Frances is bruised, both physically and emotionally and has come to Edmund for help. But how did she come to such a state? Do read on. And look below to find links to the story so far.
‘I cannot say exactly what was the beginning of it all, for the order of things has become jumbled in my mind. Perhaps it was the gift of a gilded rose, or a melody from a time long past whistled from the inky shadows. Whichever it was, I have been a puppet in the hands of men, in a labyrinthe of suffering from which I have been unable to escape …
‘I first saw Samuel when I was a child. I don’t believe I have told you that before. When I was six I had a nursemaid we called Pony on account of her prancing gait. She would take my brother and I to Vauxhall, to the gardens. Can you imagine it? Strolling through the crowds, tight rope walkers swaying over our heads, marching bands, tumblers, fireworks and currant buns to eat. Poor Pony would have been removed from her position had my mother ever known. But we loved our dear girl for taking us there, so we kept the secret close to our hearts.
‘One day at the gardens we were left to watch a theatrical. Pony had left us under a tall tree with our usual buns and told us to hold hands while we watched a recreation of the Burning of Hamburgh. It was rather a sombre affair with much verse and little burning. There were rough buildings made of painted card and a child of no more than eight with a taper – a giant striding over the reimagined city – who did little but shiver and speak too quietly for the crowd to hear.
‘My brother was tugging on my hand, urging me to come away to the Chinese pagoda to glare at the carved beasts, when a boy dashed from the crowd, snatched up the taper and began to dance like a tribesman, shouting and exclaiming and distorting his face into hideous shapes. As the crowd cheered, he put the flame to the paper city, the whole soon ablaze, sending sooty church spires and battlements and roofs into the air, the grass scorching, the trees smouldering from flying embers. People were running and screaming and still that blackened, wild boy danced on.
‘Pony soon came up and dragged us away, muttering she knew the boy and how he needed the devil beating out of him. His name was Samuel Gordon.
‘Many years passed. Pony left us to marry a drayman, my brother gained a tutor, I the skills required for society, though not the desire to dwell in it. You and I met and were engaged to be married. From time to time I would hear Samuel’s name – always whispered, never mentioned in the same breath as the respectable.
‘Then the day after you broke our engagement, I received a parcel. Wrapped in moire silk, tied with a teal ribbon, it was a rose, the petals and leaves dipped in gold with only the nub of the stem in its natural form. I had never seen such a thing. I was sure it was a love token from you, a symbol that you regretted your actions, but though I searched the wrappings there was no note.
‘Days passed and I waited for word from you but none came. As days stretched to weeks, I grew restless in my pitiless seclusion. Nothing comforted me, only thoughts of days gone by, before my heart had known what love was, what betrayal could do to a soul unused to wounds.
‘No, do not look so ashamed, Edmund. You and I are beyond such things and in truth I thank you. My youth was such a charmed one, so filled with gaiety, so free of dark knowledge, that were it not for the storm our broken love afforded me and the injuries I survived I do believe I would have sunk without trace in what came after.
‘My mind returned to dear Pony and our trips to Vauxhall and so I fell under a spell of some sort, sure that perhaps if I returned to that place of happy memory, then my old joys would return too. I confess I committed the first of my crimes that night, for not wishing to be stopped leaving the house, I took my maid’s cape as a disguise – a dull thing the colour of ermine in summer – and crept from the house.
‘I shall not tell you of the thousand perils and indignities, the lewd calls and winks from costers, the countless small abrasions and injuries I suffered as I pushed through the crowds and over Vauxhall Bridge. Many times I thought how foolish the endeavour was, how perilous, but misery and a hope of happiness recaptured pushed me onwards until I finally reached my goal.
‘It was with sadness that I walked the gardens. The colours of the Chinese pagoda had faded as if it had been laundered too often and too vigorously. The tight rope walkers were gone, the great military bands also, leaving little to entertain but a ragged man with a half-starved mongrel that danced when beaten and a penny whistle player whose tunes were old and cheerless.
‘There were still crowds, but now the promenading ladies and gentleman had gone, leaving only threadbare clerks and servant girls to push through the unswept leaves. The wind blew up as I walked, as the light faded and the gardens gave over to darkness and the occasional linksman and his bobbing flame.
‘When a hungry eyed girl and her sharp boned gentleman friend approached me, I realised the mistake I had made. I was alone in the gardens – a reckless act even my maid would not be foolish enough to engage in – with every hedge and tree rustling with laughter and groans.
‘The girl said something – some tale of a lost purse, a lost child – and I recall she was making the sound of weeping, though her cheeks were dry as paper. I apologised, tried to move away, but she took my wrist, her grip cutting as a chain and though I pulled free after some effort, her companion was then on me, holding me tight about the waist. I struggled but the man was strong and the girl set about removing my cape, the necklace and bracelet I had been foolish enough to keep with me. With a blade she cut the strings of my purse.
‘The man bundled me towards the bushes, my boots skidding on the mud, unable to stop our progress. Fear gripped my throat. I was unable to cry out. I could smell filth, spilled ale, a sharp animal smell, foxes, badgers – man. Any moment and I would be hidden from view, the two wolves upon me, able to do as they willed.
‘Just as hope failed me, a woman cried out. Then I heard another cry – a man’s this time, and so close to my ear I knew it was my attacker. For a moment nothing more happened. I was still caught about the waist, still on the verge of oblivion. Then another cry, the pressure about me loosened and I staggered free of the bushes, back out onto the path and away from the stench of rot and death.
‘As I pulled my loosed clothes about me, a lanthorn shone bright in the darkness and I heard another voice, rather low and finely spoken, though this did not put me at my ease, for it said,
Slay those beasts and let us divide our winnings.
‘A hand grabbed my wrist, pulled me forward, the light blinding me. Again, hands were on me, tugging me this way and that. There was laughter, a hand on my back, then my shoulder – one on my throat. Something tugged at my skirts.
‘Had I been spared one terrible fate only to succumb to another?’
To read more about Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, see here.