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The Year of our Lord, 1769

Chapter One 

In which I tell of a man’s death.



In the dead of night, when we lock our door against thieves, dogs, and the devil in disguise, the moans of men come to my ears. Some promise themselves many times over, such is their lust. Yet, when daylight seeps through the shutters, we whores are cast aside and our lovers go out into the fine morning as if bound on a journey to America. Well, I have been there, transported for the sin of thievery, though I found a way to return. It is a story I will tell in due course, for more recently I fought to keep myself from the gallows and I fear I am going mad.

William Westman. There, I have told you my tormentor’s name, though doubtless you will think him no tormentor at all. 

At first I thought he was one of our usual gentleman callers. It was on such a night as this, cold and damp, with a hint of frost and the air abroad swirling with mysterious poisons. He entered our establishment through John Bradley’s gin shop, on the corner of Covent Garden and Russell Street. He offered a fortune; five guineas and a promise of more if I would let him use me until daybreak. Mother Shadbolt could barely contain herself and welcomed him across our threshold as if he was the prodigal son, her Bible clutched to her bosom with one hand while she pocketed his cold hard cash with the other. He smelled of hashish and ale, but wore well-tailored garments and clean boots. His face was soft and not a bit lined or careworn. I filled a dish and pressed an orange segment against my lips. He grasped me about the waist and kissed away the juice. I thought I saw a dark shadow at his shoulder, but thought little of it. Many men carry their ills thus. It is not for me to judge them. 

I took him to my boudoir and asked what delights he had in mind. He did no more than raise my petticoats, sink to his knees and taste the region hidden from view. I gasped and pushed him away, pretending to be coy. Some men require soft words and innocence, while others prefer a harsher tone. Others still, need silence. They do the deed and leave. I trusted I would not have to do more than was absolutely necessary, for I was tired and wanted an easy time of it. 

My cully removed his wig. His own hair was fine and auburn in colour and, for such a young man, receding a little at the temple. The fire crackled in the grate, casting a golden hue over our bodies. I judged him in need of kindness and poured two small glasses of gin, turned back the bedcovers, and beckoned him forth. He had paid handsomely, and I was obliged to perform until he was exhausted.

Westman reached out to stroke my décolletage with ink-stained fingers. I let slip my chemise and led him to the bed, whereupon he cosseted me with fine sentiment and laboured to give me pleasure, before satiating his own needs. In truth, I feigned my enjoyment. I had already been bedded that afternoon by no less than three men, the first of whom had brought me much satisfaction (he being a young buck with energy a-plenty), the second was a regular client whose needs were catered to by my pretending to innocence and he to my ‘first’ deflowering. The third was an elderly gentleman, who often sleeps in our dining parlour. From time-to-time, he relieves himself. It often comes to naught. I believe he enjoys our wit and the warmth of the fireplace more than anything else. 

This then, is what happened after Westman’s desires had been satiated. We fell on the gin, gave a toast to Venus, talked a little of his wish for literary success and mine for financial freedom. He asked how it was that a seemingly educated gentlewoman, such as I, might find herself prostituted thus. I did no more than inform him of my father’s demise and our family’s fall from grace. 

“A woman has three choices in life,” I said. “She may marry. She may become a servant, or she may become a whore.”

“And you became the latter? But why?”

“I had no dowry. My mother sent me to London to work as a governess.” I took my gin up and knocked it back in one. “Mother Shadbolt intercepted me. She promised me riches beyond measure. I was young and foolish.”

My cully laughed and topped up my glass. He delighted in finding such an educated whore. As the night wore on we became more and more inebriated. 

When I woke the next morning a dead man pinned me to the bed – and not just dead, but bloody and terrible. What could I do but scream and claw my way out from beneath him?  His blood covered me, much like a wild woman who has savaged and fed on a beast. This could not be. It could not. Everyone would blame me. They would call me a murderess. I would swing from the gallows. No one would stand up for me. 

No one.

It was then that my dearest friend, Daisy, ran in closely followed by a whole host of bedevilled misses eager to see what scandal had befallen their sister. I pushed all back, slammed the door in their faces and cried for the horror that had been wrought in my bedchamber. I heard Daisy tell our nuns to remain outside the room. Then quietly, she re-entered and took my hands in hers.

“I can both smell and taste him still,” I said, my face wet with tears. “And here he is, slaughtered in such a foul manner I cannot understand how I slept through it.” 

It is true, I had drunk too much gin and my head ached to prove it, but surely I would have known if someone had entered and killed a man in my bed? Truly, I felt for the poor fellow and my tears were those of abject fear. Who had perpetrated the foul deed and how could this… this man die in my arms? With shaking hands, I tried to pull the sheet out from under the body, all the better to cover it.  A long-bladed knife clattered to the floor. Daisy plucked it up. The door opened and closed. Mother Shadbolt held out her hand.

“Keep your voices down. Best we don’t say nothing about this dearie,” she said. 

The knife disappeared into her voluminous petticoats. She opened the heavy curtains a little and a shaft of daylight penetrated the gloom. 

“I did not do this. I did not,” I said.  I rubbed the gore from my hands with the end of my chemise. When I looked in the mirror I was horrified to see the bloody mess. 

“Shame,” Mother Shadbolt said. “Who is it then? Oh him - William Westman. I thought you’d done with him. Just as well he paid me over the odds. I would have welcomed him back. You had an argument?” 

Her top lip curled as if the corpse had already begun to ripen.

I shook my head and mouthed his name: “William.” 

“He cause you trouble in the past?”

“No. No, all was well. He fell asleep. I too. I do not know what happened. He seemed a gentle soul. A kind man, I think." Though as I thought on it, I remembered the shadow and wondered what evil he carried. I should have paid more attention. 

Mother Shadbolt sneered at the corpse. 

"Damn him to hell for dying here. There’ll be no keeping this quiet. Not unless we can get his body away and quick sharp. I don’t know what Mr. Mendoza will have to say about it, I’m sure. I will send the boy out to find Jack Sprue. He will know what to do. You got some money Kitty? Only, cleaning this mess up will cost you. Jack don’t come cheap.”

Mother Shadbolt ever had her mind on money – that, and the effect this terrible event would have on her reputation. Of mine, I was sure, she gave little thought. Understand one thing, I am not given to overt displays of emotion. I have seen and experienced too much and, in order to survive as a whore on these dangerous city streets, one must keep one’s emotions in check. That said, Westman’s death had rocked me to the very core, but whatever I felt inside, I would not show it to those around me. For the sake of my sanity and survival, I would not.

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