Murder of Mary Russell

22-199x300The Murder of Mary Russell

Laurie R. King

 

Copyright © 2016 by Laurie R. King

 

13 May 1925 Sussex

Chapter One

9:15 a.m.

 

Iromurder of mary russell UKny comes in many flavours, sweet to bitter. The harshest irony I ever tasted was this: when I was interrupted that spring morning, I felt only relief.

But then, tyres on wet gravel sound nothing like the crack of doom.

The noise caught me in the midst of an attack on the post overflowing my desk in Sussex. Since dawn, I’d been elbow-deep in five months’ worth of pleas, adverts, requests for information now out of date, proposals of joint ventures similarly belated, legal and scholarly papers in need of review, and a thin handful of actual letters from friends near and far. I wanted nothing more than to haul the lot outside and set a match to it.

When I heard the noise, I assumed it was Mrs Hudson, returning for some forgotten element of her morning’s trip to Eastbourne. However, the tyres sounded more tentative than Patrick’s hand on the wheel (Patrick Mason was my farm manager and our housekeeper’s occasional driver). Nor did the approaching engine sound familiar. A taxi bringing Holmes, perhaps, finished with his unspecified tasks for his brother, Mycroft? I hadn’t seen my husband since he’d left Oxford, two weeks before.

But a glance through the library window showed an unfamiliar car with London number plates and a solitary figure considerably smaller than Sherlock Holmes. The driver circled counter-clockwise, coming to a halt with his door facing the house.

I headed to the door with a light heart: unarguable proof that Mary Russell had no talent for reading the future.

I stepped from the front door into the roofed portico beyond, stopping as the fickle morning sunshine gave way to another quick shower. The driver’s door opened, but he hesitated, seeing not just the rain, but me. He’d expected someone else.

“May I help you?” I called.

“Er, the Holmeses?”

“This is the place,” I confirmed. The shower grew stronger, spattering down the drive, and although the day was a warm enough, I had no wish to change out of wet clothes. I turned to rummage through the odd population of canes, sticks, and tools in the corner of the entryway, but before I could locate an umbrella that functioned, the car door slammed and footsteps hurried across the stones. I let go the handle and gave the visitor some room under the shelter.

He was a short, stocky man in his forties, wearing a new black overcoat, an old brown suit, and a cloth driving cap that he now pulled off, snapping it clear of drops before arranging it back over his blond hair. His brief question had been insufficient to betray an accent, but it had to be either Australian or South African—his pale blue eyes positively blazed out of sun-darkened skin, and his suit had a distinctly colonial air to it. I had just chosen Australia when his greeting confirmed it.

“G’day, Ma’am. Nice place you got here.”

With that greeting, I finally raised a mental eyebrow.

A person’s first words can reveal a great deal more than the speaker’s origins. The closer one sticks to the traditional forms—Good day, Madam, terribly sorry to bother you but… or a chatty variation such as, Dreadful weather for May, Ma’am, please don’t come any further into it, I just . . . —the smoother the transition into a stranger’s life. But Nice place you got here, coupled with a blithe spattering of drops across the entry tiles and a grin that showed too many teeth? The man was out to sell me something.

Had I actually been working that morning—had I not been so grateful for any interruption at all—I might simply have taken another step back and shut the door in his face. Might not even have gone out at all, for that matter, thus setting events off in a very different direction. But with nothing more compelling than a stack of mail to draw me, that self assured grin made for a nice little challenge.

Wouldn’t one think that life with Sherlock Holmes would have taught me all about the perils of boredom? And overconfidence? But like a fool, I felt only relief at this holiday from envelopes. “My husband is not here at the moment.”

Another young woman might have said those words apologetically, or perhaps nervously. I merely stated them as fact. He gave me a quick glance, head to toe, taking in my short but decidedly unfashionable haircut, my complete lack of makeup, the old shirt I wore (one of Holmes’ with its sleeves rolled up), and the trousers on my legs. He reacted with a degree more sensitivity than I might have expected. His posture subsided, his bare grin gave way to something more polite, and he removed his hat again, this time a gesture of respect rather than convenience. Even his words reflected the change.

“Sorry, Ma’am, but it’s not him I’m looking for. I wonder . . . does Mrs Hudson live here? Mrs Clari—Clara Hudson?”

“She does, but—”

His right hand shot out at me. “Then you must be the missus. Mary Russell? You look just like she described you!”

I stifled my arm’s automatic impulse—to catch that outstretched hand and whirl him against the wall—and instead permitted him to grab me and pump away, grinning into my face. Still a salesman.

After four shakes I took back my hand. “Sir,” I began.

“Is she here? My mother?”

If he’d squatted down to tip me head over heels, he could not have astonished me more. Mother??

He saw my reaction, and gave a sort of smacking-of-the-forehead gesture. “What am I thinking? Guess I’m a little excited. My name is Samuel—Samuel Hudson. Great ta meetcha,” and the hand came out again to seize mine.

Mother?

Of all the mysteries that are love, maternal love may be the most basic. My own mother had died when I was fourteen. A few months later, with the raw instincts of a barnyard chick imprinting its affections on the first available surrogate, my bereft heart had claimed Mrs Hudson for its own. I had known her for ten years now, lived with her for more than four, and she was as close to a mother as I would ever again have.

I knew of course that she had a son in Australia—or rather, she had a “nephew” whom her sister claimed as her own. Glimpses of an older person’s complex and unspoken history can be startling, even when one’s main source of comparison is a dedicated Bohemian like Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps especially in that case: Mrs Hudson had always been a point of solid dependability amidst the anarchy that surrounded Sherlock Holmes.

Motherhood is more than a biological state. Yes, I knew—well, suspected—about her past, but I had never conducted the close investigation I might have with a stranger, and definitely never asked Holmes if Mrs Hudson had been married before giving over the child to be raised. I admit that a few weeks into our acquaintance, when it dawned on me that the nephew might in fact be a son, my first reaction was an adolescent giggle over the idea of Mrs Hudson as a fallen woman. My second reaction was curiosity. Oddly, Holmes refused to say anything about the matter. It took a while before I realised that his blatant unconcern was the only way he could grant his poor housekeeper (as if she wasn’t so much more than housekeeper!) some degree of privacy.

Once I saw this, I followed his lead. I made no further attempts to rifle her possessions or read the letters from Australia—written largely by her sister (who had died, some nine months before this) although Mrs Hudson’s interest clearly lay more in the news about their shared son. To judge by the sighs and a general air of distraction after each letter’s arrival, it was not an easy relationship. In fact, her “nephew” seemed to be something of a ne’er do well, but since she never asked for assistance or advice, we could only politely ignore her unspoken woes.

Until now, when he stood on our doorstep.

Assuming this was Samuel Hudson.

Would most young women accept such a claim without question?

Perhaps. And perhaps most young women would be justified in their naive acceptance. However, I was married to Sherlock Holmes, had known him only a few hours longer than I’d known Mrs Hudson, and the basic fact of life with Holmes was: the world is filled with enemies.

So, I would not permit this person to meet Mrs Hudson without a thorough vetting.

All of this reflection and decision took me approximately three of the fellow’s hand-pumps. I bared my teeth to make a grin at least the equal of his, and drew back to welcome him inside (which had the added benefit of removing my hand from his).

“She’s away for the morning,” I told him, “I’m not sure exactly when she’ll be back. However, I can probably manage to make you a cup of tea in her absence. Unless you’d rather have coffee?”

“A cuppa would go down a treat,” he said, then to clarify: “Tea, thanks.”

I closed the door against the cool air and led him into the main room, our idiosyncratic combination of sitting room, library, and dining room. The south wall, to my right. had a table in the bay window, where we took our meals; the east wall held laden bookshelves, and French doors to the terrace; on the north lay a wide fireplace with chairs and a settee, along with the entrance to the kitchen. Holmes’ observation beehive, set into the wall beside the bay window, was hidden by its cover.

“Whadda great room,” the visitor enthused.

I bit off my tart response—I’m sorry, it’s not for sale—and instead turned the topic onto a more pertinent track. “Not to be rude, but I don’t suppose you have any sort of identification? You don’t look much like her.” Mrs Hudson’s grey hair had once been brown, not blonde, and her dark eyes were nothing like this man’s bright blue. Even if the fellow had been born “Samuel Hudson,” it was a common enough surname. He might be some lunatic with a Sherlock Holmes mania built around a minor coincidence.
If so, he would not be the first fantasist to waltz into our lives, although the odds were mounting in his favour: he was certainly from Australia, and he knew not only our names, but where we lived. Still, the thought of that hand clamping down over Mrs Hudson’s beloved palm …

(I recount these details to show that I was not entirely oblivious to the world around me. Just not attentive enough.)

“Nah, guess I don’t,” he said, running a palm over his visage. “That’s probably why I never doubted who my mother was—Mum and I both have my granddad’s looks, or so I’m told. Identification, is it? I didn’t bring my passport, didn’t expect—ah, what about these?” His fingers came out of an inner pocket with a photograph and a golden chain. He handed me the first.

It showed two women and an infant. The women sat in the formal pose required of slow shutter speed, although it had been taken in a garden, not a studio—a private garden, most likely, since neither wore a hat. The infant was as unformed as any small human, little more than pale hair and layers of cloth. The woman holding him was blonde, with light coloured eyes, and I thought—as I had from the first time I’d seen this photograph, years before—that there was something odd about the way the woman’s hands clutched the baby, thrusting him at the camera rather than cuddling him to her. Her features, too, had some faint air of hidden meaning, a triumph almost, that made one very aware of the empty hands of the woman at her side.

The other woman, taller, straight of back and dark of hair and eye, looked into the camera with a gaze of sad acceptance. Even if I had not recognised this woman’s features, I would have known her by that expression: I see what you are up to, it said, but I love you anyway.

Heaven knows she’d had plenty of opportunities to look at me that way, over the years.

I handed the photograph back to Samuel Hudson. “She has a copy of that.” I did not add, Hers is worn down to the paper from ten thousand touches of her finger. My mother had used that very gesture, on the mezuzah at our door.

“Well, that’s me,” he said. “With my mother and aunt—although until just a few months ago, I thought things were the other way around.” I glanced up sharply at the bitter edge in his voice, to see his other piece of evidence dangling from thumb and forefinger: a gold chain strung through a hole drilled in an old half sovereign coin.

“Does she still wear hers?” he asked.

The chain looked too bright and the gold of the pendant less worn than I remembered, but the necklace definitely caught my attention. I’d never seen it around Mrs Hudson’s neck, but I recognised it as the flash of gold I’d first spotted years before, tucked in the bottom of her incongruously large and ornate jewellery box. I might have taken no notice, at the time, but for the casual haste with which Mrs Hudson had flipped something over it.

“No, she doesn’t wear one like that,” I told him.

Well,” he said, “I guess she’ll remember it anyway.” He gave it a polish on his coat-tails, held it up in admiration, then set off on a circuit of the room, pausing on his way to drop the chain over the jack-knife Holmes always left on the mantelpiece. I watched with increasing unease as he surveyed the walls, peered at the books on the shelves, poked an obtrusive finger through the clutter of papers and oddments on the table under the window. I was sorry I’d invited him in. And I changed my mind about letting him cool his heels here until she returned.

I would give him a polite cup of tea, and I would get rid of him. Let Mrs Hudson meet him on her own terms.

“Tea,” I said. “Just let me put on the kettle. How long have you been in England? I hope your trip went well—that you weren’t caught in those storms I read about last month?”

As I moved in the direction of the kitchen, I became aware of two things. First, I wanted badly to be alone, just for a minute, so I could try to beat my thoughts into order. (Mother? Mother! But nothing like her. Shouldn’t I be pleased? Does that make him my sort-of . . . brother? But—) Second and even more peculiar, while my mouth was making conversation, my body wanted nothing to do with him. I was edging away towards the kitchen door because I did not want to turn my back on this man.

What was going on? I knew of no wrongdoing on his part, other than making his mother sigh. Still, I kept retreating backwards, making conversation as I went—too bad he’d hit a rainy day because the view from Beachy Head was glorious. Where did he live in Australia? Was he staying in Sussex or just down from London for the day?

Sydney, came the reply (which I knew) and only for the day (a relief, although he hadn’t come far that morning: the car bonnet was shiny, not hot enough to steam away the rain). At that point, my heels touched wood, so I ducked through the door and let it close, to stand with my hands resting on the old, well-scrubbed wooden table. I took a deep breath, then another.

I, better than most, had reason to understand that when one does not face up to events, they return—with a vengeance. My mother’s death and my desperate adoption of Mrs Hudson in her place might be facts of a distant past—but only until a situation came along to upend matters.

Well, that situation had arrived. Mrs Hudson was not my mother. Mrs Hudson was getting old, and deserved a full relationship with her son—her actual child—before she died. That he was a touch smarmy for my taste had nothing to do with matters.

After a moment, I scrubbed my damp palms down my shirt-front and picked up the kettle. (The new whistling tea-kettle that I gave her for her birthday, just last—Oh, get a hold of yourself, Russell!) I filled it, shoved the whistle in place, and set its broad bottom over the flame. I would not hurry. Samuel Hudson might push through the door at any moment, to invade his mother’s private realm, but he had the right to invade. This was his mother’s home. If she were here, she would permit him inside.

Therefore, so would I.

But I was relieved when he did not follow me.

Kettle on, two cups on a tray, anything else a hostess ought to do? A plate of something hospitable, perhaps? I searched through the tins where she stored her baked goods, and found a startling array of biscuits, sponges, and tea cakes—ah, yes: we were having a party on Saturday. I hesitated between her Sultana biscuits and a loaf with strips of lemon peel on the top. Which would an Australian salesman prefer? Perhaps I should ask.

“Mrs—your mother has made Sultana biscuits and a lemon loaf. Which would you—”

My voice strangled to a halt as I stepped into the sitting room and looked into the working end of a revolver.

Behind the gun stood a man with murder in his eyes.


 

Chapter Two

12:40 p.m.

 

Mrs Clara Hudson came home through the kitchen door, as always. She placed her laden basket on the scrubbed work-table, then paused to sniff the air, wondering—but an armful of parcels was struggling in the door behind her, and she hurried to take some of it.

“Thank you, Patrick,” she said. “I’m glad you talked me into going this morning—the produce would have been picked over, and you were right, it cleared up beautifully. Would you put those in the pantry? Thank you, dear.”

“Don’t know why you needed to buy taters,” he grumbled. “Ours’ll be ready in a couple weeks.”

“Yes, but I wanted to make my potato salad for Mary’s garden party. Her friend Veronica is particularly fond of it.”

“Weather should go fine by Saturday, any rate.”

“That’s what the papers say. Well, thank—”

“Oh, Mrs Hudson,” he said, in a different voice. “I’m sorry.”

She turned and saw Patrick’s muscular back in the doorway to her rooms, squatting to pick up something from the floor. She moved around the work-table, and saw that the final survivor of her mother’s treasured porcelain had leapt from its little shelf and shattered against the slates. Fetching the hand-broom and scoop, she took the pieces from Patrick’s broad hand and dropped them unceremoniously in.

“It could be fixed,” he protested. “I know a man—”

“That saucer has been fixed once already, Patrick. Let’s let it die a clean death this time.” In truth, she hadn’t much liked its first repair. She’d only put it on the shelf because Mary had gone to such trouble, and expense.

She swept the floor, surveying the area for stray shards. She found a couple under the writing desk, and absently pushed the drawer shut as she straightened from sweeping around the narrow legs.

“It’s really fine, Patrick. Thank you again, for all your help, the marketing would have taken me all day. Give Tillie my love.”

He watched her pour the bits of porcelain into the dust bin, then gave a brief tug at his hat and went out. Clara Hudson ran a damp cloth over the floor to remove their footprints, then walked back into her quarters, taking off her hat and coat, pulling on an apron. She owned four hats but a dozen or more aprons, each suiting a day’s mood and tasks—the one she chose now was cheerful but practical, with bright flowers and few ruffles. She checked her reflection (As if anyone cares what I look like!) in the small portion of the looking glass not covered by photos and mementoes. As usual, her thumb came absently out to brush the one taken in Alicia’s garden. Unlike usual, she paused there, rearranging the mementoes around the gap where the porcelain saucer had stood.

The collection looked like any old woman’s shrine to ancient history. It was not. Oh, ancient, yes—nothing here had come into being later than 1880. But it was less a shrine than a series of voices, each one speaking words of admonition.

The saucer had been from her mother’s favourite tea-cup, damaged survivor of a careless past; the chewed-up string dolly, to a stranger’s eyes the whimsical reminder of a loving childhood, was the work of a dangerous drunk, while the rose-coloured dress it wore had been made from a stolen handkerchief. And the photograph—the only photograph she owned of her blood relations? That too bore a message that her eyes alone could see: Alicia holding Samuel like a trophy; Samuel, out of focus and unshaped, waiting to be given form; she herself, wishing she could feel happy for the two of them. And out of sight, the absent figure that explained ten thousand affectionate brushes of her thumb, Billy Mudd, all seven years of him, behind the lens, watching fascinated as the sweating photographer did his work in the Sydney garden. Billy, the photograph’s secret presence . . .

Mrs Hudson caught herself, and made a tsk sound with her aged lips. She was secretly pleased to be rid of that dreadful saucer—the mends had haunted her. And she had no cause to feel uneasy, on a beautiful sunny Sussex afternoon with three nice busy days of party preparations before her. The past was dead, good riddance to it.

She tied her apron’s strings and returned to work. Mary must have thought about making tea, she saw, and got as far as setting cups on a tray before something distracted her. Bad as her husband, the girl was. She would appear, once she’d come to a spot in her writing—or experiment, or what-have-you—where she could be interrupted.

Mrs Hudson smiled as she unpacked the tender strawberries that had rewarded her early arrival in Eastbourne that morning. Funny, the things one was proud of in life—this life. Potato salad on a spring day; perfect berries from Mr Brace’s stall, served with the thick cream that Mrs Philpott promised to send over. Scrubbed kitchen work-tables, shelves without dust, the gleam of sun on fresh-polished floors.

Trust, upheld and unbroken.

When the baskets were empty, their contents stored away, Mrs Hudson wiped her hands on the cloth and looked around, conscious again of that vague sense of wrongness. A smell, one that didn’t belong here. Leaking gas? Something going off in the pantry? She walked back and forth, but couldn’t find it, and tried to dismiss the sensation.

Tea: that was what she needed. Mary must be even more intent on her work than usual, since she had not appeared to help put away the shopping. Not likely she’d gone off for a walk in the rain—even the papers had said the sky would clear by afternoon.

The housekeeper reached for the shiny copper whistling-kettle, only to discover that it was not only full of water, but slightly warm. She frowned. Oh, don’t tell me I walked out and left my new birthday present over the flame! Have I done this before? Is that why Mary gave me one with a whistle, so I don’t burn down the house with being absent-minded? She was not yet seventy: far too young to have her mind go soft.

She set the kettle down on the flame and stood, kneading her arthritic fingers, wondering how to find out if she’d been absent-minded without asking directly. Questions like that were difficult, with someone as sharp as Mary Russell.

She shook her head and took down the flowered teapot, laid out spoons and milk beside the cups on the tray, checked the kettle’s whistle to make sure it was firmly seated, and finally went in search of the young woman around whom she had built the last decade of her life—her already much-rebuilt life.

She did not find her.

What she found was inexplicable: the beautiful little glass lamp, fallen from the table directly into the trash bin; what appeared to be muddy footprints, crossing the freshly polished wood towards the front door. Her startled gaze flew upwards—only to snag against an even greater impossibility: a slim knife, stained with red, jutting from the plaster beside the bay window.

Her breath stopped. No. One of their experiments, it had to be. A jest, some thoughtless . . .

Mrs Hudson forced her legs to move into the room. Two steps, three, before an even more horrifying sight came into view.

A pool of blood in two halves, some eight inches apart: one thick and as long as her arm, the other shorter and much smeared about, both beginning to go brown at the edges. Drag marks leading towards the front door. A terrible amount of blood.

And with the sight, with that scream of red across her polished floor, Mrs Hudson abruptly knew what the faint odour was, the one that had picked around the edges of her mind since the moment she walked into her kitchen.

It was the smell of gunshot.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Clara Hudson’s dark hair had gone mostly grey before she realised that childhood was not intended to be a continuous stream of catastrophe and turmoil.

At the time, while she was living it, the constancy of hunger, discomfort, dirt, and uncertainty, with the occasional punctuation of death and fists, was simply the price of existence. One fought, one prevailed, and one hugged to oneself the rare days when an actual dinner was set upon a clean table, with a family around it. Trust was a snare, safety a delusion; together they led to blood drying upon the floor.

Clara Hudson was born Clarissa, a haughty name for a child who drew her first breath in a seedy Edinburgh room without so much as a washbasin in the corner. Her mother named her. Her father was not there to be consulted.

Clarissa’s mother, the former Sally Rickets, was not haughty— although neither had she been born in a lodgings-house. Sally had once Been Better. Sally had Come From Money, although not enough of it that she could turn her back on Society’s demands. As a girl, she was both clear-sighted enough to recognise the deficiencies in the mirror, and romantic enough to feel that lack of beauty would not matter if only the right man came along.

Romance and realism make for a volatile mix. In Sally’s case, the mix gave rise to a painful shyness, driving Sally to the shelves of the circulating library and turning her wit to blushing awkwardness at any social gathering. Wit she had, along with glossy brown hair, skill with the needle, and an odd gift for mimicry (witnessed by few outside her family) but as her twentieth birthday loomed, Sally’s heart went unclaimed. Another girl might have sighed and put away romantic dreams in favour of some youth with sour breath but good prospects. Sally raised her chin and declared that she would seek employment.

In the best tradition of the novels she adored, she took a job as governess, hiding even from herself the secret conviction that she would thereby meet a mysterious and intended mate. Instead, she met Jimmy Hudson.

Sally’s employers moved from Edinburgh to London in the autumn of 1852, to be close to the father’s expanding business interests. It was a lonely position, that of governess: too grand for the servants, too low for the family. Some nights, Sally felt very far from home.

But Sally did her best by her two young charges, seven year-old Albert and his little sister Faith. She taught them their lessons and manners, entertained them (and occasionally coaxed them into obedience) with improvised plays, and took them for walks in this vast, filthy, fascinating, and crowded city from which an empire was ruled. Twice in the spring of 1853, Victoria herself rode past in a grand carriage. The second time, the Queen gave the children a nod.

That summer, young Bertie (four years younger than his namesake, the Prince of Wales) was given a model sailboat for his birthday. Sally’s walks with her charges grew more cumbersome, as the great wicker perambulator that she already had problems wrestling along the streets now had a boat perched across it. One scorching August day, the little boat came to grief on some weeds in the Round Pond. Bertie began to wail, his sister (who was working on a new tooth) threw in her screams, and with increasing desperation (Bertie’s mother had made it clear that the young master was not to ruin any more clothing) Sally looked around for some urchin she could pay to fetch the craft. In vain.

Then out of nowhere, a young man appeared. He stripped off his jacket, kicked his shoes onto the path, and waded out for the diminutive yacht.

The figure that climbed from the water, trailing mud and water weeds from a pair of irretrievably soiled trousers, was no lady’s idea of young Lochinvar. The man—boy, really—was small and wiry thin, with an odd amble to his walk that suggested a bad leg and rather less white to his teeth than a hero ought to have. But his straw-coloured hair was thick and his grin was friendly, and although the boldness in his cornflower blue eyes would normally have alarmed her, the young man did no more than tug his hat at the governess before turning his attentions to her charge.

“Captain, sir, I believe your ship has come to grief. May I make a suggestion or two, to keep it from happening again?”

He and young Bertie bent over the ship, instantly deep in the arcane subtleties of jibs, mizzens, wind direction, and the placement of ballast. After a bit, Sally moved little Faith into the shade and got her settled with a hard biscuit.

Sally watched as the two males returned the boat to the water. It tipped for a moment, then found the wind and took off, neat as could be. Bertie ran along the pathway in pursuit. His rescuer watched for a moment, then retrieved his jacket and shoes, bringing them over to the bench where she sat.

“Thank you,” she said. “I couldna’ think how I was going t’explain another set of spoilt trews to the lad’s mother.”

“Happy to help,” he said. He sat at the other end of the bench to put on his shoes. He smelt, she noticed, of sun and baking linen, not of the tobacco that permeated the pores of most young men. Pleased, Sally allowed her eyes a surreptitious glance, noticing first the bracelet of intricately knotted string he wore around his wrist, then further down, the state of his stockings.

“Oh, sir, but look at ye! I shall pay for the launderin’.”

“Wouldn’t think of it,” he said.

“I insist.”

“Then you’ll have to strip them off me yourself,” he said. She went instantly scarlet. He laughed.

Now, another man with that same exchange, and Sally would have wrapped her dignity around her and taken her leave. But the laugh had been a nice one, neither cruel nor forward. The sort of tease a brother might have made. The stranger finished tying his laces, brushed ineffectually at his sodden trouser legs, and restored his hat to his head.

“Sir,” she found herself saying, “I dinna even know your name. Whom shall I tell young Albert it was, that came to his rescue?”

He paused in the act of rising and swivelled on the wooden slats, as if seeing her for the first time. After a moment, he doffed his hat and smiled—and if she felt a pulse of alarm, it was small and far away, lost beneath the twinkle in his eyes. “James Hudson, at your service.”

“Well, I thank ye, Mr Hudson. My name is Rickets. Sally Rickets.” “You’re from Scotland, Miss Rickets?’
“That I am. Edinburgh.” She made a noise like a clearing of the throat, then continued in accents considerably closer to those of London town. “It will take me a good long time to lose the accent, I fear.”

“Oh, don’t do that, the real you is charming.” She blushed again, less furiously. Mr Hudson’s head tipped to one side. “So tell me, Miss Rickets. Do you make it a habit to bring your young captain here?”

Up to then, she had not.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a flash. He bought the children a sherbet from a passing vender, and a lemonade for her. He told them stories, outrageous tales of sea creatures and exotic places; some of them might even have been true. At some point he absent-mindedly drew a tangle of waxed thread from a pocket and set about knotting it in patterns, as another man might fiddle with a pipe or gold watch.

When Bertie came back to the bench, grubby though unruined and pleased with his skills, he demanded to know what his new hero was doing, and was shown the lower portion of a miniature lanyard. An hour later, the child had the finished object in his hand.

From that day on, Kensington Park became a regular part of the week. Often, Jim Hudson was there. And more often than not, Sunday afternoons, Sally’s half day of freedom, were spent in his company.

Within the month, she wore a delicately knotted bracelet around her left wrist.

Hudson was a sailor who’d grown tired of the life. He’d gone to sea at the age of thirteen, sent by his father in part for the money, but also to get the lad away from a doting mother who petted and spoiled her only child. Seven years later, a docking in Portsmouth coincided with his twentieth birthday and a growing conviction that life might hold other, less arduous possibilities for a man of brains and determination. He was full of himself, was Jimmy Hudson, quick of wit and of temper, a curly haired, blue-eyed charmer who had learned to conceal from his fellows the sure belief of his superior nature. Critics might say James Hudson felt the world owed him life on a silver platter. Himself, he said that the world was there for the taking.

It never occurred to the innocent governess that a young sailor’s natural habitat lay not in afternoons beside the Serpentine, idling amongst the idle classes. Even less did she pause to wonder what Jimmy Hudson saw in her, an unbeautiful woman two years older and an inch taller than he. If she’d been home, around friends and family, there might have been someone to ask the question—but by the time Sally had friends around her, it was too late. She had fallen for him, this rogue with the lovely hair and the careless, crooked grin, head over heels. And although there was some doubt in her own mind about whether her virtue would survive to a wedding, in the end—to her pride and his astonishment—it did. For the rogue had taken a tumble of his own, into the dark brown eyes of a shy and awkward Scottish girl, and he gave her a ring and a name before he gave her a baby.

What he did not give her was the full truth about how he earned a living.

Their son was born, early and ill-formed, on a cool spring morning five months and three days after their wedding vows. Mother and father held their tiny blue-skinned child, they heard its thin cries dwindle and cease, they watched the life leave it. Hudson went out and got drunk. Two days later, he came home to find his wife delirious with fever.

If James Hudson had been as hard-plated as he imagined, matters would have been simple. He’d have bathed his wife’s face and held her hand and watched her die, before going on with his life. But Sally was his one weakness, his hidden truth, the one whose belief made him real.

He panicked.

London in 1854was a city of gangs, from those in Parliament to those of the blackest rookeries. Jim Hudson’s habitual gang was in the middle of those extremes, a wide-spread corporation of criminal activity under the absolute rule of a man known as The Bishop. The Bishop was ruthless, but fair—and smart. He knew that sometimes the fist was called for, but that sometimes a hand outstretched, especially if it had money in it, could be a powerful way to buy a man’s loyalty.

The Bishop listened to his desperate underling. He thought about young Hudson’s history, his past usefulness in matters related to shipping and the passage of valuables through the docks, and he considered the young man’s future potential. In the end, he nodded. Agreement was reached. Doctors were sent—good doctors, not stinking blood-letters with gin on their breath and filth around their finger-nails. A nurse came. Sally walked the edges of life for a week, two . . . and then backed away from the eternal cliff.

By which time Hudson owed The Bishop a considerable debt.

That was 1854. That spring, Britain went to war with Russia over the Crimean Peninsula. During the summer, ten thousand Londoners died from the cholera. In the autumn, James Hudson moved from a dockland informer into one of The Bishop’s burglary gangs.

He was small, strong, and as a sailor, easy with heights even in the dark. His job was to enter the house through windows left unlatched by a paid-off servant, letting his partners inside. One of those partners was a man he’d known for months, a wiry, foul-mouthed, and cheerful cracksman in his forties. The other Hudson was less happy about: a lad of fourteen who was new to the job, although he had lived in crime all his life. The Bishop’s son—his only son—was there to learn his father’s trade from the inside, and a less compliant apprentice would have been difficult to find. Nobody who worked with the surly and self-important lad enjoyed the experience, but Jimmy and his cracksman learned how to make him feel important without risking the job. And the boy was bright enough, if one could talk him around his tendency to hit first and think later.

Hudson did not tell Sally what he was doing, or how much they owed The Bishop, merely that he’d need to work the occasional night. Sally could be disapproving, at times, and love her or not, that Scots righteousness of hers could wear on a man’s nerves. How did she expect him to make a living? Would she rather he went to sea, to be gone for months on end?

By the spring of 1855, Hudson and his partners were entering two or three houses a month. The Season being fully under way meant that family jewels had been taken from bank vaults for the ladies’ throats, and since the maids knew well where the necklaces and tiaras were kept . . .

Still, even with The Bishop’s iron fist in control, it was just a matter of time before someone got careless. On April 27, a lady’s maid was arrested. She talked. The dominos of The Bishop’s organisation began to tumble—not that the man himself was in danger of arrest: The Bishop owned enough policemen to deflect an armful of warrants, and to free his son from worse crimes than house-breaking. Still, the lower levels of his network began to file into Newgate Prison.

James Hudson was tucking into his dinner when news reached him that the cracksman had been taken. Within the hour, he was pulling Sally from their tiny house, pushing her and a pair of trunks into a hired cart, and hushing her protests, not with a fist (though he was tempted) but with a sharp word and a promise that he would tell her all, later.

London was too hot for this upper-storey man. Edinburgh would be a risk, since everyone knew where Hudson’s wife hailed from. Plymouth or Southampton were tempting, but surely the first places anyone might look for a sailor. Instead, the young couple’s flight continued west.

On the first of May, Sally and Jim came to Falmouth, a small but active port town on the coast of Cornwall. They stored their trunks and walked through the streets until they found rooms bright enough to bear and cheap enough to afford. There, on the straw mattress behind the closed door, Hudson sat down with his wife at last. He took Sally’s hand, and told her exactly why they’d had to flee.

When she took back her hand and got to her feet, he thought she was about to leave him. Half of him wished she would. But the fact that her illness had driven them to this gave Sally pause.

She stood for a long time at the little window, her spine rigid and unreadable. However, the longer she stood, the better his chances, so he sat, waiting, until she called him daft and an idjit and a list of other names. But she was there, and so Hudson swallowed his pride and his retorts (She’d lost the baby; she’d gone and got sick!) to hang his head and agree that yes, he was a fool and yes, he should have told her. He said yes, too, when she laid down the law and said that he would have naught more to do with crime. That they would work like decent folk and pay back the debt by honest means, no matter how long it took.

Hudson knew the chances of buying their way back into The Bishop’s good graces were nil. But he said nothing. She came to sit beside him on the rough bed. When she slipped her hand into his, it was enough to be going on.

They both found work, he in the docks, Sally at a busy coaching inn. May went, and June. As July wore on, Hudson began to breathe again. The waxed threads reappeared, and his clever fingers resumed their darting knots: a pair of earrings took shape, in a dark red that echoed the chestnut gleams in his wife’s hair. In August, the Queen and Albert were entertained at Versailles. In September, Sebastopol fell to the British. Two weeks later, Sally told him shyly that she was pregnant again.

Ten days later, on October the seventh, Hudson was walking down a street when he saw a familiar face: one of The Bishop’s men from London. He ducked into an alleyway, trotting rapidly away from the docks to weave a circuitous way back home, glancing over his shoulder the entire way.

He hadn’t been seen, he was pretty sure. And although Sally had left already for work, he reassured himself that the man had never met her, had no reason to know what she looked like, and they were even using different names, here . . . Nonetheless, he poured himself a generous level of gin, standing at the window behind the thin curtains, and spent the day in an agony of nerves, convinced that Sally had been seized.

When at last he heard her feet on the stairs, the gust of relief instantly converted his fear to blind rage.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

He managed not to hit Sally—she was pregnant, after all—but her hair tumbled down as he shook her, and the fear in her eyes made his anger flare all the hotter.

But only for an instant. He turned to splash the last of the spirits into his cup, dumping it down his throat like cold water across a fighting dog. By the time she understood, confession had soured the gin in his gut and his fury had given way to exhaustion. He collapsed onto the side of the bed, head in hands.

“Ah, Sally, what’re we going to do?” he groaned.

“Ye should go.”

“Where? If I go back to London, I’ll be arrested. Or worse. I’ll have to let The Bishop know where he can find me. Maybe he can make use of me out here.”

“Is . . .” Sally hesitated, then forced herself to ask. “Is what you did a . . . hanging offense?”

“No! Nobody got hurt. But it’d be transportation for sure. And what good will I do you and the baby for seven years in Australia?”

They sat listening to the silence. After a bit, Sally straightened on her chair and took a breath. “What about getting work on a ship? Just for a time.”

“What, shipping out?”

“It needn’t be for long, just to get you away. A month, say, then get off the ship at the next port and work another ship back. You write and tell me where to meet you. I could make my way to Liverpool, or Hull— York, even, to get away from ports. Jimmy, we could be together when your son is born.”

He raised his head, fighting hope. “But what if you have to leave here? How would I ever find you again?”

“My sister.” The only person from Sally’s past who still wrote, who still loved her. The only person Sally knew she could trust, absolutely. “Write to Alice. She’ll always know where I am.”

They talked it up and down, but in truth, there was little choice. In the wee hours, he wrapped tender arms around her, his fingers apologising for the bruises on her shoulders. Before light, his sailor’s bag was packed, his feet carrying him towards the docks.

That very day he set sail upon the barque Gloria Scott, a heavy old tub bound for Australia with, in addition to its crew, eighteen soldiers, four warders, a doctor, and a chaplain—because (the irony made him grin uncomfortably) the ship also carried thirty-eight felons wearing the chains of transportees.

Sally stood on the hill above town, wrapped in her thickest shawl, skirts tugged about by the chilly October wind, and watched her husband sail away. When the ship had faded into the Channel mists, she resolutely turned back toward the town and resumed her job at the inn.

A month later, a spurt of seven letters and a small parcel arrived all at once, posted from Gibraltar, addressed to the inn. Sally took them from the innkeeper in wonder, and carried them safely home.

The paper-wrapped parcel contained a lengthy letter, crumpled from the string, encircling an object that must have taken Jimmy every spare minute of the trip to that point. He’d made a dolly longer than her hand, with stubby extremities and a knob for a head, stuffed firm with kapok. Tens of thousands of tight little knots had gone into its making, and a great deal of thought: it even had a face of sorts, picked out in black thread, and a tuft of long black hair gathered into a plait. In a post-script, the letter said that, depending on whether the baby was a boy or a girl, Sally could cut the hair or leave it long, and sew the doll a dress or a sailor suit. She ran her fingers over the little figure’s taut waxed-linen surface, feeling her husband’s hands on every tiny bump. How many hours had this taken him? What had been going on all around him while he worked, what conversations, what kinds of men at his side? Holding it to her face, she could smell the sea and the smouldering lamps, and the tobacco the others had smoked while he worked. She could smell his life, far away.

She gave the manikin a kiss and sat it against her cup of cocoa while she sorted the envelopes by date, feeling the thickness of each, studying his writing on the outside. Then Sally Hudson dove into her husband’s words like a starving thing.

The first two letters had little to say beyond the boredom of shipboard work, the tedium of the food, and how much he missed her. The two after that had clearly been written following a ration of rum, as his wandering hand transcribed an equally meandering stream of thoughts, plans, complaints, and sorrows. The next one picked up a bit, describing the odd behaviour of the chaplain and the willingness of some of the soldiers to lose money at cards. He added, as an afterthought at the bottom:

  1. I don’t suppose you’ll approve of me playing cards but when time hangs heavy I can only tie so many knots. And anyway its savings for our future my lovey.

His next letter mentioned the chaplain again, then went on to describe a troublemaker among the prisoners, an extraordinarily tall minor aristocrat named Prendergast who had defrauded a wide selection of City merchants of a stupendous amount of money. The police, it seemed, had not only been unable to find the money, they did not even know just how much it was. And Prendergast wasn’t the only rich criminal on board the Gloria Scott: almost all the transportees were convicts of a financial nature—fraud, bank theft, forgery. Some of them were so clever, Hudson wrote admiringly, it was a wonder they’d been caught.

Hudson’s final letter ended saying he planned to post the letters when the ship put into Gibraltar. However, he added, he had decided not to leave the ship himself until Cape Town. He would write her from there, to let her know when to expect him.

That letter did not come.

Weeks crawled by: Christmas, New Year’s. Her belly grew, although to her great relief, where the first time she had been constantly ill and aching, this time went without problem. If only she would hear from Jimmy, all would surely be fine.

Then in January, Sally overheard two men talking. In an inn, rumours lay as thick underfoot as the wood chips absorbing the slops, but over the following days, she heard this one from too many directions to ignore.

The transport ship Gloria Scott was lost at sea.

Sally told herself that the old barque was just late. That Jimmy had slipped away in Cape Town, that the letter telling her had been lost. Surely he would appear soon. As for the ship herself being sunk, it was not due into Sydney until February: it had just put in elsewhere along the way for supplies, or repairs. Sally laid a hand on her belly, and closed her ears to the cruel whispers.

As the five month mark crept up, Sally waited in dread for her womb to fall still, for early labour to start. But nothing of the sort happened. The baby kicked, her back ached, her belly grew.

And, she lost her job. The innkeeper said he would be pleased to have her back—she was a hard worker, a friendly face, and a step up in class from most serving maids—but the men came for a good time, not a reminder of home, so she’d have to take the next months off.

Without money, without Jimmy, the only person Sally had was her sister. So she left careful instructions with the innkeeper: what to do if someone came asking for her, and what to do if a letter arrived. She then went back to Edinburgh, her head over the heaving rails all the way. Once there, her hoarded savings bought her a few weeks in a tiny room a mile from her sister’s trim, airy house. Alice had clean windows, a garden, and two servants; Sally had no carpets, a common standpipe down in the yard, and a stinking lavatory at the back, two flights down.

Sally went into labour on a soft spring morning in early May. At the height of things, she chanted Jimmy’s name, over and over, even though by this time, she was certain he was dead. Alice caught her small, red, perfectly formed niece with her own clean hands, having elbowed aside those of the midwife at the last minute.

Sally gave her daughter the haughty name of Clarissa, and nursed her and loved her and cried over the poor fatherless bairn.

Six days later, a letter arrived. Much travelled, stained by damp, bearing her sister’s address.

Posted from Sydney.

There had been an uprising of the prisoners on board the Gloria Scott, Jimmy wrote, the ship taken over, some of the sailors joining in mutiny—a mutiny funded by the aristocratic rogue Jack Prendergast, who’d managed to smuggle a portion of his ill-gotten gains on board. Some of the sailors, dissatisfied with the captain and the conditions on board, went along with the takeover; others drew the line at outright murder. The objectors were shoved onto a small boat with sailor’s clothes, basic provisions, and a compass and chart—but before the Gloria Scott could get under way again, a powder-barrel deep in her bowels was set alight, either deliberately or from a stray spark. The ship’s hull ripped into a million pieces, every porthole and hatch punched out, her mast uprooted. In minutes, where the barque had been was nothing but smoking wood and shredded canvas.

The row-boat, which had been set adrift little more than an hour before, turned back to the wreckage. There among the floating spars and ravaged bodies, they found a survivor clinging to some boards. (Sally frowned absently at her husband’s emotional—one might almost say personal—description of this stunned, burned creature.) They rescued the sailor, took on board a few more still-sealed kegs of provisions, and turned again for the distant coastline.

The explosion’s smoke-cloud rose high, however, and the coast of Africa was a well-travelled route. Sure enough, the following day another Australian-bound ship hove into view.

Nonetheless, Hudson wrote, some of the men in the boat had been participants in the initial hours of mutiny, up until murder began; others, the prisoners, had now been handed a chance at freedom. In those lonely dark hours, pulling slowly away from the drifting timbers, the survivors came to an agreement: they would say nothing of the name Gloria Scott. A new ship was conjured up from their imaginations, a story built around it. By the time the brig Hotspur plucked them from the waves, they were the survivors of the passenger ship Amelia, which had gone down with all hands.

Unlike the Gloria Scott, the Hotspur was a fast clipper, with no planned stops before Sydney Harbour. Hudson’s chances of jumping ship in Cape Town vanished. Seventy-nine days later, the Hotspur dropped anchor. The survivors of the Gloria Scott took a last meal together, then quietly scattered: some for the gold fields, others to book passage back to England. And Jim Hudson . . .

Sally, reading the letter four months later in Edinburgh, waited for him to say when he planned to return. She waited in vain. Instead, Hudson wrote, he had looked at Sydney, and wondered if it wouldn’t do as well as a place to wait for London’s heat to die down? In fact, Sydney would be a better hope for them both. He wanted her to come out. He had no money to send her. Surely she could borrow passage from her sister?

And by the way: had his son been born yet?

She folded the letter onto her lap, and she wept.

On Clarissa’s three-month birthday, marked by a hot spell remarkable even for August, Sally loaded a pair of hessian bags with all their worldly goods and struggled through the baking streets of Edinburgh to her sister’s house. She looked up as Alice opened the door.

“I need you to watch Clarissa for a while.”

Alice eyed the bulging sacks and told the housemaid to put on the kettle. She took Sally and the baby into the drawing room, where the air smelt of baking horsehair. Even when Alice flung open the window, it was still stifling. Clarissa stirred, and Sally put her to the breast.

“I’m happy to have the bairn, ye know that, but what’s in the bags?” Alice asked.

“It’s everything we own. And ye’ll be keeping her for more than the day. Might be weeks.”

Alice sat down abruptly. “Why? Dearie, whatever’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong yet, but I have to commit a felony.”

“What?”

“Jimmy canna come back, it’s too dangerous. I don’t know when he’ll be able to send me the money for passage. Papa won’t even speak to me, Mama will nae cross Papa, you’ve naught to spare, and even if I convince them to send me on an assisted fare, as a domestic, I don’t have two pounds. It’d take me months of scrubbing floors to save up. The only way I can get to Australia is to be transported.”

“I . . . “Alice said faintly. “Transported?”

“I have to commit a crime. And if I act rough, they’ll want to be rid of me.”

“But . . . what about Clarissa!”

“Oh, she’ll come with me—they send bairns, too. Saves the cost of the work-house. But it might take weeks, for the trial and all, and I’ll not have my daughter in a gaol cell.”

It was a mad scheme, suitable only for a desperate woman. Sally had asked around about the law, and general opinion was that the chances of a fresh-faced young governess being transported—a punishment designed to rid a nation of troublemakers—was minuscule. She would need to stand in court a reprobate, shameless and without principles. There was one crime admirably suitable to her purpose.

That afternoon, Sally knocked at the door of the house where she had been born. The maid who answered gave a scornful glance at Sally’s dress and opened her mouth to tell her the trade entrance was at the back. “Hello, Hazel,” Sally interrupted. The maid paused for a closer look before stepping back in astonishment. Sally gathered her skirts and pushed past into the foyer. “Would you please tell my mother I’m here?” After a moment of goggling, Hazel closed the door and fled up the stairs. The instant her black skirt disappeared, Sally darted down the hall to her father’s office. Inside of three minutes, she had what she needed, and crossed back into the drawing room: her mother would want a formal setting when she confronted her wayward daughter.

Sally loosed her bonnet ties, but did not take it off. Not did she sit, but stood with her hands clasped, listening to the silence overhead. After a time came the sound of a door opening. She half expected the maid with a command to leave. But the tread was heavier, and approached with an air of determination.

Her mother had not paused to change clothes; the sight of her simple tea dress brought Sally a faint hope. “Hullo, Mama.”

“What are you doing here?” At the frigid disapproval, hope died.

“I came to give you something, Mama.” Sally pulled open her little bag and took out a cheap brooch. She worked the clasp, and opened it to show her mother what lay pressed behind the glass: the tiniest wisp of light brown hair, snipped from the back of Clarissa’s head that morning. “You have a granddaughter. Her name is Clarissa, after Grandmamma. Clarissa Huds—”

“You need to go, before your father comes home.”

Sally froze. Slowly, her hand curled around the locket. Her daughter’s precious hair, for this.

“Leave, now.”

“Yes, Mama.” The little locket shut with a faint snap. She laid it onto the polished surface of the table at the end of the sofa, and said, “I am going away for a time, to be with my husb—yes, Mama, we are married, and I love him. Clarissa and I will be at Alice’s house this evening, if you wish to meet your granddaughter.”

And she left.

Three hours later, the police came to her sister’s house. They arrested Sally for stealing two expensive necklaces from the safe in her father’s office. Necklaces her grandmother had bequeathed to Sally, many years before.

They could not find the necklaces themselves: not on her, nor in Alice’s house, and not in the room Sally had been living in, over in the bad part of town. No trace of either necklace was found—but she did not deny she had taken them. Sally Hudson stood before the judge and admitted her guilt—boasted about it, even, in an accent considerably lower class than her natural voice. She was condemned to seven years’ transportation to Australia, her father’s courtroom curses ringing in her ears.

When the ship sailed, the third week of November, little Clarissa sat on her mother’s hip. Tied firmly to the child’s pudgy wrist was a crude dolly made out of knotted string. A curiously heavy dolly, for beneath its stubby exterior nestled ten gold guinea coins, proceeds from a hasty visit to a pawn shop. In her valise, Sally had two additional pieces of treasure, a going-away present from her sister: a matched pair of French porcelain tea-cups that, like the necklaces, had belonged to their grandmother.

On a blistering February day in 1856, the ship dropped anchor in Fremantle. It had not been a bad trip, as these things went. Once free of Edinburgh, Sally had let surface her native demeanour and superior accents, confusing the ship’s warders enough that they moved her into “general” class, allowing her to avoid the worst food and the hair-shaving shame of those marked with “crime.” Still, she had heard terrible things of the conditions that awaited female transportees, and she joined the jostling queue coming onto the docks with her heart in her throat.

Sally was doubly cursed—or perhaps, in this case, blessed—by a plain face and a babe in arms. She passed safely through the gauntlet of officials gathered to pluck up the prettiest girls as “servants,” only to find herself beneath the probing eyes of the next rank of would-be “employers”: working men with fewer resources, yet similarly interested in slaveys and wives. At the end of the process lay a wing of the prison to which transportees were theoretically bound, but before she reached that, her husband’s face appeared, looking older and gone dark with the Australian sun, but as charming as ever.

She drew her first deep and unimpeded breath in what felt like years. He had received her letter, sent by fast clipper before she left Edinburgh, and he had managed to get from Sydney across a continent to the last remaining dumping-ground of England’s convicts.

She ran the last steps to fling one arm around him, startling a wail of protest out of the child she carried in the other. She was laughing through tears of joy as she introduced her husband to his small, dark-haired daughter.

Hudson bent over the child, marvelling as her little fingers wrapped shyly around his. The palm of his hand was scarred, Sally noticed—a burn, months old, that caused the hand to curl somewhat at rest. For a moment, she thought of the letter she had read a thousand times, his heartfelt description of that mutinous survivor dragged from the ship’s burning wreckage . . . But she shook the thought from her mind, and looked into his face instead.

“I called her Clarissa,” Sally told him. “I hope that was all right?”

“Beautiful. She has your eyes.”

“Poor thing, hope she doesn’t have my looks.”

“She’ll be ’right,” her husband said, an Australian-sounding expression that rather lacked the romance Sally might have wished. Still, she was here, and the family was together at last. It would, indeed, be right.

It took some weeks, sweltering in the tropical summer, but the contrast between Sally Hudson—a literate, married young mother—and a recent influx of Fenian convicts encouraged the overburdened warden to hand over a Conditional Pardon and a transfer of her person to Sydney.

There the Hudsons resumed their married life, bolstered by the golden inheritance she had claimed from her father’s safe. And if she studied Jimmy’s back sometimes, when he stood up from the tin bath or slept shirtless in the heat of summer, if her eyes traced the foot-long scar along his shoulder-blade and wondered if it had been made by a piece of burning ship’s timber, she never said a word. Certainly he never did—mere mention of the event turned him first pale, then taciturn. Everyone who came to Australia had a past they were leaving behind, not the least James Hudson. In any event, he’d hardened during their months apart, and his patience was short: it was not wise to venture remarks that could be taken as criticism.

A second daughter was born in 1859, a little blonde-haired, blue-eyed imp with whom Jimmy fell instantly fell in love. They named her Alicia, after Sally’s one faithful Edinburgh relation, and Jimmy bought the infant a real doll, and a lacy dress, and a little painting of an English shepherd to go over her cot.

Jimmy’s work on the docks, which half the time brought him home stinking of raw wool, also left him in a position to pocket tips when a shipment of some value was being loaded, on or off. He no longer hid what he was doing, and although Sally could not condone his criminal acts, neither could she claim that she did not know what James Hudson was. The fine balance between the husband’s goals and the wife’s disapproval sometimes came to a head, and Jimmy did not always stop at a shaking. Sally lost a tooth once. Another time she was left with a ringing in her ear for weeks. However, this was her bed, one that she had made herself, and he never hit the children—not with his fist anyway. A lot of wives couldn’t say the same.

Jimmy did provide, give him that. Sally did not have to find work outside of the home. She hired a series of small, malnourished girls, some locals, others transported from England for stealing a loaf of bread or apples from a tree. She let them sleep in the kitchen while they learned a few basic skills and lost the gauntness of their faces, she taught them their alphabets, then freed them to work for some other wife with slightly greater resources.

They never spoke of how they had come to Sydney, although between Jimmy’s nightmares and his horror of the sea, over the years Sally had picked up most of the story. Their daughters learned not to play “shipwreck” in Papa’s hearing, as Sally’s tongue avoided the use of words such as “mutiny” or “explosion.”

In the course of time, Sally was given her Certificate of Freedom. She could have returned to Britain, after that—and was tempted from time to time, when Jimmy was in a black temper. Twice he was arrested, once convicted: the four months he was gone were the hardest yet. The only thing that kept Sally from being thrown into the streets with two little girls and a growing belly was the last remaining gold guinea, the one she’d not told Jimmy about. The coin she’d kept against the day when she would want to return home . . . but she didn’t, quite.

When he came out and found her not starving, he accused her of having sold herself, of finding a pretty boy to pay her way. The split lip he gave her nearly sent her to the docks to beg for passage, but by that time, she was so heavily pregnant that even if she’d had the money, the thought of giving birth at sea was more than she could face.

In 1866, Sally Hudson went into labour for the fourth time. Thirty-four hours later, her second son was born. She held him, whispering love and welcome into his wet little scalp. Then the blood started to come. The haemorrhage poured into the rough bed in a scarlet tide. When it ebbed, with it went Sally’s strength, her colour, and then her life.

Little Jamie lingered. Clarissa nurtured him desperately, day and night, teasing drops of milk and sugar-water between his pale lips, warming him against her childish chest, slipping only briefly into sleep before she jerked awake again to feed, change, and warm her brother. She talked to him, sang her mother’s songs to him. Days passed. Clarissa was oblivious to her father, her sister, her mother’s funeral, her own needs: nothing mattered but her tiny brother, that he continued to draw breath. And he did, his cries weak and his motions listless, but he kept living. Clarissa’s hopes solidified, making her fiercely protective of the sickly scrap of humanity—and then the fever took him, and he was gone, too.

Clarissa Hudson was ten years old when this happy childhood ended.

 

 

Chapter Five

 

Without a wife, with his son taken, James Hudson fell into the bottle. For months, he managed to forget: his loss, his dignity, his two living daughters. He would stir himself in the morning to go buy them breakfast, then come home at midnight with Alicia’s favourite sweets rather than bread, or a little straw bonnet to go with her threadbare dress. Once, he gave Alicia a rag doll crawling with fleas. More often, he came home with nothing at all. On the rare nights when he and food were there at the same time, they would eat, and he would sit with his arms around little Alicia telling her stories until she squirmed away from his smell. Clarissa wondered if it wasn’t better when he ignored them.

He would weep, and revile himself for their neglect, for his wife’s death, for the fact that her two beloved daughters spent their days playing on the streets with the prozzie’s brats. (“What’s a prozzie, Papa?” Alicia would ask, until Clarissa hushed her.) After a while, he would stagger out, and disappear until the wee hours.

Sometimes he failed to come home at all, leaving the girls shivering together in a dark room, Clarissa trying her best to distract her hungry sister with stories of her own.

Were it not for the nice ladies downstairs (who were friendly and generous, so long as the girls played silently in the mornings, for the ladies did not wake until noon) and the oncoming summer, the girls would likely have followed their brother before Clarissa could figure out how to feed and clothe her sister and herself. But it was October, and the extra warmth of the days gave Clarissa just that little bit extra distance between the two of them and death. Courting couples watching the little sailing yachts along the waterfront would toss a child a coin to be rid of her hungry gaze. Market stalls were busy enough to hide a short thief. Clothing, drying on lines instead of before kitchen fires, called out for a nimble new owner. Even the nights were warm enough for comfort.

Alicia was not as easy to mother as little Jamie had been, being both demanding and unappreciative, but Clarissa found her sister’s greed oddly reassuring after Jamie’s faint interest. She threw herself into the task of giving her sister first survival, then comfort, and eventually the triumph of a childhood. She stole for Alicia: food, clothing, hair-ribbons, toys—even coins from the pockets of her father’s trousers as he snored. She fought to keep her sister clean. She made sure Alicia continued with the school that had been so important to their mother, and turned a deaf ear when Alicia whined that she wanted to stay home like Clarrie. When all else failed—when the cold rain fell and they had no dinner—she summoned their mother’s entertainments, inventing little plays about their neighbours, acting out the various parts on the stage of their cramped and dreary room.

However, Sydney was not a big city, and The Rocks a crowded neighbourhood. The police began to recognise the scrawny child with the brown hair. Five months after Sally’s death, one of them was quick enough to lay hands on her.

The three Hudsons were living in a squalid room above an even more squalid grog shop, two streets from the docks where Hudson only occasionally worked. Still, it wasn’t all bad. Allie had a pet rat—rather, she had taken a liking to one of the smaller rats that had a comical mark on its face like a moustache, and fed it scraps from the bread Clarissa brought her. Clarissa had taken care to earn the affections of the few men in the house, docks workers who watched over the two girls to some degree. And the door had a latch on the inside. Matters could have been worse.

The policeman, fingers clamped around Clarissa’s bony wrist, used his other hand to rattle the doorknob. When it failed to open, a slap from a meaty palm sent a shudder down the entire hallway.

“Hudson!” he shouted.

His reply was silence—but a latched door meant someone was home. Before he could change the flat of his hand for the point of his shoulder and rip the flimsy door from its frame, Clarissa reached past him to tap on the wood with her fingernails.

“Allie?” she said, then corrected herself, in a voice that might have come from the other side of the globe.

“Alicia? It’s me. Open up.”

Often, her sister didn’t. If Allie had food, if Allie was annoyed or bored or in the middle of a game, she was quite capable of leaving Clarissa out in the hallway until their father’s uneven tread rose up the stairs. But today the sound of motion came from within, followed by a small voice with native Sydney accents. “Clarrie? Who’s that man?”

“Don’t fret, Alicia, it’s just the nice policeman checking to see we’re all right.”

After a moment, the latch slid aside. A tiny blonde girl with cornflower eyes looked up at Constable Taylor, clutching to her chest a crudely-made doll in a dress amateurishly sewn from what looked like a man’s silk handkerchief. The constable deposited Clarissa inside the room before letting go of her wrist and shutting the door behind him.

It was easy to see that the father was not there. But the sight that did meet his eyes had him pulling off his constabulary hat and running a hand over his hair.

The lodgings-house was one of those that had been born decrepit, and by now was held together by dirt, damp, and the stained news sheets that papered the wallboards. The bare floorboards were rough enough to draw blood from incautious feet, and the furniture amounted to one bed, two stools, four mismatched tea chests acting as storage, and a rickety table set with a single candle-stick in which rested a stub of cheap tallow candle.

But unlike most—unlike any other the policeman had seen in this district, come to that—the thin blanket on the room’s bed was neatly pulled up; the smaller mattress in the room’s corner similarly tidied. The tea crates held folded clothing, the family kitchen-ware (two plates, three mugs, and a few spoons), and a few old toys. An attempt had been made to clean the floor. The spalled paint around the door was scrubbed to the wood beneath, and the sash window—the constable had to walk over for a closer examination. On the inside, the cracked panes were spotless; on the outside, the lower half of the window had been similarly scrubbed. He turned to measure the older girl’s arm with his eyes: the end of the clean patch looked about the distance that Clarissa Hudson’s arm could reach without her actually standing outside on the frame.

As he said to his wife over the dining table a few hours later, that half clean swath of window was one of the rummest things he’d ever seen.

In front of his knees was the table, one leg broken and propped on a brick. The light from the half-cleaned window fell across another thing he didn’t see much in these parts: books. Three of them, all looking as if they’d been kicked about on the cobblestones. Beside them was a slate with a painfully drawn series of ABCs on it, written with the morsels of pale chalk-stone gathered in a clam-shell.

He picked up the new-looking book, wondering who she’d stolen it from. “McGuffey, eh? Who’s the schoolgirl?”

The two girls spoke simultaneously. “Me,” said the little tow-head.

“We both are,” said Clarissa.

He turned his head to look a question at the brown-haired child he’d nabbed stealing apples. She explained. “Alicia goes to school, then she comes home and learns me. Helps her remember.”
And, he thought, helps the older one not to forget. “You’ve had some learning yourself, I think.”

The girl raised her chin. “My mother taught me. She died. I told her I’d take care of Allie—of Alicia. So I do.”

“Where’s your father?”

“He’s at work,” she said promptly. Her dark eyes were as open and honest as the sky. If he didn’t know better—if he didn’t know his patch as well as he did—he’d almost have believed her.

“Sure he is. Well, you tell your Pa to come find me. I want a word with him.”

“Indeed I shall tell him.” The policeman laid the book back on the table, hiding his smile at the girl’s proper accents.

But the younger child was frowning up at her sister. “Clarrie, why’re you talkin’ so fun–”

“Hush, All—Alicia. And call me Clarissa.”

“But, Clarrie—”

“Thank you, sir, for bringing me home.”

“And don’t you shake what don’t belong to you, hear?”

“Yes, sir.”

A right lie, he thought.

His heavy tread across the room set the window to rattling. He turned at the door to look again at that hard-won arc of clear view, then at the table.

“I might shout you a couple of slate pencils and the odd book, if it helps you mind your ps and qs.”

From the expression on her face, he might have been tantalising her with the offer of a full Sunday roast.

That night when her father came back, Clarissa said nothing about the police. As soon as his snores began to change the next morning, she slipped out to beg a mug of tea from downstairs, setting it onto the table with yesterday’s uneaten crust of bread.

When Hudson sat up, dropping his feet to the floorboards and his head to his hands, she scrambled up from the corner where she’d been helping her sister sound out words, and stood before him with cup and bread in hand.

He squinted at her. “What’s this, then?”

“Mrs Murdy had the billy on, she gave me a cup.”

“Good of the old bat. What’d you have to give her for it?”

“Just a smile.”

“Little liar,” he said, but not without affection. He took a swallow of the powerful, tepid liquid, then tore off a corner of the tough bread with his stained teeth and washed it down with more tea. Alicia had come up to watch the bread disappear. When there was one bite left, he noticed her stare “Had your breakfast yet, Allie girl?”

“Yes, she did,” Clarissa answered, but when Alicia shook her blonde head, he held out the bread. She snatched it and crammed it in her mouth. He rumpled her curls, ignoring her shift away from his hand, and looked at his other daughter. “You got more tucker for yourself?”

She had not. “I’ll eat later, thank you, Papa.”

He nodded and finished the last of the tea. “Thanks for that, child. We’ll have our own kitchen again soon.”

“Papa, Officer Taylor wants a word,” she said.

His eyes narrowed. “Why? What’d you do?”

“Nothing! Nothing at all, he just . . . I was down the greengrocers, lookin’ at apples, and he—”

“Were you stealing again?”

She eased back, one eye on his hand, but this time it was the younger sister who flung down an intervention.

“Clarrie did an act, Pa,” she said. “For the copper.”

The distraction worked. Hudson’s gaze moved over to Alicia. “An act?” Clarissa glared at her sister, but that just urged Allie on. “Yair, like she was flash ’n’ all.”

“What’re you talking about, child?”

Alicia turned to her sister, all sweet innocence to hide her glee. “Show him, Clarrie! Talk like you did.”

If Pa got into his head that Clarrie was sometimes acting on him, telling him things he wanted to hear instead of the truth, she’d suffer. She ought to get out now. Let Allie take the brunt of it for once. But she gave her sister’s wide blue eyes a last glare, then turned to the man on the bed. “Papa, it’s just a game I was playin’ with the copper. Acting, like. If you sound more, well, quality, people sometimes leave you alone.” He stared hard at her, and she grew uneasy: any threat to Papa’s pride was a venture onto dangerous ground. Still, his frown did not seem to be one of anger, for once, so she held off leaping for the door.

“Show me,” he said.

“Pa, it’s just a—”

“I want to see. How you talked to Officer Taylor.”

Papa’s breath stank, his eyes were red pools, he hadn’t shaved in a week, and she wanted, wanted, so wanted her real father back. But ten-year-old Clarissa Hudson took a deep breath and obediently summoned the personality she’d worn for the copper.

“Sir, I really don’t know why you wish me to perform this task of—” “Ha!” her father barked, shooting upright on the bed.

Clarissa flung herself backwards with Allie, but Papa didn’t lunge at them, just sat with an astonished look on his once-dear features. “Do it again,” he demanded.

So, keeping Allie firmly behind her, Clarissa rehearsed for a moment the accent and attitude of the women she heard going into the fancy shops. When she could feel their clothing on her skin—and taste their words on her tongue—she took a breath, raised her chin, and stepped out onto her father’s stage. This time, he did not interrupt, just let her go on, his eyes slowly losing their focus as he followed some thought into a distant place.

Eventually, she let her voice run down. Her body relaxed into the posture of a slum-child. Alicia peeked around her elbow. Their father sat motionless for a long time before he drew breath and focussed on his elder daughter as if he’d never seen her before.” Your mum could do that. Change accents. Like a parrot, she was.”

“I remember.” A trip to the shops with Mama could be like going down the street with half a dozen different women, as she shifted from her natural brogue to the stretched-out sounds of the local shopkeepers and then into the clipped English of the hat-maker, dipping into the exoticisms of the Greek fishmonger and his Chinese wife. All so naturally, Clarissa wasn’t even certain her mother was aware of it.

“How do you do that?” he asked. “How do you learn what people sound like?”

“I dunno. I hear things, I guess. Fit my tongue around them.”

He looked down at her thin body, seeing no sign of the raised chin and straight spine that had gone with the accent. “It’s not just your tongue. You’re a right little actress, that you are.”

He dry-washed his face, grimacing at the sound of stubble, then leant to retrieve his trousers from the floor where he’d left them. He swayed a bit as he stood, but managed to work the buttons and pull on the braces without getting tangled.

Then he thrust his hand into a pocket, and frowned. Clarissa’s breath stopped. Would he remember how much he’d had the night before? No: not this morning. The hand came out and laid a few coins on the table. “Get yourself some breakfast, you and your sister,” he said, then paused to look at the younger one. “Why aren’t you in school?”

“It’s a Sattiday, Pa.”

“So it is. Well, to celebrate, I’m going for a bath. See you two urchins later.”

“You won’t forget about Officer Taylor?”

“I won’t forget.”

He mussed Alicia’s hair again, missing her look of annoyance, then picked up his hat and was gone the rest of that day. (Hudson did, in fact, go to see the burly policeman, who took credit, in later years, for having set at least one family back onto the straight and narrow. At least, until things began to come out.)

The coins Pa had left (added to those Clarissa had taken earlier) were plenty for a day’s food, and even stretched for the luxury of an ice from the Italian man. Clarissa took one slow lick, then handed the rest over to her sister. They sat in the last of the afternoon sun, Alicia greedily sucking in the cold sweetness and Clarissa smiling at her sister’s pleasure.

She kept enough back to buy a candle—a real bees-wax one—and that night after their Saturday bath (fourth-hand and near cold after Mrs Murdy’s family had finished, but still) they snuggled together in bed while Clarissa sounded out the words of Dombey and Son, a satisfyingly long time after darkness had fallen. The smell was so delicious, she could practically taste the honey on her tongue, and she didn’t even have to get up every few minutes to trim the smoking wick.

Nearing the end of both chapter and voice, Clarissa broke off at the sound of unfamiliar footsteps trotting up the stairway. Most of the other residents were nice enough, but every so often a stranger came. When that happened, Clarissa and Alicia took care for a day or two until they were sure he was harmless: that flimsy door would come down to other shoulders than a constable’s.

So at these footsteps, Clarissa stopped reading. Allie was nearly asleep anyway, and in a minute she’d close the book and blow out the candle, to go to sleep with the simple warmth of a sleepy younger sister at her side. But the stranger’s feet did not continue down the hallway. Instead, they stopped right outside the door, as if the man had noticed candlelight leaking around its edges. Carissa’s heart began to race as she planned out a defence—and then came Pa’s voice, no more slurred by drink than the footsteps had been.

“Open up, Clarrie.”

Clarissa scrambled across the room to slide the bolt, then stared up at the vision that entered: James Hudson, shaved, trimmed, smelling more of soap than of gin, under his arm a paper-wrapped parcel, on his body a suit of clothes she had never seen before. He even wore a new hat, tipped at a rakish angle. He looked like . . . what was Ma’s word? A toff?

“Pa?” Alicia sounded none too certain.

“Yes indeedy, it’s your Pa,” he said, sounding more tipsy than he looked. “And a sorry old bandicoot he’s been, these months, neglecting his two girls something awful. But I’m back, and I’ve brought you some treasures for your pretty selves. Go ahead, take a look.”

Alicia slipped out from under their blanket and pounced on the tantalising parcel that he tossed onto the foot of the bed. She gasped, and drew out a fistful of glory: hair-ribbons, dozens of them, every colour under the rainbow and then some. Clarissa was drawn over to them, reaching a wondering finger to the gleaming tangle of beauty.
But Alicia was already digging back into the paper, coming out with a pink frock—pink!—and a pair of stockings more delicate then anything either girl had seen before, and a hair-brush and—
Jim Hudson pulled a chair around and watched the girls go through his gifts. After a bit, he realised that he could not tell what colour the little shawl was, and he suggested to Clarissa that she light a second candle.

“I . . . we only have the one, Papa.”

The room went still. Clarissa tensed at his expression, but in the end he laughed it off, and said that tomorrow he’d buy them a whole box. “Put the dress on, dearie,” he suggested. “No, not you, Allie—it’s for Clarrie.”

Both girls gaped, first at him, then at each other. Alicia’s little fists tightened on the pink fabric before, reluctantly, she let it go. In disbelief, Clarissa picked up the dress: presents and pretty things were for Allie, never her. But the universe soon righted itself when the dress turned out to be too small.

“This is Alicia’s size, Papa,” she told him. “She’ll look better in it anyway.”

“No, I—” He caught himself. “Right, well, we’ll find one that fits you when the shops are open. Meanwhile, you can help yourself to the ribbons.”

The ribbons, too, would be fine in Alicia’s pale curls, the curls Clarissa battled so hard to keep combed and clean, but as for her own head . . . Maybe Pa thought she’d cut it by choice, instead of to get rid of the lice? Obediently, she picked up the least shiny of the colourful pile and tied it around her short-cropped head.

Her father’s smile dipped a little at the effect, but again he rallied. “A bonnet,” he said. “That’ll be the thing. Now, my child, tell me again about those voices you do.”

For some reason, the glorious colours on the bed instantly lost their gleam. “What about them?”

“Tell me why you do them, to start with.”

“Just a lark, really.”

“But it’s not. You know the story about how your Ma acted the slattern to get herself shipped here on His Majesty’s shilling, you’ve heard me tell it often enough. And remember how she’d put on a fancy manner if she wanted to impress the vicar’s wife or something. Is that what you do?”

Clarissa didn’t know what a slattern was, and she’d never met a vicar’s wife, but she could guess, a little, what he meant.

“I s’pose so. People who talk like big bugs—rich, like—they get away with things. Even if their clothes don’t match. When Officer Taylor caught—when he brought me home, I thought maybe he’d leave Allie and me be if he thought we were, I don’t know, gentry down on our luck instead of . . .” Her voice trailed away: Papa’s temper was never more uncertain than when he was coming out of a drunk.

“Instead of no-good brats,” he filled in. But his hands stayed down and his eyes studied her face. “You used to talk like your Ma, more. Scottish.”

“I suppose.”

“Do it now.”

“Talk like her? Why?”

“Because I want to hear it.”

Clarissa didn’t like to think about her mother, and had no wish to stir up all those empty feelings. On the other hand, this was the most attention she’d had from her father in a very long time—and, she really didn’t want to make him angry. So without thinking about it much, she brought the R sound up onto her tongue, lengthened some of the sounds and softened others, and spoke. “Aye, faither, wall i’s a fair way to town and the day wa’ dreich, so I slid onta tha tram amongst a fat lady’s bairns, but I dinna ken the right stop and—”

Her father’s chair went over backward as he jerked upright. Clarissa cringed away behind one raised arm, but again, he merely stared for what seemed a very long time. Then he wiped his mouth and reached around to set the chair aright. He sat.

“Pa, what is it? You’re scarin’ Allie.”

“Am I? Sorry, little one. So, can you do that parroting with other accents?”

Clarissa could, although it wasn’t just the accents, it was the attitudes: a Sydney boy, a girl from Queensland, a dark-skinned woman from the Outback who lived down the road, a wealthy American she’d followed for a few streets, hoping he might set down the packet he carried. She had no idea what Papa wanted, but this felt like the first time, ever, that her father had looked at her rather than Allie. The fact that her trick seemed actually to please him was enough to make the squalid room seem brighter.

He interrupted her impersonation of the sari-wearing Indian woman she’d seen in the park the week before. “Darlin’, I think you have a skill. And I think you and me, we might be able to make something of it. You think you can teach yourself to cry?”

Clarissa looked at her father, plainly intent on cajoling her into something. Why did he think she was not going to like it?

 

 

Chapter Six

 

The shock of the gun in Samuel Hudson’s hand froze me like an electric current. The world stopped: sound, breath, heart, dust motes in a moment of sunlight. My universe narrowed down to a pair of truths: a round black gunmetal hole at the end of Samuel Hudson’s arm, and the too-sweet smell of his hair-oil. Absurd thoughts were the only thing that moved: In my own sitting room? flitted across my stunned brain, followed rapidly by God, what will Holmes say!

Then my chest thumped and my thoughts jostled to assemble some kind of order. Moving with great deliberation, I spread out my hands from the shoulders down, to illustrate a complete lack of threat.

“So,” I said. “No tea and biscuits, then.”

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

There were, it seemed, any number of ways to get by in Sydney— and more so, Melbourne—if one had the use of an innocent young face. According to Pa, men with yellow fever—fresh from the gold fields—were just aching to have someone take their coins from their pockets and free them up to go find more. It was doing them a kindness, really.

Clarissa knew this was a story, but playing along with it kept him happy—and sober—for the first time since Mama died. More important, it allowed her to take care of Alicia. Proper care.

Two weeks after the policeman’s visit, Clarissa stood on a busy street before a big man with a high hat and a thick gold chain across his waistcoat, her heart thumping as she sobbed and stammered out an incoherent tale about losing the shilling her mother had given her to buy milk for the baby and how Mum would beat her . . .

It had taken her some time to decide on this man among all the others bustling past, just as she’d hesitated over the pretty new frocks Papa had bought, and ended up in a once-pretty, now-faded dress and a pair of shoes that looked like the well-cared-for hand-me-downs they were. Pa grew impatient, waiting for her to pick her target, but when she saw this one, she’d gone right forward because he seemed . . . happier, somehow, in a way that made him feel even larger than he was. It was years before she learned a word for it: “expansive.” Which sounded like “expensive,” and that was right.

The man with the gold chain had spotted her sobbing and stopped; listened to her where another might have circled past; frowned in sympathy where most would have just frowned. In the end he held out not a replacement shilling, but an entire half sovereign—then laughed when her wet eyelashes opened wide. “Can you use that, then, little girl?”

“Oh, sir, I can, yes I can.” Then she remembered her Cheat, and was quick to add, “My little brother will eat so well, thanks to you!”

Her first lesson: no man in a good suit would turn away from a little girl with clean clothes, good manners, and tears in her big dark eyes.

When she took the coin back to her father, waiting around the corner, he crowed in triumph. His praise flowed over her like water on a desert plant. And—was it magic, or a secret message?—the coin had been born the same year as she: it bore the date 1856 under Victoria’s profile. It went into his pocket, as did the handful of smaller coins that same Cheat won them during the day, and they ate well that night.

Then, two days later—magic upon magic—Papa gave her back that very coin, strung on a golden chain. In an instant, Clarissa’s lingering hesitations fled. Her father loved her when she helped him, and that was all she needed to know.

Of course, Alicia spotted the necklace. Clarissa glumly undid the clasp to hand it over—but Papa said no, it was hers. Even when Allie threw a huge tantrum—even when she whined for days and days, playing with it around Clarissa’s neck, begging and sulking—Papa held solid.

Allie’s mood lasted for a week before, to Clarissa’s surprise, it suddenly stopped. It was rare for Allie to let go a pet hurt, but after Papa took her out for a row in the harbour—by herself, leaving Clarrie at home—the younger sister’s woebegone expression was replaced by smug satisfaction and the occasional cryptic and knowing remark.

Still, she was happy, and Clarissa had her necklace. From then on, whenever a doubt surfaced about the rightness of what she was doing, Clarissa Hudson only needed to grasp the coin around her neck to know that she would do anything, anything in the world, for her father.

There were other lessons, as the weeks went on. The second, rather more complicated lesson came about a month after the first.

They were working on what Pa called a “Job” (but she secretly thought of as “Cheats”) near the railway station, in the early afternoon. The railway was important, because he had to catch a train. The time of day was, too, since there should have been a lot of people through the station not long before, but not too many people in now. And, there had to be a train coming very soon, but not one for a good while afterwards.

Papa went into the Refreshment Room for a cup of coffee while Clarissa waited across the way, in a corner where she could see him but no one would notice her. There was a small valise at her feet, so that if anyone asked, she was simply watching it while her mother went to care for her little brother, thank you very much. After a while, Papa looked at the clock over the counter, then stood up. She watched more closely now: he would want her in a minute.

Papa walked over to the man selling the coffees and ices and showed him something in his hand. The two men talked, then Papa turned to point at the table.

I just found this under the table, he was saying. I don’t know much about ladies’ jewellery, but it looks pretty valuable.

Half a minute later, Clarissa rushed in breathlessly. Ignoring Papa, she asked the Refreshment Room man, “Oh, sir, my mother lost her pearls! Did anyone report finding them? She said she’d give five pounds reward!”

The two men looked at each other, then Papa held out the necklace. “Are these them?”

Clarissa exclaimed and reached for the pearls, but her father’s hand retracted, just a little. He and the other man consulted without saying anything, then Papa looked at the clock again.

“I’ve got to catch the train. You want to give me two pounds? I’ll let you keep the rest.”

“I don’t have two pounds,” the man said.

“Ah, too bad.” Papa made as if to slip the pearls into his pocket, then stopped. “Think you could just borrow it from the till?” He turned to Clarissa, bright-eyed and innocent as the sparrows pecking crumbs outside the door. “Is your mother far away?”

“She’s just down the bank, to see if they found it there.”

The bank was about three minutes away. Mention of a bank also made this “Mama” sound like a woman well able to redeem her lost pearls.

Reluctantly, the man gave Papa his two pounds. The two men smiled after Clarissa, bouncing away to tell her mother the joyful news. Papa left. And at the end of the man’s day, he owed the till two pounds, and had in his pocket a string of pearls already losing their paint.

As they made their way home, Clarissa asked her father if the man wouldn’t have to replace the money in the till.

“A course he will, honey.”

“He seemed nice.”

“He was a Mark. If he’d thought of it first, he’d have done the same to us. Two pounds—you clever girl!”

Her father’s jubilation left Clarissa feeling oddly empty, as if she’d taken more from the nice man’s pockets than two pounds. Thus, the second lesson: a person felt clever, but not entirely clean, after a Cheat.

It was driven home a few days later, when her regret at taking a coin from a man who looked as though he needed it more than she did led to her handing back the coin—and her father slapped her so hard, he loosened a tooth. She did not try that again.

But the occasional blow apart, their “Jobs” made Papa happy, which was a new and exhilarating experience for little Clarissa Hudson. She also relished being Another—a girl with clean skin and confidence, someone who knew she was going home to a mother and a shining home, someone who was . . . better. When she put off the Act, her tongue returning to its natural place in her mouth, her head dropping to its normal angle, she missed the Other Clarissa.

Still, if it kept Papa happy and Alicia fed and warm, what did her own feelings matter?

Over the following months, the Hudsons’ Cheats grew more complicated. They took longer to plan, and they brought in more substantial sums. They moved from their room in The Rocks to a place with a less interesting night life but sweeter air. Clarissa learned to call the men “Marks”—which turned out to be not a name, but a description, as if they were nothing more than stains in need of a good scrubbing.

Clarissa’s third lesson was one she discovered slowly, and on her own: it was best to leave the Mark with some taste of happiness: praise him, give a touch of self-satisfaction, leave him with a brush of humour. Doing so not only made the Mark less suspicious, it also felt more like an exchange than a bald theft. Like those birds that traded one shiny object for another.

This was a lesson she kept to herself.

There were others—even formal lessons, of a sort. That winter, while Alicia sulked off to school every morning, Clarissa attended a very different sort of classroom.

Pa called the weasel-faced old man an “Acting Professor,” although to Clarissa he was the Cheat Teacher. The thin, intense, rather smelly creature her father found to educate her young and nimble hands reminded her of a wonderful story by Mr Dickens that she had read to Allie during the lonely nights. Unlike Fagin, the Professor was a solitary figure, not one who gathered a band of young thieves around his hearth.

Clarissa tried, hard, to make her father and teacher proud of her, but in the end, even though she’d practiced so many times that she woke at night with her fingers making the dip in Alicia’s curls, both men reluctantly agreed that the straight picking of pockets was not her strong point. She was better at palming goods, since the key to that was diverting the Mark—and the distraction was where she shone: a little girl bent over a skinned knee, or weeping over a lost puppy, or holding up a found coin in wonder was the most compelling thing in the world, and if James Hudson’s own fingers had had more skill, the pair would not have needed to look further for their income.

However, Hudson had spent too much time at rough work to be a smooth pickpocket, and he refused to bring in another partner. Instead, they concentrated on the more involved realms of criminality, those resting on Clarissa’s dual talents of mimicry and reading the Marks. Their most reliable Cheat was The Found Note-Case, akin to the pearl necklace, which began with her hesitating at the door of a grog shop with a note-case she had found, and ended with Hudson leaving that saloon a couple of bank notes richer.

Lesson four: greedy people made for the easiest Cheats. And, she found, those with the least guilt attached. For example:

A pretty Saturday afternoon in the late spring; a busy Melbourne street; a brown-haired girl who looked no older than fourteen (though she was) perched awkwardly on the edge of a bench amidst the unfamiliar bulk of a crinoline, her hair swept up and ringletted beneath a bonnet; clearly a young girl attempting to look older than she was. She sat a short distance away from a busy jewellery shop, shoulders hunched and head down, either fascinated by some small object in her hands, or fighting tears. People passed her by, as oblivious of her as she was of them, until a courting couple approached, hand on arm at a primly decorous distance.

When they were ten feet from Clarissa, she glanced up. The girl stopped, pulled from her springtime euphoria by those big, dark, brimming eyes. Her beau would have pressed on, perhaps even more briskly having spotted the tears, but his young lady’s arm—and her concern— anchored him in place.

“What is the matter, dear?” the girl exclaimed.

Clarissa hastened to dash away the tears with a childish hand. “Oh nothing, it’s nothing at all, not that you can help with. But thank you,” she added politely, blinking a clear, wide-eyed signal of distress.

The pretty girl lowered herself to the bench with the automatic swing of hips that betrayed a recent abandonment of steel hoops in favour of horsehair bustle. She reached out a gloved hand for Clarissa’s bare one, somehow catching one of her glove’s tiny buttons in the object Clarissa was holding.

“Oh!” Clarissa grabbed for it, working its satin cord free. When she had succeeded, her two hands held it out for a moment. All three young people studied the small black velvet draw-string bag, until, with a cry of loss, Clarissa’s head bent down to cover it, her shoulders heaving.

The story soon came out: a dangerously ill mother, a father honourably dead, a family so reduced in circumstances that all Clarissa had to sell was the ring left by her beloved grandmother.

“Nanna—that’s what we called her,” Clarissa said with a brave smile. “Nanna wore it all her life. When Granddad bought it, the ring cost a year’s pay. She always used to tell us the story, of how he came to her father with the ring and a solemn vow: that he would love her even when all the diamonds of the earth . . .” She had to choke out the next words over a sob. “When diamonds had crumbled to dust. And he did. They were so in love, like newlyweds even when they were old and grey. They died within days of each other, both in their nineties, and left me the ring. It’s worth hundreds. If I sell it, I can save my mother’s life. But . . .”

Her voice trailed off into her hands.

The young woman’s arm went around Clarissa’s shoulders, she bent close to hear the words. “What? Oh child, what is the problem?”

Clarissa sat upright, taking a sharp, steadying breath. “I thought perhaps Mr Barnaby—the jeweller—would buy it, since he’s the one who told Mama it was worth two hundred guineas. But it seems he has plenty of the new diamonds just now—coming out of South Africa? And people want a new ring, instead of one with seventy years of love behind it. I need the money today, if—” Another sob, bravely stifled. “If Mother is to have her operation. I shall have to tell her doctor that she must come home, for a time. Until I can find someone who wants it.”

Clarissa raised her hand, and the sun caught fire on her ring finger: the cluster of many diamonds set into rose-coloured gold sparkled, it danced, it threw the sun about as her hand turned this way and that.

Then the dazzle winked out like the death of promise as she slipped the ring back inside its pouch, prompting a faint protest from the girl at Clarissa’s side.

The girl looked up at her beau. He eyed the small velvet bag uneasily. The silence grew electric—

To be broken from an unexpected direction.

A small man with hunched shoulders, worn tweeds, and a jewellers’ loupe in his hand paused beside the trio.

“Hello, young lady. I am really terribly sorry we couldn’t convince Mr Barnaby to purchase that lovely ring of yours. But you were right, it’s worth a great deal more than the ten guineas he was offering.”

The young man peered down at the fellow, taking in the magnifying lens he carried. “Er, you’re a jeweller?”

“That I am, young man. Though unfortunately, a jeweller without much cash just at the moment. The races, you know?” He gave a rueful chuckle. “Otherwise I’d have offered this young lady eighty guineas for that shiny bauble she’s got, and made a good bargain out of it. Well, I’ve missed my chance. I wish you luck, my dear.”

He tipped his hat first to Clarissa, then to the couple, and walked on.

The young man watched him go. When he turned back, his face wore a very different expression. Speculative, perhaps. One might even say it held a touch of greed.

“Young lady,” he purred. “I hate to see you in distress. Perhaps I might help you out, and take that ring off your hands. Now, how much is it your mother needs for her operation?”

Clarissa blinked up at him. The young man’s lack of reaction when “the jeweller” said ten guineas told her there was more than that in his note-case. How much more? “The doctor said it would be thirty-five pounds altogether,” she lamented. The eyes made a fractional retreat.“— but he said that if I could pay him twenty-five now, I could work the rest off over the coming year.”

That speculation returned to his gaze.

The girl rose, laying one hand on her beau’s manly arm. “Oh, Freddie, we could help this poor girl, and save a life! And . . .” Her voice drifted away in a blush, indicating that Freddie had not actually spoken for her hand yet. Strictly speaking, a ring was premature. However, was this not a minor point when balanced against seventy years of deep and abiding love?

The girl’s blush deepened when Freddie reached into his breast pocket. Clarissa and her father were long gone by the time Monday morning came along, and a real jeweller told Freddie that the paste diamond in his hand was worth, at most, five shillings.

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

As their success grew, as Clarissa matured, the Cheats became more sure, more complex, the partnership more seamless. Their clothing grew more clearly of the upper classes—hers, at least.

Her father never did look entirely comfortable in expensive clothing, even when his hands grew softer and he’d had his teeth attended to. Still, compared to visitors from Britain and Europe, rich Australians often had the hands of labourers, and Hudson had been in the country long enough to sound native. As their Cheats pushed up into Society, her accents and attitudes grew more assured, the amount of money each one brought in grew.

They also spent much of every year travelling, despite James Hudson’s loathing of sea journeys. The very first year of their operations, 1867, they spent two weeks in Melbourne, nearly twice the size of Sydney, and found the change of scenery both a relief and a financial triumph. Alicia went along on some of these expeditions, but without making the younger Hudson girl a part of their Act—a thing neither of them even considered—it was not a success. Matters came to a head on Clarissa’s twelfth birthday. In May of 1868, her father pronounced it time they bought a house, a real house with a kitchen and a garden. They could have a dog, even. Wouldn’t Clarrie like that? Allie surely would.

Twelve year-old Clarissa Hudson stared at her father, and put her foot down—something she never did, since overt protest threatened to bring his hand.

“Allie’s almost nine,” she said. “And you and I are always gone. She’s been ducking school, Papa. She’s up till all hours, and—”

“She’s not going back up The Rocks to play with those prozzie children, is she?”

“No!” Her father’s horror of prostitution, enforced with profanity and violence, would have made her deny it even if Allie had moved in with one of their former neighbours. “Nothing like that, Papa. But she needs a proper upbringing, if . . . if she’s not going to go wrong,” she added slyly. “She needs a family.”

“She has a family.”

“We’re never here. There’s no one to make her do her schoolwork or come inside at dark. She’s going to get into trouble, Papa.”

Neither of them so much as noted in passing that it was the child who was leading this conversation.

“You want to quit?” Hudson asked.

It did not need the dangerous edge to his voice to make Clarissa see the bad in that idea. Without her, Papa’s attempts at crime would lead first to the bottle, then to the police, and finally a return to rooms with peeling wallpaper and the stench of urine and cabbages. She shuddered, and brought out the idea that she had been aware of for weeks now: an idea both appealing and repugnant. “I’m sorry, Papa, but unless you want to get a regular job, I think we’ll have to find a family that Allie can live with. Just until we get more settled.”

She hoped her father would object harder than he did. She knew that she was being selfish, wanting him all to herself. But he did not. In the end, it was Alicia who cried and sulked and dragged her toes—up to the moment when the spinster teacher in need of income opened the door of her guest bedroom, and little Alicia’s jaw dropped. Her eyes travelled across the frills on the bed, the crisp curtains on the window, the little painted bookshelf in the corner. There was even a brand-new dolly with a porcelain head and fluffy skirt, propped against the pillow.

After that, it was Clarissa who had the tears in her eyes, leaving her sister with Miss Constable. And even when she and Pa did move, to a proper flat with a kitchen and housekeeper (of sorts) to keep it running, Alicia only came for the occasional visit.

The following year, they had to buy a series of new frocks as the old ones became too short and too snug. Clarissa no longer looked like a child playing dress-up, when she wore bustled skirts. Once or twice that autumn, she caught an odd, thoughtful sort of look on her father’s face. Not until the closing weeks of 1871 did she understand.

Clarissa Hudson was fifteen and a half years old. It took some work now for her to look like a child, but no effort at all to dress her as a young woman. They were in Ballarat, working their way through the booming mine towns, posing as the widowed owner of a department store looking to expand business into the hinterland. It was not entirely appropriate to take his shy young daughter into the meetings he held in restaurants and saloons, but his widowhood was recent, and surely it was all quite innocent …

A survey of the railway maps had given them their plan. Three towns: Echuca, Bendigo, Ballarat: find a Mark, soften him up, lighten his wallet, slip away.

The first two went fine, the takings nice and rich. But Ballarat was a problem. For one thing, the town was in the midst of a slump, having over-extended in the madness of gold lying free on the ground. As a result, the people weren’t . . . happy. Not one expansive face in the lot.

“I think we should go home,” Clarissa said to her father that night. “It would be a nice surprise for Allie.”

“She’s not expecting us until Christmas,” Hudson said. “We can spend a few more days.”

“Pa, I don’t like it here.”

His face took on that hated expression of wheedling he got when he was either keeping something from her, or trying to convince her to do something she didn’t want to. “The place is one step up from the Bush, yes, but the men here have money.”

“I know that, Pa, but—”

“You losing your nerve, girl? Want to trade places with Allie for a while?”

“Of course not, Pa. It’s just, I don’t like it here.”

“Oh, for Christ sake, Clarrie,” he snapped. “I hope you’re not going to get all dithery on me. There’s gold here. We’ll leave when we have our share.”

The next day, coax her as he might, Clarissa would not settle on a Mark. That night, Hudson got drunk for the first time in weeks, and ended up slapping her across the face. At luncheon the following day, a man approached them in the busy hotel restaurant, gave her a polite tip of the hat, then turned to her father to ask about the shops he was thinking to build.

It was a surprise, but not unheard of, for a man to hear rumours of profit and approach about getting an early slice of the pie. More unusual was the man’s willingness to ignore her: Clarissa Hudson was presenting herself to the world as a nubile innocent, a morsel few men could resist. None in her experience had entirely overlooked her.

Until Mr Bevins. She might have been Pa’s elder sister, for all the interest he demonstrated.

With growing pique, she watched the man and Pa talk business. Twice she broke in with witty remarks; both times, he gave her a polite smile and returned to the topic.

Then he asked how far the plans had got. Hudson had an increasingly worn set of architectural drawings to pull out when the topic was approaching actual sums, but they were not the sort of thing he carried about with him to the luncheon table.

He laid his table napkin by his plate and said he would just be a minute. At last, Bevins turned to Clarissa—but still, with that absent politeness on his face. It was becoming vexing.

“Your father is quite the inspired businessman,” he said. “Isn’t he, though?”

“Although a girl like you must find these conversations tedious. It’s too bad—oh, drat,” he said, and pulled his watch from his pocket. “I forgot all about a wire I promised to send my partner in Melbourne. Young lady, I don’t suppose you know where I might find a telegraph office?”

She did, in fact. She started to explain, but he apologised that, being new to town, he was unfamiliar with the landmarks she was mentioning. So she offered to show him the way.

Stepping down into the street, he offered her his arm. She took it, and left her arm through his. If she could convince the fellow that she was not a child, she might work herself back into this Job: it would not be good to encourage Pa to think he could manage without her.

They strolled past the shops, Mr Bevins paying a degree more attention to her, although there was still something of the attitude of an uncle unfamiliar with the ways of children about the way he kept his head politely tipped to listen.

Until they stepped around a tall heap of builders’ materials and, momentarily out of sight of the street, he picked her bodily up and carried her into a dark alleyway beyond. One hand was across her mouth, the other pulling at the thickness of her skirts. In seconds, all that separated their flesh was the thin cloth of her drawers—and already, those fingers were seeking out the separation . . .

The nearness of his goal distracted him. The hand across Clarissa’s mouth went slack, just a fraction—and Clarissa’s teeth clamped for all she was worth into one thick finger. With a bellow of pain, he shook himself free. She drew breath for a scream, but it scarcely began when his unwounded hand slammed against the side of her face. In a fury, his fingers went around her throat—but her one brief moment of shriek had been enough. Bevins heard the shouts from the road, and ran.

Her father put his arm around her shoulders and hurried her to their rooms in the hotel. The instant they were inside the door, he pushed her away and slapped her so hard, she fell to the floor.

“What the hell were you up to, you damned hussy? You think I didn’t see how you had your eyes on that bastard? Flirting and—”

***

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