The carriage charged along the road.
The sun had fallen some time ago and the passengers were shadows in the moonlight.
They should have arrived in Harrow for four o’clock, but Evelyn was beyond worrying. She let her head rest against her seat, her eyes closed, as she concentrated on breathing and tried to ignore the nauseating motion of the carriage.
The stagecoach had departed Cambridge on time and, to Evelyn’s relief, it hadn’t taken too long for the inane chatter of the passengers to die away. It wasn’t until they reached the inn for lunch that there had been any sign of a delay.
At the time, she had been thankful for a longer break—it gave her stomach time to settle—but after several hours of waiting without news, everyone had become increasingly impatient and she had been worried she would miss her connection. When their journey eventually resumed, it was clear that what had been unpleasant was now unbearable.
All she wanted was to reach Harrow, find a nice room with some good food, rest and sleep and forget about today. Then she could start the journey afresh in the morning. Her father need never concern himself with her troubles, but she would make a note to listen to his advice in future and take their own carriage on long journeys.
She hated sharing a carriage; she had hoped it would give her a sense of independence and freedom. But instead, she was squeezed on a seat between a snoring old man and a woman with a whimpering child. The heat was oppressive, even after the sun had gone down, and the airless stench made her feel light-headed, worsened by the constant juddering of the uneven road. Their delay gave licence to the driver to speed along the highway, ensuring his passengers were shaken around, like dice in a cup.
Suddenly the coach lurched backwards. Evelyn screamed as she was thrown from her place. The side of her head whacked against a hard surface and she fell to her knees in a heap of other bodies.
“Is everyone alright?”
Frightened voices cried out in the chaos. The baby was screeching as its mother scrabbled around in the darkness.
Evelyn tried to pick herself up and find her bearings. Someone had landed on her foot, she was struggling to move and her head was starting to pound. There were arms and legs everywhere, clambering and pushing, everyone trying to find space where there was none. She tried to free herself from the mayhem but the more she tried to move, the more restricted she became, and she started to panic.
She tried to reach for the door or the window: she needed to get out, needed to move. She had to know what was going on, what was happening outside; she wasn’t sure she could cope if the carriage started moving again.
There was shouting, angry voices on the highway.
There were always stories about what could happen on these roads after dark; she’d heard about the type of people who wandered around at night and what they might do to those they came across.
Suddenly the door was wrenched open.
A man stood, silhouetted in the door frame. He wore a tricorn hat, a mask, and a great black coat. His beard was huge and, as he grinned, one of his teeth glinted in the lamplight. He waved a musket at the startled passengers and spoke in a deep, guttural growl.
“Everyone out!” he barked.
The passengers muttered between themselves as, one by one, they descended the carriage steps. The father of the crying child stopped to help his wife and then offered a hand to Evelyn, who took it gratefully. She held on to the door frame to ease herself onto the road, she was still wobbly and light headed and felt relieved to have the cool air on her face and solid ground beneath her feet. But her stomach turned with the thought of what could happen next.
“Come on, come on.”
The highwayman herded the passengers to the edge of the lane. Evelyn glanced back at the carriage; the terrified driver sat with his hands held aloft, as a thin highwayman on horseback aimed a pistol squarely at his chest, laughing raucously. A third highwayman was manhandling the other coachman, threatening him with a blade and rummaging in his pockets.
It was a woman’s voice.
Evelyn spun round, startled. Standing at the edge of the road, with a pistol in each gloved hand, was a highwaywoman. She too wore an eye mask and tricorn hat, with a long, black coat, hanging open to reveal a tight fitted waistcoat and breeches. The clothes clung to her body, tailored and tight-fitting; they revealed every curve of her figure.
Evelyn had never seen a woman dressed in such away, she stared at her, fear replaced by curiosity.
“I said sit,” the woman repeated, stepping forward.
Evelyn was exhausted from the long day’s journey: her bones ached from the constant shaking of the stagecoach, her head hurt from the whack she’d received when she was thrown from her seat, and she still felt woozy and light headed from the airlessness of the compartment. She needed to stretch her legs and breathe in the cool, clear air; she couldn’t face the thought of sitting on the ground and was worried that if she did, then she may not be able to get up again.
“I’d rather stand,” she replied wearily. “It’s been a long day.”
The highwaywoman was taken aback, her mouth fell open slightly and she stared at Evelyn.
Their eyes locked.
For a moment the woman didn’t move, the pistols remaining firmly raised; she was fierce and commanding. There was strength and intimidation in the way she stood, something Evelyn had long wished for in herself—this woman embodied power and masculinity yet retained beauty.
It was intriguing but disconcerting.
She had no idea what this woman was capable of. Despite her anxiety, something in the deep recesses of her mind told her not to be scared, but she knew there was nothing to justify this instinct.
“This isn’t a picnic,” the woman said, finally. “I’m telling you to sit.”
She gestured to the ground with her pistol and, reluctantly, Evelyn eased herself down. Her muscles were tender and sore from hours spent sitting in the same position and she struggled to reach the ground with any grace. As she was trying to find a comfortable position on the cold, hard, earth, one of her fellow hostages turned to her.
“That was foolish,” he hissed. “You’ll get us all killed.”
She looked at him, surprised by his candour. In normal circumstances, she would have accused a man such as him of impertinence for daring to speak out of turn to one of his betters. But in this case, she realised he was probably right, and simply nodded in agreement.
She decided to try being inconspicuous. If the gang were left to go about their business then there was a good chance no one would get hurt and they would be allowed to go on their way without further incident.
She thought about how she might describe each of the men—there was no law preventing highway robbery after dark, but her status might be enough to induce criminal proceedings and she wanted to be sure they punished the right people. But in the poor light, with hats and masks, she could do little more than keep a mental note of their respective heights.
She glanced back towards the woman at the edge of the woods. First to her boots—black, with silver buckles and spurs, tapering in at the ankle and tight around the calf.
Suddenly she felt as though she shouldn’t be looking and returned her attention to the passengers gathered around her, quietly comforting one another as they waited desperately for the experience to end.
Yet she felt drawn to the woman, compelled to look again, an irrepressible desire to glance sidelong at the woman just a few feet away. She was fascinated by the breeches that hugged her thighs, the waistcoat, pulled tight around the curve of her waist and the shirt, open at the collar.
Suddenly she realised the woman was watching her. Her stomach flipped as they stared at one another. She wanted to look away but she couldn’t. She was transfixed.
Evelyn had never seen a woman like this, a woman who had taken her life into her own hands and was living by her own rules, who rejected what was expected of her and went her own way regardless of the consequences. She felt a pang of jealousy, but also desire. A desire to know more about her, to understand how and why this woman could have come to be.
She heard a shout, and the moment was gone as their attention was pulled back to the carriage. The highwaymen were ransacking the luggage and they had clearly found something exciting in one of the trunks. The thin highwayman was stood in the lamplight, laughing at the larger of his comrades who was holding up a woman’s nightgown to himself. Evelyn groaned and prayed it wasn’t her trunk they were rifling through.
Her eyes were pulled back to the highwaywoman. Evelyn wanted to know more about her: she needed to know who she was and whether she was as cruel and villainous as her comrades, or whether she was she just carefree and seeking adventure; a dashing heroine or a lowly, greedy whore.
Evelyn couldn’t help feeling it was the former. She imagined this woman held a passion for freedom and had succeeded in obtaining it. But she wanted to be sure, wanted to be certain of this woman’s nature.
She had a sudden urge to pull off the mask, convinced that if only she could see behind it then she would know everything about her, and prove that a woman could disregard rules and yet retain decency.
She held back, forcing her fanciful notions aside, but unable to quash the desire to at least speak to her, to press her and see what discoveries she could make.
“How much longer?” she asked.
She heard the other passengers quietly shushing her and knew that she was being a fool: she was risking her safety on a whim. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that the woman wasn’t dangerous. She stood, separating herself from the other hostages, and stepped closer to the highwaywoman.
“How much longer?” she repeated, but only loud enough for the highwaywoman to hear.
She stared back at Evelyn, her gaze unflinching, as she considered her answer.
“Just sit down,” she said finally, with more irritation than anger.
Part of Evelyn wanted to sit down, the same part that was always wanted to keep out of trouble, to keep quiet and polite. The part of her that wanted to please others, to never make a fuss, to timidly put up with whatever life threw at her and to consistently comply with other people’s expectations of how she should behave. But seeing that woman—wielding pistols, wearing breeches, leading a group of ruffians to hold up a carriage in the dark of night—gave her the courage she needed to speak her mind.
“I would simply like to know how much longer you intend to hold us captive here,” she hissed, as commanding as she was able. “We are all cold and tired, the child especially, the journey took twice as long as it should have done. I haven’t had anything to eat for hours. I don’t know where I am going to sleep tonight. I am meant to be in Bristol by this time tomorrow and I have simply no way of getting there—”
“Then it doesn’t matter how long we take, does it?” the woman snapped. “Now,” she said. Her voice was low and full of menace as she clicked back the flint on her pistols. “Sit down or I’ll make sure you never stand up again.”
Perhaps she was mistaken.
Perhaps she should go back and take her place with the others, stay quiet with her head down and accept that she was wrong, that this woman was as villainous as the others and she’d lost her honour when she took up arms.
But then she noticed something, a flicker of the eyes as the woman glanced at the baby and Evelyn felt the urge to push her advantage.
“That child is freezing,” she whispered. “It won’t cope with much more of this.”
She’d pushed too far.
She knew she’d crossed a dangerous woman, already irritated by her persistence. She wanted to take back the words, to pluck them out of the air and ram them back in her mouth. But it was too late, the words had been said and a ball of fear was starting to swell and twist in the pit of her stomach.
But then suddenly the highwaywoman lowered her pistols, placing them back into the holsters at her waist, and, with a flourish, she removed her long black coat, placing it around the mother and child, before returning to her position and raising her pistols once more.
“Now sit,” she said.
But Evelyn was happy to, she felt victorious as if she had revealed something secret. She wasn’t in the presence of a typical rogue this woman was different. This woman was the way the ballads depicted: the dashing and chivalrous hero, made more enigmatic by her femininity.
Evelyn knew people would be talking of this highwaywoman; she would be celebrated for her grace, and renowned for her deeds. People would wonder at the truth behind the woman and Evelyn would know that she had seen it, had witnessed the good in this woman, she might even testify to her good honour when she was caught. Now that would cause a scandal.
“Thank you,” whispered Evelyn, wanting to show that she too was capable of unexpected courtesy.
She resumed her place on the hard, dirty, earth track, satisfied for the moment that she had learnt all she wanted to know.
But as minutes rolled on, she found her thoughts returning to the highwaywoman. She still wanted to know how this woman had come to be here, how their paths had crossed in this way, why a woman who seemed so well spoken had landed on the wrong side of the law, whether she was a victim of circumstance, or had chosen her own path.
She looked at the woman again and felt sure that someone so strong could never be a victim of anything: she had to be there by choice. But what choice, what kind of an adventure, would be so tantalising as to entice this woman?
“Right, you lot.” It was the thin highwayman; he stood over the passengers, scanning their faces. “One at a time. You first.” He pointed his pistol toward an elderly man, who rose clumsily. The highwayman grabbed his arm and dragged him over to the light of the stagecoach lamps, where the other two waited.
The old man was roughly searched and his pockets were turned out. Evelyn gasped when he was thumped across the head for taking too long to release a watch chain from his button. When they had taken everything of value, the old man was forced into the carriage and the highwayman sauntered back to the passengers with a grin and pointed to the man who’d helped Evelyn down from the carriage.
“You next,” he said.
One by one, the passengers were relieved of their valuables and tossed back into the stage coach. There was nothing gracious about the manner in which they were searched. They were man-handled, pulled about, and their clothes ripped, as they were shoved up against the carriage.
Evelyn looked away but she could still hear the thud of their bodies against the solid wood of the carriage door, their yelps as they were punched and thrashed by the masked men. Evelyn stood in disbelief, the romantic tales of the charismatic highwayman fading as she was forced to witness the systematic beating of the hostages and waited for her own turn.
She glanced back at the highwaywoman, who was watching the scene impassively and Evelyn tried to fit the two people together, the woman who had wrapped a cold child in her own coat and the woman who permitted this brutality.
“How can you do this?” Evelyn asked, feeling somehow betrayed by the woman she had only just met.
The highwaywoman looked across at her. Evelyn had expected or rather wanted, to see some sign of shock, or remorse as if she hadn’t known that the men would do this, as if she was just an innocent, a bystander in what was happening. But instead, she steadied her jaw and lifted her chin, resolutely.
“The pay is good,” she said, then turned back to watch the men throw the last of the passengers into the carriage, and Evelyn realised, with dread, that she was next.
The woman pushed a pistol into the small of the back and led her forward. As she came into the light of the stagecoach lamps, she looked upon the face of a highwayman. He was the shortest of the three, but he loomed over her; his skin was rough and pock marked, his smile uneven through a lack of teeth, and the ones that were left jutting out of his jaw were brown and misshapen. His blue eyes stared out from behind his mask; they were misted over, ghost-like, and she wondered if he was close to losing his sight. When he spoke, his breath was foul enough to make her retch.
“Give it up, Pretty-One or Johnny here will search you himself.”
He waved his pistol towards another man, half concealed in shadow: it was the man who’d opened the carriage door and herded the passengers on to the road. He was the tallest of the three, a huge man with broad shoulders and a thick wiry beard. He grinned, showing several gold teeth intermingled with the brown, and Evelyn shuddered at the thought of his hands coming anywhere near her; massive, filthy hands, shoving her and groping her until he had taken whatever he wanted. She dreaded how far it may go, and hoped that there was sufficient money in her purse to satisfy them enough to leave her unscathed.
He saw the look of fear on her face and started laughing. The others quickly joined in.
As she handed over the only money she had with her, Evelyn felt disgusted and enraged as well as frightened. The cash she had on her person was her only hope of gaining passage home, of finding a place to rest and food to eat. They hadn’t just taken her money, they had taken her freedom, her independence, and her safety.
She felt violated and abused by the lowest, basest, thieves, the pestilence of the road. Vermin, swimming in filth, achieving nothing but through violence and intimidation, snatching scraps from decent people, people who deserve their rank in society. These brutes were cowards, hiding behind masks and muskets, and she would do everything within her power to see them hang for their crime. All of them.
“And that,” said the highwayman, as he reached out to grab her locket, the locket she had loyally worn every day since receiving it, it hung inside her bodice so that the heart of gold fell against her own.
Instinctively she pulled back.
“No!” she gasped, horrified and angry at the thought that he would take it.
A new sense of defiance coursed through her veins. She wasn’t going to let these filthy dogs win, the locket would just be their trophy of her defeat and she was dammed if she was going to let them have it.
“Hand it over,” he growled, a knife suddenly in his hand and aimed at her throat. It wasn’t just his breath that stank, he was saturated with the stench of sweat and horse manure; it oozed from his tattered clothes, greasy skin and the slimy mop of hair protruding limply from under his ill-fitting hat.
Her courage was sapping from her, yet she felt compelled to deny them success, of at least preventing them having this one victory.
“No,” she repeated, but her voice was unsteady. “It’s of very little value, my shoes cost more.” She hoped that by appealing to his sense of value it would give her some opportunity to gain ground.
“Well, I’ll ‘ave your shoes an’ all if you don’t hand it over.”
He stepped forward and she let out a shriek as she fell back. She was grabbed by the highwaywoman, who held her tightly around the waist and stopped her from falling or running.
The man laughed as he watched her struggle, but the woman’s arms were surprisingly strong; she couldn’t break free, she would be held tight until they had finished with her.
From somewhere in the back her mind she remembered hearing about a woman who’d swallowed a ring to prevent it being taken by a highwayman, but instead of letting her go, he’d sliced open her belly to retrieve it.
Evelyn wished she hadn’t spoken, she wished she’d let him have the damned locket, it was only her own arrogance and pride that had prevented it. He was always going to take it, only now he’d likely slice her throat for the insult.
“Let her keep it,” the woman said.
Evelyn was stunned.
The highwaywoman was stepping in. It made no sense; she had been so callous, watching impassively as they beat the others, why was she stepping in now? What had changed?
It didn’t matter: Evelyn was safe, and suddenly the arms around her waist were no longer threatening, but comforting, protecting her from the man with the blade.
“Keep it?” he asked. He briefly glanced back at his larger, bearded cohort, who appeared to be enjoying the scene. “This is the job we came to do,” said the highwayman, raising his voice as he turned his attention back on the woman, “or have you forgotten that?” His face contorted with rage, and the knife in his hand was waving dangerously close to Evelyn’s face.
She felt the woman’s grip on her waist tighten further and the fear that had faded so quickly came back just as fast. She was caught within a feud she didn’t understand and she felt as though her life was hanging in the balance, only she didn’t know what weights were being used.
“It’s just a chain,” the woman said, but her voice was weakening, she had lost the authority she’d had and Evelyn wondered why she had stepped in to defend her, what she had risked and who was in control.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” said the man, before he struck Evelyn hard across the cheek with the back of his hand and wrenched the locket from her neck.
“Deal’s a deal.” He grunted and shoved her, unceremoniously, back in the carriage, where she fell to the floor as the door was slammed behind her.
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