An Extract from Fingersmith
My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me. I was Mrs Sucksby's child, if I was anyone's; and for father I had Mr Ibbs, who kept the locksmith's shop, at Lant Street, in the Borough, near to the Thames.
This is the first time I remember thinking about the world and my place in it.
There was a girl named Flora, who paid Mrs Sucksby a penny to take me begging at a play. People used to like to take me begging then, for the sake of my bright hair; and Flora being also very fair, she would pass me off as her sister. The theatre she took me to, on the night I am thinking of now, was the Surrey, St George's Circus. The play was Oliver Twist. I remember it as very terrible. I remember the tilt of the gallery, and the drop to the pit. I remember a drunken woman catching at the ribbons of my dress. I remember the flares, that made the stage very lurid; and the roaring of the actors, the shrieking of the crowd. They had one of the characters in a red wig and whiskers: I was certain he was a monkey in a coat, he capered so. Worse still was the snarling, pink-eyed dog; worst of all was that dog's master—Bill Sykes, the fancy-man. When he struck the poor girl Nancy with his club, the people all down our row got up. There was a boot thrown at the stage. A woman beside me cried out,
'Oh, you beast! You villain! And her worth forty of a bully like you!'
I don't know if it was the people getting up—which made the gallery seem to heave about; or the shrieking woman; or the sight of Nancy, lying perfectly pale and still at Bill Sykes's feet; but I became gripped by an awful terror. I thought we should all be killed. I began to scream, and Flora could not quiet me. And when the woman who had called out put her arms to me and smiled, I screamed out louder. Then Flora began to weep—she was only twelve or thirteen, I suppose. She took me home, and Mrs Sucksby slapped her.
'What was you thinking of, taking her to such a thing?' she said.
'You was to sit with her upon the steps. I don't hire my infants out to have them brought back like this, turned blue with screaming. What was you playing at?'
She took me upon her lap, and I wept again. 'There now, my lamb,' she said. Flora stood before her, saying nothing, pulling a strand of hair across her scarlet cheek. Mrs Sucksby was a devil with her dander up. She looked at Flora and tapped her slippered foot upon the rug, all the time rocking in her chair—that was a great creaking wooden chair, that no-one sat in save her—and beating her thick, hard hand upon my shaking back. Then, 'I know your little rig,' she said quietly. She knew everybody's rig.
'What you get? A couple of wipers, was it? A couple of wipers, and a lady's purse?'
Flora pulled the strand of hair to her mouth, and bit it. 'A purse,' she said, after a second. 'And a bottle of scent.'
'Show,' said Mrs Sucksby, holding out her hand. Flora's face grew darker. But she put her fingers to a tear at the waist of her skirt, and reached inside it; and you might imagine my surprise when the tear
turned out to be not a tear at all, but the neck of a little silk pocket that was sewn inside her gown. She brought out a black cloth bag, and a bottle with a stopper on a silver chain. The bag had threepence in it, and half a nutmeg. Perhaps she got it from the drunken woman who plucked at my dress. The bottle, with its stopper off, smelt of roses. Mrs Sucksby sniffed.
'Pretty poor poke,' she said, 'ain't it?'
Flora tossed her head. 'I should have had more,' she said, with a look at me, 'if she hadn't started up with the sterics.'
Mrs Sucksby leaned and hit her again.
'If I had known what you was about,' she said, 'you shouldn't have had none of it at all. Let me tell you this now: you want an infant for prigging with, you take one of my other babies. You don't take Sue. Yo you hear me?'
Flora sulked, but said she did. Mrs Sucksby said, 'Good. Now hook it. And leave that poke behind you, else I shall tell your mother you've been going with gentlemen.'
Then she took me to her bed—first, rubbing at the sheets with her hands, to warm them; then stooping to breathe upon my fingers, to warm me. I was the only one, of all her infants, she would do that for. She said, 'You ain't afraid now, Sue?'
But I was, and said so. I said I was afraid the fancy-man would find me out and hit me with his stick. She said she had heard of that particular fancy-man: he was all bounce. She said,
'It was Bill Sykes, wasn't it? Why, he's a Clerkenwell man. He don't trouble with the Borough. The Borough boys are too hard for him.'
I said, 'But, oh, Mrs Sucksby! You never saw the poor girl Nancy, and how he knocked her down and murdered her!'
'Murdered her?' she said then. 'Nancy? Why, I had her here an hour ago. She was only beat a bit about the face. She has her hair curled different now, you wouldn't know he ever laid his hand upon her.'
I said, 'Won't he beat her again, though?'
She told me then that Nancy had come to her senses at last, and left Bill Sykes entirely; that she had met a nice chap from Wapping, who had set her up in a little shop selling sugar mice and tobacco.
She lifted my hair from about my neck and smoothed it across the pillow. My hair, as I have said, was very fair then—though it grew plain brown, as I got older—and Mrs Sucksby used to wash it with vinegar and comb it till it sparked. Now she smoothed it flat, then lifted a tress of it and touched it to her lips. She said, 'That Flora tries to take you on the prig again, you tell me—will you?'
I said I would. 'Good girl,' she said. Then she went. She took her candle with her, but the door she left half-open, and the cloth at the window was of lace and let the street-lamps show. It was never quite dark there, and never quite still. On the floor above were a couple of rooms where girls and boys would now and then come to stay: they laughed and thumped about, dropped coins, and sometimes danced. Beyond the wall lay Mr Ibbs's sister, who was kept to her bed: she often woke with the horrors on her, shrieking. And all about the house—laid top-to-toe in cradles, like sprats in boxes of salt—were Mrs Sucksby's infants. They might start up whimpering or weeping any hour of the night, any little thing might set them off. Then Mrs Sucksby would go among them, dosing them from a bottle of gin, with a little silver spoon you could hear chink against the glass.
On this night, though, I think the rooms upstairs must have been empty, and Mr Ibbs's sister stayed quiet; and perhaps because of the quiet, the babies kept asleep. Being used to the noise, I lay awake. I lay and thought again of cruel Bill Sykes; and of Nancy,dead at his feet. From some house nearby there sounded a man's voice, cursing. Then a church bell struck the hour—the chimes came queerly across the windy streets. I wondered if Flora's slapped cheek still hurt her. I wondered how near to the Borough was Clerkenwell; and how quick the way would seem, to a man with a stick.
I had a warm imagination, even then. When there came footsteps in Lant Street, that stopped outside the window; and when the foot- steps were followed by the whining of a dog, the scratching of the dog's claws, the careful turning of the handle of our shop door, I started up off my pillow and might have screamed—except that before I could the dog gave a bark, and the bark had a catch to it, that I thought I knew: it was not the pink-eyed monster from the theatre, but our own dog, Jack. He could fight like a brick. Then there came a whistle. Bill Sykes never whistled so sweet. The lips were Mr Ibbs's. He had been out for a hot meat pudding for his and Mrs Sucksby's supper.
'All right?' I heard him say. 'Smell the gravy on this…'
Then his voice became a murmur, and I fell back. I should say I was five or six years old. I remember it clear as anything, though. I remember lying, and hearing the sound of knives and forks and china, Mrs Sucksby's sighs, the creaking of her chair, the beat of her slipper on the floor. And I remember seeing—what I had never seen before—how the world was made up: that it had bad Bill Sykeses in it, and good Mr Ibbses; and Nancys, that might go either way. I thought how glad I was that I was already on the side that Nancy got to at last.—I mean, the good side, with sugar mice in.
It was only many years later, when I saw Oliver Twist a second time, that I understood that Nancy of course got murdered after all. By then, Flora was quite the fingersmith: the Surrey was nothing to her, she was working the West End theatres and halls—she could go through the crowds like salts. She never took me with her again, though. She was like everyone, too scared of Mrs Sucksby. She was caught at last, poor thing, with her hands on a lady's bracelet; and was sent for transportation as a thief.
We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it.
I moved away, along the ward. The woman's thin petitions, the matron's scolds, were made sharp and strange by the acoustics of the gaol; every prisoner I passed had raised her head to catch them—though, when they saw me in the ward beyond their gates, they lowered their gazes and returned to their sewing. Their eyes, I thought, were terribly dull. Their faces were pale, and their necks, and their wrists and fingers, very slender. I thought of Mr Shillitoe saying that a prisoner's heart was weak, impressionable, and needed a finer mould to shape it. I thought of it, and became aware again of my own heart beating. I imagined how it would be to have that heart drawn from me, and one of those women's coarse organs pressed into the slippery cavity left at my breast…
I put my hand to my throat then and felt, before my pulsing heart, my locket; and then my step grew a little slower. I walked until I reached the arch that marked the angle of the ward, then moved a little way beyond it—just far enough to put the matrons from my view, but not enough to take me down the second passage. Here I put my back to the limewashed prison wall, and I waited.
And here, after a moment, came a curious thing.
I was close to the mouth of the first of the next line of cells; near to my shoulder was its inspection flap or 'eye', above that the enamel tablet bearing the details of its inmate's sentence. It was only from this, indeed, that I knew the cell was occupied at all, for there seemed to emanate from it a marvellous stillness—a silence, that seemed deeper yet than all the restless Millbank hush surrounding it. Even as I began to wonder over it, however, the silence was broken. It was broken by a sigh, a single sigh—it seemed to me, a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story; and the sigh being such a complement to my ownmood I found it worked upon me, in that setting, rather strangely. I forgot Miss Ridley and Mrs Jelf, who might at any second come to guide me on my way. I forgot the tale of the incautious matron and the sharpened spoon. I put my fingers to the inspection slit, and then my eyes. And then I gazed at the girl in the cell beyond—she was so still, I think I held my breath for fear of startling her.
She was seated upon her wooden chair, but had let her head fall back and had her eyes quite closed. Her knitting lay idle in her lap, and her hands were together and lightly clasped; the yellow glass at her window was bright with sun, and she had turned her face to catch the heat of it. On the sleeve of her mud-coloured gown was fixed, the emblem of her prison class, a star—a star of felt, cut slant, sewn crooked, but made sharp by the sunlight. Her hair, where it showed at the edges of her cap, was fair; her cheek was pale, the sweep of brow, of lip, of lashes crisp against her pallor. I was sure that I had seen her likeness, in a saint or an angel in a painting of Crivelli's.
I studied her for, perhaps, a minute; and all that time she kept her eyes quite closed, her head perfectly still. There seemed something rather devotional about her pose, the stillness, so that I thought at last, She is praying!, and made to draw my eyes away in sudden shame. But then she stirred. Her hands opened, she raised them to her cheek, and I caught a flash of colour against the pink of her work-roughened palms. She had a flower there, between her fingers—a violet, with a drooping stem. As I watched, she put the flower to her lips, and breathed upon it, and the purple of the petals gave a quiver and seemed to glow…
She did that, and I became aware of the dimness of the world that was about her—of the wards, the women in them, the matrons, even my own self. We might have been painted, all of us, from the same poor box of watery tints; and here was a single spot of colour, that seemed to have come upon the canvas by mistake.
But I didn't wonder, then, about how a violet might, in that grim-earthed place, have found its way into those pale hands. I only thought, suddenly and horribly, What can her crime have been? Then I remembered the enamel tablet swinging near my head. I let the inspection close, quite noiselessly, and moved to read it.
There was her prison number and her class, and beneath them her offence: Fraud & Assault. The date of her reception was eleven months ago. The date of her release was for four years hence.
Four years! Four Millbank years—which must, I think, be terribly slow ones. I meant to move to her gate then, to call her to me and have her story from her; and I would have done it, had there not come at that moment, from further back along the first passage, the sound of Miss Ridley's voice, and then of her boots, grinding the sand upon the cold flags of the ward. And that made me hesitate. I thought, How
would it be, if the matrons were to look at the girl as I had, and find that flower upon her? I was sure they would take it, and I knew I should be sorry if they did. So I stepped to where they would see me, and when they came I said—it was the truth, after all—that I was weary, and had viewed all I cared to view for my first visit. Miss Ridley said only, 'Just as you wish, ma'am.' She turned on her heel and took me back along the passage; and as the gate was shut upon me I looked once over my shoulder to the turning of the ward, and felt a curious feeling—half satisfaction, half sharp regret. And I thought: Well, she will still be here, poor creature! when I return next week.
The matron led me into the tower staircase, and we began our careful, circling descent to the lower, drearier wards—I felt like Dante, following Virgil into Hell. I was passed over first to Miss Manning, then to a warder, and was taken back through Pentagons Two and One; I sent a message in to Mr Shillitoe, and was led out of the inner gate and along that wedge of gravel. The walls of the pentagons seemed to part before me now, but grudgingly. The sun, that was stronger, made the bruise-coloured shadows very dense.
We walked, the warder and I, and I found myself gazing again at the bleak prison ground, with its bare black earth and its patches of sedge. I said, 'There are no flowers grown here, warder? No daisies, no—violets?'
No daisies, no violets, he answered; not even so much as a dandelion clock. They would not grow in Millbank soil, he said. It is too near the Thames, and 'as good as marshland'.
Copyright (c) Sarah Waters, All Rights Reserved