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

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TWENTY-SEVEN

 

 

I raise my umbrella and bring it down on the man’s head. He lets out a grunt and whirls around.

“Who are you—”

I whack him again. This time Krev helps me—the umbrella swings with the force of an iron bat. Not that I’ve ever wielded an iron bat, but it feels like one. The man sinks to the ground, clutching his head. A third blow from my umbrella renders him unconscious. I prod him in the chest to make sure he really is out. He twitches a bit, but doesn’t wake up.

“Um…you there.” I address the boy. “What’s your name?”

He stares at me like I’m an alien. I repeat my question.

“A…Angus.”

“Okay. Angus, do you know a girl called Molly? She has super short hair and she’s about this tall.”

He nods.

“Can you fetch her for me? I’m Kat…a friend…of another friend, Mr. Wellesley. She knows who I am.”

Angus takes another look at the unconscious man on the ground and then shuffles inside. If this were a movie, I would now tie him up and gag him, but I don’t have any rope.

Molly emerges presently, a curious expression on her face. Her eyes widen when she sees the man on the ground.

“Mr. Tolliver! Is he dead?”

“I hope not,” I say, sending Krev a look. The goblin shakes his head. “I only knocked him out with my umbrella.”

“You attacked him, lady?” Molly looks at my big, black umbrella, then back at me. Something like admiration shows in her face and tone.

“The mud tripped him so I could get a shot,” I say, indicating the ground. “Anyway, we don’t have much time. I need your help.”

“Me?” Molly stares. “For a fine lady like yer?”

“Yes. Actually, it’s helping you all as well. I need to conduct an interview with you, and I will write up an article and publish it in the paper. Or magazine. Both, if I can manage.”

Understanding gradually dawns on her face. “Lady, you want me to round up those hurt really bad and tell their stories in the paper, so everyone’d know?”

“Right. I’m hoping that this way we can raise public concern for child workers, so the prince can pass a law in the parliament. This law will state you will not work more than eight hours a day.”

Molly and Angus look at each other.

“Ei—eight hours, lady?” Molly says, her voice incredulous. Angus simply stares.

“That’s the idea. Ideally, I want the law to be changed so you don’t have to work anymore, but that would be calling for an enormous change. We have to start somewhere.” Sensational news sells. “Besides Jimmy, what other serious injuries have the others received?”

Molly takes a deep breath. “Una had three fingers chopped off. Will lost an ear. Jamie was in hospital ‘cause he had lung problems—he died last year.”

“And Polly,” Angus cut in.

“‘Shucks, can’t believe I forgot Polly. She’s the worst of all—got swept into a machine and half of her bones were battered and broken. We all thought she’d be killed, but she got out alive. She’s the only one among us who gets off two hours early, but we ain’t minding. She’d die if she worked our hours.”

My stomach heaves; I grip my umbrella tight. On the other hand, my brain tells me that if I’m feeling queasy just listening to the injuries, what kind of effect will it have when I get the stories down on paper?

“All right, Molly. Angus. Let’s get started.”

“What about Mr. Tolliver?” Angus says. He still looks scared when he glances at the man I knocked out. I can’t have him interfering with the interview.

“Is there any rope available?”

“Haul him under a running machine,” Molly says. “He won’t dare move an inch.”

“We can’t do that!” Angus cries. “Mr. McVean’ll kill us.”

In the end, we take the keys from Mr. Tolliver’s pockets and lock the doors from the inside. I exchange a warning glance with Krev, mouthing to him that he has to keep an eye on Mr. Tolliver.

The air is warm and humid, with wisps of cotton floating around, making it easy to sneeze and cough. The machines are huge, horrible, looming monsters. Children from six to sixteen are working with these machines, picking up cotton from the floor, adjusting the spindles, running back and forth. All of them have hunched backs, sallow skin, crooked knees, and bodies so thin that I could knock them over like bowling pins.

A few look up when I enter, but most are too busy to notice. I can’t interview them when they’re all occupied; moreover, the sound of the machines pounding is deafening.

I grab Molly’s arm. “Can we turn off the machines?”

She hesitates for a moment, then shrugs. She shows me how to pull the lever of the nearest machine—with some trepidation, I manage it. Angus runs up and tells the children working on the machine to move away. There’s an awful creaking noise—the wheels gradually become slower and slower—the machine stops.

Now that I’ve turned off the first machine, the rest get easier with practice. While I work on the machines, Molly and Angus explain my visit to the other children. By the time I finish with the last machine, I wipe sweat from my brow and sink on a stool. I feel like a hero in an action movie who has just stopped a ticking bomb.

“Um…” I make a clumsy gesture with both hands. “Hi. I know you’re wondering why I’m here. I…um…I had a friend. Who once worked here.”

“She’s a friend of Jimmy’s.” Molly said.

Disbelief and confusion spread across the children’s faces. They don’t believe that I, a well-dressed lady, am actually acquainted with Jimmy.

I plug on, anyway. “Jimmy’s sister was my handmaid. When he died, I couldn’t just stand by and do nothing. I asked the government to change the law, but they didn’t succeed. So now I’m trying to get the story out to the public. If the whole country is aware how awful your conditions are, then we’ll have better luck next time.”

The kids look at each other. One of the older kids, about fourteen or fifteen, speaks up.

“Why’re you doin’ this?” he asks, a suspicious glint in his eyes. “What’s in it for you?”

“Nothing but the relief of not seeing broken or dead bodies,” I say.

“Shut yer mouth, Ian,” Molly suddenly says. “A lady who felled Mr. Tolliver is a friend.”

“She knocked him over with an umbrella,” Angus says.

Now the kids look at me with newfound respect. Ian nudges a boy nearby and whispers something I can’t hear. But the rest seem to warm up to me.

“Can we really stop working, if you publish our story?” A girl asks eagerly. Her left hand is a stump; I wince. Those damn machines.

“We’ll start with shorter hours,” I say, pulling out my pad and pen. “Okay, let’s begin before that awful Tolliver returns.”

Now that I’ve explained myself, the kids are eager to talk. Those who manage to stay awake, anyway. Most of them simply slump on the floor and start dozing. There’s this tiny girl who seems only about four or five. I take her in my lap so she can curl up in the thick velvet folds like a kitten.

“What’s your name?” I address the girl with only one hand. “How old are you?”

“Una. I’m ten.”

The same age as Paige.

“Okay, Una.” I try to copy what Blake does when he interviews others. “Can you tell me how long you work every day?”

“Six in the morning to eight at night. When the trade is brisk, they make us work from five to nine.”

I mutter a swear word under my breath. “Including the weekend?”

She nods.

“How do you manage to stay awake?”

“Mr. Tolliver straps us.” When I look bewildered, Angus answers for her: “He uses his leather belt to beat us, ma’am.”

“Didn’t you try running away?”

Una nods. “I got strapped pretty bad for it. But I’d rather take a beating than him imposing a fine. He does that sometimes, when the cotton amount ain’t going well.”

Upon more questioning, I learn that they can be fined for talking, whistling, failing to keep the machines clean (a bit of dirt qualifies), and that sometimes Mr. Tolliver alters the clock and accuses them of being late, which gets them “quartered” again.

I swallow my frustration as I write all of this down. I swear that before I leave Story World, I am so going to publish what I wrote today. Even if it means I have to hand write a hundred copies and pass them out in crowded areas.

 

It is afternoon when I return home, wet and shivering. It started raining again when I left the cotton factory, my mind reeling from the interviews. Van has this suspicious look when I climb in the hansom, but I give no explanation. We’ve worked out an agreement: as long as he doesn’t babble where I’ve been, I won’t tell Lady Bradshaw that he keeps a locket with Bianca’s hair in it.

“Good heavens, miss,” Martha says when I take off my cloak and stomp on the rug in the parlor, trying to shake off as much mud as possible. “There’s a horrid smell on you—where have you been?”

“Nothing, I just got caught in the rain and mud,” I say. “Can you draw up a bath for me in my room?”

Martha clucks her tongue. “I’d make you scrub yourself from head to toe, even if you didn’t ask. Now we’ve got to put some bergamot oil in the parlor, or Madam will certainly sniff out that smell when she comes back.”

The bath is another laborious process, in which Martha and another maid carry tin pails of hot water up and down the stairs. I don’t take baths as often as in the modern world, but luckily the weather is often cold enough that I don’t stink much. Today, however, I absolutely need a thorough body wash. I sink into the water and let out a contented sigh. I didn’t think I’d get so attached to this world, but I have.

I spend the evening editing my notes. I piece together sentence fragments, correct spelling, and eliminate redundant words. It feels weird to be handwriting entire pages of text instead of typing them up on the computer, but a few hours later, when I finally have a stack of neatly written pages on the desk, I’m proud of and satisfied with the results.

The next day I visit The Bookworm, though I tell Lady Bradshaw I’m going to Henry’s house.

The shop is closed AGAIN. I wonder what kind of nefarious plot they’re cooking up in the basement. Maybe a plan to blow up the parliament, since it’s full of idiots. Anyway, I go ahead and knock on the door.

No one answers.

I ball my hand into a fist and pound away like a hammer.

“Lassie!” Mr. Wellesley’s voice comes through the peephole. “We’re in the middle of a meeting now—”

“So let me in.”

Dramatically, I flourish my bundle of papers in front of the peephole. Like any normal person, Mr. Wellesley cannot resist curiosity. There’s the sound of a bolt being lifted, and the door squeaks open.

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