Exclusive deleted prologue from Chasing Cassandra:
Often I have to delete pages or scenes from a book as it takes shape. This prologue, which was eventually discarded, reveals a glimpse of Tom Severin as a boy:
The train-boy was back.
Mr. Chambers Paxton was relieved to see the wiry lad making his way down the aisle with a bulk of folded newspapers strapped across his front.
Every week for the past four months, Paxton, a manufacturer of steam engines and boilers, had taken the 8:25 a.m. express from London to Manchester and back again. The recent acquisition of a tramway construction company obliged him to stay at Manchester’s White Lion Inn, Monday to Friday, until he was satisfied the new management could run things without his oversight. Hopefully it would be soon: Paxton was heartily tired of the disruption to his home life, and he missed his wife and five daughters.
It was a miracle of the modern age that one could travel one hundred and eight six miles in only five hours. But there were days when the journey seemed endless, and the appearance of the train-boy at regular intervals helped make the hours pass more quickly.
After the train departed the station, the dark-haired boy would emerge from the baggage car with newspapers and periodicals. Next, he would come with a jug of water and after that, a basket filled with items for purchase. When Paxton had started his weekly travels, he’d soon learned never to buy anything from the depot refreshment rooms, where the food was always questionable and occasionally poisonous. But it was safe to buy from this boy, whose wares were always quite decent: ham or cheese sandwiches, pork pies, fresh figs, and boiled eggs. The lad could also quote, with perfect accuracy, the timetables and routes for every branch of the London Ironstone Railway.
Unfortunately, the boy had gone missing last week, on both departure and return routes. The temporary replacement had been brusque and sullen, and hadn’t even carried Paxton’s favorite newspaper, The Standard. On top of that, the slice of gingerbread he’d sold Paxton had had all the digestibility of a roofing tile.
Now, thankfully, things were back to normal.
The train-boy was quick and pleasant, making small talk with the passengers as newspapers and coins changed hands. As he worked his way through the railway carriage, Paxton noticed his face was bruised, and one of his eyes was closed with a sticking plaster. A recent growth spurt had left his limbs spindly, his hands and feet a bit too large, like a puppy’s big paws.
The boy smiled in recognition when he saw Paxton, the outer corner of his good eye slanting upward. “Good morning, sir.” He tugged a crisp folded paper from the leather loop. “The Standard, as usual?”
“Yes, and a copy of the Times for my companion.” Paxton gestured to his seatmate, John Critchley, the vice president of his manufacturing company.
Critchley confirmed the request with a nod, sparing only the briefest glance at the train-boy. Although the stout Critchley was middle aged, like Paxton, he looked and behaved like a man who was twenty years older.
“I’ll pay for both,” Chambers Paxton murmured to the train-boy.
“Four pence and hapenny, sir.”
As the papers were handed over, Paxton couldn’t resist asking, “How was your eye injured, lad?”
“Bit of a dust-up on the down train from Lincolnshire,” came the rueful reply.
Having received his newspaper, Critchley let his gaze skim over the front page as he commented sourly, “Boys your age are always looking for a fight.”
The train-boy smiled slightly. “Not me, sir. It’s only that I had to help the brakeman subdue a passenger who was in his cups. The gentleman had wandered out to the platform between cars. His elbow caught my eye as we pulled him back in.”
Critchley didn’t acknowledge by word or glance that the boy had even spoken.
Annoyed by his vice-president’s haughtiness, Paxton said to the lad, “It was well done of you to rescue him.”
“I had no choice, sir,” came the boy’s matter-of-fact reply, his one visible eye glinting with humor. “He still owed me for a sandwich.”
Paxton chuckled and settle back in his seat.
The train-boy adjusted the clutch of papers in the leather loop before moving on.
As Critchley riffled through the pages to the financial news, he murmured to Paxton, “Have you read about the preference shares London Ironstone is about to offer? It would be a sound investment.”
“I’m considering it,” Paxton admitted. To his surprise, the train-boy turned back to him with a glance of concern.
“I wouldn’t, sir,” the boy said in a low voice.
Receiving the comment as rank insolence, Critchley gave him a withering stare. “A budding financial wizard, are we?” he asked in an icy tone. “What wisdom, pray tell, do you have to offer about railway preference shares?”
Paxton was about to smooth things over to save the train-boy embarrassment. Before he could say a word, however, the lad replied seriously, “I’d be suspicious, since the preference shares are only for non-cumulative stock, and the railway still hasn’t made the latest interest payments on its debentures.”
Both Paxton and Critchley stared at him in disbelief. For a train-boy to utter such a speech was no less shocking than if he’d just sprouted wings and flown out the window.
“Where did you hear that?” Critchley asked. “Whose opinion are you aping?”
A corner of the boy’s mouth quirked. “No one’s. I can read, sir.” He hefted the mass of newspapers slightly. “Rumor is, London Ironstone just tried to borrow a large sum and was turned down by all the big banks. I’d wait until the stock price falls, and buy regular shares.”
A customer on the opposite side of the aisle, tired of waiting, said irritably, “I’d like a copy of the Spectator.”
“Yes, sir.” The train-boy turned to attend to him.
Critchley buried himself in his newspaper, muttering something about riffraff who didn’t know their places.
Chambers Paxton settled back in his seat. Lost in thought, he removed his spectacles to clean them with a handkerchief, and put them back on. Views of green hamlets and parish churches flashed past the plate glass windows as if an unseen hand were flipping the illustrated pages of some giant book. There’s something about this train-boy, he mused. Bright and hardworking, obviously ambitious. He had a nice way about him, quick-witted and eager to please. The kind who was always ahead of everyone else, watching and waiting for his opportunities. Very much the way Paxton, a self-made man, had been in his youth.
Why not take this lad on as a protégé?
Paxton would never have a son of his own–his wife’s childbearing years were past. His sister had been nagging him to take one of her boys under his wing, but as fond as he was of his nephews, they were soft, spoiled, and just a bit dull. But here was someone who needed a mentor and deserved a chance to make something of himself. A sharp, receptive young mind to mold, someone to whom Paxton could pass on his wisdom . . . someone who would look out for his interests.
As the train-boy finished the row and came back to the front of the railway carriage, Paxton stopped him with a brief gesture.
“What’s your name, lad?” Six months of riding this train, Chambers Paxton thought, and it never occurred to me to ask until now.
“Tom Severin,” the boy replied, and went to fetch his water jug.
He had no idea that his entire life was about to change.