The Case of the Missing Marquess

The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer

Book: The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer Read Free Book Online
Authors: Nancy Springer
pickpocket, or—or perhaps even a cutthroat.
    Most unpleasant.
    And just as I thought this, averting my eyes from the dizzying scene outside the train’s window, I glanced up instead at the glass in the corridor door.
    I very nearly screamed.
    There, like a full moon rising, a large face peered into the compartment.
    With his nose actually pressed against the glass, the man looked in, scanning each occupant in turn. With no change in his cold expression he fixed his shadowy gaze on me. Then he turned away and moved on.
    Gulping, I looked around at my fellow passengers to see whether they, too, were frightened. It appeared not. In the seat next to me, a workman in a cap sprawled snoring, his rough square-toed boots thrust out into the middle of the floor. Opposite him, a fellow in shepherd’s-plaid trousers and a homburg hat studied a newspaper which, judging by etchings of jockeys and horses, concerned itself with the racetrack. And next to him, opposite me, a squat old woman fixed me with her cheery gaze.
    “Something the matter, duckie?” she inquired.
    Duckie? A most peculiar mode of address, but I let it pass, asking merely, “Who was that man?”
    “What man, ducks?”
    Either she hadn’t seen him at all, or it was perfectly normal for large bald men wearing cloth caps to peer into railroad parlours, and I was being a fool.
    Shaking my head dismissively, I murmured, “No harm done.” Although my heart declared me a liar.
    “Yer looking a bit white under all that black,” my new acquaintance declared. Common, toothless crone, instead of a proper hat she wore a huge old-fashioned bonnet with a brim that flared like a fungus, tied with an orange ribbon under her bristly chin. Instead of a dress she wore a fur wrap gone half bald, a blouse somewhat less than white, an old purple skirt with new braid stuck on its faded hem. Peering at me like a robin hopeful of crumbs, she coaxed, “Yers a recent loss, duckie?”
    Oh. She wanted to know about my fictitious dear departed husband. I nodded.
    “And now yer bound ter London?”
    “It’s the old story, isn’t it, ducks?” The vulgar old woman leaned towards me with as much glee as pity. “Catched yerself a likely ’un, ye did, but now he’s died”—such was the brutal word she used—“gone and died on you, he has, and left you wit’out the means to feed yerself? And ye, as yer lookin’ so sick, maybe wit ’is child in yer belly?”
    At first I could scarcely understand. Then, never having heard anything so unwhisperable stated out loud, and in a public place, yet, in the presence of men (although neither of them seemed to notice), I found myself shocked speechless. A fiery flush heated my face.
    My friendly tormentor seemed to consider my blush to be affirmation. Nodding, she leaned even closer to me. “And now yer thinking ye can find yerself summat to support ye in the city? ’Ave ye ever been t’London before, m’dear?”
    I managed to shake my head.
    “Well, don’t be makin’ the old mistake, duckie, no matter what the gentlemuns promise.” She leaned closer, as if telling me a great secret, yet did not lower her voice. “If ye need a few pennies to yer pocket, ’ere’s the dodge: take a petticoat or two out from under yer dress—”
    I truly thought I would faint. The workman, blessedly, snored on, but the other man unmistakably lifted his newspaper to hide his face.
    “—won’t never miss ’em,” the toothless crone gabbled on. “Why, many’s a woman in London hain’t got a petticoat to ’er name, and ye with ’alf a dozen, I’ll warrant by the puffing and the rustling of ’em.”
    I desperately wanted the journey and this ordeal to end, so much so that I risked a look at the window. Houses upon houses whisked past the glass now, and taller buildings, pressed together, brick to stone.
    “Take ’em to Culhane’s Used Clothing on Saint Tookings Lane, off Kipple Street,” relentlessly continued the hag, whose squat

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