Authors: Paula Marshall
âJust saw a girl go by, old fellow, through the door there, running like a hare. I got lost in the backstairs, don't you know.'
He finished with Sir Ratcliffe, and turned his drunken gaze on Hoskyns. âHelp me to find my way out. Left m'hat with the doorkeeper. Don' want to catch cold.'
He knew that he was risking having Hoskyns take him at his word, and that he might show him out through the main entranceâwhich would mean leaving the abused child behind on top of the wardrobe.
The risk had been worth taking, however, for Sir Ratcliffe roared, âFind your own way out, Grant. Hoskyns, go after the little bitch. She can't have got very far. And you, Grant, get Madame to call you a cab.'
He turned on his heel to make his way back up the stairs to whatever hell-hole he had come from, where the special and curious tastes of depraved gentlemen were catered for. Hoskyns, shrugging his shoulders and mentally damning the demanding nature of the powerful in his world, did what Sir Ratcliffe bid him.
Cobie heaved a great sigh and straightened up when he found himself alone again. He turned towards the wardrobe, called up softly to the waiting child, âLittle 'un, put out a hand, and I'll try to get you down and away from here.'
It took some manoeuvring before she was beside him in the hall again; it was much harder to get her safely to the ground than it had been to throw her up.
Once down, the child seized his hand and covered it with kisses. âOh, thankee, mister, thankee, for saving me.'
âNot saved yet,' said Cobie shortly. âThank me when you are. We can't leave by the easiest way, we might meet Hoskyns coming back. Now, how strong are you?'
âAs strong as you want me to be, mister,' she said fervently. âOnly, I ain't got nowhere to go, that's all. It were me stepdad what sold me to this place.'
Cobie, wondering what further disgraceful revelations the night held for him, threw back his cape, and asked, âIf I lifted you up, and sat you with your legs around my waist and your arms around my chest and your head on it, and I arranged my cape around us like so, could you stay there, quiet like a mouse, while I walk us both out of this miserable pigsty?'
She nodded vigorously, and as speedily as he could, he hid her beneath the voluminous folds of his cape. She clutched him in a grip as strong as death. He was grateful that he wasn't wearing his usual overcoat, but had decided to play the dandy on his first night alone, out on the town.
Finding the way back to the entrance wasn't difficult. He made idle chat with the gorgon, and left her a large tip so that she might contemptuously think him yet one more American visitor with more money than sense.
He used his good left hand to take his top hat and scarf, keeping his right hand and arm inside the cloak to steady the girl, once again grateful to the fate which had made him ambidextrous. This time his unusual skill was not going to save his own life, but might save that of the child he was carrying.
Cobie could feel her breathing, and she had been right when she had told him that she would be as strong as he wanted. Her grip continued vice-like, and he walked indolently along, apparently unencumbered. He was grateful that Madame's doorkeepers were tired and incurious, only too glad to get rid of him now that he had finished spending his money with them.
Once outside and walking along the Haymarket, still a sea of light although it was now well past midnight, he continued to carry the girl beneath his cloak. He dare not let her down, for a man of fashion walking along with an oddly-dressed girl-child at one in the morning would be sure to attract unwanted attention, even in the Haymarket.
Particularly in the Haymarket, where he knew that all the vices in a vicious city were available for those who had the money to pay for them.
He paused and thought for a moment. The Salvation Army, of course. Susanna was one of a group of society women who were involved in helping the poor and unfortunate. She had once told him that the Salvation Army had shelters where the wretched might find succour, even in central London.
He had been mildly interested, he remembered. Susanna had mentioned that there was one not far from Piccadilly. He made sure that the child was still firmly gripping him and set off to find it.
t the shelter, which had originally been a small church hall, the Salvation Army was giving tea and comfort to a group of derelicts. They included a battered tramp, and a prostitute who had been brutally beaten by one of her clients and had staggered in to the Sally Ann's Haymarket refuge for help just before Cobie walked in.
He was so unlike their usual customer that everyone stared at him and his physical and sartorial splendours. The man who was busy bandaging the tart's wounds, and the two young women who were looking after the tea were as bemused by him as the down and outs whom they were tending.
For the moment he kept the child hidden beneath his cloak.
âI am told that you save soulsâand bodiesâhere,' he drawled, looking around him. âI need your help and I see that I was told aright.'
âThat is true,' said the Captain, walking forward. A middle-aged man of undistinguished face and figure, he had been seated at a desk at the back of the hall, writing in a
ledger. âWhat may we do for you? We are always ready to help a soul in need.'
âOh, your help is not required for me, sir. At least, not this time. In fact I fear that I may be unsaveable at any time. But I do need advice of the most delicate nature, and if there is a room where we may speak privately, I should be grateful if we might retire there.'
The Captain looked at Cobie, at his easy air of authority, his aura of wealth and power. What advice could he possibly be in need of?
âVery well. Come this way, please.' So saying, he led the way into a small room off the main hall.
âNow, what may I do for you?'
Cobie smiledâand unfurled his cloak.
âI repeat, not for me, sir. It is this poor child for whom I need your assistance. You understand that there are few places where I may take her without suspicion falling on me.'
By now the little girl in her tawdry and unsuitable finery was fully revealed. She slid gratefully down Cobie's long length to sit on the floor.
âCoo-er, mister, that were hard work, that were.'
âYou see now why I asked for somewhere a little more private, Captain,' Cobie said. âThis is not a pretty story, and neither of us would welcome publicityâeven though it is a mission of mercy on which we are engaged.'
The Captain nodded. He offered the little girl a chair, but he and Cobie remained standing.
âNow,' he said, âTell me your storyâalthough I think that I can imagine the gist of it.'
âThe trade in children being neither new nor rare, I am sure that you can. I believe that some years ago the Sal
vation Army found itself in trouble when it tried to reveal the facts to a disbelieving world.'
âThat is so,' agreed the Captain, surprised a little by the knowledge of the arrogant and handsome young man before himâeven more surprised to find that he had seen fit to rescue a child from the slums. âYou are referring to the Stead case, I take it, sir, when those who were trying to save exploited children were sent to prison and those who exploited them escaped punishment. You are saying that you have knowledge of something similar?'
âOh, come.' Cobie's voice was as satiric as he could make it. âYou are not about to pretend that, living and working where you do, near to the Haymarket, you are unaware of what goes onâ'
He was rudely interrupted by the little girl standing up and tugging at his hand, âI'm hungry, mister.'
To the Captain's further surprise the young dandy before him went down on one knee, took a large handkerchief from an inner pocket of his immaculately cut jacket, and carefully began to clean the child's face.
âSo you must be,' he told her gently. âDo you think we could ask this gentleman to find you something to eat while he and I talk about what to do with you?'
She nodded, and then suddenly grasped his hand again. She kissed it, gasping, âOh, Gawd, mister, you won't send me back, will you? Let me eat in here. I feel safe wiv you.'
âNo, I won't send you back, I promise. I'll find somewhere safe for you to go.'
He stood up again, and thought, My God, and now the rage is making me rescue slum children, when all I want is a night's sleep!
He said brusquely to the Captain, âYou can feed her?'
The Captain went to the door, and called to one of the
women, who presently came in with a bowl of soup and a buttered bread roll.
âWhat's your name, little girl?' she asked the child, who took the bowl from her and began drinking greedily from it without using the spoon.
âLizzie,' she said, âLizzie Steele,' and then, to Cobie, âWhat's yours, mister?'
Cobie began to laugh, stopped, and asked her gravely, bending his bright head a little, âWhat would you like it to be?'
He felt, rather than saw, the Captain look sharply at him. Lizzie, slurping the last drops of the soup, said through them, âAin't yer got a name, then?'
âNot really,' Cobie told her, which was, in a way, the truth. He had no intention of letting anyone at the shelter know who he really was. Caution was his middle name, although many who knew him would have been surprised to learn that.
Now that the child was safe the rage had begun to ebb. It was leaving him emptyâexcept for his head, which was beginning to hurt. Soon, he knew, his sight would be affected. But he could not leave until Lizzie's immediate future was assured.
She was still watching him, a little puzzled.
âEveryone has a name, mister,' she finally offered him.
âOf sorts,' Cobie agreed gravely.
The Captain took a hand. Lizzie, starting on her roll and butter, continued to watch them, or rather to watch Cobie, who seemed to be the magnet which controlled her small universe.
âI think,' the Captain said, âthat we ought to ask my aide, Miss Merrick, to find Lizzie something more suitable for her to wear. You and I must talk while she does so.'
To Cobie's amusement Lizzie, pointing at Cobie, chirped, âI ain't goin' nowhere wivout 'im, and that's flat.'
Again the Captain was surprised by his manner towards Lizzie. Cobie spoke to her pleasantly and politely after the fashion in which he would address Violet Kenilworth, Susanna, or the Queen.
âYou're quite safe here, Miss Steele. You will be well looked after, I'm sure. Nothing bad will happen to you whether I am present or not. You have my word.' He took her grubby hand and bowed over it.
Her eyes were still watchful. She had been betrayed too often to believe that he would necessarily keep his word.
âYou promise?' was all she said.
âI promise.' He was still as grave as a hanging judge.
He was aware that the Captain's shrewd eyes were on him, trying to fathom him. His whole interest centred on Cobie, not on the child. He had doubtless seen many like herâbut few like him, someone apparently unharmed by the world's wickedness.
The rage revived for a moment, to die back again. God knew, if no one else did, how near Cobie Grant had once been to dereliction, violation, and death!
The woman who had brought Lizzie the soup was called in once more, to take away both the empty bowl and the child, with orders to find something respectable for her to wearâafter she had been washed.
Lizzie demurred a little at the notion of being washed, until Cobie said, his voice confidential, âOh, do let them wash you, Miss Steele. I like washing, I assure you, and do it a lot.'
She stared at his golden splendour for a moment, before saying, âYus, I can see yer do.' To the woman leading her
from the room she said, ungraciously, âI'll let yer wash me so long as yer don't get soap in me eyes!'
âTo be brief,' Cobie said to the Captain, âI stole her from Madame Louise's and then brought her here because I had heard that you were in the business of saving such lost souls. By good chance she had succeeded in escaping from the man who would have violated her. She owes her safety, if not her life, to her own wits.'
âAnd to you.' The Captain's face was as impassive as he said this as that of the strange young man to whom he was talking. He was taking nothing on trust, not even the child's rescuer. He was also showing little of the humble subservience usually offered in England by those of the lower classes to their superiors.
âI was an instrument, merely,' drawled Cobie, âthere to see that she was not caught again.'
âYou were one of Madame's clients?'
âAfter a fashion, yes.'
Cobie was languid, unapologetic. âNow let us speak of her disposition. She told me that her stepfather had sold her to the house.'
Since he was a good Salvation Army man, the Captain could neither curse nor blaspheme, but the sound which escaped from him could have been construed as either.
âExactly,' agreed Cobie. âThe vile business is run from the top floors of Madame Louise's sumptuous houseâI'm sure you know that without me telling you.'
âYesâand I can do nothing. Evidence which would stand up in court is impossible to find. I cannot even do as much as you did tonight.'
âWhich is little enough. So many sparrows fall. I was privileged to save oneânot more. Now, what shall we do
with this one poor sparrow?' Cobie was pleased to see by his expression that the Captain took the Biblical allusion.
âWhom God has permitted you to rescue.'
The Captain was rebuking him, no doubt of that.
âGod.' Cobie raised his beautiful eyebrows. âAh, yes, the All Powerful. Who allows so many to fall into the pitâ¦so many sparrows to fallâ¦and who put Lizzie in the way of her captors. No matter, I will not refine on theological points with youâonly ask what may be done for her.'
Cobie's smile was cold, not really a smile at all. âMoney is not a problem, sir.'
He put his hand into his jacket pocket, pulled out his purse, and opened it. A cascade of golden sovereigns fell onto the dirty deal table which stood between him and the Captain.
âThis is merely the beginning, a token of good intent.'
The Captain said, âWho, and what, are you buying? God, salvation, me or the child?'
Cobie answered him in his most sardonic mode. âAll of them, sir, all of them. Everything is for sale, including salvation, and may be bought either by moneyâor by love. If your conscience will not allow you to help such a sinner as I am, then I shall take the child elsewhere to find those who are not so particular, but who will offer us assistance.'
The money was back in his purse and he was striding to the door. Oh, the damnable, monstrous arrogance of him, thought the Captainâbut Lizzie's rescuer had said âus', associating himself with the child, and he would be failing in his Christian duty to refuse her succour because of the nature of the man who was asking for it on her behalf.
He thought that the stranger had a contempt for the whole worldâhimself included. He must not allow that to
sway him. There were two souls to save hereânot one. In some fashion it was not the child who had the greater need.
He said to Cobie's back, âWait one moment. There is a home where I may place her temporarily, where she will be safe. We have a shortage of permanent accommodation.'
âMore fallen sparrows than you can deal with?'
âIf you like.'
âThen I will make you a proposition. Take Lizzie Steele into your permanent care, and I will give you enough money to buy, equip and maintain a house large enough to give shelter for up to twenty such, where they may be schooled and cared for until they are old enough to make their own way in the world.'
âDare I believe that you mean what you say, sir?'
âNo one,' Cobie told him, and his voice was deadly, âhas ever had reason to doubt my word, whether what I promise be good or ill.'
âI must know your name, sir.'
Cobie considered. He had no wish to tell the Captain the one by which high society knew him, but he had never hesitated to use another when it seemed more profitable, or safer, to do so. He did so now.
âI told Lizzie that I have no name. I was born without one. You and she may call me Mrâ¦'
He hesitated; some freakish whim was urging him to give his true father's name, Dilhorne. He compromised, finished with a grin, ââ¦Mr Dilley. John Dilley.'
The Captain thought that he knew that he was being lied to. He watched Cobie fling the purse back on the table and pull his sketchbook from the poacher's pocket in his cape.
Cobie began to write in it. He looked up and said, âYour name isâ¦?'
The Captain said stiffly, âBristow, Ebenezer Bristow.'
âWell, Captain Ebenezer Bristow, my man of business will call on you tomorrow. At what time?'
âI am here from four in the afternoon.'
âAt four-thirty, then. Have some of your financial advisers present. My man will arrange with you whatever needs to be done. The money will come through him. Should you wish to contact me, you will do so through him. You will not attempt to trace meâif you do, you will forfeit what I am offering you. You understand me? I have a mind to be an unknown benefactor.'
He laughed the most mirthless laugh the Captain had ever heard. âThat is what you will tell your superiorsâthe money comes from an unknown benefactor.'
He tore out another sheet, wrote on that and thrust it at the Captain.
âThat is for you to keep. You will give it to my man when he calls tomorrow. Now you may tell me where you propose to place Lizzie for the time beingâso that I may call on her, and satisfy myself that she is being well treated.'
Stunned by this unexpected bounty, the Captain picked up the paper.
âWhy are you doing this, Mr Dilley?'
âA whim. Nothing more.' Cobie was short.
âAnd the others? What of them?'
âThe others mistreated at Madame Louise's house. Those not so fortunate as Lizzie.'
Cobie's smile was wolfish. âOh, you must see that I cannot rescue all of them. But those who run the trade there, and those for whom they run it, will I assure you, pay, in one way or another.'