April White Books
Chapter 3 - Baker Street
My books were gone from behind the bench in Regent’s Park, but the small, dusty footprint I found on a stone a few steps away gave me a fair indication of who had taken them. I thought it unlikely that the street rat could read, so I assumed they’d been long-since sold to cover what I was sure she believed I owed her for removing Charlie’s coin purse from her possession.
I arrived home in a slightly annoyed, mostly resigned state of mind, still much too warm to be wearing all the gear a proper Englishman of this time had to wear in order to blend into the scenery. My biggest problem was that I didn’t believe I was a proper Englishman, and therefore, everything chafed – the tight coats, tight trousers, silk cravats, top hats, stiff leather shoes, social status, etiquette, accents, expectations, and most profoundly, rules.
I slipped in through the mews to the back of the house that had been built at number 14 Cornwall Terrace. It was on land that my mother-in-law, Valerie Grayson, had been gifted by Queen Mary Tudor. It was Crown land, originally part of the Upper Baker Street tract, the boundaries of which had been moved in 1811 when the Prince Regent commissioned architect John Nash to produce a master plan for the area.
For one who didn’t know Charlie’s and my history, the dates of various events in our lives would seem impossible. I’d been born in approximately 1870, though I wasn’t exactly sure of either the date or the year, and Charlie was a year younger than I. She, however, had been adopted by Valerie, who was from the sixteenth century, and spent several months 1554 while my own adventures included travel from the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries with our friend Saira. Although we’d each found dear friends in other times, when we married, Charlie and I decided to return “home” to our own time. The complexity of our background meant I was not quite so excited at the prospect of a visit by Oscar Wilde. He was far too intelligent a man to be satisfied with the usual explanation that Charlie had been left the house by a wealthy grandmother who had lived and died far removed from London. Although Wilde had his own gifts that would allow him to understand the basics of our time traveling past, they just weren’t stories that I shared. Consequences of such stories had the potential to result in a nice little visit to Bedlam, or, for the particularly unlucky, a complete split in time.
Charlie found me in the bedroom as I was changing into my preferred around-the-house-wear of denim jeans and a soft cotton t-shirt. The housekeeper, Mrs. Mac, was the only other person who had ever seen the twenty-first century clothes I’d been loath to part with, and she already thought we were mad not to employ a whole household staff to cook and clean and wait on us as though we were useless lumps of flesh with no survival skills of our own. One strange outfit more or less wasn’t going to change her opinion of our relative sanity.
My wife came up behind me, not trying to be stealthy in the slightest. “There’s a big pot of Cullen skink bubbling away on the stove if you’re hungry. Mrs. Mac bought five pounds of smoked haddock from the fishmonger because she said his son was too thin.” Charlie slipped her arms around my waist. “Hmm, but you smell of lobster bisque and fresh bread.”
I turned around to hold her. She came up just under my chin and her hair smelled like lilacs. Having her in my arms was the only thing that allowed the day to seep from me – this day, any day – none of them mattered when I held my wife.
“I had lunch with Oscar Wilde,” I murmured into her hair.
She pulled back to stare at me. Everything about Charlie’s face was delicate and perfectly in proportion to her tiny loveliness – except her eyes. They were strong and knowing and held more life than most people ever lived. They were so blue they were almost purple, and her surprise showed in them with nearly audible questions. “Tell me,” she said as she drew me to the window seat and curled up on the bench across from me. It was our favorite place to sit and watch small children run in the park while their governesses gossiped on the benches.
I held her hands in mine and played with my ring on her finger while I told her the details of my day. She listened patiently, asking questions about the girl’s appearance and details of where we’d run. She stifled giggles when I recounted the conversation at lunch, and looked thoughtful at the notion that Wilde would call on us. And when I was finally silent, she let the air settle quietly around us for a long moment before she spoke.
“You should tell him,” she said finally.
She meant Wilde.
“I suppose I could. He’s a Seer, or at least comes from a Seer family. I’m not sure how skilled he is, but I’m fairly certain he understands about Time and time travel,” I said. My first meeting with Oscar Wilde had been accidental and felt like a lifetime ago. I had taken my friends Saira, the time traveler, and Tom, who also had a bit of that skill, to St. Etheldreda’s church to listen to whatever writer or artist was speaking. Neither of them was native to the Victorian era, and Saira had been the first to recognize Wilde’s words because she had studied them in school. We had left that church just before dawn after a long night spent in conversation with the writer and the priest, richer in wisdom and friendship than when we’d arrived.
For Oscar Wilde, barely a year had passed since that night. For Charlie and me, the world and all its rules as we knew them had completely changed.
Charlie stroked one hand down my arm to return my attention to her. “You have no friends here, Ringo.” Her voice was quiet, but the words struck my solar plexus quite uncomfortably.
“I have you; friend, lover, wife. It’s more than I could ever have imagined.”
“But you deserve a bigger life than this, Ringo. We keep to this house and the university, we have far more means than we need or necessarily know what to do with, and we have only ourselves to inspire us to something more.”
She wasn’t wrong, though it felt a bit like failure to admit it out loud. “It does feel rather centripetal in here.”
Charlie tilted her head in a way that reminded me of a clever sparrow. “It’s Latin, but what does it mean?”
“Centri – the center, petere – to seek. You, my lovely wife, are the center of the universe to which I will always naturally gravitate. What I have failed to do is find those things from which to gravitate toward you. I imagine I’ve become dreadfully boring.”
Charlie’s laughter sounded as though a merry band of fairies had just danced through the room, and I would readily admit that my heart beat faster in response.
“You could never be boring. When they, whoever they usually are, wrote the definition of boring, they took one look at you and said boring is decidedly not that man. You do, however, need someone more than me to talk to so that we remember never to take each other for granted.”
“Talking to others is risky for people with such secrets about the past, and even more dangerously, the future, as we have,” I said with more seriousness in my voice than I intended.
“Secrets become exhausting when there is no one with whom to lighten their load.” Charlie seemed sad when she said it, and I sensed her sadness was for me.
“I have no secrets from you. For now, it is enough,” I said as I cupped her cheek in my hand.
Something moved in my peripheral vision, and I looked out the window down to the park below. The late afternoon shadows were long, and the small children had all gone inside for early suppers before bedtime. A rabbit darted from a small copse of trees and across the wide lawn. Something had sent the rabbit running from that copse.
The short hair at the back of my neck prickled with the instinct of one who used to be the watcher. Someone was out there, watching … us.
We hadn’t yet lit any candles, and I slid off the window seat and gestured for Charlie to back out of sight. She did so immediately, and I appreciated the trust she had in me.
“I feel watched,” I murmured to her as though whoever was outside could also hear me.
Charlie stood at the side of the window and looked around the park landscape as far as she could see. “It’s very still out there – no dogs or children to have gotten your attention.”
“I’m going out while it’s still light,” I said.
She looked me up and down. “Not like that, you’re not. Not unless you want to be arrested for vagrancy and locked up at St. Marylebone’s.”
I sighed and quickly stripped out of my beloved twenty-first century clothes. They were becoming a bit threadbare with washings, but the denim was the approximate texture of silk. I would give them up when they fell apart, but not a minute sooner.
“My thief is probably getting meals at St. Marylebone,” I said as I tugged on my proper British trousers and tucked in the long tails of my proper British shirt.
“Then I will go tomorrow and see what they need. Shoes for the children, you said?”
I kissed Charlie quickly, both hands holding her face. “Thank you for finding me in this world. I didn’t know how very much I needed you.”
She smiled and hugged me tightly, and something in my expression made her laugh. “You look just like a little boy coming down the stairs in anticipation of presents under the tree,” she continued.
I blew her a kiss. “I wouldn’t know what that’s like; I didn’t have Christmas when I was a little boy. Maybe I’ll get to see it on another small face someday.” We were in the upper hall and I leapt over the bannister to hit the landing halfway down, then slid the rest of the way on the handrail. I did this at least once a week to contribute to my share of the housework. Clean bannisters for a happy home, and all that.
I used the mews as my entrance and exit to our house almost exclusively. I doubted any of our neighbors would know me for the man of the house if they saw me in my own study. My ingrained instincts for camouflage preferred the relative anonymity, and so far I hadn’t needed the protection of status. I hoped to keep it that way.
I wasn’t fastidious by nature, but I had a habit of keeping hinges and locks oiled and in good repair. Our doors actually had modern locks hidden behind the skeleton key openings, and we had become very good at masking the appropriate key as we used it so as not to raise suspicion at its strange appearance. Modern lock picks like I had could do the job on the tumblers, but nineteenth-century ones had no chance. So far, no one had put them to the test, for which I was grateful.
The heat was still stifling, despite the sun’s recent departure beneath the horizon. It was a time of evening I loved because the light was at its most interesting. This evening, however, the shadows were fickle in their loyalty, and I crept along the side of the house aware that whatever hid me could easily hide another.
It was nearly nine o’clock, and the street was deserted. We didn’t tend to get a lot of drunks or vagrants wandering Regent’s Park at night – it was too far removed from London proper and too close to a very large workhouse with hot meals and hundreds of beds. Any movement in the park would either be animal or suspect, which was the primary reason I was dressed like a gentleman, despite the damnable whiteness of the shirt.
There was a copse of trees across from the ones in which I’d seen movement, and I slid around the outside of the walled garden to blend into the sturdy trunks as well as one might in the circumstances. It had been easier to blend when I’d been a practicing urchin, with dirt and general grime providing much better cover than starched white shirts ever would.
Some instinct made me look up into the tree above me, and I was startled to see a grimy little elfin face staring down at me from a height of about fifteen feet.
“Right. You.” I grumbled the words even as the sight of my thief actually filled me with relief.
She squeaked as I started to climb, and leapt to a branch on the nearest tree. I expected the move, and swung over to a lower branch on the same tree to continue my climb. The little rat didn’t like that one bit, and her next jump was almost to the edge of her ability. I bit back a concerned noise as she just barely caught the branch, and I let her get down to the ground before I jumped down to follow.
She took off into the park, which is what I’d hoped she would do. There were no patrols in Regent’s Park until well after midnight, so for my purposes, it was as close to a playground as I’d ever had. In my restlessness since Charlie and I had chosen to come back London in this time, I had gone for nightly runs through the park at whatever speed made my heart pump fastest.
The thief darted across the river on the footpath near the receiving house, then cut through the trees toward the South Villa. I would likely have stayed to the left where the trees were thickest, until I’d gotten to the Inner Circle road, but she was heading toward the open grounds of the South Villa, and I wondered what she had planned.
Ah, there it was – the wall. She scampered up and over the top of it, clearly anticipating that I wouldn’t follow. When I did, the shock on her face was visible even in the twilight, and she picked up speed and swerved around the handsome building that once housed George Bishop’s observatory in a dome on the roof.
The girl sprinted across the road and hurdled another wall. I followed right behind, mentally mapping the Royal Botanic Society’s gardens for places in which to trap my little rat. The meteorological instruments section would do nicely if I could manage to drive her that way, though at the moment she seemed inclined to veer toward the palmery.
It felt good to run with a purpose, unlike earlier in the day when I’d done so with grim determination. I would even admit to having added some unnecessary flips over barriers, and down from walls. The rat’s own determination blinded her to my showing off, but I was having too much fun to care.
The girl was small and reminded me a bit of Charlie when I’d first met her. My wife was the younger sister of Jack the Ripper’s last victim, the hidden and horrified witness to her sister’s murder. Perhaps it was the fate of the underfed that they all vaguely resembled the magic creatures of the woods, as this one certainly did, with black, short-cropped hair, the brown skin of a sailor’s get, and enormous eyes that had seen too much to ever look innocent.
Doubtless it was what I’d once looked like too, until good food and access to twenty-first century medicine in the last few years had allowed me to grow bigger than the poor sods with rotten teeth at twenty and tuberculosis by twenty-five.
I swung a little wider than I strictly needed to, and it had the desired effect of nudging the girl to the right, toward the part of the garden where the wall was smoother and hedges were thicker. She was getting tired, too – a function of not enough food that day, I’d guess.
“We’re having Cullen skink tonight if you’d like some,” I shouted, for no other reason than I was suddenly famished myself.
The thief stopped so suddenly I swerved so as not to run her over. She put both hands on her hips and glared at me with the ferocity of a Pict warrior. “What the bleedin’ ‘ell is Cullen skink?”
It was a struggle to keep a straight face.
“A potato and onion soup made from smoked haddock. Our housekeeper’s Scottish and she thinks we don’t eat enough,” I said.
The girl scoffed. “Ye’re a right barber’s cat, ye are.”
I shrugged. “Makes no difference to me if you come, but you’re invited.”
I turned and started back toward my house. I knew I had her attention by the arms that crossed her front, though. She might have been trying to look tough, but from where I stood, it looked as though she held her belly tight to keep it from rumbling.
She moved like a cat behind me, and I ignored her. I made a point to scramble up walls and flip off them, just because I knew I had an audience this time. It wasn’t until we reached the footbridge that she finally spoke again.
I had to run back through my words to realize she was responding to the invitation. I shrugged again and kept my tone utterly casual. “I got hungry. Figured you might be too. And Mrs. Mac made enough to feed an army as she always does.”
“It’s a trap,” she said glumly.
“Don’t steal anything else from me and you’re free to go.” I opened the side gate to the garden and pocketed the key.
“I could climb the wall, ye know.”
“Sure, but then my beasts might eat you,” I said, as two mutts of indeterminate parentage came bounding out of the house to greet me. Grif and Huff were street dogs Charlie had fed until they came inside the garden, and now they wouldn’t leave its walls unless we were with them. “Grif! Huff! Heel!” I commanded, using the voice to its full potential. The dogs came right to heel and I wondered if Charlie had been training them with extra treats. “Good beasts,” I said, ruffling their ears.
“What kind of names are those?” The girl asked in the voice I was coming to realize meant she was forcing herself into belligerence so she didn’t bolt.
“They’re the names of magical places, Griffyndor and Hufflepuff,” said Charlie from the servants’ entrance.
The girl nearly did bolt then, but she must have seen my face light up like a candle, which it always did when I saw my wife. “Hello, my love. We have a guest for dinner.”