Phoebe and the Doctor
25 April, 1816
Phoebe Grenard closed her eyes as she leaned back on the front door to the dress shop she and her cousin Francine operated in the tiny village of Cleadon. She said a quick prayer of thanks that Imogen Sparks’ mother trusted her, and Francie, to create her only daughter’s May Queen dress. Especially since the death of Aunt Frances two months earlier, Mrs. Sparks had been one of the few customers, along with Mrs. Crumstokes, who remained supportive of Francie and Phoebe continuing to operate the dress shop.
Mrs. Sparks, whose husband was the village’s dry goods merchant, had also been a friend of Phoebe’s aunt, as the two stores had been across the cobblestone road from each other for many years. But it was starting to become obvious to Phoebe that two young and unmarried women running a place of business had been frowned upon by many of the locals, a few of whom had—likely with the best of intentions—suggested that she and her cousin consider marrying and becoming mothers. That, along with a few other incidents, led Phoebe to believe that the villagers had no qualms regarding widows running a business, but they apparently drew the line at unmarried ladies.
The proof was in their receipts at the end of each day. There had been a noticeable decrease in the monthly revenue again this month, even more than the month before. Phoebe and Francie had talked about it earlier that very day. Francie had noticed a few of the customers hadn’t returned since her mother—Phoebe and Lydia’s aunt—had passed away. Ever the more good-hearted of the three of them, Francie suggested that maybe it was due to the harsh winter they’d just come through and that people were depleted of any extra coin because of the cost of food for both man and beast. In fact, the last of the snow had finally disappeared just a few weeks earlier, which put everyone’s gardens several weeks behind in edible crops. Yes, winter was a little longer than normal, but in a few days, the May Day festivities would begin. And this gave everyone in their village hope for a brighter rest of the year—even Phoebe.
At this time last year—Phoebe and Lydia’s first year living with Aunt Frances and Francie—they had been incredibly busy sewing new, pretty, white dresses for several of the unmarried young girls participating in the dancing around the maypole. This year, there weren’t nearly as many orders for dresses, but there would be as many—if not more—girls dancing. So what the villagers thought was becoming clear to Phoebe, if not yet to the kind-hearted Francie.
At this rate, they would be unable to pay their rent next quarter, or the bill from their fabric and notions suppliers—much less their food, and coal for the fire. She straightened and went behind the counter to search for a spool of thread to match the white dress with a youthful flounce and chaste bodice she’d just pinned on Imogen. Phoebe glanced at the table where the cut silk material lay—temporarily basted together with pale blue thread until she could find the perfect thread match for the fabric.
The bell tied to the handle of the door jangled with the turning of the knob, and believing Mrs. Sparks had returned because she’d forgot something important, Phoebe lifted her head and smiled… at a man completely unfamiliar to her. He might be the man who’d come into the store and asked about her the day before. According to her cousin, the man had had the look of a veteran pugilist about him—and this man definitely had that in abundance.
“I’m looking for Miss Grenard,” the man said, his voice gruff, with a hoarse, gravelly quality to it. He did not return her smile. His bulbous nose was red with tiny broken veins, and crooked to the left and right, with the bridge flattened as well. He was missing a part of one ear, and the other was smashed and malformed.
His look was definitely that of a man that had been on the losing end of many a fight in his day. She’d have to let Francie know her description had been accurate. And that started a strange, chilling sensation to race up her spine. This man was just the type of person her dead father would have associated with, and she wondered what he wanted with her.
“I’m wanting to speak to the eldest daughter of Jack Grenard.”
For a moment, she contemplated lying and saying she was not Jack Grenard’s daughter, but what would that get her? He’d only ask someone else, and if they could verify her identity to him, he’d be back—likely angry that she’d deceived him.
“Yes.” Her voice squeaked. Clearing her throat, she added, “Can I help you?”
“Aye.” The mongrel-faced man leaned a hip against the glass notions case, opposite where she stood behind the counter. “I’ve come te collect a debt owed to my employer, Mr. Edgar Donovan of London, by your late father, Jack Grenard.”
This one of the greatest fears she’d had since the death of their father. She’d known about his gambling but thought he’d left that all behind in London. He had promised her that he was no longer gambling. Like every other promise he’d made to her and Lydia—and their mother when she was alive—it was a lie. She was afraid to ask what the total was but wanted and needed to know.
“How—” she cleared her throat and started again. “How much did my father owe your employer?”
He pulled out a well-worn, folded sheet from his pocket, the column of numbers and notes next to them with dates covered years of debts. “The remaining balance on the total is nine-hundred and eighty-seven pounds, plus there’s the late fees of five hundred and forty-eight pounds, for a total of one-thousand five-hundred and thirty-five pounds yer father owes m’boss, Mr. Donovan.”
Phoebe felt her world tilt off its axis and pull her toward the pistol under the counter she and her cousin kept there for safety. She tried to remember the last time either of them cleaned and primed it, or even fired it. Promising herself that she would do both this very night if it would work this one time, she prayed she didn’t need to bring it out of hiding. Phoebe hated the idea of pulling it out to scare off anyone, but if the man grew any more threatening, she would.
She put her hand on the case under the counter, then flipped the latch without looking at the leather-covered wooden box, feeling the smooth ivory handle and cool steel. “I… I don’t know a… Mr. Donovan,” Phoebe said, the pistol now in her grip. “And my father has been dead for months.”
“Don’ matter that he’s dead, a debt is a debt,” the pugilist said. “My boss has entrusted me and m’boys to collect this debt by whatever means is necessary.”
“I assure you,” Phoebe cleared her throat, trying to calm her rising fear, “my father never mentioned owing… that… um… that much money to anyone.”
“That’s not my problem, and just soes ye know, me and my two boys out there,” the man half-heartedly motioned a beefy palm toward somewhere outside of the shop, “ain’t leavin’ till we gots it all.”
“I think you have the wrong person, and you should leave before I send for our constable.”
“Ah, missy… I’ve already seen ‘im.” The stout brute grinned, showing his lack of dentition, what remained appeared near to falling out by the looks of them. “He’s a nice chap, too. He’s the one what told me where to find you and yer dumb sister.”
Phoebe closed her eyes to fight the sudden wash of dizziness that overcame her. He knew of Lydia and her condition. Though, he likely didn’t know that she could speak but hadn’t since Wally disappeared. She set the pistol back down on the velvet lining of the leather case. If this man had visited their constable, Mr. Blankenship, then he likely knew the bulldog’s business, and soon everyone in the village would also know. Too, leaving town without paying a creditor sounded exactly like something her father would have done because he cared for no one as much as he did himself.
“We don’t have that kind of money.”
“Well, I suggests ye find it, because yer father sold ye both to Mr. Donovan, for the sum of one thousand pounds, if he was unable to pay before the fifteenth day of November of 1814.” The portly man leaned against the glass notions case. “Now then, yer da’s only paid two pounds, the other eleven come from the sale of the furnishins in the house; the tavern already belonged to Donovan.”
“There must be some mistake,” Phoebe repeated, a genuine terror starting to take root in her gut. But that fear only lasted until she heard the footsteps on the stairs on the other side of the curtain behind her. She had to protect her sister and cousin. To do that, Phoebe needed to get the man out of the shop before he frightened them. Phoebe didn’t think that either of them could handle this type of news very well.
The brutish lout leaned against the glass surface of the counter where the ribbons were arranged by color and texture. He continued to speak, ignoring Phoebe’s desperate look, and picking his fingernails with a folding penknife. “No mistake, I’m sure ‘bout that. Your pa took a french leave, he did, when he disappeared the night before the note was due. I guess he thought we’d never catch up to him, but we did.
“So, if you can’t come up with nine hundred and eighty-seven pounds,” he paused from his manicure, and pointed at the crude paper on the glass surface, and added, “plus the five-hundred and forty-eight pounds in late fees, then the two of ye little lasses are headed for one o’ Mr. Donovan’s nunneries.
“Ye see, men pays lots to be the first on a girl. And they likes the pretty young ones best.”
From behind her, Phoebe’s cousin, Francie, reached for the pistol and raised it level to the man’s heart.
“Get out of our store you vulgar snake,” Francie said, her voice calmer than Phoebe’s own. “How dare you speak to a lady in such a vile manner?”
The moneylender’s bulldog snatched the paper off the countertop, put his hands up, and backed a few steps. A lecherous grin on his lips. “I’ll tell ye how I dare, missy… Jack Grenard fled town in the dark o’ night, owing my boss a great sum of money. And my boss has a contract that says the welsher was to turn over his two daughters to my boss if’n he couldn’t pay. So if you girls can’t pay before the end of the week, then me and my two friends out there are to bring Jack Grenard’s daughters back to Lunnon.”
“Get out,” Francie repeated, waving the pistol toward the exit, “and never come back into this store again. Or you will discover just how good a shot I am.”
When the pugilist-cum-debt-collector reached the entrance, he added a warning to his threat. “Don’t think to be leaving this shop. We’re watchin’ day an’ night. I can snatch ye off the street. I sure can. It’s the law, y’know.”
That said, the man yanked the door open and left the small shop. Phoebe leaned against the post behind her and slid slowly to the floor. She’d never be able to repay the debt. The amount was so insanely high that no one she knew could loan that much money to her.
Dear God, Lydie… She was never going to let these men take her sister to work in a brothel. Never. Phoebe wasn’t going to go willingly—that was for certain, but they weren’t taking her sister. She would find somewhere to hide Lydia, after all, she was only twelve.
“Where’s Lydie?” Phoebe asked her cousin.
“Upstairs cleaning the old bird Mr. Simonton gave us. I’m going to put it in a pot with vegetables and herbs, then make a small loaf of bread and call it dinner,” Francie said. “Why?”
“Please don’t mention this to her,” Phoebe replied. “I don’t want her frightened. Somehow I’ll find a way out of this.” Perhaps if she met with Mr. Donovan, she might convince the man she could make payments on her father’s debt. After all, she didn’t gamble, worked hard, and…
She was not going to work in a brothel. Phoebe knew what those women were forced to do, and… she couldn’t. She just couldn’t. She wanted to marry one day. And good, honorable men didn’t marry prostitutes.
“Help me think of a way,” Phoebe said, “or a place even, to hide Lydia. At least until I can think of something, some way, to get this settled.”
“We will talk to the constable, Phoebe,” Francie whispered, kneeling on the ground next to her and putting her arm around Phoebe, the pistol resting on the floor next to her. “Your father was a gambler of the worst sort, especially if he sold you and your sister to repay his debt.”
“But he didn’t hand us over!” Even to her own voice, through her tears, Phoebe couldn’t believe that she was defending him. He’d offered them to a stranger. “He didn’t do it. He came up to Hebburn with us to save us from Donovan. If he truly didn’t care about us, he could have fled to the colonies, or Australia, abandoning Lydia and me to his money-monger.”
Jack Grenard wasn’t the best father, but she wanted to think he did care about her and Lydia; Wally, too, even though he wasn’t Wally’s father.
Papa had fallen in love with their mother at first sight, he’d said. Phoebe smiled behind her kerchief, remembering Papa’s version of the story. Mama had been a young widow, with a small child, when he walked into a church one Sunday morning because he’d heard the voice of an angel singing a hymn calling all sinners to come to the Lord. He often said, there’d been no bigger sinner than he, and he needed forgiveness and a turn of luck.
Mama had been living with her first husband’s family after they married. Her husband was an officer in the army, and soon after their marriage, he was sent to the colonies. Being the third son and with two older brothers and several nephews, Wally’s papa was never likely to inherit the title, and neither was Phoebe’s brother. But the family had a grand estate and wealth beyond her imagining, for Wally’s paternal grandpapa had been a viscount.
Lord Acomb offered to allow mama to remain at the estate outside Newcastle after his son died. Had Mama stayed, she never would have had to worry about where her next meal came from. And, more importantly, her son would have been raised like a gentleman of the upper crust. But her brother-in-law—the heir to the viscount—older brother of Wally’s father, kept pressuring Mama to become his mistress. She got tired of refusing, and finally took her son and returned to the home of her parents.
If she had not left the viscount’s estate, then Mama would never have met her father, and Phoebe rather enjoyed being alive. Perhaps not so much right at that particular moment, but overall, she loved her life.
“Papa would never have sold us,” she said. “For all that he was often in his cups, he did love us.”
“Aye, he did,” Francie said. “But I think he loved his drinking and gaming as much as he loved you, if not more. Else why would he have done what he did?”
Papa told her once that he saw himself in Wally because he was rambunctious and lacked manners. Perhaps Wally had been indulged as a child living with his father’s family, but he’d grown out of it when he went to school. By the time he’d been abducted and impressed her brother had a good heart and was a very responsible young man. He was always honorable and protected them when Papa would get drunk and strike at them when he was angry about something. Her brother often stepped in and took the blows meant for their mother, and frequently Phoebe. Lydia was too small, and by the time she was big enough to be on the receiving end of Papa’s blows, Wally was away at school. That was when Phoebe stepped in, doing her best to protect her little sister.
On Boxing Day, two weeks before he was abducted, Wally promised that once he was established in a profession and home of his own, he would take their mama, and she and Lydia, and they would leave their papa in whichever gutter was nearest his black heart at that time.
Then Wally disappeared. He was just months away from taking his exams when he and his friends had been abducted in the alleyway behind the tavern as the young men left to go to a friends’ home a few blocks away. Many months after he’d been impressed into His Majesty’s Navy, and after thinking her son dead, mama received a letter from Wally saying that he’d been forced into service aboard a ship, but that he wasn’t upset by his impressment. He was with his friends, and they were fighting the Americans on the seas as his father did on land during their war for independence.
“I wish Wally were here,” she said through her sniffling. “I wish he was still alive because he would know what to do. I can’t believe it’s been almost a year.”
Her cousin gave a snort and a laugh. “We have had a horrible few years, haven’t we, Phoebe? First Wally gets press-ganged, your mother dies, your father dies, my mother dies…” Francie sighed deeply, her voice just as emotional as Phoebe felt. “I’m so sick of death. I want to live. I want to experience everything I can before I die of very old age.”
“That was what Wally used to say,” Phoebe said.
“Must have been something our mothers inspired in us,” Francie said wistfully. “I wish I remembered him, but I was much too young when your papa took your mama and brother to London.”
“You were just a babe yourself, but you would have—” Phoebe stopped, as she and Francie both heard the door open. Francie grabbed the pistol and rose up on her knees and seeing two men, fired the only ball they had, in the only pistol they had, at the two thugs the first man sent to further intimidate them.
The sound of pistol fire reverberated through the small room, and the deafening sound made Phoebe’s ears ring so loud she couldn’t hear what that one thug was shouting. That was probably a good thing, too. Clutching his shoulder, the dark haired one appeared to be swearing, but she blessedly couldn’t hear him. The fumes from the spent gunpowder in their small storefront left Phoebe nauseous as she struggled to stand. After she’d risen from the floor and the smoke cleared, she realized Francie’s mistake.
The two men didn’t look like thugs at all. In fact, they were vaguely familiar looking, and she immediately came around the counter to aid the young man her cousin had just put a ball into.
“Miss Grenard!” The light-haired man appeared disbelieving of what he’d just witnessed but quickly became serious and business-like, barking commands in a take-charge voice. “Quick! Some strips of cotton and spirits if you have it.”
“Phoebe, who are these men?” Francie asked. “Do you know them?”
“I… I… don’t know,” she whispered to her cousin as she looked in the scrap bin under the counter for material appropriate for bandaging.
“Be quick please,” the blonde man said, as he helped his friend onto the settee in the corner. “My friend is bleeding, and I need to stop the flow of blood.”
“Bloody hell, why did ye shoot me?” the dark one said to Francie.
“Aren’t you with…” Francie gave her a confused look, then turned back to the two men, “that man that was just in here?”
Phoebe met Francie’s worried gaze. She was still trying to place the two gentlemen. With a handful of cotton and wool scraps, she froze in place as their faces became clearer to her.
These two men were Wally’s friends! She’d seen them a number of times, but they were several years older now, and she didn’t remember their names. From the few letters she received from her brother, she remembered the two friends he’d had with him on the ship were… Harry, was it? And the other? Reggie?
A panicked breath left her body as though she’d been punched. “Oh dear God! I know you both. I mean… I don’t know which one you are, but…”
“You’re muttering nonsense, and my friend is injured here,” said the blond man. “Do you have a place for him to lay down so I can examine him and stitch him up? Preferably somewhere with good light.” He gave Phoebe a cross look, as though she was the one who shot his friend. “Well?”
“Harry,” the dark haired man said, groaning as his friend removed his left arm from his jacket, “If I die, you’d better never tell a soul it was a little girl that shot me.”
“I’m not a little girl,” Francie snapped back at him, “and you were just scratched. If you die from that, then you’re not much of a man.”
“Reggie, you’re not going to die. I’ve seen worse.”
So the handsome blond gentleman was Wally’s friend Harry, and the other one was Reggie. She remembered them now. Harry was the one who’d planned on going to medical school to become a real physician. Reggie was studying—she couldn’t remember exactly… but something to do with building things. Mechanical Arts maybe? Or Architecture? It hadn’t mattered really. Months from completing their university education, five friends were stolen off the street. Phoebe learned a long time ago that life had a way of throwing rocks at those who kept to the straight and honest paths. Though with regard to her brother and his friends? It had dropped massive boulders onto them, two of the young men died the very night they were abducted.
In a way, it had also heaved an equally massive one at her and her sister, who now faced life in some moneylender’s brothel to pay their father’s gambling debts. If, as that man’s brute said, they sent her to work in a brothel, that would be the end of the world for her. Who would want a woman after she’d paid off her father’s debt on her back? And Lydia was just a child yet! She’d have to make sure to hide Lydie well. No one was ever going to take her to a place so… so… wicked.
“Where can we have some privacy?” the one she believed to be Harry said. “I need to tend to his wound. And do you have spirits of any sort?”
“Yes,” Francie said, and turned to see that Lydia had come below and now stood behind the counter, her brown eyes filled with terror, but not tears, Thank God. How had she not heard her little sister come down the steps?
She dropped the strips of cloth she held on the cutting table and went directly to her sister’s side and hugged her. “We are fine, sweetheart. I promise.”
“It’s not the time to get squeamish, the pain is getting worse by the second,” said the wounded one. “Get that liquor bottle, girl, I need it immediately.”
Without her slate, Phoebe had no idea what Lydia was thinking, but she knew that her sister didn’t need the added traumatization.
Once her sister had gone back through the curtain into their private residence, she returned her attention to the two men.
“Am I right?” Phoebe’s mind still reeled from the recognition. “You’re friends of my brother.”
“Is that the welcome you give friends?” growled the wounded man.
“We didn’t know…” Phoebe held back the curtain to the dressing room where she and Francie fit dresses to their customers for alteration. Francie swept in and hurriedly folded the fabric spread Phoebe had spread out over her cutting table. Then the doctor assisted the injured man up onto the table.
“Did you see the man who walked out just minutes before you entered?” Francie asked. “He came in here and threatened us. All of us.”
“No, he threatened Lydie and me,” Phoebe corrected. “You have nothing to worry about.”
“You’re my cousins, and I will not stand by and see you punished for your no-good father’s debts. I know you loved him, but he didn’t care one whit about you and your sister.”
“He did, Francie! He took us away—”
“After he sold you to his moneylender,” Francie reminded her. “I heard the man, Phoebe.”
“Please, Francie,” Phoebe murmured to her under her breath. “Not here. Not now.”
“What is happening?” asked the young doctor. “Who is the man that threatened you?”
“It’s nothing,” Phoebe said, casting a stern look at her cousin. “I’ll take care of it.”
Phoebe was a private person and usually kept to herself. She didn’t share information about her family or background with anyone, for fear of just what had happened a mere twenty minutes earlier. There was nothing to be proud of in saying you were Jack Grenard’s daughter. Her father was an abusive drunk, and a bad gambler. He had no friends, and no problem telling lies when it suited his purposes—whether it was to his wife, his children, or his creditors.
But her mother, God rest her soul, believed her husband’s blatherskite and saw him in a better light than Phoebe or Lydia, or even Wally before he was abducted and impressed.
Wally. Why were his friends here? They had to know that the navy had informed her and Lydia of Wally’s death. So why were they standing in her cousin’s shop?
“If you will excuse us a moment, Miss Grenard, I must tend to my friend’s wound.”
Lydie handed the brandy bottle to Francie, who then gave it to the young doctor. He pulled the stopper out of the top and took a sniff and gave a sour look at Phoebe.
“What is in this bottle?”
“Gin,” Francie said, to which the doctor gave Phoebe and Francie a curious brow. “It was my mother’s,” her cousin said. “She died two months ago.”
He took a swig and began to cough after he swallowed. “That’s not gin,” he cracked through a semi- hoarse voice. He coughed and cleared his throat. “It’s more like rotgut,” he said. “But whatever it is, there’s more than enough alcohol in it to serve my purpose.”
He handed the bottle to his friend who was seated on the edge of their cutting table. “Drink some of this, but save me about half.” While his friend began to drink—without any problems—straight from the bottle, the doctor looked around the room, then turned to the ladies. “Is it possible to get some candles or a lantern? I need as much light as I can get.”
There were no windows in the cutting room, and they usually worked by the light from the windows with the curtain over the doorway pulled back. They only dropped the curtain when they fitted a customer. Francie found a match and got to work lighting their two oil lanterns—a luxury purchased by Aunt Frances when times were good. The lamps allowed Aunt Frances to work into the night after a younger Francie had gone to bed. Her cousin hung the lanterns on the hooks over the table. Phoebe backed out of the room and bumped into Lydia, who still had eyes the size of saucers, pale cheeks, and a cold sweat on her brow. She trembled in place and looked as though she’d seen a ghost.
“Lydia, sweetheart,” Phoebe whispered to her young sister, “everything here is fine. Please go back upstairs.”
Lydia frantically pointed at the curtained doorway, her gaze wide eyed and the look on her face, frantic, as she shook her head.
“There is nothing to fear from these men, Lydia,” Phoebe said. “They were Wally’s friends and were abducted the same night as he.”
Lydia nodded vigorously, and along with her hand motion, she was saying “Yes, yes, I know this.”
“Then what is it that has you fearful?”
Lydia reached under the counter and retrieved her slate and a slate pencil and began to write. Not afraid. Why here?
“I don’t know,” she replied. “We hadn’t gotten to that point when…” Phoebe motioned to her own left shoulder, then pointed at the curtain, beyond which the doctor was treating his friend.
“They spooked us when they came in, and Francie grabbed the pistol and fired it. She only intended to frighten them, not to actually shoot one of them.”
Lydia wrote on her slate. Constable?
“I hope not,” she replied. We’ve already got enough problems, she thought but couldn’t say it to her sister.
Phoebe had heard her cousin speaking softly behind the curtain, but didn’t know what was said. Hopefully, she was apologizing.
Francie came back through the curtain. “They won’t contact the constable,” she whispered, “Because I apologized and told them about the man who harassed us just moments before they walked in, and we thought they were with that man because he said there were two men with him.”
Without saying it, Phoebe showed her cousin with her facial expressions that she wished her cousin hadn’t revealed her problem to the two young men. Phoebe really didn’t like the idea of strangers knowing what her father had done. Especially because it might affect how they interact with her and Lydia, and maybe even Francie.
Pounding on the front door of the shop rattled the glass pane in the door, and drew a gasp from Phoebe and Lydia.
“You locked the door?” Phoebe asked her cousin.
“Yes, and dropped the curtain, too,” Francie whispered. “I couldn’t allow a customer to come in and find a bleeding man on the cutting table.”
“Someone heard the pistol,” Phoebe said, “and is here checking on us.”
Francie looked back to the curtained cutting room, and then to the front door. “Go to the door and tell whoever it is that I was moving the pistol and dropped it which caused it to fire accidentally. You have a believable face,” her cousin said, “whereas I turn beet red when I lie.”
That was true. Her blonde, blue-eyed cousin, could hide nothing. Her temper could flare in a moment if she felt wronged, and if she had to lie for some reason, she turned red-faced.
“Not that I’m any better at it than you are, but I’ll handle it,” Phoebe said. “At least I don’t give away the fact that I’m lying.” She went to the door, and before opening it, she turned back to her cousin and sister, and with a grin said, “Must be something I inherited from my father.”
Phoebe opened the door and welcomed Mr. Sparks, Imogen’s father, who operated the dry goods store across the road. His fuzzy eyebrows were knit tight with worry, and the wrinkles in his forehead were so deep one could hide a pencil in them.
Phoebe immediately felt sick for worrying him. He was such a nice man.
“Miss Phoebe, is everything alright?” Mr. Sparks asked, his voice winded as well from his upset. “I heard the sound of gunfire as I was sweeping the floor of my shop and came to see if all was well.”
She hated lying to him. Hated it so much.
“Everything is fine sir, isn’t it Lydia?” Looking over her shoulder at her sister, Lydia nodded. “Francine was moving the pistol on the shelf, and it dropped to the floor and discharged. The sound of it frightened us all, Francine the most! Why she is so shaken she’s upstairs with her smelling salts as we speak!”
“When I saw the curtain down I thought it might have had something to do with the ruffians who’ve been asking ‘round the village about you.”
Her heart sank into her gut; this was exactly what she didn’t want to have happen! She didn’t want anyone to ever associate her with her father. She was nothing like that man. Except maybe in having the ability to lie when needed.
Mr. Sparks continued by once again stating what he believes she and Francie should be considering. “I’m afraid, as young misses, you’re very vulnerable to bullying by a certain type of man, like that rough-looking fellow that was in here earlier. You know Mrs. Sparks and I adored Mrs. Walters, and I believe your aunt would be upset with me if she thought I was not living up to my promise to watch over you girls.”
“We’re doing just fine Mr. Sparks. There’s nothing to worry over.” Phoebe led him back to the door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I should probably get back to cutting the fabric for new dress for Lydia, she’s growing like a weed you know…”
“Yes,” he said, “they do grow fast.”
Success! Topic changed.
“Well,” he said, giving the small shop a once-over before crossing the threshold, “if you need help with those bullies, don’t hesitate to call.”
“We will keep that in mind,” she told him. “Won’t we Lydie?” From the corner of her eye, she saw her sister nod. “Thank you for checking on us, Mr. Sparks. We appreciate your concern.”
After he was gone, Francie emerged from the curtained alcove and walked over to the corner near the door, looking closely at the door jamb and wall for something.
“Smelling salts? Really? You should have seen those two,” she motioned to the cutting room. “They were taking great pleasure in my inability to reply to you.” She resumed her search of the woodwork, this time where the shelves held bolts of fabric.
“What are you looking for?” Phoebe asked, going behind the counter on her way upstairs for a moment to compose herself before facing the two men in her cutting room.
“The doctor has asked me to find the ball,” replied Francie.
“I think Reginald here was very lucky,” the doctor said from beyond the curtain. “It seems the ball went clean through the muscle. I want to make sure we have the whole thing, and that it didn’t leave any fragments behind inside the wound. Even a tiny sliver could lead to a deadly infection.”
“It hurts enough,” the patient said, his grimace evident in his speech, “without having his fat fingers poking around in there.”
“Hold this right there,” the doctor said to his patient. The curtain parted, and he went over to the area where Francie had been looking for the ball. He then walked behind the counter, and while Phoebe was a little uncomfortable with him standing next to her, he paid her no mind. He was looking at angles or some such.
Lydia wrote on her slate.
“Doing? I’m not sure.” Phoebe whispered, not wanting to disturb the man’s train of thought.
He crossed back to the wall of shelves beside the door where their fabric lay on display. He began to move bolts, stood on the stool and searched in the shelving.
“I’m looking for that ball,” he said as he searched the underside of the top shelf, feeling around with his fingers and eyes closed. “If I know where your cousin was behind the counter, in her kneeling position, at the time she pulled the trigger, would mean the trajectory of the ball would be higher… And—” He removed a folding knife from his pocket and began to dig into the wood when he pulled his hand out he held something between two fingers. “Here it is.” He showed the ball to the ladies in the room, hopped down from the stool, and rushed back into the alcove, and Phoebe ran upstairs to make use of her chamber pot.
After checking her appearance in the pier glass in their bedroom, she went back down and saw Francie fingering a polished, rectangular wooden box the size of a long, flat jewel case on the table where they discussed patterns with customers.
“I didn’t hear anyone come to the door,” Phoebe said.
“I think this is for you,” Francie whispered, motioning to the name carved into the lid. Her cousin brought the box to the counter, and the three of them admired the workmanship. Wally’s name had been carved into the top of the case and painted darker than the light-reddish brown surface; then the entire wood box had been hand-rubbed with oil to a glossy finish.
Phoebe’s vision blurred, and hot tears spilled over her lashes. Wallace Albert Mathes, II. Her brother. Wally was almost six years older than Phoebe, and Phoebe five years older than Lydie. When she was a babe, Wally had taken care of her while their mother and her father worked down in the tavern below their apartment. But by the time her sister was born Wally was living with his father’s family in preparation for attending Eton. He spent holidays and summers with his mother and half-sisters in London, where he again helped to care for the children. Then his uncle found out and demanded that their mother let the Matheses care for Wally as they were paying for his education.
Eventually, he began to spend less time with Phoebe’s family, all because their mother married her father, someone her brother’s uncle didn’t approve of.
She traced her brother’s name on the lid of the box. He was her beloved brother. His disappearance in January of 1812 wreaked havoc in their lives.
For months they’d heard nothing from him, and she and her mother feared he was dead. Her father, though, had always remained optimistic and encouraged them to also be hopeful. When they received the first letter from Wally around Michaelmas that same year, he’d shared some of the adventures he’d had after surviving his first battle. In another letter, Wally had described their mast getting damaged during that battle, and their captain asking him and his friend if they had the ability to design and construct a temporary fix that might hold until they were able to make port in the Bahamas. They did, and their captain promoted them later. This made her mother incredibly proud of her only son.
Just three weeks before their mother’s death, Wally had a few day’s leave when his ship was anchored in The Downs in Kent. That was in the spring of 1813, and it had been a wonderful visit. Wally had again promised he would return when the war was over and remove their mother, Phoebe, and Lydia, and bring them to reside with him. Mama was already unwell, and Wally was able to witness the three of them working from sunup to sundown, even Lydia who was not even ten at the time.
In the autumn of the following year, 1814, their father took them from London and dropped her and Lydia off with their aunt and cousin. He went on to Hebburn, rented a cot in a boarding house and started working in the mines. Their father died in a mining accident in the summer of 1815; he hadn’t even been on the job one year.
Phoebe cried at her father’s funeral because she thought the villagers expected her tears. If they knew she hadn’t cried upon hearing the news, or since, she wondered what they’d think of her then. In fact, both she and Lydia had agreed that Papa’s death was an enormous relief. Phoebe had hoped that his death would free Lydia’s tongue, allowing her to speak again. When it hadn’t, Phoebe prayed that her sister would wake one morning and ask her or Francie if they wanted help cooking breakfast.
Phoebe knew Lydia could talk because she and Francie would occasionally hear Lydie humming or singing softly around the apartment upstairs, but only when she thought no one was paying attention to her. Usually, she sang the nursery rhymes her mother taught them or hymns they’d learned at church. Phoebe wondered what it could have been… what thing was so horrible, that it terrorized her sister so much she feared talking.
Ten months earlier, in June of 1815, Phoebe received the letter from Wally’s commanding officer telling her that her brother had been valorous in battle on many occasions, but sadly had succumbed to a tropical fever that swept across the island of Bermuda where he had accepted a position managing the construction of their new facilities there. Several days later, she received letters from Mr. Manners-Sutton and Mr. Burnham, the two friends who’d also survived the night they were abducted.
Two months earlier, her beloved Aunt Frances had passed away from a lung infection.
Phoebe was tired of death, just as Francie was. They were both beaten down, and emotionally exhausted from loss. Her mother, her father, her brother, her aunt—all dead within two years. Now this London money-monger’s bulldog says her father sold her and Lydia to him because he didn’t pay his debts. But the vilest news was the man said they were now to work in the moneylender’s brothel to repay their father’s debt to him.
If it wouldn’t leave her sister and cousin vulnerable, she would pray for her own death, because it would be far preferable compared to her life right then.
The injured man behind the curtain began to make sounds of discomfort. “Enough,” he shouted, his pain evident in his tone. Then some whispering, before he added more loudly, “You’re taking perverse pleasure in torturing me.”
“I have to sew this closed, or you will reopen it and bleed again every time you raise that arm.” The doctor’s voice was strained, and it was evident his patience was waning with his grumbling friend.
Phoebe thought perhaps it might help if she held the patient’s hand. If it helped him remain calm, then the doctor might be able to perform his task faster. She parted the curtain and peeked inside the cutting room to see the patient laying on her cutting table.
“Doctor?” she asked.
“Yes?” The handsome blond turned his head slightly, his silver-blue eyes striking and serious. His lips curled into a smile slowly.
God help her, she could listen to his voice all day. It was smooth as the finest silk she’d ever felt and it warmed her from within. Phoebe felt butterflies in her belly as she continued looking upon his sun-kissed good looks.
“I… I um… was thinking that it might help to ease his nerves if I were to hold his hand while you sew his wounds,” she said.
“Yes,” the patient barked. “Let the lady in. That sounds like a wonderful idea.” The dark-haired patient gave her a grin then replied to his friend. “I need someone beautiful to gaze upon while you do your cruelty to my flesh.”
He called her beautiful. Her? Phoebe felt heat rise from her breast up to her neck, and then to her cheeks. She wasn’t as classically beautiful as her cousin, whose blonde-haired and blue-eyed good looks made Francie the quintessential English rose.
The doctor motioned for her to enter the cutting room, and Phoebe moved the only chair in the room to the patient’s right side as his left shoulder was the one injured.
“Maybe with you here,” the handsome doctor said as he checked the thread on his needle, “the patient will be more likely to comply.”
He lifted his dreamy gaze to her, and her heart did a flip in her chest.
“Reggie has never been a good patient.” When the man on cutting table began to rise, Phoebe put her hand on his arm and stopped him.
“Stay still Reginald,” the doctor said, “or I will send Miss Grenard out.”
Phoebe took his free hand in one of hers, and placed her other one on his upper arm to help keep him down. It was probably very painful to have your flesh sewed closed. She could not imagine it herself.
And she was just now noticing that Mr. Burnham was not wearing a shirt. Phoebe had never seen a man undressed such as this before, and she forced herself to keep her gaze averted. Under her palm, his flesh was warm, and the muscles of his upper arm were very developed and firm.
Phoebe had never touched a man’s bare skin before, and it was an odd sensation to touch a person of the opposite gender. It was nothing like what she’d expected, though. His skin was soft, and appeared a deep golden brown as though he’d spent quite a bit of time in the sun without wearing his shirt. And the muscled sinew across his ribcage and abdomen was definitely something more defined than hers was.
The doctor poured a bit of her aunt’s gin over the wound, causing Mr. Burnham to suck in a harsh breath and mutter something Phoebe couldn’t quite make out.
“I need for you to remain still, Reginald,” the doctor said as he began to push the needle through the flesh again.
The very first drop of blood turned her stomach, and she averted her eyes again as the doctor placed the needle through the skin on the other side of the hole. Mr. Burnham gripped her hand, and she held it firmly between both of hers. Looking up to the doctor, she saw that he was tying a knot and the drops of blood had turned to a constant trickle.
The sight of red, life-giving fluid trailing a path down the man’s breast and onto her table caused a rushing water-type sound in her ears and the sudden sensation of wanting to collapse. His life was leaving him, and she was holding his hand while he died. A coppery-metallic scent filled her nostrils and even her tastebuds, as the pulse whooshing in her ears grew louder, and her body suddenly went limp. The last thing she remembered was sliding off the chair and being unable to prevent herself from hitting the floor.
Her nose and throat burned from the strong ammonia scent of the smelling salts someone waved under her nose. She coughed, gagged, and struggled to rise so she might reach fresh air, but was forced to lay back on the settee. Opening her eyes, she saw her sister with a concerned look on her face. Waving her off, Phoebe bolted upright, and when the dizziness washed over her again, she flopped back onto the headrest. She needed fresh air, or her lungs would be scorched from this.
“Enough,” she forced out from a dry, burning throat. “Get that… thing… away from me. Not so close to the nose next time, Lydie. That stuff is strong.”
Lydia set the tiny bottle of ammonium down, put the stopper in, and lifted her slate and slate pencil, and began to write. You scared me.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Where is Francie?”
Lydie wiped the slate and wrote, With doctor, sewing man. When Phoebe nodded, Lydia erased that and wrote. I’m scared.
“Don’t be Lydia, please,” Phoebe said. “I can take care of us.”
Why did man get shot?
“I told you. He caught us off guard and frightened us.”
Take us away?
“No, Lydie. These are good men. And they are not going to the constable. It was an accident.”
“Yes. I am telling you the truth.” Phoebe understood her sister’s almost constant need to verify that people were telling her the truth. Their father had lied to them daily.
Phoebe couldn’t help but think that eight-year-old Lydia had seen something more than just the abduction the night Wally and his friends were stolen from behind the tavern. Phoebe thought she might have witnessed the murder of the two who’d died that night. Each time Phoebe had asked, Lydia would insist—with a vigorous shake of the head—that she had not. Phoebe also thought Lydie had lived in fear of visits from their father after they fled London for Cleadon, but could never prove this. After their father’s death, she’d begun to see some happiness in Lydia’s eyes, just as there was likely more smiles on her own face as well. Jack Grenard being gone for good meant they could breathe deeply now, and enjoy their lives.
That was until this afternoon and the appearance of that moneylender’s debt collector. She should have known Jack Grenard was never really gone from your life until you were the one pushing up the daisies. Even after this mess was resolved, if it was even possible, Phoebe wondered if there wasn’t something else waiting around the corner to surprise her yet again.
The doctor’s tall frame and broad chest filled the doorway, and Phoebe smiled sheepishly when all she could see of his face was his chin. She was there to support the patient, to help the patient remain calm… and what did she do? She fainted. Not even a graceful faint onto a settee or chaise, but slid off the chair sideways and went nose first onto the painted wooden floor. At any other time that might have been funny. Today it wasn’t.
“May I come in?” he asked, his voice deep and calm. Definitely more composed than what Phoebe was feeling at that moment.
Phoebe glanced at Lydia, and when she nodded, Phoebe assented.
He then ducked his blonde head to walk under the header and into the back room of their shop. He must have grown taller over the past four years. She also didn’t remember him being quite so… handsome or… heroic either. And now the heat of embarrassment rose in her face for fainting. She’d never fainted in all her nineteen years. Perhaps it had been because of the sight of blood. Oh, and the smell! That was equally as upsetting to her stomach as the seeing blood on the man’s skin.
“I’ve come to see how you fared. Are you quite recovered, Miss Phoebe?”
She nodded. “I am. It is not like me to faint, in fact, I have never fainted before this.”
“I should have known better than to allow you into the room,” he said setting the box he carried onto a chair. “Most women cannot tolerate the sight of blood.”
“It has always been difficult for me,” Phoebe replied. “Thank you for understanding.” She looked around the room and didn’t see Francie. “Where is my cousin?”
The doctor gave her an endearing grin. “Miss Francine is stitching up Reginald’s exit wound on the back of his shoulder. She asked if she could try, and Reggie said yes. Besides, I wanted to check on you.”
Phoebe nodded her head at that. “Good. Francie has a much finer stitch than I do.”
“I’ll tell you a secret,” the young doctor said looking first at Lydia, then at her, “Reggie likes to complain that I’m intentionally hurting him, whenever I’ve had to treat him. My thought is hopefully he wouldn’t complain so much if a young lady did the stitching.”
“I see.” Phoebe looked into his eyes. They were beautiful gray-blue inside of a darker gray ring and with hundreds of flecks of silver lights shining in them. She could look into them forever as they were the most intriguing eyes she’d ever seen before. She simply stared at him. Perhaps a little too long. And it got uncomfortable for Lydia because Phoebe felt her sister nudge her foot with her elbow, as Phoebe lay across the lounge with Lydia sitting at her feet, in the perfect spot to shove her elbow into her ankle.
“What brings you to Cleadon, Doctor?” Phoebe asked, her voice unnaturally cheerful, even to her own ear, because she desperately wanted to change the subject.
“Please, call me Harry.” He took a chair from their little table and sat near Lydia. “I’m not a doctor yet, though for the past three and a half years the crew on the ships I’ve been on have called me one. If you remember, I never made it to study medicine in Edinburgh as I’d wanted to four years ago.”
Phoebe scooted a bit to turn and put her feet on the ground facing Harry, the doctor who didn’t want to be called doctor. “I remember. And I am so very sorry for what happened to all of you that night. If I could go back and change that night, I would.”
“I believe we all would,” he said, his voice a bit somber from what it had been. “We’d take a different path to our friend’s rooms, and we’d still have Charlie and Jerry.” He closed his eyes and sighed deeply, as though acknowledging their inability to change anything already done. “There would be any number of things I’d do differently, had I known what the next few hours would entail.”
“And the years that followed,” she whispered.
“Aye, that too…” His voice sounded flat, as though his emotions were buried deep in him, never to surface.
He closed his eyes again, swallowed hard, and cleared his throat. This time when he opened them, he had a somber look, the spark was diminished—not gone, but not nearly so bright as earlier. “I have come to bring you and Miss Lydia Wally’s personal things. In this box—” He lifted the pretty handmade box from his lap and passed it to her. “—are the dirk, his pistol, his watch, and a few of the letters he’d not yet had a chance to mail to you. One is not finished as it was the one he was writing at the time he grew seriously ill. I debated whether or not to include that one because… well… you’ll see when you read it. He knew he was not going to survive the fever as it had killed so many already.”
“I’ve read as much as I could about tropical fevers.” Phoebe kept her head down, fingering the name across the lid because she was not ready to open it yet. “And the way I understand it, there is no telling who is likely to contract it. A healthy young man could come down with it and, like Wally, be dead within days—yet many others exposed would not contract it.”
“Correct, there is no way to predict. And that makes it doubly tragic when it takes someone like Wally,” He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. It had to be as difficult for him as it was for her and Lydia. “He was so full of life and… everyone liked him. His crew looked up to him because there was nothing he would order them to do, that he himself had not done, or would not do alongside them. That meant something to the younger men.”
Lydia slid the case between them, lifted the lid and rummaged through the contents. She took out the watch and showed it to Phoebe.
“Yes, it’s the watch his uncle, Lord Acomb, gave to him when he went to university.” Phoebe looked at Harry. “Does it still work?”
“I believe so,” the doctor replied. “It did at his death. Likely it only needs to be wound and set.”
Lydia lifted the letters next, looking for the ones Wally had written to her. She took them and placed them in her pocket with her slate and writing chalk. And with a look and a nod of her head, she asked if she might be excused to go upstairs and read them.
“Yes, Lydia,” Phoebe said, “you may be excused.”
After Lydia had left the room, the doctor gave Phoebe a curious look. “She wasn’t always mute, was she? I clearly remember Miss Lydia as a laughing, happy young girl.”
Phoebe sighed. She didn’t know how to explain her sister’s condition to Mr. Manners-Sutton. The physician her mother brought Lydia to, suggested that Lydia had been frightened by the events of that night, and may one day speak again. If so, it would come at a time when Lydia felt she was ready to speak.
“She… was terribly frightened that night. Something she saw, something she heard, frightened her so badly that it shocked her. The doctor said there was nothing physically wrong with her that she could not speak. So I keep hoping one day she will.
“But, something has recently changed since our father’s death. Lydia will sing when she thinks no one is paying attention to her.”
Wally’s friend gave her a quizzical look. “Interesting. Did this doctor say if it would be detrimental for you to force her to speak?” He waved his hand in front of him as though he wanted to retract his words. “What I meant was… I notice you answered for her just now, and likely it’s because you have come to understand what she means when she gestures as she did. But what if we take that form of communication away? Force her to speak the words she wants to say.”
Phoebe didn’t think that would be a good idea. It would just frustrate Lydia as their father had frustrated her on many occasions, making Lydie cry. Papa was incredibly angry when mama had taken Lydie to the special physician. He’d always said there was nothing wrong with her.
“I wouldn’t want to upset her,” Phoebe said. “She gets incredibly frustrated when she wants to say something, but cannot. I see she wants to sometimes but then… doesn’t for some reason. And because both Francie and I have seen this improvement since papa’s death, we both think he might have had something to do with her silence.”
“Before I leave, if you don’t mind, I’d like to question her—with you present of course. You can be the one to determine when, or if, we stop. And,” he said hesitantly, “I have a feeling I know what might have frightened her, but I will have to think of a way to broach it.”
“Very well,” Phoebe said, curious as to what the man could suspect that she and her parents hadn’t thought of. “I don’t think it would hurt her at all. In fact, maybe reliving that night might be helpful. It’s only that I never wanted to be the one to question her because I saw how upset she got with mama, then papa, and then the physician who questioned her.”
He motioned to the box that rested in her lap. “Reginald and I would have died for Wally, and he would have died for us. We had a bond that went deeper than that of brothers.
“The last thing he asked of us was to make certain that his sisters were cared for and well-settled. That is why we are here. We wish to make certain you are both comfortable in your situations and that you are in safe living arrangements, and happy. I cannot think that any of those are a possibility after hearing about the man who came into the shop and harassed you.”
“The man’s visit was not anything I expected, but then, whenever it came to my father, I never really knew what to expect. Papa was not… an honest man. He gambled enormous sums of money, and when he didn’t have it, he obviously borrowed it from a certain moneylender who never should have advanced him those amounts. And…” She stopped, unable to go further, the pain of Papa’s final terrible betrayal sinking in. The reality of her situation was incredibly terrifying, and right at this moment, she didn’t want to think on it. Besides, this man wasn’t family. She knew who Harry was, but she didn’t know him. Phoebe had a difficult time speaking of personal problems outside of her, Lydia and Francine.
“And nothing,” she added. “I will handle it like I’ve handled everything else in my life.”
She sighed, then met his concerned gaze. “I… I’m not sure, but we’ll get by. I will protect Lydie and Francie, and we will muddle through.”
He took a deep breath, then gave her a grin. “Wally was insistent that we come to check on you, and we got here as quickly as we could.”
Phoebe dropped her gaze to the box and again traced her brother’s name. “If…” she forced down the lump trying to rise in her throat. “If you had gotten here yesterday you wouldn’t know about today’s developments.” She met his gaze. “And if you had come tomorrow we might not be here.”
“Then it is by Divine Providence that we have arrived today.”
A string of curses came from the other room. Seconds later, a needle dangling from his shoulder by the silk thread stitched through his wound, a dark-haired warrior barged into the room. Reminiscent of a knight from days of old, the heavily muscled warrior—still bare chested—stood before her.
If she hadn’t already fainted once, chances are she would have fainted right then.
“Miss Phoebe, marry me.” Reginald’s request wasn’t a question, wasn’t even a command, but rather something in between. The man stood, arms akimbo, waiting for her reply. When it wasn’t quick enough in coming, he told her his plan to evade the money monger’s bulldogs. “We shall live in Bermuda where those men will never find you or your sister.”