Ring Of Truth – Episode 31

NOT a soul offered to help Cassie, or even glanced in her direction as she rose shakily to her feet, bewildered and gritting her teeth against the dull ache that throbbed at the back of her head.

She lifted a tentative hand, wincing as her fingers touched the lump. Swaying a little, her legs trembling, she grasped blindly behind her for the wall of the dealer’s shop and sank back against it, grateful for its solid bulk as she waited for the world to stop spinning.

She knew, even before her fingers sought and drew out from beneath her bodice the frayed ribbon that crumpled from her neck, that her mother’s ring was gone.

“Are you all right, girl? D’you need a sit down or a sip of water?”

Cassie blinked in the soft dawn light as she struggled to focus on the face that peered down at her.

The woman, whoever she was, had dragged out a chair and was grasping Cassie’s elbow, lowering her into it as though she was a helpless child.

She hollered back over her shoulder, into the gloom of the shop.

“Tibbs! Bring us a mug of water, will you! And a rag, too. This lass could use a bit o’ spit an’ polish…”

Vaguely Cassie registered the name she knew of old, and the familiar tread that, when they heard it coming along the alley from Rose Street, had folk scurrying for cover like mice down a hole. But it couldn’t be the same Tibbs, could it?

He appeared in front of her, his usual polished hat discarded in favour of a grey woollen cap which he yanked down over his unruly tufts of hair, bringing forth a snort of laughter from the woman who took the mug of water from him.

“Take more than a change of hat, lad, but if you’re set on hiding under that cap you owe me a tanner.”

“Sixpence for this old thing?” Tibbs hissed at her, and she shrugged.

“Quality wool, that. Take it or leave it. You’re safe now, anyway,” she added to Cassie, holding a hand up to her brow to peer into the crowd. “No sign. Perhaps it’s done an’ dusted.”

“What did you see, Elsie?”

Tibbs’s eyes, darting this way and that, were those of a weasel, Cassie thought.

“Hard to tell,” the woman – Elsie – pondered. “Fists flying an’ men dropping like flies, an’ no way of knowing who was who. I wasn’t venturing no closer for want of a better look, I’ll tell you that!”

Elsie thrust the water into Cassie’s hand.

“Here you go, lass, you’ll be right as ninepence once you bin cleaned up a bit an’ had yourself a sip o’ water.”

Cassie swallowed a sip of water and felt better for it. Her whole head was burning and she wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and sleep, but what else might happen if she did?

And what was Tibbs doing there? Elsie had been off watching some trouble unfold by the sounds of it, but Tibbs had been lurking in the shop, Elsie’s shop.

He must have seen Cassie drop to the ground, so why had he not come out to help her? Why hide if he’d had nothing to do with it?

Tibbs was making a nasty habit of being there when misfortune struck. He’d just happened to come across a badly beaten Jem, and now he was on hand with a mug of water for Cassie…

She’d believed the mob to be responsible − after all, she’d seen them creeping out from the alley beside the dealer’s a moment before. But they’d been off up Snow Hill stealing cattle, so who did that leave but Pa Starling’s oldest and most faithful lackey?

And why had he been just a wall away from them as they waited to pounce?

Scrambling to her feet, Cassie backed away from Tibbs, her boots scrabbling for purchase in the churned-up mud as she pulled her arm free from Elsie who stood with a rag clutched in her hand and a bemused expression on her face.

“Whatever’s the matter, lass?”

“I’m all right… thank you,” Cassie managed.

But Elsie stepped towards her and grasped her arm once more, propelling her back down on to the chair.

“You must look a sight when you ain’t, then! Hold still, lass.” Dipping a corner of the rag in Cassie’s discarded water Elsie began to scrub her cheek. “You got half the mud o’ Smithfield on you! Must have taken a right tumble!”

“I can do it myself, thank you.” Cassie took the rag from her, startled to see how grimy it was already. “And it was no tumble. I was knocked down.”

“Oh, lass, you never were?” Elsie turned to Tibbs. “Did you see anything? Who sent the lass flyin’?”

Tibbs looked shiftier than usual, Cassie thought, as he sniffed and cleared his throat and looked everywhere but at her, even avoiding Elsie’s stare. Eventually he spoke.

“Didn’t see a thing, me, an’ how d’you expect me to when I’m stayin’ out o’ sight I dunno! First I knew she was here when you hollered me to fetch her some water, as if you ain’t got legs to fetch it yourself, Elsie Phipps!”

“I let you use my shop as a lookout post, didn’t I?” Elsie emptied the dirtied water into the mud and shoved the mug at Tibbs. “Stick that in the scullery, will you, an’ while you there make yourself useful an’ give it a scrub.”

He took it and disappeared into the gloom of Elsie’s shop.

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!