The Trial of Misella Cross
She crouched in the corner on a thin layer of straw, a child’s linen shift clutched in her shackled arms. The sudden jangling of keys outside the cell door startled her—a new sound amidst the prisoners’ screeching and the heavy footfall of the morning guard flipping open the feeding trap to shove through the daily bowls of porridge.
The heavy door scraped open, and a tall, bony-faced man in a long black jacket stepped inside, a garland of camphor hanging round his neck. In one gloved hand he balanced a wooden box with a Bible resting on top; in the other hand he dangled a ring of keys, the metal loop of a glowing lantern, and a large handkerchief saturated with vinegar. “Misella Cross,” he thundered, “I am the Ordinary of Newgate prison. I bring God’s comfort to you. I shall help you seek His forgiveness for your crimes.”
He set the lantern on the floor away from the straw. Slipping the key ring over his wrist, he removed the Bible, tucking it up between the bars of the tiny window gouged into the thick stone wall above his head. Unlatching the box, he extracted a stack of parchment, a quill, pounce, and a small bottle of ink. He placed the closed box on the damp, filth-encrusted floor in front of her, arranging the writing materials on top.
“Here is the vehicle whereby you shall obtain His mercy. I hear you are a literate woman; thus may you set down your story in your own hand. Confess your sins; tell the story of your perdition so that other young maidens may learn from your woeful example.” He pressed the handkerchief to his lips.
The harsh scent of vinegar watered her eyes. Squinting in the unaccustomed light, she stared at him for a few moments before she spoke. “I will need candles and my own lantern,” she murmured, “a table and a stool.”
He nodded, a thin smile slackening the grim line of his lips. Leaning down, he snatched the doll-size shift from her arms and tossed it, as if it were plague-ridden, onto the dirty straw.
She cried out, twisting away from him and scrabbling her bound hands forward in the straw to clutch the garment, but he kicked it toward the door. He yanked the chain between her wrists, the iron cuffs cutting into her flesh. “Your only hope for salvation,” he hissed, “is to seek God’s forgiveness whilst you can.”
Her anger overcame her fear of him. “I’ve heard how you sell these confessions at the hangings, to fatten your purse,” she blurted. “If you want my story, give the shift back to me now or I will write nothing.”
He hesitated, his eyes narrowing to slits. With a sneer, he lifted the shift with the toe of his shoe and flipped it into her lap. “Keep it, to dry your tears on your way to the gibbet at Tyburn.”