This Duchess of Mine Page 32


“It’s not a bribe,” Jemma said. “It’s a gift.”

“This place is a gift,” Miss Sophisba said, clutching the gloves. “Does you know that, Miss Duchess?”

“You don’t call her that,” Mrs. Nibble said. “Mrs. Duchess maybe, or ‘my lady.’”

A boy ran by, shrieking like a teakettle in a way that signified he wanted to be noticed. And just to make sure he was, he dropped a handful of smallish wooden balls at Jemma’s feet.

Mrs. Nibble took after him with an enraged howl. Jemma bent down to pick up the boy’s balls, since he was currently being rapped on the head by Mrs. Nibble, though thankfully not with a saucepan.

“How clever!” she exclaimed, turning it over. There was a human face carved into the ball, a face with a laughing, stubby nose and eyes that seemed to twinkle with amusement. She picked up another, which turned out to have the face of a wicked little demon with pointed ears and sharp chin. A third was a round-faced woman.

“Pie makes ’em,” Miss Sophisba said. “See, he’s always carving.” She gestured toward a man in the circle. Pie was holding a tiny sharp knife and flicking at a piece of wood. A steady stream of shavings flew out to his left and right.

“But he can’t see!”

“He sees with his fingers, he says,” Miss Sophisba explained.

Jemma walked over to Pie. “These are absolutely wonderful,” she said, dropping one of the balls in his hand so he knew what she meant.

He grinned. “The wood tells me, that’s all. The wood tells me what’s inside.”

Elijah appeared at her side. “Pie was a master glassblower.”

“We all were,” Knobby said cheerfully. “Only the best for the Cacky Street glassblowers. There’s quite a wait list,” he told Jemma.

“To work in the factory?” she asked.

“His Grace here won’t take any apprentices, ’cause he says they’re too young to decide about whether to give up their eyesight. But those of us that has already got the skills, well, there’s nowhere else anyone would want to work ’cept for Cacky Street.”

“Because of this?” she said, looking around.

“’Course. All paid for, see, and nice to boot. Food we have, and enough to spare over and share about. Wives if we want ’em with us, and if they want to come. It’s always warm, even in the coldest months.”

Elijah was rocking back and forth slightly on his heels. “It’s the least we could do,” he said, his voice harsh. “We’re responsible for taking your sight.”

“Oh no ye ain’t,” Pie said unexpectedly. “’Twas the glass that took my sight. All that lovely, beautiful glass, and I wouldn’t have had it another way. See, when you blow, the glass tells you what’s inside,” he said, moving his face in the general direction of Jemma and Elijah. “That’s what the duke here never understands, for all he feels to blame and such. It’s glass that’s our mistress. I thought I’d go mad at first, when I had to stop blowing. Then someone gave me a knife and some wood and I was away. Thought I’d go mad,” he repeated.

“We have one of Pie’s glass bowls,” Elijah said. “In the drawing room.”

“Not the green one with the fluted edge? Mr. Pie, that is an exquisite bowl,” Jemma said.

He beamed. “She called to me and I just brought her out, that’s all. And now she lives in a duke’s home.” His hands kept moving over the block of wood he held in his lap and then he started flicking away at it again with his knife. “Can’t do better than that.”

“Happy birthday again, Cully,” Elijah said.

Cully genially waved a bottle in their direction and hiccupped.

“I gave him a bit of the best today,” Knobby said.

“Seeing as it’s his birthday. That’s the best gin.”

Elijah took Jemma’s ungloved hand. “Goodbye, everyone.”

The men all turned their heads and chorused goodbye; the children ran by screaming. Miss Sophisba waved her gloves shyly, and Mrs. Nibble glared from her chair next to Nibble.

“They’re blind because of the Cacky Street glassblowing factory,” Jemma said as soon as they were back in the carriage. “Which we own.”

“There’s something in the glass that ruins the eye,” Elijah said. “The doctor thinks it’s in the smoke. It’s not good for their lungs either. They don’t live very long. We’ve lost two in the last six months.”

She was silent.

“You likely think I should close the factory,” Elijah said.

“No—”

“If I close the factory,” he interrupted, “it won’t stop people from buying glass. And if I sell the factory, there won’t be anywhere for the workers to go once they’re blinded. The run of them from the other factories end up in the poorhouses.”

“Elijah…”

“I thought I might move the house to the country, where there would be air and cleanliness, and I could get a decent woman to live in and cook for them. But they hated that idea. They like living in Spitalfields, with all their old friends dropping by for gossip and a chunk of bread. We feed half the neighborhood.”

“Elijah…” she repeated.

“Knabby has a cook shop deliver meals. I probably shouldn’t allow Sophisba there but she keeps the men happy—”

“Elijah!” She touched his cheek and he finally focused on her.

“Yes?”

“I think it’s a wonderful house. I think you’ve done exactly the right thing. I have just two suggestions.”

“You do?” His eyes lightened. “You don’t think I should—”

“I don’t think you should change anything,” she said firmly. “But perhaps you could hire a young woman to play with the children and even teach them to read.”

“We could do that easily enough,” he said, looking surprised.

“And you should fix up some sort of head…piece, with glass in the front, so the blowers don’t get smoke in their eyes.”

“What?”

“Pie could carve a sort of helmet, like a soldier’s helmet. And there could be something in front, oh I don’t know what, something. And then some glass, so they could see the glass to blow it, but their eyes would be protected.”

He stared at her.

“You could try,” she suggested.

“Damn,” he said.

“Elijah! I’ve never heard you swear.” She started laughing.

“Damn and double damn.” But he said it slowly, thinking.

“I have a question. What do you mean that Sophisba keeps the men—happy? How exactly does she…”

Elijah wasn’t listening. “I can see what you’re suggesting. It would need light wood. Or leather. It’ll take thinking.” He looked up. “Sophisba is there only when her husband’s in the Clink. When he’s out, he makes her work the streets. She’s Mrs. Nibble’s daughter, you know.”

“No!”

“She has her own room. I don’t believe she actually performs personal services for the men. But she makes them happy.”

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