27. Nov, 2016

A little bit of Sherlock Holmes to go with Sunday lunch...

Even if you've never been a fan of Conan Doyle's great detective, you might like this! Sherlock Holmes as he might have been, if he had only been created by a woman!

 

Sherlock Holmes’ Secret Mistress

 

 

 Prologue

 

“Good afternoon, dear. Is your Mother at home? She is expecting me. Could you tell her that Mr. Holmes is here to see her?”

I clenched my teeth together so tightly that they hurt.  At scarcely two o´clock, it was as dark as if dusk was already falling. The open door was allowing thick, yellowish fog to billow in to my hall; that nasty, sulphurous mixture of coal smoke and stale breath and gas light fumes that Londoners complacently call a “London Peculiar”. Nothing like it anywhere else, they say; thank God for that, say I! I was half way inclined to give the stranger the benefit of the doubt, until he spoke again. Slowly, as if he thought I was either deaf or daft. Or both.

“Your Mother, child. I wrote to her yesterday to make an appointment for this afternoon.” He slid his fingers into his waistcoat pocket and extracted a gold half-hunter watch. It was so murky he had to hold the watch nearly to his nose to read the time. “And I see I am exactly on time. I take it Mrs. Hudson is at home?”

That did it.

I stepped back smartly and swung the door in his face. Or at least I would have done, if his foot hadn´t already jammed itself against the door frame.

He was in my hall before I could stop him. I took a step back and watched in powerless fury as the tall, top-hatted man reached up casually towards the gas mantle and turned up the flame. It sputtered and flared before settling to cast a warm glow over us both.

“Ah. I see. I appear to have made a mistake. I do apologise. Sherlock Holmes at your service, Mrs. Hudson.”

 

Chapter 1

 

The whole of London knows the Eagle Tavern, of course. Why, even the children are bought up with its name on their lips.

 

“Up and down the City Road,

In and out the Eagle.

That’s the way the money goes,

Pop! Goes the weasel.”

 

Aye, and many and many is the pocket watch – called a “weasel” by the folk hereabout – that´s been “popped” into hock at the nearest pawn broker to pay for their drop of liquor in the Eagle. I often wonder if all those middle-class Mamas would have been so keen for the nursery maid to teach little Bertie and Amelia that particular rhyme if they knew what it actually meant. I daresay not!

But I knew the Eagle a lot better than most. Goes without saying, I suppose, as I worked behind the bar there for a good few years. And performed at the music hall that was attached to the Tavern, as well. I was not, you understand, a regular on the Grecian Saloon stage. Oh, no. I wasn´t part of that particular circuit, so the real performers – the warblers and the Lions Comique and the funny turns – wouldn´t have stood for me stealing the limelight from them, not for a single second. But it was often the case that a performer was delayed en route - not surprising when you think that they all tried to cram in as many venues as they could, every single night. Sometimes a cab couldn´t be had for love nor money, or perhaps the traffic was stiff all the way between the Angel and the City Road. In any event, if the act that was next on the bill wasn´t there, and if the boys and girls who had just gone off stage hadn´t gone down that well, why then little Nella Serjeant was able and willing to get up on her hind legs and give ‘em a song or two, to bridge the gap.

And if I do say so myself, I always went down well. I think part of it was the oddity of this tiny little figure – and even in shoes, I never top the five foot mark – opening her mouth and a voice bigger than the rest of her put together rolling out. A contralto, Kit said I was. Fancy name for a woman with a deeper voice than you would expect, I say. Anyway, I could belt ‘em out with the best of them. Not Jenny Lind, exactly, nor Adelina Patti, but to give myself toffee, given the chance I could have given Marie Lloyd a run for her money. Many´s the time I’ve reduced the audience in the Grecian Saloon almost to tears with my rendition of “Come into the Garden Maud”, or “Villikens and His Dinah”; that was my own favourite, sung with my hands clasped in front of my chest and my eyes raised soulfully to the Gods. And there´s nobody as generous with his money as a proper Cockney out to enjoy himself with his best girl on his arm. Often as not, I scooped up a proper fistful of coins – mainly coppers, fair enough, but now and then a sprinkling of silver thru ´penny bits to leaven the mix a bit – at the end of my turn. On a good night I could make as much from a song or two as I earned behind the bar in two or three days.

You might be asking yourself if I was that good, why didn´t I take it up professionally, and have done with it? Well, it was half a dozen of one and six of the other, as it were. To start with, I saw the slog behind the glamour of those poor souls on the stage. Half the time, they were that frazzled dashing from music hall to music hall they didn´t rightly know what day it was. And the public is fickle; I´ve seen acts that were lauded to the skies one week booed off the stage the next.  And there´s a world of difference between having to make your living at it and knowing that if they don´t like you, you´re not going to eat the next day, and just doing it for a bit of fun.         

And the other thing, of course, was I never felt I could turn my back on my Donah. If it hadn´t have been for Rosie Bishop rescuing me from the orphanage when she did, then I daresay I would have ended up as some skivvy in a rich man´s house, and the best lookout I could have had would have been to scale the heights up to parlour maid, or such, bowing and scraping and spending all day saying “Yes, Sir. No, Sir. Three Bags Full Sir.”  Thank you, but no thank you!                       

But Rosie did rescue me, and taught me the ins and outs of barmaiding until I was up there with the best of them.

“You´re a good girl, Nella.” She said to me one day. It was quiet behind the bar – the real rush would come when the music hall finished and all the crowd surged in together. I was polishing glasses, for something to do more than anything. I always did hate being idle. “I don´t know what I´d do without you.”

“I´m not going anywhere, Rosie.” I said. “Not likely.”

“Oh, aye? And what if some flash cove came through the doors tonight and took a fancy to you? You´d be off like a greased pig.”

We both laughed at that. Although at the same time we both knew that I´d had many a chance in that direction, but I´d never been seriously tempted. It´s what you might call an occupational hazard of being a barmaid; all the silly buggers on the other side of the bar think they´re irresistible, even if they´ve only got one eye and less sense.

And I had more nous than to fall for the likes of them, apart from any question of being loyal to Rosie. I had my own snug little room at the Eagle. I enjoyed the days I sang to the crowds – not to mention the extra bit of money it bought in. Rosie fed me as well, so most of my money went on nice clothes. Give myself my due, I always had good taste in clothes; Rosie shook her head over me.

“Don´t know where you get it from, gel. If you weren´t actually standing behind the bar, nobody would ever take you for a barmaid. More like a flaming Duchess or something. You talk nice, as well.”

I grinned happily.

“Here they come!”

The doors swept back as the music hall crowd poured in to wet their whistles; thirsts that had been encouraged by roaring out many a chorus of the latest songs.

Rosie and I were kept busy for the next hour, until bodies were settled at tables and the second round of drinks was being consumed at a slightly slower rate than the first. A beer crowd mainly, this lot. A glass of gin for the women; the odd chap that wanted brandy and water but not much else.

“A glass of flesh and blood, please miss. And I´ll take a dozen oysters if they´re new.”

I paused in the act of reaching up for a glass. Nice voice. Deep and gentlemanly, like.

“Yes, sir.  I´ll get your drink but you´ll have to wait a moment for the oysters. They´ll be fresh up from the kitchen.”

I started to give him a nice, professional sort of smile but it just sort of got stuck on my lips and I stood there gawping, daft as you like. Rosie must have sensed something was up as she came bustling over and gave me the benefit of her elbow in my ribs.

“Come on, Nella. Don´t keep the gentleman waiting about.”

I mumbled “sorry” and busied myself getting him his glass of port and gin.

“One for yourself?” He enquired, polite enough, but I could see through him like glass. He was laughing at me. He knew – just knew - that he´d got me all of a dither, and he was enjoying it as well.

“Thank you.” I pulled myself together and finished the smile. I was pleased to see he looked startled. “I´ll take a Seltzer water.”

I didn´t drink at all in those days, and take little enough now. Another occupational hazard; I don´t know many barmaids that do drink. We see far too much of what it can do to you, if you let it get control.

Anyway, my gent looked even more amused at that. He pulled a handful of coins out of his pocket and tossed them on to the bar.

“Tell you what. Let me know when that lot´s finished and we´ll see where we go from there, shall we?”

It might not sound much, but there was a wealth of meaning in his words.

“I´ll get your oysters, sir.” I said, and scurried off to the shelter of the kitchen for the chance to pull my thoughts together.

While Cook shucked the oysters and bedded them nicely on ice, I told myself off. Firmly. For God´s sake, I was behaving like a green girl, not a seasoned barmaid of nineteen, who had seen ‘em come and go for the past six years. And come or go, it had all been the same to me. There had, of course, been one or two – or even three or four, to be truthful – that I had enjoyed having around, but nothing that came to anything.

I hadn´t been serving behind the bar for barely more than a year when Rosie saw which way the wind was blowing, and gave me what she called a “little present”. I stared it, proper puzzled. A bit of sponge, with a ribbon attached. Rosie sniggered when she saw my expression.

“You can´t pull the wool over my eyes, Nella. I´ve seen the way that young chap is giving you the eye. It´s not the quality of my ale that fetches him in here night after night. Lost your Judy´s Teacup to him yet, have you?”

I was mortified. He was a nice young chap; a strapping stonemason with a fine crop of curly black hair. And – innocent as I was in those days – even I had realised that he fancied me, good and proper. But I hadn´t done anything more than allow him a quick kiss and a squeeze or two when nobody was looking. To be honest, I wasn´t at all sure what came after that, anyway. There had been plenty of discussion about what caused babies at the orphanage, but nobody was really sure. Whatever it was, I had no intention of risking it by finding out.

I shook my head, blushing fiercely.

“You´re not going to be able to hold him at bay forever.” Rosie said bluntly. “One of these days he´s going to want more than you´re letting him have. And I´m damned if I´m going to have one of my best barmaids up the stick.”

She must have seen my confusion.

“You know what this is for?” She asked, dangling the sponge by its ribbon. I simply shook my head.

“Gawd help us. You do know how you come to get a baby, don´t you?”

Worse and worse! I shook my head again miserably.

Rosie looked at me and raised her eyes to the heavens.

“Oh, for Christ´s sake. Come in the back.”

Once in Rosie´s little room, she sat me down. I watched, mouth sagging, as she hoiked up her skirts to reveal an abundant bush of pubic hair. She parted her sex briskly. I hardly knew where to look, but Rosie was having none of it.

“Don´t be so daft. We´re all made the same, lass. This is what your chap is after.” I stared at her Hairy Mary transfixed; anything not to meet her gaze. “Babies come from in here.” She poked a finger firmly into herself. “See?”

I pulled a face. It was all very well Rosie telling me that we were all the same; I had nothing at all like that … that clump of hair between my legs. I was as bald as glass compared to Rosie.

She pursed her lips at me. I noticed that her finger was flicking idly in and out of her mass of hair. I watched, mesmerised.

“The chap puts his cock in here.” She said. In there? I could hardly credit it. I raised my eyebrows in disbelief. “In there.” She repeated firmly. “He puts his cock in you, and plants a seed inside of you. And that starts a baby growing in your belly. It doesn´t happen every time, but there´s no point in taking the risk. That´s why I´m giving you this.”

She dangled the bit of sponge by the end of its ribbon.

“Watch.” She instructed.

I could feel my eyes widening far enough to let my eyeballs fall out as Rosie bent her knees and took the sponge between her thumb and finger, the ribbon tucked between her second and third fingers. She parted her pubic hair with her other hand, splaying herself open wide so that I could see what she was doing.

“Push it as far up yourself as you can.” I wondered if she was as embarrassed as I was, as her voice suddenly waivered a bit. “Make sure you can still get hold of the ribbon.”

She withdrew her finger with a popping sound, and rubbed her thighs together.

“And that´s it. If your chap wants to fuck you, and he will before much longer, soak the sponge for a couple of hours in a solution of alum, and make sure it´s in place like I´ve shown you well before he lays a finger on you. Leave it in your fanny until next morning, and then pull it out and give it a good wash out. You can use the same sponge time after time, until it starts to look a bit moth eaten. Now then, shove off and leave me in peace.”

I scuttled away, bewildered by my sudden dismissal. I would, I thought miserably, have to remind Rosie to give me my “present” back. After she had been so kind as to show me how to use it, I hardly liked to tell her that I had no intention at all of allowing my young admirer to break my Judy´s Teacup. Oh, no. That would stay intact until my wedding night.

Funny, isn´t it, how things don´t work out as you expect?

Christmas Eve, it was. Sam – my admirer – had been in the bar all evening. He could hold his drink, I´ll say that for him. I hadn´t taken a drink at all; apart from anything else, the tavern was so busy it took Rosie and me all our time to just serve the customers, never mind about a bite to eat or a glass of anything for ourselves.

But everything was just so very jolly. It was as hot as hell, and nearly as smoky with all the pipes and cigars that were puffing away. Dan Leno had been on in the Grecian Saloon, and had gone down a storm with the crowd.  I began to feel as if I was drunk, the atmosphere was so merry. 

We were so busy, I barely had a moment to have a laugh with Sam. But I knew he was there, alright.  And I wasn´t at all happy when I realised that he seemed to be spending a lot of time chatting to one particular Judy.  I knew this one; she came in regular and was, to my mind, no more than a dollymop. Not, to give her her due, a full time tart, but certainly one who was not averse to earning a bit on the side. Not with my Sam, she wasn´t!

As I watched, I saw her hand slide up Sam´s leg and come to rest at his crotch. And even worse, Sam not only obviously didn´t mind at all, it appeared to me that he was very much enjoying her antics. In fact, he put his own hand over hers, and pressed her fingers tightly down on himself.

I was torn between fury and blaming myself. After all, could I really blame Sam? I had kept him at arms´ length for the best part of three months, and here was this cow handing it to him on a plate. Was there any wonder he was responding so enthusiastically? He was only a man, after all.  Before I could have second thoughts, I made my mind up.

“Merry Christmas, love.” I pushed a pint of porter at one of the regulars, and took advantage of a lull to sidle along the bar to Sam.

“Sam, dear.” I purred. He looked startled – as well he might – and hurriedly pushed the dollymop´s hand away from his trousers. She pouted and lounged on his shoulder, for all the world as if she owned him. “I should be finished very soon. Will you wait for me? At the back door?” I added meaningfully.

Sam stood, shaking off his companion as if she was suddenly invisible. I couldn´t help but notice that his trousers were constrained over a huge bulge. I smiled sweetly and leaned over the bar to run my finger down his cheek.

“Of course I will.” He stuttered.

The dollymop glared at me, and had the cheek to slip her hand through Sam´s arm. I was relieved when he shook her off as if she was suddenly something nasty.

“Can I get you anything?” I enquired sweetly. She glared at me and let loose with a string of curses that would have done justice to a docker.

“Shove off.” Sam hissed at her, and she shook her ringlets and laughed shrilly.

“Good luck to you, love.”  She simpered. “I just hope you realise you´ve got me to thank for warming him up for you.”

Sam was looking at me anxiously, so I smiled and shook my head at him.

“Won´t be long.” I murmured. “Rosie´s going to ring time any minute, and she said she was going to get somebody in to clear up, it being Christmas and all. I´ll be free after that. Why don´t you go round the back and wait for me?”

Sam shot to his feet and out of the bar, calling “Good night” loudly over his shoulder. No doubt for Rosie´s benefit! I rubbed my fingers together; suddenly, I was cold in the over-heated bar. Cold and very, very nervous. What had I done? Oh, I was fond enough of Sam. He was a nice lad, and it was even nicer having somebody dancing attention on me every night. He came in handy, too, with his fists like cart-horse´s hooves, when the odd customer got a bit too merry and thought he might be in with a chance with me. One look at Sam´s set face and a glimpse of those stonemason´s hands was enough to dampen the ardour of even the drunkest of men.

But did I want to do this? Whatever “this” actually was? If it hadn´t been for that Judy who had been hanging on to his arm and raising ardours in him that she had no business to do, I rather thought not. But there, what was done was done and no doubt about that. I could hardly send him packing now, could I? I cleared a few glasses from the bar mechanically, and found an untouched glass of gin in my hand. Well, why not! It couldn´t get me in any more trouble than I was already in, and didn´t they call the nasty stuff “Dutch courage”?

I swigged the contents of the glass before I could change my mind. It hit my stomach like an iron ball, and erupted into flames. I gasped for breath. Why, oh why, did people drink this vile stuff? But a few seconds later, I started to giggle. Both Rosie and I had been behind the bar since mid-morning, and neither of us had had time for more than a bite of fruit pie at lunchtime.  Perhaps my first taste of alcohol might have had less effect if I hadn´t been hungry, but as it was, I was suddenly full and overflowing with bravado.

Watch out Sam! Here comes your best girl! The thought made me giggle afresh.

I put my hand in front of my mouth to stifle the laughter as Rosie clanged the ship´s bell at the other end of the bar, shouting,

“Time, gentlemen, please. Ain´t you lot got no homes to go to?”

Such was the force of Rosie´s personality that the bar began to empty almost at once. Within ten minutes, only a few diehards were left, staring into the dregs of their drinks. Rosie laid a motherly hand on my shoulder and winked.

“You push off for the night, love. I´ll see you tomorrow. Sleep well.” 

I stared at her face, which was moving towards me and going away again without the rest of her appearing to move. Odd, that.  I managed to nod and then walked, with as much dignity as I could manage, around the bar and to the back of the house.

It was a peculiarity of the Eagle that it was actually quickest to get to our bedrooms by means of cutting outside and walking around to the staff entrance at the side. If it was raining, of course, we didn´t bother – we simply walked the length of the house, past the kitchen and then up the stairs. Up the wooden stairs to Bedfordshire, that was the way of it! I started tittering to myself again and slapped my own hand firmly in reproof. But for once, I was grateful for the ability to get to my bedroom without going outside, where Sam would see me. Because there was something I had to do first, wasn´t there. I paused with my finger on my lips, trying to remember what it was. Of course, the sponge! I had been extremely relieved when Rosie actually gave me my “present” to notice that it was not the same one she had demonstrated to me – the ribbon was a different colour.

I pulled it out of my drawer and looked at it dubiously. It was damp; no doubt Rosie had made sure it was well soaked with alum. Remembering the ease with which she had inserted her sponge, I lifted my skirts and fiddled around a bit. After a moment, I came to the conclusion that I must be made differently to Rosie; I could find nowhere at all to actually push the bit of sponge into. I bit my lip, and tried again. Still no result. Took a deep breath and fell backwards onto the bed, my legs bent at the knees and splayed as widely as I could manage.

It occurred to me that perhaps I should feel around a bit; to find that elusive opening that had given Rosie no trouble at all. Very carefully, I ran the tip of my finger down my slit, and then – becoming impatient – simply shoved it into myself. Well, if the gin had been a shock to my system, it was nothing to this! I did have a hole, after all. And just about, I thought, where Rosie had found hers. I pushed a bit harder, and my finger simply sank into hot, slippery flesh. I had never had any cause to touch myself here before, and the sensation I was causing myself left me goggling.

“Well, I never.” I said out loud. I remembered Rosie flicking her finger in and out of herself, and appearing to find it pleasant. I did the same thing, and the warm glow in my stomach – I assumed from the gin - began to spread down to my hips and thighs. I pushed a bit harder; just how deep was this mysterious entrance? By the time I had discovered that I could get my finger in there as far as the knuckle, and still find no barrier, I was engrossed with the strange feelings I seemed to be causing to myself. Strange, and very, very nice. I giggled to myself. If I could do this all by my ownsome, what was Sam going to manage?

Sam! He would be standing outside the back door, wondering where I was. Quite possibly, that dollymop from the bar might well be on the prowl for him. That thought made me move; I grabbed the sponge and shoved it as far as I could get it. I lost the end of the ribbon, but I was suddenly too anxious to worry about it. Hadn´t Rosie said it was to stay in there until morning, anyway?

I slid down the back steps and yanked on the door. It stuck fast. I pulled again, and then realised it was locked, and bolted. The bottom bolt was no problem, but because I am so tiny, the top bolt presented a real dilemma. Even on tip-toe, I couldn´t reach. In the end, I found a low stool and hopped up on that to pull that damned bolt. Sam was so anxious to get in that he shoved the door open as soon as the bolt drew back, and almost knocked me off my stool.

“Shhh!” I put my finger in front of my lips to warn him to be quiet. Sam nodded, and made a ridiculous pantomime of walking carefully towards the stairs. I snorted with laughter and ran after him to steer him in the right direction.

As soon as my bedroom door was shut behind us, Sam made a lunge for me. I was glad about that; I was beginning to sober up a bit and thoughts about what I should do and say once my chap was actually in my bedroom were beginning to worry me. I mean, I had no idea. Did I ask him to sit down? Offer him a glass of water? What?

But Sam was in too much of lather for any of that. He was already kissing me, munching at my lips and chin and cheeks with a fervour that spoke volumes about how long I had kept him waiting for me. I responded enthusiastically, and was pleased to find that the sensations I had aroused earlier by my own efforts were coming back. Sam ran his hands down my back, mashing me against him, and I felt that swelling in his groin that I had seen earlier, when the Judy had been at him. Interested as much as anything else, I put my hand there and had a good feel. Sam groaned loudly and bit my neck. Now, that was nice, I didn´t think! What would the customers say if they saw me with bite marks?

I wriggled out of his embrace.

“Less of that, my lad!” I said firmly. “Now just play nicely, or not at all.”

It was very odd, but the Sam that I thought I knew so well seemed to have disappeared. The old Sam would have looked sheepish and shuffled his feet. This Sam stared at me with his mouth open, saliva trickling down his chin. His hands were opening and closing into fists. He looked … dangerous.

The effects of the gin vanished suddenly. I took a step back.

“Sam” I said nervously. “Now look, I know I invited you here, but perhaps it wasn´t such a good idea. Now, you just go home like a good boy and we´ll talk about it in the morning.”

For answer, Sam put his head down and charged towards me, roaring like a baited bull at the end of its tether. Before I could move so much as a step, he had his arms around my waist. He picked me up as if I was nothing, and literally threw me on my bed. That knocked the wind out of me, and no mistake. I was gasping for breath and I suppose I should have been terrified, but oddly enough, I wasn´t. Somehow, I knew that I could still control this new Sam, if I wanted to. But then again, did I want to?

“Ooh, Sam!” I simpered. “Do be gentle with me, there´s a dear.”

Load of rubbish, of course, but whenever the patterer on the music hall stage said that sort of thing, it always raised a roar of approval. So I thought I might as well give it a try. Sam was obviously beyond words. His eyes were bulging nearly as fiercely as his nether parts, and he simply nodded. Nodded, and tore at his breeches.

Well, by that time I was well and truly worked up myself. Hot and bothered wasn´t in it! I nearly shrieked at Sam to hurry up, and I could have smacked him when he got his buttons stuck and spent ages picking and faffing at them. He got those breaches off eventually, and was about to start on his shirt when I hurried things along a bit by holding my arms out to him, beseechingly.

That worked nicely. He left the shirt on and hopped towards the bed, kicking the breeches off as he came. I looked at him shyly from beneath my eyelashes and – greatly daring – ran my hands down his chest. I was a bit disappointed, actually. Given the amount of hair on his head, I had anticipated a nice, hairy chest but no; he was as smooth and hairless as a candle.

And that wasn´t the only surprise in store for your little Nella that Christmas Eve, either. There was I, all primed for a nice kiss and cuddle before we got down to a bit of how´s your father, when Sam took my breath away. Literally. He was sort of hovering over me and I had lifted my face up for a kiss when he didn´t so much as climb on top of me, as slam on top of me. Now, bearing in mind that I´m under five foot tall, and delicately made with it, and Sam was a great, strapping chap accustomed to heaving blocks of stone about for a living … well, there was no contest at all. My breath went out with a whoosh and before I could recover my senses, Sam was yanking about at my skirts and petticoats, dragging them up to my waist without so much as a by your leave from me.

Next thing I knew, his hand – well, it might have been just his fingers, but it felt like his whole hand - was delving about in my fanny. A second or two later, his fingers came out as quickly as they had gone in, and his cock took their place.

I didn´t dare scream; there was only me and Rosie and the Cook lived in in those days – and between you and me and the lamppost, Cook was a bit of a molly boy – and I would have been mortified if Rosie had had to rescue me. In any event, I didn´t rightly get the chance – Sam was munching at my lips again in fine style. For a minute or two, I wasn´t sure whether to be more worried about what he was doing to me down below, or if he was going to suffocate me. Turned out I didn´t need to fret. Even to me, it seemed no more than a passing moment or two before he slowed his frantic attempts to beat me into the mattress, and rolled off me with a grunt.

He flopped on his back, and stayed there. I raised myself on my elbow and looked at my beau in disbelief. That was it? Really? Even as I tried to find some words to ask him, his eyes closed and he was snoring. I dug him in the ribs – bloody hard – after a minute, but it had no effect.

I slid out of bed and stood up. My stomach felt sour, and as I stood a belch spurted acid bile into my throat. My head ached, as well. Never, I vowed, never, ever again would I touch a drop of hard drink. I sidled across to the washstand. There was already a thin film of ice on top of the water jug, but it was hard lines. I could feel something sticky and hot and altogether nasty dripping down the inside of my thighs, and I wanted rid of it. Normally,  I  would never dream of using soap down there – it was far too harsh – but tonight was an exception. I scrubbed away until I was even sorer than Sam had left me, and towelled myself off briskly. I was nearly bow- legged with pain when I finished. Making sure Sam was still dead to the world, I took my clothes off and shook them out carefully, before dragging on my nightgown. I lay down beside him carefully, torn between the desire to steal as much of his warmth as I possibly could, and not waking him. I remember that my last waking thought was if I had known that this was it, his dollymop would have been welcome to him ….

I was icy cold when I woke up. It was still the small hours, and it was a moment or two before I remembered about Sam. I jerked up on my elbow, but the bed was empty. I put my hand on the hollow left by Sam’s body, it was still faintly warm. I almost screamed out loud when I realised he must have let himself out, not just out of my bedroom, but also out of the tavern. Leaving the door unlocked behind him.

It took me seconds to throw a shawl around my shoulders and dash down the stairs. The back door was shut alright, but none of the bolts had been drawn. Of course not, how could they have been? The rat had flown the nest and left it open behind him. I opened the door a crack and peered out, my breath freezing as it passed my lips. It had started to snow, quite heavily, and there was a single line of footprints leading away from the door, just beginning to blur with the snow. He hadn’t been gone long, then. I breathed a long sigh of relief, and kicked the stool in place to reach the top bolt.

“Merry Christmas, Nell.” I whispered in the silence. And then started to laugh.