Ladies of the night
The house looked like any other on the avenue: a red brick Victorian set back amid rose bushes, oaks, and maples that dwarfed the patch of well-trimmed lawn bordered by cutting flowers grown for the interior vases. By night, colours had faded and shadows had blackened to contrast feathery strips of vegetation and sharp angles of structures silvered by the touch of the gibbous moon.
A brick walk lay arrow-straight between the front stoop and the wrought-iron fence, the gates of which had been left open in apparent forgetfulness. The entry alcove bore a discreet candle sconce in one corner, affording enough light to show the location of the bell pull without revealing the identity of callers to passersby and neighbours.
Pull the bell he did, once his fumbling fingers found it. Michael MacGregor swayed as he waited. The damp air filled his nostrils with the scent of roses, and he hazily noticed that a dog barked twice somewhere nearby as a two-horse carriage rolled along the packed dirt of the street.
Presently Madame Maxine, dressed as always in black-lace finery and, as always, smiling genially below cold eyes, opened the door and ushered him to the parlour.
As elegant as the outside, the interior might have been the well-appointed receiving room of any residence in the neighbourhood, and the finely dressed company would have done any fashionable home proud.
Alderman Struthers and the Honourable Howard Jenkins, member of the Legislature, waxed political in a pair of wine velvet wing chairs by the fireside. The banker Thomas Cavendish languished on a chaise longue of peach brocade, while Nathaniel Bennett and Donald Merrick, seated at opposite ends of a wine-and-cream striped sofa, haggled over the cost of shipping silks the latter wished to import from China.
The distinguishing feature of the place was the female members of the household: Apart from Madame Maxine—who flitted about, chatting with guests or directing the young ladies or giving instructions to black-liveried servants—the women strolled or lounged in a state of undress that was emphasized rather than covered by colourful silk dressing-gowns draped casually about their shoulders and lying open to reveal their corseted attributes.
Having left the arms of Miss Dorothea, the blonde still in her room above, Benjamin Levinson drifted into the parlour, his silk cravat hanging loosely over his partially buttoned shirt and waistcoat. Immediately, Thomas Cavendish hopped up, strode to the stairwell, and climbed the steps toward his own long-awaited appointment with Miss Dorothea.
As the banker passed, Michael MacGregor gripped the jamb of the broad parlour entry and surveyed the females on offer. The little ones, as always, flinched at sight of the huge Scot. The older, more experienced, and amply endowed Miss Margaret, however, wandered his way with a knowing smile and slid a plump arm around his waist.
“Will you come with me?” she asked rhetorically as she led him to a back room on the ground floor. One day, he thought dully, he might see the upper levels of the establishment. If he ever arrived in a sober state.
MACGREGOR STOOD braced by the closed door and watched dazedly as Miss Margaret loosened his tie, unbuttoned his vest, and opened his flies. That done, she sauntered to the posterbed, slipping off her robe and tossing it onto the cushioned bench as she passed her dressing-table. Without preamble, she lay on the bed and spread her legs. The Scot stared at her crotch, its brown fur exposed by the strategic slit in her bloomers and illuminated by the rosy glow of a pink-shaded oil-lamp resting on the vanity table.
The middle-aged blonde waited expectantly as her client reached into the blue frock-coat he still wore and retrieved his pocketbook. He pulled out a few bills and stuffed the wallet back into its place. After a moment, he pushed himself from the wall and staggered to drop the money among the bottles of perfume on the mirrored table before he lurched the few paces to the bed.
He collapsed upon her, groped her breasts a moment, and then he reached to fumble with his member. He fisted himself several minutes with increasing frustration and frenzy, and finally he lay limp, breathing in choked sobs as Miss Margaret absently stroked his oiled black hair.
Suddenly it was more than he could bear: that cool, impersonal sympathy. Michael MacGregor pitched himself up, rolled to sit at the edge of the bed, and backhanded the woman across the face.
“Stupid whore!” he yelled.
He tried to stand, but his legs gave out under him and he fell to the floor with a crash that almost drowned her outraged scream. In seconds, the door was thrown open and Madame Maxine stalked in behind two enormous brutes in black.
Before the madam could inquire, Miss Margaret shouted, “He hit me!”
“Did he pay you?” the madam demanded.
“Yes, but not enough to cover this!” The prostitute indicated her reddened cheek.
“Out with him!” Maxine ordered, and the two bouncers hauled him up with vise grips on his arms and rough supporting holds under his shoulders. Before they could remove him, the madam searched his jacket, rifled his pocketbook, and replaced the wallet empty.
As her men dragged him through the hall and out the rear exit, she called after, “And don’t ever darken my door again, you Scotch bastard!”
DUMPED INTO a narrow alley between tall buildings that stretched above into blackness, Michael MacGregor clutched the top of a stone plinth and struggled up out of the dirt and trash to lean against the near wall. He felt the limestone hard and irregular against his back and head. He had lost his hat, he now recalled, but where and when, he did not know. Perhaps in the carriage that had brought him here, or in a tavern, earlier.
A yowl and answering mews to the right told him an alley-cat hunted relations rather than rats, and he muttered envious congratulations under his breath. A pool of light beyond that end of the passage illuminated a wide street he guessed to be King. He turned right and staggered out in search of a drink.
He wandered, disoriented. In the dim light from widely spaced streetlamps and the brighter glow of the moon that climbed in the east, the tall buildings all looked alike to him, and none looked as they likely did in the day, stark shadows changing their apparent shapes. Fog was seeping into the city from the lake, and the sight of it oozing along the dirt of the road filled him with an increasing unease.
A turn brought him to a small square lined by shops, their darkened windows revealing nothing of their wares or quality. Silence lay as heavily as the encircling shadows; he would find no tavern here. Choosing an alley at random, he stumbled on.
Soon, he found a street he recognized by the milling mollies and the stench of low ale and cheap cigars. A boy in a voluminous skirt and décolleté bodice that displayed his hairless chest sashayed toward the Scot, mist eddying about him as he moved. Panic gripped Michael MacGregor’s gut. He whirled and half-ran to another alley that he knew would take him to MacDonald Park, leaving behind the sound of the molly’s disappointed “Bitch!”
The park was in sight, its beckoning grass and bushes lit by a streetlamp, when the first blow hit him. MacGregor had not yet dropped to his knees from the impact of the bludgeon to his back when a vicious kick hurled him sideways. A sharp pain stabbed through his shoulder when he struck a brick wall and then fell to solidly packed dirt, but he had no breath with which to cry out.
Hands molested him, turning him, holding him down, and rifling his pockets.
“Bloody empty!” cried one of the ruffians on finding the pocketbook. The man flung it to the ground and kicked MacGregor in frustration.
“Look!” exclaimed another. “’E’s not even done up ’is flies, the pervert! Prob’ly just come from ’is molly-whore.”
A menacing voice said, “Mebbe we should teach ’im better’n spendin’ ’is coin to practise the Devil’s ways.”
MacGregor closed his eyes, his mouth curling weakly in a sardonic grin at the irony that he should be killed by footpads mistaking him for a sodomite.
“Maybe you should mind your own business.”
The new voice was feminine, MacGregor thought. Not a molly but an actual woman. Before he could make sense of the impression, shuffling and curses brought him to the realization that the bandits had turned their attention to her.
His menace now tinged with derision and lewdness, the gang’s leader said hoarsely, “An’ what would a respectable lady such as yourself be doin’ walkin’ the backstreets at night?” His emphasis on the words clearly conveyed he thought her anything but.
MacGregor tried to push himself up, but pain stabbed through his shoulder once more. This time, he did cry out.
One of the thugs turned back and aimed a kick at him, but MacGregor managed to grab the foot with his uninjured limb and unbalance the man. The hoodlum toppled. A thud when the thief’s head hit the brick of the opposite wall was smothered by the noise of another struggle. The Scot turned his bleary gaze from the still body of his attacker to the darkness of the alley. He could see movement that obscured details as efficiently as the lack of light.
Scrapes and scuffles, a metallic sound, and an odd whirring he could not identify came from the dusky passage. He tried again to get up, this time rolling first to the less painful side. As he staggered to his feet, the yelps and thwacks that had made him fear the woman would be beaten to death ended abruptly. He reached for the wall to keep him upright, and he stepped toward the middle of the alley. At a light clinking followed by faint footfalls, he stopped. Out of the murk, she appeared, her white hair a nimbus the unearthly glow of which made him wonder if this were all some strange dream.
“Aagh!” The pain put paid to the notion that he was only dreaming.
“I’m sorry,” said the woman, pulling back from her attempted embrace. “You’re injured, aren’t you?”
“Mmm,” MacGregor managed to utter through clenched teeth and tight lips.
She reached carefully to put an arm around his waist. As she urged him toward the park, stooping to grab up his wallet on the way, she said, “We’d better get well away before they wake up. They won’t be pleased with either of us.”
ON THE FAR SIDE of the park, in a location hidden from the alley by hedges and thickets, the woman examined his arm in lamplight blurred to a nebulous halo by the fog.
“Dislocated,” she said, her tone matter-of-fact.
“Aye,” he murmured.
She started at the sound and looked up into his face. A series of emotions he did not understand flickered through her eyes. She swallowed visibly. At last, she licked her lips, nodded in some unspoken decision, and commanded, “Sit down. I’ll put it back.”
She helped him to his knees on the grass within the hazy orange circle of gaslight. He braced himself, but she said, “Try to relax. Tensing will only cause you more pain.”
He took a deep breath and let it out, slow and tremulous, forcing himself to ease his muscles. She spread the lapels of his coat and, ever so gently, pushed the fine wool jacket over his shoulders. Once it was removed, she disappeared behind the hedge. MacGregor gaped in astonishment, wondering what she was about. Before he could reach any conclusion, she reappeared lugging a flat and obviously heavy stone and carrying white cloth draped over her shoulder.
“Let your arm drop,” she ordered as she approached. After setting the rock by his knee, she eased the cloth—one of her underskirts, he now saw—up under his injured arm to the armpit and tossed its ends over his shoulder.
Then, she squatted beside him with feet planted apart in most unladylike fashion and retrieved the rock as she said, “I’m going to put this into your hand. I know it sounds crazy, but if you take the weight of it onto your arm, your joint will pop back into place.”
He swallowed and nodded, instantly regretting the movement. When she slid the stone between his hand and thigh and placed it into the curl of his fingers, he gripped it, wincing at the discomfort even that small motion caused him. Carefully, the woman balanced the slab in one of her hands and gathered the ends of the skirt in the other.
“Ready?” she asked, still holding the weight.
“Yes,” he said.
The woman released the rock, allowing him to take its weight, and simultaneously propelled herself to a stand while tugging upward on the skirt at his shoulder. A jolt shot through him; it tightened his fingers in reflex and forced out a grunt. Then, breathing heavily, he dropped the stone, and he rubbed his newly restored joint gingerly.
“I’ll be damned!” he exclaimed in a whisper.
The woman smiled.
“My home is just across the creek,” she said. “I’ll give you something to help you heal, and you can make your way to your own home from there, after you’ve rested.”
Once more, she helped him up and put an arm around his waist to support him as he walked.
“What’s your name?” she asked casually, steering him across the street.
“Michael MacGregor,” he replied politely. “I thank you for your assistance…Madam.” He decided not to seek amity, nor to inquire into her private business in echo of the thug’s words. Whoever she was, he would likely never see her again.
Genially, the woman introduced herself and answered his unspoken question, “Mrs. MacGregor. Anne MacGregor. No relation, I’m sure. I was on my way home from work.”
He observed, “It’s a dangerous business for a woman to walk the streets at night, whatever her work.”
As they turned into a side lane, she replied, “True. I don’t always take that route. But I’m glad of the whim that bade me take it tonight.”
“Hmmph,” he responded, not sure he should be grateful that she had saved his life.
HAD SHE NOT walked these streets so often, she might have strayed, her mind awhirl and the mist thickening. The man beside her was a stranger. Yet he was not.
Anne stole a glance. His hair was cut short and pomaded in the manner of the times, but even tousled and dirtied it gleamed purely black in the moonlight that occasionally penetrated the brume. His eyes, she had seen in the lamplight of the park, shone a familiar limpid lapis blue. Lush jet lashes defined those beautiful orbs and the thick brush of his black brows hedged them. He was not bearded but shaven, and the strong lines of his jaw harmonized with the straightness of his nose.
Though now stooped from pain and drunkenness, he was clearly long and lean and broadly built. At times, when he swayed or stumbled, she had difficulty keeping them both upright.
He wore not a kilt but a trouser suit in fine wool, its jacket in the extended length common to gentlemen, its lapels wide and sharply pressed, and its buttons satiny silver. His silk shirt and double-breasted jacquard waistcoat further proclaimed his wealth and status, along with what had once been highly polished shoes. A blue silk cravat that matched his eyes hung loosely at his neck, a diamond stick-pin intermittently peeking out among its folds. Even the man’s hands, large and fleshy, bore the buffed and manicured stamp of the elite.
But for all the differences, he was the image of her late husband, Alex.
AS THEY WALKED in silence through avenues and lanes, the dawn twilight began to cast its blue glow over the city, revealing the change to poorer housing. He smelt the transition, too: The freshness of leaves and the perfume of flowers faded, soon overpowered by the fetid odours of backyard flocks and infrequently emptied privies as well as the stench of the small river they now crossed. His own back-alley reek blended with the ambient airs.
Michael MacGregor appraised his companion. She was most likely a charwoman, he thought. Perhaps one who cleaned office buildings after the day staff finished their work. Older than himself, by her manner and by the silver hair, though her face did not bear the lines he would have expected to accompany such snowy tresses.
Now that his head had cleared of its liquored fog, he noticed the odd garments she wore: This woman’s clothing pre-dated even his mother’s. Something from another century, he reflected, as images from a book of European history and from paintings in museums flashed into his mind. Her low-necked bodice would have been de rigueur a hundred years ago, or even fifty, but now it marked her a harlot.
She wore no hat, and her shoes were simple, flat felt slippers, neither laced nor buttoned. That too was peculiar. And when the morning’s glow illumined bunched white linen protruding at the edge of her sleeve cap, he recognized a style common to the eighteenth century. How very strange.
“This way,” she announced, and she turned from the bridge thoroughfare to a broad lane less travelled by carriage and wagon, judging by its grassy mat. This area smelled fresher than its surroundings, he noted, inhaling with pleasure the scent of herbs and flowers, trees and shrubs. As they trod the meandering byways, he caught traces of chicken and goat, sheep and cow, but on the whole, the air had a refreshing cleanness, and he wondered why one of the poorer districts should smell better than its middleclass counterpart a stone’s throw away.
Finally, the woman pushed a picket gate inward. It creaked open and then clacked closed behind them as they entered the yard. With no bricks or flagstones, the path to the door was merely well-trodden grass, a smaller version of the public lane. The wooden steps and porch creaked under his weight; it occurred to him he might fall through, if the boards were weak enough from age, but they held.
He glanced about. The property defined by the low, whitewashed palisade was by no means generous, but it was brimful of vegetation, and wooden boxes below the windows sprouted greenery and blooms, as well. The little clapboard house was whitewashed and trim outside and, upon entering, he found it clean and tidy within. It did not surprise him that a bowl of apples lay on the bare pine table and a vase of wildflowers sat on a small desk.
“I’ll show you to the privy,” said the woman as she set a newly lit candle upon the table. She strode to the back door made in Dutch style with a window in its upper half bearing cotton lace curtains strung on a wire, both rectangles of cloth now shoved to one side. Just beyond the door, on the back porch, the woman opened a shed attached to the house and gestured for him to enter.
“Toss some of the leaves in after you’re done,” she said, pointing to a basket next to the seat. “And wash your hands in the basin.”
MacGregor eyed the basket and its faintly fragrant contents, and then glanced at the bowl in the corner, sitting on a shelf alongside a tall ceramic container with spigot, and flanked by towels on wooden racks. When he looked back, the woman had gone. He closed the door to the little hut that, unlike most privies, was bright with moonlight that streamed through one of three high windows. It smelled earthy, rather than noxious, and its broad bench and high ceiling gave a sense of spaciousness found more often in the grand indoor water closets of the wealthy than in the outhouses of the poor.
The Scot relieved himself and shook his member to expel a clinging drop; then he tossed a handful of leaves and petals from the basket into the privy’s hole. He had turned to the door, but he remembered her admonition to wash his hands. It was a peculiar demand, given that his whole body reeked of the filth into which he had fallen, but he supposed that he should follow the rules of the stranger’s household.
When he returned to the kitchen, the woman—Anne, he recalled—gave him a minuscule dose of liquid remedy squeezed from a dropper. The medicine tasted of nothing but water and a barely discernible hint of brandy, he noted perplexedly as she led him upstairs to a bedroom. After setting the candle on one of the small bedside tables, she helped him to undress to his waist.
The welts that he could see on his side were already blue. He felt her fingertips gently sketch their extent and probe the ribs at his back.
“Does this hurt?” she asked.
She moved round to his side and probed again.
He caught his breath. “A little.”
She glanced up into his face, but quickly looked back to continue her examination, urging him toward the light with gentle pushes as she scanned. At last, she said tentatively, “I don’t believe your ribs are broken. Nor cracked. But bruised, certainly, along with this other bruising.”
She stepped back and faced him squarely as she warned, “Take note of the colour of your urine. If you see blood, go immediately to Dr. Edward Hanes; he has an office on Queen Street, two blocks west of Bay. He’s the best physician I can recommend for such matters.”
MacGregor nodded, briefly wondering how she would know the city’s physicians well enough to determine their relative quality. But her concern for his wellbeing seemed sincere, and he felt oddly touched by it.
She added, “And I suggest you keep your arm in a sling for several days to ensure you don’t overtax the shoulder while it heals.”
Again he nodded. When she insisted that he remove his lower garments, however, he balked. The small bedchamber contained no screen behind which he might hide himself.
“I’ll turn my back for the sake of your modesty,” she assured him, suppressing an amused smile, “but everything must be cleaned of this awful stench. Rolling in alleys leaves…a distinct impression.”
When she turned away, he heaved a sigh, stripped off his shoes and hose, trousers and drawers, and dropped them by the pile of his belongings next to her. He could not argue with her assessment that his clothes were high-smelling. He guessed that the ordure in the backstreets included several types of animal as well as human waste, and not a few varieties of rotting vegetables, most of them sulphureous.
He scrambled into the bed, nearby, and covered himself as she bent to pick up his clothing. He stretched under the blanket and sheet, enjoying the softness of her mattress and the smell of summer meadows that wafted from the linens. He should have washed, he thought hazily. Then, he thought no more.