Marianne's head rested on her shoulder as the carriage jogged eastward through the waning afternoon light. Her eyes were closed, but she was not sleeping. It was a long journey from Bath to London. One hundred miles, according to the duchess. Eighty of those miles had been accomplished over the past two days.
Her Grace traveled at a pace that made a snail look like an Olympic runner. Frequent stops were required to rest her weary, noble bones. With her weak heart, she ought not to be undertaking such a strenuous journey, but the marriage of her great-granddaughter to a duke's eldest son, to be celebrated with all pomp in St. George's of Hanover Square, was too grand an occasion to forgo.
There was no truth to the rumor running around Bath that she was really going because the Prince of Wales (and two of his sisters) were to attend. She had had a tendre for him three decades ago when he was a mere stripling, but he was now too old to incite her to passion. She still had a colt's tooth in her head. At eighty-two, she preferred younger, more attractive gentlemen than the portly Prince Regent.
She would normally have stopped her journey long before dusk but with a free night's lodging only ten miles away, the clutch-fisted old lady had insisted on continuing to Chertsey, despite her coachman's warning of the danger of highwaymen. Echoes of that unsettling conversation lingered in Marianne's mind as the ancient hard-sprung carriage jogged along with the wind soughing dolefully through the trees.
"You are thinking of the diamonds I plan to wear to Augusta's wedding," had been Her Grace's reply to Beeton's warning. "It is true the necklace would be a strong temptation to such villains, but no one knows I am carrying it. I put about word in Bath that my nephew Clarence had taken the necklace to London a week ago. That is the way to foil those sly rogues. They listen at taverns to learn when such precious cargo as my diamonds will be on the road."
"'Twas the strawberry leaves on the panel of your coach I was thinking of, Your Grace. That will be a lure to the scamps," Beeton explained. "It's this area near London where they ply their trade."
"That is why you and the postilion are carrying pistols, Beeton," Her Grace replied. "Don't hesitate to use 'em if we are attacked. This menace of highwaymen has been greatly exaggerated. We have gone eighty miles with no more trouble than that broken axle at Farnborough. I do not hold you responsible for it, Beeton, even if I did tell you to give the rig a thorough overhaul before we left. Anyone can make a mistake. Just drive quickly, and we shall be at Chertsey before nightfall. No sane scamp would attack before dark."
As the autumn shadows were already lengthening at five o'clock, Beeton could not think they would be at Chertsey before dark, but he knew well enough the futility of arguing with his mistress when her chosen course would save her a penny. Penny wise, pound foolish, that was her way. She should be accompanied by a few mounted footmen, but the cost of feeding the nags and paying for a change of horses prevented it. It was only Tom, the postilion, who rode with them, and his gun was an ancient fowling piece that hadn't been fired in twenty years.
The resigned look Beeton cast on Miss Harkness was his only further objection. Her Grace's intractable nature was well known to all her servants, and though Marianne was a lady, she was paid a meager wage and was a servant in all but name. Her official title was companion. Her actual role was that of nurse, dresser, and general dogsbody to the demanding old dame.
Marianne had known better times, but after five years those halcyon days with her carefree parents were becoming a dim memory. Her mama had died of consumption when Marianne was sixteen. Her papa had drunk himself into the grave within the year, after first gambling away his fortune. Marianne had written the news to various members of her family in hopes of finding a home with one of them. She told herself the letters that arrived, one after another, complaining of hard times and families that were already too large, were true and tried to believe it. It was her Aunt Victoria who had written to the Duchess of Bixley, a connection of the family, recommending Marianne as a companion.
Despite the duchess's nipcheese ways and sharp tongue, Marianne was grateful to her. She had learned how to handle the dame with the proper degree of deference and common sense the old lady liked. Her Grace did not really care for what she called doormats.
Life at Bath, where the duchess had retired to a mansion upon her husband's death a decade before, was not particularly difficult, but it was extremely boring for a young lady who ought to have been making her debut, meeting beaux, and nabbing a husband. When Her Grace had had that heart attack last year, a new worry had been added to Marianne's shoulders. At eighty-two, the old dame could not live much longer. What would become of Marianne when the duchess died?
She had hopes that this trip to London might throw her into the path of some undemanding gentleman who required a wife. Although she knew it was a vicar, a schoolmaster, or some such genteel nonentity she might possibly attract, she could at least enjoy dreaming of someone more dashing. Without undue modesty, she accepted that she was no Incomparable. She was of average size, with brown hair that she wore drawn back from a high brow. Her eyes, she thought, were her best feature, though no gentleman had ever likened them to sapphires or even cornflowers. As she sank into a doze, a vision of her knight in shining armor rose up in her mind to beguile the idle hours.
She was caught totally off guard when the duchess reached out and gave her elbow a jostle. "Psst. Wake up, Marianne. Do you not hear it?"
Marianne shook herself to attention and listened to what sounded at first like thunder. But as she listened more closely, the sound took on a regular rhythm. Hoofbeats! The sound of the galloping hoofbeats behind them grew louder, more ominous, overriding the pounding of her heart. No one rode at such a breakneck speed unless he was either giving chase or being chased. She could discern no softer echo of hoofbeats following the louder, closer ones. "A highwayman!" she gasped.
"Let down the window and holler to Beeton, in case he has not heard it." With trembling fingers, Marianne applied herself to the task. "Hurry, child! Thank God I have secured the diamonds. I'll give him this set of fishpaste pearls I wore especially in case of attack. Let me do the talking."
It was soon evident that Beeton had indeed heard their attacker. The first shot that rang out came from the driver's seat. It was quickly followed by an answering shot from behind. The horses, accustomed to the polite manner of valetudinarian Bath, panicked and bolted.
"Egad, he's killed Beeton!" Her Grace cried. "Beeton would never let the team get away from him."
Marianne froze in fear. And all the time the hoofbeats came pounding louder, nearer. What would the highwayman do when the duchess handed him those cheap pearls that would not fool a child? Would he rip the gown from the old woman's bony chest and find the diamonds concealed beneath? What would he do when he discovered Marianne had nothing but a couple of guineas to give him? Would he shoot her? Her throat was dry and aching.
Before she could think of any means of escape, the highwayman was alongside them. Until that moment, she hadn't realized their carriage had stopped. Beeton was not dead, or if he was, Tom had got control of the team. The black half-mask that appeared at the window was infinitely menacing. The mouth and strong jaw below it were set in a grim line. The man wore a black slouch hat pulled low over his forehead, revealing the glitter of eyes that hardly looked human.
She heard the fateful words so often heard in imagination since setting out on this trip: "Stand and deliver," uttered in a voice of deadly calm. Her blood seemed to turn to ice in her veins. She could not stand if her life depended on it. When the voice spoke again, it was edged with impatience. "Out of the carriage, now!"
Moving as one in a trance, she turned the handle and trembled out into the dusky light, unaware of the stark, black branches of trees that looked like giant skeletal fingers clawing at the pewter sky. She had not realized it was so windy out. A cold north wind snatched at her mantle, whipping it about her knees. The duchess came out behind her, puffing with fear and fatigue and indignation. The highwayman leveled his gun at the duchess's chest. Without turning his head, he called "Miguel," and another rider appeared from the front of the carriage. He wore the same style of mask and hat as the first highwayman and also carried a pistol. "You've taken care of the men?"
"I have, Cap'n."
Marianne looked over his shoulder and saw Beeton and Tom lying on the ground, facedown, their hands tied behind their backs.
"The ladies have a donation for you," the first highwayman said in a perfectly pleasant voice. A cultured voice, Marianne noticed. But then, one heard that many of the scamps were wellborn.
"But dash it, Cap'n, they're ladies!" the second man said. His voice was rougher. Odd that the servant, for so he appeared to be, should have the instincts of a gentleman. "They ain't--"
His cohort's voice cut him off in mid-speech. "A brace of noble dames, if I am not mistaken," he said. As he spoke, he reached out and fingered the duchess's pearls--and laughed. A touch was all it took for him to realize they were fakes. "What are we wearing beneath our gown?" he asked in a mocking voice. He did not rip the duchess's gown off. He rather gently moved his left hand to the back of her neck, fumbled a moment, and lifted off her diamond necklace. It dangled from his fingers, glowing and sparkling dully in the wan light. "A handsome bauble," he allowed, and dropped it into his pocket while the duchess looked on, speechless, for once.
The highwayman turned his attention to Marianne. "And you, milady?"
Marianne wordlessly handed him her reticule. He handed it to his assistant, who rummaged inside it. "Two guineas," Miguel said, and handed the reticule back to her without taking the money. She noticed he moved his arm stiffly, as if it hurt.
The other highwayman, the one who seemed to be in charge, studied Marianne with that menacing, glittering eye. "You travel light," he said. Something in his tone suggested disbelief. With his left hand, he reached out and unfastened her cloak as calmly as if he were her dresser and not a criminal who planned to rob her.
Marianne hardly knew what to think. Did he plan to molest her? His hand went to her throat. She felt his warm fingers inside her collar. They moved intimately, stroking her skin in a leisurely manner as they continued down a few inches until they rested on the swell of her bosom. She didn't speak. She hardly dared breathe or imagine what liberty he would take next. His fingers brushed toward the back of her neck. Finding no concealed necklace, they returned to the front of her gown and settled on the oval cameo at her collar.
"A keepsake?" he asked.
"Y-yes," she stammered. "From my mama."
"Let her keep it!" the duchess said. As she began to recover from her first shock, her imperative manner returned. "It has no monetary value. There are five guineas in my reticule. Take them, and leave the child her memento."
Marianne was surprised and touched by the old lady's gesture--and by her bravery.
The highwayman did not reply with words, but he withdrew his hand without taking the cameo. "Your names, ladies?" he asked.
The duchess puffed out her chest and announced, "I am the Duchess of Bixley, and this is my companion."
The highwayman's eyes never left Marianne's face. She felt hypnotized by their brilliant glitter. "You have a name, ma'am?"
"She is Miss Harkness. And now if you are quite through with us, may we continue on our way, villain?"
A mocking smile curved the highwayman's lips. "Did no one ever tell you it is not nice to call names, Your Grace? For that, you shall pay a forfeit. That ring on your left hand--an emerald, is it?--the one you have been trying to conceal? I'll have it."
"You'll not!" she cried. "That ring was a gift from Queen Charlotte, a token of the Season I spent as one of her ladies-in-waiting."
"Hard earned, no doubt, but you must be taught a lesson."
The duchess's reply was spat out in an angry hiss. "I do not take lessons from villains!"
"No more you should, but you shall take one from me, madame!" On this angry retort, he reached out to seize her left hand. His pistol was in his right hand. The duchess made a snatch for it. Marianne leapt to prevent the man from shooting the duchess. In the melee, the pistol went off. The duchess collapsed in a heap on the ground. Marianne rushed to her side to render assistance.
Miguel and the other highwayman exchanged a startled look.
"Good God, Captain! You've killed the old malkin!" Miguel exclaimed.