Authors: Lesley Pearse
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
Luke gave her a malicious look as he handed it over, and she guessed he would attempt to steal it back before the night was over, so she reminded herself to hide it well once he was asleep. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d woken in the morning to find her apron pocket had been dipped into and a few of her precious pennies gone.
Wringing the clothes out of the window first, she then hung them over a piece of twine above the fire. The boys’ clothes were even more ragged than her own, the seats of their breeches so patched there was nothing more to sew patches to. She hated to see them barefoot too, but their feet were as hard as nails and they wouldn’t wear a pair of boots now, even if there was money enough to buy some.
The boys were just tucking into their pies and the kettle was boiling when they heard their father’s heavy tread on the stairs. Matilda put a spoonful of tea into a tin jug, added the water and put it down on the table to draw. A couple of minutes later Lucas Jennings came in.
He was a short, stocky man with powerful shoulders and arms from a lifetime of wielding oars to ferry his passengers out on the river. His face was as brown and crinkled as a walnut, making him look older than his forty years. Like most men’s of his class, his teeth were blackened stumps, and his fair hair was long and sparse. But his vivid blue eyes were what most people noticed first about him, and his clothes. His rough black pilot’s coat and thin canvas trousers were a common uniform in his profession, but the clean red and white spotted neckerchief and black cap trimmed with gold braid signified he maintained his pride in a
craft which had taken seven years of apprenticeship to learn before taking up his freedom at Waterman’s Hall.
The weariness of the man was apparent in his slow movements and bent shoulders, but he smiled with affection at his children sitting at the candlelit table. ‘Now, there’s a sight to gladden the heart,’ he said in his croaky voice. ‘Three clean faces and supper on the table.’
Matilda moved towards him, kissed his cheek and took his coat to hang it on the nail on the back of the door. ‘Did you ’ave a good day, Father? It were nice and sunny, weren’t it?’
Spring was late in coming this year, only two days more of March to go and until today it had rained for what seemed like weeks.
‘It were a fair one, Matty,’ he sighed, sitting down in his chair and holding out his hands to the fire to warm them. ‘The sun brought more folk out right enough, and made the river look purty again, but so many of them just walk across the bridges now instead of hiring us. It ain’t like the old days.’
Lucas and the other licensed watermen’s trade had been going into a decline for years now. In his grandfather’s time only the most experienced men could be trusted to get their passengers safely through the narrow arches of London Bridge. Ships had moored up in the middle of the river, so that the men were busy all day taking the passengers to shore. But now London Bridge had been rebuilt anyone could safely get a boat through it, and the steam ships moored at piers now, so the passengers could walk off. Even the visitors to London who had once delighted in taking a boat to see the sights on the river were scarce, they didn’t like the swell from the steamers.
Lucas took the big earthenware mug Matilda handed him and sipped the hot, black brew appreciatively. He would be out again in an hour, for the night trade on the river was the most lucrative, with passengers paying double fare to get to the entertainments on the South Bank in a hurry. But working nights had its own dangers: drunken young fools showing off by standing up and rocking the boat, and occasionally falling in, to say nothing of the blaggards who often tried to rob him when he got them to the other side. But Lucas wasn’t so concerned with his own safety, what troubled him about night work was leaving his children alone. Finders Court had become ever more dangerous in recent
years. Matilda was a pretty girl, and he’d seen the way some of his male neighbours eyed her up.
‘You boys bin down in the mud again?’ he asked, spotting the steaming clothes above the fire. ‘’Ow many times ‘ave I told you to keep away from it?’
Matilda handed her father his supper on a tin plate. ‘No, they ain’t,’ she said. ‘They was just a bit mucky, so I washed ’em.’ She paused for a second, casting her brothers a warning glance. Lucas was a kind man and a good father, but he wouldn’t think twice about beating them if he knew the truth. ‘I ’ad a good day today,’ she went on, deftly changing the subject. ‘Made three shillings all but a penny. I got primroses and violets, ’cos I was one of the first up the market this morning.’
Lucas’s face clouded over at the reminder that she began her day while he was still fast asleep. While he was very proud of his hard-working daughter, he still felt a deep sense of guilt that through his stupidity in taking up with Peggie, he’d inadvertently blighted Matilda’s life.
Her mother Nell had died in childbirth, leaving him with a sickly baby to take care of along with five-year-old Matilda and his two older sons John and James who were ten and nine at the time. Immersed in grief for the wife he had loved so much, and unable to cope with his children alone, when Peggie, a seventeen-year-old girl who had only recently come to live at the court, offered to help him out with the new baby, it never occurred to him to be wary.
Before he knew what was happening, she had moved in with him. He ought to have been suspicious when the children seemed cowed by her and reluctant to stay indoors. But he was so grateful Peggie was looking after his baby that he chose to ignore their behaviour, believing it was purely due to them missing their mother.
With hindsight he should have told Peggie to go when baby Ruth died a couple of months later. But his need to have the comfort of a woman in bed beside him was stronger than the niggling doubts about her suitability as a step-mother. By the time Luke was born, he knew the personal things of Nell’s and items of furniture which had disappeared hadn’t been stolen as Peggie claimed, but sold by her to buy gin. He knew too that she hadn’t one-tenth of the housekeeping skills that Nell had had,
and that she was often too harsh with his other children, but he was trapped by his conviction that a man had to take care of a woman once she bore him a child.
Soon after George was born two years later, Peggie was drunk almost all the time, and Matilda became nursemaid to Lucas’s two youngest sons. The older boys, John and James, were absenting themselves as much as possible because of Peggie’s drunkenness and Lucas was relieved when they finally went off to sea. Life in the navy was cruel, but the prospects were better than he could offer them working on the river, and he had no wish for them to hang around in London and witness their father being humiliated by a slatternly woman.
Four years ago, Peggie died. Drunk as usual, she had fallen in the path of a coach and horses. Lucas didn’t shed one tear for her, by then he knew she sold herself to any man for the price of a glass of gin. But it was sad to see Matilda saddled with even more responsibility for Luke and George. She deserved better.
‘You’re a good girl,’ Lucas said, reaching out for his daughter and pulling her close to him. ‘So much like yer ma, I wish I could do more for you.’
As her father’s hand slid round her waist to squeeze her, a lump came up in Matilda’s throat. He rarely spoke of Nell any more, but the few words he did say made it clear he still thought about her a great deal and reproached himself that their life together hadn’t turned out the way they had planned.
Lucas was just nineteen back in 1818 when he first saw Nell down at Greenwich. He was sitting in his boat, waiting for the return of his passenger he’d brought down from Westminster Bridge to collect some papers from a shipping office. She was standing on the quay watching the boats, and he was immediately captivated by her country girl rosy cheeks and golden hair. Lucas had never been one for girls, he always found himself tongue-tied and awkward in their presence, but when this one smiled at him, he felt brave enough to climb out of the boat and ask if she wanted him to call her a ferry.
She said she just enjoyed watching the boats on the river as it made a pleasant break from her work as a parlourmaid. Her voice was different from London girls’, as pretty as her face, soft and melodious, and when Lucas remarked on it, she laughed and said she came from Oxfordshire originally. She had come to work
for a sea captain here in Greenwich when she was thirteen, and in seven years with him she had worked her way up from scullery maid to her present position.
Lucas found himself searching out fares to Greenwich after that, just in the hope of seeing her again, and it soon became apparent to him by the number of times she was there, waiting on the quay, that she felt the same way. She was so refreshing, a happy girl who spoke of her job and employer with affection and pride and considered herself very fortunate. As Lucas had two more years to go of his apprenticeship to his father before he got his own freedom of the river, he knew it was folly even to think of courting a girl, but he fell deeply in love with her, and she with him.
They both took so many risks – Nell might have been discharged without a reference if she was caught slipping out to meet him for an hour in the evenings just to walk with him in Greenwich Park, and Lucas would have been skinned alive by his father if he knew he left his boat unattended when he should have been working. But just to see one another, to kiss and hold hands made the risks worthwhile.
They made love for the first time one Sunday afternoon. The sea captain had gone away to the country with his wife for a few days, and Nell was allowed the whole day off. Lucas rowed her up the river to show her Lavender Hill, and there in a field with the sweet perfume of the lavender fields filling their nostrils, they couldn’t hold back any longer.
Silas, Lucas’s father, pronounced him a fool when he told him he wanted to get married. Aside from the fact few working men bothered with a legal marriage, he said his son was too young to take the responsibility for a woman. But he softened when he met Nell, charmed by her decency, pretty face and soft voice. Perhaps too he saw advantages for himself, for he had lived alone with his son for some five years since his wife had died, and his own health was fading.
Starting married life in two rooms in Aldgate, shared with her new father-in-law, wasn’t what Nell had hoped for, but she was already carrying Lucas’s child and her nature was optimistic and warm-hearted. They made plans that when Lucas finished his apprenticeship, they would find themselves a place of their own.
She scrubbed out the two rooms, made curtains for the
windows, cooked, washed and mended their clothes, and Silas often remarked when he saw beeswax polish on the floor that she was the best homemaker he’d ever known. A year after John was born, James arrived too, and even though times became harder because Silas was often too sick to work, they were very happy. Then just a few months after Lucas got his freedom of the river, Silas died, and Nell became pregnant again.
Lucas sold Silas’s old boat, and hid the money in a box under the floorboards. He worked all the hours he could, and each day he added another shilling or two to their hoard, so his and Nell’s dream came closer to realization. Soon they would be able to sell his boat too and buy a larger one with smart new paint which would attract a far better class of customer, and finally get a small house of their own further up the south side of the river by Lavender Hill.
It was a fire which laid waste their dream. In the winter of 1823, just a month before the new baby was due, the wooden house in Aldgate that Lucas had lived in for his entire life was razed to the ground, along with three adjoining ones. Fortunately Nell was out with both the boys, then aged four and three, and only one old man trapped on the top floor perished, but they lost everything, furniture, bedding and most importantly their savings.
Perhaps it was the terrible shock that made Nell go into labour too early, but they had only just found the room in Finders Court when it started. The baby girl only lived for a few hours, and Nell lay on a pile of straw, the only protection from the cold, and cried pitifully.
Lucas did his best for his family, but it seemed to him that was the point when fate turned against them. The Thames froze over so he had no work, and both boys and Nell got sick. Even later that year, when Lucas was earning again, Nell was only a shadow of her former self, weary and despondent because Finders Court was so crowded, dirty and noisy. It wasn’t until Matilda was born in the autumn of 1826 that she gathered herself and tried to make their humble room a home. Lucas could remember promising her he would still find a way to get them a real house, but he never earned enough again to save.
Just before Nell died, she begged Lucas to make sure Matilda learned to read and write, so she would have a chance of a better
life. Looking back, Lucas realized it was the only promise he ever made to Nell that he’d managed to keep.
Matilda’s lips on his cheek brought him out of his reverie. ‘You’ve done all you could for me,’ she said softly. ‘And you’re a good man. Things will get better, just you see. We got our ‘ealth and strength.’
Lucas left to go back to the river when he’d finished his supper Luke and George climbed into bed to keep warm and asked Matilda to tell them a story.
‘I don’t know that you deserves one,’ she said, but smiled as she said it. Rested after supper, in the soft glow of the candle, her cap and pinafore washed and drying ready for the morning, she could find it in her heart to love them. They were little rogues, but then maybe they needed to be tough and wily to survive. Hadn’t she learnt at an early age to pinch a few pennies from Peggie to make sure they got some dinner?
‘Tell us about if you was Queen,’ George said, his eyes half closing already with sleepiness, red hair shining like newly scrubbed carrots in the candlelight.
Matilda laughed as she combed her hair through. George loved stories and the more fanciful the better. ‘Well, I’d be a happy Queen,’ she said. People always remarked how the young Queen Victoria had a plain and miserable face. She thought this was very strange, after all Victoria was only twenty-three and she’d been brought up with everything anyone could wish for. ‘I’d want all the people to be happy too, especially the poor ones, so I’d spend lots of money building them ’ouses, find good jobs for them all and give cartloads of food away each day. Every little boy would get a new suit of clothes, and all the girls would get a new frock. Of course if I was Queen you’d be princes, so you’d live with me in the palace and ride in a coach with black ’orses.’