A fierce winter storm had blown through the narrow streets of London, and by morning the entire city lay almost knee deep in fresh snow. Alaina braced herself on the window ledge and leaned out into the frigid air to gaze up and down her narrow street. Drury Lane stretched before her on both sides, drab and dirty. But somehow, with the snow making the street sparkle, it was transformed into a kind of fairy world, so full of magic and beauty that Alaina felt pale in comparison. For a few moments she forgot herself in the beauty of it all, reveling in the peace.
It was far too early for anyone to be out, though Alaina knew it wouldn't last very long. Soon people, in all manners of dress, would come pouring from their homes, fighting the snow on their way to an assortment of odd jobs. She would join those people, sneaking past her cousins sleeping form, to trip down the rickety staircase, and onto the street. Like a parade of ragged ghouls they would travel in a group, occasionally someone would break off, until all of them had dispersed. By noon the snow would be nothing but mud splattered slush.
Strong gusts of wind made her pull away from the window with a shudder. Fetching her boots from the corner, and perching on the edge of a lumpy mattress, she quickly pulled them on, one-by-one. A small hole on the very tip of the scuffed leather shoe, made her grimace, as she thought of the snow. She silently thanked God that her workplace was not as far as some; only a few streets away.
Somewhere in the distance a door slammed, followed by many more. Alaina hastened in her daily toilette. On her way out the door she paused only to smooth her hair, place a straw bonnet atop her head, and say a prayer to the small hanging crucifix hanging above the bed. She glanced back once to see her cousin, Bell, stir in her sleep. Having been out late to make her own living she wouldn't be waking for hours. Alaina was surprised not to find a man dozing somewhere in their small two-room dwelling, as there usually was.
The moment she stepped on to the street snow seeped through her boot and soaked her foot, and cold wind passed through the thin fabric of her cloak. Not even the sun, which was rising above the hills, helped to warm her bones.
From behind a strong male voice called her name. William Ramsey, oblivious to the snow, ran to catch up with her. He was a handsome young man of about 20; a man with a small, but honest living. His easy manners and attractive countenance made most women envy her. Young William's heart held no room for any but herself. "How do you far today, my sweet?"
She looked up into his smiling face, though she had to squint to see him because of the sun. "Quite well, and yourself?"
A slight nod indicated that he too was well. Slowly, almost hesitantly he took her gloved hand and placed it into the crook of his arm. "Alaina," he began but stopped as if wondering whether or not to continue. "Alaina, I believe that I've got enough money to buy a small room of my own."
Alaina paused and thought to consider her words with care before she replied. In the awkward silence that followed William grew nervous. His pace quickened with his agitation and Alaina had to take quick steps to match his pace. "You know I cant leave Bell yet, William." Alaina replied so quiet that William barely heard her.
She refused to meet his eyes, so he was forced to stare at the top of bonnet-covered head. "Bell can take care of herself."
"Perhaps in this life, but I still wish to try and save her soul for the next."
William's laugh echoed off the barren walls surrounding them. People who had been filing from their homes turned in their direction. "Oh darling! When will you realize that she cannot be saved? Your cousin has committed herself to a life of sin and she shows no signs of stopping." At Alaina's petulant gaze he sobered and said with a sigh, "Very well. You will come and marry me when you are ready. But know this, I wont wait forever, my good little Christian sweetheart."
They continued on making small conversation, until Alaina was parted from him and travel down a small alley. William offered to escort her, but Alaina declined, knowing full well he did so only to be polite. He could no more afford to be late than she could.
A small bakery was located in one of the many old shops running along the alley. Alaina considered stopping there, and confirmed that she would when she heard her stomach give an audible growl. Fingering one of the few coins left in her dress pocket she strolled along, searching left and right for something to resemble a bakery. Looking up ahead a few buildings she noticed a worn sign, a loaf of bread clearly indicating a bakery. It was flapping madly in the increasing wind, seeming ready to fly off its hinges.
With the wind small bits of snow and dirt flew from the ground and into her eyes. Alaina angled her head downward, and pulled her bonnet lower for protection. She fought her way against the gale, before ducking through the doorway. Anticipating the fresh smell of baked bread, she inhaled deeply. Instead she smelled something akin to dust and mildew.
Curiously she looked up and placed her bonnet securely in place. She realized that she wasn't in a bakery at all, but a small bookshop. Shelves, some full others not, ran along the walls and in rows. A small counter was set up in the back, covered in books. Everywhere she turned there were books stacked atop on another, or lying in great, heaping piles upon the floor. For a fleeting instant Alaina considered retreating, but interest got the better of her good sense. She took a few small steps towards a shelf that was completely covered to run her hand timidly over the leather-bound spines. Though she had never learned to read, books had always fascinated her. She picked one up.
The voice startled her and the book fell from her hands to land with a loud thump on the wooden floor. Alaina hasten to pick it up. "I'm…I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to bother you."
"No, you're not intruding upon me at all." A young man, though she couldn't guess at his exact age, approached from behind the counter. Judging by his accent he was not English-Scottish perhaps. A mop of brown hair covered his head and fell into his eyes; he flicked them out of the way. He wore coarse brown pants and suspenders with a plain black shirt beneath them. Nothing unordinary about his dress, there were many men of the working class who dressed similar. It was the white collar around his throat that made Alaina pause.
Under her intense scrutiny his eyes grew very gentle as he stared at her beneath thin wire rimmed glasses. She couldn't guess why he wasn't offended at her staring, but she was thankful he didn't. "Miss?" he asked softly.
"Are you a clergyman?" she asked as the thought came to mind.
"Yes, yes I am." He smiled.
Turning from him, she placed the book back on the shelf. "What are you doing here? In this part of the city?" She kept her eyes on the books. As far as she was concerned, members of the church never ventured into so dangerous an area.
"I've come to help those people of London less fortunate than myself, through book learning and to help them see the light of God."
"You're going to do this with books? Are you aware that most of those who live in the slums can't read? No one will buy these books."
"Oh, I'm not doing this for the money." His smile broadened. "I am supported by the church for this project, though it took some persuasive arguing. These books will be given away for free to those who would like them." He said this as though it were an invitation. Alaina didn't wish to reveal her lack of education to this man so high above herself, so remained silent. He pressed further. "Would you like one?" He reached over her head to get the book she had dropped.
"When would I find time to read it? I keep late hours and wake early in the morning."
"Take it anyway. Who knows? Perhaps God will grant you time to further expand your mind."
Timidly she reached out a hand and took it from him. The kindness he displayed was almost too much for her to bear. She ran her hand over the rough leather volume. It was thick and weighed heavily in her hand. She felt a pang of regret in not being able to know its contents. She looked up and noted the concern that was etched onto the clergyman's face. With a quick murmur of 'thank you' she turned and fled.