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 rough 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…”
THE RUNAWAY COURTESAN
CHAPTER ONE [PARTIAL]
I stepped out of Madame Lemiercier’s place and took in a deep breath of the damp air. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d stood beneath the sky. Or when I’d felt the wind against my cheeks. How much time had passed since Madame had let me out? Two, maybe three weeks?
Not alone, of course. I was never allowed to venture out alone, which was why I was presently attended by a child, who clung to my skirt with her bony fingers. The child had a name. I called her Madame’s Eyes. Should I try to flee, the girl would race back to the house, and soon madame’s scoundrels would come storming after me. I wouldn’t dare to escape. Not again. I didn’t want lips and eyes crusted with blood for days.
Together, we ventured down the shrouded streets. We kept close to the wet and grimy wall. Past the fog I heard the rumbling of wheels, the clotting of horse hooves, and I could see the shadow of carriages, of hooped skirts, and bowler 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, searching for a lone man to join. How had I fallen this low? Once, not too long ago, men would come searching for me at the house. But times were a-changing.
Madame’s coffers had start to run bare, because of one rumour. A month earlier, her house had been known for the ‘fresh-ladies’, as she never kept her ladies too long on the hook; once they became stale, she’d send them away to the lowest house. Apparently now Madame harboured infected women. This was all fiddle faddle. But the toffs, once numerous, were now few and far between.
I continued to search, ignoring the group of young-bloods who were eyeing me with interest. At last, one of them called out to me, “Here, my sweet!” I pretended not to have heard; the years had taught me to steer clear of men when they were in herds.
I wandered further into the tavern, and thought I’d lost the attention of the young-bloods, but suddenly a hand shot out from the crowd and dragged me into their circle. I smiled, while gritting my teeth.
My wariness only grew when I learned that they were officers of the militia. The town of Aldershot was called a ‘military playground’. The officers were numerous here, as the training camp for the army was only a few miles away from town, situated along the Black Moor stretch. And when officers weren’t training, they would seek us out. We, their play-things.
One officer asked me, “Who do you belong to?”
“Madame Lemiercier,” I answered, noting his sharp green eyes. I didn’t need to further elaborate, for all the men replied with a knowing, “Ah, Lemiercier!”
The Green-eyed officer then asked, “You must know Ellis? She’s one of Lemiercier’s.”
“I do, sir. We are friends.”
Over his shoulder, he told his fellow men, “That Ellis – she is a creature of luscious loveliness!” and then to me, “And what is your name, my sweet?”
A string of answers ran through my mind. My name was Nightflower. Dollymop. 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,” I replied.
“How many years have you been in service?”
“Three years, sir,” I softly answered. Three years felt like ten.
“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. “Three 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 even 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. “And at the House there are many handsome ladies to—”
A bark of laughter sliced through my words. “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. I was certain the brass buttons on their waistcoats were going to burst. 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. I decided to leave now. I moved to stand, but 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 arse.” 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, however, tell these militia officers that I’d read all of Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose for Children when I was ten, and had memorized several of its lessons, word for word. This truth wouldn’t have done me any good.
When I was ten, my soul 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.
On occasions, I would lock myself in my chamber and recite aloud pages after pages of these verses, in the solemn voice of our vicar. I’d been so convinced 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, my little heart had clung to the hopes these moments of darkness were the covering of soil. I’d believed there would come a moment when, with vital power, I’d heave through the earth and burst forth into a mighty oak tree.
I wished, though, that Ms Barbauld had told me then that sometimes seeds were buried too deep and died before it could even find light.
The vision of Barbauld’s oak tree haunted my thoughts as I continued to entertain the officers. Suddenly, the ale-house door banged open. Madame’s boy stumbled in, 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, a small establishment with a stern, worn-out Georgian façade. The windows were curtained, as always, for the law expressibly forbade any glimpses into the brothel to be allowed from the streets. I followed the boy into the foyer, with its grimy marble slab staircase, the cracked plaster ceiling, and the chandelier dripping with dusty crystals, and at last into the dimly-lit parlour.
My mistress, garbed in a myrtle green gown with black velvet chevrons, was seated at the table, across from a man I’d never seen. 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 and stared at Madame Lemiercier, who made her way towards me. She ran a finger down my cheek as she asked 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. The wrinkles encasing her lips creased her thickly powdered face each time she spoke. “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.
She spoke over me instead. “Look how tall and handsome she is. You will not find, sir, a creature lustier than she. For she finds delight in the gratification of every pleasure. And look how good her teeth are and how delicate her legs and feet,” Madame declared, while pulling up my skirt to exhibit the delicacy. But my stocking was speckled with mud. And my half-boot, of velvet and black leather, was thick with grime. Immediately, Madame released my skirt. “She’s a gem, sir!” She offered the gentleman a fresh smile. “So, you must excuse me, if I find it humorous that you think I would part with my stock.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he asked, “What settlement would you consider?”
“Alas, sir…” Madame turned her back to him and faced me. Running the loose strand of hair behind my ear, dusting my shoulder, and then giving my bodice a strong downward tug, she said with a little sigh, “I could never sell my best girl, sir.” She was a liar. I wasn’t her best girl. I was too old, thin, and sharp spirited for her.
“I will fully compensate, madame,” the gentleman pressed on.
“Fully, sir?” Madame affected a look of deep contemplation and, to my alarm, gestured at the gentleman to be seated. She then drew out her ledger, ran her finger down page after page – calculating, it seemed.
Was she truly going to sell me to this stranger? My attention flew to the gentleman now. He was young and looked to be no more than thirty. I’d seen men handsomer than he, but none with the brooding elegance he possessed; he reminded me of a noble of the land. But his appearance mattered for nought if he’d not come as a toff, but as a master intending to take me away entirely from the only life I knew.
At long last, Madame 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. “Unreasonably? 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.
“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?” he 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.”
Uneasiness stirred in my stomach. How did he know so much about me? Even the mistress’ composure seemed to be slipping. We both flinched when he set the paper down, his palm hitting the table 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 though I hated this rathole, I still feared leaving it; the world outside was worse. Outside, I was not Madame’s cherished property, but a thing to be mocked, beaten and abandoned, imprisoned and hanged. I did not wish to leave this house.
Madame dashed away my hopes. She quickly redrew another settlement and slid the paper to the gentleman 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, praying 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 parlour and took my wrist.
In alarm, I wrenched against his grasp. My eyes clung onto Madame Lemiercier. Surely she would change her mind! Her smile remained. If only I could rattle her shoulders, instead I hissed through my 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 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 thrust 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?”
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.”
This revelation drove me into darkness. I felt the same fear as I might when groping through a pitch, black room, fearing that I might walk into something sharp and dangerous. Immediately, I reached above and hit the roof. The carriage wheels rolled to a standstill.
“Miss Hollingworth,” came Mr. Creswell’s commanding voice.
Ignoring him, I threw open the door and climbed out into the light drizzle of rain. I pressed my palm against my chest and tried to take in a deep, steadying breath – which was impossible, for I couldn’t breathe deeply, not with the whalebone corset caging my ribs. The short breaths I did manage to take did nothing to calm my nerves.
How could this be happening to me? I was returning home, after all these long years! But why hadn’t Ma and Pa come for me themselves? Why had they sent this stranger instead? I couldn’t point out what it was, but I knew something was not right.
In that moment, Mr. Creswell took my wrist. “We really must get going.”
I hit his hand aside and hissed, “I’m not going anywhere, sir, unless you explain everything to me.” I crossed my arm – a stamp of my determination. “Tell me where my parents are. Now.”
Mr. Creswell took off his hat and ran his gloved hand through the waves of his hair. The gesture of an anxious man. “This isn’t a very promising beginning,” he murmured, half to himself, and glanced down the street, in the direction of the brothel, before telling me, “We really must get going—”
“How did you find me?” I demanded.
He let out a frustrated sigh, and then quickly and briefly accounted of his undertaking which had taken him hither and thither, between Hampshire and Devonshire for months.
His words left me more bewildered. I couldn’t imagine why this man, who was a complete stranger, had searched so strenuously for me. Love and loyalty would have driven my parents to find me. But what had driven this man? What did he benefit from this, really?
“I promise you, Miss Hollingworth,” Mr. Creswell said, glancing down the street again, “that I will explain everything to you in the carriage.”
There was only one question I truly needed to know. “Just answer me this, sir,” I said, “you are taking me to Kent, aren’t you? To my parents.” I waited for his confirmation, which did not come. The inkling of dread now grew into a panic. “You are taking me to them, aren’t you?”
He fell into a deeper silence, his gaze holding mine, grave and doleful. Then he spoke in a tense voice, “Your parents are deceased.”
I must have heard wrong. “Begging your pardon?”
“Your parents, Miss Hollingworth, have passed away. I’m sorry.”
I stood immobile for the longest moment, my head lost in a thicket of fog. I was more aware of the raindrops, pitter pattering onto the roof of Mr. Creswel’s top hat, than of the news he’d conveyed. Then slowly his words began to register. Dead. They were 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.
This time, when Mr. Creswell took my wrist, I did not smack his hand aside. I let him assist me into the carriage. I sat down and stared blankly ahead. Mother was dead. Father was dead. For the years in which I’d been waiting for my Ma and Pa to come for me – they had been dead? Scepticism crept into me. I couldn’t accept that, for all this time, I’d been no one’s daughter, no one’s beloved.
[End of Chapter One Partial]