Sally was there the day they hanged Claude Duval.It was madness in the January snow, the stands filled to capacity and creaking beneath the weight of too many bodies. Spectators filled the pit surrounding the gallows shoulder to shoulder. The grounds were packed and still they let them in.
The usual families with picnic baskets were disappointed at the lack of open ground on which to lunch. The vendors had sold out of hot potatoes and cakes and stood uselessly between the stalls, their hands in their pockets to protect their profits from the Tyburn Blossoms, young pickpockets who could hear two pennies rub together at one hundred paces. Prostitutes of every age and disposition sauntered through the crowd, anticipating a very profitable day. At least a dozen apothecaries, sorcerers, and quacks waited at the base of the gallows, jars at the ready to collect pieces of the corpse.
There was magic in a dead man’s blood.
Claude’s execution was remarkable, not only for the falling snow that so seldom blanketed London, cold as it could be, but for the staggering number of ladies in attendance.
The pit swarmed with them. From fashionable residences in Leicester Fields and St. James they came, traveling all the way to Tyburn in private coaches and hired hacks, sacrificing their silk shoes to stand in the muddy snow. They must have ruined ten thousand pairs among them.
They chattered happily, trading daring stories of times Claude had robbed them of their jewels or better, some of them true, all of them embellished. They speculated as to how he was caught at long last, and bemoaned the loss of such a handsome face. Their fans churned their sighs and scent in a gale that assaulted Sally’s senses with the smell of lilies and idleness.
Why anyone would require a fan in January was beyond her. She pulled her ragged cloak closer around her shoulders to fend off the wet chill of the morning. The ladies, their dresses no doubt ordered for just this occasion, pouted and postured in plush fur capes, their little hands encased in gloves and muffs of sable and mink, impervious to the punishing cold.
Rounded cheeks flushed and eyes alight, they were quite breathless at the prospect of seeing Claude in person, deriving no little thrill from the knowledge that they were about to see him die.They gasped over copies of his “Last Dying Confession” so recently printed that the ink rubbed off on their gloves.
Sally hated every one of them.
They took up places that should have belonged to the people who knew him and loved him as she did, ragged wretches obliged to crowd outside of the gate, too poor to purchase a seat, or too late to find room to stand.
Sally had arrived hours early, standing in the cold in threadbare finery with an empty belly. She waited alone, not a blood-thirsty spectator or a sighing ninny, but a friend.
She had met Claude in Normandy when they were children, long before Charles had regained the throne, neither of them ever dreaming they would end up in England. They had been respectable in those days, but in the dank, stinking streets of London, Claude had become a robber and Sally a whore.
The crowd fell silent, parting as he rolled up in a lacquered cart behind an enormous black horse. Claude stood proudly in his long coat and wide-brimmed hat, hands tied behind his back.
The ladies collectively gasped.
The cart stopped abruptly. He gave a measured bow.
The crowd erupted in cheers. The woman beside her clapped wildly and reached out to him, her gentleman escort reddening.
Claude stepped off the cart and began his slow walk to the gallows.
He nodded and smiled pleasantly as he passed, greeting people and winking at the ladies. He was the very picture of a swaggering hero, handsome at twenty-seven, proud to meet his end among so many devotees.
Then he saw her.
His eyes were empty and his expression rigid. His pale, ghostly face belonged not to her first love, but to a man who had already died. He paused before her.
“Celestine.” He called her by her childhood pet name and ventured a sad smile. "Send me off right?"
Tears clouding her eyes, she took his cold face in his hands. He closed the distance between them with a chaste kiss.
Claude Duval, beloved of ladies everywhere, gave Sally his very last kiss.
It was the last kiss of a condemned man.
The woman beside Sally swooned into her escort’s arms. Several others whined in protest, ready to fling themselves at his boots if not for the watchful eyes of their husbands and guardians.
Claude felt their disappointment. Perhaps was afforded some satisfaction from it. As he continued forward, smiling at those he passed, Sally contemplated her fate. His kiss was cold as death and tasted of ashes on her lips.
A chill ran up her spine.
The horse beneath the gallows stomped impatiently, the falling snow melting into his glossy coat. Steam rose from his nostrils in great clouds, a promise of brimstone. As far away as she was, Sally could have sworn that horse was breathing down her neck.
It felt like a curse.
“Hats off!” someone bellowed, and the cry was repeated throughout the crowd until every hat had been removed. It was not a gesture of respect for Claude. They did it so everyone would have a good view.
At last at the gallows, Claude climbed onto the second cart. They removed his hat and lowered the noose around his strong neck. His face was blank. He gave one last devilish smile as the signal was given. The horse sprung into a trot and pulled the cart from beneath his feet. Sally looked away before he began to swing.
She choked back a sob and forced her way back through the cheering crowd. He had marked her with that kiss, and she knew she would be next.
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