Black Hearts in BatterseaJoan Aiken
About the Book
Also by Joan Aiken
About the Book
‘Wait, wait! Save us! What’ll we do?’
Simon is determined to become a painter when he grows up so he sets off to London to make his fortune. But the city is plagued by wolves and mysterious disappearances. The Twite household, where Simon is lodging, seems particularly shifty. Before he even gets a chance to open his glistening new paints Simon stumbles right into the centre of a plot to kill the King. And worse than that Simon is kidnapped and sent to sea! Luckily there are two friendly stowaways aboard – the feisty Dido Twite and the spoiled young Justin. But when the ship catches fire things look pretty dire. Can they escape? Will they save the king in time?
BACKSTORY: Find out all about the author and learn some of Dido Twite’s weird and wonderful sayings!
Also by Joan Aiken
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Nightbirds on Nantucket
The Stolen Lake
The Cuckoo Tree
Dido and Pa
Cold Shoulder Road
The Witch of Clatteringshaws
The Whispering Mountain
The action of this book takes place in the same period as that of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase: the reign of King James III, in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, when England was still sadly plagued by wolves. A family tree of the Dukes of Battersea will be found here
ON A FINE warm evening in late summer, over a hundred years ago, a boy might have been seen leading a donkey across Southwark Bridge in the City of London. The boy, who appeared to be about fifteen, was bright-eyed and black-haired, and looked as if he had spent most of his life out of doors; he carried a knapsack, and wore rough, warm garments of frieze. Both boy and donkey seemed a little bewildered by the crowds round about them: the streets were thronged with people strolling in the sunshine after their day’s work.
Halfway across the bridge the boy paused, took an extra turn of the donkey’s halter round his wrist, and pulled out of his pouch a grubby and much-handled letter, which he proceeded to study for the twentieth time.
Come and stay with me for as long as you like, my dear Simon. I have lately moved from Park Lane to lodgings that are less expensive, but sufficiently comfortable and commodious for us both. I have two rooms on the top floor of this house, which belongs to a Mr and Mrs Twite. The Twites are an unattractive family, but I see little enough of them. Moreover, the windows command a handsome view of the river and St Paul’s Cathedral. I have spoken of you to Dr Furnace, the Principal of the Art Academy in Chelsea where I sometimes study, and he is willing to accept you as a pupil. Through my visits to this Academy I have made another most interesting acquaintance to whom I wish to introduce you. More of this when we meet.
Yours, Gabriel Field, M.D.
P.S. Kindly remember me to Sir Willoughby and Lady Green, Miss Bonnie and Miss Sylvia Green, and all other friends in Yorkshire.
The letter was addressed from Rose Alley, Southwark, London.
The boy named Simon looked about him somewhat doubtfully and, after a moment’s hesitation, accosted an elderly and rather frail-looking man with sparse locks who was walking slowly across the bridge.
‘I wonder, sir,’ he said politely, ‘if you can direct me to Rose Alley? I believe it is not far from here.’ The old man looked at him vaguely, stroking his beard with an unsteady hand.
‘Rose Alley, now? Rose Alley, dear me. The name is indeed familiar …’
His hand stopped stroking and his eyes roamed vacantly past Simon. ‘Is that your beast?’ he asked absently, his gaze lighting on the donkey. ‘Ah, I remember when I was a lad in the forest of Epping, I had a donkey; used to carry home bundles of firewood for a penny a load …’ His voice trailed off.
‘Rose Alley, sir,’ Simon said gently. ‘I am searching for the lodgings of a Dr Field.’
‘Dr Field, my boy?’
‘Yes, sir, Dr Gabriel Field.’
‘That name, too, seems familiar. Dear me, now, dear me. Was it Dr Field who put the bread poultice on my knee?’ He advanced his knee and stared at it, seeming mildly surprised to find that the bread poultice was no longer there with Dr Field’s bill attached to it.
Simon, watching him, had not noticed an extremely dirty urchin who had been hovering near them. This individual, a sharp-looking boy of eleven or twelve who seemed to be dressed in nothing but one very large pair of trousers (he had cut holes in the sides for his arms) now jostled against Simon, contriving at the same moment to tread on his toes, flip his nose, and snatch Dr Field’s letter out of his hand. He then ran off, singing in a loud, rude manner:
‘Simple Simon came to town,
Riding on a moke.
Donkey wouldn’t go,
Wasn’t that a joke?’
‘Hey!’ shouted Simon angrily. How did the boy know his name? ‘Give back that letter!’
He started in pursuit, but the boy, thumbing his nose derisively, crumpled up the letter and tossed it over the rail into the water. Then he disappeared into the crowd.
‘Eh, deary me,’ said the old man, sighing in a discouraged manner. ‘The young people grow rougher and ruder every day. Now, what was it you were saying, my boy? You wanted the address of a Dr Poultice? A strange name, a strange name – very. So far as I know there’s no Dr Poultice in these parts.’
‘No, Dr Field – Dr Gabriel Field in Rose Alley,’ said Simon, still vainly trying to catch a glimpse of the boy.
‘Dr Alley? Never heard of him. Now, when I was a lad in the forest of Epping there was a Dr Marble …’
Simon saw that he would get no good out of the old man, so he thanked him politely and walked on across the bridge.
‘Did I hear you say you wanted Rose Alley?’ said a voice in his ear. He turned with relief and saw a smallish, brisk-looking woman with pale-blue eyes and pale sandy hair and a bonnet that was most ingeniously ornamented with vegetables. A small bunch of carrots decorated the brim, a couple of lettuce leaves curled up rakishly at one side, and a veritable diadem of radishes was twined tastefully round the back.
‘Yes, Dr Field’s lodgings in Rose Alley,’ said Simon, relieved to find someone who looked able to answer his question, for though the little woman’s bonnet was eccentric, her mouth was decided and her eyes were very sharp.
‘Don’t know any Dr Field, but I can tell you the best way to get to Rose Alley,’ she said, and reeled off a set of directions so complicated that Simon had much ado to get them into his head. He thanked her and hurried on, repeating, ‘Two miles down Southwark Bridge Road, past the Elephant and Castle Inn, past Newington Butts, through Camberwell, then take a left turning and a right fork …’
But hey! he said to himself when he had gone half a mile, didn’t Dr Field say that from his window he had a view of the river Thames? And of St Paul’s Cathedral?
He turned round. St Paul’s Cathedral had been in view while he stood on Southwark Bridge. But now it was out of sight.
p; That woman must have been wrong, Simon thought, beginning to retrace his steps. She must have been thinking of some other Rose Alley. I’ll go back until I am once more within sight of St Paul’s and the river, and ask somebody else. What a place this London is for confusion!
He presently reached the bridge once again, and this time was luckier in his adviser. A studious-looking young man with a bag of books said he was going to Rose Alley himself. He led Simon off the bridge, round a couple of corners, and into a tiny cobbled lane giving directly on to the river-front. There were but half a dozen tall, narrow, shabby houses on either side, and at the far end a patch of thistly grass sloped down to the water.
Simon had forgotten the number of the house where Dr Field lodged, but when he asked which belonged to Mr and Mrs Twite the young man pointed to the last house on the right, Number Eight, which stood with its back to the bridge and its side to the river.
Simon tethered his donkey to some broken railings and knocked on the door, which was in need of a coat of paint.
For a long time there was no reply. He knocked again, louder. At that, a window flew open and a child’s head popped out.
‘There’s nobody in but me,’ she snapped. ‘Whose donkey is that?’
‘Mine. Is this the house of Mr and Mrs Twite?’
‘Yes, it is. I’m Miss Twite,’ the brat said with a haughty air. ‘What d’you want?’
‘I’m looking for Dr Field.’
‘There’s no Dr Field here. Can your donkey gallop? What’s its name?’
‘Caroline. Do you mean Dr Field is out?’ The child looked thoroughly unreliable and Simon was not sure whether to believe her.
‘Can your donkey gallop?’ she repeated.
‘If you’ll come down and answer the door I’ll give you a ride on her,’ said Simon. She vanished like lightning and reappeared in the doorway. She was a shrewish-looking little creature of perhaps eight or nine, with sharp eyes of a pale washed-out blue and no eyebrows or eyelashes to speak of. Her straw-coloured hair was stringy and sticky with jam and she wore a dirty satin dress two sizes too small for her.
‘Is Dr Field out? Do you know when he’ll be back?’ Simon said again.
She took no notice of his question but walked up to the donkey and untied it. ‘Lift me on its back,’ she ordered. Simon good-naturedly did so, urged the reluctant Caroline to a trot, and led her to the end of Rose Alley and back. Miss Twite hung on to the saddle uttering loud exclamations:
‘Mind out! Not so fast, you’re shaking me! She’s bumping, make her slow down! Oo, your saddle’s hard!’
When they arrived back at Number Eight she cried, ‘Give me another ride!’
‘Not till you tell me when Dr Field will be back.’
‘Well, where are your father and mother?’
‘They’ve gone to Vauxhall Gardens with Penny and Grandpa and Aunty Tinty and they won’t be back till midnight past.’
‘Why aren’t you with them?’
‘Acos I threw Penny’s hat on the fire,’ she said, bursting into giggles. ‘Oo, how they did scold! Pa walloped me with a slipper – leastways he tried to – and Ma said I mightn’t go out and Penny pinched me. Spiteful cat.’
‘Who’s minding you?’
‘I’m minding myself. Give me another ride!’
‘Not just now. The donkey’s tired, she and I have come all the way from Yorkshire this week. If you’re good you shall have another ride later, perhaps.’ Simon was learning cunning. But Miss Twite looked at him with a knowing, weary eye and said:
‘Gammon! I know yer “later perhaps”!’
‘Would you like to give the donkey some carrots?’ Simon said, visited with inspiration.
He pulled a handful of carrots out of the pannier and broke them up.
Miss Twite was delighted with the privilege of feeding Caroline, and almost shed her world-weary air. Seeing her absorbed, Simon quietly walked through the front door of the house and up a steep and dirty flight of stairs, past several landings. At the top of the house two doors faced one another. Simon remembered that Dr Field had said there were two rooms; doubtless both of these were his. But no reply came from either door when he tapped; it appeared that the child had been speaking the truth and Dr Field was indeed out.
It could surely do no harm to wait for him here, however, Simon thought. By this time he was decidedly weary, and a kitten, which had been asleep in his knapsack, at this moment woke up and mewed to be released.
Simon opened one of the doors and looked through into the room beyond.
As soon as he saw the window he recognized the view that Dr Field had described – the river, and Southwark Bridge, and an expanse of mud gleaming pink in the sunset below the tethered barges. Beyond towered the dome of St Paul’s. But, strangely enough, the room, which had a faintly familiar smell, did not contain a single stick of furniture.
Perhaps this room is for me and I am to buy my own things, Simon thought, and re-crossed the landing, remembering with a grin Dr Field’s lodgings in Park Lane, where painting-equipment – easels, palettes, and bottles of turpentine – jostled pills and medicine phials, while a skeleton lounged on the sofa.
But the other room, too, was bare. It did contain a little furniture – a bed, table and chair, and a worn strip of drugget on the floor – but there were no covers on the bed and it was plain that this room, too, was unoccupied.
Simon scratched his head. Could he have made a mistake? But no, Dr Field had distinctly written ‘Mr and Mrs Twite, Rose Alley, Southwark’, and here, sure enough, was the Twite house in Rose Alley. Here was the top room with the view of St Paul’s. The only thing lacking was Dr Field himself. Perhaps he had not yet moved from his other lodgings? And yet Simon had received the letter with the new address a full two months ago, and had then written to Rose Alley saying when he proposed to arrive. Could something have changed or delayed the doctor’s plans? Simon ran down the stairs again, resolved on trying to get a little more help from young Miss Twite.
He arrived none too soon for poor Caroline. Having finished the carrots – Simon observed traces of carrot on the child’s face and deduced that the donkey had not received a full ration – Miss Twite had contrived to clamber on to Caroline’s back from the railings. Using a rusty old umbrella she was urging the donkey at a fast trot along Rose Alley.
Simon ran after them and grabbed the bridle.
‘You little wretch!’ he remarked. ‘Didn’t you hear me say Caroline was tired?’
‘Fiddlestick!’ said Miss Twite. ‘There’s plenty of go in her yet.’ She raised the umbrella, and Simon twitched it neatly out of her hand.
‘So there would be in you if I beat you with an umbrella.’
‘Are you going to? I’ll tell my Pa if you do!’ Miss Twite eyed him alertly.
Simon couldn’t help laughing; she looked so like an ugly, scrawny little bird, ready to hop out of the way if danger threatened. He led Caroline back to her pasturage and dumped Miss Twite on the steps of Number Eight.
‘Now then, tell me once and for all – where is Dr Field?’
‘What Dr Field? I don’t know any Dr Field?’
‘You said just now he was out.’
‘I only said that to get a ride,’ said Miss Twite, bursting into a fit of laughter and throwing herself from side to side in the ecstasy of her amusement. ‘I’ve never met Dr Field in my life.’
‘But he was going to move here – I’m sure he did move here,’ said Simon, remembering the words in the doctor’s letter – ‘The Twites are an unattractive family, but I see little enough of them …’ Didn’t that sound as if he were already moved in? And this specimen of the Twite family was unattractive enough, heaven knows!
‘There’s no Dr Field living here and never has been,’ said the child definitely.
‘Who lives in your top rooms?’
‘Are you sure
Dr Field isn’t coming soon?’
‘I tell you, no!’ She stamped her foot. ‘Stop talking about Dr Field! Can I have another ride?’
‘No, you can not,’ said Simon, exasperated. He wondered what he had better do. If only Mr or Mrs Twite were here, they might be able to throw some light on this puzzling situation.
‘Is that a kitty in your knapsack?’ said Miss Twite. ‘Why do you keep it there? Let it out. Let me see it!’
‘If I let you see it,’ said Simon cautiously, ‘will you let me stay the night? I could sleep in your top room. I’ll pay you, of course,’ he added quickly.
She hesitated, chewing a strand of her stringy hair. ‘Dunno what Ma or Pa would say. They might beat me. And what ’bout the donkey? Where’ll she go?’
‘I’ll find a place for her.’ There was a row of little shops round the corner – greengrocer’s, butcher’s, dairy. Simon thought it probable that he could find lodgings for Caroline behind one of them. He was not going to risk leaving her tethered in the street with this child about.
‘Will you promise to give me another ride tomorrow?’
‘But Pa only lets by the week,’ she said swiftly. ‘It’s twelve and six the week, boots and washing extry, and a shilling a day fires in winter. If you stayed the week you could give me a ride every day.’
‘All right, you little madam,’ said Simon, rapidly reckoning how long his small stock of money would last.
‘Hand over the twelve and six, then.’
‘Not likely! I’ll give that to your father.’
She accepted this defeat with a grin and said, ‘Show me the kitty, then.’
‘First I want to buy some food and find a place for the donkey. You’d better be putting sheets on the bed.’ Miss Twite made a grimace but trailed indoors, leaving the front door ajar.
When he had bought milk and eggs at the dairy, Simon arranged to stable Caroline with the milk roundsman’s pony for half a crown a week, this sum to be reduced if she was ever borrowed for the milk deliveries. Simon was not quite satisfied with this arrangement – the sour-looking dairywoman had too strong a resemblance to young Miss Twite for his taste, and he wondered if they were related – but it would do for the time being.