‘Are we there yet?’ said Robert, gazing out the little window.
‘Well, Robert, what do you think?’ said Henry. If you didn’t know they were brothers, you could guess from the tone of voice – that, and the teeth.
Murray smiled politely at the couple opposite before turning to stare out the window on his side again. A stagecoach, even a relatively modern one like this, only sat four on the inside. He knew it was only because the man opposite had managed to negotiate a reduction in the fare that Murray and the two boys were being tolerated. They were not there yet.
If it were not for the steady, soaking rain, he and the boys would be on the roof. If it were not for the boys, he would be on the roof in the steady, soaking rain. The roof was empty and the air was fresh. His current income would qualify him for the roof, but as tutor to Robert and Henry he was obliged to stay indoors with them: his rank as gentleman qualified him for indoors, though his father had not spoken to him for three years and he had visited neither the family estate nor the big house in Edinburgh in that time. Regardless of social status, the motion of the coach made him too nauseous to read, so he was trying to keep himself amused by a series of songs and poems in his head. The couple opposite, a father and daughter, had not proved great company: the daughter’s admiring glance had taken in his dark hair and healthy height, while the father’s had dismissed him as an upper servant. There was little privacy in a coach compartment, and their conversation had been carried out in mutters, bad tempered on his part, and conciliatory on hers.
‘It’s going to cost a lot to marry off you two girls,’ he grumbled. ‘You think I’m made of money – how that could be after supporting the two of you all these years? Ribbons and gowns and bonnets and all that rubbish.’
‘Then how much better it will be for you if we marry?’ asked the girl. It seemed to be an old argument.
‘How can that be? For if you marry a poor man you’ll keep begging from me, and if you marry a rich one he’ll expect a fine dowry. Though at least that would be the end of it,’ he added more mildly. ‘Cathie’s the bonny one – she’ll have to find a fine husband. You can keep me in my old age. You’ll be cheaper than a housekeeper.’
The daughter had turned a little pink, and avoided Murray’s eye. She leaned towards Henry who was bent over a narrow book of route maps as well as a brown-backed book on, apparently, wildfowl.
‘So how far are we?’ the daughter asked with a thin smile. She had a broad-browed, bony face like her father’s, and crinkly red hair that probably did as it pleased. Henry looked up at her from his map book, and pointed silently to a wiggling black line. Robert glanced over his shoulder and hissed with exasperation. He hated being cooped in: Henry did not mind, but was sulking because his new ferret was in a box on the roof, banned from travelling on his lap. If he was not being paid quite generously to be their tutor, Murray would have abandoned them some time ago.
‘Oh, I don’t fancy this bit!’ said the daughter. ‘I’ve heard there are highwaymen here!’
Robert immediately brightened: the father scowled.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Emma. In broad daylight?’
Even as he spoke, the coach lurched to a halt.
‘Stand and deliver!’ came a clear, sharp voice from outside.
‘Boys, stay here.’ Murray slipped the catch and jumped out of the coach. The road was narrow, but in a curve of rock there stood, indeed, a man on horseback, wearing a tight black mask and pointing a pair of pistols. The coachman was staring at him as if in a dwam.
‘Are you a real highwayman?’ asked Robert. He was already standing beside Murray.
‘I thought I told you to stay in the coach?’ He pushed Robert behind him.
‘Oh, sir, you really couldn’t expect him to obey an order like that,’ said Henry, also emerging. It was a fair point.
‘And don’t reach for your guns,’ the highwayman snapped at the coachman, who instantly raised his hands obediently. ‘I want all your valuables.’
‘Emma, do not leave this coach!’
The daughter was now pushing her way out of the compartment, fighting with her skirts. She took one look at the highwayman and fainted, neatly avoiding a puddle. Her father, peering out like Mr. Punch from the booth, began shouting and swearing both at the highwayman and, apparently, at his daughter, who did not move.
‘He’s killed the ugly woman!’ cried Robert. ‘Hit him, Mr. Murray!’
‘You will not take my money, you filthy fiend!’ cried the old man. ‘Get up, Emma, he must not take my money!’
‘Robert, be quiet, unless you want to be shot,’ said Murray, and grabbed him before the boy lunged at the highwayman himself.
‘We don’t really have any valuables,’ said Henry politely, ‘except for some books, and I assume you are not particularly interested in those. I have a shilling, though.’ He fished it from his waistcoat pocket, and stepped forward to present it to the highwayman like a gratuity. Murray wondered if Henry was brave or simply lacked imagination. The highwayman seemed puzzled, too, but he dropped one pistol into a pocket, took the shilling and slipped it into a saddlebag. Then he swung himself off the horse, and strode over to the coach, stepping carefully around the prone Emma. He reached inside, grabbed the old man by the collar and pulled him out, ignoring his hoarse protests, then felt inside again and found the two small leather boxes Emma had brought into the coach with her: typical ladies’ travelling jewel boxes, he was able to pin them under one arm while still holding the pistol in his other hand. He kept the pistol directed roughly at the travellers while he pushed the boxes into his saddlebags. Murray tried to memorise something of his appearance: the man was quite tall and well-built, and surely that was a little dark hair at his neck, between mask and neck cloth? The horse, a fine one but more used, Murray gauged, to the shafts than the saddle, stood a little bored, pawing one hoof gently on the ground. The horse was black except for that foot: it was white, in a little frill around the hoof like a lace cuff.
The old man was keeping up a remarkable flow of complaint and profanity, competing with the glamorous highwayman for Robert’s admiration. The highwayman, with gritted teeth, finished packing his saddlebags, then crossed to the old man and slapped him hard with his empty hand. The old man’s eyes nearly popped out of his head: clearly he had never been so affronted in his life. Then the highwayman leaned over Emma and grabbed her, not so roughly, by the chin, turning her face upwards.
‘Fainted, that’s all,’ he remarked generally. He returned to his horse, which stirred itself into some interest in the proceedings, slipped up easily into the saddle, waved his pistol at them as a final warning, and galloped off ahead of them down the road, quickly disappearing round a bend between the rocky walls.
The silence was broken by a groan from the daughter, who stirred a little. Murray at last let go of Robert and went to help her up.
‘I hope you are all right?’ he asked, and noticed, as she straightened her cloak, that she was wearing a rather fine ruby necklace around her sturdy neck.
‘We have been robbed!’ she cried, catching up quickly.
‘I am afraid he took both your jewel boxes.’
‘Careless of you, Emma,’ said her father, recovering from the shock of his insult. ‘Why you had to bring them both with you I do not know. They will not be replaced, not by me. Fortunately he took fright before he found my money.’
‘Why did you not punch him, Mr. Murray? Why did you not try to stop him?’ demanded Robert.
‘A fist is of limited use against a pistol, Robert, and I had no wish to provoke him into shooting anyone. Who knows, he might have shot you. Besides ...’ He had not been robbed by a highwayman before, but he had a niggling feeling that there had been something not quite right about this one. He stared away down the road to where the highwayman had disappeared.
They arrived at the next village somewhat subdued.
‘Nearly home, then, Father!’ said the daughter with brittle cheeriness.
‘You live here?’ Murray asked.
‘Nearby. Our man should be here to meet us.’
‘You’ll want to report the theft to the sheriff, though,’ Murray suggested.
‘Oh, aye,’ said the man, with emphasis. ‘Rascal has my jewels. Slapped my face, as if I was some cheeky miss. I’ll see him hanged.’
‘He was going to shoot me, Mr. Murray said so!’ Robert felt privileged.
‘He was not going to shoot you, Robert,’ said Murray.
‘Though I might,’ added Henry.
The village was small, with the inn the largest building in it. The coachman, whose opinions on the theft had not been canvassed, ran expertly under the archway and into the yard, and the travellers stretched and disembarked. The man looked about impatiently.
‘Where is our carriage?’ he demanded. A thin little man, leaning to one side with what looked like perpetual humility, scurried across.
‘Mr. Rennie, sir, the carriage is not here.’
‘Petie?’ The man squinted short-sightedly at him. ‘Why not?’
‘One of the horses was stolen last night, sir. Taken from the field before we could bring it into the stable.’
Mr. Rennie’s bony face went red, his little eyes narrow.
‘Stolen? Stolen? What is the state of this country? Jewels one minute, horses the next, slapped on the face like a common girl, guns waved, nearly lost my money ...’ To Robert’s delight, off he went again in a barrage of profanity. Murray took Robert gently by the ear, and propelled both boys into the inn.
With a room secured for the night, Murray and the boys had settled down to dinner when Mr. Rennie and his daughter appeared.
‘Since I have no carriage,’ began Mr. Rennie, acidly, ‘I have asked the Sheriff to meet us here. Keep your meal simple,’ he added to Emma. ‘I’m not made of money.’
The sheriff did indeed join them, and between them they described the incident.
‘I can tell you exactly what he looked like!’ said Emma excitedly. ‘He was quite short, with reddish hair –’
‘How do you know? You fainted!’ Robert interrupted.
‘Robert! No pudding,’ said Murray. Robert looked as if he would try to plead the justice of his remark, but subsided. A well-built young man with dark hair placed another dish of bread on the table and retreated, smelling of horses.
‘And the fellow rode off this way?’ asked the Sheriff, neat and efficient. ‘We have had no other reports of such robbery in the district. Your men told me that one of your horses was stolen last night, Rennie: could the two be connected, do you think?’
‘How should I know?’ demanded Rennie crabbily. ‘Jewels stolen, slapped on the face, guns waved – the kevel was on a horse, that’s all I ken. Damn’ poor light in that road.’
Or you’re too mean to buy spectacles, Murray thought impolitely.
‘Well, what like was the horse that was stolen?’ asked the Sheriff patiently.
‘Black,’ said Rennie shortly.
Black, indeed, thought Murray.
It was dark by the end of dinner, and time for the boys to be in bed. They said polite goodbyes to the Rennies, who were resigned to walking home, and Murray escorted the boys upstairs and saw them settled. He was preparing his cloak for his own night on a chair (he rarely found a inn bed built for a frame as long as his) when Henry suddenly said,
‘Oh, Mr. Murray, can I have my ferret?’
‘It’s fine in the stable.’
‘But it’ll be cold.’
‘I doubt it. It’s probably cosier than we are.’ The room was damp, and not as well-heated as it might be.
‘Please, Mr. Murray ...’
‘Oh,’ Murray pulled his cloak back around his shoulders before he changed his mind, ‘all right. Stay here and behave – and I mean that.’
The stable was warm, and now the rain had stopped and the clouds cleared, the moon lit it well. It took only a moment to find the ferret box. He turned to go, and noticed the horse beside the coachhorses – it was black.
‘Hello,’ said Murray quietly, touching its soft nose. ‘Have we met before?’ He peered down to see the lace cuff around the horse’s hoof. ‘I thought so. Now, where is your luggage?’ The corn bing seemed an obvious place, but so much about this episode had been obvious it was worth looking. Yes, there were the saddlebags. Murray reached in, and pulled out one box. It contained jewels, quite good quality, as far as he could see. He reached for the other box. Jewels again, but this time there was something else – a large, ordinary looking key. He thought for a second, then slid the boxes back into the saddlebags and the bags into the bing. He found an empty stall, curled up in the corner with the ferret box, and waited.
He did not have to wait long. In a few minutes, a man appeared in the doorway, tallish and well-built, as the highwayman had been. The man padded silently into the stable, and felt inside the corn bing, drawing out what could only be the key. He slid it into a pocket, then hauled out the saddlebags and began to harness the black horse, leaning finally to fiddle with something around the horse’s feet. Murray listened: when the man led the horse out into the yard, he heard how the hooves had been muffled with sacking. He waited a moment, and followed. Behind him, though he did not notice, two small shadows skittered away from the wall after him.
They left the village quickly for the countryside on a road unknown to Murray, off the stage route. After about half an hour, they reached a hamlet of houses, the nearest one a substantial building with a high wall around it. It was in darkness. The house faced the road, but the man found a side lane and took the horse there. Murray followed, keeping close to the hedge.
The man came to a tree by a little side gate. He looped the horse’s reins on a branch, took out the key and opened the gate. He glanced around, then entered silently.
Murray hurried over, slid a hand over the horse’s nose in greeting, and shinned up the tree. He was in time to see the man making his way up a garden path towards the back of the house. The man was looking up at the house, and shortly a window was eased open. A figure squeezed out, clung for a second, then dropped into the man’s arms. It was a woman.
The pair hurried back to the gate. Murray waited for them to reach it, then turned to jump out of the tree. Just as the pair came through the gate, Murray hit – not the ground, but two relatively soft bodies, and dropped the ferret box. It split, and the ferret not unreasonably fled.
‘My ferret!’ cried the first body, and Henry shot after it. He hit the woman emerging from the gate, and knocked her over. The man, shocked, lashed out at the mysterious figures, and Murray tried to catch his arm. Instead he succeeded in thumping him on the jaw, and the man folded down. The woman, already on the ground, screamed as he fell on her. Robert gave a yell of delight and set off after Henry, and in the garden somewhere a dog started to bark. Windows opened, a candle appeared, and the newly-familiar grumbling voice of Mr. Rennie began his characteristic rant.
‘What is going on? What is that damned dog on about?’
Then came Emma’s voice, quick and soothing.
‘It’s fine, Father. He’s just after a fox – I saw it myself. I’ll go and calm him – you know you don’t like going out after dark.’
The window slammed again. In a couple of moments a lantern outlined the gateway. Emma appeared, the dog held by the collar. The light fell on Murray’s face, and her jaw dropped.
‘You? What are you doing here? And who – oh, Cathie, what are you doing on the ground? Get up, quickly.’ She poked her sister with one slippered toe. Cathie wriggled.
‘My poor love’s injured! This man hit him!’ The man groaned, but sat up.
‘Oh, for pity’s sake, do I have to do everything for you? Get him up and get going before Father comes out. Mr. Murray,’ continued Emma in the same whisper, turning to him with what for her was a winning smile, ‘come walk with me a moment, for this poor dog needs calming down. Come away from the house if talking must be done.’
She led him a little down the lane, away from the pair on the ground.
‘I gather I have walked in upon an elopement, Miss Rennie, perhaps between your sister and an amateur highwayman – and your father’s carriage horse?’
‘Well, that’s what it will be if they get themselves organised.’ She flung a glare at her sister and the man, who still sat on the ground. ‘He worked for us, they fell in love, he has no money, my father is rich but mean – you know the story. Now they have all her jewellery – not mine – and she is free, and off they will go, if you do not stop them. Oh!’
For the dog, who had suddenly scented the ferret, had twisted from her hand and was off down the lane. Henry heard it coming, gave a yelp and made a final grab for his ferret. With unexpected fraternal co-operation, Robert leapt for another tree and seized his brother’s hand, pulling him up. Robert had never been keen on dogs. The dog ran round the foot of the tree, yelping at both boys and ferret, until Murray and Emma ran up and once again seized his collar, breathless.
And in that moment, they heard the beating of hooves, and when they turned the lane was empty and the horse, the man and the woman had all gone, vanished into the night.
‘Was that the highwayman?’ called Robert from his tree.
‘It was, Robert, however briefly,’ said Murray. ‘But I think this is his last raid. He has what he came for.’