The Apprentice

Word count: | Reading time:
Historical Fiction
Crime
Mature
The apprentice follows the story of Jack Croft an apprentice stationer and is set around the turn of the century 17/1800. Dismissed from his apprenticeship for sexual misconduct he becomes involved with a female confidence trickster who uses him to forge certain documents. Jack flees London, fearing the exposure of the confidence trick, and undertakes a journey back to his native Derbyshire. On this journey the stage-coach is robbed and he receives a serious injury. He is taken into the care of a lady who offers him a home and sustenance. This leads to a sexual relationship. Other sexual relationships follow and he becomes involved in two robberies which he justifies as moral retribution against violent and criminal minded men. Again, he fears being caught and flees, joining a gipsy family.  Travelling with them, he tries to save a young girl destined for a life in a brothel.  This leads to yet another robbery.  Eventually reaching his former hometown and destitute, he embarks on a stage-coach robbery for which he is caught. He appears before the Assize Court, but finds his defence counsel already paid for by an anonymous benefactor. He is found 'not guilty' and the story ends with the anonymous benefactor being revealed as the female confidence trickster. The confidence trick (for which he had forged the documents) had come to fruition and she was now rich and they resume their love affair.Throughout the tale, Jack becomes involved in sexual exploits. In committing the crimes he believes he takes the moral high ground.The story has echoes of Henry Fielding's classic Tom Jones. 

Prologue

          Prologue

Boulders and rubble, dislodged from the cliff face, blocked the turnpike but it was half expected after the deluge of the past two days, and caused no alarm when the stage had to halt. Highway robbery was still a problem but there had been no recent activity in this area. The guard climbed down from the coach to attempt to move some of the debris aside and guide the horses through. He propped his musket against one of the larger boulders and began the task. The coachman held onto the reins although the horses stood quietly, tired and sweating. The passengers had no inclination to alight from the stage as the mist that hung about the river was enough to soak anyone. Unobserved, a lithe, masked figure appeared behind the guard, threatening with his flint-lock pistols.

"Monsieur, do not reach for your musket," his words heavily accented, carried a clear threat to dispel any thoughts of heroism. Manoeuvring between the guard and his musket, the masked man reached for the weapon and flung it into the river. Waving his pistol he ordered the guard to stand beside the coach, 'Demarche, vite, vite – move,' he said prodding him none too gently with a pistol. Demanding the occupants alight, he lined them up with the guard. Seeing a woman alight too, he said, "Madame, ecarter vous, s'il vous plait — pliz stand aside, I wish you no harm,"

To the three male passengers, who were visibly shaking, he said, "Messieurs, videz vos poches, s'il vous plait — empty your pockets," and taking the money he ordered them back inside the coach. In a chivalrous gesture he held the lady’s hand to assist her. She gave him a wink and, as she bent to take up her dress, threw back her cape, making sure that her décolletage caught his eye. As she climbed the steps into the coach, she displayed a shapely ankle. Turning in the doorway, she slipped a beautiful solitaire ring from her finger and handed it to the robber unheeded, whispering, "This evening – the Olde Hall Hotel, don’t disappoint me." What a proposition — how could he refuse? With the wink of an eye he was gone: disappeared into the mist with the same mystique as he first appeared.

———oOo———

Chapter1  Lookin Back

Chapter 1 Looking Back.

As Jack Croft sat alone, chained by his ankle to the cell wall, it was all too obvious, the woman had been the bait in the trap — a tempting liaison at the Olde Hall hotel. A trap that had sprung closed on him so easily. His denial of the nom-d'emprunt 'Napoleon' or sometimes 'Boney' was his only hope — after all, who could identify him? He'd always been masked, and adopted a Gallic persona to confuse his victims, surely only the ring could be his downfall. His spirits were low; he could see the gallows through the bars of his cell. The gaoler laughed and cruelly yanked the chain of Jack's leg-irons, saying,

"That's where we're goin' t' stretch yer 'orrible neck me beauty. Let me tell yer, just t' put yer mind at rest, a guilty verdict fer highway-robbery means either the gallers or transportation, an' believe me, if yer spared the rope yer'll soon find out it was no act o' kindness. That 'ell 'ole they calls Botany Bay in Van Daemon’s Land, they tell me, is far worse than our nice friendly gibbet."

Jack had himself heard enough of the dreadful tales of transportation to make him shudder at the thought. He knew if he survived the sea journey in one of those hulks he'd be lucky. He hardly knew what to wish for.

“Quite a jester aint he, that turnkey? What they got yer for?” croaked the scrawny

figure chained opposite.

“Highway-robbery,” answered Jack.

"Highway-robbery eh, I bets yer Innocent though aint yer? Ha ha — they're all innocent as ends up in 'ere," chuckled the whiskery old derelict.

"It's a long story," Jack replied, "Anyway, why are you here?"

"Beggin' — vagrancy they calls it. They'll kick me out agen soon. I'm a reg'lar. So, Napoleon, a long story is it? Well, we got a lot o' time to fill."

"Napoleon? Where’d you hear that name?"

"It's what that lovely turnkey called yer when yer was chained up."

"They seem to think I'm someone they call by that name — but it's not me."

Jack wasn't going to admit it, even to this vagabond, that he really was 'Napoleon' — it was his victims who'd given him that nick-name, deceived by cunning use of what French he'd picked up whilst a lodger in the Maurras household.

"Well, Napoleon, or whatever yer name is, amuse me. Tell me, what brought yer 'ere, t' this 'ere dungeon."

"Stupidity – and a beautiful woman."

'Ah, the downfall o' many a man'.

As the vagrant said, there was plenty of time to fill — reflect upon his misfortune before the day of the Assize. Jack felt a shudder run down his spine, imagining the judge in his black cap, pronouncing those frightful words that would echo through the court, "...you will hang by the neck until..." Imagined too, the remorseless questioning,

'How do you explain the lady's ring in your possession mister Croft? That ring ties you to the robbery no matter how much you claim mistaken identity.'

Those damning words sounded as a clarion in Jack's head, but worse still, he could even hear his own feeble response, 'It was planted on me.' The rattle of the chain as he sank down against the wall, added to his misery. Already he could sense the hangman's noose tightening around his neck. Light was fading fast and with nothing more to do than close his eyes and think about his predicament, his past flooded before him.

"Napoleon, come on, tell me about this beautiful woman."

There was little chance he was going to sleep, feeling so much discomfort, so reluctance finally gave way to the pestering.

"Alright. What do I call you?"

"Horace – they calls me ‘'Orrible’, but me name's Horace."

“Well Horace, it all began in London. I was half way through an apprenticeship when I met my first love. She was a beautiful young Irish girl called Kathleen.”

He hesitated – in his mind he was again that callow teenage apprentice. He was reliving every moment, but didn't feel inclined to share too much with Horace. It wasn't until the Sunday church service that he even plucked up the nerve to speak to her. She was a tease but such a relief from the guild and those dull tutors. He was naive and innocent, but she soon changed all that — he was in love sure enough.

When he wasn't thinking of Kathleen he was thinking about what he’d lost, wondering what Uncle Charles would have thought of him if only he’d known the depths of depravity his nephew had descended to; and what lay before him. It was a blessing Uncle Charles, his benefactor, had died unaware. Dread of what a guilty verdict would mean made him realise, Botany Bay, if all the stories were true, would be a living hell — on the other hand that might be preferential to the alternative.

No matter how painful the memories, Horace’s persistence meant he had to force himself to tell of the circumstances that led him there. He began,

"I was apprenticed to the Guild of Stationers under Monsieur Pierre Maurras. He and Madam Maurras were French Huguenot refugees and I lodged in their home. My indentures and even the rules of the Maurras household were strict. The terms were frequently read out to remind me of my obligations, 'You may not take intoxicating liquor, frequent ale houses, gin palaces or such places of ill repute, nor indulge in gambling, fornication, debauchery, nor anything which might bring the Guild and its members into disrepute. Unfortunately, I fell in love with a kitchen maid in the Maurras household, and that proved my undoing."

Jack was circumspect in the telling about the actual circumstances, but never-the-less he couldn’t avoid the memories and the feelings that filled his head. Leaning back against the cold stone wall of his cell, his thoughts returned to that fateful evening when he was left alone with Kathleen. He remembered the kissing, the cuddling and the fumbling that they’d managed before, but they'd never had the chance to take their lovemaking any further— until that evening. Monsieur and Madam had long planned to visit friends, so the coast was clear. The moment Kathleen touched him he felt as though his loins were on fire. The chance to explore her body had his emotions aflame.

They were both frenzied and as he rushed to remove her clothing, his arousal felt too much to contain. Kathleen tore at the fastening of his britches and took hold of his erection. The memory brought the fire back to his loins — he was once again kissing and stretching her nipples. He felt her body arch as he kissed down her belly. Spasms engulfed her as he kissed and licked her inner thigh, and she gasped as he went further. The musk of her very being filled his senses. His tongue made her shudder and moan in equal measure until she pleaded, “Please, now. Now!” There, on the pegged rug before the open fire of the sitting room, their bodies entwined in exquisite copulation, and at that zenith of pleasure, they were shocked by a scream that shook the room.

He remembered his embarrassment, looking up and seeing Madam Maurras, who had entered so quietly. "Pour l'amour de Dieu," she wailed and began to sob uncontrollably as she confronted the sight of the two of them, naked, and in flagrante delicto. Oh the shame, his ardour left him in an instant. A sudden illness had brought Madam home unexpectedly, and outraged by what she considered their desecration of her home, Kathleen was dismissed on the spot. Conduct likely to bring disrepute upon the Guild and its members, was the view of the board, and Jack’s apprenticeship was terminated, but that was just the beginning of his tribulations. He'd been well thought of until then, and had prospects of being upgraded to journeyman — all that was lost. What was he to do?'

Chapter 2 Lady Bouverie

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."

"Plans?"

"Yes, I can use your training, your writing — it could bring us both a great deal of money."

"How milady?"

"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.

———oOo———

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."

"Forgery?"

"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!

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