ISBN 10: 150128309X / ISBN 13: 9781501283093
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Extrait: There was a noise outside the women's clinic in Coldbath Square.
Hester was on night duty. She turned from the stove as the street
door opened, the wood still in her hand. Three women stood in the
entrance, half supporting each other. Their cheap clothes were torn
and splattered with blood, their faces streaked with it, skin yellow
in the light from the gas lamp on the wall. One of them, her fair
hair coming loose from an untidy knot, held her left hand as if she
feared the wrist were broken.

The middle woman was taller, her dark hair loose, and she
was gasping, finding it difficult to get her breath. There was blood
on the torn front of her satin dress and smeared across her high

The third woman was older, well into her thirties, and there
were bruises purpling on her arms, her neck, and her jaw.

"Hey, missus!" she said, urging the others inside, into the warmth
of the long room with its scrubbed board floor and whitewashed
walls. "Mrs. Monk, yer gotter give us an 'and again. Kitty 'ere's in a
right mess. An' me, an' all. An' I think as Lizzie's broke 'er wrist."

Hester put down the wood and came forward, glancing only
once behind her to make sure that Margaret was already getting hot
water, cloths, bandages, and the herbs to steep, which would make
cleaning the wounds easier and less painful. It was the purpose of
this place to care for women of the streets who were injured or
ill, but who could not pay a doctor and would be turned away
from more respectable charities. It had been the idea of her friend
Callandra Daviot, and Callandra had provided the initial funds before
events in her personal life had taken her out of London. It was
through her also that Hester had met Margaret Ballinger, desperate
to escape a respectable but uninteresting proposal of marriage. Her
undertaking work like this had alarmed the gentleman in question
so much he had at the last moment balked at making the offer, to
Margaret's relief and her mother's chagrin.

Now Hester guided the first woman to one of the chairs in the
center of the floor beside the table. "Come in, Nell," she urged. "Sit
down." She shook her head. "Did Willie beat you again? Surely you
could find a better man?" She looked at the bruises on Nell's arms,
plainly made by a gripping hand.

"At my age?" Nell said bitterly, easing herself into the chair.
"C'mon, Mrs. Monk! Yer mean well, I daresay, but yer feet in't on
the ground. Not unless yer offerin' that nice-lookin' ol' man o'
yours?" She leered ruefully. "Then I might take yer up one day. 'E's
got an air about 'im as 'e could be summat real special. Kind o'
mean but fun, if yer know wot I'm sayin'?" She gave a guffaw of
laughter which turned into a racking cough, and she bent double
over her knees as the paroxysm shook her.

Without being asked, Margaret poured a little whiskey out of a
bottle, replaced the cork, and added hot water from the kettle.
Wordlessly she held it until Nell had controlled herself sufficiently
to take it, the tears still streaming down her face. She struggled
for breath, sipped some of the whiskey, gagged, and then took a
deeper gulp.

Hester turned to the woman called Kitty and found her staring
with wide, horrified eyes, her body tense, muscles so tight her
shoulders all but tore the thin fabric of her bodice.

"Mrs. Monk?" she whispered huskily. "Your husband . . ."

"He's not here," Hester assured her. "There's no one here who
will hurt you. Where are you injured?"

Kitty did not reply. She was shuddering so violently her teeth

"Go on, yer silly cow!" Lizzie said impatiently. "She won't 'urt
yer, an' she won't tell no one nuffin'. Nell's only goin' on 'cos she
fancies 'er ol' man. Proper gent, 'e is. Smart as a whip. Dresses like
the tailor owed 'im, not t'other way 'round." She nursed her broken
wrist, wincing with pain. "Get on wiv it, then. You may 'ave got all
night--I in't."

Kitty looked once at the iron beds, five along each side of the
room, the stone sinks at the far end, and the buckets and ewers of
water drawn from the well at the corner of the square. Then she
faced Hester, making an intense effort to control herself.

"I got in a fight," she said quietly. "It's not that bad. I daresay I
was frightened as much as anything." Her voice was surprising: it
was low and a trifle husky, and her diction was clear. At one time
she must have had some education. It struck in Hester a note of
pity so sharp that for a moment it was all she could think of. She
tried not to let it show in her expression. The woman did not want
the intrusion of pity. She would be only too aware of her own fall
from grace without anyone else's notice of it.

"Those are bad bruises on your neck." Hester looked at them
more closely. It appeared as if someone had held her by the throat,
and there was a deep graze across the front of her breastbone, as
though a hard fingernail had scored it deliberately. "Is that blood
yours?" Hester asked, indicating the splatters across the front of
Kitty's bodice.

Kitty gave a shuddering sigh. "No. No! I . . . I reckon I caught
his nose when I hit him back. It's not mine. I'll be all right. Nell's
bleeding. You should see to that. And Lizzie broke her wrist, or
somebody did." She spoke generously, but she was still shivering,
and Hester was certain she was far from well enough to leave. She
would have liked to know what bruises were hidden under her
clothes, or what beatings she had endured in the past, but she did
not ask questions. It was one of the rules; they had all agreed that
no one pressed for personal information or repeated what they
overheard or deduced. The whole purpose of the house was simply
to offer such medical help as lay within their skill, or that of
Mr. Lockhart, who called by every so often and could be reached
easily enough in an emergency. He had failed his medical exams at
the very end of his training through a weakness for drink rather
than ignorance or inability. He was happy enough to help in return
for company, a little kindness, and the feeling that he belonged

He liked to talk, to share food he had been given rather than
paid for, and when he was short of funds he slept on one of the beds.
Margaret offered Kitty a hot whiskey and water, and Hester
turned to look at Nell's deep gash.

"That'll have to be stitched," she advised.

Nell winced. She had experienced Hester's needlework before.

"Otherwise it will take a long time to heal," Hester warned.

Nell pulled a face. "If yer stitchin's still like yer stitched me
'and, they'd throw yer out of a bleedin' sweatshop," she said good-humoredly.
"All it wants is buttons on it!" She drew in her breath
between her teeth as Hester pulled the cloth away from the wound
and it started to bleed again. "Jeez!" Nell said, her face white. "Be
careful, can't yer? Yer got 'ands like a damn navvy!"

Hester was accustomed to the mild abuse and knew it was only
Nell's way of covering her fear and her pain. This was the fourth
time she had been there in the month and a half since the house
had been open.

"Yer'd think since yer'd looked arter soldiers in the Crimea wi'
Florence Nightingale an' all, yer'd be a bit gentler, wouldn't yer?"
Nell went on. "I bet yer snuffed as many o' our boys as the fightin'
ever did. 'Oo paid yer then? The Russkies?" She looked at the needle
Margaret had threaded with gut for Hester. Her face went gray
and she swiveled her head to avoid seeing the point go through her

"Keep looking at the door," Hester advised. "I'll be as quick as I

"That supposed ter make me feel better?" Nell demanded. "Yer
got that bleedin' fat leech comin' in 'ere again."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Jessop!" Nell said with stinging contempt as the street door
closed again and a large, portly man in a frock coat and brocade
waistcoat stood just inside, stamping his feet as if to force water off
them, although in fact it was a perfectly dry night.

"Good evening, Mrs. Monk," he said unctuously. "Miss Ballinger."
His eyes flickered over the other three women, his lips
slightly curled. He made no comment, but in his face was his superiority,
his comfortable amusement, the ripple of interest in them
which he resented, and would have denied hotly. He looked Hester
up and down. "You are a very inconvenient woman to find, ma'am.
I don't care for having to walk the streets at this time of night in order
to meet with you. I can tell you that with total honesty."

Hester made a very careful stitch in Nell's arm. "I hope you tell
me everything with total honesty, Mr. Jessop," she said coldly and
without looking up at him.

Nell shifted slightly and sniggered, then turned it into a yell as
she felt the thread of gut pulling through her flesh.

"For goodness sake be quiet, woman!" Jessop snapped, but his
eyes followed the needle with fascination. "Be grateful that you are
being assisted. It is more than most decent folk would do for you."
He forced his attention away. "Now, Mrs. Monk, I dislike having to
discuss my affairs in front of these unfortunates, but I cannot wait
around for you to have time to spare." He put his thumbs in the
pockets of his red brocade waistcoat.

"As I am sure you are aware, it is quarter to one in the morning
and I have a home to go to. We need to reconsider our arrangements."
He freed one hand and flicked it at the room in general.
"This is not the best use of property, you know. I am doing you a
considerable service in allowing you to rent these premises at such a
low rate." He rocked very slightly back and forth on the balls of his
feet. "As I say, we must reconsider our arrangement."

Hester held the needle motionless and looked at him. "No, Mr.
Jessop, we must keep precisely to our arrangement. It was made and
witnessed by the lawyers. It stands."

"I have my reputation to consider," he went on, his eyes moving
for a moment to each of the women, then back to Hester.

?A reputation for charity is good for anyone,? she returned, beginning very carefully to stitch again. This time Nell made no sound at all.

?Ah, but there?s charity . . . and charity.? Jessop pursed his lips and resumed the very slight rocking, his thumbs back in his waistcoat pockets. ?There?s some as are more deserving than others, if you take my meaning??

?I?m not concerned with deserving, Mr. Jessop,? she replied. ?I?m concerned with needing. And that woman??she indicated Lizzie??has broken bones which have to be set. We cannot pay you any more, nor should we.? She tied the last stitch and looked up to meet his eyes. The thought passed through her mind that they resembled boiled sweets, to be specific, those usually known as humbugs. ?A reputation for not keeping his word is bad for a man of business,? she added. ?In fact, any man at all. And it is good, especially in an area like this, to be trusted.?

His face hardened until it was no longer even superficially benign. His lips were tight, his cheeks blotchy. ?Are you threatening me, Mrs. Monk?? he said quietly. ?That would be most unwise, I can assure you. You need friends, too.? He mimicked her tone. ?Especially in an area like this.?

Before Hester could speak, Nell glared up at Jessop. ?You watch yer lip, mister. You might knock around tarts like us.? She used the word viciously, as he might have said it. ?But Mrs. Monk?s a lady, an? wot?s more, ?er ?usband used ter be a rozzer, an? now ?e does it private, like, fer anyone as wants it. But that don?t mean ?e in?t got friends in places wot counts.? Admiration gleamed in her eyes, and a harsh satisfaction. ?An? ?e?s as ?ard as they come w?en ?e needs ter be. If ?e took ter yer nasty, yer?d wish as yer?d never bin born! Ask some o? yer thievin? friends if they?d like ter cross William Monk. Garn, I dare yer! Wet yerself at the thought, yer would!?

The dull color washed up Jessop?s face, but he did not reply to her. He glared at Hester. ?You wait till renewal time, Mrs. Monk! You?ll be looking for something else, and I?ll be warning other propertied men just what sort of a tenant you are. As to Mr. Monk . . .? He spat the words this time. ?He can speak to all the police he likes! I?ve got friends, too, and not all of them are so nice!?

?Garn!? Nell said in mock amazement. ?An? ?ere was us thinkin? as yer meant ?Er Majesty, an? all!?

Jessop turned, and after giving Hester one more icy stare he opened the door and let the cold air in off the cobbled square, damp in the early-spring night. The dew was slick
on the stones, shining under the gaslight twenty yards away, showing the corner of the end house?grimy, eaves dark and dripping, guttering crooked.

He left the door open behind him and walked smartly down Bath Street toward the Farringdon Road.

?Bastard!? Nell said in disgust, then looked down at her arm. ?Yer improvin?,? she said grudgingly.

?Thank you,? Hester acknowledged with a smile.

Nell suddenly grinned back. ?Yer all right, you are! If that fat sod gives yer any trouble, like, let us know. Willie might knock me around a bit, wot?s out o? place, but ?e?d be good fer beatin? that slimy pig, an? all.?

?Thank you,? Hester said seriously. ?I?ll keep it in mind. Would you like more tea??

?Yeah! An? a drop o? life in it, too.? Nell held out the cup.

?Rather less life this time,? Hester directed as Margaret, hiding a smile, obeyed.

Hester moved her attention to Lizzie, who was looking increasingly anxious as her turn approached. Setting her broken bone was going to be very painful. Anesthetic had been available for more serious operations for several years. It made all sorts of deep incisions possible, such as those needed to remove stones from the bladder...

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