Courtney Milan’s Unraveled:
Bristol. October 1843.
“Well, Billy Croggins, why are you here again?”
The petty sessions had already started when Miranda Darling slipped into the dingy hearing room. She ducked her head and contemplated the floor, trying not to attract attention. She was playing a young lady today: posture erect, eyes cast demurely down, elbows at her sides. A young lady wouldn’t fuss with her hair. Especially not to scratch where her wig drove an errant pin into her scalp. Today, her future rested on her performance.
Nothing new in that. The future was a perpetual burden, weighing her down. Sometimes she felt like one of the acrobats her father had taken her to see at Astley’s as a child, dancing atop a bareback horse. One foot put false on a backflip, and she was like to come crashing to the ground. Like the acrobat, she could only pretend her footing was secure, do her best, and smile for the crowd no matter what came.
There was a bit of a throng today, maybe ten or fifteen men and women arrayed on the wooden benches of the hearing room. Her palms prickled with an edgy energy. She smoothed her hands against the fine muslin of her borrowed gown and counted breaths, until the tension inside her faded to a passive lump of nerves.
The white-haired man at the front of the room—Billy Croggins, he’d been called—didn’t seem nervous at all. His face was red, and he shrugged, unembarrassed, at the question that had been put to him.
“Why, Your Worships, I’m here for the same reason I’m always here. I had myself a little bit to drink.” He raised his hand, miming. “I ended up a bit disorderly. You heard what my daughter had to say.” Croggins flashed an ingratiating grin.
He had nice teeth for a drunkard. Miranda sidled down the aisle and slipped into an empty spot in the front. Billy Croggins had a nice nose, too. His white, disordered hair gave him an air of respectable eccentricity. Useful, if you had no claim to respectability on your own.
Nobody noticed her as she arranged her skirts. All eyes were trained on the unfolding drama, insignificant though the outcome might have been.
These weren’t the quarter sessions, where murderers and burglars would be sentenced to death or transportation. The magistrates here judged little thefts, brawls gone bad, acts of public lewdness. Fines were levied; men were imprisoned for a few days. The stakes were low, and the crimes were interesting only because a neighbor had committed them.
She’d not yet allowed herself to look in the direction of the magistrates. Old superstition, that—one didn’t peek through the curtains at an audience before a performance. That spelled ill luck.
The austere white walls seemed to magnify the autumn chill, but Miranda slipped out of her worn cloak and removed her straw bonnet, taking care not to disturb the blond wig she’d donned that morning.
“What is this?” one of the magistrates asked. “The fifth time you’ve appeared before us?” His voice was familiar. Too familiar.
Damn. Miranda’s hand clenched around the wool of her cloak; she forced it open before the gesture could betray her.
“Right as always, Your Worship,” came Croggins’s cheery reply.
At her immediate right, the clerk sat, his pen arrested over the inkwell. He hadn’t written a thing in minutes.
Miranda leaned over and spoke in an urgent whisper. “Sir. I happened to witness one of the crimes today. The accused is a boy, perhaps twelve years of age—”
He glanced at her, frowning, and then looked away. “Tell me when he’s up,” he whispered gruffly. “I’m busy now.”
He didn’t look busy. The register before him read only: Drunk. Admits he did it. Convicted. Billy Croggins hadn’t been convicted yet, but she couldn’t blame the man for prematurely judging the result.
“If we keep convicting you, why do you keep at it?” This from the judge on the left. He scratched his head. “Turner—what is the punishment, again?”
Turner. So she had recognized that earlier voice. Another flash of nervousness traveled through her, this one tinged with a hint of fear. Still, she kept her gaze trained on Croggins.
The defendant grinned unabashedly. “I wager I know the punishment by now. Ten pounds for the repeat offense, which I haven’t got—and so six hours in the stocks instead.”
“Don’t worry, Billy,” someone called from the audience. “We’ll make sure all the turnips are nice and rotten before we throw them, so they don’t scratch your pretty face.”
The room erupted into laughter.
“Gentlemen,” the florid-faced magistrate in the middle said, “it’s a conviction, then?”
Everyone else shifted to look at the magistrates to the left of the room. It would look out of place if she didn’t follow their lead, and so Miranda raised her head. The three men tasked to hear the sessions today sat behind a heavy oak bench. They were dressed identically: curled, white-powdered horsehair wigs atop and heavy black robes beneath. The man in the center with the red face was the mayor. On his left sat a fellow she’d never seen before. That man’s wig was askew.
“Indeed,” Croggins was saying, “what’s another conviction amongst friends?”
On the right, sitting a good two feet from his compatriots… “Perhaps,” this last magistrate said, “I might ask a few questions before we rush to judgment.”
Miranda swallowed. He was Magistrate Turner—better known as Lord Justice.
His face wasn’t red. His wig was straight. And while the other magistrates were smiling at Croggins’s antics, Lord Justice looked as somber as a crow in his black robes, stern and implacable. She could almost believe the stories that were told about him.
“Always covering the ground, Turner,” the mayor said in exasperated tones. “Very well. I suppose you must have your way. But I hardly see the point, as the man has admitted his guilt.”
Compared with his colleagues, Lord Justice looked like the statue of a magistrate instead of irresolute flesh and blood. He fit the name he’d been given. Justice was hard lines and inflexible resolve. Justice had sharp, mobile eyes, which seemed to take in everything all at once.
Lord Justice, everyone said, could smell a lie at twenty paces. Miranda sat no more than fifteen from him.
Just looking at the man gave her gooseflesh. She’d appeared before him once. Even thinking of the questions he’d asked, the way his eyes had pierced her, made the skin on the back of her neck prickle. And that time, she’d been telling the truth.
“Perhaps,” Lord Justice said, “you could help me understand the events of last night. I’ve heard the testimony from your daughter. But I wish to hear it in your words. How did the fire start?”
“Ah,” Billy Croggins said, “that would be the drunk part of drunk and disorderly.” He smiled winningly.
Lord Justice was not so easily won. He steepled his fingers. “Were you voluntarily drunk? Or did you have your drink forced upon you?”
“I’d be much obliged, Your Worship, if people forced drink upon me. As it were, I had to purchase it like a regular booby.”
The only response to that witticism was a thinning of the magistrate’s lips. “When you were inebriated, you went to your daughter’s house?”
“Yes, and can you believe my own child wouldn’t open her door for me? Told me to go away and come back sober. If I waited for that, I’d never see my grandchildren at all, not ’til Gabriel sounded his trump at the last.”
A woman in the crowd let out a harsh bark of laughter at that, and the mayor hid a smile behind his sleeve.
Lord Justice still found no amusement in the proceedings. He tapped his fingers against the bench. “Was it then you threw the lantern into the woodshed and threatened to burn her out?”
The smile on Croggins’s face fixed into place. “Might have done, might have done. Wasn’t thinking so clearly at that point. I didn’t actually burn her woodshed down—just wanted to scare her a little, so she’d show some respect for her father. Besides, it seemed like an amusing thing to do.”
Lord Justice sighed and leaned back. “You see, Billy Croggins, this is what has me worried. Everyone in this courtroom seems to think you’re a jolly old fellow. Everyone thinks you’re amusing. Everyone is laughing. Everyone, that is, except your daughter. Why do you suppose that is?”
“She’s got no sense of humor.”
A few chuckles rose from the audience, but they were weaker.
“Here’s my theory: her two infants were in the house when you tried to burn her out. Maybe she didn’t find a threat to their lives amusing.”
“Aw, it was just the woodshed!”
“It was an outbuilding, within the curtilage and attached to the dwelling-house,” Lord Justice said. His gaze focused on some point in the distance, as if he were reading those words off some page that only he could see. “According to the Statute of George, that’s arson.”
“Arson! But the wood scarcely even caught!”
Lord Justice leaned over the bench. “Arson,” he repeated firmly. “As you didn’t succeed, attempted arson, and as such, punishable by one year’s hard labor. Do you think that might dry you out?”
“Your Worship, I was drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“Under the rule of Lord Hale, a man who becomes voluntarily drunk is responsible for his actions, the same as if he was sober.”
Croggins glanced about. There was no laughter in the courtroom now. Lord Justice had doused it of all humor. This little display, after all, was just another demonstration of how Magistrate Turner had come by his name.
Miranda clenched her hands together and bit her lip. She could only hope he would not examine her so closely.
“Turner,” the mayor said, “this is the petty sessions. We’ve no authority to consider a charge of arson at a summary conviction.”
“Quite right,” Lord Justice said. “Nor was arson charged in the indictment. But we can dismiss the case and commit him until the Assizes. I’ve heard enough testimony to have him charged when next the grand jury meets.”
It wasn’t Magistrate Turner’s looks that had earned him the sobriquet “Lord Justice.” In the two years before he’d become a magistrate, the petty sessions had convicted every man but one who had stood before them. In Turner’s first six months in office, he’d let more than a dozen people go, claiming the crimes had been unproven. But he wasn’t kind; far from it. He punished the guilty with harsh efficiency.
The Lord part came about because his brother was a duke. But they called him Justice because he was as cruel—and as kind—as the weather. You never knew what you were going to get, and no complaint would change the result.
Billy Croggins licked his lips. “Lord Justice. Please. Have mercy.”
The man shook his head. “The proper form of address is ‘Your Worship.’”
“In any event,” Lord Justice continued, “if the house had truly caught fire, you might have killed your daughter and your grandchildren.” He paused and looked round the room.
He stole the breath from his audience, packed a thousand years of expectation into those bare seconds. If this had been a performance, she would have applauded the perfection of his timing. But this was no play, put on for public amusement. This was real.
Lord Justice looked back at the defendant. He spoke quietly, but his words carried in the waiting silence. “I am having mercy, Mr. Croggins. Just not on you. Not on you.”
Miranda shut her eyes. She’d done this before—stolen down to the hearings at the Patron’s behest and delivered testimony designed to prevent the conviction of a particular defendant. The other magistrates never doubted the testimony of a genteel young lady.
But Turner asked questions. He listened. He heard the things you didn’t intend to say. She’d spoken before him only once—the first time she’d testified, well over a year ago. It was the only time she had actually witnessed the crime in question. He’d wrung every last drop of truth from her then.
She surely couldn’t afford Magistrate Turner’s brand of mercy today.
“I’ll conduct the examination,” Turner said. “Palter—hold Mr. Croggins.”
A blighted silence reigned in the hearing room, broken only by the shuffling of feet.
“Call the next case,” the mayor muttered.
Beside her, the clerk began to speak. As he did, Lord Justice’s gaze traveled over the spectators. His eyes briefly rested on Miranda. It was only in her imagination that they narrowed. Still, she shivered.
Under Lord Justice’s voluminous black robes, he might have been fat or slender. He might have had tentacles like a cuttlefish, for all she knew. His long white wig made his features seem thin and severe. Perversely, all that black and white made him appear almost young. That couldn’t have been the case. A man had to be ancient to deal justice as he did without flinching.
Don’t lie to this man. The instinct seemed as deep as hunger, as fierce as cold. But if she walked away now, she’d lose the protection she so desperately needed. And Robbie… It didn’t bear thinking about. One didn’t say no to the Patron’s requests. Not even when justice threatened.
An officer was shuffling about, bringing to the front… oh, yes. It was Widdy this time.
She’d received her orders less than two hours before. She was to speak on Widdy’s behalf, to make sure that he wasn’t convicted.
She didn’t know why. She was never told why. But she’d asked, once, in a fit of lunacy, and she’d never forgotten the answer the Patron’s man had given her.
In Temple Parish, justice belongs to the Patron, not the magistrates.
At the front of the room, the boy looked fragile and scared. The harsh life of a street-urchin in Temple Parish had broken him long ago. She doubted Widdy’s release mattered except as a symbol, proof that the Patron was more powerful than the law.
She listened attentively as the baker who was prosecuting the case—a florid-faced gentleman by the name of Pathington—railed against Widdy specifically, and all small scourges upon honest sellers in general. The urchin looked confused and desperate against that onslaught.
When the baker had completed an exaggerated recounting of crime, infamy, and a missing half-loaf of bread, it was Lord Justice who turned to Widdy. “What is your name, young master?”
Widdy swallowed. “Widdy.”
There was a pause. The clerk next to Miranda wrote the word, then looked up. “I beg your pardon, Your Worships. Is that his Christian name or a family name?”
Widdy looked beleaguered.
“Well?” the mayor said. “Speak up. Is that short for something?”
“Yes.” Widdy shifted his feet uneasily. A faint chuckle rose from the onlookers.
“Well, what for?”
“I don’t know. Me mam called me Widdy, back when.”
“And what is your mother’s name?”
Widdy looked away.
“Well, boy,” the magistrate in the lopsided wig thundered, “what is your mother’s name?”
Widdy shrunk in on himself. “People called her ‘Spanky.’”
The laughter rang out again, darker and just a little more cruel.
Lord Justice cast a quelling glance over the room. “What did she do?”
“She’s dead,” Widdy replied earnestly. “But she used to drink gin.”
The hearing room erupted at that. Lord Justice didn’t even crack a smile. “Do you have work? A place to stay?”
“I sweep streets, sometimes. I hold horses, when gentlemen go into the shops. That’s my favorite. Sometimes, I deliver billy-dos.”
“Billy-dos?” The mayor’s mouth quirked up.
“For ladies,” Widdy explained earnestly. “When they don’t want their words to be seen.”
Skew-wig reached over and nudged the mayor’s elbow. “I believe the boy is referring to billets-doux.” His mouth twitched in a self-satisfied smile.
Lord Justice cut his eyes briefly in their direction, and did not join in their merriment. “Did you take the bread?”
“No, sir. It wasn’t mine.”
“That’s what they all say,” Skew-wig said, shaking his head. “It’s his word against a respectable business-owner. I believe the man who doesn’t carry billy-dos about.”
That was as good an entry cue as any. Miranda took a deep breath, expelling all her fears. Then she reached out and tapped the clerk again. The man jumped, spattering ink, and then caught her eye. She pointed at Widdy, and the man coughed once more.
“Your Worships,” the clerk said, “there is a lady here who claims to have witnessed the whole affair.”
“Where is she?” the mayor asked.
The clerk jerked his head at Miranda. She felt as if she’d been thrust onstage: every eye in the room trained on her. She went from cold to too-hot before she took control of her nerves.
“Your Worships.” It was realistic to let the tremor of her hands show, to drop her eyes from the intensity of Lord Justice’s gaze.
“I saw the events in question. This boy merely watched.” Her words felt almost mushy in her mouth. She pitched her accent somewhere between aristocrat smooth and street-wary, with an added touch of broad country. She needed to hover on the brink of respectability. In this gown, she’d never manage wealthy.
Silence stretched as she kept her eyes on the floor. How many people had stood here like this, hoping for the best? A bead of sweat collected on her forehead. After a few moments—seconds really, although it felt an age—she dared to lift her eyes.
Lord Justice watched her, unblinking, one hand on his chin. If there’d been a hint of softness in his manner toward Widdy, it had evaporated at her appearance. Next to him, his colleague frowned in puzzlement.
It would be a mistake to let the stretching silence drive her to speak. That way lay babbling, and too much revelation altogether. She dropped her chin and contemplated the floor instead.
Lord Justice spoke first. “You saw the entire thing.” It wasn’t quite a question, the way he said it. Still, she bobbed her head in response.
Beside her, the clerk shuffled his feet. “Should she be sworn in?”
Lord Justice gave a negative wave of his hand. “What is your name?”
“Whitaker,” Miranda said. “Miss Daisy Whitaker.”
Her day-gown was serviceable muslin, one that a countrified girl might wear. He’d already taken note of her accent. He glanced to either side of her, and then scanned the room before raising one eyebrow.
“You are here unaccompanied,” he commented.
“My father is a farmer. A gentleman farmer. He’s here for market, and brought me along to town. It’s my first time.” Miranda ducked her head. “I didn’t think it was wrong to come. Was it?” She glanced up once more through darkened lashes, and willed him to see a headstrong girl from Somerset. Someone not used to being chaperoned at all times. Someone who might walk through fields by herself at home. She wanted him to see a foolish chit, so innocent that she believed going out alone in the city was no different than traipsing down a dusty lane.
“I had to come,” she added softly. “He was just a child. Your Worship.”
Lord Justice examined her a minute longer—as if she were a mouse, and he the owl about to swoop down and gobble her whole. “Where do you and your father stay?”
“The Lamb Inn.”
His gaze cut away from her. “Mr. Pathington, in what manner did Master Widdy remove the loaf of bread from your premises?”
The baker who’d made the accusation jerked his head up. “I—well—that is to say, I did not precisely see him take it. But there was no one else about. I saw him; I turned away for the barest of instants. I turned back, and the loaf was gone. Who else could it have been?”
Lord Justice tapped his fingers against the bench. “Precisely how bare was your instant?”
“Estimate how long you stood with your back turned. What were you doing?”
“Counting change for a half-crown, Your Worship.”
Magistrate Turner looked up and away, as if in calculation. “As much as a half-minute, then. You want me to punish this boy, who had no bread on him when he was apprehended, because you did not watch your storefront?”
Pathington flushed red. “Well, Your Worship, I wouldn’t put it precisely like that—”
Lord Justice jerked his head. “In my opinion, the charges have not been proven. Gentlemen?”
“Here now,” the mayor said, “Miss…uh, the miss over here has not delivered her testimony.”
Turner’s lips compressed. “No,” he said shortly. “But there is no need to hear it, as it is duplicative of what we can determine by reason. The lady”—he glanced sharply at Miranda—“need not expose herself.”
“You cannot be serious, Turner. Maybe the boy didn’t steal this particular loaf of bread,” the mayor said. “But surely he is guilty of something. Skulking about bakeries, carrying billy-dos. We can’t just let him go.”
Lord Justice turned to the mayor. Miranda had that sensation once again—that he could have been on a stage, so clever was his timing.
“How curious,” he finally offered. “Here I thought our duty was to decide if the charges before us could be proven. I recall the indictment most particularly, and yet I don’t remember seeing this boy charged with the illegal carrying of letters.”
The mayor flushed and looked away. “Suit yourself, Turner. If you insist on letting the rabble run free, I suppose I can’t stop you.”
A small smile touched Lord Justice’s lips. “You heard the man. Master Widdy, you are free to go.”
Miranda held her shoulders high, not daring to gasp. Still, relief flooded through her. Thank God. He’d not seen through her. This time, she’d scarcely had to talk with him. She’d survived. She felt as if she’d landed a double backflip atop a moving horse, and she could not keep from grinning.
But just as the babble in the room was beginning to grow, Lord Justice held up one hand.
“Miss…” He paused. “Whitaker, you said?” His lip curled.
Miranda’s apprehension returned in full force. “Yes, Your Worship?”
“The Lamb Inn is through the market. A woman shouldn’t walk down those mobbed streets unaccompanied. There are cutpurses loose. And worse.”
“If I leave now, Your Worship, I’ll be back before my father returns.”
He drummed his fingers against the oak bench. “I’ll see you to your lodgings, if you’ll wait a few minutes in the anteroom.”
Oh God. What a ghastly proposition. “Your Worship. I sh-shouldn’t take you from your duties.”
He sighed. “We are in complete accord on that point. Nevertheless.”
Before she had a chance to argue, he signaled and the clerk struck the gavel. The waiting crowd rose to its feet, and the magistrates stood as well. Miranda wanted to run. She wanted to shriek. But she didn’t dare draw attention to herself—not here, not with constables and magistrates both close by.
The clerk hopped to his feet and ran to open the rear door. The other judges turned and paraded out of the room, one in front of the other.
Turner was the last of the three to leave, his black robe swirling about him as if he were a herald of doom. But the clerk held the door open even after Lord Justice passed through, as if waiting for one last judge. And sure enough, from under the bench, a dog pushed to its feet and headed for the door. Miranda hadn’t seen it before; it must have lain quietly on the floor for the duration of the session.
The animal, a bit higher than her knee, was a mass of gray-and-white fur. It followed on Turner’s heels, as stately and ageless as its master. It paused when it reached the doorway, and looked back. She couldn’t even see its eyes through all that fur. Still, it felt as if the creature were marking Miranda, ordering her to wait until Lord Justice could see to her. She shivered, once, and the creature turned away.
Just her imagination.
And just her luck that His Worship had chosen today to show a gallant streak. She could not let him accompany her. There was no gentleman farmer, no comfortable inn. There was nothing but her cold garret waiting, and if he knew that the shining blond ringlets on her head were a wig, and her gown a costume…
Miranda swallowed. She didn’t need justice. She needed to get out of the room—and fast.