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The Adventures of The Masked Lady

Chapter Text

March 1881

“Stop! Thief!”

Jenny, kneeling by the coal bin, quickly looked up at the shout, ready and eager to help capture a thief if needed. But the landlady of “The Cheapside Gin Palace” was bearing down on her, shaking her fist. Jenny sighed, disappointed, then simply stood and waited; a half-full coal bucket and full water bucket beside her. When the woman was close, she dropped a small, clumsy curtsey and calmly said, “Good morning, Mrs Brown.”

That brought the woman up short. “Who are you? Put that coal back, you thief!”

“I’m Jenny, ma’am. I’m staying with Miss Vastra. You’ve seen me before; I’ve been here over two weeks now.”

“I have? You are? I don’t remember any of this!”

Jenny didn’t reply to that; Mrs Brown was sober at the moment, but often she was so soused by noon that it was a wonder that she remembered her own name. However, she always remembered to collect the rent, and how much to charge for gin. Jenny shook her head at the strange quirks of some adults.

“I’m just fetching water and Miss Vastra’s coal for the day.”

Mrs Brown eyed the girl in front of her. Now that she thought about it, the youngster did look familiar. “I’ve seen you! You were washing laundry a few days ago.”

“Yes, ma’am, that’s right.”

“Doing the laundry, fetching the water and coal… What are you then, Miss Vastra’s maid?” Mrs Brown half-laughed, half sneered, “She’s decided to give herself airs, has she, for all she lives in a garret? She’ll be giving herself a fancy title next!”

“Maid’s as good a name as any, and at least it’s honest work.” Jenny bent back to the coal bin, and finished filling the bucket.

“Can’t be much for you to do. That flat’s not very big.”

“It’s not, and now that I have it cleaned up, it’ll be easy to keep it clean.”

“Harrumph,” said Mrs Brown, as Jenny picked up her buckets and started up the stairs, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground. Miss Vastra won’t want to pay you much for that!”

Jenny didn’t mention that Vastra was allowing her to stay while Jenny hid from her father and the members of a Chinese criminal gang called the Black Scorpion Tong. The chores were Jenny’s way of trying to repay Vastra for her kindness, and for the lessons on self-defence and blade work that Vastra taught her every day.

Mrs Brown followed Jenny up the long flights of stairs, grumbling away about various tenants, the price of coal, and the foolishness of hiring young girls to clean small rooms. Of course, Jenny thought, it would never occur to the woman to actually help carry the buckets. Just as well that Jenny was still working on getting stronger; carrying the heavy coal and water was a good start.

They arrived at Vastra’s flat, and Jenny knocked three times on the door and waited. Miss Vastra wasn’t wearing her cloak when Jenny left, and she hoped that by knocking the woman would put it on before answering the door.

A moment later, the door swung open, and Jenny entered, buckets in hand and Mrs Brown at her heels. Jenny glimpsed Vastra’s cloaked form by the door as she entered, and sighed in relief.

“She followed me home; we don't have to keep her, do we?” muttered Jenny to Vastra, glancing back at the Landlady. Vastra smirked slightly, and drew the hood of her cloak a little further forward.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Mrs Brown?” Vastra asked at her most regal, “Surely the rent isn’t due for another three days?”

Mrs Brown wasn’t looking at Vastra though. She was staring around the flat. Vastra wasn’t surprised; Mrs Brown had last been in the room the day after Vastra had rescued Jenny, and the room had been filthy. In the intervening time, Jenny had scrubbed the flat thoroughly, making sure that the floors, bedding, window and hearth were as clean as possible. Vastra had to admit the place was much more liveable now.

“Ha! You weren’t bamming me, eh? You really are the maid!” said Mrs Brown, looking around with something like admiration in her eyes. “Never seen a flat in this place look better!”

Vastra glanced over at Jenny, who shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Jenny has been a great help, Mrs Brown.”

“Alright, then. I believe you. Don’t think you’ll have much work though, you’ll be bored and gone soon.” Mrs Brown said to Jenny, and then swept out the door. Vastra closed it behind her, dropped the hood of her cloak, and looked over at Jenny with an inquiring cock of her head.

“Maid?”

“She’s seen me doing the laundry and fetching the water and coal. She took it into her head I’m your maid.” Jenny dropped a deep, though still clumsy, curtsey to Vastra. “I decided not to correct her, ma’am, if it keeps her from asking too many questions.”

“Very wise. Although you may need to tell Mrs Brown the same thing every day for the next year, as I doubt she will remember.”

***

Except Mrs Brown did remember, both Jenny herself, and how clean Vastra's room was now. The next week one of the barmaids needed to leave to see to her sick father and the young weekend cleaner was asked to fill in for her. A new cleaner was needed, and Jenny’s name came up. Mrs Brown arranged for Jenny to clean the Gin Palace on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, while the bar was closed. Thursday, Friday and Saturday were the busy nights in the bar, and the place was always filthy the next day.

Vastra helped with the negotiations, refusing to ‘release’ Jenny for the work ‘unless she was properly paid for Jenny’s time.’ As a result, Jenny earned two shillings, half the price of a bottle of gin, each morning. That gave her six shillings a week; roughly fifteen pounds a year, a decent wage, especially for a twelve year old girl, in a time were a junior maid might make less than twenty pounds a year. Mrs Brown grumbled about ‘blackmail’ but was quietly delighted; the child worked hard, did a first-rate job, and best of all, never drank the bar stock.

Vastra, of course, was concerned about how Jenny would feel about working at a place that sold gin, given that her father had essentially sold her in order to continue drinking.

“Can’t be helped, ma’am,” Jenny replied when Vastra asked, “The little bit o’Ma’s money that I found will run out soon. I need to eat, and while the pigeons are free meat we still need bread to catch them with. And it’s nice to have some vegetables for a stew, and some fresh bread to go with it. And you should be putting some money towards the rent.” Jenny’s wages, of course, where paid to Vastra, as Jenny’s ‘mistress’ and guardian, on the assumption that Jenny worked for Vastra. Since that was the same system that had occurred at the match factory, with Jenny’s wages being paid to her parents, Jenny saw nothing strange about the arrangement.

Vastra shook her head. “I’d be paying the rent whether you were here or not. And I would not have thought to use bread to attract the pigeons, so I’d most likely be snacking on mice.” Or humans, she thought, but didn’t mention. It hadn’t come up in the last few weeks, and Vastra was rather hesitant to broach the subject. How does one explain that one occasionally eats members of your pet’s species, anyway?

“Still,” said Jenny, “as the saying goes, ‘fish and houseguests start to stink after three days.’ You’ve been patience itself to put up with me for so long.”

Vastra glanced around her now trim little flat, and back to where Jenny was working on mending a popped button on one of Vastra’s shirts. “It is not an imposition, believe me.”

***

Jenny’s new job helped to focus Vastra’s thoughts on her own circumstances. It was rather embarrassing that while she had her savings, their only income was from her young pet’s work. She knew that she didn’t want to return to what could be politely termed ‘performing for an audience,’ with Jago’s ‘Monstre Gathering’ or less politely called ‘being a sideshow freak.’ That she’d refused the suggestion to catch bullets with her tongue as part of revamping and expanding her act had been career, as opposed to potentially actual, suicide. That, and making a midnight snack of a rather frail and elderly lion that she’d put out of its misery, had pretty much ended her career on the stage.

Vastra also knew that she wanted a more meaningful, more productive and more comfortable life than living in a one-room flat above a gin hall, even if Jenny had worked a miracle improving the place. Meaningful and productive she could mull over and she had a few thoughts on how to achieve those goals; but more comfortable, in Ape society, meant having more money. And Vastra simply didn’t understand the accumulation of money very well. Her people had long ago abandoned such childish games.

Vastra was also troubled by the fact that she still had not developed a viable strategy to deal with Jenny’s problem with the Scorpions. A sensible person might have pointed out that several weeks was not an unreasonable amount of time to sort out a way to deal with a group that had plagued the London and Metropolitan Police forces for a number of years, but since Vastra’s preferred solution involved swords, bloodshed and a really good feast, she did not consider that a great deal of preparation should be needed. However, Jenny had pointed out during their visit to her former home that Vastra really couldn’t tell the heroes (such as Jenny’s friend Tom) from the villains, and Vastra admitted (to herself at least) that “kill them all” was not a sound approach if Jenny was to have any chance of ever returning to her neighbourhood.

In the meantime, Vastra began to find herself downstairs, basking or reading in the little enclosed Area at the rear by the water pump while Jenny was cleaning the gin palace. Occasionally Jenny took advantage of this to ask for a few minutes of help with heavy objects, or if she couldn’t reach certain high places while cleaning. Vastra was surprised on Jenny’s second Sunday morning on the job, when she helped retrieve two different shoes from the plate rail by the ceiling; and both a lady’s handkerchief and what Jenny identified as a pair of gentlemen’s sock garters from various lighting fixtures. Vastra felt better if she could hear Jenny bustling around inside, as she didn't really trust the local Apes to leave the girl alone. The idea that she rather liked Jenny’s company, and felt more relaxed when the hatchling was nearby, never really occurred to her.

***

The following Friday morning, Vastra was reading Jenny’s copybook in the Area, simply because she hadn’t memorized it yet, and Jenny was hard at work cleaning up the Gin Palace.

Suddenly, she heard Jenny calling, “Help! Murder! Thief!” and Vastra tossed the copybook aside and ran into the building.

Jenny was at the front window, cleaning rags scattered on the nearby tables. Vastra could hear a commotion in the street outside. She looked out, and saw a middle-aged Ape being attacked. The robber had wrapped a rope around the Ape’s neck, and was choking it. From the corner of her eye, Vastra saw Jenny behind her, grabbing a stout-handled broom that she’d left nearby, and Vastra knew she’d seen the attack, called for Vastra, and that Vastra had better move quickly, or Jenny would dive into the fight by herself! Vastra ran for the front door, grabbing a forgotten umbrella. She charged outside and hit the thug on the back of the head with the handle of the umbrella.

“This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done,” thought Vastra. Her people had no ‘forms’ for fighting with a device made of metal and cloth. Past the thief she could see the other Apes in the street standing, staring and being extremely useless.

The thief turned, and Vastra hit it again with an uppercut to the throat with the handle, then reversed the umbrella and aimed the tip for the thief’s eye. It dodged, but stumbled as Vastra reversed the umbrella again and tripped the thief up with the handle.

From the corner of her vision, Vastra saw a younger human, possibly male, with a set of large books under one arm, and a knife in its hand. Obviously an accomplice, she thought. However, brandishing the knife was an unwise move, as a moment later it was dashed from the young ape’s hand by Jenny’s broom handle. Jenny then thrust the end of the broom handle hard into the ape’s stomach. It gasped and doubled over, winded. Jenny dealt it another smart blow to the arm, knocking the books away. As Vastra turned towards them, Jenny stepped over the books, brandished the broom in a stance Vastra had shown her, grinned wildly at the ape and chortled, “I suggest you run, dear.”

The young Ape took one look at the large cloaked form starting towards him, and took to its heels, still doubled over and followed closely by the first robber who was staggering and trying to keep on his feet. Vastra watched them go, as Jenny crossed to the fallen victim. Once the pair were out of sight, Vastra gathered the book and the young ape’s knife, and joined the others, remarking to Jenny; “You can be a very intimidating little monkey when you choose to be.”

Jenny was examining the victim’s throat carefully in that gentle way that Vastra had felt when Jenny looked over Vastra’s own wounds weeks before. “Some rope burn there sir,” Jenny said, “can you swallow?”

‘Ah,’ thought Vastra, ‘Thank-you Jenny. I’m fairly sure that ‘Sir’ means it’s a male.’

The man made a painful swallow, then nodded. “Think we got out here in good time, then,” continued Jenny.

“Can he be moved?” asked Vastra, “We should take him back to the Gin Palace, and not leave him here in the street.”

Jenny glanced up and around; now that the excitement was done, the few people in the street were hurrying about their business. “You know I’m not a doctor, right?” she asked. “He’s starting to catch his breath, and his throat’s not crushed, but he’s going to be right sore for a bit. But if we help him, he should be able to walk in a minute or two.”

“Of course you’re not the Doctor,” muttered Vastra to herself, “You’re far too young, and have far more sense!” Jenny didn't hear her, and would not have understood the comment even if she had.

Vastra handed Jenny the contents of her arms, then reached down and hauled the Ape, or rather the man, to his feet. He looked very surprised, but Jenny just shook her head, and said, “He’s not a sack o’ potatoes, ma’am! Sorry about that sir; she don’t remember her own strength when her blood’s up.”

Jenny led the way into the Gin Palace. Vastra sat the man down while Jenny went and asked Mrs Brown for something for him to drink. Mrs Brown bustled out (sober again for a change, to the surprise of both Jenny and Vastra) and upon seeing the quality of the man’s clothes, poured him a half-pint of bitter and welcomed him to her establishment before bustling out again to her tiny office. Jenny gathered up her cloths and returned to her work cleaning up the room. Vastra, still concealed within her cloak, sat with the man, and watched as he sipped his drink. “That’s rather good!” he said. Vastra made a mental note to try this drink sometime instead of her usual gin.

The man wasn't very tall, a bit plump without being fat, slightly balding with a quantity of fur under its nose and mouth. Smells fairly clean for an Ape, he would probably be a reasonably tasty meal, Vastra decided.

The man smiled at her and said, “Madame, I am in your debt, as well that of your young friend. I am James Thackeray. I work at the Bank of England as a Manager.”

“You are welcome, James Thackeray. My name is Vastra, and that is Jenny. She saw you being attacked and called for help.”

“Thank you, Miss Jenny!” he called. Jenny waved in reply from where she was working.

“Those villains were after the ledgers that you rescued. I’m not sure why. I was simply asked to pick them up from the Sherwin and Sommes Bank on Paternoster Row. Since it was a nice day, I walked over as it isn’t very far.”

“Wouldn’t a messenger usually do that?” asked Jenny, who having finished wiping down the gin bottles was polishing the beer pulls. “A boy who wants to earn an extra coin or two?”

“Yes, but Mr Dawes, one of the Banks’ directors, asked me to see to it personally. I gather that there was some importance to the errand.”

“Well, apparently your assailants agreed; they seemed less interested in your wallet than in the ledgers.” observed Vastra.

Jenny watched Mr Thackeray and Miss Vastra out of the corner of her eye. It quickly dawned on her that Mr Thackeray was intrigued by Miss Vastra, probably by the contrast of her cultured voice and hidden face. Jenny found the idea rather sweet, but felt a need to protect Vastra, who could be rather oblivious to humans sometimes. Miss Vastra, Jenny realized, was more interested in the puzzle of the ledgers and the attack than in Mr Thackeray’s attentions.

When Jenny was finished, she put away her cleaning supplies, and joined the adults. She looked Mr Thackeray over as she did so, and decided he was reasonably recovered. It was probably time for him to return to work.

“It’s a nice day, if a bit breezy,” said Jenny, “ Maybe we should take a walk, ma’am. Just to keep Mr Thackeray company back to the bank, as he’s had a shock to his system. You remember ma’am, how I was when I went into shock. Bad chills, and almost passed out on my feet, I did.”

“Jenny is correct, Mr Thackeray. We’d both feel better if we knew you were safely returned to your bank with others around you.”

Mr Thackeray tried to protest, but Jenny leaned over and whispered to him. “Help me out here, sir. She doesn’t get out as much as she should, and it would be a kindness to have a good reason for her to be out and about.” Jenny knew it was a whopper of a tale, but it gave the gent an easy reason to agree without feeling he was being coddled by a woman and a girl.

Vastra was amused; Jenny was taking full advantage of her youth to get the Ape to accept an escort and convince him that he was doing them a favour. She'd have to keep an eye on her clever young pet. The hatchling was going to be a handful of mischief at this rate.

***

After the bar was inspected and approved by Mrs Brown, Jenny collected her own coat, and the trio set off. A short stroll, less than ten minutes, found them outside the massive entrance to the bank on Threadneedle Street.

“Cor, look at that!” exclaimed Jenny, impressed with the columns and statues. “The Bank of England, eh? Don’t know much about banks; I know they’re where money is kept, and rich people like them, but not more than that.”

“I must admit, I have never been in a bank either,” said Vastra.

“But this is splendid! Please, you both must visit the bank next week! Just give me a few days to set up a first rate visit for you. Come and tour in the morning, and then let me buy you lunch! Please let me give you that as a reward for your help today.”

“Please may we go, ma’am? It sounds like it would be a lot of fun!”

Vastra wasn’t sure if Jenny was more interested in seeing the bank or in the chance for a good meal that she didn’t need to pluck, clean and cook first, but she could not find it in herself to deny her pet the treat.

They agreed that Mr Thackeray would make arrangements for the middle of the next week, so he could secure the proper permissions, and that he would send a note over to The Gin Palace. And with another round of thanks from Mr Thackeray, they saw him into the bank, and made their way home.

***

As they walked back to the flat, Vastra asked, "Why was Mr Thackeray addressing me as Madame?"

“Well,” said Jenny, “as I recall, Ma explained it like this: ‘Miss’ is used to address unmarried women. It’s used as long as a woman remains unmarried, but lots of older women who never married don’t like it. Seems disrespectful like. Makes them sound like children. ‘Missus’ is used for married women, all ages, from very young to an old widow. ‘Madame’ is a foreign term I think, it’s used for married women too. Sometimes in English it’s used for women who aren’t young if you’re not sure if they’re married or not, and you want to be polite.”

“So when Mr Thackeray referred to me as ‘Madame’ it was because while he was sure I wasn't young, he wasn’t sure if I was married?”

“Right. Well, he probably wasn't sure if you were young or not either, ‘cause you always have the hood of your cloak up, and he can’t see your face.”

“Usually Apes distrust me for that, yet he was quite polite. Most Apes, I mean humans, are not.”

“You’d just rescued him from being strangled, and he saw that I know you and weren't put off by you. I think that made him feel better.”

Vastra nodded, that made sense. “So you,” she returned to the original discussion, “being young, would be addressed as “Miss Jenny?”

“Sometimes, yes. You heard Mr Thackeray use that. But for people of my sort, poor people I mean, it’s often not used much. Not a lot of respect for us, you see.”

“Yes, I’ve observed that. Yet you yourself are worthy of respect as you are both hard-working and clever. And I’ve heard the other word as well: so Mrs Brown is a married woman, correct?”
Jenny was surprised at Vastra’s off-hand remark. She blinked, then collected herself and answered the question: “Yes, or a widow. A married woman whose husband has died.”

“That makes sense. So… ‘Madame’… hmmm… ‘Madame Vastra.’ I think it sounds rather well. What do you think?”

“I like it. Sounds exotic. Fits you."

“Very well, I am now a Madame.”

Jenny tried not to choke with laughter, she’d need to explain that Madame should be used with a name, otherwise Vastra had just named herself a brothel keeper in street slang.

They arrived back at the flat, and Jenny collected Vastra's cloaked and her own coat, and hung them on the pegs by the door. Vastra continued, “I do have one more question.”

Jenny looked up, ready to answer. Vastra continued, “What do you mean by ‘A Married Woman?’ ”

Jenny just put her head in her hands. It was going to be a long evening.

***

Monday dawned sunny and warm, and Jenny declared it laundry day again. “If we’re off to the Bank this week, I’ve work to do! Choose your nicest clothes, Ma’am and I’ll make sure they’re clean. Wonder if Mrs B has an iron I can borrow to press things. And give me your shoes so I can polish them up. ”

“Certainly, but isn’t this a great deal of work for you?”

“Ma'am, we can’t show up at the Bank of England in our usual things! They’ll think we’re there to rob them! Only our best clothes will do!”

“What can I do to help?”

Jenny stopped and regarded Vastra for a long moment. “You won’t be able to wear your cloak and hood. You’ll need… something to hide your face, but still look respectable like. Maybe… a scarf? No, that will still look strange.”

“I suppose the shawl trick we used on the Scorpions would not work either. That was fine when we both had our heads down, but we’ll want to look around.” Vastra sighed, “Perhaps it would be best if I simply walked you to the Bank, and let you tour by yourself.”

“Don’t give up so quick. Let’s think about this for a bit. I’ll get everything else ready in the meantime.”

***

While Jenny worked, Vastra went out, dressed in her cloak, and found a quiet place to watch the Apes pass by on Cheapside. Despite the name, the street drew a wide slice of the local inhabitants. While Vastra had spent several years among the Apes, she had been, until recently, only a superficial observer of the species. That had changed when Jenny started to encouraged Vastra to get out of her flat a bit.

As Vastra observed the street scene, looking for ways to disguise her features, she realized that while she could distinguish different clothes among the Apes, she really could not tell what they meant. One Ape went by, and its mouth and nose were covered, but it was carrying a sack that smelled foul, and Vastra noticed that the other Apes avoided it. A pair went by arm in arm, one wearing a dress, the other in trousers. A second pair, headed the other way, also one in a dress, the other in trousers but walking behind and carrying parcels. At another point, she heard a number of bells nearby, and then a few minutes later there were Apes everywhere in trousers and dresses, some wearing coats, others without, some bustling down the street, others walking more slowly. Sometime later, Vastra estimated it to be the interval the Apes called an hour, she heard a smaller number of bells, and many of those in the street rapidly disappeared. Vastra watched a bit longer, then returned to her flat. She resolved to bring Jenny with her later in the week, as she might be able to explain what Vastra was seeing. Or at least make some reasonable guesses, which Vastra could then follow up on.

***

Vastra found Jenny on the roof, polishing their shoes with some blackening and keeping one eye on the drying laundry. Vastra related her observations, and concluded with:

“I have noticed that most ap... ah, humans wear hats. Would a hat help? Although it wouldn’t cover my face.”

“A hat would cover the pointy bits, though.”

“My crests? Yes, that’s a start.”

“You need a mask. Or something you can see through.”

Both sat and thought for a bit. Finally Vaster said, “Months ago, I saw an Ape… a person wearing something on their head with… translucent material in front of it. It had small holes, like a…net? It was white, I remember that.”

“Maybe a bride wearing a veil? That might work. We’d need a darker colour.” Jenny nodded, happy with the idea. “I could buy a bit of netting to go with a hat from a rag picker. We could rig something up for you.”

“A veil?”

"Brides wear them to hide their face from their husband before they’re married. And ladies wear them sometimes when it's windy or really sunny. Keeps the dust and sun off their faces. Usually it's part of the hat. Might look strange being inside, but it would be better than wearing your hood up all the time. You'd look... respectable like. It would go along with your new name, Madame Vastra." Jenny grinned, the name really did suit her tall steely protector.

"Is that important?"

"Couldn't hurt. Might even help. You've got a good manner of speaking, not like me. You sound like a lady. Things would be easier for you if people believe that."

"Easier?"

"Yes. If most people think you're a respectable woman, they're not likely to think you're dangerous; not human or an animal."

"I'm certainly not an animal!"

"But ma'am, you don't look like a regular person." Jenny cocked her head, and shrewdly continued. "You call me and other people Apes all the time. As if you get confused as to whether we're people or animals."

Vastra decided to hedge, she wasn't sure Jenny would be pleased if Vastra pointed out that to her, Jenny was an animal, albeit a clever one. "Well, I suppose I do sometimes."

Jenny nodded and continued: "What's the difference between how your people treat a person or an animal?"

"We treat animals as pets, as useful, as food or we hunt them as vermin," replied Vastra.

Jenny leaned in, and locked eyes with Vastra. "So do we, ma'am. So do we. So you and I, we both want my kind to think you're a person. Not an animal. Right?"

"Isn't that obvious?"

"No ma'am. Humans are funny that way. Many don't think others humans are people. Watch how the poor are treated sometime. Or most women. Or people with different coloured skin. Lots of people who should know better treat their pets more kindly than they treat people who are different."

"That makes no sense."

"Not to you nor me, ma'am. But that's the way a lot of people think. So you, we want them to think you're a person. Better yet if they think you're a respectable, genteel person."

Jenny grinned suddenly, "The sort of person who might have some money in a bank! So we'll go off and see Mr Thackeray this week, and see what we can learn."

Vastra shook her head, amused. She was still half convinced Jenny was only interested in the promise of lunch.