At the Highwayman's Pleasure(6)

By: Sarah Mallory

 ‘He got down off his horse and ordered you all out o’ the coach, you say?’ The constable looked at his notes. ‘So you had a chance to get a good look at the fellow, eh?’

 The farmer shook his head. ‘Nay, ’twere too dark to see out by then.’

 ‘That’s true,’ affirmed Betty. ‘And he soon ordered us all back inside, except Mrs Weston.’

 ‘Weston?’ The constable looked up, all attention. ‘Mrs Weston, you say? Are you—?’

 ‘I am an actress.’ She smiled to atone for interrupting him. ‘Mrs Weston is my stage name.’

 The farmer’s wife sniffed, her earlier smiles replaced now with a more haughty stare.

 ‘Ah, I see.’ The constable looked even more interested in that. ‘You’ll be on your way to Allingford, then.’ He added, with something like a sigh, ‘We have no theatre in Beringham.’

 ‘Nor any other entertainment,’ grumbled the farmer. ‘Even the inns ain’t what they was.’

 ‘But she was closest to the villain,’ put in the farmer’s wife, ignoring her husband. ‘In his arms, she was, and he was makin’ free with her—’

 ‘I beg your pardon, but it was no such thing,’ declared Betty, bristling in defence of her mistress. ‘He ravished her, quite against her will.’

 Charity blushed and shook her head at the bemused constable.

 ‘He stole a cheap brooch, that is all.’

 ‘And he kissed her, too!’ cried the farmer’s wife in outraged accents.

 ‘Very understandable, ma’am, if you don’t mind my saying so,’ returned the officer of the law, then coloured to the tips of his ears.

 ‘It means she saw him better than the rest of us,’ said the farmer. ‘Right tall fellow, he was.’

 ‘Ma’am?’ The constable turned his eyes towards Charity, who shrugged.

 ‘I would not have said he was that tall. About medium height, I think.’

 ‘Bigger, surely,’ argued the farmer’s wife. ‘He towered over you!’

 Charity remembered it only too well, but she shook her head now.

 ‘I was cowering a little.’

 It was a lie. She had felt no fear in her encounter with the highwayman. There had been anger, yes, and excitement, but she had never felt afraid of him. The farmer’s wife was continuing.

 ‘A big man, all in black and astride a great black ’oss. And he had right broad shoulders.’

 Charity remembered him coming close, the feeling that he was enveloping her in his shadow.

 ‘His coat was very large,’ she said. ‘It had several capes on the shoulders, which gave the impression of width.’

 ‘Did you see his face, or his hair—did he wear a wig, perhaps?’

 ‘He never removed his hat. And he wore a mask, so I could not see his countenance.’

 That much was true. She could not even say with any certainty what colour his eyes had been, only that they were very dark and had bored into her, as if he could see into her very soul.

 ‘His horse, though—that should be easy to find.’ The coachman tapped out his pipe upon the hearth and set about refilling it. ‘It was a stallion, a great dark beast, pure black from mane to hoof.’

 ‘And he weren’t from around these parts,’ added the guard. ‘Irish, I do reckon.’

 ‘Aye,’ agreed the farmer. ‘Definitely Irish, no mistaking that brogue.’

 Charity said nothing. She had spent her life working with actors and mimics and suspected that lilting Irish accent had been as false as the inflection she had adopted in London to make everyone think she had grown up south of the Thames. The landlord, who had been hovering by all the while, nodded sagely.

 ‘The Dark Rider. They say he comes from Dublin.’

 ‘Oh, Lord bless us!’ exclaimed the farmer’s wife, falling back in her chair. No one paid her any heed.

 ‘Nay, I thought it was Shannon,’ said the coachman, ‘But that’s who I guessed it might be. I’ve never seen him afore, though.’

 ‘The Dark Rider?’ asked Betty nervously.

 ‘Aye.’ The landlord nodded. ‘He’s been working the roads around Beringham for a year or so now. Robbed Absalom Keldy and his wife afore Christmas, he did.’

 ‘And I was told he took fifty guineas off Mr Hutton only last month,’ put in the coachman.

 The farmer snorted. ‘Well, he can take what he likes off Hutton, with my blessing. Self-serving old scoundrel that he is!’

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