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Tea and Sympathy
By night, when gaslights glitter through the fog and the cob-A blestones gleam like bootblack, London seems a landscape glimpsed in some Arabian Nights tale. By day the effect is more commonplace, as the city streets throng with omnibuses, hansom cabs and pedestrians.
Yet that daily, daylit London can intimidate even more than its dark nocturnal side; at least a respectable young woman like myself found it so in the spring of 1881. I walked the streets of London town, wondering how I came to be adrift on this tide of strangers, my few belongings tumbled into the carpetbag at my side. I was alone and friendless, and— for the .rst time in my four- and- twenty years— homeless and hungry.
My story was a common one. The only child of a Shropshire parson, himself widowed, I had been reared in spare comfort but utter emotional and physical security. On my father’s death, no relations close enough to claim me came forward.
Marriage was an impossible dream for a woman with only genteel poverty and a mild case of myopia to bring a prospective suitor. Indeed, I knew little of male company and— save for a visiting curate who possessed a golden tenor if rather overgrown ears— had never noticed a man in a sentimental way. Needless to say, the omission was mutual.
Although from time to time I might ponder my lost curate— Jasper Higgenbottom by name— an unfortunate onslaught of consumption had compelled him to take a foreign mission in a warmer clime. Even now he might be saving savage souls with the liquid syllables of “Lead, Kindly Light.”
As for myself, local parishioners soon found a local family in need of a respectable, well- read young woman to attend to their children— and, lo, I was a governess.
Inevitably, my need for continued employment drew me to the same magnet that has lured so many of my rural compatriots. My country family moved to London, that great hub at the center of the mammoth spinning wheel of the British Empire, on which the revolving sun truly never sets.
My subsequent position found me installed in Berkeley Square in the home of Col onel Codwell Turnpenny, tending three well-mannered daughters and, on occasion, a less- than- well- mannered Pekinese dog. Life was comfortable, secure and predictable, and I was quite content until an incident occurred that permitted my sole glimpse of life as it is depicted in romantic novels.
My charges’ uncle, their mother’s brother, Mr. Emerson Stan-hope, was a well- favored young gentleman of four- and- twenty with a merry disposition. How merry I discovered whilst playing a game of blind man’s bluff with my young ladies after some strenuous lessons in geometry. They gleefully blindfolded me, spun me like a top and set me loose in the schoolroom. I could .nd not a one of the minxes until a sudden hush came. I stumbled into an immovable barrier. My exploring .ngers found an expanse of woolen frockcoat rather than the cotton pinafores of my charges. I hesitated, but their giggles goaded me on and upward: to a satin- faced lapel, a set of side- whiskers . . . really, I could not continue, nor could I imagine who stood silent and unrevealed before my tentative .ngers. Then I realized that the girls’ laughter .owed with a freedom seldom exhibited
before adults, save myself and...
“Mr. Stanhope,” I whispered.
“Free!” said he, undoing my blindfold. Even then I suffered from myopia. Mr. Stanhope hung in a haze before me, his features resolving into an expression I could not name.
“Why, Miss Huxleigh,” he said, “you look like one of your charges.” And his .ngers brushed back a tendril of hair that had fallen onto my cheek. Then the girls were pulling me away by the hands and begging for another game; by the time I had smoothed my hair into a semblance of order again, Mr. Stanhope was at the door and bidding us good- bye with a wink.
After the Afghan i stan trouble broke out in 1878, Col. Turnpenny’s regiment was assigned to the war, and Mr. Stanhope joined another regiment soon after. His nieces giggled upon seeing him on parade in his .ne uniform. Soon, however, Col. Turnpenny’s wife and children returned to India, without me. The children were reaching that age of inde pendence that they make quite plain to one and all around them, so my ser vices were redundant. With the war, governesses were in oversupply, and my sterling references failed to secure me another position.
I studied the employment columns, with little success. Often my eyes strayed to the regimental reports, for which I admonished my foolish imagination, and turned my attention .rmly to the news from Africa, where my .rst sentimental loyalties lay. Nothing could distract me from the seriousness of my present situation.
Even clerical employment seemed barred, for London of.ces had recently been invaded by a small black beast— a humped, clattering machine that spit words onto paper seemingly by itself. Although I write a .ne and quite legible hand, the call now was for callused .ngertips to punch the bewildering buttons— including a new- fangled shift key that made both upper and lower case letters possible—at a speed that de.ed human endurance, at least mine.
At length I found a position as a clerk in Whiteley’s emporium in Bayswater. My pay was low, but food and a room were provided. I found the .ne- woven chintzes and silks that daily slid through my hands soothing, as was the murmur of shopping women’s voices, the clean slice of the scissors and the neat lengths of goods measured out on the cutting tables.
So I might have continued into frugal old maidhood had I not, after three years’ employment, swiftly and unfairly been cast onto the streets. In short, I was dismissed without warning, and without a reference. Numb with shock, I soon found the stipend of a weekly wage indispensable. The day came when my choice was food or lodging. My landlady ordered me to pack my few possessions into what ever would hold them and vacate the premises.
So I wandered London’s teeming streets, hearing the iron-shod hooves of passing horses ring like the great black beast’s keys clanging my doom in three- quarter time. My late father had always chastised me for an over- vivid imagination, but that day I had no idea of where I would go or what would become of me.
Set, indifferent faces swarmed by as I passed shopfronts where once I might have idled among the goods. Now I felt barred from all human intercourse and commerce. Penniless! I cannot tell of the horror that word conveys to a sensibility such as mine.
I began to notice the .lthy boys who prowled even the better streets of this great metropolis, wondering how they fed and housed their scrawny bodies. I even began to conjure a tinge of horri.ed sympathy for the haggard, wretched women who resorted to selling themselves on the dingy byways of Whitechapel.
Thus brooding, I shouldered through passers by, my right arm leaden at my side, the carpetbag beating against my woolen skirts with every step. Hunger had passed into that happy state in which it is felt as weakness but forgotten as an urge. When night fell, I did not know where I would be.
An abrupt tug on my carpetbag, as if it were caught, roused me from stuporous despair. I glanced down. A street Arab crouched at my side, avid eyes bright as two pennies in his dirt- tarnished face.
“Yes?” I inquired, too dazed to be rude even to such an ill specimen of London life.
Before I could act or the awful child could answer, someone else was in our midst. A lady had wheeled from the crowd to seize the lad’s arm. Had she not been so well dressed, my protective instincts would have led me to defend even this wretched ragamuf.n.
But the lady was magni.cently attired— a sheared beaver muff cuffed one entire forearm. The brown felt hat smartly tipped over her brow was lavished with velvet ribbons and crowned with a peacock-blue bird in full .ight.
She descended upon us like some glorious goddess, her dark eyes .ashing .re, her pendant amber earrings swaying exuberantly. Then that angelic face screwed into an unlovely snarl. A stream of Queen’s En glish translated through the scullery poured from her mouth.
“ ’Ere now, you scabby little guttersnipe! Let loose that lyedy’s baggage or I’ll ’ave you washed and folded into pieces your own mum wouldn’t know.”
“Got no mum!” the boy snarled back in the same disgusting patois. Yet the pressure on my carpetbag was suddenly released. I realized with a start that the lad had intended to take it.
The lady’s grip on his arm was not so slack. “Shouldn’t wonder,” she retorted in a softer snarl. “Ere’s a farthing. Keep your ’ands off decent folks for a while. Get on wi’ you.”
The sly grin the lad bestowed on his benefactress would have done credit to a ferret. But he pocketed the coin, had the temerity to tip his greasy cap to us both and wriggled away into the crowd.
My .ngers tried to tighten on the bag handle, but shock had squeezed all the blood from them. With a gesture so quick I barely saw it, my alley- tongued rescuer caught the handle as it slipped my grasp.
“Th- thank you,” I managed to stammer. “How did you know—? How did you see—?”
Her features had assumed a serenity that imbues beautiful women’s faces, and that is oftentimes mistaken for smugness.
“I have a bizarre avocation,” she confessed, smiling. “I watch people.”
The oddity of her words barely struck me; I stood mesmerized by her voice alone. It came as rich and expressive as a cello— no trace of Cockney lingered, although her accent did not sound quite . . . proper, either.
“My name is Irene Adler,” she continued in the face of my mute confusion. Her eyes— a gold- lit dark brown that reminded me of a rich amber velvet among my former shop’s most costly fabric rolls— darted over me. “This incident has given me a turn. Won’t you join me for tea in that shop there?”
I hesitated, aware of a weakness in my knees and a greater hollowness in my purse than in my stomach.
“I’m quite respectable, I assure you— in most instances,” she added mockingly. “And a... lady doesn’t care to enter a public place unaccompanied.”
The irony in her tone warned me that she spoke more for my bene.t than her own. Yet her eyes remained kind despite the slight, quick curl of her lip on the word “respectable.”
“Please be my guest,” Irene Adler urged. Her gloved hand paused gently on my elbow, as if it had never wrung the urchin’s arm but moments before. “I would appreciate your company while I recover from my fright.”
Irene Adler was no more a victim of fright than I was Empress of China, but I found myself reluctantly drawn through the tearoom door to a cozy seat by the window.
“Tea. Peppermint, I think,” Irene commanded the aproned girl who appeared beside us. “And a pastry selection— your largest, please.”
I observed her in silence, as an audience absorbs the actions of a player on stage. Her walking suit was of dark Havana brown faille, a sensible costume for a brisk March day. The polonaise that surmounted its trailing skirt was draped back into a bustle and secured by heavy silk cord knotted in the Dominican style. My years in the draper’s department had attuned me to fashionable nuances, but nothing had prepared me for the intimidating dash of my tea partner.
Irene Adler set down the imposing muff and began peeling off her leather gloves with dainty ef.ciency, .nger by .nger. She had, as I had noted, a face that could sell soap, as Miss Lillie Langtry’s did Pears’—deep- set brown eyes, that changed from black to pale gold with her emotions, like the semi- precious gemstone called tiger’s-eye; a generously curved mouth and straight nose; great thick eyelashes and a complexion like camellia petals. Her hair was obscured by the bonnet, but was a burnished chestnut color.
Everything about her was smart, and brisk, and disturbingly sure.
I forgot my hostess when the .rst bracing whiff of tea invaded my nostrils. How good and hot it was! It washed the bad taste of the past few days from my palate. I gawked like a schoolgirl at the three-tiered tray ringed with cucumber sandwiches, cakes and biscuits, each one shaped into tempting bite- size. A hunger pang pierced me like a dagger, and then another.
“You haven’t told me your name.” Irene Adler swept a cucumber sandwich off the tray with such panache that I found myself reaching as naturally for my own tidbit.
“Penelope Huxleigh. I . . . was a governess.” Neither hunger nor curiosity could be contained any longer. I consumed the tidbit in one unseemly bite, then asked, “How did you do it, Miss Adler? No one else around us noticed even after you snared the child. I never saw him.”
“Call me Irene, please, dear Miss Huxleigh. We are, after all, partners in crime- solving. But I am hardly surprised you didn’t spy the little wretch. I didn’t see him either,” my new- found friend admitted. “I saw you.”
“I? You were watching me?”
Irene Adler laughed. “Not ‘watching’ you, but I did notice you, for the same reasons that our young thief did. You were walking slowly, lost in . . . thought, an ideal target for a purse snatcher.”
I found myself reaching for yet another pastry and blushed.
“Eat everything,” my hostess urged with the same energy that vibrated through all her speech. “What’s left over will only be gobbled by the kitchen staff. From the girth of our server, I doubt they require so much sustenance.”
I blushed further, darting my eyes about for the unfortunate woman in question.
“She can’t hear. She’s across the room, at the tea trolley,” Irene said softly.
“You do watch people.”
“Of course I do. It’s my profession. I’m an actress.”
“An actress?” My hand paused guiltily over a particularly plump petit four. Father would never have allowed me to break bread with a person of the theatrical sort, and especially not cake!
“Now you embarrass me,” Irene said blithely. “Such a tone. You might as well have said ‘streetsweeper.’ Yes, an actress, but .rst and foremost an opera singer.”
I sighed and seized my prey. “Oh, an opera singer. That’s quite different.”
“Is it?” Irene’s smile tightened into catlike inscrutability.
“Opera is quite a respectable art.”
“Kind of you to think so.”
“Music ennobles,” I groped, for the sudden in.ux of food had unaccountably given me a headache, “what would otherwise be purely posturing on the stage. Although, were operas sung in En glish, more people would realize they’re lurid dramas about rather immoral people.”
“How fortunate, then, that I must sing in French, Italian and German. No one in London need know what I’m really saying.”
“You sound as if you mock me.”
“To the contrary, I mock myself. It is my fate to be misunderstood, I sometimes think.” Irene’s vivid eyes warmed suddenly, like strong tea when honey sweetens it. “But you’ve had a tiring day traipsing the streets. Eat some more.”
“I can’t.” It was true. My abused stomach, presented with a surfeit, had rebelled. “And how did you know that I have been walking all day?”
“Early morning rain.” Her eyes .icked to where the furls of my stiff horse hair .ounce brushed the .oor. “Your hem dampened, swept up a border of street grit, then dried. One can see the meandering waterline all along the material.”
“Oh.” I belabored the dirt with my gloves. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“You had other things to think of, no doubt,” Irene answered so dryly that I glanced into her eyes. They penetrated me with such keen intelligence that I felt she knew my whole sordid story.
I began to gather my belongings despite her urgings that I eat more. I wondered whether she knew how hungry I was, whether she had always known it. The tray was still half- full; I realized that although Irene had struck me as eating, she actually had consumed little of the bounty, leaving the majority to me.
She laid out some coins, then lifted her beaver muff atop the table and began fussing with her gloves even as she rose.
Embarrassed to accept a stranger’s charity, I simply could not face watching her lay money on the table. I occupied myself by taking futile strikes at my dirtied hem with my gloves until I had mastered my distress and quelled a sudden lump in my throat caused by an odd sense of imminent abandonment.
“Ready?” Irene asked brightly, rising and keeping a gloved hand outside her muff to guide me to the door, as if I were Parson Huxleigh’s feeble widowed mother instead of his able- bodied orphaned daughter.
The street’s crisp air, pungently scented with charcoal and smoke, reminded me of my circumstances. A familiar bleak numbness descended, as if my teatime with Irene Adler had been a dream and this hazy, glazed world outside were my true reality.
“Here.” Irene’s cheeks bloomed pink with the fresh chill, or perhaps with excitement. She drew me toward a doorway niche. “For later.”
To my amazement, she began drawing pastries from the recesses of her capacious muff.
“You carry only that carpetbag, Penelope? Wait.” She left the booty heaped in my bare hands and darted to the curb. After a word with a wizened chestnut vendor, she returned .ourishing an empty paper bag. “Put them in here. You can have them for supper later.”
“I cannot! Irene, this is stealing. This is as wrong as what that urchin attempted to do to me. How did you . . . when did you...? Oh, I must object, in the strongest moral terms.”
“Yes, I’m sure you must,” Irene agreed, heaping delicacies into the bag as if deaf to indignation. “But think! Were you and I as glossy and plump as that tearoom staff, we could have easily gobbled the entire contents of the tray and would have been charged no more for it. Are we to be penalized because we are dainty of appetite? We will simply remove our consumption to another place and time.”
“Not ‘we’— I! I will be guilty of this . . . robbery.”
“Nonsense. I took these things, not you. Be it on my head,” she insisted, tossing it until her bonnet plumes nodded frivolous agreement. Her eyes .xed on me, luminous and yet strangely piercing. I felt as if under the truth- demanding scrutiny of my father once again. “And will you not in fact be hungry again soon? Would you not have eaten all your share of the tray, and mine, too, were you not too hungry to break your fast so suddenly?”
“I . . . I . . .” Words failed me. To have my sorry circumstances so intimately known to another— and to a stranger— was more than even my tattered pride could stand.
Irene rolled the parcel shut and thrust it at me. “You can eat these at home later.” Something in my face must have collapsed further, for her remarkably expressive eyes narrowed. “Or,” she said abruptly, an actress improvising a scene and sweeping her audience with her, “why not come home with me? Since I am the true culprit? If goodness hampers your appetite, you can at least watch me devour the lot, for I will if you won’t, and the sin will be on someone’s head anyway.”
“Home? With you?”
“And let us hire a cab before another street Arab snatches our ill-gotten gains. They are even hungrier than you are, you know.”
I cannot defend myself except to say that I was worn and worried
Excerpted from Good Night, Mr. Holmesby Carole Nelson Douglas.
Copyright © 1990 by Carole Nelson Douglas.
Published in November 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction
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