Recent Titles by Janet Woods from Severn House
THE COAL GATHERER
EDGE OF REGRET
HEARTS OF GOLD
MORE THAN A PROMISE
SALTING THE WOUND
THE STONECUTTER'S DAUGHTER
STRAW IN THE WIND
WITHOUT REPROACHLady Lightfingers
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First world edition published 2011
in Great Britain and in the USA by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9â15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
Copyright Â© 2011 by Janet Woods.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Woods, Janet, 1939â
1. Poor women â England â London â History â 19th century â
Fiction. 2. Theft â Fiction. 3. Aunts â England â Dorset â
Fiction. 4. London (England) â Social conditions â 19th
century â Fiction.
5. Love stories.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-130-9Â Â Â (epub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8056-7Â Â Â (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-367-0Â Â Â (trade paper)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
There were about two hundred rats trapped in the enclosure. Not that they'd be missed by the thousands still running loose in the city, Celia Laws thought.
Outside the enclosure several men and a few light-skirts chatted. Not all were slum dwellers; some were toffs, and many were businessmen with side whiskers, cutaway coats, high hats and fancy waistcoats â and in pursuit of certain types of amusement. They had braying laughs, fat wallets and high cravats.
There were women too, dressed in silk, fringes, fancy bows and lace. Hats ranging from demure bonnets to outrageous creations adorned their heads as they sought adventure and amusement amongst the lowest of the low.
Money changed hands as bets were laid.
The terriers were brought in, blindfolded, but yapping with tension as they smelled the rats. The rags were removed from their eyes and the dogs' yaps became squeals of bloodlust as they were thrown into the enclosure, where they set to work snapping the necks of their prey.
The rats' squeaks rose to a high-pitched crescendo as the creatures sensed the fear of the others. They scrambled and piled one on top of the other for safety until a booted foot scattered them into the middle of the ring. Blood ran. Some of the crowd began to shout and yell, counting in unison the number of corpses being tossed aside. Some vomited, adding to the already decomposing street detritus.
Celia felt slightly sick, not at the demise of the rats because there were too many in London to count, and death came swiftly to them, but at the concentration of enjoyment painted on the faces of the watchers. But she was not here to watch rats being slaughtered, she was here to earn a living, she reminded herself.
She made her move. Dressed in her ragged grey cloak, a garment that made her indistinguishable from all the other beggars, her face smeared with dirt so she couldn't be easily recognized by those who might take coin for reporting her to the authorities, Celia sidled swiftly round the outside of the circle, her fingers dipping lightly into pockets, extracting a watch from a waistcoat, a coin or two from an inside pocket, the metal cold and satiny against her fingertips. A loose ring was slipped from a finger and a purse containing several coins exchanged for a few pebbles wrapped in paper.
There was a young man leaning against the wall watching the proceedings with an amused smile on his face. He seemed to feel her gaze on him, for his eyes, as dark and shining as liquorice, met hers. He smiled, sort of lopsided and bemused, then winked. Celia didn't stop to admire him because his coat was hanging open and she was hungry, and what might be inside it held more appeal. She closed in on him.
âHello, my pretty,' he said.
She pretended to trip on a cobble and he automatically reached out to steady her. As smooth as if it were sliding on butter she sent her hand journeying amongst the silk layers of his waistcoat. For a moment his heart beat a lively dance against her palm, then she dipped her fingers inside his pocket and brought out something metal, tucking it into her sleeve.
Awareness came into his eyes, and she realized he wasn't as drunk as he seemed.
Celia didn't linger. Slipping the spoils into the canvas pocket secured inside her skirt at the waist, she walked rapidly away through a rubbish and dung-filled passage to a court similar to the one she'd come from. She began to twist and turn through the maze of passages until she was half a mile from the entertainment she'd just witnessed.
She stopped by a shop to gaze around her and get her bearings, her eyes alert as she scrutinized the crowd. A lad came to look in the shop window. He wore a red kerchief around his neck and his glance was on her reflection.
She'd seen him at the rat pit. He'd marked her and considered her to be easy prey, she thought. She could see the outline of the ned under his jacket, a bag filled with sand. Stuffed in his belt he would use it to stun his victims before he stole from them. There was also a knife in a sheath strapped to his wrist. This lad meant business.
Her blood ran cold. He was dangerous, for he wouldn't hesitate to use his weapon on his unsuspecting victim, especially one who was too weak to fight back. She wasn't going to allow him to help himself to the pickings she'd worked for. But though she couldn't fight him she could outwit him.
Beyond him was the gentleman with the handsome eyes. He lifted his arm when he saw her, and she hunched her shoulders to disguise the small jutting breasts that had grown shortly after her fifteenth birthday. She hated men staring at them.
Better to be safe than sorry. Celia picked up speed, threading in and out of the people, scattering wandering chickens. Pigs and dogs snapped at her heels and a couple of curses followed after her . . . a sound that continued behind her as the lad speeded up. Mingling with a cluster of people, she ducked down a flight of steps. Pausing for just a moment, she turned her cape inside out to reveal the dull green-checked lining.
She didn't have long to wait. A few seconds later her pursuer ran past, his shabby boots a soft clatter on the spread of dung coating the cobbles. Pulling the hood up over her hair she headed back up and retraced her steps, walking like an old woman and not looking at the gentleman, who didn't give her a second glance as they passed each other.
She took a look behind her. Of the lad or the gentleman there was no sign now. She picked up speed, heading towards home; though she felt uneasy, as if she were still being observed. Celia was soon tucked out of sight in the basement hovel she shared with her mother and sister.
Their home was one miserable cellar, which was damp with mould in the winter. The ceiling pressed down on them, so her mother had to bow her head if she stood. At the moment, Alice Laws was stitching the seam on a pair of trousers she was making, a garment that would earn her eight pence. If she was diligent and trade was good, the occupation of trouser hand would earn Alice three shillings a week. But she had to buy her own thread and needles, so the pittance didn't go far enough.
Her mother didn't talk about it, but Celia knew she earned money in other ways as well, but she never brought men home. Here, her mother had her own sleeping arrangement, a mattress spread on the table.
At the back of the cellar a small and grimy barred window allowed a grey smear of daylight to penetrate. Barely three feet away they had stretched a ragged sheet across on a length of string. Behind that sheet, Celia slept with her sister Lottie. It provided an illusion of privacy.
âYou can't trust men, Celia,' Alice Laws had told her. âIt was your father who brought about my downfall.'
Her mother didn't often bring up her past. She spoke, and sometimes acted, as if she hadn't been brought up to such a life as the one she now led. And indeed, she hadn't been. She'd been the eldest of three daughters, and had taught in the church school for two mornings a week.
Celia had listened with interest when her mother said of the man who'd fathered her: âJackaby Laws was his name, and I still use it because, as far as I know, I'm still legally married to him, and I have the papers to prove it. He was a charming rogue. It was my father, Richard Price, who brought Jackaby home to dinner.'
Celia loved it when Alice Laws spoke of her past life, which was very different from the one they led now, but something Celia aspired to.
âJackaby was a theatre impresario looking for investors. We married and came to London, staying in a fancy hotel while he did business. The show didn't eventuate. A month later Jackaby left for America to seek his fortune. He took my money with him, but left me you to remember him by, and a note to say I was to go home to my father, and he'd join me when he'd made his fortune.'
Celia stored each crumb of information in her memory. âWhat did you do then?'
âI stole out of the hotel at midnight and made my way back home. My father was a broken man when I told him. He'd invested heavily, you see, and although he didn't tell anyone lest he look like a fool, it got out because Jackaby had persuaded father's friends to invest too.
âWhen Jackaby didn't return for me, my father was convinced that his good name was ruined. And indeed, the family was no longer welcome at the local social gatherings. He needed someone to blame, and although he didn't turn me from his door, he sent me to be a companion to his cousin in Scotland.'
A stern-faced old man with a funny voice snatched at Celia's memory.
âThat's where you were born. We lived there for five years, with father supporting us, until his cousin died. I'd hardly got back home when my father followed her into the grave. My stepmother accused me of bringing about his death, and used it as an excuse to turn us out of the house.'
âWhat about your half-sisters . . . my aunts?'
âHarriet and Jane?' Her mother had given a slight shrug. âThey were young, and in no position to argue against her authority. Though Harriet pleaded with her mother to allow us to stay, she wouldn't hear of it. I haven't seen any of them since the week following my father's funeral. What my father had left went to his wife. I was given the coach fare to London and twenty pounds, and advised not to go back to Hanbury Cross again.'
âThat's not fair,' she said hotly. âIt wasn't your fault that Jackaby Laws turned out to be a liar and a trickster. You were as much a victim as they were. One day I'm going to hunt the man down and do the same to him. I'll trick him out of everything he's got, and see if he likes it. And I'm going to find those sisters of yours too, and give them a piece of my mind.'