The Highwayman's Footsteps (3 page)

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
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Chapter Five

I
slept little and lightly. This was the fourth night since I had left my comfortable bed at home, and a hard damp floor no longer seemed strange to me. But my head was full of what I must do the next day. Besides, I was afraid to sleep too deeply, in case an intruder came and I did not hear until it was too late.

The winter iciness seeped through my skin, chilling me to my bones. The girl muttered in her fevered sleep and I fretted for her condition in this hostile cold. I moved my body closer to her, for both our sakes, though not too close. It would not have been proper. And I did not look at her.

I wondered about her, however. How could I not? What sort of villain was she? She appeared to be a highwayman – not that I had seen one, but I had heard tell of them often enough. I did not believe I had heard of a woman turning to that dangerous way of life, though plenty of women were hanged for robbery of other sorts. A highwayman's life was no life for a young girl: a life of constant danger, as her pistol wound testified. I could not help but want to know more about my strange companion.

And oddly, just for a short moment, I envied her the freedom she must have. She could do as she wished, go where she desired. No one would expect anything of her.

In my wakeful moments, I listened to the sounds of the night: the eerie call of a hunting owl, an occasional distant shout, once a horse's clatter on the rough road, the rustlings and scuttlings of night creatures. Into my fitful dreams floated different sounds: roaring wind and the thunder of cannons and the terrible screams of men dying and my father's scornful words, saying “Coward, boy! You are nothing more than a lily-livered coward. You are no son of mine. I would I had another daughter to mewl and cringe, for you are as useless.”

At last, my dreams receded and the small noises outside changed into the sounds of morning, as the ragged moonlight through the window softened slowly into a cold grey dawn.

Painfully, I stood up, hunger clawing at my guts and my mouth dry as straw. The girl stirred. I felt her brow. It was burning hot still, and yet her whole body shivered. I pushed her shoulder slightly. Her eyes opened. She stared at me without seeming to understand. Frightened, she tried to move, but immediately gasped with pain.

I steadied her. “Stay still. You must not move.” I offered some water to her lips and she drank greedily.

“Who are you?” she asked, though not clearly. Her voice sounded distant and strained.

“My name is William. We will talk when I return but first I must go and fetch physic for you.” I did not wish her to know more of me, of my status or my wealth.

She tried to sit again. “My horse!” she said, her voice agitated. “My horse!”

There was still no sign or scent of any horse. It must have long gone. “There is no horse,” I said. “I am sorry.”

“I fell. I was weakened by this.” Her hand flapped towards her injured side. “A day, two days ago. More. I forget.” Her words were slurring. “He needs … I need him.”

That, I could believe. A horse must be the most valuable of all her possessions. It would be the difference between life and death to her. I wished I had my horse. But when I consider that more carefully, I am forced to admit that if I had had my horse, I almost certainly would not have been there at all. I would have been many miles away. But I could not have taken my horse without being noticed.

She was silent at first, only breathing fast and shallowly. When she spoke, her voice sounded oddly strong. “I know where he will be. He will have gone home.” She sank back onto the ground, wincing again as she did so.

“Let me find him. Tell me where and I will fetch him back.” Was I mad? Could I take the risk?

“I cannot.”

“Why, cannot?”

She said nothing. And then I knew. She did not trust me! She thought I would steal her horse and ride away. Fury flared inside me. Why was I helping her if she did not trust me? Why did I not just leave her here? Better still, why did I not make her tell me where her horse was and then ride away with it, putting many miles between myself and the soldiers?

I almost smiled at this foolish thought. How could I blame the girl for not trusting me when I had just had the very same tempting thought? Would I have trusted a stranger if I had been in her position? Would I have told her where my horse was and given her the opportunity to steal it?

I had no intention of leaving her. It would not have been honourable. Perhaps she did not understand such matters, criminal that she was, but I had been raised always to do the right thing.

The right thing! Was stealing money the right thing?

No. I was a felon, like her, no better and no worse.

Chapter Six

“I
shall be back as soon as I can,” I simply said. “Do not try to move.”

Before I left, I made such changes as I could to my appearance, hoping that I would not meet soldiers who might recognize me. With some water, I adjusted my hair, after loosening it from the small pigtail I had worn yesterday. I left my cloak and hat behind. I would be walking fast, so my thick jacket would suffice to keep me warm. And it was dirty enough now that I would look nothing like a rich boy. Besides, it was not my own, but one taken from a stable boy while he slept. He had been smaller than I, and my broad shoulders strained slightly at the coarse material, my thin, bony wrists and large hands hanging too far from the sleeves. I hoped someone would buy him a new one. A kerchief tied around my neck came next, and I imagined that I must look very different from the neat-haired, soft-faced boy who had left his wealthy home days before. I felt different, too. The eyes through which I saw the world had changed.

I took two coins from the purse and left the rest with her. I placed the purse touching her hand, so she would know I was not taking it and disappearing for ever.

The pistols lay on the ground. Should I take them? I was much tempted. But if I were caught, it would mean more trouble for me. I checked the priming and left them, half-cocked, by the girl's side, where she could reach them if need be.

Cautiously, I walked through the doorway and looked around. It seemed more than a few hours since I had taken refuge in this place and found myself at the end of a pistol. At that moment I had expected to die, but here I was, still alive several hours later. And I was no less frightened now than I had been then. Then, I had been almost resigned to what would happen, ready for the final sound of the explosion in my head; now, I was facing unknown danger.

I must stop thinking about danger and merely act.

I peered through the misted greyness and set off towards the village, slinging my empty bag over my shoulder. A knife nestled in my pocket, along with the two coins.

As I walked quickly down the sloping road, all my senses were alert. The hills seemed to be watching me, as though they knew who I was and would pass that information to any searching soldiers if they wished.

I said a prayer, for forgiveness and for protection. Would my prayer be answered? I could not say.

Chapter Seven

A
fter somewhat less than half an hour, I could make out the first houses ahead of me, tombstone shadows on a grey landscape. In the cold, wet light of a winter morning, I came to the village. My heart began to beat a little faster. What if the soldiers were there? What if this were the only village nearby and they had guessed I would come here? What if they did recognize me despite all my efforts?

Now, I was within sight of windows, some dark, others spilling an orange light onto the street. Although it was early, several people were about, collars turned up, hats squashed down, shoulders hunched, breath like smoke in the white frosty air. I walked on. The warm sweet smell of freshly baked bread came over me and my mouth watered. The bakery was opening and I bought two loaves, straight from the oven, and held their heat to my chest before putting them in my bag.

“Passing through,” I said in answer to the baker's question, roughening my voice as much as I could. “With my master. We 'ave far to go and an early start.” It satisfied him, and his lack of curiosity gave me confidence.

Within half an hour, more people were out and about, and I had purchased cheese and a piece of ham as well as the bread. Now I had need of an apothecary.

I found him soon enough, though his angry face when I woke him made me wish I had waited another hour. His nose was purple, his skin streaked with broken red lines. He had the look of someone who has drunk too much, and for too long. My father had a manservant once who had that look. We found him one morning, drowned, face down in the horses' water trough, the gin flagon empty beside him.

“My master is hurt,” I said. “A cut, some three days old. He has a fever. I need—” and I was just about to tell him what I needed when he interrupted, swinging the oil lamp so that it hissed and spluttered dangerously.

“It is for me to tell you what you need. I was not roused from my bed before dawn to listen to some puppy pretend he has some knowledge.” I decided not to mention that it was, in truth, now well after dawn. I merely said I was sorry and thanked him as well as I could manage.

The man's eyes were gummed with crusted yellow matter. He had little hair and what there was floated like an ancient cobweb behind his skull. God had given him more skin than was necessary and it hung around him in folds, so that when he moved, the creases separated grotesquely, revealing the grime of months or years. He smelt sickly and festering.

Before speaking further, he pressed a finger against one nostril and blew sharply through the other one, sending snot to the floor
by my feet. “Has the blood ceased flowing?”

“I think it has. There was fresh blood some hours ago, but there is nothing now.”

“Is the flesh blackened? Is the matter exuding from it white or has it darkened to thick yellow? Does your master sweat? Is he cold or does he shout and throw his blankets off? Does a rash cover his body? Does his breath reek?”

I answered his questions as well as I could. I knew not if they meant that he had a remedy or if he was trying simply to show that his knowledge was greater than mine.

Casting me a nasty, suspicious look, he stumbled into the room behind the shop and I could see him swigging something from a bottle himself. Would he give me what I needed or some other foul and noxious concoction?

I caught a glimpse of myself in the grimy looking-glass which seemed positioned so that the man could observe his customers. For a fleeting moment I thought it was some other boy I saw there, not this tall, thin, scraggy stranger with dark-ringed eyes and tousled hair. For the first time, it came to me that I looked little like my family. My face was too long, my hair too dark, my mouth too large. My sisters and mother were all fair-haired, my brother and father ginger. Even my dark brown eyes marked me as different. Their eyes were pale, shades of winter sky, weak blues and greys. I felt no part of them.

A splintering crash shattered the air and pieces of glass flew across the floor and through the doorway. The apothecary let forth some vitriolic language before setting to again, pouring liquids from bottles and mashing something in his mortar. I strained my eyes but could not make out the names on the bottles he was using.

The man stumbled back to where I waited. He placed two small, corked brown bottles and a tight-lidded, white pottery jar on the table and put the oil lamp beside them. He wrote spidery words onto two labels, tying one around each bottle neck with stubby, fumbling fingers. Finally, he offered me some clean cloths rolled in a bundle, which I gladly took.

He held out his hand and named his price. I knew his price to be unfair. I knew it as well as I know the names of every part of a horse's foot. I opened my mouth to argue, but held my tongue, merely handing over a coin and waiting for the change, my hands large and long, the fingers seeming thinner even than usual, shadowed with dirt and darkness and reddened with cold. They looked, I thought suddenly, like a grown man's hands.

He hesitated, met my stare with his rheumy eyes, and sniffed. He pocketed the coin.

“My master will be waiting,” I said, looking back at him.

After only a moment's hesitation more, he gave me the necessary coins. I picked up one bottle, and read the label. Southernwood, woundwort, comfrey, turpentine, as I had expected – that would be for the wound. And what for the fever? On the other bottle, the label proclaimed, “Tinct. of feverfew and tansy”. There was no label on the white container. I prised open the lid. And put it back down again, firmly, with a grimace. Leeches. Leeches squirming and tangled.

I had seen leeches used on horses. They were often used on humans but I had been lucky enough to escape their need. People said that there was no pain, only an extraordinary weakness, a floating sensation, and that the fever would disappear within hours. Or not. I did not like seeing a horse weakened until it could not bear its own weight and I did not like the idea of administering leeches to the girl. But I would do what required to be done.

“Do you advocate cupping?” I asked, respectfully, and trying to show that I knew something of such methods.

The apothecary spat on the floor, as with clumsy fingers he tied a piece of string around the pottery jar. “Mere wizardry! Pah! Bleed a fever and save your cups for ale or stronger liquor, I say. Do you know how to administer leeches, boy?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I have seen it done on a horse.”

But he was continuing anyway. “One leech, applied to an area where a deal of blood resides – ideally, of course, to the wound itself, where it promotes the healing process, though it takes a strong man to withstand such agony. To be administered until extreme weakness occurs. You will see the patient become quietened and the fever reduced.”

I made my thanks and left as quickly as I could. Outside, I stowed the bottles and the container of leeches in the bag as safely as I was able, wedging them for protection between the items of food.

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
13.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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