Maybe that sailor’s knots Cousin Reynaud prides himself on, are not as fine as he believes.”

To his surprise, Morpeth smiled at this taunt. “Stay, Sir. I want to talk about the parts we’ve played in this affair. Will you to tell me the whole story, not just a general confession?”

Edmund twitched in distaste. “Judge Jenkins can hear the full details about my treachery to Cousin Reynaud. I’ve no intention of going about providing entertainment or moral instruction with it like some travelling performer of old.”

“Captain Harding was my own cousin,” Morpeth spoke so softly that for a second, Edmund didn’t hear him. Then he burst out, “Damn it, cousins everywhere, conniving and otherwise! You’re from a cadet branch of the family, I take it?”

Morpeth winced. Edmund saw that he guessed the ‘and vulgar’ Edmund hadn’t said aloud. He mused, “So, then, you kept your connection to Harding quiet, and nobody found out the connection, though the law is corrupt enough, with Judge Jenkins himself being a fine example?”

“I looked up to Harding; he was everything that I wasn’t.”

High above them, a bird shot out of a tree, wings glittering in the shafts of sunshine that still lit up the tops of their foliage.

Edmund said, “That sounds dismally familiar. We step out into a whole world of marvels, and none of us can behave originally in it. I’m sorry. You’re talking to your own cousin’s murderer, and show great restraint when you must want to kill me, too.”

“No. I wore that out on Reynaud Ravensdale. I hated him as an arrogant aristocratic killer who escaped justice by fleeing abroad. When I heard he was back in the country, plundering the high roads, I went after him again. Then a colleague put me in Sir Wilfred’s way, but after his daughter made off with the robber, Sir Wilfred dismissed me. Besides, you may be sure his good lady wasn’t happy with the figure I made when I interrupted their ball.” He grinned tightly.

Incredibly, Edmund found himself grinning back. It was as if this was a talk between colleagues, not between thief taker and captive.

Morpeth went on, “These titled villains laugh at the law that beats down the common folk. They don’t even die on the scaffold like us. They always get away with duels between themselves, too; you mind, affairs of honour; judge and jury neither will convict of a killing there.

“Maybe that alone should have made me think about Reynaud Ravensdale’s case, if nobody else had the sense. Why would the Viscount shoot down his man before the duel when if he did it moments later he would be acquitted for doing that inside it?”

“True, but everyone knew Reynaud wasn’t exactly rational when in a rage,” said Edmund. “At least one of the servants had just heard him shout how he’d shoot the Captain on the spot if he said another word. That speech did him as much harm as his ridiculous story that he shot the Captain by accident, through slipping. Then his flight settled the matter to most people’s minds. But the Earl persuaded him to go, saying that he’d never escape conviction if he stood his trial. ”

Morpeth’s eyes regarded Edmund with some unreadable message. Edmund suddenly knew where he had seen that same look in the eyes – in his own mirror earlier today.

It came to him, too, how Morpeth looked far younger than he’d thought before – if he’d thought about the thief taker and his age at all. Now he realised Morpeth was perhaps only a few years older than he and Reynaud. Earlier, Edmund had felt his own face radiant with the unaccustomed glow of youthful energy. It was as if Morpeth now had that, while now for Edmund, that glow had faded out. “You have his killer now,” he said.

“I have. But I’ve lost the heart for the chase, and I knew how much earlier, when I saw that hefty wench – though the jade had floored me before – crying in the woods over the ruffian. You know, there’s no glory in tracking a wounded and bleeding quarry. I’ve done it often enough, and I’m tired of it.”

Edmund said, “I thank you on his behalf. You may be amazed to know, Morpeth, that I have always loved my cousin. You deserve to hear the full story, and so you shall.”

He moved away from the thief taker, so that he leaned on the broken trunk of a tree fallen in a storm, and told him the story from the time that he had first arrived with little Marie at Ravensdale Court , up to that hideous day three years ago.

[_ _]

June 1789

Back in Time: More of the Conniving Cousin’s Story

&&

Though the figures are so close to Edmund, he feels cut off from them. They seem unreal; they are inhuman, like a tableau, somehow frozen although they move. The young men facing each other in ritualistic savagery – ready to stand back-to-back, pace, turn and fire – the girl rushing up to snatch at the nearer one’s outstretched arm, catching his hand instead, so that he lurches.

Edmund blinks at a flash. An impact shakes his own arm, which he sees is raised and pointing. Harding’s body stiffens, while an explosion attacks Edmund’s ears. Reynaud’s pistol discharges in another flash.

Harding begins to fall, red spreading across the front of his coat. As if time has slowed down, he lingers as he topples over and hits the ground.

Even as the retort echoes in Edmund ears, he hears another shot, from further away, up in the paddock beyond. He catches the noises of servants running up. The smoke from his own shot drifts up above him, slowly dispersing. How did he come to shoot Harding without realising it?

Then all is motion. Time speeds up again. Reynaud supports Miss Georgiana to a tree stump nearby, then rushes over to Harding.

Launched by some base instinct, Edmund leaps to thrust his own pistol into the hedge. He comes out into the main path to see the group of servants halted further down, staring and exclaiming. Then they break into a run, joining him as he speeds to the paddock.

Edmund is hardly aware of jumping the ha-ha. The older maid trips on her skirt as she tries to scramble over, wobbling on the brink. Automatically, he gives her a hand. “See to Miss Georgina,” he says flatly, before joining Reynaud in crouching over the stricken man.

Blood covers the front of Harding’s coat, clotting on the grass about him. He is still alive, panting through a red froth at his lips. Though his eyes are fading, they are aware, and Edmund sees accusation in them. Harding knows who crouches over him. His voice comes, harsh and hissing: “Shot before the duel, by Gad… That Mollie…”

Edmund waits for the lout to denounce him. He senses that Harding knows the shot came from behind Reynaud. But now, words are beyond Harding; his attention rushes inwards as he struggles to breathe, the blood bubbling at his lips.

Reynaud repeats broken phrases to him, “Harding – what have I done – I only meant to wing you – I slipped – I thought it went to the side – My God, Harding… What were the other shots?” He’s wrenched off his coat to cover Harding’s bloody torso, and cradles his head.

The tenant from the home farm joins them. “I shot at a fox, Sir.”

Harding’s eyes go out. Reynaud staggers to his feet. He looks about wildly, as if hemmed in, muttering still about another shot, his eyes meeting Edmund’s

Edmund says nothing, but he believes he sees the first hint of mistrust in the wild depths of those well known, beloved, heavy-lidded hazel eyes. “What did you see, Edmund?”

“Coming up with the others, I saw Miss Georgiana run up to you and seize your arm, so that the gun fired –”

“You saw me slip.” Reynaud means that he doesn’t want Miss Georgiana to be dragged into this, to be under any sort of suspicion. “I swear I heard a shot before.”

“I fired on one of them foxes I saw crouching in a bush,” the farmer repeats.

Reynaud stares at Edmund. There is still only a hint of distrust lurking at the back of that desperate and searching gaze.

Later Edmund guesses that Reynaud’s suspicions will build up over time, as repeatedly his mind plays out the horrible episode in a series of pictures. He must revisit the scene over and again in nightmares, just as Edmund has.

Edmund says nothing as he waits for Reynaud’s denunciation.

It doesn’t come.

Reynaud, slightly hunched, as if in pain, walks over to Georgiana, who still sways on the tree stump. He takes her hands, murmuring to her. Her shrieks pierce Edmund’s nerves: “Oh, No! Oh, No!”

[_ _]

July 1792

The Conniving Cousin Seeks to Make Amends

&&

“Incredibly, nobody noticed that patch of smoke floating above the hedge.” Edmund still didn’t look at Morpeth. He has told Morpeth most of that dismal story, but not the sort of love he felt for Reynaud; he sensed there was no need, anyway.

“At first, I had no idea of concealing things. I kept Reynaud in suspense because I wished to punish him, I suppose, all the time meaning to confess back at the house. I had a distaste for speaking out in front of the farmer and the servants.

“Then, as the others disputed about how many shots they heard – with only the young maid insisting that there had been three, and her view was discounted – and I realised their confusion over the sequence of events, noted how nobody even seemed aware of how late I joined the group – a miserable urge came on me. I saw that Reynaud would be the suspected killer, and I felt it was no more than he deserved. I blamed my murder of Harding on Reynaud’s thoughtlessness towards us all.”

Morpeth still said nothing. Edmund wandered aimlessly about. “I deluded myself that morally Reynaud was responsible for Harding’s death. If he hadn’t brought him into the house, to cause all that trouble, then it wouldn’t have happened. It was disgusting of me. At the back of my mind, I knew it even then, as I made excuses for myself. I knew that more than anything I wanted to punish him for being what I wanted to be myself – the careless wicked rogue who could win people’s hearts as I never could.”

“I put off making that confession – wanting to punish him for my rage and jealousy – and then put it off again, until finally, it was too late. In miserable cowardice, I let Reynaud take the blame for Harding’s death. But always, I despised myself, even as I tried to delude myself that it was no more than he deserved.”

“So, we carried the body back to the house. Reynaud supported Miss Georgiana – murmuring to her the while. No doubt, the gallant fool was telling her that she must say nothing of seizing his arm and setting off the pistol, how he would keep her name out of the courts. Doubtless, he was telling her too, that it was half his fault anyway, that he should never have been careless enough to stand watching Harding with his pistol on full cock; how he would tell everyone he slipped and fired it accidentally, and so on.”

He paced about now just like that cousin, as he said between gritted teeth, “The worst moment of that day wasn’t Miss Georgiana’s hysterics, nor Marie’s tears for Harding, or my sneaking back as the Cowardly Villain of the Piece to retrieve my pistol.

It was that curate Briggs calling round, all unaware. He came on some mission of charity. In a household even more chaotic than normal, I dealt with the matter. By mischance, we came upon Reynaud as he staggered out from his last interview with his impotently raging father. He was on the verge of breaking down in tears – as he never had as a boy through any number of thrashings. His eyes met mine – and I nearly broke down myself and confessed on the spot. It seemed to me Briggs looked at us both as if he saw into our hearts.”

Edmund gazed up at the sunlight still touching the treetops with gold. “But later, those dreams of Harding falling and dying, those other ones of Reynaud, where I sensed his bitterness, were worse. Once I got word of his whereabouts. I sent him a message. I felt that if I had saw him I must confess, but he sent word back telling me to go to the devil. Well, I was doing that well enough on my own.” He shakes his head.

“I know he came by stealth to see his father in his final decline, and I suspect he met with my sister too, though they said nothing of it to me. I think gradually he came to suspect the truth – as, of course, have others, too – but in swearing to protect Miss Georgiana’s name, he had made himself powerless to clear his own, poor devil.

Then, he came to call on me – via the window, naturally. Miss Murray’s name came up: he burst out in jealous accusations just as I was screwing up my courage to admit my guilt. Instead of continuing, I gave in to weakness yet again, and let him go back to life as an outlaw. Well, whatever his other misfortunes, he has gained a prize in his wife.”

As he met Morpeth’s eyes, Edmund started at the lack of hostility in them. The story had hardly put Edmund himself, or Morpeth’s beloved late cousin, in a good light. Still, he wondered if, like himself, Morpeth resented his dashing relative as much as he admired him, and for that reason, was not entirely sorry to hear it.

“It’s been a relief talking to you, Morpeth. You can avenge Harding, now. Shall we go and free those other thief takers? Do you know; I have no idea whether – as an Earl’s grandson – I’ll be entitled to beheading rather than hanging?”

Morpeth stood, scowling at the ground as if he took a dim view of it. Suddenly he spoke: “I’ve hunted the wrong man for Cousin Harding’s murder. Now I’ve got the right one.” He glanced up, scowling into the surrounding woods, as if now he saw an unwelcome sight there. Edmund, following the direction of his gaze, saw nothing to cause that look; no rival thief takers emerged from the trees.

Now Edmund suspected that the talk about the number of thief takers closing in on Reynaud must have been exaggerated. Perhaps there were only Morpeth and the Bow Street Runners he had bound and gagged. If only Judge Jenkins or the local magistrate acted quickly on the written confession Edmund had sent them, then Reynaud might survive his injuries, escape a desperate shoot out with thief takers, and live to be reinstated.

Edmund cursed himself for not speaking out earlier, earlier by hours, days, weeks, months, years. These vain regrets were futile, yet Edmund was pleased to be thinking of another instead of himself as he faced his own ignominious end. It was fitting that the person he should think of should be Reynaud, beloved still, beloved always.

Morpeth was still staring almost absently into the distance. Clearly, he sensed that Edmund would put up no desperate last minute resistance.

“Let’s go,” Edmund said impatiently. Dusk was sinking on the woods; the chorus from the birds dying into the chaff-chaff-chaff of the blackbirds perched on high.

“Years I’ve been a thief taker,” Morpeth spoke as if the words burst out of him, “I used to enjoy the excitement. Like a foxhunt, it was.” He smiled joylessly, “A real Fox hunt, with your cousin. I liked to think I was playing my part in helping to keep the world safe from marauding robbers and killers. I thought there was a big difference between criminals and law enforcers.”

He laughed acidly. “I was a fool. There’s near enough no difference between them. Those judges and magistrates – most of ‘em is as corrupt as hell. Who is these forces of justice I slaved for, anyway? Them rich land owners. Who sits on the bench? The squire*. All of ‘em as often as not taking a hundred times more in bribes in a month than what’s been stolen by some poor sod as they string up for thieving.”

Edmund stared; wondering if his captor was trying to offer some comfort, as Morpeth went on, “I said was tired of chasing quarry. There’s no glory in any of it. You and your cousin is high class criminals, but it don’t make no difference. The whole system is rotten, and I’ll play no more part in it.”

Suddenly, he grinned. “You’re free, Mr Ravensdale. Go and be a pirate, I don’t care. It ain’t no worse than being a corrupt judge. Probably better, if you do it honourable, like Mr Fox did on the High Toby, eh?”

The world seemed to plunge about Edmund; he staggered. When he could speak, his voice came out oddly flat. “You’ll let your cousin’s murderer go?”

“I’ve said so. I‘ve worn my hatred out on your cousin. What are you waiting for? I’ll tell ‘em I lost Fox’s trail. I won’t find them two fools for a good while yet. Getting dark, ain’t it? We never had this talk. Looks like we’ll both be taking up new work.”

“Thank you,” Edmund automatically held out his hand. He cleared his throat. “Will you do me another favour, and tell my sister that I’m sorry and I’ve ever loved her, and – and tell my cousin the same? You’re a good fellow, Morpeth.”

“There ain’t any, in this old world,” said the ex-thief taker. “Be lucky, Your Honour.”

 []

Drama with the Repentant Heroine

&&

“I am so sorry, my love, for my seeming heartlessness to you. It was part due to being let down by a footling weak boy years ago, at fifteen. While as I grew up I could see that I was well rid of such a fellow, it bruised my pride and my feelings, too. After that, I got into the habit of dismissing all talk of love with a blasé cynicism, and now I am rightly served in finding out my love for you only now, when…

“But now I’ll play my part of the heroine in a romance, and soothe your fevered brow, and I wouldn’t let anyone else take my place for a moment. Do tell me you forgive me for my former heartlessness! My God, how I bawl – Damn my nose!” As Isabella’s tears streamed again, her nose was determined not to be left out.

She wasn’t even sure he heard her, drifting in and out of an exhausted, restless half sleep as he was, moving and wincing. Then his eyelids flickered and his almond shaped hazel eyes half opened. He muttered, “What? Don’t be silly, Isa. How was it your fault you didn’t feel as I did?”

“But you do know, don’t you, my love, that now I know how much I love you?” she wailed, stroking his head, “And for weeks past, only I was too stupid to see it. And now, it’s too late. Oh, Lord…”

He squeezed her fingers again. “Love you,” he muttered, and lapsed into silence briefly, before rousing to mutter other things now and again as his fever rose. She sponged him down in tepid water and tried to sooth him, stroking his hair and holding his hand, kissing him.

She writhed as she thought how she loved his body now, whereas before she had just enjoyed it and appreciated it as she would a beautiful piece of artwork. Now it would end up on the gallows, assuming this wound didn’t fester and kill him before.

There was no hope of escape – no hope at all – though Longface had reported that Morpeth and Edmund Ravensdale had disappeared and there was still no sight of the Bow Street Runners either. Isabella supposed that they were all assembling together for an ambush on the farmhouse.

Once she thought Reynaud said something about ‘singing’. Remembering how she had always refused to sing for him, as she had refused to sing to anybody since she used to sing – ostensibly to the company but really, to Paul Langley alone – she said, “You’d like me to sing? I’ll sing, ‘Where’er You Walk.’”

Tormented by the memory of how Reynaud had once sung this to her, and she had taken it all for granted, her voice wobbled, so that she had to stop twice. She began again, her voice unsteady:-

 

Where’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade;

Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade.

Where’er you tread, the blushing flowers shall rise,

And all things flourish, where you turn your eyes.”

[_ _]

His eyes flickered. Apparently temporarily returned to his senses, he muttered something. Breaking off, she leant over him.

He raised hot fingers to pinch her nose: “Stop that, sweetheart – that’s enough to finish me off.”

“You’re making sense,” Isabella sighed.

 

Reynaud was the only one who spent the night in bed. While Isabella sat up with him, Longface and Meggie dozed in chairs on either side of the kitchen fire. When Isabella had last been down to warm water to tepid to bathe Reynaud yet again, the early morning sunshine was creeping through the shutters.[]

The rap at the door and a boy’s voice calling jerked Meggie out of her uneasy doze. She leaned forward to shake her brother awake. “They’re here! Use the back door; no sense in their taking the two of you.”

“No,” Longface rose to the occasion by staggering to his feet. He remembered some lines that he’d always wanted to use from a play, “I won’t save myself on such terms; that would be the act of a coward and an ingrate.”

Mechanically adjusting her cap, she called, “What do you want?”

“Message from Judge Jenkins, so open up!” a boy’s voice came officiously.

Meggie realized for the first time what it was to hate the forces of justice. “At this time of day?” She was still gesturing towards the dairy, and Longface was sternly declining with a shake of his head.

The brat shouted something about, “Urgent!” and she heard him tapping his feet. The world span as she opened the door on a boy so short that she looked over his head until he spoke again, eyes bright with curiosity: “Urgent message from His Worship – an order – have you got Reynaud Ravensdale in there?”

Meggie tottered, leaning on the doorpost. “What is – in that letter?”

“An Order Pending Judicial Process,” the boy said. Meggie had heard that even the kitchen maid in the Judge’s household knew some legal jargon.

As she still said nothing, he went on in a pitying tone, “Following Mr Ravensdale’s confession, they’re Un-Outlawing the Earl at least until they sorts matters out.”

&16. Humane Justice&

August 1792

The Must-Have Cynical but Humane Justice

&&

J&udge Jenkins was stout and &florid, and wore a lot of cosmetics. Isabella wouldn’t have recognized them as such before she became an expert on them herself. His wig made Reynaud’s one as librarian look sensible, and his fingers glittered with jewels, while many pounds worth of embroidery decorated his coat.

He took out a snuffbox, which Isabella was sure any highway robber would prize, snorted snuff up his bulbous nose, and sneezed enormously, bringing out a silk handkerchief of the sort cut-purses yearned over.

“You are very like your father when he was young, though you look wan and sick enough at present,” he told Reynaud. “That woman downstairs said the fever has been bad. Can you understand what I say?”

“My wife’s draughts took care of that,” Reynaud said proudly, stroking Isabella’s arm. The Judge saw the young couple exchange such a look of adoration as stopped time and took him back twenty years. He had to walk about to recover.

“You are a Very Silly Young Man,” he said abruptly.

Scowling, Reynaud pulled himself up straighter, despite his soreness. Whatever he had expected to hear, it wasn’t that. Isabella gave his hand a warning squeeze.

The Judge went on, “I weary of your whole family’s exploits. I don’t know what’s the matter with you all; nothing but trouble from the whole crew of you. I don’t care a damn how blue Your Lordship’s blood is, I’ll speak my mind.

“You’d have saved a lot of difficulty if you’d said at once how that girl – Miss Tooting or Toothill or whatever her name was – set off your pistol. I mind me now that farmer said he thought he may have seen as much, but he didn’t take it in, being in a state of terror about a rabid fox – but you didn’t confirm the story.”

Some colour came back to Reynaud’s face. Ignoring Isabella’s squeezes, he burst out: “And shelter behind a woman’s skirts? What do you take me for?”

“Humph! Now your cousin says he did the killing and can’t live with himself any more. Well, it’s taken him long enough to find out.”

Reynaud said with restraint, “I would have liked him to come out with it sooner, myself.”

Ignoring him, the Judge went on, “And now he’s made off, headed abroad from what I hear. That is fast becoming a habit with your family. Well, unlike you, I hope he doesn’t turn up again to cause more trouble.” He eyed Reynaud keenly. “Do you know, he claims he was Fox all along?”

Reynaud, with dilated eyes, began, “I won’t cringe behind –”

“Silence, I don’t wish to hear! You were about to say you won’t hide behind your cousin’s breeches, perhaps? No, and between ourselves, I don’t quite swallow his tale.” He stared at Reynaud. “You and I met, once, didn’t we, young Sir? But not in circumstances that give much credit to either of us.”

Isabella felt like a mouse at the mercy of a playful cat. She was sure, tense as Reynaud was, that he didn’t feel like a mouse and never had. She placed a finger on his arm, cajoling silence again.

Judge Jenkins ran his eyes over the couple on the bed striped with bars of sunshine, the recuperating young rascal leaning against the hefty girl. He smiled. “Could it be you and your cousin saw that revival of The Beggar’s Opera and it did no good for your morals? Some say it does corrupt youngsters. I saw it myself, and I have to say I enjoyed that sentimental ending, satire or no. Love triumphing, eh?

“I will say at once, I believe your cousin’s confession about the killing, but I don’t believe a word about his being this highwayman Fox. It may be the pair of you were, but I’d say it was you, with all those tales of fancy shooting – No; I don’t want to hear a word, young man. The matter is closed, as far as I’m concerned. I have the ear of – well, the Highest in the Land – and I can get you a pardon, and make an end of the matter –”

“No,” said Reynaud calmly, “Not without Jem Higgins and John Gilroy getting one, too.”

The Judge glared at him. “Who are they, for the Lord’s sake? Never heard of either, and don’t want to, neither. Cut purse friends of yours, I make no doubt. We’ll bury the whole affair, including their villainies, and that tale from one of the Bow Street men that Her Ladyship fired on him in her distress. I’ve other matters to attend to.

“Well, I expect to stand godfather to your first, and make sure you bring him up to have some respect for the law of the land.”

“Thank you, Sir,” breathed Isabella. Reynaud, perhaps following the Judge’s order not to say a word – though more likely sullen at being called a Very Silly Young Man – kept silent.

Judge Jenkins made a stiff bow. “Servant, Ma’am, and may I wish you very happy with this young rascal? Give him one of your draughts to help keep him in order, eh? You, young man, take heed by your recent adventures. If you come to my attention again, you’ll feel the full force of the law. Don’t trouble, Ma’am, I know my way.” He went out.

Reynaud was still speechless; Isabella drew him gently into her arms with a sigh. “I can scarce believe I have the chance to prove my love for you. Dammit, that speech was worthy of one of Selina’s worst books.”

“You’ve proved that already.”

They kissed for a while, but then he pulled away to say, “Well might Jenkins wish to bury the whole affair! If you knew how and where I met him – but never ask me, Isa.”

“Would I scream and faint? I don’t care.”

“We must send Longface to let Jack know he can come out of hiding. We’ve got to see him and Suki as soon as I can get up.”

“Of course, and I hope we see Mr and Mistress Kit again too. But did you notice, the Judge didn’t show any suspicion about my role in your robber bands’ villainies, for all my shooting that Runner?”

“That would be beyond his imagination for sure,” said Reynaud. “It would have been beyond mine until I met you.”

&17. Story Complete&

August 1792

Happy Ending

&&

‘M&y Dear Isabella – or &should I say, My Dear Lady Ravensdale: –

I cannot express my delight at your happy news.

You ask our pardon for your rash act, which caused such a scandal. We have ever been lenient parents, and give it unreservedly. True, it was wildly imprudent and disobedient of you to stage an elopement, particularly on the night of the ball.

Between ourselves, I must say it was most thoughtless of our new son-in-law to play such a prank upon that awful man Morpeth – so that he presented such a disgusting sight to our guests – but we must forget all that now to welcome His Lordship into our family bosom.

As you know, I always maintained that he had been misjudged, and shared your misgivings about that cousin of his, now so deservedly in exile. Only fancy his being so wicked as to do a murder, placing the blame upon poor Lord Ravensdale…’

 

Henry delivered this note from Lady Murray to Isabella, along with most of her clothes. This was her reply to the letter in which Isabella had sent a couple of sentences of apology for the trouble she had caused her family.

“Hmm,” said Isabella. “Yes, well. I shall be glad to see them all again. It’s good to see you, too, Henry.”

“It’s nice to see you again, Miss – er – Your Ladyship,” smiled Henry. “How is – er – the Earl?”

“Much better,” Isabella smiled, thinking of how Reynaud had insisted on getting up and sitting in the kitchen, where he’d pleaded with Meggie for something to do, until she’d allowed him to keep an eye on the baking.

Their next visitor after Judge Jenkins had been Marie Ravensdale, in tears. A team of doctors she had summoned to the farmhouse followed her. They’d been astonished that the patient was recovering so well under Isabella’s care alone, and put it down to his constitution.

As for Marie herself, she was so distraught, that Isabella had to take her to the kitchen for some of Meggie’s elderberry wine and reassurance that Reynaud was on the mend.

 

As he and Isabella were ready to leave, Reynaud drew Meggie up from her curtsey. He bent instead to kiss her hand, saying, “I can never repay you for your kindness, though I’ll try. We’ll meet again soon.”

“Oh, Your Lordship!” Meggie had been triumphing over her neighbours about befriending the fugitive Earl and Countess. Now this gallantry put the crowning glory on her story. “It is so kind of you to give Jem a position; you’ll find him an able enough worker.”

Reynaud kept his face straight. “For sure. You’ve both been good friends to me. Thank you again, Ma’am. Mind you call on us soon, or I’ll ride over as soon as I can.”

Isabella hugged her. “I can’t thank you enough either. I can’t bear to think of what would have happened without you.”

 

Longface had gone ahead to Ravensdale Court, collecting Isabella’s horse, Judy, on the way. He was standing with the other servants as their carriage drew up by the great front entrance.

Also with them, was a new addition to their staff; the little maid Reynaud had seen in the sound sleep of exhaustion in the kitchen at Wisteria House, when he’d been looking for food in his days as the librarian. Neither he nor Isabella had forgotten her plight, and they had arranged for her to join the staff at Ravensdale Court.

“The Wronged Heir Reinstated,” said Isabella, as Reynaud insisted on handing her down. “Or, the Romance Complete. I don’t suppose my dress is up to the occasion.”

“You look perfect. I’m only sorry I can’t carry you over the threshold yet. I suppose I could have a try –”

“Don’t dare, you might open the wound again.”

“No more fussing, my sweet. You’ll be ordering me flannel waistcoats next.”

The servants bowed low, and Isabella found it hard to look solemn, wondering how Reynaud could. Still, he had been raised as an aristocrat, while she was sure she’d never get used to being the Countess of Ravensdale.

Then Marie came towards them, looking nearly as sad as happy, and Isabella sobered at once.

As Marie embraced Reynaud, he hugged her tightly and kissed her, saying, “I must make two brothers to you now, eh, my sweet?”

She sensed in that squeeze, their shared sorrow over Edmund; that Reynaud still loved him as well as detested the thought of him, in a way that Isabella, coming into the situation from the outside, couldn’t fully understand. She found this mutual sadness a comfort.

Withers made a formal speech of welcome on behalf of the staff. Reynaud, on his best behaviour, was murmuring some polite acknowledgement, when his eye fixed on a very old woman. “Hey, Mistress Vickers! It is you, ain’t it? Never expected to see you alive again.”

Isabella gave him a gentle prod, but the ancient retainer retorted, eyes bright with malice, “Nor me you, Sir!”

Reynaud had to snort back laughter as they went up the steps.

“I’d half forgotten what a mausoleum this place is,” he said, as he took Isabella on a short tour about a portion of the place, their footsteps sounding hollow on the old floorboards and echoing down vast corridors. “We’ll have to fill it up with youngsters as soon as may be, eh, Isabella?”

He drew her towards him and began to kiss her. “Shall we make a start on it tonight? That will complete my cure, so no more of this ridiculous fussing over me. The last shot I had in me, I was up two days later, making for Epping Forest, and I lived to tell the tale.”

”I’m glad I didn’t know you then.”

He kissed her some more, but had to break off as a footman came up bowing, with a note from Mr Briggs, asking to call on them that evening.

“You know, Isa, the curate. I remember how my false moustache fell off when I was handing him that money you asked me to give away. On which, I haven’t forgotten we’ve agreed that as I’m an Undisgraced Earl now, we must give away all our plunder to the poor. I’ll do what you bid me do that day, after all. I deserve some more kisses for that.”

She obliged him.

 

In the great gallery of family portraits, Isabella gazed at the picture of Reynaud’s mother, dead in childbirth within a year of her wedding day.

Poor girl. I am a bit nervous, now I risk that fate myself; but a hefty, broad-hipped wench like me should survive that ordeal.

“She was very lovely;” she took his hand, “I would have liked to know her.”

“If she’d lived, so many things might have been different, eh, Isa?” They moved on to look at the portrait of his late father, done when the late Earl was young, happy and handsome.

Reynaud sighed. “At least I saw him before he died. He told me again then how he knew I was sheltering someone, and I was a damned fool not to speak out.” Then, dismissing his melancholy, Reynaud led her on, smiling, to other portraits.

“Here’s Cousin Ynyr – we must have him down from his house on that mountain in Wales as soon as may be. You’ve got much in common with him, Isa; he works upon these herbal potions too..

Here’s Cousin Émile Dubois, the best of fellows, and as full a rascal as me. I wish I knew he was alive, Isa – but he won’t let them catch him easy.

“I’m thinking, besides Jack and Suki, we’ll have to invite Mr and Mistress Kit up too. Remember how she will have it, though, I’m not a proper Earl, being Disgraced? I think she must needs see Cousin Ynyr to be satisfied she’s met one.” He grinned. “Hey, and that little sister of yours; didn’t you say she always held out I was innocent?”

“Long before I did, my love.”

 

They took dinner in the great oak-panelled hall at a table flanked by footmen. It was so huge that Isabella could imagine all the staff might stand on it. Reynaud sat at the head, she at the foot and a sad Marie over to the side.

Reynaud said to Withers, “We’ll serve ourselves, thank you.” As the footmen trod out over the ancient creaking boards, he beckoned to the women. “Come nearer and I’ll serve you. I’d forgotten the ridiculous size of this table as well.”

Marie left the meal early, pleading tiredness. Reynaud gazed after her anxiously. “The poor girl’s distraught over Edmund, Isa.”

“Let’s discuss it over a glass of port.”

Grinning, Reynaud rang for it. Withers waited at the door for Isabella to rise, but as she stayed, he bowed out, even more wooden-faced than usual.

 

As back in Kensington, Isabella pulled up her skirts to put her feet on a chair, while Reynaud fondled her ankles.

He said, “I don’t mind admitting it cut me too – how much Edmund must have hated me do that to me – but I’m made of sterner stuff than little Marie. And how do you like his having the damned nerve to claim to be Fox himself? You can say it was his desire to make amends, but that’s only part of it.”

He looked on the verge of an outburst, as of old; still, she wouldn’t know him if he gave them up entirely.

“Of course it cuts you,” said Isabella, proud of her soothing manner. “Yet I take it as a mark of how much he loved you that he had to do that to you; and I think it was always his secret longing to be you, whether as Cousin Reynaud or as Mr Fox. So poor Marie shouldn’t be too sad over his going. In a way, he’s doing what he always wanted.”

“I hope he evades the Runners and gets abroad, though it would serve him right if he didn’t, at that.”

As Isabella smiled over this, he went on, “I don’t understand what you mean about Edmund and why he did it. You women understand these matters better. Explain it to me. I thought he knew how I always cared for him.”

Isabella shook her head. “People are so complicated. He loved you far more than he hated you. But love is so near to hate when it’s felt the loved one doesn’t return the feeling. Surely you have seen that? When I was being heartless and oblivious, did you never hate me?”

“Only for a few moments at a time.”

“Perhaps you’re not a good hater, my love, which is well and good for me. I do take your Cousin Edmund to be one, though, and I guessed how strong his feelings for you to be. I think he was jealous of you for years, and it all built up like an explosive. But you mustn’t let yourself hate him back, Reynaud, or you’ll cease being yourself, and I do love that Reynaud to distraction. You couldn’t do a mean thing if you tried.”

Suddenly he gawped at her, and swore. “Are you saying that Edmund was one of those men who want to – well, though we are over our port I will put it delicately – lie with other men? That he wanted to do that with me?”

“I guess that to have been part of it; but the love was the main thing. As you were only interested in women, it must have been terrible for him.”

He swore some more, shaking his head.

“It’s those looks of yours,” she teased. “You can’t specify who is going to fall for them. Try not to be too bitter against him, Reynaud.”

He thought long and hard, snorting now and again, while Isabella let him sort out his feelings.

At last, he said, “It will be a while before I can stop being angry with him for that miserable treachery, Isa. I don’t care about his urges, I knew enough fellow Guardsmen who were made like that.

“For all that, I do know one thing; if he hadn’t acted as he did, then I would still be the arrogant young fool I was then, besides being married to a wife I couldn’t have keep my respect for, though I shouldn’t say so. As it is, now I’ve got everything I want, with you loving me most of all – and what he did all led to where we are now. So I do thank him for that.”

He kissed her hand. “As for my not being able to do a mean thing, how about how I treated Longface?”

“I’m sure he was very irritating, leading the way to you for those thief takers so often; and you made up for that by going for his rescue. I do adore everything about you! My Lord, what sentimental waffle do I speak? Things become serious with me.”

He grinned. “That being so, sweetheart, I’m at peace with the world. I think I may even come to forgive Edmund – but allow me time and a bit of grumbling over it first, eh? I do believe I’ll never even aim a swipe at Longface’s empty head again. After all, he did save me in return.”

Noting her glass was empty, he refilled it. “Do you like that port? I told Withers to get out one of the best in our cellars, and to celebrate with a glass himself.”

“I hope he has the sense to do as much every day. It’s wonderful; quite old, I take it.”

“You know what, my darling – you’ll laugh, but I’m going to miss being an outlaw. I don’t want to play the Earl. I’ve learnt too much living among ordinary people.”

She wagged one finger at him: “’You,[_ young man, take heed by your recent adventures; if you come to my attention again, you’ll feel the full force of the law.’ _]So will I miss being a bandit, my love. Still, we were both becoming sickened by what we did. If those we targeted came by their money dishonourably, so did we. Giving away a large part of our plunder to the sort of people our chosen targets had robbed through the law couldn’t make us easy with our role.”

He winked. “I won’t remind you how I said as much to you at the beginning about the ugliness of robbery.”

She laughed. “Good. If we have to be the Earl and Countess, we can at least make a start on challenging how things are. Getting your heart’s desire and becoming Undisgraced must have its drawbacks. That is life.”

“Isabella, you were my heart’s desire above anything, and still are.” For all that, Reynaud brooded. “I must run the estate, as I suppose Cousin Ynyr does his mountain since he came into his title. Slow enough work, sweetheart. I did a bit of it today. The Vicar’s retiring, not as if he ever did any work. I’m giving Briggs the preference. At least he’s not a time server, like so many churchmen.”

“A wise choice, My Lord. Now, I’ve been thinking how you may cheer Marie.”

“Tell me, and I’ll do it.”

“It would mean bringing her together with my brother Dicky. I suspected they had a tendresse for each other at the ball when I ran away, taken up with my own affairs though I was. Yet, given that the last time you met, he was shooting at you – as was my father – I would hardly blame you for taking a poor view of the hospitality they gave you.”

“At least Miss Selina liked me. Invite them all over. Haven’t I said that I’m at peace with the world? They thought I was abducting you, so I can scarcely blame them.”

A tumult broke out in the hall. They heard Withers’ tones of solemn rebuke, mingling with Longface’s ones of self-justification and outrage. A scratching came at the door.

“Come in if you must!” Reynaud shouted.

Longface entered, looking both furtive and indignant. “Fox – that man Withers is being fair intolerable over a trifling accident.”

“Fox? Who is that? Didn’t Judge Jenkins tell you it wasn’t me? Don’t tell me you interrupted our dinner to moan about Withers?”

“No – but it wasn’t my fault the frame was broke.”

“What frame?”

“On that big portrait of your late father, in the gallery. I overbalanced on that slippery floor, and went flying. It was the painting or me.”

Reynaud’s eyes dilated; forgetting any remaining stiffness from his wound, he leapt up. “You looby!” Raising one hand, he made to take a swipe at Longface’s head, but Isabella caught his arm. “No, Reynaud. You must learn some patience, in readiness for those youngsters we were discussing.”

He subsided. “You blundering idiot, Longface. Keep out of my sight for the rest of the day.”

Longface said sourly, “By the by, Mr-Fox-I-Mean-Your-Lordship, Mr Briggs is waiting for you in that there blue drawing room.” He went out, sighing and rolling his eyes.

Isabella explored the first drawing room as she waited for Reynaud. She must remind him to ask his steward about what had happened with Edmund Ravensdale’s efforts to have the common lands enclosed, and make sure that the whole thing was stopped. Then there was the business of immediate relief for anyone in need.

She started at Reynaud’s expression when he opened the door. For the first time since she had known him, he looked sheepish.

“Reynaud, what ails you?”

“Isabella – you know my intentions towards you were always honourable…”

“Yes?” she smiled.

“I don’t know how to put this, but Briggs came on what he called a delicate matter. Isa, I’m sorry – it seems I’ve messed things up nicely. He’s concerned that our wedding ceremony – don’t think I knew for a moment, I’d never play such a shabby trick on you – wasn’t valid with the certificates I got. He knows something of these things, and guessed what might have happened. He suggests we have a quiet wedding as soon as may be, giving out we want to renew our vows in the family church or some such.”

“What? So we’re not legally married?”

“Mr Briggs says very likely not. I’m truly sorry, Isa. I’d no idea – call me what names you like: I deserve them for stupidity.”

Her lips twitched. She adopted a tragic tone: “So you ruined me after all!”

He sighed. “You must be furious with me.”

She burst out laughing, putting her arms about his neck. “No, I think it’s droll. So, I was never a femme covert after all! Good! Now’s your time, though, for you to escape from marrying me. After how I behaved, I wouldn’t blame you.”

“You joke. I’ve always adored you. I could never stop loving you anyway, whether you loved me or not. And now, after you stayed looking after me at the farm while they closed in on us, I’m more than ever your slave. I’ll marry you again as soon as Briggs can arrange it. That is, if you’ll have me? You really don’t mind?”

“Not at all. There’s no Mistress Kit barring the way to my door here, and I look forward to you ruining me even more tonight.”

&THE END&

&18. Notes&

Toper

A drunkard

 

Mr. Fox

The French folk tales of the outlaw and trickster fox ‘Le Roman de Reynart’ date from before the twelfth century and were so well known that ‘reynart’ is a French term for a fox. Reynaud Ravensdale’s family, with their French ties, would certainly know them, and he has chosen this name for himself as an outlaw as a joke.

 

Purse

Men often used purses rather than wallets in this era.

 

Mercury

Venereal disease was treated at this time with mercury.

 

Gibbeted Corpse

In the eighteenth century, highwaymen’s corpses were often displayed on chains by the highways where they had carried out their raids, preserved in tar and with the eyes removed, supposedly as a deterrent. At least one highwayman was in fact gibbeted alive. The practice was abolished in 1834.

 []

Wycombe

Known now as ‘High Wycombe’, a market town in Buckinghamshire, in the south of England.

 

Lying under a tree and debating with yourself’

A habit of the protagonist of the original robber novel ’‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ by Christian Auguste Vulpius (1798).

 

‘Everywhere, landowners enclose land, driving the people from the commons…

The forceful appropriation of the common land by landlords, through enclosing areas formerly used by local people for grazing cattle, etc, was a cause of much suffering, sometimes emptying whole villages. Various Enclosure Acts were passed to achieve this, particularly during the period 1750-1860

 

Runners

The Bow Street Runners were a London based force of thief takers started by Henry and John Fielding in the 1750’s.

 

Rumpskuttle

A wild, boisterous girl; a tomboy.

 

Hartshorn

Another name for smelling salts, made from a distillation of hartshorn from deer hooves

 

Get off with the lightest punishment

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries especially, the courts and juries were notoriously lenient towards gentlemen charged with killing within the aristocratic code of honour enshrined in a duel.

 

Mill

A fist fight.

 

Patrols

In the 1790’s various patrols were set up to guard roads out of the capital from highwaymen.

 

Hoyden

A wild, boisterous girl

 

Excise

A form of tax on domestic consumption, leading to a high level of smuggling of many goods, including luxury items like brandy and tobacco in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When he was a smuggler, Reynaud Ravensdale would have come up against the ‘Excise Men’ who enforced the law.

 

High Toby

A name for the practice of highway robbery.

 

Speen

A village some five miles south east of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, England.

 

Ha-Ha

A deep ditch between the gardens of a house and surrounding fields designed to keep out cattle.

 

Where’er You Walk’

Poem by Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

 

Where’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade

Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade;

Where’er you tread, the blushing flowers shall rise,

And all things flourish, where you turn your eyes.

Oh! How I long with you to pass my days,

Invoke the muses, and resound your praise!

Your praise the birds shall chant from ev’ry grove

And winds shall waft it to the pow’rs above,

But would you sing, and rival Orpheus’ strain,

The wond’ring forests soon should dance again;

The moving mountains here the powerful call

And headlong streams hang listen’ng in their fall!

But see, the shepherds shun the noonday heat,

The lowing herds to murm’ring brooks retreat,

To closer shades the panting flocks remove;

Ye Gods! and is there no relief from Love?

But soon the sun with milder rays descends,

To the cool ocean, where his journey ends.

On me love’s fiercer flames forever prey,

By night he scorches, as he burns by day.

 

This poem was set to music by Handel for his 1744 opera ‘Semele’ and the song has proved enduringly popular.

[* *]

Grand Tour

From the seventeenth century until the French Revolutionary Wars, it was customary for aristocratic young men in Britain to be sent off on a long tour of Europe. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, this custom was resumed.

 

Enthusiasm

In this era, the term implied ‘fanaticism’.

 

Excise Department

See note on Excise Taxes above

[* *]

Toll Roads

Before the creation of ‘Turnpike Trusts’ to upkeep roads over the course of the eighteenth century, roads were in a poor state. With a Toll Road, a piece of road was fenced off at both ends and a Toll House levied a charge for its use. This meant that it was increasingly difficult for highwaymen to use the roads for a fast escape from pursuit.

 

Bounty Hunters

In the absence of a police force, the capture of lawbreakers was a haphazard business, involving local constables and night watchmen and the services of freelance “Thief Takers in pursuit of rewards, besides the semi-official Bow Street Runners” (see above).

 

A dependant on her brother

An unmarried woman from the middle ranks of society at this time would be a financial dependant on her male relatives for life. Otherwise, she had to take up work as a companion or a governess.

[* *]

War with France

In March 1793, Great Britain, along with Austria, Prussia, Spain, Piedmont and the United Provinces invaded France to restore monarchial power.

 

Sapete song

‘Voi Che Sapete’ from Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, 1786

 

Connections with Trade

Connections with trade were seen as vulgar by the old landed families, though increasingly, impoverished members of the aristocracy and gentry did marry into families who had made their money through trade. Isabella’s family is nouveau riche, though her father has been knighted. In proposing to marry her Edmund Ravensdale, let alone his cousin the Earl, is going to marry far below himself on the social scale.

 

Great Workshops

During this period, the development of machinery and manufacturing processes increased rapidly. ‘The Industrial Revolution’ was about to begin. The dispossession of the rural poor increased the massive migration to the workplaces in the towns and cities on to the workplaces in the towns and cities.

 

Stopping the wedding procession

A common theme in classic robber novels, featuring in ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ and the later (1831) novel by Alexander Pushkin, ‘Dubrovsky’.

 []

Bloody Code

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries about 50 crimes carried the death penalty. Under such acts as the infamous ‘Waltham Black Act’ (1722) crimes punishable by death were increased to over 200 and the British penal system became known as ‘The Bloody Code’.

 

Rookery

A crowded slum; these areas were effectively ‘No Go’ areas for the forces of law and order.

 

George

Isabella means the troops, representing King George

 

Front

A false fringe of curls.

 

You’ll find me in one of them foolish Gothic novels

See ‘That Scoundrel Emile Dubois’ by the author.

 

Sapskull

A fool

 

Buccaneer

A form of pirate.

 

Mollie

A derogatory term for a gay man

 []

Men like you end up in the pillory

The punishment for ‘sodomy’ in the eighteenth century was to be fastened into a pillory, where people were often blinded or killed by stones and bones hurled by the mob. The practice was only discontinued in 1816.

 

Hardbake

A sweetmeat made with almonds and treacle.

 

St. Giles

A well-known crowded ‘rookery’ and ‘no go area’ for officers of the law.

 

Jack be Nimble

This old nursery rhyme probably contains a reference to the sixteenth century pirate ‘Black Jack’ notorious for his escapes.

 

Beggar’s Opera

The song is ‘The Highwayman’s Chorus’ from this satirical opera, first performed in 1728. It featured highwaymen, thief takers and prostitutes and was argued by some to be a bad influence on the young, who might not see its satirical intent. It was revived several times during the century, and is sometimes still performed.

 

Two Gentleman of Verona

In this 1589 comedy by Shakespeare, the hero Valentine becomes outlawed and leads a group of brigands in a forest.

 []

Heigh, Ho, the Holly

Song from Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ (1599) contrasting emotional and physical suffering.

[* *]

Epping Forest

A large partially wooded area in Essex designated a forest by Henry II. In the eighteenth century, a notorious haunt and refuge of outlaws.

 

Femme Covert

The legal notion of a married woman having no separate legal identity to that of her husband, evolved from common law over centuries, continued until the mid-nineteenth century.

 

Corals

These were used as teething rings.

 

Blow! Blow! Thou Winter Wind

See note above on ‘Heigh, Ho, the Holly’

 

Idle

‘Idle’ in this time meant active misbehaviour rather than laziness. ‘Idle Apprentices’ such as the one in Hogarth’s illustrations, who ended up hanged, were actively roguish ones.

 

Who Sits on the bench? The squire

The judicial system in the UK was riddled with corruption at this time.

 

For readers interested in pursuing this point further, two books which make this point are:

 

‘Stand and Deliver! A History of Highway Robbery’ by David Brandon, Sutton Publishing 2001 and

 

[A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century’*] by Jerry White, Harvard Press reprinted 2013.

&Further Reading&

If you enjoyed this novel by Lucinda Elliot, you may also enjoy her other novels:

[&That Scoundrel Emile Dubois
Or, The Light of Other Days&]

available

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18711651-that-scoundrel-mile-dubois

and also

&Aleks Sager’s Daemon&

available

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28580262-aleks-sager-s-demon

 

Lucinda Elliots’s blog on writing is on

http://sophieandemile.wordpress.com

&About The Author&

Lucinda Elliot was brought up in a series of isolated great houses which her parents were renovating before this became fashionable. These would have made fine settings for Gothic tales, and perhaps that is one of the reasons why she writes Gothic.

She worked and lived in London for many years. She was once a Sportsfighter and still loves working out These days, she lives in Mid Wales with her family and writes, mainly Gothic. She loves a laugh above anything, is a classic English Literature geek, and is addicted to tea.

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Ravensdale

The author is proud to announce that this novel has become her second to win a B.R.A.G medallion for outstanding self-published fiction. For those who love a satire on the cliches of historical romance, which at the same time draws them into the adventure. When the group of highwaymen, headed by the disgraced Earl Ravensdale hold up the hoydenish Isabella Murray’s coach, she knocks one of them down and lectures them all on following Robin Hood’s example. In fact, she has been long resisting the urge to escape from her parents' plans for her advantageous marriage and become one herself. The rascally Reynaud Ravensdale – otherwise known as the dashing highwayman Mr Fox – is fascinated by her spirit. He escaped abroad three years back when he fell under suspicion of shooting a friend dead after a quarrel. Rumour has it that his far more respectable cousin was involved. Now, having come back during his father’s last illness, the young Earl has largely lost hope of clearing his name of murder, living as an outlaw as he is, and having sworn to protect someone else who was involved in the quarrel. Isabella’s ambitious parents are eager to marry her off to Ravensdale’s cousin, the next in line to his title. The totally unromantic Isabella is even ready to elope with her outlaw admirer to escape this fate – on condition that he teaches her how to be a highwaywoman herself. This hilarious spoof uses vivid characters and lively comedy to bring new life to a theme traditionally favoured by historical novelists – that of the wild young Earl, who, falsely accused of murder by the machinations of a conniving cousin and prejudged by his reputation, takes up life as an outlaw. ‘Ravensdale’ is a fast paced, funny and light hearted read from the writer of ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’, and follows the adventures of Émile Dubois' equally roguish cousin just prior to the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars. It can be read as an independent novel

  • ISBN: 9781370239689
  • Author: Freya
  • Published: 2017-04-27 20:05:20
  • Words: 93712
Ravensdale Ravensdale