RUNAWAY HEIRESS, Excerpt
May 8, 1888
“One first-class ticket for Liverpool, please.” Alexandra Atherton managed a smile for the ticket agent behind the window.
“One way or return?”
“One way.” Alexandra anxiously made her way across the busy train station, hardly able to believe she was doing this: running away, dressed in her maid’s old clothes, bound for Liverpool and the steamship that would take her home.
Her escape, she knew, would cause something of a scandal. Over the past few years, whenever her name or one of her sisters’ names had cropped up in the press, it was always followed by “the American heiress,” or “the daughter of multimillionaire banking tycoon Colis Atherton.” As if they were not actual people in their own right.
Alexandra hated to feed the gossip, but after last night, what choice did she have?
She had left a note explaining where she’d gone and why, which her maid Fiona was to “accidentally discover” later that afternoon. By then, it would be too late for her mother to prevent Alexandra from sailing. She just prayed that upon her reaching Liverpool, a berth would be available aboard the Maritime.
The train platform was alive with the clamor of movement and conversation. Gentlemen in black frock coats and ladies in elaborate plumed hats darted to and fro, checking the printed timetables, studying the large clock hanging from the rafters, purchasing apples from a vendor and papers from the newsstand. As Alexandra wove through the crowd, she heard a high-pitched voice at her elbow:
“Got a penny for a poor orphan?”
She paused. Before her stood a raggedly dressed, dirty little girl. Alexandra’s heart went out to the creature, who gazed up at her with wide eyes, her hair all in a tangle.
Alexandra wondered how a penny could possibly be of any help to a child in such need. Withdrawing her coin purse from her reticule, she offered the child a shilling. “Here you go, little one.” Suddenly, more children in similarly dirty clothing appeared and crowded around her.
“Mine!” cried a boy.
“No, mine!” cried another.
A grubby fist flashed out and snatched the shilling from Alexandra’s grasp. She couldn’t tell if it was the first girl who took it or one of the boys; indeed, she wasn’t entirely sure what happened next. All Alexandra knew was that multitudes of small, filthy hands were striking at her as young voices erupted in raucous shouts. Her coin purse was suddenly wrenched from her grasp, and a second later her handbag was gone.
“Wait! Give it back!” Alexandra cried, as the flock of children fled. “Help! Stop those children! They’ve stolen my bag!”
No one made any move to help her. Alexandra pushed her way through the crowd, racing after the children, but the ragamuffin band vanished as quickly as it had appeared. At the end of the platform, she stopped to catch her breath. The whole incident, she saw now, had been cleverly played, the efforts of a pack of urchins who preyed on unsuspecting travelers.
She searched for a policeman (what did they call them here? Bobbies?), but realized that even if one materialized, she couldn’t report the theft. She was dressed as a servant, in the act of running away.
Alexandra stood rooted to the spot, overwhelmed by a crushing sense of horror and disappointment as the depths of her predicament became clear to her. Her handbag was gone. It had held all her money as well as her train ticket. She hadn’t been able to take anything else with her, and now had nothing left except the clothes on her back. Clearly, there would be no trip to Liverpool today, and no voyage to New York.
Tears stung Alexandra’s eyes as she made her way back through the train station. What should she do now?
She considered the English girls she’d met over the past five weeks of the London Season, but realized they’d be no help. Not a single one had responded to Alexandra’s attempts at friendship. They’d seemed to consider Alexandra too outgoing, too outspoken, and had eyed her with reserved and stony suspicion, as if she were there to deliberately steal away all the best men.
The matrons Alexandra had met had all befriended her mother. Nor could she seek refuge from Rose Parker, a debutante from Chicago who’d landed her titled man the year before and was now the most miserable human being in creation, entirely under the thumb of her husband.
As Alexandra exited through the train station’s high Doric portico, she wiped tears away. It was over. It was all over. Unless she wanted to starve on the street like the poor, ragged, toothless woman selling apples at the curb, Alexandra had no alternative but to go back to Brown’s Hotel with her tail between her legs.
Even though it would spell her doom.
Even though her mother would surely lock Alexandra in their suite again until she agreed to marry Lord Shrewsbury.
Well, Alexandra told herself, as she hailed one of the waiting hansom cabs and climbed aboard, her ruse had worked this time. She would just have to think of something new and try again in a few days for another ship.
“Brown’s Hotel,” she instructed the cabbie through the trapdoor near the rear of the roof.
“That’ll be a shilling.” The man’s tone conveyed his distrust of such a shabby customer.
Alexandra peered up at him through the tiny window behind her. “Sir, I’ve been the victim of a robbery. My handbag and all my money were stolen. I’ll see to it, however, that you are paid upon arrival.”
“Cash in advance, Yank, or there’s no ride.”
“Sir, my name is Alexandra Atherton. My father is a multimillionaire. If you will please take me to Brown’s Hotel, I assure you that my mother will pay my fare.”
“And who’s your mother? America’s first lady?” A brief, contemptuous laugh escaped his mouth. “There’s plenty of folk who’ll be happy to pay in advance, girl. Go on, step down.”
Cheeks flaming, Alexandra climbed down from the vehicle. She tried every cab in sight, but it was always the same story: no fare, no ride. Alexandra was incensed and humiliated. She was an heiress. She’d attended college! She’d been the belle of the ball at numerous events of the London Season. Yet she was being treated harshly, simply due to the clothing she wore.
Alexandra realized she’d have to walk. How many miles lay between Euston Station and Brown’s hotel? She had no idea. During the cab ride that morning, she’d been so absorbed in her thoughts, she hadn’t paid attention to their route.
Pausing at a corner, Alexandra asked a shoeshine man how to get to Brown’s Hotel. His instructions were long-winded and delivered in a thick cockney accent. She was able to gather, though, that it was a journey of about two miles. Following his gesticulations, she began walking south.
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