Abigail Aldridge tried to ignore the thrill she felt stepping off Shaftesbury Avenue and entering the forbidden world of Soho. Three paces were enough to cast her into another realm. The rutted cobblestones led her into a place deep in shadows and adventure. Here even the laughter was different.
Abigail stepped carefully over a water-filled trench, her skirts held in one hand. Thankfully the rain had finally ceased. But the sky overhead remained blanketed by clouds turned orange in London’s evening lights. Though it was early July of 1824, they had scarcely known any summer at all. Abigail could see her breath as she walked. There were even reports of snow covering the Scottish dales. From the countryside came accounts of yet more ruined crops, the third such season in a row. The previous year the harvests had been particularly disastrous, bringing much of rural England to the brink of starvation.
A pair of fancy ladies approached with arms linked, dancing their way around a puddle. They giggled meaningfully and spoke a man’s name with the derisive calm of women who knew things Abigail dared not even consider.
The two deserved the title of fancy, for they both wore dresses with far more frills than Abigail’s. But their petticoats were bedraggled, and the silk trimmings were stained and frayed. Abigail had selected her plainest gown for this outing. Her abundant red hair was primly tied back in a new ribbon, and her face and hands were scrubbed clean. Unlike the pair who now were directly in front of her.
They drew up sharp on catching sight of Abigail. One of them said, “Here now, what’s this? Down for a bit of slumming, are we?”
The two could not have been older than Abigail’s own eighteen years. Yet their eyes were as ancient and world-weary as the crumbling buildings to either side of where they stood.
“I-I’m here meeting a friend, actually,” Abigail murmured.
“Oh, a friend, is it?” The one who spoke was the shorter of the pair, with pale locks spilling out from beneath a frowsy hat. “That what we’re calling ’em these days, a friend?”
“Bet she don’t have a clue how to keep her friend happy.” The second woman smiled to reveal several missing teeth. “We could show you a thing or two, couldn’t we, darlin’. Oh my, yes.”
Abigail smelled the gin on their breaths as they giggled. Added to this was the odor emanating from their clothing—old perfume and smoke and something rank. “D-do either of you ladies know the saving grace of Jesus Christ?”
The two of them seemed to find that hilarious. The smaller woman took in the street with a grand sweep of her arm. “Don’t recall seeing him ’round these parts before.”
The other agreed. “If you’ve spied ’im in Soho, missy, best you believe ’e’s got ’imself good and lost.”
“But He is everywhere,” Abigail declared earnestly, “and always.”
“Abigail!” Another young woman ran breathlessly toward them. “I feared I had lost you entirely! Why did you not wait for me to arrive?”
The two ladies realized their game with Abigail was over. The smaller woman’s face hardened. “Take your manners and your religious chatter and get back where you belong, missy. There’s danger stalking these roads. Perils the likes of which you can’t imagine.”
The newcomer waited until the pair had departed to say, “I fear they are correct, Abigail. We do not belong here.”
“If we do not try, how are they to hear the Word?” Abigail tugged her friend Nora’s arm. “Remember, the harvest is great and the workers few.”
Abigail was well aware that Nora would have much preferred to remain safe in the West End. Nora had been Abigail’s friend since their school days. A quiet girl by nature, she was a perfect daughter and the light of her mother’s life. Nora was in love with a young man earning his charter in accountancy, and her face bloomed every time his name was mentioned. She loved him so much she almost wept with joy whenever she spoke of their coming wedding. Everyone said she would make a splendid wife and mother.
Abigail, however, had never loved any young man as Nora did this one. She could not imagine what it might be like. The only time she ever gave such feelings a second thought was when she listened to Nora prattle on. To give up her independence was unthinkable. She was not jealous of Nora. How could she be, when she had no interest in living a life tied to some man’s interests and future? But Abigail prided herself on her honesty. Abigail was forced to admit that she was a bit jealous of this young man for stealing away her best friend.
“Do hurry on, Nora,” she said as she moved forward.
“Oh, all right.” Nora took hold of her skirt with one hand and the printed pamphlets with the other. “I suppose it would be too much to ask you to hold to the main roads for a change.”
“You know where we’re going. We’ve had this planned for days and days.”
“You’ve had it planned.”
Abigail did not respond because there was nothing to say. In the past, Nora had willingly gone along with all of Abigail’s plans. That was how their relationship had always been. Abigail was the person with ideas, Nora with the steadfast support. Abigail was impetuous and eager and bursting with a great desire to improve her world. Nora was calm and unwavering in her friendship. Even Abigail’s mother, who worried constantly about her willful daughter, always said that Nora would keep them out of harm’s way.
Only now there was a change in the wind. Nora’s husband-to-be, Tyler Brock, did not approve of Abigail Aldridge.
Abigail’s father ran a trading concern that was a major client of Tyler’s accountancy firm. Samuel Aldridge initially had been brought to England as deputy minister plenipotentiary for the United States. But when his stint with the government was concluded, Samuel had remained on to open a British arm of his family’s highly successful trading empire. Since her arrival here as a young child, Abigail had traveled back to the United States only once, four summers past. England was where she had spent most of her life. If she stopped to think about it, Abigail Aldridge would have had difficulty determining which was more of a true homeland. Then again, Abigail rarely stopped and thought deeply on much of anything. Abigail was one for action and forward motion, with loyal Nora by her side.
Only Tyler was quietly intent upon changing all this.
Tyler was never direct in his criticisms. He was a cautious man with an accountant’s way of examining things, picking them apart with delicate precision and wearing a body down with his unending questions. Abigail found Tyler to be a most trying sort of person. She tolerated him only because Nora was so deeply in love. At first she had expected this particular romance to follow the path laid down by all of Nora’s earlier infatuations. First there was a great flame of dreaming and yearning and sighing and talking. Then came niggling doubts which mounted until the romance died. Poof. Like a candle snuffed. There one moment, mere smoke and forgotten brilliance the next. Only this particular romance had remained and even strengthened. Now Nora approached her long-sought goal of marriage and a family. With Tyler Brock, of all people.
Tyler had the irritating habit of asking Abigail questions she could not answer. For instance, were he here now, he would be inquiring in that mild voice of his about why she insisted upon walking down a dark street in the middle of London’s dangerous Soho district. Was it truly because she wished to offer salvation to those shunned by society? Or was it perhaps something else entirely? Could she be after a glimpse of what was forbidden to her, except under this guise? Yes, most certainly, William Wilberforce urged them all to embrace those crushed by modern society. But were there not other ways she could serve, places where she might be included in an established group and thus kept safe? Why must she insist upon taking Nora down.... Oh, it really was entirely too much.
“Oh, I don’t like the looks of this alley,” Nora whispered. “Let’s turn back, Abigail. Please.”
Nora had recently begun expressing a mind of her own. Only they weren’t her opinions, they were Tyler’s. The accountant might as well have been there with them now, needling Abigail with his questions, driving his ink-stained wedge between her and her very best friend. “All right, Nora. Come along. There. We’re back on the main road again. Do you feel better?”
“No, actually, I really would prefer it if we returned to—”
“Well, well, well. What have we here?”
Nora’s face actually brightened at the voice, which was infuriating in itself. And the way she greeted him was far too much to bear. “Reverend Aimes! What a delightful surprise.”
“I wish I could say the same.”
Abigail refused to acknowledge the newcomer. “He’s not a reverend yet, Nora. Don’t provoke the man.”
Derrick Aimes was a thickset man who affected a fighter’s stance when irate. Such as now. “Did I not say that you lambs should never venture down here alone?”
Abigail had no choice but to greet him. “Forgive me, Mr. Aimes. I was not aware you had been appointed the new sheriff of Soho.”
Derrick, as usual, traveled with three of his mates. They all grinned at her response. She knew most by name. Derrick Aimes was well known by those close to William Wilberforce. Derrick and his band of Soho believers were perfect examples of how far Wilberforce’s influence reached. Though a master politician and leader of the national opposition, Wilberforce had the uncanny ability to draw support from all levels of society. At Wilberforce’s request, Derrick Aimes organized efforts among a number of London’s wealthier churches to help the poor and the infirm. Abigail and her family attended one such church. Her parents, however, assumed Abigail’s only connection to Derrick and his work was in the protected confines of their Audley Street church.
Derrick replied, “I have no need of earthly authority to protect innocent lambs such as yourselves.”
“Have I not implored you never to call me that?”
“Lambs I said and lambs I meant. Why you insist upon venturing down these ways, tempting someone to wield the slaughtering knife, is beyond me.”
“Don’t talk like that; it frightens Nora,” Abigail responded.
“As it’s intended to.” She saw his eyes widen as he realized where they had been standing. “Don’t tell me you were headed down Blind Man’s Alley.”
Abigail was about to deny it when she spotted Nora’s hand-wringing assent. “And if we were?”
“Did you not hear of the stabbing there just last week?”
“Forgive me, I really must go,” Nora spoke, her voice unsteady, as she turned away.
“No, Abigail. The reverend is correct in what he says. We don’t know what we’re facing down here.”
“This is no place for two young ladies such as yourselves, out wandering after dark and alone.” Derrick Aimes snorted his derision. “I can scarcely believe your good families know what you’re about.”
Abigail drew her friend to one side. “You can’t possibly intend to desert me, Nora,” she whispered softly.
“No, Abigail. I want you to come with me.”
“But we’ve only just arrived!”
“Abigail, you are my dearest friend. I want you to attend me at my wedding. Come away from here. Mr. Aimes is right. We don’t belong.”
The man called to them from farther down the lane, “Listen to your friend, Miss Aldridge. Go back to your world of thoroughfares and carriages and silk-lined drawing rooms.”
“I was not addressing you, Mr. Aimes.” She turned her back to him. “Nora, we’ve done this dozens of times before.”
“And every time I’ve felt we were doing something wrong.”
“Wrong to spread the Gospel in a world of darkness?”
“Wrong to do anything of which we fear to tell our parents.”
Nora was leaving her, Abigail realized. There was nothing she could do to change her mind. No matter that her best friend had never stood up to her in such a fashion before. Abigail felt a painful wrenching inside. “Or at least so your Tyler says?”
“Tyler has every right to speak his mind, Abigail.” Nora’s voice was filled with hollow sadness. “Now come along.”
“Oh, give me the pamphlets.”
“Abigail, please, you can’t possibly mean to stay here alone and—”
Abigail plucked the leaflets from her friend’s hands. “I suppose you’re going to report all this to Tyler and your parents.”
“You know I won’t. Why should I wish for you to be in more trouble than you already are?”
“But I’m not in any trouble, am I, Nora?”
“Let’s hope and pray it remains so.” Without another word, Nora turned and walked away. Back toward the well-lit West End boulevards. Back to safety and the world they knew. Back to her Tyler Brock.
Derrick Aimes had moved back toward the two and now watched Abigail with open-mouthed astonishment. “You don’t mean to tell me you’re staying!”
“I most certainly am.” If only she could make her eyes stop stinging so. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have these leaflets—”
“You’re not going anywhere in Soho alone.”
“Oh, and I suppose you intend to stop me?”
“I most certainly do.” He blocked her path with his muscular presence. Derrick Aimes had been many things before seeing the light, as he put it. He had spent almost two years touring the countryside as a prizefighter known as the Soho Smasher, taking on all comers for the contents of a small leather purse. His legend still lived on within these noisome alleys and lanes, part of the lore that enveloped London’s red-light district. Once he had gone nineteen rounds with Slammin’ Jack Crouch, a boxer of infamous strength with fists like anvil hammers. But Derrick had left all that behind, and he presently was within a year of completing his ministerial studies. He worked and lived out of the church on Soho Square, and he had a way about him that made even the roughest highwayman sit and listen to the Gospel message. “You’d best be turning around and heading home, missy.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then I’ll be escorting you out to where it’s safe again.”
“Fine. Then I’ll simply wait until you’ve passed and return to my duties.”
“Duty, is it?” Derrick took another step closer. “Why ever do you insist upon coming down here? It can’t be the Lord’s calling.”
Abigail decided she had heard enough. “Never you mind. It’s not your approval that I’m after here tonight. It’s being a light in the darkness.”
To her surprise, Derrick’s massive shoulders slumped in defeat. “If I let you come with us, will you promise to stay close and not wander?”
Abigail wished she did not feel such relief at his reluctant invitation. But in truth the dark cobblestone lane with its rancid puddles and strange screeching laughter frightened her utterly. Nora was no longer there to support her. She had never felt quite so forlorn as now. Had Derrick and his merry band not been observing, she most certainly would have followed Nora back to home and safety. As it were, being allowed to accompany those whom she could trust meant a very great deal indeed. “Yes, all right. Agreed.”
“Jack, stick close to the lady, will you?”
“A finer task I’ve never been offered.” He was the oldest of the bunch and bore the seamy face of a very hard life. He respectfully doffed his tattered hat and gave an awkward bow. “At least not in the Lord’s service.”
“Hello, dear Jack.” Abigail knew the man from earlier forays and liked him well enough. “Will you entertain me with stories of your ill-spent youth as we walk?”
“We’re not here for idle chatter,” Derrick admonished. “Or have you already forgotten your duty, as you call it?” Before Abigail could respond, he stomped away.
But once they were well underway and handing out Gospel leaflets to all who passed, Derrick sidled up alongside Abigail. “Straight up, now. Why is it that you venture down Soho way?”
She countered with a question of her own. “Does the Soho Square Church now claim all this territory as its own?”
“Of course not. Don’t be silly.”
“Are you so successful at turning the dark tide that you do not need help?”
“That’s not what I’m about and well you know it.” He gestured at her form. “Just look at you. Fancy silk dress, hair all nice as you please, smelling of some scent what cost more than any of these folks are like to see in a month of hard labor.”
“The dress is linen and old,” Abigail defended. “And the only thing I smell of is soap.”
But Derrick was not to be put off so easily. “You’re good at reaching out to folks, I’ll give you that. But you don’t belong in these parts. Don’t look at me that way. You know it as well as I do.” He tucked a folded page into the pocket of a passing gentleman, one doing his best to ignore them entirely. The man started to protest, then took one good look at Derrick’s form and hurried away. Derrick went on, “All I’m asking is why you come at all.”
“You sound as bad as Tyler Brock.”
“Is that a proper sort of answer to a proper sort of question?”
Abigail sighed. The truth was simple. Life at home bored her to distraction. She felt coddled and imprisoned. It mattered little that her cell was lined with striped wallpaper and that sunlight spilled over the high elms of Grosvenor Square. Nor that her parents loved her and wished for her the best that life could bring. They sought to protect her. She had heard that word so often she could scream. Protect. It sounded so nice in their mouths. They only wished to protect her from what she could not understand. How on earth was she to learn about life so long as she was trapped within these bonds of silk and velvet?
Derrick said he wanted the truth. The truth was she yearned for adventure and she yearned to do good. To be a missionary in the darkest depths of Africa would satisfy both longings. She yearned to set out upon the high seas. She yearned, oh, how she yearned!
“Well, if that question is so difficult, answer me this. Why do you dress for these occasions as you would for the admiral’s table?”
She was so caught up in her internal longings that she spoke without conscious thought. “It is the only way my parents would allow me to escape for an evening.”
“And where do they think you are this night?”
“At a Drury Lane concert with Nora and her family.”
Derrick flashed her a hard look but kept his tone level. “So you lie to your kith and kin and still claim to do the Lord’s work?”
“I didn’t lie. Well, not precisely. I ... I allowed them to think thusly.”
“A falsehood by any other name is still an abomination, lass.” It was Derrick’s turn to sigh. “What would happen if I went and addressed my concerns to your father directly?”
Abigail froze. “You wouldn’t!”
Derrick scuffed the toe of his boot across the rough stones. “Perhaps I should. But it’s not my nature to meddle in others’ homes and affairs.”
She felt weak with relief. Her father would be mortified. And her mother would be so disappointed. There would be further restrictions, holding her fast in their protective embrace until she utterly choked with despair. “Please don’t,” she said weakly.
“I should,” Derrick repeated. “But I’ll hold hard so long as you do one thing for me.”
“Never walk Soho’s streets alone again. Always come first to the church. Always venture out with a group of us who’ve earned the hard knocks and know what’s what.”
“Just you wait, lass, I’m not done. You’re claiming to want to help in the manner of Wilberforce’s teachings. Well, then. I want you to become involved in a group we’re setting up to minister to orphans. There’s crowds of them roaming east of Oxford Street. We’re looking for volunteers. Which you just did.”
“Of course I’ll help.” A thought flashed so brilliantly it shone from her face. “But I’ll need to change into a less formal gown at the church.”
To her surprise, Derrick laughed aloud. “Are you that eager to leave behind what most of this lot would give their right arms to possess?”
“I am. So terribly much.”
“Very well. But I’ll be writing a letter to your father, all very formal, just letting him know where his daughter is occupied.”
He won’t like it, Abigail wanted to say. But she refrained. Because she could see Derrick was ready for argument, and she did not wish to quarrel. In truth, with Nora gone she needed new friends. She felt a stab of renewed sorrow over how her dearest ally had left her. “Thank you, Reverend Aimes.”
He smiled at her. “Ah, lass. When you look at a man like that, you could melt stone.”
“What—what do you mean?”
Without answering he turned to his grinning companions. “All right, brethren. It’s back to the harvest we go.”
The Innocent Libertine (Heirs of Acadia, Book 2) by T. Davis & Isabella Bunn
Copyright © 2004; ISBN 0764228587, 076422929X, 0764229303, 0764229311
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.