Ring Of Truth – Episode 15

FROM where she stood at the edge of the docks, Cassie could see the dim, misty shapes of the houses, factories and warehouses that lined the southern shore of the river − gloomy spectres almost indistinct one from another in the fog of smoke that hung over the whole city, even at this early hour.

To the east, the sky was a pale grey seeping into a faint pink as the sun rose, its reflection a glimmer of gold upon the dark waters of the Thames.

Cassie had left Rose Court early to help Annie carry her bundles to her pitch on Petticoat Lane, where she’d left her to set up her wares for the Rag Fair. But she’d also wanted a moment or two by the river before she started walking to Chiswell Street.

This was a favoured spot of hers, the place she went when she needed a moment’s solitude, if not peace and quiet − there was little chance of that at any hour on the docks.

Even as she stood there now, watching the tide ebb and flow, the clamour and chaos of Billingsgate fish market went on around her.

In their heavy serge aprons, porters darted this way and that, carrying crates and boxes of the day’s catch delivered by the steady flow of fishing boats that crowded the river long before dawn.

Cassie was vaguely aware of the noise and the bustle but her mind was elsewhere, as instinctively her hand rose to her neck to feel the reassuring weight of her mother’s ring, safely threaded on to a ribbon and concealed beneath her bodice.

She knew that her mother had not stood here, beside the river, and hurled her ring into its dark depths. But someone had.

And how many times had Cassie herself stood here, down on the mud, right at the shoreline when the tide was out, not knowing that her own mother’s ring was buried beneath her feet?

Or that her mother, and her father, too, were buried just across the river?

In the gloom, the spire of St Olave’s church was a shadow, but it was there, and beyond it the grave which held Cassandra Miller and the man who had loved her so much he’d bought her a ring and had it engraved for her.

  • * *        *        *

The five o’clock bell rang to announce the opening of Billingsgate market and, as Cassie turned from the blurred shapes of St Olave’s graveyard, pulling her cloak tighter about her in the early morning chill, she was not surprised to see the familiar figure of Jem walking towards her. It was as if she expected him.

“Cass,” he said, falling into step beside her as they wove their way between the porters, the carts and the barrels. “I thought I might find you here. Are you all right?”

She nodded.

“I just wanted to see.”

He nodded, with no need of further elaboration.

They walked beyond the docks and on to Thames Street, and Cassie looked in vain for Dolly and the rag cart, though in truth, Jem would not have left them there for anyone to make off with.

“Dolly?” she asked him, and he smiled.

“In her stall, having a leisurely breakfast. I wanted to see how you were before I took off on my round, an’ I’d not chance her on her own down here, not with horses being pinched all over the place.”

“They’d not steal Dolly, would they? Not when they know her as Pa’s horse?”

“Reckon it makes no odds to some of them,” Jem said grimly.

Cassie knew there were bands of men who roamed the city, taking horses and then swooping in and offering the stranded traveller a horse at a bargain price.

Judging by the way horses disappeared all over London, they were doing a roaring trade.

But woe betide the man who attempted to drag off their Dolly!

“Daisy’s not been earning much that way lately,” she pondered. “Maybe that’s what’s behind it. Folk don’t want to trust her with their horses – as if a little lass like her has got anything to do with it!”

Jem walked close to her, keeping his voice low, as they went swiftly through the narrow alley from Thames Street.

“I’ll not see them children thrown out into the street, Cass. I promise you that.”

They emerged from the alley at that point and Cassie stopped walking, and turned to face him.

“Dear Jem, you’re a good man. But if she’s no rent money to pay Tibbs…”

“She’ll have it,” he said fiercely. “Every penny of it.”

“What will you do?” Cassie faltered.

Whatever Jem made on the rag cart went into Pa’s pocket to pay Fred’s debts.

Pa paid him a wage from which his rent for the poky garret was deducted first and what was left barely enough to keep him fed.

It was the same for all of them − Cassie, Ruby, Annie. They worked for the Starlings and were paid accordingly, but while it took care of rent and food, there wasn’t much, if anything, left over. Cassie would no more see Daisy and her brothers in the workhouse than Jem would, but even between them, they’d little enough spare to keep them out of it.


Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!