This month I am sharing the first chapter of my current WIP. The story begins when highwaymen accost Elizabeth, Jane, and Mrs. Gardiner near Pemberley. Suspicion falls on Mr. Darcy, who is rumored to be suffering a bit of financial strain. Of course, Darcy being Darcy, he pays no attention to the gossip, which leads to dire consequences.
This article is longer than usual for me, and for that I apologize, but in reading through it, I could not find a good place to edit, so I just left things alone.
“I grew up in Lambton,” Mrs. Gardiner said to her nieces as the carriage followed the route around a corner. “I remember it as a beautiful town when I lived there, and the residents taking pride to keep it that way.”
“But that was several years ago,” offered Elizabeth Bennet, not as a reminder of passing time, but more a suggestion things had probably changed since her aunt’s last visit.
Mrs. Gardiner’s countenance took on a reflective gaze as if she were recalling the past, with its memories of former friends and acquaintances.
Elizabeth knew of her aunt’s fondness for the town, her home from birth until her marriage to Mrs. Bennet’s brother some ten years previously.
Though blessed with a happy union, to a husband who adored her and did all in his power to ensure her satisfaction and good humor, she insisted on returning each year. Elizabeth suspected her aunt’s motive had as much to do with catching the latest town gossip as in visiting childhood friends or viewing changes to the settlement’s landscape.
At the remark, her aunt straightened in her seat and impaled her with a stern gaze before saying: “I am not so old that the memory of the cleanest municipality in all of England has faded. When I was a little girl, the residents used to wash the streets twice daily, in the morning upon waking, and again in the evening before dark.
“We also washed our houses weekly, and repainted them every year. You would be hard-pressed to find litter of any kind lying in the streets, because anyone careless enough to throw their refuse without regard for their actions we caught and locked in the pillory. That was a cause for celebration, and I remember joining in the merriment of throwing rotten fruits or eggs at the guilty party all day, and then watching the constable whip him before setting him free.”
“How barbaric,” exclaimed Elizabeth’s sister Jane, “to beat and debase a man for the stupid act of ridding himself of unwanted waste. And you found it worth celebrating? I am not sure I care to visit this town if they treat their citizens so callously.”
“I think she is teasing you,” said Elizabeth in response to Jane’s distress. “She knows the mere mention of such treatment will excite your sense of outrage.”
Turning to her aunt, whose bemused expression masked the love Elizabeth knew she held for each of them, she scolded: “Really, must you upset her like this? You, of all people, should be able to sympathize, after watching her tend your children with such love and devotion, since they were babies.”
Mrs. Gardiner’s eyes flashed in amusement at Elizabeth’s mild censure, bringing forth an answering smile from her niece. “I know, and I am sorry,” was her unconvincing confession, “but the temptation was hard to resist.
“From what I remember, though, it was a lovely town, and reasonably well maintained, but I confess to some bias for my birthplace, something I will always have.”
“It might surprise me if you were to claim complete impartiality in the matter,” laughed Elizabeth. “So with your lie exposed, what can you tell us about the county? The truth, mind you, not the fanciful tales you want us to believe.”
Mrs. Gardiner sat back and regarded her companions for a few minutes without speaking, which Elizabeth took as a sign she was contemplating her response to the question. Elizabeth knew she would answer truthfully this time, her momentary bit of humor set aside.
While the woman made it a point to visit Lambton every year, this was Elizabeth and Jane’s first time. The suggestion they accompany their aunt had come as a surprise to both sisters, as well as Mrs. Gardiner.
Her husband, Edward, was her normal traveling companion, but an unexpected difficulty forced him to remain in London, to his wife’s disappointment. She had arrived at Longbourn, the Bennet family estate, with her children, their trunks loaded to prepare for their four-week visit, as happened every summer.
This year, however, she was alone, having determined to go on by herself. Mrs. Bennet, always loving and supportive, suggested she take her two eldest daughters instead, and thus they settled the matter.
The journey had so far been delightful, Elizabeth thought, and knew Jane agreed with her. Mrs. Gardiner was both girls’ favorite aunt, and closer in age to them than Mrs. Bennet’s sister, Mrs. Philips, which certainly helped. She seemed conscious of the fact that neither of the Bennet girls had ever been to this part of England and thanked them for agreeing to join her this year, both before their departure and every morning and evening since.
Elizabeth watched her aunt gather her thoughts before speaking, a process she went through whenever she encountered a question which demanded more than a quick answer.
“All joking aside, the town is pretty, and the tidiest I have ever seen,” Mrs. Gardiner began before quickly adding, “and no, Jane, the town’s residents do not draw and quarter those who litter, or subject them to cruel and unusual punishment for their crimes.”
“I hope not,” laughed Jane in reply, “when a simple public shaming should suffice in showing them the error of their ways.”
“Precisely,” Mrs. Gardiner agreed. “Although a well-attended flogging can be an evening well spent. It brings a community together in a spirit of camaraderie and fun.”
“Stop it, Aunt!” exclaimed the two, almost in unison.
“If I may continue, they built the township on the side of a hill, which is part of its charm. The streets can be a challenge to walk, as some of them are steep. Anybody who has lived there for longer than a year or two is fit, as the simple act of getting around town builds up the strength in your legs.”
“That sounds interesting,” mused Elizabeth, who always enjoyed a pleasant walk, the more strenuous the better. “To exercise at the same time as you shop might be a lot of fun.”
“Not to me,” said Jane emphatically. “I prefer easy access to the shops I frequent, thank you very much. The idea of being too winded to browse a merchant’s wares sounds more like punishment than something enjoyable. I would prefer to have myself transported from one to the next. Then I can appreciate the merchandise, rather than huffing and puffing to catch my breath.”
“I think you have it too easy at home, Jane, with Mama and me to answer your every whim. Some days I suspect you would rather stay abed all day than rise and tend to personal matters.”
Mrs. Gardiner shook her head: “Now who is teasing who? Jane is no lazier than you and is certainly not someone given to expecting the servants to wait on her hand and foot. The guilt alone might drive her mad.”
“You have me there,” laughed Elizabeth. “Jane is one of the few people I know who feels guilty about servants tending to our needs at home. They might persuade her to give them the estate if not for Papa’s presence.”
“I doubt she would go to that extreme, but you should watch her, anyway.”
“You realize I am still here, and listening to your discussion?”
Elizabeth and her aunt laughed at Jane’s statement, both knowing she was not above poking fun at herself and unlikely to take offense at the mild teasing her traveling companions were giving her.
“The fact had not slipped our minds,” said Elizabeth, still laughing. “But you possess a unique affinity for those less fortunate, and a consuming desire to improve their lot in life.
“Your future husband, whoever that lucky man is, will need to be constantly on his guard so he does not end up in the poorhouse because of your attempts to share his wealth with all the servants.”
“As usual, you are exaggerating a bit, Lizzy. I would never give away all of his belongings, just enough to make them comfortable.”
“But who decides what it takes to make someone comfortable? Surely you cannot leave it up to the servants. The temptation to ask for more than they need might be irresistible.”
Jane’s countenance, until then lighthearted and cheerful, became somber, to Elizabeth’s regret. She was well aware of her sister’s compassion for anyone who had not been as favored in life, and her desire to lift them up and make their lives better.
More than once Elizabeth had watched as Jane gave all her money to a poor soul she met while shopping, leaving her without funds to pay for the purchase she had come to town to complete.
Elizabeth feared this conversation, despite its beginning as back-and-forth jesting between the sisters, was in danger of depressing Jane and robbing her of the day’s enjoyment.
She could not let that happen. But how to change the course of her thoughts and restore her good humor?
From Elizabeth’s experience, Jane, once her delicate soul was disturbed, might take hours to recover anything resembling a cheerful mood. Thoughts of the world’s incivility and proclivity to hold unfortunate wretches down was ample reason to bring tears to her eyes.
The slowing of the carriage broke into her thoughts, sending plans of reclaiming her sister’s good humor to the back of her mind.
“Have we arrived?” asked Elizabeth as all movement ceased, “because I assumed there might be more buildings, and one or two citizens about.”
She poked her head out the window and saw a man sitting astride a horse in the middle of the highway, his mount positioned in such a way as to block the coach from proceeding further. Beside him was another, who raised his hand in a friendly wave when Elizabeth looked out of the cabin. Both men held pistols pointed in their direction.
With a gasp she pulled her head back into the cabin and exclaimed: “There are two men in the road, and they are wearing masks.”
“There must be a logical explanation,” was Mrs. Gardiner’s response before pushing her head through the window. No sooner had she got a view of what Elizabeth described than she gave a gasp of her own and retreated to the dubious safety of their cabin.
“What do they want?” asked she, her voice quavering, echoing the fear Elizabeth struggled to contain. “Are they going to ravish us? What about my children, and what will Edward do without me to help raise them?”
“If you follow m-my instructions, no one will harm you,” they heard from a man, who opened the door and stepped away from the carriage while beckoning for them to exit the conveyance.
Elizabeth, being the first out, took it upon herself to study the men stopping them from continuing to their destination. The one who had opened the door was a tall man with a surety in his manner, as if the possibility of anyone denying his orders were remote.
His hair was light brown and streaked through with a darker shade, as though constant exposure to the sun had bleached a part of his head while leaving the rest unchanged.
He wore a mask over his eyes and mouth, making it impossible to do any more than imagine his hidden face, but the icy blue of his pupils, which were almost hypnotic in their intensity, startled Elizabeth.
His lips, though covered, were full enough that no mask could hide them completely, and Elizabeth forgot her situation in a fleeting daydream about their touch against hers.
Broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist and hips, which became strong looking legs, ending in feet clad in what appeared to be expensive boots, although covered by the road’s dust.
His companion, having mounted the carriage, was opening the trunks lashed to its roof. He thrust his fists into each, and soon had clothing and undergarments scattered about the top of the vehicle as he searched through each trunk’s contents.
Try as she might, she saw only his back, as he seemed to want to avoid her inspection, always keeping it facing her.
“Please, stand over there, off the roadway,” the first man was saying when she turned her attention back to him. “It would bother m-me immensely if something untoward were to happen to you while you are in my company.”
“The very act of forcing our carriage to stop is untoward,” said Elizabeth, her need to point out the hypocrisy in the man’s words overcoming any fear she might feel.
“Lizzy, be quiet.” hissed Mrs. Gardiner. “If we give him what he wants, maybe he will let us go.”
“Your companion is correct, m-miss. Follow m-my instructions and you will be on your way in good time.”
“Other than your concern for our safety, which is suspect, we have received no instructions. Or are you in the habit of stopping travelers just so you have someone to bother, and your accomplice likes going through their possessions?”
“Are you normally this insolent,” laughed their captor, “or am I just the lucky recipient of your humor?”
“Your idea of luck differs from mine,” retorted Elizabeth, “and where is our driver? He is not in his seat; have you injured him?”
“Your driver is safe, although we had to restrain him. It looked to m-me like he was going to drive around us, despite the pistols John and I were holding. When he finally reined the horses in, he refused to climb down to let John inspect your luggage.”
“What have you done to him?” asked Mrs. Gardiner, her fear seemingly forgotten in the worry over their driver. “I promise you will hang if he is hurt.”
“He is tied to a tree to keep him from interfering, which is what will happen to you if you continue to ask questions.”
Elizabeth saw the threat work, as her aunt’s head fell in submission and Jane’s gaze dropped to the ground.
She, on the other hand, had no intention of making this reprobate’s task any easier: “I hope your friend is finding something to his liking among my undergarments, or is he looking for something more to your taste?”
“Lizzy, watch what you say. We don’t want him mad at us.” came from Mrs. Gardiner, whose face had turned white as Elizabeth taunted the thief.
“A good question, coming from someone who I would almost expect to be wearing a man’s trousers, from your m-manner. Is it your need to prove yourself better than any m-man, or regret for not coming up with this idea to support yourself and your husband, who is probably at home tending to the house like a common scullery maid?”
“I can just imagine,” came the taunting reply. “But enough of our witty repartee’. My partner has concluded his inspection of your finery, and from the look on his face he did not find sufficient to reimburse us for our trouble today.
“Now, I know beautiful ladies such as yourselves are unlikely to travel without a few pieces of jewelry to enhance your appearance, should you decide to attend an assembly in Lambton.”
“What makes you think Lambton is our destination? We might just as well be going to Sheffield.”
“Well, you m-might, but not today. That is another two days or more from here, so you are staying in Lambton, as the day is passing and there is nothing else near enough. You might decide to continue through the night, I suppose, but I doubt your driver will stay awake that long.
“If you will be patient, my companion will inspect the cabin for valuables, then I will do the same with you beautiful ladies. My apologies, but I have obligations to meet, and so far you have been distressingly uncooperative.”
Elizabeth had no worries about losing any jewelry to this thief because she owned nothing of consequence. A sudden intake of breath, however, reminded her of the piece Jane had brought for just such an outing as their captor described.
It was a somewhat valuable piece, handed down from mother to eldest daughter for six generations. Its center was in the shape of a rose, surrounded by stylized leaves. Small pearls set in gold gave the brooch a distinctive shape and luster unlike any other Elizabeth had ever seen. A lead pin on the back supplied the means of fastening the jewelry to clothing.
“Where is it?” whispered she to her sister, hoping their captor did not overhear.
“In my hand. I hope he does not think to ask me what I am holding.”
“That is, I fear, a foregone conclusion. Stand close to me, and when he searches you, hand it to me. When he finishes, I will give it back. Maybe we can keep it away from him.”
Unfortunately, the man was thorough, as if he had been through this situation before, or one much like it.
Approaching Elizabeth, he asked that she show him her hands, which she did without hesitation. He then asked her to empty the purse she clutched in her hand, having taken it with her upon exiting the carriage.
The purse was empty of everything except an old letter from a former suitor, the relationship having ended by mutual agreement two years ago. She kept it as a souvenir of a once promising courtship that had quickly proven unworkable.
“What about your pockets?” he asked, his frustration with the fruitless search easy to hear.
“Pockets? I have no pockets.”
“Do you take m-me for a fool?” demanded he, pointing to the slit in her skirt where the pocket in question was to be found. “I can clearly see its opening, even from here. While I am not inclined to reach in and explore, my friend has no compunction about doing so. Now, I will ask you once more, what about your pockets?”
“They are empty,” replied Elizabeth. “I find it uncomfortable to ride in a coach with a full pocket hitting me every time we hit a bump, which is a regular occurrence.
“If he wants to put his hands where no gentleman ever would, I cannot stop him, but he will find nothing.”
“What about you?” asked the thief, fastening his attention on Jane, who Elizabeth felt stiffen in fear at the question. “What do you have that I might be interested in?”
“N-nothing,” answered Jane, her fear unmistakable. “I have nothing, do I, Lizzy?”
“She has not,” said Elizabeth while trying to work her way back to Jane’s side to take the jewelry before the thief discovered it.
“None of us are wealthy, so why not leave? We will say nothing about this, and you will be free to rob someone else.”
As Elizabeth spoke, she reached behind her sister, whose fear manifested itself in sweaty hands and a shiver that seemed to consume her body.
Jane’s hands moved toward Elizabeth’s, but just before she accepted the brooch from her sister, it slipped from Jane’s hand, landing on the ground between them. Elizabeth moved her foot to cover it, hoping she was not damaging the precious family heirloom.
Their captor, however, was not to be denied his spoils. Elizabeth saw him nod to his partner, whereupon she felt herself moved from her position, exposing the prize when she stepped to the side to keep from falling.
“It would appear they do have something to hide, William,” said John before allowing Elizabeth to return to her earlier position.
With a knowing smile, he strode forward and bent to retrieve what they had failed to conceal. While turning it over, he scrutinized it, his sighs and nodding head telling Elizabeth that Jane’s property was as good as lost to this criminal.
“Thank you,” said he with a bow and a flourish. “I am grateful for your contribution to the cause. This will help to support me.
“You may resume your journey and I wish you a safe arrival at your destination. Thank you for paying the Derbyshire toll so freely; you cannot imagine how much aid this will be.”
Beckoning to his accomplice, they mounted their horses and rode away, leaving the women to free the driver and gather their wits before they set about placing everything back into their trunks for the resumption of their journey.
“What will Mama say when I tell her I lost her brooch?” said Jane through tears as their journey began once more. “She will never forgive me. Why was I so foolish in bringing it along? If not for my vanity, this would not have happened.”
Elizabeth’s attempts to comfort her distraught sister were for naught, as Jane was beside herself with worry and self-recrimination over the loss of her mother’s favorite piece of jewelry, and her most valuable as well.
Their arrival in Lambton was not a joyous affair, although Jane’s tears finally ended. Mrs. Gardiner paid and had their luggage brought up to their rooms so they could rearrange the garments that were so carelessly disturbed.
“We will meet in the dining-room in an hour for a bit of supper,” said she as they parted ways, each bound for their assigned room.
“I am not hungry, Aunt,” replied Elizabeth, to which Jane nodded in agreement. “I just want to straighten my things and go to bed.”
“Nonsense,” stated Mrs. Gardiner firmly. “A light meal will do both of you some good, and help you sleep tonight. Now is not the time to dwell on what happened. There will be time enough for that tomorrow and the next day.”
Turning on her heel, she entered her room, the closing of her door informing them the matter was not open to argument.
Some notes of explanation:
The prevailing justice system plays a big part in the novel, especially at the climax, and that is all I can say without revealing too much.
This is still the first draft material, I have not started editing, so the finished version will feature improved grammar, sentence structure, etc. I wanted to give you a taste of the story, but had hoped to be further along in my writing. Oh well, c’est la vie. We don’t always get what we want.
The Highwayman is at present only a working title, as I have not come up with the name. I find, and Jann agrees, that the title of any story either comes easily, or with great effort. This, unfortunately, is one of the latter instances. I also wish I had a cover to share with you, but I’m still concentrating on finishing my first draft. I hope to publish in September, but I cannot guarantee I will have the editing and everything else finished in time.
I am having this cover professionally designed, so it will look more appealing than Disgraceful Conduct. That is a bit of an expense, but the results should be worth the money. If not, I’ll go back to designing my own covers again.
So, how about it? Does Darcy make a suitable candidate for a highwayman? And could Elizabeth let herself fall for a common criminal? Let me know what you think.
Again, I apologize for the length of this post, but hope the possibilities have intrigued you, enough that you will consider purchasing the story when it is published.