This Duchess of Mine Page 31

“Cully is well?”

“Fair to middling. Of course, it’s his birthday today, so he’s in the drink already, though I hate to say it. But that’s Cully.” He stopped just outside a tall door.

“They’re in the courtyard, enjoying the sun. But I should tell you that the foreman stopped by and we’ll be having a new man with us, any day now. The name is Berket. Can’t say that I remember him very well, but he was beginning when I left, I expect.”

“There’s room enough?” Elijah asked.

“More than enough! We’ve got that room from when Lasker left us, a month ago that’s been. And there’s Nicholson’s room open still, and another one too, when Miss Sophisba ain’t choosing to stay there. She’s here today and will be glad to see Yer Grace.”

“Anything you need, just send a boy to Towse,” Elijah said. He glanced down at Jemma. “Towse is one of my solicitors.”

“We need nothing,” Knabby said merrily. “We admired them fruits as you sent from yer conservatory, Yer Grace, but to tell the truth, none of the men would eat them. They’re set in their ways, and they’re not adventuresome, if you know what I mean. The children snapped them right up, though.”

“Who is Miss Sophisba?” Jemma whispered as Knabby opened the door. “And—”

“You’ll see,” Elijah said, and there was something so grim about his voice that Jemma stopped talking.

At first sight the small courtyard seemed to be hosting a children’s party, but after a moment Jemma realized that there were more chickens than people, and though both groups were making noise, the three children chasing a puppy were winning the contest.

“Now look who’s come to celebrate Cully’s birthday,” Knabby announced. “The duke is here, you group of lazy scubblers!”

The courtyard was dominated by a circle of dilapidated armchairs mostly occupied by men, all of whom turned toward Knabby’s voice. And all of whom, Jemma realized immediately, were blind.

They were a curious bunch. For one thing, not everyone had chosen to put on clothing. Two men were entirely without trousers; their scrawny white legs stretched out in the weak sun. One of them had a beard so long that it was tucked into the waistband of his apron, which he wore, incongruously, on top of a plaid coat.

There were two women, one a hard-mouthed matron whom she assumed must be Mrs. Nibble, as she looked precisely like someone who wielded a mean saucepan.

The other must be Miss Sophisba. She was younger, and while not exactly pretty, she had the air of someone who made an effort. Most of that effort involved lip rouge and improbably golden hair. It appeared to be directed toward attracting male attention, which seemed odd, given that no one could see her except Mrs. Nibble. And Mrs. Nibble was definitely not the sort to enjoy crimson lips and yellow hair.

One of the half-naked men stood up. “Get up, ye flea-bitten knabblesquabbers,” he bellowed suddenly. “The duke’s here. You should be on yer feet and doing the pretty! It’s my birthday and I’ll have everything in—in—”

He sat down suddenly. Knabby was definitely right. Cully had been in the drink, and never mind the fact that it was morning.

“And the duchess is with me,” Elijah said easily. The frown had dropped from his face and he looked as genial as if he had entered a tea party in Kensington. “I’ve brought along my wife, the prettiest duchess in all the kingdom.”

“I wish we could see that,” the bearded man said, staring into space. “I’ve never seen a real duchess. Though I did see the queen once. She had a fearsome wig, the queen did.” He elbowed Mrs. Nibble. “Is there a wig, one of those tall ones?”

“She’s wearing a velvet dress,” the older woman told him. She had risen and given a quick bob of a curtsy and then sat back down directly. “She doesn’t have one of those wigs on her head. I think she has her own hair, but with some powder on it, like nobs wear.”

Elijah had strolled over to wish happy returns of the day to Cully. Then he stopped at the next chair and started a conversation about the riots. Jemma felt she had to do something. She couldn’t just stand about like a fool. So she moved toward the two women. Miss Sophisba promptly jumped to her feet, looking terrified.

“Are these your children?” Jemma asked. “They’re delightful.” Which was not the truth. They were too dirty to give anyone a sensation of delight. But they looked cheerful and well-fed.

The older woman had lumbered to her feet again. “She don’t have any children.” She jerked her head derisively.

Miss Sophisba ignored her. “They belong to Knabby’s sister. Or perhaps his niece. At any rate, she’s a cloth-dyer, which is prodigious hard work, and so the children spend the days here. Usually Waxy’s grandchildren come along later in the day, too. His daughter works in the mews, and so she drops them here.”

“Don’t they go to school?” Jemma asked.

“Not most of the time,” Miss Sophisba said with a shy smile. “It’s not something most people hold with, here in Spitalfields.”

“I don’t think there is a school in Spitalfields,” Mrs. Nibble said. “Not in my time, anyhow.”

“Oh dear,” Jemma said.

“Those are loverly gloves,” Miss Sophisba said. “I’ve never seen anything like them.”

“Would you like to try them on?” Jemma asked readily. She ignored Mrs. Nibble’s snort and pulled them off.

“I couldn’t,” Miss Sophisba gasped. But they slid over her small dirty hands as if they’d been made for her.

“You may have them,” Jemma said, smiling at her.

Miss Sophisba paled. “I couldn’t!”

“No, she couldn’t,” Mrs. Nibble said grimly. “Her husband’d have ’em off her in no more time than it takes to dock a whore.” Suddenly she looked self-conscious. “If you’ll excuse the expression, milady.”

“I could hide them,” Sophisba said. “An’ just look at them now and then, when I was here, like.”

“Aren’t you here all the time?” Jemma asked.

“Only when her husband is thrown in the Clink,” Mrs. Nibble said. “Then she doesn’t have to be on her back, you see, and his dukeship is nice enough to let her stay here.”

“You keep them for her, Mrs. Nibble,” Jemma said. She let just enough of a duchess tone creep into her voice so that Mrs. Nibble blinked. “Whenever Miss Sophisba is in residence at Cow Cross, she can wear them.”

Miss Sophisba was stroking the gloves as if they were alive. “I’d be that thankful,” she breathed. “They’re the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life.”

“And you shall have this handkerchief for your trouble, Mrs. Nibble,” Jemma said.

Mrs. Nibble frowned. “I don’t need no bribe to keep them gloves for her. I’m not a person to cast her aside, just ’cause of what she does.”

Jemma’s handkerchief was woven of Belgian lace and embroidered in the middle with a very elaborate white B, for the Duchy of Beaumont.

“That’s a B,” Mrs. Nibble said, turning the handkerchief this way and that. “My name is Bertha.”

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