At the Highwayman's Pleasure (4 page)

‘As long as it is not his own.’

She laughed and said bitterly, ‘Of course. He was always able to justify his own comfort.’

‘He and his wife live in very grand style now,’ Hywel told her. ‘He has a fine house in Beringham. It is stuffed full of works of art, I am told, some of quite dubious quality, but expensive nevertheless. And he has set up his own stable, with a fancy carriage to take him and his lady about the country.’

Charity gazed into the fire, wondering if this third wife was any happier than the first two. She had never forgotten her mama’s anxious careworn face, the way she would jump at shadows, always afraid of incurring her husband’s wrath. When she died, Phineas had immediately taken another wife, a kindly woman who had soon been broken by his cruelty and become a meek, silent figure in the house. Charity shuddered.

‘Thank goodness I am no longer part of that family.’

‘Yet the connection is sure to be made,’ said Hywel. ‘Some in Beringham will remember that Phineas once had a daughter.’

‘That was thirteen years ago, Hywel.
I
will never acknowledge the connection and I doubt Phineas would want it known. The past is dead to me.’

He looked unconvinced.

‘Do you still suffer the nightmares?’

She shrugged. ‘Rarely. Although, I did wonder, coming here—’

Hywel laid his hand on her arm.

‘You are safe enough here, Charity. Weston has no jurisdiction in Allingford. And you can rely upon my protection.’

She reached out and briefly took his hand.

‘I know that, Hywel. You have always been a good friend to me. But enough of this dull talk. Tell me how you go on here and what you have chosen for my first role!’

‘The theatre is doing very well—my players are good and reliable. I thought, for your first appearance, you should play Mr Sheridan’s sentimental heroine, Lydia Languish.’

‘And will you be Captain Absolute?’

He shook his head, laughing. ‘I am too long in the tooth now to play the lover. Will Stamp takes those roles now.’

‘Young Will? I remember he had just joined you when I left.’

‘And proved himself a good actor,’ said Hywel. ‘I shall play his father, Sir Anthony.’

‘Do you have a script for me? It is a while since I played Lydia.’

‘Of course. I shall furnish you with one tomorrow when I take you to the theatre to meet my cast.’

‘And I must find myself somewhere to live.’

‘You are quite welcome to stay here for as long as you wish.’

‘Thank you, Hywel, but I thought to rent a little house for myself.’

‘You will need a manservant. I know just the fellow—’

‘No, no, at least, not yet. Betty can do all I need—Betty Harrup, my maid and dresser. She has been with me for several years and is upstairs even now unpacking for me. We have been used to fending for ourselves and I shall be quite content.’ A mischievous chuckle escaped her. ‘And I shall not be asking you to fund me, Hywel. I have invested well enough and have a comfortable income now.’

‘In that case, I shall find for you all the most suitable properties for a woman of substance. I shall puff off your fame quite shamelessly and Allingford’s landlords will be falling over themselves to provide a house for you. We have three weeks before we open again, so you have plenty of time to make yourself at home here. But enough of that. I had dinner put back and I am sure you must be hungry.’

‘Ravenous, my dear. Shall I go upstairs and see if Betty has unpacked for me, or will you allow me to dine with you in all my dirt?’

He laughed. ‘Let us dine now, by all means! A little dust on your skirts will do no harm.’

They passed the rest of the evening comfortably enough, catching up on all that had happened since they last met, and despite the nagging worry of knowing her father lived in the neighbouring town, when Charity retired to bed there were no nightmares to disturb her slumbers. Instead she dreamed of a masked man on a black horse.

* * *

Charity soon found a home of her own in Allingford. In less than a week she had moved into a snug little house in North Street. It took only a couple days to make it comfortable, and on the third evening Charity was able to sit down in the little sitting room to study her script of
The Rivals,
ready for the rehearsals, which were to start in earnest the following day.

‘I’ve brought in more coals for the fire, Miss Charity.’

‘Thank you, Betty. You need not wait up for me, I shall see myself to bed.’

The maid dropped the bucket on the hearth and straightened, bending a fond but frowning gaze upon her mistress.

‘Now, don’t you be sitting up ’til all hours straining your eyes, ma’am.’

‘I promise you I won’t,’ said Charity with a smile. ‘Goodnight, my dear.’

Betty went out again and soon she heard her stumping up the wooden stairs. Charity turned back to her script, but she could not give it her full attention, for she was aware of the creaks and sighs as the unfamiliar house settled down for the night. Once she heard a soft thud and she took her candle into the back room to check that the door into the yard was secure. Her candle flickered and she looked around a little nervously.

Everything was strange and new, but she comforted herself with the thought that soon she would know every nook and creaking floorboard of the little house. She went back to the sitting room, but the fire had died down and she decided she would not waste more coal on it.

‘I shall go to bed,’ she told the shadowy corners. ‘
The Rivals
must wait until tomorrow.’

She went upstairs and as she passed the first door she heard the rhythmic snores coming from her maid. There were two more rooms in the attic, but Charity had insisted Betty should sleep in one of the two chambers here on the first floor. Smiling, she made her way to her own chamber. It was at the back of the house, and she had chosen it because she thought it would be much quieter than the room overlooking the street. As she entered, her candle flickered and she saw that the window was not fully closed. She crossed the room, leaving her candle on the dressing table as she passed. She pushed down on the heavy sash and was just slipping the catch into place when she heard a soft chuckle behind her and a deep voice said, ‘Faith, me darlin’, but I’d forgotten how beautiful you are!’

Charity swung round, a startled cry catching in her throat. Behind the door was the shadowy figure of a man in riding dress, a tricorn pulled low over his face.

‘The Dark Rider!’

She saw the flash of white as he grinned.

‘The very same, me lady.’

‘Get out.’ She backed against the window. ‘Go now before I call my maid.’

‘Sure, now, I’m thinking you’d have screamed before now if you was going to.’

Charity was wondering why she had not done so. She said, ‘So are you a common housebreaker, too, or did you know this was my house?’

‘Oh, I knew, Mrs Weston. Word travels fast when a celebrated actress takes up residence in a small town like this. Are ye not going to ask me what I’m doing here?’

A trickle of fear ran down her back as she supplied her own answer to that question. She kept her eyes resolutely away from the bed as she stepped closer to the dressing table. ‘I want to know how you got in.’

He waved to the window. ‘Over the lean-to roof.’

She rested her hand on the silk-and-velvet bonnet thrown over one of the mirror supports.

‘Well, you may leave the same way.’

‘I will, when I’m ready.’

‘Now.’ She pulled a hatpin from the bonnet. Its steel shaft was some eight inches long and glinted wickedly in the dim light. ‘Do not think I will not use this to defend myself,’ she added, when he did not move. ‘It would not be the first time and I am quite adept, you know.’

‘I don’t doubt it,’ he said, his voice rich with laughter as he strode over to the window. ‘But you mistake me, Mrs Weston.’ He put his hand in his pocket. ‘I came to return this.’ He held out her cameo brooch. ‘Well, take it, me darlin’, before I change my mind.’

Warily she reached out and plucked it from his open palm.

‘I thought to see it adorning some pretty young serving wench,’ she told him. ‘Why did you bring it back?’

‘Guilty conscience.’ He moved a little closer. ‘And the prospect of a reward.’

Suddenly she felt very breathless, gazing up into the masked face and seeing the glint of the candlelight in his eyes. There was only the length of the hatpin between them. She did not resist when he took her wrist and deflected the sharp blade away from his body.

What was she doing? Alarmed, she dropped the brooch and put her free hand against his chest, but even as she opened her mouth to scream he captured her mouth, kissing her so ruthlessly that her bones melted under the onslaught. It was over in an instant. She was still gathering herself to resist him when he released her.

‘Yes,’ he said, his breathing a little ragged. ‘I was not wrong.’

‘A-about what?’

Her eyes were fixed on his mouth, fascinated by the sculpted lips and the laughter lines engraved on each side that deepened now as he gave her a slow smile.

‘You kiss like an angel.’

In one swift, fluid movement he turned away from her, threw up the sash and slipped out into the darkness.

Charity ran to the window, but there was no sign of anyone, only the soft drumming of hoofbeats fading into the night.

* * *

Hywel clapped his hands. ‘Very well, everyone, let us begin by reading through the first act. Mrs Weston—are you with us?’

Charity started. ‘I beg your pardon, Mr Jenkin. I am ready to rehearse, of course.’

He looked closely at her. ‘Did you not sleep well last night?’

‘No, as a matter of fact.’ She paused and said casually, ‘You told me you could recommend a manservant for me. Someone to be trusted.’

‘Aye. There is a fellow called Thomas who is presently doing odd jobs for me, but he would prefer regular work, I know.’

‘How soon can he start?’

‘Today, if you wish. Shall I send him to you when we have finished rehearsals?’

Charity nodded.

‘If you please, Hywel.’ She touched the little cameo pinned to her gown. ‘I shall feel happier with another servant in the house.’

 

Chapter Two

I
t was opening night and the theatre was packed for the new production of
The Rivals
. The playbill pasted up at the entrance announced boldly that the role of Lydia Languish was to be played by the celebrated actress Mrs Charity Weston, fresh from her successful season in Scarborough. Ross Durden took his seat on one of the benches in the pit and soon found himself squashed by bodies as the pit filled up.

‘Should be a good night,’ remarked the man in the brown bagwig who was sitting beside him. ‘I read that this new leading lady’s being compared to Mrs Siddons.’ He pulled a nut from his pocket and cracked it expertly between his fingers. ‘We shall soon find out.’

‘Have you ever seen Mrs Siddons?’ asked Ross, mildly intrigued.

‘Once.’ The man cracked another nut and munched meditatively. ‘In York, in the role of Lady Macbeth. Excellent, she was. Never seen the like. Just hope this lass is as good as they say.’

‘But this is a comedy,’ Ross pointed out, recalling that the great Sarah Siddons was renowned for her tragedies.

His neighbour shrugged. ‘A play’s a play and if the lady’s no good then we shall soon let her know!’

Ross said no more. He had come into Allingford on business today, and had bought himself a ticket because he had wanted a diversion before returning home.
The Rivals
was one of his favourite plays and the fact that Charity Weston was making her debut in Allingford had not influenced him at all.

At least that was what he told himself, yet somehow this evening the familiar prologue and first scene did not captivate him, although the rest of the audience seemed to be enjoying it. He realised he was waiting for Mrs Weston’s appearance in Scene Two.

Then she was there. Powdered and bewigged, but there could be no mistaking that wonderful figure nor the brilliance of her blue eyes, visible even from his seat halfway back in the pit. Her voice, too, held him spellbound. It had a mellow, smoky quality, redolent of sexual allure. It should not have been right for her character—Lydia Languish was meant to be a sweet young heiress—but there was an innocence about Charity’s playing that rang true.

Ross glanced about him, relieved to see the audience was captivated by her performance. Smiling, he turned back to the stage and settled down to enjoy the play.

* * *

The first performance in a new theatre was always exciting, but nerve-racking too, and Charity breathed a sigh of relief when it was over, knowing it had gone well. The audience was on its feet, clapping and cheering. She dropped into a low curtsy, smiling. The applause never failed to surprise her. When she reached the wings, Hywel caught her hand and led her back to the stage.

‘They will not settle down if you do not grant them one last bow,’ he murmured, smiling broadly.

She sank into another deep curtsy. Someone had thrown a posy of primroses onto the stage. She picked it up and touched it to her lips before holding it out to the audience, acknowledging their applause. The crowd went wild, and they were still stamping and clapping and cheering when she accompanied Hywel into the wings.

‘Well, that is the first night over. I only hope they continue to enjoy my performances.’

‘Oh, they will,’ replied Hywel confidently. ‘Now, I must go and get ready for the farce and you must prepare yourself to be besieged by admirers when the show is over!’

* * *

Charity exchanged praise and compliments with the rest of the players, then went back to the dressing room to find Betty waiting for her. Her handmaid’s austere countenance had softened slightly, a sign that she was pleased with her mistress’s reception.

‘Help me out of this headdress, if you please, Betty. Heavens, it is such a weight!’

‘If you’d been born twenty years earlier, Miss Charity, you’d have had your own hair piled up like this for weeks on end.’

‘I cannot believe this monstrous, pomaded style was once the fashion.’ Charity gave an exaggerated sigh of relief as Betty carefully pulled away the wig, which was curled, powdered and decorated with a confection of feathers and silk flowers. ‘Put it aside, Betty, and help me out of my gown, if you please. Mr Jenkin thinks there may be a crowd in the green room once the farce is ended.’

‘Not a doubt of it, madam, the way they was cheering you. Now, I brought the rose silk and your embroidered muslin. Which will you wear to meet your admirers?’

‘The muslin, I think, Betty. And they are not my admirers. Mr Jenkin tells me that it is the custom here at Allingford for all the cast to gather for a reception in the green room.’

‘Aye,’ muttered Betty, ‘but there’s no doubt who will be most in demand!’

Charity was exhausted and longed to go home to bed, but she knew Hywel would expect her to join the other members of the cast and ‘do the pretty’, as he phrased it, talking to those wealthy patrons who were invited backstage to meet the players. She was grateful for the supper that was laid on and managed to eat a little cold chicken and one of the delicious pastries before Hywel carried her off to introduce her to the great and the good of Allingford. He began with Lady Malton, who looked down her highbred nose at Charity and afforded her the merest nod.

‘In a small town like this we cannot rely upon one rich patron like Lady Malton to support the theatre,’ Hywel explained as he led her away from the viscountess. ‘We depend upon the goodwill of a large number of gentlemen—and ladies—of more moderate means. People like the Beverleys. They are a delightful couple and the backbone of Allingford life. Sir Mark is the local magistrate and his lady is very good-natured and likes to fill her house with actors and artists.’

Having presented Charity to Sir Mark and Lady Beverley and spent a few minutes in conversation, he led her away to meet a bluff, rosy-cheeked gentleman in a powdered wig, whom he introduced as Mr John Hutton.

‘Mr Hutton has travelled from Beringham to be here,’ said Hywel.

Conscious of her duty, she gave the man her most charming smile.

‘I am sure we are very grateful to you for coming so far.’

‘And I am glad to see you here,’ replied Mr Hutton, taking her hand and pressing a whiskery kiss upon her fingers. ‘Especially glad to know that
you
did not take any hurt getting here.’ He laughed at her look of confusion and squeezed her hand. ‘Why, ma’am, it’s all over Beringham that the Scarborough coach was held up.’

‘Ah, yes.’ So that was where she had heard his name before. Her excellent memory recalled the coachman mentioning that a Mr Hutton had been robbed by the same highwayman.

‘There is no doubt that this “Dark Rider” is having an effect on business,’ Hutton continued. ‘Many are afraid to make the journey between Beringham and Allingford.’ The whiskery jowls quivered with indignation. ‘The sooner the fellow is caught and strung up, the better it will be for all of us.’

Such serious talk was not what was needed, so Charity summoned up her brightest smile.

‘I am very glad
you
were not discouraged from coming tonight, sir. I hope you enjoyed the performance and will come again.’

‘Aye, I did enjoy it, ma’am, very much, and very pleased I am that Mr Jenkin here has seen fit to open his theatre in Allingford.’ He made a little bow towards the actor/manager. ‘By Gad, sir, we need something to distract us from this dashed war.’

‘And there is nothing like a good play to do that, Mr Hutton,’ agreed Hywel. ‘Let me tell you what else we have planned....’

With a word and a smile Charity left the gentlemen to their conversation. She worked her way through the crowd, smiling and charming them all in the hope that they would return to the theatre for another evening. There were a couple baronets and one knight, but the rest were landowners or wealthy tradesmen from the town, many with their wives who were prepared to be jealous of a beautiful actress, but a few minutes in Charity’s company persuaded these matrons that there was no danger of the
celebrated Mrs Weston
stealing their husbands away from them.

As an actress in London, she had grown accustomed to fighting off the admirers who wanted to make her their mistress. It had not been easy, but with skill and quick thinking Charity had managed to maintain her virtue, generally without offending her admirers, and in the past few years while she had been touring under her own name, she had perfected her role. To the married men and their wives she was charmingly modest and at pains to make them understand that she was interested only in her profession and would take compliments upon her performance, but not her person. She succeeded very well and all the ladies agreed that she was a very prettily behaved young woman, although not, of course, the sort one could invite into one’s home.

However, the single young men who clustered about her were treated to a very different performance. She gave each one her attention for a short time, laughed off their effusive compliments and returned their friendly banter, refusing to be drawn into anything more than the mildest flirtation. Yet each one went away to spend the night in pleasurable dreams of the unattainable golden goddess.

The crowd in the green room showed no sign of dispersing. Charity smothered a yawn and was wondering how soon she could slip away when she was aware of someone at her shoulder. Summoning up her smile, she turned to find herself staring at the snowy folds of a white neckcloth. She stepped back a little to take in the whole man. He was soberly dressed in buckled shoes and white stockings with the cream knee breeches that were the norm for evening wear, but his plain dark coat carried no fobs or seals and he wore no quizzing glass. Yet he carried himself with an air of assurance and she guessed he was one of the wealthier inhabitants of Allingford.

His athletic figure and deeply tanned skin made her think he had spent a great deal of time abroad. His face was not exactly handsome, but it was arresting, with its strong jaw, hawkish nose and those dark eyes fringed with long black lashes that any woman would envy. When he bowed to her she noticed that his black hair was cut fashionably short and curled naturally about his head and down over his collar.

‘May I congratulate you on an excellent performance, Mrs Weston?’ The words were slow and measured, very much in keeping with his sober appearance, but there was something in his voice that was very attractive and strangely familiar. A memory fluttered, but was gone before she could grasp it.

‘Thank you. I am glad you enjoyed it.... Have we met before?’

‘How could that be, when you have only just arrived in Allingford?’ There was an elusive twinkle lurking in his dark eyes that was at odds with his grave tone. ‘Besides, if we had been introduced before, I would surely not have forgotten it.’

She wanted him to speak again, just so she could enjoy that deep, velvet-smooth voice.

‘You live in the town, sir?’

‘Close by. At Wheelston.’

‘Ah, I see. Is that very far from here?’

‘A few miles.’

His answers were annoyingly short. She looked up into his face and felt again that disturbing flutter of recognition.

‘I beg your pardon, sir, but are you sure we haven’t—?’

He took out his watch and broke in upon her.

‘You must excuse me, Mrs Weston, it is getting late and I must cut and run. I wanted only to compliment you upon your performance. Goodnight to you.’

With a bow he was gone, leaving her dissatisfied with the brevity of their conversation. Sir Mark and Lady Beverley claimed her attention, but although she responded civilly to their praise and conversation, her eyes followed the tall stranger as he made his way across the room.

‘Tell me, Sir Mark,’ she interrupted the magistrate’s flow of small talk. ‘Who is that gentleman?’

‘Who?’ Sir Mark glanced up.

‘The one by the door.’ Charity felt a slight ripple of disappointment. The man had sought her out, but had obviously not been enamoured, since he was leaving so soon.

‘Oh, that’s Durden, not the most popular man in Allingford.’ Sir Mark turned back to her, his whiskers bristling. ‘He wasn’t rude to you, was he, ma’am?’

‘No, not at all. I was merely...curious.’

‘You are intrigued by his blackamoor appearance,’ suggested Lady Beverley. ‘That comes from his years in the navy, I believe. He was a sea captain, you know, but he came home two years ago, when his mother died.’

‘He is certainly not popular,’ Charity remarked, watching his progress towards the door. People avoided his eye, or even turned their backs as he passed. ‘Why should that be?’

Sir Mark hesitated before replying, ‘His taciturn manner, I shouldn’t wonder.’

‘Poor man,’ murmured Lady Beverley. ‘I am surprised, though, that Mr Jenkin should invite him—he has no money to invest in the theatre.’

‘Jenkin invited him for the same reason I make sure you send him a card to each of your parties,’ replied Sir Mark. ‘The property may be run down and its owner may not have a feather to fly with, but Wheelston is still one of the principal properties in the area. Unusual for Durden to turn up, though. He keeps to himself as a rule.’

‘Is that any wonder, given what happened?’ said Lady Beverley, shaking her head. ‘But I am not surprised that he should come this evening when we have such a celebrated actress in our midst! Ah, Mr Jenkin—let me congratulate you on your new leading lady. I was just telling Mrs Weston that I have never laughed so heartily at one of Mr Sheridan’s comedies...’

Charity wondered exactly what had happened to make Mr Ross Durden so unsociable, but the conversation had moved on and the moment was lost. Stoically, she put him from her mind and returned to charming the theatre’s patrons.

* * *

By heaven, what a damned uncomfortable evening! Why did I put myself through it?

Ross strode back to the livery stable to collect his horse, still smarting from the slights and outright snubs he had received from the worthy people of Allingford. Apart from the actor/manager, who knew nothing about him, and Sir Mark and his good-natured wife, no one else had made any effort to speak to him. He knew his neighbours thought he deserved their censure, and that was partly his own fault, for he had never done anything to explain the situation, but damn it all, why should he do so?

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