Step Into Darkness
Hell and all its devils must be in there! Sarah thought, peering into The Three Bells.
The squalid tavern was no place for the daughter of a viscount. She balked at crossing the threshold, but cross it she must to save her father. The instructions she had were clear.
The entrance stood wide open to the mud of London. As Sarah stared into the gloom, dark shapes resolved into individual beings. Some smoked clay pipes, the long stems reaching almost to their belts. Most of the women wore their hair loose and their skirts hitched up to show bare ankles. All were dressed in drab brown, or gray, or a murky wine shade, as if the customers had been laundered together and the colors had run. Except, Sarah thought, they didn’t smell laundered, even at this distance.
She wore her maid’s oldest clothes as a disguise and still felt overdressed and foolish. Her father would never have permitted her to come here.
Like a scrap of April sky, a bit of blue flashed amidst the throng of tavern-goers. It was gone immediately, a trick of the eye. None of the drinkers looked up, oblivious to the swirl of an azure silk dress in their midst.
Sarah’s feet froze to the muddy street; she was less than eager to follow the blue-gowned figure of the viscountess. She twisted the ring she wore around on her finger, nervous and unhappy. It would have been easier if she was moonstruck, a madwoman plagued by fevers of the brain, but she was not. There was no excuse to ignore her guide’s promptings.
Once again Sarah saw the swirl of the dress, something in its movement impatient. The crowd drank on, not noticing the graceful figure of the woman who had been dead for many years.
Sarah was following the ghost of Lady Carleigh, her mother.
The country squires and their wives had named the viscountess the French Witch, and there was something to their superstitions. Even after her death, she had come to Sarah in her dreams--loving her daughter, advising her, refusing to let even the grave sever the bond between mother and child. Her visits had been a blessing beyond measure to the young girl.
But now things were suddenly complex. Looking at The Three Bells, Sarah was sure it was not the sort of place a mother ought to bring her daughter, even if it was to seek out the one man who could save Lord Carleigh from the French.
“Hey, missy, a ha’penny for an old soldier?”
Sarah started back, her foot slipping in the muck. Deep in thought, she had not noticed the beggar sidling closer. By the tang of his breath, she could tell he was also a drunk. Sarah inched back yet further, sliding again and fouling her hem with mud. Irritated and afraid, she tugged her skirt from under her heel, swearing silently. She fervently hoped the shade of her mother was deaf to her daughter’s profane thoughts.
Two men at the entrance of The Three Bells saw the tableau of beggar and maid and hooted with laughter, one pointing with a greasy, half-eaten chicken leg.
The beggar thrust out his hat. “Something for poor Sweeney,” said the beggar, jiggling his hat.
“I’ll give you something if you answer my question.” Sarah’s voice was taut, but steady. That pleased her.
Sweeney blinked and frowned uneasily, dirt etching every crease and line in his skin. “I don’t think, nor see, nor buy, nor sells nothing hereabouts.”
“Don’t refuse to answer before you know what I want.” She paused. “I want to speak with Mr. Jack. I know he’s in the tavern--how do I find him?”
“Gen’leman Jack? Nobody peaches on Jack and his boys.”
She reached for the shabby purse at her belt and withdrew a new-minted shilling. Turning it so it caught the light, Sarah managed a smile. “All I am asking for is a referral, as for any piece of business.”
At the sight of silver, Sweeney clapped the hat over his receding fringe of hair and held out his dirty paw. “He’s in there, in The Three Bells.”
Sarah held the shilling a little higher. “I know that. But how do I ask for Mr. Jack? He’s a wanted man. I doubt he’ll simply put up a hand if I shout out his name.”
“Ah, Miss, for your pretty blue eyes and bonny brown curls there’s not a man who wouldn’t . . .”
“Don’t waste your breath, Sweeney,” Sarah retorted, then swallowed. She sounded like her father dismissing one of her suitors. Why not? It was her most familiar model of unflinching authority, so she may as well use it.
The beggar licked his lips. “The barkeep, Jervett, knows where to find him. I don’t know more than that.”
Sarah dropped the coin into Sweeney’s palm. “Thank you.”
Sweeney curled his fingers around the shilling and tugged his hat brim before vanishing into the shadows. Squaring her shoulders, Sarah turned and, casting a scalding glance at the chicken-eating man in The Three Bells’ doorway, entered the gates of hell.
At the back of the tavern, a counter on trestles separated the crowd of customers from the barrels of strong drink. Sarah stood on her toes, craning her neck. Two men and a woman were serving drinks, and Sarah guessed her quarry was the man in charge. Jervett was fat and florid, stains soaking his shirt beneath fleshy arms. Smiling at a customer, the barkeep exposed black stumps of teeth as he counted out change, then laughed and smote the counter, making the coins jump. Sarah teetered on her toes, open-mouthed with curiosity.
The men before her stood and talked and drank, oblivious to her attempts to see past them. Sarah felt her face flush, then drain. She was tired of telling herself to be strong because she had a job to do. Better to think about finishing her task and going home. And bathing.
What was her mother thinking? This was worse than any place she had ever imagined.
“Pardon me!” she said loudly. No one moved. She made a wedge of her arms and barged through.
“Eh!” some one cried. “You spilled my drink!”
“Sod off,” she snapped, feeling a guilty thrill as she said it.
At the bar, Jervett raised one eyebrow. “Miss?”
Sarah leaned closer. “Sweeney gave me your name.”
“Did he give you any money, ‘cause he owes me a bit,” Jervett replied, bending down to be heard above the din.
Sarah forced herself not to draw back. She was unused to such a press of people, to so much noise, or to such obvious poverty. Looking down at the pattern of rings on the counter‑‑the marks of many, many tankards‑‑she drew out another shilling and laid it on the bar. “I’m looking for Mr. Jack.”
Jervett twitched his lips like he was going to laugh but decided not to. “Are you now?” He slipped the money into the leather purse hanging from his belt.
Sarah gathered herself. “I need his help.”
Jervett looked her over and gave a gusty sigh. “He does get all types of folk.” There was something in his tone that was sympathetic, like he sensed her trouble.
“I’m alone.” It was not quite a lie.
His hand shot across the counter and covered hers, faster than her eye could follow. “Don’t say that out loud in here!” His small, sharp eyes were as ugly as the rest of him. “Wait.”
Jervett lumbered toward the back, pushing aside a woman wearing an unlaced bodice. The woman pulled down the neck of her chemise for a man proffering a penny. Sarah looked away. Sweeney got a good price for just answering a simple question, she thought.
After what felt like a week, Jervett returned, gesturing with a jerk of his head for Sarah to follow. They entered the back through a narrow, curtained doorway that led to a flight of nearly vertical stairs. Once the curtain fell, it was pitch black, but the noise from the tavern was muffled.
“He’s up there, first door on the right,” said Jervett.
“Thank you,” Sarah replied uncertainly, her stomach icy with apprehension.
She felt a movement, and a triangle of light appeared as Jervett held back the curtain. Sarah turned to see the stairs but then the light vanished and, with it, the barkeep. She exhaled with exasperation, the sound loud in her ears. Gathering her muddy skirts in one hand, she groped for the wall. Slowly, Sarah felt her way up the steep staircase.
As she reached the upstairs, she became aware of men’s voices, just to the right as Jervett had promised. A light from one of the rooms fanned out across the wood floor. Sarah straightened her dress and cap, feeling awkward in her maid’s clothes. There was something bracing about good silk brocade and something decidedly lowering about cheap broadcloth.
She started toward the light but then stopped, panting a little with fright. She gripped her hands into fists and forced herself along the corridor. This was all for her father. There was no other way she could think of to help him.
Slowing to a halt, she stared in the open doorway. Although it was daylight outside, heavy, dark curtains made an artificial night within. A wax-encrusted candelabra threw flickering light over a central table, the smell of the cheap candles thick and cloying.
Two men sprawled on the scant furniture, drinking. One had his boots on the table, so only the soles of his feet were visible from where Sarah stood.
“Which of you is Mr. Jack?” she demanded, nerves making her voice sharp.
Their conversation stopped dead. The slighter man, dressed in a dark coat and breeches, rose to his feet. Sarah noticed his fine black hair and pale skin. “Madame,” he said in a liquid French accent, bowing slightly. “May we assist you?”
Sarah opened and shut her mouth. “You’re not Gentleman Jack.”
The young Frenchman smiled slightly. “Oh, no, I am not he. But if you would agree to state your business with that person?” He put the tips of his fingers together, something mocking, something friendly in the gesture.
“I need his help.” My mother said he was the one.
“Ah yes, a handsome young woman in need of a knight errant, is that it?” the Frenchman extended one hand toward her. “She has come to the correct place, has she not?” He gestured around the room. The dark, dusty, threadbare scene was infinitely depressing.
“Oh, put it away, Gabriel.” The other man swung his long legs to the floor and stood.
Sarah looked up and up, realizing this man‑‑was this Gentleman Jack?‑‑towered more than a full head above her. He was big-boned but still had a lightness, a silence in his movements that was somehow unnerving. But good for a thief, she thought with a thrill of fear.
She saw a flicker of blue, and then the room seemed strangely empty. Her mother was gone. The viscountess had done what she could by leading her to the thief. Now it was up to Sarah to carry on alone, and the thought made her apprehensive in a way she had not felt before.
“What’s your business?” the tall man said in a voice neither rude nor welcoming.
Sarah stared at him, taking in the skin-tight breeches and fashionable but mud-splattered green topcoat. They were good clothes, tailored to show off his strong and very male form. “Are you‑‑um‑‑him?” She forced a smile, conscious the man was but a step away. She could smell wood smoke on his clothes and feel the heat from his body.
He looked down his long nose for a moment, then nodded.
Behind him, the Frenchman threw up his hands. “And what if she was a spy for the police? Just say, here I am, over here, come get me!”
Gentleman Jack waived a dismissive hand, and the other man fell silent, shaking his head.
Sarah took a deep breath, unsure how to begin. “It is not easy to find you.” How dangerous is he? she wondered with a sinking stomach.
He measured her with his eyes, the look lingering here and there. “I’ve thought of printing calling cards, but few people around here can read.” He showed the tips of strong white teeth in a sardonic grimace. “How did you know where to look?”
Sarah could sense Gabriel’s interest in their conversation, hot as a breath from a furnace. Sarah cleared her throat. This was no time for the truth. “I have helpful friends.”
Jack blinked once, a muscle jumping along his jaw. “Helpful servants, you mean. Your friends wouldn’t know me.”
“What makes you say that?”
The lines of his face, still watchful, were subtle in their sarcasm. “Because your skirt is too long and your bodice too tight. Those are not your clothes. You carry yourself like a graduate from Miss Bridstow’s Academy for Young Gentlewomen and your hands, I would wager, have never seen a day’s work.” Quick as thought, he seized her wrist and then slowly took hold of her palm, turning her fingers to the wavering light of the candles.
“There, you see, even a lady’s maid would bear the mark of long hours of washing and sewing.” He bent to complete his examination, his lips brushing her skin without quite leaving a kiss. “Your hands smell of lavender water, and the ring you wear could buy this whole tavern three times over. However,” he said with sly reproach, “if these are your maid’s clothes, you should pay her better. They are a disgrace.”
“It’s an old dress, not one I gave to her. I treat her well!” Sarah retorted, stung.
Straightening, Jack looked at her from under his eyebrows, his expression amused. His own hands were strong and long-fingered. All the better for picking locks, she thought, and extracted her fingers from his grip. The air felt cold where his skin had touched hers a moment before. Unconsciously, she cradled her hand as if it had been scalded.
“So, we have established that I am a novice at disguises,” she said. “I thought I would be more successful in finding you if I looked like part of the scenery.”
He looked at his companion as if sharing a silent joke. Sarah’s cheeks burned.
“Now, Monsieur,” the Frenchman said gently, “be polite.”
Jack leaned against the table, smoothing the front of his embroidered waistcoat. “My livelihood depends on observation, or else I would have perished on the gallows long ago. I expect you duped most of the drunkards down below. They do not expect to see a gentlewoman come through their doors, so they are blind.” He gave a short, dry laugh. “I wouldn’t try it more than once, though, because you really don’t pass.”
She folded her arms, feeling foolish. A moment crept by.
As if he made an abrupt decision, Jack turned to his friend. “Gabriel, leave us a moment.”
With a curious look, the Frenchman nodded gracefully and left, pulling the door shut behind him.
Jack gestured to a chair at the table. “Sit.” His manner was filled with repressed tension, as if he did not really want the interview. “Whatever you say will not go beyond these walls.”
Sarah obeyed, waiting as he took a seat and moved the candlestick closer. In the improved light, she could finally study him properly. He looked about thirty. The candlelight showed a strong nose and jaw, a face broad at the cheek bones with deep lines bracketing his mouth. The eyes were gray, heavy lidded. His fair hair was thick and long, tied back with a black ribbon. Handsome, though not in a conventional, silk-and-powder way. It was an unforgettable face.
He suffered the examination for only a few heartbeats. “Why are you here?” The plain question seemed brutal.
Now that the moment had come, Sarah nearly faltered. When her mother had told her to find Gentleman Jack and ask his help, it had seemed simple. Now it did not. She stared at Gentleman Jack for a moment, then at her fingers laced before her on the table. “You are the greatest thief in London.”
“I make an effort.” Jack mirrored her position, his hands folded, momentarily still.
“I need you to undertake something for me.”
Sarah stared at the table, reciting the words she had rehearsed over and over to herself. “Yes. I want to hire you. I’ve followed your career in the Chronicle, and I have decided you are the best qualified for my task.”
And I was told by the spirit of my mother that you were the one who could work this miracle, she added silently.
She pressed her lips together to stop their trembling. “I am desperate.”
Jack silently shook his head. Without taking his eyes from her face, he reached for a decanter of wine that sat on the table. Pouring claret into two glasses, he set one before her. “What, in your life, is so dire that you need my services?” His voice was flat, but the gray of his eyes grew warmer, as if she had unexpectedly piqued his sense of humor.
Sarah picked up the wine, feeling a tremor of nerves. The red liquid shivered in the glass. She set it down and swallowed to keep her voice steady. “You are a great thief. You must steal my father back from the French.”
Jack’s face went slack with amazement. He stared at Sarah for a long moment before he blinked. Pulling himself up in the hard wooden chair, he drained his glass and refilled it, coughing slightly. He regarded her with poorly conjured sang-froid. “Why do you think I can do this?”
“Because of your expertise. You can evade the most vigilant guards. To arrest you would be as unlikely as catching a shadow in a butterfly net.”
“You should be a poet.” Jack’s eyes searched her face, baldly curious. “What are the circumstances of your father’s capture?”
Sarah spoke quickly, trying to get the words out before something‑‑some interruption, some new stumbling block‑‑would make him stop listening. “My father has been a widower many years, but still travels to Paris to see my mother’s relatives. He went this time to settle some business affairs and to convince our relations to leave the city before the riots and arrests grew any worse. By the time he set out, the news was not encouraging, but, despite the danger, my father and his servant left for France.”
“When was this?” asked Jack.
“Early last fall.”
“They were delayed at Rouen, visiting an old friend of my father. By the time they reached Paris, the king had been taken prisoner. There were a great many arrests, and my mother’s family, who are from a very old and noble lineage, were growing anxious.”
Sarah swallowed some of the wine. “My father no longer felt safe and decided to leave for England at once. That was the substance of the last letter I had months ago. I tried and tried to get my uncle to make inquiries about my father’s fate, but he said there was nothing to be done.”
Jack appeared lost in thought, tilting his glass to and fro by the stem and looking into the candlelit claret.
His silence dragged on Sarah. “I cannot pay you anywhere near what I ought to for such a risk, but I can pay you well,” she said quietly. “I have this ring. It came down from my mother’s family, and I’m sure it would fetch a good price.”
She slipped the ring off her finger. Jack eyed the large diamond, but did not reach for it. When he met her eyes, his look was grave. “Even if we agreed to a price for the job, I would still have to weigh this carefully,” he said, his voice devoid of its previous sarcasm. “What you’re asking me to do is madness.”
“As I said, I am desperate.”
“It is a family weakness,” Sarah said without thinking.
Jack raised an eyebrow.
She felt her cheeks grow hot. “My father used to like gaming, long ago.”
“We all gamble in our youth.” He said in an almost comforting tone. “What about your relations? Do they not have wealth and influence that could help you?”
“If my father dies, my uncle inherits. He has not gone beyond writing a few letters, but that is all. My other family is from France, and are in no position to help. It is only a matter of time before my uncle seizes the estate for himself.”
“And you? Have you no husband?”
Sarah paused. “No. But soon I will be married to whomever my uncle chooses. At the moment he favors one suitor, but I do not think he is the adventurous kind.”
Gentleman Jack’s eyebrows rose. “Then will he be enough for such an adventurous wife, I wonder?”
With restless movements, he got up from the table and peered out from behind the curtain. The gesture, Sarah guessed, was more a habit of caution than interest in the street scene below.
“Who is your father?” he asked. “Who are you?”
“My name is Sarah Leaford.”
Jack’s spine stiffened, but he did not move from the window. “Your father is a viscount? Simon, Lord Carleigh?”
A long silence followed. Jack turned slowly, the set of his shoulders as if someone had struck him. His face was carefully schooled, but his eyes were like ice. Sensing disaster, Sarah’s heart began to hurt.
His voice was chill. “Forgive me if I decline your offer of employment, but I cannot accept.”
“Why?” Sarah blurted out. “Why not?”
His expression was unreadable. “I cannot do what you ask.” He paused, clearly searching for words. “It would be too dangerous.”
“But surely you are used to such danger!”
Jack put one foot on the edge of the table and leaned on his knee to look down on her. His smile was not pleasant, and Sarah quailed inside. “Do you know why they call me Gentleman Jack? It’s a fact few people actually know.”
Sarah shook her head.
He grimaced. “One of your family will tell you, I’m sure. They know me well enough.” Pushing himself off the table, Jack strode to the door. “Gabriel!” he called.
Sarah rose from the chair, tears starting and then fading before a rush of anger. “I don’t understand.”
“What you ask is too much.”
“After all I have gone through to come here . . .” she broke off, willing herself silent. The sounds in the room seemed distant beyond the blood rushing in her ears. She had never allowed the possibility that he might refuse her.
She had failed both her mother and her father.
The Frenchman entered, buoyant with interest.
“Gabriel, please escort this lady home.” Jack looked at her coldly. “She’s leaving now. And we shall not be here should she choose to return.”
With an elegant tilt of his head, Gabriel turned his eyes from Jack to Sarah and back. “I desire an explanation. I could not follow your conversation properly through the wall.”
“I’ll speak up in the future,” Jack snapped.
The Frenchman paused, his dark eyes fixed on Jack. “I would be obliged.” He turned to Sarah, offering his arm as if to lead her onto the ballroom floor. “And I am your servant.”
Confused and angry, Sarah turned a final time to Jack. “You were all my hope.” She searched his face.
The set of his mouth, the studied ease of his posture yielded nothing. “Once again, I apologize,” he replied.
Her frustration freezing to hauteur, Sarah lifted one shoulder in a delicate shrug. “I suppose I cannot blame you for refusing such danger for so little gain.” The acid in her voice stung her own ears.
Jack stood for a long time, looking down at her, his eyes now scornful. “How generous you are,” he said dryly, and turned his back.Top of Page
December 27, 2008