She will marry a condemned man to cancel her brother’s debts – but can she cope with discovering his true identity?
Marrying a condemned highwayman to escape her debts was a desperate solution for Katherine. But it turns out that Nicholas, her new husband, is innocent. Kat can save him from the scaffold – but can she cope with the discovery of his true identity?
The tall man in the frieze coat sat cross-legged on the hard bench, put his elbows on his knees, his chin on his clasped hands and thought. It required some concentration to ignore the shackles on his legs, the cold that seeped out of the damp walls, the rustles and squeaking in the rotten straw that covered the floor and the constant noise that echoed through the long dark corridors.
A few cells away a man was screaming an incoherent flood of obscenities that seemed to have gone on for hours. More distantly someone was dragging a stick across the bars of one of the great rooms, a monotonous music which fretted at the nerves. A boy was sobbing somewhere close. Footsteps on the flags outside and the clank and jingle of keys heralded the passing of a pair of turnkeys.
Long ago his father had said he was born to be hanged. At the time he had laughed: nothing had seemed more improbable. Now the words spoken in anger had been proven right: in eight days he would step outside Newgate gaol to the gallows platform and the hangman’s noose.
One small mercy was that they had put him in a cell by himself, not thrown him into one of the common yards where pickpockets and murderers, petty thieves and rapists crowded together, sleeping in great filthy chambers as best they might, fighting amongst themselves and preying on the weakest amongst them if they could.
Apparently his notoriety as Black Jack Standon was worth enough in tips to the turnkeys for them to keep him apart where he could be better shown off to the languid gentlemen and over-excited ladies who found an afternoon’s slumming a stimulating entertainment. The sight of an infamous highwayman who had made the Oxford road through Hertfordshire his hunting ground was the climax of the visit to one of London’s most feared prisons.
He had hurled his bowl at the group who had clustered around the narrow barred opening an hour or two ago and smiled grimly at the shrieks and curses when the foul liquid which passed as stew splattered the fine clothes on the other side of the grill. He doubted they’d feed him again today after that. It was no loss, he seemed to have passed beyond hunger after the trial – if such it could be called.
Footsteps outside again, slowing. He raised his dark head and regarded the door through narrowed eyes. There was nothing left to throw except the coarse pottery mug and he was not prepared to give up water as easily as food.
The slide over the grill rasped back and he squinted in the beam from a lantern directed through the gap. It was probably daylight outside, all that filtered down into his cell was a dirty smudge of light which hardly had the strength to reflect off the rivulets of water on the walls.
They did not sound like Society sensation seekers. One man talking. No, two, low voiced and apparently arguing. Suddenly moved to real anger at being exhibited like a caged animal at a fair he swung his legs off the bench and took a stride towards the door before the shackles jerked him to a standstill. The grill shutter slammed closed. All he heard was “She’ll never agree…”
With an awkward shuffle the man they called Black Jack got back to his bench and hoisted his feet up again away from the foul straw and the rats who lived in it. Better get used to being stared at, he told himself grimly. In eight days he would walk out of here to die in front of a vast crowd. They expected the condemned to “die game”, defiant in their best clothes, a joke on their lips for the onlookers. They would have to do without the fine clothes, all he had was the ill-fitting ones he was wearing and not a penny-piece in his pockets to buy anything else.
So, he continued his inner dialogue. Better get used to the idea and think up something witty to say. Was it too late to save himself? Yes, days too late. If he had sent when they first took him the message might have reached Northumberland, help might have come. Or might not.
He had made this particular bed. Pride had kept him away for six years, pride was damn well going to have to get him through to the end. Meanwhile pride and a hard bench made for little sleep. He closed his eyes and let his mind drift. At least it wasn’t raining, at least there was no mud and nobody was going to try and kill him for eight days. That was an improvement on the night before Waterloo. ‘Count your blessings,’ his old nurse was wont to say. The bitter twist of his mouth relaxed a little and he began to doze.