The Problem of the Missing Miss (14 page)

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
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“Oh, indeed, sir. I've a brother-in-law out Eastbourne way. And aren't you Doyle? Portsmouth Cricket Club?”

Dr. Doyle smiled suddenly. “Of course! You're Towson, batsman for Brighton. Gave us a good walloping last time.”

Bona fides having been established, Constable Towson waved his baton at the pair. “I'll let you go with a warning, Doyle. Just don't start any more ruckuses in the middle of the street!”

The constable continued on his way. Mr. Dodgson regarded Dr. Doyle more favorably as the crowd surged about them.

“Perhaps I have been hasty in my judgment, Dr. Doyle. Your skills are many and various, as they say. The question is, what shall we do next?”

“I suggest we go to my lodgings, since they are close by, and consider our next move,” Dr. Doyle said. “I want to make sure Touie is all right. Then we can get on with finding Miss Marbury, since the police are not making much progress.”

“In that, sir,” Mr. Dodgson said, “we are agreed.”

CHAPTER 13

In the house on King Street, Kitty watched as the Madam shoved Alicia back into the attic room, turned the key in the lock, and pocketed it with a derisive snort.

“Wot you gawkin' at? Git on downstairs to the kitchen!” the Madam bellowed. “Think yer made a friend? Think again! Them sort don't care for the likes of you, girl. Besides, she'll be out of 'ere, one way or another, by the end of next week. Now, get that fire built up. The young ladies'll be back from their walk, and they'll want their luncheon.”

“Yes'm.” Kitty scampered back down the stairs to her own private cubby, a niche under the front steps where she could examine her new treasure. A locket, on a chain. Perhaps it really was gold?

Kitty's thought processes were careful and slow, usually involving food. This time, she had more to consider. This new girl didn't seem to have much sense, giving her the locket like that. In Kitty's limited experience, nobody gave anything away without first getting payment (or promise of payment) in advance. And this girl really expected her to approach a policeman? The police were the Enemy. A girl did not approach them; they approached girls, usually to chase them off the streets. This new girl was clearly not the usual sort that came to Miss Harmon's. The more Kitty thought about it, the more she was convinced that the new 'un just might be telling the truth when she said her pa was a Nob. Look at her clothes! Kitty had taken a good look at that little frock of hers when she took it off, and that was real lace on it, not something made in Manchester on a machine. Only Nobs had that kind of dress.

Kitty now considered what she knew about Nobs. From her post in the kitchen she could see the Nobs coming to Miss Harmon's in their carriages. Nobs did not patronize the other shops in King Street. Miss Harmon's was something special, and Kitty had gained a certain amount of prestige just by working there, even in her menial capacity. Her friends in The Lanes had begged for some of the scraps that Kitty could filch from the well-stocked kitchen. Miss Harmon kept such goodies for Nobs: chocolate biscuits, and oranges and peppermint drops. Nobs liked sweets, Kitty decided.

If this new 'un was a Nob, being held to ransom (as she said), then there just might be something to what she promised. Kitty tucked the locket into the waistband of her skirt, well under her apron, and set about her chores. The locket would keep for now; Miss Harmon's return was imminent, and the care and feeding of the other girls was more important than the possible friendship of one little girl up in the attic.

The girls straggled in, pulling their hats off. Miss Harmon looked worried, but refrained from talking until her young charges had been sent upstairs to their respective rooms to wash for their afternoon meal. Then she sat down in her tiny office and rang for Mrs. Gurney.

The Madam heaved herself out of her comfortable chair in the kitchen and waddled upstairs to confront her putative employer.

“Wot's amiss?” Madam demanded.

“Something dreadful has happened. Those girls insisted on watching some old man being brought in, drowned, off the beach, from under the Chain Pier. Madge, it was Keeble!”

Madge grunted, “Drunk, no doubt, and fell over. Just as well; 'e was a danger to us. Wot news from Lunnon?”

Miss Harmon shook her head. “Too soon to hear from Mrs. J.,” she reminded her confederate. “The Guv'nor's letter would be delivered by now. Lord R. will read it, and then …”

“ 'E'll pull out,” the Madam said with satisfaction. “It'll be in the papers tomorrer.”

“I don't know,” Miss Harmon said slowly. “I warned the Guv'nor this might not work to our advantage. I have had dealings with Lord Richard Marbury in the past.”

“So? Either 'e'll quit or 'e won't. Either way, 'is daughter's a 'ore.”

“Be quiet, you old cow!” Miss Harmon spat out. “What about our little prize upstairs? How has she been?” For the first time she noticed the scratches on the Madam's face and hands. “What on earth happened to you?” Miss Harmon demanded.

“That little firecat tried to get out when I opened the door to give 'er 'er breakfast,” Madge snarled. “I put 'er to scrubbing out the chamberpots. That quieted 'er down!”

Miss Harmon stiffened. “You let her out of the attic? When I told you she was to be strictly kept?”

Madge blustered, “I was right there every minute! She couldn't get away, not without 'er clothes, she couldn't!”

“You may have been there, but you were at the gin again,” Miss Harmon hissed. “If she and Kitty … Kitty!”

The scrawny little slavey was dolefully scrubbing potatoes. At the urgent summons of the bell, she scrambled to her feet and ran up the stairs to stand before her employer. “Yes, Miss Harmon?”

“Come over here.” Miss Harmon's eyes were like chips of green glass in her white face. “Did you talk to that new girl?”

“ 'Ow could I, Miss Harmon, wif Madam right there?” Kitty sniveled. “All I done was show 'er 'ow to clean 'em pots. She don't know nuffin', that 'un!”

Miss Harmon caught Kitty by the chin and glared down at her. “If you are lying to me, you will regret it,” she said softly. “Now, get on with your work. And do not talk to that new girl again.”

Madge watched until Kitty was out of sight. Then she said, “Wot's to be done?”

“Quiet. I have to think,” Miss Harmon said. “Mrs. J. doesn't want the little girl harmed.”

“Tender-'earted of 'er,” Madam sniffed.

“Practical,” Miss Harmon countered. “All the child knows now is that she's in some house in Brighton. She doesn't know what goes on here, or who we are. Unless Kitty's been talking—in which case, she knows far too much. I have to go out,” she said suddenly. “I have to send some telegrams.”

The Madam looked alarmed. “ 'Ere now! Yer know what Mrs. J. said! You was to 'ave free rein 'ere, but no more than that!”

“Mrs. J. doesn't know the half of it,” Miss Harmon said. She opened a drawer in her desk and took out several banknotes. “I may be gone for a while. Give those lazy girls their luncheon and see that Kitty stays in the kitchen. Don't go near that attic.”

“Don't Missy get fed?”

“Bread and cheese, and you make sure she doesn't get out again. I have an idea.” Miss Harmon smiled, not pleasantly. “According to my sources, our godly Rector, Mr. Barclay, is planning some kind of meeting.”

“About wot?”

“About us,” Miss Harmon said, snapping her reticule shut. “Mrs. J. should know about it. And then we can make our own plans. As for the girl … there's always Monsieur LeBrun.”

“You mean you're not goin' ter …?”

“Let her go?” Miss Harmon sneered. “Not now. I know Lord Richard. Mrs. J. thinks she can bully him, but she's wrong about him. He was bullied once; he won't be bullied again. And since we have the girl, we might as well get some use out of her. Monsieur LeBrun can be here in two days, and little Alicia will be on her way to France by Wednesday.”

“Mrs. J. don't like it when 'er orders ain't carried out,” Madam said stubbornly. “And seemingly, the kid's to be let go.”

“Mrs. J. isn't in charge here, I am.” Miss Harmon adjusted her hat and gloves.

“It's Mrs. J. as is payin' fer all this,” Madam reminded her. “It's Mrs. J. as found Mr. Carstairs to let the house.”

“And it was my idea in the first place to take a house here in Brighton for the season,” Miss Harmon retorted. “I've put plenty into Mrs. J.'s pocket this summer. If Lord Richard's Bill goes through, we all stand to lose a great deal more than money.”

“All the more reason to keep the kid safe,” the Madam said. “And if 'e calls in the Yard?”

“He wouldn't dare,” Miss Harmon said. “That minx he married won't let him.”

“You never can tell with Nobs,” the Madam said with a shrug.

“Then he must call them off,” Miss Harmon decided. “Keep that girl quiet, and out of sight. And stay off the gin!”

Miss Harmon swept down the hall and out the door, down the three stairs and out onto King Street. Kitty watched from her post in the area yard as Miss Harmon stepped daintily into the street, only to be accosted by a man in a gray suit.

From her place under the steps, Kitty saw only the legs of the man and Miss Harmon's figured cotton skirt. Their voices, however, were low but clear.

“You!” Miss Harmon sounded upset. “What are you doing here? You're supposed to be in London!”

“I was,” the man told her. “Something's gone wrong. That old fool Dodgson turned up at Marbury's door with some quack in tow, and Marbury's sent for Scotland Yard.”

Miss Harmon hissed a word that Kitty did not even think she knew. “What about the note?”

“Oh, it was delivered. And rejected out of hand.”

“This changes everything. Go away, you can't be seen here! Find somewhere else to be.”

“But, Julia?” The man's voice sounded even more upset than Miss Harmon's.

“Now is not the time, or the place. Let me think.”

“What are you going to do?”

Miss Harmon's voice was firm. “I am going to change our plans.”

“Mrs. J. won't like it.”

“That's too bad. Have you notified her?”

“Of course, before I left London. She's already taken some steps to call off our friends. I just had to see you before—”

“All right, you've seen me. Now get away, before someone sees you!”

The man's legs moved off, as Miss Harmon's voice called crisply after him, “Yes, sir, the Grand Parade is at the end of North Street, right 'round the corner.”

Then Kitty heard Miss Harmon's heels tap-tapping on the pavement as she walked down the street in the opposite direction.

So the new 'un really
was
the daughter of some Nob! Perhaps she really could get Kitty out of the kitchen and into a nice position as an upstairs maid, where she could wear a nice dress and not have to scrub chamberpots. Kitty had no illusions as to her place in life: she could never work for Miss Harmon in the parlor, not with her snaggly teeth and red hands. Besides, she didn't fancy having to do
it
all night, not with those fat gentlemen she'd seen from her place under the stairs.

She peeped out of the scullery. The Madam was busy at the stove, stirring the soup pot.

Carefully, she eased the locket out of her waistband and examined it. It was real, she decided: a gold chain with a gold pendant with a picture of a shield engraved on it, three birds in a row. Kitty could not read, but the carriages that stopped in front of the house sometimes had pictures on them, and Miss Harmon had said they were crests and the gentlemen who stepped out of them were Nobs. So: a crest meant a Nob, and a Nob was someone very important and very rich.

Kitty thought hard. Miss Harmon had captured some Nob's little girl, and was holding her to make the Nob do something. If Kitty told the coppers where the Nob's little girl was, they might even pay her a reward for it. Then, even if the little girl didn't do what she promised, Kitty would have the reward.

The only sticking point was the copper. There was one, Kitty knew, who came by every afternoon around teatime, to check the doors of the shops on either side of the house. Saturday was Early Closing Day, so he'd come 'round earlier. If she got the locket to him, Kitty reasoned to herself, then the bargain with Alicia would be satisfied, and she could claim her rewards, both from the coppers and the little girl.

That decided, Kitty was jolted out of her reverie by the Madam's harsh voice: “Get in 'ere wi' them taters, yer good-fer-nothin'. Think yer in Lunnon already, do yer?”

“What, mum?”

Madge's hand fell on Kitty's shoulder. “Promised yer Lunnon if yer helped 'er? Well, she's goin' ter France, where she'll do yer no good. Now, git upstairs and make up them beds. The gentlemen'll be by this afternoon, and the rooms ain't been swept out, nor the linens changed. Miss Harmon don't like it when the rooms ain't tidied.”

“Yes, mum.” Kitty bowed her head over the brooms and dustpans. She would have to wait until after the girls had settled down in the parlor for their afternoon customers. She only hoped that the young copper would stop by for a chat with the maid next door, and that she could get to the areaway when he did.

For the next two hours, Kitty swept, dusted, and polished, ever conscious of the tiny locket tucked into her waistband. She was at the dustbins in the areaway when the stalwart young policeman, Constable Kenneth Corrigan, came striding down King Street. He knew he looked very spruce in his new blue tunic and helmet, and he practically bounced down the street, carefully nodding to each of the proprietors of the shops to show that the Brighton Constabulary was on the job. He almost passed by the narrow house between the stationers and the greengrocer. As far as he knew, this was Miss Harmon's establishment. He had seen young ladies going in and out. He had been informed (loftily) that it was no business of his who or what lived there, so long as it remained quiet during the daytime. Therefore, Constable Corrigan was not prepared to hear a hissing noise from below his feet in the areaway.

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
5.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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