Promise Me

(A story based on Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman)

GISELLE
Pronounced:
zhee-ZEL (French), ji-ZEL (English)
Derived from the Germanic element gisel meaning "hostage" or "pledge"

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"No. Not again. Please, don't go."

"I must, my Bess. There will be so much gold – you have my word of honour; I will come back a rich man with both pockets lined. I will free you." Justin's whisper rustled her flowing hair and trailed down her neck.

"Free me from my father, the landlord?"

"Aye."

Bess' voice dropped to low whisper. "What about Tim, my husband?"

"He doesn't seem to care much for you anyway."

"No, he does," Bess warbled. "That's the problem. He loves me like a dog loves its mistress. 'I love you, honey, I really really loooove you'. He doesn't understand – every night when I sleep beside him, I die a little more. At least he's out tonight." She scanned over his tender face, his deep eyes.

"Oh, Bess, how is our little girl going?"

Bess remembered that curly-haired little thing, borne of so many illicit moonlit nights. Nights like this one. "They still think she's Tim's child."

Justin sighed, guilty yet relieved. "Does she look like him?"

"It's too early to tell. But I think she'll take after me. Such lovely hazel eyes. Like yours and Tim's."

"Is Miss Sally a good nurse?"

"Aye. As good as ever. She's always wanted someone to dote on, anyway."

"Any questions?"

"No. As I said, they all think Tim's the father."

Justin sighed. "I can't have you do this, Bess. If anything happens-" He pulled her to him again in a silent embrace, clasping a cold, silver necklace into her hands. Shimmering in the candlelight, smiling of moonbeams, it was a love knot full of promises.

"If you must go, promise me you'll come back," Bess pleaded.

"Hush, dear. Of course I'll return. It's only one night, after all."

"But there are redcoat soldiers, my unforgiving father, my husband, and the Law. Can you slip through them so easily? And what if they find out before you return?"

"They won't."

---

Bang!

Blood, so much blood. It trickles from the breast of a young woman, bound in burning ropes, tied with a rifle against her heart. It's red as the bleeding coats of redcoat troops. It's a carpet of crimson, a funeral bed for the dead highwayman lying in the highway.

There's no escape from blood. It can be washed from the sinful hands, but it won't erase from the branded heart.

And now, the highwayman's ghost is riding. T-lot, t-lot, t-lot. In the dark hours of the night, when the wind is a pounding drum and the road a sliver of blade. When gauzy waifs howl and mourn and remember the dead forgotten. When purple shadows creep and twist, seeping into the blood and the ears.

Faster, faster.

T-lot, t-lot, t-lot….

And Giselle hurtles from her sleep.

Only a dream. The highwayman, the woman, it's all a dream.

But the dark, windy night! Giselle sighs in exasperation. The moors had always been stormy. The wind has thrown her shutters open, banging and thumping them, biting the room in cold drafts.

Thump, thump. K-thump, k-thump.

"Blasted wind. Rattling the world like there's no end. Shut up, would you!" She whispers.

There's no reply, as usual.

Fifteen-year-old Giselle has lived and worked at The Golden Galleon inn for as long as she can remember. Cozy, rugged, and homely, the inn rests like a little dimple among rolling moors.

It's morning. Giselle, sailing down to the bar room, composes herself one last time. She brushes her glossy black hair, licks her red lips, and ties her apron around her slim waist.

"Good morning, Tim!"

Tim nods sullenly. He was landlord of this inn ever since old Thomas Hemmings passed away. Though only forty-five years of age, Tim seems older than he is because of his hollow cheeks, lemony-sour frown, light hair, and melancholic gaze. Some find him difficult and bitter

But to Giselle, he is the father she never had; his eyes soften when he sees her. He had named her "Giselle" and cared for the child when she had no parents. A smile, and he will tell her stories, forming them with his great weathered hands: light-winged fairytales, legends of lore, tales of great and mighty men. Sometimes he tells her the quirky, comedic lives his customers led. His stories are even better when he's drunk.

"Any news today, sir?"

"No news, but a story." Tim raises a bottle of beer. "Aye, my girl, it's nigh on two years since I remembered so so much. Care to listen?"

For a moment, Giselle remembers last night's dream. But she shakes it out of her mind. Tim has a story to tell. Already, his eyes are softening and fogging in memory.

"It happened, uh, a long long time ago." Tim sloshes his beer. "Happened right here, in this Golden Galleon inn, when old Mr. Hemmings still owned this place. I was a farmer – not an ostler, and my farm was smooth and sweet, aye."

A long time ago, Giselle thinks wryly.

"An' back then, Mr. Hemmings had only one daughter, called Bess. A bonny lass she was, all buxom and dark-eyes. An' guess what? Old Hemmings decided to marry her off to a capable man, a man who could inherit his beloved inn. He chose me! Hah!" Tim grins a rare smile. "He gave his girl to me in marriage! The old man likes to jest, aye, he does! An' in doin' so, he joined two properties – my farm and his inn."

Giselle smiles. "Good to hear of your marriage," although she wonders where his wife is now. Dead?

"But here's the catch. That vixen of a woman, that whore of a landlord's daughter, she loved someone else: a highwayman! Now I don't care with for the likes of him, but when he's crawlin' into my wife's bedroom and meddlin' with her into the night, that's one thing a man can't take." He laughs, but it's a bitter laughter, laced with hate.

"So the next day," Tim continues, "The redcoat troops came a-marchin'. Now you know, they kill highwaymen. And they knew of this highwayman's meddlin'. So, they had a plan-"

"What plan?" Giselle asks quite sharply.

"A clever plan. They got a-hold of Bess, beat her black an' blue, and tied her up against her bedpost. They bound a rifle beside her, aimed it at her heart – of course, tuckin' the trigger away from her – and opened the window, so her darlin' highwayman could see her an' rush back to save her. An' a couple o' redcoats hid in the shadows to shoot the highwaymen when he came.

Lo and behold, the man did come! Ridin' towards the window, like some heroic Don Quixote. An' so, what did the bloody woman do?" Tim bursts – a sudden, raucous guffaw tears from his chest and he slams his drink on the table. "Somehow she had hold of the trigger an' she shot herself! Get this! She shoots herself!"

Blood, so much blood. It trickles from the breast of a young woman, bound in burning ropes, tied with a rifle against her heart… Giselle's mind flashes against her will.

"Thus warning the highwayman. An' like a coward he turned away, ridin' away from the window an' the redcoats. But – there's more!

The next mornin', the highwayman learnt of his lover's death. So, back he turned, ridin' once again to the inn, brandishin' his rapier – revenge is sweet, remember! An' the redcoats aimed their guns once more, big beautiful guns, an' shot the man down."

A carpet of crimson, a funeral bed for the dead highwayman lying in the highway.

"An' you know what's the funniest part? I was there that night. I saw it all. I watched that man ravish my very own wife. So, what else could I do? The next morning, I told the redcoats. I sent 'em to Bess, ha!"

Now Tim lapses into pensive meditation, gazing at his empty bottle. "So much has changed since then," he muses.

Giselle stares in silent horror. "Your story-" she finally asks, a lame question. "Is it real?"

"As real as you are, Giselle."

She licks her lips again. "What was the highwayman's name?"

"Justin or Jason. Somethin' like that."

Giselle feels tears coming into her eyes now. She reaches into her pocket and touches the cool, luscious silk of silver: a necklace she always had. She traces its delicate shape and sighs. It's a love knot no-one knows about.

And she's shaking inside. Somehow, the raw, jagged pieces are fitting together – the maledict dreams, the wasted tragedy, the wistful expression on Tim's weathered face. Giselle doesn't stop shaking even when the moon rises and the lights are dimmed and she is lying in bed. Because outside, the highwayman rides again.

T-lot, t-lot…

"Who are you?!" she demands, green eyes darting blindly in the dark. "Where do you come from?!"

T-lot, t-lot, t-lot…

Shadows flit and flee; the moon grins. And Giselle finally realizes.

-----

"Thank you," Bess whispered. Somehow, there were no more words needed. The winds were picking speed already, hurrying the inky clouds, sputtering the wavering wick candle. She pulled her chemise over her milky shoulders.

How could she voice this empty pit filling her stomach now? This tight knowing of a possible dread? It was time to go, time for Justin to button his shirt and gather his things and ride off to another robbery.

"Did you name the baby?" He opened the shutters.

"I couldn't dare."

"Call her 'Giselle', then."

There were tears in Bess' eyes, tears in his. They kissed one last time; a burning, lingering farewell.

"Why 'Giselle'?" she asked.

"Because I will return. Through thunder, through fire, through hell. This is my pledge. Promise me."

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