In which the aforementioned Highwayman-cum-Duke resorts to once again plying his Former Nefarious Trade in order to Reclaim his errant Bride-to-Be, the also aforementioned and soon to be former, Governess.
The night was every bit as cold and dark as Westley had anticipated. He didn't really mind, however, because it so perfectly matched his mood. Although he did rather wish Netherloin Park could have been located on a moor. A really dank and depressing one, preferably. Not that the house and its prospect were in any way unpleasing to him. In fact, it felt oddly too-familiar at times, almost as though he'd been here before...
But that was entirely beside the point. He had a lot on his mind at the moment and, as usually happened when he had a lot on his mind, he felt like brooding. As Roberts had so often and correctly observed, a decently damp moor was an absolute necessity if one wished to brood properly.
Still, what did the old man know? It was his fondness for aimlessly wandering about the moors, usually while thoroughly jug-bitten, that had led to his death—falling face-first into a peat bog after putting away the better part of a bottle of the blue ruin. With no moor of his own in the offing, Westley decided it was probably best not to think of such melancholy things. Instead, he turned his thoughts to a far more pleasing matter: the reclaiming of his runaway bride.
Ah, Julia! His fair flower of impoverished English womanhood. She was a diamond of the first water, completely beyond compare. He was sure there could not be, anywhere in the world, another even remotely like her. True, she was a trifle bookish, a trait he found neither necessary nor desirable in the fairer sex, but he refused to let something so trivial dissuade him from his course. He would marry her now and worry about changing her later. First, however, he had to find her.
What had the minx been thinking, running off like she had only minutes after accepting his non-proposal? He'd a mind to turn her over his knee, when he caught up with her, and properly warm her posterior. Perhaps he'd use a ruler. He couldn't help but smile at the prospect. He was sure the schoolroom where she taught young Ward had to be rife with such objects, all of them screaming out to be used in just such a fashion. His only regret was that he hadn't thought of it sooner. As it was, if she actually had been out riding all this time, it was entirely likely her posterior would already be quite warm before he even got to it, and the horse would get all the credit!
Still occupied with these pleasant imaginings, he stepped inside the stables and instantly spied an elderly man plying a broom. “You there!” he called, waving his arms to get the man's attention.
“Lord save us!” the old man exclaimed as he fell to his knees. “Don't shoot, milord, don't shoot!”
Westley stared in consternation at the aged retainer—or so he took him to be. Whatever could be ailing the man, he wondered, until he finally recollected that one of the hands he'd been waving so boisterously held a gun. “Oh, bugger me sideways,” he muttered, much annoyed with himself. Then, realizing that no duke would ever be likely to express himself thus, he quickly amended his response, “Quite all right, my good man, quite all right. As you were,” all the while attempting to tuck the offending pistol into the waistband of his unmentionables.
It was a deucedly uncomfortable and thoroughly terrifying location in which to conceal a weapon of this sort, and Westley couldn't keep from scowling. He missed his sword most dearly right now, most particularly its scabbard, so exquisitely fashioned of rich Corinthian leather. He missed it quite nearly as much, in fact, as he missed his beloved Brigid. His hasty search of the house had failed to turn up either of these treasures, and he could only conclude that the dastardly Wickham had taken them both with him when he went...well, wherever it was that the disreputable uncles of disappeared dukes were wont to go.
Westley had noticed several other swords attached to coats of arms and bolted to the wall in the main gallery; any one of which, he thought, might do in a pinch. There had also been an exceptionally fine, albeit ancient-looking blade in the courtyard, half-embedded in a rock. But the servants all looked so scandalized when he asked them to break one of these weapons out of their respective settings for his personal use, that he decided he must be committing some grievous Ducal faux pas and gave up the attempt.
In the end, he'd had to make do with a serviceable-looking dueling pistol that one of the footmen had (rather reluctantly he thought) produced. The very same pistol that was even now poised to put an end to any possible procreative plans he might have, not to mention his hopes of achieving eventual conjugal bliss. But, thinking of matters conjugal brought to mind the reason for his visit to the stables.
“I say, there,” he said, addressing the old man, who was still eying him with grave concern, “I'm looking for my governess. Have you seen her?”
“Your governess, is it?” The old man looked him up and down. “Ain't you a mite old to still be needing a governess?”
“Well, of course,” Westley replied rather testily. “She's not my governess. Not precisely. She's the duke's...that is...she's my ward's governess, and therefore she's in his...or rather, my employ. So, you see, in a manner of speaking...” his voice trailed away, his heart railing against his repeated denials. She was too his governess, his very own darling and adorable governess! His alone. All his. It infuriated him to think that perhaps Colin—the actual Colin, that is—might have once had similar feelings for her as well—feelings that might very well have been reciprocated.
Was that why she'd returned his kisses so eagerly? Was that the reason behind her uncharacteristically hasty acceptance of his suit?
Angrily, he shook the disturbing notions away. So what if it was? That was all in the past now. Colin—the actual Colin—was doubtlessly dead, after all. Likely he'd fallen into a river somewhere and drowned. Such things happened. They were in point of fact frightfully common and altogether too easy to manage, as Westley, to his sorrow, could personally attest.
“So, let me get this straight,” the old man said, still peering at him with rheumy eyes. “It's Miss Fitzgerald you be looking for—is that so, milord?”
“Yes. Exactly. I'm looking for Miss Fitzgerald and, by the by, hadn't you ought to be addressing me as 'your grace'?” Westley might not have known a lot about being a duke, but he was sure he'd got that part right and he knew that, in the future, he was going to love being addressed as Your Grace. He'd especially enjoyed it when Julia said it. Her sweet, dulcet tones were a far cry from the sarcasm Roberts had always used when he employed the title; which had been something of a habit with him, something he did whenever he felt Westley was putting on airs.
It was odd, actually. Westley felt an eerie chill sweep over his skin as he thought about it now. It was almost as though Roberts had known, or could have somehow predicted, that Westley would someday find himself in this very predicament; almost as though the highwayman had been cursed with the gift of precognition. But that, of course, was patently absurd. Westley quite refused to even countenance such fustian nonsense. Once one allowed oneself to indulge in such blatant folderol and fiddledeedee, who knew what would come next? No doubt extreme silliness like a belief in time travel would ensue, or tales involving such outrageous, mythical creatures as vampires, werewolves and frakillionaires...whatever those were.
Why, he might even start to believe he really was a duke, that he'd been switched at birth, or shortly thereafter, with some lookalike imposter. But that was, of course, ridiculous, and Westley shook off those notions as well. He much preferred reality, preferring to keep his feet firmly planted on this very English Earth.
“Your Grace, you say?” The old man shuffled closer and studied Westley's face through narrowed eyes. “Well, blimey,” he said at last. “It is you, isn't it? You'll pardon an old man for not recognizing you right away, sir, but you'll admit, it has been awhile since I last saw Your Grace up close.”
Westley nodded. “Yes, yes. Quite understandable. Now, getting back to Miss Fitzgerald, have you seen her?”
The old man ignored him. “When I first saw you standing there, I thought you were your brother, if you take my meaning.”
“Of course. A natural mistake,” Westley agreed with outward calm. “It could happen to the best of us.” Inwardly, however, he was seething. Had Colin a brother whose existence Wickham had failed to disclose? How very inconvenient! “About Miss Fitzgerald...”
“Aye, Your Grace, I saw her. She went down the road and caught a hackney coach not above half an hour ago.”
“How is that possible?” Westley demanded, momentarily diverted by this most unpleasant surprise. As part of his highwayman training, Roberts had had him memorize all the coach routes, in and out of London, as well as map out all the stops they made along the way. He'd spent countless hours toiling at the task, and he was quite certain Netherloin Park had never appeared on any of the maps he'd studied. “Is this new? Are coaches so suddenly in the habit of stopping here then?”
“Oh, no, sir,” his informant replied. “'Twas quite a shock to the coachman as well, when she jumped out into the middle of the road as she did and flagged him down!”
“Did she really?” Westley smiled. Ah, Julia! What a wife she'd make him! It was almost a shame his highwayman days and highwayman ways were behind him now. She'd have been dashed useful if he were still in the trade. “All the same, I'm rather surprised he consented to grant her passage.”
The old man nodded sagely. “Ah, it's a right proper British governess you've got there sir, make no mistake. They're quite used to getting what they want. Got an Air o' Authority about them, they do. No mere coachman could ever be a match for the likes o' her.”
“Very true,” Westley agreed, smiling even more widely. Authority, eh? Was that what his vivacious vixen thought? Was that the mistaken notion that had fueled her flight? How it thrilled him to think that he'd soon prove her wrong. She'd soon find out which of them was destined to wear the Pants o' Authority in this marriage—and it wouldn't be her! “Be a good fellow, would you? Saddle me a horse—and quickly!”
“What's that?” the old man asked, looking puzzled.
“A horse! A horse!” Westley repeated excitedly. “My dukedom for a horse!”
“You mean duchy, don't you, your grace? You'll pardon my saying so, but it's customary to refer to a duke's holdings as—”
“Yes, yes, I know.” Westley felt himself scowling once again. “But why should it be so? No one ever thinks to refer to a king's holdings as a kingy, do they? Or label the place an earl makes his home an early?”
“Well, begging your pardon again, sir, but earl is just another name for a count, ain't it? And counts, you must admit, can certainly be said to live in counties.”
Westley sighed. “About that horse...”
****A Word to you, Our Dear and Gentle Readers: If you enjoyed this small offering, please do us the honor of returning to grace our humble blog with your presence one week hence, when we shall be delighted to bring to you the next installment of our little saga, which will be the second part of this chapter (the aforementioned Chapter Nine) and which will still be entitled, The Highwayman's Runaway Bride...albeit, Part B.
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The Naughty Nine
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