Authors: Mary Ellen Dennis
Copyright Â© 2011 by Mary Ellen Dennis
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Cover illustration by Phil Heffernan
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Originally published in 2007 by Five Star Expressions, an imprint of Thomson Gale
6 April, 1766
Seated beside the open coffin, the watchers waited. They waited to see whether Barbara Wyndham's body moved. They watched intently while mourners trailed past. Blind belief said that if Barbara's body began to bleed, 'twould identify her murderer.
There was some question as to whether Barbara had suffered a seizure of the heart and fallen and hit her head on a rock. Or had she been struck by some unknown hand?
Seven-year-old Elizabeth Wyndham watched with the watchers, but her mother remained motionless.
“Mama,” Elizabeth whispered, “are ye sleeping?”
“Your mother sleeps evermore, my Bess,” said Lawrence Wyndham, lifting his daughter up into his arms.
Elizabeth pressed her tear-streaked face against his shoulder. At the same time, she wondered with a twinge of fear how it would feel to sleep evermore.
30 March 1787
“I wonder why Fleet Street calls us Knights of the Road,” John Randolph Remington said to his partner. “I'll wager no knight ever spent his days hiding in a copse.”
Zak Turnbull swatted his hat at a circling fly. “They call us knights, Rand, 'cause 'tis a snappy title and no one can deny we be a fine pair o' prancers.”
Rand gazed north, where the straight highway took an abrupt turn. For the past three hours nothing had passed their way except for a handful of dilapidated coaches and shabbily-dressed travelers. While Zak wasn't particular about whom he robbed, Rand agreed with Robin Hood: proper criminals should take from the rich.
“How much bloody longer is it gonna be?” Zak pulled at his wig. “I'm sweatin' like a bloody barrister 'neath this poll, and I've got so many fleas tormentin' me, ye'd think I was a heap o' dung.”
“Patience,” said Rand, shifting in his saddle and trying to ease the stiffness in his right leg. “The reason you've spent the last twenty years breaking out of every prison in England is because you grow careless. And then you're caught.”
“'Tis a fine observation, comin' from someone who's been in the business a mere two years. Ye know as well as I that a gagger, though he be rich as King George himself, will dress poor just t' trick us.” Zak wiped his sweat-streaked face with his vizard. “And I'm warnin' ye. If a proper gagger don't come along soon, I'll be millin' meself a flat.”
Rand mentally translated Zak's cant into something resembling the King's English. Basically, Zak meant you could seldom tell a man's wealth from his attire and he planned to rob the next traveler, no matter what the size of his purse.
“And as far as ever bein' habbled again, it ain't gonna happen,” Zak continued. “Ye've brought me good luck, cousin.”
“London's poor law enforcement has provided all the luck we need,” Rand said with a droll grin.
In truth, London's press had proven to be a far more formidable opponent than the city's decrepit watchmen and underpaid constables. After every robbery, editors of the
and the other daily papers howled for the apprehension of the “Gentleman Giant and his Quiet Companion.” But the resultant publicity hadn't brought Zak and Rand any closer to capture. On the contrary, it had turned them into local heroes.
“If I'm gonna have t' wait, I'm gonna spend me time in a more enjoyable fashion.” Zak dismounted and stretched his six-foot-five frame upon the grass. He covered his face with his wide-brimmed hat, then clasped his hands across his prodigious belly. “Rouse me if ye see a ratter what meets yer specifications.”
Almost immediately Zak's rhythmic snores blended with the buzzing flies and the distant bleats of sheep. Rand tried to ignore his now throbbing leg and his own wig, which was bloody uncomfortable. Generally he wore his thick black hair long and natural, for that was the way the ladies liked it. But disguise was a necessary part of his profession. Today he was dressed as a gentleman. Doeskin riding breeches hugged his thighs and his feet were clad in knee-high, glossy brown boots. His loose-fitting shirt couldn't completely hide his rugged chest, which tapered to a narrow waist, lean hips and a flat belly. In an age where gentlemen prided themselves on their girth, Rand figured his slenderness was the only part of his disguise some observant magistrate might question.
So why did he feel so apprehensive?
He had experienced the same uneasiness before the Battle of Guilford Court House. The night preceding that colonial battle, he had dreamed of war. But the war in his dream belonged to another age, an age of broadsword and chain mail and mace, of armored men clashing on the summit of an emerald green hill. This dream, which had troubled him since childhood, always ended the same way, with the delicate mournful face of a flaxen-haired woman. Over the years he had sought possible interpretations. Eventually, he had stopped probing. It was better to accept the fact that the dream forecast change. Violent change.
The thud of hooves and the squeak of coach springs interrupted Rand's thoughts. He straightened in his saddle. While he couldn't see anything above the distant hedges, a prospective wayfarer was obviously headed their way.
“Zak,” he whispered.
A gleaming black carriage, pulled by four high-stepping greys, came into view.
Zak's snoring continued, undisturbed. Rand maneuvered Prancer, his black stallion, closer. “Cousin, wake up! This is it. Time to earn your keep.”
“I'm ready, I'm ready.” Rising, Zak secured his hat atop his wig, stumbled toward his horse, and swung up into the saddle. “Who've ye decided we're t' be this time?” he asked, concealing the lower half of his face with his vizard.
“Irishmen,” Rand replied. It was necessary to disguise one's voice along with one's appearance.
“And here's me shillelagh, boy-o,” Zak quipped, raising his pistol.
Rand lifted his own vizard into place. As the coach rumbled toward them, his muscles tensed. This was the best part of his profession: the anticipation of the chase, never knowing what danger would come within the next few minutes or what surprises waited behind the curtained windows. He scrutinized every inch of the approaching carriage, from the gilded coat of arms on the door to the red plumes topping the heads of the greys, and the brightly polished gold buttons on the liveries of the coachman and footman.
“Now,” he breathed.
Bolting from behind the stand of trees, he rushed forward, grabbed the bridle of the nearest grey, brought the carriage to a halt, then trained his pistol on the coachman's chest.
“Stand and deliver!” Zak barked, yanking open the door.
A nervous young whip hastily exited. “My auntie's still inside,” he said, his voice cracking. “May I pull down the steps? She suffers from an inflammation of the joints andâ”
“Ye need not be deliverin' a sermon, ye chicken-hammed chatterbox. Do it and be quick about it.”
The whip scrambled to obey. When his aunt climbed down, she turned out to be a formidable-looking dowager with a jutting jaw and a ramrod straight posture. Smoothing her satin skirt, she eyed Zak. “I'm Lady Avery,” she said, “and I was robbed by a footpad only last month. Perhaps you've heard and will think to spare me.”
“Prancers, I mean highwaymen, don't rub shoulders with footpads, m'lady, especially
prancers like we be.” Ever mindful of his reputation with the press, Zak kept his voice respectful. “Now, if ye'd be so good as to give me yer bitâ¦ uh, yer purseâ¦ and yer rings. And ye, sirâ¦” He gestured with his pistol at the whip's feet. “I'll have yer watch, and them be a handsome pair o' shoe buckles.”
Lady Avery tapped her first finger against the bridge of her nose. “I know who you are. You're the Gentleman Giant.”
Zak dipped from the waist in a half bow. “Aye, 'tis the gospel truth, m'lady.”
“I don't recall the
mentioning that you were Irish.” Her watery brown eyes turned toward Rand, who still had his pistol trained on the coachman and footman. “Well, no matter what your nationality, you're both impressive specimens.” She swiveled her head toward her nephew. “Are they not, Roger?”
“We're being robbed, Aunt Maude.” Roger fumbled with the watch and gold fob-seal in his waistcoat pocket. “I'll reserve my opinion for a more propitious time.”
Zak pointed to a circle of diamonds nestled in a crevice of Lady Avery's towering coiffure. “I'll have that, m'lady.”
“I should never have removed my bonnet, nor my gloves,” she murmured, unclasping the circle. But her wedding ring proved a more difficult matter. “It's this damnable arthritis,” she said. “I cannot get anything over my joints.” In a tone that brooked no argument, she added, “Never grow old, young man. Though in your profession that can't be much of a worry.”
“Forget the ring, m'lady, for I'm sure it holds sentimental value. I'll settle for yer earbobs.”
“Thank you, Giant. Truthfully, my husband was a poor father and a poorer spouse, and I seldom mourn his passing.”
“I'm sorry to hear that, m'lady,” Zak commiserated, dropping her jewelry into his coin purse. “I'll take that there cameo, if ye please.”
“I don't please, but I suppose I have no choice.”
“Hurry,” Rand urged. Zak was a great one for talking when he should be tending to business. Rand fancied he heard hoofbeats. While Zak assured Lady Avery that she would soon find a more compatible husband, Rand guided Prancer to the carriage door and began retrieving everything within easy reach. The gold and enamel snuffbox would fetch a few coins, and the handsome walking stick was worth at least ten guineas from a good fence. He hesitated when he spied a novel. Entitled
Castles of Doom,
it rested on the velvet seat. The novel had little monetary value, but one of his ladies might enjoy it.
Two riders rounded the ragged hedge. They were moving slowly and looked like harmless merchants or respectable tradesmen. On the other hand, one never could be too careful, Rand reminded himself. “Time to go, boy-o,” he said to Zak.
“Been a pleasure, m'lady.” Zak leaned over and kissed the elderly woman's hand. She flushed beneath her rice powder.
“Help, highwaymen!” Roger shouted.
“Don't be such a nincompoop, nephew,” said Lady Avery.
The oncoming riders were now only yards away. “Keep yer distance, ye bloody coves!” Zak shouted, and fired into the air.
Glancing over his shoulder, Rand saw both riders scramble for the ditches. The road stretched ahead, deserted save for a peddler who trudged along beneath a huge back pack. Spurring his stallion, Rand chucked the startled man a guinea. Then, shadowed by Zak, he raced toward London's turnpike.
“Hurrah for the Gentleman Giant and his Quiet Companion!” Zak bellowed to the grazing sheep, the freshly plowed fields, and the bright spring sky. “We're a fine pair, ain't we, cousin?”
True to his epithet, Rand merely grinned.
“Are ye certain ye'll not be joinin' us?” Zak's arms encircled the waists of two pretty bunters.
Tonight Rand wasn't interested. “My leg's bothering me, cousin. I think I'll take a walk, ease the stiffness.”
“Ye're not sufferin' one o' yer black moods again, are ye?”
“No. I just need to walk.”
But once he was alone, Rand couldn't bring himself to leave their lodgings. While the rooms were clean and graced with quality furnishings, he need only draw aside the lace curtain at the window to look down upon a scene of unimaginable squalor.
Rand and Zak lived in London's Rookery, christened for the thievish disposition of rook birds. Even night watchmen avoided the area, calling it a den of ruffians, cock bawds, and beggars, although he and Zak had never been harassed. In fact, the primarily Irish coal-heavers, laborers, porters, and gaunt-faced children who were the recipients of Rand's largesse considered him something of a folk hero. Yet, as he pictured the filthy houses which sold beds for two pence a night and rotgut gin for a penny a quart, he felt the crushing weight of despair. The tiny, windowless, dirt-floored hovels housed up to fifty people each. If Rand robbed every lord from here to Scotland, the Rookery's poverty would not be alleviated one whit.
“I must leave London,” he whispered, “for my soul is dying here.”
He longed for the gentle hills and stone cottages of his native Gloucestershire, or the vast unpopulated landscapes of America. But he had made his decision following the War with the Colonies and there was no turning back.
Once, Rand had admired the rich. As a boy, he had dreamed of emulating the lords driving past in their gilded carriages. Lords attended by liveried footmen who wore scented wigs and supercilious expressions. Lords surrounded by black slaves who wore silver collars round their necks and the marks of the branding iron upon their arms. Someday, Rand thought, he would own a mansion on a hill. Someday he would be wealthy beyond measure.
As an adult, he had nearly achieved his dream. But the War with the Colonies had shattered his fantasies along with his leg. The war had been senseless and stupid, the lives lost on both sides wasted. When he returned to Gloucestershire, he sold his successful cabinetmaking business and did virtually nothing for two yearsâjust walked and brooded. During that time he often asked himself whether England had changed, or was he viewing it through different eyes?
Increasingly, the world reminded Rand of something out of an opium dream, hazy and elusive, a place where reality could change in an instant. Because reality depended on the whims of the rich and powerful, never on truth itself.
“Platitudes,” he whispered. During the war he had heard so many platitudes. The rebels declared their independence by founding a nation based on the concept of liberty and justice for all. Which meant, of course, liberty and justice for a few landed white men, not their slaves, nor their women, nor their poor. The war was fought over power and property, rather than principles, no matter how many noble phrases the rebels wrapped themselves in.
But England is far worse,
Here only the lives of the wealthy possess value.
Now when he looked at the gilded coaches, he saw carriage-makers toiling for starvation wages. He saw servants working for cast-off clothes and straw mattresses to sleep upon. Parliament prattled on and on about passing laws against the enslavement of the Negro. Paying no heed, ladies treated their blackamoors like trained pets. And the mansion on the hill that Rand had once longed for had been built by men who exploited their workers. “The rich are more deserving,” the wealthy justified. “If we weren't, God wouldn't have blessed us with wealth in the first place.”