short stories

The Highwayman

Marie Antoinette and Dracula were lost in the Dublin hills.

Beneath her ribboned wig, now thoroughly crushed against the car roof, Jane felt a rising laughter for the absurdity of the situation, but Marcus wasn’t laughing, so she knew it was best not to. A sidewards glance failed to locate the scowl she was certain lay beyond his cape’s upturned collar; fingers clamped bloodlessly on the steering wheel spoke to his festering mood as much as his words. Jane smoothed her ballooning ballgown and kept quiet.

One more night, just endure one more.

‘This is becoming ridiculous,’ he grumbled. ‘We should just go home.’

‘Oh, no, Marcus, please,’ Jane exclaimed, driven by fear of missing the party of the season over risking his displeasure. ‘We must be very close by now,’ she hurriedly countered. And when she didn’t see anything beyond the windows but the black October night: ‘I’ll look at the invitation again.’ 

Slipping the envelope free from her purse quickly she cracked again the orange wax seal – pressed to a pumpkin face (Patrick had thought of everything) – and tugged the card free. With a glance for its ‘cordial invitation’ to celebrate ‘Helloween at Halloween’, she turned the card over to consult the rudimentary map printed between inked bats and black cats.

‘Why do you have such morbid friends?’ Marcus asked as he continued his own probing on all sides beyond the headlights’ reach. He cursed at finding only hedgerows running to black vanishing points in the gloom.

Jane bit her lip and caught the angry retort for him in time. Patrick’s not morbid, she wanted to say firmly, but did not. If you had bothered to read his book you’d know, she didn’t add. Helloween is as fun and creative and clever as he is. In fact, she recalled, a groundbreaking adventure” had been one critic’s assessment. And, she definitely did not add, it’s made him rich. That would be too much, a real party-killer; Marcus, who revelled in seeing familiar names laid low in the pages of Stubb’s Gazette, would not tolerate being reminded of the money angle, though even he could not have failed to pick up on the news of Helloween going for a cool six-figures – a pay-day for Patrick that made tonight’s costume ball a reality.

If they could find his house.

‘You should have turned at the sign-post for Montpelier Hill,’ she pointed out. And was that a hint of told-you-so haughtiness that slipped free? She caught the harsh whisper of Dracula’s collar and quickly distracted his glare by drawing a finger along the hand-drawn route where it left the main road to meander towards a cartoonish house at journey’s end: Ogden’s Folly.

‘This damned cape,’ Marcus cursed as he gunned the car to a cyclone of dust.

Just one more night.

And then what? 

I have savings. 

You’re walking out on more than you’ve saved. Marcus is the money-maker, remember.

Then it will be an adventure. Why do you sound so much like him?

You tell me. But why now? It’s been five years, after all.

‘Better late than never,’ Jane said, aloud, and blanched.

‘What?’ Marcus jerked his head towards her and frowned at her silence. ‘Oh, for God’s sake!’

The turn loomed up, almost missed in his moment’s distraction. Marcus swung the wheel with a muttered curse and fought through a fishtail manoeuvre into the junction. 

Coming level, he breathed and thankfully forgot her unguarded comment as their climb began. The car rose with the full moon ascending between black trees and stone walls. Through pressing night and the first mists rising languidly from the fields, Jane searched expectantly, hoping for a twinkling between branches or a curl of pale chimney smoke against the sky, anything to announce Patrick’s place before Marcus lost what little patience he was capable of and turned for home regardless of her pleas. A skittish gleam ahead brought her suddenly forward in her seat, but only to catch the startled eyes of fox in the sweeping headlights. And just as suddenly, as the creature fled, they finally arrived. Marcus slowed, and together they watched the confirming sign – Elvis Presley was guiding a much underdressed Cleopatra across the road.

The sounds of distant music reached Jane as she worked to heave her gown into the night and align her bodice; Cleopatra had a point with her minimalism, perhaps, but Jane did not have her daring. 

In another life, darling.

Straightening the defiantly bent wig, costume choices were forgotten with a gasp as Jane took her first look at Ogden’s Folly.

Patrick’s ‘cartoon’ home was, in life, a mansion. Of Georgian design in its lines and symmetry, the structure rose boldly against a jagged backdrop of trees and raised its granite facade to sparkle in the moonlight. Modern uplighters set at points along a manicured lawn added to the effect and caused sash windows to glare down on a paltry lustre offered in return by the distant city barely seen between the foliage. Glittering beams, pulsating to a modern drumbeat, played from inside against the main door’s fanlight, revealing a shadow-party weaving with raucous laughter.

‘Oh,’ Jane heard herself exclaim, ‘isn’t it fabulous?’

Marcus sniffed.

‘Let’s get this over with.’ His cape flared where he paced the gravel driveway and left her to gather her skirts in pursuit. 

A werewolf gave admission and added helpful directions towards the drinks. The route lay across a marbled entrance hall transformed to a grand terminus for creatures and characters of every sort. Weaving through the Hollywood and horror assortment, with apologies to a Viking for the breadth of her gown, Jane eagerly led – Marcus falling behind to cast his appraising eye over the interior and its fixtures. She had crossed half the distance when her name, shouted from the staircase, cut through the music.

‘Jane! Jane!’

She looked and saw a figure descending, a highwayman with arms flung wide as the cloak he trailed. Striding across the tiles, he pulled his obscuring black kerchief aside in favour of a beaming smile as he scooped her up, lifting her high enough to strike the chandelier with her wig and set its crystals tinkling.

‘Patrick, you idiot,’ she cried delightedly, ‘put me down.’ She fell into him as he laughed and clung to her hands. 

‘You came!’ he exclaimed. 

‘Of course I came,’ she said. She feigned a pouting displeasure with him. ‘I have to take what opportunities I can now, you being the jet-setting author. Who can keep up?’

He scoffed good-naturedly for her description. ‘There’ll be no jetting at all for the next six months. My publisher…Julius Caesar over there…is piling on the pressure for Helloween 2. Awful title, isn’t it, strictly provisional, I promise. So I’ll be here! And, just like in college…’

‘You’re door is always open,’ Jane finished with a smile. 

‘Won’t you get cabin fever?’ Marcus cut in as his circling inspection ended by them. ‘I know I would.’ His eyes fell to linger pointedly on joined hands until Jane quickly withdrew hers.

‘Marcus, welcome,’ Patrick said. More to Jane than him, he added: ‘Oh, Ogden’s Folly is very stimulating. I fell in love with the place at the first viewing. There’s even a ghost.’ If he caught Marcus’s weary eye-roll, he ignored it. ‘Let me give you the grand tour,’ he offered.

‘I’m going to get a drink,’ Marcus replied.

‘Oh, I’ll have a…,’ Jane began, but he was gone.

Untroubled, Patrick offered his hand again with a conspiratorial wink. 

‘Come on, the good stuff’s not down here anyhow.’

They fled between a pair of conversing cowboys.

Leaving the festivities a muffled din behind, they skirted the staircase for the kitchen and the rear of the house. Patrick led the way, weaving through passages until they reach a flight of discreet steps, the servants’ stairway to all parts of the house ‘back in the day,’ he explained. He drew her on to his enthusiastic history lesson of the Folly, through Union and Rebellion, and remained impervious to her joking accusation he’d become a ‘nerd’ in the months since they’d last met – ‘in The Millstone six months ago,’ he recalled, ‘in Chapter One eight months ago,’ she corrected him and with a smile for how he blushed as he opened a panelled door to admit her. 

They entered now a room which stood free of the contemporary touches so evident in the other parts of the house. Dark panelled walls ran to bookshelves flanking a broad stone fireplace and an adjoining door; all clearly original features which instantly transported Jane as she entered. A single concession to modernity was set on the oak desk dominating the room. There, where Jane would have preferred candles, an electric lamp offered its soft illumination to the night and its moonbeams angling through tall windows.

‘This is where the magic happens,’ Patrick announced. ‘Or it will if I can come up with my sequel.’ He removed his tri-corn hat and tossed it onto the desk. Reaching past, he produced a bottle and glasses from a drawer. ‘I hope you still have your taste for whiskey,’ he said. When no reply came, he turned back to discover Jane had become distracted at the fireplace. Peering above, she looked into a face staring back from its surrounding gilt frame. 

‘Ogden,’ she guessed, distantly, and continued to gaze into eyes that by the artist’s skill somehow twinkled mischievously beneath a moon set behind the subject in the portrait. 

‘The ghost,’ Patrick agreed with a chuckle. ‘Charles Napier Ogden. I found his portrait in the attic when I moved in. Still hiding after all these years.’

She frowned. ‘Hiding?’

Patrick offered her a glass along with his tale.

‘Charles Ogden was born at the beginning of the 18th Century, the second son in a prominent land-owning family. Number One son took on the estates, naturally, so Charles would grow to seek his fortune elsewhere. A career in soldiering led him to the New World and the right connections for a life of business after his military service. That’s where he gained his significant wealth, in Boston, trading in rum between the city and the West Indies. Sometime around 1730 he felt the call of home and cashed in a very wealthy man. But on returning to Dublin he did the strangest thing. Rich enough to own the finest town house, he opted instead to build his home here in the wild hills outside the city limits. This was considered bizarre by the natives. At that time Dublin rivalled London for arts and entertainments, and keeping a residence in the city was a must for those in “polite society”. Not that he avoided any of that, mind you. Ogden was a regular sight at the gaming tables in Daly’s and all the finest banquets, but always he would make his excuses and return early to his distant dwelling. It was his contemporaries who eventually dubbed the house his folly, and none ever guessed why he kept his life at one remove from theirs.’

‘There was a scandal,’ Jane guessed, enthused.

‘Oh, better than that,’ Patrick declared. He sipped his drink as though to steel himself and drew close to direct her sight upward. ‘Ignore that handsome face and the medals and look to the space off Ogden’s shoulder, there, between the moon and Montpelier Hill. What do you see?’

Supporting her rebellious wig as she peered through years of fading oils on the darkening canvas, Jane discerned the clue quickly and with a start.

‘A horse and caped rider…a highwayman!’

Patrick raised his glass in salute to the portrait.

‘Within a year of Charles Ogden’s return to his native land, Dublin was troubled by a figure who would become known as the “Phoenix Park Highwayman”. Businessmen, judges, lords, all fell victim and were made poorer by him. He took fortunes from anyone reckless enough to travel the Park’s avenues after sunset, springing from cover with pistols ready before thundering away again on his steed. Once, the Lord Lieutenant’s mistress was accosted as she slipped from a secret liaison at the viceregal lodge. The story goes that, as well as her earrings, the brazen thief stole a kiss from the lady, just to infuriate the man working hardest to catch him! But vigilante committees failed, ambushes didn’t snare him. In fact, the highwayman was never captured.’

‘Because he had insider knowledge,’ Jane guessed with a wry smile.

‘Exactly. Who better to stalk the bigwigs than one of their own? Picture it, Ogden, spying on them across the card tables and at their glittering social events, marking his target and timing his departure to intercept them later. “Stand and deliver!” his cry before making for the hills and home, always one step ahead of the soldiers because he learned their plans from his good friend the Lord Lieutenant himself!’ 

Patrick chuckled as he sipped.

‘According to one report, when the rich finally became too frightened to travel by night and the highwayman’s pickings grew slim, Ogden hosted a lavish ball here at the Folly and afterwards robbed his guests as they made their way back to the city. That one episode was enough to make the highwayman a legend. He became the suspect in so many escapades in the years after that people began to whisper of his ghost riding the roads between Dublin and the Folly, forever on the hunt.’

‘You make it sound so exciting,’ she confessed to the painted face.

‘And that, I think, is exactly the point,’ Patrick said. ‘Ogden’s biographers suspected he was driven to a life of crime by the expense of building the Folly but I don’t buy that. I prefer to believe his life on the frontier of the world left him bored with card games and soirees. He needed the old adventure, and he found it behind the highwayman’s mask. That portrait is his signed, defiant confession.’

‘Was he married?’ Jane blurted and Patrick choked and laughed.

‘You’re about two hundred and fifty years too late for Charles Ogden.’

‘Better late than never,’ Jane said distantly, and something in the very way she said it held Patrick from another sip.

‘What?’ was his simple prompt.

She downed a good measure.

‘I’m leaving Marcus,’ she explained then, not taking her eyes from his. ‘At last. The paperwork will be ready in the morning.’ On a whim she swept up her glass. ‘Drink to it with me, Patrick. To freedom, and adventure, and to a five-year mistake cast onto a Halloween bonfire.’

She laughed, and supped, and trembled so visibly Patrick moved to support her.

‘I will drink to it,’ he promised, ‘all of it. Anything you want, okay? And after tonight, anything you need. You just have to ask.’

‘Anything?’ she said, collecting herself. She watched him smirk for her teasing. 

In another life, darling.

‘Out and proud,’ they whispered together.

‘Well this is cosy,’ Marcus said. His cape filled the doorway and seeped in as he entered. ‘A private party, just for two, and drinks. You should have lit the fire, Patrick, that would have been a nice touch.’

‘Marcus,’ Jane tried.

‘What?’ he snapped. ‘Are you seriously about to say “this isn’t what it looks like”?’ He moved casually by them to the second door and tugged it open to reveal the next room, a bedroom. ‘Oh, Patrick, naughty naughty.’

‘Marcus!’ Jane said, indignantly now.

His slap for her was hard and fast, and it drove her back against the fireplace. 

Patrick lunged but Marcus was faster, stronger. He grasped his opponent by the collar and flung him back against the desk with force enough to topple the lamp.

‘Who do you think you are?’ Marcus snarled. 

‘Get out of my house!’ Patrick demanded. 

Marcus bunched his fists as he stepped forward, his reddening vision filled with Patrick’s face until Jane was there, forcing her way between them to bodily slow his onward march.

‘We’re leaving,’ she declared, ‘we’re leaving now!’

‘Jane!’ Patrick protested. 

Marcus gave over to a triumphant sneer as he let Jane’s tiny form hold him back.

‘Did you get that, Patrick, did you? We’re leaving. Me and my wife, together. You stay here in your vulgar pile in the backwoods and steal from someone else. But you don’t take from me, not me!’

‘Jane,’ Patrick’s voice was a pleading as she forced Marcus from the room. ‘I’m calling the police.’

‘It’s okay,’ she assured him, ‘it’ll be okay.’

The journey to the car was a blur of shouldered guests and spilled drinks, their departure a wheel-spinning slide back onto the road under the moon to Marcus’s raging. 

‘That cheap little hack! One taste of success for his penny dreadful muck and he thinks he owns the world! And you, you were so tempted weren’t you? You saw flashbulbs and fame, didn’t you? Like a moth to a flame. Lady of the manor. The life I offer isn’t good enough for you and your college-educated expectations. Well, let me tell you, darling, you’ll be watching that scribbler from a distance from now on. You’re barred, do you hear me? And another thing…’

‘Enough!’ She howled through gritted teeth and maddened eyes. ‘Enough! Stop the car. Stop the car!’

Whether stunned by her voice so loud in the car’s confines or shock at her outburst, Marcus, unthinking, slammed on the brakes and brought them to a shuddering halt in a violent peppering of gravel. Before he had a chance to react further, to demand an explanation for her cry, Jane was out of the vehicle and pacing to and fro in the headlights.

‘What the hell..,’ he tried, pushing from his seat. But she was ready.

‘Enough!’ she barked again, directing the command with jabbing finger. And she advanced on him! She actually advanced to face him until the lights flared in her eyes. ‘Enough!’

‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ Marcus demanded furiously.

‘You are!’ she retorted without pause. ‘You, and everything about you! You always, always…and I never, ever…’

‘Me?’ he exclaimed. ‘I did nothing wrong! You’re hysterical. Get back in the car.’

‘I’m leaving you!’ She heard herself declare it, and she looked in wide wonder for the source of her voice, doubting in the moment’s fury she had actually uttered the words to him until he confirmed it.

‘What did you say?’ he growled, his anger struggling to reassert itself through a wave of confusion. ‘Leaving? You’re not leaving me. You don’t leave me.’ 

She watched his fist clamping to hold his truth. 

Or was it to crush hers?

‘I am leaving, Marcus’ she dared, ‘I am. I’ve had enough.’

Now he advanced. With teeth grinding and rising hands, he drew himself up and stepped towards her, the heat of his rage driving him to communicate himself in the way he did so often when words failed. But even as he lumbered, he recognised with a start the failing of his actions. Jane didn’t waiver, didn’t shrink as expected, as required. Normally she backed down at this point, but she didn’t, she just stood boldly in his path. There was no plan for this…this challenge, but he would meet it head on, had to, Marcus Carthy never backed down, never. Reaching for her throat, he knew he would have to let his rage decide the rest.

A harsh stab at his ear in time to a mechanical click stopped him mid-stride. Cold metal was ice to his anger and he pivoted to stare down a pistol barrel at the red-masked figure beyond.

‘Stand fast, sir,’ the highwayman ordered, his genteel tone laced with a dash of menace.

‘What the bloody hell are you doing?’ Marcus exclaimed. Through his bafflement for Patrick’s sudden appearance, another sight, dark and snorting by the roadside seized his attention. ‘You own a horse!?’

‘What a curious fellow,’ the masked-one admitted. He issued a soft chuckle as eyes above the covering roved over Marcus, his suit, his cape. ‘But you do look moneyed,’ he conceded. ‘I’ll see your purse.’

‘What?’ Marcus spluttered. ‘What?’ Fingers flapped and eyes blinked in search of some logic to the scene. ‘Have you actually lost your mind, Coleman?’

A pistol-burst ruptured the night, its explosion momentarily brighter than the car’s beams. Marcus fell back from it with a cry, driven blindly behind protective hands as the ground between his feet erupted. The highwayman’s black mount bucked and reared for the clamour until the storm gave over to a fresh pistol’s click and the highwayman’s dangerous glare.

‘On your knees, sir!’ 

The highwayman’s tone was sufficient warning and it drove Marcus to kneeling, wincing as gravel stabbed his kneecaps.

‘Your purse,’ was his barked reminder that followed. ‘Deliver.’

‘This is insane,’ Marcus said, though he sensibly fumbled to the pockets of his coat as he argued. ‘I’ll see you done for this, I swear.’ His wallet was snatched away, and though he made to protest more, the pistol muzzle so close to his eyes demanded silence now.

‘Madam, please come into the light.’

Jane stepped warily forward. She unconsciously reached to ensure her wig was straight as she met…tried to meet…eyes obscured by the shadow of that tri-corn hat. But what she could not see, she felt.

‘The finest prize,’ the highwayman said distantly. ‘The ring on your finger is paltry in comparison. Madam, I will steal from you a kiss.’

And again her decision was made, and came like her voice, unbidden. 

‘I’m richer than that, sir,’ she dared.

The highwayman’s eyes fired like diamonds though the moon was behind.


He drew aside his red kerchief, and Jane gasped for what she saw behind the highwayman’s mask.

It will be an adventure.

The night filled to a clash of rein’s, a horse’s shriek, and Marcus blinked and choked in the cloud of dust kicked up. Waving it off to a rolling in the headlights, he found himself quite suddenly alone, kneeling in the strobe of blue lights approaching as the sound of galloping hooves faded between the moon and Montpelier Hill.

Leave a Reply