Rose Dawkins had a terrible secret. It wasn’t something she had done, per say, but it was a secret, a tightly coiled spasm of shame in her chest, a roiling nausea in her stomach. The nausea, in fact, was related to the secret.
She had dressed for a stroll with her friend Josephine that morning, along the streets of London, heading for Hyde Park. The wind was crisp and biting, a late autumn chill lingering in the air.
“Are you quite well dear? You seem rather peaked,” Josephine remarked, a concerned look on her face as she inspected her friend, her companion. They had met years ago, back when Rose had studied in a typing school, under that strict Nunn woman. Rose hadn’t been good enough for Miss Nunn though. Brought up proper she might have been, but Rose had got on better with the working-class girls, the ones that liked to go out with boys, sailing and shows, and all the delights a city like London had to offer. And she had had a grand ole’ time. That was, until Rhonda Nunn had chastised her for behaving like a common whore.
Usually, Rose didn’t dwell on those types of things. Memories like that, quiet shames and bitter tears, were for lonely nights.
Some days though, like today, Miss Nunn’s words stayed with Rose, a constant drum, an unrelenting echo in her mind.
“I, well, you see…” Rose stopped, the words lodged in her throat. Did she dare admit her secret? Her fear, her worry, that she carried with her, that she had told no one of these past few weeks?
Josephine placed a soft, gloved hand on Rose’s arm, an imploring look in her eye, inviting Rose into her confidence. Rose looked around, a sweeping gaze, making sure no one was listening in. At a newspaper stand on the side of the street, gruesome drawings of the mangled corpse of Mary Jane Kelly graced the front of the Times and The Morning Post, and a boy squawked about the Ripper of East End. That monster had already murdered five women. Rose shuddered.
She raised her eyes to Josephine’s and whispered, the barest tremble in her voice, “I think… I think I might have syphilis.”
Josephine’s eyes widened, her mouth slack with shock. “No,” she said. “Are you quite sure?”
Rose nodded, her chin quivering. “I wasn’t certain, you know. I thought it was something only the lads could catch, but, Josie…” She paused, her voice lowering until it was barely audible. “I’ve been feeling ill for a while now, and I… I have sores. Down there.”
“Oh, darling,” Josephine murmured.
“I’m scared Josie,” Rose breathed, wiping at her eyes as delicately as she could. “What is going to happen to me?”
“That bastard. Where is your husband? He and I will be having words.”
Rose gasped at her friend’s street talk, her low, common cursing. Then she laughed. It had been years since she spent time with the type of girls who spoke so, and she remembered how much she had liked it, the freedom of it. The laughter loosened something inside her, and all of Rose’s secret thoughts, her fears and suspicions, came tumbling out.
“You think he’s been fooling by Whitechapel and that area? You think he’s a regular for some penny tumbler?” Rose said, voice dark. Lord, but she was angry. Four months they’d been married, her and Gideon, and in all that time, they’d bedded only twice. The first, Rose understood would not be so affectionate. After all, they were strangers, and Gideon was considerably older than she. But the second? He had been so remote, so uninterested. A duty performed, a chore to be done with. And he hadn’t sought her out since. Rose knew many women considered such liaisons to be dull obligations, but men? Weren’t they meant to be lustful creatures, savage in their desire to plunder the female flesh? In Rose’s experience, it had certainly seemed this way.
“It’s possible,” Josephine hedged, “that he seeks the favor of prostitutes.”
“I feel like a penny tumbler myself,” Rose muttered. “This is what he’s done to me—he’s turned me into one of them.”
Josephine was quiet. They passed a group of boys on the street, teenagers it looked like, too young to be so cocky, to walk with such swagger. The boys sauntered over to them, wagging their eyebrows and thrusting out their hips. “Oi!” They hollered. “Going up to the bougie fair are ya?”
Josephine stopped, a magnificent look of disdain creeping onto her face. The boys got closer, invading their space, and Rose’s heart started to pound, harder, faster. A subtle roaring filled her ears, like she was underwater.
“Hmmm, sweethearts? Off to the meat market?” they said, all oily smiles and threatening eyes.
Josephine sneered. “Get bloody well off with you.”
“Oh ho ho,” they cackled. “And she talks like a whore too, don’t you sweetheart.”
Just then a couple of policemen strode over. Voices gruff, they directed the boys to find themselves gone, to leave the ladies alone.
“Thank you, officers,” Rose managed to say.
The officers shared a look. The one with a mustache leaned in, his face not too far from Rose’s own. “Just so we’re clear ladies, we do have to know if you two are, in fact, of that profession. Have you been registered?” The officer tried to reach for Rose’s arm, and she could smell the ale on his breath. Josephine growled, and Rose yanked her arm away. She had had quite enough.
“Look,” she said, waving her hand in their faces, her voice as harsh as she could make it. “I have a ring. I am a married woman.”
The officers spared a glance for the solid, gold band on her finger, before shrugging. “Our apologies, ladies,” the mustached one said, tipping his hat. They left.
“Well,” Rose breathed. “Can you believe it? Those men treated us like prostitutes.” She shuddered, gripping the iron railing separating the park from the street, her nails skidding across the cold, hard metal.
Josephine shot her a look, peeking out from under her dark, thick lashes. “We are prostitutes my dear. We’re married women.”
. . .
It was much later that evening, night having fallen only a few hours before, when Rose readied herself to leave. Her husband had been distant towards her during dinner, as he always was, but Rose was not about to dismiss it this time. This time, she would find out where he went while the rest of the world slept.
When her husband rose from the bed, doubtless to seek a woman of loose morals, Rose waited, just a beat, before she threw on a coat, tugged on her boots, and followed him out into the cold, dark streets.
He caught an omnibus, and Rose slipped in behind him. When he got off, Rose got off as well, trailing him as he wound through the streets. She shivered, her skin stinging in the frigid air, flurries drifting and getting caught in her hair, her eyelashes, the cold sneaking in through the thin sleeves of her gown. Weaving her way through the lamp-lit London boulevards, she noted that the walkways narrowed. There was grime along the side of the road, the smells were growing more potent, thick and rotten. She passed someone tall, in a dark coat, flashing past her, and she started back.
For a moment, that man, so tall and imposing, seemed like a figure from a nightmare. A specific nightmare. For just a moment, Rose thought she recognized him.
It had been years ago, when she was still so young and naïve. A flirting, teasing girl, who liked to play with boy’s hearts with a simple toss of her bright red curls, a beckoning glance in her robin’s blue eyes. But Rose had learned that at some point, at a certain age, it didn’t do to tease boys, because at some point, those boys became men. And some men, well, some men didn’t wait for a girl like Rose to give them her cue.
Rose could still feel it sometimes, like a ghost, thick hands closing around her throat, choking off her air. And a whisper, velvety and deep, promising things in her ear. Sordid, nasty things, the things men usually requisitioned cheap, alleyway prostitutes for. She had gasped, and he had liked it, that man, shoving her hard against a screen in her father’s garden. Her father hadn’t worried for her—it wouldn’t have occurred to him to monitor his daughter’s behavior, especially when it came to young men. It was understood, well and truly, that she had them in her pocket.
That man had raked his hands through her hair, tugging her curls, first gently, then roughly, twirling a lock around his fingers and yanking it down as hard as he could. She had opened her mouth to scream, but he had bottled it up, sealing the sound with a kiss. A mean one, pressing, pressing back, until her head finally smacked against the screen and her vision went dark.
Rose didn’t know what happened after that. It was a blur, of hands and hair and tongue and teeth. All she knew, was that the next day there were bruises, on her ribs, around her throat, between her legs, and she had decided that she would never marry. She would never be with a man, would never let one close to her. Never again.
She had signed up for Rhonda Nunn’s typing school then, embracing her spinsterhood. But that too, only lasted a few months before Miss Nunn booted her out for cavorting with the working girls and their suitors. Her father had her engaged to bachelor Gideon Dawkins not long after that. She hadn’t wanted to marry; truly, the idea repulsed her. But Rose was strong, always had been. She could learn to live with it.
Syphilis, on the other hand, she could not live with.
She wrapped her coat tighter around her chest, silently cursing her shockingly red hair, for not having had the forethought to wrap a scarf or some other covering around her pretty, pale face. She didn’t want to attract attention, not here. Not in these parts. For Rose finally recognized where her husband had unwittingly led her: one of the seediest, vilest parts of East London. Her husband had brought her to Whitechapel.
For all her running about with her working girls, she had never come down here. It had felt too dirty, too raw, too close to the little girl who had been assaulted in a garden. This place, she knew, would open her up, expose the wounds she had tried so desperately to hide over the past couple of years. But, if this was where her husband went to roll with loose women, Rose couldn’t say she wasn’t surprised. It only made her hate him more, for bringing her here.
He turned off of the main thoroughfare, into an even narrower side street. It was darker here, dirtier, but Rose could still, just barely, make out the shape of her distinguished looking husband. He cut a dashing figure, she could admit. She was surprised he had remained a bachelor for so long. Surely, he would have had countless beauties trying to claim him. And he had settled for her, a girl nobody else wanted. She knew her father had to beg him to take her, she who had rejected everyone else, whom people called “odd.” But she had also been relieved in a way, even though she hadn’t wanted to marry in the first place. At least, she had told herself, she wouldn’t starve.
She followed as he made another turn, passing a row of urinals. She strode along as fast as she could, almost running because she didn’t want to lose him as he turned again down another ally, really a hole in a wall. She tripped over a loose stone in the road, crashing to her feet, scraping her palms against the rough-hewn cobbles. Cursing furiously under her breath, she gathered herself up, certain she had lost him now, lost him and all this would be for nothing. Her heart pounded in her ears as she spun, trying to make out shapes in the moon’s light.
She thought she saw him, leaning against the wall. She could tell by the way the way his sandy hair glinted in the light, by the shape of his shoulders, the way he stood. But there was something odd about it. Rose inched closer, nervous, her hands shaking, and she tucked them beneath her elbows, crossing her arms tightly over her chest. Closer, she moved, stepping lightly, and she thought, she wasn’t sure, but she thought, that there was another person there. Another person trapped between her husband and the wall. Impossible. When did he have time to grab a prostitute? Rose had seen several, leaning against the walls, their breath forming clouds in the icy air. Rose had seen them shiver, had seen their eyes follow her husband as he had walked past them all. So who was this person, this person he was pressed up against so passionately? This person could only have been there already, waiting for Gideon.
She leaned in closer, only about ten feet away. Rose’s heart stuttered. That was a man, her husband was kissing. A man, whose hair her husband was so tenderly running his fingers through. Rose was in shock. She didn’t know what this was, what this meant. Her husband stroked the other man’s chest, bit his ear, and the strange man moaned. Rose thought her husband had certainly not made that sound when she was under him.
This…this was sodomy. Her husband was an invert, one of those men, something Rose wasn’t sure she even had a name for. She felt something rise in her stomach, her head spinning. Suddenly she felt very dizzy. She stumbled forward, falling again to her knees. She didn’t know what to make of this, she didn’t know what to do. She had lain with…she had lain with this man, this man who preferred other men. And what struck her, watching them, was how much Gideon so clearly cherished this other person. This other person, Rose was remembering, who had given her bloody syphilis.
The thing rising in her, that nauseas something, had given way to something else, hotter, angrier.
Distantly, not fully in control, she moaned, a high keening sound. The men spun around, their mouths red and plump from kissing, their hair mussed. Rose looked up, catching her husband’s eye, and she tracked the multitude of emotions flitting across his face: shock, fear, anger, concern, back to fear. Rose was up in a flash, a phantom spirit taking control of her limbs. She whirled and vanished into the street.
She ran, ran as she never had before, ran until she was sure her feet had bled through her boots. She ran until she couldn’t anymore, crouched and panting, her side screaming in protest. She didn’t want to look at her husband, at his handsome, distant face, the face she was tied to until this disease surely killed her. She fell back, back against the wall of some alley, some little side street, and sobbed, deep, wretched sobs that wracked her body. She ran her long, delicate, fingers through her hair, pulling, yanking, as if, by tearing it all out, she could erase what she had witnessed.
After several long moments, her crying quieted to mere hiccups. She was quite lost now, hopelessly so, but Rose didn’t care. She didn’t care about anything at all. Not anymore. She was going die, wasn’t she? That’s what happened to girls like her. Not just those who caught syphilis from their queer husbands, but like she always had been, inside. A prostitute, a whore. That man in the garden had known, so had those pests in the street, so had the police. So had Rhonda Nunn. Her friend Josephine had called her so, right to her face, just earlier that day. Everyone knew, the whole world, so it was only fitting that this should happen to her. It was just the way of things, for girls like her.
She stood, stumbling to her feet, sore and aching. She wandered without seeing, without needing to. What could happen, truly, what could hurt her, that hadn’t already? Nothing, there was nothing. Rose believed this fiercely. Clung to it. It was this thought, that she had seen it, that she had experienced it, everything that was out there, everything that meant her harm, that enabled her to go on. And so she walked. She walked past the prostitutes in the streets, the brothels lit and lively, the taverns from which she could make out hoarse, drunken singing. They sounded cheerful, the tavern folk. It was possible, she thought, that they didn’t have syphilis, those people in there.
It was then that she heard a scream pierce the still night air.
Rose knew, in her bones, that that was no shriek of delight, no quick gasp as someone tripped over the cobblestones. No, this was a bone-chilling, gut wrenching, scream of pure terror. It was the sound she herself had tried to make, had wanted to, when she was pressed up against a screen, years ago. That was the sound a victim made.
Rose ran blindly in the direction of the sound. She didn’t know why she was running towards the source of that terror, only that she had too, like she was possessed. Het boots flew over the cobblestones, bringing her closer to where she had been before, another dark alley just off the main thoroughfare of Whitechapel road. That was when she saw them.
A man, tall, wearing a great dark coat that flapped in the wind, hovered over a prone figure on the ground. Someone slight in a dress, with a spill of yellow hair. Rose marched up to them. She had nothing in her hands, nothing she could use as a weapon, only a fire burning in her gut. She stalked over to them, getting as close as she dared to the man in the coat. He whipped around to face her, his features surprisingly ordinary, before raising his hand to strike her. Rose ducked. It was dark, so her aim wasn’t perfect, but she thrust her fist in the approximate area between his legs, making contact. He doubled over, for just a moment, bringing his face closer to her knee. Taking swift advantage, she thrust her knee up, hitting him square in the chin. He grunted, falling back against the dirt and stones.
In the space of a breath, Rose crouched down, inspecting the unconscious girl. Her face was bloody, her dress ripped, hair matted and tangled, but she was breathing. Definitely still alive. The girl was young, but she wore the unmistakable rouge of a prostitute. Rose shook her shoulder, trying to wake her.
“Miss, miss, please,” she begged, her voice not above a whisper. She didn’t figure she had much time before the man rose.
Suddenly, Rose felt a blow to her head, a sharp, smacking pain, and she went flying, tossed several feet away. She groaned, her ribs aching, her face on fire, everything dark and spinning. An elbow pressed down on her throat, crushing her, killing her breath. She choked, gasped, struggled to raise that arm, as unyielding as iron. Her attacker made no sound, but at her wet, gurgling cough, she could see his wide smile, teeth flashing in the moonlight. Another heavy leg pinned her above her hip. Oh the pain, she was in so much of it. She couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything, couldn’t scream, as this man, this huge man with the maniacal smile, grinned down at her, delighting in her struggle, her sure descent into death.
The edges of her vision grew darker, spreading like an inkblot, and for some reason, Rose heard Rhonda Nunn’s voice in her head, of all people, as clear as day. She could remember how Miss Nunn had fumed, asking rose where she had been all hours of the night. For some reason, Rose had taken a certain perverse pleasure in explaining that she had gone sailing with working girls and their beaus.
Rose had smiled, saccharine sweet and Miss Nunn drew close, concern knitting her brow. “Girls of our class are not like those uneducated, who will marry any man rather than remain single,” she had told Rose, warning her away from such evil associations.
But Rose had continued, not because she had been desperate to find a husband, but because she felt like she could be honest with those girls. She could let the dirty, violated parts of herself be seen. And Miss Nunn had told her, disgusted, “My aim is to help chosen girls, who promise to be of some use in this world. You, my dear, represent the profitless average.”
Within a few months, Rose was back in her father’s house. Miss Nunn had thought her useless, hopeless, an unnecessary influence on the other girls who were posed to one day topple the patriarchal system. Rose wasn’t one of them. Rose was just another girl, a nothing, pinned beneath a big man’s leg, hurtling towards death. Whether by this man’s hand, or the disease between her legs, Rose supposed it mattered not. What did she have to offer the world?
But, she remembered, gasping, Miss Nunn had said more, taught her more, than Rose’s own pitiful self-worth. Rhonda Nunn had fiercely believed that whatever a man could do, a woman could do equally well. The thought emboldened Rose like a strike of lightening.
Quick as a flash, Rose shoved her hand upward, her fist as hard as a rock, into the man’s grinning mouth. She could actually feel her hand knock the teeth loose, the blood slipping, oozing between her knuckles. His elbow flew off her throat, and coughing, dragging air into her lungs, ignoring her pounding head, her spotty vision, she hooked her hand, inside his mouth, forcing his face closer to hers. She then stuck her fingers, as roughly, and with as much force as she could, into his ears. He screamed, a high, howling sound, and Rose couldn’t help it. She grinned.
He went down, collapsing onto his side, his leg finally off of her hip. Rose staggered to her feet, searching desperately for a weapon, anything, anything at all. Finding absolutely nothing, she decided to kick him, with all the power in her body. She swung her booted foot at his temple. He moaned, clutching his head, his ears, his bloody mouth, and Rose felt something climb inside her, up, up, a rising tide. She thought it might be glee.
She kicked him, again, again, again, until he stopped moving. It didn’t matter though, to Rose. She just continued to swing, to kick, grateful for her heavy winter boots. She stepped, with her full weight, onto his neck, pressing down until she heard a crack. She cried then, at the sound, let it out, all the hot, torrid feelings, the churning of her gut, the words worthless, average, prostitute, whore, echoing in her mind, a constant beat of a drum. She thought of a screen, in a garden, and words whispered against her neck, and she kicked his stomach, his side. He, she felt, represented all that was evil in this world.
Arms wrapped around her waist from behind, lifting her clean off the ground. She thrashed, fighting, trying to jam her elbow up into her attacker’s face, his throat.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” she heard her husband mutter. She knew that voice. “What have you done, wife?” he asked.
She stilled, relaxed her muscles, let him drop her to the ground. She felt, to her astonishment, an overwhelming urge to turn and crumple into him, to cry into his chest, and let him hold her, stroke her hair. But she repressed it. She hadn’t forgotten what he had done to her.
“Get off me, don’t touch me, you invert,” she hissed. He backed away, his face frozen, hands raised in the air. He took in the scene, the man’s body, blood everywhere, and the prostitute’s unconscious form only a few feet away. He sighed, rubbed his chin. “What am I going to do with you?”
“I killed him,” she said, voice flat, eyes narrowed at her husband. Unspoken, though she was sure he understood, she could do the same to him. She knew Rhonda Nunn hadn’t intended for her girls to fight society by killing its’ men, but she didn’t think Miss Nunn would be all that heart-broken over it either.
“Do you want to go to jail, do you want to be locked up, you lunatic?” he snarled at her. “Have some sense.”
“What need have I of sense? I’m going to die anyway.”
Suddenly concerned, he stepped towards her. “Did he hurt you?” her husband asked, eyes wide.
“No, you fool. You did.” He looked at her blankly. “You, dear husband, have given me bloody syphilis!”
He stepped back, his face a mask of shock, of remorse. “Oh,” he whispered.
“Oh yes, Oh. Well met, husband,” she sneered. She felt quite outside her body then, her heart beating thunderously fast, her hands shaking. Her eyes were wide, wild, and she thought, at that moment, that precisely anything could happen.
“You can’t report me,” he said.
He crossed his arms, pacing in the dim, bloodied alley. “You just committed murder, you—” He paused. Approached the man in the coat with the crushed larynx and the blood leaking out from his skull. “This is, this isn’t Jack the Ripper is it?”
Rose shrugged. She quite didn’t know.
. . .
They worked to hide the body, dragging until they found a sewer to drop it into. They didn’t want to leave behind any evidence of the crime. While they worked, they spoke.
Gideon Dawkins leaned in and said in a low, bitter voice, “You can’t speak a word of what you saw, not even to your friend Josephine. It’s because of her and that Stead character that the bloody criminal law amendment act was even passed.”
She didn’t ask him what he meant, what he was talking about. She just dragged the body, the body that Gideon was sure had to be Jack the Ripper, her mouth set in a hard line.
“If anyone knew I was, that I had…” he trailed off, jaw unable to keep working, to form sounds. It felt like a spear to his heart, every time, that when he tried to give voice to what he was, he felt dirty inside.
“That what?” she said. “That you’re a bloody homosexual?”
He sucked in air, asked, “You know what that is?”
“Well I did see the two of you with my own eyes, thank you sir, I don’t think I need a bloody definition.”
“It’s called ‘indecent acts’, in the law. I could go to prison for it,” he whispered.
“And maybe you should,” she shot back.
He straightened, almost dropping Jack the Ripper’s arms. “Well and maybe you should, murderess.”
“I was only defending myself. And that girl,” she sniffed.
Gideon snorted. “Sure, use that argument in a court of law.”
They were quiet for several more moments, grunting and shifting the man’s weight. Finally, they plunged him down, down into the sewer. His body sunk and disappeared, carried away by the tide. Rose leaned, resting her hands on her knees, and let out a long, slow breath. “Now what, husband?” she asked.
He turned to her, zeal in his eyes. “Make me a deal,” he said. “A promise, to each other.”
She eyed him warily.
“I won’t speak a word of what I saw tonight, won’t tell anyone the true fate of Jack the Ripper. And you won’t tell anyone that you saw me with another man. Promise me, Rose,” he whispered.
He looked at her, the moonlight dancing in her eyes, spilling like milk over her smooth, clear skin. Here, illuminated by the light glancing off the spindly, elongated branches of the trees, she looked utterly guileless. But Gideon wasn’t taking any chances. He stared at her, unrelenting, until slowly, hesitantly, she nodded. “Our secret,” she whispered.
He breathed, expelling all the frustration, the years of hiding, of sneaking, of furtive touches under the table, of longing glances quickly averted, of meeting in grime-coated alleyways, in private offices, after dark. In secret, always in secret, a secret weight on his heart. He had been in love many times, Gideon had. And it always hurt.
They walked back home together, the dark pervasive and deep. So thick, it acted like a wall, separating Rose and Gideon from the rest of the world. The wind whistled through the trees, rustling the branches, and Gideon grit his teeth against the bite of it. Soon, he knew, soon they would be home. Soon they would be safe, after a long, long night.
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