(Slightly revised, still not copy-edited)
April White Books
Chapter 2 - The Langham Lunch
The remarkable thing about the Langham lunch was that I’d read about it in the library at Elian Manor, the country house of my very dear friends who didn’t actually live in this century. I had not realized the significance of the date or the location when Wilde introduced me to the first gentleman, a Mr. Joseph Stoddart from America. But the next gentleman’s name was known to me, and an instant connection was made to the history book I’d read in my previous life, or – I supposed that if one insisted on a literal interpretation of time – that I would read in more than a hundred years. I shook the man’s hand with equal amounts of interest and alarm.
“Mr. Conan Doyle. It is a pleasure to meet you, sir.” I attempted to keep the awe down to a mild case of wonder at finding myself in the company of the famed playwright, Wilde, the publisher of Lippencotts Magazine, Stoddart, and the author of the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, but I was sure I failed quite dismally. For his part, Wilde seemed privately amused at my discomfiture.
“Tell us, Mr. Devereux, about your encounter with this feculent bit of London underworld,” Wilde said, after a start at the name with which I had introduced myself. We’d been seated at a table in a quiet corner of the restaurant, and a carefully expressionless waiter came to take our order.
I smiled ruefully. “It is, sadly, a brief and miserable tale of a young man who knows much better than to walk with an armful of books, thereby leaving my pockets free to be explored by the first stealthy fingers he attracts.”
“But why does an armful of books matter?” asked Stoddart. Had I been a betting man, I would have made thousands on the bet he’d be the target of every pickpocket and thief in London if he stayed for a week.
“When one’s arms are occupied by heavy things, one is often more worried about keeping the load balanced than by what may be happening in one’s pockets. This thief was far more light-footed than most. Not a surprise, really, this being the end of the summer after all. She sleeps close by however, so I feel certain I’ll see her again, now that I know for whom to look.”
“What does the end of summer have to do with the price of tea in China, and how on earth do you know where she sleeps?” Conan Doyle laughed incredulously.
I shrugged. “The vast majority of child thieves in this city are poor. The workhouses give out shoes just as winter sets in, but children are still growing, and by the spring, they’ve outgrown whatever shreds of footwear they had left. Very few barefoot pickpockets can sneak up on a person at the beginning of summer, when their feet are still soft, and the sharp stones make an uneven gait audible to any man. But by the end of summer their callouses are firmly in place, and a quiet, even footfall can go unnoticed by all but the most careful listeners.”
Conan Doyle and Stoddart stared at me, while Wilde’s expression was practically gleeful.
“I had no idea!” Conan Doyle exclaimed, unsurprisingly. Most people didn’t think about a destitute child’s feet during the winter, and if they did, it was generally only to shake their head and cluck at the dirty bare feet.
“And where this thief lives? How did you determine that?” Wilde asked.
“It is a hot day, as you will have noticed. The St. Marylebone Workhouse is close enough to Regent’s Park, where I was accosted, that it is conceivable for the child to live, or at least eat there. They have a new women’s wing, apparently with a bathing room and hot running water. This girl had bathed recently enough that she’s collected no rank odors in her wanderings, and her shirt was threadbare from frequent washings rather than mere age. It was also unfashionable enough, and of sufficient quality to indicate that it had been donated, as those whose wealth comes with a dash of guilty conscience do to workhouses, rather than stolen from a wash line. Furthermore, had she traveled much farther to Regent’s, she would carry the scent of her neighborhood with her – the poorest ones always have the distinctive scents of cooking, smoke, and sewage – and would not have been so fresh as to have sprinted all the way here before I caught up to her.”
Stoddart wrinkled his nose. “St. Marylebone Workhouse has a stench that is unmistakable.”
“That is because you are staying in Pimlico, sir. The neighborhood where one resides becomes invisible to the senses after a time, one more reason I assume she stays in Marylebone, which is where I reside. Unfamiliar neighborhoods are like new perfumes and must be gotten used to.”
Conan Doyle leaned forward in disbelief. “My good man, you cannot possibly know that Stoddart is staying in Pimlico. I, myself, found the lodging for him just days ago, and he was ill in bed until only yesterday.”
“The Grosvenor Pub has an excellent chicken soup, does it not, Mr. Stoddart? I assume that’s where you went once you were able to keep the food down.”
Stoddart’s hands gripped the table and he made to rise from his seat. “Have you been following me, sir?” He demanded.
“Sit down, Joseph,” Wilde said mildly.
“Explain yourself, Mr. Devereux,” Stoddart was fuming. I forgave him his pique as the product of fear, and I attempted to dispel the mystery so as to relieve him of it.
“It’s very simple, Mr. Stoddart. Peeking out of the inside pocket of your jacket is your horse tram ticket. Between that and the small smudge of horse dung on your shoe, it was clearly your mode of transportation to this meeting. The fact of your public transportation would indicate a rental room rather than a man staying with friends. As to location, the horse trams are run primarily along a north-south route through London, a route that includes Vauxhall and Pimlico. There are several guesthouses with rooms to let near the wharves at Pimlico, and because those wharves are the landing place for much of the shipping traffic from America, and because you’d been ill for much of your time aboard your ship, it seems logical to assume that you had taken rooms near the wharf. I happen to know Grosvenor pub and have enjoyed the chicken soup there on several occasions when I’ve been unwell, and the small stain of broth on your sleeve would indicate that you, too, had dined recently on soup. The Grosvenor is just across from the wharf at Pimlico, ergo my assumption that you had likely eaten there.”
Stoddart’s anger seemed to have slipped out of the room with its tail between its legs, and his next question held a note of wonder. “And the fact that you believe I’ve been ill?”
I looked at him in all seriousness. “Mr. Stoddart, trust me when I say you appear to be on the mend. However, your suit, well-cut and fashionable though it is, hangs loosely on you, and the lines of your cheekbones look as though they were carved in stone. You have neither slept well, nor seen the sun, which, having arrived as you did after an Atlantic crossing during high summer, leads me to surmise you spent much of the time below decks decidedly not sleeping. Your recent meal at the Grosvenor gave you a bit of energy – enough to make it to this luncheon – but in my humble opinion, you could do with a few more days of rest before you venture out to explore London.”
“And when I do, I believe I’d like to hire you as my guide,” Stoddart’s tone was laced with mild respect.
“I’d be happy to show you our city, sir. Just as soon as you’re up to it,” I said politely.
“I should like to join you on a tour led by Mr. Devereux,” said Conan Doyle. “Somehow I think it would be very different than one we might get from even the most seasoned Hackney driver.”
I shrugged. “One must know the right drivers.”
Wilde burst out in booming laughter of the variety that drew the gaze of most of the social elite who dined at the Langham Hotel that day. “Ringo, you have no idea how delighted I am to have run into you today. This is the sort of conversation that belongs on the stage, or perhaps in a story. Gentlemen, I do believe I might steal bits of our luncheon, and pieces of your souls to immortalize in words. Would you mind very much?”
Conan Doyle was still staring at me, as he’d been through most of our meal. “Ringo? That’s your given name.”
“It is the name I am called, yes.”
“An odd name. I’m very fond of odd names, especially in my mystery stories.”
I almost said that I knew, but fortunately swallowed the words before they could complicate things even further. Wilde arched an eyebrow at me in a way that suggested he’d like to have heard the words I didn’t utter, but I gave him a politely charming smile and changed the subject.
After our excellent luncheon, during which much of the conversation revolved around the writings of both Wilde and Conan Doyle, and reluctantly rose from the table. “Gentlemen, it has been a pleasure to have met and dined with you. It is time for me to retrieve my books from their hiding spot in Regent’s Park and go home.”
The other men stood and we shook hands all around, then Wilde walked with me part of the way toward the door. “I believe there are many more stories you could tell, my dear man. Perhaps you and your lady wife would allow me to call one day to hear them?”
“You know I am married?” I had met Oscar Wilde only once, in circumstances very different than the ones I found myself in now.
“I do now,” he said mischievously. “You have the look of a man well cared-for, and though I may wish differently, it is clearly a young woman who has lovingly trimmed your hair and chosen that very colorful cravat to liven up such a boringly fashionable coat.” He shook my hand with genuine warmth. “I should like to meet your Mrs. Devereux, and to hear the story of this name you did not carry when last we met.”