The Jewel of Gresham Green
- Tuesday, August 26, 2008
"I don't like to go to Mrs. Platt's!" Becky sobbed against her shoulder.
"I know, I know." Jewel's voice thickened. "But Mummy must work."
She held her daughter until the sobbing ceased. Tempting as it was not to distress her any more, Jewel unwound her arms and moved her back a bit so that she could meet her eyes.
"Becky," she said, gently, but with a sternness born of fear. "You're old enough to remember that you're not to go outdoors without Mrs. Platt."
"But she never goes," the girl said through trembling lips. "And the boys are allowed."
The unfairness of it tugged at Jewel's heart. But safety came before fairness. "You must stay with Mrs. Platt."
She swallowed, dreading the answer to the next question. "How long was Mr. Dunstan there?"
"Not for a long time. He's not a bad man, Mummy. He said he wished he had a bright girl just like—"
Jewel groaned as a shiver snaked up her spine. "Just because someone smiles and speaks kindly doesn't make him good. Did you go anywhere with him?"
The brown eyes evaded Jewel's. "He said there were toys and peppermints in the cellar."
"But I said I wanted to stay outdoors and watch the boys play."
"God help us," Jewel moaned. She got to her feet. "Mummy has to go somewhere for a little while."
* * *
"Are ye sure ye trust me with her?" Mrs. Platt sniffed.
"Yes," Jewel said, adding mentally, What choice have I? "I'll try to return within the hour."
Fortunately, Mr. Dunstan no longer lurked outside. Jewel hurried up the lane. Cabbies avoided Halls Passage, but she would have walked the nine blocks anyway to save a shilling. On Great Russell Street, a well-dressed woman held a laughing small boy up before a toy display window.
"Oh, now it's a train you want for your birthday? What will it be tomorrow?"
Jewel envied not her finery but the unhurried enjoyment of her son, the taking for granted that there would be plenty of such moments.
Outside Great Russell Street police station, she brushed a wrinkle from her faded calico. If only she had taken time to change into her Sunday gown! Few in authority took seriously the poor, the illiterate, which was why her trip to this same station last month did no good.
Chin up, she ordered herself. Look them in the eyes. For Becky's sake, she must set aside her natural meekness, her feeling of inherent unworthiness, and present herself as a citizen deserving attention. At least she spoke proper English, having absorbed its importance when employed as a maid in the household of the headmaster of King Edward's School.
* * *
"As I said last time, Mrs. Libby," said Constable Whittington, "we cannot arrest a man who's done naught."
"He was holding her hand," Jewel argued, attempting to keep her tone steady.
"Not a crime, Mrs. Libby."
"He asked her to go to the cellar with him."
"Aye?" An eyebrow raised. "Did she go?"
"Bright girl. And so he didn't forcefully carry her, did he?"
"He may have, if I hadn't arrived early."
"Mrs. Libby, if we arrested for may haves, we'd have to build more jails. Why do you not find another place to live?"
"I've tried to find one as cheap."
"What about your family?"
"I've no family, sir."
"None at all?"
She held back a sigh. Did the wheres and whys have any bearing upon the situation? Norman's childhood was spent in the Asylum for the Infant Poor on Summer Lane. She knew not the whereabouts of her father, whose drunken ways had contributed to the premature death of her mother when Jewel was twelve.
"None," she repeated.
"Then marry again," he advised in a fatherly, not familiar manner. "A smart-looking woman such as you should have no trouble finding a husband."
How many times had Jewel been so advised? She was no fool. She knew a husband would indeed take the load from her shoulders. Norman would have forgiven her. But the corset factory sewing room was shy of men, and those living in the tenement were either married, layabouts, or drunks.
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