Belle got up that morning to the smell of something delicious. It was the first time she’d ever smelt something so nice so close to her before. It’d always be downstairs two levels in the kitchen, and not for her.
She followed her nose to the door of the other room, then remembered where she was and what had happened the other day. She stopped just as she was about to go in it. She had to check if Anne was in there.
Belle craned her neck around the doorway, and, sure enough, Anne was standing there stirring something which was probably the nice smell that Belle had smelt before.
Ignoring her protesting stomach, Belle crept to the back door quietly, hoping that Anne didn’t hear her. She did, though, and her head was up and giving Belle a suspicious look before Belle was even halfway to the door.
Belle smiled at her, but only received a frosty glare in return. She resisted the urge to shrug in an attempt to forget about it, and walked out the door before they could exchange any more looks.
Tom was up and about already, and Belle found him outside, clutching a piece of paper in one hand and the stub of a pencil in the other.
Belle walked up to him and looked over his shoulder to see what he was doing. Tom looked up, not startled or shocked, much to Belle’s surprise.
“I was expecting you. I heard your footsteps towards the back door.”
He squinted his eyes and Belle realised that she was standing in front of the sun. She moved so that she was looking into the sun. She shrugged her shoulders and put on a questioning look.
“Better,” Tom said, seemingly able to understand everything she did. “Thank-you.”
Belle pointed to the sheet of paper he was holding and his pencil.
“I’m trying to write.”
Belle was amazed. Write?
“Yeah,” Tom said, nodding as if he knew what she was thinking. “You’re probably thinking; why would a highwayman’s son want to write?”
Belle shook her head furiously, but Tom shrugged.
“Don’t worry, a lot of people think that when they find out. Especially Father’s friends. They always joke about it. They call me ‘Little Scholar Boy’.” Tom looked up at her, as if expecting an answer.
Belle shrugged, as if to say; what am I meant to say?
“Tell me about yourself. I’ve hardly heard about your life, and me and Father have told you basically our history.”
Belle told him to wait with a finger, then rushed off to get her slate and chalk. She used this time to think about what she was going to say and construct a believable cover story.
Anne looked distrustfully at her again, as if she was going to steal some of the furniture which was probably worth nothing anyway.
Belle ignored her this time, keeping her mean thoughts to herself.
Tom was still waiting there patiently for her when she got back, now holding a slate and a stick of chalk.
This stick will run out soon, so I can’t do much writing about my history. Good. That was another excuse for not saying much about her history.
“That’s OK. I’m sure we can find you something else to write with, or maybe you can scratch words into the dirt.” Tom smiled. “Anything’s fine with me.”
Belle nodded, even though inside she was thinking; No! I wanted an excuse for being vague about my history.
“Well, begin anywhere you like. As far back as you can remember, let’s say.”
Tom seemed friendly enough, but Belle didn’t want to risk giving too much away, in case someone she knew found out that she was staying with a highwayman. That wouldn’t only ruin her reputation, making it harder for her to get a job in the future, it would also put Gregory and his family in danger, too.
Well, Belle began, there isn’t much to say, really. I come from ... I don’t know, but I am an orphan. That is, until I was taken in by a poor merchant and then fired. Then I met you, Gregory, Fred and Anne, who seems to dislike me.
Tom sucked in some breath at that last comment.
“Mother? She just ... you’re right,” he admitted with a sigh. “She doesn’t like mute people, because they remind her of those less privileged than her, and she likes to complain and think that we are at the bottom of the pile and can only go upwards after this.”
You aren’t really at the bottom of the pile, you know.
“I know. Mother’s trying to be optimistic, I suppose, though I’m not sure how much it’s working.”
Belle nodded. Then she looked back at the piece of paper Tom was holding. There were a few ragged scribbles strewn around the page, but none of them actually resembled letters.
You are learning to write.
“Yes, I am. It isn’t that bad, is it? Highwaymen’s sons can still go on to become doctors, and dentists, can’t they?”
But Belle was already busy writing something before he could even finish.
Want to learn?
“Learn? I am trying to, by reading Father’s stolen newspapers...” Tom trailed off. “I could learn from you, couldn’t I?”
He laughed at this. “Yes, and you can be a smart cake.”
Belle smiled and looked at the ground. For some reason she was blushing at the thought of Tom calling her by a pet name. It was a nickname, more like, wasn’t it?
Before she had any more time to think about it, however, Tom changed the subject.
“So, when can I start?”
Belle was taken aback at the eagerness and enthusiasm that Tom showed towards learning how to write.
Are you normally this enthusiastic?
“Well, I’m normally not being taught how to write by a very smart girl, am I?”
Belle definitely blushed this time. Thank-you for the compliment.
“Oh, it isn’t a compliment. It’s the truth.”
Belle smiled. Then thank-you for the not-compliment. And you can start as soon as you’d like. Or as soon as you have time to, I suppose. I know maids are busy, so highwaymen’s children must be just as busy.
“Comparing me to a maid, are you?” Tom said in mock offense. Then he stopped. “Wait. How’d you know how busy maids are? A poor merchant wouldn’t have maids.”
Oh, I think you’ve got the wrong idea, Belle hurriedly corrected. She’d forgotten all about her fabricated story about her life. Some of my friends were maids.
“Poor merchant’s adopted daughters had maids as friends? Sounds right enough ... except for the fact that maids rarely made friends outside of the house that they worked in. Unless they had old friends that they visited when they visited their families.”
Belle decided it was time to change the topic.
How do you know all these things, then?
“I read a lot,” said Tom, not explaining any further. Belle shrugged. If he wanted it that way, then he could have his way. After all, Belle wasn’t one to complain; she was hardly any better, giving a brief history even when Tom had trusted her with information about things.
Reading is good, Belle wrote, for the sake of saying something.
Tom shrugged. “For who?”
Everyone, I suppose.
“Highwaymen’s children aren’t meant to read, they’re meant to rob and steal, aren’t they? Ransom and kidnap, hold people at gunpoint.”
“But, then again, I do detest the people whom I hold at gunpoint.” Tom smiled an odd, twisted smile that held no humour in it.
Belle looked around, hoping for someone else to talk to besides Tom, who was talking about a topic too real for her liking.
Where’s everyone else?
“What do you mean? Like Father and Fred?” Tom cast his eyes around, too.
You don’t know?
“Yes, I’m just checking if anyone is listening.”
Oh. Why is that?
“So they wouldn’t hear where Father and Fred are.”
Belle was puzzled at why he wouldn’t want anyone to hear, but kept quiet. So where are they?
“Father’s at work,” Tom said carefully, “and Fred’s with him, as a distraction and lure.”
The words that he chose wouldn’t give away much if anyone overheard. They did give Belle the shivers, though. For some reason Gregory didn’t seem like a real highwayman. He just seemed like a jolly person saying he was a highwayman, that was it. Now that Tom actually described partially what exactly he did, Belle didn’t like it. It just didn’t go with Gregory’s character.
“I’m going with him on another robbery tomorrow, or today night if he decides to.”
That made Belle feel even worse. He dragged his children into it. But in this case, Fred and Tom probably wanted to rob those deluded rich fools.
“And you’ll go with him on the next one, if he thinks you’re ready.”
Belle looked at Tom, shocked, but he was fiddling with the laces of his boots. She was going to rob people, too. What if Marryanne Le Testhmus turned up? What would she do then? Still rob her?
“It might be time to go inside and see what chores we can do there.” Tom still didn’t look at Belle. Belle nodded, and Tom got up, walking into the house without looking at her.
Belle wondered what was wrong. Surely he wasn’t embarrassed at his father’s occupation? She didn’t know what to think, so instead, she just shrugged it off like all the other things she had shrugged off that day and followed Tom into the house.