He was garbed in black, from the tricolor hat that shaded his masked face to the jack boots on his legs. A long cloak, falling from the widespread of his shoulders to the loins of his black mare, rippled in the faint breeze that came swirling down off Hounslow Heath. The moonlight that fell in dappled patterns across the road did not touch him in the shadows, or the long-barreled horse pistol he held in a gloved hand.
The sack and canary he had consumed in the Brentwood Arms were still warm in the middle. It held the whimsical smile fixed on his mouth, which showed wide and humorous under the lace frill of his mummer's mask. Ian Montrose told himself, I look like Nicks the tobyman, with this barker in my hand and this domino on my face. John Nevison, known as Nicks all over England, had been a highwayman before they hanged him high on the gallows at Tyburn, years before. He had been a hightoby rider for the gold and jewels he could steal. Ian Montrose was here to steal a garter.
The English countryside was still at this hour of midnight. Faintly, across the lea that separated Strand Green from Hanger Hill, he could hear the mournful ke'wick of a tawny owl. Crickets chirped from patches of course grass, and once he heard the faint whinny of a distant horse. The moon was a slim crescent, touching the bracken and the gorse on the heath with silver radiance. This was open country, filled with mists and great barren trees reaching upward like brown skeletal hands, and rocks the size of boulders. Only in the far distance was their mellow light, from a farm cottage.
"Lud! It's a lonely place, this heath," the lone rider whispered to his black mare. "Cold and damp and probably haunted, too, by the highwaymen they hang here. Still, it's good to be home again, even if I find myself poor as a church mouse, and asked my half brother's parties only because of my name."
It had been at such a party, at Brentwood Arms on Fleet Street, that he had matched thirsts with the Duke of Amberston and the Earls of Lorwich and Kent. There had been a sack, heavy with its Spanish grapes, and Madeira, and gins and whiskeys from the north countries, and hot posset drunk in chinaware pots. He remembered singing, and dancing the gavotte with Lady Diana Loring, Viscountess of Blasfordshire, and of being warmly aware of her powdered arms and shoulders, disclosed so modishly by a daringly low bodice. Her body had been soft and disturbing to a man who had stepped off a sailing bark from India less than a week before. He had kissed the Viscountess in the shelter of a garden hedge, and the taste of her moist lips on his own, and their heat as they trailed a path from the corner of his mouth to his ear had aroused a slow fire in him.
That fire, and the sack and rich wines, had brought him here at midnight, onto this open stretch of barren heath.
It had been Lady Diana that suggested the prank.
"Most of us try to steal the bride's garter after she's married," she said with a laugh to the dandies surrounding her. "You gentlemen fancy yourselves as rakehells! Why not steal it before she's wedded?"
Their laughter was loud, but not so loud as the hammer of Ian Montrose's heart as he let his thoughts dwell on that idle challenge. More than once that evening his admiring eyes had moved to the woman who was to be the Countess of Southend at the end of this summer of 1714. She had been introduced as Lady Joan Sheldon, daughter of the late Earl of Harewood, ward and betrothed of Harold Montrose, Earl of Southend, Lord Somerset, his half-brother. Her height was the height of his heart, and the manner in which her blue eyes had smiled at him above her red, wide mouth, with its beauty patch set so close to the corner of her lips, added fuel to the liquors that bubbled in his middle.
He drowsed a little in his black leather saddle, waiting for the sound of coach wheels, letting himself dream of the manner in which her thick yellow hair had curled around her bared shoulders, and of the velvet fontange and scented ribbons that bedecked it. She wore a gown of mulberry taffety, low enough to disclose a hint of her full young bosom. Her satin stomacher and peplum clung to round hips whose sway added mightily to the dizziness already induced in him by the wines and whiskeys he had consumed.
Ian Montrose was not an envious man, but in this moment of his dreaming, he felt a mad, hot jealousy toward Lord Somerset.
If his fortune were mine, he thought, I'd not be sitting a cold saddle here in the middle of the night, waiting to steal Lady Joan's garter, but riding snug and comfortable, close behind her in the coach itself!
The lone rider straightened suddenly, standing in his iron stirrups. He could hear the creak of coach wheels approaching from the east, from London town. Lady Joan Sheldon would be in that coach, with Milord Somerset seated at her side. As his fingers tightened on the curving butt of his horse pistol, Ian Montrose grinned. It was worth the risk of hanging for this night's adventure, to anticipate the look that would cross his half brother's arrogant powdered face when he poked this barker under his nose! The creaking grew louder. Now he could hear the thud and pound of the horses' hoofs on the hard dirt road. Candle lamps winked in the night, and then the great gilded carriage was sweeping toward him along the Hounslow road, the driver in his blue Somerset livery tall and rigid on the seat, hands holding the reins stretched out before him.
Ian toed the black mare to a mincing walk. He came out of the shadows into the moonlight, as an apparition might spring from a witch's herbs tossed on a Beltane fire. He was tall and black, bulking ominously dark and silent by the crossroads.
"Stand and deliver," he called out harshly.
His pistol came into the moonlight, aimed at the driver.
The coach rolled to a stop in drifted dust powdered by moonlight into silvery motes. Brakes grated, squealing. A voice cried out from inside the coach.
"Come down and lie flat on your belly," Ian told the driver. He walked the mare forward as the coach door opened and Lord Somerset came out.
"God's wounds! What's this?" he asked, imperious eyes moving from the dark figure on the black mare to his serving man prone in the road.
"A robbery, milord," explained Ian with a smile. "There's no need for worry, however. I've a compunction against shedding blood, providing there's no call for it."
"A hightoby rider," snapped Somerset. "I'll see you hanged for this. You may know me for Harold Montrose, Earl of Southend, Lord Somerset, fellow! I've the Duke's ear, as Boling-broke had Queen Anne's! I've influence at court!"
The Earl of Southend, Viscount of Pensey and Litchfield, Baron of Borne, Lord Somerset, was a man of arrogance. It lay revealed in the flaring spread of his patrician nostrils, in the tilt of his handsome face with its thin mouth and dark, flashing eyes. Looking at him, Ian thought, this is my brother, this man in his fancy satin waistcoat and clocked silk stockings, with his slippers buckled in diamonds and the rings on his fingers worth a small fortune! Only I know the streak of cruelty in him. I've seen him blind a horse that displeased him. Only I know the lust for money and power that governs his life.
As Lord Somerset glowered at him, Ian let his memory linger on those days when he and Harold had matched dueling pistols side by side in a Sussex meadow and had stamped across half the halls in Southend Manor with their blunted rapiers. Dour Harold Montrose, son to the woman the Earl of Southend made his second wife, had always resented Ian's lighthearted, easy way with the wenches. In his envy, he conceived himself abused. Abuse brought hatred after it, and when Ian had boarded the brig Royal William for India, he and his half-brother were not even nodding to each other.
Ian's trigger finger itched. It would be easy to put a ball between his half brother's eyes, easy to doff his mask and black clothes and step into his half brother's estates without suspicion of murder. He acknowledged this temptation that flared in him even as he fought against it.
Ian leaned forward in the saddle, placing the round muzzle of his horse pistol close to the nobleman's face. His voice was calm and soft. "Keep your tongue quiet, by heaven, of I'll put a ball in your mouth!"
He was not aware of it, but his dark blue eyes were bright with drink, and reckless with the dislike that had been building in him for this half-brother who owned the Somerset fortune, and was to wed Milady Joan. They glittered through the slits of his mask with the feral hunger of a wolf.
Lord Somerset caught the hot recklessness of those eyes, but he shouted savagely, "Drop that barker, you huff! Drop it and I'll—"
"Into the coach, milord, and mind your conduct! I've no time to bandy words right now!"
Lord Somerset lapsed into silence, his face reddening above the ruffled jabot at his throat. In his injured pride, which saw him humiliated before the two women in his chaise, he would have hurled himself at this wolf's head, wrestling with him for that long pistol; but the bright eyes and something in the chin of the man told him he would live only so long as he obeyed his commands. In his plum velvet coat and breeches he stood rigidly, head flung back, his face taut and hard. At a wave of the pistol, he moved stiffly into the coach, to fling himself against its thick upholstery and gnaw at a thin lip as he watched the highwayman come down out of his saddle.
There were two women in the coach with Lord Somerset. Ian let his eyes dwell on the golden loveliness of Lady Joan Sheldon, seeing her pale face framed in the ermine collar of her velvet wrap, studying the manner in which her round bodice hugged the swells of her bosom and the sheer fichu through which he could glimpse the white sheen of its flesh.
The other woman was leaning forward, her own fichu falling away from the lifting mounds of her scarcely hidden breasts, showing them full and pale above the silver brocade that rimmed her taffety gown. She was possessed of a sultry beauty, this viscountess, and her green eyes were bold and predatory under their long red lashes.
"Joan, darling!" exclaimed Lady Diana Loring. "Isn't it too romantic? A tobyman!"
Lady Joan tried to still the trembling of her white fingers by clasping them in a scented lace kerchief. Her eyes were wide and frightened as they studied the masked face thrust into the doorway of the coach. She whispered, "I-I don't think it's so romantic, Di! He's a robber!"
The highwayman laughed softly. "But not such a robber as you ever saw before, milady! I take it you're Lady Joan Sheldon, Milord Somerset's intended. In that case, perhaps I should not be stealing from you, but rather giving you a wedding present."
The woman with the bright red hair was laughing softly. "A very gentleman of a rogue! He speaks of wedding presents while he takes our treasures!" She was busy stripping rings from her fingers.
Ian looked at Lady Diana Loring and at the wide red mouth that had scorched his lips and face earlier this evening in the little yew garden off the inner piazza at Brentwood Arms. She was regarding him almost with hypnotic attention, as though she expected him to vanish momentarily before the eyes that studied him so closely. Deep in those green depths, he could read mockery and a vast amusement.
He turned from that mockery toward Lady Joan, aware that a chill sense of foreboding was gathering in him.
Ian said, "I'll not attend your wedding, milady. Unable to remove your garter then, I propose to take it now."
Lady Joan gasped and threw herself back into a corner of the coach, lifting her ankles to tuck them under her thighs. Lord Somerset leaned forward, his mouth a thin, hard line. He rasped, "Damn your impertinence! I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I'll not rest content until you hang for your crimes from Tyburn gallows!"
The horse pistol swung toward Lord Somerset. The masked man smiled. "I can kill your bridegroom at a touch of a finger on my trigger, milady. Do me a favor of removing your garter, before haste forces me to trespass under your petticoats myself."
"Never!" whispered Lady Joan, shrinking against the flowered upholstery of the chaise. "I-I'll never do it!"
Ian Montrose moved forward, resting one knee on the floor of the coach, heart thudding wildly. With his pistol gripped in his left hand, he slid the right hand forward under that billowing skirt. He felt a warm silken calf and knee beneath his fingers, then the swell of the smooth thigh. For one long instant, his palm lay hot against her thigh, so that he could feel it tremble. Then his fingers lifted and gripped the ribboned garter and slid it down, past the knee and over the ankle.
It dangled in the moonlight, a round and delicate thing of scarlet ribbon frilled with black lace. The scent on its silk, and the warmth that had been imparted to it from the flesh it clasped made his hand tremble.
Lady Joan never took her gaze from the bright eyes of the masked man. She sat like a cobra before the flute, swaying a little, held by some inner paralysis. Even the flush on her cheeks looked painted. In the bodice of her gown, her bosom lifted, heaving, as she bent her head forward into her hands and sat like that, her little ears turning beet red.
The Viscountess moved forward then, thrusting her rings and necklet of matched pearls, together with a velvet purse heavy with golden guineas, into Ian's hand, which still held the garter. "Please!" she whispered hoarsely. "Please take my things and Milord Somerset's purse, and let us be! Milord was a heavy winner at the piquet tables tonight. You'll find his purse fat enough to please you!"
Ian said, "But I—" when he realized, with his right-hand heavy with diamond earrings and emerald rings, velvet purse and that frilly garter, that there was nothing he could say to the Viscountess. If he denied his membership in the ranks of the night riders, he would as good as admit his identity. Yet if he took these riches that were being thrust on him, he would subject himself to pursuit by the queen's men, and a future hanging on Tyburn Tree.
Milord Somerset said thickly, "Yes, yes! Take my purse and go! Here, catch it."
Somerset brought his hand out from under his gold embroidered coat. There was no purse bulging in his palm, but a small pistol gripped solidly in tight fingers.
Had he been less shaken with jealous rage, he would have put a ball between Ian Montrose's eyes, but the hand that held so steady on the dueling lawns of Lincoln's Inn Fields at Hyde Park trembled slightly here in the mad fury that shook him.
His little pistol erupted in a belch of flame and smoke.
Ian staggered slightly as the ball plowed into his chest, scraping along his ribs. The pain came up like a red mist around him and drove his breath from his lungs. Then his right hand was sweeping up and the barrel of his pistol came hard against the pointed, arrogant chin of Harold Montrose, Lord Somerset.
That blow made a sodden sound in the night. Lord Somerset went back bonelessly, to recline like a dead man against the velvet quarterings of his coach. Ian stared down, dismayed by the savage fury that had been in him as he swung that pistol.
Lady Joan Sheldon screamed.
The Viscountess leaned forward, her slim white fingers moving gently as they fumbled under the many-buttoned lapel of Somerset's plum-colored coat. They came out with a velvet purse ornate with silver stitching and the iron pheon of the house of Southend.
"Take this purse," she cried out, thrusting the sack into Ian's hand. "Take it and go, for the love of heaven!"
Ian stared blankly at his half-brother, lolling so lifelessly on the cushions. Despair hammered its way up through the pain racking his ribs. Did I kill him, striking like that in anger? Am I to end in the hempen rope for murder, as a result of this night's jest? He could see the blood trickling down across Somerset's mouth and chin and dripping redly onto his jabot, and the drunken recklessness of the sack and whiskey fled from him, leaving him shaken and pale.
He grew aware that Lady Joan had lifted her face from her hands and was staring at him. Ian found himself unable to read her eyes, but he knew suddenly through the momentary fright in him that there was no fear in them.
He staggered as he backed away from the coach. Sliding a boot into an iron stirrup, he tried to lift himself into his saddle. The wound in his chest throbbed and pulsed, making him bend double. The mare sidled nervously, and he had to grab at her thick black mane. His teeth grated in the effort of will that lifted him upward and into the black saddle. Reins in a gloved hand, he toed the mare to a canter, aware that the Viscountess was standing in the moonlight, calling to the driver, and turning to stare curiously after him as he disappeared between the oaks and cedars bordering the road to West Action.
He rode at a canter, bent over to ease the fire in his side. There was wet stickiness on the fingers that he thrust into the tear in his coat, where they touched his bloody ribs. A little higher and to one side, he thought, and I'd be stretched out lifeless on the ground back there. The thought made him grimace wryly. Word would have been all over London, then. Ian Montrose, the poor relation of Lord Somerset, had turned highwayman to add to the fortune of which fate had seen fit to deprive him. At least, none knew who it was that trotted away from the crossroads tree with two purses, fat with gold, thrust into his saddlebag, with the jewels that had adorned the ears and throat and fingers of the Viscountess of Blasfordshire nestling close beside them.
He dismounted at a stile to remove coat and lingerie shirt and make a bandage of the shirt, which he wrapped tightly about his chest with trembling fingers. In the bright moonlight, he discovered that his wound was more painful than dangerous, for the break in his skin was clean where the ball had glanced against a rib and torn out through his flesh.
My loving brother would give much to see me stripped to my buff before him, he thought wryly. It would be all the proof he'd need to send me to the gibbet. He wondered if Hal were alive, even, and shuddered at the thought.
Ian Montrose debated with himself, seated on a flat milestone in the shadow of the stile. To return now to the Red Hart Inn, which had been his starting point an hour before midnight, would be to reveal to Ebenezer Gunn and his pretty daughter, Nancy, that young Ian Montrose was on the high road, with the black mare and the horse pistols he had brought with him from India.
Rather ride back to London, where one more late rider will pass unnoticed, then let them see me this way, he decided.
He owned treasured boyhood memories of the old tavern that stood on the road to Bockhorst Hill, with its timbered walls wreathed in green ivy, its stone lintel smoothed by a hundred years of boots and slippers moving across its surface. The Red Hart Inn had been built in the days of Drake and Hawkins, and its musty cellars were labyrinths of passageways once used by the smugglers who had brought coffee and tea, canary and Madeira, silks and satins from France and the Lowlands, Spain and Denmark, to their storage spaces. Behind its sprawling walls were the stables, and a buttery with matching wash house and brewery. In the days when he sought refuge from a tutor who used a ferrule overmuch, he found those cellars and those stables alive with a thousand nooks and crannies to be investigated, always with young Nancy Gunn tagging at his heels.
Later, when he had come home to Southend Hall from Oxford and Christ Church, he discovered that Nancy Gunn had grown up. Her lips were like sweet fire, and her soft arms clung with a frenzied strength, to assuage a little of his loneliness. His mother, a Marchioness in her own right, had died when he was two, and his father, the old Earl of Southend, was a sporting buck who thought more of his fighting cocks and racehorses than he did of his son, who was left alone to raise himself according to the dictates of his rebellious blood.
The Red Hart Inn became a home to him in that first year of Oxford. Ebenezer Gunn was a more understanding man than the elder Ian Montrose. When the Earl discovered that young Ian was spending his weekends galloping across the leas of Bockhorst on horses borrowed from the Red Hart stables, he went to the Lord of the Admiralty and made arrangements to secure passage for Ian Montrose on the bark Royal William, bound for India.
That voyage had taken four years and included the shipwreck of the Royal William, a rescue at sea, and a docking of the rescue brig at Calicut. There, in the alabaster temples and zenana gardens, silken bazaars and hill forts, he worked long and hard for the East India Company. He made lasting friendships with the naiks of Mysore and the Nawab of Arcot, aiding the Nizam al Mulk to found his dynasty at Hyderabad, and laying a solid foundation for the English against the French, who were penetrating into Pondicherry and the Carnatic lowlands.
He was aware that the strange fascination of India was in his blood. He had been the Inglisi khan too long not to acquire a taste for sugared ginger and buttered kichri, and a hunger for coppery women in clinging silken saris. He found himself dreaming with a touch of nostalgia, on the quarterdeck of the barkentine that brought him back to Europe, of golden howdahs and silver palanquins set with blood rubies, of high silken turbans and the fragile veils of women who wore the circular red caste marks on their foreheads, of mullahs and rupees, and the bronze figure of the Dancer, six-armed Siva. He had seen black pearls the size of fingertips taken from the seas off Ceylon, precious jade carvings from Cathay, and great bronze chests filled with diamonds and emeralds.
Those pearls and jades, diamonds and golden howdahs were symbols to him of the natural riches of that vast country stretching from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas to the warm blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
It was a land of waiting for the man who possessed enough strength in his fist to take it. Ian Montrose wanted that man to be an Englishman. A colony like India, together with the vast New World over which England and France were fighting, would mean the first rank among the nations of the world for the land that owned them.
"A nation that strong will need a strong hand to guide it," he whispered to the heath below Mile End Road. "Anne is a woman grown old with age. A lonely woman, too, now that Prince George, her husband, is dead, and her quarrellings with the Duchess of Marlborough out in the open."
When Queen Anne died childless, the throne would be vacant for the taker. Even now, court gossip suggested that the son of James II would sit that throne. Here and there, men like Lords Stanhope and Townsend were mentioning the name of George of Hanover as an aspirant to the crown.
In his youth, Ian Montrose had visited at the court of Zell with his father, the Earl of Southend. He had known Count Konigsmark and the Princess Sophia Dorothea. This George of Hanover was a strong man, a man with convictions and enough strength of character to maintain them.
And so Ian, in his first flush of enthusiasm about India, had stopped in Denmark for an audience with the Electoral Prince. He had met the gross, fleshy George, had talked with him five hours and had been introduced to the Earl of Morley, who was in Denmark to explain that Anne of England was a sick woman. She had not long to live. If George wanted the throne, he must act now, or not at all.
"I have enemies in England," the Prince of Hanover announced the Ian, staring across the richly paneled audience room with protruding eyes. "Bolling-broke and Oxford. Enemies who are powerful men at court."
Ian protested, with the conviction that this man would make a good king strong within him. "You have friends too, your grace. Men such as Stanhope and Townsend. The Whig party is strong. All it needs is your consent to work on your behalf. Sire, England is approaching a crisis with destiny. India awaits a conqueror. So does the world. Great lands. Lands a hundred times England's size!"
George of Hanover let his thick lips loosen in a faint smile. "You are an enthusiast, Montrose. Well, enthusiasm is a good thing in a man. Especially in a man who sees king material in me. Do as you want. Befriend me in London, among court circles. I'll not be ungrateful if the time ever comes for remembering friends."
Within two days of his arrival in Bristol, Ian Montrose was being shown the will made by the old Earl, his father. It left Ian penniless, his father believing him dead on the high seas. The will left the title and the vast Southend fortunes to his half-brother, Harold.
As he cantered his mare over the wooden arch of Knight's Bridge and along the pasture lands of St. Giles' Fields, he thought back on the high hopes with which he had left India. Instead of finding wealth and a title, he came back to England to find himself penniless, without funds other than what he had managed to save from his sojourn in Calicut.
He knew, of course, that, as the old Earl's elder son, he had only to claim the title to make it his. The Earl could bequeath his estates to whomever he wished, but the title he could not dispose of in so cavalier a fashion. That could be inherited only by his eldest living son, and that son was Ian.
Yet, thought Ian, of what use was a title to him without the estates and the money to back it up? A penniless earl, with nothing but a name and a few suits of clothes to his back, a brace of horse pistols and this black mare between his thighs—he would be the laughingstock of England, and, worse, a man lost in a limbo between two worlds, unable to live comfortably in the society that the title made his, separated from the great mass of men by the same title.
No, Ian reflected, under the circumstances, the title would be more of a liability to him than an asset. Let Hal keep it, along with everything else. For the present, at least...
He dismounted and unsaddled in the small stable under the little townhouse that was his sole inheritance from his mother. Upending the worn leather feed bag, he dumped out the dried dust and dirt that was the accumulation of the years.
"There's not even a bit of grain in the bag for you, girl," he said to the mare, stroking her soft nose. "In the morning I'll visit the livery stable and obtain credit. I'll put a good meal under your hide before we go back to Bockhorst, my word on it!"
A narrow wooden stair led upward from the stables to the kitchen. With black saddlebags slung over a shoulder, he mounted past a wide landing fronted by a leaded window to the second story.
He turned into the bedroom and struck the flint to steel, wincing as the sudden movement sent pain through his wound. A standing lamp revealed a wide room the width of the house, with a great oak poster bed and wall hangings of Mortlake tapestry. A marquetry chest-on-chest fronted a section of paneling fitted with frame paintings, opposite a silvered mirror.
Ian took the saddlebags to a walnut side table with cabriole legs and unfastened the straps. Shaking them out, he stared down at diamonds and emerald rings, at a pearl necklace worth the yearly rental of a prosperous farm, and two velvet purses heavy with golden guineas.
Then he lifted out the ribboned garter that had come from the leg of Lady Joan Sheldon. For a moment he stared down at the tiny lace rosettes and ruffled pleatings. He sniffed the faint fragrance of perfume on its lacy frills.
"A dainty pretty indeed, Ian Montrose," called a mocking voice, "but a dangerous thing to be caught with, in the privacy of your own bedroom! It proves you the highwayman who hit Lord Somerset with a pistol barrel a few hours ago, outside Hounslow Heath!"
He whirled, fingers tensing on the scarlet garter. The Viscountess of Blasfordshire stood with a knee braced on a Windsor chair, her tippet-edged wrap fallen from a white shoulder. There was a cruel smile on her wide red mouth.
In her right hand, she held a small, silver-mounted pistol. It was aimed at Ian Montrose where the buckle of his leather belt was fastened at his middle.