Kim walked slowly through the crowd, slipping in and out of the traffic almost without thinking. She enjoyed the noise and bustle common to all the London markets, but Hungerford was her favorite. Though it was small by comparison to Covent Garden or Leaden-hall, it was very busy. Carts stood hub-to-hub along the sides of the street, leaving only narrow aisles for the customers. The more fortunate among the sellers had permanent stalls; others displayed their shoes or brooms or baskets on bare strips of pavement. Still others walked through the crowd with baskets of turnips, apples, parsnips, onions, or cress, crying their wares in unmusical voices.
Kim let the flow of traffic carry her closer to the market’s most recent addition, eyeing it with a mingling of curiosity and professional appraisal. It was a wagon painted in sun-bleached yellow and gold, its tall red wheels half hidden by the stalls on either side. Two large doors made up the end of the wagon that faced the street, and they were fastened with a rusty padlock. The doors carried a rough painting of a man in a black top hat, with a string of incomprehensible but decorative letters just below him.
The wagoneer had bagged one of the best spots in the market, right between Jamie the Tailor and Red Sal’s fish stand. Kim frowned. Sal was a good sort, but she wouldn’t take kindly to having Kim lighten a wagon next to her. Even if “lightening” wasn’t exactly what Kim planned to do. Jamie was more irritable but not so noticing. Kim’s frown deepened. She wondered, not for the first time, whether she’d been wise to take this job. Toffs were trouble, no two ways, and a toff knowing enough to find Kim in the back streets of London…
Firmly Kim brought her mind back to the business at hand. The wagon was close enough to Red Sal’s to have scraped the paint off the side of the stall, had there been any paint to scrape. Small as she was, Kim would never be able to squeeze through. She’d have to go in past Jamie’s, then, and time things so he was busy with a customer. She looked at the wagon with misgiving.
A man came around the corner of the wagon and began undoing the latches at the rear. He was tall and thin and everything about him seemed to droop, from his baggy trousers to his sloping shoulders to the brim of his slouch hat. Even his mustache drooped, and as he worked he chewed absently first on one end and then the other.
The doors swung open, and Kim blinked in surprise. The entire rear end of the wagon was occupied by a tiny stage. A faded red curtain separated the back of the stage from the wagon’s interior. Kim forgot her eventual goal and slid closer, fascinated. The droopy man swung a small ladder down at the right side of the stage and latched it in place, then climbed onto the stage itself. He vanished behind the curtain, only to reappear a moment later carrying a table, which he set carefully in the middle of the stage. Then he began hanging lanterns on either side.
A crowd began to collect around the end of the wagon, drawn by the curious spectacle of something being set up in the market in complete silence. Some of the bystanders offered comments as the lanterns were hung and lit—“Waste o’ good oil, that,” and “Bit crooked, ain’t she?” The droopy man chewed on his mustache, but gave no sign that he had heard.
He finished his work and disappeared once more behind the curtain. For a long moment there was no further activity, and the small crowd murmured in disappointment. Before they could begin to drift away, there was a loud crash, and a thick cloud of white smoke enveloped the stage.
“Come one, come all!” called a ringing voice from the center of the smoke. “Prepare to be amazed and astonished by the one, the only—Mairelon the Magician!”
With the last words, the smoke dissipated. In the center of the stage stood a man. His hair was dark above a rounded face, and he had a small, neat mustache but no beard. He wore a black opera cape and a top hat, which made it difficult to assess his height; Kim judged him middling tall. His right hand held a silver-headed walking stick. “Another toff!” Kim thought with disgust. She did not for a moment believe that he was a real magician; if he were, he would never waste his time working the market. Still, she felt a twinge of uneasiness.
The man held his pose for a moment, then threw back his cape. “I am Mairelon the Magician!” he announced. “Lend me your attention and I will show you wonders. The knowledge of the East and the West is mine, and the secrets of the mysterious cults of Africa and India! Behold!”
Mairelon pulled a silk handkerchief from his pocket and displayed both sides. “A perfectly ordinary handkerchief—as ordinary, that is, as the finest silk may be. Stuff of such worth should be kept close.” The crowd chuckled as he stuffed it into his closed fist and it vanished.
“Dear me, I seem to have lost it in spite of my efforts,” the magician went on, opening his fist. “Now, where…ah!”
He reached down toward a pretty muffin-maid standing in front of the stage and pulled the handkerchief out of her bonnet. A string of colored scarves came with it, knotted end-to-end. Mairelon frowned. “Now, what am I to do with all of these?” he mused. Carefully he folded them into compact ball and wrapped the ball in the white handkerchief. When he shook it out, the scarves were gone.
The flow of chatter continued as Mairelon borrowed a penny from a man in the crowd and made it pass through his handkerchief, then vanish and reappear. He pulled an egg from behind another man’s ear, broke it into his hat, then reached into the hat and removed a live dove. He covered it briefly with his cloak, then drew the cloak aside to reveal a large wicker cage with the dove inside. He placed cage and dove on the floor of the stage and gestured with his walking stick, and they vanished in a puff of smoke and flame. He showed the crowd a shallow bowl and had one of the barrow boys fill it with water, then dropped a sheet of paper in and pulled out ten tiny Chinese lanterns made of folded paper.
Kim watched the show with unabashed enjoyment. Near the end, the droopy man reappeared, carrying an ancient tambourine. As Mairelon finished his performance, his companion circulated among the crowd, collecting pennies and shillings from the onlookers.
Reluctantly Kim pulled her mind away from the fascinating sight of Mairelon the Magician juggling eggs that, as they passed between his agile fingers, changed from white to red to blue to yellow in rapid succession. This was the first time both men had been outside at once, and she had to know how long the wagon would be empty.
She started singing “Darlin’ Jenny” in her head to mark the time, and scowled in irritation. Her dislike for this job was growing stronger every minute. Nicking a purse or pocket watch from the swells in the High Street had never bothered her, but she’d always hated working the markets. Hungerford was the nearest she’d had to a home since old Mother Tibb dangled from the nabbing cheat, and even if all she had to do this time was a bit of snooping, it felt the same as nabbing a haddock from Red Sal’s stand when her back was turned. Kim contemplated conveniently forgetting to return to the public house where the toff had arranged to meet her, but the memory of the pound notes the stranger had offered held her like an iron chain.
Five pounds was a fortune by Kim’s standards; she could eat well and sleep dry for months and still have enough left to replace the ragged jacket and boy’s breeches she wore. If she played her cards right, she might even get out of the streets for good. It was time and past that she did so; she was, she thought, nearing seventeen, and her long-delayed growth was finally arriving. She wouldn’t be able to play the boy much longer. A chill ran down her spine, and she pushed the thought, and the darker knowledge of the inevitable consequences that would follow the end of her masquerade, resolutely from her mind. Mairelon the Magician was, for the moment at least, of far greater importance than her own uncertain future.
Mairelon finished his show in a flurry of flashing knives and whirling scarves, and bowed deeply “Thank you for your attention—and for your gracious contributions.” He waved at the tambourine his dour assistant carried, and the crowd chuckled. “That concludes this performance, but soon Mairelon the Magician will return to perform even more wondrous feats for your delight and astonishment! Until then, my friends!” In a second puff of smoke and flame, the magician vanished.
Kim stopped midway through the eighth verse of “Darlin’ Jenny” and slipped away as the crowd began to disperse. She did not want Sal or Jamie spotting her and remembering it later. Once she was safely away from Mairelon’s wagon, she breathed more easily. She couldn’t do anything about the magician until the end of his next show. She had time, now, to enjoy the market.
She stopped an ancient woman in a faded kerchief and exchanged one of her carefully hoarded pennies for a bag of roasted chestnuts. She ate them slowly as she walked, savoring the taste. The unaccustomed warmth in her stomach made her feel more cheerful, though she still wasn’t too keen on the idea of mucking about in Mairelon’s wagon. For one thing, she didn’t like the look of the skinny toff who’d hired her.
Unconsciously she flexed her fingers, making the bag rustle. Five pounds would buy a lot more than chestnuts. The skinny toff hadn’t asked her to nick anything, she reminded herself, just to look around and tell him what she saw and whether the magician kept a particular bowl in his wagon. The toff had claimed it was a bet. He might even be telling the truth; swells’d bet on anything.
She stepped aside to let an oyster-seller push his barrow past. It didn’t feel right. The gentry cove had been too keen on her finding that bowl. He’d gotten positively excited when he started describing it—silver, he’d said, with a lot of carvings and patterns whose details Kim had seen no reason to bother remembering.
Kim frowned. Curiosity was her besetting weakness. And five pounds was five pounds. It wasn’t as if she’d be doing any harm. She finished the last of the chestnuts and stuffed the bag into one of her many pockets, in case she found a use for it later. She’d do it just the way the toff had asked: go in, look around, and slip out. Mairelon would never know anyone had been there.
And if she did happen to find that bowl, maybe she’d see what was so special about it. But she wouldn’t mention it to the skinny toff. She’d collect her money and leave. She might even come back and warn Mairelon about the swell that was showing so much interest. Market folk should stick together, after all. She smiled to herself; that’d serve the skinny toff a bit of his own soup! Whistling cheerfully, she strolled off to see if the puppet show was still stopping at the far end of the market.
* * *
Evening found her lurking near Mairelon’s wagon once more. This time she stood in the shadows next to Jamie’s stall, leaning on one of its support posts. As the crowd grew larger, she let herself be pushed back until the open rear door of the wagon, which formed one side of Mairelon’s stage, all but hid the performance from her sight.
Mairelon was as good as his word. He did not, as far as Kim could tell, repeat any of the tricks he had used in his earlier performance. This time, he made three unbroken silver rings pass through each other, locking and interlocking them in intricate patterns. He bought an apple from a passing vendor and cut it open to reveal a shilling at its core. The apple seller was promptly surrounded by hopeful customers, but his remaining wares proved disappointingly ordinary.
Meanwhile, the magician went smoothly on with his act. He borrowed a hat from one of the men in the crowd, boiled an egg in it, and returned the hat to its owner unharmed. Then he brought out a pack of playing cards and ran through a series of increasingly elaborate tricks.
Kim was so enthralled by the show that she almost missed seeing a small door open near the front of the wagon. The jingling noise of the tambourine caught her attention at last. Hastily she mashed herself flat against the side of Jamie’s stall, holding one ragged sleeve up to obscure her face. Mairelon’s droopy henchman glanced in her direction as he passed, but his eyes moved on once her dirty and impecunious appearance sank in.
As soon as the man had been absorbed into the audience, Kim darted for the wagon door, hoping Mairelon’s show and the growing shadows would keep her from being noticed. Her luck held; no shouts followed her down the narrow aisle, and when she reached it, the door was unlocked. Kim pushed it open and half jumped, half fell into the wagon’s interior, the first chorus of “Darlin’ Jenny” echoing through her mind.
She paused briefly to get her breath back and look around. Once again, she found herself staring in surprise. The wagon’s interior was paneled in dark wood, polished to a high gloss. Rows of cupboards ran down one side, topped by a shelf of smooth grey tile. A long chest was built into the other wall; from the neat roll of blankets at one end, Kim guessed that it doubled as a bed. Presumably the droopy man slept on the floor, or perhaps under the wagon, for she saw no sign of a second bed.
A small lamp, which Kim decided had to be pewter because it could not possibly be silver, hung near the door. Its light threw back rich highlights from the walls and cupboard doors. A wool carpet, deep red with strange designs in black and cream, covered the floor. Kim had never been anywhere half so elegant in her entire life; even the back room of Gentleman Jerry’s was nothing to it.
The faded curtain at the far end of the wagon swayed as Mairelon crossed his little stage. Kim came out of her daze as she realized that the curtain was all that separated her from discovery. She could hear the magician’s patter quite clearly. He would be able to hear her just as easily, should she be clumsy or careless.
Kim glanced around the wagon again, painfully aware of the need for haste. She had wasted nearly a whole verse in her musing. The cupboards were the most likely place to start. She stepped forward, like a cat stalking a particularly suspicious mouse, and opened the first door.
The cupboard was filled with dishes. Three mismatched plates and a shallow ceramic soup bowl occupied the lowest shelf; a row of china teacups hung from hooks on the bottom of the shelf above. The upper part of the cupboard contained a neat stack of copper pans, iron pots, and assorted lids. Kim took long enough to make sure there was nothing hidden in or behind any of them, then went on. Her hasty search revealed nothing of any interest in the remaining cupboards, and she turned to the long chest.
The lid did not respond to her careful tug. Closer inspection revealed a hidden lock. Kim hesitated. She had nearly three full verses of “Darlin’ Jenny” left, even if she allowed herself all of the last one as a safety margin. And the skinny toff would hardly be pleased if all she had to tell him was that Mairelon the Magician kept pots in his cupboards and his chest locked. Her lips tightened, and she reached into her pocket for the stiff bit of wire she always carried.
The lock was a good one, and the overhanging wood that concealed it made her work more difficult. Two more verses of “Darlin’ Jenny” went by while she twisted the wire back and forth, coaxing the tumblers into position. She was about to abandon her efforts when she heard a faint click and the lid of the chest popped up a quarter of an inch.
Kim straightened in relief and pocketed the wire. She took hold of the chest’s lid and lifted, forcing herself to move slowly in case the hinges squealed. Then she held it in position with one hand and bent over to peer inside.
Piles of brightly colored silks met her eyes. Beside them were slotted wooden boxes, a bundle of tiny Chinese lanterns, several mirrors, a glass tube with a painted paper cover, a top hat, and several decks of playing cards, all arranged neatly and precisely according to some order Kim could not fathom. A few she recognized as props from Mairelon’s first show, none of them looked at all like the bowl the gentry cove had gone on about. As she started to close the lid, she saw a swatch of black velvet sticking out from under a stack of neatly folded silk handkerchiefs. One last try, she thought, and brushed the silks aside.
Her hand closed on something hard and heavy, wrapped in velvet. Then there was a violent, soundless explosion and Kim was flung backward against the cupboards on the other side of the wagon. Through a haze of violet light, she saw the lid of the trunk slowly close itself. Purple spots danced before her eyes, then spread out to cover her entire field of vision. Her last coherent thought, as the purple deepened into black unconsciousness, was an angry curse directed at the toff waiting for her in the public house. Five pounds wasn’t anywhere near enough pay for snooping on a real magician.
Copyright © 1991 by Patricia C. Wrede