Authors: Angela Misri
Jewel of the Thames
A Portia Adams Adventure
Fierce Ink Press
Jewel of the Thames
Copyright © 2014 by Angela Misri
All rights reserved
Published by Fierce Ink Press Co-Op Ltd.
First edition, 2014
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, locales, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Edited by Allister Thompson
Cover design by Emma Dolan
Casebook illustrations by Sydney Smith
For my mother, Sheela and my sister Ana
who believed I was a writer before I did.
Jewel of the Thames
Toronto, Winter 1929
ooking back on it, the last year of my mother’s life was, for the most part, unremarkable. Sad, but unremarkable, or so I — at the advanced and wise age of nineteen — believed.
Though normally a stoic and happy woman, my mother had been diagnosed by a rather callous doctor as suffering from a cancer in her breast. He made this diagnosis under duress, having previously turned my poor mother away on three separate occasions with pedantic and, it turned out, useless advice.
She weakened both in body and spirit between these visits, her kind blue eyes weighted down with dark circles and her cheeks and collarbones becoming more visible as her appetite all but disappeared. Before she became ill, she and I stood at exactly the same height, but as she got weaker and weaker she had to use a cane to walk. She only returned to the doctor’s office at my urging, armed with whatever evidence and reports that I pressed into her trembling hands.
By the fourth visit to this doctor’s office, my mother was almost beyond caring about the origin of her illness. My stepfather, never known for his reliability, had finally given up all pretense of support and had packed his bags for the last time. Though I tried my best to convince my mother that we were better off without him, his desertion drained the last of her strength.
I gripped the papers I had copied from the college library in my left hand and my mother’s elbow in my right, and we climbed the two flights of stairs that led to the medical offices. The brightness of the offices belied the seriousness of the activities conducted within, though their well-maintained stone architecture better reflected the traditional viewpoints of the doctors inside their walls.
I finally triumphed in arguing her case with the sedentary old man. He admitted that she had all the signs of a dreaded cancer. My triumph was of course vastly overshadowed by the terrifying prospect of surgery. And eyeing this supposed medical expert, I shuddered to think what his record was in terms of cancer patients.
But in a rare moment of decisiveness (at least since my stepfather’s departure), my mother listened to her doctor finally give a name to the disease she had been suffering from for more than a year, and then stood on — I am proud to say — barely shaking legs.
She turned up her nose as he hesitantly offered a surgical solution and instead turned to me, offering her elbow once more. She had agreed to revisit this office, she explained as we walked back down the stairs, purely to vindicate my efforts. The cause of her illness was irrelevant; she had made her peace with her imminent death.
No argument I could make would move her from this decision, and I vacillated between anger and denial as she devoted her remaining months to arranging for my future.
So it was that less than three months later, on a morning in early January in the year 1930, I found myself newly orphaned and standing over my dear mother’s grave. The frigid Toronto weather had briefly relented, the ice on the ground crunchy but minimal, and the skies above gray but not adding to the snow on the ground. My mother had few friends, and I had even fewer, a sad fact made evident by the tiny group gathered around her plot. The priest was economical with his words, and before I knew it, I stood alone over her small gravestone, its only noticeable feature the newness of the simple engraving. The few flowers that had been placed by it had given in to the coldness of their location, shriveling and curling in response to the cold. One of her few requests had been that she be buried next to her mother, my grandmother, for whom I was named.
Now, looking down at the two nondescript graves, I couldn’t help but notice the cracks in the older one, filled in by ice and snow and years of moss, the engraving of my grandmother’s name, Constance Adams, showing clearly how many years it had been since she died. Someone had been by to clean out the moss on the two larger headstones to my left and right, and the remains of ribbons could still be seen, the last remnants of bouquets long since gone, making me sorry that no one had cared for my grandmother’s grave as well. I felt the full weight of my loneliness drop over my shoulders like a weighted cowl. My mother was my best friend, my confidante, my only supporter in this whole world, and the loss was magnified a hundredfold by her importance in my life.
Perhaps it was that burden that caused me not to notice a figure steal into the cemetery. Then came the sound of a throat being cleared behind me.
“Oh!” I said, turning toward the stranger in surprise.
In front of me stood a woman of elderly grace, bowed but still haughty of bearing, swathed in furs. Her hair had a dark, silvery sheen, expertly wound up into a chignon and shot with a few streaks of her original black. She was tall, only an inch shorter than me, and her slimness was evident even in the white fur coat she wore. She seemed amused by my startled response, and only my respect for my elders and the setting kept me from glaring at her.
“Yes?” I asked instead, trying to place her in the small cadre of friends my mother had introduced me to over the years.
You are Constance?” she replied, her accent not wholly American, though with distinct hints of New York in her pronunciation of the word ‘are.’
My middle name is Constance, my first is Portia,” I corrected, automatically deciding that her finery meant she could not have run in my mother’s far humbler circles.
Ah, yes.” She nodded, stepping closer and pointing her cane at my grandmother’s headstone. “Named for your grandmother, obviously.”
I tilted my head in acknowledgement, waiting for her to offer the appropriate sympathies so that I might be left to my mourning in peace.
Instead she stepped around me, remarkably agile for a woman of her advanced years, to stand directly in front of my grandmother’s grave, parallel to my own position in front of my mother’s. The rings on her fingers glinted in spite of the dull light, and the scent of an expensive French perfume I recognized from the waiting room of my mother’s doctor’s office wafted pleasantly out of her collar, combining with the smell of newly turned earth that had preceded her arrival. A traveler, I guessed, looking at the variation of fashion she presented, the coat manufactured here in Canada but purchased at least a season ago. She had also recently returned from Europe, if the buckles on her boots were to be trusted. Her gloves were made of an animal skin I did not recognize, leading me to run through a list of countries known to export ladies’ fashion.
She ran her eyes over me in a way that made me for the first time in days wonder at my appearance. I never did take much time in front of the mirror, my long dark hair much easier to handle when pulled back in a bun, though invariably a few strands would escape to curl at my forehead and nape. My mother had tried to convince me of the value of a bit of makeup, but any additional color made me look startling, the blueness of my eyes seeming to blare out of my painted face. That thought made me remember how my mother had often described my eyes as the color of the periwinkle flower, and I had to grit my teeth to stop the tears from starting anew.
My curiosity finally got the better of me when she remained silent in thought through all of this reflection. “I am sorry,” I said, breaking the silence, “did you know my mother?”
Hmm?” she replied, her eyes still on Constance Adams’ headstone. “Well, yes, I suppose, when she was young … but not really. I was a contemporary of your grandmother. We met in Britain and then grew closer when we both lived in San Francisco.”
Ah,” I answered, absorbing that, but not really understanding.
I turned my eyes back to my mother’s grave for a few seconds of speculation, and then had to ask, “But then what brings you to my mother’s funeral today? Are you attending as a friend of my grandmother?”
The older woman gave a most unladylike snort. “Oh, heavens no, I am not that sentimental nor that kind. No, I was contacted by your mother’s lawyer, my dear. I am to attend the reading of your mother’s will.”
We shared a civil yet silent cab ride to the attorney’s office — she possibly lost in memories of my grandmother, and I wondering what my sickly, middle-income mother could have left of interest to this obviously wealthy old woman.
I spent my time surreptitiously observing my cab-mate’s dress — from her perfect makeup to her impeccable posture to her wrinkled but still beautiful face. She seemed to have a constant smile at her lips, but it was an odd smile, not one of happiness
, more like the smile of someone who knows the answer to a riddle. It was unsettling, to say the least. I had almost managed to form one of the many thoughts in my brain into a coherent question when the cabbie announced our arrival.
Before I could argue, my older companion had paid the fare and I jumped to follow her out onto the street.
I had only met my mother’s lawyer on two occasions. The last time he had kindly stopped by our house late in my mother’s illness when she was unable to come to him for some required signatures.
After shaking my hand and offering his sympathies, he ushered us into his shabby offices and then reached into his large desk, hunting for the appropriate papers. I tried not to be distracted by an empty birdcage in the corner and took the seat I was offered. The last time I was in this office a noisy budgie had lived here, along with a very friendly orange cat. Neither was present anymore; even the cat hair was missing from the chairs, though still visible on the trouser legs of the lawyer who spoke to us now.
“I am very glad that you both came, ladies. As you are the only two people named in the will, this makes matters very simple,” he said, adjusting his shiny glasses on his snub nose.
My companion nodded regally, but I was once again surprised, this time at my stepfather’s exclusion from the will, which I expressed aloud.
“Ah, yes,” noted the attorney, taking off the precariously balanced glasses and polishing them with a nearby cloth. He would do better to take them straight back to the shop he had purchased them from for an adjustment, but I didn’t interrupt. “He too was most shocked not to be mentioned at all in your mother’s will, when he found out early this morning.”
That he had stopped by the attorney’s office instead of attending his wife’s funeral was not surprising to a stepdaughter who knew him well, but I couldn’t help the quiver of anger I felt on my poor mother’s behalf. I glanced away from the lawyer to hide my angry look, directing my gaze at the window for a moment, and noticed a few small brown fingerprints on the sill.
“Yes, he left most unhappy, threatening to return with his own representation and contest the will,” the man continued, pulling my attention back toward him. “And all of this without even knowing the contents of the documents.”
Before this morning, I would surely have agreed that nothing in my mother’s meager belongings was worth a legal battle. But taking a sidelong glance at the finely dressed woman sitting beside me, I was beginning to suspect that all was not as it seemed.
The attorney cleared his throat, unfurling a long sheaf of paper. “This is the last will and testament of Marie Jameson, née Marie Adams,” he read in his thin, reedy voice. “I hereby set down that all assets under my name, or wholly belonging to me and no other, shall pass to my only daughter, Portia Constance Jameson.”
So far, not surprising. I glanced at the older woman to my left for her reaction, but saw none.
“In addition, I leave all property also to my only daughter, the aforementioned Portia Constance Jameson.”
My brow furrowed and I opened my mouth to ask what assets those might be, but was surprised into silence by an old hand that reached between our two chairs to grasp mine. I looked down at our now joined hands and then back up at the older woman, surprised to see tears in her eyes for the first time since meeting her.
“What property?” I finally managed, wondering if he meant our family home, and not relishing the idea of wresting its ownership away from my stepfather.
The attorney held up his hand, though, and said, “Finally, but with no less weight and responsibility, I leave the care and education of my dearest child, Portia Constance Jameson, to Mrs. Irene Jones of New Jersey — address enclosed.”
Looking back on that moment, an outsider would have been hard-pressed to decide who was more shocked at that last piece of information. Mrs. Jones and I looked at each other, and then back at the man sitting across from us.
I had spent the last few months with my mother reiterating again and again that she need not worry about me, that I was old enough to take care of myself. She would smile and nod weakly, but I knew that the worry about what would happen to me was all-consuming for her. It seemed that she had come up with a solution without advising me, and if Mrs. Jones’ surprise was genuine, without advising my new guardian either.
“But … but I don’t need a guardian,” I blurted out. “I am nineteen years old, sir, and capable of living on my own.”
The gentleman smiled gently at me. “You have never had a job, Ms. Jameson, and while it is true that you have reached adulthood, owning property and therefore paying taxes and taking on legal responsibility requires that you be twenty-one years old.”