PROLOGUE

Sarah Tanner bought her coffee-house in the spring of eighteen hundred and fifty two. It was a small, rather dusty premises, situated upon the corner of Leather Lane market and Liquorpond Street, in the parish of St. Albans, Holborn. The previous owner - a widower who had taken to drink upon the death of his wife - had rather let himself go, and his old business had rather gone with him. Little remained in the way of fixtures and fittings: only a bronze coffee urn, dull and discoloured, that stood upon the counter, and the faint, melancholy aroma of roasted mocha - or, more likely, the scent of some more economical berry, laced with chicory - which had, over the years, permeated the woodwork.
    To some, regardless of the interior, it might have seemed an unfortunate location for any commercial undertaking. For the district was mentioned in the Police News with disturbing regularity and, if the respectable folk of nearby quarters said anything of their Leather Lane neighbours, it was generally to condemn them as thieves and parasites; or to commend their souls to the care of the local Home Missionary, which amounted to much the same thing. Sarah Tanner, however, had given the matter some thought: the area was a poor one, but she had known worse; the two little rooms and attic above the shop seemed perfectly adequate for her own comfort; and, most importantly, the proximity of the street market meant there would always be a passing trade. From thirsty costermongers, who set up stall at the crack of dawn, to the weary females who scrabbled for bargains at the close of day, the pavement outside was rarely empty. And if the occasional cadger or out-and-out villain should stumble upon Sarah Tanner's new establishment, she did not much mind - as long as they paid their way.
    Mrs. Tanner - she had resolved to appropriate that title to herself at an early stage in proceedings, though only twenty seven years of age and unfamiliar with the married state - proved to have a sound business mind. The little shop, once cleaned and renovated, soon began to prosper. In fact, it was not long before she employed both a waiter - an elderly man by the name of Grundy, reputed to have known better days - and a certain Mrs. Hinchley, who, upon interview, declared herself 'a plain cook and no nonsense,' which was precisely what was required.
    Mrs. Tanner's greatest commercial asset was that she kept regular hours. For she happened to have that most useful of objects, a little mahogany clock - a rarity in Leather Lane - and a striking one at that. Thus she opened her door at precisely 6 o'clock in the morning, rain or shine, and closed it again at midnight - in marked contrast to the neighbourhood's more established eating-houses. Her food, too, was both edible and reasonably priced - a rare combination - and provided the costermongers with a breakfast which was, in their own words, 'a proper tightener'. Tea and coffee came by the pint - one penny - or the small cup - a happenny - and something hot was always ready on the grill, from eggs and bacon in the morning to sausage and potatoes at night.
    Mrs. Tanner also understood the value of advertisement. After two or three weeks in the business, she hired a Frenchman, a self-proclaimed genius with a brush, much down upon his luck, to hand-paint a sign-board, which spelt out the words Dining and Coffee Rooms in black and gold. Then came tickets, announcing 'A Good Dinner for 8d.' and 'Leg of Beef Soup, 2d. per cup', placed prominently in the window, above the red curtain that concealed diners' lower extremities from passers-by. And, of course, there was the best advertisement of all - the rich smell of sizzling chops, kippers, or Yarmouth bloaters that occasionally escaped from the narrow confines of the kitchen. And it was a narrow little room - for Mrs. Tanner's shop was not a large one, by any means. The front, which consisted of a small plate-glass window, and a very plain door, set back a little from the street, could not have measured more than twelve feet across. Inside, there was just enough space for four booths against the wall, the serving counter, and a pair of tables by the window. It was only after purchasing the lease that Mrs. Tanner discovered the room itself was rather irregular and wedge-shaped and, upon close inspection, she found that the walls buckled inwards slightly, as if the victim of monumental tight-lacing. Still, she was not daunted by the discovery and it soon became clear, to anyone who took an interest, that the new coffee-house on the corner was being admirably managed and maintained by its new proprietress.
    But what of Sarah Tanner herself? Now, there was something of a contradiction. For example, it was said that she had the good manners of a respectable upper servant but was far too young to have been pensioned; that she spoke as if she had received an education, but knew the costers' slang as if she were born-and-bred to it; and that she not only had no husband - which was a commonplace on Leather Lane, where husbands came and went with remarkable ease, generally via the local beer-shop - but seemed never to have possessed one. This latter point was particularly remarkable, since she had a pretty face, with dark brown hair and deep hazel eyes, and a full, graceful figure - a figure which, upon first sight, some of the more impetuous costermongers even remarked upon to their wives. It was, doubtless, these unfortunate remarks that prompted a few of the coster-women to declare Mrs. Tanner a queer character, not quite 'on the square'; and to suggest that she had got her shop and money somewhere, and they didn't care to inquire where that might be.
     One thing was for certain - Sarah Tanner was not going to tell them. And if, upon her arrival, she was the subject of gossip, it was the proverbial nine-day-wonder, soon overshadowed by more exciting news, like the mysterious theft of old Bill Teach's donkey during the night, or Sal Perkins 'clouting' her rival in love outside the Presbyterian Chapel. Indeed, the streets between Leather Lane and nearby Saffron Hill, whatever the morals of their inhabitants, howsoever poor they might be, were never short of incident. The mystery of Sarah Tanner was soon put to one side and Mrs. Tanner, for her part, was quite content with the outcome. For she went about her business with - well, not shyness by any means, but a certain degree of reserve. And even Ralph Grundy, who saw her every day, would happily testify that his employer was 'a close 'un, and no mistake.' And, if asked to say any more on the subject, Mr. Grundy would merely tap his nose, raise his glass, and refuse to reveal any dark secrets.
     To a degree, this was a natural discretion on Ralph Grundy's part; but, principally, it was his own ignorance of Sarah Tanner's history. All the same, relying upon the wisdom of his years - for he was in his sixties, and rather given to solitary speculation - he privately concluded that Mrs. Tanner had 'a past' of one sort or another, one that might well catch up with her.
    And, of course, he was quite right.


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