Authors: Dilly Court
Tags: #Sagas, #Fiction
Bailey sat back in his chair, grinning and patting his belly. ‘That was good. The old bitch would be mad as fire if she could see us now.’
Cassy giggled as she ran her finger round her plate, licking up the last of the lovely thick gravy. ‘We’re all right, ain’t we, Bailey? You don’t have to go away now.’
His smile faded. ‘I dunno about that, Cass. The money’s almost gone and we’ve got all these mouths to feed. Biddy was going to take in a couple more kids, so I believe, and she used to make a bit extra by laying out corpses.’
Cassy pushed her plate away with shudder. ‘I never knew that.’
‘She were up to all sorts,’ Bailey said, shaking his head. ‘I’m certain she used to pilfer things from the dead people and sell the stuff to a fence in Blackfriars. She used to send me there with things although she never let on where they come from.’
‘What sort of things?’
‘Pocket watches, bits of jewellery, gold chains, silk scarves. All manner of small items that wouldn’t at first be missed, and by the time they was she’d have cut and run.’
Cassy digested this in silence. Learning about Biddy’s sordid world of petty crime was shocking, but even worse was the fact that Bailey seemed to have been a part of it. She met his frank gaze with a question in her eyes.
‘I never stole a thing,’ he said as if reading her thoughts. ‘I was tempted at times, but I wouldn’t want to go down that path. I don’t want to spend the rest of me days languishing in a filthy prison cell.’
‘What will we do, then? How will we manage?’
Bailey rested his elbows on the table, clasping his hands together with a thoughtful frown. ‘Them nippers will have to go to the orphanage, Cass. No, don’t look at me like that. It’s for the best, because we can’t raise babies. You’re not much more than a baby yourself and I’ve got to earn money somehow. They need to go where they’ll be looked after proper and nursed when they’re sick.’
Cassy bowed her head. She knew what he said made sense, but to lose all her little charges in one go would tear at her heartstrings. ‘But they ain’t orphans,’ she protested. ‘Supposing their real mas come for them.’
‘Cass, they’ve been abandoned by their mothers. Do you ever remember anyone coming to take their nipper home?’
‘My ma came.’
‘And she left again, ducks. I don’t want to be cruel but she can’t have you with her any more than the unfortunate women who left their nippers with Biddy. They might as well have tossed their babies in the Thames as leave them to her tender mercies.’
‘Ma will come back for me,’ Cassy said firmly. ‘She loves me, I could tell.’
‘Of course she does, but don’t set too much store by her coming to take you away, that’s all I can say.’
Cassy rose to her feet and collected up their tin plates and mugs. ‘She’ll come back, I know she will. Everything will be all right.’
Bailey reached out to grasp her thin wrist. ‘Don’t be scared, Cass. I’ll look after you, but we must find homes for the little ’uns.’
Bailey went out early next morning to seek out an orphanage that would take all four infants and Freddie, should he be well enough to leave hospital. Cassy was left alone with the babies and she took extra time with each one, washing and changing them before giving them their milk. If Ma comes back soon, she thought dreamily, perhaps she could take all of them. Maybe the kind lady who Ma works for would like to adopt a ready-made family, and then they could all live together in a big house up West, or perhaps Ma would take them to India. Cassy’s imagination was working overtime. Closing her eyes she had visions of eternal sunshine, exotic flowers and beautiful ladies with black hair and dark brown eyes. Bailey had once given her a picture book that had fallen off a stall in Petticoat Lane, or so he said. It had been illustrated in rich bold colours depicting women swathed in bright silk saris and handsome men in strange costumes far different to the way men dressed in London. There had been elephants and tigers, monkeys and mongooses. The whole rich tapestry had filled her head with wonder and longing to see her native land.
Cassy jumped at the sound of someone hammering on the front door. She sat very still, waiting to see if any of the other tenants answered the urgent summons. She had heard Wall-eyed Betty and Edna screeching at each other earlier in the day. They often fought like wildcats and earlier in the morning they had fallen out over one thing or another, and one of them had slammed out of the house leaving the other to retire to bed. Cassy knew that for certain as the groaning bedsprings were an instant giveaway. She held her breath, listening intently, but there was no sign of life in the rest of the house, and if the din continued it would wake the babies and they would start bawling again. Reluctantly, Cassy went to open the door. ‘Who’s there?’
A booted foot was thrust over the threshold and Nogger Hayes, the rent collector, barged his way in. ‘Where is she?’ he demanded. ‘Where’s the old cow? She owes me a month’s rent and I ain’t going nowhere until I’m paid.’
Cassy backed away from him. Nogger was notoriously short-tempered and not above cuffing a person round the ear if he felt so inclined. ‘She’s dead,’ Cassy whispered.
‘Dead.’ Nogger slapped his thighs and let out a roar of laughter that echoed throughout the house. ‘That’s the best excuse I’ve heard this week.’
‘No, really,’ Cassy insisted. ‘She passed away yesterday. If you don’t believe me you can go to Mr Crabbe’s funeral parlour and see her laid out in her coffin.’
He scowled at her. ‘If you’re lying, it’ll be the worse for you.’
‘I’m telling you the truth.’
He pushed past her and barged into the room, peering into every dark nook and cranny as if he expected to find Biddy crouched in the smallest of spaces. He came to a halt, pushing his battered and greasy top hat to the back of his head. ‘Well, she ain’t here, that’s obvious.’
‘She’s stone cold dead, I tell you.’
He grabbed Cassy by the scruff of her neck. ‘I’ll soon find out whether you’re lying or not, but in any case, I want you and them brats out of here by tomorrow morning.’
Cassy wriggled free from his grasp. She stared at him with a shiver of disgust. He reminded her of a big black spider with his tight trousers and ill-fitting frock coat that must have belonged to a much smaller man. ‘You can’t turn us out on the street for nothing.’
He leaned towards her, his breath smelling of rotten fish and carious teeth. ‘No rent money, no lodgings. Pay up a month’s back rent and a month in advance and I might change me mind.’ He strode out of the room and made for the staircase. ‘Now this is part of my job I don’t mind. I’m going to collect me rent one way or another from Wall-eyed Betty and Edna.’ He disappeared around the bend in the stairs.
Cassy closed the door of the big room and leaned against it trembling. She wished that Bailey would come home. She needed to talk to him urgently. Was there enough money to give Nogger what he demanded? She simply did not know, and there was nothing she could do but sit and wait for Bailey to return.
‘We haven’t got anything like that amount,’ Bailey said when she told him of Nogger’s demands. ‘I thought she might have owed a week, but the old bitch must have been spending the lot on drink and opium. There’s no way we can pay him, Cass.’
‘What will we do?’
‘I dunno.’ He took off his cap and threw it across the room. ‘I’ve had no luck with them bloody orphan asylums. They ain’t interested in abandoned babies; all they want is nippers from wealthy families who can afford to donate money to their cause. I’ve worn holes in me boots tramping from one place to the other. No one wants the poor little mites, and that’s a fact.’
‘Have you paid Mr Crabbe?’ Cassy asked as an idea occurred to her. ‘Leave Biddy to have a pauper’s funeral and we can use the money for rent and stay on here. I’ll look after the babies and you can find work somewhere. You can read and write, you’re clever, Bailey.’
‘It’s no use, nipper. Old Crabbe’s no fool. He wanted the money up front or he wouldn’t take her. I could hardly leave her on the pavement; although it was tempting, believe you me.’
‘Then we’ve no money and no one wants the babies, and tomorrow we’re going to be thrown out on the street.’
He ruffled her hair. ‘That’s it in a nutshell, Cass. But we ain’t beaten yet, and the first thing to do is to find the little ’uns a home. If the orphanages won’t take them in then there’s only one place left.’
‘Not the workhouse, Bailey. Oh, you can’t mean to leave them poor little mites in that awful place.’
‘At last they’ll get three meals a day, and a smattering of education. They’ll have a chance in life, which is more than they had with Biddy.’
‘But the workhouse,’ Cassy’s breath hitched on a sob. ‘I can’t bear to think of it.’
Next morning before daybreak, Cassy had fed and changed the babies and they were tucked up in two herring boxes like little fish, protected from the bitter cold by the coverlet from Biddy’s bed. Bailey had borrowed Eddie’s barrow, promising to return it in time for him to begin his daily round. The steel-rimmed wooden wheels made grinding noises as the cart rumbled over the frosty cobblestones. St Luke’s workhouse was less than a mile away, but they had to push the heavy cart through narrow streets choked with horse-drawn vehicles and costermongers’ barrows. The workhouse was situated in Shepherdess Walk, not more than a stone’s throw from the Grecian Theatre and the Eagle Tavern, but these landmarks held no interest for Cassy. She tried to be brave but leaving the little ones outside the huge iron gates was the hardest thing she had ever done. If it had not been for Bailey’s determined cheerfulness and optimism, she would have turned round and taken them back to the only home they had ever known. But the infants slept even as Bailey laid their boxes on the ice-cold paving stones, and he lifted Cassy onto the cart in their place. ‘We’ll get back twice as quick this way,’ he said with a grim smile. ‘Hold tight, Cass.’
The first grey light of dawn had begun to filter between the tightly packed buildings in Three Herring Court. They left the cart outside the house where Eddie and his son lived in a damp basement surrounded by piles of objects that had been discarded by some, but might have a small street value to others. Cassy slipped her hand into Bailey’s as they walked the last few yards to the home that they were in danger of losing. ‘What will we do now?’ she murmured nervously. ‘Nogger will be back to collect his money and if we can’t pay we’ll be out on the street.’
Bailey squeezed her fingers. ‘I got a job, ducks. I was waiting for the right moment to tell you, but perhaps Nogger will give us a bit more time to pay in the circumstances, and . . .’ He broke off as a man in uniform stepped out of the shadows.
‘Where was you last evening, Private Moon? You was supposed to report for duty but you didn’t turn up. You’re on a charge, Private. Absent without leave and you ain’t even been in the army one day. Now that’s a record in my book. You’re in trouble, my son.’
Cassy sat on the front step with her pitifully few belongings tied up in a scrap of cloth. Dazed and too heartbroken to cry, she huddled against the door that was closed on her forever. Bailey had been dragged off by the recruiting sergeant, who had refused to listen to his protests, insisting that no one was exempt from the rules no matter what their personal situation. Bailey, it seemed, had enlisted in the army thinking he had a day or two in which to sort out his affairs, but the army had other ideas. Now he was gone and the babies would have been taken into the workhouse to endure the fate of the sick and destitute. Then there was poor little Freddie, left in the hospital with no one other than herself to care if he lived or died. She could only hope that some charitable person would take him under their wing and see to it that he had a decent upbringing. Perhaps he would have a better chance now than if he had remained with Biddy.
Cassy made an effort to put him and the other infants out of her mind as she struggled to come to terms with her greatest loss. How she would face the world without Bailey she could not begin to imagine. His was the first voice she remembered hearing and the only person who had shown her kindness and affection. He was her family and she could not envisage a future without him. And then, as if matters could get any worse, Nogger had turned up soon after Bailey’s sudden departure and he had been less than sympathetic.
Now she was alone and although Bailey had turned out his pockets and given her everything he had in the whole world, she only had tuppence three farthings and that would not go far. A sleety rain had begun to fall, and she had only a thin woollen shawl to protect her from the cold and damp. The walk to the workhouse had all but done for her boots and the uppers flapped open, exposing her bare toes, while the rainwater seeped through holes the size of pennies in the soles. If only she knew where her mother worked she could make her way there and throw herself on the rich lady’s mercy. Ma would look after her, but she had no idea where to find her. For the first time in her life, Cassy was utterly alone and there was no one to whom she could turn. There was only one place to go and she had already been there once that day. She struggled to her feet. She had a simple choice: the workhouse or a slow painful death from starvation and exposure on the streets.
She struggled to her feet, and clutching the bundle beneath her arm she made her way out of the court into Redcross Street. With her shawl wrapped tightly around her head and half blinded by the rain beating on her face, she stepped off the pavement and was almost run down by a carriage and pair. The coachman drew the horses to a sudden halt and Cassy collapsed in the gutter, unhurt but in a state of shock. All round her there was noise. The terrified horses whinnied and snorted, pounding their hooves on the cobbles in their distress. The coachman was roaring expletives and from the carriage came the sound of a woman’s voice.
‘What’s wrong, Smith?’
Someone was lifting her from the mud and dung that clogged the gutter and a voice was demanding to know if she was hurt, but Cassy shook free of the helping hands. If an angel had flown down from heaven and spoken to her she could not have been happier. She staggered to the door of the carriage, peering up at the anxious face of the occupant. ‘Ma, is it really you?’
‘Heaven preserve us. Cassy.’ The door swung open almost knocking Cassy off her feet, but the groom, who had been the one to lift her from the mud, caught her before she fell to the ground.
‘Steady on there, nipper.’ The voice was gruff but kindly.
‘Is she all right, Smith?’ Mahdu alighted from the carriage, landing in a filthy puddle but seemingly oblivious to the fact that her shoes were muddied and her stockings ruined. ‘Are you hurt, child?’
‘It’s a miracle,’ Cassy breathed. ‘You found me, Ma.’
Mahdu cast an anxious glance at the groom. ‘Lift her into the carriage, Smith. The poor child must be delirious if she thinks I am her mother.’
Smith looked doubtful. ‘But she’s a guttersnipe. She must live round here and her folks will be looking for her.’
‘This is the child I came for,’ Mahdu said firmly. ‘I don’t know why she is in this state, but I am instructed to take her to Mrs Fulford-Browne’s establishment in Duke Street. Those are Lady Davenport’s orders.’
Reluctantly, Smith lifted Cassy into the carriage, and Mahdu climbed in after her. ‘Tell Watkins to drive on. Mrs Fulford-Browne is expecting us.’ She slammed the carriage door as if to emphasise her words and the groom disappeared from view. Moments later the carriage began to move forward and Mahdu turned to Cassy with an anxious expression on her normally serene countenance. ‘Are you hurt in any way, child?’
‘Mama, you came for me,’ Cassy sobbed, throwing herself into Mahdu’s arms. ‘I knew you would.’
Gently Mahdu freed herself from Cassy’s frantic grasp. ‘I could not leave you with that dreadful woman, larla. But there is something you must understand.’
Cassy stared into the handsome face of the woman she believed to be her mother, and she knew that she would do anything to please her. ‘Tell me, Ma. I’ll be a good girl, I promise.’
‘I have no doubt about that, but you must never refer to me as your mother. Never. Do you understand?’
‘Why mustn’t I?’
‘There are good reasons, larla. You must trust me, and do exactly as I say. I am taking you to the home of a kind but slightly eccentric lady, called Mrs Fulford-Browne. She is related by marriage to my mistress, Lady Davenport, who has your best interests at heart. Our relationship will be a big secret, and one you must keep.’
‘A secret,’ Cassy repeated slowly. ‘Are you ashamed of me, Ma?’
‘Mahdu. You must call me that.’
‘I don’t understand.’ Cassy’s eyes filled with tears and her bottom lip quivered. She was trying hard to be brave and grown-up but it was all too much for her.
Mahdu slipped her arm around Cassy’s shoulders. ‘There, there. Don’t upset yourself, little one. All I am allowed to tell you is that you will be well looked after by Mrs Fulford-Browne, and I will be able to see you from time to time. One day, when the time is right, the secret of your birth will be revealed, but until then you must be a good girl and do as you are told. Will you make me that promise, larla?’
Cassy’s head was whirling. Everything had happened so fast that it seemed as though the world was spinning at a different rate. She was emotionally exhausted, tired and very hungry. She nodded her head, unable to speak.
‘I think we understand each other,’ Mahdu said gently. ‘You will be well looked after, little one. Don’t be afraid.’
But Cassy was afraid when Smith lifted her from the carriage and set her down on the pavement outside the elegant Georgian townhouse in Duke Street. She gazed up at the imposing façade thinking that no lesser personage than a duke must live in such a grand mansion, and he had the street named after him too. Perhaps Mrs Fulford-Browne was his housekeeper, a bit like Biddy, because it would be impossible for a mere woman to own such an establishment. Cassy knew nothing about houses belonging to the gentry, but she was certain that poor children were not normally allowed to enter by the front door, especially when it was opened by a man in a black tailcoat who looked as though he had swallowed a poker.
‘Good morning, Poulton,’ Mahdu said calmly. ‘Mrs Fulford-Browne is expecting us.’
Poulton’s sallow skin flushed brick-red as though, Cassy thought, the fire iron he had apparently swallowed had been white hot. She eyed him warily. He was looking down his nose as if she were a nasty smell and she hid behind Mahdu, clutching her skirts as she stepped over the threshold forcing Poulton to move aside.
‘Really, miss. This won’t do,’ he said stiffly. ‘The tradesmen’s entrance is more suitable for her sort.’
Mahdu fixed him with a stony stare. ‘Please inform Madam that we are here.’
This was a side of Mahdu that Cassy had not seen before, and it was obvious that Ma could hold her own when confronted with a bag of wind like the pompous butler. Cassy’s heart swelled with pride. She did not understand what was going on, but she could see that the man was annoyed.
Poulton’s shoulders twitched and his lips disappeared into a thin line of disapproval but he stalked off, leaving them standing in the vestibule while he mounted the staircase, which curved in a great sweep to the first floor. Moments later he reappeared at the top of the stairs, beckoning to them with a set expression on his face.
‘There’s no need to be scared,’ Mahdu said, taking Cassy by the hand. ‘Speak only when you’re spoken too and leave the rest to me.’
If Cassy had thought that the entrance hall, stairs and first floor landing were grand, she was almost overwhelmed by the spacious drawing room. It might be raining outside but the gasoliers filled the room with light, making it seem as if the sun was shining through the tall windows. A fire burned brightly in the grate and the groups of spindly gilded chairs and sofas were upholstered in rich blue velvet. Matching curtains and swags framed the windows and the deep colour contrasted with the pale cream carpet. There were mirrors everywhere and gilt candle sconces on either side of a white marble fireplace. Cassy’s eyes almost popped out of her head as she gazed around the luxurious room. Never in all her born days had she imagined that anyone could live like this. She jumped as she realised that Mahdu was speaking to her.
‘Curtsey,’ Mahdu hissed. ‘Show some respect, Cassy.’
‘What’s curtsey when it’s at home?’ Cassy whispered.
‘Come closer so that I can see you.’
The strident voice emanating from the depths of a wingback chair close to the fireplace made Cassy turn to Mahdu in sudden panic. ‘I want to go home.’
‘Nonsense,’ Flora said, leaning forward and raising a lorgnette to peer at Cassy. ‘Come here, child. I won’t eat you.’
Mahdu nodded her head, and Cassy approached the lady, clasping her hands tightly behind her back. ‘You ain’t going to clout me round the lughole, are you, lady?’
Flora recoiled slightly and then her lips quivered and she chuckled. ‘No, I’m not going to do anything of the sort. Come here, and let me look at you.’ She angled her head, surveying Cassy from head to foot. ‘Great heavens, child. What a state you’re in.’ She beckoned to Mahdu. ‘Take her to Mrs Middleton, and tell her to make certain the child is bathed and deloused before I see her again. Just looking at her is making me itch.’
Cassy found herself dismissed with a wave of a hand laden with gold rings. The old lady was wearing more jewellery than the Queen, although Cassy had only seen pictures of that royal personage. If Mrs Fulford-Browne had a crown or two tucked away in her room, Cassy would not have been surprised. She was so taken with her new employer’s clothes and jewels that she forgot to be scared. ‘Are you very rich, missis?’
Mahdu’s gasp of horror was accompanied by a slap. ‘Mind your manners, Cassy. Apologise to Mrs Fulford-Browne for your impudence.’
‘Don’t scold her,’ Flora said, smiling. ‘She says whatever comes into her head, and I find that refreshing. Too many people say what they think I want to hear. That’s the penalty wealthy widows have to pay for inheriting the estates of three husbands. Yes, Cassy. I am very rich and I’m not ashamed to say so.’ She leaned forward, abandoning her lorgnette. ‘And I think beneath that veneer of grime you have the promise of great beauty. I don’t doubt that one day your face will be your fortune. Now go away and get cleaned up. I don’t want to see you again until you smell like a rose and look like a human being rather than something dragged out of the gutter.’
Mahdu was still scolding Cassy when they arrived below stairs in the servants’ hall. ‘You must not ever speak to the lady of the house in that impertinent way again.’
‘What did I tell you about that?’ Mahdu leaned down so that her lips were close to Cassy’s ear. ‘I am not your mother, larla. Remember that always.’
Before Cassy had a chance to reply they were interrupted by the entrance of a woman almost as grand as Mrs Fulford-Browne, although this person was dressed in sombre black bombazine and not fine silks. The only embellishment to her high-necked gown was a chatelaine at her waist laden with keys of all shapes and sizes.
‘Say how do you do to Mrs Middleton,’ Mahdu urged. ‘She is Mrs Fulford-Browne’s housekeeper and from now on you will do as she tells you.’
‘So this is Lady Davenport’s protégée.’ Mrs Middleton looked Cassy up and down with apparent distaste. ‘She’s small and puny. I doubt if she will be much use to me.’
‘She will grow,’ Mahdu said defensively. ‘The poor child has not had the best start in life. Good food and warm clothes will make all the difference. She is bright and she will learn quickly.’
‘She’s filthy.’ Mrs Middleton moved to the doorway which led into the kitchen. ‘Nancy, come here.’
A girl of fourteen or fifteen bounced into the room, wiping her hands on her apron. ‘Yes, Mrs Middleton.’
‘Take Cassy to the scullery and clean her up. Wash her hair and give it a thorough rinse with vinegar. Take all her clothes and burn them. I’ll see if I can find her a dress in my linen cupboard, although I doubt if there are any small enough.’
‘I can sew, missis,’ Cassy said, braving the stern woman’s scorn. ‘I used to make nightgowns out of old sheets for the little ’uns.’ Her eyes filled with tears yet again at the memory of the babies they had abandoned at the workhouse gates.