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I returned to the farm, with little else on my mind but to leave this shameful episode, and my wretched life, behind me. The pain of Emma’s rejection, alongside the embarrassment I felt at how I had misjudged her intentions, burned deep inside me. Although I had never felt closely involved in most aspects of my life, the farm and my family’s priorities chief amongst these area of exclusion, I sensed I had now lost the one thing I had ever felt a part of.

It was clear my friendship with Emma and Ned was over.

With the prospect of facing justice once Emma followed the path of virtue and revealed that I was the Duke of Macaroni (and I felt I could hardly expect her to do anything less), my fate would be sealed. The visions of the golden chain around my neck resurfaced, refusing to remain in my nightmare from the previous night. I stopped my speedy passage to the farm to gag and retch, pulling at my clothing where it touched my neck, as if these pieces of fabric were responsible for me not being able to breathe. Eventually, I was able to straighten and forced myself to calmly assess the situation.

I had a stark choice in front of me, one that I had always expected to make. Should I remain, there would await only ignominy and shame, as well as a likely death. However, the other choice, to remove myself from the farm and our community, felt like a death all of its own. My family, my dear sister especially, would be forever lost to me. My herd, which I had patiently built up before growing wearied by the mundane nature of the cattle, would be slaughtered and all my efforts for naught. Having neglected them, suddenly those beasts were everything I wanted; I felt a yearning to make them my all.

As you might anticipate, I was unable to make the noble and responsible choice. At that moment, I chose to abscond, knowing that my task now was to get home, to gather my belongings and to leave. Leave the farm for what must be the last time. Tears made my vision swim as I contemplated the loss of my family and the familiar backdrop to my sorry life. My throat let out a sob as I wondered how I might start a whole new life alone without anyone to comfort me or to advise me. Yet, that was what had to be done should I wish to save my neck, and my family’s reputation.

Having resolved the matter in my mind, I let go of the wall I had lent on whilst choking and crying. I began my final walk home, legs stiff and unwilling to convey me on such a portentous journey. Another source for treading so warily was that I might be discovered in my flight. I hated to think of the pain that this would cause, and the danger it might put my family in should they be questioned about my whereabouts. Most of all, I was scared that I might be dissuaded from my escape, which, now my mind was made up, I was determined to put into action.

Thankfully, I had no pair of prying eyes spied me as I entered the farmhouse and made my way to my room. With trembling hands and maddeningly clumsy fingers, I packed my trunk, ensuring that anything of value was stowed securely. I was also at pains to ensure that no trace of The Duke remained either. I should have hated for anything to remain which might falsely implicate my brothers or my father. Finally, I put on the rakish clothes that had been inspired by Tom and his friends; it was a plan of mine to go to London as a first port of call, thinking that a visit to my cousin would serve as an alibi.

The inclusion of these clothes seemed essential, yet proved to give cause to an unforeseen problem. The weight of these extra clothes and accessories filled the trunk so it became heavy and too full. I was so taken with selecting between the variety of hats and wigs that I hardly noticed the footsteps on the staircase. As they grew closer, the weight and pace of them suggested that they belonged to Beth. My heart sank. The person who I least wanted to get involved in this whole sordid mess suddenly seemed fated to find me in my moment of flight.

She paused at my closed door. I waited in silence, my breath still. There was an audible sigh from the other side and I fancied I heard her touch the doorknob. It was as much as I could do to suppress the alarm that sprang to my throat. The door moved slightly, then fell back into its customary position. I discerned her footsteps once more and judged that she had moved away. I made my final decisions and hefted the trunk. It was heavy, yet with it slung on my back I fancied I could travel quickly enough for the purposes of my escape. With my task completed, I walked heavily across the floor. Balancing the trunk on my knee and leaning against the wall, I grappled the door until it opened. Cursing as I scraped the trunk against the door-frame, creating a noise I judged to be loud enough to attract the attention of the whole parish, I left my room.

Having turned towards the staircase, the voice that came from behind me made me start and jerk, whilst the trunk slid to the floor.

“I know.”

It was Beth.

Just as I was about to respond, she spoke.

“Say nothing, Hal. Then I cannot tell a lie. I know your secret, and I understand that you must leave us. You are a foolish, wretched and cowardly man. The choices you have made have ended life for all of us. For that I will never forgive you.”

She paused and dabbed at her eyes.

“Yet leave with this gift, this sister’s gift. The only gift I can give you. Know that for all your faults, I do and will always love you. You will remain my brother in my heart, even if I can never hold you, kiss you nor cuff your stupid head again. Now, go!”

I did as she told me and went.

Time made little sense until I arrived in Grantham and gained employment at the inn, the very inn I run today. Memories tell me I was in London for some time and that I journeyed north, possibly in a haphazard way. There was drink, I can be sure of that. My nights were spent in searching for answers in bottles, as if they could reveal what would have happened if I had remained more steadfast or even if I had at least found the remainder of the Mr Sadler’s money. Would I be with Emma that evening, gorging on her beauty rather than bitter mouthfuls of gin? I was convinced I would still be living at the farm, with my wonderful sister and family.

Once in Grantham, I strove to improve my lot and did so successfully. My means of doing so were not always honest, but I can vouch that The Duke was no part of the nefarious route I took.

Occasionally, I was able to find out about what I had left behind.

The stories of the highwayman, increased in magnitude by the mystery of his sudden disappearance created a legend, his stories told and retold over an ale by the fireplace. Emma and Ned were wed, a bitter piece of news. My family all fared well and the farm prospered, although my herd was not maintained. Such news made me melancholy and angry at first but eventually seemed to be rather unreal, like tales of a far off country.

Now, I await my last breath and the inevitable final, ultimate judgement. I hope it is merciful, though I do not deserve it.

I would choose to die in my sleep, if I could. During this final sleep, I would be dreaming of a country lane, with darkness closing in. My mask would be on, there would be fine clothes on my back. Hoof-beats would sound on the road and I would watch keenly from my clearing, ready to step out and claim my booty.

You see, I will pass.

But the Duke of Macaroni will live on forever.


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