THEY ARRIVED IN London three days later, tired and almost penniless. The bells of St Paul’s were chiming on the breeze as they clattered into the yard of the Swan with Two Necks in Aldersgate.
‘Seven o’clock,’ said Mr Strong checking his silver Hunter, which he hoped he’d not have to pawn. ‘For what it’s worth, we’ve made good time since Barnet.’
They alighted with aching limbs and sore necks, having spent all night in the coach. The air was crisp, with a sharpness that heightened their hunger. They needed breakfast but the inn, one of the busiest in London, was too crowded for their tastes. ‘Come,’ said Mr Strong leading the way, ‘a walk will do us good.’
A tavern called the Black Boy stood nearby, its sign, a Nigger’s head, more girl than boy. Mr Strong said nothing though he knew who’d come to mind. Besides, beggars couldn’t be choosers and the fare was as cheap as any in London, said the crossing-sweep whose opinion they’d sought. The boy cleared the dirt from their path, for which Nell gave him a penny. Mr Strong called her a fool and steered her inside, offering to pose as her brother – ‘for decorum’s sake you understand.’
‘For decorum’s sake,’ she repeated, ‘though I’m sure I could do a lot worse.’ He saw the warmth of her smile, and took her hand as they headed for the quietest room. Here, where a meagre fire crackled in the deep-set hearth, he ordered some beef and beer from a mob-capped girl in a filthy apron.
‘Early days, Nell,’ he said, putting the best face on things when she’d gone. Like her, he could smell the ripeness of the privy, a smell worse than the coach, if that were possible. ‘The boy did say it was cheap,’ Mr Strong said laughing. ‘And this is Cheapside after all.’
‘I can feel the bed-bugs biting already,’ said Nell, glad it wasn’t summer when they’d be driven mad by the same. ‘Not that we’ll be staying here tonight. I doubt we can afford even this.’
‘You are sure you have no one to turn to? No friend of your father’s who won’t see his daughter starve?’ She heard the desperation in his voice, which he was trying to mask.
‘They are all like him in varying degrees,’ she answered. ‘There is none to give me time of day, nor even the cold scraps destined for their dogs. If he has cast me out like a leper, so will they. No room at the inn is the phrase that springs to mind.’
‘You spoke in the coach of the Sharp brothers.’ It was his look this time, like a dog tired of the whip. ‘Granville Sharp in particular.’
‘He knew me in my finery as a baronet’s daughter. He cultivated me like a patron with strings to pull. I can do nothing for him now,’ though she harboured hopes nonetheless.
The eyebrow he’d raised was also in hope. ‘Nor he for you? You said he was well connected.’
Nell shook her head. ‘He is a mere clerk at the Ordinance Office. A man of modest means, though he has a rich brother. The king’s surgeon no less.’ Mr Strong raised his other eyebrow. ‘A brother who won’t accept beggars twice removed.’ Both eyebrows fell at this. ‘But when all is said and done, those men are my only hope.’
He leaned over and patted Nell’s arm. ‘We won’t say it’s a forlorn one, not yet,’ he said, staring – forlornly – at the victuals heading their way. Nell’s descent had been swift indeed. The beer was bad and the beef was fatty; they weren’t sure which was worst. She’d never eaten so poorly. It was the lowest point so far, and her heart sank with it to match. She fought back the tears, pinching herself above the knee to keep them at bay. ‘You won’t see me weep,’ she said when he caught her eye. ‘I’m made of stronger stuff.’
It was just what he wished to hear. ‘I know you are, Nell, I saw it in the schoolroom often enough. Kept me on my toes many a time. You were full of dispute.’
‘I’ve a mind to dispute this food. I’ve a mind to throw it at the wall, or in the proprietor’s face.’ She moved it about on the plate with her knife. She thought it might move itself if she left it alone.
‘Where will that get us?’ he asked, chewing the fat more swiftly, as if it might curb her temper. ‘We don’t want to come before a magistrate – yes?’
She smiled. ‘Why not? It’ll keep us off the streets on a cold night.’
‘If only those streets were paved with gold like it says in the fairy tales,’ he said, drumming his fork on the table. ‘But perhaps we ought to be hopeful – perhaps we’ll make our fortune like Dick Whittington.’
‘I don’t want a fortune,’ she said. ‘You forget that I’ve had one and lost it. It vexed me much once I knew it for what it was – a fortune made from human blood. It’s true, I think, about the camel and the eye of a needle. The unfettered pursuit of money breeds only greed and misery. My father is living proof. For all his wealth he is not a happy man.’
‘How many of us are truly happy?’ he said, now tapping his knife on the plate. ‘Tell me this,’ he added, when he’d drunk a draught and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, ‘can you finally say that you’ve stopped loving him? I know if he were my father …’
‘But he’s not,’ she snapped, unsure in the end what he’d had in mind. She took a deep breath as she thought about his question further. ‘I know I’m supposed to say yes, it’s no more than he deserves and so on. But the maddening thing is, I’m really none too sure. It’s as if the crueller he is, the more I pity him. And if I’ve learnt nothing else these past months, it’s how much pity there is in love. And I think that’s true of whoever we love. I even love you Mister Strong.’
‘And you pity me, of course.’ He stared at his pewter mug, his pewter plate, as if they were marks of his poverty. They were; Nell’s too.
‘With all my heart,’ and this time they smiled together and felt the better for it. And because the sun was shining at last, though its light was weak through the dirty casement, it lifted their spirits a touch. They sat back in their chairs so that its glow reached the table in pale yellow puddles. It played truthfully on their plight, picking out the cracks and holes in the wood, the dullness of the pewter, the gristle and bone of the squalid meat. Even the ulcers on the maid’s legs when she came to clear the things were shone upon bloody and weeping. But in spite of everything the sun gave them hope, the sense of a new beginning, more for the best than not.
Such was their mood still as they paid the reckoning and left. The same sweep hurried towards them, his face shiny with cold and the mutton chop he’d bought with Nell’s penny. He didn’t want more, as Mr Strong presumed, but had come to offer his services as an honourable guide. He was not yet ten-years’-old, he said, but he knew London like the back of his hand.
‘I knows every line, Miss,’ he said in his shrill Cockney. There were no lines to see on his dirty palm but he showed it nevertheless. It was small and neat like the features of his face, a young monkey’s Nell was thinking.
‘If you’d be so kind,’ she said, looking down at him, for his height was half her own, ‘we would like directions to the Temple. If you could point the way.’ She’d been there before but from Mayfair in a fine carriage, never on foot.
‘I’ll do better than that,’ he said, ‘I’ll take you there. Business might be better the other side of town. I never vary, Miss, but my earnings do.’
They followed the little scout on his short rapid legs. ‘Well, Mister Strong,’ said Nell, ‘it seems we have found our first friend.’
‘Mind he doesn’t stick to us like glue,’ he said, as they crossed by Paternoster Row to St Paul’s Churchyard. ‘These London urchins are notorious,’ he added, his gaze distracted by a fashionable print shop. Quite what they were notorious for he couldn’t say, but he was sure it must be trouble – what?
True to his word, however, the little fellow led them to their goal, going by way of Ludgate Hill, with all its traffic, to Fleet Street, Whitefriars and the muddy reek of the waterfront. Breathless at the finish, he stood proud and incongruous in the stately quad, beaming broadly with broken teeth. Behind him loomed the rambling low profile of the Temple, its bricks mellow and its slate shiny even in the shade.
‘I heard you talking just now,’ he said. ‘It’s Mister Sharp you’ll be wanting, ain’t it Miss?’
‘And what of it?’ Nell demanded.
‘I knows Mister Sharp, Mister Granville Sharp, like the back of my hand. It’s this other hand I’m meaning,’ he said holding it out. ‘I don’t know it so well as it happens, maybe because it’s cleaner. I can only read dirty things. Mister Sharp’s not dirty, he’s clean as a whistle in mind and body. He helps everyone if he can, ‘n’ it’s not just the blacks either. He helps the whites too, though it’s usually the ones that might as well be black,’ he said with a grin. ‘That’s why he helped me I expect – because I remind him of a Nigger. Black’s his favourite colour, he tells me.’
‘Is it now?’ said Mr Strong, whose ears had pricked at the mention of help.
‘Yes sir, ‘n’ I’m sure that black coat of yours will go in your favour. You both look a bit shabby if yer don’t mind me saying. Fallen on hard times, ain’t yer? Well never you mind, I’m sure Mister Sharp’ll find yer something. He found me this job as a crossing sweep. It’s the best work I’ve had.’
That might not be saying much, thought Nell, and when she heard about his other jobs –chimney sweep, cats’ meat boy and night-soil porter – she was proved right. Whatever Mr Sharp might offer them, she doubted it would be much.
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2