The Whitechapel Virgin – Chapter 2
Chapter One can be found here.
Catherine Bell hesitated at the tavern doorway. Despite her uneasiness at the sight before her she stood still, watching, for she was tired and the hunger pawed at her belly.
After having packed only the lightest case earlier that morning bearing the few worldly items she possessed, she spent the entire day desperately hoping to acquire new lodgings and employment. Ideally both within the same day if the Lord had any pity on her.
The tavern was large inside and bustling with custom, though she noted there was no order or elegance to the scene. The red glow of a large fire which blazed within the hearth on one side of the room appeared warm and inviting. Along the rafters large square lanterns hung from rusty chains which were attached precariously to thick rotten timbres.
Sturdy wooden tables sat haphazardly across the floor. Many were occupied by slouching men, who by their rugged appearance and inebriated expressions seemed to have spent many hours filling their bellies with ale.
On a table at the far end of the room a visibly buxom woman sat upon a man’s lap revealing soft ample cleavage and swinging her glass to and fro as she sang. At another table situated much closer to Catherine, a gentleman’s hand was hidden beneath a woman’s skirt whilst she crooned softly to him and stroked his cheek playfully.
Catherine blushed realising that she was staring directly into the concealed and murky world of immoral entertainment. She absorbed the view in silent dread and innocent awe before turning away, making the immediate decision to retreat into the street outside and try her fortunes elsewhere.
A woman’s voice from the serving counter shouted across to her.
‘Hey young missy, what are you after? It’s nearly closing time in ‘ere.’
She saw that the bar mistress was middle-aged and had glowing red cheeks. Her sleeves were rolled up high and droplets of perspiration glistened on her skin as she craned her neck forward to hear above the din.
‘I am looking for a vacant room for the night but I have only a shilling to spare,’ Catherine replied truthfully.
The serving woman threw back her head and laughed, nudging the shoulder of a black-toothed old man seated upon a stool in front of her.
‘D’ya hear that Al? She’s only got a shilling to spare, the poor lass.’
The pitiful man swayed from side to side and glanced over at Catherine with sagging eyelids. A younger gentleman beside him cast a more approving eye and leaned in closely to the serving woman’s ear where she listened with concentration before nodding.
‘Well how about you come inside for now then sweetheart. I’m Tilly. What’s your name, doll?’
‘Well come inside Miss Bell, welcome to our friendly lodging house. We’ll soon get you upstairs with a bed to rest yer poor feet on.’
‘Eddie?’ Tilly hollered loudly across the room and a young man approached. He was a good three or four inches taller than Catherine and looked to be younger than thirty. He had a toned upper body and broad shoulders, though seemed not in possession of the most handsome features, having sand coloured hair and a large nose that appeared bent out of shape. As he approached, Catherine noticed a deep scar running above his right eye and his cheeks were smutted with coal stains.
‘Follow me, miss,’ he said with a lop-sided grin and proceeded ahead.
Catherine picked up her case with her heart thumping wildly in her chest, for she was now to entrust a complete stranger with her welfare. Nonetheless, she obeyed his instruction and followed obediently.
Weaving between the tables she noted the unpleasant odour of sweat and tobacco which emanated from the many bodies sitting there. She wondered how many of these ill-groomed men must have come straight to the tavern after working long hours at the nearby factories or docks.
She had often heard her aunt mention that the earnings at the factories kept workers and their families scarcely clothed and fed, but they always had a shilling spare for a drink or two. Their existence was a sort of ‘living death,’ for many perished whilst standing at their stations and if that wasn’t the case, they often lost an eye or a limb.
Without warning, a gentleman reached out and grabbed Catherine’s arm. ‘Evenin’, miss, ‘ave you got anything for me then?’
Eddie, who was a few paces ahead, turned back and snarled at him angrily. ‘Leave her alone.’
The man grumbled under his breath and relaxed his grip. Catherine hurried on.
It would not do at all to stay for long in this place she decided. The one night would be sufficient and then she would seek lodgings elsewhere, as soon as the sun appeared over the horizon.
They reached a dilapidated staircase at the rear of the room. Eddie picked up a dimly-lit oil lamp from the bottom step and motioned up the stairs.
They ascended the dusty wooden steps together, where she was immediately relieved to be heading towards solitude and the luxury of relieving her tired, aching feet. The prospect of a warm drink too would have been gratifying, but she dared not take advantage of the more than adequate welcome she had already received. For now it was sufficient to escape the brisk night air as well as the busy tavern below.
They reached a second floor where they traipsed along what seemed to be a musky, cheerless corridor. Though it was dark, she could still see the ugly clumps of rotten plaster hanging from the ceiling, and the faded bits of paper peeling from its walls.
Eddie led the way holding the lamp ahead of him, whilst Catherine followed his dark shadow which stretched eerily behind. He stopped abruptly in front of a door near the end of the corridor, and from his coat pocket produced a large bunch of keys of odd lengths and sizes. With one hand he fumbled through them and she noticed thick callouses and scars on his knuckles. He glanced at her, smiled, and she quickly looked away.
‘Well here we are miss, this room is unoccupied.’
He turned the lock and paused. ‘Ah, sorry miss, but the rules are payment first I’m afraid.’
‘I see,’ she nodded, and took out the coin hidden deep in a pocket within the folds of her skirt.
‘Would it afford me a slice of bread and a cup of water in the morning?’ she enquired.
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ he grinned.
She stepped into a room that seemed little more than a foot or two larger than a pantry cupboard. The air inside was stale and it contained the barest of furnishings. A chair and thin plain wooden dresser of the tiniest proportions stood beneath a grime-covered window that was shielded inadequately by a greying fabric. A soiled mattress sat on a rusted steel frame beside the concrete wall covered only by a single threadbare blanket and pillow. A large chamberpot jutted out from beneath the bed, demurely covered by a piece of linen.
To Catherine the room felt immediately crowded with both of them inside it. She felt no great joy to be stopping there, but her estimation of the room’s appearance did not concern her now. Tired and weary, she would not spend another single second studying her surroundings.
She nodded in gratitude, inwardly deciding that she liked the young man. He had been courteous and kind to her, and kindness was a virtue she was not accustomed to. But she had no desire to indulge in any sort of conversation with him or be quizzed upon her circumstances, so she kept her eyes lowered and thanked him before turning away. He took the hint and retreated, closing the door firmly behind him.
Setting her case down on the floor, she sat at the edge of the bed with barely enough energy to undress. Beneath the floorboards the sound of musical notes and female laughter drifted up.
She slumped back and expelled a long breath.
It was disappointing to have spent an entire day searching the area only to be turned away by uncaring or suspicious eyes at every establishment. Some had looked at her with pity, whilst others with either complete disregard or scorn. There was no knowing when she fled her aunt’s empty home what reception she might receive, though it seemed that her fortunes had ultimately been thwarted by her age and lack of skill. Now that there was no family to speak of, no-one left to provide a roof over her head, she would be considered an orphan.
For the first time in her life, Catherine felt utterly and truly alone.
With little else to do she finally undressed, donning the simple nightgown she had carried within her case then slipped beneath the soiled blanket. Somewhere above her the slow drip of leaking water tapped against the ceiling.
Staring into the darkness she wondered what sort of future lay ahead of her beyond that night, but before her weary mind took stock of the unsettling fact and laid upon her even more worrying thoughts, her eyelids began to grow heavy. She closed them and let the fragmented thoughts in her mind drift off to entertain themselves. Now she was relishing the silence inside the room and the inviting sleep through which she could look forward to a brief escape.
Soon enough she floated away until the very last thing she saw in her mind were the curiously intense eyes of the gentleman who had earlier helped her to her feet outside the tavern itself.
She recalled how his handsome and mysterious features had quite literally taken her breath away, and she found it very odd that someone of his class would stop to assist her. Still, it had been very polite of him to do so and had she not noticed the tavern behind them, she would likely still be out there in the cold searching for a lodging house to stay.
The very thought was frightening enough.
Unable to recall anything else regarding the incident her eyelids closed as her mind settled upon his handsome features. They brought about the merest hint of an unknowing smile to her lips before she drifted into a dreamless sleep.
This is Chapter Two of the whitechapel virgin.
Chapter 3 will be available soon. I’m publishing one chapter every week.
As there are thirty-four chapters you can continue to read here on my website for absolutely free, or if you’d like to purchase the kindle version click on the link below.