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Roxbury House Orphanage Kent, England, 1876
Footfalls bounded up the attic stairs. The three children tensed, breaths bated, gazes flying to the unlatched door. As soon as the last of them, Daisy, had stolen inside, they snuffed out the stub of candle and settled in to wait. Almost a quarter of an hour hence, the fading sunrays admitted through the smudged glass of the one weather-beaten window served as their sole source of light. Dust motes floated like feathers in the still, heavy air. In the artificial hush, the slightest creak of a board or the unsanctioned crack of knuckles or, God forbid, a sneeze seemed to ring out as loudly as the chiming of the famed Bow Bells of which all three occupants had been born within earshot, rendering them forever East Londoners, true-blooded cockneys.
The door opened on a screech, sending a sliver of light slicing through the shadows. Harry Stone poked his silver-blond head inside. "All's clear," he announced in a high whisper, drawing his friends' collective sigh. He crossed the threshold, the lantern he held serving as a spotlight for the lopsided grin that girls, the older ones especially, seemed to find so very irresistible.
Scowling, Patrick O'Rourke-Rourke-popped up from the milk crate he was crouched behind. "Jaysus, Harry, you're late again. This is the third time in a row."
Ducking to avoid the low-hanging eaves, the lanky sixteen year-old drew the door closed behind him. "Is it my fault some of us have work to do?"
The Scot answered with a snort. "Aye, hard labor it must be coaxing the bonny Betsy out of her knickers and into the straw with you."
Making a seat on a stack of old school books, Harry shrugged. The son of a dockside whore from East Cheap, for him sex was a necessary physical function, an activity as inevitable as eating, sleeping, or pissing. "Spying on me again, mate? Well, mind you watch close. You just might learn something."
Rourke snorted though in the dim light his cheeks burned bright as any candle flame. "Och, I've had plenty of girls."
Legs swinging, Harry let out a laugh. Goats, don't you mean?"
Rourke faced him, fists clenched. "Best close your clapper, Stone, or I'll see it closed for ye."
Crawling out from the underbelly of an old pedestal desk, Gavin Carmichael decided it was time to intervene. At fourteen he possessed neither Harry's golden good looks nor Rourke's brawn and glib tongue, but he had a canny knack for diffusing arguments between friends and foes alike, a trait that had earned him the sobriquet of Saint Gavin. He wasn't entirely certain he fancied being likened to a saint. Saints tended to live short lives of poverty and self-sacrifice only to be broken on wheels like Saint Catherine or beheaded like Saint John the Baptist or burned at the stake like Saint Joan of Arc. The latter fate held a particular horror for him.
"Rourke, Harry, that'll more than do. We've a lady present, after all." He jerked his head to indicate the "lady" in question.
Nine year-old Daisy sat atop a sea chest, skinny legs swinging. She tilted her head of wheat-colored hair to the side and pursed her pretty upside-down mouth, a sign she was working on unraveling life's latest mystery. "But straw's itchy."
Rourke tossed back his head of long auburn hair and hooted with laughter. Swiping a broad-backed hand over watery eyes, he said, "Dinna fash, sweeting. If ever the lovely Betsy has an itch, our mate Harry will be more than happy to scratch it for her."
Wincing, Gavin cleared his throat, a signal that a change of topic was in order. "Ladies or rather lady and gentlemen, I hereby call this twelfth monthly meeting of the Roxbury House Orphans Club to order. Have I a second?"
"Second." Jumping down, Daisy tugged on the skirts of her plain brown school smock.
The foursome settled in to form a circle, huddling cross-legged beneath the eaves. Harry set his offering, a handkerchief full of lemon drops and peppermint sticks pilfered from the kitchen, in the center along with the lantern. Later the booty would be divided among them, though Gavin always gave most of his share to Daisy.
Daisy reached across and tugged at Harry's shirt sleeve. "You're forgetting the best part."
"I am?" Harry hesitated, looking puzzled, and Gavin surmised his friend's mind was still in the stable with the bountiful Betsy.
"The oath, blockhead," Rourke hissed.
"Oh, that. Right-o." Catching Gavin's pointed look, Harry began, "Through thick and thin."
He elbowed Rourke. Rubbing at his poked ribs, the Scot scowled and said, "Forever and ever."
Beaming, Daisy reached across and wrapped her small hand about Gavin's little finger. Smiling into her shining eyes, he dutifully added, "Come what may."
"We'll stay together ... just like a real family." Breaking hands, Daisy clapped hers together, clearly awash in delight. Their oath was her favorite part of their monthly ritual, especially as she always got to say the finale. "Do real families hold secret meetings in their attic?" she asked of the circle though her gaze rested on Gavin.
As Gavin was the only one among them who'd had a proper family, two parents who were married to each other and a baby sister, Amelia Grace, he was uniquely qualified to answer. Still, he hesitated, emotion threatening to trip his tongue, gaze riveted suddenly on the feeble lantern flame, which seemed to grow into a raging inferno before his eyes. His parents and Amelia Grace had died when their tenement had caught fire, and they were trapped inside. By rights Gavin should have died, too, but at the last minute his mum had pressed a penny into his palm and sent him off to the bakery for a day-old loaf to stretch out the leftover supper stew.
"Gav?" Daisy tugged on his sleeve.
He pulled his gaze from the flame and turned to look at her. Working to overcome the invisible chokehold about his throat and the thickness blanketing his tongue whenever the word "family" was mentioned, he said, "They c-could, I ... I s-suppose, if they w-wanted to. But no, n-not usually. They're too ... b-busy w-working."
In truth, he couldn't recall his parents doing much else but work, his mother especially. Even sitting before the hearth in the evenings reading aloud from her small library of cherished books, his mother had kept her nimble, work-roughened hands busy be it making brushes, putting the final "fancywork" finish on ladies clothing, or sewing canvases for hammocks.
Daisy slipped her small hand into his. "Then we're the ones who're better off, aren't we?" She punctuated the statement with a brisk nod and a bright smile as though the riddle of familial relations had been solved at long last.
Of all of them, Daisy had the least experience of what it meant to be part of a family. She'd been left in a laundry basket on the steps of St. Mary-Le-Bow in Cheapside when barely a month old with no legacy beyond the blanket wrapped about her and a roughly scrawled note that read, "Be good to my baby." Whether she'd come to Roxbury House under the auspices of the boys' benefactor, Prime Minister William Gladstone, or by some other means was anyone's guess. Regardless of who had brought her to the Quaker orphanage, it was a far more desirable destination than a parish workhouse or, worse still, one of the so-called baby farms. In the latter, gin-soaked country crones charged desperate young mothers fifteen shillings a month to take over the care of their infants. The money supposedly went for the child's keeping, but more often than not he or she was slowly murdered with feedings of lime-laced milk and sundry other poisons. Many a small, newspaper-bundled body had been found on a country roadside. It was a terrible trade.
"Yes, poppet," Gavin said, grateful she'd escaped such a gruesome fate. With her pale hair, slanted green eyes, and slight built, she reminded him of a wood sprite or an angel depending upon whether she was in a mischievous or reverent mood. "I expect we are."
Daisy divided her gaze among them and said, "Can we act out the story of the pussy cat who wore boots? I like that one best of all."
The other two boys answered with groans, but a warning look from Gavin brought them quickly around. If Rourke wanted Gavin's help with his next history assignment and Harry someone to take over sweeping the horse stalls so he might busy himself with Betsy in the loft, they knew they'd better consent. Before long Harry was acting the part of the king with gusto and Rourke throwing himself into the role of the ogre. That left Gavin to serve as narrator and stage director, the perfect position for him. After nearly a year he knew all the parts by heart and yet he could never be certain when his stammer might crop up.
There was no question but that Daisy would assume the lead role of Puss. Being the center of attention was the entire point of the game, and the cat's cunning and sheer pluck resonated with her Cockney soul. Watching her strut about the dusty floor, an old cavalier's hat falling low over her brow and a moth-eaten mantel of velvet flung about her narrow shoulders, Gavin felt at perfect peace.
"Good show, sweetheart," he called out at the play's end when she swept off her hat and took her bow. "What a brilliant little actress you are, isn't that so, lads?"
"Aye, that was a crack performance," Harry agreed, tearing off his paper crown as though happy to be free of it.
"A bonnier lassie there's not to be found treading the boards in London or in Edinburgh either, for that matter," Rourke added, for though he'd lived on English soil for most of his life, he always made it a point to give equal due to his birth country.
Obviously transported to grander times and loftier circumstances in the world of make-believe, Daisy curtsied and dimpled and blew kisses to an invisible, adoring crowd. Gavin presented her with the last of the props, a papier-mâché rose she liked to drape over her arm and pretend was a full, fresh bouquet.
None of them knew it, but that evening was the last they would ever meet in the attic.
* * *
Gavin received the summons to the headmaster's study the next morning before the breakfast bell had even rung. Standing in the hallway waiting to be called within, he felt his stomach knot and his palms sweat. Someone must have discovered the secret attic meetings and reported them, it was the only explanation. The storage space was declared off-limits, but more so than treading on forbidden territory, it was the playacting that would land them in trouble. The Society of Friends, or the Quakers as the sect was commonly known, strove to shun the earthly vanities of fashion, phraseology, and entertainments. Music, dancing, and plays were strictly forbidden. Were the headmaster to discover Daisy as the instigator of their little theater, the brunt of the blame would fall on her slender shoulders. To protect her as well as his other two friends, Gavin was prepared to claim their attic meetings were entirely his idea.
Fortunately for him, the Society of Friends abhorred violence in any form. The canings and birchings and sundry other methods of corporal punishment meted out in the meanest work houses and the finest public schools alike were absent from the orphanage. Discipline usually involved performing additional chores for the good of the group coupled with a meditative exercise meant to bring the offender to an understanding of the source of the selfish or evil impulse that had led him astray.
The study door opened, revealing the headmaster's tall, simply-clad form. Gavin squeezed his folded hands together behind his back and steeled himself to be strong. "You sent for me, sir?"
The headmaster, a man in his forties or thereabouts, nodded and beckoned him inside. "Gavin, a visitor awaits thee."
A visitor? Prime Minister Gladstone, perhaps? Gavin's heart lifted with joyful anticipation. He hadn't set eyes on his benefactor since the night of his rescue a year before and had never had the opportunity to render proper thanks. The fire had made him not only an orphan but also homeless. Frozen, footsore, and fevered, he'd been wandering the East London streets for more than a month living off found coins and scavenged foodstuffs. One particular bitter night, too weary and dispirited to take a single stride more, he'd lain down upon a set of tavern steps and slipped into a fitful, dream-filled sleep.
In his dream there was plenty of stew to go around and instead of being sent off to the baker, he'd stayed behind and become trapped inside the burning tenement building with his family. Flames hemmed them in on all sides, and the low ceiling was about to fall. Black smoke choked his lungs and the very air was too blistering to breathe. Kicking out at her crib, a red-faced Baby Amelia Grace let out a shriek that reached to the burning rafters. Gavin's mother picked up the baby to comfort her but moments away from death, what comfort could she give? Suddenly a dark angel swooped inside the narrow room. Wrapping the four of them in his black-winged embrace, he bore them upward beyond the fire's reach to safety or Heaven, Gavin couldn't be sure which.
He awoke to the scents of bay rum and leather and tobacco swirling about him like a luxuriant olfactory cloud. Strong arms lifted him from the step. He opened his eyes and looked up into the craggy countenance of the angel from his dream, only his savior was no celestial being but a flesh-and-blood man of late middle years. Passing in and out of consciousness, he had a vague recollection of being laid across a tufted leather carriage seat and borne away to a stately townhouse set on a quiet street, a lion's head knocker decorating its black lacquer door. Later he'd learned that his benefactor was Prime Minister William Gladstone and the house to which he'd been brought Number Ten Downing Street. A fortnight later, fever-free and well-fed, he left the ministerial residence and boarded a train bound for Kent-and Roxbury House.
Perspiration pricking his armpits, Gavin looked beyond the headmaster to the tall, broad-shouldered man wearing a top hat and caped greatcoat looking out the window to the vegetable garden. He held his arms behind his back, one gloved hand cinched about the wrist of the other. Prime Minister Gladstone, it had to be!
Gavin held his breath as his "visitor" turned slowly toward him. Mindful to hold his shoulders straight, he looked up, expecting to meet the high forehead and deep-set eyes he remembered from the year before. The jolt of disappointment nearly knocked him to his knees. The fierce face shaded by the hat's beaver brim belonged not to the kindly Prime Minister but to a stranger.
The headmaster joined the visitor at the window. "Friend St. John is thy mother's father. He has been searching for thee all this past year and has come to bear you home."
Panic plowed Gavin in the gut, threatening to turn his bowels to water. His mother had spoken of her father only rarely, but when she had the term "tyrant" had been applied. "But ... I ... don't w-want a g-grandfather. I d-don't want to l-leave. I have ... f-friends ... here." I have Daisy.
Gaze kind, the headmaster shook his crown of closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair. "The Lord has a plan for thee, Gavin, as He does for each of us. Trust it is so and open thyself to the Inner Light."
"Enough!" Mr. St. John crossed the room in two long strides and settled hard hands on Gavin's shoulders, gloved fingers tightening like talons. "We may be strangers, but we share the same blood. I'm your grandfather, and I've had the very devil of a time finding you. Like it or not, I'm taking you back with me to London."
London! Gavin's heart flipped with fear at the mere mention of the capitol city, a place he associated with foul smells and fiendish faces, with cramped corridors and crowded streets, with fire and screams and the sickening stench of charred flesh.
"But I don't w-want to g-go to L-London." I don't want to go with you.
Shaking free of the stranger, Gavin backed up toward the door, head filling with brash plans. He'd always been fleet of foot. If called upon to do so, could he run as far as his breath and legs would carry him and then hide out in the hope his grandfather would give up and leave without him?
Mr. St. John's heavy brow lifted and then settled visor-like over gunmetal gray eyes. Looking up into that steely gaze, at once Gavin understood that his grandfather was not the sort of man who would give up-ever.
He advanced on Gavin. "I see you inherited your sire's damnable Irish temper, but you're still a St. John by blood and if I have to beat it into you with a birch and mold you with my own two hands like a cursed lump of clay, you'll live up to your birthright, by God."
Excerpted from Enslaved by Hope Tarr Copyright © 2007 by Hope Tarr. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted March 5, 2008
I was disappointed with this one because of it's ongoing cuckholding of the main character of Gavin who is treated like a sod through most of the story as he falls for the main lady over a long and teasing 'courtship' which I found to be frustrating just to read! The character of Gavin would be about ready to explode with frustration over the way he was treated if he were real! If a story written by an author is a glimpse of how the author feels about something in real-life, then I'd bet the author here isn't even nice to what fans she may have!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 24, 2010
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Posted July 18, 2012
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