New Release This Month
F/F historical romance
Sixpenny Octavo is an F/F romance about two working women who are drawn together while fighting to save a friend from imprisonment during Pitt's Reign of Terror in 1790s England.
Clockmender Hannah Croft's friend Molly has been arrested for her connections to a Jacobin club, and Hannah's one hope to free her lies in the testimony of housemaid Lucy Boone. But a sinister man from the magistrate's office dogs Lucy's steps. One wrong move could land Hannah and Lucy in gaol—or splinter their new relationship from within.
This novel is set in the same fictional universe as Beck and Call, though the two stories are only loosely related, and each novel is a standalone romance.
None of the main characters from Beck and Call appear in Sixpenny Octavo nor vice versa, but I'm working on a couple more novels in the same series (see this page) where familiar faces reappear!
The courtroom was far from silent as Lucy took the witness stand. A constant hum of chatter came from the public gallery, where ghoulish spectators hung over the railings, craning their necks for a better view of the proceedings. Members of the public and friends of the prisoner were shoulder to shoulder with penny-a-line hacks. Slogans of all political shades rose from the anonymity of the crowd.
“Death to tyrants!”
“King and Country!”
“Wilkes and Liberty!”
“Let him swing!”
Lucy gripped the stand’s wooden balustrade. An unpleasant mixture of excitement and nerves settled in the pit of her stomach, and she had to remind herself that she was not the person on trial here today.
In the prisoner’s dock, Mr Oldham stood with his head bent over the notes he clutched in his hands. He was defending himself, without the help of a lawyer. Lucy had heard that men of his political persuasion often did so. They knew their words would be reported in the newspapers and broadsides, and seized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to proclaim their philosophy to a wider audience.
Mr Oldham seemed remarkably calm and composed for a man whose life hung in the balance. He wore the same shirt as on the previous day. Lucy recognised the darned patch on the collar, just visible under his stock, and the ink stain on his right cuff, fresh yesterday. His shirt cuffs had always been a nightmare to wash, and in her two years of service in the Oldham household, Lucy had spent many hours scrubbing them and soaking them in vinegar. These past few months had been no different: Mrs Oldham brought home her husband’s shirts from gaol as often as she could, and, judging from the state of his cuffs, he had spent most of his imprisonment furiously writing letters.
The court clerk took away the Bible on which Lucy had sworn her oath, and she turned to face the court. High up behind a pulpit sat the Lord Chief Justice, the representative of the Crown. He was a rotund, dour-faced man, his ruddy forehead lined with wrinkles as though crushed under the weight of his enormous grey wig—not an everyday wig, such as older men still wore, but an awe-inspiring pile of powdered rolls of hair, the likes of which Lucy had only previously seen in broadside illustrations. In his lofty perch, he was flanked by two other men in similar wigs and gowns, and three stern, suspicious pairs of eyes were fixed on Lucy.
“The prosecution may question the witness,” the Lord Chief Justice announced in ponderous tones, and another man stepped forward, similarly bewigged and red-nosed from years of drinking fine claret.
“Name and occupation?” he demanded.
“Lucia Boone, housemaid in the service of Mr William Oldham, Greenwich.”
‘Maid-of-all-work’ would have been a more accurate description. The Oldhams were not wealthy and kept only one servant. But Lucy had her pride, and ‘housemaid’ sounded better in front of all these people.
“And you waited on the table whenever Mr Oldham had company?”
“You will address the Solicitor-General as ‘my lord,’” the clerk put in.
“Yes, my lord,” Lucy said readily.
Her knees had been shaky when she crossed the courtroom to take the stand, but now she was in control of herself once more. Answering questions from a figure of authority was an experience she was well used to, whether it was a prospective employer sounding out her morals and reliability, or a current employer voicing a complaint. She knew just the tone to adopt: suitably deferential, speaking when spoken to, and never betraying her true opinions.
“So you were privy to the dinner table conversation on these occasions?” the Solicitor-General went on.
“Yes, my lord.”
Before his arrest, Oldham had frequently had company to dinner, squeezing five or six friends around the table in the tiny upper room of his house in Greenwich. Lucy had often wished he would do so less often, especially when he and his guests lingered late into the evening, discussing events in France and speeches in Parliament while she was longing to go to bed.
“Would you say there was much discussion of politics at the table?”
Lucy hesitated, very conscious of the awful weight of the oath she had sworn on her immortal soul. And also very much aware that Mr Oldham was on trial for his life. She had no particular affection for Oldham—she’d had better masters, and worse—but she didn’t think he deserved to hang.
Conversation had flowed freely during those dinner parties, most of Oldham’s regular guests being loud and outspoken men with decided opinions. There had been political talk, of course, but there had also been plenty of gossip, and later in the evening the conversation often degenerated into drunken singing. Lucy didn’t speak French, and neither did most of the men at that table, but everyone knew what “aristocrates à la lanterne” meant.
The alcohol was generally supplied by Mr Coyle, a wine merchant. Other regular guests included Mr Adamson, an attorney, Mr Chapman, a bookkeeper, and several of Mr Oldham’s fellow cabinet makers. They threw words about the place: parliamentary reform, constitutional societies, republican principles, universal brotherhood… Lucy had thought it was all just empty talk—until the arrests began. Since then, some of those men had fled the country, some were in gaol awaiting trial, and two had already been condemned to ten years’ transportation each.
“I didn’t pay the gentlemen much mind,” Lucy said. “They always had drink taken.”
The Solicitor-General’s brows came together in a frowning line. He was clearly trying to decide whether she was going to be a problem or not. She waited patiently, looking back at him with the same blank gaze she used when being reprimanded by Mrs Oldham or any of her previous employers. But inside, her stomach was beginning to churn with nerves. She had an instinctive fear of the law, which could sentence one man to death for stealing a sheep, while another was let off scot-free by a more benevolent judge.
“When the prisoner mentioned the King at these dinner parties, what did he say?”
“I don’t know that he ever mentioned the King, sir. My lord.”
“Never? I find that difficult to believe.”
She wasn’t being deliberately dishonest. She wouldn’t have dared. And of course, there had been plenty of talk of kings and republics at Oldham’s dinner table. Plenty of references to the fate of the King and Queen of France while Lucy was serving the soup or clearing away plates of fish bones. But she could not recall any specific statement Oldham might have made about the King of England.
The Solicitor-General’s gaze was fixed on her, two menacing eyes in a wine-red face, and she swallowed nervously. She wasn’t stupid. She knew perfectly well what he wanted her to say. He wanted to hear that Oldham had wished harm on the King. Compassed the King’s death, as they said. And never mind that if he had, it would have been in the privacy of his own home.
“Think, girl,” the barrister urged. “What did he say about the King?”
If she had been able to think of something, she would have said it, but her mind was blank. The weight of the entire courtroom’s expectations lay heavy on her shoulders, and she burst out, “He mentioned the Prince of Wales sometimes.”
“Yes, he, um, he said the Prince was getting fat and that Lady Jersey will throw him off like Mrs Fitzherbert already has.”
A ripple of laughter ran through the crowd. Lucy pressed her lips tightly together. If she’d been in the public gallery, she would have laughed too. But standing here in the witness stand with the ominous glower of three judges and several barristers on her, she could only curse her nervous tongue for running away with her.
The Solicitor-General cleared his throat and changed the subject.
“Miss Boone, we know that when the prisoner entertained visitors at his home, he would often recommend books to them, and even send you out to buy a copy for them. Is that correct?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Where did he send you?”
“To the bookseller’s on East Lane.”
“East Lane in Greenwich, that is to say? Just around the corner from the prisoner’s home?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“And what were the titles of these books?”
She was relieved to be able to answer honestly. “I don’t rightly know. He would give me a scrap of paper with the name on it.”
“You cannot read, I collect?”
She shook her head firmly. In truth, she had a fairly good idea of the content of those books. They had not been on display in the dusty little bookshop, and probably for very good reason. The bookseller had fetched them from his back room.
“Did the defendant ever give you printed literature to distribute to your friends?”
“No, my lord.”
“Did he ever try to engage you in conversation on political topics?”
“No, my lord.”
What was the point of those questions? To prove that men like Mr Oldham were a danger to the fabric of the nation, leading innocent servant girls astray? The truth was, Lucy hadn’t needed Mr Oldham to engage her in conversation—as though he ever would have!—in order to learn his opinions. She had ears, and she could follow the dinner-table conversation whenever she cared to pay attention. Mostly, she hadn’t cared to. As far as she understood, his principal wish was that men like him—artisans and tradesmen of the middling sort—should be allowed to vote for Parliament, and that was of no relevance to her, who possessed neither his sex nor his social class.
The Solicitor-General shuffled one sheet of paper behind another, as though to mark the start of a new line of questioning, and paused in a rather dramatic fashion before he next spoke.
“From the prisoner, or from anyone in the prisoner’s company, did you ever hear talk of gathering arms? Of pikes, for example, and how to construct them?”
A hush fell over the courtroom. They had reached the heart of the matter, the difference between empty words and violent intent. The question that could make the difference between life and death for Mr Oldham.
Before Mr Oldham’s arrest, Lucy had not been accustomed to follow the news of such things closely. She knew that in recent years there had been much more talk than previously of treason, sedition, and the like, but she had paid it no mind. These past few months, however, the butcher’s boy, the coalman, and the neighbour’s housemaid had not been behindhand in telling her that hundreds of men had been tried for such crimes in the past five years, and several dozen executed.
And of course, she had heard sensational tales of happenings in France: massacres in the streets and noblemen lined up for the guillotine. The butcher’s boy, in particular, took a great deal of grim satisfaction in sharing everything he had read in an illustrated penny pamphlet on the subject. The crowds in Paris had been armed with pikes, according to the stories, and, earlier in the trial, other witnesses had testified to the collection of pikes by Mr Oldham’s associates in Hampshire, men who had since fled to America. During the trial, Lucy had learnt that Oldham was closer to such men than she had ever realised.
“There was some talk of pikes,” she said carefully, because she couldn’t honestly say that there hadn’t been. “But only in passing, like.”
“What did the prisoner say?”
“Only that the French had used pikes, and that Englishmen might do the same in a similar situation.”
“And did he view that as a positive or a negative happenstance?”
“He didn’t say one way or the other, and nor did anyone else in the room.”
Privately, she didn’t think Oldham would have been averse to a violent uprising. But she wasn’t being asked for her opinion.
“Did you ever see any such weapons around the house?”
“No, my lord.”
There was a long pause.
“No further questions. The defence may question the witness.”
Mr Oldham indicated that he did not intend to do so. He was feverishly shuffling through his notes.
As Lucy left the stand, out of the corner of her eye she could see Mrs Oldham, pale and grim, in the front row of the public gallery. In her hands, the handkerchief Lucy had given her that morning was twisted into a tight ball, but her eyes were dry, her expression bleak.
Lucy had been the final witness, and now Mr Oldham rose to his feet to speak in his own defence.
“Gentlemen of the jury—” he began, as the court clerk ushered Lucy out of the room and the door swung shut behind her.
Outside in the corridor, Lucy took her seat on the bench by the wall with the other witnesses, relieved that the ordeal was over. She shut her eyes, leaning back against the hard stone blocks and letting the tension drain out of her, until she was limp as a wrung-out dishcloth. She had done nothing all day except sit waiting to be called to the witness stand, but she was as weary as though she had scrubbed layers of burnt sauce from a thousand pots and pans. With a tired hand, she tucked a stray scrap of hair under her cap and settled her neckerchief. She had worn her Sunday best—one of Mrs Oldham’s old gowns, taken in—and pinned her hair under her best cap, but now she felt sticky and grimy.
The corridor was hot and crowded, full of people who hadn’t been able to get a place in the public gallery or hadn’t been willing to pay the price of admission, but nevertheless had managed to weasel their way in here instead. One of the guards stood in the doorway to the courtroom, relaying information to those out in the corridor.
“The prisoner’s still going strong… Got a mouth on him, hasn’t he? Pity they won’t print the half of it in the newspapers… Oh! He’s sitting down now. The Lord Chief Justice is summing up the evidence for the jury. He likes to give them a firm line of guidance.” The guard was a young man with shinier brass buttons on his uniform than any of his colleagues, and he cast a self-satisfied look around at his captive audience. “I’ve been working here nigh on three years, you know. Many a time I’ve seen Lord Eyre summing up—”
“Stick to the point,” someone shouted.
The young man gave him a quelling look. After a pointed pause, he turned back to stick his head in the courtroom door again. “His Lordship is reminding the jury about the pikes.” He whistled through his teeth. “Looks black, looks very black.” He paused a moment. “The jury’s debating the verdict now. Prisoner’s still in the dock, standing up straight, waiting to hear the verdict. Can’t fault his nerve, I’ll say that for him. Is that his missus up in the gallery with the blue cloak? Looks a bit peaky, she does.”
If Oldham were transported, his wife would accompany him to the far side of the world. If he were hanged… Lucy suppressed a shudder. As for an acquittal, there seemed little chance of that. She knew other witnesses had given far more damning evidence than she had: seditious tracts Oldham had penned, and known association with men who had been plotting armed insurrection along the lines of what had happened in France—and what was happening in Ireland right now, if the rumours were to be believed, with the country in open rebellion and the French landing on the west coast.
She wondered what that was like—to be so convinced of something as to be willing to go to gaol or the scaffold for it. And it all seemed so pointless. Talk wouldn’t change the world. Neither would any action she or even Oldham could undertake.
Meanwhile, Lucy would soon be on the streets without a roof over her head and her only character reference from an employer who had been convicted of sedition.
She closed her eyes and tried to rest. Stupid, irrelevant things kept popping into her head: the packet of fish that she usually collected from the fishmongers on Church Street every Tuesday and Thursday—she hadn’t been there this morning, and she had forgotten to cancel the order; the fireplace in the upstairs bedroom, which she hadn’t cleaned out in almost a week now; the porcelain jug Mrs Oldham had broken this morning in a fit of nerves.
“Jury’s coming back in,” the guard announced after less than half an hour had passed. Was that a good sign or an ominous portent of disaster?
A hush fell over the crowd in the corridor. Some people began pushing and shoving in an attempt to get closer to the door, and several scuffles broke out.
“The verdict’s been announced. Guilty as charged.”
There were boos and hisses and a scattering of applause.
They had to wait another twenty minutes to hear the sentence. The young guard announced it with grim satisfaction to the gathered crowd. “Ten years’ transportation.”
Lucy slumped back in her seat, feeling dazed. Exhaustion made her weak, almost as though she herself had been on trial.
The noise from the courtroom was spilling out into the corridor, the buzz of excited conversation overlaying the clatter of feet as people began to make their way out into the street. Mr Oldham’s trial had lasted almost three days, and it was now late in the afternoon.
Lucy took a deep breath. She didn’t know what would become of her now, but she pushed that problem aside. She could worry about it later. For the moment, she had a more urgent, if less significant, problem. She had been promised a lift back to Greenwich by Jack Cobb, who ran a carrier service into London and often stopped at the Old Bailey to enjoy an afternoon’s entertainment. He had, of course, been particularly interested in Oldham’s trial because of the connection to Greenwich, the village where both he and Oldham lived. Lucy feared that if she made Cobb wait too long, he would leave without her, and she would be facing an hour and a half’s walk home.
It took her a good twenty minutes to get out of the courthouse, through the crush of bodies streaming out onto the street. As she wriggled through the crowd towards the place where she was supposed to meet Jack Cobb, someone caught her arm. She turned, trying to shake them off, but stopped when she saw a tall, rather grim-faced woman whom she recognised: the clockmender Hannah Croft.
Mr Oldham specialised in the manufacture of cabinets in the Chippendale style, but he was sometimes called upon to rehouse timepieces or barometers. If the internal mechanism also needed repairing, he sent the instrument to a pair of Greenwich clockmenders. It had been Lucy who answered the door to them whenever they came to Oldham’s workshop. The most frequent caller was Molly Painter, a cheerful, flaxen-haired woman, but sometimes she sent her associate, Hannah Croft.
“May I speak to you a moment?” Miss Croft asked.
Lucy eyed her warily. Hannah Croft was a tall woman, plainly but neatly dressed in a muted blue. Her expression was stern, and her only sign of humanity was a hint of dark hair escaping from under her black stuff bonnet. She and Lucy had spoken before, very occasionally, at Mr Oldham’s workshop. Or rather, Lucy had tried to speak to her, but Miss Croft rarely had much to say for herself, unlike her chatty partner, Molly Painter. Many of the artisans and mechanics who worked with Mr Oldham considered themselves to be a cut above the housemaid, but Miss Painter had always been willing to linger a few minutes and gossip with Lucy.
“You find yourself without employment,” Miss Croft said, in a clipped, abrupt tone.
“Not for long, I’m sure,” Lucy said, with solid optimism that she didn’t feel.
“I fear your association with William Oldham will prove a disadvantage. Believe me, I speak from experience.”
Lucy eyed her warily. She knew perfectly well she would be haunted by her association with the Oldhams, but she didn’t see how that was any concern of Hannah Croft’s. “That’s what you want to speak to me about? Because I cannot dawdle here—” Jack Cobb had perhaps already left without her.
“I must beg your help,” Miss Croft blurted out. “My friend Molly Painter—she’s in gaol. She was caught up in the arrest of a Jacobin club in Southwark.”
Lucy stared, taken aback. “I didn’t realise…”
“She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s all,” Miss Croft said quickly. “She and I were members of a penny reading club that met in the same tavern as the Jacobins.”
“I’m sorry to hear about Miss Painter,” Lucy said cautiously. And she was genuinely sorry. “But I don’t see what that has to do with me.”
“Most of the people arrested at the same time have already been released. But she’s still in gaol because she’s known to have links to William Oldham. Her name is in his account books. If you could testify that she never associated with him politically—that she called to his house purely on business—”
Lucy hesitated. Her instinctive reaction was to fear getting involved. “I suppose, but—”
“Please. I beg you. It could make a world of difference.”
Hannah Croft had always been something of an enigma to Lucy. The few scraps of information that Lucy had about her came via Molly Painter: that they’d had their own workshop together, somewhere near Greenwich Docks, for the past six years; that in addition to their repair work, they also wound the clocks of many of Greenwich’s wealthier inhabitants; that they’d repaired the clockface on St Alban’s Tower two years earlier, and Miss Croft had climbed up the scaffolding herself.
The first time Lucy had seen Hannah Croft, she had been in Oldham’s workshop, sweeping the sawdust that littered the floor and humming to herself. She had looked up to find an unknown woman standing in the doorway, one hand on the doorframe and her gaze on Lucy. Their eyes had met, and the woman, to Lucy’s surprise and fascination, had blushed, colour creeping slowly up into her sallow cheeks.
Curiosity stirred in Lucy’s breast under the intensity of that gaze. She smiled at the woman, who cleared her throat and asked for Mr Oldham. Intrigued, Lucy had thought—hoped—that there was some significance to that moment. But it seemed she had been wrong. Her subsequent attempts to engage Hannah Croft in conversation had never met with success. In their half-dozen subsequent meetings, Miss Croft had seemed cool and colourless, and—unlike Molly Painter—she never stayed to chat.
But now, standing in front of the Old Bailey, her voice held a note of animation that Lucy had never heard there before, and her expression was anxious as she waited for Lucy’s response.
“I need to think on it. Indeed I will think on it, I promise,” Lucy said. The crowd had thinned now, and she caught sight of Jack Cobb, sitting up on the box of his cart, exchanging words with one of the men lounging around outside the courthouse. “But I must go now.” She took a step backwards.
“Wait,” Miss Croft said quickly. “One other thing. What I said a moment ago, about losing your situation… I don’t know if you have anyone else to turn to, but if I can help, let me know.”
“In exchange for helping you and Miss Painter?”
She would have thought that was the obvious assumption, but Hannah Croft’s eyes widened in surprise. She said awkwardly, “No, I didn’t mean that. I merely—”
“All right. Understood. Thank you.” Miss Croft doubtless meant well, but Lucy didn’t mean to be beholden to anyone. She had made it her life’s philosophy to rely on no one but herself. “I’ll bear it in mind.” Jack Cobb was alone now and looking about him with an air of impatience. “Goodbye, Miss Croft.”
“You can find me in Skinner’s Court,” Miss Croft called as Lucy hurried off, raising a hand in acknowledgement.
Jack Cobb had a few disagreeable words for her about having made him wait, but he soon left off grumbling. He was more interested in sharing his thoughts on the day’s happenings.
“His missus took his sentencing very calmly, didn’t she?” he said as he turned his cart towards Greenwich. He sounded almost disappointed. “There was a woman fainted just last week when her fellow was sentenced to death. Convicted of forgery.”
For a few minutes, he shared a choice selection of the gory details of that trial, but soon returned to the subject of the Oldhams.
“Suppose they’ll be giving up the house soon,” he mused as his cart rumbled across the river. “Pity. Oldham was one of my best customers, but since he’s been in gaol he’s been damn-all use to me. I can’t transport his cabinets if he’s not making them, now, can I?”
He chuckled to himself, and Lucy made a vague noise of assent.
“Mind, you’ll be out of a job soon too, won’t you? Where will you go?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Lucy said shortly. She had no desire to discuss her business with Jack Cobb.
He shot her a shrewd look. “I expect none of the good folks of Greenwich want to touch you with a bargepole, eh? But I hear old Mother Simons is looking for a drudge to scrub her floors, and she’s not particular.” He laughed heartily at his own wit, Mrs Simons being the proprietor of a house of ill repute near Greenwich’s Billingsgate Dock.
Lucy did not deign to answer this.
When he had finished laughing, he said more seriously, “You’d be better off leaving Greenwich. Go where nobody knows you.”
She ignored him. She took advice from no one, man or woman. And in any case, she had already privately resolved to leave Greenwich and try her luck in Southwark. Not that she expected Mr Oldham’s trial to have been a subject of less notoriety there than in his village of residence. But Southwark was much larger than Greenwich, and she thought it was time for a change. Maybe she wouldn’t even stay in service.
The cart trundled on, the town giving way to the countryside. She turned away from Jack Cobb and dreamt of the future. If nobody in Greenwich wanted anything to do with her, that was their loss, and she was determined it would be her gain.