Lot learns why climbing drainpipes is dangerous.
For past episodes of Victorian Mistress see the Weekly Serial page.
London – 1840
I stared at the page of figures in front of me and tapped my pencil against the reading table. The incomings exceeded the outgoings which was all good and well but despite what Father Brennan thought my resources weren’t unending. I could afford Ellington’s factory and to set up the school Brennan required, which didn’t mean I wanted to let the money go. It wasn’t that I was greedy but every lost penny still felt like a penny closer to the workhouse.
The shrieks and cries came, whispers from a distant corner of the library, coming closer, growing louder.
My fists clenched and I forced echoes back into their box.
They were gone and replaced with the groaning of the bookcases, the wood sliding and shifting as they reorganised themselves. Pages flittered through the air, slipping into books, or drawers or stacking on tables.
The library looked like Bran’s. It had the same tall shelves with leaf detailing, the same big square reading tables and the same comfortable leather armchairs. Except it was constantly in motion, not so much that if anyone could get into my mind they’d see it but if they wandered between the stacks they might never get out again, the maze was never still, unless I wanted it to be.
In a small book beside my main ledger I made a note of how much I was willing to pay for Ellington’s factory, given the market value, and how much I expected to spend on initial outlay, raising wages, improving conditions and finding a new cotton supplier who didn’t use slaves. No doubt it would be more expensive, but worth it.
‘Mummy!’ a squeal echoed in the distance.
Surfacing was like bursting up through bath water only to find myself lying on my back staring at the clear sky. I rolled onto my side and gagged. As far as my brain was concerned I’d been sitting then moving while at the same time prone on the roof and it didn’t like it.
‘Mummy!’ Came the squeal again. That wasn’t Mary. The children were meant to be at the park with Bran and Mrs Stapleton.
‘I want my mummy!’
I scrambled to the edge of the roof and spotted Millie dangling from the drainpipe.
Oh. Bloody. Hell.
‘Muuuuummmmmy,’ she wailed, one foot wobbling on the bracket the other scrabbling for purchase.
Why wasn’t I doing anything? Was that panic? Was I going to be frozen in place while she screamed for her mother, lost her grip and fell to her death?
Her foot slipped. She shrieked, her opaque fingers slipping down the pipe.
I swung over the edge of the roof, grabbed the pipe and slid downwards, changing hands to avoid the brackets.
I grabbed her by the waist and pulled her to me. My shoulder jerked and my hand caught on a bracket.
We dangled there by my trapped arm. It was too far to drop down to the grass but she was almost as tall as me. Bran had reinforced the drainpipe but no-one had reinforced my arm.
She wailed against my shoulder gripping me tight.
‘I need you to trust me, Millie,’ I murmured as soothingly as I could with my arm trembling and blood dribbling down the pipe passed my face. ‘You’ve got to get on my back with your arms a legs around me.’
She shook her head. ‘Nononono.’
It didn’t seem like a good idea to point out that if we fell from that height death was probable, not necessarily a quick one either.
It was a long time since I’d been as scared as she was. I’d been far younger than her, there’d been too much fear to feel so I stopped feeling at all. There had never been a reason to fear death anyway; death had been inevitable, preferable even.
But I did remember being a scared child. Vividly.
‘I won’t let you fall, I promise,’ I whispered close to her ear.
She raised her head just enough to look at me.
‘You’re safe with me, Millie, I promise.’ Until my arm gave out and we plummeted, my adult brain reminded me.
She gave me a tiny nod.
‘Wrap your arms and legs around me and you’ll be fine.’
She held tight and managed to shuffle onto my back. I pressed my feet to the wall and walked us down the drainpipe, hand-over-hand, foot-after-foot, slowly. It wasn’t the first time I’d shimmied down a drainpipe injured and carrying a heavy load, but it had never been a person before.
Instead of dropping the last few feet I went right to the bottom and stepped down then crouched to let her climb off my back.
She sat down with her back against the wall and pulled her knees to her chest.
I stretched my arms out, they ached and burned. What I really wanted to do was collapse on the ground beside her but I doubted that would be reassuring. ‘What were you doing on the drainpipe?’
She sniffled. ‘I wanted to talk to you. It didn’t look hard. I didn’t mean to get stuck and bother you.’
‘I’m not angry at you, I’m angry at myself.’
She looked up at me with watery eyes.
‘I should’ve known something like that would happen and if not acted faster when it did.’ I rubbed my aching shoulder.
‘Oh,’ she murmured.
‘It doesn’t answer the question.’
‘Bran and Mrs Stapleton are nice but I didn’t think they’d let you teach me to be like you. Girls aren’t supposed to do that.’
‘I can’t teach you to be like me.’
‘I can teach you to defend yourself but what I am can’t be taught.’
She frowned. ‘There’s a difference?’
I crouched down. ‘There’s a very big difference. And, no, Bran wouldn’t object to me teaching you to defend yourself.’
‘What’s the difference?’
I smiled. ‘You’ll have to learn and see.’
She looked at the ground, cheeks a red that would make Bran proud. ‘You won’t tell the others I wet myself will you?’
I hadn’t been going to mention the dampness on the small of my back. ‘No.’ I rose and offered her my uninjured hand. ‘Come on, let’s go find Nora and get you a bath and some clean clothes.’ As Mrs Stapleton was always checking Nora’s dusting she never minded putting one over on the housekeeper.
As we walked I checked my hand. It was deeply gashed and would need binding but it was nowhere as bad as I’d expected. I’d expected it to be mangled, not that I was going to complain.
We could’ve died.
I’d rather not.