There was a noise outside the women's clinic in Coldbath
Square. Hester was on night duty. She turned from the
stove as the street door opened, the wood still in her
hand. Three women stood in the entrance, half supporting
each other. Their cheap clothes were torn and splattered
with blood, their faces streaked with it, skin yellow in
the light from the gas lamp on the wall. One of them, her
fair hair coming loose from an untidy knot, held her left
hand as if she feared the wrist were broken.
The middle woman was taller, her dark hair loose, and she
was gasping, finding it difficult to get her breath. There
was blood on the torn front of her satin dress and smeared
across her high cheekbones.
The third woman was older, well into her thirties, and
there were bruises purpling on her arms, her neck, and her
"Hey, missus!" she said, urging the others inside, into the
warmth of the long room with its scrubbed board floor and
whitewashed walls. "Mrs. Monk, yer gotter give us an 'and
again. Kitty 'ere's in a right mess. An' me, an' all. An' I
think as Lizzie's broke 'er wrist."
Hester put down the wood and came forward, glancing only
once behind her to make sure that Margaret was already
getting hot water, cloths, bandages, and the herbs to
steep, which would make cleaning the wounds easier and less
painful. It was the purpose of this place to care for women
of the streets who were injured or ill, but who could not
pay a doctor and would be turned away from more respectable
charities. It had been the idea of her friend Callandra
Daviot, and Callandra had provided the initial funds before
events in her personal life had taken her out of London. It
was through her also that Hester had met Margaret
Ballinger, desperate to escape a respectable but
uninteresting proposal of marriage. Her undertaking work
like this had alarmed the gentleman in question so much he
had at the last moment balked at making the offer, to
Margaret's relief and her mother's chagrin.
Now Hester guided the first woman to one of the chairs in
the center of the floor beside the table. "Come in, Nell,"
she urged. "Sit down." She shook her head. "Did Willie beat
you again? Surely you could find a better man?" She looked
at the bruises on Nell's arms, plainly made by a gripping
"At my age?" Nell said bitterly, easing herself into the
chair. "C'mon, Mrs. Monk! Yer mean well, I daresay, but
yer feet in't on the ground. Not unless yer offerin' that
nice-lookin' ol' man o' yours?" She leered ruefully. "Then
I might take yer up one day. 'E's
got an air about 'im as 'e could be summat real special.
Kind o' mean but fun, if yer know wot I'm sayin'?" She gave
a guffaw of laughter which turned into a racking cough, and
she bent double over her knees as the paroxysm shook her.
Without being asked, Margaret poured a little whiskey out
of a bottle, replaced the cork, and added hot water from
the kettle. Wordlessly she held it until Nell had
controlled herself sufficiently to take it, the tears still
streaming down her face. She struggled for breath, sipped
some of the whiskey, gagged, and then took a deeper gulp.
Hester turned to the woman called Kitty and found her
staring with wide, horrified eyes, her body tense, muscles
so tight her shoulders all but tore the thin fabric of her
"Mrs. Monk?" she whispered huskily. "Your husband . . ."
"He's not here," Hester assured her. "There's no one here
who will hurt you. Where are you injured?"
Kitty did not reply. She was shuddering so violently her
"Go on, yer silly cow!" Lizzie said impatiently. "She
won't 'urt yer, an' she won't tell no one nuffin'. Nell's
only goin' on 'cos she fancies 'er ol' man. Proper gent, 'e
is. Smart as a whip. Dresses like the tailor owed 'im, not
t'other way 'round." She nursed her broken
wrist, wincing with pain. "Get on wiv it, then. You
may 'ave got all night--I in't."
Kitty looked once at the iron beds, five along each side of
the room, the stone sinks at the far end, and the buckets
and ewers of water drawn from the well at the corner of the
square. Then she faced Hester, making an intense effort to
"I got in a fight," she said quietly. "It's not that bad. I
daresay I was frightened as much as anything." Her voice
was surprising: it was low and a trifle husky, and her
diction was clear. At one time she must have had some
education. It struck in Hester a note of pity so sharp that
for a moment it was all she could think of. She tried not
to let it show in her expression. The woman did not want
the intrusion of pity. She would be only too aware of her
own fall from grace without anyone else's notice of it.
"Those are bad bruises on your neck." Hester looked at them
more closely. It appeared as if someone had held her by the
throat, and there was a deep graze across the front of her
breastbone, as though a hard fingernail had scored it
deliberately. "Is that blood
yours?" Hester asked, indicating the splatters across the
front of Kitty's bodice.
Kitty gave a shuddering sigh. "No. No! I . . . I reckon I
caught his nose when I hit him back. It's not mine. I'll be
all right. Nell's bleeding. You should see to that. And
Lizzie broke her wrist, or somebody did." She spoke
generously, but she was still shivering,
and Hester was certain she was far from well enough to
leave. She would have liked to know what bruises were
hidden under her clothes, or what beatings she had endured
in the past, but she did not ask questions. It was one of
the rules; they had all agreed that no one pressed for
personal information or repeated what they overheard or
deduced. The whole purpose of the house was simply to offer
such medical help as lay within their skill, or that of Mr.
Lockhart, who called by every so often and could be reached
easily enough in an emergency. He had failed his medical
exams at the very end of his training through a weakness
for drink rather than ignorance or inability. He was happy
enough to help in return for company, a little kindness,
and the feeling that he belonged somewhere.
He liked to talk, to share food he had been given rather
than paid for, and when he was short of funds he slept on
one of the beds. Margaret offered Kitty a hot whiskey and
water, and Hester turned to look at Nell's deep gash.
"That'll have to be stitched," she advised.
Nell winced. She had experienced Hester's needlework before.
"Otherwise it will take a long time to heal," Hester warned.
Nell pulled a face. "If yer stitchin's still like yer
stitched me 'and, they'd throw yer out of a bleedin'
sweatshop," she said good-humoredly. "All it wants is
buttons on it!" She drew in her breath between her teeth as
Hester pulled the cloth away from the wound
and it started to bleed again. "Jeez!" Nell said, her face
white. "Be careful, can't yer? Yer got 'ands like a damn
Hester was accustomed to the mild abuse and knew it was
only Nell's way of covering her fear and her pain. This was
the fourth time she had been there in the month and a half
since the house had been open.
"Yer'd think since yer'd looked arter soldiers in the
Crimea wi' Florence Nightingale an' all, yer'd be a bit
gentler, wouldn't yer?" Nell went on. "I bet yer snuffed as
many o' our boys as the fightin' ever did. 'Oo paid yer
then? The Russkies?" She looked at the needle Margaret had
threaded with gut for Hester. Her face went gray and she
swiveled her head to avoid seeing the point go through her
"Keep looking at the door," Hester advised. "I'll be as
quick as I can."
"That supposed ter make me feel better?" Nell
demanded. "Yer got that bleedin' fat leech comin' in 'ere
"I beg your pardon?"
"Jessop!" Nell said with stinging contempt as the street
door closed again and a large, portly man in a frock coat
and brocade waistcoat stood just inside, stamping his feet
as if to force water off them, although in fact it was a
perfectly dry night.
"Good evening, Mrs. Monk," he said unctuously. "Miss
Ballinger." His eyes flickered over the other three women,
his lips slightly curled. He made no comment, but in his
face was his superiority, his comfortable amusement, the
ripple of interest in them which he resented, and would
have denied hotly. He looked Hester up and down. "You are a
very inconvenient woman to find, ma'am. I don't care for
having to walk the streets at this time of night in order
to meet with you. I can tell you that with total honesty."
Hester made a very careful stitch in Nell's arm. "I hope
you tell me everything with total honesty, Mr. Jessop," she
said coldly and without looking up at him.
Nell shifted slightly and sniggered, then turned it into a
yell as she felt the thread of gut pulling through her
"For goodness sake be quiet, woman!" Jessop snapped, but
his eyes followed the needle with fascination. "Be grateful
that you are being assisted. It is more than most decent
folk would do for you." He forced his attention away. "Now,
Mrs. Monk, I dislike having to discuss my affairs in front
of these unfortunates, but I cannot wait
around for you to have time to spare." He put his thumbs in
the pockets of his red brocade waistcoat.
"As I am sure you are aware, it is quarter to one in the
morning and I have a home to go to. We need to reconsider
our arrangements." He freed one hand and flicked it at the
room in general. "This is not the best use of property, you
know. I am doing you a
considerable service in allowing you to rent these premises
at such a low rate." He rocked very slightly back and forth
on the balls of his feet. "As I say, we must reconsider our
Hester held the needle motionless and looked at him. "No,
Mr. Jessop, we must keep precisely to our arrangement. It
was made and witnessed by the lawyers. It stands."
"I have my reputation to consider," he went on, his eyes
moving for a moment to each of the women, then back to