About the Author
Meredith Duran blames Anne Boleyn for sparking her lifelong obsession with British history (and for convincing her that princely love is no prize if it doesn’t come with a happily-ever-after). She spends her free time collecting old etiquette manuals, guidebooks to nineteenth century London, and travelogues by intrepid Victorian women. Visit her website at MeredithDuran.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
By the time the whistle finished shrilling, Nell was already out the door. She knew she shouldn’t push; once or twice there’d been a stampede and somebody had gotten hurt, broken a leg or arm. But she couldn’t slow down. Ever since Mum had taken to wheezing, Nell was finding it harder to breathe, too. No longer could she ignore the thick stink of the workrooms or how often she had to cough as she rolled the cigars. By the end of the day there barely seemed air enough to fill her lungs.
Outside, in the dimming twilight, the damp breeze smelled sour from the coal smoke, but there was enough of it, and that was what mattered. She wove through the milling crowd, girls pausing to tuck their shawls down over their hair, to toss saucy remarks to the lads, chattering like they hadn’t got better places to be than this infernal, stinking factory, and maybe they didn’t, at that.
Finally she reached a stretch of open pavement. Relief hit her, and with it, a lifting of spirits. Nice thing about working at the factory: every day had a happy ending. She found a wall to lean on and settled against it just as a hand grabbed her elbow.
She ripped free and came face to face with Hannah. “You scared the life out of me!” she gasped.
Hannah’s pale, freckled face was alight with excitement. “That’s because you’re a goose, Nellie. What’s your take for the week?”
Nell looked around for eavesdroppers. “Nineteen shillings.” Her neck was cramped from hunching over the worktable and the ache in her knuckles would keep her awake tonight, but nineteen shillings was the best she’d ever done.
Of course, it would sink to ten after her stepbrother, Michael, took his share. That wasn’t enough to tempt a good doctor to the flat and eat next week besides.
Hannah pulled a face. “Only fifteen for me.” Usually she beat Nell by a crown; her fingers were cleverer. “Was yesterday that did me in. I was going gorgeously but then the labor-mistress took a temper and made me unroll half the pile. Ah, well.” She wiped a strand of honey blond hair from her eyes, then waggled the fingers of her uplifted hand. “D’ye like my gloves? Found ’em at Brennan’s dollyshop. Cost me two days’ wages, but they’re genuine kidskin, he said.”
“Oh, they’re lovely.” In fact, the knuckles were cracked, and the white leather had long since grown dingy with use. In her friend’s place, Nell could have found better uses for a crown. Good tough wool, for instance. A new kettle. Some fresh fruit—Lord alive, her mouth watered for a crisp country apple.
Then again, she had chilblains, and Hannah didn’t. So who was the wiser?
She took Hannah’s arm and pulled her into step along the pavement. “You won’t let your father see them.” If Garod Crowley found out that his daughter was keeping a bit of coin to herself, there’d be an awful row.
Hannah laughed. “I’m no fool!”
A passing lad made eyes in their direction. Nell didn’t recognize him, so she frowned to send him on his way. He winked at her before turning onward, but despite her blush, she wasn’t fooled: he’d been admiring Hannah. With her heart-shaped face and big, velvet brown eyes, Han had grown dangerously pretty in the last two years.
“Oh, say, Nellie—are you coming to the GFS?”
Nell had forgotten there was a meeting tonight. The ladies who ran the Girls’ Friendship Society had a tendency to lecture and a provoking way of trying to pry into a girl’s private affairs, but they also kept a brilliant collection of books that they’d lend to any girl who joined. “I wish I could go,” she said. But Mum was too sick now to leave alone. That last quack’s potions had only made her worse.
“You’ve got to come! They’re having a tea for us!”
“I know. How lovely.” She would have enjoyed a proper cup. What with how hard she was saving, she couldn’t afford aught but bohea tea these days.
The thought dimmed her mood. She could save all she liked, but it was a slow effort. Meanwhile, Mum grew worse almost by the hour.
“—to give us gifts as well,” Hannah was chattering. “You can’t miss the meeting!”
“I’ve no choice. Suzie’s got a shift at Mott’s tonight, and Mum can’t be alone.”
Hannah cast her a sharp glance. “Let Michael look after your mum for once!”
Nell almost laughed. That would be the day. Ever since Mum had taken too ill to work, Michael wanted nothing to do with her. Suddenly he remembered he was only a stepson. “I expect he’ll want to keep company with Suzie.” He enjoyed the fast atmosphere of the supper club where his wife kept bar—and the fine liquor Suzie slipped him when she was working there.
He enjoyed Suzie’s wages, too. Didn’t let a penny slip past for his wife to keep. Nell couldn’t count on her to help.
What she needed was a moneylender. They scrupled at loaning to a woman, but somebody probably would agree to lend to Michael in her stead.
Would Michael hand over the money once he had it, though? He’d never been one to share. Last year, he’d come into a handsome windfall somehow but he’d put every penny of it toward his political club. Now he’d washed his hands of politics, but gambling and gin kept his pockets empty. If he took a loan and refused to share it … Nell couldn’t think what she would do.
Or rather, she could. She knew exactly how to solve her difficulties. Michael would be more than willing to help on that point. But she couldn’t do it. The very idea made her bones go cold and the gorge rise in her throat. Milk once spoiled is naught but rubbish, Mum always said.
Then again, Mum told her all they needed was prayer. It didn’t make a girl a heathen to know that wasn’t true.
Miserable, she glanced toward Hannah. They’d lived in the same building as children, walked to school together, spent Sunday evenings making mischief in the road. They’d kept nothing from each other while growing up. But lately that had changed. Things were happening that Nell couldn’t manage to speak about for shame. My stepbrother wants to whore me: how did a girl bring herself to say that? And what use in doing so? Hannah had naught but sympathy to give.
Still, a bit of sympathy sounded so lovely right now. Nell gathered her courage. “Han, I’ve got to tell you—”
“Oh, would you look at that!” Hannah dropped her arm to fly toward a shopfront. The gas lamps burning in the window illuminated a row of photographic prints.
Nell exhaled. She was relieved, really. She could manage it on her own.
Still, to her surprise, she had to blink hard a couple of times against the urge to cry. “I’m in a hurry.”
“Oh, come on—just for a moment!”
With a sigh, Nell walked over to the window. This was the new craze, to buy pictures of society beauties. Michael had a couple pinned to the wall at home, flash ladies in evening gowns and tiaras. Sometimes when Nell was frying haddock at the fire, she caught herself staring at them. They looked like dolls, their waists so tiny, their hair so smoothly rolled. Impossible to believe that as she stood there choking on the smell of fish, they were living in the very same world, the same moment in time, not a handful of miles distant. As unreal as they seemed to her, they might have been living on the moon.
“I know about this one!” Hannah pressed a finger to the glass to indicate a handsome girl wearing a dark brocade gown trimmed with silk roses. “Lady Jennie Churchill, does that say?”
Beneath the photograph sat a fancy placard covered in cursive. Nell gave it a quick look. “Aye, right enough.”
“She’s the American one what married the Duke of Marlborough’s son. He’s got a case of the glim, they say!”
Nell shrugged. “Lie down with dogs, rise up with fleas.”
“No, these toffs don’t visit any threepenny uprights, Nell. They keep their molls high class! Set up a girl with a flash place in St. John’s Wood and her own coach and driver, even.”
“And how would you be knowing it?”
“People talk, don’t they?”
The conversation was making Nell’s stomach tighten. They did talk. They accused her mum of putting airs into her, educating her above her station. If she took the path Michael was pushing on her, they would gloat till the cows came home. “They talk a whole lot of rubbish, all right.”
“Oh, don’t be sour! A proper gentleman isn’t the same as a man off the street. No, I expect it’s just talk about his lordship.” Hannah frowned, her finger tapping the glass. “Still, poor girl. Hope he don’t make her sick.”
“Nothing poor about her,” Nell muttered. “Those diamonds at her throat could feed and house us both for five years.”
“Well.” Hannah fell silent, studying the rest of the pictures. She pointed to a photograph farther down the row. “Look there. She’s a lovely one, ain’t she?”
“La-di-da. Give me a fortune and I’d look lovely, too.” Nell cast an anxious glance down the street. The crowd was already starting to thin. Once everybody cleared out, it wouldn’t be safe.
“Well—and hey! I’d say she does look a good bit like you! Really, Nell, have a look at that!”