Authors: Sonia Gensler
Today, however, the view of the city held her attention. As she sat in the overgrown grass, her cheeks tingling with the sun’s warmth, Kate took in the alarming sprawl of Cambridge. So many rooftops, church spires, and college towers. She understood the small, dark confines of her former life—hard, but manageable. Now she had to contend with all
. It should have been exciting, but she felt a fist of fear clenching in her gut. How would she find her place?
Tec interrupted her thoughts as if he’d read them. “What will you do now, Kate?”
“I don’t know. Can’t think what’s out there for a girl like me.”
“Seems to me you’ll have to go into service.”
The fist in her stomach tightened again. “Service? You want me to work as a skivvy? I don’t have a mind to scour pots or scrub floors.”
“Perhaps a lady’s maid, then. Or something in a shop? You’ve always talked proper, and your manners are decent when you try.”
“I haven’t any proper references, Tec.” She stared down at the frayed hem of her dress, the holes in her boots. “I don’t even have proper clothes. None would have me.”
“Maybe if you brushed your hair …”
“Oh hush,” she growled. “What I
is a new scheme.” She smoothed her ragged plaits in silence before a thought struck her. “Could you use another detective?”
He frowned. “I can’t see how that’d work. Especially now you’ve made a right mess of Martineau’s scheme.”
“She’ll figure things out soon enough. And when she does, I could work the other side of the business. You know, cut my hair, wear trousers and a cap. Whatever it takes, I’ll do it.”
“Kate, you’re nearly a young lady now. That game wouldn’t
work for long, if it worked at all.” He paused, his expression softening. “I’ll consider it, though. Stay with us another night. Once I’ve talked with Martineau, I’ll know better how we could use you.”
Kate resisted the urge to fall upon him in relief. What would he do if she kissed
cheek? Would he put his arms around her and kiss her back? No, she was being foolish. He’d probably cringe just as Billy had.
“Have you seen Billy?” she asked. “He said he’d be back this morning.”
Tec shook his head. “That boy’s not one for keeping to a schedule.”
“Do you know where he went last night? After the séance?”
“I don’t.” He looked away. “Last I knew he was going to Summerfield College to do his sleuthing.”
“The ladies’ college? What’s there to be sleuthed?”
“Fellow named Thompson lives there—one of Eliot’s friends. Missus wanted the goods on all the sitters, but she seemed ’specially interested in those that knew Eliot.”
The hairs on Kate’s neck prickled. “Missus said Thompson was friends with my father.” She searched her memory for the man’s face, trying to recall whether his eyes were kind or cunning, but all she could conjure to mind was that old-fashioned beard. “What do you know about Thompson?”
“Not much at all. It were Billy tracking him down, not me.”
. She had the queerest feeling about the man—like she’d forgotten something very important about him. After a moment of fruitless wondering, she sighed. “That Thompson fellow’s ruined everything. If he’s going to sweep into a medium’s home and expose her lies, he should find new places for
all those that’s relying on her for a roof over their heads.” Kate climbed to her feet with a groan and brushed the grass from her skirt.
Tec peered up at her, squinting into the sun. “What’re you going to do?”
“I’m going to Summerfield.”
He raised an eyebrow. “That’s your new scheme? The college?”
“It’s Thompson’s fault I was sacked. He owes me, and I’ll make sure he knows it.”
He reached up and caught her hand. “Don’t be hasty, now. What if he don’t want to help you? What if he shuts the door in your face? It’s Sunday, after all.”
She bit her lip. “I’ll figure something out.”
“Come back with me.” He squeezed her hand. “You need more sleep, for your brain is addled. I’ll talk to Martineau later—no need to go bullying this Thompson chap yet. Besides, Billy may be back by now.”
But Billy was not there. Nor did he appear that night.
When Tec returned from Mrs. Martineau’s, he shook his head sadly. “She’s thinking to pack up and start anew someplace else.” He kept his voice low, clearly not wanting the younger ones to hear. “It ain’t certain whether she’s taking any of us with her. Perhaps you
try your luck with Thompson.”
So the next afternoon Kate tidied herself as best she could and marched to the porter’s lodge at Summerfield College. In contrast to the sooty spires of the men’s colleges, the towered entrance to Summerfield was fresh and ladylike—four stories of coral brick with delicate white sash windows and a tunneled arch resembling a mouth gaping in surprise. The very sight of it
made Kate fumble to straighten her hat and smooth the plaits she’d twice rebraided already.
An iron gate, wrought in a dizzying pattern of entwining leaves and flowers, protected the arched entrance. The tall center gates, which looked heavy enough to crush a horse, were flanked by two smaller gates. The one at the right stood open—though not in a welcoming way, thought Kate. Gathering her courage, she stepped through and addressed herself to the porter’s window.
“Hallo?” she called, her voice breaking on the second syllable.
A man with greying hair came to the window, lowering his spectacles to frown at her. “May I help you?”
“I am here to see Mr. Thompson, please.”
The man narrowed his eyes. “He’s not in college.”
“Might I come in and wait for him?”
“No, you cannot wait inside for Mr. Thompson,” he replied with a snort. “He’ll not see you. Go knock at the service entrance and see if the cook will spare you a bite. Otherwise, be off with you.”
Kate’s face flamed. “I’m not here for charity. I must speak with Mr. Thompson. He’s done me a grave injustice,” she added. “I’ll not leave until he hears me out.”
“Mr. Thompson is not here, you little chit. Now shove off before I send for a constable!”
Kate turned away, hot with frustration. A man stood a few paces off, satchel in hand. His eyes darted from her to the gate … and then back to her again. He was young and rather nice-looking, but with those fine clothes he clearly was a toff. She couldn’t trust him. However, that didn’t mean she couldn’t
She stepped toward him. “Did you hear how that man spoke to me? Do I seem a vagrant to you?”
like a vagrant,” the young man allowed, removing his hat to reveal shiny light-brown hair. He didn’t talk like a Cambridge scholar. He didn’t even sound
. Irish, maybe? Surely the Irish were never so posh.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Boston.” He stepped past her and gestured to the porter, who now stood just inside the gate. “I’m here to see Mr. Thompson as well. My name is Asher Beale. I’m the son of Mr. Thompson’s colleague, Professor Harold Beale.” He held out his hand.
The porter ignored the proffered hand, but respect softened his tone. “You can call me Jones, sir. As I was just telling the child”—he scowled at Kate—“Mr. and Mrs. Thompson are not in college at the moment. Best leave your card and call again tomorrow.”
Kate drew nearer to the young man, taking cover in his shadow. “
can’t leave and come back tomorrow. I’ve no place else to go, and I’m not spending another night sleeping on a cold floor with a pack of smelly boys.” She swallowed hard against the panic bubbling in her throat. “It’s Thompson’s fault, and he’s the one who should remedy this state of affairs.”
The porter mouthed the word
in apparent wonderment—clearly he hadn’t expected a rough girl to speak so well. Kate glanced at Asher Beale, noting that he also considered her with more interest.
“I’m happy to leave my card, Jones,” he said. “But I do hope you would be so kind as to find someone to attend to Miss, er …” He looked to Kate for help.
“Poole,” she offered gratefully. “Miss Kate Poole.”
“Thank you.” He turned back to the porter. “Miss Poole
clearly is not a vagrant and seems to be in some distress. It would be very gentlemanly of you to find someone who could speak with her.”
Jones scratched his head. “This ain’t exactly regular.” He looked behind him and seemed to relent. “Young Miss Atherton—that’s Mr. Thompson’s niece—was wandering about the garden a short while ago.” He stepped toward the green lawn beyond the archway. “I do believe I still see her,” he said over his shoulder. “If you don’t mind waiting a moment, I’ll fetch her, though I can’t say she’ll have anything to do with either of you.”
“Thank you, Jones.” Once the man was out of hearing, Asher Beale turned to Kate. “Well, that’s taken care of—it just took a gentleman to help him see sense.”
She bristled at this boast. “I hope you’re not expecting any favors in return.”
“What do you mean?”
She cocked an eyebrow.
The young man’s cheeks flamed. “I was only trying to help.”
“Believe me, I had matters in hand,” she said, pleased by his discomfort. “So don’t expect me to swoon at your gentlemanly interventions.”
sher stared at the girl.
was his reward for arriving at Summerfield as directed? To be insulted by a waif in pigtails and a crooked hat? Her dress looked as though she’d outgrown it more than a year ago, but he’d politely overlooked that. In fact, he’d been downright chivalrous, and she’d repaid his kindness by accusing him of improper expectations.
“As I see it, you did
have matters in hand,” he told her. “And I have better things to do than stand here and endure your insults.” He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket for his card case. “If you’ll just pass my card along to Jones, I’ll be on my way.”
She stared at the card without taking it. Of course, she’d probably never seen a gentleman’s calling card in her life. Her nose wrinkled. Then she looked beyond him, through the gate.
“No need,” she said. “The porter’s coming, and he’s got the girl with him.”
Asher turned back to the archway. A young lady in a blue silk dress walked toward them, golden hair loose and falling down her back. It took some effort not to gape. She was a stunner, to be sure, but with a solemnity that brought to mind
paintings of martyred saints and Madonnas. In her hands she held a curious brown box. A cross or crown he could imagine, but a camera? Too modern and peculiar for such a girl.
She smiled warmly, her eyes brightening at the sight of them. “I am Elsie Atherton. Jones said you were both very keen to see my uncle. He should be returning soon. In the meantime, would you join me in the garden?” She gestured toward the green space on the other side of the tunnel. “It would be my pleasure to show you the college.”
The girl’s voice was as lovely as her face. Soft and mellow, unlike that of the young harpy who walked next to him. Asher followed her away from the porter and into the college garden, where she paused by a tree to wave her hand at their surroundings. “Lovely, isn’t it? Everything so new and the paint still fresh. Not at all the prison I feared.” Her chin lowered. “The men’s colleges are like mausoleums by comparison. Why, Summerfield Hall—the oldest building in the college—has stood here little more than twenty years. And the one we just came through? Built only eight years ago and recently fitted for electricity.”
“It’s very grand,” Asher said, craning his neck to study the tower.
“Have you lived here long?” Kate asked.
“Oh no, I arrived only yesterday,” Miss Atherton continued. “This is my first opportunity to explore the grounds. I meant to photograph the architecture, but …” She paused as a slow smile spread over her face. “Now I can practice my portrait work, if you don’t object.” Without waiting for a reply, she pointed away from the buildings. “Let’s go this way.”
Asher dragged his eyes away from Miss Atherton to survey the college garden, a meadow of tall grass dotted with trees and crisscrossed by dirt paths. Miss Atherton led them through
an orchard of young fruit trees, plucking at the branches in a leisurely fashion. She stopped short when they encountered a structure at the end of the path—one designed in the same style and with the same brick as the other college buildings, but much smaller.
“A baby sister to the others,” she breathed. “I wonder how it’s used? I simply must take a photograph here.” She gestured to him. “Mr. Beale, isn’t it? Jones tells me you’ve come from America. Would you set your bag down and stand by the door, please? And you, Miss Poole—you must stand next to him.”
Kate’s face broke into a wide grin, and Asher felt his own mouth curving in response to her obvious delight. He doubted she’d ever had her photograph taken before. His heart softened toward her … just a bit.
Miss Atherton proceeded to open her portable camera and pull it wider, elongating it like a bellows and snapping it into place. She then held the camera at her waist, pointing the lens at them.
“Hold still,” she said, her chin down as she looked through a square hole at the top of the camera. “Look straight ahead. And do try to smile. I can’t abide a photograph full of grim faces.”
Despite Miss Atherton’s suggestion, Kate stood rigid next to him, nerves turning her smile to a grimace. Asher faced the camera, trying to smile more casually, but before he’d arranged his features the shutter clicked. With a sigh of satisfaction, Miss Atherton folded the lens back into the box once more.
“Now let’s take a peek inside the building.” She rattled the doorknob for a moment before turning away with a pout. “It’s locked. I wonder what they keep in there—all the treasures of the college?”
“Probably just a storage shed,” Asher said. “Maybe they’ve
locked the tools away lest the young ladies stumble upon them and hurt themselves.”
Kate glared. “You must think young ladies have mashed peas for brains.”
He opened his mouth, but a cutting retort would not come. The girl wouldn’t have acknowledged it anyway, for she had shifted her gaze and was staring intently at Miss Atherton.