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All London loved a hanging. The city was as festive as a holiday. Vehicles of every description clattered over the rough cobblestones of the narrow streets near Newgate Prison. The air was stifling in the August heat and noisy with the cries of vendors doing a brisk business in baked potatoes and trotters and eels, lemonade and hot wine and ginger beer. It had been many years since Londoners had taken a highwayman to their hearts, and they had been gathering since the early morning hours waiting to see Captain Toby hanged.
Through this noisy crowd Lady Sherry Childe rode on her skittish dappled mare, munching on a piece of gingerbread, absentmindedly scattering crumbs down the front of a riding habit that, like she, was past its first youth. Not that Lady Sherry, even at the advanced age of twenty-seven, could be fairly called an antidote. Her person was slender and shapely, her features quite unexceptionable; her hair was a lovely red-gold color and her eyes a vivid, startling blue. Most often those eyes held a lurking twinkle, as if their owner found the world around her a source of infinite amusement; or an abstracted glaze, as if she had withdrawn altogether from the external sphere.
Sherry glanced around her. How poor the people looked in this part of town, poor and hungry and resentful. And who could blame them? Times were hard. The long years of war with France had at last drawn to an end. Napoleon had been banished to Saint Helena, and a Bourbon monarch again graced the French throne. But peace had brought with it a slump in the prices fetched by crops, and with no more war contracts, many small manufacturers were dismissing workmen. Substitution of machinery forhand labor had resulted in the dismissal of more.
All over the country banks were calling in their money. The Gazette was crowded with bankruptcy notices, and tradesmen's books with bad debts. Yet Prinny assured Parliament that manufactures and commerce were in a flourishing condition. Prinny had obviously been misinformed.
Lady Sherry roused from her ruminations to look for her groom, but that worthy was nowhere in sight. She must have lost him in the crowded streets. It didn't surprise her especially; Sherry was forever misplacing things; but it would be a pity if her groom had to miss the hanging, which he'd been looking forward to as a rare treat.
Perhaps he'd given up looking for her and had found a place for himself in the throng, which was even denser now, so close to the prison. Sherry stared at the great, forbidding gray-black hulk of Newgate, the arched gateway and narrow windows, the sheer walls and heavy cornices, the statues of Justice and Plenty in their deeply shadowed niches. Then she gazed with somewhat morbid fascination upon the moveable gallows that had been erected outside the debtors' prison door.
Twenty-odd people had been crushed to death in this very street, within sight of these gallows, several years before. Sherry had somehow managed to arrive safely at her desired destination instead of losing herself as was her habit in the confusing London streets, a circumstance that caused some of her intimate acquaintances to remark with exasperation that she had no more sense of her surroundings than a babe newborn. However, although Sherry might frequently become lost, she almost always found herself again, thus admirably bearing out her personal philosophy that, given sufficient time, things generally worked themselves out for the best.
The workmen had finished their hammering on the gallows. Bow Street officers and patrolmen paced alertly about the open space between the prison and the barriers that kept the crowd from the scaffold. Eager spectators amused themselves with jokes and jibes, the latest ballads and broadsheets; gazed out through shop windows that had been hired out for the occasion long before; shimmied up lead pipes to perch on ledges and roofs of the slum houses where wealthy families had once lived; and in general jostled one another for better vantage points.
The great bell of St. Sepulchre's began to toll at last. The black prison door opened, and the crowd roared in response, causing Lady Sherry to concentrate very hard for several moments on her skittish mare. She calmed the nervous animal and looked up in time to see a small procession pass out of Newgate. Yeoman, sheriff, executioner, man of God--The crowd roared again as the highwayman appeared, his hands bound behind his back with rope. Captain Toby had captured the public imagination as had few miscreants in recent years. He was said to be of good birth and education but with a ruinous liking for the good things of life. One tale claimed that, like many another son of the rich before him, he had turned to highway robbery because he knew no other way to pay his gambling debts. The more popular explanation was that he was an ex-soldier, newly returned home from the French wars to find no legal means of putting food on the table for his family and himself.
Sherry had no notion which version of the highwayman's history was true. The rogue did look like a gentleman, for he possessed an air of breeding and his fine, manly physique.
If a gentleman, he was a very angry one at the moment. Sherry watched him mount the gallows, flinched as the hangman adjusted the noose. Death by hanging was seldom instantaneous. The condemned man would expire horribly of slow strangulation, struggling for breath as his feet scrabbled for a foothold in the air.
Perhaps this excursion was perhaps not one of her better notions. Still, Sherry urged her horse forward through the throng, wanting to miss none of the highwayman's last speech.
The highwayman was mounted on the scaffold now, standing on the moveable platform that would fall away from under him within mere moments, to leave him hanging by the neck.
It was a pity. He was a handsome rogue. Easy enough to imagine Captain Toby accoutered for the road in cocked hat and lace and crepe mask, pistols at the ready, astride a prancing steed; outwitting hated sheriffs, humiliating arrogant nobles, redistributing wealth, consoling distraught widows. Following in the swashbuckling footsteps of Sixteen String Jack, who'd had a taste for good clothes and bad women; Dick Turpin, who'd had the honor of robbing Alexander Pope and almost made off with the Essay on Man; Captain Philip Stafford, who'd established a tradition when he stopped the executioner's cart at a tavern on the way to the gallows and quaffed a last drink, promising to pay on the way back. Gentlemen collectors every one, who had each in his turn danced the Paddington frisk, preached at Tyburn cross, dangled in the sheriffs picture frame. But now Bow Street patrols had severely cramped the style of the bold knights-errant who had once made London their mecca, and consequently the heyday of the highwayman was past. Alert patrolmen mingled with the crowd.
Lady Sherry was not the only member of the fairer sex present to cherish a secret weakness for handsome rascals blessed with swarthy complexions and dark curls and wicked green eyes. In a fevered moment, one of Captain Toby's female admirers flung a bouquet of posies at the highwayman's feet. Alas, the damsel's aim was not the best, due perhaps to an overindulgence of a potent beverage known as Blue Ruin. The posies struck the gallows with only a glancing blow and then fell smack onto the muzzle of Sherry's mare.
She calmed her startled horse. Sherry was very close to the gallows now, in her progress having made enemies of a great number of people who'd been jostled by her horse. Indeed, so very dense was the mob this near the barriers that a man could keep his feet only with difficulty.
The highwayman began to speak, first eloquently damning his prosecutor and the jury as corkbrains and paperskulls, and then consigning the entire British judiciary system--nay, the entire government--to blazes. The crowd responded to this eloquence with a resounding cheer. Screams and howls rent the air. "No starvation!" "Lower prices!" "No foreign corn!" What had started as a hanging and a holiday abruptly turned into yet another demonstration of public anger against the grinding poverty that was the working people's lot. The greatly outnumbered Bow Street men made a valiant if abortive attempt to control the mob.
Windows shattered. A woman screamed. Sherry ducked a flying brickbat and wondered if Newgate was going to be stormed. The angry mob filled the whole space before the prison and all the avenues from which the scaffold could be seen.
Her mare took fright at all the racket. Fortunately, Lady Sherry was an excellent horsewoman; otherwise she would never have kept her seat. She brought her frightened animal under control and looked about with some dismay at the full-scale riot that was underway. Then she remembered the highwayman whose hanging had been so fortuitously interrupted and glanced at the gallows. It was empty. The rogue was no longer there.
Doubtless he had taken advantage of the general confusion to make his escape. Sherry decided that she should follow the highwayman's excellent example. She urged her horse into the nearest unblocked alleyway.
The narrow passage between the tall, ramshackle buildings was dark and malodorous with the stench of rotting garbage and other foulnesses best not too closely investigated. The mare was as eager to leave behind the melée as her rider and as offended by this new stench; and Sherry was hard-pressed to hold the animal to a walk. Mere moments later, she wished she'd let the mare set her own pace, even at the risk of breaking both their necks, for a man stepped out from the shadows between the two buildings. In his hand was a pistol, aimed at Sherry's breast.
Sherry was not accustomed to this sort of thing. Before today the closest she had ever come to life's grimmer realities had been between the pages of a book. Therefore she may perhaps be forgiven if her thoughts on this unprecedented occasion were not precisely coherent. She could not help but recall the recent troubles in France.
"I mean you no harm!" she hastened to explain. "No matter how it may seem. The upper classes don't have money to spare, either, though I don't expect you to feel particularly sympathetic because we have to curb an extravagance here and there. Oh, pray don't hurt me! It won't help you put food on your table if you put my head on a pike! Although I do see that it might make you feel better about things in general, at least for a little while. But I assure you, the feeling wouldn't last!" She paused for breath. Her throat was dry, her gaze fixed on the muzzle of the pistol, which had for her something of the fascination of a cobra posed to strike. Perhaps there was still hope; she hadn't been shot outright. "Here, take my reticule! It's all I have with me, but if you let me go, I promise I shall bring you more!"
The man brandished his pistol in a manner that made Sherry's throat grow drier yet. "Blast you! I'm no thief."
Sherry knew that voice. Just moments past, she had heard it raised in eloquent denunciation of all things British. "Of course you are a thief!" she retorted, none too diplomatically, as she looked finally from the pistol to its owner's face. "You're Captain Toby. I almost saw you hanged."
The man swore a good round oath, then looked over his shoulder. The shouts of the crowd were drawing close. "What are you about?" Sherry gasped, as the highwayman grasped her horse's bridle swung up behind her.
"I'm not about to get my neck cricked!" The man took a firm grasp on her slender waist and pressed his pistol into her ribs.
She was not even briefly tempted to argue with him. Absentminded Sherry might be, but few could outthink her when she chose to concentrate her mind; and, as has been noted elsewhere, nothing forces one's faculties into so sharp a focus as the threat of imminent demise.
Sherry's faculties were very sharply focused just then. She gathered up her reins and urged her mare into a canter just as the crowd burst into the alleyway. Confused cries and shouts sounded behind them. A shot rang out.
"Get us the devil out of here!" the highwayman snapped.
Sherry needed no further urging. Nor did her mare. A second gunshot put paid to the mare's severely strained composure, and she bolted. Sherry clung to the saddle, only peripherally aware of the mean alleys and narrow courts through which they raced; of the sheep that scattered in fear at the mare's wild approach, thus guaranteeing themselves some fate other than being hurled, broken-legged, into an underground slaughterhouse; of the donkey laden with firewood that collided with a jingling costermonger's cart in their wake, resulting in a tangle that involved a pieman, a chandler, and the ragged window blind of a cheesemonger's shop.
This outing had certainly exceeded her expectations, thought Sherry, as she rode hell-for-leather through the narrow streets. Indeed, it almost exceeded belief. She had set out to witness a hanging, an undertaking that, though hardly laudable, was surely not sufficiently reprehensible to land her in jail. Now here she was, showing the law a clean pair of heels. Very well she'd done it, too, judging from the absence of additional gunshots and shouts.
The mare slowed, chest heaving, laboring for breath. Sherry felt similarly winded herself. She drew up her horse to peer cautiously out of the alley--less malodorous now, in this better part of town--and was relieved to discover herself in the vicinity of her brother's house. Her relief faded quickly when she realized what the consequences would be were she to be recognized in a highwayman's embrace. A strange word to use, perhaps, but so tightly did he clutch her, so heavily did he lean against her, that it did almost seem like an embrace. The rogue had the devil's own luck, first escaping death on the gallows and then avoiding being dashed to the cobblestones from the back of a galloping horse.
But what she was to do with him? The man was queerly silent, considering his earlier loquacity. Perhaps it was the imminence of hanging that had loosened his tongue then.
Sherry turned in her saddle as best she could, no easy task in light of his grip on her waist. "Will you please unhand me?" she inquired. "This is a very awkward business, and we are luckier than you deserve to have brought it off safe. Do pray spare me your expressions of gratitude! It is a little hobby of mine to help convicted felons escape their just deserts. I vow I disremember when I have had so excellent a time as this afternoon. However, all things must come to an end, even such rare treats as this, and so I bid you good day."
It was an excellently withering speech, one that would have caused any proper gentleman to grovel at Lady Sherry's feet in mingled remorse and shame. The highwayman did nothing of the sort. Not that Sherry had expected a proper response.
She had expected some response, however, and none was forthcoming. Exasperated, Sherry drew back on the reins and uttered a good round oath--the same good round oath that the highwayman had uttered earlier, which she had immediately and unconsciously added to her vocabulary, so greatly had it appealed to her ear. Forcibly, she pried loose his hands from her waist, in the process gaining possession of his gun. "Pray get off my horse!" she repeated, brandishing the pistol. "If you should not object!"
Captain Toby voiced no objection. He slid off the mare's back and crumpled senseless in the alley near the nervous horse's hooves.