By Anna Mazzola
; Trade Paper, ISBN 9781492635475
Title: The Unseeing
Author: Anna Mazzola
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
A thrilling debut based based on the real case of Sarah Gale, a seamstress and mother sentenced to hang for her alleged role in a shocking murder, bringing together the accused with an idealistic young lawyer assigned to investigate whether she is a guilty murderer or an unfortunate victim.
Something is keeping Sarah Gale silent despite the risk of a death sentence. Is it guilt? Fear? Love?
Sentenced to hang for her alleged role in a shocking murder, Sarah confronts the young lawyer asked to examine her guilty verdict. She says she is innocent, but she refuses to explain the evidence given in court ― the evidence that convicted her. Battling his own demons, Edmund Fleetwood is determined to find the truth ― and to uncover why Sarah won't talk.
Darkness hides in Sarah's past, Edmund is certain, but surviving on the streets of London often means that one has to make difficult choices. Does it matter what else she's done, if she's innocent of murder? As the day of execution draws closer, Edmund struggles to discover whether she is the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice, or a dangerous and devious criminal.
Bringing 1837 London alive in the most visceral way, The Unseeing is a tense novel of human frailty and fear ― and of the terrible consequences of jealousy and misunderstanding.
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About the Author:
Anna Mazzola’s short fiction has won or placed in several competitions. She is a criminal justice lawyer who lives in the UK. This is her first novel.
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Yesterday afternoon, about , as a police constable of the T division was on duty near Pineapple Gate, Edgeware Road, his attention was attracted toward an unfinished house, in which he saw at a distance something lying on the ground at the bottom part of the building; he directly approached the spot, and there beheld, tied up at the top, a full-sized sack, which he lifted up, and found to be of considerable weight. Without loss of time he untied the fastenings, and, to his great horror and consternation, ascertained that the said sack contained the dead trunk and arms of a female.
—Morning Post, 29 December 1836
27 March 1837
“Murderer!” they shouted.
“Take her eyes out: it’s what she did to Hannah Brown.” Hands battered the wooden roof and sides of the prison wagon and, above the din, Sarah could hear the voice of the driver as he tried to calm the horse and urge it forward. Silently, Sarah willed it too, knowing that if the wagon stopped and the mob got at her, she would be done for. She had heard of such things happening: of a man accused of killing a child, seized as he left the Old Bailey and reduced within minutes to a bloody mess; of resurrection men, chased through the streets, escaping only when a pub landlord helped them over a wall. No one would help her.
The wagon inched through the crowds, away from the magistrates’ court and onto a wider street where the horse picked up pace. Through the barred cart door, Sarah could see some of the people running behind them, shouting, shrieking, shaking their fists. Gradually, they fell away, some leaning forward, hands on their knees to catch their breath. The vehicle jolted on over the cobblestones, past the great dome of St. Paul’s and then up a side street where the roar of London was briefly muffled.
They came to a halt and the guard wrenched open the wagon door. “Out!”
Sarah gathered her skirts and stumbled down onto the ground. It was nearly dark now and a thin rain had begun to fall. Steadying herself, she stared up at the high stone arch and, beneath it, the great oaken door, studded with nails and topped with spikes. She had walked past this door several times before but she had never imagined that she would walk through it, for this was Newgate: the most notorious prison in London.
The guard knocked on the door and, a few moments later, a porter appeared, his face the drab color of tallow. He nodded at the guard and looked briefly at Sarah, his expression unreadable. Without saying a word, he led Sarah through a second door, past a lodge, through an iron-bolted gate and down a narrow corridor until they reached a door that bore the sign, “Reception Room.” It was not much of a reception. There was no fire in the large stone room and the air was chill. A woman dressed in dark gray sat on a high stool by a desk, writing in a thick, leather-bound book. She pointed at a wooden bench. Sarah opened her mouth to speak, but the woman put her finger to her lips and shook her head. The only sounds were the scratching of the pen, the closing of doors far off and an occasional undistinguishable shout.
After a few minutes, a taller woman, her face bone-white, her eyes small beads of jet, entered the room carrying a wooden box and a bundle of clothing. She was dressed, like the first woman, in a gray dress, gray bonnet and heavy black boots. However, around her shoulders was a black mantle, and about her middle she wore a wide leather belt with a brass buckle from which dangled a chain of keys.
“Name?” she said sharply.
Sarah got to her feet. “Sarah Gale.”
The woman stared at Sarah, her gaze as cold and hard as a knife. The first woman spoke. “She’s the one just been charged with aiding and abetting the Edgeware Road murder, Miss Sowerton.
I’ve written it all down.”
“Oh, I know who she is,” Miss Sowerton said.
Sarah lowered her eyes, but felt the woman’s gaze still on her, dissecting her.
After a few moments, the woman held out her hand: “Possessions.”
Sarah looked up. “Give me your things.”
From her pocket, Sarah removed the few items she had brought with her—an old silk handkerchief, her locket, and a tortoiseshell-backed brush. The woman took them and put them into the wooden box. To Sarah it felt as though the last pieces of her were being stripped away.
Sarah looked at Miss Sowerton and then at the other woman, who nodded.
“Do as the matron says.”
Slowly, Sarah removed her cloak, gloves and shoes, then undid the fastenings on her dark green dress and removed her petticoats until she was standing in just her shift, stockings and stays in the cold room. Miss Sowerton regarded her steadily, her arms folded.
Finally mustering the courage to speak, Sarah said, “I’m not what you think. I didn’t do what they say.”
The matron’s mouth slid into a semblance of a smile. “Oh, no, ’course not. You’re innocent as a babe unborn. None of the inmates in this prison is guilty. The place is fit to burst with innocent souls.” Her lips set again into a line. “You’re not to speak unless spoken to. We don’t want to hear your lies.”
She looked carefully over Sarah, as though eyeing a suspect piece of meat at market.
“Dark brown hair…brown eyes…sharp features…scars to the chest, wrists and lower arms.”
With cold fingers, she lifted Sarah’s petticoat. “A mole above the left hipbone.”
The woman on the stool scribbled in the leather-bound book. The matron folded Sarah’s clothes, placed them in the wooden box and snapped the lid shut. Then she handed Sarah the bundle. While the two women watched, Sarah put on the clothes: a blue dress with dark stripes, a blue checked apron and matching neckerchief, a patched jacket, and thick brown stockings that scratched against her skin. For an instant, she was reminded of her dress fittings with Rosina when they were children: standing before their mother’s cold gaze in dark silks and stiff lace. Would it have always come to this?
A thud: two black shoes—old, dirty and mismatched—had been thrown at her feet.
“Put these on and follow me.”
The matron led Sarah along a succession of winding alleyways and down dark, low-roofed passages and staircases, her heels clicking against the stone. They came eventually upon a row of identical doorways and Miss Sowerton paused.
“The condemned cells,” she said, watching for Sarah’s reaction. Sarah shivered, pierced with a shard of fear. Condemned: damned; sentenced to death. If the court decided that she should hang, this would be where she would come on her last night. She realized that she had instinctively raised her hand to clasp her throat, and she lowered it before the matron could notice.
They walked through another corridor that led onto a large, empty quadrangle, lit only by the sickly yellow light from two gas lamps. This, the matron announced, was “the women’s area,” with its own taprooms, breakfast room and kitchen. Sarah was hungry, for she had taken nothing since a few mouthfuls of porridge at Clerkenwell Prison that morning. The smell of the place, though, turned her stomach: a sour smell of unwashed bodies and chloride of lime. It was for the best, she told herself, that George was not here. Some convicts were allowed to take their children into Newgate with them, but this was no place for a child. This was no place for any human. Still, the thought of him without her was a sharp, almost physical pain.
Miss Sowerton stopped before a black door and produced a large key. A rumbling came from within the lock as the key turned, and Sarah had the sudden idea of the place not just as a prison, but a terrible creature: flesh and bone, iron and stone.
“Your cell,” the matron said.
When Sarah failed to move, Miss Sowerton pushed her firmly into the room, locking and bolting the door behind her.
Sarah’s first impression was one of complete darkness. After a few seconds, however, she saw that a few gray rays of light filtered through the glass of a small iron-barred window. Against the far wall, under the high window, was a bed. She felt her way to it and ran her hand over the bedding: a blanket and a rough pillow, so cold they felt damp. There was a stale odor to the cell—a tang of must and sweat and something unidentifiable. Fear, perhaps. She could hear the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside and, from far away, a scream cut short.
On a small table beneath the window stood a jug, a book, a candle and a little metal tinderbox. Sarah opened the box and struck steel against flint until sparks became flame. In the glow of the candle she saw a three-legged stool, a burnished copper washbasin fastened to the wall with a water tap over it and, in one corner, a water-closet seat.
She knew that most of the other prisoners had to share cells, some four to a room. Evidently the warders did not trust her with other women. Maybe they thought she would slit their throats as they slept.
A draught, finding its way under the door, caused the candle flame to ripple. In the center of the cell door, carved into the wood, was an eye, complete in every detail—pupil, eyelashes, brow. A spyhole. Sarah bent down to look through it to the corridor outside, but there was only darkness.
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