Here is an excerpt from A Different Woman about John Price, Fanny Price's brother, bumping into his older brother Richard on a cold winter's day in London. Richard is a third mate with the East India Company. He's back from Cathay, and the two brothers decide to walk onto the Thames, which is frozen over. A Frost Fair is being held on the river.
Richard hailed the sight of a temporary tavern made of two canopies stitched together, called the “North-West Passage.” John ignored his invitation to go in for a drink and instead wandered slowly along the row of stalls that stretched almost across to the opposite bank.
The usual foul stench of the river was subdued by the cold, and the thick layer of ice beneath his feet. As to the thickness of the ice, he had no qualms about walking where so many others went, but he wished to know its precise thickness, merely as a knowable fact, because not knowing that fact was like an itch he could not scratch. He supposed someone in authority had drilled a hole and had measured the ice, to ensure the safety of the populace, and he hoped the information might be supplied somewhere, or had been printed in the papers.
Out of habit, he also watched the people, training himself to spot pick-pockets. Everyone appeared to be in excellent spirits. Rationally, though, John could see no advantage to walking out on a frozen river to go shopping. The same articles were for sale on the ice that one might buy anywhere, on any day—honey in the comb, candles, gloves. And yet everyone treated the occasion like a festival day. Just the novelty of being able to walk on the Thames, and suddenly everyone was willing to pay a higher price for gingerbread. There was no understanding people sometimes.
He came across a small bundle of rags which someone had left upon a low wooden stool. The bundle moved and he saw it was a tiny, hunchbacked old woman. Two crutches lay on the ice in front of her. She extended a bony hand with long dirty fingernails. “Your fortune, young sir?”
“Pardon?” said John.
“I can trace your fortune, sir. Give me your palm.”
John’s hands were firmly tucked in his pockets, out of her grasp.
He looked at her. “You can see into the future?”
“Yes, sir. I have the sight.”
“Then why are you dressed in rags if you know which horse will win at Newmarket?”
The woman gave John a piercing look. “Sir, I do not see horses, I see destinies.”
“So can I. I can tell you what yours is, for I am about to report you to the river police. You will be brought up at the Old Bailey, and you will be placed in the stocks. I’m surprised you did not know that.”
The woman swore a colourful string of oaths at him, snatched up her stool and crutches, and scurried away with surprising rapidity.
John continued his exploration of the fair and came across a stall of books. Out of habit, he started glancing over the titles laid out on the wooden counter.
“Well, hello yourself, John Price,” said a female voice. He looked up and saw a small figure swaddled in blankets and scarves standing behind the counter, and recognised Prudence Imlay, whose father owned his favourite book shop.
“Oh, hello Miss Imlay,” John answered. “How do you like being on the river?”
“I am slowly freezing to death,” answered Miss Imlay calmly. “And I might as well not have bothered to drag all these books down here. These, on the other hand, are extremely popular.” And she held out a poster with an engraving of London Bridge and a bit of doggerel:
The season cold
You now behold
A sight that’s very rare
All in a trice
Upon the ice
Just like a Russian fair.
“What a terrible verse,” said John.
“I know. I wrote it,” answered she. “The first time I have sold my writing to the public and it has to be this.”
John wanted to say something encouraging. “Maybe if you write something better, the public will like it as well.”
“Are you going to buy a book, John Price?”
“Not today. I spent all my money at the King’s Arms.”
“Oh!” she said, surprised. “That’s not like you, surely.”
“For my brother,” he amended.
“Ah, well, you seldom buy our books anyway. Father says you treat our shop like a lending library.”
“That is why I take care to visit when he is not there,” said John. “And anyway, I prefer it when you are there.”
Miss Imlay looked away, then looked back.
“I think you are getting too cold,” said John, “your cheeks are turning red. If they turn white, then it is frostbite. You should be careful.”
Richard appeared out of the throng, and saluted John with another hearty slap on the back.
“Ho, John, you artful bugger! Not so backward with the ladies after all!” And he turned to bestow a devastating smile on Miss Imlay. He looked at her, and his smile dissolved.
“Oh,” he said, taking in the red smallpox scars which disfigured her entire face.
The girl flushed again, and turned away. “I think I shall start packing up. The sun is going down.” She bent down and disappeared behind the counter.
“Do you want any help, Miss Imlay?” asked John.
“No, thank you,” came her voice. “I can do it myself. My father is meeting me at the quay.”
“Very well, good afternoon,” said John, and he and Richard walked away.
“Poor girl—what a shame,” said Richard, his loud voice carrying across the ice. “Nice eyes. Pretty hair, too. Too bad about her face.”
“What about her face?” asked John.
“The pock-marks, what d’you think I meant!” Richard laughed. “There isn’t enough ale in London to make her into a beauty.”
“That is just her skin,” answered John. “That is not... that is not... what she looks like.” He tried to explain but Richard was not listening anyway.
Something was making John feel uncomfortable. He was not sure what it was. He thought he should go back to talk to Miss Imlay. “You go on, Richard,” he said. “Meet me back here tomorrow at the North-West Passage. Around midday.”
He ran, slipping and sliding, back along the rows of stalls, dodging children and stray dogs.
Prudence Imlay was still clearing the books off the counter.
“Even if you do not need help, Miss Imlay,” said John, “I can help you. That is, do you want help?”
Prudence tossed her head, but made no reply.
“Is something wrong? Are you angry?” asked John.
“Leave it to you, John Price, to not know when somebody is angry,” said Prudence. “A fine thief catcher you would make, if you do not know if someone is angry, or happy, or sad.”
“Are... you feeling sad?”
Prudence sighed. “I caught the smallpox when I was a child, and I did not die, but I know what I look like, and—and—that is just the way things are and I cannot change it. And I do not want to talk about it.”
“All right,” said John. He was rather relieved, because he was not good at that sort of talking. “Are you sure you do not want any help?” He was going to add, “books are heavy,” but decided that she, a book-seller’s daughter, already knew books were heavy.
“Not today, John,” said Prudence. “Go away.”
The East India Company sent trading ships to India and China to bring back silk, shawls, spices and more.
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Regency England comes alive in this tale of love, loss and second chances set against the real-life backdrop of political turmoil in England.