Virginia stood proudly before the waist high railing of the “the prisoner box. The new appointed council had postponed the proceedings until the arrival of the Sheriff of London upon learning of his interest in the trial. Although they called it an inquiry by the House of Lords, for the truth had much been distorted, and the rules determining behavior of all parties in a trial did apply during an inquiry. Finally today the wait was over, all are present and the proceedings began without further delay.
Placing his hands flat on the tabletop, Sir Sommerson pushed himself upward. Standing he rapped his knuckles gently on the tabletop then pushed away from the table, while sighing heavily. Strolling around the room in silence he glanced from Virginia to her mother. “Miss Hitchenson, you have heard the testimony of the servants. They said you were standing at the top of the stairs. Your torn sleep-gown clutched within your hands and Sir Anthony Forrest in his sleep-shirt was lying broken at the base of the stairs.
“Cast him down she did. A loud whisper came from the crowd.
The Chamber Judge slapped the tabletop before him with the palm of his hand and glared at the observers.“Silence or leave. He commanded the group as a whole. He then nodded to Sommerson. “Continue."
“Do you now wish to change your testimony? Would you care to liberate your soul and admit that you pushed, Sir
Anthony Forrest? Causing his person to fall down the stairs leading to the second landing. A fall in which his neck was broken and head battered, causing his death? Will you now admit that to be a correct version of the happenings, Miss Hitchenson? Sommerson demanded with a piercing glare fixed on Virginia.
“I do not; my mother's husband attacked me. She feared looking at her now, no one would believe a gentleman would wish to attack or rape her. She was a shadow of her normally neat person. “He slipped and fell. He clutched at my gown for support to stop his fall and it ripped. He fell. There was nothing I could do to prevent it.
“I recall you mentioned being attacked, but you appear to be the one unharmed in this situation. Sir Sommerson stated in a distracted tone, while looking down at his fingertips lying on the table before him.“Was there a struggle before he slipped?
The lack of accusation in Patrick's tone fostered no ease in Virginia's mind. Being a former friend of her father, Sir Sommerson would try all the harder to show no leniency for her predicament. He would not permit anyone to assume he allowed sentiment to cloud his judgment.
“A little, yes. Mostly he was trying to drag me back to my bedchamber and I was resisting.
Resuming his seat, Sommerson and the gentlemen converse quietly back and forth across the table before nodding in agreement and settling back into their respective seats. “I can abide this smell no longer. Let's end this and talk in private. Williamsbe whispered to the gentlemen at the table. No one would dare complain to the Sheriff of London that he was in need of a bath after his long journey. Sommerson and Slantes agreed a private consultation would be best.
“You will return to your chambers and wait for our final decision. Lord Sommerson ordered.
She was forced to wait a full day before being presented before the Chamber Judge and jury of three. Virginia's mother and the crowd of watchers were not allowed to attend the hearing this time. It was obvious that no one knew of the meeting, as it was late at night and the chamber was empty of observers. Feelings of dread mounted in her chest as she was escorted to the prisoners box by two guards. There was only one reason the meeting would be held in secret. The council members did not wish anyone to protest their decision. Her mouth dry as dust, she struggled to swallow the lump strangling her.
The Chamber Judge looked down at her from the perch behind the high desk.“Virginia Hitchenson, you have been found guilty of illegally ending a man's life. You will wait in your chamber until a gallows can be made ready to end your life by hanging on the morn next at the dawn.
Virginia stared at him without comprehension, somewhere deep inside she had not believed it possible that these men would decree the end of her life. Dropping her gaze to Patrick Sommerson an old family friend the resentment she read in his gaze made it all too real. She wanted to spit in his face, for the vote had to be undisputed by the Board for a death decree.
She looked Sir Sommerson's in the eyes as he was walking pass the box, where she must remain until the guard came for her. He paused, and shifted accusing brown eyes to her face. “I have to wonder if your father's death was an accident now that this supposed accident has taken place. His tone was as ice and unforgiving as his eyes.
She spit then, the water hitting him in the center of his craggy face. It splattered his nose and upper lip. The stunned look upon his face was a barrage of vindication. She felt a moment of exhilaration, and then the mighty fist of the guard landed on the back of her head.
Virginia awoke as the ox guard tossed her limp body onto the lumpy cot in the prison cell. Her head felt as if it were split open. Flinching she touched her scalp gently and felt about for blood. What she found was a large knot on the back of her head. Amazingly her hand remained dry. Groaning she lay back on the cot and closed her eyes, the pain in her head throbbing with the thumps of her heart. The constant moans and grumbles from the surrounding cells prevented her from drifting into sleep to escape the pain. Instead she listened unwillingly to the sounds surrounding her and thought of the beauty she would soon be leaving behind.
Accepting death was the most difficult challenge she had been forced to face. Frightened? Indeed she was terrified of the unknown that lay ahead. She had no way of knowing the pain she would endure before death, but she was certain it would be more than that pig Anthony Forrest had endured. She was facing an unknown and there would be no one to hold her hand as she passed into death. No one would be offering comfort and bidding her farewell as she died. It was a bleak pass she had arrived at and she was spending her final hours in a horrid filthy place with a head that was cracking. Tears would have been welcome and deserved but her eyes remained dry. She would have preferred that she had died when the brute guard cracked her head.
The hours drag slowly as Virginia contemplated what lay ahead. The guard tossed old rags and heavy man's boots, worn thin and broken down on the sides with holes in the thin leather, into the cell and ordered her to change. “I want them under things too. He added in a gruff command with a vile grin on his filthy face. “Fancy lady under things should fetch a guinea or two.
She was not to be allowed the dignity of dying in her own clothing. The indignity of the situation made her furious. The humiliation of all she had endured made her feel cold inside, as though her heart had lost its softening powers and turned to dry rock. Cussing silently with words she had learned from her stepfather Virginia dragged her dirty clothes from her back. At least the material was quality and the dirt on the clothes was her own. She had no idea who or what filth the person had been in that had worn the rags given to her to wear. She overturned the boots and banged them on the floor before with a feeling of total revulsion she slid her feet inside. After changing into the rags she tossed her clothes against the side wall of the cell by the metal-strapped wood door. Returning to the cot to stare out the window at the growing darkness in solitude she turned her thoughts to death.
Is this what it will be like. Will everything just go dark as descending night? Or will it be bright with tortuous pain? Perhaps the rope will cut into my neck with the feel of knives. She would find out in a lifetime for that was all she had left. The lifetime of one night. She considered all she had lost and all she would miss doing. Through all the contemplation her heart was a heavy stone in her chest. Until blessed sleep finally overtook her tired mind and she drifted into insistent darkness.
Light from the guard's lantern and his heavy stomping feet moving over the stone floor toward her cell awoke Virginia in the dead of the night. Grumbling, she pulled the dirty wool blanket over her head. “One would think that on my last night I would be allowed an undisturbed sleep. It's not like I had an easy time falling off.
Moans of distress, and grumbles coming from near cells reached her ears. The occupants disturbed by the guard's inconsiderate stomping made their feeling clear.
“Wake up, you lout, you have all of eternity to sleep. The guard loudly ordered, while hitting his fist against the door. His keys clanged against the steel lock of the cell door then scrapped as the key twisted the lock. “Someone wants to visit with you. Come, on your feet and out with you before I get angry. The ox ordered in a mocking tone.
“We certainly do not want a repeat of your anger. Virginia muttered as she rolled to sit on the straw cot. Shoving the blanket aside she pushed to her feet. Her head still ached from the hard punch she received to the back of the head after spitting on Sommerson. Rubbing the back of her head as she walked to the door, thinking of Sommerson's shock she smiled to herself; but it turned into a yawn. Squinting her darkness-adjusted eyes against the pain caused by the bright light of the oil flame lantern the guard carried and held high close to her eyes, she advanced to his side.
Leading the way down dark passages the guard escorted her into a chamber. The wood door was strapped together with metal and had a small barred window at head level. The interior of the chamber appeared to be stone without a window to escape through.“Wait here. He grumped, motioning her to a ladder-back chair beside a wood table. A matching low back chair stood on the opposite side of the table. That was all she has time to see. She had not reached the chair before the door clangs behind the departing guard cutting off all light. The room felt cold and damp from the lack of heat and light a window would have provided.
Fear throbbing through her body Virginia found a chair in the black darkness shrouding the room and eased into the seat. She had no idea who would have the power to command this meeting, certainly not her mother. Laurel had not visited the dungeon she had condemned her daughter too once during the two weeks before the inquiry. This had not surprised Virginia, her mother had a delicate constitution and would faint if she saw the condition of the prison her daughter was in. Laurel would not have gotten pass the outer door of the prison before fainting. Thinking of LaurelÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s weak nature eased the fear in VirginiaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s chest. It was her father that had given Virginia the strength to endure what she had been through. And it would be that strength that would aid her during the horrors the dawn offered.
After what seemed an endless time of sitting in the dark Virginia had calmed sufficiently and had grown sleepy in the blessed silence. Her eyes were closed and her head was weaving; she was drifting to sleep. When the sound of approaching footsteps came from the stone hallway. Light appeared in the tiny window beyond the door. The key scrapped; then the door scrubbed against the dirt-covered floor, as it swings open. The guard was standing beyond the opening holding the lantern high. A man in fine dress with dark hair and a flowing cape about his person stepped into the chamber before the guards light. The guard followed him inside and settled the lantern onto the table before her. The light blinding her by its sudden return and close proximity she struggled to see through squinting eyes the gentleman visitor.
“You certain you want to be left alone with er? The ox queried crankily.
“That is correct. A deep cultured voice informed the guard. His face in the circle of light appeared to be in shadows because of the spots formed in her eyes from the flickering light. His features appeared narrow with protruding bones on his skeleton cheeks. Dark shadows and spots before her eyes hid any softening of the features the flesh might offer. Still, she had seen him as he entered. She knew he had a hard looking appearance as if made of stone, with evil eyes of black that flash red in the lamplight. And he had a commanding presence, as he was able to order the hulking guard without fear quaking in his deep timber.
“You mind your manners now. The guard warned turning to face her briefly before swinging about and stomping out the doorway. The door clanged behind him and the key scrapped in the lock.
“I will not dabble over details, time is short. The elegantly clad gentleman began in a crisp cultured timber. “Your life is forfeit. In the morn you will be no more. I see no reason to waste a perfectly good body when I have use of it. Will you give yourself to me in exchange for not dangling from a rope? Even in the distorting light from the oil lamp he was able to see that she had a good bone structure. She looked like a hag in dirty clothes that smell of dung and her hair was tangled about her dirty face, but she would clean up well. He had seen her in the chambers during questioning and knew that she had a proud bearing and regal air. She had good diction and her eyes were vivid green, a combination that he strongly approved. She was his first and only choice but he cannot allow her to know this. It would not do to allow the female to believe she can dictate terms, for she cannot.
“As a slave or a sawbones practice
tool? Life is not always preferable to death. Virginia disparaged her insides clinching with tension at the vivid thoughts flashing in her mind. Fear raised its ugly shadow to loom over her like a bent tree ready to fall. Different kinds of torture flickered in her mind with no hope of escape. This kind of existence was the last thing she wished to face.
Her mind danced away from thinking of the horrors that one person could bestow onto another living being. She did not want to think of such things and she would rather hang than endure them.
“I assure you that no harm will come to you as you are imagining. I am not mad only in need of a person of the female gender. Not as a slave but an accomplice that is loyal and willing to obey and follow my instructions. I hope that will ease your mind as I cannot give you the details until after you agree. I can not leave myself open to gossip, if you should choose not to accept my offer. He tossed a document upon the table and held out a quill for her to accept and make her mark. When she did not accept the quill immediately, he laid it beside the papers.
“If you own a brothel I must warn you I wont work as one of those.... Hope lifting her heart she could have bitten her tongue for speaking the words that her very nature forced out. She clamped her lips closed to late to prevent the damage of her words. Fearing that she was about to lose her only hope of escape she held her breath.
His deep chuckle was soft and pleasant. “You have a lot of conditions for one about to die. As far as I am concerned I can go to any of the women in the cells and they will leap at this chance. I offer it to you, as you are to die in the morn. I offer life. Accept or not I care not. But if you accept your life is mine. I will not torture you, but I will instruct you and you will do as I say or I will return you to prison and your fate with the gallows. He stated with conviction for emphasis. “I must have a decision now.
Praying that she feared shadows and imaginary demons Virginia exhaled slowly. To hide the fact that she was terrified she forced a smile and lifted the quill with shaking fingers. “I have little choice, do I?
Removing an inkpot from his pocket he removes the lid and held it out for her to dip the quill. “Excellent. Rising from the chair as she scribbled her name he pulled the cape from his shoulders and presented it to her. “Cover yourself in this, use the hood also to hide your face.
Reaching for the cloak Virginia gazed at his face for the first time in the light cast from the lamp without spots hindering her vision. Not surprising, his was a normal face with high cheekbones and a straight nose; not narrow as it had appeared in the distorting shadows. His full mouth revealed even teeth when he smiled, as he released the cape. His eyebrows were straight slashes above each eye. The hair was dark, but she was unable to determine true color in this poor light. What surprised her was that she considered him attractive.
Moving to the chambers door he rapped against the wood with his fist. In moments the key scrapped in the lock and the door scratched open.
It was not the guard that opened the door, but Sir Patrick Sommerson! Upon seeing Sommerson Virginias fears returned. Had she again made a mistake by trusting her judgment? What ever this is, it is not going to be good. She silently worried. Her heart pounding in her chest Virginia felt as though she should fall over dead from a tired heart at any moment. She waited in silence for her fears to be realized.
“This one has agreed. Has everything been arranged as I directed?
Sommerson glanced at her with vacant eyes as though they had never met before this moment.“Yes, it will be reported that she died from the blow she received from the guard today.
“Blow? The nameless men queried in a demanding timber. He had not been allowed into chambers during the final verdict. Sommerson had informed him of the decision.“No one mentioned that she was hurt. If she dies from this injury after we have begun it will ruin everything.
“She will not die. It was merely a smack. Patrick assured him calmly. “She comes from strong stock.
I am not bloody livestock. Silently she complained.
The gentleman that no one addressed by name turned to her. “Sommerson will be your contact should I turn out to be mad. He will also be mine to send you back to the gallows should you betray me. I trust that will lay your fears to rest.
Not bloody likely. As she was not expected to reply Virginia does not; instead she glared her hatred at Sommerson.
“Now come we must be off. The gentleman extended an arm to her, taking the oil lantern up with the opposite hand.
As she advanced he wrapped the arm around her waist to assist and guide her along the passages. Wondering if they could hear the heavy thump of her heart she was conscious of each beat shaking her chest. Even if they could not hear the gentleman must certainly be able to feel the quiver of her body with each strike of her heart.
With Sommerson following closely behind them as they walked from of the cell, then down the dark stone passage she chose not to speak. In truth she did not believe she had the breath to speak. The dungeon seemed to be endless dark passages that twisted in first this direction and then the opposite until finally they reached a bolted door. When the door was opened Virginia realized they had traveled through the passages to a back entrance that opened onto a dirt clearing with a narrow carriage path. Sommerson escorted them outside and the door clanged closed behind them.
“Good journey. Sommerson stated with a wave of his hand in farewell, before stomping off in the opposite direction from that which the coach and horses standing on the carriage path were facing. The lanterns on the exterior of the coach were extinguished. The coach and horses were in the shadows of overhanging tree branches and would not have been seen had the gentleman not held the lantern in his hand.
Virginia was terrified that she would be seen escaping. Fearing that a guard would step forward and grab her then drag her back into the prison now that she was close to freedom she stepped close to the strange male for protection. It was foolishness on her part; no male had ever protected her aside from her father. Her heart thundering she pants between parted lips while glancing about the clearing with frightened eyes.
Twisting about to see from beneath the hood she cast a scared glance at the closed prison door. Her mind's eye could see the big fisted ox crashing the door open, the hinges swinging the wood back against the stone wall; his big fist reaching out and snatching her by the shoulders. Then dragging her back into the dark horror of the prison. A tight band of fear clutched her chest and she felt her head swim dizzily.
Spots form in her eyes and a ringing in her ears made it difficult to understand the man as he spoke. His words sounded as though they were coming from far away in a barrel. In truth she could do no more than follow on quaking legs his lead as he guided her across the courtyard to the coach.
Murmuring,“Keep your head down. The gentleman placed a hand on top of her head and pushed downward directing her; while assisting her into the black coach he held a hand against her lower back.
Virginia collapsed onto the soft squabs with relief, inhaling slow deep breaths. The breath must help for the spots fade away and her head cleared. The interior lamps out the lantern he carried cast light over the lush interior. She watched the man light and set the wick to dim the interior lamp before he extinguished the lantern he carried from the prison then placed it on the coach floor. Following her into the comfortable interior of the lamp dim lighted coach he offered a smile before turning his attention to the coach door.
Standing bent at the knees before the doorway he draws a piece of black cloth from his waistcoat pocket and dropped it onto the floor. Holding his hands out he dropped downward, grasping the edge of the window frame and seat with his hands, then gently settled one knee onto the cloth. Kneeling on the cloth-covered floor he lifted the fold-up steps inside, grasping the door he pulled it to close and secured the latch into place. With practiced ease he lifted the cloth from the floor as he stood. Quickly folding the side of cloth that touched the muddy floor inside he wrapped the material into a small square, tucked it over the top of a narrow shaft of wood holding the draperies. He settled onto the opposite seat facing her his long legs stretching across the aisle to rest upon the tap protected black heals. Immediately he began adjusting the leather shades to assure that they were properly closed over the windows and raised the wick of the inside lamp. Appearing to change his mind he lowered the flame. She was intrigued by this man dressed in black from his high neck-cloth to his Hessian boots and watched every detail. Lifting a walking cane she had not noticed from the corner of the soft diamond tucked bench seat he tapped the roof of the coach with the silver handle.
The seats were covered in velvet of a deep shade of blue an unexpected luxury as Virginia had been thinking of this man as being surrounded by harshness and shadows. The velvet seats bounced as the horses tugged the coach into motion; a sigh of relief escaped her lips as the band of fear finally released her chest.“You do not think they will come after me?
“No." Lifting a valise from the far corner of the floor he placed it on the seat beside her.“In there you will find a gown. Change out of that filthy rag you are wearing. I cannot allow you to arrive in that tattered thing. Being dirty can be explained but those clothes would cause too many questions. Turning aside he reached out and adjusted the shade once more.
Shocked by his orders Virginia stared at him. Did he have no thoughts of moral decency? Did he honestly expect her to casually remove the only garment covering her nakedness and toss it aside in front of him?