Read Under the Dragon's Tail Online

Authors: Maureen Jennings

Under the Dragon's Tail

 

To Iden,
with gratitude forever
for his love and support

 

Acknowledgements

Once again to Leon at the Ontario Archives and to Robert Wright of Robert Wright Books, who finds me the greatest books. And to Teresa Chris for her confidence in me when I needed it most. Ruth Cavin, as always, is amazing in guiding me to better writing.

 

My father compounded with my mother under
the Dragon’s tail and my nativity was under Ursa
Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous.

–Shakespeare,
King Lear

 

PROLOGUE

FEBRUARY
1887

T
he woman had been labouring since the previous afternoon and now her time was close. At first, she’d cried out with each wave of pain and the cold night wind snatched the cries and swept them down the hill where they dispersed in the frozen fields. Now as dawn crept closer, she only moaned, exhausted by her travail.

Dolly Merishaw, the midwife, squatted down beside the narrow bed to examine her patient.

“It’s time to bear down, madam. Hold onto this and pull as hard as you can. At the same time I want you to think of making your motion into the commode and push. That’s it. Push. And again.”

Suddenly, there was a rush of fluid and blood from the woman’s womb and she shouted, pulling desperately on the towel which was tied to the bedpost. She was swept up in waves of such primitive power that she could not possibly resist. Her anus and privates bulged, she shrieked again, certain she was about to be torn asunder.

“The baby’s crowning, we’re almost done,” said Dolly. Her words were soothing but her thoughts were steeped in malice. “I know what’s going on, my fine lady. You’re hoping it will die, then nobody’ll ever know. But it’s going to live, all right. And I know. I know all about your sin.”

 

CHAPTER ONE

JULY
1895

S
unshine was streaming through the kitchen window, making the flies sluggish as they crawled across the pine table. Irritably, Dolly Merishaw swatted a few of them, brushing the carcasses onto the floor. Even that slight effort caused a stabbing pain behind her eyes. She tried to wet her lips but her tongue was thick as cloth. She picked up the beer jug from the sideboard, but there were only dregs left and a bluebottle had drowned itself in the bottom.

She knew the two boys were out scavenging along the Don River and that Lily was delivering laundry to her customers on Gerrard Street, but she resented the
fact they weren’t here to look after her, to bring her a pot of tea the way she liked.

“Useless slags,” she said out loud.

Not that she ever uttered a word of appreciation when her daughter waited on her. In Dolly’s opinion, Lily had forfeited the right to thanks.

She pushed up the window sash and stuck her head out. The air was warm and soft, the sun caressing. Early July was the best time of the summer, before the August heat roasted the city like a cut of beef.

Even for Dolly, the sight of the trees dappling the street was appealing, and she leaned her arms on the windowsill for a moment. Two women bicyclists rode by, both of them sitting straight and rigid at the high handlebars. One was wearing knickerbockers and leggings, and Dolly noticed a passerby turn and glare. Many people were offended by these new bicycling outfits, Rational Dress, as they were called, but Dolly approved. She was happy to see women upset male tempers.

She retreated back to the kitchen, wondering if she was well enough to go out. She decided she was. She fancied some calf’s liver for her breakfast, and Cosgrove’s, the butcher, wasn’t too far. And she could go to the Dominion Brewery on Queen Street. They sold stale beer at a cheap price.

Her felt slippers loose on her feet, she shuffled off to the parlour to get dressed. Ever since they had moved to Toronto, Dolly had been essentially living in this one room, as she was usually too full to climb the stairs to her
bedroom. She slept on a Turkish couch, and Lily brought her meals on a tray. It was not uncommon for Dolly to throw the food at her daughter if she was displeased and Lily screamed back, raw, wordless cries. In the kitchen the boys listened, ears pricked, wary as fox kits.

 

It took Dolly almost an hour to make the journey, but when she returned to the house, neither her daughter nor her foster sons had returned.

“Where is the slut?”

She poured herself some of the flat, bitter ale and took a long swallow. Her parched throat was eased at once. She put the package of meat on the table and opened it up, smoothing out the newspaper that the butcher had used to wrap the liver. Her glance was idle at first, but suddenly she paused, bent closer, and squinted at a photograph on the inside page.

“My, my, look who it isn’t.”

A smear of blood partly obscured the picture but the caption confirmed her. She plopped the liver on the table and carefully tore the piece out of the newspaper. She read the notice again. What luck. Good for her, but bad for the other one. Clutching the strip of paper, she trotted off to the parlour, moving with more vigour than she had in a long time.

The room was hot and buzzed with flies feeding off the remains of last night’s stew. The curtains were still closed but she didn’t open them. She could see well enough and she wanted privacy. Beneath the window
was her prized desk. She went over to it, pulling out a leather thong that hung around her neck. The key was never anywhere else, and it was warm and greasy from nestling between her breasts. She unlocked the desk, rolled back the top, and sat down. There wasn’t much inside. A blotter, a tarnished silver inkwell and steel pen, a jar of her special herbs, the tin where she kept her money. Usually she enjoyed counting the coins and the bills, but today she shoved the tin aside and pulled open the drawer at the back of the desk. Reverently, she took out a vellum autograph album. One of her clients had left it behind years ago, and Dolly had appropriated it for use as her record book. The cover was soft and supple, royal blue with the word
Friends
embossed in gold letters. The paper was thick and creamy. She placed the piece of newspaper on the blotter, wiped her fingers on her skirt, and opened the album.

It didn’t take her long to find the entry she wanted. In the eight years that had passed since then, her business had lessened considerably, and over the last three years there were no birth entries at all. Carefully, she tore out one of the unused pages and placed it on the blotter. She picked up the pen. The nib was crusty with dried ink but usable, and the inkwell hadn’t dried out. She stroked, “Dear–” Bugger! There was a blob of ink on the paper. Perhaps she’d better practise first.

“I’m sure you remember the occasion of our first meeting.”

The only way a person would forget that was if they was dead and she knew that wasn’t the case.

“I have had some family troubles which has forced me into changing my name for reasons of privacy as I am sure you of all people can understand.”

Even writing that down made Dolly flush with anger. She’d been ruined through no fault of her own.

“I did as good by you as I could. Times are hard, my business has fallen off. A small gratuity would be kindly received. Or else…”

Or else what? She could go to the newspapers she supposed, but she had the uneasy suspicion the owner would throw her out on her arse in short order. No, a word in the right places was better. Or rather, the
threat
of a word in certain ears. Dolly studied her note. That would do. She tore out another blank page and started to copy what she had written.

 

Lily lifted her face towards the puff of cool, evening breeze that came through the open window. She had almost finished her ironing, and her wrist and forearm were aching. The smooth, fresh linens were piled on the chair beside her. Dolly was sitting in the reed rocker by the window. She had consumed two large jugs of hard beer by now, and she was full. She had the album in her lap, but her brief good humour of the afternoon had vanished. As she rocked herself back and forth, she was muttering under her breath. “Stupid cow, they was all the
same. Listened to some glib-glab from any man who wanted to stop his beak. Then when they had a natural in the oven they wanted Dolly to help. And she did. She was the best. But she was brought down. No fault of hers.”

Lily, who was stone deaf, eyed her mother nervously, reading the signs the way a wild creature does and knows from the wind and the smell in the air that a storm is coming. The two boys were at the table. The younger boy, Freddie, had found a little lead horse in the mud of the river and he’d harnessed it to an empty matchbox. He was trotting it around the table, over the hedge of the plates, through the stream of the sticky spilled beer. George, bored and restless, was watching him. Then suddenly, he winked and reached in the basket for one of Lily’s clothes pegs. He held it upright in front of the horse and carriage and motioned Freddie to give him the toy. With one savage rush, he smashed the peg flat and made the horse trample over it.

Freddie glanced over to Dolly in alarm, afraid she would see. He knew without ever saying so that George was exacting retribution on their foster mother.

 

“Pray for us now and in the hour of our death, Amen.”

William Murdoch had said four Hail Marys and the Lord’s Prayer three times, once in Latin. This was not because he was especially pious–he wasn’t anymore–but because he had insomnia and repeating the familiar words sometimes lulled him to sleep. Not tonight. It was like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands. The
worst thing was that tomorrow he had to get up at half past five to do his training ride. However, he’d heard the church on Queen Street toll out ten o’clock, then eleven, and shortly it would be dolefully chiming out midnight. Maybe he should reset his alarm clock and get an extra hour. He flung himself onto his back. Better not. The police athletic tournament was only four weeks away and he had to train hard if he was going to outride Varley, the new crack from number-three station. And beat the shicey bastard he would, or die in the attempt.

Bong, bong, bong.

Twelve midnight. He thought the bell ringer was hurrying it, keen to get to his bed probably. Where he would no doubt immediately fall into a blameless sleep.

From the parlour below Murdoch heard Arthur Kitchen, his landlord, coughing his perpetual, spongy cough.

His own body tightened up in empathy with the sick man. In spite of Beatrice Kitchen’s best efforts the consumption was continuing its inexorable march, and Murdoch was afraid Arthur mightn’t last out the year. All of a sudden his bed felt lumpy, and he turned over again trying to find a comfortable spot. Trying to get away from his thoughts. This next Christmas would be the second one without Elizabeth. If she had lived they might have had a child by now, the start of the family he yearned for. However, typhoid was no respecter of dreams and had ignored the desperate novenas he made when she fell ill, the masses he bought. “God took her
to his bosom. He needed her more than you did,” said the priest, and Murdoch, in a surge of blasphemous rage, barely held back from punching him in his prissy mouth. He, himself, was lucky to be spared, said the doctor, but he didn’t feel lucky. For many months he had wanted to be dead too.

Bong, bong…

The last toll faded. He flopped his leg to the edge of the bed. He and Liza had never had conjugal relations, of course. Once when they were alone in her sitting room, hot with desire, he had touched her breast. Because of her stiff corset, the gesture was as unsatisfying as stroking the armchair. She had laughed mischievously into his eyes. “Soon, Will, soon.” But hardly one month later the fever swept the house where she boarded, taking off all of them and several more who’d been in contact with the place.

Murdoch thrashed in earnest. He knew when his mind went in this direction sleep was out of the question. Shut it off, he said to himself, but he couldn’t. He’d never even seen her unclothed but he imagined her lying beside him, warm and soft.

When he was a young man working at the lumber camp near Huntsville, he’d got up his courage and asked one of the older men what connection with a woman was like. The logger, who spoke tenderly of his absent wife, contemplated his question for a moment, then said seriously, “It’s a bit difficult to put into words, Will. The closest I can come is this. Imagine thrusting your
member into warm mash, at the same time as you jump out of a tree.”

Murdoch sighed again.

 

Annie Brogan pulled her garters over her silk stockings and shook out her skirt. She was wearing her stage clothes, a stiff taffeta dress of bold red stripes with an uncomfortably tight bodice cut low. She thrust her sore feet into her boots, wet the tip of her finger, and rubbed at the scuff marks on the toe. Part of her act was to dance with men from the audience, and some squab was always treading on her. She yawned and stared down at the man on the bed. He was naked, his now flaccid John Thomas draped limply on his fat leg. He snored and the thick nose-sound sickened her. In daylight with his nobby clothes on, she liked him well enough. He was generous. But always when he was like this, replete with his long-drawn-out screw, she felt such revulsion her own thoughts frightened her.

She yawned again, uncontrollably. She would have liked to sleep the night in that comfortable, clean bed but she knew Richard wouldn’t want that. He preferred her to come and go unseen. The Yeoman Club where they had their rendezvous was convenient for that reason. Situated on River Street, it was a favourite place of well-to-do men who wanted luxury and discretion rather than a fashionable address.

The wick in the oil lamp was low, but she could see the money he’d left on the bedside table. She picked up the
bills and tucked them into her finger purse. He always said it was for cab fare and she maintained the pretence. To think more deeply was unbearable. As she finished dressing, the brass clock on the mantel chimed the quarter hour. She almost giggled. Poor little Cinders, leaving the prince before her clothes turned to rags again.

This was a plainly furnished room, too sober for her taste, but she knew the members who used it weren’t particular about the appearance as long as it cost dear. There was a pull-down bed, comfortable brown suede chairs, a fine glass cabinet filled with books, rarely opened. But best of all, the room had access to a private laneway.

She pulled aside the green felt curtain that masked the outside door. For a moment, she hesitated. She was not looking forward to what she had to do. Truth was she would have given anything not to go there. Not to see the woman again.

The night air was sweet-smelling, cool on her face. She closed the door softly behind her and stepped into the welcoming darkness.

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