It is 1863, and London’s East End is the soot-covered hub of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. Steamships cleave the oceans, and airships crisscross the skies. Fortunes are to be made, but not all are enriched.
In their struggle to survive, the Preston sisters could not have been more different. Molly the Lubber (a factory girl) lives with her mother; Dolly the Wagtail (one of the great city’s unfortunates) is an attraction at a famous bawdy house; and Polly the Mollisher (a criminal’s bedpartner) runs the Golden Bell public house, a hotbed of crime.
Molly is flattered when Mr. Lewellen, a handsome young draughtsman at the factory where she works, takes to escorting her home after her shift. The streets between Whitechapel and the London Docks are not for the faint-hearted. One morning arriving at work, Molly makes a horrifying discovery which sets into motion a series of events that may have international repercussions, and will either bring the sisters together, or see them killed.
Praise for Molly's Beau (Sisters Three 1)
"This is a wonderful and promising series."
-- 5 Stars from Ken T., Amazon Review
"Mikala Ash writes terrific stories about her steamy steampunk Victorian world and this is the latest offshoot. This book has more of a Victorian underbelly world vibe to it."
-- 4 Stars from Suzanne Irving, Kobo Review
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Molly's Beau (Sisters Three 1)
All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2023 Mikala Ash
Molly the Lubber
1863. Peach Lane, The Docklands. London.
Morning on that dreadful day unfolded as it usually did at number twelve Peach Lane. At half past three Constable Moore earned his weekly penny by banging on our communal front door. His purpose being to rouse our neighbour Mr. Lowry from his bed, and for his dutiful wife to follow. Her purpose: to prepare her husband’s breakfast of bread, cheese and offcuts of beef or pork to fortify him for his bloody labours at the slaughterhouse. The rest of the family, herself included, made do with porridge, and whatever scraps he left on his plate.
Across the hall that divided that family from ours, I had been snug in bed with my sister Holly. I had been dreaming of Mr. Lewellen, who had recently taken to escorting me home at close of shift. The other girls chided me that I was his favourite and teased me at every opportunity by asking when they would hear the chiming of church bells. Mr. Lewellen was a nice fellow of one and twenty, a few years older than me. He was handsome, with a hairless chin and lovely blue eyes. Like glowing cornflowers, they were. He had a quick and easy smile, with straight white teeth, and clean breath. Like me, he worked at the Allenby Marine Engineering Works, though he was a junior draftsman locked away with the scientists on the top floor, and I was a Lubber, lubricating the steam-belching machines that roared and rumbled on the factory floor.
In my dream we had turned into Peach Lane, and he had stopped to buy me flowers from Matilda Digby who had her stand on the corner. The posey was quite fantastical, overflowing with sweet stocks, primroses, wallflowers, and lily of the valley, with a long-stemmed red rose rising splendidly from the centre. Mr. Lewellen was holding my hand and bent his head toward me, as if to whisper something, or perhaps to kiss me, when Constable Moore’s knocking shattered my innocent bliss.
I opened my eyes to the deep darkness of our bedroom, in which Mama, little Lolly, and six-year-old Holly and I slept. I lifted Holly’s thin arm and the raggedy doll she clutched off my chest and rolled out of bed. Shivering in the frigid air I bunched my chemise about my knees, and half-filled the chamber pot. I broke the ice on the water basin that rested on the three-legged chest of drawers and gave myself a quick wash. I hurriedly dressed in the unflattering Allenby Manufacturing uniform, a narrow-skirted dark blue dress. I checked young Lolly in her little bed, then Ma, who was sleeping uneasily, her breathing stertorous, and her skin clammy. I built up the kitchen fire, and prepared breakfast.
The rest of number twelve quickly came to life as it usually does. Across the hall, cramped into two rooms as we were, Mrs. Lowry was noisily making breakfast for her husband and their five children. Meanwhile, Mr. Lowry had stomped down the hallway past the back rooms occupied by the Hoop and Grover families, each parenting three children, through the back door to the outhouse. Upstairs in four double rooms, as many families stirred, men and women fornicated, and uncounted children cried for breakfast. Above them, in Rob Spinks’ penny-a-night rooms, fifty or more men and women, who had sheltered during the winter’s night, and shared the same pallets on the floor were rousted by Benjamin Polk, Spinks’ punisher, though he preferred the grandiose title Night Manager. All in all, close to a hundred souls slept under the roof of number twelve.
After feeding Holly, and helping Ma up so she could feed Lolly, I tied my bonnet under my chin, and struck out for work. With uncivil words Polk was evicting the last of his overnight boarders into the sooty snow when I reached the steps.
He turned in time to see me and blocked my path with his wide body. “There’s yourself,” he said, his crooked smile exposing uneven rows of broken teeth. “No prettier sight in the morning, no matter the weather.” With a filthy forefinger he flicked a dirtier snowflake off the collar of my uniform. “You know, there is no need to go to that foul place every day, or live here neither. I have rooms of my own, you know, and in a better street.”
It was his daily proposal which I sincerely hoped he didn’t mean. I’d heard rumours of his treatment of women under his charge on the third floor, giving them a space even if they didn’t have a penny. I shuddered at what they gave up instead.
“No, thank you, Mr. Polk.”
He bit into an onion, his daily breakfast. “It’s a shame, it is. Pretty girl like you losing your womanly attractions slaving away for those Allenby pricks, pardon my French.”
“I’ve heard worse, Mr. Polk. From your own mouth too. Now let me pass or I’ll be late.”
He pursed his lips in mockery of a kiss and raised his arms to entrap me. I ducked under them, and with his lascivious laughter at my back, I skipped into the slush-filled street. The slither of sky visible between the roofs was crowded with airships of every size and configuration, shifting the empire’s bounty from the docks to the countryside, the dull thrumming of their engines our constant bane.
The fifteen-minute walk to the Allenby factory was by Peach Lane, which was so narrow four people couldn’t walk arm in arm without brushing their shoulders against slimy brick walls. Above me were ropes stretched between houses from which neighbours hung their washing. The drain in the middle of the paving stones stank with the contents of chamber pots. Turning onto Ellen Street, I passed a few idle young boys playing knucklebones in the dim yellow light flowing from their doorways. Then south onto Christian Street, then right onto Thomas Street where the first on the left was the bland brick edifice of Allenby Marine Technology.
Light snow was falling when I joined the queue of a dozen machine operators at the wrought-iron gate. The factory entrance was guarded by the grizzle-bearded Jack Young, an ancient one-legged veteran of the Crimea who sat rugged up against the elements in his narrow red sentry box.
The rank stench of the Thames assailed my nostrils, and the snowfall became heavier. I stamped my feet as the queue inched its way past Jack Young’s cosy portico. He took the clay pipe from his mouth and touched his forelock to me. “Miss Preston.”
“Good morning, Corporal Jack. Quiet night?”
“Aye. As the grave.” He hocked, and with a precision he had no doubt demonstrated with the rifle against the Russians at Balaclava, landed the disgustingly yellow gob into a cracked stoneware Crosse & Blackwell oyster jar sitting a dozen feet away. A few men cheered and applauded, others groaned, and a few pennies changed hands.
After he noted my name in the logbook opened across his knees, I bolted across the yard to the factory door. Once inside I pulled off my woollen scarf and coat, for the temperature within was oppressive. The metal fabrication shop had its furnaces roaring every hour of the day, emitting clouds of noxious effluvia which was collected, and by way of great conduits hanging from the ceiling, distributed throughout the whole building, warming it by its rumbling passage. I adjusted my headcloth to catch the condensation which dripped sullenly through the humid air and made the floor slippery despite the sawdust laid there to soak it up.
In the women’s room I hung my scarf, bonnet, and coat on my labelled peg, and slipped on my work smock. Though there was a lockable box bearing my name I kept my valuables, tuppence, and a handkerchief, in my dress pocket. I was first Lubber in that morning, and I made my way through the narrow corridor and down the steps to the storeroom where I would fill my oil can. A whistle blew, warning the night shift that they had fifteen minutes till they handed over to the day.
The door to the storeroom was unlatched and ajar, the lamp that hung on a peg missing. Thinking there must be someone already inside I didn’t pause and pushed it open. It was dark as pitch inside.
There was no reply, and I felt for the candle and box of lucifers that sat on a little shelf just inside the door. The glim’s weak yellow light was soon swallowed up by the hungry shadows. I stepped in and immediately tripped over something. I fell heavily to my knees. I dropped the candle, and luckily it went out as it fell. I felt about and found it. It had fallen on a lump of what felt like rags. I sniffed the air. There was a strange metallic, coppery smell in the room. I took a lucifer from my pocket and relit the candle and shone it over the heap.
I recoiled in shock and horror, for the bundle of rags was a body. Someone had fallen. The clothes beneath my fingers were sticky. I looked at my hands, darkly stained, and I now put a name to that metallic smell: blood.
“Hello?” I said, shaking the person by the shoulders. I held the candle closer. I gasped. “Oh! Mr. Lewellen. Wake up!”