‘Oh, Lill!’ She clapped her hands together, a sudden smile spreading over her face. ‘You have a rendezvous, haven’t you? A rendezvous with a young man!’
My jaw dropped, and I whirled around.
‘No! Of course not!’
Ella didn’t seem to have heard me. Quickly, she stepped to my side, that silly, secretive, girly smile still plastered on her face. Her hands came up, starting to style my hair and smooth my dress at a pace I would never have been capable of. It was as if she had ten arms. ‘It’s all right,’ she giggled. ‘I won’t tell. Is he nice? Is he handsome?’
Yes he is. Very.
I pushed the thought out of my mind as soon as it appeared. It wasn’t like that! I wasn’t going to meet a man. Well, in a sense I was, but not ‘meeting’ as in meeting to do… well, to do whatever romantic couples get up to when they’re alone. Why did every female’s brain on earth, including that of my little sister, turn to mushy-gushy mushrooms the moment a man was mentioned? There were many legitimate reasons for a girl to meet a man, reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with mating behaviour, such as… such as…
Well, maybe I couldn’t think of anything just now, but you see my point.
‘Oh Lill, come on. Tell me at least what colour his eyes are, will you?’
I stomped my foot and crossed my arms. Ella more or less ignored my signs of protest and continued to work her magic on my hair.
‘I said no, didn’t I? I’m not going to a rendezvous, Ella!’
She just giggled again, and then winked. My dear, demure, innocent little sister, winking? And if my eyes didn’t betray me, even conspiratorially!
‘I quite understand,’ she whispered. ‘You have to be discreet.’
Why was I even bothering to correct her? It would be good if she came up with her own explanation and I wouldn’t have to engage in inventive truth-modification again to spare her concern. But the thought simply drove me insane: I was going to meet Mr Rikkard Ambrose, and all the while my little sister would be sitting at home thinking that he and I were…
I shook my head. This was no time for mushy-gushy irrationality. My interest in Mr Ambrose was purely professional, and it didn’t matter what anybody else thought. Did it?
No doubt motivated by her concern for the welfare of my pining, love-struck heart, Ella finished my hair in record time. I took about two seconds to admire myself in the mirror - really, Ella had managed to make quite a presentable lady out of her raw material - and then rushed towards the door. Over my shoulder, I threw my little sister a grateful grin. ‘I’ll owe you forever for this! Thanks!’
‘You are most welcome,’ she said, winking again. It was definitely conspiratorial this time.
Dear God, had the world gone mad?
I rushed down the stairs, past a bewildered aunt and out the door before she could shriek her protest. How much time was left until nine? Not enough, probably. I was just about to start sprinting off in the direction of Leadenhall Street when I spotted a cab, just driving by on the other side of the street. Huzzah! My life was saved!
‘Cabbie!’ I waved my parasol like a castaway signalling the rescue ship.
With a ‘Ho there!’ the cabbie stopped his horses and peered at me curiously. I clambered into the cab before he could even think of jumping down to help me inside, and whacked my parasol against the roof.
‘Leadenhall Street, cabbie, number 322. I have to be there before nine.’
The name of the famous street, full to the brim with business and money, acted like an electrical shock on the poor man. Up until then he had been looking sleepy and not too pleased by his new passenger, but when I said that name, his eyes flew wide open and he cracked the whip.
The cab lurched forward and I was thrown back into the seat. Fiercely, I clung to the upholstery as we raced over the cobblestones. The uneven paving almost knocked my teeth out at the speed we were driving. We were lucky that there wasn’t much traffic on the streets, or this insane tempo would have been plain suicide.
Outside the window, the buildings rushed by in a confused blur. I couldn’t see much of them, but I did notice that, after a few minutes, the reddish-brown colour of brick buildings was replaced by the fancier colours of painted walls, which in turn were replaced by the gleaming white of marble. We had left the middle-class districts of London and were fast approaching the centre of the unrivalled power and wealth of the British Empire.
Anxiously, I listened for the sound of Great Paul, the bell of St. Paul’s Cathedral, announcing the full hour. I had no idea if I still had twenty or only two minutes left till my appointment. If I only had a watch, then I would know! But apart from being expensive, watches were also only intended for gentlemen. As if girls didn’t need to know the time of day!
‘Hold tight, Miss!’ the cabbie called, and I tightened my grip on the seat just in time. We swerved around a corner and I was almost thrown sideways onto the seat, but managed to right myself in time to see the black and white painted sign rush past the open window:
Thank the Lord. Or maybe I shouldn’t be too quick to thank him. That would rather depend on what would happen to me now…
‘322, you said?’ the cabbie called.
Abruptly, the cabbie pulled on the brakes and I was flung forward, just managing to catch myself in time to prevent my nose from being bashed in. Panting, I sat there in the coach and tried to recover my equilibrium. Outside, the cabbie jumped down and opened the door for me. Ordinarily I would have protested at such a display of male chauvinism, but right now my legs didn’t feel like protesting. With shaky steps, I climbed out and even accepted the cabbie’s hand, which he offered to help me down.
I handed the man my pocket money of about half a year - thanks to my generous uncle just enough to pay the fare - and looked up and down the street. I didn’t see number 322 anywhere. Hmm… What could the office of Mr Rikkard Ambrose look like? The likeliest candidate for the headquarters of a man of his wealth was a building right across from me, with a broad, showy façade and more pillars and scrollwork than on most royal palaces.
The cabbie had followed my gaze. ‘Which one is number 322?’ I asked. ‘That one?’
He shook his head emphatically. ‘Oh no, Miss. That’s India House, the headquarters of the East India Company. Number 322, Empire House, is right opposite. Behind the cab.’