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Authors: The Finer Things

Brenda Joyce

BOOK: Brenda Joyce
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For Michael
because in love and dreams there are no
impossibilities
LONDON, 1850
 
“PAPA?”
There was no answer. The small, thin child stood just inside the dark, airless cubbyhole of a room. It was very hard to see because of the blackness and the heavy pall of smoke. It was also difficult to breathe. There was but a single candle burning on the small table set against one rotting wall. But here and there small red lights glowed, not in tandem, at first brightly, then disappearing, like miniature red stars. And with every fierce, brief burning, gaunt shadows became visible, weird and grotesque, almost disembodied; hands and fingers, reaching, curling; mouths and eyeballs, the teeth and the whites oddly, starkly light.
Violet hated this place. She stood on the basement landing of the stairs, her narrow back pressed hard into the oily wood banister. She was a creature of instincts. She wanted to turn, run up the steps, and burst forth into the foggy afternoon outside. Into the fresh, clean air. But she could not.
“Papa!” she cried desperately.
All around her, the ends of opium pipes glowed. A pale hand seemed to emerge in the midst of the bitter, foul-smelling smoke. It waved listlessly. Violet, her heart skipping a beat, ran forward.
She peered at the man who sat in an impossibly awkward position. His legs seemed to be broken in places—either that, or he had become boneless in his euphoria. “Papa! Is that yew?” But even as she spoke, dread gave way to relief, and she reached out, clutching her father’s bony hand. Every day that hand became a little bit thinner.
He blinked at her not once but many times, and, finally, groggily, muttered, “Violet? Wot’s ’appened, gel? Is it yew?”
Violet nodded eagerly as she looked into a pair of watery blue eyes, bloodshot and vacant. But had the light inside the den been better, there would have been no mistaking the familial connection between the pair. Violet’s father was as fair as she would be if she were clean, which she was not, although he was sallow now. Father and daughter were raven-haired, and she had gotten her small nose, jutting chin, and high cheekbones from him. But the precise nature of their relationship might very well have been mistaken. Peter could have been taken for her older brother in spite of the weary, death-ridden look in his eyes. Although more dead than alive, he was not yet twenty-four.
“Yes, Papa, it’s me, Violet, an’ I’ve come to take yew ’ome.” Violet forced a brave, tremulous smile. She was growing nauseated and lightheaded from the acrid-sweet aroma surrounding her. But she did not release Peter’s hand.
“Can’t,” he muttered, putting the pipe into his mouth.
“Papa, please,” Violet begged.
“Tell Emilou I’ll be ’ome t’morrow,” Peter muttered, suddenly pulling his hand away from his daughter’s with surprising strength. For a split instant, anger filled his eyes.
Violet panted. “Mama’s dead. She’s been dead for three years.”
Peter blinked at his daughter as if she were a foreigner spewing gibberish he could not understand.
“I need yew, Papa,” she whispered brokenly.
“T’morrow,” he murmured, his voice growing faint. And suddenly he slumped against the person he sat next to, his head lolling. His neighbor, another skeleton in rags, was too involved in his own affairs to notice. Violet knew her father had fallen asleep.
Tears filled her eyes. “That’s wot yew said yesterday,” she whispered to herself. Yesterday and every day before that for too many days and weeks and months for Violet to count.
“Violet!” A young, urgent voice sounded above her.
Violet brushed her tears away with one torn, stained sleeve. She turned and started up the stairs toward her friend, Ralph. When she reached the ground-floor landing, he gripped her arm, hard and unkindly. “Why do yew keep comin’ back ’ere!” he shouted at her.
Violet’s temper snapped. She jerked her arm free as they
slipped outside into the alleyway. Decrepit tenements lined the alley, patched walls falling apart, slate and thatched roofs missing pieces. Men and women congregated aimlessly on broken stoops. Skinny children played in the mud and dirt, hungry babies cried. A pair of drunken coal porters lurched out of one of the alley’s five gin mills. “It’s none a’ yer business,” she spat into the ground at Ralph’s feet.
He was a pale, sandy-haired boy covered with freckles, perhaps eleven or twelve years old. Like Violet, he was thin to the point of boniness and clad in tattered clothes; like Violet, his eyes were old beyond a child’s years, old and wise and shrewd. “’E ain’t never comin’ out.”
“Don’t say that!” Violet shouted, hitting Ralph with one balled-up fist.
He scowled and pushed her hard enough that she fell into the street, which was a combination of mud and sewage. Violet stood, furious.
Ralph’s expression changed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m afraid when yew go down there.”
Violet’s mouth trembled and she nodded. “But I ’ave to. Wot if ’e dies?”
Two drunk cross-sweepers staggered past them. “’Course ’e’s gonna die,” Ralph said brusquely. “Everyone dies, yew an’ me included, luv.”
Violet did not respond. Then she realized that a phaeton had turned into the alley, a very fancy phaeton, one pulled by two gray mares. Violet froze, recognizing the carriage, which did not belong in the East End, much less St. Giles. Ralph exhaled loudly. The phaeton slowly approached. The driver wore livery. And when it was abreast of the two agog children, it stopped. The alley had became unbelievably still and silent. One and all stared.
One black lacquer door opened and a gentleman in a black suit and top hat stepped out. He used a cane to keep his balance, a silver eagle’s head on top, and was very careful about where he put each highly polished black patent shoe.
“Not ’im again,” Ralph whispered with some fear.
The man had muttonchop sideburns and he smiled slowly at Violet. “G’day, little Violet. That is your name, is it not?”
“Don’t answer ’im,” Ralph said, taking Violet’s elbow. His long face had turned starkly white, causing his freckles to stand out dramatically. Neither child moved.
“’Ow d’ yew know my name?” Violet asked, trembling.
She did not know who this fancy man was. But he was very rich, she could see that, and not just from his phaeton and horses, his driver and clothes. A gold fob watch sparkled from one vest pocket, and, like the silver-topped cane, it was clearly real. Ralph was eyeing it, and she knew he wanted to steal it. The gentleman wasn’t wearing gloves, either, which was odd, because most nobs wore gloves, and a heavy onyx ring glinted from one of his manicured hands. Diamonds were set in the gold around the black stone.
The gentleman smiled again. “I make it a point to learn the names of pretty little ladies like yourself.”
Violet’s mouth dropped open and remained that way. She wasn’t stupid and she knew she was not a lady and would never be one.
Ralph’s stance grew defensive and belligerent at once. “Wot do yew want?”
The gentleman’s gaze moved to Ralph, turning ice cold. “Why don’t you disappear?”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Ralph cried.
The man turned to Violet. “My name is Farminger. Harold Farminger. I heard you had a birthday last week, Violet. How old does that make you now?” His smile was far friendlier than before.
Violet’s insides curdled. Who was this man? She knew everyone of any repute in St. Giles. This man did not live in, or belong in, St. Giles. This man looked like he belonged somewhere in the West End, Belgravia perhaps. Why was he talking to her? She had noticed him twice before. Watching her from his fancy black coach. But he had never spoken directly to her. What did he want?
Whatever he wanted, it was no good. Violet knew enough to know that. His smile was false, enough to scare the dead, and his eyes were cold and mean.
“How old are you, little lady?” he prompted.
Violet found it hard to breathe, harder than it had been downstairs in the small basement where Peter remained. “Ten. I’m ten. Just.”
“Ten. Why that’s a wonderful age. I had a daughter who was ten. Course, she’s grown up now, a lady in her silks and jewels. I imagine a little lady like yourself hankers for silks and jewels. Wouldn’t you like to live in a beautiful house off Regent Street?” His smile widened. “Wouldn’t you like to wear silk dresses and pearl necklaces?”
Violet’s eyes popped. “Live off Regent Street?! Why, that’s where them nobs lives! An’ me—wear silk ’n pearls?!”
“I have a large house, Violet, one with two dozen bedrooms, each with its own marble fireplace. Every bed’s got velvet and furs, and the floors have rugs from Turkey. You’d even have your very own ladies’ maid.”
Violet could hardly believe her ears. “Velvet and furs! Me own ladies’ maid? Gawd!”
Ralph threw his arm around Violet’s shoulders. He sneered. “Wot’s she got to do to live in yer house, Mister Farminger—if y’ don’t mind me askin’?”
Farminger ignored him. “What’s your hair like, sweetheart?”
“Me ’air?” Violet echoed.
“Your hair.” Another smile.
“Why, it’s black,” Violet began. Before she could even finish, he took her cap off her head. A pile of dirty black hair fell down to Violet’s waist.
“I know wot he wants,” Ralph cried.
A look of exasperation crossed Farminger’s features. He slipped his hand into the pocket of his morning coat and produced a small, pearl-handled pistol. “Go away, boy.”
Ralph’s eyes widened. He started to back up. Violet looked from the gun to her best friend, fear making her pulse race. Then Ralph whirled, shouting, “Run, Violet! Run now!”
Violet didn’t hesitate. As Ralph ran away, she also turned and fled.
 
“I never been inside a house with velvet an’ furs,” Violet said. It was growing dark. Nights in London were usually yellow and foggy, and this one was no exception. She and Ralph sat on empty casks outside of a warehouse that was closed for the night. Ahead of them, they could both see the Charing Cross Bridge. A train, outwardbound, was chugging across the Thames. The last third-class coach was visible, passengers packed in like cattle in the roofless car.
“An’ yew niver will be,” Ralph said roughly, taking a small knife out of his boot. One hole exposed his big toe, evidence that he wore no socks.
“I’m not sure I understood ’im,” Violet said, “but I didn’t like ’im. ’E was up to no good.”
“I asked ’round,” Ralph replied, slipping to his feet. “’E keeps whores. ’E wanted yew to whore for ’im.”
Violet stared, stunned. “Me?” she squeaked.
“Yeah, yew.” Ralph’s mouth was tight, his pale gray eyes gleaming. “Turn around,” he said.
Violet looked at Ralph, who was holding up his knife. “Wot now?”
“Just turn,” he snapped.
Violet obeyed, shifting on the barrel, giving Ralph her back. She watched a rowboat navigate past a barge on the Thames, a lantern casting light from its bow, then felt Ralph lift up a huge piece of her hair. He pulled on it. “Ow! Wot yew doin’?”
He did not answer. An instant later he had sawed off a foot-long chunk of her hair.
Violet jerked, whipping around. She stared down at the dirty, knotted tangle of her hair which was at least twelve inches long. “Gawd!” she finally shouted. With one hand she felt for her hair and was relieved to find half of it still in place. Then she realized she was only left with hair on the left side of her head. “Yew lost yer mind!”
“Shut up,” Ralph cried, gripping the other half of her hair. “Or yew want to work flat on yer back with yer legs spread wide servin’ the likes of Farminger an’ his hoighty-toity friends?”
Violet froze, still craning her neck to look at her hair. Ralph sawed on the rest of her mane. It fell to the ground at their feet.
“No,” Violet said slowly. “No. I don’t want to be no whore.” And she reached behind to feel the nape of her neck. Ralph had shorn her shorter than most boys. It was surprisingly cool and it felt surprisingly good.
 
“We need t’ find us some supper,” Violet whispered, shivering in a crouch. It was growing late and she was not just cold but exhausted. But more than that, she was starving. All she’d eaten that day was a small loaf of bread which she’d bought from a vendor outside Covent Gardens with the two pennies she’d earned holding a gentleman’s horse for him.
Ralph smiled at her. They were both hanging onto the sides of a brougham. The carriage was empty, and the coachman had not yet noticed the two children riding the brougham’s side runners. Both Violet and Ralph were used to jumping onto just about any vehicle that moved. “It’s a lovely evenin’, now, ain’t it, luv? Good way to travel.”
Violet smiled. “We’re in Mayfair, Ralph. Lot’s a places to find us some supper.”
“My thinkin’ eggsactly.” Ralph grinned.
Stately town houses lined this particular thoroughfare. Violet felt as if she had entered a different land—a land of princes and fairy tales. The street was paved and surprisingly clean. Stately oaks shaded it. Unlike St. Giles and the more congested city neighborhoods, the air smelled clean and good. There were no pedestrians at this hour, but a lamplighter was extending his pole and flicking on the black gas lamps lining the broad street. It ended just ahead, where another street crossed it horizontally, forming a capital T. The brougham was approaching a huge mansion, its wide front stairs guarded by a pair of snarling limestone lions. The street in front of the mansion was lined with coaches and carriages of every possible description. The vehicles were double- and triple-parked, narrowing the very wide thoroughfare. Liveried coachmen, grooms, and footmen stood in pairs and groups on the sidewalk, chatting. The house itself was lit up brightly from every window—of which there seemed to be a hundred. “Gawd,” Violet suddenly said. “I wonder who lives there.”
BOOK: Brenda Joyce
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