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Never look at any strange man as you approach him in passing by, for sometimes a look may be taken advantage of by forward and impertinent men. It is generally a girl's own fault if she be spoken to, and as such, is a disgrace to her of which she should be ashamed to speak.
—Mrs. Eliza Squire, Good Conduct for Ladies
IT WAS A FINE DAY for a public hanging.
Above the Newgate scaffold, the sky was a high, pale blue. The noose swung in the cold winter breeze. The nobility packed the pavilion behind the gallows. The victim was a gentleman and that always drew a good crowd. This was the execution of the Season; Ned Clarencieux, gambler, adventurer, whose ill luck at the card tables had led him to pass forged money to buy his way out of debt and murder his banker in a vain attempt to cover his tracks. The ladies who packed the gallery had danced with Clarencieux in Ton ballrooms all over London. Now they came to see him die.
Below the ranks of the aristocracy swarmed the mob, pressing about the foot of the gallows, laughing, joking, good–humored with gin and anticipation. They clambered up the lead drainpipes and onto the roofs of surrounding houses for a better view. They jostled and shouted and drank a toast to Clarencieux, and placed bets on how long it would take the failed gambler to die.
In the press of people behind the scaffold sat Miss Catherine Fenton, pretty, privileged and heiress to eighty thousand pounds, wedged between her fiancé and the squirming body of her six–year–old half brother, John. Despite the coldness of the day, she felt hot and dizzy and sick. She had doused her handkerchiefin rosewater and pressed it to her nose, but the faint sweetness of the perfume could do nothing to mask the smell of rank bodies and fetid excitement. To be the only young lady present at a public hanging was no great privilege, but the man Clarencieux had murdered had been one of her trustees, Sir James Mather. Catherine had not wanted to come but her father, Sir Alfred Fenton, could not understand her scruples. He said that she must see justice done. Sir Alfred was a nabob, a man who had lived and worked in India and was accustomed to the sudden and bloody experience of death that living on the subcontinent could provide. He had a cast–iron stomach and an attitude to match. Catherine did not. She knew she was in disgrace because Sir Alfred considered her weak and foolish for begging to be excused the trip to Newgate. Her little brother had begged to be included.
In the event, John had got his wish and she had not got hers. That was no surprise to her. John was loved, spoiled and indulged. She was not.
"Oysters for sale! Whelks ten a penny!" An enterprising street seller was struggling up the steps toward them, a basket of seafood balanced on her hip. Catherine felt her stomach heave as the smell of hot fish mingled with the scent of hot sweat.
"Yes, please!" John said, bouncing with excitement. He proffered his penny to the girl. Catherine turned her head away and pressed her handkerchief more firmly over her nose.
"You are unwell, my love?"
Catherine looked up to see that her betrothed was looking at her with a spurious sense of concern. Algernon, Lord Withers, liked to think of himself as Catherine's fiancé. Catherine preferred not to think of him in any way at all. She hated the relentless manner in which he pursued her and the hold, whatever it was, that he appeared to have over her father. She had been postponing the wedding since the summer, pleading first a mysterious feminine indisposition, then mourning for a second cousin she had not known well but whose death had been providentially timed. Now she had run out of excuses and the wedding date was set for later that spring unless she could come up with a new ruse.
"Oysters are not to my taste," she said, noting that Withers had already lost interest and was now admiring the ample bosom of the street seller instead.
"A shame." Withers's narrow gaze came back to her with a lascivious gleam. "They are accounted to be the food of love, my sweet. You should indulge. It might make you more…kindhearted…to me."
"I think not!" Catherine snapped. The thought of indulging in any kind of lovemaking with Withers was anathema to her. In her opinion, he would not recognize love if he tripped over it in the street. He would merely grind it beneath his heel.
Plenty of men professed to be in love with Catherine, but her fiancé was not one of them. Until her betrothal had been announced, Catherine had been courted and complimented, harassed by poets with bad sonnets, her hay fever exacerbated by the endless flowers delivered by the cartload to Guilford Street every morning. But Catherine was not a nabob's daughter for nothing. She suspected that the gentlemen's affections were reserved for the bags of money she would inherit from her mama's estate. It was tied up in trust until she was twenty–five—or until she married. Algernon Withers's determination to wed her sprang, she thought, from the same source as that of all her other suitors. Greed. And a deeply unpleasant lust that made him determined to possess her.
He had taken her hand in his now and was pressing it tightly until she felt the bones start to crack in protest. Catherine caught her breath. The gleam in Withers's eye had turned to triumph now. He liked to hurt things, particularly pretty things.
With her free hand, Catherine gripped her parasol and drove the spike on the top into the side of Withers's foot. He let her go with a grunt of surprise and she turned her head away, chin raised. She was glad that she had brought the parasol with her now for she had been in two minds earlier. It was sunny but cold. A lady would open the flimsy little umbrella anyway to keep the sun away from her delicate complexion. A nabob's daughter might not bother, however, since she thought such affectations were rather stupid.
Catherine was a cit through and through. Not only was her father a nabob but her mother had also been the daughter of another merchant adventurer, the infamous Scotsman Mad Jack McNaish. His reputation had made men tremble in their shoes but Catherine had adored him. He had told her never to be ashamed of her antecedents. She had no pretense at a pedigree. And the Ton had made it clear from the start that she was tolerated in their ranks for her money alone.
John was slurping his oysters with enthusiasm, the juice running down over his chin. His nursemaid fussed about with a cloth.
"What a shocking display," Sir Alfred Fenton said suddenly, raising his quizzing glass to scan the open tavern windows opposite, where a group of Covent Garden bawds romped bare–breasted with a couple of dissolute–looking young men. "Shameful debauchery in a public place!"
"Shameful, Sir Alfred," Lord Withers agreed. "I do believe those are Hawksmoor's set. He was a friend of Clarencieux of course. It is unfortunate the scandal did not bring him down as well."
Sir Alfred grunted. "Hawksmoor is high in the regent's favor. He is safe—for now. But I give less than a fig for his chances if he falls from popularity. They say he owes so much money he would have to flee abroad."
Lord Withers's hot, excited eyes sought Catherine's as the piercing whoops of the courtesans rose over the noise of the crowd.
"Disgraceful, is it not, Miss Fenton? Parading themselves in broad daylight?"
Catherine felt repulsed. She knew that Withers was equally aroused by the lewd nakedness of the women and by the prospect of the hanging. Both disgusted her. He disgusted her with his cold, clammy hands, his noxious breath and the increasing liberties he tried to take with her person.
"I consider it more of a disgrace to take pleasure in witnessing a murder than to see public displays of licentiousness," she said coldly, and Withers's angry gaze pinned her in her seat before his eyes slid away from hers and back to the window opposite.
Catherine realized that she was shaking. She hated this, the stench of mingled fear and anticipation, the pleasure that men like Lord Withers took in such hideous depravity and most of all she hated her father for forcing her to accompany him. She had overheard him boasting the previous night at Lady Semple's ball.
"We go to see Clarencieux hang tomorrow. I'll wager he will dance better on the end of that rope than he ever did in your ballroom, madam…."
And people had laughed—laughed—at his wit and the thought of a man they had known dying a criminal's death. In that moment, Catherine had hated them all.
She had only met Ned Clarencieux once. The chaperones of the Ton were careful to keep men of his stamp away from the debutantes and heiresses, but one day Catherine had been walking in the park with her stepmother and a number of young bucks had come across to accost Maggie, Lady Fenton, with what had appeared to Catherine to be suspicious familiarity. Clarencieux had been charming. He had been the one who had apologized for their forwardness, kissed Catherine's hand, smiled into her eyes and taken his friends away. And though she had known he was a no–good wastrel, he had left her with an irresistible smile on her lips.
Clarencieux, Hawksmoor… They lived very close to the edge and one false step would bring them down.
Catherine bit her lip now to think that her father had warned her away from such men in life but that now Clarencieux was to die he thought nothing of bringing her to the hanging.
Her brother, John, was trying to see past the nodding plumes and parasols that obscured his view, but he was too small. He scrambled onto Catherine's lap, kicking her, clutching at her pelisse, setting her bonnet askew.
"Let me see! Let me see!"
His nursemaid tried to pull him back but he ignored her and after a moment she gave up the struggle and slumped in her seat. Catherine thought the girl looked
ill. There was sweat standing out on her forehead and she was the color of starch paste. She put out a hand to the maid.
"Close your eyes, take deep breaths and try not to listen to the crowd."
The girl nodded. A matronly woman in the row in front of them turned her head, smiled indulgently at John and patted the space on the cushion beside her.
"Come and stand here next to me, poppet. You will have a better view."
Catherine glanced at the clock on Saint Sepulchre's Church. Five minutes to the hanging. Her heart was racing and her palms within her kid gloves were cold and clammy. She closed her eyes against the winter brightness of the sun and the seething mass of the crowds, but she could not shut out the pictures in her head. She knew what happened when a man was hanged. They took the prisoner to the Press Room and struck off his iron manacles. They bound his wrists. They prayed over him. And then they brought him through the Debtor's Door and up the steps to the scaffold where the noose was waiting.
Catherine opened her eyes. The romping bawds had vanished from the window opposite and instead a man stood leaning on the sill, his gaze fixed on the gallows below. He was tall and fair and it was his very stillness that commanded Catherine's eyes. It was an intense, concentrated, controlled stillness that nevertheless seemed full of violence.
The breath caught in her throat and she stared, transfixed.
Then he looked up and met her gaze, and Catherine recoiled at the anger and passion in his eyes. It was like a physical blow. She felt herself draw back.
"Miss Fenton, Miss Fenton!"
The nursemaid was tugging urgently at her sleeve.
"Master John has gone!"
It was true. The space next to the matronly woman was empty. Catherine looked frantically around. The nursemaid was sobbing.
"I had my eyes shut like you told me to, miss! I didn't do no wrong—"
"Never mind that now," Catherine said. Her heart raced. If John were to get lost in the crowd, they might never find him again. He could be kidnapped or robbed. He had no idea how dangerous a place like Newgate could be. He was just a careless and spoiled child.
Sir Alfred had not noticed anything amiss. He and Withers were deep in conversation and were fortifying their stomachs with brandy from a hip flask.
Catherine stood up. She knew she was going to have to look for John herself. The maid was a broken reed and once her father knew what had happened he would be furious. But there was no need to tell him yet. In all likelihood John had not gone far. She took a deep breath and smoothed her gloved hands down the front of her pelisse.
As she started to edge along the row of seats, apologizing, trying not to step on people's toes, ignoring their grumbles, the clock began to toll the hour. The time of the hanging had come.