The Scoundrel and I - Katharine Ashe
Brittle & Sons, Printers
Sometimes an honest, affectionate girl is born into misfortune but, by the grace of God or Luck or Fate, eventually finds her way out of those sorry circumstances to live happily ever after.
Gabrielle Flood was not, unfortunately, one of those girls.
Which was the reason that at the age of twenty-six, despite a heart inclined to optimism and a character inclined to hard work, Elle decided once and for all there was no God in heaven, and no Luck but bad luck. As for Fate, if it existed, it was only the sort with one grotesque eyeball shared by three old crones and a pair of sharp, cutting shears, as she had read about in a book of ancient mythology: the merciless sort.
And so, as summertime shadows lengthened across the press room of Brittle & Sons, Printers, Elle committed her first crime ever.
Not crime, really. Not precisely. Rather, misdeed. She was only borrowing the printing type, not stealing it.
Of course if despicable, vindictive Jo Junior discovered it, he would claim she had stolen it, even if Mr. Brittle Senior and Charlie believed her story. But she and Charlie had been on the outs since she had asked his father to increase her weekly wages—unsuccessfully. Poor Charlie, he was as timid as a church mouse.
Josiah Brittle Junior was another sort of man altogether. He would have her thrown in prison for this.
But he would never learn of it. The Brittle family had gone to Bristol on holiday for a fortnight. Declaring a holiday for the clerk and pressmen as well, Mr. Brittle had left Elle to work alone. The shop was essentially closed, after all; they never allowed her to carry on business in their absence. “Girls don’t have the head for it, Gabby,” Jo Junior always said with a smirk. She would not have another chance like this until Christmas. And time had abruptly become of the essence.
Unlocking the wedges and quoins that held the hundreds of pieces of type tightly together in the frame, she hefted the chase from the press. It was not an entire broadsheet; she could not possibly carry a chase of that size the three blocks to her flat. It was only the text portion of Lady Justice’s latest pamphlet, and this one happened to be brief. The remainder of the sheet would be advertisements. Setting down the heavy frame on a square of felt, she wrapped it carefully and tucked the edges of the felt into firm corners. At home, her grandmother would open the cloth, touch the type, and her face would shine.
It was all Elle could do for her now.
Each evening after the shops on Gracechurch Street closed, the byway swiftly emptied of traffic except for patrons of the King’s Barrel. Elle’s friends who worked at other shops had already gone home. Like Jo Junior, they would not understand her actions now. No one but Gram would.
Taking up her swaddled treasure, she locked the shop door behind her and started toward home. Keeping close to the buildings and making every step with great care, she passed into the alleyway that led to another alley, and then to her building.
When the horse barreled around the corner, Elle had the fleeting thought that she should have heard it coming.
Flinging herself backward as a scream tore from her throat, she flattened against the wall, slammed her elbow into a protruding brick, and dropped her bundle.
She saw it all as though it were happening in a nightmare. The corners of the felt tore loose, the fabric fluttered open, the chase struck the cobbles, snapped, and broke, and hundreds of little pieces of iron cascaded across the alleyway. Blinking into the dusk in shock and horror, she saw the grate of a drain not a yard away. A piece of type teetered on one metal slat.
“No,” she whispered. “No.”
She could not move. Could not say another word. Could not make muscles function in her body or coherent thoughts form in her mind.
Heavy hooves clattered on the cobblestones. They came closer. Then closer. Then the horse was before her, a huge, dark beast clomping all over Brittle & Son’s best broadsheet type.
“No!” she cried, her lungs stuck to her spine. “No! Oh, no!”
“You there,” boomed a voice above the clomping. “Are you injured?” Clear, strong, and utterly confident, the voice did not ask. It commanded.
It shocked her out of paralysis.
Her gaze slid up—up the horse’s powerful legs, up a shining black boot, up a thigh