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At the Highwayman's Pleasure

By:Sarah Mallory

At the Highwayman's Pleasure
Sarah Mallory

       Prologue

June 1794

Charity closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun. It was blazing  down from the cloudless blue sky while a skylark high above trilled  joyously and a soft breeze stirred her hair, hanging loose and damp  about her shoulders.

This is heaven, she thought, but when she opened her eyes she saw only  the familiar fields around her, and in the distance, just beyond the  river but before the rugged hills to the east, was the village of  Saltby, no more than a little cluster of houses dominated by the stark  square tower of the church.

How she wished she didn't have to go back there.

Charity tossed her head defiantly and felt the heavy weight of her hair  rippling down her back. She would have to bundle it under her bonnet  before they reached the village, but it was so good to have it loose, so  deliciously free.

She heard a giggle.

‘Lord, Charity, 'tis so thick it will never be dry before we reach  Saltby.' Her friend Jenny lifted some of the blonde locks from her neck  and let them fall again.

‘But it was worth it.' She tucked her hand in her friend's arm. ‘Come along now. Let's get home.'

They continued along a narrow valley, chattering as they went and  swinging their bonnets carelessly from the ribbons. It was not until  they rounded the next bend that they saw the activity in the valley  ahead of them.

‘Oh, heavens, I didn't know they would be here today,' muttered Jenny, coming to a halt.

On the flat land by the beck the sheep were being sheared. A  stone-walled fold beside the stream was already packed with animals,  while shepherds were driving more sheep into the water to wash the fat  from their coats ready for shearing. A familiar black-clothed figure was  standing on a boulder in the middle of the activity. His arms were  raised to the heavens and he had a book clutched in one hand. Even at  this distance Charity knew it was a Bible. He was reciting passages from  the gospels, but the shearers paid him little heed, continuing with  their work with a steady, dogged persistence that would see all the  sheep sheared before dark.

‘Oh, heavens, 'tis your father,' hissed Jenny.

‘Yes,' said Charity bitterly. ‘Phineas thinks himself another Wesley,  preaching to the godless. Let's go back before he sees us. We'll take  the long way over the hill.'

‘Too late.'

The black-coated figure had jumped down from his makeshift pulpit and  was striding towards them, shouting. There was no help for it. The girls  stopped and waited for him to come up.

‘And where might you be going?'

It was Jenny who spoke up.

‘We are on our way home, Mr Weston. We have been to visit old Mother  Crawshaw, to take her a basket of food. Now her son has gone for a  soldier there is no one to provide for her and Mrs Weston thought-'

But Phineas wasn't listening. He was glaring, his face mottled with fury as he raised a shaking finger to point at them.

‘You have been traipsing the countryside like that, with no kerchiefs  to cover your shoulders and your hair down your backs like, like-'

‘It was so hot we stopped on the way back to bathe at the secret pool,'  said Charity, giving him a defiant look. ‘We have done it many times  before.'

‘Aye, but you are not children now. You are fourteen years old and  should know the Lord frowns upon women displaying themselves in such  shameless fashion.'

‘We did not intend anyone to see us,' she retorted. ‘Our hair will be  dry by the time we reach Saltby, and if it is not we will put it up  beneath our caps before we get there.'

Even though he was still some yards away his fierce eyes burned into  her and she could see the spittle on his lip as he ground out his words.

‘And you would parade yourself here, before all these men, like the veriest trollop.'

‘No, we intended to go the other way-' She broke off as he swiftly  covered the ground between them and caught her wrist. ‘Let me go!'

‘God knows I have tried to teach you the ways of righteousness, but to  no avail. "Even a child is known by his actions", and you are certainly  known by yours.'

‘But we have done nothing wrong.'

‘I'll teach you to flaunt yourself in this way.' He made a grab for Jenny, but Charity clutched his sleeve and pulled him away.

‘Run!' she shrieked to her friend. ‘Run home now.' When Jenny hesitated, she cried, ‘You can do nothing for me, save yourself!'                       
       
           



       

‘Run away, then!' shouted Phineas as the girl fled. ‘You cannot hide  from the Lord's wrath, Jennifer Howe. I shall denounce you from the  pulpit come Sunday!'

‘Oh, no, you won't,' flashed Charity, struggling to free herself. ‘You  will see Mr Howe and he will give you three guineas for your parish fund  and that will be the end of it.'

‘You dare to censure me for doing the Lord's work?'

Her lip curled. ‘I have seen too many times how a few pieces of silver will mollify your righteous temper!'

His eyes narrowed. ‘Unnatural daughter!'

‘We were doing the Lord's work,' she flung back at him. ‘We were  ministering to the poor, which is of more use than your preaching to  them.'

Phineas waved his free arm towards the scene of activity by the river.

‘You were using it for an excuse to come here and throw yourselves at  these men. I know your wicked ways, girl.' He thrust his hand into her  hair and Charity screamed as he tightened his hold. ‘You know you  distract men with this...this golden abundance, don't you? It is a  vanity, girl, do you hear me, a vanity. "They that are of forward heart  are an abomination to the Lord!"'

‘Let me go!'

‘Not until you see what becomes of those who mock the Lord and his servants.'

Ignoring her screams, he dragged her with him, back towards the sheep  shearers. The men looked up warily as he approached, some muttered under  their breath, but none dared protest. He hauled Charity to the boulder  that he had been standing on moments earlier and forced her to sit.

‘Jacob, come and hold her here.'

‘Nay then, Parson, I don't-'

Phineas turned on the man with a snarl.

‘Dare you gainsay a servant of the Lord?'

Jacob stepped up and took her arms.

‘Sorry, lass.'

She hardly heard his muttered apology, for she was sobbing now, her  scalp burning where Phineas had almost torn the hair out by the roots.  She heard his hard voice boom out.

‘Elias, bring me the dagging shears.'

‘No!'

She screamed, cried, pleaded, but it was no use. She heard the rasp as  the shears cut through her hair, handful by handful, and all the time  Phineas was reciting from the Bible.

It was all over in minutes, less time than it would take a man to shear  a sheep. There was a curious lightness to her head; she could feel the  burning sun on her scalp. Jacob released her, but she did not move. She  sat hunched on the rock, her eyes dry now, staring unseeing at the  ground.

Phineas stood back.

‘And the Lord said, "Withhold not correction from the child".'

His words fell into silence. The men were milling around, uncertain  what to do. The skylark had gone, and even the sheep had ceased their  bleating.

Slowly Charity got to her feet. She stared around her. The sky was  still an unbroken blue vault and the hills looked the same, but  everything was different, as if her world had tilted and she was looking  at this scene as a detached, indifferent observer. She raised her eyes  to look at her father. His face was still an angry red and he was  breathing heavily, his arms by his sides and the cruel steel shears  clasped in one hand.

‘But I am not a child,' she said slowly. ‘Not anymore. And that is the last time I will let you lay a finger on me.'

With that she turned and walked away, leaving her hair, those long,  silken tresses, lying at his feet like a creamy golden fleece.





      Chapter One

January 1807

It was trying to snow, the bitter winds blowing the flakes horizontally  across the carriage windows. Charity Weston felt a flicker of relief  that there were no passengers riding on the top of the Scarborough to  York cross-country mail. Black, low-lying clouds were making the winter  day even shorter and soon the familiar landscape would be lost in a  gloom as deep as that which filled the carriage. It was very different  from the bright limelight in which she spent most of her days-or rather  her nights-on stage.

She wondered what her fellow passengers would think if they knew she  was an actress. The farmer and his wife might not have smiled at her  quite so kindly when she took her seat, but then, all they saw was a  fashionably dressed lady accompanied by her maid. She had even gone back  to using the soft, cultured voice of a lady, having thrown off the  rather flat, nasal tones of the south that she had assumed, along with  another name, whilst working in London. It would be no wonder,  therefore, if they thought her a lady of some standing. However, if they  lived in or near Allingford it was quite possible that they would  realise their error in the next few months, for she had accepted an  offer from her old friend to join his theatre company.                       

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