Turpin’s Dagger

Richard Foreman

The infamous highwayman Dick Turpin returns.
Frith's depiction of highway robbery
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To celebrate the release of the new Dick Turpin series on Apple TV – The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin – we have published the short story, Turpin’s Dagger, taken from the collection Turpin’s Tales, by Richard Foreman.

Turpin’s Dagger

   “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, but as sure as my name is George Pine, I rode with Dick Turpin. We were, quite literally, as thick as thieves,” the short, bowlegged customer in The Three Horseshoes remarked, downing another mouthful of ale, as he conversed with the Grub Street hack. His garb had been presentable once, but the dull brown and grey garments were now worn – marked with patches and poor needlework. Pine had suffered a litany of misfortunes over the years, most of them due to his own weak character. He had debts that no honest, or dishonest, man could pay. Even his own wife didn’t trust a word he said. Or his wife especially didn’t trust any word that came out of his mouth. His hair was as black as his nails. Often, he would scratch his wiry, scraggy beard. Beady eyes looked out from over a crooked nose.

His nose wasn’t the only thing crooked about him, Dick Turpin thought as he sat within earshot of the two men on a nearby table, wryly smiling as he worked his way through another measure of porter. The highwayman had never even seen the fellow before, let alone ridden with him.

It was not the first time that the outlaw had overheard someone in a tavern claim to know him, or spout a rumour about the famous, or infamous, criminal. Everyone had a story about the dandy highwayman – and everyone believed they knew what he looked like. Which Turpin was fine with, as the authorities were now searching for, “A dusky, Moorish half-blood… He’s as white as a sheet, with a puckered scar around his neck from where they once tried to hang him… He walks with a limp, from a bullet wound… His hair is brown, with streaks of grey… His locks are fair, like spun old… His eyes are as blue and still as a becalmed sea… His aspect is dark, eyes as black as those on a shark… I remember him being rake thin… As broad as a barrel… Muscular, like a dock worker… He dresses like a dandy… Like an undertaker, all in black…”

Dick Turpin was everyone and no one. A patchwork of rumours and colourful stories recounted in smoke-filled taverns and London broadsheets. Usually, it proved to be the more far-fetched tales which took root and spread like wildfire. If some of the newspapers were to be believed, the highwayman had killed more folk than the plague and robbed more people than a tax collector.

“So, what is Turpin like?” the young journalist asked, leaning forward on his chair, eager for his goose to lay a golden egg or two. The Three Horseshoes was the third tavern he had travelled to in the area, hoping to find someone who knew the notorious outlaw.

“As tough as old leather, but tender when it comes to the ladies. I’ve witnessed women swoon, even though they can only see his eyes, what with Dick wearing his mask.”

Amused rather than angry, that the sot was using his name so freely and falsely, Turpin’s wry smile blossomed into a roguish grin as the highwayman continued to listen in on the interview.

“Did you ever meet one of Turpin’s mistresses?”

“Aye, there was a pretty piece of an actress. Jane her name was. I think her stage name was Penelope or Persephone. She had a great pair of – lungs. Her voice could reach the back of the theatre, although the fellas in the audience were keen to watch her from the front stalls. Dick tossed her away like a worn horseshoe though once he’d had his fun. It’s easy come and easy go, when it comes to money and women for Dick.”

The journalist, one Henry Cavendish, continued to enthusiastically take notes. Turpin took in the young man. He cut an elegant figure for a Grub Street hack. His jacket and breeches were new and well-tailored. His clipped, upper-class accent might get him mocked or robbed in less reputable taverns than The Three Horseshoes, the highwayman thought. Frilly cuffs adorned a fine linen shirt. It was difficult to keep track of whether they were currently in fashion or not. Cavendish was recently out of university. Already he had mentioned, three times, that he had attended Oxford. No doubt he was trying to make a name for himself as a writer. He wanted to make some money too, but his father still gifted him an allowance so he could afford to live in a salubrious part of London. Despite being new to the profession, Cavendish had already secured a few commissions through his father’s connections. Tarquin Cavendish, who owned a shipping company, agreed to place advertisements in the publications that his son wrote for. Turpin thought how the moneylender and fence, Joseph Colman, would have called the overprivileged writer “Blue-bloodied but green.”

The conversation and drink continued to flow. Pine’s answers only prompted more questions:

“Why do you think that Turpin has, so far, been able to escape capture? Some say he’s too wily – or lucky.”

“He’s both! He’s a wolf and a fox. And a badger. There’s no finer shot or blade in all of England. There’s not a horse in the county, or country, that can match Black Bess either. She’s as large as a shire but as sleek as a stallion. You should tell your readers how she loves eating apples. She’s a horse sent from heaven, or hell. Or Dick said he bought her at an auction just outside of Norwich.”

“It may not be the authorities who ultimately catch up with him. As I understand, there are rival outlaws who wish to bring Turpin’s criminal career to an end. He is rumoured to have killed the Owen Blake and his gang, after an encounter on the highway.”

“It’s no rumour, friend. You might not believe me, but I was there. I saw Dick bring the Blake Gang to the sword. By the end Turpin was covered in blood, from head to toe almost. When someone asked what happened, when they came late to the scene, Dick just replied – “Justice!” Here, he gave me this dagger afterwards,” Pine said, retrieving a small, non-descript knife from his coat pocket. “Dick told me that he had carried the blade for years, having held it to more than one of his victim’s throats. But he wanted me to have it. It means the world to me. I treasure it. I can’t help but think about my old friend when I see it. Do you think that your newspaper would be interested in purchasing the knife?”

By now the two men had gained a small audience. A couple of regulars had ceased playing dice to listen in. A trio of serving girls, who had finished their shift, sat close by and grew increasingly captivated. Essex girls are not averse to enjoying a drink. One of them believed that a patron on a black horse, who visited the tavern last week, could have been the famous highwayman. She thought how she would have slept with him, if he had been more generous in paying for table service. Pine had also attracted the attention two men, who dressed well enough but appeared a little rough around the edges. They listened intently to Pine’s stories and occasionally whispered to one another. Turpin noted how the stolidly built figures carried knives and Billy clubs, tucked into the waistbands of their trousers. He couldn’t discern the telling bulge of a pistol, but that didn’t mean that they were not armed with guns too (as Turpin himself was, along with a sword which hung from his hip).

George Pine was now drinking more than steadily, and clearly enjoyed being the centre of attention. He would nod to one of the serving girls to bring him another frothy ale. His voice grew louder, his hands sawed the air as he grew more animated. It was quite a performance, Turpin thought.

But surely the journalist knew that it was a performance too? The hack may have thought that he had struck gold in coming across the self-titled “friend” of the highwayman, but he must have known it was fool’s gold? Yet the journalist probably didn’t care. He would still be able to argue to a newspaper editor that he was quoting a source. Turpin was unlikely to step forward and give evidence in court, that he was being slandered or libelled. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story? The world wants to be deceived. So let it. Lies are easy to swallow. It’s the truth that’s often unpalatable.

“He may be called wicked by some, but the Dick Turpin I know is a generous soul. A real gent. This age’s Robin Hood. I have seen him give half his booty away, to orphanages. That’s the God’s honest truth. I swear to you. I remember how he once heard that a local blacksmith was struggling for business, so he went there and bought all the stock and services he could. If Dick was here now, he would buy everyone a drink. Even any Irish folk present. Maybe not the Liverpudlians though.”

Turpin pursed his lips and rolled his eyes. Pine was beginning to wear his name out through overuse. The highwayman had initially been amused by the garrulous drunk, but he was now growing bored. Turpin had stopped off at the tavern for a quiet drink or three – and to read the latest issue of The London Magazine – but Pine was anything but quiet. As unobtrusively as possible, Turpin picked up his drink and moved to an empty corner of the establishment. The small audience surrounding Pine and his interviewer didn’t give him a second look.

Henry Cavendish pursed his lips and rolled his eyes as well as he observed how one of his lace cuffs was lying in a pool of ale on the table. Yet he was still excited by the exclusive material he was gathering. Editors might even enter into a bidding war to pay for the article. Tales of highwaymen helped to sell newspapers. Crime pays, the writer thought.

Evening

It was time to venture home, Turpin decided. His wife, a hot meal and a good book awaited. The rumour was that the highwayman spent his nights at the gaming tables, with a courtesan on his lap and a clay pipe in his mouth. But legends can be just as dull as domesticated as the next man.

Turpin left through the side of entrance to the establishment. Half the patrons inside were beginning to liven up, partaking in some after work drinks, whilst others sat with their heads buried in their hands. Half asleep or half dying, groaning like their bowels were giant bruises. Turpin came out into a dark alleyway, littered with empty barrels and wooden boxes, smelling of damp, ale and rotting vegetables. He heard the squeal of rutting foxes in the distance. He also heard voices coming from the other end of the alleyway and observed three silhouettes. It was the two Billy club carrying men, with Pine standing in between them. Cornered. His features pinched in fear.

“So, you say that you rode with Turpin, when he took on Blake and his gang?” Ned Butler, the larger of the two men, remarked – before snorting and spitting. He swayed a little and slurred his words, from having one too many drinks. His voice was as rough as his stubble. The former bare-knuckle fighter had cauliflower ears and a nose which had been broken more times that a harlot’s heart.

“We once rode with Blake. He was a good friend of ours,” his companion, Tom Martin, an equally thuggish looking fellow, added.

“It was just a story,” Pine replied, recoiling from smelling Martin’s rancid breath. His tone was somewhat shriller and shakier to what it had been when talking to the rapt journalist. He felt like his bowlegs might give way at any moment.

“But you swore it was a true story,” Butler asserted, balling his hand into a fist, his knuckles cracking.

“I don’t know what happened. That’s the God’s honest truth. I wasn’t there! I swear to you.”

“But you’re here now, with some coins in your pocket, profiting from telling lies about the death of our friend,” Ned Butler remarked, his expression as hard and flat as the brickwork on both sides of the alley.

Pine’s heart sank, his complexion grew as pale as the moon, resigned to the fact that he would have to give up his small bounty. He felt like he was being taxed. And tax is a four-letter word. At least losing his hard-earned money was preferable to losing his teeth, or his life, Pine thought. He still carried his dagger in his coat pocket, but Dick Turpin’s supposed confederate had only ever used the blade to help cut up pieces of tough meat on his plate.

Turpin could have looked and walked the other way. He could have argued that the dissembling rogue deserved his fate. But the highwayman was never keen on seeing a poor man being robbed. Turpin wasn’t as sober as a judge (as judges were seldom sober) but he still had his wits about him. Enough to play a convincing drunk himself.

“George, is that you? It’s Cormac. Come inside and have another drink,” Turpin announced, slurring his words. His eyes were half-closed as he meandered towards the end of the alley, nearly stumbling over a crate as he did so. It was quite a performance. He only hoped rather than expected that his presence alone would scare the robbers away.

“Piss-off!” Butler stated unceremoniously, spittle freckling the air.

“Pardon?” Turpin replied, feigning difficulty in understanding the stranger, as he continued to advance towards the three men.

“I said…”

Before Butler could repeat himself, Turpin buried his boot in the man’s groin. He doubled over in agony, his expression resembling someone about to retch. Tom Martin did not have the time to gather his thoughts and come to the aid of his friend. Turpin moved forward, whipping his elbow around to connect with his opponent’s jaw. The highwayman proceeded to grab Martin’s head and smash it against the wall, several times, before the brute collapsed to the piss-soaked ground. Turpin turned his attention to Butler once again, before the big man could rouse himself. Turpin picked up the nearest wooden box and smashed it over the bare-knuckle fighter’s head, rending him unconscious. The attack was as sudden as it was ferocious. Turpin hoped that his clothes hadn’t been stained with any blood, fearing a certain look or audible silence from his wife if she discovered any incriminating evidence.

Pine’s mouth was agape, revealing a set of teeth as crooked as his nose. He placed his hand against the wall to steady himself. He wondered if he somehow knew the man who had saved him. Pine was unused to experiencing acts of courage or kindness. As much as he was keen to thank the good Samaritan, Pine was also eager to leave the scene, lest his adversaries come to again.

“Thank you. Here, I must give you something for your trouble. As you may have heard inside, this is very valuable,” Pine said breathlessly, as he retrieved the dagger from his coat pocket. “It belonged to Dick Turpin. He’s a friend.”

Before the highwayman could refuse the gift, he found himself with it in his hands.

“I need to go, but you must first let me know your name,” Pine asked, his voice still tremulous. Anxious or excited.

Turpin paused, wryly smiling to himself once more. On the cusp of laughing.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

To find out about the further escapades of Richard Foreman’s highwayman you can read the acclaimed series of novels – Turpin’s Assassin, Turpin’s Rival and Turpin’s Prize.