The Problem of the Missing Miss (11 page)

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
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The line of well-dressed young women marched down King Street, pretending not to hear the admiring cries and catcalls that followed them until they turned the corner into North Street and were gone.

Madge shrugged and went back to the kitchen, where Kitty was hauling a bucket of water from the outside pump. With a grunt of exasperation, the Madam dumped a ladleful of porridge into a bowl, and poured milk into a mug. The truncated breakfast was shoved at Kitty, who put it on one of the trays that usually went up to the dining room.

“Get this up to the new 'un,” the Madam ordered.

“Door's locked,” Kitty reminded her.

“I'll be right behind yer.”

With the bowl of porridge and the mug of lukewarm milk on the tray, Kitty climbed the stairs from the kitchen to the front hall, then slogged up the front stairs to the upper story, trudged down the hall to the back of the house, and approached the concealed door in the back wall. As far as anyone could see, that wall ended in a decorated panel, depicting a plump cupid floating above a rustic couple. Only a small keyhole betrayed the existence of something behind the panel: a final flight of stairs that led to the attic room kept for Very Special Girls. Kitty waited for Madam to produce her key and open the secret door, then inched up the steep stairs, conscious of Madge Gurney's heavy hand behind her.

The Madam turned the key in the lock. The door flew in, and a howling banshee flew out.

The tray flew out of Kitty's hands. The milk spilled onto the bare wooden stairs. The Madam, thrown offbalance, braced herself against the wall of the stairwell with one hand and caught Alicia by her camisole with the other.

Alicia thrashed around wildly, yelling, scratching and clawing whatever she could find. Kitty shrank back, unsure of which combatant to assist. Madge found her footing, grabbed Alicia, and twined one hand into the girl's flying red curls.

Alicia shrieked again, this time in pain, and she was thrown back into the bedroom. Madge's little eyes glittered with malice.

“Feisty, are we? Well, we have ways of taking care of feisty little girls here, missy!” She gasped and coughed, conscious of the line of scratches on her cheeks where Alicia had left her mark.

“You don't dare harm me,” Alicia retorted. “If you do, my papa won't pay any ransom.”

“Your pa's going to do exactly as he's told!” the Madam shot back at her. “And you just spilled good porridge on the floor. Now you get to eat it, off the floor!”

“I won't!” Alicia shouted.

“You won't get nought else!” Mrs. Gurney loomed over her.

Kitty crept into the room. “I'll help clean it up,” she offered.

“That you will not,” the Madam declared. “You take the pots and do 'em right this time. Missy here can 'elp yer, and earn 'er porridge like everyone else in this world!”

She stamped downstairs, hauling Kitty and Alicia with her. Alicia waited for the moment when that tight grip on her arm would be relaxed. Then she could bolt out. The Madam shook her fiercely and said,

“Don't even think it, missy. Where d'ye think you'll go, in your drawers?”

Alicia's face reddened. Of course, she had to get some clothes! Her pretty new dress had been taken away by that hateful Miss Harmon. She had to get it back.

“You two can just wash them pots,” the Madam said. “And don't think you can talk, because I'll be watchin' yer all the time!”

Alicia watched as Kitty went about her chores: emptying the reeking potties into a vile-smelling pit in the yard, then dipping each into one bucket, scrubbing them out with a wad of straw, and dipping them into a second bucket.

“You do these,” Kitty said, pointing to the scrubbed receptacles.

“I heard that!” Madge roared out behind them. “No talking!”

“She'll get her gin soon,” Kitty whispered. “She'll be asleep, and we can talk then.”

“I heard that!”

Alicia had never been so quiet for so long, not even in church. Only when a series of heavy snores could be heard behind them did Kitty speak again, in a hoarse whisper.

“You must be summat special. I never know 'er to hold back 'er 'and. And yer marked 'er, too!” Kitty said, admiringly.

“Did I?” Alicia asked.

“I saw scratches on 'er face.” Kitty giggled. “But yer mustn't do that no more. It's bad for the 'ouse.”

“What is this place?” Alicia whispered.

“It's Miss 'Armon's,” Kitty explained, as if that was sufficient. “Lots of gentlemen come 'ere for their pleasures,” she added, reciting the motto announced by Miss Harmon to new recruits.

“Oh.” Alicia digested this information. “What sort of pleasures?”

“Wif the girls, you know.”

“Games and such?” Alicia had been allowed to participate in adult parlor games at Christmas. The sight of grownups indulging in such antics as Charades, Blind-Man's-Buff, and Sardines could be amusing, but she didn't see why they had to do it here in Brighton, or why someone should lock her in an upstairs room while they did.

Kitty, on the other hand, regarded Alicia with scorn based on superior knowledge. “No, silly. They goes upstairs and does
it
.”

“What?”

“It!”

Alicia was totally confused. “What do they do upstairs?” she persisted.

Kitty tried to explain. “Like wot me mum does. The gentlemen puts it into 'em.”

Alicia decided to pursue this at another time. Whatever
it
was, if it was done here, she decided, she wanted no part of it. “You have to get me out of here,” she told Kitty fiercely.

“Why d'ye want to leave?” Kitty asked. “Grub's good. There's 'eat, and the old bitch don't 'it 'alf as 'ard as me mum.”

“In my house no one gets hit,” Alicia said stoutly. “My papa won't permit it. And all the servants get new shoes and new dresses at Christmas, and a … a … living wage.” She tried to remember what her papa had said when he practiced his speech for the House of Commons. “If you help me,” Alicia smiled winningly, “I'll take you to my house and you can be my maid. Mary Ann will show you how to go on. Then you won't get hit at all. And you won't have to wash these horrid pots because we have a proper water closet,” she added.

Kitty glanced over her shoulder. “ 'Ow am I supposed to get you out?” she protested. “The Madam watches me like a 'awk, and Miss 'Armon …”

Alicia tried to remember the last chapter of the exciting story she had been reading in
The Boy's Own Paper
before her incarceration. She felt under her camisole. “Here,” she said. “When you took my dress off, you forgot to take this. It's my grandmama Waltham's own locket, that she left me because my uncle only has boys.” She unhooked the delicate chain from around her neck and pressed it into Kitty's hand. “What you must do is take this, and see that the policeman on the corner gets it.”

“Wot policeman?”

“The one on the corner, of course!” In Alicia's world, there was always a policeman on the corner: a blue-coated guardian of little girls, who smiled at the nurserymaid (in the case of Mary Ann, he sometimes added a polite greeting) and touched his helmet to Papa. “He'll see it and know that I'm somewhere nearby, and then the police—”

“Police!” Kitty was horrified. “
Me?
Go to the coppers? I couldn't do it! Not for all the tea in China, not for …”

“For a whole half-crown a week, all yours? And a half-day off, every other week? And living in London?” Alicia tried to think of every inducement that Mary Ann had relished.

“But …”

“Ssssh!”

“I heard that!” Madge Gurney was awake again. “Are them pots finished?”

“Yes, Madam,” Alicia said. Miss Quiggley would have known that voice of sweet compliance, but Madam Gurney was not Miss Quiggley.

“Then take one of 'em up them stairs, and this time, you stay put!” The Madam grabbed Alicia by the right arm and dragged her back up to the attic. In the light from the areaway, Alicia could see the scratches that she herself had inflicted upon her jailer. She smiled secretly to herself. Not even top-lofty Cousin Edmund, fresh from his triumphs at Eton, could boast that he had injured his torturer!

Alicia allowed herself to be locked up again. She was hungry, she was bruised, but she felt that she had done as much as she could toward earning her freedom. Now it was up to Kitty.

CHAPTER 11

Saturday trains to Brighton ran every hour from Victoria Station, and in the summer holidays they were crammed to capacity. Every one of the first-class carriages was filled. Mr. Dodgson and Dr. Doyle took advantage of their first-class return tickets to insert themselves into the last two seats on the 1:00 p.m. train, while Inspector MacRae and Mr. Upshaw had to be jammed into the second-class coach with the rest of the populace.

Mr. Dodgson removed his hat as he and Dr. Doyle settled themselves into their carriage, across from a stout man in a striped jacket and straw hat, and two ladies of middle years dressed in severely cut ecru linen summer traveling dresses.

“I am not displeased that Inspector MacRae and Mr. Upshaw are elsewhere,” Mr. Dodgson commented, as the engine began its rhythmical puffing, preparatory to leaving London. “I cannot be easy in the company of Mr. Upshaw. I dare say I am being too particular. It is not logical to take a dislike to a man because he appears too ingratiating. I wonder that Lord Richard Marbury would take on such a common person as his secretary.”

“I imagine he finds him useful,” Dr. Doyle said. “For my part, I find Inspector MacRae overbearing. I suppose it's that Glasgow accent of his. As for Upshaw, he seems a good sort. Fawns on Lord Richard, of course; it can't be easy for him, being in a subordinate position, and having such expensive tastes.”

“Oh, you noticed that, did you?”

Dr. Doyle stroked his mustache smugly. “Hard to miss it. His suit, for instance; the material is quite good. He's finicky about his dress, too; why change one's suit and shave before going to Scotland Yard? And his boots are of the best.”

“And he keeps rooms at the Albany,” Mr. Dodgson mused. “Not an economical address.”

“He doesn't have his own room in Lord Richard's house?” Dr. Doyle frowned slightly. “So he is not precisely a confidential secretary.”

“Apparently not. In fact, he appears to be more of a general dogsbody, being sent on errands here and there. Dear me, this is becoming quite tangled. I do not understand the logic of it.”

“Logic?” Dr. Doyle shot the mathematician a quick look.

“Yes, logic. Whatever can these people hope to gain by holding Miss Marbury? Lord Richard will never recant, and he cannot draw back from his campaign at this date.”

“Perhaps they intend to keep her until the vote is taken,” Dr. Doyle suggested.

“But that might not be for months,” Mr. Dodgson pointed out. “With most of the members of both Houses on their holidays, the Bill may be debated well into next year. Given the glacial rate at which legislation passes in our government, what is there that makes these people so desperate at this time?”

“Apparently, the articles in the
Pall Mall Gazette
,” Dr. Doyle commented. “Mr. Stead and his friends have caused quite a commotion. Large protestation meetings are being held all over England this weekend, according to the leaders in the newspapers. And I noticed a band of Salvationists in the second-class carriages, complete with their instruments, on their way south. I assume Lord Richard is finding more supporters this time than he did the last.”

Mr. Dodgson was on a different train of thought by now. “In that case, why do these people retain the child? How can they be certain that Lord Richard would not, as he already has, seek help from Scotland Yard?”

The two ladies opposite them had been listening avidly. At the mention of Scotland Yard, the stouter of the two lifted her head from the red-backed copy of
A Guide to Brighton
and nudged her taller, fairer companion.

Mr. Dodgson went on, his voice becoming louder and shriller. “Logically, the person responsible for Miss Marbury's disappearance would have to be familiar not only with the household and its routines but also with me, and my appearance and habits. I find that most disturbing.”

Dr. Doyle nodded. “I can only conclude that someone is not only trying to get Lord Richard to remove his support for the Bill before the House but is also trying to harm you, Mr. Dodgson. And that, if you don't mind my saying so, seems quite impossible. Your reputation is unsullied, your literary output is.”

“Literary output? Dr. Doyle, I am a mathematician. I have no literary output except for some articles and letters, and a few entertaining puzzles.” Mr. Dodgson shook his head vigorously.

“But my wife said …” Dr. Doyle began to protest.

“She was mistaken. She thought I was Mr. Lewis Carroll. Mr. Lewis Carroll does not exist.”

Dr. Doyle laughed heartily. “You may say so, sir, but the children of England … nay, of the world! They know better.”

Mr. Dodgson shook his head again. “I assure you, Dr. Doyle, that if I were Lewis Carroll, my life would be made miserable by sensation seekers, literary lion-hunters.”

The taller of the two ladies sharing their carriage stared at the man opposite her. “Oh, dear me!
Are
you Mr. Lewis Carroll? I am Miss Drusilla Griggs, of the Thrush Grange School. My girls have all read the ‘Alice' books, and they love them dearly. Are you going to write another? Do say you will, Mr. Carroll, for we will all read it, won't we, Miss Belfridge?”

The stout woman next to her nodded so fiercely that her chins wobbled. “I do wish the girls were here right now,” she gushed. “This is quite the best adventure, Drusilla. I feel justified in having accepted your offer, instead of taking the walking tour of the Lakes.”

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
11.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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