England, 1779. Though many citizens of Cornwall have resorted to smuggling as their only means of survival, Jenna Cartwright has determined to always abide the law. But when her brother is sent to debtor’s prison, Jenna must do whatever it takes to free him. Housekeeping by day for one Jack Penhale, she joins a gang of violent brigands each night on Cornwall’s rocky coast.
A professional thief-taker, Jack knows to keep his business private, even from his charming new housekeeper. He has come to Cornwall to find the criminals who killed his father, but his mind keeps returning to Jenna’s innocent, bewitching smile. As their lives become entangled, and the worlds of justice and crime collide, the love-struck pair must decide where their allegiances lie.
This “striking” tale of passion and survival brings to life an unforgettable time and place in history (Historical Novel Society).
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A crowd of people was gathering at the crossroads. The mood was jovial and the expectation was high. Hoping to take advantage of the potential trade, hawkers hastily set up their stalls to display their wares, while barefoot urchins played chase games through the throng of waiting people. As pleasantries were exchanged between neighbours and spontaneous laughter broke forth, a foreigner to these parts would be forgiven for thinking a travelling theatre had arrived to entertain the folk of Cambryn. That assumption would not be unwise, until one learnt the local name for the site or saw the old, well-used gibbet in the place of a stage.
The site was on the outskirts of the small market town and was aptly named Deadman's End. The gibbet overshadowed a point where three tracks met, acting as a warning to any who passed that way and considered breaking the law. It had been used for hanging criminals for as long as anyone could remember, its macabre use becoming part of the normal fabric of countryside life. Stealing property, even just a loaf of bread to ward off starvation, was considered particularly heinous by the property-owning lawmakers of the land. Today, in this hour, it was a poacher's time to die.
Jack Penhale watched from the shadows as he leaned against the remnants of a medieval boundary wall further up the hill. He usually avoided hangings as it was not a form of punishment he could detach himself from. The dead man's dance, the jerking and twisting for several minutes as he died, Jack found grotesque to watch. Yet he understood why the crowd sought some fun here today. Forms of entertainment to take them away from their hardships and poverty were in short supply, and to relish in a criminal's demise distanced them from their own wrongdoings. He did not blame the crowd for their voyeurism; it was the same in every town where hangings were held. Hanging and entertainment were sleazy bedfellows and he could not see it changing in the foreseeable future. For a man who disliked hanging, Jack would have liked two other men to die by Mr Gibbet today: Amos and Job Blake, known locally as simply the Blake brothers.
Amos and Job were built of solid muscle and sinew, had long, scraggy beards and a notorious reputation for thuggery. In recent years they had added smuggling to their crimes. Yet despite their involvement being common knowledge in the area, no man was willing to bear witness to their crimes for fear of retribution. Jack would have liked to see them brought to trial, but with no one courageous enough to speak against them, there was little hope of this happening and that frustrated Jack greatly. To onlookers Jack looked relaxed, almost disinterested, as he bit into his meat pie, but unlike the crowd below him, he was not happy.
There was a shout from the crowd. The cart carrying the poacher had been spotted lumbering its way along the bumpy track. Expectant faces craned their necks to get a better view, while others jeered at the shackled prisoner in the cart. Jack did not know the poacher, but it appeared he was not a popular man. Although poaching was a hanging offence, judges usually showed leniency and sentenced them to long gaol sentences. Not in this case, it seemed. This man, with brutish fists and a face more worn than his thirty years, had a history, and he was to pay on the end of a rope. No wailing relatives accompanied him. No tankard of ale was offered by a landlord en route. No mercy was to be shown. Yet the poacher did not show any fear. To the contrary, he swore and spat back at the crowd, almost relishing in his own demise. His lack of fear and remorse buoyed the crowd even more, and their insults grew.
Jack's attention was taken by a shadowy movement beside him, and for the first time he noticed a small boy with sunken eyes watching him. His feet were bare, his skin grimy and the ragged clothes he wore were too small for his skinny frame. Malnourishment made him look younger than he probably was, and Jack felt sorry for him. He knew from experience what it was like to have no money coming into the home and the pain of a hungry belly. Although his circumstances had changed, the county remained littered with children who were no more than bones draped in dirty cloth. Jack tossed him the remainder of his pie.
'Go home,' he said kindly to the boy as he watched the eager hands catch the food in mid-air. 'This is no place for a child.' Without taking his eyes off the dark stranger, the boy bit into the pie before running away.
Jack turned his attention back to the entertainment below him. The cart was now positioned below the gibbet, and a man of God was reciting some carefully chosen words. The poacher had finally quietened, his bravado deserting him at the sight of the rope. The crowd surged forward to get a better view before falling silent to listen to the final prayer. Jack noticed the poacher was not praying, instead his eyes darted around the crowd as if he was looking for someone. The hangman stood beside him, waiting for silence and holding the white hangman's hood in his hands. Next to him, Jack believed, was a surgeon's assistant with a warrant in his hand. It appeared some good would come from the poacher's life after all, as his dead body was to be claimed for dissection.
The poacher stopped searching the crowd and Jack, his interest piqued, tried to see who he was looking at, but the crowd was too thick and he could not make out who his target was. The preacher had stopped talking and the white hood was quickly pulled over the man's head. Jack saw the poacher smile before his face was hidden. He would never see the world again, thought Jack, yet whomever he had spied in the crowd had given him some comfort.
The rope was hastily placed over his head and around his neck. Fear had returned and his body went rigid as he resisted the guard's hands guiding him towards the edge of the cart. He began to shake. No time must be wasted now. A signal was given for the cart to move forward. The horse whinnied and strained at its harness. The cartwheels began to turn. There was no drop to kill the man outright. The slack in the rope was small and as the floor of the cart withdrew from his feet, he was forced to take another step forward towards the edge. The poacher hesitated, resisted, stumbled and stepped into the air. The dead man's dance had begun.
Suddenly there was jostling in the crowd. A youth broke free and ran towards the gibbet. Before anyone could stop him, he climbed the cart, took aim and leapt into the air. He grabbed the jigging body with both arms. The rope, and his extra weight, succeeded in breaking the poacher's neck. His death was instantaneous and his body grew still.
Jack pushed himself away from the wall and braced himself. An unhealthy silence had descended and the atmosphere became tense. The crowd's entertainment had come to an abrupt end because of the boy's actions, as the dead man would dance no more. The boy continued to hold on tightly to ensure his job was well done. His own feet hung precariously in the air, his face hidden tight in the poacher's body. An angry roar erupted from the gathering, pulling the boy from his focus. He let go, dropped to the ground and took off as fast as he could.
From the top of the hill, Jack watched as the boy tried to get away, but it soon became clear he was in danger. The crowd's jovial mood had indeed changed, and they wanted the boy punished. Several men tried to grab him as he ran past, a woman hit his shoulder as he darted by. A tankard was thrown through the air in his direction, but it missed its target as the boy was too fast for the drunkard's aim. Word travelled to cut off his means of escape and the crowd worked as one and closed in on him until his body disappeared under a pile of moving rags. Jack's eyes narrowed in concern; he was too far away to be of any immediate assistance, but his thoughts were too involved to walk away.
Jack could not help but admire the boy's attempts to escape. He showed determination and courage to grant the man's dying wish. He would have known that it would anger those who had travelled to watch, yet he had done it all the same. He had shown true friendship, or family loyalty, at a time when he was needed most. He must have cared for the lout very much.
He was about to set off down the hill when he spied the boy's small frame scramble in the dirt as he crawled out from between someone's legs, and ran towards the hill where Jack stood. Those few precious seconds before he was noticed gave him the advantage he so badly needed. A gap grew between the angry crowd and the boy, leaving only the fittest few to follow him. From his vantage point, Jack could see the boy's speed was diminishing. He was tiring and his remaining pursuers, young men, were gaining on him. He would not be able to outrun so many and he would soon be caught. Jack had no doubt that he would suffer the beating of his life. His concern for the lad grew. He was just a young boy on the verge of manhood and he did not deserve such hatred. The boy was almost upon him, he was stumbling, his breathing heavy, his face concealed by his overly large and battered tricorn hat. Jack grabbed his collar and pulled him aside.
'Quick, boy, over the wall,' he ordered, bending and making a stirrup with his hands. The boy hesitated. 'Quick,' said Jack again, without looking up. 'They will catch you.'
Needing no more encouragement, the boy placed his boot into his open hands and Jack lifted him up. The boy stretched upwards, his fingers grasping the top bricks of the wall. Lacking in strength, he struggled to pull himself upwards. Jack pushed the boot he held higher. 'Quick, boy. They are coming,' he urged.
The small foot, encased in a woman's boot, left his hand. Jack grabbed the ankle as he registered what he had just seen. The boy looked down in confusion and, for the first time, Jack could see his face.
Fear-filled eyes returned his gaze, her brows furrowed in concern. She looked nervously up to see the men approaching, then down at him again. His grip tightened.
Then the strangest thing happened and Jack was momentarily struck dumb. While the crowd continued to shout obscenities and bay for her blood in the distance, the woman's fear appeared to leave her face. Calmly, she looked directly back at him, with a kindness in her eyes that fear had previously concealed, and she smiled. It was a sweet smile, an inviting smile that was filled with temptation and secrets that had no business to be used at such a time or place. While his gaze lingered on her soft lips, his grip on her ankle loosened. Unnoticed, she gently eased her leg away.
A loud shout from someone brought him back to his senses. He blinked and tried to speak, but she had already gone and taken her smile with her, leaving his outstretched hands holding nothing but air. With one smile she had bewitched and disarmed him, leaving him with questions that filled his head and a need to know more about her. The men arrived and jostled him from behind.
'Have you seen the boy?' a breathless man gasped. 'He ran this way.' Jack turned in his direction. 'I have not seen a boy run this way,' he said solemnly.
'Are you sure?' asked another.
Jack straightened his shoulders. 'I swear on my life that I have seen no boy run this way.'
Satisfied, they ran on, leaving Jack alone. It was time to go, he thought, as he had other things that needed his attention. He must not be diverted by one chance meeting with a woman he would never meet again. He had come here today to ensure he would not forget what he had failed to do: make Amos and Job Blake answer for their crimes. The poacher and his friend had nothing to do with him. Yet as he collected his horse and made his way home, the woman's face lingered in his mind, long after he resolved to forget about her. He had started the day not a happy man, but now, he realised, his mood had subtly changed. He smiled to himself as he looked down at his muddy palms. The change in his state of mind, he believed, happened when a woman's boot was placed in his open hands.
Jenna walked briskly along the narrow road searching for the address she had been given. She asked for directions several times, and although everyone claimed to know the location of the debtors' prison, their explanations of how to get there were at best confusing, at worst inaccurate. The warren of narrow streets, and the astonishment expressed by many of the people she asked that she did not know its location, added to her embarrassment and eventual reluctance to ask for further help.
She finally found it by accident when she came upon a single door in a long brick wall, with heavy hinges and a barred window. A badly painted sign was nailed to the wall beside it, but as Jenna could not read, it was no help at all. Thankfully, two sparsely clothed children, who were squatting on the ground underneath it, confirmed she had found what she was looking for. Jenna reached into the basket of food she was carrying and broke off a piece of bread to give to them.
'Thank you,' she said, holding it out to them. Wary, sunken eyes looked up at her. 'Take it,' she urged. 'It is a gift for your help.' The eldest child tentatively took it from her and, as if fearful Jenna would take it back, quickly grasped the younger child's hand and made good their escape. Jenna watched until the boy and girl disappeared from her view, before turning her attention back to the plain-looking door.
The people of Goverek called it 'The Hole in the Wall'. The nickname suited it well as its nondescript entrance swallowed up those whose creditors had taken action against them. Men and women, sometimes whole families, disappeared behind its thick wooden door. Without a means to pay or earn a living, there was every chance that they may not emerge again for many years. Their only hope was to rely on the goodwill of family or friends to get them out, and as Jenna's brother had very few friends or family left in the area, the burden lay with her.
She knocked and a gruff voice answered within. After explaining who it was she hoped to visit, the keeper opened the door and held out his hand. Jenna placed a penny in his grimy palm, then silently followed him into the dark, narrow passageway beyond.
The air in the open passage smelt foul. The stony walls were damp and the absence of sunlight allowed green algae to grow rampantly in the shadows. Water trickling down the high walls and the sound of a rodent shuffling away in the distance accompanied their echoing footsteps. Jenna was thankful when the passageway ended and opened up into a narrow yard with irregular buildings sited haphazardly around it. Jenna looked up at the three-storey buildings, which must cast a chilling shadow over the yard for most of the day. The building on the right appeared the best maintained.
'Is my brother in that one?' she asked hopefully.
The keeper spat on the floor before answering, 'Debtors who have family willing to pay for better food and rooms are housed on the Master's side.' He gave her a sidelong glance. 'Debtors who have no one to help them are housed on the left — the common side.' The keeper nodded to one of the buildings on the left. 'Your brother's in there.'
Jenna looked at it and her heart sank. The building, with its lopsided roof and walls, appeared to defy gravity. If it did not fall down on its own accord within the next year, thought Jenna, it ought to be demolished to prevent a tragedy occurring.
The predicament her brother was in suddenly became real to her and she shivered. This was her first visit and payment. Unfortunately, she had no more money to give to help improve her brother's comfort. The basket she held, which she hoped would supplement his meagre rations, now seemed inadequate.
This morning she had visited her brother's home in the hope he would help her. Instead of a welcome from his thin little wife and children, she discovered them gone and another family moving in. It was only then that she learnt of his imprisonment. The man she hoped would help her, it seemed, needed help himself.
Jenna entered the building that the keeper had indicated. She was aware that places such as this were run by the prisoners themselves, with the expected undercurrent of internal hierarchy, rules, noisy squabbles and discourse, but she was still ill-prepared for what she saw.
The smell hit her first. It was a mixture of body odour, musky damp and stale air that seemed to cling to the back of her throat like a leech. For a moment she could not see, but gradually her eyes became accustomed to the dimly lit room. Twenty, maybe thirty inhabitants began to appear before her like ghosts. The noise was louder than she expected, as tempers were quick to flare and arguments appeared to require little provocation.
Excerpted from "The Thief's Daughter"
Copyright © 2017 Victoria Cornwall.
Excerpted by permission of Choc Lit Limited.
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