“Is this pil’d earth our Being’s passless mound?
Tell me, cold grave! is Death with poppies crown’d?”
I leaned with bated breath against a tree, my eyes fixed on the distant approach of the horse-drawn carriage. The moon above us seemed as bright as the sun in that long space of waiting, lost in a tangle of dark branches high above us. The forest moved with a languid, warm wind, brushing against my cheek as though to soothe my chilled spirit. This peace, I knew, would soon be disrupted and my soul recoiled at the forces that constrained me to hold my finger at the cold trigger of a musket, waiting to shatter that stillness. How I longed to fly from that company and from our dread errand and foot it alone again – but the remembrance of what I had suffered already when I had attempted escape without refuge or succor was enough to show me the foolhardiness of such an impulse.
With a deep sigh that seemed to strain the cords of my very heart, I watched as the carriage drew nigh and spied more clearly the outlines of the coachman’s visage, the hands that held the reins, and the glittering eyes of the animals. I have never loved horses, for as I have said before, the Lady Claremont’s cruel treatment of me in her stables had fixed in me an everlasting aversion to their presence. But by no means did I hate them and I shuddered with loathing at the thought of shooting these innocent beasts.
MacAlistair whispered at my ear, “Aim as well as you can, Master Williams – you are a beginner, but the lesson is not so difficult to learn as you may imagine.”
He placed an encouraging hand on my shoulder, but must have then guessed the true cause of my hesitance, for he suddenly turned me about so that I was forced to face him. His face was pale as a ghost’s, his gaze fiery.
“And where is your courage, boy?” he asked. When I tried to shrug off his grasp on my shoulders, he held me more firmly. “Will you spend all your pity on these beasts? Do you not remember that I said that we would do all that we could to protect human life?” He hesitated, seeing perhaps the anguished conflict in my visage. His face, at first contorted with impatience, now softened to a look of pitying compassion as he regarded me. “You are a good boy, Alan, and you have a sweet, steadfast heart. But it is a cruel and pitiless world that you are lost in and what must be done – well, it must be done.”
He released my shoulders and, after giving me a quick, strong embrace, nodded towards the approaching carriage. “Now, I know that you know what to do, Master Williams.”
I aimed the musket at one of the horses, the lead courser on the coachman’s right, and as I did, I breathed a prayer to Heaven – not that my aim would be true, but that whatever befell this night, I should remain blameless and innocent. Robbed of home, possessions, and the esteem of my neighbors, the truth of my innocence was all that I had left and I would fight jealously to preserve this last jewel of mine, even if it glittered for no eye but my own – and, alas, the gloating eye of my cruel adversary, who alone knew the truth of it.
When I at last pulled the trigger, my musket ball flew over the heads of the horses, deafening me and frightening the beasts into rearing and pawing the air, nearly overturning the carriage with their commotion. As I took aim again, the bandit beside me fired, taking one of the poor creatures in the flanks. It was wounded not fatally but agonizingly, causing it to race faster, careening about the highway in the extremity of pain.
Steeling myself against my natural response of horror at this sight, I fired for a second time. The Angel of Death himself must have blessed the wretched instrument that I held, for in spite of my unpracticed hand, my musket ball struck the second, unwounded horse in the skull, killing the creature in a second without adding suffering to its death.
The sudden dead weight of the killed creature, added to the frenzied struggles of its still-living companion, were too much for the overwhelmed coach driver to command or overcome. In spite of his frantic hauling on the reins, the carriage overturned on its side, leaving the coachman sprawled in the dust beside the body of his dead horse. Lifting his hands as well as he could in his prone position in the dirt of the highway, he gasped, “Mercy! Do not shoot, I pray you!”
I glanced over my shoulder at MacAlistair to discern what he intended us to do next. He gave me a wink and a kind smile as though to comfort my shaken nerves and then called out to the fallen coachman: “We will not shoot if you obey our commands to the letter. Have your masters throw their purses and jewels to us – and make haste about it, man!”
The coachman lifted himself up and made his way to the fallen carriage. The door that was not crushed to the earth now faced the moonlit sky and I saw him give its window a rap. Presently, the door lifted open and a purse was handed to the driver. The man held it aloft for our benefit and clambered down from the carriage, calling out that this was all the treasure they had.
“We shall see about that,” MacAlistair said under his breath. “Angus,” he said to one of the men at his elbow. “Unburden our friend of his gift and then give that window a rap and see if you can spy any other treasures that our acquaintances are less willing to share with us.”
I did not like MacAlistair’s tone, nor his insistence that we ask for more than we were already given. But there was little I could do save watch from the sheltered darkness of the forest as Angus hastened to carry out his order. After he had taken the bag of gold from the trembling coach driver, he went to the carriage and lifted his hand to rap at the window.
“Oh no, sir, don’t – ” the driver began, but Angus was already trying the handle of the coach, forcing it open.
A musket shot shattered the stillness. We heard the purse of coins fall first, eerily loud given the distance, before we saw Angus collapse to the ground, his face covered in blood. There was a short moment again of utter silence, but it was not the silence of cool reflection, for it was broken almost instantly by every bandit gun (save my own) opening fire on the coach. The bullets ravaged the wooden paneling of the carriage, making short work of that strange insignia that it bore and that touched some cord of memory in me, and it was only the coachman’s frightened foresight as he fell to the ground, flattening himself to the earth, that saved him from certain death.
If MacAlistair had expected cowed submission from his foe, he was doomed to disappointment, however. Our shots were presently returned from our unseen but desperate victim, who had a musket propped above the wreckage of the carriage and was aiming with such skill and precision that we were forced to withdraw deeper into the forest.
“We must try to approach from a different side,” MacAlistair said. “Let us circle towards the horses and then catch him from behind, whoever he is.”
“But, MacAlistair,” I said. “Should we not abandon this enterprise? Whoever it is, he has a gun – and I thought that our intention was to rob, not to murder.”
“Aye, and who is lying dead out there, Master Williams? Is it one of our victims or one of our own?” MacAlistair returned and that was all the reply I was given.
In spite of the dread in my heart, I followed the rest of his men as they circled behind the carriage, my own musket barrel cocked towards the upended carriage. MacAlistair himself was barely a foot away from the carriage door and perhaps all would have been well had not some cruel angel, devil, or Fate – I know not which – ordained that one of his men should betray our position with a false step on a crackling twig. The snap of the underbrush did not go unnoticed by our attentive prey. Instantly, the carriage musket swung about and blindly fired into our midst. A bullet hit the man beside me, causing him to fall, his arm bleeding heavily. As I knelt to support him – and to avoid the hail of bullets myself – I saw MacAlistair, his face glowing with fury, begin shooting repeatedly at the carriage, his musket balls splintering and shattering the polished wood, until a piercing cry from within caused even his embittered finger to pause at last upon the trigger.
Past the fog of gunsmoke that clouded the air, MacAlistair and his men drew nearer to the wreckage. Shouldering off my coat, I made of it a makeshift blanket with which to cover the wounded bandit, before rising and following the rest of the men to see if we had at last subdued our foe. When I saw who lay there, sprawled amidst a heap of blood-stained splinters of wood, it was only MacAlistair’s attentive hand that saved me from collapsing.
For it was my mistress who lay there, her unclosed eyes reflecting the moonlight. It was my mistress whose dark hair, now deeply soaked in blood, fanned out above her head like the locks of a drowned woman, her fingers still curled about the splintered musket. I think I whispered her name, but only MacAlistair replied as he said, “What was this woman to you, Alan?”
I drew in a shuddering breath, for in that question lay a deeper mystery that even I did not know the true answer to.
“She was my mistress,” I said.
MacAlistair’s men were poking through the wreckage of the coach with their muskets. There was a wooden chest hidden beneath blankets that they called their leader’s attention to. MacAlistair, after giving me another long look, left my side to see what they had found. Bereft of his supporting arm, I faltered, falling to my knees beside the cold, moonlit body. In the madness of my grief and astonishment, I found myself taking her hand and pressing it to my lips, feeling for some pulse of life, whispering her name. I drew closer to her, daring to kiss her cheek, then her lips, the bitterness of my tears mingling with her blood.
As I kissed her, however, I felt or imagined a momentary convulsion at my touch. The shock of this caused me to pull away, possessed utterly by a sudden terror, as though my presumption rather than my prayers had brought her to life. And, as I looked upon her face, searching for some sign of life, a peculiar change seemed to fall over that dead countenance. The poignant grimace of sorrow and pain now appeared altered to a rictus of scorn and cruelty. That womanly form, now soulless, seemed shadowed, hollowed out, and collapsed: void of a spiritual core. My love vied with a blossoming hatred and the keen remorse that I felt was tinctured with the dark dye of a sudden, irresistible loathing and terror. Those open, staring eyes, once the ministers of my fondest dream, now put my firmest courage to flight.
Shouts of triumph caused me to turn distractedly from the outstretched corpse of my mistress. MacAlistair’s men had managed to pry open the chest, but the violence of their efforts had tipped it over, scattering silver coins on the overturned carriage seat and the grass. I watched them gather up the silver in the moonlight, the light playing off their hands and faces. The dancing, glittering play of it made my head swim and I sat upon the cool grass, trying to regain my senses.
Beside me, I heard a soft nicker and saw the prostrate body of the horse that had been wounded. The poor beast was panting and bleeding copiously from a wound in his lower left thigh, its eyes wide and unfocused. I put out a hand to caress its head; behind me, someone said, “Poor Titus. You should put a bullet through his head – he has suffered long enough and will soon be as dead as his friend.”
I turned and saw the coachman, cowering behind an overturned wheel. He had his wig in his hand and was running his fingers through his sweat-drenched hair. The blood of my mistress dripped through the wood above him upon his shoulder, but he seemed unconscious of it. As I stared speechlessly at him, he met my eyes and a look of startled memory possessed him.
“Alan Williams?” he whispered. “Can it be you?”
I gave a little nod.
“They won’t kill me, will they? Your friends?”
“No,” I said. “Not unless you try to kill them.”
“Is she dead?”
I nodded and felt a chill of horror as he said, “Better her than me.” Seeing my face, he said: “Stay – you cannot possibly still love her. After all that she did?”
His words, so often echoed by others, now fell upon my heart like dull, familiar weights. I turned my attention to the horse, Titus; I bound the animal’s wounded flank with strips from my shirtsleeves, staunching the flow of blood. When I looked up again, the coachman had already left the shelter of the carriage and was making haste down the road, glad to be away from me and my plundering companions.
“Alan?” MacAlistair’s voice brought me out of my reverie. He was holding an envelope; the seal was broken. “I took the liberty of reading the letter that this lady had hidden upon her person. I thought, as it makes mention of you, that you ought to see it.”
I took the letter from his hand. It read as follows:
My dear Lord A—,
I am sending this chest of silver with your courier as requested. My hope is that this, paired with my sacrifice of Alan Williams to Lord John Complin, will have fulfilled both your requirements to the letter. Alan’s recent escape was altogether outside of my power and due to Lord Complin’s negligence rather than my own sufferance. Therefore, it cannot be counted against my claim.
Lady Rebecca Claremont
My hand trembled; my vision grew dizzied; I felt sick unto death. There was no longer any illusion, no longer any doubt to cloud my mind and heart. I knew all – all. From the very beginning, my mistress had committed me to Complin’s power. From the very beginning, I was a part of this mysterious bargain struck here between the Lady Claremont and this unknown lord. My fond belief that she had pitied and longed to alleviate my sufferings had been no more than a boy’s foolish dream. Awakened now, my heart was filled to overflowing with all the bitterness of horror and despair. Oh, Complin! – how you would smile and pity my suffering, if you were only here to see it in its first flush of shocked betrayal. How you would rejoice to see your rival laid low, a broken idol and a breathless corpse all in the space of an evening.
For a moment, I thought that I could conceal my grief. But MacAlistair caught me as my legs suddenly collapsed and I was overcome by a sudden swoon. My last thought was a cruel one – I wished, fleetingly, that I had not prayed for innocence at the beginning of that night. I wished that one of my own bullets had put her out of the world, forever.