Fingersmith
By Sarah Waters
Published by Riverhead Books 
January 2003 in PB; 1573229725; 592 pages

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Fingersmith by Sarah WatersChapter One


My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me. I was Mrs Sucksby's child, if I was anyone's; and for father I had Mr Ibbs, who kept the locksmith's shop, at Lant Street, in the Borough, near to the Thames.

*


This is the first time I remember thinking about the world and my place in it.


There was a girl named Flora, who paid Mrs Sucksby a penny to take me begging at a play. People used to like to take me begging then, for the sake of my bright hair; and Flora being also very fair, she would pass me off as her sister. The theatre she took me to, on the night I am thinking of now, was the Surrey, St George's Circus. The play was Oliver Twist. I remember it as very terrible. I remember the tilt of the gallery, and the drop to the pit. I remember a drunken woman catching at the ribbons of my dress. I remember the flares, that made the stage very lurid; and the roaring of the actors, the shrieking of the crowd. They had one of the characters in a red wig and whiskers: I was certain he was a monkey in a coat, he capered so. Worse still was the snarling, pink-eyed dog; worst of all was that dog's master-Bill Sykes, the fancy-man. When he struck the poor girl Nancy with his club, the people all down our row got up. There was a boot thrown at the stage. A woman beside me cried out,


'Oh, you beast! You villain! And her worth forty of a bully like you!'


I don't know if it was the people getting up-which made the gallery seem to heave about; or the shrieking woman; or the sight of Nancy, lying perfectly pale and still at Bill Sykes's feet; but I became gripped by an awful terror. I thought we should all be killed. I began to scream, and Flora could not quiet me. And when the woman who had called out put her arms to me and smiled, I screamed out louder. Then Flora began to weep -- she was only twelve or thirteen, I suppose. She took me home, and Mrs Sucksby slapped her.


'What was you thinking of, taking her to such a thing?' she said. 'You was to sit with her upon the steps. I don't hire my infants out to have them brought back like this, turned blue with screaming. What was you playing at?'


She took me upon her lap, and I wept again. 'There now, my lamb,' she said. Flora stood before her, saying nothing, pulling a strand of hair across her scarlet cheek. Mrs Sucksby was a devil with her dander up. She looked at Flora and tapped her slippered foot upon the rug, all the time rocking in her chair -- that was a great creaking wooden chair, that no-one sat in save her -- and beating her thick, hard hand upon my shaking back. Then,


'I know your little rig,' she said quietly. She knew everybody's rig. 'What you get? A couple of wipers, was it? A couple of wipers, and a lady's purse?'


Flora pulled the strand of hair to her mouth, and bit it. 'A purse,' she said, after a second. 'And a bottle of scent.'


'Show,' said Mrs Sucksby, holding out her hand. Flora's face grew darker. But she put her fingers to a tear at the waist of her skirt, and reached inside it; and you might imagine my surprise when the tear turned out to be not a tear at all, but the neck of a little silk pocket, that was sewn inside her gown. She brought out a black cloth bag, and a bottle with a stopper on a silver chain. The bag had threepence in it, and half a nutmeg. Perhaps she got it from the drunken woman who plucked at my dress. The bottle, with its stopper off, smelt of roses. Mrs Sucksby sniffed.


'Pretty poor poke,' she said, 'ain't it?'


Flora tossed her head. 'I should have had more,' she said, with a look at me, 'if she hadn't started up with the sterics.'


Mrs Sucksby leaned and hit her again.


'If I had known what you was about,' she said, 'you shouldn't have had none of it at all. Let me tell you this now: You want an infant for prigging with, you take one of my other babies. You don't take Sue. Do you hear me?'


Flora sulked, but said she did. Mrs Sucksby said, 'Good. Now hook it. And leave that poke behind you, else I shall tell your mother you've been going with gentlemen.'


Then she took me to her bed -- first, rubbing at the sheets with her hands, to warm them; then stooping to breathe upon my fingers, to warm me. I was the only one, of all her infants, she would do that for. She said, 'You ain't afraid now, Sue?'


But I was, and said so. I said I was afraid the fancy-man would find me out and hit me with his stick. She said she had heard of that particular fancy-man: he was all bounce. She said,


'It was Bill Sykes, wasn't it? Why, he's a Clerkenwell man. He don't trouble with the Borough. The Borough boys are too hard for him.'


I said, 'But oh, Mrs Sucksby! You never saw the poor girl Nancy, and how he knocked her down and murdered her!'

 

'Murdered her?' she said then. 'Nancy? Why, I had her here an hour ago. She was only beat a bit about the face. She has her hair curled different now, you wouldn't know he ever laid his hand upon her.'


I said, 'Won't he beat her again though?'


She told me then that Nancy had come to her senses at last, and left Bill Sykes entirely; that she had met a nice chap from Wapping, who had set her up in a little shop selling sugar mice and tobacco.


She lifted my hair from about my neck and smoothed it across the pillow. My hair, as I have said, was very fair then -- though it grew plain brown, as I got older -- and Mrs Sucksby used to wash it with vinegar and comb it till it sparked. Now she smoothed it flat, then lifted a tress of it and touched it to her lips. She said, 'That Flora tries to take you on the prig again, you tell me -- will you?'


I said I would. 'Good girl,' she said. Then she went. She took her candle with her, but the door she left half-open, and the cloth at the window was of lace and let the street-lamps show. It was never quite dark there, and never quite still. On the floor above were a couple of rooms where girls and boys would now and then come to stay: they laughed and thumped about, dropped coins, and sometimes danced. Beyond the wall lay Mr Ibbs's sister, who was kept to her bed: she often woke with the horrors on her, shrieking. And all about the house-laid top-to-toe in cradles, like sprats in boxes of salt-were Mrs Sucksby's infants. They might start up whimpering or weeping any hour of the night, any little thing might set them off. Then Mrs Sucksby would go among them, dosing them from a bottle of gin, with a little silver spoon you could hear chink against the glass.


On this night though, I think the rooms upstairs must have been empty, and Mr Ibbs's sister stayed quiet; and perhaps because of the quiet, the babies kept asleep. Being used to the noise, I lay awake. I lay and thought again of cruel Bill Sykes; and of Nancy, dead at his feet. From some house nearby there sounded a man's voice, cursing. Then a church bell struck the hour-the chimes came queerly across the windy streets. I wondered if Flora's slapped cheek still hurt her. I wondered how near to the Borough was Clerkenwell; and how quick the way would seem, to a man with a stick.


I had a warm imagination, even then. When there came footsteps in Lant Street, that stopped outside the window; and when the footsteps were followed by the whining of a dog, the scratching of the dog's claws, the careful turning of the handle of our shop door, I started up off my pillow and might have screamed -- except, that before I could the dog gave a bark, and the bark had a catch to it, that I thought I knew: it was not the pink-eyed monster from the theatre, but our own dog, Jack. He could fight like a brick. Then there came a whistle. Bill Sykes never whistled so sweet. The lips were Mr Ibbs's. He had been out for a hot meat pudding for his and Mrs Sucksby's supper.


'All right?' I heard him say. 'Smell the gravy on this...'


Then his voice became a murmur, and I fell back. I should say I was five or six years old. I remember it clear as anything, though. I remember lying, and hearing the sound of knives and forks and china, Mrs Sucksby's sighs, the creaking of her chair, the beat of her slipper on the floor. And I remember seeing-what I had never seen before -- how the world was made up: that it had bad Bill Sykeses in it, and good Mr Ibbses; and Nancys, that might go either way. I thought how glad I was that I was already on the side that Nancy got to at last -- I mean, the good side, with sugar mice in.


It was only many years later, when I saw Oliver Twist a second time, that I understood that Nancy of course got murdered after all. By then, Flora was quite the fingersmith: the Surrey was nothing to her, she was working the West End theatres and halls -- she could go through the crowds like salts. She never took me with her again, though. She was like everyone, too scared of Mrs Sucksby.


She was caught at last, poor thing, with her hands on a lady's bracelet; and was sent for transportation as a thief.


*


We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it. If I had stared to see Flora put her hand to a tear in her skirt and bring out a purse and perfume, I was never so surprised again: for it was a very dull day with us, when no-one came to Mr Ibbs's shop with a bag or a packet in the lining of his coat, in his hat, in his sleeve or stocking.


'All right, Mr Ibbs?' he'd say.


'All right, my son,' Mr Ibbs would answer. He talked rather through his nose, like that. 'What you know?'


'Not much.'


'Got something for me?'


The man would wink. 'Got something, Mr Ibbs, very hot and uncommon...'


They always said that, or something like it. Mr Ibbs would nod, then pull the blind upon the shop-door and turn the key -- for he was a cautious man, and never saw poke near a window. At the back of his counter was a green baize curtain, and behind that was a passage, leading straight to our kitchen. If the thief was one he knew he would bring him to the table. 'Come on, my son,' he would say. 'I don't do this for everyone. But you are such an old hand that -- well, you might be family.' And he would have the man lay out his stuff between the cups and crusts and tea-spoons.


Mrs Sucksby might be there, feeding pap to a baby. The thief would see her and take off his hat.


'All right, Mrs Sucksby?'


'All right, my dear.'


'All right, Sue? Ain't you growed!'


I thought them better than magicians. For out from their coats and sleeves would come pocket-books, silk handkerchiefs and watches; or else jewellery, silver plate, brass candlesticks, petticoats -- whole suits of clothes, sometimes. 'This is quality stuff, this is,' they would say, as they set it all out; and Mr Ibbs would rub his hands and look expectant. But then he would study their poke, and his face would fall. He was a very mild-looking man, very honest-seeming-very pale in the cheek, with neat lips and whiskers. His face would fall, it would just about break your heart.


'Rag,' he might say, shaking his head, fingering a piece of paper money. 'Very hard to push along.' Or, 'Candlesticks. I had a dozen top-quality candlesticks come just last week, from a crib at Whitehall. Couldn't do nothing with them. Couldn't give them away.'


He would stand, making a show of reckoning up a price, but looking like he hardly dare name it to the man for fear of insulting him. Then he'd make his offer, and the thief would look disgusted.


'Mr Ibbs,' he would say, 'that won't pay me for the trouble of walking from London Bridge. Be fair, now.'


But by then Mr Ibbs would have gone to his box and be counting out shillings on the table: one, two, three- He might pause, with the fourth in his hand. The thief would see the shine of the silver -- Mr Ibbs always kept his coins rubbed very bright, for just that reason -- and it was like hares to a greyhound.


'Couldn't you make it five, Mr Ibbs?'


Mr Ibbs would lift his honest face, and shrug.


'I should like to, my son. I should like nothing better. And if you was to bring me something out of the way, I would make my money answer. This, however' -- with a wave of his hand above the pile of silks or notes or gleaming brass -- 'this is so much gingerbread. I should be robbing myself. I should be stealing the food from the mouths of Mrs Sucksby's babies.'


And he would hand the thief his shillings, and the thief would pocket them and button his jacket, and cough or wipe his nose.


And then Mr Ibbs would seem to have a change of heart. He would step to his box again and, 'You eaten anything this morning, my son?' he would say. The thief would always answer, 'Not a crust.' Then Mr Ibbs would give him sixpence, and tell him to be sure and spend it on a breakfast and not on a horse; and the thief would say something like,


'You're a jewel, Mr Ibbs, a regular jewel.'


Mr Ibbs might make ten or twelve shillings' profit with a man like that: all through seeming to be honest, and fair. For of course, what he had said about the rag or the candlesticks would be so much puff: he knew brass from onions, all right. When the thief had gone, he'd catch my eye and wink. He'd rub his hands again and grow quite lively.


'Now, Sue,' he'd say, 'what would you say to taking a cloth to these, and bringing up the shine? And then you might -- if you've a moment, dear, if Mrs Sucksby don't need you -- you might have a little go at the fancy work upon these wipers. Only a very little, gentle sort of go, with your little scissors and perhaps a pin: for this is lawn -- do you see, my dear? -- and will tear, if you tug too hard...'


I believe I learned my alphabet, like that: not by putting letters down, but by taking them out. I know I learned the look of my own name, from handkerchiefs that came, marked Susan. As for regular reading, we never troubled with it. Mrs Sucksby could do it, if she had to; Mr Ibbs could read, and even write; but, for the rest of us, it was an idea -- well, I should say, like speaking Hebrew or throwing somersaults: you could see the use of it, for Jews and tumblers; but while it was their lay, why make it yours?


So I thought then, anyway. I learned to cipher, though. I learned it, from handling coins. Good coins we kept, of course. Bad ones come up too bright, and must be slummed, with blacking and grease, before you pass them on. I learned that, too. Silks and linens there are ways of washing and pressing, to make them seem new. Gems I would shine, with ordinary vinegar. Silver plate we ate our suppers off -- but only the once, because of the crests and stampings; and when we had finished, Mr Ibbs would take the cups and bowls and melt them into bars. He did the same with gold and pewter. He never took chances: that's what made him so good. Everything that came into our kitchen looking like one sort of thing, was made to leave it again looking quite another. And though it had come in the front way -- the shop way, the Lant Street way-- it left by another way, too. It left by the back. There was no street there. What there was, was a little covered passage and a small dark court. You might stand in that and think yourself baffled; there was a path, however, if you knew how to look. It took you to an alley, and that met a winding black lane, which ran to the arches of the railway line; and from one of those arches -- I won't say quite which, though I could -- led another, darker, lane that would take you, very quick and inconspicuous, to the river. We knew two or three men who kept boats there. All along that crooked way, indeed, lived pals of ours -- Mr Ibbs's nephews, say, that I called cousins. We could send poke from our kitchen, through any of them, to all the parts of London. We could pass anything, anything at all, at speeds which would astonish you. We could pass ice, in August, before a quarter of the block should have had a chance to turn to water. We could pass sunshine in summer -- Mr Ibbs would find a buyer for it.


In short, there was not much that was brought to our house that was not moved out of it again, rather sharpish. There was only one thing, in fact, that had come and got stuck -- one thing that had somehow withstood the tremendous pull of that passage of poke -- one thing that Mr Ibbs and Mrs Sucksby seemed never to think to put a price to.


I mean of course, Me.


I had my mother to thank for that. Her story was a tragic one. She had come to Lant Street on a certain night in 1844. She had come, 'very large, dear girl, with you,' Mrs Sucksby said -- by which, until I learned better, I took her to mean that my mother had brought me, perhaps tucked in a pocket behind her skirt, or sewn into the lining of her coat. For I knew she was a thief. -- 'What a thief!' Mrs Sucksby would say. 'So bold! And handsome?'


'Was she, Mrs Sucksby? Was she fair?'


'Fairer than you; but sharp, like you, about the face; and thin as paper. We put her upstairs. No-one knew she was here, save me and Mr Ibbs -- for she was wanted, she said, by the police of four divisions, and if they had got her, she'd swing. What was her lay? She said it was only prigging. I think it must have been worse. I know she was hard as a nut, for she had you and, I swear, she never murmured -- never called out once. She only looked at you, and put a kiss on your little head; then she gave me six pounds for the keeping of you -- all of it in sovereigns, and all of 'em good. She said she had one last job to do, that would make her fortune. She meant to come back for you, when her way was clear...'


So Mrs Sucksby told it; and every time, though her voice would start off steady it would end up trembling, and her eyes would fill with tears. For she had waited for my mother, and my mother had not come. What came, instead, was awful news. The job that was meant to make her fortune, had gone badly. A man had been killed trying to save his plate. It was my mother's knife that killed him. Her own pal peached on her. The police caught up with her at last. She was a month in prison. Then they hanged her.


They hanged her, as they did murderesses then, on the roof of the Horsemonger Lane Gaol. Mrs Sucksby stood and watched the drop, from the window of the room that I was born in.


You got a marvellous view of it from there -- the best view in South London, everybody said. People were prepared to pay very handsomely for a spot at that window, on hanging days. And though some girls shrieked when the trap went rattling down, I never did. I never once shuddered or winked.


'That's Susan Trinder,' someone might whisper then. 'Her mother was hanged as a murderess. Ain't she brave?'


I liked to hear them say it. Who wouldn't? But the fact is -- and I don't care who knows it, now -- the fact is, I was not brave at all. For to be brave about a thing like that, you must first be sorry. And how could I be sorry, for someone I never knew? I supposed it was a pity my mother had ended up hanged; but, since she was hanged, I was glad it was for something game, like murdering a miser over his plate, and not for something very wicked, like throttling a child. I supposed it was a pity she had made an orphan of me -- but then, some girls I knew had mothers who were drunkards, or mothers who were mad: mothers they hated and could never rub along with. I should rather a dead mother, over one like that!


I should rather Mrs Sucksby. She was better by chalks. She had been paid to keep me a month; she kept me seventeen years. What's love, if that ain't? She might have passed me on to the poorhouse. She might have left me crying in a draughty crib. Instead she prized me so, she would not let me on the prig for fear a policeman should have got me. She let me sleep beside her, in her own bed. She shined my hair with vinegar. You treat jewels like that.


And I was not a jewel; nor even a pearl. My hair, after all, turned out quite ordinary. My face was a commonplace face. I could pick a plain lock, I could cut a plain key; I could bounce a coin and say, from the ring, if the coin were good or bad. -- But anyone can do those things, who is taught them. All about me other infants came, and stayed a little, then were claimed by their mothers, or found new mothers, or perished; and of course, no-one claimed me, I did not perish, instead I grew up, until at last I was old enough to go among the cradles with the bottle of gin and the silver spoon, myself. Mr Ibbs I would seem sometimes to catch gazing at me with a certain light in his eye -- as if, I thought, he was seeing me suddenly for the piece of poke I was, and wondering how I had come to stay so long, and who he could pass me on to. But when people talked -- as they now and then did -- about blood, and its being thicker than water, Mrs Sucksby looked dark.


'Come here, dear girl,' she'd say. 'Let me look at you.' And she'd put her hands upon my head and stroke my cheeks with her thumbs, brooding over my face. 'I see her in you,' she'd say. 'She is looking at me, as she looked at me that night. She is thinking, that she'll come back and make your fortune. How could she know? Poor girl, she'll never come back! Your fortune's still to be made. Your fortune, Sue, and ours along with it...'


So she said, many times. Whenever she grumbled or sighed -- whenever she rose from a cradle, rubbing her sore back -- her eyes would find me out, and her look would clear, she'd grow contented.


But here is Sue, she might as well have said. Things is hard for us, now. But here is Sue. She'll fix 'em...


I let her think it; but thought I knew better. I'd heard once that she'd had a child of her own, many years before, that had been born dead. I thought it was her face she supposed she saw, when she gazed so hard at mine. The idea made me shiver, rather; for it was queer to think of being loved, not just for my own sake, but for someone's I never knew...


I thought I knew all about love, in those days. I thought I knew all about everything. If you had asked me how I supposed I should go on, I dare say I would have said that I should like to farm infants. I might like to be married, to a thief or a fencing-man. There was a boy, when I was fifteen, that stole a clasp for me, and said he should like to kiss me. There was another a little later, who used to stand at our back door and whistle 'The Locksmith's Daughter', expressly to see me blush. Mrs Sucksby chased them both away. She was as careful of me in that department, as in all others.


'Who's she keeping you for, then?' the boys would say. 'Prince Eddie?'


I think the people who came to Lant Street thought me slow. -- Slow I mean, as opposed to fast. Perhaps I was, by Borough standards. But it seemed to me that I was sharp enough. You could not have grown up in such a house, that had such businesses in it, without having a pretty good idea of what was what -- of what could go into what; and what could come out.


Do you follow?


*
You are waiting for me to start my story. Perhaps I was waiting, then. But my story had already started -- I was only like you, and didn't know it.


*
This is when I thought it really began.



From Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Copyright (c) February 2002, Riverhead books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.

From Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. January 31, 2002 , Riverhead Books used by permission.


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Synopsis

Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a “baby farmer,” who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby’s household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, a somewhat elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naïve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud’s vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be left to live out her days in a mental hospital. With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways. . . . But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and surprises.

The New York Times Book Review has called Sarah Waters a writer of “consummate skill” and The Seattle Times has praised her work as “gripping, astute fiction that feeds the mind and the senses.” Fingersmith marks a major leap forward in this young and brilliant career.

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Author

Sarah WatersSarah Waters was born in Wales in 1966. She has a Ph.D. in English Literature and has been an associate lecturer with the Open University. She has won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and twice been shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. She lives in London.

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