With a sigh of satisfaction, Alison closed the marbled covers of Mrs. Kitty Cuthbertson's latest novel. Curled in the corner of the shabby sofa, so faded its colours were indistinguishable, for a few moments she let her imagination drift through marble palaces and dark, sinister, ruined abbeys. How romantic it would be to have a handsome young lord swooning at one's feet! Or better (suggested her practical streak), simply kneeling in adoration.
The grey rain drummed down outside the window. In the grate the _assel fire gave a last despairing flicker and died. Alison shivered, uncurled, set the borrowed volume carefully on the occasional table by the parlour door and picked up her feather duster.
The huge black dog sprawled on the hearth rug raised his head to watch tolerantly as she flitted about the room, making mysterious passes at shelves and picture frames and the one remaining Dresden shepherdess on the mantel. The whims of humans were inexplicable. He lumbered to his feet and padded over to the window. The sill was just the right height for his chin, and even though it was raining there was always the possibility that a cat might venture to dash across the street.
What he did not know was that at present Alison was not a romantic heroine but a fairy godmother. With her magic wand she was turning everything in the room into gold. Then she would buy a splendid gown for her dear goddaughter, Miss Alison Larkin, who would go to a ball and meet--well, a prince was too much to expect, and even a duke's son seemed a lot to ask for, although judging by Mrs. Meeke's novels they were two a penny. Alison would be satisfied with an earl or a viscount, or even a mere baron.
She gave an extra whisk of the duster to the picture over the mantelpiece. Looking at the portrait was almost like gazing in a mirror--curly black hair, brilliant blue eyes and delicate, pixie-like features. When the likeness was painted Mama had been nineteen, Alison's present age, and Papa not much older. She did not remember them.
She curtsied, blew a kiss and turned away.
"Midnight! Stop pressing your nose against the glass, you naughty boy. I just cleaned it yesterday," she said in fond exasperation. She pushed the amiable monster out of the way and rubbed at the smear with the _assele apron that swathed her navy-blue stuff gown. "I believe the rain is letting up. I'll take you out but you'll have to stay in the kitchen to dry off afterwards, whatever Aunt Cleo may say."
"Whuff," he agreed, the deep voice echoing from his barrel chest.
He followed her to the door, tail waving. She just managed to catch the book as the black plume swept it off the table. Letty would never lend her another novel if any harm came to this one.
She opened the door a crack and peeked out.
"All clear. Come on quickly now, boy."
The parlour door was barely closed behind them when three small white terriers dashed along the passage from the kitchen. Their welcome was as vociferous as if they had not seen Alison for a week, instead of the three hours since she had given them their breakfast. Midnight stood patiently as they bounced around and under him.
"Is the parlour door closed, Alison?" An angular figure in a grey gown and plain white cotton cap was trotting after the dogs. "Down, Goose."
"Yes, Aunt Di. I've no wish to spend the rest of the day brushing white hairs off the chairs."
"I'm sure I don't know why Polly makes such a fuss. After all, she spends half her time covered in mud."
"That is why she likes to be tidy the other half," Alison explained, not for the first time. Aunt Polly's insistence that she be allowed one room where she could sit without her clothes gathering dog hairs, the only time she ever stood up for her rights, was a constant bone of contention.
"I was going to see if Cleo happens to have a pot of tea on hand. Such a nuisance, my last pen broke when I was half-way through the accounts."
"I'm about to take Midnight out. Shall I buy you some quills?" She moved towards the kitchen, followed by the dogs and her aunt.
"A shocking price they are these days, but I fear I cannot manage without. Yes, dear, buy me half a dozen. Or perhaps I should try one of those newfangled steel pens?"
The front door knocker sounded and Alison turned back to answer it. On the doorstep stood a smartly dressed lad, somewhat damp, with a small package in his hand.
"Letter fer Larking," he announced.
"Larkin. Thank you. Wait a moment and I shall get you a penny for your trouble."
The package disappeared behind his back. "Sixpence, more like, miss. I come all the way from the City in the rain an'..."
Before he could finish his sentence, an urchin who had been dawdling on the other side of Great Ormond Street dashed across, whipped the letter from his grasp and presented it to Alison with a smirk on his freckled face and a clumsy bow.
"'Avin' a spot o' trouble wiv 'im, miss? I'll sort 'im out ferya."
Alison grinned at him. "Thank you, Tarry Joe, everything is fine now. Go round to the kitchen and tell Aunt Cleo I said to give you a penny, for you have saved me five."
The boy nodded and slipped away. The messenger snorted in disgust, put his hands in his pockets and sauntered off whistling with an air of nonchalance. Alison closed the front door and read the direction on the package.
It was from India, carried by Captain Barlow of the Merry Maiden. Alison picked up her skirts in one hand and ran towards the kitchen, crying, "Aunt Di, there's a letter from Aunt Zenobia!"
The terriers decided she wanted a game and gamboled about her feet, nearly tripping her. Midnight sat by the closed kitchen door regarding her hopefully, the tip of his tail swishing gently on the flagstones. She rubbed his huge head as she passed.
"Sorry, boy, you will have to wait. Sit, Flake, Goose, Drop. Stay!"
The terriers obeyed, with a reproachful look that made her laugh. She slipped into the warm kitchen, fragrant with the odour of baking, and closed the door firmly again behind her.
All three of her aunts were sitting at the well-scrubbed white wood table, sipping tea from cheap china cups. Aunt Cleo, plump and rosy-cheeked, reached for the teapot as Alison entered and poured a fourth cup.
"Who was it, dear?" she asked.
"A messenger, with a letter from Aunt Zenobia."
She set the package in front of Aunt Polly and sat down beside her.
As the eldest of the sisters, Polly Larkin was entitled to be the one to open the letter. A vague-looking woman with wisps of grey hair escaping from her cap, she poked the package with a nervous expression.
"Oh dear. Di, will you read it?" she said pleadingly, just as everyone expected.
Warming her hands on her cup of tea, Alison waited impatiently as the ritual proceeded. Aunt Di found her steel-rimmed spectacles suspended round her neck, as always. Aunt Cleo provided a sharp knife to slit the seal, warning her sister to be careful not to damage the contents. Aunt Zenobia Winkle had not been heard from in two years, but they all remembered the bright-hued silk scarves that had been enclosed with her last letter, though they had been sold long since to buy coals.
Eyes widened as four pairs of gold earrings emerged from their tissue paper wrappings.
"I shall buy a goose!" exclaimed Aunt Cleo. "I did want a goose to roast for Christmas, but better late than never."
Alison let out her breath in a long, silent sigh. Of course, they would have to be sold. With a reverent fingertip she touched the nearest one, a delightful dangling creation shaped like a pagoda.
"They are a bit flashy," said Aunt Di, doubtfully. "Do you think anyone will buy them?"
"Of course. There is a certain type of female who likes to be flashy."
Alison was about to request elucidation of this fascinating comment when Aunt Polly's timid voice was heard.
"Surely the gold alone must be worth something?"
"Quite right, Polly." Cleo patted her hand. "I daresay there will be enough to buy us each a new dress."
Visions of silks and satins danced before Alison's eyes. Resolutely she banished them. A sprig muslin for spring would do nicely. "What does the letter say, Aunt Di?" she asked.
Her aunt unfolded the sheet of paper with some trepidation. Zenobia's communications were generally full of incomprehensible and unpronounceable memsahibs and howdahs and chukkers and tiffins.
"My goodness!" she gasped. "Mr. Winkle is gone to his reward and Zenobia is coming home at last. And this letter must have been delayed--she expects to arrive at the end of January. She may be here any day!"
A stunned silence was broken by a knocking at the garden door. Cleo answered it, gave Tarry Joe his penny and bustled back.
"Well, no time for sitting about," she grumbled. "It's past time I started on the pastry for the meat pies. Clear the table for me, please, Alison dear."
While Alison piled the crockery in the scullery sink, Polly vanished in her silent way, presumably returning to her potting shed in the back garden. Di and Cleo held a brief consultation, then Di gathered up the earrings and wrapped them carefully in the tissue.
"Shall I take them to the pawnbroker's?" Alison enquired. "I promised Midnight a walk anyway."
"No, dear." Di glanced at her sister for support. "We think these should go to a proper jeweler, on Oxford Street. Wear your best pelisse and do not take Midnight into the shop, whatever you do."
Alison almost skipped down Southampton Row, Midnight padding along at her side. There was no knowing what changes Aunt Zenobia's homecoming might bring. At the very least it meant a new face, and probably exciting stories about life in India. Perhaps she would bring a few presents that did not have to be sold to pay the bills.
The house must be turned out from top to bottom in preparation for her arrival. With luck the proceeds from the sale of the earrings would be enough to hire one or two women from the tenements on the south side of Great Ormond Street to help with the heavy work. Mrs. 'Arris, their regular cleaner, would know whom to ask.
When she came out of the jeweler's shop with what seemed like a small fortune in her reticule, Alison was glad of Midnight's escort. He might be the mildest creature on the face of the earth, but his size was enough to discourage pickpockets. All the same she had a nervous moment when she came face to face with a ragamuffin as she turned the corner into Tottenham Court Road. Then she recognized him.
"Hello, Squeak. Have you sold all your flowers already?"
"Yes, miss." His high voice explained his nickname. "Miss Polly don't 'ave much this time o' year, jist a few snowdrops. Miss Cleo's pies is better, people likes 'ot pies when it's cold an' wet out."
Alison smiled and nodded and went on her way. Midnight glanced back, but if he saw the skinny urchin trailing after them he apparently thought him harmless, for he did not notify his mistress.
The next several days were frantically busy. The last pair of curtains had just been rehemmed, to hide the tattered edges, and rehung, when a vigorous rat-a-tat-tat resounded through the house.
Alison rushed to the front door, followed by a yapping tide of white fur. A postillion stood there in the dusk, his hand raised to knock again. In the street, a post-chaise piled high with trunks and boxes swayed alarmingly as a large, round, scarlet object emerged from its interior. On one side of the carriage door a tall, well-built gentleman lent a hand; on the other a tiny figure swathed in white hovered anxiously.
The scarlet object put out a foot, heel foremost, and cautiously felt for the ground. Another foot followed. The object turned around. For the most part the front view differed little from the back, but it was topped by a beaming face with a white turban concealing one eye.
The gentleman hurriedly straightened the turban. Its wearer glanced up the steps to the front door.
"You must be little Alison," boomed Aunt Zenobia Winkle.
Alison curtsied. "Yes, ma'am. Welcome home."
Once set in motion, the India merchant's widow was remarkably light on her feet. She swept up the steps and half-smothered Alison in a musky-scented embrace. The terriers, after one sniff, sneezed and retreated, overcome by an excess of patchouli.
Alison managed to extricate herself before she too sneezed. The rest of the aunts had appeared meanwhile. As they greeted their long-lost sister, Alison turned back to the street, where the gentleman and the tiny, dark-skinned maid were directing the unloading of vast quantities of luggage. Fortunately, Squeak and his brother and Tarry Joe turned up to assist the postillion and coachman in carrying trunks and boxes and portmanteaux into the hall.
Aunt Zenobia introduced the gentleman as Mr. Ralph Osborne, "poor Winkle's partner and my business wallah." Alison regarded him with curiosity. In the dimly lit hall he appeared distinguished, handsome even, with a brown face and light blond hair. His voice, when he politely refused refreshment and said he must repair to his hotel, was deep and calm.
Alison was delighted when he promised to call next day to see how Mrs. Winkle went on. She saw him to the door. As he bid her farewell, he tipped his hat and the light of a nearby street lamp fell full upon his face. Closing the door, she sighed in disappointment: alas, the handsome Mr. Osborne was quite old.
She helped Aunt Cleo carry the tea tray into the parlour. Aunt Polly was mending the fire. Aunt Zenobia, sunk with an air of permanence into a sagging armchair, gazed about the shabby room in dismay.
"Deary me, this will never do!" she said.
Seeing an offended retort spring to Aunt Di's lips, Alison intervened. "Did you have a pleasant voyage, Aunt Zenobia?"
"Why yes, child, number one chow-chow. I did think it might be kutcha, for I couldn't expect a dashing young wallah like Ralph to dance attendance on an old memsahib like me. Then I had a pukka notion. My old friend Mrs. Colonel Bowditch was talking of staying in Madras after the colonel died because she don't like travelling. I knew she'd be happier at home so I told her straight, I said..."
Listening with half her attention to the tale of Mrs. Colonel Bowditch's sufferings on the voyage round the Cape, Alison pondered the description of Ralph Osborne as a "dashing young wallah." Perhaps his life in a hot climate had made him appear older than he really was. He had no title, but after all she had never really expected to meet anyone with a title anyway. Certainly he was much to be preferred to the apothecary's assistant with the constant drip on the tip of his nose, her most persistent suitor.
With a start, she realized Aunt Di was speaking to her.
"Alison, pray show Zenobia to her chamber."
She sat on Aunt Zenobia's bed while the _assele ("my ayah," said her aunt) helped her mistress change from the scarlet sari embroidered in gold into an equally spectacular peacock blue with a _asseled fringe. The open trunk offered a tantalizing peek of fabulous silks in every colour of the rainbow. Resolutely Alison turned her eyes away.
"Have you known Mr. Osborne for long, Aunt?" she asked.
"Nearly twenty years, my dear. He came out at seventeen as an apprentice and mighty well he's done for himself. I told him straight, I said, it's time to go home and settle down with a wife, so here he is."
Concentrating on her mental arithmetic, Alison missed her aunt's sly glance. Seventeen--nearly twenty years--why, he was at least five and thirty.
"Dinner's ready," said Aunt Di, popping her head around the door.
As usual they ate in the kitchen, the warmest room in the house.
"Deary me, this will never do!" exclaimed Aunt Zenobia, eyeing with dismay her plate of stew, which consisted of a few small bits of yesterday's mutton eked out with a great quantity of potatoes.
"I did not know you would arrive today," said Aunt Cleo in self-defense. "I shall get a goose tomorrow."
"This is delicious, Aunt Cleo," Alison assured her.
"First chop," said Aunt Zenobia doubtfully, "though I'm used to spicier food. But that is not what I meant at all. My dears, I never dreamt you were all living like Untouchables. This will never do."
"I don't know what an untouchable is, but we do what we can." It was Aunt Di's turn to spring to the defence of the household. "Polly grows flowers to sell, and Cleo's biscuits and pies are very popular. And I myself have had some success with my terriers. It's just that the annuity Hector left Alison was not very large, you know."
"Since our brother was still alive when I married Winkle and went off to India, I had no notion. But though he was sadly slow about it, Winkle did become a nabob in the end. I shall set everything to rights, I promise you."
"Alison needs some pretty dresses," said Cleo gruffly. Aunt Polly nodded agreement.
"Aunt Polly ought to have a fire in her bedroom," Alison put in eagerly. "Her rheumatism is shockingly troublesome in the mornings."
Aunt Zenobia laughed merrily. "There will be fires in every room," she assured them. "And as for pretty gowns, why, I mean for Alison to have a pukka Season!"
Four pairs of eyes gazed at her in astonishment. Aunt Di was the first to find her voice.
"A Season! I am sure dear Alison deserves it, but we have no connexions in the best society. Remember the child's grandfather refused to acknowledge her."
Alison was not discouraged. From the miles of flamboyant silk wound about Aunt Zenobia's generous form to the curious brassy red hue of her hair under the turban with its sapphire aigrette, the nabob's widow was clearly a fairy godmother in disguise. At any moment she would wave her wand.
"I shall hire a chaperon for Alison, an impoverished lady who moves in the first circles, a real burra beebee. Mrs. Colonel Bowditch will know just where to look. When you have as many lakhs of rupees as I do," said Mrs. Winkle grandly with an airy wave of her beringed hand, "nothing is impossible."