Misfortune

by Wesley Stace

Hardcover, 531 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $23.95 | purchase

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Title
Misfortune
Author
Wesley Stace

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Book Summary

When Lord Geoffroy Loveall finds an abandoned baby, he treats the child as the daughter he has always wanted, despite the male gender of the child, who grows up desperately conflicted in the richest home in nineteenth-century England. A first novel.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Misfortune

Misfortune


Little, Brown

Copyright © 2005 Wesley Stace
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-83034-8

Chapter One

By now, Pharaoh had reached his destination. A dirty young man of no more than fifteen years, he stood at the door of a crooked house in an alley, out of breath, gasping for air and wondering what to do. On one foot, he wore an oversized woman's boot he'd found while scavenging for nails at low tide. On the other was a tattered derby tied together with string that bit viciously into his instep, though he barely noticed. On his head flopped a ragged cloth, with little shape or apparent purpose, and in between his top and his toes, his costume comprised a patchwork of tears and mends in at least three materials from many more pieces of previously worn clothing. Pharaoh was so relieved to have arrived in time that he had stopped his singing. Suddenly the world lost all clarity. His instructions: hear tip-off, run like lightning to Mother's, give the warning.... But the door was locked. The door was never locked, and he couldn't work out what to do. They hadn't told him. Pharaoh's concentration was a fragile thing and his mind was now too muddled to remember a tune. It was as though he'd never heard one before, and with no song to help him focus, all was lost. He stared down at the top edge of a silver twopenny bit that glinted in the mud, but couldn't even recognize it as something worth having.

Above him, out of his view, a woman was hanging a white dress on the railing of the balcony, from which hung a sign above the locked door: SHAVING AND BLEEDING AT A TOUCH. A placard for the adjacent new bagnio: men for sport swung close by, and from the bagnio's window a chubby female hand emerged to splash the contents of a chamber pot into the street.

For a moment, the laundress was unaware that there was anyone beneath. She began to sing as she worked, and this is what finally breathed life into Pharaoh again. It was one of the old songs, his favorite of the many she sang: the story of Lambkin the builder who tortures Lord Murray's family when his note is refused. The purity of Annie's voice contrasted starkly with the words of her song and the street below:

"'Where is the heir of this house?' said Lambkin: 'Asleep in his cradle,' the false nurse said to him. And he pricked that baby all over with a pin, While the nurse held a basin for the blood to run in."

She had sung it so many times as a lullaby that the horror of the story was somehow soothing. Pharaoh joined in, slowly remembered what he was about, and began to bang on the front door with all his might. She looked below and her singing trailed off. "Are you looking up my skirt, Pharaoh?" she called down. "Lucky I'm not in it!"

But his mind was too full to answer and he shouted up at her: "Where's Mother? Mother!" He kept up his frantic banging. "Stop it, Pharaoh! You'll have that door down!"

"Where's Mother Maynard?" he pleaded, close to tears and barely able to get the words out of his mouth. "Mother!"

"Mother is otherwise engaged at the moment," Annie hissed from above, with a quick glance around to see who could hear. "She cannot see anyone, Pharaoh, not even you." Then something dawned on her, crossing her face like a black cloud over the sun. "You're early. What are you doing here now anyway?"

"They're coming! They're coming!" His frantic look over his shoulder told her everything. Annie dropped the dress, which floated down toward the street, opening up as it did and swaying from side to side before it completed its gentle descent. She disappeared inside and Pharaoh listened to her progress as she ran downstairs.

"Mother!" Annie was shouting. "They're coming! They're coming!" There was a scream from within and the door was flung open. Pharaoh fell inwards on top of her.

"Good boy," she said as she pinched his cheek. "How far away?" "Now!" he yelped. "How many?"

"Two police and another man. And they mean business, Sailor said." "Stay," she commanded, as you order a dog that understands only five words. Annie bolted the front door and ran into a back room. Pharaoh tried to follow but was stopped at the door, which was closed decisively in his face. He tried to catch his breath as he rested his forehead upon the frame. A cat sniffed suspiciously at one of the dishes of what appeared to be red milk that lay at the door. Two buckets stood nearby as if to catch rain dripping from the ceiling. Flies buzzed around, and the atmosphere was as thick as glue and damp with sweat.

"Tell Mother!" Pharaoh pleaded to no one, and slumped down on the floor, expecting the front door to open (or be pushed down) at any moment. He had played his part, he thought, and now it felt that all the life had been sucked out of him, that it was his blood in the dishes and buckets, his sweat in the air, and his mess on his shoes. There was no song left in his head. Pharaoh had run as though his life depended on it because he owed that life to Mother, and his loyalty was all he could give in return. She was his "mother," as she was everyone's, and he had no other. Pharaoh occupied a place far down the hierarchy of her house, but he was a vital member, and during his tenure as the tipper there had been no trouble, because what trouble there might have been had been easily averted. Today was the first great crisis, and Sailor's warning had come woefully late. Pharaoh knew what Mother did, that she helped girls, that she bled them, at a touch, and he knew that some of the bleeding was illegal, but above all he knew this: no one else must see. Even he never ventured into the back room.

The interior door opened and a skeletal hand reached through as from the coffin of a child's toy money-box. The noise from beyond was fearful, just as the churchman described the sounds of hell: the endless howling of souls in torment, damned in the lake of fire. He looked over, too dulled to move. The hand grabbed the dishes, slopping blood on the floor and dousing the cat, which mewled and ran off. The bucket was next to disappear. The boy began to mop up the blood with a rag, not knowing why or if it was required.

The screaming suddenly stopped. Pharaoh stood at the door, not breathing, not thinking, not singing.

"They must be 'ere by now. They must be," he whispered as the door to the annex opened. This time he found himself pulled through. The room was teeming with people, but he saw Mother and, looking around, he gulped. Blood. He was sick in the back of his mouth and he swallowed it down. There was a bed that had a canopy with burn marks up its visible side, and on a central table, a girl in a grimy white nightgown, a dark stain around her thighs and belly. A Passover cake, coated with treacle to mire flies, dangled from the ceiling. Everybody ran around him, but he stood as still as he could and looked down at the ground. Suddenly Annie stopped in front of him and handed him a package wrapped in black tarp and rags.

"Pharaoh, you take this. Put it under your jacket. It's poisonous, mind, so don't you look at it. Walk for three hours and then throw it on the rubbish or toss it in the river. If someone asks you what it is, you tell them it's none of their business and then run away. But don't look at it or touch it, it's poison."

Pharaoh didn't ask questions, because he wanted so badly to leave. He knew to do exactly what she said and he knew where he'd take it. If someone asked, which nobody would, he'd say it was his lunch. That made him laugh, but he didn't dare look up. He stared at the little bundle and then shoved it up inside his clothes, but this, too, made him laugh. He looked like Annie when she was pregnant. He was so nervous that everything seemed funny.

Mother looked down at the girl with the stain and said grimly, "She's gone." Annie turned back to Mother and then, remembering Pharaoh, looked around at him.

"Go! Now!" He turned to leave by the front door, but she grabbed him by the collar. He'd never before heard her in such a fury. "No! The other door. Over there!"

And Annie showed him a door he'd never seen before just beyond the bloody girl. As he went toward it, he tried not to look around or notice the gurgling from her body like water spitting from a loose pipe. He opened the door ("Go, and we don't want to see you till night!" snarled after him), and the outside world shone in its brightness. He looked up at the sky and exhaled, biting his lower lip until it hurt. He breathed in as though he had been submerged for the past ten minutes, drowning in thick paste, and as he did, he heard the front door banging and the cry: "In the name of the law and His Majesty King George!"

Pharaoh closed the back door behind him. He was out in time. And off he sauntered, catching his breath, the little actor. He was invisible when he wanted to be. He was fascinated to have found this new door in a house he thought he knew so well, but he didn't want to use it ever again. They'd kept him out of the back room for his own sake, he saw that now. He looked back for one last time to see a small red stream running from the bottom of the door into the drain. No wonder he didn't know about it. It wasn't important. It's my lunch, thank you very much. He'd got there first and he'd done what he was told. This was his lunch. And he'd get his supper, too, back at Mother's later.

He was looking forward to supper. Tonight there would be something good, without doubt.

As he walked, Pharaoh sang, always, his life a long song cycle of his own devising. He didn't always know whether he was singing aloud or not, nor was he particularly aware that he was singing at all: each morning he awoke with a song in his head, and each night he sang himself to sleep. He sang for want of singing and fear of silence. Sometimes when he wasn't moving, there was no song. Then his gaping face drained of character and, tongue lolling out of his mouth, he looked like a tired dog desperate for water.

From time to time he would abruptly start a new song, and the previous one was entirely forgotten, sometimes gone forever. He made them up as he walked along, mumbling rhymes, words tumbling over one another, sometimes refining into sense, sometimes remaining nonsense. His eyes wrote on his behalf from the world in front of him, and he filled in whatever he couldn't see with stock phrases from older favorites. He made up most of the melodies, too.

Sometimes the less he thought about the outside world the better, for the more he tried to understand it, the less he did. But he knew his job well, and his songs kept him calm - the ones he made up and the old ones that he embellished. They kept the world at bay and stopped real thoughts and worries from entering his head, even now.

As he headed down the back street behind Mother's, Pharaoh stood on tiptoe for a moment to peer between the roofs of the houses and catch a glimpse of his favorite clock, above St. Cuthbert's at Marblegate. The dial was beneath a small stone statue of a man with wings, an angel possibly, Pharaoh thought. This fat little being wanted nothing to do with time and flapped his arms in defiance, as though he were trying to escape but couldn't drag himself away. His feet were attached to a motto: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. Annie had told him what this meant, but hers had been a markedly different translation from the vicar's during one of his lengthy sermons, and Pharaoh hadn't known which one of them to believe.

The hands on the clock were equally hard to interpret, and though Pharaoh knew that he had to let the larger of the two hands do something before he was to stop and turn back, that wasn't why he looked at clocks. That was just one of the many things that he knew but didn't really understand.

People he loved and trusted told him things that he knew were true (if only because of the source), and he often said he understood something when he didn't, even though he could repeat it with confidence. No, he looked at clocks because church clocks turn up six an hour in the city, and he knew that meant he would have to see eighteen before he turned around and went back again. This was something that he understood because he'd worked it out himself. It very rarely let him down and he was never late for anything. It meant that he spent a lot of his life waiting for other people, but these were among the most peaceful times, sitting on a wall, making up a song or trying to improve the older ones when he could remember them. He couldn't read and he could barely write his name, so there wasn't much more he could be doing as he waited, apart from singing. Sailor had taught him to tell the time by the sun and the length of his own shadow, but that would be of no use to him on this trip. The shadows were off with the sun somewhere far from the city. Today everything was gray.

Their part of town was a maze and Pharaoh had learned to use this to his advantage. As a linkboy, he knew practically every way to get everywhere, and though he hadn't known exactly where he was headed when he left Mother's, he knew where to avoid: wherever he was known and might be approached. He steered clear of the Lane and, of course, the Coffee House, which were both on his normal route. There was always the crowd of chaunters, and they'd be looking for the opportunity of some work as the afternoon wore on. So, at Resurrection Gate, he had left the main thoroughfares and ducked into the alleys of Little Dublin, where he could travel secretly. The backs of the houses seemed particularly dismal today, and he had kept his eyes to his feet as he shuffled along through the mud. He passed the stocks at Ash Square, on which someone had daubed the words "Christ Is Good" in paint, with, it had been explained to him, one of the armholes as the extra O in God. He started to sing:

"Christ is God But where's his body Removed from yonder grave Christ is God Let's drink a toddy Every man will too be saved."

He wasn't happy with "Let's drink a toddy," but it didn't stop him from refining the six lines until it was the only survivor. That took three clocks.

He was two hours away from Mother's. He hadn't stopped to eat or drink. The urgency of Annie's voice had stayed with him, hurrying him along, and he was taking the task of depositing the bundle very seriously. Six clocks to go.

He kept the small bundle tight under his shirt, covered by his coat. He saw no one he knew until a ballad seller of his acquaintance, named Bellman, stopped him on his way. "Pharaoh! Pharaoh!" Bellman called.

Pharaoh hadn't known whether to stop or continue on as though he hadn't noticed. But while he had been weighing these options he had been looking directly at Bellman, and he realized that it would be ridiculous to do anything other than walk toward him. Bellman had known him for years, ever since Pharaoh's father, an operator at one of the Covent Garden gaming shops where he worked the faro tables, had been murdered for feeding information to the law.

Continues...