"What do you mean?"
"If you must go, you shall have to go dressed as a man."
I race up the stairs, hoping I do not wake Grandmama or the servants. Tom's clothes are a mystery to me. With difficulty, I manage to undress, taking off the many layers and my corset. I sigh with relief when free of it. I pull Tom's trousers over my woolen stockings and select a shirt and coat. They are a bit snug. I am tall but not slender as he is. Still, they will have to do. Securing my hair beneath his hat is a task, though. It threatens to spring from my head. And to wear Tom's shoes requires that I stuff the ends with handkerchiefs, as his feet are a full inch and a half larger than my own. It makes me walk like a drunk.
"How do I look?" I ask, coming down the stairs. Kartik scoffs."Like someone who shall be set upon by every hooligan in East London. This is a terrible idea. We'll wait until your brother returns."
"I will not leave my father to die in an opium den," I say."Pull the carriage round."
A light snow's begun to fall. It coats Ginger's mane in a thin gray powder as we pull slowly into the East London slums. The night is still and cold. Every breath is painful. Narrow, filthy alleys wind between ramshackle buildings that stand stooped as beggars. Crippled chimneys jut up from the sodden roofs, crooked metal arms asking the sky for alms, for hope, for some reassurance that this life is not all they can ever know.
"Pull your hat low over your face," Kartik warns. Even on this night and in the cold, the streets are crowded with people, drunk, loud, swearing. A trio of men in the open doorway of a gin house takes in my fine clothes, Kartik beside me.
"Don't look at them," Kartik says."Don't engage with anyone."
A group of street urchins clusters about us, begging. This one's got a sick baby sister at home; another offers to shine my boots for a shilling. Still another, a boy of no more than eleven or so, knows of a place where we can go and he will "be kind" to me for as long as I like. He does not smile or betray any feeling as he says this. He is as matter- of-fact as the boy offering to clean my boots.
Kartik pulls six coins from his pocket. They glisten in the black wool of his gloved palm. The boys' eyes grow wide in the dark.
"Three shillings for whoever watches this carriage and horse," he says.
Three boys are on him at once, promising all sorts of harm to whoever would bother such a fine gentleman's carriage.
"And three for the one who can escort us to Chin-Chin's without incident," he says.
They're quiet. A filthy boy in tattered clothes and shoes worn down to holes grabs the last of the coins. "Oi know Chin's," he says. The other boys look at him with envy and scorn. "This way, gents," he says, taking us down a maze of alleys damp with the wind blowing off the nearby docks. Fat rats scuttle across cobblestones, poking at heaven knows what by the curb. Despite the raw wind and late hour, people are out. It is still Christmas Eve, and they crowd the gin houses and streets, some of them falling down with drunkenness.
"Roight 'ere," the boy says as we reach a hovel inside a tiny court. The boy pushes through the decrepit door and escorts us up steep, dark stairs that reek of urine and the damp. I trip over something and realize it's a body.
"That's jus' ol' Jim," the boy says, unbothered." 'E's always 'ere."
On the second floor, we reach another door.
" 'Ere you go. Chin-Chin's. Give us a gin for the trouble, eh, guv?" the boy says, sticking out his hand in the hopes of more money.
I press another two shillings into his palm.
"Merry Christmas, guv." He disappears and I knock on the grime-thickened door. It creaks open to reveal an ancient Chinaman. The shadows under his hollow eyes make him seem more an apparition than a flesh-and-blood man, but then he smiles, showing a handful of teeth mottled brown as rotted fruit. He bids us follow him into the low, cramped room. Everywhere I look there are bodies. They lie about, eyes fluttering; some jabber on in long strings of sentences that mean nothing. They're broken by long pauses and the occasional weak laugh that chills the soul with its emptiness. A sailor, his skin the color of India ink, nods and sleeps in a corner. Beside him is a man who looks as if he might never wake.
The opium fumes make my eyes water and my throat burn. At this rate, it will be a wonder if we can escape the room without succumbing to the drug ourselves. I put my handkerchief to my mouth to keep from gagging.
"Mind the floor," Kartik says. Several well-to-do gentlemen are clumped together around an opium bowl in a stupor, mouths open. Above them, a rope stretches across the room, dingy rags hanging from it forming a rotted curtain that smells of sour milk. "Which ship are you on, my boy?" comes a voice from the darkness. A face moves into the glow from a candle. The man is Indian.