I had been fortunate enough, in the two years after my father was murdered, to avoid the attentions of White Kenneth and his runners. Many of the denizens of St Giles did not. He preyed upon the isolated, the lonely and the helpless. And the young. Especially the young. Do not think, sir, that one such as White Kenneth would have been stirred to sympathy with the plight of an eight year old orphan girl who found herself without protectors. He would not. He would have licked those pale lips of his and given the order for a couple of bag-men to go a-hunting. And he would have mentally estimated his profits, and imagined spending them even before those bag-men returned with their quarry.
But I was sharp witted and sly, and well aware of the dangers. I kept well clear of White Kenneth and his dreadful crew and although my path and his did cross, rather dramatically, that was not until much much later and ended rather… messily I’m afraid to say. I pride myself of always having been a neat worker, but alas it is not always possible to do ones best work at all times.
Do pour me another spot of sherry would you? All this talking is dry work. Most kind of you. So. After my father was taken from me I fell into the company of dear Jack Merryweather. He was fifteen or sixteen at the time and quite the elder brother to me, having been one of my father’s companions on various little jobs. Jack was quite a card, always with a smile and a quip, and with what my father called a fool’s face… he could always look entirely innocent. Jack Merryweather was the sort of scamp that if you entered a room and saw him with his hand in your strongbox, he could tell you that he was adding a few coins of his own as a Michaelmas gift and you’d find yourself thanking him for his kindness and sending him on his way with a handshake. After which if you were wise you’d count the rings on your fingers. Dear Jack, he was such a kind young man too. He took me in and gave me a safe place to sleep and we worked together on… our business… very well. I must have been about eight years old at the time but already quite adept at the basics of the trade; shinnying up drainpipes and through tiny windows for instance; or turning a tear streaked face of abject misery to some well appointed old fellow and telling him about my broken dolly while Jack emptied the contents of his pockets all unobserved. Oh but you know this sort of thing I’m sure, quite commonplace. We made enough to live on, and just a little over for occasional comforts. It was a good life I suppose, though it never could have lasted as it was. We were good apprentices but would never have progressed much past that.
Poor Jack. He never got the chance.
I suppose I was ten years old when it happened. I remember the day as though it was yesterday, a dreadfully cold day in October 1850 and I was sitting inside Charlie’s Chops just off Cowper Alley. Oh I’m quite sure it isn’t there anymore. Most of the old places have gone now, and good riddance to them I suppose. It was a little hole in the wall sort of place, more like the front rooms of a house than any real business, but old Charlie Renton made his money by selling bad food and bad gin to bad people. Both the food and the gin were cheap as hope though so nobody minded the badness. And it was always warm. I got on well with Charlie because my father had got on well with Charlie so he always saved me a place by the chimney where it was warm and he’d always sell me a bowl of whatever was cooking over the fire at his cheapest rate.
What did you say? Give me it for nothing? Oh goodness, what an innocent you are, sir. This was the Rookery of St Giles and Cripplegate. For nothing indeed! Offer any of the inhabitants of that hellhole something for nothing and they would run for the nearest bolthole in fear of their lives. Charlie Renton sold me his dreadful stew cheap, and that was as kind as kind got in those days.
I recall I was prodding at that day’s bowl of vaguely brown, vaguely lumpy stew with a wooden spoon, and sitting perched in the brick lined alcove next to the chimney.
“Bean stew,” Charlie said, seeing my curiousity.
“I don’t care what it’s been, Charlie,” I said, “What is it now?”
He raised a fist to me then, and we grinned at each other. It was an old joke even then I suppose, and I’d copied it from my father. Charlie always played along with the old banter and it was one of the reasons people liked the man so much. They said that he’d once been a sailor in the Royal Navy but he’d given that all up after he’d lost an eye and an ear and a great slice of his face to an exploding cannon shell, so he wasn’t comfortable to look at but he always had a joke and a friendly welcome. And cheap food and drink of course.
When the door opened it let in the cold air, and colder than you’d expect. I looked up from my food to see who had entered and quickly looked away again. If you think I sound fanciful, young man, then I assure you this is God’s honest truth. In that quick glance I knew, I just somehow knew, that the man who had entered Charlie’s Chops was evil through and through. Through and through sir. Oh there were bad men aplenty in St Giles in those days, aye and further afield, but I had never seen one before that struck me so instantly as foul and dangerous and utterly utterly… well, forgive the repetition… evil as this man did. He was not tall, but he was broad shouldered and as solid looking as a stone wall, with ugly flat features and skin that was pale but mottled with broken veins and discolored dark patches on his neck and forehead. But it was his eyes, young man, his eyes that had made me look away from him so quickly. They were cold and dry and completely without humanity. They reminded me at once of the eyes of a dead man, sir, and I do not revise that opinion even to this day.
The other patrons obviously felt much the same as I did about this newcomer. All conversations stopped at the instant that he stepped through the door, and all eyes were kept steadfastly away from him. I looked at him sly-wise, my head down but peering through my lashes and wishing I’d already eaten my stew, which I had paid a farthing for, so I would not regret running out the back way if I had to. The monstrous intruder smiled a knife-wound of a smile and said in a rough dry voice.
“Jack Merryweather. Any friends of his here?”
Jack! My stomach turned over at the thought that this ogre even knew Jack’s name, for in our trade and in our little world, to be known of was a sign of danger and upset, and no mistake at all about that. And by someone of this type? Well it was plain he was not looking for Jack to award him a wooden medal for good service to the parish. I held my breath and did not dare move. Those dreadful dead eyes of his looked over us all slowly.
“No friends of his anywhere it seems,” he said, and then he laughed such a laugh as I hoped never to hear again. “Well if any of his friends pass this way, tell them Mister Honeyman passes on his condolences. Such a sad end.”
He raised his finger to the brim of the battered hat he wore, looked slowly over us all again and then his smile just stopped and his face went slack and empty and then he turned around and walked out of the door, not even troubling to shut it.
“Sounds like Merryweather’s copped it,” said old Ikey Cleaver, “or’s about to. I’ll go round his gaff and see that all’s well, or how bad it’s bad.” He rose on creaky legs from the table.
“That’s a green trick,” said I, still sick to my stomach at the thought of such a monster on dear Jack’s trail, “It’s a pound to a penny that…” I couldn’t think of a word to suit the man who had just been and gone, but everyone knew who I meant by the look I gave toward the door, “is watching to see who runs to find Jackie and will lead him right to him.”
I saw the crafty look that passed between the Monk brothers at those words. A right pair of snakes those boys were, crafty and cruel but with no real skill to turn their ambitions into action. I could read that look, sir, better than a parson could read a prayerbook. They were wondering if Honeyman would pay on the nail for news of Jack Merryweather.
“Here,” said Charlie Renton taking my arm and whispering confidential like, “that’s sense you’re talking. Get you out the kitchen window and go warn Jackie boy. Fast and unseen, that’s the way.”
“That’s the way,” said I, sounding braver than I felt. If I could get to Jack’s and my little hideout before that foul Honeyman found out where he was, whether from the Monk brothers or some other Captain Comegrass who’d sell a man’s life for a handful of coins, then all might yet be well.
“I’ve paid for that stew!” I reminded Charlie Renton as I slipped through the kitchen door.
“Business is business,” said old Charlie scraping the bowl’s contents back into the big pan.