‘Hell and damnation!’ Phil cursed under his breath as he went up the stairs two at a time. He hadn’t planned on this foray up to the servants’ quarters of the brothel – hadn’t been keen to come at all if the truth be known. This wasn’t the sort of place he normally frequented of an evening; a coffee house or a scientific lecture was more his sort of thing. He was only here to protect Richard, who’d come to meet an informer. Now Richard had departed, and he was on his own… trying to help some chit who might not require his assistance after all. He’d seen her earlier when they’d arrived, being berated by the bitch who ran the place, Ruth Newbody. One glimpse of that pale, frightened face and he knew he’d have to do something. He’d never sleep again if he ignored his gut instincts and abandoned her to her fate. He’d delayed once before and look how badly that had turned out.
The whole place reeked of evil – he’d sensed it from the moment he’d crossed the threshold. The smell of tallow in the air told him that the brothel’s luxurious appointments ended at the first floor – no fine wax candles for the living quarters of the girls who worked here. And that Mrs Newbody… Her sly words and knowing glances had sent his skin crawling. He wondered what sort of men paid to spend time here. From the glimpses he’d seen, her girls – finely dressed though they were – possessed eyes that were dead and had painted smiles as empty as the endearments they uttered.
Phil reached the top stair and looked down the dark corridor, its bare floorboards stretching out before him. It had been twenty minutes or so since he’d seen the girl, surely not time enough for her to don the gaudy finery and paint her face to the levels expected of a high-class whore? He listened. From downstairs, the braying of the aristocratic ne’er-do-wells who frequented the place, coupled with the high-pitched squeals of the house’s females, floated up to his ears. But there was something else. He tiptoed a few steps down the hallway and strained his ears. There it was again – the sound of a woman’s stifled sobbing. A sound that tore at his soul.
He headed for the door he’d identified as the source of the noise and tapped on it. Silence. Then came muffled sounds of something being dragged across floorboards.
Frustrated, for there wasn’t much time, he tapped again.
‘Come in,’ a quavering voice called out, unmistakably female.
He turned the handle and stepped inside, his eyes taking a second to adjust to the gloom. A single lit candle was the only illumination in the garret. Two small beds stood next to each other with a flimsy table between, holding a ewer, a bowl, and a hairbrush. Crouching beside one bed was the young woman he’d seen earlier. From the look on her face, he was the last person she was expecting to see.
Springing to her feet, she eyed him nervously. ‘Who…?’ The word came out as a croak. She swallowed and started again. ‘Gentlemen are not to come up here. You need the floor below, sir.’
Her voice was surprisingly cultured. He knew he had to be careful, seeing her anxious eyes flicker to whatever she’d just pushed under her bed. She was as nervous as a cat, even though she was doing her best to look calm, standing stock-still with her hands locked together.
‘It was you I came to see,’ he said.
A look of fear flashed across her face. ‘But I’m not… I mean… I must get changed. I will meet you downstairs, sir.’ She gestured towards the poor furnishings. ‘This room is not fit for’ – there was a pause, no doubt as she struggled to find suitable words to describe the activity she thought he required – ‘entertaining gentlemen. There are far nicer rooms below.’ A rigid smile formed on her lips.
‘I don’t require entertainment.’ He needed to make her understand, and quickly, his words coming out more brusquely than he’d intended. ‘I want you to come with me.’
The young woman’s eyes widened, and she took a step back.
‘It’s not what you think,’ he hissed. ‘If you wish to leave this place and remain unmolested, I beg that you come with me. I mean you no harm, miss.’ He stretched out his arm to her, and again she retreated. Damn. Everything he said and did was making her more nervous. That’s what came of having no sisters – he’d no idea how best to calm her fears. He took a breath and tried again. ‘Mrs Newbody does not look after her girls. I’m only trying—’
‘What?’ her voice rasped accusingly. ‘You came here with your friend. If you do not leave, I shall… I shall…’ Her eyes cast about the room, as if seeking a weapon. For a little slip of a thing, she was brave.
‘Scream?’ he asked, suppressing the smile that rose to his lips. ‘Look, I meant what I said. I mean you no harm. But if you wish to leave this place, I can help you, take you back to your family.’
‘I have no family.’
Jolted by the bitterness of her tone, he asked, ‘Did Mrs Newbody trick you into coming here?’
The girl nodded. ‘She told me I would be a lady’s companion. I knew she was lying as soon as I got here, and I tried to escape. But to no avail.’ Her shoulders slumped. ‘She has this place too well guarded. I was hauled back before I’d reached the bottom of the stairs.’ Pointing to the skylight, she added, ‘I even tried going that way, but I discovered I do not have a head for heights.’ There was a sigh. ‘At least Mrs Newbody didn’t force me to join the other girls straightaway. Said she’d give me some time to get used to the idea.’ With a look of disgust, the girl indicated the crumpled red silk garment on the bed. ‘But tonight she expects me to don that and join the others downstairs.’ Her gaze swung up to meet his, anger flashing in her eyes. ‘And that is something I will never do. I’ll take my chances on the leads. If small boys can climb chimneys, I’m sure I can manage.’
Phil’s mind raced. He had to convince the chit to come away with him and not attempt the rooftop escape she had in mind.
‘Well, if you wish to avoid the life that Mrs Newbody intends for you, come away with me now. We can get out using a less risky route than the one you’d planned, but we must hurry.’
She shot him a suspicious look. ‘Why? What are you offering? How do I know you don’t have something worse in mind?’
‘I came here with a friend to talk to an associate of Mrs Newbody’s, not to purchase one of her girls for the night. I saw her threaten you. Saw the fear in your face. I want to help. I pledge on my honour as a gentleman, I’ll not harm you. Nor will I let any harm come to you.’
At that moment, the braying of the “gentlemen” from the floor below grew momentarily louder, making his words sound particularly hollow. Why should she believe him? he asked himself. Damn it. In her place, he’d be suspicious.
Then it came to him. ‘Look. I’ll give you this.’ He pulled his leather purse from the pocket of his greatcoat. It was heavy with coins. ‘You can keep this whether you decide to stay with me once we get out of here or not. If you decide to go it alone, at least you will have something to start with.’ He thrust the purse towards her.
Her mouth opened, revealing even, white teeth. ‘Oh.’ But still she didn’t move.
He dropped the purse on the bed and turned back to the door, satisfied that at least he’d tried his best. As his hand reached for the handle, he heard her voice.
‘Yes… I’ll come with you. The leads are slippery, and it’s a long way to the ground.’
‘Good girl.’ Relief swept through him as he turned to face her. ‘We need to be quick. Do you have a bag you can pack?’
The girl slumped to her knees, fumbling for something under the bed, which turned out to be a small, battered leather valise.
‘I… I was trying to summon up the courage to go just before you came in… only I didn’t think I’d be able to carry this over the roof. There are things that I do not wish to leave behind.’ She swept the hairbrush off the table and stuffed it in with the rest of her belongings. On the point of closing it, her hand paused, and she looked up at him. ‘There’s something else.’
‘Whatever it is, hurry up.’ They couldn’t afford to delay much longer.
She fell to her knees again and started to prise up a panel of floorboard. Phil watched as a small wooden box emerged from its secret hiding place.
As if hearing his unspoken question, she said, ‘The only thing I have to remind me of my parents.’ The box went into the valise, which was snapped shut.
‘Do you have a cloak? It’s not very warm outside.’ Phil could see that the shabby, patched dress she wore would not be sufficient to keep out the evening chill.
‘No. Mrs Newbody took my outdoor things. I only have what I’m wearing – and that.’ There was another scornful look at the lurid garment on the bed.
‘Never mind. Once we’re outside, you can have my coat until we can get something more suitable. Now come on, before Newbody sends someone for you.’
Phil poked his head out of the door. Thankfully, the corridor was deserted, and he beckoned the girl to follow him. Pausing at the top of the stairs, he turned and plucked the valise from her hands.
‘I’ll carry this for now. Do you think you can lead me to the back door without us being seen?’
She nodded. ‘The kitchen will be busy, so they shouldn’t notice us if we’re quick. It’s the yard that might be a problem. The doormen go there for a smoke; they take it in turns.’ Seeing his questioning look, she added, ‘There’s only two of them, but they’re big chaps. And there’s Fred and Jimmy, two youngsters who run errands for her, but they’re usually in the kitchen at this time, trying for scraps.’
Phil didn’t like the sound of the doormen. He’d seen one of them when he’d entered the place. The chap resembled an ox. Still, there was the pistol in his pocket… He patted the reassuring bulge in his greatcoat and hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
He tugged her forward by the arm. This was no time for perfect manners.
‘I’ll lead the way till we get downstairs, then you show me the door to the yard.’ He didn’t even know her name, and it was too late to ask now – far too risky that someone might overhear. He had other questions too. Why had Mrs Newbody not forced this girl? The woman who ran the brothel had struck him as a ruthless sort, not one to indulge her victims. But that also was a puzzle for another time.
Tense minutes later, they were downstairs in the yard. It was all in darkness – and, even better, it was deserted. No sign of either doorman. Phil started to feel optimistic. Perhaps their luck would hold, and they’d get clear away. In the gloom, he spotted the gateway to the mews and alleyway outside.
‘Come on. Stay close,’ he said, wrapping an arm around his companion’s shoulder. After an instant’s hesitation she moved, and together they skirted the sides of the yard. They’d nearly reached the gate when he felt her stagger. The cobbles were slick with recent rain.
‘Steady. I’ve got you.’ He clasped her until she’d steadied herself, hearing her quick panicked breaths and catching the faintest hint of jasmine.
‘I’m fine. My shoe caught, that’s all.’ The girl pulled away from him. ‘I can hear voices coming this way. Lord, what shall we do?’
There was nothing for it. Niceties be damned. He grabbed her arm. Ignoring her squeaked protest, he shoved the girl in front of him, enfolding her inside his coat.
‘Here’s the gate. Quickly, move.’ The bolt made an ear-splitting sound as he pulled it back, almost loud enough to wake the dead. Then, with a flick of his finger, the latch was lifted. He shoved the girl through the opening.
‘Ho! Who goes there?’ A gruff voice sounded from the open doorway across the yard. Phil held his nerve and turned to face the chap who’d issued the challenge. If they got in a chase now, their chances of getting away would dwindle to nothing.
Phil didn’t fancy engaging in fisticuffs, and certainly not with the enormous chap he’d seen at the brothel’s front door. That one had looked as if he’d be far too handy with his fives. Perhaps convincing the doorman that he was hopelessly lost and in his cups would work. Subterfuge often worked better than violence when it came to achieving one’s ends.
‘Sh-sh-shorry, mate. In the wrong yard, don’t you know? Thought it seemed… diff-diff-different.’ Phil swayed about and started to stagger towards his questioner.
Before he got two steps, there was a growled response. ‘Gerraway with yer, afore I draw your claret.’
Phil turned unsteadily and returned to the gate, grateful that the yard’s custodian couldn’t be bothered to follow up on his threat. Once outside, he straightened up and peered around. There was no sign of the girl. Where the hell had she gone? His eyes caught the movement of passers-by at one end of the alleyway, and he frowned. Could she have reached the street already? There was a sudden tug on his sleeve. He looked down and saw a huddled figure crouching in the shadows.
‘I’m here,’ she whispered. ‘I didn’t know which way to go.’
‘Come. Put this round you.’ He shrugged off his coat and placed it over her shoulders. ‘We must pretend to be lovers, so no-one will look twice. Let me put my arm around you, and we’ll head this way.’ He was aware his words might alarm her, but he couldn’t think of another way to escape notice. Her body tensed as he placed his arm around her, but she didn’t pull away.
The damp cobbles made walking unsteady, but they reached the end of the alleyway without further mishap. Phil halted before proceeding into the throng, scanning the crowd for signs of danger. Carriages rolled past, stopping briefly to disgorge their passengers – mostly well-dressed men heading for their clubs or other establishments like the one he and his companion had just left. A few bold members of the demi-monde strolled arm in arm, calling out to potential clients. ‘Looking for some fun, my lords?’
Phil quickly glanced at his companion. Her face was a picture of horror and apprehension. At last, a hackney approached, and he raised his hand. Minutes later, they were seated within the vehicle’s shabby confines and on their way to his rented house.
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