Respectability has a high price. It means you must never do anything interesting, because People Will Talk.
Mama, herself a picture of decorous widowhood, believed that respectable ladies avoid being noticed. She made me tuck my blonde hair up under my bonnet and hide my figure—what figure? At seventeen, I was still just a little dab of a person—under a thick wool pelisse. Fortunately, Mama also believed friendship was even more important than respectability, which was why we and our housekeeper Manisha found ourselves taking tea that day in a circus rider’s vividly painted caravan.
I sipped from a thimble-sized cup and admired the beautiful efficiency of the tiny space. Everything was small and folded neatly away into the carved and decorated walls. Pillows and bright colors presented a visual feast everywhere one looked. Best of all, it was all on wheels. Why worry that People Will Talk? There were always new places to go, new people to meet. A change of scenery offered freedom and opportunity for a new start. It was an enviable way to live.
Well, mostly enviable.
Deepta, our hostess, had been a thief-in-training for a gang of cat burglars until Manisha caught her breaking into our home years ago. After one look at the scrawny, olive-skinned child, mercy had alloyed Manisha’s stern resentment. The original plan had been for Deepta to work as our scullery maid but, though as nimble as an acrobat when climbing through windows, she proved to be a very clumsy dishwasher. Many broken plates later, we found her an apprenticeship as a bareback rider in a circus. She was now a featured performer and whenever the company returned to town we made certain to pay her a visit.
As we took tea with her, Deepta told us about the terrible dilemma she faced. At the end of her tale she gave a big sigh.
“And it was love at first sight!” Her large dark eyes swam with tears. “Even though I’m engaged to marry Atlas, I couldn’t help it. I fell in love with Jack.”
“But you said Jack is a highwayman,” I objected. “And he’s about to hang!”
“Love is blind, miss. Now what’ll I do?” Deepta wept, her long black hair falling like a silken curtain over her heart-shaped face. On a peg over our heads hung her pink and silver spangled circus costume. Battered pink slippers hung nearby, their long satin ribbons twisted and trailing down.
We were the same age. How had it happened that she had grown into such an exotic beauty, while I had remained so little and pale? A quick glance into a small round mirror on the caravan’s opposite wall showed my own snub nose and blue eyes, framed by a boring hat. I looked like a child. It wasn’t fair. But that didn’t matter.
What did matter was the painful wrench in my heart—that familiar need to help—when I heard her tale. I had to do something. And if People Talked…well, then let them talk!
I patted her back and offered her my plain white linen handkerchief. “I will help you.”
“No.” My mama let her teacup crash into her saucer. “Don’t do it. Come back to us.”
Our housekeeper Manisha shook her head. “No, that is not good thinking. Do it, and keep the money and jewels yourself.”
The dilemma facing our former scullery maid was this: Deepta was engaged to marry Atlas, the circus’ strong man. Physically powerful, hot-tempered and ambitious, his big plans for their future together had thrilled Deepta at first. But he had changed and now she was frightened.
Jack, Atlas’ highwayman cousin, had caused the change. Jack—Flash Jack, as he was called—and his gang of robbers were practically folk heroes, well known for taking expensive baubles from wealthy folks but never hurting them. However, during their most recent robbery, a victim had died. Jack, furious, had refused to divide up the loot until the killer had been punished by the gang. Then someone had informed on Jack. Now Jack was in Newgate Prison, and unless he revealed the name of the true killer he would be hanged. He refused.
Deepta’s fiancé Atlas wasn’t a regular member of the gang, but he had seen a way to take advantage of this sorry situation for his own benefit. Atlas convinced Deepta to visit Jack in prison. Her task was to make the highwayman fall in love with her and tell her the location of the treasure. Then, after Jack’s sad demise, Atlas and Deepta would recover the treasure, leave the circus, and live happily ever after.
But Atlas’ plan had not worked out as expected. Deepta met Jack, but instead of coldly manipulating the highwayman, she had instantly warmed to him. In fact, she discovered to her horror that she’d fallen in love with him. Hot-tempered Atlas would be furious if he discovered her change of heart.
With no one else to turn to, Deepta had unburdened herself to us.
“Why can’t we just run away?” she moaned. “Jack and I could go far, far away and be happy, just the two of us.”
“He can’t run away. He’s in prison,” I pointed out sensibly.
“He has found a barrister who has agreed to argue his case. A Mr. Gilmore? Gilbert? Something like that. He is going to see Jack today.” Deepta stretched out her hand and gripped mine in a tight grip. “I want to be there. Will you come with me?”
I blinked in surprise. “You mean Mr. William Gilbert? Our neighbor? He’s going to present Jack’s case?”
I knew William Gilbert – his family lived near us in Kensington. Though he was a barrister, he wasn’t quite so stuffy as one might think.
Deepta shrugged. “Tall fellow. Blond hair and whiskers.”
It was William Gilbert. What a coincidence! “Certainly I’ll go with you.”
“We will all go with you,” Mama said in a tone that brooked no argument.
I’d never been to Newgate Prison before and I never hope to go again. The building was deliberately ugly, with almost no windows and with grim-looking chains carved over the entrance. As Deepta, Mama, Manisha and I entered its dark halls, it seemed to swallow us. When the jailer with his jingling ring of keys slammed the heavy door shut behind us, Manisha held my arm so hard I thought it would break.
I patted her hand to let her know that she was hurting me, but she didn’t loosen her grip. One look at her set, grim face told me she was no longer in the present moment. Although no one spoke of Manisha’s life in India before she’d become Mama’s aya and her life-long friend, her silence alone spoke volumes to me.
We were bright-colored birds in that gloomy cage, and there were hoots and yells as we passed the prisoners in their barred cells. They lunged against the iron bars, stretching out their hands to grab at us. We crowded close together in the center of the hallway and walked quickly to Jack’s cell.
Jack was a handsome rogue, with laughing black eyes and a sparkling smile. He jumped gracefully to his feet and swept us a magnificent bow. “What lovely visitors you’ve brought me, my dear,” he told Deepta, drawing her fingers through the iron bars and nibbling on them delicately.
She pressed her cheek against the bars and sighed. “Oh, Jack, what can I do?”
He smiled at her. “Brave heart, my dear. There’s still time for the true killer to be uncovered.”
Through the bars, the doomed lovers whispered and held hands. It hurt my heart to watch them. But what could I do?
Behind us, a voice spoke. “Is this the fellow?”
It was Mr. William Gilbert, wearing a powdered barrister’s wig, a white collar with bands and an open-fronted black robe over a black coat and gray striped trousers. Beside him was a small gray man in a rumpled frock coat and knee-breeches, holding a large packet of papers bound in red tape under his arm. The gray man, who was probably a solicitor, nodded.
“Yes. Jack -er- Smith, of Hounslow Heath. Will you take the case, Mr. Gilbert?”
Mr. Gilbert nodded. “I will. But I warn you there’s not much hope.”
The prisoner grinned at Mr. Gilbert with unimpaired cheerfulness, his white teeth standing out in the gloom.
“Old Flyte is a man of faith,” Jack said with a nod at the solicitor. “He trains for it, by believing six impossible things before breakfast every day.”
“You will have your fun, Jack,” murmured Mr. Flyte.
Mr. Gilbert shook his head at his newest client. “With a roguish smile like that, there’s not a judge in the world who will take your side. You’d have better luck if you were the long-lost heir to the throne of some obscure foreign principality. No? Then perhaps a sympathetic jailer will arrange to sneak you out of here disguised as his long-lost nephew, just home from the wars. Or you could find someone to nail you into an empty wine barrel—hmm, I need to write these down.” He patted his pockets as if looking for pen and paper.
I drew in a sharp little breath. Was Mr. Gilbert suggesting ways for Jack to escape? I frowned at the barrister. No, of course not. That was just his odd sense of humor.
“What is it?” Deepta asked me.
“Nothing,” I said, dismissing the silly notion. How could anyone sneak out of Newgate?
Deepta reached through the iron bars to pull Jack’s face close to hers, but their lips could not touch. She settled for stroking his face. “I will come to see you again, my dear.”
“You shall always find me at home for your visits, my beloved,” Jack replied solemnly, but with a twinkle in his eye.
Deepta had tried to keep her spirits up during our visit to Newgate, but once we left the evil place she drooped once again. She sighed as we walked across the open field toward the tents and caravans of the circus.
Her fiancé came charging out to meet us. Atlas was a big man with wide shoulders and narrow hips. His angular features might have been considered handsome, with blue eyes, high cheekbones and a lantern jaw. He was dressed like a workman with a red kerchief around his neck and a dark waistcoat over a dirty white shirt without collar or cuffs.
“What did he tell you?” Atlas said roughly, taking Deepta by the arm and shaking her. “Where did he hide it?”
We all stepped back with cries of alarm.
“Stop that, you … fellow!” Mama spluttered, waving her umbrella.
“Nothing!” Deepta cried. “We were interrupted. The lawyers came in before he could say a thing. It’s true! Ask them!”
We nodded vigorously.
“You are not to go there without me again,” Atlas growled. “I don’t trust you.” He let Deepta go. Turning away, he shouted a negative remark to a man in a black hat standing near the carts of the circus menagerie. Black Hat looked angry.
I watched Atlas stomp toward the other man, spitting curses and waving his hands. What did Atlas know or suspect about Deepta’s change of heart? Who would really benefit from this plan to rob the robbers?
Manisha gently ran her fingers over Deepta’s upper arm. “We must be looking at your arm. Clearly he is giving you bruises, that man.”
“Unforgivable,” huffed Mama.
I followed them as they hustled Deepta back to her pretty little caravan home.
They hardly noticed as I dropped farther and farther behind. Once they had all climbed inside, I casually made my way toward the animal cages, where I’d last seen Atlas the Strong Man and his confederate, Black Hat.
I wasn’t surprised that Deepta had chosen the charming highwayman over the brutal circus strongman. No doubt my decision to spy on Atlas and his black-hatted confederate was foolish. Possibly very dangerous. However, to help Deepta, I had to try.
It wasn’t long before I heard the men arguing. I crouched behind a box-shaped wagon with small barred windows that emanated a strong animal smell. This was where the circus menagerie had been set up.
“I’ll make her turn him up sweet, and find out where he’s hidden it,” Atlas was saying.
“It won’t work,” another voice answered. “He’ll tell her lies. Or he’ll get her on his side and she’ll lie to us.”
“She’ll do what I tell her.”
“You shouldn’t have done in that fellow. I told you to keep your temper.”
Atlas’ menacing growl greeted this remark. “Don’t tell me what to do, or I’ll do you too.”
Footsteps told me that someone was coming my way. I walked around to the other side of the wagon, making a show of innocent gawking at the animals in their cages. The lion snarled half-heartedly at me and I backed away quickly, but the bear was curled into a large ball of snoring fur. The other animals seemed to be asleep as well.
A prickle on my neck told me I’d been seen, but the footsteps didn’t slow down. They hadn’t noticed me. Now I was glad not to be recognized in my boring bonnet and dark pelisse. I waited, then casually and slowly wandered off. My heart was still beating fast as I made my way back to Deepta’s little house on wheels.
Deepta was in the soup, as they say, up to her neck. Although both her fiancé and the highwayman were criminals, at least Jack seemed to be a nicer fellow. Wouldn’t it be better if Jack and Deepta could run away together? I wondered what I could do to help.
At the caravan, Mama and Manisha were getting ready to leave.
“How long will you be here?” Mama asked Deepta.
“For the next week. We have two shows a day, at two o’clock and then at eight,” she responded. She looked worried, gnawing at her lower lip.
Mama patted her hand. “We will visit you again.”
As Mama climbed down from the caravan with Manisha’s help, I hung back long enough to whisper in Deepta’s ear. “I have an idea.”
“What kind of an idea?”
“I have a plan. Can you still—”
Mama turned back to us. “What are you girls whispering about?”
“I was just saying that I should like to come back tomorrow for another visit,” I said quickly. “Perhaps around five in the evening?”
“Of course! I’d love to see you again,” Deepta said.
“It’s been ever so cold in the evenings lately,” I remarked. “Would you like me to bring you some old dresses or shawls? Someone might need them.”
I winked at her. Well, I blinked. I can’t make one eye blink all by itself. It’s most annoying.
Deepta looked confused. “Well, I suppose—”
“Don’t be silly, Lucy,” Mama chided. “Deepta is much bigger than you now. She can’t possibly fit into any of your old dresses.”
“But I am her size,” Manisha said. She has always been quick to catch on when there is a plan afoot. “I have some old clothes. Someone ought to be getting the good out of them.”
“You will have to visit without me,” Mama said. “I have a committee meeting to attend.”
And so it was settled. Not that I had any confidence that my plan would work. All I could do was to explain it to Deepta when next I saw her.
The next day was Mrs. Gilbert’s usual day to receive social calls. We met her son there.
“You’re defending Jack—” I had to search my memory for the rest of the highwayman’s name. “Smith?”
Mr. Gilbert nodded. “You know, your friend is not very cooperative. He might be freed if he would name the actual killer.”
“He’s not my friend,” I corrected.
“His solicitor told him not to be so foolish. But he won’t budge.”
Mr. Gilbert shrugged. “Who knows? Perhaps there is honor among thieves after all. Some thieves.”
Well. That settled it. Jack might be a highwayman, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as some. Now, my only regret about helping Jack to escape was that without him, the real killer might never be caught.
A few hours later, I went to Manisha’s room to collect the clothing I’d offered to Deepta: My oldest bonnet, a moth-eaten shawl, and a large skirt that Manisha used for cleaning floors.
Manisha clutched them to her bosom and warned, “You are giving these clothes to Deepta, that is all. Nothing more. Nothing—complicated.”
Manisha was too clever.
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” I complained. Of course I did know, but who knew if we’d actually do anything complicated? My plan might not work after all.
At the circus grounds I sketched out my plan, and Deepta approved of it with alarming eagerness. Brimful of unfounded confidence, she tucked the dress, the shawl and the bonnet into a bulging satchel, and off we went to Newgate.
At the main door, Deepta stopped to speak with the jailer. She batted her long eyelashes. He smiled back. As we walked down the hall, Deepta uncurled her fingers long enough to show me the key hidden in her palm. Miraculously, the first step of the plan had worked.
In the cell block, we saw Mr. Gilbert outside Jack’s cell. My heart dropped. I hadn’t expected him to be there. My plan was falling apart already.
“Let me see your forearms,” Mr. Gilbert was saying to his client.
Jack pulled up his shirtsleeves and stretched out his muscular brown arms. The skin was smooth and unbroken.
Mr. Gilbert inspected them, then jotted some notes on a sheet of paper. “Hmm. No marks, no scratches or gouges. The victim’s fingernails showed that he left marks on his killer.”
“I didn’t kill anybody,” Jack said shortly, pulling his arms back. “I don’t hold with that sort of violence.”
“But you know who does,” Mr. Gilbert said. “Why won’t you say?”
The highwayman shook his head, looking unusually somber. “I wasn’t there. Me and the gang, we’d left before the mischief was done. I may have my suspicions, but no proof.”
“You’re a fool to keep your suspicions to yourself. Whoever did it was a rough customer, strong enough to strangle someone bare-handed.”
Mr. Gilbert shook his head as he made another note. He glanced over at us and sighed with exasperation. “What are you doing here again?”
As I began to answer, my words were cut off by a roar that echoed down the dark prison hallway. Atlas advanced upon us, fists clenched and face red with anger. He was still wearing the rough workman’s shirt I’d seen him in before, open at the collar with long loose sleeves. Atlas’ appearance spelled the complete ruin of my plan. I couldn’t see how it could work out well now.
“What are you doing here?” Atlas shouted as he advanced on Deepta. She shrank back against the bars of Jack’s cell. “I told you not to come here without me!”
“You—” she gasped.
He reached out one hamlike hand and took her by the throat, lifting her off her feet. His loose shirtsleeve fell back to reveal a forearm covered with unhealed scratches.
I gasped. “His arms!”
Mr. Gilbert shouted, “Leave her alone!”
He took two strides over to the enraged strongman and pulled him away from Deepta. She dropped to the ground, one hand to her throat as she drew in ragged breaths. Jack reached through the bars to comfort her, stroking her hair and murmuring softly.
Spinning the circus strongman to face him, Mr. Gilbert punched him square in the nose. Atlas staggered back a step, then doubled up his fists and surged toward Mr. Gilbert. A wild light filled Mr. Gilbert’s blue eyes, and with another blow he rocked Atlas back again.
Prisoners in nearby cells pressed against their bars and began to shout curses and encouragement. Clangs and clatters sounded as metal objects were beaten together in an enthusiastic frenzy. The noise was unbelievable.
The jailer who had smiled at Deepta ran toward us, shouting. Through the press of bodies, I could see Deepta’s alarmed face.
I lifted the back of my hand dramatically to my forehead and staggered into the jailer’s path, screeching, “Oh, no! The horror!”
I flung myself against the fellow and clung to his smelly shirt, resisting his efforts to throw me off. The longer I could occupy him, the more time Deepta and Jack would have. Had the iron cell door opened just enough for a man dressed in skirts to slip out? I couldn’t see clearly in the struggle. The jailer finally untangled himself from me and I sat down hard on the stone floor.
Another man, perhaps a second jailer, joined the fray and began trading punches with Mr. Gilbert and Atlas indiscriminately. I scrambled to my feet. Shrill whistles pierced the air and several constables came running. They threw themselves into the melee and laid about themselves with truncheons. So much for my brilliant plan—Deepta and I would be lucky to escape with our lives.
Spotting an opening in the scrum, I slipped through. The fight was still going on, now with the police adding to the confusion.
Deepta grabbed my hand. “Come on! Let’s get out of here!”
We ran back down the now unguarded prison hallway and out into the cold, clean Spring air.
“What about—” I wheezed.
“Don’t stop now! Keep running!”
When we turned a corner into a narrow, deserted alley, I stopped.
There were three of us—Deepta, me, and a third woman wearing my cast-off bonnet and shawl over Manisha’s oldest skirt.
Breathlessly, I exclaimed, “You escaped!”
Jack, looking very comfortable in my bonnet, sent a proud look toward Deepta. “My Deepta is a very clever girl. She pushed the disguise through the bars, and then unlocked the cell door with a stolen jailer’s key during the fight.”
“I dropped the key on the ground as we left,” Deepta said.
“Very clever indeed,” I said, looking from one to the other. They looked triumphant, exhilarated.
His eyes sparkled as he grinned at me. “Thank you.”
Deepta laughed, and swept me into an embrace. “Thank you! We’re going to America as soon as we can get our tickets. Say goodbye to your Mama and Manisha for me.”
“Will you both be all right?” I asked.
There was more I needed to know. “What about the killer? Do you want to tell me who did it?”
Jack shrugged. “I’ve said as much as I could. The police can figure out the rest for themselves.”
I shook my head. That wouldn’t do. But Jack was already turning to walk away, pulling Deepta with him.
“I’ll write you,” Deepta said. Then the highwayman and the circus rider disappeared into the deepening London fog, hand in hand.
The next day, I received a letter from Deepta, explaining where one of the jewels from the robbery might be found.
When we paid our social calls that afternoon, Mr. Gilbert was at his mother’s house again. He was sporting an impressive bruise under his eye.
“I never did get a chance to earn my honorarium for defending that highwayman,” he told me. “He escaped. Quite embarrassing for the jailers.”
“Oh?” I said, sipping tea. “Have they caught the killer yet?”
Mrs. Gilbert stepped between us to pour her son some more tea. When his mother turned away, he shook his head. “No leads. He refused to talk, remember.”
I tilted my head to one side. “How would you like to take me to the circus?”
Even Mama agreed that Mr. Gilbert was a most attentive escort. He peeled an orange for me. We barely noticed the Scotland Yard detective and his constable as we waited for the show to begin.
The strong man came out in his abbreviated costume, flexing his bare arms to show off his muscles.
I pointed the tip of my umbrella toward Atlas. Making sure the detective could hear me, I said, “My goodness, look at the unhealed scratches on that man’s arms! He must have been in a struggle of some kind.”
My loud comment drew the strong man’s fury. He lunged at me, roaring, “Shut your mouth, wench!”
Mr. Gilbert jumped in front of me with his fists raised. Atlas kept coming, ignoring the audience, the performance, and everything else in his rage. The constable blew his whistle.
“Oh, blast,” I said.
“Lucy, I am absolutely appalled at you,” scolded my mama as we scrambled out of the way. “Why can’t you be more respectable?”
Mr. Gilbert, the detective and the constable struggled with Atlas for a few fierce moments. Of all of them, Mr. Gilbert seemed to find the fight refreshing, even though he managed to get a second black eye.
A search of Atlas’ caravan revealed a jewel hidden in a drawer. It matched the description of one taken from a victim of the highwayman’s gang. The detective thanked Mr. Gilbert for his assistance. He also thanked me for what he called my observational skills.
On the way home, Mr. Gilbert stared at me thoughtfully. “You’re an unusual girl.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not a girl, I’m seventeen.”
“She is not unusual,” Mama, sitting between us in the hansom cab, said. “She’s the most imprudent, disgracefully reckless…”
He was still frowning, puzzled. “Did you arrange all of that—the escape of the highwayman, the unmasking of the killer?”
“Good heavens, Mr. Gilbert,” I said, widening my eyes. “That wouldn’t be respectable at all.”