Read Shanghai Sparrow Online

Authors: Gaie Sebold

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Steampunk

Shanghai Sparrow (9 page)

Holmforth opened his eyes. “There’s no need to look so anxious. I would hardly bring you all this way if I intended murder.”

The coach crunched to a halt in a spatter of gravel. “One thing,” Holmforth said. “I wouldn’t advise trying to run. There are dogs that patrol the grounds, and they are exceptionally temperamental.”

He opened the door for her and handed her out, courteous again. She noticed a faint tracery of scar-tissue on both palms, a row of pallid overlapping crescents like the bite marks of some furious ghost.

Eveline drew in a great gulp of spring-scented air. Her heart tugged in her chest, and despite herself she could not help looking out over the grass to where the shapes of trees clustered against the last faint light of the sky. They were properly out in the country, all right. She pulled her gaze away and stood blinking at the vast building in front of her.

It bulked against the night sky, its roofline bristling with chimneys. A dozen faint slivers of light indicated the presence of firmly curtained windows; black bars crossed them, as though trying to prevent even that much light from escaping. A door big enough for a church, bound and riveted with iron, stood like a muscular sentry in a stone porch, faintly illuminated by a gas lamp in a wrought-iron cage.

It didn’t look much like the village school Eveline remembered; one room, a thatched roof, and a privy out the back. Not that she’d gone herself, of course. Only the boys got schooled. She’d sneaked up to peer in the windows and listen, but the endless lists of Kings and Queens and the chanting of times tables had bored her. Her mother had been teaching her to read and write and reckon, in the cluttered, chiming, whirring room that served her as a study. Her father had occasionally, absentmindedly passed on such scraps of history or biology as he himself found entertaining.

The building bore down on her, with its walls and bars and frowning ironwork, trying to make her small and helpless and afraid. She lifted her chin and glared at it. After what she’d been through, no mere heap of bricks was going to make Eveline Duchen feel like that.

The door opened and a figure stood outlined against light. Tall, straight, female, hair drawn close to the skull; that was all that could be made of it.

“Mr Holmforth,” it said.

“Miss Cairngrim.” Keeping his hand firmly on her shoulder, Holmforth steered Eveline towards the door. “This is Eveline.”

Close to, Eveline could see that Miss Cairngrim had a high-browed, handsome face, darkly drawn brows, greying hair, and an expression of chilly reserve, which changed not at all as she looked Eveline up and down. She had a strange, harsh, throat-catching scent that added to Eveline’s unease, making her feel suddenly weak and tearful.

You’re hungry and tired, Eveline Duchen. Perk up and keep lively or you’ll get in trouble.

More trouble.

“I see,” Miss Cairngrim said. “You had better come in.”

Eveline marched up the steps and through the door, holding her chin high.

The hall was high-ceilinged and chilly, the floor laid with a complex pattern of black and white marble. A large, plain lamp hung from the ceiling. A small dark table with a mirror in a gilded frame, spindly gilded legs and a single shallow drawer stood against one wall, bearing a brass plate on which a lone letter sat forlorn. Eveline gave the table a professional once-over; the drawer might be worth a look, the brass plate would fetch a few bob, but the table itself was cheap, the gilding already flaking from the legs. That aside, the hall contained nothing but closed, white-painted panelled doors and a faint scent of cabbage and gravy.

Miss Cairngrim’s dress was grey wool, with a narrow skirt and a small bustle that hardly seemed to move as she walked. Eveline followed the bustle down the hall.

Miss Cairngrim opened a door to reveal a small parlour. It was just as chilly as the hall – the fire lay unlit in the grate. Three green-upholstered chairs stood at bay around a circular table shrouded in yellowed lace, and a faded red sofa huddled in one corner. A lamp with a yellow silk shade missing two tassels stood on a battered escritoire. The mantel bore chipped figurines of a shepherd and shepherdess, in the sort of flounced, beribboned costumes that always made Eveline give a silent snort. Anyone who thought you went herding sheep guyed up like that had never hauled one of the stupid beasts out of a bramble patch – or helped with a lambing.

Neither figurine had been worth a lot, even before whatever rough handling had robbed the shepherd of some of his fingers and the shepherdess of her elegantly pointing toe. Between them, leering, was a Toby jug of immense and grinning ugliness, stuck full of pens and slate pencils. Eveline took to him immediately – he was worth even less money than the chipped shepherd and shepherdess, but was by far the most cheerful thing in the room.

“So, Mr Holmforth, what have you brought me?” Miss Cairngrim said, turning up the lamp and examining Eveline as though she were a dusty mantelpiece.

“Eveline Duchen. A thief,” Mr Holmforth said. “A child of the streets, of little education, uncertain temperament, deceptive nature, and excessive pride.”

Eveline, who had been called worse, though seldom in such fancy language, simply sighed. She was weary, hungry, and despite her resolution on the doorstep, more than a little unnerved. It was all very strange. And where was everyone? Going from the lights she had seen, and the sheer size of the place, there must be other people in it, but she couldn’t hear a sound. It was all reminding her rather too much of arriving at Uncle James’s.
Shoes,
she told herself.
Shoes and clothes and a pension.

“I see,” said Miss Cairngrim, apparently unmoved by Holmforth’s litany. “And this is the girl you believe is suitable for training?”

“Whether she is or not, I require it,” Holmforth said, his voice cold as a knife blade. Eveline saw the muscle in Miss Cairngrim’s jaw twitch. “Her education is to concentrate on those areas in which I instructed you. Otherwise, she is to receive the same as the other girls. She has received the basics and not much more, but she appears reasonably intelligent. She may have a facility for languages; I have heard her speaking French.”

He
must
have been the man she saw on the docks – or perhaps he had overheard her chatting with her friend Bon-Bon.

“I believe she can read,” Holmforth went on.

“Come here, child.” Miss Cairngrim beckoned her forward.

Eveline obeyed. She tried to hold her chin up, although her stomach was churning and her knees felt as though they had been replaced with some sort of shuddering liquid.

Miss Cairngrim walked around her, looking her up and down. She came back to the front, and took Eveline’s chin in her hand. “Hmm. Open your mouth.” She peeled Eveline’s lips back from her teeth, exactly as though she had been a horse, then let go and stood back, the elbow of her right arm propped in her left palm, tapping at her own lip with a forefinger. “Lift up your skirt.”

“I don’t think so,” Eveline said.

The slap landed before Eveline knew it was coming. “Shit!” She put a hand to her stinging cheek, and eyed the door; she didn’t quite manage to duck the next slap. The calm, considering expression on Miss Cairngrim’s face never changed.

“Understand this, Eveline Duchen. If you are to stay here, you will not use such disgusting language. You will obey instantly whenever I or any of your instructors ask something of you, whether it is to lift your skirt, do a headstand, or wash your mouth out with lye. If you do not, you will be punished. Every time you transgress, the punishment will be more severe. Do you understand?”

Eveline glanced towards Holmforth, who was watching calmly, as though this were all in a day’s work. Which it probably was.

She bit her lip. Even if she could make it out of here, she was a long way from home, and there were the dogs. She’d been far from home in unsafe places before, and survived it, but it wasn’t an experience she had any desire to repeat without more information and some food in her belly.

The door was locked – she’d heard the click. The windows were barred. Tomorrow, she would be less tired, and with luck they’d feed her.

And if they thought she was beaten, and obedient, then all the better.

“All right,” she said. “I’m sorry for the language, miss.” She dropped a little curtsey. “Only it was a shock. I can learn better.”

Miss Cairngrim’s expression did not change. “Skirt.”

Eveline lifted the hem of her skirt to her knees, glancing at Miss Cairngrim.

“Higher... Enough. Good, you’re not bandy. You may lower your skirt.” She turned to Holmforth. “Unusually modest, for a street child. Normally one has to persuade them to keep their skirts
down.

“I would hardly have thought that was a problem here,” Holmforth said.

“You would be surprised, Mr Holmforth. How old are you, Eveline?”

“I’m not sure. About fifteen or thereabouts.”

“Mr Holmforth seems to think you have had some schooling. Add six and five.”

“Eleven.”

“Multiply three by seven.”

“Twenty-one.”

“Divide thirty by four.”

“Umm... seven and a bit.”

Miss Cairngrim took a slate from the mantelpiece and a piece of chalk from the Toby jug. “Write your name on this slate.”

Eveline did so, glad Ma had needed the occasional letter sent.

“Now form your letters.”

Painstakingly, she traced out
A, B, C....

Miss Cairngrim took the slate, glanced at it, and wiped it clean.

“Miss Cairngrim?”

“What is it?”

“I need...” It had been a long coach ride, and she was getting desperate, but Eveline didn’t want to get slapped again for being vulgar.

“You need what?” Miss Cairngrim gave her a high-nosed glare.

Eveline shuffled backwards a step and reached for the most respectable expression she knew. “I need to make water.”

This time she avoided the slap. Seeing the sudden blank fury on the woman’s face, she thought,
Stupid, Eveline. She’ll make you pay for that.
Next time, she wouldn’t duck.

“You do not mention such things,” Miss Cairngrim said, “
especially
in the presence of a gentleman. There is a time and a place and you will be informed of these when it is appropriate. Learn to control yourself, Duchen. It is obviously something of which you are sadly in need. Now, Mr Holmforth appears to think you can speak some French. Show me.”

Eveline gritted her teeth, clenched her muscles, and held on.

French was bad, as most of the words she knew either came from Bon-Bon, a dancer and occasional whore, or had been picked up around the docks, and were pretty sure to provoke another slap. Even trying to avoid the bad ones, she got slapped again. She had only known the word was French, and thought it was something to do with food. She vowed privately to find out its real meaning as soon as possible.

Holmforth hadn’t mentioned Cantonese. Did that mean he didn’t know about Liu, or that he wanted her to think he didn’t? At the thought of Liu, waving in the sunlight, she felt suddenly very low. Would she ever see him again, or Ginny, or Saffie? She even missed Ma, who might give you the odd slap herself, but would also give a word of praise and even ruffle your hair if she felt inclined. Eveline suspected that wasn’t likely with this chilly, dangerous bitch. She tried to blink the brief blur of tears away before they could be spotted.

“I think that’s enough,” Mr Holmforth said. “The child’s near collapsing with fatigue, and I must return to London tonight.”

Eveline glanced at him. Had he noticed her trying not to blub? It was hard to tell, he was looking at his watch, not at her. A fine piece it was, too.

“The language teacher I arranged for her, has he arrived yet?”

“Yes.”

“Good. And she is to have at least two hours a day working with the materials I have brought with me. There is no teacher for this subject, so she will have to do the best she can.”

Eveline felt that chill again. He had been preparing for this, maybe for months. What was the subject he wanted her to learn? What was going on?

“Without supervision, she will play about and waste time. She will have to work in the barn, under Mr Jackson,” Miss Cairngrim said. “I still do not think it is suitable, however.”

“Whether or not it is suitable is not your concern, Miss Cairngrim.”

“I do not encourage favouritism, or singling out, Mr Holmforth. These girls need discipline, and to be reminded of their place and what they owe to the Empire. Also, the rest are not street children. Making an exception in this way, especially of a girl like this, will give entirely the wrong impression.”

“Miss Cairngrim.” Holmforth looked, not at Miss Cairngrim, but at the head of his cane, silver, with a coat of arms. (Eveline had already priced it for what it would fetch from Davey Slype, Ma’s favourite fence). “Your work here is valued, of course. But do not presume upon your position.”

Miss Cairngrim pressed the bell-push set into the wall.

A moment later the door opened, to reveal a tall, skinny girl with a prominent nose and big hands, dressed in brown with a brown apron. “Yes, Miss Cairngrim?”

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