The Highwayman's Footsteps (20 page)

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
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I could still hope that he would escape. I would still hope that. And pray, which I now did.

Chapter Forty-Six

B
ess gasped. She pointed. At first I could not see what she had seen. The sun had burst through the clouds and we were almost facing into it. I squinted. Did I see movement? Did I see someone? Someone running? Did I see horses following? Did I hear a bugle, ringing out time and time again? Did I see the waiting soldiers stir, take positions, load and prime their muskets?

Did I see the sun glinting on steel?

I know I saw some horses, splashes of red above them, moving at speed, back from the way they had come. But I did not see at first whom they pursued.

I know I heard Bess cry out again. I know I saw her put her hand to her mouth. But her eyes must have been sharper than mine, for still I did not see what she saw.

“Where?” The word breathed from my mouth, as though by whispering I could change anything. If by shouting I could have changed the course of events, I would have shouted. If, by running down the hill and waving my arms, I could have turned those horses, changed their riders' minds, I would have done so gladly.

I know Bess grabbed my arm, pointed my hand to the other side of the valley. I know she did not let go and that her fingers dug into my wrist like steel. And then, I know that I, too, gasped, and held my breath, frozen in horror.

“The fool!” whispered Bess. “I knew he would do something like this!”

It was, of course, Henry Parish. He had run from some woods, not from the hillside where I had seen Bess appear, nor the place to which she had directed the soldiers, but perhaps half a mile away to the south-west. But he was not running away. He was running down into the valley, into the open, into the arms of the waiting soldiers.

“Why does he not run away?” I asked, in disbelief. “Can he not see the redcoats? Can he not see them everywhere?” And, indeed, in every direction were those horrifying splashes of red. Tiny bloodstains. As though some wounded colossus had shaken his head across the land.

There were not many of them, perhaps fifty or sixty, but one would have been sufficient, if he ran straight towards him.

“Yes, he can see them,” said Bess bitterly. “He is running to his death.”

“We must do something!”

“No,” she said, quietly. “We cannot. This is Henry's choosing.”

“How can we let him? How can we give up?”

“Because nothing we can do here will help Henry. We can only help him by continuing what he was trying to do. I should have known this was his intention. There was something possessing him when I left him, a fervour I had never seen. We were on the hill over there and we saw you being pursued. Henry could not bear it. He said he could not live if you died for him. And so I left him there, telling him to run away as fast and as far as he could. Then I rode back, approaching from a different way, and told the redcoats I had seen a frightened boy. And they believed me. Henry could have escaped – but he would not. He had given up.”

It was more than Bess could bear to watch. But I must watch. Still I hoped, against all hope, that something would happen. I prayed for some miracle that would save poor Henry Parish. I prayed to God – as strongly as ever I have – that, if there were any justice in the world, He should save Henry Parish. God can do such things, can He not? If He wishes to.

I watched.

I have been hare coursing, many times. Often the hare escapes. I have watched, just as I did then, from the brow of a hill, as the scene unfolds beneath me. But with hare coursing, the hare has as much chance as the hounds. One cannot say which will win.

Henry Parish had no chance. He gave himself no chance. They gave him none.

He ran, more and more slowly, down the hillside opposite us, his thin arms flailing, his head thrown back. As he came closer, I fancied I could see his wide eyes and his mouth open in what was almost a laugh. At the bottom of the hill, he came to a stream, which he crossed in one leap. On the other side, he looked around, deciding which way to go.

The soldiers moved closer. They went at walking pace, carelessly. Their prey had no weapons. They had nothing to fear. The horses now stopped galloping, soon slowing to a walk. I could distinguish the man with the moustache, the one who had so insulted Bess. If I could have taken him with my bare hands, I would have. But it would have been for nothing. I boiled with hatred for him and for men like him.

Bess was watching now. I could hear her breathing. On occasion, sounds came from her lips, little gasps of horror. It was unbearable. And yet, how much worse for Henry? Bess clutched my arm. I put my hand over hers. Her knuckles felt tight, sharp, cold.

The soldiers came slowly closer to Henry. He moved up the hillside a little, and then turned to his right, no longer walking towards us. And then he stopped. He simply stood there as the soldiers moved closer. I counted them – not because it made any difference, but because I wished this recorded on my mind. I wished never to forget. I wished to recollect them in detail. I wished each to bear guilt. I did not know what went through their minds – I did not wish or need to know. I hope they felt guilt, but I suspect they did not. I suspect they had not learned to think. After all, I had not learned to think until such a little time before. So how should they?

Closer and closer they came. Now they were some fifty yards away from their target. Henry was soon within range. Slowly, so slowly, they moved round, so that now they fanned him in a semi-circle.

Henry knelt on the ground.

“No!” cried Bess. I held her arm tightly. But she turned away. Finally, she could not watch. And so it was that I was the only one who witnessed Henry Parish's death. I was the only one who saw him clasp his hands to God. The only one who saw the officer raise his pistol and check the priming. I saw the man flick the hammer with his thumb, I saw him pause, I fancy I saw him smile, I saw him shoot. Bess winced as she heard it. Henry did not fall, though I saw his body jerk and a spray of red spread across his shoulder. I saw the officer lower his other hand, and as he did we heard the horrible crash of fifty muskets firing and Henry's small body splintered and disappeared.

So it was that they killed Henry Parish. The redcoats shot him dead, down like a dog on the hillside.

And I would not forget. I would never forget.

Chapter Forty-Seven

I
t is hard to talk about my feelings. It was hard even to understand fully myself what those feelings were. I know they were raw, and confused, as though something inside me had been shattered, as though the bullets that killed Henry had hit me too. Yet Henry lay there dead, in pieces, destroyed, asleep for ever. And I was still here, whole and yet not whole.

I cannot know what Bess felt, for neither of us spoke much as we made our slow way home. But I think she felt as I did: an unbearable mixture of horror, anger, sorrow, and guilt. Henry had died in order to save us and his family. He had been braver than I could ever be.

If I wished one thing, it was that I had said something kind to Henry Parish. When we had parted, I had said nothing. If Henry's soul listened now, I wished him to know of my respect. That he was a better man than I. But that I would be true to our word: we would help his mother and sister. And we would avenge him.

I imagine that the same thoughts passed through Bess's mind.

Our journey was slow. Bess rode, slumped exhausted in the saddle, the reins slack against Merlin's neck. I, meanwhile, walked slowly, leading Sapphire as she limped.

The wind had blown the clouds away and the sun shone, weakly but with a welcome warmth. The snow was melting more rapidly now. Once, we stopped for water at a stream, letting both horses drink and splashing our own faces in silence. A small patch of crocuses quivered in a sheltered hollow. I saw Bess notice them, hesitate, but then say nothing.

On an impulse, meaning nothing except an act of kindness after what we had endured, I stooped to pick one, and handed it towards her. At first, she hesitated for so long that I thought she would not take it. Then she reached her hand towards me and took it, smiling her thanks. Somehow, I thought she knew all that I meant by it: an act of friendship and understanding. I did not know then that it meant something more to her.

We walked on, and at last we came once more to Bess's cottage. This time, tired as we were, we were cautious before entering. We checked for signs of intrusion, but there was nothing. The broken and scattered items were a painful reminder of the redcoats, and Bess's shoulders tightened when she saw them again. She began pushing things aside roughly, trying to hide them. Though she said nothing, I observed the way her lips narrowed and she clenched her jaw.

I thought that such anger would not help her. Her home had been sullied and I did not like to see her distress.

“I need hot water, Bess. For a poultice for Sapphire's leg.”

She nodded and set about relighting the fire and carrying water to it. In the stable, I fed and watered the horses, spreading clean straw for them. Their warm breathing and their trust were a comfort to me. I rubbed them both down and found my own pleasure in such simple acts. When Bess brought the hot water, she sat and watched me as I mixed it with bran and placed the mash onto a fresh cloth, binding the warmth round and round Sapphire's swollen fetlock, tucking the edge in firmly. Sapphire would mend, but not quickly. I did not like to think how long it would be until she might be fit again.

“You have a good way with horses,” said Bess.

She wore her proper attire now, I saw. I said nothing, but worked quietly, pleased with her remark. I found rugs hanging up and threw them over both animals, fastening the buckle beneath them. They would be warm enough and now needed time to recover after their efforts.

We left the stable, closing the door firmly, and walked across the yard to the cottage. Inside, the fire blazed. Together we began to pick things up, to put them in their rightful places, to sweep up broken pottery.

“We should eat,” said Bess. I had no stomach for food, but she was right. With the door closed and the oil lamps burning even though it was daylight outside, we sat and ate and drank, talking little. We did not speak of Henry Parish. I know I could not and I wager Bess felt the same. We kept our thoughts inside. There would be a time to talk of him later.

After a while, as the fire crackled and the cottage became thick with applewood-smoke and ale and the steam from damp clothes, Bess curled her feet beneath her in the fireside chair, tucking her skirts around her. Staring into the fire, recent illness still etched beneath her eyes, she spoke. “Tell me your story. Who you are. How do you come to be here?”

My story seemed so far away, part of a different world. At first I did not know how to begin. I could find no words.

“You were running away when I met you. Why?”

Only Bess would be so direct in her questions. But that was something I was beginning to respect. Why not be direct? Life is not long enough for winding journeys if there is a shorter way. Though there were some things I would keep back.

“I was running from home. Then I was running from the militia, because I had stolen a purse.”

“And where is your home? What is your family name?”

“I wish to forget them both.”

Her face seemed annoyed at this. “Well, no doubt they would mean little to me, ignorant girl that I am.”

“I am sorry. They are of no interest. And it is perhaps better you do not know.”

“You think the redcoats might beat your secrets from me?” Her eyes met mine, challenging.

“They are cruel. They might do worse than beat you. But besides that, I wish to forget my family name and this is my home.”

“If I choose for you to stay!”

“If I choose to stay,” I retorted.

For a moment, petulance twisted her lips, but then her face changed. “I am sorry,” she said. “I am tired and you are right: I do not need to know your name. It would make no difference to know who you are. But tell me, please, why were you running from home? A rich boy, in a comfortable home, I dare say – why should he run away?”

“I seem to remember your father did not stay at home long either.”

“That's true. And I told you my father's reasons. Are you going to tell me yours?” If her words seemed harsh, yet her face was soft as she said them.

“I ran away because my father and my brother insulted me. They called me a coward. Many times.”

“So you ran away! To prove you were not a coward!” Her eyes were laughing.

I blushed. “I ran away because I would not be insulted further. What would you have had me do? Nothing?” I was silent for a while, thinking, before I spoke again. “No, you are right. It was a cowardly act. I should have stood firm. If I was there now, I would stand and be a man.”

She seemed about to say something, but when she did not, I continued. “My father is a cruel man. My brother is like him. They take pleasure in the weakness of others. My sisters and my mother did not mind being seen as weak, but then they are women and…”

“Why should women not mind being seen as weak? Are all women weak? Have you seen what women in the country bear? Did not your father have strong servants, women who could lift three of you and fling you high into the air and doubtless catch you before you fell and grazed your knee?”

I saw what I had done. “Yes, but I did not mean that. I mean that high-born, gentle ladies have a weak disposition, whereas…”

“Whereas? Whereas those who find themselves of lower status, as I do…?” She did not need to finish her sentence.

But I would not allow myself to be flustered, to be browbeaten by her. “I was telling my story. I was telling you what it is like in the life I was born into. I've left that life now, a life where ladies are delicate, and men are sometimes cruel, but brave and chivalrous and seem happy if they die for a king they have never met, in a land they do not care about. But there are good men too. Not everyone of my birth is cruel and arrogant. You do not know everything. Besides,” I continued, “you cannot rightly make a claim to virtue when you spend your nights in robbery.”

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
2.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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