The two women sat huddled together in the small carriage, looking around them in dismay, staring at the filthy, closed-in street, the drunken old man sprawled in one of the doorways, the tall tenements ugly and bleak and perilously ill-kept. There was no grace here, only an air of despondency and gloom and poverty.
"It's a horrible place!" one said at last. She was the elder, but not by much. They were both young and very frightened.
"Are you quite sure this is the street we want? I can't believe--" Her companion, the reins lying in her lap, let the words die.
In answer, the passenger dug in her purse for the tattered piece of paper, pulled it out, and read it again. Her lips were trembling, and she felt cold, sick. "Look for yourself. Oh--" The paper slipped from her fingers, and she caught it just before it tumbled into the fetid running gutter beneath the wheel.
It was the street and the house they had searched over an hour to find.
There was silence, only the rain and the whistle of a train somewhere in the distance making any sound at all. The horse waited patiently.
"You'll remember, won't you?" the older woman went on breathlessly. "I'm Mrs. Cook. And you're Sarah. My mother had a housekeeper called Mrs. Cook. And a sewing woman called Sarah. That makes it easier for me--" She stared at the house. "It's a cursed place, dreadful."
"I only have to remember who you are. And I've called you that all day. Mrs. Cook. Don't fret so--you'll make yourself ill!"
"Yes." She smoothed the rug across her knees, felt its dampness.
The horse blew, shifting uncomfortably in the rain.
Finally the older woman squeezed her companion's hand and said, "We must go in, Sarah. We're expected. It must be nearly time."
They climbed stiffly out of the carriage, two respectable young women looking as out of place here as they felt. The stench of bad sewers and boiled cabbage, overlaid with coal smoke and dirty streets, heavy in the dampness, seemed to wrap itself around them. A miasma of the city.
They made their way up to the door, stepping over old newsprint and brown sacking that had been turned to the consistency of porridge by the downpour. Lifting the latch, they could just see down a dark, awful tunnel that was only a rubbish-littered hallway but seemed like the final path to hell.
The door they were after was the second on the left, a barely discernible Number Three on a grimy card marking it. Someone shouted "Come!" to their tentative knock, and they found themselves in a bare, high-ceilinged room with a half dozen broken-down chairs and no windows. It was cold with damp, smelled of cigars and stale beer, and to their fastidious eyes hadn't been cleaned in years.
They could hear someone crying in the next room beyond a second door.
The older woman caught her friend's hand and said, "F--Sarah--I'm going to be sick!"
"No, it's only fright. Here, sit down." She quickly found the best chair and brought it forward, then took another one for herself. It wobbled, one leg uneven.
A nondescript paint, peeled from the walls and ceiling, gave the floor a dappled look, and the old brown carpet in the center seemed to be woven of all the hopelessness that had been brought here.
The older of the two began to tremble. "I'm not frightened--I'm terrified!"
"It will be all right--wait and see." It was a comforting lie, and they both recognized it for what it was.
They sat there for a time, not speaking, their hands gripped together, their faces blanched with the thought of what must lie ahead. The crying went on and on, and overhead there was the sound of furniture being shifted, first this way, then that, an endless screech that seemed half human, half demon. Somewhere in the hallway a man's voice shouted, and they both jumped.
Excerpted from Legacy of the Dead by Charles Todd Copyright© 2000 by Charles Todd. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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