Belle stood by the side of the road, watching the coach’s retreating figure. Ben was gone, now, her last link to the Testhmus House.
There she stood, a lone figure, staring into the distance. Also an easy target. Belle quickly realized that, and started the hunt for a shelter.
There wasn’t much at the edge of the city. Everything was eerily quiet, with not a carriage nor coach to be seen. It was the kind of place where one would imagine highwaymen to rule.
Belle walked for what seemed like an age, and still couldn’t find anything but old torn down shops and worn, shed-like buildings, with dirty, wasted faces peering out of the holes in the walls.
What an odd sight she must be: a clean servant girl, walking out in the open with no man to guard her. What an easy target, they must think, Belle thought.
She had failed her friends. They were hopeful, about to escape, and then she does something stupid, and gets fired. Though that would mean one less mouth to feed, Belle thought sadly. They were probably glad to be rid of her, the one who caused all the problems.
She shouldn’t have let Cecil clean up the mess, Belle thought, kicking a stray stone which made her toes ache. She shouldn’t have let Diana cover up for all the time off that she had when she was meant to be doing work.
She deserved what she got, as Mary had said. Then she remembered what Ben had said. It would be her last encounter with privilege. No, she was not going to let that happen. She would prove him wrong. If she was worth anything, it was her determination. She was going to see this through.
The further she walked, the more she was convinced that she was walking in circles, or at least the opposite direction of where Ben had gone. She was starting to lose her sense of orientation now, and felt slightly giddy with frustration. Why could she not find her friends? How useless was she? Did she not tell Diana moments before that she was familiar with streets?
Belle stopped walking altogether and sat on her haunches in the middle of the road. All she could hope for was a carriage coming her way. Then she’d ask for directions, or hopefully employ.
After a long wait, one did come along. At first Belle thought it was her imagination playing tricks on her, but as the stray carriage made its way closer to her, she knew that it wasn’t her imagination.
She nearly leapt up in joy. Instead, she stood up calmly, waving her hands up above her head.
But there was something odd about the carriage. There was only one rider, and he was riding on one of the horses pulling the carriage. Why would he do that?
Then Belle noticed that there were five horses. That was odd. The man didn’t seem like one to own fine carriages; he wore a ragged leather coat, and had a roughly tied neckerchief. His face was unshaven, and his hair was messily tied up. Then she realized: here was a highwayman who stole carriages and hooked them up to his horse!
Belle quickly scrambled out of the way, off the road, but it was too late. The carriage stopped beside her, and the man got off his horse.
“What have we here?” the man asked, stroking his beard. “It seems we have a straggler, do we not?”
Belle shook her head frantically, not knowing what else to do. The man laughed.
“Let’s see what this little straggler owns, shall we?” the man hauled up Belle, though not as roughly as Mrs Anderty. He took out her slate and chalk. “Nothing of value,” the man said disappointedly. “It’s a rough road,” he said, suddenly changing the topic. “What is a sweet little thing in a maid’s uniform like you doing out here? It seems like you’ve only been here for a little while; you ain’t as dirty.” He laughed again. “I see what’s happened! You’ve been put out of employ, haven’t you? Well, little sweet, I think I may have another job for you. Do you want to have more money?”
Belle wanted to say; no, I’d never work for someone like you, but she couldn’t, for the man had pocketed her slate and chalk, even though they were of ‘no value’.
“You won’t talk, will you? Come on, it’s money. Money’s money.” Upon seeing that Belle wasn’t going to say anything, the man changed tactics. “Look here, if you stay out here, you’ll starve to death before you even reach the next month. Or maybe you’ll be killed by another more unfriendly highwayman before then. All you’ll be doing is riding in a carriage quite like the one I’m lugging right now, and sitting there looking innocent. If we are successful, we’ll even give you some money, and we’ll clothe and shelter you. Is that too much to ask?”
Belle looked at her chances of surviving: they were slim. She looked up at the odd man, and gave a tight nod.
“Great!” the man said, and put her into the carriage.
Belle knew she’d regret it sooner or later.