The Mesmerist's Apprentice

CHAPTER ONE 

    Norah Smallwood leaned casually over the counter and glanced at her employer's newspaper. If there was one thing that perplexed her about the owner of the New Dining and Coffee Rooms, it was the general interest she took in the daily press. It made sense to collect the abandoned papers that accumulated in the coffee-house's little booths: that was a wise economy, since the fried fish stall on the corner of Baldwin's Gardens paid ready money for wrapping. But to read the tiny print in the meantime; to take any pleasure in the inky notices and reports of the Morning Chronicle or Daily News - well, that seemed quite unnatural in a woman. For her own part, although she had been taught to read, she found it something of a chore to attempt even the most straightforward of penny romances that were hawked around the market.
    Every rule, however, has an exception. And although Norah felt a broad disdain for most forms of literature, she maintained an healthy interest in one branch of the art: the lively notices of public amusements that graced the front page of every newspaper. Thus, as her eyes alighted upon a particular advertisement, she paused in her rather desultory efforts at cleaning.
    'Is that tomorrow?' she said.
    Sarah Tanner stopped reading and laid down the paper, rather pointedly. If the proprietress of the New Dining and Coffee Rooms had grown fond of Norah Smallwood - which was undoubtedly the case - she occasionally found her company a little too convivial. She preferred to treasure the rare quiet moments, when there were no customers at the counter and the occupants of the shop's little booths enjoyed their food and drink in solitary contemplation. In short, she slightly resented the interruption.
    'What?'
    'There,' said Norah, pointing. 'That's tomorrow, ain't it? What's it say?'
    The item in question was a modest advertisement that lay half way down the front page of the newspaper.
    

MESMERISM AND ITS ANALOGOUS PHENOMENA, PHYSICAL AND PSYCHICAL - Prof. FELTON will demonstrate the workings of the New Science at the Mechanics' Institution, Southampton Row, April 28th, commencing at eight o'clock. The lecture will examine the transference of health and incorporate a curious and interesting experiment. Gallery 3d.; reserved seats 1s. Members of the Institution admitted half price. Private consultation from eleven until three o'clock.

    'It says,' replied Mrs. Tanner, 'that anyone fool enough to part with threepence, to see some kitchen maid faking a jig half-asleep, should go to Southampton Row tomorrow night.'
    'Well, I'd go,' said Norah, doggedly ignoring the sarcasm, 'if I had threepence handy.'
    'Then it's a good thing you don't. Besides, you're in a daze half the time as it is; it would look well if you came back magnetised. Now, unless I'm much mistaken,' said Mrs. Tanner, pointing, 'that table hasn't seen a dishcloth all week - if it's not too much trouble?'
    Norah Smallwood looked rather sullenly at her employer, and turned her back, muttering something that incorporated the words 'like a slave'. Sarah Tanner smiled a wry smile, and reached to pick up the paper once more. Her attention, however, was distracted by one of her customers who sat in the booth by the window. He was a young man - no, she thought to herself, not much more than a boy - in plain working clothes, with a thick head of brown curls and rather angular cheekbones. He was not from the market, she was sure of it. She neither knew his face, nor did he wear the polished bluchers or colourful neckerchief which were the fashion amongst the coster boys. There was nothing so unusual in that, but there was something odd in his manner. In particular, his food, a penny plate of hashed beef, was hardly touched, though it had sat upon the table for several minutes. Moreover, as he took up a mouthful on his fork, he seemed to masticate it with a curious thoughtfulness.
    His eyes suddenly caught Sarah Tanner's as she looked at him.
    'Here, missus,' he said, volubly enough for his voice to carry across the room, and the other diners to stare in his direction. 'This ain't up to much.'
    Mrs. Tanner raised her eyebrows.
    'I mean to say,' he continued, unabashed, 'you can pepper it up all your like, but you can't expect a fellow to eat it.'
    'What you going on about?' demanded Norah, on her employer's behalf, with an indignant vehemence that caused a couple of the diners, both costers, to chuckle, doubtless anticipating an amusing to-do. Mrs. Tanner cast an admonitory glance in her direction.
    'Are you saying there's something wrong with it?'
    'Well, there ain't much right with it, missus,' insisted the boy. 'My belly's all twistin' up, and I ain't had more than a couple of morsels. What do you call it again?'
    'Beef hash,' replied Mrs. Tanner calmly.
    'Well, you might call it that,' said the boy, grimacing and spitting a mouthful of food back onto his plate. 'I know a bit of horse-meat when I has it.'
    'It's off a good leg of beef that we've been serving it all morning, and no complaints.'
    'That ain't my affair,' observed the boy. 'Maybe their gullets was so choked up, they didn't have half a chance.'
    Mrs. Tanner looked over at her other customers. To her annoyance, if not surprise, the pair of costers who sat nearby suddenly seemed to contemplate their own plates with a degree of suspicion. She stepped out from behind the counter and walked over to the boy. He was no more than fifteen years old, despite his cocksure demeanour, and not particularly tall for his age.
    'Hook it,' she said, firmly. 'Before I call a copper.'
    'Here's a fine thing!' exclaimed the boy, seemingly affronted. 'Poison a fellow and chuck him out!'
    'Look here, I don't know who you are,' she said, lowering her voice, 'but you won't get a penny from me for this cheap dodge, not if you drop down dead on the spot and half of London gets to hear about it. Now, hook it.'
    'Dodge!' exclaimed the boy, deliberately loud. 'Now it ain't enough to poison a fellow but call him a liar an' all! Here - take your bleedin' penny for your hash and I hope it chokes you - if that horse-meat don't choke you first!'
    And, before Mrs. Tanner could say a word, the boy stood up, pulled a penny from his waistcoat pocket, and shoved it into her hand, stalked from his seat to the door, and slammed it behind him.
    'Must be wrong in the head,' exclaimed Norah, disdainfully.
Norah's employer shook her head, looking at the penny. 'I don't think so. Go and find Ralph - he's out the back.'
     'What do you want him for?' asked Norah.
     'Tell him he's in charge,' said Sarah Tanner, grabbing her shawl from the hook behind the counter. 'I'm just going out.'

*****

    Sarah Tanner stepped outside the shop and headed down Leather Lane, following in the boy's footsteps.
     It was almost midday, and most of the costers' barrows were emptying, with the exception of a solitary vendor who seemed to have acquired two barrels of herring, whose aroma - a little too ripe for popular taste - filled the street. The market however, was still crowded. For there were a host of lesser dealers upon the lane whose stock-in-trade were less perishable items. They filled the pavements around the barrows, occasionally interpolating their own little cart or sometimes simply laying a cloth upon the ground. Dealers in 'fancy goods', 'plain goods' - and, if truth be told, goods that were no good to anyone - who sold everything from curtain-hooks to candles, patent remedies to pin-cushions. They always attracted a curious crowd and, in consequence, it was no easy matter to spot an individual amongst them.
     Nonetheless, after a few minutes, when she had almost given up hope, she saw the self-same boy. He was loitering upon the edge of the market, near a small hand-barrow, propped upon the pavement so as to render it horizontal. The goods for sale were, as far as she could make out, of the 'fancy' kind - cheap jewellery, scarf pins and brooches - not the sort to entice the average youth. But there were several interested parties already there, including a middle-aged gentleman of the shabby-genteel variety, bending over in earnest contemplation of the equally shabby wares, perhaps choosing an affordable gift for an elderly mother or long-suffering spouse.
     She watched the boy edge forward. Instinctively, she herself stepped back behind the nearest barrow. For, in that instant, she had a good idea what would happen next.
     There!
     Even a seasoned police constable might have overlooked it. But she knew the movements of a practised pickpocket; and - if only for the briefest instant - she saw the glint of metal in his fingers, as a watch passed from one waistcoat pocket to another.
     The boy then walked on briskly, but not so quickly as to attract attention. She followed, on the opposite side of the road, negotiating the various makeshift stalls. The boy slowed his steps to a casual sauntering pace and it was a simple matter to catch up with him. She waited for the right moment, dodging the crowd.
     Then she reached out and grabbed hold of him.
     'Eh!' the boy protested, instantly wriggling free. A look of angry indignation passed across his face; but it instantly dissipated the second he saw his assailant.
     'Lor! You! I thought you was a Peeler!'
     'I'll fetch one if you like,' said Sarah Tanner.
     'Well, you do that, missus. I ain't the party what's poisoning other parties, am I now?' he said, merrily. 'What do you want with us, anyhow?'
     'You know there was nothing wrong with that meat. What are you playing at?'
     'Playing?' said the boy. 'I ain't playing, darlin'. Straight as they come.'
     'Is that so?'
     'Just!' exclaimed the boy, visibly amused by the entire exchange.
     'Then,' continued Mrs. Tanner, holding out her closed hand and opening it, 'what's this?'
     The boy looked down and immediately put a hand to his own waistcoat pocket. For, before him, lay the very watch which had only recently passed into his own possession. His mouth fell open, then, after a second to two, he broke into uncontrollable laughter.
     'That's a proper facer, that is!' he exclaimed, wiping his eyes. 'I thought you was playing the high and mighty, when you must be the best prig this side of Holborn - I didn't feel a bleedin' thing. Just! Well, I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, missus, honest I am.'
     'I doubt there's much honest about you,' said Sarah Tanner warily. 'Do you want the watch back?'
     'If you like,' shrugged the boy, 'it was only a lark.'
     'Is that what you'll tell the magistrate?'
     'What, are you going to give me in charge, then, is that it?' said the boy, with a chuckle. 'Nah, you keep it missus. I bet you've got an uncle or two who can give it a good home, eh?'
     'I might do. I could get a good price on it. Let's say I give you half if you tell me what that business in my shop was all about.'
     The boy merely smirked and shook his head.
     'Pleasure, though, missus - charmed!'
     And, with a cheerful nod, he raised a hand to his cap and made to walk off. Sarah Tanner, in turn, without giving the matter much thought, grabbed hold of the boy's arm. But as he turned round, the youth took hold of her hand with his own, and looked her in the eye. All the good humour had drained from his face, to be replaced with a cold, malevolent stare.
     'I'll keep away from your little shop, darlin', out of courtesy. But don't interfere with the Brass Band, 'cos we're not the boys to take it, see?'
And with those words, his cock-sure smile returned, and he darted into the crowd.
     Sarah Tanner let him go. There was something so unnerving in the way he had looked at her, she had little inclination to follow. Instead, she turned and walked back in the direction of the New Dining and Coffee Rooms.
     And, half-way down Leather Lane, she casually dropped a certain watch into the waistcoat pocket of a certain shabby gentleman

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