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Chapter 1 - The Secretary’s Last Accompting by A.J. Hall

Up to the last, he never truly believes they will hang him.

Even when Lord Wardale remains blank to his pleas and an additional item appears on the list of charges: “that he did feloniously and without lawful excuse appropriate to himself certain goods property of Roger Augustus Hemsworth, Baron Wardale, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the King of England to the Court of Gaaldine, videlicet a quantity of snuff, value no less than 14th. 27c” he never truly believes they will hang him.

Five death sentences, and only the one neck to tender in quittance! he writes in his journal, the day the examining magistrate finds him guilty on all charges. (They allow him paper in his cell, and ink, and books, but not tobacco, a lack which irks him more than it should.) Still he does not believe they will hang him.

Letters are sent to father in England; they will take months to arrive and even longer for an answer to return, given the onset of winter and mud-bound roads. They will buy him time, time during which these back-country savages will realise what a thing it is to threaten the utmost penalty upon the third son of an Earl of Buxton.

But it seems the backcountry savages care as little for the opinion of an Earl of Buxton in England as they do for the life of an Hon. Philip Derwent in Gaaldine. The Governor of the Castle comes to his cell in person, to tell him his petition for a stay of execution has been refused, under hand of the King himself. The Governor looks anywhere but straight at him; he hums, and haws and tries to soften the harsh message with fatuities and small-talk, making some oblique reference to the King’s new mistress. As if he could be expected to care if Gaaldine had taken to bed the whole harem of the Sultan and the Emperor’s daughter beside! Nevertheless, he refuses to believe they will hang him.

Hope flares to certainty the same night, the night before the appointed day, when there is a flourish of trumpets without. The turnkey, bringing another can of wine — they do not stint the condemned in Gaaldine’s gaol, so be they can find silver to pay for comforts, or pledge their clothes in lieu — confides, without prompting, that it is the Crown Prince come hither, on business with the Governor. He lies awake night-long. No word of pardon comes. He tells himself that is the Crown Prince’s style. The greater the fear, the greater the corresponding relief. The greater the relief, the more unfettered the demands its procurer might make in exchange. The Crown Prince knows it as well as he.

Cradling that thought, he falls into sleep in the dark hour on the edge of dawn. The turnkey must shake his shoulder to bid him rise. He sees respect in his eye, and smiles inside. It is something to have impressed such a one, who must lead men to the gallows month in, month out. Something to tell people, afterwards.

Not even when he stands on the rough-hewn boards of the gallows, the sun rising clear above the castle ruins, not even when the felon before him begins his neck speech (some sort of highwayman, and a great favourite with the crowd, it seems); not even when the rough hemp caresses his own neck and the Protestant chaplain from the Legation calls on him to make his final peace with God does he believe they will hang him.

Only when the tall gypsy in the front rank of the vulgar, stinking mob tosses back his hood and stares at him unafraid across the whole vast gulf between them, only then does he begin to believe.

And after that there is nothing left but certainty.

She cannot but think of Oxford as they tread the marble corridors which lead towards the Anatomy School.

She has seen the students thronging outside the Ashmolean on a dissection day and once, at her uncle’s table, she spoke with Dr Clerke of Magdalen, he who was present as a student at the dissection of Anne Greene, the reputed infanticide, who shewed signs of life on the very slab itself, was thereafter brought back to full health with restoratives and the judicious application of a clyster, and subsequently entered into immortality in countless broadsheets.

Oxford would not have allowed her this liberty. Oxford deems women too frail even to witness the anatomist at work, let alone wield saw and scalpel on their own account. Her breath catches in her throat from very daring.

She expects someone to step from the shadows and bar her passage, even now, even though the Crown Prince paces at her side and she is here by his command.

The Crown Prince, who, through Mama’s scandalous act, she supposes is now in some wise a back-doors connexion of her own.

That thought is even more daring than her presence here, about to perform her first dissection of a human corpse.

“You’ll get used to it,” the Crown Prince says, though she has said nothing and it is, in any case, ambiguous whether he means Mama having become the King his brother’s mistress or the study of anatomy. In each case she begs leave to doubt. She says nothing of that, either.

“Where did the — the subject — come from?” she enquires.

The Crown Prince shrugs. “The usual. I have an arrangement with the Governor of the gaol, whenever there is a public execution. I would have liked the highwayman — his musculature was extraordinary — but he was the mob’s darling, and Mycroft told me to press the point would be to risk unrest. People are absurd about anatomising. I would have it compulsory, on every corpse where the cause of death is in any way in doubt and all who suffer the penalty of law. How else is one to learn?”

She is not without sympathy for the sentiment, though suspects King and Church will between them render the Crown Prince’s wish stillborn. In any event, the door to the School is approaching and her apprehension growing.

Suppose, after all, Oxford is right?

Save for a moment’s qualm at outset — the lolling tongue, the face swollen and cyanosed, the reek from the corpse’s small-clothes — Oxford is proved wrong. The work of the Divine watchmaker is, to her mind, more fascinating than ever with the mainspring stopped. The Crown Prince twice commends her for dexterity and teaches her a better grip with the smaller bone-saw. Sext to Vespers is all too short a compass to learn all the corpse can teach them. They walk back to the Palace not as prince and commoner, nor even as master and pupil but as fellow initiates in the mysteries of natural philosophy.

“Superstition would have a dying man’s last sight is imprinted in his eyes and may be read there, by those who care to look,” the Crown Prince observes. “I have never seen aught of it. What of you? Perhaps an unjaded observer —”

She shakes her head. “No, nothing.” She hesitates.

“Nothing but what?” The Crown Prince is a man alert to equivocations. She clears her throat.

“I saw nothing of the sort of which you speak. But, were I asked to judge, I would say the expression on the cadaver’s face was one of most profound surprise. Odd, is it not, given that execution under force of law must be of all deaths in the world the one that comes most surely heralded in advance?”