I confess I froze as Captain Jeffries pointed his pistol at me.
“Now,” he said, “heed me, and you will live. Wield your weapon with menace but do not fire lest you are fired upon. We have enough grief as is without being hanged for murder.”
“But captain,” I said, shifting in my saddle, “I wonder how it matters? Is not the penalty for our trade death?”
Jeffries, astride his mount, winced beneath the black crepe that covered most of his face. His eyes narrowed, and I thought he would breech his own code by sending a lead ball through me.
“Let us not dwell on unhappy thoughts,” he said. “For the moment, let us be merry. Your first adventure must be thrilling and—” he winked. “—most important, lucrative!”
Jeffries chuckled beneath his mask as I tried not to stare. In truth, he was dashingly handsome in his all-black breeches, silk stockings to match, and leather boots which reached to his thighs. Over his grey doublet, he wore a long dark cloak, and to add to a sense of menace brandished not one but two pistols, with a sheathed sword at his hip. Indeed, this was a captain ready to ride to battle.
To my amazement, so was I! I wore much the same raiment (for my costume belonged to Jeffries), though I bore but one pistol, and my doublet was green. To distinguish us further, I felt the strange discomfort of wearing another’s clothes. I could feel the cuffs of my sleeves brushing past my fingertips; while my hat, festooned with feathers, fell nearly over my eyes. Since I was not yet half Jeffries’s age, nor nearly as tall and bulky, I must have looked like a comical child.
“It is time,” said Jeffries, spurring his horse forward while reaching to grab my reins. We rode across a road pitted with rocks and the wheel marks of many coaches.
As our horses trotted up a hill, nearly sending me out of my stirrups, Jeffries delivered a final word: “Remember—your task is to show swagger even if you feel fear.”
“But I have no actual skill,” I said, sharp pains striking my thighs as they pressed into hard leather. At that moment, I felt I could have crawled home and begged Father for forgiveness.
“Megs,” Jeffries said, “recall—you were the one who sought me out. It was your wish to join me, and surely you comprehend this is not like serving beer. You must be bold. You must be quick. But most of all, be merry!”
He let loose a raucous laugh that shook his powerful body. I had observed through the years that despite his love of good wine, he had never put on an ounce. But I had no time for further thought as a dreaded clatter—iron wheels scattering pebbles—sounded around a bend.
“Your deflowering!” Jeffries crowed, letting loose my reins and handing them up to me. “Do not disappoint, dear Megs, or tarnish my name as a ‘parfit, gentil’ thief.”
With that, he slapped my horse full on the rear, causing it to plummet like a chick thrown from its nest.
Beneath my own black mask, I tried to recall Jeffries’s words: Always search the coach—for weapons and hidden treasure. Be courteous to ladies, and a gentleman to gentlemen.
My limbs shaking, I fought to keep my seat.
“Halt!” I cried, swooping upon a coach bearing a gold crest on its door. It was manned by a crusty old driver seated beside a shooter. The four harnessed horses obeyed (or at least the coachman did), and I boldly halted their progress on the Road to Bath. So boldly, in fact, that the coach’s glass window shook.
My next words might be familiar, but for my first time, they thrilled:
“Stand and deliver!” I cried. “Your money or your life!”
Thank the blessèd Lord, that poor “shooter” was armed with a sword, while I had a flintlock pistol. I watched as his steel blade clanked to the road and lay silent.
“Whom do you carry?” I asked, motioning with my pistol that both men were to descend.
“Lady Castlemaine,” the driver growled.
I snickered beneath my mask.
“Old Rowley’s mistress?” I asked.
I was answered by a dark-eyed lady who stepped gracefully out of her coach. God’s blood, she was hardly older than me, and I was but eighteen!
“If you mean the king, then yes,” she said, as unruffled at being in the road as she would have been at Whitehall. I marveled at her calm, not to mention her dress: so much gold fabric encased her that she looked less gowned than minted!
Next, what drew my eye was of course her ornaments: she wore three strands of pearls and a brooch worth more than most earn in a lifetime. With caution, I leaned from my mount.
“Your keepsakes, madam,” I said, pointing to them with my black glove.
“Very well,” she sighed, “but know they are gifts from the king.”
“Lady,” I told her, gesturing at the road, “in this place, I am king.”
I was rewarded with a laugh and even a small curtsy.
“How glad I am,” she said, “that gallantry still exists in our high tobys. So many are lowborn now.”
“Rest assured, Lady Castlemaine, that though I do not dance like the famed outlaw Du Vall, still, I strive to be courteous.”
I inclined my hat, red feathers and all, to her, then rapidly pulled up the brim which had fallen over my eyes.
“Well, I must admit,” she said, “I don’t mind the infrequent robbery. Such a tale it will make in court!”
I knew that Jeffries would rage if I did not search the coach, but my victim was so good-humored that I did not have the heart.
“Good day to you,” I said, with another tug of my hat. “Pray give my regards to the king.”
“And who shall I say they are from?” she asked, as the waiting coachman and guard looked on with open mouths.
“I am called Megs,” I said.
“What a curious name.”
“And what a curious creature,” said I. “The king, though married to a staunch Catholic, has more mistresses than you have pearls!” I dangled her strands from my glove.
“Ha! I love a good wit. I will pass your good wishes to Charles. He will be greatly amused.”
“As one would expect from our merry monarch,” I said.
With a final half bow, I spurred my mount a few paces until it thankfully brought me to Jeffries’s side.
“Well done, young Megs!” said the captain, giving me such a clap on the back that I nearly hit the rough heath. “There’s no doubt my London fence can get us sixty pounds for the pearls and two-hundred for the brooch. It is well that our dear Charles gifts his harem so richly.”
“Queen Catherine will not share your joy,” I said, “but I can affirm that I do.”
“With this bounty,” said Jeffries, lifting up the brooch so that its gold glinted in the sun, “there’s no sleeping rough tonight! After I conduct my business, let us make for my favorite inn—I can almost taste the wine now!”
As my horse trotted beside him, jolting my innards until I felt they would burst, I tried my best to be merry. Yet, despite my smile, I felt a sense of foreboding. It was one thing to escape one’s prison—quite another to return.