The Highwayman's Footsteps (4 page)

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
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I had planned to return immediately to the girl. That was what I should have done. But fate had other ideas, and very different events took their course.

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” I know my Shakespeare, of course.

A sudden memory came to me – a summer day more than two years past, my portly tutor perspiring in his frock coat and wilting stock as he slouched in a chair; my own neck hot and tight in my stiff indoor collar; my head buzzing like the insects that flapped against the window panes, as I recited the passage from Mr Shakespeare's
King Lear
that I had spent the previous evening learning by rote, understanding little. And all the time I wondered at why I should learn such ancient words that spoke to me of nothing, or of worlds far from my own, when outside were fish to catch and horses to ride and rabbits to shoot. Most of all, I wished to swim in the river – there was a place where a rock stood high above a deep pool. Even my brother would not dare such a thing but that summer I had spent many an hour with only my horse for company, and in those peaceful hours I had perfected my dive. I should be there now, not here indoors with books and dusty words.

Thinking on this, I paused in my recitation, vowing in a moment of summer madness to question my tutor and to goad him into distraction, dull and dutiful man that he was. I hoped that if I were sufficiently to annoy him he might let me go early. But when I looked up to put my thoughts into action, I saw that his head had fallen onto his chest and his eyes were closed.

Grinning, I looked outside, at the blue, the deep and empty blue. And looked back to see if he were still asleep. To wonder, perchance, if I could escape and leave him to his dreams while I ran outside where I wished to be.

It was some moments before I wondered that he did not snore, that his chest did not rise and fall; that a chill stillness had crept over the room like a shadow passing the sun; that even the flies had stopped their dizzy humming.

He had died: died while I read aloud. His death shocked me in some way that I could not put words to. For him to have died while only I was there, while only I could have called back his spirit, was … strange and disturbing to me, though I had liked him little. Had he thought of me at the moment of his passing and wished to call out? Had his spirit looked down on me as it floated away? I slept little that night, worrying about spirits and ghosts.

I would not forget the words I had read at the time of his dying. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods…”

But little good would my learning do me now.

Chapter Eight

A
jar of preserved lemons. That was all it was. You would hardly think harm would come from buying a jar of lemons.

It may sound foolish that at a time of such danger, at a time when a young girl was close to death and I was further from my old life than I could imagine, I was thinking of luxuries. The truth is that I was not. And the truth is, too, that it was not merely buying the jar of lemons which caused the trouble which followed. It was stopping to examine the items on the old woman's barrow, and then remembering that my nurse gave us preserved lemons and oranges in winter to keep away unspecified illness, and being tempted to stop and stare and wonder and remember the delicious tangy taste, and deciding to buy. If none of that had happened, then I would perhaps have heard the soldiers in time. Or I would have been out of sight before they came.

It was as I was handing over the coin, and as the gap-toothed crone was passing me the stone jar, and as I was preparing to put it in my bag, that the sound of their marching and the jangle of chains and the shouts of men came to my ears. At first I did not move, my thoughts confused as to the meaning of this noise. Then I whipped round, dropping the small coins which the woman was handing me.

My staring eyes told her all she needed to know. “Summat to 'ide, 'ave we, chook? Deserter, mebbe?” she grinned, one eye sweeping its gaze madly into the distance, the other fixing itself on my face. The wandering eye skittered like a water-drop running across shiny metal.

I shook my head, struck dumb. I looked at the approaching soldiers. At first I could not say if they were militia or the King's army – both wore red coats. But no, they were militia, the militia which my father supported with his money and his fervour, though I saw from their insignia that these were not Northumberland militia and so would not recognize me. Six of them, four on foot and two officers on black horses. They escorted a line of ten men, their ankles linked by clanking chains, heads bowed, shoulders drooping. One man only did not hang his head – he yelled and raved at the soldiers and received whip-lashes on his back for his boldness.

It was a press gang, rounding up layabouts to serve in His Majesty's army. We were still at war, as usual, against France and her allies, and willing men were hard to find. The soldiers would do well from this gang of new recruits – the commanding officer would receive a generous booty and share it, fairly or not, amongst his men. I could only feel sorry for these poor souls – I at least had my freedom, uncomfortable though it was. They were no more than slaves. Perhaps they deserved no better; perhaps they were felons, lacking in honour; but still I felt for them.

If I could have run, I would have, but my feet were fixed to the ground and I could not see which way to go.

The old woman held out her hand. “Make it worth summat,” she whispered, chewing something sticky, juice dribbling from the corner of her gummy mouth. “Make it good and make it quick, pretty boy.”

I snatched up the coins from the ground and put one in her hand, but she held it out still. Another. Her one good eye stared at me; then she looked towards the soldiers, and opened her mouth to shout. I put the remaining coins in her hand, pleading with my face.

She closed her yellowed fingers over the coins and slipped them into her skirt. She paused one moment. And another. Then, grinning, the witch raised her voice and shouted to the soldiers. “Over 'ere! A deserter!”

I ran, dropping the jar of lemons on her table. I do not think they saw my face. I have never found such speed as I found at that moment. And, as I ran, I had only one thought: that if I lived to tell the tale, and if I met her again, I would do to that old woman as she had done to me. And more.

At first I could not tell if I was followed. As I ran, slipping on the slimy cobbles down a narrow, icy street, I heard shouting behind me but I could not be sure it was for me. But soon I could hear the clattering of a horse's hoofs and then I knew.

How might I outrun a horse?

In place of terrible fear, my body was filled with energy, and my head with light, a power and clarity stamping on the flames of any terror. Yes, my heart beat fast and the breath felt painful in my throat, but I almost sang with speed. I knew what I was looking for. I only prayed I would find it quickly.

Darting into a deep doorway, I pressed myself against the stones, making myself as small and thin as I could, and within a few moments the horseman passed, the hoofs skidding round the corner, in the direction I would have gone. He was alone – the others must have taken a different path. I slipped from my hiding place and ran the other way, taking the first turning I came to.

The windowless walls leaned over me. There were no doors, no turnings that I could see, just the narrow mouth at the far end. If soldiers came down here now, there was nowhere for me to turn. My face was hot, my breath knife-sharp in my chest, the cold air burning my lungs. Anger drove me on, anger at the treachery of the old woman and her sly, dishonourable theft of my money, anger at the way fate played with my life.

I would escape these soldiers! I would return to the girl! I would live to tell the tale!

At the end of the narrow alleyway, I had a choice: to turn right or left. No soldiers were in sight, though their shouting and the clattering of hoofs seemed not far away. A few people were going about their business. A serving girl threw slops out of a doorway into the road. She smiled at me shyly.

The noises came closer. Still, I could not properly judge the direction. “The inn?” I shouted to the girl. “I need the inn. Please!” and I smiled at her, hoping that my dark eyes would work some charm on her.

Chapter Nine

S
he pointed. “Turn left after them trees.”

I ran. The noise of hoofs clanged closer. Now, I saw two militiamen on foot, some distance ahead of me. Pointing. Running towards me. I swerved into the inn yard, the bottles clanking in my bag.

Here was what I had hoped to find, my reason for searching for an inn. Horses. Four, tied up. Three of them saddled. Their heads hung low as they took their rest. One had his muzzle deep in a bucket of water. This one I avoided – a horse that has recently drunk is not a horse to rely on for speed or stamina. I would need both those things, and more. Good fortune would I need, too, though fortune was not something that seemed to shine on me at that time.

I grabbed the reins of another, unlooping them from the hook in the wall, and leapt into the saddle, sliding my feet into the stirrups. They were too long for me but I had no time to shorten them. Gripping the saddle with my knees, and hooking the bag over the pommel, I wheeled the horse around and galloped out of that inn yard before anyone could notice.

With my heels digging sharply into the horse's flanks, fast as a hunted hare we veered between the gateposts. In one direction, through blurred vision, I glimpsed the two militiamen. In another direction was the unmistakable figure of the mounted officer, his horse dancing under his cruel spurs. Surprise gave us valuable seconds and, before they could confirm that I was their prey, I had put many yards between myself and them.

“Fire! For God's sake, men, fire!” shouted the mounted officer and two shots rang out, crashing through the air and sending birds flying in fright. I flinched, though I was not hit. Two more soldiers appeared and more shots rang out. I felt the breath of lead passing my ear. I could do nothing but continue, kicking the horse to its utmost speed, crouching low in the saddle. My face, my cheeks, were taut with effort, as I waited for the terrible impact of a musket ball. I shouted encouragement in the horse's ear and thanked God that I had chosen such a willing mount.

More shots rang out but the men were slow to reload and their aim was poor. Very soon, I was out of range of the muskets, but I knew I was not safe. An officer of the militia, hoping to brag of his success to his fellow county gentlemen, would not let me escape so easily; sure enough, I could hear his horse's hoofs thumping on the road behind me. I could only pray that we went too fast for him to fire his pistol with accuracy.

I did not know my horse, but I knew that he must be used to carrying heavier than me. And I thanked the many hours I had spent in the saddle, riding horses as good as this.

The road was icy, slippery and uneven. Dangerous. Stones rolled and clattered and spun into the air as we passed. It was, as I knew well, the same road which led to the place where the girl had refuge.

By some means, I must leave this road.

Scanning the hedgerows, I looked desperately for a chance to alter my direction. A low hedge ran along to the left. If I did not act now, it would be too late. I veered hard to the right and then twisted sharp left, urging my mount to jump the hedge. Gripping with my knees and leaning forward, I flattened myself along his back as we launched into the air. Sure-footed, he landed on the other side, but I had no time to rejoice: I urged him again across the field, mud splattering from his feet.

Briefly, I looked round to see how closely I was followed. Too closely, too closely by far, the man's coat a scarlet splash against the grey background. A new cold wind whipped across my eyes, bringing an icy rain, almost snow, and I blinked to see clearly. I prayed that my horse would not slip. I wished then that I had not left the pistols behind. If I fell now, I would have nothing with which to fight, no hope at all. I would die. Fear fingered the back of my neck and I despised myself again. Did everyone feel such skin-crawling terror?

The hill stretched ahead. My earlier strength was failing and my breath now almost burst in my chest. The cold air sliced painfully into my throat. Desperation took hold. Could the horse understand? This was life or death, perhaps for both of us. The horse's withers were frothy with sweat and I could see the flaring edges of his nostrils, hear his snorting breath. How much longer could he last? I urged him with my body, with every part of me, shouting, “Faster! Faster!” though I knew he tried his best.

Would that be good enough?

Chapter Ten

A
nother hedge threaded the landscape ahead of us. Scanning my eyes along it, I tried to judge the place where it was lowest, and veered slightly in that direction.

My head spun with exhaustion. Flecks of sweat flew from my horse's neck.

I could hear the other horse behind me, hear its hollow barrel breath, hear the slap of its hoofs in the mud, its rhythmic grunt each time its front legs hit the ground.

“Common horse thief!” shouted the officer. “I'll have you, I will! I'll not spare you for the gallows! I'll gibbet you myself, by God I will!” His voice sliced the cold air between us and I shivered. There was nothing to stop him doing exactly as he said. For the second time in one day's span, death sat at my shoulder.

I wanted more time, so much more time. Time to act, to prove my worth. My father thought nothing of me. I thought almost as little of myself. How could fate be so cruel as to pursue me like this and give me no chance to grow into the man I might be? My eyes stung with the unfairness of it.

Sensing the officer closing in on me, I felt my horse near the end of his strength. Yet again I urged him on, asked more of him, even more, as we approached that looming hedge. It looked larger now, huge as it rushed closer to us. Too late, I saw a gate further along, lower than the hedge. But I could not change my course now.

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
10.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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