These, in their gentlemen’s top hats and long capes, with delicate canes ticking out time on the cobbles and gold watches in their deep pockets. These, with their wives at home and children in the nurseries with their perfection of dolls-houses, just so. These, with grapes and diamond delicacies and banker’s notes folded carefully.
These are my clientele.
Gentlemen: titled or professional. From the polluted vice of the Chancery to the alluvial banks of the Thames. From the wide streets of Mayfair and the Mall to the curve of Marble Arch. They all come to me.
I walk with them a ways and we talk. Like all good women, I listen more than I speak, that being my place. In truth, it’s all a charade – he knows why he’s here, I know why he’s here – but they like it that way. I think that maybe they like to fool themselves that this is a Romance of passions fit for poets. To their inflated sensibilities a grand romance is acceptable, carnal lust is not. Our idle chatter – to them a wonderful wooing of poetry made flesh – serves to soothe the male conscience with the illusion of emotion for a time. Soon enough, a carriage comes, sleek black with richly carved decoration and a discrete blinkered driver, and I am carried away.
Together we lay in clean-smelling sheets – this one’s washer-woman likes lavender, it seems to my delicate nose. Sometimes I work in cotton, sometimes satin. This one is wealthy as well as immaculate: his sheets are finest duck-egg silk. I glide over them, enjoying their brief luxury. Above, a canopy of night-time brocade waterfalls between four posts that creak in rhythm.
I quickly learn that he is selfish, like them all. He cannot conceive of a woman’s feelings or importance. We are pretty things all about fashionable fabrics and foolish fancies. A lady is there for her husband’s household and comfort. A lady makes her husband’s collection complete with her dutiful folded hands. To him, we are all but reflections of his own glory.
That is his God-given right and privilege.
Beneath this starless sky in a rented room, I wait to assert my own right. Not God-given, but woman-taken. After all, how could a non-existent deity give me anything? I am extant, so I take what is mine to wreak.
You may express your wide-eyed shock at my assertion of there being no God. You may gasp and cross yourself or murmur a prayer. But answer me this with truth in your hearts – you must be honest with yourself, even if with no one else – would a compassionate God who loved his creation allow what I have seen? Would a true deity pour good grace on such as I have seen and serve no justice on such horrific crimes? I saw the streets haunted by a faceless death. I saw the cobbles slick with dark blood. I saw the fear in the women’s eyes: my sisters, pale and dirty-faced in the lamplight.
I saw a room with peelers crawling within, like a maggot-ridden carcass. The walls, the floor, the meagre rug, the rickety bed with its ripped sheets, the linen chest with its prettyish hinge-plates, the windows, all were drenched in blood in Whitechapel. But the bed. The bed is always here. It’s only a blink away. She lies broken upon its once-white sheets, gibblets spilling out and draped over her shoulder, like he fancied himself some artist arranging cloth to make his nude tasteful (fancies are not just for women, as many in this age would have you think). He stole her womanhood – cut out her breast, dug out her fertile earth – and left her as a display. A veritable gallery exhibit.
Do you know, they never found him in all these long nights? Plenty claimed the identity in long letters and scrawled postcards. As if guilt were some new fashion and blood its raison d’etre (as well as their ink). The sickness of men knows no bounds. Justice had no place in their minds, just as it has no place in the Courts; there is justice only in my heart and deeds.
So, no, there is no God, not of your imagining, at least.
She was not the only one, but she was the most elaborate and she is the one I remember best. Poor thing, she was just a girl with jutting, half-starved bones. And he, he was a wonder. A terrible wonder.
Such precision! I heard one doctor say. So much blood, a young officer exclaimed. Such men, I spit. All they can do is marvel when a bare child has lost her life in the most monstrous way our age has to offer.
So now I perform my good work city-wide. This modern metropolis is my realm with its steam and smoke. Sometimes I re-visit the old haunt, Whitechapel, but now I prefer a wealthier kind of client. Doctors are the best; perhaps a career with a blank face and no emotion gives them more expression when their time comes. And such expressions! I wish I could save every face, frozen in that moment of realisation. The series would fill a gallery: my masterpiece; my magnum opus.
This one would be especially exquisite. I must confess a taste for youth and beauty in my gentlemen – it makes my task all the sweeter – and this one is a Heavenly being. His hair falls in a halo of blonde curls, soft and tousled most fashionably. The eyes that meet mine are an ocean’s deep blue, almond-shaped and long-lashed in their grace. But his lips are what I like most. Rossetti dreamed them in sinuous curves for one of his impossible beauties and Michelangelo sculpted them from living scarlet marble in a perfection to make his David jealous.
His is a face I could gaze at forever, breaking it into abstract planes: no longer a man, no longer a face, simply a precision of charming shapes.
And when the pain comes, he is even more magnificent. As always, I time it perfectly, watching him, waiting for the moment of no return when he has lost control and perspective. I’ve had a lot of practice and know the signs with my eyes closed. I know when to act and do so with speed and exactitude.
The duck-egg blue of the sheets recedes, conquered by crimson. He looks puzzled, so I almost pity him with his wide oceanic eyes and lush lips parted in a silent question. Already the flush upon his cheeks is dimming. Already he has lost his strength and collapses upon me, gasping and gushing. The warmth washes over me as I extract the blade, then push him onto his back. I smile down at his blood-coughs: a precursor to the death-rattle – my favourite percussion.
Again I plunge my blade into his flesh. I’m glad he still has the strength to jerk a reaction to the cold steel. Better that than go with passive indifference.
Now I watch. I do not have to wait long before he stops spluttering and gurgling, before the chest stills and his eyes fall dark. Now he lies there, empty, spilled, broken. There is something pathetic about him now, just as there was before: only during was he marvellous. His only true moment was in his dying; animated, realising that all his chances were gone. There would be no more. Tomorrow’s plans were purely academic. Life holds no more mystery for him, now. That perfect moment he and I have shared shall be in my mind always.
At the midnight hour, the slender lady left, shoes clicking on the slick cobbles. Her skirts whispered secrets as she walked, watered silk and lace swirling as eddies made material. Fallen leaves, blown in from the park parted at her stride: autumn shoals before her huntress. The moon hung suspended in the sky’s darkness, reflecting brightly on the Usher-Woman’s kid gloves and lending luminescence to her fine-sculpted face. Pleasure shone in her dark eyes and a smile played about her rose-bud lips; deeply, she breathed in the delicate scent of lavender on a lock of hair the colour of spun sunlight.
Yesterday’s newspapers fluttered, caught in a chill breeze.
© Clare S