The last time I shared an excerpt from my manuscript was the June of last year. I’ve been wanting to share more writing tidbits, but chickened out each time. HOWEVER… I mustered enough courage today. At last. Not only to share a teaser, but the entire first chapter.
As I mentioned in my earlier posts on writing, much has changed since I took this story down from FictionPress many years ago. This is my SECOND draft of the REWRITTEN-FROM-SCRATCH version – so I still feel a bit vulnerable sharing this. I’ve shared this version with only four other people. So, yes, I still feel like I’m in the dark with this manuscript.
But though I feel scared, as though I’m letting my baby out into the world to be judged (dramatic, much? haha), I still really want to share my TRC progress. So far, I’m 70% complete with “this” draft. Once I finish, I’ll have to send this draft out to beta readers, revise one more time, and then start polishing up my query letter and synopsis.
If I had to explain my condition at present, as I’m about to share my excerpt, I could not say it better than Mrs. Bennet from Pride & Prejudice:
“…[I] have such tremblings, such flutterings, all over me, such spasms in my side, and pains in my head, and such beatings at heart…”
Current Writing Music:
THE RUNAWAY COURTESAN
One damp and gray afternoon, I stepped out of the brothel into the grimy streets of Aldershot. A runny-nose child followed behind me, clinging to my skirt with her bony fingers.
The girl had a name, but I’d come to call her Madame’s Eyes. Should I try to escape, the girl would race back to the house, and soon madame’s scoundrels would come storming after me. I laughed at the thought of trying to escape. But this child would look at me with suspicion whenever I whispered to her:
I’ll never runaway.
We kept close to the wall as we ventured down the street. Past the fog I could hear the rumbling of wheels, the clotting of horse hooves, and I could see the shadow of carriages, of hooped skirts and top hats. I paused now and then, a little lost in the fog, but we managed to arrive before the door of the ale-house. Only then did the child release my skirt. She perched herself on the threshold bench as I made my way inside, shaking the dampness from my shawl and cuffs.
The dimly lit establishment was crowded; some were gambling, others were dancing, but everyone was drinking. I weaved through the crowd and pretended not to notice the group of young-bloods who were eyeing me with interest.At last, one of them called out to me, “Here, my sweet!”
Smiling, I joined their circle, and wasn’t in the least surprised to learn that they were officers of the militia. There was a reason why Madame Lemiercier called Aldershot a ‘military playground.’ The brothels of Aldershot were only a few miles away from the training camp for the arm, situated along the Black Moor stretch.
Before I could entice the men to accompany me to the house, the officer with the greenest pair of eyes I’d ever seen asked me, “Who do you belong to?”
“Madame Lemiercier,” I answered, and didn’t need to further elaborate, for all the men replied with a knowing, “Ah, Lemiercier!”
“And what is your name, my sweet?” asked the green-eyed officer.
A string of answers ran through my mind. My name was Nightflower. Dollymop. Actress. Entertainer. Tail. Harlot. Dirty puzzle. Rantipole. Wasp. But I gave him the name that was inscribed into the Register of Prostitutes, kept by the Metropolitan Police. “Amanda Hollingworth,” I replied.
“How many years were you in service?”
“Three years, sir,” I softly answered.
“Three years,” the same officer repeated, and then exchanged a sidelong glance with his fellow-men. There was a mischievous look in his eyes – the look often seen in spoiled boys determined to chaff a girl into tears. “Five years, gentlemen. She’s a diseased little mutton, she is.”
My smile faltered. The men snorted, barely able to contain their laughter. “I’m clean,” I assured them, “that’s why Madame didn’t send me away—”
“That, my sweet, is what they all say. Even the back-alley whores.” The green-eyed officer leaned closer to me. “Are you worth more than a back-alley whore? Tell us, how much are you worth?”
“One pound, sir,” I replied in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. Then I added, “And at the House there are many handsome ladies to—” before I was cut off by a bark of laughter followed by a jibe:
“One pound did she say? She’s less than horseflesh!”
The officer with green-eyes, in his smooth voice, muttered, “And yet women and horses are one and the same; both give us a good ride, and both need to be whipped.”
The officers clapped their knees and broke into another fit of laughter. They laughed so hard that the brass buttons on their waistcoats looked ready to burst off. I followed suit and laughed along, though from the corner of my eye, I began surveying the alehouse for other men, losing patience with my present company. But I could not leave. Not yet. For the green-eyed officer reached out and caught a strand of my brown hair.
“How unjust life is, that a girl like you is worth a mere pound,” he drawled, and caressed the lock of my hair between his fingers. “What was your name again?”
“I’ll wager you, gentlemen,” he said, turning to look at his companions, still holding my hair, “that she can’t even spell her name.”
“Pshaw. My man, of course she can spell her name,” one of them remarked, in a tone of exaggerated kindness. “It’s the one word these women know how to read and write. Or at least, the first letter of it.”
After more laughter and chaffing, the young-bloods made a ‘Man Law’ in which they swore they wouldn’t let me leave until I learned the alphabet. Each time I erred, they declared they’d “smack my bare ass.” I pouted and sighed, telling them that it would take me all night to learn, and then asked if they’d come to the house and instruct me there? My question won a round of laughter.
I did not tell these militia officers that I’d read all of Barbauld’s Hymns when I was ten, and had memorized several of its lessons, word for word. This truth wouldn’t have done me any good, so I kept quiet on this subject, and played along with them.
When I was ten, my soul had shivered with awe when I’d read the great words in Barbauld’s Hymns, which celebrated children as the seed of a great oak tree:
“Think of the man who stands like that tree, sheltering and protecting a number of his fellow-men, and then say to yourself: the mind of that man was once like mine, his thoughts were childish like my thoughts, nay, he was like the babe just born, which knows nothing, remembers nothing, which cannot distinguish good from evil, nor truth from falsehood.”
On occasions, I would lock myself in my chamber and would recite aloud pages after pages of these verses, in the solemn voice of our vicar. I’d been so convinced then – as convinced as the churchmen were of Christ resurrected – that folded up inside of me were the rudiments of greatness.
When Papa fell into gambling, when Mama cried daily that we hadn’t a shilling to our name, and even when I became a fresh-lady in Madame Lemiercier’s house of Ill-Repute, my little heart had clung to the hopes that these moments of darkness were the covering of soil. I’d believed that there would come a moment when, with vital power, I’d heave through the earth and burst forth into a mighty oak tree.
But then, on my second winter in Madame’s keep, I’d learned from a pedlar, who’d stopped by the brothel to sell ribbons and trinkets, that sometimes seeds were buried too deep, and died before it could even find light.
I was still in the midst of debating whether to remain with these young-bloods when the ale-house door banged open. Madame’s boy stumbled in all dirty and out of breath. “Miss H!” he cried, running towards me. “The mistress has called for you. She says to come quick!” The boy, tugging at my skirt, dragged me away from the officers. The moment we arrived outside, Madame’s Eyes leapt off the bench and hurried after us. Along the way, the boy cried, “There’s a gentleman looking for you. A gent!”
We arrived at the House and the boy led me into the parlour. I saw my mistress and a man seated before a table, which was covered in red velvet. My presence announced, the man rose to his feet and turned. My eyes took in his black attire, his spotless white neckcloth, his polished boots, his fine hat, and the golden fob-chain hanging from the pocket of his silk waistcoat. He was a gentleman, alright, and a wealthy one at that. Why such a man looked at me with familiarity was beyond me. Searching for an answer, I turned to stare at Madame Lemiercier, who made her way towards me. She ran a finger down my cheek as she turned to ask the gentleman:
“Does this young lady answer to your description?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“I’m told that you were searching for her. For months on end,” Madame said. “But you’re not the first that’s taken a fancy to one of my girls and reckons he can whisk her away. But, alas, I manage a business in this house, sir. A business.”
The gentleman bowed his head in acknowledgement.
“Mistress—” I damned my voice for trembling so “—what is happening?” When she didn’t answer, I called out again, “Mistress,” thinking she hadn’t heard me, but she spoke over me instead:
“As you might observe, sir, this one is outlandishly pretty. She’s pale, doesn’t have a blemish exposed to the eye – as is the way of quality. Then there is her delicate features, what offers something of a submissive and fragile character to her person. She’s quite the desirable object among the toffs. So, as I’ve presented, you are asking to claim my most promising girl.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he asked, “Then what settlement do you consider?”
Everything was happening too quickly. Confusion and apprehension anchored my feet to the ground as I watched Madame gesture for the gentleman to be seated. She then drew out her account-book, ran her finger down page after page – calculating, it seemed. At long last, she dipped her quill into the inkstand, scratched something onto the paper and slid it across to him. “This is the sum I require,” she concluded.
The gentleman picked up the paper. All was silent as he stared at the scribble. “You drive a hard bargain. A very unreasonable bargain.”
Her brows shot up. “Why, my good sir! Did you come here unaware that the price would be steep? At the least, every girl here is in debt for over five-thousand pounds…”
I had once believed Madame’s word, that if we paid off all our debt, we would be freed. It only took a few months for me to realize that we could ruin all the good men of Aldershot and still not be able to pay off all our debt. Our debt wasn’t meant to be paid off from the start.
“And I cannot allow them to leave without paying off every shilling,” Madame Lemiercier went on. “So in offering to purchase Miss H, you are not only paying for the property itself, but also for the debt this property has incurred. Of course, if the sum I request is too hefty for you, good sir, I will call for another girl who might be purchased for a lesser amount—”
“Madame,” the gentleman interrupted. “How long has this girl been in your service?”
“Only three months—”
“Three years,” he corrected. “Three years.”
Madame Lemiercier’s lips parted then closed again. The gentleman had cornered her; and, strangely, I felt cornered myself. At last she managed to say, “What is three years, sir?” while waving her hand dismissively in the air. “Three years is but the time in which a young lady is made ripe for the picking. Three years is but the time in which she refines the art of pleasing a man—”
“What is three years to a prostitute?” his cut in. “You ought to know best. The longer she is in service, the more grief and disease ridden she likely is.” Repulsion tugged down the corner of his lips. “And how old is Miss Hollingworth?”
“Eighteen,” he corrected. “Coming along in years, I’d say. And this December will be her nineteenth winter.”
There was a sharpness in his voice and in his gaze that shredded at my nerves. Even the mistress’ composure seemed to be slipping. We both flinched when he set the paper down with an audible thud. He then slid it back to my mistress, and without once removing his eyes from her, he said in a steady voice, “I think you ought to reconsider your settlement, Madame. I intend to leave alone otherwise.”
The muscle in her jaw was working. I prayed that she might take the sheet and tear the paper in half – that she might rise to her feet and point him out the door. For how dared any man undermine her? But, instead, she quickly redrew another settlement and slid the paper to him again. He stared down at the note while drumming his finger on the tabletop. Madame Lemiercier was still smiling, but I could see the strain in her expression. She was anxious, she thought he would reject the proposition. I clutched at my skirt, hoping that he would.
“Very well,” he said suddenly, and at this, my knees almost gave way; “then that is the sum I agree to.”
Madame’s face glowed.
The exchange was made.
She arrived by my side and whispered through her red lips, “You’re his now, my dear.”
“But mistress,” I cried, “you can’t do this to me!” Before I could protest further, the gentleman crossed the parlor and took my wrist. In alarm, I started away from him, pulling myself free. My eyes clung onto Madame Lemiercier again. I waited for her to change her mind. When her smile remained, I wanted to shake her shoulders but instead hissed through my clenched teeth, “You promised you would take care of me. You promised that if I earned my keep you’d look after me.”
“As I always say, my sweet: Business – business – business!” Her smile then faltered for the briefest moment, but in that moment, she turned her back to me.
His grip was strong, like iron clamped around my wrist. He reminded me less of a toff and more of an officer come to arrest me for an offence. Outside, as he dragged me through the light rainfall, I demanded where he was taking me, to which he snapped an answer, “Just follow.” And when I refused, he said, “You have no choice!”
When we arrived before the carriage, he handed me inside and then climbed in behind me. Soon the conveyance lurched into movement. I stared out the window and watched the brothel grow smaller and smaller in the distance. My gaze dropped to the street below. He’d told me that I had no choice, that I had to follow him. I’d never had much choice in anything. But as I stared down at the passing street, I dared myself to jump out, and wondered how many bones I would break if I did.
Before I could make any such attempt, the stranger took my chin and tilted up my face. He surveyed me as if I were an insect pinned to a board. With every passing second, my fingers grew icier beneath my palm. He returned his attention back to something in his hand—it was a portrait, I noticed—then to my face once more. “You’re much changed,” he muttered. “I wonder if she’ll recognize you at all.”
I jerked my chin away from him. “What do you want from me, sir?” I waited for an answer, but he kept quiet. He went on examining the portrait before slipping it back into his pocket. I tried again, “Who are you?” When he did not reply again, I parted my lips to demand an answer, but he spoke at last:
“You may address me as Mr. Lucas Creswell.”
“I’ve heard of no Creswells.”
“Well, I know you.”
“Your father’s name was Matthew Hollingworth and your mother’s maiden name was Eleanor Millers,” he told me. “And my undertaking is to bring you home.”
Feeling light-headed, I reclined in my seat. “God help me,” I whispered.
When I regained my senses, I begged: “I need to know. Everything, sir.”
“It’s a long story,” he murmured and expelled a weary breath. “What shall I tell you first?”
“Anything, sir,” I answered. But at my response, he fell silent. So I said, “Tell me how you found me.”
The stranger, Mr. Creswell, slowly, and tersely, accounted of his undertaking which took him hither and thither, between Hampshire and Devonshire for months.
His words penetrated me so deeply that I couldn’t think clearly.
He paused. “You look pale” – it was more a statement of fact that one of sympathy.
“I’m well, sir,” I replied nevertheless. “Please. Tell me more…”
We passed through the town gates; I was now a free woman.
Out in the open land, everything was pitch black save for the carriage lanterns, its light swinging in and out the window, allowing me to catch glimpses of Mr. Creswell. A crescent of his face. The lapel of his jacket. His leather gloves. Then he disappeared again into the shadows.
“You are silent again, madam,” he said. “Where are your questions? Speak.”
“I—” My voice broke. I closed my mouth and swallowed. “I have so many still I don’t know which to ask.”
“You have not yet inquired,” he said, in a solemn tone, “where we are heading.”
“I reckon we’re travelling to Kent. To my parents.” I waited for his confirmation, which did not come. “You are taking me to them, aren’t you?”
There came a long pause.
“Your parents are deceased,” he replied, his voice tense.
I must have heard wrong. “Begging your pardon?”
“Your parents, Miss Hollingworth, have passed away. I’m sorry.”
I sat immobile for the longest moment, my head lost in a thicket of fog. Dead? I wasn’t certain of what to feel. There was something in death that my mind couldn’t grasp. “Gone – the both of them…” With too much calm, I asked, “How did they pass away?”
“A carriage accident. One year after your disappearance.”
I clutched my hands together; they were trembling. Yet I felt numb inside. “But you said you were distantly related to my parents…” Mother was dead. Father was dead. “What am I to you, sir, that you’ve taken an interest in me? Why’d you come for me?”
Silence filled the carriage. Though I couldn’t see him in this darkness, I could sense his hesitance.
“My mother has always had a particular interest in your welfare, ever since the passing of her cousin; your mother.” He paused. Once more, I sensed his struggle to express the unspeakable. “They were both raised together and considered each other as sisters.”
I frowned at this. Mama had never before mentioned the name of a Mrs. Creswell to me – or any cousin who was like a ‘sister’ to her, for that matter.
“After your mother passed away,” he went on, “and my mother learned of your misfortune—”
“This must be some kind of joke,” the words slipped from my lips.
His voice was icy. “I assure you, Miss Hollingworth, I would not have gone so far out of my way to play a joke on you.”
“If there is one thing that I’ve learned in life, sir, it’s that the intentions and actions of people are never simple. It’s a complicated muddle.”
“You imply, then,” he said, his voice even tenser now, “that I have intentions other than the one driven out of duty.”
“I imply nothing, sir, but that I am confused! One does not simply search for and willingly offer shelter to a whore – let alone a whore unrelated by blood. No one is good for the sake of goodness.”
“Believe it, madam,” he snapped. But, perhaps realizing the triteness of his explanation, he added,“I lost my father several months ago. It devastated my mother. Whatever objections I had to finding you died that day as well.”
“So your mother is taking me in out of benevolence. Nothing more?”
“What I have told you is all she has told me. I have never quite comprehended the workings of my mother’s mind. Neither do I expect you to understand. But the truth remains; she is taking you in out of her love for your mother.”
“I see,” I replied, though I did not see at all. In fact, all I saw was the fog shrouding my mind, and shadows lurking behind the veil.
By the time we arrived at the inn, the rain was torrential, driving a hoard of travellers to crowd by the hall door, waiting to be received by the inn-keeper. The people collided into me, shoved by me, and stepped on my foot in their passing. Instinctively, with my back against the wall, I drew closer to Mr. Creswell’s side. Our shoulders touched. I glanced up at his face, which was pale. I wanted to point out to him that he looked exhausted. “How long will our journey take?” I asked instead.
“Two days,” he replied.
“Where are we going again?”
Time passed slowly. My legs ached and my stomach growled with hunger. As for Mr. Creswell, he began to lose his patience. When at last our turn arrived, Mr. Creswell spoke to the inn keeper with an expression tight with such displeasure. I was afraid to tell him that I was famished. So famished that I thought I might faint.
With wobbly knees, I followed the maid to my chamber.
Inside, I undressed and weakly lay in bed. My empty stomach kept me awake, kept me thinking. Rolling onto my side, I stared out the window, out into the night. There was something dream-like about my turn in circumstance. I feared I might awake to find myself in the brothel again… Surely, escaping the brothel was not this easy? I’d always believed that I was not allowed to slip away. Not only the brothel, but the law had always held me by my ankle.
“It is the law,” the inspector had once told me, “that you annually appear before the magistrate to sign your name in the Register of Prostitutes.”
The Register was a collection of the names and descriptions of all common women in the eleven districts of Great Britain. (I did not know which eleven – just that it was eleven). I still remembered the first day my name had been inscribed into this Register. The inspector had been seated behind a desk, upon which a metal-nibbed pen, an ink blotter and the Register had been laid out. He had proceeded to ask my name, my christen name, my age, the name of my Ma and Pa, their place of residence, how long I’d been parted from them, and then he’d asked:
“Do you admit the fact of the prostitution with which you are charged? ”
To which I’d answered: “Yes, sir.”
“Do you object to your registration as a common prostitute? ”
“No, sir,” I had lied.
“Name the officer who will watch you.”
I named the man before me. “Inspector Knuckledown.”
He then examined my face, my chest, and my waist more closely. He ordered me to show my teeth. I did so. He then bowed his head to note onto the pages:
Figure – thin. Hair, ash brown. Forehead – round & wide. Eyebrows – oblique. Eyes – narrow & blue. Nose – straight. Mouth – full and small. Chin – pointed. Complexion – fair. Peculiar traits – scar between brows, good teeth.
Then he had rolled the blotter over the ink, sealing me into the pages of the Register of Prostitutes.
“Forever,” one of the harlots had later explained to me, “the vile book shan’t ever forget your name.”
A knock came at the door, startling me out of my thoughts. I looked at my dress draped over the chair and wondered what to do. Quickly, I wrapped myself in the bedcover as the door opened. Instead of Mr. Creswell, a maid walked in with a rattling tray. “Your companion ordered a little something for you, ma’am,” the maid said.
Famished, I finished everything on the tray in a matter of seconds. How fortunate that Mr. Creswell had not been present to watch; he would have thought me some savage barbarian. After licking the crumbs from my fingers, I would have liked some more, but was satisfied nevertheless. I let out a sigh and fell back down onto the bed. Closing my eyes, I concentrated on the small noises around me. I heard the thud of Mr. Creswell’s footsteps next room sounding hollow against the loose floorboards, and the muffled splashing and trickling of water as he washed himself. But sleep did not come.
Sitting back up in bed, I stared out into the pitch-black night. I tried, but failed to imagine what lay ahead of me. But of one thing I was certain: the wheel of fortune was turning for me at last.
* Not completely happy with how this chapter ends off. But, for now, it’ll have to do! Hope you enjoyed this rough-ish draft!
** I’m looking for Critique Partners. I already have a few wonderful CPs but I’m always happy to receive more opinions on the manuscript. I also enjoy reading and critiquing yet-to-be-published manuscripts by fellow-writers. So, if you’re interested, please contact me here.