Warnings See part 1.
IN THE SHADOW OF TYBURN
The day was overcast, but after the gloom of Newgate the light was still dazzling. Kate halted to let her eyes adjust. A stave thwacked against her back.
"Move along, Milledge," ordered Simpkins. "Haven't got all day."
"Should have let me out of these leg irons then."
Kate shuffled forward, taking an appreciative breath of fresh air as she did so, before noticing that most of those present in the Session House had nosegays pressed to their noses. The perception of fresh air was relative, it seemed. Or perhaps it was just that the prisoners stank. She grimaced down at the stained shirt and breeches she had been wearing since she was caught three days ago.
As she took her seat on one of the prisoners' benches, she glanced round the covered outdoor court. The Old Bailey had been half-empty yesterday, at her arraignment, when she had heard the charges against her and with tongue firmly in cheek pleaded 'not guilty'. Today it was full. But trial proceedings always attracted a larger audience, especially when highwaymen were involved.
"All rise for the Queen's Justice," cried a court official, and everyone got raggedly to their feet as a corpulent man in a full wig and black robes arrived and took his seat.
"That's Judge Turnley," muttered John Figg, who was sitting two along from Kate. "He don't like snafflers." The coin-clipper glanced at her. "'Specially the female variety."
"Quiet!" Simpkins shot Figg an annoyed glance.
Kate shrugged and, when everyone else sat, resumed her seat. The charges against her were so serious that it would make little difference who the judge was.
Turnley began to speak. While he droned self-importantly on about the solemn duties and responsibilities of citizens in general and jurors in particular, Kate let her gaze drift round the Session House, over the twelve jurymen, yawning and picking their noses, the correspondent of the Post Man, whose pencil was at present motionless, and the gloating figure of Samuel Josselin. She curled her lip at the thieftaker, whose smile broadened.
The spectator's gallery was packed. She scanned the crowded rows, stopping with a jerk. Rebeccah!
The young gentlewoman was sitting in the second row, next to her mother, her fair head bowed. There was no sign of the young man who had escorted her in St James's Park. What kind of a suitor is he, not to lend her his support in such circumstances? As if she could sense Kate's regard, Rebeccah raised her head and their gazes locked. Green eyes widened and Kate wondered if Rebeccah's heart was pounding as hard as hers, and if her own lips had curved into a smile.
She felt honoured and humbled that Rebeccah had come to see the trial. A felon like Kate did not deserve such consideration. But whether the young woman's presence in the Session House this morning was a good thing or a bad was debatable. The charges of highway robbery laid against Kate could surely come as no surprise to Rebeccah, but one other charge would: murder. Josselin had done his homework, Devil take him!
Afraid it might tarnish your image as her knight in shining armour? taunted an inner voice. That she will see you as you really are?
I'm not that person any more. She must know that, mustn't she?
Must she? How well do you two really know each other? Kate studied her clasped hands. It doesn't matter which version of you killed him anyway, continued her taunter. They're both going to hang.
She shifted on the hard bench and the woman sitting next to her grumbled.
Anyway wouldn't it be better for Rebeccah if she despised you? She wouldn't have to grieve for you, then. You're just being selfish.
The truth of that stung. But perhaps Rebeccah would find comfort for her grief in the arms of her suitor...
Movement brought her back to her surroundings. Rebeccah had cupped a palm to the top of her head, and was frowning in query. Kate mirrored the action, fingering the egg-sized lump. The swelling was reduced but it was still a little tender; thankfully the blinding headaches had gone. She removed her hand and gave a reassuring smile. Rebeccah's frown eased.
"Bedded 'er yet?"
The low-voice drew Kate's attention to the woman sitting next to her. "What?"
"'Er." Deb Wordwand nodded at Rebeccah.
"Mind your own business."
There had been little else to do in the Hold except gossip. Word that 'Blue-Eyed Nick' preferred women had spread quickly and been met with indifference, disgust, or, as in Deb's case, prurience.
Deb chuckled. "That means you ain't." She scratched her broken nose. "They say you never regret the things you 'ave done, only those you ain't."
"I don't give a fart what they say."
"Quiet!" hissed the turnkey.
At least I'm only facing hanging, thought Kate. Until Deb's drunken husband took to beating her black and blue, she had been quite pretty. In the end she'd had enough of his abuse. But stabbing him to death would probably get her burned at the stake, though at least these days the executioner throttled you first with a cord.
The Queen's Justice wound up his preamble, adjusted his wig, and said, "Call the first prisoner, please."
An usher glanced at a slip of paper, cleared his throat, and shouted, "The court calls Judith Ferren to the dock."
At the turnkey's urging, a middle-aged woman in a shabby brown dress rose from the prisoners' bench, shuffled over to the dock and stood there, head bowed.
Kate already knew the charges against most of her fellow prisoners and listened with one ear while keeping her eyes on Rebeccah.
The court heard that the accused specialised in the 'question lay'. Dressed as a milliner, she would call on persons of quality on the pretext of having brought 'something for the lady of the house' gloves and fans were the usual bait for Judith's trap. Then while the maid went to fetch her mistress, she robbed the unwatched parlour and made her getaway. Her final haul, from a house in Soho Square, had been plate worth £50.
It was a straightforward case. The witnesses were educated, reliable, and to the point, and the jury came to its verdict quickly: Guilty. Judith Ferren's shoulders sagged, and the turnkey had to help her back to the bench. Sentence would be passed on her tomorrow, when the Queen's Justice would pronounce his judgement on them all in ascending order of severity.
One by one the prisoners rose and took their places in the dock, heard the indictments against them and the testimony of witnesses both for and against, and if inclined, argued in their own defence. The jury deliberated quickly, sometimes taking mere minutes to reach a decision, then their foreman rose to give their verdict, his words sometimes drawing groans from the spectators, sometimes jeers and catcalls. Throughout, the correspondent of the Post Man licked his pencil stub and scribbled, his eyes brightening at every juicy titbit.
Walter Ashwell was found not guilty of embezzling since it was obvious to everyone that he had, he must have bribed the jury. The rest of the prisoners weren't so fortunate. James Leaver was found 'Guilty' of attempted sodomy; if he was pilloried in Cheapside, he could expect near fatal injuries. Also guilty was John Figg; Phebe Woolley the T branded on her cheek meant she could expect to hang this time; wart-afflicted Isaac Minshul, who was a surprisingly big man for a burglar; foul-mouthed footpad Jemmy Powell; blacksmith Dick Barnes, who had accidentally killed his young apprentice; and sixteen year old Ned Lando, whose theft of three shillings would see him flogged at the cart's tail. As expected, Deb Wordwand was found guilty of petty treason.
Then it was Kate's turn.
"I call Catherine Milledge," called the usher, "otherwise known as the 'Blue-Eyed Nick' to the dock."
Here we go.
A buzz went round the Session House at the highwayman's name and the correspondent of the Post Man straightened in his seat, pencil poised. Kate stood up and shuffled her way over to the dock, leg-irons clanking. Aware that every eye was on her, including a pair of fine green eyes in the spectator's gallery, she squared her shoulders and held her head high.
"Before I read the list of indictments against the accused, " said the corpulent Queen's Justice, his expression grim, "let me state that, while the more ignorant among us may hold the view that highwaymen are romantic and dashing figures, I do not. They are no better than the other thieves that infest our cities and highways. Such ruffians are not 'gentlemen of the road' but leeches on society and deserving only of our deepest contempt. Like vermin, they must be exterminated."
His gaze swept round the court before returning to Kate. "As for this particular highwayman, 'Blue-Eyed Nick'," his lip curled, "why, the accused is not even a man, but a woman disguised as one! ... What kind of a example does this set impressionable womenfolk?" Kate returned his glare with one of her own.
"According to records, the accused escaped justice once before," continued Turnley, addressing the jury. "She must not escape a second time." The foreman nodded and the correspondent's pencil scribbled.
"The indictments against you, Catherine Milledge," the judge turned back to Kate, "are many and serious. Twelve counts of highway robbery more still could be laid at your door, I'm certain and one of cold-blooded murder." The spectators gasped, and Kate fought an overwhelming urge to look at Rebeccah. Had her expression changed to one of horror and disgust?
"Call the first witness."
A succession of those whose coaches she had robbed, and a few she hadn't, took the witness stand the Duttons had sent no one to testify against her, she saw with relief. For identification purposes, Kate was handed an eye mask and kerchief and told to put them on. Muttering, she did so. In each case, identification was almost instantaneous.
"Yes, that is the person who robbed me of my diamond and amber necklace," agreed the final witness, an old woman in a black-and-gold mantua, pointing at Kate. "I'd recognise those eyes anywhere."
The fat judge nodded. "Thank you. You may step down." As the woman left the stand, the spectators took the opportunity to mutter, cough, and fidget.
"Now to the final charge laid against the accused: that on the night of October 18th, in the year of our Lord 1694, she did murder Mr Philip Wildey." The Queen's Justice glanced at the usher. "Call the witness, if you please."
The usher checked his list of names. "Call Mary Dan," he yelled. Moments passed then a middle-aged woman on crutches emerged from the crowd.
Kate had not seen the whore since that night, twelve years ago, and time had not been kind. Mary Dan had been quite a beauty; now her ravaged face and crippled gait indicated, to Kate at least, that she was suffering from syphilis. Mary's cheap dress reinforced the impression that she had fallen on hard times.
"In your own words, Mistress Dan," said Turnley, "what was your relationship to Philip Wildey."
"We were to be married, your honour."
The baldness of that lie made Kate blink. Wildey liked nothing more than a good fuck, as his many flashy women would testify nothing could have been further from his mind than marriage. But maybe Mary had truly believed she would be the exception. Kate shifted her weight and folded her arms.
"Then your loss was great indeed," said Turnley. "Allow me to convey my sympathies. ... Now, can you remember what happened on the night of his murder?"
This should be interesting, thought Kate. For, to her certain knowledge, Mary had not been present when she killed Wildey.
"Alas, your honour, my memory of that night is clear and will always remain so," said Mary. "Would that it were otherwise. For I saw that ... that animal," she shot Kate a hate-filled glance, "torture him then kill him stone dead."
Has Josselin paid the whore to perjure herself?
"Mistress Dan." The Queen's justice pursed his lips. "Consider your response to my next question carefully. Could it have been self-defence? Was Mr Wildey trying to kill the accused at the time?"
"No, your honour. Philip's hands were bound and he was unable to defend himself. Yet still she tortured him and shot him through the heart."
A ripple of disapproval spread round the Session House. Kate ignored it. Mary's facts were essentially correct. I knew I should have buried the body.
"And you saw it, you say?" Turnley's eyes bored into the witness. "You saw the accused murder Philip Wildey?"
Mary Dan held his gaze and lied through her teeth. "With my own eyes, your honour. I swear it on my life."
Flickering candlelight cast shadows on the bedchamber curtains. Kate grimaced. From the thrusting, bobbing shapes, her quarry was already hard at it.
It had taken the seventeen-year-old Kate months to trace Philip Wildey's whereabouts, months during which nightmares of Newgate brought her awake, gasping, on far too many nights and the desire to get even made her guts churn. The churning intensified when she learned that she was far from the first to fall prey to Wildey's smooth-tongued charm, to accept his loan of a horse and brace of pistols and be lured into a trap. Because of him eight young highwaymen that she knew of; there were probably more had been taken by dragoons and met their deaths on Tyburn Tree. And Kate had nearly been the ninth.
She had finally succeeded in tracking him down though. These days Wildey went nowhere without his bodyguard perhaps he sensed that he had made one too many enemies. But on Tuesday nights, he liked to spend between 10 and 11 of the clock at Mary Dan's cottage. While Wildey was fucking his pretty whore, his moustachioed, overmuscled thug of a bodyguard, who carried his two pistols permanently cocked, had to wait on the front porch. It was the perfect opportunity and Kate intended to take full advantage of it.
Gusts of wind were tearing leaves from branches and threatening to whip off Kate's hat. It had begun to rain too. She settled her hat more firmly. Far from putting her off, the stormy Autumn weather suited her mood. Tonight she would pay Wildey back. And not a moment too soon.
She pulled a knife from her coat pocket and snicked open the catch of Mary's bedchamber window, which fortunately was on the ground floor. As she eased open the sash, the sound of pants, grunts, and a rhythmic creaking became audible.
"You're so large," came a woman's voice, husky with simulated passion. "I've never had a man as large as you."
Kate rolled her eyes how could any cully believe such ridiculous flattery? and eased herself over the windowsill, placing her booted feet with care so that the couple writhing on the bed remained unaware of her presence. The creaks grew faster.
"Oh, oh, you're such a stud!"
"Get on with it," cried Wildey. "I'm almost there."
Kate took a deep breath. It's now or never. Taking two quick steps past the discarded hat, wig, and coat on the floor, she leaned over, grabbed her victim's ear and yanked back his head. Pressing her blade against his throat cut off his startled protest and made him freeze.
"Why have you st " Mary opened her eyes, saw the menacing masked figure, and gasped.
"Scream and I'll slit his throat," growled Kate. "And what a mess that will make of your fine silk sheets." The whore blinked up at her then closed her mouth.
Kate moved back a step, forcing Wildey to disentangle himself from Mary and come with her. His breeches were round his ankles and he almost tripped. Kate steadied him, then glanced down. Not everything about him was stiff with fear.
"Pull up your breeches. I have no wish to look at that all night." His face flushed but he did as he was told. "Now put your hands behind your back."
She tied his wrists with a short piece of rope from her coat pocket, holding her knife between her teeth as she did so. Then she stuffed a kerchief in Wildey's mouth and took a moment to admire the half-naked whore's attributes.
"Your turn." She pulled out another length of rope, and an indignant Mary was soon bound and gagged.
Kate turned back to Wildey. "Move." She gestured with the knife towards the open sash window. He didn't move, but a thump to his kidneys soon spurred him on his way and he cracked his head on the window frame as he climbed through. The rain was coming down in torrents now, and thunder rumbled overhead.
Taking care to keep him out of the drenched bodyguard's line of sight, she pushed her dazed prisoner towards the stand of trees where she had tethered her horse. Wildey twisted to glare at her, just as lightning streaked across the sky. Perhaps this was the first time he had got a good look at her. Whatever the reason, his eyes widened.
"Yes, it's me." The kerchief hid her savage grin.
He tripped and fell quite heavily. Fortunately, the ground was too soft to do him much damage. Kate dragged her now muddy captive to his feet and urged him on.
The horse shied at the approaching figures, but a few words from Kate soon calmed it. She bound Wildey's ankles, and heaved him over the horse's withers, face down. It swished its tail in annoyance.
"Sorry, boy." She paused to get her breath back. "'Tis just for a little while." She rubbed the horse's nose. "Then we'll get you warm and dry, and some oats inside you. How does that sound?" Ears that had been laid flat back relaxed, and a nicker showed she was forgiven.
"Mph ... fmph." Wildey squirmed in discomfort but Kate ignored him, untied the reins, and mounted up.
Thunder and lightning provided a fitting accompaniment to the pounding of hooves as she rode. The lateness of the hour and the rough weather meant the road was deserted. Wildey grunted every time Kate's knees jabbed into him or the bony withers threatened to drive the breath from his lungs.
It was only a couple of miles to the clearing. She reined in and dismounted, pulling Wildey from the horse without ceremony. He hit the ground with a thump and a muffled cry, then rolled over onto his back, blinking rain from his eyes.
Kate tramped over to the two storm lanterns she had left there earlier, pulled out her flint, and spent a moment lighting them. She straightened and turned to face her prisoner, uncovering her face so he could be in no doubt who she was. "This is where it ends."
Flickering light now illuminated the clearing. Wildey's face went ashen when he saw the halter draped over a stout branch of the oak tree, and the tree stump she had placed directly under it. She pulled the sodden kerchief from his mouth.
"You can't!" were his first words.
He licked his lips. "We were friends once, Kate. And we can be again. Spare me and you can have anything you want. Name it and it's yours."
She pretended to consider. "The lives of Dick Trebeck, Isaac Kerrils, John Grierson," she counted the names off on her fingers, "Walter Lilley, Jim Barker, Ben Comyngs, Ed Lance, and Tate Nolan."
He gaped at her in dismay. "Who?"
"The highwaymen you betrayed ... Oh, but you can't give me their lives, can you? So much for promises." She grabbed him under the armpits and dragged him across the clearing.
"I can get you a free pardon, Kate. I'm a man of some influence. I can " He squawked as the noose settled round his neck.
"Save your breath." She tightened the loop of hempen rope. "It's time to make your peace with God."
Kate didn't bother hooding him, the way they did at Tyburn it was more to spare the spectators' feelings than the criminal's, and she was determined not to flinch from the consequences of what she was about to do. She sliced through the bonds around his ankles, then reached for the free end of the halter. Then she paused, suddenly doubtful. It had been one thing planning this moment, but now that it was actually here ...
Once I do this there is no going back. She glanced at her victim; he was whimpering and the whites of his eyes were huge. But have I not already come too far to go back? For if I let him go now, he won't rest until he sees me hang. She sighed. So be it. She spat on her palms, grabbed the rope, and began to haul.
With a cry, Wildey scrambled up onto the stump, trying to keep the noose from tightening round his neck. When he was fully stretched on tiptoe, Kate tied the free end of the halter securely round the tree trunk.
"For the love of God, spare me!" he choked out. "Have mercy."
Kate remembered the hell that was Newgate, and imagined the fear of the eight terrified young highwaymen who had died at Tyburn. Wildey had not been merciful to them.
He must have read his fate in her face, for his shoulders sagged and he closed his eyes tightly and began to pray.
She waited until he had finished, then said, "May God have mercy on your soul," and kicked away the tree stump.
The noose cut Wildey's shriek short as he toppled. His eyes bulged and rolled up in his head, and his feet began to kick. There were no hangers-on to speed his passage to the next world, no one present except his nemesis. For a moment longer Kate let him strangle, then she pulled the loaded pistol from her coat pocket, cocked it, aimed, and fired.
The streaks of lightning and crashes of thunder had been growing fainter and more infrequent as the storm moved away to the north, and for the first time that night, the wind dropped. A numb Kate listened to the pattering of rain on the leaves and the creak of the rope. For a while she simply stood watching the halter and its macabre burden swinging gently to and fro, then she staggered to the side of the clearing, grabbed a branch and leaned over, and was violently sick.
"And you saw the accused shoot him dead?" pressed Turnley, his gaze intent.
"Ay, your honour." Mary Dan shifted on her crutches and glanced at Kate, her gaze vindictive. "Cold blooded it was. The woman's a fiend incarnate."
"Thank you." The Queen's Justice turned to Kate. "You have heard this witness. Do you have anything to say in your defence?"
"Other than that she is lying? No, your honour." A murmur of disappointment rippled round the Session House. They had expected 'Blue-Eyed Nick' to give them more of a show. Too bad.
People thought a highwayman's life was all glamour and excitement. It had its moments, true there were plenty of bored young women as eager to be bedded as robbed, and Kate had seen her share of rubies and pearls but there was also as much fear and exhaustion as there was exhilaration. How many would envy the long nights spent in the cold and wet waiting for a coach that never arrived, the violent squabbles and brawls when partners fell out, the peril that came not just from the Law but from an unscrupulous rival?
Once, the danger had made her feel alive, but lately ... well, just lately, all the running and hiding had begun to pall. Perhaps she was simply getting too old. They said few highwayman lived past thirty, and it would be Kate's thirtieth birthday in a few months. For a moment she wondered what her life might have been like had she completed her apprenticeship as a seamstress, then she dismissed it with a mental shrug. The point was moot, and anyway, she wouldn't have met Rebeccah.
While the judge dismissed the witness, summed up the case against Kate, and directed the jury to consider its verdict, Kate stared into space, remembering the precious days she had spent in St James's Square recovering from her bullet wound under Rebeccah's tender care. Then the motion of the jury foreman standing up and clearing his throat drew her back to her surroundings. She squared her shoulders and waited.
"Have you reached a verdict?" enquired Judge Turnley.
"We have, Milud."
"Let the court hear it then, and speak up."
"We find the accused, Catherine Milledge, otherwise known as 'Blue-Eyed Nick', guilty on all counts."
A mix of groans and cheers went up, and the correspondent of the Post Man finished his scribbling, rose, and dashed from the court.
"An admirable verdict. You and your fellow jurors have acquitted yourself honourably." The foreman gave a complacent nod and sat down.
Turnley glanced at the prisoner's bench, saw that all had been tried, and gave a satisfied grunt. "Tomorrow I will pronounce sentence. In the meantime," he brought down his gavel with a crack, "remove the prisoners from my court."
Kate blocked out the hell that was Newgate's Condemned Hold by daydreaming. One of her favourites was to imagine herself out riding, the wind in her hair, sun warm on her back, and Clover's hooves drumming across the turf.
The sentencing two days ago had been perfunctory, its outcome entirely predictable she was to hang. She had shuffled back from the Old Bailey to the accompaniment of shrieks, agonised groans, and the stink of burning flesh as the brazier at the side of the Session House was dragged out and the branding got under way. The Keeper had informed Kate that, as was usual, the Court Recorder would send a report of all capital sentences, including Kate's, for review by Queen Anne and her cabinet. But it was but a formality. Kate knew she had not the remotest hope of obtaining a pardon, even a conditional one. The next hanging fair was on Monday, and she could expect to be an unwilling participant.
In a way she was glad her time left was so short. She had merely to get through three more days without going mad from the stench and horror of her surroundings. And how better to do that than by thinking about riding, or Rebeccah's smiling face.
The young woman hadn't been in the public gallery during the sentencing, nor had she been to visit Kate since. And who could blame her after hearing of Wildey's murder?
I hope she has washed her hands of me, thought Kate, even as she hoped no such thing.
A door banged open. Curses and catcalls followed the progress of one of the turnkeys across the hold towards her. Kate squinted at him through the gloom.
"On your feet, Milledge." Simpkins kicked the sole of her illfitting shoe (her own boots had been taken from her when they put on the leg-irons).
She stood, fetters clinking. "What now?"
"Follow me and you'll find out, will ye not?"
Every eye in the place turned to watch the two of them. "She won't let you fuck her, Simpkins," yelled someone. "She plays the Game of Flats." Coarse laughter met that remark. But the turnkey ignored it, and so did Kate.
Outside, she waited while he locked the door behind them with a key from the huge bunch jangling at his belt. Then he turned and pointed down the corridor. She arched an eyebrow, but no explanation was forthcoming, so she began shuffling in that direction.
They had walked only a few paces when he said, "Stop."
She found herself standing outside one of the private condemned cells. "I can't afford this!"
"Just as well it's already paid for, then." He selected another key from the bunch, inserted it, and opened the door with a screech.
The cell was dirty, and cramped, its only furniture a chipped chamberpot, a rickety table on which lay a large padlock, and a chair. But what drew her eye was the small barred window, through which came welcome light and air. Cells with windows cost even more.
She hesitated. If this was some kind of cruel trick, if Josselin had paid Simpkins to dangle the prospect of a private cell in front of her then withdraw it... "Who paid?"
"I said get in." Simpkins shoved her and she stumbled into the cell, then turned and gave him a baleful look. He pointed to the chair, and after a moment she sat. A staple was sunk into the floor at her feet, she saw then, and next minute he was bending down and padlocking her ankle fetters to it.
"My instructions are to make sure you don't escape again," he explained, finishing and straightening with a groan.
Kate gave the fetters a tug, aggravating ankles already rubbed raw. The staple was as solid as a rock.
The turnkey folded his arms and observed her for a moment then chuckled. "I've got good news and bad news, Milledge. Which do you want first?" She shrugged. "The bad news is, we received the Dead Warrant this morning, and your name is on it."
No Queen's pardon then. Hardly a surprise. "And the good news?"
"This cell is yours until you go to get your neck stretched." He walked towards the door.
"But who paid for it, Simpkins?" He grinned and began to close the door. "Who the Devil paid for it?" The key turned with a screech.
"You should see your face." His laughter was muffled by the thickness of the door.
Kate ground her teeth. "Hellfire and damnation, Simpkins!" she shouted. "What harm can it do to tell me?"
The silence lasted so long that she thought he had gone. Then she heard, "A Mistress Dutton paid for your cell, Milledge. I hope you are suitably grateful."
Her heart leaped. "Rebeccah Dutton?"
There was a brief pause. "It says 'Anne' here."
She blinked. "Are you sure?" But this time there was no reply, and she knew the turnkey had gone.
"Turnkey Wryneck will escort you to see the prisoner, Mistress Dutton." The Keeper gestured at the bewhiskered little man with the bunch of keys at his belt who had just entered his office.
"Thank you," said Rebeccah.
"No, Madam, thank you." The Keeper grinned, jingled the money she had given him, then slumped back into his chair. Selecting a legal-looking document from the untidy pile on his desk, he began to read. Rebeccah glanced at the turnkey, who folded his arms and scowled.
"You'll get your share later, Wryneck," said the Keeper, without looking up. The turnkey grunted, unfolded his arms and beckoned to Rebeccah. After a moment, she followed him, hurrying to keep up.
Wryneck turned left outside the Keeper's Office, heading away from the entry gate and into the candle-lit bowels of Newgate. Cockroaches scuttled across the floor, and without breaking his stride, the turnkey crushed one under his heel. The soft crunch made Rebeccah wince, and she lifted her skirts a few inches and tried not to step on anything that moved.
They descended a flight of stairs, then set off along a corridor. Progress was slow. Every few yards, it seemed, yet another locked door or gate barred their way, and Rebeccah had to wait while Wryneck unlocked it then again while he relocked it behind them. The reek of unwashed bodies and piss intensified the deeper into the prison they went, and breathing through her mouth became preferable. It was harder, though, to block out the noises coming from behind the locked doors on either side, the shouting and cursing, the high keening sobs.
"You ain't Milledge's first visitor this morning," said Wryneck, glancing back at her.
"Highwaymen are always popular."
They descended yet another stairs and turned right. In the distance she could hear someone laughing the unnerving, high pitched laughter of the insane.
"The Ordinary was with her for an hour," continued Wryneck. "Getting her life story for one of his pamphlets. Then half an hour ago there was a woman. Crying, she was, even before she went in." He glanced at Rebeccah again.
She kept her expression neutral. "Indeed."
Disappointed at her lack of reaction, the turnkey faced forward once more.
They turned left at the next junction, then right. By now Rebeccah was hopelessly lost.
Coming towards them along the corridor were two figures. In the gloom it was impossible to make out much more than that one was a man, the other a woman. But as the latter drew nearer and passed a guttering candle, Rebeccah caught a glimpse of red hair. There was something very familiar about
With a cry the woman launched herself at her. "It's all your fault," railed Kate's landlady, hands flailing. "Everything was fine before she met you." She caught hold of Rebeccah's hair and pain stabbed through Rebeccah's scalp.
"Let go of me!" She tried to prise open the vice-like grip.
"Oi, stop that!" Wryneck's attempt to help earned him an elbow in the eye for his pains. "Give me a hand, Simpkins," he yelled at the turnkey who had been accompanying Alice Cole.
Simpkins helped his smaller colleague pull the red-haired woman off Rebeccah, but not before he had received a kick in the shins. By now, faces were pressed to the grilles all along the corridor. Rebeccah tried to ignore the muffled shouts of encouragement, hoots, and obscene suggestions coming thick and fast from the excited inmates and retain her dignity. She reordered her hair as best she could and smoothed her dress.
Alice meanwhile was continuing to struggle in the turnkeys' grip. Only Simpkins' slap and threat to lock her in a cell brought her to her senses. She subsided, panting and looking baleful.
"Get that baggage out of here before I do something rash," growled Wryneck, rubbing his bruised eye.
Simpkins gripped Alice none too gently from her exclamation and limped off down the corridor with her. One by one the faces behind the grilles vanished.
"Women!" Ignoring Rebeccah's indignant glance, Wryneck reached for the keys at his belt. "Milledge's cell' is just at the end of this corridor." He strode towards it ; Rebeccah followed. Her cheek stung and she touched a fingertip to it; Alice must have scratched her.
The door they stopped at was indistinguishable from any other. The turnkey selected a key and inserted it in the lock. It turned stiffly and with a nerve-grating screech.
"Visitor for you, Milledge," he called, pushing open the heavy door. "And this one ain't like that last one. She's a lady, so just you behave yourself." He stood back and motioned to Rebeccah.
"Thank you." She took out a shilling and gave it to him. "For your assistance."
Wryneck flipped the coin, then pocketed it. "My pleasure, Madam. You have half an hour. I'll be out here if you should need me. Just shout."
She took a deep breath and stepped inside.
The door swung closed behind her, the lock screeching again, but Rebeccah barely noticed it. Her attention was on the seated figure, and the wide blue eyes fixed on her.
"Rebeccah!" A pleased smile curved Kate's mouth and with a metallic chink she rose to her feet. Only then did Rebeccah realise that the shackles around the other woman's ankles were stapled to the floor.
"Good morrow, Kate."
She took in her surroundings at a glance. The cell was smaller than she had expected, and dirtier, and the draught from the barred window couldn't mask the unpleasant smell coming from the uncovered chamberpot. Lord knows what the Condemned Hold must be like if this was an improvement.
She turned back to a much more pleasant sight. There were shadows beneath Kate's eyes, and she was grimy and unkempt, but apart from that she looked well enough.
"You must thank your sister for the great kindness she has done me," said Kate. "This cell is a godsend."
"Anne will be very glad to hear it. When our lawyer mentioned the possibility of such a thing, she insisted on doing it at once."
"We have been busy these past few days," said Rebeccah a little ruefully.
'Busy' didn't come close to describing it. Her time had been spent on visits to lawyers and consultations with friends and relatives (Caro and her husband had been particularly helpful with their advice), all trying to find a way out of Kate's current predicament. As well, she had had to help nurse a still emotionally fragile Anne (she had at first been plagued by nightmares) and apprise Anne's fiancé of just enough about what had happened to make him sympathetic yet not enough to scare him off. She had had to also help her mother find and hire a replacement for Titus.
"Ah." Kate nodded. "How is Anne, by the way? Recovering from her recent ordeal?"
"She is well, thank you. Improving by the day. She's quieter than she was, and chastened. Still somewhat shaken, I think she has yet to leave the house for any length of time. But we are all very grateful for her escape. And Mr Ingrum is being surprisingly considerate."
"I am glad."
Rebeccah felt in the pocket of her skirts and found what she wanted. Her maid had thought she was mad to bring it, but Rebeccah had insisted. "Have you any use for this, Kate?" She held out the nail. "I seem to remember that once before an item such as this helped you to escape."
Kate took it and started to laugh. "Thank you, my dear. But alas," she pointed at the sturdy padlock and staple, "this time I fear they are beyond its scope."
Rebeccah sighed. "Ah well. It was worth a try." She looked around the cell once more. "Are we to stand for my entire visit?"
Kate grimaced. "I'm afraid there is only the one chair." She pulled it out from behind her with a scraping of wood on stone. "Here. You take it"
Rebeccah was about to do so when a much better solution presented itself. "Keep it. I shall sit on your lap."
The highwaywoman blinked at her then arched an eyebrow. "Nothing would give me greater pleasure." She smiled. "But I cannot remember the last time I changed my clothes or had access to a bath. At close quarters I fear I smell ... less than fragrant."
"Nevertheless. Is it not the most practical solution to our problem?"
With an acquiescent tilt of the head, Kate retrieved the chair and sat down. Then she patted her lap and waited for Rebeccah to make herself comfortable in it. After an awkward moment she did so, smoothing her skirts over her behind before lowering herself rather gingerly.
Kate's hand came up to clasp Rebeccah's waist, making her breathing catch. "Don't want you sliding off," she murmured
Silence fell as each woman adjusted to this new intimacy, Rebeccah acutely aware of the pale blue eyes regarding her from mere inches away. The 'less than fragrant' odour Kate had mentioned wasn't as bad as she had made out, and anyway it paled into insignificance under the barrage of other sensations. The current of attraction that had flowed between them since their very first meeting was as strong as ever.
"Are you comfortable?" asked Kate at last.
"Indeed I am." A belated thought occurred to Rebeccah. "Am I crushing you?"
"You are as light as thistledown."
"We both know I am not, but thank you for the compliment."
Kate smiled, then stroked Rebeccah's cheek with a forefinger. "What happened?"
Her touch made the pit of Rebeccah's stomach flutter, and it was a moment before she registered the question. "Um ..." She had no idea what Kate was referring to.
"You have a nasty scratch. And then there is your hair." Kate tucked a stray lock behind Rebeccah's ear. "Your maid does not usually let you out of the house in so dishevelled a condition."
"Ah." Rebeccah bit her lip. Should she tell Kate about Alice Cole's strange behaviour?
"Come now. Let there be no evasions between us."
Rebeccah sighed. "It was your landlady. I passed her in the corridor outside and ...."
Dark eyebrows shot up. "Alice attacked you?"
Rebeccah nodded. "She seems to think your being in here is my fault." She frowned. "For a landlady, her behaviour is a little ... extreme."
"You did not deserve such treatment at her hands. It is I she should be angry at." Kate looked away. "I treated her badly, Rebeccah."
"Do you owe her rent? If so, tell me the sum and I will "
"It's not that." Ashamed blue eyes met hers. "We were more than landlady and tenant. Alice loved me, and even though I did not return her feelings I ... I took advantage."
Certain things that had puzzled Rebeccah now dropped into place. Her thoughtful silence brought a grimace from the other woman.
"I suppose now you despise me." Kate sounded resigned. "But then, what is one more crime when I have already been found guilty of so many."
Rebeccah was about to answer when a muffled shout interrupted them.
"Twenty minutes, Madam," came Wryneck's voice through the cell door.
The two women glanced at one another, then both spoke at once. "Kate, I came to tell you not to give up " "This is no place for a gentlewoman alone. Why did not your maid accompany you, or your suitor?"
Rebeccah's train of thought was completely derailed. "My 'suitor'?"
"The young man I saw you walking with the other day, in St James's Park."
"Oh! You saw me? ... But that was my best friend Caro's husband."
Kate blinked. "And what were you doing out walking alone with your best friend's husband?"
"She was indisposed. He was there with her full knowledge and permission. He is to look for a husband for me."
Kate's expression was hard to decipher.
"And a hard job he will have of it too. For he rates my chances of success as slim at best."
"Does he think no man would want you for his wife?"
Kate's indignation amused and touched Rebeccah. "No. He fears that it is I who would decline them," she said. "For I am too choosy by half."
The other woman cocked her head to one side. "Are you?"
"Oh yes." Rebeccah held Kate's gaze. "For I have insisted that my future husband must bear an uncanny resemblance, in every respect, to a notorious highwayman known as 'Blue-Eyed Nick'." She paused." Perhaps you have heard of him?"
Blue eyes filled with astonishment. Then Kate chuckled, and her other hand came up and clasped Rebeccah round the waist. "The name is vaguely familiar," she murmured, and Rebeccah found herself suddenly fascinated by Kate's lips which had moved tantalisingly closer.
She was in a noisome cell at Newgate, sitting on the lap of a convicted felon, a woman no less, who, if things didn't work out as Rebeccah hoped, was going to hang in a two days' time. And she had never felt so at home or so alive in all her life.
"I often think of that kiss," murmured Kate.
Rebeccah didn't need to ask to which kiss she was referring. Her cheeks grew warm at the memory. "As do I."
Kate's face drew closer still, and Rebeccah could feel the warmth of her breath on her cheek. Then soft lips were pressing against hers. After a frozen moment, Rebeccah returned the pressure, which turned into a sensual nibbling that brought that fluttering to the pit of her stomach again.
How shocking! she thought. I am kissing another woman. What's more, I am enjoying it very much. But the realisation caused her no distress, and she couldn't seem to bring herself to stop the pleasurable activity. Indeed if Wryneck's muffled shout of "Ten minutes," hadn't reminded her that time was running out she might be there still.
She pulled away. "I didn't come here to be kissed."
The highwaywoman went very still. "Didn't you?" Her hands dropped from Rebeccah's waist.
"Though if I had known how pleasurable it is I certainly would have." Kate's smile returned and so did both hands. Rebeccah resisted the urge to resume where they had left off. "Kate, as I said before, I came to tell you not to give up hope."
The other woman sighed. "Then your journey was in vain, my dear. For the Dead Warrant came this morning, and my name is on it."
"I know. News of it reached us as home. But Mama and I have been discussing the matter with friends and lawyers, and there is one avenue left: a petition of mercy to the Queen."
"She has already declined to pardon me once," objected Kate. "What makes you think you can change her mind?"
Rebeccah interlaced their fingers. "Because it will be presented to her by her closest friend."
Blue eyes widened. "The Duchess of Marlborough?"
"The very same. Do you not remember I told you that she and Mama are second cousins?" Kate's gaze turned inwards then she nodded. "As children they were very close. If Mama asks Aunt Sarah to help her with Queen Anne, she likely will. ... This month the Duchess is residing at Windsor with the Queen. At this very moment, a carriage is waiting outside; Mama and I are to travel there directly I leave here."
"That is kind indeed of you and your family, Rebeccah, to risk jeopardising relations between your family and the Duchess on my behalf."
"It is the least we can do, after the many services you have rendered us."
Kate chuckled. "Such as robbing you of your valuables."
Rebeccah frowned. "Do not make light of your actions. If you had not been on hand to save my sister from Titus's clutches ... Not to mention saving my life."
"You forget you have saved my life once already. You must not be unduly distressed if you are unable to save it a second time."
"How can you say that?"
Kate shrugged. "I am a coldblooded murderer and the time to pay for my crime has come." She became thoughtful
"What are you thinking?"
"That I was certain once you knew what I did to Philip Wildey I would not see you again " She smiled a little uncertainly and bounced Rebeccah on her knee. "Yet here you are."
"At first I did not know what to think, it is true. I feared I had misjudged you. So I asked Mary to find out all the facts of the matter." Her maid's contacts were sometimes unsavoury but frequently useful, Rebeccah had found. "What you did was indeed shocking, Kate. But it was also understandable." She regarded the other woman with compassion. "You were seventeen, and the man you trusted had betrayed you. Because of him the dragoons beat you near to death. And if you had not escaped from Newgate, you would have been transported or hanged." Kate blinked at her. "In some circles, folk still feel that Wildey got what he deserved."
"Not respectable circles, I'll wager."
Rebeccah smiled. "Perhaps not," she conceded.
"Five minutes," yelled Wryneck.
"Maybe it is selfishness on my part," continued Rebeccah, "but I am glad that it was Wildey who died and not you." The earnest sentiment earned her hands a warm squeeze. "Given the right circumstances, do we not all have the potential to be felons?"
Kate's smile was sceptical. "I do not think you could do anything unlawful."
"Then you'd be wrong. For only a few days ago I tried to bribe a Queen's Justice." Rebeccah sighed. "For all the good it did."
Blue eyes widened. "Judge Turnley?"
"The same." The memory of his derisive laughter was still raw. "Had it been anyone but a female highwayman" (and one who loves women) "I think he might have taken it too. You might now even be facing transportation rather than the noose."
"Then I am glad he did not accept," said Kate. "For transportation would have taken me away from you as effectively as hanging."
Rebeccah blinked then pressed a kiss on Kate's cheek. When she pulled back, Kate was regarding her gravely.
"Will you do something for me?"
"If your petition of mercy should fail in spite of your aunt's entreaties, and no pardon is forthcoming "
"Don't say that!"
"My sweet, you must not get your hopes "
Rebeccah silenced her by pressing two fingers to Kate's mouth. "I mean it, Kate."
Kate sighed and waited for Rebeccah to remove her fingers. "Very well. I have sold a version of my life story, such as it is, to the Ordinary. My share of the proceeds from the pamphlets he sells should be enough to pay for my coffin and any debts incurred during my stay here "
Rebeccah stared at her, aghast. "Your coffin!"
" with a little left over," continued Kate, doggedly. "I have dependants. There is a woman named Jane Allen who cares for my mother. And Eliza Wagstaff her boy is my brother Ned's son. Lord knows it will be little enough to keep them off the street but ...." She trailed off, eyes pleading.
Rebeccah pressed Kate's hand. "Write down their addresses and I will make sure the money reaches them," she managed round the lump in her throat. "And if they should have further need of anything, I will see to it that they get it."
"God bless you!" Kate raised their clasped hands and kissed Rebeccah's fingers. "I will rest easier knowing that."
"But it will not come to that," insisted Rebeccah. "You will be here to take care of them yourself."
The screeching of the lock made both women glance at the door. Kate kissed Rebeccah quickly on the mouth, then stood, tipping the startled younger woman off her comfortable perch. By the time the door had swung fully open Rebeccah was standing at a respectable distance from Kate, and looking, if not as well groomed and dignified as she would have liked, then at least nonchalant.
"Time's up," said Wryneck, giving both women a sharp glance before beckoning to Rebeccah.
She nodded and walked towards him. At the door she halted and looked back.
"I will see you soon," she told the seated woman. "Do not give up hope yet, I beg of you."
Kate smiled gamely. "I'll try."
The door slammed shut and the carriage lurched into motion before Rebeccah was ready. She regained her balance, then with Mary's help began to straighten her dress and smooth her hair.
"I take it you saw him ... I mean her," said Mrs Dutton, over the clatter of hooves on cobblestones.
"Yes, Mama. The Keeper allowed me the full half hour.... Ow! You're stabbing me, Mary."
"Beg pardon, Madam." The plump maid readjusted the hairpin, then, from somewhere about her person, produced a pot of face powder and dabbed some carefully over Rebeccah's scratch.
"Is she well?" continued Mrs Dutton.
Rebeccah grimaced. "The term is relative. Kate is as well as anyone can be in Newgate."
Mrs Dutton gave Rebeccah's knee a pat through her skirts. "Well you have nothing to reproach yourself for, my dear. For you have done as much as you are able for your friend, indeed more than most."
Rebeccah gave her mother a sharp glance, but saw that the remark was innocent. It had upset Mrs Dutton to learn that her youngest daughter had nursed an injured felon under her roof without her knowledge, but in the light of subsequent events her hurt had proved fleeting. It was probably just as well, though, that she was unaware of the true nature and depth of her daughter's feelings for that self same felon.
The carriage's three occupants were flung first one way then another as it swung to the left, then right, before straightening. Once they were out of London the route would be more straightforward but progress would be slower. It was only twenty-four miles to Windsor, but the terrible state of the roads meant it might well be nightfall by the time they reached their destination. By then she would no doubt be aching and headachy from the clatter and constant jolting, and envying her frail sister's reluctant but in the circumstances prudent decision to remain in London.
"I sent a messenger ahead," said Mrs Dutton, "to warn your Aunt Sarah we are coming." Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough wasn't Rebeccah's real aunt, of course, but it was easier to call her that than find a suitable appellation for a mother's second cousin.
"What if she is busy entertaining other guests, Mama?"
"Then we will have to put up at an Inn close by until she can find a moment to see us. We shall cross that bridge when we come to it, Beccah, but I doubt it will be a problem. For the Great Lodge is in all likelihood spacious enough that she can spare us a chamber or two even if she is entertaining."
"Do you really think she will help us?"
Her mother smiled. "I don't see why not. And with her assistance ... well, you know how the Queen dotes on her."
Indeed Rebeccah did. It was common knowledge that Queen Anne was besotted with the charismatic Sarah Churchill, though it was also rumoured she had cooled a little towards her of late. The Duchess was but the latest in a long line of female favourites, and for a moment Rebeccah wondered if the monarch might be like her and Kate. Then she remembered the Queen's amiable consort, Prince George, and the brood of children (none of whom had survived) that had resulted from their marriage, and dismissed it as idle fancy.
Mary produced her sewing bag, pulled out a square of white silk destined to become a pocket mouchoir, and began to sew. She caught the direction of Rebeccah's gaze. "I have brought the cards with me, Madam. If you would rather play..."
"Thank you, Mary. Perhaps later. For now I am content to admire the view."
Rebeccah settled back in her seat and gazed out the window. They had reached the outskirts of London at last and open fields and woods stretched on all sides. But she was soon insensible to the beauty of the passing landscape. Her gaze was turned inwards to those moments when she had sat on Kate's lap, the other woman's hands around her waist, returning her kiss. And if either Mary or her mother noticed her enigmatic smile and were curious as to its cause, they had the good sense to keep it to themselves.
"Are your rooms to your liking?" The Duchess of Marlborough gestured to the serving woman that she should pour the tea and offer biscuits.
"Indeed they are, your ladyship. Aren't they, Beccah?" Rebeccah nodded and took a high backed seat next to her mother at the tea table. "We are greatly in your debt. I regret having to impose on your hospitality at such short notice, but "
"'Your ladyship'?" The Duchess's eyebrows rose. "We have always been Sarah and Elizabeth to one another, have we not?"
Mrs Dutton visibly relaxed. "That is kind of you, Sarah. Thank you." With a smile, she accepted a porcelain dish of tea.
There was a brief pause, during which Rebeccah listened to the logs shifting in the fireplace and the caged nightingales trilling in one corner of the spacious drawing room, then her aunt said, "I was sorry to hear about Mr Dutton's death last year."
"It hit us all very hard," agreed Rebeccah's mother with a sigh. "We miss him terribly, don't we, Beccah?" Rebeccah nodded. "But we are slowly growing accustomed to his absence.... And how is your own husband? The War must be keeping him from home more than you would wish."
"Indeed it is ..."
In Rebeccah's opinion, the famous Duke's absence was more than made up for by his many portraits throughout the Great Lodge, so she tuned out the reply and bit into a ratafia biscuit. She had hoped for something more substantial, but this would have to do until supper.
Discreetly, she eyed the Duchess, of whom she had only the most vague memories. Sarah must be in her late forties now, but you'd never guess it from her appearance. Her unblemished face had no need of patches, and her reddish-yellow hair was as lush as ever probably due to the daily wash in honey-water she gave it, according to Rebeccah's mother.
Sensing her scrutiny, Sarah turned to regard Rebeccah. "But enough of my news. How old are you now, Rebeccah?"
"Indeed! You were only a tiny thing when I last saw you. It was that visit to us at Syon House, was it not?" She looked at Mrs Dutton who nodded. "A mere scrap of a girl you were, then, your petticoats in tatters, dirt on your cheeks so unlike your sister. Ran your poor maid ragged." Rebeccah's cheeks grew warm. "You took a fancy to the patch of garden we called 'The Wilderness', I remember. You were always to be found there, up one tree or another."
Rebeccah blinked as a long forgotten memory of gnarled trees surfaced. They had seemed to spear the sky and, for whatever reason the challenge of the ascent, or the view from the top (sometimes she would daydream that the sky was the sea and a dashing pirate captain, who, come to think of it, looked remarkably like Kate, was coming to carry her off) she found climbing them irresistible.
"One night you refused to come down. Said you were going to sleep up in the 'crows nest', whatever that was. In the end your poor father himself had to climb up and fetch you down." Aunt Sarah chuckled. "And look at you now! Every inch the elegant young lady." She cocked her head to one side and assessed Rebeccah. "A little on the short side, mayhap, but you have a good figure, fine eyes, and a passably pretty face."
Passably pretty! Rebeccah wondered whether to be pleased or insulted.
Her aunt turned back to her mother. "I'll warrant young men flock round her like bees round honey." Since nothing could be farther than the truth, Mrs Dutton wisely kept silent.
The Duchess sipped her tea. "And how is your oldest girl doing? Anne has not come with you, I gather. She is not ill, I trust?"
"She has been a little unwell of late, but she is fast recovering. ... Other matters keep her in London. She is engaged to be married soon and there are preparations to be made."
"Indeed?" Sarah clapped her hands together in delight. "High time too! My four girls were all married in their teens and have thrived on it." She looked complacent, as well she might considering the advantageous matches she had contrived: two of her daughters were now Countesses, the others Duchesses. "Do I know the groom?"
"I doubt it. His name is Frederick Ingrum."
For a while the conversation continued in this vein, the two cousins catching up on family news and gossip, and then at last, etiquette and politeness satisfied, the conversation turned to the matter at hand.
"Now, about this errand that has brought you so precipitously to Windsor, Elizabeth," said the Duchess. "Your note said only that it concerns Rebeccah and requires my help." She pursed her lips. "Do you require me to find her a match perhaps?"
"Um, no," said Mrs Dutton. "It is a horse of quite a different colour."
"Indeed?" Aunt Sarah looked intrigued. "Pray enlighten me."
"We are here to ask you to use your influence with the Queen. We desire you to ask pardon for an ... acquaintance of ours." Mrs Dutton gestured to Rebeccah, who extracted the petition of mercy from the pocket of her skirts and held it out.
"'An acquaintance'," repeated Sarah. "How very mysterious." She took the folded document and opened it, her eyes widening as she read the contents. "Good Lord!" she murmured. Then a little later, "A highwaywoman!" When next she looked up, it was with open astonishment and not a little distaste. "Why should a respectable family like the Duttons concern themselves with a creature like this?"
Rebeccah bridled at the remark, but had the good sense not to say anything.
"I take it, from your fierce expression," continued the Duchess, fortunately not taking offence, "that there is more to this than meets the eye, Rebeccah. If I am to help you, my dear, you must tell me everything."
So with a nervous glance at her mother and a deep breath, Rebeccah did so, not only detailing the many occasions on which Kate had come to the Duttons' aid but also other good deeds, in particular the purchase of freedom for several debtors in the Fleet (a cause she knew was dear to the Duchess's heart, as Sarah's own father had been a bankrupt). And if in the process she omitted the strong attraction she felt for Kate, who could blame her?
"Well I never!" said the Duchess, when Rebeccah had wound down and the only sound in the drawing room was the crackling of the fire and the nightingale's sweet song. "If I hadn't heard it from your own lips, I would have thought it a play. Thank heavens your sister is recovered from her ordeal! That fellow Titus, was it? deserves to be flogged." She shuddered. "If such a thing had happened to one of my daughters ..."
She retrieved the petition of mercy from her lap and read it once more, her expression thoughtful. "This is just the sort of tale that would touch the Queen." Her expression became wry, self-deprecating. "Passionate friendships between women have always appealed to her." Then she sighed. "But alas, this is bad timing indeed! If only you had come to me yesterday."
Rebeccah's heart sank.
"Why, what is the matter?" asked her mother.
"We had a falling out this morning and the Queen is still irked with me. ... Oh don't look at me like that, Elizabeth. It is not my fault. Indeed I put up with her for as long as I could. But sometimes she is most tedious." Aunt Sarah's expression soured. "All she can talk about is her wardrobe, her lapdogs, and her husband's asthma. It's enough to try the patience of a saint."
She caught the direction of Rebeccah's nervous glance. "Oh, you need have no fear that our words will reach the Queen's ears, Rebeccah. We may speak freely in front of Betty. She's been with me since I was a girl, haven't you, my dear?" The silent serving woman smiled and nodded. "But you see my dilemma? With the Queen in her current temper, if I were to plead your friend's cause it would do only harm." The Duchess pursed her lips. "We must wait a few days. By then the Queen will in all likelihood have forgiven me and "
"But Kate is to hang on Monday!" blurted Rebeccah, before subsiding with a blush.
The Duchess blinked at her and exchanged a glance with Mrs Dutton. "Then there is only one thing for it." She grimaced and got to her feet.
There was a little mahogany writing table and chair to one side of the drawing room, and Aunt Sarah made herself comfortable there, selected a fresh sheet of paper, dipped a quill in the ink well, and began to write. Her handwriting was large and flamboyant, and Rebeccah could make out the letter's appellation if she squinted: 'My dear Mrs Morley'.
How strange! The logs shifted, the pen scratched, and the nightingale warbled. Rebeccah's gaze drifted around the drawing room, resting on the blue and white porcelain ornaments on the chimney piece for a moment before coming back to the Duchess.
With a flourish, Aunt Sarah signed 'Your devoted friend, Mrs Freeman' (the Queen and her favourite must have pet names for one another), sprinkled sand on the wet ink and tapped it off, creased the letter into sharp folds, and addressed it.
"There. ... Betty." The serving woman came forward. "Ask one of the footmen to take this to the Castle as a matter of urgency."
Betty accepted the letter, curtseyed, and hurried out.
With a swish of her skirts, the Duchess rose and came back to join Rebeccah and her mother at the tea table. There was still some tea in the pot, so she poured herself a fresh dish. "I have eaten humble pie," she announced melodramatically. "Something that always disagrees with me. I hope you are grateful."
Mrs Dutton opened her mouth but Rebeccah beat her to it. "Oh, we are indeed, Aunt. Thank you, thank you."
"This is but the first step, my dear," cautioned the Duchess, but she was smiling. "For we must wait to see if the Queen is willing to forgive me at once or if I must be made to suffer a while longer."
A profligate number of candles illuminated the faces of the Duchess and her guests, who were sitting round the supper table.
There was still no reply from the Queen, much to Rebeccah's dismay. She had sated her hunger on slices of venison game was plentiful in Windsor Great Park followed by some cheese and fruit, and was now sipping a cup of sack-posset that her aunt's butler had prepared, hoping the hot mixture of eggs, wine, and spices would soothe her jangling nerves.
The murmur of conversation stopped as the door opened and a footman entered carrying a silver salver on which lay a letter. The Duchess took the letter, opened it, held a candle close so she could read its contents, and scowled.
"It seems I am not to be forgiven just yet."
Rebeccah's heart thudded. What exactly had Aunt Sarah said to the Queen to cause her to turn on her favourite? It was inconvenient, to say the least. Time was ticking, and with it were going Kate's chances. The thought of the shackled highwaywoman depending on Rebeccah alone to save her from the gallows was daunting, and she couldn't hide her downcast mood.
"Don't lose heart yet, my dear," said the Duchess. "I shall just have to cram down another mouthful of humble pie." She glanced at the ornate clock on the chimney piece. "With luck the Queen will relent tomorrow. There is still time for you to save your friend."
With that she signalled to Betty to bring pen, paper, and ink, and right there and then on the white linen table cloth, she dashed off another flamboyant missive to 'Mrs Morley'.
Rebeccah shifted on the hard pew, trying to get comfortable. She hadn't felt like attending church this morning, but her mother thought it better to keep occupied rather than wait aimlessly at the Lodge. The Duchess had told them that on Sundays the Queen breakfasted and then attended a private service in the Castle Chapel, so there would probably be no reply to her letter until after that at least.
Mrs Dutton had sent for the carriage and ordered it to take herself, Rebeccah, and Mary to the little church in Windsor. Aunt Sarah didn't join them. She might not be on speaking terms with the Queen, but as a courtier of some importance (not only was she Duchess of Marlborough, she was 'Groom of the Stole', 'Mistress of the Robes', 'Keeper of the Privy Purse', and 'Ranger of Windsor Great Park') she was still expected to attend the private service.
The sermon was dull and unoriginal, so Rebeccah tuned out the parson's nasal drone and let her thoughts wander. If the little man in the pulpit could have read her mind he'd have been scandalised. She began by savouring that kiss with Kate, then progressed to wondering what exactly it was that two women did together in private. The kiss seemed to have unlocked sensual feelings of which she had previously been unaware, and though still slightly shocked to learn about this side of herself, Rebeccah was rapidly coming to terms with it. Inevitably, though, the tenor of her thoughts gradually darkened, and once more the question nearest to her returned whether the highwaywoman could survive the savage sentence due to be carried out tomorrow morning.
Suppose the Queen is so upset with Aunt Sarah she doesn't forgive her in time. Suppose she does forgive her, but she declines to grant the petition anyway. Suppose ... suppose ... Bless me! I told Kate not to give up hope, but just suppose ...
The gruesome image of Kate strangling on Tyburn Tree was too horrific for Rebeccah to contemplate without feeling agitated and sick so she forced it away and surfaced to hear Mary on her left and her mother on her right saying, "Amen."
"Amen." She rose to her feet with the rest of the congregation, and if she did not actually sing the words to the next hymn, she mouthed them creditably enough. It was a relief when at last the service was over, and she and her companions were free to board their carriage and drive back through the Park.
They were almost at the Lodge when they saw Aunt Sarah striding back from the Castle in what appeared to be high spirits. Rebeccah and her mother exchanged a puzzled look, then Mrs Dutton banged on the roof and ordered the driver to stop. She and Rebeccah alighted, leaving Mary to travel on alone.
"Good morning, my dears." The Duchess greeted them with a smile then closed her eyes and tilted her cheeks towards the sunshine. "Isn't it a lovely day?"
"Is it?" wondered Mrs Dutton.
"Indeed it is, Elizabeth. For the Queen snubbed me."
Rebeccah's mother's eyebrows rose. "And this fact pleases you?"
"Oh yes. For now she has had the satisfaction of humiliating me in public, she will be able to behave magnanimously towards me in private."
Rebeccah blinked at this convoluted logic but said nothing. The Queen and Aunt Sarah must by now be more than familiar with each other's quirks. And sure enough, the Duchess had judged the situation correctly, for they had been back at the Lodge barely half an hour before a panting footman arrived from the castle, bearing a message from the Queen.
The Duchess broke the royal seal and read the contents. Then she chuckled and looked up. "We are to attend the Queen at once."
"We?" Mrs Dutton paled.
"Alas, not you, Elizabeth. Rebeccah and I."
Rebeccah gaped at her aunt. "The Queen wants to see me?" The last word came out as a squeak.
"Indeed," said the Duchess. "So you'd better get that plain-faced maid of yours to help you look respectable, my dear, and be quick about it. We leave in ten minutes."
Rebeccah's heart was in her mouth as she climbed the turret stairs to the royal boudoir Queen Anne favoured a room above the Norman gateway of Windsor Castle. It was just as well Rebeccah was wearing gloves, or her damp palms would have smeared the ink on the petition of mercy. Courage, she reminded herself. You are doing this for Kate.
"What shall I say to her?" she asked the Duchess who was one step ahead of her.
Aunt Sarah turned. "Lord, child! You're as white as a sheet." She chuckled. "She is not a monster. Just speak when you are spoken to. Answer her questions, but do not babble." She halted at a door, smoothed her skirts over her hips, then rapped the door sharply. It swung open to reveal a maid. She was obviously expecting them, for she curtseyed and stood back.
The room they entered was polygonal with lots of windows, but its light and airy feel was spoiled by the clutter of furniture. A tiny chestnut-coloured dog scurried towards the two women. Rebeccah flinched but it merely sniffed the toe of the Duchess's shoe with a wet nose, yapped a greeting, then raced back to its mistress, scrambling up into her ample lap.
Rebeccah had seen paintings of the Queen but none conveyed how poxed was her face, or how obese she had become. Must be due to her gout, poor thing. At her elbow stood a small table, on which lay all the condiments for Bohea tea.
"Mrs Freeman," Queen Anne stroked the dog with fat fingers.
"Your Majesty." The Duchess curtseyed, and after a frozen moment, Rebeccah copied her.
"And is this your niece?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
The Queen fed a ratafia biscuit to her pet. "Come forward, child."
Rebeccah did so on shaky legs. She tried to stand straight under the regal gaze, which, she saw now, was more of a squint.
"You have something for me?" prompted the Queen.
Rebeccah remembered the piece of paper in her hand. "Y... yes, Your Majesty."
The maid appeared at her elbow. Rebeccah gave her the petition of mercy, which she in turn transferred with a curtsey to the royal hand.
Queen Anne unfolded the crumpled petition, smoothed it, and read its contents. There was no sound in the turret room except for the contented grunts of the lapdog and Rebeccah wondered if anyone else could hear the pounding of her heart and roaring in her ears.
"A highwaywoman?" The stout monarch looked up, astonished. "You wish me to pardon a convicted thief and murderess? What an extraordinary request!"
Is it my imagination or is the room swaying? wondered Rebeccah.
"Speak, child... Oh my! Is she going to ... A chair for your niece, Mrs Freeman. Quickly!"
Something hard pressed into the back of Rebeccah's knees and she crumpled gratefully onto it and tried to catch her breath.
"Rebeccah." Someone was chafing her hands. A blur resolved itself into Aunt Sarah's concerned face. "Are you well, my dear? You almost swooned."
"Give her some tea," came the Queen's voice, and Rebeccah remembered where she was. "That always makes me feel better."
How mortifying! She turned to see the seated Queen regarding her and her aunt with interest. "I'm so sorry, Your Majesty ..."
A royal hand waved dismissively, and the maid pressed a dish of tea into Rebeccah's hands and urged her to drink it, so she did, tasting the unmistakable tang of orange brandy. A welcome, warm tingle began to spread through her limbs.
"There." The Queen looked smug. "What did I tell you, Mrs Freeman? Her colour is coming back." She waited, stroking her dog, until Rebeccah had handed the empty cup back, then said, "And now you are recovered, tell me the story of you and this highwaywoman. For Mrs Freeman here has promised me an entertaining tale."
Rebeccah glanced at the Duchess, who smiled and gave her an encouraging nod. "Of course, Your Majesty." She took a deep breath and clasped her hands together and for the second time in as many days began. "The first time I met Blue-Eyed Nick we were returning in our carriage from Chatham..."
"Such a tale!" said the Queen, eyes bright, when Rebeccah finally drew to a close. The story of two women bent on saving each other's lives had indeed piqued her interest and she had listened intently, only asking the occasional question. "Your devotion and loyalty to your friend does you credit, Mistress Dutton. If only all women could be as fortunate as we are."
She threw the Duchess a fond glance, her tiff with her favourite evidently forgotten. "But in all good conscience I cannot grant Mistress Milledge a free pardon." Rebeccah's breathing hitched. "A conditional pardon is a possibility, however." She breathed freely once more.
"If I were to free your highwaywoman," continued Queen Anne, combing the lapdog's chestnut coat with her fingers, "would she give up her criminal ways? For I will not have my lawful citizens being threatened and robbed as they go about their business."
"Yes, Your Majesty," said Rebeccah instantly.
The Queen leaned forward and fixed her with her disconcerting squint. "Your quickness of response does you credit. But your word alone is not enough, I fear. Would the Dutton family be prepared to provide surety for her good behaviour?"
Rebeccah blinked. "I have no authority to speak for my sister or my mother," she said, "but for myself, I am prepared to stand surety for Kate ... I mean Mistress Milledge." She blushed at the slip, but the Queen only smiled.
"And if a condition of her release were to be that she take up employment with your family?"
For a moment Rebeccah was at a loss. Did Queen Anne mean to humble Kate by making her a servant? She couldn't imagine the highwaywoman being happy in such a mundane job, but since for now just keeping Kate alive was her aim she said, "That would be agreeable, Your Majesty."
Satisfied, the Queen sat back. "Good," she said. "You are prepared to provide more than mere words in support of your friend. That deserves to be rewarded." She signalled to her maid and whispered something in her ear. The woman curtseyed and scurried out, returning minutes later with a beanpole of a man, so well dressed he bordered on the foppish. The dog rushed over to him, gave an agitated bark, and retreated to the safety of its mistress's lap.
The new arrival looked down his long nose at Rebeccah and the Duchess, then bowed to the Queen. "Your Majesty?"
"Mr Wyatt, I have a task for you." Queen Anne handed the well-travelled piece of paper to the maid who handed it to the tall man. "I am minded to grant this petition of mercy. Issue a pardon for Catherine Milledge at once." The lapdog snuffled at a royal palm for biscuit crumbs. "Conditional upon her consenting to work for the Dutton family of St James's Square."
No mention of any surety, Rebeccah noticed with relief. Perhaps that had been merely a test.
"At once, Your Majesty. Will that be all?" The Queen nodded, and Wyatt bowed and backed towards the door. But before he got there, the Duchess crossed quickly to the Queen's side, stooped, and whispered something in her ear. She looked perturbed.
"Mr Wyatt, wait." He paused and looked expectantly at her. "How long will it take for the pardon to reach Newgate?"
"Um." His gaze turned inwards. "The paperwork must be correctly prepared, Your Majesty. But all being well it should arrive by Tuesday morning." He seemed pleased with this answer and was obviously taken aback when the Queen didn't share his view. Rebeccah too was stunned if her quick-thinking aunt hadn't intervened, the pardon would have arrived too late.
"Too slow, Mr Wyatt," said the Queen with a frown. "Too slow by half! For I am given to understand that Mistress Milledge is due to hang tomorrow." Absently she stroked her pet. "You will prepare the pardon yourself, Sir, and deliver it in good time with your own hands. Mistress Dutton and her mother will be travelling back to London tonight or on the morrow. They will not mind you joining them, I'm sure."
Wyatt looked as if he had swallowed something bitter, but he said evenly enough, "As you wish, Your Majesty." And with an extravagant bow, he backed out of the room, pulling the door closed behind him.
"Oh thank you, Your Majesty," cried Rebeccah. "Thank you with all my heart."
The Queen smiled at her then yawned, a hand rising too late to cover her mouth. "Bless me! But all this excitement has left me feeling quite fatigued." She glanced at the Duchess. "Mrs Freeman, you will stay and keep me company awhile. ... I'm sure your niece can find her own way back to the lodge it is not far, after all, and the walk back will do her good." She gestured to the maid. "Show Mistress Dutton out."
And with that, Rebeccah found herself dismissed.
CONTINUED & CONCLUDED IN PART 4