Today's Reading

I grip the railing, shackles clanking like keys. I can't hold on to what he's saying. My eye swings around the room, catches the sword hung behind the judge, silver as a chink of moon. I read the words hammered in gold beneath. 'A false witness shall not be unpunished, but he that speaketh lies shall perish.' Well. We're all going to perish, liars and truth-tellers alike, though the Old Bailey is meant to speed a liar's progress. But that's not what frightens me. What frightens me is dying believing that it was me who killed her.

I see you at the barristers' table. You look up, give me a quick nod that settles on me like a horse blanket. There, laid out like china on a buffet, is the evidence against me: Benham's cravat, his green brocade waistcoat; Madame's lavender silk, her chemise, and her bandeau with the swan feather dyed lavender also, to match her dress. And there is Linux's butchering knife, which, so far as I knew, was in its scabbard in the kitchen the whole time I was in Madame's room.

But it's the thing beside them that you're frowning at. When I see it, worry curdles my guts. It's curled inside an apothecary's jar, tight as a fist. The baby. Someone joggles the table and it flattens against the glass, like a cheek. There's a question in your raised brows, but it's one I cannot answer. I didn't expect to see it here. The baby. Why is it allowed here? Will they ask me to speak about it?

When I see it, my knees start to quake, and I feel all the terror of that night again. But the mind is its own place, as Milton said, it can make a Hell of Heaven and a Heaven of Hell. How does it do that? By remembering, or forgetting. The only tricks a mind can play.

A wave of memory breaks. She's lying in bed, up on her elbows with her toes pointing into the air, in her hand an apple I'm trying in vain to coax her to eat. 'Listen! Are you listening?' She kicks one of her heels.

"I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said ? "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies..."

I'm only half listening, because it is impossible, this thing that is happening, my mistress lying with me in her bed and reading me a poem! But also because it was one of those times, when it fell to me to watch what they called the balance of her mind, like a pot I had on the stove. Is she well? I'm asking myself. Is she well?

She turns to me. 'Do you like it?'

'Who is it?' I ask, stirring her hair with my breath.

'Shelley. Though I like Byron better, don't you? The prince of melodrama.' She turns over suddenly, onto her back, and closes her eyes. 'Byron is proof, if ever it were needed, that a man is merely spoiled by his vices while a woman is soiled by hers. Oh, Frances, 'Frances,' don't you think everyone should be prescribed a poem a day? Woman cannot live on novels alone!' She was right about that. A novel is like a long, warm drink but a poem is a spike through the head.

I told you that story yesterday when we first met. I don't know why, except maybe I wanted you to know something about me and her other than the terrible things that are being said. You lawyers are as squeamish about hearsay as a planter about cane-rats, yet a trial boils a whole character down to that.

'John Pettigrew,' you said, holding out your hand, with your brief still in it so. You peered out through all your dark hair. I could see you were even nervier than I was about what lay ahead of us.

Then you said, 'For God's sake, give me something I can save your neck with.'

But how can I give you what I do not have? Remembering is a thing that happens or doesn't, like breathing.

So I told you that story. I suppose I wanted to show you there was love between me and her. Though what good does that do? Whatever she and I were to each other is not a thing you men would care for. At any rate, love is no defence to murder, as you said, though, more often than not, it's an explanation.

But this is a story of love, not just murder, though I know that's not the kind of story you're expecting. In truth, no one expects any kind of story from a woman like me. No doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair. But who'd want to read one of those? No, this is my account of myself and my own life and the happiness that came to it, which was not a thing I thought I'd ever be allowed, the happiness or the account. I have the paper you gave me, and a fresh quill, and your
instructions to explain myself.

Any gaol-bird could tell you that for every crime there are two stories, and that an Old Bailey trial is the story of the crime, not the story of the prisoner.

That story is one only I can tell.
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