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Authors: Meg Brooke

The Secretary

BOOK: The Secretary
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The Secretary

 

Meg Brooke

ONE

 

January 20, 1833

 

“I’m sorry, Miss Martin, I truly am,” Mr. Parkhurst said, clutching the brim of his hat so tightly his knuckles turned white and shifting uncomfortably in the pokey chair. “You’re two months owing on the rent now, and you’ll have to go if you can’t pay by the end of the month.”

Clarissa took a deep breath before answering him. She looked out the window at the gray buildings across the street, the gray sky beyond, the gray London fog, the gray, gray world. “I understand, Mr. Parkhurst, and I appreciate your coming to tell me in person,” she said evenly. It was true, too. She really did understand. But understanding only went so far, and not nearly far enough to quell the rising panic she felt. As she saw her landlord to the door, she tried to make her breathing as even as possible. But when he was gone and she turned to survey her tiny sitting room with its dingy wallpaper and threadbare curtains, she let the stoic calm she had portrayed give way to tears. She stood there, leaning against the door, for several minutes before the tears began to ebb, and then she crossed the cramped space that was her sitting room.

On the little table beside the worn sofa sat a miniature of her father. She scooped it up now, worrying the edge of the frame with one thumb while her other hand clutched a handkerchief. She dabbed at her face half-heartedly. Really, she deserved a good cry. “Oh, Papa,” she sobbed, “whatever am I to do?”

Of course there was no answer. Her father smiled up at her from the little portrait that had once belonged to her mother.
Her
miniature sat on the nightstand beside Clarissa’s bed, but she liked to have her father’s nearby. The loss was still fresh, the wound still raw, and his self-assured smile gave her a little comfort.

She needed all the comfort she could get now.

She had less than ten pounds to her name, which was certainly not enough to pay the rent she owed Mr. Parkhurst—indeed, it was barely enough to survive for the next few months. What little her father had left was gone. She was destitute.

She would have to leave London, find someplace where it was less expensive to simply
live
. Perhaps the country. She knew that if things did not change very, very soon she would not be able to stay in London. It was simply impossible.

She had hoped that by now, nearly a year after her father’s death, she would have found some other employment, but her skills were not particularly marketable to the sort of places that would hire a woman of her middling station. She had excellent penmanship, but lacked the interest in fashion needed to work for a ladies’ magazine. She was bright and personable, but that would not get her far when she could not sew or trim bonnets, and anyway no respectable milliner would hire a gentleman’s daughter. She was excellent at mathematics, and took a keen interest in engineering, but those things would not serve her well if she were to advertise for a position as a governess, where she would need to know how to dance and serve tea.

Indeed, she had
tried
all those things already. No agency that placed young women in the houses of the genteel would take her—she did not have the necessary poise. The one interview she had gotten at a ladies’ magazine had ended in disaster when they saw the cut of her dress.

In short, Clarissa thought now as she wiped away the last of her tears and went into the bedroom, she was doomed. She poured a little water from the ewer into the basin and splashed her face with it. As she straightened, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She could scratch courtesan off her list too, she supposed. She was too plain for that, and she knew that her pale skin and strawberry-blond hair were not
á la mode
. Her features were not regular or irregular enough to be fascinating, either. Her nose was too pointy, her blue eyes too watery.

No, much to her relief, the captivating and terrifying world of the Cyprians was not her place either.

But as she patted her face dry, something reflected in the mirror caught her eye.

She turned and went to the little wardrobe that had come with the rest of the dingy furnishings in the rented flat. Her few dresses hung inside, and beside them were the two suits that had not been in good enough condition to sell, along with her father’s overcoat. Well, perhaps they could have been sold, but they were one of the few things her father had left behind when he departed his earthly life, and she had not been able to bear parting with them. Now, as she rubbed the material of one sleeve between her fingers, an idea began to take shape. She took one of the coats from the wardrobe and slipped it over her shoulders. Even over the bulky sleeves of her gown, it was a little big, and the cuffs hung down over her fingers, but she could do enough with a needle to fix that.

“Perhaps,” she whispered to herself, too frightened to even voice her outrageous idea out loud. “Perhaps.”

 

It took her much longer than she had expected to locate the shop in Cheapside whose name had been given to her by the proprietress of a second-hand dress shop near Piccadilly. The woman had looked rather shocked when Clarissa explained what she wanted, but had finally given her the address, saying, “If anyone will sell you what you want, it’s them,” in a scornful tone.

When Clarissa finally reached the street on the small slip of paper, she walked past the shop twice before realizing it was even there, and when she found it, she stood outside gazing through the murky window for a good three minutes before she worked up the courage to enter. As she stood on the pavement, she surveyed the goods displayed on the small shelf just beyond the glass. There were a few pairs of spectacles and one quizzing-glass with a silver chain, three fob watches and a fine pair of earrings. But it was the last item that drew her attention, and when she finally managed to make herself push open the door and enter the shop, she said to the owner, “Do you have more wigs like the one in the window?”

The proprietor, a small, thin man with a shiny pate and a long moustache, stood before shelves overflowing with such a vast variety of good that Clarissa felt a little overpowered. He blinked at her a few times before answering, “What would you be wanting a wig for?” he asked, squinting at her in a way that made her think he might benefit from that quizzing-glass in the window.

“Your hair looks lovely to me, dearie,” a woman put in as she emerged from the back room. If she was the proprietor’s wife, and Clarissa suspected she was given the way the woman bounced across the room and nearly into the little man, they were a perfect study in contrasts. The proprietor, whose name she presumed was Mr. Simms from the gold lettering on the window, seemed tiny and staid compared to his rotund and jolly-looking spouse. “In fact, if you’ve ever thought of selling I know one or two wigmakers who’d give you a fair price for it.”

“No, no,” Clarissa said, holding up her hands as if she thought the woman might jump across the counter and begin shearing off her hair any second, “I want a man’s wig, you see. As close to my own hair color as possible.”

Mrs. Simms and her husband had one thing in common—they could both put a great deal of meaning into a few silent blinks. But finally the woman said with a meaningful glance at Mr. Simms, “Very well, dearie. We don’t ask questions here. Follow me.” And she lifted the hinged counter so that Clarissa could follow her along the shelves and into the back room.

If possible, the back room was in a worse state of disarray than the front. Where the main room of Simms Variety Goods was filled with odds and ends, those were at least placed with some sort of order in mind--watches with fobs, spectacles with ear-horns, shoes with stockings. In the back room all organization had been abandoned. A tiny desk sat along one wall. Beyond the desk stood a dummy wearing an elaborate cream-colored gown. The rest of the space was taken up by boxes and crates and shelves out of which spilled an endless array of items. The chaos was astounding, but things appeared to be clean. Truly, Clarissa reflected, this was how her father’s study would have looked if not for her. Perhaps Mrs. Simms had her own method of organization.

Clarissa paused a moment to take it all in, but then Mrs. Simms wheeled over a floor length mirror and guided her to a place before it. Clarissa blushed at her reflection, taking in her worn day dress of tan calico and the serviceable style of her hair. Mrs. Simms disappeared into the tunnel of shelves that took up the back half of the room, and for a while there was no evidence of her beyond the faint rustlings of boxes being opened and shut. While she was gone, Clarissa crossed to the dummy and put her hand out to feel the smooth satin of the lovely cream dress. It reminded Clarissa of an engraving she had seen of Princess Charlotte’s wedding dress. She had torn that picture from a newspaper and hidden it under her pillow lest her father scold her for her foolishness, but now he was not here to see.

At last the round woman appeared again, three large boxes and another small one teetering in her arms. Clarissa rushed to help her before they all toppled.

“Thank you, dearie. Now then, let’s see what we have.”

The boxes looked as though they contained hats, but Clarissa saw labels pasted to the side of two that read “Men’s Wigs—Light and Red Blonde”.

Mrs. Simms opened the first box and lifted a layer of tissue paper to reveal three wigs, all long enough to hang to Clarissa’s shoulders. “Too long,” she said, forgetting her embarrassment. “I want something shorter.” The wigs were the right color, at least. Clarissa had not even expected that much.

Mrs. Simms nodded and opened the second box. She lifted out the first wig. “What about this?”

It looked closer to Clarissa’s goal. “I suppose I won’t know until I try it on,” she said.

“You’ll need one of these,” Mrs. Simms said, opening the third box. She pulled out a cap made of pale pink material and helped Clarissa pull it tight over her hair. “It cuts down on the itching,” she explained. “Most men who want these wigs are completely bald, or close to. Having this netting,” she went on, showing Clarissa the fine mesh that made up the inside of the wig itself, “so close to the skin can drive you mad. Now, it won’t be perfect,” she cautioned as she pulled the wig on. “You’ll have to dress your hair differently for that—unless you’re planning to cut it?” Mrs. Simms looked more horrified at that thought than her earlier offer to help Clarissa sell her hair would have suggested. Clarissa shook her head. Her long hair was one of her few vanities. “There, that ought to do it. Turn around and have a look.”

Obediently Clarissa turned. And gasped. If she looked at herself from the shoulders up, it was as if there was a boy wearing a dress in the mirror. The cut and style of the wig were exactly what she had envisioned, short and neat and serviceable. Exactly the sort of style someone who was respectable but not too highly placed would have. It was the haircut of an invisible man. Exactly what she wanted. But she had still not expected the illusion to be quite so...convincing. She had always had a small bosom, and that and her slim figure added to the impression.

“You might want one of these,” Mrs. Simms said, opening the smaller box. She held out her hand, and in her palm was a thin strip of hair that matched the wig. “You’ll need some gum to hold it on, but you can try it out for now.” Clarissa took it and pressed it to her upper lip and then looked back into the mirror.

It was perfect.

“I’ll need two white shirts and a pair of men’s shoes, too,” she said softly, almost too surprised by her appearance to speak.

Mrs. Simms, true to her word, did not ask any questions. She simply disappeared back into the tunnel of shelves.

 

When Clarissa left Simms Variety Goods an hour later with her purchases safely stowed in a hatbox, the gravity of her decision finally began to weigh on her. As she boarded the omnibus back to Knightsbridge, she wondered with mild alarm whether she might be making the biggest mistake of her life. But by the time she had reached the alley where her little flat was located, she had come to the conclusion that she had little choice. It was this or starvation and homelessness, and she refused to be beaten. Not when her father had worked so hard to mold her into a strong, capable, independent woman.

Inside her flat she dressed carefully, rolling her hair into pin curls like Mrs. Simms had shown her and putting on the cap and wig last. When she stood before the mirror, a completely different person looked back.

“How do you do,” she said, casting her voice into a deep baritone. Too deep. She tried again, a little higher. Still not right. Oh, well. She would have some time to practice. After all, she hadn’t even secured an interview yet. Still, she promised herself, it wouldn’t be long.

Now all she had to do was keep her ear to the ground.

 

TWO

 

January 27, 1833

BOOK: The Secretary
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