Geordie’s Smart’s eyelids were fluttering. ‘Any moment now,’ Christian Rankeillor said softly. ‘Stand by, Joshua.’
The African boy nodded. ‘At the ready, miss.’
She was kneeling beside Geordie’s head, where he lay on his front on the mattress Betty had helped her lay in front of the library fire yesterday evening. That seemed like a long time ago now. So much had happened since.
Joshua was sitting on a footstool on the other side of the mattress, poised to move when Christian gave the word. She had told him she expected Geordie would want to ease nature once he came round from the sleeping draught she had given him last night. She’d already been through to the shop, chilly in the late December morning, to fetch the screen behind which she and her father examined their patients who needed more than to simply buy physic. Betty had brought in a chamber pot and placed it behind the screen.
Christian had laid out some other things on the seat of one of the armchairs which flanked the fire. A china cup holding ground willow bark mixed with water. A wooden bowl with a little porridge in it, milk and salt already added. A spoon to eat it with. She hoped Geordie was going to be hungry. Joshua had already had his porridge, sitting with the rest of the household at the kitchen table.
She had laid an old, well-laundered nightshirt over the arm of the chair. She’d found it at the back of the linen press. It had been Jamie’s as a boy, when he had often stayed overnight here in Infirmary Street. Och, Jamie … why did you do what you did? Why, Jamie? She squared her shoulders. She could not think about that now, the dreadful thing Jamie had done.
She glanced across at the fire. Banked in overnight, it was still giving off some warmth, enough light too as the coals and the dross dwindled down to the nest of the grate. ‘Although it’ll need redding up and reviving soon,’ she said, thinking aloud. ‘But it’ll keep for a wee while.’
Joshua nodded. ‘Aye. No’ until Geordie’s awake. We dinna want to disturb him until we’ve got him settled again. Then I’ll can do the fire for you, miss.’
She threw him a smile across the still not quite awake Geordie. ‘Maybe not while you’re wearing those fine clothes.’
Joshua looked down at himself. He was wearing dark blue velvet breeches and a fine white linen shirt and neckcloth. The full ruffled cuffs of the shirt spilled over his hands. He made an expression of disgust deep in his throat and tugged at them, as though he wanted to tear them off.
‘These are the plainest clothes I have. Miss Charlotte likes to dress me up.’
Studying his bent head with its tight black curls, Christian’s breath caught in her throat. He had spoken in a very flat tone of voice but there was a wealth of pain in his words. Like his friend, it seemed he too had suffered some sort of an ordeal at the hands of Charlotte and Cosmo Liddell out at Eastfield in East Lothian yesterday.
Unlike Geordie, Joshua hadn’t been flogged. Although Christian was pretty sure something brutal had happened to him too. Something humiliating. She could tell by the way he was finding it difficult to look her in the eye.
Her generous mouth tightened. Damn the Liddells, their arrogance, overweening sense of self-importance and the careless cruelty they had meted out to these two boys. It made her so bloody angry! Made her want to assure Joshua he was never going back to Eastfield. Only she knew she couldn’t.
Earlier this morning, in this same room, Robert Catto had held out a spar of hope. Slaves
and indentured servants can be freed. He had tempered that statement even before he had made it. Promises made and not kept are worse than promises not made at all.
Christian settled now for different words, laying a comforting hand on Joshua’s arm. ‘You got away. You brought Geordie with you. That was such a brave thing to do.’
She saw him bite his lip. He knew better than anyone how precarious his position was, how short-lived his new-found freedom might be. Geordie and his sister Alice were in a very similar position. Born into a coal mining family, they were trapped in perpetual servitude, bound for life to the Liddell family. The prospect of any of them being forced back to Eastfield was unthinkable. Except that it might have to be thought about.
Christian felt a shudder run through her as she thought of what Charlotte Liddell’s brother Cosmo and his friends had done to Alice. Those fiends should have to answer for their brutal assault on an innocent young girl. Only they never would. One law for the rich. One law for the poor.
’Twas worse even than that. In this profoundly unfair world, the Liddells had the law on their side when it came to the three young people currently finding shelter in Infirmary Street: and the law was a powerful foe.
It stood now ranged against Christian’s father Patrick, herself and their friends. All thanks to Robert Catto, the man who always did his duty. How were they to help Joshua, Geordie and Alice when they might not be able to help themselves?
‘Oh,’ Joshua said, bursting in with welcome eagerness on her troubled thoughts, ‘I think that’s Geordie awake now.’
Awake and turning his head from one side to the other, his abundance of golden-haired waves glinting in the dull gleam cast by the fire. ‘Joshua,’ he said. ‘Miss Kirsty.’
‘Good morning, Geordie. Are you fit for some breakfast?’
He blinked at her like a solemn owl. ‘You’ve brought me ma breakfast?’
‘I have. Do you think you can sit up to eat it?’
She could see the dilemma on the pale young face. He didn’t much feel like eating – or moving, probably – but she had brought him his breakfast. Until yesterday he had been the cook boy at the guard-house, serving Robert Catto and any members of the Town Guard on duty with the meals he made for them. Now she was serving him. Overawed he might be but good manners dictated he do as she suggested.
He raised himself up on his hands and arms – and froze midway, gasping with pain. The flogging had lacerated his back, breaking the skin where the cruel leather knots had hit. As one, Christian and Joshua laid gentle hands on his skinny shoulders.
‘Take your time,’ she said. ‘Give yourself a moment.’
‘Aye,’ Joshua said. ‘There’s no hurry, Geordie. Gin ye need tae relieve yourself, I’ll help you behind the screen. Miss Kirsty will promise tae look away. Tae spare your blushes, like. Is that not right, miss?’
She played along, lifting one hand in front of her eyes, heartened beyond measure by that flash of humour from Joshua. Laughter. Care. Kindness. That was how they would get through all this.
For somehow they had to.
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