“You isn’t to be hanged on Monday!” Ned declared. “Old Fletcher’s got the bloody flux. Can’t stir but two feet from the chamber pot. Warden says no hangings on Monday!”
Joy was the first casualty in Newgate prison. When Ned skipped into Quinn Wentworth’s cell, the boy’s rare, angelic smile thus had a greater impact than his words. An uncomfortable emotion stirred, something Quinn might once have called hope but now considered a useless reflex.
“You mean I won’t be hanged this Monday.”
Consternation replaced ebullience on the grimy little face. “Old Fletcher might die, sir, and then who would they find to do the business? Your family will get you out, see if they don’t.”
Quinn had forbidden his siblings to “get him out.” Abetting the escape of a convicted felon was itself a hanging felony, as were 219 other crimes, among them stealing anything valued at more than twelve pence.
“Thank you for bringing me the news,” Quinn said. “Have you eaten today?”
Ned studied ten dirty little toes. “Not so’s I’d notice.”
All manner of strange protocols applied in Newgate. One of the most powerful and feared bankers in London could invite a pickpocket to dine, for example, simply because the banker had learned that company—any company at all—was a distraction from impending death.
Despite the signed warrant dictating Quinn’s fate, his cell might have been a successful solicitor’s quarters. The floor was carpeted, the bed covered with clean linen, the desk stocked with paper, quill pen, two pencils, ink, and even—such was the honor expected of a wealthy felon—a penknife. The window let in fresh air and a precious square of sunlight, which Quinn valued more than all of the room’s other comforts combined.
Even in the relatively commodious state quarters, the foodstuffs had to be kept in a bag tied to the rafters, lest the rodents help themselves uninvited. The pitcher of ale on the windowsill was covered to prevent flies from drowning themselves along with their sorrows.
“Fetch the ale,” Quinn said. “We’ll share some bread and cheese.”
Ned was stronger and faster than he looked, and more than capable of getting the ale without spilling a drop. Quinn, by contrast, usually tried to appear less muscular and fit than he was. The warden had taken one pitying look at him and muttered about the big ones dying quickest on the end of a rope.
That comment—a casual, not intentionally cruel observation—had made real the fact of execution by order of the Crown. Hanged by the neck until dead, as the judge had said. The proper fate in the eyes of the law for most who violated the Sixth Commandment.
Though to be accurate, Quinn’s crime was manslaughter rather than murder, else even all of his coin might have been insufficient to earn him quarters outside the dungeons.
“Shall I get the bread?” Ned asked.
The child was being polite, which ought not to be possible, given his upbringing—or perhaps he was being cautious.
Incarceration had also revealed in Quinn a latent propensity for rumination. What would death by hanging be like? Was the point of the proceeding to end the felon’s life, or to subject him to such awful, public indignity that he welcomed his own demise?
“The bread, sir?” Ned’s gaze had grown wary.
“And the cheese,” Quinn said, taking down the sack suspended from the rafter. Cutting the bread required patient use of the penknife. Davies, Quinn’s self-appointed man-of-all-work, and Penny, the whore-turned-chambermaid, were privileged to carry knives, but Quinn shuddered to contemplate what improprieties those knives had got up to when their owners had been at liberty.
Quinn set the food on the table, cut two thick slices of bread for the boy, situated cheese between them, and poured the child some ale.
Pewter tankards, no less. That would be Althea’s influence, as was the washstand with the porcelain pitcher and basin. Quinn had been born in the poorest of York’s slums, but saw no need to die looking like a ruffian.
“Aren’t you hungry, sir?” Ned had wolfed down half his sandwich and spoken with his mouth full.
Quinn took a sip of fine summer ale. “Not particularly.”
“But you must keep up your strength. My brother Bob told me that before he was sent off. Said when the magistrate binds you over, the most important thing is to keep up your strength. You durst not go before the judge looking hangdog and defeated. You can’t run very far on an empty belly neither.”
The boy had lowered his voice on that last observation.
“I’ll not be escaping, Ned,” Quinn said gently. “I’ve been found guilty and I must pay the price.” Though escape might be possible. Such an undertaking wanted vast sums of money—which Quinn had—and a willingness to live the life of a fugitive, which Quinn lacked.
“Why is the Quality all daft?” Ned muttered, around another mouthful of bread and cheese. “You find a bloke what looks half like you and has the consumption. You pay his family enough to get by, more than the poor sod would have earned in his lifetime, and you pike off on Sunday night leaving the bloke in your place. The poor sod ends his suffering Monday morning knowing the wife and brats is well set, you get to live. It’s been done.”
Everything unspeakable, ingenious, and bold had been done by those enjoying the king’s hospitality. That was another lesson Quinn had gleaned from incarceration. He’d seen schemes and bribes and stupid wagers by the score among London’s monied classes, but sheer effrontery and true derring-do were still the province of the desperate.
He’d also learned, too late, that he wanted to live. He wanted to be a better brother and a lazier banker. He wanted to learn the names of the harp tunes Althea so loved, and to read a book or two simply to have the excuse to sit quietly by a warm fire of a winter night.
What he wanted no longer mattered, if it ever had. The reprieve Ned spoke of was more burden than blessing, because Quinn was fated to die, awfully, publicly, and painfully, whether he’d committed murder, manslaughter, or neither.
“If you’re not going to eat that, guv, it shouldn’t go to waste.”
Quinn passed over his sandwich. “My appetite seems to have deserted me.”
Ned tore the sandwich in half and put half in his pocket. For later, for another boy less enterprising or fortunate than Ned. For the birds—the child loved birds—or a lucky mouse.
Quinn had lost not only his appetite for food, but also his interest in all yearnings. He did not long to see his siblings one last time—what was there to say? He certainly had no desire for a woman, though they were available in quantity even in prison. He had no wish to pen one of those sermonizing final letters he’d written for six other men in the previous weeks.
Those convicts had faced transportation, while Quinn faced the gallows. His affairs were scrupulously in order and had escaped forfeiture as a result of his forethought.
He wanted peace, perhaps.
And justice. That went without saying.
The door banged open—it was unlocked during daylight—and the under-warden appeared. “Wait in here, ma’am. You’ll be safe enough, and I see that we’re enjoying a feast. Perhaps the famous Mr. Wentworth will offer you a portion.” The jailer flicked a bored glance over Ned, who’d ducked his head and crammed the last of the food into his mouth.
A woman—a lady—entered the cell. She was tall, dark-haired, and her attire was plain to a fault.
Not a criminal, then. A crusader.
“Bascomb,” Quinn said, rising. “My quarters are not Newgate’s family parlor. The lady can wait elsewhere.” He bowed to the woman.
She surprised him by dropping into a graceful curtsy. “I must wait somewhere, Mr. Wentworth. Papa will be forever in the common wards, and I do not expect to be entertained. I am Jane Winston.”
She was bold, as most crusaders were. Also pretty. Her features were Madonna-perfect, from a chin neither receding nor prominent, to exquisitely arched brows, a wide mouth, high forehead, and intelligent dark eyes. The cameo was marred by a nose a trifle on the confident side, which made her face more interesting.
She wore a voluminous cloak of charcoal gray, bits of straw clinging to the hem.
“As you can see,” Quinn replied, “we are a company of gentlemen here, and an unchaperoned lady would not be comfortable in our midst.”
The warden snickered. “Wait here or leave the premises, ma’am. Them’s your choices, and you don’t get a say, Wentworth. I don’t care if you was banker to King George himself.”
As long as Quinn drew breath he had a say. “I am convicted of taking an innocent life, Miss Winston. Perhaps you might see fit to excuse yourself now?”
He wanted her to leave, because she was an inconvenient reminder of life beyond a death sentence, where women were pretty, regrets were a luxury, and money meant more than pewter tankards and a useless writing desk.
And Quinn wanted her to stay. Jane Winston was pleasing to look at, had the courage of her convictions, and had probably never committed anything approaching a crime. She’d doubtless sinned in her own eyes—coveting a second rum bun, lingering beneath warm covers for an extra quarter hour on the Sabbath. Heinous transgressions in her world.
He also wanted her to stay because frightening the people around him had stopped amusing him before he’d turned twelve. Even Ned didn’t turn his back on Quinn for more than an instant, and Davies remained as close to the unlocked door as possible without giving outright offense. The wardens were careful not to be alone with Quinn, and the whores offered their services with an air of nervous bravado.
Miss Winston’s self-possession wafted on the air like expensive perfume. Confident, subtle, unmistakable.
“If a mere boy can break bread with you, then I don’t have much to fear,” she said, “and my father will expect me to wait for him. Papa is easily vexed. Do you have a name, child?”
Ned remained silent, sending a questioning glance at Quinn.
“He is Edward, of indeterminate surname,” Quinn said. “Make your bow, Ned.”
Ned had asked Quinn to teach him this nicety and grinned at a chance to show off his manners. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Winston.”
“I’ll be leaving,” the guard said. “You can chat about the weather over tea and crumpets until…” He grinned, showing brown, crooked teeth. “Until next Monday.”
“Prison humor.” Miss Winston stripped off her gloves. Kid, mended around the right index finger. The stitching was almost invisible, but a banker learned to notice details of dress. “I might be here for a good while. Shall you regale me with a tale about what brought you to this sorry pass, Mr. Wentworth?”
The lady took the seat Ned had vacated, and she looked entirely at ease, her cloak settling around her like an ermine cape.
“You don’t read the papers?” Quinn asked.
“Papa would have apoplexies if he caught me reading that drivel. We have souls to save.”
“I don’t think I’d like your father. Might I have a seat?” Because—for reasons known only to the doomed—Quinn wanted to sit down with her.
“This is your abode. Of course you should have a seat. You need not feed me or offer me drink. I’m sure you can better use your provisions for bribes. I can read to you from the Bible or quote at tiresome length from Fordyce’s Sermons if you like.”
“I do not like,” Quinn said, slicing off a portion of cheese. He was a convicted felon, but he was a convicted felon who’d taken pains to learn the manners of his betters. Then too, somebody had to set an example for the boy. Quinn managed to cut off a slice of bread with the penknife and passed the bread and cheese to Miss Winston.
She regarded his offering with a seriousness the moment did not warrant. “You can spare this? You can honestly spare this?”
“I will be grievously offended if you disdain my hospitality,” Quinn said. “Had I known you were coming, I’d have ordered the kitchen to use the good silver.”
Ned cast him a nervous glance, but Miss Winston caught the joke. Her smile was utterly unexpected. Instead of a prim, nipfarthing little pinch of the lips, she grinned at Quinn as if he’d inspired her to hilarity in the midst of a bishop’s sermon. Her gaze warmed, her shoulders lifted, her lips curved with glee.
“The everyday will do splendidly,” she said, accepting her portion of the humble fare. “So whom are you supposed to have killed?”