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The black cab rumbling through the city at nightfall swayed and shook with every gust of icy wind that blasted down the streets. Its roof was piled so dangerously high with bundles, boxes, and baggage that the cab further distressed its three occupants by very nearly tipping over each time it rounded a corner.
Inside the cab, no one spoke, each one being deep in thought. The only sounds heard were the drumming of the horses' hooves, the chink-chinking of their harnesses, and the clicking of sleet hurling itself against the windows.
Emily Luccock, one of the three inside the cab, sat rigidly by one window, clutching the seat in fright with each lurch and shudder of the cab. Why was she not the one seated in the middle between her Aunt and Uncle Twice, their arms around her comforting her? Did she not deserve that now when within the hour she was to be abandoned to who knew what fate? Had they chosen to dismiss from their minds all recollection that she was a young girl of still but eleven years, and that they were all the family she had left in the world? It seemed so to Emily, because it was Aunt Twice who sat in the middle of the seat, with Uncle Twice's arm about her shoulders, his arm tightening protectively each time the cab seemed in danger of turning over.
It tightened again when suddenly Aunt Twice began to tremble. "Oh, William," she moaned, "if it is this bad here, how will it be on the high seas? How will we be able to abide it?"
"My sweet girl," replied Uncle Twice, "I've been assured that we are sailing on the most modern of ships. Our cabin will offer every comfort. As for this weather, why, when we reach India it will be so warm you'll soon be longing to see a snow-flake!"
Uncle Twice's attempt at humor to cheer his "sweet girl" was clearly not very successful. She only sighed deeply and shook her head. Emily, for her part, could only think, India...with the warm sun, the elephants, the tigers, and the temple bells. India, where they are going without me!
Was it possible that at the very last moment, when the time for parting actually arrived, Aunt and Uncle Twice would have a change of heart, would relent and tell Emily she could go with them? She would cling to that hope until they reached the very docks, though it was a fast-fading hope. After all, had she not pleaded with them endlessly all the way on the train trip to New York? And what had that availed her? Nothing!
Why was all that Emily had already suffered not enough to persuade them that she should accompany them? Was it not enough that her mama and papa were no more, lost in a terrible boating accident? Orphaned once, was she to be made to feel orphaned again? And what of all the horror that had happened afterward? Was that not misery enough? Perhaps they did not see it all as clearly as she still did, each scene in her mind so terrible and real.
She saw herself, an orphan arriving at Sugar Hill Hall, the grand mansion in San Francisco that was home to Aunt and Uncle Twice, so named because Aunt Twice was sister to Emily's own mama, and Uncle Twice brother to her papa. With the loss of Mama and Papa, Emily was to live with them.
Then there she was in that terrifying moment, stepping through the doors of Sugar Hill Hall. In the parlor were standing those who turned out to be two of the most wicked, cruel, evil ladies ever to be met in this world, Mrs. Meeching and Mrs. Plumly.
The parlor itself had become shabby and desolate, for Sugar Hill Hall had been turned into a home for sad old people abandoned by their families, with Meeching and Plumly, Inc., the proprietors. Aunt Twice herself had become shabby and downtrodden as well. No longer the golden-haired, sparkle-eyed beauty she once was, she was now their servant. And there was no sign, not then, not at any time, of handsome, dashing Uncle Twice!
The scenes marched grimly on. There was Emily in her tiny, dank cellar room where she was to live, having now herself become a servant in Sugar Hill Hall. There was the dismal dining room, where the old people feasted on moldy bread and fish-head stew and tea made from a single tea bag passed around the table. There was the scene of Emily being tormented by Tilly, the other servant girl. And then came the chilling vision of herself imprisoned in the dreaded Remembrance Room in the cellar, the place where the old people were locked up for stealing a peppermint.
Oh, those murderous peppermints! Emily would never, never forget, no never, that table in the parlor with the red velvet cover decorated with gold tassels, on which rested that bowl of puffy, tempting, tantalizing, delicious pink-and-white-striped peppermint drops, placed there deliberately to entice some poor old person into reaching out a hand and taking one. More than anything else, Emily would never forget that!
But then, at long last, everything had miraculously come to rights. The confession of a dying sea captain had revealed that Uncle Twice, who through gambling and a wild life (later sorely regretted) had lost all his fortune save Sugar Hill Hall itself, was not guilty of the murder of which he was accused by Meeching and Plumly, Inc. It was they themselves who were guilty of the murder of a seaman, along with the captain himself. So Uncle Twice could return safely from exile working as a seaman aboard the ship Silver Sea and take his place as the rightful owner of Sugar Hill Hall. Meeching and Plumly, who proved to be smugglers as well as murderers, not to mention their making plans to do away with Emily and Aunt Twice, were taken off to jail in chains.
Oh, what joy and happiness then reigned in Sugar Hill Hall for Emily; Aunt Twice; the old people; Kipper, the fishmonger's son, who was Emily's true friend throughout; and even Tilly, who proved to be not nearly so wicked as Emily had supposed.
But, alas, the happiness lasted for only a few paltry weeks. Uncle Twice was soon to be seen wandering the grand rooms of Sugar Hill Hall, silent, sunk in somber thought, his brows often drawn together in a deep frown. Aunt Twice's face began once more to look pale and drawn. But nobody explained why, until one sad afternoon, when Emily was finally invited to sit down before both of them.
"Do you remember, Emily, when you first came to Sugar Hill Hall, and I said you must try to be a brave little girl?" Aunt Twice asked.
Emily nodded solemnly. How well she remembered those very words!
"Well," Aunt Twice continued, "once again, I must ask you the same thing."
"But -- but why?" stammered Emily. "All is happiness now, isn't it?"
Uncle Twice shook his head sadly. "The happiness is that I have been able to return to my family a man no longer accused of any crime," he said. "But as for the rest, I'm afraid I must now pay for all those early years when I carelessly squandered my fortune until there was nothing left."
"Not nothing, Uncle Twice," said Emily. "You still have Sugar Hill Hall."
"No longer, Emily," said Aunt Twice with a sob. "Oh, tell her, William!"
"Sugar Hill Hall has been sold," said Uncle Twice, his face twisted with grief.
"S-S-Sold?" Emily felt as if her heart would stop. "Why?"
"To pay all my terrible debts, Emily," replied Uncle Twice, "waiting for me when I returned. With no money left to pay them, and none with which to run this mansion, I had no choice but to sell it."
"But what about the money left to me by Mama and Papa?" cried Emily. "Kipper once said
I was a 'hairess.' Doesn't that mean I have lots and lots of money? Can't you take that, Uncle Twice?"
Uncle Twice shook his head firmly. "Never, never would Aunt Twice and I touch that, dear Emily. Never! That money is a sacred trust to be used for your future needs. Nothing more is to be said about it. No, I have made my bed, and I must lie in it!"
"But where will we live?" Emily moaned. "What of the old people who were to stay here? What of Tilly?"
"Welcoming homes have been found for them all, as we shall now tell them," replied Uncle Twice. "There are no worries on that score."
"Well," said Emily with a firm bob of her head, trying to be a "brave little girl" as Aunt Twice had requested, "at least we shall all be together!"
But at this, Aunt and Uncle exchanged telling glances. Each seemed waiting for the other to speak. At last it was Aunt Twice who said hesitantly, "Not -- not all of us, Emily darling, at least not for now."
Not all of them? Could it be that Uncle Twice must leave Aunt Twice and Emily again? No, not even just Emily, for the happy announcement had been made that there was to be a Baby Cousin Twice!
"Oh, Uncle Twice!" cried Emily. "Must you go away once more? How can you leave Aunt Twice now?"
Once again, Aunt and Uncle Twice exchanged glances. Aunt Twice's hands were clasped so tightly together, her knuckles had grown white. "Uncle Twice will not be leaving me, dear child," she said. "I will be going with him."
Emily's breath caught in her throat. "But -- but what about me?" she gasped.
"William," said Aunt Twice, tears in her eyes, "you must explain what has happened to Emily so she will understand everything."
Explain what has happened? Understand everything? Understand what? It sounded frightening. And by the time Uncle Twice had made his explanations, Emily did indeed understand all...and it was more frightening than ever!
It appeared, said Uncle Twice, that though they were to receive a handsome sum from the sale of Sugar Hill Hall, there would not be enough left to pay all his debts and still provide a means for their livelihood, especially now with the forthcoming arrival of Emily's Baby Cousin Twice. But then a remarkable solution to their dilemma had come about through the lawyer who represented the purchaser of Sugar Hill Hall. Although the purchaser was from another city and was someone neither Aunt nor Uncle Twice had known or ever met, Uncle Twice had been taken with Mr. Slyde, the lawyer, and had struck up a friendship with him.
Learning of Uncle Twice's predicament, Mr. Slyde told him of a small British company the elderly owner of which had died, leaving heirs who had no interest in the business. Uncle Twice could buy it for the money provided by Sugar Hill Hall, and would thus own a business and have income as well to support his growing family. It meant Uncle Twice must go to India for an extended period of time, but it was too splendid an opportunity to be dismissed.
India! India, where it appeared that Aunt Twice could accompany Uncle Twice, but not Emily. British families in India sent every school-age child back to England, and Emily would have to be sent away as well. Oh, not to England, but to New York, where one day Aunt and Uncle Twice would return. So it was best for her to remain behind and be placed in a boarding school. And it turned out Mr. Slyde could be of help there as well, for he was acquainted with a very exclusive, elegant establishment, so exclusive and elegant, in truth, that one young girl who attended it was a member of a royal family! Emily had already been registered there, and so it was all settled that she was to be a student and boarder at the exclusive, elegant Mrs. Spilking's Select Academy for Young Ladies.
Emily cared not a whit how exclusive and elegant it was. She did not wish to be separated from Aunt and Uncle Twice. She did not wish to go there. But her arguments against it could not change anyone's mind. Even the one about money! For where, pray tell, would that come from to pay for this exclusive, elegant establishment? Well, in this worthy case, Uncle Twice would allow for her own fortune to be used, it seemed. He had seen to it that it was all safely invested, and Mr. Slyde entrusted with full authority to administer it while Uncle Twice was away in India.
When Emily argued that, after all, she had not been attending school when she was living in the cellar as a servant girl, she was only met with the reply that it was all the more reason she should miss no more. Her insistence that she could read lots of books in India and be as educated as she needed to be fell on deaf ears. In the end, these and every other argument she could think of were rejected. And Emily began to suspect why.
All concentration was to be on Baby Twice, and there would be no time left over to worry about Emily. This was only Emily's suspicion, of course, but more and more she was hearing "Emily darling" being replaced with "Baby darling" in Aunt and Uncle's conversations! Emily, once the only child in their lives, was to be the only child no more.
And even in the rattling black cab taking them to the docks, it was Aunt Twice who was of greatest concern to Uncle Twice. Further, though Emily knew the train, arriving when it did, made them believe they must go directly to the docks rather than first take Emily to her school, could they not have tried a little harder to arrange for that? Why must she now have to be met and transported to the school like a piece of baggage by a strange man, also arranged by the accommodating Mr. Slyde? But it was clear that Aunt and Uncle Twice's thoughts were entirely on what lay ahead of them, and Emily, whose future they considered settled, was already as far from their minds as if they had already arrived in India.
The horses' hooves drummed on. Through the windows of the cab, Emily could see men with their collars turned up against the sleet and icy wind, and women clutching their coats around themselves, all fighting to get to their warm homes as quickly as possible. The rattling cab piled high with boxes and baggage meant nothing to any of them. And it certainly meant nothing to them that one of the three passengers within that cab was a young girl who sat there in silence, her heart breaking.
Copyright © 2003 by Barbara Brooks Wallace