Authors: Anthony Read
For my grandchildren, as always, with love
Wiggins climbed the rickety ladder with great care. It was old and wobbly and it creaked alarmingly as he ascended step by step, rung by rung, trying to keep his balance as he clung on with one hand. His other hand held a cord attached to one corner of a long canvas banner, whose weight kept pulling him sideways. When it flapped in the breeze, he almost lost his footing.
“Don’t look down!” Beaver warned, holding onto the ladder for all he was worth.
“Don’t look down?” Queenie echoed scornfully. “What you on about?”
“I heard that if you look down when you’re high up, you get giddy and fall off.”
“But he’s only four steps up.”
“Yeah, but … all the same … if he
higher up, and he
to look down…”
“Oi!” Wiggins shouted. “Never mind all that. Just keep hold of the ladder and stop this thing blowing about.”
“Oh, right. Sorry, Wiggins.” Beaver grinned sheepishly and grabbed the banner.
Standing behind Beaver and Queenie, Sarge, a large man in a dark-blue uniform, watched Wiggins carefully. He pointed to the post on the corner of the ornate iron arch with his one good arm – his other sleeve was empty, folded back and held up with a safety pin. Wiggins clambered higher and started to tie the cord round the post.
“That’s it,” Sarge called. “Tie it round there. Nice and neat, now. We don’t want no granny knots comin’ undone and droppin’ the banner on folks’ heads, do we?”
“No, Sarge,” Wiggins replied.
“Clove hitch and two half-hitches, like I showed you.”
“Right, Sarge.” Wiggins looped the cord in the simple knot that Sarge had taught him earlier, and pulled the end tight.
“There. How’s that?”
“Good lad. Now the other end, and we’ll be hunky-dory.”
Sarge was a retired soldier who guarded the entrance to the Bazaar, a large arcade with a high glass roof, in a side road off Baker Street. He lived alone in a small lodge alongside the big iron entrance gates, with a door that opened in two halves, like a horse’s stable door, so that he could look out over the lower half and keep an eye on anyone passing in or out. Or even simply passing by, which is how he’d got to know Wiggins and the rest of the gang of urchins who called themselves the Baker Street Boys (even though three of them were actually girls). They often helped him by running errands or doing little jobs that he found difficult with only one arm, when he would joke that they really were “lending a hand”.
Wiggins finished tying up the other end of the banner and was just climbing down when a woman’s voice rang out from inside the Bazaar.
“Sergeant! What’s going on there?”
A small, dark-haired woman, almost as wide as
she was tall, marched towards them, shaking a finger at Sarge.
“Who are these children and what are they doing with my banner?” she demanded, quivering indignantly and looking as though she was about to burst out of the scarlet satin dress that strained to contain her ample figure.
Sarge stood to attention and snapped his hand to his cap in a smart salute that made the row of medals on his chest clink and the three gold stripes on his arm gleam in the pale sunlight.
“These, madam?” he asked. “Why, bless you, they’re me little helpers. Couldn’t have managed it without ’em.”
“Hmph!” she snorted. “Let’s have a look at it then.”
She stomped through the gates and turned to examine the banner, stretched tightly across the archway. THE JEWELS OF THE CROWN, it proclaimed in big red letters, and on the next line: MADAME DUPONT’S JUBILEE TABLEAUX. A
DMISSION 1 SHILLING, CHILDREN HALF PRICE
“Not bad,” said Madame Dupont. “Not bad at all. And you put that up, did you?”
She eyed the three Boys, sizing them up. Wiggins copied Sarge, standing to attention and raising his hand to his black billycock hat in a salute.
“That’s right, missus,” he replied. “The Baker Street Boys at your service.”
“Good.” She turned back to Sarge. “Reliable, are they, the Baker Street Boys?”
“Trust ’em with me life, madam.”
“And so would Mr Sherlock Holmes,” Queenie told her.
“Mr Holmes the famous detective?”
“The same,” said Wiggins, then dropped his voice conspiratorially. “We work for him sometimes, don’t you know.”
“I see. Carrying messages and such like, I s’pose?”
“Helpin’ him solve crimes, more like,” Queenie said.
“Well I never.”
“It’s true,” Wiggins assured her with all the confidence of his fourteen years. “Only don’t go telling nobody, will you? ’Cos sometimes we have to work in secret, like.”
“Don’t worry, dearie, I’m very good at keeping secrets.” She just managed to hide a smile, then beckoned to the three youngsters. “Now come with me.”
For someone so plump, Madame Dupont moved very quickly, and the three Boys had to hurry to keep up with her as she bustled her way back through the Bazaar. For many years, the Baker Street Bazaar had been home to Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, until they moved to their own new building half a mile away. The rooms they had occupied were now used for all sorts of exhibitions and shows. Madame Dupont’s was the latest. Her real name was Mrs Bridges, and she had been born and bred in London, but she thought her name sounded better in French, like her more famous competitor. Her waxworks were not as grand, or as good, as Tussaud’s, but they managed to attract quite a number of visitors – especially people from the country, who were more easily impressed than Londoners.
The rest of the Bazaar housed a row of small shops along one side, mainly selling hats and
ribbons and buttons and fancy stuff. The other side was used as a carriage repository, where rich people stored their coaches and carriages – though not their horses, who lived with their coachmen in stables and mews behind the big houses. Wiggins, Beaver and Queenie trotted past the line of neatly parked carriages as they followed Madame Dupont to the entrance of her show.
“Come along, come along!” she called, pushing open the double doors. “Stay with me and don’t touch anything!”
As they stepped inside the doors into a small hallway, Queenie let out a scream and dived behind Beaver and Wiggins. Glaring at them was a Red Indian brave, complete with feathered headdress, his face fierce with war paint, brandishing a stone axe in his raised hand. Queenie was scared stiff. Even the two lads stopped short, their mouths dropping open.
“Keep him off me!” Queenie cried.
“It’s all right,” Wiggins reassured her, recovering fast from the shock of facing a savage warrior. “He can’t hurt you.”
“Look – he ain’t movin’,” Beaver added. “He ain’t real.”
Madame Dupont cackled with laughter, delighted at the effect of her model.
“Course he ain’t!” she crowed. “He’s made of wax. Ain’t you never seen waxworks afore?”
Queenie shook her head, still nervous. The Red Indian seemed very real until you looked hard.
“Ooh, that’s a good ’un, and no mistake,” Madame Dupont chuckled. “Fair put the wind up you, didn’t we!”
“Good. That’s what he’s there for. To make people jump.”
“Hey, if you was to put a clockwork motor inside him,” Wiggins suggested, “you could make him move his arm and wave his chopper.”
“His tomahawk,” Madame Dupont corrected him. “That’s what they call it.”
“Yeah,” Beaver joined in. “If he was to wave his tommyhawk, that’d really make people jump.”