Violet tiptoed through the darkened streets, her stomach grumbling as hunger struck her again. Food was hard to come by with no job and little prospects. At nineteen, Violet had managed by pick-pocketing and begging from strangers. A few had recognized her face and had left out food that was on the brink of spoilage.
Tonight, the weather was much too cold, and as she wrapped her torn shawl around her shoulders to keep warm, her body trembled and swayed, unsteady on her feet. Her gait was poor, her lack of nourishment and dizziness didn’t help.
She had tried getting a job, applying to be a nanny for a family but one glance at her as she arrived for the interview and they had slammed the door in her face. Violet hadn’t been given a warm bed in years, let alone easy access to a bathhouse. She hadn’t seen her parents after they had been ripped from her home and arrested on charges of treason. Violet had been fifteen at the time, confused and not entirely certain on what they had done. A neighbor had used the words “political prisoners” but Violet hadn’t the slightest idea what that had meant.
A distant uncle, Cornelius, had come to take her in after her parents had been shipped out to a penal colony, but he had not been a good man, sneaking into her bedroom late at night. Violet had slipped out from his home, wearing only the clothes on her back, and never thought about him again.
She had managed through her teen years easier than it was now. Strangers were less kind to her, a few even spat at her as she asked for bread. Violet could still remember the last warm meal she’d had, when a gentleman by the name of James had offered her a bowl of soup and a comfortable seat at a table. He had invited her into a restaurant and sat with her, hearing all about her family and how she hadn’t seen them and never expected to again. James hadn’t said much, mostly just listened to her ramble on. He had been a few years older than her and looked much wiser in his eyes.
Violet had been seventeen at the time and had thought quite often of that day. She had never seen James again, not that she knew where he worked or what he did for a living. He had been kind to her, treating her with respect.
Glancing down at her hands, she had lost that level of respect even for herself. Food was getting harder to come by and though she sifted through garbage behind restaurants, lately they had been chasing her away like a rodent.
There were ways to ensure she had food, but Violet was not interested in prostituting herself for a few pence that would darken her soul. Besides, getting caught meant death, and Violet still very much enjoyed her life, even if it wasn’t what she wished it to be.
Through the cold nights of winter, Violet had been contemplating allowing herself to get caught by the authorities. Being sent to the penal colony would mean daily food and a bed to sleep in. There would likely be hard labor or some other task that she would be assigned to perform, but was it worse than the life she lived in London?
Violet knew the chances were slim but she hoped that she might even find her parents in New South Wales. She had heard rumors that they were still alive and well. Were they free but without enough funds to find their way back to her? Violet hadn’t garnered much knowledge, looking quite pathetic in her smelly and torn rags, begging for information and food. Was she foolish and stupid for desiring to be arrested? Perhaps, but Violet was out of options. Feeling optimistic, the slightest glimmer warmed her heart and eased her mind.
She waited until the night air grew still and she caught sight of an officer patrolling the streets. Violet needed to be caught; it was the only way out of London. With no money, she couldn’t legally travel to find her family. Why had her parents left her with her disgusting uncle? She had no answers, only further questions.
With her hands shaking and her stomach tight, she was quite evident a bundle of nerves. The hour was late and the markets had already closed. Violet rushed for the nearest restaurant, busting in through their front door and rushing straight for the kitchen.
“Miss, you can’t be back here,” a gentleman shouted at Violet.
She paid him no attention, grabbing the ladle from the cook’s hand as she dipped it into the giant vat of soup, taking a taste for herself. The vegetable stock was delicious and rich, with a warm savory taste that tickled her tongue. One spoonful wasn’t enough. Violet dunked the ladle back into the pot and grabbed a second taste, slurping unceremoniously as she ate. At least her last hot meal would be well remembered again. She hoped she wouldn’t have to wait another two years to taste the warmth of a bowl of soup and some bread.
Violet grabbed for the basket of bread near the counter, ripping off a piece and shoving it into her mouth.
The commotion from not only inside the kitchen but also the restaurant grew louder.
“She’s in the kitchen, eating all our food!” a gentleman from inside the restaurant said.
Violet assumed he must have been speaking to the officer who was flagged down and brought inside the establishment. Was he the owner or just the gentleman who seated the patrons who visited for dinner? She kept stuffing her mouth, unsure when she would enjoy such a delightful dinner again.
“Stop!” the officer shouted at her. His icy blue eyes locked onto hers.
Violet dropped the ladle, the soup splashing about the pot. She swallowed the last bite of her bread, her eyes wide, surprised to recognize the officer standing in front of her. “James?” Was she wrong in remembering him? Perhaps he had a brother or there was a likeness between them. It had been years and Violet had spent less than an hour with him.
He sighed heavily, shaking his head, looking quite displeased. “I am going to have to arrest you, Violet.”
For the first time, she felt conflicted regarding the entire ordeal. For weeks, she had been talking herself up, deciding this was the only way to see her parents again. Not that she even knew with absolutely certainty where they were in New South Wales. It was quite a long shot, leaving London and hoping to stumble upon her parents. Laying eyes on James, it made her question all of it. Had she made a mistake?
“I…uh,” she stuttered with a response, trembling as he cuffed her hands and escorted her out of the restaurant. “I’m sorry. I was hungry. I must have been delirious.” All she had planned for seemed to slip from her thoughts as she felt his warm strong grip on her wrists. He had saved her once before, inviting her for a meal and staving off hunger.
“That’s no excuse, Violet. It is Violet, isn’t it?”
She nodded with wide doe-filled eyes, surprised that he had remembered her name. “Yes,” Violet whispered.
He led her down a darkened alley, away from curious eyes. “May I make a proposition?”
Violet swallowed nervously. Was he going to ask her to do lewd acts in exchange for her freedom? She was not interested in such an offer. “Sir, I may assure you that I am prepared to pay for my actions. I am not afraid to be sent to the penal colony.”
“Do you know how few women there are transported on each ship? I’ve heard tales of women forcing themselves to pair up with a guard or prisoner for protection. Is that what you want for yourself?”
Violet hadn’t even considered such a notion. She remained silent for a long moment before emitting a heavy sigh. “I was hoping to find my parents. I haven’t seen them in four years. Surely they are free and have not been able to travel back to London to bring me with them.” She did not know the terms of their sentence, but suspected they had paid their dues.
James shuffled his feet, undoing the ties around Violet’s arms. “A prisoner ship is no place for a woman. Write down their names and I will look into their whereabouts. A prisoner manifest would at the very least give us a location of where they were being kept and if they are still prisoner or have been allowed free. Violet, you will come home with me, where I will provide you food and a bed to sleep. Upon discovery of your parents’ whereabouts, I personally will see to it that word is sent on your behalf.”
No one was ever kind without expecting something in return. “What is it that you want?” Violet asked. She wasn’t by any means agreeing to his offer, though it sounded much more promising than her own idea of asking everyone in the prison if they’d heard of her parents.
“I have a daughter, Grace, who is just over a year old, her mother died as my daughter was born. It is a burden on me to find a nanny who is only looking for room and board. I do not have funds to pay you a salary, Violet, nor do I think you should be given one considering your crime. You will work for seven years, same length of time that would be expected at the penal colony. I will ensure that you have food and a roof over your head. There is a spare bedroom for the nanny, which is probably far more than you’re accustomed to having. Although I do not think you should be given a salary, I will take you shopping to ensure that you have more than the rags on your back.”
“That is quite kind of you, sir.” Violet had not known James’ last name and had wanted to address him with as much respect as possible. “However, I know nothing of children.”
“You will learn, Violet. Raising a child comes naturally to most women. Grace is easy to look after, at fourteen months old. She needs to be fed, her nappy changed, and a little bit of attention. I will be here this weekend with you to ensure that this arrangement benefits both of us and that you and Grace do well to get along.”
Violet would most certainly try her best. If James had any ability to discover where her parents were located, then she had to trust that he wouldn’t use her solely for her mothering abilities. Besides, it wasn’t as though she had much of any. She could not remember ever being around children. Living on the street didn’t exactly give her any experience with babies. Violet had learned to fend for herself, though she recognized that a young child would need someone to care for her. Was she capable of doing so without hurting Grace?
She did not admit that she was terrified of looking after a little girl. For the past four years, Violet had fended for herself and counted on no one. Now, she was going to be responsible for another person? It was a frightening aspect to consider.
Violet would do her absolute best. The thought of being around hundreds of men on a transport ship weighed heavily on her. Dark thoughts swirled and made her shudder remembering her disgusting uncle and the night he had crept into her bedroom. There was no way in hell that she was going to subject herself to such torment ever again.
“Very well. I do not wish to be subjected and forced to prostitute myself to ensure my protection.” She was making it clear to James that her body was her own, and that she would not give him access to it just because she had made a mistake. He had been kind in offering her a job with room and board in exchange for her sentencing. Violet was aware of the knowledge that if she faced a judge, there would be little to no leniency. She hadn’t stolen a single apple; she had raided the kitchen of a popular London restaurant.