Victoriana did not scream: she was beyond screaming. In a faint voice she said, ‘Those men put me here.’
The hands released their grip. ‘Waddya done to bug ’em? An’ what’s wid dat accent? Ya sound real funny.’
‘I’m English,’ said Victoriana, strengthened by indignation. ‘And they were spying on my Papa. He’s a soldier and he does important work. With your government.’
‘My gumment! Hoo hoo. But if yer agin ’em, guess we is too. Siddown an’ let’s talk aboudit.’ A hand on her arm, gentler this time, guided her to what felt like a packing case, on to which she subsided gratefully.
A lucifer flared and illuminated the face of a thickset middle-aged man wearing a shapeless felt hat. He lit a candle lantern and set it on another case. ‘’S okay, Fingers,’ he said. ‘Only a goil. Ya can come back out.’
A small man emerged from the shadows, his thin face ornamented with an enormous drooping moustache. ‘Sheesh, lady,’ he said, ‘ya reely pudda scare inna us.’
Despite her fear, the thought of her scaring these desperate-looking characters made her giggle. ‘I’m Victoriana. Who are you?’ she said.
‘Nah, ladies first,’ said the thickset man. So Victoriana told them about how Molotok and Serp had tricked their way into the house and put a small, mysterious object in her father’s study, and then seemed to be listening to it in some way from the alley beside the garden, and how she had followed them here. She did not tell them about her father’s work – in fact she couldn’t, as she had little idea of what he did.
‘Ya sure took a chance, goil,’ said the man. He introduced himself as Oiving; Victoriana had been in New York long enough to mentally adjust this to Irving. He told her that the pair had been watching Molotok for some time, after they had noticed constant deliveries of crates of all sizes to the house.
‘Excuse me for asking,’ said Victoriana politely, ‘but would you by any chance be, um, burglars?’
Irving laughed. ‘Well, Vic … lessay we was plannin’ to relieve ’em of a soiplus o’ goods.’
Victoriana had been properly brought up, and knew that burglars were Bad People. But in the circumstances she could hardly disapprove. ‘I don’t mind’ – and she deployed an idiom she had recently learnt from her father’s newspaper – ‘if you take them for everything they’ve got.’ Or should that be ‘gotten’? she thought.
‘Dat’s my goil,’ said Irving. ‘But look, ya don’ belong in dis hole, an’ I don’ like to think o’ what dem gonifs was plannin’ to do wid ya. Time we was geddin’ ya out.’
‘De way we got in, ’s easy.’
The men stood up and led her to the doorway from which Fingers had appeared, and into another cellar room. Along one wall wooden cases were stacked from floor to ceiling. Irving held his lantern up to some of the labels: Nussbaum Electrostatic Instruments; Invicta Optics, Inc.; Handfast & Snell, Brassfounders. ‘Looks val’able, don’ it?’ On the other side of the room was a doorway roughly hewn into the brickwork, supported by heavy timbers. A strong underground stink wafted from the dark opening. A wheelbarrow and several shovels were propped against the wall. ‘Dey’re diggin’ a tunnel,’ said Irving. ‘Lord only knows where to. None of our business, anyways.’
At the end of the room a short flight of steps led up to a sloping trapdoor. Fingers went ahead, produced a small instrument from his pocket, applied it to the lock which yielded with a click, and pushed up the door. ‘Coal chute,’ he said laconically. ‘Kid stuff.’
They came out in an alley, apparently at the back of the house. It was getting dark. ‘We best get ya home afore ya missed,’ Irving said.
No chance of that, Victoria thought apprehensively, but the relief of being out made it a small worry. Irving extended his arm with a lordly gesture. Victoriana took it, and the three sauntered down the alley and into the street.
Irving led the way to East Broadway station, from which she could get home quickly on the At – the subterranean atmospheric railroad that served Manhattan. It was loud with the clanking and hissing of the stationary steam engine that created the vacuum to propel the trains. He paid her fare, waving away her thanks – ‘’S only a dime’ – and escorted her to the platform. The stationmaster seemed to know him; so did one of the station cats, who rubbed herself against his leg.
The At was home to most of New York’s stray cats. In the early days of the railroad the leather flaps which sealed the tops of the atmospheric tubes that ran between the rails had been gnawed by rats, causing leaks that brought the system to a standstill. The problem was solved simply by putting out food for the city’s stray cats, which rapidly eliminated the rats.
When the train hissed in, Irving courteously handed her into the Ladies Only car. ‘Thank you so much,’ she began. ‘I don’t know what I’d have done without you …’ ‘Look after yerself, kid,’ was his brief reply as the doors closed.
* * *
Climbing the stairs of her home station, she glanced at the clock and saw that it was only just after seven. So much had happened in a few hours! But she knew that she would be coming home to a monumental fuss.
As soon as she opened the garden gate her Mama, staring distractedly out of the window, uttered a shriek. A moment later she was flying out of the door and clasped Victoriana frantically to her well upholstered bosom, while Nanny Prewitt hovered in the background, squeaking faintly.
Victoriana’s mother, born Irmgard Ffoliot-Verge, was a scion of a good military family and not given to displays of emotion. Nevertheless she was sobbing with relief as she blurted, ‘Oh my darling, where in heaven’s name have you been? We’ve been looking for you everywhere. We called the police. Papa sent out all his men!’ The Major’s force consisted of his batman Noakes, who had lost an arm in Afghanistan, and a corporal and two privates who served as signallers.
‘I’m so sorry, Mama,’ said Victoriana. ‘I went too far down the street and I got lost. But a kind gentleman saw me home on the train.’ It was true as far as it went.
Major Adalbert burst through the door, red in the face and puffing. With a practised eye, Victoriana saw that he as working his way up to an explosion. She knew how to head him off. ‘Papa, Papa!’ she cried. ‘I’ve got something terribly important to tell you. Those men who came for the mice – they were spies, they put a – a machine in the bookcase, behind the vase, and I think it was to listen to you. Please, please, come and look!’
‘What, what?’ bellowed the Major. But his fury was diverted into a new channel, and he hastened into the library.
A scene of chaos met their eyes. The vase, a valuable Dresden piece of great ugliness, lay in fragments on the floor, surrounded by scattered books from the shelf on which it had stood. A French window had been broken and was standing open to the night. But of the brass trumpet there was no sign.
‘I knew it!’ he bellowed. ‘Those miserable malefactors and their miasmic mice! Common thieves! Prewitt! Call the police again!’
Victoriana said quietly to her mother, ‘But have they stolen anything?’ The Major’s silver-gilt inkstand stood on the table, untouched. The Reynolds portrait of his distinguished ancestor Sir Cordless Kettle was still hanging in its place. Nanny Prewitt hovered indecisively.
When some degree of calm had been restored, and the maid had swept up the fragments of the vase, replaced the books, and stuck a piece of card over the broken window with passe-partout tape, Victoriana again tried to explain about the brass trumpet: ‘I think they must have broken in to take it back.’ But she could hardly say how she knew that Molotok and Serp had seen that their scheme was rumbled, and her parents both thought that she had been imagining things.
But they were so relieved by her return, and so distracted by the break-in, that she escaped the punishment she had expected and was even allowed a late supper of bread and dripping in the kitchen and the comfort of talking to the cook Mrs Oates, perhaps the only rational person in the household. However, even Mrs Oates did not believe the story of the listening device.
As Victoriana lay in bed that night, she realised that she would have to pursue this matter on her own.
This chapter by Tachybaptus. © Tachybaptus et al. 2017.