Excerpt for Dancing Della by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Dancing Della

Published at Smashwords by Maxwell Grantly

Copyright Maxwell Grantly (April 2018)

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2


About the Author

Chapter 1

My name is Della and I live with my mother.

Life is hard for the two of us and so I try to earn as much as I can, to help pay for the rent and food.

During the day, I stand at the entrance of the harbour and sell matches to the workers, who walk in and out of the docks.

However, in the evening, I love to dance for pennies in the harbour pub: ‘The Smuggler’s Head.’ That is why the regulars call me ‘Dancing Della, The Match Girl.’

There is a band that plays in the Smuggler’s Head. It is made up from three sea-faring men: Singing Samuel, Freddy the Fiddler and Billy the Bottle.

My favourite is Billy the Bottle. Billy blows across the top of an empty whiskey bottle and produces a lovely beat, while Freddy accompanies on the fiddle and Samuel sings old sea shanties.

It’s amazing how something as simple as an old bottle can produce a sound so enchanting and haunting. At the same time, I dance the jig and earn pennies to help mother pay the rent.

Once, one old woman saw me dance and she said that she was moved to tears by my dancing. She hadn’t a penny so she gave me a straw boater that she had made herself.

That old straw boater is very special to me. It’s one of the few items that I actually own. During the spring, I would pick daisies and weave them around the edge of the hat. I also wear the boater while I sell matches.

During the day, when I am standing outside the harbour, selling matches, I can often hear an eerie wailing from the sewers beneath the streets. The boys often tell me that the sewers are haunted by the Rat Man: a mudlark who was killed by the bite of a deranged and diseased rat.

(In case you didn’t know, a mudlark is someone who wades through the mud, looking for discarded scraps or useful items. It’s a dreadful job but you must understand that times are hard for everyone!)

The thought of the ghostly Rat Man scares me and so I would never willingly venture into the sewers beneath the streets - or so I thought!

Last Tuesday I was standing by the harbour entrance, trying to sell matches to the workers, when a group of boys came up and started teasing me.

“Such a sissy hat!” one of them hissed at me, “It can only belong in the sewers!”

With that, he snatched the boater from my head and flung it between the grills of the sewer cover. I watched in horror as my beloved hat rolled deeper into the network, being blown by the breeze that raced through the tunnels. The boys ran off, laughing at my misfortune.

I was shocked at the thought of losing my hat. I knew that there was an exit, for the sewers, at the river so I headed there to make my way into the underground network.

Luckily, there had been very little rain and so there was only a slight trickle of water in the network. However, the tunnels were cold, dark and damp and they smelt foul. Worst of all, the wind blew along the tunnels and made a low eerie sound, just like the ghostly Rat Man moaning in agony. I definitely didn’t want to spend too long in that awful place!

As I shuffled deeper into the sewer network, I was horrified to hear the sound of clinking bottles and the voices of two men arguing. I was too deep into the sewers to escape now!

In my head, I thought it was the Rat Man or some other ghostly resident of the sewers. I was terrified and I cowered into the shadows for refuge. To my shock, two dock men approached, carrying crates of gin bottles. It seemed that they had stolen the crates from the docks and were stashing them in hiding, for a later collection.

I shuffled backwards and the water splashed below my feet. The two men looked up in my direction, straight towards me.

“What have we here?” one of them hissed.

“It’s some spying urchin kid!” the other replied. “Quick, get the little guttersnipe before she gives us away.” With that, the first man dropped his stolen cache and lunged towards me. There was no escape. I knew that it would be futile to try and make a run for it! The men dragged me deeper into the sewer network and into a brick bay, at the side of one tunnel.

It was here that they had stashed their hoard of stolen gin. The bay was crammed full of stolen booty. They had even set up a makeshift bench, with mugs and a tea urn on top.

“Leave the girl in here, Bert” said the first man. “She won’t escape. We’ll stand guard outside and then decide what to do with her.”

The two men stood outside the bay, in the sewer tunnel, and mumbled all sorts of dreadful plans to dispose of me. Inside, I desperately tried to think of how I might escape. The outside breeze blew along the sewer tunnel and it was then that I thought of Billy the Bottle and his amazing improvised musical skills.

If I emptied the gin bottles and placed them randomly around the bay, the blowing wind would create a ghastly eerie sound. I could pretend that the Rat Man was coming to take his revenge.

I knew that gin was expensive and I didn’t want to get further into trouble. Therefore, I carefully tipped each bottle into the urn, so the drink would be safe, whilst I borrowed the bottles for my plan.

Then I placed the empty gin bottles around the bay, as the breeze continued to blow into the network. Each individual bottle was very quiet but the combined effect of many bottles was quite haunting.

Next I moaned and groaned loudly.

“What mischief are you up to?” Bert called out, from the entrance of the bay.

The breeze played faintly across the tops of the gin bottles, creating a low hum.

“It’s the Rat Man,” I cried back. “He’s coming to get us all!”

The two men entered the bay cautiously, confused by the low hum of the gin bottles. However, my plan didn’t work as well as I thought. Bert tripped over the first bottle.

“You little toad!” he bellowed. “I don’t know what trickery you are planning but you’re wasting our cache.”

He picked up the empty gin bottle and waved it in front of my face.

“This is decent stuff!” he shouted, “and you’ve gone and tipped it into the sewers. We’ll have your guts for garters, mark my words!”

“Keep your voice down, Bert,” said the second thief, “We don’t want the authorities to know the whereabouts of our den. Let’s take things easy and we’ll plan a way of discarding this urchin.”

With that, he lit a small fire beneath the urn and began to warm the contents.

“Have a mug of tea, Bert,” he continued, “and we’ll soon hatch a perfect plan to get out of this mess.”

The two men poured themselves a mug each, nice and strong with plenty of sugar. In fact, they made the tea so strong and added so much sugar, they didn’t realise that they were drinking hot gin!

“I say we whip the girl and then sell her to a travelling circus,” suggested Bert.

He dangled a length of rope in the air, to show that he meant business.

“I say we whip the girl and then sell her to one of the ships, as a pressed crew member.” replied the second thief.

He also dangled a length of rope in the gloom of the bay.

“Whatever,” suggested Bert, “let’s just whip her now and we’ll decide what to do afterwards.”

He reached his hand forward to my arm but then he paused. The gin was starting to take effect. The vision of the two thieves was becoming blurred. The two men were starting to see double.

“Should I whip the girl on the left first,” asked Bert, “while you whip the girl on the right?”

“I’m not sure, Bert,” came the slurred reply. “I thought I had one rope in my hand but now it appears that I have two. Let’s just whip them both, with the two ropes.”

Together the two thieves lunged forward and raised their ropes in the air, to begin the thrashing. As they did so, they collided and fell to the ground in a drunken stupor.

It was then that I made my escape. I forgot all thoughts of the Rat Man, the stash of gin bottles or my straw boater. I ran as fast as I was able, straight to the source of the breeze. Within minutes I was out at the river’s edge, with the entrance to the sewers, behind me. From there, it was a short dash onto the harbour’s wall and towards the first crowd of dockworkers that I could find.

I guess that it was clear, from my startled face and my panicked descriptions, that something was seriously amiss. The workers quickly brought the foreman to the affray, to hear my garbled musings.

“My straw boater,” I mumbled, “The Rat Man and empty gin bottles. The howling breeze and ghostly wailings!”

However, as soon as I said “the two thieves” the foreman knew!

“Leave the girl here,” he ordered, “and come with me to search the sewers. We’ll get those thieves now, before they get a chance to move their stash.”

I was soon deserted, as all the men ran into the sewer complex, hunting for the stash of gin and the thieves, that were drunkenly sleeping in their secret hideout.

I didn’t want to hang around for too long, in case there were repercussions or something. I’d lost my straw boater and that was bad enough. Besides, it was getting later in the day now and I had money to earn. Crowds were heading towards the ‘Smuggler’s Head’ and I knew that Billy, Freddy and Samuel would be needing my help.

“Ah, here comes Dancing Della, our trusted assistant,” cried Billy the Bottle. “Where’s your hat?”

“A gang of stupid boys threw it in the sewers!” I replied, truthfully. “I’ll dance for you tonight and sort it out tomorrow.”

Chapter 2

The next day I wandered down to the riverside. I knew that the sewers would be empty of the thieves by now. It shouldn’t take me too long to find my hat.

I quickly located the entrance to the sewers and then I wandered into the complex of tunnels. I had been here yesterday and so it didn’t seem quite so scary the second time.

The breeze blew into the sewers and, in the far distance, I could hear a gentle howling. “That is bound to be the sound of the wind blowing over my old gin bottles,” I whispered aloud to myself.

The last time I had been in the sewers, I had left a load of empty gin bottles laying around. I also knew, by listening to ‘Billy the Bottle,’ how the breeze blowing across the top of an empty bottle sounded.

“There’s nothing to be scared of,” I repeated again and again, as I ventured deeper into the sewer complex.

Thoughts of seeing the ghostly Rat Man left my head, as I focused on finding my boater hat. I knew that I would soon be out and back onto the city streets again.

As I ventured deeper into the complex of tunnels, the wailing sound grew louder and louder. I felt sure that I would soon find my hat.

To my surprise, as I reached a dead end in one of the tunnels, I saw my hat laying against the wall. That didn’t take long at all! Behind me, the wailing grew louder and louder. As I bent down to pick my hat up I suddenly realised that the wailing noise was right next to me. Also, it didn’t sound quite as familiar as Billy the Bottle’s puffing on the whiskey bottles!

I straighten up and turned around to see a sight that chilled me to the bone: the ghostly form of the Rat Man was standing behind me, blocking my exit to safety.

I was terrified and frozen to the spot. There was no way that I could escape now. The ghostly form drifted slowly towards me, wailing as it approached.

“Oh woe is me!” I heard it exclaim. “Woe is me. You are the only one who has not run away from my approach!” I couldn’t explain how I wanted to escape and how the ghoul was blocking my exit.

“Oh woe is me!” the Rat Man repeated. “My prior life (and now my existence in the afterlife beyond) is such a misery! How will I ever escape from this awful fate?”

I looked up into the face of the Rat Man and I stared into his eyes. He seemed so dreadfully miserable. Even a ghost shouldn’t have to have an existence that was full of such woe!

I tried to overcome my fear and spoke the first words that came into my head. “Are you really a gh … gh … ghost?” I stammered.

“I am indeed.” The Rat Man moaned. “In my prior life, I used to search the sewers for lost items of value. Sadly, I was taken from your world by the poisoned bite of a rat.”

“But, if you’re a ghost,” I murmured, “How come there aren’t more of your sort! After all, there must be millions of people who lived in this world (and then died) before now.”

“The Rat Man howled once more and waved his arms upwards. His eyes seemed to dampen with an awful air of despair.”

“You world is just one of many,” he explained. “There are worlds beyond yours, both before your birth and after your death. When you pass from one world, you may enter another.”

“However,” he continued, “you cannot pass from one to another if you have lived a life of trauma or absolute despair: just one tiny glint of happiness is all that it takes to ease your passage between worlds. This is why, whenever you see a ghost in your world, it is always as a result of some great tragedy or why it is in a state of perpetual misery. I never knew the warmth of compassion in the whole of my life. I spent my childhood as an abandoned orphan and then, in my adulthood, I searched these sewers in loneliness.”

I held the rim of my straw boater tightly and looked into the face of the Rat Man with compassion. No one deserved to be miserable: either living or dead. As I grasped the rim of my hat, I thought of the friends I knew and the happiness that I experienced. Even though my life was tough, I still knew the friendship and love of others.

“Couldn’t I break your spell of misery,” I suggested as I held my hands forward, “by offering you a token of friendship?”

The ghost looked down at my straw boater and sighed deeply. This was going to be harder than I thought.

“I am trapped between your world and the life beyond,” he sighed, “ I am nothing but an apparition. How could I ever accept a gift that I cannot touch or hold?”

The Rat Man swayed his hands before me and they passed straight through my straw boater. I realised that I must seem to him as he must seem to me: ghostly and ethereal.

“You are no longer in my world,” I suggested, “because you have passed from it. Suppose this hat were to pass from my world too, then you could accept it.”

The Rat Man sighed and wailed again. His despair wrenched at my heart and I desperately wanted to help him.

Then I suddenly remembered that I was Dancing Della, the Match Girl. I had spent my working life, standing at the harbour, selling boxes of matches to those who passed by.

I took one of my boxes and slid it open, removing a match. Then I struck the match and held it against the rim of my straw boater. Despite being slightly damp, the hat was soon ablaze. The Rat Man shielded his eyes from the glare of the light, as the hat erupted into a mass of flames. Soon there was nothing left of the boater but smouldering pile of ash.

‘Take it,” I said, “It’s a present for you. I hope that you will love my hat as much I once did.”

The Rat Man smiled as he reached his hands into the ash. He withdrew an ethereal boater from the remains of the fire and he placed the hat upon his head.

“Why thank you,” the Rat Man exclaimed. “This is the first act of kindness I have ever experienced. How can I ever repay you?”

With that, the Rat Man shimmered and faded out of sight. I knew that he had finally managed to transition between worlds and complete the journey into the next life.

I wandered out of the sewers and back into the glaring daytime light of my life in the city. The sunshine streamed through the branches of the trees and I could hear the notes of birdsong from within. As I glanced back into the shadowy darkness of the sewers, I caught the glimpse of a rat scampering through the gloom. I could swear that it winked at me, as it departed from my view!

I walked back up through the streets, towards the site of the Smuggler’s Head.

I ran my fingers through my hair and felt the absence of my hat. Although I no longer owned my old straw boater, I knew that I had something more special than that.

I’m Dancing Della and, although I know that my life is hard, I am surrounded by friends and people that I love (and those who love me) and how I love to dance too!


All credit to the creators, merchants and residents of Second Life: without their help, this publication would have not been possible.

About the Author

Maxwell Grantly is the nom de plume of a schoolteacher, living in a small seaside town on the east coast of Great Britain. Although he has written many short stories, he does not think of himself as an author. Maxwell is, first and foremost, merely a mathematics teacher. He simply writes just because he enjoys doing so and for no other reason.

Being a schoolteacher, Maxwell Grantly enjoys reading children’s literature as part of his work as well as for recreation. However, as a writer, he does not always write books that could be described as typically suitable for the younger reader: his work is incredibly varied in both syntax and style. Maxwell produces short stories that he enjoys writing and that he enjoys reading. Sometimes he uses vocabulary and imagery that is more suited to adults. At other times, he writes directly for a younger audience. This means that some of his books may only be suitable for accomplished young readers (or for adults who might like a break from their regular reading agenda) while others may be suitable for younger readers who are still developing their literacy skills.

By not targeting his work to one particular audience and by not being a professional author, it does mean that Maxwell has an incredible freedom to branch out and simply write recreationally for his own artistic satisfaction. If you enjoy reading his stories then he is pleased that you were able to briefly enter his fantasy world too, if only for a brief ten or fifteen minutes.

You can find out more about Maxwell, by visiting his website at

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