The November sleet bit bitterly into Faith’s thinly clad shoulders. Clutching her bundle, she pulled her meager cloak tighter, but the icy wind swirled between her legs and up her back. Her chilblained hands ached all the way to the bones.
The sudden storm had obliterated what remained of the afternoon’s gloom. Darkness shrouded the dreaded forest ahead, mercifully disguising the blight of miserable landscape on either side of her. The land rolled away in endless mud flats without sign of habitation or even life.
Faith shivered and briefly closed her eyes against the blinding sting of wind and snow. Her lashes turned to painful shards of ice against her skin, and she moaned at this new punishment.
Her stomach felt as if it were flat against her backbone. The emptiness inside hurt even more than the numbness in her fingers and toes. The pitifully thin pieces of leather that had never adequately protected her feet were now worn into holes as large as the ones in her torn wool stockings. Unable to lift her feet, she tripped on the hem of her overlong homespun skirt and heard the worn material rip, but it scarcely seemed to matter anymore. Her mother was no longer there to scold or lecture on the proper attire of young ladies.
An ancient stone wall lined the rutted road, and Faith tried to imagine what it would be like come spring. The thorny briars spilling over the top would fill with scented roses, and perhaps larkspur and campion would sprout along the mud-covered base. If she could just remember the hope of spring, she might find the strength to keep moving in the direction of London.
At least Faith hoped she was still walking in that direction. She could no longer remember when she had seen the last signpost, or where. She wasn’t at all certain that she remembered why she needed to reach London. The notion had been a nebulous one from the first, born out of desperation and a need to have some direction.
If only she could sleep, just for a little while. There had been no barn to rest in the night before, and the ground had been cold and damp. And now it looked as if there would be no protection again this night. Exhaustion blurred her senses and froze her mind more thoroughly than the ice did her toes.
As the gloom of the forest gathered around her, Faith clung to the sight of the wall along the road. The stones rose higher now, and the thorns had become thick brambles beneath which mounds of dirt concealed burrows for rabbits and other creatures of the forest. Faith tried to imagine herself as a rabbit covered with fur, snuggled warmly deep inside that cozy bank of earth, and envied the animal its home. If only she could snuggle close to that wall and sleep until the cold and the night passed.
As she tripped once more, it became increasingly evident that she would have to lie down and sleep somewhere. She hadn’t the strength to move her feet or lift her head, and even keeping her eyes open was a struggle she had begun to lose.
Just a little while, she vowed. She would curl up beneath the bank for just a little while. Sleep was impossible to find anymore, but she had to rest, and perhaps if she pulled her toes up beneath her cloak she might begin to feel them again. The thought became more appealing as the sleet beat down harder and the barren trees offered little cover against the wind.
The pale glimmer of broken stone offered the opening she needed. Someone or something had broken through the ancient rock, leaving a littered trail of debris and a cut through which one small, forlorn waif could wriggle. Faith never hesitated. Perhaps the Lord had sent this blessing as a sign that things would improve.
She no longer believed her father’s ecstatic promises of wealth beyond her dreams to be had in the kingdom of heaven, but she had to believe there was Someone still looking after her, or she couldn’t go on. She had lost all else in the world; she would not give up her beliefs.
As she wrapped her mud-colored cloak around her and knelt behind the barrier of the wall to say the prayers she had said every night of her life, the wind blew over her head and left her frozen body alone. For this, she gave grace. Then, thoroughly exhausted, she rolled up in an indentation of earth between wall and forest floor, placed her small bundle of possessions beneath her head, and closed her eyes and prayed for sleep.
It never came easily. To keep at bay the horrifying images that haunted her dreams, Faith tried to imagine the future. She had mistakenly thought she could find employment along this road. She knew herself for a hard worker, but there didn’t seem to be a Christian soul in all of England willing to part with a few coins or even a hot meal for a day’s work.
Had it not been for the aid of her father’s parishioners, she could not have come this far. She closed out thoughts of her father, for they only led to that ugly morning… Faith squeezed her eyes tighter and tried to concentrate on where her plans had gone awry. If she could only find her faults, perhaps she could correct them and things would improve on the morrow.
She knew her father’s parishioners had offered her coins only to hasten her way out of town. She did not have the experience to know whether it was their own guilt they tried to ease or if they truly wished the best for her, but those coins had kept her from the workhouse, at least.
She tried not to judge them too harshly for not offering a home instead of money. They were poor, desperately poor, with more mouths to feed than any could provide. Her father had tried to show them the road to righteousness through the methods of hard work and discipline taught by John Wesley, but work was not easily come by these days. The gin on a Saturday night eased the bleakness. Faith knew all that, and she tried to keep her father’s lessons in her heart.
But it was damnably difficult to feel kind toward others when your toes and fingers were numb and your belly was empty. At first she had sought out other Methodists. Wesley had taught to give until it hurt, and her father had followed these precepts, sometimes to the detriment of his own family. She had discovered other followers were not quite so eager to accept this particular lesson.
After a few days of starvation, Faith had not been quite so choosy in her search of employment. She applied at houses large and small, to the good Church of England believers and to nonbelievers alike. There had even been a few secret papists, but she had come to realize religion was no indication of Christianity. The few Good Samaritans who had actually given her food or money or a place to sleep came from all ranks, and they were few and far between.
She sighed as her stomach gave a hollow rumble, and she tried to find a more comfortable position amid the rocks and mud. Exhaustion wasn’t enough to ease her mind to sleep. Every night she lay still and questioned where she had gone wrong. Should she have been humble? More proud? Should she have begged for work? Insisted? Should she have cried and told her tale of woe? Should she have lied and given some tale of her wealthy family in London?
She never found an answer. She simply quit confronting anyone. By now she looked like any beggar. If people hadn’t cared before, they would care even less now. She had learned that much in these last few weeks.
She refused to cry. The tears would freeze, in any case. She would make it to London somehow. Surely, in all that great city, there would be room for one small girl willing to work her fingers to the bone for a right to live. Perhaps, when she was strong again and could buy good clothes, she might inquire about the families she had never known. Perhaps. They had turned their backs on her parents, so there seemed little hope that they would acknowledge her, but she so desperately wanted a family again….
The tears were gathering beneath her lids, and Faith forced them away with images of the rabbits in their burrows. Mayhap London was just the other side of the woods.
The rattle and creak of the mailcoach racing dangerously over the frozen, rutted road jarred Faith back to wakefulness sometime later. It must be earlier than she thought for the coach to still be abroad, but the darkness of the storm had the same effect as nightfall.
She curled tighter in her cloak and wished she could be squeezed on the wooden bench between all those warm bodies packed into the lumbersome vehicle on its way to London. Undoubtedly there was an inn down the road where they would stop for the night. The innkeeper would bring them big mugs of hot toddy and steaming bowls of soup and seat them before a roaring fire. She could almost feel the heat of the flames, and her eyes closed drowsily at the warmth creeping through her veins. Tomorrow, perhaps, she would reach that inn and apply for a position….
The sound of gunshots and screams, neighing horses, and violent curses jerked her awake once more. Fearing the nightmare had returned, Faith forced her groggy senses to search the darkness.
“Stand and deliver!” roared through the wind’s wail. Highwaymen!
Voices carried on the wind: the whining complaint of women, the angry and helpless protests of men, and the resonant commands of the thief. She had known these woods concealed the dregs of society, but she had thought herself safe enough, since she had nothing they could want. It had never occurred to her that she might act as witness to their illegal acts.
Faith gulped as another shot rang out and a woman screamed. If only there were something she could do, but she knew there was not. Her fingers wrapped in the wool of her cloak as she tried to shut out the sounds. They could not be too far away. There could be thieves all along this wall, just waiting for some movement to betray her presence.
She had no gun, no strength, no means but prayer of fighting their depredations. She prayed fervently, if not coherently. Please, God, do not let those poor people be harmed, deliver them from their enemies, let me live another day.
The sound of racing hoofbeats came closer, and Faith stared wildly at the wall, praying its shelter would conceal her from the horrors of the road. The wind rattled the barren branches of the trees, and the icy sleet began again, pelting her with tiny shards that pierced like knives where they hit her face.