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Death of a Dancer

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2019 год
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      Death of a Dancer
Caro Peacock

Duelling, derring-do, and dastardly deeds are all in a day’s work for Liberty Lane, a new heroine for fans of Georgette Heyer and Sarah Waters’s Victorian novels.A public spat between two dancers at a London theatre has a dramatic conclusion that wasn’t in the script: one dead, the other arrested for murder. As far as the jury’s concerned, it’s an open-and-shut case, but Liberty Lane believes otherwise.Soon she’s leading her own investigation, in a desperate race against the hangman’s noose. And while the criminal underworld may be no place for a lady, there’s no place for a criminal to hide once Liberty’s on the case…

CARO PEACOCK

Death of a Dancer

Contents

CHAPTER ONE

Neither of us knew the rate for bribing a gaoler at the Old Bailey. My friend Daniel Suter was two steps below me on the way down to the cells. He’d fought his way through the crowd to get there, pushing aside men twice his weight with bruiser’s faces, ignoring jeers and curses. In those two steps he’d crossed the boundary between the civilised modern building of the Central Criminal Court and the centuries-old misery of the passageway connecting it to Newgate Prison next door. Freshly plastered walls gave way to damp brick and a smell of choked drains.

‘I want to see her,’ Daniel said to the gaoler’s broad back.

He looked terribly out of place there, a slim and elegant figure, top hat in hand. That was one of the reasons they were jeering at him.

‘How much?’ said the gaoler, half turning.

The gaoler had hair cropped like a scrubbing brush, a wart on his chin the size of a coat button. Even from yards away, I could smell the onion and tobacco on his breath.

‘Very much.’

Seeing Daniel’s confusion, I whispered, ‘He means money.’

Daniel’s hand went to his pocket. His arm was shaking. I knew he never carried much money because he never had much to carry and we’d already had to pay to get into the spectators’ enclosure in court. The gaoler walked down a couple of steps, slowly. From the top of the staircase, the crowd went on jeering at Daniel.

‘Your fancy, is she? Look out she doesn’t poison you, like she did Columbine.’

Daniel turned to me, all the world’s misery on his face, holding out a handful of coins. A gold sovereign and a half-sovereign, two half-crowns, a silver sixpence and three pennies. It might have been enough if she’d been an ordinary prisoner, like a pickpocket condemned to transportation, but when the judge had put that square of black silk on his wig five minutes ago, her value had gone up.

I felt in the pocket under the waistband of my skirt and found a sovereign. It was payment that I’d managed to extract from a client some time ago for music lessons, but with everything else happening I’d forgotten about it till then. I took a step down and added it to the coins in Daniel’s palm. The clink of it made the gaoler stop and turn round.

‘Is it enough?’ Daniel said, holding out the handful.

‘It’s all we’ve got anyway,’ I said.

The man bit each sovereign in turn, nodding reluctantly as his teeth closed on the soft gold, then continued on down the steps into a narrow opening between stone walls. Daniel went after him and I followed. Down there, the clamour of the courtrooms upstairs was muffled but the wagons outside in Newgate, grinding over the paving slabs on their way from Smithfield market, made a constant vibration you could feel in your stomach. The smell and dampness seemed to cling to your face, as if you were trying to breathe through a wet dish rag. The gaoler stopped and gave an echoing slap with the flat of his hand on a heavy door. A voice from inside said something I didn’t catch.

‘Gentleman to see the prisoner,’ the gaoler announced.

A man’s hand came out and some of the coins were passed over, then the door was opened from the inside just enough to let Daniel in. I followed before the gaoler realised I was there. He pulled the door shut behind us and I suppose stood guard in the passage.

It was a big, cold room – far too big for the figure that sat in a rough wooden chair against the wall, with a plump gaoler on one side and a middle-aged woman on the other. Jenny had always been slim but after the weeks in prison she seemed to be on the point of disappearing altogether. The sleeves of her rough grey dress flopped around arms that looked no thicker than withy twigs. Only the jut of a badly fitting corset gave any shape to her upper body. Her red-brown hair that had floated like autumn leaves in the wind when she danced was streaked with black dye and dull from lack of washing, twisted into a knot that seemed to stretch her pale skin painfully tight over her cheekbones. Her big grey eyes had been one of her best features but now they were frightening. They were as large as ever, larger if anything, but blank as slate, as if the world had ceased to exist. Even when Daniel was only two steps away from her, their focus didn’t change and she didn’t seem to see him.

‘Jenny.’

The way Daniel said it was closer to a groan than a name. It was enough though. Something sparked in her eyes and suddenly she was on her feet, flinging herself at him. Before the gaoler could move she had her arms wrapped round Daniel, her head against his chest. She was a dancer, after all; still quick on her feet even when nothing else survived.

‘No touching,’ the gaoler barked, lumbering towards them. I stood in his way.

‘Why, is that extra?’

He stared at me as if the question puzzled him. I think he was at least half drunk. Surprisingly, the woman took my side. I didn’t know if she was a gaoler too or another prisoner.

‘You leave them be. It’s not for long.’

She’d probably taken a drink or two as well, but it must have brought out her sentimental side.

Jenny was talking as she clung to Daniel, low urgent words into his chest. He had his head bent to hear them.

‘… help me. You’re the only one who can help me. There’s not much time … they haven’t told me when …’

That went to my heart for Daniel’s sake as much as hers. Here she was, believing that one man without power, money or influence could somehow halt the millstones of justice that were grinding on in the courtrooms over our heads.

‘… choking there for half an hour. They had to pull on one woman’s feet to strangle her and make her die. I can ’t…’

Murderers were hanged outside Newgate Prison, just next door to the court house. She’d have heard all of the stories in prison. I was glad I couldn’t see Daniel’s face.

‘…in my basket … you could get it from them … done up in brown paper. I don’t mind how much it hurts. Promise you’ll send it. Today or tomorrow, if you can.’

There was a double slap on the door from outside. The plump gaoler had retreated to lean against the wall, but now he sprang upright.

‘Keeper’s coming. Get them out.’

He took Daniel by the shoulder and the woman, alarmed now, caught hold of Jenny round the waist and tore her away. As the gaoler tried to hustle him towards the door, Daniel planted his feet and resisted. The man growled and tightened his grip.

‘Do you want me to lose my job for you?’

‘To hell with your job. I’m not –’

The man gave a whistle and the first gaoler came in from the passage. They each took an arm and dragged Daniel along in the opposite direction from the way we’d come. I followed, terrified that they were going to throw him into a cell. It was a relief when one of them opened a narrow door on to the grey March daylight and the other gave him a push. He went sprawling on slippery wooden paving slabs and the door slammed behind us. I helped him up. Daniel was so tense with anger that it was like propping up a log of wood. There were people shouting and laughing all around, but this time it had nothing to do with us. It seemed that a man had been found not guilty of some crime in the other courtroom and he and his friends had come outside to celebrate and shout.

‘Higgins not guilty. Three cheers for Higgins. For he’s a jolly good fellow …’

They drank wine straight from the bottle, splashing it on the pavement, and sang loudly and so off-key that it would have caused intolerable pain to Daniel in normal times. As it was, I don’t think he heard. Even when one of the revellers urinated against the wall and some of it splashed on to Daniel’s boots, I had to nudge him to move aside. He looked at me.

‘Did you hear, Liberty?’

‘Let’s get away from here. If we cross the road we can find …’

‘Did you hear what she was asking me?’

‘Did she want you to help her escape?’

‘No. Not in that way, at any rate. She wants me to send poison in to her so that she can … can kill herself before they …’

The friends of Higgins had managed to hoist him on to their shoulders, after a struggle; he was as big and unwieldy as an ox carcass.

‘Three cheers for English justice. Good old English justice.’

Daniel drew back his arm, clenched his fist and swung with all his might at the stone wall of the Old Bailey. If I hadn’t managed to grab his sleeve I think the contact would have broken bones. Even as it was, the skin of his knuckles was shredded and blood ran down his fingers. He stood, looking at the blood, then at me.

‘Daniel, please come home. This won’t help her.’

‘What will then? What will?’

I couldn’t answer.

CHAPTER TWO

The case of Columbine’s murder started, as far as I was concerned, on a February Saturday morning in Hyde Park, just as the sun was rising, turning the mist to a silver haze. At that point, Columbine still had two and a half days to live. Frost was on the grass, beads of moisture on the sleeve of my riding jacket. I was riding my horse Rancie, one of the finest mares in London, with the blood of Derby winners in her veins and the sweetest temperament – if you treated her kindly – of any horse ever foaled. Amos Legge rode beside me on a powerful but clumsy-looking grey called Bishop. We’d come in from Park Lane through the Grosvenor Gate and cantered northwards along the carriage drive. This early, there were no fashionable riders out, only soldiers from the barracks or grooms exercising horses from livery stables. We slowed to a walk near the point where the carriage drive turned westwards. Bishop jibbed, planting his feet and shaking his head from side to side, although there was nothing visible to account for his alarm. Rancie rarely jibbed at anything, so I gave them a lead and Bishop followed reluctantly, walking sideways and snorting. Within a few paces, he went as calmly as if nothing had happened.

‘Horses know,’ Amos said.

It was the site of Tyburn tree, where the gallows had stood for hundreds of years, from the time when London was no more than a village. The gallows had been taken down fifty years before, because respectable people who’d moved to new houses by the park didn’t care for hangings on their doorstep. Still, as Amos said, horses knew. As we turned back down the drive a couple of grooms on matched dark bays came out of the mist. Amos knew them and called out a cheerful insult about carriage nags. I looked ahead, conscious of their curious glances. Rancie was worth looking at and my outfit respectable enough not to disgrace her. My riding jacket was the most fashionable garment I owned, fine black wool with leg-of-mutton sleeves tapering to tight cuffs, rows of silk-covered buttons decorating the wide lapels and a peplum at the back that flared out elegantly over the saddle. It was a bargain from a second-hand clothes shop, almost new. One of the advantages of living in Mayfair is the quality of second-hand clothes shops. The black skirt and top hat, from the same source, were passable but no more. Most of the nap had been rubbed off the hat, but I concealed it as best I could by tying a piece of black muslin round it as a scarf that flew out on the breeze.

‘Get a lot of questions about you, I do, miss,’ Amos said.
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