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By Dawn McTavish
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2008 Dawn Thompson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLondon, 1812
In ya get, me lady," the slovenly turnkey at Lark's elbow barked. Without ceremony he handed her over the threshold of a tiny, dingy, cell-like quarter collecting shadows in the bleak half-light that lived in such places on the edge of darkness.
"There must be some mistake," she murmured, taking in her new surroundings. "Surely you can't expect me to live here?"
"No mistake, me lady," said the man, perusing the open ledger in his dirty hands. "Lady Lark Eddington, number six. You be her, and this be number six." He snapped the book shut. "This here be one o' the better ones, ya know. Up a flight, ya won't get too many rats like they do below, just flies and spiders. You'll want ta eat up all o' what food ya get, or you'll draw 'em, though-the rats, that is. Have ya got any more blunt ta spare?"
"Blunt, sir?" she blurted. "You've taken it all! If I had any more money, I wouldn't be in here, would I?"
"No need ta take a pet. Blunt'll get ya extras here at the Marshalsea is all-aye, and the necessities, too, come down to it. What ya already give has bought ya a few days' food and clean water, and this fine room here. When it's gone, you're on your own. There's plenty o' vendors in here, but they don't give credit. I'm only tryin' ta help ya, me lady. Folks who don't pay garnish-and them that's a rougher sort, if ya take my meaning-live in the cells below all crammed in together. They sleep on the floor, where the straw don't get changed too often, if ya get my drift, and scrounge for their food how they will. You've got a nice mattress there that only two has died on, filled with fairly clean straw, and it'll stay that way unless ya soils it."
"Well, I haven't any more ... 'garnish' for you, so you may as well take yourself off and leave me be." "In due course, me lady," the turnkey said, expanding his posture. "Got ta read ya the rules first; 'tis the order o' things here at the Marshalsea."
"Get on with it, then," Lark snapped. Extras, indeed! What was that supposed to mean? She raised her handkerchief to her nose. There was a fetid stench about the place that turned her stomach; she'd noticed it the minute the gated doors swung open to admit her earlier. It seemed stronger now, what with the jailor's unwashed odor added. How would she ever stand it shut up in the debtors' prison?
"You'll get used ta the stink," the man replied to her cough. "We've got strict rules against it, but some o' the folks in here don't have a care where they empty their chamber pots. Ha! Some o' 'em in the better cells like yours don't even have the decency ta holler 'guardie-loo' when they dumps 'em out o' the windows. But you won't have ta bother 'bout that up here above stairs, just watch yerself when ya go down for a stroll. You'd best not stand too close ta the buildings. Any o' the guards'll show ya the proper place ta dump your pot. You'll get no maid service in here."
"Please get on with your rules," Lark snapped, repulsed by the discourse and the prospect of being entombed in such a foul and filthy place.
"Ya can have guests, but no gentleman callers, unless they be relatives; that's strictly enforced. Ya can go down for a stroll whenever ya like, during the day, that is. After lockup, you're in for the night, and ya can never go beyond the gates ta the outside, o' course-ever. There's guards ta make sure o' that. This is a jail, remember, not the Grand Promenade.
"The coal is in the cellar below the communal cells. It's a long way down, and you'll fetch it yerself in that scuttle there," he said, pointing to it beside the small black stove in the corner. "One scuttleful a sennight in summer, two in winter-unless, o' course, ya want to pay garnish for more-and ya can have whatever wood and paper bits ya can scrounge hereabouts free o' charge, but I wouldn't count on none o' that if I was you. Folks in here would kill for such, especially in winter. Me name is Tobias, me lady; I keep this section. If ya have any issues, ya bring 'em ta me."
"I was told that I might work to pay off my debt," Lark said. "How might I do that if I cannot leave this place?"
"That's your coil ta unwind, now, ain't it?" the jailor chided. "If yer lucky, some kind benefactor'll pick ya up. We get 'em come in here from time ta time, lookin' over the ladies for one thing or another. Keep yourself up, and mind your manners, and ya might just attract one o' 'em. Can ya sew or write or do sums, and the like?"
"Sometimes folks have need of such services, and they come here with their piecework to get it done cheap." The jailor flashed a wry smile and his small eyes, like two raisins in the wrinkles of his face, gave a sly twinkle. "If ya was to happen ta scrape up a bit more garnish, I could steer such folk as might inquire your way."
"I've already told you-"
"Oh, aye, ya told me right enough, and I'm just telling you, is all, that's how things go here in the Marshalsea. It's better'n the Fleet, or Newgate, come ta that. If ya have a special talent, somethin' that can be taught for a price, ya can turn a pretty penny just amongst the 'guests.' You'll see shingles on the units all along out there advertisin' the trades o' folks tryin' ta make their way. Ya need ta be enterprisin' ta survive in here, me lady."
"Is that all, then?"
"You'll find a tinderbox in the drawer in the table. I've left ya a candle. Don't waste it, ya only get one a sennight, unless-"
"Yes, yes, I know, unless I pay garnish for more," she snapped.
"Now you're gettin' the drift," Tobias returned. "What food your blunt bought is in the cupboard-potatoes, a cabbage, a turnip, a bit o' bread, and some hard cheese. No coffee, but there's a bit o' used tea. The vendors dry it out and sell it again. Don't use it all up at once. You won't get nothin' but slops when it's gone-not without garnish, just so's ya know. Now, if ya want that coal, ya better step lively. Ya won't get nothin' after the closin' bell rings. That about covers it." He ambled toward the door. "I'll be leavin' ya ta get yourself all settled in."
Lark closed the door behind him and sank into the rickety chair in the corner, thankful that there even was a chair after the odious turnkey's oration. She untied the ribbon that secured her wine-colored bonnet, and set it aside with the bundle of belongings she was permitted-a plain dove gray twill frock, a pelerine for when the weather turned colder, a warm pelisse for winter, a shawl, and her whalebone comb to order her cap of naturally curly ringlets that defied taming in normal circumstances. How they would behave in these conditions? she shuddered to wonder. Aside from the wine-colored traveling frock and spencer she wore, and the underthings she had on beneath, that was the sum total of her worldly possessions. All of her fine silk frocks, ball gowns, jewelry-even her portmanteaux-had been confiscated with the rest of the contents of Eddington Hall when the house and grounds reverted to the Crown, and still there were hundreds of pounds in debts outstanding.
It was no use. She would never be able to pay what was owed by taking in sewing and doing sums in the ledgers of some cheeseparing miser who came only to have his work done cheaply. She was only twenty-two years old. She'd been robbed of her come-out, orphaned, left without a feather to fly with, and now this. It didn't bode well for her future, but she would not cry. Lark Eddington was no watering pot, though she certainly had every right to be, alone in her dark, dingy cubicle, too exhausted to eat and too frightened to sleep, though she must do both if she were to wake with a clear head and some semblance of a plan.
Even though it was still some time before dusk, it was dark in the room. Should she light the candle? Better not. She would have to make it last. She did need to fetch her ration of coal, however, and she took up the scuttle and decided to begin with that.
When Tobias described the coal cellar as being "a long way down," he wasn't exaggerating. It took Lark some time to descend the rickety stairs past the communal cells to the dimly lit bins and fill the scuttle; a guard keeping watch on the landing above made certain the coal was level with the top before he let her pass to return to her cubicle. Halfway up, she set the heavy scuttle down and leaned against the dank wall bleeding with moisture, brushing the tendrils back from her moist face. Her body ached. She wasn't accustomed to hauling coal up three long flights of precariously open stairs. She looked at her hands. They were black with coal dust, as was her frock, come to that. Had she wiped it on her face just now when she'd pushed back those dratted tendrils? She must have, and she hadn't seen soap anywhere. No doubt she would have to pay garnish for that luxury. Hi-ho, what did it matter? She shrugged, took up the scuttle, and resumed her climb.
She had almost reached the top when the sound of raised voices drifting downward from the open door of her cubicle nearly stopped her heart. Had she left it open? No. She was certain she hadn't. Her breath caught. Three women burst through the gaping door fighting over her belongings. Tugging on her spare frock, her pelerine and pelisse, they tore past, flattening her against the wall in their haste, and knocked the coal scuttle out of her hand as they fled. To her horror, it tumbled after them, bouncing off the steps all the way to the bottom as the coal rained down between the open slats in a dusty black shower to the landing below.
Lark steadied herself against the shaky wooden banister. Staring over the edge, she watched the coal she'd gathered and carted up three long flights scatter over the landing, where others were scooping it up in their hats, their pots, and their aprons, rejoicing over the precious find. She scarcely blinked and it was gone. Groaning, she slouched against the wall, but that reaction was short-lived. The coal notwithstanding, how dare they take her things?
Anger charged her with new energy, and she spun on the step, raced down the stairs and out into the courtyard, where the scuffle was still in progress. A crowd of inmates and visitors had gathered around the three women wrestling with each other over possession of her clothes. There wasn't a guard in sight. Where were they when a body needed them? They were visible enough when garnish was in the offing. Enraged at that, she joined the foray of flailing arms and flying fists in a desperate attempt to take back her belongings, but her education hadn't included instruction in the art of fisticuffs. While she held her own for a time, encouraged by the spectators' cheers, she soon was knocked off her feet, landing hard without ceremony in the dust of the courtyard. When it settled around her, the women had disappeared with her belongings, and an outstretched hand came into focus. She stared, her eyes following it up the length of a man's indigo superfine sleeve to modest shirt points held in place by a flawless, Oriental-tied neckcloth, so fashionable that season. He doffed his beaver hat, exposing a crop of dark wavy hair burnished with deep mahogany glints in the light of the setting sun. She almost gasped. A mysterious-looking black patch covered his right eye.
After a moment, she took the hand, and he raised her up with ease, then bowed from the waist over the fingers he'd captured, taking longer than she deemed proper to release her. She did gasp then. It was like holding on to a lightning bolt for the startling effect his touch was inflicting on her most private regions. Tall, and well proportioned, he looked too prosperous for a prisoner-too meticulously groomed. There was a provocative masculine scent about him, of pipe tobacco and leather, and wine recently drunk. It was pleasantly dizzying, or was that from just having the wind knocked out of her? She couldn't be sure.
"Are you hurt?" he said, his voice deep and resonant as he took her measure and finally let her go.
"N-no, I don't think so," she murmured, gazing into his exposed eye, dark and penetrating, shimmering like obsidian beneath the thick lashes that gave him a sensuous seductive look. The eye patch didn't detract. It was almost a blessing: Looking into two such riveting eyes would have been more than she could bear, considering the effect the one was having upon her. She had never experienced the like. This man seemed to see into her soul.
"What occurred here?" he queried. "Were those things yours?"
"Yes," she murmured.
Tobias pushed his way through the crowd, his bark preceding him. "Don't trouble yourself, me lord," he said. Snatching Lark's arm, he began leading her away. "I'll deal with this."
"Let go of me!" Lark cried, looking back toward the gentleman who was still staring after them as the jailor propelled her along the courtyard, steering her toward number six. "Where were you when those harridans were robbing me?" she demanded.
"This ain't no way ta start out in here, me lady," Tobias said, shoving her up the stairs.
"They took my things! They spilled the coal I'd just gathered, and others below stole it all before I could retrieve it."
"You've got ta look sharp in here. I don't know what got inta them. Folks don't steal from the other guests."
"There's a code o' ethics here in the Marshalsea. Ya musta provoked 'em some way."
"Provoked? I wasn't even in here. I was in the cellar gathering coal for the stove, like you told me to. They knocked it out of my hands fleeing with my things, and now everything is gone. Well? Do something!"
"I'll look inta it."
"In due course, me lady."
"What about my coal?"
"Ya get a scuttleful a sennight, like I told ya."
"But they took it!"
"So you say."
"Do you see any lying about here? The guard below checked the scuttle. He'll tell you. He made me put a handful back. The scuttle is still down there. They've probably got that too by now. Don't just stand here-go and see for yourself."
"In due course, I said. In the meantime, you'd best stay right in here. You've caused enough trouble for one day-yer first day, ta boot!"
"In due course, in due course. Is that all you can say?"
"I'll look inta it," he repeated. "Now you just settle down or I'll lock ya in here till ya do! I've got important prison business ta attend."
This was another dream, another nightmare-it had to be. She would wake soon in the mahogany sleigh bed in her spacious bedchamber at Eddington Hall, and all would be well. Her father, the Earl of Roxburgh, would still be living, not buried in shame outside the churchyard fence-that awful spiked iron fence with its high arched gates, so cold and forbidding. Such fences had terrified her ever since she was a child in leading strings. Could that terror have been a premonition of her dire circumstances now, some sort of strange foreshadowing? She was open to that sort of thinking. Could that iron fence, those forbidding gates, really keep the redeemed souls in and the lost souls out? The vicar was convinced of it. Was there indeed a designated army of invisible celestial beings standing guard, arms linked around it to enforce such things? And if there was, how could she bribe them? What must she suffer to ransom her father's poor damned soul? This nightmare? But it wasn't a nightmare, was it? It was all too real.
She hadn't been all that truthful with Tobias. She still had a little money put by-a very little in a small embroidered pocket sewn into her corset. She would have to use it wisely, however, and it would be best if he didn't know she had it. These were desperate people: inmates and jailors alike. Imagine, forcing her to spend what little she had-and should be trying to save to pay off her debt-upon life's bare necessities just in order to survive; it was insidious. It was evil. But there it was.
She prayed she'd wake from the dreadful dream, but then a bell pealed; loud, rasping, and final. After a few moments of shuffling, murmuring noise as a stream of visitors literally fled lest they be locked in for the night, the clang of the iron-barred doors set in the high brick wall that surrounded the prison slammed shut. Lark gave a start at the sound echoing through the narrow courtyard below. She was trapped. Shut up in the Marshalsea debtors' prison, in Borough High Street, without a prayer of redeeming herself.
Excerpted from The Privateer by Dawn McTavish Copyright © 2008 by Dawn Thompson. Excerpted by permission.
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