The lengthening shadows of twilight made reading difficult in the coach, so I closed up my leather lap case and set it on the floor at my feet. As we had been joggling along in the coach for nearly three hours, I estimated we must be some twenty miles east of London, with still thirty to go before we reached Canterbury. My lecture was not to be delivered till the next evening, however, so I would stop over at Chatham for a good night's sleep and to practice my delivery on Mr. Kidd, my secretary cum traveling companion cum friend, and occasionally ad hoc nephew, if my host proved a trifle high in the instep.
These artificial constraints are vexing after my travels abroad. Are the English so lecher-minded they can't credit a single lady and gentleman might travel together without being lovers--especially when the lady is past thirty, the gentleman a decade younger?
I have traveled half the world, going from Portsmouth to Gibraltar on a warship, and very comfortable it was, too. I took a frigate from Gibraltar to Zanta, in the Ionian Sea, and enjoyed the company of the commander-in-chief of the islands. Thence by felucca to the Gulf of Corinth, and by a wretched Greek polacca to see the Hellespont, famed for having been swum by Leander to see his Hero, and by Byron to give himself something else to brag about. Ronald Kidd swam it, too, but he didn't sit down and write a poem to commemorate the event.
To cut short my itinerary, I have been across the Syrian desert and seen the ruins of Zenobia's legendary town, Palmyra. Prior to our arrival, only three European men had seen the sight, and one of them was beaten and robbed. I made most of my travels in the company of raffish Arab males, without losing either my dignity or my virginity. A lady may be unconventional without being fast. I have heard myself called odd, headstrong, hurly-burly, and egocentric, but never fast, till I returned to England to have my memoirs published.
It was Mr. Oates, my publisher, who came up with the notion that a circuit of lectures would increase sales. I believe I can say without courting immodesty that the initial talks in London went over very well. The hall was filled to the doors all three nights, and no less a luminary than Thomas Moore came to speak to me afterward. He has a string of oriental tales in verse he wished to discuss, but time prevented my looking at it on that occasion.
The carriage hit a bump, jogging me back to the present. If I remained long in England, I would certainly have to set up a carriage and team. It wasn't the expense that deterred me, but the uncertain duration of my stay. The East beckoned me back. I particularly missed the starry dusk of Constantinople, with the Bosphorus glowing like liquid fire as the sun set. Greece, too, was only passed through.
April was supposed to be the best of England's weather, but the sky above us at that moment was leaden gray, and had been for three days. The sun, on those odd moments when it was visible at all, was only a pale white disk showing shyly behind clouds. With nothing pleasant to see beyond the carriage, I cast an eye around at my companions.
A certain Mr. Wideman, a traveling salesman in what he called the "toy and trinket" line, had been bending Mr. Kidd's ear mercilessly. What he purveyed were glass beads for servants and tin chains and watch fobs for clerks who in all probability had no watch to attach to them, but would like the respectability of a chain to hint at one. He had opened his case and revealed these garish trinkets for our delectation as soon as the carriage left the coaching office. His importunings reminded me of the street Arabs, though in appearance he could hardly be less similar. He was fat and red-faced, whereas they were cadaverously thin and brown-skinned, their poor, emaciated bodies wrapped in swaddling rags.
He caught my eye and pushed a set of red glass beads at me. "Ruby glass," he assured me. "A great bargain at half a crown. They are a new item, hot from London, Miss Mathieson. See the dainty clasp, with a bit of red glass set into it, like a genuine jewel."
"Very pretty," I smiled, and turned aside hastily, before he dunned me to buy one.
The other occupant of the coach was a cleric. When he noticed I had closed my lap case, he turned a sanctimonious eye on me and introduced himself. "Reverend Cooke, from Canterbury," he smiled. He was a closer match to the Arab street peddlers, insofar as build went. He was one of those skeletal gentlemen who emanated cold piety. For all that, I had noticed he wasn't reading the copy of Dr. Donne's Devotions and Sermons he held in his lap, but was using it to conceal some drawings of females en dishabille. I don't mean to say the drawings were lecherous, but only suggestive. I got a peek when the carriage lurched around a narrow corner.
This would no doubt have shocked some provincial ladies. I am immune to that sort of shock after my travels. It is all a matter of custom. In Damascus a lady risks her life if she shows her face to the world, whereas the Druse women in the mountains of Lebanon expose their faces and half their breasts.
Men are the same the world over--they decree that some part of the female anatomy must be kept hidden, and spend the rest of their lives trying to get a glimpse of it. It all has to do with trying to make us poor women mysterious and therefore desirable. I refuse to find anything disgusting in the attraction between the sexes. There is something undignified if not downright ridiculous in the way procreation has been arranged, but it is not disgusting. It is the prudery that I despise most.
Reverend Cooke began some boring discussion of John Donne's sermons, and I revised my opinion. Hypocrisy is most despicable. And for all his pictures, Cooke had the temerity to suggest that I was "daring" to travel without a female companion! I knew what he meant by that euphemism. Mr. Kidd became my nephew, and the reverend's eyebrows returned to their normal level.
The carriage lurched to a stop, causing us all to wonder what was amiss, for the countryside showed nothing in the way of a village or even a coaching house. Mr. Wideman opened the door and soon reported what was afoot. "Some young lad has broken the axle of his curricle and wants a lift to Chatham with us," he announced.
'The "young lad" suddenly came into view, speaking to his groom, and I looked with interest. "Young" is entirely a relative word. A gentleman of thirty-two, for instance, is "young," whereas a lady such as myself of that age who is still single is considered pretty ancient. The gentleman in question appeared to be in his mid-thirties--whether that is old or young you may judge for yourself. As to the rest of it, I shall judge for you that he was handsome. You must bear in mind, however, that I have a certain fondness for swarthy gentlemen. The foolish moth part of me is attracted to that hint of the foreign.
This one's face was well weathered, but his features were pure Anglo-Saxon. His eyes, a pearly gray color, looked quite striking, set in that tanned face. The hair that showed beneath his curled beaver was black as jet. He looked a sort of cross between Byron and a proud desert sheikh, with his chiseled nose and concrete jaw. His well-tailored jacket and general air of breeding, if you can overlook a few accomplished oaths, put him in the bracket of gentleman. A shiny yellow curricle and perfectly matched pair of grays harnessed to it spoke of wealth.
His general build and posture suggested an interest in athletic activities--broad shoulder, tapering to a slim waist. Well-muscled legs filled a pair of elegant tan trousers, terminating in shining Hessians. One doesn't see many gentlemen so well built in the Orient, where men tend to be smaller in stature. Indeed, were I to take a trick from Reverend Cooke and carry a set of pictures hidden in my lap case, the gentleman beyond the window would make a fine model, unless his shoulders were all padding.
He soon passed beyond sight. The carriage lurched again as he clambered atop with John Groom, and we were off. Before we had gone half a mile, the rain that had been threatening all day began slanting down. I thought this might drive our new passenger into the coach, where his company would have been appreciated, but it was no such a thing. He had carried a drab driving coat with him, which no doubt was well turned up around his chin by now, for the rain was coming down quite hard. Another half mile passed, and as the sun had set, I closed my eyes and soon nodded off to sleep.
To think I nearly slept through the most interesting occurrence since returning to England! And that despite a pistol shot, which still echoed in my ears. Mr. Kidd, knowing my nature, jostled my arm. "Marion," he said, "didn't you hear it? You won't want to miss this!"
I opened my eyes and blinked at Ronald. He is slender, pale, and scholarly, which is not to say he is a man milliner. He has proven a very capable friend and cohort. "What is it?" I asked, coming to attention.
"We're being held up by highwaymen," he grinned. "What excellent timing!"
It is well no one overheard his strange remark. The cleric and Mr. Wideman were speaking together in shocked whispers, discussing where it was best to hide their money. It is clear the reason for the "excellent timing" requires an explanation. In fact, I might as well get a whole lump of necessary explanation over with at once, though I am sorry it must delay a description of our encounter with the highwaymen.
It must have occurred to you before now that a young lady's traveling abroad more or less unattended was strange. If I am strange, so be it. I am at least not lily-livered enough to accept a life of tedium. I am the only daughter of the late Captain Mathieson, who was with Wellesley in the Peninsula. I followed the drum with Papa, which gave me a taste for travel. When my father was killed early in the campaign, I was sent home to Sussex, where I languished for a year with my aunt. Being in deep mourning, I seldom went out. The long hours were beguiled relating my adventures to my cousins and their neighbors. They were quite simply fascinated by the unusual experiences I had enjoyed.
"It ought to be put into a book," Aunt Harriet said, more than once. When autumn declined into winter, I did just that--wrote my experiences up in the form of a novel, with the sort of sentimental heroine my cousins seemed so fond of. My hero, Lord Belvoir, was a combination made from the best parts of various officers I had known, topped off with a dollop of imagination. My heroine was pure fiction. If I ever met such a watering pot as Aurelia Altmire, I would give her a good shaking. The public, I say with mixed feelings, liked her monstrously.
In two subsequent publications Aurelia straggled first through Portugal and Spain, then returned to England, where she was promptly set upon by a band of brigadoons worse than Boney's soldiers. With no thanks to herself, she came through victorious, bringing much unexpected wealth to her creator, who remained an anonymous English lady.
With my pockets jingling, I set off to the Orient to find more adventures for Aurelia, and for myself, Marion Mathieson. But I went also with the purpose of serious study to broaden my background. The book of memoirs presently on sale bears my own name, and gives some idea of what I have learned of foreign sights and customs. Miss Mathieson is highly respected in that widening circle of people interested in the East. One day I plan to settle down amongst the ton in London, and you may be sure they will never learn I am the authoress of the shameful Aurelia books. How Tom Moore would stare to hear such a thing!
And now at last we may return to the "excellent timing." Aurelia, once again being abused in fiction, was about to be set upon by highwaymen who planned to steal papers proving she was the legal but unacknowledged daughter of the Duke of Norval. I like to keep the details of my stories accurate, and had been lamenting to Ronald that I had somehow missed out on being held up by a scamp. With divine timing, the Lord God had heard me and come to my assistance. This has happened often enough abroad that I feel I am specially blessed by Him. I shall never forget the night my party was ambushed by Bedouins in the desert. In that godforsaken spot, where a white man is seldom seen, a very dashing German gentleman came galloping to our rescue. Lord Belvoir will soon have a dueling scar over his left cheekbone, thanks to Herr Grimmel. It will turn white when he is angry, and pink when he is pleased with Aurelia.
Naturally, I was not about to sit on my thumbs when we were being attacked by highwaymen. Ronald opened the door and we both clambered out. There were three of them; one remained mounted, and the others had dismounted to haul the coach driver and our outside passenger to the ground. Our coachman held his left shoulder with his right hand. I assumed the shot had hit him, but he didn't appear to be in terrible pain. The passenger was being ordered to turn out his pockets. To encourage obedience, all the highwaymen had their pistols drawn, cocked and aimed.
Vision was blurred due to the pelting rain, but I could at least see that the scamps on foot were not large men, though they were wiry. They all wore masks and hats pulled low over their foreheads. The passenger looked fairly bored as he handed over his money purse without a word of disagreement. Lord Belvoir would not be so pusillanimous when his turn came. His scar would blanch and his eyes darken to slits.
Not satisfied with the purse, one of the bandits touched the muzzle of his pistol to the passenger's heart. "Open your jacket," he said, in a voice that menaced dire results if disobeyed. I discovered that our new passenger had two expressions. Bored and more bored. Wearing his more bored face, he pulled the coat back to display a sprigged waistcoat.
"Now the waistcoat," our bandit ordered. The passenger began slowly removing his York tan gloves. The bandit pushed his hands aside and pulled from beneath the waistcoat a letter. A dark blot on it appeared to be a wax seal. The slit of mouth beneath the mask curved in a satisfied smile, and the letter was handed to the mounted scamp.
I began to think it was that letter and nothing else the highwaymen wanted. What could be in it? The highwaymen then turned their attention from the languid Adonis to Ronald and myself. "Hand over your blunt," one said.
"My reticule's in the coach," I replied. "I'll get it." I intended to dump most of my money before giving it to him, but apparently the scamps were aware of that stunt, for one of them followed me closely.
Once at the carriage door, they discovered Reverend Cooke and Mr. Wideman, cowering in a corner instead of coming to our aid. The highwayman hauled them out into the rain and entered the carriage himself. He was soon out carrying my leather lap case, Wideman's sample case, and the reverend's book. What he had missed, however, was my little patent reticule, which must have been overlooked at the back of the seat. All the stolen articles were dumped into a sort of leather pouch affair hung over the highwaymen's mounts. While one of them cleaned out the carriage, the other ordered Cooke and Wideman to stand and deliver. They handed over their money without a word.
The money was added to the leather pouch. One of them murmured something under his breath. It sounded like "Chev o" or possibly "Shove oh." He then went to the carriage team and set them free, hitting their rumps with the harness to make sure they ran off on us. The three scamps exchanged a complimentary smile, gave a Gallic shrug of their shoulders, and one of them decided to be gallant. He lifted my hand and kissed a very wet glove. "Mam'selle." He bowed, and hopped on his horse.
It wasn't a terribly exciting performance. I had expected better of the highwaymen--and the passengers. Other than that final kissing of my hand, I began to think I could write a better scene for Aurelia myself. There had been no brutality, no roughing up of the passengers--possibly because they had all acted as tame as rabbits. I remembered the groom's wound and turned to help him.
Before I took a single step, the new passenger strode up to me and stood glowering down from his six feet and a few inches. I measure five feet eight myself, and was not likely to be intimidated by a tame English coward after doing business with Emir Mohanna, the Bedouin chief, and the dreaded Turkish Pasha Suliman. The Turkish pashas had been known to remove the nose, one eye, and one ear of a previous visitor.
"May one enquire why you got out of the carriage, madame?" he sneered, in an accent I wouldn't use to the lowliest saice. "You made it impossible for us to defend ourselves, with a lady present."
"Is that your excuse for tugging your forelock and handing your money over to common thieves?" I replied tartly. The drooping eyelids lifted a fraction, revealing a flash of anger. "Five of you men against a mere three of them! I assure you the lady would have a better opinion of you had you defended yourselves--and her.'' The gentleman looked taken aback at my answer, but I elbowed him aside and took a look at the groom's arm.
"Am I dying?" he asked fearfully.
"If you'll get in the carriage, I'll tie a handkerchief around this scratch. Fortunately, you were only grazed. Ronald, you'd best go after the team, as it's clear no one else here has his wits about him."
Ronald provided a handkerchief before leaving, with the chastened passenger in tow. I took the groom into the carriage and did what I could in the dark to provide him a dressing. "Do you coach drivers not carry a gun?" I asked.
"The shot came out of the dark and winged me before I could draw. I wasn't looking for scamps on a night like this."
"Surely a moonless night is the likeliest time for attack?"
"Moonless, not bloody pouring rain!"
"How about the man sitting on the perch with you?"
"Kestrel was driving. The bucks like to take the reins."
I was familiar with this strange desire on the part of sportsmen to play at being coach drivers. "Is that his name?" There was, in fact, a hawkish quality to the man's face--something in those hooded eyes--but he was no small hawk. More an eagle than a kestrel.
"It's a title," the groom replied. "Kestrel's a lord, one of the Corinthian set."
Oddly enough, Ronald had been urging me to ingratiate myself amongst the nobility. There was some discussion the other night about my receiving an order for meritorious public service. Were I a gentleman, Moore felt, I would certainly have been knighted. I would have been well pleased with a lesser token of recognition. Not anything so exclusive as the Most Noble Order of the Garter, but some sovereign recognition of my accomplishments. My being a female was all that prevented it, according to people who know more about such things than I. Only strong noble connections could induce Prinney to reward a lady. It seems the only honor a lady may receive is a pat on the head, unless the sovereign decides to go whole hog and create her a peeress in her own right. This is about as likely as the sky falling in. In any case, I had scotched any possibility of Kestrel's setting up a lobby to gain me a meritorious order.
"How far are we from civilization?" was my next concern.
"Chatham's ten miles ahead."
"There must be something closer than that."
"There's a stretch of hop farms hereabouts. You must have seen the oasthouses--them with the pointed roofs."
I had noticed this feature during the latter part of the afternoon. "We'll go to one of the farms if the gentlemen can't recover the team."
"They'll not catch Maggie and Belle. Them mares like their freedom too well. Pity it's raining so hard."
Mr. Wideman and Reverend Cooke joined us, and the discussion turned on their loss. Mr. Wideman figured he had lost five guineas worth of toys, and the reverend lamented the loss of his book (i.e., pictures). In actual cash, he had lost only a couple of guineas.
"How much did you lose, ma'am?" Cooke asked me.
"I lost nothing," I announced, and retrieved my reticule from behind the groom, where it had gotten wedged in below the squabs.
"You're lucky you had on your gloves, or they'd have pulled off that dandy ruby ring," Wideman mentioned.
"I have twenty-five guineas in my reticule, too," I said, congratulating myself on its deliverance.
"It's strange they didn't demand our watches," Wideman said, massaging his generous chin. "I've lost two watches to the scamps."
"They didn't seem to notice my reticule was missing either, but it's my ruby ring, a present from Emir Beshyr, chief of the Druses, that I'm especially glad to have safe."
"Would it be amiss if I asked what a Christian lady was doing amidst such foreigners?" Wideman asked.
I mentioned a few of my milder exploits, and at length Ronald and Lord Kestrel returned, empty-handed. "I knew how it would be," the groom said, shaking his head. "They've bolted to Chatham on me."
"You might have told us, my good man, and saved us a highly uncomfortable slog through the mud," Kestrel suggested, still bored.
The rain hadn't let up. As the carriage was full, the new arrivals stood at the door, with their heads in out of the wet. We discussed for a moment what was best to be done. Ronald spoke of walking to the closest farm and trying to borrow a team. The groom thought the closest place likely to have horses was three miles ahead.
"It would take hours!" I pointed out. "The rest of you may do as you please, but I intend to walk to the closest house and seek refuge."
Without further ado, I had Ronald unfasten my small case from the top of the rig, put my pelisse over my head like a blanket to protect my bonnet, and was ready to go. The others grumbled themselves into agreement with my idea, and together the six of us lit out into the teaming rain, peering into the shadows for a sign of more attackers.