I never saw Sam again after that Christmas Eve. He was no great loss. I couldn’t say I really wanted to see him. Except to give him a piece of my mind, of course. Rosie smirked at me for a few days, but didn’t pry, for which I was grateful.
The sponge went into a drawer and was forgotten about. Shame I hadn’t actually needed it; the whole world knew that a woman couldn’t conceive unless she actually enjoyed the act. I had plenty of offers from customers, of course, but I wasn’t tempted. It wasn’t just that the episode with Sam had put me off; I had to think of my position as Head Barmaid at the Eagle Tavern as well. You might laugh at that, but I’ll have you know that the Eagle was certainly the best known tavern in London at the time, and in fact was probably the best, full stop. And my position was one that many and many a lass envied. No, it would not do to get a name as a dollymop. Rosie would never stand for it, and I wouldn’t blame her for a minute.
So there I was, still almost a virgin a year after the bit of silliness with Sam.
And there he was. Standing at the bar and sipping at his glass of flesh and blood and waiting for his oysters and inspecting the main room in the Eagle, cool as you like. Mind you, he was most definitely a gent, from his curly brimmed masher’s hat to his nicely tailored trousers, anchored beneath his shoes with a strap to keep the legs straight. Definitely a bit of alright, as well.
I grabbed his plate of oysters as soon as Cook had dropped a bit of parsley on top, and darted back upstairs with them.
“Here you are, sir. Straight from the Thames today.” I smiled.
He selected a single oyster and squeezed lemon on it. Lifted it to his mouth and slurped the slippery morsel between his lips. Swallowed, and licked his lips languorously. Smiled at me and offered me the plate by pushing it towards me.
“Delicious.” He said softly. “Please, do join me. I always think that eating oysters is something better shared, don’t you?”
I took one and swallowed it, without tasting a thing.
After that, I kept an eye out for him. He didn’t come in every night, and it was only long afterwards that I understood that his absence was deliberate, to tease me. To ensure that I was kept on my toes, wondering about him. And wonder I did.
I asked around casually, but nobody knew a thing about my gent. He had appeared out of thin air, it seemed. High and low alike knew nothing about him. I chatted to toshers and costermongers, on the principle that they knew everything and everybody in London – above and below ground - who was worth knowing, but they said no, he was unknown to them. Neither did the moneyed sort of customer, the Stage Door Johnnies and the loungers, admit that they knew him. Nobody thought it was odd that I was interested, of course. Apart from the country boys, who were ripe for the plucking and rarely made more than one appearance, everybody in the Eagle at least knew of one another, and a mystery made people uneasy.
“Glass of flesh and blood, please Nella. And something for my stomach to keep the cold out.”
I smiled at my mystery and decided to take my chance.
“Coming up, Sir. But you´ve got the advantage of me, you know.” I lowered my eyelashes demurely. “You know my name, but I don´t know yours.”
“Indeed?” He was laughing at me. He had the oddest eyes I had ever seen; very, very pale green. Almost as green as an unpeeled grape. Eyes that radiated innocence, and always seemed good-humoured. I found out later that those eyes were one of his main weapons. Even when he was angry enough to kill – and that happened – he always appeared calm and amused. It caught people off guard. “We can´t have that, can we? Christopher Hudson, at your service, Nella. Kit to my friends. And we are going to be friends, aren´t we?”
I murmured something in response and he leaned towards me.
“You have the most beautiful speaking voice, Nella. Do you sing, perhaps?”
“Sing?” I shot daggers at the man who had interrupted our little tête a tête. He was a large, beefy-faced man who came into the Eagle regularly but spent like a miser. “Did I hear you ask if our little Nell can sing? Why, the Swedish Nightingale is nothing to her! She can knock `em dead any day of the week.”
“Ah?” Christopher – Kit – smiled. “Really? You tread the boards in the Grecian Saloon as well as work behind the bar, then?”
I shook my head.
“Not really. I take a turn now and then if an act has been delayed, or not turned up. I´m not a regular though.”
“You must tell me next time you´re going to perform. I would love to hear you.”
I thought he meant it, as well. But then he went missing for the best part of a week, and I decided I had been imagining things and that my mystery had got tired of playing his little game. I was sorry about that; far more sorry than I would admit even to myself. He had got under my skin, with his pretty manners and prettier eyes.
His absence left me itching. And I didn´t like it. Not one bit.
It took my mind off him well and truly when Rosie told me to shimmy off to the Grecian Saloon. Harry Thurlow – the famous Lion Comique and top of the bill that night – hadn´t turned up, and he was overdue by five minutes already. I looked at her doubtfully.
“Dunno about that, Rosie. I can´t see the crowd taking to me, not when they´ve paid good money to listen to Handsome Harry Thurlow. Can´t one of the supporting acts take another turn?”
“Not likely. The Funny Woman has had another go already, and if the jugglers go back on they´ll get torn limb from limb. Go on, love. Sing `em a couple of songs. They all like you.”
I went off reluctantly, but I needn´t have worried. I gave the crowd “The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery”, accompanied by my best soulful looks towards the Gods, followed by “Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.” I got a reprise for that, and they were stamping the floor that hard, I gave them another verse or two. I suppose I might have got a bit carried away; I could see out of the corner of my eye that Handsome Harry Thurlow had arrived and was standing in the wings, making furious “cut throat” gestures for me to get off. Not one to take to being upstaged – especially by a barmaid! – was Handsome Harry.
When I skittered off, both hands full of coins, Harry gave me what might have looked like a friendly buffet on the shoulder. Actually, it was a vicious thump that sent me reeling. I suppose it didn´t help greatly that the crowd at the Eagle didn´t take kindly to being kept waiting, and instead of Harry´s usual riotous welcome, he was received with boos and shouts of “Fetch little Nell back!”
It wasn´t my fault. If I hadn´t kept the boys and girls amused, Harry´s welcome would have been far worse. But he obviously didn´t see it like that.
I slipped out of the side door when we closed. Rosie had kept a select bunch of friends behind for a drink after hours, and had waved me off graciously. It was a nasty, cold, foggy night and the gas lamps weren´t making much of an impression on the darkness at all. In fact, it was that murky I kept one hand on the wall and followed it round in case I walked straight past the corner and found myself half way up the City Road.
“Now then, love.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin. I was between gas lights, and all I could see was a dark shape that slouched to my side and began to walk alongside me like a shadow gone wrong. I didn´t like this one bit, and walked faster. My shadow speeded up to match my pace, so I stopped and faced him with a bravado that was entirely show. My teeth were chattering like the castanets that the Spanish dancer clicked out a tune on.
“And who are you, then?”
“Oh, just a friend, love. A friend with a little message from Mr. Thurlow. He don´t like being upstaged by the likes of you, and that´s a fact.”
“He should get there on time, then.” I said indignantly.
“Snippy little thing, aren´t you?” The man pushed me, hard, as he spoke – right in the center of my chest. I clattered into the wall, and came up fighting.
“Enjoy yourself picking on women, do you? Wonder what you´d be like against somebody your own size, you bloody coward.”
I was about to leg it – reasoning that I could probably make it to the back door before he could catch me – when something very strange happened. Instead of trying to grab me, the man made an odd gargling sound and then simply crumpled to the ground. I stood there with my mouth wide open, gawping.
“There´s the answer, my little Nell. That´s what he would do if he was up against somebody his own size.”
I couldn´t see him, but I recognized his voice alright.
“Mr. Hudson? Kit? What are you doing here?” Dopey thing to say, I know, but to be honest I was properly rattled by Harry Thurlow´s nobbler, and as the thought of what he might have done to me began to penetrate, I started to shake until my teeth chattered.
Kit took my hand and placed it in the crook of his arm, patting my hand reassuringly.
“Waiting for you, of course.” He said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “I saw you perform tonight. You really could take it up professionally, you know. You have a remarkably beautiful voice. Still, the Grecian Room´s loss is my gain. Come along, dear.”
And do you know, I did?
Kit magiced a growler up from somewhere as soon as we got back into the City Road, and handed me into it as if I was a Duchess. And that was the last time I set foot behind the bar at the Eagle Tavern.
“221B Baker Street, Cabby.” He called, and the driver touched his hat and we were off. I sat in the corner, torn between wondering if I had run mad and knowing somewhere inside that this was fate, and that being the case, no point fighting it, was there?
“Rosie´s going to wonder where I´ve got to.” I said. Well, I had to make an effort.
“Rosie your Donah, is she?”
I stared at him in amazement that he knew what a “donah” was, and nodded. He couldn´t see me of course, but he must have felt the movement.
“I´ll send her a message in the morning. The carter who goes to pick your things up can deliver a letter for her, explaining you´re not going to be back.”
“Sez you!” I said indignantly. This was a bit rich, I thought.
“But you´re not going back, Nella Serjeant. Not now, not ever. You´re staying with me.”
His confidence left me breathless. That, and the blow that Thurlow´s tough had given my chest. I rubbed my wishbone and winced.
“I´m sorry he did that to you. He was just a little too quick for me, I´m afraid. It won´t happen again. And it may well be a while before that nobbler tries something like that again.”
“What did you hit him with?”
“I happened to find a good, hard neddy in my pocket and I´m afraid I was so angry when I realized he was about to try and hurt you that I hit him with it perhaps a little more fiercely than I had intended. Can´t say I´m sorry.” Kit sounded amused. I sagged back in my corner and rubbed my tender chest and decided I wasn´t sorry, either.
“You voker Romany?” I asked at last.
“Like a native, dear. Thieves´ cant is almost my mother tongue.”
He laughed, and for no reason that I could finger, I laughed with him.
And so began my new life. It didn´t take long to find out that my mysterious “gentleman” was a conundrum. He was a gentleman, or at least, he had been once. But he was also a gambler; he made his living as a flash broadsman; a plucker of unsuspecting pigeons. And – as he himself said – he was very, very good at it. When there were no patrons waiting to be parted with their lush, he moonlighted on the scaldrum lay. Between the two of these less than honorable “professions”, he made the sort of living that many a true toff would have envied. But more of all that later.
By the time we rattled into Baker Street, I was shaking again. Cold, I told myself. It was a bitter night, and I had no more than a shawl to keep the chill out. If I had been truthful with myself, I would have admitted it was mainly pure excitement. I had no idea what was going on, and I cared less. It was the most wonderful sensation; a little bit like it had been with Sam, before it went nasty, but a million times more thrilling. Whatever was happening – whatever was going to happen – I welcomed it.
Kit paid off the cab and threw open the door to the town house. He bowed to me – I thought at the time, and still think it now – in genuine welcome to his home and I walked through the door with my head held high. And my stomach churning and my arms speckled with gooseflesh and my mouth dry.
He shoved the door closed with his hip and I jumped at the sound.
“You´re home, Nella.” He said softly. He had left the gas mantle burning; such extravagance! And I could see his face clearly in the mellow light. He was smiling but there was something else in his expression. Something teasing and provoking and something else that I couldn´t just put my finger on. I just stood there, looking at him, not having a clue what to do or to say. Apart from anything else, this was the first time I had been in a gentleman´s house and I had no idea what the polite thing to do was.
As if I needed to worry!
Kit leaned down and for a moment I thought he was bowing. But he wasn´t. He slid one arm around my waist and the other behind my knees, and simply scooped me up as if I was a parcel. I clung on to him for dear life as he turned and carried me up the central staircase – there were exactly seventeen steps, I counted each one. At the top of the stairs, he turned right and walked down a carpeted landing and into the most opulent bedroom you could imagine; all Turkey rugs and polished furniture and thick velvet curtains drawn against the weather. And the bed! Not to forget the bed. I doubt if I ever will.
He loosed one arm from me and threw the covers back, perching me down on the edge of the mattress. I was shivering so hard I thought I might shake myself on to the floor.
And then he stood back and just …. looked at me. And that was the first and last time I saw no amusement in those grape-green eyes.
“Tell me now, Nell. If you want to go, tell me now. In five minutes time it will be too late for both of us.”
I just shook my head. Words were far beyond anything I could manage.
Kit nodded and I thought he was pleased. He loosed his silk cravat and left it dangling; undid his waistcoat buttons and threw it off onto the floor. The rest of his clothes followed and all I could do was sit and watch intently. Unlike the long forgotten Sam, Kit´s chest was covered in tight curls of hair. A line of hair ran down his stomach to connect with the hair down there; I licked my lips, suddenly short of breath, as I saw how his cock reared from its furry nest. Had I done that? Had I really? I was absurdly pleased at the thought, and reached out a tentative finger to touch his rearing Nebuchadnezzar; if I had thought Sam´s cock was big, then Kit´s was startling.
He took my hand away gently, and reached it to his lips, kissing each fingertip in turn. Paused to press my palm against his mouth, licking and nibbling at it.
I felt as if a bottle of well-shaken ginger beer had been uncorked in my belly.
I whimpered and Kit grinned at me.
“Stand up, little Nella.” He said softly. I did as I was told. What else could I do?
Very, very gently he tugged my shawl from my shoulders and then began to unhook the fastening on the front of my dress. I stood stock still, staring at the corner of the ceiling over his shoulder. I would like to have watched his face, but I couldn´t bring myself to do it. My chemise followed the dress, and then my stays and finally my petticoats, until I was standing there stark naked apart from my stockings and garters and shoes. Kit solved the problem of the shoes in no time at all; he simply lifted me bodily out of them, and then laid me down on the bed.
By God, but those sheets were cold! Finest cotton they may have been, but I cried out with the shock all the same.
“Forgive me. If I had only known that tonight was to be the night that I bought you home, I would have made up the fire in here. But I don´t think you will be cold for long.”
He ran his finger down my body, starting just below my chin and ending just short of my Hairy Mary. I bucked to meet him, greedy for the feel of him inside me, but Kit was having none of it. He laughed and wagged that roving finger at me.
“No hurry. After all, half of the pleasure is in the anticipation, don´t you find?”
I wanted to tell him I had no idea, that the only time I had ever been with a man before had been over and done with so quickly, I still barely had any idea what was what. I stared at him and shrugged helplessly.
He leaned forward and kissed me, oh! so gently. But full on my mouth. Took his head away to look at me, and instantly I felt the loss of him in every bone, every muscle. He stared hard into my eyes and nodded, as if I had spoken out loud.
Kit smoothed my face with his fingers. Stroking softly, touching each and every feature as if he was trying to commit them to memory. When his fingers reached my lips, I could stand it no longer and impulsively bit his fingertip. Kit said “ah!” very slowly, and I guessed that he liked that, so I did it again.
His hands slid behind my head and dived into my hair. I could feel him pulling and tugging at the numerous pins that bound my hair into tidily, and then the whole of it came tumbling down, past my shoulders. I laughed out loud with excitement, and shook and tossed my head so that my curls could fly with a life of their own. Kit took a hank of hair and bit at it, tugging slightly. When he let it go, I could see his lips were shining with saliva. I reached up and licked it off his mouth, and then strained my head back so he could nibble and caress my neck with his teeth.
His head moved lower and lower until his mouth found my breast. He took the left nipple fully in his mouth; I was so cold and so excited that it hurt, almost as if somebody was cutting into it. At the same time, I found the pain exquisite, and moaned out loud. I reached for his cock and my fingers slid around it, barely meeting on each side. I had no idea what to do, but instinct and greed combined to make my fist tighten as hard as I could before I began to move my fist up and down and up and down. Slowly. If anticipation was what Kit wanted, then he would get it!
But it appeared that Kit was no longer interested in waiting. In response to my grasp, he began to move back and forth in my grip, his movements becoming suddenly urgent. I let go quickly and I heard him sigh.
“Quite right.” He whispered against my breath. “You are a vixen, Nella. Any more of that, and I would have been a dreadful disappointment to you.”
I licked my lips and stared at his face. The gas light made him appear to be smiling, but I knew he wasn´t, not at all. His teeth were bared exactly as a dog bares its teeth before lunging at a juicy bone. And I was the bone.
“What would you like?” I whispered. “Tell me. Tell me what you want me to do.”
Kit didn´t speak. Instead, he laced his hand in my black curls and tugged my head down his body. His grip was painful, but it was all one; I was learning quickly that pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin. But I took my revenge on him anyway; as he pulled my head down to his cock, I grabbed his flesh between my teeth and bit, hard, snapping like someone in the grip of a fever. Kit said “Ah” and I felt him shudder before he was mashing my face against him.
I pushed him away. Sat back, and looked at him. I had no idea what was right, what was wrong. And cared even less. He would show me. Tell me. For long seconds, we simply stared at each other, and then I reached out and grasped his cock in my fingers. Pulled the foreskin back and forth and back and forth; rubbed around the head with one fingertip. Glance at Kit´s face to see if he approved.
He inclined his head, slowly. Said, “please”. I nodded. Lowered my mouth to his cock and allowed the very tip of it to slip inside my lips. Ran my tongue down the length of his slit. Licked my lips to see if I liked the taste.
He tasted of clean flesh. I took my mouth away and sniffed him. And why not? This night, I wanted to know every sensation he could give me. I wanted to smell and taste and hear and feel, like I had never done in my life before. There would be, I knew instinctively, many more nights with Kit, but none quite so special as this. Suddenly, I deeply regretted losing my virginity to Sam. I would dearly have liked it to have been Kit. I thought I would tell him that later, but then I glanced at his face and I could read his thoughts; he knew without being told. And he felt the same. I was glad of that.
I had a momentary flash of fear as I wondered how many women Kit had possessed, and how I would measure up to them, then it was gone in a wave of desire so intense that it left me shaking. I lowered my head again, and gulped him inside my mouth, taking him so deeply that I found myself retching. I ran my tongue up and down his shaft, biting and nibbling and sucking with intense greed. If it gave Kit half as much pleasure as it gave me, then he must have been in seventh heaven.
I waited for his signal; I knew immediately when he wanted me to change direction. No words were said, none were needed. I could feel it in his body. I allowed his cock to slide out of my mouth and ran my tongue down the length of him until I reached his balls. The short curls of hair at the base of them tickled my tongue and almost made me laugh. But I was having none of that; I popped one in my mouth and sucked on it as if it was a lollipop. Let it go, and did the same to the other side, in case the poor thing felt neglected. Transferred my attentions to where his legs joined on to his body, flicking my tongue at the crease and plucking at his pubic hair with my teeth. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw is hands ball into fists. Had this been anybody else, I might have worried that those fists were meant for me. But not Kit. No, never Kit.
I raised my head and waited. For long seconds we looked at each other, our gazes locked. Waiting. Waiting. Then Kit sighed long and soft and reached down to lift me up with infinite tenderness. He laid me at his side and rolled over on his elbow, staring at my face almost greedily, as though he was committing my every feature to his memory.
“Dear heart.” He said quietly. His voice shook very slightly. “I knew as soon as I saw you behind the bar at the Eagle that this moment was inevitable. I don´t know why I bothered trying to fight against it. You are mine, and will be until the last breath leaves this body.”
I was frozen. Nobody had ever said words like that to me, and I just didn´t know how to answer him. Did I feel the same? Of course I did; I had felt exactly the same way. But unlike Kit, I had no pretty way to express the way I felt. I just …. Nodded. He smiled, and put his hand behind the nape of my neck, laying me down at his side.
Suddenly, I thought of Rosie´s present. Lonely in its drawer, back at the Eagle. But it was no good, it was too late. Had been too late the moment Kit had tucked my hand in his arm, a lifetime ago. I snatched a breath; would it really be the end of the world if Kit gave me a baby? His baby? No, of course not. I almost welcomed the idea. Except for the knowledge that a babe would mean that I would have to share him, and I was not ready for that. I was too greedy for him to bear the thought.
“Don´t give me a baby.” I whispered, and Kit laughed out loud.
“I´ll try my best not to.” He said, at the same moment as he slid his wonderful Nebuchadnezzar into my waiting depths.
I expected it to hurt. It hadn´t hurt with Sam, but that had been so hurried, so very uncomfortable altogether, I had had no chance to experience either pain or pleasure. But Kit did not cause me pain. He probed at me almost lazily, pushing and then pulling back, before pushing a little more. He was a tight fit, to be sure, but the sensations he was arousing were so very pleasurable I would have welcomed even pain, had he offered it. I simply lay, reveling in him. All my senses were heightened; I could smell his flesh. His touch was heat and cold, both at the same time; his hands were freezing, his cock hot, hot, hot. I licked at his shoulder and tasted salt and sweat. Bit, hard, and coppery blood laved my tongue. Kit hissed, with pleasure or pain or both, I had no idea. He grabbed my hair and pulled my head back fiercely; the pain in my scalp was delicious. But nowhere near as delicious as the need he was arousing in my cunny.
I screamed, a breathy noise that had no words.
“More?” Kit´s voice grated. “Harder? Tell me what you want, Nella.”
“Yes!” I shouted. “Everything. I want everything. Now.”
He grinned and began to move faster, almost pulling out of me, and then plunging back until I wondered if I would be able to contain him. I reached down and pulled the lips of my sex apart, splaying myself wide in an effort to get another tiny bit of him inside me. And then, totally without warning, I found myself arching to meet him, shuddering, rigid with a pleasure I had had no idea ever existed.
Kit laughed at me, his mouth open. Saliva trickled down his chin. Then he, too, was rigid and shaking. Was this death, I wondered? Had we both died at the same moment, and this paroxysm of pleasure the last thing I would ever experience on this earth? If it was, then surely it was worth dying for!
But it was not death. It was life created anew. And by morning, I was in thrall to Kit Hudson. Had he put a chain around my neck and paraded me up and down Baker Street stark naked, I would have followed him. Anything and everything he asked was his for the taking. And I reveled in it. Although if I had known at the time exactly what he was going to ask me to do, I wonder if I would have agreed? Although I suppose I would. I was already his slave, and that never altered. Mind you, it didn´t stop me going out to the nearest haberdashers first thing next morning, and buying myself a nice, large sponge and a yard of ribbon.
I had wondered – from the day he first appeared at the Eagle – what Kit actually did for a living. Gentleman-like as he was, I sensed that he needed to earn his money; that he had not been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as the saying goes. And I soon found I was all too right.
I listened carefully to what he was saying. And then shook my head.
“No, I don´t understand. Explain to me again.”
“Nell, dear.” Kit said patiently. “I have no money, other than what I earn. My Papa was reasonably well off, doncha know, but Mama was the most extravagant creature on earth. By the time he died, there was nothing left. Even the family home was mortgaged to the hilt. The day after Papa was buried, the bailiffs arrived and took anything that was worth having. Mama was left with little more than the clothes on her back, and her wedding ring. She told me – remarkably cheerfully, under the circumstances – that I would have to look out for myself for the future, as she was off. I thought at the time that she had an admirer lined up, but I don´t really know. I never saw her again.”
I sighed and nodded. This was better than any of the stories I had consumed in all the Penny Dreadfuls I had read over the years. This was real life!
“How old were you?”
“Sixteen. Nearly seventeen.”
I was full of questions; how did she expect you to survive? How did you survive? But I swallowed them and let Kit tell his tale in his own way.
“In any event, a friend of Papa´s must have known which way the wind was blowing, as he came round to the house and found me standing there in the middle of an empty room, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do. I had always liked this man, although Papa had warned me off him. He was, I gathered, not quite pukka. Not quite the thing. That may have been so, but I would have starved without him. Patrick took me home with him, and fed me, and gave me a room. And taught me a trade. He taught me to play cards. Not just to play cards, but how to pluck a pigeon clean. How to steal a hand from under the nose of the best player in the land, and leave him wondering how it had happened. And you, my little Nella, are going to help me to do that now.”
“But I can´t play cards! Not so much as cribbage!” I protested.
And so began my new life.
I was so nervous the first time, I thought I would make a mess of things and land us both in the chokey. But not a bit of it; my very shyness counted in my favour.
Kit introduced me as his niece.
“Poor child,” he said softly. “Both her parents died when the Princess Alice pleasure steamer sank last month. She should have been with them, but she had a slight fever and they thought it better to leave her at home. My only sister´s daughter; she has nobody else in this world but me.” Well, that bit, at least, was true enough! “I hate to bring her somewhere like this, but I can hardly leave her at home, on her own. The poor child suffers the most dreadful nightmares, as it is.”
To a man, the hardened gamblers in the room looked at me with tears in their eyes. Kit´s acting was so good, I was quite overcome myself. To be sure, the sinking of the Princess Alice had been a terrible tragedy. To make matters worse – if that was possible – the steamer had not only been rent in two by another vessel, but sank at exactly the moment that the great sewer at Beckton discharged into the Thames. Over five hundred people died – not so much drowning in water as suffocated in shit.
So I sat, and watched. Like the twelve year old child I was supposed to be, I fidgeted. Lolled against the card players and smiled at them. Shuffled about under the table. Became bored, and wandered around the room. Amazingly, all the gentlemen smiled at me tenderly. I doubt they would have smiled so much if they had had an inkling of Kit´s scheme.
He had taught me well; but then, I was an avid student of anything he wanted me to do. A finger curled around a lock of my hair meant that the nearest gentleman had a pair in his hand. A soulful sigh indicated three of a kind. And if I stood and then sat down again immediately, Kit was warned to fold, at once.
And do you know, it worked beautifully? No matter how much they cursed Kit for having the luck of the devil and vowed never to play with him again, all the gamblers patted me on the head and called me “sweetheart” and many of them even gave me sixpence or a shilling for my own. And even stranger, it worked time after time after time.
There were, of course, days and even weeks when London was – as Kit put it – “thin of company” and no card games worth the name were to be had. When that happened, Kit fell back on his other talent.
“I was a very great actor at school.” He told me. “King Lear, Macbeth. All the leads. I had the Mamas in tears when they watched me languish as Romeo.”
But all that was as nothing compared to Kit´s portrayal of a disfigured beggar when he was on the scaldrum dodge. You may never have heard of this; fair enough, few members of the quality have. But think on my words, before you throw your pennies away at the next beggar who beseeches you for charity. They may well be better off than you are!
In any event, Kit was moody. He had not had a game for nearly a fortnight, and we were short of money. I was puzzled by this; he had had a run of “good luck” (with my help!) for over a month before hand, and I thought he should be flush. But he was not. I had learned quickly not to pry when he was like this; although he never lifted a hand to me, ever, when he was in a bad mood he was quiet and terse and I worried that I was a hindrance rather than a help. And I was happy to do anything, anything at all, to improve his temper.
“Get your shawl and bonnet on, Nella. The oldest ones you´ve got will do nicely. We´re going to Limehouse.”
My jaw sagged foolishly. Limehouse? Even when I worked at the Eagle, I would never, ever have thought about setting foot in Limehouse. It was neither more nor less than one of the biggest rookeries in London; a crowded hot bed of crime and slum-dwellers, who were known to be capable of stealing the pennies off a dead man´s eyes. Nobody who didn´t have to went to Limehouse.
“Come on.” Kit said impatiently. So I came on.
We took a hansom to the outskirts of Limehouse. Kit paid the driver off when we were still on the fringes of respectability, and we walked the rest of the way. I had to scurry to keep up with him, and before long laced my hand in his arm, both to keep up with his pace and because it felt safer. There were few people on the streets, but I was sure that eyes were following us from each house. The windows – where there were windows – were too dirty to be sure, but I felt them all the same. Kit seemed not to notice – he rattled on at a fine pace, staring straight ahead and not saying a word to me. By the time he stopped in front of a tenement even mouldier and dirtier than most of the buildings we had passed, I was shaking with cold and fear.
“Kit, what are we doing here?” I could hear the whine in my voice, and was annoyed at myself for it. “This is a terrible, dangerous place. I want to go home.”
“If you want to eat, then stay with me.” He snapped. “Come inside, quickly.”
A Lascar stepped out of the shadows at the side of the door as we entered, and greeted Kit like an old friend.
“Usual room, is it?” He rolled his hand in his pocket as he spoke and I stared at the floor. “Bought me a little present, have you? Hello, Missy!”
“Touch her and you´re a dead man.”
The Lascar and Kit stared at each other, and I swiveled my gaze from one to the other, fascinated and terrified in equal parts. Kit won; the black man´s eyes fell to the floor and he shrugged, jerking his head towards the stairs.
Kit kept hold of my hand as we mounted the steps, both to reassure me and to guide me across the parts where the wood had rotted away. I followed, bewildered but game. Once in a room on the second floor, Kit kicked the door closed and sat me gently down on the edge of the bed – the only furniture in the room, apart from a square chest in the corner.
“Listen, Nell. You want to help, me don´t you?” His voice was wheedling, and if possible it increased my fear. He knew I would do anything for him; what was so terrible that he had to persuade me? I managed to nod. “Good girl. Now just sit for a minute, and I´ll explain things to you.”
He crossed the room to the chest and pulled out a bundle of rags and what looked like an artist´s colouring box. In spite of the bitter cold, he stripped naked and then pulled on an assortment of the rags, which turned out to be a pair of trousers and a coat that were more holes than cloth, and so filthy they could have stood up under the weight of their own grease. As soon as the clothes were on his back, the Kit I knew simply disappeared. One shoulder sagged inches lower than the other. His right arm curled up as if it was hopelessly twisted out of shape. When he moved, his limped. His head hung to one side. Even though I knew perfectly well that he was a fine, strong young man, instinct made me reach my hand out to comfort this poor, disabled creature.
He laughed and shrugged and straightened, and was suddenly Kit again. My Kit, laughing at me with those amused green eyes. I sagged in relief and confusion.
“You think that´s impressive?” He asked. “Just you wait a minute, young Nella.”
He opened the artists’ colouring box and began to work at his face with what I recognized immediately as sticks of actors´ grease paint. Within a few minutes, his mouth sagged at the side as if he was suffering from the palsy. His normal healthy colour had become a sickly yellow and a great scar puckered his left cheek from just beneath his eye to his chin.
“Penny for the poor old soldier, Missus.” He croaked; I didn´t even recognize his voice. I laughed out loud, clapping my hands in appreciation.
“That is amazing!” I said. Kit grinned and held his hands out in a show of modesty. A thought suddenly stopped my amusement. “But what do you need me for?”
“Times are hard, Nella.” Kit´s voice sounded extraordinary coming from that ruined face. “Where people used to think nothing of throwing me a sixpence or even a shilling, I´m lucky if I get a meg or two these days. That´s where you come in, dear heart. I want you to stand with me, and literally sing for our supper. Can you do that?”
Of course I could. That would be easy enough, and if my voice wavered a bit in the cold, then all the better. I nodded, and the deformed beggar who was my lover took my arm and we walked down towards the respectable streets of London. By the time we reached Portland Place, Kit was leaning on my arm for support, hurpling along manfully on his lame leg and moaning with the pain of his crooked arm. We settled against some smartly painted railings for support, me taking great care to wrap Kit as warmly as I could in his rags.
And then I gave the performance of my life.
I sang every song I could remember, leaning heavily towards the more sentimental broadsheet ballads. I crooned my way through “Banks of Sweet Dundee” and “The Maid of Erin´s Isle.” Followed it up with “The Last Rose of Summer” and “Danny Boy.” If I do say so myself, I went down a storm. People stopped to listen; one or two of the nursemaids, pushing huge perambulators containing the future masters and mistresses of the capital, dabbed at their eyes with handkerchiefs. And the money flew so freely that Kit had to hiss at me to stop, so he could transfer the heap of coins to his pocket so as not to deter the next lot of punters.
We made nearly two guineas in a short morning´s work. Nowhere near, of course, what Kit could clear in a good card game, but still a week´s wages for a high ranking clerk in a good position in the City.
I was ecstatic and burbled happily all the way back to the dreadful lodging house. Once back in Limehouse, Kit forgot his “injuries” and stood up straight and laughed with me. We ate well that night, and I would have slept well if Kit hadn´t been so pleased me with he spent most of the night expressing that pleasure, in the nicest possible way.
You may think it odd that I could be so happy, when my new life consisted of nothing but dishonesty. Of cheating and taking risks. I was well aware that should Kit´s gambling “friends” find out what he was up to, he would be ruined. It would be the end of the line for that particular source of income, as he would never be able to show his face in polite society again. Worse still, if we were caught out on the scaldrum lay, we would both be in chokey before our feet could touch the ground. And yet, in spite of – perhaps, because of – that knowledge, I found my life had taken on a new luster. Every single moment was alive; every sense seemed enhanced.
For the first time, I felt as if I knew what living was all about. What life should be. And it was wonderful.
Only gradually did a small niggle begin to worm its way into my rapture. Kit was often hard up; sometimes, he was so short of money that there was no coal in the house, and the only food we had was a crust of bread and a sip or two of day old milk. On those days, even the char woman who normally came in daily to clean and wash and clear out the fires, was sent away.
But I couldn´t understand how this came about. I knew how much Kit made fleecing his companions at cards. I knew – who better! – how much the heap of coins amounted to when we went on the scaldrum lay. Even when the pickings were poor, we should have had plenty to tide us over the lean times.
I thought it over, and finally simply did what I should have done in the first place; I asked Kit. My heart sank as he stared straight through me and his expression turned mulish. I knew, instinctively, that he didn´t want to answer me, but I pushed. I can be stubborn, and I wanted an answer.
“Kit, you cleared the board last week at Lord Maldon´s soirée. And now there´s not enough money left to put food on the table. What´s going on?”
He pursed his lips and then threw his head back and laughed. I wasn´t sure whether to be relieved he hadn´t taken offence, or angry with him for making light of my worries.
“My love, you are as tenacious as a Jack Russell terrier after a rabbit. We have no money. Not a silver thru’ penny bit to our name. There, does that satisfy you!”
“I don’t believe you. We must have money.” I frowned, my thoughts going in circles. This was Thursday, only on the previous Sunday we had gone out on the town to a music hall and taken supper afterwards, with a cab to bring us home.
“Does it matter?” Kit wheedled. “We can soon get some more.”
It was no good, for once I was not going to be swayed. I shook my head. And Kit pulled a face.
“I lost it.” He said simply. “I went to the prize fight on Monday, you remember?” I remembered. Kit had said it was no place for me, and I had stayed at home. Why anybody would want to spend hours watching two men knock hell out of each other was beyond me, anyway. “I backed the wrong man. I can´t understand it, I thought Sullivan was a sure winner.”
“And last time we had no money?” I persisted. Kit shrugged.
“I fell in with a few friends, and we had a bet or two on a couple of likely lads who were trying to shoot the river under London Bridge. Wrong man again, I´m afraid.”
I sat quietly, trying to make sense of it all. Kit was a gambler by profession, and a damn good one, at that. How, in God´s name, could he be so stupid? And so often! I asked him that, bluntly, and he chose to take offence. He jerked to his feet and simply walked out of the house.
By the time he came back, I was in tears. I was sure that he was never going to come back, and that even if he did he would be so angry with me that he would chuck me out. I literally threw myself in his arms, bawling, and he licked the tears off my face.
“I´m sorry, dear heart. I had no business to be angry with you. You´re right, of course. I ought to have more sense.” Kit sat down and pulled me on to his knee. “I can´t understand it myself. It´s as if I´m standing at the side of my own body, watching as if I´m somebody else entirely, when these fits take me. I´ve never had reason to resist it before, but I promise you I will try. Now.”
But he didn´t, of course. Time after time he came back home, stony broke. So I did the only thing I could do. When times were good, I started going through his pockets before he had time to count his earnings. Oh, I was never greedy. A few coins here and there, that I was sure he would never miss. I salted them away in my drawer. And when the day came that Kit said we had no money for food – as I knew it would – I turned my back on him and went and raided my hoard and bought the food myself. Kit pretended not to notice, and I pretended that I had found the food at the back of the larder. It was all deceit, but far more comfortable than the truth.
On those days, we were as polite as strangers to each other.
Knowing Kit as I did, I was amazed when he still managed to shock me.
We had been together almost a year. Perhaps the first, fine, careless rapture had tarnished a little, but I was still happier than I had ever been in the whole of my life. Still loved Kit to distraction. Still found heaven in his arms almost every night.
“Nella, I´ve been thinking.” I tickled his nose and made a serious face.
“You´ll hurt your head.”
He caught my fingers in his hand.
“Listen to me. Wouldn´t you like to be a respectable lady, little Nell? Have a marriage certificate framed up on the wall?”
I laughed at him, thinking he was joking. Nearly a year with Kit had turned me into a lady; of sorts, at least. I knew full well – now! – that it was only the poorest of the poor who were so proud of their marriage licence that they actually framed it and put in the place of honour over the fireplace. Often, it was the only decoration in the whole house.
“Well,” I pretended to take his question seriously. “I don´t know about framing it. Shove it in a drawer maybe.”
I grinned, expecting Kit to share the joke. And then realised he was serious.
“Why?” I demanded, worried and suspicious in equal measure. “Why now? What´s happened that´s made you talk about getting married, all at once? You … you´re not ill, are you? The law hasn´t caught up with you at last, has it?”
“Of course not. I´m as healthy as I´ve ever been. And hell will freeze over before a rozzer gets to put the derbies on these wrists. Don´t tell me I´m not good enough for you!”
When I could find the words, I said “yes”. Of course.
We were married as soon as the banns could be published. I think it was fair to say it was a quiet ceremony; there was just the two of us and the Vicar with two men who were tidying up the church garden acting as witnesses. Kit was flush that day; he gave the men a sovereign each and they showered us with blessings for our future. A shame the blessings never took.
It felt odd to be married; to be “Mrs. Hudson” instead of Nella Serjeant. Not that it mattered greatly. As it turned out, I didn´t have a lot of time to get used to the idea.
Kit told me he was going to a dog fight, and I told him to take care. By which I meant, of course, not to put a bet on anything. When I heard the door knocker late that night, I thought Kit had lost his key. It wouldn´t have been the first time. I was laughing when I opened the door, ready to pretend to tell him off.
“Evening, love. Is your Mama in?”
I had often read about the blood leaving somebody´s face, and I had thought it nonsense. Now I understood; I felt my lips go numb with cold and fear as I stared up at the figure looming in my doorway. The policeman smiled tightly.
“I´m after Mrs. Hudson, dear. Is that your Mama?”
I shook my head. The rozzers were here. At last. I supposed I had always known the day would come when Kit overstepped the mark, and now it had happened. I tried to breathe, and managed nothing more than an abrupt sigh. It was enough to give me words.
“I´m Mrs. Hudson.” I gasped. “My husband. Has something happened to him?”
“Can I come in, Mrs. Hudson?” The copper was already stepping into my hall. I stood back and let him in. “I´m sorry, Ma´am. I´m afraid I have some bad news for you.”
Absently, I noticed his whole attitude had changed; I was no longer a little girl, but a respectable married woman. For a moment, I was actually relieved. Surely, if Kit had been found out in some trouble or other, he would not be speaking to me like this?
“I´m sorry, Ma´am.” He repeated. “I´m afraid your husband is dead.”
I held my head on one side, listening carefully. Kit? Kit was dead? Nonsense. This was all a mistake. I was relieved; he hadn´t been arrested, after all. How he would laugh, when he got home! The copper was rattling on, and I tried to listen. To understand.
There had been a fight, he said. Outside the Star Tavern. Terror began to melt the ice around my thoughts. The Star. Kit had been headed for the Star. Mr. Hudson had been involved in the brawl, he said. A few men had been scrapping; they ran away (“legged it” the rozzer said succinctly) when they heard a police whistle, and Kit had been found on the floor.
“I´m sure he didn´t suffer at all, Mrs. Hudson.” He said anxiously. “It looks as if he took a stiletto to the heart. One blow, and that was it. Er, is there anybody who can look after you?”
I stood, with my own hand on my ribs. I knew, then, that it was all true. And equally I knew that it was no accident. Somebody had finally caught up with my poor Kit. A single knife wound to the heart was a professional assassination; no casual lucky blow, this.
Had Kit known? Had he half expected it? Is that why he had insisted we marry? The thoughts jingled through my head like loose change, rattling in somebody´s pocket. The copper´s voice broke my concentration abruptly.
“Er, will you be alright, Madam?”
“Yes, thank you. Please don´t worry about me.”
I would have said anything, I just wanted him gone. He stared at me and then tapped his helmet with his hand. Somebody would be in touch, he said. About the arrangements. I nodded. Went to bed. Our bed. Slept, eventually. And when I woke in the morning, realized that this was to be my life from henceforward.
Alone. And virtually penniless.