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Beyond the Pale

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"It was as if her torture had become her delight."


On a cool morning at the beginning of November in 1821, the scarlet woman of Lyme had disappeared. She had vanished from the little suite she'd inhabited briefly at Endicott's Family Hotel in Exeter and had gone to London with the last bit of coin from her-- from Charles's purse.

She had expected him that evening, to return from Lyme Regis a free man. It was what she hoped he would do. Selfishly she hoped that it would be as if he had never been promised to another. He would think of no one but her and they would be together, an honest pair. Only Sarah Woodruff, knew better.

She had been on the bed where she had lost the 'innocence' she had never truly had when she had last seen him, looking up into his trusting eyes. Even as she listened with a love reflected by him - she knew she would not see him again. Even as their mouths had met and she had felt her body go limp by his touch, she knew they would not again kiss, would not be married, would not be anything.

Even still, even afflicted with knowledge unshared between lovers, she had held his hands and stared into his eyes. "Do what you will or what you must. Now that I know there was truly a day upon which you loved me, I can bear anything. You have given me the strength to live."

But she had lied. It had become second nature to her, tales she could not fully detach herself from. She had lied to him and he had loved her because of it, and she knew because of this that they would never be together. They could not survive the distrust.

So with this knowledge and with a heavy heart that thudded sickly and filled her belly with despair, Sarah Woodruff packed her belongings into two worn cases: three dresses, two petticoats, two drawers, one sleep gown, a hair brush, a candle and stockings. What she didn't pack she wore, including the dark cloak she had been in when she had first set eyes upon Charles Smithson.

When she had arrived in London she had paced the oily streets, bathed in a thick coal fog that clung to her lungs and forced a cough up her throat. She had walked until her feet ached looking for work or pity from an inn keeper to let her stay the night. She found neither.

It was past midnight and Sarah stood on the cobbles near the door of a pub listening to two women speaking loudly about a girl who had sold her defloration for twenty five pounds. It had peaked her interest for had she waited only a day she might have had twenty five pounds in pocket. Had she waited only a day, she reminded herself, she'd have not been here at all. She might have been in Charles's carriage, or in his home. Perhaps even, in his bed.

One of the women coughed loudly and spit on the street beside her, then wiped her hand across her lips smudging the dark red paint she wore, mixing it into the chalk white of her skin. They continued talking briefly until the woman with her back to Sarah took hold of the other woman and they staggered off into the clouded darkness.

Sarah bit into the flesh of her lip. It had all become rather real and rather less like the fantasy she had made it in her mind. She knew what she was doing and why she was here. She wanted somehow to turn time around. She wanted to make real all that had been said of her. To make real the lies and deceit she had woven together to make Charles love her.

He did love her. Sarah's lips curved into a satisfied smile. He had wanted her. Perhaps he had even chosen her although she would never know. She would not know because she could not bear to have been in that quiet little room in Exeter waiting, if he had never returned.

An eruption of music and loud voices filled the street just then as the door beside her opened and deposited a man on the street. He bent over and spit, almost where the woman had, before running his hands down the front of his waist coat. It seemed odd to Sarah to see such a finely dressed man in an area such as this, but she did not say it. She pretended to be an extension of the wall and sagged against it, half from exhaustion.

She did not go unnoticed. The man looked at her and blinked in confusion as if she looked quite out of place where she stood and then he neared her. His hand dug around in the material of his pocket and when he pulled it back out it held one scuffed coin. He offered it to her, a smile slipping across his face, tugging greedily at his cheeks .

Sarah looked at the coin and felt her stomach flip. It was not twenty five pounds. It was not ten pounds or even five. It was not a pound at all. It was a sixpence, dirty and old and had passed through more hands than could ever be counted. The coin moved and Sarah looked at the man's face. The drink in him had made him impatient and he seemed to be minutes from trying somewhere else instead.

Sarah nodded. She had no idea what would happen next. She had agreed without words to exchange herself for the coin in the man's hand. Her heart raced and she looked at the man, waiting for him to do what he had wanted. But he crooked his finger and turned away from her heading into the fog just as the ladies had gone before.

She followed and the heels of her boots struck the cobbles unevenly beneath her. He turned down a space between two buildings and she followed, though the red hair at the nape of her neck prickled and stood up. They were alone evidently, and the man had turned back to face her as he unbuttoned his trousers.

Sarah's hands were clasped together at her midsection. Her fingers wrung together. She was freezing and her cloak did little to hold out the chill. She didn't move.

The man came towards her and she backed up, kicking a stone free of the cobble and sending it skittering away. Her body trembled as she moved to exit the small space and the man closed his fingers around her wrist. It was too late for altered decisions.

He pulled her further down the alley and turned her so her back was to the wall as he began to pull back her cloak. Sarah felt her body go rigid as her back pressed against the cold bricks. He lifted her skirts and she let him, her eyes wide as she felt his fingers beneath the bottom of her corset, tugging at her linen drawers.

She swallowed and felt her own saliva slipping down her throat like a stone. She felt him then, hard against her thigh and he pressed his heavy body against her, forcing himself between her legs. She braced herself for the pain, but it didn't come.

He was grunting in her ear and breathing heavily as he fucked her against the wall. That was what they called it - fucking, after all. It had never felt so true to its word as it did in this instance. But he had not entered her. The man, so off his mind with drink and willing to put it anywhere did just that, pushing his hardness between the flesh of her thighs.

She watched him the entire time, with her eyes wide as if she were reading it in a book and not actually living it. When it was all over he pressed the coin in her hand, re-buttoned his trousers and disappeared into the night. She let down her skirts and drew her cloak around herself and she was alone. It was as if it had not happened at all and she would have been inclined to believe it so had she not felt the sticky reminder of it running down her thigh.

She didn't sleep that night, nor did she ever exchange herself for a coin thereafter. She knew that she was as those already knew her to be.

"I am truly not like other women." she had once said. "I have a freedom they cannot understand. No insult or blame can touch me."

In order to be true to Charles, to love him as he loved her and to change forever the foundation of their unity - she had set herself beyond the pale. She only hoped that he would find her there.