"There must be some mistake!" I said to Miss Thackery, as the carriage progressed from the polite precincts of Piccadilly into that infamous territory of tumbledown shacks called Long Acre. Yet I dared not pull the draw cord for John Groom to stop. Twilight was falling, and groups of ruffians loitered on the street corners, casting larcenous eyes at our rig.
"It is not exactly what I pictured, to be sure," Miss Thackery replied, with a bemused glance out the window.
As we swept past the corner, a shot rang out, and two or three of the loiterers took to their heels. John Groom did not have to be told to spring the horses. For the next ten minutes, we were batted back and forth in the carriage like a pair of shuttlecocks. Even Miss Thackery was shaken out of her customary placidity, and I was frightened out of my wits.
Papa had warned me of the horrors of London, but as he is a provincial clergyman who had not been to London himself for twenty years, I paid him scant heed. When Aunt Thalassa, my late mama's sister, left me a house in London, I had thought my troubles were over. Miss Thackery and I would either live in it, or if it was too grand for us, I would sell it and hire a set of rooms in some respectable district. Bath was another possibility.
Miss Thackery is like a mother to me. She is Papa's first cousin, who came to keep house for us when Mama died a dozen years ago. Life went along smoothly for a decade, then the Hennesseys moved into the parish. The family consisted of a managing widow and two pretty but vulgar daughters fifteen and sixteen years old. Within a month, Mrs. Hennessey had set her sights on Papa, and within a year she had half convinced him he was in love with her. She wears a sugary smile and is all sweetness when he is around, but the minute he leaves the room, the vinegar spurts forth. I have not been on this earth for one and twenty years without knowing a shrew when I see one.
I give Papa another two months of widowhood. The day she walks in the door as mistress of the rectory, I plan to walk out. I was so desperate I had even begun to consider marrying Sir Osbert Canning, who is forty and foolish. But then I had the letter from the solicitor telling me of the bequest from Aunt Thalassa, and I thought my problem was solved. Miss Thackery and I borrowed Papa's carriage and headed off to London to "dispose" of my inheritance. Papa's instructions were to evaluate it, sell the furnishings, and place the house with an estate agent for sale or rental, whichever was more profitable.
The solicitor had described the residence on Wild Street as "a large house in a semi-commercial district." He did not specify exactly what sort of commerce went on there. I was beginning to suspect it was not only illegal but dangerous.
The carriage did not stop at Long Acre, however, but turned on to Drury Lane. The solicitor had mentioned Drury Lane as being near my aunt's house. Her late husband had been connected with the theater in an administrative capacity. Her occasional letters mentioned entertaining the very stars of the London stage: Kean, Siddons, Mrs. Jordan. I felt we must be approaching a fancy neighborhood.
I gazed with the keenest interest, marveling at the diversity of London. Odd that such motley homes were so close to my aunt's residence. Scattered amid tall, narrow, shabby buildings there were some houses of considerable elegance. Yet the people--a great many of them--entering and leaving these mansions did not look at all prosperous. A further confusion was caused by the flocks of ragged children playing on the street corners. Surely this was not how the wealthy lived, surrounded by poverty?
A closer look showed me that each "mansion," with its plate-glass-and-gilt cornices, bore a sign. Some proffered brandy, some cordials, but mostly they sold gin.
"They are gin palaces!" I exclaimed, and fell into a fit of giggles from sheer fatigue. We had been on the road since seven o'clock in the morning and had not eaten since noon.
"Mercy!" Miss Thackery said mildly, and peered out to see this interesting spectacle. "And the kiddies, left in the streets with dark coming on, to look after themselves. They seem to be enjoying it, do they not? I daresay John Groom is lost. Your aunt was well to grass. You may be sure she did not live near here. Mullard has never been to London before, and despite the map Mrs. Hennessey provided him, I am sure we have passed that old stone church on the corner half a dozen times."
"I hope you are right," I said, and almost immediately the carriage turned the corner and drew to a stop.
"Lost, as I've said all along," Miss Thackery announced, not with satisfaction. She was not the sort who enjoyed seeing her doomful prognostications fulfilled. In fact, she was as nearly devoid of emotion as anyone I have ever met. The worst she has ever said of Mrs. Hennessey, for instance, is that "She certainly knows what she wants, and how to get it."
"Very likely Mullard is examining his map," I said.
The carriage lurched, and within two seconds, the groom's swarthy, haggard face appeared at the window. If anyone had had a worse day than Miss Thackery and myself, it was surely Mullard, who had never driven in any town larger than Bath. To us, living in Radstock, "the city" meant Bath. He flung open the carriage door and said, "This is it, Miss Irving."
"There must be some mistake!"
"Nay, this is Wild Street, second house from the corner of Kemble Street. I don't much care for the looks of it."
"Nor do I! This is not what I expected."
"Would you like me to take you to a hotel for the night? We could come back in the morning, after a good night's sleep."
It would take more than a night's sleep to get me over this disappointment. "You must be fagged, Mullard. Let us stay here for one night. If my aunt was living here, it must be ... safe," I said, glancing around the disreputable spot. A group of urchins began to gather around our carriage.
Miss Thackery stared out into the gathering gloom and said in her matter-of-fact way, "You can always sell the house, Cathy. Any real estate in London is worth money."
We descended from the carriage with long faces--and took a good long look at my inheritance. To call the neighborhood shoddy was to flatter it, but at least the commerce of gin palaces did not turn the corner on to Wild Street. The one tree on the block, a pretty spreading elm, was on my property. At the beginning of June, it was in full leaf.
My house was not much different from the others on the block. This had been a residential area of some pretension to fashion fifty or so years ago. The houses were all tall, dark, gloomy edifices of smoke-laden brick, ranged close together with narrow laneways giving access to the rear. It would take an excellent fiddler to get the carriage through the narrow passage to the stable, which the solicitor had assured me was there. This was considered a great asset.
The house stood four stories high. On either side of the battered front door were two windows with some etched glass. The windows were repeated on the upper floors, minus the etching on the glass. The facade included a recessed veranda, which might have been enjoyable on a warm summer evening, except that it was tucked under the eaves of the attic. I was surprised to see so many of the windows showed lamps lit. Mrs. Scudpole, my late aunt's housekeeper, had been left in charge of the house. She would hear about this waste of candles!
Miss Thackery and I gathered our skirts up to avoid the dust on the walkway and went to tap at the front door. In place of a knocker there were some holes in the wood showing where one had been removed. We had the keys, but paid Mrs. Scudpole the courtesy of knocking, in case she wanted time to tidy her hair or change her apron. As we were soon to learn, such niceties never occurred to Mrs. Scudpole. The harridan who flung the door open looked as if she might have just darted off from one of the gin palaces. She did not actually reek of gin, but she was a slatternly woman with untidy hair and an apron that was a total stranger to soap and water.
"Ye'd be Mistress Irving then?" she said, looking from me to Miss Thackery.
"I am Miss Irving," I said, offering my hand, which she ignored. "And you, I collect, are Mrs. Scudpole?"
"Thass right, dearie. Come along inside. I'll make up some sangwidges for ye."
She led us into a dark hallway paneled in varnished wood, past a dusty staircase leading above, and thence into the saloon. Words seem inadequate to the chore of describing that saloon. It was large, dim, and lofty, and stuffed with every manner of mismatched furnishing and bibelot. Two or three carpets were on the floor, each smaller than the other and giving a glimpse of the one below. The top layer was deep blue, but we saw very little of it. There were not less than three mismatched sofas in the room--and a round dozen chairs. Against the walls, tables were piled on tables, with lamps wedged in wherever they could find room.
"Good gracious! Was Mrs. Cummings a dealer in used furniture?" I asked. I could not think of anything else to account for the jumble of lumber, and in the best room, too.
"I'll make the tea and sangwidges," was Mrs. Scudpole's reply. She left, and I looked at Miss Thackery. "What do you make of this?" I asked her.
She had walked forward to rub her hand over a small table that sat on a larger table near the grate. "I think this one is a Hepplewhite," she said. "The others will make good burning on a cold night."
There was a rattle at the window, and we both darted to see John Groom squeak the team of four and traveling carriage past the house. There was no sound of scraping or wood cracking, so I assumed he had executed the tight passage safely.
"I cannot imagine what my aunt was doing with all this ... stuff," I said, looking helplessly about the room.
"Some ladies take strange notions in their older years," Miss Thackery said. My companion is forty-five, but she is one of those ladies who seems in a hurry to be old. She hides her pretty brown hair under a cap and wears gray gowns. Her face is long and thin, but not without some beauty. Her eyes are a pretty blue. When one can coax a smile out of her, she looks younger.
She continued, "Fortunately, with me it is only shawls and stockings I horde. I have nine shawls. I don't know why I keep buying them, except that I have the absurd idea I shall be cold in my old age."
"Not with all this lumber to burn," I said--in an effort to lighten the morose mood the room engendered.
"Whoever buys the house might take it furnished," she said. "You will be selling the house, now that you have seen it?" It was hardly even a question.
"Yes, certainly. I shall sell it, but I shan't stay with Papa if he marries her."
"She will be on your side in that, Cathy, have no fear. She will not want us underfoot. The rectory will hardly hold the Hennesseys and you and me besides. She has already mentioned that her girls would like your room, meaning that you and I can share mine."
"Good God! And he has not even proposed to her yet. What excuse did she give for looking at my bedroom?"
"She followed me upstairs the other day to help me carry down the hymnbooks I had been working on. She stopped at your door and walked right in."
Mullard brought in our trunks. "Let me get my apron out before you take them to our rooms, Mullard," Miss Thackery said. "I cannot stand to sit in such filth. I can dust at least."
"It is nearly teatime. Let us wait," I suggested. Miss Thackery is a compulsive worker. She cannot tolerate dirt, and she dislikes to sit still.
"It may be awhile," Mullard said. "Mrs. Scudpole asked me to make the fire as soon as I delivered the trunks."
"Good gracious! She has let the fire go out. You might as well give me an apron, too, then," I said. "There is certainly plenty to be done here. We shan't waste time."
We removed our outer garments, put on the aprons, Mullard got us dust cloths, and we began dusting any surface that was accessible. It was not the way I had pictured beginning our little holiday in London. Before long, our hands and faces were liberally smudged, for the room was really shockingly dirty.
I turned at the sound of footfalls in the hallway. The tread was too hard and fast for Mrs. Scudpole. She moved at the speed of a tired tortoise. It could only be Mullard, but it was unlike him to come uninvited to the saloon--unless there was some trouble!
"He's lamed the horses in that narrow alley!" I exclaimed, and darted to the doorway.
I was nearly capsized by a young gentleman of the first stare. His hands reached out and gripped me by the upper arms to steady me. A pair of finely drawn eyebrows lifted high over a pair of intelligent gray eyes. His sleek head shone like the rich mahogany of a ripe chestnut. He wore it short, brushed forward in the stylish Brutus do. He was tall and well formed. On his broad shoulders sat an evening jacket of exquisite tailoring. A pristine white cravat, arranged in intricate folds, hinted at a streak of dandyism. He was so handsome he quite took my breath away.
"Who on earth are you, and what are you doing here?" I inquired. I had not meant to sound so abrupt, but surprise lent a sharp edge to my voice.
He gazed down at me with a quizzical smile on his face. "As you see, I am busy knocking young ladies off their feet. Are you all right?" I realized then that he was still holding on to me and drew back.
"I appear to be still in one piece," I replied.
"As to your other question, I am Mr. Alger." He bowed. "And you, of course, are Miss Irving."
"How did you know my name?" I asked in confusion.
"Why, I had it of Mrs. Scudpole. We have all been looking forward to meeting you, ma'am." His bold eyes traveled across my smudged face, down over my apron and grimy hands, apparently finding pleasure in the unsightly spectacle before him.
"You must excuse the way I look," I said, blushing furiously.
"But you look charming. Younger than I expected--and much prettier." His hand came out and flicked a bit of dust or cobweb from my cheek in a very familiar way. I shied away from him.
His eyes widened in astonishment, then he laughed. "If I did not know better, I would say you are frightened of me, Miss Irving."
"It is my house. Why should I be frightened of you?"
"That is precisely the question that occurred to me."
"You have not told me what you are doing here, Mr. Alger."
"I came to express my condolences on the death of your aunt."
"Thank you," I said. "I am sorry if I sounded abrupt. You took me by surprise. I did not see you come in the front door."
"I did not come in the door. Actually I was about to leave, but I wished to meet you, and--"
"If you did not come in via the door, may I ask how you did enter my house, sir?"
His eyebrows drew together in a frown. "What I meant to say was that I came down from upstairs."
"From upstairs? Did Mr. Duggan send you?"
Before he could reply, dragging footsteps announced the arrival of Mrs. Scudpole, bearing the tea tray. "G'd evening, Mr. Alger," she said, and brushed her way between us to deposit the tray on one of the many tables. "Cold mutton and cheese," she said grimly. "The butcher hasn't been paid in a month. If ye'll be wanting to eat here, you mun give me some blunt. Mistress."
Mr. Alger smiled in sympathy and said, "I shall leave you to your tea, ma'am. I look forward to meeting you again soon. And may I welcome you to Wild Street." He bowed and left. I don't believe I said a word in reply, or even curtsied.
"Who was that man?" I demanded of Mrs. Scudpole.
"Number 2A," was her unhelpful reply.
"I beg your pardon?"
"He's hired out suite 2A, hasn't he?"
"Where? What was he doing here?"
"Lives on the next floor, Mistress. I've nothing agin Mr. Alger. He always pays regular, unlike some."
"He lives here? Do you mean my aunt hired rooms?"
"Gorblimey, didn't you know? She's hired out every square inch above the first level, even the attics. Mind you, if it's only yourself and the old malkin," she said, tossing a glance at Miss Thackery, "there's plenty of room for you both on this floor." She leaned against a bow-fronted chest and settled in for a coze. "Now in your attics, you've got Professor Vivaldi. He's--"
"Thank you, Mrs. Scudpole. That will be all for now," I said, and stared at her until she stood up straight. "I shall speak to you after we have had tea. It has been a tiring day."
"You owe the butcher three pounds and four-pence," was her parting shot.
Meanwhile Miss Thackery had arranged the tea table. "I was watching from the doorway and wondered what that fine gentleman was doing upstairs," she said. "He looks well, but he would not be renting rooms in this part of town if he were respectable. I daresay he is an actor from Drury Lane."
"An actor! Yes, that would explain it. He was very handsome, was he not?"
"I thought his manner unpleasantly encroaching. You must give him a good setdown next time he comes mincing in."
She helped herself to a sandwich. "This mutton is quite good, Cathy," she said. "You will feel better able to cope with the situation after tea."
So saying, she poured tea into two chipped cups, and we had our first meal in our new home on Wild Street.