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By Dorothy Eden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1964 Dorothy Eden
All rights reserved.
It had begun to snow before the London Coach rumbled down the narrow Windsor streets. Bella and Lally thankfully climbed aboard.
Bella had said the only thing for them to do was to go on to London. If they were set down in Piccadilly, which Papa had always said was the hub of the universe, they could surely find inexpensive lodgings for a few days until they had obtained employment.
What else was there to do? Papa's cousin, to whom he had said they must go (he remembered her as always warm-hearted and generous although he hadn't seen her for a long time), had left the small narrow Windsor house, one of a row towered over by the great castle. She had been employed as one of the laundry-maids doing the fine linen from the castle. Her work was reputed to be exquisite. She had been entrusted with the shifts and starched petticoats of the little princesses, and sometimes Queen Victoria's underwear as well. Papa had been sure that she could find work for Lally, who was a good needlewoman, and perhaps for Bella, too, although Bella was not particularly accomplished at any one task. She was too much of a dreamer, her head filled with the novels of Mr. Dickens and Mr. Thackeray.
But the stranger living in Cousin Sarah's house said that Cousin Sarah had got the rheumatism so badly that she could no longer do her work. She had moved back to Ireland, where she had lived as a child.
So Bella and Lally, in one sentence, had lost their anticipated home. They could scarcely cross the sea to Ireland to search for Cousin Sarah.
Lally was inclined to be tearful, and blamed Papa for his lack of foresight.
'Why couldn't he have written to her? Why couldn't he have made sure it would be all right?'
'Because he didn't know he was dying,' Bella said tartly, the pain turning in her heart again. Papa had known he was dying. As a doctor, he couldn't not have known his condition, Bella realized that now. But he had wanted to protect his daughters from the knowledge. So he had behaved in his usual noisy careless way, going on his rounds, ignoring the pain in his chest, until, just a week ago today, he had dropped dead on one of his patients' doorstep.
Later, going through his meagre possessions, Bella had found the envelope containing the five sovereigns—Papa had been improvident, spendthrift, fond of his rum and whisky, and never sparing of his time for poor patients who could pay him nothing—so this money represented his entire savings. With the money was a letter telling Bella and Lally to keep the sovereigns and not use them to pay his debts—the few pieces of furniture in their cottage could be used for that. And to go at once to Cousin Sarah who was now their only living relative.
'He did what he could,' Bella said stormily. She had to be angry, or she would weep, like Lally, and what was the good of that? She had wept all the tears she would ever weep over the dead when Mamma and their two little brothers had died of the cholera seven years ago, and Papa, who blamed himself for bringing home the infection, had begun to stop too frequently at the Horse and Hounds for his rum.
'Anyway,' she went on, 'Papa knew we were grown women and able to do something for ourselves.'
Lally was nineteen, but didn't feel particularly grown, certainly not as much as Bella did at eighteen.
'Like going to London alone?' she asked with trepidation.
Bella drew her shawl more closely round her. The flecks of snow had begun to fall and it was very cold, much too cold to be uncertain where they would find a roof for their heads and a warm bed. But she was impatient, as usual, with Lally's timidity.
'Whatever can happen to us if we mind our own business? I'll ask the coachman if he knows of suitable lodgings. Or there may be a passenger who can help us. For goodness sake come, Lally, and don't look so miserable.'
'I'm hungry,' said Lally.
'Well, so am I. But we're not going to die of hunger before we reach London.'
'And cold.' But Lally's tears were more from fright than physical misery. She took after their mother, a gentle girl with large innocent blue eyes, a mouth given to trembling, and masses of fine fair hair. Bella had the hazel black-lashed eyes of her father, curious eyes that turned golden when she was excited or agitated. They were her best feature, for her face was pale and three-cornered, and her black hair so heavy that it constantly fell down. She also had her father's quick temper and impetuous romantic nature. When her eyes flashed stormily she no longer looked a child. Lally, although older, had always leaned on her.
It turned out that she was right once more, for before they reached London there was a passenger on the coach who could help them.
At Twickenham, the old gentleman, who had stared at the two girls with unabashed curiosity, got out, and a woman, elderly, but with youthful plump pink cheeks and large pebble-grey eyes, perfectly round, like an owl's, got in. She settled herself fussily, shaking the snow off her shawl and demanding that her basket be put on the seat beside her since it contained a dozen new-laid eggs and some fresh farm butter.
Then, seeing that her companions were decently dressed young girls, she beamed upon them in the most friendly manner.
'What a nasty cold evening, my dears. Home and a good fire is the best place. And the kettle on for a nice cup of tea. My son Noah will be seeing to that for me. If he hasn't gone gadding, of course. Young men do so like to gad. I've been visiting my sister for the day. To get a breath of country air, though it was very sharp air today, I must say. We're in for a cold spell. I pity the poor folk without a roof over their heads this night. And plenty of those there'll be. You only have to walk down Fleet Street and along the Embankment to see them, poor creatures. Little children, too. The fate of poor people is monstrous. There ought to be questions in Parliament. Noah and I say that time and again.'
Lally nudged Bella. Bella scarcely needed to be nudged. She was well aware of the heaven-sent opportunity. This garrulous cosy little woman was exactly the way one had imagined Cousin Sarah.
But before she could speak their talkative companion made it doubly easy for her. Rocking gently to the motion of the coach, the plump little woman said in her soft voice,
'And you two sweet creatures? How do you come to be travelling alone? Or is that not my business? Noah always says I'm far too prying. But there. I'm interested in human nature. Human nature is my great study.'
She fell silent, her round eyes watching the girls, waiting their reply.
Bella said, 'Our father died. We're on our way to London to find employment. My sister Eulalie is very clever at needlework, and I——'
The woman leaned across to tap her with a small dimpled hand.
'No need to tell me, my dear. I can see that you would be capable at anything. You have a fine open look. Not cringing. I can't bear cringing servile young ladies. That is your upbringing, perhaps?'
'Our father kept us to our studies.'
'Ah, so you can read and write. Then you can be a governess in a fine house. And your sister a milliner, or a dressmaker. You have nothing to worry about, my dears. And so healthy.' The last words were said in a reflective murmur.
Bella put her chin up. She had never found it easy to ask for help.
'But we hardly know how to set about finding positions. We know nobody.'
'No. The cousin we went to see in Windsor had moved. Papa didn't know. So we have no one.'
Lally's lip trembled. The old lady noticed this. She pursed her little mouth and said, 'Tch! Tch! Tch!' sympathetically.
'Lodgings?' she asked presently.
'We shall find some. We have money. Though if you live near Piccadilly, Mrs.——'
'Mrs. Proudfoot. This is my sister Eulalie, and I'm Isabella McBride. If you knew of respectable lodgings near Piccadilly, Mrs. Proudfoot, we'd be very grateful.'
'I live in Seven Dials. I have a smallish house. It's near the market. Covent Garden market. My son works there. He unloads cargoes of fruit from the ships coming up the river, oranges and the like from the Indies and the East, and brings them to the market. He works hard. He's a good lad. He keeps his old mother in comfort. Mind you, it's not an elegant street, and the house is smallish. Smallish but not too small. There's the attic room empty. You'd be welcome to it for a night or two until you get yourselves permanently settled. Mind you'—she silenced Bella, as Bella began to exclaim gratefully—'I'd have to make a small charge just to keep my son happy. He has such a head for business, you see. Say a shilling a night, and a good hot meal. As for looking for lodgings, I'd say be wary, very wary. Two sweet unprotected young creatures like you. You've still to learn the wicked world, my dears. So if you're interested there's the room upstairs and a good double bed, and I'd be happy thinking I'd helped someone in need.'
She clicked her tongue again as she saw Lally now weeping in earnest.
'She has too much sensibility, that one. She must grow tougher. Or find a husband to protect her, of course.' Mrs. Proudfoot chuckled pleasurably. 'There should be no trouble about that. Such bonny young things, both of you. Any man would be lucky to get you. I'm a widow myself. But I have my good son, Noah. He takes after his father. Strong. Black-haired. A fine young man.'
It was now quite dark outside. Flakes of snow spattered on the windows of the coach. They were coming into London, for the road was lit patchily by the flaring yellow of gas lamps. There were rows of houses, low, and huddled together, and sometimes an open space with trees or bushes, as black, in the dusk, as the unknown Noah. Bella didn't know why she had had a sudden shiver of aversion about Noah. But that was purely unreasonable, and the sort of thing much more likely to happen to Lally than herself. Noah was a good son, with a head for business, and this mother was an angel in disguise.
As soon as she could interrupt the gentle monologue that was going on beneath the nodding bonnet, Bella expressed her gratitude.
'How can we thank you, Mrs. Proudfoot? We'd be so grateful to accept your offer of a room until we find positions.'
'Why, isn't that nice!' Mrs. Proudfoot gave a beaming smile, disclosing the only defect in her pleasant appearance, broken and blackened teeth. It quite altered her appearance, and for one moment she seemed to be someone entirely different from the placid kind-hearted person she was. But in a moment that queer impression left Bella and she listened to Mrs. Proudfoot assuring herself and Lally that there was no need for them to be hasty about finding positions.
'Young girls can be led astray. Things are not always as they appear on the surface. Why, I heard of a sweet young creature of sixteen thinking she was going as personal maid to a lady of the aristocracy, and finding herself meant only to amuse the son of the house. And he a monster.' Mrs. Proudfoot's bonnet, a gay little affair trimmed with a bunch of red cherries, nodded vigorously. 'There's traps and traps for the innocent and the unwary. So I hope and pray you young ladies will allow me to be of assistance. I have acquaintances in various positions able to give advice. For instance, my great friend, Mrs. Jennings, has a sister who is housekeeper to Lord and Lady Massingham, and all of fashionable London passes through the doors of that house. I heard her mention only the other day some rich family that was looking for a governess. Who knows, we might be able to place you both in the same house, seeing you're such devoted sisters.'
At that, Lally was able to speak at last.
'Oh, Mrs. Proudfoot, that would be kind.'
'I can't believe how fortunate it was that we should meet you,' Bella added.
Mrs. Proudfoot smiled gently, this time not parting her lips to disclose the offending teeth.
'Heaven sent me, my dears. Heaven helps the innocent.'
They alighted from the coach at the stop in Piccadilly. Mrs. Proudfoot said it was but a step to her house, not far enough to take a cab.
The snow had already turned to slush beneath the hundreds of feet of passers-by, and the crowding vehicles, omnibuses, cabs, tradesmen's drays, and wheelbarrows. The noise was bewildering: horses snorting and stamping, drivers' shouting, a newsboy yelling something about a great battle with the Russians at Balaclava, a skeleton-thin boy feverishly turning a barrel organ, and a ragged old woman urging passers-by in a stentorian voice to buy her bonny heather brought all the way from the moors of Scotland by the fast Scottish express.
The gas lamps flared down on this extraordinary noisy, hectic scene. Lally clutched at Bella, and Bella, giving a fleeting thought to the quiet Buckinghamshire village which they had left only that morning, resolutely followed the surprisingly nimble figure of Mrs. Proudfoot.
'Hold up your skirts, my dears,' said that lady over her shoulder. 'The mud's worse than ever, what with the snow and all. Keep close to me. We'll be home in a jiffy and ready for a nice cup of tea.'
Lally thought the journey down darker and narrower streets and bad-smelling alleys a nightmare, but Bella was already exhilarated and excited by the strangeness of it all. She responded to new situations from which Lally, in her timidity, shrank. The bad smells, the anonymous figures huddling in doorways, sudden scurrying forms and unrepeatable shouted words of abuse, were all part of London. The same as the great houses and parks and theatres such as they would see in the next few days. They were actually going to be lodged near the wonderful Covent Garden Opera House which all the famous singers of the world visited. She had read about it, with its chandeliers and grand staircase, and red plush. One day she and Lally would go there to hear a performance. She didn't know how this would be achieved, but struggling through the evil-smelling mud after Mrs. Proudfoot's bunchy nimble figure, she knew without doubt that somehow such a thing would happen. They would wear low-cut satin dresses and jewels, and everyone would look at them, the two beautiful sisters, one fair and one dark ... And the man who escorted them (there was only one man in Bella's dream) would be greatly envied ...
'H-ss-t! Out of my way!'
The vicious hiss cut like a whiplash across Bella's dream. She jumped aside as a man pushing a barrow loaded with an unidentifiable mass of junk pushed by, spattering her with mud. For a moment she was as weak as Lally, tears springing to her eyes at her abrupt descent to reality. The hiss seemed to ring in her ears as, cold and hungry and now with filthy skirts and shoes, she plodded down the mean streets, with Lally's panicky grip on one arm, and Mrs. Proudfoot steering ahead indomitably.
But once within Mrs. Proudfoot's cosy parlour Bella's momentary depression vanished and even Lally's tears dried.
In the well-blacked shining grate there was a glowing fire. A kettle sang on the hob. Two wooden rocking chairs were drawn up on the multi-coloured rag rug in front of the fire. There was a dresser, well-stocked with platters and tankards, and a table laid for tea. The red plush curtains were drawn across the window making the room as cosy as could be. It was possible to forget at once the cold muddy streets outside the front door. Here was warmth and comfort and safety.
Mrs. Proudfoot saw the girls' expressions and nodded happily.
'You see, my dears. I spoke the truth. The kettle boiling and a good fire, and upstairs a warm bed.' She rubbed her little plump hands, and held them out to the blaze. 'Would you like to see your room at once, and take off your wet shoes? I'll take you up and show you where the water closet is. Oh, yes, this isn't a grand house but that comfort I insisted on having installed. I don't hold with ladies having to go to outdoor privies in all weathers. Now don't be long upstairs. When you come down tea will be ready and Noah will be home.'
Upstairs, alone with Bella, Lally found her tongue.
'Oh, Bella, isn't this wonderful! I think Mamma and Papa must be watching over us, don't you? Look, a real feather bed!' She bounced on the bed excitedly. 'And everything so spotless. See, we have our own washstand, and there's water in the jug. Mrs. Proudfoot must always be prepared for guests.'
'Lodgers,' said Bella. She was glad they were being independent and paying for their lodgings. For all Mrs. Proudfoot's kindness, she was a stranger and one couldn't accept too much generosity from strangers. At least, one might wonder why it was offered ...
Excerpted from Ravenscroft by Dorothy Eden. Copyright © 1964 Dorothy Eden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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