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Authors: Tracy Rees

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BOOK: Amy Snow
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The upheaval and rearrangement of life as I knew it began on a dull January day. It seems that all events of note in my small life have occurred in January—my birth (and subsequent arrival at Hatville), the death of Aurelia (and soon enough, my departure), and this. I believe I must avoid January in future. Is there some way I can will myself into a fairy-tale slumber for the duration of all future Januarys and emerge, unscathed, each February? But I digress. I was never so whimsical when Aurelia was alive. Her flights of fancy were wild enough for us both and I was the steadying influence.

I do not feel steady now.

Aurelia was twenty-one and I was thirteen. This is how I always remember life, measured in the years, too few, of her bright-burning existence, with me—eight years younger, smaller and plainer—trailing behind like an obedient comet. The clouds that day had knitted together into one solid entity, so closely woven and absolute it seemed no sun would ever emerge again.

Aurelia had summoned her parents to the parlor and the four of us were gathered together, an extremely rare circumstance. The French mantel clock, with its design of leaping fishes wrought in blue and ormolu, told me it was late afternoon. The weather offered no such clue; it had been dusk all day. Lord Vennaway grudgingly lit the candelabra.

“Mamma, Father, Amy dearest, I have some exciting news,” Aurelia began in that bright, soothing tone that foretold no good, not on any occasion. “I have been favored with an invitation. 'Tis a wonderful opportunity, though it means I shall be leaving you for a while and going away.”

Her words dropped into silence dense as cloud.

“Don't be ridiculous, Aurelia.”

“Indeed it is no jest, Father. Mrs. Bolton goes to London in March for the opening of a marvelous new library. Is that not splendid, Father? Then she goes to Twickenham to spend some weeks with her cousin who has newly given birth to a baby girl. Imagine that, Father! I shall see places I have never seen, have splendid experiences, and be exposed to some of the finest minds in our country today, for Mrs. Bolton plans entertainments, lectures, and soirées. She is incomparably well connected in progressive circles. This is very important to me, Father, Mamma, given my situation and the limited time left to me to enjoy such things.”

I pleated my dress in my lap. That Aurelia would mention her condition so early—before an argument had even properly begun—showed me how intensely she wanted this. It also revealed that she was uncertain of prevailing.

“Preposterous notion.” Lord Vennaway took a draft of his porter, coughed heftily, and set it away from him. Lady Vennaway had turned gray as the day. “Mrs. Bolton,” spat Lord Vennaway when he recovered his breath, “is a dreadful woman. We should never have permitted your friendship with her—this is our lesson for yielding to your headstrong inclinations. What can you be thinking, Aurelia? As if we should allow you to career around the countryside in your condition and in such disreputable company. Absolutely not. No.”

“Father!” said Aurelia.
“Yes!”


Naturally
no! Now. Lord and Lady Drummond arrive for dinner at eight and I do not want this unsavory proposition hanging over our evening. This is the end of it, Aurelia, I will not be swayed. We allow you too much liberty, indeed we do, but if you believe you can talk us round in this, you delude yourself. Tell Mrs. Bolton you may
not
join her, and pray loosen your friendship henceforth. How could she suggest such a thing, delicate as you are?
No
.”

It sounded final to me. Lord Vennaway was a formidable man. Let me state that clearly lest he somehow appear a blustering father helpless before the charms of a beloved daughter. In politics he was feared. In his select social circle his approval was avidly sought. As a young girl who had not found favor, I could personally vouch for the face of his displeasure. I felt certain that Aurelia would not triumph on this occasion and for once I hoped she would not.

The clock ticked, the gray outside deepened. I breathed more easily. Then:

“Father, I very much fear that I cannot accept your decision.” Aurelia's voice was low. “I am soon to die and I will do this. There is no longer any concern that I will wreck my marriage prospects, and it is hardly as though travel and self-improvement are disreputable pastimes. And I
do
consider my health. Later in the year Mrs. Bolton plans to travel on the Continent but I do not propose to join her there, though I should love to see Italy and Switzerland more than anything. I do not think three months in the south of England can be considered too imprudent. I realize it will upset you and perhaps cause a rift between us. I do not wish for either of those things, yet I intend to go.”

“Aurelia!”
Lady Vennaway's voice was pained.

“Leave the room.” Lord Vennaway did not look at me or use my name, by which I knew he was speaking to me. I gladly complied. I could not bear to listen.

Aurelia was forbidden the dinner with the Drummonds. She professed not to care a fig but I knew otherwise. Lord Drummond was handsome and winning, his wife was elegant and lively, and they were close to those who were close to the young queen and her Albert. When she stormed upstairs to join me in our sitting room, she was without her usual flounce and fury; she looked shaken and scared. Things had been said that could not be taken back.

For once her parents' wishes and mine aligned. We none of us knew how long Aurelia had left and we were jealous to spare or share her.

Chapter Sixteen

My first full day in London. I am dressed early and ready to go out when there is a knock at my door. I startle. I am unused to my privacy being respected so.

In the event it is merely Mrs. Woodrow telling me that there is breakfast downstairs if I want some.

I follow her to a small dining room with an enormous table squeezed into it, though no one is there to eat at it but me. There are kippers and porridge and chops and kedgeree and I have an appetite for the first time in a week.

“Did you find the bookseller you sought yesterday, Miss Snow?” asks Mrs. Woodrow when she has ensured I have everything I need. I tell her I have nothing happy to report but that I hope today will yield a better result.

“Is it
very
important that you find him?”

I reply that it is absolutely essential and feel glad that she does not question the matter further; I am aware that it must sound very curious.

“Do go to Regent Street,” she entreats. “I am certain that any bookseller of repute must be found there.”

•  •  •

What a difference a mood can make! London looks all different this morning: still gray, still vast and bitterly cold, yet I have a destination and a plan, and every hope that I will return to Jessop Walk this evening with the second letter in my hands—and learn what awaits me next on this treasure trail.

In my optimism, I choose to walk instead of catching another cab, and despite my heartache, I take some pleasure in seeing St. James's Park, the palace, and the famous library—sights I have read and heard about—here before me! It seems not impossible that the queen will come stepping through the fog towards me. Even the mists seem different this morning, confiding and conspiratorial rather than obstructive and sinister.

Mrs. Woodrow gave me strict directions: “Do not stray south towards Devil's Acre, Miss Snow—do
not
find yourself there, nor east towards the Strand—crawling slum.”

I am fairly confident of the way. For a short time I lay aside the urgency of my quest, indulge myself by following another of Aurelia's instructions: “Marvel at seeing a part of our kingdom so different from Enderby!”

I am charmed when I see street stalls selling roasted potatoes and hot chestnuts. Enticing aromas fill the air and I have money in my pocket, for the first time in my life. I allow myself one hot, comforting treat and then the other, despite my hearty breakfast, for walking has made me hungry again and the cold is seeping through my clothes. I have never liked the cold.

I polish off my last potato and sink the chestnuts in my pocket, licking my fingers and reflecting what great freedom there is here compared with Hatville. I no longer feel the need for a chaperone and I no longer feel out of place in my shabby garb. Then, suddenly, my stomach lurches. If I do not feel out of place, then I have strayed.

I look around and realize that there are children huddled in doorways, holding out thin hands. Only a few, but no one is moving them along; they belong there. Young girls are selling snowdrops from straw baskets and there is a great din of cheery traders hollering out their prices and bragging about their wares. It does not feel so very threatening, but none of this was in Mrs. Woodrow's description of my route. I hasten back to the chestnut stand.

“Back again, love?” The vendor is a handsome young man who winks at me, making me blush. “Can't 'ave polished 'em off already, skinny little fing like you? Or 'ave you come back to see me? I'm workin' 'til seven but if you come back then, I'll take you out, darlin'.”

I am tongue-tied. The endless rules of etiquette taught with all seriousness to Aurelia, then passed on with great derision to me, have not prepared me for being addressed so familiarly on a street corner by a complete stranger. Despite my best efforts to look away, I catch his sparkling eyes . . . and I cannot help but wonder if this way is better. Were Lord Kenworthy's formal, strategic advances to Aurelia more to be desired?

Rightly or wrongly the young man does not scare me, so I ask him where I am and how I might reach Regent Street. He puts me right with directions so detailed I feel a suspicion that he is trying to detain me. I am trying to listen carefully when he interrupts himself with a loud roar, which makes me startle nearly out of my boots.

“Oi! Bugger off, you little fief!” he bellows, starting out from behind the stall. I jump back in shock and catch sight of a small figure darting away into the throng.

“Bloody little pickpocket, 'scuse the language, miss. “Ave you got everyfing?”

Shaken, I check my pockets. Some coins have vanished, and my chestnuts. I had not so much as felt my cloak twitch. However, the rest of the money I brought with me is in another pocket and the letter is still safe in my skirt, so I know at once that I have been fortunate. Imagine if the letter had vanished! I am limp with horror at the thought.


Thank you
, sir,” I say fervently and he guffaws.

“I ain't no ‘sir,' miss, but if you get tired of mixing with the toffs up on Regent Street, come back later and talk to me again. Tommy's me name.”

“Thank you, Tommy.” I buy another bag of chestnuts—my money and I are parting company more speedily than I anticipated—and I hurry back to my route.

After a while I recognize a landmark or two—an Anglican church and a small private garden—and I see where I went wrong. It was so easy to stray! One moment dutiful Amy Snow, following instructions as ever, the next a roving street urchin being propositioned by a hot chestnut vendor!
Who am I?
It is hard to know the answer in these endless, flowing streets and mists. My legs are trembling.

My earlier high spirits have fled and I am sorely tempted to return to Jessop Walk, to curl up in safety and escape into a book. I am not cut out for adventures. And yet I remember Tommy's gray eyes, lively and clear and . . . interested. I frown. No man has ever looked at me that way before. This requires some understanding. What did he see then, as I stood before him?

I remember myself as a stubborn little child—pensive and quiet, yes, but with a strong will and a dash of temper. I no longer recognize that determined little person in the woman I am now. It seems that somewhere along the way I began to believe everything Lady Vennaway said about me. From knowing myself despised by these grand people, I came to feel myself worthy of disdain. I came to believe, I suddenly see with horrible clarity, that no one would ever want me for a wife. And with so much dreadful attention lavished on
Aurelia
's marriage,
Aurelia
's beauty,
Aurelia
's suitors, perhaps I started to feel I was better off alone. But that was not my heart's truth, I understand now, and hot tears spring to my eyes—the first in a long while that have not been about Aurelia.

Again a picture flits into my mind: the cottage and garden, the pony, the smiling husband. It is the second time in two days for them to troop into my thoughts, after being so long put aside. Submitting to Aurelia's grander designs was not the only reason I let my dreams fade. I gave up on them, I realize, and I didn't even know I had done it.

Tommy was a flirt, I conclude with a watery little smile. An invitation to stroll about Haymarket is not an offer of marriage. But perhaps it is what normal girls experience. The thought fortifies me enough to propel me on my way again. The chestnuts are all devoured before I reach Piccadilly, leaving me with a burned mouth and a lesson learned. London is like a river current; it demands to be taken seriously.

BOOK: Amy Snow
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