The Mint, Southwark, 1771
among thieves signifies a naked or poor man; also a lusty strong rogue
“And what have we here?”
“Let us in, Moll. Beast of a storm tonight, ain’t it?”
“Aye,” returned Moll, cinching her silk wrap while maintaining a hand behind the front door she’d opened just an inch. “Stormy for some by the look of it.”
The wind sent rain barrelling into this secluded yard in the Mint, taking the standing, shiftless dregs of chamber pots for an airy jaunt. Souls Yard, a misshapen cul-de-sac of three freestanding abodes consisted of a squat, squalid cottage, from which no light entered or emerged. A converted barn with modish ventilation in every wall and door, the slope of its gambrel roof rather like hands praying for intervention. And the jewel of the Yard, Marathon Moll’s: a double-fronted, two-story block tethered at east and west with slender chimneys touched with scoliosis.
“Have you lost your way tonight, Billy?”
With a look of wounded indignation, William Dempsey said, “Ain’t it enough to wish the company of an old, dear friend? ‘Old’ meaning previous-like,” he added, “nothin’ more.”
The door remained unmoved; Billy was left to shiver on the tilted stonework of the front elevation. Wiping the endless stream of August rainwater from his face, he pressed himself against the opening until their faces nearly touched. Moll’s – with its native jaundice, like dirty lemon juice upon features which arrived at too many points. Billy’s – a canvas of creamy white, flushed with health and whose boyish pout Moll herself had often declared a criminal provocation.
“‘Old’ you have defined, Billy, but how do you define ‘dear friend’?” said the bawd, pushing up her aquiline nose. “That term implies paying calls of friendship, or at least of courtesy (which are not calls to steal from my house, mind you), and I’ve not seen your pretty face these two years.”
“That Blue Billy outside?” came a second voice from within. “Let him in out the rain, for God’s sake.”
Recognising the voice of one of the house’s most devoted patrons, Dempsey said, “‘Dear friend’ I define as Dip-Candle Mary there behind you, who I hear’s set to be married next week, so I come to bestow my congratulations.”
All around Souls Yard, eyes were opening within cracks in the ramshackle barn and, one sensed without ever quite knowing, at the darkened front window of the cottage. For though a code of honour kept the inhabitants of each from inquiring into the business of their neighbours, scenes in the Yard were fair game for all.
After a moment, and a great sigh from Moll, the door withdrew just enough to allow into the vestibule Dempsey’s small, slim form. Mary hurried forward to embrace him. He was a tallow chandler from Shoreditch, Dip-Candle Mary being his house name. Such names were customary in these houses, which referenced either one’s profession or physical appearance. Indeed, Billy had never known him by any other, though the man had always been sweet on him. Sweet enough to forgive the trinkets Billy had lifted from his dressing table when staying the night. That silver-handled comb the man really didn’t need seeing as how he kept his hair so short. That errant bit of coin taken from coat pockets…
From the dark vestibule, Billy looked toward the glow of the front parlour. The room was filled with claret wallpapering before which replicas of Roman forms thought or gloried or sported in alabaster relief. Chintz upholstered sofas and settees of various conditions reclined before the fireplace, currently cold, its salt shelf crammed with crucibles of scented oil waiting to ignite on crackling nights. The parlour was lit by two fat beeswax candles stuck into halves of an antiquated urn hung over the mantle. The widely cast light lifted a glow from the gold threading of the furniture and, for a moment, a glow in Billy himself as he recalled the handful of good times he’d enjoyed while living here.
No question, Moll had come up in the world. When his eyes returned to hers, pride shone in her face as though to say: only observe all I have accomplished since I got rid of you. When Billy took a tentative step forward she held up a thin finger, forbidding him to take another step, dripping like a rainforest. He began to undress.