Read A Broken Vessel Online

Authors: Kate Ross

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Historical

A Broken Vessel

A Broken

Kate Ross

& M
• N


The Luck of the Draw

he man trudged along the pavement with his hands clasped behind him and his eyes on the ground. The night life of the Haymarket swirled around him. Lights winked in coffee-house windows. Laughter, song, and abuse boomed from public houses. Carriages thronged the street, blocking one another’s way and setting off shouting matches between the drivers. Street-sellers hawked fruit, nuts, oysters, or gingerbread and kidney pies served hot from little portable stoves. A one-man band performed on one corner, a lantern-lit puppet show on another. Ragged boys circled the spectators, on the watch for something to steal.

The man plodded on, starting nervously whenever a raucous barker tried to lure him into a theatre or shop. Gaudily dressed girls angled for his attention, but he hurried past them, shaking his head.

Sally watched him approach, undaunted by those other girls’ lack of success. He was just the kind of flat she liked: middle-aged, respectable, timid. His sort were clean, and apt to be grateful, and they treated a girl decent. Of course, picking up a flat was always the luck of the draw: you could never be quite sure what you were getting. But this one looked like a square cove, right enough. She wondered what he was doing in the Haymarket at this time of night.

She waited by a gaslamp till he came near, then stepped straight into his path, so that he had no choice but to stop and look at her in the murky, yellowish light. Her cloak hung open to reveal her favourite gown, made of Turkey red silk. It was not so clean as it once was, and too flimsy for the October night, but it showed off her figure to advantage: short and slim, but with the right curves in the right places.

“Evening, sweetheart.” She gave him her melting, mischievous, take-me-and-do-what-you-like-with-me smile. “Long day in the shop?”

“How did you know I kept a shop?”

“I’ve got me ways. Now, don’t take on,” she added, seeing him start. “I can tell by your duds—neat as ninepence, and a bit formal-like.”

“Oh. Well—er—goodnight—”

He moved to pass her. She stepped with him, blocking his way.

“I—I can’t stay—” he faltered.

“Not even if I was to ask you nice?” She touched his cheek. “Stubbly, ain’t you? I’ll have to call you Bristles.” Because of course you never asked a flat his name, but you had to call him something.

He hesitated, glancing guiltily around him. Married, probably, Sally thought. Some men seemed to think their wives had eyes all over London.

“I know a crib we can go to, private-like,” she coaxed. “Just down that street. Only a bob for the room. Wha’d’ye say?”

“I—I don’t think I should—”

“Come on now. You have some’ut better to do?”

He closed his eyes. She thought she saw him shudder. “No.”

“Come on, then.”

She bore him off to the Cockerel, a little dark public house tucked away in a little dark street. Toby, the owner, was a former boxer, short and stocky, his sinews running to fat. He had a neck like a bulldog’s, and a nose broken in at least three places. He said very little and never smiled. Nothing much, good or bad, impressed him.

Toby lived on the first floor above the public house and let out the second-floor rooms to ladybirds and their flats. There was not much danger that the authorities would take notice: the parish constables were too indolent, and the Bow Street Runners preferred bigger game. Slip them a bottle of spirits now and again, and they would turn a blind eye. God knew, such accommodation houses were common enough round the Haymarket, where girls like Sally were as numerous as the paving-stones they trod each night.

Sally brought Bristles into the taproom and up to the bar. “Evening, Toby. You have a room free?”

“Second floor back,” he grunted.

She dug an elbow into Bristles, who put a shilling on the counter. Toby whisked it away and replaced it with a key. Sally took it, winking at him by way of thanks.

Lighting a tallow candle, she led Bristles into a dim, cobwebby hall behind the taproom. There was a door to the little-used back parlour, and a rear street door that was always barred. Through it, they could smell rubbish congealing in the alley behind the Cockerel, and hear the noise of skittering, squabbling rats.

They climbed four flights of uncarpeted stairs round a murky well. “Go careful,” Sally warned, for the steps were slippery and uneven. “And don’t lean on them banisters, they’re rotted through. A good shove’d just about do for ’em.”

The second-floor back room had nothing in it but a scantily covered bed hardly big enough for two, a cracked washbasin and pitcher on a wooden stand, and a chair with one leg missing. Everything was thickly coated with dirt, and the rusted grate had not seen a fire for some time.

Sally put her candle on the washstand and hung up her wide-brimmed bonnet on a peg. Its yellow flowers and bobbing canary birds made a splash of sunshine in the gloom. She pulled the pins out of her hair and put them on the washstand for safekeeping; she was always losing hairpins. Her nut-brown hair tumbled over her shoulders: long at the back, but curling at the front and sides in imitation of the fashion plates in shop windows. Not that she would ever look like one of them, with their fair skins, straight noses, and daintily pursed lips. She had a brown complexion, a snub nose, and a wide mouth, with a missing tooth just visible when she smiled. Still, she was satisfied with her face. There was not much an enterprising girl could not do with a little cunning and a pair of liquid brown eyes.

Turning to Bristles, she found him shuffling uncertainly toward the door. She hauled him back. “What’s to pay, Bristles? Don’cha like me?”

“I—yes, but—” He swallowed. “It’s been a long time—”

“Then it’s
time, and no mistake.” She smiled, and came up on her toes to kiss him.

He was hard to bring on at first. She did her best with him, if only to cheer him up—he looked as if he needed it. Finally his body awakened, and he fell on her ravenously. If he had a wife, she certainly wasn’t doing her duty by him. It amazed Sally how some wives stinted their husbands, then rang them a peal for going with girls like her. She did not think much of respectable women, but, then, she hardly knew any, so she would have admitted she was no judge.

While he was least likely to notice, she reached behind him and felt in the tail pocket of his coat. She liked to steal a little something from each flat she picked up. It was a kind of game to her; besides, it kept things business-like. Once in a while, especially if she did not like the man, she tried for something valuable, like a watch or a cravat-pin. But that was risky: if he found out, he might have her up before a magistrate, in spite of the embarrassment to himself. So she usually contented herself with a handkerchief, which could be counted on to fetch a few pence at the Field Lane handkerchief market.

She found Bristles’s handkerchief and teased it out of his pocket. This was a bit of a challenge, lying on her back with him on top of her, but she had had plenty of practice. She rolled it up swiftly and tucked it behind her back until he was finished.

Afterward, he was tongue-tied, embarrassed, and awkwardly grateful. While he tidied himself, she furtively ran her teeth over the coins he had given her. He did not seem the sort to put the fun upon her, but you could not be too careful. Satisfied, she stowed the money away in a secret pocket under her skirt and, while he was not looking, stuffed the handkerchief in with it. Then she smoothed down her dress, put her bonnet on, and went to unlock the door.

As she turned the key, she heard quick, light footsteps in the hall outside. She knew what that meant: some cove had tipped Toby a shilling to let him spy on them through the keyhole. She looked down the hall, but he had gotten clean away. She shrugged. She was used to peepers: they were a hazard of her trade. She did not say anything about it to Bristles—he would only get into a fret.

She saw him to the door of the Cockerel. “Goodbye,” he muttered shyly.

She kissed him lightly. “Keep out of trouble.”

He flinched, shut his eyes for a moment, and walked rapidly away.

He’s a rum ’un, she thought. She looked after him, watching him fend off the advances of other ladybirds. Hard luck, gals, she grinned, I seen him first.

She set her bonnet at a jaunty angle and sauntered outside. A cart piled high with some theatre’s scenery was blocking the street, forcing a hackney coach to pull up behind it. The occupant of the hackney, a young man, let down the side-glass to see what the trouble was. Catching sight of Sally, he smiled.

She looked up airily, as though wondering if it might rain. The bold ones liked you to resist a bit—it gave them a sense of conquest.

“Come over here,” he called.

“Was you talking to me?”

“You know I was.”

“Me ma told me never to talk to a gentleman till we been introduced.”

“Come over here, and I’ll introduce us.”

She strolled up to the hackney, curious to get a better look at him. He spoke like a gentry-cove, and she did not hook many of those. The carriage lamps showed her a man of about five-and-twenty, dressed in a blue evening coat, a white shirt and neckcloth, and a waistcoat of white silk embroidered with silver flowers. Anyone could see he had more blunt than he knew what to do with—just the cost of keeping all that white clean would pay Sally’s rent for a year. And on top of everything else, he was handsome—Lord! He looked like the prince in a pantomime.

“Come in and have a ride.” He opened the carriage door.

“Where’ll you take me?”

“What’s the odds? I wasn’t planning you should look out the windows.”

“Oh, it’s like that, is it?” She looked in, wrinkling her nose. “There ain’t much room in here.”

“We won’t need much.” He held out his hand to help her in, with a smile that could light up Drury Lane Theatre.

“You’re a charmer,
are. Anybody ever say no to you?”

His smile went a little awry. “You’d be surprised.”

“Say, what’s your racket, anyhow? I ain’t your sort. You ought to be picking up one of them high-fliers as ride in the park in carriages, and taking her to some swell crib for supper and dancing.”

“I don’t want lights and people and witty conversation.”

you want, then?”

His charm fell away for a moment. His dark blue eyes were earnest, almost desperate. “I want you to stop me from thinking.”

She looked at him for a short time. “Move over, Blue Eyes.”

He called out to the driver to keep going round the neighbourhood till he told him to stop. The driver did not blink an eye; hackney coachmen had seen everything.

Sally resigned herself to a cramped, uncomfortable bout. The ride was bumpy: who ever heard of a hackney coach with four wheels all the same size? The torn seat cover scratched her bottom, and her beloved bonnet with the canaries got kicked about on the muddy floor. At least Blue Eyes wore armour—a sheath of sheep’s gut tied with a ribbon at the open end. She was always glad when her flats protected themselves, since they were protecting her, too. No law said a gentry-cove couldn’t give you the Covent Garden ague, same as anyone else.

It was a lark to go with a gentry-cove now and again. They smelled so nice, and their hair was soft with care and cleanliness. Otherwise, they were pretty much the same as other flats. If they had better manners, they did not waste them on the likes of her. Blue Eyes was a bit of an odd fish, though. His heart was not in it. He might be a hundred miles away.

Just as well: it was all the easier to lift his handkerchief without his knowing. It was made of first-rate cambric—she could tell by the feel. She did not steal anything else, though she would dearly have liked to have the ring he wore on his little finger. It was square, with a jewel at each corner, and in the centre an ivory carving of a skull.

Afterward, he was glum and heavy-eyed, like a tired child. He did not ask how much he owed her, but forked out two crown pieces as if they were nothing. She hid them in the secret pocket under her skirt—quickly, before he could come to his senses and ask for change. While he leaned back against the seat, eyes closed, she slipped his handkerchief in after them.

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