At the Highwayman's Pleasure (7 page)

He made his way through the main room where the ladies of the chorus were changing their gowns. There were a few good-natured shrieks and one or two saucy comments, but he ignored them and continued on to the narrow passage and series of doors that had been described to him. The first, so he had been told, was for Mr Jenkin, the actor/manager. The second was reserved for the theatre’s new leading lady.

An elderly man was standing in the doorway to Charity’s room, and Ross recognised him from his previous visit to the green room as Smudgeon, the stage doorman. A shout went up and Ross stepped back into the shadows, rehearsing the reason he would give for being there if he was challenged. Smudgeon stepped out into the corridor and pulled the door closed behind him, then to Ross’s relief he set off in the opposite direction. As the footsteps died away, Ross could hear the rumble of voices coming from the dressing room and was almost certain that one of them belonged to Phineas Weston.

* * *

Charity was aware of the familiar icy dread stealing through her when the doorman withdrew. Her smile faded and she remained standing, determined to keep the meeting short.

‘This is one place I did not expect to find you,’ she remarked, to break the silence.

‘I would not have come had I not heard such disturbing intelligence.’

Phineas glared at her, his fleshy jowls working angrily. She thought he had aged considerably since she had last seen him. His whiskers were grey and he had put on weight, but he still had an imposing presence, and now he pulled himself up to his full height to declare, ‘How
dare
you come back here, dragging my name through the mud?’

She remembered that deep, resonating voice of outrage—she had heard him use it many times to great effect from the pulpit—and was obliged to ignore the chill it sent running through her.

He cannot hurt me. He has no power here.

She raised her brows and forced herself to remain calm.

‘It is my name, too, and if the reports are to be believed I am raising it
out
of the mire. Not that I have told anyone of the connection between us.’

His eyes snapped.

‘When people told me that an actress—’ he almost shivered with revulsion as he spoke the word ‘—that an actress calling herself Mrs Weston was playing in Allingford, I could not believe it was you. Then I heard talk that my daughter—my daughter!—was
exhibiting
herself on the stage. I tried to put an end to such rumours, but it is too widely spoken of, so I judged it was time to come and see for myself.’

Charity spread her hands.

‘And now you have seen,’ she said coldly. ‘Are you satisfied?’

His brow darkened. ‘Still the same pride, still that same stubborn wilfulness that I tried so hard to dispel—’

‘That you tried to beat out of me!’

‘Aye, and I should have thrashed you harder,’ he snarled. ‘As it is I have to watch you prostituting yourself—’

‘I am
acting
. That is all it is.’

‘It is a monstrous abomination and you are the purveyor of evil.’

She managed a laugh.

‘Good heavens, one would think you were speaking of Bonaparte himself!’

Phineas drew back, glaring at her from under beetling brows.

‘The Emperor has his faults, but he is God’s instrument.’

‘Bonaparte?’ she said, surprised. ‘He is a tyrant. An enemy of England.’

‘England has more enemies within,’ roared Phineas. ‘Sinners and those who wish to see the country once again under the heel of the Pope! Bonaparte is the scourge of the papists. There are some who think he is an agent of the Messiah, whereas
you
, madam, are an agent of the devil!’

‘Now, Phineas, don’t you be getting yourself in a bother about this.’

The woman standing beside Phineas spoke for the first time. Charity assumed this was his wife, the third Mrs Weston, and when she took a moment to study her she was surprised how young she was, possibly even younger than herself, but a constant look of dissatisfaction had left permanent lines upon her once-pretty face. She smiled, although her brown eyes held a calculating look.

‘My dear Charity—may I call you that? After all, I am your mama now.’ Her affected laugh grated upon Charity’s ears. ‘We did not come to quarrel with you, dear, but you must see that to have you here, not fifteen miles from our home, is a little difficult for your papa. After all, he is a justice now.’

‘I don’t see that my being here has any bearing upon you at all,’ replied Charity. ‘Allingford does not come under your jurisdiction.’

‘But to have you parading yourself on the stage, for all the world to gape at and ogle—’tis an outrage.’

‘I am an actress, and a respectable one,’ retorted Charity, putting up her chin.

‘You are little better than a trollop from the streets,’ Phineas declared. ‘If you had any proper feeling, you would be using a different name rather than disgracing mine.’

‘It is my name, too, and I am not ashamed to use it,’ she said coldly. ‘No one has asked me yet if we are related, but if they do I will deny it, if that is what you wish.’

‘So you would add lying to your many sins.’

Charity raised her brows and said sweetly, ‘If you denied the rumours, were you not just as guilty? Now, if you will excuse me, I have to prepare for my next performance.’

Phineas glared at her, his nostrils flaring.

‘Unfeeling,
unnatural
child. To be flaunting yourself in this den of vice—’

‘If you are so disgusted with my performance, I suggest you leave now,’ Charity interrupted him.

‘I shall, immediately, but don’t think you have heard the last of this—’

‘Now, now, my dear, let us not be too hasty.’ His wife caught his arm. ‘We should stay for the farce, don’t you think? After all, we paid good money for our box and I wouldn’t want to waste it.’

Charity watched as her father was torn between his righteous indignation and his dislike of wasting money. She had to give his latest wife some credit for being able to handle him so well. She watched as the new Mrs Weston said in a coaxing tone, ‘Come, sir, let us go back to our box and leave dear Charity to think over her position.’

‘There is nothing to think over,’ retorted Charity. ‘I do not intend to leave Allingford.’

Scowling, Phineas stalked to the door.

‘Come, my love. I shall escort you back to your seat.’ He ushered his wife out of the room, then turned once more to Charity.

‘So you will not leave, eh?’ His smile and the final softly spoken words chilled her more than all his earlier raging fury. ‘Dear little Charity, the Lord has brought you back into my sphere. I should be thanking Him, for it is clearly His will that you are here and He means for me to deal with you once and for all. Daughter.’

* * *

From his place in the shadows Ross heard only the final word but it was enough. He gave a little grunt of satisfaction. So she
was
his child—but there was no time to ponder how that might help him just yet. Phineas and Hannah were walking his way and at any moment they would come upon him. There was no way to escape without being seen. Then, suddenly, the problem was solved. A distant voice called for the chorus to go on stage, and the gaily costumed flock of laughing, chattering dancing girls crowded past him. Phineas and his wife were obliged to flatten themselves against the wall to make way. Grinning, Ross slipped back through the now-empty space and was out of sight even before Phineas and Hannah had moved.

* * *

Long after her father had left the room Charity remained rooted to the spot, fear charging through her limbs and leaving her trembling. She barely heard the excited chatter of the chorus as they rushed by her door. She should have expected this. She had always known that in coming to Allingford she risked contact with her father. What she had not expected was the raging, unreasoning fear that she had experienced in his presence. It was as if she was a child again, in his power and unable to defend herself any more than she had been able to defend herself or her mother from his savage punishments, delivered while he recited passages from the Bible.

You are a woman now. You are of age. He has no power over you. He has no power over you.

She repeated the words over and over again, but still her limbs would not work and it was not until Betty came in that the spell was broken.

‘Bless us and save us, madam, what are you doing standing there?’ She took one look at Charity’s face and said quickly, ‘Oh, my lord, whatever is the matter?’

Charity forced her stiff, aching throat to work. ‘My father was here.’

Betty threw up her hands. ‘What, that gentleman and his wife who came to see you? Well, I never did. You may be sure, Miss Charity, if I’d known I would never have left you alone with him. But come now, dearie, the singing and recitations are finished and you have to be on stage in five minutes!’

‘I do? Oh, yes, of course.’ Charity struggled to bring her mind back to the present. ‘Quickly, Betty, help me into my gown.’

* * *

Charity made her way up to the wings, all the time taking deep, steadying breaths. If she faltered, then the other actors would suffer, too. She forced herself to think of nothing but the performance. It worked. She was word perfect as always, paying no heed to the audience, concentrating upon the stage, upon the next line. Afterwards, she joined the others in the green room and was relieved to find that Phineas and his wife were not there. She circulated amongst the patrons, smiling and laughing as if she had not a care in the world. Only Hywel noticed anything amiss.

‘You are very pale, my dear. Are you quite well?’

She took his arm, leading him aside to say quietly, ‘My father was in the audience tonight. He came backstage during the recitations.’

‘The devil he did! What in heaven’s name was Smudgeon thinking of—!’

‘You mustn’t blame Elias, he did not know.’ She tried to smile. ‘Most likely he thought my father was a rich patron that we should butter up.’

‘Well, I’ll make dashed sure he doesn’t let him in again,’ muttered Hywel. He realised that she was upset and covered her hand with his own. ‘Don’t worry, my dear. He can’t hurt you here. He has no authority in Allingford.’

‘That is what I keep telling myself. And with Betty and Thomas living in I know there is nothing to fear.’

He squeezed her fingers.

‘My house has rooms and to spare—you could always move in with me.’

‘Thank you, Hywel, but no. I came here because I wanted to settle down, to be done with running away. I have faced my father. He was all bluff and bluster, nothing more. As you say, he cannot hurt me now.’ She straightened her shoulders and smiled up at him. ‘He is merely the ogre of my nightmares, and I will not allow him to intimidate me. I shall go on as I have done so far and...and be
damned
to him!’

* * *

After the performance, Ross collected his horse and rode home slowly. He had been tempted to remain for the reception, but had decided against it. Charity Weston was too alluring, and he needed to be free of her presence if he was to decide what to do with the knowledge he had gained that evening—the knowledge that she was the daughter of the man he hated most in the world.

 

Chapter Four

C
harity tried to push all thoughts of her father from her mind and was helped considerably by her busy life. There were theatre performances every evening and any number of breakfasts and suppers with friends from the theatre, to say nothing of the invitations to parties and soirées from Lady Beverley, who liked to fill her house with the writers, poets and artists living in the area. She thought occasionally of the Dark Rider and found herself wondering where he was and what he was doing. She had not seen him since he had appeared in her bedchamber and returned the brooch.

‘And that is a very good thing,’ she told herself, putting him resolutely out of her mind. ‘Consorting with a highwayman would do your reputation no good at all!’

The current production continued to play to packed houses and Hywel reported that even more people than usual were coming over from Beringham. When Charity learned of it she wondered aloud why, if that was the case, none of the newspapers had picked up that she had the same name as Beringham’s repressive magistrate.

‘I had expected some rumours and gossip by now,’ she told Hywel. She threw a shrewd glance his way. ‘As manager of the theatre I thought you might have made use of the connection.’

They were sitting in his office at the theatre, taking a glass of wine together before preparing for the evening’s performance.

‘That you are Phineas Weston’s daughter?’ He grinned and gave one of the expansive gestures that were his trademark. ‘I might have done so if he had been a justice in Allingford, but our local newspaper is not interested in what happens in another town. However, in Beringham it is a different matter.’ He reached around to pull a folded newssheet from the shelf behind him. ‘This is a copy of the
Beringham Courant
from a few weeks ago. You will see that it hints at a connection between you and Phineas Weston.’ He continued in a colourless voice, ‘The editor of the
Courant
is now in the House of Correction for one month’s hard labour.’

Charity stared at him, aghast.

‘You think there is a connection, that Phineas punished him for this? Why, that is preposterous.’

Hywel shrugged. ‘Preposterous or not, the day after that piece was published the editor was charged with stealing a bundle of wood and brought before the justice. The landowner, Sir James Fryton, just happens to be a close acquaintance of your esteemed father. After last night’s performance I got talking with a group of men from Beringham, respectable tradesmen. They told me that the editor is an honest man and not a poor one, either. He has no need to steal wood.

‘They believe Fryton and the witnesses to the act were all in Weston’s pay. The
Courant
has been challenging Weston’s iron grip on the town for some time and attacking his extreme religious views—the penalties of which always seem to favour Weston and his friends financially, I might add. It would appear Phineas was eager to bring down the editor. However, it is also a warning to prevent anyone else taking up the story.’

‘But that is monstrous!’

‘The man is mighty powerful within his own area.’ Hywel chuckled. ‘However, in this case his little scheme has not worked, because word has spread and Beringham is now rife with the rumour that the justice’s daughter is an actress and is performing here in Allingford. That is why the theatre is so full, night after night—the people of Beringham are coming in droves to see you.’

Charity’s eyes twinkled. ‘Oh, dear, poor Papa will not like that at all!’

‘No, and there is nothing he can do about it,’ declared Hywel. ‘His jurisdiction ends at the county border and Sir Mark Beverley, our own magistrate, is a great supporter of the theatre and will have no truck with Weston’s religious bigotry. But it is all good news for us. The play still has a week to run and we are already showing a healthy profit.’ He grinned. ‘Perhaps we should send complimentary tickets to Phineas and his wife to thank him for helping us to fill the theatre.’

‘I pray you won’t. He is so grasping he would feel obliged to use them.’ Charity gave an artistic shudder, but it was not completely false. ‘I would not have that man within a mile of me again if I can help it!’

Charity tried to put Phineas Weston completely from her mind, but when Mr Smudgeon pressed a note into her hand a few nights later, as she was returning to her dressing room, she felt a chill of apprehension.

‘It was given me by a young woman, ma’am,’ the doorman quickly reassured her. ‘She’s waitin’ at the stage door now to know if you will see her.’

Charity’s initial fear changed to pleasure, and she said now, ‘Yes, yes, of course. Give me time to change my gown and I will send Betty to the door.’

Some ten minutes later she sent her maid out and waited, her mind full of nervous excitement. She heard a soft knock upon her door and a plump young woman peeped in, her eyes wide with apprehension.

‘Charity? Is it really you?’

‘Jenny!’ Charity pulled her into a fierce hug. ‘Oh, my dear, it is so good to see you again after all these years! Let me look at you.’ She held her friend away and studied her carefully. The thin fourteen-year-old she remembered was gone, replaced by a plump matron, dressed in a sensible gown of sober hue. However, Charity was reassured to see the same kindly twinkle in those green eyes.

‘I didn’t think you’d remember me,’ Jenny confessed. ‘After all, it’s been so long, and you never wrote—’

Charity pulled her into the room, saying contritely, ‘I know, Jenny, and I do beg your pardon for that.’ She scooped up a pile of abandoned skirts from the velvet-covered daybed and tossed them aside. ‘Come and sit here with me and tell me how you got on.’

‘Nay, I’ve nothing to tell,’ said Jenny shyly. ‘You are the famous one and must have seen and done so much since you left Saltby. I did envy you, you know, walking away from everything like that. The shearers talked of it for weeks after.’

‘I hope you did not suffer for it.’

‘Nay, not a bit. Your father was furious, of course, but Papa gave him a generous donation to the church so he never bothered me more, save to ask if I had any news of you.’

‘That is why I did not write to you,’ said Charity. ‘I guessed he would try to find me. I was very lucky when I left Saltby. I met Mr Jenkin, who took me on with his travelling players, and I found the life suited me very well. But what of you, Jenny? You are looking very well indeed.’

‘Well, I’m married now, you know, with three lads of my own. I married Jedediah Rigg—do you remember him? His father was the clog and patten maker and Jedediah has taken over his business. We are doing very well, although you wouldn’t recognise Beringham now, Charity. ’Tis not the happy place it was when we were children. The inns are closed, and there’s no music or dancing allowed in the town.’

She looked uncomfortable and Charity said quickly, ‘You need not be afraid to tell me that this is all down to my father.’

Jenny nodded. ‘He closed all the places of entertainment and has withheld licences from all but a couple inns—those that can pay him a generous fee for his goodwill! We don’t like it much, but what can you do? He has the richer townsfolk in his pocket, and as long as they support him...’ She plucked at her gown. ‘Jed says it is forcing everyone to find their amusements out of town, or outside the law, which is not a good thing. I worry so for my boys...’ She shook off her melancholy and smiled at Charity. ‘But enough of this, tell me instead all about you!’

They spent a comfortable hour together, chattering non-stop, until Jenny jumped up, glancing at the little bracket clock that Charity kept on her dressing table.

‘Heavens, I must go. I told Jed I would be no more than a half hour! However, he was going to wait for me in the tavern opposite, so perhaps he hasn’t missed me all that much.’ She pulled Charity into her arms and hugged her. ‘Eeh, but it’s good to see you, Charity. I’m right glad you’ve been successful. I shall not come again—oh, it is not the ticket money, Jedediah is very good and denies me nothing, but he is a strict churchman, you see, and although Mr Weston is no longer parson Jed won’t want to incur his displeasure by too much frivolity. Besides, his brother is the constable in Beringham, so there is another reason he wouldn’t want to cross your father.’

‘Yes, I see.’ Charity kissed her cheek. ‘Then I shall not visit you if you think it will cause you harm.’

‘Aye, well, maybe one day, when Phineas Weston is no longer magistrate,’ said Jenny. She grinned. ‘After all, the old devil can’t live for ever.’

When she was alone, Charity sat for a long time at her dressing table, thinking over the visit. It had been good to see her friend and Jenny’s description of her life, happily married and with a growing family, had stirred something inside Charity and made her all too aware of her single state. But it took only a moment for her to dismiss the vague discontent. Jenny might have a loving husband and a family, but she was living in Beringham under Phineas’s tyranny, and when Charity compared that with her own freedom and independence, she knew she had no desire to change places with her friend.

‘Be honest with yourself,’ she told her reflection, ‘You have no idea what you are looking for, but if it is a man, he will have to be very special to make you give up the freedom you currently enjoy.’

* * *

It was the last night of
The Provok’d Husband
and such was its success that Hywel Jenkin had hired the Assembly Rooms for the reception once the performance ended. Charity removed her paint and powder and allowed Betty to help her into the midnight-blue silk she had chosen to wear. It was important that she should look her best, for she knew Hywel would be using the occasion to raise funds for the theatre and to secure more patrons.

By the time she had helped her maid to pack away all her costumes, the rest of the company had already left for the reception. It was but a short walk from the theatre to the Assembly Rooms on the High Street and in any other town she had played, Charity would have been happy to walk the short distance alone through streets that were still busy. However, since her meeting with Phineas she had taken to asking Betty to accompany her whenever she walked out. They were just stepping out of the stage door when Charity heard her name. She looked around.

‘Mr Durden.’ She was inordinately pleased to see him and it was all she could do not to simper when he gave a little bow.

Stop it, Charity. He is only a man after all.

‘I am on my way to the Assembly Rooms, ma’am. If that is your destination, perhaps I may escort you?’

A smile burst from her at his invitation, even while she was admonishing herself for blushing like any schoolgirl.

‘Why—why, yes, sir, thank you.’

‘Will you send your maid home?’

‘Mrs Harrup is my dresser as well as my maid. Mr Jenkin has hired a room and refreshments for all the backstage staff, too.’

And if they had not, Charity would still have insisted that Betty walk behind.... Wouldn’t she?

Charity took his arm and allowed him to escort her away from the theatre. A biting wind whistled through the streets and there was a threat of snow in the air. She pulled her cloak a little closer about her.

‘Are you cold, madam?’

Ross laid his hand over hers, where it rested on his sleeve. His touch was oddly comforting.

‘No.’

‘But your gloves are so thin.’ His grip tightened on her fingers until she could feel the warmth of him. She glanced at his hands. They were large and capable, encased in York tan gloves. Surely their warmth could not penetrate through that and the kidskin that covered her own hands? Yet heat was spreading through her whole body as she walked beside Ross Durden. She was aware of a temptation to press even closer to his side, but she resisted and tried to strengthen her resolve by reminding herself it was not part of her plan to ally herself with any man. However, walking in silence beside him was awkward so she searched her mind for something to say.

‘I understand you were a sailor, Mr Durden.’

‘I was.’

‘But you gave it up to run Wheelston.’

‘I had no choice.’ His tone brought her eyes flying to his face. In the sudden flare of the street lamp she thought he looked put out, as if he regretted his words, and her suspicions were confirmed when he said more gently, ‘There was no one else to take over when my mother died.’

‘And do you miss the sea?’

She felt his dark eyes turned upon her.

‘Would you miss acting, Mrs Weston, if you were obliged to give it up?’

She considered for a moment.

‘I enjoy it, certainly, but I could live without it. However, I would be loath to give up the independence I have now.’

‘Ah, independence. Surely if you have sufficient wealth, independence is guaranteed.’

‘For a man, perhaps, but for a woman, an unmarried woman, there are always the constraints of decorum and propriety.’

‘The solution must be to marry, then.’

Charity shook her head.

‘Not at all. I have no intention of handing over control of my life and my fortune to any man.’

Charity pressed her lips together, startled by her own vehemence, which more than matched the bitterness she had heard in his voice. She hoped he would not question her, and it was with some relief she noticed they had reached the Assembly Rooms. She carefully removed her fingers from his arm and preceded him up the stairs.

The rooms were already crowded, and within moments of entering Charity was at the centre of a laughing, chattering crowd. She looked up at Ross, directing a look of smiling apology at him. He merely nodded and moved off, leaving her free to give her attention to her friends and acquaintances, but she felt vaguely dissatisfied. Not that she wanted Ross Durden to cling to her side all evening, but she would have liked him to show a little more disappointment at having her snatched away from him so quickly. She shrugged off the thought and scolded herself for becoming far too conceited.

Mrs Tremayne was approaching and Charity summoned up a smile of welcome. The widow was one of the theatre’s richest patronesses, but even if she had been a pauper Charity liked to think she would not have treated her any differently.

Other books

Never Too Far by Christopher, Thomas
Challenging Andie by Clements, Sally
Thor's Serpents by K.L. Armstrong, M.A. Marr
The Jersey Devil by Hunter Shea
Tokyo Underworld by Robert Whiting
Beyond the Moons by David Cook
To Have and To Hold by Ruth Ann Nordin