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Authors: Dilly Court

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The Best of Sisters

BOOK: The Best of Sisters
4.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Dilly Court

Title Page


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two


About the Book

The Thames carried him away from her, but would it bring him home…?

Twelve-year-old Eliza Bragg has known little in life but the cold, comfortless banks of the Thames. Living above her uncle’s chandlery she has grown accustomed to a life of penury and servitude, her only comfort the love and protection of her older brother, Bart.

But one day Bart accidentally kills a man and is forced to flee to New Zealand. Alone, barefoot, beaten down and at the mercy of her cruel uncle, Eliza realises that her very survival is at stake…

About the Author

Dilly Court grew up in North East London and began her career in television, writing scripts for commercials. She is married with two grown-up children and three grandchildren, and now lives in Dorset on the beautiful Jurassic Coast with her husband and a large, yellow Labrador called Archie. She is also the author of
Mermaids Singing
The Dollmaker’s Daughters
Tilly True

Also by Dilly Court
Mermaids Singing
The Dollmaker’s Daughters
Tilly True

I would like to thank David Clarke of the Lakes District Museum and Gallery, Queenstown, New Zealand for his invaluable help in my research concerning the larger than life character Captain William (Bully) Hayes, and the fascinating history of the Otago goldfields.

I would also like to thank Matt Brown for giving me an insight into sail making and life aboard nineteenth-century sailing ships.

Thanks too, to my friends Kate, Georgina, Ellie and everyone at Random House for their support and encouragement, and last, but certainly not least, my splendid agent, Teresa Chris.

Chapter One
Wapping, East London, summer 1862

A shaft of moonlight struggling through the grimy panes of the skylight sketched the pattern of the window on the bare floorboards of the sailmaker’s loft. Huge rolls of canvas, wooden spars, spools of twine, sailmaker’s palms and needles were set out with workmanlike precision, in readiness for the next morning when the sailmaker and his apprentices would arrive for an early start. It was hardly a comfortable dwelling place, but orphaned, twelve-year-old Eliza Bragg had only vague memories of living in a proper house. She was used to the smell of hemp, tar and beeswax and the eerie shadows, like ghosts of long-dead mariners, that lurked in the corners of the sail loft above Uncle Enoch’s chandlery.

Eliza had never known her mother, who had died giving birth to her, and, although she could remember her dad’s gruff voice, his infectious chuckle and the smell of the river mud that had clung to his clothes, mingling with the faint aroma of pipe tobacco, his craggy face was
rapidly fading into a misty blur. He had been a waterman, working the dark and sometimes sinister waters of the Thames. In the end it was the river that had taken his life when, in thick fog, his boat had been rammed by a larger vessel. His body had never been found. Eliza, who had been just seven at the time, had comforted herself with the fancy that he slept beneath the glassy surface of the great river, rocking gently in a cradle of green waterweed, and one day might simply wake up and come home.

Her elder brother, Bart, had followed the family tradition and was now in his last year as an apprentice waterman. She was waiting, a little impatiently as she was hungry, for his return from a hard day’s work on the river. Straining her eyes in the light of a guttering stub of a candle stuck in an empty beer bottle, Eliza sat on a stool at one of the trestles, reading a history book that she had won for being a diligent student at the church school for which Uncle Enoch had grudgingly paid a small annual fee. To her chagrin, he had tried his hardest to get her into one of the non-fee-paying ragged schools, but her entry had been refused on the grounds that Enoch Bragg was a comparatively well-off man. Her schooldays had ended when she was ten years old. Enoch did not approve of educated women and Eliza suspected that he did not like women at all. He had made it clear that, in his
opinion, she had had enough book learning and she must now earn her living by working in the chandlery.

At one end of the table, she had set out supper for herself and Bart: half a loaf of bread, a heel of cheddar cheese, from which she had scraped most of the green mould, and a pitcher of small beer. Outside the sail loft, the familiar sounds of the Thames were muted by the night, but Eliza knew that the river never slept. Working with the tides, there was the constant movement of sailing ships, barges, lighters and wherries, docking and unloading with the banging of hatch covers, shouts of the stevedores and clanking of anchor chains. Then the whole process would continue in reverse as the empty holds were loaded with cargo. There was the seemingly endless tramp of feet on gangplanks, the rumble of cartwheels over cobblestones, the creaking of cranes, and finally the setting of sails, with the flapping sound of canvas taking up the wind.

By day there was hustle and bustle, noise and colour, but by night the soot-blackened buildings and the inky water took on a more sinister aspect. Eliza had read in her history book that the pre-Celtic name for the Thames was tamasa, meaning dark river, and she could see how the swirling water had earned its reputation. Slithering its way through London, the river was
life and death to the folk who eked out a living on its banks. Sometimes the water was thick and oily-brown, the colour of stewed tea, and sometimes it was grey-green and scaly with flotsam like a half-submerged crocodile. At night, living up to its name, the dark river slunk through the city, black and sticky as tar; the last resort for the desperate and suicidal. In all its moods, the river was both awesome and dangerous. But then, Eliza reasoned, the whole of London was dangerous and the East End particularly so: Bart had forbidden her to go out alone at night and never, never to venture up Old Gravel Lane to the Ratcliff Highway, where every other building was a cheap lodging house for seamen, a drinking place or a brothel, and deep in the alleyways there were gaming hells and opium dens. By day there was drunkenness, violence, vice and robbery and, by night, even the police were afraid to venture into that particular area.

Eliza cocked her head, listening to the throbbing of a steam engine and the hoot of its whistle as the ship prepared to sail. She could hear the rhythmic chant of the seamen as they hauled in the anchor, and the even louder voice of the mate bellowing orders to the crew. Glancing at the clock on the wall, Eliza chewed the tip of her finger, wondering where her brother had got to; he was late for his supper and that wasn’t like him. She closed her book and she blew out the
candle to save it for when Bart came home, dirty, tired and hungry. It was stiflingly hot in the loft as it always was in summer, and correspondingly cold in the winter, but she had grown used to the extremes, having lived here since her father’s untimely death five years ago. Uncle Enoch had begrudgingly taken them in, or rather he had allowed them to live in his sail loft, given them just enough food to keep body and soul together, and had insisted that they attend the mission church of St Peter’s in Dock Street, at the end of Old Gravel Lane, three times on a Sunday. Bart had complied with this at first, but now at twenty he was a full-grown man, strong and muscular from years of rowing and working on the river, and his fiery temperament often clashed with that of their domineering uncle. Eliza admired and adored Bart, who was not only her elder brother but also her protector and her friend.

Waiting anxiously, she went to the top of the ladder that led down into the chandlery where Uncle Enoch spent his days making a tidy profit, though what he did with it was a mystery. Eliza imagined that he had a brassbound chest hidden in the cellar of his house just a few streets away, where he lived alone; too miserable and mean to share his life with a housekeeper, let alone a wife.

Straining her ears, she leaned through the
opening and peered down the wooden stepladder. She shivered suddenly, in spite of the heat, and her heart began to thud; there was no reason to be frightened, but a dreadful feeling of apprehension enveloped her like a London particular. Sliding down the ladder with the nimbleness of long practice, she made her way between the shelves stacked with every conceivable item that a shipmaster might want or need. Alone in the darkness, she hesitated, pricking her ears and listening to the pounding of booted feet on the cobblestones. As they came nearer, Eliza knew by some sixth sense that Bart was in trouble and she ran to the street door. She had barely reached it when someone began hammering on it with their fists. She could hear Bart shouting urgently for her to let him in and she tugged at the iron bolts with both hands. Before she had got the door half open, Bart pushed in past her. ‘Lock it, for God’s sake. Bolt it, Liza, and don’t open it for no one.’

Even as she shot the last bolt, Eliza could hear the sharp blasts of police whistles and men shouting. ‘Whatever is it, Bart? What’s happened?’

Leaning against the wall, Bart bent double, fighting to catch his breath. ‘I killed a man, Liza. I killed him dead.’

‘No, no, you couldn’t have, not you.’ Eliza peered into his face. Even in the gloom, she could
see that he was deathly pale and a pulse was throbbing at his temple. ‘Speak to me, tell me it ain’t true.’

‘Shhh!’ Bart clamped his hand over her mouth as the footsteps stopped outside.

Someone tried the door. ‘It’s locked. He can’t have gone in there.’

As the sound of trampling feet grew fainter, Bart released her with a long, shuddering sigh. ‘They’ve gone, but they’ll be back. I’ve got to get away, Liza. If they catch me I’ll hang and that’s for sure.’

‘Tell me what happened,’ Eliza cried, running after him as he made his way through the shop, his boots barely seeming to touch the rungs of the ladder as he climbed up to the sail loft.

Hampered by her long skirts, Eliza got there to find Bart throwing his few possessions into a ditty bag. ‘Bart, for the love of God, tell me what’s going on.’

He paused, staring at her, his face ghostlike in the moonlight. ‘I never meant to do it, Liza, but I lost me temper. The cove was drunk and he wouldn’t pay what he owed me. I threatened to toss him in the river if he wouldn’t cough up the money. He took a swing at me, caught me on the nose and I was mad with pain. I picked him up and chucked him over the quay wall.’

‘That’s not so bad, is it? I’d say he deserved a ducking for trying to cheat you.’

Bart’s face contorted with anguish as he shook his head. ‘If only it were just that. He was stone dead when we pulled him out. He must have hit his head on something and his neck was broke.’

‘Oh, Bart!’ Eliza wrapped her arms around his waist in an attempt to comfort him. ‘You never meant to hurt him, I’m sure. The coppers will understand that it was an accident.’

‘I won’t stand a chance if they get me. There’s no justice for those what can’t afford a mouthpiece. If I go up before the beak, it’ll be the gallows for me.’

‘No, no!’ She hugged him with all her might. ‘Don’t say that.’

Gently, Bart disentangled himself from her grasp. ‘Don’t be scared, Liza. I just need to get away from London for a while.’

‘But what will we do, where will we go?’ Eliza struggled against the tears that burned the back of her eyes. She must not cry; she was a big girl now and not a baby.

Bart shook his head. ‘Not you, poppet. You’re only a kid, and a girl at that. I’ve got to make a run for it and I can’t take you with me.’

‘But you can’t leave me here on my own. You can’t.’

‘Listen to me, Liza. There’s a ship sailing for Australia on the tide and I aim to be on it.’

‘Then take me with you.’

‘I can’t.’ Bart’s voice cracked with suppressed
emotion. ‘I’ll have to work me passage. Uncle Enoch will look after you, and I’ll send for you when I’ve made me fortune in the goldfields.’

Her tears were flowing now, pouring down her cheeks in an unstoppable stream. Hiccuping and sobbing, Eliza clutched Bart’s hand to her wet cheek. ‘Please take me, I’ll work me passage too. I’m stronger than I look.’

‘You wouldn’t last the voyage, sweetheart. Now let me go, don’t make it harder for me than it is.’

BOOK: The Best of Sisters
4.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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