Near Brewer Street in London
Her skirt picked up mud and dirt from the wet, cobble street. She did not bother to lift them. The sidewalks were crowded, including the beggar children. She would not give this evening, even though they called out to her,
"Lady. Please. Just a penny, ma'am, so we can eat."
On normal days, even in the summer when the sun shone low in the sky, Helen knew her surroundings. She was familiar who was coming out of the pubs or waiting in their livery wagons or black hansom cabs. There was an older lady who put away her wares into her store. Sometimes the lady bid her good evening. She knew the sounds of the children laughing and crying from a window above. They were comforting, familiar sounds of her walk home to the tenements.
Tonight she heard footsteps behind her.
She noticed them after she left the master's house for the evening. At first Helen thought that her imagination was running away from her. She stopped to cross the street and heard the steps coming closer. Her shoes sounded harsh and clunky on the cobbles so she tried to walk on the balls of her feet. She tripped a couple of times and almost fell.
She ducked into a small sidedoor of a local hat shop. The footsteps stopped. Helen could tell that the person looked around and came down the alley. But the footsteps went back to the walkway softer and softer. Helen pushed back a hair that had floated near her mouth and peeked out both ways. A couple of delivery boys and all was clear.
The gangway led to her street and with a quick left turn, she was almost home. And then she heard them again. Quick and gaining on her.
She crossed the street without looking.
"Hey, watch out, Miss," the cabbie yelled, but kept his horse at a full trot.
Helen passed by two windows. Then a door. Then another two windows, two doors and a gangway. Finally, she found her place. She knocked on the door. The fire was going so her landlady was home and waiting to let her in. The steps were closer, louder.
"Mrs. McMinn, open the door." Helen used her knuckles to knock quickly. She could see the figure, a tall man, dark, his face hidden, as he came towards her.
"Mrs. McMinn, please open the door. It's Helen." She pounded the door with her fist.
"Excuse me." The voice was deep and quiet.
Helen shook as she turned to see him. She clutched the doorknob and leaned back on the large, wooden door.
"I've been following you for several blocks. I didn't think I would catch you." He removed his hat. His hair was a light brown and he ran a hand through it to smooth the tousles. He leaned closer and she saw that his features were hardened and unfriendly.
"You dropped one of your bags, back there, near Brewer Street. I didn't think I would catch you." The man held up her small black purse.
Helen let go of the knob. "I didn't realize it was gone." She slowly took it from him. The light from the fire cast shadows on his angular face; a handsome but stern.
"What was all that noise? Oh, Helen, yes, come in, child. Oh, am I interrupting? I beg your pardon--" Mrs. McMinn's round face smiled as warmly as the fire in her parlor.
"This gentleman brought me my purse, Mrs. McMinn." Helen stood straight and pushed back the loose strand of hair. "Thank you, sir."
"Well now, please come in, won't you and have some tea?" Helen's landlady opened the door. The man seemed to hesitate.
"No, thank you, ma'am. I best be getting back to work near Air Street. It's getting dark and it's not safe." The man tipped his hat and walked away. "Good night."
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