Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Serial: Lord Merville's Whore Part 5

 It was never my intention to leave such long gaps between posting. Ideally, I had planned to post every Sunday, but thinks keep getting in the way. Fingers crossed there shouldn't be any more interruptions for a while now.
 

Lord Merville's Whore
Part 5
Copyright 2012. Madelynne Ellis.
All Rights Reserved.
Not to be circulated without permission.

Thea awoke to daylight, fierce pain in her hips, and a dead shoulder. She tried to uncurl her fingers only to find them cramped into position, something she slowly relieved with an agonizing stretch.

“Bessie?” She jolted upright, at the realization that the mare wasn’t beside her. She found the horse outside, nosing thistles. Relieved, Thea sank to the dewy grass. The sky was clear, and while the wind still blew through the valley, it was fresh rather than icy. Good washing weather, her old nurse would have said. The same nurse would have an apoplexy at the sight of her charge now; skirts caked with dried mud, and smelling of mildew. She’d have to change before she faced the prison warden.

She tied Bessie to a ring set in the folly’s outer wall and left her to graze while she headed back inside in search of fresh clothes.

In daylight, the base of the tower seemed less weathered, although moss and ferns grew among the cracks in the stones around each of the narrow arrow slits, giving the light a brackish tinge. Having rustled both a clean dress and accoutrements from one of her sacks, Thea wrinkled her nose at her bare stone surroundings, and then glanced at the stairwell. She’d been so tired last night she’d never given the upper storey a thought, but looking at things now, it seemed obvious that this entrance level had been intended as a stable, with luck the upper levels would prove more habitable.

Leaving her change of clothing for a moment, Thea mounted the bottom step. The stairs ran around the outside of the tower, sandwiched between the inner and outer walls. They were steep, and deeply furrowed in places, so that her ascent, also hampered by silvery strands of cobweb, was slow.
Eventually, the stairwell opened onto a small landing, facing a stout door. Unlike the outer door of the folly the night before, this inner door took a mighty shove to burst open. Thea staggered into the room, coughing as the cloud of dust she’d raised clogged her lungs. She found a worn table and rested against it as she regained her breath, her head swaying left and right as she made a mental picture of the room.

In a past decade, someone had loved this place. A smile crept across her face as she swept aside layers of dust to reveal fine wood furniture. Tucked beneath the table, were two three-legged stools. There was also a dresser, a rocking chair and a mouse-riddled old cot. Her toes curled at the sound of the squeaks. Thea edged backwards, wishing she’d brought Mr. Tibbets, Frosterley’s premier rodent catcher with her when she’d left. Though she rarely felt affectionate towards the mangy tom, she’d have welcomed his services.

She’d found a home, with a little work. She ought not to have let Lucy go.

Thea sought the door on the opposite side of the room. Beyond it a mirrored version of the stairwell she’d just left held the second ascent of stairs. A lone arrow slit at the top of the landing afforded her just enough light to negotiate a route to the nearest window shutter.

She’d bring Phillip back here. It would serve just as well as a cottage, and no one would bother them, and they’d be away from the devices that caused his ruin. There was no rent to pay, no worry over having to seek succor at the gaol house or workhouse. There reduced circumstances would necessitate simple living, but… The thought bled away as she cast open the shutter. Outside, sunlight streamed across the valley. Perhaps all her worry was unnecessary. All the information she’d had so far was second hand. Only Phillip could give her an accurate picture. She’d go immediately and see him. Perhaps, stop in the market on the way and buy some provisions.

She turned, and her mouth opened in mute astonishment.

Of course she’d hoped for a bed.

But this bed, she’d never imagined such a marvel. The huge oaken beast stood draped in layers of velvet, fringed with yard upon yard of gold brocade. The carpenters had clearly created it in situ. In stupefied delight, Thea flung herself onto its feathered mattress, raising the second cloud of dust of the morning. She didn’t care.

Cheeks stretched into a painful grin, she rolled onto her back. In disbelief, she stared up through the cloud of sparkling dust motes at the moth-eaten canopy. Even decayed, the Roost was magnificent. In it’s heyday it must have truly been a sumptuous paradise. Let Richard have his echoing hall, she’d take the love nest.

The thought of Richard and the loss of Frosterley sobered her. Thea sat up. A full day had passed since Phillip’s arrest. There was no other person she could prevail upon for aid within riding distance, nor could she stomach the possibility of a repetition of her interview with Notary Pounder. Best she simply saw Phillip. Perhaps, he would know who to approach.

It was near mid-day when Thea reached the gaol house. The town market was in full swing, barring easy passage in any direction as folks wrestled with livestock for space among the stalls. Having filled a satchel with provisions, and left Bessie, who had thrown a shoe on the journey into town, with the blacksmith, Thea doggedly made her way to the jail.

Nervous pinpricks tickled the back of her neck as she drove the huge knocker repeatedly against the iron-studded gate.

“Get away with you,” a voice barked at her from above. Thea stepped back and craned her neck, in time to catch sight of a man in a short grey periwig in the process of slamming the shutters of an upstairs window.

“Excuse me,” she called.

“Go to the devil.” He glanced down at her. “Oh!”

Thea gave an unladylike snarl, when his exclamation only resulted in him disappearing from view again. She lifted the heavy knocker again and slammed it against the door, so that the reverberation ran up her arm all the way to her shoulder. In the moment following the metallic thud, the sound of hurried footsteps came from beyond the gate, soon followed by the clunk of heavy bolts being drawn and a lock being turned. A small wicket door in the main gateway swung open, revealing the now cherry-red face of the man from upstairs.

“My apologies, ma’am, was you wanting to see the prisoners? They’re not a very special lot, at present, just the two of any notoriety.” He waved her forward.

Thea warily stepped through the hole into a dingy courtyard, fouled with manure and a stinking pile of rotten vegetables. “Heavens.” She clasped the end of her fichu to her nose.

“Tis true they’re a dirty lot, although Magpie Joe’s not so bad. You’ll be wanting to see him first, I suppose. He’s been quite popular with the lady folk; Miss Astbury called to see him just last week.”

The smell still creating a sickening urge to flee, Thea cautious lowered her mask. “I’m here to see my husband, Mr. Phillip Roche of Frost—, formerly of Frosterley. I understand he was escorted here yesterday by Thieftaker Stark.”

“Roche, you say.” The man ticked his lips with his finger. After a moment’s deliberation, he gave a shrug. “Right you are.” He crossed to a stone lectern, sheltered by the perimeter wall, where he flicked over the pages of a large grubby book. “Yes, you’re right. Nob with the devil’s foot, remember him now.”

“He does not…” She let the rest of the remonstration pass unsaid. Mayhap he did now, having witnessed Stark’s treatment of prisoners, she couldn’t rule out injury.

“Put him in the Bishop’s Quarters, seen as we had a vacancy after Pilkington leaving us last market day. Nice and comfy, it is. Nobs like it up there, set above the turds. Birdies do too, don’t’cha?” For a horrid moment she thought he was referring to her, before seeing him nod to a large crow that swooped down from the west tower, and landed on the stinking vegetable heap. “This way, then.” He scooped up a lantern and led her through a door set below the rampart steps.

“I have to asks if you’ll be staying, then,” the warden said as they wound their way along a dank, smelly corridor. “Cause if you is, I’ll have to find yous a different room. Ain’t no accommodation for spouses in the Bishop’s Quarters.”

Thea, hand plastered across her mouth and nostrils again, shook her head. “I just need to talk to him and give him this.” She pulled a kerchief of provisions she’d already wrapped from her satchel. The man poked at the bloody sausage, cheese and sherry, and it seemed to pass inspection. She knew it wasn’t much, but Phillip had left her with little enough and it was all that she could spare. She’d bought bread, carrots and onions for herself, and a smaller portion of cheese.

“Hm, well you can stay for a half hour with him.” The warden scratched his stubby chin. “See it’s not any longer, or I’ll be adding extra to his surcharges.”

Incredulous, she removed her hand from her mouth. The bitter stench of urine filled her nostrils making her gag, and her words sound unreasonably sharp. “You’re charging him to be in this place?”

The man puffed out his chest, so that his chin disappeared into his cravat. “Of course he’s charged board and lodgings. You can’t expect us to house and feed vermin for free; else every beggar would be clamoring on the doors for a bed.”

“Obviously.” Even in direst poverty, she couldn’t imagine anyone willing choosing to live here, the vapors alone were enough to sap the vitality of youth and carve flesh from bone, and that, was before they sampled the slop and gin and were ravaged by rats and lice. A particularly scabby specimen stared at them from the lantern alcove on the stairs, its yellow eyes alive with malice.

They began to climb. The stairwell wound in a tight steep spiral, the steps uneven and so heavily worn in places so as to be reduced to a toe-hold. Thea followed the jailor’s broad arse up into cleaner air, and gratefully gulped a lungful. They emerged into a barren little antechamber, dominated by a large empty fireplace. There was a single chair, which rocked when she perched upon it, one of its legs apparently a good inch shorter than the others.

“Wait here. I’ll bring Roche.”

Thea nodded, and clasped the knot of the provision filled kerchief until her knuckles whitened. Now that she was here, the same agitation that had propelled her to seek aid from Charlie Pounder made knots of her insides. The same affliction had upset her the day she’d paced the family drawing room waiting for Phillip’s arrival after the marriage offer had been made.

Then she’d been praying for a glimmer of attraction. Today, her nerves were steeled against possible revolt.

The warden returned, shoving a man with a shaven scalp before him. “See it’s no more time than we agreed.” He left, leaving the prisoner shackled at the wrists and ankles, and Thea staring in bewilderment at the shabby figure. There’d been a mistake.

“Thea.”

She swallowed slowly, and raised her gaze to the prisoner’s face. Phillip. My God, it was him, unshaven and devoid of any genteel polish. He looked…Well, he looked like a consumptive miner, raised on dripping, gruel and rotten bread. One night and the flesh seemed stripped from his bones, after five, he’d be no more than a wraith. “What has Stark done?” The knapsack hit the floor with a thud as she rose. “Phillip.” How coarse the dirt upon his coat made the wool seem against her skin, as she dutifully kissed him. She picked at a dried patch of mud, longing to flee.

“I presume you’ve brought a petition as well as victuals? If you could oblige.” He nodded to where the kerchief had fallen.

Thea offered both cheese and black pudding, which he bit into with savage enjoyment; still, his gaze strayed towards the bottle.

“I went to see Notary Pounder.”

“What the devil for? Is that what you’ve been about? I thought you’d have come yesterday, or was it for spite that you let me rot overnight?”

“Phillip, I thought he would help.” She withdrew the offer of more cheese.

“Goddamn man put me here.” Phillip stooped and grasped the bottle of sherry with both hands. The chains dangling from his shackles clinked against the glass as he rose. He pried the cork free with his teeth and spat it into the empty fireplace.

Thea bit her tongue, tempted to point out that it was his own damned foolishness that had got him here. “Well, I wasn’t aware of his involvement until I spoke to him. Stark told me only that you’d been arrested and that I had to leave Frosterley.”

“I trust you did no such thing. Didn’t Merville show up? He was supposed to.”

“Yes, but…” Richard had said only that he had the bond, and that it had seemed an opportune moment. Phillip’s words implied a more deliberate arrangement. Except, no—that was foolish. How could he possibly have done so? He hadn’t wind of Stark’s coming, or he’d have flown. She knew her husband; he was no lover of discomfit.

“I trust you didn’t quibble over his terms.”

“I left the house, Phillip.”

“You did what?” He dropped the sherry bottle, which smashed between his feet, soaking his stockings and shoes, and splattered her skirt with amber droplets. “Lord damnit! Look now at what you’ve made me do. You were supposed to stay. Hell in a harness, I’d arranged it carefully enough.”

She turned, seeking some cloth to throw over the spillage, but the room was devoid of anything save cobwebs.

“You’ve mooned over the bugger enough. I can’t see why it would’ve been a hardship to let him fuck you once or twice.”

Heat rushed to her cheeks. In truth, the only dissatisfaction over what she’d shared with Richard had been the slight to her pride.

“I’m sorry…” She fell back into the chair, her voice losing its tone as she tried to make sense of what he was saying. He’d made a deal with Richard for the use of her body… she knew that… had thought at least that maybe it had been part of a drunken promise. She’d been prepared to forgive that one slight, stand by him still. This was different. This was expecting her to flout the vows they’d made in church and prostitute herself for his benefit. ‘I thought… well, I couldn’t imagine that you truly wanted me to entertain his offer? What are you trying to make me?”

“It would have kept a roof over our heads. He wouldn’t have claimed Frosterley with you still there. To all appearances it would still have been mine. Now every tradesman will be at us for his cut, as if the devils that engineered this weren’t bad enough.”

“I cannot. I couldn’t. I’d not be able to show my face in public.”

“Tis better than that now?”

“I can’t believe you’re even suggesting it.” She sat forward, her hands fisted in her skirts.

“Aw, quit the pretence, Thea. You’d have loved every minute of him shafting you. I’ve heard you groaning his name often enough and it’s not like you’ve ever groaned mine.”

On her feet again, she growled into his face, “When have you given me cause to?”
Phillips’s eyes flashed cold. Thea retreated a pace or two. “I’ve tried,” he said, “but you never wanted me. You’ve always been as frigid as a nun. I’ve never been entirely sure why you agreed to the match.”

She pressed her fingertips to her tired eyes. A rapid pulse hammered along the arch of her right brow; bringing slicing pain to her temple. It was true, they’d never entirely warmed to each other, never entirely seen eye to eye. Maybe there was an iota of something meant to please her in what he was suggesting.

She had wanted Richard.

She did want Richard.

But she wouldn’t whore herself for either of them. And truly, all Phillip really cared for was his own comfort.

“Think on it, Thea.” With the sherry gone, he held out his hands for the cheese again. “Merville has the Bishop’s ear. A few choice words whispered in the throes of passion and I’m sure my meager sins would find pardon.”

And that just proved her instincts right. Selfish, demeaning, wretch. If she had any sense, she would leave him to rot. And he was wrong about Richard. The only petition he was likely to make to the Lord Bishop would ensure Phillip swung, not set him free.

“No, Phillip.” She stepped forward again, with her hands clasped into two tight fists, so that her rings bit into her fingers. The resolution in his face wavered a little. Perhaps, he’d realized she wasn’t going to meekly agree.

“I don’t know, then.” His shoulders sagged, and he tottered to the chair she’d vacated.

“There must be someone else I could approach.”

“Lord, you’re not suggesting getting on a boat to your family, are you?”

The sharpness of his tone, shocked a squeak from her. She shook her head insistently. “No—no, of course not.” She had no intention of ever returning to Ireland, couldn’t tolerate the insistence on absolute obedience. “They’d expect me to stay…wouldn’t let me come back, and I’ve not deserted you yet.”

“They’d lock you in a bloody Catholic convent more like.”

“Phillip—hush! You’ll only bring more trouble on us speaking like that.” She rose and stretched her fingers to his lips to silence him. A blue-brown bruise edged one side of his jaw.  It was true that her father would have preferred her to marry a Catholic, or at least a Jacobin sympathizer. Phillip was neither, but at least, he’d been solvent and of ancient stock, and more importantly, available, convinced as her sire was that she was carrying a brat. For which, she had her elder brother to thank. “What if I sell the emeralds?” she asked. The fact Phillip hadn’t offered a single name for her to seek out told her it was worthless to ask. The money would have to be raised by other means.

Phillip nodded. “Aye, I suppose. It would certainly be a start.” His gaze dropped to her hands. “Give me your rings.”

“Not the wedding band.”

“The solitaire and the posy ring.”

She stripped them from her fingers and placed them in his palm.

“No, put them in my shoe.”

Phillip had only just wriggled his foot back into place when the warden appeared at the top of the stairwell. “Time’s up,” he said gruffly. He eyed the puddle of sherry and glass upon the floor and scowled at Phillip so that his rotten teeth showed.

“That wasn’t half an hour,” Phillip protested. “We’ve hardly had time to converse.”

Fingers splayed across his middle, the warden gave a garrulous belch. “You’ll have to save your conversing for another day, as I see that you’ve some cleaning to do, Mr. Roche.”

“Thea, pawn them, and bring me the money. The other jewels you have too.”

“I’ll try.” She promised, from the top of the stairwell, as the warden ushered her out. “I’ll come again, soon.”

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