. Isaac (Ikey) Solomon was known as the “Prince of Fences” in 1800s London. He was so called because any illegal activity went through him. He dealt in gold, stolen goods, but especially, counterfeiting. He employed a Jewish deaf, dumb Belgian to make his counterfeit bills.
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Mary Abacus was so named because she had a Dutch father, a drunk, no less, who'd taught her to use the abacus: the strange mystical instrument of the Chinese. Although Mary had grown up as a filthy urchin on the streets of London, soon bookkeepers and their ilk around the city saw that Mary could do their books faster than anyone else with, not only her quick mind but; her abacus. She was largely in demand as a bookkeeper.
It was only a matter of time before the two of them met. Ikey was always in need of sharp-witted lackeys and Mary had lived on the periphery of society for her entire life. She exemplified the difficulties of being a woman alone surviving the streets of London. Mary's smarts with the abacus became a liability for her. She, a self educated woman, competed for jobs among men. The retaliation resulted in a terrible gang rape that destroyed her hands, breaking them so badly that she could never properly use them again. With her mangled hands, she tried to obtain work as a bookkeeper, but was thwarted by men. She had no choice but to earn a living by prostitution.
In fact, it was one of her conquests who introduced her to Ikey. Ikey, who had six children but never much time for his own brothel-running wife, Hannah; fell in love with the smart and subtle Mary the minute he saw her.
Hannah's sole aim in life was for her children to achieve a higher station than she herself could. She had been a beauty, climbing the social ranks until a pox scarred her face. She then married Ikey and ran her brothels. Her goal was the new world: She wanted her children to be members of upper societies in the new worlds of the Americas and Australia. She seemed to know about her husband's mistress, but not to care so much as it did not interfere with her plans.
With Ikey's money, Mary ran a brothel. Eventually, she and Ikey were arrested, mostly due to Hannah's cunning. She hated Mary and wanted her own competing brothel shut down.
Ikey's counterfeiting business was run in Mary's brothel. In Hannah's schemes, she shut down her husband's and therefore her most profitable business, resulting in Ikey's arrest. After an elaborate plan, Ikey escapes to the United States, but Mary is convicted and sentenced, first to prison and then to Van Diemen's land (Tasmania).
The ships that carry Mary, Hannah, and eventually Ikey after he is caught to the prisoner's land of Tasmania are described in detail with all the cruelty and disease that they were sure to have. After many years of living on the same small island, Ikey and Mary are reunited, only to be troubled by obtaining the fortune that Hannah and Ikey share back in London, where each has one half the combination to a safe.
After each is released to the wild lands of Tasmania after serving prison time, the parties are so stubborn that each lives in squalor in Van Diemen's Land rather than give the other his combination for the safe.
Best part of story, including ending:
I love to learn about history in the context of colorful characters.
Best scene in story:
The women prisoners aboard the ship are kept below deck and away from the paying passengers. Since it is a "wet ship" where water goes into the decks where the prisoners stay, the deck is rife with disease, unhealing wounds, and resentment. When Mary tries to take the blame to calm everyone down, she is beaten severely by the surgeon-superintendent.
Opinion about the main character:
Ikey is not only out to make money and survive. His whole life is one the streets of London. He feels in control there. It is his domain. He knows everything. He likes to make money, but mostly he likes his life there, his contacts, his control.