Artful is free on Kindle Select this weekend. Here’s the first chapter.
Detail of an original George Cruikshank engraving showing the Artful Dodger introducing Oliver to Fagin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
CHAPTER 1 TRANSPORTED
The sun crawled up the London sky like an invalid part way through convalescence. If it could have wheezed it would have wheezed. If it could have coughed it would have coughed. It would have been a thick, phlegm-heavy cough which would struggle to clear the stinking, oily air lying like a sodden blanket upon the city.
In the streets below, a line of soldiers escorted a column of men towards the river. The men’s legs shuffled due to the heavy chains which linked them together. The convicts were of all sizes: short and wiry, short and fat, tall and thin, tall and scrawny and almost every other conceivable combination. They were of all ages: men in their twenties and men in their sixties, and every age between.
All except one.
Bringing up the rear was a boy of perhaps twelve years old, dressed in men’s clothing which hung upon him as loosely as a bloodhound’s flesh.
Whereas the others in the line looked beaten and despairing to a man, the young boy gave a huge grin. He swaggered along, jaunty as possible, whistling tunelessly.
‘Good luck, Dodger,’ came a call from the gathering crowd.
‘You show ‘em, Dodger,’ cried another.
‘I’m off to be Her Majesty’s High Ambassador to the New South Welsh,’ he said, flourishing his hat. ‘When I’ve sorted everyfink out I’ll be back. Fourteen years in the diplomatic service is nothing to a young gentleman like me.’
‘Shut it back there,’ called one of the soldiers.
The boy turned towards the crowd. ‘You’d have thought that Queen Vicky would have given me a less common guard of honour.’
He started to whistle once more and acknowledged the applause and cheers of the crowd.
Most of the spectators were members of the East End community, poor, shabbily dressed and grimy with dirt. A small group, however, looked very out of place and they caught Dodger’s eye.
They were a family which had got caught up in the throng and looked very nervous to have done so. The father was a man in his late thirties, tall and upright with fine mutton-chop whiskers. His wife was small and slight and the man held her close to him as if to protect her from the crowd. The steely look upon her face, however, suggested that any protection he might offer would be quite redundant.
The parents kept a tight watch on three girls. The eldest was aged about fifteen and had a sharp face with eyes which darted everywhere with great suspicion. A toddler of perhaps two or three was cradled in her mother’s arms, looking with great anxiety not at the crowd but at her eldest sister.
It was the middle daughter who held Dodger’s gaze. She was a couple of years younger than he but, unlike him, upright in posture and well nourished. She was very pale and her face held a scatter of freckles as close to each other as stars in the night sky. A straw hat perched precariously upon a mass of wayward curls which seemed to frolic about her head. She stared open-mouthed at the column, her head turning from side to side, watching each of the convicts as they passed. She looked as though she was about to burst into tears.
Dodger came close towards her and she stopped and stared directly at him. Her eyes opened wide, so wide that her hat jiggled slightly upon her head.
He gave her a grin and swept of his hat with a flourish. She waved back and was roundly told to stay still by her sister.
As he turned the corner, Dodger glanced back. The girl was still staring at him. She raised her hand but he could not for the life of him tell whether it was to say farewell or hello.
As they marched along, Jack became aware that one of the convicts kept sneaking glances towards him. He was a little man, as skinny as a gutter-cat, with one sharp, nervous eye. The other was covered by a ragged black patch. His right hand was hidden in a filthy glove, held at an odd angle. His left hand continually stroked his mouth, a mouth which was puckered up into a permanent snarl, the skin around it creased and rutted. He had the figure of a man in his twenties but his malformed face was that of someone twice that age.
The line of convicts had to take a turn in the road and as they did so they slowed to a halt. The skinny man took the opportunity to sidle up towards Jack and jabbed him in the ribs.
‘Recognise me?’ he asked. His voice was a low sneer.
Jack shook his head.
‘Well you should do. You’re one of Fagin’s boys ain’t you? In fact, you’re his prime boy, the pick of the bunch, so they say.’
‘You may know me, but I don’t know you,’ Jack replied. The man made him shiver, as if an icy blast had sneaked in through a crack in the door.
‘You’ll come to know me,’ said the man. Flecks of spittle bubbled on his lips and he wiped them ineffectively. ‘My name’s Crimp and Fagin’s the reason I’m convicted and being sent off to the ends of the earth.’
He fell silent and peered into Jack’s face as if seeking for some answer to an irritating puzzle. ‘And I reckon you had a hand in it as well,’ he said finally.
Jack shook his head. ‘I’ve never seen you before, guvnor, honest.’ Jack was a good judge of people. Crimp did not look much of a man but Jack guessed that he meant a lot of trouble.
Crimp spat on Jack’s foot. ‘If it weren’t for the big boss I’ve had swung no doubt. And all because Fagin did the dirty on us.’
‘So where’s your boss?’ Jack asked. ‘Is he being transported?’
Crimp gave a high-pitched laugh. ‘Don’t be stupid. He’s safe from the law, being as how he is the law.’
Jack eyed him narrowly, hoping that the line would start up again so that he could get away.
The man leaned closer. ‘Do you know how long this voyage lasts?’
Jack shook his head.
‘Seven months, eight months, sometimes more.’ Crimp grabbed hold of Jack’s chin and jerked his head around.
‘So there’s plenty of time for us to get better acquainted, Jack Dawkins. And plenty of time for me to remind you of how the old Jew did for me.’
Jack swallowed, uneasy that the man knew his name.
A convict close by, a big man with curly hair, watched the incident. He scratched his head thoughtfully, shrugged his shoulders and turned away.
The skinny man slid away from Jack but remained watching him with narrowed eyes.