Authors: Amanda Scott
Susan B. Steele
TAND AND DELIVER
The dreaded command rang out above the whistling of crisp spring winds that swept across the treeless heights of the rugged Cornish cliffs. Neither the distant roar of the mighty Atlantic as it crashed against the rocky shore far below, nor the clatter and jingle of wheels, harness, and plunging hoofbeats as the coachman struggled to bring his startled team under control again succeeded in muffling the words. The command was easily heard and understood by each of the three occupants inside the crested red-plush-lined carriage that until that moment had been moving at a smooth, distance-eating pace along the high, winding cliff road from St. Ives toward Zennor Head.
“Merciful heavens, Cyril, do something!” exclaimed the elder of the two fashionably attired young ladies within, a fragile, pink-cheeked, blond-haired woman in a pomona-green carriage gown and matching spencer, who, despite the fact that she was rapidly approaching her thirtieth year, was still very pretty. “’Tis highwaymen!” she cried. “We shall be murdered!” With one slim yellow-gloved hand clutching Lord Gordon’s plump arm, Lady Gordon grabbed agitatedly with the other for a strap to steady herself just as the coachman finally regained command of his team and the carriage lurched to a complete halt.
In the momentary period of what, after so much commotion, seemed to be utter silence, Lord Gordon removed his lady’s hand before it could wrinkle his elegant dark blue sleeve, gave the hand a pat, and with a loud “harrumph” advised her in his customary pompous tones to leave everything to him. “Best thing under such circumstances is to keep a still tongue, Georgeanne, and do precisely as we’re told. Less chance that way of anyone’s coming to grief.”
From the forward seat, the younger lady, who had shown none of her sister’s agitation, flicked Lord Gordon a look laced with icy contempt. Of slightly darker coloring and built upon more generous lines than Lady Gordon, she was attired in a chinchilla-trimmed gray wool traveling dress. Her soft light brown hair had been neatly arranged under a delightful straw bonnet decorated with gay pink ribbons that exactly matched her pleated bodice and the elegant French gloves that came into view now as she withdrew her slender hands from the large chinchilla muff resting in her lap. Miss Jessica Sutton-Drew was well accustomed to hearing her many admirers employ such terms as dazzling, magnificent, and splendid to describe her beauty, but Lord Gordon was not one who discovered much to be admired beyond her fine features, elegant carriage, and voluptuous figure, for the lovely Miss Sutton-Drew, though generally of a cheerful, humorous disposition, often found it difficult to conceal her scorn for her pompous brother-in-law.
“I believe,” she said in a carefully even tone, as she removed her gloves with quick, precise movements, “that you would truly advise poor Georgie to submit to whatever outrageous demands these villains might make of her, Cyril, without so much as lifting one of your perfectly manicured fingertips to protect her.”
Miss Sutton-Drew’s meaning was abundantly clear, and Lord Gordon, his round face flooding with color, found it impossible to meet the steady gaze of her clear gray eyes. Nervously he lifted a plump hand to pluck at the thick dark side whiskers framing his countenance.
“Upon my word, Jessica,” he muttered, “I wish you will not be so vulgar. A properly bred gentlewoman should know nothing about such matters.”
“How absurd you are, Cyril,” Miss Sutton-Drew retorted, glancing toward the coach’s landward window as she slipped her bare hands into the warmth of the large chinchilla muff once again. “What you really mean to say is that a proper spinster should
a lack of such knowledge. I assure you, however, that having arrived, at the age of six-and twenty, there is little I do not know about the more unfortunate ways of men. Indeed, being a child of rather more than average intelligence, and being most fortunately blessed with an aunt who consented to answer those questions which my parents considered improper for a daughter of theirs to ask, I daresay there was little I did not understand about a good many so-called unmentionable things by the time I was thirteen or so.”
She had not shifted her gaze away from the window, and just then Lady Gordon, who had been staring fixedly out the same window, started and gave a little shriek, clutching at her breast in that region where she supposed her heart was to be found.
“I see one of them!” she cried. “The embankment hid him before, but oh, he is coming this way! I feel sure I shall suffer a spasm just like one of Mama’s if that awful man should so much as speak to me, Cyril. You must do something.”
Miss Sutton-Drew paid scant heed to her sister’s distress, but her own attitude at once became more alert, and she straightened her shoulders slightly as her rosy lips compressed themselves into lines of determination. Lord Gordon also straightened, nervously puffing out his cheeks and continuing in an absentminded way to pat his wife’s hand as he, too, peered anxiously toward the coach windows.
Suddenly the sunlight on that side of the coach was obscured by a large bay horse, and although his nearness made it impossible to get a good look at the rider’s face, a golden-brown-leather-clad arm came into view as the coach door was unceremoniously jerked open.
“Right ho, me hearties,” sang out the voice they had heard moments earlier. “Hand over the gewgaws all right and tight now. I’ve me pops aimed right at yer fashionable hearts, but it’d go clean agin me grain t’ ’ave t’ shoot ye, and that’s a fac’.”
Lady Gordon gave another cry and shrank against her husband, who was already reaching for his purse. Miss Sutton-Drew frowned at him, then spoke calmly to the highwayman.
“Since your idiotic horse is not only fidgeting but is much too close to the carriage to allow you to see us clearly,” she said, her voice carrying easily, “I doubt very much that your aim would be true. Therefore, I see no good reason to comply with your demands.”
“Jessica!” her sister and brother-in-law protested as one.
Miss Sutton-Drew ignored them, keeping her attention riveted upon the highwayman. He said nothing at first, then muttered something that sounded like an oath, and she saw his left knee move slightly.
“Back, Sailor. Easy, boy.” The horse moved obediently, backing nearly to the high embankment that edged the side of the roadbed, and a moment later the occupants of the coach had an unobstructed view of the masked highwayman. Youthfully slim and broad-shouldered, he was dressed in tan riding breeches and the golden-brown leather jacket over a rough blue plaid shirt. He wore no proper neckcloth, but the dark blue mask tied around the lower half of his face, covering his nose, mouth, and chin, looked very much like a sort of kerchief that men of the lower orders generally wore knotted haphazardly around their necks. The mask did nothing to conceal his eyes, which were dark blue, or the straight bushy eyebrows above them. A dun-colored slouch hat had been pulled tightly down over medium brown hair, until even the Cornish wind seemed unable to dislodge it, and although a strong gust made an attempt just then to whip the mask from the highwayman’s face, it was unsuccessful. Jessica noted that the lower half of the mask had been tucked carefully into the tightly fastened collar of his shirt.
The man sat easily in his saddle, one hand holding his reins, the other a silver-mounted pistol, the sight of which made Miss Sutton-Drew’s eyes narrow, just as the slight change in his rough accent and tone had done seconds earlier when he had spoken to his horse. The hand holding the pistol trembled a little, but he steadied it and spoke again in his rustic accent. “Now ye see it, me dear, so thar kin be no mistake. So if ye’ll all jest be so kind as t’—”
The explosion and the highwayman’s shout of pained astonishment came together. His pistol fell to the ground, where it discharged harmlessly, while he clapped the hand that had been holding it to his left shoulder. Above his mask the skin around his dark blue eyes tightened and turned a sickly shade of gray-white. Dark red blood began almost immediately to ooze between his fingers where they pressed against the small neat hole in the upper sleeve of his leather jacket, and the highwayman swayed slightly in his saddle. Seconds later, making a visible effort to regain his dignity, he drew a long, steadying breath and glared accusingly into the dim interior of the coach.
Lord and Lady Gordon, who had both nearly jumped out of their skins at the sound of the shot, were now wrinkling their noses at the distinct and unpleasant odor of burning fur. Only Miss Sutton-Drew appeared unaffected either by what had transpired or by the odd smell. With complete calm she removed both hands from her chinchilla muff. A lacy pink handkerchief in the left one was put to use to extinguish one or two tiny sparks still glowing at the edges of the small black hole that had appeared so suddenly in the center of the muff, while the little silver-and-gilt pistol in her right hand pointed steadily at the highwayman’s broad chest.
“Do not do anything hastily,” she said in a conversational tone. “There is another bullet in this pistol.” She paused long enough to dampen a corner of the lacy handkerchief with the tip of her dainty tongue and to rub the charred bit of the muff again before continuing, “I should advise you to call in your henchmen, Mr. Highwayman. Order them to relinquish their weapons and prepare to be haled directly before the nearest justice of the peace.”
The highwayman was still staring at her in astonishment, but he straightened a little at her words, his eyes reflecting both pain and something else. Not fear, Jessica thought, regarding him closely. More like a hint of amusement mixed with perhaps a touch of apprehension.
His voice was well enough under control, however. “You’ve only my…meself t’ deal with, m’lady. No cohorts. D’ye mind if I stanch the flow of claret from me poor shoulder afore we trot along? I’d not wish t’ inconvenience ye by perishing before yer lovely eyes.”
The impudence was somehow appealing, and Jessica’s lips twitched, but she managed to retain her composure. “Certainly you may do what is necessary,” she said. “But please attempt nothing foolish. I assure you I shall have less compunction about using this pistol a second time than I had the first. Perhaps,” she added, “my brother-in-law’s guard may be of some assistance to you. He certainly was of little enough use to us.”
The coach swayed a little as one of the men on the box moved to comply with her wishes, and the highwayman’s horse started, flinging up his head and beginning to back when his master’s knees clamped involuntarily against his flanks. Jessica’s hand tightened on her pistol, then relaxed again when the animal was brought under immediate control. Another gust of the crisp spring wind plastered the highwayman’s mask against his face just then, and she noted a jawline so rigid that she knew he must be clenching his teeth against the pain caused by his horse’s sudden, movement.
“Please allow Peters to assist you,” she said gently.
“No need, ma’am,” he muttered. Withdrawing a large white handkerchief from an inside pocket, he wadded it inside his sleeve, against his shoulder, then fastened the front of his jacket. “Snug enough now,” he said. “I’ll do. ’Tisn’t far, after all.”
Lord Gordon, who had been indignantly observing the exchange between his intrepid young sister-in-law and the would-be highwayman, chose this moment to assert his rank and authority.
“You’ll soon regret having had the temerity to hold up the Gordon coach, my man,” he declared pompously before turning his attention to the spindly guard, waiting hesitantly in the roadway for further orders. “Peters,” barked his lordship impatiently, “unmask that fiend and tie his hands behind him. Then you may deposit him with the nearest magistrate. I believe ’tis Sir Brian Gregory at Shaldon Park.”