Dear Readers, I’m sad to say that I will not be circulating copies of this rewritten manuscript or the original manuscript. Also, a note to my readers from 2007, my manuscripts Night Flower and the The Runaway Courtesan are very different stories. The only similarity is that I’ve reused the character names and the concept of the heroine being a prostitute.
Chapter One [Partial]
I had waited half a year to step out of the brothel.
As the scoundrel unbolted the door, I kept my gaze lowered to my hands, which were pasty white; skin that had forgotten the warmth of the sun. Then I heard it. The sound of creaking, the door opening at last. I looked up and squinted against the bright square of light.
“Get you gone, go, go!” he growled. “You don’t got all day!”
Clutching my hands, I stepped outside, where loud noises and a gust of cold air greeted me. Madame’s little helper hurried out and attached herself to my skirt, to keep my in tow. But I barely noticed her as I walked down the street, through the marketplace crowded with street-sellers and women with their baskets. I was transfixed by the city beyond that stretched far and disappeared into a fog so thick. What existed behind it?
Women at the brothel had told me that outside the town was a heathland so wide and open you’d feel like a grain of sand. And further away, acres of ancient woodland and high chalk cliffs overlooked the English Channel. Their stories were like a fairy tale to me, comforting, yet at times unbearable. The truth was, Madame would never let me venture far enough to peer over the town walls.
“We’re here,” came a small voice behind me. “Madame said no dawdling.”
We had walked quickly and had arrived too soon before the ale-house. Barely enough time to look around. I glanced at the girl past my shoulder, and she tried to hold my gaze as well, but couldn’t. “Madame says a great deal of things.” I tried to buy time, a few more moments under the open sky. “Will you listen to all her orders?”
“You know I must…”
She continued to avoid my gaze. One day, she would become like me: a whore locked up in the house for months, let out only for a few sips of air. She would look back to this day and regret not having whispered to me, Run.
“She said no dawdling.” The girl kicked the ground. “And you know I’m not good at lying. If the mistress asks me later—”
“Very well. We mustn’t dawdle.” I tugged at my bodice. “Wait here.”
I strode into the dimly-lit establishment, where walls surrounded me. There was work to do. Rubbing my palms against my skirt, I searched the crowd for a lone man to join. Once, not too long ago, men would come searching for me at the house. Then a rumor had spread—that Madame harbored infected women—and business had been hard to come by ever since.
I continued to search until a prickling sensation told me I was being watched. Glancing sideways, I saw a group of militia officers. One of them gestured and called out, “Here, my sweet!” I pretended not to have heard. I had learned to steer clear of men when they were in packs.
Wandering further into the ale-house, I thought I’d lost their attention. Then a hand shot out from the crowd and caught me by the wrist. It was a goddamned officer. He dragged me into a circle of a dozen uniformed men, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if there were a dozen more elsewhere in the ale-house.
The town of Aldershot was called a ‘military playground’ for a reason. The army training camp was only a few miles away from town, situated along the Black Moor stretch. When officers weren’t training, they would seek us out. We were their play-things.
One officer asked me, “To whom do you belong?”
“Madame Lemiercier,” I answered, noting his bright hazel eyes.
All the men replied with a knowing murmur, “Ah, Lemiercier!”
Hazel-eyes asked, “You must know Louise? She’s one of Lemiercier’s.”
“I do, sir. We are friends.”
Over his shoulder, he told his fellow men, “That Louise – she is a creature of loveliness!” His eyes sharpened as he turned to me. “And what is your name?”
A string of answers ran through my mind. My name was Nightflower. Dollymop. Harlot. 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?”
“Four years, sir,” I answered. Four years that felt like ten.
“Four years,” he repeated, then exchanged a sidelong glance with his fellow-men. There was a cruel glint in his eyes – a look often seen on men determined to chaff a girl into tears. “Four years, gentlemen. She’s a diseased piece of mutton, she is.”
My smile remained screwed to my lips as the men snorted. “I’m clean,” I assured them, “that’s why Madame keeps me—”
“That is what they all say. Even the back-alley whores.” Hazel-eyes 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 matter-of-factly. “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!”
Hazel-eyes 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, hard enough that the brass buttons on their waistcoats looked ready to fly off.
Following suit, I laughed along. But from the corner of my eye, I surveyed the ale-house for other men, losing patience with my present company. A gentleman was drinking alone a few paces away. I moved to stand, but Hazel-eyes reached out, catching a strand of my brown hair.
“How unjust life is, that a girl like you is worth a mere pound,” he said, caressing the lock of my hair between his fingers. “What was your name again?”
I suppressed an exasperated sigh. “Amanda. Sir.”
“I’ll wager,” he said, turning to look at his companions, still holding my hair as though it were a leash, “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, the officers made a bet in which they swore they wouldn’t let me leave until I learned the alphabet.
“Each time you err,” an officer declared, “we shall smack your bare arse!”
I pouted, forcing myself to play along. “But it would take me all night to learn. There are – Lord, how many letters are there in the alphabet? Too many for me to memorize, I’d say…”
And as I ran through all the reasons why I would take all night to learn, I did not tell them I had read all of Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose for Children when I was ten. I had shivered with awe at the words that celebrated children as the seed of a great oak tree. I had thought I would one day heave through the earth, through the darkness of Mama’s yelling and Papa’s gambling, and burst forth into a mighty oak tree. But my life had turned out differently: sometimes seeds, buried too deep, died before they could find light.
[End of Partial Chapter One]