“Make way for the prisoners!” the gaoler cried out.
The burly man in the stained linen shirt and wool breeches marched forward, dragging a heavy chain as he went. Behind him, their hands bound in heavy manacles that were each connected in line by a length of similar chain, shuffled four men, struggling with each step due to the heavy iron cuffs that bound their ankles.
The crowds of merry onlookers outside the jail parted and the chatter died down to a low hum of a whisper. The men were led out into the square, their feet sinking in the mud made by a heavy rain the night before. They limped their way to a low wooden railing that had been put up in the square, then the gaoler fastened the chain with a heavy iron lock to prevent them from bolting on foot.
“Names?” a bored-looking magistrate droned nasally to the gaoler, looking down at his book with his quill poised over the page. His barrister’s wig had already begun to wilt in the heat of the day and the humid air from the previous rainfall. His expression was equally tired and unpleasant to look at.
“Your Honor, I am Lucius, Duke of Evergreen, and I demand to be released at once,” Lucius called out, but the rest of his words were drowned out by the mocking cries from the crowd.
The magistrate banged his gavel against the crudely hewn woodblock that sat upon his makeshift bench. He looked up from his book and his ice-cold blue eyes bored directly into Lucius’ own. He raised one corner of his mouth in a disdainful sneer.
“You, Mister Wentworth, shall not speak until such time as I request to hear from you. As for your demands, you will find you have even less authority to demand anything than you have these past five months in the gaol.”
“You dare to speak to me this way?” Lucius roared, but he was silenced when the gaoler lumbered over to him and cracked him across the back of the head with his club. The crowd jeered at the man’s punishment.
“Might I remind you, Mr. Wentworth, that you relinquished your titles and your properties to your son upon your arrest in order to avoid having them seized by the Crown?” the magistrate said, speaking louder now. “You are now no more important than any man who appears before this humble court. Having read the particulars of the charges before you, I would even daresay you are in quite a bit more of a predicament than they are.”
The magistrate returned to his book and mumbled to himself as he reread the details of the four men’s case. After he finished, he removed his spectacles and looked at the ragged men.
“You are well aware of the charges brought against you. Those charges include vandalism, robbery, attempted murder, and numerous other lesser crimes,” the old judge said. “Given the volume of the charges, I doubt there are any who would speak up for you.”
“I will, Your Honor,” a man called out from the crowd. All eyes turned to see the well-dressed gentlemen who sloshed their way to the bar.
“And you are?”
“I am Edward, Duke of Evergreen, Your Honor,” the man said, bowing politely in reverence to the court, abysmal though it appeared to be. “I have come to speak for these men and to purchase their sentence.”
“I beg your pardon? To purchase their sentence?” the magistrate asked, curious.
“Yes, Your Honor. I am Sir Stephen Corvey, the Duke’s solicitor. If you see fit to apportion their sentence into redeemable fines,” Stephen said, citing his law journal, “then we are prepared to pay said fine and allow these men to work off their debt in service to the properties at Evergreen.”
“It says here that these men attacked Evergreen on at least two occasions. One of the occasions involved a fiery blaze, intentionally set with the purpose of causing murder. You would have these men return to the scene of their crimes?” The old judge and the gaoler exchanged a skeptical look.
“Yes, Your Honor. We have reason to believe there are circumstances in which three of the men were coerced into their criminal endeavors, perhaps even through blackmail by this fourth man,” Edward explained.
“While they did, in fact, commit the acts, they did so under extreme duress. Working off the debt of their fines should be adequate punishment for the three,” Stephen continued.
The magistrate was silent. He looked at the two newcomers, then thought carefully about their proposal. He shook his head and asked, “I am no fool, Your Grace. I am aware that you are, in fact, the son of Mr. Wentworth here. How am I to believe that this is not some ruse to free your father and restore him to his previous station?”
“You have my word, Your Honor,” Edward said darkly. “My father has committed heinous acts of injustice. If you see the charges, you will note that one of his intended victims is none other than my wife, the woman who will bear my child in but a few months’ time.”
Lucius turned to look at his son sharply, his face turning a deep crimson as his anger surged through him. Edward, for his part, refused to meet his gaze.
“As such, I cannot trust that Mr. Wentworth will not attempt to harm me or my wife, and therefore he will not be returning to Evergreen.” Edward waited, knowing his father was waiting anxiously for an explanation of the fate that was to befall him.
“I see. Well then, if you can ascertain that a just punishment will be meted out and their debt shall be paid, then I am in agreement,” the magistrate said. “See the gaoler for the documents and to arrange the payment of the funds.”
The magistrate rapped the gavel firmly against the block, then called for the next prisoners. The gaoler unlocked the four men from the bar before them, then led them off to have their parole slips drawn up.
“What is the meaning of this?” Lucius hissed angrily at his son, his hair standing up wildly and the growth of beard on his face giving him a wild look. “I demand that you free me from this preposterous farce at once.”
“No, Father. That will not happen,” Edward replied stoically. “You see, these three men will be employed at Evergreen until their debts are paid. They will earn a wage, have a roof over their heads, have food to eat, all because they are every bit a victim of your black heart as anyone else you’ve harmed all these years. You, however, well…I did not pay your debt.”
“What?” Lucius gasped, his eyes darting wildly about at the prospect that he would return to his miserable, filthy, louse-infested cell.
“No, Stephen did,” Edward said brightly, pointing to where his brother was paying the debt. “You see, he has joined me in an investment. We now own a small shipping business. I’m only involved so that my ill-treated brother might begin to make his own way in the world as a learned man of fortune. So you’re to sign on with the ship as a deck hand. If I heard him correctly, he needs someone he can pay to report back to him on the goings on, much as you did with him all those years. I do believe you depart for Australia sometime later today.”
Ignoring his father’s low growl, Edward turned to leave. He stopped abruptly and looked back long enough to say, “Oh, given the sort of fellow who travels the seas on such ships, I would probably not mention anything about how you were once a Duke.”
Margaret watched at the window for Edward’s return, pacing nervously. The snow had already begun to pile up nearly to the windows on this December evening, and she hated the thought of him still out on the road on such a night as this.
With the howling of the wind, there would be no way to hear the clop of horses’ hooves when Edward’s carriage returned. She peered out with each pass, hoping to catch sight of the footman carrying a lantern out to greet the Duke.
“You’ll make yourself sick with worry,” Edward’s sister Elizabeth said, looking up from her needlework. She smiled at Margaret’s obvious love for Edward all the same. “Come, sit by the fire. It’s not good for you to pace so, certainly not in your condition.”
“Oh, I have no worries about my condition, the physician says I am as healthy as any horse in the field. But I cannot help but worry for Edward,” Margaret answered. “I was certain he’d be here. His letter said he was to be home at midday, and here it is well unto dark and he is not yet returned home. Why must London be so far away?”
“Why must Evergreen be stuck on the other side of the country?” Elizabeth replied, smiling. “I was all too eager to wed and be rid of this place, if only to have some interaction from those who keep their homes in the city.”
“It is lovely here, and you know it,” Margaret teased, “else you would not visit so often nor stay so long. Though I’m very glad that you do.”
Elizabeth thought to answer, but stopped at a sound from outside the room. The front door blew open at last and a chorus of voices from downstairs sounded in the entryway.
Margaret hurried out of the drawing room and down the wide marble staircase that led up from the ground floor. She squinted her eyes at the visitors who’d come in, trying to make out their faces from beneath their scarves and hoods.
“Margaret, dearest! You can’t look yet, your Christmas present is here and you’ll spoil the surprise,” Edward called, holding up his hands as though he could block the view.
“Don’t be daft, we’re not going to keep out of sight for three more days,” a muffled voice said from beneath the bearer’s wraps.
Margaret laughed, still trying to make out the guests’ faces. Suddenly, when the first revealed head came into view, Margaret clapped her hands in delight.
“Grandmother, Grandfather! However did you manage to come to Evergreen, and in weather such as this?” Margaret cried, hurrying down the stairs as carefully as she could manage, keeping a hand protectively in front of her swollen midsection.
Receiving pecks on the cheek from her grandparents and a variety of aunts and cousins, more of whom continued pouring in the door as another carriage emptied outside, Margaret looked at their smiling faces and her heart filled with joy.
“You did this,” Margaret said to Edward while everyone chattered and made their way inside. He grinned in return.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I merely found these stragglers on the road and brought them indoors. It’s the least I could do to offer them Christian charity,” he answered, attempting an aloof air of indifference.
“You are not good at fibbing, but I cannot believe you are so well practiced at keeping secrets,” Margaret said, waving to another relative who appeared. “This must have taken ages to plan.”
“It would not be Christmas without your family here,” Edward said gravely. Margaret’s breath caught in her throat.
“And what of you? Your family, I mean,” she asked hesitantly, realizing that Edward would only have his sister to begin the celebrations leading up to Twelfth Night.
“You’re my family, Duchess,” Edward said, kissing Margaret softly on the lips. “You and the two little ones you carry. You are the only family I need. It’s your turn to celebrate with the family you never knew.”
“The family I never knew…” Margaret repeated dreamily. “You’re the family I’ve always had, the one I’ve always longed for. You know that, don’t you?”
“I do now. And I shall endeavor to hear it again for the rest of my life,” Edward said, smiling at Margaret as he took her in his arms and placed another adoring kiss on her lips. “Merry Christmas, my Duchess.”
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