The Christmas Chevalier
Meg Mardell © 2020
All Rights Reserved
“God?” her companion supplied innocently.
Laura glared up from where she stood doubled over, clutching the door frame with one gloved hand and pressing her side with the other.
“Gracious! Why…why must you take rooms level with…Big Ben?”
Alvy continued looking down at her with infuriating amusement.
“Ah, but the climb is one of the place’s chief charms. Come look at the view of the river. The embankment’s spoilt all its old charm of course, but we must have wide streets and electric lamps apparently.”
Laura’s heart continued to slam against her corseted ribs. She was not willing to praise the view. Or to move a step further.
“The stairs smell of…boiled cabbage and worse. While your place…what is the smell, Alvy? I would say it was tobacco, except I know your mother—”
“Would have an apoplectic fit if she so much as detected a particle of ash on my person? Very true. But then, that is the beauty of taking quarters in such a godforsaken corner of the town. Mother will never visit! I’m rather glad you were intrepid enough to brave Vauxhall. And the stairs.”
Laura had at last mastered her breathing and straightened to return fire on her tormentor.
“What, and miss a chance to see for myself your new, er, work premises? How spacious it is!”
She gestured around the large but scarcely furnished room. The tall sash windows admitted a great deal of midday winter light—and even more of the chill December air. There was no sign of a desk, or worktable, and the domestic furnishings only extended to a day-bed and a pair of battered armchairs before an open fire.
“You forget, Alvy, I am not such a fine lady that I need fear stares outside of fashionable London. The freedoms of being in the governess class are many and varied.”
Alvy flopped down into an armchair and stretched a slippered foot out from under the hem of a heavy silk dressing gown towards the cheerful blaze.
“Are they indeed? By Jove, I should love to know more about these rights and privileges.”
Laura wondered if she was being teased. But then she never could tell with her friend.
“Well, let’s see…There is the right to squash into an omnibus and end up directly next to a gentleman with a dripping hat.”
Alvy grinned at this start. Laura warmed to her task.
“The right to return your library books while enduring the scrutiny of some wire-spectacled gorgon.”
“Very right too! You look just the sort to eat buttered toast while reading borrowed books.”
“And, let us not forget, the preeminent privilege of politely bickering about the bill with other governesses at tea rooms.”
“Harpies the lot of them—yourself excepted. Lord, I’m so glad you’ve escaped those grubby children—”
“Child. And this one is an angel.” Too angelic, in fact. It made Laura worry about the girl’s inner life.
“Mr and Mrs Shepherdson have been nothing but kind!” Or they had been. Until the discovery of certain books and letters.
“And the atrociously dull company of Dingley Dell—”
“For the tenth time, Alvy, it is Findleys Ford.”
“Ah ha! So you at least admit they are dull. But all these country backwaters are the same. London’s the only place to live.”
“A point you are forever making in your letters. It is not like I hied off to Dingley—to Findleys Ford on an idle whim.”
“Well, well, the point is you’ve escaped for the holidays. And, as you see, I’ve escaped too.”
“That fact had not eluded me. Your mother claims you are never to be seen at Norland Square.”
Laura could not imagine ever wanting to leave the ever-so-comfortable surrounds of Alvy’s childhood home. She had dreamt of the sumptuous dinners, the hot baths, and the soft sheets turned down by a maid for weeks now as she lay on her narrow tick mattress under the eaves at the Shepherdsons.
“Your mother is under the impression you are starting some great enterprise that will give work to female printers who are refused employment elsewhere.”
“Ah, not quite. I said I was setting up a printing press—and set it up I have.”
Alvy gestured with a long-fingered hand to a space behind the still-gaping door.
Laura swung the door shut. A great black iron contraption with decorative gold paintwork dominated the otherwise empty space.
“Oh, you have an Albion Press!”
“An Albion? I could have sworn the past owner called it an albatross.”
“Very funny. But the gold finial—that gold crown on top—is unmistakable. How on earth did you get it up here?”
“The men got it up here with a great deal of sweat and swearing. I got it up with bribery. They threatened to quit halfway up the stairs.”
“I am only surprised they did not bring down the whole staircase. But the press looks excellently preserved.”
“And it will remain in exactly the same condition.”
“Do you mean it is truly only for show? That is a rather rotten trick to play your mother.”
“Trick? I have done Mother a great service. She doesn’t know what to do with me. She has finally despaired of my marrying now that I am striding across the wasteland of my thirties.”
“I do not remember her ever being very pressing on the issue.”
“I have given myself some employment. Now she will have something to tell her society ladies at those dreadful committee meetings.”
“That you have dedicated yourself to good works—without the work part?”
Alvy blithely ignored Laura’s sarcasm.
“She will omit the part about Vauxhall, naturally.”
“While you will omit everything else?”
Something in Alvy’s dark eyes suddenly made Laura wish to change her tart tone.
With no doormat or boot-scraper in sight, she had no choice but to track the sludgy London streets into the room. Not that there was a scrap of carpet to dirty. Seating herself in a heap of mud-striped travelling skirts on the lone ottoman, Laura studied her friend.
Alvy’s appearance, especially after a long separation, always rekindled a flicker of Laura’s original awe. She knew that the gaze she held was properly described as brown. It was just the pale skin turning bluish under the eyes that made them look so intensely dark. Likewise, the greying walls and bare floorboards of these new quarters probably made Alvy’s costume of rich browns and blues so transparently costly. Alvy preserved a long-limbed grace even when reclining in a splendid heap in the battered chair.
Laura once assumed that the possessor of such a regal appearance would snub a nobody like her. She had since learnt the error of judging by appearances. She now took up one of those elegantly white hands, trying to ignore how dirty her sensible gloves looked in comparison.
“Tell me really what you mean to do. Come. We have known each other since we were practically children.”
The elegant hand was withdrawn. Alvy sat higher in the chair and broke into a fair imitation of a Scotsman.
“Speak for yourself, lassie. I was a full three and twenty when we met at that bonny brook in Switzerland. Or have ye forgot that day?”
Laura definitely remembered the questioning curve of Alvy’s left eyebrow as they passed each other on the trail; she was looking at it again now. Laura had been nineteen and on her first assignment with a family wintering at Luzern.
“How could I forget? You were wearing the most memorable alpine hat and matching coat. More feathers and frogging I had never seen. And yet, infuriatingly, you wore it all with such ease. Why, you still do!”
Alvy looked confused. “I promise that I don’t strut down the streets of London in alpine dress.”
“I mean that you are able to look well in anything. Take this turban contraption. No one else could wear it without looking foolish. Well, except perhaps a Shakespearean tragedian.”
Alvy gingerly felt the turban in question, silk without a doubt, but burst into laughter upon Laura’s final admission.
“The thing you never do seem to realise, Miss Jacobs, is that all clothes are costumes. All equally ridiculous.”
“Yours are not ridiculous! Eccentric perhaps. But becoming. You always do upholster yourself exquisitely. Which is more than I can say for your rooms.”