“Come back! I shouldn’t be ‘ere!” shouted Charlie.
“They won’t let you out, lad.”
Charlie turned around at the sound of the voice. He peered into the darkness. Three heaps of rags pushed up against the back wall where the filth wasn’t as deep. A scrawny arm stuck out of one heap at an unnatural angle, a blue bloom on the pale skin. Charlie waded through the sludge and nudged the bundle with his knee.
“That was old Barnabus. Dead three days now. I keep telling them but they won’t take him.”
“Why not?” asked Charlie. He peered at the other heaps and saw thin men swaddled in rags. One lay on his back, eyes rolled back in his head. His chest hitched as he laboured to breathe. Blood-flecked spittle clustered around his cracked lips.
“This is Newgate, lad, not a hotel.”
Charlie turned to the third man. He leaned back against the wall, gazing at Charlie with bloodshot eyes. In the low light, his skin looked as though it were made of wax. He’s bloody melted, thought Charlie.
“I shouldn’t be in ‘ere,” said Charlie.
“Aye, and nor should any of the rest of us. This is the closest we’ll come to hell, you mark my words.”
“You talk too proper to be in ‘ere. What are you in for?” asked Charlie.
“Non-payment of debts. Did you know that your debts get bigger the longer you stay in the debtor’s prison? When my family stopped paying, I was sent here. They shan’t hang me, they’ll just leave me to die. They’ll be satisfied soon enough.”
Charlie stared at the man. An uncle of his was sent to the debtor’s prison when Charlie was six, and after a few months, the family stopped talking about him. Was this where his uncle ended up? Charlie shuddered.
“How about you, lad?”
“They say I stabbed a man.”
“Only because he hurt my sister. She’s pregnant, see, and ever so big. A man tried to rob ‘er and I took after ‘im with my knife. I didn’t stab ‘im much.”
“Did he die?”
“No but they’ll ‘ang me for tryin’ to protect Mary!”
“There is one thing you can try, lad,” said the man.
“Seek the counsel of the Pardon Man.”
“The Pardon Man. Call him, and he’ll come. If you’re innocent, he might be able to help. If you’re not, he can grant absolution.”
Charlie stared at the man, and burst into fits of laughter. He laughed so hard that his ribs ached and tears washed clean tracks down his dirty face. The man gazed back, impassive as a dove.
“He’s no laughing matter, lad.”
“What nonsense! You should be in Bedlam, not Newgate! I ain’t never ‘eard of no ‘Pardon Man’,” said Charlie. He wiped his eyes with a dry patch of sleeve.
“Suit yourself.” The man settled down against the wall and closed his eyes. Moments later, the sound of gentle snores filled the dank air.
Charlie sat against the bars at the front of the cell. The stench of death wasn’t so bad there, and he gleaned a sliver of comfort from the flickering lamp hung on the wall outside. He wriggled until his spine rested in the gap between two bars, and wrapped his arms around his knees. He glared across the cell at the sleeping man.
“The Pardon Man, what rot. The Pardon Man – I ask ye! The Pardon Man, never ‘eard of anythin’ so stupid in me life.”
Movement in the corner caught Charlie’s eye. The shadows above the dead man grew deeper. They coalesced into a figure draped in midnight, its skin pale with the passage of time. Sad eyes peered out of a craggy face. Charlie froze when the figure picked its way across the cell, lifting its cloak out of the slurry.
“Boy, you called my name thrice. Thrice you called. What is it you seek?” asked the figure. Its voice rumbled with the promise of absolution and the threat of damnation.
“Who are ye?” asked Charlie.
“You know my name. I am the Pardon Man. Tell me, boy, what is it you seek?”
“I just want to go home,” said Charlie. His face crumpled and his body racked with sobs. Charlie spilled his story between tears. The figure knelt before him. Dizziness gripped Charlie as he looked into the figure’s eyes, yellow as a cat’s.
“You did injure the man, but your intent was not murder. I cannot set you free, but I can protect you from damnation.”
The Pardon Man leaned forward and reached behind Charlie’s ear. Charlie suppressed a giggle as something tickled his neck, and the figure drew his hand back. Something small shone between thin fingers. The figure inspected it for a moment, gazing along its hooked nose as a jeweller might appraise a diamond. Its thin lips curved into a smile.
“Yes, yes, much goodness here. I shall see to it that this reaches its proper home.”
“What? What did ye do?” asked Charlie.
“Sleep, boy, sleep.”
The Pardon Man dissolved into the rotten shadows of the cell. The sparkling flame in his hand disappeared last. Sleep overcame Charlie, and soon his snores joined that of his cellmate’s.
* * *
“Two dead in one cell? Christ, what do they think we are, bodysnatchers?” Ricks kicked the corpse at the back of the cell.
“Look at this ‘un, Ricks. At least he died with a smile on ‘is face.”
“That’s one way to avoid the noose,” replied Ricks. He looked over at the boy slumped against the bars.
A serene smile gave him the appearance of one only dreaming, not dead.