October 20th, 1809.
Fred is to be hanged on Monday the 23rd – a perilously short date. We have been conferring as to how to contrive his rescue. Jem was in favour of blowing down the front door with a charge of gunpowder brought in on a handcart, followed by an invasion of bears to overwhelm the gaolers and release not only Fred, but all the prisoners. A wonderful dream, but alas! hardly feasible. A glance at the massive stone front designed by George Dance, with its menacing carved fetters above a tiny doorway heavily armed with iron, shows that it would be unlikely to fall to anything short of a sustained artillery barrage, something that might attract unwelcome attention in a London street.
I had a subtler idea. Do you remember, I wrote on my slate, the rescue of the Earl of Nithsdale after the 1715 Rebellion?
‘No,’ said Jem. ‘Never ’eard of ’im. Do tell.’
He was imprisoned in the Tower, and due to be executed the following morning. He was rescued by his wife. She was allowed to visit him and wish him a last farewell. She went in accompanied by her maid, who concealed under her skirts a second dress identical with her own. In the Tower, they dressed the Earl in these clothes, and Lady Nithsdale left with him behind her, keeping out of the direct gaze of the guards. (I could also have mentioned King Theopompus of Sparta’s escape from an Arcadian prison dressed in the female clothes his wife Queen Chilonis had brought him.)
‘But,’ Jem, said, ‘that left the maid inside. ’Ow’d they get ’er out without blowin’ the gaff?’
That was the cleverest part of the scheme. Soon after the Earl escaped, the guard was changed. The maid went out past the new guard, who did not know how many people had gone in. Since she was obviously a girl, she was not suspected.
‘I think we got a plan,’ said Jem. ‘Well done, Daisy me dear, we thought yer’d come up with somethin’. But they know Fred ain’t got a wife, and where do we find a gal?’
Do you think we could pay Dolores O’Connor to help us? She badly needs some money, and she has no love to Kemble and his bravoes.
She could pretend to be his daughter, and you could escort her in and leave with Fred.
‘That’s it,’ said Jem. ‘Not bad at all, me ole Daisy. What would we do without yer? We’ll do it on Sunday evening when they’re drunk, an’ that gives us two days to get ready.’
Can you find out when the guard changes?
‘O’ course. They drinks at an inn just down the street.’
I wish we could do this at once, and not leave poor Fred in agony for two more days. But Jem’s choice of a time is sensible, and we must prepare our assault thoroughly.
‘Whatever ’appens, we’re agoin’ to be on the run,’ said Jem. ‘I best get down to the bank afore it shuts an’ get out all our wedge.’
It was lucky that Fred had assigned Jem the power to deal with Cox’s and King’s. I wrote: Can we do anything for the people at the theatre?
‘I’ll ’ave a word with ’em. The place is only rented. ’Ope they’ll be able to cope on their own with a new opera. But to be honest, without bears they ain’t got much, ’ave they?’
Jem hurried off. Well, we have a plan, though a desperate one, and we are united in our determination to see it through. As Virgil wrote, Quo res cunque cadent, unum et commune periclum, / Una salus ambolus erit, However events may fall out, for us there will be one common danger, one source of safety.
October 21st, 1809.
We found Dolores miserably huddled in a doorway in Covent Garden. ‘I couldn’t even set up as a flower gal,’ she said. ‘They got a sort o’ guild, an’ if yer ain’t in, yer out.’
Jem said, ‘Yer ’elped us, an’ we ain’t forgettin’ that. We’ll look after yer no matter what, ’cos yer one of us now. But we do need yer ’elp again for one thing, and it’s a mite tricky.’ And he explained our plan, adding, ‘Worst thing that can ’appen to yer, yer gets thrown out o’ Newgate.’
‘Better’n being thrown in, I reckon,’ she said. ‘I’m for it.’
‘Lor’ bless yer, me gal, yer a treasure.’
They went off together to buy two identical dresses. Fred is small and slight, and he would have no difficulty in getting into women’s clothes, but he will have to conceal his face as he comes out. Desperate weeping into a handkerchief should be enough to work the deception.
Jem and Dolores spent the evening rehearsing our drama, with far greater earnestness than for some foolish romance about the imaginary loves of Vestal virgins. Dolores makes a fine show as a grief-stricken daughter, and Jem has only to be himself.
October 22nd, 1809.
I write this as we stand ready for action. And how we have prepared! In the words of Heliodorus, Τὰ µεγάλα τῶν πραγµάτων µεγάλων δεῖται κατασκευῶν, Great deeds need great preparations. Our first need after we have liberated Fred is a speedy escape, and for this, regardless of expense, we have hired two coaches each with four horses, which are now waiting for us in Warwick Lane on the corner of Newgate Street. We are taking as little as possible with is, but we shall require the means to sustain ourselves on our journey, wherever we may be bound, and we must take with us all the impedimenta of our various performances, including the fire-eating and sword-swallowing equipment and of course little Hugh’s Unirota. All these can be carried on foot in our packs when needful. We also have Fred and Jem’s prized Baker rifles, and a sufficiency of powder, ball and spare flints for them.
The bears are assembled beside the coaches, ready to intervene should things not go as smoothly as we hope.
The guard at the prison is changed at six p.m. It is now a quarter past five, and Jem and Dolores are setting off on their perilous exploit. Jem carries nothing but a purse of golden guineas and a bag containing two bottles of brandy, but Dolores has an awkward load under her dress. We wisely chose a rather old-fashioned attire with a much fuller skirt than is the mode now, giving her the air of a simple country girl but also concealing a second dress, a lady’s red wig the same colour as her own hair, a man’s brown wig and a bag stuffed with sawdust the size of a man’s head, whose use will be explained presently. It is hard for her to walk naturally, but she is pretending to be almost fainting with grief and clinging to Jem’s shoulder.
Now I must put down my pen and ready us all for a hasty departure. I hope to be able to resume our tale later.
October 23rd, 1809.
I now recount yesterday evening’s events inside the gaol, as related to me by Jem. He and Dolores knocked at the gate, and some guineas changed hands, necessary lubricants for any activity in a prison. The guards accepted Jem’s story that he had brought Fred’s only daughter to bid her a last farewell, and she wept so copiously and sobbed so loudly that they must have been glad to leave the two of them alone in Fred’s cell.
On the way up the stairs, Jem said to the escorting guard, ‘We brought a couple o’ bottles o’ brandy to sweeten ’is last ’ours, like. But we’ll only be needin’ the one, I think, so yer might as well ’ave the other.’ The guard needed no prompting to take it.
As they opened the cell, Dolores screamed, ‘Daddy, me poor Daddy,’ and flung herself into his arms, stifling any expression of surprise that he might have uttered.
Once the door was slammed behind them and the guard had clanked down the staircase, Dolores continued to sob theatrically while all engaged in frantic activity. A whispered explanation from Jem, and then Dolores was stripping off his clothes.
‘’E were blushin’ like a beetroot,’ she said. ‘But I says to ’im, it ain’t nothin’ what I ain’t seen before, me ’avin six brothers. We’ll make a lovely lady o’ yer, I says.’
While Dolores dressed him, Jem was making a dummy with Fred’s own clothes stuffed with straw from the bedding. He arranged it on the bed so that it faced the wall in an attitude of despair, adding the bag of sawdust and the brown wig for a head. Some artfully disposed straw masked its missing feet.
As soon as Fred was fully rigged out and equipped with a large cotton handkerchief to weep into and hide his unshaven face, it was ten to six and time to leave. Jem poured some of the bottle of brandy on to the bedding to make a spirituous reek, and then knocked loudly on the cell door to summon the guards, who were now looking distinctly fuddled after sharing a bottle of brandy, and not inclined to be too inquisitive.
‘’E’s sleepin’ now,’ he said. ‘’Twould be a kindness to leave ’im be for a while, ’e ain’t got much to look forrard to. An’ yer might as well ’ave the rest o’ ’is bottle, ’e won’t be needin’ it tomorrow, poor ole cove.’
As well as the bottle, two more guineas changed hands. The guards barely glanced at the weeping ‘daughter’, now sobbing vociferously into her handkerchief, and the two of them were soon down the staircase and out of the gate, amazed by their success. As Propertius astutely remarked, Aurum omnes, victa iam pietate, colunt, All worship gold, and decency is now completely overthrown.
I and the watching bears saw them come around the corner into Newgate Street, at once abandoning their previous demeanour as Fred rushed to meet us in an ungainly stride, clutching his unaccustomed skirts. It was a moment of joy – but not unmixed, as we still had to wait for the courageous Dolores to emerge.
The bells of various City clocks struck six in a ragged succession, and we were all consumed with anxious expectation. Then, at five minutes past the hour, we saw her red hair blazing at the corner. She broke into a run, and we bundled her into a coach and off we all galloped down Newgate Street and into Cheapside.
‘’Tweren’t all that ’ard,’ she said. ‘I waited till I ’eard the new guards arrivin’, an’ then I banged on the door till they came. I weren’t ’alf anxious to get out o’ that place.’ But I did a lot o’ screechin’ about me poor Daddy bein ’anged, an’ they couldn’t wait to be rid o’me.’
It was only a matter of time before the new guards would unmask the dummy on the bed, so we had to be off as fast as we could. Fortunately the law cannot keep up with a coach and four. We are not heading for Dover, the all too obvious road of escape. Jem knows some folk in Great Yarmouth, on the east coast, mainly a fishing town but with enough ships calling to give us an early chance of a passage – but to where, heaven only knows.
In the coach the astonished Fred, slowly rising from the depths of despair, recovered himself enough to say, ‘Well, Daisy me dear, we’re on the run again. We was always wanderin folk, you an’ me, an’ I can’t say as ’ow I dislikes that. Beats gettin’ ’anged’, any’ow.’
Copyright © Tachybaptus 2019