'Your pa's fair posh,' said the butcher's boy to Wendy Darling when he saw her in the kitchen. He banged down a wide, flat box on the table. 'All the way from France, these are.' He looked sideways at Wendy's thick golden hair and her big, black-lashed blue eyes. You'll break some hearts one day, young miss.
'On your way, Eddie,' said Mrs Jenkins, the cook, firmly. 'And don't forget my sausages tomorrow. There'll be a cup of tea for you if they're fresh.'
Eddie grinned and left the kitchen. That Mrs Jenkins, she had eyes in the back of her head.
Mrs Jenkins turned to the box on the table. 'Baby chickens!' she said in a disgusted voice. 'No taste to 'em at all! What's wrong with a good English cockerel straight from the farmyard?'
Wendy opened the box and saw twenty-four tiny feathered bodies lying side by side, packed in newspaper. She picked one up. Its bones were fine as hairpins and its floppy neck was thinner than her finger. Mrs Jenkins was right. What was the point of them? Each bird seemed barely bigger than a mouthful. 'Can I help you pluck them, Mrs Jenkins?'
'If you put your apron on, dear.'
An hour later, Wendy watched as Mrs Jenkins seasoned the tiny chickens with thyme and wrapped them in fat bacon. 'There's not many knows how to keep 'em juicy,' she said to herself proudly, banging a body into the roasting pan. 'New-fangled nonsense!'
'Putrefaction,' said Wendy sternly.
'Yes, dear.' Mrs Jenkins was used to Wendy saying strange things. The girl was only nine but she often seemed more grown up than her age. She spent half her time with her head in a book and the other half grubbing about in the garden with her magnifying glass.
'It means rot.'
Last summer, Wendy had wrapped a dead blackbird in greased muslin and buried it for a month, then dug it up and looked at it through the magnifying glass. Her brother John had been sick.
'It's what happens to dead things,' said Wendy to Mrs Jenkins. She drew her eyebrows together. 'Do you think these baby chickens have maggots inside? Extra wriggly French maggots?'
'I doubt your father would thank me for serving rotten meat.' Mrs Jenkins rolled her eyes. 'These birds cost a pretty penny, I can tell you.'
Wendy clicked her tongue. It would be just like her father to show off. He always had to have the latest thing. Then he had to make sure that everyone knew how clever he was.
'I think it's a terrible waste of money, Mrs Jenkins. Why can't Father's friends eat pigeon pie like we do? Then he could give the money he saved to the poor families who need it.'
By now all of the little birds were seasoned and wrapped in bacon. 'It's that Lady Cunningham,' said Mrs Jenkins in a flat voice. 'She and Sir Alfred are coming to the dinner this evening. Your father thinks she likes foreign food.' Mrs Jenkins picked up a chicken and jabbed the sharp end of a skewer in one end and out the other.
'Why are you stabbing them?' asked Wendy. She looked at Mrs Jenkins sideways. 'It's not their fault they're French.'
'I'm not stabbing them.' Mrs Jenkins laughed. 'It's the heat from the skewer that cooks them fast and keeps them juicy.'
'First they're strangled, then they're stabbed,' said Wendy. 'I'm glad I'm not French.'
'I expect your mother and father are too, dear.'
Mrs Jenkins slid the last two bodies onto their skewer and fitted them into the roasting pan. Wendy swung a wooden spoon back and forth in front of her face like a metronome. She stared at the huge Welsh dresser on the far side of the kitchen. Its shelves were stacked with china mixing bowls and metal moulds for jelly and baking tins for Mrs Jenkins's superb cakes. Underneath the shelves, copper-bottomed saucepans hung in a row according to size.
'Do you think the big preserving pan would sound like a drum and the tiny pot like a triangle if I hit them with this spoon?'
'I couldn't rightly say, dear,' said Mrs Jenkins, not really listening.
Wendy stared down at the row of wrapped bodies stuck with skewers.
'If God lets this happen to little birds, why shouldn't it happen to children? It says in the Bible -'
'Wendy!' snapped Mrs Jenkins. 'For goodness' sake, stop asking silly questions or I'll ruin these birds and your mother will have my guts for garters.'
Mrs Jenkins wished she hadn't spoken so sharply. She knew perfectly well that Wendy had hardly anyone to talk to besides her brother John, and even though he was seven, he seemed much younger. As for their nanny - well, Mrs Jenkins was convinced that women like Edwina Holborn should be dragged out at dawn and shot.
'Nothing to be sorry about,' said Mrs Jenkins in a kinder voice. 'But there's a time and place for everything.' She held out a white napkin folded into a parcel. 'Now, here's a treat for you. They're your mama's favourite and I made them specially.'
'Is it new-fangled foreign food?'
Mrs Jenkins smiled. 'Find out for yourself. Run along now, or that nanny will be after you.'
Wendy pulled open the napkin and saw a tiny glazed tart stuffed with a creamy filling. A sprinkling of black dots gleamed on the top. It looked more like a brooch than something you would eat. 'Thank you,' she said. But Mrs Jenkins had turned to a mountain of scallop shells in the shallow stone sink.
Two minutes later, Wendy was climbing up the back stairs towards the nursery. Everything was quiet, thank goodness. Horrible Nanny Holborn was still out with John and Michael at the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens.
Poor John and Michael.
She held the napkin parcel tightly in her hand. Mrs Jenkins was her favourite person in the house, after John and Nana, of course. As she reached the third flight of stairs, she heard Liza, the housemaid, singing from behind the ironing-room door, one of those music-hall songs about moonlight and violets. Wendy smiled to herself. Liza was really singing about Charlie Pickles, the carpenter's apprentice from the mews behind Kensington Place. It was supposed to be a secret but she had heard Liza telling Mrs Jenkins that she and Charlie were engaged to be married.
Wendy climbed up the last flight of stairs and turned down the corridor. It wasn't often Liza sang. Liza knew to keep quiet if Nanny Holborn was about. Nanny Holborn had lost two fiancés in the South African War so she didn't hold with men because all they did was let you down. If she ever heard Liza singing or saw her smiling to herself, Nanny Holborn always went into a fury. No matter how quickly Liza finished her work on her afternoon off, there was always an extra job waiting for her. More often than not it was well into the afternoon before Liza could pin on her hat and take a turn with Charlie around the park.
Poor Liza! She never used to have anything to do with Nanny Holborn. Then Agnes, the nursery maid, had given in her notice and her father hadn't taken on a replacement, which was odd because he always seemed proud that the Darlings had more servants than most of their friends. So Liza was doing two jobs now.
'Not that I mind too much,' she told Wendy. 'Me and Charlie'll need the money to get married. There just ain't enough hours in the day, that's all.'
Wendy crept quickly past the ironing-room door so as not to disturb Liza. She turned the brass handle of the nursery door as gently as she could and closed it softly behind her.
A big black Newfoundland dog looked up from a basket on the linoleum floor. She flopped her tail but didn't get up.
Wendy knelt down beside the basket.
'Nana,' she whispered, 'I've had an idea. It's probably really stupid.' She opened the white napkin parcel. 'Mrs Jenkins says this is one of Mother's favourite things.' She looked into the dog's brown, bloodshot eyes. It was her favourite thing to imagine that Nana could talk. 'I'm going to send myself into a trance like those snake charmers do in India. Then I'm going to eat this tart and see if I can imagine what it's like to be Mother.'
Nana looked at the tart, wrinkled her nose and rested her wide head on her paws again. You're mad.
Wendy buried her face in the dog's loose, glossy fur and laughed. 'Mother says that some mad people are really geniuses.' She held out the napkin in front of her and closed her eyes. Then she swayed from side to side and hummed tunelessly. A moment later she whisked the tart from the napkin and put the whole thing in her mouth.
It was absolutely disgusting.
What she had thought would be sweet creamy custard was a fishy mush that tasted sharp and rotten at the same time. The pastry was peppery and oily, and the shiny little black dots that should have been liquorice were salty and foul and popped in her mouth as if they were insects' eggs. Wendy spat the tart back into the napkin.
Heavy footsteps clumped up the stairs. Lighter footsteps pounded down the corridor.
'Wendy! Wendy!' shouted John at the top of his voice.
'Stop running!' snapped Nanny Holborn, 'or there will be no staying up this evening.'
The pounding stopped.
Wendy wiped her mouth on her sleeves. 'What am I going to do, Nana?'
I'll think of something.
'Hurry up!' croaked Wendy.
Wasting food was a sin close to blasphemy as far as Nanny Holborn was concerned. Every plate had to be cleaned. Every vile crust had to be properly chewed and swallowed. If not, it would appear without fail at the next meal.
Wendy looked down at the filthy mouthful of tart in the napkin. 'Nana! She'll make me eat it!'
'Wendy! Wendy! I can sail my boat by myself!' John rushed into the nursery, holding up his sailboat like a trophy above his head. His brown eyes shone with excitement under his short, straight black hair. 'It worked, what you showed me!'
At the same moment, Nana pushed her nose into the white napkin parcel and gobbled up the tart in one mouthful.
John stared at his sister as she stuffed the napkin down the front of her pinafore. 'What -- '
Wendy shook her head and put a finger to her lips.
'I didn't mean to,' Michael was wailing in the corridor. 'I couldn't help it. I promise, Nanny, I couldn't help it.'
Nanny Holborn appeared at the door, clutching Wendy's youngest brother by the collar. She was a tall woman with thin lips and a bony face and eyes that glinted like metal. She wore a long, navy-blue cloak and a high, black bonnet. Beside her, Michael howled and tried to pull away from her grip. He was dark-haired like his brother but his face was round and chubby.
'You're a nasty, dirty little boy,' snarled Nanny Holborn. She frogmarched Michael across the room towards a screen on the far side. 'And a disgrace to your family.'
'How does your boat sail, John?' asked Wendy quickly.
'Like a winner,' said John. 'She'll make a Channel crossing next.'
Nanny Holborn's head swung around like the muzzle of a gun. 'Did you lie down on your bed, as you were told?'
'Yes, Nanny,' said Wendy. She forced herself to look at Nanny Holborn's tin-coloured eyes. They were furious as usual. 'I looked at my encyclopaedias.'
'Did you let that filthy dog outside to do its business?'
'Yes, Nanny.' Wendy looked sideways at Nana.
Takes one to know one.
'Humph,' muttered Nanny Holborn as if she was trying to make up her mind about something. She disappeared behind the screen, dragging Michael with her as if he was a sack of dirty laundry.
'Please, Nanny!' cried John. 'You won't change your mind, will you?'
Wendy's heart thumped in her chest. Yesterday, Nanny Holborn had promised they could watch the guests go in to dinner and count the dishes of food that were carried in after them.
'I bet there will be more than a hundred plates, Nanny,' gabbled John hopelessly.
All they could see behind the screen was the back of Nanny Holborn's navy serge skirt and the tie of her white apron.
'We've been very good,' pleaded John. 'Haven't we, Wendy?'
'We have,' cried Wendy.
They heard a sticky wet sound as Nanny Holborn stripped off Michael's soaked trousers.
'I want to see Mother all shiny!' wailed Michael.
There was a hard slap, then a high-pitched scream.
Nanny Holborn appeared with Michael, half-naked, in her arms. A wide red welt was spreading across his upper thigh.
Michael buried his face in Nanny Holborn's hard starched collar and sobbed.
Metal screeched on linoleum as Nanny Holborn dragged a grey tin bath in front of the fire and tipped in two enormous jugs of hot water. Even though there was running water in the house, she insisted on bathing Michael like a baby. She tested the water with her elbow and plunged Michael into the bath. Then she turned to where Wendy and John were standing in the middle of the nursery.
'Don't stand there gawping,' she snapped. 'Eat your tea. Then bath and straight to bed for both of you.'
'But, Nanny!' cried John. 'You promised.'
Nanny Holborn fixed him with her crazy metal eyes. 'One more word out of you and you'll be sorry.'
'I hate her,' whispered John when tea was finally over and they had had their baths. 'I wish she was dead.' He stood on his tiptoes and hung up his wool dressing gown in the cupboard in their night nursery next door.
Wendy yanked off her own dressing gown and dropped it on the floor. 'Did you see the colour of Michael's leg?'
John bent down and picked up the dressing gown. The idea of any more trouble was unbearable.
'He's only four,' said Wendy furiously. 'Anyone can have an accident.' She pulled back her sheet and swung herself into the bed that was nearest the window. 'I'm going to tell Mother. I swear I will.'
John put his sheepskin slippers neatly together and climbed into his own bed. He lay down as still as a dead body. 'What good would that do?' he said. 'She couldn't look after us. Besides, she'd never believe you. Grown-ups never do.'
Wendy thought of the disgusting tart Mrs Jenkins had made for her mother. How could it be one of her favourite things? 'Grown-ups make me sick,' she muttered.
Outside the window a hansom cab rattled to a stop on the cobbles. 'Number 14, guv,' said a voice. Money clinked. 'Very generous, guv.'
'The guests are arriving,' said John, sniffing.
There was a creak of bedsprings as Wendy slid out of bed and put on her dressing gown.
'Wendy,' whispered John in a horrified voice, 'what are you doing?'
She crept across the room and sat on her brother's bed. 'Nanny Holborn will be snoring by now,' she said in a low voice. 'Come on. She always falls asleep in front of the fire. I often sneak out to watch.'
John's eyes were wide in the dim light. 'Watch what?'
'Anything that moves or talks. I'm doing a survey of everything that happens in the house.' Wendy cocked her head. 'For example, so far I've discovered that Liza always examines her teeth in the landing mirror.'
'What if we get caught?'
'Don't be so wet! Do you want to see the guests arriving or not?'
'Of course I do,' said John sulkily.
'Then follow me and we won't get caught. I know a way across the nursery floor that doesn't creak.' Wendy fixed her brother with a stern eye. 'But you have to step exactly where I step. Do you understand?'
'OK. As long as you promise we won't get caught.'
'Trust me!' Wendy went over to the night-nursery door and put her ear to the keyhole. 'Wait for my signal.' Then, more quietly than John could have believed possible, she turned the handle and opened the door.
The nursery was lit by the orange glow of the coal fire. In the corner, Michael was sound asleep in the nursery cot, curled up in a miserable hump with his thumb in his mouth. He had been put to bed on his own as a punishment for wetting his trousers. In front of the fire, Nanny Holborn was slumped in her padded wooden chair. Her white indoor cap had slipped down her forehead and a ball of wool had tumbled from her lap and lay beside a basket of socks on the floor.
Wendy held her breath and listened to the dragon's steady snores. Satisfied, she turned around and signalled to John.
Copyright © 2003 by Karen Wallace
Wendy Darling is not the perfect girl her parents would like her to be. Intrepid, outspoken, and willful, she's always getting into trouble. One evening, confined to the nursery by her horrible nanny, she sneaks out to spy on one of her parents' glamorous parties.
Their world is lavish, rich with excess -- and off limits to Wendy. On this evening Wendy uncovers a secret she had not bargained for. It catapults both her and her brothers, Michael and John, into a series of confusing events as she tries to make sense of the mystery and intrigue that lie at the heart of her family.
- Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers |
- 320 pages |
- ISBN 9781416903147 |
- August 2005 |
- Grades 7 and up