Margaret McPhee


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His Mask of Retribution

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"
Marianne knew that the highwayman was there, knew that he must be watching her at that very moment, but she could not look, even though she knew that she must. Taking a deep breath to control her rising panic, she followed her father's gaze to the tall, dark highwayman.

He was dressed in black, wearing a long shabby greatcoat and, beneath it, a pair of buckskin breeches.

His boots were scuffed, the leather cracking in places with age and wear. Even his gloves were dark and old, well worn. On his head was an old fashioned tricorn hat; it too was black to match the rest of his outfit, and under it she could see his unfashionably long hair, the colour of rich dark mahogany.

All of this she absorbed in an instant, with barely a glance, for her focus was fixed firmly on the dark kerchief that was tied across his lower face, hiding his identity.

Her stomach was clenched small and tight, and beneath the ivory-and-pink-patterned silk of her skirt her legs were trembling. Her eyes lingered on the piece of cloth for a moment, then she screwed her courage to the mast and, with slow deliberation, she raised them to meet his.

The highwayman's eyes were not cruel and pale, but a warm honeyed brown, and his gaze was steady and strong and compelling, holding hers so that she could not look away. She felt her heart miss a beat and a shiver shimmy all the way down her spine. And she did not know whether it was from shock or relief or fear, or a combination of all three.

What the hell do you want?' her father snarled at him.

The highwayman glanced away, releasing her gaze, and only then did she realise that he had a pistol in each hand and both were aimed at her father's heart.

She knew that he smiled at the question, even though she could not see his mouth behind the kerchief. He smiled, but there was nothing of mirth in his eyes as he looked at her father.

'Stand and deliver.' The man's voice was quiet and harsh, as if half-whispered.

'You'll rue the day you picked me to thieve from, you scoundrel.'

'I think not.' He cocked his pistols.
'My daughter is on her way to be married.' If her father had thought to reason with the highwayman then he was mistaken, for the man's eyes did not so much as flicker. His gaze remained hard and relentless.

'I have a purse of money.' Her father scrabbled in his pockets, pulling out the small brown-leather pouch. 'Here.' He threw it in the direction of the highwayman. 'Take it and be gone.' The purse landed on the grass between them.

The highwayman did not even look at the purse, heavy and bulging with coins though it was. 'I do not want your money,' he said in his harsh half-whisper, his eyes fixed unblinking on Misbourne's.

Her father looked at the highwayman for a moment, as if unable to comprehend the man's answer, before speaking again. 'There is my diamond cravat pin and my watch; both are gold.' Her father's fingers were trembling slightly as he unpinned the diamond and threw it down to lie on the grass by the side of his purse. The stone glinted and sparkled in the sunlight. Then he took the watch from his pocket, unfastened the fob and offered the watch and its dangling chain to the highwayman.

But the villain made no move to take it.

'Marianne, take off your pearls and throw them down by my purse,' her father commanded, adding beneath his breath, 'Pearls before swine.' But for all his bravedo his brow glistened with sweat as she reached for the clasp.

The highwayman shook his head. 'Nor your jewellery, Misbourne.'

Her fingers stilled, then dropped away, leaving the pearls intact around her neck.

Her father frowned and she could see the suspicion and fear that flitted across his face. 'You know my name?' His voice was sharp.

'I know a lot more than that.'

The two men watched one another. The silence was heavy, pregnant with foreboding.

'Then what
do you want?' asked her father at last.

There was a pause before the highwayman spoke. 'We'll come to that in time, but for now I'll take from you the same as I took from the others - that which is most precious in the world to you.'

Every last trace of colour washed from her father's face. His beard and moustache, grizzled and grey, stood stark against the pallor of his skin. Across the heath a blackbird was singing, and in the background was the gentlest whisper of the wind. Nothing else stirred.

Her father forced the semblance of a laugh. 'You mean to kill me?'

'No!' Marianne stepped forward in alarm. 'Do not harm him! I beg of you! Please!'

The highwayman's eyes met hers and they looked almost golden in the morning light. 'Rest assured, Lady Marianne...' how shocked she felt to hear her name upon his lips '...both your father and I know it is not his life of which I speak.' His voice was that same stony half-whisper, devoid of all emotion, but the look in his eyes was cold and hard as the deepest winter and filled with such implacable determination that she shivered to see it. He turned his focus back to her father. 'Don't you, Misbourne?'

'No.' Her father's voice was little more than a croak.The denial was weak and something about his expression made her think he knew exactly what was meant.

The highwayman made a small movement with the pistol in his right hand. 'I will kill you if you do not give me what I have come for. And once you are dead I will be free to take that which you seek to protect...without reprisal.'

'Papa, please, if you have any knowledge of what this villain wants, I beg you to deliver it to him. Do not risk your life.'

Both men looked at her. Her father's face was strained and haunted - he seemed to have aged a hundred years in those few moments - and the highwayman's eyes held the strangest expression.

'Run, Marianne,' her father said, and there was agony in his voice. 'Run, and do not look back.'

She shook her head. 'I will not abandon you to him.'

'Do as I say and run, damn you, girl!'

And she understood in that moment what it was that the highwayman wanted even before he said the words.

'For what does a father love best in all the world, but his only daughter.'"

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