Fingersmith, p.1Sarah Waters
Table of Contents
About the Author
Special Excerpt from The Paying Guests
ALSO BY SARAH WATERS
Tipping the Velvet
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
a member of
Penguin Putnam Inc.
375 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014
Copyright © 2002 by Sarah Waters
All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Published simultaneously in Canada.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Waters, Sarah, date.
Fingersmith / Sarah Waters.
1. London (England)—Fiction. I. Title.
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
To Sally O-J
My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me. I was Mrs Sucksby’s child, if I was anyone’s; and for father I had Mr Ibbs, who kept the locksmith’s shop, at Lant Street, in the Borough, near to the Thames.
This is the first time I remember thinking about the world and my place in it.
There was a girl named Flora, who paid Mrs Sucksby a penny to take me begging at a play. People used to like to take me begging then, for the sake of my bright hair; and Flora being also very fair, she would pass me off as her sister. The theatre she took me to, on the night I am thinking of now, was the Surrey, St George’s Circus. The play was Oliver Twist. I remember it as very terrible. I remember the tilt of the gallery, and the drop to the pit. I remember a drunken woman catching at the ribbons of my dress. I remember the flares, that made the stage very lurid; and the roaring of the actors, the shrieking of the crowd. They had one of the characters in a red wig and whiskers: I was certain he was a monkey in a coat, he capered so. Worse still was the snarling, pink-eyed dog; worst of all was that dog’s master—Bill Sykes, the fancy-man. When he struck the poor girl Nancy with his club, the people all down our row got up. There was a boot thrown at the stage. A woman beside me cried out,
‘Oh, you beast! You villain! And her worth forty of a bully like you!’
I don’t know if it was the people getting up—which made the gallery seem to heave about; or the shrieking woman; or the sight of Nancy, lying perfectly pale and still at Bill Sykes’s feet; but I became gripped by an awful terror. I thought we should all be killed. I began to scream, and Flora could not quiet me. And when the woman who had called out put her arms to me and smiled, I screamed out louder. Then Flora began to weep—she was only twelve or thirteen, I suppose. She took me home, and Mrs Sucksby slapped her.
‘What was you thinking of, taking her to such a thing?’ she said. ‘You was to sit with her upon the steps. I don’t hire my infants out to have them brought back like this, turned blue with screaming. What was you playing at?’
She took me upon her lap, and I wept again. ‘There now, my lamb,’ she said. Flora stood before her, saying nothing, pulling a strand of hair across her scarlet cheek. Mrs Sucksby was a devil with her dander up. She looked at Flora and tapped her slippered foot upon the rug, all the time rocking in her chair—that was a great creaking wooden chair, that no-one sat in save her—and beating her thick, hard hand upon my shaking back. Then,
‘I know your little rig,’ she said quietly. She knew everybody’s rig. ‘What you get? A couple of wipers, was it? A couple of wipers, and a lady’s purse?’
Flora pulled the strand of hair to her mouth, and bit it. ‘A purse,’ she said, after a second. ‘And a bottle of scent.’
‘Show,’ said Mrs Sucksby, holding out her hand. Flora’s face grew darker. But she put her fingers to a tear at the waist of her skirt, and reached inside it; and you might imagine my surprise when the tear turned out to be not a tear at all, but the neck of a little silk pocket that was sewn inside her gown. She brought out a black cloth bag, and a bottle with a stopper on a silver chain. The bag had threepence in it, and half a nutmeg. Perhaps she got it from the drunken woman who plucked at my dress. The bottle, with its stopper off, smelt of roses. Mrs Sucksby sniffed.
‘Pretty poor poke,’ she said, ‘ain’t it?’
Flora tossed her head. ‘I should have had more,’ she said, with a look at me, ‘if she hadn’t started up with the sterics.’
Mrs Sucksby leaned and hit her again.
‘If I had known what you was about,’ she said, ‘you shouldn’t have had none of it at all. Let me tell you this now: you want an infant for prigging with, you take one of my other babies. You don’t take Sue. Do you hear me?’
Flora sulked, but said she did. Mrs Sucksby said, ‘Good. Now hook it. And leave that poke behind you, else I shall tell your mother you’ve been going with gentlemen.’
Then she took me to her bed—first, rubbing at the sheets with her hands, to warm them; then stooping to breathe upon my fingers, to warm me. I was the only one, of all her infants, she would do that for. She said, ‘You ain’t afraid now, Sue?’
But I was, and said so. I said I was afraid the fancy-man would find me out and hit me with his stick. She said she had heard of that particular fancy-man: he was all bounce. She said,
‘It was Bill Sykes, wasn’t it? Why, he’s a Clerkenwell man. He don’t trouble with the Borough. The Borough boys are too hard for him.’
I said, ‘But, oh, Mrs Sucksby! You never saw the poor girl Nancy, and how he knocked her down and murdered her!’
‘Murdered her?’ she said then. ‘Nancy? Why, I had her here an hour ago. She was only beat a bit about the face. She has her hair curled different now, you wouldn’t know he ever laid his hand upon her.’
I said, ‘Won’t he beat her again, though?’
She told me then that Nancy had come to her senses at last, and left Bill Sykes entirely; that she had met a nice chap from Wapping, who had set her up in a little shop selling sugar mice and tobacco.
She lifted my hair from about my neck and smoothed it across the pillow. My hair, as I have said, was very fair then—though it grew plain brown, as I got older—and Mrs Sucksby used to wash it with vinegar and comb it till it sparked. Now she smoothed it flat, then lifted a tress of it and touched it to her lips. She said, ‘That Flora tries to take you on the prig again, you tell me—will you?’
I said I would. ‘Good girl,’ she said. Then she went. She took her candle with her, but the door she left half-open, and the cloth at the window was of lace and let the
On this night, though, I think the rooms upstairs must have been empty, and Mr Ibbs’s sister stayed quiet; and perhaps because of the quiet, the babies kept asleep. Being used to the noise, I lay awake. I lay and thought again of cruel Bill Sykes; and of Nancy, dead at his feet. From some house nearby there sounded a man’s voice, cursing. Then a church bell struck the hour—the chimes came queerly across the windy streets. I wondered if Flora’s slapped cheek still hurt her. I wondered how near to the Borough was Clerkenwell; and how quick the way would seem, to a man with a stick.
I had a warm imagination, even then. When there came footsteps in Lant Street, that stopped outside the window; and when the footsteps were followed by the whining of a dog, the scratching of the dog’s claws, the careful turning of the handle of our shop door, I started up off my pillow and might have screamed—except that before I could the dog gave a bark, and the bark had a catch to it, that I thought I knew: it was not the pink-eyed monster from the theatre, but our own dog, Jack. He could fight like a brick. Then there came a whistle. Bill Sykes never whistled so sweet. The lips were Mr Ibbs’s. He had been out for a hot meat pudding for his and Mrs Sucksby’s supper.
‘All right?’ I heard him say. ‘Smell the gravy on this . . .’
Then his voice became a murmur, and I fell back. I should say I was five or six years old. I remember it clear as anything, though. I remember lying, and hearing the sound of knives and forks and china, Mrs Sucksby’s sighs, the creaking of her chair, the beat of her slipper on the floor. And I remember seeing—what I had never seen before—how the world was made up: that it had bad Bill Sykeses in it, and good Mr Ibbses; and Nancys, that might go either way. I thought how glad I was that I was already on the side that Nancy got to at last.—I mean, the good side, with sugar mice in.
It was only many years later, when I saw Oliver Twist a second time, that I understood that Nancy of course got murdered after all. By then, Flora was quite the fingersmith: the Surrey was nothing to her, she was working the West End theatres and halls—she could go through the crowds like salts. She never took me with her again, though. She was like everyone, too scared of Mrs Sucksby.
She was caught at last, poor thing, with her hands on a lady’s bracelet; and was sent for transportation as a thief.
We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it. If I had stared to see Flora put her hand to a tear in her skirt and bring out a purse and perfume, I was never so surprised again: for it was a very dull day with us, when no-one came to Mr Ibbs’s shop with a bag or a packet in the lining of his coat, in his hat, in his sleeve or stocking.
‘All right, Mr Ibbs?’ he’d say.
‘All right, my son,’ Mr Ibbs would answer. He talked rather through his nose, like that. ‘What you know?’
‘Got something for me?’
The man would wink. ‘Got something, Mr Ibbs, very hot and uncommon... ’
They always said that, or something like it. Mr Ibbs would nod, then pull the blind upon the shop-door and turn the key—for he was a cautious man, and never saw poke near a window. At the back of his counter was a green baize curtain, and behind that was a passage, leading straight to our kitchen. If the thief was one he knew he would bring him to the table. ‘Come on, my son,’ he would say. ‘I don’t do this for everyone. But you are such an old hand that—well, you might be family.’ And he would have the man lay out his stuff between the cups and crusts and tea-spoons.
Mrs Sucksby might be there, feeding pap to a baby. The thief would see her and take off his hat.
‘All right, Mrs Sucksby?’
‘All right, my dear.’
‘All right, Sue? Ain’t you growed!’
I thought them better than magicians. For out from their coats and sleeves would come pocket-books, silk handkerchiefs and watches; or else jewellery, silver plate, brass candlesticks, petticoats—whole suits of clothes, sometimes. ‘This is quality stuff, this is,’ they would say, as they set it all out; and Mr Ibbs would rub his hands and look expectant. But then he would study their poke, and his face would fall. He was a very mild-looking man, very honest-seeming—very pale in the cheek, with neat lips and whiskers. His face would fall, it would just about break your heart.
‘Rag,’ he might say, shaking his head, fingering a piece of paper money. ‘Very hard to push along.’ Or, ‘Candlesticks. I had a dozen top-quality candlesticks come just last week, from a crib at Whitehall. Couldn’t do nothing with them. Couldn’t give them away.’
He would stand, making a show of reckoning up a price, but looking like he hardly dare name it to the man for fear of insulting him. Then he’d make his offer, and the thief would look disgusted.
‘Mr Ibbs,’ he would say, ‘that won’t pay me for the trouble of walking from London Bridge. Be fair, now.’
But by then Mr Ibbs would have gone to his box and be counting out shillings on the table: one, two, three—He might pause, with the fourth in his hand. The thief would see the shine of the silver—Mr Ibbs always kept his coins rubbed very bright, for just that reason—and it was like hares to a grey-hound.
‘Couldn’t you make it five, Mr Ibbs?’
Mr Ibbs would lift his honest face, and shrug.
‘I should like to, my son. I should like nothing better. And if you was to bring me something out of the way, I would make my money answer. This, however’—with a wave of his hand above the pile of silks or notes or gleaming brass—’this is so much gingerbread. I should be robbing myself. I should be stealing the food from the mouths of Mrs Sucksby’s babies.’
And he would hand the thief his shillings, and the thief would pocket them and button his jacket, and cough or wipe his nose.
And then Mr Ibbs would seem to have a change of heart. He would step to his box again and, ‘You eaten anything this morning, my son?’ he would say. The thief would always answer, ‘Not a crust.’ Then Mr Ibbs would give him sixpence, and tell him to be sure and spend it on a breakfast and not on a horse; and the thief would say something like,
‘You’re a jewel, Mr Ibbs, a regular jewel.’
Mr Ibbs might make ten or twelve shillings’ profit with a man like that: all through seeming to be honest, and fair. For, of course, what he had said about the rag or the candlesticks would be so much puff: he knew brass from onions, all right. When the thief had gone, he’d catch my eye and wink. He’d rub his hands again and grow quite lively.
‘Now, Sue,’ he’d say, ‘what would you say to taking a cloth to these, and bringing up the shine? And then you might—if you’ve a moment, dear, if Mrs Sucksby don’t need you—you might have a little go at the fancy work upon these wipers. Only a very little, gentle sort of go, with your little scissors and perhaps a pin: for this is lawn—do you see, my dear?—and will tear, if you tug too hard . . .’
I believe I learned my alphabet, like that: not by putting letters down, but by taking them out. I know I learned the look of my own name, from handkerchiefs that came, marked Susan. As for regular reading, we never troubled with it. Mrs Sucksby could do it, if she had to; Mr Ibbs could read, and even write; but, for the rest of us, it was an idea—well, I should say, like speaking Hebrew or throwing somersaults: you could see the use of it, for Jews and tumblers; but while it was their lay, w
So I thought then, anyway. I learned to cipher, though. I learned it, from handling coins. Good coins we kept, of course. Bad ones come up too bright, and must be slummed, with blacking and grease, before you pass them on. I learned that, too. Silks and linens there are ways of washing and pressing, to make them seem new. Gems I would shine, with ordinary vinegar. Silver plate we ate our suppers off—but only the once, because of the crests and stampings; and when we had finished, Mr Ibbs would take the cups and bowls and melt them into bars. He did the same with gold and pewter. He never took chances: that’s what made him so good. Everything that came into our kitchen looking like one sort of thing, was made to leave it again looking quite another. And though it had come in the front way—the shop way, the Lant Street way—it left by another way, too. It left by the back. There was no street there. What there was, was a little covered passage and a small dark court. You might stand in that and think yourself baffled; there was a path, however, if you knew how to look. It took you to an alley, and that met a winding black lane, which ran to the arches of the railway line; and from one of those arches—I won’t say quite which, though I could—led another, darker, lane that would take you, very quick and inconspicuous, to the river. We knew two or three men who kept boats there. All along that crooked way, indeed, lived pals of ours—Mr Ibbs’s nephews, say, that I called cousins. We could send poke from our kitchen, through any of them, to all the parts of London. We could pass anything, anything at all, at speeds which would astonish you. We could pass ice, in August, before a quarter of the block should have had a chance to turn to water. We could pass sunshine in summer—Mr Ibbs would find a buyer for it.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters / Mystery & Detective / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes