Authors: Dilly Court
Irene managed a weak smile as she perched nervously on the edge of the wooden bench. ‘No, ta, Annie. I’ve just had supper across the road and I couldn’t eat or drink another thing.’
Fiery Nan slapped her on the back with a hearty chuckle. ‘A drop of good gin will go down a treat. You don’t want to offend Annie, now do you, ducks?’
‘Well, no,’ Irene said reluctantly. She could see that both of them had been drinking, and although they were good-humoured now she knew only too well that this could change in a flash. They were attracting some attention from the rest of the women, who could smell a fight a mile off, and Irene did not relish a
, hair-pulling contest with Annie who was built like a Thames sailing barge. She accepted a glass of blue ruin from Nan and took a tentative sip, trying not to pull a face at the strong taste of the raw spirit.
‘Drink up, girl,’ Fiery Nan said with an approving smile. ‘We need to make the most of our free time afore the men get bored with losing and come looking for sympathy.’
‘And not just that, dearie.’ A small woman sitting at the table closest to them turned to them with a wide grin, exposing a row of blackened stumps where she once might have had a set of good teeth.
‘Shut your trap, Ivy,’ Nan said, scowling. ‘She ain’t one of us, so hold your tongue.’
‘Oh, pardon me,’ Ivy retorted, curling her lip. ‘I didn’t know that the Princess Royal had come amongst us.’
Irene sensed an argument brewing. She rose swiftly to her feet, holding out her skirts and curtseying to Ivy with a wink and a smile. ‘If I’m the Princess Royal, then you must be Queen Victoria. Pleased to meet you, ma’am.’
There was a moment’s silence and then Ivy threw back her head and roared with laughter. A wave of merriment rippled round the room and soon everyone was laughing uncontrollably, holding their sides and clapping their hands as if they had just heard the best joke
the world. Irene glanced anxiously at Fiery Nan, who shrugged her shoulders and was about to make her way back to her place when the door burst open and suddenly there was chaos. The women’s laughter turned to screams and shouts as a dozen or more uniformed police officers surged into the room, making arrests in what appeared to be a random fashion. Irene made for the door and found herself locked in a steel embrace.
‘Good God. Miss Angel, what are you doing in a place like this?’
FIGHTING AGAINST A
rising tide of panic, Irene managed to control her instinct to struggle as she realised that her captor was none other than the young constable who had helped her take Pa home only that morning.
‘It was a mistake,’ she murmured, biting her lip.
Burton’s youthful features were creased with concern and he raised his arm protectively as a bottle flew over their heads and smashed into the wall. A shower of broken glass clattered to the floor with red wine trickling down the wall like a bleeding wound.
‘It certainly was,’ Burton said, swinging her off her feet and depositing her in the narrow hallway. ‘Let’s get you out of here, miss.’
‘No, thank you, Constable, but I’ll be all right,’ Irene insisted. ‘I can’t go without my friend.’
‘Some friend if he brought you to a place like this,’ Burton said, frowning. ‘I don’t think you quite understand, miss, but you could end up spending the night in the clink
the rest of the females, if you get my meaning.’
Irene glanced over her shoulder in time to see Gentle Annie butting a constable in the stomach while Fiery Nan struggled with a burly sergeant. For a moment it seemed that Nan was winning, but another officer grabbed her from behind and cuffed her wrists. It was so unfair, Irene thought angrily. She was torn between the desire to break free and rush upstairs to warn Arthur, and anger at the treatment of women who had been simply enjoying a social evening. They might not be angels and it was true that most of them had at one time or another had a brush with the law, but on this occasion it appeared that they were being victimised by an over-zealous police force.
‘This is all so unfair,’ Irene cried, angrily. ‘They weren’t doing anything wrong.’
Burton’s cheeks were suffused with a rosy blush. ‘A young lady like you shouldn’t mix with their sort. Let me escort you outside, miss. Please.’
‘But my friend won’t know what’s happened to me. He’ll be worried.’
‘Your friend will be up before the magistrate in the morning unless I’m very much mistaken. A night in the cells will hopefully make him think twice before he visits such a place again.’
Irene opened her mouth to protest but,
a by your leave, Burton tightened his grip on her shoulders and he propelled her along the passageway, past the foot of the stairs where the punters were being arrested one by one as they came down to discover the source of the uproar. ‘This is becoming a habit, miss,’ he said cheerfully.
As they reached the street door, Irene shook off his restraining grasp. ‘I can find me own way, ta.’
‘The inspector gave me my orders this morning. I was to see you safely home then and I know he would say the same now.’
She hesitated, torn between the desire to find out what had happened to Arthur and the longing to be as far away from this place as was possible.
Burton opened the door. ‘Shall we go, miss?’
With a final glance at the fracas ensuing in the hallway Irene had no option other than to follow him through the dark passage that led into Hanging Sword Alley and then into Fleet Street. It was raining and the gutters overflowed with filthy water polluted with horse dung. In the flickering lamplight, the cobblestones glistened with an oily sheen, and the thin soles of her boots slipped and slid as she tried to keep pace with the young constable.
‘What was all that about?’ Irene demanded breathlessly. ‘What right have the cops to arrest
who were just enjoying a peaceful evening out?’
‘It’s not for me to say, miss. We were just following orders.’
‘Well, I call it downright bullying.’ Irene shivered as the rainwater seeped through her thin clothes, and she sneezed.
Burton glanced down at her and his stern expression softened. ‘You’re soaked to the skin.’ He took off his uniform cape and wrapped it around her shoulders. The heavy garment was still warm from his body and it smelt strongly of wet wool and cheap pomade.
‘Why did you do that?’ Irene demanded, eyeing him suspiciously.
‘Just following orders, miss.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t want to get you into trouble with your boss, Constable.’
‘Don’t get the wrong idea, miss. The inspector is tough, but he’s fair. I won’t have a word said against him.’
Irene could see that it was useless to argue, and they walked on briskly and in silence until they reached the corner of Wood Street. She stopped and took off the cape, handing it back to him with a grateful smile. ‘I hope you ain’t too wet.’
‘I’ll soon dry out. Goodnight, miss.’
‘Goodnight, Constable, and thank you.’
‘I hope we meet again in more pleasant circumstances,’ he said shyly.
Irene angled her head, eyeing him with mixed feelings. He was a nice-looking young chap and kind too. Had the circumstances been different she might have warmed to him, but she could hear Pa’s voice in her head warning her not to trust a copper. It was a hard lesson, learned young, and memories of tonight’s fiasco were still fresh in her mind. She knew very well that Constable Burton was waiting for a word of encouragement, but she said nothing, merely nodding her head.
If he was disappointed, his well-schooled features did not betray his feelings; he saluted her smartly and hurried off with long strides in the direction of Fleet Street.
Irene let herself into the shop, locked the door behind her and tiptoed upstairs. The only sound in the darkened room was that of her father’s stertorous breathing and the occasional soft sigh as her mother moved in her sleep. It was cold, and despite the constable’s chivalrous act, her clothes remained damp. She undressed to her shift and climbed into her bed, but it was a long while before she succumbed to sleep. She couldn’t help worrying about Arthur and wondering what had befallen him after the police raid on the gaming club. Old man Greenwood would be
if Arthur was up before the beak in the morning, and it might even jeopardise his journeyman examination. She felt her eyelids growing heavy and, with a deep sigh, she turned on her side and curled up in a ball.
Next morning, she awakened to find that her father was up and dressed, seemingly none the worse for wear. He chucked her under the chin with a disarming smile and announced his intention of going to Faulkner’s bath house in Newgate Street.
‘But, Pa. That costs money and we need food.’
Billy smiled benevolently. ‘Of course we do, my pet. And I will bring something back with me when I am bathed, shaved and fit to mix with society.’ He dabbed ineffectually at the patch of mud on his frock coat and sighed. ‘Goodness knows what happened to me on the way home last night, but I seem to have taken a tumble.’
‘It was the night before last, Pa. Don’t you remember nothing?’
‘Not a thing, my little cabbage. It’s all a merciful blank and I daresay is not worth bringing to mind.’ Billy took his battered top hat from the mantelshelf and rubbed it on the cuff of his coat before placing it at a rakish angle on his head. ‘At least I look like a gent,
if I smell like a goat.’ He reached for his silver-headed cane and tucked it under his arm. ‘There, now Billy Angel is ready to face the world. Give your mother a kiss from me, petal, and tell her I won’t be long.’
Irene was speechless as she watched him saunter out of the room, but at the sound of his footsteps on the stair treads she realised that once again Pa had neatly sidestepped all his responsibilities, and disregarding the fact that she was wearing nothing but her shift, she ran after him. ‘Pa, wait!’
He stopped at the bottom of the stairs, turning his head to flash a questioning smile in her direction. ‘Yes, poppet?’
‘If you’ve got money, please let me have some so that I can buy food and coal.’
‘You know that I would give you my soul, my dear girl, but sadly I have only enough coin for a hot bath and a shave.’
‘But you said …’
He raised his forefinger to his lips. ‘Hush now, my dove. We don’t want to spoil a beautiful morning by a sordid argument about money. When I am fit to rejoin the human race, I will go to my club and collect a debt or two. We will dine like kings tonight. That’s a promise.’ He unlocked the door and opened it with a flourish. ‘Au reservoir, my cherry, as they say on the Continent.’
Irene opened her mouth to protest, but Billy had already departed, leaving the door swinging on its hinges. She shook her head, sighing with frustration. Pa was a trial and no mistake. Whatever money he had left in his pocket after his visit to the public baths would be earmarked for the gaming tables, and if his luck was in they would not see him again that day. She retreated upstairs to dress, moving about the room on tiptoe so as not to disturb her mother. Having knotted her hair in a chignon at the nape of her neck, she went downstairs to open up.
Outside the window she could see people scurrying along the pavements on their way to work. It was unlikely that any of them would stop to buy sauce or pickles, but she had to be ready to catch any passing trade, and she busied herself about the shop. Her thoughts returned to Arthur, and as she polished the wooden counter she wondered if he had been allowed to go free with just a caution, or whether he had spent the night in a police cell. She hoped and prayed for his sake that he had not, but she knew that there was nothing she could do except wait and hope to see him breeze through the door with a big smile on his face.
She dusted the glass bottles and jars on the shelves, and as there were still no customers
picked up a besom and began to sweep the floor. She was sweeping the dust out onto the pavement when Josiah’s smart green and yellow dog cart drew to a halt at the kerb. His storeman, Tompkins, who also acted as coachman when required, tipped his cap to her and tossed the reins to a small ragged boy, promising him a halfpenny if he held the horse. The child nodded his head and grabbed the reins whilst keeping a safe distance from the animal’s mouth, eyeing the horse as if he feared it might gobble him up. Tompkins climbed stiffly from the driver’s seat and let down the hinged tailboard.
Emily was attracting some curious glances from passers-by as she alighted from the vehicle. She laid one kid-gloved hand on Tompkins’ arm, keeping the other tucked inside a rabbit-fur muff. She smiled, inclining her head to acknowledge an old acquaintance as regally as if she were Queen Victoria herself. She sailed past Irene and entered the shop, but as soon as she was out of public view her smile froze on her lips. ‘Well? What have you to say for yourself, Irene Angel?’
Irene stared at her in genuine surprise. ‘What are you on about?’
‘Don’t act the innocent with me, Renie. You were seen last night, being dragged along Fleet Street by a police constable. As if Pa’s gambling
wasn’t bad enough, now you’ve got yourself into trouble with the law. How could you do this to me?’
Irene closed the door so that a curious Tompkins could not hear. ‘I was not dragged along Fleet Street as you say. Who told you that?’
‘It was Ephraim who saw you, so don’t deny it. He had been doing business for his father in one of the newspaper offices and he saw you.’
‘Your nasty-minded stepson got it wrong then. I was being escorted home if you must know, for my own safety.’
‘For pity’s sake, why? Where had you been?’
Irene bit her lip; this part was not going to sound so good. She shrugged her shoulders in an attempt to appear casual. ‘It was all a misunderstanding. Artie took me to supper at the Old Cheshire Cheese and we went to a place he knows afterwards.’
Emily’s eyes narrowed to slits and her delicate eyebrows winged together over the bridge of her pert little nose. ‘What sort of place?’