A little while ago I told you about the inspiration behind my short story for the HNS 2014 conference. As a treat for the New Year, I’m happy to share the tale with you at last. It was a nice change to write about ‘common-folk’ instead of royalty. I do hope you’ll enjoy it. Happy New Year!
The Tower of London, 1713
‘No, Tom, no! Don’t do it!’ Nelly’s shoes skittered over the slick cobbles as she tried to keep pace with her husband’s stride. Her heel turned; she swore under her breath but pushed forward, propelled by the screaming tear of panic beneath her ribs. ‘Stop!’
Her words were lost on the wind that blasted through the London streets and whipped up the flags on the parapets. Their colours stood out vivid against the grey brick and leaden sky: blood red; the blue of a tender vein. Swallowing a wave of nausea, Nelly ran on.
Why had she succumbed to this man? Since their hurried marriage ceremony at the Fleet, she had spent every day in tears. Tears of anger, of sorrow and of shame. His fool, trotting along behind him.
As she entered the bustling Tower Menagerie, Tom’s brown coat faded amidst a swarm of sight-seers. She shoved her way past the tittering ladies with their milk-white skin, the young bucks who slapped her rump. Well-bred children pointed her out to their nurses. On a normal day, Nelly would stop and give them an earful for their sauce. But the thought of Scamp kept her feet moving.
Her lungs heaved beneath her stays; the constricting whalebone fingers that Tom had made. She sucked in breath but the air was foul, tainted by dung and sickly sweet hay. God damn it, she’d never reach him like this. Kicking off her heels, she continued in her stockings. The cobbles were cold and damp against the soles of her feet. A piece of rough darning pressed into her little toe as she sped along. The crowd cleared; she saw Tom and the precious bundle within his arms. Her heart lurched.
‘Tom!’ she shrieked. ‘Tom, stop! Please!’
Scamp raised his head at the sound of her voice. Those soft eyes, the silken ears; her only comforts through a loveless marriage. Somehow she found the strength to accelerate. She drew up alongside them, her skirts bellying in the wind. ‘Tom!’
He didn’t turn. ‘I’ve warned you before, Nell. You knew this would happen.’
A keeper in a scarlet coat approached and stopped them with a raised arm. ‘It’s thruppence to see the beasts, sir. Unless . . .’ He caught sight of tiny Scamp, huddled against Tom’s chest. A look passed between the men. Tom nodded, once. The keeper stepped away.
‘No!’ Nelly howled. ‘You can’t do this. He’s done nothing wrong.’ It didn’t sound like her voice at all; wrung from the depths of her chest.
Tom forged ahead. ‘Look at my shoes,’ he said. Her eyes flicked to the floor. There was a ragged hole by his heel that let the water in. The latchets hung useless and threadbare, trailing in the puddles. ‘We can’t afford a new pair.’
‘I’ll take in more work. I’ll – ’
‘It’s not just the shoes.’ Scamp writhed in his arms, letting out a pitiful whimper. ‘Pissing on my newspaper. Scratching up the wood. Barking all bloody night so I can barely sleep.’
Nelly’s throat constricted. It was as if one of the snakes had escaped from its hut and was squeezing her tight. Words stampeded through her mind, but she knew none of them would persuade him. Tom didn’t care that Scamp was the only remnant of her dead family. It didn’t signify to him that she had raised Scamp from a pup, been there when his eyes opened. Tears spilled, hot against her frozen cheeks. ‘Please. He’s all I have.’
The corner of his mouth twisted cruelly. ‘I am all you have. Perhaps when this rat is out of the way you’ll be a proper wife. Bear me a child. A boy to take over the stay-making business.’
Somewhere inside the grey labyrinth of courtyards and towers, a wolf released its mournful wail.
Scamp looked to her with a melting appeal. ‘Good boy,’ she whispered, watching his tail thump against Tom’s arm. ‘Good boy, Scamp, don’t you worry.’
How easily the lies slid off her tongue. He had every reason to worry. They had reached the destination Tom promised would come: the Lion Tower. Whining, Scamp scrabbled his paws and tried to climb over Tom’s shoulder, but a swift jerk to the tail brought him down again.
A thick, meaty stench overpowered Nelly the moment they entered the tower. The hair on her arms prickled. She could sense the prowling beasts; their snorts and the grumbles echoing in their deep-barrelled chests.
They made their way by a strange, soupy light, passing other visitors on their way back out. Nelly heard the restless tick of claws on concrete, but she kept her eyes fixed on Scamp. His wet nose, the way his ears twitched. These were the last moments. She had to drink in every beloved feature before . . . She shut her eyes, squeezing out fresh tears. She couldn’t leave him, but how could she bear to watch?
‘Here she is,’ Tom said. ‘Magnificent.’
Her eyelids snapped open. They were in a long, stone room lit by arrow-slits. The floor was polished wood, adding the honey scent of beeswax to the animal musk. Cages were set into the wall like cabinets. One side of each opened out to the public, striped with rusty iron bars. Nelly exhaled in wonder. She had never seen anything like it. Jewel-coloured parrots hopped and whistled. A monkey sat, carefully picking through its mate’s fur. Two ladies stood close to the cage and marvelled at the animal’s deft fingers. But Tom had not stopped by the monkeys. He was further up the room, looking at something with frank admiration. Nelly took three paces forward. Her guts withered.
A lioness lay long and sleek on the straw. Muscle rippled beneath her wheaten coat. Light fell through the bars in blades, accentuating her dark, soulless eyes, the whiskers that twitched at the scent of meat. Her head alone was bigger than Nelly’s torso.
‘Oh Tom!’ She dropped onto her knees, careless of the dirt. The ladies turned to stare at her. ‘You cannot!’
Tom held Scamp aloft, sizing up the gaps between the bars. ‘How do you like this, my pretty?’ he asked the lioness. ‘A tasty morsel for you.’ She shifted a paw. Nelly saw her deadly claws slowly emerge from their sheaths.
‘Oh, God!’ she sobbed. ‘Have pity! Slit his throat first! Don’t let her tear him limb from limb!’
Tom swallowed. His eyes flashed, wary, as he approached the lioness. Her lip curled back. Suddenly, the gaps between the bars seemed very wide.
Nelly shuffled across the floor and gripped Tom’s breeches. ‘Please! Let a neighbour take him. Turn him out on the street. Anything but this!’ She aimed a beseeching look at the ladies. Their painted faces were beautiful but blank. ‘Miss! Please. Won’t you help me?’
The lioness revealed the ivory spikes of her teeth. Scamp yipped. The parrots echoed his sound, throwing it down the room like a ball. Squealing, the ladies bustled out. A pair of cowardly milk-sops, for all their silk petticoats.
Tom sniggered. ‘Come now, Nell. If we don’t feed him to the beast, we’ll have to pay that three pence entrance fee, won’t we?’
‘Tom!’ She tugged so hard on his breeches, she was sure they would come down. Hatred lit her from the inside. ‘How can you be so cruel? If you do this, I’ll despise you for the rest of my life. I swear it. And I will never give you a son.’
He paused. Shadows expanded and shrank in the half-light. His eyes passed from Nelly to Scamp and back again. The lioness flicked her tail, scattering flies. ‘Perhaps . . .’
Nelly flinched as liquid dripped onto her hand. Instinctively, she released Tom and looked up. Scamp quivered uncontrollably. A yellow trickle wound its way across Tom’s shirt, down his legs, to dribble on the floor.
‘Blast your eyes, cur!’ Tom’s face scrunched and turned beetroot. ‘It’s the lion’s den for you.’
‘No!’ Nelly lunged but Tom was too quick. Seizing Scamp by the scruff, he darted forward and pushed the dog’s head between the bars. Before the lioness could react, he flung Scamp and rushed away.
Horror held Nelly paralysed. Scamp flew, a sailing cloud of white and tan. As the lioness turned her head, he landed sprawled out in the cage with a thump.
She wanted to cover her eyes, to run for help, but she was powerless. She could only gape, transfixed, as Scamp stood and shook himself. In one liquid movement, the lioness rose to her feet.
‘Now watch carefully, Nell. See what happens to those who cross me.’
Hunching her shoulders, the lioness slunk toward Scamp. He moaned. His pink tongue darted across his lips as he shifted from one foot to the other. Crescents of white showed around his chocolate eyes.
A deep rumble vibrated through the air. The lioness circled him, each twist tighter and tighter. This was it. Nelly drove her fingernails into the palms of her hands. She would never forgive Tom. Never.
Suddenly, the lioness lurched, thumping a paw either side of Scamp. He let out a sound like a human scream. The monkeys shrieked and banged against the bars. Nelly shut her eyes, bracing herself.
There was no sickening tear of flesh, no pitiful wail. Instead, she heard a soft bump and a groan. Lapping. A wet sound of mastication. Blessed God, the lioness had dispatched him quickly. There could not have been much pain.
Trembling, Nelly raised her eyelids. She was prepared for gushing blood, the body of her precious pet twisted at an angle – but not for this. What she saw made her gasp.
The lioness lay on her stomach with Scamp curled between her front paws. Alive. Slowly, methodically, she licked his coat until it stood up in wet spikes. Like a bitch with its pup she cleaned his nose, his eyes and his ears.
Tom staggered back. ‘What the devil? This is a lioness, isn’t it?’ He dashed to the corner and rummaged in a slop bucket. Producing a handful of offal, he threw it through the bars. ‘Go on, eat!’ A few hunks of grey sludge bounced back. A thick, clear juice ran down the side of the bucket and pooled on the floor. ‘Eat!’
The lioness nosed a slimy piece of offal. She turned it so Scamp could nibble on one end.
Tom removed his hat and held it, utterly defeated. ‘I don’t understand.’
Nelly stood. Triumph surged through her. Tom might think that he could control nature – that all women and beasts leapt to a man’s tune. But he was wrong. ‘I do. I understand now exactly what happens to those who cross you.’ All the loathing of the past three years was naked on her face. She took a step toward him. ‘But Tom, do you know what happens to those who upset me?’
He reared away from her. Focused on her glaring eyes, he didn’t see the offal spilled behind him. As he stepped back, his foot slid and he tripped on the torn latchet of his shoe. He fell with a smack against the bars. One arm slotted between the gaps. The lioness stopped licking Scamp and cocked her head.
‘Nelly.’ Tom’s voice was tight with panic. His fingers groped, trying to find purchase. ‘Nelly, my shoulder’s stuck.’
The lioness stood. Finally free, Scamp leapt up, slid between the bars and scuttled to Nelly’s side.
‘Nell, help me.’
She regarded Tom, pinioned. That sinewy hand that had slapped her face lay exposed, so fleshy and bare. ‘Come, Scamp. Let’s go home.’
As they turned, the lioness stirred. She sniffed; she could smell the rank scent of fear oozing from Tom. He tugged desperately against the bars. ‘Nelly!’
The lioness raised her hackles.