“Cream, Miss Tilson?”
“Yes, please.” Miss Tilson held out her teacup. “Now, where were we before we were so pleasantly distracted by these lovely strawberry tarts?”
“We made a decision about the hamper,” Mrs. Hampton-Jones reminded her.
“Yes, of course. Dora, dear, do make a note, if you haven’t already. Do we have anything else to discuss?” Miss Tilson inquired as she looked around the circle.
“I do. The matter of the tulips in the east garden. There was an abundance of yellow blooms and a shortage of pink. We must plant more pink bulbs this fall.”
“Ah, yes. Anything else?”
“The Christmas Soiree is quickly approaching.”
“So it is. Mrs. Pinkerton, are you willing to favour us with your fine planning ability? Yes? Is that everything, ladies?”
The women of Faith Community Church Fellowship Society looked at each other and nodded their heads.
“Well, then, dear ladies, let’s deliver the hamper now.”
The horses drawing the ladies’ carriage fastidiously picked their way around the rubbish strewn on the cobblestones. Sludge crept down the gutter, occasionally bubbling over an unidentifiable obstacle, and the smell of decay and putrefaction rose, an inescapable miasmic pall.
“Miss Tilson, are you certain this is the place?” Dora’s voice was tinged with a whine.
Miss Tilson looked out the carriage window, resisting the impulse to draw the shade and cover her face with a lavendar-soaked handkerchief.
“This is it. Driver!”
The women alighted from the carriage and paled. They lifted their skirts and tiptoed around muck, following Miss Tilson into the brick tenement building, avoiding each others’ eyes. They gasped at the scrabbling sound when they entered the hall, then waited while their eyes grew accustomed to dimness.
“Be brave, ladies. This is the work of our Lord Jesus Christ,” encouraged Mrs. Hampton-Jones. “We’ll have fellowship with Mrs...”
“With Mrs. Potts, just as we enjoy sweet fellowship with each other, ladies. Come, now.”
Standing before a door begrimed with decades of handprints and fist marks, the women stood together while Miss Tilson rapped smartly. Silence.
“Iffen yer lookin’ fer Miz Potts, ‘ers in ‘er confinement, like.” A wizened old woman stood in the doorway opposite, hunched over nearly double. She peered at the women, taking in their leather shoes, lace shawls, and full skirts. “You’s got business wif ‘er?”
“We do,” Miss Tilson confirmed.
“Miz Potts is me friend, ‘er is. You’s want me to let you in?”
“Could be ‘ers too poorly for callers.”
“Please ask, Miss...?”
“Miss Gert. Thank you.”
Miss Tilson smiled with satisfaction as Gert disappeared, and it was only a moment before Gert returned and eased the door open. “’Ers tired, so be quick.”
The smell inside was acrid and stale, redolent with old food, musty bodies, and something else - weariness and despair.
Mrs. Hampton-Jones set the hamper on the rickety table, and the other ladies began to unpack it, setting calves-foot jelly, custard tart, ham, jars of soup, and other foodstuffs out in an attractive arrangement. Dora and Miss Tilson went through to the only other room, finding Mrs. Potts in bed with her new baby and four wide-eyed children.
“Don’t lie ‘ere gobsmacked. Go say ‘allo.” prompted Mrs. Potts.
Three filthy children scrambled out of bed, the fourth preferring to suck a dirty thumb from the relative warmth of the sway-backed bed.
A child sidled close to Dora, touching her lace-edged reticule in wonder. Dora squealed, then blushed as Miss Tilson frowned at her, even as Miss Tilson herself sidestepped the inquisitive fingers of a little boy intent on touching her shiny boot buttons.
“Mrs. Potts, we’re from the Faith Community Church Fellowship Society. We’ve brought you good food. If there’s anything you need, come to the church. We’ll leave you now. God bless you.”
One child had wandered into the other room, a stream dribbling down bare legs. Mrs. Pinkerton gulped as the child approached her, mesmerized by the bows on Mrs. Pinkerton’s skirt.
“Are we finished?” she whispered to Mrs. Hampton-Jones.
“I hope so,” hissed Mrs. Hampton-Jones as Miss Tilson appeared.
The horses were stamping impatiently, as if they, too, wished to be done with the place with its evil smells and littered streets.
“Wasn’t that a lovely afternoon of fellowship, dears? Did you feel love flowing?”
In the tenement, Gert stroked Mrs. Potts brow.
“Rest, me love. It’s all right, jus’ you, me, and the little ‘uns. An’ the Almighty, o’ course. Jus’ rest, now.”
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