Sparrow’s Flight

Over the relentless clatter of the London-bound train, the conductor said loudly, his voice lacking the deference appropriate to the inquisition of a passenger in a first-class compartment, “Are you Mr. Brownlow?”

Oliver, his mind still full of the ancient church silver he’d spent the afternoon appraising down in Basingstoke, continued to stare blindly out the window as the bleak December landscape flashed by. A dealer in fine art and antiques, he’d seen many beautiful pieces. But these were magnificent, dating back to the days when Catholicism was the state religion and the monasteries controlled vast wealth. He was certain that once his client—a man who’d made a fortune in taproom fixtures—heard the scope of the collection, the seller—a member of minor royalty fallen on hard times—would be offered an excellent price. And Oliver, as the broker, would profit from both.

His face stiff with disapproval, the conductor held up a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with the cheapest kind of string. “I have a parcel for a Mr. Brownlow.”

Oliver came to with a start. “Do forgive me. My mind was a thousand miles away, I’m afraid. Yes, I’m Oliver Brownlow. But how in heaven’s name did you acquire a parcel for me on a moving train?”

The conductor frowned. “A person in the next compartment gave it to me.”

“‘Person?’” Oliver repeated in the same contemptuous tone employed by the conductor. “Forgive me, but I fail to understand.”

The conductor’s sneer faded beneath Oliver’s level gaze but his tone remained cold as he said, “A young female, sir. Foreign, I wager, didn’t speak a word, just handed me the parcel and pointed to your compartment.” Compelled by the moral outrage of one who was used to dealing only with superior folk, he added, “Not First Class, sir, not First Class at all, I’m sorry to say.”

Oliver shook his head. “I fear you’ve made an error.”

“So, you’re not Oliver Twist Brownlow after all, sir?” the conductor asked with the relief of one whose original assessment had proven correct regarding the dignified young gentleman.

A shiver ran up Oliver’s spine. He hadn’t been addressed by the detested name of Twist for fifteen years. Born in a workhouse to an unwed mother who died when he was a few hours old, he was ten when Edward Brownlow, dead these past two years, plucked him from the stews of London. After adopting him and saving him from a life of crime, he saw to it that his young charge received both a solid education and the polish of a gentleman of the rising middle class. “Yes, yes, of course I am.” Oliver held out a hand. “May I have the parcel, please?”

Although the wrapping was of the crudest sort, the penmanship was exquisite, a delicately flowing script of feminine grace which a genteel hostess would employ to address her gilt-edged invitations to teas and musical soirees. The address consisted only of the three words constituting both his past and present names.

Rising, Oliver said, “Kindly take me to the young lady, would you?”

In the corridor outside the door with its heavy glass partitions, the conductor stopped short, bracing his legs as the train screeched around a curve. “Why, she was in there, sir, just a minute ago.” Remembering the difficulty he’d had getting the young gentleman’s attention, he added pointedly, “Well, perhaps five minutes ago now.”

Peering into the empty compartment, Oliver asked, “Where has she gone, do you suppose?”

The conductor shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t imagine.”

“Nor I.” Seeing the man’s discomfiture, Oliver fished in his pocket for a coin. Handing a half crown to the conductor, he said with a smile, “Thank you for your trouble.”

The conductor touched the brim of his cap. “Thank you very much indeed, sir.” As Oliver turned to enter his own compartment, he called, “Have a happy Christmas, Mr. Brownlow.”

His Christmas would be far from happy if by some terrible twist of fate one of his mates from his wretched childhood had recognized him. It had been Jack Dawkins, a young scoundrel otherwise known as the Artful Dodger, who found little Oliver wandering about London penniless and alone years before. At the time Oliver was on the run from an undertaker who’d apprenticed the frail child as a professional mourner, knowing his golden hair and sweet face would touch the hardest of hearts. Recognizing that those same guileless qualities would make Oliver an excellent pickpocket, the older boy brought him to a criminal mastermind who, like God Himself, went by one name only—Fagin.

With a growing feeling of dread, Oliver fished about in his pocket until he came up with the tiny all-purpose tool—“the varlet’s harlot, she’ll bring satisfaction every time,” old Fagin had called it, adding with wicked glee, “just like our Nancy here, boys, ‘though you shan’t get a chance at her while our Bill’s around”—which the old reprobate issued to his fledgling thieves.

Even now it smote Oliver’s heart to remember the abuse Fagin’s evil cohort Bill Sikes heaped upon poor Nancy, seeing to it that she sold herself every night to a man who would pay him for the privilege. Grasping for a shred of decency in a world that allowed her none, she fought valiantly to mother the ignorant urchins Fagin sent into the streets to lift a watch or wallet from some unsuspecting mark. If a boy were caught and arrested, neither man would lose a wink of sleep over it, nor care if the lad went to the gallows. After all, the streets were as filled with orphans desperate for a roof and crust of bread as the sooty skies and crumbling eaves were filled with sparrows. But, Nancy cared. And it had led to her doom.

“Varlet’s harlot,” Oliver whispered, feeling his gorge rise. Despite its wretched associations, he had never disposed of the complex little mechanism because it was a handy thing to have. The tiny magnifying lens which Oliver now employed to read smiths’ marks was powerful enough to start a distracting fire if needed. The miniature scissors were sharp enough to sever the thickest bonds of rope or leather. Several single blades were good for picking locks—not for nefarious purposes these days, of course, but for the rare occasion when Oliver was presented with a jewel box of some antiquity whose key had long since vanished.

Snipping through the twine, Oliver slid a trembling finger beneath the edge of the wrapping. Tilting the parcel, he slid the book out to stare down at the worn black leather cover embossed with a cross. “A missal,” he murmured, thumbing through the pages of printed Latin comprising the Catholic Mass in growing confusion. Putting the book next to him on the seat, he picked up the wrapping, carefully unfolded it and examined it inch by inch.

Finding nothing that would assist him in identifying the donor, he turned his attention to the book itself. Inside the black morocco cover was a bookplate engraved with two angels unfurling a scroll upon which appeared a single notation in heavy black ink:
50 17’12.67”NO 36’33.33”W

A long toot and chuffing sigh alerted him that the train was pulling into Waterloo Station. Thrusting the book into his inner breast pocket, Oliver exited the train with his mind once more on the extraordinary silver he’d seen. If all went well, this Christmas would indeed be happy, for the brokering of such a collection would elevate his name—simply Oliver Brownlow, thank you very much—to the highest echelon of dealers. As for the mysterious young female who’d left him such a curious gift, he was determined to put her out of his mind altogether. He had learned long ago that dwelling on the past would only tarnish the luster of a brilliant future.
*
Five days dragged by while Oliver waited for the collector to respond to his telegram citing details of the silver collection down in Basingstoke. He passed the time by alternately sorting through a thick portfolio of engraved French prints and peering out uneasily through the long front windows onto the sun-washed crescent of fine Georgian homes that graced this section of Belgravia.

Since the episode on the train he’d had the same dream. Unlike other nightmares whose power diminished with the light of day, this one became more potent with each restless hour. A child again, he was trying to steal a brooch from the be-shawled bosom of a sleeping woman. He could see his small dirty fingers, blue with cold, frantically working the golden clasp. Losing his grasp, he watched in horror as the long pin stabbed her breast. Her eyes flew open but instead of screaming, she smiled and held out her arms just as his beloved Nancy had done. Each time, he woke up sobbing.

When the disappointing response finally came—“NEGOTIATE A BETTER DEAL, MR. BROWNLOW!”—Oliver hastened to wire a request for another interview with the seller in Basingstoke. Two days later he set forth for Waterloo Station. Standing in the queue at the ticket office, he suddenly felt the back of his neck prickle most peculiarly. Turning, he saw a petite figure swathed in black standing partially in shadow beneath a marble arch marking one of the myriad exits to the boarding platforms. With a swift movement, she lifted her veil to reveal a familiar face that at once filled him with joy and broke his heart.

“Nancy!”

Unaware that he’d cried out her name like a madman, Oliver stood frozen, a thousand images flashing through his mind: Nancy holding his hand, Nancy singing, Nancy lifting her tattered skirts to dance around the filthy jackdaw’s nest of Fagin’s quarters high in the crumbling tenement, Nancy bleeding from the blows the wicked Bill Sykes regularly rained down upon her until, discovering that she’d helped Mr. Brownlow rescue Oliver from his clutches, he’d finally bludgeoned her to death.

And all the while she was staring at him, the waxen pallor of her face heightened by the gloom, her eyes dark with—what? Longing? Grief?—no, accusation!

Plunging out of line, Oliver crashed into an elderly gentleman. “So sorry,” he panted, trying to jostle his way around him. “Bless you, my boy, if you miss one train, there’ll be another,” the old man boomed in the stentorian tones of one profoundly deaf, his top hat completely obscuring Oliver’s view of his quarry. Noting for the first time the old gentleman’s ecclesiastical neckwear, Oliver gave a mortified bob of his head, madly murmured, “Do have a jolly Christmas, vicar,” and turned away just in time to see Nancy vanish through the archway leading back out to the street.

Dodging through clusters of passengers and around porters with mounded racks of baggage trundling expertly through the throngs, Oliver dashed out into a blizzard of flying cinders mixed with snow. To his consternation, she crossed York Street and entered the station of The London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company. At precisely 11:55 a.m. each day, including Sunday, the London and South Western Railway ran a funeral train bearing both the deceased and the bereaved daily straight from Waterloo Station out to Brookwood Cemetery in the town of Woking, thirty miles southwest of London.

Mentally bracing himself for the doleful immersion to come, he crossed the street craning to catch sight of her. Although his brain told him Nancy was long dead, his heart cried out that the woman he’d seen was more than a figment of his imagination. Barely noticing his surroundings, he ran through the massive waiting room and out onto the platform.

What sorrowful pandemonium instantly surrounded him, what audible and visible manifestations of grief! Here stood a cluster of women enrobed in black, the black-bordered kerchiefs pressed to their lips to mute their wild sobs, while there waited a line of horse-drawn hearses, their glass sides glinting in the wintry sun.

As Oliver stared about him looking for Nancy, two men lowered a ramp from the train car. The first hearse in the line drew parallel in order to discharge its black-draped coffin onto the shoulders of four men attired in black. As they slowly ascended the ramp, a group of women, faces hidden by their deep black bonnets festooned with towering black feathers, followed the coffin to be swallowed up by the maw of the car’s gaping door.

“Sir?” a small voice asked at his elbow. “Sir?” Looking down, Oliver felt his heart leap painfully. An urchin swathed in black from the crown of his top hat to the tip of his cracked boots was holding out a black ribbon. “You don’t have an armband, sir,” the child said. “It’s only sixpence.”

It was like looking at an image of himself back in the dreary days when he’d been the undertaker’s apprentice. Poor child, to be sent out into the world in such shabby boots, so thin a tattered jacket, so threadbare a shirt. “An armband?” Oliver repeated, unable to tear his eyes away from the pitiful vision. “Whatever would I do with an armband?”

The little boy’s blue eyes grew round. “Begging your pardon but you’ve lost a loved one, ain’t that right, sir?”

“Oh, yes,” Oliver blurted as if the little ragamuffin could see into his very soul. “But it was long ago.”

“So, you’re not riding down with the coffin then, sir.” After an instant the somber little face brightened. “Even so, you want to pay your respects all proper-like at the grave, don’t you, sir? In which case, the armband’s just what a fine gentleman like yourself needs, ain’t that right, sir?”

“Yes, of course. Here.” Snatching the proffered ribbon from the child, Oliver handed him a fistful of coins and dashed back into the confines of the brick edifice to purchase a ticket.

“First, second or third-class?” the clerk intoned without looking up from the ledger placed before him on the counter.

“I—I don’t know.” When the clerk looked up in astonishment, Oliver gasped, “First, first, of course. Forgive me.”

“Name of your party, sir?” the clerk asked, running an inky fingertip down an equally black column.

“Must I give you a name?” Oliver asked in desperation as a mournful whistle blew once and then twice more. This was a deliberate signal representing the holy trinity for those who were bound for the Conformist section of the cemetery reserved for members of the Church of England, and a dire warning for all others that the train was leaving the station.

The clerk’s brows knit in a puzzled frown. “It’s customary to share a compartment, sir. Certainly you want to join your party.”

“I’m alone.” Remembering what the little purveyor of armbands had said, Oliver said, “It’s a—a—memorial visitation.”

“Ah.” Nodding, the clerk said in a far kinder tone than he’d thus far employed, “Please accept my condolences, sir. Anniversaries bring their own kind of special heartache. I know far too well. However, I fear you’ve just missed—”

Before the clerk could complete his sentence Oliver dashed outside, rushing toward the mournfully festooned train just edging away from the platform. Grateful for what could only be described as its funereal pace, Oliver grasped the metal railing of the last car and hauled himself up the small steps. Plunging through a windowless door, he entered a compartment stacked with shining mahogany coffins, each slid neatly into its own berth between partially open black draperies.

Choking back a cry at the ghastly sight—so many, a full dozen!—Oliver lurched to the next compartment to fine a dozen more of the same, although these were of plainer wood and were stacked on pallets lacking any drapery whatsoever. The third car proved to be the worst of the lot, with plain pine boxes sliding willy-nilly about as the train took a curve like dice being rattled in a gambler’s cup.

Terrified that one would fly open to bring him face to face with a corpse, Oliver fled through to the next car where third-class mourners sat on crude benches running along the wall and across the width of the compartment, some of them wildly weeping, some loudly praying and all of them exuding a miasma of onion, cheese and small beer. “Hey, there, come and sit with us awhile and tell us how y’ knew old Bob!” a toothless gent cried but Oliver merely fled to the next car. It too was packed to the gills with mourners whose grief was less apparent both vocally and olefactorily, and so was the next.

Finally he found the safe haven of First Class, which was empty except for a figure barely visible amidst the gloom cast by the black draperies obscuring the windows.
Appalled to feel a hot trickle running down his cheek, Oliver whispered, “Nancy?”

When the figure leaned forward, a simple but very large cross gleamed gold in the dim light. With a start, he saw from her white halo of wimple to the bands beneath her chin like winding cloths on a corpse that she was a nun, her elderly face white with fear. Harshly scrubbing his cheek with his sleeve as if he were once more a motherless urchin, he murmured, “Do forgive me for this unpardonable intrusion. I foolishly thought I saw an old friend in the station.”

Crossing herself with a trembling hand, she bowed her head. Just as Oliver was about to turn away she looked up to say in a thick Irish brogue, “Please, sir, forgive my poor manners. I am Sister Mary Martyr of the Franciscan Order of Poor Clares. We are a contemplative and cloistered order and I am not used to conversing with young gentlemen. Would you tell me your name, then?”

“I was named Oliver Twist at birth,” he said without hesitation. “But now I’m Oliver Brownlow.”

Once more she crossed herself and then clasped her hands in her lap. “Please be seated, Mr. Brownlow.” When he had sunk into the black plush seat opposite her with the strange sensation that his legs wouldn’t have held him up a moment longer, she gave him a sad smile. “So, our poor little Sparrow did find you after all.” She paused, eying him curiously. “May I ask when she came to you?” When he merely stared at her, she added with the grave simplicity of a child, “She was so very ill, you see.”

“Forgive me, Sister,” Oliver said, “but I am afraid I am at a total loss. Who or what is Sparrow? And why should she have sought me out?” Peering into the gloom enshrouding them, he added, “And where is she now?”

For a moment, all he could hear was the clatter and clash of metal on metal, strangely muted by the heavy black velvet drapes. Suddenly aware of the heavy scent of lilies, he made out a ghostly bouquet of them in a long, marble vase apparently fastened in some permanent manner to a marble base in the far corner of the compartment.

“I shall answer your questions in order, Mr. Brownlow. Sparrow was brought to us when she was four years old by her aunt, Georgia Sikes, just after the child’s mother had been brutally murdered by her father.”

“Bill Sikes.” Oliver fell back against the black plush seat. “Poor, sweet Nancy bore that brute a child?”

“He believed so, or the poor little soul would never have been given to his sister to raise.” The shadow of a smile flickered across the nun’s drawn face. “Yes, Mr. Brownlow, although we are a cloistered order, we are still aware of the sins of this world. In Nancy’s way of life, a child was an obstacle. It was expected that as the child grew to know the infinite love of our Lord and Savior that she would take the vows which would lead her to full service in His name. But you see, Mr. Brownlow, she was a strange and troubled child, not entirely, I’m afraid, of this world.”

When Oliver said nothing, she went on. “Sparrow had the Sight, Mr. Brownlow.” Once more she sat forward so that light glinted on the cross. “Do you know to what I am referring?” Once more a glimmer of humor showed on her face. “They say the Irish have it in abundance. But here in England, like so many of our habits and practices, it is scorned, not,” she added hastily, “that the Church has any use for it whatsoever, mind you, no matter how true the visions may be.”

“Visions,” Oliver murmured, an image of that white face with its accusing eyes floating before his eyes as if he too had suddenly been afflicted with the terrible talent.

“One might try to dismiss them as a natural consequence of too much knowledge of the world too soon.” The nun sighed heavily. “She knew enough of brutal death to give any child nightmares.”

Painfully Oliver cleared his throat. “You say she knew—”

“Yes, Mr. Brownlow. She knew that her mother had saved the life of a child named Oliver Twist and that her father had murdered her for it.”

Oliver sat straight up, slapping at the breast of his coat madly as if something there had caught fire. “Sister, I just remembered—”he pulled out the battered missal and handed it to her—“she left this for me on the train a little over a week ago.”

The elderly nun shot him a sharp glance. “A week, you say?”

“A little more,” Oliver said, “nine days, to be precise.” He gave a little laugh. “Does it matter?”

“Oh, yes,” the nun replied. For an instant she hesitated but then, instead of speaking, she opened the book. With a cry, she fell back against the cushions, clutching the cross on her breast. As Oliver sprang to his feet, she waved him back, saying faintly, “Do you know what this is, Mr. Brownlow?”

He peered at the strange inscription with its framework of angels. “No, no I do not.” With a deep breath, the nun shut her eyes, her pale lips moving in prayer. When she opened them, he said gently, “It appears that you do.”

“We’re traveling First Class,” she said, her eyes roaming about the compartment in a way that made him think she’d suffered the sort of seizure which afflicted the elderly when violently upset, “because of dear Mr. Brownlow.”

Convinced that she’d suffered a brain stroke, Oliver said firmly, “Sister Mary Martyr, I am Mr. Brownlow.”

With a deep breath, she leaned toward him once more, a bit of color coming into her cheeks. “Your adopted father knew about Sparrow. He provided for her just as he did for you, Oliver.” Neither of them noticed that she’d used his first name. “For the past two years, she’d been grieving for him, wishing she could have thanked him sufficiently for the funds that never failed to come to us every month. Being a frugal order, we had saved quite a bit and when she died–”

“Died?” Oliver cried as the nun, with a gasp, put a hand to her mouth.

“Forgive me,” she whispered. “That was no way to tell you but it just—” Once more the nun paused for brief prayer before meeting his eyes. “She died of a fever ten days ago, Mr. Brownlow, in the convent, surrounded by the sisters who had loved her all these years. We decided to bury her fittingly with the money the senior Mr. Brownlow provided. I am accompanying her coffin to its final resting place.”

“Ten days,” Oliver breathed. “Then how did she—” He snatched the missal from the seat. Waving it almost angrily, he asked, “How did she deliver this?” When Sister Mary Martyr merely shook her head, he flipped open the cover and held up the strange inscription. “And what in heaven’s name is this?”

Once more the old nun crossed herself. “That,” she whispered, “is the location of the gravesite we purchased for her the day after her death.”

END
Nancy Brewka-Clark’s first short mystery appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine in 1983. Her most recent mystery, Is Jim Dead?, was performed as a flash comedy in 2013 at the Brooklyn College Department of Theater Gi60 International Theatre Festival. In between, her work has appeared in a range of books and magazines including Level Best Book’s crime anthology Quarry. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime and the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

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