IN DARKEST DAYS MAY BLOSSOM

CHAPTER 1

 

England 1796

 

     A dismal succession of wretched, stone edifices bounded the narrow confines of the rutted, dirt road upon which Jonathan stepped as he exited the lawyer’s office.

     Three days of travel. For what? Five minutes in the office of his father’s solicitor! 

     Jonathan heaved a long-suffering sigh, promptly followed by an irritated frown when two grubby street urchins narrowly avoided colliding with him as they scampered past, each holding a bread roll clutched in his grimy palm. From a few doors down, the baker shouted and shook his fist at them, whilst a line of labourers waited in dejected resignation for their midday meal. Despite the hour, the air held a murky gloom, laden with the miasma of ash and soot that floated across the slate-tiled rooftops before dropping to settle its stifling foulness upon the inhabitants of Bromsgrove.

     Jonathan grimaced, eager to depart. Spying his carriage awaiting him on the opposite side of the road, he set his beaver top hat upon his fair hair and took another step. This one, however, was doomed to be ill-fated as he sank to his ankle in the mud. “Damn,” he swore, his already surly mood deepening. 

Wrenching his foot free from the mire, he glared down at the muck now tarnishing the polished leather of his top boot. “Lord have mercy or today will surely be my demise,” he muttered. Pulling a silk handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket, he corrected himself. To be fair, it was not the day that was affecting him so, but the bidding of his overbearing father which had demanded his return to this miserable, God-forsaken town, where the bleak atmosphere of dirt and dreariness was only magnified by the forlorn, sorry state of its lower class inhabitants.

     With the futility of the act already apparent, Jonathan bent to wipe the offensive stain from his new boots when an enraged bellow reached his ears. Reluctantly, he raised his eyes from the travesty of his boots and allowed them to be diverted to the two town constables who were even now enforcing their authority upon a young peasant woman in the centre of the thoroughfare. Jonathan could not withhold the mutter of disdain that passed his lips.

     Poverty bred crime and both ran rampant in Bromsgrove. Whilst, the sight of a petty crook getting knocked about by the local constabulary was as common as dirt, the reality was that the constables hired by the local magistrate were little more than thugs themselves. His father would most certainly argue that their abuse of this girl was not only justified, but also a necessary example. Such contemptuous opinions on the worthlessness of the lower classes had oft been delivered across the family dinner table.

     But in truth, it was all utterly disagreeable to Jonathan. It was, in its entirety, the reason he avoided returning home. Once he had finished at Cambridge, he had deliberately cast aside the realities of Bromsgrove and removed himself to London, where he lost himself in the vibrant society life and all the pleasures the bustling city could afford a wealthy and uncommonly attractive young man.

As he regarded the unpalatable scene unfolding before him, the peasant girl shifted her penetrating gaze away from her assailants. By random happenstance her clear, blue eyes met his stony regard and Jonathan’s world tipped on end.

     It couldn’t be said that it was the crimson stain which dripped from her split lip that truly captured his attention. Nor was it that the girl wore only a dingy shift, her legs and feet bare, caked with the mud of the street. Neither did she possess a claim to beauty. In fact, she might easily be described as plain. No, it was not so obvious as any of that.

     Instead, what truly garnered his attention shone in her eyes, the unlikely marriage of exquisite despair and carefully guarded dignity. The strength of it shook him from his complacency and struck him spellbound.

     Only a moment passed or perhaps it was hundreds of moments, nevertheless, inevitably the girl returned her gaze to the constables. Jonathan watched, mesmerized, as she swiped a filthy arm across her mouth, smearing blood and soot together, forming a macabre mask on her white skin. In adamant defiance, she squared her thin shoulders and narrowed her eyes at her attackers, then she braced her feet and resolutely raised her chin as if daring them to deliver another blow.

     Despite his deliberate self-absorption and willing ignorance, Jonathan found himself gripped and troubled by this particular display of violence, against this particular girl, in this muddy and dirty street. And deep within his subconscious, his rising discomfiture began to surmount his father's prejudiced rhetoric.

     "Ye corrupt drab," growled the larger constable as he again drew back his meaty paw. "Nay respect fer yer betters."

     The man’s overt threat spurred Jonathan’s advance and the shout that burst unexpectedly from his lips. To his dismay, he was still several steps away when he heard the sickened thud of flesh meeting flesh and saw the girl crumple into the mud at the feet of her attackers, retching and heaving. A horrid wheeze was forced from her body as she attempted to drag air into her bruised lungs.

     “Cease!” he shouted as two sets of leather-bound feet connected with the girl's ribs. But with smiles of malevolent satisfaction on their pock-marked faces, the constables continued their brutal assault. When the thin one raised his cudgel, Jonathan leapt forward. It swung in a downward arc towards the girl's bowed head, where tiny tendrils of dark hair curled vulnerably across her slender neck. The instant before the club would have cracked against her skull, Jonathan managed to wrap his fingers around it. He twisted it from the brute's grasp and, in disgust, flung it down into the street.

     “Cease! Immediately!" he barked again as the girl curled into a filthy ball at his feet. "Do not lay so much as another finger upon her!"

     The men looked up and recognizing him, the sneers slid from their faces. "Mr. Hawthorne," the first constable grovelled. "We apprehended this thief as she fled from the scene of her crime. Verily, Mr. Higgs himself shouted out his window for us, just as she ran from his door."

     "It may be as you say," Jonathan replied vehemently, "and yet nothing could excuse such savagery.” He knelt in the muck, cold water soaking through the knees of his fawn breeches, and he gently lifted the girl’s cheek from the mire. It fit comfortably into the palm of his hand. He could feel her delicate cheekbones beneath his fingers. She was younger than he had assumed, no more than twenty. Her eyes were squeezed tightly closed and long, dark lashes lay fanned across the top of her ashen cheeks. As she laboriously struggled for each shallow breath, he could hear the unnerving sound of bone grinding on bone. 

     Whilst he sat paralyzed in horror at her injuries, the girl determinedly pulled her face from his hand and attempted to drag herself to her feet. Despite the herculean effort, she managed to make it only to her knees where she sat hunched and gasping for air. Slowly she opened her eyes and fixed that blue gaze on Jonathan. And once again, he was transfixed.

     "Should've let 'em kill me, ye toff," she rasped out torturously. "You haven't done me any favours. Only put a salve on your own conscience," she slurred past a lip that was swollen into a grotesque exaggeration of its former fullness.

     Uncomfortably, Jonathan set her judgment aside to pick through later and reached forward with his monogramed handkerchief. "Go get a blanket we can use to move her," he ordered one of the constables, dabbing tentatively at the blood that now pumped sluggishly from the open gash in her lip. She lifted a trembling hand to hold the handkerchief in place and her begrimed fingers brushed across his own clean ones in the process. Instantaneously, a thunderbolt reverberated through him and his hands began to shake as assuredly as did her own. He immediately wrenched his hand away.

     "Can't bear to get your lily-white hands dirty eh?" she gave a brief sarcastic chuckle which died away into a pained groan.

     "I'm trying to help you," he insisted, somewhat irritated by her lack of appreciation.

     "Nobody ever helped me," she choked back. Alarmed, Jonathan saw a spattering of blood rise from her throat as she coughed.

     "Fetch the doctor!" he barked at the remaining constable who stood beside the pair, patently unconcerned as to the girl's welfare.

     "You've only spared me for the hangman," the girl whispered as her eyes rolled back in her head. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth and Jonathan caught her in his arms as she collapsed.

 

* * *

 

     Between the constable and himself it wasn't difficult to carry the blanket upon which lay the petite woman, their route punctuated by her excruciating, rasping gasps. Jonathan was loath to take her to the brick hovel that served as the gaol, but it was only a short distance down the road and there were no hospitals in Bromsgrove such as existed in London.

     As they approached the disintegrating structure, the doctor met them. "Eh now," he grumbled. "I've been dragged away from my tea. What's the matter with her? Drunk I'd guess..."

     "Indeed not," Jonathan replied. "She was assaulted in the street by our honourable constables here," he said turning a black look at the men in question.

     "She ran, after Mr. Higgs caught her thievin' from him," the bigger constable returned scornfully, as if his actions were justified by the statement.

     "Ah...a nailmaker," the doctor said peering into the blanket at the girl. "Barely decent as usual. The forges are so swelteringly hot that they can’t bear to wear proper clothing," he explained, sniffing in disgust. "Something broken by the sound of it," he added. "Take her inside."

     The men obeyed, ducking under the low doorframe into the one room building. The only light came from the open door behind them and Jonathan paused to allow his eyes to adjust to the dimness. Once they had, he peered around in disgust at the squalor of the narrow space.  It was empty except for an abundance of filth and a musty pallet that lay on the dirt floor against the far wall. Even from the doorway he could see tufts of straw poking up through mouse-chewed holes in its grey cover. With another step into the room, a foul stench hit and he recoiled as if he'd been slapped in the face. He suspected the revoltingly-full bucket in the corner was its source.

     "She can't stay here!" he exclaimed with repugnance.

     "Aye, she can and she will," answered the constable.

     "Absolutely not," Jonathan replied. "I will arrange a room at the inn for her or even better I will have her moved to Chesterby.

     "Ha!" barked the constable. "Ye may be a bleedin' heart but yer father would never allow the likes o' her at Chesterby Hall. Magistrate's son or not, she'll stay here unless yer father himself tells me to move 'er."

     "For heaven's sake, cease your bickering and put her down," the doctor ordered.

     Jonathan gently lowered the girl to the pallet. Mercifully, she was aware of her neither injuries nor her surroundings as her head lolled back and her body fought to draw in air.

     "It's as I thought," the doctor said after a cursory inspection. "Broken ribs. And bleeding inside that's suffocating her," he shrugged. “She won’t last long."

     Jonathan glared in frustration at the apathetic man. Regardless of the girl's station, how anyone could be so heartless was beyond his understanding. "Surely she deserves an effort?" he reprimanded as he gazed down at the soot, blood, and mud-covered bit of a girl. For some reason the thought of that fire in her eyes being extinguished caused an ache in his chest.

     "Nothin' to do," the doctor insisted. "I could open her up and let the blood out but that's as likely to kill her as cure her. Used to do that on the battlefield...saved some..." he trailed off.

     "Then do it!" Jonathan shouted at the man. "I'll pay you. Do whatever you can."

     "I'd need a knife, some linen, brandy, and a bottle of wine," the doctor quibbled.

     "Go get it," Jonathan ordered the constables who lounged against the stone wall. “Now! And make it quick. This girl lays upon her death bed and I have not forgotten whose actions brought her here. Be assured that every grievous detail will be made known.”

     With a sudden nervous energy, the two left the hovel to do his bidding.

 

* * *

 

     It wasn't long before they were back with the necessary supplies, though each shallow gurgling breath of the poor girl in the silence of the room had caused the wait to be torturous.

     "Hold her still in case she wakes," the doctor ordered Jonathan, who complied immediately.

     He picked up the knife and cut open the girl's shift. With her side exposed he carefully felt about on the bruised flesh until he seemed to focus on one location. Tentatively touching the spot with the knife, the doctor took a deep breath and pressed firmly downwards. The girl jerked and a strangled moan escaped her lips. The doctor pressed deeper as blood began to trickle from the wound. Suddenly a gush burst forth, showering the doctor and the blanket upon which she lay. The girl flinched and cried out again, her eyes flashing open to meet Jonathan's accusingly. She gave one long, piercing scream of pain before she once again fell into unconsciousness. Jonathan wondered if he was imagining it but it did seem that her breathing was slightly deeper now, absent of the earlier gurgling. 

     The doctor grimaced and withdrew the knife. "Brandy," he demanded holding out his hand. The thin constable passed it to him and he poured it liberally over the gaping hole in the girl's side. "The French insist it helps heal the wound," he explained with a shrug. Then he ripped several strips of the linen and poured a healthy measure of wine on a section. Using the other piece he held it in place against the injury. "We'll see," he said finally. "Nothing more to do."

     "Do you know a woman I can pay to care for her?" Jonathan asked.

     "Probably," the doctor replied. "But why continue to bother with her? She's unlikely to live. Even if she does, she was caught thieving; your attempts to aid her will be for naught. You'll only be saving her for the hangman."

     "That's what she said," Jonathan whispered looking down at the pitiable, mistreated girl on the pallet. A chill crept along his spine and a deep sense of foreboding settled uncomfortably in his gut.

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© 2017 by Leila Snow

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