"Watch for me by moonlight;
I'll come to thee by moonlight, though Hell should bar the way!"
~The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes
Oh, how I love that part. Ah, the romance of a dashing, handsome masked man in a 'French cocked hat', 'a bunch of lace at his chin, a coat of claret velvet', breeches 'that fitted with never a wrinkle' thigh-high boots with pistol butts and rapier 'a twinkle' riding a magnificent steed up to Bess's window, and she, leaning out to let her long black hair waft down to him like Rapunzel, and 'The Highwayman' kissing 'the sweet black waves in the moonlight.' Let's just stop right there and think about that image.
I've just finished reading Judith James' The Highwayman, the long awaited conclusion to her Restoration era trilogy. I've enjoyed the previous two immensely: The King's Courtesan (newly titled Soldier of Fortune) and Libertine's Kiss, the first in the series, which will always be my personal favorite because...Rochester. I'm glad to say The Highwayman swashbuckles his way perfectly along with the rakish poet William de Veres, the embittered vengeance seeking soldier Captain Sir Robert Nichols, as well as the charismatic Charles II. These characters are all larger than life and live up to that expectation. Judith James captured the romance of this Restoration era Robin Hood, making me long for my a real highwayman to come 'riding, riding, riding' along a purple moor.
'Some men knew him as John Nevison, a useful name for business or when he wished to be discrete. Those who braved the Great North Road called him Gentleman Jack, a well-mannered rogue who stole their goods with courtesy and charm. The pamphleteers preferred the sobriquet Swift Nick, given him by King Charles, likening him to the devil, claiming his mount was black as pitch, a demon horse with flaming hooves that barely skimmed the ground. The only name he never used was the one left him by his aristocratic sire. He allowed no man to call him Harris, and his friends and associates called him Jack.' (loc. 101)
So many names for one man, so many facets of his character, so many reasons why he is a highwayman, but at the heart remains one truth: Jack longs for freedom, the thrill of adventure, the challenge of besting a foe, the adrenaline rush of galloping with Bess as they leap over a steep gorge fleeing constables.
"I am a highwayman, not a common thief. I rob. I don’t steal or sneak through people’s homes, bumbling about in the dark…except for the once, at your place. Stealing is for cowards. The highway is for brave and plucky lads with a thirst for adventure and a taste for freedom. It’s many a lad’s dream. That’s why they make us heroes. Freedom from a master, from the law, from any rules but those you make yourself. Freedom to come and go when and as you please. And you never feel more powerful and alive then when you challenge and best the thing that might kill you. It enlivens me, and it also calms me somehow. Be truthful, Bella. You have drunk of it yourself of late and found the taste is sweet.” (loc. 2546)
One of the things I loved most about Jack was the way he constantly surprised me. When I expected him to do one thing, he did another. Jack agrees to deliver a 'package' to Hammond House and the 'package' turns out to be Arabella Hamilton, Countess of Saye, an unmarried heiress. Despite her pleas for his help and protests as they ride through the night (and his own misgivings), Jack does deliver Arabella to her repulsive cousin, Robert. After all, Jack is a man of his word, added to which he was paid handsomely to see it done. I feared a dire future for Arabella, locked in a bedroom, already physically abused and threatened with rape, at the mercy of a man who wanted nothing more than access to her money, deserted by the dashing highwayman. There was just enough of a questionable nature in Jack's character that made me think 'Well, my girl, your fate is in your hands now. How will you extricate yourself?' It seemed that Jack had washed his hands of any troubles that might befall Arabella.
"He drowned it with a brandy, set his hat upon his head, and went to collect Bess. He’d agreed to deliver a package and he’d done so. It was barely past midnight. There was nothing left to stop him from making some entertainment of his own." (loc. 420)
But he hasn't. 'Entertainment' might be the word he uses to justify what follows, but it's clear Jack is not cut from cloth that will allow him to walk away when someone is in danger.
Arabella Hamilton, Lady Saye, is curious by nature, a free thinker, a non-conformist, an independent spirit, full of common sense and steady nerves who longs for adventure and freedom from the strictures of society on ladies. Despite being backhanded and threatened with a whip and other violence, she stands toe-to-toe with the villainous Robert and dismisses Jack as a thug who refused to help her. Even locked in a room with no escape, she has not given up escaping her prison.
"A thing wasn’t finished until you stopped trying. She might not have a father or brother or other champion to defend her, but she was her father’s daughter and her mother’s rebel blood ran through her veins. She would defend herself. There had to be a way to escape. Something she had missed. Something she had yet to notice." (loc. 487)
Frustrated, fearful, and furious, Arabella trips over a bucket, kicks it, bursts into tears, and realizes someone is watching her from the window ledge. Even though she had spent hours in Jack's company as he delivered her to Robert, this meeting is the real 'first' meeting between Jack and Arabella in my opinion.
“I’ve done that before. Not the crying part…but the toe. It hurts like the devil, doesn’t it?”
The husky, slightly amused voice came from right above her.
She looked up, open-mouthed with astonishment. It was the highwayman, crouched on the ledge, peering down at her.
“But....What...? How...? You....”
He stood up, removed a dashing wide- brimmed feathered hat with a flourish, and gave her a deep bow. “Gentleman Jack, at your service, Lady Hamilton. But you may call me Jack.”
(...)If things go as planned, you shall never see what a handsome fellow I am, he had said to her in the forest, and perched above her now, clad head to toe in black leather with his great cloak spread about him like black wings, she knew it for the truth. Half in shadow, he looked like one of Lucifer’s dark angels— dangerous and beautiful. (loc. 491-501)
Arabella has heard the stories associated with Gentleman Jack, the rumors that he and Swift Nick are one and the same, and how King Charles gave him that sobriquet 'Swift Nick' and astonishingly pardoned his exploits along the North Road. Arabella knows he is her only means of escape and reluctantly recognizes that Jack also calls to her own hidden 'adventuring' spirit even as she believes him to be no more than a 'well-dressed brigand.'
“I thought you had left. What are you doing here?”
Though her voice was curt, she couldn’t stem a rising tide of hope.
“The job is done as promised. I’ve been paid.” He hefted a purse, tossing it and catching it so it jingled, before stuffing it under his shirt.
“But there’s not an inn or tavern for miles. As I’ve nothing else to do, I thought it might prove amusing to deliver you home. A bit of a challenge, eh? Are you game?”
“I….You mean to rescue me?”
“Unless you’d rather I didn’t.”
“No! No! I mean yes, please!”
She scrambled to her feet, ignoring screaming muscles, throbbing bruises, and the burning pain that seared her back.
Jack looked into hope- filled eyes and grinned, feeling right with himself for the first time that night. Then he leaned over and extended his arm. “Grab hold then, Miss Hamilton. We are going for a ride.” (loc. 513)
Yes, indeed. This is the beginning of a fantastic ride that changes things for both Arabella and Jack. Together, across dark moonlit roads, shimmying down a tower three stories high, galloping atop Bess whose hooves really do seem to fly over the ground defying gravity, racing willy-nilly across London rooftops to escape Robert's henchmen, they become just Jack and Bella. With Jack, Arabella becomes the mysterious 'Belle de Nuit', finally finding an outlet for her innate curiosity, for her desire to explore, for her yearning to experience her own adventures instead of just reading about others'. With Arabella, Jack is able to temper his need to keep searching for the next adventure just around that bend in the road or just over that hill. His many personas begin to meld together into one man, Jack Nevison:
“The truth is, it’s all beginning to blur now and I am growing tired of the charade. Jack, Nick, it makes no matter. I only truly feel myself when I am with you.”(loc. 2399)
Reading a Judith James book is a lot like opening a beautifully wrapped present. I know I am in for an adventure, a wonderful romance, an engaging story, characters who never languish between the covers but instead are bigger than life and step right out of the pages as well as historical details that add so much ambience to all of those things. The Highwayman is all of that and more. I loved that both main characters are based on actual historical people and that I can see them come to life in such an unforgettable fashion. Jack's character is based on the real highwayman, 'Swift Nick', Jack Nevison, while Arabella's roots can be found in Celia Fiennes, an English woman who rode side saddle through every county in England, alone except for a couple of servants, keeping meticulous journal entries of all she saw and experienced. Her journals were later compiled into a book, The Journeys of Celia Fiennes. The Highwayman truly is an adventure from beginning to end. Ride with Jack and Arabella 'across the moors, racing the moon with naught but the stars to mark the way.' Will you answer the call to adventure and romance and deeds of derring-do, atop the 'fastest horse in England?' Come adventuring with Gentleman Jack.