... I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.
But this I know, that every Law
That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother's life,
And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
With a most evil fan.
This too I know – and wise it were
If each could know the same –
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim. ...
... For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say. ...
“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde
● ● ●
It was one of those mornings. The ones when Tess woke up crying.
They were becoming less frequent after nearly six years, but whenever she had that dream, it felt like no time had passed at all. It felt like she’d just held him as he took his last breaths of life.
His right hand glowed from his heartbreaking attempt to repair the damage – obeying that final obligation from the frantic Lafarge. A last refusal to allow Jacques even this one choice. But of course, Jacques had made sure he’d be past saving.
He shifted his left hand to rest across her lower belly. He opened his eyes and gave her a final – even triumphant – crooked smile. Then, the light faded from his hand. From his irises.
She opened her eyes. Sunlight leaked in around the shutters, filling the sparsely furnished room with gray light. She pushed up onto her elbow, wiped her eyes, and smiled down at the disheveled little mop of brown curls on the pillow beside hers. He was curled on his side, his breathing soft and even.
If only she could wrap her arms around him as tight as she could hold, and never let go. Her hand trembled slightly as she reached out brush hair away from his face. He had red highlights – lighter than she remembered Adele’s. Closer to his papa’s.
“Good morning, Jacqui,” she murmured. He sighed, fidgeted, and then wormed his head deeper into the pillow.
She slipped from under the blanket, into the cold. After snatching up a shawl to wrap around her shoulders, she knelt before the little black stove set in the center of the room. Its hinge screeched loudly in the quiet when she opened it to toss in a scoop of coal, and strike a light.
She shivered. This city – Ninove – built on the low slopes of a mountain range at the edge of the Shadow, was so cold after her life in Galeland Lorraine.
Jacques appeared at her shoulder, blinking. He raised chubby fists to rub the sleep away. “G’morn’n, mama,” he announced.
She straightened, stretching, and her joints protested. Her knees and back were stiff and sore from yesterday at the laundry. Like the day before, and the day before that.
She reached out and caught him in an embrace – squeezing his wriggling little body against her own. She planted a kiss on the center of his frizzy curls. “How did you sleep?”
“I’m hungry,” he protested.
Of course he was. He’d started eating like a little bear, and she’d had to let out all his seams and hems twice in the last cycle.
She let him go, and he bounced over to his stool set by the table.
There was both cheese and biscuits in the cupboard today. She cut thick slices of the sharp, dry cheese and warmed two biscuits at the stove.
Jacques devoured the food, and she gave him more. It would be okay – Cavendish often gave the women who worked for him at the laundry a free lunch. Workers who ate did better work, he’d say.
She’d been fortunate to find him.
But Cavendish – he never quite had enough money for the full pay he’d promised, but he made it up to them in a dozen small ways that kept them coming back to work each day. They were all pretty sure that the short, balding man – a lifelong bachelor – had started the business to find someone desperate enough to have him. She never felt quite comfortable around him, but honestly, with the number of soldier widows in this city, the women were grateful to find anything.
Her stomach twinged painfully, but she ignored it. She didn’t need to eat now. She’d eat at lunch – Jacqui could have her breakfast.
His happy grin – free from fear, pain, and Noblemen’s Obligations – that was all the breakfast she needed.
For a child of Lorraine’s Taudis district, hunger was neither unknown, nor unbearable.
● ● ●
Thirty-one years ago
Tess’s legs weren’t quite long enough to reach the floor from the bench, so she kicked them back and forth, skimming across the muddy wood floor. She bent her head over the slate, set on the long narrow table running from one side of the classroom to the other, and twisted her face in concentration. Which side did the round part on the letter D go?
Three flies buzzed in the heavy air overhead.
Shally elbowed her roughly. “It’s backwards – again,” she whispered.
Tess shot her an angry glance, and smudged the letter out with her finger.
Madame Collette, the teacher, swept over. She was all dark rustling fabrics and smelled of rosewater. She wore her gray hair pulled back in a tight knot, and she carried a perpetual frown on her face. They whispered that she was bitter that only the cheapest school in Lorraine would have her.
She smacked her ruler across Tess’s fingers. “No talking.”
Tess bit her lip, fighting the hot temper surging in her chest. There was no point in arguing that she hadn’t been the one talking. Madame Collette assumed she and Renn were misbehaved, mannerless ruffians, just because they had to walk all the way from the Taudis district. And it wasn’t like the other pupils at this single-room school were gentry. But they weren’t from Taudis, and that was what mattered. She’d heard all about it from Renn for three years. He’d shouted about it to ma and pa, and muttered colorful tales of unfair fights and nasty pranks to her. Pa always listened quietly, and always said that’s the way the world is, and if Renn wanted it to change, he’d just have to earn their respect. Show them he deserved to be there, one step at a time.
Renn said Pa’s way didn’t work.
But Pa’s way did get Pa a foreman’s position in the coal mines three years ago, which allowed her parents to afford this school’s fees. And pay for chalk and slates. And Renn’s books. And hire help for ma’s laundry, so she wouldn't need them during the day.
School was frightfully expensive, Tess had noticed.
She wasn’t sure it was worth it. After a week of this, she was inclined to agree with Renn. It wasn’t fair. Renn was the smartest boy his age and he worked twice as hard as all of them, but they still thought he was stupid. She saw the way Madame Collette talked to him.
She bit her lip, and tried the D again, begging the creaky old clock to strike noon. Breakfast had been extra small today. Her stomach hurt, and her head felt wooly.
Shally snickered again, and Tess realized she’d written the next word backwards. She aimed a small, vicious kick at the larger girl, and her heel caught her, right in the shin. The girl squawked with pain. Tess froze.
Madame Collette was indignant when she appeared behind Tess again.
“That’s it,” she snapped. “On your feet. If you’re incapable of copying a sentence like a gentlewoman, you’ll do it up front with me, at the board.”
Tess bit her lip, her heart racing and her eyes stinging. Moving carefully, she slid from the bench and followed the teacher to the front. She took stiff, measured steps in her new shoes. Those shoes cost more coin than Tess had ever seen ma spend, and they pinched her feet.
She hated those shoes.
She kept her eyes locked forward, trying to ignore the giggles.
Madame Collette pointed to a square of the board that was just within Tess’s reach. “Right here. Write your sentence until you’ve learned it.”
Tess’s hand was shaking as she raised her stub of chalk, and tried to picture the letters in her mind. “A DOG SAT...” More titers sounded behind her, and she blanched, checking her letters. She’d got the D right this time –. She clenched her free hand into a fist. She’d written T-S-A, not S-A-T. She rubbed the mistake out and started again.
Every set of eyes watched her – waiting for her to make another mistake. They were laughing at her shabby, patched dress and horrible, pinching shoes.
She missed her old, comfortable shoes. Ma had cut the toes out, and they flapped deliciously when she stamped in the mud.
They would have been much more comfortable to stand here in.
An itchy trickle of sweat rolled down her back, and her arm felt weak and shaky, held up above her head, to reach the board.
She clenched her teeth.
“A DOG SAT...”
She wasn’t going to give up and cry.
“... ON A LOG.”
She wasn’t going to give up and cry.
“A DOG …”
She wasn’t going to cry.
It was a stupid sentence. Dogs didn’t sit on logs. They growled at each other and dug for rotting rubbish and chased rats, and snapped at you, if you got too close.
“... ON …”
She blinked rapidly.
“... A L …”
Her arm hurt, but she wasn’t.
“... OG …”
A scream of feminine horror sounded from behind her. “It’s ruined!”
Tess risked a glance over her shoulder. A girl was on her feet, hands waving in horror at a large splatter of ink running down the front of her light blue dress. She was one of the bigger students. Renn sat beside her, a look of deep concern plastered on his face.
Madame Collette’s face twisted with fury. “What is going on here?” she thundered.
“He knocked my inkwell all down my new frock,” the girl wailed, pointing at Renn. Her classmates laughed.
Renn’s expression shifted to bland innocence. “I shifted my slate and my big clumsy elbow just didn’t see your beautiful inkwell there. How can I ever apologize enough?” His words brought more laughter.
Tess turned back to the board to hide her grin, and let her arm drop and rest for a few minutes. Yesterday, Renn had kicked mud in her face then laughed at her furious attempts to retaliate. She’d been bitterly angry at him for the rest of the day, but right now, she forgave him from the bottom of her heart.
The clock began to chime noon, and the laughter went silent, as every eye fastened on their teacher, begging her to release them for lunch.
She glared at Renn. “Lisette, you may go home and change. Renn? If you can’t control yourself, you’ll stay in here and have no lunch. The rest of you may go.”
Tess slipped into the crowd of students flowing out the door, to eat in the sunlight after retrieving her bundle of food that ma had tied up with a bright handkerchief. She retreated to a hidden corner to eat. The ache in her head and her belly subsided, and were replaced by empathetic pain for Renn, who’d have to spend the rest of the day hungry.
He’d had the same breakfast she’d had.
At least Renn’s prank with the ink seemed to have driven Tess’s own infraction from Madame Collette’s mind, and she didn’t object when Tess slipped into her normal place at the bench after lunch.
When they were finally dismissed for the day, she waited by the door for Renn to find her. He poked her on the shoulder.
“You owe me,” he muttered around a mouthful of his uneaten lunch. But then he grinned. “I’ll call it in one day.”
She nodded and followed him out as he crammed more food into his mouth. He’d be eager to get home in time to see Maria before ma needed them to deliver the clean laundry. Clara – Maria’s younger sister and Tess’s friend, was convinced her sister was in love with Renn.
Renn refused to admit to the same, but Tess had her own suspicions, and teased him about it as often as she dared.
She had to take two steps for his one as he hurried away from the school yard. Finally, he swallowed his last bite, slowed, and spoke. His voice was low, and sharp with anger.
“They think they’re better’n us.”
“Pa says –”
“I don’t care what pa says,” he snapped. “He doesn’t have to smile and bow and scrape for ‘Madame Collette.’”
Tess scuffed the toe of her new shoe in the dirt. “I don’t wanna go back.”
“Hey,” he said.
She glanced up.
Renn forced a grin. “They don’t want us there. So, every day we’re there? That’s a punch right back at em. So you can’t quit.”