“Was the showing everything you hoped it would be, Miss Collington?” the Duchess of Haverford asked as she handed Elizabeth a cup of tea.
“I was quite pleased with its success, your Grace,” Elizabeth replied.
To call it a success was an understatement. The crowd of finely dressed ladies and gentlemen had been larger than expected, most of the copies of her book on the natural wonders of Devonshire had been sold, as had many of her original watercolors, and she had received several new commissions in the days since.
“I am pleased the event went well,” the Duchess said, “and I look forward to examining your work.” She nodded toward the valise sitting unopened next to the chair in which Elizabeth sat. “But first, I hope you will satisfy a curiosity of mine.”
Elizabeth took a sip of her tea, hoping to quell the sinking feeling in her stomach. In the invitation to tea, the Duchess had mentioned her regret at not having been able to attend the showing, but that she had read and appreciated the favorable reviews. Elizabeth had assumed an interest in her work was the primary object of the invitation.
Her hopes had only received encouragement as a bespectacled secretary ushered her through the lavishly appointed rooms of the Duchess’s manor to the salon in which they now sat; surely the owner of such a place, which even surpassed that of her friend and neighbor, Lord Burnside, would have it in her power to purchase several new landscapes to accompany the artwork already adorning the walls. To see her own watercolors in such company!
Then she had caught herself, wondering with chagrin what her father, the Vicar of Leighton parish, would have to say about such mercenary ambition. He’d already made known his views of young ladies, much less his own daughter, earning their own living. A commission here or there was one thing, but to be constantly putting oneself forward in such a manner – it was neither genteel nor ladylike.
And perhaps he was right, perhaps she should have resisted pressure from Rebecca and from her publisher to put on such a public display – for this was not the first time her name had appeared in the news.
As Elizabeth had feared, it was to that previous notoriety that the Duchess now moved the conversation. “Am I right in guessing you are the same Miss Collington about whom we heard so much last summer?”
Exactly the connection Elizabeth had hoped to avoid. “Your Grace refers to my kidnapping?”
“I do, and I hope my curiosity does not offend. It’s only that the Burgundy Highwayman had such a gallant reputation when he worked the London roads.”
“Yes, I know – never harmed a soul, robbed only from the rich, and even the prettiest misses were safe when he and his gang robbed their carriages.”
“And it was even said that he gave half his booty to the poor. Not a few young ladies looked forward to having him rob their carriages, to experience for themselves the dark, flashing eyes, the gallant demeanor, and the gentle touch as he removed a necklace from about their pretty necks.”
“Yet I only learned that was his reputation after he accosted me. At the time, I had no idea who he was, as his fame had not yet spread as far as Devonshire. I thought only that he was a quite forward rogue when he pressed his lips against my own, with no warning at all.”
“Quite different from his usual behavior. Not a few of our fashionable young ladies were quite jealous that a simple country miss had won such attentions.”
“Perhaps they would like to trade me places,” Elizabeth said, trying not to sound too arch.
“Oh, they are silly, of course. But when I saw your name in the paper and made the connection, I simply had to see the young lady who could cause such a change in the highwayman’s behavior.”
It took all of Elizabeth’s self-mastery not to blush at receiving the Duchess’s notice for such a purpose. Clearly, Her Grace was used to getting her way, yet there was something of compassion about her as well. Elizabeth took a sip of tea and set her cup back down. “These tea cakes are marvelous, your Grace. My compliments to the cook.”
The Duchess would not be put off so easily. “But there are discrepancies between the public account and certain rumors making the rounds – rumors which, if I may be honest, are quite concerning. I have to wonder, which is the correct version?”
And so they came to the point. How much could Elizabeth risk telling her? She chose to take a light-hearted approach.
“Oh, there are many versions of the tale,” she said with a laugh. “One even has it that I made the ultimate sacrifice in order to warn the highwayman away from the inn where the redcoats held me. Something to do with a musket bound beneath my breast, if you can believe it. As you can see, the tale cannot be true, because here I am.”
The Duchess smiled. “No, I had not heard that version, and I am glad that it’s false. But it bears a similarity to other rumors. That you went willingly with the highwayman. That you were, in fact, his lover and accomplice.”
This time Elizabeth did feel warmth rising to her cheeks, but she returned the Duchess’s gaze in a forthright manner. “That is the story the redcoats put about, but their Captain did not believe it, nor did Lord Burnside, who came to rescue me at the old inn. No, the newspaper reports are true, as far as they go. Perhaps one day I will write a more detailed account, but for now, that is all I can say.”
The duchess was silent for a moment. “And yet these rumors persist, to the damage of your reputation.”
“Yes, my prospects are quite ruined. I must make my living as I may, even if I have to put myself forward in an unladylike manner.” She glanced down at her valise, wondering if her artwork was of any interest to the Duchess, or if she had been invited here as a mere subject for gossip.
The Duchess seemed to have read her mind, for she said, “I hope you will forgive me these impertinent questions, but I wished to judge for myself before offering my support. Surely the notice of the Duchess of Haverford will go some way to rehabilitating your reputation.”
“But why would you go to such lengths for me, your Grace, as I was a stranger to you until half an hour past?”
“Quite simple, my dear. I could see from the reviews of your showing that you are a young lady of talent and worth. It seems a pity for you to be held back by such a mere whiff of scandal. You may be having some success now, but fashions change in this town more quickly than the French change their rulers. You could find yourself reduced to taking silhouettes or drawing caricatures in the park; a sad waste of your talents. But with an establishment, you could pursue your art for its own sake.”
“Yet I am but a vicar’s daughter, with only a paltry dowry.”
“I see you are quite unaware of your own charms, which tempted the highwayman from his usual course of behavior. If you are not too picky as to titles and ancient lineage, I can introduce you to several gentlemen, well-behaved in themselves, who would overlook whatever scandal is in your past.” Here she gave Elizabeth what seemed more than a knowing look.
Yet more bachelors to be paraded before her! Jamie had been bad enough on his current leave while his ship was under repair, trotting out one officer after another. Her brother was only worried for her future, but it became tiresome.
Could she risk telling all? The Duchess seemed so sympathetic and good-hearted. But on a first acquaintance? No, it was impossible.
“Begging your Grace’s pardon, but it is really quite unnecessary. I find that I enjoy the challenge placed before me, as improper as it may be. If you would truly be of service to me, I would ask only that you take notice of my watercolors. That would carry me farther than introductions to gentlemen possibly could.”
“It is remarkably brave of you, to look forward to depending entirely upon your own means of support.”
“Not entirely on my own, your Grace. My friend, Mrs. Rebecca Burgess, is the widow of a Naval captain, and has an independence through her widow’s pension. When the day of my father’s passing comes – a far-off day, God willing – we will pool our resources and share a household.”
The Duchess smiled. “I see you are quite the determined bluestocking.”
Elizabeth did not think she heard derision in the duchess’s voice, but could it possibly have been admiration? “I suppose I am,” she agreed, returning the smile.
“Well then, let us have a look at your drawings, shall we?” The Duchess held out her hand for the valise. “And I can only hope you will publish that more complete account of your experience with the highwayman without too much delay.”
“And if I do, your Grace can rest assured you will be the first to read it.”
Fortunately for the Duchess and the rest of us, Elizabeth did sit down many years later to recount her experiences with the highwayman. Daring and Decorum, the first volume in what the author hopes will become a series, is a highwayman’s tale with a delightful twist, due out August 1 from Supposed Crimes. Covering all the events about which Elizabeth is so coy with the Duchess, it features rambles across lonely moors, daring rides on horseback, sword-fights, unexpected desire, a bit of botany, and endless cups of tea.
The second volume, covering the period of Elizabeth’s first book publication and art showing in London, is entitled Silence and Secrecy. It deals with the secrets Elizabeth must keep to lead a life she never could have imagined choosing, but which now seems the only possible one for her. The author hopes to see it published sometime next year.
Both books feature as a background (and sometimes as a foreground) the political milieu of mid-1790s England: poverty contrasted with lavish wealth, bread riots, calls for political reform, counter-charges of treason and sedition, the movement for abolition, and above all, the fear of the French revolution being imported to British shores.
A separate story involving the highwayman will appear in an upcoming holiday box set from The Final Draft Tavern (which will also feature stories from Jude and Mari Christie!).
Buy Links for Daring and Decorum:
Excerpt from Daring and Decorum
In this scene, the highwayman, fresh from taunting a band of redcoats, has come across Elizabeth, who had uncharacteristically become lost on a foggy moor. They are riding double on the highwayman’s horse, and the rogue has just upbraided her for walking on the moors without a compass.
Piqued by his criticism, I asked, “Whose carriage did you rob, to set the militia after you?”
“Why, none at all, for today the militia itself was our target.”
“Whatever could you want with those gallant young men?”
“Oh, it’s great fun to goad them. Today, we led them a merry chase and finally lured them into that bog down below.”
“I find it hard to believe you would engage in such foolish trickery for mere fun.”
“Stopping them from cracking the heads of unemployed weavers is a further inducement, I must admit.”
“Those soldiers are only trying to keep the peace! Surely a mob cannot be allowed to run wild.”
He turned to look at me over his shoulder. His eyes, which I had thought black in the poor light of our earlier encounters, I now saw were brown. “Four children were made orphans last week, thanks to your gallant lads’ efforts. I don’t call that keeping the peace. It is not much, but if we can distract King George’s men, and perhaps make laughingstocks of them to cheer the people, it seems the least we can do.”
“Still, I fail to see what you could gain from such an endeavor.”
“Yes, for what motive could a highwayman possibly have, if not self-interest?” He uttered this statement with such a tone of derision that I saw no way to respond, and we fell into silence.
After a time, a rock wall loomed out of the fog, a narrow lane running beyond it. “That is Whiddleston Lane,” the highwayman said, his tone now decidedly cold. “A quarter-mile along it to the left is the village of Whiddleston. I trust you can make your way home from there? Surely you wouldn’t want to be seen in the company of outlaws.”
I wondered at the feeling of regret his demeanor provoked within me even as I agreed to his plan.
Throwing a leg over Juno’s neck, he dropped to the ground, then turned to lift me from my seat. The look he gave me had lost all its humor, and he seemed in fact quite grave and troubled. I tried to ignore the slight disappointment I felt when he turned away to retrieve my drawing case from his accomplice. Then he climbed over the stile and held out a hand to help me follow, all without a word.
I found his coldness provoking. “I assume, in mentioning your motive, you refer to your Robin Hood act?” I looked him boldly in the eye as I alighted next to him. “Yet I can think of many reasons for robbing the wealthiest. And now I discover that you are a traitor as well as an outlaw.”
He took a step forward, looming above me. “No, Miss Collington, never a traitor, for I am loyal to England and her people. It is only the decadence of the aristocracy which I detest, leeches sucking the lifeblood of the nation.” He turned as if he would leave, but then stopped, one hand on the rock wall next to the stile. “Would you believe that half our income goes to the poor and to those same orphans new-minted by the militia?”
Wondering why he felt such a need to justify his actions to me, I replied, “No, for I find it hard to believe that one who resorts to such villainy could harbor such selfless compassion.”
“Is that so?” He nodded at his ginger-haired associate. “Tell her, Jack.”
“Aye, it’s true, miss. Lord knows I’d be quit o’ this business by now if it weren’t.”
“That’s Jack for you,” said the highwayman, “always good for a cheery word. In due time, when we have saved enough, all of what we steal from the rich—or my portion, at least—will go to those most in need.”
“Yet it is hard to credit such beneficence in a common highwayman.”
“Ha!” exclaimed the one called Jack. “Robin, common! That’s a laugh.”
“Quiet, Jack,” the highwayman barked. “Why don’t the two of you stand farther off and keep a sharp eye?”
Jack and the other scoundrel rode off a bit, Jack singing a vulgar tune in a gravelly voice. I caught these words before he was out of earshot: “I’m a poor loom weaver, as many a one knows. I’ve naught t’eat, and I’ve wore out me clothes.”
The highwayman turned back to me. “It is as I told you before—I hope that good works will atone in some measure for the evil I have done. Perhaps if you knew my full story—”
“You are mistaken if you think I have any interest in hearing your self-justifications.”
“At the very least, I can promise you a story worth hearing, one equal to any gothic romance.”
“I do not stoop to reading romances.”
“No? Perhaps you should. They have more of actual life in them than all your Cowper and your Pope. Now, what say you?” His aspect, or what I could see of it above the mask, was one of such earnest pleading that it surprised me, coming from one usually so bold in taking what he wanted. “Will you agree to meet me, if only to hear my tale? I have more than repaid my debt to you, after all.”
I should have given him a firm negative on the spot. But he had just saved me much discomfort, if not my very life, and I felt I owed him something for it. What harm could there be in hearing his story? I told myself it had nothing to do with our close contact of a few moments before, or with his earlier kisses.
“There is a great oak tree on the north boundary of Holbourne. Do you know it? You may find me there on any fine day, though of late I do not often walk there alone. If we happen to meet, I will listen to your story.” I removed his cloak and handed it to him.
“It is all I can ask,” he said. He leaned toward me for a moment, and I did not back away. Then he seemed to think better of himself, turning to step over the stile and leaping into his saddle with great alacrity. He turned back to look at me for a moment, then touched the brim of his hat. “Till we meet again, Miss Collington.” He rode off after his companions, leaving me with an unsettled feeling of regret at his not having kissed me a third time.
Meet Larry Hogue
Lawrence Hogue’s writing is all over the place and all over time. He started out in nonfiction/nature writing with a personal narrative/environmental history of the Anza-Borrego Desert called All the Wild and Lonely Places: Journeys in a Desert Landscape. After moving to Michigan, he switched to writing fiction, including contemporary stories set in the desert and fanfiction based on the videogame Skyrim. He’s a fan of folk music, and got the idea for Daring and Decorum while listening to Loreena McKennitt’s outstanding adaptation of Alfred Noyes’ poem, The Highwayman. When not speaking a word for nature or for forgotten LGBT people of history, he spends his white-knighting, gender-betraying energies on Twitter and Facebook, and sometimes on the streets of Lansing, MI, and Washington DC. He’s been called a Social Justice Warrior, but prefers Social Justice Wizard or perhaps Social Justice Lawful Neutral Rogue.