In which we serialize Heyer Society editor Rachel Hyland’s first book in her Reading Heyer series, Reading Heyer: The Black Moth. Called “delicious” by Heyer expert Jennifer Kloester, it is a reading guide, critique and loving homage all in one. But mostly, it’s just a lot of fun. We hope you enjoy. Check back every Monday for another installment, or buy the book here.
CHAPTER VIII: THE BITER BIT
Jack, old buddy, old friend, old pal, nice to see you! It is also lovely to hear of how you spent your winter, all gallant and good-hearted and smooth criminal cool. You see, folks, our Jack may be a highwayman, may even steal stuff pretty much for the fun of it (since, as we know, he has inherited an enormous fortune from his father, the late and sadly unlamented Earl of Wyncham), but at least he has the grace not to take stuff from ladies and old men. Also, how cute is it that he challenged some dude to a duel over his valuables, and even though Jack was the victor, he was so good as to even let the guy keep some of his own things!?
Now, isn’t that nice? Our Jack’s practically a saint.
Along with the, by now seemingly obligatory, apologia for Jack’s chosen profession, we also learn a little of his backstory here, a rundown of exactly how he spent his time after first being exiled from his homeland due to the horrendous faux pas of cheating at cards. He has not been a Georgian-era carjacker the whole time, you know. In fact, at first he taught fencing in Paris, before heading to Italy and becoming a professional gambler—this, despite his notorious ill-luck at such things. It was during this period that he met the faithful Jim (remember Jim, Jack’s manservant? Admittedly, we haven’t seen him for a while), who “guarded the winnings jealously,” ensuring that the two wouldn’t starve.
Finally, after an unspecified time, all this Continental giddiness began to pall, and Jack felt a longing for England that brought him back into the vicinity of our story, although naturally he could not simply settle down somewhere, living incognito, being too well-known. (Really? And yet the Duke of Andover can hang out in Bath and go by Mr. Everard? Really?) So, naturally: highwayman! It’s the only course of action that made sense.
Our hero’s musings on his checkered career are interrupted at this juncture by the rattling of coach wheels. He pulls his whole “stand and deliver” routine, only to be caught with an unloaded pistol (damn you, Jim!) and suspiciously white hands for such a scoundrel. The man he held up, meanwhile? His old, and one-time best-friend – aside, apparently, from that dick, Dick – Sir Miles O’Hara. With a cheery brogue and a discerning eye, Sir Miles captures the toothless Jack without a fight, and Jack enjoys a little chuckle at the idea of him, an Earl, being tried before his friend, the Justice of the Peace. After, that is, he has this whole crisis of conscience thing over being “nothing but a common highwayman.”
Ah. So, at last, he admits it!
“White hands.” That is what we are here to discuss today. Jack’s “white hands,” that gave him away as a gentleman, and thus led Sir Miles to instruct his flunkies not to cuff the dangerous ruffian who had dared hold up his coach.
Okay, I get it. To have white hands was to never have worked a day in your life, and to have been able to afford such a luxury item as a pair of gloves to protect your hands from the sun. To have manicured nails was to have servants to do such things as manicure your nails for you, and leisure time in which to have this service performed on your person. And to have all of those things be true of you most probably meant that you were of respectable, perhaps even noble, birth—especially in a society with, at the time, no middle class.
But… come on! You’ve got this guy, who holds you up at gunpoint. Never mind that the gun isn’t loaded. Never mind that he seems strangely familiar. It’s dark, he’s masked, has a gun, and plots to steal your belongings. You’re understandably put out, are not a fan of this guy at all. And then you take a look at his hands. My, those are nice hands! you think.
I mean, what about the guys who turned highwayman because their families were starving, and not because they were bored of traveling through Europe with their servants living a life of professional debauchery? Would any of them have received the same courtesy?
Talk about racial profiling.
Let’s hope there’s less of that in Chapter IX. But, no, probably not.
New chapters of Reading Heyer: The Black Moth will be posted here at Heyer Society each Monday. Or buy it here.