Nathaniel’s Bloodline by Peter Blakeborough
Published by Gypsy Books, New Zealand and distributed as an e-book by Smashwords.com
London, England, 1786
Twelve-year-old Nathaniel Archer watched the small, dirty, once blonde, street urchin edge forward to where she could strike quickly and make a hasty retreat while the barrow man’s attention was focused on a customer.
Nathaniel had seen her before near the markets. He remembered her cheeky grin and her apparent determination to survive in one of the world’s cruellest cities for the down-and-out. In spite of the desperately hard life that she led there was something special about her. He thought she would make a good friend and he certainly needed a friend, someone he could trust and depend on when the going got tough, which was pretty much every minute of the day and night.
From a position to one side he watched her pounce on some apples. With a large rosy red one in each hand she melted back into the crowd. But the sharp-eyed trader saw her and gave chase. Nathaniel pounced on the barrow, helped himself and shouted at the barrow man to bring him rushing back, while the girl made her escape. He ran for his life in the opposite direction and soon outran the older man. Later he saw the girl hiding in a dismal garbage-strewn alley on the other side of the block.
‘Why’d yer do that?’ she asked, still gasping for breath and looking furtively back at the corner.
‘Cos we all be in the same bleedin’ pickle.’
‘Makes sense, I suppose. What be yer name?’
‘Nathaniel Archer. What be yours?’
‘Isobel. Most me family is dead, some hung at Tyburn, others from the consumption an’ fever. Whadda bout you?’
‘Yeah, ’bout the same. Me pa went to sea an’ never came back. Don’t know what happened. Me ma was murdered. It were ’orrible. Took to me scrapers an’ been on the street ever since. It’s a bleedin’ ’ard life, ain’t it?’
They sat down together with their backs against a dirty old brick wall and finished their apples. The sky was overcast and a bone-chilling wind swept along the alley.
‘Yeah, but it beats bein’ dead, don’t it?’ she said with a cheeky grin.
Nathaniel thought about that while he wiped his runny nose on his tattered sleeve.
‘Anythin’ beats bein’ dead. Sometimes I think it’s gonna be different some day. Yer know a warm ’ouse, ’ot tucker, flash clothes. Maybe some far off place where the sun shines all day an’ folks cares – maybe in that place they call the New World. I’ll bet there ain’t none homeless urchins in the New World – wherever that be.’
Nathaniel turned to look at his new friend.
‘How old is yer?’
‘Think I’s about twelve. We could be friends an’ watch out like friends do.’
‘Yer already best friend I got.’
Her nose was running continuously too and she wiped it on her ragged sleeve. She pushed her knotted hair out of her eyes to get a better look at him.
‘Yeah, I has dreams too sometimes. While we ’as dreams, we ’as ’ope and when we stop dreamin’ we’ll finish up like those miserable folks at Tyburn. They ’ad another hangin’ there last week. Someone said there was two an’ twenty o’ them strung up together and a bigger crowd o’ onlookers ain’t been seen in years.’
‘An’ when they finished they left ’em hangin’ fer the maggots as a lesson t’ others. I seen other hangin’s at the Tyburn gallows an’ that’s what they done then too.’
‘Friggin’ mad, ain’t it?’
‘Yeah, I ain’t sure how many two hundred be, but they say that’s how many crimes folks can be strung up for.’
‘Yeah, folks only steal to live. Rich don’t understand that. They’ve never ’ad to steal to live.’
‘They steal too, but they steal cos they be greedy.’
The breeze accelerated and the temperature in alley dropped sharply as the light began to fade. A stormy night was looming.
‘Think I’ll be off to me shelter,’ she said with her signature grin.
‘What yer got?’ he enquired.
‘A barrel and some newspaper. Pity I can’t read like them rich folks.’
‘I seen a cosy place ’tween a wall an’ a shop. Must be a snug place if the number o’ rats be any thing to go by. See yer, Isobel.’
‘Yeah, see yer, Nathaniel.’
The next day they met again near another market. Isobel was excited as she shared a secret with Nathaniel.
‘Look at this.’ She opened her hand to reveal a silver two-shilling piece. ‘Reckon it’ll keep us goin’ fer a while, if we share it.’
‘I’m startin’ t’ like yer, Isobel. I think you’re me best friend. How’d yer get it?’
Isobel gave her cheeky grin.
‘Ain’t I yer only friend?’ she asked quickly with a grin before going on. ‘It were dropped accidental like an’ I scooped it up an’ ran fer me friggin’ life.’
‘We could get two dinners at a steak ’ouse fer that, but then it’d be all gone. If we got a loaf o’ bread an’ some jam you’d still ’ave most of it. Wouldn’t cost more ’n about four pence. Me ma used to say she didn’t know what the world was comin’ to wid the price o’ everythin’ goin’ up so.’
A week later Nathaniel was caught by a sharp-eyed baker as he tried to steal a loaf of bread. The baker dragged him to the lock-up and the next morning he was taken before a magistrate.
Appearing in court was a terrifying and bewildering experience for the young lad. A large crowd of complainants, creditors and others jostled for space on the floor of the courtroom. Overlooking the crowded floor and filled with eager spectators were two public galleries supported by ornately decorated pillars. A huge two-tiered chandelier with dozens of lighted candles hung from a chain over the centre of the floor. Nathaniel looked furtively around the courtroom trying to understand what was happening. An important looking man in an unusual white hat that hung around his ears was glaring at him in a most disapproving manner. Another man nearby barked at him.
‘Nathaniel Archer, ye are charged with the crime of stealing goods to the value of three pennies and one half. How plead thee?’ the clerk of the court asked in a stern voice.
‘I dunno, mister.’
‘Did thee do it, lad?’ the man in the white hat growled.
Nathaniel’s eyes darted from the clerk to the magistrate. In his confusion he forgot the question.
‘Do what, mister?’
The magistrate’s face reddened as he reached for his flask, removed the top and prepared to take a consoling swig. The flask stopped inches from his mouth and he glared at the dirty youth and roared angrily.
‘First I tell thee, Archer, you will not address me as mister. To thee it will be your honour, or sir. Ye will answer all questions speedily and truthfully and ye shall not ask questions.’ The magistrate looked at the prosecutor. ‘Is this another of the wretched Archer mob that we dealt with earlier this day?’
‘No, your honour, the lad is unrelated.’
‘Has he got a family?’
‘Evidently not, your honour. He seems to know little of his father. His mother was a prostitute who was murdered a year or two ago. He lives on the streets, sir.’
‘Yes, yes, and so do a million others. We’ve heard it all before. The city seems overrun with the likes of him. They are all the same. There’s no hope for any of them. They shouldn’t be allowed to breed. Well, at least, if he’s not related to those other Archers, he’s got that in his favour. I shall treat him with the greatest leniency.’ He paused to take the delayed swig of brandy while he considered a suitable course of action. Again he glared at the young prisoner and thumped his gavel down on the bench.
‘Change his name, mister clerk, so there’ll be no confusion; otherwise he’ll likely hang as one of them. He asks too many questions… Call him… Yes, call him Asker.’
‘As it pleases your honour.’
‘Now, tell me, Asker. How do ye plead? Are ye guilty, or not guilty?’
‘I only took some bread because I was hungry, sir.’
‘So ye admit ye took the bread?’
‘Suppose so, sir.’
The magistrate rapped his gavel on the bench again.
‘Then I find thee guilty as charged. What’s thy name, lad?’
‘Nathaniel Asker, sir.’
‘Nathaniel Asker. It is therefore ordered that ye be transported beyond the seas, to such place as His Majesty, by the advice of His Privy Council, shall think fit… Burrrp! For a term of not less than seven years and that will surely be the new penal colony at New Holland. Did I not promise leniency, lad? If ye had been of the Archer ilk that earlier appeared before me, like them, you would be now preparing to swing from the gallows at Tyburn. Take him away.’
Nathaniel’s Bloodline by Peter Blakeborough
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