Has it been a week already? I thought the time over Christmas break went quickly, and now here we are, over a week into the month and I feel like time is running through my fingers… or like sand through the hourglass… these are days of our lives…
Wait. Wrong thing.
This week, I bring you the second part of Chapter One of A Thief and a Lady. It’s a shorter section than last week, but that’s how it will be as the story progresses, some scenes longer or shorter than others. And next week we’ll delve into Chapter Two!
*Chapter One, Part One can be found here.
A Thief and a Lady
Chapter One, Part Two
The rain dripped off the edges of Esther’s bonnet, soaking into her shawl and into the collar of her dress. She cursed at the people who stood in her way, the stream of pedestrians moving as sluggishly as the water backed up in the various gutters and byways.
Her boots slopped on her feet, the bits of rag she’d stuffed into the toes squishing with every step. By the time she arrived outside the closed up shop with the broken toys in the window, she suspected she’d have a drier time of it if she simply submerged herself in the Thames. Another curse slipped past her lips as she shook a few drops of water out of her face and opened the door in front of her.
She didn’t need to knock. She let herself in, a bell above the door chiming shrilly enough to alert anyone and everyone within to her presence. But there was no one in the front room, a dark and dusty space that boasted empty shelves and a counter bearing a decrepit Punch with a shattered face.
She stepped around the counter and through another doorway that led her to the back room. A few candles burned on bases of chipped bits of crockery and tin cups, aided by a thin, watery light from the single window behind the stove. The stove sat cold and empty, but a small figure huddled near to it, a dark head bent over a mound of miniscule bits of metal and springs and gears and screws.
The boy glanced up, a screwdriver as thin as a quill held between his teeth. His mouth split into into a grin at the sight of his visitor, and he caught the tool as it tumbled out from his lips. “Essy!” He held up the object that had so captured his attention. It appeared to be a music box of some sort, though at the moment its innards were spread apart the floor in front of him, leaving the painted base and the shepherdess atop it looking quite dismal. “Why are you dripping all over the floor?”
Esther pulled up a stool and sat down, near enough to Jack to see what he was up to, but far enough away that her puddle wouldn’t compromise any of his work. “It’s raining, since you hadn’t noticed already. And I’ve brought something for you to look at,” she said, and retrieved the pocket watch from her skirt. “Only to look at,” she stressed, before placing it in Jack’s small hand.
His mouth shaped a perfect “O” as he examined the outside of the pocket watch. “Oh, this is a good ‘un,” he said, his thumb sweeping over the engraved surface. “Where’d you get it?”
Esther pressed her lips together. Jack looked up at her from his seat on the floor and let out a low whistle. “So it’s like that, is it? Well, then.” He popped the cover open and peered at the watch’s face. “Lord, this thing’s worth a small fortune. Look at that?” He held it up to her. “That there’s the phases of the moon. And see those jewels? I’ve never seen the like of this before. I mean, I’ve heard of pieces this fine, but to see one?” Another whistle sounded from his lips. “You going to sell it?”
Esther shrugged. “I haven’t decided. He said it belonged to his father, but—”
“He?” Jack raised one black eyebrow. “Would this “he” have anything to do with the crest scratched into the back of it?”
Esther took the watch back from him and tilted it towards the candle nearest to her. “Oh, I hadn’t seen that. I’ve hardly looked at it since yesterday when I…” She faltered again and cleared her throat. “He was dressed real fine, like a gentleman and all. I nabbed his wallet, too.” Again, she delved into her pockets and pulled out the calfskin wallet. Inside, it held an obscene amount of banknotes, but nothing else that gave a clue as to the identity of its previous owner.
“If the watch is really his, he must be some high-and-mighty lord or earl. Maybe even a duke!”
“No, he didn’t look like a duke,” Esther said, shaking her head. “He looked…” She thought of his hair, of his strong cheekbones, of the dimple in his cheek when he grinned at her. A warmth spread through her, despite the dampness of her clothes, and she shifted uncomfortably on her stool. “Well, not anything like a duke,” she finished lamely, and passed the watch back to Jack.
“D’you want me to find out who it belongs to?”
Esther reeled at that. It was all well and good to continue referring to the man as the gentleman in the bottle-green coat, but to give a name to the man who had smelled so good when he’d brushed up against her… “You can do that?”
As soon as the question left her mouth, she realized that she already knew the answer. Jack could discover anything, could fix anything, despite the fact that he couldn’t be more than eleven years old. But it was how he’d taken to earning a living for as long as she’d known him, fixing broken things and then taking a cut of the profits once the item was either sold or bartered away.
“I can find out how the gentleman takes his eggs for breakfast, if that suits your fancy.” Jack smiled, his tongue pushing into his cheek. He’d lost another tooth, she noticed, and the gap in his grin made him appear especially young this morning.
“Very well.” She couldn’t explain why she agreed to it. The gentleman meant nothing to her. She had his watch, not to mention the money from his wallet which would keep both her and her father in coal and food and lodgings for at least another six months. But she’d spent a restless night in her bed, fidgeting beneath blankets that suddenly felt too mildewed and moth-eaten to be tolerated, and when she’d woken in the morning, everything about her life, from the room she shared with her father to the dress she pulled on over her head, left her filled with shame and disgust.
For a fleeting moment, she imagined herself as a lady’s maid, or as a sedately dressed young woman, working in a shop in some place like Cheapside. She could do that, she thought. Wait on a gaggle of air-headed young ladies, chattering about the latest gossip concerning Lord What’s-his-name and the Dowager Lady What’s-her-face.
“You come back here on the morrow and I’ll have a name all ready for you,” Jack said, his gaze again poring over the exquisite pocket watch.
“Thank you, Jack.” Esther stood up and slipped one of the notes from the wallet. “And here, for your trouble.”
Jack tore his eyes away from the watch and glared at the slip of paper with distaste. “No, you put that away for now. When I get your name, then I’ve earned my piece.”
Esther tucked the money and the wallet back into her pocket. “Tomorrow, then?”
“First thing,” he said, flashing her a broad grin that accentuated the sprinkling of freckles on his cheeks. “Since you seem so eager.”
Did she? No, of course not. Jack was simply teasing her, as he always did. She had no reason to look forward to seeing the gentleman again, other than what she could gain from him. And she certainly hoped that would prove to be a great deal more than the mere contents of his wallet and a tarnished pocket watch.