The back streets of London are fraught with dangers, even to the strongest men or most agile boys. Cutthroats, slims, rat catchers, ne’er-do-wells, Chinese and Irish prowl the dark byways and muddied alleys of Whitechapel’s unnamed streets, a blackened lung next to the heart of the golden city. It was no place for a girl, but fifteen year old Elizabeth Clover was no ordinary girl. Elizabeth, called Lizzie by her closet friends, had long ago lost her parents- her mother at her birth, and her father to the sea. She slept on the floor of her great aunt’s walkup, above the tobaccanist’s shop, and sold matches on the streets during the day. She had two friends in all the world, Bobby, a rather dull boy of fourteen, and Patches, a mongrel who had lost his tail in a fire. It was Bobby who once pointed out a remarkable fact to Lizzie, a fact revealed at this chapter’s end.
Not long ago, Bobby, usually a boy prone to long stupors and fits of drooling, caught up to Lizzie and regaled the girl with exciting news. Lizzie was on her usual corner, selling her wares to strangers as they exited the tobaccanist’s.
“The Princess is in town, Lizzie. She’s riding a carriage through London, on a visit with her father, the King,” said Bobby, huffing and puffing with the exertion of his short run.
“Princess Victoria is in Whitechapel?” asked Lizzie with much doubt, as she gave a ha’peeny in change to a man in a carriage for matches purchased.
It was a long moment before Bobby replied. “Nah,” said the boy, “but she’ll be skirting the edges in her carriage, won’t she? On the way to the palace?”
Lizzie considered this a moment. Business had been brisk, in the chill air many sought the warmth of a warm pipe, and needed matches, so she had made more than enough to purchase a small loaf of day old bread and a pint of bitter ale besides. Lizzie weighed the possibility of making a little extra money against the possibility of catching a glimpse of the passing Princess. She had never seen any royalty, never mind a Princess, and many claimed that this Princess would one day be Queen, if no suitable male heir could be found. At a decent trot Lizzie knew that she could be on a street that lead to the palace directly, a street that the royal carriage simply must use.
“Very well,” said the girl, “Let us be off post haste!”
Her decision made, Lizzie closed the box that carried her matches and secured the latch. She used the leather strap attached to the box to sling the matches over her shoulder and against her back. She felt to see that her knife was still tucked secure under her belt. She gave a short whistle and almost instantly a medium sized mongrel burst from a nearby pile of garbage, with a rat writhing its last in his powerful jaws.
“Patches!” said the girl with annoyance, “Stop catching rats and follow me! We are off to see a Princess!”
Patches had earned his name because of his black and white fur, and because of the places where he had no fur, due to a fire the mongrel had escaped when merely a puppy. The fire had cost the poor mutt its tail, so only the barest stump wriggled to demonstrate the mongrel’s excitement. Patches dropped the half dead rat, which crawled painfully away to rejoin its rat family in the sewers, and ran after his girl through the streets of London.
There are many dangers in London, and Lizzie had learned, even as a very young girl, to avoid the worst of them. The best thing to do when danger threatened was to run, and Lizzie could always run as fast and as light as the wind itself. She stayed to the center of the twisting alleys and avoided those areas where she knew the worst men lived. Long experience had taught her to watch for grasping hands from dark doorways, open grates in the city streets, and the hanging nooses of Thugees.
Patches kept up with Lizzie easily. Lizzie was everything to Patches since the time the then eight year old girl had nursed him back to health after the terrible fire. Since that time Patches had become Lizzie’s staunchest protector. All but the worst elements of London were wise enough to avoid harming Lizzie, for fear of the mongrel’s bite.
Lizzie stopped at corners to allow Bobby to catch up with her. Once the decision had been made to see the Princess, Lizzie was focused on almost nothing else, but her innate sense of fairness would not let her leave the boy behind. Besides, the streets of London were dangerous, and Bobby would not last long without her and Patches to look after him.
A hand descended upon Lizzie’s shoulder from behind. “Here now, what have we in the box, Lassie?” said a voice slurred with alcohol and opium.
Lizzie whirled around even as Patches lowered his haunches and raised his patchy fur with a vicious growl.
The man who had accosted her took half a step back. He was grey and grizzled with cruel bloodshot eyes and irregular yellow teeth. With practiced ease the man withdrew his hand from inside his ratty wool coat and produced one of a set of single shot dueling pistols. “Last thing any mongrel does is growl at me.”
The man took aim at Patches with his pistol, but before he could squeeze the trigger, Lizzie had stabbed her knife into the back of the man’s hand, forcing him to drop the pistol, undischarged. The man screamed and fell to his knees. Lizzie kicked the gun away even as Patches pounced, biting the man over and over on his face and outstretched hands.
With a scream the cutthroat pried the knife from his hand and attempted to use it on the mongrel, but Patches was too quick, and the knife found empty air. As Patches prepared to resume his vicious defense of Lizzie the man stumbled to his feet and raised the knife menacingly. “I’ll kill you, girl, and your little mongrel as well!”
The cutthroat took one step forward, then stopped when he saw his dueling pistol in the girl’s hand. The man’s face contorted with rage. “I’ll not be killed by the likes of you, little girl!”
Lizzie squeezed the trigger of the gun, and shot the cutthroat in the chest. The echo of the shot was quickly absorbed by the maze like streets of Whitechapel, and no one took notice of the unnamed man’s howl of pain and disbelief. He staggered backwards against a brick wall, and slumped down, dead, his open, bloodshot eyes still glowing with hatred, addiction and anger.
Lizzie stepped forward to pry her knife from the dead man’s hand, and noticed a little box jutting from his vest pocket. Not wanting to rob a dead man, but overcome with curiosity, she took the box. It was heavier than it looked, since Lizzie was used to dealing with match boxes, and this container was not much larger. She could not read the words on the box, but when she shook it she understood what was inside- ammunition for the pistol she now held.
Quickly she pocketed the box of bullets and tucked the discharged weapon into her belt, under her coat.
As she stood up she heard the familiar puffing and wheezing of Bobby coming up behind her. “Hey!” said Bobby, “Wait for me, will you?”
Bobby saw the corpse against the wall.
“Is he dead?” asked the boy, knowing the answer.
“Yes,” said the girl, simply. Lizzie had never killed a man before, and though she knew she had no choice in the matter since the man had threatened her and Patches, she was uncertain about how to feel.
“What happened?” asked Bobby.
“I do not know,” lied the girl, ignoring the quizzical look Patches shot her way, “but if we are to see this Princess, we should hurry.”
Once more Lizzie ran through the streets, but this time as she ran she ran from the squalor at the heart of Whitechapel and towards the better part of the city. This, of course, presented new kinds of dangers, as the proper citizens of London did not take kindly to the street urchins and ragamuffins from Whitechapel traipsing down the finer avenues, reminding them of the terrors that awaited them only blocks away from their fancy shops and homes. Calls of “Here now!” and “Slow down!” followed Lizzie, Patches and Bobby as they ran through the cleaner, less polluted and less rat infested streets.
As she ran Lizzie could almost forget the man she had killed, and may have been able to suppress the memory of the killing altogether if not for the weight of the dueling pistol in her belt. These thoughts vanished as she came to a wide boulevard lined four deep with people on either side. During Guy Fawkes Day and Christmas Lizzie came here to sell matches, but the rest of the year this street was off limits to people like her.
The people had lined the streets to see the Princess and the Royal procession pass by. Lizzie tried to push her way through the people, but the press of bodies was too thick, and most of the fine citizens who bothered to glance in her direction turned up their noses at the poor little match girl and her ugly mongrel. They did not even notice Bobby, of course.
Lizzie could hear, over the din of the crowd, the clopping of horse hooves, the royal guard leading the royal procession, still far off, but approaching in minutes. She was so close to see the Princess, but still so far.
“The roof,” said Bobby, and Lizzie turned to see where her friend was pointing. On the flat roof of a nearby building were a few men smoking and watching up the street towards the approaching Royal procession. Running down one brick wall was a drainage pipe that looked sturdy enough to climb.
Lizzie ran across the street and gripped the pipe. It was rusty, but still strong, and well attached to the building. Lizzie kicked off her flimsy, hole filled shoes and pressed her bare feet against the bricks, and proceeded to climb hand over hand, step after step up the side of the building like a circus monkey. By the time she reached the top the men on the roof had noticed her, and one of them, who had a kindly face, grabbed her by the hand and hoisted her to the roof.
“You’re a brave girl, climbing up like that,” said the man with a smile.
“I wanted to see the Princess pass by,” responded Lizzie, hoping the man would not admonish her.
The man laughed. “Of course. But you could have used the stairs around the back of the building.”
Now it was Lizzie’s turn to laugh. The man was only a little older than she was, and had handsome features and a winning smile. Then Lizzie had a thought. “Stairs? I have two friends, below…”
“Call down to them and let them know about the stairs,” said the man. “I’m Tom. Any friends of yours will be friends of mine.”
“Thank you Tom. I’m Lizzie and my friends are Bobby and Patches.” Lizzie smiled and she gave Tom an extravagant curtsy.
Lizzie called down to Patches and Bobby, who quickly found their way to the roof via the stairs at the rear of the building. The Royal Guard approached, leading the most marvelous carriage Lizzie had ever seen. It was open to the air, painted spotless white with sparkling gold trim. Its only occupant was the most beautiful girl Lizzie had ever seen, a girl her age, Princess Victoria.
“I’ve never seen a Princess before,” said Lizzie.
When she heard no one else speaking, Lizzie looked at Tom and Bobby, who were both looking first at the Princess, then at her with growing amazement.
“What is it, fellows?” Lizzie asked with puzzlement.
“Princess Victoria…” said Tom.
“…looks exactly like you, Lizzie,” finished Bobby.
To Be Continued