Authors: Jennifer Wilde
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The Master of Phoenix Hall
Jennifer Wilde writing as Edwina Marlow
T HAD BEEN GLOOMY ALL MORNING
. Although the rain had finally stopped, the streets of London were wet and gray. The fog was so thick that the gaslights were burning even now, at barely past three in the afternoon. It was dark inside the dress shop but the frugal Mrs. Clemmons wouldn't let us light any of the lamps. We must conserve oil and save her a few pennies. Everyone was in a foul mood, but no one complained. Our Mrs. Clemmons was a tyrant, quick tempered and hasty to discharge any young woman who displeased her. After three years of this tyranny I was very adept at suffering in silence. I needed the job.
Nan had been going around all day with a long face, her ordinary vivacity smothered by the atmosphere. She was a great one for fortune-tellers and horoscopes. Her simple cockney nature made her easily susceptible to such things. Last week her regular palm reader had predicted a grave disaster in the month to come, and Nan felt sure that today was the day of the dire event. There were dark shadows about her blue eyes and her tarnished gold curls hung in tangled clusters. She sulked in a corner, holding her straw broom idly and staring down at the bits of bright material scattered over the floor.
“Something's going to happen,” she repeated for the tenth time.
“Do be quiet, Nan,” I replied, rather testily.
“Something's going to happen. I can feel it in my bones. A black cat was crouching on the windowsill this morning, and I knew then that today was the day Madame Inez told me about. Black skies, rain, fog. Something terrible is going to happen.”
“And I know what it'll be if Mrs. Clemmons comes in and finds you standing there in a daze. You'll find yourself out in the street without a job.”
“That old bag wouldn't dare dismiss me,” Nan retorted hatefully. “Where would she find another girl crazy enough to run her errands and sweep her floor and take in her tea when she has a headache? And all for a handful of pennies. I'm a treasure, and she knows it.”
“You're a treasure, all right,” I said.
“I'm not smart enough to do anything else,” Nan said, leaning on the handle of her broom, “but you, Miss Angel, I can't see why you put up with thisâsittin' here in the dark and puttin' a hem in a red silk dress for some fine lady to wear to a ball. Don't you want a red silk dress for yourself?”
“Where would I wear it?”
“Some nice gentleman might take you out.”
“There is no gentleman, nice or otherwise.”
There was no one. Ever since my parents' deaths three years ago, there had been time for nothing but work. My father, in his quixotic fashion, had left a great many unpaid bills. I had taken it upon myself to pay them all off. Therefore I felt myself lucky to be working at Mrs. Clemmons' establishment and found it was not too difficult to put up with her bad temper and poor wages. At least it was a respectable employment, and that was not easy for a single woman to find in London in this year 1888.
I had a room in a shabby boardinghouse that was nevertheless decent and clean, in a once genteel neighborhood. I had the books my father had left, and I had memories of a spoiled, pampered childhood as the only child of a prosperous middle-class businessman. My father's business folded after some unwise speculations, and his health waned in the months that followed. After his death, my poor mother seemed to lose all incentive to live. She was a shy, retiring woman, living in the shadow of my father's more forceful personality. She wasted away. I was eighteen years old when she died, completely alone, penniless, my only relative a somewhat eccentric aunt who lived in Cornwall.
I managed. I had been managing for three years now. My life was calm and serene. If it lacked excitement, at least there was a certain security in knowing that I had been able to pay all my father's debts. I had even been able to save a small amount. If I sometimes dreamed about a dashing rake who would sweep me off my feet and away from all of this drabness, I had the good sense to know that such things only happen in novels and that life itself is gray, without the flashing colors found in the books I read.
Gray did not suit me. But I lacked the strength of character, the imagination to change things. I was neither happy nor unhappy. Without knowing it, I was waiting. Despite my good sense, I was young enough to believe that the miracle would happen, that some kind fate would see to it that I did not waste away in dust and boredom like the old women I saw at the library when I went to exchange books.
“You should go out more,” Nan persisted. “A girl as pretty as you shouldn't have any trouble finding a whole troop of gentlemen. With that lustrous brown hair and those lovely brown eyesâ”
“Stop, Nan,” I protested. The butcher's apprentice and the printers' devil vied with each other for Nan's affections, only to see her fly off on the arm of a handsome young private in the army. She could not understand why I did not follow her example.
“You may be a well-brought-up young woman,” she said, “but that's no reason why you can't have fun. It wouldn't hurt anything for you to let a fellow take you to the Music Hall and buy you a beer.”
“Hush,” I said.
“You're too prim and proper,” she continued. “With that small waist and those nice ankles you should be wearing bright dresses and a piece of lace. No one will ever notice you in those brown and gray things. I know men, Miss Angel.”
“And I'm content not to,” I retorted. “Can't you leave me alone? I have to finish this frock this afternoon.”
I tried not to let Nan get on my nerves. I loved her dearly. She was such a lively sparrow of a girl, gathering bright bits of ribbon to make her humdrum life bearable. Topsy-turvy and temperamental, she was the only friend I had in the world. She had a tiny room in the attic of the boarding house where I lived, and her adventures and misadventures with all her beaux brought what little excitement I had into my life, however vicarious it might be.
“Finish it,” she said, “and then start another, and then another.” She put her hands on her hips and stared at me with her head cocked to one side. “You exasperate me sometimes, Miss Angel! Really you do!” She began to sweep up the scraps of material and left me in peace.
The ominous atmosphere outside seemed to creep into the shop. The fog was thick and yellow, swirling in heavy clouds against the windows. There was barely enough light for me to see how to do my stitching. I hoped the fog would let up before Nan and I left. There had been so many attacks in the past few months that it was not safe for women to walk alone in these London streets. Nan grabbed all the newspapers and read the lurid stories of rape and murder with much relish. London was not a pleasant place for a single woman.
There was a roll of thunder. Nan dropped her broom and began to babble again about the fortuneteller's predictions. She stared out the window at the fog and said she hoped O'Connor, the patrolman, would escort us home tonight.
We were both unprepared for the footsteps we heard outside the shop. They were loud, coming down the steps toward the door. The bell made a shrill jangling noise as the door was thrown open, and Nan gasped as the man in swirling black cape stepped inside. It was most unusual for a man to come into Mrs. Clemmons' establishment, and this one had a hardened face with piercing black eyes that glowered at us beneath diabolical dark brows. For a moment my own heart skipped a beat. I dropped the dress I was working on and got to my feet. Then Mrs. Clemmons came charging in from the back room. She was a fierce old thing with iron-gray curls and the body of an ox. I didn't doubt her ability to handle any situation, and for once I was glad to see her.
The man stood just inside the door. Even if he was not a criminal with murderous intentions as Nan and I had imagined at first, it was evident that he had not come to look at ribbons and bonnets. He stared coldly at Mrs. Clemmons as she adjusted her plum colored skirts and tried to summon some feminine charm before addressing him. Her lace cap was at an awkward angle and her cheeks were flushed red. She wore cascades of jet-black beads and these jangled as she tried to catch her breath.
“Yes, Sir, may I help you?”
Nan snickered at me while our employer fluttered her eyelashes. Her voice was sweet and mincing, hardly the tone she used when scolding her employees.
“Are you Mrs. Catherine Clemmons?” His voice was hoarse, not at all pleasant. It matched his appearance.
“That is correct, Sir. You wanted to see me?”
“Do you have a Miss Angela Todd working for you?”
I drew back, startled. He had come to see me.
“Whyâyes. This is Angela,” she pointed to me. “Did you wish to see me about her?”
He didn't feel that an answer was necessary. He turned to me, giving me a close scrutiny with those black eyes. He was a very large man, with powerful shoulders, yet now I noticed the soft silver at his temples and the lines of fatigue about the mouth. I could see that what I had thought a formidable demeanor was merely a brusqueness common to many businessmen and his gloves, his neat but well worn suit, the gold watch chain on his vest proclaimed him to be just that, a businessman. What could he want to see me for? I had paid all Father's debts.
“You are Miss Angela Todd?” His voice was softer than before.
I nodded. He looked at me carefully. “Yes, I can see some family resemblance. The same brow, the same proud carriage of the chin.” His eyes seemed to grow gentle, and he frowned a little.
“You are related to Mrs. Lucille Dawson of Cornwall?”
“She is my aunt.”
“I am Jacob Patterson, Miss Todd. I am a lawyer, and I handled all your aunt's affairsâ”