Lydia awoke to the sound of falsetto protests from the room next door. She poked her nose out from under the thick winter bedsheets and grimaced at the cold of the November morning. Reaching an arm out to grasp the good wool shawl hung over the headboard, Lydia huddled into it, wrapping up as warmly as she could before forcing herself to throw the covers back. Padding across the room in bare feet, she flung open her dress box and dug out a clean red dress—a deep wine-red, not a gaudy cherry: Lydia knew that men with money liked to pretend that the girl they’d just paid a pound to fuck had some class about her. Next door, the creaking of the bed was becoming frantic, and Daisy’s breathless claims of innocence rose in pitch with it. She must have had enough of this one by now; he was certainly taking his time to finish.
Catching sight of herself in the full-length mirror facing her bed, Lydia reached for her hairbrush. Her last man had left late the previous night, and she couldn’t be bothered to yank the pillow tangles from her hair. She had slept in her corset; it was too much trouble for either Lydia or most of the chaps to fuss about with.
“Lydia?” Annabel’s voice, through the noises coming from Daisy’s room. “Lydia!” Annie was indignant about something. Probably just running late for school again. Pulling a handful of coloured underthings from her second clothes chest, Lydia dressed hurriedly. She tucked up a little of her skirt to expose her petticoat as a mark of her trade, pinned it with the gilt crown brooch she’d bought from a cheap-jack one night—it made a change from just tucking her hem up, as many of the other girls did—and set off downstairs, tugging leftover knots from her wild brown locks as she went.
Down in the kitchen, Annabel was pulling books out of her pack and complaining that she would miss the school bell. Her cheeks were flushed, and her hair—a warm golden brown, rather than hazelnut like Lydia’s—clung to her forehead. Kathleen Tanner, the abbess and owner of the house, was shouting over her, asking if she’d done the washing.
“It’s in front of the fire, there, isn’t it?” Unlike the parlour and the girls’ bedrooms, which were luxuriously papered and furnished to imitate the picture Kathleen had in her head of quality homes, with fires burning in every grate, the kitchen was sparse and cold, with whitewashed walls, a grumbling old range cooker and a long butcher’s table of scrubbed wood in the middle of the stone floor, with two wooden benches for the girls to sit on and eat their meals at.
“Not that washing, clot—the sponges! Have you washed them and all?”
Annabel wrinkled her nose.
“Yes, they’re soaking in the bucket. Mary’s took ages to come clean.”
“That right?” Kathleen mused. “Wonder if we’ll get anyone coming through from out of town? We might be able to pass her off as a virgin.”
“Come off it,” Lydia scoffed. “Who’s going to believe Mary’s a virgin?”
At the sound of her voice, Annabel turned. “Lydia, have you got my exercise book?”
Lydia yawned. “Yes. I borrowed it last night; thought I’d practise my reading.”
“You might’ve told me! I do need it today, you know.”
Lydia shrugged. “I’ll fetch it now.”
“Hurry up,” Annie complained, “I’m late enough as it is.”
“Then why didn’t you get me up earlier?” Lydia yelled over her shoulder as she made her way back upstairs.
“As if I ever get a chance! I’m elbow-deep in a bucket of your dirty linens of a morning, and your linens are grubbier than most.”
“You know our deal.” Kathleen’s voice faded as Lydia stomped up the last few steps and back into her bedroom. “Your sister earns her keep in her bed and you earn yours in the rest of the house. I ain’t running a charity here.” The rest of her words were drowned out by the sound of heeled boots on the stairs. Annie’s racket must have got Mary up.
When Lydia flounced back into the kitchen, she flung out an arm in suitably theatrical manner and started reading from the lesson Annabel had copied into her exercise book.
“‘A foolish woman is clamorous; she is simple and knoweth nothing.’”
Sitting at the kitchen table eating her breakfast, the sleepy-eyed Mary Fallon giggled. Her golden tresses were immaculate, but then the ones who visited Mary rarely rode her roughly. Things tended to work the other way around in Mary’s room: she was known locally as Mistress Birch, thanks to her skill with a cane.
“How very true,” Annabel said petulantly. “Now give me back my book.”
“‘For she sitteth at the door of her house, on a seat in high places of the city.’” Lydia smirked back at Mary. “Hold on, this is my favourite bit: ‘… and as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him, “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”’” The girls laughed.
“Yes, yes, very funny,” Annabel said, snatching her book from Lydia and stuffing it into her pack.
Kathleen tutted. “I need you to pick us up some bread and some oil on your way back from school.” The abbess rummaged through her pockets and produced a shilling—she hated to put anything on the slate, however small.
“You don’t need to go to school to learn how to be a governess,” Mary gasped in mock horror. Her lilting accent—Armagh by way of Albert Dock—was deceptively light. “All governess work is is book-learning and knowing how to use a cane, and you’ve spent enough time reading books.” Pushing her breakfast plate away, she stood up and snatched a wooden spoon off the table, bringing it down fast through the air with a practised stroke that whipped past Annie’s arm by barely an inch. “I’ll make a governess of you.”
Annabel flicked the spoon out of Mary’s hand, and it clattered onto the stone kitchen floor. “And wouldn’t that be grand?” She dropped Kathleen’s shilling into her pocket and buttoned it closed. “I’m going to school. Miss Treadwell won’t just pretend to hit me if I’m late. I’ll be back this afternoon.”
“After you’ve picked up my shopping,” Kathleen reminded her. Annie nodded impatiently and made her way out into the hall.
“Your Miss Treadwell couldn’t hold a candle to me,” Mary called after her. “That’s why I get paid for floggings and she has to teach the likes of you.”
The front door creaked as Annabel opened it. There was a brief pause, then Annie’s clear, girlish voice drifted back into the kitchen.
“And I’m sure Miss Treadwell’s been crying herself to sleep, Mary. See you all after!”
Lydia grinned and sat down to her bacon and egg. Nobody could say that Kathleen Tanner didn’t give her girls enough to keep their strength up, and Annie was always careful to overcook Lydia’s bacon until it was brown and crispy, the only way she could eat it. Out in the hall, a heavy, male footfall was making its way to the front door. The kitchen door opened, and Daisy Carter joined Lydia and Mary at the breakfast table. The familiar smell of the trade hung freshly around her, and Kathleen bent her head over her coffee cup and inhaled the brew’s strong, rich scent.
“That one were early,” Lydia said through a mouthful of egg white.
“Just as well,” Daisy replied, gingerly reaching up and feeling the top of her blonde head for bruises from the headboard. “If I’d started any later, I’d have lost the best part of the day.”
Kathleen set Daisy’s plate down on the table in front of her.
“I thought your visitors just hiked your camisoles up, did the deed and went on their way?” Mary remarked.
“They do, usually. But this one had had a few glasses, I think.”
“So that’s what your ravished princess act was for, then,” Lydia said.
Daisy nodded. “Well, I ain’t got all day.”
* * *
As it turned out, the day was a quiet one. The rest of the morning and the early hours of the afternoon passed without a single visitor to the house. Kathleen, an enterprising Yorkshire woman in her late thirties, had invested a substantial sum in keeping the house presentable both inside and out, and in feeding and clothing her three girls carefully so that they could command the best prices.
Men wouldn’t pay to shag a bedraggled little gutter-rat, Kathleen had told Lydia on the night she and Annabel had shown up on her doorstep a year ago; they could get that sort of thing for free. Lydia’s shapeless smocks and torn linen had long since been burned, save for one particularly ugly grey dress that she’d hidden in the bottom of one of her clothes boxes. In the early days, after Lydia had finished with some bloated, ugly or foul-smelling man, she would snatch a moment to herself and pull out the raggy old dress to remind herself of the exchange she had made. In many ways, her life couldn’t be more different from that of most other seventeen-year-old girls with her background. She ate well, dressed in lovely clothes that the old Lydia Ketch would never have dreamed of wearing, and slept under a safe roof at night, and by now she did not expect to feel even the cheap, fleeting thrill she’d felt when she had Jem Holloway break her in. Nowadays, Lydia was well versed in ignoring the men on top of her, underneath her and inside her. The worst were those who expected her to look into their eyes and tremble like a maiden on her bridal night. Having mastered the act, she understood why moneyed folk often compared actresses to whores.
“Well, there’s no sense in the three of you sitting around here all day,” Kathleen said as she straightened the sign in the parlour window that offered (not entirely without truth) Beds to Let. “You can go for a drink if you like, but if you do catch any men, make sure you bring ’em back here. Don’t go far; if we get any coming here I want to be able to get hold of at least one of you.”
The girls, sprawled over plush velvet-covered sofas and padded armchairs, lazily reached for shawls and boots, which lay scattered around the room. Regardless of the time of day, the parlour was always lit by gas lamps, thanks to the thick burgundy velvet curtains that were always drawn over the windows, keeping out the light. Flimsy white lace curtains never seemed to be enough for Kathleen: once the house door was shut, the world outside was barred entry, except for those who were prepared to pay the price.
“Can’t you sort ’em?” Mary asked cheekily.
Kathleen swatted at her with the paper clutched in her hand. Newspapers weren’t the only local publications, and a local printer, Stanley Stoker, known to those in the trade as “Stan the Frenchman,” did a nice little sideline in papers for men: ones with lithographs of scantily clad girls, information on the local lasses in the trade and vivid stories detailing the sort of exploits Lydia had become well used to in her year at the house. When she had a quiet afternoon, she often sneaked upstairs to her room with a paper or two and used those stories to practise her reading, and sometimes to make an attempt at writing a story of her own. Kathleen had told Lydia that Stan the Frenchman was in fact an Englishman born and bred, but if you went to him and asked him for some of his “French” papers, he could see you right. Kathleen monitored those particular papers closely for any favourable mention of her house or her girls, keeping an assortment in the parlour to amuse visitors while they waited.
“I stopped ‘sorting ’em’ the day I had enough to buy this place,” she said. “When you’ve got a house of your own, you can do the same.”
“You don’t want Mary starting up an introduction house of her own, though, do you, Kathleen?” Lydia cut in. “You’ll lose all the whipping boys to her.” But they all knew that when Kathleen suggested setting up their own houses, it wasn’t a genuine invitation. Far from it—even if their crotchety abbess was a darling compared to those who kept their girls hooked on opium and in fear of hired punishers if they tried to flee.
“Aye,” Daisy said, spying one of her ribbons on the end table and looping it into a bow in her hair, “best keep her sweet, I’d say.” She smiled radiantly, and it only added to her innocent appearance. A slip of a thing—something which never failed to amaze Lydia, given the amount of food she had seen the girl put away—Daisy always looked fragile, as if a strong wind could blow her over to Halifax.
“Oh, get out,” Kathleen sighed in mock impatience. “Go and bother the folk in the Bull.”
* * *
Round the corner and barely a stone’s throw away from the introduction house, the Old Bull pub was already humming with people taking a glass of ale, or gorging on the publican’s wife’s pies rather than going home for dinner. In a froth of skirts, hair ribbons and flashes of petticoat, Lydia, Mary and Daisy made their way through into the taproom and jostled their way to the bar. Even in the short time it had taken to walk from the house to the pub, a wintry frost had chilled the girls to the bone, and Lydia breathed a small sigh of relief to be safely inside, where the heat from the taproom fire and the crush of the Bull’s patrons could melt through the cold. The familiar, comforting smell of ale and tobacco smoke gave her a pleasurable glow.
Over on the good side of the pub, a pair of well-dressed ladies—travelling, most likely—stared at the girls. One eyed Lydia’s burgundy dress, while the other flushed and broke her gaze to stare at the grain of the wooden floorboards.
“Three gins, Alice,” Mary said to the barmaid, naming the drink of whores and suppressing a smirk at the shock on the ladies’ faces. Mary didn’t even like gin.
“You smile too often to be intimidating, Mistress Birch,” Lydia remarked as they took their drinks and pushed through the press of people crowding the taproom.
“Not when I’ve got them over the bench, I don’t,” Mary replied. “Ah—table, over there.”
* * *
The Bull was busy, as it was most afternoons. One of the bigger pubs, it was handy for the girls to slip out to, whether to catch a bit of trade or just to get a drink. Lydia had learned to drink spirits in her first weeks at Kathleen’s, and now she had a certain appreciation for the harsh perfume of liquor. Still, Kathleen watched the girls very carefully for any sign that they were getting rather too fond of it, and preferred them not to drink the strong stuff at all when they were in the company of men.
“They’ll pay more for class,” she was constantly saying. The abbess had been all in favour of Annabel teaching Lydia to read, and Lydia did not need to ask how reading would help to bring the men in. She knew that there were plenty of men who would pay to hear her read certain tales. Now she cast her eyes around the taproom and paused, squinting at the headline spread across a patron’s newspaper. The Fiend Kills Again. She grimaced at her companions and nodded in the direction of the man with the paper.
“What?” Daisy asked. “The Ripper again?”
Lydia nodded. “How many’s that, now?”
“Five,” Mary said, gulping down the last of her gin and grimacing at the taste. The liquor left an oily trace around her glass. “I think we should avoid southerners altogether; at least until they catch the monster.”
“I don’t think Kathleen would appreciate that,” Lydia said. “Besides, the Ripper’s busy in London, ain’t he? If fellows come up here, they come up for business—cotton or something. And we’re not street girls; they seem to be the ones he cuts up. He’d never get a chance at our place: one scream and we’d all be in there. Unless it was Daisy, of course. We’re used to that.”
“Funny bugger,” Daisy sniped. “But you do have a point. As long as we don’t take men anywhere other than the house, we’ll be fine.”
“I wouldn’t stay out in this weather, anyway,” Mary said, huddling closer to the fire. Her skin flushed quickly, and she held her fingers out to the flames. “Too cold.”
“I still don’t understand why you do that,” Lydia muttered into her glass.
“Because I can.” Mary grinned.
“But don’t you get less for it? If they don’t get the room and the bed and all?”
Mary leaned closer, her voice a whisper. “I don’t do that for the money, clot! I just do it if I want to, and the chap can’t afford me, or doesn’t want all that nonsense I do with the cane. Haven’t you ever done it for free?”
Lydia thought back to last year, with Jem in the slum sidestreet.
“Aye, once. But I’ve not had a mind to for a while now.”
“That’s fair enough.” Mary pulled a face. “Not been many good pickings around here for a long time. By the time they can afford us, most of them are old and ugly. At least the street girls and the dollymops at the docks get the sailors.”
“And the pox,” Lydia pointed out.
Daisy pulled a face. “Mmm. Sailors are dirty things. Besides, who’d be a street girl or a dollymop? One’s out in all weathers and getting a pittance for her trouble, and the other’s forever looking over her shoulder in case she sees someone she knows from her other job.”
Lydia nodded and took a belt of her gin. “Imagine that—you could be serving a fellow tea in someone’s parlour in the morning, and on your knees in front of him come nightfall. ’Course,” she added with a grin, “you’d have to look up at his face before you’d recognize him.”
“Hold up,” Mary said, shushing the other two, “I think we’ve got rivals for lowering the tone of this place.” She jerked her head in the direction of a group of men sitting a few tables from their own, and Lydia strained to listen over the din.
“Why, in God’s name?” one of the men was bellowing, his speech slurring despite the deliberate effort he seemed to be putting into it. “What would be the sense of it? A man’s pleasure is understandable; he must spend his seed and continue his name, but of what use would it be for the Creator to afford a woman the same?”
“I do not claim to understand why, Thomas, but the facts speak for themselves, as countless men in our profession have already confirmed through studies of their female patients. One does not have to explain the presence of the cli—” Here the speaker, whose face was obscured by one of his companions’ heads, broke off and lowered his voice, “… of the clitoris to know that it is there.”
“I wouldn’t worry about keeping your voice down, Henry,” the man called Thomas said dismissively. “I’d put five pounds on it that nobody in here has a damned clue what you’re saying.” A group of navvies passed by him at that very moment, all gaudy kerchiefs and exposed shirtsleeves, and Thomas visibly shrank in his seat. Lydia laughed.
“Oi, Jack,” she called across to the man hulking over the trembling Thomas. “Made your pound yet?” Daisy and Mary cackled—Lydia had been tormenting Jack with this joke for a while. He’d never have the few shillings spare to pay Kathleen for the use of her room, never mind Lydia’s price on top of it.
“Who can afford the likes of you? How can something that was put on this earth for free cost so much?”
“You’ll never know,” Lydia replied, with a feigned sigh. “More’s the pity for you.”
“Ah—there we are!” The voice of Thomas’s companion drifted across. “A perfect opportunity for each of us to prove his case, is it not?”
One of the other men at their table laughed. “That’s an imaginative experiment, Henry, I’ll grant you.”
“Are you disputing my intentions as a man of science?”
Craning her neck, Lydia spotted him: a clean, neat-looking man, dark-haired and dark-eyed; dressed well in severe black, but smirking like the young lads who tried to catch her eye on the street. He set his glass of port down on the table, and Lydia’s gaze trailed up his clean fingers and over his arm. It had been too long since she’d seen a man she could take a fancy to, and she found herself hoping he had a pound to spare.
The man called Thomas turned and looked at the girls. “Oh, come now, Henry. One can hardly apply the same principles to … to women such as these. I was referring to the majority.”
“And how do you suggest we test them?” Henry scoffed. “We’d be clapped in the cells for assault. One must work with what one has available.”
Mary rolled her eyes at the backhanded compliment.
“Hmm.” Henry surveyed each of the three girls in turn. “House girls, certainly. Your employer’s fees aside, I’d estimate perhaps … a pound?”
“Goodness,” Lydia giggled, “he’s right, and it’s been a full two minutes since I said it were a pound meself. I believe we’re in the presence of a genius, ladies.”
“A genius with a lot of spare time and money on his hands, it seems,” one of the men at Henry’s table chuckled.
“Such is the life of one who has qualified.” Henry grinned and stuck his hand out across the tabletop to his companion. “I can’t say fairer, can I, Thomas? If you are concerned about the type of woman in question, then we are closer to our mark here than we would be with streetwalkers, and we avoid throngs of angry fathers and brothers on our doorsteps. Shall we say that the loser pays the winner’s costs?”
Thomas and Henry shook hands, while the more astute of their companions argued over the third girl.
“So,” Henry said, standing and throwing on a thick black overcoat, “lead the way, ladies.”
“It’s not far,” Lydia said. Her eyes chased down the polished buttons of his waistcoat, and she hoped he didn’t go for fair girls.
“Henry Shadwell,” the man said, passing his case into his left hand so that he could offer his right to Lydia. She took it, somewhat startled—she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had done such a thing. Henry kissed the back of her hand through her lace glove, and Lydia marvelled at the effect of such a casual caress, given those she was so used to.
* * *
If Kathleen was pleasantly surprised when the girls piled back into the parlour of the introduction house with a man each in tow, she was too shrewd to show it. Mary had, in her unerringly accurate way, quickly identified one of Henry and Thomas’s companions as being, in her words, one of her boys, and had soon snared him with a disdainful glare. Lydia had once asked her how she did it, but Mary passed it off as a God-given gift. Kathleen bustled around, taking her four shillings for the use of each girl’s room and offering the men a seat and a drink while the girls slipped into the kitchen to fish their sponges from the bucket—Lydia’s with a red ribbon attached, Daisy’s with a blue, and Mary’s with a green. They took turns to soak them in the dish of olive oil left out for the purpose—Kathleen was a firm believer in oil to keep disease at bay. She had once told Lydia that the abbess of the house she had worked in as a girl had been too mean to pay the extra money for olive oil, and so Kathleen and the other girls there had had to use dripping instead, which congealed far too quickly and made the bedrooms smell like butchers’ shops. Wiping the olive oil from her fingers, Lydia smoothed down her dress and strolled through into the parlour.
Henry and Thomas were still locked in earnest debate, while Mary’s catch (whose name she hadn’t bothered to ask) flicked through one of Kathleen’s papers, entitled The English Vice. Lydia hid a smile. This one was a good match for Mary; she might make a regular of him, if he had the money.
“But how can metritis be attributed not only to intercourse and self-abuse, but also to abstinence?” Henry was saying. “Surely this is a contradiction in terms?”
“If you are certain that you understand the Lord’s most mysterious creation so well, then prove it,” Thomas replied, raking Daisy with his gaze. “I’m not paying to argue with you; I can do that for free elsewhere.”
“But of course.” Holding the door open for Lydia, Henry swept his arm in a courtly gesture, indicating that she should lead the way. She did so, relishing the sound of his boots echoing on the stairs behind her.
“And if the results are inconclusive?” Thomas asked from further down the staircase.
Close behind Lydia—so close that she could feel his breath stirring her hair—Henry laughed.
“Afraid you will not find your mark?”
Mary’s visitor laughed, and Mary told him to be quiet. Then they reached the landing, and each girl led her man into her room, shutting the door behind them. Lydia looked across to where Henry was kicking his boots off. She turned the sheets down.
“Anything fancy?” She smiled mischievously as she looked across at her prize. He definitely had a thing for clothes. Nell Ketch would have called him a dandy, despite his black clothes and carefully trimmed hair and beard. This was a man who paid lip service to respectability to heighten the joy of flouting it; that much Lydia could tell. In one short year, she’d learned more about men than a lifetime of marriage could have taught her. She smiled inwardly as Henry threw off his overcoat, revealing a waistcoat with scarlet-embroidered edging. He grinned as she loosened the bodice of her dress.
“No, nothing unusual. Or at least, not from you.” His smile broadened at Lydia’s quizzical expression. “You’ll see.”
Crossing the room, he hooked an arm around Lydia’s waist and pulled her close to him. Taking hold of her wrist, he drew her hand down so that she could obligingly caress him through his trousers. She found herself hiding a genuine smile as Henry tensed under her touch, and she lightened her pressure, revelling in the wordless exclamations of lust that rumbled in his throat. With quick fingers, Henry picked the lacing at the bodice of her dress apart, while Lydia slipped the buttons on his trousers open, her expression one of rehearsed casualness as each little metal circlet popped tantalizingly free from its buttonhole. She looked into his face—something she couldn’t remember ever doing without it being asked of her—and silently revelled in the tension that lay in his dark eyes and on his trembling lips.
When he pushed her back on the bed, she instinctively parted her legs so that he could kneel between them. But once he had reached up her petticoats and pulled down her coloured drawers—as much a mark of her trade as her pinned-up dresses—Henry did not lean straight over and enter her, but instead pushed her skirts up around her waist, slipped his fingers between her legs and slid them against her, up and down in an ever-quickening motion, causing Lydia to writhe under his touch and look, startled, into his face, where a tiny smile was starting to play around the edges of his mouth. Faster and faster his fingers moved against her, until she felt her heart racing and the echoing rush of blood in her ears. Her body moved without her consent, her hips arching up to press harder against Henry’s fingertips, her cheeks flushed with a sensation she had never felt before. The sounds of the house—the creaking of beds, the crack of Mary’s cane, even Kathleen’s occasional movements downstairs—seemed to fall silent, and all Lydia could hear was the thudding of her heart and her breathless gasps. As the sensation became almost unbearable, Henry dropped forward onto her and fucked her in the way she was more than used to. This time, however, Lydia’s moans of pleasure were real enough, and as Henry spent himself, she realized that she had locked her legs around his waist as if to prevent him from pulling out. When he did not move, but lay on her for quite some time afterwards, she did not object in the least.
Copyright © 2009 by Faye L. Booth