The Highwayman's Footsteps (2 page)

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
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The air was cold, but thick walls sheltered us from the worst of the February weather. There was no glass in the windows, but they were small and quite high up, and the roof seemed sound, at least in this part. The door hung on one hinge and moved with an irregular creak. I carefully lifted it and closed it as best I could. Now, we would have warning if someone tried to enter. Even a moment or two could mean the difference between life and death.

On the other side of the room was an open doorway, pitch black, leading into another room, or perhaps a store.

I was safe enough for now. But what about the girl? What should I do? She was no longer a threat to me. Should I leave her? Perhaps to die? But what could I do to help her? I had nothing, no physic. My only knowledge of injuries or fever was in animals.

Besides, she had meant to kill me and had stolen my money. Who knew what evil her life contained? Her face was somewhat dirty, her hair loose and undressed and her skin was slightly darkened by the weather, though not coarsened as with most countrywomen. She was, I assumed, not high-born, though her voice had hinted at some quality, which I found strange. I had heard tell of gentlemen turning to highway robbery through a desire for adventure or because they had fallen on hard times, but I did not know if these were simply stories. My father had always said that the marks of a lady were her pale skin and gentle, soft disposition, in which case this was no lady.

But then I wager you would say that I was no longer a gentleman. Gentlemen did not steal, did they? I had been well schooled in all the virtues which would ensure my place in Heaven. It seemed to me that I had failed to obey at least two of them: “Thou shalt not steal.” “Honour thy father and mother.” I folded my hands, as I had been so often taught, in case God watched me then. More than ever now did I need His protection.

I tried to gather my confused thoughts, to decide a sensible plan.

To retrieve my purse – that was my most pressing need. I moved towards her, holding the pistol falteringly in front of me, pointed at the centre of her body, not trusting myself to aim at something as small as her head.

I could hear my heart beating hard and fast, feel the blood pounding in my ears. My palm was slippery around the pistol.

Chapter Three

hat if she were to move? What if she lunged towards me? I would have to shoot her then, would I not? To save myself. I had never killed anyone before, and I had no wish to do so now. If I had no stomach to kill unknown soldiers from another land, how should I then shoot dead a young girl as she lay bleeding from her injuries? “Thou shalt not kill.”

I knew I could not shoot her. I could not live with myself if I did.

With one hand, I wiped the sweat from my brow. I sank to my knees on the earth, and placed the pistol on the ground, sliding it away from both of us. She could not reach it now. And I would not pick it up again. Not unless I had a different enemy.

Her eyes were closed and pink patches glowed on her cheeks, sweat beading across her pale forehead. Her mouth was open in a slight grimace, her teeth clenched as she breathed, fast and shallow, her chest and throat rising rapidly. One arm was on the ground in front of her, fist squeezed oyster-tight, the sinews standing out on the back of her hand.

I looked to the ground beside her. There did not seem to be more blood than before, but I could be certain of little in this gloom.

She had fainted, I felt sure. It was the way of females. How else could I explain her sudden collapse? One moment she had been standing fiercely over me, and the next she was in this helpless state. Now I knew why her breathing had sounded so laboured before. She must have used all her remaining strength to fight her pain and to capture me when I had stumbled unwittingly into her refuge. I imagined her fear as I had come through the doorway, her relief to find only a boy.

Slowly and with caution, I leaned forward and touched her cheek. She twitched but did not open her eyes. Her skin felt hot, burning with fever. I had never seen anyone with such a fever and I did not know what to do. I searched my mind for anything that I might have been told, but found nothing.

What now? My own hunger and faintness were increasing. And thirst. I had had nothing to drink for some hours now. The thirst was worse than the hunger. My tongue clung to the roof of my mouth, tasting of metal.

I had need of that purse, needed my money.
money? Well, even though it was not mine, I needed it now.

My plan had been to go to the village for food and drink before I was held up by this girl, and it was not yet too late. I must retrieve my purse and then go. It did not seem right to touch a young girl's body as she lay helpless, but I had no choice. Quickly, and turning my face away, I slid my hand under her shoulder and round her back, until I found what I was looking for. I pulled the purse out and put it in my own pocket. I noticed, as I did this, that there was no other pistol.

Her lips were moving now as she started to mutter, though at first I could not make out the words. I put my head closer to her mouth, pushed the hair away from her face. Still she muttered.

“What is it? What are you saying?” I asked, my voice sounding suddenly loud in the darkness.

She mumbled again and I realized she was asking for water.

“I have none,” I replied. “I have nothing. Try to sleep and I shall find food and water. In the morning light.” Would I? Should I not simply disappear and put myself as far as possible from this place? What did I owe her? Did I not have my own troubles? Even if I could help her, which I doubted, why should I? Why risk my own life for a stranger, and a criminal at that?

She was still muttering, trying to move. I put my hand to her shoulder to keep her still. She seemed to be pointing. I looked around the room. She was pointing to the black doorway into the next chamber. At that moment, the moon disappeared behind a cloud and suddenly we were in deeper darkness. Now, the only sounds were our breathing, rustlings from the rafters, and the soft whirring of the wind before it rains.

I must wait. Still she mumbled and pointed. “Hush,” I said. “Wait a little.”

“Water.” Her voice sounded slurred, as though her lips or tongue were swollen. “My bag.”

As I tried to quieten her, the moon at last returned and I could see the darkened doorway once more. With my heart thumping faster now, I walked towards it. Inside was dark as pitch. I entered, straining my ears in the silence, my arms in front of me, ready for what I might find. My feet stumbled on an object. I crouched down. It was soft – a cloak, and the bag. Beneath them lay something hard – the matching pistol. I picked them all up and went back to the girl.

Inside the bag I found a bottle, corked. I pulled the cork out and sniffed. It had a slightly musty smell of old water, but not excessively old. I was about to put it to my lips, but, despite my terrible thirst, I could not do so. I held it to the girl's mouth and carefully trickled some between her lips. Most of it was wasted as it trickled out again.

“You,” she said, licking at her lips. “You drink.”

I did as she told me, surprised that she had the grace to think of me. Feeling somewhat guilty, as though I should be helping her and not the other way round, I took only what I needed. I poured some more between her lips.

I knew not the proper way to behave towards her. She was a criminal; she had tried to kill me; she was no lady; yet, despite everything, I had been born a gentleman and she was weaker than I. But these were strange times and I must do what needed to be done. Whatever that seemed to be, I must try to do the right thing.

There was bread in her bag, too, a part loaf, dried at the edges but edible. I broke some and offered it to her but she closed her mouth and shook her head. I tried again but still she would not eat. I knew not if it was right to eat or not to eat with a fever. But I recalled that animals usually knew what was best for them during illness and I hoped this might be the same for her.

In the moonlight, I looked at the bread. My hunger now was intense and my mouth watered. This was not the time to wait, not the time to remember my manners. I was hungry and she was not. I ate as quickly as I could.

I listened to her strained breathing, watched her closed flickering eyes with dread. I did not know her but I could not bear the thought of her – anyone – dying here, now, in front of me. And then my being left alone.

I must help her. Whatever the foolishness of it, despite the fact that she had planned to kill me, despite the fact that I was on the run myself and did not want to be held back by an injured girl, despite the fact that she was a criminal, and that I had nothing in common with her, I had to help her. As one person to another, as two people in need, we were linked.

Chapter Four

ow were you hurt?” I wanted her to stay awake, not to drift into a frightening place, frightening for both of us. I thought that if I made her talk, she could not die. It had begun to matter to me that she should not die.

Her voice was little more than a soft moan. Her breathing seemed so faint that at any moment it might float away entirely. “Pistol.”

A pistol wound? If so, then what chance did she have to recover? “I need to see. I need to move you a little,” I said.

As I carefully turned her onto her back, she made no sound, but I could feel her muscles tighten and her breath freeze as she tried not to cry out. She kept her hand pressed against her side.

“I must move you a little more. Into the moonlight. So that I may see.” I crouched behind her and slid both hands under her body, shifting her as gently as possible towards the place where the moonlight pooled on the ground. A whimper escaped from her as I settled her down again. I took her black-gloved hand and eased it away from her side.

I winced for her as I looked at it. A long straight slice through the thin flesh over her ribs. The lead ball must have been a hair's breadth from entering her, ripping the clothes as it passed. It was not a new wound, from the look of it. The edges were an inch apart, raw, and swollen. Blackened too, from the heat of the bullet's passage. There was now only a slow trickle of blood. She must have sustained the injury some days ago and it had come apart in the sudden effort of stealing my purse. Although I may not have known how to deal with fever, I had seen wounds before. Would my knowledge of the treatment of animals help me with this girl's injury?

My father had always told me to leave such things to our servants, but I could not agree. It was one of the things he despised about me – my softness in the face of suffering, whether human or animal. If I could not bear the pain of others, how could I face pain myself? He told me that if I could not toughen myself then, by God, he would toughen me himself in his militia. His harsh words, his contempt, did nothing to toughen me, only drove me to anger and hurt.

I had wished to attend boarding school, like my brother, but my father said that I was not clever enough for the Law or the Church and I would be better having lessons at home like my sisters. But when my tutor died, more than two years past now, I had begged to be allowed to go to the Grammar school. My father agreed – he was glad, I supposed, to have me away from the house. The happiest days of my life were spent with Harry and Robert and the other boys, reciting Latin verbs, tables, the dates of the Kings and Queens of England – and trying to trick the masters into amusing diversions. And, as I grew taller, and broader and stronger, I had felt myself to be something of a leader, well-liked and respected. There was nothing they could do that I could not. But these feelings disappeared when I returned each evening to my home, where bitterness took over and I felt small and weak.

I put these thoughts away now and tried to decide how to help the girl's injury and fever. I knew that if this was a wounded horse I should need a mixture of certain herbs, pounded and mashed into a poultice to draw out the poison. Surely the same would work for a person? But I did not have the herbs, nor any way to find them. For now, all I could do was to pray that she would survive the night. In the morning, I would go to the nearby village and buy such physic as I could. And I would find us food.

Meanwhile, I made a pad of the only clean shirt I had brought with me and pressed it firmly to her wound, keeping it in place with her own torn shirt and jacket. I shut my ears to the pain she suffered while I did this but she knew why it had to be so. The wound must be closed as much as possible and protected from the terrible poisons of the night air. I made her the best pillow that I could with her bag, and covered her with her own warm cloak.

I explained what I would do in the morning. I could not tell if she grasped this, as she drifted in and out of wakefulness, sometimes muttering words I could not understand. Sliding down onto the ground, leaning against the wall, I sat close to her and began to wait for the morning to come. Once, after a short while, her hand moved towards mine in her sleep and I clasped it in the darkness, unseen by the world. I do not think she knew what she did, though I blushed in the night for such impropriety and hoped she would not remember in the morning. As I took her hand, our fates were sealed, locked together by chance and the foolish things that humans do to each other.

As the night settled into its heavy silence, my heart slowed and sank and dark thoughts flooded my mind. What had I done? What would happen now? How long could this girl and I survive? She was a criminal – how could I trust her? Would we be caught and face the hangman's noose or would we manage to escape for a few hours or days or weeks, spending every moment terrified, only to be shot down like dogs in the dirt when the soldiers eventually caught us? What did it feel like to die? And who would ever know or care about us?

I knew only that at this time, there seemed no choice. I did not wish to be alone. You may say I stayed with her because I was too afraid of loneliness. Or you may say I stayed because I could not honourably leave her to die. I do not, in all honesty, know which would be closer to the truth.

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
6.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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