CHAPTER FORTY-SIX: FIRE IN GALLOWS

 

Author’s Note:

 

This chapter was written long before the Justine/Gregory story-line was developed so there will be several changes in the edited version of the novel.  The book being burned will not be ‘Torrid’ in the final story.  However, I’m including this chapter as it is now.

 

“What’s that smell?”  Emeline turned to me.  “It smells like smoke, Justine.  Do you smell that?”

I paused and inhaled.  “Yes, Auntie.  I do.”

“Look – over there – in the distance.” Squeezing the crook of her arm, I pointed to a cloud of smoke which appeared to be hanging over Gallows.  “There must be a fire burning in the Yard.”

“How very strange,” Emeline declared.  “That will upset the Tuesday market.  I do hope that it hasn’t interfered with Larkspur’s because I shan’t go home without Greg’s birthday cake.”

Coming through onto the Green, we saw the Market had been pushed aside to accommodate a bonfire in the heart of Gallows Yard.  The fire was difficult to see as hoards of shouting Mistwellers circled it with their arms raised while sparks flew up in intervals as people hurled things in the fire.  Vicar Lowry, the vicar at that time, was on the steps of St. Matthews with his cassock winged around his emaciated body seemed to be directing the catastrophe.  He was bellowing out instructions which people followed without listening.  It was chaos at its finest.  Irate vendors – angry Mistwellers – wailing children – policemen trying to control the throng to little avail – sounded like a dissonant symphony.  What was that word that Greg had taught me once? Cacophony.  Yes.  Cacophony.

“What the devil is going on?”  Emeline walked faster, pulling me toward the commotion.  “This is utter madness.  Hurry up – Justine – for God’s sake – hurry up!”

“It isn’t safe, Auntie,” I protested.  “Let’s return home.  I shall make Sir a cake myself.”

“Not until I find out what all this is about!”

And she dragged me with one arm while using the other to elbow her way through the mess of people to the ones who circled the fire.

“My word!” she exclaimed, standing on her tiptoes, straining to see through the jostling shoulders of those closest to the fire.  “They’re burning books, Justine!  Books!  They’re burning books!”

“Auntie?”  I clung to her arm for fear of losing her amongst the angry ring around the fire.

“Hold onto me, Justine!” she shouted at me over her shoulder.  “Don’t let go!”

As I clung to her sleeve, she used her free arm to elbow her way through a group of unruly citizens to the edge of the fire.  Pulling me after her, she held me tight beside her for fear I’d get jostled away.

“What’s going on?” she yelled to the man beside her.  “What are they doing?”

“Exactly what bloody well ought to happen!” the man bellowed.  “They’re cleaning the Heath!”

The smoke was high, riddled with sparks as several people on the opposite side of the fire whisked book after book from a pile on the ground, slamming them into the flames while chanting, “Clean the Heath—Clean the Heath—Clean the heath—Clean the heath!” in resolute unison.

With the flames rising high between us and the Mistwellers on the other side of the fire, it was hard to make out what books were being flung to their deaths.

“Pornography!” the man beside us swung around and hollered down. “Found in the Blackthorn cellar.  Stacks of the rot!  Old Havilland was laying the poison and found ‘em.  Headed for London, they were, rumour has it, then overseas.”

“What – on – earth –” Emeline started to respond to the man.

“No place on earth for ‘em,” the man shouted back, turning back to the fire.  “Clean the Heath!  Clean the Heath!  Clean the Heath!  Good riddance I say!”  And he lifted his fist, punching the air in time with the chant.

Digging my fingers into the crook of my mistress’ arm, I squinted, trying to make out the titles of the book being burned.  The smoke stung my eyes.  But – no – it couldn’t be – there must be some mistake – surely that wasn’t right – no – no – how could that even be possible? – no – it couldn’t be true – but –

The smoke cleared for a split second and there in the crumbling timber, I saw it.

TORRID: THE TALES OF HENRY & CELESTE by RICHARD CRAVEN.

As I watched the flames chew the pages, spitting them into the wind, I could’ve seen any number of things.  I could’ve seen myself and Gregory entangled in the fire.  I could’ve seen myself writing.  I could’ve seen crates of my work shoved in the back of an ale cart headed from Blackthorn’s to London.  I could’ve seen clumsy fingers pawing the pages whilst drooling mouths gaped and eyelids hooded my language.  I could’ve seen anything at all.  But that’s not what I saw in that moment.

I saw my mother.

How old was I?

Seven perhaps.

And she hung over my bed, her hair fell in a copper curtain around me.

“Life is a flame thrower,” she murmured.  “It will never stop throwing fire in your face.  But, if there’s anything you take from me, take this:  you, my daughter, were created to rise and defy.”

 

 

“Go and get Sir,” she demanded.  “He needs to know what’s happening in Gallows.”

“Must I, Auntie?”  I said, shaking.

“When have you ever questioned what I’ve requested?  Get up to that study this very minute and tell Sir what’s happening.  Tell him I sent you and that it’s urgent he come down.”

As I stared into her unwavering gaze, I could feel my blood boiling.  And yet, I did as she’d commanded, turning and climbing the two flights of stairs to the study.

Ascending the stairs, I climbed through all the phantoms Greg and I had left to fornicate forever.  The heels of my boots up-and-downed inside their arching backs and necks extended, gaping mouths and savage glances.  I was up to my ankles in our sins for which, quite clearly now, I was atoning.

The visions were all I had now.

What Gregory had done with my writing was worse than what he could ever do to my body.   Without a care in the world, he’d prostituted our sacred moments of unbridled pleasure, titillating strangers for the money with which he’d funded Lady’s purchases in London.  Truth be told, in that moment, I had the urge to kill him.

Pushing the door, I saw Gregory was slumped forward on his desk.

“Sir?”  I said.  “Sir?—Greg?—Sir?”

There was no answer.  His body was lifeless.

And that was it.

With my heart in my throat, I burst through the door, hurrying around to the front of his desk.  His face was still, his lips ajar and his left eye was open and unblinking.  Several of Lady’s vials were there, empty and toppled on the desk around him, others shattered on the floor.

“Sir—Sir—Sir—Greg—Greg—Greg—Sir—please—Greg,” I whispered frantically, coming back and pressing my fingers against his wrist.  “No—no—no—Sir—Greg—no.”

“Justine?”  I heard Lady calling from below.  “What’s taking you so long?”

“Auntie,” I cried back.  “Auntie—please—come quickly!”

“What ever is the matter?”  I heard her respond.

“Auntie—Auntie—Auntie,” I hollered.  “Come this instant!”

Turning back to Greg, I noticed that his head was resting on a piece of paper.  As gingerly as I could, my fingers palsied, I shifted it from beneath him.  And there, in Carter’s midnight blue, he’d penned the words, “Please forgive me.  You know where to find me.”

 

 

In the moment it took Lady to come up the stairs, my fury from Gallows faded and the euphoria I’d shared with Gregory came back to haunt me.  I want you stand at my grave and remember what it was like to bring me to my knees, Greg echoed in my ear, ‘what it was like to hear me moan under your influence – what it was like when my bones were interlocked with yours – what it was like to feel me under your skin.

Promise me,’ he gusted.  ‘Promise me that when you stand here in years to come, you’ll remember the things we’re about to do to each other.

“You knew,” I muttered.  “All that while you knew.”

What are you going to believe, Justine?  What you see?  Or what you feel?

As I looked down at his head, I touched the side of my neck where it had so often rested.  Then, I moved my hand down to my breast and then to my belly – all the places in which Greg had buried words, kisses, memories.  And with my hand on my stomach, I already knew.  Oh, how I knew.  Gregory may have died, but he’d left his child inside of me.  With his prospector’s heart, he must have known of the buried human treasure before I did.  ‘Marry Winterbourne,’ his voice echoed all around me.  ‘He’s a kind-hearted man with an unquestioning disposition.’

But as I stared down at the toppled vials and broken glass on the floor, I realised that he’d also known he was going to die and wasn’t going to stay long enough to see how our story ended.

“Very well, darling,” I murmured.  “You win.  I’ll marry Anthony Winterbourne.”