Elias’s wounds were slow to heal because he went back to work two days later. Bess hounded him for it, insisting that if he was determined to ruin his feet, he should at least do so with them bandaged. She redid his wrappings every morning, exclaiming over the state of his soles before he stuffed them into his boots and went to work either around the tavern or to Mitton and back.
He pretended it did not hurt him, but every step was hell. He was slower than usual, and returned to Kitwick in the evenings, hours after his normal time. This did nothing to appease Mr. Scorsby, who was even surlier with him than usual.
“This contains an important package,” he warned Elias one morning. Elias’s wounds were all but healed, for three weeks had passed and Bess no longer emitted hisses of horror when he removed his boots in the evening. “Don’t make a hash of it, boy.”
“I’ll do my best, Mr. Scorsby.” He took the heavy parcel, which was too bulky for the new satchel Bess had made him, and hugged it to his chest.
The day was dim and humid, and Elias smelled rain in the air. Lord Nelson had, by the sound of it, scampered off to hunt, so Elias progressed with greater caution along the post road.
“Good morning!” a voice crowed. Elias froze. He knew that voice.
“What, no more ‘Stand and deliver’?”
He heard a horse canter down the hills from the forest lining the post road and come to a stop a short distance in front of him.
“What the fuck do you want?” Elias demanded when the highwayman said nothing.
“I took what you said into consideration. I’ve decided to be more gentlemanly in my approach.”
“Gentlemanly!” Elias scoffed. “Are you going to rob me blind again?”
“Yes. You have a very large package.”
“Are you fucking serious?”
The highwayman dismounted and came to stand in front of Elias.
“I thought you said you hadn’t money for another hat.”
“That was true.”
“Then where’d you get the hat?”
“I already had it.”
“You deliberately misled me!” The highwayman sounded indignant.
“And you stole my fucking hat anyway!” Elias barked.
There was a long pause.
“Are you wealthy?”
“I’m a post boy. What do you think?”
“I think you’re a rich daddy’s boy who wanted to prove he can look after himself.” It sounded like the highwayman had invested a great deal of thought in developing an explanation for Elias’s life circumstances.
“One out of three.” Elias delighted in correcting him.
“One out of three. You fail.”
“Not rich. Definitely not a daddy’s boy. Did want to prove I could look after myself. Also wanted to get out of Kitwick.”
“You don’t like it?” The highwayman sounded curious.
“Anyone who’s from Kitwick and has half a brain loathes it.”
“It’s boring as hell. Full of gossips and drunks. Anybody who’s anybody moves away toot sweet.”
“Tout de suite.
“I think you meant tout de suite. At once. It’s French.”
Elias wrinkled his nose. “Highwayman speaks French, does he?”
“That’s enough chitchat for now, I think,” the highwayman said. “I see you’re wearing yet another handsome outfit. Off with it.”
“Aren’t you going to buy me a drink first?” Elias snapped.
There was a thoughtful void before the highwayman spoke again. “I don’t think you realize what you sound like sometimes.”
“I’ve a deficit of sight, not hearing, fool.”
“It’s not whether you hear. It’s whether you understand.”
“I know damn well what I sound like, Cynthia.”
“My name isn’t Cynthia.”
“Well, you haven’t told me what it is, despite your claim you want to be a gentlemanly
highwayman, so I’ve made one up for you.”
“What an unusual name. Are you named after your father?”
“Says the man who stripped me naked and had me parade my assets through town. I assure you, the feeling’s mutual!”
“Do you always have to have the last word?”
“Because I told you to.”
“Yes, I heard you the first time, but why?”
“Because I’ve a pistol!”
“And? And I’ll shoot you if you don’t shut up!”
“Well, in that case I guess I’d better shut up, hadn’t I?”
“Yes! Or by God, I’ll blow your pretty brains out!”
“So you think my brains are pretty?”
He felt something hard and cold press into his forehead. He snapped his mouth shut and smirked.
“Quit your smirking,” the highwayman ordered.
Elias could not.
“I said stop it.”
Elias bit the insides of his cheeks.
Elias burst out laughing. The highwayman let him laugh until he was breathless.
“What’s so funny?” the highwayman asked once Elias had stopped.
“You haven’t shot me yet.”
“Being alive is funny to you?”
“No, life’s boring. I told you that already. It’s your attempt at intimidation that’s hilarious. Are you sure you’re a real highwayman? It feels more like you’re playing at being a highwayman.”
“Give me your package.”
“Er, easier said than done.”
The bulky parcel was wrenched from Elias’s grasp. He staggered but remained upright.
“God, this is as easy as stealing sweets from a baby.”
“Do that often, do you?” Elias snarled. He was no longer amused. He was going to lose his job.
“If the mood strikes me. Now take off your clothes.”
Elias began undoing his cravat. “Can’t I at least keep my boots? My feet were all cut up by the time I got home last time. It took weeks for them to heal.”
“It’s a shorter walk today.”
“You have a spare pair of boots already. This is my last pair.” It was a lie, for he still had Mr. Scorsby’s old pair, but he was not thrilled by the idea of putting them on again.
The highwayman considered his request. “Maybe. Let’s see what’s in the parcel first, hm?” There was the sound of tearing paper. “Oh my. This is very nice.”
“What is it?” Elias asked in spite of himself as he pulled his shirt off over his head. This done, he reached down for his hat, which he had put at his feet, and found it was gone. Damn.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Elias felt into the void in front of him and grabbed the highwayman’s arm. It was solid and clad in a soft material. Velvet, perhaps? To his surprise, the highwayman did not jerk away. Elias felt his way down it until he reached the highwayman’s hands, then plucked the parcel’s contents from his fingers.
“A book?” he asked, running his fingers down the spine. He flipped it open and leafed with an unfamiliar hand through the pages, which were cut.
The highwayman took the book from him and cleared his throat. “There was something else in there.”
“Hold out your hand.”
Elias, shirtless but still wearing his boots and trousers, held out a hand. The highwayman deposited something cold in his palm. Elias clutched the metallic object, manipulating it between his fingers as he felt along a short chain and round, flat face.
“Pocket watch,” he muttered. “A book and a pocket watch. Two things that are useless to me.”
“Not much of a reader?”
“Are you really that stupid, or is that an act too?” Elias demanded.
“Oh.” The highwayman sounded remorseful.
The highwayman took the watch from him. “Not that you can tell, but this watch will go splendidly with my waistcoat.”
“I don’t give a damn. Just be gone. I’ll surely lose my job for this.”
“It’s safer for you to stay home, anyway.”
“Is that what you’re worried about? Poor Elias, wandering around the post roads, going to fall and twist his ankle? Best have him sacked so he doesn’t hurt himself? What a noble highwayman you are. You’d get along beautifully with Bess.”
“Fuck you, Cynthia.”
“No, really. Elias. Anyone ever call you Eli?”
“Then I shall be the first.”
“Take your trousers off, Eli.”
Elias had to take his boots off to step out of his trousers, which was an awkward thing to do. He swayed once he got one foot free, reached out, and seized the highwayman’s arm again. Perhaps he had proffered it. “I’ll twist my ankle if you don’t hold me up,” Elias said. The highwayman stood still as Elias removed his boots, then squirmed out of his trousers.
“Your feet are all scabby.”
“Yes because I walked miles barefoot on a stony road after you stole my boots last time!” They itched like the devil.
The highwayman made a throaty sound. “You can keep your boots.” Was that remorse in his voice?
“What charity! Thank you, kind sir!” Eyes closed, Elias turned his face to the sky. “Cynthia, I will keep you in my prayers!”
“All right, that’s enough.”
“A saint, a true saint.”
“Bless you, Cynthia, bless you, and your mother, and your father—”
“Shut up!” The highwayman sounded genuinely annoyed.
Elias stopped talking and stood still, naked. It was colder than the last time he had been robbed, and he shivered.
“I’ll help you get your boots on,” the highwayman offered after a moment. His tone was apologetic.
“Saint Cynthia. An example to us all.”
It was awkward and the highwayman’s soft hair grazed Elias’s thigh as he knelt and helped him into his boots, but they managed.
“There,” the highwayman said softly. “No more cut feet.”
“I will never be able to repay you for your kindness.”
“I can think of a few ways.”
Elias took a step backward. “Aren’t you going to take off on your high horse now? The longer you stay here, the more likely you’ll be caught in the act. How do you think people would feel about you taking advantage of a poor blind boy?”
“One as cocky as you? They’d think you’d got your due.”
“Trust me, I’m the little darling of Kitwick. Any crime against me is an affront to the whole village.”
“Good thing I’ve no plans to go there soon.”
“Good for you, good for me. Now piss off.”
“The name’s Augustus, by the way,” the highwayman said, swinging into the saddle.
“Awfully fancy name for a highwayman.” This comment was met with silence. “You seem more like a Gus to me.”
“No, that’s not my—”
“Well, not really, because au revoir
actually translates to ‘until the re-seeing’, but as you can’t see—”
Elias lost all patience. “Good day, Gus!” he snarled.
“How kind, I do hope you have a splendid day as well—”
“Fuck off already!” Elias yelled. “If you wanted me to have a good day, you would not have stolen my clothes, surely cost me my job, and threatened to shoot me in the head. Now be gone, you loathsome whoreson windsucker!”
“Wind, no, but perhaps wood.” And then Augustus was gone.