The hangman's noose swayed gently in the chill winter breeze, the pale Italian hemp stark in the murky light.
No matter how many hangings Florence had attended, the sight of a manor womanhanging from the noose caused her a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She shifted her gaze from it, although there was nothing to comfort the eye in the rest of the panorama facing her. Newgate Prison's classic stone facade, unrelieved by any windows, stared back at her, its walls as gray as the lowering skies above her.
The February wind bit at her. Shivering, she pulled her cape tighter. Despite the bodies around her, the cold penetrated through to her bones.
Perhaps because she'd eaten nothing since yesterday evening, preferring to spend the time in prayer and fasting for the condemned man.
The crowd pressed against her as new arrivals jockeyed for position. They had been drifting in since last evening when the portable gallows was wheeled in by the team of horses. Two crosslike structures supported a parallel set of bars between them. A lone noose hung from one of these bars, designed to support up to a dozen bodies. But on this rare occasion, only one man would be hanged.
A few guards stood below the platform, bearing pikes or muskets. Florence glanced over at the one nearest her. His unshaven face and slouched stance showed the effects of having stood watch all night.
Though the growing audience swelled, waist-high wooden barriers extending out along the walls of Newgate prevented anyone from getting closer than a few feet from the gallows.
Florence had been attending the hangings for six years now, ever since she'd begun ministering to the inmates of Newgate. She was determined to show them a last friendly face and let them know up to the end that there was somebody praying for their souls. She hoped a glimpse of her would remind them of the verse she'd shared with them at the end, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.
"Last confessions of dying man! Tuppence. Get the true and final confessions of Jonah Quinn!" A man wending a horse with difficulty through the crowd waved a sheaf of printed broadsides, their ink no doubt still damp.
How she hated these executions, where a person's life was made a mockery and the proceedings a theatrical farce. She focused on the empty platform once again. The prisoner wouldn't be brought forth until half past seven. She knew the schedule well.
Lord, break his will. Soften his heart. Don't let him depart with that hardness of heart that prevents him from receiving Your mercy.
The prayer had become a litany to her since last night.
A prayer for Jonah Quinn, a man accused of forgery, one of the dozens of capital offenses codified in the "Bloody Code." It had been a shock to most sitting at the January Sessions that his sentence had not been respited. Nowadays, all but a few of the capital crimes were commuted to transportation. The Recorder of London, principal presiding judge at the Old Bailey, had stared hard under his dark brows so at odds with the white curling wig flowing over his shoulders at the accused as he pronounced the age-old words "hanged by the neck until dead."
The prisoner had remained as unmoving as the granite blocks before Florence now. He'd already stated his last words just prior to the judge's verdict. "God curse you all for hanging an innocent man!"
Florence had seen more than one man go to the gallows defiant, but many more were glad for the message of hope to take with them when all that was left to them was to face their Maker. She was reminded of the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus, the one unrepentant, the other humble and penitent before the Son of God.
Eyes closed, Florence shut her mind to the growing noise of the crowd as she took up her prayer once more. Only the Lord could break through to a man's heart.
"Quinn is an innocent man!" someone in the crowd yelled. A chorus of assent followed.
The shouts from the crowd intensified. The windows in the houses opposite the Old Bailey began filling up with the well-to-do. Many had paid several pounds to secure a seat above the crowd. Florence had heard rumors that even certain members of the House of Lords who had taken an interest in the case were in attendance, but she had no interest in scanning the windows behind her. Today, only one soul concerned her.
"Hats off! Hats off!" The shout of voices around her alerted her that the prisoner was being escorted out and those in the crowd didn't want their view impeded.
The Debtor's door opened and the sheriff came out, holding the prisoner by the arm. The condemned man took one look at the crowd. Instead of being intimidated by the sea of faces, he seemed to grow more defiant. His broad chest swelled out, and his bearded chin thrust forward before the sheriff jerked his arm.
They climbed the short flight of steps onto the gallows. The hangman followed behind them. The ordinaryor prison chaplainbrought up the rear.
It was the first time Florence was seeing Jonah Quinn in the light of day, the small iron grille of his cell door having afforded her few details of his face in the dark condemned man's cell.
Now, a white nightcap covered his shaggy black hair. His thick black beard was due no doubt to the six weeks he'd sat in his solitary cell since his sentencing. Weeks of deprivation in prison had not eroded his formidable build. The breadth of his shoulders reminded her of a prizefighter she'd once seen. As was customary, his wrists were bound in front of him and another rope was tied around his torso at his elbows, pinning his arms to his sides. The shackles had been removed from his ankles in the prison yard. The sheriff and the black-gowned ordinary looked puny beside him.
"A poor man gets no justice!" a second voice shouted from somewhere in the crowd. Others took up the chant, and soon there was a clamor of protests from the street. The guard beside Florence shifted his pike from one hand to the other, muttering curses under this breath.
The ordinary turned to the prisoner and indicated he could kneel to pray, but the prisoner shook his head, looking as unyielding as he had sounded at his trial. Lord, save him!
The sheriff signaled to the hangman, who took a step forward and pulled the nightcap down over the prisoner's face. Then he placed the noose around his neck.
A second passed, then at the sheriff's nod, the hangman stepped back and reached for the lever.
At that moment, a man plowed into Florence, throwing her against the wooden barrier and knocking the breath from her.
"For Jonah and for all the poor whose land has been stolen from 'em!" A sudden barrage of shouts came from all sides as men jumped the barrier and surged onto the platform like rats.
Time seemed to slow as Florence watched. Before the hangman could release the trapdoor beneath the prisoner's feet, a rough-looking man jumped him from behind and wrestled him to the ground. Others swarmed around the prisoner and cut him free.
The soldiers rallied, but the erupting mob blocked their attempts to reach the platform.
"Down with the king! Give us bread! Liberty for the people!"
Florence clung to the wooden barrier, terrified she would be crushed by the mob pressing against her.
The prisoner leaped from the platform and in one fluid motion jumped the barricade and landed beside Florence.
The guard raised his pike.
Florence stared at its sharp point, poised above her. The next instant, an arm grabbed her from behind and a cold blade of steel pushed against her neck.
"Anyone comes near and I'll slit 'er throat."
She didn't dare breathe. The guard's eyes flickered to hers. That second's hesitation saved her life. The pike was ripped from his arms by the mob.
Behind her, the crowd parted and the prisoner made his escape, dragging her along with him like a piece of flotsam, the press of bodies closing around them like the incoming tide.
"This way!" shouted a man.
They slipped down a narrow side alley, then along a wider road she recognized as Seacoal Lane. They came out onto Fleet Market, an area packed with vendors. Shouts and commotion followed them as stalls were overturned in their wake.
Quinn veered off the main thoroughfare, his hand clenching her arm in an unyielding grip. Through a covered courtyard and past derelict buildings, the area became grimmer and dirtier. They were going to the rookery of Saffron Hill north of Holborn. God help her.
"Come along!" the mantheir guidebarked at them. Quinn yanked her forward and she stumbled in the pockmarked path. Here the roads were nothing but muddy tracks and the brick buildings full of boarded-up windows and decay. The stench of human waste was overwhelming.
Their guide seemed to know the area well. The two men leaped across the puddles and ditches while her smaller boots sank and skidded over the slimy ground. Quinn held her fast, giving her no option but to struggle to keep up.
Small secondhand stores and pawnshops lined the streets, fronts for stolen goods no doubt. Dirty children roamed the alleys, their ragged clothes offering little protection against the cold. Equally filthy adults squatted in doorways, often with a bottle in one hand, their stares dull and lifeless.
Though she was gasping for breath, the two men didn't slow their pace, but dashed from twisted alley to alley that bisected the toppling buildings like a rabbit warren. She soon lost track of whether they were headed north, south, east or west. Perspiration trickled down her back, despite the cold air stinging her face.
let me go
now," she panted.
Quinn threw her a scornful glance. "What, give up my surety? They catch me, you'll go down with me." He waved the knife at her, his teeth flashing an instant before facing forward again, urging her on with another painful jerk to her arm.
Her side hurt and her chest screamed with each breath. Just when she couldn't bear it anymore, he pulled her into a courtyard. She had only a glimpse before she was plunged into a dark stairwell. She stumbled down rickety steps riddled with gaps.
At the bottom, Quinn pushed her ahead of him into a low cellar. She leaned forward, her hands on her knees, panting like a hound after the hunt.
Only as her breathing slowed did she straighten and dare to look around. The two men conferred a few feet away from her. Relief trickled into her when they ignored her. Would she be able to escape them? Her glance went to the wooden door. It stood firmly bolted.
"Ye'll be safe here for now," the disreputable-looking guide told Quinn. "There's some kindling and victuals in the corner. Stay low. After I leave, ye're on yer own. The Boss doesn't want any more involvement." After a few more words, sprinkled liberally with oaths, and a slap on the back at their successful escape, the other man went to the door. He glanced back at Florence over his shoulder as Quinn unbolted it.
"Don't know what ye're going to do about 'er. Mayhap have some fun 'fore ye leave." His coarse laughter rang through the room as he climbed back up the stairs.
The sound of the bolt falling into place made Florence jump. She was truly alone now. She dared a look at her captor, a man who feared nothing and no one, and remembered the other man's words.
Lord, protect me. Show me what to do. Show me Your purpose in bringing me here. Only Scriptures could allay the terror that threatened to paralyze her.
She'd been face-to-face with many criminals since her work at Newgate, but always there had been a guard within calling distance, or an iron grating separating her.