Chapter 1: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 1
The street lamps flickered creating pools of bright light in the murky fog of London’s streets. Bridget Westfall stayed in the shadows as she made her way briskly down Vauxhall Bridge Road. She turned left and headed east along the moonlit embankment, the river Thames winding alongside her.
The riverbank was a mélange of warehouses, docks and algae covered steps disappearing beneath the lapping water. The river, deserted of its usual traffic, was disquieting. Bridget had never seen London so lifeless. Several paddle steamers were moored nearby, their decks creaking in the stillness of the night. Used to the jetties teeming with life as sailors and dockers went about their business, Bridget felt strange, as if she were now a part of the underworld, a world from which her father had tried so hard to shield her.
In the distance the familiar rumble of carriages and clatter of horse’s hooves against cobbles comforted her. Her skirts swayed as she quickened her pace and glanced nervously over her shoulder. No one seemed to be following her. Her dress was splattered with dirt and her shoes caked in mud. She’d insisted on going on foot. Hamilton had tried to convince her to take a carriage but she hadn’t wanted to draw attention to herself. Secrecy was paramount.
Bridget stopped and gazed upwards. The gaol loomed before her, shadowy and terrifying. Millbank Prison was London’s largest penitentiary. Designed to hold 1,200 prisoners it was an enormous imposing white brick fortress that sat on the embankment overlooking the Thames. From the outside it resembled the spokes of a wheel; six wings, hexagonal in shape, branching out from a central tower.
Bridget gathered her courage and moved towards the only entrance.
Fletch, the Chief Warder, stood at the outer gate at the appointed hour. As Bridget approached he gave her a cursory nod and unbolted the gate, letting her in. She slipped past him and ignored the cold chill that ran through her as she crossed the threshold.
They cut across the courtyard. Entering the main building he guided her into a small triangular hall, a staircase leading to the Gate-Keeper’s rooms above. Light seeped from the door which stood ajar. She saw movement, heard the scrape of a chair as the Gate-Keeper leaned forward, accompanied by rustle as he turned the page of his newspaper. Bridget’s heart stuttered... if she was caught now all would be lost.
Fletch signalled for her to follow him. He steered her through another gate and led her down a narrow, curving corridor, deep into the heart of the prison.
Wails of distress came from the cells they passed. The inhuman sounds assailed Bridget’s ears. Misery and despair were steeped into the walls and filled her with dread and an overwhelming urge to flee.
Fletch stopped outside a cell. Bridget wondered how he could tell them apart – all the doors had the same gloomy appearance to her. He pulled out a ring of keys, turned one in the lock and pushed the door open.
The cell before her was sparse. It was narrow with a high ceiling. It had a lone window which overlooked the prison courtyard. There was a washing tub in the corner, a wooden stool and a rickety bed. The bedding was stained and the mattress had tears in it where the stuffing protruded. Bridget immediately felt the dampness in the room; the air was cool and still. She imagined there was little sunlight during the day to warm it.
A tall slender woman stood by the window, gazing out.
Hesitantly Bridget stepped into the cell.
“Five minutes,” Fletch whispered and then shut the door. It clanked noisily, jarring Bridget’s nerves.
Bridget tried to regulate her breathing, she’d never been so petrified. She came from an aristocratic family and until today had never so much as taken an unchaperoned walk let alone negotiated the streets of London after midnight and bribed an official of Her Majesty’s prison service to have an audience with one of its most notorious inmates.
“Miss Francesca Doyle?” Bridget finally spoke, hating that there was a tremor in her voice.
Slowly Miss Doyle turned to face her.
She was beautiful, Bridget hadn’t expected that. Her long dark hair hung loosely over her shoulders, eyes bright with defiance and a fierce intelligence. Her complexion was fair and though she didn’t wear a corset, her figure was handsome. She had an air of ease about her person that was enviable. She looked so serene Bridget couldn’t believe she was capable of committing the atrocious crimes of which she had been convicted.
In her turn Franky scrutinised Bridget from head-to-toe. Sizing her up. Then a wide smile broke across her face and her eyes filled with mischief. “You went to a lot of trouble to see me,” she said. “I ain’t allowed visitors.”
“I may have… circumvented the usual channels.”
Franky raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“I have come on a matter of the utmost importance,” Bridget continued urgently.
Franky smirked. “Utmost importance,” she mimicked cruelly.
A blush rose to Bridget’s cheeks. She glanced down at her gloved hands, clasped in front of her. She had been warned of Miss Doyle’s coarseness but she couldn’t lose her nerve now, she was out of options and the anonymous note had specifically said...
“I need your help,” Bridget tried again.
Franky studied her visitor with curiosity but didn’t reply. After three months of isolation with only the Matron and guards for company, Franky had learned the power of holding her tongue.
“My father has been taken,” Bridget explained.
Slowly Franky walked to her bed and sat down, facing Bridget. The iron framework creaked under her weight. Her shoulders slouched from habit and her expression was indifferent. “Why would that interest me?”
“He was kidnapped by Dr Ferguson.”
Bridget let the name settle between them. Watched its impact on Franky, whose back instantly straightened, like a cat sensing danger. Her eyes widen and she stood-up abruptly, her disinterest immediately replaced by fear.
Just then the Westminster Clock struck quarter past the hour and chimed. Big Ben was so close to the penitentiary its every peal echoed as if it were in the room with them. Its sombre notes filled Bridget with loneliness. She hated this place and its awful marking of wasted time.
When silence encased them again, Bridget moved towards Miss Doyle imploringly. “Please. You are the only person known to have had direct dealings with Ferguson and survived.”
“I do not believe that is all it was. You are wily and you know how her mind works.”
“She’s devilish clever and ruthless. Whatever you done to cross her, pray she forgets.”
Bridget felt desperation invade her. “I have no choice. I need to get my father back.”
“Why did The Freak take him?”
Bridget became evasive. “That is a private matter. Will you help me or not?”
Franky shrugged. “I ain’t interested.”
Bridget stepped even closer, her eyes pleading. “But I… I have no one else to turn to.”
Franky scowled. “I don’t know ya, why should I help ya? What’s in it for me?”
“I can get you out of here.”
The brunette’s face belied her surprise and her voice came out as little more than a whisper. “What?”
“I have great influence and wealth. I can secure your freedom. I can also have your sister, Tess, released from the poorhouse.”
Franky scowled and her voice became hard-bitten. “How do you know - ”
“I know many things,” Bridget said cryptically.
Franky studied her guest, suddenly realising she’d underestimated this stranger. She still had her pride so she shrugged nonchalantly. “You know nothin’ or you’d be runnin’ away from Ferguson, not tryin’ to find her.”
Bridget’s resolve strengthened: failure was not an option. “Would you prefer to stay here? Awaiting transportation to Australia, shipped off to an over-heated cesspit where you will most likely die or would you rather have your freedom? After you help find my father, you shall be released from any obligation to me and I shall pay you a handsome fee for your services. Enough for you and your sister to start a new life.”
Franky stared at this angel of the night, softly spoken with fiery eyes. She studied her closely. Miss Westfall couldn’t be much more than 40. Her hair, as yellow as corn, was pulled elegantly back, not a curl out of place. Crowning her head was a black satin hat trimmed with flowers and feathers, veil pulled back. She wore a tail coat jacket, the chest and sleeves adorned with silver studs, the neckline decorated with lace. Franky noticed that Miss Westfall was wearing a peculiar necklace, on a long silver chain hung a key-shaped pendant made-up of metal cogs. The outfit was completed by a high-waist skirt with ruffles. She cut a fine figure, every inch of her screamed wealth and refinement.
She was clearly well educated and there was an underlying air of mystery about her… something enigmatic. Something Franky couldn’t quite put her finger on. It unsettled her. Suddenly Franky was aware of the danger of being associated with Miss Westfall in the underworld and she felt a wave of excitement. Felt alive again after months of going stir-crazy in this cell – even the forced labour was no release, for she was confined to her cell when she picked oakum.
She was nearing the end of her temporary three month stay before being transported to the penial colonies for 7 years. If she was sent to Australia, God knows if she’d ever make it back. Most didn’t. She’d heard the stories: the horrific conditions; the heat; diseases; rapes. That aside, London was her home, it was in her veins. She’d been raised on the streets and knew if she were ever cast out she wouldn’t last a day. So, despite her misgivings, this Miss Westfall induced in her the first surge of something other than hopelessness she’d felt in weeks.
“I shall do all I have promised in exchange for your help,” Bridget stated sincerely.
Franky considered the offer. She weighed it up but still hesitated, Ferguson was wicked to the core. The worst devil she’d ever come across and Franky lived in a den of criminals. The Freak of Finchley they called her. Those that knew what she was about, those that had an ear to the ground.
The last time she’d encountered Ferguson she had been stabbed and thrown in the Thames. Nearly drowned out at Cuckold’s Point. Had managed to drag herself to safety and find a doc to stitch her up. She didn’t relish butting heads with Ferguson again but, she glanced around her cell, what choice did she have?
“If I agree we do things my way,” Franky clarified. The last thing she needed was the unworldly Miss Westfall fumbling around and getting them both killed.
Bridget nodded quickly, her heart pounding.
Miss Westfall looked eager, malleable and Franky thought, maybe this could work… if she kept a tight rein on her benefactress. How hard could that be? Just look at her – reserved and naive, her delicate perfume, fair skin and flaxen hair were no match for Franky’s street-savvy wiles.
“I give you my word Miss Doyle and I never go back on my word.”
Franky stared into Bridget’s eyes, looking for deceit, but found none. She couldn’t quite get a handle on Bridget. She was so earnest and hapless, yet determined.
“I don’t even know your name,” Franky realised.
“Miss Bridget Westfall.”
Colour rose to Bridget’s cheeks again, she was unaccustomed to such informal behaviour. At St. Mary’s School for Girls she had been taught it was the height of rudeness to address a stranger by their first name let alone a nick-name.
“Somethin’ the matter?” Franky asked, pleased to have got another blush from Miss Westfall.
“No, it is just that… that…” Bridget faltered, flustered.
Franky pursed her lips and gave her visitor an unflinching stare.
“Franky it is,” Bridget conceded as she met Franky’s eyes.
Playfully, Doyle contemplated the blonde. This could be fun. Miss Westfall was easy on the eye and it always amused Franky to reduce pretty girls to stammers and stutters and blushes. Either way, getting the hell out of The Tench would be worth it. Conditions were appalling. The slops they were fed were meagre and she’d overheard the Matron tell one of the guards that half the women on her wing were sick from malnutrition. Franky’s reduced strength and the enforced hard labour were starting to take their toll. She was ageing rapidly and most nights her back ached and her hands were raw and blistered.
Once she pocketed the fee Miss Westfall had promised she could start afresh. Maybe open a little shop, millinery or sweets or musical instruments - her and Tess. Go straight for once. Have their own place and not have to worry about dodgy landlords with over familiar hands. For now she’d just have to sit-back and see the lie of the land. This could turn into a nice little earner.
“I think we’ll get along just grand,” Franky declared.
A broad smile broke across Bridget’s face and her eyes shone with a renewal of hope. “Thank you!” she exclaimed. She rushed forward and grasped Franky’s hand in a gesture of friendship and gratitude.
Franky stiffened and pulled away, startled by Bridget’s touch.
“Sorry,” Bridget murmured, regaining her composure and drawing back.
Franky eyed her warily. “So when are you breakin’ me out?”
Bridget’s smile returned. “I shall arrange for your release tomorrow.”
There was no more to say.
Bridget knocked on the cell door. Fletch scrabbled to open it and Franky took pleasure in seeing Fletch jump at Miss Westfall’s command. She bit her lip, attempting to hide her amusement.
Bridget stepped out into the corridor and Fletch locked the cell door after her.
Moments later Bridget was relieved to find herself standing on the front steps of the prison, the river before her again. She breathed in the night air and silently thanked her mysterious ally.
A week ago she had received an anonymous note attempting to warn her of impending danger to her family but she had ignored it, putting it down to a childish prank. The note had been sent to the house. It was scrawled on lavender notepaper which simply read:
Your father is in danger. Ferguson will stop at nothing.
Bridget hadn’t given the note a second thought until yesterday when her father went to fetch supplies at her behest - she had run short of copper wire at a crucial stage in her latest experiment. She had been in her lab, engrossed in research, when a police constable had arrived to inform her that her father was missing. He had reached H. K. Reily Merchants safely and purchased the wire but shortly after taking his leave, his carriage was found overturned. The coach driver had been discovered slumped over the driver’s seat, blood pooling at his feet, throat slit. The carriage was empty save for the parcel of copper wire lying on the back seat. No trace of her father had been found.
Bridget knew instantly that he had been abducted, as the anonymous note had forewarned. Then, after having several police officers traipse through the house searching for clues and chasing-up dead-end leads, in the midst of her despair, another anonymous note had arrived. Written on the same paper and in the same hand. It read:
Seek out Francesca Doyle.
This time Bridget had heeded her anonymous ally.
Bridget descended the prison steps and turned sharply to her left, not noticing the sinister figure who watched her from the other side of the street, hidden in darkness.
She all but floated along the road elated that Miss Doyle had agreed to her offer. She quickened her step as she reached Millbank Pier and veered left as she wished to vary her route in case she was being followed. She hurried, slipping in and out of shadows, dancing around the edges of light jutting from the street lamps. She must hasten for she had much to accomplish by sunrise.
Chapter 2: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 2
At 6am the second bell rang and Franky stood by her bed, waiting for unlocking.
Two guards entered her cell headed by Stewart, an embittered warder who had been passed over for Chief Warder twice. She was unceremoniously grabbed and escorted through the prison, heading directly for the Governor’s House in the central tower. She had only been there once: when she first arrived.
“What’s happenin’?” she asked as she was hustled down the corridor.
Stewart shrugged. “Orders from the top.”
Instinctively Franky pulled against their vice-like grip on her person. Had the Governor found out about her late-night visitor? Was she about to be punished?
“I didn’t do nothin’!” she exclaimed.
“Must’ve. The Guv’s in a foul mood.”
They reached Governor Channing’s office and Franky was pushed in.
Channing sat behind his desk, attempting to look important. All he achieved was an air of pomposity. Franky stood before him behind a partition rope. Prisoners weren’t allowed beyond the rope, as if there was a fear they may contaminate the room and all those in it. She clasped her hands behind her back, so he couldn’t see them shake.
“That will be all,” Channing dismissed the guards.
They took their leave and waited outside.
The Governor studied Franky cautiously, stroked his moustache and stood. He moved purposefully towards Franky, his stare cold. “I was summoned to the courthouse before dawn by Judge Montgomery.”
Her eyes widened.
“It seems all charges against you have been dropped Miss Doyle.”
Franky’s heart started to pound and her whole body flooded with relief. How on earth had Miss Westfall managed it? And so quickly? She had to fight to keep an enormous grin from smothering her face.
“It seems the Squire whose silver you stole, before throwing hot oil on him whilst trying to escape, believes that he misidentified you. The witness on the lane who saw you running away has also retracted his statement. The police constables who arrested you have mislaid their report and now state that they cannot recall whether you had silver on your person or not when apprehended. They have also, miraculously, discovered several honest citizens willing to verify your alibi of drinking at the Wentworth Inn in Limehouse at the time of the crime.” He took a breath, clearly not believing a word but intrigued as to what sway a petty criminal like Franky could have over someone powerful enough to reverse her sentence. “Due to the lack of evidence against you Judge Montgomery has overturned your conviction and you shall be released forthwith.”
Franky blinked disbelievingly at him, then the smile she’d tapered down escaped and lit-up her whole face.
“Fuckin’ ace!” she exclaimed jubilantly.
“Quite,” the Governor humped.
He returned to his desk, signed her release paper, blotted the ink dry and then called out to Stewart.
Franky was reeling, she swayed slightly on her heels. One thought centred her - Miss Westfall was as good as her word. It was almost shocking. Franky could count on one hand the people who had kept their promise to her. She felt a rush of affection for the remarkable woman with the kind eyes.
Stewart entered the Governor’s office.
“Miss Doyle is due for release. Here is her release slip. Please see to it immediately.”
Stewart looked dumbfounded and then disgruntled. He took the document.
“The best of luck Miss Doyle,” Governor Channing said disingenuously. “I hope you value your freedom enough to never return.”
Franky nodded readily. “I’ll be on me best behaviour from now on, Sir.”
Stewart escorted her out.
A quarter of an hour later Franky found herself heading through the outer gate of the prison clad in the rag of a dress she’d arrived in.
As she stood on the steps of Millbank Prison facing the Thames, the sun streamed through the smog and around her the sound of shipbuilding yards springing to life. Dockers hollering, carriages wheeling past, street urchins running through the crowds, street musicians knocking out a tune and mudlarks wading through the muddy riverbank of the Thames at low tide trying to scavenge anything they could sell.
There were costermongers traipsing the dirty streets selling their wares from a barrow – an array of clothes, musical instruments, books, live birds and food. The smell of oysters, pea soup, fried fish, pies and puddings, pickled whelks, gingerbread, baked potatoes and crumpets filled her nostrils.
On the water, skiffs and cutters bobbed in the wake of larger vessels - giant sailing ships with their masts fluttering, their colossal side-wheels whipping through the water as they moved towards London Bridge.
Franky smiled genuinely for the first time in weeks. Oh how she’d missed London Town.
“Sling your hook,” Stewart hissed behind her.
Franky looked over her shoulder at him. “I’ll miss you too,” she retorted.
He scowled. “Oh you’ll wind-up back in ‘ere Doyle. Your sort always does. Then it’s off to Australia with you. Never to be seen again. If the sickness and starvation don’t get you and you escape the clutches of the ruttin’ male convicts - the natives will ‘ave away with you!”
Franky ignored the sourness of his words, he couldn’t rile her, not today. “They gotta catch me first!” she exclaimed and winked at him, then raced down the steps of The Tench, arms swinging wildly, hair swept up in a breeze whipping in from the waterfront.
Her feet had barely touched the cobbles of the street when a carriage pulled up beside her. A posh bloke, tall and sinewy, with an authoritive manner stepped out. He clutched her by the arm and bundled her into his carriage, climbing in after her. Franky was tempted to make a run for it out the other side of the carriage, her hand wrapped around the handle of the door, but her gut told her to wait, to bide her time. The man tapped on the carriage roof and the driver started off down Millbank Row.
“Miss Westfall sent me to fetch you,” the stranger informed her. “She did not want you getting lost after all her efforts to engage your services.”
Franky glared at him. She rubbed her elbow where he’d grabbed her. “I’m happy to oblige but manhandle me again and I’ll break your nose.”
He tilted his head as he gazed at her. She couldn’t work out if he was amused or scornful. When he replied it was in a calm and measured tone. “I apologise for manhandling you. I shall endeavour not to do so again.”
Franky eyed him curiously. “Who are you anyway?”
“My name is Hamilton. I am Miss Westfall’s butler.”
“Bit unusual innit? A butler pickin’-up ex-crims?”
He smiled politely. “I perform many unusual duties.”
He didn’t volunteer any more information so she glanced out the window as London rolled by. She sank back against the cushion of her seat. Now her freedom had been granted her mind turned to what she had promised Miss Westfall in return. The prospect of seeking out Ferguson was daunting. The Freak of Finchley was notorious – intelligent, ruthless, focused and conniving. Franky wondered what Miss Westfall had done to cross her.
Their journey was short. Claremont, Miss Westfall’s family estate, lay on the far side of Hyde Park. It was a vast and exceedingly beautiful 17th-century house with an extensive walled garden. The gates that surrounded the estate were of bronzed iron-work and covered in ivy, shielding the house from prying eyes.
Their carriage passed through the main gateway, a white stone triumphal arch, and rambled up the drive. Roses grew in the flower beds that peppered the lush green lawn while stately trees studded the length of the driveway. Franky could see an apple orchard sprawled out at the back of the grounds. It was an odd mix of being close to the bustle of London life but in a perfectly secluded pocket, surrounded by dale and wood, you could believe you were in the countryside.
The house itself possessed an air of elegance. Engraved grey brick, tall arched windows and a marble staircase leading to the front door. Intricately adorned windows and doorways, a glass dome jutting out from the roof. Franky stared at it, her jaw falling open in wonder. She tugged self-consciously at the tattered sleeve of her dirty dress suddenly feeling uncouth.
Hamilton leaned toward her and said softly; “Miss Westfall values character and loyalty above all else. Appearance can be altered.”
Franky gave him an appreciative half-smile.
As they drew nearer Franky spotted oddities she hadn’t observed at first: a ramp on the lawn that ended mid-air; a white gazebo with a gaping hole in the roof, as if something had crashed through it; an unusual looking treehouse in the distance; archery target boards lined the lawn covered in scorch marks (some almost completely obliterated, as if they had been involved in an explosion).
The carriage stopped at a side entrance and they got out. As the driver drove round to the mews building, to put away the carriage and stable the horse, they climbed the stairs to the servant’s entrance. Franky noticed that Hamilton moved stiffly, he seemed to have difficulty mounting the steps, as if his legs had sustained some kind of injury.
A strange copper box was affixed to the wall by the door. It had a numbered dial connected to glass cylinders with two large rotating discs that spun as Hamilton entered several numbers in quick succession. A spark lit-up the glass and the door lock clicked open.
Franky’s eyes widened in wonder. She’d never seen anything like it. She was the fastest lock-picker south of the river, there was a skill to it, a subtle touch, but this, her brain tried to fathom the logistics of it... you could bypass any lock with this contraption. She could make a fortune! She tried not to think like that. Miss Westfall had been good to her, she didn’t want to take advantage. Not yet.
“We don’t use keys,” Hamilton explained. “They can be replicated so Miss Westfall has installed a number box to all the entrances. Only those trusted have the code.”
Hamilton pushed the door open and Franky followed him in.
They stepped into the kitchen which was bustling with activity. Mrs. Jenkins, a tall, stout woman with a no-nonsense gaze, was preparing breakfast.
“Mrs. Jenkins is the Housekeeper and cook,” Hamilton informed her.
Mrs. Jenkins nodded politely at Franky.
“If you need anything and I am unavailable, find Mrs. Jenkins,” Hamilton advised.
As they proceeded through the kitchen Franky scanned the room. Her eyes were drawn to an imperious machine next to the sink. It was made of copper and exceedingly shiny. A mechanical hand which was attached to the sink opened the machine door, steam billowed out and hot water spurted onto the stone floor. The mechanical hand transferred a stack of dirty dishes from the sink to the machine, one-by-one, slotting them into wire compartments inside the machine. The slots were designed to fit plates, cups and saucers. Beneath the wire compartments was a bath full of hot soapy water and a row of sponges, waiting for the dishware to be dunked so they could scrub it clean. It was an inspired device. Once the mechanical hand had loaded the machine, it closed the door and the machine burst into life. It vibrated, giving off a most satisfying whirring sound and a heavy cloud of steam.
“The household staff consists of two maids, Flora and Milly. The coach driver, Mr. Crawford. Mrs. O’Hara and myself,” Hamilton continued.
They strode out of the kitchen and started up a narrow staircase. “Mrs. Westfall lives on the top floor. She is not up to visitors, she has been struck down by numerous ailments. Her health is not good and I believe you know the circumstances surrounding Mr. Westfall’s disappearance?”
“Yes,” Franky replied.
At the top of the stairs Hamilton drew back a velvet curtain and they stepped into a spacious entrance hall. Every surface was shiny, every ornament gleamed and the marble floor was spotless. Elaborate coving trailed the edges of the room and wrapped around the light fixtures. Sculpted lions and gargoyles perched in corners, ready to pounce. Landscape paintings and family portraits cluttered the walls. At the foot of the stairs a large tapestry depicting a historical battle covered an entire wall. Several bits of furniture were scattered throughout the hall: a chaise longue by the staircase, an ornamental globe, a gargantuan white marble statue on a plinth and a majestic grandfather clock.
Hamilton stopped and turned to face Franky, lowering his voice. “This is an unusual household.”
“Miss Westfall is a unique lady,” Hamilton said fondly, then his tone took on a note of protectiveness. “She has a gift and passion for invention. This house has its own rhythm. If you embrace it you will never look back.”
Franky nodded in understanding.
“Miss Westfall is in her lab on the first floor. Down the hall, second on the left. She had to move when she blew-up the cellar.”
Franky stared at him.
“What a mess that was!” he laughed nostalgically. “Go on now, she’s waiting.”
Franky started up the steps. She followed Hamilton’s directions and passed several curious sculptures, objet d’art, oriental rugs and impossibly shaped lampshades. She soon found herself outside a set of double doors. She knocked determinedly. Hearing nothing, she turned the handle and stepped into the room.
Franky was greeted by the sight of an enormous laboratory housed in what had once been a ballroom. A dinner table acted as a workbench which ran the length of the room and was covered in test tubes, bubbling potions and swirly copper pipes carrying concoctions from one jar to another. Shelves lined the walls crammed with specimen jars, chemical bottles and fossils. Schematic drawings and diagrams hung on the walls while mathematical equations and theories were scrawled on a chalk board. Books crowded every available surface and were piled into impressive towers that looked as if they might topple over at any moment.
Gadgets and odd-looking contraptions haphazardly filled the room in varying stages of completion. In one corner stood a bicycle which had wings and a propeller welded to it. In another corner a suit of armour stood to attention with pipes protruding out the back and a strip of glass in the helmet, where the visor should be.
The only domestic touch was a wicker armchair by a stove in the corner, a raggedy quilt draped over the back, and a dresser with a washing bowl and jug atop it.
In the middle of the mayhem stood Miss Westfall, dressed in a beige Safari skirt with a crisp white blouse and brown neck tie. Around her waist was a tool belt. The guise surprised Franky. Miss Westfall looked like an intrepid explorer about to embark on a jungle adventure. Franky had seen pictures in books; she couldn’t read but she loved studying the pictures. Imagining faraway places, adventures and shenanigans.
Bridget turned to face Franky. She was wearing a startling pair of goggles that looked like spyglasses. They were made of copper, extended out by six inches and covered the whole of her upper face.
Franky stared at her. “What are those?”
“Night-time Spectacles,” Bridget replied. “They allow you to see in the dark.”
Intrigued, Franky asked. “Do they work?”
Bridget removed them, her skin marked pink around the eyes where the goggles had been too tight. “Almost. I can see the infrared radiation of hot objects which has a similar energy to light but with a longer wavelength. I just need to work out how to convert it into visible light.”
She sighed and set the experimental spectacles down.
“Yeah, tricky,” Franky blagged.
Bridget regarded her. The piercing blueness of her eyes was startling. On their first meeting in her cell it had been too dark to really appreciate Miss Westfall’s features. Now she was struck by the effortlessness of her beauty. Miss Westfall had a sharp nose, thin lips and a long slender neck. She noticed Miss Westfall was still wearing that peculiar key pendent and thought it an odd adornment for a lady.
“Ta, for getting me out,” Franky said, moving further into the room.
She stepped on something that growled and looked down to see a mechanical dog made of springs, gears and cogs scuttle away from her and hide under the table.
“Excuse Darwin, he is shy of strangers,” claimed Bridget and ducked her head beneath the table. “This is Miss Doyle, you have nothing to fear from her,” she said comfortingly, then straightened-up and smiled warmly at Franky. “He will grow accustomed to you when you reside here.”
Franky froze. “Reside here?”
“Of course. We have to find my father before Ferguson does him a mischief, it is only logical that you stay here. You shall have your own room if that is what concerns you.”
Franky stared at her. “My own room?” she’d never had her own room before... apart from the prison cell and being alone like that had driven her half mad.
“Is that acceptable?” Bridget said tentatively.
“Fine,” Franky agreed.
Bridget nodded, pleased that this arrangement was working out so well. At first she had been nervous at the thought of having a criminal in the house but when she remembered the caution and fear people showed her when they discovered she was of high intelligence, she tried not to judge. The world was full of hypocrites and unkindness. She tried to give people the benefit of the doubt and Miss Doyle would be no different.
“I am glad you are here,” Bridget declared, feeling it was important.
“Where's Tess?” Franky queried.
“I took her out of the poorhouse and sent her to stay with good friends of mine in Hove, until this unpleasant business is resolved. I thought it best to keep her out of harms way.”
Franky felt slightly disappointed, she’d wanted to see Tess but Miss Westfall’s reasoning made sense. At least out of the way Tess would be safe. They would be reunited soon.
“You did right. Ta.”
Bridget smiled warmly. “You are most welcome.”
Franky studied her benefactress and felt instinctually that something was amiss. “You ain’t told me the full story, have ya?”
“No,” Miss Westfall admitted and then went on to inform her of the anonymous notes.
Franky listened intently, then asked. “Who do you think sent the notes?”
Bridget looked perplexed. “I haven’t a notion.”
“Someone wanted us to meet.”
“Fucked if I know. You’re the brainbox.”
Ignoring the coarseness of her companion’s language, Bridget asserted. “My anonymous ally was correct about my father. Whoever they are – they are looking out for me.”
“Why’d Ferguson kidnapped your father?”
Bridget leant her hip against the table and folded her arms across her chest. “Ferguson made me an offer on one of my inventions and I refused. I believe she abducted my father in order to exhort it from me. My father in exchange for the machine. She knows it's the only way I would hand it over.”
Franky was brimming with curiosity. “What does this machine do?”
“I cannot say. What I can divulge is that Ferguson cannot be allowed to acquire it. It would lead to dire consequences.”
Franky wondered why Miss Westfall was being so cagey but the less she knew, the less likely she was to get in trouble over it.
“Has Ferguson made any demands?” Franky pressed.
“I have associates in the Underworld. I can ask around.”
“I shall accompany you,” Bridget said earnestly.
Franky stared at her. “What?”
Bridget uncrossed her arms, resolute. “I shall accompany you.”
Franky was about to argue when she saw a look of dogged determination settle on Miss Westfall's face. She had a sinking feeling she was going to see it often. “Sure, just... whatever I tell you to do, do it, alright? Or we’ll both end-up floatin' in the Thames.”
Bridget nodded compliantly.
Franky broke into a smirk. “How’d ya do it?”
“Get me out of the clink.”
Bridget smiled broadly, wrinkles creasing the edges of her eyes. “I had Hamilton bribe the squire, pay off the witness in the lane and ask ‘reliable’ witnesses to say they saw you at Wentworth Inn on the day in question.”
Franky stared at her with admiration.
“Judge Montgomery is a friend of my Fathers so I paid him a visit, cried a great deal and said you were a most valued maid in our household. That it had all been a grave misunderstanding and could Uncle Monty please release you as soon as possible.”
Franky let out a low whistle. “Whoa! I had you pegged all wrong. You got a lot of nowse. You’re alright.”
She whacked Bridget on the arm. It was meant affectionately, Bridget realised, but was powerful enough to make her sway and lose her footing. She righted herself and cleared her throat. “Yes well... it was not my finest hour. I loathe to be dishonest but under the circumstances...”
“And what’s with all these gadgets and contraptions?” Franky asked as she picked-up an odd looking clock from the workbench that had a miniature hammer and gong soldered to it.
Bridget scooped the wake-up clock out of Franky’s hand, a worrisome expression on her face. “They are inventions not gadgets and they are delicate. I would appreciate it if you handled everything in the lab with care.”
Franky grinned. “Sure thing Miss... Oh – what should I call you? Miss Westfall? Miss Bridget? Bridget? Bridge?”
“You may address me as Bridget when we are alone and Miss Westfall when in company.”
“Ain't you got a nick-name?”
“Even when you was a kid?”
Bridget thought back. “No.”
Franky smiled, it was luminescent and carefree. “Think we oughta change that.”
Bridget stared at her, baffled and frustrated. “No, that is perfectly alright, I - ”
“How about Gidget?” Franky’s eyes sparkled.
Bridget’s brow creased in confion. “No.”
Franky winked and bestowed her most seductive smile. “It’ll grow on you. Bit like me. Now if you don’t mind, I wanta peruse my new digs, Gidge.”
With that she left the room.
Bridget stared after Franky, wondering what on earth she had let herself in for.
Franky gawked at her room. It was magnificent. A four poster bed, lavish furnishings and homey touches by Bridget. A picture of the Thames hung over the bed, freshly cut flowers were in the vases, a selection of four new dresses in her size spread across the bed, matching gloves, shoes, a coat and various hats. Bridget had gone to a great deal of effort to make her comfortable and Franky found herself oddly moved. Never one for sentiment, the emotion unsettled her. Franky was used to people taking from her and though she was here to help, was being paid to help, she felt Miss Westfall was genuine in her regard. Had tried to make her comfortable through kindness not strategy.
Franky moved towards the dresser and poured a wash basin full of water, she quickly splashed her face and hands, then slipped into one of the new dresses. A plain blue dress with a bow, she ripped the bow off with her teeth, she loathed pointless frills. She brushed her hair and pinned it back. Then pinched her cheeks to give them a bit of colour - being inside had made her complexion pallid.
There was a gentle knock at the door.
“Come in,” Franky called.
Bridget entered. She was dressed in her coat and hat. “Ready?” she asked. Her eyes trailed over Franky, smiling approvingly at the improvement.
Franky nodded. As she moved towards Bridget, the blonde reached out and took Franky’s hand and pressed a purse full of coins into her palm. Franky glanced down at it uncertainly. “What's this for?”
“If I want you to trust me then I have to be willing to reciprocate. Think of this is a mark of trust and to ensure that you have independence.”
Franky smiled bashfully.
Bridget gently drew back, eyes shining. “Where to first?”
Franky led the way as they headed out.
Chapter 3: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 3
Thank you for all the lovely feedback:)
They stood outside Wentworth Inn. A ramshackle wooden tavern on the waterfront surrounded by docks and mud and not much else. It had seen better days but Liz, the bawdy landlady, refused to fix it up. She thought its steady decay gave it character. Besides, it acted as a nice front for her less legitimate business. The tavern was renowned as a safe house for smugglers and other unsavoury criminal elements, and the coppers were paid a handsome sum to look the other way.
Franky eyed Bridget anxiously, she looked far too proper to be hanging out at this sort of establishment but Franky figured everyone would be too busy with their own dealings or too inebriated to pay her much heed. So she pulled the door open and they entered.
Tables and chairs were scattered about, there were several booths by the window and sawdust strewn about the floor. The place was gloomy and in need of a good clean. Several gas lamps hung from the walls and mottled curtains attempted to add an air of respectability. There were a few drunks from the night before collapsed by the fireplace, snoring loudly. A couple of dockers sat at the bar, drinking whisky and bracing for the day ahead. dotted about the place were ne'er-do-wells huddled together over tables, plotting.
Franky moved towards the bar, the soft click of her heel echoed across the wooden floorboards. Bridget trailed a few steps behind: silent and observant.
Liz was chatting to a customer, a fellow she’d had a keen eye on for some time, her smile wide, unruly curls swaying every time she laughed raucously and lightly stroked his arm.
She started when she set eyes on Franky. “Gawd love a duck!” she exclaimed and raced round the bar to embrace Franky. She drew back from the hug and clutched Franky’s hands, beaming. “Hello love, didn’t expect to see you round these parts for a while, heard you was nabbed and doin’ a stretch in The Tench.”
“I was but they couldn’t resist me charm. Had to let me out.”
Liz’s expression grew serious. “How was it?”
“Better than a wash and brush up! Had a room to meself, three meals a day and the doc whenever I wanted. I was better off in there!”
Liz laughed and then her gaze settled on Bridget, who stood with posture too good to hide. Liz’s smile faltered. “Who’s this?” she asked stiffly, dropping Franky’s hands.
Franky gripped Bridget’s elbow and gently tugged her closer. “Bridget. We palled up. She’s had terrible strife. She just got back from the West Indies. Her old man was a missionary, died of dysentery over there.”
Bridget shot Franky an alarmed look.
With a subtle tilt of her head, Franky indicated for her to play along.
“God rest his soul,” Bridget piped-up.
“She sold off everything they owned to pay for the funeral and couldn’t afford passage back so had to stowaway. Course she got caught,” Franky continued.
“They roughed me up real bad,” Bridget added helpfully.
Franky held-back an amused snort. “Then threw her in The Tench – that’s how we met.”
“Blessing in disguise,” Bridget chimed, starting to enjoy this charade.
Franky shook her head sadly. “I’m helpin’ her find her feet. She can talk posh and looks the part, I’m sure we can find a profitable angle.”
Liz nodded, relaxing slightly. She smiled sympathetically at Bridget, revealing a row of rotten teeth. “We don’t trust toff’s round ‘ere but if Franky vouches for you, you’re good in my book.”
“‘ere, have a seat.” Liz pushed Bridget down onto the nearest stool. “Sorry to hear ‘bout your troubles love. It’s a hard life, especially with a face like yours. Bein' pretty leads to nothin’ but trouble. I’ll fix us a nice drink. That’ll soothe some of your woes.”
As Liz set about pouring them a bumper of beer each, Franky leaned into Bridget. Her hand rested gently on Bridget’s shoulder and her warm breath tickled Bridget’s skin as she whispered. “I gotta speak to Boomer, she’ll get jumpy if she sees you. Keep Liz occupied, alright?”
Bridget nodded dutifully.
A moment later Liz plonked three goblets of beer on the bar counter.
“Boomer around?” Franky asked.
“In her usual spot,” Liz replied.
“Back in a tick.”
Franky wondered off and Bridget found her eyes trailing after Miss Doyle, watching the confident sway of her hips, the determined set of her shoulders, the proud way she carried herself and Bridget bit her bottom lip. She admired people with that degree of self-assurance and command, it was a most appealing trait.
Liz pushed a beer goblet towards Bridget, whose attention returned to the landlady. “Well get it down your neck love, it’s no good in the goblet!”
Bridget eyed the frothy beverage uncertainly. Liz watched her intently and she knew she couldn’t refuse without being impolite so she picked-up the goblet. She’d had wine before, with dinner, and punch at balls... but never beer. She took a sip. It wasn’t ghastly, a bit fizzy and tickled her tongue, the back of her throat and her nose. She broke into a smile.
Liz grinned and clapped her on the back. “That’s right, get it down your gullet. Best brew in all of London, that.”
In the backroom Franky approached her old friend. Built like a brick shithouse, with ruddy cheeks and a mop of wayward black hair, Boomer was arm-wrestling patrons for money. She always won and always impressed them so much with her prowess, they never minded.
“Spare a moment?” Franky asked.
Boomer had her back to Franky, her focus on the sailor whose hand was clasped in hers. His arm shook ferociously with the effort of fending off her victory. Boomer wasn’t even cracking a sweat. “You blind? I’m busy,” she snapped.
“Not even for an old friend?”
Boomer looked over her shoulder at that, a grin immediately covering her face. “Franky?!” she leapt up, easily knocking over the mug she was wrestling. He rubbed his sore wrist with relief as she engulfed Franky in a fierce hug, lifting her clean off the floor.
“Aw, I missed ya! I thought you was a goner for sure!” Boomer cried.
Franky laughed and Boomer set her down.
“Na – can’t get rid of me that easy!”
“Hey, what’s with the fancy threads?” Boomer asked. She reached out and tugged at the lace on Franky’s sleeve. “You rob a bank or somethin’?”
“Got me some new friends.”
“Ooohhhh – la-de-dah!” Boomer teased, raising her hand like a lady, battering her eye lashes and swaying her hips in mockery.
Franky rolled her eyes good-humouredly, then pulled Boomer aside so they couldn’t be overheard. “I need your help Booms.”
“I need to find Ferguson.”
Boomers face grew pale and her eyes widened. “Are you off your rocker?!”
Franky shook her head defiantly. “Still got all me marbles.”
“She tried to kill you! Or did that slip your mind?”
“I owe someone a favour.”
Boomer snorted. “That’s a pretty big fuckin’ favour!”
“Is she still in Finchley?”
“Last I heard.”
Franky tilted her head inquisitively. “What’s The Ministry up to?”
Boomer shrugged. “Fucked if I know.”
She sighed dramatically. “Novak fell out of favour with Red when she went back to bein’ an opium-eater.”
“Shit,” Franky exhaled.
“Yeah,” Boomer said emphatically. “Can’t get no sense out of her no more. Always glassy. Started sellin’ herself again. Red’s not thinking straight so The Ministry don’t know whether they’re comin’ or goin’.”
Disappointed, Franky said. “I thought Novak had more sense.”
“Right?!” Boomer bellowed, then smiled again. “You might wanna pay your former filly a visit.” She stuck out her tongue and flicked it lasciviously at her friend.
Franky play-punched her in the arm. “Cut it out you gongoozler!”
They laughed. Then Boomer grew serious. “Na, straight-up. Kimmy’s uncle pays Ferguson protection.”
“Since when?” Franky exclaimed disbelievingly.
“Since Novak made Ah Sing’s her favourite spot. Red threatened to shut it down so Mr. Chang turned to Ferguson for help. Ferguson’s the only one besides Red who can muster an army overnight. It’s hairy times Franky. Red’s losing her grip and Ferguson’s using it to widen her net. That’s all I got, honest. You wanna find Ferguson? Kim Chang might know somethin’.”
Boomer grinned. “You got a racket brewing, you cut me in, yeah?”
Franky smiled, she wanted to protect Boomer in case this Ferguson business went South. “Yeah,” she lied. “See ya around, muck snipe.”
Boomer playfully pushed her away and returned to her line of patrons, apparently desperate to lose their money to her.
Franky returned to the bar to find Bridget slouched on her stool, hiccupping, having finished a goblet of beer and now halfway through her second. She and Liz were leaning towards each other over the counter top, in confidential conference. Franky’s eyes widened with surprise and she moved beside Bridget in time to hear the tail end of their conversation.
“...cousin went through a similar stage. Give her time, your daughter shall soon realise the error of her ways.”
Liz nodded thoughtfully. “You’re right, love,” she agreed. “Ta.”
Bridget smiled and raised her goblet. Liz met her in a toast and they clinked cups. As Bridget raised the tankard to her lips to take another sip, Franky swept in and took it off her. “Time we were going,” she said, her tone final as she set the goblet down.
Bridget pouted but got to her feet. She swayed slightly, causing Franky to reach out and steady her at the elbow.
“Bye Liz,” Doyle bid her friend farewell.
Bridget smiled warmly at the landlady. “Thank you for your hospitality. You have been most kind.”
Franky firmed her grip on Bridget’s arm and escorted her towards the door.
“Ta-ta,” Liz called after them. “Stop by anytime.”
Franky guided Bridget out of the tavern.
Once in the sunlight, Bridget squinted. Her head was filled with a curious buzzing and her skin felt strange – tingling in a not unpleasant fashion. She smiled sweetly at Franky, whose hand still clasped her arm. Franky gazed at her for a moment too long, then cleared her throat awkwardly and took a step back.
“Did you discover anything?” Bridget asked.
“Other than you’re a balloon-juice lowerer?”
Annoyed, Bridget pulled out of Franky’s grip and straightened-up. “You told me to blend in!”
Franky sighed, she did not wish to waste time squabbling. “I need to find Kim Chang – she works at her uncle’s opium den in Chinatown. He pays Ferguson protection. She might be able to help us.”
Bridget forgot her ill-temper instantly, her eyes bright. “Let us seek her out,” she declared enthusiastically.
Franky didn’t know how to explain to the likes of Miss Westfall that Ah Sing’s doubled as a gambling house with card games played in the downstairs rooms. It was a salacious place and Bridget had a reputation to maintain.
Franky eyed her carefully. “You should go home, I’ll - ”
“No,” Bridget refused.
“It’s not the sort of place a lady should - ”
“It is my father we are trying to find,” Miss Westfall said resolutely. “I wish to go with you. I can be of use.”
“Fine but we have to do somethin' about...” she waved her hand to indicated Bridget’s pristine appearance.
Bridget looked down at herself. “I am too conspicuous?”
“Like a sore thumb.”
“That can be rectified.”
Bridget stooped down and scooped-up a handful of mud. She smeared it along her skirt. She bent again, gathered more sludge and spread it across her blouse. She removed her tie, ripped open the top three buttons of her blouse, tore the sleeves of her jacket and turned to Franky. “Will I do now?”
Franky stared at her in amazement and laughed heartily. Miss Westfall was a constant surprise. “Almost perfect,” Miss Doyle conceded.
Franky stepped closer to Bridget, reached out and loosened the pins that were holding her hair so rigidly in place. She gently tugged a few strands of honey-coloured hair free so that they framed Bridget’s face, then she cupped Bridget’s chin and lifted her face up. Delicately she daubed a smudge of mud across Bridget’s cheek and placed a blotch above her eyebrow. Franky studied Miss Westfall’s face for a moment, inspecting her handiwork.
“There, now you’re perfect,” Franky said admiringly.
They smiled at each other and Bridget felt a rush of warmth run through her. Her lips parted and Franky’s eyes darted down to them, her face laced with an odd expression.
Miss Doyle moved back, growing serious. “Just remember - ”
“Allow you to do the conversing.”
“You’re a fast learner, Gidge.”
Franky winked and turned on her heel, heading for the high street at speed. Bridget chased after her.
Chinatown was close by so they went on foot. Having only ever glimpsed this part of London from the safety of her carriage, Bridget gazed around her inquisitively. It was filled with opium dens, eating-houses, slums, market stalls and laundries. Chinese sailors, tanners and labourers strolled thestreets. She stayed close to Franky, who strode through the streets as if she owned them, and tried to emulate her confidence.
Bridget had never spent so much time outside of her lab. Usually she found socialising an exertion, even though she was practiced at it and could be a delightful hostess. At St. Mary’s School for Girls she had been trained to hold a conversation on any topic with the most difficult of characters, but she found it exhausting. She preferred being buried in a book, working on a calculation, concocting a potion or tinkering with an invention. Mathematics had definitive answers. People were confusing and contradictory and unreliable. She knew where she stood with science. That said, being with Franky was proving pleasant. Miss Doyle had a charming affability that Bridget enjoyed immensely.
They soon reached a disreputable looking establishment called Ah Sing’s. The building was made-up of worn looking bamboo and had a chequered patio out front. A grubby sign hung above the door and the raggedy curtains were drawn closed.
Franky ducked inside, Bridget followed.
Ah Sing’s was dark and filled with smoke. Men and women lay limp in beds inhaling opium vapour from pipes hanging out of their mouths. A glazed, distant look in their eyes. The air was thick with pitiful murmurs and coughs.
As Franky and Bridget headed to the back of the shop, they passed several men who were propped-up on benches, heating opium pipes over oil lamps, waiting impatiently for the pipes to warm so they could smoke.
They moved towards Kim, a young, pretty Chinese girl who sat guarding the entrance to the downstairs rooms where the card gamblers played. Her uncle always used her pretty face and persuasive manner to avoid unpleasantness with customers who had lost their shirt and needed to be encouraged to leave the premises.
Kim was dressed in an exquisite red, gold and blue silk garment, loose and flowing, with elaborately embroidered sleeves, and adorned by an unusual broach. Kim smiled broadly when she saw Miss Doyle approach. She leapt up and flew across the room towards her. Kim flung her arms about Franky’s neck, then drew back slightly and kissed her passionately on the mouth.
Bridget stared at them as their lips pressed ardently together. There was no mistaking it: it was a lover’s kiss. Bridget looked away, feeling as if she were intruding upon a private moment.
Franky managed to disentangle herself from Kim’s embrace and firmly pushed her back. She glanced at Bridget, unsure whether Miss Westfall was unworldly enough to know what that kiss meant or if, with all her book-learning, Miss Westfall had come across women who were Sapphist’s. Bridget didn’t appear shocked but nor could she meet Franky’s eye.
“I missed you so much!” Kim purred as she gazed, lovelorn, at Franky.
Franky felt uncomfortable. Kim had been her girl before she’d been thrown in The Tench but she hadn’t wanted to rekindle their romance. They’d had fun but that’s all it was. Kim was too petulant and flighty to form a long-lasting connection with.
“There isn’t time for that,” Franky insisted sharply.
Chang looked hurt and disappointed. She recoiled. “Always found time before,” she retorted. “Why else are you here?”
“Heard you might be able to put me onto The Freak of Finchley.”
Kim scowled. “What do you want with her?”
“Can you help or not?” Franky demanded, not meaning to sound quite so impatient.
“Maybe,” Kim said teasingly. “Maybe not.”
Franky sighed wearily. “Which is it?”
“What do I get in return?” she tried to loop her arms about Franky's neck.
Franky ducked out of her reach. “Kimmie!”
Kim narrowed her eyes, her lips thinning with displeasure. “Her henchmen come by at the end of every day. To collect.”
Franky waited but Kim offered nothing more than a sulky pout. Franky frowned and started to turn away. Kim dropped the petulant act and grabbed hold of Franky’s arm, desperate to keep her there. “I heard one of them say she had a zeppelin. So no one could launch a surprise attack.”
“Clever,” Bridget muttered.
Kim’s gaze fell on Bridget, seeing her for the first time, and jealousy flared. “Oh I see!” She pushed Franky away, her tone angry and resentful. “Out with the old, huh?” Her glare was accusatory. “Got bored with my muff and moved on to her ladyships fruitful vine? Like that, is it? Got a hankerin’ for laced mutton?”
Franky looked apologetically at Bridget which only served to enrage Chang more.
Kim’s face crumpled with hurt. “Get out! Take your hussy and sling your hook!” she yelled.
Hastily they started for the door. Franky pressed her palm protectively against Bridget’s lower back, guiding her as they weaved between beds filled with opium-eaters.
Chang was still hollering, this time addressing Bridget. “Oh, she’ll do unholy things to you in the shadows and then profess she never met you! You’ll see Lady Muck!”
They burst out onto the street.
Clear of the smoky environment Bridget took a deep breath, cheeks flushed and heart racing, she was unaccustomed to being the focus of that kind of confrontation.
Franky glanced nervously at her. “Sorry 'bout that.”
Bridget peered back at her companion, eyes warm and full of understanding. “It was not your fault.”
Franky still felt mortified. For the first time in her life she wanted someone’s good opinion. She wanted Bridget to think well of her. “You shouldn’t have to hear that kinda talk.”
Bridget rewarded her with a half-smile. “I attended a ladies finishing school. I assure you – I have heard worse!”
Franky grinned, the tension easing from her body. Miss Westfall was turning out to be astonishingly unshockable.
Bridget gently nudged Franky’s shoulder with her own and they started to walk down the street, side-by-side.
“Well, apart from learning about the zeppelin, that was a waste of time,” Franky lamented.
“Not quite,” Bridget amended.
Franky looked at her questioningly.
“Did you notice the broach Miss Chang wore?”
Franky shrugged. “That’s Ferguson’s marker. All her clients wear it - so everyone knows not to mess with ‘em.”
Bridget contemplated this new information. Franky could see the wheels of her mind turning.
“What?” Franky pressed.
“It is a hybrid design – the British Red Cross and the West African Adinkra symbol for Greatness.”
“Rumour has it she was a nurse in the Boer War,” Franky volunteered.
“Perhaps this is all connected to her time in Africa. Maybe that is why she covets my machine, to go back and change... what?” Bridget thought aloud.
“Why does she need your machine to go back? She can sail to Africa whenever she likes. She has the means.”
Bridget stared at Franky and then smiled quickly. “Yes, of course.”
Franky wasn’t fooled. “What aren’t you tellin' me about this machine of yours, Gidge? You expect honesty from me but won’t return it.”
“It is a dangerous invention. I wish I had never embarked on… For your own safety, I think it best that its function remain undisclosed - ”
“I don’t care a fuck about safety! Tell me what it does.”
Bridget was about to retort when something struck her from behind. She felt herself lunging forward with considerable force. Bridget hit the ground and felt the warm trickle of blood down her face. She heard a scuffle and Franky cry out. She looked up to see two burley men drag Franky into an alley.
Bridget struggled to sit up and raised a trembling hand to her head. Her fingers were coated in her own blood, there was a ringing in her ears, and her heart hammered in her chest. Her muscles screamed and her head stung as she got to her feet and staggered into the alley after them. She could not allow Miss Doyle… Franky… to be hurt.
After several twists and sharp turns through a cobbled alleyway she came upon the two men. They had Franky pressed-up against a wall, one gripped her by the throat and the other was snarling in her face. Franky’s eyes were wild, her toes skimmed the ground and her fingers scrabbled at the hand wrapped around her neck, trying to loosen his grip.
“You been askin’ a lot of questions,” said the first man.
“Let her go!” Bridget shouted.
The men ignored her.
Bridget hiked her skirt above her thigh and grabbed the gun she had secured in her garter. She took aim and shot the man who held Franky by the throat. A surge of electricity thundered out of the gun barrel and hit his back. His grip on Franky instantly slackened. He grunted in pain but remained standing. Bridget fired again. He released Franky and turned to face Bridget, took a couple of menacing lurches in her direction and then collapsed to the ground.
The second assailant stared at his lifeless friend and then gaped fearfully at Bridget, the gun smoking by her side as she fixed him with a cautionary look. She raised the gun and aimed it at him. He bolted and didn’t look back.
Franky slumped against the wall and rubbed her throat. She stared at the body on the floor. “Shit Gidge – you didn’t have to kill him! We’ll both hang for this!”
“He is not dead,” Bridget assured.
Franky kicked his leg. He didn’t respond. “Looks pretty dead to me.”
Bridget waved her weapon. “This is a ray gun,” she explained and noting the uncertainty in Franky’s face quickly placed it back in her garter and rolled her skirt down. “He was hit with a charge of electricity that disrupted the nerve signals from the brain to the muscle, causing his muscles to spasm, resulting in his collapse. He will be incapacitated for at least a quarter of an hour. He may feel disorientated for a short spell when he regains consciousness but there will be no lasting damage.”
Franky stared at her. “Glad you’re on my side, Gidge,” she quipped and rubbed her throat again, feeling his fingermarks on her skin. “Well we’ve upset someone so we’re on the right track,” Franky pointed out. “Lets scarper while the goin’'s good.”
They turned to retrace their steps back to the street but were impeded by a petite woman with dark hair. She was severe looking with tired eyes. Flanking her were four robust men, dressed in dark uniforms and standing to attention.
Franky’s eyes widened. She just hoped Bridget had enough ammunition in that ray gun to take them all out.
The woman looked down at the unconscious man and folded her arms across her chest. “Impressive,” she said.
“Thank you, Miss Bennett,” Bridget replied.
Franky looked startled and glanced questioningly at Bridget. “You know her?”
“Unfortunately. She heads the Royal Society of Technology & Defence, an undercover branch of the government,” Bridget answered.
“We have been trying to recruit Miss Westfall for some time,” Miss Bennett informed Franky. “Seems she would rather run about the streets with urchins like you in dangerous pursuits.”
“Oi!” Franky exclaimed, insulted.
Miss Bennett kept her focus on Bridget. “Why did you not come to me when your father went missing?”
“You are only interested in retrieving my machine. If he were in peril you would abandon him to save it!”
“I can help you.”
“How?” Franky asked.
“When you make the exchange with Ferguson – your father for the Tiraveller, my agents could be there. We could ensure your father’s safety. Ensure Ferguson does not get away with the Tiraveller.”
Bridget smiled bitterly. “In exchange for what?”
“Your good faith,” Miss Bennett replied. “We are not your enemy, Miss Westfall. We want you with us.”
Bridget shook her head. “I will not let you have it. I will not let her have it. I shall destroy it first.”
“It is a miracle of science. It would revolutionize the world - you cannot destroy it!” Miss Bennett took a step towards Bridget who moved back skittishly.
Franky suddenly felt cold with fear – she had no idea what this bloody Tiraveller machine did but clearly people were prepared to kill for it.
Miss Bennett fixed Bridget with a look, her voice soft and admiring. “Your mind is remarkable. Quite before its time. Think of all the wonderful things we could accomplish, all the resources that could be at your disposal, if you joined us. Let us have the Tiraveller. Let us explore its potential together.”
“In the wrong hands it would be disastrous. It could be used as a weapon, could be used to alter the very fabric of the universe. It is too dangerous not to be destroyed.”
“Then why haven’t you?” Miss Bennett challenged.
Bridget looked down.
“What does it do?” Franky piped up.
A faint smile graced Miss Bennett’s mouth. “You haven’t told her?” Her expression was one of smugness as she shifted her gaze to Franky. “Well, Miss Doyle, it is the greatest invention of all time. A feat of engineering and Miss Westfall will be hounded all of her days for people desperate to get their hands on it. You have walked into a vipers nest and there is no escape.”
Franky looked at Bridget, who couldn’t meet her eye. She was also disgruntled that Miss Bennett knew her name. How? There was no time to quiz Miss Bennett for her assailant, out cold on the floor, began to stir.
“We shall see to him,” Miss Bennett said. “You should be more careful Miss Westfall. Now why do you not return to Claremont before real harm befalls you?”
Miss Bennett clicked her fingers and one of her soldiers marched off in the direction of the street. Miss Bennett indicated for Franky and Bridget to follow, they did.
When they reached the street a cab was waiting. They climbed in and Miss Bennett shut the carriage door decisively. She leaned in through the open window, her eyes trained on Bridget. “Consider what I have said. You know where to find me. Until then, stay confined to your lab, for all our sakes,” she cautioned.
She hit the flanks of the horse and the carriage sped off in the direction of Hyde Park. Franky and Bridget sank back against the plush velvet-lined seats of the carriage. Neither spoke. The thudding of horses hooves filled the silence.
Finally Franky found her voice. “I deserve answers. I wanna know what this machine of yours does or our deal's off.”
Bridget nodded. “Very well. When we return home I shall tell you everything.”
Chapter 4: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 4
As the cab they’d arrived in departed down the drive, they trudged wearily up the marble steps of Claremont. Bridget leaned against the door frame and rang the bell. A moment passed before Hamilton opened the door. His customary nonchalance dissolved and his eyes widened with alarm at their dishevelled and bloodied appearance.
“Whatever has happened?” he asked with genuine distress, helping them into the foyer.
Bridget and Franky collapsed on the chaise longue by the stairs as Hamilton shut the front door.
“I shall tell you shortly – but it has been a long day and I have never been in more need of a bath!” Bridget appeased.
“Are you hurt?” he indicated the gash on her head.
“Should I send for the doctor?” he suggested.
“Best not arouse suspicion. I should have difficulty explaining how I came by such injuries.”
“I’ll fix you up,” Franky said. “Dab of gin on that and you’ll be good as new.”
Bridget smiled half-heartedly at her. Despite their violent run-ins today, Miss Doyle did not seem to have lost her gusto or fortitude.
“I shall draw you both a bath,” Hamilton declared, ringing the service bell for assistance and already heading for the stairs.
Bridget was about to protest as she didn’t like asking Hamilton to do things she could easily do for herself but everything hurt and the idea of sinking into a drawn bath was too tempting.
“I meant what I said,” Franky declared when they were alone.
Bridget held her eye. “So did I. Let’s get cleaned-up, a meal inside us, then I shall tell you what you want to know.”
She got to her feet first and offered her hand to Bridget, who took it. Her grasp was light as Franky hoisted her to her feet and the two women moved tiredly up the stairs. Every muscle aching.
At the top of the landing they went their separate ways.
Franky arrived at her room to find Milly standing over a tin bathtub. She was a spritely and persistently cheerful girl, no more than 18. She was filling the bathtub from a giant, bubbling, copper urn. The urn was attached to a trolley and had a large tap sprouting out of the base from which poured steaming hot water.
“Amazin’ innit? The Mistress invented it,” Milly said proudly. “Saves us to-ing and fro-ing with the kettle!”
Exhausted and in no mood for idle chatter, Franky stripped out of her dirty clothes and let them drop to the floor. The maid blushed and quickly scuttled off – taking the monstrous urn contraption with her.
Franky stepped into the tub and sank down. She scrubbed herself all over with carbolic soap and gave her hair a thorough wash too. For a moment she lay back in the tub and relaxed. Steam whirled about her. The hot water soothed her fatigue and she let out a contented sigh. She may have been roughed-up today but this job certainly had its perks.
When Franky got out of the tub, she wrapped a towel around herself and went to put on one of her new dresses. When she saw they were gone from the bed, she looked about her in confusion, then opened the wardrobe to find her new dresses hanging up. Stacked at the bottom of the closet were her shoes. The hats were on the shelf above. She opened the top drawer of the dresser to see her gloves and clicked her tongue in annoyance. If Franky were anywhere else she’d knock the maid’s block off for touching her things.
When Franky entered Miss Westfall’s lab, Bridget was clean and changed and curled-up in the wicker chair by the stove. The shabby quilt covered her legs and Darwin dozed in her lap. A tray of tea and plate of sandwiches and cold cuts sat on a foot cushion beside her. Franky noticed a second chair had been added; a large leather armchair.
“Help yourself,” Bridget indicated the food.
Franky was always ravenous; she’d grown-up hungry and had learnt never to refuse food because she never knew where her next meal was coming from. So she moved closer, scooped up several sandwiches and crammed them into her mouth as quickly as possible, barely giving herself time to chew.
“Tell the maids to stay out of my room, I don’t like anyone touchin' my stuff,” she said tersely, mouth still full. She grabbed a handful of cold cuts and rammed them into her mouth too.
Bridget looked mildly amused. “Of course.”
Franky took a swig of tea from a cup Bridget had already poured for her. She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and resisted the urge to smack her lips in appreciation. Mrs. Jenkins made a mean sandwich and an even meaner brew.
Franky pulled the empty armchair close to the stove. The oil lamp burnt low, bathing Bridget’s features in an ethereal glow. Franky sat down, her limbs moulded into the seat; it was the most comfortable piece of furniture she had ever sat on. She leaned back and nestled into the chair.
The fire crackled and flickered, comforting and warming. After the day they’d had it was welcome respite.
Bridget glanced over at her new companion and they exchanged a smile.
To her astonishment, Bridget found she could be silent with the former inmate. A comfortable silence she had found with few outside the confines of Claremont. Despite their wildly different backgrounds, they shared a tacit understanding. Franky was canny and astute and Bridget found her esteem for her new acquaintance growing by the hour. That Miss Doyle was also strong and lithe and startlingly beautiful had no sway with her, Bridget assured herself.
Franky noticed the gash still visible on Miss Westfall’s scalp. She tried not to wince, felt guilty that Gidget had been hurt on her watch.
They sat in silence contemplating each other.
They both knew it was time and Bridget had every intention of being as honest as she could. She felt she owed Franky the truth. Miss Doyle had been nothing but forthright since they met and Bridget hated that she had to be so constrained. She wanted Franky to trust her.
“When you’re ready,” Franky said evenly, reading her mind.
Bridget stared into the flames of the stove. The fire hissed and spat in the stillness of the room.
“I just hope you believe me.”
“I will,” Franky pledged. She’d seen so much strange shit in the last two days that there’s nothing she couldn’t believe.
Bridget took a steadying breath and glanced over at Miss Doyle. “I built a machine that can travel through time. It is called the Tiraveller.”
Franky blinked uncomprehendingly. “What?”
“I discovered how to control the rate of temporal acceleration - ”
“In English!” Franky exclaimed.
“Whoever uses it can travel to any point in time.” Bridget tried to simplify her explanation. “Think of time as a book. The history of the world – everything that has ever happened or will happen - is a book. Whoever has this machine can dive in and out of the chapters. Say here and now is chapter 8 - they could jump to chapter 20 and then jump back to chapter 5. Whoever possesses this machine has great power. With knowledge of what is to come, they have the power to change things. Prevent events or bring about different events. Change our lives, alter our history forever. Bend it to their will. Do you see? Do you understand why I cannot risk the Tiraveller falling into the wrong hands?”
The magnitude of the situation hit Franky and she nodded sharply.
“It is imperative that neither Ferguson nor Miss Bennett gains control of the Tiraveller,” stated Bridget.
“Yes,” Franky agreed resolutely.
Bridget seemed relieved.
“You’ve hidden it, right? Somewhere safe, somewhere far away?” she asked.
Bridget smiled. “Plain sight is always the best option. People are looking so hard for it; they cannot see what is under their noses.”
Franky felt oddly unreassured by this. “Why did you invent it anyway?” she probed, it was curiosity not accusation.
“To see if it could be done. Sometimes I do not think ahead. I become swept-up in the joy of discovery and do not see all the pitfalls.” Bridget’s brow furrowed, eyes downcast, disappointed by her own ineptitude.
“Because your intentions are pure,” Franky said softly. “You can’t imagine anyone else’s motives being otherwise. I’d hardly call that a fault.”
Bridget smiled brightly then, aware of how touched she was and trying desperately to ignore the hammering of her heart as Franky gazed at her. Bridget’s expression grew solemn again. “My father is my weak spot. Ferguson knows I would do anything to keep him safe, she knows I would not negotiate unless I had to.”
“You really love him, don’t ya?”
“Of course. Do you not love your parents?”
There was a long silence.
Bridget peered at her companion quizzically. “You are so guarded over your heart but not your tongue. It is a curious combination.”
Franky snorted with laughter. “I think that’s the nicest insult I’ve ever had!”
“It was not meant as an affront,” Bridget said hastily.
Franky folded her arms across her chest and laid her head back against the chair. “I don’t do talking.”
“I prefer action.”
“Humour me. I know almost nothing about you, save what I have read in your prison file and that is not you. Not the real you. Paint me a picture,” Bridget requested, her tone gentle.
Another long silence.
Franky glanced at Bridget and felt a twinge... Miss Westfall had been nothing but kind and patient with her. She had been honest when Franky had asked it of her, she had listened when Franky told her to and done as Franky had bid when they were at Wentworth and Ah Sing’s. She’d also saved Franky from a good thrashing. The brunette rubbed her neck. She felt her stomach tighten, felt her nerves blaze as she began to speak. “My Dad looks out for himself, I only see him when he wants something. My Mum put me in an orphanage when I was 6.”
Bridget looked at her tenderly. She swallowed hard and her voice came out hoarse. “I am sorry. Sometimes I forget how privileged I am.”
Franky shrugged again. “Luck of the draw. You don’t got to feel bad just cos you got a good deal. Where is your Mum anyway? I’ve not seen hide nor hair of her since I got here.”
“Nor will you. She has not left her rooms for eight years.”
Franky let out a low whistle. “What’s wrong with her?”
“Nothing the doctor can find and he has been looking, believe me.” Bridget sounded resigned. “Every day is a new ailment, a reason not to leave her room. I hardly see her. Not that we were ever attached. She is not particularly... nurturing. When I was a child she did not like me to get too close to her in case I got her dirty. She did not like to spend time in the nursery because it gave her a headache. My laughter was too loud and my play too rowdy but my father... he took joy in everything, in teaching me everything. We are great friends and I cannot imagine a world without him.” She smiled brightly, her eyes filled with fondness.
This confession made Franky want, for the first time, to talk about her mother. To share something of herself. “My Mum was a seamstress. She could make a shirt in a day. I remember watchin' her sewin' by hand in poor light, she could barely afford candles. Needed 12 shirts to earn six shillings, if she was lucky.” Franky sounded wistful. “Wasn’t enough. Couldn’t feed us both and pay the rent. So she gave me up.”
“Did you ever see her again?”
Franky gave a quick shake of her head. Eyes dulled with sadness. Bridget waited for Franky to continue. After a moments silence, Franky finally added. “Last I heard she died in the poor house.”
“I am sorry,” Bridget consoled.
“That’s the way it goes.”
Bridget looked reflective. “You sound as if you hold no grudge.”
Franky shrugged. “What’s the point? Won’t change nothin’. I used to be a mudlark, scavenged the Thames bank for what people threw away to sell. Even collected dog shit and sold ‘em to the tanneries. Leftover cigar butts – we rewrapped them and sold ‘em as new. Learnt every trick in the book. Had to. To survive. She taught me that. Now I don’t need anyone. Self-sufficient, me. Best gift anyone can give you, being independent.”
Bridget smiled knowingly. “I understand that, believe me, but are there not times you...”
Bridget struggled to find the right words. “Do you ever get lonely?”
Franky seemed surprised by the question. For a moment her bravado failed and Bridget saw a streak of hurt, anger and hope run deep within her.
“Never really thought about it. I’ve always got people around me,” she replied.
“That is not the same as having someone.”
Franky tilted her head and studied Bridget. “Could say the same about you. Shut-up in your lab with just your Dad and Hamilton for company.”
Darwin let out a little yelp, as if insulted at being overlooked. They both looked down at him.
“And Darwin – my apologies,” Franky amended.
She looked up from the mechanical dog snuggled in Bridget’s lap to see Gidget’s blue eyes gazing inquisitively at her and knew another question was poised on the scientist’s lips. She’d never met anyone who asked so many infuriating questions.
“Tess is younger than you so how did she - ” Bridget began.
“You ask a lot of questions, Gidge.”
“I have a curious nature.”
“That’s one word for it.”
Bridget smiled, it was radiant and breath-taking and Franky had to look away. She plucked at the arm of her chair. “Hey - you should invent a machine that can read people’s minds and then you wouldn’t have to ask so many questions.”
“I just might,” Bridget said thoughtfully. “Then I could work out the human mind and its mysteries and stop people from committing crimes and unspeakable acts.”
“Oi! Not all crims are wicked.”
“No,” Bridget agreed. “You stole because you would have starved if you did not. I understand that. Any reasonable person could. It is the likes of Ferguson I cannot fathom. People who enjoy doing evil to others and take pleasure in their pain and torment. That I shall never understand.”
Franky nodded. “She’s got dead eyes that one. Look right through you. They say she wears black gloves cos her touch can turn a man to stone. She has henchmen but she doesn’t need them. She’s got the devil in her. Dark and wild. I’ve seen her rip out a woman’s tongue with her bare hand. Tore it right out like it was nothin’.”
A chill ran through Bridget. The idea of her beloved father, so good-natured and brilliant, at Ferguson’s mercy was sickening. Hidden away in some dark hovel, like a caged animal. She shivered again.
Franky noticed and was sorry she’d spoken at all. “I always say too much. Gets me in terrible strife. I’m sure your father’s fine. Ferguson’ll take care of him as it wouldn’t do to hurt him, would it?” she reassured gently.
Bridget nodded, a little too forcefully and winced as the gash on her scalp began to bleed again.
“Let me,” Franky said and got to her feet.
She crossed over to the dresser, filled the basin with water and picked-up a cloth. Then she knelt beside Bridget and soaked the cloth in the water. She wrung it tightly, then raised it to Bridget’s wound. Her nimble fingers gently applied pressure. Bridget hissed a little, her eyes closed against the pain and the headache resounding in her skull.
“He got you pretty good,” Franky murmured.
Bridget’s eyes opened and looked kindly at Franky. Her gaze dipped to the finger marks on Franky’s throat. She reached out and brushed a fingertip across a newly forming bruise. Franky didn’t flinch. “Got you pretty good too.”
Franky gave her a half smile. “I’m used to it,” she said flippantly. Living on the streets she’d met plenty of unsavoury characters who’d done far worse.
It was meant to lighten the atmosphere, instead Bridget’s eyes filled with concern. Franky suddenly felt self-conscious, which disconcerted her. She rinsed the cloth, breaking eye contact with Bridget and dipped it in the cool water again before pressing it lightly against Bridget’s delicate skin. Franky had never seen anyone with skin so smooth before. Everyone she knew was covered in scars, tats, blisters, boils or some blight. Bridget’s skin glowed, Franky was tempted to run her fingers along Gidget’s jaw... but didn’t dare. She didn’t want to break the spell binding them in that moment.
When the wound clotted, Franky drew back the damp cloth.
“Thank you,” Bridget said quietly. Her face tilted towards Franky. A few lines round her eyes were visible as she smiled.
Franky got to her feet and returned the basin to the dresser.
When she took the armchair again she realised the lady had fallen asleep. Franky smiled to herself and settled further into her chair. It was more comfortable than most beds she’d slept in. Half the time she ended up in Liz’s attic at Wentworth Inn with nothing but a draft, rats and Boomer’s snoring for company. She stretched out her legs, her toes warming by the fire, her back arched, letting out the knots of the day. It had been a long, trying day but they had made a good start.
Franky’s gaze lingered on Gidget’s face as the blonde slumbered and Franky thought this might just be the most pleasant way she’d spent a night. She yawned and her own eyelids flickered shut.
Soon they were both sound asleep, worn-out, warm and peaceful.
Josiah Westfall’s head bobbed down in exhaustion. He straightened-up, trying to stay awake. His eyes strained against the darkness. He didn’t know how long he’d been here. Days? Weeks? He was cold, his limbs stiff from being tied to a chair. A hood covered his face. He was airborne, he’d deduced that much. He could feel the lightness in his stomach and the pressure in his ears.
He was being guarded, had been given food and water, hadn’t been ill-treated, but no one had spoken to him. He had shouted himself hoarse demanding to know who was holding him and why. He suspected it was something to do with Bridget’s invention. The only difficulty in having a genius daughter was the world viewed her as a commodity, as the brainchild of incredible things they coveted for their own selfish ends.
Josiah had feared this day would come and he had made Bridget promise not to endanger herself or hand-over any invention she deemed dangerous. He just hoped her resolve held; he did not wish to be responsible for the downfall of humanity. His was one life, in the face of many he was prepared to be sacrificed.
He heard footsteps. Slow and menacing. The blood pounded in his ears as fear gripped him. The hood was snatched off his head and he blinked. He glanced around. The room was dark with no windows. He was surrounded by cargo. No other clues.
A shadowy figure stepped in front of him. He craned his neck up. Steely black eyes met his.
“Mr. Westfall,” said an emotionless voice.
He blinked again.
Ferguson lowered her face to his. “I apologise for my methods but your daughter has left me no choice. She refused to cooperate and so I have been driven to extreme measures.”
“She will not hand it over to you,” he protested, struggling against his restraints.
Ferguson smirked, full of smug nefariousness. “Oh, I think you will be pleasantly surprised. I expect your stay with us to come to a close very soon.”
He shifted forward in his seat, the ropes that bound him cutting into his skin. “She will not exchange the Tiraveller for me.”
“She loves you. That is her frailty. She will give me anything I ask in exchange for your safe return.”
Ferguson stepped back and the hood was thrown over his head again. He heard her receding footsteps and struggled futilely, soon wearing himself out.
Franky was awoken by a loud ringing. She stirred as Bridget bustled across the room at great speed, a flurry of activity. She opened a secret panel next to the bookcase to reveal a cubby hole. Inside was a periscope and horn that hung from a hook attached to the wall by a long curly wire. Deftly Bridget unfolded the periscope and peered through the eyepiece.
Franky stood up and stretched, yawning loudly.
“Oh dear!” Bridget groaned as she saw through the spyglass their unexpected guest standing on the front doorstep. “Mr. Jackson is at the door.”
“Who’s Mr. Jackson?”
“My fiancé,” Bridget replied as she packed the periscope back into its slot and picked up the horn, speaking directly into it. “Send him up,” she instructed Hamilton, who was on the other end, then replaced the horn on its hook and closed the cubby hole.
Franky’s mind reeled with this new information. “You have a fiancé?!” she exclaimed.
Bridget nodded absently and moved to stand in front of the mirror above the fireplace, trying to make herself presentable. She tucked several loose curls of honey coloured hair back into her bun and pinched her cheeks while Franky stared at her incredulously.
“You didn’t tell me you were engaged,” Franky sounded wounded.
“You did not tell me you kissed girls,” Bridget retorted.
That startled Franky. Neither of them had mentioned her embrace with Kim but clearly Bridget had registered it and all it implied.
Bridget straightened her skirt and then looked over her shoulder at Franky, her gaze soft. “It was arranged by our parents when we were children. I do not wish to marry him, I have yet to find a way to tell him. He is persistent. He cannot see that we would make a bad match. I have many interests, Miss Doyle, none of them men.”
Before Franky could be comforted by this there was a knock at the door and Bridget stepped around Franky to receive her visitor. "Come in," she called.
Franky felt a surge of something bitter and ugly unfurl within her... She thought she had Bridget Westfall all to herself. Yet here Gidget was, surprising her again. It seemed every time Franky thought she had Miss Westfall figured out, Bridget surprised her. Her head ached a little and she felt stupid for thinking she had any claim on Gidget. As soon as they found Bridget’s father they would part company and she would never see the enchanting inventress again.
The lab door opened and Mr. Jackson entered. He was tall and burley but had a kind face.
He reached for Bridget’s hands and they held onto each other familiarly. Bridget smiled at him with all the warmth of an old friend, his smile was much wider.
“I apologise for the early hour of my visit but I was most worried about you since your father’s disappearance. I called in yesterday but Hamilton said you were out. I had to see you, to ensure you were - ” he stopped dead when he noticed Franky. His questioning gaze flitted between the two women.
Bridget took the opportunity to reclaim her hands and drew back from Mr. Jackson, she signalled for Franky to come closer. “Will, this is my companion, Miss Doyle.”
He nodded politely at Franky as she stepped forward. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Franky did a mock curtsey and battered her eyelashes in an exaggerated fashion. “Likewise, I’m sure.”
Bridget bit her lip to stop from smirking. She wrung her hands together, then said. “She is staying with me through this difficult time.”
“Good,” Mr. Jackson said emphatically. “Then I need not worry about you being quite so alone here.”
“Indeed,” Bridget answered.
Just then Darwin came yapping from under Bridget’s workbench. He snapped at Mr. Jackson’s heels, bearing his metal jaws. Mr. Jackson jumped back, startled.
“Bad boy Darwin!” Bridget chided.
It was Franky’s turn to hide a smirk as she reached down to pat the pup on the head, Darwin stopped barking and leaned into her touch. His little tail wagging happily. Both Bridget and Mr. Jackson seemed surprised.
“He appears to have taken a shine to you Miss Doyle,” said Mr. Jackson.
“He’s a good judge of character,” Franky replied pointedly.
“Yes... well...” Mr. Jackson trailed off.
The wake-up clock on the table suddenly sprang into life. The hammer hit the gong and it echoed vociferously through the room. Bridget rushed over to it and tugged on a lever which seemed to calm it. Then she turned back to her audience, eyes intense. “Do excuse us, Will. Miss Doyle and I have plans for the day and must not be delayed.”
Mr. Jackson seemed thrown. “No, of course not. I shall bid hello to your mother if I may, then take my leave.”
“Of course,” Bridget agreed. “She will be pleased to see you.”
He stepped forward hopefully. Bridget hesitated. She glanced awkwardly at Franky, who turned her back to them and pretended to gather-up papers on Bridget’s workbench. But she saw, reflected in the mirror, Mr. Jackson lean tentatively towards Bridget. He lowered his head to kiss her lips but she turned her face away and his mouth brushed her cheek instead.
He drew back, disappointed. Bridget glanced at the floor.
“See you soon, dearest,” he said affectionately.
“Yes,” she mumbled.
He headed towards the door, giving a small nod to Franky as he walked past. “Miss Doyle.”
Franky returned the courtesy and watched him leave.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Bridget’s entire body teemed with relief. “Let’s have breakfast,” she said, “and then I have a surprise for you.”
Franky beamed, pleased it was just them again and curious as to what the surprise could be.
Breakfast was served in the dining room. They crowded together at one end of an immense table that could easily accommodate 40 people. They gorged on toast, eggs, mushrooms, sausages, bacon and kippers. Franky ate till she could stomach no more and was sure she felt the stitching of her dress loosen. She used a napkin to wipe her mouth, trying to improve her manners around Miss Westfall, when she noticed Bridget staring at her.
“You have a healthy appetite,” Gidge said admiringly.
“For many things,” Franky replied mischievously.
Bridget cleared her throat and Franky wasn’t sure but she could swear a slight blush had risen in her cheeks. She was about to tease Bridget further when Hamilton walked briskly into the room carrying a silver tray. He strode with purpose to Bridget and held out the tray. On it was a letter. Bridget’s countenance shifted to one of dread. She looked up at Hamilton, whose expression matched her own.
“One of her henchmen delivered it.”
“Bet it was Jesper,” Franky guessed.
“I didn’t recognise the gentleman,” Hamilton replied.
“Did he have a fly rink?” she asked.
Hamilton looked puzzled.
Franky mimed a bald head. “Fly rink? And a Parish pick axe?” she mimed a big nose.
“I believe the gentleman in question matches that description, yes.”
“That’s jesper. Nasty piece of work.”
Bridget reached for the letter. Her eyes squeezed shut for a moment, then she tore it open.
“What does it say?” Franky asked.
Bridget held the note out to her. Franky shook her head, embarrassed. “I can’t read.”
This snapped Bridget out of her distress. She seemed shocked, then quickly recovered and took the note back up.
“It says; Limehouse docks, 10pm, tomorrow. Bring what I want or your father dies.”
“Well,” Franky sighed shakily. “That still gives us a chance to find him before the rendezvous.”
Bridget turned back to Hamilton and tapped her chin twice. He nodded and quickly departed. Bridget stood up and indicated for Franky to follow her.
She led Franky upstairs, to the lab, and closed the door behind them. Picking up a small leather case and moving towards the mantelpiece, she had an air of grim determination. A concentrated weariness and readiness. Like a warrior preparing for battle.
Bridget held out her hand and drew Franky close. “I am going to trust you Franky. More than I have anyone. I hope it is not misplaced,” she whispered.
Franky felt her heart thud at Gidget’s nearness and the longing to deserve that trust. She nodded dumbly, hoping the sincerity in her eyes was enough to assure Bridget.
Miss Westfall released her and reached out to the mantelpiece. She slid her fingers deftly under an acorn engraving, pressed something and the mantelpiece swivelled open, like a door.
Franky stared at the dark alcove behind the mantelpiece which led to a secret passage beyond. Bridget slipped into the secret tunnel. Franky followed. When they were huddled together in the alcove, Bridget swung the mantelpiece shut and led the way down a narrow spiralling staircase until they were underground, Franky could smell the richness of the earth and felt the chill in the air. She kept close to Bridget as she didn’t like the confinement of the tunnel or the pitch darkness but she trusted Bridget.
After several minutes they reached a moss-covered grille where sunlight filtered through. Bridget pushed it open and they emerged in the apple orchard behind the house.
Franky blinked as her eyes adjusted to daylight. Bridget closed the grille behind them and gazed soberly at Franky. “That is the quickest escape route from the house should you need it.”
Franky gulped. She didn’t like the ominous sound of that but she nodded anyway.
Bridget started across the orchard, Franky trailing after her as she strode towards the far side. Amidst a cluster of apple trees were a row of archery target boards. Bridget opened the leather case and pulled out a smaller version of the ray gun she’d used on their assailants yesterday.
She held the gun out to Franky. “You need to be able to protect yourself if anything should happen to me.”
Franky hesitated. “I don’t know Gidge.”
Bridget offered it again. “I shall teach you to use it properly.”
“What if I drop it in a struggle and someone turns it against us?”
Bridget smiled. “I considered that. I designed it so that no one but you can fire it.”
Franky stared at her in awe. “But how did you...” she paused. “Actually – don’t answer that, I wouldn’t understand even if you explained!”
Bridget grinned. “It will respond to your hand alone.”
“You’re a fuckin’ genius, Gidge. You know that?”
“It has been remarked upon before,” Bridget teased.
Franky was struck by just how brilliant Miss Westfall was and just how little she realised it. That saddened her. She took the offered gun. It felt surprisingly heavy. She let the weight settle in her hands, getting a feel for it.
Bridget gripped Franky’s shoulders and turned her to face the first target board. She leaned in close behind Franky and murmured in her ear. “It is slightly different from a gun – more kick-back because it fires a stream of electricity.”
Franky nodded, though she was finding it hard to concentrate with the feel of Bridget pressing against her.
“Aim,” Bridget instructed.
Franky gripped the gun in her right hand and raised her arm.
Bridget gently guided Franky’s left hand up to support her firing arm. “You will need all the control you can muster,” she explained, her breath warm against Franky’s neck.
Franky focused on the yellow circle of the target board.
“When you are ready, squeeze the trigger,” Bridget commanded.
Franky pulled the trigger. A bolt of electricity shot out of the barrel of the gun and hit the target board. It was intense and volatile. She struggled to keep the stream directed at the target. Her aim wavered and burned a jagged line through the target board. Smoke filled the air. Bridget’s arms were about her again, gripping her hands, steadying her... until Franky got the stream under control.
Franky released the trigger and the stream stopped. The target board collapsed in a smouldering heap. Franky took a deep breath. She felt powerful and slightly terrified. She turned to Bridget, the ray gun facing downwards, her smile dazzling and her eyes dancing. Bridget stood close to her and seemed to share in her euphoria. For a moment they swayed together as if unsure what to do with the intimacy of the moment.
Then Bridget stepped back. “Try again,” she encouraged. “This time on your own.”
Franky nodded and turned to face the second target, confident and primed.
Chapter 5: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 5
A/N: For the sake of moving the story along I’m ignoring redeemed!Alan Doyle in S5. Just go with it! It’ll all work out in the end!
After shooting practice they clambered into Bridget’s carriage, ready to head out into the world. The driver closed the door after Franky and awaited instructions.
“Ratcliffe,” Franky directed.
He stared at her mutely.
Franky turned to Bridget who also stared at her equally dumbfounded.
Ratcliffe was a place no respectable person of any class ever went. Infamous for brothels, bars, music halls and opium dens; it was the lowest rung on the ladder for squalor and debauchery. The spate of brutal murders back in 1811 hadn’t improved its reputation and it had been the site of one of the worst fires in London’s history, destroying 400 homes and 20 warehouses, leaving the population homeless while the area was shoddily rebuilt. In respectable circles, Ratcliffe was a pseudonym for hell.
Even Franky had to admit she was tentative about venturing there and was secretly grateful she had Gidget’s ray gun strapped to her thigh, but she needed information in order to help Bridget and this was the best way to get it.
“I know someone who might have dirt on Ferguson,” Franky elucidated. “Ratcliffe’s her stomping ground.”
Bridget nodded her permission to the driver, who touched his hat deferentially. He climbed up to the driver’s seat and eased the horses into a steady trot.
They ambled down Claremont’s drive. Their shoulders pressed together and their thighs brushed with every bump.
“You take me to all the finest places,” Bridget teased.
Franky smirked. “You’re not gettin’ prudish on me, Gidge?”
“No!” Bridget exclaimed, indignation flaring-up. She had many flaws but being a prig was not one of them.
“Good, cos Ratcliffe might make your eyes pop out!”
Bridget laughed, then turned her attentive gaze on her companion. “May I be so bold as to ask who this acquaintance is?”
“An old associate. Goes by the name of Red.”
Bridget frowned. “Most enigmatic.”
“She likes it that way. Moves in the shadows, knows most things about most things. Likes to be let alone.”
Bridget was willing to take any opportunity that meant she might get her father home safe. She peered out of the carriage window. The sky was overcast and threatened rain.
“Red’s leader of the Ministry of Misfits,” Franky continued.
“You’re not the only one with dodgy underground contacts you know!” Franky jested.
Bridget was unable to prevent a smile forming on her lips. She stole a glance at Franky; eyes shining, impertinent smile, and her heart fluttered. “What does The Ministry do?” she inquired, trying to keep her mind focused on the task at hand.
“It’s an underground agency pledged to protect the people. People what can’t turn to the authorities, if you know what I mean, when they need help.”
Bridget nodded; she was beginning to understand a lot of things. Franky had opened her eyes to a whole new world, one she was ashamed to admit she had been oblivious to before.
“Where do we find this Red?” she asked eagerly.
“We don't. She finds you,” Franky explained.
Bridget looked perplexed. “But how will she know we want her to find us?”
Franky grinned. “Don’t worry Gidge. I’ll make sure we pique her interest. Just... be prepared when she comes a callin'. She ain't the most social creature.”
Quarter of an hour later their carriage stopped on the outskirts of Ratcliffe. As they stepped out, Bridget looked about her apprehensively. She had put on her torn and muddied dress from their excursion yesterday but still felt like a trespasser. Yesterday had been amusing and exciting, but now Bridget felt unsafe and nervous.
Their carriage pulled away and Franky took Bridget’s hand. Their fingers entwined and Franky led her through the crowded streets. Raucous noise, unruly bustle, grime, degradation and seediness surrounded them. They passed people openly drinking and smoking on the streets. Men kissing and groping half-clad women in alleyways. Men brawling; blood and sweat spraying into the air. Crowds gathered round dogs fighting; snarling and lunging at each other. Bridget’s grip on Franky’s hand tightened. The brunette squeezed back, reassuringly, and kept marching forward, clearing a path for Bridget and making sure she took the brunt of the bumps and shoves from the boisterous mob.
The buildings were drab and covered in filth. The streets were a muddy sea, people were shoeless, shop windows broken, lodging house windows boarded-up. It was rundown and squalid. Bridget felt her heart sink. How had she lived her whole life without knowing how awful conditions were for some people? She felt thoroughly mortified and scared and useless.
Franky tugged her off the streets and into a fetid establishment. A pawnbrokers. Franky had a quiet word with an old man on crutches and one eye while Bridget hung back. Then they went to a tobacconists where bootleg goods were flagrantly being sold under the counter and Franky spoke to the shopkeeper. Next they stopped at a lodging house where Franky seemed to be a little too familiar with the maid. This galvanised Bridget; she felt a spark of jealousy and took an instant dislike to the maid; refusing to return the polite smile the girl offered as they departed.
Then they stopped at a coffee house for refreshment. Franky swore by their pies – said it was the only good thing in the whole of Ratcliffe. They sat at a table by the window. By now Bridget’s feet hurt, she was unaccustomed to so much walking; and the grimness of Ratcliffe was starting to affect her mood. She felt impatience and despair start to claw at her. Finding her father suddenly seemed an impossible endeavour and the grief of losing him, of never seeing him again, was overwhelming.
Franky sensed the despondency rise in Bridget and it troubled her. She would do anything in her power to ease Gidget’s mind, to share the burden.
“What are you thinkin’?” Franky asked considerately.
“If I do not find a way to outwit Ferguson I shall have no choice but to hand the Tiraveller over and suffer the consequences.”
“You could always fob her off,” Franky suggested. “Give her a toast-maker instead. She’d be half way to Africa before she realised!”
Bridget smiled appreciatively at Franky’s kind-hearted attempt to cheer her spirits. “Well, the advantage is she does not know what the Tiraveller looks like.”
“How did The Freak find out about the Tiraveller in the first place?” Franky inquired.
“I gave a talk on the hypothetical possibilities of time travel as part of The Royal Institute Christmas lectures last year. Then, in June, during Apple Day - ”
“We open Claremont to the public once a year. Have a fete in the orchard where the locals are invited to sample our apples and apple-blossom honey. Anyway, that evening, when I returned to my lab, someone had rifled through my papers.”
“She must have seen my initial drawings and calculations for the Tiraveller and realised it was more than theoretical. Soon after she made an offer on the prototype, when I refused she was most displeased. That is when I invented the number box - to secure Claremont against further intruders.”
Franky seemed disturbed. “She is determined. She’s used to getting what she wants. Her methods are unfair but effective, which makes her dangerous,” she paused. “We have to find a way to fix her.”
Bridget stared at Franky. “Pardon?”
“If we get your father back, can you see her stoppin’? Can you see her not houndin’ you every wakin’ moment until she gets her way?”
Bridget looked downcast. “No,” she admitted quietly.
“Maybe we could strike a bargain with Miss Bennett? Or The Ministry?” Franky suggested. “They could capture Ferguson and put her under lock and key. Then she couldn’t come after you again.”
Bridget leaned forward and grasped Franky’s hand. Her fingers curled around Miss Doyle’s. Franky’s concern for her welfare was touching and for the briefest of moments she no longer felt alone. She felt she could trust Franky with every aspect of her burdened heart.
Franky struggled to maintain her composure under Bridget’s fond gaze and the warmth of her touch. She felt betrayed by the hammering of her own heart and the crushing desire to kiss Gidget. She feared it showed in her eyes and after a halting, dizzying moment, Franky decided to –
A drunken man lost his balance and barged into their table. Instinctively their hands pulled apart and they both leaned back in their seats.
“'scuse me ladies,” the interloper slurred as he righted himself and continued on his way, laughing and yakking with his rowdy friends.
Bridget quickly schooled her features; she had forgotten herself for a moment and in such a public place. She couldn’t allow that to happen again.
“It’s bloody frustratin'!” Franky returned to full bluster, trying to dissolve the tension between them. “We know Ferguson is taking refuge in a zeppelin, just not which one! If only we could narrow it down.”
“London is 261 square miles and contains 106 zeppelins. We do not have the time or means to search them all.”
A plump waitress with a dirty apron and an enormous bosom brought their order of coffee and pie to the table. As she set the plates and coffee jug down, she slipped something under Franky’s plate, then wandered back to the kitchen.
Bridget took a sip of the coffee; it was bitter and strong; and exactly what she required to fortify her.
Franky casually lifted her plate and peered at a playing card with the Queen of hearts on it. She grinned and set the plate back down. “We got an appointment with Red,” she informed her companion.
Bridget blinked. “That was quick!”
Franky stood up and chomped into her pie before she noticed Bridget hadn’t moved. “Come on, Gidge! Eat up,” Franky hurried. “Red doesn’t like to be kept waitin’.”
Bridget got to her feet grudgingly. “I do not think I like this Red!”
Franky reached out and gently squeezed Bridget’s shoulder. “She’s on our side.”
Bridget remained unconvinced. She took a large bite of her pie, famished from the day’s exertions. It was surprisingly good. She took another sip of coffee and then let Franky lead the way to the exit at the back of the eatery.
They came out in a dingy alley. Laundry hanging from washing lines, unclean pots and pans from the coffee house piled haphazardly outside the door. No one in sight.
“You summoned us,” Franky called out to the empty lane.
Red seemed to appear from nowhere. Shrouded in a burgundy cloak, her face hidden by the hood, wisps of long red hair billowing in the breeze.
“You have a rendezvous with Ferguson tomorrow,” came her voice; stern and self-assured.
Bridget stepped towards her. “How did - ”
“I have spies everywhere. Nothin’ happens on my patch without me knowin’. Includin’ that contraption of yours.”
Bridget felt humbled; Red was clearly a woman who had remarkable reach.
“You know what my machine does?” Bridget asked.
“Yes and The Freak can’t be allowed to acquire it.”
Franky moved beside Gidget, bolstering her confidence. “Do you know why she wants it?”
“About her time in the army nursing core in South Africa?” Bridget guessed.
Red turned towards Bridget. Her face momentarily revealed by a flash of sunlight. “So you are as clever as they say. Yes. She was awarded The Royal Red Cross medal, did you know that? It’s a joke. Queen Victoria herself pinned the decoration to Ferguson’s breast for exceptional service, devotion to duty and professional competence in British military nursing. If she only know what a monster The Freak truly was.”
Red slipped back into the shadows again. “What few know is that while in Zululand Ferguson saved the life of an elder of the Adinkra tribe. In thanks he presented her with a diamond. Uncut. Pure. That’s where her fortune comes from, how she got her start. Well... those diamond mines are all empty now. Barren. But you can imagine how much they would be worth if, say, she were able to return to a time before it was known what treasures they harvested, bought the land and mined them herself. Thousands of diamonds. The land bought for a pittance. She’d be the wealthiest woman in the world.”
Greed. Such a tedious motive. Bridget felt disappointed and yet unsurprised. Somehow she had hoped for a more noble cause from Ferguson but, it always seemed to come down to greed. Mankind was a base creature.
“How did you come by this information?” Bridget asked.
“An informant. She infiltrated The Freak’s inner circle.”
“May I speak with her?” Bridget pressed.
Red shook her head sadly. “That won’t be possible. The Freak discovered she was working for us and had her silenced.”
Bridget reeled back. Ferguson was ruthless. She killed without qualm, without hesitation. If you were unfortunate enough to get in her way she removed you. Bridget had thought, in her addled brain, that everything would be fine. That she could somehow convince Ferguson to release her father, to be reasonable, but now she saw the futility of that wish. Saw that Franky was right; something had to be done to stop Ferguson.
“Who was it?” Franky probed.
Red turned her back on them, her shoulders tense.
Franky shrank back. “Shit. It was Debbie, wasn’t it?” her face glazed over in horror.
“Yes,” Red growled her reply.
Bridget glanced quizzically at Franky. “Who is Debbie?”
“Red’s daughter,” Franky answered.
“Oh,” Bridget murmured sympathetically. She returned her attention to Red. “Sorry for your loss.”
Red remained stoically silent.
“Do you know which zeppelin Ferguson resides on?” Franky questioned.
Red half turned to them. “If I did I’d have slit her throat by now,” she said savagely.
The wrath emulating from Red was palpable. Bridget could understand her fury. Wished she could ease it in some way but they were strangers and she suspected Red wouldn’t appreciate her empathy.
Red took a pained breath and then said calmly; “The Freak cut out the tongue of the last person to divulge her hideout and then buried them alive. No one has betrayed her confidence since.”
“Funny that,” Franky remarked glibly.
“Watch your step,” Red warned. Then turned and, like a zephyr, she was gone.
Finding themselves alone in the alley, Bridget and Franky exchanged a baffled look.
“Does this mean our business is concluded?” Bridget sought clarification.
“She’s not the chatty sort,” Franky replied.
“So I gathered.”
Bridget straightened her shoulders. She’d had enough of doublespeak and cloaks and daggers to last a lifetime. She longed for the sanctuary of her lab. For peace and quiet and time to think.
“Home?” Franky suggested.
Bridget smiled gratefully. “That would be lovely.”
As they crossed the threshold of Claremont Hamilton approached them gingerly.
“There’s a... gentleman here to see Miss Doyle,” he reported, then lowered his voice further. “I told him you were not at home but he insisted on waiting.”
Franky and Bridget exchanged a disconcerted look. They both tensed.
“Where is he?” Bridget asked.
With that, Hamilton withdrew.
Franky and Bridget moved towards the parlour. Bridget opened the door and standing there, hat in hand, scrawny and unkempt, was Alan Doyle. Franky recoiled at the sight of him. She hadn’t seen her father in years; not since he’d dragged her sister out of the shoe polish factory she worked in by her hair when Tess refused to hand over a shilling for him to spend on drink. Franky’s hands balled into fists at her side, she scowled and her lips drew back in a sneer.
“What are you doin’ here?” she demanded. Appalled that he had forced his way into this world, into Bridget’s inner sanctum.
He grinned, his teeth crooked, his face grimy and unshaven.
“Came to see my girl, didn’t I?” he glanced around the splendidly furnished room full of expensive objects and his eyes shone with opportunity.
Franky gulped back her hatred and the instinct to launch at him and throw him out. How dare he show up here and taint everything!
“Heard you’d gone up in the world, just wanted to see for me self. Make sure you was bein’ looked after.”
Franky snorted derisively. “Yeah, like when you made sure the orphanage was lookin’ after me?”
He remained unperturbed. “Oh don’t be like that little nipper. I don’ts hold no grudge. Neither should you. I done you a good turn if this is where you’ve ended up,” he took a step towards them, his gaze drifting to Miss Westfall. “And in such esteemed company.”
Franky stepped in front of Bridget, shielding her from Alan’s predatory eye. “I don’t know why you’re here but I want you to leave.”
“I’ll be on my way, I don’t want no trouble. Why don’t you see your old man out, Franky?”
It was the last thing Franky wanted to do but she figured the sooner she got rid of him the better. Bridget stayed back as Franky stepped out into the hall and Alan followed. They moved towards the front door, eyeing each other judiciously.
As they reached the door he leaned close. “Nice little set-up you’ve got ‘ere. I heard you was doin’ well for yourself.”
“So you decided to ruin it?”
“Now don’t be sore. I don’t wanta be no nuisance. Couple of bob will see me straight… if you don’t want me hangin’ around. Your lady friend can spare a few quid, surely? Every now and again.”
Franky glared at him with contempt. “I ain’t takin’ nothin’ from her, you hear? She’s been good to me.”
He shrugged, maintaining his carefree attitude. “She won’t notice a bit of silver gone missin’, a china vase or one of them fancy paintin’s… won’t make no difference to her. Not too much to ask for your old man... or I might just see me way to tellin’ her ladyship all about your sordid past. Knows all your secrets does she? Knows you’re a Tom? Bet her face’d turn a pretty scarlet at the mention of how many tart’s knickers you’ve had your hands down - ”
Franky slapped him. Hard. It startled them both. His cheek roughed red, her hand stung. For a moment, Alan’s facade dropped and he lunged at her, arm raised to strike, when he suddenly got control of himself. He smiled cruelly as he backed off. “You think about what I said. Think careful and don’t take too long or I might have to have a little chat with Miss Westfall, alone, and enlighten her about your true, distasteful nature.”
Franky opened the front door and he strolled through, putting his hat on and tipping it to Franky as he descended the steps. He began to whistle as he started down the driveway.
Shaking with fury, Franky closed the door and leaned against it.
Bridget appeared in the doorway of the parlour. Their eyes met. Gidge offered her an affectionate smile and Franky took a deep breath.
“Sorry,” Franky mumbled.
Bridget crossed the hall and placed a hand on Franky’s arm. “You have nothing to be sorry for,” she said soothingly. Her eyes were so trusting and her manner so open. Franky felt undeserving.
The moment expanded and constricted.
Franky pushed herself forward. They were stood so closely. She had the urge to pull Bridget into her arms, to brush her cheek with her thumb, to close the distance between them and press her lips to Gidge’s... but Bridget was engaged to Mr. Jackson, was not inclined to her own gender, was not available in the way Franky wanted her to be.
Franky’s eyes were a storm as she gazed intently at Gidget and wished she could express all she felt.
Bridget exhaled sharply and took a step closer to Franky. Her eyes soft and her lips inviting. “I heard what he proposed,” she said gently. “And I heard you refuse.”
She tilted her head and pressed a tender kiss to Franky’s cheek.
Franky could smell the delicacy of Bridget’s fragrance, feel the silkiness of her lips, the heat of her breath and a shiver ran through her. She smiled shyly as Bridget drew back.
Then she realised Bridget must have also heard…
Bridget worried her bottom lip. It was a time for complete candour. She rarely spoke of her inclinations, polite society had no open acceptance of them; it was all hidden and supressed. At school she had been friendly with a girl in her dorm, Lenna Cosgrove. They had been friendly for three years, until Lenna’s parents got wind of their intimacy and removed their daughter from St Mary’s. Bridget had never experienced such agonising intensity and hankering. The separation had been brutal and final. She sent letters but Lenna did not reply. Bridget guessed that Lenna’s parents had censored her correspondence. The last she heard Lenna had been sent abroad, to Venice, to a strict Catholic finishing school. Since, Bridget had had several brief and doomed love affairs, most notably with the Gardener’s daughter. That she decided not to dwell on. Only her parents and the Claremont household knew her deepest kept secret but in this moment, she desperately wanted to share it with Franky.
She had not felt anything akin to this before… this pull towards Franky. Someone who could match her. Someone to challenge her. Someone she had a desire to share her thoughts and body with. It was intoxicating. She wondered if Franky felt it too. If she was imagining all the stolen looks and lingering touches… or if she wanted it so much she was concocting the entire situation. Franky was a Tom too, she had seen her kiss that Chang girl… so maybe it was possible.
She leaned nearer to Franky, who stayed transfixed to the spot, gazing at her. Bridget’s chest heaved, her breath came in rapid spurts, her lips parted, she inched closer, maybe, just maybe they could -
The grandfather clock in the hall struck four o’clock and chimed. They both turned to it in surprise; startled out of the moment.
Time was running out.
The enchantment broken, Bridget’s thoughts immediately returned to her father. Her poor father who was locked-away somewhere while she was dawdling, no nearer to finding him.
Just then Hamilton rushed towards them, full of excitement and waving a copy of The Times newspaper.
“Do you still have that invite to Miss Proctor’s fundraiser ball this evening?” he clucked.
“Yes,” Bridget replied, somewhat puzzled.
“I think you should go!”
Bridget fixed him with an odd look. Like he had run stark mad. She loathed public events at the best of times and was certainly in no mood for one tonight.
“Look!” he pushed the society section of the newspaper under her nose. Pointing enthusiastically at a grainy photograph.
Bridget took up the paper. An article on Miss Proctor’s fundraiser dance being held at The Red Right Hand headquarters this evening had an accompanying photo of Miss Proctor stood with a donor, her women’s charity banner hung proudly behind her as she smiled at the camera. Franky peered over Bridget’s shoulder and they both studied the snap-shot.
“No way!” Franky hissed.
That’s when Bridget’s eyes spotted the broach on Miss Proctor’s lapel, half hidden by the orchid corsage she wore. It was Ferguson’s emblem; the Red Cross and West African Adinkra symbol entwined.
Bridget expelled a shocked breath. “That is impossible!” she exclaimed. “I have known Karen Proctor for years, she is of irreproachable character! Her charity has done nothing but good for hundreds of destitute women. She would never associate with the likes of Ferguson.”
“Unless she’s been taken in,” Hamilton countered.
“Think about it Gidge, The Freak needs a front for her crooked business deals – what better facade than a charity? Associate with someone legit, a do-gooder. If this Miss Proctor is as straight as you say, I’ll bet she don’t know shit about Ferguson’s ulterior motives.”
“I concur with Miss Doyle,” Hamilton pitched in.
Bridget smiled warmly at him. She trusted his judgement; he had never let her down in his fifteen years of loyal service.
“Oh!” Franky suddenly grew cold and she gripped Bridget’s arm as a realisation hit her.
“What is it?” Bridget asked, full of concern.
“I just remembered - my mum took me there once, to The Red Right Hand, to ask for a hand-out… and they had a zeppelin stationed above their headquarters.”
Bridget’s eyes grew wide.
“That could be where Ferguson’s keepin' your Dad – it would fit! No one would think to look there,” Franky reasoned.
Tears fell from Bridget’s eyes as she broke into a radiant smile. They may have found him! She had hoped for so long, kept her emotions tapered down… that now, the prospect that they were close, that she might see her father again, was almost too much to bear.
“You really believe so?” she asked, blue eyes expressive and buoyant.
Franky grinned. “There’s only one way to find out! Get you glad rags on and dust off your dancin’ shoes Gidge, we’ve got a ball to crash!”
Chapter 6: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 6
A/N: Sorry this installment took so long. RL has been insane the last few weeks. Here, have an epically long chapter as compensation!
I’ve also learnt more than I ever needed to about zeppelin’s so apologies if it’s overly descriptive in parts (though I am available for pub quizzes).
While Darwin napped in his basket by the stove, Bridget, Franky and Hamilton gathered around the chalkboard in the lab to formulate a plan. They ran through various scenarios. Ruled things in and out, imagined complications and the likeliest of obstacles.
“We could use the flying bicycle,” Hamilton suggested at one point (shortly after Franky’s unpopular idea of being put inside a freight box and being ‘delivered’ to the zeppelin).
They all turned to look at the flying bicycle propped against the wall in the far corner.
It had two saddles. Wings made of silk, with a wooden vertebrae, were melded to the frame. A rudder and several wind propellers were soldered on the rear, controlled by a hand wheel which hung from a gilded brass hood over the driver’s saddle. Affixed to the handlebars was a control panel with navigation instruments, including a gyro compass and an altimeter. There was also a foot ledge with a side bar attached on the right-hand side.
“Does it work?” Franky asked.
“It was airborne for 23 seconds,” Hamilton informed her.
“I have made some adjustments since then. In theory it should work perfectly.”
“In theory?!” Franky shot Gidge an alarmed look. “So what you’re saying is we could all die horribly?”
“It is possible,” Bridget conceded.
“Great,” Franky muttered, her stomach knotting.
“Provided we don’t plummet to our deaths in a horrific fashion, Miss Doyle and I could pedal. You, Miss Westfall, could stand on the foot ledge and disembark when we reach the zeppelin. Then we could circle until you find your father and are ready to escape,” Hamilton suggested.
Bridget bit her lip. “The last time I tested the flying machine it could bare the weight of four people but required constant pedalling or it would not remain in-flight.”
Franky remembered the ramp on the front lawn when she had first arrived at Claremont. That must have been the practice slope for the flying bicycle. She felt a sudden rush of tenderness for Bridget, imagined the blonde tinkering away in her lab, the excitement she must have felt when her invention went from theory to creation to fruition. Franky wished she had been here that day, just to see the joy on Bridget’s face.
“I’m sturdy but I don’t know about Hamilton,” Franky said and looked at him apologetically. “I noticed you have a stiffness in your legs when climbin’ stairs. Pedallin’ would put a strain on any injury you had.”
He smiled at her. “Your concern is most touching but I…” he glanced uncertainly at Bridget, who nodded. He turned back to Franky. “I am capable of pedalling for a sustained period, probably more than you.”
Hamilton raised a trouser leg to reveal a metal limb. Much like Darwin, his leg was constructed with iron cogs, springs and gears. Franky stared at him in amazement.
“As you can see, I am part automaton.”
“What happened?” she asked, without fear or judgement.
“An accident. In my former life I was supervisor of a cotton factory. My hand got trapped in a weaving machine and my legs were mangled as I tried to free myself. I contracted lockjaw as a result and nearly died. The doctor amputated both my legs and my arm to stop the infection from spreading.”
“Bloody hell!” Franky exclaimed. She winched in sympathy, not even wanting to imagine the excruciating pain Hamilton must have endured.
“I was lucky to be alive but I lost my position at the factory, lost my home, my self-respect and any hope of a fulfilling existence,” Hamilton said sadly. His eyes shifted to Bridget and he smiled fondly. “And then I met Miss Westfall. She gave me back the use of my limbs. I have been in her debt ever since. It has been a privilege to serve her.”
Bridget reached out and grasped his shoulder. “The pleasure has been all mine.”
Franky suddenly understood two very important things: the extent to which Hamilton would be loyal to Bridget and the depth of Bridget’s heart.
Hamilton rolled his trouser leg back down. “So you see, physical exertion is no matter to me. I could pedal all day and not tire.”
Franky smirked. “I’ll remember that when we’re circling the zeppelin for the fortieth time.”
He smiled, then added hesitantly. “Miss Doyle, I trust I can rely on your discretion in this matter.”
Franky mimed sowing her mouth closed and then crossed her fingers.
He smiled appreciatively. “Thank you.”
Franky clapped him on the back demonstratively. She had grown rather fond of Hamilton.
They decided it would be too dangerous to fly from Claremont to Highgate – the last thing they wanted was to draw attention to their mission. A flying bicycle soaring across London’s sky would most definitely not be covert. So they agreed Franky and Bridget would go to the fundraiser dance as guests, make their way to the roof and Hamilton would meet them there with the flying bicycle. A silent auction was due to take place, as a way to raise funds for The Red Right Hand. Rich benefactors donated items, Miss Proctor’s guests bid on them and The Red Right Hand walked away with a fat cheque at the end of the night. If asked, Hamilton would simply say Miss Westfall had donated the bicycle for the auction and get to the roof via the servants entrance.
Franky leaned forward in her seat. “Once we get up there,” she addressed Bridget. “How are you goin’ to board the zeppelin?”
Bridget pointed to the deck plan of the zeppelin she’d drawn on the chalkboard. “The ship’s Control Room is located at the bow of the Gondola. If I enter through the Passenger Lounge, I should avoid the crew. Most of the passengers will be guests at The Red Right Hand dance so the area should be deserted.”
“The lounge door will be locked from the outside, how are you goin’ to open it?” Franky quizzed.
Bridget and Hamilton exchanged a knowing smile.
“With this.” Bridget tugged on the key pendant around her neck. “There is no door this key cannot open.” She pressed something and the pendent flickered into life, cogs moving and shifting. “It can adjust itself to fit any lock.”
Franky stared at her in wonderment, eyes twinkling. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you’re a fuckin’ genius Gidge!”
Bridget blushed, simultaneously pleased by the praise and bashful of such open adulation.
“Your father will most likely be guarded,” Hamilton pointed out.
“Ray gun,” Bridget replied. “I shall configure it to give out a wider beam, to incapacitate anyone within a 15 yard radius.”
And thus they consolidated their plan. It wasn’t fool proof but it would have to do, the dance was an hour away and they had no time to waste.
They decided it would be an advantage if Franky attended the dance disguised as a man; not only was it practical (she could not pedal the flying machine in a ball gown) but it would also provide her with complete freedom of movement at the dance. Only men could roam, unrestricted, on such auspicious occasions.
Without delay, Hamilton took Franky to Mr. Westfall’s chamber. They riffled through his wardrobe and Hamilton helped her dress in one of Mr. Westfall’s tailcoat tuxedos with a pristine white shirt, white waistcoat and bowtie. He pinned it to fit her better without revealing her feminine curves. Hamilton then located a suitable wig and hid her long tresses beneath it.
“Can you imitate upper-echelon accent?” he asked as he artfully applied a smidgen of shoe polish to her chin to imply the beginnings of a beard.
“Talk like a toff ya mean?”
“Why, I shall endeavoooorrrr to try,” she said as poshly as she could.
It sounded false and strained.
Hamilton winced. “I know this may be difficult for you Miss Doyle but perhaps, for the duration of the dance, you should refrain from speaking as much as possible.”
“Oi!” Franky whacked his shoulder playfully. “Fine. I’ll speak only when spoken to.”
“A pity we cannot pretend you are a mute,” he said dryly.
Franky rolled her eyes but broke into a grin as Hamilton winked at her.
In the privacy of her bedchamber, Flora and Milly helped Bridget dress in the elaborate ball gown she had carefully selected for the occasion. It was a long sleeved fuchsia silk gown with a black lace mesh that adorned her arms and bodice. It took them a full twenty minutes to secure all the fastenings and hooks and pin-up Bridget’s hair in the latest Gibson Girl fashion. When they were done, the maids stepped back and stared at their mistress in awe.
Franky stood in the foyer by the door, looking dapper and feeling confident. She donned a top hap, gloves and clutched a cane, ready to depart, when Bridget appeared at the top of the stairs.
Franky’s heart caught as she gazed up at Gidget, who glided gracefully down the stairs. Her dress shimmered and the light hit her just so. Her ivory complexion was flawless and Bridget’s slender neck was extenuated by the Gibson Girl hairdo and the sapphire necklace adorning her throat. Her smile when she met Franky’s eye was luminous and Franky had to remind herself to breathe.
When Bridget reached the bottom step, Franky offered her arm proudly.
Bridget smiled shyly and took it. “You look very handsome,” Bridget complimented, raking her eyes over Franky’s suit.
“And you look very beautiful,” Franky returned, her voice low and sultry. “That’s quite a dress.”
“It is one of a kind.”
“Bit like you.”
Their eyes locked and a simmering tension filled the air.
“Your carriage is ready,” Hamilton informed them and held the front door open.
They tore their gaze away from each other and headed down the marble stairs, towards their waiting carriage.
In the dark intimacy of the carriage, they sat closely together.
“I find myself dreadfully nervous about tonight,” Bridget whispered, almost afraid to air her thoughts aloud. “So much can go amiss.”
“You’re a genius, Hamilton is part automaton and I’m a consummate con artist – we’re an invincible team! You’ll see. Come breakfast, when your Dad is home safe, you’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about.”
Bridget smiled unreservedly, and with more than a hint of adoration, at her companion. “You are in possession of a rare gift Francesca Doyle. The ability to put people at their ease in the direst of situations. Thank you for your reassurance, I feel better for it.”
“I just… miss him terribly.” Bridget said, subdued. “I have tried not to think of the worst possible outcome but I cannot help it. Dark thoughts plague me. If this evening does not go well then… I may never see my father again.”
“You will,” Franky soothed.
“I rue the day my path crossed with Ferguson’s,” she said resolutely. Then she glanced at Franky, her expression instantly softening. “Oh but how can I? The only good to come of this whole wretched business was meeting you.”
Franky smiled sadly. She’d give anything to restore Bridget’s peace of mind, to return her father to her safely, to have her be happy… but she couldn’t regret that, never that - she had no wish to return to her life before she knew Bridget Westfall. “I know this has been a difficult time for you and I am sorry for that. I would give anything to spare you grief but these last few days have been the brightest of my life.”
Momentarily startled by this confession, Bridget stared into Franky’s eyes, her gaze tender and unwavering. Franky offered a tentative smile. Bridget returned it tenfold and Franky was rendered speechless by her loveliness.
Bridget was grateful that they had found each other. That amidst all the mayhem and adversity she had found someone to trust, someone to share so much of herself with. She had no words to express this adequately and so Bridget rested her head against Franky’s shoulder. She remembered that Franky preferred demonstrations to words anyway.
The warmth of Bridget’s body poured into her and in that moment Franky felt a sense of belonging she had never known before. They stayed this way, silent and close, for the remainder of the journey.
The rain that had threatened all day fell out of the sky as soon as they arrived at The Red Right Hand headquarters in Highgate. This did not bode well – trying to navigate the flying bicycle whilst rain governed the sky would be difficult. At least there was no thunder and lightning, that would make their task nigh on impossible. For, if lightening should strike the bicycle, it could be fatal.
They stepped into the entrance hall arm-in-arm. A warm glow emanated from the candle chandeliers, large displays of ferns and roses were scattered about and in the adjoining ballroom waltzing couples were crowded onto the dancefloor. Seated around the edges, on extravagant red velvet chairs and settees, were approving parents eager to marry-off their off-spring. A sea of expensive evening wear and jewellery was on show. Music filled their ears, a chamber quartet of string musicians played, loud and joyfully, accompanying the cavorting couples, whose shadows danced across the wall, trying to keep up.
Miss Proctor was stood by the entranceway to the ballroom and moved towards Bridget with a pleasantly surprised expression. “I did not expect you,” she said, grasping Bridget’s hands, honoured to have the notoriously reclusive Miss Westfall at her event. “I had thought you might develop an incapacitating illness that, mysteriously, lasted as long as our dance.”
Bridget smiled amiably. “Two years in succession?”
Miss Proctor laughed good-naturedly.
Bridget indicated Franky. “May I introduce my cousin, Mr. Frank Doyle. This is his first visit to London.”
Miss Proctor smiled widely and extended her hand. “Pleased to meet you,” she said as if Franky were an old friend.
Karen Proctor was a handsome woman of four-and-six, she had a welcoming face and clear blue eyes that shone with good intentions. Franky sensed no underlying subterfuge and decided immediately that Miss Proctor had no knowing part in Ferguson’s schemes.
Franky took Miss Proctor’s hand and raised it to her lips. She kissed her knuckles. “The pleasure’s all mine,” she replied.
“How are you finding our fair city?”
“Full of charm and surprises,” Franky replied mischievously, giving Bridget a sassy wink.
Miss Proctor struggled to place her new acquaintance’s accent. “May I inquire where you are from?”
“Wentworth,” Franky replied quickly.
Bridget’s back straightened.
Miss Proctor looked puzzled. “Wentworth? I have never heard of it. Where, pray tell, is it?”
“In the country,” Franky offered vaguely.
“Yes… in… the North,” Bridget added.
To their immense relief, Mr. Jackson chose that moment to approach. He smiled glowingly at his fiancée. “Hello Bridget,” he took her hands and kissed her cheek familiarly. “You look radiant as ever.”
Miss Westfall’s smile stiffened. “Hello Will.”
“I did not know you would be in attendance this evening,” he said.
“I could not, in all consciousness, miss it,” Bridget replied.
She meant it too; it was a good cause. She always wrote cheques to The Red Right Hand and donated items for their silent auctions, and given her recent foray into Ratcliffe she genuinely wanted to do more to help. She just didn’t like to attend social events. She always got ram railed about her engagement to Mr. Jackson and asked a thousand questions about fashion (which she had no interest in) and floral arrangements (which she had even less interest in). The amount of hours her set could dedicated to mindless prattle never failed to astound her. Valuable time she could spend in her lab, with her father or, now, with Franky.
“I am glad to have you here,” Miss Proctor declared.
Mr. Jackson and Miss Proctor shared a satisfied look.
Franky sensed a strange attraction between them; faint but distinct.
“You must be sure to secure Miss Proctor in a waltz before her dance card is filled,” Franky baited.
Mr. Jackson turned to Franky, giving her a confused look. She saw him struggle to place her.
“You remember my cousin, Mr. Frank Doyle,” Bridget said, a warning note in her voice.
Mr. Jackson attempted to stifle his initial surprise but his eyes went wide and he let out a squeak. Under different circumstances Franky might have found his reaction humorous but she needed to keep her cover.
“Are you quite well?” asked Miss Proctor, brow furrowed in concern.
“Yes… I just came over queer for a moment. Something I ate, perhaps.”
“It’s most likely being confronted by the hardship the poor must suffer.” Franky said solemnly. “It hits us all hard. Enough to turn any man’s stomach.”
Unsure what else to do, he nodded dumbly.
“Mr. Jackson, I had not realised that you were such a stringent believer in our cause,” Miss Proctor stated.
“Oh he’s a man of hidden depths,” Franky claimed.
“We must do all we can for those less fortunate than ourselves,” he said through gritted teeth.
Miss Proctor’s eyes shone at the opportunity to discuss an issue so dear to her heart. “At Red Right Hand we seek to provide real assistance. Such as housing, training, food and care, protection. We believe in practical solutions, give the women skills that they can use to improve their own lives.”
He smiled at her passionate and heartfelt declaration. “I just wish the corruption of those whose duty it is to assist were not compounding the situation.”
“You sound like me!” Miss Proctor laughed. “I have long campaigned for social reform.”
They smiled at each other; two kindred spirits united in a moment of accord.
“Yeah, you two should discuss that,” Franky said and gripped Bridget’s elbow. “Excuse us,” and without further preamble she led Bridget away from them and through the ballroom.
They manoeuvred along the outskirts of the ballroom and into the adjoining antechamber where a harpist thrummed a soothing harmony. A refreshment table rested in the centre of the room, on which a large crystal bowl sat on a crisp white linen tablecloth surrounded by punch glasses. Finger food and a variety of deserts were also on offer which looked delectable.
Unable to resist, Franky picked-up a handful of cucumber sandwiches and stuffed them into her mouth. Bridget turned her eyes heavenwards. Even at a time of crisis Franky managed to think of her stomach.
“What?” Franky asked innocently, mouth still full.
“You are a gannet!” Bridget said gently and took her arm as they continued to explore their surroundings.
There were many rooms with various activities – card playing, a psychic who offered palm readings (“Madame Blavatsky” according to the sign), a game of billiards, a raffle and the silent auction.
They stepped into the auction room to peruse the donated items. Each item was laid out on a separate table with a bidding sheet and pencil placed next to it.
Miss Proctor appeared beside them, looking cheerful and slightly out of breath. “Miss Westfall - you forgot to collect your dance card.”
She held the card out to Bridget who took it graciously.
“Thank you Karen.”
“Do be sure to enter the raffle – one of our prizes is a much coveted tea gift hamper,” Miss Proctor said excitedly.
Franky tried to hide her amusement. In her vast experience of abject poverty and living on the streets, a tea gift hamper had never helped anybody. She could just imagine what Boomer would say if she were here. They can stick their tea gift hamper up their -
“Something amusing?” Miss Proctor bristled. Her eyes flashed with anger at what she took to be Franky mocking her efforts.
Franky realised this Kaz was a formidable woman when crossed. “Just thinkin’ the tea hamper would be ideal for an old friend of mine,” she placated.
In the meantime, Bridget’s gaze wondered to a nearby donation; a delicate silver necklace with a pendant shaped like a kite and a row of sapphires as its strings. She regarded it, captivated. Something in her face must have shown because Miss Proctor alighted on it.
“Charming, isn’t it?”
Franky glanced at it and smiled broadly. “Looks like the kite I had as a kid.”
“It does?” Bridget turned to her friend curiously.
“Mmm. I loved racing it along the riverbank - made me feel untethered, free… and full of hope.”
Bridget smiled warmly. “What a lovely notion.”
“Put your name down,” Franky suggested.
Bridget shook her head. She couldn’t be so indulgent. To buy something for vanity’s sake didn’t seem right.
“If you want something, you must not allow the opportunity to seize it pass you by,” Miss Proctor declared. She leaned forward, picked-up the pencil and scrawled Bridget’s name and a price on the bidding sheet next to the kite necklace.
Bridget was about to protest when she glimpsed the bidding sheet over Miss Proctor’s shoulder and a cold chill ran through her. She would recognise that penmanship anywhere; it was the same hand that had written the anonymous notes, first to warn her of the danger facing her father and then directing her to seek out Franky.
She stared at Karen Proctor in disbelief. How could her anonymous ally be Miss Proctor? How could she know what Ferguson had been planning? How had she known that Franky would help her? Was she a part of Ferguson’s sinister plan after all? If so, what could she stand to gain from sending the notes?
“There,” Miss Proctor said triumphantly and set the pencil down, she looked up and caught the expression of shock on Bridget’s ashen face. “Oh – have I overstepped the mark, Miss Westfall? I have a habit of being too forward at times.”
Bridget shook her head. “No, I just…” she searched for any indication that Karen was aware that she now knew the truth. There was no flicker of acknowledgement, just genuine worry.
“Are you certain? You have come over very pale.”
“Nothing some punch won’t fix,” Franky interjected.
“Yes, that sounds ideal.”
Bridget took Franky’s arm, they excused themselves and made their way back towards the refreshment table.
Franky poured two glasses of punch and passed one to Gidget. She kept a close eye on her; she remembered how skew-whiff Gidge had got on just beer. Bridget took three conservative sips, then set the glass down, feeling slightly bolstered.
“What just happened?” Franky asked.
Bridget told her.
“Shit!” Franky exclaimed.
A nearby couple turned, startled, and stared objectionably at Franky.
Franky lowered her voice. “She seems so… naively principled.”
“She must know something. It was her handwriting on those notes.” Bridget shivered, suddenly feeling as if everyone at the dance were watching her. “The sooner we get to the roof, the better.” She checked the time; it had just gone 8 o’clock. “In the library there is a stairwell which leads to the rooftop.”
“Bridget?!” exclaimed a shrill voice. “I thought that was you!”
Bridget turned to see Walter Stanton, a short man with large glasses and an enthusiastic smile, stood before her.
“Walter?!” Bridget’s face lit-up. “When did you get back?”
“Yesterday. When my ship sank I decided to take it as a sign!” He reached out and shook her hand vigorously. “Good to see you old girl.”
Bridget smiled fondly at him while Franky stood back and watched their exchange with curiosity.
At University Walter had been the only boy in Bridget’s year who would speak to her. She had been shunned by the others – a woman studying rather than marrying and bearing children was viewed as unnatural. The University had only allowed her admittance because of her family connections and wealth. Her father had paid for repairs to the chapel, bought state-of-the-art equipment for the Chemistry lab and built a new wing to accommodate the expanding student body, just to get her in.
She and Walter had been lab partners and a firm friendship had developed between the two. She and Walter were always top of their class, constantly competing for first place, it was a friendly rivalry – they brought out the best in each other, helped motivate each other to study harder and do better. After graduating Walter had travelled to the Malay Archipelago to collect specimens, he now had more than 126,000 and had not been home for 12 years. They wrote regularly but his continuing expedition meant some of their correspondence went astray or took months to arrive at the next port.
“You have not changed a bit!” she laughed delightedly. “Same old Walter. Bit more colour to your cheeks, perhaps.”
He patted his flat stomach. “And leaner! Lost my potbelly! No time to sit about eating pork pies in the Malay Archipelago!”
“I shall wager it was the first thing you ate as soon as you set foot back on English soil!” Bridget teased.
He laughed. “Oh – there is someone you must meet, a Miss Miles,” he took her hand and started to lead her away, not even noticing Franky.
Bridget resisted. “Uh – Walter, now is not a good - ”
“Nonsense! How can you expect to be my best man if you have not been introduced to the bride?”
That stopped Bridget in her tracks. “You are to be married?”
He grinned from ear-to-ear. “I broke with her father this morning.”
She flung her arms around him, hugging him tightly. “That is wonderful news, Walter. I am so pleased for you.”
“Now come and meet her!”
Bridget looked apologetically at Franky over her shoulder and shrugged helplessly as Walter steered her away. She mouthed ‘half past the hour’ and pointed to the spot Franky was currently occupying. Franky nodded her acknowledgement.
“I have been considering your difficulty of converting infrared radiation into visible light for your Night-time Spectacles,” Walter said, “and have developed a hypothesis.”
Franky watched them disappear into the crowd, heads together, discussing sciency things and smiled.
Franky mingled, had her palm read and ate more sandwiches, then headed back to their meeting point. She was the first to arrive. Franky glanced at the time; it was gone half past eight. Bridget was nowhere in sight. She waited.
Bridget had been swept along by Walter and was introduced to Miss Miles, whom she found to be a discontented and sulky woman who seemed more interested in Walter’s fortune than himself. It saddened her that he should be tied to a woman undeserving of him but it was his choice. She imagined Walter telling her that Franky was a deviant and a bad match and how it would make no difference to how Bridget felt about her. So she kept silent on the matter.
Petulantly Miss Miles insisted on dancing, apparently if she did not have his undivided attention every second, she was greatly aggrieved. Walter, not wishing to disappoint his betrothed, agreed readily, leaving Bridget to fend for herself with his mother and her condescending set.
When there was still no sign of Bridget, Franky decided to seek her out. She skimmed the outskirts of the ballroom until her eyes landed on Bridget, sitting on a settee, hemmed into a corner by a swarm of toff’s. Every time Gidget attempted to extract herself, they flocked round her like vultures, fencing her in.
Franky approached the elite crowd with an air of high-enthusiasm and bluster. “There you are!” she exclaimed, burrowing through the throng until she stood before Bridget. “How’s your dance card looking?” she asked, eyes filled with wicked delight.
Bridget pretended to glance at her dance card. “Why yes, I believe I have a free slot.”
“Want me to fill it?”
Bridget bit her lip to stop from smirking.
“Perhaps you should sit this dance out, Miss Westfall,” said Walter’s mother, a lofty woman with angry features and large hips. “We have yet to discuss the work detail for the Ladies Guild Annual Floral Arrangement Contest.”
Bridget’s heart sank.
“Yeah, you wouldn’t wanta miss that!” Franky remarked flippantly.
The snooty woman’s lips pursed together in displeasure and her eyes narrowed as she scrutinised this presumptuous interloper.
Franky ran out of patience. She took hold of Bridget’s hand. “This is no time to work Gidge,” she teased. “It’s a party. Come on, get up!” and pulled Bridget to her feet.
As Bridget’s distinguished companions gawped, too flabbergasted by this flagrant lack of regard for social etiquette to protest, Franky tugged Bridget towards the dancefloor. Once there, her right hand circled Bridget’s waist and she drew Bridget into her arms. They grinned at each other, fronts pressed flush, hearts racing, eyes sparkling.
“Thank you for rescuing me,” Bridget whispered.
“Just returnin’ the favour,” Franky said softly.
Before Bridget could register the meaning behind those words, Franky spun her around and they fell into step with the rest of the dancing couples.
They swayed around the dancefloor to a lively waltz, the crowd around them becoming a blur. Franky’s left hand clasped Gidget’s firmly and her right splayed across her back, holding her tightly. Bridget felt her breath desert her, felt certain Franky could hear the hammering of her heart. They were pressed so snugly against each other she could feel every movement of Franky’s body. Their faces were so close, if Bridget lifted up on her toes, their lips would brush. She tried to push this thought from her mind but the heated look in Franky’s eyes made that impossible, made her believe that Franky felt this attraction too. She shivered. Franky’s eyes darkened and Bridget let out a shaky breath as Franky twirled them again. The room span, she felt her skin grow warm and her cheeks burn. Franky let out a laugh; it was so pure and unrestrained that Bridget almost lost her footing. Franky’s grip about her waist tightened.
As they floated across the dancefloor the strings of the violin swelled and Franky found herself lost in Bridget’s eyes, so kind and intelligent and alluring, wishing they could be alone, wishing she could kiss her. The thrill of finally being able to hold Bridget this way was a moment to savour and Franky did; her heart halting every time they whirled round a corner and Bridget inched closer, tantalising and torturous all at once.
They circled the dancefloor twice more, then Franky saw her opportunity and dipped them into a side-room. Clusters of rich ladies garnering gowns that cost more than Franky and her friends could earn in a lifetime were playing cards for fun. Fanning themselves and tittering about the latest scandal in their social set. Franky kept her hand in Bridget’s as they crossed the room and hurried into a corridor where guests milled about leisurely, sipped wine and discussed politics.
From there, Bridget led the way to the empty library.
Certain no one’s eyes were on them, they slipped into the darkened library, hands still tightly clasped, and found themselves surrounded by book shelves. They were completely alone for the first time all evening. Franky knew they had pressing matters to attend to, that they couldn’t allow themselves to get distracted, but Bridget looked so beautiful in that dress and Franky had struggled to keep her hands to herself for hours… that she acted before her mind could stop her.
Impulsively Franky slipped her arms around Bridget’s waist and pushed her up against the nearest bookshelf. Bridget’s chest heaved as Franky leaned in, her fingertips brushed Bridget’s jaw delicately. She’d ached to do that for the longest time. She heard the hitch of anticipation in Bridget’s breath as her hands framed Bridget’s face, her skin suddenly aflame and heart racing as she closed the distance between them. Their lips collided; frantic and wanton. Bridget’s mouth was soft and hot and welcoming. Franky’s fingers grazed down her neck, sending a tremor through Bridget.
The kiss lasted for several heady, heated moments before Franky governed her urges and drew back. Their faces remained close. She waited with trepidation. Felt the rush of warm air against her face as Bridget breathed out, saw Bridget’s dazed eyes focus on her lips, giddy and lustful, then Bridget tilted her head up and captured Franky’s mouth, fusing their lips together again. All at once intense, sweet and utterly incredible.
Bridget wrapped her arms about Franky’s neck and pulled her closer. She felt Franky melt into her embrace and was filled with happiness. Franky was all she could concentrate on. Franky and her understanding eyes, mischievous smile and irresistible lips. Franky and her guileless charm and unadulterated heart. Franky’s sinful figure pressed up against her. Franky’s heat and warmth and desire; matching her own.
Franky tangled her hands in Bridget’s hair, revelling in the feel of her, the taste of her as she delved her tongue into Bridget’s mouth. Bridget moaned softly and the breathy sound ignited something torrid in Franky. As passion overtook them, Franky deepened the kiss, one hand sliding up Bridget’s back, the other stroking down her side, her hips pressing insistently against Bridget’s.
Bridget craved more intimacy, craved to touch Franky’s skin without the barriers of clothing… she felt a throb between her legs... a long forgotten stirring.
Bridget never wanted to leave the moment but knew that was impossible.
Eventually they drew apart, foreheads pressed together, bodies still entwined.
An enormous grin broke across Franky’s face. Bridget had kissed her back, had wanted this too.
“You’re a Tom?” Franky asked, incredulous and still breathless.
“I attended a school for girls, how do you suppose we passed the time?” Bridget jested.
Franky stared at her in wonder, her grin widening. Then she reached out, slow and teasing, and cupped Bridget’s chin. Bridget struggled with her longing, she wanted to explore all she felt for Franky but now was not the time. She turned her head away. Franky brushed her thumb across Bridget’s bottom lip.
“We cannot do this. Not here, not yet,” Bridget murmured.
Franky understood. She smiled softly and let Bridget pull away.
Ever one to make an unwelcome and unannounced entrance, Miss Bennett strode into the unlit library, clad in a dour black dress that made her look like a widow in grieving. Miss Bennett’s manner was brusque and direct. “Miss Westfall, may I speak with you?” she demanded.
Franky and Bridget stared at each other in disbelief touched with annoyance.
“The Red Right Hand really need to reassess their guest list,” Franky mocked.
Bridget’s lips curled into a half-smile and she straightened her hair. “Now is as good a time as any to speak to her about a permanent solution to our Ferguson predicament.”
Bridget slid past Franky, squeezing her hand as she went, and moved towards Miss Bennett to begin a whispered conversation.
While Bridget was holding conference with Miss Bennett, Franky kept look-out. Mr. Jackson happened past the library, searching for Bridget, when he noticed the door was ajar. Knowing her penchant for books, he approached. Franky sighed. Why could they never catch a break? She was used to having anonymity. Living on the streets and on her wits, she could come and go as she pleased but Bridget seemed to live in a fishbowl where her every move was monitored, scrutinised and restricted. It was driving Franky to distraction. No wonder Gidge hated these social occasions. She never got a moments peace.
Mr. Jackson pulled the door open and entered. His eyes settled on Bridget and he took a step towards her, until Franky interceded. He glared at her.
“I know you have no reason to trust me but we want the same thing – what’s best for Bridget.”
His scowl lessened.
Franky continued. “I can’t explain this right now, there isn’t time, but she needs your help. We need to get to the rooftop. Can you keep anyone who tries to stop us occupied?”
He studied Miss Doyle, saw her earnestness, heard the urgency in her voice, and nodded. He didn’t fully trust her but he could see she truly cared for Bridget and had her best interests at heart. He wasn’t privy to many aspects of Bridget’s life, she was very private, he was aware of that and tried to be understanding, but they had been friends since childhood and there was nothing he would not do for her if it was within his power.
Franky smiled gratefully at him. “You’re a good man.”
Hearing voices from within, Miss Proctor approached the open door of the library. This part of The Red Right Hand headquarters was off limits to guests, she wondered who could possibly be interested in the library when there was revelry to be had.
Franky spun Mr. Jackson so that he was facing their hostess and nudged him forward. Mr. Jackson stepped out of the door, closing it behind him. He took Miss Proctor’s arm, leading her away as he engaged her in animated conversation about funding research on impoverishment and entirely consuming her attention.
Franky expelled a relieved sigh, then turned to see Bridget had finished her tête-à-tête with Miss Bennett and had returned to her side. Miss Bennett had mysteriously disappeared into the ether. Franky shuddered, she didn’t like that woman; sour as vinegar.
“Miss Bennett has agreed to help.”
“In exchange for what?”
“We shall worry about that later.”
Bridget slipped her hand into Franky’s and they moved towards the stairwell that led to the roof.
When they reached the rooftop Hamilton was waiting. Rain was falling and murky clouds rolled overhead. The zeppelin hovered in the air directly above The Red Right Hand building. Large and impressive.
They needed a run-up to gain momentum so they set the flying bicycle to the furthest point they could from the edge of the roof, then climbed on-board. Hamilton took the front seat; since he knew how to operate the navigation control panel and hand wheels. Franky took the saddle directly behind him while Bridget stepped onto the foot ledge and gripped the side bar.
“Ready?” Bridget asked.
“Yes,” Hamilton and Franky chorused.
On her command Hamilton and Franky pedalled as hard as they could, building as much impetus as possible. Franky gritted her teeth as her legs pounded the pedals, praying this wouldn’t be her last moment on Earth. Certainly not now that she had so much to live for.
They shot off the roof at great speed and soared into the night sky. Heading up and up, towards the zeppelin. At first they floated, the wind billowing about them, the stars surrounding them, Franky’s heart fluttered at the beauty of the view; the great sprawling City of London stretched out below them.
Then the bicycle dipped suddenly. No sooner had they righted themselves then a sharp wind knocked them off course and sent them plunging into a downward spiral. Their hearts in their mouths, they all cried out in fright. As they nosedived, the white brick of The Red Right Hand headquarters flashed past them, the ground rising up to meet them.
Hamilton and Franky pedalled frantically. Bridget clung to the side bar for dear life, eyes squeezed shut. Hamilton hastily adjusted the controls and somehow managed to even them out just in time - the wheels of the flying bicycle gently skimming grass as they glided past the windows of the ballroom.
They began to ascend again, climbing steadily up, through the tumultuous clouds.
“Woo!” Franky cheered and they all laughed with relief.
As Hamilton and Franky continued to pedal vigorously, Hamilton corrected their course. Rain began to pelt down, making it difficult to see, but they were almost there. They circled and approached the zeppelin from beneath, at the bow of the airship, so as to remain hidden from the Control Room. There would be a skeleton crew on duty at this hour but they would still be on lookout.
They drew alongside the Passenger section of the ship and hovered in the air. Bridget held tightly onto the side bar and leaned across open space to reach the Lounge door. It took several attempts but she managed to line-up her key pendant with the lock of the door and slot it in. She clicked the button. Just as it had adapted itself to the lock, two of Ferguson’s henchmen passed by the door. Bridget ducked out of view. Alerted to the danger, Hamilton dipped the flying bicycle several feet. The key pendant stayed in the lock, ripping the chain around Bridget’s neck with the force of their descent.
Franky perspired from the effort of keeping the flying bicycle going. The lashing rain stung her face and hands. The clouds around them rumbled; dark and swelling. There was a shift in the air: it was charged and foreboding. A storm was brewing, Franky could smell it.
When the coast was clear, they raised back up. Bridget reached out to turn the key pendant and it slipped from the lock, no longer secure on her chain, it whipped up into the air. She tried to catch it but it slipped past her fingers and she watched helplessly as it tumbled down to earth. Bridget glanced about for an alternative. She spotted an open window and indicated for Hamilton to take them towards it.
Hamilton adjusted the rudder and soon they were nearing the window.
Bridget peered in: it was a wash room. Empty. She twisted her body round and let go of the side bar. She judged the gap between herself and the window, the trajectory and the impetus she’d need, then swung herself forward, leaping from the flying bicycle to the open window. Franky’s heart leapt with her. Bridget clutched hold of the windowsill, her grip firm. She hoisted herself up and through the window.
Landing with a thud on the floor, Bridget scrambled to her feet and listened keenly, seemingly no one had been alerted to her presence. She looked out of the window at her friends and gave a quick wave to assure them she was fine, then turned.
She opened the washroom door and was faced with a narrow passenger corridor with an endless line of identical doors. She deduced her father would be kept somewhere apart from the guests. Somewhere hidden. Somewhere he could scream all day and no one would hear him. The thought filled her with fury and great distress. She cleared her head; she had to keep her wits about her. She remembered, from the deck plan, that there was a Cargo Room next to the Engine Room which would be ideal for holding someone hostage. The roar of the engines was constant, little could be heard over them. None of the passengers would venture there and the zeppelin crew would only do so at the beginning and end of a journey or for maintenance.
She moved down the corridor in the direction of the keel, where the crew and work areas were situated. She had passed several cabins when someone emerged, a porter, he nodded politely at her, she nodded back, heart pounding. He continued down the corridor towards the Lounge. Bridget guessed, given her attire, that he had assumed she was a passenger and therefore above suspicion.
Once Bridget stepped into the keel section of the ship, she picked-up speed, every moment she lingered she was in danger of being discovered. She hurried past numerous doors, all clearly labelled: Officer and Crew sleeping quarters; Radio Room; Fuel Tank; rope handling areas for the mooring lines untl finally she reached the Engine Room. She located the nearest Cargo Storage area and pushed the door open.
Suddenly Bridget found herself in a vast open space, so immense it was dizzying. She was stood on a platform and could see the interior-framing of the zeppelin, rising up, all the way to the ceiling. Saw the spindling metal in an enormous array of complex circular support beams. Like an intricate net or spider’s web. It was an amazing feat. She stood for a moment, spellbound. Then heard raised voices.
Bridget pulled the ray gun from her garter, flicked off the safety catch and moved steadily forward, following the trail of voices. Weaving between freight boxes and barrels, she moved stealthily, her only real advantage was the element of surprise. She rounded the corner of a Brougham carriage suspended in mid-air by ropes and her eyes fastened on her father, sat bound to a chair. Three henchman watched over him. One held a hood and gag in his hand, Bridget felt a chill run through her swiftly followed by a surge of anger. The second held a plate of food and was trying to make her father eat but Mr. Westfall was refusing most profusely. The third man had a truncheon in his hand and looked tempted to use it, clearly impatience was one of his virtues.
Sheltered from their sight by the Brougham carriage, Bridget took aim and fired, catching two of the henchmen in the beam of the ray gun and knocking them out cold. The third ducked out of sight.
“Bridget?!” her father exclaimed, his face lighting-up with hope. “Is that you, dear heart?”
“Yes!” she answered and rolled to the ground, taking cover behind a barrel.
“I knew you would find me!” he said happily. Then called out to the last henchman, “I advise giving yourself up immediately – my daughter is tenacious and quite deadly with a gun!”
From her crouched position, Bridget spotted movement to her right. She ran out into the open and fired again – quickly ducking behind a freight container. She heard a groan as the third henchman staggered about and then fell to the floor, unconscious and twitching.
“Are there only three?” she shouted.
“Yes,” Mr. Westfall replied.
Bridget lowered her gun and rushed towards her father. He blinked up at her, full of admiration.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said softly as she cut his restraints with the knife sown into a pocket of her dress.
Once he was free, she helped him to his feet. His limbs were stiff but he embraced his daughter tightly.
“I feared I had lost you!” she whispered, pressing her face into his shoulder. Breathing in the familiar scent of cigar smoke, starch and old spice that was uniquely her father.
“Never! Even if the universe imploded and we were reduced to dust – you could never lose me.”
Hamilton and Franky pedalled relentlessly. They had circled beneath the zeppelin five times. Franky’s legs burned and her breathing became laboured. Hamilton glanced over his shoulder at her, worry etched on his face. She nodded her assurance that she was fine.
The rain was torrential and the clouds that had seemed so threatening broke with thunder. Hamilton glanced over his shoulder at her again, his eyes betraying his fear.
Thunder rumbled through the sky; deafening and violent. A bolt of lightning crashed out of the clouds, close to them. They swerved to avoid it, wobbled, and struggled to steady themselves. No sooner had they regained their equilibrium than another stab of lightning launched itself at them, they veered away from it but not quickly enough. It tore a hole in one of the wings, smoke rising-up from the singed material, throwing them off-balance. They lost altitude and pedalled faster to compensate; both straining.
They pulled up alongside the zeppelin again but there was still no sign of Bridget.
A vicious bolt of lightning split the sky, lighting it up for miles, dark clouds whirled tumultuously around them and they took a direct hit to the rudder, sending them careening downwards. Hamilton fought to lift the nose of the flying bicycle up but it was no use. They were falling fast, the damaged wing broke with the force of their nosedive and ripped off completely, hurtling past them at a ferocious speed.
Hamilton tried desperately to steer them towards safety but with the rudder destroyed there was little he could do. Foliage loomed beneath them as they descended upon a cluster of Alder trees. They were losing height by the second and grazed the tops of the trees, causing them to rock from side-to-side. Then the back wheel caught on a branch and sent them crashing into a tree. The force of which threw them from the flying bicycle. Franky vaulted through the air and her arms flailed out, trying to grab onto something, anything. As she began to feel herself tumble downwards, something steely gripped her wrist.
She dangled in mid-air and looked up: Hamilton had a hold of her.
He had managed to seize hold of a branch when they’d collided with the tree and Franky found herself immensely grateful for his automaton strength and dexterity.
They swung precariously for a moment. Afraid to speak or move. The rain continued to beat about them as Hamilton slowly edged towards the trunk of the tree, towing Franky with him. When he reached the trunk, he found footing on a lower branch and hauled her up, until they were face-to-face. She clung to the trunk, shivering, and took a few deep breaths.
“Ta,” she spluttered.
“You are most welcome.”
They glanced down; it was a steep descent but they could make it if they were careful. Franky looked up and saw the tattered remnants of the flying bicycle strewn about the treetops. Then raised her eyes higher to the zeppelin where Bridget and her father were now stranded without an escape route.
“What about Bridget?” Franky shouted over the storm whipping around them.
“Miss Westfall always has a backup plan,” Hamilton shouted back. “Let’s worry about ourselves in the meantime. If we’re dead we will be of little assistance to her.”
Slowly and cautiously they started to climb downwards.
On-board the zeppelin Bridget and her father snuck back to the deserted passenger Lounge. Bridget opened the exterior door and an eruption of cold air and rain blew in as she stuck her head out, searching the stormy night sky for a trace of Franky, Hamilton or the flying bicycle. Finding none, her heart sank and she retreated back inside.
As the sky raged with rain, thunder and lightning, she could only hope nothing untoward had happened to them.
“Leaving so soon?” a calm voice asked.
Bridget spun to see Ferguson and her heavies behind them. Instinctively she gripped her father’s hand.
“Your hospitality could do with some refining,” Bridget retorted.
Ferguson raised an amused eyebrow. “I must admit I am quite impressed by your resourcefulness Miss Westfall. You seemed rather meek on first acquaintance but you have proved yourself quite the contrary. Or perhaps Miss Doyle is rubbing off on you,” she stepped forward, sniffed the air and smiled smugly. “I can smell her on you.”
Bridget reigned-in her emotions: she would not crack, would not show Ferguson any vulnerability. “And you smell of desperation. What could you possibly want with all those diamonds? They will not replace what is missing, what is lacking in you – in that pitch black heart of yours.”
“My, my, my. We have been a busy bee,” Ferguson sneered. “Didn’t your parents ever warn you of what happens to nosey parker’s who pry into matters that don’t concern them?”
The condescension in Ferguson’s manner was unbearable and grated Bridget’s nerves exceedingly. She clenched her fists. “I do not want you near myself or my family again – and that includes Franky. Do you hear? We are done.”
Fergusons icy stare sharpened. “I say when we’re done,” she reprimanded tersely and then instantly softened. “Of course, I’d be happy to leave you, your feeble father and your syphilitic whore alone. Just give me the Tiraveller.”
“You’re not leaving here and nor is your father until you give me what I want.”
Bridget met Ferguson’s eye, her gaze stony and defiant. “I will never handover the Tiraveller to you.”
“Then you will never leave.”
An odd smile came to Bridget’s lips. “We shall see about that.”
Bridget wrapped her arms about her father’s waist and stepped through the Lounge door and into the night sky.
Ferguson’s face crumbled. She rushed to the door, which swung wildly about in the storm, and peered down to see Bridget and her father plummeting to earth.
Chapter 7: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 7
Hamilton reached the ground first. He looked about to get his bearings and realised they had crash-landed in Waterlow Park, a stone’s throw from The Red Right Hand headquarters. Franky was right behind him. Scratched, shaken and chilled to the bone but otherwise intact. Somewhere along the way she had lost her wig and her long brown hair blew freely in the wind.
She had just disembarked from the Alder tree when movement caught her eye - she glanced up at the sky to see something streaming towards them. Immediately she realised it was Bridget and her heart stopped. Her stomach dropped and she found herself doing something she never did – hoping. Hoping Gidge was as brilliant as she knew her to be. Hoping that something unexpected would happen. Hoping that Hamilton’s complete faith was founded and Bridget had a contingency plan.
As Bridget and her father tore through the sky, careering downwards at an alarming rate, Franky held her breath. Please, she thought, please let her make it.
Bridget waited until they were a safe distance from the zeppelin and then pulled a cord concealed in her dress. Her silk skirt ripped away from her body and launched into the air above them, creating a parachute: secured to her by suspension lines attached to her bodice which acted as a harness. Fortunately she’d had the good sense to wear breeches beneath her skirt, prepared for this possible outcome.
Their descent slowed and the southerly wind carried them in the direction of Waterlow Park.
Franky and Hamilton waited in the field below, jumping up-and-down with jubilation, then turned to one another and hugged.
“Did I not tell you?!” Hamilton exclaimed, beaming with pride.
Franky laughed with relief - she would never doubt Gidget again.
Bridget and her father landed with a thud nearby. Franky and Hamilton raced towards them, their legs moving so fast they almost tripped over.
Mr. Westfall sat up, made a quick inventory of all his limbs and that they were where they should be, then glanced over his shoulder at his daughter, who grinned back at him.
“Your landing technique lacks finesse!” he teased.
“Next time - ” Bridget began.
“Oh no! There shall be no next time! I have had my fill of power-hungry lunatics and death-defying leaps out of airships.”
“Spoil sport!” Bridget laughed.
Franky and Hamilton reached them then.
Hamilton helped Mr. Westfall up whilst Franky pulled Bridget to her feet. No sooner had Gidge arisen from the grassy knoll than Franky engulfed her in a tight embrace, squeezing the breath out of Bridget in her eagerness to hold her again and assure herself that Bridget was safe.
Hamilton dusted off Mr. Westfall who glanced curiously at his daughter and the intimate clinch she shared with this stranger who appeared to be wearing his second best tuxedo. He had several questions.
Franky desperately wanted to make a good first impression on Mr. Westfall but the heightened emotion of the moment was great and she couldn’t bring herself to release Gidge. “I’m most glad you’re alright,” she declared heartily, tucking her chin into the nook where Bridget’s neck met her shoulder. Breathing her in. Soaking in her warmth.
Bridget smiled and returned Franky’s embrace. “I am fine,” she whispered and rubbed Franky’s back comfortingly. “I told you my dress was unique.”
Franky laughed. “You did!”
“What of you? When I looked for the flying bicycle it was gone - ”
“I hope you weren’t overly fond of it Gidge - it’s no more! Tree top fodder!”
“But you and Hamilton are unharmed?”
“That is all that matters.”
Bridget began to draw back from Franky’s arms. “This is my - ” but Franky tightened her hold on Bridget, pulling her back in. Bridget smiled tenderly, her voice low and reassuring. “You have to let me go at some point,” Bridget murmured in the brunette’s ear.
“Yes,” Franky agreed, resentfully letting-up her grasp. She stepped back, ensuring Bridget was still within arm’s reach.
“This is my father,” Bridget introduced the pair.
Mr. Westfall studied Franky closely.
“And this is Miss Francesca Doyle,” Bridget continued.
Franky reached out and shook Mr. Westfall’s hand enthusiastically. He smiled at her fervour.
“Good to finally meet ya,” she declared. “I hope one day I have someone who holds me in such high regard as Bridget does you.”
He smiled warmly. “I wager you shall,” he replied, liking her directness and unaffectedness instantly. So many young ladies today cultivated an air of haughtiness he could not fathom but here was Miss Doyle, unguarded and in earnest.
Hamilton began to gather-up the parachute.
“If it were not for Franky I would never have found you,” Bridget informed her father as she began to unfasten the suspension lines from her bodice. “She had dealings with Ferguson before.”
“My condolences,” he said dryly.
Franky smirked. She suspected she was going to like Mr. Westfall very much.
Bridget struggled to untie a cord at the back of her bodice. Franky immediately stepped in to help, she moved with care and affection. Mr. Westfall observed them as they worked together to disentangle Bridget from the suspension lines.
Bridget had always shown a tendency towards her own sex. He had decided long ago that who she loved was her decision. Bridget was compassionate, beautiful and her mind was remarkable. He was bursting with pride but at times this proclivity caused him worry. He had no care of gossip - he simply wanted her to have companionship and understanding, as she deserved, but she always seemed to end-up heart sore by these Sapphic romances. And now there was Miss Doyle, looking at Bridget with reverence, as if she were the sun and stars combined, uninhibited and unreserved, and suddenly he hoped that his daughter might have found the partner she had always sought. For he had seen enough in their brief acquaintance to convince him that Miss Doyle was sincere in her affections.
Finally Bridget was freed from the trapping of the parachute.
“I do not think that style of dress shall catch on dear heart, too fiddly,” he jested.
Bridget grinned at her father and threw her arms about him again. “Oh, I have missed you!” she exclaimed happily.
“May I suggest we continue this reunion indoors,” Hamilton advised, the wind and rain still whipping about them.
“Excellent suggestion my good man,” Mr. Westfall agreed.
He linked arms with Bridget and the merry band made their way towards The Red Right Hand headquarters. Hamilton with the folded parachute tucked under his arm and Franky keeping her eyes peeled for any potential danger.
“Ah – Gidge,” she touched Bridget’s elbow and pointed. They all peered up to see Ferguson’s zeppelin flying swiftly away from The Red Right Hand headquarters.
“That cannot be good!” Hamilton sighed.
“Indeed,” Bridget concurred.
“Let’s get home,” Mr. Westfall said. “Then I shall have the proper authorities deal with Dr. Ferguson and her associates.”
A short time later they arrived back at The Red Right Hand building and sent for their carriage.
Catching sight of them, Mr. Jackson and Miss Proctor emerged from the main entrance. Taking in their damp, dishevelled and wind-blow appearance, Bridget’s unusual attire, Franky’s revealed gender and Hamilton attempting to hide the parachute behind his back, they stared at them aghast.
“Merciful heaven! Whatever has happened to you?” Mr. Jackson entreated.
“Just went for a turn about the gardens,” Bridget said nonchalantly.
“In this weather?” Miss Proctor cried.
“It was a little brisk,” Franky admitted.
Mr. Jackson tilted his head in amusement, a knowing glint in his eye. “Are you certain you did not take a bicycle ride?”
The Westfall party looked startled.
Miss Proctor laughed and her hand brushed his arm. “Oh Mr. Jackson, you have a most dry wit. Bicycle ride indeed!”
Bridget, Franky, Mr. Westfall and Hamilton all feigned laughter. Nervous and high-pitched. Which was followed by an awkward silence.
“I hope the excursion was to your benefit,” Mr. Jackson said sincerely.
“It was,” Bridget answered.
He nodded. “I am glad.” Then he smiled at Mr. Westfall. “It is good to see you again Sir.”
Mr. Westfall nodded courteously. “You too, Will.”
Their carriage arrived so the Westfall party bid their farewells, climbed aboard and headed homewards.
Bridget sat between her father and Franky. She shone with happiness. Her hand reached out and clasped Franky’s, drawing their joined hands into her lap. Franky was delighted: she wanted to share this moment with Gidge but a melancholy gripped her and she was ashamed of her own thoughts.
Now that Mr. Westfall was returned Bridget would no longer require her services, would no longer need her. What if Bridget decided the kiss they had shared meant nothing? What if she paid Franky her finder’s fee and turned her away? It dispirited Franky to even contemplate being parted from Bridget for an hour much less a lifetime.
How had this happened? She’d never let anyone get this close before but it had been so simple, so effortless, to allow Bridget in. She just… fell for her. It was the first time ever Franky had let herself go there, it was dazzling and frightening and beyond her control and now she worried if there would be a place for her in Bridget’s world. If they could find a way to be together. It seemed unlikely: the mudlark and the lady.
Oblivious to her companion’s dark thoughts, Bridget squeezed Franky’s hand and the brunette smiled at her, bright and heart-stopping and Bridget had never been happier.
The soft lights of Claremont were welcoming as the Westfall party entered the foyer.
“Hamilton, send word to the police of my return. Tell them I should like to hold off interview until the morning. I am in need of my bed!”
Hamilton nodded and tucked the parachute into the umbrella stand by the front door, about to obey when Ferguson appeared at the top of the stairs. They all gazed up at her in shocked amazement.
“How did you get in here?” Mr. Westfall demanded.
“I have my ways.”
Bridget’s mind raced – Ferguson could only have gained access by someone in the household opening the door to her or her knowing the code to the number box – but only four people knew the correct sequence: herself; her father; Hamilton and Mrs. Jenkins, and none of them would betray her. Then she noticed Milly stood by the kitchen stairwell looking guilt-ridden and Bridget's blood ran cold.
“This is my house and you are not welcome, now or ever. Get out!” Mr. Westfall bellowed.
A dozen of Ferguson’s lackeys appeared from various doorways – they were surrounded and outnumbered. Jesper, Ferguson’s most trusted henchmen, bald and robust with burn marks across his face and neck, ushered them forward.
“I am very disappointed. I thought I had made myself clear,” Ferguson said as she walked steadily down the stairs. Her hand trailing the smooth wood of the bannister. Her manner calm but deadly.
Franky and Bridget instinctively reached for each other, their fingers entwining.
Ferguson reached the bottom step and looked Bridget in the eye. “Bring me the Tiraveller.”
“No.” Bridget refused.
Ferguson tilted her head, her eyes beady and cold. “You’re assuming you have a choice.” Then indicated, with a beckoning of her forefinger, for Jesper to bring Hamilton to her.
Jesper and another minion seized hold of Hamilton and dragged him across the room. He struggled against them to no avail. Bridget, Franky and Mr. Westfall all rushed forward to come to his aid but were obstructed by several henchmen who held them back.
Hamilton was set before Ferguson. She smiled cloyingly.
Franky held her breath. Bridget filled with tension. Mr. Westfall clenched his fists.
“It’s inadvisable to upset me,” Ferguson warned. She moved slowly but purposefully. She was an imposing woman, tall and powerful. “There are consequences when you displease me.”
With abrupt violence she gripped Hamilton’s head and twisted it sharply, snapping his neck.
The startling crack of bone screeched through the room. Echoing in all of their ears.
Ferguson let go and Hamilton collapsed to the floor, dead.
There was a moment of stillness, of shock, of sombre disbelief.
Then Bridget found her voice. “No!” She screamed, tearing forward. This time the henchmen parted for her.
Hamilton’s body lay motionless at Ferguson’s feet. Bridget crouched down and touched her friend’s lifeless face, her hand shaking.
Ferguson raised her arm. Jesper grabbed Mr. Westfall from behind, pulled his head back and raised a blade to his throat.
“The time machine,” Ferguson commanded, her arm poised in the air – ready to give the execution signal. “Now.”
Numbly Bridget nodded. “It is too large to carry. You must attend me,” she said, her voice broken.
Subdued, Bridget mounted the steps to her lab. Ferguson, several of her lackeys, Mr. Westfall, Jesper and Franky in tow.
When they reached the lab, Bridget moved towards the bookcase on the far left. She gripped the gas lamp attached to the wall beside it and tugged. It tipped forward on a hinge, followed by the sound of stone scraping against stone as the bookshelf moved sideways, slotting into the wall, revealing a secret room hidden behind it.
They all peered into the darkness. Bridget lit a gas lamp and the meagre light revealed a chair surrounded by three strategically positioned posts with electromagnetic receivers at the top. A control board and helm were nearby.
Ferguson stepped into the room and moved towards the invention zealously. Running her fingers over the cool metal of the helm, a glint of wonder, greed and victory vying for dominance on her usually placid features.
“Now release my father,” Bridget insisted.
Ferguson slanted her head as she considered Bridget, then gave a curt nod to Jesper who let Mr. Westfall go.
Mr. Westfall rubbed his neck gratefully. Wondering what Bridget had planned because he knew full well that the machine Ferguson was pawing over was not the Tiraveller.
As Ferguson studied the control board and her lackeys looked about Miss Westfall’s lab with curiosity, picking-up things and poking at others, Bridget slowly backed out of the hidden room and moved towards the mantelpiece. Covertly she leaned against it and slid her fingers down to the acorn engraving and pressed the button there. The mantelpiece swivelled open and Miss Bennett and her troops rushed into the room from the secret passageway, guns drawn and pointed at Ferguson and her men.
“Lay down your weapons,” Miss Bennett shouted.
Ferguson span around, caught unawares, her eyes narrowed as she glared at Bridget. “Traitor!” she hissed.
Without prompting Jesper stabbed Mr. Westfall in the gut. He pulled the knife out and drove it in to Mr. Westfall’s torso again and again, until one of Miss Bennett’s men interceded - pushing Jesper away from Mr. Westfall and pinning him against a wall.
Mr. Westfall made a strange, strangled noise and dropped to his knees, the knife protruding from his ribs.
Bridget was rooted to the spot, immobilised, as she watched her father collapse to the floor. Blood pooling about him. Crimson and violent. She stared at him in horror, unable to speak and unable to move, her senses dull. Her head felt foggy and there was a ringing in her ears.
Franky covered her mouth with her hand, not sure what to do... what could be done? It was too late. Mr. Westfall was lost to them. Hamilton was lost to them...
Miss Bennett saw that Mr. Westfall could not be saved so she did what she thought best and let Bridget alone. Let her grieve without intrusion. She and her foot soldiers set about disarming and rounding-up Ferguson’s gang, putting them in the police carriage now waiting outside Claremont and left Miss Doyle to attend to Miss Westfall.
The room now empty except for them, Bridget moved unsteadily towards her father and sank to the floor beside him. His eyes were closed and heavy with death. Bridget gathered him into her arms.
“No, no, no,” she chanted softly, over and over.
Franky’s heart tore. A sense of emptiness and dismay filled her. Claremont had been a sanctuary filled with joy, love, possibility and wonder... and Ferguson had shattered that. Franky desperately wanted to protect Bridget from the darkness of the world but she was powerless. This would destroy Bridget. The loss of her father and Hamilton would be unbearable; Bridget was already falling to pieces and Franky’s own instincts had slowed… as if she were caught in pitch – every thought, every movement sluggish and pained.
Then she heard Bridget. Heard an inhuman sob which propelled her forward. She reached out to Gidget, wishing to bring her comfort, any tiny morsel of comfort that she could. Franky’s hands rested on her shoulders, then she knelt beside her and gently pulled Bridget away from Mr. Westfall’s body.
Franky cupped Bridget’s grief-stricken face, trying to get her to focus. “Gidge?”
Bridget stared right through her.
Franky stroked Bridget’s cheeks with her thumbs. “Don’t give up on me now. I need you to hold on, alright? I need you to be you. You can outsmart everyone in this whole fuckin’ city. You can find a way to fix this. I know you can.”
Bridget shook her head fervently. “I cannot! They died because of me… and I…” she trailed off, her voice cracked and her eyes full of devastating sorrow.
Franky held firm. “I fuckin’ love you,” she said solemnly. “And I say you can fix this.”
A smile flickered on Bridget’s lips. “I fuckin’ love you too,” she whispered, then the smile died.
“It’s not over,” Franky insisted, still harbouring hope. “We’re not done. We can change it. You can change it.”
The air around them stilled and something in Bridget snapped. Her tears ceased, her eyes lost their forlorn haze and sharpened, regaining the determination Franky had grown accustomed to seeing.
“There she is...” Franky murmured gladly. “There’s my girl.”
They rested their foreheads together. Bridget swallowed back her grief and recovered her composure. Slowed her breathing, cleared her mind. She had to think… she could do this, she had Franky and she had herself. That’s all she needed. With renewed vigour Bridget drew back, took Franky’s hand and hurried out into the hall.
“Where are we goin’?” Franky asked as they reached the top of the stairs.
“Back,” Bridget replied.
From their position on the landing they could see through the front door of Claremont, which was wide open, as Miss Bennett and her troops shackled their prisoners and forced them into the police carriage in the driveway.
“I can save them,” Bridget said and took a shaky breath. “We can. I need you.” Bridget looked pensively at her. “Will you come with me?”
Franky nodded her consent readily: she trusted Gidget implicitly despite her fractured state and would do anything she asked.
Bridget led her downstairs. She stopped at the chaise longue at the foot of the stairs and sat down. Confused, Franky settled beside her.
Miss Bennett turned in their direction, puzzled.
Bridget reached under the chaise lounge and pressed something. A footstall slotted out. Buttons, dials, levers and a helm were embedded into the cushion before her. Pedals protruding from beneath and Franky suddenly realised this was the Tiraveller: hidden in plain sight.
Miss Bennett stared at them, then dashed up the steps of the house with urgency and crossed the threshold.
Franky glanced nervously at Bridget as the inventress spun a dial and pushed several buttons. The Tiraveller jolted and purred into life. Lights shimmered, bright and flashing. A translucent film suddenly surrounded them like a shield.
Miss Bennett hastened towards them, eyes alert, calling out for several of her foot soldiers to aid her.
“Uh, Gidge – whatever you’re doin’, do it quicker!” Franky warned.
Miss Bennett was upon them. She tried to penetrate the shield but was repelled and thrown backwards, landing in a heap on the floor.
“Hold on tight,” Bridget advised and hoisted a lever.
Suddenly they flashed forward, the acceleration forcing them back in their seats, and the world faded to a white blur.
Chapter 8: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 8
A/N: We have definitely reached the NSFW section of our tale.
Time travel was a strange experience. Franky’s skin tingled and the world was distorted; elongated, as if they were rushing past it, spiralling into the stars. Her body felt stretched and then, just as suddenly, they came to an abrupt halt. Everything snapped back into place, becoming grounded and tangible once more.
The Tiraveller powered down, plunging them into darkness and the shield retracted, leaving Franky with a prickly stinging sensation in her limbs.
They had rematerialized in a darkened room that was warm and oppressive. Franky tugged at the collar of her shirt in discomfort, pulling her bowtie lose and slipping it into her pocket. “Um, Gidge... where are we?”
Bridget detected the familiar scent of lavender which Mrs. Jenkins washed her mother’s bedding in.
“Linen cupboard,” she guessed.
Bridget had yet to perfect the navigational tools on the Tiraveller. She could pin-point the date and time she wished to travel to but location was proving elusive. She leaned forward and pushed the cupboard door open, it swung out into the corridor, shedding light into the confined space. Bridget pressed several buttons and the Tiraveller reset itself to look like an innocuous chaise lounge once more.
They both rose and stepped out into the hallway.
Franky glanced over her shoulder at the Tiraveller. “Slightly odd to have a chaise longue in a linen cupboard isn’t it?”
“Odd is normal in this household,” Bridget replied.
Franky nodded; “Excellent point,” and closed the cupboard door. She was pretty sure that no one in Claremont would raise an eyebrow at the discovery.
The hour was late and the house was seeped in quietness.
“When are we?” Franky whispered.
“Yesterday evening. Our counterparts are asleep in front of the stove in my lab. We must ensure our paths do not cross lest we cause a paradox or causality loop.”
Franky gulped. “Yeah, that sounds ghastly.”
“It would be exceedingly ghastly,” Bridget warned, her tone solemn. “Apart from saving my father and Hamilton we cannot risk creating an alternative timeline.”
Franky leaned closer. “Where can we hideout?”
There hadn’t been time to consider the finer details of this plan, everything had happened so fast.
“The treehouse,” Bridget suggested. “Well, it is more of a fort. We shall be undisturbed there and I have food supplies and clean clothing put by.”
Franky nodded her consent.
They headed toward the main staircase and descended. When they reached the landing of the first floor they saw Hamilton emerge from the parlour below – he was putting out the lights, as he did every night.
Bridget tried to restrain herself, truly, but as Hamilton hummed to himself, tickled the chin of the stature of her great, great grandfather and turned down the gas lamps, her emotions erupted. She raced down the stairs and flew at him with open arms.
“Hamilton!” she exclaimed as she embraced him fiercely.
Somewhat startled, Hamilton patted her back gently. “Is everything alright Miss Westfall?”
He got nothing but a relieved sob in answer. He looked over at Franky, still stood on the staircase, and was about to ask if any calamity had occurred that he was unaware of when she tore down the final few steps and threw her arms about him too.
The two women held him in a ferocious hug from which he could not extricate himself. “Whilst it is most agreeable to be appreciated,” he managed; finding it increasingly difficult to breathe. “May I ask what I have done to warrant such a lavish display of affection?”
Both women pulled back, tears of joy shinning in their eyes.
“Hamilton?” Bridget said softly.
“You are the finest, bravest, most deserving... butler. I want you to know that.”
“Thank you,” Hamilton said, deeply heartened.
“It is wonderful to see you again,” she added hastily.
“You saw me not quarter of an hour ago when I took you tea and sandwiches.”
Bridget stared at him blankly for a moment. “Yes and you did it spectacularly!” she stated, regaining her composure.
Franky clapped his shoulder affectionately. “Mighty spectacularly!”
Hamilton gave them an odd look and his eyes narrowed. He noted Miss Westfall’s mismatching apparel, tousled hair, blood soaked hands, grass stained knees and took a step back.
“You are not from this time,” he said slowly, growing ashen. “Something has happened to me,” he hazard a guess.
“It will not come to pass. We are here to change events,” Bridget assured her friend. “There is little time so I shall speak plainly. After breakfast tomorrow you are to give Mrs. Jenkins the day off. Brook no argument. Tell her to visit her daughter in Borough, to stay. She must not, under any circumstances, return to Claremont tomorrow evening. Is that understood?”
He nodded. “Most fervently.”
“Then send Flora and Milly on an errand that gets them out of Claremont for the afternoon - I need time to work and freedom of the house - but they must be back in time for the evening, that is imperative Hamilton.”
As grating as it was, Milly must be present to grant that fiend Ferguson access to the house, though Bridget would like nothing better than to go to the girl’s bedchamber this instant and wring her neck for her betrayal. It must all appear as it did or her plan would not work.
He nodded again. “It shall be done. You have my word.”
Bridget clasped his hand and kissed his cheek. “I can always count on you, old friend.” She smiled fondly at him, her voice soft. “Now… continue as if you never saw us.”
He put his hand over hers and patted it affectionately. Then she turned away, heading for the service stairs that led to the kitchen. Franky squeezed his shoulder and quickly trailed after Bridget.
Finding himself alone in the entrance hall, Hamilton continued up the stairs, slightly dazed, and resumed putting out the lights.
Bridget and Franky crossed the shadow-filled kitchen to the backdoor. They slipped into the chilly night air and hurried across the garden. The moon was bright and high, lighting their path. They moved silently through the grounds to the orchard at the back of the house, keeping close, hands joined and bodies pressed together. Drawing courage and warmth from each other.
They walked amid the apple trees until they reached their destination: a tall, bronze tree. The branches and trunk were melded out of metal, perfectly sculpted bronze apples hung from the branches, looking inviting. A rope ladder hung down, leading to a sturdy hut structure that sat snugly at the centre of the tree.
As Franky stepped towards it Bridget grabbed her arm, holding her back.
“There are booby traps,” she warned.
Franky’s eyes widened in alarm.
“The trunk is surrounded by a camouflaged 7 foot ditch. There is also a trip wire attached to...” she pointed skywards and Franky lifted her eyes to a hefty log secured to a branch on a swing rope, ready to launch at anyone fool enough to set-off the trip wire.
Franky turned to Bridget, half fearful and half awe-struck. “Anything more?”
“Sedative darts. Once you climb the rope ladder there is a number box attached to the treehouse hatch. It is the only entrance - if you enter the incorrect combination it releases a sedative dart that will knock you out cold for approximately 3 hours. Give or take.”
“Shit Gidge. There’s such a thing as over-prepared ya know.”
“You shall thank me later when we are not murdered in our sleep,” the scientist retorted, then stepped carefully in front of Franky. “Do exactly what I do,” she directed.
Franky nodded, suddenly alert. she had no wish to be plunged 7 foot, concussed or sedated.
Taking the lead, Bridget trod carefully and precisely. Franky watched closely and copied her every step.
When they reached the bronze tree trunk unscathed they climbed the rope ladder to the entry hatch, twenty feet above ground level. A number box secured the hatch just as Bridget had foretold. Gidge input the correct code and the hatch door unlocked. The trapdoor was heavy and with great effort she pushed it open. They crawled up into the treehouse, shutting the hatch behind them and bolting it.
Once sealed inside their sanctuary, lethargy overtook them. Words were too heavy now and they moved in companionable silence.
Bridget flitted about the hut lighting candles whilst Franky glanced around as the treehouse was slowly illuminated. It was impressive. The windows were protected by retractable bronze shutters which were currently drawn and there were all the comforts of Claremont but on a smaller scale. There was a hearth, a bed, a walnut chest, a writing desk and chair, bulging book shelves, several cubbyholes, a basin and a water pump.
As Franky familiarised herself with her surroundings Bridget filled the basin with fresh water and began to wash away the dried blood on her skin. The blood belonged to a different time: to a future that would never happen. Right now, in this time frame, her father and Hamilton were alive and Bridget was resolved to keep it that way.
Franky knelt by the hearth and set about lighting a fire. Kindling and logs sat beside the fireplace in a holder rack. Once she’d got it going, she glanced over to where Bridget was stood.
Bridget dried her face and hands with a towel, relieved to be clean. She kicked off her shoes and reached up to unpin her hair. Franky watched from the other side of the room, spellbound, as long blonde curls cascaded down Gidge’s back and spilled across her shoulders. Bridget ran her fingers through her hair, shaking it out. She caught Franky’s eye and offered a small smile.
Franky got to her feet and Bridget moved to her side, they pushed the bed close to the fire, the flickering flames offering the only source of heat in the room.
Franky sank down on the mattress. She shunted off her shoes and let out a sigh. She was exhausted - they both were. Bone tired and completely wrung out. All she could think of was sleep. They needed to rest, there was much to be done tomorrow. So much was resting on them.
Bridget pulled two white nightdresses from the walnut chest and laid them on the eiderdown. They were on opposite sides of the bed, their eyes met for the briefest moments and there was tension in the air suddenly.
The fire crackled and cast an intimate glow over the room.
This evening they had declared their love, had expressed their desire and now they were truly alone with no prospect of being interrupted and neither knew how to proceed.
Franky swallowed hard, then reached out and took up one of the nightgowns. She clutched it in her hands and suddenly felt self-conscious. She was covered in scars and tattoos. She worried that once Bridget saw her stripped bare she might come to her senses and realise a future with a guttersnipe was futile, their world’s too different to reconcile.
Sensing Franky’s unease, Bridget began to undress first, wanting to remove Franky’s doubts. She had scars too – there was a burn mark on her forearm from a failed experiment that had resulted in her lab blowing-up, a bite mark on her ankle from a disgruntled snake, a round pinkish scar from where a bullet had imbedded itself in her thigh when she and Walter had tested a union suit they had created that would repel any weapon (the bullet ricocheting off the suit and into her instead), and a whole catalogue of other imperfections. Her body was a map of her life and she wanted to share that knowledge with Franky.
Keeping her eyes trained on the brunette, she reached up and began to undo her corset from the front. Slowly unhooking it one hoop at a time. Franky found she was holding her breath, her eyes admiring the soft curves slowly revealed and the glimpse of silky soft skin beneath. As Bridget reached the last fastener, Franky’s heart pounded and she turned her head away.
She glanced down at herself, she was still clad in a damp tuxedo. She stood up and began to strip. She did so as quickly as possible and with little grace, hoping to avoid Bridget’s studious gaze.
Once Bridget had freed herself of her corset she discarded it, then slid her sodden breeches down her slender legs and kicked them off. Standing in nothing more than her knee-length chemise she pulled the thin material over her head and let it fall to the floor, exposing an expanse of smooth ivory skin interrupted by a spattering of freckles and tiny scars that had Franky clenching her hands to stop from reaching out to touch.
Bridget lifted the nightdress over her head and let the delicate material spill down, covering her naked form and encasing her in warmth.
She peered over at Franky and caught sight of her companion’s bare legs in the firelight, her pale skin patterned with mysterious tattooed markings she longed to explore. Franky’s damp, dark, wild hair swayed freely. Her white shirt was indecently figure-hugging and half unbuttoned, revealing a sliver of skin from her collarbones to her navel. Bridget wanted to rip the shirt open, to divest Franky of it, to cover every inch of her skin with kisses and caresses. To trace Franky’s tattoos with her fingertips and then her tongue. The strength of the urge no longer startled her, Franky brought out a savage, ravenous side to her… she was too tired to act on her impulses but she couldn’t bring herself to look away, could never imagine wanting to look away from the exquisite form of Francesca Doyle; sculpted by the Gods and put here to torment her.
Franky became aware of Bridget’s eyes on her. Felt a warmth spread through her chest, a fluttering fill her stomach and a heat sweep across her skin. She wanted Bridget’s full attention but was also afraid of it. Afraid to disappoint. The tension of the moment was unmistakable. Bridget’s gaze heated and uninhibited; Franky’s own desire enough to set the whole of London ablaze but she fought it; pushed it down. Now was not the time.
She turned her back to Bridget and shed the rest of her clothing, leaving it in a heap on the floor, and pulled on the cotton nightdress.
The fire hissed and sputtered while Bridget moved about the room blowing out the candles. She rubbed her neck. Her muscles ached, her limbs were heavy and she struggled to keep her eyes open, wanting nothing more than to surrender to sleep.
The mattress springs creaked as Franky crawled into bed and burrowed under the covers.
In darkness Bridget pulled back the covers on her side. She slipped into the bed and shifted towards Franky, shivering as the cold sheets enveloped her.
They met in the middle, full of exhaustion. Bridget turned her head and gazed at the brunette to find her looking back, eyes bright and adoring. Their faces close. Their bodies almost touching.
Franky reached out and brushed Bridget’s cheek, stroked along her jaw and then trailed her fingertips down Bridget’s throat. Bridget’s heart accelerated, teeming with tenderness for the other woman. No one had had this effect on her before. She was enthralled by Franky and her tempestuous spirit and benevolent heart.
It had been an affecting day charged with emotion and disturbance. Franky debated with herself whether to pull Gidget closer but Bridget had no such qualms. She sidled nearer to Franky, until their shoulders touched and her foot brushed against Franky’s calf. Then she turned on her side, facing Franky. They smiled tentatively at each other. Franky wrapped her arm about Bridget’s waist, Bridget leaned into her and rested her head against Franky’s shoulder. Bridget draped her arm across Franky’s middle and sighed contentedly, her blue eyes peering up at the thunderstruck Franky.
“Is this acceptable?” she asked, not sure she could bring herself to pull away if Franky said it was too much.
“Yes,” Franky murmured. Enjoying the feel of Bridget tucked into her side. “Extremely.”
Bridget smiled drowsily. “Goodnight,” she whispered, voice ladened with sleep.
A soft smile rose on Franky’s lips. “Night,” she whispered back as she brushed her lips across Bridget’s forehead, her fingers lacing into blonde locks. Her other hand stroked Bridget’s back comfortingly. “Sleep well,” she mumbled close to Bridget’s ear.
Her hand stilled, settling on the small of Bridget’s back, pressing her closer. Bridget shut her eyes. Her body relaxed as she nestled against Franky and almost immediately fell into a deep slumber.
Dawn broke. A gentle amber light filled the treehouse; soft and infused with warmth. The fire was smouldering ashes, still throwing off the faintest heat.
Franky woke first. A contentedness pervaded her. She felt the weight of Bridget still in her arms and gazed at her, afraid to move lest she wake her. Franky studied Gidget and savoured every intricate detail. From the strange morning light that bathed Gidge in an ethereal glow to the gentle rise and fall of Bridget’s chest as she breathed, the haphazard way her left arm was strewn across Franky’s stomach, the other tucked under her chin which rested on Franky’s shoulder. Her expression peaceful and unguarded.
Franky felt her chest split open, felt a surge of something overwhelming and soul-altering. Franky had never understood the compulsion to spend a lifetime with one person until this moment. She realised she would dearly love to wake to Gidget every morning. Could gaze at her indefinitely. How long she spent caught in this spell, she didn’t know, but eventually Bridget stirred, sighed softly, rubbed her eyes and blinked awake to find herself curled into Franky’s side.
“Morning,” Franky greeted.
Bridget smiled sleepily. “Morning,” she replied, eyes sparkling.
She was about to suggest they have breakfast when Franky looked at her in that way – all softness and adulation and desperate longing - the way that leaves her in ruins.
Bridget blushed and her stomach summersaulted. Their nearness, the heat of Franky beneath her hands, the intimacy, is intoxicating. She felt Franky’s pulse quicken, felt her tremble. Bridget reached out and stroked Franky’s collar bones, heard the hitch in Franky’s breath and gave her a sultry smile.
Franky felt a tremor run through her. This was unlike her; she had tupped more girls than she could count but they had all been frivolous dalliances… Bridget was different. She felt the weight behind its meaning. Felt uncertain, afraid of losing Bridget as a consequence. Her confidence was in tatters and she cursed herself for being so nervous.
Bridget’s fingers glided across Franky’s skin. “You are beautiful,” Bridget whispered reverently.
She undid the first button of Franky’s nightdress, then the second, then the third, peeling the material back slowly. Franky’s breath caught and her vision clouded. Bridget pressed a kiss to the tattoo over her heart, then looked directly into Franky’s eyes. Franky bit her lip, the air between them thick with desire.
Bridget smiled at her, soft and tender, then dipped her hand and fondled Franky through her nightgown. Rubbed her palm across Franky’s hardened nipple and watched, mesmerised, as Franky exhaled sharply.
Franky cupped Gidget’s face and pressed a series of desperate kisses to her lips; forceful and raw. Bridget whimpered as Franky’s frantic kisses forced her back against the mattress and Franky moved astride her. Bridget’s hands drifted up Franky’s back until her fingers knotted in her dark hair. When Franky’s tongue slipped into her mouth, Gidge’s grip tightened and she tugged the other woman’s hair, eliciting a guttural moan.
They pulled apart, panting and lust filled, to gaze at each other. Ensuring they both wanted this. Seeing no doubt, their lips collided again, hands grasping and searching. Bridget gasped as Franky pressed herself harder against her. Desire pooling in the pit of her stomach and spreading through her body, gathering between her legs.
Bridget’s hips rocked against Franky, she scratched her nails down Franky’s sides until they grasped her backside, drawing her closer. Franky broke the kiss, flushed, she trailed hungry, open-mouthed kisses down Gidge’s throat. Bridget arched her neck, allowing Franky better access. Franky sucked her pulse point, which hammered against her lips. She grazed the skin lightly with her teeth, lavished it with her tongue and then soothed the reddened flesh with gentle kisses. Bridget shivered as Franky trailed a path down her throat and across her shoulder.
Bridget tangled her hands in Franky’s hair and drew Franky back up to her lips, kissing her deeply. Her right hand tugging at the brunette’s nightdress, encouraging it up, fingers eagerly hunting for skin as their mouths merged. Rough and uncompromising. Tongues dancing, becoming increasingly voracious.
Franky’s hand travelled from Bridget’s hip to the apex of her thighs and pressed against her heat, she rubbed gently. The blonde moaned loudly. Franky’s heart pounded in her chest as Bridget broke their kiss and peered up at her, eyes smouldering, lips bruised, colour high on her cheeks, shallow breaths.
Franky felt light-headed, her body burned. Bridget pulled her back down, mouths fusing, her kisses rushed and insistent. Heat engulfed them and Franky ran her hands up the inside of Bridget’s thighs, parting them.
Franky pressed her body flush against Gidge’s and nestled between her legs. Bridget’s eyes slammed shut and she gasped out her pleasure and then brought their lips crashing back together. Feeling Franky all around her, wanting to give everything Franky asked of her body.
Franky groaned and drew back, breathless. Bridget gripped the hem of Franky’s nightdress and pulled it up and over her head. Discarding it. Immediately, Franky was upon her again; lips passionate and demanding. Bridget craved Franky so badly, the throb between her legs was unbearable.
“I want you,” Franky husked between kisses, her eyes stormy with desire, lips crimson from passionate kisses, expelling rapid breaths as they clung together.
“Then take me,” Bridget rasped, circling Franky’s neck with her arms and pulling her into another blistering kiss. Bruising and desperate.
Impatiently Franky gripped a fistful of Bridget’s nightdress and yanked it up… there seemed to be yards and yards of it, she lost patience and with a growl reached for the neckline of the offending garment and tore it open, the material ripped, buttons spilling to the floor. The violence of the sound filled their ears. Bridget writhed, her hips bucking against Franky, desperate now. Aroused beyond measure.
Franky pulled back the shredded clothing to expose Bridget’s body, delighted in the sight of Bridget’s heaving chest, flushed skin and eyes dark and glazed with longing. She slid her hand between them. Bridget arched against Franky in the most delectable, unrestrained way. Her hands gripping Franky’s back, trailing downwards, nails digging uncontrollably into skin, frenzied and feverish, as Franky touched her.
Their lips collided together as wave upon wave of desire rolled through them; wild and consuming. Bridget wound her leg around Franky, dragging her closer. Franky thrust into her and watched her lover’s body shiver as she caressed Bridget’s breast with her other hand. Teased the taut nipple. The desire in Bridget’s eyes, the longing infused in her kiss was astonishing. Irresistible lips, smooth as velvet, gentle and demanding, mouth pliant and eager, her tongue meeting Franky’s every sweep, her hips canting upwards and creating a delicious friction that drew moans from Franky. The desire was insatiable. Franky feared she might drown.
Bridget’s climax stormed through her. Fiery and wanton. Franky’s name tumbled from her lips as she shook and trembled.
Franky had never felt anything this intense. She’d always feared that if she allowed her emotions to surface, they’d swallow her up... but Bridget was shaking in her arms and she felt like she might combust with every brush of Bridget’s lips, every caress, every sigh and whisper and moan. She was lost, so very lost, in Bridget and their untamed abandon. It all felt so very right.
Without warning, Bridget slipped her thigh between Franky’s legs and pressed up. Franky gasped and rested her forehead against Bridget’s shoulder as she bore down against the exquisite sensation. Bridget placed hot kisses along her neck. Teeth ghosting across Franky’s overheated skin followed by soothing strokes of her tongue. Franky whimpered softly. Bridget’s palms pressed firmly against her breasts, cupping and fondling, unleashing a stream of desperate moans from the brunette.
Lust tore through Franky, ushering all sense from her mind… she grasped Bridget’s hips and ground down on Bridget’s thigh. “More...” Franky panted, arching into her.
Bridget’s lips parted, breathless with wonder as she obliged. Her leg surged up and collided with Franky’s core. The contact was thrilling. Franky sighed with pleasure and slid her hand down Bridget’s side, grazing the skin of her rib cage, sweeping across her stomach and slipped between them. Seeking out Bridget’s heat.
Bridget threw her head back when Franky was inside her again. Filling her. A low groan escaped her throat as she bit her lip, gripped the sheets, her eyes shut, throat bared. Franky leaned forward and peppered Bridget’s skin with open-mouthed kisses as her hand moved; sure and deftly. Eliciting wondrous sounds from Bridget as she pleasured her.
“Oh Gidge,” Franky murmured, briefly tearing her lips away from Bridget’s. “I could do this till time runs out.”
She took Bridget’s earlobe between her teeth and a whimper escaped Bridget as she trembled, her pelvis rising off the bed to meet Franky’s thrusts. Their hips rocked together, bodies pressed flush, breast-to-breast, hip-to-hip, every inch of skin touching, blistering and sweat drenched.
She’s inside Bridget, driving harder and faster, a relentless tempo, and she can’t believe she’s the one that gets to see Gidget like this, gets to touch her like this. She pushes harder, makes Bridget cry out, wrapping her arms tighter around Franky, their breaths mingling. Then Franky feels Bridget tighten around her fingers, feels Bridget gasp and shudder. It was beyond erotic.
Franky quickened her pace as she poured her voice like music into Bridget’s ear. Whispering wonderfully sordid things. Things Franky would like to do to her. Telling Bridget how beautiful she was, how much she wanted her, how much she liked being inside her, how good she felt, how sweet she tasted, how heavenly she smelt… Bridget cried out again; Franky’s name expelled from her lips as she shook uncontrollably. Lust and love and affection merging.
Franky soothed her through the aftershocks, kissed Bridget’s face and slowed her hand. Waiting for her to come down. The urgency quenched, for now.
Sated, they lay side-by-side. A mess of limbs, sweat and laboured breaths. Surrounded by a sea of crumpled sheets.
Franky turned her head to look at Bridget; honey coloured hair billowed across the pillow, flushed skin covered in a sheen of sweat, chest rising and falling as she tried to steady her breathing. The vision steals Franky’s breath. Makes her think this is all a dream.
Bridget smiled at her, then reached out and stroked the matted hair away from Franky’s face. She leaned forward and planted a tender kiss on her lips, her nose, her chin and forehead. Then rolled on top of Franky and continued to kiss her languidly. They took their time. Savouring the sensations shooting through their bodies. Then Bridget gripped Franky’s wrists and pinned her arms above her head. She entwined their fingers, their palms kissing.
Bridget’s eyes gleamed with mischief as she rubbed her foot against Franky’s ankle, raked her hands along Franky’s arms and slid down Franky’s body, skin sleek, hips rolling, and took Franky’s nipple into her mouth. She gently teased it with her teeth, tugging, causing Franky to sob. Bridget rewarded her responses with soothing brushes of her tongue over the tip. Franky arched up, losing track of any thoughts that aren’t Bridget making her scream.
Bridget trailed her lips down Franky’s body, exploring every inch of skin, stroking and kissing… until she reached the apex of Franky’s thighs. She lowered her hand and ran her fingers through short curls. Felt that Franky was ready for her, saw the evidence glistening on her fingertips. Franky’s eyes fluttered shut, the breath stolen from her lungs.
Bridget hovered over her, gently urging Franky’s legs apart, then dipped her head and placed soft, teasing kisses on the inside of Franky’s lithe thighs, digging her short nails into Franky’s flesh as she buried her mouth between Franky’s spread legs. She felt a jolt shoot through Franky. Her tongue delved deeper, her mouth moving expertly, sucking and licking. Franky lifted her hips, canting up, seeking friction, desperate for release.
As Bridget devoured her, Franky writhed and gasped and pleaded without shame. Head nestled between Franky’s legs, tongue gliding through sleek heat, Bridget hummed. The sensation made Franky arch off the bed and cry out. Hips rising up to meet Bridget’s mouth, needing more. Bridget was overwhelmed by how open and wet Franky was. It felt deliciously debauched.
When Franky screamed her name, Bridget relented. She eased her ministrations until Franky sank back against the mattress, ravaged and boneless. Bridget drew back, wiped her mouth on the sheet and crawled up her lover’s body, until they lay breathless and limp beside each other. Turned towards one another; spent and trying to steady their breaths.
Franky circled Bridget’s waist with her arm and tugged her close. Their noses touched and they studied each other, exchanging the occasional kiss or caress. They stayed this way for as long as they could, enjoying the stillness of the moment before the outside world invaded their safe haven.
Bridget got up from the bed first and crossed the room, naked as the day she was born. Franky rolled onto her stomach to appreciate the view. Her eyes skimming over Bridget’s handsome figure while Gidge bent and pulled fresh clothes from the walnut chest. She handed a sandalwood coloured skirt and white blouse to Franky that she thought would suit her and pulled out a turquoise muslin garment for herself.
They dressed in silence, stealing glances at each other, brazen and shy. Heads filled with the intimate moments they had just shared. Heated touches, carnal kisses, whispered words and an array of passionate moment’s in-between. Bodies still tingling with the ghost of each other’s touches.
For breakfast they ate a veritable feast of preserved pears dipped in honey, for only non-perishable food was stored at the treehouse. Customarily, when Bridget decided to spend time at the treehouse Mrs. Jenkins would prepare her a basket of freshly baked goods and cold cuts, but Bridget had not wanted to raise suspicion by raiding the pantry and alerting Mrs. Jenkins that something was amiss. So she and Franky shared the generous rations of what was already there. Exchanging delicate touches and soft looks over mouthfuls of rip fruit and blossom honey. It was delectable and somehow felt forbidden. Occasionally they would reach for each other, fingers tangling, and deliver sticky kisses to knuckles, palms, wrists and temples.
When they were finished Franky washed the dishes in the basin and Bridget dried them. Then they put them away in a cubby hole and disposed of the dirty water through the hatch.
At 9am Bridget drew back the shutters of the window, the view now revealed was a vantage point overlooking the whole of Claremont and its grounds. No one could leave or enter the house without being seen. There was a small balcony that she stepped onto as she looked upon Claremont with a spyglass.
She watched Mrs. Jenkins depart after breakfast, looking bewildered and carrying her carpet bag. Bridget felt light with relief. She could not bear for anyone else she cared about to be hurt.
Right on schedule she watched her original self lead the original Franky to the other side of the orchard to begin target practice. Bridget smiled at the memory of teaching Franky to shoot the ray gun. Remembered how difficult it had been to resist the dark haired beauty even then.
As Bridget waited for the maids to leave on some bogus chore of Hamilton’s invention, Franky moved behind her. Arms curled around her waist, a chest pressed flush against her back, lips grazed her neck, Franky inhaled her scent and placed a series of feather-light kisses beneath her ear. Bridget moaned and Franky emitted a low growl that made Bridget giddy.
“You are a terrible distraction,” Bridget complained unconvincingly, her tone soft and full of wonder.
“I can leave if that’s what you’d pref - ”
“No!” Bridget cried as Franky pulled away. Bridget caught hold of her hand and pulled her back, wrapping her arms about her. “That is most definitely not what I want.”
She stood on her toes and pressed a sweet kiss to her lover’s lips.
“Glad that’s cleared-up,” Franky teased.
They took turns to keep lookout.
Come noon Milly and Flora set-off on foot down Claremont’s drive. An hour later the carriage departed with their counterparts in it, heading for Ratcliff. The coast clear, they decided to head back to the house.
They left the refuge of the treehouse and crossed the orchard arm-in-arm.
As they approached the front entrance of Claremont, Bridget said; “The code for the number box is pi.”
Franky looked quizzical. “Pie?”
Franky’s stomach rumbled, despite having just polished off a jar of peaches for lunch. Bridget smirked, marvelling at Franky’s inexhaustible appetite.
“Pi is a mathematical equation: 3.14159. Minus the decimal point.” She looked expectantly at her lover. “What is it?”
“314159,” Franky replied instantly.
Bridget beamed and then keyed the code into the number box. The glass cylinders burst into life, the two discs rotated and produced a blinding flash. The front door clicked open and they entered.
Hamilton was waiting for them in the entrance hall. “The house is empty, save for your mother,” he informed Miss Westfall.
“You did well, now… a visitor shall call for Miss Doyle later this afternoon, her father. I want you to make him wait in the parlour – our counterparts must deal with him when they arrive back from Ratcliffe. There can be no deviation, as yet, from original events.”
“We shall be in my lab should any difficulties arise,” Bridget notified him.
She and Franky headed upstairs.
Franky made it to the third step before she called out to Hamilton, who had already started towards the service stairs. “Oh, Hamilton, make sure you read the social pages of The Times today, it’s a real humdinger!”
As Hamilton nodded Bridget rolled her eyes heavenwards, now wondering if a causality loop was unavoidable. They would never know if they went to Miss Proctor's dance because Hamilton told them of it or if Hamilton told them of it because Franky had pointed it out to him knowing he would need to tell them of it. Time travel could be a headache inducing logistical nightmare.
Bridget and Franky continued upstairs to her lab. As soon as they entered Darwin immediately barked with joy at his mistresses’ return. Bridget scooped him up into her arms and stroked him. He licked her hand, his tail wagging so hard she feared it would fall off. She kissed the top of his head and handed him to Franky as she set about prepping.
“What exactly is your plan?” Franky asked as Bridget darted about, gathering materials from various draws and shelves and tool boxes. Throwing wires and components onto her workbench.
Franky set Darwin down, who scuttled off to play.
“Employing the same principle as the ray gun I shall configure five circuits – strategically placed about the entrance hall - to disperse a room-wide high-voltage, low-amperage electrical charge,” Bridget explained. “When Ferguson and her henchmen gather in the foyer to confront our counterparts, I shall pull a trigger wire and a five-second charge will be released - everyone in the foyer shall be temporarily incapacitated except us. We can then pull Hamilton and my Father to safety, let Miss Bennett and her men in through the secret passage to shackle Ferguson and her lackeys while they are out cold. No one is hurt and the villains are safely apprehended.”
“I like it,” Franky said, smiling brightly. She leaned on the edge of the table, arms folded as she gazed playfully at Bridget. “Brains and beauty. Now you’re turnin’ me on,” Franky said and proceeded to give Gidge amorous looks.
Bridget looked heavenwards. “I would rather you were motivated than aroused. This trap is important. We cannot afford to make a mistake.”
“Well now I’m motivated and aroused,” Franky teased.
“You are incorrigible!”
“Isn’t that what attracted you to me in the first place?”
Bridget laughed. “Amongst other things,” she teased back, then returned her attention to her work – she needed to concentrate. Franky immediately fell silent. She knew what was at stake; they could not fail Hamilton or Mr. Westfall.
It took the best part of three hours for Bridget to build the five circuits, with Franky’s help. Franky fetched and carried and sourced any materials or tools she needed. Once the circuits were completed they locked Darwin in Bridget’s bedchamber for his own protection and ventured downstairs. Using a step ladder they set about rigging the entrance hall. They attached the circuits to the coving around the edges of the ceiling, concealing them from discerning eyes.
When Franky took instruction from Bridget she frequently found herself standing too close to the inventress, would often lose concentration and find herself staring at Bridget… she took pleasure from the fact that this caused Bridget to fluster, to shiver when their fingers accidentally brushed, and more than once she heard Bridget’s sharp intake of breath and saw the colour rise in her cheeks when their eyes met across the room. Franky enjoyed having this effect on Bridget, enjoyed that Gidget didn’t try to conceal it.
What Franky failed to realise was that every time Bridget looked in her direction, Franky gave her an enormous heart-stopping smile that illuminated her whole face, the intensity of which was the cause of Bridget being reduced to a quivering wreck. No one had ever looked at her that way. She had never felt the feeling to which Franky gave rise this strongly before.
Once the circuits had been secured about the room Bridget threaded a fine a wire through each circuit, connecting them all: it was vital that they detonate simultaneously. Franky stood beneath the ladder and held it steady as she watched Bridget’s nimble fingers carefully trail the trigger wire down the wall. When Gidge dismounted the ladder, Franky’s arms and a searing kiss awaited her.
“Sorry,” Franky apologised as their lips parted, though her tone was anything but and she was wearing a grin. “Couldn’t resist.”
Bridget wrapped her arms about Franky’s neck, drawing them closer, her eyes fluttering shut as she brought their lips together again.
The front doorbell rang.
Reluctantly Bridget broke the kiss. “That is your father. We must hide,” she whispered.
Franky nodded in accordance. “They’ll never find us in your bedchamber,” she said, a suggestive eyebrow raised and a cheeky smirk covering her face.
Gidge swatted her arm and pulled out of her embrace. “Incorrigible!” she scolded good-humouredly.
Bridget painstakingly trailed the trigger wire along the skirting board to their hideout behind a tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings. The tapestry was positioned at the foot of the stairs and ran the length of the wall. It had spy holes carved in it, put there by a cautious relative of Bridget’s long lost in the mists of time. From there they could see all that occurred whilst remaining hidden and shielded from the effects of their trap.
They heard Hamilton answer the door to Mr. Doyle and lay in wait for events to unfold.
Chapter 9: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 9
Behind the tapestry, carved into the wall, was an alcove. A wooden bench sat in the nook where Bridget and Franky now perched. It was uncomfortable, dark and airless. They had water and Bridget had taken the precaution of wrapping up several chewitt pies and roast partridge to sustain them (if Franky did not eat at regular intervals, her rumbling stomach was likely to give them away). That aside, the grateful and radiant smile Franky bestowed on the blonde when her eyes alighted on the food was reward enough.
They remained concealed behind the tapestry for hours, not daring to move from their hideout. Bridget peered out of the nearest spyhole - masked by a section of the tapestry which depicted a defeated King Harold with an arrow through his eye. Bridget had always found the tapestry to be ostentatious, presently however, she felt grateful for her distant relatives’ mistrustful resourcefulness.
Franky glanced out of another spyhole, staring out of the belly of a fallen horse.
From their respective peep-holes they watched their counterparts arrive back from Ratcliffe, escort Mr. Doyle off the premises, almost kiss, heard Hamilton’s revelation about Miss Proctor and the dance, saw the maids return from their errand and their original selves obediently set-off for The Red Right Hand fundraiser.
Franky grew restive. Every time she started to become twitchy, Bridget would reach out a hand and touch Franky’s elbow, brush her knee or give her an encouraging smile. This seemed to settle her. She was unused to being idle, her skin itched with the urge to take action.
The house fell dark. Its only occupants Milly, Flora and the ever ailing Mrs. Westfall (safely interned in her bedchamber on the top floor). They waited patiently, expectation building as the grandfather clock struck 10 O’clock.
Then it began.
An urgent knock shattered the peace of Claremont. Milly rushed to the front door and looked through the peep-hole. She sucked in a vexed breath and glanced about to ensure she was alone, then pulled the door open.
On the doorstep was Jesper.
“What you doin’ here?” the girl snapped. “You want someone to see you?”
He barged into the entrance hall and closed the door. “Your Mistress back yet?” he asked gruffly.
Milly shook her head.
“Anyone else about?”
“Flora, in the kitchen.”
“There’s been a change of plan. Ferguson’s plannin’ a coup.”
“But I never agreed to - ” Milly began.
Jesper wagged a finger menacingly at her and the girl shrank back.
“You’ll be recompensed generously,” he reminded her.
The girl looked gloomy.
Behind the tapestry Bridget wondered if Milly regretted her role. Then halted those thoughts: she could not allow herself to feel sympathy towards someone who had betrayed her so completely.
Jesper opened the door and let out a whistle. Moments later Ferguson and her lackeys filled the hall. The Freak looked about Claremont, eyes gleaming with malicious victory. She clicked her fingers and her henchmen immediately took-up hiding places whilst Ferguson sashayed up the stairs.
Jesper saw to Flora personally – he entered the kitchen stealthily, grabbed the girl from behind, clamped a hand over her mouth and locked her in the pantry. She thumped and hollered but could not be heard through the thick walls of the storeroom. Jesper then took-up a position behind the curtain at the top of the service stairs, ready to pounce.
Behind the tapestry, Bridget and Franky saw it all. Bridget bit her lip, reigning in her temper. She had to remain calm, had to keep a steady hand. The trigger wire was clutched in her fist, taut, ready for the most opportune moment. Timing was everything.
Minutes later Bridget felt Franky tense beside her. Heard the number box whir and the front door unlock. They held their breaths as the Westfall party stepped into the entrance hall: the worse for wear after their windblown death-defying escapade at Miss Proctor’s ball.
Bridget’s grip on the trigger wire tightened, cutting into her skin.
“Hamilton, send word to the police of my return. Tell them I should like to hold off interview until the morning. I am in need of a good meal and my bed!” she heard her father say, his voice slightly muffled from her position.
Through the eyehole she watched Hamilton ram the parachute into the umbrella stand, then saw them all look up with startled dread to see Ferguson at the top of the stairs.
“How did you get in here?” Mr. Westfall demanded.
Ferguson was out of Bridget’s view but she could hear that unmistakable haughty voice. It sent a cold shiver down her spine.
“I have my ways,” the Freak drawled.
Milly caught the original Miss Westfall’s eye, saw her glower and sank back into the shadows. She withdrew to the kitchen, unable to bear the look in her Mistress’s eyes... it was one of accusation and treachery.
“This is my house and you are not welcome, now or ever. Get out!” Mr. Westfall bellowed.
At that moment, Ferguson’s henchmen emerged from various doorways – like menacing spectres. Hard-bitten, sneering and eager to inflict harm. Their counterparts were surrounded and outnumbered.
In the alcove, Franky’s chest tightened, she felt even more helpless the second time round. Knowing in order to help they had to bide their time. She clenched her fists, trying to stay in her seat. Beside her Bridget was waiting till Ferguson hit the bottom step and her lackeys inched closer before pulling the trigger wire. Two of the Freak’s henchmen were currently outside the parameters of the trap. There was little Bridget could have done to widen it – any further and the electrical discharge from the circuits would have been too weak to have the desired effect.
Jesper sneered and marshalled the Westfall party towards Ferguson.
“I am very disappointed. I thought I had made myself clear,” Ferguson insisted as she descended the stairs. Her unruffled manner underlined with lethal intent.
Ferguson reached the last step. “Bring me the Tiraveller,” she demanded of the original Miss Westfall.
“No,” the original Bridget rebuffed. Shoulders set and jaw determined.
Clearly displeased, Ferguson tilted her head, eyes like flint. “You’re assuming you have a choice.” She crooked a finger and signalled for Jesper to bring Hamilton to her.
Behind the tapestry sweat was forming on Bridget’s brow. Her eyes taking in every detail, completely focused. She had to get the timing right. She watched eagle-eyed as Jesper and another man grabbed Hamilton and hauled him towards Ferguson. Hamilton railed against them but it was futile. She watched as, instinctively, her original self, Franky and Mr. Westfall surged forward to assist Hamilton but were impeded by Ferguson’s men.
Hamilton was brought before the Freak, who smiled perversely. Just then, all of Ferguson’s lackeys crept closer, eager to see what punishment she would exact on Hamilton. They were all within bounds of the trap now.
“It’s inadvisable to upset me,” Ferguson warned.
Behind the tapestry Bridget took that as her cue and pulled the trigger wire. Nothing happened. Bridget’s heart stopped. She tugged on the wire again, still nothing. She and Franky turned to each other, eyes wide with panic.
Franky looked through her spyhole and saw that the trigger wire had got caught on the edge of the marble statue of Bridget's great, great grandfather. They had no time to spare, so, intrepidly, Franky stepped out of the alcove, pushed the tapestry back and ran to where the wire was caught and unsnagged it.
As Franky emerged from their hideout, Ferguson, her lackey’s, the original Bridget and Franky, Mr. Westfall and Hamilton all stopped dead and turned to stare at her, dumbfounded.
Franky smiled back, gave them a cheeky wave and then ducked behind the tapestry again, yanking the trigger wire as she went.
A brilliant burst of light and electricity flooded the entrance hall and everyone gathered there collapsed to the floor unconscious.
“We did it!” Franky exclaimed jubilantly and darted out from behind the tapestry once more.
Bridget followed, stumbling and somewhat dazed. It had worked! Everyone was unharmed. She turned to Franky and grinned, clapped her hands together in joy and was suddenly swept up in Franky’s arms.
“They saw me – will that lead to a paradox or causality loop?” Franky asked, suddenly anxious as they drew apart.
Bridget grinned. “I am sure the universe will cope!”
Franky smiled and relaxed. “Good, I’d hate to break the universe on my first time-travelling expedition.”
Without further preamble they located Mr. Westfall. Franky took hold of his legs and Bridget his arms. They made quick work of carrying him to the safety of the parlour and propping him up on a sofa. Next they found Hamilton and lugged him into the parlour where they set him down beside Mr. Westfall. They locked the parlour door and Bridget pocketed the key.
Then, using the rope Franky had hidden inside a vase in the hall, they tied-up Ferguson and her men.
Neither of them saw Milly who had reappeared at the top of the service stairs. The maid had heard the thunderous burst of electricity and hurried back to the entrance hall to find everyone out cold. She remained in the shadows until she realised all her plans were about to come undone and she would most likely face the gaol.
When she spotted the original Miss Westfall and Franky lying among the unconscious her eyes flicked up to where the current Miss Westfall and Franky were tying-up Jesper, dressed in different attire, and her brain short-circuited... how could there be two of them? Of both of them? It was impossible. Terror-filled her and she bent and pulled a gun from the belt of one of Ferguson’s men.
With Hamilton and Mr. Westfall securely locked in the parlour and Ferguson’s gang tied-up, Franky started up the stairs to let Miss Bennett in through the secret door in Gidge’s lab.
“Stop!” Milly ordered.
Franky halted at the girls quaking voice. She and Bridget turned to face the young maid who stood with a gun drawn on them. Her hands shaking.
Franky held up her hands in surrender. “Milly, what are you doin’? Put the gun down.”
“No!” she barked, taking a step towards Franky.
Bridget edged closer. Fearful of what the girl might do. “Milly, whatever is all this?”
Milly narrowed her eyes, her gaze fixed on Franky. “Why’d you have to come here and ruin everythin’?”
Franky shot Bridget a bewildered look.
“No one was goin’ to get hurt. Ferguson was goin’ to get the machine, Miss Westfall was goin’ to get her father back and I was goin’ to get a fat purse. I needed that money.”
Bridget stepped closer to the girl, her voice gentle, trying to defuse the situation. “Whatever you need the money for Milly, I can help you. There was no need to resort to this subterfuge.”
Tears streamed down the girls face and she shook her head violently, greatly distressed. For the first time she looked at Bridget. Eyes large and sorrowful. “You don’t understand Miss. I needed the money so I could be a lady... so that you’d notice me...”
Bridget was genuinely taken aback. “Milly,” she said, her tone infused with understanding. “I did not realise you felt that way.”
Milly lowered the gun, her eyes imploring. “You’ve always been so sweet to me Miss. No one ever treated me so kind. I’d do anythin’ for you. But you never notice. You always look right through me. I thought if I was rich, if I could buy you presents and jewellery and...” she trailed off, holding back a sob. “Then she came!” Milly aimed at Franky again, her voice filled with rage. “I seen how you look at her. Why couldn’t it have been me?”
Bridget shook her head. “I am sorry Milly, I never meant to hurt your feelings or cause you unhappiness.”
“I know Miss,” Milly snivelled. “It’s her – she’s what caused this!”
Milly gripped the gun with both hands, aimed at Franky and pulled the trigger. A bullet ricocheted out of the gun barrel and launched into the air, hurtling towards Franky.
Without thought, Bridget leapt in front of the brunette, shielding her. The bullet ripped through Bridget’s chest, burrowing through bone, rupturing several arteries and imbedding itself in her lungs. The impact sent Gidge crashing to the ground and her head slumping back against the steps. Franky and Milly cried out in alarm and rushed forward.
Franky knelt beside Gidge and gathered the blonde up in her arms. The wound in Bridget's chest haemorrhaged. Blood gushed out, her blouse turning crimson as blood soaked through the material. Franky pressed her hand over the wound, trying to stem the bleeding but the damage was too extensive. Bridget gasped with pain, her body growing cold as the life seeped out of her.
“Gidge, don’t you leave me now.”
Bridget blinked up at Franky, who cradled her in her arms, rocking gently.
It was hopeless, they both knew it.
Bridget reached up and brushed Franky’s cheek. “We did it…” Bridget mumbled, half delirious. Her hand falling away. She was growing weaker by the second, her lips starting to turn blue.
“Came at a price though, hey?” Franky whispered, trying to hold back her tears.
“It was worth it… everyone I love is safe.”
Bridget scrunched her eyes shut against the pain, her breathing becoming dangerously shallow and her pulse slowed. Everything was becoming hazy.
“Gidge?” Franky called softly.
Bridget blinked her eyes open again, Franky sounded so distant…
“I love you,” Franky whispered hoarsely and smiled through her tears. “And I’ll be back. I’m coming back for you Gidge. Wait for me.”
A small smile formed on Bridget’s lips, her bright blue eyes knowing… then her eyelids closed for the last time as the final breath left her. She became limp and lifeless in Franky’s arms and Franky’s heart stopped too, for a moment. Bridget was dead.
Then came the pain, the grief, the anger and the resolve. An enormous fireball of emotions. Franky let out a pained cry and drew Bridget tightly into her arms, holding her close.
Then, very gently, she lay Bridget’s body down, pressed a tender kiss to her forehead and gazed at her one last time – she needed to remember this moment so that it wouldn’t happen again.
Franky got to her feet, ignoring Milly who was frozen to the spot and sobbing, and ran up the stairs. Ran so fast her lungs burned and her muscles screamed but Franky had already shut-down: completely focused. She had one thing on her mind - she had to go back and save Gidge.
She crashed into her bedchamber and ripped through her things until she found it – the purse of coins that Bridget had given her on her first day at Claremont. She pocketed the money and tore off her bloodstained blouse. She quickly threw on a clean one, she would need to draw as little attention to herself as possible, and then hurried from the room.
Franky yanked open the door of the linen cupboard. Before her was the chaise longue. She sat down and her hand scrambled beneath it, searching for the button she’d seen Bridget press. She found it. A footstall popped out covered in buttons, dials, levers and a helm. Pedals jutted out from beneath. Franky remembered Gidget spinning a dial and pushing numerous buttons. She replicated the actions from memory, heart pounding all the while. This had to work, it had to…
To her immense relief the Tiraveller jolted to life. The linen cupboard filled with dazzling lights that gleamed and flickered and a film shield encased the Tiraveller.
“I’m coming Gidge,” Franky promised outloud. “Hold tight. Hold tight for both of us,” and she tugged a lever.
Suddenly the Tiraveller sped forward, leaving Franky breathless. The world became a blur and then, in a blink, it was gone.
Chapter 10: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 10
The first thing Franky realised as she rematerialized was that something was wrong.
Where Claremont had once stood was a large field in which cows grazed. There was a peaceful lull. No distant noises. No industrialisation and no fog hovering over the landscape. Wooden huts were scattered where the apple orchard should be. Smoke billowed from the huts and there was a rabble of children playing nearby, dressed in tribal outfits.
Franky leaned forward, blinking. Hoping that if she stared long enough the sight before her might correct itself.
The Tiraveller powered-down and the shield retreated. Franky glanced down at the Time Wheel and guessed that she had gone a little too far back… while she could not decipher words, the numbers on the dial seemed to be telling her she was in 562.
The children alighted on her and started towards the Tiraveller, curious. Then a man in fur skins and brandishing a spear exited one of the huts. His eyes narrowed as he spotted her and he let out a primal howl which rallied several hunters from other huts, armed with weapons and angry looks.
“Shit!” Franky muttered as she spun the Time Dial again and retched the silver lever. It screeched in protest and the Tiraveller juddered to life, straining at having to jump into action so soon after its arrival.
Franky’s pulse galloped as the warriors raced towards her. The film shield slipped back into place, surrounding her. She sighed with immense relief as the warriors faded from view and she was thrust forward, to another time and place.
She landed with a thud amidst tall green hedges on a balmy summer’s day. Franky stood on the seat of the chaise longue and looked about vigilantly. She was splat in the middle of the maze in Claremont’s walled garden.
Claremont stood tall and proud in the foreground and Franky released a breath. She’d have to have a word with Gidge about installing more accurate navigational equipment on the Tiraveller.
She left the time machine hidden in the labyrinth. As she neared the Westfall Estate she realised the treehouse wasn’t there. She looked about, trying to get her bearings. She moved towards where the treehouse should be – she was definitely at the right site. She stopped and leaned against a tree trunk, perplexed.
Franky heard sniffling and looked up to see a blonde girl, no more than 6, sitting on a branch, crying.
Little Bridget wiped her nose on her sleeve, her shoulders wracked with sobs as she tried to get her weeping under control.
Franky’s heart leapt as she gazed at the round little face framed by blonde plats.
“Hey!” she called up to the girl.
6 year old Bridget immediately stopped crying and stared down at Franky.
“Are you alright?” the brunette asked kindly.
Bridget stared blankly at the stranger.
Franky grasped the nearest branch and nimbly clambered up the tree. Wide-eyed, little Bridget watched her. Franky reached the branch Bridget was seated on and sidled-up beside her.
“I have never seen a lady climb a tree,” Bridget said awe-struck.
Franky grinned. “The skirts and corsets hold us up but we can do anything the boys can.”
Franky nudged her shoulder playfully. “Why're you up here?”
Bridget sniffed. “The boys refuse to play with me. They called me a nuisance.”
“So play with the girls,” Franky suggested.
“They only want to play Mummies and Daddies - which is boring.”
Franky nodded. “I hear ya.”
“I want to have adventures,” little Bridget professed, her face becoming animated, “have sword fights, fly to the moon, be a pirate Queen but they just want to have tea parties and change their doll’s nappies.”
“Your games sound much more fun,” Franky encouraged.
Bridget beamed and gazed at her with trusting eyes.
“Just because others don’t see things the way you do, doesn’t mean you’re wrong,” Franky said.
Bridget clasped her hands in her lap and gazed at the stranger questioningly. “Why are you here?”
“I’m lookin’ for my friend.”
“You lost her?”
“I hate being lost.”
“Me too,” Franky admitted. “But I never felt lost when I was with her.” She smiled down at the young Bridget. “One day you’ll find someone who wants to have adventures with you and makes you feel like you could conquer the world!”
“Mama says I am odd, that I should try and behave like other girls,” little Bridget said.
“Your Mama’s an idiot.”
Bridget gasped with shock, covering her mouth with her hand, and then giggled. “You cannot say that!”
“Principled even at 6!” Franky mocked. “Figures.”
Bridget looked at her inquisitively. “Pardon?”
“Nothin’. Hey, you know what - this would be a great spot for a treehouse.”
Bridget looked about, her eyes filling with inspiration. “A treehouse?”
“A hideout just for you. Where the mean boys and silly girls aren’t allowed!”
Bridget laughed again, her eyes gleaming. “Will you play with me?”
“Sure,” Franky replied.
Bridget reached out and took Franky’s hand. She got steadily to her feet and tugged Franky towards the tree trunk.
When they reached the ground Franky played adventure games with her for hours. They traipsed through the Amazon Jungle in search of the lost treasure of Elderado, then dived to the depths of the ocean in search of mysterious sea creatures hitherto undiscovered, flew around the world in a hot air balloon and foiled the plans of moon Martians intent on taking over the world with their slave automaton spiders. When the sunlight started to wane they heard Mrs. Jenkins call from the back steps of Claremont for her charge to return - supper was ready.
“I must go,” Bridget said regretfully.
Franky bent down and gently tugged on one of Gidget’s plats.
“You’re the bravest girl I ever met Bridget Westfall. Braver and smarter than all the mean boys and silly girls put together. Remember that.”
Bridget smiled up at her new friend and engulfed Franky in a hug. When she pulled away, she said hopefully. “Shall I see you again?”
Franky grinned. “Definitely.”
The girl beamed and started running back towards the house. She stopped and twisted round. “I hope you find your friend!” she called, then sped off towards Claremont.
“So do I,” Franky muttered.
She returned to the Tiraveller and fell back into the seat, deflated. She was so close… but not close enough. Franky reached out and dabbled with the Time Wheel again. The Tiraveller whined and whirred as she kick-started it. The shield went up and she spun the dial – sending her swirling to another time at a ferocious velocity. Everything about her became a blur. Her stomach lurched as she spun and twisted through time.
Franky crash-landed in the attic of Claremont on an Autumn’s night sometime in Gidge’s 10th year. A precarious blonde-haired girl sought her out – investigating the unusual noise in the middle of the night. Bridget recognised the intruder immediately and embraced Franky happily. “You said I would see you again! I did not think it would be so long!” Bridget exclaimed. “Did you find your friend?”
Franky grinned. “Almost.”
They were the only two awake in the household so they snuck downstairs and invaded the pantry for a midnight snack. Then they built a fort of sheets in Bridget’s bedchamber and Franky told her scary stories that had her shrieking with laughter. Franky fell asleep in the fort while Bridget slumbered contentedly in her own bed.
Come the morning, while Bridget still slept, Franky placed a tender kiss to the top of Gidget’s head and set off on her time travels again.
Next, Franky span the Time Wheel and leapt into the winter of Bridget’s 13th year. The temperature had dropped so drastically the pond in Hyde Park froze. They snuck out of Claremont through the secret passage and joined the hordes as they whizzed across the ice on skates. They skated until their cheeks were red and their lungs fit to burst, giggling and joyful.
When Franky time-jumped again she arrived on the evening of a ball. Claremont was lit-up with paper lanterns and overflowing with guests and music. Bridget was 16, just returned from St Mary’s and heartbroken over Lenna Cosgrove. Franky leant her a handkerchief and a shoulder to cry on, reassuring her that one day she’d find her true love.
Franky returned to the Tiraveller which was buried deep in the coal stockpile in the cellar of Claremont and started it up. It coughed and spluttered. Franky felt uneasy – it had never made that sound before. Reluctantly it hummed into life. Lights spinning. The engine gasping and choking.
After the next time-leap, the Tiraveller powered down and refused to start. It took Franky the best part of a month to find replacement parts and discover that the engine ran on apple juice. Fortunately she had landed when Bridget was 18, had just completed building the treehouse (minus the booby traps) and was buried under science textbooks she found riveting.
“You never get any older,” young Bridget said one night as they were seated before the hearth in the treehouse.
Franky sipped her tea and smiled at the innocent face before her. “It’s magic,” the brunette teased and grinned wolfishly.
Bridget snorted. “There is no such thing. Science is the key to everything.”
Franky stayed in the treehouse for four weeks, growing increasingly anxious at all of Bridget’s intrusive questions. Who was she? Where did she come from? Why did she keep coming back? Why hadn’t she aged? Had she found her friend?
This time when they parted Franky cupped Gidge’s face and kissed her forehead. “I can’t give you any answers but I can tell you this - you will go on to do great things,” Franky said softly.
Miss Westfall gazed at her devotedly and with great trust.
That was the last time-leap where Franky made direct contact. It was too risky: she was altering Bridget’s timeline. So, as difficult as it was, from then on she kept her distance.
Hidden amongst the crowd Franky attended Bridget’s debutant ball, saw her play badminton with Mr. Jackson, watched her graduate University, attended her Christmas lecture on time travel and saw The Freak enraptured, observed her send the flying machine soaring into the sky for 23 seconds, saw her test the first ray gun and fail on a hundred other ideas. Franky shared silently in so many of her triumphs and disappointments. Her heart reeling every time at not being able to reach out, not being able to properly share in the moment, before disappearing into the shadows.
Finally, after weeks of near misses, Franky hit the correct timeframe. She arrived a fortnight before the events she was set to change.
Weary from her travels Franky stood outside Wentworth Inn, her heart heavy. This had been her home for so long but now she felt sick. She missed her friends something fierce but not the cold attic and the endless days bleeding into each other with no meaning other than where the next penny was coming from. Living hand-to-mouth and relying on her wits had been a necessity, now, she found she didn’t have the inclination. Bridget had opened her eyes, had shown her a whole new world. A world that was locked to her, for now.
Franky pulled the door to Wentworth open. It slammed shut behind her. No one looked in her direction. She knew Liz thought she was still locked-up in Millbank, so she had to tread carefully. She sauntered towards the bar. The gas lamps suspended from the walls burned low and for the first time the downtrodden atmosphere of the place struck her. Feeling its drudgery, she glanced balefully at the drunks cluttering the place. Precariously propped-up and gazing into their drinks, lost.
Franky saw the familiar crown of blonde curls. Liz was perched on a man’s knee, laughing at something he had whispered in her ear. His arms wrapped keenly about her waist, enjoying her attention.
Franky leaned her elbows against the bar counter, facing them. “What’s a girl got to do to get served ‘round here?!”
Annoyed, Liz turned to her, about to unleash a stream of abuse when her eyes alighted on her friend. “Franky?”
“One and only,” the brunette retorted.
Liz moved towards her. “Gawd blimey! What’re ya doin’ here, love?”
“Couldn’t stay away,” Franky joked, slipping into the familiar banter but it stings her insides. Rings false in her ear.
Liz grinned and hugged her. “It’s good to see ya love, we thought you was in - ”
“It’s a long story. Don’t s’pose me old bed’s goin’ beggin’?”
Liz eyed her: something was off. “’Course love. Any time, you know that.”
Franky reached out and took Liz’s hand, squeezing it gently. “Thanks Liz.”
“You get some shut-eye,” Liz suggested. “We’ll talk tomorrow, alright?”
Franky nodded gratefully and took herself upstairs, ascending wearily to the dusty attic.
Franky stood stock-still in the doorway and scanned the dreary attic. It was dark, dank, windowless and smelt musty. She heard the scuttling of rats, the drip of a leaking roof and felt a draft. She wanted to cry. Everything would be bearable if she had the guarantee of Bridget… but she doesn’t. She suddenly felt very alone and very hopeless.
She moved towards a bundle of hay in the corner where a moth-eaten blanket lay. She sat down and wrapped the blanket about her shoulders. Feeling out of place, miserable and desperately missing Gidge.
Just then Boomer entered, brimming with boisterousness. “Hey! Heard you was back! Got a surprise for ya – think of it as a welcome home present!” she declared. In her hand was a collection of risqué postcards – ladies posing in various states of undress. Enthusiastically she started to stick them to the attic wall. “It’s allurin’ tarts. Cos you’re a Tom.”
Franky watched Boomer with a sinking feeling that morphed into despair. “Booms, I’m not stayin’,” she heard herself say.
Boomer gave her a look like she’d run mad. “Course you are. It'll be like old times. The family back together.”
Before she knew what she was doing, tears were streaming down Franky’s face and rage filled her belly. “Stop!” she cried. She tore at the pictures Boomer had just stuck up, ripping them to shreds.
“Hey!” Boomer cried, confused by her friend’s behaviour. It had cost her two days of arm wrestling money to buy these little beauties. “What’re ya doin’?”
“This isn’t my home anymore Booms! I never want this to feel like a home again… I had a girl, I had a future, I had...” Franky stopped, the grief overtaking her. She covered her mouth, unable to breathe, feeling the loss of Bridget so acutely it hurt like a knife twisting in her gut.
Boomer stared at her, wide-eyed and affronted. Suddenly she wasn’t enough. Wentworth, their friends and way of life weren’t enough. She couldn’t understand what had changed.
“I don’t want this to be my life,” Franky stated.
Boomer narrowed her eyes. “Well fuck ya then!” she exclaimed angrily and threw the remaining postcards in Franky’s face, storming off.
“Booms!” Franky called after her but her friend was already gone.
Franky sat on the bed of hay and wept.
During the day Franky strolled London's streets aimlessly. A restlessness filled her, a perpetual waiting…
She took to following Bridget. Hovered outside the gates of Claremont and tracked the Westfall carriage or followed Bridget on foot. Franky kept a safe distance but she ached when Gidge laughed, argued or talked animatedly and wished she could join in.
One afternoon she shadowed Bridget and her father to the Victoria and Albert Museum. She lingered outside, close to the stone arch doorway. When she spotted Bridget exiting the building, clutching a brochure in one hand while she and her father excitedly discussed the exhibit, she turned away. They looked so happy. Franky kept her back to them as they passed her by.
She found herself staring in a shop window and that’s when she saw it. A lavender writing set. Her heart detonated. It was identical to the stationary the anonymous notes had been written on. Suddenly Franky was filled with certainty: she knew what she had to do.
She stepped into the shop and purchased the notepaper, then headed towards The Red Right Hand Headquarters.
She had to warn Bridget and guide her to The Tench or they would never meet. She was resolved and imbued with a lightness she hadn’t felt since being parted from Bridget.
When Franky arrived at The Red Right Hand Headquarters she gazed up at the zeppelin floating above it and a chill ran down her spine. She wondered if Ferguson was up there now plotting her kidnap plan.
She climbed the steps to the front entrance and stepped into the hall. Evocations of the night of the fundraiser ball returned to her. To the night she’d twirled Gidge around the dance floor, pushed her up against a bookshelf and kissed her passionately. It seemed a lifetime ago.
She approached the reception. A plump young woman with dark skin and curly chestnut hair looked optimistically up at her, a practised smile on her face. She looked like someone used to a slum, someone who had risen above it.
“How may I help you?” asked Doreen.
“I’d like to see Miss Proctor,” Franky requested.
“What’s your name?”
Franky thought of the kindly matron at The Tench and replied. “Miss Davidson.”
“Take a seat Miss Davidson, I’ll see if she’s available.”
Franky obeyed and seated herself between an emaciated couple and a woman with three children who were dressed in rags and ready to pass out from hunger and cold.
She hugged the lavender notepaper to her chest. This had to work. If Karen Proctor didn’t write these messages then Bridget would never find her.
She waited two hours and then Doreen ushered her into an office.
The office was serene. A large bay window let in plenty of light. Paintings hung on the wall and an oriental rug covered most of the floor. Miss Proctor sat behind a large oak desk that threatened to swamp her. She gazed intently at Franky as she entered and smiled earnestly. “Good afternoon Miss Davidson,” Miss Proctor greeted and indicated for Franky to be seated.
“Afternoon,” Franky replied and took the chair opposite her. It was odd that Miss Proctor did not recognise her but of course, why would she? The fundraiser dance had not yet happened.
“What can I do for you?” Miss Proctor asked, her blue eyes shinning.
“I have a request,” Franky began.
Miss Proctor tilted her head curiously. “Oh?”
Franky placed the lavender notepaper before Miss Proctor. “I cannot read or write and I need to send a message to someone. It’s of the utmost importance.” She suddenly remembered mocking Gidge for that exact phrase and couldn’t help but smile to herself. “Would you be so kind as to write it for me?”
Miss Proctor’s eyes filled with warmth. “Of course.”
Franky spotted the broach on her lapel; Ferguson’s emblem of The Red Cross and West African Adinkra symbol entwined. She ignored the anger swarming in her stomach and leaned forward. “You must write exactly what I say – no deviations.”
Franky swallowed nervously as she pushed the lavender notepaper forward and settled back in her seat. Wondering what Miss Proctor would make of her coded messages and if the mention of Ferguson would perturb her or pique her curiosity. After all, the last thing Franky needed was for Ferguson to be tipped off before events had a chance to take their natural turn. So Franky decided she was at liberty to tweak the notes. Surely someone as refined as Miss Proctor would not have heard of Fergusons’ nickname, given the circles she moved in. So long as Gidge understood them, what harm could be done?
“Please write: Your father is in danger. The Freak will stop at nothing.”
Miss Proctor quirked an intrigued eyebrow. She took up her pen and held it over the page. She glanced at Franky. “The Freak?” she questioned.
Franky nodded. Her foot tapped nervously and her top lip began to sweat. She couldn’t blow this.
Miss Proctor lowered the nib of her pen to the sheet of paper and hesitated. “Whatever trouble your friend is in we could - ”
“Thank you but… ” Franky’s impatience began to creep through. “She’s very independent.”
Miss Proctor looked back down at the blank sheet. She’d had her share of difficult customer’s. In the charity business she had long ago realised you could only help those who wanted your help. So her hand scrawled across the page, scratching out the message that had been dictated.
“Thank you,” Franky said sincerely. She reached out and took up the page. She folded the sheet and said. “The second should read: Seek out Francesca Doyle.”
Miss Proctor wrote the second note obligingly. As Franky leant across the desk to collect it, Karen picked it up. She blew on it, to dry the ink and met Franky’s gaze.
“Are you certain there is nothing more I can do to help?” she asked kindly.
Franky smiled. “Thank you but you have done more than enough. I’m most grateful,” she replied as she plucked the essential note from Miss Proctor’s nimble fingers.
“Tosh,” Miss Proctor dismissed, waving her hand. “That is what we are here for.”
Unable to resist planting a seed she hoped would take root, Franky grinned sheepishly. “Mr. Jackson said you were a lady of pure heart. He was right.”
Miss Proctor looked mildly surprised. “You are acquainted with Mr. Jackson?”
“Who is not? Such an amiable fellow. Whoever catches him as a husband will be a fortunate lady.”
Miss Proctor’s eyes flashed and she tilted her head as she studied Franky. “Indeed.”
They both stood. Franky thanked Miss Proctor profusely and shook her hand emphatically. Just as she withdrew her hand, the door swung open and Ferguson blew in.
“Karen, I must speak with you!” Ferguson said urgently.
She headed straight for Miss Proctor, who looked startled at this intrusion. Ferguson crossed the room and stopped beside Franky, her eyes trained on Miss Proctor, her fingertips resting on the desktop, barely registering the stranger.
A chill ran through Franky as she drew back. She turned away, trying to hide her face from Ferguson’s view. All it would take to ruin her carefully considered plans was for Ferguson to turn her head a fraction, and discover her here in this office. Her heart beat wildly and her palms became clammy.
“Joan, this is most unorthodox, I am in the middle of - ”
“I apologise but it cannot wait!”
Franky retreated quickly, turning her back on the pair and moving stealthily towards the door, at great speed, desperate to escape unnoticed.
When Miss Proctor glanced over at Franky to apologise for the intrusion she found the peculiar girl had gone. She had hoped to help further but as things stood she could only hope Miss Davidson and her friend could manage their situation unaided. Reluctantly she turned her attention back to her new friend. “Yes Joan?”
As soon as Franky entered the hall she moved hastily to the exit. Smiling at the receptionist and ducking out of the main entrance and onto the rowdy streets of London, clutching the handwritten notes to her chest and grinning wildly.
Franky spent a restless night in the attic at Wentworth. Tossing and turning. Thoughts and possibilities running through her mind. Nightmares of Ferguson getting her deathly grips on Bridget. Milly appearing from the shadows and pumping Bridget full of bullets… and the blood… so much blood… no matter how she tried - Bridget died. Over and over.
Boomer slept apart from her now, since their row. She kept to herself in the far corner but Franky’s violent stirrings and pitiful yells caused Boomer to shake her awake.
“It’s just bad dreams,” Boomer said soothingly.
Franky smiled at her friend. Barely able to see her face in the darkness. “I know,” she replied.
“I don’t know what shit you got yourself into this time Franky… but ya know, I’m here, right? No matter what.”
Franky filled with regret at the way she had treated Boomer.
“Ta Booms,” she said weakly, her voice cracking. “I’m real sorry about before.”
Somehow they ended-up in a firm embrace.
“I hate it when we quarrel,” Boomer said, her lips pressed against Franky’s shoulder.
“Ah you great big souk!” Franky teased and held her friend tighter. “You’ve gone soft on me.”
When she went back to sleep she dreamed of racing her kite along the Thames. Bridget beside her. Tess, Boomer and Liz waving from the other bank. The sun shining. The wind in her hair. Bridget’s arms about her. She felt so happy, so content… She woke-up at dawn. To a cold dark room and Boomer snoring.
Franky snuck out of Wentworth and walked to Hyde Park. It was early morning and Franky loitered about Claremont. How she longed to enter, to fall in beside Gidge like the old days, to head to the lab and have Gidge look at her with love and trust... but right now Bridget wouldn’t know her name… except she would because Franky had changed history. She had inserted herself in Bridget’s life before she was ready… before she was supposed to and god knows what lasting impact that would have.
Franky took the first anonymous note out of her pocket, the one warning of Mr. Westfall’s impending doom, and walked up the drive of Claremont. She slipped the note under the front door, bit her lip, then turned and hurried away.
A week passed.
Franky kept an ear out. Ruminated, scolded, doubted and questioned. She tried to decide on the best course of action whilst protecting Bridget without messing-up the timeline.
On the seventh day she delivered the second note. Her hand shook as she slipped it under the door of Claremont. For it was imperative - it was what had led Bridget to find Franky in Millbank Prison. The day that changed both their lives.
Franky stood outside Wentworth, smoked a cig and wondered what Bridget was doing when she caught sight of Mr. Steele driving the Westfall carriage up the road, towards her. She dropped her cigarette in the mud and scurried into the tavern.
Franky rushed towards the bar and dipped under the counter top. Violet, who was flirting with a customer, turned to her, startled. “What’s wrong love? Ya look like you've seen a ghost.”
Franky gripped Liz by the shoulders. “It’s time Liz.”
Liz looked momentarily panicked. “Now?”
“Remember what I told ya?”
“Good, now do me proud,” Franky said and ducked down, hiding beneath the bar, out of view.
Liz was dumbfounded until the door of the tavern swung open and in strolled Franky's double with an elegant blonde in tow.
Chapter 11: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 11
Liz leaned towards Don and laughed raucously at a story he was telling the vagrant beside him. She’d heard it more times than she’d had hot dinners but wanted to appear as unaffected as possible to the newly arrived Franky.
Franky’s counterpart and Miss Westfall moved towards the bar. Liz blinked back her disbelief. Franky had told her that her double would arrive and Liz would have to act as if this were their first meeting since her incarceration. Franky had used three whisky flagons, an orange and a washing line to try and explain time travel but Liz hadn’t quite grasped it. All she knew was that there were two Franky’s, they would converge at Wentworth at some point and they MUST NOT MEET UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES – it would mean catastrophe (akin to the world running out of gin, Armageddon or a visit from the four horsemen of the apocalypse).
Franky 1 smiled at Liz while Miss Westfall looked about her, soaking-up every detail. All the while Liz knew her Franky was beneath the bar counter, crouched at her feet. It was a most peculiar scenario that made her feel strangely nervous.
As Franky 1 approached, Liz panicked and cried: “Gawd love a duck!” She dashed out from behind the bar to embrace Franky’s counterpart to keep her at bay.
Beneath the bar Franky held her breath and tucked her knees tightly under her chin. The space was tight and smelt of sour beer and sawdust. She tried to listen but found it difficult with her heart pounding in her ears.
“Hello love, didn’t expect to see you round these parts for a while, heard you was nabbed and doin’ a stretch in The Tench,” Liz declared cheerfully. Sometimes she thought she’d missed her calling – she should’ve been on the stage.
“I was but they couldn’t resist my wiles. Had to let me out,” Franky 1 replied.
Under the counter, Franky had calmed her breathing and was listening intently to their exchange. They chattered innocuously for a while. In the grubby mirror hanging behind the bar, Franky saw Liz push Bridget down onto a bar stool and offer to pour them a bumper of beer each.
Liz stepped back behind the bar. Keeping her eyes fixed on her visitors, the landlady scrambled beneath the counter for goblets which hung from hooks. Instead, she tweaked Franky’s nose by mistake.
Franky slapped Liz’s hand away.
“Ow!” Liz exclaimed.
Startled, Bridget and Franky 1 stared wide-eyed at her.
Liz rubbed her injured hand. “Splinter,” she explained and glared at the Franky crouched beneath the bar.
Franky cast her eyes heavenward, then grabbed a goblet off the hook by her head and handed it to Liz, then handed her two more in quick succession. All the while Liz struggled to keep her nerves governed and found herself grinning as if stupefied.
“Are you feelin’ alright?” Franky 1 asked.
“Course… just wanta drink to celebrate your homecoming love!”
Liz began to pour the beers.
“Boomer around?” Franky 1 asked.
“In her usual spot,” Liz answered.
“Back in a tick.”
Franky’s counterpart disappeared and Liz relaxed slightly.
When she’d poured three tankards full of beer she deliberately slammed them down on the counter, creating a loud thud that reverberated about Franky’s head and made the clean goblets jangle about her.
Liz pushed a bumper of beer towards Bridget. “Well get it down your neck love, it’s no good in the goblet!”
Bridget sank a mouthful and Liz warmed to her instantly. Since her arrival a fortnight ago, Franky had spoken incessantly of Miss Westfall. To be honest, Liz was sick of hearing Miss Westfall’s praises being sung but as she watched the lady slug back the frothy beer out of a desire not to hurt her feelings, Liz decided she liked Miss Westfall.
The landlady grinned and clapped Bridget on the back. “That’s right, get it down your gullet. Best brew in all of London, that.”
For a mad moment Franky thought of popping out from behind the counter and announcing herself to Bridget - but this Bridget was not her Bridget. She needed to talk to Gidge on the day that Milly shot her – any interaction before that would just confuse matters.
As Bridget glugged back the beer she also swallowed her sorrow. Since their meeting in that dingy prison cell in Millbank, Franky hadn’t shown any indication that she recognised Bridget, which had left her disconsolate. Franky had been a staple in Bridget’s life since she was a child but Franky was acting as if they’d never met. Bridget realised that time travel had its own rules. By Franky’s third visit Bridget had deduced that Franky must be some kind of traveller in time. It was the only explanation for all the inexplicable discrepancies – such as Franky not aging. Perhaps, for Franky, going back to Bridget’s childhood lay in the future.
Noting the inventresses forlorn expression, Liz leaned on the bar top. “Are you alright love?” she asked kindly.
Bridget took another gulp of beer and then confessed. “I have a friend who is behaving as if she has forgotten me. It is most disheartening.”
Bridget had tried so hard not to give anything away but it was most distressing when Franky looked through her. As if the day they’d ice skated in Hyde Park had never happened, as if the night they’d snuck ham and anchovies out of the pantry and Franky had told her ghost stories in the sheet fort hadn’t happened, as if the night she’d buried her face in Franky’s neck, heartbroken about Lenna Cosgrove, had never occurred.
Beneath the counter, it took all of Franky’s willpower not to leap up, pull Gidge into her arms and whisper all the assurance she needed in her ear.
Liz sipped her beer and nodded sympathetically. “I know how you feel. My daughter ignores me. Too good to talk to her old Ma.”
Bridget knocked back more beer. “I am sorry.”
“My daughter has her eye on a merchant with prospects but since... an unfortunate accident, she won’t talk to me or her brother. Accused me of bringin’ shame on the family. Says I’m an embarrassment,” Liz stated.
Bridget smiled supportively, drained her goblet and reached for the second. “That is most terrible.”
From her position under the counter, Franky glanced at the door behind the bar – it was open a jar and led to the back hall. From there she could access the stairs and escape to the attic. That is, if she could reach the door without being seen by Bridget.
Liz sighed dramatically. “Thanks love, most people round here ain’t sympathetic to my plight. Franky just rolls her eyes and says Sophie’s stuck-up and - ”
Beneath the counter Franky jabbed Liz in the thigh. Liz squeaked and bit her lip.
“Are you alright?” Bridget asked with concern.
Liz smiled. “Yeah, just... gout. Playin’ up.”
“If I may be so bold, what accident is Sophie still harbouring resentment over?”
“Um... my husband comes from farmin’ stock. I’m a city girl. Shoulda never got hitched. Well, he took me to live on the family farm. We was harvestin’ the crops one summer and I was workin’ the plough... at lunch I got a little ran tan and when we went back to work I accidentally... I didn’t see his mother. I swear blind!”
“Yeah,” Liz agreed and sank more beer. “Blood everywhere. It was like an abattoir!”
Don leaned towards them. “You still tellin’ that tall tale?” he teased.
“It’s the truth!” Liz exclaimed and swatted him away good-humouredly.
In the mirror Franky saw Gidget’s head turn towards Don, distracted.
“Don’t believe a word!” Don exclaimed. “She’s known for her yarns!”
Heart hammering, Franky decided to take a chance. She began to crawl on her hands and knees towards the door. She was half-way there when she caught sight of her own head bobbing back into view. Her expression was sulky, Franky wondered if she always looked like that. Hastily she scurried the rest of the way to the door, barged it open with her shoulder and slipped through.
Bridget glanced at the door behind the bar when it creaked, put it down to a draft and returned her attention to Liz. “I had an Aunt who accidentally flashed her bloomers at the Epsom Derby for all and sundry to see,” she said.
Liz let out a delighted laugh.
In the hall Franky scrabbled to her feet and pressed her back against the wall, willing her pulse to calm.
Bridget continued. “Her daughter, Felicity, was mortified. Three months passed before they spoke again. So you see, my cousin went through a similar stage. Give her time, your daughter shall soon realise the error of her ways.”
Franky smiled to herself, even tipsy Gidge was kind-hearted. Franky leaned forward and glimpsed Bridget one last time – goblet raised to her mouth, eyes sparkling - and her heart hurt a little. She forced herself to turn away and race up the stairs to the attic.
Two days later Franky stood outside the servant’s entrance of Claremont. She approached the number box and punched in the code. The door clicked open. She cut through the empty kitchen and hurried up the service stairs towards the entrance hall. She halted when she reached the drawn curtain and listened intently to a gable of voices.
“The house is empty, save for your mother,” reported Hamilton.
“You did well, now… a visitor shall call for Miss Doyle later this afternoon, her father. I want you to make him wait in the parlour – our counterparts must deal with him when they arrive back from Ratcliffe. There can be no deviation, as yet, from original events. We shall be in my lab should any difficulties arise,” she heard Bridget say.
Franky peered through a gap in the curtain and saw Franky 2, in the sandalwood skirt (which, Franky decided, did nothing for her figure or complexion) and Bridget 2 head up the stairs.
Hamilton started towards the curtain and she took a step back. He paused as Franky's second counterpart called out. “Oh, Hamilton, make sure you read the social pages of The Times today, it’s a real humdinger!”
Franky shook her head - she really could be exasperatingly impertinent! She would have to work on that.
Hamilton continued to the service stairs, drew back the curtain and was met head-on by Franky. Disconcerted, his eyes went large. “But - ” he stuttered and looked over his shoulder to where Miss Westfall and Franky were ascending the stairs to the lab.
“That’s the second me,” Franky explained. “I’m the third - and hopefully last. Even I’m startin' to lose track!”
Hamilton looked rather overwhelmed.
“We fixed what went wrong with you and Mr Westfall but then somethin' else went pear shaped!”
Hamilton rubbed his temples.
“So I’m here to fix that,” she elucidated.
His eyes darted about. “Where’s Miss Westfall?”
His face instantly crumbled with understanding. He reached out and touched Franky’s shoulder, sharing her sorrow.
Franky bit back the tears. “I’m here to make it right but I need your help.”
“Anything,” he vowed.
“I need to speak to Bridget alone - the one currently in her lab - and I need to do it without me around. The old me, I mean – or the Ratcliffe me. Either of them.”
“Yes, what could possibly go wrong?!” Hamilton remarked dryly.
This caused Franky to smile brightly. “It’s good to see you Hamilton. I feel as if I’ve been gone for a very long time.”
He smiled back. “Welcome home Miss Doyle.”
She leaned forward and kissed his cheek.
They waited until Bridget and Franky 2 emerged from the lab three hours later. Then Hamilton sidled-up to Gidge, tapped his chin three times with his index finger and Bridget sent Franky 2 off to the library for the ladder, so they could fix the circuits to the ceiling. Bridget moved beside Hamilton in the entrance hall and he whispered something in her ear. Bridget’s eyes widened and she started urgently towards the kitchen service stairs.
Franky appeared from behind the curtain. Bridget slowed her step. She took in Franky’s different attire, tired demeanour and incomparable joy at seeing her. Bridget tilted her head inquisitively. Franky smiled nervously at her, suddenly overcome. Franky’s large green eyes glistened with unshed tears.
“I die.” Bridget guessed.
Franky nodded mutely. Her shoulders shrank and she tucked her hands into her skirt pockets to stop from reaching for Gidge, her eyes full of sadness and longing. “I just wanna hold ya,” she whispered, her voice shaky. It had been so long since she’d seen her Bridget. The one she didn’t have to hide anything from. The one she could take in her arms and cover in kisses.
Franky’s voice was so faint, unsteady and raw that Bridget surged forward, embracing her. Bridget wrapped her arms tightly about the brunette. Franky tucked her chin into Bridget’s neck, breathed her scent in, closed her eyes and surrendered to the moment.
They held each other closely.
Gently Bridget pulled back and cupped Franky’s face. “You came back by yourself?”
Bridget broke into a luminescent smile. “Thank you.”
“Your plan worked,” Franky told her. “What you didn’t foresee is that Milly is in love with you. She’s in the kitchen when we incapacitate Ferguson and her lackeys. She tries to shoot me and kills you instead. You take the bullet - square in the chest - and bleed and I couldn’t…”
Bridget brushed her lover's tears away. “You came back and now things will be different.”
Franky smiled, so relieved she could practically hear her heart sing. Then she remembered the other pressing matter. “You might wanta work on the navigation tools of the Tiraveller, Gidge. They’re shit!”
Bridget laughed. “I shall endeavour to do something about that, in future,” Bridget clasped Franky’s hands in her own, “and there will be a future for us.”
They heard the library door slam shut on the second floor.
“You must hide!” Bridget hissed.
Franky’s feet would not move. She was rooted to the spot - she didn’t want to leave Bridget, didn’t want to let her out of her sight ever again.
Bridget leaned forward and placed a tender kiss on Franky’s lips. “Thank you for warning me, I already know what is to be done to prevent it!”
She smiled knowingly and Franky’s stomach unclenched. That was the look Franky had grown to trust and love – Gidget had a plan.
Bridget ushered her towards the kitchen as Franky 2 ambled down the stairs with a step ladder tucked under her arm grumbling about why it was the half-automaton couldn’t get the ladder, what with his additional strength.
“Go!” Bridget insisted.
Franky quickly sped down the servants’ staircase and disappeared into the kitchen. Not willing to desert Bridget, in case she was needed, Franky decided to hide in the pantry. From there she could observe the goings-on and perhaps take Milly out before she even got a chance to pick-up that gun. She stepped into the darkened storeroom, closed the door and pressed her ear against it, listening keenly.
Behind her someone lit a candle. Suddenly the room was flooded with light. Franky turned with a start to see Bridget, dressed all in black.
The inventress gazed in wonder at Franky, as if frozen – then with a violent burst, rushed forward and hugged her fiercely, as if they had been parted for years. “I thought I might never see you again!” she exclaimed and kissed Franky wildly.
Breathless with surprise, Franky drew back. She took in Bridget’s appearance, the dark shadows under her eyes and the mourning dress. “You’re from the future, ain’t you? I mean – even more in the future than me?”
“How many times have you come back?”
Bridget grasped Franky’s hands. “Nineteen.”
“Nineteen?!” Franky exclaimed shrilly.
That was sixteen more than her… what the hell had happened? This also meant there were nineteen versions of them lurking about Claremont. That unnerved her. In fact, there were so many of them now that they could outnumber Ferguson’s lackey's easily!
“I heeded your advice and wore the union suit that Walter and I created, it repels any weapon, and it deflected the bullet – into you. You died in my arms. So I came back. This time I wrestled the gun away from Milly but it accidentally went off and killed her. They were going to hang me, so we came back. We stopped Milly from opening the door to Ferguson but the Freak forced the door and our counterparts walked into the trap anyway. So we went back again. I gave Ferguson a sedative when she hid at the top of the stairs of Claremont. Miss Bennett rounded-up all of the Freak’s men but Jesper escaped and put a price on our heads,” Bridget paused to catch her breath. “Then we used a cannon to shoot Ferguson's zeppelin out of the sky after we had rescued my father... that did not go so well – the zepplin landed on the Red Right Hand Headquarters, crushing all inside. At a low ebb, we went back again and I asked Miss Bennett for help - but after she captured Ferguson she double-crossed us and tried to confiscate the Tiraveller for her own purposes. I tried to destroy it and accidentally started a fire that burnt Claremont to the ground. So we went back. Again and again. We have been shot, stabbed, strangled, burnt, half drowned and there was an unpleasant incident with a pair of pruning scissors that I would rather not dwell on. It was carnage.”
Franky stroked Gidget’s cheek.
Bridget sighed heavily. “It has been an endless stream of trial and error, largely resulting in someone dying.”
“So why are you here? Why now?” Franky asked.
“You are the only incarnation that went back in time without me, we can help each other. Besides, I really wanted to do this.”
Bridget enfolded Franky in her arms and kissed her deeply. Their lips merged, insistent and needy. Franky slipped her hands about Bridget’s waist and pulled her closer. Bridget moaned gently as they pressed flush against each other and Franky sighed contentedly. She’d almost forgotten how glorious Bridget’s lips felt, how right she felt in Franky's arms.
Reluctantly they drew apart, arms still wrapped around each other.
“Why are you in black?” Franky questioned.
“I was at your funeral. I met Boomer – colourful woman. Gave a wonderful eulogy.”
Franky grinned. “She did?”
“Yes but I hope never to hear it because we are going to repair this. Once and for all.”
Franky nodded eagerly. She gripped Bridget’s chin and lifted her face up. “I missed you,” she whispered.
Bridget held her gaze. “I missed you more.”
She leaned in to kiss Franky again but Franky stopped her. “Is there time?” the brunette asked as she ran her hands teasingly across Bridget’s ribs.
“Oh, there is always time,” Bridget murmured and brought their lips together again. “We have an hour... and sixteen minutes...” she mumbled between kisses, “before I come… looking for chewitt pies... and roast partridge… and five hours... twenty-seven minutes... before Flora is locked in here by Jesper...”
Franky broke the kiss and leaned back, her eyebrows raised expectantly. “I’m assumin’ you have a plan?”
Bridget grinned. “I have found the perfect solution.”
Franky’s face lit-up. “You have?”
Bridget nodded. “Yes. We are going to give the Tiraveller to Ferguson.”
Franky’s blood ran cold.
Chapter 12: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 12
Franky pulled out of Bridget’s arms. “What?”
“It is the only way to ensure we all escape with our lives. I have seen everyone I love die horribly, over and over. I will not do it again,” Bridget said gravely.
Franky stared at her in disbelief and took a step back. “Have ya lost your mind?”
Bridget shook her head adamantly. “I have thought it through and - ”
“Cobblers!” Franky exclaimed.
Bridget moved forward and tried to grasp Franky’s hands but the enraged brunette pulled further away, scowling furiously. “You know what she’s capable of – if she gets hold of the Tiraveller, there’d be no stopping her.”
“I know and that is why - ”
“There has to be another way!” Franky’s scowl deepened. “We keep coming back to this time-frame. If you came back earlier then maybe it would be different.”
Bridget’s expression grew solemn. “Then we would never meet.”
Franky gulped back her despair. “I know,” she took a pained breath. “But with what’s at stake Gidge, if that’s the only way…”
Bridget engulfed Franky in a tight embrace and Franky hugged her back furiously, realising that the only thing worse than having Bridget ripped from her was that she would never know that she’d had Bridget ripped from her. She would go back to being ignorant of Bridget’s existence, would still be in her cell in the Tench and eventually shipped off to the penal colonies. To a fate of hard labour, unimaginable suffering and most likely an early death. All without ever experiencing the joy and sense of belonging Gidge had brought into her life. But what choice did she have? She couldn’t let Ferguson get her hands on the Tiraveller. She’d rather die first.
Bridget kissed Franky’s temple, then her cheek and then her mouth. Her kiss tender and thankful. Bridget's heart soared as Franky kissed her back. Ever so gently she pulled back, Franky’s face cupped in her hands, Bridget’s eyes full of admiration and love. “If it is possible, I do believe I love you even more.” She grinned. “But there is no need for such noble self-sacrifice.”
Franky gripped Bridget’s arms. Her fingers digging into her skin. “You can’t do it Gidge. I won’t let you!”
Bridget’s gaze became determined. “I must. It is the only way to stop her.”
Franky’s eyes narrowed. “Wait. You’re up to somethin'.”
“I have spent the last week making adjustments to my Tiraveller.”
“What sorta adjustments?”
“When Ferguson makes her first time leap, whatever date or destination she enters, it shall be over-ridden. I’ve pre-set the Tiraveller to take her to a specific date and destination. Once she arrives in Nelspoort, Africa 10,000 years ago the Tiraveller has an in-built self-destruct mechanism that will be triggered, stranding her in a time where she can do no harm and from which she cannot return. Jesper and her lackey’s will leave us alone believing they have got what they were after. None-the-wiser to Ferguson’s predicament, they shall simply assume she is out in the ether, time-travelling.”
Franky’s jaw dropped open. “That’s fuckin’ genius!”
Bridget laughed. “Perhaps I should have mentioned that part first.”
“Yeah, you should’ve definitely led with that!” Franky burst into a happy chortle and pulled Bridget into her arms. “I have one question.”
They gazed into each other’s eyes.
“What?” Bridget asked softly.
“Why didn’t you think of this 19 time leaps ago?”
Bridget huffed a mock sigh. “Less impudence, more kissing,” she instructed as she wrapped her arms about Franky’s neck and drew her into another fiery kiss.
Franky met Gidget’s ardent lips gladly. Then another thought occurred to her and she broke the kiss. “Wait... if you’ve moderated your Tiraveller then you need to swap it with the original Tiraveller and let the original us know so that they hand it over to Ferguson without quarrel.”
Bridget bit her lip. “Yes, that part of the plan is a little iffy.”
Franky didn’t like the sound of that. “Iffy?”
“I am afraid if my plan is to work we shall have to hazard a meeting with our original selves in order to explain everything and thus run the risk of creating a time paradox which could tear a hole in the space time continuum and destroy the entire universe.”
“Right,” said Franky nonchalantly, her belly filling with dread and her nerves a jangle. “Guess we better get crackin’ then!”
Bridget had already roped Hamilton into helping her swap the original Tiraveller with her modified version (she’d snuck into his bedchamber at 4 in the morning and shaken him awake. It was the only time she knew of when there were no other versions of herself making demands on his time. To his credit, Hamilton had only been moderately alarmed by her presence, having grown accustomed to finding a version of Miss Westfall and Miss Doyle lurking around every corner, hiding behind every piece of furniture and occupying every room in Claremont simultaneously).
Poor Hamilton, Franky thought. He was probably driven half mad by now trying to keeping track of all the time leaping Bridget’s and Franky’s and the many tasks they required of him.
Earlier that day, Bridget 19 and Hamilton had stored this time frame's Tiraveller in Mrs. Westfall’s bed chamber, certain it would not be discovered there. Mrs. Westfall had barely stirred at the intrusion. Her eyes covered by a night mask, she assumed they were one of the maids come in the morning to draw the curtains and merely asked when the doctor was coming again for she was running low on her pills. Bridget soothed her mother back to sleep and then she and Hamilton covered the Tiraveller with a quilt and cushions to make it look as much a part of the room as possible. Then returned downstairs to place the fatefully combustible Tiraveller in its stead.
Satisfied, Bridget thanked Hamilton and sent him back to bed. She didn’t mention that Bridget 7 would soon wake him to enlist his help in transporting a cannon to Waterlow Park so they could shoot Ferguson’s zeppelin out of the sky (best not give him anything further to fret about). Then she went to the pantry and waited to recruit Franky 3.
With Franky now on board, the lovers set about phase two of Bridget’s plan: they would go to The Red Right Hand fundraiser ball concealed at the back of the Westfall carriage and on the return journey to Claremont make their presence known and explain their plan to their original selves. Timing was imperative. They needed to talk to themselves after their escapade on the zeppelin but before arriving back at Claremont, which gave them a very narrow window of opportunity.
Swathed in long black cloaks they ventured out to the stables on the east side of the Westfall estate. Once there they snuck around the back of the carriage and, using the single foothold that was the groom’s step, reached the bar that acted as a tailboard and positioned themselves as comfortably as they could. Feet dangling down, backs pressed against the body of the carriage, backsides balancing on a metal bar not designed to be sat upon.
They hunkered down, uncomfortable and shivering. As they pressed closely together, noses pink and fingers stiff with the cold, Franky expressed her reservations.
“Couldn’t we just shoot Ferguson?”
Bridget gave her an exasperated look. “We already did. That is what led to the pruning scissors incident,” and she shuddered involuntarily at the horrific memory.
Franky shook her head. “Fine but from now on could you come up with warmer plans? You know, ones that involve open fires, steaming pots of tea and freshly baked pies.” At the mere suggestion of food Franky’s stomach rumbled. She grinned sheepishly at Bridget who rolled her eyes heavenwards.
In due course they heard Mr. Steele bring the horses round to harness to the carriage. Once he’d fixed the leather straps in place he gripped a mounting handle and hauled himself up into the driver’s seat, gave a flick of the reins and the horses trotted into action. Mr. Steele drove the carriage to the front entrance of Claremont. Bridget 19 and Franky 3 remained concealed, tucked into the back of the carriage, camouflaged by the black cloaks shrouding them.
With Bridget 1’s arm threaded through hers, Franky 1 proudly escorted her down the marble steps of Claremont to the awaiting carriage. Once they were safely ensconced inside, Mr. Steele set off down the driveway.
The journey was bumpy. On the makeshift tailboard, Franky 3 and Bridget 19 were jerked about and several times had to reach out and cling to each other to stop from falling off.
At a quiet interval they caught Bridget 1 saying: “Dark thoughts plague me. If this evening does not go well then… I may never see my father again.”
Curious, Bridget 19 turned her head and peered through the back window of the carriage. She saw their original selves with their heads inclined towards each other, deep in conference. Bridget’s heart warmed at the sight of her original self leaning in and resting her head against Franky’s shoulder, and the reciprocal look of complete adoration on Franky 1’s face delighted her.
Bridget 19 glanced at Franky 3 sat beside her and bestowed a sentimental smile on her. Cold-bitten, wind-swept and splattered with mud, Franky rolled her eyes. She was not in the mood for sentimentality. Right now she wished she was anywhere but here.
They hit a particularly savage dip in the road on Vauxhall Bridge and Franky slipped, she managed to put her foot on the groom’s step and scrabbled to stay on the tailboard. Bridget grabbed her arm, pulling her back up to safety but not before the ray gun secured in Franky’s garter jolted loose and clanked to the ground. Laying in the middle of the road.
Franky and Bridget stared at it as the distance between them and it grew. There was nothing they could do - there was no time to retrieve it. The only saving grace was that the gun would not respond to anyone’s hand but Franky’s. Still, it was a frustrating turn of events. Franky glanced at Bridget and mouthed ‘Sorry’. Bridget shrugged, she had learned to embrace the unexpected.
Quarter of an hour later they arrived at their destination. After Bridget 1 and Franky 1 disembarked from the carriage and climbed the stairs to The Red Right Hand headquarters, Mr. Steele guided the horses towards the stables at the rear of the building.
When Mr. Steele had gone inside, Bridget and Franky leapt down from the back of the carriage and stole inside the coach. Once there, they warmed themselves, thoroughly chilled from being exposed to the elements. Franky curled into Bridget for heat and they nestled together.
“Are you sure about this Gidge?” she whispered.
“It is the only way.”
They waited nearly two hours for the carriage to be sent for by their original selves. As it ambled around to the main entrance of The Red Right Hand Franky and Bridget leaned back, keeping hidden in the shadows as they pulled up alongside Miss Proctor, Mr. Jackson and Claremont’s merry band of dishevelled residents. They caught the tail end of Mr. Jackson saying: “It is good to see you again, Sir.”
They saw Mr. Westfall nod courteously. “You too, Will.”
Then the Westfall party bid their farewells, climbed into the carriage and started at the sight of Franky 3 and Bridget 19 facing them. The only one not surprised was Hamilton, who slammed the carriage door shut and signalled for Mr. Steele to head homewards.
Mr. Westfall, Bridget 1 and Franky 1 looked ashen as they fell into the seat opposite Bridget and Franky.
“What is the meaning of this?” Mr. Westfall demanded.
“We haven’t much time so listen carefully,” Bridget 19 replied and proceeded to tell them of her adventures leading to this moment, and the original Westfall party listened attentively until she had finished. Once she had, there was a heavy silence.
“Well shit,” Franky 1 said.
“Quite,” Bridget responded.
“So what do you need us to do?” Bridget 1 asked herself.
“Let events unfold as before but when Ferguson beckons for Hamilton, give in to her. Give her the Tiraveller. It cannot look as if you yielded too easily or she will grow suspicious.”
Bridget 1 nodded solemnly. “I shall give the performance of a lifetime!”
Bridget 19 grinned. “Once Ferguson uses the Tiraveller, it should reset the timeline.”
Franky 3 gulped and looked at her Bridget. “You mean... we shall die?”
Bridget 19 shook her head. “No - cease to exist. This will never have happened because we will never have gone back in time because the events that were the catalyst for that will not happen.”
Confused, Franky glanced at her original self. “Get Gidge to explain this to you one day, I’d like to understand.”
Franky 1 grinned. “Will do.”
The Westfall carriage pulled up to Claremont and they all gazed knowingly at the house.
“Best of luck,” Bridget 19 wished.
Bridget 1 smiled at her, reached out and clasped her hand. “Thank you,” she murmured and then opened the carriage door and slid out, closely followed by Mr. Westfall and Hamilton.
As Franky 1 began to disembark, Franky 3 put a hand on her shoulder. Her counterpart paused and turned towards her future self. “Yes?”
“Just a word of advice: if Gidge tries to give you a sandalwood dress – don’t wear it.”
Franky 1 laughed. “Thanks for the tip!” she winked and clambered out of the carriage, closing the door behind her.
Mr. Steele drove off towards the stable. Through the window, Franky 3 and Bridget 19 saw their original selves link hands, take a deep breath of courage and mount the stairs to Claremont.
They glanced at each other and smiled.
“I think this might work,” Bridget said
“I hope so.”
Franky inched closer to Bridget and ran her thumb across her jaw. “I don’t know how long we have left before we... fade. So I’d just like to say it’s been an honour Miss Westfall.”
Bridget smiled, a breath-taking glowing smile, and replied softly; “The honour has been mine.”
They leaned towards each other and kissed. A sweet and soft farewell.
The flickering gas lights of Claremont were welcoming as the Westfall party entered the foyer, trying to act as unaffectedly as possible.
“Hamilton, send word to the police of my return. Tell them I should like to hold off interview until the morning. I am in need of a good meal and my bed!” Mr. Westfall instructed, endeavouring to sound casual.
Hamilton nodded and tucked the parachute into the umbrella stand by the front door, about to obey, when Ferguson appeared at the top of the stairs.
They all gazed up at her, trying to appear shocked.
“How did you get in here?” Mr. Westfall demanded.
“I have my ways.”
Bridget felt her body shake. She noticed Milly standing by the service staircase which led to the kitchen, a hang-dog expression on her face, and turned her attention back to Ferguson.
“This is my house and you are not welcome, now or ever. Get out!” Mr. Westfall thundered.
A dozen of Ferguson’s lackeys emerged from various hideouts – the Westfall party were surrounded and outnumbered. Jesper grinned crookedly and ushered them forward.
“I am very disappointed. I thought I had made myself clear,” Ferguson pronounced as she glided down the stairs. Her manner calm but deadly.
Intuitively Franky and Bridget reached for each other, their fingers interlacing.
Ferguson reached the final step and held Bridget's eye. “Bring me the Tiraveller,” she demanded.
“No,” Bridget refused.
Ferguson tilted her head, her stare cold. “You’re assuming you have a choice,” and with a beckoning of her forefinger she indicated for Jesper to bring Hamilton to her.
Jesper and another lackey grabbed hold of Hamilton and dragged him across the room. He struggled against them futilely. Bridget, Franky and Mr. Westfall rushed forward to help him but were thwarted by several of Ferguson’s henchmen, who held them at bay.
As Hamilton was brought before Ferguson she smiled haughtily. It turned Bridget’s stomach for she knew what would follow. Beside her, Franky held her breath and Mr. Westfall clenched his fists.
“It’s inadvisable to upset me,” Ferguson warned and stepped menacingly towards Hamilton.
Hamilton looked at Bridget helplessly.
“Wait!” Bridget yelled.
Ferguson stopped in her tracks, her head snapped in Bridget’s direction, an eyebrow arched.
“You can have it. Just... please, do not harm anyone.”
A smirk rose on Ferguson’s face. “Glad to see you have decided to be reasonable Miss Westfall.”
She moved towards Bridget, her henchmen parting for her. She towered over Bridget’s petite frame and lowered her face, her voice a sneer. “The Tiraveller - now, Miss Westfall. Or I shall snap his neck like a twig.”
Bridget’s eyes darted to Franky, who squeezed her hand and nodded encouragingly.
Bridget passed Ferguson and headed towards the chaise lounge by the wall. Ferguson followed close on her heels.
When Bridget stopped in front of the chaise lounge, Ferguson halted beside her. She glanced down at the innocuous piece of furniture, vaguely surprised.
“This is the time machine?” she asked.
An amused laugh escaped Fergusons lips. “My, my, you certainly are full of surprises.”
“You have no idea,” Bridget mumbled.
Ferguson stepped closer to the invention, running her fingers zealously over the smooth fabric. “How does it work?”
Bridget sat upon it, reached beneath the seat and pressed the release switch. A footstall burst forth with the helm embedded into it. Covered in buttons, the time wheel and levers. From beneath the footstall, pedals jutted out.
Ferguson sat beside her and watched with fascination as Bridget spun the time wheel and pushed several buttons, demonstrating how to use it. The Freak’s eyes gleamed as she took it all in. The Tiraveller lurched into life. Lights shimmered, bright and glimmering.
“I want your word that you and your men shall leave me and all those at Claremont alone,” Bridget insisted steely.
Ferguson tilted her head as she considered Bridget. “You have it.” She gave Jesper a curt nod. He let out a low whistle and his men immediately backed off.
Bridget stood up and took several strides away from the Tiraveller.
Ferguson played with the navigational helm for a moment. “I’m afraid I must take my leave of you now Miss Westfall. Perhaps our paths shall cross again some day.”
“I doubt it,” Bridget replied confidently.
Ferguson turned to Jesper. “Return to the zeppelin. Keep things ticking over until my return.”
He nodded obediently.
With baited breath Bridget, Franky, Mr. Westfall and Hamilton watched Ferguson throw a switch, spin the time dial and tug on a lever. The translucent shield wrapped itself around the Tiraveller and its lights flashed wildly while the engine revved.
Ferguson smiled smugly and gave a small wave as the room was suddenly filled with an intense light and the Tiraveller disappeared. A strong gust of wind left in its wake.
The Westfall party let out a collective sigh.
Bridget turned to Jesper. Her eyes cold and her voice authoritative. “I want you to leave my home now and do not come back.”
Jesper smirked and tipped his hat in mock deference, then led his men out the front door, down the marble steps, and away from Claremont.
Hamilton closed the door behind them and sagged against it. For a moment a sense of relief filled the air.
“Merciful heavens – Miss Bennett!” Bridget exclaimed and raced up the stairs to her lab, where, in the secret passage behind the mantelpiece, Miss Bennett and her troops were waiting to ambush Ferguson and her men.
Chapter 13: The Lady & The Mudlark - Chapter 13
A/N: It’s the end of the line folks. Thank you so much to everyone’s who’s taken the time to read this fic. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it and thanks for all the lovely comments along the way.
When Bridget pressed the acorn button on the mantelpiece it swivelled opened and Miss Bennett and her armed men stormed the room. Finding the lab empty, they turned to Bridget in confusion.
“I am afraid your services are no longer required,” the inventress informed them.
“I don’t understand.”
“Follow me,” Bridget instructed.
She led the puzzled troops to the library and guided Miss Bennett over to the geology section. She slipped a portly volume off the shelf and flipped it open on a nearby desk.
“What are you doing?” Miss Bennett asked. “Where’s Ferguson? Where’s the Tiraveller?”
“That is what I am trying to show you,” Bridget replied and turned to a chapter on the San: the indigenous people of Nelspoort, Western Cape, South Africa. Bridget leant over the book and her heart pounded as she studied the photographs before her. Rock paintings and engravings adorned the caves in the pictures. She ran her finger across one image in particular. “Look,” she said, pointing.
Miss Bennett glanced down at the page. The cave drawings were from 10,000 years ago. They depicted a woman seated on what had more than a passing resemblance to a chaise lounge. Next to it was a whirling circle that looked suspiciously like the time dial of the Tiraveller. Miss Bennett narrowed her eyes. “What is this?”
“I sent her back in time and stranded her there,” Bridget explained.
Realisation dawned and Miss Bennett peered at the page again. “You mean... this is Ferguson?”
Bridget nodded and turned the page to reveal another cave drawing that depicted the Tiraveller engulfed in flames.
Miss Bennett’s eyes widened as she beheld the image. “You destroyed the Tiraveller?!” she hissed and glared at Bridget.
Bridget closed the book. “I was not left much choice.”
“I would have helped,” Miss Bennett declared, frustrated.
“You did,” Bridget’s expression was stony and her voice cold as she added, “and then tried to take the Tiraveller for yourself.”
At that Miss Bennett had the decency to look contrite.
“Thank you for your assistance in this matter Miss Bennett but Ferguson is not coming back and you and I have nothing left to discuss now that the Tiraveller has been destroyed.”
Irritably Miss Bennett gave the signal for her soldiers to fall in line.
“That was very short-sighted of you,” Miss Bennett scolded.
Bridget folded her arms across her chest. “On the contrary, it was most judicious.”
“You will come to regret this,” Miss Bennett stated and without another word span on her heel and led her men out of the library.
As they marched down the main staircase, Bridget trailed behind them and re-joined Franky and her father at the foot of the stairs. She slipped her arm through Franky’s and leaned into her. Franky pressed a reassuring kiss to her brow.
Hamilton held the front door open for Miss Bennett and her disgruntled troops. After they exited Claremont he shut the door and the Westfall party let out a collective sigh of relief.
The grandfather clock struck midnight and chimed melodically. All was well. The timeline restored. Everyone in the Westfall household safe. The universe intact.
Mr. Westfall removed his coat, still damp from the storm, ripped from his zeppelin jump and grass stained from his unceremonious landing in Waterlow Park, and hung it up. “Well, I think it is high time I retired. The excitement of the day has quite worn me out.” He rested his hands on Bridget’s shoulders and kissed her forehead. “I shall see you all in the morning, dear heart.”
“It is good to have you home,” she said warmly.
“It is good to be home,” he answered. He turned to Franky and patted her arm affectionately. “Good night my dear and thank you for your help. I trust I shall be seeing more of you now that you and Bridget are bosom friends.”
“I hope so,” Franky replied, trying her utmost not to make an inappropriate joke.
“Hamilton, my good man?”
“Bring me a hot toddy when you get the chance. I need something to warm my bones and steady me nerves after all this hubbub.”
Hamilton grinned. “Yes Sir.”
With that, Mr. Westfall headed upstairs to the comfort of his own rooms.
Whilst Hamilton set about sending a message to the police notifying them of Mr. Westfall’s safe return and preparing a hot toddy, Bridget wasted no time in beckoning Milly forward. The girl was hidden in the shadows by the servant’s entrance. She shrank back as Bridget handed her a fat purse. Bridget was letting Milly go but had no desire to leave her destitute. She understood the girl’s motives for taking Ferguson’s part, no matter how misplaced, but could not have her in the house a moment longer. Milly sobbed as she accepted the money. She dared not utter a word lest Bridget change her mind and turn her over to the police. So she packed her things and left Claremont heartbroken and ashamed.
Through the window of the parlour Bridget watched Milly’s declining form as the girl walked down the drive and disappeared into the night.
Franky moved behind Gidge, slipped her arms about the blonde's waist and tucked her chin into her shoulder. “You did the right thing.”
Bridget covered Franky’s hands with her own and absently stroked circles across her knuckles. “I know.”
Franky kissed Bridget’s cheek. She loved that Bridget cared so deeply about everything. Franky came from a dog-eat-dog world where any sign of vulnerability could be disastrous and compassion was a rare commodity, so she found Bridget’s thoughtfulness endearing.
Bridget stifled a yawn, the stress of the day overrunning her.
“You need rest,” Franky said gently.
Bridget turned in Franky’s arms and smiled up at her. “Will you tuck me in?”
There’s a pause, the air suddenly thick with tension as their eyes locked and the passionate kiss they had shared in the library came flooding back.
“Certainly,” Franky agreed, a mischievous glint in her eye. “I’m an expert at gettin’ girls off… to sleep.”
A blush rose up Bridget’s neck, a retort on her lips when a cough interrupted them. They both turned to see Hamilton stood in the doorway.
“I have informed the police of your father’s return, delivered Mr. Westfall’s hot toddy, secured the house and turned down the lights. Is there anything else?” he asked gaily, very much glad to still be alive and in one piece and beyond exhausted.
Bridget grinned. “Get to bed Hamilton! After the police have been dealt with tomorrow I am sending you on vacation. Anywhere of your choosing.”
He smiled appreciatively. “Thank you Miss. I shall give it some thought but at this precise moment I am most looking forward to a night of uninterrupted sleep.”
Bridget laughed. “My sincere apologies. You must have been run ragged by all the versions of myself! Sleep well old friend.”
“Goodnight,” Hamilton bid and left the parlour.
Bridget turned back to Franky, her features soft in the candlelight, eyes shining and voice sultry. “Where were we?”
Franky’s hands settled on Gidget’s waist and tugged her close. “I believe you were attemptin’ to seduce me, Miss Westfall.”
“So I was,” Bridget purred and snaked her arms about Franky’s neck, her fingers stroking the sensitive skin at the nape of Franky’s neck, sending delicious sensations coursing through Franky’s body. “How am I fairing?”
The brunette sighed disappointedly. “Well, you’ve a long way to go before fulfillin’ my fantasy.”
“Which is?” Bridget asked playfully as her lips grazed Franky’s jaw in the most distracting manner.
Franky hummed in delight, tilting her head to one side, allowing Gidge’s mouth to explore further. “I wanta be picked-up by a swell girl in a swell carriage and driven off into the sunset.”
Bridget was caught off guard by the flicker of conviction in her tone, so she filed that nugget of information away for a later time and pressed a zealous kiss to Franky’s lips. “Well, until that day – how about you bed with me?”
“If you insist.”
“Oh, I do,” Bridget murmured against Franky’s lips and then pulled out of her embrace.
She took Franky’s hand and they headed out of the parlour and up the stairs.
Once alone in Bridget’s bedchamber, the door locked, their lustful glances mingled with their shortness of breath and charged the air.
Unable to contain her urges any longer, Franky pushed Gidge up against the door, clutched her face in her hands and kissed her chaotically: a whirlwind of teeth, tongue and desperation. Bridget’s hands gripped Franky’s back, fingers raking upwards as they travelled to her shoulders and burrowed beneath Franky’s tux jacket, pushing it off, then skimmed down her sides and tugged her shirt loose. Franky drew back from Bridget’s lips only long enough to undo her shirt, which was still damp and melded to her shapely figure. With every button she popped open, she uncovered ivory skin and an expanse of tattoos. Bridget watched her closely, mesmerised by every movement and every marking. Deciding it was taking far too long, she helped Franky slide the shirt off her arms, letting it fall to the floor, and bit her lip as she gazed at the glorious view before her.
Seeing the unmasked longing in Gidge’s eyes stirred something deep inside of her and Franky cupped the back of Bridget’s neck, pulling her into a fierce and heady kiss.
Bridget’s touch was assured as her warm fingertips traced the smooth skin of Franky’s ribs; slipping down to her slender waist, then further, to her curvaceous hips… thumbs brushing quivering skin, and she was drowning in the moment. She heard Franky make a guttural noise in the back of her throat; raw and voracious, and an uncontrollable heat rushed through her own body.
Franky pressed more urgently against her, the cool wood of the door against her back grounding her, then Franky broke the kiss and lowered herself to her knees. She looked up at Bridget’s face, eyes stormy with want. Bridget’s breath caught at the intensity of her gaze. Franky gripped the waistband of Bridget’s breeches and tugged them down. Bridget’s hands rested on Franky’s shoulders to balance herself as she stepped out of her clothing, legs trembling. Her chemise, now loose, reached the back of her knees. Franky’s head spun as she gazed up at Gidget, she’d never seen anyone so beautiful. She ran her hands up Bridget’s calf’s and continued, tantalisingly slowly, upwards, slipping under the chemise and up the backs of Bridget’s smooth thighs.
Bridget gasped and keened, digging her nails into Franky’s shoulders, then bent forward and pulled Franky up to meet her lips in a frenzied kiss. As their mouths collided Franky tangled her hands in Bridget’s hair and pulled out her hairpin. Long blonde curls spilled down her back and over her shoulders.
“So beautiful,” Franky mumbled between kisses.
With every sweep of her tongue, Franky unhooked a fastening of Gidget’s corset, revelling in Bridget’s every shuddering intake of breath and the heaving of her chest under Franky’s nimble fingers. Then she lowered her head and brushed the newly bared skin with her mouth, soft and hot and relentless.
Lost in heat and desire, Bridget’s fingers connected with Franky’s flushed skin and began to stray, stroking and caressing every inch of flesh she could reach – not wanting to leave a single part of Franky undiscovered. She whined with frustration when her hands were prevented from their exploration by cloth. Reluctantly she drew back to slide her hands between them and undo Franky’s trouser buttons, which, with her hasty aid, slipped to the floor. Franky quickly stepped out of them and kicked them aside. Then she was back in Bridget’s arms, trailing fiery kisses up Gidget’s neck, teeth nipping, tongue lavishing soothing strokes, hands gliding down Bridget’s back and gripping her backside, squeezing as she sank her teeth into a particularly sensitive spot on Bridget’s throat. Bridget gasped and arched into Franky, need flaring. Her breath expelled in sharp jagged bursts as her body reacted; an incessant throb between her legs and her mind teeming with thoughts of Franky, of being taken by her, surrendering to her.
“Please,” Bridget whimpered.
A ragged breath escaped Franky’s lips as her eyes fixed on Bridget. “Oh, I’m gonna make you beg,” she whispered.
Anticipation surged through them both.
Bridget’s eyes glassed over and she felt winded. She’d never been so enamoured by anyone. Never wanted anything more than she wanted this, wanted to be intimate with Franky. She struggled to breathe and her skin blazed at the prospect. Bridget pushed up on her toes, her lips insistent as they crashed against Franky’s and her arms wrapped about the brunette. Answering her. Demanding of her.
Deft fingers undid the final clasp of Gidget’s corset and discarded it. With one hand Franky scraped her fingertips across Bridget’s collarbones, making her shiver, with the other she gripped the hem of Gidge’s chemise, lifted it up and separated her lips from Bridget’s long enough to pull the chemise over Bridget’s head, casting it aside, ridding them of the last barrier between them. Then rejoiced in the glorious sight of Bridget’s naked form.
Their eyes met, heavy-lidded, breaths shallow and rapid.
Bridget trailed a hand across Franky's chest and rested it over her heart. She felt Franky’s heart pound erratically against her palm. Her gaze softened and she covered Franky’s face in gentle kisses, offering comfort and reassurance. Franky’s eyes fluttered shut as Bridget nestled against her and pressed tender kisses to her sternum.
“Now, please,” Bridget beseeched, her usually piercing blue eyes darker and stormier than Franky had ever seen them.
Franky’s arms circled Bridget’s waist, walking Gidge backwards towards the bed. She pushed her down so she was sitting on the edge, then nudged Bridget’s legs apart with her knee and stood between them, looking down at Gidge. Her expression intense and lust-filled. Bridget’s breath caught at the sinfully exquisite vision before her that was surely a mirage. How could anyone be that flawless?
Franky knelt before Bridget. She traced circles on the inside of Bridget’s knee with her index finger, then ran her hands up Bridget’s thighs. Bridget whimpered. A pleased smile rose on Franky’s face and she moved forward until their bodies were flush. Skin slick, breasts touching, her stomach pressing against Bridget’s hot centre. Relishing the closeness, the intimacy. Bridget stroked Franky’s cheek reverently and then pulled Franky in for another passionate kiss.
She’s lost in Bridget, in the sensations - Bridget’s hands on her, Bridget’s breasts pressing against her own, Bridget’s stomach quivering at every caress, Bridget’s heat and lips and scent… Bridget kissing her long, hard and deep… and suddenly Bridget’s hand is between her legs, touching her. Franky broke the kiss with a gasp. They leant their foreheads together, breathless with wonder. The intensity in Bridget’s eyes stunned her and Franky had to look away, she buried her face against her neck.
Bridget continued to move her fingers, slowly and teasingly. Frank’s breath came out harsh and broken, causing Bridget to moan and bow forward, brushing her lips along the curve of Franky’s shoulder. Worshipping every inch of her. Light, barely there kisses, driving Franky crazy, making her crave more friction, making her feverish with want. Franky lifted her head again, their eyes met and Franky captured Bridget’s mouth, trying desperately to convey all she felt in that moment to Bridget.
Bridget bestowed lingering kisses while her hand applied the slightest of pressure. Everything outside this room no longer existed; just them and this all-consuming craving. Their heated skin slick as they moved against each other… their kisses turned fiery and harsh. Bridget knotted her hand in Franky’s hair and tugged her head back, exposing her throat, nipping and sucking at her flesh, teeth grazing her pulse point, making her groan weakly.
Suddenly Franky gripped Bridget’s wrists, taking her by surprise, and using the momentum to pull her nearer. She twisted Bridget’s arms behind her back, restraining her. Their breaths mingled as their eyes locked. With a sliver of air between them, Franky watched Bridget’s eyes flood with desire. She leant forward and claimed Bridget’s mouth roughly, their kisses bruising and frantic; tinged with a carnal need that exhilarated them both.
Bridget wrapped her legs about Franky, urging her closer, causing Franky to moan and release Bridget’s arms. Bridget immediately enfolded Franky in an embrace and the brunette pushed Bridget back. She moved on top of her, pinned her down on the bed and indelicately slid her thigh between Bridget’s legs. Bridget gasped as Franky pressed hard against her core. She ground her hips and rubbed against Franky’s firm thigh, her whole body blazing. She felt as if she were losing her mind - it was too much and not enough all at once. Her hips surged forward repeatedly as Franky met her thrusts, she throbbed and pulsed around Franky’s silky thigh and then slumped back against the mattress as she cried out her release.
Franky savoured the sight of Bridget splayed beneath her, so open and soft and wanton. Skin flushed, chest heaving, nipples erect, muscles trembling and eyes glazed, breathless.
Bridget took several moments to recover, then took advantage of Franky’s distraction and dragged her hands up the back of Franky’s thighs, gripped them tightly and hauled her closer, causing them to both gasp as their hips ground together. Then she slipped her hand between them and slid her fingers up into the wet heat between Franky’s legs and began to stroke her. She felt Franky react instantly, was entranced by the power she held.
“Tell me you want me,” Bridget commanded, voice was husky with desire.
“I do… I want you so badly…” Franky whispered hoarsely.
Bridget raised her mouth to Franky’s left breast, took the nipple into her mouth, grazed it with her teeth and then sucked it hard. She increased the pressure of her hand, firm strokes where Franky wanted her most, savouring every delectable sound that Franky made and every tremor of her body. She released Franky’s nipple from her mouth and ran her tongue across the stiff peak, making the brunette groan louder, then pinched it between thumb and finger, making Franky loose concentration.
She gripped Franky’s hips and rolled them over so she was astride the brunette, then pushed two fingers into her, tantalisingly slowly. Franky sobbed and clung to Bridget.
“Oh! Oh yes! Oh Gidge…” Franky panted and bucked against her. “Oh!” Franky wept as Bridget moved her fingers and hit a sweet spot deep inside her. “I need more,” Franky implored, clutching at Bridget, desperate and wild.
Gidge captured Franky’s mouth, kissing her long and hard as she drove three fingers deep into her. Franky’s head fell back as a hiss escaped her lips. She shut her eyes tightly and struggled to breathe. Bridget thrust harder and Franky’s hips rose erratically to meet her thrusts. Her skin was beaded with sweat and her ragged breaths turned into pants as her head thrashed about. Bridget plunged deeper and curled her fingers. Her thumb pressed hard against Franky’s clit and Franky shook violently and arched off the bed, coming with a rasping cry.
Bridget rode out the aftershocks, thrusting mercilessly until Franky whimpered that it was too much. Then Bridget eased her ministrations and gently slid out of her.
Bridget lowered herself beside Franky and took her in her arms. Franky nestled into her, slung her arm across Bridget’s waist and rested her head against Bridget’s shoulder. Bridget ran leisurely fingers through Franky’s hair and peppered kisses to her forehead and temple. Franky sighed contentedly, feeling euphoric and as if she could sleep for a week.
“You are astonishing,” Bridget whispered, grazing her lips against Franky’s ear and playfully biting down on her earlobe.
Franky rewarded her with another kiss. Long, slow and unbelievably soft. By the time they drew apart their breathing was jagged again.
Franky quickly regained her vigour. She turned devilish eyes on Bridget, intent on what she wanted to do. She pulled Bridget into a fervent kiss, pushed her onto her back and spread her legs. She relished the feel of Gidge pressed against her and the passion with which Bridget returned her kiss, with full abandon and trust, and Franky’s heart surged. She’d never felt this connection during sex before – mind and body. So completely new and terrifying and marvellous.
Franky kissed her way down Bridget’s torso, savouring the moans and sighs as she showered attention on her breasts, nuzzled her stomach and slid lower. She gripped Bridget’s thighs, bent her head and pushed her tongue through slick folds, Bridget’s essence on her tongue.
Bridget’s head fell back against the pillow as she sobbed at the overwhelming sensations. Franky moved slowly, she wanted to feel every tremble, hear every sigh, taste every second. Bridget reached down and grasped Franky’s hair – tugging, swept-up in the moment. Her nails biting into Franky’s scalp. Franky inhaled the intoxicating aroma that was entirely Bridget, marvelled at the quaking of her muscles and the raspy whimpers as she struggled to muffle her cries.
Franky devoured her hungrily, delving harder and faster into her, lapping at her centre, driving Bridget into a frenzy. Bridget pleaded breathlessly and incoherently, writhing and sobbing, and shaking uncontrollably until her back arched off the bed as Franky’s name spilled from her lips. Then she collapsed back against the mattress, satiated and spent.
Franky drew Bridget into her and pulled the covers over them. She stroked Bridget’s hair away from her damp skin, brushed kisses to her forehead and murmured soft words into her ear until they both drifted into a fitful sleep, wrapped-up in each other.
First thing in the morning a dishevelled Mr. Jackson pounded on the front door of Claremont. Alarmed, Hamilton answered and Mr. Jackson brushed past him in a flurry, colour high on his cheeks and possessed by manic energy. He whipped off his hat and turned it nervously in his hands. “Is Miss Westfall at home? I must see her!”
Hamilton showed him into the parlour and then went to fetch Miss Westfall.
He tapped on her bedchamber door. A moment passed and then Bridget unlocked the door and appeared clad in her dressing gown, her hair loose. “Mr. Jackson is here and is very animated,” Hamilton warned.
Bridget thanked him and hurried downstairs. She was dreading this meeting for she had decided to break their engagement. Her heart belonged wholly to Franky and she could not prolong the charade between herself and Mr. Jackson any longer. He was a dear friend and deserved to find happiness with someone who could provide it.
As soon as Bridget entered the parlour she closed the door, affording them privacy. Will rushed towards her. She had never seen him so fevered. “Will? Are you quite alright?” she asked, startled.
He laughed and ran a hand through his hair. “No! I have quite taken leave of my senses!” He clutched Bridget’s hands. “We are friends, are we not? Before all else?”
She squeezed his hands in reassurance. “Yes.”
“Good,” he took a pained breath. “Because I have come to break with you.”
Bridget stared at him, dumbfounded. Everything seemed to still and the air left her lungs. She blinked. How had this happened? How had she managed to get all she wanted without inflicting pain on anyone?
At her lack of response he drew back, ashamed. “I have hurt you!” he exclaimed pitifully.
She shook her head fervidly. “No – I assure you.”
She grasped his hands tighter. “I love you Will but as a brother not a beau.”
His smile was bright and transcendent.
“Whatever has happened?” Bridget asked.
“I am in love!” he declared exuberantly.
Bridget broke into a grin. “Who is the fortunate lady?”
Bridget could not conceal her surprise. “Miss Proctor? But when did you… when did she… ?”
“Last night,” Will said. “Let me tell you from the beginning.”
He went on to relay the story of how, after the fundraiser ball, he had given Miss Proctor a ride home in his carriage (she had leant hers to a family in need). One of the horses was spooked on Vauxhall Bridge when it trod on a weapon someone had carelessly left in the middle of the road and reared up, causing the back wheel to come loose, sending their carriage hurtling over the side of the bridge and into the river.
When their carriage was plunged into the murky depths of the Thames, Miss Proctor badly injured her arm. As the carriage filled with water and began to sink, Will risked his own life to save Miss Proctor from drowning. He managed to pull her to safety and as they lay on the muddy riverbank of Vauxhall, their close brush with death made them realise their depth of feeling. As he cupped Miss Proctor’s face, to ensure her wellbeing, in the moonlight and heat of the moment, he kissed her passionately. A kiss that was reciprocated.
“I love Miss Proctor and mean to marry her,” Will announced.
“Then let me be the first to offer my congratulations,” Bridget said.
Will stared at her with incredulity. He had thought breaking off their 16 year engagement would be considerably more difficult - had expected tears and theatrics. Grateful and relieved, he engulfed Bridget in a hug. “Thank you Bridget,” he whispered in her ear.
They drew back from each other.
“Karen feels terrible about it. She is sick with nerves. She says it is unforgivable that she has betrayed another woman - ”
Bridget held up her hands to stop him. “Please assure her I am glad of her happiness.”
Will studied her for a moment, his gaze softening. “I think we were always meant to be friends, you and I, not sweethearts.”
Bridget smiled. “I think you are right.”
He put his hat back on, ready to take his leave. “I hope you find love one day.”
She beamed. “I already have.”
Will studied her and many things suddenly became clear. For as long as he had known her, Bridget seemed unsettled. She was a nonconformist and he had always admired that. She knew her own mind, stood on the edges of polite society (was viewed as an eccentric by many but accepted because of her family’s standing) but when he had seen her in Franky’s presence, she had an ease, a natural confidence that he had never seen before.
“I think you may be right,” he replied kindly.
And so they parted on good terms. Mr. Jackson rushing to Highgate to break the news to Miss Proctor and Bridget rushing upstairs to tell Franky that she was free of any obligation to Mr. Jackson.
When Bridget ran into her bedchamber, Franky was still asleep in her bed. She lay peacefully on her side, disarming and beautiful. Her long dark hair strewn across the pillow, her chest rising and falling with even breaths, the creamy skin of her neck and shoulders exposed. Bridget grinned to herself, her gaze lingering on the slumbering form of her lover. Her heart light and the future full of promise.
Bridget sat on the bed, leant forward and gently traced Franky’s nose with her fingertip. Franky stirred and Bridget placed a silky kiss to her lips. When she drew back, Franky’s eyes were open and she smiled sleepily.
“Morning,” Bridget greeted softly.
“Let me guess, breakfast in bed was an hour ago,” Franky teased, voice still husky from sleep. “You really knackered me out, Gidge… of course, if you wanta help me work-up an appetite in time for lunch…” she reached for the sash of Bridget’s dressing gown.
“I have good news.”
“You’re not wearing any underwear?” she tugged playfully at Gidge’s sash.
Bridget grinned and swatted her hand away. “Even better.”
Now she had Franky’s attention.
“I had a visitor.”
“At this time?” Franky rubbed her eyes and sat up, now nose-to-nose with Bridget.
“Mr. Jackson wished to discuss our future.”
Franky found she was holding her breath as her heart started to hammer. “And?”
“We have broken off our engagement.”
Franky stared at her in astonishment. “What?”
“He wants to marry Miss Proctor.”
Franky’s eyes widened. “Holy shit!” Her pulse accelerated and her eyes fixed on Bridget’s, so blue, so full of warmth and devotion. “So this means…”
“I am free to declare this: I love you and want nothing more than for you to stay at Claremont with me. As an equal. I shall give you the fee I promised for your help in tracking down Ferguson and then I wish you to stay of your own volition.”
Bridget gazed at Franky hopefully, nerves alight, hands trembling.
Franky broke into a grin. “Yes!” she exclaimed emphatically, her smile lighting the entire room.
Bridget seemed dazed, almost afraid to believe her good fortune. “Yes?”
Ecstatic, Franky closed the distance between them and pulled Bridget into her arms. “Of course yes you great big gongoozler!”
They both laughed gaily.
Bridget wrapped her arms about Franky and caught her lips in a tender kiss, basking in the overwhelming joy she felt.
All matters with the police regarding Ferguson were soon put to rest (the police concluded that she had gone into hiding in Scotland to escape the kidnap charges against her and vowed to keep a vigilant lookout for her return). Hamilton embarked on a fortnight in Blackpool, where his sister and her family lived, while the Claremont household muddled through in his absence and missed him greatly.
Mr. Jackson’s engagement to Miss Proctor was announced in the papers accompanied by a picture of the happy couple and they were happy indeed; gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes, large smiles on their faces. This revelation vexed Mrs. Westfall greatly. She threw her breakfast tray at the wall when she found out, almost hitting Greta, the new maid. Mrs. Westfall then went on to sulk and rant and refused to speak to Bridget for breaking-off her engagement but Bridget found, as she usually had so little to do with her Mother, that she could bear her punishment tolerably well.
Sure that it was safe for Tess to return to London, Bridget and Franky sent for her but received a letter in return - Tess had settled well in Hove, was happy at her school and had grown fond of Bridget’s friends who had taken her in. It hurt Franky to admit that, for now, staying in Hove was in Tess’ best interest. She had stability and was out of the smog of London and the clutches of old associates who might try to take advantage of her new circumstances (Alan didn’t know her whereabouts and Franky was keen to maintain his ignorance on the subject). The disappointment was softened by Tess promising to visit Claremont in the school holidays or have them visit her. She had taken a keen liking to Bridget in their short acquaintance and enjoyed nothing more than spending time with her older sister, so it was a happy compromise.
The following morning a plain brown parcel arrived for Bridget. She opened it in her lab, thinking it a piece of equipment she had ordered for one of her experiments and was thus surprised when she unwrapped a black velvet jewellery case. Bridget opened it and ran her fingers over the delicate row of sapphires, trailing behind the kite pendant. There was a note enclosed from Miss Proctor informing her that she had won it at the silent auction (and a sweetly worded and heartfelt thank you for freeing Mr. Jackson from his previous commitment without malice). Instinctively, Bridget decided to give the necklace to Franky as a gift. She couldn’t give Franky a ring, couldn’t give her the Westfall name, but she could offer this small token of her affection.
Over lunch Mr. Westfall regaled Franky with tales of his youth. He had worked his way through his childhood and was now on his early days in the Army. He had taken to Franky and since she would now be a permanent fixture at Claremont he felt it his duty to get to know her as best he could. Bridget watched the pair as they conversed – a bond being forged before her very eyes. She loved none above them and was pleased to find the two seemed to share an intrinsic connection.
In Franky Mr. Westfall recognised a kindred spirit. He knew Franky was sincere and shrewd (he had a high regard for intellect) and enjoyed her guileless, rapier wit. She was lacking in general knowledge but that was something that could be addressed. Education was a luxury and Mr. Westfall appreciated that his family were in a privileged position. She also only had eyes for Bridget and that he wholly approved of. In Mr. Westfall Franky found a father-figure she could trust and whose kindness held no agenda or judgement. He was a true gentleman possessed of a calm temperament, firm in his beliefs, level-headed and compassionate. She could see Bridget took after him in many respects.
After lunch Mr Westfall went off to his Gentlemen’s Club in Piccadilly, to set the world to rights over a whisky, while Bridget and Franky took a turn about the gardens.
It was a sunny afternoon. The flowers were in full bloom, bees hummed and they meandered through the grounds arm-in-arm, shoulders brushing as they breathed in the floral scents and admired the vibrant colours. They were strolling through the rose trellis when Bridget took the black velvet jewellery case from her pocket and held it out to Franky.
They came to a halt. Franky gazed at Bridget, eyes full of curiosity as she took the box. Slowly she opened it. When she saw the gift inside a smile reached her lips and her eyes glistened.
Bridget felt her heart tumble. “I want you to have it.”
“Thank you,” Franky whispered, voice hoarse with emotion, and there’s an intense look in her eyes, adulating and tempestuous, that makes Bridget’s breath catch and her stomach flutter.
Franky clasped Bridget’s hand and tugged her into a grateful kiss. Her lips soft and ardent. When they drew back, she smiled brightly. “I’ll take good care of it.”
Bridget reached out and caressed her cheek. “I know.” Then she took up the necklace, stepped behind Franky and fastened it about her graceful neck.
The brunette ran her fingers delicately over the gems and her smile widened, no one had ever lavished such a gift on her before or taken the time to know her so well. For the first time in her life she felt worthy, felt hopeful in everything and that was because of Bridget.
Bridget leaned closer and placed a gentle kiss to the base of Franky’s neck causing Franky to inhale sharply as a shiver ran down her spine. She felt the heat of Bridget’s body pressing against hers and turned, grasped hold of Bridget’s hips and pulled her closer. Bridget gazed longingly at her. Franky pressed a tender kiss to her lips and they rested their foreheads together.
Franky knew what the gift meant, knew it was Bridget’s way of demonstrating her strength of feeling. “I love you too,” Franky murmured.
“That is most fortunate,” Bridget replied breathily. “Because I intend to feel this way about you for the rest of my life.”
“Sounds like your best plan yet,” Franky mused and brushed her lips against Gidget’s.
They both smiled.
With the fee Gidge paid her Franky opened Doyle’s, a millenary shop in Limehouse. She employed Boomer as her manager to oversee the daily running of the shop. She hoped it would encourage Booms to be less prone to fall foul of the law. She also wanted an independent income. She knew Bridget would think nothing of giving her a weekly allowance but Franky minded. She didn’t want to take advantage or cause Mr. Westfall or Hamilton to doubt her true intentions towards Gidge. It was very important to Franky that she be a lady of independent means if she were truly to share her life with Bridget. The shop afforded her that and then there was Tess. It meant she could pay for Tess’ school and board herself and provide a nest egg for when Tess came of age.
They settled into a harmonious existence at Claremont. On the days that Franky was at Doyle’s, Bridget remained happily ensconced in her lab. She and Franky spent every spare minute together but they also liked to have their separate interests. It gave them much to discuss when together and provided them the chance to miss each other, which only served to strengthen their connection.
On one such day Franky was at Doyle’s (a new shipment of silks had come in) and Bridget was rebuilding the flying bicycle in her lab – making changes she thought would enhance it, such as the addition of a wooden mast with a metal tip to draw lightning and disperse the impact, should it face a thunderstorm again. When Hamilton called her name. She rushed out to the main staircase, her fingers gripping the bannister. “Yes?”
Hamilton stood at the foot of the stairs, his face turned up towards her, a smile on his lips. “It’s arrived!”
Bridget grinned and raced down the stairs. He held out her hat, which she barely had time to grasp as she rushed out of the front door in eager excitement.
As Franky stepped out of Doyle’s and onto the cobbled street her eyes widened in wonder as they alighted on a magnificent carriage. She’d never seen a Londonderry Chariot up-close before. In the driver’s seat was a coachman dressed in full livery with powdered wig, tricorn hat, white plush breeches and silver-buckled shoes. He sat statically, his hands poised over the reins, waiting patiently.
Curiosity got the better of her and Franky took a step closer to admire it. The carriage body was black with the lower panels, wheels and carriage painted yellow with broad black lining. Burnished and glossy, the Londonderry Chariot gleamed. A coat of arms marked the doors, there was silver plated beading on the body of the carriage, coronets on the roof, brace buckles, axle caps and serpent head dumb irons. It was exquisite craftsmanship, meticulous and beautiful. Quite breath-taking.
Franky moved closer still and saw that the doors had skeleton figure of eight handles with a dragon on the boss, the window had blue velvet covering on the frames and elaborate cylinder lamps intricately decorated. Franky let out a low whistle. Whoever this belonged to had exquisite taste and was obviously loaded.
She tried to glimpse sight of the owner through the window but the dark blue curtains were drawn. Disappointed, she drew back. About to turn away, Franky heard a click as the carriage door opened. She caught sight of a lady's hand gripping the door handle as the mystery woman stepped down onto the foot ledge. Her head was bowed low, hidden by her hat. Once she had disembarked the lady looked up and Franky found herself staring into Bridget’s eyes.
Bridget leant against the carriage, a seductive smile on her lips.
Franky grinned and immediately closed the distance between them. She rested her palm flat against the carriage by Bridget’s head, leaned in close, her breath hot against Bridget’s neck, sending a tremor coursing through the blonde.
“My, my, Miss Westfall - you are full of surprises.”
Bridget’s smile widened. “Would you care to take a ride?”
A mischievous smirk crept across Franky’s face. “Nothin’ I’d like more.”
Gripping Franky’s arm, Bridget pulled her inside the carriage. She pushed Franky back against the silk taffeta cushions, closed the door and then joined her on the back seat.
The coachman roused the horses into action and the chariot set off.
In the back of the carriage, lip-to-lip, hands roaming and smiles rising, Bridget and Franky headed out into the world. The sun bright and high and the future, full of possibility, before them.
Chapter 14: Sequel Ideas
EDIT: 30th May 2018
Thank you to every one who voted. After tallying-up the results here, on FF.net and from PM's, the Haunted House won. Have already started sketching out a plot, hopefully will be posting the first chapter soon.
Okay, so Steampunk Fridget won’t leave me alone. I have several ideas for a sequel but can’t settle on one. I need your help choosing. Please pick one or list the order of your preference (or put forward any alternative ideas you have, I’m open to suggestions). Whichever garners the most interest is what I’ll write next. Here be the ideas:
1) Vampire Squid
Walter is getting married to Miss Miles aboard a submarine (sea creatures are Walter’s speciality). Bridget is the best man. All is going well until the wedding guests start turning up dead – sucked dry of blood.
What follows is suspense, vampire squids (which is a real thing apparently), genetic experiments and a claustrophobic atmosphere as the wedding guests are picked-off one-by-one.
2) Key Pendant
Bridget dropped her key pendant (which can open any lock) whilst trying to save her father from Ferguson’s zeppelin. It is found in Waterlow Park by some nefarious villain and subsequently used in a spate of high-profile robberies.
The robberies escalate until they reach critical point e.g. Crown Jewels/top secret files being stolen that will impact on the whole world and lead to calamitous events. Feeling personally responsible, Bridget and Franky are in a race against time to stop the evil mastermind’s dastardly plans.
3) Haunted House
Bridget and Franky visit Tess in Hove. While there they come across a local legend about a haunted house. Being all scientific, Bridget decides to prove that ghosts don’t exist. Whilst on their quest they encounter the deadly Fox Fire which accurately forecasts death, navigate the dangerous and isolated smuggler’s coast, chase ghosts and discover a grisly secret the townsfolk of Hove have kept hidden for centuries.
4) Zombie Drug
A new drug circulates the streets of London. It’s blown in the face of its victims and makes them susceptible to suggestion, reducing them to zombies – mindless and obeying. The victims are then used to enact deeds for the baddies – committing a variety of crimes (including murder).
Can Bridget and Franky discover the reasons behind this crime spate and put an end to it?
5) Hot Air Balloon
Franky and Bridget embark on a hot air balloon adventure. They encounter many colourful characters along the way and get embroiled in a mystery with Nellie Bly, the first female investigative journalist and the first person to travel the world in a hot air balloon in 72 days (she’s real – go look her up!). Think “Around the World in 80 Days” but with lesbians.
6) Big Ben
No real solid ideas yet – just love the idea of incorporating Big Ben into a story with these two. Could be epic. Plus, back in the day, there used to be a cell in the tower of Big Ben where naughty Members of Parliament were locked-up as punishment for their misbehaviour (and presumably deafened). That could be a fun premise to play with!
Please let me know your thoughts. I’m really stuck.
Chapter 15: The Hangman of Hangleton - Chapter 1
A/N: Thank you to everyone who voted on the sequel. This is the story that won. Hope you enjoy.
P.S: All the ghost stories mentioned herein are based on real tales (I was spoiled for choice, Hove is an extensively haunted place – you can’t move for ghosts).
Road to Hove, 1889
Bridget drew back the curtain and glanced out of the carriage window. All she could see were shadows and stars, the landscape hidden by the night. The wind whistled through the trees, howling angrily, as they traversed the flat countryside. It made her shiver and recoil. She let the curtain fall back in place and snuggled closer to Franky.
The brunette was fast asleep beside her on the back seat. They shared a blanket against the chill air and Bridget rested her head against Franky’s shoulder, listening to the soothing rhythm of the horses hoofs clattering against the hard ground. Winter was almost upon them.
They were on their way to Hove to visit Tess. The girl had come to Claremont every school holiday as promised but she had spoken so fondly and incessantly of her new home at Barnhurst Hall and of the Leigh’s, the family who had taken her in, that Franky had wanted to see it all for herself.
After having several academic papers on hydroelectricity published (Bridget’s new passion and a scheme she was soon hoping to implement at Claremont), Gidge had been invited to a weekend of talks in Chichester, as a guest speaker, and so they had stopped there first. Bridget had taken a selection of her latest inventions to impress her fellow scientists, including an anti-gravity umbrella, a locator for one’s person and a portable mortar that shot canisters of sleeping gas instead of shells. Suspicious of her at first, Bridget’s male peers were soon awestruck by her knowledge on hydroelectricity and the sample of inventions she had brought, that they were quite charmed.
‘Got nothin’ to do with tryin’ to get in your bloomers!’ Franky had remarked dryly that night in their room when Bridget had deterred yet another amorous admirer.
Now they were on the road, headed for Hove, to stay with the Leigh’s for a fortnight. They had set-off at two o’clock and here they were, close on six, still on a dark bumpy country road surrounded by all kinds of unfamiliar smells and sounds. Clinkers and small stones marring their way.
The country was nothing like London. The silence was eerie, pierced every now and then by a peculiar noise – some wild animal or hand of nature. The dark was rich and never-ending, Bridget was used to the warm glow that settled over London at night from the gas lamps, taverns, music halls… here it was blacker than pitch. Here the imagination ran wild about what was out there, lurking in the dark, waiting to pounce.
She felt Franky’s chest gently rise and fall and that familiar sense of peace and happiness filled her. Her expression softened, as it always did, when she studied her lover.
They were to break their journey at The Wanderers Inn and Bridget was exalted. She needed to stretch her legs and Franky would no doubt be in need of nourishment. Despite having been packed a hamper full of food for their journey, Franky had seen fit to polish most of it off within the first half hour of their trip. Hamilton had taken his life in his own hands and managed to wrestle a chicken wing from her for later.
Her heart went out to Hamilton, currently seated beside Mr. Davis, the coach driver, open to the elements. Hamilton always took ill on long journeys – it was the state of the country roads – all that bouncing around wreaked havoc on his nerves. Sitting atop with the coach driver allowed him fresh air and less turbulence. Still, on a night like this, she didn’t envy him. Also, having the staid Mr. Davis as sole company must be tiresome. He was an odd man, reticent and dour. He wore a permanently sombre expression, had a thin downturned mouth, narrow eyes framed by untamed white eyebrows, and a creased brow.
Lights suddenly loomed ahead, penetrating the curtains. They must be nearing The Wanderers Inn.
Gently Bridget nudged Franky who stirred. Franky opened her eyes and smiled dopily at Bridget. Her fingers reached beneath the blanket and wrapped about Bridget’s waist. “Hello gorgeous,” she greeted and rubbed her thumbs across Gidge’s ribs, just beneath Bridget’s breasts.
This amorous teasing was usual but Bridget still felt the seemingly quenchless desire Franky always elicited in her. “No time for shenanigans,” Bridget whispered, her voice too breathy to hold any conviction.
Franky grinned. “I love the way you say shenanigans,” she murmured and leaned forward, brushing her lips softly against Bridget’s.
Bridget moaned and slipped her fingers into Franky’s hair. Her lips parting as Franky claimed her mouth, devouring her. Firm hands stroked down her back. It still felt so thrilling and new. They had been bed partners and constant companions for the last 8 months but every moment with Franky was unpredictable, stimulating and always excited her feelings.
Their carriage came to a halt and there was a knock on the door.
Bridget drew back from Franky’s kiss. “Yes?” she called.
Hamilton opened the door, his face swathed in gas light, his cheeks ruddy and windswept.
“Miss Westfall, we’ve arrived at the Inn,” he informed her and offered his hand.
Bridget pulled back the blanket covering her legs, took her friends hand and stepped out of the carriage and into a cobbled yard.
Mr. Davis was seeing to the horses – talking to a stable boy and making sure the horses were properly rested and watered.
Franky skipped the foot ledge of the carriage and instead leapt directly to the ground. Landing surely. Her expensive muslin skirt swaying. She was still gangly and impulsive but Bridget wouldn’t have her any other way.
They gazed up at the wooden sign of the The Wanders Inn creaking in the wind. It was a large establishment, lively and cosily lit.
They stepped inside the tavern and were escorted to a table close to the fire. Once seated they ordered ale for refreshment and broth for sustenance. Bridget, who had always had port when travelling, since meeting Franky had developed a taste for ale. Liz always plied her with as much ale as she could drink whenever they visited Wentworth Inn. There had been more than one occasion when Franky had had Boomer carry Bridget home because she had over-indulged. After the first occasion of imbuing too much liquor, the following day Liz had informed Bridget that she danced the Polka very well and had a charming singing voice – all of which Bridget had no recollection but retained a severe headache, sore feet and a woolly tongue as souvenir.
“Where’s Mr. Davis?” Franky asked, her eyes seeking him out and not finding him.
“He doesn’t frequent this tavern,” Hamilton replied.
“Why ever not?” Bridget asked.
“He believes it to be cursed. Said the Black Death hit it badly and to cross the threshold is to tempt fate.”
Franky almost spurted out a mouthful of ale. “You’re kiddin’? That was like 500 year ago.”
Hamilton shrugged. “He’s quite superstitious. He was telling me all manner of ghoulish stories on our journey.”
“I imagine that was comforting,” Bridget remarked dryly.
“Yes. Wrestling the elements as well as superstitious bunk was most challenging,” Hamilton said blankly.
The kitchen girl brought over their food and they fell into silence as they tucked into their broth and bread, filling their weary bodies with warmth and nourishment.
When he’d finished, instantly feeling better, Hamilton leaned back in his seat. “Actually, all joking aside, Mr. Davis refuses to drive through Hangleton. He wants to take the Brighton Road instead.”
Franky scowled. “But that’ll add a mile to our journey.”
Hamilton nodded. “Unfortunately but there’s no convincing him otherwise.”
“I know I shall probably regret asking this, but why does he not want to go through Hangleton?” Bridget asked.
“It’s haunted,” Hamilton replied.
“That is absurd. Ghosts do not exist,” Bridget said flatly.
“According to Mr. Davis they do. This one he has seen himself.”
Franky’s interest was piqued. “He saw a ghost?”
“Yes – the last time he travelled down the Hangleton Road. He hasn’t returned since.”
“Do tell,” Franky prompted.
Bridget looked heavenwards.
Franky nudged Bridget with her elbow. “Oh come on Gidge. Where’s your curiosity? I love a good ghost story. Go on Hamilton.”
So Hamilton told them the tale as it had been relayed to him by Mr. Davis. “Hangleton has a dark past. It was once home to a gallows. After a condemned prisoner was hung their body was placed inside a gibbet, a body-sized metal cage hung from a tall pole and left on display. The gibbets ran the entire length of the road as a deterrent for other criminals. The corpses were left to rot, their remains decaying and falling to the ground in pieces to be consumed by crows, magpies and ravens.”
“Barbaric,” Bridget muttered, shuddering at the thought and finding herself immensely grateful they now lived in civilized times.
“Quite,” Hamilton agreed, then continued. “Thomas Kypper was a notorious hangman in these parts in the 17th century, renowned for his cruelty. He deliberately hung prisoners to ensure a slow and painful death. He ordered the caging of bodies that continued to show signs of life, so some prisoners would revive inside the gibbet and be left to starve. Kypper was a heartless fiend. Brutal in his everyday dealings. He was accused of murder twice but the charges didn’t stick due to lack of proof. It wasn’t until he had a heated dispute with his neighbour, whom he beat to death, that fate stepped in. This time witnesses came forward and he was arrested and found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to death and dispatched by hangman’s noose at Hangleton, becoming the first fatality of his successor.”
“Sounds like Kypper got his comeuppance,” Franky declared.
“Legend grew-up and abound and Kypper’s ghost is said to roam Hangleton Road where the gibbets once stood, labelled as The Hangman of Hangleton. Cursed for all eternity by those he condemned to an agonizing death.”
“Whilst Mr. Kypper sounds like a despicable man, his tortured soul does not wonder the Hangleton Road, of that I am certain,” Bridget stated.
“I don’t know Gidge, there are more things in heaven and earth ya know,” Franky contended.
Bridget tried to look disapproving but knew in the face of Franky’s enthusiasm it was a pointless endeavour.
“So how did Mr. Davis encounter this ghost?” Franky asked keenly.
Hamilton smiled. “Well, on a stormy night four years hence, Mr. Davis was driving two gentlemen home. On the Hangleton Road, where it meets Old Shoreham Road, the carriage suffered a temporary hitch – one of the under shaft’s attaching the horses to the breeching dee broke. Mr. Davis stopped to fix it. Whilst he was occupied, the two gentlemen inside the carriage heard a loud thud from outside. Initially they thought it to be Mr. Davis but when they called out and he did not reply, they felt unnerved. Then began an insistent tapping, also originating from outside. One of them pulled back the curtain and saw a mysterious figure stood a short distance away. They described the specter as tall and imposing, he wore sullied, tattered clothes and carried a staff. The apparition paced near to the carriage and the two gentlemen, immobilized by fear, were unable to do anything but watch in horror as the otherworldly figure turned sharply in their direction and held their gaze. His eyes glowed yellow. He moved menacingly towards the carriage and peered through the window at them. His breath steaming the glass. They said his flesh was sallow and pitted, and he wore a silver headscarf from which protruded dirty, matted hair. Mr. Davis, who had repaired the breeching dee, now turned and saw the apparition and called out ‘Away with you devil!’ and lashed out with his whip, causing the phantom to vanish.”
“That would shit you up,” Franky concurred and shivered.
“It makes a good fireside tale but there is no afterlife,” Bridget said adamantly. “Ghosts are a manifestation of our fear of death and the unknown. A way to explain the seemingly unexplainable.”
“Maybe,” Franky said. “But I sure don’t wanta travel through Hangleton tonight, do you?”
Bridget smirked in amusement. “I do not care either way! No otherworldly harm can befall us because The Hangman of Hangleton does not exist! Highway men however are a very real threat!”
“There’s my perpetual optimist!” Franky teased. She slipped her arm about Bridget’s waist and kissed her. “Your infallible logic wins the day, as always.”
Once their plates were cleared they paid and headed back to the carriage where Mr. Davis was waiting for them.
Franky and Bridget climbed into the carriage whilst Hamilton retook his seat beside Mr. Davis in the driver’s box. Mr. Davis had lighted the coach lanterns so a warm, flickering lamp suffused the carriage interior with soft light.
As they set of, Franky glanced at Bridget. “You really don’t believe in ghosts?”
Franky grinned, her eyes sparkling impishly. “Shame, I was goin’ to suggest we do somethin’ to take our minds off the impendin’ threat… ya know, comfort each other at this perilous time.”
Bridget returned the grin. “Well, I am not adverse to any suggestions you might have.”
Franky’s smile turned sly and she kissed Bridget deeply, pressing her against the backseat of the carriage. Bridget’s focus narrowed to Franky’s warm, firm lips trailing down her neck and the progress of deft hands sliding beneath her skirts.
They arrived at Barnhurst Hall, a medieval manor which stood a short distance from the seafront in the West Blatchington area of Hove. It was a dignified house that sat serenely amidst its coastal surroundings, and as Edwin was fond of telling Bridget, had the honour of being mentioned in the Domesday Book.
“It’s got a moat!” Franky exclaimed excitedly as she stuck her head out of the carriage window to gaze in awe at the body of water as they crossed the stone bridge to reach the house.
Their first view of Barnhurst Hall was impressive, even at this late hour. Lamps burned in the windows, illuminating the building, creating a magical, dreamy impression. Tall limestone rubble walls, pitched roofs slated with decorative barge boards and stone ball finials, an embattled roof on the two towers protruding from the magnificent building. Gothic under hood moulds with labels framed every door and window; Venetian windows; mullioned and transomed. A panel above second floor window of the South Tower proudly displayed the Dosett coat of arms. It looked like a castle straight out of a fairy tale.
Franky glanced over her shoulder at Gidge. “You gotta step-up your game with Claremont.”
As their carriage drew up to the house, the Barnhurst Hall residents had evidently heard their approach for Tess came running out of the front entrance, across the veranda, down the steps and onto the driveway towards them. The carriage had barely stopped when Franky bounded out and she and Tess engulfed each other in a fierce hug.
Mrs. Marion Leigh and her son, Shayne, an earnest young man of 17, stood on the veranda, both smiling and waving to their new arrivals. Marion was of average of height, had a wispy build and kind eyes, a round face and held herself with great poise. Shayne resembled his mother in features and lithe frame but had his father’s height. He towered over his mother who looked all the more delicate beside him.
Hamilton disembarked from his spot in the driver’s box and aided Bridget out of the carriage.
“Marion!” Bridget greeted joyfully.
Marion held out her hands as she moved towards Bridget, their fingers grasped firmly and Marion kissed Bridget’s cheek. “It is good to see you,” she said warmly.
Bridget turned to Shayne with surprise, she had not seen him for two years. “Is this Shayne? I can hardly believe it! How you have grown! What a strapping young man you have become.”
He blushed happily.
Hamilton soon joined them. “Mrs. Leigh,” he greeted affectionately.
“Why so formal?!” Marion scolded and embraced him. She drew back and gazed steadfastly at him. “How are you Hamilton? Are you well?”
Hamilton nodded, heart full. He could never quite put into words the extent of his gratitude to the Leigh’s. Dr. Edwin Leigh had been the doctor who had saved his life after his near-fatal accident in the cotton factory. Had been the one to amputate Hamilton’s legs and arm, Marion had been the one to nurse him through his worst days when he could no longer afford the medical fees, and it was Edwin who had read an article by Miss Westfall on artificial limbs which is why he got in touch with her about Hamilton’s case. It was the Leigh’s to whom Hamilton owed his life and his introduction to Miss Westfall.
“I am,” he eventually managed. “And yourself?”
She smiled. “What could I have to complain about when there are such good friends to be met?!”
Franky and Tess finally separated. Filled with excitement at being reunited and lively chatter as they moved towards the others, arms linked.
“Franky, this is Marion,” Tess introduced. “Marion, this is my big sister, Francesca Doyle.”
Marion smiled broadly and shook Franky’s hand. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Tess speaks of you often and in the fondest terms.”
Franky shrugged, a mischievous spark in her eye. “Yeah, I’m pretty great!”
Marion laughed. “I see your humour is similar to that of our Tess.”
Franky tried not to flinch at the casual use of our Tess. She wanted to knock Marion’s block off for the presumptuous claim but she was a guest and so she reigned-in her annoyance. It wouldn’t do to knock her hostess’ teeth out within five minutes of meeting her. Besides, she was weary from their travels and probably being thin-skinned.
Their hostess ushered them into the house. The interior was a little gloomy for Franky’s taste and a little too packed with furniture. Paintings covered every inch of the wall. She’d be hard pressed to tell you what colour the wallpaper was. The furniture was expensively gaudy in the way that only rich peoples was - and for show rather than comfort. Antiques and objet d’art covered every surface. Franky didn’t envy the amount of dusting the maids must have to do.
Their suitcases were carried into the entrance hall by two servants. Hamilton tried not to feel misplaced but being waited on made him feel awkward and indolent. He bit back his discomfort – this weekend he was a guest.
“Where is Edwin?” Bridget asked, seeking him out.
“An unexpected emergency I am afraid. One of his patients has influenza, a dire case. She’s near death. He had so wanted to be here when you arrived but a doctor is never off duty,” she said lightly and was smiling but Franky detected an underlying nervousness and noted the quick, jumpy movements of Marion’s hands.
“I have put you in the Blue Room, Bridget, and you, Miss Doyle, in the adjoining room,” Marion continued. She had a sneaking suspicion of Bridget’s Sapphic persuasion but as they had never discussed it, did her best to accommodate her friend until Miss Westfall felt confident enough to confide the fact of her own accord. “And Hamilton, I have given you your old room in the Harper Suite.”
“Most kind,” Hamilton replied. “I am glad to be returning to it under happier circumstances.” It was the room they had put him in fifteen years since when, delirious with fever and not a penny to his name, Marion had nursed him back to health.
“I can’t wait to show you around,” Tess said excitedly, linking her arm back through Franky’s. “Shayne has helped me make a list of all the things we must do while you are here, haven’t you Shay?”
Shayne nodded enthusiastically. Franky noticed the admiring look Tess bestowed on him and smiled to herself, wondering if ‘Shay’ was the main attraction on Tess’ list and the real reason for her wanting to stay on at Barnhurst Hall rather than return to London.
“Perhaps that should wait until tomorrow,” Mrs. Leigh suggested gently. “I am sure our guests would like to freshen-up after their long journey, have dinner and then rest. Tours can wait until the morrow.”
“Of course,” Tess agreed, clamping-down on her exuberance. She turned to Franky. “I’m going to show you everything! I shall have a time figuring out where to start!”
Franky laughed. “We’ll get round to all of it, not to worry.”
“Dinner is in an hour,” Mrs. Leigh announced as she indicated for the maids to take her guest’s luggage to their rooms. “I hope you enjoy your stay and please, if there is anything you need, just let me know.”
“Thank you Marion,” Bridget said graciously.
“Thank you Mrs. Leigh,” Hamilton chimed.
“Yeah, ta,” Franky added quickly.
Still arm-in-arm with Tess, Franky followed Bridget as she began up the stairs, Hamilton behind them.
The stairs were creaky and as they reached the top of the staircase, which turned sharply to the left, Franky stared at a glass cabinet built into the wall. For inside was a human skull. Franky halted and peered curiously at it.
“That’s Old Dosett,” said Tess.
“You mean it’s a real skull?” Franky exclaimed.
“Yep,” Tess replied.
Franky glanced at Bridget who shrugged.
“Nice class of people you associate with Gidge,” the brunette teased. “And who was Old Dosett?”
“A distant relative of Marion’s. Barnhurst Hall belongs to Marion’s family. Dosett is her maiden name. The house has been in her family for 700 years. She inherited it from a cousin, Chester Dosett, when he died childless.”
“Because of Old Dosett’s curse,” Tess declared eerily.
“There’s a curse?!” Franky cried, turning to her sister.
“Well, more a series of unfortunate incidents,” Hamilton clarified.
“The skull belongs to William Dosett who upset the locals and had a curse put upon him as a result. Soon after the curse was placed he had a spate of bad luck – crops failed, livestock died, his wife was unable to bear children and it drove her to suicide, which led to him drowning his sorrows in a tavern in the village. Legend has it that Dosett overheard a youth say that he had it coming – for his crime - and so Dosett began a brawl. It ended in a duel with the youth, which he lost. He was fatally stabbed and bled to death with the whole village looking on and not one soul moved to help him. After his death, William’s younger brother Maurice inherited the house. After William’s funeral, his grave was desecrated and so Maurice had his brother’s skull brought back to the house. Had it enshrined, for safe keeping. No one can remember what William did to cause the curse but it still stands - no Dosett who lives at Barnhurst Hall shall have a happy end and after 10 generations, the Dosett family line shall come to an end."
Franky let out a low whistle. “Shit. I always thought the sins of the father bein’ visited on the children was deeply unfair but visitin’ it on the next 10 generations is takin’ the piss!” she declared.
“Marion is the last Dosett by birth, the others have all had untimely deaths,” Hamilton added with a sense of foreboding.
Franky wasn’t sure if it was the late hour, the weariness in her bones or the oppressive atmosphere of the house but she felt a cold chill run down her spine. “This day couldn’t get any weirder,” she said facetiously, trying to disguise her own unease.
They continued up the stairs and along a narrow hall. Hamilton was taken to a room on the left while Bridget and Franky were shown their adjoining rooms, opposite.
Their accommodation lived up to its name. It was indeed blue, with matching furniture and extravagant fittings. Dark wood panel moulding bordered the room, hemming her in. Heavy curtains covered the narrow windows and the ceiling was low. Franky couldn’t help the flash of dread that passed through her. There was nothing wrong with the room per se, it was just… a little claustrophobic and glum. Simultaneously chilled and airless. She felt as if a weight had descended upon her the moment she’d stepped into the room.
Hesitantly Franky picked-up her suitcase, which had been left just inside the door by the maid, and opened it on the bed. Tess followed her into her room and sat on the edge of the bed, swinging her feet like she used to when she was over-excited and didn’t know where to place her energy. Franky smiled at the familiarity of it.
She heard a key turn and a lock click. She glanced over her shoulder to see Bridget had opened the door connecting their rooms and was propping it open. They exchanged a furtive smile and then Bridget set about unpacking her own case in her own room.
Tess began gabbling away about her school friends, the latest book she was reading and the needlework she was toiling with as Franky emptied her case.
When Franky crossed to put her under things in a chest of drawers, she caught sight of Gidge as the blonde moved gracefully about her room – carefully placing her work tools on the dresser and arranging the implements by most used, ready for some tinkering. On the journey Bridget had had an idea for an adjustment to the anti-gravity umbrella and was eager to start work on the modification. Franky loved it when Gidge was unaware of Franky’s eyes on her. Franky could watch her for hours. Her natural dignity and absorption in a task, the fierce frown of concentration that adorned her face, the sparkle in her eye as she was struck by inspiration, the absent way she bit her bottom lip, god she was beautiful.
“Franky?!” Tess said impatiently and Franky turned back to her sister, realising her attention had drifted. Tess broke into a grin. “So things are going well with you and Bridget then?” she teased. She had never seen her sister so smitten.
Franky blushed and threw a pillow at Tess, who caught it, clasped it tightly to her chest and giggled.
They sat around the dining table tucking into the first course of watercress soup. Mrs. Leigh was seated at the head of the table, Shayne and Tess to her left. Franky, Bridget and Hamilton to her right. There was an ease in the air but Marion had a distracted manner, as if she was waiting for something.
“Nice skull,” Franky blurted during a lull in the conversation.
Bridget kicked her lover under the table. Franky bit back a yelp and rubbed her shin.
Marion smiled. “Yes, it is a little macabre but bad things have befallen anyone who has tried to remove it.”
Franky deliberately leant her elbows on the table and with satisfaction noted the quirk of Mrs. Leigh’s eyebrow at her lack of table manners. “Such as?”
“The skull has gone missing on several occasions only to return mysteriously. My great-grandfather Leonard Dosett grew afraid of the curse, took the skull from the house and threw it into the sea! On his return to Barnhurst Hall his carriage collided with another and he was killed instantly. When his widow returned from his funeral, Old Dosett’s skull was back in its case at the top of the stairs. The only explanation - a set of watery footprints leading from the front door to the case,” Marion answered. “My great uncle, Joseph Dosett, was the last to attempt its removal from Barnhurst Hall. He said it screamed like a banshee and the whole house shook until it was returned."
“Have you ever tried to get rid of it?” Franky pressed.
Marion gave Franky a wan smile. “Why tempt fate? Besides, the skull is a part of my family’s history. Leave well enough alone is what I say.”
Franky watched Tess and Shayne exchange a smirk and whisper something to each other, clearly having their own private conversation. It rankled her slightly. She was glad Tess was settled and happy here but she didn’t like that it depended solely on her affection for Shayne. What if Marion and Edwin disapproved of the match, what then? What if Shayne weren’t sincere in his affections, what then? Also, she disliked this effected air Tess seemed to have developed. Where was her London brogue? Franky was glad Tess was being given opportunities she could never have dreamed of but she also felt uneasy – as if the Tess she knew was fading… disappearing into this well-spoken, well-mannered conformist she didn’t recognize.
The waiting staff cleared the plates and served the next course: turbot with lobster sauce, oyster cutlets, lark and kidney pudding, haunches of venison, pheasants and wild duck served with the finest champagne. It was a lavish meal and one that surprised Bridget. The Leigh’s were by no means destitute but nor were they wealthy. Edwin made an ample wage but the Leigh’s only lived in such an extravagant house because of Marion’s ancestral connections. It had taken all of their savings to set-up Rothay House, the only local school, leaving her to wonder where this influx of wealth had come from.
As Bridget eyed the bottle of Perrier Jouet’s First Quality, while a maid with large doe eyes replenished her glass, Marion sensed her friend’s surprise. “One of the doctors in Edwin’s practice retired last year and Edwin inherited his wealthier patrons. Besides, tonight is a special occasion, so we wanted to spoil you,” she said by way of explanation, maintaining a light-hearted air, but Bridget noticed the tension in Marion’s frame.
“And spoil us you have,” Hamilton assured. “The food is delicious, the wine superb and the company unmatched.”
This earned him a bright smile from Marion.
“How are repairs coming along to the school roof?” Bridget asked.
Marion was headmistress of the Rothay House and its founder. She had taught languages at several prestigious schools and was a passionate advocate for education for all. She was of the mind that girls should be educated equally to boys and that the poor should also be given equal opportunity to further themselves through education. A contentious standpoint in civilized society, as a result she had sacrificed much to make Rothay House a reality. The school was still in its infancy, having only been opened for two years, when its roof had been damaged during a violent storm several months back.
“Well,” Marian began, “at first we were devastated. We did not have the funds to repair it and it looked as though the school would have to close.”
“My, I had not realised it was that serious,” Bridget confessed, full of concern and full of self-scorn for allowing herself to be so caught-up in her own life that she had not noticed the sufferings of her dear friend.
“Nor I,” Hamilton admitted.
“But a guardian angel came to our aid.” Marion’s voice became higher pitched and her smile strained. “Lady Sonia Steven’s became our benefactress. She paid for all the repairs and was so moved by our cause that she began a scholarship for underprivileged children. Hove is in need of it. Half the families cannot afford to school their children past the age of 10, as the law requires. Most are in full-time work by the age of 11.”
Franky wasn’t in the least surprised. Leaving school at 10 was, in her opinion, a luxury. She’d been working since she was 6. When things had got real bad at home, her Mum had had no choice but to send her out to work. It was that or starve. Franky found work in a mill as her hands were small enough to clear blockages on spinning frames. She worked twelve hours a day with Sunday’s off. The deafening noise of the machines had thundered relentlessly all day long and there was no rest to be had – any slacking off resulted in her wages being docked or worse, being given the old heave-ho. So she worked hard - her Mum needed the money.
“Guess Shakespeare ain’t that important when you got eight mouths to feed and no bread,” she remarked flippantly.
Marion looked at her sharply. “We all need nourishment of the soul as well as the body,” she said assuredly. “One does not negate the other.” Sounding practiced at the argument she continued, “and how better to put food on the table than by getting an education, having broader prospects and thus gaining better employment?”
Franky couldn’t argue with Mrs. Leigh’s logic there but was about to play Devil’s Advocate for her own amusement when she caught Tess glaring at her across the table, annoyed that she was upsetting Marion. Feeling chastened, Franky moved the remainder of her lark and kidney pudding about her plate with her fork and ventured no further comment.
Attempting to defuse the awkward tension, Bridget leaned forward in her seat, a genteel smile on her lips. “I have not heard you mention Lady Stevens before,” she prompted.
Marion shrugged dismissively. “Have I not? How remiss of me, I am sure you shall have the opportunity to meet her during your stay.”
Then Marion glanced beseechingly at Shayne who quickly launched into an anecdote about the fundraising Tea Party they had thrown at the Town Hall for the school roof. Half of Hove had attended and made it a joyful day. Whilst her son regaled them with events of the day, Marion sipped her glass of wine and glanced nervously at the clock on the mantelpiece.
As they moved into the parlour after dinner, Franky leaned in close to Bridget. “Your pal usually so tightly-wound?” she whispered.
Bridget shook her head. “Something is off.”
They joined the others, taking up a seat on the divan nearest the stacked stone fireplace. Tess sat on the ledge of the fireplace, facing her sister and Bridget, and wasted no time in entertaining them with high-jinx stories about her last term at Rothay House, with Shayne chiming in every now and again to confirm or embellish her tales, whilst Marion withdrew into herself.
They passed a leisurely half hour in this manner and then Dr. Edwin Leigh was upon them. A tall man with pleasing features, a proud Roman nose and dark hair that was now streaked white, entered the parlour and moved eagerly towards his guests. “Bridget! Hamilton!” He greeted, shaking Hamilton’s hand happily and kissing Bridget’s cheek, then he turned to Franky. “And this must be the infamous Miss Francesca Doyle I have heard so much about. I do hope it is all true or I shall be sorely disappointed!”
He offered his hand and Franky took it. “So good to meet your acquaintance at last,” he enthused.
“Yours too,” Franky replied sincerely.
He ventured to the drinks cabinet, poured himself a scotch and then moved beside his wife, kissing her cheek fondly.
“How is your patient?” Hamilton asked.
“Oh, he is making a fine recovery. The consumption is abating.”
Hamilton, Franky and Bridget exchanged a puzzled look.
“I thought Marion said it was influenza,” Bridget said gently.
Marion smiled vacantly. “Did I? Oh, Edwin has so many patient’s it is hard to keep track!”
“You must see the lighthouse while you are here,” Shayne interjected, then he and Tess proceeded to tell them of all the trips they had planned for their visitors.
Bridget noticed that during this interaction, Marion and Edwin had slipped from the room. She glanced at Hamilton who had noticed too. She tapped her chin twice and he nodded and gently rose to his feet.
He yawned and then announced. “Do excuse me, I must away to bed. It has been a long day.”
The others bid him goodnight and he left the room.
Hamilton made his way down the long, darkly impinging corridor and stopped when he neared Marion’s private sitting room. The door stood ajar. In a sliver of light he saw Edwin and Marion whispering furiously to each other. He could not make out what they were saying but there was an urgency to their tone and their body language was tense. Dr. Leigh seemed to be appealing to his wife who was incensed and frightened.
The floorboard beneath his left foot creaked and Hamilton darted into the shadows, just in time to avoid being seen by Edwin and Marion who turned sharply in the direction of the intruding noise.
With silent footfalls, Hamilton snuck past the room and up the stairs to his room.
An hour later, having changed into her nightdress, Bridget climbed into bed. Her hair hung loosely about her shoulders and her face was scrubbed clean. A lit candle rested on her bedside table next to a copy of her favourite periodical: The Scientific Review. Bridget always liked to keep abreast of the latest scientific innovations and studies. She was halfway through an article on the latest attractions at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, particularly riveted by the mentions of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, when a gentle knock came at her door and Hamilton entered, wearing a modest robe. She set down her magazine. He closed the door quietly behind him, crossed the room and sat on the end of her bed.
“Well?” Bridget asked.
“Oi! Don’t start without me!” Franky called from her room, the adjoining door still propped open. She came rushing in, dove into bed beside Bridget and pulled the covers up over her legs. She quickly settled. “Go on,” she encouraged Hamilton.
“Something most peculiar is going on,” he said.
“You feel it too?” Bridget asked.
“Most definitely. Things here are not right. The Leigh’s are uneasy somehow.”
Bridget nodded in agreement. “Did you see anything?”
He reported what he had observed in Marion’s private sitting room.
“That is most unlike Marion,” Bridget stated. “She and Edwin never quarrel.”
“Then there’s the business of lyin’ to us,” Franky reminded her companions.
Hamilton nodded. “Yes, the mystery patient.”
“Marion could be telling the truth, in the rush of Edwin’s being called out she could easily have mistaken which patient he went to see.”
“Yes but Marion mixed-up the patient’s sex as well as their disease. I smell a rat,” Franky argued.
“Why lie about that?” Hamilton pondered.
“Panic,” Bridget replied. “Edwin was somewhere that could not be explained.”
“And then there’s the shifty way she acted whenever this hoity-toity Lady Steven’s was mentioned.”
“True,” Bridget concurred.
“Well we’ve got a fortnight to get to the bottom of it,” Franky said. When Bridget glanced questioningly at her, Franky countered, “I’m not leavin’ Tess here if these people can’t be trusted Gidge, she’s the only family I got.”
Bridget reached out and clasped Franky’s hand. “We will get to the bottom of this odd behaviour and if you feel Tess would be better returning home with us, then that is what we shall do,” she said comfortingly.
Franky nodded, silently agreeing.
“I shall retire now, I am rather exhausted,” Hamilton said and stood up.
“Night,” Bridget and Franky chorused and he snuck from the room.
Franky was on her feet immediately and locked the door after him. She removed the key and placed it on the bedside table, then slipped back into Bridget’s bed.
Bridget raised a questioning eyebrow.
“I’m not takin’ any chances Gidge, especially given that someone might take it into their head to investigate the strange noises comin’ from your bedchamber during the night.”
“What strange noises?” Bridget asked, mystified.
Franky pulled Bridget tightly to her and kissed her furiously, eliciting a moan, then drew back, grinning. “The strange noises you’re about to make,” she teased and resumed kissing Bridget passionately.
She pushed the blonde on her back whilst deft hands tugged the hem of Bridget’s nightgown up and caressed the heated flesh she uncovered.
A/N: The screaming skull is based on the one at Wardley Hall because truth is stranger than fiction.