Book: The Ugly Stepsister (Unfinished Fairy Tales Book 1)

Previous: FIFTEEN
Next: SEVENTEEN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SIXTEEN

 

 

The first thing I do is throw my paintbrush on the floor. I’ve always wanted to do that.

“Let’s go.”

Van’s reluctant to drive Elle again, so I bully him into doing it. Once on the hansom, I ask Elle, “How did you get the message?”

“Billy came.”

“Is Jimmy...alive?”

Elle nods dully. “But he’s hurt really bad.”

“Has a doctor been sent for?”

“Mr. Wellesley sent for one.”

Elle relapses into silence, but her tears keep falling. I hold her hand; it’s all I can do as we sit in agonizing silence, dreading to see Jimmy’s condition when we arrive.

The door is left open. Inside, Mrs. Thatcher is weeping by the bed, while near her is a young boy in a patched, frayed, and oversized shirt. The hems of his trousers are jagged, suggesting that they were originally too long for him. The bundle on the bed must be Jimmy, but I hardly recognize him. Half of his head is swaddled in bandages with great red patches soaking through the pillow, which is almost dyed red. A choked cry escapes Elle—she staggers over and puts her arms around her mother. Billy joins them, his expression still numb and in shock.

“We must stop the bleeding,” I hear myself say.

The little boy turns, and I realize I’m looking at a girl, only that her hair is shorn even shorter than a boy’s. In fact, it looks like a crew cut.

“Any clean cloths around here?” I ask. “We’ve got to stop more blood loss.”

Elle shakes her head slowly. I spot Mrs. Thatcher’s scissors lying on the kitchen table, which gives me an idea. I get the scissors, flip up my long skirts, and start cutting away on my white cotton petticoat. It’s newly bought and probably the cleanest item in this room. Elle lets out a gasp, but I silence her with a wave. Then I hurry toward Jimmy and apply the cotton to his head. My fingers are trembling—I’ve never seen so much blood before—I take a deep breath and pray.

Pounding footsteps reach us. Henry bursts in, followed by Mr. Wellesley.

“I—I’m trying to stop the bleeding,” I stammer.

Henry’s face is terribly grim; it’s a stark contrast to his boyish, almost adorable features.

“You did the right thing,” he says. “Let me have a look at him.”

While Henry bends over Jimmy, my gaze meets Mr. Wellesley’s.

“You sent Billy to get Elle and went for Henry yourself,” I say.

He nods. “It’s Molly here who alerted us.” He indicates the girl with incredibly short hair. She can’t be more than ten.

“How did Jimmy get injured in the first place? Don’t they have any safety cautions?”

The blank look Molly gives me is evidence enough. Maybe the word “safety” doesn’t exist in her vocabulary.

“He was crawling on the floor to pick up the leftover cotton bits,” she says blandly, like she is reciting what she had for breakfast. “The machine was whirlin’ and hissin’ on top of him—he came up a second too early—and got crushed. We hauled him out as soon as it passed, but it was too late.”

The image is too horrifying. I take a deep breath, trying to calm down. “Why must he dive under a machine that’s still working? Can’t he wait until it’s stopped?”

Molly gives me a wide-eyed look. “Cotton’s too precious, miss. Mr. McVean says not a single scrap should go to waste. ‘Sides, if we don’ pick them up, they’ll all go flying round the place and clog up the machines.”

“Surely there must be some other way,” I insist. “It’s still too dangerous.” Not to mention that they are children. Not being at school is bad enough, but putting their lives in danger every day? If I had known about Jimmy’s working conditions, I’d have tried to get him out ASAP. I thought Billy had it bad when he was scavenging broken bottles by the river, but Jimmy’s job is simply a nightmare.

Molly shrugs. Again, I’m struck by how calm she is. “‘Tis rotten luck he got, but it ain’t surprising. ‘Tis too easy to get hurt. Some of us loses fingers too.” She scratches her head. “My hair got ripped off when I started workin’, so now I cut it like a boy’s.”

A savage pride underlies her tone, like she’s boasting about the trials she undergoes. I don’t get it. She ought to be indignant, not relishing her ability to survive in that gruesome factory.

Henry rises from the bed. Elle untangles herself from her mother and brother and rushes toward him.

“Ned…is he…?”

“I’m doing my best,” he says. “I just stopped the blood flow, but it isn’t enough. He will require stitches.”

Mrs. Thatcher wipes her face. “D’you mean, stitch him up like a puppet?”

Henry nods and takes up his briefcase. “I’ve got to ask a surgeon to perform this. Keep the cloths pressed so as not to let any more blood leak out.”

Elle bites her lip and dabs at her eyes fiercely with the back of her hand. “Of course, Mr. Henry.”

Henry raises his hand to her face and wipes her tears away. From the way his fingers linger on her cheek, he looks like he wants to take her into his arms, but doesn’t dare. “I shall return soon.”

He disappears. I go over to Elle and put an arm around her. We cling together for a moment; I wish I could find words to comfort her, but the horror of Jimmy’s injury is too raw, too shocking.

“Well, I’d best be going,” Molly says. “Mr. McVean’ll give me a whipping if he finds I’m gone past the hour.”

McVean. The name sounds oddly familiar. I close my eyes for a second, and an image of a paunchy middle-aged man, double chins quivering as he speaks, pops up in my head. He was at the croquet party, but being too focused on Elle and Edward, I barely remembered meeting him.

Bianca had mentioned he made his fortune in cotton manufacturing. Yup. I’m sure that this is the same person. Rage surges in my chest when I glance at Molly’s scrawny frame and Jimmy’s blood-soaked bandages.

“I’ll go with you,” Mr. Wellesley says, putting his hand on the small of Molly’s back. “He won’t lay a finger on you if I’m there.”

My hands tighten on the folds of my skirt. “She’s going back to that bloody hell hole?”

A tiny gasp escapes Elle.

“Ain’t no worry, miss,” Molly says, tilting her head. “Long years I worked there. I know well how to avoid the thing. ‘Specially with my hair shorter than a boy’s. Look, I really gotta go. Even if he doesn’t whip me, I’d be quartered.”

“Quartered?”

“Aye, if we’re a quarter late, he takes a half penny off the wages, miss. I’m only allowed an hour away ‘cause I had to get Jimmy outta there, but now I must be going back.”

“Lass,” Mr. Wellesley says. “I understand your concern, but for Molly it’ll be the worse for her if she’s late. Come on, girl, let’s get you back in a jiffy. Billy, stay here with your mother. You may have the rest of the day off.”

When the door shuts behind them, I know exactly what I’ll say to Edward next time I see him.

 

Krev doesn’t appear when I get back to the house. Good. I’m not in the mood to be taunted. Maybe he is also shocked by the turn of events. At the moment, I can’t focus on completing the story. I can’t think about anything but Jimmy’s bloody, mutilated appearance.

Elle returns to the house with me, though I told her she should stay with her mother. Mrs. Thatcher obviously needs her support.

“I can’t, miss,” she says, a pained look in her eyes. “Now that Jimmy cannot work, I mustn’t neglect my own. Martha already covered for me many times while Mamsie was ill.”

Since Elle is forced to remain at work and I have nothing to do, I decide I’ll do what I can for her. I don’t feel like visiting Jimmy—I’m not a doctor, so I doubt my presence will help—but I tell Van to drive me to The Bookworm.

Mr. Wellesley isn’t behind the counter, but there’s a large silver bell sitting on the edge of the table. I ring it, and presently he emerges from the back room, dusting his hands on his green apron.

“Ah, so it’s the Bradshaw lass.” He smiles at me, but there’s a tired look in his eyes. No trace of the roguish, playful expression he usually wears. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived. I was setting up my printing press in the back room.”

“How’s Jimmy doing? Did you get any news?”

Instantly, a dark shadow passes over his eyes. “Henry was here earlier. Jimmy isn’t worse, but neither has his conditions improved. A good chunk of flesh was removed by the machine.”

I shudder.

“But that isn’t all.” Mr. Wellesley’s mouth is a grim slash. “Molly ran down to me before breakfast and told me that Jimmy has been dismissed.”

My elbow hits the wall and I wince. “What do you mean, he’s fired?”

“The owner found a replacement already,” Mr. Wellesley says. “The factories wait for no one.”

“But...” I am no longer surprised, judging from how Molly spoke of her treatment. “What about Jimmy’s compensation? Mrs. Thatcher will need it, now that he can’t work.”

Mr. Wellesley shakes his head. “Apart from the last day’s wages, no. It isn’t customary for the owners to hand out compensation, or that’d be a serious dent in their pockets. A friend of Henry’s says one-third of the accidents at the hospital he works at are due to factory work.”

Christ. I can’t freakin’ believe this. “So you mean that he got his head crushed for nothing?”

Mr. Wellesley avoids my eyes. If you don’t take his bright piercing eyes into account, he looks older than he seems, with his dry, papery skin and tufts of silver-white hair behind his ears.

“My dear young lady, you have been sheltered and kept from the ways of the world—”

“I don’t care what you say about my ignorance,” I say. “There are some horribly unjust things about this world, period. I can’t believe you so calmly sent Molly back to that awful place.”

Mr. Wellesley sighs. He takes his glasses off and cleans them slowly. It is then that I notice the corners of his eyes are glistening with unshed tears. “We are striving to change things, lass. But changes don’t occur overnight.”

 

I stew in the hansom on the way back home. I don’t know if I should tell Elle about what happened to Jimmy. I decide to omit the details about his losing his job unless she asks. She’ll be more concerned about his condition than his work anyway.

“KATRIONA!” Lady Bradshaw stands in the middle of the stairway, her hair half done. “Where have you been?”

I fish out a book from my reticule. Thank God I’ve kept up my excuse of going to The Bookworm.

“You must limit your excursions to the bookstore; you’ve read enough to last you a lifetime. And what’s the use of books to you when you make no attempt to converse with any gentlemen? Hurry, we are going to Lord Mansfield’s dinner party tonight.”

There have been so many invitations lately that I must have missed it. Bianca’s performance at the croquet party was so charming (revolting in my opinion) that invitations have been filling up the parlor table.

“Must I go? I really don’t feel like going out again, when I’ve just come back.”

“Nonsense. It wouldn’t be the Season if your social calendar weren’t full from morning to night.” Lady Bradshaw clucks her tongue. “I insist that you attend. We cannot afford to refuse an invitation from the Mansfields. Besides, apart from that lowly son of a squire, you have not attracted a single gentleman since the Season started.”

For a second, I remember Edward clasping my hand, his gaze intent on my face, the beauty and tranquility of his private garden surrounding us. Then I banish the memory to the deepest recesses of my mind.

“Lord Mansfield’s dinners are not to be missed,” Lady Bradshaw continues. “Not only will titled gentlemen be there, but also those who have recently gained wealth by trade. If you cannot succeed with someone of noble blood, you can at least strive for a man who can provide for you amply through life. That young tea merchant—Graham Gordon—will be going, and so will the McVean boys.”

My heart jumps. “Andrew McVean?”

“Algernon and Randall McVean, for Gods’ sake.” Bianca joins us as she descends gracefully downstairs. “It’s their father who’s named Andrew. Really, Katriona, how stupid can you get? Or have you lost your memory again?”

I barely hear the barbs in her voice.

“I’ll go.” I hike up my skirt and race up the steps two-at-a-time, ignoring Lady Bradshaw’s protests. It’s the first time I’ve been so eager to go to a dinner party.

Previous: FIFTEEN
Next: SEVENTEEN