Chapter 2 Lady bouverie
The chill and damp seemed to penetrate Jack’s bones as he attempted sleep on the cold stone-flagged floor. The constant rattle of the chain and chafing from the shackles, added to his misery. At least Horace was quiet for the moment – apart from the occasional snore – which meant he didn't have to regale him with any more of his story for the moment. Still Kathleen filled his thoughts.
He remembered how it felt – the gut ache that beset him when she left. According to Mrs Baker, the house-keeper, his lover had gone without a word of farewell; returned to her Dublin home. He wondered whether he would ever see her again. His embarrassment at being found naked, and the disgrace Kathleen must have felt, overwhelmed him with guilt.
His indenture came to mind, ‘Thou shall not…debauchery…fornication,’ words that still hung like weights around his neck. Shaking his head, he remembered well the moment he'd stood, head bowed, before the governors – cursing them all under his breath, anticipating his fate – puritanical dinosaurs, had they never been young?
Cast out penniless, with only the clothes he wore, it was a miserable moment. He didn’t noticed Lady Bouverie, wife of the chairman of the guild – Lord Claude Bouverie – waiting as he left the room. Eyes downcast, he almost collided with her.’
"Master Croft, what do you intent to do now?"
"I beg your pardon Lady Bouverie, I hadn't noticed you. Intentions ma’am? I don’t have any intentions at the moment. I suppose I’ll look for somewhere to spend the night and then perhaps begin my journey back north."
"Well, Master Croft, I’ve listened to what the board said, and very scathing it was too, but I'm prepared to think better of you. You’re a clean, healthy, and well-mannered young man, not at all the immoral person you were made out to be. I have sympathy for your predicament and I suspect you’re financially in need. I’m in a position to help. What do you say?"
"Of course, you’re most generous milady. I’m grateful for the offer, but what would I have to do to earn such generosity?" thinking that everything came at a price.
"Please, Master Croft, don’t insult me. I’m offering help simply because I’m able to do so."
"Forgive me, ma’am, I didn't wish to offend."
"Then say no more."
She opened her purse and presented him with a silver florin and a card bearing an address. Show the card when you arrive and they’ll know I sent you. It’ll cost you nothing to stay there."
Taking them he thanked her – he was in no position to reject good fortune. As she walked away, he couldn't help but wonder why she’d want to help him?'
Jack remembered following her instructions, walking for the best part of a half hour, gradually deeper into St. Giles parish, across the Tyburn Road. The sight of the gallows there made him shudder and hurry by. The slums into which he was heading worried him even more – feeling so vulnerable, depressed and frightened. The broken down buildings, the stink from the open sewers, the street urchins and down-and-outs on every corner, added to his worries. He wondered if this was to be what fate had in store for him too. The address on the card was just another slum but at least it was shelter. Two rough looking men barred the door, probably marking the place for what it was – a typical gin house and hang-out for all the thieves and cut-throats in the area.
"Where d' yer think yer goin'?" they demanded to know before he produced the card Lady Bouverie had given him. They looked as though they hadn't the intelligence to read it, but even so, they recognised something about it that made them step aside. The dilapidation was almost as depressing inside as out, and the thought occupied his mind, ‘What connection could such a lady have with a hovel like this?’
The proprietor, a scruffy, surly, gin soaked individual of very few words, looked him over as though he was something strange, or a threat, but relaxed the moment he saw the card. His breath was offensive – his teeth black and rotten – which made Jack turn away in disgust. The man beckoned him to follow and led to the rear stairs where, after grunting and stumbling his way to the top, he indicated a bundle of rags lying on the floor in a corner. Jack shuddered, realising that was intended as his bed for the night and wondered what vermin might be hiding in those rags. Looking around, there were more bundles – it was obvious others occupied that same space too.
Left alone, he walked to the window and wiped the grime and cobwebs from the glass with his sleeve, and peered out. Down below was a back alley with its open sewer and rats scuttling about. He sank down to the floor with his head in his hands and tears filling his eyes. His mind was now made up; tomorrow he’d be on his way – even if it meant having to sleep under the stars.
As the light began to fade, the pangs of hunger made him realise he hadn’t eaten since morning. He felt in his pocket and found the florin Lady Bouverie had given him and decided to go in search of food. He passed by one or two ale houses before he found one that appeared more to his liking, and went inside. Ordering a flagon of ale, he also settled upon a platter of roast beef with bread to soak up the gravy. This, he realised, could well be the last substantial meal he’d have for some time. He found himself a quiet corner to sit. There was a good fire blazing in the hearth and the warmth, together with the ale, made him drowsy. It seemed only the next moment the landlord was shaking him awake. The hour was late. As he gathered his senses he began to walk towards the doorway where a woman was in conversation with a man. She seemed familiar but deliberately turned her back to him. Surely, the resemblance was too much to be a coincidence — Lady Bouverie! She wasn’t dressed in her finery now – just a plain cotton dress with a shawl about her shoulders – but there was no mistaking her.
"Mi’lady, what brings..?" but before he'd even finished the sentence, she gave him a withering look and turned her back again. He stepped outside and waited. Moments later she appeared saying,
"I’m sorry, but you were interrupting something important."
"Yes, I gathered as much, but your appearance – why?"
"Look, there are times – and very good reasons – when I need to hide my identity. Don’t ask me to explain."
What game was she playing – a lady mixing with the dregs of society? There was something puzzling about her.
"Well, milady, I’m pleased I’ve met you again because I’ve decided to wend my way home to Derbyshire. I felt obliged to let you know."
"Why? I've plans in mind for you."
"Yes, I can use your training, your writing — it could bring us both a great deal of money."
"Drop the ‘milady’ – just call me Pru – Prudence."
He felt awkward but did as he was bid. There was something amiss about her but she intrigued – excited him.
"Is this something illegal?" Common sense told him it just had to be.
"Oh Jack, don’t worry so much. I’ll explain everything later but for now, just tell me you’ll stay."
The thought of ‘a great deal of money’ was tempting but what was it she was tempting him into?
"I might be persuaded to stay if only I knew what it was you had in mind, though I must say whatever it is I won’t be returning to that den you sent me to. One night there and I’d have my throat cut."
"Oh no. You’d be safe enough…” she laughed “…I know it’s rough but they owe me favours and as you have no funds, it was the obvious place to send you."
"Well, I’m not going back."
"Alright, if you’ll just tell me you’ll stay, you can lodge with me tonight."
“I’ll stay the night but…” The “but” said it all, he wasn't going to commit until he knew what she had in mind.
He expected a carriage to be waiting for her somewhere close by, but instead, they walked – back to a more agreeable area. It intrigued him that she wasn’t afraid to walk the streets in the dark, especially around St Giles. There must have been footpads round every corner and ruffians who'd ravish a woman walking alone. He realised she must have some sort of immunity amongst them. Eventually they arrived at a modest cottage, so out of keeping for someone of her status. She unlocked the door and went inside, lighting a single oil lamp. He found himself in a spartan living kitchen.
He set himself to sleep the night on a makeshift bed. With enough clean blankets, he settled down on a hard wooden bench — but sleep wouldn’t come. The questions about this mysterious, exciting woman filled his head and kept him awake into the early hours.
Chapter 3 The Scheme
Shivering brought him to his senses again. The stone floor was so cold and the chain that fastened him to the wall, chafed at his ankle. He stood and tried to wrap his arms around himself to generate some warmth. How could anyone sleep with the constant rattle of the fetters and the snoring of his fellow prisoner. How the man could sleep Jack couldn’t imagine. There was no moon to illuminate the cell and misery was eating into him. Feeling no better in spirit, and certainly no warmer, he settled down again on the floor of the cell, pulled his knees up in a huddle, and closed his eyes. He forced himself to think back to the discomfort of that bed in Pru's kitchen.
Lying awake into the early hours, he perceived soft footfall on the stone flagged floor, then the opening door and flickering shadows cast by candle light entering the room. He propped himself up on one elbow and peered beyond the candle's flame, to see his host in flimsy night attire. She placed the candle holder on the floor and sat beside him on the bench.
"Jack, I’m glad you’re awake. I want to talk. I’ve decided that if my scheme is to work, you have to know what’s intended, and I need you to tell me that you’ll stay and help me."
"Scheme? I knew it. It is something illegal isn't it?"
"Let’s just say it’s a bit underhand – but you’ve got to understand why I’m planning to do this. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m not the real Lady Bouverie.”
“Well, I’d begun to realise there was something wrong, but if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not, who are you? Why pass yourself off as Lady Bouverie? Does she even exist?”
“She exists alright, but no-one ever sees her outside her home. She’s a recluse. Her husband, Lord Bouverie, as you know, is the head of that Guild. What you probably don’t know is that his fabulous wealth came from importing tea, silks, opium and precious stones from China and India. He's one of the wealthiest men behind the East India Company.”
“So that’s your plan is it? Robbery? I won’t get involved in robbery.”
“No. Let me explain. My Joseph worked for Bouverie as a book-keeper — an ordinary job — day after day pouring over ledgers and adding up figures. He never saw any money, just figures — bills-of-lading, ships' manifests, captains’ logs, summary declarations and Excise demands. All seemed fine on the surface, but there was something that disturbed him. I don’t know what it was and Joe couldn’t be sure, but he could see things didn’t quite tally. Being loyal, he went to Bouverie with his suspicions.”
“What was his reaction?”
“Joe expected to be thanked for drawing attention to it, but instead, Bouverie accused him of false accounting and dismissed him. Joe realised it was Bouverie himself who was manipulating the figures, defrauding the Excise people and salting away his ill gotten gains. He was distraught and his health began to suffer. As word spread through ship-owners, importers and warehouses alike, no-one would employ him. He tried all along the wharfs and beyond, with other importers and traders, but his name had been tarnished. Poor Joe was a broken man. He died two years ago. I swore to him on his death-bed he’d be avenged and that’s where this scheme of mine comes in
"So, who are you — what's your real name?"
"What does it matter? I'm Pru, that's all you need to know.”
Shaking his head and spreading his hands in a gesture that said ‘Hold fast – I don’t like this,’ Jack made his feelings clear. He didn’t like the idea of getting mixed up in something illegal but the thought of lots of money couldn't be ignored. It was the consequences that worried him.
Pru drew close with her face close to his, and said,
“Jack- I need you. I promise that no-one will ever know you were involved.”
“Well, how do I fit in? You said there could be a great deal of money in it for us – for me?"
"I need someone with your skills. You see, I need some official documents drawing up – I’ll explain later."
"Well, yes in a way."
"That means that if I'm discovered – if we're both discovered – we'll find ourselves in jail, or more likely hanging from that gibbet at Tyburn."
"We'll never be found out — who's going to even suspect you're involved? I'll never tell anyone — and if you keep your mouth shut..." She gave a shrug and spread her hands in a gesticulation as if to say ‘stop worrying’.
"So, I won't be involved in anything other than preparing the documents?"
"No, I promise. You won't be asked to do anything more."
"Where do those cut-throats you call friends fit in?"
"They’re no part of this. They’re just friends – after my husband was falsely accused, times were hard. We faced penury; beggars. Those ‘cut-throats’ as you call them were the only people who lifted a finger to help us. Yes, they’re thieves and vagabonds, but they’d do anything for one of their own. When Joe died, I descended to a dreadful low, something I’d never experienced before – having to sell myself – that, and existing on clippings from coins. Then I came to enjoy the company of an old gent. He died, leaving me a small amount of money — but it was his death that gave me the idea."
‘How could such an attractive woman of no more than thirty-five, know widowhood, exist as a prostitute, and take an elderly benefactor, in just two years since her husband died,’ he wondered. At the back of his mind small seeds of doubt were being nurtured and making him even more cautious. A draught caused the candle to flicker and as Pru hesitated, bending down to shield the flame with her hand, he said,
"I’m still puzzled. I understand you feeling aggrieved and wanting revenge but why pretend to be Lady Bouverie?"
"That’s part of the plan. As I said, the real Lady Bouverie has become a recluse – never seen outside her home. If the plan was to work I had to take her place, make everyone believe I was the genuine Lady Bouverie. It wasn't difficult because no-one outside her family knew what she looked like. I've had to convince the business world that I am the genuine lady and it's worked so far — but this is where you come in. I need Letters of Administration. They’d give me the power to deal with Bouverie's assets but I can only get my hands on his jewels and gold if I produce such a letter."
“But I'd need parchment and the seal of the Probate Court."
"Don’t let that concern you. Everything will be provided."
"But surely, Lord Bouverie isn’t dead. I don’t know much about this but I do know that Letters of Administration are only granted to the administrator of someone’s estate when he or she has died without making a will."
"That’s true, but I have it on very good authority – from someone inside his own household – that he’s in poor health and expected to die very soon. What’s more he’s very superstitious — always been convinced in his mind that to make a will would just invite an early death. He's got undeclared wealth stashed in a number of businesses and the plan is to get to those investments as quickly as possible with the letter of Administration, before anyone else realises."
Jack was beginning to sweat and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He paused for a brief moment shaking his head, showing his doubts.
"Look, if this goes wrong you're going to spend a long time in Newgate, and I'll probably end up transported to Van Diemen's Land – if I'm lucky." His hand went instinctively to his throat.
Pru laid a hand on his arm and looked him in the eye, lowered her voice to a sultry whisper, and said,
"There’s no risk in it for you. Who could ever guess that you've had anything to do with it? The risk is mine, and mine alone."
She let her hand linger on his arm and began to gently stroke. He felt that stirring sensation in his loins again. She slid her arm around his bare shoulders and the intensity began to overwhelm him.
"Tell me you'll help me," she whispered, pouting and leaning perceptibly closer. He found himself looking directly into her cleavage and his temperature began to rise. Still with her left arm around his shoulders she soothed his brow with her right hand, and kissed him. First just a peck on the nose but followed by a full blooded kiss on the lips. He hardly knew how to cope — blood pressure so high and cheeks burning. This was the first experience of seduction by a mature woman. Even his previous trysts with Kathleen, a teenager, had been led by her, now, he knew his inexperience was going to disappoint. Pru took his hand and led him to her bed.
He felt inadequate and he guessed the love-making was rushed and over all too soon for Pru. He was embarrassed at his inability to make the pleasure last, but she was sympathetic, dismissing his apologies.
"Forget it. Lovemaking’s an art, and I'll teach you. Think of it this way, anyone can splash paint on a canvas but the artistic finer brush strokes only come with practice. See it as another apprenticeship."
There was no doubt about it now - he was staying. Oh, the power, of sexual attraction!