Warnings — See part 1.
IN THE SHADOW OF TYBURN
PART 4 (Conclusion)
A buzz went round the prison chapel as Kate came through the door, brushing past the turnkey acting as ticket-taker.
"Over there," said Simpkins. "Between Minshul and Powell."
She followed the direction of his pointing finger to the dock. The pews inside the black-painted enclosure were reserved for those prisoners condemned to die, and several coffins had been stacked in there with them, to bring home the fact of their imminent mortality.
As if that is necessary, thought Kate with an inward grimace. She knew the drill. This service would be all about fire and brimstone. Not only would the Ordinary preach his 'condemned sermon', those in the dock would be required to hear prayers for their souls and join in the responses to their own burial service.
Shackles clinking, she shuffled forward, aware of the faces staring down at her from the crowded public galleries upstairs on either side, and the excited whispers of "Blue-Eyed Nick." The prisoners sitting in the body of the chapel were not so restrained. Catcalls, jokes, and obscenities followed her all the way to her seat.
"Having a private cell didn't exempt you from this, then," said Isaac Minshul, his warty face breaking into a smile as she squeezed in next to him.
"I'm just glad to be able to stretch my legs."
"Got you stapled to the floor, have they?"
"Whoresons!" said Jemmy Powell, who was sitting on the other side of her. "And what a farce this is." He pushed lank brown hair out of his eyes. "Trying to save our souls when they should be saving our lives."
"This service isn't about our souls, Jemmy," said Kate. "'Tis about giving those in the galleries their monies' worth."
"They should look to their own souls if this is the kind of entertainment they choose of a Sunday," remarked Minshul.
A rustle of movement drew Kate's attention to the front, where the Reverend Francis Rewse, Ordinary of Newgate, now stood in the chapel's simple pulpit. He looked much smarter than when he had questioned Kate so closely about her life story for his pamphlet; he was wearing his best wig, cassock, and surplice.
"We are gathered here tonight," he began, peering at his congregation over the top of his half-spectacles, "to pray for the souls of these poor benighted sinners." He gestured at those in the Dock.
"Bollocks, you whoreson!" shouted Powell, and a turnkey leaned over and cuffed him on the ear.
The Ordinary didn't seem in the least put out by Powell's trenchant criticism. He bared his teeth in a benign smile and continued: "'I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live ...'"
While he wittered on, Kate scanned the chapel, her gaze resting on the rickety little table that served as an altar, before travelling to the commandments painted on the wall above it which had faded so much they were barely legible.
"Let us turn to Psalm 39," announced the Ordinary. Kate sighed and reached for the Book of Common Prayer that had been so thoughtfully provided.
As the service proceeded, with no hymns to relieve the unremitting gloom, many of the prisoners grew restless and bored. But their every heckle was greeted with a poke in the ribs from a turnkey's stave or a clip round the ear. Then it was time for the Ordinary's address.
"'And they shall go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal'," intoned Reverend Rewse. "Matthew 25 verse 46." He paused then repeated with lipsmacking relish, "Everlasting punishment."
Kate sighed and turned her thoughts inwards. If Rebeccah's mission had been successful, she would surely have heard from her by now. She had known it was but a fool's errand. Her last hours on Earth would have passed far more pleasantly, and, on the evidence of that kiss, far more pleasurably if Rebeccah had stayed with her instead of haring off to Windsor. And a large bribe to the turnkeys might have made that possible. Still, it was touching that the young woman would go to such lengths to save her.
That Alice had attacked Rebeccah in the corridor outside her cell, and scratched her pretty cheek, had come as an unwelcome shock. Kate grimaced. She should have scratched my face not sweet Rebeccah's.
Alice's visit had been a strained one, to say the least. That she had come at all after their argument was a surprise. Kate had wanted to make things easier on Alice, who had obviously been crying ... and in the process salve her own conscience, she supposed. Alice should not shed a single tear for her, she'd urged, for she was not worth it. And then she'd begged forgiveness and sincerely hoped that in time Alice could grant it. But it seemed that, from the widowed landlady's subsequent assault, Alice would far rather blame Rebeccah for the deterioration in their relationship than admit that Kate had never really loved her in the first place.
An elbow nudged her back to the here and now and she saw that Powell was rummaging inside his shirt. A sarcastic remark died on her lips when he produced a louse and placed it on the open prayer book in front of him. As it scurried across the page, Powell grinned.
"A shilling says it reaches the bottom of the page before — Ow!"
A turnkey had reached over the edge of the Dock and slammed closed the prayer book, sending the louse to an early grave. Then he whacked Powell round the head with it.
"Forsake your evil ways and repent before it is too late," thundered the Ordinary.
Kate sighed and willed the interminable service to its conclusion.
"You will wear out your Aunt's carpet with your pacing, Beccah," chided Mrs Dutton.
"I'm sorry, Mama. But where is he?" Rebeccah halted and peered out of the drawing room window, as she had done every other minute for the past half-hour. "He should have been here ages ago."
The horses had been hitched and the Dutton carriage, with Robert in its driving seat trying not to nod off, was waiting outside the front entrance of the Great Lodge.
"Mr Wyatt will come soon," soothed the Duchess of Marlborough from her easy chair by the fire, where she was sipping a dish of chocolate, "or the Queen will know the reason why."
"He had better," muttered Rebeccah.
It had not been light long, and mist still hung low over Windsor Great Park's rolling acres, but if they were to make it to Newgate before noon, they needed to get under way early. Wyatt knew that. He had promised to be here with Kate's signed and sealed pardon at 5 o'clock on the dot. It was now 5.30.
It had been still dark when Mary helped Rebeccah and her mother dress, then they had gone down to breakfast with the Duchess, who, as she was dining only with close relatives and all of them female, had chosen to remain deshabille in a loose nightgown but had lost none of her charisma or dignity in the process. Aunt Sarah was unaccustomed to being up at this ungodly hour (as she told them several times) and her constant yawning threatened to become contagious. Rebeccah was dry mouthed with anxiety, and had to use her dish of tea to wash down the cold meat and slices of bread and butter.
"There he is!" cried Mary.
Rebeccah followed the maid's pointing finger and saw a rider on a brown horse galloping towards the Lodge. As he drew closer, she saw that the man in the saddle was an unusually dishevelled-looking Wyatt. He must have overslept.
Thank God he has come!
The Queen's official reined in next to the carriage, dismounted, handed the reins to a footman who had appeared to lead the beast away, then looked round uncertainly. Robert leaned down from his perch and said something. Wyatt nodded his understanding then opened one of the carriage doors and climbed aboard.
"Come, Beccah." Mrs Dutton swept towards the drawing room exit. Rebeccah hurried after her with Mary in tow. At the door, all three turned, and curtseyed to the Duchess, who had remained seated by the fire and was stifling another yawn.
"Thank you with all my heart, Sarah," said Rebeccah's mother. "We are obliged indeed for the hospitality and assistance you have rendered. Maybe one day we can return the favour."
The Duchess yawned then waved a dismissive hand. "Think nothing of it, Elizabeth," she called. "Only too happy to help. Just send me word how it all turns out, Rebeccah, will you, dear?"
"Sorry." Wryneck looked rueful. "The Keeper says the shackles come off in the Press Yard and not before."
Kate grimaced. "In that case," she separated the breeches and hose from the clothes he had purchased on her behalf, and held them out. "See if you can find another use for these."
The turnkey accepted them with a nod of thanks — they were neatly mended and freshly laundered and should fetch him a shilling or two. Then he cocked his head and grinned. "Keeper didn't say anything about this, though." He reached for the keys at his belt, stooped, and unlocked the padlock connecting her leg irons to the staple in the floor.
"Much obliged," she told him, meaning it.
He grunted then glanced at the basin of water, soap, towel, comb, tiny looking glass, clay pipe and pouch of tobacco she had also requested he bring, and paid dearly for the privilege. "I'll leave you to it then."
After he had locked the cell door behind him, Kate set about stripping and washing off the worst of the grime. What she wouldn't give for a soak in the local bathhouse's hot pool, but she would have to content herself with the cold water from the basin.
She shook out the clothes, which came from Godfrey Gimbart's secondhand clothes shop in Long Lane, and examined them. It was a tradition of Newgate that the condemned should look their best when they went to the gallows. Lord Ferrers had worn his white satin wedding suit, so it was said. Kate's outfit wasn't in the same league, but it would do. Shame about the breeches, stained as they were with splashes of tallow and something unidentifiable that she had sat in while in the Condemned Hold; still, the knee-length coat would hide the worst.
She donned the shirt and buttoned it, enjoying the feel of clean fabric against her skin, then eased on the blue brocade waistcoat and fawn coat. Her cravat she tied in a simple steinkerk, knotting it then tucking the ends through the top buttonhole of her coat.
The tenor bell of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate tolled mournfully as she combed her hair and tied it at the nape of her neck. Kate was heartily sick of the sound of bells. As if the condemned prisoners' last night weren't made restless enough with nightmares of Tyburn, at midnight St Sepulchre's bellman had paced up and down outside the condemned cells, ringing his hand bell and chanting:
"All you that in the condemned hold do lie,
"Prepare you, for tomorrow you will die...."
When he had reached the end of the verse, he started to repeat it. Kate stuck her fingers in her ears.
After he had gone, she rolled awkwardly onto her knees — the leg irons and staple made everything awkward — and prayed ... not for her soul, as the bellman had been urging, or even for a pardon (for if it were coming, it would surely have done so by now), but that she might meet her end bravely and, God willing, see Rebeccah one last time.
Kate picked up the looking glass and checked her appearance as best she could. Her outfit looked incomplete without a tricorne and a baldric, and she missed the weight of a sword against her hip, but it would do. She brushed a speck of lint from her sleeve, then shuffled over to her chair.
For a long moment she sat, listening to the muffled tolling of the bell and the sounds of the prison going on all about her, then she took the scrap of paper and stub of pencil Wryneck had provided, and set to work on her speech.
They had just crossed over the Thames near Staines when the carriage slowed and a few moments later came to a dead stop.
What now? Rebeccah glanced at her mother in dismay. She opened the door and leaned out. The coachman had jumped down and was stooping beside the lead horse, examining its fetlock. "What is it, Robert?"
He straightened and looked back at her. "This horse has gone lame, Mistress Rebeccah."
Stifling a very unladylike curse, she relayed the information to the other passengers, then hopped down, and went to join him. "Can he continue as far as London?"
"No, Madam. We must have a replacement."
Rebeccah's mother had come to join them and was in time to hear his unwelcome verdict. She gave their surroundings a dubious glance. "But will we be able to find a replacement here, Robert?"
Rebeccah shared her mother's doubts. They had stopped in the middle of a village that comprised precisely four small houses and a seedy-looking tavern called the Cock Inn.
"No, Madam," agreed Robert. "But Egham isn't far. And if I remember correctly from the journey down, there is a coaching inn there that will have horses for hire. If you and the others care to wait in the coach, I will lead poor Conker to the Red Lion, arrange to have him cared for, then set about hiring us a replacement."
"If Egham is the nearest place to hire a horse, then Egham it must be," said Mrs Dutton with a heavy sigh. "Do as you suggested, Robert. Get them to send me the bill and don't worry about the cost — for we must have a replacement, and that's that."
"And please hurry," added Rebeccah. "For every minute we delay ..." She trailed off, thinking of Kate and her approaching appointment with the hangman.
He gave her a nod and said quietly, "You may rely on me, Mistress Rebeccah. "I know what's at stake."
"Thank you, Robert."
While he unhitched Conker, Rebeccah's mother took her by the arm and led her back to the carriage.
"What's happening?" Wyatt peered down his nose at the two women from the open door. "Can your driver not even take a stone out of a hoof?"
Rebeccah frowned up at him. Her mother was more diplomatic. "Alas, Mr Wyatt, if it were only that straightforward. The horse is badly lamed and we must find a replacement. ... While our coachman is gone to get a fresh horse, we can wait in the carriage ... or repair to that hostelry." She pointed.
Wyatt stared at the ramshackle Cock Inn with open dismay, and a wicked impulse overtook Rebeccah.
"Since we are bound to be cooped up in this contraption for the rest of the day, Mama," she said, indicating the carriage, "perhaps it would be as well to avail ourselves of the tavern's facilities while we can."
Her mother nodded. "Good idea, Beccah."
"Very well." Wyatt climbed down, followed by Mary, who gave her mistress a suspicious glance. "Perhaps the inn won't be as bad as it looks," he sniffed.
Rebeccah kept her straight face with difficulty. She seriously doubted it.
It was almost noon when they came for her.
Kate had long ago finished her speech. She filled the remaining hours smoking a last pipe of her favourite tobacco, singing 'The Female Frollick' (which earned enthusiastic applause from the inmate in an adjoining cell), stretching the cramp from her legs, or peering out the barred window.
If she leaned over far enough she could just catch a glimpse of sky — it promised to be a fine day for it. A fine day for riding too. She sighed. At least Clover would be in good hands with the Duttons.
As the morning dragged on, Kate felt more and more unreal. She kept thinking that at any moment she would wake to find that the last few weeks had been a nightmare. Alice would be lying next to her, the shells from their oyster supper stacked on the plate on the bedside table. But if it were just a nightmare, then Rebeccah would be but a dream, which would be a mixed blessing indeed.
The cell door creaked open. "It's time," said Wryneck, beckoning.
Heart thumping, Kate stood. As they walked along the maze of corridors and up and down stairs, at a painfully slowly pace due to her leg irons, prisoners pressed their noses to the grilles and yelled obscenities or good wishes. Kate acknowledged a shout of "God Speed, Nick," with a smile and a nod and kept on going, pausing only when Wryneck had to unlock and then relock the numerous gates that barred their progress.
The journey seemed endless, but at last the turnkey led her, stooping, through a low door out into the open air. She glanced up at the sky for a long moment before turning to scan the Press Yard, a long narrow yard with high spiked walls. Two open, horse-drawn carts were waiting there, with prisoners sitting in the back. The dung from their horses adding to the general stench.
Kate curled her lip at the onlookers, faces flushed with excitement, eyes avid, who had paid to join the turnkeys and prisoners. The Ordinary was also there, making a nuisance of himself as usual, praying loudly and giving counsel, whether wanted or not. A man in a black mask stood a little way apart from the others. He raked Kate from head to foot with calculating eyes.
Assessing how much my clothes will fetch, I'll wager.
"Oi, you there. Come here." A blacksmith with bulging biceps beckoned to Kate. She shuffled over, and as instructed put a foot on his wooden anvil. Deftly, he hammered the rivets from her leg iron.
The hammer came down again and Kate's fetters clattered to the flagstones. Before she could stoop to rub the raw welts, the turnkey assigned as Yeoman of the Halter came over. He tied one cord round her wrists then slipped another through her elbows and pulled it tight, pinioned her. Finally, he looped a halter round her neck and curled its free end round her body.
Thus bound, her movements were restricted and she had to be helped up into one of the carts. Isaac Minshul made room for her on a coffin. She grimaced and sat between him and Jemmy Powell. Both felons were looking unusually clean and dapper.
"Not wearing skirts?" asked Powell, grinning.
Kate gave him a mock glare. "As you would say, Jemmy ... 'Bollocks!'" Minshul chuckled. The cart rocked and she saw that the Reverend Rewse was scrambling up into their cart, while the hangman was to travel with the other. On balance, she decided, as the Ordinary launched into a Psalm and urged the three prisoners to join in for the sake of their immortal souls, her cart had drawn the short straw.
A turnkey unbolted the barred gate, which swung open with a screech that set Kate's teeth on edge, and the drivers urged their horses forward. As the carts emerged from the Press Yard into the street, the roar from the waiting crowd made Kate blink. An escort of peace officers, constables, and javelin men fell in around them, the City Marshall and the Under-Sheriff took their places at the head of the procession, then they were off.
The cart rumbled over cobblestones, jolting every bone in Kate's body, but she barely noticed it for a loud rhythmic chant of 'Blue-Eyed Nick; Blue-Eyed Nick' that had started up. Better acclaim than a rain of rotten cabbages, she decided, nodding and smiling at the sea of faces surrounding her, none of whom she recognised.
"They're lively," said Minshul.
"Ay," said Kate.
The Ordinary finished his Psalm and started on another
The procession had barely got going before, at St Sepulchre's entrance, it halted to allow the sexton to ring his hand bell twelve times. (More poxy bells!) Then he began his address.
"All good people," he intoned, "pray heartily unto God for these poor sinners, who are now going to their death..." Kate tuned him out until the final "Christ have mercy on you." There were only so many exhortations to repent she could take.
He presented each prisoner with a nosegay of flowers (Kate tucked hers in a buttonhole) and a cup of wine. There would be much more to drink along the route — she could arrive at Tyburn roaring drunk if she wished — but she decided she'd rather keep her wits about her, drank only half her cup, and gave the rest to an appreciative Powell.
With a cheer from the crowd, the procession resumed its progress, the carts turning a sharp left at the bottom of Snow Hill, and crossing the foul sewer that was the Fleet Ditch. Kate remembered the last time she had walked these streets with Rebeccah, searching for her sister, and sighed. Then they were climbing towards High Holborn, the smell receding with every yard, and she sucked in a welcome breath of fresh air.
The journey to Tyburn was a long one, the roaring of the crowd a constant almost physical battering. It was made slower by frequent stops at taverns. At the first stop, the Bowl Inn in St. Giles, Kate accepted a beer from someone anxious to say they had drunk with Blue-Eyed Nick. She made the customary joke, "I'll buy you a pint on the way back," took a mouthful and left the rest. Then it was back into the cart and on to the next tavern.
The crowds along the route were getting thicker by the minute. People leaned out of windows and thronged rooftops. At last Kate began to see faces she knew. There was Tom the stableboy, his expression doleful. And Henry Flude the little fencing cully, straightening his wig and nodding as their eyes met. John Elborrow was standing with several of his regulars, trying to comfort the Rose and Crown's buxom barmaid, Nan. He doffed his tricorne to Kate, and she had a sudden hankering for a last taste of his wife's pies. Inexorably the cart moved on.
"Look at the crowds!" Rebeccah stared out the window in dismay. "We're never going to get there in time."
Delay had dogged them all the way from Windsor. They had hitched up the replacement horse only to find that the team was now unbalanced. The carriage had almost run off the road twice, before Robert pulled up and set about moving a different horse into lead position. Unhitching and rehitching the team consumed valuable time, and there was no guarantee that things would be any better. Fortunately, Robert knew his horseflesh, and when they set off once more it soon became clear that the horses were pulling smoothly again. The passengers' relief was short lived though, for a few miles later, and perhaps because of the strain they had been put under, the traces parted and they had to halt for half an hour while they were repaired.
Rebeccah had long ago given up all hope of reaching Newgate in time and, with Wyatt's reluctant approval, had told Robert to head straight for Tyburn. She had forgotten how clogged the streets would be though. And now the carriage had ground to a halt.
"We must force our way through," said an irritated Wyatt. "For it's the Queen's business we're about and none shall stand in our way." He opened the door, leaned out, and yelled, "Driver, use your horsewhip to clear the way if you have to."
Rebeccah exchanged an appalled glance with her mother and hoped Robert would have more sense. If the mob were to turn against them things could get nasty, and the presence of the horses should surely be enough to make people stand clear.
She willed the carriage forward.. After a moment, it lurched into motion, but its progress was now at a mere snail's pace. She blocked out the noise of the crowd and the relentless tolling of the bells. Wait for me, Kate. I'm coming.
When they left the Mason's Arms in Seymour Place, the last tavern on the route, Jemmy Powell was so drunk he had to be carried back to the cart.
The gallows loomed at the end of the road, and as the procession drew closer, Kate's guts tightened. Especially when she saw the wide cart standing empty beneath one of the three huge beams, waiting to ferry its unwilling passengers to the other side.
Will it hurt? she wondered, as the halter around her neck seemed to grow heavier. Will there be any hangers-on willing to do for me what I helped Nell do for John Stephenson?
The hanging procession halted at last, and was met by a resounding cheer. The constables, peace officers, and javelin men hurriedly formed a new configuration around the prisoners. They gripped their staves and javelins with white knuckles, and looked about nervously as though expecting the crowd to rush them at any minute. Rescues of prisoners had been known, but Kate knew better than to pin her hopes on one. The crowd might say how much they loved a charming rogue, but they loved a good hanging better.
She searched the faces of the onlookers, especially those at the front with the best view, since they were probably the prisoners' relatives. She was relieved to see no sign of her addled mother. If Jane Allen was the woman Kate hoped she was, she had kept Martha ignorant of her daughter's fate. The two women were probably at this very moment sitting in Jane's comfortable kitchen, trying not to pinch Beau the lurcher's tail beneath the runners of their contentedly rocking chairs. At least she hoped so.
Samuel Josselin was there though, arms folded, eyes triumphant. So was a tall young man in a black cassock who seemed oddly familiar. Wasn't he the clergyman she had bested in a swordfight? Berry something ... Berrigan, that was his name. He caught her gaze and nodded. A flash of red hair drew her attention further along the row. Ah, Alice. Have you not yet had your fill of me? The landlady looked haggard with weeping. Would she be willing to help speed Kate's passing from this world to the next? Kate doubted she was capable of such a thing.
There was no sign of the Dutton family. She pursed her lips, uncertain whether to feel chagrin or relief then opted for the latter. They had done enough for her. That Rebeccah had even attempted to obtain a pardon meant everything. Let the young woman's last memory of Kate be a pleasant one.
"Down we get," cried the Ordinary, leaping down, then turning to grin up at those still in the cart.
"Bollocks!" slurred the inebriated Powell.
The Under-Sheriff's officers hurried over to help the prisoners down. One urged Kate towards the gallows. She felt offbalance without the leg irons, and for the first time her courage failed her, and she faltered.
"Keep moving," ordered the officer. Kate tried to slow her racing heart. "I said —"
"I heard you." Teeth gritted, hands balled into damp fists, she resumed her awkward progress.
The noise of the crowd swelled and ebbed as Kate and the others, eight in all, took their places on the wide cart. The only other female to hang today was Phebe Woolley; the skinny young woman looked even more pale and pinched than usual and was panting with fright.
"Breathe slowly," Kate advised her, but the other woman was too deep in her panic to hear her. As for the men, some were befuddled by drink and others were either cursing or cracking black jokes. Isaac Minshul still seemed relatively sober. He caught Kate's gaze and gave her a rueful shrug.
A flurry of movement proved to be the constables and peace officers parting to allow through the prisoners' relatives. Kate tried not to feel alone and unloved as they swarmed round every prisoner except her, hugging, kissing, and crying — even Powell had a sister with the same lank brown hair. It was a relief when at last they were escorted back to their places among the crowd.
That part of the proceedings over, things moved swiftly on to the next.
The hangman climbed up to join the prisoners. At his appearance, the crowd let out a great roar, which frightened the horse. The cart lurched and bucked under Kate's feet until the animal could be calmed down. The man in the black mask began working his way along the row of prisoners, tying the free end of each halter around the massive beam above.
"Those of you who have farewell speeches to give, give them now," said the Ordinary, also joining them. "Go to God with a clean breast. Confess your sins and admit your guilt."
"Bollocks!" slurred Jemmy Powell, swaying until someone steadied him.
While some might wish to prolong their stay on earth by speechifying, Kate just wished this ordeal were over and done with. So her speech was short and to the point, with none of the expressions of false humility or religiosity that she was sure the Reverend Rewse would have liked.
"My name is Blue-Eyed Nick," she shouted, as onlookers hushed one another so they could hear, "and I have lived a short life but a merry one. I've taken the cards Fate dealt me and played the best game I could. That in the process I hurt those who didn't deserve it pains me, and I am heartily sorry for it. But as for hurting those who deserved it ... To the Devil with them!" The unrepentant tone drew a cheer from the crowd and a black look from the Ordinary.
Isaac Minshul was next to speak, the sobbing of his wife almost bringing the big man himself to tears. Then came the swaying Jemmy Powell, whose obscene suggestions about what the Ordinary could do with himself left his sister blushing and the onlookers howling with laughter. Terror had stolen Phebe Woolley's voice so she did not speak. The remaining prisoners' speeches were longwinded, slurred, and inaudible, and by the time they drew to a close, the crowd was visibly restless, anxious to get on with the main event. There also seemed to be some kind of disturbance going on at the back, though Kate couldn't make out its cause — a drunken dispute probably.
The hangman reappeared with some white sacks, asking each prisoner whether they wished to be hooded. Kate had no desire to witness Josselin's enjoyment of her final moments, so she accepted, and as the hood dropped over her head, the crowd disappeared from view.
Whatever its cause, the disturbance seemed to be spreading. The shouts and curses were more widespread and growing louder.
"Make way," came a man's shout, as horses whinnied and people screamed insults.
"The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away," droned Reverend Rewse from close by. "Blessed be the name of the Lord."
"Make way, I said," shouted the man again. "We have a message for the City Marshall. Let us through." The clatter of shod hooves and ironbound wheels on cobblestones drew nearer.
"Get back, you whoresons!" screeched a fishwife. "You're blocking my view."
"We are on the Queen's business," came the man's shout again, this time a little closer. "Make way there, I say. Make way."
"The Queen?" muttered someone. "Did he mention the Queen?"
"Lord, let me know mine end," continued the pious drone of the Ordinary.
"What's going on?" That was Minshul's voice, coming from beside Kate.
If she gave voice to her slender hopes, would they vanish like morning mist? "Hanged if I know."
"Is it a reprieve?" called someone. And at the question, the crowd exploded into noise. "Reprieve, reprieve, reprieve," they chanted, their joy obvious. Then, "Who for, who for, who for?"
"Now for the Lord's Prayer," said the Ordinary. "Say it with me, 'Our Father, who art in heaven —'"
The clip clop of hooves and clatter of wheels stopped abruptly and Kate's keen hearing picked up the sound of a carriage door opening.
"My name is Wyatt," shouted the man's voice, "and I have here an order for the City Marshall."
"'Hallowed be Thy name —'"
"Can't it wait until after the hanging?" came a testy voice, presumably belonging to the Marshall.
"No it cannot, for if it does a pardoned woman will hang." (Kate's heart skipped a beat.) "Don't stand there like a fool, fellow. This is the Queen's business. Read this document at once."
"Thy kingdom come —"
The cart sagged beneath her feet, and Kate struggled to keep her balance.
"Thy will be ... Young woman." The Ordinary sounded scandalised. "What do you think you're doing? Get away from those prisoners at once!"
A familiar, enticing fragrance met Kate's nostrils and she blinked as she tried to identify it. But it can't be! "Rebeccah?"
For a moment she feared she was dreaming, then a hand clasped hers in wordless reply. Which was just as well, since at this latest development the noise from the crowd had grown deafening and Kate could hardly hear herself think.
"I won't tell you again, Madam," screeched Reverend Rewse. "Get away from her! ... Constables!"
"Leave Mistress Dutton alone, sir," bellowed Wyatt. "I asked her to point out the prisoner. If that is Catherine Milledge, then she is the one to be pardoned ... Come on, man!" He must be addressing the Marshall. "Free her at once or you'll answer to the Queen."
The touch of Rebeccah's hand disappeared, then something deliciously warm and curvaceous eased behind Kate. Fingers plucked at her hood.
"What are you doing, Madam?" cried the Ordinary.
"It is as Mr Wyatt said," came the Marshal's voice again, no longer testy but resigned. "Release her at once. It is the Queen's orders that Catherine Milledge be granted a conditional pardon. She is to be transferred into the custody of Mistress Rebeccah Dutton. ... I presume that is you, Madam?"
"Yes, sir," came Rebeccah's voice.
"They are pardoning Blue-Eyed Nick," cried the mob in growing delight.
"The Queen is pardoning the highwaywoman?" "Are you sure?" "They've pardoned the snaffler?" "Blue-Eyed Nick's neck is safe!" "Gawd Bless our good Queen Anne."
The hood was whisked from Kate's head and she blinked the dazzle away. Next came the halter. She twisted round and gazed at Rebeccah in astonishment.
Rebeccah smiled at her. "Told you I would come," she mouthed.
"Cut her loose." The Marshall brandished an important-looking document bearing the royal seal.
The Under-Sheriff's officer who had escorted Kate to the gallows climbed up and sliced the ropes binding her wrists and elbows with a knife. She half jumped, half fell out of the cart, then turned and assisted Rebeccah down.
Kate was about to head for the coach Rebeccah had pointed out when she realised that Josselin was standing just a few yards from her. Rage replaced his look of stunned disbelief, and his face suffused with blood until he looked quite apoplectic. A fit of hilarity overtook her and she felt the urge to thumb her nose at him. Then the urge died, for she had just caught sight of Alice — the widowed landlady's face was a mask of confusion and heartbreak.
For a moment, Kate could not fathom it. Alice should be pleased she was alive, shouldn't she? Then it dawned on her. The red-haired landlady had just seen her hated rival save Kate from the gallows and now they were about to leave together. As far as Alice was concerned, she had lost Kate just as surely as if death had taken her. Kate couldn't help but feel pity for her.
"Come on! This way." Rebeccah shoved Kate towards the waiting coach and four.
"Have they saved you, Kate?" It was Minshul's muffled shout, and Kate glanced back to the cart where the big man still stood, blinded by his hood.
"Ay," she called. "I am to live another day."
"You always did have the Devil's luck!" But there was no rancour in his tone. And beside him Jemmy Powell, who had opted to go hoodless, swayed and grinned and mouthed something that might have been "Bollocks!"
Kate raised a hand in farewell. "God Speed, my friends."
"Hurry," said the younger woman. "For I do not wish to witness what they are about to do here."
Then they were at the carriage, and Kate was hauling herself inside, blinking when she found herself face to face with Rebeccah's mother and Mary. Rebeccah piled in after her and pulled the door closed.
"But what about Mr Wyatt?" asked Mrs Dutton. "Are we not to wait for him?
"He will have to make his own way back to Windsor in any case." Rebeccah rapped her knuckles on the ceiling and yelled, "Home, Robert."
The coach's lurch pinned Kate to her seat, as it began its slow progress back the way it had come. It had gone barely thirty yards when a great sigh seemed to go through the surrounding mob, followed seconds later by a rousing cheer.
Minshul and the others must have embarked on their journey to the next life, thought Kate, chilled by just how close she had come to accompanying them. She exchanged a wordless glance with Rebeccah. And when a small hand slipped itself into hers, she held on tight, as though her life depended upon it.
Mary knelt beside Kate's bare feet and dunked a clean rag in the basin.
When they had arrived back at the house in St James's Square, Rebeccah had sailed past her smiling sister with a brief, "We are very well as you can see, Anne, I will talk to you later," and started up the stairs.
Barely stopping in the hall to hand her wrap and gloves to a waiting Nancy, and declaring loudly that as Kate was assigned to her custody she would take care of her herself ("And besides, Mama will no doubt wish to change out of her travel-stained clothes and regale Anne with the details of our trip to Windsor."), Rebeccah had taken no time in urging both Kate and Mary up the stairs to her bedchamber.
There, the young gentlewoman gasped when the full extent of the sores on Kate's ankles was revealed, and gasped again at the condition of her knee breeches. Ignoring Kate's joke that they would have been far worse had she kept her appointment with the noose, Rebeccah had summoned Will and instructed him to fetch a spare pair of his own breeches — he need not worry, she would recompense him handsomely.
When the footman returned, she bundled the garment into Kate's arms, shoved her into the little dressing room she had last occupied under very different circumstances, and told her to change. Kate did so willingly. A neatly darned bullethole marred one thigh, but Will's breeches were still a distinct improvement on those she had arrived in. Once Kate was more fragrantly attired, Rebeccah asked Mary to take a look at Kate's ankles ...
"That was closer than I would have liked," said Rebeccah, now she had time to draw breath.
Kate threw her an amused glance. "It was closer than I would have liked too."
Rebeccah grimaced. "I did not intend you to go through such an ordeal. If things had gone to plan we should have arrived in good time. But..." She raised her hands and let them drop.
"Nevertheless," said Kate, smiling warmly, "you arrived in the nick of time, and I am forever in your debt." The younger woman's cheeks pinked at the sentiment.
"This may sting," warned Mary, wringing out the excess water and dabbing at the welts on the highwaywoman's ankles.
That was something of an understatement. A hiss escaped Kate's gritted teeth, and Rebeccah hurriedly sat beside her on the bed and took her hand.
"I was going to ask you to pinch me, to see if I was still dreaming," managed Kate, "but Mary's attentions have convinced me that I am wide awake."
The maid threw her an apologetic glance, dunked the rag once more, then resumed her dabbing. "A moment more. Then I have a salve that will help."
"Ow!" But it was Rebeccah who had exclaimed aloud not Kate.
"Sorry." Kate released Rebeccah's hand at once.
She flexed her fingers. "You have a grip like a vice." Then she smiled and took Kate's hand in hers once more.
Mary looked from one woman to the other and lifted an eyebrow. Kate arched her own eyebrow in response. The corner of the maid's mouth twitched, and she resumed her dabbing. "Nearly done. ... There." She reached for a pot of foul-smelling paste and began to apply it to the sores. Almost at once, the pain began to ease.
Kate exhaled with relief. "You're an angel, Mary."
"A saint's more like it," muttered the maid, earning a goodnatured "Tsk!" from her young mistress. "There. All done."
She put the lid on the pot of salve then rose and started tidying her things away. Kate sat quietly, content just to hold Rebeccah's hand and adjust to the realisation that she had a future once more.
"Shall I have these ... things laundered, Madam?" Mary was pointing at the stained breeches lying on a chair.
"Please do. Then that will be all for now. ... Look to your own needs, Mary, for you must be as weary after the journey as the rest of us."
"Thank you, Madam." The maid curtseyed, and exited, carrying the breeches at arm's length in a way that made Kate chuckle rather than take offence.
"She's a character," she said.
Rebeccah nodded. "Irreplaceable ... And she knows it too, unfortunately."
Silence fell. Now the shadow of Tyburn that had loomed over her for so long had been lifted, Kate felt oddly weightless. Had Rebeccah's thigh not been pressed against hers, her soft hand anchoring her, she felt she could have floated away.
"How are you?" came a soft voice.
Kate turned and smiled at Rebeccah. "I feel ... strange," she admitted. Then she broached the subject that was bothering her. "I confess, I am also concerned that my now being your servant will affect ... things between us."
"Kate, you are not my servant!" protested Rebeccah. "The pardon's condition is merely that you must obtain employment with my family, which is not the same thing at all."
"Oh." Kate blinked then said slowly, "Then what job do you have in mind for me? Are you in the market for a highwayman?" She chuckled at Rebeccah's expression. "I didn't think so. Whatever it is, my dear, I hope it can hold my interest. For the last thing I would want after all the trouble you have taken on my behalf is to be tempted back into my bad old ways."
Rebeccah cocked her head to one side and looked at her. "Will you miss being Blue-Eyed Nick?"
"In truth?" Kate rubbed her neck where the halter had chafed it. "No. For of late it had begun to pall. And also my profits had dropped alarmingly." She grinned. "For I was more interested in the kisses of a pretty young woman with green eyes than I was in her valuables." She lifted Rebeccah's unresisting chin, and kissed her on the lips. "I still am." She pulled Rebeccah onto her lap and kissed her again, more deeply. For a moment, both women lost themselves in the pleasant activity, then pulled back, looked at one another, and smiled.
"So what job would you like to do?" asked Rebeccah, still looking flushed and sounding breathless.
"Ah. That is the difficulty. For I fear I those skills I have are of little usefulness."
"I cannot believe that."
Kate thought for a moment and began to list them on her fingers. "I can sing," she said.
Rebeccah gave a delighted smile. "Really? I cannot wait to hear you."
"And sew ... but I am not the girl I was at 13 — mantua-maker would no longer suit me, alas. ... And I kiss tolerably well, or so I have been told." She gave the younger woman a sly glance.
"Indeed, I can attest to that." Rebecca became thoughtful. "But you do yourself an injustice if you believe those are your only skills. " Kate looked a query. "I'm serious. The journey back from Windsor was fraught, but it gave me time aplenty to consider possibilities. Tell me, Kate. As Blue-Eyed Nick, did you not outride, outshoot, and outfence the best of them?"
A memory of swords clashing in the moonlight, and of the Earl of Avebury flinging Kate's winnings at her surfaced. "Ay," she said, without false modesty.
Rebeccah's face lit up. "Well then, I believe I have come upon the very thing. Mr Ingrum hasn't yet got his hands on the money Papa left Anne, so before he does I will persuade her to put a portion of it towards the Dutton Fencing Academy. You will be its master."
Kate blinked at her. "A fencing academy?" Rebeccah nodded. "With a woman as its master?" Rebeccah nodded again. "It has never been done before."
"But such an establishment would be considered outrageous," objected Kate. "Especially once it got around that its master was not only female but had once been a notorious highwaywoman."
Green eyes twinkled. "And it would get around — we would make certain of it." Kate snorted. "For Blue-Eyed Nick would be an irresistible attraction, Kate. Potential students would flock to the school, just to satisfy their curiosity, and once they had seen you fight they would be clamouring to sign up. Word would spread. Being taught to fence by you would soon acquire a cachet."
Kate gave her a doubtful look. "I'm not that good!"
"Practice makes perfect. ... Come now. It's just the thing. For you and for the Duttons, for we would all profit from its success."
"Assuming it is a success."
Rebeccah let her smile speak for itself.
Kate settled the other woman more firmly on her lap while she mulled over the idea. The more she thought about a fencing academy, the more it appealed to her. "We would need to hire at least one other master," she said at last, "but I know just the man. His name is Berrigan. He's a clergyman, and I sense he has grown tired of his current employer."
"A clergyman and an ex-highwayman." Rebeccah clapped her hands together. "Better and better."
"And if we are going to be novel, I could take women as pupils as well as men."
"Only the plain ones," warned Rebeccah, "for I would not want any to catch your eye."
Kate laughed. "That would be unnecessary, for I have eyes only for you." The look that brought her was one she was beginning to recognise. It meant "Kiss me." So she did, thoroughly.
"That's settled then," said Rebeccah when they parted at last. She gave a satisfied sigh, though whether its cause was the kiss or Kate's agreement about their new business venture, Kate was unclear.
They sat in contemplative silence, Kate stroking the back of Rebeccah's hand with her thumb and thinking about the surprising future that had suddenly opened up in front of her. Then something else occurred to her.
"There is another matter that must be addressed, my dear. But you have already done so much for me ..."
Rebeccah looked at her. "What is it?"
"Where am I to live? For I cannot go back to Alice's, that much is certain."
"Not if you want to escape with your hair still attached," agreed Rebeccah. She thought for a moment. "I will have to ask Mama, but I see no difficulty. There's a spare room in the attic — that will surely serve for now. And once the fencing academy is up and running, it would make sense for you to have rooms there."
Rebeccah's brow creased. "If it proves as successful as I think it will, you will be spending all your time there, Kate. Perhaps I should find some reason to be there often too." Her brow cleared. "With Mr Edgeworth's help — he's Papa's clerk," she explained, "perhaps I could learn to handle the academy's administrative side. For I cannot imagine it would involve anything beyond my capabilities. Then you and I would have the perfect excuse to be in one another's company throughout the day."
"That sounds a tempting prospect," agreed Kate. But what about the nights?
Rebeccah was not like Alice, though. She was still green in the ways of love, and a respectable gentlewoman besides. Kate could not ask her to share the pleasures of her bed without the promise of more. And indeed, she realised, wondering when exactly it had happened, the prospect of settling down with this young gentlewoman for the rest of her life had become not only irresistible but necessary to her sense of wellbeing.
She felt her way carefully. "Would not your family mind you being involved with the academy and with me? For surely they have plans to marry you off to some gentleman and breed more Duttons."
"Anne will be married to Ingrum soon, with no time to concern herself with my affairs. As for Mama ..." Rebeccah shrugged. "I suspect she is already half resigned to my becoming an old maid. And after Windsor, she must suspect that I feel for you what Queen Anne feels for Aunt Sarah — she will not forbid me your friendship."
"What I feel for you is more than friendship!" protested Kate.
"Indeed I hope so. ... But it might be more circumspect to leave Mama her illusions."
Kate squeezed Rebeccah's waist. "You continue to surprise me, my dear." She considered her next words. "One of the daydreams that has kept me going of late has been of you and me."
"Yes? What are we doing?"
"Aside from the obvious?" Rebeccah's cheeks pinked prettily and Kate chuckled. "Living together. In a little cottage with a garden."
"We have set up home together?"
Kate nodded. "It was but an idle daydream," she said. "But now ..." She trailed off.
Get on with it, fool. "It has crossed my mind," said Kate, pretending diffidence, "that we might indeed set up house together. But of course, if you are averse to the idea ...." She held her breath.
"Indeed I am not," said the younger woman at once. Then she frowned. "But would it not be considered scandalous?"
Kate resumed breathing. "We could keep separate rooms for appearances' sake. But when our visitors are gone, and the curtains are drawn, we would be snug together in one bed." She tried to gauge the other woman's reaction.
"I confess," said Rebeccah, looking at her through lowered eyelashes, "that I am becoming more and more curious as to what goes on between two women in private."
"Are you, my dear?" Kate laughed. "I will be only too glad to enlighten you. You have but to say the word."
Rebeccah's brows drew together. "But what about the servants ..."
"In our cottage?"
"That should pose no great difficulty. For Mary could come with us. And she already knows about us and does not disapprove, if I do not miss my guess."
"Her speaking glances are very eloquent," agreed Rebeccah, with a laugh. "Ooh!" Her smile grew wider. "Set up house together. Oh, Kate, I like the sound of that."
Her reaction was everything Kate had hoped for. "We could find a place not far from my mother's perhaps."
"Your mother! ... Faith, but I hope she likes me, Kate —" Rebeccah caught sight of the clock on the chimneypiece and stopped abruptly. "Oh no! We must go down and join the others for we have stayed too long. Look at the time."
"Must we?" Kate bounced Rebeccah on her knee.
"Yes. Or they will send a servant to fetch us for supper." With a flattering show of reluctance, she untangled herself from Kate and stood up.
"Pox on it!" Kate grabbed for her once more.
"Ah ah!" Rebeccah danced out of reach. "We have much to discuss with Mama and Anne. And the sooner we get started persuading them to fund our dreams, the soon they will become a reality."
Kate groaned but gave in to the inevitable. "You have convinced me. After all I can always ravish you tomorrow." Ignoring Rebeccah's amused exclamation, she rose creakily to her feet and crossed to where the young woman stood waiting for her by the bedchamber door. "Blue-Eyed Nick stands unmasked before you." She gave a jaunty bow. "Command me."
Rebeccah caressed Kate's cheek. "Then come with me, my bold highwayman," she said, green eyes sparkling, "for I have need of you to rescue me one last time."
"From whom?" asked a puzzled Kate.
"Why, from my own family, of course."
Kate chuckled and reached for the door handle. "Lead on."
The following 'bibles' proved indispensable during the writing of this uber:
- '1700: Scenes from London Life' by Maureen Waller
- 'Highwaymen and Outlaws' by Michael Billett
- 'The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough' by Ophelia Field
Thank you also to the members of my Yahoo mailing list who provided feedback, and to Zero, who told me some of the poxy swear words in use in 1706.