THE LIGHTFOOTED THIEVES
by Lucy Ribchester
Midnight, and I can tell it’s urgent because the mistress never knocks me this late. I struggle with the bed-jacket that belonged to Harry’s mother. Moths have eaten close to the armpits and it’s in danger of splitting, but I don’t wear it often enough to warrant mending. The candle in my hand blows a thin ribbon of soot backwards as I hurry to the front door. No sooner than it’s open, air skates in, and with it the howls of the dogs she’s woken up on her way.
I feel myself clench; the instinct to soothe the pups. Mistress’s brown eyes are aflame. She’s hissing, “It’s happened again. I won’t tolerate it.” Her voice dissolves on the last word and I widen the door, bring her inside with the cold fizzing off her pinned hair. I know she must be pained to be in such a state in front of me. She prides herself on her fierceness, Mistress does; has made a name for herself in the county as “the independent one” after Master died and everyone said she should give up “that bloody country pile” for a townhouse.
She sits down at the table by the range, perching away from the flaking paint on the chair like it might poison her back. Across the tablecloth my books are strewn, volumes she’s teaching me to read: Equality for All; In Favour of the Working Woman; Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Pencils rolling around, for when I underline the hard words.
I’m glad though, that she can see I’m working, and she notices and it flashes on her face that she’s glad too. She takes pride in me; loves to show me off. Last week at the women’s club in Chancery Lane I gave a small speech about how education is helping me manage since Harry passed away. My hands were shaking as I told them how much I was enjoying Jane Eyre. Mistress says all workers must be educated, so that our children will have choices. I never bother to point out that I don’t have children.
I see her looking at my black pot, idle on the range, but she says she won’t take tea at this hour. “They came, just now, in the night,” she says, dipping her eyes away from me, the way she does when she’s embarrassed to ask for something, but about to do it anyway. “They came again.”
She still wears her wedding band; it’s cut a little valley into her old hand. The skin beneath her eyes has fallen, see-through like newspaper. She doesn’t look like she used to; all that dignity, that buttoned up look, it has to harden some time.
“What did they take?”
“Silver. Cook’s pies. Port. I could hear them. That was the thing.” A shiver runs down her and her eyes flicker. “I could hear them pattering about, even from my bedroom.”
“Didn’t Mr. Rodgers wake?” Even I know this is a silly question. Mr Rodgers is Mistress’s butler but he’s deaf as a tree trunk.
“What could he do anyway?” She lets a ghost of breath out as a sigh. When I see it, I realise how cold my kitchen is and how used to it my blood must be.
“Triggs…” She dips her eyes again, and when she says my name like that I think an offer must be taking form, that she must be about to invite me up to the house, to offer me a bedroom on the first floor, close to the housekeeper’s day parlour, with candles and a fire, away from the draughty attics where the rest of the servants sleep.
“Triggs I need your help.”
“Yes ma’am.” My voice—I want it to be trusty, full of pluck—but I’m old and full of sleep and it cracks.
“Can you keep watch? Over the back of the house, at night? I’ll pay you more.”
The vision of the bedroom close to the housekeeper’s parlour disintegrates. “I can pay a boy,” I say.
She doesn’t reply. She doesn’t have to; I know the words she would use. One of her phrases, “No that won’t do.” Words of finality. No reasons to go with them so no one can argue. I hesitate, but when she finally brings her green gaze up to mine, there’s something in it that says she wants me to be up to the job myself. I look at the books on the table. I say, “I’ll clean the guns tomorrow.”
I let her back out into the cold night air with a fur I find hanging under a pile of Harry’s old cloaks in the hall. The smell of it is embarrassing but she doesn’t say anything.
As she walks past the dogs again, I tighten again, as I hear the rustle of their collars, then their voices rising into a roo, into a pattern of sharp high barks.
The process of cleaning the guns is one I enjoy. The satisfaction of their gleam I think must be the same feeling some ladies get from looking at their jewels. But there is a different sensation in them today, right now, under my hands. It is as if they have calcified. As if the edges have grown hard, and instead of gleaming like diamonds, they seem to gleam like wet teeth.
“Gamekeeper? Her? With her hats and her jams?” That’s what Mr. Rodgers said to Mistress at Harry’s funeral. I heard him. I saw him scratch his feathered head, I watched across the table of sandwiches, through my sniffles. “Surely Cook could use an extra pair of hands. Or the nursery…”
The small pistol must have brought in at least a hundred partridges, the shotgun a couple of dozen stags, and that was just since Harry died. Notches have been gouged all along the palm of the tender wood, soft with age. None of them are mine, I didn’t like to continue that tradition, they were his prizes. But there’s a stain that slipped through the varnish into the bare wood the first time I made a kill. When the gamekeeper from the next estate insisted on the ritual, digging his hands into the warm cavity of the deer, taking the blood and wiping it onto my cheeks.
That night, when the sun finally sinks I stay close to the corner of the outer wall that runs all along the big house, from the laundry room to the kitchen. I sit on one of the half-barrels they use to gather pears at harvest time, my breath fogging like pipe smoke. Up above, the faint red brick frame of Mistress’s window is visible, a candle sitting in it.
On the other side of the wall, inside the kitchen, I can hear noises. Someone is moving bottles, pans, shifting metal, stacking earthenware. I picture them: a pair of salty thieves in tattered coats, grizzled beards, rusty eyes. Fingers hardened by begging and cold, torn boots and stolen pocketwatches.
There’s a lightfooted stumble on the tiles. Someone’s hobnails scrape. I cock my gun.
“Her? With her hats and her jams?”
I stand, steadying the half-barrel with my foot as the noises tumble closer. The tradesmen’s door has never fitted the wood properly, and through the gap each footstep, each crunch of thievery echoes. I’ve got my arm steadying the crosshairs, my eye trained on the brass handle of the door. Kidney height. I think of Mistress last night, in her state. She needn’t worry. I’m up to it and I’ll prove it. Tonight she’ll sleep again.
Metal shifts. One murky pitch cuts a slice into another; the dark inside of the kitchen reveals itself, and a bone-white fist melts into view gripping the thin handle of a lantern. It takes a while for the light to spill up the two figures. And by that time the kitchen door is open wide and they can see me too.
She is taller than he is, but only just. Her face—a malnourished mix of age and childishness—is scraped back to the muscle; prick of nose, gristle cheeks. There isn’t an ounce of blood in her. I cannot place the age of the boy. His hair sticks in thin tufts from his head, cut coarsely. It’s he who carries the lantern. She has a small hock of bacon rested on her shoulder and a sack hanging from her hand, clinking with the tuneless rattle of metal.
She looks straight at me, her eyes wet as a doe’s. And that’s when I know I have seen her before. There’s a corrugated shed just past the bounds of the estate woods. Sometimes they come selling sprigs of herbs and mushrooms wrapped in cloth. Cook always sends them away. Sometimes you’ll hear them singing together, or smell the smoke from their fire curling onto our land.
She puts the bacon on the ground, balancing it against her leg, and strokes her fingers through the boy’s hair, dragging the tangles towards her.
My finger pauses on the stiff curl of trigger. The sightline is clear. If she were meat I’d already be dreaming of the pot.
“Her with her hats and her jams? Her that couldn’t silence a mouse if it was squeakin int trap? She won’t kill beasts for you, I’ll warrant it.”
Above me, I can feel the light burning in Mistress’s red window, pouring down like wax, melting a hole in my back. If she were standing here she’d want the prick of my gun-barrels jabbing them all the way to the constables. All the moments Mistress smiled over a book and said to me, “Let’s try again shall we?” or “Triggs you’re a marvel.” The hand-me-down casserole pots in my kitchen. Her patience and her kindness. Her hands, dusting off in that no-arguments way, and the way she put her gloves back on as she said to Mr. Rodgers at Harry’s funeral, “Mrs. Triggs has the courage of a lion, and is the only one who can fill the boots of her husband as gamekeeper. I have absolute faith she’s up to the job.” I feel it all burning in me as I look into the boy’s hungry face. His eyes travel between the bacon in his mother’s hands and the muzzle of the gun in mine.
The woman’s head dips. She bends to pick back up her ham.
And out of nowhere a raw howl splinters the night. The hounds. The hounds must be able to hear our breath or smell the meat. Without knowing what I’m doing I turn, as if I could soothe the sorry little pup from here. A giant fuss spreads through the kennel, yipping and rooing, and suddenly the dogs have all kicked off, as good as on the chase. It’s as I’m gazing across the cold field towards them that I feel the shadow slip over me, and when I look back up at Mistress’s window, still gripping the gun, there’s a black frizz-topped shape there now. Her face, I know every ripple and mole, every plump and shadow, all her kindness in there, all the things she did for me. She’s in her night smock; her hair looks like bracken, stiff and swaying. Through a trick of the wind I think I hear her voice pushing through the house, saying my name. It’s as if it comes from the bricks. “Triggs.” It’s that face she’s pulling, the one from the kitchen, the one that said she didn’t want a boy to do the job, she wanted me to do it.
And while I’m still frozen, while my back is turned, while my gun is held high, I hear them scurrying off, the pair of them, lightfooted thieves, feet like mice, skating towards the lawn, the grit on the path barely cracking. And when I turn, the golden dot of their lantern is ducking and rising, ducking and flickering as they patter off into the night, with Mistress’s belongings and her food.
Lucy Ribchester was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and grew up in Fife. In 2013 she won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award for fiction. In January 2015 she was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award, and the same month her first novel The Hourglass Factory was published in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand by Simon & Schuster. She also writes about dance and circus for Scotland’s The List magazine.