Storm and Silence(6)By: Robert Thier
As if in answer to my hopeful attitude, the rows of dark houses parted before me and granted me a beautiful view of Green Park. In the warm glow of the sunrise, the small park looked like a fairy kingdom planted between the strict, orderly houses of middle-class London. A few birds were hopping on the grass, and the wind rippled the surface of a little pond surrounded by wildflowers. Through a clump of trees on the opposite side of the park, I could see the houses of St. James’s Street.
My Uncle Bufford had lived on St. James’s Street ever since I could remember, and we had lived with him and his wife ever since I could walk. We - that is my five sisters and I - had had to quit our family’s country estate years ago, after our mother and father died and the estate went to the next male heir of the line. If you believed the stories of my older siblings, who could still remember the place, it had been a veritable palace with hundreds of servants and doorknobs made of gold. I didn’t. Believe their stories, I mean. But I did somewhat resent the thing about this supposedly ‘rightful heir’ snatching away our family’s estate just because he was a dratted man!
Oh well, to tell the truth, I didn’t remember our childhood home in the country well, and I didn’t want to. I was a city girl, and the few trees and lawns of Green Park were as much country as I could deal with at any given time.
Squaring my shoulders, I made my way through the park, enjoying the songs of the birds in the trees and the fresh morning breeze. The country was a nice thing, as long as it was in the middle of town and you could reach a civilized place with shops, libraries and newspapers within five minutes or so.
Five minutes and thirty-seven seconds later, I had reached the wall that encircled our little garden, a rare thing in the city of London. Over the wall, I could see the plain, orderly brick house with its plain, orderly windows, plain, orderly curtains and plain, orderly smoke curling out the chimney in a discreet and economical manner. The flowerbeds around the house were well-kept, but strict and simple. Everything was rectangular and neat. There wasn’t a piece of decoration in sight. Sometimes, when I looked at this house I had been living in for years now, I thought it should have a sign over the door saying, ‘Fortress of the Bourgeoisie, centre of the realm of hard work and stinginess. Beware of the aunt. She bites!’
There was only one bright spot among all the neat tediousness: the window of a first floor room. It afforded a wonderful view over Green Park - which was why, when we had arrived at this house years ago, the room had been dusty and unused, and my uncle had never set foot in it. He had probably been afraid the annoyingly beautiful view might distract him, or worse, tempt him to actually take a walk and thus waste valuable time he otherwise could have spent working.
But that had been just fine with me. When we had arrived at my uncle’s, I had seen the dusty, deserted old room, fallen in love with it and taken possession before any of my sisters could complain. I had defended my conquest with my very life! Only Ella, my youngest sister, and of all of them the one I could stomach best, had been allowed to enter my dominion and make her abode there along with me.
Right now, the fact that my room looked out over the back garden came in handy in a way which had nothing whatsoever to do with the beautiful view. Hurrying across the street, I opened the little door in the garden wall with the key I had secretly ‘borrowed’ from my uncle, along with his clothes and passport. Inside, I quickly made my way to the garden shed. Taking out the rickety old ladder that had been in there since time immemorial, I carefully put it to the wall of the house and started climbing up to the window which I had taken care to leave unlatched. If I was lucky, I would get back into the house without anybody being the wiser.
Climbing up the ladder proved to be considerably more difficult than climbing down had been. My muscles were aching from the night in the cell, and there seemed to be several large lead weights tied to my behind, pulling me down. Or maybe it was just my behind that felt so heavy…
No! It was just generous, after all, not fat. Definitely not fat.
Sweat ran down my face in rivulets by the time I had reached the top of the ladder. I clung to the windowsill for a moment, making sure my aching legs would be up for the task, then I hoisted myself inside and landed rather inelegantly on the floor. Done! I was back home, and nobody had seen me sneak in. I remained kneeling on the floor for a moment longer to catch my breath, and then turned and got up - to find my sister Ella sitting just a few feet away on her bed, staring at me, her mouth agape in shock.
Oh, did I happen to mention she hadn’t known anything of my leaving yesterday?
Blast, blast, blast!
Who He Really Is
‘Where have you been?’ Ella demanded in a breathless voice, jumping up from the bed, where, judging from the dampness of her pillows, she had spent half the night crying in despair. ‘Oh Lilly, I’ve been so worried!’
She definitely looked worried. Her normally cream-coloured face had taken on the hue of a freshly whitewashed wall, except for her large almond eyes, which were shining with suppressed anguish. With both hands, she held a handkerchief to her mouth as if to stifle a scream that was on the tip of her tongue. Glittering tears decorated her face like diamonds. I had to hand it to her: she looked like a perfect damsel in distress. And it hadn’t even been she who had spent the night in prison. How did she do it?
‘What has happened to you, Lilly? Were you abducted? Who were you with? Where were you? And… Why are you wearing Uncle Bufford’s old striped trousers?’ At the last question, she actually stopped crying. Apparently, my wearing striped trousers had a calming effect on her. I should try to do it more often.
‘Don’t worry,’ I told her, patting her on the head. ‘I’m perfectly fine.’
‘Yes, but where were you?’ she repeated the question with more force.
I shrugged. ‘Out.’
‘Somewhere in town.’
‘You’ve been gone the whole night!’
‘Have I?’ I tried to sound surprised. It didn’t sound very convincing, unfortunately. ‘My, my, how time flies.’
‘Why are you wearing Uncle Bufford’s trousers?’ she asked again. Apparently, this point was of extraordinary significance to her.
‘Well, I…’ Desperately I wracked my brain for some legitimate reason why a girl should be wandering through London dressed in trousers.
Instinctively, my eyes slid up and down Ella’s figure. She was dressed in what was considered normal and decent for a young lady to wear: a pale cotton gown with wide, puffed sleeves and lace trimmings, and, of course, the crinoline, a structure for supporting enormous hoop skirts that was made out of the bones of whales. The poor sea creatures had to suffer to give the rear end of every lady within the British Empire preposterous dimensions. This was what was considered ‘normal’.
Taking this into consideration, was there a legitimate reason why a woman would want to wear trousers?
Well, maybe because she actually had some brains…
‘Why don’t you answer, Lilly? What is the matter?’
But no, that wouldn’t work as an argument with Ella. I bit my lip, trying desperately to think of something to say.
‘Please,’ she pleaded, clasping her hands together like a little child. ‘Please tell me where you were!’
Darn it! How could I resist her? But I simply couldn’t tell her what had really happened.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I didn’t trust her. I loved her. I would have trusted her with my deepest, darkest secrets - if she hadn’t been afraid of the dark, that is. If I told her that I went out, dressed in men’s clothes, to illegally vote at a parliamentary election, was offered a job as a secretary, got caught by the police, then got thrown into jail and spent the night next door to three famous murderers, she would have nightmares for the next three years.
‘I… I wanted to go out last night to visit Patsy,’ I fibbed. ‘And you know… it was so late, and the streets were so dark… I was afraid something might happen to me, a lone girl, in the dangerous city.’ I affected a quite convincing shudder. ‘And I had read in some book - I don't remember the title right now - of girls dressing up as men when they did not want to be harassed, so I thought why not do the same, and so I did. But then it was so terrible out in the dark streets, and Patsy said I could stay the night if I didn’t want to return in the dark. I was afraid, so I stayed. Sorry for worrying you.’
I waited for the admonishment. No doubt even my sweet, unsuspecting sister would see through this feeble lie. When in the world had I ever been afraid of anything, let alone something as ridiculous as the dark? Rather than dressing in my uncle’s clothes to avoid trouble, I would have taken my uncle’s cane to deal with trouble if it chose to appear. What would I say next if Ella didn’t believe me?
‘Oh, my poor, poor Lilly.’ Ella rushed towards me. The next thing I knew she was hugging me tightly, though slightly awkwardly because of her enormous hoop skirt getting in the way. ‘That must have been so terrible! You must have been really frightened.’
‘Err… yes,’ I mumbled. ‘I was, I was really.’ Dear Lord, she had actually swallowed it!