London, late November 1885.
The dank, chilly fog swirled round the narrow streets of Whitechapel as twenty-two-year-old Catherine Brady sat at the window of her tiny house and looked out at the dimly lit street. It was yet another cold, dismal night, and Catherine knew that she would soon have to go out into the cold night air and go to work.
Housing wretchedly impoverished people, Whitechapel was a maze of narrow streets and alleyways that wound their way past gin shops, brothels, opium dens, taverns and tiny, dirty little houses. Young children barely survived past the age of eight, and in such desperate circumstances, young she-cats like Catherine and her friends had no choice but to either work in small, dark clubs, or walk the streets at night looking for men who would provide them with even a small sum of money for a favour.
Catherine lived in the tiny house that was left to her, the only child, when her parents died four years ago. Her three best friends, Tabitha Salton and Melania and Mewla Wickley, lived not far away from her in adjoining alleyways; Melania and Mewla in rented rooms, and Tabitha much like Catherine, in a house that belonged to her aunt before she died. It was a lonely life, living alone in these dark houses, with nothing to send you to sleep at night but the shouts and screams coming from goodness knows who and where in the twisty alleys.
The four girls did not have many trustworthy friends, apart from a few more girls who lived several streets away; Tibbicca Falkmew, Purla Lane, Tibleau Brown, Purbelle Kendall and Mewlarka Tomlinson, who all lived in a variety of rented accommodations near to each other. Most of them had learned from an early age not to trust men.
Shadowy figures slunk along the cobbles, peering in at lighted windows. Cathy shrank back from the panes as ugly lined faces stared in at her; she was half afraid that someone would catch sight of her and take it upon themselves to force their way into her house.
Cathy, despite being tired, hungry and dirty quite a lot of the time, was an extremely beautiful young she-cat; not really a great asset in a place like Whitechapel, particularly when the taverns emptied and the rowdy, drunken tom-cats caught sight of Cathy standing in a corner in a tight bodice, her tousled blonde hair falling about her shoulders and her blue eyes shining. Men, who were used to ugly old women forcing themselves onto their laps, thought that Cathy was wonderful, so most nights she would have to fend off at least a dozen leering tom-cats in the dark streets, unless some of her friends were with her, in which case the tom-cats usually gave up much more easily when they had four or five angry friends clawing at them.
Cathy sighed and got up from the table. She picked up the candlestick and wandered through to the back of the house, where she took a clean dress from her washing pile and went to change, well out of the way of any of the windows. After lacing up the low bodice tightly, and spending five or ten minutes in front of the mirror trying to make herself look less tired and more attractive, she pulled on her cloak, put up the hood, then laced up her long boots and left her house, locking the door securely and slipping the key down her stocking.
"Have a drink with me, darling." an old woman warbled at Cathy as she hurried along the alleyway. She brandished a bottle of drink under Cathy's nose and Cathy turned her head away and carried on walking. She was really getting tired of this lifestyle now.
She knocked on Tabitha's door, and her auburn-haired friend opened the door slightly and peeped round the crack.
"It's only me." Said Cathy.
"Oh, thank God!" Tabitha opened the door just wide enough for Cathy to get in, then closed it quickly. "I've had an old man following me all day – he won't go away! He keeps banging the door as if he wants it to fall down, and he went round the back and tried to climb in the window there! I saw him a few nights ago in one of the taverns, and since then I'm sure he's been following me everywhere. I really can't go out tonight."
"But you must!" Cathy said. "What will you live on otherwise?"
"I'll manage." Tabitha said.
"No, you won't." Cathy took hold of Tabitha's paws. "You'll damn well come out and work with us. I won't see you starve in this dump!"
"What's the point." Tabitha said. "Look at us, Cath. What the hell are we doing it for? Look at where we live. Look at the people that come past our windows and stare in with those hungry eyes. How much longer will we last? I can't stand it any more, Cath!"
"You'll feel better when you've got some money in your hand." Cathy said. "Come on. Let's go and get Mel and Mewla."
Tabitha reluctantly pulled on her cloak, and the two girls left the house, looking warily about them for any signs of someone following them.
Mel and Mewla weren't in their rented rooms when Cathy and Tabitha called for them. Their landlord told the two girls that Mel and Mewla had gone out earlier and said that they would be back earlier than usual.
"I wonder why." Cathy mused.
"Probably afraid of getting ripped to shreds." The old man said, hovering at the door.
"What?" Cathy asked.
"Well 'aven't you 'eard?" the old man looked at Cathy and Tabitha out of his yellow eyes. "Some streetwalker got her throat slit down Chapel Walk in the early hours. Terrible mess it was, and they ain't got no idea who did it. You girls take my advice and lock your doors tonight. Don't trust no-one."
"We don't." Cathy said. "Come on Tab." and linking arms, they set off back up the street.
"Do you think it's true?" Tabitha said.
"Wouldn't surprise me." Cathy said.
"Oi!" a voice made them both stop. "You two!"
Cathy turned round, half in fear. Mewbert Tanner, the owner of The Red Rat, the club where they worked some nights, was hurrying up the cobbled street towards them. He was a middle-aged tom-cat, short and skinny, with a sinister-looking face and a scraggly beard. Cathy and the rest of the girls knew by now to handle him by now, when he came on to them in a drunken stupor, trying to undo their dresses with one paw, a bottle of gin still clutched in the other. A swift slap or punch to the face usually did it, he would let go then, mumbling something about not knowing what he was doing, and would they forgive him. He did not offer admirable working conditions, but at least when the girls were performing on the stage, they were not walking the alleys.
"Yes?" Cathy pulled her cloak closer around herself and faced Mewbert.
"You girls are meant to be working tonight." he said.
"No we're not." Cathy said. "We've got tonight off, you said so."
"Well you ain't now." Mewbert said. "I've 'ad five of my girls go sick on me and I need you now."
"Well that's tough for you then, isn't it!" Cathy retorted.
"Listen lady!" Mewbert said, grabbing hold of Cathy's arm. "As long as you're flashing your stuff on my stage, I'm your boss, and you'll come to work when I see fit! So go home, get your things, and be on that stage in half an hour, or you won't have a job to come back to!"
Cathy wrenched her arm free, spat at Mewbert, and dragged Tabitha off down the street.
"You shouldn't antagonise him." Tabitha said.
"I don't care." Cathy said. "Dirty old sod. You should have seen what he tried to do to me the other night. Lucky I had a bottle in my hand. He treats us like dirt, Tab."
"I know." Said Tabitha. "But at least he gives us work. Without that we wouldn't survive on what we pick up from the streets."
"Yeah yeah." Cathy said.
They called in to Cathy's house, where she picked up her corset, stockings and boots, then they went to Tabitha's house, where she picked up hers too.
On the way back, to the club, they bumped into their friends Tibbicca Falkmew, Purla Lane and Mewlarka Tomlinson.
"That's old rat's called us in to work." Purla said. "He had the cheek to come to my house and nearly bang the damn door down."
"He's called us in too." Cathy said. "That's where we're going now."
"I haven't seen you for a few days, Cath." Purla said. "We thought you'd be down at the wharf last night."
"I was too tired." Cathy said. "I just couldn't get out of the chair."
Melania and Mewla were at The Red Rat when the four girls arrived. They were changing in the back. Mewla was lacing up Melania's corset for her.
"Cath!" Melania smiled.
"Hello ladies!" Cathy grinned, taking off her cloak.
"We weren't coming in tonight." Tabitha said. "But we got accosted on the street and Mewbert said he'd sack us if we didn't."
"Yeah, us too." Mewla said. "He's had some girls go sick or something."
When all the girls were together it somehow made things seem not so bad. They all had a laugh and a joke together, and they played about. Spirits were lifted.
Tabitha and Cathy got changed quickly. Mewbert burst in halfway through and Mewla, who wasn't wearing her corset, turned away quickly and looked for something to cover herself with.
"Don't bother with that darlin', I've seen it all before." Mewbert said. "Just hurry up, you lot. I've got punters waiting out there."
"Filthy rat!" Cathy called after him as he left the room. She went over to Mewla and helped her put her corset on. "God knows what spyholes he's got in this place."
Once the girls were ready, they made their way out onto the stage. The club was, as usual, dimly lit and smoky. The girls never usually made any eye contact with any of the tom-cats sitting down below. The low lights danced on the dark red walls. There were the usual shouts and whistles, and the girls started to dance.
As she danced, Cathy scanned the club vaguely for any sign of anyone interesting. No-one. Just a mass of shabby tom-cats of all ages, some sitting, some standing, all with drink.
"And now, gents, the prettiest one in the place - Cathy!" Mewbert shouted from the side of the stage. Cathy glared at him. All the tom-cats whistled and shouted, and Cathy stepped forward. "She's going to sing for us, aren't you darlin'!" Mewbert couldn't stand still, for he was drunk already.
Cathy sighed in disgust. She always got picked on to sing and dance solo. The music started and she began to sing.
However cross she felt, her voice sounded beautiful, and quite a lot of the tom-cats actually fell silent. Cathy really was truly beautiful, and as many of her friends said amongst themselves, she was wasted in a dive like that.
Cathy's sharp eyes suddenly picked out a stranger at the back of the club, half-hidden by the thick red drapes. He was dressed in a jet-black cloak and tall black hat, and had a cane. His face was in shadow. He hadn't been there a moment ago. Cathy knew that there was a side entrance behind the drapes. He must have come in that way. It was just unusual to see someone as well dressed as he was in a place like The Red Rat.
Once Cathy had finished her song, she endured the shouting and whistling and the hands of the tom-cats by the stage reaching up for her legs, then stepped backwards as the others came forwards to dance again.
"I'll be back in a minute." she whispered to Melania, and slipped offstage through the curtains. Mewbert didn't notice, and the other tom-cats would just presume she had had her turn and was going backstage for a bit.
Cathy pulled her cloak on over her corset and slipped out of the dressing room into the back of the club, and then round to the other side of the stage, down in the club with all the tom-cats. She slipped along the wall in the shadows; the last thing she wanted was to be spotted by the crowd and molested. Thankfully Melania and Mewla were dancing very well, and keeping all attention on the stage.
Cathy saw the well-dressed tom-cat still standing by the drapes. She was intrigued. She only just realised that she had left the stage and was risking losing her job just to find out who this stranger was.
She was just by the curtain when there was a shout.
"Oi! Blondie! Come 'ere!"
A rough-looking tom-cat was approaching from the back of the club. Cathy looked all around for somewhere to go. Suddenly, a hand grabbed her arm, and she was pulled behind the drapes. She didn't even have time to get her bearings before the rough tom-cat appeared behind the drapes too. He reached out a dirty paw for Cathy but his hand was knocked away by a dark shiny cane.
"The lady is with me." a strong masculine voice spoke.
"Lady? Pah!" the rough tom-cat looked at Cathy in disgust and shuffled off.
Now that he had gone, Cathy could steady herself and look up at who had pulled her behind the drapes and saved her from the tom-cat. She straightened her cloak and turned round. The stranger stood behind her was tall and slim, dressed all in black.
"Th… thankyou." Cathy mumbled.
"Don't mention it." The stranger said, in the same strong, deep voice. "I just thought that it would be good manners to save a lady from the clutches of a… someone like that."
"Thankyou." Cathy said again, not sure of what to say or do. She was used to dealing with the usual type of ruffian that frequented the club and the streets, but now she was face to face with someone like this, and she felt uneasy. She took a deep breath.
"Wouldn't it be good manners for you to introduce yourself?" she said.
"Of course." The stranger said. "Forgive me. My name is Daniel Mewcamber." He took off his tall hat and Cathy drew breath. Dark, slightly wavy hair almost to his chin framed the most handsome face she had ever seen on a tom-cat. His skin was perfect, his eyes were a rich dark brown.
"I…I… Catherine Mewphon." Was all that Cathy could manage.
"Cathy, they call you, don't they." Daniel Mewcamber looked directly into Cathy's blue eyes.
"Yes." Cathy said.
She wanted to ask him what he was doing there, why someone like him should visit a place like The Red Rat. Why should he even come to Whitechapel? But she couldn't, she felt far too comfortable with his warm hand touching her cheek. She closed her eyes. She felt his hands undoing her cloak. It fell to the floor behind her. He leaned down and kissed her cheek. Cathy opened her eyes.
"I'm sorry." Daniel drew back. "I shouldn't have. I'm sorry."
"It's OK." Cathy said. "Don't apologise."
She gazed up at him, then closed her eyes again as he kissed her cheek once more. Then he kissed her chin, and down her neck across her collarbone.
"Will you meet me for a drink later on?" he asked.
"Where?" Cathy said.
"I know a place." he said. "I'll find you later."
He bent down, picked up her cloak, and placed it round her shoulders. He then picked up his cane, put on his hat and left through the side exit. Cathy moved and tripped over a box, and by the time she had got out into the foggy alley, Daniel was gone.
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