This story is by CM Eubanks and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sweet tobacco and cloves along with cheap perfume and regret would be forever fixed to the wallpaper of the old Victorian. Some things can’t be washed away, not with all the vinegar and soap in London. Memories of a house are like that, secrets collect within walls only to be whispered in seasons to come. In Autumn of the year of our Lord 1888 the house was collecting secrets still. Of all the places in Whitechapel, Penny had turned to the dredges. It was that or the streets, and neither was kind.
“Tuck in, Caleb,” she patted the mouse in her tattered coat pocket as she whispered on the front steps, “It’s no place for a mouse where there are rats afoot.”
The hurried footsteps from the other side of the door skid to a halt just in time for the upstairs curtains to ruffle. Visitors before noon was a rarity, she would learn, for a house of the night.
“How do you do?” curtsied a young girl, no more than 14, as the door was pulled open. These were no courtesans, these were the lowest class of fallen women, and no more than girls. Several others, older according to their eyes, dulled and colorless without the magic of Belladonna in the daytime, looked on in silence. Their experiences more than their years had taught them better than to speak, better to be hidden. Here, picked last and least was both the winning and losing hand.
“Now don’t be spouting like you’ve learned any manners, giving her ideas like her work’s been done for free.” Yellow toothed and rounder than his trousers allowed, the girls shied away as the house master sauntered through, shrinking like violets. Sausage fingers curled over the door frame. Penny’s stomach growled. It had grown louder by the day.
“I’m here for the teaching position. Etiquette and feminine studies, ” shoulders squared, her nose pinching as the stink of him, sweat and cabbage under the cloud of cologne, came closer as he leered. She did her best to not waiver.
“Well you wouldn’t be here for any other, now would ya?” Two dresses beneath her coat, everything she owned worn at once, and she still felt naked as he assessed her from the entryway.
“And what’re you called?”
“Ha! And you wouldn’t fetch more than that, now would ya?!” His belly shook when he laughed, his vest rising up and exposing more hair than skin. She wondered if she might catch a glimpse of his tail when he turned, this rat man before her.
“I heard Ms. Finnigan passed,”
“Dead as a door mouse, that one. Capoot.”
“Doornail,” she corrected between blinks, obsidian eyes staring back at him. “Dead as a doornail.”
“What?” His own eyes became near slits as he squinted into the day. He could keep looking, he wasn’t going to find any of his lost sense out there any more than it was indoors, but as time ticked she thought she might have cost herself the sanctuary of room and board.
“Bloody nevermind, just come in.” The floorboards moaned as he stepped back, granting her entry with a funny little bow. “Penny the poise teacher,” he mocked introductions, “your castle.”
Days at the whorehouse were as routine as just about any place else. Fires were lit in the rooms where clients would call just after supper, “keep him heated, keep him happy”, while the girls’ actual sleeping quarters were crowded and damp, the satin sheets and showgirl smiles far from the corners of their shared space on the third floor. Penny sold them manners and posture and they in turn sold their bodies while their souls clung on. What a girl would do for a home.
The news came in slipping off the tongues of men with copper lined pockets, the printed page a waste of ink for girls who knew only how to open their legs and not a paper. Word passed from hushed lips around the brothel: a girl had turned up with her innards on the outsides, and then another one, and another still. Murder on the cobblestone streets.There had been two already when Penny had faced that front door from the other side, women ripped apart.
When one of their own failed to turn up for supper, their appetites shrank. A house with never enough, the veneer of overflow and brandy just a parlor trick to keep patrons paying, suddenly found itself in excess. It didn’t last long.
“Here,” one of the quietest girls said as the house became a buzz for the night’s work, offering a bundle of blue, sapphire and sky.
“What’s this?” Penny asked as she pulled the silk through her fingers.
“Tie it to your leg, like this,” her own band of blue wrapped around a caramel colored thigh. “It’s how we know…someone’s out past curfew. Blue was Elizabeth’s favorite color.”
“You speak as if you already know her fate. Have you no hope, Iris?”
“We sell a lot of things here, Ms. Penny, but I don’t believe hope is one of them.”
Iris was the next to go missing. The girls added a band of pink to their legs, their hiked skirts ballooning out in ruffles and trim, mocking the fear that glazed over their painted on faces. Debauchery and depravity sold for a shilling and the show must go on. Penny following suit and affixed another scarf, one on each calf just above her boots, shackled in soft silks and bound to this house of pleasures by her own choosing.
It was after their third went missing that the Rat himself stopped eating, working himself into a stupor as beds were emptied and the calls between clients grew wider. His worry was self-seeking. His pacing became their time clock, a belt notch cinched when the fourth and fifth simply fell from existence. Sisters, 15 and 16, and now gone. His girls were disappearing, some right in front of his face, vanishing under the ghoulish scarves they all insisted in wearing, bandages holding them together in pinks and pastels.
There were more beds empty than full when the cold set in. From Penny’s room she heard their cries and their bedtime prayers. Where was the god that would see their souls white again, free from the sin they had been sold into? Who would be next? The ghosts of the others filled the silence between the sobs of those left behind.
No charlatans with an extra bob for a bob, they fell flat out of the guides and the house became nearly invisible. Penny extended the girls lessons, the extra time focused on teaching them to read and write, stitching for pleasure instead of repair. The Rat holed himself away in the basement, conniving behind closed doors and taking advertisements in lesser known publishings. Desperation and an idea flooded his veins.
The pacing stopped when the door knocker sounded; a gentleman caller, advertisement in hand. It was to a room full of school children he was led to instead of a den of whores.
“I’ll take the lot, the whole school scene,” the man’s eyes fixed excitedly over each one, the three that were left, the Rat feeling the weight of his bank fill before coin had even been exchanged. “And the mistress, bring her for me as well. I have some special lessons for her to administer.”
“I’ll fetch her for you now,” his thudding steps the only warning of his invasion.
“Knocking is required!” Penny scoffed, tightening her robe, a discarded book of bedtime stories on the sheets. The cotton could not hide the fear that colored her now.
“Save it for the scene,” he crossed the room as he huffed, his grip quick and tight to her upper arm as he yanked. “It’s time to earn your keep and learn your place.”
They struggled, his insistence met with persistence, his desperation met with her resolve.
“Under my roof, my rules!” he puffed as he dragged her, bare footed and skidding over the wood floor. She stopped fighting, her body gliding behind him as he pulled. He didn’t notice or maybe thought he had won, his might stronger than hers, eyes towards the door and his bankroll.
A slip of blue, sapphire and sky, cut his view before tightening around his neck.
“And it’s time you learned your manners!” Each word struggled through grit teeth, strangling a fat neck no easy task.
“Don’t look, little mouse,” she said as footsteps shuffled from behind the wardrobe while the weight of the dead man pulled them both forward. “It’s just a rat, Caleb, but we’ll be rid of him soon. Didn’t I promise to always look after you? Go up to the attic and fetch Iris and the others, I need their help now.”
Out from his hiding place he answered, a little boy, dark eyes that mirrored hers staring back. “Yes, mother.”
What a woman would do for a home.