The Central Criminal Court, London
July 31st, 1890
Dalston Blaze knew when to keep his mouth shut, and the holding cell of Newgate Prison five minutes before his sentencing was one such time. The departing guard was a brute who stank of stale sweat, and intimidated prisoners by slapping his truncheon into the palm of his hand, and everyone was glad to see the back of him. As much as Dalston wanted to give him a mouthful as a parting gift, he remained silent, because silence was his only weapon.
The replacement officer was younger, and to Dalston’s mind, far more kindly-looking. The man was still a constable, though, and even if he was friendlier than the one before, and asked Dalston if he wanted a drink of water, Dalston knew better than to engage him in conversation. Besides, it was unlikely he could drink without throwing up. Nervousness cramped his stomach, and bile bubbled at the back of his throat. His trembling hands were the only outward sign of his apprehension, he otherwise sat motionless, manacled to the bench by cuffs that scraped his ankles and weighed heavily on his wrists.
Guards stood watch over other waiting prisoners, throwing insults, swiping the drunks, and clubbing those who gave backtalk. Each time one escorted his prisoner to the courts upstairs, Dalston’s stomach tightened, and his heart pumped faster. They said he was guilty of an unnatural offence, and not so long ago, his sentence would have been death by hanging. Times had changed, and although Dalston wouldn’t hang, he was going to be sent down.
He had to be. It was the only way he could save his life.
‘Recess is over.’ A call from the top of the stone stairs echoed through the vaulted chamber, causing some to wail, others to swear, and Dalston’s guard to jangle his keys.
‘Get ready,’ he said, starting on the locks. ‘You’re on next.’
All he had to do was stand in silence and not react. In fact, he remembered the new barrister’s words exactly. They had played through his mind during the night when sleep was impossible, because of the snoring and moaning from the condemned, the unwanted advances rebuked with fists, and the constant rattling of chains. He’d longed for sleep to give him respite from the stench of shit, but sleep had refused to come.
‘You are not going to prison,’ his new brief had said, causing Dalston to panic and blurt out that he must. ‘Why would any man want to be incarcerated? No, Sir. We have other plans for you.’
Everyone had plans for Dalston Blaze. The workhouse master in particular.
‘I can’t go back there, Mr Creswell, Sir.’
‘Trust me, dear boy, you only have to do as I say. Now listen, and remember this. If I say you have agreed to something, you have. Do not, on any account, open your mouth to refute or rage. Show nothing but contrition. Keep your head down, and when your guard gives you an order, you follow it.’
Creswell had appeared two days before the date of sentencing, and with an assistant, had asked a sackful of questions and made endless notes.
Dalston had a question of his own. Why? Why had this man, knighted for his services to the law, been assigned to a pauper from a workhouse?
‘You will see,’ was the barrister’s reply, followed again by his explicit instructions. ‘Fear not,’ he said at the end of the interview. ‘We shall have you freed in no time.’
Dalston prayed he was wrong.