- About the Book
- About the Author
- Map Jamaica
- Young Love
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- The Island
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
About the Book
A new saga from best-selling author Sarah Lark: original, captivating, superb
London, 1732: Nora Reed, the daughter of a merchant, falls hopelessly in love with her father’s clerk, Simon. Despite their differing social class, the star-crossed lovers dream of a future on a tropical island – until tragedy strikes, and Nora must face a life without her soulmate. Hopeless, Nora enters a marriage of convenience with Elias Fortnam, a widower and sugar planter in Jamaica. Even without Simon, she is determined to somehow fulfill their tropical fantasy. But life in the Caribbean doesn’t turn out as Nora had dreamt.
Nora is deeply shocked by the way plantation owners treat the slaves and decides to shake things up on her own sugar cane plantation – for the better. Surprisingly, her adult stepson Doug supports her in this endeavor when he arrives from Europe. However, his return also puts things into a state of turmoil – especially Nora’s feelings.
Just as Nora seems to be settling into her role as lady of the house, one harrowing event rips everything from her but her life … A gripping tale of love and hate, trust and betrayal, and a thrilling destiny set against the pristine beaches and swaying palmtrees of the tropics.
About the Author
Sarah Lark, born in 1958, studied psychology and completed her doctorate on the subject of “daydreams.” She also worked as a tour guide for many years and was always fascinated by the paradisiacal places of the world. Her captivating novels set in New Zealand immediately gained a large readership and have a longstanding position on the bestseller list in Germany.
Sarah Lark is a pseudonym of a successful German writer. She lives in Spain and is currently working on her next novel. Under the pen name Ricarda Jordan, she takes her readers away on a journey into the colourful middle ages.
Late summer to fall 1729
“Just look at the weather!”
Nora Reed shivered before stepping out of her father’s house and hurrying to the carriage that awaited her. The old coachman smiled as she hopped over the puddles in her high-heeled silk shoes in order to keep her dress from getting dirty. The voluminous farthingale revealed more of her ankles and calves than was seemly, but Nora had no inhibitions in front of Peppers. He had driven Nora to her baptism and had been in her family’s service for many years before that.
“Where are we off to?”
Smiling, the coachman held open the door of the high, black-painted vehicle for Nora. The doors were adorned with a sort of crest: elaborately intertwined initials — T and R for Thomas Reed, Nora’s father.
Nora quickly slid into the dryness and immediately let the hood of her large cloak fall back. This morning, her maid had braided her auburn hair with dark green ribbons that matched Nora’s eyes and her emerald-colored, open-front coatdress. Luckily the rain hadn’t disturbed the wide braid that fell across her back. Nora was not in the habit of powdering her hair white as fashion had dictated. Instead, she preferred it natural and was pleased when Simon compared her tresses to liquid amber. The young woman smiled dreamily at the thought of her beloved. Maybe she should stop by her father’s office before visiting Lady Wentworth.
“Down to the Thames first, please,” she gave Peppers rather vague directions. “I want to go to the Wentworths’… you know, the large house in the business district.”
Lord Wentworth had settled near the offices and trading companies along the Thames. Apparently, close contact with the merchants and sugar importers was more important to him than a residence in one of the more distinguished residential neighborhoods.
Peppers nodded. “You wouldn’t like to visit your father?” he inquired.
The old servant knew Nora well enough to read her slender, expressive face. In the last few weeks, she had requested remarkably often that he drive her down to the Reed offices — even when it was a detour and she had no real need to go there. Of course, the urge was not so much to see her father, but instead, Simon Greenborough, the youngest of his clerks. Peppers suspected that Nora also met the young man when she went out for a walk or ride, but he had no intention of interfering. Undoubtedly, his master would be displeased if his own daughter had a dalliance with one of his employees, but Peppers liked his young mistress — Nora had always known how to wrap her father’s staff around her finger — and so he indulged her infatuation with the handsome, dark-haired clerk. Thus far, Nora had never kept real secrets from her father. Thomas Reed had practically raised her alone after her mother had died many years before, and the two had a close, warm relationship. Peppers didn’t think that she would jeopardize it for a mere flirtation.
“Let’s see,” Nora said and her face took on a mischievous expression. “It couldn’t hurt if we’re passing by anyway. We’ll just have a little drive!”
Peppers nodded, shut the door behind her, and climbed onto the box, with some reluctance. With all due respect to Nora’s young love, this certainly was not very inviting weather to go for a drive in. It was pouring rain, and water rushed through the city, dragging refuse and waste along with it. The rain and filth from the streets combined to form a foul-smelling sludge, which gurgled under the carriage wheels. Additionally, it wasn’t uncommon for signs that had been torn from storefronts, or even animal carcasses, to get caught in the spokes.
Peppers drove slowly to avoid risking an accident and to spare the footboys and passers-by, who were walking despite the weather. They fled from the spraying water when a carriage passed, but didn’t always manage to escape the stinking shower. Regardless, Peppers didn’t have to rein in his horses in this weather. The animals moved onwards with reluctance — much like the slender, young man, apparently an errand boy, who was leaving Thomas Reed’s office as Peppers steered his carriage past. Peppers felt sympathy for him, but was now distracted by Nora, who was pounding on the window between the coach and the box.
“Peppers! Stop here, Peppers!”
Simon Greenborough had hoped that the weather would improve, but when he stepped out onto the street from the semidarkness of the office, the sight of soaking wet horses pulling covered coaches disabused him of the notion. Simon tried to pull up the collar of his threadbare coat to protect the lace trimming of his last acceptable shirt. He was in the habit of pressing it himself every evening in order to keep it at least partly in the right shape. Now it was immediately soaked through, along with Simon’s powdered hair. The water ran down his short, thick, dark braid. Simon longed for a headdress, but had to go without because he wasn’t quite sure what was proper for his new position as a clerk. Certainly not the young nobleman’s three-cornered hat, even if his own were still presentable, and not the elaborate style of wig that his father — and the bailiff — had worn …
Simon tried not to think about it any further. He coughed as water ran down his back. If he didn’t get out of the downpour soon, his coat and breeches would be completely soaked. The sodden leather of his old buckled shoes squeaked with every step. Simon tried to take longer strides. He was close to Thames Street, and maybe he could just wait for the answer to the letter that he had offered to deliver. Hopefully the rain would subside by then …
Simon first noticed the carriage approaching from behind when he heard Nora’s bright voice.
“Simon! What on earth are you doing out there? You’ll catch your death of cold in this weather! What was my father thinking, letting you play errand boy?”
The young woman didn’t wait for Peppers to leave his seat to open the door for her. Instead, she spiritedly pushed open the door from inside and invitingly patted the seat beside her.
“Get in, Simon, quickly! The wind is blowing all the rain onto the cushions.”
Simon looked indecisively into the carriage, while Peppers looked awkwardly at the young man, who was standing like a wet cat on the curb. “Your father surely wouldn’t like it—”
“Your father surely wouldn’t like it, Miss Reed—”
Simon and the coachman said the words at almost the same time and looked equally indignant when Nora responded with a light-hearted laugh.
“Now be sensible, Simon! No matter where you want to go, my father also wouldn’t like it if his delivery boy arrived looking as if he’d just swum through the Thames. And Peppers won’t say anything, will you?”
Nora eagerly smiled at her coachman. Peppers sighed.
“If you please, mister … uh … milord.” It ruffled Peppers’s feathers to have to address this unfortunate figure with the correct title of nobility.
Simon Greenborough shrugged. “‘Mister’ is fine. The seat in the House of Lords is sold anyway, regardless of if I call myself lord, or viscount, or anything else.”
It sounded bitter, and Simon scolded himself for having given the servant insight into his family circumstances. Then again, perhaps he already knew too much about him anyway. Nora considered the staff in her house to be like her extended family; who knew what she’d told her lady’s maids or any of the others?
Simon took a deep breath as he slid onto the cushion beside her. He coughed again — this weather really got to his lungs. Nora looked at the young man, partly with reproach and partly with concern. Then she decidedly grabbed her scarf and rubbed his hair dry. Of course, traces of powder were left on the wool. Nora looked at it, shaking her head.
“You always use this stuff!” she reprimanded him. “It’s a stupid fashion and you have such beautiful dark hair, why color it white like an old man? Thank God you still haven’t come up with the idea of putting on a wig …”
Simon smiled. He couldn’t have afforded a wig even if he’d wanted one, but Nora consistently refused to notice his poverty, just as she denied all of the other differences between her own station in life and Simon’s. To her, it was all the same if he was titled and she was not, if he was completely destitute, while her father was among the richest merchants in the empire, or if he lived in a palace or served as a poorly paid clerk in her father’s offices. Nora Reed loved Simon Greenborough and she had no doubt that this love would eventually find fulfillment. Now she leaned, guileless and wide-eyed, on his shoulder, as the carriage rumbled over London’s cobblestone streets.
In contrast, Simon took a nervous glance in the direction of the coachman’s box before happily taking her in his arms and kissing her. Naturally, Nora had chosen a closed carriage on such a rainy day. The window that allowed her to speak to Peppers was tiny and completely fogged over. The coachman wouldn’t notice anything. Nora returned Simon’s kiss without any inhibition.
“I missed you so much,” she whispered and nestled up to him, without regard to the fact that it would make her cloak wet and crumple the lace at the neckline of her dress. “How long has it been?”
“Two days,” Simon replied immediately and gently stroked her hair and temple. He could never tire of looking at the graceful young woman’s smile and delicate features. The days they spent apart had seemed just as dark and dreary to him as they did her. Nora and her father had spent the weekend at the country residence of friends, although it had also been continuously raining there. So, the lovers couldn’t have met secretly anyway. In fact, there was no public or even private space where such an incongruous pair could have spoken to each other unnoticed — not to mention participate in any exchange of affection. When the weather was fair, they met in St. James’s Park, although even that was not without its risks. On the crowded paths, they could be seen by Nora’s friends and acquaintances, and in the hidden niches behind dark hedges, there were also dark figures lurking around … and now it was almost fall on top of all that.
“We really must speak to Father!” Nora exclaimed. Apparently, similar thoughts had been running through her head, too. “The walks in the park won’t do now that the weather is getting worse. Father must allow you to openly court me! If only because I’d like to show you around. My wonderful lord …”
She smiled mischievously at Simon and, as was often the case, he lost himself in the sight of her slender, intelligent face with her green eyes, which seemed like a kaleidoscope of brighter and darker lights that flashed when Nora was excited. He loved her auburn hair, especially when she adorned it with flowers. Orange blossoms … Neither Simon nor Nora had ever seen an orange tree, but they knew the flowers from illustrations, and they dreamed of one day picking them together.
“Your father will never allow it.” Simon pessimistically replied, and pulled Nora in closer. It was nice to feel her; to imagine that this was his own carriage; that he was bringing his beloved home to a beautiful manor in the sun …
“Where is it you actually wanted to go?”
Peppers’ terse question made the lovers quickly pull away from each other. It was unlikely that he had seen much. He had only turned around to his passengers, and the traffic on the London streets required all of his attention, especially in this weather.
“To … to Thames Street,” Simon answered. “To the office of Mr. Roundbottom!”
Nora happily smiled. “Oh, we’re practically going there anyway!” she delighted. “I’m on my way to see Lady Wentworth to return this.”
She pulled a small, beautifully bound book from her lace-trimmed bag and held it towards Simon.
“Barbados,” the wrinkle that invariably appeared on Simon’s forehead when he was worried smoothed itself out at the sight of the book, “I would’ve liked to read it, too.”
Nora nodded. “I know, but I have to bring it back. The Wentworths are leaving for the Virgin Islands tomorrow. They have a plantation there, you know. They were just here to …”
Simon wasn’t listening any longer, but instead, was flipping through the book. He could imagine why the Wentworths were in England. They probably just had to leave their West Indian properties to buy a seat in Parliament, or to look after one that already belonged to their family. The sugar cane growers from Jamaica, Barbados, and other growing regions of the Caribbean jealously guarded the resale-price maintenance of their products and the import embargos from other countries. To this end, they consolidated their power through the acquisition of seats in the House of Lords, which were offered up by impoverished nobles such as Simon’s own family. As far as Simon knew, the representatives of Greenborough County now included a member from the Codrington family, who owned a large part of the small Caribbean island of Barbuda.
Nora didn’t linger on the Wentworth family for long. Instead, she looked again at the book that she’d already read several times.
“Isn’t it lovely?” she commented on a drawing.
Simon had just turned to a page that illustrated an etching of a shore in Barbados. Palm trees and a sandy beach which seemed to then go directly into the dense jungle … Nora leaned eagerly over the book and Simon was then so close to her that he could take in the scent of her hair: not talcum powder, but rose water.
“And there is our hut!” she fantasized and pointed to a sort of clearing. “Covered with palm branches …”
Simon smiled. “As far as that goes, you’ll have to decide sometime,” he teased her. “Do you want to live with the natives in their huts or run a tobacco plantation for your father?”
Nora and Simon were in agreement that England in general, and London in particular, was not where they wanted to spend the rest of their lives.
Nora devoured all of the literature about the colonies that she could find, and Simon dreamed of the letters that he’d written for her father regarding Jamaica, Barbados, or Cooper Island. Thomas Reed imported sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton from all parts of the British Empire. He maintained frequent contact with the local growers and, as such, Nora already had her own plan for realizing her desires. All the better, as in England there was perhaps no future for her and Simon … but, if they opened a branch of the Reed business somewhere in the colonies … Currently, Barbados was her dream location.
Even so, she would have settled anywhere where the sun shone daily.
“Here we are … Miss Nora, sir,” Peppers halted the carriage and got ready to open the door for Simon.
“48 Thames Street.”
Beside the entrance to the townhouse there was a golden sign indicating that Mr. Roundbottom’s office was located inside. Simon shut the book with disappointment and stepped out into the rain.
“Thank you very much for the ride, Miss Reed,” he politely parted ways. “I hope to see you again soon.”
“The pleasure was all mine, Viscount Greenborough,” Nora replied just as courteously. “But do wait in the office until it stops raining. I wouldn’t want you to catch a chill on your way back.”
Peppers expressively rolled his eyes. Until now, he had found Nora’s flirtation rather more amusing than worrisome, but if this continued as such, his young mistress was maneuvering her way into a story that could not end happily. Thomas Reed would never allow his daughter to marry a clerk, regardless of whether he, at some point, had carried a title of nobility, or even if he still possessed it.
Simon was tormented by similar thoughts when he finally went back to work. The rain had subsided, but his clothes were still wet and, to make matters worse, the corridor where Mr. Roundbottom had him wait was drafty and cold. Simon was frozen to the core — the persistent cold he had caught that spring in the tiny, vermin-infested room he had rented in London’s East End would torment him for some time to come. It was quite a descent from Greenborough Manor.
Thomas Reed didn’t pay his clerks vast sums, but he also didn’t exploit them. Usually, Simon’s earnings would have sufficed for a small, clean apartment — the older clerks could even support a family with it — modest, but reasonable. However, Simon couldn’t even hope to start a family some day. Unless a miracle happened, he would be forced to work the rest of his life to pay off the debts that his father had accumulated, even though every last piece of the family valuables had already been sold.
The family’s downfall had come as a complete surprise to Simon’s mother, sister, and himself. Of course, the family knew that Lord Greenborough’s finances were not entirely sound. The sale of the seat in Parliament had been debated over many weeks, and Simon had privately come to the conclusion that it could only serve to help the decision-making ability of the House of Lords. His father had but rarely taken his seat, and when he did, it was said that he was able to follow the debates just as little as he could the tirades of his wife. She had never tired of reproaching him for his drinking and extravagance. John Peter Greenborough had been drunk far more often than he’d been sober — but his family had no idea that he had also been trying to resolve his already shaky finances at the card table.
When he finally died — officially from a fall while horseback hunting, although, in fact, he had been too drunk to even stay on the horse at a walking pace — various creditors came forth with their demands. Lady Greenborough sold the parliamentary seat and, in principle, her land and her son’s title went along with it. She parted with her jewelry and silver, mortgaged her house, and then eventually had to sell it. Out of pure mercy, the Codrington family left the Greenboroughs a cottage on the outskirts of the village that still bore their name, but Simon couldn’t earn money there. Meanwhile, his father’s debts also included a dowry for his sister, who had — thank the Lord — been able to marry at least halfway within her social class. Simon’s future, on the other hand, had been destroyed. In his darkest hours, he wondered if the love of Nora — as beautiful as she was wealthy — should be considered a stroke of luck or if it represented yet another test for him to overcome.
Nora Reed was convinced that it would only be a matter of time before their dreams of being together were realized. She had hoped that Thomas Reed would accept Simon with open arms as a son-in-law, but was, at the moment, in no position to be open with her father about her wishes. On the contrary, he would more likely send him away as a dowry hunter. Simon was prepared to work very hard for the realization of his dreams. He was a serious young man who had always wanted an appointment in one of the colonies, and tried to prepare for that as much as possible. Simon was no great rider, hunter, or swordsman. He displayed no particular talents or inclinations towards the amusements of the nobility, even apart from the financial situation of his family, but he was intelligent and highly educated. Simon spoke several languages, was engaging and polite, and, unlike most of his peers, was also good with numbers. In any case, he would have certainly been capable of representing a trading house somewhere overseas. Simon was prepared to work his way up and any arrogance was completely foreign to him. He needed only be given the chance! But would Thomas Reed take that as the reason for his love for Nora? He would probably be rather suspicious that Simon wanted to use his daughter as a springboard for his career.
In any case, Simon doubted that it was appropriate to open up to Thomas Reed so soon. It would be better to wait until he had earned his respect and climbed to a higher position anyway. Nora was just seventeen, and so far, her father had made no arrangements for her to be married. Simon certainly had a few years in which to establish himself enough to perhaps be considered for the son-in-law of the merchant.
If only he knew how!
“What is there for work other than planting sugar cane or tobacco?” Nora asked.
She sat on Lady Wentworth’s chaise lounge and daintily balanced a teacup between her thumb and forefinger. Ever since Queen Anne had made the hot drink popular a few decades ago, it was being served in every upmarket parlor in England. Like most ladies, Nora had stirred in plenty of sugar — much to the pleasure of her hostess, who saw every sweetened cup of tea in England as a contribution towards preserving her wealth.
“Well, tobacco has not proved to be particularly successful,” Lady Wentworth replied patiently.
The questions from the young merchant’s daughter amused her. Nora seemed set on seeing her future in the colonies. Lady Wentworth regretted that her sons were just eight and ten. The young Reed would make a great match, and the fact that she was untitled hardly bothered the woman. After all, her own husband had purchased his title. One no longer needed to be married or extravagantly knighted by the king to belong to the noblemen of England. Although, even the latter was viable for the sugar barons. In exchange for contributions — gifts, supporting the fleet, or other service to the Crown — the king recognized how diligently one worked for the prosperity of the kingdom at the other end of the world …
“Regarding tobacco, Virginia and the other colonies in the New World cultivate a better quality. But sugar cane doesn’t grow as well anywhere as it does on our islands. Of course, one incurs expenses …” Lady Wentworth remembered that she had a merchant’s daughter in front of her. If she raved about how easy it was to cultivate sugar cane in Jamaica, Barbados, and the Virgin Islands, Nora’s father would surely try to drive down the prices. “The slaves alone!”
“Well, we wouldn’t actually keep slaves,” Nora remarked quietly, but honestly. She had even already discussed it with Simon and the two were of the same opinion. “That … that’s unchristian.”
Lady Wentworth, a determined woman in her thirties, whose voluptuous figure was nearly bursting out of her corset and farthingale, let out a boisterous laugh. “Oh, child,” she responded, “you have no idea. But fortunately the church sees it quite realistically: if God hadn’t wanted the blacks to work for us, then he wouldn’t have created them. And when you are overseas for the first time, Miss Reed, you will also be able to see that. The climate is not for white people. Too hot, too humid. None of us can work there long. For the Negroes, however, it’s quite normal. And we treat them well, we feed them and provide them with clothing, they—” Lady Wentworth stopped short. It didn’t seem that much more regarding the well-being of the slaves had come to mind. “The reverend even preaches the Gospel to them!” she finally exclaimed triumphantly, as if that alone were worth an entire lifetime of labor. “Although they don’t always appreciate it; their ways are rife with dreadful rituals, child! If they conjure their old gods … well, it is undoubtedly pleasing to the Lord that we restrict such behavior. But let’s speak of more pleasant things, Miss Reed.” Lady Wentworth reached for a teacake. “Are there perhaps already concrete plans for you to be married at one of our beautiful islands? What does your father have to say about your plans to emigrate?”
Nora didn’t want to discuss the subject. Instead, she tried to return to exploring alternatives.
“How is it for merchants on the island?” she asked.
“There aren’t any … hmm … intermediaries or people such as that,” Lady Wentworth made a dismissive gesture. “At least not enough to mention, child. A few captains import well on their own accord, but otherwise we always negotiate directly with the country of origin.”
Which posed no further difficulty, since most growers maintained one or more residences in England. The Wentworths, for example, were not only in possession of this grand townhouse, but also a country home in Essex. With larger families, there was almost always a male member who’d remained in the mother country and could negotiate with the distributors if the cartel hadn’t already set the same binding fixed prices for everyone.
Nora remained quiet. The lady was right — trading houses were not necessary in Jamaica or Barbados.
“Naturally, there are a few merchants,” Lady Wentworth then added. “Especially on the larger islands, in the cities. Of course, our sort stock up on the most important goods,” with a brief gesture, she took in the valuable furniture in her house, which was equally as fine at the plantation, the paintings on the walls, and not least, her gorgeous housedress, whose voluminous ruffles billowed out over the arm of her chair. “But on the island there are, of course, tailors, bakers, shopkeepers …” Lady Wentworth’s expression betrayed what she thought of this class of people. “Nothing at all like one of your father’s trading houses, of course!” she hastened to add.
Nora suppressed a sigh. These were poor prospects for her and Simon — especially since her lover wasn’t suited to be a baker, tailor, or the industrious owner of a general store. If need be, Nora could imagine herself standing behind the counter and chatting with the women of Kingston or Bridgetown while she presented her wares. But shy, extremely proper Simon? He would retire indignantly at the first really juicy piece of gossip.
Simon took a deep breath as he returned to the venerable offices of Thomas Reed on the northern bank of the Thames. It was rather gloomy, especially in the small rooms where the writers and clerks worked at poorly lit desks. The older employees often found it difficult to decipher the numbers in the company records. The only tall windows with a view of the river were in Thomas Reed’s private office, which had comfortable seating for visitors and customers. Reed appeared to be receiving someone on this day. As he fought his way out of his coat in the corridor outside of Reed’s office, Simon heard the merchant’s booming voice and an equally loud Scottish accent replying.
“God, Reed, now don’t come at me with moral concerns! What we do is moderate; on other islands the rules are much stricter. The Danes are even permitted to burn unruly Negroes alive! Such a thing is, of course, not the way of the upstanding British. But there must be discipline. Even as a slave, Barbados is bearable.” The man speaking laughed. “After all, I would know, having been one myself.”
Simon furrowed his brow. That sounded interesting. He had never heard of white slaves on the islands. And he’d been able to identify the visitor from his crest, which adorned a bag that had been set aside in the corridor: Angus McArrow, Lord of Fennyloch as of recent. Simon remembered that Thomas Reed had arranged for the purchase of the man’s seat in Parliament. Now the Scot, who had a plantation of his own in Barbados, seemed to be returning the gesture. The bag contained a few bottles of the best dark rum, and the mens’ voices sounded as if they had already opened one of them.
“Might I be permitted to go in there now?” Simon nervously asked one of the older office servants, waving the letter of reply he needed to give to Mr. Reed.
The man nodded to him. “Doesn’t sound like they’re trading secrets,” he muttered.
Simon cautiously knocked, which the men inside didn’t hear at first, since Reed had just burst out laughing.
“You, McArrow? A slave in the sugar fields? Among nothing but black men?” he said in disbelief.
“That’s what I’m telling you!”
Simon heard glasses clinking. Apparently, they had been refilled.
“Of course it wasn’t called that at the time; then they said front-line workers. And we weren’t among the Negroes, they only came later. But it amounted to the same thing: I slaved away for five years for one of the first planters, and in the end I received a piece of land in exchange for my work. Many people did the same thing at the time, before they brought blacks to the islands on a large scale. Believe me, many a modern sugar baron today began as a poor wretch. Most won’t confess to it anymore, especially not to their descendants. They were hard times and on your own land it continued that way. Many only did it for a few years until the sugar cane grew and the children were big. Then they were finished. Worked to the death in the truest sense of the phrase. But the grandchildren now behave like kings!”
“That’s interesting,” Reed said. “I had no idea … just a moment, please. Come in!”
Simon’s third knock was finally heard. The young man timidly entered the room and bowed to Mr. Reed and Angus McArrow.
“Milord,” he said politely.
A light went on in McArrow’s bright red face.
“Good day, young man! Simon Green-something, isn’t it? You wrote up my inaugural speech in court, didn’t you? Splendid, just splendid young man! Come, you have a drink, too! You look as if you could use it. What did you do, were you out swimming?” He laughed at his own joke.
Simon’s hair was still wet, and the limp, sagging ruffles on the front of the shirt that he’d so carefully pressed the previous evening created a perfect image of misery.
“You were at Roundbottom’s, Mr. Simon, were you not?” Thomas Reed recalled his order. “But heavens, did you walk in this weather? My boy, you could have taken a hackney!”
Thomas Reed, a tall heavy man with surprisingly sensitive features gave his young clerk a look that was both sympathetic and disapproving. To him, Simon sometimes seemed unable to handle his daily life — he was well-bred, certainly, and a first-rate writer and bookkeeper — but otherwise, there was something off about the way he walked, and he could without doubt do with some new clothes! And not to take a coach when it rains, well it made it look as if Reed wasn’t reasonably paying his people!
Simon lowered his eyes from the indignant glare in Reed’s green eyes. They were as attentive as his daughter Nora’s, but more searching than gentle, and they also weren’t surrounded by smile lines. Nora would certainly develop laugh lines later …
Simon smiled dreamily when he thought about how it would be to watch her age. At some point, white streaks would creep into her amber-golden tresses, as they already had in her father’s thick hair. And he would continue to love her …
“What are you staring at, Simon? Do you have the response letter from Mr. Roundbottom? What are you waiting for? Hand it over!” Thomas Reed held out his hand.
“Take a sip first!” McArrow comforted him and handed Simon, much to his dismay, an entire glass of tantalising smelling amber-colored liquid. Rum from Barbados — undoubtedly excellent. But Simon couldn’t drink with Thomas Reed as if they were equals! And during work hours at that. He hesitated and fumbled around for the letter. He had kept it in the innermost pocket of his coat, to protect it from the rain.
Thomas Reed took the letter and solved Simon’s dilemma with a slight inclination of his head towards McArrow and the glass that he held out for Simon. Of course, it was not proper to offer his clerk a drink, but he didn’t want to displease the Scot. Simon took a small sip. He felt warmth penetrate his body as the strong, almost sweet-tasting drink ran down his throat. Very rich, very good, and with a smoother flavor than rum typically possessed.
“Could almost pass for brandy, don’t you think?” McArrow asked, looking for praise. “It’s from my plantation. A special brewing process, we—”
“None of that, tell me again about your strange method of land acquisition, McArrow,” Reed interrupted. Much to the delight of Simon, who found the “enslavement” of the Scots substantially more interesting than the production of rum. “Is it still being done?”
“Wage slavery?” McArrow asked, reaching for his own glass again. “Well, there isn’t much to tell. It was usually pretty fair; the planters really weren’t such bad men. Naturally, they took what they could get. It was not easy, those five years on the plantation. Although, I was lucky. After three years, the first Negroes came, and then I could train and supervise, which wasn’t quite such hard work as at the start. And I was also fortunate with the plantation owner. He gave me good land and two slaves, and allowed me to sell my harvest along with his. Only in the beginning, of course, and now I have more land than he does — or rather, than his sons. Unfortunately, they’re not very good and so now I’ve also had to step in with the parliamentary seat. The young Drews are driving their father’s life’s work into bankruptcy.”
“And is it still going on today?”
Simon blurted out the same question that Reed had already asked. He immediately bit his tongue. It already wasn’t appropriate for him to be at this private conversation between business partners, let alone participating. But Reed listened to McArrow’s reply with just as much interest as his clerk.
“It doesn’t exist much these days,” he said. “If only because no one has any interest in plantations coming about. If the supply becomes too great, then the prices will drop — sorry, Reed, but of course we planters want to keep that from happening. It’s rare to hear of such arrangements, and even when you do, the masters expect at least a seven-year commitment — and people often still end up being exploited. No, no, that was taken care of when the Negroes came. They’re lucky really — we’re good to them, and they don’t work any harder than we did at the time.”
Simon refrained from saying it, but the thought occurred to him that while McArrow had only worked for a few years, they had to toil for their entire lives, without so much as a foot of land to call their own at the end. He would have liked to press McArrow further, but Reed had already signed off the response letter and was now holding it out to Simon. A clear invitation to leave. The letter had to be filed away and the contract be drafted.
Simon thanked McArrow for the rum and left the room, ready to return to his desk. Nevertheless, he listened in on the voices in the next room, and slid out into the corridor when the Scot finally decided to go.
“Mr. McArrow, milord … may I … may I ask you another question?”
“You may ask ten if you’d like, young man!” McArrow laughed, jovially. Simon gathered his courage. “If you would … well, if a young man wanted to … move to the islands, somewhere overseas, Jamaica, Barbados perhaps … well, if you wanted to make something of yourself there … are there really no prospects?” Simon gathered his courage. McArrow looked at the young man searchingly, made a face, and then returned to smiling. “You’re weary of the rain?” he asked sympathetically. “I can understand that, I’ve already had enough of it. But the islands … well, of course you can be hired at one of the plantations. We don’t take on whites as fieldworkers any longer, but we need overseers. I wonder, however, whether you would be appropriate for it? A lad such as yourself; you look as if you’d be blown over by every little breeze!”
Simon blushed. He had never been a very strong man, but the difficulty of the last few months had made him lose even more weight. He ate too little, and the persistent cough had also been draining his strength. But if he were just in a warm place … and surely the planters provided the accommodation to their overseers. The money that he now spent on the insect-infested room in the East End could be spent in food.
“That is perhaps … deceiving, milord,” he explained. “I can work, I—”
“But you don’t look as if you could even swing the whip, laddy!” Simon was startled by the casual tone McArrow adopted when speaking to him, although he understood that as a worker on a plantation, he could not insist on being treated like a gentleman. “And you must do so with the Negroes,” McArrow continued unrepentantly. “If things become really severe, you might even have to hang one. And you couldn’t do that, my boy!”
McArrow had probably wanted to take some of the sting out of his words with a good-natured pat on Simon’s shoulder, but the young nobleman looked at him with confusion: Whipping? Hanging? That sounded a little too much like the work of an executioner!
“No, at most you could do something for the administration. But appointments from the Crown don’t come for free, you have to buy your way in, or at least know someone who knows someone.” McArrow shook his head when he saw Simon’s disappointed expression.
“Of course, you could also try as a seaman,” he finally said. “But I’m just as pessimistic about that. They want strong men, not young lads like yourself. No, you’d do good to stay here and write up your accounts. And maybe another speech for old McArrow! It was splendid, son … almost as if you yourself were a gentleman!”
At that, the planter grabbed his tricorne, considered it a moment, and instead of putting it on top of his voluminous wig, held it stylishly under his arm before stepping into the rain. A carriage with his coat of arms was ready and waiting. The newly minted lord would not get wet.
“It’s no use, we must tell father!” Nora said.
The weather had cleared and it was a perfect fall evening, with the leaves in St. James’s Park already changing color. The light was beginning to fade though, and it had almost been too late when Nora finally recognized the two ladies of her acquaintance energetically chatting away as they approached them on the rather secluded path. She pulled Simon behind a hedge just in time — before Lady Pentwood and her friend caught sight of them.
Nora giggled as they passed, but Simon was worried. He found no adventure in their secret love to be overcome. He unhappily told Nora of his discouraging conversation with McArrow. She was not especially surprised. She added what she had heard from Lady Wentworth.
“McArrow is right,” she then said, shivering; a good reason to nestle up closer to Simon, who had protectively put his arm around her and was kissing her hair. “Of course you can’t beat any Negro! Wouldn’t that be something — what kind of people are these, calling themselves lords, ladies, and gentlemen? I don’t believe that God has made the Negro to grow sugar cane for us. Then he surely would have also sent them to the islands and they wouldn’t have to be brought over from Africa! My father says it’s also quite terrible on the ships. They chain them up!”
Thomas Reed did not participate in the slave trade — even if he did indirectly benefit from black labor. After all, he dealt in sugar, tobacco, and other products from the colonies — and without slaves, there would be no plantations. But people buy and sell, capture them, force them into the hulls of ships, imprison, and beat them, even though a court had never sentenced them. Thomas Reed did not find that compatible with his Christian faith, regardless of whether others shared his opinion.
“But there is no other work,” Simon said dispiritedly.
“Well then we must tell Father that we love each other. You must openly court me and only after that will we find a solution. I am convinced that Father will think of something. If I say that I want to go to the colonies, then he will also make that happen!”
Nora not only had complete confidence in the possibilities, but also in her father’s willingness to fulfill her every wish. She was undoubtedly a spoiled child. After the untimely death of his wife, Thomas Reed had focused all of his love onto her.
“Let’s do it tomorrow! You should buy some flowers … they aren’t so expensive in Cheapside, and if you don’t have the money …”
Simon smiled tenderly at Nora’s practical assertions. If he could not afford romance, she would do without and never complain. She would undoubtedly even be able to pick out her own bridal bouquet. He pulled her closer to him.
“My dear, flowers will not be a problem. But allow me a few more weeks. Maybe there is still a chance with this McArrow. If he decides to stay in London and take part in Parliament, he may need a private clerk. And as such, he could take me with him to Barbados. Moreover, this wretched loan for Samantha’s wedding will be paid off in two months. Then I will have a bit more money. Heavens, Nora, I can’t come to your father in this threadbare suit to court you!
Nora kissed him, laughing. “Darling, I’m not marrying your coat and trousers!”
Simon sighed. Thomas Reed would undoubtedly have a lot to say about a comment like that, but at least he had managed to postpone Nora’s request for a while. At some point, a miracle had to happen. Simon took Nora’s hand and tugged her along to the small lake in the middle of the park, where the fog was already drifting in above the water. The trees cast long shadows.
“I’m going to rent us a boat!” he decided. “It is only a penny, and then I will row you across the lake to the islands. We can imagine that it’s our island in the South Seas, the waves breaking on the beach—”
“And we can kiss in peace!” Nora beamed. “That’s a wonderful idea, dear! You can row, can’t you? All lords and viscounts can row, can’t they?”
If he were being honest, Simon’s paddling abilities were limited to a few halfhearted attempts to steer a self-constructed raft across the Greenborough village pond. He had never learned proper rowing techniques, but he made every effort to maneuver his boat at least halfway capably across the lake.
As such, Simon just about kept them from capsizing, but with the exertion, he could hardly suppress his cough, which distressed Nora a great deal.
Of course, nothing improved for the lovers in the coming weeks. On the contrary, the last of the summer gave way to an unpleasant fall, and Simon was chilled to the bone in his damp, unheated room. At least there were continuous, generous fires burning in the chimneys at Thomas Reed’s offices, which were not to be taken for granted. So many clerks in the large trading houses held their plumes with stiff, gloved fingers and then contracted gout. With a sigh of relief, Simon sent his mother the last payment for Samantha’s dowry, but it ultimately brought him no relief. Almost simultaneously, he received a letter from Greenborough in which his mother joyfully reported of Samantha’s pregnancy. She had hoped that with the help of further generous contributions from Simon, they would be able to retrieve the silver candlesticks that had held the baptism candles for every Greenborough descendant to date.
Thus, Simon sent more money — even though Nora had severely reprimanded him for it.
“But they have a right to it, it’s a family heirloom,” he defended his mother and sister. “And we will also benefit from it. When we have children …”
His dark eyes, which had thus far looked rather hopeless on this gray, windy November day, lit up.
Nora sighed and pulled her coat tighter. She had accompanied Simon to the docks, despite the uncertain weather. Thomas Reed had entrusted his clerk with the supervision of a cargo of tobacco arriving from Virginia. The captain of the ship was not considered to be very reliable, so the planter had heartily recommended that Reed carefully check the actual delivery against the freight documents. Simon had faithfully done so, even if his old coat hardly protected him from the rain and wind. It was better for Nora in her fur-lined cloak, but of course, she noticed how Simon froze and grew even more worked up about the demands of his mother and sister.
“If we have children, then they will probably be born in the Virgin Islands, Jamaica, or Barbados!” she considered. “And you don’t really believe that your mother would send her silver candlesticks in time for the baptism candles to be appropriately presented! Oh no, Simon, they are being passed over to the family of the wonderful Samantha, so that the Kensingtons don’t think poorly of Lady Greenborough. And you can’t even afford a coat that doesn’t get soaked through within three minutes! It’s bad enough that you must take responsibility for your father’s debts!”
But Nora hardly understood it, especially since Lord Greenborough’s debtors were in no way men of honor, but bookmakers and gamblers. Nora counseled her beloved without hesitation; they should hold off for two months more and then use the saved money to abscond to one of the colonies. The crooks might have a certain level of influence in England — which Nora was convinced was limited to London — but it certainly didn’t reach all the way to Barbados or Virginia. Simon considered the gambling debts as debts of honor — and a gentleman certainly didn’t turn his back on his obligations to his estate and family. He had made no response to Nora’s frequently repeated remarks on the matter.
“In any case, now you must speak with Father!” the young woman then decided as she linked arms with Simon and discreetly maneuvered him to her carriage. On the way to the docks, he had walked to save the cost of a coach.
Peppers held the door open for them without a word.
“Thank you, Peppers!” Nora never forgot to flash the servant a smile. “Papa will find a solution. And he likes you. He trusts you. It’s already clear from the fact that he has you overseeing the cargo. Who knows, maybe he already suspects something. You must formally ask for my hand now — otherwise we will hardly be able to see each other in the winter.”
Simon nodded acquiescently. With the latter, she was correct, but he was terribly afraid of the talk with her father. If it didn’t go as well as Nora hoped, he would ultimately not only lose his beloved, but probably also his appointment and warm place in the office. A comparably good employer would be nearly impossible to find — Thomas Reed had not even reprimanded him when he had missed two days at the start of the month. Simon tried to ignore his persistent cold, but he had grown so feverish at the time, that he’d barely been able to leave his bed. Of course he’d dragged himself to the office nonetheless, but Reed sent him back home immediately.
“You’re useless like this, boy, you can hardly hold the quill, and I would not know what kind of numbers you’ve just been adding.”
Simon knew to appreciate this incredible generosity — Reed could have just as easily thrown him out and deducted any potential losses caused by his errors from his wages. As such, there were not that many differences between wage slavery on the islands and a normal position in London. Now he could sense, however, that Nora would not allow herself be put off any longer.
“Next week, Simon! This Saturday is the Merchant Association Ball and Papa is distracted — and I also still have to try on the dress and discuss hairstyles … And then those dance lessons — who needs the La Bourgogne in the colonies?”
Nora always acted as if she were uninterested in the balls and receptions attended with her father since, of course, Simon had never been invited. But in reality, she looked forward to them. She loved beautiful dresses and enjoyed practicing the popular dances. Nevertheless, she refrained from any flirtation or dalliance with the young men who filled her dance card. Nora Reed had made her choice — she eagerly awaited the day Simon Greenborough would lead her in a Minuet for the first time. And who knew, perhaps they would dance throughout the year under the palm trees! In London, people spoke of noisy parties in the residencies of sugar cane planters on the islands in the Caribbean Sea.
“But next week there’s nothing, so we’ll have the time to plan the engagement — my father will certainly give a party! And you must change your ways and buy yourself some new things! Listen; if you were just presented to the right people, there are posts in the colonies to be found! Oh, just imagine it, Simon! Looking out of the window and not seeing pouring rain, but bright sunshine!”
Nora nestled up to her lover and took his wildly beating heart as an expression of joy. The failure of his courtship was an impossibility.
Nora enjoyed the Merchant Association Ball, while Simon used his Sunday to try and free himself of his cough entirely. He purchased chamomile flowers and enough firewood to boil tea and partially heat his draughty room. His ill-tempered landlady, Mrs. Paddington, commented on it with spiteful mockery.
“So, is milord now overflowing with wealth? Shall I soon be addressing you by your title once again?”
Simon didn’t bother mentioning that this would have been appropriate, whether poor or rich. She always did it anyway. Admittedly, Lord or Viscount Greenborough sounded more like an insult than a title of honor. The woman had obviously taken great satisfaction in the knowledge that a member of the nobility could descend to the depths of her filthy and unsightly district, which had been cheaply rebuilt after the Great Fire of London.
Simon pulled his bed as close to the chimney as possible and spent the day under his scratchy, damp covers. This didn’t make him feel much better, as the fireplace hadn’t been lit in a long time and it had been even longer since it was swept. The chimney drew poorly and Simon essentially had to choose between cold and smoke. Ultimately, he chose the former. The smoke worsened his cough, and at least the cold didn’t demand payment.
Nora had decided that Tuesday would be the official day of their engagement. Simon should pay her father a visit after work. Thomas Reed would have already made himself cozy at home, as he usually left before his clerks, who often remained to get the accounts in order by candlelight.
Simon delayed his departure as long as possible. He didn’t want Reed to think for a moment that he had shirked his responsibilities at work that day. But, eventually the last office servant left after having swept the offices, sharpened the quills, and filled the inkwells for the next working day. The young man was also obliged to put out the fires in the chimneys and the candles when the last clerk had finished. Simon could not possibly make him wait any longer by pretending to do important work.
Luckily, it wasn’t raining that day, so Simon could travel to Mayfair by foot. He would have otherwise allowed himself a hackney — it would have been unimaginable to stand before his future father-in-law with a wet, creased jabot. The young man invested the money he’d saved on a beautiful bouquet for Nora, and it nearly afforded him a bit of courage when he finally stood in front of the stately house in the recently developed neighborhood. Reed had had the manor house built a few years earlier. Its facade was divided into three parts by pilasters, the triangular pediment was reminiscent of a Roman temple, and behind it lay a small park. All of this was far more magnificent than Greenborough Manor had ever been. Even in his family’s best times, Simon would never have been a worthy candidate for the hand of the daughter of this house.
Finally, he composed himself and swung the door knocker. The front door was opened almost immediately. The petite, young girl in the neat servant’s uniform seemed to have been awaiting his arrival. She winked at him conspiratorially when he said his name and requested an interview with the head of the household; probably another “confidant” of Nora’s.
“I’ll alert the butler of your arrival!” the girl said kindly. “But if I may take your coat.”
Simon then found himself in a luxuriously furnished entrance room awaiting another, higher-ranking, domestic servant. Instead, however, Nora appeared.
“Simon!” she beamed at him. “You’re looking well! If only you didn’t look so afraid!”
Simon tried to smile back. She couldn’t have meant that in earnest; he knew all too well that he was pale and had grown even thinner in recent weeks. At least his clothing was, for once, beyond reproach. He was getting better at maintaining the lace and chest ruffles on his last two shirts. He had even resorted to using a needle and thread to make his coat and trousers tighter, and yesterday, had invested a penny on lard to polish his worn-out buckled shoes until they were shiny again. He had powdered his hair again, but this time, did not hold back on talc. With the will to do so, its splendor could be taken for that of a fashionable wig.
“And you look beautiful,” he sincerely returned the compliment to Nora. She smiled, flattered, and smoothed over the fabric on her farthingale. To mark the occasion, she had chosen a dress made of golden brocade, adorned with countless ribbons and bows. Nora’s hair was gorgeously braided and, as usual, not powdered. Her cheeks were rosy from the excitement and joyful anticipation.
“Come in, Papa is in a very good mood! And what beautiful flowers … but no, I’ll wait to say that later! Maybe … maybe you should wait until the butler comes,”
At the last moment, Nora seemed a bit afraid of her own courage. Nonetheless, she didn’t give into it and gave Simon an encouraging kiss on the cheek — and they both blushed when the butler appeared in the doorway, making his presence known by clearing his throat. She immediately darted off — Simon followed her slowly, guided by the dignified majordomo, whose uniform seemed considerably finer than Simon’s.
Thomas Reed was sitting comfortably in his study — a bit surprised that his daughter had joined him with her embroidery. Usually, she didn’t like the study and always scrunched up her nose when she became aware of the familiar smells of tobacco, old leather, and rum.
Now, however, Nora was sitting across from her father and trying to focus on having a conversation. Yet she kept jumping up to get something, or look out the window nervously. Now, as the butler announced the visit from her father’s clerk Simon Greenborough, she seemed excited. Nora got ready to stand up, as if she had assumed that Thomas Reed would await the visit in one of the more formal reception rooms. However, her father saw no reason for it, because he obviously hadn’t expected a courtesy visit, but instead a matter of business. Even though the butler’s announcement hadn’t sounded as such.
“Mr Reed, Viscount Simon Greenborough wishes to pay his respects.”
Thomas Reed smiled. That was just like the young Simon; always proper to the point of caricature — who else would announce himself with all of his titles simply to bring round some urgent letter or file? And the clerk, who was now entering the room timidly but upright behind the butler, had even brought flowers with him! Thomas found this considerate, but exaggerated.
“Mr Reed … Miss Nora …” Simon bowed formally.
“Come in Simon!” Thomas said cheerfully. “What is it at this late hour? Has Morrisburg finally responded? Is he delivering the goods? Or have you heard something about that ship that went missing?”
Simon shook his head. Thomas Reed’s words had thrown him off his guard. And what was he even doing with the bouquet now?
“What beautiful flowers!” Nora said and smiled at him encouragingly. “For me?”
Thomas Reed rolled his eyes. “I suppose so, child. I would find it strange if Mr. Greenborough were to present me with such floral contributions. Though it wasn’t necessary, Simon, as this isn’t a social visit after all, and your pockets aren’t particularly overflowing,”
Simon blushed when the merchant’s eyes fell on his tired-looking coat.
“But it is …” fell out of his mouth. “Well, it’s more of a—”
“Well, first give me the flowers,” Nora smiled. Simon needed time to regain his composure. This was, of course, his first marriage proposal and it wasn’t particularly easy for him to speak off the cuff. Her beloved wrote beautiful letters, and when they were alone, Nora basked in his compliments. But otherwise Simon was often rather shy — maybe it was normal for someone who’d been thrown so far offtrack as he had been. She stroked his ice-cold hand as she took the bouquet.
Thomas Reed seemed a bit confused when he noticed how they looked at each other.
“Well, Nora,” he then said. “Perhaps you would like to go and put the bouquet in a vase while we discuss things that are undoubtedly boring for you.”
Nora blushed. “No, Papa,” she then said. “I wanted to say … uh … this isn’t boring for me at all because it—”
“Because I …” Simon could by no means allow his sweetheart to bring up the marriage proposal first.
Thomas Reed furrowed his brow. “Well, what is it Simon? Tell me why you came here. And what about it should be so uplifting for a young lady. Since when are you interested in lost ships from Virginia?”
Nora’s eyes flashed. “Always! You know that I’m interested in everything from overseas. The colonies, the ships … Simon and I—”
“Simon and you?” Thomas Reed asked.
His voice abruptly lost its warm friendliness. He straightened up in his seat.
Simon took a deep breath and then had to suppress a cough. He had to say it now. And Nora’s father didn’t look so threatening with his glass of rum, cigar, and in the silk dressing gown, which he’d traded with his jacket and coat, just as every master of a household did upon finishing a day’s work.
“Mr Reed, sir, I … I’m here to ask for your daughter’s hand!” Now it was out.
Nora was beaming. Thomas Reed, however, was speechless. Simon felt the need to fill the awkward silence and continued speaking.
“I know that there are far worthier matches, but I love your daughter with all my heart, and Nora has made it clear to me that she feels the same. I’m not rich, but I will do everything I can to offer her a befitting home and—”
Thomas Reed’s laughter interrupted his speech. “How would you do that?” he inquired.
Simon bit his lip.
“We were thinking of the colonies, Papa!” Nora chimed in. She smiled at her father, beaming. So far, she didn’t think it had started so poorly. “If Simon found a post somewhere in Jamaica, or Barbados, or something, if you maybe … so, we thought you might be interested in opening a trading station somewhere, and we … so, we both would like—”
“Be quiet!” Thomas Reed told his daughter. “It would be best if you went to arrange your flowers. I don’t need you here at the moment … Nora!”
He said her name sternly, when she didn’t seem to be making a move to go. Nora reluctantly left the room, but not without throwing Simon an encouraging look. Simon didn’t know if he should feel relieved or abandoned.
“Sir, I know it comes as a surprise. And Nora surely envisions it easier than it is. But I’m young, I can work … I would take a position at one of the plantations, I—”
“You are constantly sick, Simon,” Reed told him with a cutting voice. “The head clerk has advised me to dismiss you because your job performance isn’t sufficient. And now you want to go overseas to beat Negroes who are twice your size? Not to mention the fact that I don’t see my daughter as the wife of a slave driver.”
Simon bit his lip. “I have always worked off the absences, sir,” he defended himself. “And … and you … you can trust me. If I could somehow work for you overseas—”
“Simon, I don’t see my daughter overseas. This is just childish excitement. She is seventeen years old, she still has all the time in the world to fall in love with a man from London’s business world, to get a townhouse in order … I would very much like to see my grandchildren grow up, Mr. Greenborough, and not need to worry about whether they have enough to eat.”
Simon straightened himself up. “The children of the Greenborough family have never gone hungry!” he said with dignity. Thomas Reed took a deep breath and a sip of rum.
“But near enough, Simon. When I look at you, I’m not sure that you’re getting enough in your stomach. In any case, your father gambled away your land, and your house, and your title, if I’ve been properly informed. And now you struggle to keep your head above water — and I very much appreciate your diligence and your perseverance. I hear you’ve taken on your father’s debts — I am impressed, young man, so many others would have long since run out on them. But those are not circumstance into which I would have my daughter marry!”
“She would still be a Lady Greenborough,” Simon said.
Thomas Reed rubbed his temples. “Not even that, Simon, and you know it. Well, no one will deny you the title of ‘Viscount,’ but if Nora’s children should inherit the title, then I would have to marry her to a Codrington instead, wouldn’t I?”
Simon lowered his head. Of course, Thomas Reed sometimes even mediated in trade with other countries and parliamentary seats. He knew what had happened to the Greenboroughs.
“Mr Reed … I love your daughter!” Simon couldn’t think of anything else.
Thomas Reed shrugged. “I understand that,” he said shortly. “Nora is a beautiful, intelligent, and extremely lovable, young lady. But that is not an argument for an unsuitable marriage.”
“Nora loves me,” Simon’s voice sounded choked.
Thomas looked at him and tried to work out what his daughter saw in him: undoubtedly a gentleman with the best of manners. He was quite handsome, if you like that slender, somewhat intellectual type. Simon had soft-brown eyes that almost seemed black in the dim light of the study, high cheekbones, and full but finely curved lips. His sensitive hands with long fingers seemed almost graceful — he was probably a good rider and dancer. Nora might really be in love with him, and perhaps he even made her happy. But hell, it was no longer about buying his daughter some toy that she’d begged for. Nora was almost grown. He had to think of her future.
“That will change again,” he replied harshly. “I’m sorry Simon, but I cannot grant your request. And even Nora can’t give you any assurance, as she is far too young and immature. The question now remains as to how we proceed. I would not like to throw you out just for loving my daughter. But I would suggest that you look for a new position sometime in the foreseeable future, preferably in an office where a manager doesn’t have a marriageable daughter. Of course, I will issue you outstanding recommendations. I have no ill will towards you, Simon Greenborough. But you have to start to come to terms with your status and your position.”
Thomas Reed gestured for Simon to leave; the conversation had clearly ended.
Simon bowed again, as convention dictated, but he couldn’t manage to say anything more. Reed seemed not to expect him to, either. Simon felt as if he were blindly stumbling out of the room. Fortunately, the butler took him from outside the door to the entrance room, likely after Reed had rung for him. He wouldn’t have found it on his own.
It was raining again when Simon stepped out to the street, but he hardly noticed. In a trance, he walked along the streets of Mayfair, crossed the Thames Bridge, and returned to the East End. He dragged himself up the creaking, rickety, wooden stairs to his room without listening to Mrs. Paddington’s shrewish voice, once again complaining about something. He tried to close off all of his senses to the mix of odors from cooking, the toilet, and wet clothing. Laboriously breathing, he was finally under the roof of his hovel. As was appropriate to his status and position.
Thomas Reed put no great thought into the fact that Simon Greenborough didn’t attend work the next day. He was even prepared to forgive the young man. Simon’s proposal had been presumptuous, but you had to make allowances for his noble birth and upbringing. A properly situated country aristocrat might well have hoped for a marriage to Nora. Even if Thomas Reed himself had preferred a merchant as a son-in-law, he would have compromised on the matter if Nora had so strongly wished for the connection as she clearly did for this marriage with Simon. Thomas Reed had never seen his daughter so upset when he informed her of his rejection to the proposal. Nora cried, screamed, and begged — Thomas could hardly recognize his otherwise friendly and generally obedient daughter. It was hard for him not to give into her, but he was convinced that it had been the right thing to do. Even Nora would see that some day.
When Simon hadn’t returned to the office on the second day, however, Reed’s understanding had started to grow into vexation. Well, the boy was proud, but now he was going too far. It was not befitting of his employee to sulk. It was bad enough that Nora did it! She had withdrawn to her rooms and not exchanged a single word with her father since. Thomas Reed eventually found himself complaining of his sorrows to an old friend who had often stood by his side in matters of upbringing.
“Oh, you needn’t overemphasize it!” Lady MacDougal laughed. She was a Scottish country aristocrat whose husband held a seat in Parliament. Thus, her family was often in London. “These girls with their young loves! It came over from the French court. Faire l’amour as a reason to be! Even so, your daughter has proven to have a certain style — at least the boy is an impoverished lord. Our Eileen, on the other had, wanted to marry a stableman just last year! Think about that — the fellow could hardly read or write!
“He accompanied her a few times while riding and drove her mad. Now it’s rather easily over … and it won’t be any different with your Nora. She need only think of other things. We can take her with us to Balmoral for the hunting season; she can ride on a few hunts. Buy her a new horse to make her happy. And especially since there’s one ball after another — she’ll get to know more young gentlemen than she can count on ten fingers, all dashing riders, good dancers. Of course, I can’t guarantee anything about their financial backgrounds.” The lady laughed. “But the topic of ‘Greenborough’ would certainly be closed.”
Thomas Reed left her feeling comforted. In principle, she was right: Nora lacked a bit of realism, but was not entirely without discernment. Unlike Eileen MacDougal, she at least expressed a certain level of dignity with her secret love. As such, he was almost in a good mood that evening at dinner with Nora as he told her of his plans. Nora’s outrage surprised him.
“I don’t want a horse, Papa, I want Simon! I’m not a child any longer and won’t be distracted from my wishes by a dollhouse.”
Nora threw her napkin on the table and pushed her plate away.
“Three days ago, you suggested that I buy your man a post in the colonies,” said Reed, Nora’s continued rebellion slowly making him angry. “Before it was a dollhouse, now it’s a colonial house — you’ve remained faithful to your architectural tastes, and the planters even colorfully paint their residencies from time to time.”
“I would live in a hut so long as I could be with Simon!” Nora crowed. In fact, a home covered with palm leaves was one of her favorite daydreams. “And I’m going to marry him anyway! No matter what you say!”
Thomas Reed sighed and started off by refusing to allow her to leave the house — not even conceiving of Nora truly running away from him! He didn’t have any major worries about it: Simon Greenborough certainly had no money for passage overseas. And was digging his own grave at the moment — Reed decided that, should the young man have another absence, he would give into his head clerk’s suggestions and let the young man go.
In fact, he waited almost a week until he finally decided to give Simon Greenborough notice of his termination. Moreover, he instructed the clerk to add a passage in the letter regarding a reference. In the case that Mr. Greenborough should wish for such a thing, he could call on the Reed offices at any time. Mr. Simpson, the head clerk, complained, but Thomas Reed used it to appease his still somewhat guilty conscience. He had done everything he could for his rebellious employee.
Nora had not taken the matter of being condemned to the household very seriously. For the first few days, the house staff had monitored her as directed, but when she sneaked out to Peppers in the stables just over a week later, no one commented on it.
The coachman was sitting on a wooden stool in the tack room, polishing a harness with a mixture of wax and pine oil.
“That looks good,” Nora said after greeting him. “But it’s a lot of work to get it properly shining, is it not?”
The coachman, a small, burly man with a good-natured, round face, grinned and blinked at Nora with his knowing, light-blue eyes.
“Well, don’t trouble yourself,” he said calmly. “You don’t really want to talk about cleaning harnesses, do you? What is it, Miss Nora? Another secret rendezvous? I can’t help you with that any longer; your father has already confronted me. I could honestly deny everything, I haven’t seen a thing,” he winked at her, “but now it won’t work anymore, Miss Nora, now that your father knows and has expressly disapproved.”
Nora nodded. “I … I just wanted … I haven’t heard anything at all from Simon!” she finally said. “And that is so unlike him. He is truly a gentleman. But now … He just disappeared without a word and I thought maybe he left a message with you …”
Peppers shook his head. “Nah, miss. And also not with the others. Mr. Reed has already asked, but no one has heard or seen anything. You can believe, Miss Nora, we would have told you if we had.”
Nora rubbed her nose, as she always did when she was thinking and confused. Peppers sighed.
“Look, child, the best thing is to forget him,” he said paternally. Naturally, offering such words of advice exceeded his position, but the hell with it, he had known this young woman since her birth! “The man is gone. As well as his good manners — he was only after your money, Miss Nora—”
“Gone?” Nora furrowed her brow. “What is that supposed to mean? Has my father dismissed him?”
Peppers shook his head. “No. Not that I know of. I’ve only heard in passing, but it seems he hasn’t shown his face in the office since that meeting with your father.”
Fear flashed in Nora’s eyes. She wasn’t surprised that the servants knew of Simon’s proposal. Such things never remained hidden. But Simon being absent from the office? She couldn’t imagine that. Undoubtedly, her father had hurt his pride, but Simon Greenborough’s dignity had suffered other blows. He was a gentleman and he had obligations — not least debts to pay. Furthermore, she didn’t believe for a moment that he had given up so easily. He loved her no less than she loved him. Something must have happened.
Nora straightened herself up and made a decision. “Will you please drive me to the office?” she asked Peppers. “I must … I must find something out there.”
Peppers looked at her sympathetically. “My dear, let it go. The fellow doesn’t love you!”
Nora shook her head. “Nah, Peppers!” she said, mimicking his broad Cheapside dialect. “I won’t give up that quickly. And if Simon Greenborough no longer loves me, then he will have to tell me that himself!”
Peppers tensed. Although his master had forbidden him from driving Nora, Thomas Reed wasn’t even there. He had set out on a trip to the continent that would lead him and a business friend to Amsterdam and Lübeck. Peppers had driven him to the man in the morning. The two wanted to discuss something and their ship left that evening. The coachman thought it rather unlikely that Reed had called in on the office in the meantime. Luckily for little Miss Nora, as what she wanted there was certainly not to speak to her father.
“Miss Nora, I can’t tell you where Mr. Greenborough lives!” Mr. Simpson, the short, portly head clerk behaved as if Nora’s request was a personal insult. “Your father wouldn’t find that appropriate. And anyway, the man is no longer working with us.”
“Perhaps I just want to write him a letter,” Nora said. “But I need his address!”
The man laughed contemptuously. “There’s probably no postman that would go there,” he said. “Now please go, Miss Nora. I have to continue working and am unable to help you.”
“Of course, you could wait for your father in his office,” George Wilson, a younger clerk, eagerly offered as she stepped into the corridor. “Maybe he’ll still drop in. I’ll bring you a cup of tea, as well.”
Initially, Nora had wanted to turn down his offer, but then decided to extend her stay in the office. Maybe there would be another opportunity to find something out about Simon.
“My father dismissed Mr. Greenborough?” she inquired when Wilson brought in her tea.
The young man smiled at her. The petite, young woman looked adorable sitting enthroned in her father’s massive chair, her farthingale draped over it, and her clever green eyes drifting across the books and folders along the wall of the office.
Could it have been true that Simon Greenborough had dared ask for Nora Reed’s hand?
“Yes, regrettably,” Wilson then answered. “After he didn’t appear at work for a week. Naturally, that was not acceptable. We—”
“Wilson?” the head clerk’s voice sounded cutting. “What are you doing there? I hardly think it proper that yet another man be dallying with the daughter of his employer. I’ve asked you to go home, Miss Reed. And you, Wilson, give Bobby the authorization letter that he should be taking to the docks!”
The man glared at Nora, as well as his subordinates. He seemed to feel very secure in his position; few men would have dared treat the daughter of his employer as such.
Wilson sighed when Simpson turned around, but left the door of the office open. A clear sign that he was keeping an eye on him. “Well, then, Miss Reed …”
Nora was about to get up, but then suddenly had a brilliant idea. “Mr Wilson, this dismissal of my … uh … of Mr. Greenborough. Was it delivered in writing?”
Wilson nodded. “Of course, Miss Reed, it must be done properly. He also received the rest of his salary, Mr. Reed is very decent. He even offered him a recommendation. I wrote the letter myself … but I … I don’t remember the address any longer.”
Wilson blushed at the lie, but Nora was not paying attention to him. Thomas Reed had dictated a letter, and Bobby, the little messenger boy, would have carried it! Nora now knew to whom she could turn!
She quickly and formally parted ways with Wilson, who seemed relieved when she left the office without asking further questions.
In the building’s driveway, but out of view of the coachman, she waited for Bobby. He was a skinny, red-haired, thirteen-year-old boy who carried letters for Reed’s office. The boy grinned at her courteously when she spoke to him, the freckles dancing on his childlike face.
“Can I help you, Miss Reed?”
Nora nodded and expressed her wishes. “You must still know where you delivered the dismissal.”
“Was he really your sweetheart, Miss Reed?” Bobby asked cheekily instead of answering her question. “That’s what they’ve been saying in the office, but the poor fellow and such a princess as yourself, Miss Reed—”
Nora tried to act enraged. “That has nothing to do with you, Bobby!” she exclaimed. “And, by the way, you could show some propriety! Mr. Greenborough is, after all, not simply Mr. Greenborough, but a viscount. A nobleman, a lord—”
Bobby grimaced. “But his palace is about to collapse around him,” the boy scoffed. “Honestly, Miss Nora, it’s a dump where I delivered that letter, I have a lordly lifestyle in comparison … and the quarter there behind the tower … the slaughterhouses—”
“I’ll see that for myself, thank you,” Nora interrupted his flow of words. “Would you please lead me there?” “You?” Bobby furrowed his brow. “Miss, I can’t do that, it’s no place for a lady. Your father would … he would crush me—”
“My father doesn’t have to know,” Nora said, and pulled a coin from her pocket. Bobby looked at the penny covetously.
“Your coachman will surely tell him,” he shrewdly noted, and gestured towards Peppers with his shoulder.
Nora bit her tongue. The boy was right. Peppers couldn’t find out.
“Can’t we pass somewhere in the carriage without him seeing us?” she asked.
The boy giggled. It clearly amused him that this lady was planning an adventure with him.
“Nah. How would that work, he keeps looking over. If you take one step forward, he’ll see you. But hang on!
Bobby winked to her, trotted over to the coach, and exchanged a few words with Peppers. Even before he had returned, the horses had started moving. The carriage drove off.
“I told him that you were waiting for your father in the office,” Bobby explained and gestured for Nora to follow him. “But now you should come along, otherwise someone else will catch you here — and me too. Besides, it’s a detour; we have to go quickly, so that Simpson doesn’t catch onto us. He counts every step I have to take between the offices and the docks, and there’s trouble to pay if I’m even a few heartbeats late.”
Nora hoped that Peppers had really believed the excuse — after all, her father hadn’t anticipated returning to the office prior to his departure. On the other hand, he could’ve changed his plans, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for the coachman to ask too many questions. As such, she tried not to worry as she followed Bobby along the bank of the Thames. They first walked past the newly built, venerable office buildings and guildhalls, then through the small side streets of the poorer districts. Nora had forgotten her fears of the coachman following her discreetly. In fact, the streets were so narrow, dirty, and crowded, that the horses could hardly pass through anyway. There were no more carriages or hackneys to be seen, but instead old, two-wheel carts with clacking horses or mules in front.
Nora was becoming increasingly uneasy. Simon had told her that he lived very modestly in the East End, but these huts and narrow, cheaply built homes, the rubbish-strewn streets where dirty, barefoot children played as dark figures seemed to linger in the corners … well, Nora thanked heaven for Bobby, who moved through the area with ease. Apparently, he had come from hardly better circumstances himself. In any case, he flitted so rapidly through the streets that Nora could barely keep up. She became aware of her shawl and afternoon crinoline dress, which was simple, but clearly made of the finest fabrics. It was a good thing that she didn’t powder her hair. It appeared that no one in this wretched quarter powdered theirs. The women who hastened through the streets or peddled wares on the side of the road seemed just as unkempt as their children.
“Has Simon, Mr. Greenborough said anything about why he didn’t return to the office?” Nora tried to start a conversation with her guide. Bobby shook his head. “He didn’t say much,” he answered. “He was sick in bed, Miss. And not just a bit, if you ask me. He looked as if he’d gone three days without food. Nonetheless, he wanted to give me a penny for the delivery, although God knows it wasn’t good news. I gave the penny to the woman downstairs, so that she’d bring him something to eat. I just hope the old lady did it—”
Nora’s fears grew — along with a feeling of warmth for the boy beside her. “That was very decent of you, Bobby!” she praised him.
He shrugged. “The pastor says: ‘give and ye shall receive.’ Or something like that. My mum doesn’t really believe in it, but somehow I felt pity for him, your … lord.”
The boy grinned apologetically, and then stopped in front of a two-story, stone house, undoubtedly built after the Great Fire.
“Here it is. But it’s best you don’t go in alone.” Like a proper gentleman, Bobby held the door open for Nora, which led to a dark, foul-smelling hallway. The door to one of the rooms was open, and it looked to Nora like a caricature of a parlor. There was an old armchair in front of a fireplace, a table, and chairs, but everything seemed dirty, gray, shabby — it seemed like no one ever tidied up in here. Scraps of fabric and old clothing lay all over.
“This is her business,” Bobby explained to the appalled Nora. “Old lady Paddington, I mean, the landlady. She buys and sells second-hand clothes. She heads over to Cheapside on market days. And otherwise, she lets the house — how she came to own it, no one knows …”
A shrewish voice came from the apartment. Bobby ducked his head. “Come upstairs quickly, Miss Nora, before the old crone notices you!” He urged, and hurried towards a wooden staircase, which might have been more appropriately called a ladder.
“I’ve already seen you!” The woman screeched from behind them. “Fanny Deary’s boy and a fine, young lady. Are you perhaps too good to say hello to an old friend, Bobby? And where’re you going?”
“Don’t listen to her,” Bobby whispered, embarrassed. “My mum is not really friends with her; she just sold her clothes when my old man died … Visiting Mr. Greenborough, Mrs. Paddington!” he called over his shoulder to the old hag, who was now standing at the base of the stairs; curiously peering up at them.
Mrs. Paddington was not really old, but corpulent, and red-faced. Her hair was stringy and her small eyes were glassy, but nonetheless angry and suspicious. Nora now believed she could identify the smell permeating from her apartment: gin or some other cheaper kind of booze.
Even the rooms on the first floor seemed to be inhabited, as voices could be heard behind the closed doors. But Bobby climbed up another narrow, rickety flight of stairs. With every step, Nora feared that the brittle, creaky wood could give out. Upstairs, there was just one small door that had clearly been constructed from waste wood. Bobby knocked, Nora’s heart beating so hard that she thought it would drown out the sound of his knuckles pounding on the rotten wood.
There was no answer. Could Simon have gone out? With disappointment Nora considered leaving. But then her young companion pushed open the apartment door without further ado.
“Mr Greenborough? It’s me again, Bobby. But this time with better news!”
The boy’s voice sounded deliberately cheerful and optimistic. Nora entered the room behind him — and held her breath in horror.
Simon’s quarters lay directly beneath the roof. The room didn’t contain a single straight wall, and there were a few buckets distributed around the space to catch the rain leaking through. It must have been unbearably hot in summer and ice-cold in winter. It was dark and Nora could hardly see anything at first glance. There was no fire burning in the fireplace. It was only when her eyes slowly adjusted that she noticed the meager furnishings — a table and a chair, over which Simon had sloppily thrown the clothes that he’d worn that Tuesday night. That was unlike him. On a hook fixed clumsily to the wall, there was a second shirt that had been very carefully pressed, with the iron resting on the table. Nora shamefully remembered the day when he had confessed to her that he took care of his own clothing. She had laughed at him for doing the work of a laundress and feared that her sweetheart was a bit stingy. But now she saw Simon’s harsh reality — and then finally her beloved himself on the plain bed, which, for some unknown reason, he had pushed as close as possible to the cold fireplace. It had been a long time since a fire had burned in the furnace. Simon lay curled under his thin blanket; desperately trying to keep in the warmth it provided him.
Nora ran up to him — and was even more horrified when she saw his haggard, feverish, flushed face.
“Simon! Why didn’t you tell anyone that you’re sick? Why didn’t you let me know? Oh God, Simon, you need a doctor!”
Simon opened his eyes — they were red and glassy from the fever, but still lit up when he saw Nora.
“Nora … you … is it you … or … a dream?”
Nora smiled and fought back tears. This was bad. Much worse than she ever could have imagined.
“No, it’s really me!” she said, stroking Simon’s hair. It was sweaty, even though he was shivering. “And now I will take care of you. I should have been here sooner … heavens, Simon, you’re trembling.”
“It’s cold …” Simon whispered.
He was only wearing a shirt, the same one that he had on when he came to speak with Nora’s father. That evening, he had collapsed on his bed soaking wet, humiliated, dejected, and had awaken the following morning with a fever. He had only managed to take off his jacket and trousers before he had fallen back onto his bed coughing. He hardly knew how he had survived the first days before Bobby came by with the dismissal. Simon had a faint memory of his landlady’s daughter occasionally bringing him something to eat. Since Bobby had been there, she had looked in on him once a day. However, Mrs. Paddington had been keeping an eye on her, since she knew that Simon lay sick in bed. As a result, the sympathetic, little Joan only sometimes brought up thin beer soup or a chunk of bread.
Nora took off her cloak and wrapped it around Simon.
“We have to light the fire!” she decided, surprised at herself. In the novels she’d read, the heroine would first take her lover in her arms, and he would’ve reassured her that her love alone would be enough to immediately heal him. But for Nora that adventure ended when she entered this attic. Now she had to accept the reality: that Simon needed kisses and affection less than he needed blankets, warm food, a fire, and a doctor.
“Can you find wood somewhere, Bobby?”
Simon shook his head. “Smoke …” he whispered. “Smoke and soot … no heat …” He coughed as he uttered the words.
Nora looked to Bobby for help. “What should we do?” she asked, at a loss.
Bobby shrugged. “A chimney sweep,” he said. “I can go, if you …” He made a gesture that meant, but it’ll cost money.
Nora gave him a few pence. “Is that enough?” she asked, unsure.
Bobby rolled his eyes. “That’s enough for three times, Miss … and for a few more things. Let me take care of it. But now I really have to go — Mr. Simpson will be waiting.”
The young boy left for work, but Nora heard him on the stairs talking to Mrs. Paddington. She answered bitterly that this wasn’t a hotel and that she wasn’t a messenger. But then the nagging faded away, and Nora found herself alone with Simon. In the absence of any other option, she kneeled down beside the bed. She vaguely recollected what she knew about nursing. It wasn’t much, only what she remembered from her own sick days. If Nora had a cold or upset stomach, the housekeeper made her a calf compress and boiled herbal tea. There wasn’t even a kettle here. Nora put her arm around Simon. If she helped him to sit up, she could shake out his pillow — if you could even call this hard, lumpy thing a pillow.
Simon looked into her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. Nora had a change of heart and pulled his head to her chest.
“You needn’t be sorry about anything, darling,” she whispered. “You can’t help that you’re sick. And now … now I’m here.”
Simon coughed again as he tried to break away from her.
“You can’t stay here, Nora! You shouldn’t be here, you need to—”
At that moment, the door opened and a gaunt, dark-haired, young girl walked through. She was carrying a mug with a bitter-smelling concoction. Nora thought she could smell hot beer, and maybe there were also herbs in it. The stuff was steaming, so it might at least make Simon a bit warmer.
The girl curtsied in front of the upper-class visitor. “My mother sent this,” she said quietly. “The Deary boy paid for it. And there’s also stew, mother says, but that costs another penny …” The girl kept her head down. Her mother’s greed seemed to embarrass her.
Nora was already reaching for her purse, but then she thought better of it. She was a merchant’s daughter! And even if it was only for a few pence, she shouldn’t allow this Mrs. Paddington to shamelessly exploit her like this.
“Tell your mother that I know very well that Bobby has also paid for the food!” She said as firmly as she could. “If she wants another penny, then she should send you up with two more blankets, but warm ones, not rags like these!” She pointed to the flimsy thing that was hardly keeping Simon warm. “And a pillow along with them too!”
The girl nodded with a hint of admiration in her eyes, then put the mug on the table, and disappeared downstairs to tell her mother what the young lady had requested of her. Nora sighed with relief when she closed the door behind her.
“Joan is a good child,” Simon said quietly, as if he wanted to reprimand Nora for her harsh words.
Nora shrugged. “And her mother is a dragon!” She said. “But I’ll deal with it, I …”
Simon smiled weakly. “The prince is supposed to slay the dragon,” he reminded her gently.
Nora rolled her eyes. “Tomorrow, darling, tomorrow you will cut the head off the dragon. But first you must rid yourself of this cough. And you can’t do that if you are not warm, and dry, and if this monstrous woman lets you starve! Now drink,”
Nora went in search of a cup or a glass, and eventually found an old earthenware tumbler. She poured some of the beer into it and handed it to Simon, but he was still shaking too much to hold the cup. Nora helped him guide it to his mouth and closed his hands around it to warm them.
“Perhaps we should’ve ordered rum,” she mumbled.
Simon drank thirstily, and Nora immediately saw the effect the hot liquid had on him. “You can’t stay here!” he repeated, with more energy than he’d been able to muster so far.
Nora’s twisted up her mouth like a naughty little girl. Then she smiled. “Just try and stop me,” she said as if ready for a fight.
Simon strenuously sat up. “Nora, you may not be alone with a man in an apartment. It … it will ruin your reputation …” He sank back on his bed.
“I don’t care,” Nora said shortly. “On the contrary, it’s even better for me. My father is away and if he comes back and half the city knows that little Nora Reed has run off with her sweetheart, then he can cast me off or host a wedding. Believe me, it’ll be the latter.”
Simon shook his head. “You’ve already deceived yourself once,” he quietly reminded her. “Nora, all the things he told me … he will never allow it, never and … and he was right.” Nora wanted to take him by the arm again, but he turned away. Just the slight effort even made him start coughing again. “He is absolutely right, Nora, I will never be able to provide you a befitting life. And now … Nora, this is not a little cold, it’s been going on too long. This is …”
Simon didn’t say the word, but even Nora had to know the signs of consumption. Even in the best circles, people died of it. And here, in the narrow streets of the East End, the epidemic was everywhere.
Nora shook her head. “It will heal when we’re in the south!” She said with certainty. “The cold and the wet here — we’re not cut out for it. But you must gather your courage, darling! Wait and see — when there is a fire burning and we have candles … candles, yes, we need light. We’ll make ourselves comfortable, and I will tell you about Cooper Island. Lady Wentworth has described it to me in detail. And I still haven’t told you everything from the book that she lent me, about Barbados, and the jungle, and the beach. There’s even a proper city there. She says …”
Simon gave in — although, he also had little more time to protest, as Joan soon reappeared. This time, she had a bowl with warm water.
“The chimney sweep is here,” the girl explained. “And mother is gathering up the bedding. She’s complaining, because she has to take her own, and she wants two pence if she has to get clean sheets. And I thought … maybe the lord would like to wash up?”
Just then, Nora was startled when something small and soot-black suddenly rappeled down the chimney and plopped onto the cold hearth. At first she thought it was a leprechaun — or even Santa Claus. But then the tiny thing turned out to be a boy of about five swinging a broom.
“And do it right, Tom, so that I don’t get any more complaints!”
A man’s voice came from above. Apparently, the chimney sweep had let down the little boy on a rope to do his work. The shaft was narrow and an adult, or even just a large child, would not have fit through.
Nora watched in horror as the child knocked the soot from the walls of the chimney with visible exertion. The boy seemed underfed and was coughing. Nora wanted to say something to him, but nothing came to mind that she could use to comfort him. A penny, perhaps? But, if she could believe Bobby, that would already be enough wages for all of the work. And the master would surely take it away from the little one. At home, she would have had sweets, but here …
Before she could do anything, the chimney sweep had pulled his little apprentice back up. He continued hanging in the shaft and sweeping the walls.
“Almost done!” The man then called from above. “When we’re gone, you can make a fire.”
Of course, the wood was still missing, but Nora was counting on Bobby. And anyway, first she had to help Simon wash up. He insisted, however, that she turn away. Despite his weakness, he stood up, and Nora’s heart ached when she heard him cough again.
In the meantime, Nora looked for a nightshirt. She blushed a bit while doing so, as she hadn’t ever seen her father in one. But now was no time for shame — and if she married Simon, they would eventually be sharing a bed anyway. Nora had relatively clear ideas about what lay ahead. After all, the girls of high society never tired of whispering about it. Faire l’amour had been considered a type of parlor game in the court of the Sun King, and now it was slowly sweeping through England.
Nora did not fear her wedding night with Simon, as she had always enjoyed stretching out beside him in the park in summer. She thought longingly of their shared boat trip, when she had been as bold as to dare to reach under his shirt and caress his bare chest. There was no reason not to do that again now.
While she was looking through Simon’s few possessions, Joan returned with fresh bedding — actual down blankets, in fact. Concerning the covers, however, Nora didn’t know whether she should laugh or cry. They would have to be washed. Heavens, she would need a basin, and pots for cooking, and all these things that she hardly knew what to do with! The word trousseau suddenly held new meaning — up until now, she had only thought of silver, porcelain, fine furniture, and table linens.
Simon allowed Nora to help him into a fresh nightshirt. The new covers and another serving of the hot beer warmed him at least enough that he was no longer shivering. Nora sat down beside him, stroked his forehead, and massaged his temples. And as she began to tell him of Barbados, he fell straight asleep. The cold had probably robbed him of sleep for too long.
Nora thought about whether she could lie down to rest in the small room, but first she ate a bit of the stew that Joan had brought up, and then Bobby arrived with a large basket full of firewood.
“All hell has broken loose at the offices, Miss. Your coachman is looking for you,” the boy explained, as he started building a fire. Nora watched him attentively. She had never done it herself, but she would have to learn. “Of course, I didn’t betray anything, but they already suspect something.” He expressively gestured with his hands. “I think they want to tell your father.”
Nora nodded, although she felt uneasy. Well, her father was now at sea and the earliest a letter could reach him wouldn’t be until the next ship got to Amsterdam. Peppers, however, she assumed was certainly capable of getting Simon’s address. Would he arrive here and pull her out? Without an express request from his master? Nora was not sure. Peppers adored her, but he was first and foremost a faithful servant to Thomas Reed. It would probably depend on his assessment of the situation: if he also took her love for Simon as a childish infatuation, then he would force her to leave her beloved.
Early evening came round, however, and nothing happened. Did Peppers still not have the address? But it was possible that the old coachman was indecisive. Nora rolled over, snuggled up in her coat in front of the cozy, flickering fire, and thought that she could start by being pleased with what she had achieved that afternoon.
Unfortunately, she could only enjoy her rest for a short time. Simon’s cough and his laborious breathing took her from her sleep, and she then recoiled in horror when small, leathery feet pattered over her bare legs. Mice! Or possibly even rats! Nora would put out poison or acquire a cat. The later seemed more pleasant, but she was already preemptively worried about the animal. The meat in the soup had seemed quite strange to Nora.
And then, in the second half of the night, Nora began to worry about money. Although things were cheap in the East End, the most necessary measures and purchases still swallowed one penny after another. Nora’s purse would soon be empty. The young woman panicked imagining it, but then remembered the existence of pawnshops. She would first pawn her farthingale. The women in the East End did well going about without them. The voluminous dresses made any kind of physical work impossible, anyway. And she would pay a doctor with the money. That was the most important thing. Simon needed a doctor.
It was easy to get money for her dress — after all, Mrs. Paddington dealt in second-hand clothing. She made an offer, which Nora did her best to bring up. After all, she was a merchant’s daughter and she remembered her father’s first rule: always obtain several quotes before you embark on a trade.
Thus, Nora told Mrs. Paddington that she would ask around at other garment dealers, whereupon the landlady’s offer immediately rose considerably. Nora then accepted. She still had a variety of tasks to take care of and didn’t want to leave Simon alone for too long. He was doing somewhat better that morning he — he had even insisted on relighting the fireplace himself, and had got out a kettle, although there was no tea. Nora tried to borrow some from a neighbor on the first floor, and caught her just before she left the house. Mrs. Tanner worked as a weaver in one of the new factories, and had just been busy trying to calm her youngest children. Two of them were persistently crying for her. She had no tea and seemed to hardly know what it was. When Nora explained it to her, she was appalled, and advised against using water from the pipes in the streets to make an infusion.
“You can’t drink that, dearie, it’ll give you the shits!”
Instead, she recommended gin, and the confused Nora thought of the beer soup. Her father still raved about the traditional breakfast drink that was ever-present in his youth, although Queen Anne’s tea had replaced it. Mrs. Tanner had a pitcher of beer at home, and readily shared it with the new neighbor. And in turn, Nora promised to look after her youngest children for a while.