The Captain, the Professor and the Highwayman

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
matthew is a hero but has spent the last few years avoiding his home, where far more awaits him than the man who raised him.

Submitted: May 13, 2016

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Submitted: May 13, 2016

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A shivering Matthew knocked tentatively with numb hands on the familiar oak door. His complicated feelings about coming here were smothered by the simple desire for refuge from the driving rain. It had already soaked his coat and shoes and was probably now seeping through his skin. Autumn had clearly come with a grudge to settle after the year’s abnormally long summer, and now it was keen to make sure all kindness was forced out of the weather the moment it had the chance. It was only the 2nd of October, but it felt like they were on the verge of winter already.

A large oak door swung open in answer to his knocking and a voice gave Matthew some warmth, at least to his heart.

“Matthew!” cried the considerably drier figure standing in the doorway. “Get in my lad, before you start swimming!” Matthew gladly took the Professor’s extended arm and stepped into the fire-lit kitchen, his body drizzling autumnal waters onto the wooden floorboards. Beginning to voice an apology for the mess, he was cut short when a shadow suddenly darted across the room and he staggered backwards as a small girl leapt full pelt at him, throwing her arms round his neck in exuberant embrace.

“Olivia!” he gasped, winded by the impact of her greeting. “My goodness you’ve grown!”

The grey-haired Professor laughed as he closed the door, his smile so wide that it was threatening to split his face in two. “She has missed you much, Matthew! We both have.”

Matthew chuckled but felt distinctly uncomfortable as he allowed the bright-faced girl to drop back to the floor. He tensed a little as the Professor pulled him into an embrace, and he caught hints of the old smell of smoke that used to permeate the Professor’s workshop.

“Can I get you anything?” the Professor asked after releasing him. “Tea? Cider? Mead? I’m afraid Olivia and I have already eaten but there’s a little stew left in the pot.”

“That would be wonderful, and a tea sounds perfect” Matthew replied shortly, taking off his sodden leather coat and watching as Olivia snatched it gleefully, hanging it on the wall next to her own. It seemed so strange to see her again, and so changed. “How old is she now?” Matthew voiced, baffled that she was not exactly the same as the day he left her.

“Nine years old… and still as mute as when she was born,” the Professor said with a ghost of sadness passing across his face, but then it quickly vanished. “And I love her more every day.”

“What of her parents?” Matthew asked, though he knew the answer already.

“Still no sign of them,” the Professor sighed, busying himself with lighting the stove.

Matthew sat down by the fire, unbuckled his sheathed sword and pistol, and turned his attention to the flames. Olivia sat on the floor next to him, her head nestling into his leg as if he were a favourite pillow, long-missed.

“And what of you!” exclaimed the Professor, summoning a new wave of joviality to himself. “Where have you been all this time, my dear Matthew? It has been, what, three years and a summer since you last left us. You were headed far north, but surely you cannot have been there all this time – the trouble there settled some two years back!

Yes. Matthew knew this. He left on a quest with a band of heroes. He didn’t return. He barely wrote. He didn’t send the man who raised him any news of his wellbeing or whereabouts. And no matter how delighted the Professor might seem to see him again, the question of ‘why?’ lingered between them like an unpleasant stranger – one that Matthew had no desire to introduce. 

Matthew kept his eyes on the fire as he prepared to recite some kind of an answer to this inevitable question, “Well… there were so many disputes up there, even after the battles were over. Then there was the business with the marauders at the eastern ports. And then the brigands in the red mountains.”

“Quite a lot to be getting on with,” acknowledged the Professor, his arthritic hands shaking a little as he poured hot water onto some old tea leaves in a pot for two, “but why didn’t you write? I received a letter a week after you left, then a month after that, then three months after that and no more!”

Matthew hesitated, he wasn’t sure of the answer himself. He had wanted to write at first. But everything he had been doing had seemed so important, and everything else felt like such a distraction. He didn’t want to appear soft to his new companions. Sure, they wrote letters themselves, but to women and lovers, not to old men and little girls. He had been ashamed to write to them for his friends’ sake, and then ashamed to write because it had been so long. Silence can feel impossible to break after time.

“…I.. I’m sorry Professor, I should have written… I should have come by; it was just difficult.”

The Professor walked slowly over and sat down in an armchair, and Matthew was relieved to see his face was still full of affection.

“Are you okay Matthew?” the Professor asked.

Matthew left hand flinched almost imperceptibly except to himself. Was he okay?

“Of course I am.”

“You look exhausted.”

Matthew laughed nervously, “Well of course! I’ve been all over the country, and I’ve come halfway across it to get here.”

The Professor’s eyes narrowed, but then he seemed to let the issue drop and lent back in his chair. “Well it’s wonderful to have you back anyhow. I’ve got three new projects on the go in the workshop – even the beginnings of a contraption that can travel through the air! Not that it’s succeeded mind you. But I’m sure with your intuition applied to it we can –“

“I haven’t come all this way to work on your experiments!” Matthew snapped quickly. The Professor looked visibly hurt by the plainness of this comment, which Matthew regretted, but he couldn’t bear the Professor talking as if he had come back to be his assistant again.

“No,” whispered the Professor. “No, I suppose you haven’t, and I wasn’t really expecting you to stay, I just thought you might want to give them a look; and for you to see some of our old inventions again.”

“Well I can’t stay long Professor,” Matthew replied stiffly, feeling ashamed of his anger, but hating the thought of being treated like the child he once was. He was what? Twenty years old now. He wasn’t the boy who built the Professors’ toys anymore.

At this last statement, Olivia, who had been becoming increasing restless on the floor next to him, jerked away and stared at him. Matthew avoided looking in her eyes. Olivia felt things deeply, and the news of his soon-departure struck something like betrayal to her. “It’s okay Liv,” he said quickly, trying to placate her, “I’ll be back soon.” But he knew that was a lie, as did the Professor, and Olivia was far less trusting of his promises than she used to be. There was a time when she believed every word Matthew spoke to her, and it distressed him to see her old nature changed so.

The Professor got up, hobbled back over to the stove and slowly poured out the tea; black liquid landing in cool china. He ambled back with both tea and a bowl of stew, his expression unreadable. Matthew remained tense in his chair as the Professor sank back into his own, passing over the offerings of his hospitality to Matthew, who took them with discomfort, no longer feeling hungry.

“So…” began the Professor, then sipped his tea and allowed the word to linger a little on its own, “I understand Matthew, I really do.”

Matthew’s shame rebelled a little at this, “What do you mean?” he pressed. “What do you understand?”

The Professor leaned forwards, with gentleness sparkling like tears in his eyes, “You’re still angry at the highwayman who murdered your parents on the road all those years ago.”

The floor caved in. Matthew was falling, flailing into the deep. The world around was loud and silent; a mute girl crying out within his chest.

Matthew stood throwing both tea and stew from him, china and pewter smashing against the fireplace where the flames taunted him from behind the safety of an iron grating.

Olivia ran from him to the far side of the room. The Professor remained in his armchair.

“Do you think that’s what I’m doing!” decried Matthew, his throat constricting and becoming hoarse. “Do you think that I’ve been fighting criminals and bandits because of something that happened fifteen years ago? I’ve been trying to do something that actually means something with my life! I’ve been –

“Afraid,” interjected the Professor. “Afraid that you are never going to find a real family; afraid that your anger is consuming you every time you go to fight; afraid that your companions and the man you call ‘The Captain’ are realising that something is wrong with you and that you will no longer be a part of their group.”

Matthew stared incredulously at the man who had known him for most of his life. How did he…

“My dear Matthew,” the Professor smiled sadly, “Just because you didn’t visit or write to me, doesn’t mean I’m not going to be keeping an eye on the boy I love like my own son.”

“You’ve been… spying on me?” Matthew asked, his body trembling a little in the aftermath of his rage.

“Call it what you like. I’m not going to let the boy I raised for twelve years have no-one but a bunch of glory-crazed heroes looking out for him. I hired a man called Gabriel to follow your group and join them if he could, partly so he could watch out for you and partly so he could tell me any news about you that you weren’t writing to me about – which turned out to be everything.”

“Gabriel is your man!” exclaimed a horrified Matthew. Gabriel had been Matthew’s best friend for the best part of the time he’d been away, joining the Captain’s band shortly after him. They had both been learning the ropes, and Gabriel had always been kind to him where the others might be scathing in their jokes and sarcasm. It was unthinkable that he was relaying everything he heard and knew back to the Professor.

“I don’t need you keeping watch on me,” levelled Matthew, acute embarrassment pressing in his stomach.

“But you do need help with your anger,” returned the Professor gently.

Matthew shook. His insides contorted. This is what he had been afraid of, that the Professor would see what a vile monster he had become; scaring even little Olivia. But at the same time, he could feel white fury pulsing through his limbs. He didn’t need the Professor. He was a follower of ‘the Captain’, one of the Brigade of Heroes. He had changed the face of the world, ended tyranny and made wrong things right. The Professor built toys in a glorified shed. Who was he to instruct him?

The room before Matthew faded in and out of focus. One moment, he was in the house he loved for many years, with the Professor sat before him like a phantom of the past. The next he was a child running from a cloaked and hooded man in black. His parents were calling his name but he could not see them or get to them. The man in black pulled out a pistol.

“Matthew.”

He came to. The Professor was standing now, his eyes locked with Matthew’s. His irises were two shades of brilliant blue with strikes of gold. The Professor pulled out a pistol. No. That was a dream; a nightmare from his youth.

“Matthew.”

The name came like the music of a flute over fields stained with red. The Professor’s arms were around him now and Matthew found that he didn’t fight them…

“Matthew,” whispered the Professor. “You don’t have to protect yourself from not being protected. You don’t have to strike fear into the hearts of all highwaymen to be safe from them. You don’t have to cut yourself off from those who love you to protect yourself from losing them. You’re safe Matthew. You’re safe.”

The room was awash with a strange feeling. Matthew stood in a world that had collapsed and rebuilt. His anger was ebbing, more than ebbing, leaving. A little mute girl with warm hands took hold of one of his, leaning her head against his side.

The highwayman stood beside the fire, his pistol still cocked, but not aimed. He was a boy leaping across rocks in a stream with his father; his mother laughing and snorting from the bank. The highwayman raised the pistol, pointing it at the trio huddled together.

Matthew forgave him.

 

 

 

The Captain paced the ground impatiently; his followers were all gathered to him, awaiting his instructions. All except one.

It was not like Matthew to be late. And this was later than late. Three hours had passed since Matthew had pledged to be back in his company. Reluctantly the Captain had given him leave to visit a professor who was some kind of useless toymaker. Usually he might consider sending a small party to discover if harm had befallen one of his own, but he knew well enough that Matthew needed no babysitting. He had seen him surrounded before. He had seen him fell twenty armed pirates like they were mere saplings before the lumberjack’s rage. It was the rage he was worried about. Matthew was becoming increasingly a liability, and the Captain was one step away from calling quits on him, albeit from a safe distance. He wondered whether now was a good opportunity to do just that.

Moments before the Captain gave the order to leave without Matthew, he arrived.

“Captain,” Matthew acknowledged, bowing his head.

The Captain of the Brigade of Heroes narrowed his eyes. “Well…?”

“I’m afraid I can no longer be part of your company sir.”

Everyone, especially the Captain bawked. They knew that Matthew’s place in their company was in jeopardy. No one expected him to leave voluntarily. No one had ever chosen to leave before. They had only left through death in battle. Only Gabriel, sitting quietly with a pipe in hand, felt he knew something of what had taken place.

The Captain, while offended, rejoiced inwardly at this sudden answer to his problems.

“Why do you wish to leave?” he asked Matthew, careful not to let show his relief.

“I’m going to be helping my old friend in his workshop.”

The Captain’s eyes glazed over. He shook his head. “I don’t understand –what - that old professor?”

“I don’t want to fight for you anymore sir.”

“Because… you want to make toys?”

“Inventions, sir”

The Captain smirked. Members of the company who felt brave enough to mock Matthew exchanged glances and grinned.

“I had no idea you were so clever Matthew,” the Captain exclaimed in an exaggerated tone. “You’d better get to it. Toy making is important work! And, well…” he caught the eyes of his men who were sniggering quite obviously now, “You’ve clearly found your place in the world.”

Matthew walked away from the Brigade of Heroes, ignoring the sneers and gestures, acknowledging only Gabriel, who saluted him and then joined him in walking away from the others. This show of friendship subdued the taunts of the company for a few moments before someone called out, “Going to be a toymaker too eh, Gabe?” More laughter.

Gabriel handed Matthew a pipe and he took it gratefully. Nothing of what just happened had been easy. Matthew couldn’t pretend he wasn’t pissed at how they had treated him. But he wasn’t in a blinding rage. And that difference was worth all the scorn in the world. He turned to Gabriel.

“Did I just throw away my life Gabriel?”

“Yes,” he replied with a smile, “I think you did. What made you decide to?”

Matthew laughed and found himself surveying the sky, cleared of yesterday’s storm and displaying a brilliant inviting blue. “There’s a contraption that an old friend of ours has been making. It can fly through the air- not that it has succeeded mind you – but I intend to help him make it work.”


© Copyright 2017 Samuel O Whitlock. All rights reserved.

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