5 comments

Historical Fiction Adventure

ㅤAlice sat on her hands in her father’s office, looking out over the chimneys of Holborn.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤCHIMNEY. n. 

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. The turret raised above the roof of a house, for conveyance of the smoke.


ㅤShe had been given strict instructions not to touch anything. Around her, thousands of slips of paper lay on writing desks. Each bore a word and a definition. In this cramped attic above a London townhouse, six men were writing a dictionary.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤDICTIONARY. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. A book containing the words of any language in alphabetical order, with

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤexplanations of their meaning.


ㅤAlice shuffled from side to side on her stool. She spun around once. She spun back the other way. She tapped her heels together.

ㅤHer father stood up from a desk nearby. He walked over to where she sat and crouched down to meet her eye level. “Dearest, we have a long day of work ahead, and I know this is tiresome for you,” he said, “but Dr Johnson has a special job for you. Would you like to know what it is?” Alice nodded. “Ask Dr Johnson then.” He lifted Alice off the stool onto the floor, and gave her a gentle push towards the corner of the room furthest from the window which was shrouded in shadow even in the daylight hours.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤLEXICOGRAPHER. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.


ㅤThere, hunched over a writing desk, was a vast figure. As wide as he was tall, (and he was not a short man) Dr Johnson’s size was rivalled only by the towers of books that surrounded him. He held a copy of A Winter’s Tale in one hand and wielded a goose feather quill in the other. Alice hesitated before she took another step.

ㅤDr Johnson seemed to sense her eyes on the back of his powdered wig, and he eased round in his chair to face Alice. A warm smile illuminated his pallid face. “Alice, dearest, come here.” Alice walked forward and let herself to be lifted onto Dr Johnson’s knee. “Now, do you know what your father and I have been making?” Alice nodded again. “And what is it?” He leant his ear close.

ㅤ“A dictionary,” she whispered.

ㅤ“That’s right. And for our dictionary, we need lots of…”

ㅤ“Paper.” Dr Johnson laughed.

ㅤ“Yes, but what is a dictionary full of?”

ㅤ“Words.”

ㅤ“That’s right. We need a lot of words. Fortunately, London is full of them. I need someone to help collect some words for me. We need everyday words, amusing words, and important words. We need words that are whispered in alleyways, and words that are shouted from rooftops. Do you think you could do that?” 

ㅤ“Yes!” Dr Johnson handed her a handful of paper slips, a quill and some ink. Alice rushed to pick up her knapsack and pack the equipment inside. Before her father could call out that she shouldn’t stray too far from the house, Alice was already halfway to the door. She hiked up her skirt and ran down the steps as fast as she could. Alice waved goodbye to Mary the housekeeper as she passed the kitchen and burst through the front door, onto the street.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤEXODUS. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. Departure, journey from a place.


ㅤIn a minute, she was hurtling down Fleet Street, amid the swarming crowds of the market. It occurred to her that if she was going to capture all the words in London, she might have to slow down so she didn’t miss any of the important ones. She stopped and took a moment to look around for words she might want to take back to Dr Johnson. She found one on a well-dressed lady as she rode past in a carriage.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤERMINE. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. A long thin animal made for scarves.


ㅤAs she passed through the market stalls, looking around at everything as she went, she grabbed another word while she searched for a morsel of food. 


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤAPRICOT. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. An orange and red fruit small enough to be stolen from under the

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤgreengrocer’s nose.


ㅤAfter that, she thought of a few more.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤBAKER. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. A man with a curly moustache and an apron covered in flour.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤPOLISH. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. What gentlemen add to their shoes so they can walk farther.


ㅤAt the end of Fleet Street, she wandered into St James Park. She sat down on the grass to rest, while families shared picnics and children played. From her spot on the lawn, she could see a few more words. The quill scratched as she wrote across the parchment.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤKITE. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. A fake bird made of paper and held in place with string.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤREFLECTION. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. The part of a pond or mirror that resembles the person looking at it.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤPANT. v.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. What a dog does when it gets tired of chasing rabbits.


ㅤThat didn’t seem quite enough, so she wrote one more.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤRABBIT. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. An animal that is chased by dogs.


ㅤAlice packed up her things and went on down the path until she reached the grounds of the palace. She stopped to watch the guards, which helped her think of another word to collect.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤMARCHING. v.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. Walking with extra rules.


ㅤAlice walked further and collected more words, engrossed in her work. She was so absorbed, in fact, that she did not realise how far she had wandered from the house and now found herself in an alleyway that she didn’t recognise. She looked around. Tall buildings flanked the grubby street, casting shadow over the cobblestones. In front of her was a funeral parlour, identified as Grimes and Sons by the lettering above the door. Heavy, black velvet drapes were drawn almost shut across the front window. In the gap between the curtains she watched an old man pull on elbow length gloves. 


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤUNDERTAKER. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. One in the business of funerals.


ㅤOn the table in front of the man lay the body of a girl, no older than Alice herself. To her horror, the old man looked up from the slab and spotted Alice watching from the street. Alice tried to run, but she tripped on the gutter and fell forwards, skinning her knee on the cobblestones. She got to her feet again, eager to get far away from the sinister building. When she stopped running, she found herself at a crossroads, as unfamiliar as the alley before.

ㅤThe cut on her knee stung and a trickle of blood was making its way down her leg. Her eyes began to well up with tears but she brushed them away. Mustering all her bravery, she tried to think of a way home.

ㅤOver the chatter of the crowd and the rumble of cart wheels, she could just hear a rhythmic stamping noise. She screwed her eyes shut and fixated on the sound. It was like heavy shoes on gravel. The marching guards. Alice opened her eyes again and started at a brisk pace in the direction of the noise.

ㅤFrom the parade ground in front of the palace, she looked around for another clue. Up in the sky she spotted the blue-and-yellow kite above a line of trees that had blocked her view of the park.

ㅤAs she entered the park, a warm smell touched her nose. It was a mixture of fresh dough, hot coals, and sugary icing. It must have come from the cake shop owned by the baker she saw earlier.

ㅤAlice made her way back through the market, past the fruit stall where she had stolen the apricot. The greengrocer gave her a reproachful look. Outside a jewellery shop was the well-dressed lady with the ermine scarf. 

ㅤAlice looked down the alleyway next to the shop and saw Mary emptying a chamber pot into the street. She took off down the road, ran straight past Mary and in through the front door. She took the stairs two at a time and exploded through the attic door. All the men turned to look at her, but she ran straight to where her father was working and jumped onto his lap, scraps of paper spilling from her pockets as she did so.

ㅤ“Alice? Darling, are you alright? What have you done to your knee?”

ㅤ“I fell.”

ㅤ“Well are you alright?”

ㅤ“Yes.” She paused. “But I don’t think I want to do any more word collecting for a while.”


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤWORD. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. A single part of speech.


ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤCOLLECTOR. n.

ㅤㅤㅤㅤㅤ1. A gatherer; one that brings scattered things together.

September 15, 2021 21:50

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

5 comments

Ava Raim
03:57 May 24, 2022

Ah! I loved this so much - the novel introduction of words and their definitions in the midst of the prose broke up your story in such a clever way. Alice is adorable and you captured the wonder of children (and how easily they can be distracted) so well. I also greatly enjoyed the pride she took in her "job," and how well she did it.

Reply

Show 0 replies
F.O. Morier
06:59 Sep 23, 2021

Wow! what a pleasant story!

Reply

Show 0 replies
16:46 Sep 21, 2021

This is an engaging story as it's told from a young person, they see things from a different view point than we adults do. My submission focused on Dr. Johnson as well so it was neat to see how they compared. Good job!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Cindy Calder
21:08 Sep 22, 2021

I loved this story. Your thread of thought, combined with action therein, was quite unique and intriguing. Excellent rendition!

Reply

S. Thomson
21:47 Sep 22, 2021

Thank you so much for your comment! It's very much appreciated.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.