Ring Of Truth – Episode 25

IT was Cassie that Jem was thinking of, even now. His pale brow creased into a frown that pulled taut the bruised skin around his eyes and made him wince as he reached for her hand, his fingers clutching at thin air.

“No, Cass… you… safe here…”

“I’m not going anywhere, Jem,” she told him. “Promise.”

She caught hold of his hand, taking care, as she slid her palm beneath his, to keep in place the muslin placed over his knuckles.

Reassured, Jem sank back on to his pillow and closed his eyes. He’d drift back into a healing sleep, Annie thought hopefully, though truth to tell it was Cassie’s presence beside him and her hand in his that settled him better.

The poor lass looked white as a sheet herself. It was times like this she was the real spit of her mother, Annie noted, a lump in her own throat.

She swallowed hastily as she took her empty pan back to the table to scrub out the vinegar scent, grateful to have something to occupy her hands as her mind shrank from the memories. Memories of her sister, of Cassandra, her eyes wide with fear and grief and love that wrung from her heart enough tears to fill the Thames the night her George took his last breath…

Of course, Jem Clements was a whole different kettle of fish, Annie chided herself, dragging her mind back to the present. Jem was younger, stronger, and Jem had Cassie.

“We’ll have ourselves a cup of tea, shall we?” Annie suggested, as she glanced over at Jem’s bedside to see Cassie sitting stiffly.

She turned her head to look at her aunt and spoke in a hoarse whisper.

“Who did this to him, Aunt Annie? What were they after?”

“Tell her, Annie,” Jem rasped.

Cassie turned back to him.

“Jem, it’s all right. Sleep.”

“No!” he gasped. “Annie?”

“All right, lad.”

Annie sank down on to a chair beside them, resigned to the tale she had to tell. For all these years she’d kept it to herself but perhaps Cassie had a right to hear it now.

But Jem beat her to it.

“Your mother’s ring, Cass…” he whispered.

Cassie’s hand flew to her bodice as it did instinctively whenever she thought of and feared for the precious ring. But it was there, she could feel the reassuring weight of it beneath her clothes.

So what did that have to do with what had happened to Jem?

“They were after it, lass.” Annie took up the tale but Jem’s eyes were fixed on Cassie’s face throughout the whole of it. “They thought he’d hidden it somewhere on him. Had it on good authority, eh, lad?”

“Mine,” Jem said, and Cassie understood what he’d done for her, the pain he’d suffered to protect her.

“Who?” she whispered.

“The same lot who did over Lew’s shop,” Annie stated.

“But how do they know about my ring? I keep it hidden!”

Cassie’s mind turned over and over the moment she’d come face to face with one of the mob. Had he seen her ring? Had she been so careless as to let it show?

She hadn’t, she was sure of it! Not after Annie had been so insistent that she should keep it hidden, because Pa Starling would have it from around her neck and over the counter in his dolly shop given half a chance…

“The only one who knows, the one who wants it…”

“Aye, lass,” Annie confirmed, her tone grave. “They were following orders from Pa.”

Cassie swallowed.

“But surely he’d not have Jem hurt?”

“Collateral damage.” Annie sighed, patting his arm. “Sorry, lad, to put it so, but I told the pair of you, Pa Starling’s not to be crossed.

“That ring’s a matter of pride for him now, a debt he’ll collect no matter who he’s to knock into next week to do it.”

She stopped, seeing bewilderment on Cassie’s face. She’d have to go back and explain what happened all them years ago.

The lass might take all the better care of her ring, and more importantly, herself, if she knew the whole tale.

“A debt?” Cassie repeated.

Jem’s fingers, sore as they were, curled stiffly around hers, as Annie exhaled deeply and set about telling her the truth.

“Your father, Cassie? He borrowed heavily from Pa to buy that ring for your mother, and when she found out, after he’d died and left her with his debts and nothing to pay them with but the ring itself, she was that angry she threw it in the Thames rather than let Pa get his hands on it!”

Cassie blinked at her.

“So it was my mother who threw it in!”

“She did, yes. Better to be without it herself than be forced to give it to the likes of Pa Starling, she said. Of course, then she went and died as well, and Muggins here was left to pay it,” Annie added brusquely. “And I did what I had to, ’cause the washing pays well but not well enough when you’ve a debt and mounting interest with every day Pa has to wait for 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!