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The Brown Mask

Percy James Brebner

  Produced by Juliet Sutherland, Beth Trapaga and PGDistributed Proofreaders



  Percy J. Brebner

  Author of "Princess Maritza," "Vayenne," "A Royal Ward"







  Dismal in appearance, the painted sign over the mean doorway almostobliterated by time and weather, there was nothing attractive about the"Punch-Bowl" tavern in Clerkenwell. It was hidden away at the end of anarrow alley, making no effort to vaunt its existence to the world atlarge, and to many persons, even in the near neighbourhood, it wasentirely unknown. Like a gentleman to whom debauchery has brought shameand the desire to conceal himself from his fellows, so the "Punch-Bowl"seemed an outcast amongst taverns. Chance visitors were few, wereneither expected nor welcomed, and ran the risk of being told by thelandlady, in terms which there was no possibility of misunderstanding,that the place was not for them. It was natural, therefore, that acertain air of mystery should surround the house, for, although thealley was a _cul-de-sac_, there were stories of marvellous escapesfrom this trap even when the entrance was closed by a troop of soldiers,and it was whispered that there was a secret way out from the"Punch-Bowl" known only to the favoured few. Nor was an element ofromance wanting. The dwellers in this alley were of the poorest sort,dirty and unkempt, picking up a precarious livelihood, pickpockets andcutpurses--"foysters" and "nyppers" as their thieves' slang named them;yet, through all this wretched shabbiness there would flash at intervalssome fine gentleman, richly dressed, and with the swagger of St. James'sin his gait. Conscious of the sensation he occasioned, he passed throughthe alley looking strangely out of place, yet with no uncertain step. Hewas a hero, not only to these ragged worshippers, but in a far widercircle where wit and beauty moved; he knew it, gloried in it, and reckedlittle of the price which must some day be paid for such popularity. Thedestination of these gentlemen was always the "Punch-Bowl" tavern.

  Neither of a man, nor of a tavern, is it safe to judge only by theexterior. A grim and forbidding countenance may conceal a warm heart,even as the unprepossessing "Punch-Bowl" contained a cosy andcomfortable parlour. To-night, half a dozen fine gentlemen were enjoyingtheir wine, and it was evident that the landlady was rather proud of herguests. Buxom, and not too old to forget that she had once beenaccounted pretty, she still loved smartness and bright colours, was notaverse to a kiss upon occasion, and had a jest--coarse, perhaps, butwith some wit in it--for each of her customers. She knew themwell--their secrets, their love episodes, their dangers; sometimes shegave advice, had often rendered them valuable help, but she had also akeen eye for business. Her favours had to be paid for, and even from thehandsomest of her customers a kiss had never been known to settle ascore. The "Punch-Bowl" was no place for empty pockets, and bad luck wasrather a crime than an excuse. When it pleased her the landlady couldtell many tales of other fine gentlemen she had known and would neversee again, and she always gave the impression that she considered herformer customers far superior to her present ones. Perhaps she found thecomparison good for her business since she spoke to vain men. She hadbecome reminiscent this evening.

  "The very night before he was taken he sat where you're sitting," shesaid, pointing to one of her customers who was seated by the hearth."Ah! He made a good end of it did Jim o' the Green Coat; kicked off hisboots as if they were an old pair he had done with, and threw theordinary out of the cart, saying he had no time to waste on him justthen. I was there and saw it all."

  There was silence as she concluded her glowing tale. Depression may takehold of the most careless and light-hearted for a moment, and even theattraction of making a good end, with an opportunity of spurning aworthless ordinary, cannot always appeal. The landlady had contrived tomake her story vivid, and furtive glances were cast at the individualwho occupied the seat she had indicated. There suddenly appeared to besomething fatal in it and ample reason why a man might congratulatehimself on being seated elsewhere. The occupant was the least concerned.He had taken the most comfortable place in the room; it seemed to berightly his by virtue of his dress and bearing. He had the grand air ashaving mixed in high society, his superiority was tacitly admitted byhis companions, and the landlady had addressed herself especially tohim, as though she knew him for a man of consequence.

  "When the time comes you shall see me die game, too, I warrant," helaughed, draining his glass and passing it to be refilled. "One death isas good as another, and at Tyburn it comes quicker than to those who lieawaiting it in bed."

  "That's true," said the landlady.

  "I should hate to die in a bed," the man went on. "The open road for meand a quick finish. It's the best life if it isn't always as long as itmight be. I wouldn't forsake it for anything the King could offer me.It's a merry time, with romance, love and adventure in it, with plentyto get and plenty to spend, with a seasoning of danger to give itpiquancy--a gentleman's life from cock-crow to cock-crow, and not worthyof a passing thought is he who cannot make a good end of it. I'd soonerhave the hangman for a bosom friend than a man who is likely to whimperon the day of reckoning. Did I tell you that a reverend bishop offeredme fifty guineas for my mare the other day?"

  "You sold her?" came the question in chorus.

  "Sold her! No! I told him that she would be of little use to him, sinceno one but myself could get her up to a coach."

  "Your impudence will be the death of you, John," laughed the landlady.

  "That seems a fairly safe prophecy," answered Gentleman Jack--for so hiscompanions named him--"still, I've heard of one bishop who took to theroad in his leisure hours. He died of a sudden fever, it was said; but,for all that, he returned one night from a lonely ride across HounslowHeath, and was most anxious to conceal the fact that somebody had put abullet into him. My bishop may have become ambitious--indeed, I think hehad, for he had intellect enough to understand my meaning and was not inthe least scandalised."

  "Then we may yet welcome him at the 'Punch-Bowl,'" said one man. "Sofar, this house has entertained no one higher in the church than a Fleetparson. I see no sin in drinking the bishop's good health and wishinghim the speedy possession of a horse to match his ambition."

  "Anyone may serve as a toast," said another; "but could a bishop be goodcompany under any circumstances, think you?"

  "Gad! why not?" asked Gentleman Jack. "He'd Spend his time trying tosquare his profession with his conscience maybe, and when a man isreduced to that, bishop or no bishop, there's humour enough, I warrant."

  The health was drunk with laughter, and the air of depression which hadfollowed the landlady's recital disappeared like clouds from an Aprilsky. Each one had some story to tell, some item to add to theaccumulated glory of the road.

  "Ay, it's a merry life," said the man who had had doubts about thebishop's company, "and the only drawback is that it comes to an end whenyou're at the top of your success. The dealers in blood-money never hunta man down until he's worth his full price."

  "And isn't that the best time to take the last ride?" exclaimedGentl
eman Jack. "Who would choose to grow old and be forgotten? Whatshould we do sitting stiffly in an armchair, wearing slippers becauseboots hurt our poor swollen feet? What should we be without a pair oflegs strong enough to grip the saddle or with eyes too dim to recognisea pretty woman, lacking fire to fall in love, and with lips which hadlost their zest for kissing?"

  "But we come to that last ride before we lack anything--that's thetrouble," was the answer.

  "Not always," said another man. "Galloping Hermit was feared on all theroads before I had stopped my first coach, and he is still fearedto-day." The speaker was young, and he mentioned the name of thenotorious highwayman with a kind of reverence.

  "They say he's the devil himself, and that's why he's never been taken,"said another. "Did any of you ever see him?"

  "Once." And they all turned quickly towards the man who spoke. "My marehad gone lame, and I had dismounted in a copse to examine her, whenthere was the quick, regular beat of hoofs at a gallop across the turf.I was alert on my own account in a moment, crouching down amongst theundergrowth, for with a lame animal I could have made but a poor show.There flashed past me a splendid horseman, man and beast one perfectpiece of harmony. The moon was near the full. I saw the neat, stronglines of the horse, the easy movement of the rider, and I could see thatthe mask which the man wore was brown. This happened two years ago, outbeyond Barnet."

  "And without that brown mask no one knows him." said the man who hadfirst spoken of him. "He has been met on all the roads, north, south,east and west--never in company, always alone. He never fails, yet theblood-feasters have watched for him in vain. Truly, he disappears asmysteriously as the devil might. He may go to Court. He may be awell-known figure there, gaming with the best, a favoured suitor wherebeauty smiles. He may even have been here amongst us at the 'Punch-Bowl'without our knowing it."

  "It is not impossible," Gentleman Jack admitted, smiling a little at theothers' enthusiasm.

  "I envy him," was the answer. "We seem mean beside such a man asGalloping Hermit."

  "I do not cry 'Yes' to that," said Gentleman Jack, just in time toprevent an outburst from the landlady, who appeared to fancy that thequality of her entertainment was being called in question. "The brownmask conceals a personality, no doubt, but before we can judge betweenman and man we must know something of their various opportunities. Werehe careful and lucky, such a man as my bishop would be hard to run toearth. Galloping Hermit is careful, for only at considerable intervalsdo we hear of him. The road would seem to be a pastime with him, ratherthan a life he loved. For me, the night never comes that I do not longto be in the saddle, that I do not crave for the excitement, even ifthere be no spoil worth the trouble of taking. This man is different. Heis only abroad when the quarry is certain. True, success has been his,but for all that the fear of Tyburn may spoil his rest at night, andwhen he gets there we may find that the brown mask conceals a cowardafter all."

  "Had you seen him that night as I did you would not say so," was theanswer.

  "I like speech with a man before I judge his merits," said GentlemanJack, rising from his chair and flicking some dust from his sleeve. Heappeared to resent such slavish admiration of Galloping Hermit--perhapsbecause he felt that his own pre-eminence was challenged. It pleased himto think that his name must be in everyone's mouth, that his price inthe crime-market must for months past have been higher than any otherman's, and he was suddenly out of humour with the frequenters of the"Punch-Bowl." He threw a guinea to the landlady, told her to buy akeepsake with the change, and passed out with a careless nod, much asthough he intended never to come back into such low company.

  The landlady stood fingering the guinea, turning it between her fingerand thumb, rather helping her reflections by the action than satisfyingherself that the coin was a good one.

  "I believe we've had Galloping Hermit here to-night," she said suddenly."It was unlike Gentleman Jack to talk as he did just now. Mark my words,he wears a brown mask on special occasions, and thought by sneering tothrow dust in our eyes. It's not the first time I have considered thepossibility, and I'm not sure that I won't buy a brown silk mask forkeepsake and slip it on when next I see him coming in at the door. Thatwould settle the question."

  She had many arguments to support her opinion, reminded her customers ofmany little incidents which had occurred in the past, recallingGentleman Jack's peculiar behaviour on various occasions. Her argumentssounded convincing, and for an hour or more they discussed the question.

  The opportunity to test her belief by wearing a brown silk mask nevercame, however, for that same night Gentleman Jack was taken on HounslowHeath. A stumbling horse put him at the mercy of the man he sought torob, who struck him on the head with a heavy riding-whip, and when thehighwayman recovered consciousness he found himself a prisoner, boundhand and foot. He endeavoured to bargain with his captor, and made anattempt to outwit him, but, failing in both efforts, he accepted hisposition with a good grace, determined to make the best of it. Newgateshould be proud of its latest resident. For a little space, at any rate,he would be the hero of fashionable circles, and go to his death withall the glamour of romance. He would leave a memory behind him that theturnkeys might presently make stirring tales of, as they drank theirpurl at night round the fire in the prison lobby.

  The highwayman's story concerning the bishop quickly went the round ofthe town, and a wit declared that at least half the reverend gentlemenwent trembling in their shoes for fear of their names being mentioned.The story, and the wit's comment, served to raise the curiosity of thefashionable world, and more than one coach stopped by Newgate to setdown beauty and its escort on a visit to the highwayman. But a greatersensation was pending. Who first spread the report no one knew, but itwas suddenly whispered that this man was in reality no other than thenotorious wearer of the brown mask. When questioned he did not deny it,and his evident pleasure at the mystery which surrounded him went far toestablish the story. For every person interested in Gentleman Jack, adozen were anxious to see and speak to Galloping Hermit. Every taleconcerning him was recalled and re-told, losing nothing in there-telling. Men had rather envied his adventurous career, many women'shearts had beat faster at the mention of his name, and now the mostabsurd theories regarding his real personality were seriously discussedin coffee-houses, in boudoirs, and even at Court. It was whispered thatthe King himself would intervene to save him from the gallows.

  For a long time no trial had caused such a sensation, and JudgeMarriott, whose ambition it was to be likened to his learned and famousbrother, Judge Jeffreys, rose to the occasion and succeeded in giving anexcellent imitation of the bullying methods of his idol. This was anopportunity to win fame, he argued, and he gave full play to the littlewit he possessed and ample licence to his undeniable powers ofvituperation and blasphemy.

  Newgate was thronged, and the prisoner bore himself gallantly as a manmight in his hour of triumph. It was a great thing to be an object ofinterest to statesmen, scholars, and wits, and to win smiles and tearsfrom beauty. His eyes travelled slowly over the sea of faces, and restedfor a little while upon a young girl. Her eyes were downcast, but hethought there must be tears in them, and for a moment he was moreinterested in her than in anyone else. Why had she come? She wasdifferent from all the other women about her. Beside her sat an elderlywoman who seemed to be enjoying herself exceedingly, and appeared tofind especial relish in Judge Marriott's remarks. The more brutal theywere the more witty she seemed to think them.

  As sentence was pronounced the girl rose to her feet and turned to go.In truth, it had been no wish of hers to come. The judge, the people,and the whole atmosphere sickened her. She longed to get away, to feelthe fresh air upon her cheek; and in her anxiety to depart she took noparticular trouble to make sure that her companion was following her.There was a hasty crushing on all sides of her, and as she was carriedforward she became conscious that she was alone, that she was beingstared at and commented upon by some of those who were about her. Sheought not
to be there, she felt it rather than knew it, and waspainfully aware that people were judging her accordingly. One man spoketo her, and in her effort to escape his attentions she contrived tothrust herself into a corner of an outer lobby, and waited.

  "Can I be of service?"

  For a moment she thought that the man she had escaped from had foundher, and she turned indignantly. The steady grey eyes that met hers wereeyes to trust--she felt that at once. This was quite a different person.He was young, with a face grave beyond his years, and a sense ofstrength about him likely to appeal to a woman.

  "I am waiting for my aunt, Lady Bolsover," she said, the colour mountingto her cheeks under his steady gaze, and then, suddenly anxious that heshould not think evil of her, she added: "I did not want to come. It washorrible."

  "Your aunt must have missed you," he said, glancing round the almostempty lobby, for the crowd had poured out into the street by this time."If you have a coach waiting, may I take you to it?"

  "Oh, please--do."

  The crowd was dense in the street, and their progress was slow, but theman forced a way for her. His face gave evidence that it would bedangerous for anyone to throw a jest at his companion. There was ageneral inclination to give him the wall as he went.

  "I am glad you did not come here willingly," he said suddenly, as thoughno other thought had been in his mind all this time. "This is no placefor a woman."

  "Indeed, no. I am wondering why a man should be here either."

  "Galloping Hermit once did me a kindness. I would like to repay thedebt."

  "But how? What could you do?"

  "I could not tell. Something might have happened to give me anopportunity. It did not; still, I shall see him presently. Perhaps I mayyet be able to do him some small service."

  "Oh, I hope so, poor man," she answered. "There is the coach, and myaunt. She will thank you."

  Lady Bolsover, who was talking to Lord Rosmore, did not appear agitated,but she hurried forward when she caught sight of her niece.

  "My child, I have been consumed with anxiety, and--"

  "This gentleman--" the girl began, and then stopped. The man had notfollowed her as she went to meet her aunt. He had disappeared.

  There came no intervention on the prisoner's behalf in the days thatfollowed, nor did he set up any plea for his life on the ground ofknowing of plots against the King's Majesty. This would be to shirk theday of reckoning, and he had boasted to his companions at the"Punch-Bowl" that they should see him play the game to the end. He wouldfulfil this promise to the letter. He had ridden up Holborn Hill scoresof times, seeking spoil and adventure on Hounslow Heath or elsewhere; hewould journey up it once more, and pay the price like a gentleman. Itwould be no lonely journey; there would be excitement and triumph in it.He had lived his life and enjoyed it; he had allowed nothing to stand inthe way of his desires; he had pressed into a few short years far moresatisfaction than any other career could have given him. Why should hewhimper because the end came early? It would be a good end to make, fullof movement and colour. He knew, for he had been a spectator when othershad taken that journey, and he was of more importance than they were.The whole town was ringing with his fame. Why should he have regrets?Beauty and fashion came to visit him, and one man came to thank him forsome former kindness, a trivial matter that the highwayman had thoughtnothing of and had forgotten.

  It came, that last morning, a fine morning flushed with the new life ofthe world that trembles hesitatingly in the spring of the year, andsteeps the hearts of men and women with stronger hope and widerambition; such a morning as draws a veil over past failures anddisappointments, and floods the future with success and achievement. Itseemed a pity to have to die on such a morning, and for one moment therewas regret in the highwayman's soul as he took his place in the cart.The next he braced himself to play his part, for there were great crowdsin the streets, waiting and making holiday. All eyes were turned,watching for the procession, for was it not Galloping Hermit who came,the notorious wearer of the brown mask, the hero of wealth and squaloralike, the man whose deeds had already passed into legend? No onethought of him as Gentleman Jack, not even his companions of the"Punch-Bowl" who were in the crowd to see him pass; not the landlady,who had come to see the last of him, and stood at the end of thejourney, waiting and watching.

  By the steps of St. Sepulchre's Church there was a pause. A woman, oneof a frail sisterhood, yet strangely pretty and innocent to look upon,held up a great nosegay to the hero of the hour, and as he took it hebent down and kissed her.

  "Don't let another's kiss make you forget this one too soon," he saidgaily, and her lips smiled while there was a sob in her throat.

  The cart jogged on again, and at intervals the man buried his face inthe flowers. This was his hour, and if he had any fear or regret, therewere no eyes keen enough to note the fact.

  Tyburn and its fatal tree were in sight across a surging crowd. Even atthe last moment the King might intervene, it was whispered, and therewere some who looked for signs of a swift-coming messenger. But the cartcame nearer, slowly and surely; the space round the gallows was keptclear with difficulty, and there was no sign of hurrying reprieve.

  This was the end of the game. Now was the great test of courage. He wastoo great a man to indulge in small things to prove it.

  "I've been used to riding in the night; a morning ride tires one," hesaid carelessly. "Let's get it over, or I shall be getting hungry, asall these folks must be. There's a good pair of boots for anyone who hasthe courage to wear them. I'm ready. Make an end of it."

  And the landlady at the "Punch-Bowl" that night drank to his memory,declaring that he had died game, as was fitting for a gentleman of theroad.