In spite of what the doctor said on that first day, I had fully expected that I would have to earn my keep. That was alright; I had done my best to help out dear Mrs. Lestrade, and I saw no reason for this place to be any different.
But it was. Very different.
I spent the first week, at least, in a total daze. In spite of the “explanation” from Dr. Purefoy, I still had no real idea of why I was here, or – for that matter – where “here” was. If I had been able to think of a way to do it, I would have been off and bound for London. Back to St. Giles, where I belonged. Where I used to have friends. But it had taken many hours to get to Dover on the train, and another hour to get from the station to the Refuge, so what chance did I have? Besides, Dr. Purefoy made it very clear that he anticipated that I would run away, and even clearer still that he would not stand for it.
He stood me in the parlour, and walked around me. I was reminded of the Smallbones, doing just the same thing to me in their bathroom, and I felt sick. But there was nothing in Dr. Purefoy´s face to indicate that he found me attractive in any way, rather the reverse. His face was expressionless, but it was as if he couldn´t stop his lips drawing into a sneer. I think he found me sadly lacking.
“Even though the girl is not to be a servant, she must still earn her crust.” I nodded solemnly, hoping that was the right thing to do. It appeared it was; Dr. Purefoy took a deep breath and looked slightly less forbidding. “Can she read and write?”
He paused, so I thought an answer must be required.
“She will learn. I will teach her myself.” My heart sank. I could imagine his displeasure every time I made a mistake. “Is there anything she can do that is both useful and genteel?”
Again, that pause. I racked my brains.
“I can sew, Sir.”
He thought about it, and then nodded.
“That could be useful. The boys are often careless with their clothes. If she can make do and mend, then that will be helpful. You may go.”
Already, I had learned to watch for the change in tone that indicated he was actually talking to me. I bobbed my head and flew back to my room. Back to my prison.
It was, I supposed, ungrateful to think of my bedroom in that way. When I lived with Jed and Biddy, the idea of having a whole room to call my own would have made me laugh out loud with the absurdity of it. People like us didn´t have a room to themselves!
And this room was comfortable enough; luxury by St. Giles´ standards. There was a rug on the floor, and a nightstand with a jug and ewer. Hooks behind the door for my few clothes. And even the bed was alright. It was a narrow little cot, with a thin, straw mattress sitting on top of a solid base, not so different in hardness from my pile of rags on the floor at St. Giles. Just as well, as I guessed Dr. Purefoy would never tolerate me sleeping on the floor. He caught me once, not long after I had arrived, in bare feet and he slapped me so hard for my ingratitude that my ears rang and I was deaf for hours afterwards.
But I could never get used to that bedroom, all the same.
As Dr. Purefoy had said, Cook sent up some food after he left. Bread and cheese and a mug of tea, and it was lovely. But I had barely gulped it all down before two women marched in, and told me to stand up and take my clothes off. I told them what they could do with that idea, but they weren´t taking “no” for an answer.
One of them hung on to me, while the other stripped off the lovely frock Mrs. Lestrade had given me from her own wardrobe. My chemise and drawers followed, and the one who seemed to be in charge kicked them into a pile as if they had the plague.
“Right then, me lass.” She said. “Into the bath with you.”
They hustled me down the corridor between them, and more or less threw me into the tub. I have no idea what was in the water, but it stank something evil, and stung wherever it touched. It took both of them to dunk me under the water, and I´m pleased to say that they were as wet as I was, by the time I was allowed out. They took my dress and undies away, and left a pile of plain underwear and a dress made of coarse cotton, dyed the muddiest brown you ever saw, in its place. I put it all on; what else could I do?
The lessons started the next day. For two hours each day (except Sunday, of course, which was mainly taken up with two church services and attendance at the Sunday school with some of the ragged boys. Church was the only place I saw the other kids, and then I was kept well apart. I sat in the front pew with the doctor and his wife. The household servants occupied the pew behind us, and the ragged boys crowded in any old how behind the household) Dr. Purefoy taught me to read and write. I learned very quickly; not surprising when he punished every mistake with a slap from a ruler, across my hand. If he considered I was being cheeky, or if he thought I wasn´t trying hard enough, the ruler smacked across the back of my legs. Hard.
Nearly every afternoon was taken up with sewing. Remembering poor June´s hand, I was always very careful with the needle.
I say “nearly” every afternoon found me mending the ragged boys´ clothes, as every now and then the Refuge had visitors, and I was shown off like some sort of performing bear.
“This is the girl, Judith.” I learned quickly that I was expected to stand, hands clasped in front of my apron, head down. Not smiling, either. I tried that once and got the ruler as soon as the visitors left. Apparently I had been insolent. No matter whether the visitors were men or women – and they were nearly always women - they all said the same thing.
“I trust she is suitably grateful?”
“Ah, I wish I could say that that was the case.” Dr. Purefoy shook his head sadly. “When you consider the fate that she was rescued from, you would think that she would be on her knees with gratitude, but alas! She is not.”
The visitors invariably tutted at that point, and glared at me.
“But we will win the race.” Dr. Purefoy declaimed. “We have snatched her from the very claws of Satan, and we will make her into a good Christian, no matter what. These slum children are so entrenched in sin, it is sometimes very difficult.”
Nods all round, and then I would be dismissed.
Often, I thought that the brothel in Brussels might well have been better than living with Dr. Purefoy. It would certainly have been more interesting, anyway.
I thought it again, when he caught me playing the piano. I steeled myself for a beating – a real one, this time. But it seemed Dr. Purefoy was thinking about it, first.
“She has no music.” He stared at the piano. I followed his glance, wondering why it mattered? If there had been any music, I wouldn´t have been able to understand it. “And yet, she was playing very well. Rock of Ages.”
I raised my eyes and looked at him helplessly, taken aback by the sudden change in the conversation. If you could call it conversation.
“Rock of Ages. The new hymn we sang in church last Sunday. Can you play it for me?”
I twisted my hands nervously. I remembered the tune, it had been very slow; fit for nothing but a funeral, I thought. But Dr. Purefoy was waving towards the piano, so I scuttled across and gave it a go.
I had got the tune right, but I realized very quickly that I was giving it far too much life. So I slowed down to the pace we had sung at, willing my fingers not to get a note wrong.
“We are but Little Children Weak.” He snapped. I was about to agree with him – anything to put the beating out of his mind – when I realized he wanted me to play the hymn. That was quite a nice one, and I launched into it happily. He was quiet for ages when I finished, and then he simply turned around and walked out of the room.
I normally took my meals in my bedroom, but that evening I was startled by Dr. Purefoy´s voice calling me down to the dining room. I was hungry – I was always hungry; the food at the refuge was better than I had ever got in St. Giles, except when dear Polly shared her pies, but there was never, ever enough of it – and I immediately decided that the doctor had hit on a new punishment. He was going to make me stand and watch him and his wife eat, while I was sent to bed with an empty belly.
Sod him. I had had enough. I walked down the stairs with my head held high, and barely knocked on the dining room door before walking in.
The doctor had visitors. A couple of ladies I recognized as regulars at the Refuge. I didn´t like them; they pretended to feel sorry for the ragged boys, but I could tell they couldn´t get away from them quick enough, as if they thought that they might catch something nasty from the poor little mites. And the local vicar, together with his curate. Mrs. Purefoy, of course.
They all turned and stared at me curiously as I hovered in the doorway. Mrs. Purefoy grinned at me, and then coughed as the doctor turned to look at her. I swear I could hear his neck creak.
“Judith.” He nodded towards the corner of the room, and I gathered I was to go and stand there. Quietly. I walked past the table, already laden with the first course, and stood where I was told. Eyes down. Hands still. But I couldn´t stop my mouth watering. When I was sure nobody was looking my way, I flicked my tongue out to gather in the saliva that was oozing from my lips. Nothing I could do about my belly rumbling, but I thought the chatter of the guests would hide that.
The courses came and went at table. So much food, for so few people! Whole dishes were taken away untouched; I saw a chicken going out that was as golden and pristine as when it had come in. A whole lobster, garnished fit for a king, exited complete. Half a tureen of soup. A basket of pastries. I wondered enviously if they would find their way to the ragged boys. Somehow, I doubted it. I found it difficult to believe that the boys ate better than I did. In fact I didn´t mind betting that food would be thrown away before it was given to the kids, in case it spoiled them. As if!
Finally, when the table was cleared and baskets of nuts and fruits scattered about, Dr. Purefoy cleared his throat and acknowledged that I existed.
“Before my dear wife escorts the ladies out, I thought it might interest you all to see what can be done with these children, given the right amount of patience and care. Judith. Play for us.”
He nodded towards the piano and I hobbled towards it. I had been standing without moving for over an hour, and my joints were stiff. I kept my eyes cast down, not out of modesty but rather to avoid looking at those smug, well-fed faces. On the way, I ran through what I would play – “Rock of Ages”, I thought. They would like that. Why then, did my fingers patter over the piano keys with a life of their own?
I played a tune the German band had recited often. I had always liked it, but this was the first time I had attempted it myself. Still, it was a nice little tune and I decided defiantly that it was worth the punishment that would be my lot as soon as the guests disappeared.
There was total silence when I finished, and I braced myself for a sharp reprimand from the doctor. But then the quiet was broken by a couple of voices speaking together and; could I really believe my ears? A patter of applause.
“Oh, Dr. Purefoy! “Für Elise”. My absolute favourite! How kind of you!”
“My dear Elsie, so glad you liked it. Judith, you may go now.”
I trotted out of the room as fast as my feet would take me. And was sure I heard a comment from the – up until then – silent curate.
“Yon is a very pretty girl. And obviously very talented. But is her spirit as pure as her face?”
His accent was so strange, I thought I had either misheard him, or he had mistaken his English. Even so, I paused for a second in the hall and took a look at my reflection in the mirror. I didn´t have a mirror in my room; I had no need of one. I could plait my hair by feel, and both of my gowns buttoned up the front. In fact, I had never had one. A fancy mirror would have been nicked in minutes in St. Giles, so why bother?
I stared at my reflection. Pale, pale skin. Paler hair, almost ghostly in the gas light´s flicker. Deep blue eyes and black brows and lashes. A face shaped like a triangle, all cheekbones and not an ounce of flesh to it. Pretty? The man was either blind or daft. I stuck my tongue out at my reflection and smiled at the deep pink of its tip, almost red against the pallor of my skin.
My belly screamed at me. I had displeased Dr. Purefoy somehow that morning – a mistake with my reading, I seem to remember - and I had been punished by means of going without lunch. And now it appeared I was to get no dinner, either. I curled into a ball on my bed, and thought – as I did most nights – of ways to escape. Of how I could find my way back to St. Giles. Back to where I belonged.
Eventually, I fell asleep. Still with no plans made.
At first, I thought I was dreaming. I came stark awake, with nothing to tell me what had awoken me. I lay with my heart thumping, eyes closed, knowing somebody was in my room. They – no; I was sure it was Dr. Purefoy - he was almost silent. Yet I sensed that somebody was in the room with me. I thought if I lay absolutely still, he might go away. Might leave me alone. I tried to breathe shallowly, but instead found myself holding my breath until I was forced to gulp for air.
I have never been so terrified. Not even that first night at the Smallbones. The thought that he might touch me made my skin shudder into gooseflesh.
By the time the door closed as softly as a mouse tip-toeing, I was shaking. I lay for a long time, whispering silent prayers of thankfulness that he had gone, and not hurt me. Not touched me. Only the desperate need to pee got me out of bed. I used the pot and was about to climb back into bed when I realized I could smell something. Perfume.
I stood on the knobbly mat, sniffing away. Until I had come here, I had never known a woman who used perfume. Why should I? We had no money for food, never mind about sweet scents. But Mrs. Purefoy always smelled nice, always the same scent. Roses. Deep and warm. The scent I could smell now, clear as day.
And there was something else. On a white, china plate on my chest of drawers, somebody had left a fat slice of fruit cake.
I ate it before I had time to even think about the strangeness of it all.