The Tyburn Guinea:
(Author of Conspiracies of Rome, [_*etc._][)*]
The devil take this cursed plotting Age,
‘T has ruin’d all our Plots upon the Stage;
Suspicions, New Elections, Jealousies,
Fresh Informations, New discoveries,
Do so employ the busie fearful Town,
Our honest calling here is useless grown;
Each fool turns Politician now, and wears
A formal face, and talks of State-affairs…
(The Feign’d Courtizans, Aphra Behn)
[The Hampden Press
I Dedicate This Book
to my dear Wife Andrea
and to my Daughter Philippa
I will begin by emphasising that this is an unrevised fragment. I began it last year, in the hope that I could diversify my historical fiction away from the Ancient and Byzantine periods in which I have so far specialised. I then became busy with something else, and I am not sure whether or when I shall find the time to come back to it. Rather than let it sit on my hard desk, perhaps until my literary executors stumble across it, I have decided to publish it as it stands. I will publish it as a free e-book, and in hard copy as cheaply as the printing costs will allow. I do this to give readers a free sample of my work. I do it also in the vague hope that some publisher will one day hurry forward with an offer I dare not refuse.
The novel is set in London in the May of 1696. The protagonist, Sarah Goodricke, is a widow who lives with her father. He is a Jacobite priest, who was deprived of his living when he refused to swear allegiance to William in 1689. He now teaches for a living. Sarah writes for the stage and is addicted to opium—though she is largely unaware of this, believing the drug is needed to treat various underlying ailments.
Other characters include Polly, a sluttish maidservant, Samuel Lambert, an obese actor, Lord Fremont, a ruthless and lascivious fop, Jeremy Collier, a Jacobite troublemaker, and Sir John Fenwick, a traitor on the run. These last two characters existed.
The novel opens a few days after the beginning of the Great Recoinage, which put England into several months of economic paralysis when all the old silver coins were called in, and could not be immediately reminted.
Sarah is out in London to collect one of her father’s debts—so she can buy more laudanum. She is shambling about, half dead from withdrawal pains, when she finds herself in the middle of a procession to the gallows at Tyburn. She is accosted by a sinister Irishman with one leg. He wants her to perform the last offices for a condemned man—that is, he wants her to pull on his legs to shorten the death pains. He offers her a guinea for doing this. When she agrees, he adds that he wants her to plant a sealed package on the hanged man. Sarah needs the money and is in no position to refuse.
The plan goes badly wrong, and Sarah has to run away from Tyburn. She wants to open the package, to see what it contains. However, while recovering herself with opiumised coffee, she meets Samuel Lambert, who is the actor-manager of the theatre for which she writes. He is putting on her latest play a week early, and needs her to finish its Prologue for that evening.
Sarah goes home, to find Jeremy Collier up to no good with her naïve father. She withdraws to her bedroom, where she pulls herself together with opium, tobacco and gin, so she can write her Prologue.
The draft ends here. In the next chapter, Sarah’s play is a triumphant success, but she realises that she is being hunted by men who will stop at nothing to lay hands on the Irishman’s packet.
In my previous novels, plots have emerged during the process of composition. None has been completed as I thought it might when I began.
If I were to provide a detailed synopsis of how this novel continues, it would bear little relation to the completed work. Indeed, if it ever is completed, the present draft of the opening will be revised and revised. Characters will be retired or split or merged. Some will stand out more prominently. New plot-lines will emerge. Some will be developed.
However, the main thread is the Irishman’s sealed package. After seven years of war with England, France is on the edge of humiliating defeat. So far, the French have relied on the Jacobite networks for espionage and disruption in England. They now realise that the Jacobites are unable to deliver. Their new strategy is to pressure William and his Ministers directly into a reasonably advantageous peace settlement. They have obtained documentary proof that William is a homosexual with a taste for very young English boys. The Irishman’s sealed package is a taster of the dirt they have on William, and they want to plant it in a manner that just avoids open scandal.
Because Sarah fails to get rid of the package, she is chased through London by those who know what it contains and by those who only know that possession of it will bring opportunities for enrichment. The Irishman needs it back, and the scrape of his iron foot on cobblestones is never far behind. Lord Fremont wants it, because he is sure it will help in his manipulations of the financial markets. The Jacobites want it, and the Government wants it.
Sarah, assisted by Polly and Samuel, must stay alive long enough to frustrate a plot that might undo the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
A further complication is that her father agrees to take in Sir John Fenwick and hide him until he can be smuggled out of England.
The climax will take place at a gala performance of Sarah’s play that is attended by John Dryden and the future Queen Anne. William III is also there in disguise. There will be lots of killing.
Or it will probably go off on a different course entirely. As said, my plots emerge while I write. They are better than the plots I have in mind at the start.
One possibility is that the character of Lord Fremont will grow until the novel reconfigures itself around him. Like all depraved noblemen, he is short of money, and wants to use the sealed packet for a notable fraud on the stock exchange.
The whole novel is set in a London where the place names are familiar, but which is intended to be both alien and frightening to modern readers. It is a combination of Gin Lane and Gustave Doré.
Sunshine—who cared about that? It was a shite morning.
Sarah stepped left to avoid a splash of vomit. Huddled on his knees, its author looked up at her.
“My dear woman,” he slurred, “I do most earnestly beg your pardon for any inconvenience I may have caused.”
He recovered his periwig from the gutter and slapped it on his head. A rivulet of slime ran from it down the yellow silk of his coat.
Her headache was getting worse again. She resisted the urge to tread the drunkard’s hat into the filth. Instead, she stared at the handbill he’d been clutching. Thursday, May 7^th^ 1696, it began in letters half an inch high. It was followed, in smaller letters, by the name “Fenwick.”
The name didn’t count. If the authorities couldn’t find an absconded traitor, that was their concern. It was the date that mattered.
Thursday, May 7^th^ 1696
It would have been poor Richard’s birthday, had he lived. It was two days short of the fourth anniversary of her first hit for the stage. The Rake Restor’d—oh, that had paid the rent for a year, and introduced her to the medicine that kept her going.
But it wasn’t her husband’s last choking fit that was uppermost in her mind. Nor the theatre.
As for the blessed laudanum, that was uppermost—too uppermost, she was coming to realise, for her own good.
In truth, most of the date didn’t matter—not 1696, not May, not the 7th.
She gritted her teeth and waited for the clock in St Giles to finish striking eight.
“It’s Thursday,” she said when sure her voice wouldn’t drip vexation. “A hanging day.”
Polly nodded. After just five days in London, it could be doubted if she understood the meaning of the words.
No excuse for Sarah. The newspapers had said there would be hangings on Thursday. The previous afternoon, by Temple Bar, one of the criers had been reading out the names of the condemned. Her bed wasn’t a half mile from St Sepulchre. She should have heard its bell tolling at midnight, and again at dawn.
All this, and she’d still blundered right into the final stretch of the procession.
She looked through a gap in the crowd of whores and capering beggars. “Hot pies and drink!” the landlord of the Angel was calling out in his usual cracked voice. “Lovely mutton pies!”
Sure of the business coming his way, he’d filled the wide space in front of the church with tables and benches. These had been taken by men of obvious quality. Even at fifty yards, their braying conversation cut through the surrounding noise. Potboys dashed about with quarts of ale and half pints of gin.
Sarah took a deep breath. “This is the last stopping place for a drink,” she explained in much the same tone as she’d used to tell the girl where to buy bread and where to empty the chamber pots.
Mouth open, Polly was gaping at the coaches and sedan chairs that filled every side street.
Sarah looked again at the closest of the tables. Even as she focussed, the sun broke cover from the highest of the grand buildings at the Holborn end of St Giles. No point in shading her eyes. Nothing would stop her vision from flashing and wavering in time with the throbbing in her head.
Besides, she’d seen enough. It was Lord Fremont shuffling the cards. He’d left off his usual lead paint, and the pink for his cheeks, and the crimson gash that, by night, spread an inch beyond each corner of his mouth. Now, if shockingly old, he looked almost manly.
Had he seen her? Silly question. If he had, he’d not have recognised her—not away from the playhouse, not in these clothes. Even so, she moved behind an abandoned water cart.
She turned her attention back to Polly. “There’s a highwayman being turned off today,” she said, one of the newspaper columns she’d skimmed coming back into mind.
“It’s a mark of respect for the fine gentlemen to wait here, rather than take the direct road from Westminster to Tyburn.”
She thought for a moment of turning about and going back towards Great Russell Street. But that would be an admission of error, and to a girl who might not get fed, let alone paid. No, she’d press forward and hope for the best.
She took Polly by the arm. “We’ll go this way,” she said firmly, moving towards one of the less cluttered side streets.
Oh, but her poorly head! If she could only believe they contained any tobacco at all, she’d have spent her last penny on one of the filled pipes a blind woman was offering. She pretended to ignore two urchins who’d got out of her way, but were continuing to scoop up handfuls of wet dung to throw at each other.
Was this really a good idea? It would have to be.
Never mind His Lordship, still at work on fleecing the young gentlemen he’d joined—another few minutes at most, and the carts would arrive. Preceded by the marshals and constables and javelin men, and followed by an immense army of relatives and well-wishers, and of general idlers and other trash, they’d fill the whole width of the street.
It wouldn’t do to be caught in that. No woman with any pretence to respectability should risk being seen in a hanging crowd. But, if she pressed forward, the side street she had in mind would lead them into Monmouth Street. Holborn would still be crowded with the slower or more drunken end of the procession. So they could take King Street and Castle Street into Drury Lane. After that, it would be the normal route back to Fleet Street and Grudge Court. It was just a matter of getting from one side of St Giles to the other….
Even as they picked their way across the street, a growing noise of drums and chanting announced the approach of the carts. Of a sudden, the spaces within the crowd grew smaller. It was like watching barley and water thicken into porridge. Sarah was forced to a stop. For a moment, she could have looked up at the clear blue of the sky and screamed with anger.
She didn’t. She had no right to complain. From beginning to whatever the end might be, this was her own fault. She should have stayed in bed, accepting she had no money for laudanum. Without it, she’d passed a night where moral and physical pains had blurred into a single premonition of Hellfire. No wonder she hadn’t noticed the St Sepulchre bell and its mournful chime.
But, if the depression of spirits she needed it to control might one day lead her into the ultimate sin, the absence of laudanum brought pains she knew would eventually diminish. She should have stayed in bed, telling her father she was ill again. Instead, she was out to collect one of his debts—collecting debts in a country that seemed to have been stripped of shillings and sixpences, and where anything else on offer was too clipped to be worth accepting. It was her own fault if she was stuck in St Giles on a hanging morning.
“Begging your pardon, Ma’am,” an Irish voice wheedled behind her.
Sarah turned. She saw a battered hat over a yet more battered face. There was something military about the ragged coat, and perhaps about the wooden peg that took the place of his right leg from the knee down. He pulled his hat off and made a credible bow.
“Begging your pardon, but I’ve a request to make of a widow woman’s charity.”
Charity, indeed! Another few weeks of this cash famine, and she and her father might be looking for some of their own.
In hope of intimidating the boy’s parents into handing over anything at all, she’d put on her black overcoat. This, plus a pair of sunken, bloodshot eyes, should be enough to see the beggar off.
She prepared to lift her veil, to show how much of a walking corpse he’d accosted. Just in case he moved beyond begging, she moved her left forearm. The brass candlestick she’d seized in lieu of payment had a reassuring feel.
But the man bared what remained of his teeth into a grin. “Oh, I’m not asking for the world, Ma’am,” he said quickly.
He moved closer. “It’s just last offices for a poor unfortunate what’s been left with not a friend in the world to follow him west.”
He stepped back and made another bow.
Cautiously, Sarah shook her head. This was the overcoat she’d worn for Richard’s funeral. She’d not risk it by getting involved in a hanging.
“He’s got you as a friend,” she said coldly. “You do the job.”
She took Polly again by the arm and stepped towards what might be a gap in the crowd. They might get through towards Soho before the carts arrived.
His wide iron foot scraping on the stones, the Irishman sidled round to block her path. “I’d gladly do it myself if I was a whole man.”
He pulled a sad face. “Why, the poor boy means everything to me. It fair breaks my heart to see him go alone to the gallows.”
As if for support, he looked up at the sky. The motion shifted his neck cloth, to show the beginning of the tattoos that everyone knew covered the bodies of the wilder savages from his country. It reminded her she was with a man who spoke English as if he were a native, but whose thoughts were in another language.
For all the connected thought she could manage, her head might have been filled with mouldy ticking. She still knew she had to get away. You don’t get involved with the native Irish. Even if they don’t mean you positive ill, no good ever comes of it.
But, with a great cheer and a ragged banging of drums, the carts were arriving. The crowd pressed back on itself, leaving the three of them in the middle of the road. Already drunk, the Sheriff slid off his horse and reeled past them towards the Angel. He was followed by two of the clergymen, and then by everyone in the two carts who wasn’t tied up.
Now the empty part of the street was filled with bawling drunks. They milled aimlessly about, kicking up the dung-impregnated straw. One of the smaller urchins had his breeches down and was pissing over the Sheriff’s horse.
There was a smell of baked meat, and of stirred up filth from the street. Someone broke into a moany ballad, his voice giving out on the higher notes. With much calling out of endearments too sincere to be genuine, the Sheriff and Lord Fremont were embracing. Sarah focussed harder into the sunlight. Her heart sank still further.
Oh Jesus! It was Sir John Sweetapple in charge of today’s proceedings—someone else she’d rather avoid.
Before she could turn and get herself and Polly back the way they’d come, she felt a hand brush against her left shoulder and reach inside her coat.
Like water released from a rain barrel, Sarah’s growing rage found its outlet. Straight, she had the candlestick out and swung at the thief’s head.
It was a spirited but a useless motion. The thief dodged her blow. He clamped both hand about the candlestick. Crying “Mine! Mine!” he pulled it away from her.
What happened next was too fast for Sarah to make full sense of it. What she finally saw, after much blinking and a long and ragged breath, was the thief arched backwards in the street, blood gushing from a wound that laid his face open from right eye down to the jaw. Any squeal he might have brought out was lost in a renewed burst of cheering.
The Irishman wiped his knife on the thief’s coat and stood up. “Come, dear ladies,” he chuckled.
He bowed again, then handed back the candlestick. He stretched out both arms as if to shepherd the women away from further harm.
“This is no place for discussing works of mercy.”
Sarah bit her lip and looked at the fallen thief. After the first shock of injury, he should have been getting up to scarper. Instead, he flopped up and down, clutching at the soiled straw. It was clear that no sound came from his open mouth. Not knowing how to protest, she let herself be moved into the cover of a recessed doorway. Her head was ready to burst, her mind more scrambled than ever.
She fell backwards up half a dozen steps and pressed her back against a locked door. With more scraping of his iron foot, the Irishman followed.
At once, the crowd was silent. Sarah left off thinking about the pain in her head. She barely noticed the itching of her inner thighs from the muck she’d not been able to avoid splashing upwards. She looked over the sea of grey hats.
“Who’ll treat Ned Heeler?” someone cried from the front cart. He struggled to his feet and held up his bound hands. One of his admirers climbed in beside him and straightened his hat and neck cloth.
“Treat me now,” he croaked, “and it’s my turn on the way back.”
The crowd broke into another loud cheer. Lord Fremont was in sight and making an elaborate bow. He snapped his fingers at a potboy. A double tankard of gin was soon moving towards the cart.
Ned Heeler was cracking another joke. More cheers. One of the constables now spotted the boy. He got him a blow to the head that knocked him face down into the mire. No one paid attention to him or to the yapping dogs that gathered round. Somewhere out of sight, a violin struck up a dance tune.
The Irishman waited for the noise to fall back to normal. “If it’s money you’ll be needing for your trouble,” he said, reaching into his pocket, “you’ll not find me wanting.”
Sarah looked at the handful of rubbish he held out. One of the tiny, misshapen lumps might once have been a sixpence. As for the rest, its maker deserved to be sitting in one of the carts. He’d be going west beside men sentence for clipping less silver than this.
Away from the light and the main noise, she was coming back to her senses. Payment offered could be service refused. Not caring if everything went into a spin round her, she shook her head again.
Squatting down as if in the act of relieving herself, Polly was behind the Irishman, her face turned away. Sarah set a foot down one of the steps.
“No, Ma’am!” The Irishman leaned against the wall, blocking Sarah’s path. He put on another smile, this one covering only the lower part of his face. With his free hand, he reached into another pocket and pushed about. A look of anger flitted briefly over his face.
It was a very brief look. He was all smiles again by the time he held out the guinea.
Does anyone see such a thing unannounced, and look away again? She took the shining disk and rubbed it between her fingers. She put it to her mouth and bit.
A guinea! An entire and uncorrupted guinea!
She kept hold of it. She looked into the now grinning but implacable face. He seemed to have filled the entire exit from the doorway.
“Which one?” she heard herself ask.
The Irishman gave a wolfish smile. He stepped up beside her and twisted round to look into the lurid brightness beyond the doorway.
“That one.” He pointed pointing towards the rear cart.
Sarah followed his hand. He was a young man—twenty, perhaps? Unlike the others beside him, he didn’t seem to have drunk himself cheerful. His face pale as his new-washed shirt, he was staring up the clock tower of St Giles. You couldn’t always tell, but he didn’t look Irish.
“What did he do?”
The answer she got was more smiles. Her guess was clipping. Monday had been the last day for receiving the old coins by face value. Right up till then, the clippers had been frantically at work, paring off a few last grains of silver before everything but the new coins would pass only by weight. Such easy money, it must have seemed. So little chance of getting caught. So certain the three mile ride west from Newgate if you did get caught.
Though he wouldn’t, he could think himself lucky the sentence had been commuted to mere hanging. There was no drawing and quartering that day.
She swallowed. He was young. He was pretty in a boyish way. He looked a bit like her late husband. Nothing could change that he was gallows fodder. And there was a guinea in it.
Not unclenching her hand to see it again, she was aware of the wonderful coin she was about to earn. A guinea would pay the rent up to date. It would let them eat without having to wonder about the next meal. It would buy paper and ink and new quill pens, and still leave change for laudanum. The very feel of the warmed gold sent shivers through her body. Even her headache began to shift.
As if he’d followed the workings of her mind, the Irishman leaned closer. “One more thing,” he said, now confidential. “I’ve a sealed packet to give you.”
His eyes narrowed. “I want you to slip it inside the boy’s breeches.
“Don’t let it be seen.”
Sarah’s hand fell to her side. As if the sun was peering through a gap in heavy cloud, her mind cleared enough to realise the enormity of what was being asked of her. She looked harder at the Irishman. He turned his head away with a muttered excuse about a blessing from a sweetheart unable to attend. It was insulting in its brevity and palpable falsehood.
The smile, when he looked back in her face, was nothing more than an open gloat. He knew he’d got her. He knew she knew he’d got her. Triumph and contempt blazed from his face.
She stared at the packet in his hands. It was a thing of oiled cloth, and secured with a seal on red wax.
Had it finally come to this? Twenty-seven years in this world, and she was now reduced to libelling the dead. She’d heard of this in one of her father’s rambling stories about the Cromwell tyranny. You can’t get a confession from a living man. So you plant one for the hangman to find when he takes possession of the clothes and effects. It could be dirtier than that. You could implicate others as well.
She could have thrown the coin back in the Irishman’s face. Anyone with an ounce of self-respect would have done. He couldn’t have stopped her. He’d not have blocked her exit. What he was demanding needed a willing accomplice.
But she could feel the gold again in her hand. Stand long enough in the crowd that swarmed day and night before the Mint, and she could change it for 22/-6d in new silver. A trip to one of the better class of banks, and she’d get seventeen shillings—maybe eighteen, if she haggled. Either deal would mean more cash than she’d seen since the Act was published to call in the old money.
Her last pint of laudanum had been a shilling, and in clipped money.
Sarah made up her mind. No, be honest—she admitted what had never been in doubt.
“We’ll walk beside the cart,” she whispered. She’d not climb in beside the other women. Rather than sink that low, she’d take her chance in the mud.
The Irishman nodded. “I’ll be watching you.”
This was it. He turned. Almost before she could open her hand for another look at the guinea, he’d got himself down the steps. With a descending scrape of his iron foot, he was gone.
On a normal day, the Oxford Road could be a delight once past the junction with Soho. It was here that the buildings along its southern side became lower and less continuous, and those to the north gave out altogether. Go past the junction with Swallow Street, and you might almost be in open country.
But, if the sun rose steadily higher in an unclouded sky, there was no twittering of birds today—no sound of flying bugs or quiet lapping of streams. Coaches grinding away at the front, sedan chairs following these at a respectful distance, the rabble shambling behind in a long tail, the procession moved along in a blur of noise. The paved stretch of the road stopped after the junction with Charles Street. A dozen paces beyond, and Sarah’s clothing had swept up enough dried mud to cover her body from the waist down.
After that, she’d pulled herself aboard the rear cart.
Her face without expression, not seeming to care how much grit would lodge itself in her sensitive places, Polly continued on foot. Sarah looked back at her once or twice, to make sure she didn’t go out of sight.
Otherwise, she pretended not to notice the painted thing with no front teeth, who was sobbing away beside her, and looking every so often between a parting of her fingers. She didn’t look once at the young man, or any other of the condemned.
There was another crowd gathered at the crossroads formed with the Westminster and Edgware Roads. Here, the permanent hanging triangle was still joined by the viewing stands put up the month before.
Despite his bad legs, her father had got her and all his students out for the treason executions. That fool and general nuisance Collier had been round the night before to tip them off that he’d be there on the scaffold to give full and public absolution to Friend and Parkyns.
Her father had come along sure he’d be giving support to a loud clamour against the Government. Luckily, his cry of “King James Forever!” had been in Hebrew, and was drowned out in the general cry of outrage at Collier’s performance in full clericals
Then there had been the chaos of the search for Collier once he took to his heels. The Reverend Dr Obadiah Fritton and his party had got off with no more than a funny look from one of the constables.
That had been the previous month. Even with spitty rain and a cold wind, you’d expect a quarter of London to turn out and watch two men hanged who’d come close to murdering the King. When he was eventually taken and tried and sentenced, their associate Fenwick would fill the viewing stands again.
For the moment, if the weather was much improved, it wasn’t a tenth of that to say goodbye to a highwayman and a handful of decidedly petty felons. There may have been a few hundred sat in the frontal viewing stand. Everyone else was socialising on his feet.
Sarah felt a hard poke in her side. It was the toothless woman. “I said, dearie, aren’t we a bit previous?” she asked in an aggrieved tone.
Between feelings of shame at what she’d contracted herself to do, and the vague notion that she was riding to her own execution, Sarah had been coming slowly back to her senses. Most of these she’d been using on a Prologue that would soon be as late as the rent.
She turned and gave the woman a blank stare.
“I mean, he’s not dead yet,” the woman cackled. She stroked the faded black of Sarah’s coat.
“Don’t speak in my face,” came the answer in Sarah’s best imitation of Mrs Juniper. “You have a stinking breath.”
But, if Mrs Juniper could silence a jeer from the pit with the slightest rise of her voice, Sarah was no Queen of the Tragic Stage.
“Ooh, in’t she the bleeding dutchess?” the woman shrilled. “Ain’t even brung no effing broom!”
She made a grab at Sarah’s hat. A hard jab in her chest with the candlestick, and she fell back screeching.
The Sheriff was beside them, “Silence, you pair of bitches!” he roared from his horse. “Silence, or I’ll have you both taken in charge.”
Sarah fussed with her hat, checking if its veil still covered her face. If he did recognise her, it was possible Sir John would turn moderately pleasant. The price for that, however, would be weeks of heavy sarcasm in the playhouse.
But his face was red from gin. Just as likely, he’d lay about her with his horsewhip.
No pleasantry, though, nor horsewhip. He sat upright on his horse and straightened his wig and hat.
“Everyone not for hanging out of the carts,” he called in his official voice.
He leaned towards the toothless woman. “Mind you,” he went on in easier tone, “there’s room for twenty four on the gallows. Mistakes haven’t been unknown at Tyburn.”
He sat up again and laughed.
Away from the road, Sarah had found a patch of clear space that had been much trampled while it was still sodden. Now the mud was only soft. She tried to blot out the loud babble behind her and looked south towards the glittering magnificence of Westminster.
There was a faint stirring at the back of her mind.
I bid you, Gentlemen, behold
This tale of Grecian woe unfold….
Was this a good opening couplet? It had a nice peremptory sound. It would cut through the chatter in the playhouse. She thought again. Should she risk diffuseness by adding two syllables to each line? Should she avoid hiatus by turning “woe” to “woes?”
Whatever she did with it, how to follow the couplet?
Polly brought her back to the here and now. “I don’t like it, Mum,” she whined. “It ain’t right what we’re doing.”
Sarah took a deep breath of the country air. She didn’t like it either. But the worst of her headache was passed. She had the guinea tucked safely away, and it wouldn’t be long before she’d finished earning it. The dirt she’d kicked up earlier was a continuing irritation. It would have been nice to go off somewhere private and pull her dress up to see to herself. But she’d known worse days than this one—many of them, and all without hope.
Today, she was earning a guinea, and had made a start on her Prologue.
She looked away from the distant mass of the Abbey. Perhaps she was seeing Polly for the first time in good light. Or perhaps the freshness was already going from her face. On even a few days acquaintance, London was good for doing that. The tears the girl had been shedding didn’t help.
“Just do as you’ve been told,” she snapped.
She would have said more. But there was an approving shout from the crowd, followed by a fluttering of wings overhead. Polly looked up at the three birds flying south east in close formation.
“It’s the pigeons,” Sarah explained. “They get sent off to Newgate to confirm safe delivery of the prisoners.”
She paused, taking charge again of her voice.
“It will soon be time.”
The time was come. The crowd was quiet and expectantly in place. By ancient custom, the road from Westminster was kept clear—not that a messenger was likely to come galloping over with a pardon for any of this lot. Standing together in one cart, all the prisoners were lined up under the front bar of the gallows. Each with a four foot rope about his neck, the long ride was over.
Bringing out a loud cry of “God Bless King William!” Ned Heeler was done with his account of how he’d robbed the Bristol mail coach. If only he’d not blown the coachman’s head off first, discovering that mass of Jacobite correspondence would surely have got him a pardon. As it was, he’d been given last place in the cart, and would be the first to go off it.
The clerk’s confession of how he’d poisoned his sweetheart was a dispiriting narrative. So too with the coiner, and with the man whose crime had been so obscure, even he had trouble asking absolution for it.
It was the young man’s turn.
“My son,” the clergyman intoned with a solemnity not entirely spoiled by his inability to speak while standing up, “you have been found guilty of a crime that is not to be mentioned among Christians. It is the crime that, of old, brought catastrophe upon the Cities of the Plain, and the righteous abomination of which is one of the marks that separates every Christian people from the Turks and other heathens.
“Will you surely not, at this last moment, confess your sin and seek the absolution of Holy Mother Church?”
The young man took his eyes off nothing in particular in the middle distance and held up his bound hands. He seemed to find them interesting.
Then he swallowed and looked defiantly round.
“Very well,” he said at last in a voice that was plainly not Irish, and that had more than a touch of the well-born about it—“very well, I did it.”
He smiled at the groan of horror that went up from the crowd, and made a fair attempt of bowing to the coiner beside him, who was trying to sidle away.
“I did it because I thought I knew him, and I still believe there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body.”
Because she was at the front of the crowd with the other helpers, Sarah didn’t see the main reaction. But the surgeon a few feet along the line of helpers left off his bargaining for one of the bodies, and put both hands over his ears. For the rest, the universal silence behind her was all she needed to hear.
No wonder the Irishman hadn’t wanted to do the job himself. It wouldn’t quite be Friend and Parkyns all over again. But no one liked an unrepentant sodomite. She’d be lucky if she got away without a good pelting.
The clergyman was first to recover from the shock. He pulled himself up and slapped the young man’s face twice, and spat at his feet.
“Then may God have mercy upon your soul,” he snarled, “for I can wish it none.”
And that was an end to his share in the proceedings. Clutching at his head to keep his wig steady, he was helped down from the cart, to stagger out of sight.
Sir John stepped forward. A scowl on his bleary face, he nodded to the hangmen high up on the gallows bar. He turned for a final look at the road from Westminster. No horseman. No cloud of dust. He turned and bowed to Sarah and the other helpers. He turned to the driver of the cart, and took out a very white handkerchief.
He paused for a long moment. As he dropped it, the driver whipped up his horses.
With a scared cry of “Jesus, have mercy upon my…” Ned Heeler was first for the two inch drop.
Because they were traitors, Friend and Parkyns had been denied the final service of their loved ones. They’d been left to kick and jerk about for a full ten minutes, and then to swing for ten after that, before the Sheriff in attendance decided they were unconscious enough to be taken down and hacked apart according to law.
These were common felons today; and, if she’d never yet been called on to help, Sarah knew her duties. The trick was to hang onto the legs and pull with all her weight until they stopped kicking. Since there were two of them, it would have been better to rely on Polly’s stout build to keep the noose tight about the young man’s neck. She could then have knocked the air out of his chest.
But she had no broom, and he was too high for her to reach up with her fists. So, together, they held on tight about his waist and pulled for all they were worth.
Sarah noticed without registering the sobbed farewells and the louder cries of despair from the other helpers. Where sound mattered, she was most aware of the internal noises from a body that hadn’t yet, in its unreflective parts, realised it was dying.
“For God’s sake, stop struggling,” she whispered. “In the name of Christ, give up and die!”
Beside her, a sudden smell of excrements told that someone’s bowls were relaxed. On the other side, there was a splashing of piss.
Unable or unwilling to hear her continued urging, the young man fought desperately for breath. His chest heaved. His legs kicked. His bound hands fluttered and twisted. He had all the power of youth on his side, and there was no telling how long these agonies would go on.
She stepped back and stood on tiptoe. If she took hold of him under the arms, she could swing with her full weight. That should snap his neck, It would also give her cover to get rid of the Irishman’s packet of lies.
But he had to die first.
Guinea or none, there were things she couldn’t do to the living.
She should have guessed that, left to herself, Polly would go wrong. Instead of holding on tight, she’d got the breeches down. Moaning and shaking from the horror of the task she’d been set, she clamped hold of the smooth flanks and tried to pull again. The legs were kicking faster. Already turned inside out, the only reason the breeches weren’t on the ground was that they were caught on a shoe buckle.
Even before Sarah could begin to panic, the body went into an immense but brief spasm. Then it was still. She could still have slipped the packet somewhere inside the shirt.
But, in a choking fit of her own, Polly was flopping about on the ground. The young man’s last act had been to go off in her face. His mess was dripping off her chin, and was gathering a coat of loose dust.
Sarah stood away from the body. She looked at the other hanged men. Ned Heeler was dead. The blood trickling from his nose and mouth would soon stop. The others were mostly dead or unconscious. But the coiner’s knot hadn’t slid tight enough. Though she did her best, his mother hadn’t the weight to close off the choked buzzing from his throat.
She turned to face the silent crowd. Every pair of eyes seemed fixed on the coiner’s dying struggle. The rapt faces reminded her of a painting she’d seen exhibited in one of the finished parts of the new St Paul’s. Far at the back, many of them looking through spyglasses, every person of quality was on horseback or the roof of his coach.
She turned back to the young man. She’d seen him alive. All but embracing him as a lover, she’d felt his warmth and movement. Now he was dead, and it was her work. She had managed to break the neck. The head had flopped backwards, reminding her of a killed goose. It was a bedraggled and a shocking sight.
She flattened the wave of self-loathing she felt about to sweep over her. There was no time for that. She looked at Polly. Under cover of helping the silly girl to her feet, she could surely drop the Irishman’s packet into the breeches.
But someone was beside Sarah. “Come away, my child,” the drunken clergyman intoned. As if to steady himself, he put a trembling hand beneath the shirt. He clawed at the smooth belly
“He is now with Christ.”
He drew his hand away and sniffed his fingers.
“Your work is done,” he added with an appreciative smack of his lips. He took her by the arm and led her away from the gently rotating corpse.
She stopped at the edge of the crowd. “No,” she said with an attempt at firmness. “There is work yet to be done.”
Polly was crawling towards her, the dust stuck to her lower face now looking like a beard. The young man had no one to keep the surgeons from stealing his body. Sarah could go through the motions of bargaining before it was dragged off for anatomising. This was her last chance to finish the job.
The Irishman had said he’d be watching. She had to finish the job.
It was a lost chance. Even as she shook herself free of the clergyman, Sir John was hurrying forward.
“Cut that body down!” he shouted in alarm. He stopped by the young man and peered at a letter he hadn’t finished unfolding.
He pointed at one of the hangman’s assistants. “No one to touch the body or its clothing,” he snarled.
“But get it down now!”
That got the crowd from its stillness. Main attention shifting from the coiner, people stepped sideways and back. The surgeons left off their preparatory bowing to the helpers. Knife in hand, the hangman himself reached down from the bar. The body landed with an untidy thud, and the constables hurried forward to surround it.
Sir John was looking again at his letter. Silence gave way to deep and continuing murmurs of confusion.
If it was to come at all, the loud and bacchanalic cheering that should always follow the deaths had been delayed.
The crowd surged forward, closing about Sarah. Though she remained in the act of stepping forward, she realised she’d done well to miss her chance. Like the pain when you prick yourself with a darning needle, it was a realisation that began with a passive act of noticing, before growing to overtake all other sensations.
The etiquette of planted confessions was that they should be found by accident. She’d known this wasn’t to be a normal planting. But she hadn’t supposed it was to be so immediately discovered. Without the wretched clergyman and his eagerness to grope at the dead flesh, she’d still have been taken in the act.
The shock of realisation passed away, to leave her mind reasonably clear. She was still free, but not out of danger. Through a brief gap in the crowd, she caught sight of Sir John. He’d finished directing his search, and was looking at his letter again. In a moment, he’d be looking round for the helpers. He’d call out his order.
Whether or not he added a reward, Sarah would be pushed straight forward into the arms of the waiting constables.
She noticed that Polly was beside her. Sarah pulled her close.
“We’re getting out of here,” she hissed. “Keep hold of me, and don’t look back.”
Easier said than done.
At last, the crowd was pressing forward for its customary rights. Already, two women were pushing deformed babies against Ned Heeler’s chest. A young man was rubbing the sores on his face against the pissy breeches. The coiner still wasn’t dead. His mother shoved aside, someone dressed in apothecary clothes had ripped the shirt open, and was scraping off the death sweat for deposit in a flask.
There was much laughter, and a growing babble of cries from the sellers of food and broadsheets. Though not big, the crowd was dense where it mattered. A riot would have been welcome. It would have introduced fresh mobility and room for escape. It would have grabbed the whole attention of the authorities.
But the whole assembled trash of London wouldn’t have rioted with Sir John to glare it into submission.
Sarah knocked hard against a curate, and pushed through the crowd of boys he’d been lecturing in a nasal whine. She got Polly in front and used her as a battering ram against some servants in livery. That earned them both a volley of spittle and much coarse language. At once, though, the crowd was thinner. She had a clear view, to her right, of the field from which she’d looked south towards Westminster. The path of least resistance would be across the fields.
She resisted the urge. Going that way would mean half a mile in the open before they could dodge between the outermost walled gardens of Westminster. She shoved Polly steadily forward. It would normally be an hour before the crowd broke up and began streaming back into London. Even Sir John couldn’t cancel the bidding for the clothes, or the sermons the dissenting ministers had come along to preach.
Until then, the Oxford Road was the easiest way back to where she could feel safe.
There was a sharp voice not far behind her. “Woman!” it cried. Was it an Irish voice?
The surrounding noise made it too hard to say, but she could be sure it wasn’t the constables. Her throat tightened so she could barely breath. Taken in charge, she’d only be shoved before Sir John. That would be bad but manageable. What about the Irishman? She could be sure he’d not take his packet back, and the guinea, and call it quits.
She heard the voice again. It was muffled, but seemed closer.
Sarah’s nerve went. “Run!” she gasped at Polly, “Just keep running!”
Clutching at the girl with one hand, at her skirt with the other, she pushed through the last few bodies that stood between them and the far edge of the crowd.
She no longer cared what stinging dust she threw up. She barely noticed the effect against her corns of the boots she’d put on to make her taller. Slowed only by the need to keep Polly going in the right direction, she rushed past scavenging paupers and idling boys. She avoided tripping over the little hillocks in the road and the deep ruts left by carts and coaches.
She thought she heard the voice calling out again.
From the Oxford Road, she took the right into Swallow Street. She would have staggered on till they could vanish into the packed anonymity of Piccadilly. But it was after the junction with Glasshouse Street that she had to let go of Polly. No longer supported, the girl fell straight to the ground and lay there in a sort of ball.
“Get up!” Sarah wheezed. “Get up and move if you want to stay alive.”
It was useless. The girl was fagged out. “I can’t go no farther, Mum,” she sobbed. “I can’t move me legs.”
Sarah kicked her in the side, then in the chest. That got her back into her shitting pose, though not to her feet. She rocked back and forth.
“Oh, I wish I was back in Catford,” she wailed. “I want to go home.”
Sarah thought of slapping her face. But that would mean bending down, and she was sure she’d pulled a muscle in her back.
She gave up on further escape and clutched for support at the railings that fronted one of the grand houses.
She waited for her breathing to come back to a semblance of normality. Letting go of the railings, she moved out of the sunshine. She took a new position against the nearest street post. She stared south along the street, willing the restrained grandeur of its terraces to calm her.
It was one of those long streets that were always busy without being crowded. Tradesmen led their carts along it, stopping now and again to make deliveries. A servant girl sat on one of the fourth floor window ledges, to polish the outer side of the glass. Half way along to Piccadilly, one coach was waiting for another to come out from some mews. A balladeer was singing out of sight.
She had to get herself and the girl that last hundred yards into Piccadilly.
But they could afford a short rest. They were out of immediate danger.
No, it was better than that, she knew. Her feet were on fire with pain. Her legs were sore. Her back was stiffening by the moment. Her headache was returning. But she knew that any scraping she might hear of iron on cobblestones was the product of her imagination.
She turned and looked back along the way she’d come. There was a coach moving slowly from left to right along the Oxford Road. Beyond that, the mounds of rubbish merged insensibly with the open country that stretched north as far as the eye could see.
It was all as it should be. No one had followed her. No one would come looking. No one would find her. She was back in the great city.
She looked once more at the junction with Piccadilly. From there, it would be a right into Whitcomb Street, and then left by Charing Cross, for the straight mile and a half to where Temple Bar marked the easternmost boundary between Westminster and the City.
She’d got clean away from Tyburn.
What she’d done there was another matter. In the formal sense, of course, her conscience was clear. She’d done the young man a favour. Without her to pull at him, who could say how long he’d have flopped about on the end of his rope? She hadn’t killed him. The Law had done that. All she’d done was to lessen the pain. She hadn’t even betrayed him in the end. Any moralist in England would have told her she was clean.
And any child would have told her she had blood on her hands.
She closed her eyes. Fighting for control, she kept them closed. She opened them to a sudden pattering of feet.
No reason to worry—it was only a sedan chair that was pulling up close by. She watched as its door opened, and, with much bowing and scraping from the chairmen, a man stepped out, dressed in the finest clothes you see outside a Royal levee.
She stared from the shimmering white of his stockings to the glossy brown of a wig that ended below his waist. He finished paying the chairmen and walked carefully across the higher, cleaner cobblestones towards one of the big front doors. Unless he turned at the last moment, he would go right past Sarah.
She had her excuse for stepping off the spiral of despair she’d made for herself. Should she ignore the man? Should she curtsy?
On the other hand, if there was nothing she could do about the patches of dirt all over her, she was wearing a hat. Would that earn her at least a polite nod?
The man stopped directly in front of her. She looked into his jowly face. She held her breath. Then, with a “My good woman, please accept my commiserations on your loss,” he pushed something into her hand.
Straight after, in a fog of civet perfume, he was bounding up the steps. The door opened and closed, and he was gone.
For a moment, Sarah was completely still. She didn’t need to open her hand. The weight and reeded edge of the new-milled sixpence were enough. It was her clothing. She was all in black, though stained. The man had mistaken her for a recent widow without means.
Done properly, that would raise a laugh in the playhouse. Or it might reduce the audience to tears. What mattered here was the flash of realisation it caused.
She had to get out of everything black. If Sir John Sweetapple hadn’t recognised her at Tyburn, nobody had. Once she was back in her normal outgoing clothes, no one need ever connect her with the woman in black.
Taking off the overcoat was a start. So too unpinning the black cloth from her hat.
She stared down at Polly. Indifferent to the filth and the danger, she’d fallen asleep beyond the line of street posts. Sarah had got away unrecognised. Polly was the weak point. Five foot high, five across, hairline an inch above her eyes—she’d be known again by anyone who had seen her at Tyburn.
Well, the girl had made a silly wish. Perhaps it should be granted. She had been in London five days, as all-purpose skivvy to the Fritton household. She hadn’t found time to enjoy her new life. It might be for the best if she was sent back to looking after the pigs in her Kentish village.
Sarah stood over her. “Get up, Polly.” She kicked the girl again. “I need you to carry my coat.”
The girl opened her eyes and whimpered something in dialect about Catford. She made a feeble effort to sit up, but only rolled sideways with her legs in the air. However, the dead man’s mess was now dried on her face, and was beginning to flake off.
Sarah put on what she hoped was an encouraging smile. She folded her coat, grey lining on the outside.
“Listen, Polly,” she added. “I don’t want you to say a word about any of this when we get home. Do you understand?”
She knew she might have addressed one of the street posts to more certain effect. The girl really would have to go.
Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, Oh, Oh!
His mouth still a perfect circle from the repetition of “Oh, Oh, Oh!” Samuel flopped down on the opposite side of the table.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he said with a bright smile.
He snapped his fingers for the serving boy, as if by magic producing one of the new pennies between forefinger and thumb.
Sarah sat back from the bowl of water she’d ordered. The washing had helped. So too the coffee. Chief minister, though, to her ravaged soul had been the five drops of laudanum added to the steaming brew. Five drops—not enough to get her out of bed on a normal day. But, like slush on a squealing axle, the bare hint of a Turkish poppy had set the wheels and cogs of her mind back in their proper motion.
The application to her unseen parts of a rag soaked in vinegar could safely wait.
This didn’t make the company any more welcome. The vinegar could wait—not so her deliberations on the Irishman’s packet. Now recovered, and sat at her usual place in Mrs Clapton’s, she was moving into second thoughts about the events of the morning.
Five years in her present course of life, and placing facts into a pattern was become second nature. Perhaps she’d allowed too neat a pattern to emerge from the events at Tyburn. It was possible that the Irishman had employed her for an act of betrayal, and had then tried to betray her to the authorities. Just as likely, his letter might have got to Sir John too early.
Or the letter might have been an attempt by some other person to betray him.
Or there were the half dozen other possibilities of descending likelihood conceived since her arrival in the coffee house.
The only undeniables were a dead man and an undelivered packet. The former was something best avoided. The latter couldn’t be avoided. Anyone with an ounce of common sense would throw the packet away unopened. Plainly, the Irishman had been up to no good. She’d been lucky not to get fully involved. She’d never see him again. Therefore, throw it away.
Good advice, that was—though quite useless. As well as recovering her, the opium had created space at the front of her mind for thoughts of the packet to fill. She could feel the pricking of its seal where it had settled in her shift beside the candlestick. She’d open it once she was home and out of sight.
Until then, passing the time of day with her favourite actor-manager Lambert wasn’t on her list of things to do.
She dried her hands. She reached inside a pocket under her left armpit. She pushed the creased slip across the table.
“The note is from a failed bank,” she said coldly.
If she’d hoped for a polite excuse, followed by departure, she was out of luck. Samuel dumped his wig on the table and set about scratching his head. He looked awhile at his fingernails, and then at her washing bowl. But his own coffee was now served. Sipping delicately, he sat back in his chair.
“My dear Mistress Goodricke,” he said in his quietest grand voice, “you will appreciate that the bank wasn’t failed when I received the note.”
He sat forward and pushed the note back at her. “After all we’ve been through together, you surely wouldn’t accuse me of so petty a fraud.”
Dropping his grand manner, he broke into another of his smiles.
Sarah had seen women swoon at smiles less broad. But that was after better lines than he’d just brought out. The louse making its way along his forehead didn’t help. It was plain, though, she was stuck with Samuel at least for as long as he took with his coffee.
She stopped herself from smiling. In truth, you were never “stuck” with Samuel. She’d rather he hadn’t dropped in. But here was Samuel. Like everyone else, she would always find time for him. She just wouldn’t smile at him.
She took another sip of her coffee, and tried to make her face as sour as the drug it contained.
“So when can I have my 27/-6d in silver?”
He smiled again. “That, dear Sarah, is what I’m here to discuss.”
“There’ll be no more silver in this country,” a man broke in from the next table. “You mark my words.”
He laughed bitterly. “If you want silver, you’d better take yourself to Holland. Failing that, there’s the Dutch Embassy.”
Samuel and Sarah looked at each other. There was no need of the warning, but Samuel twitched his nose ever so slightly. He put his wig back on and set his face into a puzzled look.
“I entirely fail to understand your meaning, Sir,” he called out in a voice that sounded conversational, yet filled the room.
The government spy looked carefully round. This wasn’t the main time of day for coffee, and Mrs Clapton’s establishment was thinly attended. But the few desultory conversations in progress had ceased, as men found a sudden interest in the newspapers.
A thin smile on his face, the spy turned back to Samuel.
“I merely observed, Sir, that the total withdrawal of the circulating medium coincides with a quickening of its export to the Low Countries. That is surely a truth evidenced on the face of things.”
He raised his voice and looked round for agreement. “So too is the distress of all commerce among His Majesty’s English subjects.”
Sarah was a woman. She had the perfect excuse to look bored and wait for the spy to slope off in search of others to entrap. But old Johnson was awake and growling approval from his corner.
“All these Dutchlings be dammed,” he said thickly—too much gin in his coffee again, or too little coffee in his gin. “There was never shortage of cash when James was King.”
He burped and looked blearily about for his snuffbox.
“Those bastard Dutch have stole all England’s money.”
Technically, this was only sedition. The fool hadn’t gone the whole way to treason by referring to James as King merely out of possession. But everyone knew this was only the slip of an old man’s tongue. Like snow on a rooftop in March, it needed only one more touch to bring down a full profession of the Jacobite creed.
Two men sat nearest the door got up quietly and left. Beside her coffee boiler, Mrs Clapton was letting off scared looks in every direction.
Samuel stood up and walked into the centre of the room. He turned to the spy and made an elaborate bow.
“You are mistaken, Sir, if you conceive that the purpose of the recoinage is other than benevolent.”
He moved again, this time standing between Johnson and the spy.
“It is notorious that every silver coin in England has, for many years, been subject to clipping—and that, once clipped beyond the inner ring, it becomes difficult to tell real coins from false. Even before the late Revolution, there was little money that contained its face value in silver.
“There can be no doubt that, sooner or later, the Government would have had to recall the debased coins and replace them with new coins, marked on the edge to prevent clipping.”
The spy was on his feet. He made his own bow to Samuel, and tried to see what Johnson was about. Without seeming to notice, Samuel moved again.
The spy could have given up. Before the Assassination Plot, Mrs Clapton’s had been noted for its loose talk. Johnson then hadn’t been at all the most forthright in his support of the exiled king. But that was then. Today, the only easy pickings would be Johnson himself. He might say enough to justify an arrest. That would earn him a few nights in Newgate. But no grand jury would find a bill to prosecute anyone so broken down.
Even if he had a second witness to swear for him, the spy would never collect his bounty.
The spy could have given up. But he didn’t.
“I grant, Sir, the excellency with which you have put the Government’s case,” he opened. He looked round again. No one looked at him now.
“Nevertheless, you do not explain the process by which so many of the new coins have been minted in England to circulate in Holland. A guinea in London may not buy twenty shillings of the new coins, assuming they can be had at all. In Amsterdam, the same guinea will buy twenty three.”
“Bravo, Sir—well said!” Johnson called out, banging his cup on the table.
“Come, take a pinch of snuff with me!”
Samuel raised his arm and stared the spy back into his seat. “I readily grant that money has flowed out of England since the Revolution,” he said. “But how else can it be, when we are at war with France, and the main theatre of war is in the Low Countries? Would you have us stop paying our armies? Or would you be happy to see the war fought on English soil? English money would certainly then be spent in England.”
He paused and looked dramatically across at the new print of King William. “Or would you have us stop fighting a war that was forced on us and that we are winning?”
He moved closer to the spy, still speaking in the conversational tone that could fill a playhouse. “War was declared on us by France, when King Lewis objected to the Revolution that restored our liberties and preserved our Reformed Faith, and threw off the French shackles that James of evil memory had put upon us.
“Have you forgotten how we were attacked in Ireland and on the sea? Are you ignorant of how we reconquered Ireland and made ourselves supreme at sea? Will you use a temporary shortage of sixpences as your excuse to end a war that, with so much expense of blood and treasure, we have nearly won—and won against the greatest power in Europe?
“Indeed, Sir, are you telling us we should bring back James at the head of an army of French protectors and Popish priests?”
Sarah could see he was nearly there. “Dear God!” he boomed. “We are barely months away from the time when Jacobite traitors, inspired by French gold, tried to murder our lawful King here in England. With Fenwick still at large, will you dare show your face in the light of day, and preach fresh rebellion?”
He puffed out his chest. “The law requires two witnesses to an act of treason. Who will join with me in taking this self-confessed traitor before the magistrates?”
That was enough. With a last angry look round, the spy was on his feet and making for the door.
Samuel’s parting threat of violence was loud enough to cover Johnson’s cry of disappointment that he’d have no one after all to try putting a rope about his neck.
Samuel sat down again and pulled his wig off. “Was that a brilliant or merely a fine performance?” he whispered.
He dashed off the remains of his coffee, then sprawled back in his chair. Someone got up and bowed to him. Mrs Clapton shovelled more pulverised coffee into her boiler. Gradually, the room went back to normal.
Pretending to stare at the print of the King, Sarah looked at Samuel. No one could call him handsome. Leave aside the lack of harmony in the elements of his face—he was, in the ordinary course of things, rather too stout for the roles he took on the stage. But neither could anyone deny his force of character, or the peculiar grace of his speaking voice. Sarah would deny him nothing, except applause.
“You’ve earned free coffee for the next month,” she sniffed. “But when can I have my 27/-6d in silver?”
He went back to his easy smile. “What I do so admire about you, Sarah, is the clear view you take of the essentials.”
He lowered his voice. “But, if there was no choice about fumigating him, that Government man was perfectly right. Dutch William has fucked us for silver. Search me why there’s a recoinage in time of war. We were reduced to taking brass buttons at the door last night.
“If I can only have your Prologue, though, there’ll be seven guineas from His Lordship tonight.”
Sarah blinked. “Tonight?” she asked, wondering if she’d misheard.
“Surely, you’re putting it on next Wednesday?”
Still smiling, Samuel shrugged. “Bailiffs, my dear, bailiffs—they just won’t wait. I need Fremont’s cash, so we’re putting on the Siege of Constantinople tonight. We all know the lines. I only need the Prologue you’ve agreed to father on Fremont.
“Can I have it before six? It won’t do for Mrs Juniper to read it from the page.”
He reached for his wig and stood up.
“Tonight?” Sarah repeated, still aghast. She could feel the warmth the opium had planted in her stomach drain steadily away. “But I haven’t finished redoing the love scene between Araminta and the Sultan.
“As for the Prologue, I…”
He stopped her with a cheerful wave. “Oh, never mind the love scene,” he said. “Fremont won’t care if the dialogue doesn’t make sense. It’s Mrs Juniper and his Prologue he’ll want to see.”
He put his hand on the door. “Do be there before six. You know how Mrs Juniper hates last minute learning.”
For longer than she had to spare, Sarah sat looking at the grounds and the greasy residue in her cup.
She was interrupted by Mrs Clapton. “Lovely boy, don’t you agree, Mrs Goodricke?” she asked.
She looked at the closed door. “I went to see him last week in your own Fop Discover’d. Talk about laughing—I near split me sides!”
She stood fully up and waddled into a kind of twirl. After a deep breath, she recited:
You fear lest Evelina see you rage?
You’d better fear if she were told your age!
She waited for her other patrons to finish their low cheer of recognition, then sat down in the chair that Samuel had vacated. She took out a fan of stained ivory.
“Such a lovely boy,” she repeated, setting about her sweaty face. “Don’t you never think—you being a widow woman and all…?”
Sarah got up. “I fear, Mrs Clapton, that I must take leave of you.”
After a long inward groan, she managed a smile. “But, if you can make your way tonight to Parker’s Lane, you’ll see Mr Lambert at his very best.”
“God damn William, Prince of Orange!” Johnson finally gasped. “God damn all who’d keep King James out of his own!”
Unless one of her usuals had turned informer, Mrs Clapton was in no danger of a visit. But she hurried across to him. If she was to keep him quieter than this till she closed, the old man would need something stronger than gin.
I bid you, Gentlemen, behold
This tale of Grecian woes unfold….
With an apology, the charcoal carrier stepped aside for Sarah to go through the narrow entrance. He even made a credible bow. Odd for someone of his station, she thought. She nodded vaguely and hurried inside.
She waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom, before setting foot on the stairs. The bells were chiming noon, and men of business had broken for dinner. The air of Fleet Street was heavy with the smell of beer and roasting meat. Some of that had followed her though the labyrinth of narrow lanes that led to Grudge Court.
Long before she reached the garret floor, though, the only smell she could distinguish was of unemptied chamber pots.
Her dose had passed off during the walk from Mrs Clapton’s. Her feet were back to murdering her. It would be a while yet—perhaps a long while—before she’d feel the warning trickle of sweat down her back, and the returning agitation of spirits. Until then, it would be no more than the dullness in which the very light of day seemed to come through smoked glass.
But a new thought popped into her head.
“O Jesus!” she moaned. She stopped her long climb and leaned for support against the damp outer wall of the building. At best, her one couplet would need redoing. She’d addressed the gentlemen: what about the ladies? Last time they’d been upset—and it was for less than overlooking their presence—the females in the audience had pelted the stage with menstrual rags.
Could she change “gentlemen” to “gentlefolk?” She could, if she didn’t mind ruining the first line. She thought again.
I bid you, gentle audience….
That tripped along. But where was a rhyme for “audience?” “Ornaments,” perhaps, or “permanence.” She knew it was neither of them.
His Lordship had agreed to get the Prologue into the newspapers. They would advertise it as by “L—-d F——-t,” or just by “a Person of Quality.” The next issues would carry a letter of praise from Congreve. Another five guineas, and Dryden himself would put his name to a letter. Fremont wouldn’t allow anything but her best work to go out under his name. Samuel and the cash aside, no female writer—no writer of any sex—could afford to pass up that chance. She’d need to do better that this, and in time for Mrs Juniper not to go into one of her funny turns.
She was one flight short of her father’s lodgings, when a childish voice cut through the fog of her misery.
“Katamathete ta krina tou agrou,” it recited in Greek, though with much uncertainty of the accents, “pos auxanousin. Ou kopiosin oude nethousin.”
The boy stopped, then continued: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin.”
“Why are you out on the landing, Stephen?” she asked. She hurried forward. She turned the corner to the last flight of stairs, and nearly fell over the other boys who were standing there.
“What the bloody fuck is going on here?” she shouted, her Prologue forgotten.
The boy at the top of the stairs had finished his turn with Polly. Sniggering, breeches still about his ankles, he looked down at Sarah. The boy behind him was already fiddling with his belt. She forced her way up the remaining stairs and pulled the waiting boy aside.
Her soft grunts muffled by the skirt pulled over her face, Polly lay with her stockinged legs apart. With every breath, her vast belly heaved and wobbled like a liver blancmange as it’s carried to table. Sarah bent down and slapped hard on the belly.
“Get off your back, you disgusting whore!” she hissed.
She paid no attention to the whimpered reply, and stood up. The girl got her head uncovered. Her mouth as open as her legs, she struggled to sit up. Once again, it was a failed effort. She rolled sideways, and, with a long farting sound, dribbled mess over the dirty boards.
“You can gather your things together and go.”
Sarah thought. “Don’t expect payment or a reference.”
She stepped back and glared at the boys. Her father might spend the rest of the day flogging their arses raw for this. Or he might not. Given the present state of his legs, he probably wouldn’t. Regardless of the boys, though, this was a fine excuse to be rid of Polly. If she started within the hour, she could be back in her village before nightfall.
Stephen turned his sheet of paper over. “Arketon te hemera he kakia autes,” he finished happily—“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
He put his hand up for Sarah’s attention. “Please, Mrs Goodricke, the Doctor’s busy. He sent us all out here with the maid. She was expressly told to keep us quiet.”
Now sniffing his fingers—just like that drunken chaplain—the sniggering boy nodded his agreement.
Polly did now sit up. “Don’t send me away, Mum! I promise I won’t be with child.”
Sarah paid no attention. Stepping past two other boys who’d drunk themselves too close to passing out to notice she was there, she turned the handle of the door that led to the family lodgings.
Jeremy Collier got up and bowed. “Mistress Goodricke,” he called with his oiliest charm, “I am most delighted to see you in good health. I was under the impression that you were confined to bed with one of your fevers.”
He brought out an obviously fake smile, and poured her a cup of beer.
Sarah looked across the dingy sitting room that was also supposed to serve as a schoolroom.
“What are you doing here? I was hoping you’d been smuggled off to France.”
“Come now, Sarah,” her father broke in, “that is no proper way to address your godfather.”
She sniffed and took her hat off. She sat carefully on one of the less rickety chairs. “The last time I noticed, he was on the run from the law.”
She reached for the cup. As usual, the beer was off. She drank it anyway. She looked at Collier. He’d spent his life hating the dissenters. Serves him right he now had to dress as one of their preachers to go about unarrested.
“Aren’t we now felons for receiving him?”
The smile didn’t drop from Collier’s face. “There can surely be no fault, my dear child, in receiving a faithful servant of the King.”
He bowed his head. “Are we not all of us his faithful servants?”
Sarah scowled. She had no time for arguing with anyone. But, if she didn’t drive Collier away, he’d sit here all day, talking treason that any one of the six boys outside might hear. What would that government spy have not wanted to be told?
She gathered her thoughts for the maximum offence she could manage.
“Even you must have noticed the game is up,” she sneered. “The war’s lost. The French won’t restore James because they can’t. He’ll die in France. When William dies, he’ll be followed by Anne. What happens after that doesn’t concern people like us.”
She put her cup down. She glared at Collier, wondering if he’d get the message, or if she’d have to resort to phrases like “Piss off!”
Her father was trying to pull himself to his feet. “Sarah!” he gasped. “Oh, Sarah! James is King by the Grace of God. If an Act of Parliament says otherwise—yea, if all the people in England stand behind the Act—he is King still. Our duty is to serve him as best we can.”
Collier turned his glittering eyes in her direction. “I fear, Obadiah,” he said smoothly, “your daughter has suffered the corruption I warned you against. It is not fitting that a woman should write for the stage, and not fitting that she should write for such a stage as may be found in Parker’s Lane.
“I tell you that every species of moral filthiness may be found in that playhouse. I have, with mine own eyes, seen women to dance there, with their legs on full display, and horrid blasphemy on their lips.
“Let me provide you with a single instance of how your daughter earns her bread….”
“Oh, shut up!” Sarah had had enough of this.
“You may recall that I’m a widow. If I live with my father, it’s from choice, and I’m mistress of my own life. How I earn my bread is my business alone.”
She glanced at her father. He looked as if he’d start crying. She’d not point out that his total earnings—when the boys paid at all, that was—were three shillings a week. Without her own irregular, though often large, earnings, he’d barely pay the rent on this dump, let alone eat.
Instead, she went back to politics. When it came to giving offence, she’d only started.
“You’re both wasting your lives on a cause that would be worthless, even if it weren’t without hope.”
She stopped. Collier deserved to be reminded of all he’d given up when he refused to swear allegiance to William. But she knew her father thought every day of the living he’d had to resign, and of the void into which he’d stepped.
She looked briefly away from the pair of fools, only one of them culpable. The door to her own tiny room was closed. It was hardly surprising her father had assumed she was asleep in there. She didn’t normally wake till noon. She needed to be in there now.
If only Collier didn’t seem to be enjoying the waste of her time.
“When James was King,” she went on, “he ruled as half tyrant, half fool. The real wonder isn’t that everyone who mattered called in his daughter and son-in-law, but that they waited so long to be rid of him.
“And when William did turn up, what was the response of our ‘Lord’s Anointed?’ Why, he ran away to France so fast, he didn’t have time to pack a change of clothes. From there, he was sent off to Ireland at the head of a French army. Every one of our own people there too trusting to take up arms against him he turned over to a rabble of native papists, who stripped them naked.
“When William followed him to Ireland, what did James do? He ran away again, this time from the field of battle. It’s not for us to feel sorry for the natives. But they trusted him, and he shat all over them. He’s now snug in his French palace, while his host makes war on us.”
Again, she paused. She thought of what she’d learned from a renegade Jesuit who sometimes drifted into Mrs Clapton’s.
“The Chinese believe that every ruler in possession has the Mandate of Heaven, and that he loses possession when that Mandate is withdrawn. Well, James has been out of possession for seven years, and there’s no one but a few malcontents who want him back.”
She’d guessed right that Collier was enjoying himself. “Oh, my dearest friend Obadiah,” he quavered in mock outrage, “surely your daughter has turned Whig!”
He turned away from the old man, and smirked at her. “How fortunate there are men in this country who do not think as she does. Do you not recall the firmness with which Sir John Friend and Sir William Parkyns suffered martyrdom last month?”
Sarah felt what remained of her temper slipping away.
“They were the lowest kind of assassin,” she nearly shouted. “Worse, they were so stupid, they were watched almost from the beginning of their plot. If he was privy to what they were about, James isn’t fit to lead a pirate ship, let alone rule in England.
“You were a troublemaking fool to go along to their execution. You were lucky the mob didn’t string you up beside them.”
The sun shifted position in the room, striking on something that shone like a mirror. She leaned forward to pull a newspaper aside on the little table before her father. She looked at the three half crowns.
“Where did this come from?”
Collier rolled his eyes. “Your father said the recoinage has left you both out of funds. You’d not object to help from his oldest friend? I’m only ashamed that persons of our quality should have to think 7/-6d so very great a sum.”
He turned to her father, and continued in Greek about his movements till Sunday. With another look at Sarah, he remembered himself in time, and switched into Hebrew.
She looked at the new coins. More than that, and she’d have had positive cause for suspicion. But Collier was her father’s oldest friend, and each had done his best to help the other since the Revolution.
As quickly as it had started, the impenetrable conversation ended. Collier was on his feet.
“Sarah,” he said with a sudden turn to earnestness, “one of these days, you will have cause to think better of me. For the moment, I fear I must take my leave of you.”
He looked about for his hat.
Out on the landing, Polly was continuing with her entertainment. Collier shrugged and looked at young Stephen, who was now finished with Matthew, and was going through Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. He patted the boy on the head, before hurrying downstairs.
Sarah stood watching till she heard the front door bang shut.
Dressed only in her grey shift, Sarah sat in bed. She had her writing board on her knees. Twelve drops of laudanum in gin were producing a wondrous internal rising of the sun. She looked through the open window. If she went closer and leaned out, she’d have a fine view over the rooftops towards the dome of St Paul’s. The smell from the Fleet Ditch could be a nuisance. But there was a southerly breeze this afternoon.
She looked out at the cloudless sky. She closed her eyes and looked away.
When she opened them, she was looking at the slim volume of sermons her husband had published a few weeks before he began to cough blood. It stood on the one shelf in the room, beside it on one side her Bible, on the other a treatise on optics one of her admirers had pressed into her hand.
“Poor Richard!” she murmured. “Poor beautiful Richard!”
Even with the buffer of opium to keep the sadness at bay, she told herself to put his face out of mind. It was the same with the face of the hanged man. Unopened, the Irishman’s package was beside the bed. She wouldn’t think of that either. If undeniably important, it was less urgent than the work in hand.
Careful not to break its long stem, she filled her pipe and set it to the candle she’d brought in from the main room. She took in a lungful of smoke and expelled it towards the window. She took another, and then another.
As charcoal turns white in the blast of a bellows, so the opium was steadying and enlarging her mind. Now savouring a delicious happiness that felt as if it would never end, she dipped her pen and hovered above the sheet of paper.
And she wrote:
Take flight, I bid, on wings of art,
Our jolly London to depart;
And over France and Italy,
And where the fabled cities lie
Of olden Greece—come, let us fly,
Till shall, from overhead, be seen
The City of Great Constantine….
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Please note: This is an unrevised and unfinished fragment of a novel by Richard Blake. London 1696 War. Treason. Espionage. Financial chaos. Speculation. Sarah Goodricke writes plays. It pays the rent. It keeps her in tobacco and laudanum. She has a play to finish. Then she gets caught up in a hanging procession to Tyburn. She agrees to perform a last service for one of the convicts. It goes wrong. It goes terribly wrong. Sarah runs. Sarah thinks she is safe. But can she hide in a city filled with plotters, all desperate to lay hands on the packet of letters she has carried away from Tyburn? This unfinished fragment of a novel by Richard Blake is offered free in e-book format as a sample of his finished works. Do not be disappointed if it leaves you in suspense. One day, someone may pay him to finish it....