It was an unseasonably hot summer and the streets of the city were largely deserted in the noonday sun. Miss Alicia Elsworth was conscious of the fact that the only people out in such insufferable heat were those who had no governance over their own activities, mainly servants running errands while their employers sat at home on shaded grounds or in darkened rooms sipping cool beverages.
Not that long ago, Alicia would have sent her own maid out to fetch new ribbons for her bonnet or some similar trifle without considering whether this endeavor could wait until the sidewalks and streets, now heated anvils from the unrelenting solar rays, had cooled down later in the day. It was a fact that delaying any demands made by her vanity until a more temperate climate prevailed would never have occurred to her. Now that the employment of another creature to perform all the mundane tasks required for her maintenance was considered an unthinkable extravagance, Alicia found herself exposed to the harsh environments once reserved for others.
“What a thoughtless being I was,” she thought ruefully. “I use to run poor Betty ragged, without regard to whether it was Saharan or Arctic. I’m glad no one of consequence is still in residence to recognize me in these canicular days — they’re all at their country houses, thank heavens. Even if some have stayed in the city, they would never associate my new self with the glamorous and brilliant Miss Elsworth that was. If they should recognize this dress, they would think me my own servant before they would connect me with myself. At least I did give Betty some nice things”.
That thought caused her to recollect a favorite parasol which she had passed along to her attendant. It was ivory on the outside with a pink silk interior which threw a rosy glow onto her perfect complexion. What she would give to have that parasol now, even if it was out of style! Right this minute her vaunted unfreckled alabaster complexion was flushed a deep pink without assistance from any prop, and beads of sweat clustered on her forehead and above her lip. Her hazel eyes stung from a few errant drops which had rolled into them. Her hair would never be copied as it was now, a mix of damp curls plastered to her face in front and a frizzy mess tied with ribbon in the back. She was aware of creeping moistness beneath her upper arm that she calculated might shortly penetrate the exterior surface of her sleeve and be revealed to any casual observer.
She fingered the small velvet pouch she carried at her sash to reassure herself that the three brooches still reposed at the bottom and had not fallen out during her exertions in the unfamiliar and unfashionable surroundings she now found herself. Her errand today did not concern the purchase of a bit of ornamental frumpery, but was instead the necessary sale of all her remaining earthly assets.
These relics were the last remnants of her mother’s estate and had been allowed by the stone-faced judge to remain in her possession outside of the actions against her once revered father. The antique adornments had passed from mother to oldest daughter for generations from the days before there was even anything that could be called a country. Family lore had the pieces forged by Druids with ore mined by goblins and gems faceted by imps, or so her mother told her on every birthday when the brooches were shown to her with the promise that someday they would be hers. She was sure their manufacture was much more mundane, but she loved to imagine the story her mother told of the days when trees talked and stones sang.
It was Alicia’s sorry lot to be the woman from the historic and honored lineage who allowed the legacy to be transported out of the family and sold and then resold by who knows who to whom. But what choice did she have? She had thought seriously of emptying the little chest of the laudanum bottles she had hoarded and drinking them all together, fastening on the brooches, and arraying herself on her bed as gracefully and artfully as she might in order to be the loveliest corpse it was possible to be.
“And then what?” she thought as she put back the bottles. “The brooches will be unclasped and they will still be sold and pass out of the line in any case and I wouldn’t have had any benefit from them at all. I’ll have to explain to Mummy and all the aunties and grande dames when I do meet them in death how it was and hope that they understand.”
She had no idea how to go about converting jewelry to cash and had no one with whom to consult about such a transaction. Her father’s solicitors blanched when she had chanced to enter their premises in search of some guidance as to how to pick up the pieces of the fashionable and pampered life which had been blown to smithereens by the machinations and schemes of her paternal progenitor. That is all she considered Edgar Elsworth now; the honorifics “Father” or “Papa” which she had onetime lavished upon him, and some silly pet names she cringed to recall, had been consigned to a sentimental ash heap and discarded with the emotions he had once induced in her, among them filial devotion, love, and sympathy.
She had been awarded that same velvet pouch with its knobby contents only a day before this current outing. It had just been restored to her after the bankruptcy hearing by a curled lip court clerk ensconced behind a barred window and she had moved to a bench in a quiet corner to check its contents when she was approached by a young man with a mass of springy ebony curls who sported a rather ridiculous pince-nez.
He was attired in an eccentric and incongruous fashion as though he had been forced to dress in the dark with a whirlwind approaching. His clothes all gave the impression of being hand-me downs from various older brothers of assorted sizes: trousers from his short brother, waistcoat from his stout brother, vest from his thin brother. While none of the elements were passé in the extreme, they were all on the fringe of being so. No component looked like it had ever been imagined to pair with another now adorning that single frame. The young man had topped off his mélange with a straw sailor hat in his one homage to the season. As he neared her quiet recess, she typed him to be either a destitute artist who accepted cast-offs as payment for sittings, or, more ominously, an escapee from a lunatic asylum. She realized with horror that he intended to address her.
“Excuse the impertinence, Miss” he said, doffing his boater. “I was in the court just now. I must voice my concern for your welfare. Some of those creditor “gentlemen” are very angry and lack any moral compass to speak of. Did you hear those howls when the judge said that your mother’s jewelry was outside of the scope of the action and pre-existent to the chicanery? I don’t want to cause unnecessary alarm but, you might want to get those pieces out of your possession and change your residence promptly, just to be on the safe side. For all their airs, those “gents” all know low men in low places who would not be above attempting to steal anything that they might feel they have a claim to, judge or not.”
“Thank you very much,” Alicia said as she pushed the sack into a small leather case she carried and snapped it closed. “I do not take notice of strange men who accost me in public places offering unwanted advice about my personal concerns.”
She rose in an imitation of her former imperious self. “I must ask that you remove yourself from my immediate surroundings.” In case he did not follow her wishes, she preempted him by leaving the area herself and making her way towards the giant doors that led to the world outside.
The young man followed her through the exits and continued trailing her down the massive flight of stone steps on which people trod either heavily or lightly, depending on the judgments passed inside by the men in white wigs. Alicia’s steps were neither, she had expected no more or less than what had transpired that day. She and her mother were blameless and had no knowledge of the transgressions by which they had benefited. But blameless or not, she still found herself in a quandary. She had almost no cash left at hand, just a few pounds which would last weeks at most to cover her food and fuel. She must sell her inheritance, and without delay, but she didn’t know who to sell to or how much to ask.
At the bottom of the steps she paused and then turned to face her tracker. “How would I go about disposing of this jewelry? Can you make a suggestion? Obviously I have no need for personal adornment at this time; I find that more basic demands must be met first.”
The young man was gratified that she had decided to resume discussion with him and smiled as though he won a great prize. “Miss Elsworth, may I introduce myself? I am –“
“No!” Alicia interjected. “I have no need to learn your name or anything else about you. You seem like a respectable enough person, and you have voiced a concern that already existed in my own mind, but I cannot begin an acquaintance with anyone met under such strange and trying circumstances. I doubt very much that there are any situations in which we might find ourselves occupying the same space at the same time again. If you do know of any reputable person that I may contact in this matter, then please share that information. I will thank you very much and leave you with my warmest regards. And that will be all."
The young man nodded with resignation. “I understand, although I feel as though I already know you. I know your situation — I have been following it in the broadsheets. I know that your father was not the man you believed him to be and that he left you in dire straits.”
He gestured that they needed to remove themselves as an obstacle at the bottom of the stairs which was diverting the stream of humanity into two flows as it passed around them. They moved in tandem off to the side where an overhang provided some shade and there was a modicum of privacy as well since there was no one else in their near vicinity. The artist/lunatic/kind stranger (Alicia was still undecided) continued -
“I do know of a man who frequently deals in situations such as yours who will give you fair value. To him you must share all the particulars of who you are, what you have, and how you came by it and then he will give you the compensation you deserve. Mind you, he has only one rule.” He paused to give emphasis to his following words. “You must be unfailingly truthful in your dealings with him. He has no tolerance for prevarication. Do you understand?”
Alicia nodded, and upon that acknowledgement, into her hand was pressed a square piece of embossed vellum with the name of an establishment and an address.
“Good. That’s his card and should get you there. It’s a bit out of the way, but with a bit of fortitude and perseverance you’ll find it all right.” The young man then looked at his timepiece and said, “Cor! Look at the hour! I must be off. Good luck to you, Miss Elsworth.”
Alicia made her way back to her living quarters, a three-room flat on the second floor in the rear of a decaying house on the cheapest street that was still considered “respectable” although that status seemed on shakier ground every day. The bottom floor of the residence was occupied by her landlady and her slatternly daughter. They gave loud and boisterous dinners to assorted men in the neighborhood who paid them for this service. Due to the obnoxious and often drunken state of the attendees, these dinners and the downstairs itself were avoided by Alicia at all costs after dusk.
The other flat on her floor was empty and had been since Alicia had moved in two months ago. It seems that it is hard to rent space that isn’t quite good enough for the genteelly down on their heels, and yet priced slightly above the pocketbooks of the officially seedy. Alicia had seen it examined and refused haughtily as “completely inadequate” by ladies whose class she formerly would have thought beneath hers. She had also seen it inspected by a few women who would have loved to move in immediately but simply found the rooms “too dear”. The house mirrored the split personality of the entire street.
“I must leave this place,” Alicia thought as she tossed in her bed that night. She was afraid of robbers, but even more she feared something deeper and darker that seemed to be creeping inexorably towards her. She dreaded a destiny of becoming common, overlooked and unremarkable. She had only a small window of time in which to repair the giant rend in the fabric of her life.
So came about her decision the very next day to follow her unknown advocate’s advice, there being no counter or conflicting counsel to compare it to. As she trudged doggedly onward through the increasingly run-down and untended streets in a quadrant of the city that had been previously unknown to her, she was beginning to think that she was the victim of a cruel prank. Just when she was about to give up in despair at her own naïveté and disgust at the viciousness of such a pointless ruse, she found the obscured and ancient signage for Destiny Close she had been seeking, directing her down a twisting cobblestone path scarcely wide enough to allow two people to pass at once.
Many if not most if not all of the storefronts on this alley were vacant, and no wonder; an exploratory expedition was required to locate the corridor to begin with and then it was a challenge to navigate. There was no human activity that she was aware of — no doors opened or closed, no windows were raised, no conversation or laughter wafted through the still air. In the distance she could hear some animal sounds: cats yowling, dogs barking, a goat bleating, and sheep baaing. She must be approaching farmland. Soon she would be outside of the city limits entirely. It was nothing short of mercantile madness to locate a place of commerce in this inconvenient and untraveled spot. She could see the way terminated not far ahead in a fence and stile. Her fool’s journey would be ended soon, whether or not she was successful in locating the mythical man of impeccable morality and judgment that had been recommended to her. She wondered if she would have the strength to make the return journey back to her shabby rooms if she didn’t have the cash for a hack.
But there it was! Yes, it was the establishment she had been looking for. The name H. Stubbs, Private Jeweler, Estate Dispositions, Loans, Sales and Brokerage was elaborately painted on the window of the last building in the last block. The shop benefited from its geographic placement by the presence of a spacious, high walled courtyard that adjoined the premises. Beyond that, the municipal spread was stopped dead in its tracks and low marshy land with water in the far distance was all that was visible.
Alicia briefly considered whether having found her destination, she really wanted to meet with someone who evidenced such impaired reasoning in locating his business. Privacy? That was the only possible motive. She could well imagine that many an embarrassed or imprudent member of the privileged classes might welcome such an island of isolation. No one could possibly traverse this remote cobbled path without a similar goal. If she were to meet anyone else, she and the one encountered would both know instantly why the other was there. There would be no avoiding one another, no doorway to duck into, and no sham to play out; any and all the pedestrians of this winding street must be united in ignominy. She saw now that the man of business was far cleverer than she had initially realized. Steeling her resolve, she gave a desultory rap on the glass and then passed through the door into the dim and dusty interior of the shop. A bell jangled as she entered.
She was relieved but not surprised to see that there were no other customers. Not even the owner or a shop assistant was in evidence.
“Hello?” she called out uncertainly and then followed with a more strident “Halloo!” There was no immediate response in the silent store, but from outside in the adjoining courtyard there erupted a sudden cacophony of an animal chorus of the dogs and cats and sheep and goats she had heard earlier down the lane.
A book tumbled off a nearby shelf and landed, open and upside down, with a crash at her feet. Upon looking up, she could see a brown tabby cat stretching languorously on the shelf, looking annoyed at the interruption of his nap. She imagined that he must be the causative agent for the book on the floor. This was confirmed when the cat reached out his paw and swept a carved tusk off the shelf as well, which landed near the book. He then jumped down onto the floor and eyed her suspiciously. His feline assessment of her seemed to be that there was no compelling need or desire for further association. He hissed quite viciously at her while his crooked tail switched from side to side. Alicia began to fear that the animal actually intended to attack her and drive her from the premises and she began to back slowly towards the door she had just entered.
“Moncrief- Leave the young lady alone! I’m up to your tricks! Any damage and say goodbye to your ninth life. Scat, you rapscallion!”
The words were shouted by a small gray man who had appeared suddenly from behind the drape that divided the front of the store with its heavy case pieces and shelves from the utilitarian workshop space in the rear. In saying “gray” let one be assured that no other adjective is required. His hair was gray, his eyes were gray, all of his clothing was gray and even his complexion had a somewhat grayish cast. It would be impossible to guess his age because he gave the impression of being elderly or close to it, yet his face was entirely smooth and unlined. He was hurriedly wiping his mouth with a damp, crumpled handkerchief and it was evident from the fresh wet stains on his shirtfront that Alicia had startled him at his midday repast. One of his suspenders still hung at his side even as he pulled on his smock and straightened his tie.
“I am sorry. I seem to have interfered with your meal and upset your cat,” said Alicia. The shopkeeper harrumphed as the tabby ran by him and into the hidden recesses from which he himself had just emerged.
“The cat is of no concern. He’s a ne’er-do-well and a scamp. Too lazy to earn his keep and relies on me to keep his stomach filled while the place is overrun with rodents. But, you did interrupt my supper. Shop’s closed now. Says so right on the door. Closed daily from 12–2. Not many going out at that time in the dog days. Most have more sense.”
Alicia’s already flushed face got even more red with offense and irritation. It seemed that her portion for now and the foreseeable future involved insolence where once there had been deference. She desired to quit the place before she began crying in front of this awful personage. “If my errand is incommodious at this time, I can come back another day.” She turned to leave.
After putting on his glasses and staring closely at her, the elfin proprietor decided that his first instinct had been incorrect and that he was not addressing the servant of one of the gentry, but a member of the gentry itself, albeit one in financial distress. He scrambled to make amends, his words tumbling out in an obsequious rush.
“Beg pardon, Miss, or is it Missus? I mistook you for a Bridget. You’re here now. Why heap more inconvenience on yourself and me by delaying your transaction? I will give you better terms than anyone else in the city. Be true to me and I’ll be true to you. Don’t endeavor to pass paste for real gems and we’ll get along famously. My name is Stubbs, Hieronymus Stubbs. I always add that Discretion is my middle name. I tell no tales about who has raised funds with my assistance. Now who do I have the great pleasure of dealing with this fine day?”
“Miss Almanza,” replied Alicia promptly and then bit her lip. She realized uncomfortably that she had violated the stricture she had been given by the young man who had sent her to this strange place. But what difference did it really make? She had no intention of ever seeing this odd fellow again, and she planned to leave the city forever once the brooches had been evaluated and sold and the notes were in her hands. It would be unbearably awkward to make a correction now after misidentifying herself — it might make the man question her integrity in general. Plus, her true surname had become a synonym in the city for financial miscreants. No good could come from clarification, and much bad, she decided.
Even after he disappeared from the earthly haunts of men, her father’s name, which she shared, had the power to spark spontaneous volatile outrage when connected with that Elsworth, the one whose commodity brokerage had failed and who had brought down several of the oldest families in the country as well as a number of bond issuers in the most audacious bankruptcy and fraud of the last three decades. Despite her own previous popularity as a paragon of feminine loveliness in the fashion plates, Alicia herself had been the subject of unwonted and abusive addresses from complete strangers when they had tied together her name and face based on knowledge gleaned from both the society and criminal pages of the dailies.
Never had a family been more reviled, after scandalmongers reported on the malevolent financial manipulations, based on cheating innocents, which had been practiced by Mr. Edgar Elsworth in order to maintain the famously opulent lifestyle of his family. “Elsworths Dine on Emeralds While Hundreds Thrown into Poverty” had been one of the more inflammatory headlines.
Yes, there had been emerald chips on the sterling toothpicks provided as party favors at his card parties, but she and Mama had always eschewed them as vulgar. Alicia blamed that story in particular as a major factor in her mother’s rapid demise. Not long after, the focus of the hue and cry of the courts and the newly ruined, her father, vanished without a trace. Hundreds of policemen and agents scoured the country for him without success. When an expensive waistcoat with a monogrammed handkerchief EE was located during a canal drag, it was accepted as proof by one and all that the EE in question would never willingly submit to residency in Marshalsea Prison and an existence of diminished quality and had taken the expeditious and almost honorable route of the extinguishment of his own life force.
“Miss Almanza” was how Alicia had recently been identifying herself when she went into public. It was the stage name of an opera diva she had seen as a child who had made a great impression upon her but who had been out of the limelight for years. Alicia liked the fact that “Almanza” had both foreign and artistic connotations. She had trained herself so well that her ersatz moniker was now the first that rose naturally to her lips when anyone inquired how to address her.
“Pardon? I didn’t catch the name? Could you say it again into this?” The shopkeeper stooped and picked up the decorated tusk that had been swatted to earth earlier by the misbehaving tabby and held it next to his head as a giant ear trumpet. There were stylized impressions of various animal species around the rim. Alicia could identify one as a sheep but then the placement of the man’s hand and the cascade of his grey hair hid the rest.
“Almanza,” she repeated into the horn. “Miss Almanza. I met a man at the courts yesterday who referred you to me as a man with the ability to help those in need who have nowhere else to turn. I hope that his representations about you are to be relied upon.”
Mr. Hieronymus Stubbs looked at Alicia, his gnomelike face suffused suddenly with a warm and welcoming smile. He set down the horn and stepped towards her and took the velvet bag from her reluctant hands. He removed the brooches and placed them carefully on a large mahogany desk on which were multiple scales and lamps and various types of magnifying devices. “Is it a temporary loan you are looking for, or a final transaction?”
“Final,” said Alicia. She knew well that any loan would involve enormous interest charges that she would never be able to repay. Plus, she hoped to be far away with the nest egg the jewels would provide. She imagined a gaming city in the south of Europe would provide a suitable habitat for a young woman with no name and no connections but with some money and considerable comeliness.
“Let’s have a look, shall we? With your permission, I’ll lock the door and draw the shade so we won’t be interrupted. Does that meet with your approval?” Mr. Stubbs drew the shade and turned the key as he spoke, seemingly confident of her approbation.
Alicia felt a tremor of concern, for in fact, no one knew where she was or what she was about and she had heard dreadful stories about young women disappearing without a trace in dark alleys and byways. She then realized with shock that she was in danger of evaporating from the planet daily with no notice paid; if some disaster should befall her, there was a good chance that no alarm would be raised by anyone. She could slip into an open manhole outside of a crowded opera house, or float off on the tide on a populated beach, or she could simply starve and mummify in her own stultifying flat since the rent had been paid a month in advance. Not a single soul would be cognizant that a vacuum had been created in the universe.
“Yes, that’s fine,” she responded.
A short while later the diminutive jeweler put down his loupe on the counter. “These are quite out of the ordinary, Miss. I recognize the workmanship. Won’t there be family discord at your selling these fine old pieces? I’m not looking for trouble and outraged relatives.”
At fifteen minutes past two o’clock there was a sharp rapping at the door of Mr. Stubbs’ establishment. The little gray man unlocked the door to let in his assistant, returning from the afternoon break. The assistant was a handsome young man with luxuriant black locks who was scrambling back into his shop coat and placing his pince-nez upon his nose as he entered.
“Late again, Maurice,” remonstrated the shopkeeper. “One more time and I shall have to let you go.” As the assistant’s shoulders slumped disconsolately, Mr. Stubbs took pity and walked up and slapped him on the back.
“Far from it, my lad! Far from it! I had that bit of business you drummed up yesterday. Your technique must be improving. I have the three pieces ready to be cleaned and the settings tightened. Let’s see how well you do.”
The assistant drew back the drape to the workroom. A large white Persian cat with emerald green eyes was lapping up the last drops of cream from a saucer on the counter. “She’s certainly a beauty. I would have liked to know her better in her other cover. What is she called?”
“Meet the lovely Almanza,” said Mr. Stubbs.
Maurice shook his head. “Ongoing proof of human frailty. If one is going to dissemble about one’s name, why all the unnecessary creativity? It’s all Moncriefs, D’Orsays, Marshmonts and Almanzas. A Smith or a Jones would be positively refreshing.”
Mr. Stubbs smiled. “I am always anxious to hear the name they have selected for themselves. It’s the part of the transaction I enjoy the most. I’ll just let her meet her new companions.”
He opened the door to the courtyard and set the white cat on the grass where she was shortly surrounded by a number of other cats of varying sizes and breeds and colorings, including the brown tabby Moncrief who had attempted to drive her off earlier. The other animals gave a cursory look but kept to themselves.
Maurice went into the front room and drew the shade up on the door. He turned and noticed the book lying opened on the floor. The spine had an archaic and fading print on it that said “Rules for Enlightened Traders”. He picked it up and turned it over and smoothed out the leaves that had been creased in its transport from shelf to ground.
The page he was attempting to uncrease was page 217, which had the following text:
THE CANON OF THREE LIES:
- Lie about Identity - CAT
- Lie about Provenance - DOG
- Lie about Quality - SHEEP
- Lie about Identity, Provenance, Quality - GOAT
- The first lie told, transformation takes hold
Those lines were followed by several paragraphs of densely packed print of an incomprehensible hodgepodge of mixed letters, symbols, hieroglyphs, accents and underlines. If one had remnant scraps and salvage of the literature of twenty ancient civilizations from every extant continent and some that no longer exist, and shook the mélange up in a tumbler and then spilled them onto a piece of paper, the result would resemble page 217 of Rules for Enlightened Traders. Maurice had studied with Mr. Stubbs for three years and he could now recognize and transcribe exactly two sentences from the directions for transformation.
Maurice sighed as he closed the book and replaced it to the shelf. “Ah, well Almanza, the life of a cat is not so bad. You’ll have a good home here, free from care. Your father turned out to be a goat. I wonder when you will recognize him.”
Copyright Valerie Kittell, All Rights Reserved
About the Creator
I live in a seaside New England village and am trying to become the writer I always wanted to be. I focus on writing short stories and personal essays and I hope you enjoy my efforts. Likes and tips are very encouraging.