There was little to be said of mercy in the gutters, generally. There were not many possible words to accurately describe what horrors were witnessed, and what cruelty was so often delivered to her and those alike unfortunates who had no choice in the matter of the ways they would live, and the ways they would die.
It was a droning, painful existence.
He, on the other hand, always flawlessly looked the part of the clearly wealthy gentleman, his clothing fine and his face shaved clean. For the reasoning of his appearance alone (or so it seemed, at least in those short few months) she always chose to wait for him at the more often than not repulsive, clustered street corner of his home every morning, lying in the gutter, caring not for the rain or the snow or the soot and living amongst the filth for months – although, even so, he did little more than glance at her wretched person; little payment for her time.
She was persistent, although. She’d been raised into a mulish, stubborn nature, after all; it was integrated firmly into her conscience, as strongly as her instinct to breathe and to walk, although sometimes she thought that she did little of either.
Waiting and watching on the street was all she saw fit to do and all that she was familiar with, being far too afraid (against her own inward lies) after one of her sisters had been clumsily killed at Whitechapel after one lonely, drunken night, and another had lost a finger due to blunt machinery years previous. She didn’t want to follow in her long dead sisters' footsteps of ruin, instead choosing the grim pastime of sleeping on the corners of backstreets and spending hours in the rain with her body pressed to the same road she shared with the rats, watching while thick filth - gathered from the roads - was swept past her in its steady, constant path to the dark and churning waters of the Thames.
That one blind, ignorant aristocrat was always the one she’d wait for, however, it being that she was desperately enslaved to private dreams of his possible weakness and perhaps eventual willingness to spare her a shilling. There was, perhaps, a slim chance that somewhere in his heart he recognised her, wretched creature that she was. She could never dare herself to expect or seek sympathy from anyone else, nor did she bother trying to make herself more pitiable by slashing her clothes and her limbs. She had mind enough to know that that would only hasten the imminent death that already lingered in her head, waiting for her to crumble and die.
But he never once granted her the kindness and decency of paid notice, no matter of what other circumstances remained. He instead always seemed so prideful, wholly preoccupied in his own petty worries and fears. Little did he care for the dogs and rats and smoke, and the matters that existed beyond his own homely familiarity. Little did he care for her, and for the rest of the wretched that lay on the long road.
Did he even have proper reason to give her a passing glance, an apathetic roll of the eyes, all for the sake of her knowing he’d actually acknowledged her existence?
Perhaps not - after all, he would not dare to entertain any thought or action that could hint otherwise for fear of being seen as one of them - some sort of weak fellow with hardly the mind and thick skin to resist the cries of the dying. Nor did he care. It was not his duty to care; he always assured himself of that.
To him, this beggar of the streets was scum – nothing more and nothing less than that; undeserving of attention, undeserving of kindness, undeserving of love. Her worth was less than the clothes on his back.
The miserable girl had a heart, though, somewhere deep within her chest: a heart that contained the peculiar sort of hope that often seemed unbreakable, but ultimately came for nothing, repeating itself through time without the slip of error.
Undoubtedly, it was that hope in the improbable that kept her optimistic when he first passed her by.
It was that morning that she’d seen his eyes for the first time, so usually hidden beneath the broad brim of a tall, fine hat when she saw him from a short distance away. He simply must not have cared that day, busied by something else she wouldn’t have understood in the slightest. But no less, very rarely did she see hatless gentlemen.
Yet, his glance hadn’t been sympathetic, no. It had been no more than the sort of look from the corner of the eye that is realisation of apathy, lifting the thick veil of ignorance.
Even so, she had mumbled incoherently as he had passed her by, reaching upwards with frail arms and watching him with sunken eyes that stared from the depths of a dark, haggard mask of a face.
He did little more than simply walk right past her in the months afterward. There were the occasional mornings when he would round the same corner, staring at her for perhaps longer than a second and blinking in surprise at her continual, unwavering faith in nonexistent kindness. She would always try to smile at him when he idly looked her over, although, trying to be friendly for what worth there was in it - but again, he would only stride past, occasionally kicking the snow from his path as he did so; blissfully unaware that he had drenched her skin in the melting ice.
Perhaps only a week after that there came a very strange day when he passed by on one of his usual strolled routes, only to actually stop as he did so, and turn his head to stare at the thin girl on the road. His eyes were narrowed, brow furrowed, his fine, gloved hands clenched against the lapels of his coat. Every part of his stance, whether he realised it or not, was more than enough for the young beggar to see very simply for herself how very little he cared, and how very little he knew.
“You never leave, do you?”
His voice was irritable, despite the fact that the words were mostly masked with the strong sort of lilt that told her he was from the deeper parts of the city and could nearly be called indistinguishable. It was like something she'd only ever heard whispered in the side alleys and beneath gas lamps, and not even close to the hoarse and gravelly tones she heard so constantly around her in the blackness.
For a time after the words were spoken she didn’t respond, all for the pure surprise of having been spoken to by someone of such a higher status. It made her think vaguely of what one of the boys of the street had told her once about school, where one could be caned and ordered around by a man who was not their father. He had told her of authority and of the dreadful feeling that came with it, and why it had been what had made him run away.
But the idea of her, a girl, being spoken to at all by this man of such a high class was absurd. The thought that he was standing there on the road, staring at her, was almost too much to contemplate. Yet, perhaps it was unsurprising that she had no clue how to respond without earning herself a cuff over the side of the head.
So preoccupied was she with her idle wonderings that she did not even notice at first when he slipped a hand into his coat pocket, and tossed a coin into the snow.
She dug through the ice quickly to retrieve it as soon as the silver flashed across her line of vision, and before any of the other children noticed it. Yet, before she could safely close her fingers over it the slippery circle of metal escaped the frigid tips of her fingers, glancing off the edge of one paving stone and very nearly falling down into the slick, filthy gutter. She scrambled for it, not an eye blinked in relation to disgust at the grime coating her hands, too preoccupied with the sheer misery of coming so close to bread she wouldn’t have to share with the others. Perhaps she could go down to the riverside where she wouldn't be found, and for once in her life eat alone-
Yet what she didn’t pay notice was the weak, barely noticeable smirk that had crept over the young gentleman's shaded face while she had struggled with the coin, his smile only broadening when the coin neared the drain and was a second away from disappearing from sight.
He did a very strange thing at that moment, however, walking over to where the coin lay and trapping it beneath his foot a sheer moment before it would have escaped from view. Reaching downwards he retrieved it, holding the pale thing between his long fingers before throwing it into the middle of the road with an eased flick of the wrist, tossing the piece to where it could be clearly distinguished in the darkness for anyone to notice and take it for themselves.
“If you want it, you’re going to have to fight for it, eh? I’m not going to make things easy for you.”
His words had been accompanied by another of his strange, careless smiles, before he had disappeared again up at the bend in the road.
Only once he had gone had she dared to get to her feet, turning to see where the coin had fallen and slowly stumbling her way toward it. She had been only centimetres from reaching it when she had felt the paving stones tremble and had heard the steady rhythm of horses' hooves.
If she had attempted to throw herself out of the way any later, she would have been certainly killed.
Panting heavily, she had watched as the coin had rolled away and disappeared into the sewer drain on the other side of the narrow street, her eyes dim and clouded, her dreams snuffed out as easily as one dampens the light of a tallow candle, and the flame flickers and dies.
During the winter afterwards she saw very little of her supposed philanthropist. She may well have paused for a single moment to wonder why that was the case, if not for her own, overruling concern for simply staying warm and keeping her blood flowing red. By word of the street she had heard tales of people freezing and starving to death in both the day and the night; those were people of the street, people like her. The mysteriously ordinary idea of falling asleep and never waking was terrifying, and she was endlessly haunted by fear of it.
He obviously didn’t realise, nor care that she was freezing out in the road, naturally, being much too busied with keeping his fire burning through the evening and warming his tea to satisfaction. She thought nothing of it at the time, keeping her place on the road, waiting there in hope that he might by some chance notice her in the evening. Yet, all hope of that died vainly when night after night she fell asleep very late, lying in thin slumber, her instinct leaving her ready to awake again at any given moment to try and regain some warmth to survive another cruel morning of dull sky and the barrage of cold, blank stares from people who would never understand.
Imminently it came to be that it was late at night, and from the cold itself that she was awoken again to blackness and the repetitive sounds of heaving coughs and shuffling, as well as faint laughter from the alleys - all of it being familiar enough that it had settled into melody. Yet, she was easily and quickly taken from the peace of normality by her shivering. So violently did she tremble in the darkness as she lay there, clutching her bony knees to her chest, that she felt that she could simply die there and then on the road to rid herself of the ever present cold once and for all, and finally put an end to her own struggle. What did it matter, anyhow, if someone were to find a body on the roads in the morning, black and blue, broken by the chills of January?
Who would care?
Who would know or stop to think amongst their own small world of idle talk, and quaint observances of weather or the lack of sugar on their table?
With only that single, haunting thought in mind, she resigned herself to sleep again, expecting nothing but death - only to realise that there was very suddenly something staring at her, freezing her tightly in place. She would have screamed if her throat had not been so raw and her ideal of life so whittled away. There seemed hardly to be point in fighting any longer after so many long, harrowing years.
“If you’re so desperate for warmth, then why are you out here on the street?”
He spoke sharply, quickly and coldly, his voice overwhelmed with the accusatory tone to his words, as though the fact no one in that wretched place had a touch of mercy in their bodies was her fault, and hers alone.
And here he was, the same man who lived on the corner; the green eyed one with the fine coat and flawless cravat. Yet his coat was unbuttoned now, his collar limp and cravat untied, openly revealing the vulnerable curve of his pale throat.
“I’m only waiting," she said, the words rasped and intermittent. What could she speak but the truth, after all? "Maybe someone will come along the road and throw sixpence into the drain."
To her surprise, he lifted one large eyebrow at the short statement, sighing deeply and tiredly and standing as his breath formed soft clouds before his mouth. His lips were drawn into a thin line, and his eyes were shining in the gas lamp's faint yellow light.
Slowly removing his large coat, he bit his lip (not to mention looking immensely surprised with himself) as he threw down the garment to the girl, who caught it, her eyes widened and hands ceaselessly trembling.
Clearing his throat, the Englishman took a step backwards, before muttering a quick ‘good night’ and making his careful way back to the inviting warmth of his home, with his slender hands clutched at his shirt sleeves, and startled, widened eyes at his back.
Who knew, perhaps someone would care, or feel the slightest remorse if they found a body lying in the gutter, in the end. And perhaps, just perhaps, someone felt the thinnest sliver of compassion for a girl who still lay waiting on the side of the road.