The Adventures of Lettie Peppercorn
A Stranger Arrives
On a winter night so cold and dark the fires froze in their hearths, snow came to Albion. It came packed up in the suitcase of a stranger. Lettie was the first to see him.
The stranger walked up from the harbor, dragging his luggage bump bump bump over the cobbles of Barter town, searching for the sign of the White Horse Inn. He found it on Vinegar Street, swinging from the porch of a house on stilts. Up above, through the little kitchen window, Lettie the landlady watched him come.
With her telescope, she traced the long line of footprints etched behind him in muddied frost. She saw him put a hand on the ladder that led to the door and start to climb, up through the black and swirly night. The Wind was so strong it could have whisked away the fingers from his hands, and he wore no gloves. It was the coldest winter Lettie had ever known, and he was by far the coldest guest.
His teeth were blue.
His hair was white.
His fingers were blue.
The whites of his eyes were blue, and his pupils were white.
“A man with an icicle beard,” she whispered to Periwinkle, who had just flown inside. “Where will we put him? All the beds are taken.”
Periwinkle cocked his head and Lettie sighed. For a pigeon, he was a good listener, but he was terrible at conversation.
Lettie closed her telescope with a snap and dropped it in her apron pouch. She went into the tiny front room, where her two guests—a Lady from Laplönd and a Bohemian jeweler—sat in armchairs by the hearth. Their real names were signed in the guestbook, but Lettie called them the Walrus and the Goggler. The Lady was the Walrus, because she was fat with whiskers. The jeweler was the Goggler, because she did nothing but stare. They suited Lettie’s names better than their own.
“Someone’s coming up,” said the tiny, shrunken Goggler. She hooked her scopical glasses around her ears and flicked down the lenses to glare at the door, her eyes big as saucers.
“He will not be having my bed,” said the Walrus. Her wobbly lipstick pouted, her piggy eyes squinted, and her treble chins shook.
Lettie had no time to answer before the door flew open. On the porch stood the man with the icicle beard.
“I need a room,” he said, “and it must be freezing!”
At once, the fire died down to embers. The Wind swept in, and before the Walrus could cover her ears, it snuffed out the ten tiny candles on her chandelier earrings.
“Yes,” said the stranger softly. “This will do nicely.”
His smile made a cracking sound, and a shard of his icicle beard fell to the floor.
Lettie stared. With jitters in her belly, she went to pick up his suitcase, but he shooed her with his hand.
“Get away,” he said with a scowl. “Far too delicate.”
“I’m not delicate,” she answered. “I’m twelve.”
“I was talking about my merchandise,” he snapped, nodding at the mahogany suitcase. “It’s very . . . sensitive. If it was spoiled, you wouldn’t want to buy it. And I would have come all this way for nothing.”
“Sir,” said Lettie. “I don’t know what you’re selling, but I can’t afford it.”
“Don’t be presumptuous,” barked the stranger. “I know a customer when I see one.”
The Walrus and the Goggler watched from underneath their furs.
Lettie was speechless. For a week she had heard nothing but:
“More sugar in the tea!”
“More blankets on the armchairs!”
“More wood on the fire!”
Now here was someone—a frozen man with a suitcase full of mystery—telling her that she was his customer.
Lettie Peppercorn, stop your gawping and say something, she thought.
“Welcome to the White Horse Inn, sir.”
“Yes, yes!” he said impatiently. “Now fetch the landlord before I defrost!”
Lettie rolled her eyes. New guests always made this mistake. She wiped her hands on her apron. “I’m the landlady.”
“You?” he sneered.
Lettie gave him one of her sterner looks. “That’s right, sir. Me. Lettie Peppercorn.”
“Well, what about Mr. Peppercorn?”
“Da’s at the pub, if I had to take a guess. Down by the harbor, at the Clam Before the Storm, betting with the sailors.”
The stranger pursed his blue lips in irritation. “And Mrs. Peppercorn?”
“Well,” said Lettie hotly. “If I had to take a guess, I’d say that’s none of your business.”
“Girl, you have no idea about my business. Remember that. You’re just a customer.”
“I’m much more than that,” said Lettie. “I wash sheets, I dust shelves, I tidy up rooms, and I brew a very good cup of tea.”
“Her talents as a landlady,” said the Walrus, “are satisfactory.”
“But the decor is atrocious,” said the Goggler, “and rather ugly on the eyes.”
Lettie followed the stranger’s gaze as it swept around the tiny room. The White Horse Inn was drab and bare. The pictures were gone from the walls, leaving dark squares on the wood. There was a dining table by the kitchen, two armchairs by the fire, and Ma’s old pianola in the corner. There was one rug left. It was small.
“It looks cold enough,” he said.
“But all our beds are full,” said Lettie.
“I don’t want a room for sleeping, girl. I want a room for business.”
Lettie was in half a mind to give him a lecture on good manners and send him packing. But she couldn’t. The White Horse Inn needed money. Da’s gambling already had Mr. Sleech, the debt collector, knocking at the door each week. So instead of a telling-off, she gave the stranger a smile and showed him her wide, wonderful eyes: the eyes of her ma, long gone.
“Certainly then, sir. Bed or business, it’s all the same rate here . . .” She stuck out her hand and said: “Three shillings a night, if you please.”
“Three shillings is reasonable . . .” began the Goggler.
“. . . for an inn with more than one rug,” finished the Walrus.
“You can have any room you like for your business,” said Lettie, ignoring them. Then she lowered her voice so the old ladies couldn’t hear, and added: “Even theirs.”