They bumped into each other in the crush of people at the top of the stairs at Snow Hill Station. She had dropped her heavy bag – or rather, had it pulled from her hand by the press of the crowd – and was struggling to get it back, when he was pushed from behind by someone even more impatient than usual, and almost fell over her.
She cried out in distress, and fortunately he was able to recover himself, see her difficulty, and stepping round her reach out with his long arms, to snatch the bag before it went tumbling down the steps.
‘Oh, thank you,’ she gasped, as he offered it back to her, but when he took her arm to help her down the stairs she blushed and tried to pull away.
‘It’s alright,’ he said, ‘I’ll just see you to the bottom. The crowd is too much for you and I’d hate to see you fall.’ So with a small smile she allowed him to escort her to the platform.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked, releasing her arm and standing back a pace.
‘To London,’ she replied, ‘Marylebone station I think it is.’ And then in a burst of confidence added, ‘I’m Dorothea Small, and my aunt has found a place in service for me, in Richmond.’
He smiled down at her from his height of six foot three, taking in her hazel eyes and the soft brown curls escaping from under her bonnet. She was neat, slim and had a heart-shaped face with a dimple beside her mouth when she smiled.
‘Well, Small suits you, and Dorothea is a very pretty name. I’m Henry Lofthouse,’ and taking off his hat and bowing to her, he laughed, ‘They’ve called me Lofty since the age of six when I began to grow like a beanstalk, and I’m not sure I’ve stopped yet. My father owns a bookshop on Charing Cross Road and now and then he allows me to travel in search of old books for our secondhand and rarity department.’
‘Oh, how wonderful, I love reading, though it isn’t often I manage to get to a lending library, and I don’t have as much time to read as I would like.’
‘There is a good lending library in Richmond, so perhaps you will be able to make use of it on your days off. Of course my father doesn’t approve of them, he thinks they will damage our business; but not everyone can afford to buy books, and I think they’re a very good thing.’
At that moment the train steamed into the station and there was a moment of confusion as they realised that it would not be possible to continue their conversation, since he had a first class ticket, whereas hers was only a third. He helped her into a carriage, found her a seat and placed her bag in the luggage rack. Then, not knowing quite what to say or do next, he bowed again, and said, ‘It has been a pleasure to meet you and an honour to be able to assist you, Miss Small. May I wish you well in your future, and thank you for sharing your love of books with me. Please accept this card, and if you are ever in the Charing Cross Road I hope you will look up our shop. I should be delighted to hear how you are getting on.’
Realising that it was neither possible nor proper to let him have her new empoyer’s address; and unsure whether he meant what he said, or was merely being polite, she took the card and smiled hesitantly before replying, ‘You have been most kind, sir. Thank you for your help. I shall let my aunt know how good you have been to me.’
All this while a stout matron in a corner seat, had been glaring suspiciously at him, and knowing he could do no more, he bowed again and left to find his own seat in the First Class carriages at the front of the train.
As soon as he’d departed the matron turned a stern look on Dorothea and demanded to know why she was travelling alone, and who the distinctly forward young man was. Dorothea thought it was none of her business, but decided, in the face of the curiosity of the seven other passengers crammed into the compartment, that this was not the moment to make a stir by saying so. Nevertheless she looked her firmly in the eye, and with a confidence and composure unexpected in so young a woman said, ‘My widowed mother is working, ma’am, and my sister is looking after the young ones. I have no brother or uncle to escort me, and am accustomed to the necessity of being independent. The gentleman,’ and she emphasised the word with a sharp little nod, ‘to whom you referred, is the son of and assistant to a high-class scholar who owns a specialist bookshop in the Charing Cross Road. He has been searching in and around Birmingham for rare books.
‘Seeing my bag torn out of my hand by the crowd, he kindly retrieved it for me and escorted me down the stairs to the platform. I was grateful for the protection of someone much taller and stronger than myself.’
Knowing she had nothing to be ashamed of, and remembering their conversation with pleasure, she looked and sounded quite unapologetic. ‘I take a great deal of pleasure in reading, and he was kind enough to tell me of a lending library near to my new place of employment.’ She desperately wanted to say, ‘I hope that will satisfy your curiosity, madam!’ but with a valiant effort she swallowed the words, and, folding her hands over her bag, looked down with what might have been mistaken, by those who didn’t know her, for humility.
‘I suppose you read novels,’ said the matron scornfully, ‘and fill your head with romantic nonsense. No good will come of young girls like you wasting their time with books.’
Stung by the unfairness of this judgement, Dorothea raised her head again, her eyes snapping with anger. ‘You are mistaken madam, I have little time for novels, unless they be those of Miss Austen. My favoured books are those of travellers and explorers. I have recently been reading the journals of Captain James Cook, who was the first to sail around New Zealand, and when I have time I hope to get a glimpse of the works of the naturalist Mr Banks, who accompanied him. I believe I may be able to see them in the British Library. I would be glad to read the works of Alexander von Humboldt’s, but at present his account of his journeys in South America have not been translated into English.’
Dumbfounded by this response, the matron’s mouth fell open for a moment, but she was not to be easily bested by such a slip of a girl. ‘Hoity toity, miss!’ she sneered, ‘Don’t you think you’re getting a bit above yourself? Who are you to be reading the words of your elders and betters and pretending you understand them?’
This was too much for Dorothea, and discarding all pretence at humility, she took a breath to make a stinging reply; but before a full blown row could break out between them, the Guard appeared to check their tickets, and to everyone else’s astonishment and Dorothea’s dismay, he kept her ticket in his hand, lifted her bag down and asked her to accompany him.
As she rose to obey him the matron smiled with grim satisfaction at what she supposed was going to be a reprimand of some kind, but a middle-aged woman travelling with her husband touched her hand and murmured, ‘Good luck to you, my dear,’ and her husband lifted his hat to her and nodded his encouragement.
Mystified by the summons, but cheered by their support, Dorothea hurried after the fast disappearing Guard. . . . .
. . . . . . .to be continued