There is a website where a picture, painting or photograph would be posted, with the challenge to take inspiration from it for a piece of creative writing — a poem, vignette, essay, whatever. Unfortunately, the lady who ran this lovely website decided to put it on the back burner several years ago. Because I had participated now and again, I continued to issue these “mag challenges” to myself when the mood took me. It occurs to me I have not set myself a “mag challenge” in a while. There’s only one other mag challeng post on this blog, but there are quite a number of them here. If you will go to the bottom of the right sidebar to “Categories” and select the category “Mag Challenge,” you can find the ones there.
She wasn’t Cockney, she was Irish, so that was wrong, but she did have the large black umbrella with the ivory handle carved into a macaw’s head, which had come down to her from her grandmamá. (It was mastodon ivory and her grandmamá and great grandmamá had eaten off its former owner for a month, but that was neither here nor there.) She had simply shown up shortly after the coroner’s wagon had left and announced herself to Constable Harker, who was under the impression headquarters had sent her — and not a moment too soon, if you asked him. The lady’s maid was practically hysterical and the cook and parlor maid were not in much better shape. As for the poor child, all she did was sit there wide-eyed and silent. Shock, of course. The constable conveyed the woman straightaway to Chief Inspecter Philbeam.
“Sir, they’ve sent a matron to take charge of the little girl.”
“About time,” The chief inspector replied gruffly. He hated these domestic cases, especially when there were children involved. He glanced at her, then took a second look.
In the cold, unblinking light of early morning, she was a woman drawn in pen and ink, with ink-black eyes and raven’s wing brows stroked onto paper white skin, ink black hair pulled severely back over her white shell ears and completely restrained in a tight bun at the nape of her neck. She wore a black felt hat with a narrow brim and a black grosgrain ribbon for a hat band, secured to her head with a jet beaded hatpin. Indeed, the only bit of color about her was her woolen coat of graphite grey, which she wore buttoned up to her chin. The hem of it brushed the top of her black leather, lace-up boots. She was holding the bottomless carpet bag in one black-gloved hand, so that bit was right as well. In reality, she was of average height for a woman, but she carried herself like a queen and seemed half a head taller than she actually was by virtue of it. Philbeam’s critical eye searched her carefully but could detect no nonsense about her, and that was a great relief.
“Maire Popkin,” she said, and though she had pronounced it ‘Moya,’ she added, “That’s M-a-i-r-e, if you please,” to make it quite plain. Oh, and she had ‘the voice’ as well, wine dark and soft as velvet, too quiet and reasonable to be disobeyed.
“Nasty business, this,” Philbeam said, “The child is upstairs. Harker will take you up.”
It was the sort of house one would expect of a family of their social strata; fashionable address, fashionable décor, quality furnishings and appointments, but the colors were rather insipid and spiritless. Harker paused on the first landing and murmured, “Governess. Murdered both parents then hanged herself.“
“About four months along, I’d expect,” was her terse comment.
It took Harker a moment to fit that into context. “Shameful.”
“Yes, it is, when it is left to one of the victims to hold the guilty accountable for his crimes because society won’t. And the child?”
“What? Oh, er, right. Aged six. Name of, um,” he consulted his notebook. “’Cecily Grace.’”
He hustled her quickly past the first floor hallway where several uniformed policemen were standing, and up the considerably more narrow stairs to the second floor where the nursery was located. One of the maids, red-eyed and sniffling , stood by the cold and empty nursery fireplace wringing her hands. The child was sitting in one of a pair of small chairs at a small deal table. Before Harker could speak, Maire Popkin turned him out of the room and shut the door behind him. She set her carpet bag down beside the door, laid the umbrella against it, took off her gloves and pocketed them, and began to unbutton her coat.
“And who are you?” she asked the maid in her velvet voice that had a silken lilt to it.
“Emma Turnipseed, miss.” The poor girl’s voice trembled on the brink of tears, stumbled and fell. “Oh, what’s to become of us, miss?” she blubbered. “Nobody ever seems to think of that. No place, no references, and now we’ve got an ‘istory. They’ll never take you if you’ve got an ‘istory.”
Maire Popkin studied her a moment, reached into her coat pocket, and pulled out several folded pieces of paper. She selected one, opened it, refolded it, selected another, opened it and smiled.
“Here,” She took the maid’s hand, put the paper into it and folded her fingers around it. “Married couple, no children, arrived from India two days ago. They’ll be needing a parlor maid, an upstairs maid, a scullery maid and a cook. Apply Friday. You’ll be a godsend.” Then she ushered the poor girl gently but firmly out the door. She turned to the child and finished unbuttoning her coat.
“Are you Cecily Grace?” she inquired.
“Yes, miss,” the child replied in a barely audible voice. She had limp, mousy brown hair, large brown eyes, a pale complexion, and was little better than skin and bones in her plainly cut, unadorned navy frock. Her stockings had a small hole at the ankle, and her shoes had noticeable bulges at the tip from the crowd of toes beneath.
“You may call me ‘Maire Popkin.’ “ She slipped off her coat to reveal a plain, black wool dress with a high collar and long, fitted sleeves. A plain gold pendant watch was pinned to the bosom of it. She looked around for someplace to put her coat, spotted the only adult sized chair in the room and draped her coat over the back of it. She balanced her hat atop it. She went to the other small chair, pulled it out and sat down in it facing the child across the table.
“Well, Cecily Grace, I suspect nobody has thought to feed you this morning.”
“Do you think you can possibly hold on for one more hour?” Maire Popkin asked seriously.
“I think so.”
“There’s a brave girl.” She looked the child over for a long thoughtful moment. “No doubt you are aware that something terrible has happened, and your life is never going to be the same again. But all is not utterly lost. I am come to help you over the rough patches and see you settled.”
“Mummy is gone, isn’t she.” Cecily Grace said with hollow certainty. A single tear dripped down from the corner of her eye. She wiped it away with a furtive, almost guilty swipe of her hand.
“I’m afraid so. And we will deal with that in its time, but first we must get you packed and take you someplace kinder,” Maire Popkin said firmly. “And get a decent breakfast into you.”
The little girl’s bedroom might have been pretty if the fabric and wallpaper had been done in brighter roses and pinks instead of washed out puces and mauves. Tucked as it was up under a northern eave and with only two small dormer windows to light it, the room was small and rather dark. Still, it had a majestic view of the roof of the house behind and the mountainous forest of smoking chimneys beyond.
Maire Popkin turned to the girl, fixed her with a serious gaze and said, “Now, Cecily Grace, once you leave this house, you are never coming back again. I want you to carefully consider which of your things you would be most sorry to lose.”
Cecily Grace looked at her solemnly, frowning slightly in thought.
“I want you to gather those things and put them on the bed here, so we will be sure not to leave them behind.”
The girl went to the far side of the bed, knelt beside it, and worked loose a floorboard. She retrieved a lawn handkerchief which was dusty from being hidden away there.
“These are all but one of my most precious things.” She said, laying the bundle on the bed beside the carpet bag. “There’s a locket which I had from my real papa when I was a baby, Mummy had given it me to wear on a ribbon, but when I showed it to Miss Grimsly, she said I was much too young to be entrusted with such valuable jewelry and that I must give it to her to keep for me.” Though her voice was carefully neutral, her dark eyes were hard with the unfairness and sheer injustice of it.
“Tch. Worse and worse.” Maire Popkin frowned thoughtfully. She sat down upon the bed and motioned the child to her. “Give me your hands, child.” Maire Popkin gently folded the child’s hands one atop the other, palms pressed together, and cupped her slender white hands around them. “Now, close your eyes and think hard about your locket. Picture it in your thoughts as clearly as you can. Remember what it looked like on the outside, all the little details, and what it looked like on the inside.”
The child frowned with the effort of it.
“Now. Remember Mummy giving it to you. Remember how it rightfully belongs to you and how much you want it back, and how much you will treasure it once you have it back again.”
The child’s features settled into grim determination. Abruptly, her eyes popped open with astonishment. As Maire Popkin opened her hands, the child opened hers, and there resting between them was a gold oval keepsake locket strung on a blue silk ribbon. With trembling fingers, the child opened the catch to reveal the entwined locks of hair it contained behind its little glass fronted frame.
“The dark hair is my real papa’s. The golden hair is mama’s. She cut the locks and braided them together the day papa left for the Crimea, so they would never be parted.”
Maire Popkin gently closed the locket and tied the ribbon around the child’s neck loosely enough that it did not touch her throat, but tightly enough that the locket could not be taken off over her head. Then she slipped the locket beneath the neck of the child’s plain little frock and carefully concealed the ribbon ends in back until nothing was visible. She considered the child a moment, then she stood and turned to look about the room.
“You’ll want your hat and coat. It’s quite chilly out.” These were located. The coat sleeves were almost an inch too short. The hat ribbons were noticeably frayed. Then Maire Popkin stepped to the center of the room.
“You’ll need something to wear until better can be gotten for you.” She said, and made a broad, sweeping gesture with her hand as if snatching something from the air and tossing it into the open carpet bag. “And we’d better have that trunk in the attic.” She snatched something from the air above her head and tossed it into the carpet bag as well. Then she walked to the bed, took the handkerchief full of treasures and placed it carefully within the carpet bag. Slowly Maire Popkin studied the room, taking in the cheap hairbrush and comb upon the dresser, the mismatched basin and ewer, the old furniture, the rag rug. “No dolly?”
“No,” the child replied mournfully.
Maire Popkin closed and latched the carpet bag, took it by the handle and headed back into the nursery, beckoning for the child to follow. She quickly donned her own coat and hat, slid the handle of the carpet bag over her arm, hung the handle of the umbrella over her arm beside it, then held out her other hand to the child.
“Come, Cecily Grace. It’s high time we were going.”
The child took her hand with a shy, wan smile and they set off, leaving the nursery door ajar behind them. At the first floor landing, they encountered Constable Harker. Maire Popkin drew a folded piece of paper from her coat pocket, shook it open, glanced at it to verify what it contained, then handed it to Constable Harker. “We shall be at that address until further notice.”
Chief Inspector Philbeam was remonstrating with two of his subordinates and did not notice them leaving, nor did the gaggle of curious bystanders who had collected in the street before the house.
A short way up the street awaited a neat little brougham with a sleek bay between the shafts. Leaning against it was a tall, slender man in a dark suit and a top hat. He had a very prominent nose underscored by a cavalry mustache. He looked much too young for the curls of his hair to be so liberally grizzled with grey. As they approached, he opened the carriage door and flipped down the steps, then gravely helped them inside. He shook out the thick woolen lap robe to put over them and as he helped to twitch it into place, he leaned in close to the child and whispered, “It’s been almost seven weeks since Tabitha Mouser had her kittens.” He put one long thin finger across his lips, winked, then closed the coach door. Cecily Grace looked up at Maire Popikin, but she was busy looking at the ceiling, an angle that obscured from view the tiniest of smiles that flitted like a cloud shadow across her lips. The horse did a little dance, the brougham began to move, and Maire Popkin put her arm about the child’s shoulders, pulling her close.
“Now then. Once we get to where we’re going, there’ll be a nice hot bath waiting for you, fresh clean warm clothes, and then breakfast. Do you prefer kippers or sausages?”
“I don’t know, Maire Popkin, I’ve never had kippers,” the child said sadly.
“Well, then you must have some of both, so that you can have a proper taste of each, and give the matter due consideration before you make up your mind. One ought not to jump to hasty conclusions.”
“No, Maire Popkin.”
After a long moment of silence, Maire Popkin remarked conversationally, “The coachman is my brother, you know. His name is Diarmuid. It’s an Irish name. It means ‘all knees and elbows.’” She gave a little sideways glance down at Cecily Grace, and her black eyes were twinkling with unshed laughter. After a moment she said with perfect seriousness, “’Maire’ is an Irish name as well. It means ‘practically perfect in every way.’” With equal seriousness, she added, “’Cecily Grace,’ on the other hand, is Anglo-Saxon. It means, “she who suffers a great loss in childhood, but who wins through to find a great deal of happiness and love not long thereafter.’”
Cecily Grace suspected that Maire Popkin had completely made up that last bit to try to make her feel better. Oddly enough, it had worked. She leaned her head against Maire Popkin’s soft woolen coat tiredly. She was coming to realize how very heavy grief is, and how very fatiguing it is to bear up under it, especially on an empty stomach. They clopped and rumbled along for a bit with neither of them speaking.
“The wind shifted round before dawn this morning and is now in the south, which means it will be sunny and warm next week,” Maire Popkin said, apropos of nothing in particular. “Once the weather settles and you are able to play out of doors, my brother might turn into a dog for you – if you ask him politely and say ‘please,’ that is – and then the two of you might go across to the park and play fetch in the sunshine. We shall have to find some leather gloves for you to wear, of course.” She thought for a moment, then added by way of explanation, “When Diarmuid is a dog, he must carry the ball in his mouth because of having paws instead of hands. Unfortunately, the ball gets rather damp as a result. But if you have leather gloves on, you shalln’t mind, shall you?“
“No, Maire Popkin.”
Cecily Grace was almost positive that people couldn’t possibly turn into dogs, but felt it might not be a good idea to say so. Then she remembered about the locket and began to be less sure that it was quite as impossible as she had first thought it to be. From there, it was quite easy to fall to speculating how the coachman might go about it, and what sort of dog he might turn into. She had begun to wonder if it was something he could always do, or if he had been taught to do like lessons, when the little brougham with the tall lean coachman at the reins turned a corner and was swallowed up in a swirl of early morning fog.