4 November 1890
In Lambeth the crowds were positively thronging. Was it the railway that drew so many out? Or was it the chance of seeing—and perhaps being seen by—the Prince of Wales? Abbie wondered, but did not much care. She didn’t like crowds, and she was nervous. But, with the crush of people from all walks of society—Dukes and Lords in high hats and long coats, their ladies in fur and silk, mingling alongside the city’s poor and dirty and hungry—she supposed she need not worry too much about her appearance. Lady Crawford had not yet noticed her altered attire. (Her heavy wool coat concealed her quite entirely, after all.) And, at the moment, she was wholly pre-occupied in the imminent arrival of Prince Edward.
“There he is now,” Abbie heard Lady Barnwell say to Lady Crawford. She looked in the direction where others, too, had begun to point and look. The crowd bellowed deafening cheers. And then she saw it. The Prince’s procession. She watched as it made its way from the station, from which the Prince had arrived on the train’s maiden journey, toward the depot.
The crowd filled in the path parted by the carriages and many followed the procession down Clapham Road. But it was here, at the station crossroads, where exhibits and festivities had been set up, that Abbie wished to remain. She wanted to see the train, to go into the tunnel and see for herself how it was meant to operate. Why so much to-doing if they were never going to see it?
“Are you coming?” Katherine said to her.
They were the first words she had spoken to her all day.
Mariana, who had been standing quietly beside her, preoccupied with the crowd and the excitement, took hold of her arm and followed, as David and Katherine led them onward.
“We will be too late to get a seat, if you we do not hurry,” Katherine added over her shoulder.
David said nothing. He did not even acknowledge Abbie as he fell in line with his family. Had Katherine told him, then? It would not take much, she ventured, to turn him against her once and for all. If only she had a chance to find out. But that chance was not now, as they followed in the wake of the Prince’s carriage.
In the little park of land before the City and South London depot, a great marquee had been set up, beautifully decorated in blues and ochres—and gold. And with intricately woven palampores to line the walls and to serve as doorways and curtains. It seemed to Abbie’s inexperienced eyes very like a maharaja’s pavilion, fit for a prince—which was its purpose, after all.
Sir Nicholas and Lord Barnwell excused themselves to speak with some acquaintances, while the rest of their party took their seats and waited for the Prince to arrive and for the meal to begin. Though Abbie was hungry, she was more conscious of the opportunity being missed. Would they not see the train, nor the station, at all? And as Lady Barnwell and Lady Crawford examined the room—the other guests, what they wore, who they were with—Abbie dared to ask the question.
It went unheard as the elder ladies chattered and gossiped, and as Katherine sat silent and cross. David, too, was too preoccupied to hear her, and James’ attention was wholly absorbed with Mariana.
“He has come,” Lady Crawford whispered to them all.
The crowd suddenly grew louder, then quieted again. The Prince entered and took his seat, looking around admiringly at the oriental décor, and remarking upon it.
At last the meal began.
Lady Crawford alternately prodded at her aspic and then at Abbie, urging her to sit straighter, to take smaller bites . . . not to eat that. No, not that. Perhaps a little . . . no. Until Abbie gave up the endeavour entirely.
Which inspired Lady Crawford to inquire: “Why do you not eat?”
“Perhaps she is nervous,” Lady Barnwell answered. “She has never been in the presence of royalty. She is not so used to it as we are.”
“As if we dine with the Queen once a fortnight.”
“Sarcasm does not become you, Katherine.” Lady Barnwell looked from her daughter to Abbie with a disapproving look.
Yes, Abbie was to blame for Katherine’s foul mood, and she was conscious of it. If she could fix the problem she would, but she knew no way, at present, of doing it.
“I wish I could say I thought your ward ready for this,” Lady Barnwell said now. “I regret to say I do not.”
Lady Crawford, too, examined Abbie. She had no doubts. Or did she? Her eyes narrowed as she looked her up and down.
“Unbutton your cloak, Arabella. I want to see your dress.”
“It is a little cold in here. I would really rather—”
“Unbutton it, I say,” Lady Crawford demanded as Lady Barnwell tsked and frowned.
Reluctantly, Abbie obeyed.
“That is not the dress I bought you, and it is certainly not the one you were meant to pick up from the dressmaker.”
“No, ma’am,” Abbie answered. “I’m afraid it’s not.”
“May I ask why not?”
“The truth is, ma’am, I did not feel it quite right to adopt a manner of dress so very different from what my sister would wear on this or any occasion. She remains in mourning. So must I show the proper respect for the father I dearly miss.”
“Well,” Lady Barnwell said and sat straighter in her chair. “I do not envy you the work you have undertaken, Margaret.”
“Do you know, Arabella,” Lady Crawford said at last and laid her wadded napkin upon the table, “sometimes I wonder if you are not a little ungrateful.”
“I am sorry, ma’am.”
“Perhaps if you insist on presuming to decide what is best for you on such occasions, the bill might come out of your allowance. Do you have any idea what I paid to have that dress ready on time?”
“Forgive me, ma’am, but I’d hardly dare presume to any figures. And I’d certainly never consider doing it at the table.” It was daring, but it was out before she’d given the words the thought they deserved.
“Oh, dear!” Lady Barnwell said and fanned herself as her friend turned a violent shade of red.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Katherine hide a smile in her napkin and look away.
“You are right. That is a conversation for another time. But I will take this opportunity to express my displeasure at finding Sarah has gone, as well. Is this, too, your doing?”
“No. It’s mine,” James answered for her.
“Yours?” Ruskin demanded.
“Let her go? You go hiring and firing at your own pleasure, James, without a thought that it isn’t your place. How dare you do it without consulting me!”
“I’ve not done any hiring. Who said I’d hired anyone?”
“You know very well what you’ve done. What I’d like to know is why you thought it your place to do it.”
“Is that an answer you’d like to have now, dear brother? Because, to be quite honest, you figured into the decision. Shall I explain how?”
Ruskin turned a little pale, but said nothing. Nor was he given much opportunity to do it.
“This is not the place for this,” Lady Crawford very nearly hissed. “Needless to say we are all very disappointed in you, Arabella. Very disappointed, indeed.”
“Well I’m not disappointed,” James said to Mariana. “Are you, Miss Gray? Or is that Holyoak. I’m simply rotten with names.”
“James, please,” Mariana said and stabbed broodingly at her aspic.
Lady Barnwell tsked again in Abbie’s direction. Lady Crawford lifted her chin and looked away from the table, assessing, or so Abbie supposed, the likelihood that their little scene had been witnessed by any of their neighbours, or, God forbid, the Prince himself. No one, it seemed, from the moment they had entered until now, had taken any notice of them at all.
Abbie’s gaze shifted from Lady Crawford to pass over those who sat about the table. David had not eaten, but was sipping idly at his glass. James was pouring himself a second and offering to Mariana who refused. And Ruskin had forgotten his meal entirely and was simply staring at Abbie with what appeared to be a strange combination of anxious frustration. She turned from him. Her dress was a trifling matter, and she had no doubt he thought so, too. His displeasure was simply for her going against his mother’s wishes. Or was it more than that, after all? He seemed, at the moment, a little afraid of her.
Sir Nicholas and Lord Barnwell returned, still speaking among themselves, and it was not until they were seated that they realized that something at the table was amiss.
“What is this?” Sir Nicholas asked, looking from one dour face to another.
“After all the trouble we’ve gone to,” Lady Crawford said and waved a hand in Abbie’s direction. “Just look at her! After all the care we’ve taken to see she is at her best, and to come all this way to see . . .”
“To see a train,” Abbie reminded them, and tried to sound respectful.
“Which is precisely why the Prince of Wales is here,” Sir Nicholas added. “You did not think he came especially to see us, my dear?”
“No, of course not. But it was an opportunity for Arabella to be seen by him, and if he should pay her any especial attention, well her success would be guaranteed.”
“If you counted on so much, my dear lady, then it’s no wonder you are disappointed. I’m not sure it’s fair to lay the blame of the Prince’s preoccupation at Arrabella’s door. And as for the train,” he said addressing Abbie now, “there’ll be time to see it afterward.”
“But the crowds,” Lady Crawford said in objection.
“You do know it’s open to all,” added Lady Barnwell. “And underground, too. Must we, really?”
“For heaven’s sake,” David said and arose.
“Where are you going?” his mother asked of him.
“It’s close in here. I want some air.”
“You will miss the speeches.”
“I really do not care. Excuse me.”
Sir Nicholas cleared his throat and gave Ruskin an awkward glance. Abbie expected him to be angry with his son’s unwillingness to comply. Wasn’t he here to mix and mingle as well? Sir Nicholas, however, did not seem to mind at all that David would much rather not remain.
“Perhaps if you were to take Arabella with you,” he said to his son. “You might go now, before the crowds converge once more . . . ?”
David stopped, looked to Abbie, and then to Katherine. Then to his father, as if he were uncertain this was a burden he was prepared to bear.
“But, Nicholas,” Lady Crawford said, clearly disappointed by this change of plans. “Think of the opportunities he will miss, that they must all miss, if they quit the luncheon now.”
“It isn’t certain they’ll miss anything at all, my dear lady,” he said to his wife. “And if Miss Gray wishes to acquaint herself with this rail project,” he added with a pointed look in David’s direction, “then perhaps there is no better time to do it, when the crowds are occupied here and we are busy with our meal.”
“Oh . . . . very well,” Lady Crawford said at last, and in a pitch that was almost a whine.
Ruskin stood. “I suppose I might as well go with them.”
“I want you here, Ruskin,” his father said.
Ruskin sat again, picked his napkin up, and shook it out as if it had caused him some offence.
“Miss Gray,” David said, addressing her very respectfully. He turned then to her sister, “Miss Mariana. If you would care to accompany me, it would be my pleasure . . .”
Abbie arose, and Mariana as well. And so, necessarily, did all the gentlemen.
“You too, James?” Lady Crawford asked of her youngest son as he moved to follow them.
Abbie did not stop to wait for the answer, and neither was it given by James, but by his father.
“Let him go.”
Once more outside, Abbie took a steadying breath and let it out slowly. She took her sister’s arm and waited for David to lead the way, but he was looking over her shoulder in the direction of the tent door. She turned to see the curtain part again.
“Wait. I’m coming,” Katherine said as she joined them.
David took her hand and kissed her on the temple. Surely it meant a great deal to him to be able to share this with her.
“Shall we, then?” he said, and at last led the way.
Abbie and Mariana followed, but James was not to be left behind.
“You don’t really mean to make me walk by myself, do you?”
“Of course not,” Abbie said and made room for him between them.
“Are you really such a child, Mr. Crawford?” Mariana asked him.
“Who’s to say I may not have the opportunity to play the gallant hero today?”
“Who indeed?” Mariana said, and though she tried to stifle the smile that followed this, she was unsuccessful. “It’s something we would all like to see, I’m sure.”
“None more so than myself,” his brother said and walked on.
Abbie followed behind David and Katherine, who did not talk, and beside James and Mariana who did. After the din and commotion of the luncheon, she was almost grateful for a moment of peace. It did not last long. Soon enough they were back amidst the throng of the festivities, and in a moment or two more, they were entering the domed station.
The tunnel, once they arrived there via a hydraulic lift, was not quite the dark and foreboding place Abbie had expected. It was brightly lit by both gas and electricity, and the walls, the vaulted ceiling, too, were tiled in white, which shone and reflected and made the tunnel seem almost comfortable.
The train sat on one side of the platform, and an attendant, by way of opening the gate, encouraged them to board. David handed Katherine up, then turned to offer the same assistance to Abbie, who hesitated a moment before giving David her hand. His attentiveness seemed to her a trifle forced. He did not smile, would hardly meet her gaze. But he was being polite. Perhaps that was the best she could hope for under the circumstances. She only wished she knew just what those circumstances were. Was there a way to find out?
Once inside, they examined the car—a single compartment—in close detail. The walls and doors of gleaming wood, the vaulted, whitewashed ceiling. The high backed and comfortable benches, one on each side of the long car, and the narrow row of windows just above the seats’ backs. Through these there wasn’t much to see. The train sat stationary today, allowing for a view of the platform without. Travelling through the tunnels, however, would be quite dark. Still, they offered a sort of optimism that Abbie found comforting. In the reflection she caught David’s gaze, which altered its direction the moment her eyes met his.
David looked to Katherine, who was apparently not so pleased by the spectacle as was he.
“I can’t imagine who would want to ride on such a narrow, cramped thing,” she said. “Scores of people all in one car, trapped together underground, and with no way of knowing just who you might be sitting next to. It could be a lunatic or a murderer for all you know.” And she rubbed her fingers together as if she’d already acquired so much unwanted human filth. She turned and exited the car.
“I too find it rather cramped and close,” Mariana said, breaking the awkward silence. “Do you mind, Abbie, if I wait for you on the platform?”
“Not at all,” she said and watched as James accompanied her sister and Katherine off the train.
Perhaps Abbie ought to follow, but she did wish for a moment more. To see the train, yes. But to speak with David if she could manage it.
“It is not steam, I think,” she said, and was truly curious to know. “Not down so far beneath the surface.”
“No,” he answered. “It was meant to be run by cable, but they at last decided on electricity. It’s the first major railway to use it.”
“I venture it won’t be the last.”
“No,” he said and smiled, apparently encouraged. “There are others being built as we speak. In America, and on the Continent.”
“It won’t open to the public for another six weeks.”
“Six weeks? Won’t we have returned to Holdaway by then?”
“I believe so.”
“How very disappointing.”
There was silence, and then it was broken as they both spoke at once.
“Look, I’m sorry about—” David began, but stopped upon realising Abbie had spoken as well.
“I apologise for the—”
They were both silent again. It was David who spoke first. “My mother likes to make a great matter out of small things. I hope you will not let her upset you.”
“It is difficult to avoid, it seems. But you did advise me against doing that which I did not wish to do.”
“I did. And I meant it. We’re all a little highly strung just now. It isn’t your fault.”
“Are you certain of that?”
He looked at her a moment, and looked away, examining the carriage once more. But the car was not large, and all there was to see had been seen already.
“Katherine is unhappy. That at least is my fault.”
“Perhaps,” he answered.
“Has she told you what it is over, our . . . disagreement?”
“No,” David answered with a fleeting smile and an even more fleeting glance in her direction.
“She will, of course. She must.”
“I’ve forbidden her from speaking of it—to me, or to anyone.”
“Have you?” Abbie asked him and hesitated to take hope. “But why?”
Neither did he answer this.
“If I should cause embarrassment or dishonour . . .”
“The dishonour’s been done already.”
“Because I’m here?”
“Stop that, will you? There is no shame in our having adopted you as our special cause. If that is what we choose to do, whose business is it but our own? But if you truly believe you are not fit to be among us, you will, whether you intend to do it or not, convince others to believe it, too. I do not know what this great controversy is between you and Katherine. If you wish to tell me I’ll be happy to hear it. If not then I’ll respect your wish for privacy. But if you fear dishonour, truly, I have to tell you, I think it’s just as likely to come as a consequence of encouraging you to feel obligated to us for that which you had no choice but to accept.”
“But I thought I was an avaricious grasper. Were those not your words?”
David removed his hat and rubbed at his forehead.
“Forgive me if I find you puzzling and unpredictable. You are certainly inconsistent.”
He nodded his acknowledgement of this. She took the opportunity of the silence to contemplate all he had said.
“Is there a price?” she asked him at last. “Is that what you are trying to tell me?”
“Is there some horrid secret that will put all my family’s plans for you at risk? Is that what you are trying to tell me?”
Neither question could or would be answered, and so silence ensued once more.
“Look,” David said, coming to stand very near her, “I cannot say I do not care what comes of all of this. I simply care for different reasons. Make your choice. Decide what you would do. Take no one’s happiness into account but your own.”
“You would encourage me to be selfish?”
“I have a feeling it’s not something you are used to doing. Of the average person I would hesitate to suggest any such thing. Of you, I think it’s precisely what you need most to consider.”
“And if it all blows up in your faces?”
“Then it is the risk we took in having you.”
“It is hardly a risk you chose to take.”
“I am choosing it now.”
She looked at him, uncertain what to say, or even to believe. He appeared perfectly and soberly sincere.
“We should go,” he said.
She stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Thank you.”
He only shook his head in answer.
“This train,” she said, stopping him again, “it means a great deal to you, doesn’t it?”
He smiled briefly, even sadly. “If I am to fulfil my obligation, I am to encourage you to do the same.”
“I do already, but why should it matter if I—”
She was interrupted by the opening of the door. James stepped inside. “We have company,” he said, looking only, and very intently, at David.
David looked at his brother for a moment, apparently puzzled.
“It seems there are some people we just keep bumping into,” James said as if it should offer some clarification.
Clearly it did, for David immediately followed after James, leading Abbie by the elbow and then handing her down to the platform once more.
“Shall we go, then?” James asked as they joined the others, and in a manner entirely different from the concerned one Abbie had just witnessed. He was perfectly jolly now.
In the lift, David stood very near his brother. “What is he doing here?”
“I’m not quite certain,” James answered. “Not yet, at any rate.
“Who?” Mariana asked. “Tell me who it is?”
“James Benderby. I’ve seen him hanging about your neighbourhood. Is there any way he can have known we’d be here today?”
“Oh no,” was all Abbie could think to say, and felt her sister take a tight hold of her arm.
“Of course, it’s possible,” was Mariana’s answer.
“Who is this man?” Katherine asked.
“He was one of our labourers.”
“Was? But no more?”
“And you do not know what he wants?”
“Well,” James said, but haltingly. “I suppose there is one simple answer.”
They had reached the surface now, and the opening of the door released James from any obligation to answer. Likely he would not have done it anyway.
Again they went quickly on their way, but they had not crossed the station floor before Benderby was seen to come out of the stairwell, breathless and perspiring.
“Move along,” James said, once more in his merry voice.
The Crawford carriages, and that which belonged to the Barnwell’s, were on the street outside. Three altogether. James put Mariana and Katherine into the first. “You’ll send them on?” James asked of his brother.
“Yes, of course. Where are you going?”
“I’m going to go see what this is about.”
“I don’t see him now,” David observed.
“No,” James said. “But that’s little comfort.” And he slid off into the crowd.
“Please, Miss Gray,” David said to her as she hesitated join her sister and Katherine in the carriage.
“Let me stay.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I can talk to him. I think I know what he wants. And I can talk to him.”
“It isn’t worth the risk, Miss Gray. I think it best to let James handle this.”
“Please?” she said. “Let me try. We’ll deal with him together, as we did with Mr. Summerson.”
Reluctant still, he looked up at the driver of the first carriage and signalled for it to drive on home. A second carriage he directed to return to the marquee to fetch his parents and Lord and Lady Barnwell.
She agreed with a nod and stepped up. But when she turned to take the hand David offered, she stopped and stepped down once more.”
“There he is!”
Cry of the Peacock will be available October 2012.