The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed among cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding – riding – riding –
The highwayman came riding up to the old inn door.
They think I see nothing, but I do. I see far more than they would care to know. Indeed, if Gustave knew, he’d almost certainly kill me.
They think I am a fool, a simple man, an idiot who spends his days cleaning the stables and brushing down the horses. They even think I am illiterate.
It does not occur to them that there was a life for me before I came here. And why should it occur to them ? I do not enter their thoughts at all. There is not a reason in the world for them to wonder who I am or where I come from.
There is no reason for you to wonder either. Like them, you may just consider me the ostler. No more, no less. Just the man who mucks out, shovels horse shit, carries buckets. My name is Tim – I doubt they even know my family name – and I take the horses when guests arrive. I lead them to the stables, rub them down, feed them, sleep there in the stables with them. There is no need to know more.
Ah – I have just realized that you may think I was a highwayman. No, no. I was never a highwayman or anything like it. I was for the priesthood but could not sustain the long, arduous grind of the life in the service of the Lord, our God. I make no pretence. It was too hard and too lonely, and the Abbots lusty ways with us younger men drove me away. I knew before I left that the shame of it would forbid my father from taking me back in … back in to the fine dwelling where I had grown up … and I travelled for days, mostly by cart, till I came here.
And since then I have been waiting. And watching.
This inn is very old. It must have been built in 1450 or so, which makes it at least 300 years old. As far as I am aware it has always been an inn. There are five rooms for guests, all on the middle floor of the house. Each room has a double bed with old feather mattresses and pillows, huge eider covers and heavy hangings to keep the draughts out at night. I have never been up there, of course, but I have stayed in such places. You can anyway see the beds from down here – I look up more often than you’d think, especially at night when the candles have been lit. During the winter months the fires make all the bedrooms look red, smoke belches out of the chimneys, and I watch from down here, cold and filled with memoires of how things used to be.
The top floor of the inn, the attic space, has three further bedrooms. One of these is occupied by the landlord, a big burly man with a huge belly and dark hair that needs cutting. He laughs a great deal, and does not see what is happening right under his nose. The second bedroom is occupied by Ethel who scurries back and forth all day with piles of logs or buckets of soapy water for washing this or that. Her hands are red. She is barely fifteen years old but looks considerably older, with her thin face and her leather clogs and her skirts always dirty around the hem. She also takes the pots from the bedrooms and empties them in the middens at the back. You’d think smart people, like those that stay, would somehow be more delicate but, let me tell you, their shit smells just as bad as anybody’s. The third room is occupied by another servant, rumoured to be the landlord’s mistress, his wife having died in childbed when the daughter was born.
Half way up the lower staircase, at the side of the house, is a large recess which has been split off from the stairs to create one more bedroom. This is occupied by Bess. Bess, the landlord’s daughter. The landlord’s dark-eyed daughter. She plaits a dark red love knot in her long black hair.
She is who I watch. Insouciante of the world outside her window, she undresses slowly at night, and I watch from my dark corner, down here amid the horses. I can see her clearly. Her nipples are the pale fleshy pink of a maid untouched. Her hair reaches down to her bottom. The secret place between her legs is dark and I look at the lovely triangle as she washes, combs her hair, dons her nightgown. Bess, the landlord’s daughter.
I know not whether it is love or lust. Perhaps it is both. What I feel for her, though she has barely ever even looked at me, is the most powerful sensation I have ever been aware of. Just writing her name, and I feel a movement in my breeches. Her beauty is ethereal and haunting. Her skin is very white next to her dark hair. She is tall – taller than I am – and when she walks across the yard I can see the outline of her thighs through the fabrics of her dress. Her clothes are simple (the landlord is not a rich man), and her voice is the plain voice of a working girl. She is strong – you have to be, here – and determined. She handles the men in the inn with a light laugh, brushes them off like dust on her sleeve, never unkind but never encouraging. She is sweet.
She is sweet but for Gustave.
When I think that she may have lain with him, my blood boils. I cannot bear to think of it. Handsome Gustave who should be dead.
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s dark-eyed daughter, Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot in to her long black hair.
There is so much noise in a place like this. People come and go at all hours of the day or night. Nobody would wake and think it were anybody other than a weary traveller arriving. Nobody would think that I would do anything other than take the horse and guide the traveller round the back to the night-time door. Oh, I take his horse, all right. He hands the reins to me with disdain. He has a bunch of lace at his throat. His boots are up to his thigh. His pistol-butts a-twinkle … he is a handsome man. Often enough he goes in and emerges several hours later, before daylight. I picture him on top of her. I picture her white thighs open to receive him. I cannot bear to think she would. Perhaps she doesn’t. I cling on to that.
I could have gone to the magistrate a long time ago, and I would have done except that Gustave is a slippery eel. He is an exceptionally clever man. He is well known, and even romanticized by the ladies. They are positively thrilled when they are robbed by him. I’ve heard it said that some of them even set out in horse and carriage, way out in to the woods, in the hope that the dashing highwayman will rob them, ravish them, and send them on their way. Women are foolish things. It is well known that Gustave never kills, nor even wounds. He simply robs. Rich or poor, male or female, he will take whatever valuables they have on them, bow most gallantly, and ride away.
Descriptions of him vary. He is always tall and handsome, but his horse varies from a white stallion to a chestnut mare. From a massive shire to a deft pony. One story even has him in a carriage covered in gold. When he comes here he is always on the same horse – a 17-hand Spanish blood, black from top to toe. Some of the descriptions have him with long fair hair tied back in a ribbon of velvet. Others have him with red hair, cut very short. In fact his hair is long and dark – remarkably like Bess. Some have him in a mask that covers his entire head, and others have a kerchief of red that covers just the lower face. Nobody knows, and for that reason he is a slippery eel, I tell you. He has no name, no clear description, and for all you know he was the man sitting next to you in the ale-house last night.
But I know.
I have heard Bess call him Gustave.
And I know him and his horse.
Tonight he came soon after dark, but he didn’t stop. He spoke briefly with Bess, whispering up to her at her window. She leaned out towards him, her breasts firm and young under her slip, her hair tumbling down so far that, standing in his stirrups, he was able – only just – to touch it. Ah, a good-looking bastard, he is. I’d give my right arm to look like that. I have never looked good, not even as a child. I inherited my mother’s straw hair and small frame, and pock-marks disfigured me totally by the time I was twenty. But him – if I looked like him I’d scoop her up in my arms, that Bess, I’d ride with her till daybreak and never let her go.
I crouched down by the wall and listened. She begged him to stay. He promised it would be his last, that it was a good one, and that he would ride back for her before the sun was up.
Clear as you like, I heard him say that.
One kiss my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize tonight,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.
It is almost two hours’ walk to the magistrate’s house but, as anticipated, I got a lift on a vegetable cart part of the way. Nonetheless, the magistrate was in his dressing gown and at first didn’t want to hear why I had to say.
“He’ll be back, Sir,” I tell him, “he’ll be back before sun-up. If not, it’ll be tomorrow night for sure.”
It was perhaps their only chance of catching him, the elusive eel with no face and no name. One of the soldiers offered that I should ride up behind him, and I did for most of the way, but as we approached the inn I dismounted. It would do me no good to be seen. Bess would never love me if ever she found out what I had done.
By passing behind the thicket at the bottom of the woods, there down by the stream, I could re-join the stables on the western side of the house. This I did, unobserved.
The soldiers were already indoors. I could hear the landlord shouting that it was his property and that he had never had any truck with any highwayman, Gustave or not. I kept well out of the way, busied myself with the horses and, after some time, took water out to the soldiers’ horses, my head well down lest any should speak to me. I could hear Bess crying and her father yelling at her about misfortune she had brought on his house.
I had not thought of this. I had not imagined they would do anything other than lie in wait for their prey. I had not thought that Bess would weep.
Night passed. No new guests were admitted and the couple that were already there were not allowed to leave. By morning, in those first grey moments of light, I felt I had perhaps made a mistake.
He did not come in the dawning. He did not come at noon …
The day passed slowly. Nobody spoke to me. I wondered that I did not see Bess. I saw nobody, not even Ethel. The house was silent. The silence of the damned. Before the sun started its tired journey across the sky, while the day was still warm enough, I smelled food in the kitchens. Broth of some sort had been made, though none called out to me to come and eat, and no food came my way.
I sat in the straw and watched as the sky reddened. The sun seemed to drop suddenly and I was overcome by a sensation of dreadful foreboding.
I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t know.
They stood my poor Bess at the end of her bed. Her ankles were tied to the legs and her hands behind her. I saw afterwards. I saw the bloody marks where she had tried to free her wrists. They tied her around her waist and gagged her. The rope was tight. She could barely move, let alone cry out. But worse, far worse, they tied a musket underneath her breast, her soft white breast where the flesh falls gently, pink and sweet … tied it so that one move of her hand, and the musket would go off.
“Watch well,” they told her, and laughed.
From her window she could see the road he would travel. The road, like a ribbon flung across the gently sloping hills, wound out of the woods and down towards the inn. Off to the right was the road in to the village, from where the soldiers had appeared, and I wanted to run back in to the magistrate’s house and shout:
“Call your men back! It was a mistake, a dreadful mistake!”
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot; had they heard it ? The horsehoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot; in the distance ? Were they deaf that they did not hear ?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding – riding – riding –
The red-coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still.
I am but a small man, small of stature and small of spirit. I cast about in my mind how I could help her, though even now I had no idea what she would do. No, I’d have shrieked out a warning to Gustave, I’d have done it myself, had I known. All of a sudden my love for her seemed pointless. I recognized it as pointless, and wanted only her well-being and happiness. In that moment of clarity that comes to all of us at unexpected moments, I saw myself as a fool, and knew that I had set about the destruction of a beautiful thing. My own lust turned to an ache. I ached for her in her fear. I ached for her love, her lover … that would never be me.
Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence ! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer. Her face was like a light.
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him with her death.
I couldn’t see what had happened. I heard the gunshot and a cry of fury from one of the men. And I heard the change in sound in the horseman’s hooves. He had heard the gunshot. He had turned back.
That is love, if ever you doubt it. To be willing to die to save the one you love. I didn’t know about it till later. Obviously. Who would trouble to tell the ostler ? Why would the ostler need to know ? I heard the shouting and the frantic words. I heard the landlord cry out like a wounded animal. Suddenly the soldiers wanted their horses and there was much movement and hollering, horses and saddles, chaos amid the loud commands from the captain … horses neighing, even rearing in fear, as the soldiers found their footing and rode off in to the dark after the highwayman.
As I say, that is love, if ever you doubt it. For when, near dawn, Gustave heard what had happened, he turned. I wish he had killed me. I wish I had, coward that I am, found a way to tell him that it was me … it was me , the dirty rat who told …
Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.
Blood red were his spurs in the golden morn; wine-red was his velvet coat;
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.
I am Tim, the ostler, at the inn. The landlord is a dark man. Gloomy, heavy, morose, drunk. We rarely have guests. I don’t know why he keeps me on. I’d leave if I could. But I stay … year in, year out … I look after the horse that once belonged to Bess. I look after a Spanish blood, black from top to toe. At night, when the moon is full, when the sky is clear of cloud and there is a stillness in the air, I can see a figure on the hill beyond …ah yes, you may well say you don’t believe in ghosts, and why should you ? But I know. I see more than you’d think, I told you…
A highwayman comes riding – riding – riding …
This story is one of several by new writers featured in the book “Stories in Green Ink” (Anna Trowbridge) available in paperback or on kindle from Amazon.