London, April 1851. In wretched fear she turned down the dark narrow alley, taking only a few uselessly well-placed steps before being suffocated with the noxious odors assailing her nostrils, forcing the bile in her stomach to rise. Her hand flew up to her mouth, shocking her lips with the feel of jagged callouses and broken nails. A rowdy group of infantile scavengers shoved roughly by, knocking her momentarily off balance, forcing her to protect her swollen belly. One of her worn shoes was forced into the soapy slime of the unpaved muddy alley in order to right herself. Before she could move further, something cold and dirty hit the side of her neck, oozing down between her breasts. Then came another drop and then another. Glancing up, she discovered the source that blocked the sun and any possibility of pure air. Someone had made an attempt at laundering, stretching their worn clothes to dry on poles across the narrow passageway.
Hastening back out into the street of miserable houses and broken windows patched with paper and rags, she was all too aware of the crowding. The houses, she knew for a fact, were let out to more than one family, had manufacturers in the cellars, vendors in the parlors, shoemakers in the back, and over the squalid cluster of families in the center, she realizes, someone is probably starving in the attic. Eyes lowered, she tried to remain sightless to the gutter where hungry children were at play. They were playing in the filth, the incredible filth that was everywhere. Some of them had no clothes and ran naked in total degradation.
It was not too dark on the street. A little sun passes through. It is then she sees them, girls of fourteen, maybe fifteen, wearing white great-coats, their long matted hair lying in tangles down their backs. Some are barefoot and beneath those shabby coats are either nothing or every kind of imaginable ragged apparel. Stepping hastily into a patch of sunlight, she marvels at the way it feels on her upturned face, bright and fresh; she is glad she is not one of them.
Then it begins, the squabbling, fighting, and swearing that goes with drinking and whoring. Again she is filled with unbearable primitive fear. Shrinking out of the light while pulling the torn garments around her body, she turned to re-enter the alley. At that moment a hard hand grasped her wrist painfully and fetid breath was felt on her cheek. Looking down at the huge hand on her waist, her mouth dropped open in despair. She too was wearing a white great-coat. Frantically she assured herself the man would not force a woman with child.
Slipping her body into a recessed entry and pressing it against a rough oak door, she attempted in vain to prevent his advances, but her struggle did not keep his hands from her most intimate parts. Air now was barely flowing from her constricted chest as he forced his great weight upon her. But the rotten door had no fastening and with the splintering of wood, she began the long fall backward, down into the dank cellar. Head flung far back, the scream died in her throat.
Mary Frances’ eyes flew open. Her long auburn hair had come loose from its braid. Her head, pulled back at an odd angle under the weight of her body made breathing difficult. Afraid to move, she lay quietly among the clean linens of her own bed in the room above her husband’s tavern trying to sort through the insistent trepidations of her emotions. Still the reality of the nightmare hung about her like a black shroud and there was something else on which she couldn’t put her finger. Something that didn’t seem quite right, even though she now knew she was in fact safe in her own bed. This, she chided herself, is the room I have shared with my husband for the last seven years. What could possibly be wrong? All of her instincts told her that something was severely amiss.
Then it came, at first like a tiny scratching at the front tavern door. She listened for the out-of-place sound again. A chair scraped across the downstairs floor and she bolted upright. Once again she heard the noise outside! Grasping her robe at the foot of the bed and wrapping it quickly around her, she found no time to search for her slippers as a loud pounding came from below. Only one thought carried her swiftly down the small passageway to the bedroom of her tiny daughters; she would never allow any harm to come to them. By the time she reached their room, the pounding on the tavern door was deafening and Emma and Clara were clinging to each other wide-eyed with fright in the middle of their bed.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish