A Story by Lea Sheryn
Emma Quance is plagued by Jack the Ripper
Far above Emma Quance’s head the gaslight menacingly flickered. Eerily the sound of the lamplighter’s footsteps echoed against the cobbled pavement beneath his booted feet. Apart from the clop-clop sound of his steps that constantly moved further away, the fifteen-year-old girl was alone in the swirling fog that surrounded her. Trembling, she pressed her back against the wall behind her, hoping she could make herself disappear into the brick and mortar.
In the year 1888, the Whitechapel district of London was the last place anyone in their right mind would wish to be, particularly a person in Emma Quance’s position. “Harlot,” a voice hissed from the depths of the fog. The word echoed around the frightened girl as she felt her spine tighten and press even deeper into the unyielding wall behind her. Was it a man’s voice? Was it a woman’s? Was it the Ripper’s voice? Without waiting to find out, Emma ran heedlessly into the fog. Even her own footsteps, calling and recalling behind her, scared her out of her wits.
Dashing down a blind alley, Emma practically fell down the steps leading to her mother’s basement apartment. Bracing her shoulder against the dark door, she burst inside the one room dwelling and practically collided with the heavyset disheveled woman she called ‘mama’. “What brings you crashing through my door, missy?” shrieked the ragged hulk of a human being. “You were sent out to earn your living so get out!”
“The Ripper, mama,” the girl whimpered as she was forced by the advancing hulk--otherwise known as Kitty Quance--to walk backwards toward the door. “He’s out there, mama. I…I think I her..her…heard him. Don’t make me go out there, please.” Falling on her knees, Emma clasped her hands together and begged as though her life depended upon it.
“Get out! Get out!” the mama screamed as she staggered forward. “And don’t come back until you’ve earned your keep!”
Crawling on her hands and knees, Emma mounted the cracked basement steps. As soon as she was fully outside, the door behind her slammed shut. The sound of the bolt sliding into place told her she was in for a night on the streets whether she liked it or not. With the sooty fog enveloping her, she pressed her back against the filthy wall and enfolded her knees with her arms. Being a harlot wasn’t her choice; it was mama’s.
The streets of Whitechapel were the only ones Emma had ever known. As a young child, she grew up with the filth of the slums surrounding her. For as long as she could recall, her clothes had always been old and raggedy; her boots either too big or too small but never new. Her straggly blond hair had never seen comb nor brush; neither had her face or body been washed. Did it matter? Not really. No one else in the neighborhood was any different.
In the early years, mama had disappeared every evening as soon as night began to fall. Admonishing Emma to bolt the door behind her and to never allow anyone inside, no matter how much they begged and pleaded, the little girl obeyed without question. She would bury herself into the bundle of rags that provided a bed for both inhabitants of the dingy basement apartment. During the day, she would play outside with the other children of the streets while mama slept in the bed with a bottle of cheap gin tucked beneath her arm.
It was a way of life Emma never questioned until she turned thirteen years old. As soon as mama noticed the girl was becoming a woman, she decided her time of retirement had arrived. The buxom young thing the child had become would be more profitable on the streets than an elderly worn out whore of thirty-six, any time. Without much ado, Emma was sent out for a nightly stroll with no idea what was awaiting her.
The night frightened her. Cold and dank from the sooty fog that cavorted in the narrow streets and alleys during the 1880s, London was no place for an innocent child to sell the wares demanded of her by a demented drunken mother. The men who led her down the alleys were big and threatening. Emma was alarmed by what they expected her to do but she complied because she knew mama expected her to. She knew there was no escape, but it didn’t stop her from trembling as she stood by her lamppost to await the next ‘gentleman’ who approached her.
Then the murders began.
Suddenly no place in London was safe, particularly after dark, for the women of the night. One by one, five women were mutilated and dead within the precincts of Whitechapel: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddows, Mary Jane Kelly along with many others who could be potential victims of the Ripper. Anyone could be next.
Whether she liked it or not, Emma Quance was a woman of the night. With mama waiting with her grubby hand reaching out to grab the coins her daughter had to offer in the morning, the girl walked the eerie streets. Rats scuttled underfoot in the alleys while she went about her detested business. Around her, the mist-swirled air stank of dung and the swill that was disposed of from the tenements that loomed overhead. Screwing her eyes tightly closed, she allowed the business at hand to commence, all the time worrying if she was entertaining the Ripper.
The dead women haunted her both in the streets and in her sleep. Each one was known to her; each one had tramped the precincts along with mama and with Emma. They had spoken to each other, shared secrets and had told jokes about the fine men who thought these women were little more than street trash to treat as they pleased. A few pence, a couple of bob, perhaps a shilling or two, what did it matter to those who had money to toss away? To the ladies of the night that little bit meant a scrap of bread and a roof over their heads.
Emma Quance clung to her lamppost for support and waited with bated breath. Footstep repeated footstep in the deep London fog. Louder and louder the sound grew as the form of a man swinging a heavy stick appeared amongst the swirling haze. A Bobby. The terrified girl let out her breath. “Should stay inside, miss, on a night like this one,” the policeman stated as he strode by.
'If only…' Emma thought as the foreboding vapor engulfed the Bobby.
The night was long and lonely. No one was about. 'Would anyone notice if I were not here?' Emma wondered as she attempted to peer into the pea soup around her. “Would anyone tell mama if I found a desolate corner in one of the alleys to catch a wink of sleep?”
Making up her mind to do just as she thought, Emma turned on her heel to march off toward the nearest blind alley. A figure darker than the unearthly fog loomed above her. Completely covered by a black opera cape with an equally black hat pulled low over his brow, the specter pointed a menacing finger in the direction of a dark hole of an alley. Eyes wide with fright, Emma Quance stepped backward with every hope of escape only to meet the lamppost with the small of her back. Was this going to be the end?
With the speed of lightning a bony fingered hand reached from the inside of the dark cape to encircle the petrified girl’s upper arm. Dragging her into the grimy backstreet, she was flung against the wall and trapped by an arm pressed against her exposed neck. Squirming and kicking with all her might, Emma managed to land a good hard hit with the toe of her boot into the ankle of her attacker.
When the surgical knife appeared, Emma let out a shriek that cut through the fog with the same potency as the weapon pointed at her midsection. The arm pressing against her neck increased its strength as the point of the blade bit into her flesh. The young girl was helpless beneath the force of the man who held her captive. 'No more mama, no more walking the streets,' the thought passed through her mind as she felt the end of her life nearing. If she let herself go, could she leave this world in peace?
Footsteps hurrying from the distance; the call of voices. The menacing figure above her seemed to vanish at the approach of what seemed a vast horde of people. Could he have melted into the walls of the brick buildings? Surely there was no other way out of a blind alley. Emma Quance didn’t attempt to figure it out. Falling into a deep faint, she didn’t feel her body slide down the side of the apartment building she had been forced against.
When her eyes reopened, a man who stated he was a doctor was leaning over her. Standing above him was a tall skinny male figure wearing a deerstalker’s cap and a tweed cape. “You can mark my words, by God, after an experience like this, this girl will suffer from nyctophobia for the rest of her life,” the doctor heatedly declared.
Calling over a Bobby who was close enough to hear the conversation, the tall man gave instruction to have Emma removed from the area and taken to his place of residence. The doctor quickly stated that bedrest was necessary and perhaps, after some time had passed, their housekeeper might have a need for a tweeny. Without further ado, the man in the deerstalker’s cap drew a magnifying glass from his cape pocket to begin a minute examination of the area while the doctor stepped in to assist.
And so, Emma Quance found herself far away from Whitechapel and living in a prominent neighborhood in the home of the most famous detective in London and his doctor friend. She never saw Whitechapel or mama again.