This is a short ‘gaslamp fantasy' set in Victorian London, in Wapping, circa 1870. With the single exception of ‘Mr Eden’s’ house, all the streets, pubs, factories and other buildings named in it really existed and may be found on maps of the period. None of the characters is real. Those who know and love the fairy tale novels of George Macdonald will quickly recognise my debt to his wonderful children’s book ‘At The Back of the North Wind’: but the content of this story is emphatically not suitable for children. Nor is it a Christmas story. It is a fairy tale for adults – or perhaps a winter ghost story.
OUT IN THE NIGHT WIND
Someone is sobbing and shrieking in the yard outside. Little Doll Hardy wakes and rolls over. She needs to pee.
The mattress is damp, soured with overlapping stains from all the other times she’s wet it. If she does it again she’ll be a dirty girl. Pa will hit her and Annie will be angry... but she’s alone, and the wind rattles the casement, and she’s afraid of the ugly black grate in the corner of the room. It’s cold as sin, and breathes out an undying draught like an iron mouth sighing.
She mustn’t pee. She thrusts her clenched fist between her legs – lies struggling till it’s nearly too late – springs out with a whimper, drags the cracked old pot from under the bed and sits on the sharp china rim, bare feet curling against the floorboards, eyes screwed shut, tense and quivering.
Soft and close, something rustles. She unsticks her eyes in terror. Nothing – but the fireplace moans, a long, hollow sound. She leaps back to bed and burrows under the thin blanket. ‘Go away!’
There's a gentle, icy breath on the nape of her neck.
‘Go ‘way! Stop it!’ Doll squeals in tears of fright.
‘Only teasing. You’re like a kitten, ain’t you? Nothin’ but bones and eyes.’
With an abrupt movement Doll sits up. A girl is flitting about the room in the half-dark, bending to touch and examine everything in it, humming a faint, droning tune.
‘Who are you? How d’you get in?’
‘’S easy for me to get into places like this,’ says the girl. She has the longest black hair Doll’s ever seen: it merges into the darkness as it lifts and drifts and spins across the room, and cold air streams from it. ‘Tonight I come down by the chimbley, and I’m goin’ out by that broken pane in the winder, but I could just as easily have got in another way.’
‘You couldn’t get frew the winderpane! You’re too big.’
‘I’m leaving that way all the time we speak,’ returns the girl.
‘No you ain’t, you’re right here.’
‘But you can’t see all of me.’
‘Can’t I?’ Doll opens her eyes wide.
‘How could yer? I can’t see all of you either. I can’t see what you’re thinking, can I? ‘Sides, I can be as little as I like, and as big too. Bigger than this room, as big as the sky. I can be indoors and out at the same time. As for never seeing me before, you know me right enough. I’m Night Wind. I’ll be blowing up a storm tonight. Come play with me. We can run over the rooftops together.’ She offers a transparent hand.
‘Sounds bully fun, but it’s too cold,’ says Doll.
‘You won’t notice that for long,’ says the girl. ‘You ask the others.’
‘The other kids that play with me.’
‘Dunno…’ begins Doll, half-tempted, but the street door bangs below and feet clatter on the stairs.
‘Annie’s back!’ Doll bounces, triumphant, as her sister bursts in. ‘I peed in the jordan, Annie! I ain’t afraid o’ the grate no more! And guess what? Here’s Night Wind come down the chimbley!’
‘I can tell.’ Annie shivers. ‘It’s as cold in here as it is out. Used the pot, did yer? Good girl!’ A
match flares: she lights a candle stuck to a cracked saucer. As the flame bends and smokes, Doll looks around. ‘Where’s she gone?’
‘Night Wind. She come down the chimbley like a little girl and went a-dancin’ around the room. She asked me to play with her.’
‘You’ve bin dreamin.’ Annie pulls off her shawl and drags a broken old brush over her head, bashing her hair as if punishing it.
‘Your ‘air’s lovely and long, Annie,’ Doll says admiringly, ‘but it ain’t anyfink like so long as Night Wind’s.’
‘Stop goin’ on about the night wind.’
‘Drinking.’ With a vicious pinch Annie puts out the candle and flings herself on the bed in a jangle of springs. ‘Three shillin’ he got at the docks today, unloadin’ tobaccer from a Yankee clipper, an’ he’s drinking the lot in The Three Suns. Shove over, I’m not takin’ me clo’es off. I gotter get warm.’ She spreads her shawl on top of the blanket and dives in. ‘Come on, cuddle up.’
‘You’re freezin’,’ Doll complains as her sister’s cold clothes touch her. But she wriggles in close.
Warmth creeps between them. Footsteps come and go in the crowded tenement. A baby cries in the room above. Arguing voices mingle and part. Doll dozes…
She’s woken by a crash on the stairs and a voice singing. ‘They calls me Hangin’ Johnny! Haul away, me boys!’
Doll sits up with a rush. Annie hauls her out of bed. ‘Up you get. Quick. Out of ‘is way.’
‘And first I hanged me granny – haul away, me boys –’
The door leaps in its frame under a drunken pounding.
‘I hanged her up so canny – so hang, boys, hang!’
Annie darts to lift the latch. A man lurches in, filling the room with the resinous aura of gin. He crashes across the bed like a falling tree.
‘What’ll us do?’ whimpers Doll.
Annie tiptoes forward. ‘Pa. Move over.’ She pushes him. ‘You’re takin’ up the whole bed, Pa. Make room!’
The man winds an arm around Annie’s neck, pulling her down on top of him. His other arm comes around her waist. ‘Annie!’ he mumbles. ‘Me sweet darlin’ Annie, c’me ‘ere, be a good girl to yer old dad...’
‘Let go, Pa. Lemme go!’ There’s a brief struggle and she wriggles from his arms. He pushes himself up. ‘Wha’s wrong with you anyway? I on’y wanted a kiss, a li’l, a li’l kiss.’
‘Liar! Drunken pig! Drinkin’ all the rent!’
‘Earn the bloody rent yerself! Get out, go on, get out!’
‘You ain’t frowing us out, it’s freezin’ cold!’
‘An’ there’s better gals than you out in it,’ he bellows, ‘working for a livin’. Go and earn yer keep!’
‘I hates you, you bastard!’ Annie shrieks. She runs out, and Doll runs after her on to the steep, unlit stairs. The door claps shut behind them.
‘I hates him, I does!’ Annie sits halfway down the stairs and cries into her skirt. Doll presses up to her, and Annie puts an arm around her, wiping her eyes. ‘We ain’t going nowhere, are we Doll?’ she says fiercely. ‘We’ll just sleep right ‘ere on the stairs.’
They huddle on the bare treads, and the draught runs up and down past them like a poor little skivvy. Doll strains her eyes and can almost see her flitting shape, dark on dark. Is it Night Wind?
‘Yes,’ a cold voice whispers faintly, ‘but I can’t play with you in here, there’s too much sweeping to do.’
The door of the foot of the stairs scrapes open. Out comes the chimneysweep who rents the downstairs room. A strong foxy smell wafts up. He places his candle on the stairs where the slipshod flame streams in the draught, opens the front door, pulls up his nightshirt and stands pissing into the yard, while Annie and Doll grip each other, smothering giggles. Finished, he shuts the door and shuffles back to collect the candle. Looks up and sees them.
‘’Ello me dears.’ His face is unwashed, streaked with soot. ‘Dad kicked you out?’ He winks at them with one white eyelid. ‘You can come in wiv me, I’ll be good to yer.’ His striped calico nightshirt hangs down fore and aft to reveal bare hairy legs, knobbly knees and incredibly black and dirty feet. Annie draws a sharp breath. ‘No, fanks.’
‘Sure? You can ‘ave a bed for the night instead of them cruel hard stairs. Or a couple o’ bags o’ soot, soft as a featherbed if not so clean. The kiddie can sleep on them, an’ you an’ me can cuddle up.’
‘Don’t you come a step nearer,’ Annie shrills, ‘or I’ll call my Pa.’
He laughs. ‘Come ‘ere, you fresh little judy and don’t try pitching it to me that you’ll call yer dad, ’e’s drunk, an if ’e wasn’t, ’e still wouldn’t care.’
He reaches for her ankle. Annie gives a screech. She catches Doll’s hand and they jump past him down the stairs, knocking the candlestick over. It rolls over the floor and goes out. She wrenches the street door open, and next minute she and Doll are out in the night.
Fox and Goose Yard is swept by a freezing blast which whirls around and around as though a madwoman with a broom is trying to scour out all the corners. Foul puddles crunch and crack under their stumbling feet. ‘Come on,’ gasps Annie, but, ‘I ain’t got me boots,’ Doll sobs. ‘I left ‘em behind.’
‘Oh God!’ cries Annie, and bends down. ‘Jump on me back, I’ll give you a ride.’ And with Doll clutching her neck she hurries out of the yard into Star Street and down to the long curved thoroughfare of Wapping Wall.
It’s close to midnight. The four-storey warehouses lining the river echo to the clop of drayhorses and the rumble of iron-rimmed wheels. Late-night voices howl drunken greetings. A heap of rags groans in a doorway. Outside The Three Suns Annie pauses to listen to the wheedling music of a fiddle and voices bellowing a song. They pass dark slotted alleyways that end at the river-stairs, smelling of sewage and mud. They hear a paddle steamer’s thumping heartbeat, and the slap of water against the steps. Clinging to Annie like a monkey, Doll tips her head to look right up at the sky, where smoke whirls and clouds rush. Is Night Wind up there with her gang of children, playing wild games over the warehouse roofs?
Annie staggers and halts. Doll slides down and hugs her hand. ‘Awright, Annie? Where’re we goin’?’ Her teeth chatter.
‘Dunno,’ Annie sounds miserable. ‘I was finking of the night shelter by the workh’us, but likely it’s full: an’ they makes you work all next day pickin’ bleedin’ oakum. Tell you what. ’Ow’s about the coffee-stall by the swing-bridge? It’ll be warm by the brazier, an’ we might beg a ha’penny for some coffee… hot, sweet coffee.’ She shudders with longing.
Doll points. ‘Them ladies might ‘elp us.’
Annie looks. At the end of the road a brilliant gas flare burns over the iron gates of the Ratcliff Gasworks. Two girls loiter there in short skirts that show the calves of their white-stockinged legs. A gentleman accosts them. They become alert, but he's wagging a finger and offering leaflets. They back away, shaking their heads, and one of them shouts after him, ‘Give us a tanner, you mean bleeder! Hell-fire on a night like this, you fink we're bovvered? Bring it on, we’re bloody perished!’
Annie straightens with sudden purpose. ‘They won’t, but if ’e’s dishing out tracts, he’s a clergyman. I bet he can spare us a copper or two. Less catch ’im up. C’mon, I can’t carry you any furver, you’ll ’ave to run.’
Doll scurries after Annie,wincing as the stones bite her feet. The gentleman is striding up New Gravel Lane towards the swing-bridges, where the glow of the sugar refineries lights the sky behind Shadwell Basin. As they hurry past the two girls shivering under the gas lamp there’s a lull in the wind. Doll glances up and sees a giant woman standing by the gasworks gates, bare white arms lifted above her head and black hair shooting right up into the sky.
‘Come on!’ Annie tugs Doll along. The gentleman is going at a great pace, a hand to his hat, greatcoat flapping. But higher than the warehouse roofs, three towering black masts move slowly across the street ahead of them, barring the way – like a giant beast dragging its way between the buildings.
‘A ship comin’ frew into the Eastern Dock!’ Annie says in triumph. ‘The swing-bridge is up! We’ll catch him!’
They hurry on. Doll coughs on the taffy smells of burning sugar, and smoke from the sugar works. She rubs tear-filled eyes and sees the Night Wind running beside her – not so high as when she stood by the gasworks gates, but still far taller than human. She’s wearing a dress that drifts as she moves, unravelling in cloudy tatters. Her inky hair blows over her face, and she flings it back with a gesture that sends torn newspaper whirling up the street. A scatter of children race at her heels, snatching at her hands and hair: they’re there and not there, like flickering shadows.
‘Is all them kiddies yours?’ Doll gasps, trotting along. ‘You was jist a little girl afore, an’ now you’re a lady.’
‘They’re mine now, coz no one else wants ’em. When I find ’em in the street I give ’em a kiss, and they come and play with me. And who are you calling a lady? I work as hard as anyone, I’m off to sweep all the crossings in the city tonight. Where are you off to? I shouldn’t follow that bloke if I was you.’
‘The children say so,’ says Night Wind, and she and all the tumbling children in her train rush up the street and away into the air like smoke.
West, and east, the docks are a clutter of masts. Lights oscillate in the treacle-black water. The coffee stall on the corner sends out a rich, tempting scent...
The tall gentleman stands beside it, tapping his cane, waiting for the great ship to pass through and the bridge to be lowered. As Annie sidles up to him, Doll tugs her hand. ‘Annie. Annie... Night Wind says not.’
‘Shut it! Sir? If you please, sir?’ Annie whines. He swings around, lifting his cane. ‘Won’t you give us sixpence,’ she begs, ‘for a mug o’ hot coffee and a bed outta the night wind? Me little sister here’s ever so cold.’
Doll’s mouth waters at the steamy smell of coffee and she thrusts out a crooked palm.
He doesn’t fumble in his pocket as they’d hoped. He stares at them, his face a paleness they cannot read. His breath smokes as he stares. He stares especially at Annie, whose dark unbound hair tangles in the wind. When he does speak, in a low voice as if talking to himself, Doll can’t make sense of it.
‘What a Babylon this city is, what a smoking Gomorrah! How shall it be cleansed? The harlots who mocked me, I shake their poisonous touch from my sleeve; they hold no temptation for me. But these are children, innocent lambs…’ He bends over them, tall hat outlined against the sky. ‘Have you nowhere to go? No father or mother? How old are you, child?’
‘Thirteen,’ he murmurs, ‘and unprotected on the streets at night. Without help, her innocence will not last till morning – if it is not already lost. Such eyes and hair! Like a Murillo Madonna. And there is the younger child too. The Lord has delivered them unto me, and who am I to say nay? It is my duty, my Christian duty to take them in.’
The overhanging black side of the ship has slid past into the Eastern Dock and the lock-keeper and his lad are turning the capstans to lower the bridge. The gentleman picks Doll up in his arms and she leans away from him shrieking, ‘Annie, Annie, don’t let ’im ’ave me!’
‘Shut it!’ Annie does a tense jig on the cobbles. ‘The gentleman wants to be kind – don’tcher, sir?’
Oh, does he, does he… scuffles the tumbling wind around the coffee stall.
‘I mean to help you,’ says the gentleman. ‘I have sheltered other children before you. I am the director of a charitable institution. You have nothing to fear.’
He lives north of the Highway in Well Close Square opposite a solid white church with a campanile, whose rocking bell scatters a sowing of notes on the gale as they climb the step to a narrow three-storey house with dark windows. Doll is limp with tiredness, her head rolling on his shoulder as he fumbles for his key and lets them in. As he lowers her into Annie’s arms and turns to close the door, a shrieking gust of wind forces its way in and lifts the edge of the carpet. For a moment Doll half-glimpses a wild, dark girl on the step, beating at the door with her fists. But the gentleman leans on the door and shoots the bolts. He locks it and pockets the key. The night wind is shut out.
The gaslight in the hall is a dim pearly glow. All is chill, clean and silent. The stairs are a gulf of darkness. Annie grips Doll’s hand so tight it hurts. ‘Are yer – are yer married, sir?’
He hangs up his hat, strips the gloves from his long white hands. ‘My wife is dead.’ He removes his coat. ‘I live in Christian simplicity with my sister, who now keeps house for me.’ He raises his voice. ‘Elizabeth!’
A door opens at the end of the hall and a hollow-faced woman of about forty comes out with a lamp. ‘You’re late,’ she begins, ‘I’ve kept supper for you. Oh!’ Her eyes widen in consternation – maybe even a flicker of alarm. ‘William – is this wise?’
‘My dear Elizabeth,’ he says with sudden almost savage gaiety, ‘here are two more innocents snatched from the Juggernaut of the City of Night. Take them, feed them, wash them and put them to bed. Child, what are your names?’
‘Annie, sir,’ falters Annie, clutching her shawl, ‘and me little sister’s Doll.’
‘Doll?’ he repeats with a moue of distaste. ‘Dorothea, I suppose, a beautiful name: spoiled as so many things are spoiled.’ He takes Annie under the chin. He has very light eyes, mouse-coloured hair and whiskers.
‘Are you a good girl, Annie?’
‘Do you say your prayers? Do you know who made the world?’
‘God,’ says Annie more boldly. ‘Ma told me that. ’
‘And our Saviour Jesus Christ? Who is He?’
‘I don’t rightly know, but Ma did tell as how he once give a penny loaf and a bit o’ fish to a lot of poor people, so I reckon he was a very kind gentleman, almost as kind as yerself, sir.’ She gives him an awkward, flirty smile.
But his face is cold. He pinches her chin, thumb just stroking the contours of her cheek. ‘The softness of childhood is yet on this cheek. And how easily it might be rubbed off – like the bloom from a butterfly’s wings. Are you truly a good girl, Annie?’ he adds, low. She bears his gaze for a moment more, then twists her face aside, and Miss Elizabeth interjects, ‘If she is, she won’t know what you mean. But she won’t be, William. Remember last time?’
‘We shall see,’ he says over his shoulder. Then, turning back, ‘Well, Annie, angels brought you to me tonight: angels will look after you: they watch by the pillows of innocent children: when such children die, angels carry them to paradise.’ He lets her go. ‘Off with you. I shall see you later.’ He turns the knob of a door on the left of the hall and vanishes into a room glowing with firelight.
Doll rubs her eyes. Annie puts an arm around her shoulders. They look up, and Miss Elizabeth looks down at them both. ‘You shouldn’t be here,’ she says in a quiet, bleak voice – so much like an old woman in the stories Ma sometimes told, that Doll half expects her to add, ‘The master of this house is an ogre who eats little girls.’ But after staring at them for another moment she only sighs and says, ‘Well, come along and wash. I won’t have your dirt all over my clean sheets.’
She pushes them through a dim-lit, warm kitchen and out into a cold scullery. ‘Strip! Strip! Every rag on your backs will have to be burned.’
Doll peeks up at Annie. Annie’s eyes are enormous.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ Miss Elizabeth snaps. ‘I’ll bring you nightgowns.’
‘My brother is a very good man,’ says Miss Elizabeth as, lamp in hand, she proceeds ahead of them up the carpeted stairs.
‘Ain’t this a bit of all right?’ Annie whispers, squeezing Doll’s hand. She’s wearing a long-sleeved calico nightgown with a trim of crocheted lace around the high neck, and looks clean and vulnerable, her dark hair wet-combed hard off her face, tight-plaited down her back.
‘A true evangelist,’ Miss Elizabeth continues, ‘he sits on the board of a Christian orphanage and has many charitable friends. We shall hope to find a place for you within a day or two.’ Reaching the first broad landing, she pauses, lifting the lamp high by its handle and waiting for them to catch up.
‘It’s kind of him, miss,’ says Annie.
‘Yes.’ Miss Elizabeth seems ill at ease. ‘It’s not the first time he’s found a little girl on the street and brought her home. I hope you will be more grateful than the last child…’
‘Course we will, miss,’ Annie says, but Doll asks, ‘Why wasn’t she?’
Miss Elizabeth’s fingers clench around the hooped handle of the lamp. ‘She was a wicked liar!’ Doll and Annie flinch at her vehemence. ‘My brother is a good, good man, incapable – I owe him everything, everything. My home, my life, is his.’
Distractedly she sets the lamp down on a small bureau and twists her hands together. ‘What else could I have done?’ she mutters, and they realise she’s not talking to them any more. She squeezes her eyelids into pale creases, as if shutting out some unbearable sight. Then sighs, opens her eyes and seems to notice them again. ‘Well,’ she says in a more ordinary voice. ‘I am sure you will both be grateful and good. Now, this is where Mr Eden and I have our rooms.’
Three handsome dark doors open off the landing, adorned with shiny china knobs and fingerplates. All are shut.
‘Shall we sleep with you?’ asks Doll timidly.
Miss Elizabeth frowns. ‘No indeed, you’ll sleep in the garret. If you should need me’ – her expression forbids it – ‘you must knock at this door here. This one: that at the front is my brother’s.’
‘So who sleeps there?’ Doll points to the third.
‘No one,’ Miss Elizabeth says sharply. ‘That is his deceased wife’s room, Mrs Eden’s. It is kept just as it was. No one goes in and no one uses it. We keep it locked.’
Doll is truly puzzled. ‘Is she still there?’
‘Still there?’ Even in the lamplight they see Miss Elizabeth flush dark red. ‘What a shocking thing to say! Still there?’ Breathless with anger, but low-voiced, she continues, ‘She had a beautiful funeral and is an angel in paradise now. Which is more than you’ll ever be, if you don’t learn better.’ She adds, as if it is something she has often repeated, ‘It is locked because to see the room with all her things in it would cause him too much pain.’
‘That’s sad,’ Annie says. ‘They must a’ been real happy.’
‘Yes.’ Again Miss Elizabeth sounds unsettled. She looks at the closed door. ‘Although… Ellen was so young, so small. Too slight to be a mother. I warned him, and so it proved…’ Still eyeing the door she murmurs, ‘It is a terrible thing to live with. Grief and guilt. No one has ventured into that room for seven years.’ She turns away with a visible shudder. ‘Now with your foolish chatter, you’ve made me entirely forget the blankets. I left them airing by the fire. You – Annie, if that is your name? – you had better come back down with me and help carry them. You, wait here and pray God to make you a better child.’
Alone on the landing, Doll stares at the door that belongs to the dead lady. The oil-lamp throws glossy reflections on its dark lacquered surface. A whole room for a dead person who isn’t even there! When Ma died with the baby, they lived with the corpses for three days till Pa got money from the burial-club to pay for a coffin.
The landing is very quiet. In the hall below, a clock breaks its regular ticking to strike a fragile, fairylike ‘one’. Far outside, the wind skirmishes around the house, a distant skirling like a restless voice crying, ‘Where are you? I can’t reach you, I can’t find you.’ Here are no busy draughts running up and down, no broken windowpanes by which Night Wind can enter.
Doll tiptoes to the head of the stairs. Her shadow moves ahead, leaping against the door of the locked room… And there is a draught after all, a whisper, a sibilance flowing dry and cool from under the forbidden door. Doll gets down on hands and knees. ‘Night Wind, is that you?’ she whispers. The draught smells sweet and tainted. She wrinkles her nose. ‘Are you there?’
On the other side of the door, the floorboards ease with a slow, subtle creak. Something gropes against the panels. The door thuds softly in its frame.
. ‘Who is it?’ Doll is beginning to be frightened. ‘What d’you want?’
Releeeasse me… hisses the draught under the door.
The key stands proud in the lock: a thick brass shank with a loop which looks easy to twist. Doll sucks air into her thin chest in a shuddering rush. Her fingers hover over the key. Then with a quick tug she pulls it out and applies one eye to the keyhole.
Another eye looks back.
‘Annie!’ Doll is three-quarters of the way downstairs, hanging breathless over the bannister. Annie comes racing up, a pile of blankets in her arms. ‘Whatever are yer shrieking for? You was told to stay put!’ she scolds. Miss Elizabeth follows with a candle exclaiming, ‘What a fearful noise! What have you been up to now, you naughty girl?’ Below her, Mr Eden looks out into the hall.
‘There’s somefing in that room,’ Doll sobs. She can still see the dark pupil flash and roll.
‘There ain’t!’ Annie pushes her face close to Doll’s. Her eyes blaze. ‘Shut it! Just shut it, or you’ll ruin everyfing.’ The expression on her face cows Doll. It’s furious, triumphant, hungry, scared. The face of someone who knows something Doll doesn’t understand.
‘I wanta go home,’ she whispers.
‘Well you can’t. Mr Eden, he’s a-goin’ to look after us. If we’re good.’
At the top of the twisting attic stairs – the lower half, visible from the main landing, is carpeted with a worn old runner: the upper half is bare – is a small room under the slant of the roof. It holds a high iron bed, which Annie and Doll make up under Miss Elizabeth’s supervision. The night presses on the dormer window. It feels wilder up here in the garret, but somehow safer too. A different country.
‘They are ready now, William,’ says Miss Elizabeth, turning to the door, ‘if you wish to come in.’
Mr Eden steps in from the tiny dark landing. His shadow streams up the wall. ‘Now you must
‘We dunno how,’ Annie whispers.
Miss Elizabeth snaps: ‘You should pray to be a good girl, and you should thank God that my brother rescued you from the streets.’
‘I will teach you. Kneel down,’ says Mr Eden.
Annie clutches Doll and pulls her down.
‘Close your eyes, both of you, and clasp your hands.’ He waits. It’s eerie, feeling him look at them while their eyes are shut. Doll peeks, letting a smear of light steal under her lids.
‘Almighty God,’ Mr Eden prays in a sonorous voice, ‘who from the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and made infants to glorify thee by their deaths: mortify and kill all vices in us, and so strengthen us, that by innocence of life and constancy of faith we may glorify thy name even unto death. Amen.’
‘Amen,’ says Miss Elizabeth.
‘You must say these words after me: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’
Doll and Annie repeat them, stumbling a little.
‘That will do for tonight,’ says Mr Eden, and he goes down the attic stair.
‘Into bed,’ says Miss Elizabeth, ‘and don’t come down till morning. Let me hear no noise from either of you.’ And she goes too, taking the candle. Her footsteps tap away down the bare wooden treads. The light under the door fades to black.
Annie and Doll lie silently between cold, clean sheets. The feather pillows are soft, the blankets firm and heavy. Beyond the slanted ceiling, the night wind roars over the slates.
‘Don’t pee the bed,’ says Annie.
After a bit, Annie says, ‘It’s worth it. Ain’t it? To be warm, like this.’
‘What’s worth it?’
‘Being good. Doing,’ Annie hesitates, ‘what he says.’
‘I don’t like him.’
‘Then you’re an ungrateful toad.’
‘You are.’ Annie struggles up on one elbow. ‘You oughter be grateful to me: I got you here, I was the one what got up the nerve to beg a copper off of Mr Eden. If I ‘adn’t, where would we be now? Frozen stiff in that wind. Listen to it, blowin’ fit to wake the dead. If we’re good an’ do what he says, he’ll look arter us. He’ll find us somewhere to live.’
‘I don’t like ‘im, and Night Wind don’t neither.’
‘You’re cracked,’ Annie mutters. Doll rolls towards her. ‘Annie?’
‘Can we go ’ome tomorrer?’
Annie doesn’t answer. Doll touches her. Annie is stiff. Her heart is beating in enormous slow thuds.
‘What’s up?’ Doll whispers.
‘Dollie,’ Annie breathes, ‘oh Dollie, I wasn’t sure. Can you hear it – can you? ’E’s coming.’’
With slow, hesitant steps, someone is mounting the stairs.
‘Who?’ Doll’s voice rises. ‘Why are you scared?’ but she’s scared herself, she don’t know why. People go upstairs and down all night long in Fox and Goose Yard. But here? The ogre is coming.
The footsteps reach the last of the carpeted steps, and pause. Then they come on more clearly, creaking up the bare wooden boards of the second half.
‘I ain’t scared,’ says Annie, but she’s trembling and she grips Doll’s arm tight. ‘It’s Mr Eden, that’s all. I know what he wants.’
‘Oh Dollie,’ Annie breathes pityingly. ‘Din’t you ‘ear what Miss Mealy-Mouth Eliza said? About his wife? Who’s dead?’
‘Well then? E’s a man, ain’t ‘e? E’s got needs, same as Pa.’
The wind shrieks over the rooftops like a wild hunt of the dead.
‘I gotta be a good girl now,’ whispers Annie. ‘Or ’e’ll frow us out.’
Light blooms around the cracks outlining the door. Doll can hardly breathe. The knob twists with a squeak. The door opens. In comes the burning star of a candle.
Mr Eden’s face floats behind it, white as a mask. The eyes are half-slits, the nose sharp, the eyebrows blanched and non-existent. He wears a long white night-shirt and nothing else.
‘I am a sinner, yes,’ he whispers. ‘I am a sinner, but angels will protect her if she be pure. If she be pure. Let us put it to the test. Children, are you awake?’
‘No,’ whispers Doll. But Annie sits up.
He moistens his lips. ‘Look, she doesn’t shriek. A man in the room and she doesn’t shriek. Will you come with me, child?’
Annie ducks her head in a nod.
‘Get out of bed.’
She swings her legs out and slides to the floor.
‘I see you understand me quite well. Will you do as you’re told, Annie?’
She gives an awkward, lopsided shrug. ‘Yes, sir…’
He shivers. His eyes reflect two brilliant pinpricks from the candleflame. ‘I knew it. God would protect a virgin, but from such as these His eyes are turned away. It will not be so great a sin.’ He pulls her out of the room by her wrist. ‘Leave ’er be!’ screams Doll, sitting bolt upright. ‘She don’t like you! She ‘ates you! Leave ’er be!’
Feet stumble downstairs; the room darkens as the candlelight dwindles. Doll sits rigid in the bed, pierced by a terror she doesn't understand. The wind crashes against the window and wails around the house. She flings off the covers, jumps out, and runs on to the landing, and a door shuts softly down below. It’s so very dark! She hugs herself, panting, shivering, listening, waiting... till there’s a muffled cry: ‘I don’t want to! Let me go!’
Doll rushes down the attic stairs to the main landing. A platform of nightmares and ghosts, every door is shut, the stairwell’s a black pit, nowhere is safe. ‘Annie, Annie, Annie!’ She jigs from foot to foot - screaming, she can’t stop. ‘Miss Elizabeth, Miss Elizabeth! Pa! Pa, I want you! Annie! Miss Elizabeth, where are you? Miss Elizabeth, Miss Elizabeth!’
A door jerks open. In a swift-footed, dark rush, Miss Elizabeth is upon her. No candle this time, no lamp. With a pounce she seizes Doll and shakes her. ‘I told you not to come down! Not to come down!’ A stinging slap lands on Doll’s cheek and ear. ‘Go back upstairs this instant!’
‘E’s got – Annie,’ hiccups Doll in a voice clotted with tears and snot. Miss Elizabeth drags and throws her against the thinly carpeted attic steps. ‘Upstairs!’ she hisses, and there’s a sharp sweaty stink from under her armpits, and Doll knows Miss Elizabeth is afraid. It terrifies her. She scrabbles upstairs on all fours, sobbing. Her nightgown rips. A splinter skewers her palm. Below her, Miss Elizabeth’s bedroom door shuts with force. Doll turns, desperate as a little caged animal that throws itself again and again at the bars.
With a wild shriek, the night wind tears at the roof. ‘Let me in! Let me in!’ it cries. Or maybe ‘Let it out, let it out!’ A wind to wake the dead. ‘Night Wind, help!’ sobs Doll. And all at once she knows what to do.
Let out the thing in the room. The locked room.
She tiptoes back down. The forbidden door is a tall darkness near the top of the stairs. And something behind it is patting along the panels, scratching at the doorframe. Doll clutches the cold china knob. It twists under her fingers but won’t open. There’s no key. And now she remembers dropping it. She flings herself down, sweeping her palms over the gritty varnish of the floorboards at the edge of the rug, while just over her head the knob rotates viciously, rattling this way and that.
The draught hisses under the door, and a sweet cold stench flows into her face.
Her sweeping hand touches cold, shaped metal. She snatches it up. Her exploring fingers find the keyhole. She thrusts the key in, turns it. And falls into the room on hands and knees as the door is dragged suddenly open.
Something leaps over her, a rustling blur in the grainy darkness, a grey shape. It rushes across the landing trailing foul air, and throws open Mr Eden’s bedroom door. For a second, framed in the doorway is the outline of a woman in a crinoline dress. It looks back once over its shoulder. A glimmer of forehead. Pitted eyes.
It vanishes inside.
Doll runs after, she has to, she’s drawn. A candle burns on the mantelshelf like a cruel star. She sees a tall fourposter bed, the sheets torn back. She sees Mr Eden. She hears him panting. Under him is Annie, nightgown pulled up, the pillow over her face. A handful of bones closes around the candle flame and it goes out.
Something pounces on the bed. There’s a sharp, terrible scream from Mr Eden: ‘Ellen!’ Then only thrashing and struggling, a sound of ripping and the sudden iron smell of blood. ‘Annie!’ Doll screams, ‘Annie, where are yer?’
There’s a thump, then somebody’s running, gasping and crying. Too dark to see, but Doll knows it’s Annie. She darts into the room. They seize each other, their hands collide, their fingers lock in an unbreakable grip. They bump through the doorway, stumble across the landing, dive up the attic stairs as Miss Elizabeth’s door flies open.
Her footsteps drum across the landing. Annie and Doll reach the turn of the stairs where the carpet ends. They scramble into the garret, slam the door, spring on the bed as if it’s an island in a dangerous sea and cling to each other.
Miss Elizabeth’s muffled, choking screams seem to go on for ever, but at last they stop.
The wind whoops around the gables. ‘What’ll we do?’ Doll shivers. ‘That fing's down there. I daren’t go down, I daren’t. I daren’t ever go down now, Annie. What’ll we do?’
‘Nuffink,’ Annie answers in a dull voice. ‘We ain’t even got our own clothes. We’re stuck.’
‘I wanta go home!’ Doll weeps.
‘Whass the use?’ says Annie in the same dull voice, and she smoothes Doll’s hair. ‘We’d be on the streets again tomorrer. Pa can’t keep us, Dollie. 'E don’t even want us. Nobody does.’
Doll sits up.
‘Night Wind does!’
She pulls away from Annie’s arms and jumps off the bed. Scurries to the little dormer window and struggles with the catch. ‘Annie, 'elp me!’
‘Whatcher on about?’ says Annie, but she comes and helps. The sash is stuck tight, but with an effort they fling it up. Doll leans out into the gale. The cold blast clears her head and dries her tears. She looks into the sky.
Up there, far beyond the roof of the neat white church in the square, Night Wind is rushing towards them, filling the sky. Her arms are outstretched promontories of cloud. She’s lit from below by the dingy glare of the sugar refineries, the iron foundries and brass foundries, the charcoal works, the flaring gaslights of the Blackwall Railway and the Commercial Road. Her wild breath smells of smoke and sulphur, of smuts and salt and cold rain. Her black sooty hair whirls around her face and streams away in mile-long tendrils, coiling and spreading over all of London. Her eyes are bright and stern as stars.
‘See? See?’ gasps Doll as Annie pushes in beside her. ‘There she is! There’s Night Wind!’
‘I see her!’ Annie cries. She clasps her hands. ‘I do see her! Oh she’s beau’iful. She’s beaut’iful, Doll – but she won’t want the likes of us.’
‘She does!’ Doll shrieks. ‘She asked me to play on the rooftops. She looks arter all the children what get lost. She told me so. Come on!’ She puts her hands on the sill and kicks herself up and out of the window.
But Doll is clambering out. The garret window sticks out from the slanted tiles, like an eye with an eyebrow. It peeps over a drainage gulley at the edge of the roof, bordered by a parapet. Doll’s never been this high before. Only the smoking chimneys are higher, thrusting into the sky with their rows of pots. The slanting slates are wet and cold. Her bare feet stick to them, and her nightdress whips like a flag. She clings to the blistered wooden window frame, bending to peer back into darkness. ‘Annie, come on!’
Annie puts her elbows on the sill and wriggles out of the window. She rolls, swinging her feet around. There are dark stains on her nightdress. She takes Doll’s hand and together they skid down to the very edge of the roof. They stand behind the parapet, which comes up to Annie’s knees, and look into the air.
And running ahead of her come Night Wind’s children – hundreds of them, pouring over the housetops in a dark stream, dancing with wild, desperate gaiety. They fling themselves at the roof and their feet patter up and over the slates with a noise like hailstones. Girls and boys, come out to play…
Night Wind is calling them. Her voice gusts towards them, full of the chiming of church bells, the clatter of the railway, the echo of hooves and rattle of hackney carriages, the scraping of fiddles and stamp of dancing feet, the shouts of the street sellers, the lost-soul cries of gulls on the river, the unending blended roar of unsleeping London. ‘Come where you belong,’ she seems to call. ‘Out here with me. No one else cares, but I’ll look arter you. Come and join the fun…’
They’re on the parapet now – on the very edge of the building, high above the street. They look at each other. Doll squeezes Annie’s hand.
The illustration of 'Night Wind' is by Dalziel after Arthur Hughes, illustration for George Macdonald's 'At the Back of the North Wind'
All other illustrations are from Gustave Dore and Blanchard Jerrold's 'London: A Pilgrimage'.