Author's Note: It has been a long time since I last ventured into the realms of Jane Austen. This story has been in my head when I was writing Question of Entail, but it was only last year when I began to flesh out the plot. It suffered long periods of hiatus, when I lost my maternal grandmother and my muse became obsessed with Obidala. It references both Pride and Prejudice and Our Mutual Friend, novelisations and adaptations. I shall be posting one chapter a week. I am alittle nervous about posting this, because it has been so long since I ventured into this realm. I hope you all enjoy.
Along The River.
London at night is a perilous, city, to be toured during such nocturnal hours with caution or ventured into not at all. In an age which began with the violence of the French Revolution and ended with the murders in Whitechapel, the populous of England's glorious capital had much to fear from those who stalked the streets, whatever their rank or station in life. One wrong turn could get you killed, your body left to rot in some dank ghetto, prison, or worse, the river. The Thames had seen better, cleaner days, though the deceiving surface belied such facts.
Below the seemingly gentle waves, it was clogged to the depths with the stench of disease and death. For those poor souls unfortunate enough to meet their fate within the river, their remains might be found by the boatmen who toiled that stretch of water, Charons, from London Bridge to Southwark, who after retrieving the funds of obolus or danaka required for passage into Erebus, would report the find to the appropriate authorities.
Jane Bennet watched the gentle waves of water which her oars swept aside and wished for such a tranquillity to exist within her once again, as it had done so a year before. As the wish permeated through her mind, other ones came into being and followed it, causing the contrast between the calm river and the turmoil in her mind to become even greater.
She wished that the terrible tragedy which had befallen her family a year ago had never occurred. She wished that her mother had chosen not to visit Mrs Philips when she became ill with the mysterious fever which struck the inhabitants of Meryton last winter. That her mother had not become ill after returning home, causing for the doctor to be sent.
That the illness had not spread to Mary and Lydia. She wished that the village physician had not recommended a doctor from Harley Street to treat them, causing her father's financial state to go from bad to worse, so that by the time the London doctor had admitted there was nothing more to be done for her mother and her sisters, and the estate was close to bankruptcy.
From then on, everything that had happened was inevitable. Lydia grew weaker and weaker until one morning they could not wake her. Mary seemed to rally herself before unexpectedly succumbing to the same fate a week later. Their mother hovered between life and death while the funerals took place and the medical bills arrived, demanding immediate payment. As her father made arrangements to sell Longbourn her mother suddenly recovered, making changes to the lodgings Mr Bennet had struggled to afford in London. Then Mrs Philips died, leaving a young son, a grieving husband and a collapsing legal business.
"Rest the oars a moment, Jane," her boating companion remarked, bringing her abruptly back to the present.
Jane complied to his request and kept her eyes fixed upon him as he searched the pockets and clothing of another departed stranger who had left their fate up to the will of the river. Her uncle Philips. Once a proud attorney of a thriving legal firm in Meryton, now a proud 'Gaffer' of the river, making his living by collecting money from the dead.
He had been a clerk in the legal firm, serving her maternal grandfather well enough to succeed him upon his death, as well as marriage to her late Aunt. Since Mr Frank Gardiner's death however, the firm had lost business to more competitive and reliable young lawyers from the next town which, when combined with her late Aunt's tendency to live beyond her means, spelt the end to her uncle's career. When her Aunt died, her uncle lost the will to continue keeping the now little legal firm alive, choosing to sell to one of the practices which had taken most of her grandfather's clients and move to London to start a fresh occupation.
Her mother, when she had recovered, wrote to her brother in law offering them assistance. While Mr Bennet had refused absolutely to giving them money, he could not refuse the lending of one of his three daughters to help raise the young son their Aunt had left behind. Knowing who her mother would suggest and having no desire to give either Elizabeth or Kitty that pain, Jane had volunteered to help her uncle and cousin.
At the time she had consented only out of thought for the latter, with the hopeful belief that the nature of her Uncle's new living would only be temporary. However, nearly a year had passed and not only she was still needed; to raise Charlie and to keep house for him and her Uncle, while the former went to school and Mr Philips earned his living along shore, he also requested her assistance with his Charon duties.
Mr Philips caught her gaze now and took hold of her hand. "I'll row now, Jane."
Jane steeled herself and shook her head, gently sliding her hand out of his grip so she could take control of the oars once again. "No, Uncle," she replied. "I cannot sit so near it," she added softly.
Mr Philips caught her words however and gestured at the body now tethered on the towrope beside him. "What harm can it do you?"
"None," Jane replied, though she knew such the price of such a denial, for the city was plagued by regular bouts of Cholera, dysentery and other deadly diseases that death left behind for new victims to stumble upon. "None. I cannot bear it."
"Its my belief," her Uncle continued, "that you hate the very sight of this river. As if it wasn't your living. As if it wasn't food and drink to you."
"I do not hate the river," Jane answered. "I just wish things were different."
"So do I," her Uncle revealed, and looked to speak further, had not another worker of the river crossed their path.
"In luck again, Gaffer?" The voice queried, in an accent betraying a more local connection than Jane and her Uncle could claim. "I know'd you were in luck again."
"Oh lord, Jenkinson," her Uncle muttered and motioned for Jane to speed up.
"Don't fret yourself partner, I didn't touch him," Jenkinson continued, oblivious. "I must have passed him as I went upriver. I sometimes think you're like a vulture, partner. You can smell them bodies clean out the river. Ain't been eating nothing that's disagreed with you, have you, partner?"
"Yes I have," Mr Philips uttered, finally losing patience, causing Jane to stop the boat. "Swallowing too much of that word 'partner.' I'm no partner of yours, Jenkinson."
"Since when?" The man countered.
"Since you were accused of robbing a man. A live man!"
"What if he'd been a dead man?"
"You can't rob the dead," Mr Philips declared. "What world does a dead man belong to? The other world. What world does money belong to? This world. You did time for putting your hand in the pocket of a sailor, a live sailor! You count yourself lucky for being released instead of being hanged. But we work together no more. In this world, or the other." He turned to Jane. "Cast off."
His niece obliged and swept the oars through the water once more, quickly passing the rogue that was Jenkinson. From the moment Philips came to London the man attached himself to them, foisting his hapless daughter along with him, until the authorities found enough evidence to convict him of robbery. By that time he had discovered her Uncle's old profession and was angry enough to snub them when Philips refused to lend his legal mind to Jenkinson's defence at the Old Bailey. Evidently the time for such snubbing had passed, unless his words just a moment ago were taunts.
"Stop," her uncle uttered when the silhouette of the rogue's boat was no longer distinguishable from the darkness haunting the city. Through the dim light of the lantern that hung on their vehicle, Jane could descry another corpse floating amongst the dregs of the river. She was grateful for the night concealing the full horror of the grisly sight from herself and her uncle. The longer a victim lay undiscovered in the Thames, the more gruesome their condition became.
With practised hands Philips searched through the pockets before attaching the victim to the tow rope. Any Charon who found corpses wearing clothes which spoke of a moneyed background were usually rewarded well upon discovery. Jane watched her uncle, wondering once more why he had chosen this profession.
London was the home of law, with Lincoln's and Grey's Inn, and the Old Bailey. Despite the countless members of the bar, there was still enough clients for him to earn a living, albeit hardly a comfortable one. Yet her uncle was violently opposed to any form of education, even providing such for his son, a matter Jane was forced to organise herself and secretly.
At times she wondered if it was because of her Aunt, if her passing had caused her uncle to hate the profession which brought them together. Other times she found a certain logic in believing it to be a form of redemption. Then there were those times when she did not wonder at all, for as her uncle said, when you live day to day hauling bodies out of the river, you don't find much time for supposing.