Part 1 of The Masked Lady
By Lauren Xena Campbell
Source: Stand and Deliver
When my Mother first told me the legend of the un-catchable highwayman I thought her bedlam. All this talk of a dashing rogue dressed with a half-mask, cloaked in deep cerulean, carrying naught but a pistol and a short sword! Ridiculous! Everyone knows that no man can out-ride the royal guard. And yet here we have stories of an ashen horse faster then lighting and a rider more cunning then even the devil. Naturally I would doubt such an account; to me it was just another childish fairytale that my Mother had tried to impress me with. No doubt another one of her silly schemes to try to convince me to wed. Mine being such a fiery compassion I swore never to believe her accounts, nor did I or would I ever have any such desire to wed, neither for protection, profit nor anyone’s pleasure but my own. And this I vowed.
It almost shames me to admit this as my failing. Especially as her royal highness the Queen bestowed her royal pleasure on my being so strong of wit! Ha! If only she knew what a fool I have been, I have no doubt that she would be convinced me woodwild and have me condemned to the tower. But no matter, after all it would be a nice reprieve…a neat ending to the worst tale to ever be written. And yet written it must be, for the memories of the subject in this tale must never be lost to time, despite that I would dearly love to forget the events that I reminisce.
My story begins on a sunny afternoon, a setting that mocks these sad events, and yet it was so. Alackaday, the noon was as pleasant as any other I had encountered up until that time. I can even remember feeling immense joy at seeing a young roe as the carriage rolled along the track through the Estates forest. I was twenty two years of age, far past my prime. I was getting old. Rich nobles only wished to marry the young and if I did not agree to wed soon my parents might never see grandchildren or more importantly, an heir to the family fortunes. And so we were to attend a repast at my richer Uncles abode to discuss my future. With nothing but pleasant scenes to amuse me on such a picturesque day I never even in my most feral of fantasies imagined the episode that would then take place.
The sudden rush of horse hooves echoed through the trees that encased us both left and right. The carriage halted. A fuss could be heard outside, and then a distant thud. I looked at my Mother for instructions when a light knocking came on the door beside me. Father gestured to me to draw the curtain. Peering out of the glassless window I drew back with a sudden fright as a masked face drew up close.
“Afternoon.” He said politely, reaching a gloved hand to the rim of his hat in greeting. My Father had begun to speak but before he could finish the figure had pulled open the carriage door to reveal a loaded pistol, which he then pointed directly at my Father. Most gallantly he spoke again. “Stand and deliver!”
“What?” Gasped my Father in disbelief.
“Your money or your life!” Said the stranger. And it was at this moment that I knew my Mothers anecdotes to be true. Here before me was the infamous highwayman that had never yet be outsmarted or caught. His cerulean cape rustling behind him in the wind in a very noble fashion. The dark tinted half mask covering the upper parts of his face save for his eyes, which shone thrilling blue in the afternoon sun. From under the hat he wore, a few strands of the lightest blond hair had escaped, and his smile was dashing and as cunning as a fox. But I was most surprised, from all the stories of robbers and bandits I would have expected this man to be a barbarian and yet he was, a gentleman, clean-shaven and dressed with the taste of a king!
“Good sir, certainly you do not think a humble man like I would carry riches on our journey?” Grimaced my Father, pretending false innocence.
The highwayman remained unmoved and instead of retreating moved his pistol to aim at my Mother, whose eyes suddenly fluttered and she slumped faint in her seat. Placing his leathered thumb about the pistol he cocked his weapon.
“Very well my foolish fellow.” Said the rogue civilly. “Your money or her life.”
But Father was too dumbfounded to answer the man, so he continued.
“A decision if you please.” He said. “I shan’t ask again. Now stand and deliver!”
Reaching into his pocket Father pulled out a leather purse containing his coinage. He handed it to me to give to the crook.
“Fifty pounds.” Said Father, trying his utmost to be respectful. “Tis all I have dear chap I assure you.”
Again the villain remained unconvinced.
“And yet your women are caked in finery, too much surly to reflect their beauty. Yes, I think I shall have to punish this crime by also taking their jewels. Such a felony cannot go overlooked.”
Father nodded to me to remove my Mothers jewels as well as my own. I then proceeded to wrap them in my kerchief and passed them to the man.
“Good man.” He said to my Father with all his courtesy. “Good day to you now and safe journey.”
Quickly he grasped my finger and gently pulled my hand towards himself. Father flinched in his seat wanting to stop the stranger from kissing my hand but was halted as the pistol became pointed at him directly, though the rogues eyes where on me. His lips pressed against my naked skin leaving it warm and myself curious.
“Farewell, my lady.” He said smiling, before he backed away a few paces, his booty in his keep and bowed. Giving a low whistle he turned to grab the reins of a white horse that had galloped into view. Pulling himself directly into the saddle he was gone, raced off into the forest yonder.
“Farewell.” I whispered.
Soon afterwards we arrived at my Uncles Estate. The commotion that had followed the robbery was brief and we were back on our way quickly once we had been able to revive the driver. My Mother was in a state when we arrived, screaming out to my Aunt that she had near been killed. The pandemonium was quite un-refreshing.
“My poor nerves.” She screamed as she walked down the gallery with my Aunt arm in arm. “I thought he would kill us. And yet my dear husband was so unmoved, the brave man! He kept his nerve and fought well to keep his hard-earned wealth. But no, the bandit pulled a pistol on us and threatened to kill us all, and so my husband had no choice.”
I could listen to no more! Stupid women! Within a week she would have spread the tale throughout court convincing everyone that we had been looted by twenty men.
My heart was still racing from the excitement, and so I distracted myself from the conversation by trying to concentrate on the gallery’s decoration, but to no avail.
We reached the drawing room. The gentlemen had left us to retreat to the library to discuss the correct protocol considering the events that had since partaken. Settling Mother down on a settee my Aunt had me summon her maid to fetch my Mother a posset to calm her nerves. I did not know the girl’s name but she was an oriental from the East. Most would frown on her simple, plain attire and of course her station but not I. Personally I found her pleasant and uncommonly handsome.
My Aunt and Mother continued the conversation together, ignoring me and so I decided to walk the grounds for a time. I kept to the garden for the most part but dared venture the length of the driveway at one time. Naturally I could not wander alone, although I would dearly have liked to, instead I was accompanied by the maid. I attempted from time to time to converse with the girl but she was so stern in etiquette that she would not answer except to say, “If it pleases you, my lady.”
I was unsure at the time as to why, but her answers amused me. By calling me ‘my lady’ she had reminded me of the rogues last words and there was something about that I delighted in. My freedom was short lived as soon my Father and Uncle bade me speak to them. What they really meant was, ‘let us preach to you about what we want of you’. And so I re-entered the drawing room and sat full of smiles as I listened to the lecture from my Father, Mother, Aunt and Uncle. They told me that there was to be a ball at a very large manor in a weeks time and of which I must attend. There was to be in attendance every worthwhile eligible bachelor in the realm. But fie on that! I found the entire discussion a bore and was interested in nothing else other then the prospect that the highwayman might strike again on the journey home. Clearly my seniors had the same thoughts as before we left Uncle produced a loaded musket to the driver and a handgun to Father.
A week passed too soon and I was hurried into a decorated gig to attend the masque ball. Normally I enjoy these occasions as when one is wearing a mask people do not recognise you and therefore do not demand your attention at all times. There is a freedom to it. Everyone is better mannered encase they offend someone of higher rank and it is the only time I have ever felt respected.
Mother had made certain that this night I would be at my most glorious so as not to disappoint the family. My goal was to find a suitor after all. Father had purchased a new kirtle for me, and even I must say, it was the most beautiful silver damask I have ever set eyes on. From fear of becoming a twitter head over the cloth I find myself forced to tell you that the partlet was embodied with the most brilliant white pearls to form a fleur-de-lis.
But to continue.
At first the evening did not appear to be an interesting one. My Father insisted on introducing me to many different young men; which was a chore, as oft as not he was introducing me to the wrong one for their masks threw him off. All of these I have the dismal task of dancing with and many of them where ill talented due to drink and trod on my feet in their haste to impress. As the evening drew on I was able to slip into a small chair in the corridor outside the ballroom. I was delighted to get away and rest for a small time. From where I was the future seemed dull. I would marry one of those arrogant young gentlemen, not because they cared about me or because we delighted in each other’s presence but for each other’s fortunes and connections.
My entire existence was to become that which I wanted nothing to do with. I was born in the hope of a son, and became a disappointment until I could bear my own. I ask you, is this the life any of us would want?
But for now I am involved in my story and so must continue it to its conclusion.
I had been relaxing for about ten minutes, a blessed release, when I saw a pair of fine black boots cross the floor to stop in front of me. Lifting my gaze I saw a figure dressed in deep plum and decorated with gold. A sword was secured to the belt about his waist, neatly stored in a golden sheath. The jerkin was finely embellished with golden thread and a familiar jewelled brooch. Looking upwards still further I saw a half-masked face, clean-shaven, blond hair tied back with a velvet ribbon and a cunning smile.
With all the preparations of the Masque I had near forgotten my encounter with the legendary highwayman, but then that memory was re-kindled, and there he was, standing tall before me, with a hand outstretched in my direction. Well I very well couldn’t refuse the chance to dance. After all I was under strict orders to dance with every gentleman without wife. I was honoured bound.
As we re-entered the ballroom a Volta was struck up and the room began to prance. We were moving so fast and breathlessly to converse and so I pondered the fellow, observing his every move and gesture closely. What type of man would rob a noblewoman and then a week later turn up uninvited at a masquerade to ask her to dance? It was preposterous, ludicrous even! And yet I found it remarkable! I found myself uncaring that this was the man that had threatened my family and I at gun point, robbed us of all jewels and money we had with us. After all he had not done much damage. It might be easily forgiven.
The Volta finished but I was curious to find out what this crook was up to. I was determined to dance with him again as it was sure that the next dance was a Loure, a suitable dance for tête-à-tête. But it seems my partner had no intention of leaving just yet and so we begun the next dance directly. We passed the first few steps in silence until I could not bear it any longer…
“Pray tell, why are you here?” I asked.
“I am sorry if I offend my lady, if you wish me gone say at once and it is done.” He replied, forever well mannered.
“Not at all, Master Highwayman.” I said quietly so non-others then ourselves could hear. “But I confess to be curious as to why someone would raid us and yet wish to dance?”
“Why not?” He laughed. “After all your crimes have not yet been fully punished.”
“What mean you, good sir?”
He spun me around faster so to avoid a collision with another couple.
“What I mean to say,” He replied. “Is that your beauty is so great I could not leave it alone until I had stolen a kiss.”
“Shocking sir!” I said disappointed. “And dull. Now if you please, release me, I wish to be away from you.”
He let go.
“As my lady wishes.” Was all he said.
“How dare you!” I snapped. “You declare such a scandalous statement and yet have not the stomach to see it though! Why I thought you a formidable highwayman, not a coward!”
I turned to move away, but found that he had replaced his hand on my waist and pulled me in close once more. Grasping my hand fearsomely he spun me about the room for a second time.
“Never speak to me in such away again!” He declared. “And do not tease, my ego is fragile.”
Smiling at me he spun me nearer the open bay windows, until we stood revolving on the spot on the outskirts of the other dancers.
“Come walk with me?” He asked softly.
I stared at him in disbelief unable to fully comprehend the risk. Glancing about I saw that all the other inhabitants of the room, including both my Mother and my Father were so fully occupied in their own engagements that they knew not nor cared for me. I looked back at the rogue. If I went with him now it could be the last choice I ever made.
“I should not.” I replied quietly.
Instead of anger he just looked at me. “Will you not even come to see my horse?” He asked. “A quiet turn about the gardens will find any young lady of curious disposition a few answers.”
And that was it. That was all I needed to hear.
“Just a short walk.”
Once en plein air we proceed to walk about the fountains, down the marble paths ways and to the sunken garden. There was a small stone bench there, and on the floor beside it a small basket and many lit candles. I gazed in wonder as we entered the secret place.
“Had you planned this?” I asked but received no answer. Instead he let go of my arm and moved out of sight behind a group of tall bushes. When he returned he held the reins to a beautiful white horse. He led it towards me. The horse grunted at me at first, but when I raised my hand it gratefully receive a noise rub.
“This is Désirée.” Said he. “My oldest and most loyal companion.”
I smiled at him. In the candlelight I could see the compassion for the beast in his eyes and hear his love for it in his tone.
“You have a noble mount sir.” I said. “But please, what of your nature. Your name?”
“My name?” He repeated. “If it pleases you, my name is Lionel Freedman.”
“Yes. It does.”
And from here what can I tell you? I found the highwayman charming, despite his unsavoury profession, which I confess I thought must be thrilling. I studied his every movement, listen intensely to his every word, savoured his every spoken thought. And I believe he returned those favours. We sat under the moonlit sky and spoke of a great many things. We drank wine and feasted of sweetmeats that he had bestowed in the small basket I spoke of. In away I was more myself in that hour with him then I had ever been with anyone else in my life. We spoke a little about all sorts of things, such as where his beloved Désirée had come from, his dangerous encounters with the law, he asked about my family and what it was like to go to court and meet the Queen. There was no tension between us although if there had of been it might have saved us.
“Lisabeth!” Called my Mother’s voice from a distance. “Are you out here?”
Leaping from my seat I gasped at the night air, how long had we been out here?
“You must go!” I said to Lionel. “Quickly before they find you!”
He had to get away! He must leave at once and never return. If they found him he would be taken to the tower and hung as a thief, and despite that this is what he was, I could not let that happen.
“I will see you again.” He vowed.
I turned to look at him, to say goodbye but he was already gone. I smiled to myself, what a crafty villain, I thought.
“Lisabeth!” Said my Mother upon entering the sunken garden. “What are you doing out here?”
Keeping my back to my Mother I moved towards the white horse Désirée, who had not been so quick to hide and began to pat her mane.
“I came out for some fresh air.” I lied. “I have a megrim and thought it might help. But look Mother, I have found the most beautiful mare, I fear she must have wondered out of the stables. Should I return her?”
“Of course not foolish girl!” Snapped Mother in disgust, looking about her curiously at the many lit candles that thankfully no longer illuminate the casket. “You are a Lady not a grooms-maid, now come back inside, the Bacillus family wish for you to meet their son.”
And with those words she strolled off in the direction of the ballroom, expecting me to follow. I turned back to the stallion and gently kissed her cheek.
“A gift for your master.”
I then returned to the dance.