Linda Govik


1

 

September 12th 1797

 

It was a big fly, fat and disgusting, its body a deep shimmering green, wings disproportionally small to this immense bulk. Emily Bradley had heard it ever since she'd entered the room, at first full of vigour and anger, bouncing hard against the window. An hour later, the sound had changed into a tired humming, the bouncing mere meaty bangs, followed by moments of silence as the insect fell down onto the sash bar and stayed there, too exhausted to move, and slowed down by the autumn chill that penetrated the window from the outside.

Emily lifted her head and peered at the man. He was now dressed again, dapper and flawless, owning the room with his presence, proud profile turned toward the window; he seemed to have taken notice of the fly as well.

“I hate bugs,” he said. The soft glow from the argand lamp played with his fair hair when he walked over to the window, colouring it in shades of orange, gold and silver.

“Don’t you, sweetheart?”

Loud, aggravated buzzing, then complete silence… She closed her eyes, breathing in, breathing out. Her windpipes hurt as if she’d been screaming – and perhaps she had, earlier, though she couldn’t quite remember. When she opened her eyes again, the man was still standing by the window, his thumb pressing down on the now dead fly. He met her eyes and smiled.

“I’ll go downstairs to fetch a drink,” he said, merrily, and brushed his hands against each other to rid them of the insect’s legs and wings. “You look a mess, darling… Do freshen up while I’m gone, will you?” His silvery gaze pierced her, demanding an answer.

“Yes,” she whispered and nodded, bruised skin on her cheek chafing against the mattress.

He sighed a little. “Oh for goodness sake…Stop looking like a frightened hare, will you? One might think it was your first time with a man. But oh…” He trailed off, placed his palm lightly against his forehead and shook his head. “Forgive me, it was.” He gave a short, snorting laughter. “Imagine that – a virgin at a brothel… What a lovely paradox. I had to pay handsomely for you, of course, but I don’t mind. When has money ever been an issue?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “Shame I have to leave tonight… I’m going with my regiment to Ireland. With that French bastard Bonaparte raging about, one would have thought they’d send us to France instead, but I guess they need someone to take care of that Irish vermin first. Things should be calm in France anyway at the moment – they have enough to worry about over there. I heard he just declared the whole state bankrupt. The whole bloody state... Can you believe that?”

She shook her head, cautiously. She didn’t know anyone named Bonaparte, and France... Was that a place in England? She didn’t know the word bankrupt, either. Judging from his wording, however, it must be something bad, and he was happy it had happened to France.

Now he sighed, a contented sound, and turned on his heel. Her heart jolted, but he wasn’t on his way to the bed: he was walking toward the door.

“Be right back, darling,” he threw over his shoulder, and was gone.

Gone. At least for a while – and then he would come back, and the nightmare would start all over again. The realization brought a cascade of bile to her throat, which she only with difficulty managed to hold back and swallow down again. No more.

Swiftly, she shoved the duvet to the side and slid over the mattress, momentarily closing her eyes in panic at the sight of the blotches of blood on the crumpled sheet – it felt as if he’d ripped her apart with his body, and as sticky and sore as she was, she hadn’t yet had the courage to examine her injuries. Don’t think, Emily; just don’t think about it.

There was her chemise, draped over the bed stand, dangerously close to the viciously glowing lamp. The cream-coloured fabric had a tear from the neckline almost all the way down to the sleeve, but it held together. With the dark blue gown over it, the damage was hardly detectable. Emily pulled the dress tight over her chest, then scurried across the room to the window. The fly lay there, crushed against the glass. She tried not to look at it while she reached to unhook the clasps. When the window swung outward, she gulped in surprise; a blustery autumn wind slapped her face, almost painful against her heated skin.

If she stretched her neck, she could just barely make out the small, dark square that made the backyard. She shuddered at the thought of the rats that scurried along the ground, disturbed by the sound of the window opening, seeking refuge behind the piles of stinking garbage and old barrels along the house wall. Slick, grey bodies; long, naked tails and red, glowing eyes... She hated rats.

They scared her. Everything out there scared her.

With trembling lips, she drew back into the room, threw a glance over her shoulder at the closed door. If she went to Paul and told him she wanted no part of what she’d just been through, would he listen to her then? Protect her? Hardly. She’d overheard him mumbling to one of the other girls earlier during the evening that it was ‘about time Emily started to pull her weight’. When the girl had protested that she was just a babe, Paul had snorted. At fourteen? he’d said. Been long overdue as it is.

The cold air stung her airways. She put a hand to her mouth to stifle a cough, while leaning forward and staring down at the ground. Some feet from her window, was the roof of a small shed, where Paul stored things of lesser value, like wood for the fireplace, some old tools and the rickety handcart for trips to the market. The backyard was surrounded by a high wooden fence; it was hardly visible, blending in with the surrounding darkness, but she knew it was there. Behind it was Queen Street, which led to Hay Market Square, where they bought vegetables and meat for the pub that belonged to the brothel. She’d been allowed to follow Paul there once, but it was a long time ago and all she remembered was that the noise and crowd had scared her. She also remembered that Paul had taken her hand in a hard grip, and that he’d told her to look closely and learn. This is the world, he’d said. See how dirty and smelly and horrible it is? No place for little girls.Maybe not, but neither was the brothel. Whatever waited in the world outside, it couldn’t be worse than what Paul now had to offer.

She moved the lamp to the side and climbed up on the table, nearly losing her balance when it wobbled on its uneven legs. To steady herself, she took a step out on the small ledge of the window, for a moment swaying toward the dark depth below it. She closed her eyes in panic, fingers clawing the frame, and for a breathless second, she stood there, muscles rigid, cold sweat trickling down her spine, and heard moss and dirt topple from the ledge to the ground far beneath her feet.

When all was still, she slid her foot further out on the ledge. The stone was rough and ice cold under her skin, and she shuddered, but forced herself to move all the way out, where she clung, one hand still on the frame of the window, the other on the plaster of the façade. A gust swept past the corner, grabbed her skirt and sent it up over her waist, almost as if it was furious over her daring venture. Don’t slip, Emily, please don’t slip. She pressed herself against the outer wall, felt the chill seep through her thin clothes and straight into her body, numbing it, as she took another, sliding step out on the ledge. One more now and she would be halfway. It wasn’t very far. She saw the roof, its alluring dark rectangle just a mere foot away. If she stretched out her arm, the edge of it would be in line with her fingertips. Almost there now. Almost there.

The crash when the window suddenly flew open made her lose her breath. For a swift, confusing moment, she was overcome by huge relief that at least it didn’t break – Paul wouldn’t like it if anyone broke his windows – but then, just as swiftly, reality took over, and she found herself staring into the enraged eyes of the stranger.

“What the hell are you doing?” he hissed, flung out his hand and caught hold of her arm. His fingers dug hard into her flesh, causing so much pain that she lost her grip, keeping contact with the house only by one foot.

“No, please,” she breathed. “Let go.”

“And have you fall? Are you mad?” The jackdaw eyes met hers, full of disbelief. “Come back in here, silly girl. I’m not in the mood for games.”

He jerked at her arm again. Her foot lost its already unstable position on the ledge. She managed to find it again, but only with the outmost edge of her toes. She squirmed in his grip.

“Oh for goodness sake… Stop bloody struggling and come in here.”

He reached for her other arm, caught that too, and pulled. His face came near, and the fumes of sweet brandy and cigars washed over her from his breath. Images of him kissing her whirled through her mind, and for a moment they were so strong, so horribly vivid, that she couldn’t quite discern them from reality.

Her toes touched the ledge once more. She pushed against it, arched her back and in panic, struck out toward his face. Her nails tore through the skin on his cheek, from the cheekbone to his throat. Blood, shockingly black against his pale face, seeped from the gashes. He screamed out and pulled back. The pressure of his fingers, seconds earlier holding her firmly, vanished – and Emily plunged to the ground.

She landed hard on her feet on the trampled soil, hollow thump immediately followed by a disgusting, snapping sound, like a twig breaking in two, before she crumpled on the ground. Red, scorching pain seared through her, and she screamed, but there were no air left in her lungs to produce any sounds, and what came out through her compressed lips was a mere whimper.

In the stillness that followed, she heard the man’s voice again. The crisp air carried it far, and it was strangely clear, almost as if he was standing next to her.

“She jumped,” he said. “Can’t even tell where she landed, it’s too damn dark...” He cursed. “Christ, I'm bleeding.”

“I am dreadfully sorry, my lord.” It was Paul’s voice − he must have heard the struggle, and gone upstairs to find out what was happening. “I can’t understand why she would do this. She’s normally very obedient...”

“Is that so?” The man’s snort, tinged with dismay, wafted to the ground like a black, tarnished feather. “I’d say your idea of obedience differs significantly from mine.”

“Perhaps if I talked to her...”

“Talk? She needs a good wallop, that’s what she needs.”

“Yes, you’re right. I’m dreadfully sorry, my lord,” Paul repeated. “There should be other girls available by now. You may choose freely, and enjoy her company for the rest of the evening. On the house, of course.”

“I don’t want another girl,” the man snarled. “I paid for this one. And, may I remind you, not a small sum, either. Get her back this instant.”

“Well…” Paul paused. “Considering she’s just jumped out from the window, I don’t think she’s very keen on taking up the acquaintance again, my lord, so...”

There was a dampened, fleshy smacking sound, followed by a yelp of pain from Paul. “Spare me your snide remarks, Mr Hutton,” said the man. “Now bring her back here.”

“Of course.”

Emily pressed her hands under her knee and pulled it up to her stomach and wiggled her toes. Pain shot through her foot, so sharp that she had to shift to her side and throw up. Panting and sweaty, she remained like that, until the throbbing pain had subsided somewhat. But she wasn’t discouraged, rather the opposite. Her toes had moved, which meant that nothing at least was broken − the searing pain radiated from her heel and not the foot in itself. I can do this. Slowly, she sat up, put her hands to the soil and pushed herself up on her good foot. She had to stop and wait, take a few breaths of the clear air to make the nausea go away. Then, she limped slowly toward the fence. It wasn’t too far away. A few steps more, and— The backdoor to the house opened.

A silhouette, visible against the rectangle of light, appeared in the opening. She recognized the round shape: this was Paul.

“Emily?” he said, softly. She knew he saw her; the soft light reached her where she was standing, hand on the plank, shaking like a leaf. “There you are, darling…” She said nothing, and he continued: “I don’t know what happened in there, but it’s cold and you’re not dressed to be out like this. Why don’t you come back?”

He sounded so safe, so reliable... She wiped her eyes, angry at herself for not being able to keep from crying.

“You can trust me, darling.”

She raised her head, wanting, suddenly, to howl to the moon like an injured dog. I used to trust you, she wanted to scream. I used to think you cared about me.

Unlike the man in the room, Paul was corpulent and heavy, unable to walk long distances without huffing and puffing and complaining about his bad knee. Unlike the man in the room, he couldn’t run. Then again… right now, neither could she.

A mere yard from her was the black opening in the fence; behind it, was the street leading to Hay Market Square. Whatever was out there, it had to be better than what she knew here.

“Em?” Paul said. “Are you coming?”

But she wouldn’t. Couldn’t – didn’t want to.

With a last, tearful look over her shoulder, she half ran, half limped from the brothel, away from her old life and into the new, unknown.

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