Read CHAPTER XIII - ON THE KING’S HIGHWAY. of Tom Tufton Travels, free online book, by Evelyn Everett-Green, on ReadCentral.com.

A handsome and remarkably elegant vehicle stood at the door of Lord Claud’s lodgings, with two fine horses harnessed to it.

Tom had never seen any conveyance at once so light and handsome, the cumbrous coaches of the times being little to his liking.  He had always travelled afoot or on horseback hitherto, and he had expected to do the same now, when he received his summons from Lord Claud.

That gentleman stood at the door, leisurely drawing on a pair of strong gloves.  He nodded to Tom as he came up.

“It begins to get hot for saddle work,” he remarked in his negligent tones; “besides, I want to make trial of this new-fashioned carriage.  I won it from my lord of Gratton three days since; and he boasts that it has been copied from one in the possession of the King of France, who is said to be a monarch of a very excellent taste.  At least it will carry us to St. Albans, and bring us safely back three days hence;” and turning to the valet who was holding his snuff box and cane, he added: 

“If any call and ask for me, tell them I have driven into the country, but look to be home in three days’ time.

“Now, Tom, get up, and we will see if we can reach St. Albans ere the dusk fall upon us.”

Lord Claud was dressed in one of his finest suits; all white and silver, with here and there a dash of azure blue.  His hat was set jauntily upon his golden curls, innocent today of any touch of powder.  His blue eyes were dreamy and soft in expression.  He looked like one who goes forth a-wooing, in all the gay frippery supposed to be pleasing in a maiden’s eyes.  He had even discarded his sword, and only wore a short jewelled rapier, such as he sometimes put on rather for ornament than use.

He saluted passers by with an air of negligent grace, replying with a smile to those friends who paused and bandied jests with him, asking him where the fair lady was with whom he was going to visit.

Tom was also dressed in his best, and looked a fitting comrade for the young exquisite now leisurely mounting to the seat beside him.  There was no place for a servant upon the carriage, and Tom had learned by this time that Lord Claud was no more really dependent than he was himself upon the attentions of a valet.  He was rather in a fog as to what all this was about, whither they were bound, and what they were to accomplish; but he was willing to be led by the strong will of his companion, and to follow him wherever he went.

Tom’s irritation and perplexity had not decreased during the past days.  He was at his wits’ end for money; and it seemed to him that if he could not obtain the payment due, he must either trust to his luck at gambling for funds, or else go home and settle down at Gablehurst once again.

For the latter course he was not yet ready.  His soul revolted from the thought of the life of the country squire.  He had tasted of the cup of excitement and pleasure, and was not in the least prepared to relinquish it.  He would rather face almost any alternative than go back to the life of the Essex village, and sink down into the old routine.

So he had been gaming somewhat recklessly these past days, and with varying success.  There had been moments when he was plunged into despair; and then again the luck would shift, and he would feel that fortune was almost at his feet.

Yet at the end of the time matters were with him very much as they had been at the beginning; save that Tom himself had grown more reckless an defiant, most lustful of gold, and less scrupulous how he obtained it, as is always the way with the true gambler, whether he is aware of it at the outset or not.

Now they were rolling along together through the gay streets of London, the hot summer sunshine making everything bright and joyous, filling Tom with a great longing after the good things of this life, and a sense of bitter indignation at being defrauded of his due.

Lord Claud handled the reins and drove his pair of fine horses with a skill which awoke the youth’s admiration, and which attracted the notice also of the passers by.  Lord Claud appeared rather to court observation than to shun it, and often paused to exchange a word with friends upon the footpath; always telling the same story of being on his way to St. Albans; always smiling and evading a reply when asked to what particular house he was bound.

Nobody who saw the light and remarkable-looking carriage speeding on its way would be likely to forget it, and Tom could not help rather wondering at the public fashion in which they took their journey forth.

He had one encounter which he thought little of at the time, and certainly made no effort to evade.  Lord Claud had pulled up the carriage to exchange a few words with a knot of dandies who had hailed him from the footway, and Tom was sitting and looking about him at the passing throng.  Presently he was aware of the fixed stare of several pairs of eyes at an adjacent tavern window; and looking fixedly through the rather dull glass, he made out for certain that his friends, the four swaggering bullies, were the owners of these eyes.  A minute or two later Bully Bullen stepped forth from the door, and accosted him with swaggering insolence of demeanour.

“So, Master Tom, you make fine friends!  And whither away so fast in that fine carriage?  Egad, there be truth in the old adage, ’Set a beggar on horseback, and he will ride to the devil.’  Fine company, fine company for a country bumpkin to keep!  But you’ll find it finer than you think for one of these days!  Ho! ho! ho!”

Lord Claud did not appear to hear or heed this newcomer’s talk; but he showed that he had taken all in by just quietly shifting the long whip into Tom’s hands, whilst himself drawing tighter the reins.

Tom understood him in a moment.  He took the whip, and the next moment it had whistled through the air, and caught the bully a stinging lash right across the face.  At the sound of the crack of the lash the horses started forward, and in a moment the carriage was spinning away over the dusty road, followed by roars of laughter from Lord Claud’s friends, and by roars of a different character from the indignant and outraged bully.

“You will have to shoot those fellows one of these days,” remarked Lord Claud coolly.  “They are becoming a nuisance.  Men who are a nuisance ought to be put out of the way.  London would be well rid of them.”

“They have been mine enemies from the very outset,” said Tom, “from the day when first we met, and you came to my rescue when they were baiting me.  They have owed me a grudge ever since; but hitherto I have had the best of our encounters.”

“Drunken sots have no chance against sober fellows with thews and sinews like yours, good Tom; yet they can give trouble in other ways, and are better under ground than above it.  I marvel they have all escaped so long; for they are well known for a set of ruffianly vagabonds, and well deserve the hangman’s noose.”

The carriage spun fast over the ground, and the westering sun threw long shadows over their path as they rolled farther and farther through the country lanes, leaving the racket of the streets far behind.  The country was familiar to Tom, who had ridden over the same ground early in the year; but how different it all looked in the vivid green of early summer, instead of draped in a mantle of frost and snow!

He felt a little elation of spirit as they drove through the old town, the observed of all observers.  Some friends of his own hailed him with eager nods of recognition, looking with a great admiration and respect at himself and his companion.  Tom felt his heart swell with pride, knowing that in time it would reach Gablethorpe how he had been seen sitting in such state.  He returned the salutations of old friends with easy good nature, but felt as though he belonged now to a quite different world; and his heart swelled with that sort of pride which is apt to be the forerunner of a disastrous fall.

They did not stop at St. Albans itself, but at a hostelry a little to the north of it, standing by itself in a pleasant leafy lane.  Lord Claud appeared known to mine host, who made them welcome to the best his house had at disposal; and promised all care for the horses, which, as Lord Claud explained, had to make the return journey upon the third day.

It was now somewhat late, so the travellers took their supper, and then went to bed; Tom still in a state of subdued excitement and expectation, scenting coming adventure, but as yet only very imperfectly acquainted with the nature of it.  He had suspicions of his own, which caused him alternations of dread and excitement; but he knew he should be told all in Lord Claud’s time, and in the meanwhile silence was the best policy.

The following day they spent in amusement in the town of St. Albans.  Never were two men more active in the pursuit of pleasure than they.  Lord Claud presented himself at the door of many a fine house, never failing to obtain an eager welcome both for himself and his friend.  They spent the whole day in a round of amusement, making themselves mightily popular with their companions.  They remained until hard upon ten o’clock in one house, and from thence returned straight to their inn, which was already shut up and dark, although the door had been left open for their return.

Up to their room they went, and there Lord Claud’s manner suddenly changed.  He seemed to throw off his careless gaiety as if it had been a garment, and at once the lines of his face began to change and harden.  His eyes gleamed with a steady fire, and his voice lost all its soft indolence of tone.

He went to a cupboard, which he unlocked, and there Tom saw two bundles which appeared to contain clothes, and two saddles and bridles, which he knew had come from Lord Claud’s stables.

He looked from them to Lord Claud in questioning wonder.

“How got they there?”

“We brought them with us ­secreted in the carriage.  Now, Tom, we must no longer delay.  We have stern and quick work to do this night; and then back to London with the reward that is ours by right, though they force us to take it by violence.  The people here will swear that we slept this night within doors.  You saw the landlord look out of his window as we entered to make sure who we were.  He will be in bed now, sleeping the sleep of the just.  You may be sure he will wake no more till five of the clock; and long ere that we shall be back ­our work accomplished.

“Off with those fine trappings, and put on these clothes.  Then to saddle the nags, and so steal forth.  I know all the tricks of the locks; we shall have nought to stay us.”

Whilst he was speaking Lord Claud was unrolling one of the bundles, and quickly transforming himself into such a creature as Tom had never seen before, though he had heard such described many times.  His fine clothes were exchanged for a strong shabby riding suit of common cut and texture, that presented no distinct features, and would be most difficult either to describe or identify.  He had a great pair of horse pistols stuck in his belt, and also wore a dangerous-looking weapon ­something between a sword and a cutlass.  His golden hair was tucked away beneath the collar of his coat, and his head was covered by a frowzy dark wig, that looked like untrimmed natural hair.  He quickly blackened his face with soot from the chimney, and put on a black crape mask.

A more villainous-looking creature, and one more utterly unlike Lord Claud, the exquisite, it would be hard to imagine.  It appeared to Tom as though even his figure had shrunk and become smaller.  If he had not seen the metamorphosis with his own eyes, he would not have believed that it was his comrade who now stood before him.

But the voice was the same, as Lord Claud quickly assisted him to change his garments, to assume wig and mask, and soot his forehead over.

Tom had not been unprepared for this denouement, and yet when he saw himself in the habiliments of a highway robber, his heart throbbed with a painful sense of wonderment at how it had all come about.  Yet the fascination exercised over him by his companion, and his own love of adventure and excitement, were so strong, that he did not know whether he dreaded or desired the coming struggle.

“What are we going to do?” he asked in a low voice.

“To take our due that they will not give us,” was the stern reply.  “They had their choice, and must abide by their blindness and obstinacy.  I am not going to be treated with contempt; no one who has ever tried to do so has done it with impunity.  Every man has a right to his own ­is it not so, honest Tom?”

“Yes, truly,” answered Tom, with a note of indignation in his voice.  “Those who withhold our due must suffer for it.”

“They shall suffer in pocket; and if what we shall obtain this night be more than our due, the fault is theirs, not ours.  Tom, you are to taste a new experience this night ­one which is full of joy to those who have drunk often of the cup.  There be times when I say that I am happiest dressed as tonight, a good horse beneath me, a bright moon above, and a booty worth having well in view.  It is so full of rare surprises and delight; and, if a man but have his wits about him, it is so monstrous easy, too!”

Tom seemed to catch the spirit of his comrade.  Those were days when crime was lightly thought of, though so heavily punished.  A strain of recklessness in Tom’s blood made the notion of even robbery on the king’s highway fascinating rather than terrible ­at least when he could say to himself that he was but “taking his own.”

It was plain enough now that this was the secret of Lord Claud’s life ­hinted at more or less plainly by many before, but never altogether understood by Tom.  Yet Lord Claud was received, feted, made much of in the society of the gay city, even by those who more than suspected where his influx of wealth came from.  He had even received instructions, and been intrusted with an important commission, by one so high in office as the great Duke of Marlborough.  Surely there could be no great stigma resting upon one who was thus employed in the service of his country.  It seemed to Tom (as it has seemed to others before and since) that if only success crowned these efforts, there was no disgrace attached to them.

But it was a significant if ­and he knew it!

“And suppose we are taken?” he said tentatively.

“We should be hanged,” answered Lord Claud coolly.  “But we shall not be taken.  Make your mind quite clear on that point.  Do just as I tell you, and have no fears.  The rest will follow of itself.”

Tom had come to have that sort of implicit trust in his companion which some men have the power to inspire.  It makes them dangerous to foes, because they appear to bear charmed lives; and their companions trust implicitly in their luck, and know no fear.  Tom felt that if Lord Claud told him to ride through fire or water, he would do it without hesitation, knowing that the thing was possible, and believing he would accomplish it.

“Come,” said Lord Claud, “take your saddle and bridle and walk softly.  It is time we were off now.”

They stole through the silent house, and round to the stable, where the horses were lying on beds of clean straw.  They got up at the sound of their master’s voice, but were so quiet in all their movements that it seemed as though they knew what was in the air.  In five minutes they were free from the buildings, and the travellers mounted.  The road lay before them in dappled lights and shadows from the brilliant moon overhead.  It was as easy to see the way as though the sun had been up.

Once clear of the inn, and Lord Claud sprang forward at a steady, swinging hand gallop, a pace to which the horses settled down as though well habituated to it.

Then he began to speak to Tom of the project on which they were bent.

“There is gold on its way from the bank to the coast.  It is guarded by four soldiers.  They have been instructed to travel fast to catch a certain sloop.  Today they will have met with many hindrances upon the way.  All that has been arranged for.  So they will profit by this clear moonlight night to prosecute their journey, which will not lie through what is thought to be dangerous country.  Forest land and wild heath make men very careful, but quiet country roads where villages are frequent give them confidence.  And yet it is just as easy to fall upon the prey in the latter as in the former locality.  In sooth, I think it is easier.  The men in charge rush back for help, thinking the more easily to track and follow us;” and then Lord Claud broke into a soft laugh, and began to whistle cheerily as they galloped forward.

These horses were wonderfully strong and fleet.  Tom could not but remark it as they galloped mile after mile with unwearied energy.  Lord Claud smiled in the moonlight as he replied: 

“Oh yes, that is necessary.  It is well to prove an alibi, if you know what that is, good Tom.  The honest folks where we come from will swear that we and our steeds were abed all night over yonder; but even if that should not be enough, there will be many who will declare that if we did not leave St. Albans till past ten, we could never be at the spot I am aiming for and back again before break of day; and I shall take care to call mine host up betimes, so that there will be plenty of evidence that I have not been abroad this night.”

Tom had heard often enough of the good understanding existing between innkeepers and the highway robbers who infested the roads, and now he began to see the workings of it, and to understand how easy it made some of these excursions, and how difficult it must afterwards be to obtain evidence against the freebooters.  Lord Claud’s handsome person, his freedom of speech, and his lavishly-spent gold, made him a favourite everywhere; and now he seemed about to employ his fascinations of mind and body for other purposes.  Tom was to see how they served him in a different sort of life.

The rapid pace at which they were travelling hindered conversation.  Tom would not easily have believed it possible to travel so fast by night, but he trusted himself implicitly to the guidance of his comrade; and the strong, mettlesome, sure-footed horse he rode seemed to make nothing either of his solid weight, or of the distance they had to go.

Presently Lord Claud drew rein.  They were passing through a little copse, where the light was but misty and indistinct, and where the road made a sudden sharp turn almost at right angles, affording complete shelter to any person or persons lying in ambush.

“Now, Tom,” said Lord Claud, “this is the spot I have chosen.  There is a village not half a mile distant.  The road is not a dangerous or lonely one ­this is the only little bit of wood for some distance, and it is very small.  No special precautions will probably be observed.  There are two horses laden with gold, under the escort of two soldiers each.  They had a larger guard to pass through the wilder forest country, but some of the men were to turn back when the perilous transit was made.  Most likely one horse and the two troopers will be a little in advance of the other.  The moment the leading horse rounds this corner we shoot down the men.  You need not kill your trooper, Tom ­indeed, I never kill unless there is need ­it is enough to disable him.  In a moment I shall have possession of the horse and shall gallop off.  But I shall only possess myself of the treasure, and let the beast go.  I have no wish to be tracked by him.  Now, if I am right in what I expect, the second troopers, hearing the shots and their comrades’ cries, will believe themselves in peril of attack from a much larger gang, and will instantly fly to save their skins.  This is what happens in five cases out of seven.  It is seldom that a couple of men will stay to face what they believe to be a desperate gang of highwaymen.  If this is so, dash you out upon the second horse.  Seize him, and follow me.  I know every inch of the country, and those fellows know nothing but the roads.  They will never catch us, even if they pursue.  If, however, the second pair should prove fellows of a stouter kidney, and instead of fleeing should show fight, then leave the second prize and follow hard after me.  We will not risk too much, and one load will suffice for present necessities, albeit I should like well enough to obtain the two.  I would make our ministers smart for their scurvy treatment of me!”

Tom grasped the situation in a moment, and set his teeth hard, whilst the light of battle leaped into his eyes.  The adventure suited the reckless self-confidence which his recent life had quickened.  Why should he not in time become a second Lord Claud, a man half feared, half admired by all London town, petted, made much of, observed and copied wherever he went?  That his calling was suspected, if not actually known, Tom had abundant reason to know.  But it seemed rather to give a lustre to his reputation than to cover him with shame.  Why should he not attain in time to a like pinnacle of fame and fortune?

Thus he mused, standing there in the softened moonlight, the fierce and lawless strain in his nature for the moment in the ascendant, the influence of his strange comrade dominant in his heart.

There was a sound at last.  The horses heard it first and pricked their ears.  Next minute the riders heard it, too.  It was the tramp, tramp of horses’ feet upon the road, coming on at a leisurely pace, together with the jingling of arms and the sound of voices.

Tom’s heart beat thick and fast, but his hand did not tremble as he followed Lord Claud’s example and got ready his pistol.  Like two figures carved in stone sat the two liers-in-wait, their well-trained horses as motionless as themselves.

Crack! crack!

The silence of the night was broken by the ominous sound.  A yell of pain and fury arose.  Two horses turned back rearing, and dashed away, but the third was gripped by a strong hand; and before the party behind could see a vestige of what was happening, two riderless horses had galloped past them, throwing them into a panic of confusion and terror.

Lord Claud had judged right in part.  Thrown into confusion, the men turned as if to flee, thinking themselves fallen amongst a large band of robbers.  Tom made a quick rush round the corner, seized the second pack horse by the bridle, and dashed off in pursuit of Lord Claud; but even as he did so he became aware that there were more than the two troopers in the party, and in a moment the sound of yells and cries behind him told him that he was pursued.

But he had proved the pace of the horse beneath him, and if he could but possess himself of the bags upon the pack horse, and let the slower-paced beast go free, he knew he could distance pursuit.  With a mighty effort he lifted the heavy bags and swung them over his shoulders; but even at that moment he heard the crack of firearms in the rear, and his good horse reared up perfectly erect, and Tom had but time to slip off his back before the creature fell over backwards, and lay still and dead.

Tom had another pistol, and even as he reached the ground he turned round and fired full at the foremost pursuer.  A cry of pain told him his shot had found a billet in horse or man.  But he could stay for no more.  Already his mask and wig had fallen off.  The moonlight struck full upon his face and the fine proportions of his figure.  He saw that there were half a dozen men spurring onwards in pursuit; but he was full of that fury which gives to men an almost superhuman strength.

Leaping upon the back of the pack horse, he spurred the maddened and terrified animal to the wildest gallop, a gallop which he could never keep up, but which for the time being distanced all pursuit.  Then when he had winded his own beast, and knew that the pursuing horses must themselves be pretty well blown, he slipped from its back and began running like a hare across country in the direction taken by Lord Claud, knowing that however cleverly he might conceal himself, he would not be far away, and that he would keep an eye upon Tom’s line of flight, and come up with him as soon as it was safe to do so.

The sounds of pursuit died away.  Tom looked back, and found himself alone in the fields and copses.  His quick turnings and doublings, and the choice of ground difficult for horses, had served his purpose well.  He was safe, and he had his prize with him.  His heart swelled with pride at the success of his achievement.

In a short while up rode Lord Claud, cool and smiling.

“Well done, Tom; that was gallantly done.  But we have lost one of our good steeds, and you have lost your mask.  I trust that none saw your face?”

“It came off when the horse plunged and reared, and I was cumbered with the moneybags,” answered Tom.  “Yet I doubt if any who saw me would know my face again; the soot upon my forehead at least would make it hard to be sure of the face.  And none were very nigh at hand.”

“Give me the bags, and take you my stirrup, and we will wend our way back as fast as may be.  You can run like a hare, Tom, as I have seen well.  Can you run step for step with a trotting horse for some few miles?”

“Try me and see,” answered Tom, who was not a little proud of his powers in this respect; and side by side through the misty summer’s night stepped man and horse, both unwearied and full of courage.  Once Lord Claud insisted upon dismounting and letting Tom ride for a few miles; but for the most part it was Tom who trotted along step for step with the horse, thinking over the events of the night, and exulting in the triumph they had achieved.

They reached the inn outside St. Albans just as the dawn was breaking in the east.  Not a creature was stirring as they stabled the horse and made their way into the house.  Nor did they do this until saddle and bridle and moneybags had been safely locked away in the body of the carriage, which contained a cavity with a secret door, the trick of which seemed known only to Lord Claud.  Then they went to their room, removed all traces of travel from their faces ­as Tom had removed them from the horse in the stable just before ­tied up their clothes in small compass, and got into bed just as the first sound of life began to be heard in the house.

Almost immediately then Lord Claud called loudly for the host, and bade him bring him instantly a hot posset, as he had had a touch of ague in the night.  There was a good deal of bustling to and fro then, and servants passed in and out of the room, seeing both travellers lying peacefully in their beds, as though they had slept there all night.

Lord Claud wrote a short note at once, and handed it to the host with a few whispered directions, to which the man replied with a nod and a wink; and then he took his posset, turned round and slept a while, and rose at the usual hour as though he had no reason for desiring longer rest.

This day was spent as the previous one had been, in paying visits and joining in fashionable amusements.  The news that there had been a robbery on the highway of some gold about to be shipped to Holland for the troops excited a little commotion in the place, and once or twice Tom fancied that he saw curious glances levelled at himself and his companion.  Lord Claud talked upon the subject with his usual airy negligence, but without the faintest hint of personal interest in the matter.  Nor did he even “turn a hair” when rumour reported that there was a very decided clue as to the identity of one of the band, who had been recognized by some travellers on the road, who were going in the same direction as the troopers, and had assisted them in pursuing one of the robbers.  The man had escaped; but it was asserted that he was known and could be sworn to at any time.

This was not pleasant hearing for Tom, but he showed a cool enough front at the time.  It was only when alone with Lord Claud that he asked rather anxiously if he thought it could be true.

“I doubt it,” was the reply; “it is a common thing for men to make the boast, but it seldom proves correct.  Was it true that there were others besides the troopers on the road?  I thought I saw more figures than I looked for, but knew not whether all were soldiers or not.”

“There were others,” answered Tom; “but I had no time to see what manner of men they were.  There was much shouting and cursing, and I heard one man give an exultant laugh when I turned and fired; but more than that I know not.”

Lord Claud looked thoughtful.

“Well, Tom, it boots little to meet danger half way.  ’Tis always best to put on a bold front and set it at defiance.  But this remember, that Nell Gwynne shall be kept in readiness for you by night and day.  And if ever you have reason to seek to save yourself by flight, the horse is yours; there will be money and a few necessaries strapped to the saddle.  Make your way incontinently to Captain Jack, who may always be heard of at The Three Ravens; and I will visit you there, and we will talk over the state of affairs.”

Tom nodded, and looked a little relieved in mind; but he felt as though a cloud hung over his spirit despite his attempts at defying fate.

Next morning they started off in the carriage once more, and, to Tom’s astonishment, with (apparently) the same two horses.  He looked at his comrade for a moment in mingled surprise and admiration.  Lord Claud gave an odd little smile as he replied: 

“It is always well to be provided against accident, good Tom.  Half the clever deeds of this world are rendered null and void because men forget to look ahead.  We shall see the same persons driving back as we saw driving out.  We must have the same steeds too, else would that dead horse lying in the fields tell a tale we would rather keep to ourselves.”