Belle watched the scenery whizz by. This was the second time she had been in a carriage that day. She was getting further and further away from the city.
Her last link... Belle stared longingly back at the retreating city. This was the second time she had stared longingly at something that day.
Belle sighed in her mind and sat back in her seat. She thought about the odd man who was now driving the carriage she was in. Why did she become so foolish as to trust someone she didn’t know? Worse, she trusted someone like that. She trusted a highwayman. She wasn’t an educated woman, but even Belle knew that of all people to trust, never trust a highwayman. They robbed, they stole. They definitely didn’t say things like; “Great!” and “You sweet little girl.”
She didn’t know what else to do than mull over old memories, so she sat back and did just that.
The carriage stopped, and Belle heard someone yelling in delight. Belle didn’t want to rouse herself, and instead sat there, her eyes closed, thinking.
Suddenly her door was opened, and when Belle opened one eye, she saw an inquisitive face peering in.
“Papa! What is this?”
“I thought she might help in our work,” the odd man said.
Belle sat up fully now, watching the going-ons around her. The carriage had stopped by a house, not as ramshackle as the ones she had seen by the edge of the city, but close.
There was a young boy peering in, his freckled nose scrunched up.
“This girl smells nice, like those posh people,” he said.
“Why did you bring her here? Another mouth to feed!” a woman’s voice said. Belle saw a woman come out of the house. Then another boy came out of the house after her, about her age. He vaguely resembled the young freckled boy.
“We do not need another young person to trick the rich folk, Father,” the older boy said. “You’ve already got Fred, and are grooming him to fill the position. In the meantime, you’ve got me.”
“I thought a girl would add in a bit of variation, and anyway, Tom, you aren’t the most convincing.”
“That is because I hate those rich folk, and you want me to be innocent and happy in front of those posh shells?”
Belle assumed the older boy was called Tom, and the younger one Fred.
“Calm down, Tom,” the man said, then introduced them all. “This is Tom,” he said, pointing to the older boy, “and this is Fred,” he said pointing to the younger boy, “and this this Anne,” he said, pointing to the woman, “my wife, and I am Gregory.”
A highwayman name Gregory? Belle thought that was almost unbelievable. In the stories Cecil had sometimes told her, they were called ‘The Dashing Prince of Darkness’, or the ‘Sleight of Hand’, or something dramatic like that.
“What’s your name?” Gregory asked. Belle looked at loss for words, which, in a sense, she was. She tried to gesture towards her mouth, and tell them she was mute, but in the end, it was Tom who realized that there was something odd about her.
“Do you have a disease which prevents you from speaking?” he asked, a tad curiously.
Belle shook her head. She mimed writing, and Gregory handed her her slate and chalk.
“So that was what it was for!” Gregory said, smiling. “Luckily, Tom and I can both read, though Tom much better than I.”
Belle looked questioningly at Tom, who shrugged. “Let’s say we once stole an English literature book.”
Belle wrote: First off, I am mute, so I can never talk. Secondly, my name is Belle.
“Thirdly?” Tom prompted.
Well, there is no thirdly.
“What is she writing?” Anne asked suspiciously.
“She says her name is Belle, and that she is mute,” Tom said. Gregory nodded to confirm what Tom had said was true.
Fred jumped up and down, excited to have someone else to play with. “Come in! I’ll show you my set of cards!”
“I’m sure Belle would like something to eat first, for it is getting rather late,” Gregory said. It was true: dusk was setting in, pushing the sun’s rays further and further down into the horizon.
“Fine, but don’t give her my good stew that I’ve been saving up for your friends,” Anne warned.
“I won’t,” Gregory said, then said to Belle, “Come on in.”
She followed Gregory into the house, and Tom and Fred followed her. Anne lingered outside for a moment, then went in too.
By the fire, there was a pot of brew that Gregory told Tom to spoon out for her into a chipped bowl.
“There’s no table,” Gregory said apologetically, then sat down on a piece of ripped cloth. “There’s only this rug.”
Belle sat down on it, and felt sharp stones digging into her. She removed them and instantly felt more comfortable. Tom gave her the brew, which was only mildly warm, then sat down beside her.
“Eat up, m’dear,” Gregory said, chuckling. Fred rushed out to get his cards, and Tom looked eager to tell her something about their life as highwaymen, but Anne stood reluctantly by the fire, regarding the proceedings with a sharp eye. It seemed she was the only one who disliked Belle.
Belle decided to ignore her hostility towards her and treat her with utmost respect. Maybe then she’d be kind to Belle in return.
Belle started eating, and though the meat was hard and chewy, she found that it wasn’t as bad. She quickly scribbled something on her slate.
Thank-you for the wonderful meal, Anne.
“She says thanks for the meal, Mother,” Tom said, relaying the message.
Anne snorted. “She better be, after all the hard work I put in to bring food to the table, and here comes along a ragamuffin who eats that food!”
That was twice in that day that someone had called her a ragamuffin. Even highwaymen thought her a ragamuffin, and they were hardly better themselves.
“Mother, don’t be mean and self-conceited! She hasn’t done anything wrong to you,” Tom said.
“I haven’t done anything wrong to Gregory, and he brings along another mouth to feed!” with that, Anne stomped away.
That was another time someone was angry with her.
“Sorry, Belle,” Gregory said to her. “I don’t know what’s come over Anne. She isn’t usually like this.”
Belle shook her head. It’s okay. I’m used to that type of thing. Anyway, tell me more about your highwaymen life.
“I’m really that interesting, am I?” Gregory asked, delighted. “Well, just because you asked, I’ll tell you. When I was but a young man, I aspired to be a rich businessman. I wasn’t that well-off, but my parents were middle-class people. When I grew up and my parents died, I sold their property, in hopes of getting high prices for it. Alas, that was not to be so, and I found myself in debt for buying my new house.
That’s a lesson I always teach to my sons: never buy a new house before you sell the old one. Unless you are as rich as Marryanne Le Testhmus, of course.” Gregory chuckled.
You know her? Belle asked, shell-shocked.
“Yes, of course I do. Everyone does. She’s the richest woman in this whole city! There’s a rumor going around about her. They say that she has a child to look after. Not one of her own, but someone else’s. Worse, that child is mute. Just like you, Belle.”
Marryanne is the richest woman in the city? Belle thought. And the part about the child not being one of her own. Usually that meant someone of a different family, but she was Diana’s great aunt, so in this case it probably just meant not her direct child.
I know Marryanne Le Testhmus.
Well, I’ve seen her, in the streets. Belle hurriedly corrected her mistake. She didn’t want these highwaymen to know where she came from. After all, she hardly knew them, even though she was eating dinner in their house.
Belle now realized how truly lucky she was, to be picked up off the streets by the richest woman in town’s carriage.
“Very well. Now, on with my story: I was now in heavy debt. To pay off that debt, I had to find a job. I eventually found a job working as a brick layer’s apprentice. It was hard work: I had to lug around all the brick layer’s tools everywhere he went. I also had to hand him them, and sort through all the piles of tools to find a tiny nail about the size of my thumb.”
Gregory held up his thumb for them to inspect. Tom laughed, and Belle smiled.
“Then I was convicted of a crime I didn’t do. Apparently I stole a glass mint bowl from the banker that dealt in my finances.”
Belle peered uncertainly at the chipped bowl she was eating out of. At that, Tom and Gregory both laughed at the same time. For some reason, Tom had taken an instant liking for her, for no apparent reason, when he was so angry at his father for bringing in another mouth to feed before.
“No, don’t worry, Belle. It was a crime that was never done. I’m sure they found it just days after I was convicted, but they said it was a fake.”
“That’s rich people for you,” Tom interjected. “Never trusting anyone.”
At that time, Fred came in, carrying a deck of weathered cards in his hand. "I got them!"
"It's a bit too late, Fred," Tom said sternly. "Put them back and get ready for bed. Who knows, there might be a big day tomorrow."
"Alright," Fred groaned, and went to put his cards back, and go to bed.
“Yes, well, by that time, I needed a job, and was very heavily in debt. They had convicted me, oh yes, but hadn’t caught me yet. They tried to put me in jail, but I ran away from them, out of the city. Then I became an outlaw to manage my finances better. Otherwise where would I get the money from? No one wanted a convicted apprentice working for them.
Then I found Anne, and I tell you, it was love at second sight.”
Belle smiled, a cheerful look glinting in her eyes. When she looked at Tom, to see what he would do, he was looking at her. He quickly looked away.
“Sorry, I was just seeing what you’d do,” Tom said hurriedly. Belle shrugged inside her mind. A plausible enough explanation. After all, wasn’t that what she was doing?
But when she looked at Gregory out of the corner of her eye, she saw him smiling at Tom, who was slightly a different shade.
“Anyway,” Gregory continued. “It’s the same old story from there. We married, had children, and then skip forward a few years and you come.”
“Finished your dinner yet?” Tom asked. Belle nodded, and Tom took the bowl from her, to wash. “It’s getting rather dark, Father,” Tom called from the well outside.
“We’ll get you to bed, how about that, hey?” Gregory asked Belle. She nodded eagerly. The exhaustion was nearly overcoming her, despite the exciting happenings around her.
Gregory took her to her bed, nothing more than a straw mat on the ground, in the only other room there was in the house.
Fred was there, fast asleep on one of the straw mats on the ground. Anne was there too, sitting on a stool and looking in a chapped mirror. She looked over at Belle with a look of disdain.
“You gave her the spare bed that your friends sleep on?” Anne asked her husband. He shrugged.
“She has to sleep somewhere.”
“Why in this room? Why not by the fire? Surely that’d be warmer?”
It was a scorching hot day, and Belle wasn’t sure she wanted anything ‘warmer’, but yet, she followed by her earlier resolution, and treated Anne as kindly as she could.
“I’m quite sure that Belle would not like to sleep there,” Gregory said firmly.
That is more than alright, Belle wrote. I thank Anne for her generous offer.
“Are you sure?” Gregory asked anxiously.
“What is that ragamuffin writing to you?” Anne demanded.
“If you must know, she’s writing to say thank you to you, though I think you do not deserve it.”
Anne said nothing, though Belle could tell that she didn’t believe Gregory. Belle took the spare bed and took it to the other room, by the fireplace.
Exhaustion overcame her, and she found herself slipping into the realm of dreams. Just before she went to sleep, though, she heard someone come in from outside (Tom, she supposed) and sit down on the stool by the fire next to her. There were voices, and she caught her name being said just before she drifted away.