The call rang out clearly over the rattle of the coach, and the thunder of horses' hooves on the stony road.
My sister and I were sitting inside, happily teasing each other about her impending marriage. I couldn't believe she was going to do it. She had trouble with the idea that I might have an opinion, and more trouble with the possibility that I might mention this opinion at an inappropriate time. Her concerns were not without cause. I have a loose tongue.
Dora and her fiancé had intended a quick journey to Manchester to honour a friend in the theatre. She should have known Father would never have let them travel alone, even though her betrothed, Lawrence, wasn't nearly man enough to take advantage of the situation. He insisted I travel with them, as chaperone, would you believe?
"Dora," Father said, looking her square in the eyes. "I know you are an independent young woman. I know you think you should be permitted this thing, but I will not allow it. You still live under my roof, and you are affianced, not married. You will take Elizabeth with you, or you will not go. This conversation is over."
Dora and I waited until we were safely ensconced in the stagecoach before bursting into laughter at the thought of it. If ever anyone was likely to encourage her to misbehave, it was me. Father is woefully ignorant. I love him dearly, and he is a true gentleman, but he has no idea.
I rather liked the idea of travelling with Dora, in a situation where we could say as we pleased, with Lawrence unable to hear us, committed as he was to driving the coach. We had spent the first day discussing all manner of matters that would have appalled Father.
That night we'd stopped at a country inn. A comfy place, though perhaps less than clean. Lawrence would not allow us to step into the public areas of the inn, and we were confined to our room, where a meal was delivered. We ate, and prepared things for the morning, stripped for sleep, naked as always, and fell into the large bed to gossip further.
I woke with my head on my sister's arm, when a servant banged on the door and appeared with fresh water, as well as a message. "The Master," she said to us through badly gapped teeth, her voice rich with sarcasm, "wants to know if you intend rising this day, or would you wish him to arrange another night in this Godforsaken place?" Her smile after the speech was genuine. This was more interesting than most of her mornings, it seemed.
I leapt from the bed and took the water from her, forgetting once again that I wasn't dressed. She gaped at me as I pushed her out the door, sending her to ensure Lawrence was ready. Master indeed! "And bring some food, woman!" I called to her as she retreated.
I woke Dora the way I always did. I jumped on her. She screamed, as usual, and then grabbed me and we wrestled. Eventually she had me held down, and she kissed my forehead before jumping up and claiming the water to wash herself first, having won the contest. I lay there and watched. Dora really was beautiful. Far too nice for Lawrence, I thought, but just for once I didn't say so out loud.
By the time the servant returned with some breakfast, we were dressed and packed. Dora sent her off again to bring someone to fetch the bags, and we sat and ate, fighting over the scraps at the end. A stout man and his young assistant arrived to take the bags, and we followed them out to the coach, to greet a rather upset looking Lawrence.
I left Dora to calm the insipid man down, and turned to watch the men at work. There's something about the way muscles move on a man that's entrancing, and Dora had to tap me on the shoulder to get my attention so we could get into the coach.
"Don't stare so, Lizzie."
"But look, Dora. They are gorgeous."
"They are rough, uncouth, dirty country filth, Elizabeth."
"You don't find them attractive?"
"I did not say that. I do not like the dirt."
"Oh, I know what's under that!" She grinned at me.
"Now you are staring."
"You got me started. Get in, sister. Lawrence is not a happy man."
"He hardly qualifies as a man, much less happy."
"Get in, and stop that talk where he can hear you. Last chance, or I spank you right here."
"As if you could, Dora. Anyway, I might enjoy that. You think the porters would stare at us?"
The remainder of the morning was uneventful until Lawrence stopped to water the horses. I insisted I needed to deal with some water myself, and he was most tiresome about telling me that the inn would have been much more appropriate. My protests that I hadn't wanted to then were ignored completely. He wanted to follow and guard me to ensure nothing untoward happened. I was most insistent that there was no way I was doing this anywhere near him.
In the end, Dora decided that after all this talk she needed to do the same, and the two of us walked off into the woods to find somewhere appropriate to squat and relieve ourselves, leaving him fuming at us both yet again.
We returned to the coach, boarded, and resumed our journey for only a few minutes when we heard the call, and Lawrence halted the horses.
I poked my head out the stagecoach door to see a tall thin man dressed in black, sitting astride a large charcoal horse. His weathered face could have done with a shave, but he was obviously comfortable. He smiled at me before beckoning with his free hand. The other held a musket that was pointed unerringly at Lawrence.
Dora's head joined mine then, and we exchanged glances before he spoke again.
"Listen carefully, driver. I shall not repeat myself. Climb from the coach and stand before me. Ladies, alight if you would, please, and stretch your legs. I will try to detain you for as little time as possible."
"He's quite handsome," I said to Dora. She stared back and said nothing.
"Now, ladies," he called again from the horse. "Right now, if you please."
Lawrence was clambering down from his perch, obviously angry, as we climbed out. All three of us stood in the road, facing the man in black. Inevitably, Lawrence did something stupid. "How dare you!" he stormed at the man. "Let us on about our business. Stand aside, man!"
The man in black was unperturbed. "Calm down, Sir. You need not vent so. It will not impress me, and I'm sure the ladies have heard it before. Calm yourself and listen."
"I shall not, Sir. Stand aside."
He turned to Dora then, and grinned again. " Joseph Downard, Ma'am." He tipped his hat. "At your service, so to speak."
Lawrence was spitting by this time. "Do not trouble yourself with introductions Mr Downard. What do you want?"
"You're not entirely polite when stressed, are you Mr... ?"
"Pleased to meet you, Sir."
"What do you want?"
"Well, in an ideal world, Mr Hartnett, riches, women, food, wine, sunshine. But I suspect I'd better settle for less."
"Less, you scoundrel?"
"Less. Guineas will suffice, I think, on this occasion. Unless the women are surplus to requirements."
"You jest with me?"
"I draw your attention to the musket, Sir. I may jest if I wish. I meant no insult to the ladies, though it seems somewhat greedy to have two. And both so... splendid."
"Enough, Sir. This is my fiancée, and her sister. They need not hear such talk."
"They need not, if you stop talking, and hand over the cash."
"We do not have much."
"Family treasures. You shall not have them."
"The small woman. Would she like a ride on my horse?"
"How dare you!"
"I dare, Sir. What say you?"
"I have never heard the..."
"I doubt Sir that you listen, except under threat. Fetch the money, and the jewellery. Ensure it is sufficient to secure release of the women. I'm sure they are more valuable family treasures."
Lawrence turned then to return to the coach, still fuming. The highwayman climbed from his mount, and turned to face us.
"Apologies again, ladies. I plead necessity, or I should not have spoken thus before you. Might I try again to introduce myself? Joseph Downard. At your service. Nay, command."
Dora spoke then, and surprised me. "Why Sir, thank you kindly. We accept your plea. My name is Dora Nathaniel, and this is my sister, Elizabeth."
"Oh? You are not married to the loudmouth?"
"Not yet, Sir."
"It is not, it seems, too late, then?"
"Too late, Mr Downard, for what?"
"To call it off, Miss Nathaniel. In any case, pleased to have met you both. My apologies in advance for the robbery."
He took my hand then, and kissed it, grinning widely. As he reached for Dora's hand to repeat the gesture, the loudmouth returned, incensed with the gall of the man, and dropped the cashbox to the ground to attack him.
Mr Downard missed not a beat, but as his lips were pressed against Dora's hand, he lifted the musket high, and crashed it down upon poor Lawrence's head. He slumped to the ground without a sound, and stayed there.
"Oh dear," stated the highwayman quietly. "Your rescue now seems unlikely."
Dora pulled her hand from his grasp, and knelt on the road. "He's still breathing. Please don't hit him again."
"I should not have, had he not tried to attack me. Are you sure, Miss Dora, that you should marry this pretend hero?"
First, she answered, with a smile. "I am committed." And then, despite Lawrence lying on the ground, unconscious, she continued. "Had you thought I might get a better offer?"
"Not of marriage, Miss."
"I thought that might be the case."
.... There is more of this story ...