A Scarlet Woman

Dublin, Ireland, 1880.

Dr Will Fitzgerald hadn’t planned to visit a brothel on the eve of his best friend’s wedding. Paired with ‘Rose Green’, and just jilted by his fiancée, another woman should be the last thing on his mind. So why can’t Will stop thinking about his night with her?

Isobel Stevens was schooled to be a lady, but a seduction put an end to all her father’s hopes for her. Disgraced, she travelled to Dublin, and now sells her body. When a handsome young doctor advises her to leave the brothel, she considers her future. But can Isobel escape her past? Or will she always be seen as a scarlet woman?

An excerpt from Chapter One…

Donning her best dress – a navy blue relict from her pre-Dublin life – and a fashionable hat she had found on a second-hand clothes stall, she walked to St Stephen’s Green, newly opened to the general public. It was the last day of July and the trees were lush with leaves of varying greens. It reminded her of Ballybeg but she blinked a few times to banish the memory. For now, she was going to find a spot in the sunshine, watch the ladies and gentlemen parading past and mull over what she could possibly gain employment as.

She found a suitable spot on the grass near the lake but found the ducks and pigeons far more entertaining. A little boy in a sailor suit was throwing pieces of bread into the water for them and there were heated battles between the birds for possession. A little further along the lake shore, a gentleman folded his newspaper and got up, leaving it on the grass as he walked away. Immediately, she got to her feet and retrieved the paper. It was that morning’s Irish Times.

Out of curiosity, she went through the pages until she found the Situations Vacant and Wanted columns. Her eyes rested on one advertisement for a parlour maid but her heart sank when she read that references must be presented. She bit her nails for a few minutes before twisting around and glancing through the trees at the Shelbourne Hotel across the street. She tore the advertisement out of the newspaper before closing and folding it and sliding the advertisement up her sleeve.

Leaving St Stephen’s Green, she adjusted her hat so that it sat on her head at a jaunty angle, and crossed the street. She entered the hotel as if she knew exactly where she were going. Taking a quick glance around the foyer, she went to the reception desk. Scrutinising it, she saw just what she wanted. The concierge was dealing with a guest at the other end so she took a chance and grabbed a few sheets of notepaper and some envelopes. Hiding them in the folds of her skirt – trying desperately not to crumple them too much – she nonchalantly left the hotel, the doorman lifting his hat to her as she passed.

Her heart raced as she walked along the footpath towards the top of Grafton Street. She had never stolen anything before in her life. Retrieving the items from her skirt, she saw that she had three sheets of notepaper and two envelopes before halting. The name of the hotel was printed at the top of the notepaper and her heart sank. How stupid not to have realised that. Well, she wasn’t going to go back with them now. She carefully folded them and put them in the envelopes before carrying on. Now to find a pen and some ink. A pencil was out of the question.

She wandered slowly down Grafton Street, stopped outside a café, and peered inside. A young man was busily writing something in a notebook at a window table. She would have to part with some of the two shillings and sixpence ha’penny on tea or coffee. She went in, sat at the next table and ordered a cup of coffee, the young man only glancing briefly at her.

“Excuse me?” she began before he bent to write again.

“Yes?” he replied rather shortly, clearly not having liked being disturbed.

“I hope you don’t mind, but could I please borrow your pen? I have an urgent letter to write.” She pulled a sheet of the Shelbourne Hotel notepaper out of an envelope, laid it on the table, and he stared at it curiously. “Please? It is very urgent.”

“All right.” He passed his pen and pot of ink to her, reached for a tea pot, and poured himself a cup.

“You’re very kind, thank you.” She smiled at him and then up at the waitress who brought her coffee.  

She dipped the nib into the ink, took a deep breath, and began a letter in the nearest she could manage to her mother’s handwriting.

The Glebe House

Ballybeg

Co Galway

To Whom It May Concern

Maisie Byrne was a maid of all work in my household from June 1876 to July 1879. During that time she proved to be a hard worker, good timekeeper, and was always polite, tidy, courteous, and willing.

I would have no hesitation in recommending Maisie Byrne for any future household position she may apply for.

Martha Stevens (Mrs)

She signed her mother’s signature with a flourish and read the letter though twice. Maisie had left because her own mother had fallen ill. They had never seen her again and the chances of her turning up in Dublin were scarce.

She added milk and sugar to the coffee and sipped it, waiting for the ink to dry. The young man leaned over, read the letter, and laughed.

“I hope you get the position.”

She smiled. “So do I. I really need it. Thank you very much for these.”

“Not at all,” he replied, taking the pen and ink back.   

“Are you writing a book?” she asked, glancing at the notebook, and he rolled his eyes comically.

“Trying to.”

“I hope you get published.”

“Thank you…Maisie.”

Twenty minutes later, she stood outside a tall terraced Georgian townhouse on Merrion Square, and took a deep breath to compose herself. She went carefully down the steep areaway steps and knocked at the door. A maid, barely five feet tall, opened it and looked her up and down.

“Yes?”

“I’ve come about the position advertised—”

“Yes, yes, you’re the fourth this morning. Come in.”

A little dejected, she followed the maid into the servants’ hall. The cook, another maid, and a footman were seated at a long dining table and gawped at her curiously while the tiny maid knocked at then opened a door to her left.

“Good morning,” she said politely.

“Morning,” the cook replied, reached for a teapot, and poured herself a cup of tea as the tiny maid returned.

“Mr Johnston will see you now. In the butler’s pantry – there.” The maid pointed to the door she had just opened and closed.

“Thank you.” She walked to the door, braced herself, and knocked.

“Come in,” replied a loud voice in a harsh Ulster accent and she complied. The butler and a woman, presumably the housekeeper, were seated behind a desk. “Stand there.” The butler pointed to a spot right in front of his desk. “I am Mr Johnston, the butler. This is Mrs Black, the housekeeper.”

“Good morning, Mr Johnston, Mrs Black.”

Mr Johnston glanced up at her, then leaned back in his chair. He was a red-haired man of late middle age, while the housekeeper was a little younger, and both were dressed in severe black clothes. She stood meekly as they noted her accent and their eyes took in her general appearance, figure, face, hair and posture.

“Name?” the butler asked.

“Maisie Byrne, Mr Johnston.”

He nodded and held out his hand for the reference. Heart thumping, she handed it over, and watched as he read it before passing it to Mrs Black.

“You have not worked since July 1879. That is a year ago. What have you been doing during that time?”

“My mother had consumption, sir,” she told him, hoping she sounded convincing. “I cared for her until she died. That was a month ago.”

“And where was that?”

“Gloucestershire in England. I came back to Ireland because I had no other family there.”

“You have family here in Dublin?”

She shook her head. “No, sir, but Ireland is my home.”

“I see. Number 68 is the residence of Mr and Mrs James Harvey, Maisie. Mr Harvey is a barrister. They entertain frequently, their guests often not leaving until the early hours. Despite this, you will be expected to rise every morning at six o’clock. You will be expected to work very hard.”

Six o’clock in the morning. She almost winced. Quite often, she didn’t go to sleep until six in the morning. “Yes, Mr Johnston. I am prepared to work very hard.”

“You will have one half day off per week and every second Sunday,” the housekeeper informed her. “You will also be required to provide your own uniforms. Grey for mornings and black for afternoon and evenings. Is that understood?”

She had to buy her own uniforms? Had she enough money for them? “Yes, Mrs Black,” she replied all the same.

“And last, but certainly not least, you will have no followers.”

“Followers?” She was mystified and fought to stop herself grimacing. Had she just given her lack of knowledge of domestic service away?

“Men friends. Male admirers.”

“No, Mrs Black,” she replied quietly.

“Good.”

The butler glanced at the housekeeper, who gave him an almost imperceptible nod. “Well, Maisie,” he said. “You begin on Monday. You can move your belongings in tomorrow afternoon or evening. Mrs Black will be expecting you.”

She was so flabbergasted she almost forgot to reply. “Thank you, Mr Johnston, Mrs Black.”

He nodded and dismissed her.

Her head spinning, she left the servants’ hall, climbed the areaway steps up to the pavement and walked away in the direction she had come.

* * *

Will was violently sick in an alleyway not long after leaving Sally’s kip. It was just as well he hadn’t hailed a cab. Strangely, vomiting cleared not only his stomach but also his head a little. He hurried back across the city to Brown Street South in the Liberties, hoping he wasn’t going to be too late, as his housekeeper always had his breakfast on the table at eight o’clock. Mrs Bell was in the kitchen at the back of the house and he could hear and smell bacon frying as he closed the front door and hung up his hat. She turned to look at him as he came into the kitchen, one eyebrow rising a little.

“Morning, Dr Fitzgerald. Hungry?”

Surprisingly, he was. “I am, Mrs Bell, and a cup of tea would be lovely.”

“The kettle’s on the boil.”

“Excellent.” He sat down at the table and cut himself a slice of her exceptional soda bread.

“Enjoy yourselves last night?” Mrs Bell asked, putting a plate of bacon, egg, and sausage in front of him.

“Thank you, yes, we did.”

“What you can remember of it.” She smiled. “You need to go out more. A young man like you.”

“I’ll be out all day today.”

“I mean properly out,” she elaborated. “The pub, theatre, or whatever takes your fancy.”

“I saw enough pubs last night to last me quite a while.”

She harrumphed and stood back from him. “You don’t look as rough as I thought you would be. Did you get drunk at all?”

He laughed. “Extremely.”

“No sore head?”

“Throwing up did wonders for it, Mrs Bell.”

Chuckling, she turned back to the solid fuel range, and made a pot of tea.

Will ate a hearty breakfast, brought some warm water upstairs, and washed and shaved. He then put on the clean shirt, collar, and cravat Mrs Bell had left out for him followed by a hired black frock coat in the latest style, waistcoat, and trousers. Mrs Bell nodded approvingly when she saw him about to leave and making a final adjustment to the cravat.

“All the ladies will be after yous, dressed like that.”

He immediately thought of Cecilia but managed a weak smile. “Once Fred’s a married man, I’ll relax.”

As groomsman, he had to somehow get Fred to the church with no mishaps. Hailing a cab on Cork Street, Will travelled to Fred’s home on Ely Place Upper, hoping his friend was there and that he wouldn’t have to return to the brothel and pull Fred out of bed. Luckily, he found Fred in the hall and surprisingly docile – the magnitude of what he was about to do was dawning on him – and by a quarter to eleven they were seated in St Andrew’s Church waiting for Margaret Dawson to arrive. An hour later, Fred was a married man and they returned to Ely Place Upper for a celebratory meal.

“One down, two to go,” Fred roared after the speeches had been made and put arms around Will and Jerry.

“Maybe.” Will reached for another glass of champagne.

“Will?” Fred followed him outside to the garden. “Cecilia’s gone. Married. Forget her. I’ll wager you forgot about her for a bit last night, eh?”

He nodded and thought of Rose. What a life she was leading. Had he been a bit harsh in his advice? She must know the risks of disease. His thoughts then turned to the scar on her back and how he had kissed its entire length… He glanced back at Fred. “Your cab will be here at five o’clock. Make sure you’re both ready.”

“Yes, Doctor.”

Destined for London, Fred and Margaret were bundled into their cab, which was to take them to the North Wall and the boat to Holyhead in Wales. Will heaved a sigh of relief as the cab turned a corner out of sight. His job as groomsman was over. He decided to walk home and bought an evening newspaper on the way. Over a pot of tea at the kitchen table, he read it from cover to cover. One tiny article caught his eye. A woman missing, presumed drowned, at George’s Quay opposite the Customs House that morning. The body had not been recovered and was presumed to have been carried out to sea on the tide.

Low in spirits as he was, he couldn’t imagine ever being unhappy enough to jump into the River Liffey. He closed the newspaper and went upstairs to change out of his hired clothes.

In a newspaper the next morning there was a post script of sorts on the bottom of the front page. The woman missing – presumed drowned – had been named as Rose Green, a prostitute.

“All right there, Doctor?” the newspaper seller asked anxiously as blood drained rapidly from Will’s face, leaving him dizzy.

Good grief, was it the same Rose? Had she taken his advice and left the brothel, only to find herself unable to cope? What a waste of a life. He shook his head, cursing himself for not minding his own business.

“Yes…no…I’ve just had a bit of a shock. Thanks for asking, Brendan.”

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Mrs Bell commented unhelpfully as he sat down for his mid-day meal. “Mary Boyle hasn’t..?”

“No. No, she’s a little better, actually.”

“Thank God. Oh, there’s a message here from your mother. Came about an hour ago.”

The message was to inform him that he, along with his parents, were invited to dinner by their neighbours, James and Harriett Harvey, on Friday evening. The Harveys’ neighbours on their other side, the Belshers, would also be attending. Will rolled his eyes. The Belshers had a daughter…

“I’ve been invited out to dinner,” he told Mrs Bell wearily. “My mother is determined to find a replacement for Cecilia for me.”

“I see.”

“I wish she wouldn’t.” He groaned. “Amelia Belsher is pleasant enough, but I’ve been hurt enough for now and I doubt if she would marry a poor doctor, anyway.”

“Go anyways,” he was advised. “And tell your mother that you’re a grown man. You’ll find yourself a wife in your own good time who’ll be lucky to have yous without her help.”

He smiled. “If only you were my mother.”

Mrs Bell’s eyes widened. “I’m no way old enough to be your mother, Dr Fitzgerald. Sure, amen’t I only forty-eight.”

“You give very sound advice, which I’m very grateful for.” He made a helpless gesture with his hands then shrugged. “I’ll go, and I’ll tell Amelia all about the Liberties.”

Mrs Bell gave him one of her looks and grunted.

A Scarlet Woman: Book One in The Fitzgeralds of Dublin Series will be published in September 2017.

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