The Baron's MaladyBy: Rose Pearson
A Smithfield Market Regency Romance(Book 4)
Miss Josephine Noe, daughter to the latest deceased Mr. and Mrs. Noe, sat quietly on a grubby step in Smithfield Market, trying her best to stop the cold wind from getting in through her moth-eaten shawl. Her unshod feet were raw with cold and she attempted to tuck them under her grubby skirts. Her eyes were red but there were no more tears left. She had nothing left within her to give. All she had to do now was survive.
The wind whipped about her and she shivered, trying her best to ignore the grumbling of her stomach. It had been hours since she’d last eaten and, even then, it had only been a half-rotten apple and a moldy bit of bread she’d found in an alleyway. There was nothing going spare and since she was only one of hundreds of beggars on the street, it wasn’t likely she’d be able to survive if things carried on this way.
She’d thought to come to London from her home in Hampstead, hoping that she’d somehow find work and be able to scratch out a living, but that dream had died almost the moment she’d set foot in the town. There was nothing here but disease and death. The very same disease that had taken her parents and forced her from her village.
When her parents had become ill, she’d done everything she could to help them, but to no avail. What had made things all the worse was that she too had become sick but, for whatever reason, had managed to recover from it. She could still remember the ache in her throat, her pounding head, and skin that itched and burned. Her days had been filled with delirium until, finally, she’d emerged weak and frail, but no longer ill.
It had not been that way for her parents. Unable to do anything to help them, she had seen them taken from her one after the other. The agony of that still tore at her, bringing tears to her eyes whenever she so much as thought of it.
The village had not wanted her to linger, however. They had heard of this disease sweeping through nearby towns and had demanded that she leave the village for good, even though she had already had the disease and then recovered. There had been no other choice for her and she’d realized that it was fear that had forced her friends and neighbors to act as they did. Doing as they’d asked without protest, she’d taken the few things she had left and walked away from the only place she’d called home. The village folk had burned her parent’s cottage to the ground, doing all they could to prevent the disease from spreading.
Josephine prayed that the village folk were safe. She was not angry with them for treating her as though she were some kind of leper, remembering how mothers had clutched their children to them as she had passed. Being in London these last weeks, she had seen just how truly awful this ‘scarlet fever’ was. The disease was terrifying in its swiftness, taking man, woman, and children – although the children and the weak were often the ones doomed for death. Her heart twisted with pain and she rested her head on her knees for a moment. What was she to do now? Was she truly to have escaped death in Hampstead, only to face it again in London? If she did not eat, then she would soon be too weak to move and would end up being just another urchin dead on the streets of London.
Her body shuddered with the cold as the wind pierced her thin cotton dress, trying to make its way into her very soul. Hope was gone from her. She had nothing left in this world, nothing she could call her own. There was no-one to turn to, no-one whom she could go to for aid. Winter was coming and Josephine did not know what she was to do.
“Buy your bread ‘ere!”
Her head shot up, hope running through her. The bread cart was passing by. People began to flock to it and, as Josephine watched, she saw a young beggar boy nip up to the cart. He was gone in a moment, a loaf of bread held tightly in his hand, his face lit up with a grin.
Josephine caught her breath. She did not want to steal, knowing that everyone was just trying to make a living of their own, but if she did not have something to eat then she would not last. She had to take what she could from where she could.
A shudder ran through her. The last time she had tried to take something from one of the market street sellers on Smithfield Market, she had almost been caught. Her hand had curled around an apple and thrust it into the pocket of her dress, just as a ruckus had started up only a few feet away from her. She could still remember the sight of it. A young boy, grubby, dirty and afraid, was screaming for his life. In his hand, he clasped something shiny, which she had known at once to be a coin. He’d obviously stolen it from someone and been caught and the terror in his face had burned into her soul. She could still remember how she’d backed away, her eyes fixed on the boy as a grown man had held him tightly. The constabulary had arrived, shouting loudly as they’d pushed their way through the crowd.