CASSIE went inside, Peter and Alfie close behind her.
She knew Ruby would be there somewhere, for even if the mob of women had broken the door down and sheer terror had compelled Ruby to flee, where would she have gone?
Cassie walked quietly through to the scullery, expecting to find Ruby there, and if not, then in her living quarters which could be reached by way of the narrow staircase at the back of the scullery.
Again, if Cassie’s mind had been sharper she might not have crossed the small room, a perfunctory glance all that was needed to satisfy her that Ruby was not there.
With her wits about her she would have thought to look beneath the heavy oak table, upon which Ruby stacked plates and dishes, pots and pans, and beneath which cowered not one, but two frightened girls.
It was Peter who noticed them and with a cry of relief he dived beneath the table himself, taking Alfie with him, and alerting Cassie, halfway up the narrow stairs.
Ruby was there, her arms wrapped around a wooden box, and beside her, now in the arms of her brother, crouched Daisy.
“I had to tell her, Daisy.”
Ruby was clutching the box the way she might have cradled a child, her hazel eyes that were a mirror of Jem’s, wide with fear.
Daisy spoke for her.
“There’s meat in that box, miss,” she stated, matter-of-factly. “Every scrap Ma pinched from me an’ everyone else who hands her their supper pots of a Sunday, an’ Ruby has to hide it under her bed, don’t you, Ruby?
“Bin doin’ it for years, she has, an’ Ma on at her to keep her mouth shut. No wonder she’s had nothin’ to say…”
“Pa shut me in the yard last night, miss. ‘To have yourself a taste of being shut away from your brothers in the workhouse,’ he said. As if he’ll get a penny back of what our pa owed him, or the food an’ coal he’s stumped up for, if I’m shut up in that place!”
Daisy lifted her proud head defiantly, but tears glistened in her icy blue eyes.
“I had to prove I was loyal, miss. But then the soldiers came an’ took off the mob an’ I was scared one of them would let on how I’d been stealing horses for them…”
Cassie stared at her.
“You were at Smithfield? Did you see who attacked me, Daisy?”
The tears fell then, and Daisy was a frightened little girl, her trembling hand slowly unclenching to reveal Cassie’s ring lying in her palm.
Pa knew Cassie had it, because Daisy had told him. Just as she’d told him that Jem had given her their ma’s old blanket, and that she’d been promised the worth of Fred’s coat.
One of the mob had struck Cassie down, but Daisy had cut the ribbon and pocketed the ring. Only she had yet to deliver it to Pa, scared as she’d been into hiding beneath the scullery table.
“I’ll give it to him,” Cassie said quietly, and Daisy stared at her.
“Aunt Annie said it’s a matter of pride that Pa gets this ring back,” Cassie reasoned. “So he can have it… in exchange for Jem’s freedom.”
She locked her fingers around the ring that Daisy dutifully dropped into her palm. The ring that meant so much to her − but not as much as Jem did!
Her head ached and her legs threatened to buckle beneath her as she ventured out into Chiswell Street, but she was determined.
She would get herself to Field Lane and she would strike a bargain with Pa. And once Jem was safe she would crawl back to Rose Court and drop into the sleep her throbbing head and exhausted body screamed for.
But it was not Pa Starling she found perched behind the counter. Tibbs was poring over a ledger and had several more stacked up beside him.
“Know what these are, d’you, miss?” he enquired, giving Cassie a cursory glance before burying his nose back in the dusty pages. “These here ledgers are Pa Starlin’s undoing, an’ not before time, I’d say! Look here, see, pages of dates an’ amounts… kept every pawn slip over the years he has.
“You’d expect dates to correspond to stock, wouldn’t you? Well, they don’t! An’ there’s Pa lording it about the city thinking we’ve nothin’ on him!”
Tibbs closed the book triumphantly.
“Well, we have now!”
He’d be handing the evidence over, he told her, every last page of it, but Pa had already been taken away!
The mob, those of them not rounded up at Smithfield after a nod to the soldiers from Tibbs himself, had been apprehended under the arches and all had named Pa as their leader, and confessed that the stolen cattle had been meant for Ma and her cookshop.
“Family reunion it was!” Tibbs chuckled. “Pa in chains an’ Ma frogmarched to the nearest constable by a gaggle o’ raging women!”
“Jem?” Cassie managed.
“He’ll be out o’ there afore the day’s out,” Tibbs declared. “Lew Brody ain’t pressing charges; just glad he is to have the watch back. Anyway, it was Pa’s doing. Only mistake that lad made was thinking it was worth the risk to take Pa’s eye off that ring o’ yours, lass!”
Jem was to be freed. He’d be safe, and when he returned he’d need to know where to find her.
It wasn’t all that far to Rose Court… she’d just a little further to walk, and then…
Her eyes blurred so that she could hardly see but she stumbled on. Her feet went from under her again as she crept along the narrow alley from Rose Street.
But she clawed at the slimy bricks and righted herself, dragging her weary legs along Rose Court and down the cellar steps, where the door opened and she fell into Annie’s arms.