Elsie Hughes did not consider herself a coward or a victim, she never had and yet she wondered how many would class her as that. She knew that most here probably thought of her in that way, would watch the way she was treated, the way she'd turn on her heel and walk swiftly – she'd never run - away from the approaching storm and would pity her for it. What she liked to think – whether it was deluded or not she was never quite as sure – was that she just had a healthy dose of self preservation.
It had always been like this, for as long as she could remember her father had solved his problems using his fists. At first she hadn't been his target, her mother had pushed her into her room, told her to stay put and it had been her muffled cries she'd heard. Then when her mother had died, a wasted shell of the woman she had once been there had been no distraction and Elsie was his next target.
She'd wanted to leave, of course she had, but she simply didn't have the means and she wasn't silly enough to think that the big bad world would welcome her with open arms, it was filled with enough penniless waifs. Her father had never handed her a penny in all the years she'd lived, he'd buy her her clothing, give her enough to eat so that she wouldn't starve, insisting that this and the roof over her head was in lue of wages for all the work she carried out in the theatre. Elsie couldn't hold back a snort at that, work, it was more like slave labour. She cleaned this place with no help, tried to make the minor repairs that would hold it together, repair costumes and it was never ever enough. Still it remained better than the alternative where she'd be reduced to selling her body and a few bruises and some hard work would always be preferable to that.
That made her sound as though she intended to put up with it though, that she'd live her life stuck in this quiet desperation and that certainly wasn't the case. She was saving, desperately squirreling away every penny that she earned and one day she would escape, live her own life and no man would ever tell her what to do again.
She'd found a job working mornings in a small grocers, her father was rarely up before mid afternoon and would never venture there anyway so it was perfect. Her wage was meagre but it was something and it would give her a reference and that reference would open doors for her. The performers as well would slip her a few pennies for mending their costumes when he wasn't looking, knowing full well that she had nothing of her own. She wished she didn't have to accept, could see the pity in their eyes as they pressed the coins into her hand but there was no other way. She wanted to have a safety net, to have enough to get far away from here, to be able to rent a room for a while if needs be and to do that she'd do whatever she had to.
A knock at the door instantly made her back stiffen and her skin crawl even though she knew that her father would never knock, he'd just barge in. She got carefully, quietly, to her feet and opened the door, peering out and letting out a soft sigh when she saw Catherine, one of their show dancers on the other side. Her blonde hair was curled over her shoulders, she wore only a flimsy robe wrapped around herself and her feet were bare. Elsie knew most women her age would be shocked but this was simply life here and Catherine was really lovely – although very bold and forward.
Her red and black outfit for the night was scrunched in her hands and she gave a small pout as she held it forward. "The seam in the side's gone," she told her breathlessly, "we go on in two hours and I can't sew to save myself."
Elsie took the garment wordlessly, examining the tear carefully before nodding, telling her, "I can fix this, come in and wait while I do it won't take me very long and you'll freeze in the dressing room in that thing."
Catherine ran her finger down the lapel as she stepped into the room. "Perhaps," she shrugged looking nonplussed, "but it is silk so I can't complain."
Elsie pursed her lips sceptically, no doubt one of Catherine's many admirers had told her it was silk and she didn't want to quash that particular fantasy. "You'd still be better with something more substantial."
"But that wouldn't be as pretty," Catherine smiled, swooping the material around her ankles.
"Hmmm," Elsie murmured as she threaded her needle and quickly got to work. "Pretty is all well and good but you won't look good with a red nose and streaming eyes."
"Don't be so negative," the older girl tsked. "You should let your hair down a bit, live a little."
"Yes, I'm sure that would go down well," she remarked dryly.
Catherine's face fell. "Oh...I forgot...I mean I didn't-"
Elsie held up her hand, silencing her. "I'm not trying to incite sympathy, just pointing out a fact. Anyway I somehow don't think I'm made for enticing men and sashaying around in shocking outfits."
She gave a small tinkle of laugher. "If you wanted to I'm sure you could get away with it, you're not as plain as you seem to think, so if you ever change your mind then you just need to come and see me."
"I'll keep it in mind," Elsie promised her, although her words rang hollow to her own ears. She would never want to look like that, to gain that kind of attention from a man, after all why just exchange one prison for another?"
"Liar," Catherine countered, smiling at her. She leaned against the shoddy wall, watching Elsie's nimble fingers as she stitched the material neatly back together. "You know we have a new act tonight," she mentioned calmly.
"I didn't know that, what kind?"
"Not sure, but I hope they're good looking men," Catherine replied as she twirled one solitary blonde curl around her finger.
"Do you not have enough good looking men?" Elsie teased.
"One can never have enough," she sniffed haughtily in reply before bursting into a fit of giggles. "Or perhaps I was thinking of you, you could run off into the sunset with a handsome, talented performer."
"I've had quite enough of the men in this profession," she replied tightly, and she thought she was being overly generous with the terming the job as a profession. Not only did she have to contend with her father's violent outbursts but she also had to avoid the ones who thought that like many of the women here she was desperate for a fumble in a darkened corridor and so as a result she had spent many an evening slapping away roaming hands and spurning sloppy kisses.
"You haven't had any men in any profession," Catherine shot back sagely, "So how on earth can you say you've had enough?"
"Call it instinct."
Catherine gave another giggle. "One day you'll meet a man who turns your head and you'll have to take back everything you've said."
"Mmmm," Elsie murmured, eyebrow raised in scepticism. "We shall see but I wouldn't hold my breath." She snipped her thread and handed the finished garment back to Catherine. "Good as new."
She gave it a cursory glance. "Perfect, you can't even tell that there was a rip there." She dipped her hand into the pocket of her gown and pressed a penny into Elsie's hand. "You are a lifesaver."
Elsie tried to push the coin back towards her. "Consider it a favour between friends."
"No." Catherine closed her hands, curling them into fists as she shook her head. "I'm not taking it back. You can stash it away with the rest, put it towards that dream of yours, after all I'm living mine."
Elsie decided not to reply to that, perhaps this was the older girl's dream but she couldn't understand it and therefore she probably shouldn't comment on it. After all she didn't want to offend her friend just because they had different aims in life. Instead she simply smiled softly and tucking the penny away, told her, "You're a good friend."
Catherine winked as she replied, "What can I say, I thought it wise to stay on the good side of such a talented seamstress."
Elsie gave a small chuckle as she watched Catherine leave the room, her steps light, deft. She turned the coin round and round between her fingers, it was real, solid and reliable, the complete opposite of the life she had, of what any relationship might be. You couldn't see or touch a relationship, you had to trust that it was there and she just couldn't. She trusted what she could see and she would not allow herself to put her faith in something so frail and subjective.
The penny slipped from her fingers, nestling into the bottom of her pocket as she heard the bottom step leading up to her room creak. She got to her feet, instantly recognizing the tread – how could she not – and looked for an escape. There wasn't any, there was one way in and one way out.
He'd found her, she felt sick to her stomach, her hiding place discovered. She'd thought – foolishly perhaps that he wouldn't find her here, the small room hidden up a curved flight of stairs behind the set of offices that lingered at the back of the large changing room used by all the different acts. Her father hated the offices there, felt they were too close to his employees, not flash enough, not separate enough for a man as important –self important really – as him. And so for a while she'd believed herself safe.
Not anymore. Her heart thudded in her chest, he'd sought her out, went looking for her and so he must want something from her. The tread grew louder, his step uneven which meant he'd already been drinking, the door flew open, banging against the opposite wall and her lips squeezed shut as she tried not to show her fear. It was worse when she showed that she was hurt or scared, he got more of a thrill out of it, drew it out.
He glared at her, his forehead sweating, cheeks red, nostrils flaring. "What are you doing up here?" he spat, a ball of saliva budding at the side of his mouth.
"Just doing some mending...for the acts," she added belatedly. He expected her to work for her keep and if he ever thought she was slacking he'd let his anger rain down on her.
His lip curled. "They could do that by themselves, the carpets aren't going to clean themselves though? Are they?"
"No, but I did the floors yesterday so-"
His open hand slapped her across the face, his shoulders heaving as he towered over her and it was only then that Elsie realised he'd knocked her down, that she was sprawled across the dusty floor. "I wanted them done! And what about the banisters?"
"I did them."
"Not in my box you didn't."
She had no argument to that, she hadn't went near that box. He watched the show there every night, surveying his crumbling, sleazy kingdom, most of the time he didn't notice the dust, the empty bottles that still lingered there, he'd normally had too much to drink to notice anything. But tonight, tonight he'd noticed and she was going to pay for that. "I can do it now," she told him, her voice calm as she forced herself not to cup her burning cheek.
"I don't want it done now!" He roared, leaning down, grabbing her hair in his fist as he twisted he face painfully to look into his. "You should know your job, your responsibilities by now! I've warned you before Elizabeth! You expect me to feed you, clothe you and give you a place to live for nothing?"
"Of course not." She watched as his fingers curled into a fist, bracing herself for another blow.
He flexed his wrist, as though he were considering his options. "You'll do it tomorrow," he finally breathed out. "And you'll dust every nook and cranny of this place, I won't let my livelihood fail because you're a lazy good for nothing little bitch." He threw her backwards, finally releasing his grip on her hair as he did so. "So what do you have to say to that?"
"Yes, Father," Elsie murmured quietly, she kept her head bowed so her eyes didn't meet his, he saw it as disrespectful if they did. She wanted to rage, to strike him back, it took all of her self control not to, because it wouldn't help her to be out on the streets.
"Good," he snapped, giving the room a disinterested look as he staggered out of it, clumsily making his way out of what had been her private sanctuary. She'd have to find a new one now.
Elsie got awkwardly to her feet, belatedly realising that she'd bruised her hip as she'd fallen, the joint throbbing painfully. The show was due to start soon and she was expected to be down in the dressing room, fetching drinks and carrying out last minute errands or repairs. She couldn't miss it, especially not considering her father's mood. She could only hope that her cheek wasn't too inflamed looking that people would stare, their eyes pitying. Her teeth gritted, oh how she hated pity, it didn't do her any good, didn't help her and just set her teeth on edge.
She brushed her skirt down, wincing slightly as her hand brushed over her hip and felt her hair quickly, checking all the pins were in place. Having assured herself that they were she walked carefully down the stairs, thinking of where she could move to next. She'd have to move everything later but she couldn't wait too long, not now he knew where she would be hiding out when she wasn't working.
Her heavy grey skirt swished around her ankles as she made her way into the dressing room, ducking out the way slightly as one half of their magic act rushed past her with an empty birds cage. Elsie shuddered as she prayed fervently that one of the birds hadn't escaped again. "Do you need any help?" she called after him.
"Nope, just the door's buckled," he called back as he disappeared into the pile of props at the back of the room.
Elsie gave a small laugh as she watched him rummage frantically, turning her attention back to her next task, gathering water jugs together and leaving them at the side for the acts to help themselves to. She weaved in and out of the crowd, making her way to the back of the room when she felt a small rush of wind against the back of her neck. She turned to see that two men had made their way into the room, the cold air from the corridor following them.
Her eyes narrowed as she watched them, the smaller of the two headed straight towards the dancers, a wide grin spreading across his features. She didn't like him, it might be an unfair judgement but he was too arrogant, too cocky for her liking, had strolled in like he'd own the place. Turning her head she found that she had to tilt her head to look up at the second man.
He was much taller, much broader than the men she was used to, his dark hair had a slight curl to it, his brown eyes stern as he stared disapprovingly at his partner, his jaw fixed, his teeth very obviously gritted. "Can I help you?" Elsie asked after a moment.
He turned and Elsie shifted awkwardly on her feet when she saw surprise bloom across his strong features – when on earth had she become so fanciful? His eyes darting over her, his mouth opening slightly and then closing again, as though he'd thought better of speaking. Her frown deepened as she repeated herself, "Can I help you?"
Finally he replied, his voice deep, a low rumble that did something funny to her stomach, made it twist in a way that wasn't entirely unpleasant. "I hope you can, we're meant to be performing here tonight for the first time."
"Oh, you're our new act, well I'm sure you'll be more than familiar with what's expected of you. You're due on after our resident magicians and James will announce you. She pointed over to the small, wiry blonde man who was currently leaning over Catherine's shoulder, most likely trying to look down her corset.
He gave a nod, "Thank you," he told her. He turned his hat in his hands as he asked, "Are you a performer?"
Elsie gave a small laugh as she shook her head. "Oh no, I just help out, that's all, so you'll see me around and if you need any help with anything at all then just ask."
"That's very kind of you." He held out his hand, adding, "I'm Charles Carson."
She took the proffered hand, a small shiver going down her spine, his touch cool and firm. "Elsie Hughes."
His eyes glinted in recognition. "Related to the theatre owner?"
Elsie tried to keep her expression neutral as she replied, "His daughter."
"You're nothing like him," he commented before looking slightly disturbed by his own forwardness. "I'm sorry I shouldn't have said that."
"It's fine, I'm very glad you think so in fact," she returned, her voice calm as she registered the surprise on his face. "Anyway, I can't stand around here talking, I have to get back to work." She let her hand slip from his as she added finally, "Good luck tonight, Mr Carson."
She saw him nod, and could feel his eyes follow her for the rest of the night, and she was surprised and somewhat perturbed to find that she didn't mind.