READ THE FIRST 12 Parts of RUTH AND JOHN collected together
Chapter 1. First Class
Ruth took out her compact mirror and inspected her appearance. She was pretty enough for sure and her make-up was immaculate. Her hat was slightly shabby but decent. She could easily pass for a school teacher or perhaps the wife of a tradesman rather than a pregnant housemaid, who had been curtly dismissed and sent home in disgrace.
She pulled on a pair of very fine kid leather gloves that she had taken from the mistress’s top draw before leaving. Taken not stolen, she told herself; they were scant compensation for the last month’s wages that the Dunns had refused to pay when they dismissed her from the house. Fortunately she had some savings, otherwise how would she have got back home. Most of her money had come from her fiancé, William to pay for her boat passage to Australia to meet up, but it couldn’t be avoided, she would need every penny now. Besides, she couldn’t go to Australia now, not in her condition. She would have to wait for the baby to be born and then travel. Ruth was not too disappointed, she was not keen on Australia, or William for that matter; too primitive, Australia and William both.
The train continued onwards taking her closer to home. Ruth considered how surprised her mother would be when she turned up at home. She had written to her mother and sent it first class, but the letter wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow, that would be too late. Surprised, thought Ruth, she’ll be more than surprised. She didn’t even want to think about her father. Cross that bridge when you come to it, she told herself.
At the next stop, a tall gentleman entered the carriage and sat opposite her, even although there were plenty other seats. Ruth bristled slightly at the intrusion, and turn away. But out of the corner of her eye, she could see that he was younger then she first thought. He was grinning, and from the smell, he had been drinking.
“So,” he said. “What’s your name?”
Ruth did not answer. The man was both drunk and intrusive.
“Have you got a first class ticket,” she asked. “Second class carriages are to the rear.” Ruth was travelling in first class, even although ticket was for second class. But: if you looked first class, then no one would check, Ruth thought.
The man swayed from side to side as the train rattled along the tracks and from his pocket he withdrew a second class ticket and waved it in front her.
“First class paid in full,” he told her. And then much to her annoyance, the man withdrew a packet of cigarettes from his jacket, lit one and proceeded to blow smoke throughout the compartment.
She coughed loudly and waved her gloves in front of her, but he didn’t take any notice.
“You’re pretty,” he said.
Ruth snorted, pretending to be annoyed. But he was right, she thought; she was pretty. Too pretty to waste on a sheep station out in the middle of nowhere in Australia.
“You got a boyfriend,” he asked?
“None of your business,” she replied, trying not to laugh as he made a face.
“Sorry,” he said, holding his hands up and grinning all over his drunken face.
Do I have a boyfriend, she thought? What will William think once he knows about the baby? She could guess the answer to that. It would mean the end of any money from Australia, not that it was much anyway.
“My name’s Jonathon,” said the drunk man, “Call me John.” He held out his hand for her to shake. Ruth ignored his outstretched hand and turned to look at him. He wasn’t exactly handsome. His face was too long and his ears stuck out, but he looked strong and healthy. A quick glance at his outstretched hand showed that he was no stranger to hard work.
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” said Ruth. “Not any more, he’s gone to Australia.”
“No wonder you dropped him, going to that god forsaken place,” said John.
“And what about you,” asked Ruth? “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“I’ve had a few,” grinned John. “None as pretty as you though.”
“Where are you going John,” Ruth asked.
“I’m going to London,” he told her. “I’ve come into some luck.”
He handed a white sheet of paper to her. It was the deeds for a greyhound track.
“Won it at cards,” he told her. “Now I’m going to manage it and.” Here he stopped and fished a small leather bag out of his pocket. “Enjoy my winnings.”
Ruth could guess by the size and shape of the bag that it must be full of sovereigns. She calculated there must be about thirty of them. That was a small fortune even without a greyhound track.
Perhaps, she thought to herself, John was not so unattractive.
“There’s enough there for a hotel room,” John winked at her.
“They’ll be none of that talk,” said Ruth. “I’m a respectable young lady. Keep it up and I’ll call the guard.” But Ruth knew she couldn’t call the guard, not with only a second-class ticket.
John looked a little ashamed and muttered something under his breath.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. “I mean a room for you, not for us, when we get to London. I’ll put you up. If you’d be my girl. Unless you’re heading off to Australia. There’s plenty money there. There’s enough to buy you a dress and put you somewhere nice and respectable.”
Ruth looked at him. “Is there enough for a wedding license,” she asked?
“Could be,” said John, jingling the coins up and down.
“I’m pregnant,” said Ruth bluntly.
“I’m not blind,” said John, who suddenly didn’t seem quite as drunk as before.
Ruth reached out and took the coins in her gloved hand. They felt heavy and comforting. She weighed things up. Thirty gold sovereigns in one hand, and in the other, nothing; not much of a choice she told herself. Thinking about her parents and Australia.
“What did you do before you won this at cards?” Ruth asked.
“Mostly lost at cards,” John laughed. He had nice laugh, Ruth decided.
The train drew into the station. This was her stop. There would be no one there to meet her. The train paused, and waited letting steam fill the platform.
“This is my stop,” said Ruth.
“No it’s not,” said John. She noticed that he had nice eyes.
“You’ll need to buy me a new ticket,” Ruth told him.
“Of course,” said John, “I always wanted a first class wife.”
Chapter 2. Closer Acquaintance
Ruth had never been to London before and felt very nervous. John helped her down from the carriage on to the platform and led her out of the station into the street. He had no luggage of his own, but carried Ruth’s bag in one hand and held Ruth’s dainty, gloved hand on the other. She held tightly and could feel that John was wearing a ring.
Not a wedding ring, thank goodness, it was the wrong hand for that.
When she looked, she could see that there was a strange design on the ring, like a snake eating its own tail.
“What does that mean,” she asked John pointing to his ring.
John pulled away. “Nothing,” he said. “Just a ring. Come on this way.” John let go of Ruth’s hand and stuffed it in his pocket.
What’s all that about, thought Ruth? I wonder where he’s leading me now?
In the street, the first thing that struck Ruth was how busy London was. There were people everywhere rushing to and fro. The second thing that struck Ruth was how dirty the place was. If the streets are really paved with gold, then you’ll have to sweep up a lot of dirt to get it first, she said to herself. It had been a fine summer’s day when they had travelled through the countryside, but here in the city, a dull hazy filled the sky, making it seem gloomy and dark. I’m not sure I like London, Ruth thought.
Ruth looked around and could see a line of Hackney cabs waiting for passengers. Perhaps we’ll take one of these to the Hotel, she thought. But John led Ruth across the road.
“In here,” John said, and opened the door to a tearoom. Ruth was quite hungry and would be glad of some tea. They sat together at a table by the window and Ruth watched as the Londoners hurried by on their business.
John motioned, and the waitress came over with a large pot of tea and a tray of sandwiches. Ruth poured two cups and picked up one of the sandwiches and started to nibble it. She was hungry enough to swallow it whole. But, she told herself, one must always act like a lady.
John did not take a sandwich. He had two quick gulps of his tea and then stood up.
“Where are you going,” Ruth asked?
“I have to see someone,” said John. “You stay here and have something to eat. I won’t be long.”
Before Ruth could protest, John was gone. Well, what now, thought Ruth, he’s just gone and dumped me after all. I bet he’s going to stick me with the bill for the tea too. If he’s not back in an hour, perhaps I can take a train back to Sowerby.
Ruth decided to make the best of it. If she was going to be stuck with the bill, she may as well eat as much as she could. After all, she was eating for two now. She ate the sandwiches and drank the tea and waited. She checked the clock on the wall. Two o’clock, she hadn’t been waiting long, but it seemed like ages. She just knew that John wasn’t coming back.
“Can I get you any more tea,” asked the waitress?
Ruth felt around in her bag. She probably had enough for the sandwiches and perhaps for a ticket back home. She was still hungry, but she better not.
“The Gentleman left a sovereign at the counter,” said the waitress, when she saw Ruth checking her purse.
Oh, why couldn’t he have said, Ruth wondered?
“I wonder if I could have a scone?” Ruth asked, “And more tea, please?”
Even so, Ruth decided, if John’s not back here in half an hour, I’m getting the next train home. Part of her hoped that he would be late, but he wasn’t. John came rushing in the door just before half two.
“Sorry about that,” he told her. “That took a bit longer than I thought it would. Did you miss me?”
“No, not much,” said Ruth, looking everywhere around the tearoom except at John. Let him think I’m not bothered.
“Alright,” said John. Did Ruth detect a hint of disappointment in his voice?
“We better get going,” said John. “Did you get enough to eat?”
“Quite sufficient thank you,” replied Ruth. “Did you get something?” She already knew the answer to that; she could smell beer on John’s breath.
“I had some refreshment,” admitted John hesitantly. Ruth did not reply. Instead, she rose up and let John collect her bag. Then taking his arm, she went out on to the street.
“Will we take a cab to the lodgings,” asked Ruth.
“No, it’s not far,” said John, and he led her through a series of alleyways where the smell of boiled cabbage and the sound of drunken singing confirmed that the houses were mostly inhabited by Irish immigrants. They stopped outside a battered old door; John knocked loudly. Ruth noticed that the door knocker was shaped in a strange design that Ruth was certain she’s seen before. Above the door, it said Stanely Hotel in faded gold lettering.
The door was opened by fiercesome looking woman. She was not any taller than Ruth but much bulkier. She wore a scowl and had a single eyebrow that ran above her eyes like a strip of forest.
“Mrs Queervish,” said John. “Allow me to introduce my wife.”
Mrs Queervish stared at Ruth, and Ruth stared right back. I’ll show you I’m not afraid, Ruth thought.
“She’ll be an extra two shillings a week,” said Mrs Queervish. “And you’ll have to sign for her.”
“Of course,” agreed John, and he followed Mrs Queervish into the parlour. There he lifted a pen and wrote; Mr and Mrs John Edward Stewart in the register.
He’s got a middle name, thought Ruth. How posh.
“I’ll need her to sign it as well,” snorted the hotelier.
Ruth wrote, Ruth Maenad, in beautiful copperplate script.
“What’s that,” snapped Mrs Queervish. “Irish? I don’t take Irish.”
“Not Irish,” said Ruth and hastily corrected the signature; Ruth Maynard.
Mrs Queervish sniffed. By now it was getting late, and it would soon be time to retire. Mrs Queervish led them to their room. She pushed open the door, and a smell like dead cats hit Ruth straight in the face.
“I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone now shall I,” said the hotel owner.
Ruth gritted her teeth and forced herself over the threshold.
“Nice, isn’t it,” said John.
Ruth, who was always fastidiously clean, managed not to kick John. Even her mean little attic room at Godalming was nicer than this dirty, damp, shabby room.
It was too late to do anything about it now, but Ruth was determined she would be on the first train home in the morning. There is no way I am going to live like this.
“There’s only one bed,” said Ruth turning to confront John. “And you promised me a marriage licence.”
“Umm, I’ll sleep on the floor,” he said. You certainly will, thought Ruth.
John made a little pile of blankets on the bare wooden floor. It certainly never looked very comfortable. Well, he’s only getting what he deserves.
Ruth lay in the bed, and John squirmed around on the floor for a bit.
“We’ll get the licence tomorrow,” promised John.
Perhaps, thought Ruth, we’ll see. After all, he has been kind to me. And he’s not bad looking. And where else can I go? There aren’t many men who take on another man’s child. Am I too hard on him? The floor must be very uncomfortable. She put her hand on her swollen stomach. What’s the worst that can happen? It’s too late to worry about that.
“If you promise to behave, you can sleep in the bed,” said Ruth. Then much to her annoyance, she heard soft snoring noises coming from the floor.
Doesn’t he think I’m attractive? He’s not made much of an effort.
Ruth lay in bed and got angrier and angrier.
I’ll show him, she decided. She closed her eyes, concentrated on going to sleep, but somehow, completely by accident, the wash jug toppled of the washstand soaking poor John waking him with a start.
“Oh dear,” said Ruth. “You can’t sleep on the floor now, and you’d better get out of those wet things.”
John stood up, and unbuttoned his nightshirt. The room was dark, lit only the street lamp outside. But Ruth could see his wet torso gleaming in the moonlight.
“Here,” said Ruth. “I’ll dry you down, with a towel.” She began to rub him down. Where did he get those muscles, she though. Not bulky and brutish like William, or pale and flabby like… Well, never mind about that now. Lithe, that’s the word.
“Like a greyhound, or race horse,” Ruth said.
“What,” asked John?
“Nothing,” said Ruth. “I guess you’ll have to sleep here with me. Now, this is your side, and this is mine.” Ruth drew an imaginary line down the middle of the bed.
“And remember; no hanky-panky.”
“Of course not,” said John.
But of course, there was.
Chapter 3. The Serpent Ring
Well, that wasn’t too bad, thought Ruth, he seemed to know what he was doing, in fact… She looked around, but John was lying face down next to her snoring. Typical, she thought.
She got up and looked around the hotel room. It was damp and dirty. John’s clothes lay in an untidy pile on the floor. She picked them up and folded them neatly and placed them over the back of a broken chair. As she did so, a ring fell out of John’s pocket and rolled on the floor. Ruth picked it up and looked at it. Now that she could see it more closely, she saw that it was shaped like a serpent coiling around and biting its own tail. Ruth stepped over to the window to look at it in the morning light. I think this is real gold, not just gilt, she thought. It’s very heavy and cold; I bet it’s worth a pretty penny.
Ruth glanced over at the bed where John lay snoring. He had not replaced his nightshirt, and his bare buttocks pointing up into the air. Where did he get something so valuable, she wondered? Ruth tried the ring on, but it was far too big for her delicate, little fingers. She did consider collecting her things, John’s purse of sovereigns and creeping out of the house, but while she was still debating the matter in her head, John woke and stood up.
More like a stallion than a greyhound, she thought as he stretched and yawned.
“Good morning,” said John, grinning at Ruth.
“Get dressed,” Ruth snapped. “Make yourself decent.”
“Too late for that,” laughed John.
“Here,” said Ruth and lifted John’s clothes from the chair and carried them to him. As she did so, John noticed the serpent ring on Ruth’s hand.
“What are you doing with that,” John shouted. He grabbed at her hand and prised the ring off her finger. “Don’t ever touch that again.”
“I was just trying it on,” said Ruth. “It fell out of your clothes when I picked them up of the floor. Really, you should fold up your clothes after you. I won’t be your skivvy. I had quite enough of that.”
John looked down at the ring. It seemed that he didn’t hear Ruth scold him.
“So what does that mean?” asked Ruth, pointing at the ring. “I’m sure I’ve seen something like that before.”
“Have you,” asked John? He stared at Ruth. “Where have you seen it before?”
“I can’t remember,” said Ruth. She wanted to change the subject. Something about the ring made her feel uncomfortable.
Now, she remembered. That night. The night it happened. She remembered that even though his face had been covered, she had seen a great hairy hand grasping at her and on the hand a ring, just like this one. She didn’t want to think about those hands; cold and clammy, like a corpse.
“Where did you get the ring,” she asked?
“Never mind that,” said John.
He’s keeping something from me, thought Ruth.
“Don’t you trust me,” asked Ruth?
John looked at her as if trying to decide something.
“Alright,” he said. “I do trust you, but somethings are hard to talk about. Someone tried to kill me. I think it was because I won all that money at cards. You don’t win without someone else loosing, and a lots of people are sore losers.”
“It was not that long before we met. I was on the platform waiting when someone grabbed me and tried to push me in front of the train.”
“Really,” said Ruth. “How shocking. What happened?”
John’s voice dropped to a whisper. “He’s dead, we grappled, and he fell on to the line. I tried to grab his hand, and I came away with this ring. I ran off and hid and then jumped on the next train.”
“So that’s why my train was delayed,” said Ruth.
“I’m not a murderer. I didn’t mean to kill him,” said John.
“Of course not,” said Ruth.
“But the police,” said John. “I’m not sure they would see it my way. That’s why I’ve said nothing. You won’t tell will you?”
“A wife can’t testify against her husband,” said Ruth.
“Right.” John grinned. “We better get that licence sorted, especially after last night.”
“I hope you will never speak of last night again,” said Ruth, drawing herself up to her full height.
“Why?” John Laughed. “What happened last night?”
He reached over with his soft, long-fingered hands and taking her gently kissed her on the mouth.
“Will you behave,” snapped Ruth, and to her disappointment; he did.
“Anyway,” John said. “You never told me where you saw the ring before.”
“I’m not sure it’s the same ring,” said Ruth. “In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not.”
“Still tell me what you know.”
Ruth wondered, what she really did know, and how could she tell him about that terrible night. No one believed her. William hadn’t; she still remembered his letter. You always did have an imagination Ruth, that’s a great story. The Dunns hadn’t believed her either. No one had, except for Lottie, and she was simple.
“I saw a man wearing a ring like that once,” she said and looked away from John as she spoke.
“Really, what did he look like,” John asked.
Couldn’t he just leave it, thought Ruth?
“I didn’t get a good look at him,” said Ruth.
“But you noticed his ring,” John persisted. “You must remember something.”
“He was short,” said Ruth. That much was true. “Short and flabby, but still strong. It was his hands I noticed really, the backs of them were covered in hair. Does that sound like the man that…”
“No,” said John. “He was strong alright. But not short and I don’t remember him having hairy hands.”
“Will there be anything in the paper about him,” asked Ruth? “Usually when there’s an accident there’s something about it in the paper.”
“Good thinking,” said John. “Let me put some clothes on, and we’ll go out.”
“Well, I wasn’t going to let you go out like that,” said Ruth.
“Oh,” said John, blushing. Quickly he dressed.
Together they walked down the stairs.
“You’re too late for Breakfast,” snapped Mrs Quervish from the parlour. “We serve from 8:00 to 8:05.”
“Never mind that,” called John. “We’ll get something out.”
“Mind there’s no cooking in the rooms,” Mrs Quervish replied.
But Ruth and John had opened the front door and set off. The serpent ring door knocker rattled behind them.
Chapter 4. The Violin
First stop was the registrar’s office. It was all over, quick and painless.
“You may now kiss the bride,” said the officiator, so John did.
“Oh, get off,” said Ruth smiling. “So where now? Shall we go to the dog track?”
“The track’s closed today,” said John. “Let’s go and buy you a wedding ring.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” said Ruth.
Ruth expected that John would take her to a fancy Jewellers, but John led her through the narrow, twisting back lanes of London and into a pawnbroker shop in the middle of Shoreditch.
“We’ll get one in here cheap,” he said.
Ruth was not impressed. A second-hand wedding ring, she thought, the nerve of it. And she secretly decided she would insist on the most expensive ring in the shop. That’s the one I’ll be getting, no matter how expensive it is.
When they got into the shop, the clerk welcomed John like an old friend
“Good morning, John,” he called.
First name terms with the pawnbroker, thought Ruth, just how much money have you lose at cards in the past that you’ve had to pawn everything.
John called the pawnbroker over and introduced Ruth.
“This is my wife,” he said. “Ruth, this is my friend Michael.”
“Pleased to meet you, Michael,” said Ruth. “Do have any wedding rings for sale.”
“You want a ring,” said Michael. “I have the finest here.” And he brought out a tray of gold rings of all shapes and sizes.
Ruth looked at the tray and tried one on for size. It was a good fit. She held it up to show John, but when she did, she saw that he was over inspecting something on the other side of the shop. Well, that’s charming, Ruth thought.
Michael left Ruth and hurried over to where John was.
“Do you want me to open the case,” asked Michael. “Do you want to look at it?”
“Yes please,” said John. “But, I want to do more than look at it. I want to buy it back.”
“Ten pounds,” said Michael, “That’s what I gave you for it. And I want another two pounds and twelve shillings in interest. That’s what you agreed.”
John sighed. “Just open the case, Michael. I’ve got the money.”
Michael unlocked a glass case, and Ruth watched as he handed John a fiddle of some sort. John held it gently in his hand. As if it were a baby; and Ruth thought about her own baby and wondered if John would hold it, the poor thing, as gently and lovingly when it came.
“My Bergonzi,” said John in hushed tones. And then he lifted the violin to his chin, and holding the bow in his long delicate fingers; he drew the sweetest sound Ruth had ever heard. She stood transfixed. That’s why his hands are so soft and supple, she thought, he’s a musician.
“Beautiful,” said Michael. “Now where is the money?”
John carefully put the violin into the case and then started to count out twelve pounds and twelve shillings.
Ruth turned back to the tray of rings. As she did, she noticed one just like the ring she’d tried on earlier in the morning, a serpent ring. It was ugly, hardly suitable for a wedding ring, but still, her interest was pricked.
I wonder who pawned this, she thought and held it up to the light.
“Stop,” shouted John, and came dashing across the shop, and grabbed the ring out of Ruth’s hand.
“How rude,” Ruth protested.
John said nothing. Instead, he took the ring and gave it a twist so that now instead of the snake being wrapped in a circle, the snakes head swung forward.
“Give me a handkerchief,” said John.
“Give me a handkerchief, please,” corrected Ruth, but she handed him one none the less.
John took the handkerchief and wiped the protruding fangs of the golden snake. Two black drops of liquid dripped onto the cloth and started to smoke and smoulder.
“Poison,” said Ruth, and then continued, “That was my best handkerchief.”
The handkerchief was of fine Portuguese lace, another souvenir of her dismissal from the Dunn household. Now it had two large holes eaten into the fabric.
“Totally ruined,” complained Ruth.
“Never mind that,” said John and then turned to Michael. “Where did you get this? Who brought it to you? Do you know what it is?”
Michael looked shocked. “I can’t remember everything that comes into my shop,” he protested.
“No, but you’ll have an account in your ledger,” said John.
“What if I do; what business is it of yours?” said Michael.
“Just do it,” said John in voice Ruth had never heard him use before. If the shopkeeper knows what’s good for him, he’ll do as he’s told, thought Ruth.
The shopkeeper did know what was good for him. He grumbled a bit, but took out his ledger.
“What’s the ticket number?” he asked.
Ruth read out the number, “891898.”
“So,” said the shopkeeper, pouring over the ledger, “That’s the 8th of September 1898. It’s been in here a while. Now let me see. Here is the entry.” And he read, “Snake charm ring, sold gold. Egyptian made, sold by a soldier returning from Sudan. Sargent Hicks.”
“Sargent Hicks,” said John, and then fell silent. He knows this Sargent, thought Ruth, I must ask him what he knows, but not now, not in front of the shopkeeper.
“How much,” said John, taking the ring.
“Two pounds,” said the shopkeeper.
John counted another two pounds out of his purse. Then wrapped the serpent ring in the ruined lace handkerchief and put it safely in his pocket. Then he picked up the violin case.
“Come on,” John called to Ruth and bustled her out of the shop.
They hadn’t gone very far when he stopped.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I forgot what we went there for; we’ve still to get you a wedding ring. We can go back, or if you prefer we go somewhere else.”
But Ruth shook her head.
“You’re going through those winnings like water, that’s twelve pounds you spent already.”
“Fourteen,” corrected John. “But a promise is a promise. Besides, I don’t want anyone snatching you from under my nose.”
“Don’t worry about that,” replied Ruth. “No one is going to snatch me away without my say so.”
“What about a ring,” said John?
“I’ve taken care of that too,” said Ruth, and she held up her hand that still had the gold ring that she had been trying on sitting snuggly on her finger. It really was a perfect fit.
“Well,” laughed John, “Serves him right after cheating me on the violin, and on the other ring. By my reckoning that’s us even.”
Chapter 5. The Moving Picture House.
“So,” asked Ruth, “Where did you learn to play the violin? Are you in an orchestra? You sounded very good”
John laughed. “Not any more, I did play in the orchestra, but there’s not much money in it. Come on. Now that I have my violin back, I can earn us some cash.”
“Where are we going,” asked Ruth? As John took her hand and hurried her through the streets.
This time, John never led Ruth through twisty back alleys or through seedy slums, but onto the main thoroughfare and into the busy parts of the town. As they walked briskly, Ruth was amazed at all the fashionable ladies and gentlemen that strolled along. She knew quality when she saw it. She had worked for the Dunns and they were a most respectable and wealthy family. But the Dunns could never have afforded to dress like these people. That dress she is wearing is Poiret, I’m certain of it, thought Ruth, I saw it in one of Madam Dunns, magazines. It must have cost a pretty penny. And that’s without thinking about the price of those furs.
Ruth paid more attention to the society people that passed her by then to where she was going, but suddenly John stopped, outside a large, grand building built in the Art Deco style. The Palace, it said outside in large gold letters.
“Where’s this,” asked Ruth.
“The cinema,” said John. “Moving pictures. This, my girl, is the future.”
John pushed through the ornate doorway and into a large foyer.
“Show’s about to start,” pronounced a short man in a uniform covered in braid and tassels.
“Well, I better get down to the pit then,” said John.
“Hmm, it’s you is it. Wondered when you would turn up again. Alright, you know where to go.”
John turned to Ruth, “Arthur will see you settled.” And with that, he dashed off with his violin case under his arm.
Dumped. Just like that. This is getting to be a bad habit, thought Ruth. I’ll have to knock out of him.
Arthur; the little man in the braided uniform, took Ruth by the arm.
“So, you’re John’s new girlfriend that I’ve heard so much about,” he said.
“Wife,” snapped Ruth and held up the wedding ring she’d stolen from the pawnbrokers.
“Of course,” apologised Arthur. “Come this way, and we’ll get you in one of the comfortable seats.”
“What about sweets,” said Ruth?
“Yes, what would you like, some Allsorts?”
“Russian Caramels,” said Ruth. She wasn’t going to be fobbed off with Allsorts.
Arthur measured out a small paper bag of Russian Caramels and then led Ruth in to sit in on the boxes.
“I’ll leave you here,” he said, and then pushed his way back through the curtain and back to the foyer.
Once he was gone, Ruth popped one of the caramels into her mouth. This isn’t so bad, she thought and leaned back into her chair. The show was about to start, and all the lights had gone dim. Suddenly she could hear a single violin playing plaintively, and then the curtain rose, and the cinema lantern shone on to big screen.
Ruth had been to the cinema before. There was no cinema in Godalming, but if she went to Guildford, there has been a projection house there. It was quite a way, and it cost quite a bit of money, but she’d gone there once or twice on her day off with William, or with Lottie, usually with Lottie. William mostly wanted to go to the village pub on his day off.
The first feature was a comedy with Charlie Chaplin. That was alright, thought Ruth. But it wasn’t really very funny. The best thing about the picture had been John’s violin playing. Next up on the double bill was Rudolf Valentino dressed up as an Arabian Sheik.
Ruth thought it was very romantic. Valentino is so handsome. John looks a bit like Rudolph Valentino. Except for his ears; they stick out too much. Maybe John should get an Arab headdress to cover them. Ruth laughed when she thought of that, and stuck another caramel in her mouth.
Ruth took a few moments to look around. Down below in the stalls, the theatre was very full. These were the cheap seats, and the slightly common people in there had been guffawing loudly while Charlie Chaplin had been on screen. Now they were sighing and ohh-ahhing whenever Rudolf made an appearance. I do wish they would be quiet, thought Ruth.
The boxes were mostly empty; rich people don’t usually come to matinees. That’s why Arthur had been able to put her in a box so easily. But across the way, she could see a group of men in one of the boxes. It may have been because it was dark, but it looked for all the world as if they were wearing robes like a monk. I must be imagining it, Ruth told herself. Sure enough, when she looked back, the box was empty. See, gone, no one there. But Ruth felt a bit uneasy. She might have imagined them wearing monk’s habits, but not imagined them completely. There had definitely been two men in that box, at least two men. Perhaps they got bored and left.
But the uneasy feeling would not go away, and then Ruth imagined something else; a strange smell. It was like the smell of ripe tomatoes, or like the cheap rum that William had been so fond of drinking. Ruth began to feel very uncomfortable. And then worse, she imagined that she could see a hand, a hairy hand with a serpent ring on it reaching out from behind the curtains.
Ruth’s first thought was that someone was trying to steal one of her Russian Caramels, and slapped the hand hard.
“Get your own,” she hissed.
There was a sharp yelp from behind the curtains; there was the sound of a bottle falling and smashing on the ground. There came loud cursing from behind the curtain.
The smell of cheap rum got stronger, but it wasn’t rum. Behind her, Ruth could see someone fumbling with the curtain trying to get through into her box. Down below John was playing sharp discordant notes on his violin as Valentino struggled with a gang of desert thieves to protect his lady love.
Up in the box, things were equally dramatic. Ruth grabbed her bag of Russian Caramels, took hold of a tasselled cord and swung over to the next box and ducked down out of sight.
A tall brutish looking man came pushing through the curtains and looked around Ruth’s old box. Ruth nipped back out into the corridor. Her first thought was to run. But were would she run to; the man would almost certainly catch her. Well, I’m not afraid, she said.
She slipped in behind the man. He was wearing a monk’s habit. How odd, thought Ruth and then she pushed the man from behind with all her might. The man stumbled forward and turned round to face Ruth. His face was a bestial mask of fury and hate. Ruth did not hesitate. One more push while the man was off balance sent him over the edge of the box and tumbling into the stalls.
The audience screamed. But the man landed on an obese gentleman that fortunately broke his fall. He rose up and looked back at the box, but Ruth was long gone.
“Get off,” said the large gentleman. Remarkably little fuss was made over the incident. It seemed that the audience was used to drunken toffs falling over the balcony. At least that’s what Arthur said when Ruth asked him about the accident. Not that she told Arthur the whole story.
“Happens all the time,” he said.
Ruth found that hard to believe.
“Come with me,” said Arthur. “The show’s nearly finished.”
Arthur gave Ruth directions, and she nipped down the service stair and waited at the entrance to the pit.
Soon the performance was over, and the musicians started to come up the stairway.
“There you are,” said John, as he came out with his violin back in his case. “You’re shaking, what’s wrong. Did you get a fright when that drunk fell over the balcony?”
“No one stolen you away then?”
“I’d like to see them try,” said Ruth, reaching up to give John a kiss.
Chapter Six. The Savage and The Ape
When Ruth and John arrived back at the Stanley Hotel, John rapped on the door. The brass snake head rattled against the knocker.
“Don’t you notice,” said Ruth, pointing to the door.
“It’s just a door knocker,” said John.
“Really,” replied Ruth. “Don’t you think it’s a bit of a coincidence?”
John looked at Ruth quizzically. “It might be,” he said. Thinking of the snake ring that his attacker had worn.
But before they could say any more, Mrs Quervish pushed open the door. She looked surprised to see them but ushered them into the lodgings without a word. Her single brow screwed down over her eyes and she wore a disapproving scowl.
“Is something wrong?” asked Ruth
“You’re with child,” said Mrs Quervish. “I know someone that can take care of that.”
“Why would she want to do that?” asked John, taking Ruth’s arm. “We’re delighted to be having a child. If it’s a boy we’re going to call him Charlie after my dad.”
Ruth, who under no circumstances was going to call her child Charlie, felt all warm inside. He really does care, she thought. And she could feel the baby kick inside her. It won’t be long now, she thought.
“I can’t have children in The Stanley,” said Mrs Quervish. “It will disturb the other guests.”
“Well, it won’t be here for a while,” said John with a shrug. “That will give us plenty of time to find a new place.”
“One that’s cleaner,” put in Ruth. “I wouldn’t want to bring a child into this filthy place.”
Mrs Quervish drew herself up to her full height. “The Stanley is not a filthy place, it just… a bit tired. We have plans to refurbish. Mr Quervish has big plans for this place. Big plans.” She hissed those last words like a cobra.
John guided Ruth up the stairs, and into the room.
“Six weeks’ notice,” shouted Mrs Quevish after them.
The room, although cleaner then when they had arrived due to Ruth’s activity with a dustpan and mop was still damp and shabby. Ruth would certainly not miss the place.
“Good riddance,” she said and lay back on the bed, kicking her shoes off. “My feet are killing me, give them a rub and light the stove. I’ll make you some cocoa later.”
John’s hands were surprisingly strong even if they did look as if he’d never done a day’s hard work in his life.
“That’s good,” said Ruth. “How long have you stayed in this dump. I shall not be sad to leave it.”
“Not long,” said John. “A friend told me I could get cheap lodgings here. It’s handy for everything. It’s not too bad. Is it?”
Ruth decided not argue the point, but made her opinion perfectly clear with a sharp sniff.
“How long have you worked at the cinema?” she asked.
“A few years now. It pays well.”
“Then how come you live in this dump.”
John laughed. “Because I lose as much money at cards as I earn.”
“That will have to stop,” said Ruth.
“It will,” agreed John.
“It better,” said Ruth, and thought about her own mother and the life she lead with her father. There was no way she was going to put up with that.
“Oh,” said Ruth, “I feel so tired.” And she closed her eyes. A few minutes shut eye can’t do any harm she thought, and dozed off for forty winks.
Ruth wasn’t sure how long she had slept; it couldn’t have been long. Her sleep had been interrupted by what sounded like people mumbling. Did she hear John say something about no he wouldn’t go through with it. Well, she thought turning over, why can’t people be quiet when others are sleeping.
As she turned, she woke with a loud crash and sat up in bed to see John struggling with a huge hairy ape-like creature dressed in a monk’s habit like the one she had seen those men wearing at the cinema hall. John, though struggling manfully, was clearly getting the worst of things. Ruth lept out of bed.
The great ape-man had both hands around John’s neck and was throttling the life out of him. They struggled across the room and then John fell back on to the bed while his assailant sat over him. John’s head lolled backwards and his eyes rolled back in his head. His breath seemed to come in hard grasps like a fish out of water.
“Stop it,” cried Ruth, and the ape-man glanced up at her for just a moment, his terrible red eyes stared at her for a moment and then he went back to throttling John as if Ruth was not worth bothering about.
It’s bad enough being a wife without being a widow. There was no way this creature was going to kill her husband without her say so. The more she thought about it, the more angry she got. She could feel a Dionysian rage filling her and she rose up and without thinking grasped John’s violin with both hands. She stormed over to brute and brought the sturdy violin case crashing down on John’s assailant’s head.
The robe-clad creature howled in pain and brought both hands up to protect his head. John, released from that powerful grip took the opportunity to free himself.
“My Bergonzi,” he shouted, and rushed towards his precious violin.
“Never mind that,” Ruth said.
John stood up and turned towards his assailant. “This is outrageous behaviour Mr Quervish,” he said.
But there was no reasoning with the madman; he lunged once more for John’s throat. But this time, John was not going to be caught so easily. He lashed out with his fist and caught Mr Quervish square on the chin.
The monster staggered back roaring in pain. As he did so, he tripped over the frayed edge of the rug, and fell into the window. Mr Quervish’s great mass smashed through the glass and timber and then tumbled clear through and fell down to the street below.
John rushed over to the broken violin case.
“Don’t say thank you or anything,” said Ruth.
“I’m sorry,” said John, turning to Ruth. “Thank you, although couldn’t you have used the chamber pot instead.”
“Next time,” said Ruth, “I’ll be more careful. But look, it’s not broken, just the case.”
John opened the bashed case and lifted out the undamaged violin.
“Thank goodness,” he said, cradling the violin carefully.
As he did so, a white envelope slipped out from behind the velvet lining of the case.
“What’s this,” asked Ruth picking it up.
“Never mind that now,” said John. “I think we should get out of here.” From the street below there came a commotion. “We better get out here quick.”
“I can’t go anywhere unless you help put on my boots,” said Ruth.
John sighed, but never the less helped Ruth put on her boots and lace them up, before grabbing their scant belongings and heading out the door.
Chapter Seven. H.I.S.S.S.S.S.
As John and Ruth headed for the door, a commotion came from downstairs. They could hear banging at the front door and Mrs Quervish grumbling as she went to answer.
“Quick,” said John. “We better get going.”
“I’m coming as fast as I can,” snapped Ruth, who had not finished tying her boot laces.
“Don’t worry about that now,” said John. “We need to get out of here fast.”
He bustled Ruth out of the room and started to lead her down the stairs. They got about half way down, on to a little half-landing when they saw that any further progress would be impeded by the great bulk of Mrs Quervish who stood before them.
“Good day Mrs Quervish,” said John raising his hat. “May we just ease past; we’re on our way out at the moment.”
A hideous expression came across Mrs Quervish’s face.
“Are you well?” John inquired.
“You’re going nowhere,” said Mrs Quervish, and from her garters she drew a long dagger and slashed out towards John.
John ducked back and the blade whistled past him, only inches away from cutting a nasty gash though his waistcoat.
“What is the meaning of this,” John protested. “I promise the back rent will be paid within the week.”
“Let’s stop playing around,” said Mrs Quervish. “You know who we are and that is why we must kill you.”
“Well I don’t,” said Ruth. “Who are you?”
“We are the Holy and Invincible Southern Sudanese Sept of the Secret Satanic Sect of the Sacred Serpent Set.”
“Who?” exclaimed Ruth.
“I said, we are the Holy and Invisible Satanic Secret Sept of the Southern Sudanese Sect of the Scared Serpent Set.”
“The Holy and Indivisible Slithering Serpent Set’s Secret Sudanese Sept,” asked Ruth.
“No,” growled Mrs Quervish, “The Holy and Incredible Sinister Secret Slithering Southern Sudanese Sept of the Sacred Serpent Set.”
“Sorry, you lost me again,” said Ruth.
“H.I.S.S.S.S.S.S.S.” said Mrs Quervish.
“Ah,” said John, who it must said, didn’t seem to be at all surprised, “H.I.S.S.S.S.S.S.S.”
“Who are hissss?” asked Ruth.
“H.I.S.S.S.S.S.S.S,” corrected Mrs Quervish. “We are a diabolical secret society of devil worshipers who are hell bent on taking over the world and unleashing the dark demonic might of Satanic Set on the unsuspecting inhabitants of London. Making you all our slaves.”
“Why ever would you want to do that?” asked Ruth in surprise.
“Because,” said Mrs Qurvish, with a dramatic flourish, “we are evil.”
Now that introductions had been made, Mrs Quervish returned to business and lashed out with her dagger, again John sprung back to avoid the blade, but this time, the tip of Mrs Quervish’s dagger sliced through his cravat.
“Punch her on the nose,” called Ruth. As John continued to dance away from Mrs Quervish’s attacks.
“I can’t,” replied John. “A gentleman never strikes a lady.”
Oh for goodness sake, thought Ruth to herself. Must I do everything for myself?
Ruth stepped in front of John to protect him from further injury or damage to his clothing.
“Please see reason,” Ruth implored.
“Get out of the way,” said Mrs Quervish. “I’ll gut you too without a second thought.”
Well, if that’s the way it is, then that’s the way it is, thought Ruth, and hitched up her skirts.
Ruth, in her childhood, had longed to escape the domestic grind of a housemaid and had dreamt of running away to Paris to join the Folies-Bergère. In preparation for this, she had practiced the Can-Can every night for an hour before she went to bed since an infant. She had kept up this practice even while employed at the Dunns’ Household and her friend Lottie had joined her in the exercise. Subsequently, heavily pregnant or otherwise, it was a simple matter for Ruth to raise her knee to around chin level and then flick out her foot into Mrs Quervish’s face, catching her square on the nose. By mishap, the heel of Ruth’s boot seemed to lodge itself straight into Mrs Quervish’s eye socket. When Ruth attempted to with draw her foot, the boot was stuck fast and would not dislodge, as blood and ichor poured down Mrs Querish’s face. With a tug, Ruth manged to free her foot, but her boot remained thrust like a stiletto into Mrs Quervish’s forehead.
Thank goodness I never had time to tie the laces, thought Ruth.
Mrs Quervish dropped her knife and fell backwards with a loud scream of pain and anger. Then she landed at the bottom of the stair where she lay writhing in agony.
“Where ever did you learn to do that,” asked John?
“At the dance hall,” replied Ruth.
“Remind me not to go dancing with you,” said John with a grin.
Mrs Quervish stopped writhing in the hall and lay still.
“Now is our chance,” said John. “Run.”
“I can’t run,” said Ruth.
“Why ever not,” asked John.
“My waters have broken,” said Ruth.
Sure enough a pool of straw coloured liquid started to drip down the stairs.
“Either way,” said John, “we better get going.” And taking Ruth’s bag with his, held her hand as they walked down the stair, stepped over Mrs Quervish as she lay motionless.
“I am sorry,” said Ruth. “I do hope you feel better soon.”
“I will have the rent by Thursday,” called John, and they opened the door stepped out into the street and started to head off.
“Excuse us,” said John as they pushed past the crowd that had gathered round Mr Quervish’s mangled body where it lay after his fall from Ruth and John’s bedroom window.
“Where are we going,” said Ruth between clenched teeth. “We won’t get very far walking with all this luggage, and me with only one shoe.”
“Perhaps you should take off your other shoe,” suggested John.
“I don’t think that’s really the problem,” Ruth answered with a glare.
“Alright, wait here, and I’ll see what I can do.” John dropped all of the bags and ran off down the street.
Typical man, thought Ruth, as soon as there’s a hint of trouble they run off. But she comforted herself thinking about what was left off the gold sovereigns. John wouldn’t run off without those. It might be an idea, she thought, to check them, just for safekeeping.
Ruth opened John’s bag and rummaged around. After a few moments, she sat down in despair. She could not find the money anywhere. The money is gone, John is gone, and those contractions are getting closer and closer. And I have ruined one of my favourite pair of shoes.
Chapter Eight. He’s Not Coming Back
He’s coming back. He’s coming back, He’s coming back, thought Ruth as she sat slumped on the baggage.
“Aargh,” she cried as another contraction racked through her body.
He’s not coming back. He’s not coming back. He’s not coming back, Ruth almost wept.
How long had it been since John had run off for help, leaving her with the luggage on the pavement? It felt like hours, but then Ruth was rather too preoccupied to watch the clock.
I should have gone home and forgotten about him and his madcap adventures, she said to herself. But then she remembered that if she had, John would most like be dead, either strangled or stabbed to death by the Quervishes. And even if she had gone home, the baby would still need to come out sometime.
“Aargh!” He’s not coming back. He’s not coming back.
After the pain of the contraction subsided, Ruth looked around her in dismay. There was no way she could carry all the bags, but perhaps there would be something in them that she could sell. She started to move the cases around and then smiled unexpectedly. There, on the very top of John’s belongings was the battered and broken case of his beloved violin, his Bergonzi.
“He is coming back,” said Ruth. “He might desert me, but there’s no way he’d run off without his precious fiddle.”
Ruth sank back; things were not so bad after all. But then her newfound peace of mind was disturbed by another contraction.
When she looked up again, she could see John coming towards her. What is that he is pushing? She asked herself, a wheel barrel. There is no way I’m getting in that.
“Aargh!” Another contraction brought pain shooting through her. Well, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
When John arrived, he set the wheel barrel down looking very pleased with himself.
“Don’t just stand there,” said Ruth. “Get it loaded and let get going.” Although where they were going was another question altogether.
John picked up the bags and set them in the wheel barrel.
“Aren’t you forgetting something,” said Ruth. John looked around, lifted his violin case and put it carefully on the top of the pile.
“No, you idiot!” snapped Ruth. “Me. Where am I going to sit?”
“Of course,” said John quickly and unloaded the barrel then helped Ruth in and piled their belongings on top. It wasn’t very comfortable, but it was better than walking. John, who was remarkably strong for his slender build, picked up the barrel and started wheeling Ruth down the street.
What must I look like, thought Ruth, and what is that smell.
“What was in this wheel barrel before me?” asked Ruth. “Actually on second thoughts, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
“Oh. emm, yes perhaps that is best,” agreed John.
“So you have a lot of explaining to do,” said Ruth.
“I’m sorry I took so long to get back,” said John. “The porter wouldn’t lend me his barrel until he had sold all his-.”
“Not that,” said Ruth. “I am mean about the Secret Southern Sudanese Serpent stuff.”
“Oh come on,” said Ruth, “those people that were trying to kill you; tell me what that was all about?”
“I’ll tell you later,” said John Ruth. “I met them when I was a soldier in Sudan with Kitchener at the Battle of Ouderman.”
“Good grief,” said Ruth, “how old are you. I thought you might be a bit older than me, but what age does that make you.”
“I’m not as old as you think,” said John. “I lied about my age when I enlisted. I was only twelve at the time. The Army thought I was fourteen; I was tall for my age.”
Even so, thought Ruth that would make you in your late thirties, nearly twice my age; more than twice my age.
Before Ruth could ask further, John pushed the barrel through a puddle sending water splashing all over Ruth.
“Watch where you’re going,” Ruth called.
“Hold on tight,” said John, “It’s beginning to rain.” And then he began to run at breakneck speed pushing the barrel with Ruth in it in front of him.
Ruth shouted at him to slow down, but he paid no notice.
Soon they were in a street with great big houses on either side. They were set back from the road in what must have once been very fashionable gardens. The houses too must have been very grand at one time, perhaps a hundred years ago or when King Charles was on the throne. Now they were very shabby, very shabby indeed. Ruth could see slipped tiles, fallen gutters and squint chimney pots. The render on the walls was flaked and crumbling with big patches fallen to the ground. Not a house had seen a lick of paint in years. All of the windows were broken and the glass either missing or smashed. You could see strings of washing hanging between some of the windows. Some of the windows were boarded over. No doubt the houses were now sub-let as rooms for the poorer inhabitants of the city.
How many families could be squeezed into one of those old buildings, Ruth asked herself.
Groups of dirty urchin children played in the puddles in the street. When the children saw John, they ran towards him.
“Hello John,” they shouted, “where have you been?”
Ruth hoped that none of the children were John’s offspring. She didn’t fancy being step-mother to a group of grubby little children.
“Clear off,” said John, “I’m taking my wife home to see my mother.”
“In a wheel barrel!” the children laughed.
“Go on Scram,” John called.
“Don’t be like that John,” they shouted. “You’re always our favourite John. Have you got any pennies for us?”
John stopped, dug into his pockets and threw a handful of change down on the cobblestones. The children squealed with delight and ran after them picking them up and fighting over them.
I do hope he’s not taking me in there, thought Ruth, as John stopped outside a particularly derelict looking house with the roof caved in.
Ruth need not have worried. John wheeled the barrel around the back of the house to a low cottage that must have belonged to either the coachman or the gardener when these houses were at their heyday. The cottage, although modest, was in remarkably good repair. There was a little garden around it, well-kept with roses and some vegetables.
John helped Ruth to her feet and led her through the door.
“Mother,” he shouted, “It’s me, John, I’m home. And I’ve brought a guest.”
Chapter Nine. The Arrivals
John ushered his heavily pregnant wife over the threshold of the cottage.
“Hello Mother,” he called.
From the next room came a tall, thin woman dressed in a plaid shawl.
“John,” the lady exclaimed. “And who may I ask is this bonnie wee lass?”
Before anyone could answer, the lady, John’s mother had rushed over to a chair by the fireplace and started to plump up the cushions. “Sit yir sell doon.”
He never told me he was from Scotchland, thought Ruth.
John settled himself by the fire.
“This is my wife, Mother,” he said.
“Yir wife eh, weel, she’s richt bonnie. And Oh Johnny, ye wir eye a quick worker; she’s in the wean’s way if I speer richt.”
At that moment, Ruth who was still standing by the door gave out a cry of pain as another contraction racked through her.
“Weel, Johnie lad, jist ye sit yir sel doon and lee this tae me. This is wumin’s work noo.”
With those words, the tall, Scotch lady took Ruth by the hand and led her through to the next room.
“Come a wa’ ben and we’ll hae ye couried doon in a whisket.”
What is she talking about, wondered Ruth? But she was too weak to resist, and Scotch or not, the lady seemed to know what she was doing.
“Ye best drap yir drawers lassie,” said John’s Mother to Ruth as she helped her out of her corsets and on to a bed.
Once in the bed, and comfortable, Ruth introduced herself, “Hi, my name is Ruth, what’s your name.”
“Mrs Stewart,” remarked the lady, “Ye kin caw me Aggie gan ye weskit. Mind we hae nae time fir the like noo. Yon bairn will be popping oot any meenit. Yir best to be breathing an when I ca’ ye, push doon, but no afore a speer, mind. And dinae ye fash yirsel, I ken fine whit I’m aboot. I hae fear bairn o ma aine and ha abetted money a bonnie bairn in tae this warold.”
Ruth was not sure what the Scotch woman, what Aggie was saying. But she thought it best to go along with what she was told. It wasn’t like she had much choice.
I wish John was here to help she thought.
“Here,” said Aggie, and pushed a beaker of liquid into Ruth’s hand. “Hae a wee dram tae tak the smart doon a wee smidgeon.”
Ruth took a sip; a warm, burning liquid flowed down her thought. My goodness, she thought, that tastes rough. But she had to admit it did help with the pain a bit.
“Noo lassie,” said Aggie, “gin a’ gie ye the ca, hunker doon an push wi aw yir micht.”
Ruth pushed, and the pain was excruciating. I could do with more whiskey, she thought, even if it is cheap gut-rot.
“Keep gawn, yir near there. Guid lassie, tak a wee breather. I kin spy the heid. Ance mair should dae the trick. Jist haud on til I gie the shout.”
Ruth, delighted that her ordeal was almost over, panted heavily.
From the doorway came John’s voice. “Is everything alright in there?”
Not it is not thought Ruth. But Aggie called out, “It’s aw fine, John.”
“I just thought I’d come in and see that Ruth was alright,” said John and popped his head around the door.
“Hae ye thought on names John,” asked Aggie.
“Oh yes,” said John. “Charles, I think, Charles Edward Stewart.”
“I thought William,” said Ruth.
“William,” said Aggie coldly, “is not a name suitable for a Stewart.”
“How about George?” asked Ruth.
Aggie just sniffed. Well, it is my child, thought Ruth, I should get to call it what I like. But she realised that perhaps now was not the best time to have this argument. Particularly as she could feel the next contraction ripple through her flesh.
“Push noo,” cried Aggie.
“Ahhhh” cried Ruth and as she pushed, John suddenly fainted right away.
“Och John,” called Aggie, “We’ve nae time fir yir clamjamfery. Here’s Ruthie lass yist you push away, the big galoot will jist hae tae lee there the noo.”
Ruth was beyond caring about John, she pushed and with rather an unpleasant sound not entirely unlike a drain being unblocked, the infant entered into the world.
“Michty me,” declared Aggie, “A bonnie wee lass. Wi hair as white as snaw. Wake yirsel Johnie and see yon bairn.”
John staggered to his feet, and reached to take the bairn, ahem I mean baby, from Aggie.
“Gentle noo Johnnie, I’ll need tae sort a few things ower by yir Missus.”
With that Aggie started to fuss around, but Ruth started to have more contraction.
“Haud on a whisket,” said Aggie. “A dinnae trow yir feenished yet lassie. There maun be aine mair in the basket tae unpack.”
“What?” asked Ruth.
“Twins, lassie. I’m sure you’ll have heard o’ sic a thing.”
“Weel Aye, I mean, yes of course. But twins!”
“Twins it is lassie, ye best brace yirsel. Ane mair push.”
John held the baby, Ruth’s baby and watched with a horrified expression on his face as Ruth pushed hard and out came the other child.
“Aneither lass,” said Aggie. “As bonny as the first yin. Twa bonny lassies as braw as ony in the hale kingdom.”
The girls were pretty, very pretty, but also very quiet.
“Are they alright?” asked Ruth. “Can I see them now?”
“Oh aye, they’re fine. They dinae need tae mak a racket. Here John pass them ower tae Ruthie, she’ll need to gie them a feed.”
John passed the two children over to Ruth. They still made no noise. But suckled silently looking up at Ruth with golden eyes.
“So, lassie’s names,” said Aggie.
“I was thinking Lisa and Louise,” suggested Ruth. “They are nice names. Lisa and Louise Grady Stewart.”
John shook his head. “Charlotte and Clementina,” he remarked.
The two girls looked up at Ruth their bright eyes shining. Ruth suppressed a shudder.
Chapter 10. THE TWINS
The twins never cried not ever. They never cried to be fed or to be changed or to be cuddled. Instead, they just stared at Ruth with those creepy golden eyes and demanded to be fed or changed, or cuddled. Poor Ruth, she was rushed of her feet. If wasn’t one twin demanding something then it was the other. And of course, John was no help at all. He’d come in and take one of the girls and hold them clumsily, and the baby would turn to Ruth and stare, silently demanding that Ruth come and rescue her from this great clumsy brute. And Ruth would take Charlotte or Clementine or whichever twin it was, Ruth couldn’t be entirely sure which was which, and see to what they wanted.
What is the point of men, Ruth asked herself crossly as John would hand back the child. If it was left to them we’d all die of neglect.
But to be fair to John, every night he would take his violin out and play soft melodies to the girls until they slept. Ruth had to admit he was very talented, and in his own way very caring with the girls. Especially as they were not his. It’s not every one that would take on two children that didn’t belong to them even considering how pretty Ruth was.
Thank goodness for Aggie. The twins seemed a little afraid of her, and when they stared at Aggie in that way, she would say, “Dinnae glower at me like that, lassie.”
But she was good and kind to the girls, and to Ruth. She would take away the soiled napkins and boil them over the fire, then dry them out on a line over the kitchen garden. She made Ruth bone broth and mutton, and oatmeal porridge for the babies.
“Here, lassie, have a mouthful. It will keep your strength up and goodness you need it with those two.”
How long had it been since the twins had come it seemed like days on end. She tried to count them but struggled to keep track.
Goodness, she thought to herself, six months, that can’t be right.
But when she asked Aggie, it turned out it was. She had barely set foot out of John’s mother’s cottage for six months.
“The girls are getting big,” Aggie said. “When spring comes you’ll be wanting to take them out. I hae John git ye a perambulator. Then ye can go oot up to Blackheath or over to Vauxhall gardens.”
The thought of Vauxhall Gardens was quite appealing. Spring wasn’t far away. In Aggie’s garden the snowdrops were just pushing their heads out of the bare soil.
“That’s a great idea,” said Ruth.
“Or mibbie John will take ye tae yon race course he spends so much of his time at,” suggested Aggie.
“So that’s where he’s been going every day,” said Ruth.
John would get up every morning and get dressed, kiss her on the forehead and then head off out. She always meant to ask him what he’d been getting up to but somehow she always forgot, what with all the work she had to do with the twins. But it seemed to be going well whatever John was upto. Every night when he came back, he’d be grinning and jingling coins in his pocket. And frequently smelling of beer.
“Ye best put them somewhere safe,” Aggie would tell John.
“Hush mother,” John would say. “I’m a grown man and can look after myself.” But Ruth knew that money was like water in John’s hands. Every night when he went to sleep, she’d go through his pockets and put half of whatever money he had into an old chanty pot that she kept under the bed. I just hope he never decided to use it during the night, Ruth thought. Most of the time, John never noticed, but if he had only a few coins left he would count them and look quizzically. Ruth remained stoic faced. Well, she told herself, someone needs to be responsible, besides he doesn’t think all of his dinners come for free surely.
Once the chanty pot was full, Ruth needed a better place to hide their savings. She told herself that’s what they were; savings not stealing. I’m doing it for his own good, besides, what’s his is mine
Ruth decided to ask Aggie where to hide the money. Perhaps she has a good stout box to put it in.
When Ruth told Aggie about the money she had saved, Aggie laughed out loud.
“I kent you were up for that laddie. He can haud his drink, but he cannae haud his coin. Ye hae the right idea. No doubt it will come in handy.”
“But have you something to put it in?” asked Ruth.
“There’s a kirst wie some o’ John’s auld things in it by the stand. Pull it over and we’ll clear room for it in there.”
Ruth tried to lug the chest over to the bed, but it was too heavy.
“Oot the way,” said Aggie, and with one hand, lifted the chest. Aggies muscles flexed and bulged.
My goodness, thought Ruth, she’s like an Amazon. I would not like to get on the wrong side of her.
Aggie opened the chest which was full to the brim with all sorts of stuff. Mostly it looked like old clothes. And sure enough, the chest contained several old army uniforms from John’s army days, a drum and a set of medals.
“That one’s for bravery,” said Aggie. Pointing to a golden one. “He got that for his part in the relief of Mafeking. He was always a daft boy, running away to the army for a shilling. Him being a Stuart and aw’ he should have had a commission.”
“So what will we do with his old uniforms?” Ruth asked. “There’s no point in keeping them; he’s clearly grown a lot taller since he was in the army.” Ruth help up a soldier’s tunic that would have fitted a twelve year old boy.
“Aye,” said Aggie. “It’s been a while since he left and I’ve no had the heart to throw them oot. He was a braw wee laddie for sure. Still, as you say there’s no point keeping them.”
Aggie lifted the uniforms from the trunk and there at the bottom of the trunk was the strangest thing.
“What’s that?” asked Ruth, but before she could look closely at it, the twins began to cry.
Chapter Eleven. Camberwell Green
Ruth and Aggie stood round the travel case, and in the bottom, they saw a package of documents.
“What are these?” asked Ruth.
Before Aggie could answer, there came the sound of John returning early.
“Hello,” he said as he entered, “What’s going on here?”
He looked around and saw the chamber pot full of coins sitting on the floor.
“Well,” he laughed, “I wondered why my clothes were always lighter in the morning, either that or someone’s been shitting money.”
“John,” said Aggie sternly, “We’ll have nane of that talk here.”
“Sorry mother,” said John. Then he lifted the pot and poured the coins on to the bed. “How much money is here?”
“I’m not sure,” admitted Ruth, “I just put all your change there when I took your clothes to the wash. We were looking for somewhere to keep it safe. We could take it the bank.”
“Nae lassie,” said Aggie. “I dinnae trust banks.”
“Well, it’s safer there than under the bed,” said Ruth.
John, who had been counting it out, said “There must be almost fifty pounds here. That would make a good stake at a poker game. I could double it or treble it.”
Aggie, who had been holding the twins, handed them over to Ruth and stood in front of John.
“We’ll no be hae’in the Devil’s cards in this hoose,” she said indignantly. “We had enough o’ that nonsense wi yir faither.”
“Now mother,” said John. “This is my house; Grandfather left it to me when he passed on, together with the big house. If I want to play cards here, then that’s up to me.”
Aggie reached up and grabbed John by the ear. “Noo, you listen tae me.” She said. “You’re nae too big for me to gie ye a skep.”
“I’m sure John wouldn’t want to do anything to upset you,” said Ruth trying to keep the peace between John and his mother.
“Gambling has been the ruination of the Stewarts for generations,” said Aggie, “I’ll no have it.”
“And neither will I,” said Ruth firmly.
“Oh really,” said John, “My wife and my mother think they can tell me what to do in my own house. Last I checked. I’m the man here.”
The two women looked at each other, and then turned to glare at John. No words were spoken, but a wise man would have known better than to cross them.
Poor John, wisdom was never one of his virtues. He smiled happily at the two women as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
“So,” he said, “I’ll play with the wee ones, while you too make my tea. I’ve come home early, but I’m so hungry. I had a busy day at the racecourse; I had to repair the greyhound traps.”
“Get yir ain dinner,” said Aggie, “last I checked, you had two hands, big man.”
“Yes,” agreed Ruth, “Your mother and I are taking the twins out for a walk. Aggie says there’s an old pram in one of the sheds, so we’re going up to Camberwell Green.”
With those words, she reached over to the pile of coins that John had been counting out and grabbed as big a handful as she could, making sure that she took mostly silver coins and not coppers.
“That,” she said, “is for our tea.”
“Sounds great,” said John, “I’ll just get my cap, and we can head out.”
“You’re not invited, big man,” said Ruth. She handed one of the twins to Aggie, she thought it might be Charlotte, she never could tell which was which, and the marched out with Aggie following behind.
The old pram could have done with a clean out. Ruth held the twins while Aggie got a basin and gave it a wipe down. Then she put the twins in the pram, one on either end, propped up with blankets and cushions.
“It’ll have to do,” said Aggie. “We’ll get John to give it a good oiling tomorrow.”
The two ladies set off for Camberwell. The twins, as usual, sat silently watching everything with those golden eyes.
“I wonder what they’re thinking,” said Ruth.
“They’re probably thinking it’s about time for a nap,” said Aggie and sure soon enough the swaying motion of the perambulator rocked the children to sleep.
When they arrived at the gardens, it was still early afternoon. Ruth who had been so tired of staying in the house suggested they might want to take a stroll through the green then perhaps sit by the bandstand, or by the boating pond.
“No by the water,” said Aggie. “You’ll get midgies eating ye alive.”
So after a brisk stroll around the park, Ruth and Aggie sat listening to a brass band playing.
“Whit an awfie noise,” said Aggie. “Can they no quiet it doon a wee bit. They’ll wake the wains. Maybe we should head home.”
Ruth, who quite enjoyed brass bands, could see the point in Aggie’s argument. The last thing she wanted was the twins to wake up and stare at her with those knowing and demanding eyes.
“All right,” agreed Ruth, and stood up. She began pushing the pram to the park exit.
“We better get back and make John something to eat,” she continued.
“Aye,” agreed Aggie, “if the daft galoot has nae burnt the cottage doon.”
They continued merrily along the path through the trees when suddenly Ruth stopped and gasped.
“Whit’s wrang?” asked Aggie.
Ruth looked at Aggie and then turned and looked back. There was no mistake. Walking towards them, was Mr and Mrs Queervish.
Chapter 12 The Returning of the Shoe
There was no getting around it, Ruth was trapped. Each time she arrived at one of the park gates, there was the Quervishes standing waiting for her. She thought about making a run for it, but with the twins in the perambulator and with the aged Aggie surely unable to sprint at any speed that would only be effective if she were to abandon her children and companion.
“Is it no time tae go hame,” said Aggie, after the third or fourth time Ruth lead them in a circuit around Camberwell Green.”
“Yes,” said Ruth; there was clearly nothing else for it other than to confront the Quervishes. “Let’s go then.”
Ruth pushed the pram strait at the Quervishes; there was no way she would go down without fight. The evil couple of H.I.S.S.S.S. operative stood, Mr Quervish had his neck in a brace, presumable as a result of Ruth’s husband John pushing him out of the window at their boarding house, and Mrs Quervish had a patch over one eye where Ruth’s stiletto shoe had lodged itself and blinded her. Well if the Quervishes couldn’t let bygones be bygones then Ruth was determined to defend the twins and Aggie to the death. She had dealt with them once before and she certainly was not going to show them that she was afraid.
Then to, Ruth great surprise, the Quervishes, instead of a taking their secret snake society rings and pushing up the poisoned fangs to attack, the couple knelt down in front of the twins and began chanting.
“EEHT LIAH EW NATAS FO NWAPS SNIWT LIVE TAERG HO.”
Over and over the Quervishes chanted the same thing.
“Whit gey fankle o’ brogue ir yon spiring?” asked Aggie.
“What?” asked Ruth, who still was not quite used to Aggie’s broad Scotch dialect.
“What are they saying?” Aggie asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Ruth. “Perhaps it’s Sudanese,” she added after she remembered that the Quervishes were from Sudan.
“I don’t think so,” said Aggie, “They speak mostly Arabic there.”
“Will you please get up,” said Ruth to the Quervishes. “You are making a scene.”
Reluctantly the two Sudanese assassins arose from the ground.
“Oh maovu kubwa mapacha spawn ya Shetani sisi watakushangilia.”
“That’s Arabic,” said Aggie. “See I told you.”
“What are they saying?” asked Ruth.
“Something about the twins,” said Aggie. “It’s not very nice. Here you two, stop your mumbo-jumbo and let us pass.”
Again much to Ruth’s surprise, the couple immediately complied with Aggie’s request. They bowed low and stepped aside.
“I should think so too,” snorted Aggie. And taking hold of the pram, mercifully the twins were still asleep, marched past.
As Ruth went to go, Mrs Quervish grabbed hold of her arm. At first Ruth thought she was going to attack her, but when she look around, Mrs Quervish bowed her head low.
“Please forgive us,” she said. “If we had known that you were the chose vessel of the great serpent, we would never have tried to murder you.”
“It’s quite alright,” said Ruth, “least said, soonest mended and all that.”
“Thank you, Unholy Mistress of the Golden Eyed Ones,” said Mrs Quervish, “May I return to you what is yours.”
Ruth wondered what Mrs Quervish meant. Had she left something of value at the Stanely Hotel when she had to leave in such a hurry with John? But before she could ask, Mrs Quevish thrust into her hand a single stiletto shoe; the very one she had been obliged to leave lodged in Mrs Quervish’s eye socket when she had made her escape from the Stanely.
Mrs Quervish had cleaned any blood of the heel and polished it up nicely. Ruth wondered what she had done with the other shoe, they had been her favourite pair. I do hope I have not thrown it away, she thought. Especially after Mrs Quevish had gone to so much trouble to return it to her.
“Oh, thank you,” said Ruth and put the shoe into her hand bag, “And, eh, sorry about the eye.”
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing,” said Mrs Quervish, who was now smiling and waving.
“Friends of yours?” asked Aggie when Ruth had caught up with her.
“Not exactly,” said Ruth, “They are friends of John, or more acquaintances.”
“And tell Mr John not to worry about the back rent,” shouted Mr Quervish.
“They seem like a nice couple,” said Aggie.
“I suppose in their own way,” agreed Ruth. “Although they are a bit odd.”
“Well, they would be wouldn’t they,” said Aggie, “what with being Satanists and all. I must say, what interesting company you and John keep.”
“Satanists,” exclaimed Ruth, and then she remembered what at least one of the S’s in H.I.S.S.S.S. stood for. “I suppose they must be, still it takes all sorts does it not.”
“It certainly does,” replied Aggie as she pushed Charlotte and Clementine. “We’ve Episcopalians.”
“C of E,” said Ruth.
The twins woke up and started to stare silently at Ruth with those unblinking golden eyes.