Stitch and turn, stitch and turn, stitch and turn ...
Jewel Libby folded the raw edges of silk into narrow hems as her feet pumped the treadle. Monotony was what made the job dangerous. Most scarred fingers belonged not to the newest workers at J. Mobley, Elegant Corsets for the Particular Woman, but to those who had spent enough time in the sewing room to forget that the needle could hypnotize just before it bit.
That same necessity to be alert took away temptation to chat with the women nearest her for the six days weekly, ten hours daily Jewel sat among them. Besides, socializing could get a person sacked, and then how would she feed her daughter?
Mr. Fowler's whistle shrilled. Machines hummed into silence. Forty sets of eyes mirrored Jewel's own puzzlement, for no evening sunlight slanted through the west windows.
The manager jumped up onto a chair and clapped his hands; an unnecessary action in the tense stillness. "On account of the birth of Mr. Mobley's second granddaughter, you may all go home!"
"Four hours early!" Jewel said to another worker while joining the applause.
"God bless the child!" someone exclaimed.
"If she'd only been a grandson, we'd have been given the whole day," Mrs. Fenton said sagely during the homeward trek up Steelhouse Lane.
Jewel sent a look over her shoulder before risking a guilty smile. Not that Mr. Mobley would be anywhere in the vicinity. She had seen the factory owner once during two years of employment.
"Why are boys more valued than girls, do you think?" Jewel asked the older woman.
"Rich folk care about carryin' on the name. We poor need sons because we can send them out to work earlier than girls. And they're paid more."
Jewel gave her a sidelong look.
Mrs. Fenton shrugged. "Life's hard, if you ain't noticed."
They hurried past Perseverance Iron Works, its chimney belching smoke into the already pewter sky. Windows sent out ripples of heat. Jewel wondered how many sons of the poor sweat inside.
Thank God I have a girl, Jewel thought. Not that raising a daughter was easy. Most of her worries centered around Becky. Particularly of late.
They turned onto Vesey Street, then Halls Passage. Three-storey tenement buildings rose on both sides, identical in their stained brick, filth, foul odors, and weed-choked courtyards.
"I've got it!" a young voice called.
"Over here!" piped another.
Sixty feet ahead in the lane, five young boys played a game of catch with a ball. Near the arched entrance of the building on the right, a man stood holding a small girl's hand. Jewel's breath caught in her throat at the sight of the girl's berry-red hair, so like her own.
"Do you see—" Mrs. Fenton began.
"Becky!" Jewel gathered her skirts and ran.
Mr. Dunstan dropped her daughter's hand. He was forty or so, tall and solidly built, with blue eyes that could have been handsome if not set above a vulgar smile. He called out, "You'll be hurtin' yourself if you slip on them cobbles, Mrs. Libby."
Automatically Jewel slowed her steps, the immediate danger past. She drew close enough to take four-year-old Becky's hand. The small palm was clammy from the rent collector's grasp, and she had to fight the urge to wipe it against her skirt.
"It's just that she's not supposed to be out here without Mrs. Platt."
The corner of her eye caught movement. Mrs. Fenton, slipping into the building. That stung, but how could Jewel fault a woman who was the sole support for her aged mother? When these were the cheapest tenements within walking distance of the factory? When Mr. Dunstan wielded the power to toss a person out into the street?
"Why are you home early? Got one of those woman complaints?"
Jewel's cheeks burned.
Becky held out a pigeon feather, her face pinched with worry. "I found this for you, Mummy."
"It's lovely, Becky," Jewel said, grateful for the excuse not to reply to his coarse question.
That was the most maddening thing about being in the company of Mr. Dunstan—having to maintain the charade that he was just an ordinary decent person. To pretend not to notice the lust in his eyes, bad enough when directed toward her, but terrifying when fastened upon Becky.
Rumors added fuel to that fire. Such as the reason the Kents moved out last month, with their two young daughters. Mr. Kent's job at the foundry paid twice what Jewel earned at the factory, so they could afford that luxury.
"Good day, Mr. Dunstan," Jewel forced through a tight smile, while thinking, Norman would wipe that leer from your face! But two years ago he and another bricklayer had perished when scaffolding collapsed at the unfinished Castle Maltings building on Tower Street.
She dragged Becky by the hand, up the steps and through the doorway. Without knocking she turned the knob to number seven and entered. Mrs. Platt sat rocking a pair of sleeping infants. A tot squatted in a corner, picking at the straws of a broom. Another lay upon the filthy threadbare rug, playing with his own feet. Both ceased activity to send Jewel open-mouthed stares.
"Mrs. Platt!" Jewel said with a shaking voice. "Becky was outdoors!"
"Mrs. Libby, mind you'll wake the babies," the woman said through teeth as gray and crooked as old gravestones. "She whined to play with the older 'uns. She's too big for the babies. What was I to do?"
"What I pay you to do, that's what," Jewel said with less volume but more intensity. "Mr. Dunstan had her hand! God alone knows what would have happened if I hadn't come home early."
One infant stirred and whimpered. Mrs. Platt frowned above its downy head. "There you go again, harpin' on Mr. Dunstan, when he's the soul of mercy."
"Mercy? He pays too much attention to little girls."
"You should be grateful ... your poor fatherless baby." A bony hand moved from the infant's back to shake a crooked finger at Jewel. "If you'd been here in Mr. Archer's time, you'd appreciate Mr. Dunstan. Gin on his breath, even in the mornings! A hairsbreadth late with the rent, and you're out on your ear."
"I don't appreciate having my instructions ignored. Keep her with you, or I'll find someone else." As if she had not already tried, but Mrs. Platt did not have to know that.
Grimy landing windows provided the only illumination on the staircase, sticky and reeking of urine and sour spilled beer. Those forced to take the steps at night carried candles or lamps. Chest burning, Jewel hitched Becky up to her hip and kirtled her skirts with her left hand.
"I'm sorry, Mummy," the girl said halfway up the staircase.
"Don't speak now, Becky," Jewel said.
In the corridor, she set Becky on her feet and fished the key from her pocket. The door to number twenty-one opened to a tiny parlor that led to a smaller kitchen and still smaller bedroom. Washing up was done in the scullery, with water carried up from a tap in the piece of bare earth that served as the courtyard. Chamber pots saved nighttime trips to the privy, only yards away from the tap. Furnishings were sparse. Shortly after Norman's burial, Jewel was forced to sell off most of their secondhand furniture before moving herself and Becky from the small but cozy back-to-back house on Hurst Street.
Jewel locked the door behind her and turned to Becky. The tears brimming in the brown eyes, the trembling lips, broke her heart. Had hardship driven from her all memory of what it was like to be a child?
"Ah, Becky," she said, kneeling to pull her into her arms. She stroked her back as sobs wracked the small frame. "My dear, brave little girl. I love you so much."
"I don't like to go to Mrs. Platt's!" Becky sobbed against her shoulder.
"I know, I know." Jewel's voice thickened. "But Mummy must work."
She held her daughter until the sobbing ceased. Tempting as it was not to distress her any more, Jewel unwound her arms and moved her back a bit so that she could meet her eyes.
"Becky," she said, gently, but with a sternness born of fear. "You're old enough to remember that you're not to go outdoors without Mrs. Platt."
"But she never goes," the girl said through trembling lips. "And the boys are allowed."
The unfairness of it tugged at Jewel's heart. But safety came before fairness. "You must stay with Mrs. Platt."
She swallowed, dreading the answer to the next question. "How long was Mr. Dunstan there?"
"Not for a long time. He's not a bad man, Mummy. He said he wished he had a bright girl just like—"
Jewel groaned as a shiver snaked up her spine. "Just because someone smiles and speaks kindly doesn't make him good. Did you go anywhere with him?"
The brown eyes evaded Jewel's. "He said there were toys and peppermints in the cellar."
"But I said I wanted to stay outdoors and watch the boys play."
"God help us," Jewel moaned. She got to her feet. "Mummy has to go somewhere for a little while."
* * *
"Are ye sure ye trust me with her?" Mrs. Platt sniffed.
"Yes," Jewel said, adding mentally, What choice have I? "I'll try to return within the hour."
Fortunately, Mr. Dunstan no longer lurked outside. Jewel hurried up the lane. Cabbies avoided Halls Passage, but she would have walked the nine blocks anyway to save a shilling. On Great Russell Street, a well-dressed woman held a laughing small boy up before a toy display window.
"Oh, now it's a train you want for your birthday? What will it be tomorrow?"
Jewel envied not her finery but the unhurried enjoyment of her son, the taking for granted that there would be plenty of such moments.
Outside Great Russell Street police station, she brushed a wrinkle from her faded calico. If only she had taken time to change into her Sunday gown! Few in authority took seriously the poor, the illiterate, which was why her trip to this same station last month did no good.
Chin up, she ordered herself. Look them in the eyes. For Becky's sake, she must set aside her natural meekness, her feeling of inherent unworthiness, and present herself as a citizen deserving attention. At least she spoke proper English, having absorbed its importance when employed as a maid in the household of the headmaster of King Edward's School.
* * *
"As I said last time, Mrs. Libby," said Constable Whittington, "we cannot arrest a man who's done naught."
"He was holding her hand," Jewel argued, attempting to keep her tone steady.
"Not a crime, Mrs. Libby."
"He asked her to go to the cellar with him."
"Aye?" An eyebrow raised. "Did she go?"
"Bright girl. And so he didn't forcefully carry her, did he?"
"He may have, if I hadn't arrived early."
"Mrs. Libby, if we arrested for may haves, we'd have to build more jails. Why do you not find another place to live?"
"I've tried to find one as cheap."
"What about your family?"
"I've no family, sir."
"None at all?"
She held back a sigh. Did the wheres and whys have any bearing upon the situation? Norman's childhood was spent in the Asylum for the Infant Poor on Summer Lane. She knew not the whereabouts of her father, whose drunken ways had contributed to the premature death of her mother when Jewel was twelve.
"None," she repeated.
"Then marry again," he advised in a fatherly, not familiar manner. "A smart-looking woman such as you should have no trouble finding a husband."
How many times had Jewel been so advised? She was no fool. She knew a husband would indeed take the load from her shoulders. Norman would have forgiven her. But the corset factory sewing room was shy of men, and those living in the tenement were either married, layabouts, or drunks.
Don't give up! said a little voice inside. "Sir," she said, "have you a daughter?"
The constable's weary gray eyes studied her.
Jewel held her breath, cautiously hopeful.
He sighed. "What's the name of the gent who owns your building?"
The hope wavered. "I-I don't know. We have dealings only with Mr. Dunstan."
"Well, I'll look him up in the town records, pay him an unofficial call. May be that other tenants have complained."
He held up his hands. "Now, don't go thanking me. I can't guarantee he'll give a hedgehog's fleas about your problem. Some are like that ... don't want to be troubled by the folk who put bread on their tables."
But at least it was some action. Despite his protest, she thanked him again.
* * *
"Will you tell me a story, Mother?" Becky asked in bed that evening, after a supper of potatoes and cabbage, followed by baths in the kitchen using flannels.
Jewel smiled in the darkness. Times like this, with her daughter curled beside her, she could almost forget Mr. Dunstan even existed. Almost.
"Which story?" she asked.
"Um ... 'Silverhair and the Bears'?"
"Very well." Another gleaning from the educated household was the wealth of stories stored in Jewel's brain, for both the headmaster and his wife had read to their children.
"Once upon a time, a wee girl named Silverhair was told to stay indoors while her mother worked at the corset factory...."
Not the headmaster's version, but Jewel had to seize any teaching moment available. When her daughter drifted off to sleep, Jewel prayed, God help us. Ofttimes that was all she could manage before succumbing to fatigue, but this night she added, Please make the owner listen to the police.
She could hear Becky's soft snoring and the scurrying of rodent feet in the attic. An infant wailed from the flat below. Somewhere down the corridor, a man began shouting. His words were muffled; the anger behind them was not.
And please ... She swallowed saltiness as her eyes brimmed. Help us have better lives one day.
* * *
The following morning, she tucked her handkerchiefwrapped jam sandwich into an apron pocket and delivered a still-sleepy Becky to Mrs. Platt with a reminder to both that she was to stay indoors. And again, for ten hours she had to struggle to concentrate on the needle, so deep were her misgivings.
What if Mr. Dunstan is the owner's brother or some other relation? What if we're forced to leave?
Her fears were justified that evening, unhappily so, when she spotted Mr. Dunstan outside the factory.
"Oh dear," she said to Mrs. Fenton.
"I forgot my handkerchief," Mrs. Fenton said, turning back for the door.
Jewel attempted to hurry past him, lose him in the press of workers, but he fell in step beside her.
"There's been a misunderstanding, Mrs. Libby," he said. "I didn't mean to frighten you over your little girl."
Walking faster did no good. His legs were longer, and he was not even breathing heavily. "I'm truly sorry ..."
Jewel swallowed a sob.
"... so I need you to speak with Mr. Brown."
She did not ask who this Mr. Brown was, for she had no word to spare for Mr. Dunstan. Besides, who could he be but the owner of the blocks of flats?
"He stays late in his office. I need you to come with me ... say you've made a mistake."
"No," she said tightly.
"Please," he cajoled with voice breaking. "I need my job."
She continued on, teeth clenched.
"I'll ... cut your next month's rent by half, and cover the rest myself."
Jewel halted in her tracks, almost did not recognize her own voice for all the rage it held. "My daughter is not for sale!"
"Do you need help, Mrs. Libby?" came a voice from behind.
Jewel turned a burning face to Mr. Fowler and his assistant, Mr. Evans. "This man—"
But when she looked over her shoulder, Mr. Dunstan was making tracks.
"Coward." Mr. Fowler spat on the pavement.
The men turned back for the factory. Mrs. Fenton called out to her a moment later. Jewel waited, still sick at heart, but grateful.
"You sent Mr. Fowler out?" she asked.
"It was the only thing I knew to do."
Jewel squeezed her arm.
"Do you suppose he's been sacked?" Mrs. Fenton asked.
"I think so."
* * *
Mrs. Platt's aggrieved expression confirmed it was true when Jewel arrived to retrieve Becky. "Did ye hear?" she said, spotted hands worrying her frayed collar. "Mr. Dunstan's been sacked!"
Ironing her face of any expression, Jewel took Becky's hand. Thank you, Father!
Mrs. Platt's eyes narrowed. "Did you have aught to do with this?"
Jewel still needed her to tend Becky. Gently, she said, "I'm sorry you're displeased."
"You'll be, too, when they replace him with a heartless sot like Mr. Archer."
Jewel's lips tightened. As long as he leaves Becky be, I don't care if he has a walnut for a heart.
The Jewel of Gresham Green by Lawana Blackwell
Copyright © 2008; ISBN 9780764205118
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.