The Highwayman's Footsteps (9 page)

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
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As we trudged around, calling the horse's name, Merlin, I felt weariness wash over me. How I longed to be warm and dry and safe again. When would I be able to sink into a soft bed, sure in the knowledge that no man was hunting me? How far away seemed my own home now. I could barely remember the smell of it, scarcely recall the feeling of crisp linen sheets or the taste of a venison stew and apple dumplings and a glass of my father's claret from France.

It was the boy who found Merlin, a little distance away under some trees. He grabbed the reins but the horse was startled, stamping around with the boy hanging foolishly onto him. I took the reins myself, speaking softly, stroking the horse's nose and muzzle. Turning away from his eyes – for frightened horses will not come if you stare at them – I led him towards the stable, with the boy trotting along behind like a silly puppy.

“Don't walk where he cannot see you, fool,” I snapped, and the boy rushed round to the front, ridiculously keen to please.

Back in the cottage, he vexed me further, trying to please me by clearing his small possessions away. He dropped something on the floor, uttering a frightened cry of apology. I was too tired to speak to him, but I admit that the fire he soon had roaring up the chimney was worth praising. I stripped off my wet clothes in front of it and wrapped myself in the blanket he held out for me.

Bread, cheese and ale appeared before me. The boy was a conjurer. Tiresome, but a conjurer all the same.

But before I could eat, I knew I must strip my pistols down, and I moved well away from the fire to do so, first emptying the powder onto the ground outside. Only a fool would sit naked, in the dangerous circumstances that we were in, without pistols primed with dry powder and shot and ready for firing. And as I did all this, I marvelled at how much I had learned about self-preservation in a short time. A hovering death is a harsh taskmaster, but an effective one.

Now the boy spoke. “Shall I fetch you some dry clothes?” When I nodded, he ran eagerly up the stairs. Soon, he came down again with some items that smelt faintly of mildew and disuse. Near-white breeches, stockings, a white shirt, dark plum or brown jacket – I could not tell in the dim orange light. Everything was somewhat loose on me but the fit was passable, and better than the too-tight jacket I had been wearing. Now at least I could move with freedom. Whose were they, I wondered? Why did the girl have them? They would be too large for her.

Better dressed now than I had been for several days, I ate and drank my fill, watching my wet clothes steam in front of the crackling fire. Tiredness swept over me like wind in a storm and the strength seemed to float from my body as I slumped in the chair. My cheeks began to burn in the bright heat from the fire.

The boy stood there. What was he waiting for? He was behaving like a servant. I understood that I was probably treating him as such. It was what I was accustomed to doing. But what did that mean? Where were the things I was accustomed to? Did being accustomed to something matter one jot?

Chapter Twenty

“S
it down,” I said. “Eat some food. And drink.”

He did not wait to be asked again and fell on the food as though he had not eaten for a long time. Then he stopped, with a piece of bread almost in his mouth. He dropped his hand to his platter, put the bread down, sat back. His eyes were worried again. What was wrong now? “I mustn't. I cannot.”

“Why not?” I asked. “It is my food and I offer it to you. Eat.”

“My mother an' my sister are starving. I am on my way to find 'em, to give 'em food, and I 'ad wanted to give 'em money but…”

“You would have been better waiting to be paid before running off,” I said, with some contempt. “How will it help your mother and your sister when you are shot for desertion?” My parents had always spoken with such disdain for deserters and I heard an echo of their sharp words in my own voice now.

The boy leapt to his feet. I lurched to mine.

“No!” His voice was shocking in the small room. The fire hissed and crackled as we stood there. How dare he speak to me like that? The fact that I had not been wearing my gentleman's clothes should make no difference – he must know I was worth more than him. Was I not? Without the badges of my status, the long coat, the embroidery, the soft leather of my shoes, was I nothing more than him? Surely my soul was more valuable to God than his?

My thoughts were strange and I could not grasp my new position. I had lost all that I had known. I had thrown it away the moment I stole that purse. Or the moment I decided I could no longer bear my father's sneers, my brother's contempt. And when I ran from my home during the night, leaving it all behind.

But I did not have to respect this boy. “Well, what are you then, if not a deserter? Look at you! Wearing the King's uniform, running away, hiding, and snivelling in fear! What are you then?”

The boy was silent for a moment, standing there with his shoulders heaving and his fists clenched tight as grapeshot. Then he moved quickly towards a corner of the room. I moved my hand closer to a pistol, ready to snatch it. But I did not need to.

He rummaged behind a chest and pulled out a canvas bag, which he carried over to the table where I sat. He ripped it open, fumbling in his haste, and pulled out three smaller bags from inside and placed them in front of me, glaring, his eyes shining in the firelight – with anger or tears, I could not tell.

“What is in them?” I asked. They were shapeless, each the size of a small ham.

“Open 'em, and thou shall see,” said the boy.

I undid one of the bags, each of which was tied with string at the top. White powder. Gunpowder? Surely not? Surely he would not be so foolish as to place gunpowder close to a fire? I took a pinch between thumb and finger and put it to my nose. Flour. Just flour, unusually white and finely milled.

He spoke again, anger giving his voice strength and a bitterness I had not heard from him. “Flour. Three small bags. For my mother an' my sister. They're starving – I told thee. The army 'as so many bags o' flour they need not miss 'em. But they did.”

“The army must eat too,” I said, thinking of the circumstances I knew the soldiers often faced. We were always hearing of the difficulty of provisioning troops on the march and how an army cannot march hungry. Though, I admit, I could not see how three small bags of flour would make much difference.

But it was the principle. Stealing was wrong and the punishment should be severe, to prevent others doing the same.

Yet, I too had stolen. But from a rich man, a man who would not miss his purse of gold, who would quickly recoup its value from his land or his tenants. It was not the same. Stealing from the army was stealing from the King. So I told myself. My ancestors had supported the King against Cromwell and royalist blood ran unquestioned in my veins.

“Eat?” The boy almost laughed, his eyes afire. “They were not going to
eat
this flour. This flour's too good for eating! This flour's special – set aside for whitening the 'air of us soldiers. For a soldier must 'ave whitened 'air. How can an army fight with undressed 'air?” His anger quickened. “Ay, that were the flour I took an' now they are looking for me an' they will never give up till they find me.” His voice began to crack and break into pieces. “An' they will kill me, an' all because I need to feed my mother an' my sister.”

I said nothing. Often had I heard of the suffering of the poor but I had never given much thought to it. My father's servants and tenants had little but he would not let them starve, would he? As long as they worked hard, of course. And did not the church also help the poor of the parish? I had heard tell of people starving but was it not their fault for not working hard? Stealing was not the answer, was it? My own guilt settled like a bitter worm in my stomach.

I had never encountered someone with such a life, such a choice: steal or starve. Such an
absence
of choice. And when I had stolen, it had not felt like temptation; it had not felt low or shameful, though afterwards I had regretted it – but that was because of the consequences. It had simply felt like something that needed to be done. To save my own life. Was this what it felt like for him?

Was I no better than he? Did I have a greater right to survive than he? Because I had been more highly born? Because I knew what was right and wrong? Because I went to church on Sunday? Because I had been baptised by a bishop, no less?

“Let me stay,” he said now. I could not look at him. I did not want to see his pleading eyes, his wet, thin cheeks, his frightened face. If he went down on his knees I did not think I could stomach it. My father hated to see a man beg.

Yet this was a boy, not a man. And when would I stop echoing my father's thoughts?

I rose to my feet, moved away from him. I stood facing the fire, in pretence of warming myself.

“This is not my home,” I said at last. “This is a young girl's home. You would not wish to place her in danger by leading the soldiers to her, would you? She is injured – I have merely come to fetch her horse and as soon as morning comes, I shall go to her.” I paused. “You may stay until I leave but then you must go, as fast and as far as you can. And here, take this – for your sister and your mother.” I took the food from my bag and placed it in his hands. It had been bought with the money I had stolen and in many ways I was glad to be rid of it. Did that make me less guilty? As he began to stutter his thanks, I silenced him. “Do not thank me. I would have killed you earlier and you would have killed me too.”

He took the food and wrapped it all up inside his bag, along with his stolen flour. Although his cowering still irked me, I suddenly felt sorry for him, truly sorry. He was alone and I was not. By now the soldiers had perhaps stopped searching for me, probably would not recognize me if they saw me, but they would not stop searching for him, not while he still wore the redcoat uniform, not while they knew his name. Deserters were fair game. Deserters who were also thieves were very fair game indeed. I did not like to think of what would happen if they caught him.

I looked at him then and spoke from the heart, though awkwardly. “I hope the soldiers do not catch you and I hope you reach your mother and your sister.”

After this, I made it clear that I wished to sleep. I would not sleep in Bess's bed – it did not seem proper – so I made myself a pillow by the fire and lay down, with a blanket from Bess's bed over me. I could hear the boy rustling in a corner somewhere.

I wished he did not think he had to sleep far from the fire, just because I was there. Perhaps he was afraid of me. But I did not think that was his reason. I knew that in truth he felt himself lower than me, by instinct, by my educated voice, by the way I held myself, by my sharpness when I spoke to him. Even by my face and skin. I had been born different from him. It was the way it was.

He was like a weak puppy that knows his master and cowers. I did not find the thought comfortable. I wondered if, beneath my skin and my clothes and the sound of my voice, I was perhaps no better than he. I too had stolen. And for myself, not for someone else. I too had run away and felt terrible fear. I felt fear now, as I thought of the journey back to Bess, and wondered at the dangers which would face me in my new life.

But one thing was certain. I could not go back to my home. Perhaps not ever. A lump formed in my throat, and, ashamed, I pushed the tears away.

“My name is Will,” I said, a few moments later, my voice loud in the near darkness. “What is yours?'

“'Tis better thou dost not know,” came the thin voice. “If thou knowst nothing about me, thou can give nothing away under force.”

“I will give nothing away,” I said. “Even under force. You can trust me.” I did not like to think of what force they might use.

After a short pause, during which I suppose he weighed how far he could trust me, I heard him say, strongly, proudly, as though challenging fate to remember his name, “My name is Henry. Henry Parish.”

It was a name I would come to remember. With fear. And anger. And with sadness.

Chapter Twenty-One

I
t was soon after dawn when I awoke, stiff with cold, my shoulder cramped where it had pressed on the hard ground. My mouth was dry and foul with hunger.

The boy, Henry, was up already, busying himself making the fire again. I stumbled to my feet, wrapped myself in my cloak, pulled on my boots and went outside. The wind was bitter, but the sky was clear. There would be no more snow, though what there was had partly frozen during the small hours of the morning. It crunched beneath my feet, loud in the stillness.

After using the latrine at the back of the cottage, I broke the ice on the horse's trough and drew fresh water from the pump into a bucket. Back in the dwelling, Henry was beginning to put food on the table while waiting for water to boil.

“I am not hungry,” I lied. I would not look at him. I was disturbed by the way he irked me. Why did his goodness set my teeth on edge so? I pitied him, but could not like him. He did nothing wrong, yet I could not warm to him. It was like having pieces of grass seed or grit inside a shirt – harmless, but unpleasant.

He put the food away, without eating. I did not mean for him to refuse food as well as I. My own hollow hunger only increased my anger and I snapped at him to put the fire out. “There is no time for that,” I said, angrily, drinking some of the warm water and handing him the rest without looking at him. “I shall leave soon and you must leave first. I told you that the girl who lives here was injured. Do you want her to suffer longer?”

He looked afraid again. His hands almost flapped beside him, as though he did not know where to put them. But I hardened my heart. What else could I do? He was not my concern. His troubles were his own. Yes, I pitied him, but I could not endanger myself and Bess for him. The longer he stayed here, the greater the chances of the soldiers finding him. They could even now be searching nearby.

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
4.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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