Actions

Work Header

Come Away, Death

Work Text:

Trip no further pretty sweeting.
Journeys end in lovers' meeting,
     Every wise man's son doth know.


- William Shakespeare



The execution was delayed twelve days, to allow those few aristocrats not in London for the sitting of Parliament ample time to arrive for the event.

The great room of the townhouse was awash with candlelight, while rich landowners and politicians laughed heartily on the arms of wives and mistresses, swilling French wine and dancing a minuet, as though it were a wedding party they awaited in the morning and not a hanging.

“A lovely face is wasted by a gloomy look, my dear!” Lord Hawkins even possessed the temerity to announce with avuncular good cheer, lifting one of Arabella’s slim hands from her trembling grip on the settee’s arm. It took her every ounce of resolution not to recoil.

Black eyes crawled over her skin like Jamaican beetles, while a thick, coarse paw gripped her cheekbones with enough strength to bruise.

“Viens, mon cheri - such belle societe, it is wasted on a corpse!” he crowed, kicking a booted foot towards the bloodsoaked remains slumped into the sand at her feet.

Breath shallow, she pushed aside the memory as she had for the past month, and allowed the aging Peer to lead her into a gaggle of celebrants, all surrounding her uncle as he held court.

“You astound me, Bishop; your own niece the prettiest gel in the room, and you haven’t the decency to let even a single lonely gentleman make her acquaintance!”

Pausing in his diatribe on the newest tariffs imposed upon the sugar plantations, the Colonel glanced over, his face rubicund and sagging from too much wine.

“What’re you thinking, child?” he blustered, offering no evidence that he’d so much as noticed Hawkins. “Good company rather than stinking island heat, and you hide in the corner like a bedamned cat!”

Arabella didn’t dare raise her gaze from her silk slippers as she mumbled her answer.

“You must forgive me - I’ve not been in cordial spirits…”

“Sulking, I call it!”

“Pity’s sake, Governor Bishop!” Mrs. Steed interjected, her widow’s weeds gleaming like onyx in the candlelight. “The poor darling has suffered a dreadful fright through the past month! Kidnapped by ruffians, and poor Lord Willoughby mur -”

There was a stiffening of shoulders and alarmed glances, and the lady halted herself before chancing to speak of something so improper.

“A fine fate then, for any rogue who would rob England of it’s finest flower.” came an affable pronouncement from a thin-faced man wearing a heavy, double-peaked wig. His words were quickly supported by a rumble of agreement from the male guests, while several of their ladies began to drift away in discomfort. Arabella noted some of the more thickly-painted matrons offer her acid-filled glares.

“Perhaps your efforts may allow some light to be shed upon the matter, Lord Ryench.” Hawkins mentioned, prompting questioning glances from several listeners. “I understand you were instrumental in granting the Royal College their entitlement to the corpse.”

“Indeed - I must confess a curiosity, purely scientific you understand, as to what odd arrangement of vitalities might convert a physician and scholar to the life of a comman blaggard - Doctor Crakes assures me that the skull in particular shall be a great contribution to future study -”

A delicate shattering of crystal interrupted him, as Arabella’s untouched glass of blanchette smashed to the floor.

“My dear!”

“If you’ll excuse me -“ she mumbled, already turning to the balcony. “I - I’ll take the air -”

“Allow me to escort you, Miss Bishop?” Ryench cut in, curling her hand over his arm before she could object. “The room is somewhat close -”

He seated her at a stone bench on the terrace with practiced gallantry, though his bony fingers maintained their clutch upon her hand.

“I had wondered, Miss Bishop - that is, if you would do me the honor -”

Something in her belly swooped like a seabird.

“- if I might beg a seat beside you, for tomorrow’s spectacle; Lady Drummond has offered nothing but the highest praise of your -”

“Spectacle?” she interrupted, staring directly ahead, across the roofs of the city. Flickers of candlelight shone gold in the windows.

“I beg your -?”

“You speak of death as if it were a dancing hound - those who have to weep for the poor soul dangling from the gallows might think differently.”

He chuckled, as if humoring a silly child’s fancies.

“I shouldn’t believe so - murdering louts are hung every day, without even their mothers to mourn them. For this particular brute, his contribution to medicine as a cadaver might well be the one worthwhile act of his lifetime -”

With a swish of powder blue silk, Arabella flew to her feet; her cheeks were flushed to a fiery crimson, and it required every particle of restraint to avoid striking her uninvited companion.

“What do you know about it?! - Beast! You call yourselves gentlemen, but what are you, truly? Nothing but a crowd of schoolboys, tormenting a rat for your own amusement! He and his kind may have deprived you of a few misbegotten gold coins, but at the least he knew the meaning of decency!”

Ryench started, and his long, gaunt face turned sallow.

“Decency, Miss Bishop?! Decency, from the creature who violat-”

Her palm smacked his sharp cheekbone, all restraint lost.

“I - !” Her breath caught in her throat, replaced suddenly by fear. “ - I bid you goodnight, my lord; I must ask you not to speak to me again.”

Arabella gathered her skirts in both perspiring hands, the silk crumpling to ruin, and with a twinkling of feet made her escape to the guest quarters of the great house.

 

*


“Mon Dieu, c'est un goût sucré!”

Saliva cooled rapidly on the flesh of her neck, his hot, moist breath reeking of sour wine. Teeth drawn back in an involuntary grimace, Arabella let out a sob of mingled outrage and disgust, her struggles increasing.

The next blow across her face knocked her almost senseless.

When her ears had stopped ringing, she found her wrists bound viciously with hemp line, and the French dog intent on defiling her had evidently undertaken the one grasp to her body that wouldn’t kick, bite, or scratch, by bearing a hand down on the middle of her spine with all his brute strength.

There was an odd sort of quietness that fell across her mind once he had rucked up her petticoats and kicked her legs apart - the roaring, all-consuming panic reduced to a dull numbness while she lay on her belly and stared at the the wine soaked sand; the only remnants of his pretensions at chivalry.

For a moment, Arabella dazedly recognized the touch of a hand along the crease of her thigh, and so when the gunshot came she assumed it was merely the last of her wits snapping, until a wet, red mist dusted the sand in front of her nose and she realized the weight of his body had vanished.

The flintlock was still smoking in Peter’s grip when he came down the rocks and kicked the corpse aside, with an expression that Judas himself would have cowered from.

“And so ends the partnership that should never have begun.”

Arabella hardly knew what he spoke of, and did not care. She was sensible only of the disorienting weightlessness as he lifted and carried her back to the gelle watte in his arms - none of the Frenchmen seemed anxious to interfere, after the ignoble death of their captain.

She didn’t fully recover her faculties until sometime later, when her eyelids fluttered and she found herself lying face-down on chinasilk bed clothes, inside a gilded great-cabin. She’d been stripped of her gown, and warm water spilled over the swollen red nail-welts left on her back, soaking her shift until it stuck to her flesh like a second, translucent skin.

Her first thought was to scream and flee, but common judgement returned within moments as she realized that there was little hope of lasting escape on a galleon, and so resigned herself to the further indignity of being exposed to an uninvited gaze.

Peter had left off his coat and rolled his shirtsleeves up to sponge her wounds himself, noticing eventually that she was conscious of his actions at last. Her fingers tightened on the heavy silk, and the dull ache elicited made her notice that her abraded wrists had been smeared with liniment and bandaged.

He paused in his work.

“Try not to think on it.” he muttered, in a tone of voice which suggested he knew that would not be possible.

She turned her face away, trying to hide the ashamed tears, and silently grateful that he didn’t attempt to offer pity. She could have borne it from others, but not from him.

 

*


To her credit, the maid asked no questions when her mistress demanded fresh ink and writing paper at two o’clock in the early morning, standing over her shoulder as she dashed off a short missive.

It had taken five years and a London finishing school to rid Arabella of the childhood rebelliousness that prompted her to master her uncle’s handwriting, but in the foggy early dawn she was grateful of the self-taught education.

Executing the governor’s jagged signature with a final scrape of the quill, she sanded the note and tucked it into a hastily donned pocket, ignoring her servant’s squawking protests when she left the bedchamber with only a blue woolen cloak thrown over her bodice and nightdress.

It was a struggle to mount the horse alone, with no groom to leg her into the saddle. A chilly breeze whipped back her hood and her undressed hair, and froze her bare feet in the stirrups, but she paid the discomfort no mind until she had reached the gates of the gaol.

The sentry was only a dull-witted cretin, but on entry to the stockade her objective became far more difficult to achieve.

“I have my orders, madam.” the guard muttered, eyeing her state of disarray with a look of criticism unsuited to his rank.

Heart pounding, Arabella lifted her chin with a haughty affectation that made her uncle’s footmen tremble;

“And I have the leave of Governor Bishop.”

He continued to scrutinize her with deep suspicion, even after the forgery had been produced and read, and he nodded with a huff to the gaoler.

She was reminded forcibly of Virgil leading Dante into the bowels of Hades, as the pox-scarred warden escorted her down a rotting flight of wooden steps and into a close-walled cellar. Rusted metal clanked in the pit-like silence as he fitted an aged key into the single iron-barred door, and dragged it wide enough only to admit her slender frame.

“Aye’ll needs tae lock ye’s in, miss.”

“Then do so.” she whispered, brown eyes wide and horrified as they took in the cell, the scattering of putrid straw over the dirt floor glimmering in the weak light of a single lantern. A rodent chittered somewhere in the shadows.

The air was thick with the stench of blood and human remains, and had he not stirred when the door clanged shut once again, the key turning in the lock, Arabella would have thought the man slumped by the far wall to already be a corpse.

“Peter!” she cried out, aghast, the straw cutting into her skin as she rushed over, flinging herself onto her knees and heaving his body into a half-seated sprawl.

Despite the torn skin crossing his chest and arms, one laceration slicing clean up his throat and across one cheekbone, he still managed to smile at her with infuriating self-satisfaction.

“...They’ve sent me barristers, clergymen, and all manner of brutes, but I never thought to have a sight of your face again.”

“Don’t tease me, not now - who did this to you?” she pleaded, already knowing the answer all too well.

He chuckled without humor.

“Your uncle has a long memory, m’dear - four dozen lashes, with an interest of two more. I doubt even Jeffereys the Hangman would conscience it.”

Her breathing quavered.

“There’s still time before the morning; I could -”

“Could what? Buy a dead man his life back?” Any tone of self-deprecation had gone; his voice hardened. “And what life what that be, pray? Transport back to the Indies in shackles?”

“Peter, don’t ask me to-”

“You love me, don’t you?”

Arabella started, her jaw hanging loose.

“I…”

“Don’t you?”

The realization of what was happening, what he would demand of her, became all too readily apparent, and she swallowed back a growing lump in her throat, nodding.

“... Then let me die tomorrow, without any hindrance. Swear that for me.”

It would have been easy to lie, to betray him for what others might have called his own benefit, but she knew full well that were he granted the reprieve of slavery a second time, Peter would only throw himself in front of the first proffered musket, damn his pride… and with her uncle’s thick fingers clutched tight around her purse strings, the hope of buying a pardon was already forlorn.

She might not be capable of sparing his life, but there was one thing she could offer. Trembling, she came to her decision, and slowly drew the fabric of her shift up over her thighs.

His eyes widened.

“What do you think you’re-”

“Swearing it.” she whispered, her courage quivering on a needle point.

“There’s no need for this -”

Arabella’s unspoken dismissal of his protests was due less to a child-like misunderstanding of love and devotion, but rather to the fantasies of youth that many, less naive of the world and it’s ways, might have perceived as banal. To her sheltered imagination, unclaimed virtue was the only gift worth offering to a man who had done battle to defend it.

Although, she recalled with a lightheaded plunge of nausea that was quickly swallowed back down, his actions on that dreadful island had been less a battle, and more an execution of sorts.

 

His eyes closed with a shaking breath when she hesitantly laid a kiss on his mouth, and she knew he was broken.

Rising on her knees, she straddled him and began shifting their clothing.

“Show me what to do…”

With a few whispered, shaking instructions, Peter’s lip brushed the edge of her earlobe, while she began lowering herself down with a wince -

 

“Mon Dieu, c'est un goût sucré!”

Saliva cooled rapidly on the flesh of her neck, his hot, moist breath reeking of sour wine -

 

She slammed a door across the unwelcome memories, and focused every remainder of determination on keeping her eyes open and fixed on her lover’s face. A challenge that was easier imagined than accomplished, when a sensation that began as an awkward  drubbing quickly increased to a sharp, shrieking pain - she bared her teeth with a hiss, then a whine, and finally a strangled cry, slender fingers tightening on his shoulders.

“Stop - you’ll injure yourself -”

“No!” she growled through a clenched jaw, tears escaping as she struggled to breathe past the discomfort, all the while quite certain that she was being ripped in half.

“No - I’ll finish this!”

Arabella twisted her hips in a frantic effort to force herself down, sobbing in frustration when it didn’t work; her face heating with mingled despair and humiliation when he pushed the tears away into her wind-matted hair.

“Breathe -” Peter whispered, sounding as though the noose were already around his throat. “- breathe deeply, and lean forward, it’ll get easier-”

Bracing herself for more pain, she did as she was told, and her expectations were not in vain. A stinging feeling tore through the thin flesh between her legs. Eyelids screwing up, cursing bloody oaths under her breath that she had overheard and never thought to speak, she crushed her chest against his body and managed an unskilled kiss, then another, another, desperate to divert her body’s attentions to something less harrowing.

Peter’s fingers were buried in her curls, as best he could manage with his wrists shackled, mouth wandering across her jaw and down her throat, until he could hide his face in the tight, white skin of her shoulder. With a fluttering feeling in her belly, Arabella realized that his hands were shaking.

His hips shifted, and she winced with a mew.

“Move with me…”

It took time for her to find the rhythm he wanted, and even then, once the act itself had finally been achieved - his hands leaving white finger grips on her down-covered thighs and his breath hot and uneven on her throat - she hardly understood why such a to-do was made of this business by the elderly matrons who surrounded her since birth; she couldn’t have enjoyed it less than if a rusted nail were being stuck repeatedly into the skin of her belly.

Something shifted inside, struck a tender place, and she gasped unhappily, but if his answering groan were any sign, it seemed exactly the desired outcome - the chain linking the manacles scraped along her back, bunching the fabric of her shift while he gathered her close and tight.

Her fingers eventually released their death grip on his ruddy hair as she drew herself away, doing her utmost to muffle the sigh of relief, which quickly transmuted itself into a mortified choke as fluids trickled down her thigh.

For a long while neither spoke, their eyes refusing to meet while they untangled their bodies, and it was only after an uncomfortable flurry of deliberation that Arabella carefully nestled close and laid her head on his shoulder.

One of his hands twisted, as if about to brush her skin, before he thought against it.

Several of the welts on his torso had been ripped open by their exertions, leaving spots of blood on her night clothes. Her twittering pigeon of a maidservant would be certain to scold.

His heart thumped under her cheekbone, frantically at first, then calming, and she realized with a pang that the sound was suddenly very dear to her.

With a few shaking breaths, she kissed him again, without the distraction of pain. Tasted bitter saltiness, that could have been her tears or his blood. But what did it matter?

 

She slipped away with the earliest light of dawn, the scent of him still heavy on her body, and realized too late that her cloak had been left behind.




*


Seven Years Later


“Mama, mama!”

The waves curled and spread across the pebbly sands, as Lady Ashwell crouched down with a smile.

“Oh dearest, isn’t it lovely?”

A salty breeze whipped playfully through their clothes as Mary offered her mother another pink-streaked shell before racing back to the breaker’s edge, a few red-gold curls teased loose by the wind and escaping the child’s towering lace headdress.

“Not too far, now!”

The only reply was a shriek of excitement as one of the waves rolled in with a spectacular crash, but Lady Ashwell had come to expect nothing more.

The sun was particularly bright that morning, and after eight dreary months of London rain and fog, their mother felt the warmth could do the children nothing but good. Lord Ashwell had been eager to look after business holdings in Newcastle - particularly a holding by the name of Miss Clifford, if the illicit letters left on his breakfast tray were any hint - and was only too willing to allow his child bride and her offspring their freedom for the summer.

Johnathan seemed absorbed in futilely chasing down a seabird, while William toddled along the smooth stones with the help of the nurse, the hem of his baby-dress catching on tufts of scrub and flotsam. Both would be crying about something or another within moments, she was certain - in addition to their long ears and soft, inoffensive features, the boys thoroughly took after their father when it came to whining. Bless their weak little souls.

The sun peered out from behind a passing cloud, thoroughly drenching the shore with it’s unhindered brilliance, and Lady Ashwell tilted her parasol to better protect her snowy skin. Vanity laid aside however, she had rather missed the sensation of warmth on her cheeks, ever since a hastily contrived marriage had seen fit to settle her under England’s shadow indefinitely.

When she thought on it, in fact, there had been only one day when the sunlight had matched this in sheer intensity, and the more superstitious who had gathered at the Wapping port that morning had called it the sight of God - though whether to condemn or bless, and on whom the judgement was intended, there was no way of being certain.

Some details had been lost to the ravages of memory and time, but she recalled quite clearly how his face had been upturned to the last, his eyes bright when they landed on her as the bishop concluded the Lord’s prayer, the smile that could have driven her mad with tenderness since the hour they met - but the reminiscence was soured forever by the unforgettable creak of a wooden beam, and the crack of a rope snapping taut.

Her eyes fluttered shut as she sucked in a mouthful of briney air, before opening them again to another cry of delight from Mary. A handful of pebbles flew from the child’s grip into the shallows with a massive splash, and she laughed with sheer joy, her head thrown back.

He would have adored her , Lady Ashwell mused tenderly, not for the first time. He would have swung her aloft as easily as a doll, and called her his ruddy-haired beauty…

The breeze kissed her cheek, and with a soft smile Arabella tossed her parasol aside, allowing the sun to light up her face.








Author’s Notes:

 

The practice of subjecting the corpses of condemned prisoners to public dissection was not solidified by law until the Murder Act of 1751, but anatomists and surgeons still obtained bodies when they could. For a further look at the history of the practice, check out William Hogarth’s “The Reward of Cruelty” (warning for grisly imagery)


Mary is named after the wife of Henry Morgan, a seventeenth century Welsh privateer who, it is believed, was Sabatini’s inspiration for Peter Blood. (Look him up - cool dude.) For the curious, my visual headcanon was Emilie Francois in “Sense and Sensibility”(1995)