London: Newgate Prison
“God in heaven, set me free!”
Lady Cassandra Briarcliffe collapsed in the rotting hay as the cell door of Newgate Prison slammed closed behind her.
“Less than a full day at Newgate and already ye be stirrin’ trouble.” The voice of Dowerty, the gaoler, came to her through the small grille set in the heavy door. “Now listen to me, ye fancy slut. Had ye give them whores in the common cell what they wanted, ye’d not have been roughed up. Ye’ll be safe enough alone in here till mornin’. Then the magistrate can decide what’s to be done with ye.”
He watched, eyes narrowing in interest, as the girl crossed her arms self-consciously to shield the naked expanse of her throat and upper bosom from his gaze. Her complexion was as white as the silk undergarments she wore. A skinny bit of goods, Dowerty thought. But then, his tastes were easily accommodated to need. And the luxuriant fall of dark chestnut waves down her back made him think of wrapping his broad body in it while he …
Dowerty reined his thoughts in reluctantly. That kind of thinking would keep him from finishing his rounds, and he had rounds to finish. But later …
Raising tear-brilliant eyes to the figure blocking the peephole, Cassandra said, “Please, sir, I beg you, a blanket against the dampness of the evening.”
“Damme!” came the answering coarse chuckle of the turnkey. “Damme, but ye’re a proper one! A voice what could turn a swell’s head. Mebbe there is somethin’ to the rumor ye’re a gentlewoman. More like, ye’re an actress.” The gaoler turned the key in the grate. “Mind yer manners, me genteel slut, and ole Dowerty will be back afore midnight to do right by ye. I’ll be findin’ ye a scrap of blanket, too—if ye please me.”
Without another word, he slammed shut the peephole in the door, closing out the meager hall light that had illuminated the cell.
Her head ached and she was out of breath, so Cassandra did not at once rise from her knees. The long thin silk shift that covered her would not keep out the damp chill that crept from every corner. The brown velvet traveling gown she had worn was gone now, lying in shreds on the floor of the huge common cell that served for men and women prisoners alike. She had not known what the women wanted until they began pulling at her. “A ticket of admission,” that was what one woman cried at her. They wanted her to pay a penalty for having been thrown into the same cell with them. Wild with fright, she had fought them, knowing in this stinking dampness she would surely catch pneumonia and die. In the end they had bested her, one holding her face in the foul hay scattered on the floor while the others tore the gown from her. Soon they were fighting over ownership among themselves and the gown was ripped beyond use.
Frightened laughter rose and caught in Cassandra’s throat. She had possessed nothing when brought through debtor’s door three hours earlier; now she had even less.
She squeezed her eyes shut, curling slender fingers against the drumming at her temples that had plagued her all day. A shiver of fear chased a chilly ripple up her slender spine. She was a prisoner in Newgate, a prison whose name was a byword in the farthest reaches of England, and she could remember neither her own name nor that of any soul she called friend.
“No, no!” she whispered silently, uncurling her fingers to hide her face in her hands. If only the pain in her head would cease she might think, might remember the events that had brought her here.
Outside the tiny barred window of her cell the bump of a cart and stumbling clomp of a horse’s hooves broke the silence as the minutes passed. Slowly memory wafted about her, as real yet intangible as the London fog outside the walls. The breath of the moors seemed to seep into the stench that permeated the prison, teasing her memory with the soft, damp smells of peat and heather.
She raised her head, eyes searching the darkness as if the clues to her present misery were stealing into the room’s black corners. If only she could recall a single name she would not feel so frightened.
Faint stirrings of recall skirted her thought. Horses. Yes, there had been horses, a coach and pair. Other memories stirred and she remembered a man, a beautifully handsome man, a fairy-tale prince with hair brighter than the sun and eyes as clear a gray as the sea off the Devonshire coast. Long ago he had entered her life, offering love where once there had been only disdain and indifference. His name was …
Cassandra moaned under her breath as the memory failed. It was like a candle flame’s death: a gentle flicker, a sputter, and then darkness.
Beyond the doorway all was silent. The chattering and swearing and raucous laughter of the common room were locked away for the night. But the morning, what would it bring?
She shuddered, not needing light to tell her that she was pale and bruised as she rose to her feet and brushed the straw from herself. Where the weals on her arms made by the brawling women had bled, filthy decaying bits of straw stuck to her skin.
She had been too frightened and hurt to think properly when she had been ushered before the London magistrate on charges of vagrancy. Unconcerned for her discomfort and fright, he had ordered her placed in Newgate until the matter could be pursued.
Cassandra bowed her head and gritted her teeth, fighting the panic that rose like bubbles in her mind. If her memory had not betrayed her she might have fabricated a lie which would have set her free. If she could only recall the name of … of …
Again the tantalizing sensation of memory curled through her thoughts. She had been running when she struck her head and the confusion began. Running away.
The thought was so swift and certain Cassandra moaned under the weight of the knowledge. She had been in flight, not from but toward a man who meant safety and love.
Suddenly aware of her surroundings once more, she strained against the pain behind her eyes to find a chair or cot, but nothing would reveal itself to her eyes. This blackness was not like the invisible cloak of night. The smoky shadows seemed to writhe and breathe before her eyes, alive with a malevolence that sent fresh terrors skidding along her spine.
A shadow scurried past her, the claws of its tiny feet rustling the hay. Rats! Cassandra leaped for the door with a shriek.
The rodent, terrified by the disturbance, turned and rushed again across the open ground. As it passed the source of the scream, it brushed human flesh.
Her second scream came quickly, freeing the panic like bubbles from a bottle of champagne, and it was followed by another and then another.
At the far end of a corridor a man lay in the darkness, not for lack of candlewax or oil but for lack of interest. It was not an unusual attitude for a man who was to be hanged outside debtor’s door with the dawn.
He was tall, six feet in his stockings, and with the lean, wiry physique of a fencing master. All that spoiled his elegant figure was the concentrated power of a professional brawler in the broad shoulders. The face was too harsh for handsomeness, the nose long and blunt-ended. The left eye was covered by a patch, but many found the gaze of his single green eye too direct for comfort. Coal-black hair covered his head, thick and wild, a memento of his gypsy ancestors. It was a face which reflected reckless daring and spirited passion. Yet always about him was an air of self-possession and a hardened contempt for life’s vagaries.
Sprawled on his bed of newly purchased linens, Merlyn Ross reached for the new brandy bottle that rested on the floor by his cot. The rattle of the iron fetters that encircled one wrist and leg and held him chained to the wall reminded him too well of what the dawn would bring. He muttered a curse in the rich, deep voice that had once earned him a living on the stage and, setting the bottle against his lips, swallowed deeply.
After a long moment, when the level of the rich amber liquid had dropped an inch in the bottle, he set it down. It felt good to be drunk, he thought, a bitter smile settling on his wide, firm mouth. Not that he was drunk yet. That was his intention before the night had spun out its final hour. He had paid a small fortune to spend his final night in comfort and ease. When they came for him at daybreak, he would be as drunk as any lord. He would need that false courage to play the boastful unrepentant sinner on the morrow. He meant his final hour to be the best bit of acting of his checkered, sometimes nefarious life.
A low rumbling chuckle issued from Merlyn’s lips. The irony of his last night lay like molten lead within him. From the age of reasoning he had known he was destined to die by the bullet or the gibbet. A man born of a whore and subjected to the worst life had to offer could entertain no other thought. But it should not have been like this.
Merlyn touched the patch that covered his left eye. Few knew that behind it lay a perfectly good orb. It was a secret that was at once a bonus and a liability.
Twenty years earlier the secret had brought him to the attention of a nobleman who had taken him, a filthy little thief, from a village street and brought him to live in his London residence. Under the dilettante’s protection, he had learned to ape the manners and speech of a gentleman, losing his rough country accent as easily as his grime. Only later did he learn that the nobleman’s largess had a price tag.
Merlyn sat forward suddenly with an angry oath. It was still too sore a spot to probe and he’d as soon not think on it. It was not his last betrayal, but it taught him to never again trust a living soul.
He had taken the nobleman’s lessons and put them to use, as both an actor and a thief. By these means, he had moved from the life of a cutpurse to that of the most accomplished jewel thief of London. His touch with a gentleman’s purse strings had equaled the delicacy of an art. With it he had once slipped a diamond necklace from the throat of a most sensitive lady. He preferred stealing from wealthy ladies. They wore their wealth on display, no need to wonder the worth of the item. Sometimes it had been accomplished during the dance figures, at others during a genuine enough passionate embrace in the shadows beyond a ballroom.
Merlyn smiled in self-amusement. He was good, he did his work quickly, deftly, and always without the nastiness of violence. That luck he owed to his many disguises.
None thought to look behind the powdered peruke and black silk eyepatch of the Comte de Valure for the culprit. To be sure, the comte’s finances arose from a source altogether mysterious and apparently inexhaustible. There was speculative talk of the comte’s many holdings in New France, and veiled jealous references to dealings with the fearsome pashas of the infidel Turkish Empire, but none entertained a thought for the true fount from which sprang his monies.
Merlyn’s smile widened as the brandy sang warmly through his veins. For the last six years he had passed through the elegant salons of London Town known as the bewigged aristocrat, the Comte de Valure. To his acquaintances of Covent Garden, he was the tall, black-haired actor known as Merlyn Ross. To the criminal element of the city he was known as the pockmarked petty thief named Old Jack. No one suspected that the three were one and the same.
Merlyn chuckled. That was the great jest. His condemnation to the gallows had nothing to do with his disguised lives. It had come from an altogether too common source of a man’s fall.
Who would have thought he would find his death for the ill luck of having bedded a petite amie with a jealous protector?
Merlyn reached for the bottle again. He had been drinking that night, too. If not for his belief that they were safely tucked away from the eyes of Bella’s mysterious lover, he would never have stayed so late with her. Neither would he have remained afterward drinking at the public tavern below the room they had shared. The Bow Street Runners had arrested him as he sat drinking. The murderer was clever. The witnesses swore that only he had entered Bella’s room that night.
The distant screams were slow to penetrate Merlyn’s consciousness. The sounds of Newgate were well known and seldom given heed. But, as they continued to reverberate down the long empty corridor, the quality of their despair drove Merlyn from his self-contemplation.
He sat up to an accompanying clink of his chains and strained an ear. There was nothing gin-soaked or coarse about these clear high notes of hysteria. It must be the young woman’s first visit to Newgate.
For a moment something close to sympathy stirred in Merlyn’s breast. Spurred by that unfamiliar emotion, Merlyn moved as if to stand, but the chain around his wrist caught in a kink and stopped him. Frowning, he looked down at the proof of his own helplessness. The raw strength that gave him a catlike grace coiled in rebellion against the reminder of dawn. Anger quickly replaced the weakness of sentimentality as he jerked the chain straight, uncaring for the sharp pain that shot up his arm.
Easing back into a comfortable sprawl, Merlyn let the anger pricking him fuel his resentment toward the unseen young woman. Was he to spill tears for every young scrap of life who found the moment too much to bear? He had only hours left of his own life. Why should he give up his comfortable stupor for any soul?
As his long-fingered fists curled tightly a stray flicker of light from the burning taper on the wall opposite his door caught upon the stones of the heavy gold ring he wore. The light slipped into the emerald, radiating like an icy fire from its depths, then shot through its mate, a huge sapphire that burned deep as blue flame.
“How are ye holdin’, guv’nor?”
Merlyn raised his gaze slowly to the pair of eyes peering into the gloom of his cell. “A good evening to you, Master Fletch,” he intoned in the aristocratic voice that had so pleased the ladies in his disguise of the comte. “You will forgive me if I do not rise. The privilege of the condemned, I believe.”
The biting sarcasm was lost on Fletch, the evening turnkey. It was all of a same to him. The only difference between hangings was seeing how the “gaol bait” passed his last night. This particular prisoner was a mystery. He was Jack Commoner for the court records because he refused to give his real name. It was not important. The woman he had murdered was just a slut and her protector did not want the publicity a sensational trial would have brought. Quietly and quickly the man had been tried and found guilty. Rumor said he was a thief, but none would confirm it. The London underworld had its strange code that looked to its own. If Jack Commoner wished to remain an enigma, it was his right.
No matter, thought Fletch as he rubbed his runny nose on his coatsleeve. Commoner would die just like all the other Jacks and Johns and Jamies who passed through the condemned cells.
The turnkey reached for the ring of keys that he wore at his waist. The weight of the metal felt good in his hand. The small pieces of iron were worthless in and of themselves, but because they fit the locks of the doors along this corridor, they gave him a power the world should never have been obliged to give a man of his birth and drinking habits.
“Just givin’ a look-see, guv’nor,” the turnkey explained as he pushed the cell door open and raised the candle he carried.
“Douse your damnable flame!” Merlyn roared, throwing up an arm to shield his eye, sensitive after weeks of confinement in the shadows.
Although the command sent a shiver of disquiet through the turnkey, he did not pinch the flame until he had looked his full. The prisoner was dressed in a full-sleeved shirt, unfastened nearly to the waist to reveal a mat of fine black chest hair. One well-muscled leg lay sprawled out before him while the other he had drawn up to rest on the mattress. He appeared to be in a half stupor, but it was hard to tell when a man wore an eyepatch, Fletch decided.
But of most interest to the turnkey was the bottle of French brandy that sat on the floor by the prisoner’s foot. Greedily his eyes marked the level of liquid still remaining and saliva filled his mouth in anticipation of a swallow.
“Most ever’ bit o’ coffin meat to sit these condemned cells goes out debtor’s door his head so full o’ spirits he never feels the halter’s embrace. Leastways, with the lucky ones that’s so.”
Fletch took a step toward the prisoner, not because he wanted to get any nearer the man with the cropped wild black hair of a gypsy but because the lure of the brandy bottle was stronger than his superstition in that moment.
“Wouldn’t serve, now, was ye to come out crowin’ tomorrow. Folks might git the wrong idea, like me and the other turnkeys is given to takin’ bribes and such.”
He edged a little nearer, his eyes constantly moving between the lounging prisoner and the bottle. “Best let old Fletch share a spot with ye. Folks is expectin’ a proper hangin’, come the mornin’. Wouldn’t want a riot on account ye spoiled things for the crowd. Ye have too much of the devil’s spirits in, ye’ll not strut up the steps o’ the scaffold like ye promised.”
Merlyn let the man come close enough to touch with an outstretched hand, but he did not move until the turnkey bent to grasp the bottle. Then his action was swifter than the poor gaoler had thought possible.
One moment the cool glass of the bottle was under Fletch’s fingers, the next he was dangling in air, his feet six inches off the ground as the prisoner lifted him up by a handful of his shirtfront.
“’Tis not polite to help oneself without asking,” Merlyn said in a deadly whisper, ignoring the violent struggles of the man who was beginning to choke. “A condemned man is to be left in peace on his last night. I will have peace, one way or—”
The woman’s screams began again, suddenly, whipping Merlyn’s attention toward the open door of his cell. “Who the devil is that?”
Fletch, finding himself released, sank bonelessly to his knees. Immediately he gained his feet and staggered toward the door, out of the reach of the prisoner’s chains.
“Hold!” Merlyn called after the turnkey and bent to scoop up the brandy bottle. He waved it enticingly at the man. “Wasn’t this what you wanted?” His smile grew cunning. “Who’s the woman?”
Fletch pulled himself up straight, tugging his long red coat with the brass buttons into order, but his rummy stare never left the bottle. “That’d be the young lady they brought in this afternoon.”
“Why is she here?” Merlyn took the cork but of the neck and poured a small amount between his lips before giving a satisfied sigh.
It was all the prompting Fletch needed. Speech poured out of him. “Wanderin’ the road north o’ London, she was. Got no purse or jewelry or nothing. Says she can’t even remember her name. The magistrate locked her up in the debtor’s cell till inquiries is made. ’Cept, guv’nor, ye knows well as me, she ain’t lost. More like she’s come for to enter the trade. Mother Tess is makin’ her rounds after—” The turnkey swallowed, unsure that he should mention the hanging again. “Leastways, she’s young enough for Mother Tess to take an interest in.” Fletch cackled with laughter. “She didn’t like above half givin’ her gown to them bawds in the common room. She’s got a bit o’ spirit.” He winked at the prisoner. “Dowerty says he’s goin’ to have a look for himself, just to make certain.”
Merlyn’s expression did not alter. The turnkey’s snickering meant only one thing. Dowerty would rape the girl before turning her over to Mother Tess, one of the most notorious madams in the district.
“Is that why she’s screeching, because Dowerty’s in there with her?”
Fletch shook his head, the long greasy locks of his hair trailing over his coat collar. “Not a bit o’ it, guv’nor. The lady’s scared. Reckon she ain’t familiar with the inside o’ a prison cell. She’s the kind I seen set up to a champagne breakfast in a tavern window across the way to watch some poor blighter kick at a rope’s end. A real genteel whore.”
Merlyn said nothing for a long while. So long, in fact, that the turnkey began to shuffle anxiously in the doorway. Finally, Merlyn raised himself up to his full height, and the look in his one good eye made the turnkey fall back another step.
“You asked me how I’m holding, Master Fletch. I’ll tell you, not well. Aye, I’ve had a bath and a fresh change of linens, brandy and a full belly. But there’s one appetite left me.” He leaned nearer, his one good eye glittering like the icy emerald on his finger. “I want the girl.”
Merlyn felt no compunction about his action. The girl probably earned her keep as a slut. If not, he was merely claiming the right to teach her the skill Mother Tess would demand of her. There were worse ways to learn the trade.
He stretched out the hand with the brandy bottle until the length of chain around that wrist checked him. “Bring me the girl, Fletch, and you’ll have your brandy, and gold besides. I want her untouched. If Dowerty’s been at her, then our bargain’s off. I’ll not have another’s leavings. Understood?”
Fletch nodded rapidly. He had earned a pretty penny bringing the prisoner brandy and tallow; the girl should earn him even more. All he had to do was sneak her out of her cell before Dowerty was any the wiser. If the chief gaoler found her missing, he could always say he didn’t know the girl had been marked special. Besides, Jack Commoner offered gold for her.
Fletch reached for the brandy, to have it drawn back from his reach. “How’s a body to know ye’re to be trusted?” he complained. “This here is Fletch ye’re dealin’ with. I know what’s o’clock, guv’nor, and I’ll be takin’ somethin’ handsome for me trouble.” His avaricious gaze dropped to the magnificent ring the prisoner wore.
Merlyn smiled, a steely cold smile to match the chilling fire of his green eye. “Would a thousand pounds open these fetters and set me free?” he demanded.
“A thou—” Fletch’s tongue stammered to a halt as a delirious, delicious moment of pure greed shivered through him. The greed died quickly. He had seen the color of the prisoner’s gold before. The man did not possess the means in hand, and he doubted a note to the outside world could procure the coinage before morning. His greedy eyes weighed the ring’s gold. The ring alone was not worth the risk.
“Sorry, guv’nor. Ye know as well as the next ’tis a dozen barred doors ’twixt here and freedom. Was I to be caught, they’d string me up beside ye, quick as light.”
Fletch shook his head with a regretful sigh. ’Twas not fair, a thousand pounds offered when he could least afford to gamble on it. A sulky look further drooped his thin features. “Should’ve asked sooner, guv’nor, afore the case came before the courts. Ain’t much a thousand pounds couldn’t buy, not then.”
He turned on his heel, dragging the cell door closed behind him until he remembered that Commoner had offered him gold for the new female prisoner. A smile flickered on the turnkey’s face. It would not be a thousand pounds, but it would be enough to buy a few more bottles of brandy. “Ye still of a mind for the lady, I’ll see to it,” he called as he turned the key in the lock.
Merlyn flung himself back among the bedding. He knew what the turnkey thought. The irony of it was he did have the thousand pounds. They were sewn into the lining of the velvet coat he had worn when arrested. He had not thought of it before because, until this night, he had not truly believed that he would die. A tremor close to fear rippled through him. It was not death he abhorred but the thought that only jackals would profit by it.
Merlyn looked down at the ring on his hand. The emerald and sapphire jewel was his talisman, the key to his secret lives. The gold meant nothing, but he would swallow the ring before he left it to ride the bloody hand of the hangman.
He eased his heavy frame lower in the bed, realizing the girl’s screams had subsided. It had been a long time since he had felt a woman beneath him, even longer since he had truly enjoyed it. What would she be like, this wandering lady of the highway? Perhaps, he thought, raising the bottle yet again, she could make him hate less his impending loss of the world. He had been too little loved in this life. It was the grudge he bore the world. It was all he would regret in dying. But he was not a man given to wasting precious hours in bitterness. He would take what was offered and ask nothing more.
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