MR TIBBS was a small man, short, stout and with an unruly head of hair as murky brown as the mud that dribbled and seeped into the gutter that ran down the middle of Rose Court.
“Rent’s due, little miss,” he announced, taking no care to lower his voice, so that Alfie, as much from sensing his sister’s fear as from the loud man looming in the doorway, woke up with a cry of alarm.
Of one mind, Cassie and Jem moved to stand between Tibbs and Daisy, and though Jem laid a restraining hand on the man’s shoulder, it was Cassie who spoke first.
“She’s just buried her father, Mr Tibbs!”
“Right sorry I am about that, but tears don’t pay no rent, do they?”
“You’re all heart, Mr Tibbs,” Cassie muttered, aware of the need to watch what she said.
“Listen here, so long as the rent’s paid it’s all the same to me who coughs up. By rights you should be off to the workhouse now you’ve no ma an’ pa, but if every penny’s paid, an’ timely, it don’t make no odds to me whose pocket it comes out of! I’ll give you till Monday, an’ if you ain’t got it then…”
Firmly, Jem shepherded him out into the court where he shuffled off, to try his luck squeezing precious pennies from the inhabitants of the next house.
Cassie moved to crouch before the chair where Daisy cowered, the little girl’s face drained of all colour.
“Daisy, love, he’s gone now.”
Heedless of the cold floor beneath her knees, Cassie rested both her hands over Daisy’s, squeezing the icy fingers that gripped Alfie.
“We’ll make ourselves a pot of tea, shall we? Warm you up a bit…”
“We ain’t going in no workhouse!”
She was ashen, poor child, cold and doubtless faint from lack of food, not to mention the harrowing morning she’d suffered, watching her pa get dropped into the ground.
“Cassie?” With Tibbs sent on his way, Jem hovered in the doorway.
Daisy lifted her head from Cassie’s shoulder and spoke to him, her voice faint but a little steadier.
“Is he gone, Jem?”
“He’s gone. Now you sit yourself back in that chair and I’ll make you a cup of tea, and let’s see if you can get a bit of that pie down you,” Cassie said firmly.
Cassie lifted the water pail that stood beside the grate and poured enough water into the pot to make three cups of tea, one for each of the children.
She hung it over the paltry fire, wondering as she did so just how long it would take to boil. There seemed to be no more lumps of coal, nor even the slightly damp and moulding scraps of driftwood Peter collected from the docks when he’d had no luck scrounging fallen lumps from the coal wagon.
Given where he’d been tonight, mind, he’d perhaps have an arm full of driftwood, that and the loot he’d pocketed.
Jem was stooping to retrieve the bundle he’d brought for Annie as Cassie took a knife from the chipped jug in which it stood and cut a slice of pie for Daisy.
Untying the string that held it together, he rummaged through a jumble of oddments and lifted what had clearly once been a white blanket but with time and use had faded to a dull cream, though as he unfolded it the tiny silk roses embroidered around the hem were still visible.
He took it to Daisy and with the care her own pa had never shown, he tucked it around her thin shoulders, arranging it so that Alfie’s little face peeped out over the top.
“There,” Jem said. “Your ma’s blanket. I was supposed to pass it to Annie to sell at the Rag Fair tomorrow but maybe you’ve more need of it.”
Fred had pawned it, then! As he’d pawned absolutely everything he could get his hands on, just so he could fill his pocket with a few coppers to spend at the tavern. His children certainly hadn’t seen a penny of it.
“You got anythin’ else of Pa’s in that bag?” Daisy’s thin voice, blunted by fear, grew sharper once more as she eyed Jem and his bundle.
“Aye, but it’s to go to Annie…”
Daisy moved swiftly, waving away Cassie’s help as she darted towards her.
“I ain’t gonna fall…”
She waved away the proffered plate of pie, too, pausing only to tuck her mother’s blanket around Alfie who sat silently in the chair, his little eyes following his sister like a hawk.
She dived into Jem’s bundle where she knew she’d find more that was rightfully hers, pulling out Fred’s torn and faded coat triumphantly.
“This was Pa’s,” she told them, her voice cold. “So that’s mine now, ain’t it? That Pa Starling ain’t got no right to go selling off everythin’ what’s ours!”
Once more, Cassie knelt beside Daisy, this time resting a hand on her arm, which Daisy shrugged off, but undeterred, Cassie spoke to her quietly.
“Your pa owed money, Daisy, you know that. Surely it’s better for Pa to sell what he can than come knocking on your door, expecting you to pay it?”
Daisy frowned at her.
“He ain’t got no right,” she repeated.
But she was obviously thinking over the truth of what Cassie said, and when Jem crouched down the other side of her, she stopped her frantic rummaging and listened.
“Your pa’s debts need paying, but so does your rent.”
Cassie blinked at him, a question in her eyes she’d not voice until they were alone. But he shook his head quickly, and she understood, as she often did with Jem and no need of a word passing between them.
They would make it right; between them they would see to it that Daisy had the help she needed so that she and her brothers were kept out of the workhouse.