London, June 1816
This newspaper is pleased to record the return to these shores of a certain notorious princess, whose arrival will be greeted with great glee by the gentlemen of the Ton. Rumor has it that the Princess IDC has not a feather to fly and is looking for a gentleman to ease her financial worries. Though whether the infamous lady will take him as lover or husband remains to be seen .
— The Gentlemen's Athenian Mercury, June 12, 1816 IT WAS A HELL OF A PLACE to look for a husband.
Most discerning females, given a choice of marriage mart, would prefer the genteel familiarity of Almack's any day to the rather more dubious qualifications of the Fleet Prison.
Princess Isabella Di Cassilis did not have that luxury. Princess Isabella was desperate.
She had explained to the jailer that her requirements were very specific. She needed to marry a man who owed so much money that to take on her twenty-thousand-pound liability would be a mere drop in the ocean of his debt. She needed a pauper — a strong one, since she did not want him dying on her and leaving her heir to his debts as well as her own — and she needed him now.
It was of no consequence to Isabella that she would be ruined if this escapade ever came to light. She was beyond ruin already. The more fastidious members of the Ton closed their doors to her, so what harm could a little more scandal do? She might even accomplish the remarkable success of being ruined twice over in one lifetime. It would be a considerable achievement for a lady of only nine and twenty.
Isabella Standish had not been born to be the princess of a European country, not even an insignificant one such as Cassilis. Her father had been a minor member of the Ton who'd aspired to be important but had never quite achieved his ambitions. Her grandfather had been fishmonger to King George III, ennobled by the monarch in one of his bouts of madness after he had partaken of a particularly tasty piece of rainbow trout. The family title was therefore not only newly created but also the butt of some hilarity, to the great mortification of the second Lord Standish, Isabella's father.
It had been Isabella's misfortune that at the age of seventeen she had been walking down Bond Street the day before her wedding and had caught the roving eye of the jaded Prince Ernest Rudolph Christian Ludwig Di Cassilis, who had been charmed by her prettiness and her unspoiled manners. Prince Ernest had immediately made a counteroffer for her hand in marriage. It was an offer that her father was not minded to refuse, as he was about to be bankrupted by his extravagance. Prince Ernest's arrival was most timely, for Lord Standish if not for his daughter. The wedding that took place a few days later was not the one that Isabella had intended.
It was also entirely Prince Ernest's fault that a widowed Princess Isabella, some twelve years later, was following a turnkey down the narrow stone corridor into the depths of the Fleet Prison. Ernest had died most inconveniently in the arms of his mistress, leaving his widow nothing but debts and a tarnished name. When she'd returned home to England, Isabella had discovered that her late husband's infidelity had been financial as well as physical. He had run up debts in her name. He had used her to fund his debauches and she had been so happy to be on a different continent from him that she had not even noticed. So now she was driven to desperate measures of her own to extract herself from the disaster Ernest had brought on her.
Isabella shrank within her black cloak and pulled the hood more closely about her face. All her senses were under assault. It was almost as dark as night inside the prison. The air was thick with heat and the smoke of tobacco, but the scent did nothing to mask the deeper, more noxious smell of hundreds of fetid bodies pressed close. Raucous voices were raised in endless uproar, mingling with the scrape of iron fetters on stone and the wailing of babies and children in forlorn chorus. The floor was greasy and the walls ran with damp, even in the summer heat. Hands grasped blindly at the folds of Isabella's cloak as she passed. She could feel the despair of the place like a living thing. It seeped from the walls and wrapped her about with misery. Shock and compassion thickened her throat until the hairs rose on the back of her neck and she shivered with horror. Before she had entered this hellhole she had thought that she was in desperate straits. She had not even known what desperation was. And yet the distance between her situation and this was perilously short. A man — or woman — could slip once from their comfortable path and end up forgotten and unlamented in this pit.
She paused at the corner of the corridor and fumbled in her reticule for her small collection of coins. She could not really afford to part with them, but there were some whose need was greater than hers. She thrust the money toward the jailer.
"Here Take these for the mothers and their babies." The jailer shook his head. He did not take the money, for he still had a tiny shred of decency left. In the faint light his face betrayed pity but Isabella could not tell if it was for his charges or for her naiveté.
"With all due respect, ma'am, it would do no good. The mothers would spend it on gin and the babes would starve anyway."
Isabella hesitated, instinct prompting her to scatter the coins in the darkness and pray that some good would come of it. Then she saw the eyes watching her greedily from out of the shadows — insatiable eyes, full of hate and cupidity. The strong would trample the weak in their attempts to get to the money first and it would all be for nothing.
The turnkey took her arm, drawing her on. "Not far now."
Then, with a rough attempt at comfort as he felt her shiver, he added, "We keep a better class of prisoner in the Warden's House, madam. Nothing to fear."
Nothing to fear.
The words repeated over and over in her head as she shivered. She had but three alternatives, Mr. Churchward had said with bluntness unusual in a lawyer. Marriage, or exile, or the debtor's prison. None of these options had been in any way appealing.
They had been sitting in the drawing room of her house in Brunswick Gardens when Churchward had broken the news of Ernest's debts. For all his frankness, the lawyer had spoken to her with compassion, as though such delicate matters were unfit for a lady's ears. Isabella had appreciated his thoughtfulness, and when she had neither fainted nor indulged in a fit of the vapors, Churchward had looked infinitely relieved.
A torch flared at the end of the passageway. The jailer opened a heavy door and it scraped across the floor with a protesting creak, as though there was seldom cause to use it. He stood back to allow Isabella to precede him. The air was fresher here, though it still carried the smells of tobacco, sweat and stale food.
The jailer stopped in front of a cell door, spat on the ground, then hastily wiped the back of his hand across his mouth as a concession to the fact that he was addressing a lady. "Here we are, madam. I have just the man for you. John Ellis. A gentleman by birth, healthy, very poor, so I'm told."
Somewhere in the depths of the jail, someone screamed. It was a sound unearthly and terrifying. Isabella shuddered and forced herself to concentrate. She knew that there were questions she should ask. If only she did not feel so callous and calculating. This was a man's life she was purchasing with the remains of her money. She bought her liberty at the price of his incarceration.
The plan had seemed quite neat in theory. Tidy, albeit ruthless. She would pay a prisoner to take on her debts. He would be behind bars. She would be free. Now that it suddenly involved a real person, the plan seemed grotesque. Nevertheless, it was his life or hers .
"Does he have any family or friends?" She asked.
The jailer smirked. He understood what she needed to know. "No, madam. There is no one to buy him out of here and I am sure he could be persuaded to take your debts on into the bargain. He has nothing to lose by it."
"How long has he been here?" Now that she was on the point of committing herself, Isabella found that she was hesitating, looking for opportunities to put off the moment.
"Three months, near enough, and set fair to be here for the rest of his time, so I understand." The jailer cocked his head as he looked at her. "You'd not be wanting it any other way, ma'am?"
"No, thank you," Isabella said. "A permanently absent husband is precisely what I require."
The jailer touched the crisp banknotes that were nestling in his pocket. He had seen a number of ladies come to the Fleet in search of husbands. Some were looking for a father, no matter how belatedly, for an infant that was about to make its appearance in the world. Others were looking to escape a repugnant match. A few, like this lady, were trying to evade a crushing debt by marrying a man who was already in jail and could take on his wife's obligations as well as his own without it making a ha'porth of difference to him. There were plenty of men in the Fleet who would have been willing to take her on for the price of a bottle of gin, but the lady's requirements were precise. She was Quality, and she needed a man who was a gentleman by birth, but desperate enough not to be too scrupulous. Fortunately he knew plenty who fit the bill.
There was quality and then there was Quality with a capital Q, the jailer mused. No amount of clothing borrowed from a maid could conceal the fact that this was a lady, possibly even a countess. She vibrated with a kind of despair that he had seen many times before when a person was about to make a pact with the devil. The jailer had little pity left in him. Sentiment was dangerous in his job. He fingered the money once again. Countess, duchess, it mattered nothing to him. He would find a match for the queen herself if she paid him enough. And he would ask no questions.
The door of the cell crashed open and another turnkey tumbled out, slipping on the greasy floor and spilling the contents of the tray he carried. He was swearing under his breath. The thin stew slid off the plate and splattered Isabel-la's cloak.
"And don't come back until you have something edible to offer me," a masculine voice said from within the cell. It was a pleasant voice but it was edged with a distinct under-tone of menace.
"Is that your Mr. Ellis?" Isabella said dryly, as something thudded against the cell door as though to emphasize the words further. "It sounds as though he has the devil's own temper."
"Aye, a surly fellow is John Ellis," the jailer confirmed.
"Not that you need trouble yourself over that, ma'am."
"I imagine that I would be bad tempered were I incarcerated in here," Isabella said. She looked about her and shivered.
"Best to get it over with, then."
The cell was dark, lit only by one small barred window high in the wall. The first thing that shocked Isabella was that this better class of gentleman did not even possess the means to purchase a room of his own. He must be poor indeed. Her second thought was that this was not the more spacious and airy accommodation of the higher reaches of the Warden's House, but a dim chamber where the air was almost as fetid as in the stews. She felt sick with nerves and disgust.
Three men were crouching on the floor playing a game with dice and counters. They barely looked up as the door opened, so intense was their concentration. Only pennies were being wagered but the world could have ended and they would not have broken up the game.
Another man squatted in a far corner where the water ran down the walls and soaked his shirt. He appeared not to notice it. He was rocking on his heels and crooning softly to himself, and he looked at Isabella with incurious eyes. She looked back with grief and pity, remembering the times when she had been in a position actually to aid such poor unfortunates rather than look at them with such helplessness.
The thought recollected her to her current situation and she looked around for Mr. John Ellis, her unlikely savior.
At first she could not discern him at all, other than as a shadowed figure seated at the rough table with his back to the light. Then he moved, and she saw that he had been reading, for he still had a book in his hand.
384 pages; ISBN 9781460307939
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Author: Nicola Cornick