The Tyburn Guinea
Published July 2017 by Hampden Press
Sunshine—who cared about that? It was a shite morning.
Sarah stepped left to avoid a splash of vomit. Huddled on his knees, its author looked up at her.
“My dear woman,” he slurred, “I do most earnestly beg your pardon for any inconvenience I may have caused.”
He recovered his periwig from the gutter and slapped it on his head. A rivulet of slime ran from it down the yellow silk of his coat.
Her headache was getting worse again. She resisted the urge to tread the drunkard’s hat into the filth. Instead, she stared at the handbill he’d been clutching. Thursday, May 7th 1696, it began in letters half an inch high. It was followed, in smaller letters, by the name “Fenwick.”
The name didn’t count. If the authorities couldn’t find an absconded traitor, that was their concern. It was the date that mattered.
Thursday, May 7th 1696
It would have been poor Richard’s birthday, had he lived. It was two days short of the fourth anniversary of her first hit for the stage. The Rake Restor’d—oh, that had paid the rent for a year, and introduced her to the medicine that kept her going.
But it wasn’t her husband’s last choking fit that was uppermost in her mind. Nor the theatre.
As for the blessed laudanum, that was uppermost—too uppermost, she was coming to realise, for her own good.
In truth, most of the date didn’t matter—not 1696, not May, not the 7th.
She gritted her teeth and waited for the clock in St Giles to finish striking eight.
“It’s Thursday,” she said when sure her voice wouldn’t drip vexation. “A hanging day.”
Polly nodded. After just five days in London, it could be doubted if she understood the meaning of the words.
No excuse for Sarah. The newspapers had said there would be hangings on Thursday. The previous afternoon, by Temple Bar, one of the criers had been reading out the names of the condemned. Her bed wasn’t a half mile from St Sepulchre. She should have heard its bell tolling at midnight, and again at dawn.
All this, and she’d still blundered right into the final stretch of the procession.
She looked through a gap in the crowd of whores and capering beggars. “Hot pies and drink!” the landlord of the Angel was calling out in his usual cracked voice. “Lovely mutton pies!”
Sure of the business coming his way, he’d filled the wide space in front of the church with tables and benches. These had been taken by men of obvious quality. Even at fifty yards, their braying conversation cut through the surrounding noise. Potboys dashed about with quarts of ale and half pints of gin.
Sarah took a deep breath. “This is the last stopping place for a drink,” she explained in much the same tone as she’d used to tell the girl where to buy bread and where to empty the chamber pots.
Mouth open, Polly was gaping at the coaches and sedan chairs that filled every side street.
Sarah looked again at the closest of the tables. Even as she focussed, the sun broke cover from the highest of the grand buildings at the Holborn end of St Giles. No point in shading her eyes. Nothing would stop her vision from flashing and wavering in time with the throbbing in her head.
Besides, she’d seen enough. It was Lord Fremont shuffling the cards. He’d left off his usual lead paint, and the pink for his cheeks, and the crimson gash that, by night, spread an inch beyond each corner of his mouth. Now, if shockingly old, he looked almost manly.
Had he seen her? Silly question. If he had, he’d not have recognised her—not away from the playhouse, not in these clothes. Even so, she moved behind an abandoned water cart.
She turned her attention back to Polly. “There’s a highwayman being turned off today,” she said, one of the newspaper columns she’d skimmed coming back into mind.
“It’s a mark of respect for the fine gentlemen to wait here, rather than take the direct road from Westminster to Tyburn.”
She thought for a moment of turning about and going back towards Great Russell Street. But that would be an admission of error, and to a girl who might not get fed, let alone paid. No, she’d press forward and hope for the best.
She took Polly by the arm. “We’ll go this way,” she said firmly, moving towards one of the less cluttered side streets.
Oh, but her poorly head! If she could only believe they contained any tobacco at all, she’d have spent her last penny on one of the filled pipes a blind woman was offering. She pretended to ignore two urchins who’d got out of her way, but were continuing to scoop up handfuls of wet dung to throw at each other.
Was this really a good idea? It would have to be.
Never mind His Lordship, still at work on fleecing the young gentlemen he’d joined—another few minutes at most, and the carts would arrive. Preceded by the marshals and constables and javelin men, and followed by an immense army of relatives and well-wishers, and of general idlers and other trash, they’d fill the whole width of the street.
It wouldn’t do to be caught in that. No woman with any pretence to respectability should risk being seen in a hanging crowd. But, if she pressed forward, the side street she had in mind would lead them into Monmouth Street. Holborn would still be crowded with the slower or more drunken end of the procession. So they could take King Street and Castle Street into Drury Lane. After that, it would be the normal route back to Fleet Street and Grudge Court. It was just a matter of getting from one side of St Giles to the other….
Even as they picked their way across the street, a growing noise of drums and chanting announced the approach of the carts. Of a sudden, the spaces within the crowd grew smaller. It was like watching barley and water thicken into porridge. Sarah was forced to a stop. For a moment, she could have looked up at the clear blue of the sky and screamed with anger.
She didn’t. She had no right to complain. From beginning to whatever the end might be, this was her own fault. She should have stayed in bed, accepting she had no money for laudanum. Without it, she’d passed a night where moral and physical pains had blurred into a single premonition of Hellfire. No wonder she hadn’t noticed the St Sepulchre bell and its mournful chime.
But, if the depression of spirits she needed it to control might one day lead her into the ultimate sin, the absence of laudanum brought pains she knew would eventually diminish. She should have stayed in bed, telling her father she was ill again. Instead, she was out to collect one of his debts—collecting debts in a country that seemed to have been stripped of shillings and sixpences, and where anything else on offer was too clipped to be worth accepting. It was her own fault if she was stuck in St Giles on a hanging morning.
“Begging your pardon, Ma’am,” an Irish voice wheedled behind her.