A sedan chair was hurtling along the pavement towards Kate.
"Make way," puffed a redfaced bearer. "I said: make way, there."
She gestured rudely, checked no heap of horse droppings was lying in wait, and stepped into the road.
She had set aside today to take care of financial matters. First stop was the pawnbroker. Fencing cullies were best haggled with by members of their own sex, she'd learned from bitter experience. So as she remounted the pavement and strode along Drury Lane in the morning sunshine, she was wearing her working clothes, minus the mask and kerchief.
That someone might rumble her gender was a risk, especially in daylight, but male attire, her height and the deeper voice she adopted, along with the smudge of coal dust on her upper lip, would encourage people to take her at face value. And those few Londoners already familiar with the features of 'Blue-Eyed Nick' were unlikely to turn 'him' in.
She stopped at the sign of the three golden balls of Lombardy, and peered through a grimy window bearing the lettering: 'Wardrobes bought in Town and Country. By Henry Flude. Unredeemed Goods sold Wholesale and Retail.'
The interior was empty, so she turned the door handle and went in.
"Won't keep you a minute," came a shout from the rear of the gloomy shop. Kate busied herself bolting the door and turning the 'Open' sign to 'Closed'.
"And what can I do for... Ah, it's you." A little man with a crooked nose, his wig askew, beamed up at her in pleased recognition. He rubbed his hands together and zeroed in on the hessian sack lying at her feet. "What have you got for me, Nick?"
Heaving the sack up onto the counter, she unknotted its neck and reached inside. "These." She pulled out a silver snuffbox, placed it on the counter, then reached into the sack again.
By the time it was empty, the counter was covered with loot. Rings jostled hatpins, buckles, bracelets, and necklaces; brooches elbowed aside snuffboxes and lockets; a gold watch crowded a silver sword; silk pocket mouchoirs looked down their noses at ribbons; and bringing up the rear was a full-bottomed wig made of human hair.
Flude's eyebrows shot up. "Didn't think wool-snaffling was your lay!"
Kate grinned. "The fellow annoyed me. Once his head was bared to the breeze, he proved more amenable."
The pawnbroker chuckled and examined the wig. His gaze turned inwards, and she could see him doing mental calculations. "I can give you ... 30 guineas for the lot."
"Hanged if you do! That wig alone is worth eight."
"Brand new, maybe, but ..." He cocked his head and regarded her, like a robin viewing a worm.
"Forty-five," countered Kate. "That's fair and you know it."
Someone rattled the front door, then banged on the window and yelled, "Open up." Flude glanced round, saw it was only a blowsy young woman with a baby on her hip, and ignored her.
"You're forgetting the risk I'm running. Not to mention my overheads ... Thirty-five."
"The risk you're running? Devil take it, Henry! Forty. And that's my lowest."
"Done." He shook her hand so heartily, she knew he had got the best of the deal. Pox take him!
While Flude went behind the counter to open his strongbox and retrieve Kate's money, she wandered around the shop, peering at the trays of jewellery and bric-a-brac, racks of used clothing, wigs draped over dummy heads. Outside, the woman had resigned herself to a long wait.
A delicate, painted fan took Kate's fancy. She fingered it, wondering if Alice would like it.
"She'll love it," said Flude. She turned to see find him grinning at her. He winked. "I'll take the two shillings out of this, shall I?" He pointed at the coins stacked on the counter in front of him.
Kate sighed. "Very well." She put the fan in the pocket of her coat, pulled out the empty coin purse, and flung it at him. When he'd transferred the money, she pulled the purse's drawstring tight, and stuffed it in the other pocket. "Until next time." She tipped her hat.
"Always a pleasure." He nipped ahead of her, turned the sign to 'Open', and drew back the bolt.
"At those prices, I'm certain of it."
The woman with the baby brushed past Kate, digging an elbow in her side as she did so. Kate turned to give the hussy a piece of her mind, only to find the woman bent on giving Flude a royal flea in his ear. Chuckling, she left them to it.
Kate's next stop was the Clerkenwell Road.
Unlike its grubby neighbours, the little house's windows gleamed in the sunlight, and its front step had been freshly scrubbed. She rapped the doorknocker and waited.
The rosy-cheeked young woman in the starched apron did a double take when she took in the 'gentleman' standing on her doorstep, then she chuckled and stood back.
"Kate," said Eliza Wagstaff. "A welcome surprise. Come in."
She ducked her head under the low lintel and stepped inside, then waited for the other woman to close the door, before following her through to the kitchen. There, she placed her tricorne on a well-scrubbed dresser, and flopped down in a vacant chair.
"How are you, Eliza? The last six months seem to have treated you well."
"I am well, thank you. And you?"
"As you see."
"I worry about you, you know." Eliza looked grave. "You take such risks ..."
Kate shrugged. "I'm careful." The words 'more careful than Ned' hung unspoken between them.
"But where are my manners? Would you like some refreshment? ... No tea, I'm afraid, but there's chocolate, and ratafia biscuits —"
"Nothing for me, thank you."
Eliza sat down. While the clock ticked and the fire in the hearth crackled the two women studied one another's faces, both apparently satisfied by what they found.
Kate smiled and sat back in her chair. "How's the boy?"
"Well." Eliza traced a circle on the table with a finger. "More man than boy now. Seventeen last month. You won't believe how fast he's growing. Looks more like his father everyday." She sighed.
"Bunhill is still treating Adam well?" The old clockmaker would have Kate to deal with if he wasn't — it was her money that had paid the premium for the apprenticeship.
"Yes." A smiled curved Eliza's lips. "He's of the opinion that Adam will make a fine clockmaker. Says he's strong and quick with his hands."
An image of her older brother groping every pretty young woman he met sprang into Kate's mind and she chuckled. "Just like his father."
Eliza's smile faded and she dropped her gaze. "Sometimes I wonder, if Ned hadn't got me with child..."
And if losing his apprenticeship as a consequence hadn't set him thieving, and the jail fever hadn't been rife in Newgate....
"Lord knows, I loved my brother, Eliza, but if it hadn't been that it would have been something else. He just wasn't cut out to be an apprentice shoemaker. Why my parents ever thought he was...." Kate rolled her eyes.
"You are probably right." Eliza's smile returned. "Adam has more application that his father, thank heavens!"
"Glad to hear it."
But it was time to get down to business, so Kate pulled the heavy purse from her coat pocket and plunked it on the table. "For you and the boy." She counted out 20 guineas, mostly in crowns, and pushed the coins across the table.
Eliza's eyes widened. "You are so good to us." Her voice was humble. "Thank you with all my heart."
"None of that," said Kate. "We both know Ned would have wanted me to look after you and his child." They also both knew that, without Kate's help, Eliza would be earning her living on her back, and her son, in all likelihood, would be a thief. "I've told you before," continued Kate, "when Adam is a fully-fledged clockmaker, he may support you both, but until then..." She pulled the drawstring tight and slipped the purse back into her pocket.
An awkward silence fell, then Eliza cleared her throat and changed the subject by enquiring, "And are you still sharing rooms with ... Alice, wasn't that her name?"
Kate nodded. "Ay." Rather sheepishly she pulled the painted fan from her pocket. "I bought her this. Do you think she'll like it?"
Eliza regarded her with a smile. "Of course she will. It's from you."
"And you, Eliza," said Kate, more to change the subject than anything, "Has no gentleman caught your eye yet?"
"As it happens .... For the first time in years, there is someone. His name is George ... George Parker." She blushed and threw Kate an anxious look. Ned wouldn't have expected Eliza to remain chaste, so she nodded encouragement. Eliza brightened. "He's six foot tall, and has the most lively brown eyes, and he lives a few doors down. He's a tailor by trade ..."
With an inward sigh, Kate sat back and resigned herself to a long recital of the many accomplishments of Eliza's new beau.
Kate listened to a nearby clocktower striking three and frowned at the mustard spot she had just spotted on her cravat — a memento of the dinner she had bolted at a little cookshop in Aldgate Street. This was her last appointment. She hoped it would go as well as the others had.
The cottage door creaked open.
"Mistress Milledge." The big-breasted woman in the shabby gown didn't bat an eyelid at Kate's odd attire, just stepped back and beckoned her inside.
For the second time that day, Kate ducked her head to avoid a low lintel and followed a woman through to her kitchen. Whereas Eliza Wagstaff's kitchen had been the picture of order and well-scrubbed cleanliness, this room was chaotic, and in need of a clean. It was also warm, comforting, and smelled of tobacco and dog. Rather like its owner.
Beau the lurcher was sprawled on the rug by the hearth; he uttered a wheezy groan by way of greeting. Kate grinned at him, then took the rocking chair that didn't have a sewing box and square of red silk lying on it.
"How is she?" She took off her hat and placed it in her lap.
"Upstairs, resting." Jane Allen took the other chair and resumed edging the handkerchief as they talked. "Do you want me to bring her down?"
Kate shook her head and indicated herself. "Better not." Dressed like this, she looked like her brother, or so she'd been told. The last thing her mother needed was to be reminded of him. "One of her bad days?"
Martha had occasional moments of lucidity. When she did, the memory of what she had lost — a husband and six of her seven children — returned and made life almost unbearable. It was better when her wits were addled. Then she was like a child, happy and carefree. She also no longer recognised Kate as her daughter, but that was a small price to pay.
"Her memory is clear as crystal," confirmed Jane. "Fortunately, it won't last. It never does."
Kate fiddled with her hat. "I was thinking of taking Mama to Bartholomew Fair tomorrow. But if you think it will be too much ..."
"Not at all." The other woman beamed approval. "It will be just the thing to cheer her mood."
When her mother had first lost her wits, well-meaning friends had suggested Martha belonged in Bedlam for her own safety. But Kate had rejected that notion out of hand and searched for an alternative. She found it in Jane Allen. Thank God I did!
Kate relaxed, leaned back in her chair, and began to rock. Beau huffed and flipped his tail out of harm's way. "That's settled then. If you could have her ready by ten.... I'll buy her some dinner as well."
Jane nodded her agreement, bit off the thread, and set aside the handkerchief and sewing box.
"I've brought you this month's money," said Kate, pulling the purse from her coat pocket. Jane nodded her thanks and let Kate count the usual ten guineas into her palm. "Do you need anything more?"
The other woman thought for a moment, then shook her head. Kate opened her mouth, but Jane forestalled her, "Rest assured, Mistress Milledge, if there is ever anything your mother needs, I will send to let you know at once."
She thrust the now much lighter purse back in her pocket. "Thank you, Jane."
Beau yawned, got up, approached his mistress, and lay down again, his chin resting on her shoe. "You great lump!" Jane bent and scratched him behind one ear.
Kate smiled. "I must go." She put on her hat and rose, setting the chair rocking. Her hostess made to get up too. "No, stay and pet the brute. I know my way out by now."
She made her way towards the door, then stopped and looked back. "10 tomorrow morning?"
Jane smiled up at Kate and nodded. "In her Sunday Best."
Kate took the last flight of stairs at a run, turned the doorknob, and flung open the door. The room was empty. She closed the door behind her, slung her baldric and sword from the hook, and placed her hat on it too.
"Is that you, Kate?" called Alice.
She turned as the redheaded landlady appeared in the bedroom doorway. "No, it's Good Queen Anne come to ask you to be her lady in waiting."
Kate drew close to Alice and kissed her, losing herself in the pleasant activity for a moment before pulling back. "My day went well. How was yours?"
Alice grimaced. "The Wilsons have done a flit, and taken my furniture with them. Now I have to find new tenants for the ground floor and re-furnish the place too."
Why anyone would want to steal the worm-ridden stuff that Alice provided in her cheaper accommodation, Kate couldn't imagine, but she kept her thoughts to herself. "You'll manage. You always do. ... Here." She pulled out the painted fan. "I bought you this."
Alice's eyes went wide in delight and she took the fan, unfolded it, and regarded the design from several angles. "How pretty! Thank you."
"Maybe you could show your gratitude later ... in more tangible form," suggested Kate, enjoying the blush that rose to the older woman's cheeks. The image of a younger, prettier face, cheeks suffused with a delicate blush, green eyes made brilliant by tears, rose unbidden.
I wonder where Rebeccah is now.
A rap on the nose brought her back to her surroundings. "Hey!" She pushed away the folded fan and the hand holding it.
"You hold yourself in high esteem indeed, my bold Highwayman, if you think you can buy my favours with a mere painted fan." But Alice's eyes were twinkling. "Now if you were to buy me a good supper at The Rose and Crown, and some decent wine to go with it ..."
Kate draped a lazy arm round Alice's shoulders and sucked the stem of her pipe.
The Rose and Crown served an excellent meal for a shilling, so they had dined on Mrs Elborrow's oyster pies, and afterwards, Alice had downed a pint of best claret while Kate savoured her favourite ale.
"Let me clear these away for you." The buxom barmaid, whose name was Nan, began to clear away the plates, making sure that Kate got an eyeful of her ample charms. Alice stirred and muttered something indignant. Kate gave her shoulder a consoling pat and winked at Nan, then exhaled a puff of smoke.
The snug was full tonight, the chatter, laughter and fiddle music almost deafening. In the far corner, just visible through the blue tobacco fug, a rake and his whore were kissing and fondling. In another corner, two gamesters had shoved back their chairs and were standing glaring at one another across the card table. There were fights here most nights — Kate had started a few herself.
John Elborrow, his staff, and many of the regulars knew her identity, but since most were footpads, thieves, fences or informants themselves, they turned a blind eye. Occasional sums of money also helped to quiet wagging tongues. Here Kate felt at ease, whether dressed as a man or a woman. The fact that several Mollies were also regulars, and turned up from time to time in women's clothing didn't hurt.
The fiddler reached the end of his jig and called out, "Give us a song, Kate."
"Ay," called John Stephenson, a friend and fellow highwayman. "Give us 'the Female Frollick'."
She sighed and looked at Alice, who grinned and mouthed "Go on."
"Very well." Kate withdrew her arm and stood up, the action bringing a cheer from onlookers. She made a mock bow, took an open stance and a deep breath, and launched into the first verse.
"You Gallants of every Station,
give ear to a Frollicksome Song;
The like was ne’er seen in the Nation,
’twas done by a Female so young.
"She bought her a Mare and a Bridle,
a Saddle, and Pistols also,
She resolved she would not be idle,
for upon the Pad she did go."
Those who knew Kate's identity let out a shout of approval, and from behind the bar, Nan batted her eyelashes. What would it be like to have Rebeccah looking at her like that? Kate banished the stray thought, and took another deep breath.
By the time she had finished the song, she needed something to wet her whistle. As she sat down, to roars of applause, and the fiddler struck up another jig, Alice pushed Kate's cup towards her and smiled, her gaze fond.
"You have a wonderful voice, Kate," she said. "You should sing more often."
She took a gulp of her ale and patted the landlady's hand. But even as she did so, she realised that Alice's praise meant little.
Why is love always beyond my reach? Now lust ... I know what that's like. She glanced towards the corner of the snug, but the rake and his whore had vanished.
Feeling suddenly depressed, she signalled to Nan for a refill. The barmaid dimpled, nodded, and hurried round the bar with a jug of ale.
"Are you well, Kate?" Alice was frowning at her.
She forced a smile. "Fit as a flea, my dear."
Rebeccah gazed out of the drawing room window. It was another sunny morning, and for the next fortnight Londoners of all classes would be flocking to Bartholomew Fair. Her family and friends considered themselves too genteel to attend such a disreputable event, though, and she couldn't possibly go on her own — cutpurses plagued the ground at West Smithfield, taking advantage of the crowds and noise. Not that it would match up to her fond childhood memories anyway, she consoled herself.
Papa had taken her to the Fair when she was eight, too young to notice the drunks and brawlers and the harlots plying their trade. To Anne's annoyance, the treat had been for Rebeccah alone, meant to soften the blow of imminent departure to Mrs Priest's boarding school in Chelsea. Papa hadn't left her side as they walked through the chattering, laughing crowds, seeing everything there was to be seen.
Rebeccah had been almost sick with excitement at the colourful clowns, acrobatic tumblers, jugglers, ropewalkers, and a broadsword fighter challenging all comers. She hadn't liked the freak shows then and still wouldn't — the unfortunate grotesques on display might amuse some (those who drove to Bedlam for entertainment) but drew only pity tinged with revulsion from her. She would probably appreciate the strolling players' satire more now though. Then, she had preferred a squeaky-voiced puppet show called 'Punchinello and the Devil'.
Her father had bought her some pork crackling from a food stall, then wiped the grease from her fingers and presented her with a poppet in a fashionable striped silk dress — she still had the doll somewhere. She had refused to be parted from it even while on the flying coaches, whose swinging had made her giddy. The memory of that wonderful outing had seen her through those awkward first days at boarding school.
I wonder if Blue-Eyed Nick will be at the Fair.
It was hardly surprising that the highwayman was in her thoughts. Across the room, Anne was recounting to her two admirers the details of the robbery two nights ago.
It was odd how her sister's recollection of the encounter on Blackheath differed so markedly from Rebeccah's. The brief encounter with the highwayman had metamorphosed into a half-hour life or death tussle with the Devil himself, and he had made off with half the Dutton family heirlooms. Titus's attempts to defend his employers also seemed to grow with each telling ... and there had been many such. Odd how Robert the Coachman had disappeared from the story. Odd also, how all mention of the highwayman letting Rebeccah keep her father's signet ring had vanished too. Anne believed Blue-Eyed Nick must have mistakenly believed it of no value. Rebeccah, however, was convinced the reason was different — quite simply, the highwayman had taken pity on her. She had given up trying to set the matter straight though, as it merely earned her a glare and an acid rebuke about defending vermin.
She sighed and watched the two men fawning on Anne. She knew from bitter experience that, when her sister was absent, they made sheep's eyes at other women. Papa had done Anne no favours by making her sole heiress to his business, though he thought he had.
He'd confided his reasons to Rebeccah one day not long before he died. Perhaps he was feeling guilty about the small marriage portion coming to his youngest daughter. "It's like this, Beccah. William's dead and Anne's the oldest." He sighed. "Sad truth of it is, your sister don't have your looks. You'll do well enough, but ..." He scratched his nose. "Can't have her turning into an old maid, can we? Two birds with one stone, d'you see? Anne gets a husband. Dutton's stays in one piece."
"He should have known better," murmured Rebeccah. Marriage for the wrong reasons is worse than no marriage at all.
"Who should have, dear?" Her mother was sitting next to her, sewing.
"Papa. If it wasn't for him, those dolts wouldn't be after Anne."
"Are you referring to Mr Filmer and Mr Ingrum?" Mrs Dutton plied her needle. "They are pleasant enough young men, Beccah." She threw her daughter a sideways glance. "You must not let envy get the better of you."
"Envy!" Her exclamation drew curious glances and she lowered her voice. "Why should I envy Anne the attentions of such shallow creatures?"
"If they are shallow, let us hope that is to the good. For with your father gone, Anne needs no one's approval but her own." She sighed. "If only your brother had lived."
"Beg pardon, Mama." Rebeccah squeezed her mother's hand. "I didn't mean to reopen old wounds." William had died five years ago, returning from the East Indies on one of his father's ships. They still missed him, especially Anne. Without his benevolent presence, she had become more self-absorbed than ever.
"Well, we must not expect the world for Anne," resumed Mrs Dutton. "As long as her husband is kind, keeps her in funds, and gets her with child swiftly, so she has plenty to occupy her...."
"Mama, how can you say that?"
Mrs Dutton bit off the thread and reached for a bobbin of a different colour. "Because it's true."
"What about love?"
The older woman glanced at Rebeccah and smiled. "You always did have overly romantic notions, Beccah. Where you got such foolishness from I have no idea."
"But you loved Papa, didn't you? I know he loved you."
"Not at first, dear. That came later." Mrs Dutton glanced at Anne and exchanged a smile. "I'm sure your sister will find things just the same."
Rebeccah kept her scepticism to herself.
"What did you think of that nice young man in Chatham?"
She blinked at the change of subject. "I beg your pardon?"
"For heaven's sake, Beccah! It's time you stopped concerning yourself with your sister's marriage prospects and thought more about your own. What did you think of Mr Dunlop?"
Rebeccah considered the dull young man who, while she had been staying at her Uncle's, had kept seeking her out when she would rather be alone. "Mr Dunlop doesn't want a wife, he wants a brood mare. All he could talk of was horses and life in the country. ... And the fact that he wants a house full of children. ... That's when he wasn't talking about architecture of course. Apparently there are some particularly fine examples of Norman churches in his county."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Mama, I cannot marry him. I'd die in childbed, or if not there then of boredom. Besides, he's fat and has a double chin."
Her mother chuckled. "Not that fat. You are too particular, Beccah. You must lower your sights."
"Do men ever lower theirs?"
"You cannot blame them for being concerned about financial matters, dear. But there are other considerations. Your face and figure are acceptable, thank heavens, and you have other assets besides your marriage portion. I didn't agree with your father sending you to Mrs Priest's — education only makes a woman dissatisfied with her lot — but I own that it instilled in you many of the accomplishments desirable to a husband."
Rebeccah doubted any gentleman would appreciate her calligraphy, but held her tongue. "Then why aren't gentlemen queuing to ask for my hand?" Her question was only half in jest.
"Be patient. Once Anne is married, it will be your turn. We will find you a man who is moderately wealthy, kind, well mannered ..."
Rebeccah tuned out the rest of her mother's list. I don't want 'kind', I want passionate. Someone whose merest look can start butterflies in my stomach and make my palms damp. A pair of pale eyes popped into her mind's eye. Oh, go away!
Silence brought her back to her surroundings. Her mother was looking at her. "Well?"
"Er ..." She tried to remember what they had been talking about.
Mrs Dutton rolled her eyes. "Really, Beccah. Sometimes I wonder where your wits are. I was asking you whether you wish to come with me to Hampstead, to take the waters this afternoon. Anne has agreed to come."
Bartholomew Fair would be much more to my taste. "Of course, Mama," she said aloud. "I'd love to."
Kate ducked an overhanging branch, and straightened in her saddle.
"What rich pickings will tonight bring us, eh, girl?" She guided Clover round an old oak tree then, as the wood opened up ahead, kneed her into a trot. "Enough for me to hang up my mask for good?"
The toss of the mare's head was probably just irritation at a horsefly, but Kate chose to interpret it otherwise.
"No," she agreed. "Then I will settle for refilling my purse." She hummed a few bars of 'The Female Frollick', her thoughts rewinding the events of the day.
She had spent an agreeable if expensive morning and afternoon with her mother, who had once more forgotten Kate was her daughter. Fortunately Martha always recognised her as a familiar face, and trusted Kate enough to accompany her to Bartholomew Fair.
There, as Kate had expected, her smiling, vague mother had proved irresistible to pickpockets. Like wolves picking out the weakest member of the herd, they arrowed towards her, eager to cut the strings of her purse. They would have known better than to mess with Blue-Eyed Nick, but with her hair pinned up, and dressed in a mantua, she was unrecognisable to all except those who knew her well, and few of those were at the Fair.
The would-be predators soon learned that, for all her ladylike appearance and lack of a sword and pistols, Kate was more than able to defend her addled companion. By the time the second thief retired, nursing a black eye and broken wrist, a warning to give the tall woman a wide berth was spreading like ripples over a pond throughout West Smithfield. Her mother had been untroubled by thieves for the rest of the day.
Delighted by the childlike pleasure with which Martha greeted everything, Kate had let her watch every attraction, paid the entrance fee for every booth she desired to enter, fed her sweets from various food stalls (and hoped they wouldn't spoil her appetite). At last, though, the hustle and bustle and endless walking made Martha fretful, and they retired to a cook shop for dinner and ale.
It was nearly four o'clock when Kate delivered her tired-but-happy charge into the welcoming arms and paws of Jane Allen and Beau, and decided it was less exhausting robbing a stagecoach.
It had been a good day, she reflected. She hoped the night would turn out as well.
She reined in Clover at the edge of the heath, well away from the handsome houses that were springing up as welltodo folk decided this was an agreeable spot to spend their summers. To the south lay London, looking beautiful in the moonlight and deceptively serene considering its stench and bustle.
Hampstead was a popular watering hole, and the gentry flocked here on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays in search of diversion. After taking the medicinal spring waters, some would gather to gossip and smoke in the coffeehouse, while those with a passion for the English country-dances that were all the rage could go to the adjacent Assembly Room. Most would have travelled back across the heath in daylight or, if after dark, in convoy, but with luck there might still be some foolhardy straggler making his way back to the city alone.
The mare tossed her head. "Easy, girl." Kate patted Clover's neck and peered through her mask's eyeslits. "Can you hear something?" She cocked her ear, and after a moment heard what Clover must have — the clop of hooves and rumble of wheels.
She pulled the kerchief over her nose and mouth, drew her pistols and waited. When the carriage came into view, she blinked at it in astonishment. "Surely not!"
Kate stood up in her stirrups for a better look. The four horses were identical to those pulling Rebeccah's carriage, and the servants were undoubtedly the same.
She took off her hat and resettled it, to give herself time to think. Her heart was racing. Just because it was the same coach and four, it didn't mean that the young woman was aboard. Someone else could have hired it.
She sat back in the saddle. It would be rash to attack the same coach twice. This time they would be ready for her. But if Rebeccah is aboard....
A sudden urge to see those blushing cheeks and green eyes again overtook Kate, and before she could stop herself, she had dug in her heels and urged Clover forward, angling the mare to intercept the approaching carriage.
In the event, repetition worked in her favour. The coachman and footman were so startled to see the same highwayman attacking them, they fumbled (and in the footman's case dropped) their weapons. By the time the coachman had got his blunderbuss cocked and ready, Kate had brought the team of horses to a halt and was pointing her pistol straight at him.
"Drop it," she growled. He didn't need telling twice. "Get down and join your friend."
Ignoring the twitching of the curtains at the carriage windows, she followed the coachman round to where the footman was standing, looking with dismay back along the track to where his dropped pistol lay.
From her saddlebag, she drew out a short piece of rope and threw it to the coachman. "You know the drill. Tie his hands behind his back." By the time he had finished, she had dismounted and, with another piece of rope, proceeded to tie his hands too.
She walked back along the track, retrieved the dropped pistol, and brought it back. The coachman watched her remove the bullets from pistol and blunderbuss and drop the now harmless weapons at his feet, his expression bemused.
"You won't hurt my mistresses, will you, Sir?"
"No," she assured him. "You have my word."
"What good is your bloody word, you godsbedamned — Ow!"
Kate's gloved fist had knocked the footman on his arse.
"Keep him quiet and out of my way," she ordered. The coachman blinked, then nodded, and she turned her back on him and strode towards the carriage.
Startled green eyes met hers as she wrenched the door open, and her heart skipped a beat. "We meet again."
"Good God! You!"
"I'll see you hang for persecuting us like this!"
Kate ignored the outbursts from Rebeccah's companions, who from their slight resemblance to the pretty young woman must be her sister and mother.
"Have you not yet learned, Mistress Rebeccah, that it's unwise to travel alone after dark across deserted heaths?"
For a moment there was silence, then Rebeccah gave her a rueful smile. "We did not plan this, Sir. A horse threw a shoe and rather than risk laming him we had to seek out a blacksmith."
The young woman's hands were trembling, but otherwise, thought Kate with admiration, she appeared remarkably composed.
"An unfortunate occurrence indeed," she agreed, "though not for me."
"I suppose you mean to rob us again?" Rebeccah frowned. "After our last meeting, it hardly seems fair."
Kate remembered the garnet ring. Her father's, wasn't it?
"You may pass unharmed for a minor toll." She heard her own words with a sense of amazement. What was she doing? She needed money and this family obviously had more than sufficient. "A kiss."
The older woman lurched forward, and Kate's reflexes were so fine-honed she almost pulled the trigger.
"Mama!" hissed Rebeccah.
For a long moment no one moved, then Kate exhaled in relief. "For your own safety, please," she indicated the cocked pistol, "no sudden movements." Looking quite shaken, Rebeccah's mother resumed her seat. "Good. Now." Kate turned back to Rebeccah. "About that kiss..."
"You Devil!" shouted Rebeccah's sister. "Lay one finger on her and I'll ... I'll ..."
"What?" prompted Kate.
"Oh! ... If I had a pistol I would shoot you dead."
"I have no doubt of it." She turned back to find Rebeccah regarding her, her cheeks pink, but her gaze steady.
"I will pay your toll." Rebeccah ignored her sister's sharp intake of breath and her mother's shocked protest. "On one condition."
Kate was intrigued. "Name it."
"You may kiss only my hand."
Still holding her gaze, Rebeccah began to remove a glove, finger by finger. Kate wondered if she was aware how arousing that was.
She laughed and made a small bow. "As you wish, Madam. And then I shall escort you to safer territory."
"Safer from whom?" asked Rebeccah's sister.
Kate didn't reply. She was busy transferring her pistol to her other hand and tugging down the kerchief from her mouth.
Rebeccah's hand was smaller than her own. It was warm and trembled in her grasp as she raised it to her lips. When she made to turn it over, palm side up, the other woman resisted. Kate glanced at her, cocking one eyebrow in query before realising it was hidden by her mask. Rebeccah swallowed then acquiesced.
"Beccah!" said her mother.
Kate planted a kiss in the centre of the small white palm and kept her lips there a long moment, before releasing the hand back into the custody of its owner. When she raised her head, Rebeccah was staring at her like a startled fawn.
"There," she murmured. "The toll is paid." She smiled, then remembered that the lower part of her face was visible and pulled up the kerchief once more.
"Villain!" hissed Rebeccah's sister. "I will not forget this insult to my sister's honour."
"Not insult, Madam, but rather homage to her beauty. And now, since our business is concluded. ..." Kate backed out of the carriage, gave her most extravagant bow, then closed the door and turned to where the bound servants waited.
"You two," she said, striding towards them and drawing her sword. The footman quailed as moonlight glinted off her naked blade. "Heed me or face the consequences. When I cut you free, you are to resume your posts. I'll escort your carriage to the edge of the heath, then you are on your own."
The coachman gaped at her. "Escort us?"
"Are you hard of hearing?"
He shook his head.
"Good." Kate described a circle with her forefinger, and he turned round so she could slice through the rope binding his hands. She repeated the action with the footman, who seemed less than grateful for his release. The threat of her raised fist shut him up.
A whistle brought Clover to her side, and she shoved her booted foot in the stirrup and mounted up. Rebeccah's servant exchanged a confused glance, bent to gather their weapons, and scrambled to their posts. Moments later, reins in hand, the coachman was urging his team forward.
As her mare fell into step beside the carriage, Kate saw that the curtains of one of the windows were drawn back and a pair of green eyes was staring out at her. She winked at Rebeccah, expecting her to blush and turn away, but the young woman continued to stare at her, brow creased
What are you thinking? wondered Kate. Did my kiss disgust you or give you pleasure? Would you like another? I would be more than happy to oblige, especially on those pretty lips.
Then she sighed and chided herself. Dolt! She's not in your league. What's more, she thinks you're a man, and you will probably never see her again. Besides, what about Alice?
She rode on a few more paces, considering. What about Alice? A twinge of remorse made her bite her lip. She deserves better. But her gaze was drawn irresistibly back towards the charming face framed in the coach window and all thoughts of Alice deserted her.
They reached the edge of the heath too soon for Kate's liking. As she watched the carriage pull away, she doffed her hat and thought for a moment that she saw a small hand waving at her, then decided she must have imagined it.
Seeing their escort was no longer with them, the coachman whipped the team of horses to a full gallop. As she watched the coach rattle and sway into the distance, Kate cursed under her breath. Far from sating her appetite for Rebeccah, this latest rash encounter had served only to whet it further.
Kate was halfway home, and just about to urge Clover over a hedge, when movement made her rein the mare in. She frowned and squinted at the hedge's margins. What was lurking in the shadows, an animal? If so, it walked on two legs. She drew her pistol.
She blinked at the familiar voice. "Stephenson?"
"Ay." The shadow split into two as her friend emerged. "I hoped it was you, Kate. Can you give me a ride back to town?"
"That depends." She stowed her pistol. "Where's Fury?" There was no sign of her fellow highwayman's stallion.
"It's a long story."
Kate grinned, and rested her hands on the saddle horn. "I could do with a good laugh."
"Have a heart."
"Or I could just ride on... "
Her friend sighed, drew closer, and patted Clover's neck. "You're cruel, Kate.... Very well. If you must know, I came across this rider. A woman."
"Some people have all the luck."
"Do you want to hear this story or not?"
She shrugged. "It's you who wants the ride back to town."
"Point taken. Well ... At my 'Stand and deliver', she threw her purse over this hedge and galloped off."
Kate pretended to consider. "If you bathed more frequently ..."
He threw her an indignant glance. "I didn't want her, I wanted her purse. And when I dismounted to retrieve it...." He paused and hung his head, then the words came out in a rush, "Fury galloped off after her."
She gave a great shout of laughter. "Her mare was in season?"
Stephenson scratched his chin. "Must have been."
"That's what you get for riding a stallion. Clover never runs off after mares."
"She would if she shared her mistress's proclivities."
Kate pretended to take offence. "For that remark I should let you walk home, Sir."
Panic spread over Stephenson's face. "You wouldn't ..." He paused and shook his finger at her. "Ah, Kate. That wasn't nice. For a moment you almost had me believing you. But you wouldn't leave an old friend stranded, would you? Come now. If the positions were reversed ...."
She grinned. "Of course not. Especially since the contents of that purse are going to pay for your passage."
"What?" His look of outrage made Kate chuckle.
"All right, make it half. I'm sure you agree, given your current situation, it's only fair we split the purse."
"What choice do I have?"
"None." She moved forward in the saddle to make room.
The highwayman was still grumbling under his breath when he climbed up behind Kate. Clover shifted and nickered a protest at the extra weight, but a few soothing words and pats on the neck quieted her.
"Half my profits for the night, gone. And you call yourself a friend!" complained Stephenson, as she urged the mare into a trot.
"A friend who thanks you with all her heart, for until you came along, her own profits were paltry, not to say non-existent."
"Lean pickings, eh?" The thought seemed to console him somewhat.
"Indeed." A smile curved Kate's lips and she urged Clover into a canter. But only if you discount the kiss.
Rebeccah linked arms with Caroline Stanhope and headed towards St James's Park. It was another fine day, and from the looks of it, half of London's gentry were taking the air.
"You let him kiss you?" Her friend's brown eyes were round.
"On the hand." Rebeccah felt defensive. "What choice did I have? It was that or be robbed ... again." Even as she spoke, she knew she wasn't being entirely truthful. Blue-Eyed Nick had wanted to kiss her, that much she had sensed, and a small part of her had been intrigued enough to let him.
She had thought the kiss would be of no consequence, but it had been ... unexpected. How soft the highwayman's lips were! And how odd she had felt when they touched the skin of her palm ... as though butterflies were dancing in her stomach.
"But wasn't that dangerous, Beccah?" pressed Caroline. "Suppose he had tried to, you know ..."
"He wouldn't hurt me."
"Bless me, Beccah! How could you possibly know that?" Caroline's raised eyebrows took Rebeccah back to the early days of Mrs Priest's boarding school, where the two had first met and everything Rebeccah did and said seemed to astonish the other girl.
"I know because of the ring. Remember, Caro ... He could have taken Papa's ring, but when I told him what it meant to me, he declined."
Caroline stopped walking and turned to her with a frown. "Beccah, you haven't fallen for him, have you?"
Her cheeks grew hot. "Don't be foolish!"
"Because if you have, well, first of all he's not respectable. And second, the chances are high he's just amusing himself."
"He wouldn't —" Rebeccah stopped in some confusion. All this presumption based on two brief meetings. What was she thinking?
Caroline's hand flew to her mouth as a thought occurred to her, and she scanned the park. "Oh! You don't think he's following you, do you? How else could he be on hand to hold up your carriage twice on different roads?"
Rebeccah followed her friend's anxious gaze and shook her head. "I would have spotted him. He has his own hair, whereas most men of my acquaintance wear wigs. And then there's his height and bearing, and those striking eyes ..." She sighed. "In all likelihood I will never see him again."
"I've never heard you speak this way before, Beccah, and I confess it shocks me. Even the most civilised and chivalrous highwayman is hardly a realistic prospect for a husband."
"Do you think I don't know that?" asked Rebeccah, nettled. "Unfortunately, realistic matrimonial prospects are not in great supply. Unlike some I could mention, I have no handsome cousin of a suitable age waiting in the wings."
"Thomas and I were fortunate indeed," agreed Caroline, who had married her childhood sweetheart last year. "You just haven't been mixing in the right circles, Beccah. Take those suitors of your sister —"
Rebeccah gave a snort of disgust. "At least Blue-Eyed Nick is open about his intention to steal a woman's money."
Caroline chuckled. "As I was saying, they are not the type to win your heart. I have known you many years, Beccah, and the man who does that must first earn your respect." Her gaze turned inward and she gave a nod. "I shall ask Thomas if there is anyone of his acquaintance who might do."
"He has a hard task ahead of him, then, Caro, for my mother says I am too particular." She sighed. "Oh, why do we have to marry at all?" The other woman assumed she was joking and laughed, and Rebeccah didn't correct her.
By unspoken consent, the two friends continued their stroll in thoughtful silence, breathing in the fresh air with pleasure, and idly regarding the cows and red deer grazing on the far side of the park.
"Now I come to think of it," said Caroline after a while, "Thomas once told me a tale of your highwayman. At least I think his name was Blue-Eyed Nick, and there can't be two such, can there?" She shook her head in irritation. "I don't know why I didn't remember it sooner."
Her friend smiled and pressed her hand. "It concerned the Fleet."
"The Debtor's Prison?"
"The same. Apparently, he turned up on the Keeper's doorstep last New Year's Eve. The fellow was in a drunken stupor, so Nick dunked his head in the basin to sober him."
"Bless me! It's a wonder the Keeper didn't lock him up."
"He was furious at the unexpected baptism," agreed Caroline, "but he calmed when Blue-Eyed Nick crammed a bag of guineas into his hands."
"What did Nick want for his money?"
"Are you aware that some of the Fleet's inmates find it impossible ever to pay off their debts? They can remain imprisoned for years, decades even."
Rebeccah nodded. "Such a system of punishment has always struck me as inefficient, not to mention callous."
Caroline gave her an approving glance. "The highwayman wanted to purchase the freedom of as many of those unfortunates as he could. Even after the Keeper had taken his share, there was still enough left to free five men and women."
"That was kind! Were they friends of his who benefited from his largesse?"
"I don't believe so."
"Then that was a handsome gesture indeed."
Caroline chuckled. "Of course, the money probably wasn't Blue-Eyed Nick's to dispense in the first place, but..." She fell silent.
"I have heard a tale of him too," said Rebeccah after a moment. "From my maid."
"It goes as follows. He was riding home one night when he came across twenty men, pressed and roped and looking very sorry for themselves. They were being taken to Portsmouth. Blue-Eyed Nick ambushed the convoy —"
"On his own?"
"So Mary says. He freed the men, tied up their escort with the ropes that had bound them, and robbed them of everything of value." She paused and gave her friend a glance. "What do you think of that?"
"Some might say," ventured Caroline, "that by his actions Blue-Eyed Nick upsets the natural order of things. For debtors must be imprisoned, and if ships cannot be crewed by volunteers, men must be pressed."
"Some might indeed," said Rebeccah. "But I am not among their number. Indeed, it has often occurred to me that those whom society deems 'civilised' are often more barbaric than those it deems 'rogues'."
"It has occurred to me too," said Caroline. "Perhaps that is why we are friends."
They walked on a few paces. "But to revert to our original topic," continued Caroline, "that still doesn't mean you may marry Blue-Eyed Nick....Oh, isn't that Sophia Andrewes?" She waved at one of two young women walking arm in arm up ahead. "She's looking positively haggard. Whoever told her yellow suited her?" She grabbed Rebeccah's arm and tugged. "Come on. I want to ask her if she is going to the Assembly Room next Thursday."
With a sigh, Rebeccah let herself be hurried.
Rebeccah was in the hall, giving her gloves and wrap into Mary's safekeeping, when Anne pounced on her.
"Where have you been?"
"Caro and I went first for a walk, then to an India house for some tea and cinnamon water, and then —"
"Well," Anne interrupted, "it is immaterial since you are here now. Mama said I should tell you. I've engaged a thieftaker to apprehend that highwayman who robbed us and insulted you."
"What?" Rebeccah stared at her sister. But I don't want to see Blue-Eyed Nick hang.
"From your horrified expression I know what you are going to say, Beccah, for the thought crossed my mind also. But you need have no fear of it being an expense we can ill afford. Titus tells me it is the government who will pay the thieftaker £40 for apprehension of a highwayman, not us."
"Our footman, of course! Apparently, should the thieftaker prove successful, our only debt to him will be half the value of any stolen property recovered and our profound gratitude. I checked with Mr Edgeworth, and he confirmed it is the case." Her expression showed she was expecting Rebeccah to congratulate her on her thriftiness.
Rebeccah commanded her racing heart to slow. The incompetence of most thieftakers was well known. In fact some were unlikely to come across their quarry unless they tripped over him or he gave himself up. Pray God she hired one of those.
"And if the thieftaker should fail?"
"Then we owe him nothing. But he won't, Beccah, for with Titus to advise me, I have hired Samuel Josselin."
Josselin? Why was that name familiar? Oh no! Didn't he succeed in tracking down the notorious Charles Meade when all others failed?
"You may rest easier in the knowledge that the rogue will not be free to take liberties with your person for much longer. He is as good as hanged. ... And now I must go and pack." Anne turned and began to ascend the stairs.
"As I told you last week, Beccah, tomorrow I am going to the country to stay with Anne Locke." The 'two Annes', as they had been known at school, were still fast friends, and her pleasure in the forthcoming trip was evident. "Mary." Anne glanced to where the dumpy maid was waiting. "When you have put away those things for my sister, will you send Nancy to help me?"
"As you wish, Madam." The maid curtseyed and hurried away, leaving Rebeccah staring up at her sister's retreating back with a mixture of anxiety and anger.
CONTINUED IN PART 3back to the Academy