Chapter One: Highwaywoman
The carriage shuddered along the road, the sun had fallen some time ago and the passengers had turned to silhouettes in the moonlight. They were supposed to have arrived in Harrow in time for the four o’clock carriage to Bristol, but Evelyn was beyond worrying, she let her head rest against her seat, her eyes closed, as she concentrated on breathing, trying to keep her mind off the unsteady motion of the carriage.
The coach lurched backward, Evelyn was thrown from her place as luggage rained down on the passengers, a woman screamed, and a child cried out.
“Is everyone all right?” the child was crying as its mother scrabbled around the floor of the carriage. Evelyn picked herself up, she had fallen into the lap of the passenger opposite, and apologised, as she tried to find her bearings in the dark.
“I’ll go and speak the coachman.” Said one of the men. They could hear shouting outside, but before the Gentleman could reach for the handle, the door was wrenched open.
“Everyone out!” A masked man stood in the doorway; he was bathed in the light from the lanterns, and held a pistol pointed towards the passengers startled faces. They 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.
“Come on, come on.” The same voice called, herding the passengers to the edge of the lane. Evelyn looked back at the carriage, the driver sat with his hands held aloft, a man on horseback, similar in mask and dress to the first, held a musket aimed squarely at him. While another of the gang was searching the other coachman in the light of the stagecoach lantern.
“Everyone sit.” Evelyn turned in surprise to see yet another of the gang, at the edge of the road, near the trees, pistol in hand pointed at the six passengers, and gesturing to the ground, some of them began to sit, resigned to their fate. Despite the darkness she could clearly make out the figure of a woman, masked though she was. She wore the same as the rest of her gang; boots, breeches, a long fitted waistcoat, high collared coat, and hat, the same outfit popular with all highwaymen, and accessorised with a brace of pistols.
“I said sit.” She repeated looking directly at Evelyn.
“I’d rather stand.” She replied. “It’s been a long journey.”
“This isn’t a picnic. I’m telling you to sit.” Evelyn held the woman’s gaze a moment longer, before acquiescing.
“That was a stupid thing to do.” Her fellow passenger muttered to her as she sat down, he held his wife’s hand as she rocked their child, she could see he was scared, and she nodded, fully intending to keep quiet, and allow the highwaymen to finish their task, without cause to harm anyone.
Chapter Two: Robbed
Evelyn rubbed her arms to keep off the worst of the chill, she shifted uncomfortably on the hard ground, and listened to the whimpering of the babe, as the mother continued to rock, whispering softly to it. The gang had tied the coachmen together, and were systematically ransacking the luggage as the passengers silently looked on. She allowed her gaze to drift towards the highwaywoman, stood firm and resolute in her post watching the passengers, pistol raised.
“How much longer?” Evelyn asked, she heard the gentleman quietly shushing her, and so she rose from her place and moved towards the woman. “How much longer?” she repeated. The woman stared firmly back at her.
“Just sit down.”
“I would simply like to know how much longer you intend to take. We are all cold, and tired, the child especially, the journey took twice as long as it should have done, 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? Now sit down, or I’ll make damn sure you never stand up again.”
“That baby is freezing.” She hissed. “It won’t cope with much more of this.” The woman’s dark eyes left Evelyn’s for a second as she glanced over at the mother. She then lowered her pistol, and, with a flourish, removed her coat and placed it over the child, then raised her pistol once more.
“Now sit.” She said.
“Thank you.” Evelyn barely had time to touch the ground before the gang had cleared the last of the luggage, and the musket wielder stepped over to the passengers.
“One at a time,” he said, scanning their faces “you first.” He pointed his musket towards an elderly man, who rose clumsily, and was immediately pulled to the middle of the lane, where the light from the lantern spilled on the ground. He was searched, a purse pulled from his coat, and a watch taken; he was then forced back into the carriage.
“You next.” One by one the passengers were relived of their valuables, and pushed back inside.
“How can you do this?” Evelyn asked the woman.
“Well, the pay is good.” She replied, and smirked as she pushed Evelyn forward to be searched.
“Give up what you have pretty one, or Johnny here will search you himself.” The musket-wielder pointed to another man, he was taller than the others, and a heavy beard covered all the face that his mask did not. Evelyn reluctantly fished her purse from her skirts, giving up all hope of finding her way to Bristol.
“And that” said Johnny, pointing to her necklace. Evelyn instinctively clasped her hand over it.
“No.” She said, appalled at the idea of losing her locket.
“Hand it over.” He said, stepping forward.
“No.” She repeated. “It’s of very little value, my shoes cost more.”
“Well I’ll ‘ave your shoes an’ all, if you don’t hand it over.” He reached forward to grab it from her neck, and Evelyn stepped back, into the arms of the woman, who grabbed her round the waist.
“Let her keep it.” She said. The two men looked at one another, the musket-wielder lowered his gun, and looked back at the woman.
“No.” He said, and struck Evelyn swiftly across the face, with the back of his hand, and wrenched the locket from her neck. “Nothing is left.” He then shoved her unceremoniously back into the carriage, shocked and upset, and slammed the door behind her.
Chapter Three: A Face at the Window
It had taken a while to get the carriage going once again. After the bandits left it had been up to the passengers to loosen the ropes on the coachmen, and the horses had been startled into refusal for a while. But eventually the saddened party had pulled into the Harrow coach house, and Evelyn had arranged a bed, on the promise of a days work on the morrow.
Tired, cold, and humiliated by the experience, Evelyn stood by the fire in her room, and slowly undressed. She had been left her trunk, but after going through it she found that, although her clothes remained, her jewellery, and money were gone, even the pack of cards had been taken. She sat in down in her night things, and let the warmth slowly seep into her, while she stared into the flames, contemplating her situation.
She heard a rattle behind her. Swinging round, she looked at the window; the blackness beyond was empty, but just for a moment. A face appeared, masked, as the others had been. Evelyn gasped, standing up she searched the room for a weapon, and drew the poker, just in time for her attacker to throw open the window. The cold air made the fire dance, as the woman clambered, somewhat awkwardly, through the small frame, and into the room, she then carefully sealed the window behind her. They stood for a moment, Evelyn held the poker, raised and ready to strike, and the woman took a cautious step forward.
“Don’t come any closer.” Evelyn warned. “You’ve taken everything I have, and if you touch anything else I swear I’ll—”
“I’m not here to take.” Said the woman, softly, raising her hand as she would to a spooked mare “I’m here to give back.” She reached into her waistcoat, and pulled out the locket. Still cautious, she held it up, and then placed it on the table near the window. “That’s all I wanted to do.” She said backing off towards the window once again.
Chapter Four: The Locket
“No, wait.” Evelyn stepped forward, lowering the poker. “Why did you come here?” The woman glanced back at the necklace, and then to Evelyn, her dark, brown eyes were soft in the firelight.
“I could see how important it was to you.”
“Thank you.” Said Evelyn, for the second time that evening.
“And you were right, it is worthless.” She smiled, and again they stared at one another for a moment. “I should go” she said “I’m sure there are search parties on the lookout for me this evening.”
“Why did you do that?” Evelyn still held the poker firmly in her grasp.
“I told you, I could see how important it was to you.” Evelyn stepped forward and picked up the necklace. “And I was sorry.” Her hand drifted towards Evelyn’s cheek, who winced as the woman stroked the bruised and tender flesh.
“I actually meant; why did you rob me in the first place?” The woman lowered her hand, “and scare those helpless people? That child could have died of the cold, and that poor mother…”
“Oh.” She said. “That.”
“Yes that! As if it isn’t hard enough getting by in this world, without people like you riding in, and taking from those who can barely afford to get by—”
“That isn’t true.” She said, and Evelyn rounded on her.
“So it wasn’t you gallivanting in the woods with your band of merry men!”
“Keep it down!”
“Keep it down? Keep it down?! I have a good mind to hand you in myself.” She said “There is likely fifty pounds on your head, and I could do with the money!”
“You won’t hand me in” Said the woman.
“No. And I do not take from those who can’t afford it. Only those who travel in the luxury of a stage coach.”
“You wouldn’t call it luxury if you had to travel in one.” The woman laughed.
“Possibly not” she said “But I am truly sorry that you were hurt.”
“You’ve taken everything I have.” Said Evelyn, defeated “and I have to be in Bristol by tomorrow.”
“Yes. You mentioned that before, why Bristol?”
“Does it matter?” Evelyn replaced the poker, and turned back to the woman. “The fact is I cannot get there, and there is no-one in Harrow I can turn to for help.” The woman pulled a purse from her waistcoat, and dropped it, with a clunk, on the side table. “I can’t take that.”
“Why not? It’s your money” Evelyn snatched up the purse, and counted the contents, before carefully replacing it in her trunk.
“Who are you anyway?” she asked, turning back to the thief.
She smiled, but shook her head “I can’t tell you that.”
“Why not? You trust me enough to come to my room late at night, you’ve rescued my locket, and paid for my journey, why can’t I know your name? Or see your face for that matter.” The woman paused for a moment. Then, in the same flourish as before, she removed her coat, followed by her hat, and untied her mask. Evelyn stared at the woman, her face was young, light-skinned, more of a girl than a woman, her hair was dark, and tied in a black ribbon, complimenting the rest of her black outfit, she was tall, and her clothes were tailored, hugging at her waist.
“All is revealed.” She said smiling.
“Not quite all.”
The girl raised an eyebrow.
“I want your name?” Evelyn repeated.
“Oh… I really can’t. I mean I shouldn’t even be here I—”
“Give me your name or I shan’t let you leave.”
Evelyn wielded the poker once again and the highwaywoman smiled.
“Then I should never speak again.” She whispered.
Chapter Five: The Mask of the Highwaywoman
Evelyn’s stomach quivered and it occurred to her that perhaps this girl felt the same inexorable pull that she did.
“I won’t tell...”
“Bess” she said quietly “call me Bess.”
“Bess.” Said Evelyn backing off from the girl and replacing the poker by the fire, she liked the name it was both hard and soft, both child-like and regal. She sat on the bed, wondering how much more she could find out about the mysterious Bess.
They stayed in silence for a moment or two. Bess turned to stare into the fire, the soft light played on her skin, and her eyes shone with the flames. Evelyn followed the line of her figure, her arms were strong beneath the light shirt, and her fingers were long and elegant, softly placed on the arms of the chair, her waistcoat barely held in a shapely figure, and her breeches hugged at her thighs.
“Well this is all very strange.” Said Bess, pulling Evelyn out of her trance.
“I don’t usually pay a visit to the people I have stopped on the road.” She smiled, glancing briefly at Evelyn, half lying on the bed, propped up on her elbow and wearing nothing but her cotton nightshirt, before fixing her eyes back on the fire, Evelyn watched her slowly bite her bottom lip.
“Why did you come here tonight?”
“There was something about you.” She said.
“What?” Bess pulled her gaze away from the flames for a moment and looked in to Evelyn’s soft blue eyes.
“I should go.” She said, standing up. She moved over to the table where her things lay, and replaced her coat and hat, while Evelyn sat up, feeling a desperate need to stop her.
“Wait a moment.” Said Evelyn, catching her as she reached for the window latch, Bess looked back.
“What is it?”
“Take this.” She held out the locket, Bess looked at it for a moment.
“I can’t take it. It’s yours.”
“Take it to remember me by.”
“I don’t need a locket to remember you.” Bess said, placing her hand firmly over Evelyn’s, holding on for just a moment, as they held each others gaze. Bess moved forward, just a fraction, before pulling back, but Evelyn reached out; she took the girl’s cheek in her hand and guided her head forward, until their lips met. Bess pulled Evelyn closer, grabbing her body with both hands; she could feel the soft flesh beneath the nightgown, the full length of their bodies pressed against each other, as they kissed, desperate and hungry. Bess ran her hands down the length of Evelyn’s back, but pulled away.
“I really should go.” She said, unlocking the window. She climbed through and was gone in an instant. Evelyn stepped forward, and looked out in time to see a mounted figure riding into the darkness.
Slightly breathless Evelyn closed the shutter. And turned back into the room, she looked once again at the locket in her hand, and then noticed, lying on the side table, just as she had left it; the mask of the highwaywoman.
Chapter Six: The Return
The carriage shuddered along the road, the sun had risen some time ago and light streamed in the windows, on to the passengers in the carriage. They had set out for Bristol at dawn, and were making good time, but Evelyn was lost in thought. She stared out at the passing countryside which she had been so desperate to get away from. Thanks to Bess, she had been able to pay her lodging and get the first carriage out, but she was unable to shake-off the thought that she shouldn’t have left.
The coach lurched backward, Evelyn was thrown from her seat as luggage rained down on the passengers, a woman screamed, and a man shouted out.
“Is everyone all right?”
‘Not again’ thought Evelyn as she picked herself up and apologised, after falling into the lap of the passenger seated opposite.
“I’ll go and speak to the coachman.” Said one of the passengers, Evelyn could hear shouting outside, and before the Gentleman could reach for the handle, the door was wrenched open.
“Get out!” A masked woman was at the foot of the steps, pistol in hand, one of the passengers stood in an attempt to leave. “Not you” Said Bess “You” She gestured toward Evelyn.
“I will not! Are you raving mad?” The passengers stared at Evelyn, surprised at her tone.
“I do believe I am. Now, step out of the carriage, or be damned to Bristol.” Evelyn paused for a moment, as Bess reached a free hand towards her. She then grabbed her trunk from the floor, and delicately stepped through the carnage, and out into the early autumn sun.
© Copyright 2016 Niamh Murphy. All rights reserved.