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The Gallows Tree
For as long as anyone could remember, the children had been drawn to the Gallows Tree. The black twisted oak stood on the outskirts of the city, in the corner of a field not far from the dirt road leading to the hills of Hampstead and Highgate, several miles to the north. The oak was clearly visible from the upper windows of the Foundling Hospital, and the children liked nothing more than to gather under the spell of moonlight and whisper strange stories about the tree.
“Do you see that shadow in the topmost branches?” said Jonas one night as the boys prepared for bed. “Do you know what it is?”
The boys pressed closer to the window, ghosting the glass with their breath. They nodded as a small round shape detached itself from the gloom.
“What is it, Jonas?”
Jonas’s voice was dark and menacing. “Why, ’tis only Aaron’s head,” he said. “The boy who used to sleep in that bed.”
He pointed to a narrow cot, one of many that filled the room, causing the little boy who now owned it to cry out in fear. Barely five years old, the new boy had just left his wet nurse in the country and wasn’t yet used to life in the boys’ dormitory. His eyes widened in fright and large tears splotched the front of his nightshirt.
Voices circled the room.
“What happened, Jonas?”
“Go on. Pray tell.”
Jonas stood for a moment in front of his captive audience and then, like the Reverend Fairweather at the start of one of his sermons, raised a forefinger in the air. “Promise not to repeat a word I say. Not to the Governor, the Reverend, nor the Lord above. Do you promise?”
“We promise, Jonas.”
The vow passed from mouth to mouth like a secret. Even Tobias, the new boy, managed to murmur his assent.
When at last the room was quiet, Jonas spoke. A thin, pale-faced boy, he had a shock of dark hair and rings of shadow, like bruises, round his eyes.
“Aaron took it upon himself to leave the hospital,” he said. “Tired of being a foundling, he was. Wanted to make his own way in the world.”
His gaze settled briefly on Bottle Top, who was stretched out on his bed, pretending not to listen, and then traveled back to the other boys, who were sitting, cross-legged, on the floor.
“But all he met was Billy Shrike.”
“Billy Shrike?” asked the new boy uneasily.
“A cutthroat,” one of the others whispered.
The older boys knew that Jonas was lying—Aaron had been apprenticed to a wigmaker in the city—but Jonas was the most senior boy among them, one of the few who could read and write, and his mind was a gruesome compendium of details he had scavenged from the handbills and ballad sheets visitors sometimes left behind in the stalls of the chapel. He could tell you everything, from the names of the criminals in Newgate Prison to the lives of those condemned to hang. Billy Shrike was his most fearsome creation yet: a footpad who liked to stalk the fields by night and snatch young foundlings from their beds.
Jonas swept the hair out of his eyes and leaned toward Tobias. “The felon was waiting for Aaron near Black Mary’s Hole,” he said, “and slit his throat with a smile . . . and a rusty knife.”
The boy who had inherited Aaron’s bed now streaked to the chamber pot in the corner.
Jonas’s voice pursued him. “Billy put his head in the Gallows Tree to keep an eye on you, Tobias. To warn us not to let you escape. For, if you do, he’ll hunt you down and—”
“Stop it! You’re frightening him!”
Heads turned to find Bottle Top standing on his bed. Dressed in a rumpled white nightshirt that came down to his knees, he looked like an enraged angel—except that his ankles were smeared with dirt and his wild flaxen hair shone messily in the moonlight. The air made a slight whistling noise as it passed between his teeth, which were chipped and cracked.
Jonas stepped toward him and, for a moment, the two boys glared at each other, face to face; then Jonas glanced at the new boy in the corner.
“Have we frightened you, Tobias?” he asked, with false kindness.
Tobias, crouched near the floor, looked from one boy to the other. Then he noticed the small gang slowly crowding round its leader and sniffed back his tears.
“No,” he mumbled. “I’m not frightened.”
“Bah!” exclaimed Bottle Top, throwing himself back on his bed and rolling over to face the wall, defeated. “The devil take you all!”
“Shhh! Someone’s coming,” said a voice from the opposite end of the room. Cirrus had pressed his ear closer to the door and was listening for any trace of movement. He backed away as he heard the first heavy footfall of the Governor on the stairs.