Defiant ImpostorBy: Miriam Minger
"Yer late, ye little bitch!"
Nimbly dodging her father's swinging fist, her heart thundering, Susanna Guthrie skittered barefoot across the dirt floor and took refuge behind a lopsided table.
Daniel Guthrie was drunk again.
In the hazy light cast by the smoking oil lamp, his watery eyes were red-rimmed and his once-handsome face was flushed and bloated. The stuffy air reeked of cheap gin, sweat, and urine. Shattered liquor bottles littered the tiny cellar, a sure sign of her father's explosive anger. An anger which the long-unemployed foundryman would easily vent upon Susanna if she was foolish enough to come within arm's reach. Her bruised young body still ached from the cuffing he'd given her yesterday; her thin shoulders still stung from last week's lashing.
"Where the 'ell 'ave ye been, girl?" Daniel slurred thickly, staggering toward her. "Ye know me rules. Yer t' be back 'ere by sunset with yer day's earnings. 'Twas dark two 'ours past!" Lurching into the table, he glared at her furiously. "Answer me, ye chit, and stop starin' at me with those big green saucers o' yers! Where were ye?"
Susanna swallowed hard against the fear that was paralyzing her throat. She drew some courage from the hope that her explanation for her tardiness would soothe his temper.
"Covent Garden Theatre, Papa," she blurted in a nervous rush. "An op'ra was playin' there tonight, so I went t' the front entrance t' do me beggin'. Look!" She fished into both pockets of her filthy, tattered skirt and withdrew two handfuls of gleaming coins. "I tied one leg up under me dress joost like y' taught me and limped 'round with a wooden crutch under me shoulder. I must 'ave been a truly pitiful sight, for two fine ladies with tears rollin' down their rouged cheeks gave me a shillin' apiece. A kind gentl'man, too!"
"Dump the money on the table," Daniel commanded, his eyes alight with greed and his fury clearly forgotten as he plopped heavily onto a bench. "That's me clever girl. All of it now, and show me yer pockets."
Susanna quickly obliged him. In her fumbling haste to turn her pockets inside out and prove that they were empty, she tore a hole in one of them.
"Friggin' flimsy fabric," she muttered under her breath, poking her forefinger through the offending tear. Now she would have to mend her only skirt before she set off to beg in the early morning, and she hated sewing!
Intent upon the pocket, Susanna did not look up in time to see her father's sudden movement. His sharp, unexpected box to her ear sent her reeling to the floor.
"I'll 'ear no more cursin' from ye, Susanna Jane!" Daniel shouted, retaking his seat with a grunt. "Yer mother's foul tongue, the devil rest 'er soul, was the bane o' me life, and I'll not 'ave the same from ye! 'Tis bad enough ye remind me of 'er, the witch, wi' yer honey hair and wanton's face."
Her head ringing from the painful blow, Susanna gripped a table leg and rose shakily. Hot tears burned her eyes, but she stubbornly forced them back. She wouldn't give her father the satisfaction of seeing her cry, no matter how much he hurt her. She had learned early that tears didn't help anyway. They seemed to make him madder, and he would hit her again, just for good measure.
Instead, as she silently watched him count the coins and test their metal between his rotted teeth, Susanna thought for the thousandth time of leaving Daniel Guthrie and his brutality far behind her. But where could she go? He had warned that if she ever ran away, he would not rest until he found her, and she believed him. Oh, how she believed him. She could well imagine the beating he would give her then.
Sighing, Susanna darted a glance around the shadowed cellar.
At least here she had a roof over her head, a bed of straw, and one meal a day, which was far better than sleeping cold, miserable, and starving in doorways and dark alleys. As for her father's abuse, his very presence did offer her some measure of protection from others who might seek to do her harm.
At twelve going on thirteen, she was experiencing most perplexing changes in her body, including a bloody flux that came every month, starting five months ago, and budding breasts and gentle curves she could not hide. She had seen the leers lately on the faces of male passersby, the hungry, speculative looks that made her shudder. She would be a fool if she left this place to spend the nights alone on London's streets, prey to any ruffian or footpad who might take a lustful fancy to her.
No, she was safer here, at least until she found a position as a scullery maid in some gentry household. Her father could hardly object to the steady work and wage, which couldn't be found in the begging trade, and she wouldn't be running away from him. He would know exactly where she lived and would share in her earnings. Mayhap he would even be pleased with her new status.
She, for one, had no intention of remaining a beggar forever. Not Susanna Jane Guthrie.
She had big dreams. Dreams of putting this miserable existence behind her and making a better life for herself, and, if she was lucky, in a few years finding a skilled tradesman to marry. It wasn't so important that they love each other, just that he be a good, honest man. A man she could trust and put her faith in. A man wholly unlike her father. Together, if they worked hard enough, maybe they could afford a place of their own someday, a small business or a shop. Aye, a shop with a fine bow window would be grand--