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By Hope Tarr
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2007 Hope Tarr
All right reserved.
Chapter One "... the law is a ass ..." [sic] -Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
London Central Criminal Court Old Bailey Sessions House, 1875
From the front of the courtroom, the judge called out, "Bailiff, read the final case if you please."
Heads swung to the back of the room. The defendant, thirteen-year-old Patrick O'Rourke-Rourke-swallowed against the twist of fear knotting nooselike about his throat. Unlike the poor blubbering bugger called up for sentencing before him, who'd pissed a steady stream to the prisoner's stand and then promptly puked, he swore to hold onto his tears, his bladder, his breakfast-and above all, his dignity.
Never let them see you cry.
The bailiff nodded. "The defendant is one Patrick O'Rourke, late of St. Giles parish but no known address. The accused is a minor child aged thirteen years or thereabouts, and orphaned. Two prior arrests, the first for vagrancy and the second for petty thievery; for the latter, he was sentenced and did receive fifty lashes."
Rourke gritted his teeth as he had six months before when they'd tied his hands to the whipping post and laid into his back. The humiliation and pain were branded on his brain, but lest he forget, the cross-hatching of white scars scourging his shoulders was there to remind him. The whipping had been good preparation for last night.
Seemingly satisfied, the judge nodded. "Let the prisoner come forward."
Having been brought up two times before, Rourke recognized his cue. He stumbled out into the aisle between benches, the robin's egg-sized lump beating a tattoo on his forehead, the scabbed blood forming a cowl over the left side of his face, the shouted questions ricocheting like cannon shot inside his brain.
"What made you set out to off the prime minister?"
I didn't know he was the PM, and I didna set out to off anybody.
"Are you in league with the Fenians?"
I'm not a Fenian. I'm not even Irish. I'm Scots! If I'm in league with anybody, it's Johnnie Black, but his game's running street scams, no politics.
"Did Disraeli's supporters put you up to this?"
Who the devil is Disraeli?
"Are you counting on the court to show mercy because of your youth?"
Mercy for the likes of me-fat chance of that!
Sweat broke out on his forehead. The room suddenly seemed to sway. He drew a steadying breath and willed himself to keep moving. By the looks of it, half of Fleet Street had turned out to pack the court, and he had too much pride to let himself be written up as a fainter. Finally he reached the front of the room. Stomach pitching, he sidestepped the puddle of vomit. Even with his left eye swollen shut, the latter was recognizable at close range as that morning's prison porridge. The bailiff grabbed hold of his sleeve and guided him up the few slippery steps to the prisoner's box. The hinged door slammed closed, sealing him in like a coffin.
"Order in the court. Order, I say!" The gavel's cracking down muted the din to a murmur. The judge settled back into his thronelike seat and reached up to right his crimped periwig. "Let the charges be read."
The bailiff cleared his throat. "Mr. Rourke stands accused of robbery and assault, possession of a deadly weapon with intent to harm, and possibly treason, though the latter charge remains to be answered."
Treason! He'd entered the courtroom fully expecting to forfeit some portion of his future to picking oakum, beating hemp, or working the water pump, but treason was a capital crime, a hanging offense. How was he to have known that the mark whose pocket he'd set out to pick the night before was none other than William Gladstone, the prime minister? Gladstone hadn't looked particularly ministerial. Traipsing about in the greenish haze of fog swathed in a top hat and caped greatcoat, he'd appeared much like any other well-heeled older gent out for a twilight stroll about St. Paul's, not the most advisable after-hours trek, but no doubt he'd reasoned the walking stick he carried would protect him.
He'd been wrong.
Rourke's partner in crime was Johnnie Black. The flash-house leader was a scarecrow of a man in his early twenties with a fringe of black hair that hung over his eyes in greasy strings and a gold front tooth he liked to polish with the pad of his thumb. They'd shadowed the mark for several streets, and then taken cover against a boarded-up building to size up the situation.
Johnnie turned to Rourke, his voice a low rasp. "I'll distract him, and you pinch his purse. Got it?"
Back flattened against the bricks, Rourke whispered back, "Piece o' cake."
And so it should have been. The mark was an older gent, tall and solid-looking, but then there were two of them to his one. The walking stick worried Rourke a bit, but with Johnnie running interference and his own nimble fingers, he'd be in and out before the gaffer even knew his pocket had been picked.
Seemingly satisfied, Johnnie shoved away from the wall and beckoned for Rourke to follow. They started down the street, walking out in the open this time, Johnnie shoving his hands into his pockets and keeping up a low whistle.
They caught up with the mark at the lamppost, and Johnny sidled forward. "Begging your pardon, guv, but my little brother and I were wondering if we might trouble you for the time." He followed the request with a toothsome smile.
The man didn't smile back. From beneath bushy brows, his gaze went from Johnny's pocketed hands to Rourke, who barely reached his big "brother's" shoulder. Apparently deciding they were harmless, he reached inside his coat for his timepiece. Lifting it to the lamplight, he squinted as if struggling to make out the numbers on the face.
The action brought his coat pocket gaping. Rourke moved in, sliding his right working hand inside the gap. Wool tickled his palm. Using his index and middle fingers pincer-fashion, he clamped onto cold, smooth metal cinched about wadded paper-a money clip? Holding onto his prize, he started to withdraw.
The man's gloved hand snapped out, banding Rourke's wrist like a prison manacle. "What the devil do you think you're about?"
Rourke shot up his head. The thunder in that jutting brow had him trembling in his shoes. Next to him, Johnny let out with, "Bugger it, we're screwed," and peeled off. Cold panic struck him. He was all alone.
Rourke ducked, ramming his head into the mark's middle. The man fell back. He hit the post hard, cracking his crown. His hat flew off, and he folded to the ground. Rourke stared down at the slumped figure at his feet. Knocked out cold-blimey, what luck! Home free, he picked up the dropped money clip and turned to run. A dripping sound stalled him. Blood? Dread threatened to turn his bowels to water. Crikey, had he just killed a man? Even though he was breaking the cardinal rule of street boys-no looking back and no going back, either-he had to know.
He swung around to have a look. "You all right, guv?"
The mark didn't answer. Blood ran down the side of his craggy face, trickling through his salt-and-pepper side whiskers and collecting in a puddle on the pavement. Rourke dropped down beside him and laid two fingers along the pulse point at the side of the whiskered neck. The thrumming beneath his fingers was steady and strong. Relief flooded him. He wasn't a murderer! For a moment, he considered celebrating his good fortune by nicking the timepiece, too, but then decided to let the gaffer keep it. If he snaffled it, he'd only have to turn it over to Johnnie, and the gang leader's desertion didn't sit well with him.
The blare of a bobby's whistle sent him shooting to his feet. His head whipped around. The two blue-suited policemen stood a street away, pointing. Shoving the money in his pocket, Rourke turned and ran. Huffing breaths and pounding footfalls sounded behind him. He picked up his pace, running faster than he'd ever run before, his lungs burning and his heart poised to pop. It was no use. They were closing in. His fleeting attack of conscience was about to cost him dearly. He'd broken the sacred rule of street boys. He'd stopped and looked back.
Never look back.
Before he knew it, the pair was upon him. The heavyset one twisted his arms behind his back while the other cracked the club down upon his head, the butt opening up his forehead. Nausea hit like an invisible fist. He spiraled to the ground. Hard hands patted down his limbs, torso, and groin, and then slid between his legs and squeezed.
"Take your filthy hands off me!"
Bright lights danced before his eyes. Warm stickiness ran down his face, lining his mouth with the taste of metal. Laughter rumbled above him. He tried getting up, but it was no use. They had him pinned. They yanked off his boots and then his stockings, and the object he'd until then forgotten all about clanged onto the pavement. His knife, they'd found it.
"Well, well, what have we here?" The gloating face of the club-wielding officer he recognized as Taggert hovered above him. "I have you red-handed, Rourke. This time it's sure to be prison stripes for you, my lad."
"Have you anything to say for yourself, Mr. Rourke?" The judge's voice called him back to the present.
Rourke thought for a moment. "The name's O'Rourke, milord." If he was doomed to swing, then at least let the papers print his name proper. "And I'm no traitor."
The judge's bland look suggested innocence was a trifle with which he preferred not to be troubled. He looked to the bailiff. "Before sentencing commences, is there any evidence to be considered?"
The bailiff replied, "We have the sworn testimony from the two police officers who made the arrest, as well as this knife recovered from the prisoner's shoe." He picked up a box from the evidence table.
The judge nodded, and the bailiff carried the box over to Rourke, tilting it so he might see inside. Rourke's blade lay on the green baize lining. He swallowed hard.
The judge shifted his gaze to Rourke. "Officer Taggert has gone on record as stating that this weapon is yours. Do you deny it?"
Heart thumping, Rourke hesitated. Perspiration broke out on his forehead and pricked his pits. He carried the knife for protection only. He'd never so much as shown it to a mark. He'd never set out to hurt anyone. Until last night, he never had hurt anyone.
"Is the blade yours or is it not? Speak up, boy, I haven't all day."
Knowing that his life well might depend on what answer he gave, Rourke fought to hold his voice steady and his mind clear. "Aye, milord, it is, but-"
"That will be all." The judge looked down on the court recorder seated below at the small side table. "Let the record reflect the accused answered in the affirmative."
"I am afraid I must object."
The deep-timbered voice drew a collective gasp from occupants of the courtroom. Heads swung about to the back of the room, Rourke's included. His mark from the night before, Prime Minister William Gladstone, strode down the aisle toward the witness stand, greatcoat billowing behind his tall form like a ship's sail. Other than a small bandage applied above his left eye where his brow must have scraped the sidewalk, the legendary statesman looked surprisingly hale.
Rourke cast the judge a sideways glance out of his still-working right eye. "Prime Minister, your presence does this court great honor, but it is not required. We have the sworn testimony from two trusted witnesses, officers of the Metropolitan Police Force, as well as the assailant's weapon, which he himself has just identified."
Gaining the witness stand, the prime minister stepped inside. "Be that as it may, I wish to bear witness for the defendant."
The judge's salt-and-pepper brows rose to reach the hairline of his wig. He leaned forward. "It is highly irregular for a victim to testify on his attacker's behalf."
Gladstone nodded, his craggy countenance betraying no emotion. "Highly irregular though it may be, it is perfectly legal. The presumption of innocence until guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt is the golden thread that runs throughout the web of English criminal law, is it not so, my lord judge?"
The judge gave a grudging nod. "Very well, milord, pray proceed."
The prime minister folded his long arms behind his back as though preparing to address Parliament. "The lad did not attack me, as you say. He did, indeed, attempt to pick my pocket, but that is all. It was only after I set hands upon him that he did shove me. My coming to harm was pure accident, hence the charge of robbery must be reduced to the lesser crime of thievery. With me lying on the ground and my money clip in his possession, there was nothing to keep him from running to ground. Instead he elected to remain and render me aid-not to assassinate me as some today have alleged. It is the inherent morality and selflessness of that choice that brings me to speak on his behalf."
The judge scowled. "The boy is an orphan who makes his home in the St. Giles rookery among his fellow thieves and vagabonds. Reformation through incarceration is his only hope. Thrice now he has demonstrated he cannot be left to his own devices, that he must be removed from the society to which he is a danger."
Watching closely, Rourke saw Gladstone shake his head, then wince as though the gesture caused him pain. "Prison will only push him over the precipice to destruction. The company he keeps there will murder all that is good in him and nourish the little that is bad."
The judge fingered the sleeve of his robe. "In that case, pray tell us, what is it you propose, sir? Surely you do not suggest this court should simply set him free?"
"Let him be sent not to prison, my lord judge, but to school."
School? Rourke had never attended a real school, but the Methodist do-gooders at the Christian Mission on Whitechapel Road held classes sometimes. Whenever he could, he sat in. The backless benches were hard on a bum, but the lesson part was all right. He liked the ones to do with numbers the best. His sums almost always came out right, and he could carry impressively large figures in his head.
Gladstone continued. "There is a Quaker orphanage in Kent known as Roxbury House. The institution has an impressive record of rehabilitating troubled boys and girls. I sit on the board of directors. Remand the boy to my custody, and I assure the court he will be found a place there."
The judge removed his spectacles and kneaded the bridge of his nose. "And if he runs away?"
"I will settle a surety of one thousand pounds upon him to vouchsafe that he will not."
A thousand pounds! Rourke felt his jaw drop. He could scarcely fathom such a sum, let alone himself worthy of the trust it implied.
He swung his gaze back to Gladstone. "I believe in this young man. I believe he possesses sufficient goodness and power of will to turn his life about. But to do so he must be given a chance."
An hour later, Rourke found himself unchained, released, and bundled into Gladstone's well-appointed carriage, the soothing scents of leather, cigars, and bay rum filling his nostrils, a wool carriage blanket wrapped about his shivering form. His benefactor sat on the opposite seat, his large gloved hands resting atop his gold-tipped walking stick. So far he'd not spoken since depositing Rourke inside.
Uneasy with the silence, Rourke looked from the thumbs he'd been twiddling. "I didn't mean for you to fall and crack your crown-honest."
Gladstone nodded. "I know that."
Rourke plucked at a loose thread in the blanket's weave. "Are you going to hit me? I shouldn't blame you if you did."
From beneath the bandaged brow, gunmetal-gray eyes honed in on his bloodied forehead and bruised face. "I rather suspect that in your short, miserable existence, you've been struck overmuch as it is."
Rather than answer and risk turning into a "rat," Rourke pulled back the leather window curtain and looked out. His left eye was badly blurred, but if he kept it closed, he could see well enough with his right. The snow-covered streets were far wider and straighter than the narrow, winding warrens of the East End. They must be headed westward to the fancy part of town where the toffs lived.
"How much farther is Roxbury House?"
"Roxbury House is in Kent." The prime minister's voice held a trace of surprise. "Tomorrow morning we shall take the train there together. Tonight we shall stay at my house."
Rourke let the curtain drop and turned back inside. "You're taking me to Number Ten Downing Street! That house!" Patrick O'Rourke to hobnob with the inhabitants of the ministerial residence, who would have thunk it!
The corners of the older man's mouth twitched in what might have been the beginnings of a smile. "Quite. Once there, my good wife shall see that you receive a wholesome meal, a hot bath, and dressings for those wounds. The future will look a good deal brighter after a night's rest in a bed all of your own."
Excerpted from Untamed by Hope Tarr Copyright © 2007 by Hope Tarr. Excerpted by permission.
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