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the Dark Lantern
crown Publishers • New York
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Gerri Brightwell
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers,
an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
CROWN is a trademark and the Crown colophon is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Dark lantern : a novel / Gerri Brightwell.—1st ed.
1. Women domestics—Fiction. 2. Great Britain—History—Victoria, 1837–1901—
Fiction. 3. London (England)—Fiction. 4. Impostors and imposture—Fiction.
DESIGN BY ELINA D. NUDELMAN
For Cam, with love
This book is a work of fiction. Although it refers to some historical people and events, my intention was to create a compelling story rather than to write history. I have therefore allowed myself to reimagine them for the purposes of this novel.
I am indebted to many people in writing this novel. I must thank the many members of the VICTORIA discussion list for their generosity in helping with information about late-nineteenth-century Britain. In particular, I'd like to thank Judith Flanders for her willingness to answer tricky questions or point me to sources that would help.
For taking me on, thanks to my wonderful agent, Zoe Fishman, and my insightful editor, Allison McCabe. For their support and encouragement, thank you to Derick Burleson, Anne Caston, David Crouse, Melina Draper, Amber Flora Thomas, Len Kamerling, Anne Carter, Louise Doughty, and Fadia Faqir. For getting me to the point where I could write this novel, thanks to Frank Soos, Don Ross, Gordon Hirsch, Lois Cucullu, and Anna Clark.
Thank you to Conor, Ross, and Callum, who patiently put up with a mother who must have seemed always to be writing. Lastly, for plot fixes, the time to write, and his love, thanks most of all to Cam Esslemont.
By the late nineteenth century, two new technologies appeared which
promised to streamline the process of criminal identification. One,
fingerprinting, is familiar to us. The other, an identification system
based on anthropometry, the physical measurement of the size and
proportions of the human body, has become a historical curiosity. Yet
the two techniques were once well-matched rivals, which vied for
ascendancy for forty years.
— Simon A. Cole, S
uspect Identities: A History of
Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification
the Dark Lantern
London, October 1893
he sits stiffly on the seat of the cart, her whole self held in against the tumult of the city. It is too much: the carriages that clog the roads, the raucous cries of costermongers pushing barrows, the shabby children that hold limp bunches of flowers and cress out to her and, when she shakes her head, run off through the filth of the street in bare feet.
Beside her the driver in his shapeless hat urges the horse on with flicks of a whip. They slip into a gap between a hansom and a fourwheeler, around a corner into a narrow street of frowning houses where the
of the horse's feet echo. On and on they go, through murky streets where men and women are little more than shadows. She waits for grass to appear, or fields, but this is a world where such things do not exist. So many buildings, so many people— she fears she will be swallowed up by it all.
Her breath trails in plumes behind her, then fades into the darkness of the afternoon. Night is creeping out of alleys, out of courtyards, and it's only half past four—as they turn a corner she hears bells ring out close by, then those of another church, and another. She grips the seat with both hands. She thinks how down in Teignton she'd be bringing in the tea, how every day when she opened the study door Reverend Saunders would huff, "Oh, it's you, Jane," and glare at her from over his books, as though she was determined to disturb him.
Does she regret it, leaving his warm house, his vinegary wife, the daily round of scrubbing and scouring? Of course she does. Now as she's driven through these streets by a man who smells not of horses—that she could have borne—but of gin, she wonders if she is safe here, and suspects she is not. She has thrown herself out onto the world, enticed by an advertisement in a newspaper, and a letter written in an elegant hand by a Mrs. Bentley saying that yes, her character is acceptable and for fourteen pounds per annum plus room and board, she will take her on as second housemaid.
Such a step seems folly now. But to have stayed was impossible. The way Mrs. Saunders would go out visiting on Jane's half days off, and not return until teatime, when there was no time left for Jane even to walk into the village. The way she counted out Jane's wages every month and slid the small pile of coins across her desk with the very ends of her fingers, as though there was something dirty in the whole business. The way she fed prim spoonfuls of custard into her flat line of a mouth at dinnertime and, with the smell of it still on her breath, called Jane and Mrs. Phelps up from their work in the kitchen for evening prayers and warnings about extravagance.
That place had closed in around Jane like a wet sheet, and it wasn't until this morning, when she found herself on the station platform with her box at her feet, that she'd realized: she had left it behind. She'd pressed her hand against her pocket and Mrs. Bentley's letter inside it. A sheet of paper—that was all she had to see her safely through the world. Her breath felt hot in her chest, and she couldn't help looking back through the station's archway to the road and the sullen winter sea beyond, though who she thought was going to walk in and tell her not to get on the train she couldn't imagine. Not the Reverend or his wife, that was for sure. They'd already taken on a new girl, who'd arrived four days before she left. Another girl who, like Jane, had been taken from the orphanage to be trained up. But a girl unlike her. Not the daughter of the murderer Martha Wilbred, who'd been hanged by the neck until she was dead. Not a girl they would watch with wariness when she took up the poker to stir the fire, or carried the carving knife to the din ing table. Not a girl whom no one else would take on, whom even the matron had given up hope of hiring out until she'd resorted to the unfair means of appealing to the Saunderses' sense of Christian charity.
Now she has fled from their resentment and suspicions, far away to London. Nearly five hours by train, a wagon waiting for her, a man in a dirty hat and a pipe gripped between rotting teeth to drive her to Mrs. Bentley's house at thirty-two Cursitor Road. She's afraid that she remembers none of the lessons Mrs. Saunders tried to instill in her—or, more accurately, that she left to Mrs. Phelps to instill in her between preparing lunch and dinner. How to polish brass. How to air a bed. How to clean stains from a carpet. But nothing on how to manage all the work of cleaning and waiting at table and answering the door on her own, or how to stay clean and tidy through it all so that she wouldn't show in Mrs. Saunders's guests with soot on her apron or her face flushed and sweating.
When the wagon stops she is caught by surprise. The street lit by the sour yellow of street lamps is grander than she'd expected. Stretching above her is a tall wall of houses like the side of a castle. Here and there slits of light break through where curtains have been drawn and lamps lit. Above hangs a flat sky—no moon, no stars, as though she has come so far that she has left them behind. She holds more tightly onto the wooden seat, but it is too late for that: the man is reining in the horse. With a grunt he climbs down and heaves her box onto the pavement. Even in the dim light she sees that the ground is filthy—with dog dirt, horse dirt, scraps of vegetables—and that he has set down her box in the middle of it.
He holds out a thick hand. She takes it and he helps her down, but he doesn't let go. Instead he ducks his face towards hers until all she can see are his wet eyes and the pitted skin of his nose. "You better watch yourself, little maid," he says. "Take my advice—keep yourself to yourself, and keep yourself inside there where you'll be safe." He nods to the house.
She pulls her hand away and he snorts. He doesn't move away, though. His hand is out again, not for hers—it takes her a moment to understand. From deep in her pocket she pulls out her purse and searches for a coin. She has so little—the half-sovereign Reverend Saunders gave her, the two more sovereigns she's managed to save, a few small coins. Her fingers pull out tuppence and she drops the coin into his hand. Before his fingers have snapped shut around it she regrets it—he is scowling, disappointed, and she has tuppence less in her purse, and nothing more to put in it until the end of the month. He lumbers back onto the wagon and spits onto the ground. "Which house is it?" she calls out, but he doesn't even turn his head. Instead, with a snap of the whip at the horse's bony back, his cart rattles away.
In the light the street lamp casts she stands shivering. She peers around, one foot against her box—she has heard stories of boxes being snatched away and girls like her left with nothing—and sees the silhouette of a gentleman coming towards her. She opens her mouth to ask him to direct her to number thirty-two, but as he steps into the pool of light he remains a shadow cut against the brightness. He is black, from his hat to his face to his ragged jacket, black in everything except his eyes, which stare back at her as white as eggs. She closes her eyes against the sight of him and turns away. A carriage passes. From a street close by a dog barks shrilly. Then comes the slurred singing of a drunk man. She sees him, tottering between the islands of light that stretch the length of the street. Closer he comes, his hat crooked, the silver top of his cane glinting coldly, his unbuttoned coat flapping around him like wings. When he sees her he spreads his arms and calls out, "Little bird, come here, come over here," and she takes flight up the steps of the nearest house.
The carter didn't do such a bad job: she finds that the door she has run up to is that of number thirty-two. The Bentley home. Hers too now, in a manner of speaking, for she has no other. But here already is a problem. She comes back down the steps, looks to the left and the right: there is no gap between these houses, no way to get to the back entrance. Down below her feet, in a sunken area fenced off with metal railings, is a window bright with light. It has been jammed open with a piece of wood, and she hears angry voices, a woman saying: "You took half the afternoon and you still haven't . . ." Are these servants? Are they the Bentleys' servants? She can't be certain.
From out of the darkness comes a young man with a face as long and plain as a loaf. He leans against the railings and coughs sharply into his hand. For a moment he looks at her, looks at her box alone on the pavement, then heaves himself off the railings. He says something, the words hanging on the air all twisted in the middle until she realizes that he has said, "New maid, are you?" He comes closer until he's standing over her box.
"You leave that, you hear?" she calls out.
He doesn't, though. Instead he crouches and runs one hand along it, touches the scar where one handle used to be, long before this box belonged to her. "Where you from?"
A stranger in this city, that's what she is. Her voice has given her away—it stretches her vowels, and caresses the end of a word like
. It has marked her out already. Her mouth opens wide as he tips up her box as though he means to lift it. She shouts, "No—no! It's all I have."