The Dark Lantern

Opening for The Dark Lantern

 

London, 1893

I

She sits stiffly on the seat of the cart, a shawl tucked tightly around her and 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 out to her limp bunches of flowers and cress 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. Into a gap between a hansom and a four-wheeler, around a corner into a narrow street of frowning houses where the clop-clop of the horse’s feet echo. On and on they go, turning left and right 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 slips away 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 and thinks how down in Teignton she’d be bringing in the tea, how every day when she opened the study door Reverend Saunders would 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 her half-days off and not return until teatime, when there was no time even to walk into the village. The way she counted out her wages every month, then slid the small pile of coins across her desk with the very ends of her fingers, as though there were 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, would call her and Mrs. Phelps up from their work in the kitchen for evening prayers and warnings about extravagance.

     That place had closed in around her 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 realised: 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 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 image. Not the Reverend or his wife, that’s for sure. They’d already taken on a new girl who’d arrived four days before she left. Another girl who, like her, 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 dining table. Not a girl who no one else would take on, who even the matron had given up hope of hiring out until she’d resorted to the unfair means of appealing to the Saunders’ 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 slouch 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 instil in her—or, more accurately, that she left to Mrs. Phelps to instil 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’ guests with soot on her apron or her face flushed and sweating.

     When the wagon stops she is caught by surprise. A street lit by the sour yellow of streetlamps, but grander than she’d expected. Stretching above her, a tall wall of houses like the sides 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 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—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 leans 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, not for hers—it takes her a moment to understand. From deep in her pocket she pulls her purse and searches in it 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 a tuppenny bit and she drops it into his hand. But 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 flick of the whip at the horse’s bony back, his cart rattles away.

     In the light the streetlamp casts she stands shivering. She peers around her, one foot against her box—she has heard stories of boxes being snatched away and young girls left with nothing—sees the silhouette of a respectable 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 shirt, black in everything except his eyes that 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 askew, the silver top of his cane glinting coldly, his unbuttoned coat flapping around him like wings. He calls out, “Little bird, come here, come over here,” and stretches his arms wide, but she takes flight up the steps of the nearest house.

     The carter didn’t do such a bad job—she finds 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. Carefully she comes back down the steps, looks to the left and the right, but she is sure: there is no gap between these houses, no way to get to the back entrance. Instead she sees a wall of windows and doors. Beneath, in an area fenced in with a railing of sharp points, more windows, bright with light but steamed up, one jammed open with a piece of wood despite the chill on the air. Angry voices, a woman saying: “You taken half the afternoon and you still haven’t . . . ”

     A young man with a face as long and plain as a loaf leans against the railings and coughs into his hand. 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 realises that he has said, “New maid, are you?” He peers down at her box.

     “You leave that, you hear?” she calls out. 

     He gives a smile and crouches over her box. “Where you from?”

     A stranger in this city, that’s what she is. Already her voice has given her away—it stretches her vowels, and caresses the end of a word likehear.

     She shouts, “You won’t get away with it.” But he has already tipped up her box, and any minute now might heft it onto his shoulder.

     The door is right behind her. She grabs the heavy brass knocker and sends it thundering against the plate. She’s shivering hard—all the warmth has been washed from her thin coat, a pass-me-down from Mrs. Saunders’ youngest sister—but it’s not that but fear that makes her tremble. She knocks again and the street echoes with the rat-tat-tat-tat. From the other side of the door, silence. Someone must be in, though. There’s always a servant at home.

     The grate of wood on stone, and she turns. He’s dragged her box onto its end and has his arms around it.

     “You,” she shouts, “no—no, you mustn’t.”

     “I’m giving you a hand,” he says.

     “You thief. Put that down. Please,” and her voice turns in on itself, “please.”

     Light, and a burst of warm air. The door has opened and there, in a black suit, stands a stout man with a slick of white hair combed back and a chin so small he seems barely to have one.

     “Oh sir,” and she stumbles towards him. “Sir—”

     He raises one finger for silence, and stares down to where she stands on the step beneath him. Then he flutters his hand at her. “Away, away. You must use the other entrance,” and he points down to the sunken area behind the railings. He leans towards her conspiratorially, one fat hand on his belly. “And if you ever use the front entrance again, you will be dismissed immediately. I shall see to it.”

     “Yes, certainly, yes sir.”

     A distant voice comes down the corridor, and he lifts his head to call, “Merely the young person who—” and pushes the door closed.

     In the sudden darkness she spins around to see what has become of her box and steps back, misses her footing, falls hard against the railings—so hard that she will have bruises across her ribs for days to come—and only saves herself by grabbing hold of the finials that top them, though the sharp edge of one scrapes open the skin of her palm. She grabs for her hat too late: it sails over the railings and into the area.

     He is waiting, her box balanced on his shoulder. “Could’ve told you that was a mistake, knocking on the door. They don’t want to see the likes of you on their front doorstep, now do they?” And with that he starts down the area steps and leaves her to follow as best she can.

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