He awoke with a start, his body drenched with perspiration. Outside it was still dark, but the sounds of households and horses and businesses stirring drifted in through his wife’s muslin curtains.
He’d dreamed about her again. The girl.
He sat up and rubbed his moist palms along the front of his night-shirt. Beside him, his wife made a gurgling sound but remained asleep. He sighed with great force, and tried to remember the girl as she was, on that cusp of her fate, when he could have, he should have….
Images were splashed in his mind like stains he couldn’t clean; her glistening, shiny-white skin broken here and there by ugly welts, her auburn ringlets uncoiling in the currents, her chemise lined with delicate eyelet-trim barely covering her small, battered breasts. He couldn’t shake the picture of the cotton and whalebone corset still clinging to her petite torso, the lacings loosened and torn, and the net pelerine collar knotted so viciously around her slender, purple and alabaster neck.
He groaned aloud in spite of himself.
“Marcus, what is the matter?” came his wife’s garbled voice, but she still lay on her side under the quilt, facing away from him, only partially awake.
He shuddered, despite the temperate air of a summer dawn. Rage filled his thoughts when he remembered the soldier, the young man, no doubt in India by now with barely a care or memory of his crime. A cruel and frightening man, arrayed smartly all in red and gold; if he treated English girls like this, what would he do to innocent women and children in the East India Company’s domain? But what could he, Marcus, have said, what could he have done? He was a middle-class clerk, who was told by a lancer of the Queen’s Regiment to mind his own affairs.
The image of her body billowed and flowed through his thoughts, bobbing up and just below the surface, her toes emerging and dipping with each swell. He’d been called to help — she was spotted just off the St. Katherine’s Docks, and he and several men had commandeered a skiff and rowed furiously to catch her. But just as they drew near, just as they came within a distance where she could be hooked and brought on board, he’d glanced up from his oar and was caught by her eyes — a doll’s eyes, empty and round like blue glass — staring straight into his….
The scene repeated over and over, when he was awake or in the midst of nightmares — those hallow, bulging, glazed eyes seemed to fasten on him alone as her body slipped and undulated half-submerged but not sinking, moving swiftly headfirst through the St. Katherine’s Docks entrance lock, into the Thames as if drawn away by an unseen force.
What happened after that — they all saw it — nine men from different professions and walks of life. The girl’s body suddenly seemed to move on its own; it sped and streamed and slipped from their boat like a fish, coppery tendrils of hair trailing in its wake. But they knew no fish had her, and nothing touched her.
The last they saw of her, she was curving to the east as if heading for the estuary of the river where it emptied into the North Sea.
The girl in the pink dress with the oyster-colored gigot sleeves seemed to float amidst the hectic activity of St. Katherine Docks, oblivious to the boxes of silk cloth being lowered from newly-arrived ships and the barrels of rum and brandy that seamen and dock workers rolled into the warehouses behind her. She smelled of lavender and roses, her face freshly scrubbed with cherry lips and cheeks flushed by passion and excitement.
She maneuvered around towers of stacked crates that exuded the aroma of tea and spices, her nose pressed into a doily filled with fresh violets. Her red-auburn curls gleamed jumbled at her temples, peeking from the brim of a straw hat festive with pink and white feathers and flowers. The pearl buttons on her fawn gloves glinted in the wan sunlight that struggled through the fog.
She should have been afraid, she should never have come to such a place, even with an appropriate escort. She noted the dirty, hairy, leering faces of seamen and laborers like pale shadows stopping to stare at her as she passed. The officers, importers, and their men gathered in small knots haggling over prices and cargo, glanced up with shock and disapproval as her flounced, satin skirt rustled by them. She felt warm and alive, and completely fearless.
Her beloved had insisted she meet him here, on this dock, in front of the warehouses where valuable and rare goods from Asia were stored. She raised her gaze from the circle of purple florets clutched in her right fist and gasped at the forest of masts and yard-arms — their sails furled and braces slack — that marched ahead of her endlessly, disappearing into the mists that rolled in from the Thames. A constant cacophony of clinking, ringing, shouting, slapping and lapping of water on hulls assaulted her ears.
She carefully skipped aside on slippered feet as a huge rope snaked in front of her — two men yelled obscenities. Someone came up behind her and touched her elbow. She spun around filled with expectation. She started with surprise and backed one step away when she saw a stranger.
“Don’t be afraid, Miss,” the man said, doffing his top hot. He was properly dressed, down to his Wellington boots. “Are you lost? Can I be of assistance?” He peered at her carefully.
“No, no,” she exclaimed. “Pardon me, sir, am I not allowed on this part of the quay? I am waiting for my betrothed. He is a member of the Queen’s Regiment, the 16th Lancers. He asked me to meet him here!”
“This part of the docks belongs to the East India Company,” he said pointing at the brick edifice to their left. “Are you sure you….” he started to say, but suddenly understood her innocence and realized she was in a host of possible dangers.
“India!” she said, smiling and hiding her face with her violets for a moment. “My beloved is home on leave, and will be returning to India.”
“There are no troop ships to Calcutta departing from St. Katherine’s,” the man said.
She stared up at him. Her dark lashes made her eyes look like stars.
“Belle, Belle,” they heard a male voice, “come here, my girl.” Materializing out of the drifting mists was a brilliant scarlet jacket with gold buttons and epaulets, a gold belt and sash.
She swirled and twirled and embraced the blond-haired lancer as he stopped beside her. She laughed. “Oh, this gentlemen was worried about me,” she said, pulling away from her beau slightly as he clutched her tightly around her small waist.
The clerk narrowed his eyes and peered straight into the lancer’s face. “Sir,” the East Indiaman said, “this is no place for an appointed rendezvous with a proper young lady.”
The lancer’s features hardened instantly. “And I do not believe this is any of your affair,” he answered, his voice cold and his tone metallic.
“Please good sir, do not trouble yourself on my account. We are to be married. But my family — they don’t know….”
“Belle, you speak too freely,” the soldier interrupted, giving her a slight shake. He appeared to be in a hurry. He looked behind him, then surveyed the area ahead.
But she continued talking as her intended tugged her then pulled her after him, in the direction away from the river, “I must see him off to India,” she called. “So he won’t forget me….”
The clerk watched as they receded in the direction of the city. He took off his gray hat and mopped his brow with a handkerchief that hung from one pocket of his jacket. He ground his teeth and his stomach twisted and churned; his conscience clawed at him, telling him to follow the couple. But he checked his watch instead and pivoted, trying to put them out of his mind. A stevedore shouted close by, and he remembered the ship from Bombay he was supposed to meet. He began walking down the quay. He stopped and glanced over his shoulder one more time, focusing on the spot where he’d last seen the girl. He shivered.