Charity considered that, all things taken into account, she had rather landed on her feet. The house to which she had now become acting housekeeper cum overseer was not grand, for its size and furniture could in no way be compared to the opulent splendour of the Wentworth Ames’s Bloomsbury home. It was, however, a neat, tidy house, not unlike her much lamented home in Richmond. She had but little difficulty in seeing that things ran smoothly.
Her employer was a modest, taciturn sort of fellow; rather elderly and Jewish in nationality, who kept very much to himself and to his business. Which as far as Charity could ascertain, was that of a usurer, to people - like she had been - caught in some kind of distressing situation or other. Indeed, that was how she had first chanced across his name and address, for he had built up a reliable repute in the environs of Chelsea.
Once she had arrived on the King’s Road, she had been able to secure suitable lodgings and had, upon the urgings of some feminine whim, divested herself of the old gown and purchased a couple of new gowns which were uniquely available. As a token gesture to the bereavement which she had suffered not so very long ago, one of these gowns was in muslin of a lilac shade, and she had some scarves of black lace to add more distinguishing highlights to her grief. She knew that there was still some possibility of a small amount of ready cash once the house and effects had been sold, but she guessed, from what the solicitor had last told her, that there were still large outstanding debts to be paid.
She did indeed chide herself for spending the little money she had so recklessly, but she considered that a new wig would not come amiss in her present, fraught circumstances. She had therefore purchased a dark brown, which made it necessary for her to darken her own brows with cosmetics. She, for some perverse reason, still held onto the scarlet-haired wig from her Bloomsbury days.
She had, however, received something of a shock once the final tally for her new purchases was added up. She realised that what little capital she had left would surely not sustain her for long in her lodgings and as a result of her recent plea to the solicitor in Richmond: he had only been able to furnish her with five pounds and ten shillings and sixpence. She knew, therefore, that she must again seek remuneration and residence.
It was with a doleful expression that she had toyed with the notion of selling the most precious ornaments and pieces of jewellery which she owned, and on that account she had been led to Mr Levine’s home. She had walked, that late Spring morning, over patches of waste and rubble, with a somewhat downcast demeanour upon her face. Alas, as she so often chided herself, it was no good giving vent to her innermost feelings, and therewith she had forced a slight smile to hover over her lovely features.
She felt confident in her new disguise, for she did not know what harm Lord Rispian might have come to on account of her having hit him over the head. She dared not brood upon that thought too deeply, for it fair made her stomach churn just to think what had prompted her to use such brute force. Nonetheless, dark maid or fair, she could not help but attract admiring glances wherever she went. Whether they came from the elegant dandies who sauntered on a fine day in the King’s Road, or from the common populace who, suspecting that she was not a noble woman, applauded none the less that one of their own kind could be so naturally endowed with grace, beauty of face and near divinity of form.
Sometimes Charity wondered if this unchecked adulation might go to her head, and she was more than moderately afraid that some smooth tongued seducer should, with words, succeed in achieving what Lord Rispian would have taken by force. She did not wish to traipse the paths of such degradation; for what and where did those paths lead to? She felt a small flame of shame burn her face even as she thought back on the dreadful episode... this was Life, she supposed, in London Town, and it could oft-times be misfortunate for such as herself. She fondled the outlines of the jewellery through the fabric of the velvet bag which she had harnessed about her waist. Ah, dearest Papa, what would he think of his beloved only child now? Charity felt a tear welling in the corner of her eye and she brushed it away with the fabric of her mittens.
At length she reached the street which was her destination and she set about locating the right number: number eight, Ponting Street. She rapped timidly upon the door and was soon admitted by old Mr Levine himself. He listened to her story with surprising kindness and hummed and hawed over her few trifling baubles, then he placed one raised, gnarled finger to his chin.
Did she consider that she might be capable of running his little home? He explained that he too had recently undergone an unexpected and tragic bereavement. His dearly loved daughter had died. Of course, he had always known that she had a weak heart, but by his own God, he had not been prepared for the rapidity in which his Hannah had left this earth. Charity felt a flush of compassion and kindliness towards the elderly, brownfaced old man, noting the silver straggling hair which peeped thinly from the black of his kova. Why, there was even the suggestion of tears in his rheumy eyes, as he spoke upon his dearly loved - and departed - Hannah.
Charity had accepted his offer of employment on the spot.
Who was she to quibble? And after all he looked to be a decent and honest old gentleman. She glanced around her at the immaculate order which now dominated the small but cosy parlour. Not a mote of dust hindered the golden and silver threads upon cushions and screen; the legs of the Chesterfield suite sparkled with the waxing and shining she had applied. She had been allocated the dead daughter’s room, a modest, femininely-furnished chamber, with sprigged violets on the wallpaper and upon the fabrics in the room. This arrangement was enhanced with china pieces in lilac and a bedspread of a deeper shade of mauve.
She did not mind at all taking over the deceased Hannah’s room.
Besides this room, she also had a little sitting room, where - joy of joys - she found shelves filled with books and the odd magazine. These alleviated any ennui during her leisure hours. She did, however, feel slightly perturbed of a night-time, when Mr Levine would call out softly, “Goodnight my little Hannah and blessings upon you.”
She didn’t know whether to respond to this call or not and decided to merely shout “Goodnight, Mr Levine” as naturally as she could muster. She was also a trifle disturbed by the framed portrait of the deceased daughter, who seemed to look balefully out at her with a curious, fixed stare, once she was abed and the candle-light flickered about the chamber. Often, she sighed and turned over, trying to forget that this was a room which until recently had been occupied by someone who thought she was - and possibly was indeed - the rightful occupant. As though to placate the dead girl’s soul, Charity took to placing a small vase full of flowers beneath the portrait.
She had thus been happily ensconced with old Mr Levine for two months, and he had been as good as his word, paying her one guinea per month for her employ, when tragedy struck poor Charity once again. If anything, she suffered a greater loss than before, for apart from the generous remuneration, she could eat whatever she chose, and she had been promised a bonus at the end of the year and a new gown. Charity considered that perhaps she had not prayed hard enough or been grateful enough, but the events took place nonetheless. All had seemed to be going along blissfully smoothly, and Charity was beginning to feel that there was, once more, promise of goodness in her young life. Alas, she had eventually heard final words about the sale of her house and, after all the debts had been paid off, a mere ten pounds was all that Mr Wyburn, the solicitor, had been able to mail to her.
It had happened on a Sunday, this latest catastrophe, and a fine, sunny, beautiful day it was. Although he ceded, that Sunday, of needs be his housekeeper's day of rest, old Mr Levine did not see that it should interfere with his work. He could regularly be espied, on a Sunday, checking through various piles of stock, which he kept in a locked and bolted room. This room was a veritable treasure house of antiquities and wonders, not to mention the many precious items of jewellery lodged therein.
It was a room he never allowed any person, bar himself of course, to enter. Charity knew, obviously, of the room, but, always respectful of her employer's wishes, she gave the place a wide berth. It was on this fateful Sunday that the old man was so unexpectedly called upon by a sturdy, well-built fellow who claimed he was distantly related to the old gentleman. So afluster was Mr Levine that he issued forth from his gold bolts and spent some time in happy concourse with the visitor, clean forgetting that he had left the room unlocked.
Charity had taken the chance to promenade down by the river, it being such a glorious day, so she was unhappily unaware of what was going on back at the house. Alas, nor did the old gentleman see that there was villainy in this stranger’s friendliness, for entry was made into the treasure store by an unknown person and several costly items were removed. How hapless of Fate to usher forth Charity Cottrell into the house, just as the old man, with a wide-beaming, gappy grin, was bidding farewell to his unsolicited caller. And seeing him out the front door, to boot. Charity had not closely observed the slippery shape of a henchman sneaking past her down the alley-way at the back of the house, for she was all but entranced with frivolous notions. A handsome Guards Officer had tried to engage her in conversation down by the river and she had borne a hard task to show disinterest in his conversation. She was also keen to acquire a new pair of shoes; she had seen the very pair in a cobbler’s shop nearby. In this respect, she was no different than many young people of her age and her head had been spinning with silly but harmless fancies.
Consequentally, so bound up in her own dreams had she been, that she had not heeded much the olive-skinned fugitive who had sped past her on oil-balled feet, carrying a bundle of goods all wrapped up in a plaid blanket. Which blanket, had Charity been more alert, she would have recognised as coming from the house. She did happen, however, upon a small yellow cloth (one used for the polishing of precious metals and gems and used in that normally locked, small room only).
With a happy sigh, she had unthinkingly swooped upon the cloth across the kitchen door-step and had entered the house thereby, using this rear door. Smiling still, she had placed the cloth on the kitchen table, deeming to give it a thorough washing.
Several minutes had elapsed before she encountered the roar of anger and distress which exploded with unexpected voracity from old Mr Levine’s throat.
Employing a speed which she would not have deemed the old codger capable of possessing, he was in the kitchen, standing beside her, his face grown dark with rage, his shoulders quivering in an attempt to control his emotions and wrath. “My gems! Wot hast done with my gems?” Charity stared at him, uncomprehendingly. “Don’t jus’ stand there, woman! Tell me at vonce: vot hast done with my gems? No! No! It es no good you try to play the liddle innocent wif me. I WANT DEM BACK. NOW I SEE!” His eyes swept up and down her person in such an intimate, examining way, it made Charity blush scarlet with intimidation.
Then the yellow cloth caught his eye. He walked over to it, silently, and picked it up. He swung around.
“NOW I have ze evidence. Yes! You used this cloth to wrap dem in and then you sell dem quick, real quick. Now, cloth say you are guilty party. Cloth only ever found, of this sort, in my locked room. You vait here, Miss Cottrell. I get a Runner. Take you to jail!”
The old man was white by this time, his rage plastered about the pale tautness of his birdlike knuckles. A livid patch of colour, high up on the bridge of his nose, which was speckled and age-freckled, seemed to be turning into a dull but brilliant purple blotch. Charity was horrified, dumb-founded. She really had no clue as to what the old man was raging about and it crossed her mind that he had taken leave of his senses.
“I call fer me nephew first. He help to hold you, you villainess” He went over to the kitchen door and turned the key in the lock; extracting the key, he pushed it into his waistcoat pocket. Charity all but collapsed into a chair; she felt the curved bow legs shaking, wobbly as she sat upon it. She herself was reduced to a bundle of fears and anxieties. What the deuce was going on?
Mr Levine had stormed from the room, slamming out through the front door. Charity heard the rasp of the key in the lock.
What had happened? Had there been a robbery? Yes, she concluded, that was what had happened. And she, innocent of any crime, was going to stand accused of it! She began to pull herself together. Whatever had happened, it boded evil for her. She had no alternative but to make rapid plans to escape out of this small dwelling before either the old man, his nephew (whosoever he might be), or indeed, an Officer of the Law, found her.
She stood up, willing her shaking legs to be still.
Then, she was up the stairs, taking the polished and uncarpeted stairs two at a time. Into the bedroom of the deceased daughter - would she really be so unhappy to vacate the haunted room? - she packed her bag as quickly and as thoroughly as she could, considering the nature of the emergency. With a stroke of genius and inspiration, she whisked the brunette wig from her head and replaced it with the scarlet one. Then, tearing the sheets from the bed, she effected to tie them together, so as to make a rope.
It would not do to be seen slipping to freedom from the front of the house. What a blessing, she chanced to think, that their nearest neighbours were all out on this fine, sunny day.
No, she would have to make her bid for freedom by sliding down into the back garden. From there it should be relatively easy to slip along the covered walkway at the back and on to the main road, which meandered through that part of the Chelsea neighbourhood.
She all but despaired of being able to tuck all of her belongings into the already bulging bag. With a gesture of near-hysterical impatience, she found a small satchel (Hannah's, probably) and pushed the remainder of her earthly effects into this. She could not suppress the smile which hovered over her pert and delectable lips when she thought of what an ‘escape artiste’ she was being forced to become.
She checked the small amount of money she had, which was secured in the velvet drawstring bag about her waist. She pushed open the window in the corridor and threw the sheet rope into the yard. The end thudded to the ground. Using a strength she did not deem herself to possess normally, she knotted the end of the sheet securely around the heavy wooden leg of a sideboard in the passage-way. Whoosh! Down went the bag. She felt more than a fraction apprehensive as she tested the sheets to see if they would hold her weight without ripping. But she could not spare precious seconds wondering if she would break her neck or not.
The way it looked as things were going, the hangman would soon be after her neck anyway. With eyes tightly closed, her petticoats and skirts pulled up, exposing thus the slender curves of her legs and thighs, she grasped the sheet, pushing herself away from the window and down the wall. Zoom, the sheet took her neatly to the bottom and she heard a loud tearing as she reached the ground.
She had just made it. It had only just held her, fragile weight that she was. With her heart panting, serving to cause clouds of ebony blackness to rise before her eyes, she located the bags and slammed out of the back garden gate as quickly as she could.
She ran down the rough, but thankfully dry ground of the covered passage-way, her fingers shaking as she gripped the bags, her feet making a slight echoey tinkle. She must get away as quickly as she could. She did not know precisely the nature of the crime of which she was accused, but she felt it would mean the degradation and certain squalor of the prison house: if not the burn of the hangman’s noose.
She was out and making good speed, glad that the scarlet wig was settled securely upon her bobbing and fleeing head.
She drew her cloak tighter about herself, folding it over her heaving bosom, groaning at the heat which was assailing her through both the fine heat of the afternoon and her own exertions. She slowed down only as the early shades of evening were settling, beginning to pick out charcoal shadows against lanterned walls.