Authors: Jerrica Knight-Catania
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
Victoria didn’t get a single wink of sleep that night, and when dawn broke, she wasn’t any more tired than she’d been hours earlier. Drained perhaps, but she never would have been able to sleep had she lain down on her pillow.
Fin had gone to bed just a little while earlier, if the darkening of the studio and his bedroom were any indication. It was her only chance to safely go to the hospital now that he was sleeping soundly. She would have to be very careful going forward. Fin was far too close to discovering all her secrets.
Victoria rang for Lily and instructed her to have Gil ready the carriage. Then she made quick work of getting ready. Time was certainly of the essence.
The rain began just as she mounted the carriage, and she cursed the skies for their bad timing. It would take far longer to get to
and back in this weather. Well, there wasn’t anything she could do about it now.
She relaxed against the squabs and peeked out the window. They’d barely left Marylebone. The rain was coming even harder now. So hard she couldn’t see more than a few feet from the carriage. She kept her eyes fixed on the passing scenes anyhow; that was far more interesting than staring at the dark walls of her conveyance.
Finally, they crossed the bridge over the Thames and continued on into
. They were mere blocks from the hospital when Gil came to a complete stop.
“What’s the matter?” she called up to him.
Jittery from no sleep and just plain impatient, Victoria tied her bonnet at her neck and grabbed her reticule. “I will walk the rest, Gil.”
“But it’s a bloody squall out there, miss!”
Ignoring his warning, Victoria climbed out of the carriage and shouted back, “I’ll be ready in an hour!”
The rain was cold and hard as it pelted her face. She didn’t run, though. Her feet moved at a brisk walk down the muddied street, and she was careful not to lose her footing. People crowded around her, everyone eager to get in out of the rain, but in the midst of it, she spotted a small child, hand outstretched, begging for money.
Victoria stopped in her tracks and observed the little girl for a moment. Suddenly, she felt as if she were eight years old again, watching the beggar girl from the window of their carriage. She had been struck with the need to help that day, but of course, her mother would never have allowed it. But today . . . well, her mother wasn’t here, was she?
The child was dressed in thin, dirty rags, one of them draped over her head in an attempt to keep her dry. The look on her face was what disturbed Victoria so much, as if she might burst into tears at any moment. But she didn’t. She continued to plead for money from those who passed her. Half of them were too poor themselves to help
the other half too important to care.
Victoria rushed to the child’s side and took her gently by the arm. She bent over so she was at eye level with the girl.
The child’s eyes widened so much that Victoria feared her eyeballs might roll out of her head. “Please don’t turn me in, ma’am. I’m sorry. I’ll stop my begging.”
Clearly the child feared she’d be sent to the authorities. “No, no, my dear, I would never. Here, come with me.” She led the little girl to a storefront that had an awning for them to stand under. “Where are your parents?” she wondered.
“I don’t have a papa. And Mama—she’s sick, ma’am.” Her eyes filled with tears. “She lost her job on account of not
’ able to work. But there’s
’ to eat in the house, ma’am, and Mama’s too sick to leave.”
“Oh, you poor dear,” Victoria said. “What’s your name?”
“Sally, take me to your mother.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yes, really. I mean to help you. Now, hurry, before we both catch our deaths out here in this rain!”
Sally took off ahead of Victoria, her excitement causing her to nearly bounce with every step. Victoria smiled after the girl as she tried to keep up. This was why she did what she did. Why she risked her life night after night. To help little girls like Sally and her mother.
She led them down a darkened alley to a small door. Rats and mice scurried in the shadows. Victoria was no stranger to vermin, so she ignored them and ducked into the door behind Sally. Even though it was fairly dark outside due to the dreary weather, it still took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the gloom of the one-room apartment.
Slowly, she took in the sight . . . and smell. Oh, goodness. No one would ever be able to get well in this environment.
The woman in question lay on a palette in the far corner, so still Victoria wondered if she was even alive. Sally ran to her mother and knelt by her side.
“Mama,” she said, shaking the woman. “Mama, wake up. This lady has come to help.”
The tiniest slit of eye glimmered in the darkness of the room, and an infinitesimal smile came to the woman’s lips. Clearly, she was too weak to speak, though. If she was too weak to speak, there was no way Victoria could get her to the hospital, close as it was. She would simply have to pay house calls until the woman was better. How she would accomplish that with Fin on her tail was another matter entirely, but she would have to find a way—either that or let the woman die. And that was certainly not a choice she was willing to make.
“Sally, do you have any dry clothes? Or a dry blanket, perhaps?” The girl nodded. “Good. Get out of those wet things and wrap yourself up tight, all right. And whatever you do, don’t leave this place. I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Victoria went to Sally’s mother and put a hand to her forehead. Good God, she was on fire. “I’m going to take care of you and your daughter. Just hold on, all right?”
The woman wasn’t able to give a response, but Victoria didn’t need one. She needed to leave and retrieve supplies and food for them.
Enough to last a day or two until she could come back.
Quickly, she left mother and daughter and darted out into the rain again. The hospital was only a few blocks away now, so she was there within minutes.
“Sarah!” she called as she hung her wet things in the entryway.
“Up here, miss!”
Victoria followed the sound of Sarah’s voice and found her with Anna and the new baby in the upstairs room.
“Oh, my,” she breathed as she looked at the small bundle.
“Healthy as can be, miss,” Anna said.
“And what about you, Anna? Are you feeling well?”
“Good.” Victoria turned back to Sarah. “And Molly? How is she?”
“Her fever spiked again last night, but she’s better this morning. Still not fit to care for anybody, but it ought not to be long before she can.”
Blast. Victoria had hoped for a miracle, but it was unrealistic to expect Molly would be completely better by now. It would probably be weeks.
“If there’s nothing urgent you need help with, Sarah, I must be on my way again.”
She explained about the little girl and her mother. “And my own mother is expecting me back soon. I’m so sorry,” she concluded. She truly hated to leave Sarah all alone, but what else was she to do?
“It’s all right,
. Mrs. Potts has been kind enough to offer to stop in and help when I need her. I’m inclined to take her up on it.”
“Oh, yes! Of course, Sarah!” Victoria felt much better now. “How generous of her.”
She left Sarah with a little money to run the hospital for the next few days, though her robbery had fallen through last night, so it wasn’t much.
Only a little of her own pin money.
The rest she would use to buy food for Sally and her mother.
Once she had gathered a few things from the hospital’s supply closet, she headed out into the rain again. Gil sat outside atop the carriage, waiting to take her home.
She threw the blankets and kindling for a fire into the cab so they wouldn’t get wet, and then gave Gil instructions to meet her a few blocks down, closer to Sally’s little home.
Victoria would have to go a few blocks in the opposite direction first, to the market. There she collected bread, cured meats and fresh fruit—as much as she could with what she had left over of her pin money. It was enough to get them by for a couple of days until she could return again.
Food in hand, she darted out from the shelter of the market’s canopy and ran back to the little alley where Sally and her mother lived. Nothing had changed since she’d left them a mere hour ago. Little Sally still sat beside her mother, holding her hand, waiting patiently for Victoria’s return.
“How is she?” Victoria asked as she ducked through the doorway.
Victoria went to the small fireplace that clearly hadn’t held a fire in some time. She threw the kindling in and struck a match. The orange glow lit up the room, illuminating just how dingy the place was. Every surface was dusty. Even spiders had taken to weaving their webs in the corners. This just wouldn’t do.
“Sally,” she said to the little girl, “I want you to put this pot outside the door and collect rain water. We’re going to boil it so you have water to drink and wash with.”
Sally did as she was told, and when she returned, Victoria put her to work cleaning. They wiped down all the surfaces, including the floor, and destroyed the cobwebs and their eight-legged owners.
Over the fire, Victoria showed Sally how to heat the cured meats and make a sandwich of them. Sally devoured the sandwich and by then there was enough water in the pot to put it on the fire. Before they did, Victoria dipped a washcloth in the cold rainwater and placed it on Sally’s mother’s forehead.
“Caroline,” she said,
to the woman’s ear. “You need to eat. You must get your strength back in order to get well.”
Caroline blinked in acknowledgement, but seemed to grow wearier. Victoria imagined just the thought of exuding so much effort would be exhausting in such a state. Perhaps she could make it easier. She crossed the room to the small table that held all the rations she’d brought from the market. If she could extract enough juice from the fruits, perhaps Caroline could drink in the nourishment.
With Sally’s help, they set to work peeling oranges, mashing strawberries and grapes. It took a lot of time, but finally they had enough juice to get a little something into Caroline. Not to mention the flesh of the fruit left over for Sally to eat, which she did eagerly while Victoria spooned the juice into Caroline’s mouth.
When the juice was gone, Victoria asked, “How do you feel?”
Caroline smiled. It was perhaps the smallest smile Victoria had ever seen, but it made her feel triumphant. She left Sally with instructions to keep the fire going and to continue mashing fruits and spooning the juice to her mother.
“I promise I’ll be back. Not tomorrow, but the next day.” She was about to leave when she decided she ought to give instructions to Sally on how to find her should she need her. “If you need me sooner than that, send for me here.” She handed Sally her calling card and then ducked out of the small apartment.
The rain had let up a bit, so she didn’t have to run back to the carriage.
Except she probably should have.
She’d been gone far too long. Victoria only hoped no one noticed that upon her return, or the fact that she was sweaty and dirty and soaked to the bone.
By the time they arrived back in Marylebone, Victoria’s exhaustion had set in. She could barely keep her eyes open, especially in the darkness of the carriage with its lulling motion through the London streets. The pitter-patter of rain against the roof didn’t help her cause, either. Her body ached with the desire for sleep. And it just plain ached from her morning of manual labor. With any luck, no one would bother her once she arrived home, and she’d be able to get a few hours of sleep before afternoon calls began.