The Lady and the Frog

Henry Kingston’s cane tapped along the pavement of North Lane. He looked down at his pocket watch as the gas street lamps flared to life. Nearly seven and still no sign of his brother Jack. He was going to be late for his evening with Evelyn Havish. She would understand, and might not even notice in the tumult of her family’s home. However, punctuality was essential. If all went well, he would soon take her hand and help her rise above her family’s station, just as he had risen over his own.

He grunted as he shoved his watch into his pocket and limped on. He would have a firm talk with Jack once he found him. Jack had seemed more responsible these past few months, finally shaking off the dust of the family farm and digging into his odd jobs and university exams. Such signs of maturity had taken two years of living with Henry, but they seemed to evaporate with each step Henry now took.

Perhaps Jack had fallen on old habits and drifted off from appointments to follow some childish daydream. The young man’s head was full of fantastic ideas and he believed every rumor of magic or adventure. Henry knew the only real mystery in life was why people were doltish enough to believe in magic.

Leaning on his walking cane, Henry tried to relieve the pressure on his left leg. The leg bent at a slight, odd angle just below the knee. Some days the ache was nearly unbearable. Today, it throbbed lightly, which was more of an irritation. At least he had ridden the electric trolley most of the way from his apartment. The contraption had saved him a little time in his search for his brother.

Henry took a few steps, when he saw the gleam of a bicycle handle poking out from behind some vines. He pulled back the cascade of greenery and glared at his brother’s bicycle leaning against the brick fence. Everything seemed in place and in good condition, but there was no explanation for Jack’s absence.

A mournful cry broke out from the other side of the fence, followed by a louder-than-polite sob. Henry pushed aside the cold, slick vines until he found a decorative opening revealing the garden beyond.

A young woman of no more than twenty was seated on a bench by a well, her hair and dress indicating a good sense of grooming. Her appearance and manner of weeping reminded him of the girls who flitted around Harold Mackabee, his employer’s son. They were drawn by the scent of future wealth. Such females ignored Henry and his aura of middle-class stability.

“Oh,” she cried. “If there were only someone to help me.”

“Pardon me, miss,” he said.

She sat up in affected surprise. “Who was that?”

“Hello! My brother’s bicycle is here. Have you seen a young fellow by the name of Jack?”

“If only I had.” Her shoulders drooped. “Have you lost someone, just as I have?”

“I believe he has lost himself. Have you seen anyone who might be my brother?”

“Climb the fence so I may look at you.”

“I don’t climb fences, nor would I, if I could. Don’t you have a gate or door?”

A pause was followed by rustling. A row of vines pulled back like a curtain, revealing a rod iron gate, a rusted chain wrapped around the lock.

“My father locked the gate before he left.” She dabbed her cheeks with a lace handkerchief.

Henry analyzed the chain as he scratched his narrow, angular chin. “And there is no spare key?”

“No. I have no way to open it.” She leaned her head against the fence as tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I suppose you should discuss it with your father when he returns.” Henry straightened his glasses. “Pardon me, but if you have not seen my brother, I must be going.”

He began to wheel Jack’s bike away.

“Wait!” she said. “Was he a tall young man with dark, unruly hair?”

Henry paused. He would rather not rely on such a flighty young woman to learn his brother’s fate, but he saw no other source of information. “You have seen him?”

“I think so, but—” She leaned back her head and sighed, “My head is so clouded with worry. If you could help me, I might remember.”

Henry frowned. “And what is your trouble?”

“My dear mother passed away long ago, and—”

“That is unfortunate.”

“Her last gift to me was—”

Henry held up a hand. “Please, miss. I do not wish to be entangled in your personal affairs. Unless there is something I can do quickly, I must be going.”

“I dropped my mother’s final gift, a golden bauble, in the well.” She burst into a sob. “It is lost and I shall never have it again.”

“Is that all?” He looked up at the four-story mansion overshadowing the garden. It was too large to be empty. “Don’t you have a gardener or workman around who can help you?”

She shook her head. “They are all gone for the day. Please sir. I cannot bear to lose it.”

Henry tapped his fingers on his cane before glancing at his pocket-watch. On the farm, many things fell into wells, and most on purpose. His brothers were lithe enough to shimmy down the dark shafts, but his crooked leg kept him from such exercise. Instead, he had developed some tricks as a boy to fish his sisters’ dolls out of wells.

From the toolbox attached to the back of the bicycle, he pulled out a small crowbar. He twisted it in the rusted chains and pushed his weight into it. After a second or two, one of the links broke. The chain chinked to the ground and the gate creaked as it opened. Wheeling the bike with him, he followed the young woman to the well. He glanced down the shaft. The dimming sunlight reflected off a golden ball floating on the water’s surface. The shaft, however, was lined with algae and other muck while frogs croaked loudly below. The well could use a good cleaning.

From the front of the bicycle, he removed the wicker basket. He unhooked the bucket from the well’s rope and replaced it with the basket. With the basket secure on the hook, he lowered the rope. He ignored the young woman watching in fascination. The wicker basket dropped into the water and Henry let it sink. With a few tugs of the rope, he maneuvered the basket beneath the bauble. He jerked the basket up, capturing the bauble.

The young woman’s blue eyes were wide once the basket reached the top of the well. Henry set the basket on the edge of the well and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. Using the cloth, he picked up the bauble and held it out to the young woman. She stared at it as if her mind had temporarily vacated her body. Hoping she was well, Henry set the ball on the bench. He would rather not explain standing in a strange garden with a fainted woman.

Folding his handkerchief back into a precise square, Henry said, “Your well seems to be infested with frogs. I would recommend getting someone to dredge it out for you. If I find my brother, I might send him over. He is quite good at this sort of work.” He pulled a business card for his office at Mackabee and Sons Accounting Firm out of his coat pocket. “I do not have his card on me, but here is mine.”

Her eyes blinked as if waking. A warm smile spread as she took the offered card.

“Now, miss, do you remember seeing my brother?” he said.

“I believe— oh, it was so many hours ago, and I have been so worried about my bauble. Ah, yes. I believe he saw a girl he knew and went off walking with her.”

The creases of Henry’s frown deepened. Her answer seemed the truth, yet was simple enough she should have remembered it easily. He grunted as he straightened his coat. “Thank you, miss. Have a good evening.”

He tucked his cane under his arm and began moving the bicycle toward the gate. The young woman hurried forward and stood in his path.

She held out her hand, her fingers dangling. “Thank you, Mr. Kingston. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for your assistance.”

He stared at her manicured nails. She seemed to expect a kiss to the hand, but such an expression was far too intimate for their brief acquaintance. Instead, he touched his fingers to hers and gave a quick half-bow. Her fingers started to curl around his, but he pulled his hand away. “Good night.”

As he exited onto the street, she slowly closed the gate. He lowered the bicycle seat a little before climbing on and riding away. He had to shift his leg to keep his left foot on the pedal, but cycling was faster than walking.

He turned off North Lane as the bells clanged a quarter after seven. He muttered under his breath. Even at his best speed, he was already fifteen minutes late. Evelyn would still accept his visit, but so excellent a woman deserved better.

Cassandra leaned against the gate as she watched Henry Kingston disappear around the corner. Few men spoke to her as he did. The daring embers of hope rose in her breast. She needed to learn more of this young man and discover the depth of his merit.

She pulled a cord and let the cascade of vines fall over the gate. Strolling to the garden shed, she ran her finger across his simple business card. No fuss or finery. Only a few square letters stating his name, employer, and office address. She would have to plan her next approach carefully.

Entering the shed, she slid the card into the bosom of her corset. She picked up the long-poled net and walked to the well. The frogs’ croaking became cacophonous as she lowered the net. She pursed her lips, trying not to think of how many of these slimy creatures she would have to kiss until she found Jack Kingston.

If Jack remained missing, however, Henry may ask too many of the wrong questions. She needed to undo the bauble’s work and send Jack home. Then, she would create an opportunity to see Henry Kingston again.

Thank you for reading this excerpt of The Lady and the Frog (Book 2 of The Pippington Tales) – coming soon in ebook and print.