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Sleep Now Not Later
The thick pallid door of the cell slammed shut with a clang, reverberating throughout the asylum floor. Small strips of white paint freed themselves from the aged metal door and fell to the stone ground. This place, built in 1247 , was clearly in need of attention that it had not received in the past 600 years. The faint smell of antiseptic hung in the air, allowing for the hopelessness of the situation to set in as Pepper Abbott , who now lay on the floor, tried desperately to reject the scent from her senses. As she stood up, she stumbled, clutching her elbow with one hand. Bedlam’s guards had been rather rough, practically throwing her into her cell so that she landed directly on her right elbow. While she had a thin frame and was very small, having gone hungry most of her life, her weight still worked against her to break her arm. She soon realized that there was a metal bracelet around her left ankle, shackling her to the wall— another impediment to finding her sister, Cora whom Pepper had cared for since Cora was in nappies .
Only 8 years old, Cora did not deserve to be in an asylum for the insane even if she was stranger than the average girl. Talking to oneself, and generally having strange opinions was no cause for alarm, even less a reason to be placed in such a place. Indeed, the cat was dead, but Cora did not know that dropping the cat out their third story window was wrong. In Pepper’s eyes, Cora would always be the bright-eyed girl with butterscotch braids down to her elbows . Now it fell to Pepper to save her sister from this place before anything bad happened to Cora.
The initial thrill of Pepper’s endeavor at trying to rescue her sister began to fade slightly as the difficulty of the situation set in. Upon further inspection, it was apparent that her elbow was fractured, but there was little time to figure out what to do about it. Pain shot through her elbow as she tried to adjust it by her side. Pepper ignored it and continued plotting her escape. The first thing she had to take care of was the shackle around her ankle and then the door to—
An unfamiliar face appeared on the other side of Pepper’s bars . She glanced up but decided he was of no importance and paid him no heed. His breeches and waistcoat were disheveled and dirtied with paint chips, presumably picked up from the floor, clinging to his wool coat. His cravat hung unfastened around his thin neck and his hands were stuffed into his coat pockets. Gray, interested eyes surveyed the girl.
“And just who are you?” inquired the sharp featured boy.
Leaning against the bars that separated them, Pepper looked up. Her demeanor told him that she could face down a pair of footpads in the East End any day and not think twice about it.
“Well?” the boy insisted, “Where’s your head?”
“Someplace else entirely,” she replied, tossing her waist length, unbound hair . Pepper decided to query the youth about an 8 year old girl as it was clear he would not cease pestering her.
The boy smirked. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at her. It was then Pepper could see how young he really was. She walked forward and thrust her face and hands against the paint- peeled bars dividing them, gripping bars on either side of her head.
“Have you heard aught of an 8 year old girl staying here?”
“Aye , there have been stories from other guests staying here in this fine establishment,” the youth responded with a smile and a wink.
“This is a place of death, girl.” He warned, hands dropping his sides now, concerned she might lose it any moment. “Those who are put here are most certainly left to die ; most expect it. Some even anticipate it.”
“I have no time for incessant chatter. What have you heard about the young child?”
“I hear she is on the floor below us in the infirmary . I have told you what you wanted to know; ‘tis your turn to tell me something now. Why are you here?”
“I burned down a church .”
“Clever girl,” the boy beamed slyly with his approval. “I’m Preston . They say I’m not right in the head. Embarrassing for my mother and father. I used to live in Mayfair.”
“Want to go back?” Pepper inquired. “Direct me to the infirmary and out of this asylum and I’ll take you with me.”
“Certainly. However, it would be wise to begin our adventure after the rest of the guests are asleep.”
* * *
Hours later, when it was safe to believe the rest of the asylum lay with closed eyes, Pepper reached down into her boot and removed a small leather purse from inside it. As she flipped it open, Preston saw it was filled with a variety of lock picking tools. She pulled forth from the purse two long metal pins and dug them into the lock in her shackle around her ankle.
Preston smiled. “How fast can you get out of your cell?” he whispered.
“Time me. Have you a pocket watch ?”
Preston pulled one out from his waistcoat pocket and held it up, but Pepper was already working on the lock of her cell door.
“Two minutes!” Preston quietly announced.
In another minute, Preston heard a soft clicking coming from the lock on his door. The door swung open quietly to reveal Pepper. She strode forward as Preston held his shackled leg out for her.
“Pa is a locksmith. He often let me accompany him when he worked.” Pepper volunteered.
“Indeed,” Preston replied with a smile.
“How well is this floor guarded?” Pepper asked, glancing up at him. “Moreover, the infirmary? When will our absence be noticed?”
Preston held his pocket watch up to his barred window to catch the moonlight. “The guards will check the cells once around midnight. There are two guards , but they prefer to dice than do their job and should not prove difficult to evade.”
With soft clonk, the shackle fell to the floor, and both Pepper and Preston jumped up and proceeded to slink down the corridor.
* * *
Pepper trailed after Preston, surveying each cell with interest. The lack of uniforms amongst the patients here was astounding. Some were barely clothed at all, with nothing but their breeches to cover themselves while some patients still had full suits or dresses. Most were asleep on the cell floor, but a few sat up and stared, wide-eyed, at the escapees. They said nothing, but their eyes followed Pepper and Preston. Perhaps they thought it was all a dream.
Reaching the stairwell, the two hurried down the steps. A few paces away stood a great door. Preston turned to Pepper and whispered:
“In here. Find your sister and let’s be on our way.”
Pepper stepped lightly around the room, squinting through the lowlight to see who lay in each cot. Pepper approached a cot in the far end of the room that contained a sleeping figure much smaller than the others. Relief washed over Pepper, soon replaced with the wariness she armed herself with earlier. She shook Cora, who lay in a blue frock , gently but the little girl’s eyes did not flutter open. She motioned to Preston who was a few steps behind her and in a matter of minutes; they managed to lift Cora out of her bed and make their way to the corridor once more.
* * *
The lock sealing the kitchen’s back alley door clacked open and was snatched by Pepper’s hand before it could hit the ground. On the doorstep, Pepper ushered her sister and new companion out the door and onto the uneven cobblestones , wet from the icy morning air. She stepped out onto the street, immediately assaulted by a gust of cold air carrying the stench of the gutters , the Thames River , and an echo of horse hooves and carriage wheels thundering on distant cobblestones. Quietly shutting the door behind them, Pepper, now with the sounds and scent of the London flooding her senses, spoke.
“I propose we seek cover in the shadows of an alley a ways from here. It is unwise to remain nearby,” suggested Pepper.
“Very well,” concurred Preston. “But might I propose a more favorable location to venture to afterwards?”
“I come from a very wealthy family you see. Before my unwarranted imprisonment here two years ago I resided in a large manor in Mayfair. After I finished schooling, my mother Sophie made plans for me to travel to America by steamship to stay with my grandfather in Boston, New York. Only, before I could finish school, my younger brother, the heir to the family blunt after I pass, took a year convincing my family I was suffering from madness. Regardless, I have need of a few things there and speculate if you might accompany me. If the idea of Boston is to your fancy, then I will gladly take you with me.,” finished Preston. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, as he waited for her reply.
“There is nothing left for us at the East End. If we remain here, our parents will send Cora back to this asylum. As it is in Cora’s best interests, I accept your offer,” retorted Pepper, bowing her head faintly to show her respect.
* * *
The walk from Bedlam to Mayfair was a lengthy one. The crisp chill air bit Pepper’s nose as she carried Cora in her arms. Walking briskly alongside Preston, they promptly arrived at a towering Manor still illuminated by a nearby gas lamp about to go out. The wood paneling combined with the accents, the general size of it and its neatly trimmed hedges gave it a rather welcoming, warm look.
“Crikey ,” Pepper breathed, now tiring from carrying a sleeping Cora such a long ways. Never had Pepper laid eyes on such a grand dwelling. She followed behind Preston who had already opened his window.
“Just our luck,” Preston exclaimed with glee, and lowered himself onto his wooden floor. Pepper climbed in after him and began souring his room for things that would prove useful to her. Dust covered almost every surface, now released into the air from a gust of wind from the newly opened window. There were clothes metal and gears scattered about the room. Carefully laying Cora on Preston’s bed, she examined what looked like a silk coin purse. To her dismay however, it was filled with many smaller gears. Pepper tossed this aside, deciding it was of no importance and proceeded on.
“When I was a boy I often toyed with clocks. I marvel at how it is so easy for people to ignore clocks ticking in and out of time,” Reminisced Preston. Sighing, he got on his knees and reached under his bed, procuring from a chest that contained a large leather knapsack. “In here you will find everything we need. We can probably catch the two o’clock steamship if we are quick.”
“Then to the docks we go. Let us waste no time here.”
* * *
With her head resting on a crate of dried fruit, Pepper found her eyelids becoming heavy, struggling to remain open. She felt Cora curled up by her side, snuggling into Pepper’s tailcoat and observed Preston sitting with his back the rails, throwing an apple up in the air and then catching it once more. He took a bite out of it then rolled it across the deck where it plummeted into the sea.
Now closing her eyes Pepper inhaled the sea breeze and embraced the morning air. She clung to the fact that Cora would be safe when she woke up in America, and let that thought comfort her as she drifted off.