The Pursuit of Mary McBride
Click on image to enlarge.
by Bruce Cooke
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: Rebecca McBride hates her husband Michael. She hates him because he rapes her and beats her. She hates him because he married her, not for love, but because he needed someone to keep his house and warm his bed. Most of all she hates him because he sold her daughter in marriage to a brute of a man, taking her away from her home and the man she loves. Now Mary and her new husband have disappeared into the Australian Outback, and Rebecca has no idea where they are. The only thing she knows is that she must find and rescue her daughter. She must bring Mary back to civilization and the people who love her, so Rebecca and Mary's boyfriend, Campbell, take off into the Australian frontier in pursuit of Mary McBride.
eBook Publisher: Swimming Kangaroo Books, 2008 2008
eBookwise Release Date: September 2008
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [355 KB]
Reading time: 233-327 min.
The three bodies hanging on the scaffold brought little comfort for their well-being. They were still suspended by their necks, moving slowly in the breeze, their arms still tied behind them, their legs three feet above the ground where they had undoubtedly kicked until they slowly strangled to death. Crows sat on the scaffold, waiting to feast on any other morsel available since their eyes had gone. They had been there for over a week and left to rot as an example to others not to break the laws of society, even though their crimes may have been minor. Rebecca Smith noted one was a woman of perhaps thirty, her face turning black, her breasts visible for all to see, and she wondered what her crime had been.
The prisoners were taken to the court, but Rebecca's confidence in the outcome of her trial wasn't shaken. She fidgeted uncomfortably as she sat on the hard wooden bench in the bowels of the old Bailey, waiting with eight other women for her trial to begin. A depressing room, she thought, solely designed to make the defendants feel intimidated before they even faced the court. The cold grey building had seen many a prisoner brought before the bench to face English justice, with unfortunate results.
She watched apprehensively as a large cockroach scampered over the floor, only to be crushed under the boot of the grinning guard. The smirk on his face gave her the feeling she might be next.
Three times in six months they had been brought before Sir George Cavendish. It seemed to be a regular appearance, and as usual, she expected the result to be the mandatory five pounds fine. After all, wasn't Sir George one of her best customers, as were most of London's gentry? The bordello was well known to the gentry, and those who could afford the prices usually went away well satisfied.
Just a chance to get away from their prudish wives was enough to draw their custom. Where else could the delights of naked young flesh be so readily available with the added bonus of the excitement provided by these young nymphs?
The disgrace of a Lord or Magistrate pursuing the kitchen maid for carnal delights would bring gossip all over London Town. So the temptation of the high-class whores, all indeed beautiful, and who lavished the attention men sought but never received from their middle and upper class wives, was reward in itself.
It mattered not if their stomachs hung over their trousers, or their heads resembled a baby's bottom, they were each treated as royalty, making most more than willing to pay dearly for the pleasure.
London was not the ideal place to live in 1832. Only those well versed with society and with sufficient funds to warrant the position enjoyed life. For the majority of the population, it was a matter of living on one's wits, something Rebecca had learned from the moment nine years before when she had been deserted by her father at the tender age of ten. * * * *
When her mother had died suddenly, her father wasn't prepared to hinder his way of life by being saddled with a sniveling child and just never returned to the rat-infested room they had called home. She quickly learned that to survive, one had to steal and deal with all sorts of unsavory characters in streets filled with orphans, thieves, pickpockets, footpads, and murderers.
After starving on the street week in and week out, she found the one act of kindness that actually saved her life. Scavenging through refuse thrown in the lane at the back of a brothel one cold winter's day, she felt the strong hand of the madam grab her by the collar. The other urchins with her ran off, but Rebecca slipped on an icy patch, turned her ankle and fell to the ground directly under the baleful stare of the woman. A light snow fell gently. The woman scowled as she brought her to her feet.
"And who might you be, girl?" she said with arms folded, towering over the frightened child.
"Rebecca Smith, lady. I weren't doin' no harm."
The woman turned up her nose. "And just what is it you were trying to steal?"
"I weren't tryin' to steal nuthin. I'm just hungry."
"How old are you, girl?" The woman looked frightening with her hands now on her hips, looking down at the trembling child. Rebecca gulped quickly, expecting the wrath of the woman.
"Twelve, I think, lady."
"And where do you live?"
"I don't live nowhere. I just sleeps where I can find a spot."
"In the gutter, by the smell of you. I gather you're an orphan."
Rebecca watched the women exaggerate the motion of extracting some foul smell with her nose.
"Me mum died a couple of years back. Me dad ran orf an' left me."
The woman sighed. She knew only too well children of that age had little hope of reaching adulthood. A whore she might be, but she herself had been in much the same position when she was twelve, and her heart went out to the children in similar circumstances.
"I think you had better come in and have something to eat, and perhaps a good wash," she said, averting her nose.
Rebecca jumped at the offer and followed the woman into the house. Her eyes opened wide when a bowl of hot broth was placed in front of her with a slice of fresh bread. She gripped the bowl tightly and shoveled the hot broth into her mouth as though afraid this pleasure would be taken from her.
The woman carefully studied her features as Rebecca ate. A thin, undernourished body supported the clothes she wore, which were nothing more than rags. A pretty child with long, unkempt dark hair, and big, bright brown eyes. However, even at twelve it was obvious to Claire, someone who had a talent for such observations, that Rebecca was going to be a very attractive woman--that is, if she ever reached adulthood.
"Do you know what this place is, Rebecca?" She stood with her arms folded but had a soft look as she spoke to the child.
Rebecca in turn appeared to study her, as well. Claire took in the young girl's eyes taking in her fine clothes. She gave the little one a smile to reassure her she meant her no harm.
"It's a men's club, isn't it?" Rebecca paused only for a second in her assault on the bowl of broth, her fingers turning white and grasping the spoon tightly.
The woman laughed heartily at Rebecca's innocence.
"You could call it that, for it's the name upon the door. The London Club for Gentlemen is a place where men come for pleasure, a pleasure only women can give them."
Rebecca paused from her assault on the broth. "You mean, you serves them drinks and food."
"Drinks and food? And a little more than that," she said, laughing at the innocent comment.
"What else, then?" Rebecca continued to eat, speaking between mouthfuls.
"Why, the warmth of a woman's body. Of course, they are willing to pay for such comfort. Do you understand what I mean?" She waited for a reply, not knowing if the child really did understand.
Rebecca nodded, understanding perfectly. "I've seen the whores open their legs for men in the streets. Some say they get three pence for doing it."
Claire laughed loudly. "I daresay they do, my dear, but this is a class establishment, and we only entertain the very best of society."
"You mean, you get more than three pence?"
The woman tightened her lips in an amused smile. "Considerably more. How would you like to work for me?"
"Doin' what?" asked Rebecca. She raised one eyebrow as she stared at the woman.
"Cleaning the rooms and helping in the kitchen. I will pay you two shillings a week and feed you."
"Cor!" gasped Rebecca. "Can I have somewhere to sleep, as well?"
"There's a cellar. You can sleep there on a bunk. However, you must follow certain conditions."
Claire took on a stern approach. "There must be no stealing, and you must never mention any gentleman's name away from this establishment. To do so would mean you would be back on the street at once. I will provide you with more presentable clothes, and you must bathe at least once a week."
"Can I sleep here tonight?"
"Of course. I'll arrange for your bath and get you some clothes. The sooner we get rid of those rags, the better, and you can start work at once."
Rebecca hesitated. "What does I call you, lady?"
"You call me Miss Thomas. We'll see how things work out." * * * *
Later, Rebecca lay back naked in the tub, enjoying the warmth of the water. Pleased to be off the streets fighting to stay alive with the rest of the urchins, she was comforted by the fact that she at least had a roof over her head and food to eat. * * * *
For four years she worked at the brothel, doing her chores diligently, making sure to finish her chores exactly the way Claire Thomas expected. She watched the girls come and go with great envy and longed to wear some of the clothes they displayed.
"How much do the girls get for each customer, Claire?" she asked one day. Claire allowed Rebecca to address her by her first name now since Rebecca had become a favorite of the establishment.
"The gentlemen pay one sovereign and I get half, Rebecca. Why do you ask?"
"I wouldn't mind having some money to buy dresses like the girls have."
She watched as Claire studied her critically. Rebecca was actually a year older than Claire had been when she had begun the profession.
"Sit down, child, while we talk. Whoring is an honorable trade, Rebecca, providing it's done in an establishment such as The Gentleman's Club. When it's done on the streets with the scum of London, it's dangerous. You're very pretty and could be an asset to my establishment, but you need the guidance I'm willing to offer you, along with the other girls here. I want none of you caught with a bun in the oven."
"I'll do whatever you tell me, Claire," Rebecca said enthusiastically. The thought of making big money was tempting.
"I suppose it's ridiculous to ask if you can read or write."
Rebecca looked down, her head bowed, and her cheeks felt flushed.
"Then, you'll have to learn. I want no illiterate girls working for me."
"I'd like to learn, Ma'am."
Some of the girls had told her they made eight sovereigns a week. She really wanted to get into that sort of money.
"Very well. First, you must make the men think you consider them to be the most wonderful lovers, no matter how bad they might be. Some of them will be over fifty, maybe older, but you must learn to ignore their age and their appearance."
"I've seen some of them. Sometimes, they can hardly get up the stairs."
"Men like to look upon a naked female body and to touch your titties. At all times, you must smile and always tell them how magnificent their manhood is, even if they're as small as a terrier's stumpy tail. Encourage them to take some wine and engage them in conversation as best you can, always agreeing with them."
"And when they're finished?"
"You stay with them until they're ready to go, or until they fall asleep. You never, never steal from them. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Rebecca nodded.
Claire touched her chin with her finger. "Have you been with a man, or with one of those street urchins?"
"No, Ma'am, not yet."
"Good. Then it's time for you to learn a trick or two the proper way." Claire disappeared into the pantry, returning with a fresh carrot, which she handed to Rebecca. "I'll use this to demonstrate some skills you'll find useful if you are to succeed in this business."
What Clare could do with a carrot astonished Rebecca, and so her lessons began. She learned how to please a man with both her body and her mouth. She learned how to flatter and admire and appear interested in him alone. At first, she was clumsy, but Claire guided her in the right direction, and she became most skilful in the art of whoring. She spent three days a week learning how to read and write, and engage in sensible conversation.
During breakfast, Claire discussed current events with the other girls to enable them to converse with the customers on their own level. Until then, Rebecca had known nothing of the affairs of France and its relationship with England, the discovery of the new country by Captain James Cook, and of the transportation of English prisoners to the Colony.
Three months later saw her ready for her initiation into the working side of the brothel, and her first customer was a seventy-year-old man of some influence among the gentry. Although the action was somewhat brief, her conversation and friendly attitude delighted the man, and he praised her talents both to Claire and to other likely customers.
Word soon spread about the new girl at the London Club, and she became much sought after, entertaining some of the most respected men of the community, Sir George Cavendish included. Claire made sure she kept up her lessons in reading and writing, a task she relished. * * * *
When she reached nineteen, Rebecca was the toast of the town, and all the gentry wished to have this beautiful whore. However, a change in government brought a more severe view of the moral fiber of the London community. Orders issued were meant to keep the whorehouses in check, much to the chagrin of some of the clubs' patrons. Twice, the Gentleman's Club had been raided, with most of the girls arrested. The fine in each case had been five pounds; a sum easily earned back over two nights by each of the girls. It became a standing joke with bets taken as to when the next raid would be held just to make the law appear to be working.
The latest raid had occurred near midnight, and the chief constable came in red-faced when he had to face Claire.
"Sorry, Miss Claire, my orders are to make an arrest."
"I understand, Patrick," she said, smiling. "I expect to see you here tomorrow night."
"Wouldn't miss it for the world. This time, I have to arrest all the girls."
"What? The whole eight of them?" Claire was appalled.
"Yeah, don't worry. The case will be held tomorrow, and they'll be back working by tomorrow night."
Claire sighed. "This is really an inconvenience, Patrick. I have several men from the legal fraternity coming tomorrow."
"I'm sure it will just be the usual fine, and then they'll be free to leave." * * * *
The group sat patiently waiting for their case to come before the bench.
A fine was but a small irritation when one considered that the penalty for stealing by a member of the lower class was to be shipped off to Van Dieman's land in the New World.
The girls sat talking as they waited for their call, each laughing and telling of the men they had and of the nonsense some of them spoke about. None appeared worried. Rebecca's instincts told her something was not quite right. Earlier, she'd been confident as to the outcome, but a doubt now crept into her mind. The atmosphere in the courtroom was subdued, whereas other times it had been more jovial.
"It's a wonder Sir George can keep a straight face when 'e fines us," one said. "He had me twice last week."
"Time to go, girls," called the guard, and they entered the dock as a group.
When Rebecca saw who was sitting on the bench, her heart raced."Oh Gawd, it's Puritan Perc," she gasped. "Where's Sir George?" she whispered to the man who had led them in.
"He's in bed sick. Has been for a couple of days. Sir Percival Tait has been taking 'is cases. Been real nasty to the prisoners, he 'as, too."
Rebecca gripped the railing of the dock, a feeling of doom overtaking her.
Sir Percival Tait, or Puritan Perc as he was known, was renowned for his stern discipline and drastic punishment of unfortunate prisoners found guilty of any crime. His nickname came about because of his deep study of the Bible and the harsh line he took with those he considered to have broken God's law. He considered it his duty to protect the God-fearing members of society from the evil clutches of those sinners.
Rebecca watched him as he listened to the evidence; his grey wig not moving, his face masked with a blank expression as he stared at the eight girls clustered in the dock. Rebecca saw his scan fall on her. I wish he'd attended the club, she thought. Maybe he'd have had a smile on his face to give us some comfort and hope for a light sentence.
Perc looked at the sheet placed in front of him and read it slowly. "Apart from whoring, Bailiff, is there any other crime of which these women are accused?"
"Yes, M'Lord. One of their customers has complained that ten sovereigns were stolen from his purse while attending the establishment."
Rebecca gasped. This couldn't be right. This was the first she had heard of a theft in the bordello. To steal always meant instant dismissal. Claire had made that very clear from the beginning
"And is the gentleman present to give evidence?" asked Sir Percy.
"Yes, M'Lord, he is."
The girls all looked to see the accuser. A short, stout man entered the witness box and took the oath. Rebecca recognized him from two nights before. While she hadn't served the man, she was aware of his bad temper and his abuse of the girl who had. Claire had asked him to leave and not return. Rebecca remembered him leaving red-faced from the laughter of the other customers.
"And what have you to say, sir?" asked Sir Percy.
"Firstly, I'd like to keep my name suppressed to save embarrassment for other people, M'Lord."
The judge cleared his throat and looked around. To show favoritism would be frowned upon. "Very well. We'll call you Mr. Brown for the sake of the court. Now, your evidence please?"
"Two nights ago, I attended the London's Gentleman's Club and was entertained by one of the accused."
"Could you point her out?'
The man pointed his finger at the girl next to Rebecca, and she paled visibly.
"While she was entertaining me, my purse was taken and ten sovereigns removed. I didn't notice the theft until I returned home. It's obvious the money was shared by all of them as they were most anxious for me to leave the premises."
"That's a lie," said Rebecca, jumping to her feet and slamming her fist on the front of the dock. "He was thrown out for abuse."
A murmur of disapproval ran over the people watching. One didn't shout at the judge.
"Be quiet, woman. Are you suggesting that someone as honorable as Mr. Brown would commit perjury?"
Rebecca became a little subdued. "Yes, M'Lord. No one has ever had anything stolen from the Gentleman's Club since I have been there. I suggest the gentleman is telling fibs."
"The word of a whore carries little credibility in this court. I find you all guilty. Have you anything to say?" he addressed the girls, who had now abandoned their frivolity.
All were stunned by the verdict. They looked at each other with blank expressions before answering.
"No, M'Lord," each answered as they braced themselves for his verdict.
"I find you each guilty of offences against the common decency of the citizens of London and the Crown. This crime of whoring must be stamped out, and I intend to come down heavily against those found guilty of such crimes. It matters not to me whether you are sluts of the street or whores serving a higher clientele; you must be taught that this sort of profession won't be tolerated. Are there any previous convictions?" he asked the clerk.
"Please read them so all may hear."
"Patricia Stock, four previous convictions, Rebecca Smith, two convictions, Madeleine Fishwick, one conviction, Elizabeth Baker two convictions, Marybelle Burly, four convictions. Alice Green, Charlotte Spriggs, Vivien Allsop and Eileen Murphy have no recorded convictions, M'Lord."
"Very well. It appears you have all ignored the warnings set by previous court appearances, warnings you should have heeded. Sadly, whoring isn't a transportable offense; however, stealing is and this, added to your poor record, leaves me no alternative.
"Alice Green, Charlotte Spriggs, Vivien Allsop and Eileen Murphy, you are sentenced to six months in Newgate prison and twenty lashes each, to be carried out on arrival. Patricia Stock, Rebecca Smith, Madeline Fishwick and Elizabeth Baker, you are each sentenced to seven years imprisonment at his Majesty's Penal Colony in New South Wales. At the completion of your sentence, you will not be permitted to return to England for a period of fourteen years, giving you a total of twenty-one years, which will give you ample time to consider your sins against God's law and the law of the realm."
He slammed his gavel hard on the bench and shouted, "Next case."
Each girl was clearly stunned by the verdict. Rebecca sat silently, taking in the sentence imposed. She gave a shudder at the thought of transportation to the other side of the world. There would be no comforts there. For a second, she thought it was some sort of a stupid joke. The judge didn't mean it; he couldn't have. He said whoring wasn't a transportable offense, but stealing was. She became aware of the chatter of the crowd after the sentence. Why wasn't Claire there to speak for them? Of course, she'd expected the usual mandatory fine.
Bile came to Rebecca's throat, and she wanted to vomit. Seven years was a life sentence as far as she was concerned. Her life of luxury was over now.
Outside, the prison wagon waited. It was as if the sentence had been expected. The jailers grinned as they were herded into the cage of the wagon.
"Get in, ladies. A nice cell awaits you. No warm beds, but we can be very accommodating."
Rebecca noted how they stared at the women's bosoms, and one slapped her on the backside as she entered. It was obvious they expected favors once the women were inside the prison.
The girls were led away to begin their sentences. The four sentenced to a flogging had tears streaming down their cheeks, but those sentenced to New South Wales were too stunned to cry. Silently, they filed into the prison wagon to Newgate to await their departure, knowing the comfortable life they'd led was now at an end.
One burst into tears, and Rebecca put her arm around her to comfort her. It didn't help; the girl continued sobbing.