Will she ever escape her past?
Romantic suspense for fans of Joan Aiken and Bridgerton
Young Hester Malpass knew little of her past. Only that she was an orphan who was now working in a railway station restaurant for a tyrannical old woman. She dreamed of escape, of finding a brighter place for herself out in the world.
Then one day, dashing Captain Deveraux, a famous balloonist, lured her away to become his partner in a new aerial adventure. Had Hester not fallen in love with the captain, she would never have dared. But dare she did.
Life took a violent and frightening turn. Suddenly Hester was confronted with the strange ghosts of her past, and the deadly secret of the fine and handsome captain.
Release date: May 10, 2022
Print pages: 208
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The Fine and Handsome Captain
An auspicious morning, then—no doubt one full of omens of change. One that surely should have been heralded by an eclipse, a fire-work display, or a roll of drums at the very least.
Yet in all honesty it was not so. It was a morning about as drear as any other. A Sunday morning, admittedly – a Whit Sunday morning, to be precise, the 24th May – and all we restaurant girls much excited at the prospect of the Grand Fete and Gala coming to the city on the morrow. Experience told us that famous artistes arriving in Bristol by rail often passed through our refreshment rooms and might even order soup from us across our counters. It was a morning also that happened to begin for me a day on Late Call, which depressing thought probably sobered what foolish thrills the coming Fete might otherwise have caused me. A morning, in fact, about as drear as any other, and quite lacking in omens of whatever kind.
For the sad fact was that, since the death of my parents in the Ross Bridge disaster, I had been in Mrs. Skues’ employ long enough to have known six Whit Sundays and any number of Late Call days, and never once had either brought me any alteration – let alone improvement—to my circumstances.
To begin the day then on a note of wearisome normality, at six-thirty Barty Hambro came knocking with his strong right arm, the only arm he had, against our dormitory door. Seven days a week, twelve months a year, his night’s work done, Barty would rouse us thus before trudging on up to his own slant-roofed nook close under the tiles. His routine was thus: the morning mail train from London arrived at four-thirty, and the First Class Refreshment Room must stay open till then, tended by him and the girl from our number listed for Late Call by Mrs Skues. At four thirty-five or so he would escort her back here to the hostel through the early morning city – it was no great distance – and then return to the station. By the fine generosity of Mrs Skues this girl was then allowed to lie abed in the dormitory until ten, in recompense for her previous day’s full twenty-two hours of duty.
Barty, meanwhile, would work on alone in the great empty station, cleaning both refreshment rooms, scalding through the tea and coffee urns and milk pans, receiving fresh supplies from the Pipe Lane bakery, and generally making ready for the new day. Even with his one arm he could still fold with marvellous dexterity the paper rosettes for the First Class tables. It seemed to me shabby work for a soldier wounded in the service of Her Majesty, but he never complained.
As was his habit, Barty beat on our door, paused, then beat again. I woke, as always, at the first touch of his knuckles. There is something in me, I fear, that remembers still that knocking, that terrible knocking early in the morning on the very day of my twelfth birthday, bringing to Bristol news of the disaster, news that Papa and my dearest Mama had cruelly been taken from me. A knocking that tumbled all of life mercilessly about my ears. Even today, I still wake at the smallest sound, at the slightest touch on my shoulder, no doubt in dread that further calamity may have crept up on me while I have lain sleeping.
I started up, afraid, then lay back again, reassured by the familiar scene and the calm sound of Barty’s departing footsteps. A sliver of early morning sunlight shone on the wall opposite. It reminded me to hope that the weather would stay fine. Since the early part of summer, when the sun had shone so hotly that the pitch had risen in bubbles between the stones of Temple Street, the weather had not been good, with cold winds and much rain. This was hard on us girls, who had long looked forward to the easier months of summer when lemonade was much drunk in place of troublesome tea, and the press of people at our counters markedly lessened by the simple absence of Inverness capes and Ulsters and dripping umbrellas.
This, in the main, was what fine weather meant to us: easier conditions in our work. This and the chance, on our fortnightly half-day, to walk in the Clifton Zoological Gardens or take an outside seat on a tram to Clevedon or one of the estuary villages. I do not mean to sound self-pitying, for I now know of many infinitely more wretched places of employment than Mrs Skues’ to which I might have been put on the death of my parents and the total loss of my family’s fortune. But at the time I felt as any girl of spirit must do, that the precious days of my youth were being stolen from me in ugly drudgery. Admittedly I had a plan for my own eventual liberation, but all too often its fulfillment seemed quite impossibly distant.
Along the small dormitory with its eight neat beds, the girls were beginning to stir. The room was low and bare, papered with brown flowers older by far than the six years of my own residence, faded to muddy yellow around the gas jets, worn quite bald at door and window. But there was a pretty curtain at the window, such as an ordinary house, even a family home, might have, its little blue flowers repeated in the wash basins and huge water jugs provided for our use. Mrs Skues had provided a picture also, well-meant if not wholly suitable: an oleograph depicting some fearful moment in the American Wild West. The savage treachery of the Indians was powerfully delineated as they fell upon the covered wagons of the brave frontiersmen and their womenfolk. Childish though it was, this picture fed the restlessness in my bones. It reminded me that women could be strong and courageous, and could lead lives of high adventure. And here was I …
I sighed, and pushed back the bedclothes. The girl in the bed to my right was still sleeping. ‘Amy!’ I called to her. ‘Amy – it’s past half past six. Time to get up.’
She rolled over, screwed her eyes more tightly shut. ‘Leave me be. It’ll be time enough when Barty comes. I ain’t moving just on your say-so. It’ll be time enough when Barty comes.’
‘He’s already been,’ I told her.
Kate, in the bed beyond little Amy, laughed bitterly. ‘Though you’d never know it – tapping like a frightened mouse the way he does whenever it’s Bella’s turn for a lay-in.’ She sat up, felt behind her head for thick locks of her beautiful dark hair, and angrily began plaiting them. ‘Hear what I’m saying, Bella? Ain’t that so, Bella? The rest of us could sleep over and get chewed to rags by Skuesy, and your Barty’d not care a fig? Ain’t that so?’
Poor Bella. The current story in the dormitory was that Barty Hambro was soft on Bella, and some of the girls allowed her hardly a moment’s peace from their teasing. Personally I doubted if there was any truth in the matter – Barty was a good, quiet young man and not much given to favourites – but our little community always seemed to need some piece of gossip to keep it entertained. Indeed, had Bella been in better straits to deal with her companions’ raillery I would have welcomed this particular fiction, for it diverted the others from myself.
But Bella was scarcely fifteen, and newly come from Doctor Barnado in London, and as yet quite without defences. Her only response now was to hide her head under the blanket and – I don’t doubt – wish that she were dead.
I got out of bed and began pouring water noisily into one of the china bowls. ‘He knocked loudly enough to waken the dead,’ I said. ‘Some of you would sleep through the trumpet of the Archangel Gabriel himself.’
It was a poor joke, but it served its purpose. Big-boned Kate, her hair pushed up all anyhow, arrived at my side to jostle me as I washed. ‘But not Miss Hester. Oh no. Our Miss Hester Malpass is halfway to the Golden Gates already, if the holy way she carries on is anything to go by.’
Others joined in. ‘Not that she’s got all that much to be so holy about, not all things considered … not when you think why she’s here in the first place. …’
Their words were familiar enough. Putting them out of my mind I stooped in front of the spotted mirror above our long washstand and concentrated on the difficult daily task of subduing my hair: it was dark – I would indeed have called it black had not that colour carried the disgraceful possibility of ‘a touch of the tar brush’ – and of a thickness that rebelled continually against the scrimping up decreed by Mrs Skues. My jaw was hardly to her liking either, being square enough to be open to the accusation of obstinacy. Otherwise, however, I was mercifully unremarkable – well-formed but no more. Certainly nothing as dangerous as a beauty. And if I was privately a little more than satisfied with the unusual amber-brown of my eyes, it was an excess of satisfaction I kept discreetly to myself.
I dressed myself carefully, and let the girls’ taunting words drift over me, being well used to them. Although we were orphans all, in our little grey world the gulf between them and me was immense. For they were respectable orphans, come either from Doctor Barnardo or from a certain Methodist foundation run by a relation of Mrs Skues in Wales, while I was a disreputable orphan, child of that most dreadful of men – a gentleman of pretensions, a failed genius even, a person who had clearly lived beyond his means and been saved from the bankruptcy courts only by the untimely landslide that had taken him and that ill-fated railway embankment down into the river together. …
All this no doubt was true enough. They seemed to consider, however, that the terrible Ross Bridge disaster had been some sort of merciful dispensation. As if my orphaning on that cruel day had been a stroke of good fortune for me. As if a father dead were preferable to one publicly disgraced.
Furthermore, since – unlike them – I had endured paid schooling up to the age of twelve, a degree of learning stood between us that they found difficult to forgive. It made my speech different, and gave me the manner of someone putting on airs. I was thus, in their eyes, fair game.
Yet they were not cruel people: only unthinking, like puppies perhaps, instinctively baiting the outsider, not yet knowing or caring how sharp their teeth were grown. And if I remained, even after six years as one of their number, still mostly an outsider, this was a matter for which I doubt if either side could wholly be blamed.
I hope I will not be thought too fanciful if I trace this blame back to the restless nature of my poor Papa. Failed genius or not, he was a man always pursuing some new vision, his mind impatient of the family circle, and the memories I have of him are sadly not of the happiest sort. In particular I recall a winter’s evening when I found myself – being aged nine or thereabouts – for some reason alone with him in the drawing office behind his shabby workshop. Possibly it was a day in the school holidays, and Mama had detailed him to amuse me for a short time while she went out into the city on some unavoidable errand. He was not, as I have already said, a man good with children. Be that as it may, once the necessity of entertaining his small daughter became inevitable he set about the task with a good enough grace.
He need not have had a difficult time of it. Simply to be allowed in his office was for me a rare thrill. I did not perhaps pay much heed to the dusty engravings on the walls, pictures of engineering marvels, viaducts, bridges, great pumping engines; nor to the misted cabinets containing models of incomprehensible things that smelled sharply of copper and machine oil, and served seemingly no interesting purpose whatsoever. But he had beside his desk a stool, a stool that revolved, screwing its little round leather seat either up or down as it did so, and to sit on this was one of the great excitements of my little life.
But Papa had no understanding of such small joys. Determined upon entertaining me and at the same time testing my abilities, he pushed aside his own mysterious designs and set me drawing from memory various commonplace household devices: the towering shape of the curate’s new bicycle, Mrs Pitts’ mangle out in the steamy wash-house, the hansom cab in which I sometimes rode about Bristol with Mama. … I screwed up my eyes, trying to picture in my mind these simple, everyday things – but I’m afraid my crabbed little drawings were not to Papa’s liking.
I can remember even now my cold anxiety as I felt his goodwill towards me fade. To be sure, he made a great show of having fun, imagining the strange sort of animal able to ride my topsy-turvy bicycle, and what would happen to old Mrs Pitts if she tried to use my mangle, or to Mama if she tried to sit in my hansom cab. But there was little kindness in his teasing, and I do not think that either of us was much amused. I can hear his voice still, and smell the fine sandalwood pencil he had placed in my hand, one of his very own pencils of which I was so clearly unworthy. Even the twirly stool lost its magic that evening, and I kicked my frilled legs wretchedly against its ugly metal frame and never to my recollection sat upon it again.
But I will be brief, for the point of this memory is not Papa’s impatience. The point is that his impatience grew out of his own great sympathy with mechanisms of every kind and his recurring dissatisfaction with the irretrievably female sex of me, his only child. The simple fact of my sex, he considered, would make me always incapable of sharing with him his only abiding interest. …
The femaleness of my mother he accepted, I believe, as a necessary evil. Certainly I never saw him be anything but patient with his Mary, though she was, I now suspect, a dear but somewhat foolish person. Of practicality she had little. Her passion was for nature, her skills with the sick wild things she rescued and tended from time to time. In my days at Mrs Skues’ I had her likeness with me, and stared at it often. We shared the same dark hair and eyes, she and I. In character, however, I was determined that we were utterly dissimilar.
I had, after all, lived with Papa’s dissatisfaction quite long enough for it to shape my nature. His dissatisfaction became by degrees my own, with the girl I was and with the woman I would become. It became also the constant spur for me to transcend the limitations of my sex. I would not grow up like soft, uncomprehending Mama. In pursuit of this aim I once for several weeks shot catapults and had the grocer’s lad play cricket with me in our patch of garden when he should have been out on his deliveries. There was even a period when I sought education in many daunting subjects not provided by my teachers, such as mathematics and chemistry, turning instead to the books on Papa’s shelves for guidance. The period was brief, the guidance negligible.
I also read Papa’s copy of the Times, with much self-importance if little understanding, taking care that he should see me. By the age of twelve I seem to recall being privately determined upon a career in politics at the very least. Though precisely what politics were I would have been hard put to it to say.
Such then was the scope of the expectations I brought with me to Mrs Skues’ establishment in December 1879, to the situation finally found for me by Mr Margulies, my father’s distrait solicitor. They were expectations that later life taught me to modify, but never abandon altogether. Indeed, it was of these that was born my plan of escape, the secret ambition that gave me continuous hope and purpose through the dreariest of days.
But it was these expectations also that made me intolerant of the other girl’s more frivolous concerns, and gained for me a reputation for priggishness and conceit.
Perhaps the reputation was just. Perhaps I did in truth feel myself superior. Certainly the critical eye I directed upon those around me was but rarely applied to my own failings. But at this moment of writing I find myself still too partial to be able to give a useful answer. I can only strive to remember truthfully, as they happened, the strange events of that spring and summer, and set them down here as honestly as may be, and leave them to speak of me as they will.
We were allowed fifteen minutes for rising and washing and dressing ourselves. As I tightened my apron and tied it behind me in the even bow that Mrs Skues demanded, little Amy came to stand in front of me, her back to me, up on tiptoe so that I could reach to help her, as was my custom, with the last few buttons at the top of her dress. The girls’ taunting had run down for lack of interest some minutes before and was, I think, genuinely forgotten by them. And by myself also, so little did it really signify between us. I leaned forward to deal with Amy’s buttons.
She whispered urgently at me over her shoulder, ‘Hessie love – put in a good word for me with Skuesy, will you? About tomorrow’s half-day off, I mean. I’ve got to get it. I’ve just got to. …’
It was natural enough that Amy should turn to me in this – if my background made me the group’s butt, it also made me its spokesman. Besides, I could well understand that the question of the Monday half-day was far too important to Amy for her to dare to raise it herself. Naturally we would all of us have liked time off on the day of the Fete, but for Amy the need was especially urgent. She claimed intimate acquaintance with a member of the Bristol Reed and Brass Band which was to play on the green during the festivities, and she must see him there in his fine blue uniform and wave to him, or surely die of a broken heart.
Rich indeed had been the selection of back-stage gossip relayed to us by Amy on the strength of her bandsman sweetheart. There was, for example, the wife of Gus Gauntlett the vocal comedian and Canadian skate dancer, who had arrived a full week ahead of her husband and entered into financial agreements with the keepers of Clifton’s drinking houses not to serve Mr Gauntlett at any time on the all-important Monday of his performance. On the other hand – and Amy claimed her bandsman had this on the highest authority – there was the dashing balloonist Captain Deveraux and his wife Kitty, neither of whom would be putting in any sort of appearance whatsoever. Their courage, it seemed, had quite deserted them since an experience at the Hereford Conservative Gala some eleven days before when Madam Deveraux’s parachute, by which she was about to descend, blowing kisses graciously down upon the assembled multitude, was clearly seen to be struck by lightning and utterly destroyed.
Altogether, Amy’s narrations had brought the coming events of the Fete alive for us as never before. And although I might have my private doubts as to the real intimacy of her relationship with the bandsman in question – to my uncharitable way of thinking it was probably confined to a masher’s routine attentions across the counter, or at best to a contact of hands during the purchase of a chaste plate of Ha’penny Fingers – I had no doubts at all as to its importance in poor Amy’s limited scheme of things.
I wished sincerely that I might be of some use to her. Usually our half-days were posted on the notice-board well in advance. On the subject of the Whit Monday afternoon, however, Mrs Skues had been ominously reticent. When work had ended at ten o’clock the previous evening the space on the board had remained unfilled.
I finished Amy’s buttons and patted her shoulder. She turned to me anxiously: even in her drab grey uniform she had a bright-eyed prettiness that I could well see going straight to any bandsman’s roving heart. ‘I’ll do what I can,’ I told her. ‘Last year Mrs S. was in a good mood and let us off in shifts. All of us. Perhaps that’s why she’s left the –’
My optimistic words were cut abruptly short by the arrival of Mrs Skues herself, bursting headlong through the dormitory door. Mrs Skues never entered a room, or indeed went anywhere at all, in the manner of an ordinary person. Always she seemed to be contending with a strong head wind that only she could feel, battling head down into it with very much the disjointed air of an inside-out umbrella. Disjointed also was her speech, and the assembly of her dress, and her habit of mind.
The door burst open before her, banged shut behind her. ‘Best in the West,’ she announced, braking abruptly and clutching her Sunday black straw hat. ‘Best for Provender, best for Service, best for General Amenity. Cup-winners last year. Cup-winners the year before that. And don’t you forget it.’
As we scuttled to our positions beside our beds she moved rapidly between us the length of the room and back. To some she might have seemed a comic figure, but seldom to us. Such was her power over us and the uncertainty of her temper.
‘My fingers to the bone,’ she proclaimed. ‘And all for what? Eight hundred pounds per annum the Concession do cost me. Eight hundred pounds. I shudder to think.’
We – those of us who had been with Mrs Skues long enough to know the signs – shuddered also. We knew that for her to invoke the Concession never boded anything but ill. And certainly a group of girls worth six pounds a year each, all found, must consider eight hundred pounds a fearful sum to be made responsible for.
‘Impervious vigilance, ladies, that’s what do’s it. You knows that, I knows that, Mr Hambro knows that. Impervious vigilance. …’
She strode back down the room to where Bella, as was her right after Late Call, lay quietly trying to sleep, and pulled the bedclothes into an untidy heap on the floor at the foot of her bed.
‘Now, ladies, this one’s new here, mind, so us won’t make all that much of it. All the same, served tea, this one did, to a gentleman travelling on his Railways Pass. Smart gentleman, he was, in our line of business too.’ She leaned over the bed, raised her voice. ‘Steward in a Restaurant Car, wasn’t he Bella? Talked to Mr Hambro about the inspectors, didn’t he Bella? The company inspectors didn’t he Bella?’
The poor girl was clutching her nightdress round her knees, her face quite blank with uncomprehending terror. And Mrs Skues not yet into her stride. I took a small step forward, grateful, for Bella’s sake, that my years at the hostel had encouraged a certain quick-mindedness.
‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ I said. ‘Bella Parsons roused me this morning, told me about the inspectors, asked me what she should do. I thought it best, ma’am, not to disturb your sleep at that very early hour, I told her I’d see you were informed as soon as possible.’
Mrs Skues stared at me. For a moment I thought she was going to challenge me for the liar I was. Even if she did, I thought I was safe enough – not even Bella Parsons would be fool enough to deny my story. Mrs Skues’ pale eyes narrowed in her deceptively apple-cheeked face as she grappled with the possibilities. Her real problem – and ours – was that she had a mind suited to the complexities of little more than keeping a few yard hens. Occasionally this could be used to our advantage. Mostly, however, it simply bred confusion and ill temper.
On this occasion her gaze faltered, and she fussed uncertainly with the feathery collar of her coat. ‘Well then … Well then, like I said, us won’t make all that much of it… Which isn’t to say there ain’t p’s and q’s to be minded all the same.’ She was stoking up her indignation. ‘Impervious vigilance, ladies, and don’t you forget it.’
She returned to the door. I was glad to see the girls on either side of Bella replace the covers on her bed and make some show of tucking them in. ‘There it be then, ladies. Company inspectors on the prowl. Mr Hambro was good enough to tell me not fifteen minutes gone. You won’t know them, but they’ll know you fine enough.’ She paused to peer (closely) at the large silver watch she carried on a long chain about her neck. ‘My dear soul – another minute and us’ll be late opening, near as drabbit.’
The door banged open and she was gone, we girls in hot pursuit, snatching our shawls about us as best we could. At the head of the stairs she brought up short, causing a sudden breathless jam behind her, and turned to face us. ‘P’s and q’s, mind. Win the cup third time round and it’s ours in perpetuity. Best for Provender, best for Service, best for General Amenity. Ours in perpetuity. …’
Suddenly she smiled, engulfing us all in the warm feeling that we were forgiven. Though for exactly what I don’t believe we asked ourselves. ‘And, tell you what, it’s five shillings each, apiece, all round, if us makes it.’
And there we were, at that moment, willing to follow Mrs Skues to the ends of the earth – not for the five shillings she had promised us, but for the radiance of her smile. So, I believe, do many tyrants rule, not so much by fear of their wrath as by desire for their approval.
And it was I of course, the priggish one, remembe. . .
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