Black by Gaslight by Nene Adams ©2004
- all rights reserved
the novel published by Cavalier Press
I’m not a butcher, i’m not a Yid
Nor yet a foreign skipper,
But i’m your own light-hearted friend,
Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.
--- One of the many verses received by the authorities during
the Autumn of Terror, 1888, purported to have been written by
the Whitechapel murderer, Jack the Ripper
“Murder has a magic of its own, its peculiar alchemy.
By that crimson wand, things base and sordid, things ugly and
of ill report, are transformed into matters wondrous, weird
and tragical.” --- William Roughead
(Writer to His Majesty’s Signet, 1870-1952)
August 31, 1888 – The Beginning of the Autumn of Terror
Hell was supposed to be a place of flames and heat, not darkness
and damp; not this perpetual night broken feebly by a few dim
shopfront lights. It seemed to Rhiannon Moore that Hell was
here on Earth but there were no real demons, no fire and brimstone
- just human deeds and human woes. Damnation was to be found
in poverty and in the acts that desperation drove men and women
to commit. Rhiannon understood that all too well.
She had wandered too far west, away from the brightly blazing,
noisy and crowded environs of Mile End. The tawdry cheerfulness
of hawkers and cook-shops and gin-palaces was absent in the
stretch of road where Wentworth Street turned into Old Montague
Street. Instead of laughter and the crash of barrel organs,
there was an oppressive silence in the tenement houses and lightless
passages. It weighed upon the spirits.
The cobblestones were slimy with some evil-smelling substance.
Houses leaned together drunkenly, rotten from cellar to chimney
pot and reeking of corruption. In a doorway, some men were tormenting
a rat, having pinned the wretched animal’s tail to the
threshold with a nail. The pallid faces of children flashed
here and there in a shaft of moonlight or lamp light; they had
suckled the baffled rage of the hopeless and poor along with
their mother’s milk, and ran in feral packs after sunset.
She did not fear an attack, though. Even at so young an age,
the little savages could discern that she, like them, carried
nothing of value.
Rhiannon’s troubles were too pressing to worry about
such trivial things, anyway.
She clutched her shawl more tightly around her shoulders and
shivered, wishing she had not pawned her heavy velvet dress.
The gown she wore was made of thin Indian cotton, faded from
many washings – utterly inadequate for the weather since
the late summer evenings had turned crisp and biting, a sure
sign of winter snows to come. A sen’night ago,
Rhiannon thought, food was more important than warmth. Now
I don’t know which vexes me more – the ache in my
belly or the chill in my bones.
Visions of soup, a knuckle of beef, mutton stew and dumplings,
made Rhiannon’s stomach growl. Her mouth watered and she
swallowed hard. Even hard cheese and stale bread sounded lovely.
Hungry dogs will gobble dirty pudding, as the saying went. She
had not eaten since the previous day. Fear that she might faint
kept her walking, though her feet were aching from the impact
of cobblestones through her well-worn boot soles.
In Whitechapel, human predators lurked in every shadowed doorway,
eager to take advantage of the weak. A woman who drank to excess
and lost consciousness on the way home from the pub would likely
awaken stripped to her skin and badly used, if she woke up at
all. Martha Tabram, for example, had recently been found dead
in Spitalfields; she had been stabbed a mind-boggling thirty-nine
times. The viciousness of the crime had the neighbourhood on
edge. Rhiannon had nightmares about encountering the criminals
responsible for the attack, but like the majority of prostitutes
in the area, she could not afford to stop working. Nor could
she pick and choose her clientele; it was catch as catch can,
every night from dusk to dawn until she earned enough to pay
for her lodgings and fill her grumbling belly.
Lord, how I wish a gentleman or three would make an appearance.
Rhiannon tucked her hands under her armpits in the vain hope
of thawing frozen fingers. Not just carriage trade, mind
you. Mouth music’s quick but doesn’t pay as well
as proper shagging. I want to make a few shillings, buy some
supper, and go home before it rains again. Home was a single
room in a run-down building that stank of boiled cabbage, unwashed
bodies and urine; it had a staircase like a corkscrew and a
public privy that was nightmarish at the best of times. Rhiannon
had known better places, more respectable houses, infinitely
more well-bred neighbours. She was a gentleman’s daughter,
but destitution and starvation had driven her to abandon good
breeding in order to survive.
A lady may be advised to endure death before dishonour,
but I’ve been left very little choice. Hunger is a great
motivator, and virtue doesn’t make a very filling meal.
Neither does pride, for that matter, she thought. Rhiannon
squared her shoulders and moved to stand beneath a flickering
street lamp, one of the few of its kind in this particular street.
The gaslight turned her strawberry-blonde hair to flaming glory.
Her stomach growled again, a reminder that she had yet to earn
her supper and her rent. Rhiannon pushed off from the lamp and
went on her way, trying to ignore sharp hunger pangs. Fog drifted
through the streets and alleys, a humid and dirty yellow shroud
that covered a multitude of sins. It was difficult to see the
filth, the squalid tenements, the overflowing gutters, the heaps
of rotting rubbish – but it was also hard to spot other
impediments. Blinded by an exceptionally thick patch of mist,
Rhiannon splashed into a noisome puddle, wetting her dress to
the knees. Since she had only a single petticoat, her legs immediately
felt as though they were covered in a thin layer of ice.
Rhiannon gritted her teeth against a very unladylike expletive.
She bent over, gathered her skirts together with both hands
and tried to wring as much water out of the worn fabric as she
could without ripping it. Despite her irritation, Rhiannon was
acutely aware of the picture she presented. Anyone passing would
get an eyeful of her darned stockings, fastened by suspenders
that bit into her plump thighs, and a full, rounded bosom that
was practically popping out of her bodice. Her nipples were
visible, too, hardened to peaks in the cold.
If my father could see me now, the Heavenly Choir would
have to administer sal volatile with a liberal hand.
Suddenly, she became conscious of movement, a swirling in the
fog that signalled the presence of another person. Her blue
eyes narrowed to gleaming slits. Licking her lips, Rhiannon
straightened, still holding up her skirts in as dainty a fashion
as possible. “Is anyone there?” she cooed, catching
the sound of footsteps coming near. They stopped, but there
was definitely someone in the mist; quite close, in fact. She
could just make out a blurred outline, too tall to be a woman.
Rhiannon swayed towards the dim figure. “Come along, my
lord, don’t be shy. I’ve got the best medicine;
a sure cure for whatever ails you.”
There was no reply. The silence made her uneasy. “It’s
a perishing cold night,” Rhiannon said, trying to pinpoint
the other person’s location. Just when it seemed she was
getting close, the supposed gentleman moved deeper into the
thick yellow haze. “Wouldn’t you like to warm yourself
with me, my lord? I’ll give you plenty of heat and anything
else you desire.” Frustration made her drop the syrup
from her tone and add in a no-nonsense manner, “I’ve
no time for games like hide-and-seek unless you’re paying.”
A voice next to her ear said, “Why in the blazes is such
a pretty girl walking the streets alone in this neighbourhood?”
Rhiannon jumped and whirled around, a scream stuck in her throat.
She caught a brief glimpse of the man’s face before he
melted back into the fog – hardly more than an impression
of emerald green eyes, black brows and a curiously feminine
mouth. “I should think my occupation was obvious,”
she replied, smoothing down her bodice with both hands. The
action made her generous bosom even more prominent.
“Did I give you a fright? My most heartfelt apologies,
my dear.” The voice came from Rhiannon’s left. “Pray
allow me to escort you back to your lodgings. I fear this is
no fit place for a young lady.”
“It’ll cost you a pound for the whole night,”
Rhiannon said, turning to try to follow her elusive customer.
She had learned the hard way to get financial transactions completed
before permitting any liberties. He seemed well mannered –
he certainly spoke like an upper class gentleman – and
she felt emboldened. He had called her pretty, which meant he
was attracted. Perhaps she could wheedle a fee and something
to eat out of him.
“I live close-by. And I’ll want supper, too,”
Rhiannon continued, swallowing a burst of saliva at the mention
of food. “A hot pie... but I’ll eat it after, if
Metallic chinks rang at her feet. Rhiannon glanced down and
saw five coins near the tip of her boot. She scooped up the
gold sovereigns, worth a pound apiece, and doubled her fist
upon the prize.
The voice issued from the fog once more. “Go home, sweetheart.
Have your pie in peace.”
Two years of rough living had erased any objections that Rhiannon
might once have made to charity. She still remembered her manners,
though. The gentleman remained hidden, but she called out to
the mist, “Thank you, my lord. I’m most grateful.
Are you sure there’s nothing I can do to tempt you?”
Warm breath on the back of her neck made Rhiannon bite off
a surprised squeak. A tall, solid body spooned up against her
back. “You have already tempted me, my dear, nearly beyond
my ability to control,” he said. “Urgent business
calls me away, much to my regret. You will not object if I take
a small token as a memento?”
Rhiannon shook her head and allowed herself to be turned around.
No, she did not mind as long as he did not expect anything too
exotic. She automatically closed her eyes when a hot, soft mouth
touched her own. The kiss was sweet rather than passionate,
but she found it a pleasant change from the usual demanding
embraces. Rhiannon was not fond of being slobbered upon, or
handled as though she was an automaton built solely for man’s
pleasure. This kiss was like the mystery fellow himself –
polite, inoffensive, chivalrous. A gentlemanly gesture rather
than a rape of tongue and teeth.
When it was over, he hugged her close and sighed against her
hair. “Ah, well, duty bids me away. I shall wait upon
you another time, my dear, for we will meet again. Until then,
remain safe, I beg you.” He pressed his lips against her
forehead. “Á bientôt, my dear.”
And then he was gone, disappearing into the fog.
Rhiannon was stunned. She touched the place on her brow, which
seemed to burn, and stared after him for a long time. He wanted
to see her again? No, it went further than that. The gentleman
had assured her that they would, most definitely, meet once
more. He must have been besotted in an instant to make such
a promise after a single, simple kiss. A momentary vision entranced
her, induced by misery and hunger; if she became this fellow’s
mistress, she would be assured of a place to live, food on the
table, pretty clothes and baubles. He seemed gentle and caring
enough; he was certainly generous to a fault.
The fantasy broadened into the well-cherished dreams of a child
whose heart and hopes had not yet been crushed by cruel circumstance
– the girl she had been before her father’s death.
The gentleman was a knight in shining armour come to rescue
her from the twin dragons of poverty and despair. He was an
angel with soot-stained wings, washing her clean of every degredation
that she had endured.
Perhaps he loved her.
But that was too much, even for a fantasy. At last, Rhiannon
came out of her trance, shrugged and tucked the money into a
secret pocket in her bodice. A whore can’t afford
sentiment, she told herself, ruthlessly squashing the tiny
fluttering of hope in her breast. She was not a girl anymore.
Her dreams were broken beyond reclamation. She ought to know
better, and yet…
The kiss on her mouth had left her mostly unmoved, but that
fleeting touch on her forehead made her wish – for just
a moment – that she was not a prostitute. He had pierced
the shell around her heart with a simple caress. The touch on
her brow had been a loving gift from someone who saw her as
a human being rather than a piece of filth. She wanted time
to turn back until she was a simple tutor’s daughter again,
free to fall in love, be wooed, be happy forever in strong,
Fairy tales, she thought, disgusted. She turned on
her heel and walked in the direction of home. No one lives
happily ever after. He was probably playing me for a fool.
No longer wistful, she rejected the deceptive lure of romance.
Hope was better off dead and buried. Cynicism was more valuable
than rosy optimism in Whitechapel. The longer Rhiannon considered
the matter, the more she believed that the gentleman was having
fun at her expense. Perhaps he makes a habit of it, dispensing
that oily charm here and there, as gracious as a king, then
laughing about the way he nearly made a light-skirt swoon. I
hope I do meet him again someday. I’ll give him a tongue-lashing
he’ll never forget.
Dismissing the gentleman from her mind, Rhiannon made her way
to the Frying Pan public house to buy a steak-and-kidney pie.
The place was crowded, every face bloated and ugly with drink.
At least it was warm, although that warmth was underlain by
the sour stink of too many bodies and too little hygiene. Pipe
smoke filled the air, as well as smoke that seeped into the
room from a furiously burning fireplace. Spilled beer and gin
were sticky underfoot; the limewashed walls were yellowed by
decades of nicotine. Shrill voices mingled with the thumping
of an untuned piano, and a wavering soprano with brassy hair
sang the popular music hall tune, Sweet Rose of My Heart.
Rhiannon mouthed the words beneath her breath as she waited
for her supper, delivered with ill-grace by the landlord who
had not liked to give change for a sovereign.
By the time she left the pub, the thick fog had faded to nothingness
in the face of a gathering storm, heralded by flashes of lightning.
She hastened her steps as she took bites of her pie, noticing
that the darkness was dispelled considerably by a pair of fires
at the docks that had turned the sky a sullen crimson and blotted
out the stars.
Some women she knew had walked down Commercial Road to the
East London Docks in order to gawk at one of the blazes which
had started in a huge warehouse on the southern quay. Rhiannon
had had the news from these acquaintances, who had also told
her that the warehouse was crammed full of brandy and gin, among
other valuable commodities, and the authorities had anticipated
an explosion. Shadwell Dry Dock was the location of the second
fire, but as it was not as severe, it was not thought nearly
as entertaining as the other. While the action took place a
considerable distance from the women’s usual haunts, it
was generally agreed that the spectacle was thrilling enough
to warrant the journey.
Rhiannon licked gravy from her fingers and she continued down
Whitechapel Road, determined to reach shelter before she got
soaked. A church bell struck three o’clock. The smell
of smoke grew stronger as she travelled further east. The only
occasion more well-attended by than a fire was a public hanging.
Rhiannon thought about going to have a peek herself but decided
that she was too tired to walk all the way to the end of Commercial
Road. She wanted to go home and go to bed.
While she walked, Rhiannon considered what she would do with
the largesse that weighted her bodice. Her belly full and finally
satisfied, she was feeling somewhat more charitable. Perhaps
she had wronged her gentleman benefactor. Five pounds is
too much to pay for a joke. He must’ve been serious
about wanting to meet me. With this money, I can sit at home
for at least a month, with coal and food. I can get a heavier
dress from the second-hand stalls in Sandys Row and Petticoat
Lane. A new pair of wool stockings. A visit to the ladies’
Turkish Baths. I wish I’d asked his name, so I can remember
him in my prayers.
Nibbling a last bit of pie-crust, Rhiannon was content for
the first time in days. She hummed a snatch of an old song,
then her good mood made her sing aloud: “He nightly saw
her in his sleep, ‘midst roaring thunders, raging seas/his
cheerful mind still at ease; nor seas nor wonders made him start
– he held his Nancy to his heart!” She was only
an indifferent mezzo, but no one likely to overhear her would
The narrow bridge road that led to the entrance of Buck’s
Row was in front of her. Rhiannon trilled a few more lines from
The Sailor’s Dream, her mind already racing ahead to her
little room. Perhaps the landlady might be persuaded to let
her buy a bit of coal. It would be absolute bliss to be warm
as well as full! She smiled to herself, already anticipating
happier times. Her luck just might be changing. Yes, I must
remember to thank God for my gentleman, Rhiannon thought.
Even if I never see him again, he’s done me a good
Suddenly, out of the shadows of a ramshackle building, someone
came flying at her. Rhiannon caught no more than a glimpse of
blurred features before she was knocked to the ground. The air
rushed out of her lungs; her startled yelp turned into a barely
audible moan. Rhiannon’s head cracked against the cobblestones;
the jarring impact caused her teeth to click together painfully.
Scarlet flecks of light swam behind her eyelids. Raw hurt lanced
through her body from skull to ankles, and she was suddenly
bathed in clammy sweat in spite of the cold.
She was aware of a heavy weight pressing down on her chest,
making it difficult to draw a full breath. Rhiannon opened her
eyes, blinking to regain her focus – a task made more
difficult by the vertigo that gripped her with surprising intensity.
The steak-and-kidney pie seemed likely to make a reappearance;
she swallowed, willing her stomach to settle. Rhiannon flailed
a hand at the dark figure that was squatting on her chest, and
wheezed an incoherent plea. Had a thief seen her in the Frying
Pan paying the landlord with a sovereign, and followed to steal
her few precious coins? Or was it something else? The prospect
of rape was unpleasant, but she would endure it, even pretend
to take pleasure in the act if necessary, as long as the man
did not touch her money.
Oh, God help me. What if this was the same person
who had killed poor Martha Tabram? The thought of those thirty-nine
wounds struck panic in her heart. Rhiannon struggled to sit
up, still wheezing. Something glanced across her open palm.
At first, she registered the blow as pressure; a belated wave
of agony caught her by surprise, and she let out a ragged sound
that might have been a scream had she been able to suck in enough
air. Warm wetness splattered her cheeks. She forced her eyes
to focus. Blood. She was bleeding. In the uncertain illumination
of a streetlamp, the blood was not red. It looked black by the
gaslight. She froze, gaping in shock.
Rhiannon recognized the instrument that had wounded her as
a knife when it plunged down again, aimed at her throat. The
prospect of death galvanized her to action. She twisted her
body and bucked her hips, trying to throw off her attacker.
Deflected, the blade ripped into her bodice, the tip glancing
off the coins in her secret pocket and plowing along the curve
of her breast.. This new pain fueled her desperation.
Her writhing had the effect of unbalancing the man, and as
soon as the weight was off her chest, Rhiannon found her voice
and yelled like a madwoman, frantic to fend off the weapon and
the person wielding it. She did not want to end up like Martha
Tabram, a cold corpse destined to lie unmourned in a cold grave.
“Help me! Murder! Murder!” Rhiannon cried, as loudly
as she could manage. There were houses in Buck’s Row.
There was a wharf nearby, and warehouses, and Whitechapel Road
itself. Someone had to hear her. Please, God, let someone hear
A fist struck the side of her head. Rhiannon bit her tongue
hard, tasted the rusty tang of blood in her mouth. She could
not breathe. Fear of suffocation was more excruciating than
pain. A remembered prayer from her childhood ran through her
mind, recited in her mother’s soft voice: “Now I
lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I
should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
Rhiannon’s eyelids fluttered. She hoped that she would
go to Heaven. Her father was there, and her mother, too. The
knife was poised above her, the steel length glittering where
it was not dulled by the black stain of her blood. Her eyes
drifted shut. Rhiannon drowsily thought that this, too, was
Hell on earth, but that did not alarm her in the slightest.
The black that engulfed her vision was faintly tinged with
scarlet when she surrendered to oblivion, sinking far away from
murder and madness into peace.
novel is available for purchase from Cavalier Press