At the Highwayman's Pleasure

By: Sarah Mallory
 Prologue

 June 1794

 Charity closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun. It was blazing down from the cloudless blue sky while a skylark high above trilled joyously and a soft breeze stirred her hair, hanging loose and damp about her shoulders.

 This is heaven, she thought, but when she opened her eyes she saw only the familiar fields around her, and in the distance, just beyond the river but before the rugged hills to the east, was the village of Saltby, no more than a little cluster of houses dominated by the stark square tower of the church.

 How she wished she didn’t have to go back there.

 Charity tossed her head defiantly and felt the heavy weight of her hair rippling down her back. She would have to bundle it under her bonnet before they reached the village, but it was so good to have it loose, so deliciously free.

 She heard a giggle.

 ‘Lord, Charity, ’tis so thick it will never be dry before we reach Saltby.’ Her friend Jenny lifted some of the blonde locks from her neck and let them fall again.

 ‘But it was worth it.’ She tucked her hand in her friend’s arm. ‘Come along now. Let’s get home.’

 They continued along a narrow valley, chattering as they went and swinging their bonnets carelessly from the ribbons. It was not until they rounded the next bend that they saw the activity in the valley ahead of them.

 ‘Oh, heavens, I didn’t know they would be here today,’ muttered Jenny, coming to a halt.

 On the flat land by the beck the sheep were being sheared. A stone-walled fold beside the stream was already packed with animals, while shepherds were driving more sheep into the water to wash the fat from their coats ready for shearing. A familiar black-clothed figure was standing on a boulder in the middle of the activity. His arms were raised to the heavens and he had a book clutched in one hand. Even at this distance Charity knew it was a Bible. He was reciting passages from the gospels, but the shearers paid him little heed, continuing with their work with a steady, dogged persistence that would see all the sheep sheared before dark.

 ‘Oh, heavens, ’tis your father,’ hissed Jenny.

 ‘Yes,’ said Charity bitterly. ‘Phineas thinks himself another Wesley, preaching to the godless. Let’s go back before he sees us. We’ll take the long way over the hill.’

 ‘Too late.’

 The black-coated figure had jumped down from his makeshift pulpit and was striding towards them, shouting. There was no help for it. The girls stopped and waited for him to come up.

 ‘And where might you be going?’

 It was Jenny who spoke up.

 ‘We are on our way home, Mr Weston. We have been to visit old Mother Crawshaw, to take her a basket of food. Now her son has gone for a soldier there is no one to provide for her and Mrs Weston thought—’

 But Phineas wasn’t listening. He was glaring, his face mottled with fury as he raised a shaking finger to point at them.

 ‘You have been traipsing the countryside like that, with no kerchiefs to cover your shoulders and your hair down your backs like, like—’

 ‘It was so hot we stopped on the way back to bathe at the secret pool,’ said Charity, giving him a defiant look. ‘We have done it many times before.’

 ‘Aye, but you are not children now. You are fourteen years old and should know the Lord frowns upon women displaying themselves in such shameless fashion.’

 ‘We did not intend anyone to see us,’ she retorted. ‘Our hair will be dry by the time we reach Saltby, and if it is not we will put it up beneath our caps before we get there.’

 Even though he was still some yards away his fierce eyes burned into her and she could see the spittle on his lip as he ground out his words.

 ‘And you would parade yourself here, before all these men, like the veriest trollop.’

 ‘No, we intended to go the other way—’ She broke off as he swiftly covered the ground between them and caught her wrist. ‘Let me go!’

 ‘God knows I have tried to teach you the ways of righteousness, but to no avail. “Even a child is known by his actions”, and you are certainly known by yours.’

 ‘But we have done nothing wrong.’

 ‘I’ll teach you to flaunt yourself in this way.’ He made a grab for Jenny, but Charity clutched his sleeve and pulled him away.

 ‘Run!’ she shrieked to her friend. ‘Run home now.’ When Jenny hesitated, she cried, ‘You can do nothing for me, save yourself!’

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