Authors: Lee Jackson
William Heinemann: LondonContents
Also by Lee Jackson
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A Metropolitan Murder
The Welfare of the DeadPARTONECHAPTER ONE
âWho's for Cremorne?'
The young man's cry rings out along the paved embankment, echoing beneath the girders of Hungerford Bridge.
âHow about you, sir? Care to go down to Cremorne tonight, sir?'
The gentleman in question is a rather whiskery man in his sixties, on an evening stroll along the river terrace. He merely shakes his head and offers a regretful smile, as if to say, âNo, no, I am too old for that â far too old.'
The young tout grins sympathetically. He looks down and rubs the brass buttons of his uniform. The tout's coat is an eye-catching red, a deep crimson, upon which is embroidered a capital C, the mark of the Citizen Boat Company. He raises his voice once more.
âCree-morne! Departin' on the hour!'
The cry carries far in the evening air. It is not long before it finds more receptive ears. For the tree-lined Thames Embankment is busy with promenaders and West End pleasure-seekers; the young man will not have to work too hard. Indeed, for every dissenter, there are two enthusiasts directed towards the woodenhuts that serve as the company's ticket booths, quite prepared to pay the fourpenny fare to Cremorne Gardens. And they do tend to come in pairs, two by two, much like the inhabitants of a certain famous vessel of ancient times, a good mixture of every breed of Londoner: the prosperous costermonger and his Poll; the shop-boy and his Sarah; the up-and-coming City clerk in sparkling white turnover collar, who walks in company with his Angelina, a muslin-clad creature, a zephyr shawl draped over her arm, a white rose pinned to her dress. And if there is no bona fide aristocrat amongst the steamboat crowd, there are at least a few swells, men who polish jewelled tie-pins and stroke their extravagantly long side-whiskers.
One couple, however, strike the tout as peculiar: a gentleman in his fifties, in a billycock hat and brown tweed jacket, and a younger man, no more than twenty-five, black-suited, with a fulsome white cravat. They seem an oddly formal pair for the Cremorne boat.
In fact, if the tout thinks anything, as he turns away, and resumes his vociferous entreaties to passing pedestrians, it is merely one word: âCoppers.'
âHave you ever wondered, sir,' says Sergeant Bartleby, unconsciously straightening his cravat as he completes his business at the ticket booth, âwhy we get all the queer cases?'
âStop your preening, man.'
âSorry, sir. I just thought, if we're supposed to be out on the spree, I'd dress the part.'
Inspector Decimus Webb looks rather brutally at the cravat. âI fear it would take more than that.'
There is no time to reply. A nearby chain is removed and the crowd jostles forward along the wooden pier. Knots of impatient customers begin to form, as the more delicate women in the assembled company cautiously negotiate the wooden bridge that leads to the waiting steamer.
âTake it slow, your highness,' says a raucous female towards the front. Several of the costers break out in hearty laughter. Others merely tut to themselves. Meanwhile, behind Decimus Webb, a pair of men raise their voices.
âStop that scrouging, won't you?'
âWell, perhaps you'd be so polite as to mind where you put your bleedin' hoofs?'
Most of the people nearby raise a smile at this debate. But Webb frowns. He is familiar with metropolitan crowds and possesses a sixth sense in such matters. He turns slightly towards Bartleby, raising his eyebrows significantly, giving a slight nod.
The sergeant, to his credit, unobtrusively glances down and responds instantly, placing a firm hand on the shoulder of the first âscrouger'.
âAnd perhaps you would be so kind,' says Bartleby, whispering in the man's ear, âas to remove your hand from the detective inspector's pocket, and hook it â the pair of you.'
The scrouger turns a shade of white and his friendship with his neighbour is abruptly renewed. The two men hastily push back through the throng under Bartleby's watchful gaze. The crowd, quite oblivious, moves forward.
âWe should have taken them down to Bow Street, sir,' says Bartleby, as they finally reach the steamer.
âAnd spend half the night at the police court? Don't you want to get to Cremorne, Sergeant?'
âMe, sir? I'm quite looking forward to it.'
The two policemen find a spot up on deck and it takes only a matter of minutes for the steamer to receive its full complement of passengers. The ropes are loosed from the moorings and the sound of the boat's engine, already rumbling below, changes its pitch. The machinery emits a reverberating rattle and, with a puff of steam from its tall funnel, the vessel moves off. Twin paddle-wheels direct it beneath the iron railway bridge that spans the river, linking Charing Cross Station with the south bank.
âNot going below, sir?' asks Bartleby, gesturing towards the trap-door and steps that descend into the lower deck, where liquid refreshment is on sale.
Webb shakes his head. âIt will be far too cramped for my liking and I much prefer to see where I'm going, even on this fool's errand. Besides, it's a good while since I've been down to Chelsea; I expect it has changed a great deal.'
Bartleby casts a longing glance to below decks, but stays beside his superior. âYou think we are wasting our time?'
âThe whole business is quite ridiculous. It is not a detective matter; not for Scotland Yard, at least.'
âYou think this fellow's harmless?'
âI do not think he is a modern Sweeney Todd, put it that way, Sergeant.'
Webb's gaze returns to the river and, as the boat passes by, the breweries that line the south bank. The tall smoking chimney of Barclay, Perkins & Co.'s famous establishment wafts the faint smell of hops towards the Palace of Westminster. Webb looks back at his sergeant.
âVery well, you may go below. Nothing more thana half of stout. Make a few casual inquiries. Doubtless many of them make it a regular night out.'
âThank you, sir,' says Bartleby with a grin.
The journey upstream takes little more than forty minutes, the boat stopping briefly at Nine Elms and Battersea, though few come on board at either location. It is only when the steamer approaches the old wooden supports of Battersea Bridge, passing the giant black tub of the local gasometer upon the southern shore, that a perceptible change of spirits occurs amongst its passengers. Gaily-coloured shawls are gathered up, drinks are downed, hats and bonnets returned to their rightful places. Sergeant Bartleby takes the opportunity to return to the deck, where he finds Decimus Webb watching the sun set, its final rays dissolving into the murky brown silt of the Thames.
âWell? Anything of interest?' asks Webb.
âNot much. They've all read the papers. No-one's seen the fellow themselves but a friend of a friend swears they know someone â you know the sort of thing.'
âWorthless,' mutters Webb. âAh, well, here we are, at least.'
As Webb speaks, the pilot guides their vessel towards the pier upon the north bank of the river, the wheels slowing to a leisurely speed, then stopping entirely. The pier is a wooden structure, illuminated in the dimming twilight by a row of gas-jets, mounted on a makeshift-looking iron rail along its length. Each light burns brightly within a large glass globe, casting a fiery glow over the waiting attendants who grasp at the mooring ropes flung out to the shore. The steameris soon pulled in, its hull banging noisily into the timber piles, until it settles, bobbing gently upon the water.
âCremorne!' shouts the man on shore, as the boarding plank is secured, the guide-ropes pulled tight. âEverybody off!'
The announcement, of course, is a mere formality. Nobody can doubt their location, even though the river esplanade that runs along the south of the pleasure gardens is not marked by any signpost. The signature of Cremorne is its aura of gas-light. It is not from any individual flame, though there are a dozen more lamps along the riverside path. Rather, it is the omnipresent radiance of the Gardens themselves: a garish, cheerful glow that, from the Thames, suggests a magical kingdom hidden from view behind the trees.
The passengers of the steamer all but run into the little riverside ticket hall.
âShall we make ourselves known to the management, sir?' asks Bartleby, as the two policemen quit the boat, being amongst the last to alight. âI've met with the lads from T Division already, mind you. I know them on sight.'
âI think,' says Webb, âwe merely watch and wait. If he is here, he will make a move. Now, Sergeant,' he continues, peering at the queue for the box office, âtell me, do you happen to have two bob?'
It is gone half-past nine when the two policemen reach the heart of the pleasure gardens, the famous dancing platform. Its wooden boards are already thronged with people, enjoying the warm summer air. From the outside, the area is almost hidden from view; for it nestles amid a grove of ancient elms, and is surroundedon two sides by twin tiers of supper-boxes, which resemble the boxes in a theatre. But the stage that the boxes overlook is not of the regular variety. It is the Crystal Platform, a great circular rostrum in the open air, raised a foot or so off the ground, railed around by wrought iron. The railings are interrupted at intervals by tall triple-crowned lamps and, between them, above the crowd, arched iron festoons dripping with tear-drops of coloured cut-glass, sparkling in the gaslight. At the heart of it all is the hexagonal Chinese Pagoda, its upturned eaves and exotic fret-work painted rainbow colours. It contains a âRefreshment Room' devoted to the sale of âChoice Wines and Sprits' but, more importantly, upon the top storey, a thirty-piece orchestra, providing a noisy accompaniment to the couples gaily waltzing below.
âThey say it's the place for loose women, now the Casino's closed,' remarks Bartleby, gazing at the platform as the waltz comes to an end, and the M.C. calls for a quadrille. âAnd those supper-boxes too. You can imagine, can't you?'
Webb looks around at the boxes. Indeed, in a couple there is merely a hint of candlelight and indistinct movement behind a muslin curtain.
âI know what they say, Sergeant, and you can spare me your vivid imagination. We are not here to grub up dirt. Keep your eyes peeled for our man.'
âHow do I spot him?'
âIn the act.'
Bartleby looks round the exterior of the platform. White-aproned waiters move briskly around the tables set on the grass, accepting the ârefreshment tickets' that are the Gardens' particular currency. Men and women seem to lounge in an easy intimacy, listening to the resounding music, admiring the sets formed bythe more proficient dancers. A blue-uniformed member of T Division strolls past, giving the two detectives a discreet nod. But no-one appears remotely suspicious. Plenty are inebriated; a good few may possess dubious morals, but nothing out of the ordinary, not on a summer's night in such a place.
Then Webb taps the sergeant's arm.
âThere â that fellow in the heavy great-coat. A bit warm for that sort of article, is it not?'
Bartleby peers at the man, upon the opposite side of the platform, a good two or three hundred yards distant. He is about nineteen or twenty years of age, flitting behind the dancing couples, with something rather nervous and awkward in his movements.
âYou go round on the left, I will take the right,' suggests Webb.
Bartleby nods, and the two policemen begin to work their way around the seated groups, in front of the lower tier of supper-boxes. It takes them a good couple of minutes to negotiate past Cremorne's revellers, but the man gives no indication that he notices them. Rather, he walks cautiously up to the queue for the sheltered âMoney Box' that lies just beyond the clearing, one of the small cabins where Cremorne's own bankers change cash into tokens. He stands just behind a young woman wearing a dress of dark blue poplin, and seems to hesitate for a moment.
Webb motions to Bartleby to get closer.
As the quadrille comes to a close, applause echoes round the platform. And the man in the great-coat reaches towards the woman's neck.
âGrab him!' shouts Webb.
Bartleby springs forward. The sergeant is both considerably taller and faster than the man in the great-coat; he tackles him to the ground even as the man's handtouches the woman's dress. The woman herself spins around in surprise. A chorus of exclamations break out from the nearby table; some express concern, but mostly they are words of encouragement, as ifal frescowrestling is suddenly upon the evening's bill. Webb, for his part, stands to one side. Bartleby looks up with an imploring glance, his captive squirming vigorously in his grip.
âI could do with a littleâ' says the sergeant, interrupted by the necessity of avoiding the man's fist.
âOn its way, Sergeant,' replies Webb, as two men from T Division run round the platform. âOn its way.'
Sergeant Bartleby says nothing, otherwise occupied. He is only relieved when, at length, the strong arms of the two constables prove sufficient to render the struggling man quite prone.
âSorry, Miss,' says Webb, at last, turning to address the victim, whilst peering rather strangely at her shoulders. âI am a police inspector. Don't be alarmed. Are you quite all right? Did he harm you?'
âI think he took my necklace,' says the woman, a little shaken, anxiously touching her neck.
âOh, damnation,' exclaims Webb, rather to her dismay. âIs that all? Check the fellow's pockets, Sergeant. Is there anything?'
Bartleby obliges. A trawl through the coat quickly reveals two sovereigns, a gold fob watch, two necklaces, one silver, one gold, a purse, and a season ticket to the Gardens.
âNothing. Is this your necklace, Miss?'
âYes, that is mine,' replies the young woman, both shocked and bemused. âBut what did you expect to find?'
Inspector Webb sighs. âA pair of scissors.'
Outside the gas-lit rockery of the Hermit's Cave, in the western portion of Cremorne Gardens, Sarah Jane Hockley, maid-of-all-work, quits the company of the Gardens' famed elderly prognosticator and walks back in the direction of the lawn. She dawdles behind her male companion, a young groom who is eager not to miss the fireworks at ten p.m., and who has, in his own words, âwaited all night'. In part, her slowness is a growing disinclination for the young man's company; in part, she is bent on reading the prophecy vouchsafed to her by the sage:
Thalaba's Prophecy. The star of your nativity intimates a very good foreboding. Although not entirely unchequered, it promises much future prosperity. The conjunction of Mars with Venus in the square of your nativity offers tokens to show that energy will bring about your advancement and that your union will prove the token of your felicity. See her in the magic mirror. Many future blessings are shown towards the end of the year â many good results will arise, and profitable friendships spring up to your interest.
So fascinating is her destiny, written in a scratchy hand on the crumpled foolscap paper, that she hardly notices the sound of soft footsteps on the grass behind her. And it is far too late to run, once her dress is slashed and torn.
Far too late, when something pierces her side, colouring the ripped muslin bright red.CHAPTER TWO
In Edith Grove, Brompton, the sound of a Haydn sonata fills the upstairs drawing-room. It is played rather competently by a pretty young woman of eighteen years of age. She sits alone, practising at the pianoforte, with her back to the door. She possesses an abundance of curled auburn hair, which trails down her neck in loose ringlets, and there is a certain grace and self-possession in her posture, not least in the delicate movement of her hands upon the keyboard.
The voice of her mother interrupts her.
Rose Perfitt stumbles over her notes, stops, and turns her head. Her mother stands at the door.
âRose, it is past two o'clock, please.'
âI am sorry, Mama,' she replies. âI just wanted to finish . . .'
Mrs. Perfitt shakes her head. âMy dear, please, a little peace and quiet. You may play later.'
Rose obeys, removing the music and closing the piano lid. Her mother is a handsome woman, her face scarcely hinting at her forty years. It is not too fanciful to see in Mrs. Perfitt's well-bred features the source of her daughter's youthful beauty.
âAre you expecting anyone, Mama?'
âNo, but Alice Watson may just call. I would simply like a little time to compose myself, if I may.'
Mrs. Perfitt smiles a tight-lipped smile, as if to express a sense of relief at the restoration of peace and quiet in the drawing-room. She settles herself on the ebonised chair that sits by the hearth.
âYou might read, my dear,' she suggests to her daughter, who wanders idly to the window, peering through the lace curtains, down onto the street below.
âI think there's someone coming,' says Rose, teasing back the lace.
âRose, the window! Don't be so vulgar!' exclaims Mrs. Perfitt. Her daughter instantly releases the fabric.
âIt's Mrs. Featherstone.'
âOh, heavens!' exclaims Mrs. Perfitt. âThat woman!'
Mrs. Perfitt pauses for thought, looking at her daughter. âRose, go and brush your hair.'
The social niceties of the âmorning-call', the illogically-named custom of paying afternoon visits to one's friends and neighbours, have never held much fascination for Rose Perfitt. The endless exchange of visiting cards, the polite refusals of cups of tea, the awkward discussions of the weather, have always seemed a terrible bore to her youthful mind. The only consolation she can take from Mrs. Bertha Featherstone's presence in the drawing-room, when she returns from arranging her coiffure, is that the latter carries her bonnet in her hand, and has her woollen shawl â a rather unnecessary article for the time of year â still wrapped about her shoulders. It is, thinks Rose to herself, intended to be a brief visit.
âAh,' exclaims Mrs. Featherstone, a rather robust-looking broad-built woman, turning to face RosePerfitt, once she has settled in a chair, âhere she is, your youngest. I trust you are well, Miss Perfitt?'
âYes, ma'am. Very well.'
âBut you look a little pale, Miss Perfitt? Are you sure you are not ill? I generally notice such things. The Reverend says I am most sensitive to human frailty.'
âI don't believe so, ma'am,' replies Rose, politely. âI am quite well.'
âHmm. Perhaps,' says Mrs. Featherstone, seeming a little aggrieved by this contradiction of her infallibility. âStill, never mind that. Mrs. Perfitt, now, how long has it been?'
âOh, I could not say.'
âWell ma'am, forgive me for not calling sooner.'
âThere is nothing to forgive,' says Mrs. Perfitt, with the utmost sincerity.
âThank you, ma'am. Well, I have come today because, if I may be blunt â and knowing your charitable instincts, ma'am â I wondered if I might presume on your support for a worthy cause.'
Mrs. Perfitt waves her hand majestically in regal permission, though a rather glacial smile remains fixed upon her face.
âAnd how is your dear husband?' interrupts Mrs. Perfitt.
âIn good health, ma'am, thank you,' replies Mrs. Featherstone, not deflected from her purpose. âAnd he is planning a charity bazaar at the College, in aid of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. That is what I came to tell you. Such a good cause! Lady Astbury has promised to do the penny ices, quite a coup, you know.'
âHas she really? Well, then, you must let us knowthe date. We shall be sure to attend, won't we, Rose?'
âOh!' replies Mrs. Featherstone, joyfully, before Rose can even answer. âYou are a rock, ma'am.'
Mrs. Perfitt nods. âAnd I am sure Mr. Perfitt will be willing to contribute a little something.'
âMa'am!' exclaims the clergyman's wife, her naturally stony expression melting into a warm smile. âI confess, I knew we might rely on your goodwill. I said as much to the Reverend.'
Mrs. Perfitt merely gestures once more, this time a dismissive shake of her hand, indicative of her own unworthiness.
âNo, no, you are too modest,' continues Mrs. Featherstone, reaching inside her handbag. âNow, what was the other matter? Ah yes! I have the Reverend's latest pamphlet in here somewhere. Now, where is it? May I give you a copy?'
âI am sure we have it, thank you,' says Mrs. Perfitt, perhaps a little too hastily.
âOh, that cannot be. It has only just arrived from the printer's.'
âReally?' says Mrs. Perfitt, her perfect smile creasing a little. âThe Reverend is so prolific.'
âWith cause, ma'am, with good cause,' says Mrs. Featherstone, producing a folded pamphlet, which she hands to her hostess. âThere!'
Rose Perfitt, seated beside her mother, leans over to read the title:CREMORNE : THE CURSE OF THE NEW SODOM
âYou have heard what went on there last night?' asks Mrs. Featherstone.
âNo, I do not believe so.'
âA servant-girl was stabbed in the Gardens. The act of some frenzied madman; and I understand it is not the first such incident. One wonders whatever the girl's mistress could have been thinking, giving her liberty to show herself in such a place? And yet, still, I'll warrant they will renew the licence, come November. The Reverend is quite at his wit's end, ma'am.'
âI am sorry to hear that.'
There is the sound of the door-bell ringing downstairs, butpolitessedemands that no-one should remark upon it.
âWe must see the place closed for good,' continues Mrs. Featherstone. âIt is our duty.'
âIt would improve the area, I am sure,' replies Mrs. Perfitt, with polite indifference in her voice. There is a hint of a yawn, stifled in her throat. âIt has rather gone downhill.'
The conversation is interrupted by a knock at the door.
âWhat is it, Richards?' asks Mrs. Perfitt of the young maid-servant, who stands timidly, half in the room, half upon the landing.
âBegging pardon, ma'am, Mrs. Watson presents her card.'
A fleeting look of relief passes over Mrs. Perfitt's face.
âDo have her come up.'
Rose Perfitt quits the drawing-room after the departure of Mrs. Bertha Featherstone and the arrival of her mother's more intimate friend, Mrs. Watson, complaining of a âhead'. Behind her, as she closes the door, the conversation is rather more animated.
âAlice, I swear, that woman is enough to make one turn Mahometan!'
âCaroline, really! Behave yourself!'
Rose ascends to her bedroom upon the second floor and closes the panelled door behind her. She walks over to her writing desk by the window, and sits down, feeling for one of its concealed compartments, the artifice of some long-forgotten master of the carpenter's art. Sliding the drawer open, she pulls out a careworn white envelope and unfolds the letter inside. The paper gives the impression of having been read and read again, even though it is written in her own hand.
My Dear Beloved,
All this day I have wished for one moment to kiss you, to have you in my embrace. Come tonight, sweetheart, and we shall be happy .Â .Â .
Rose stops reading, and looks to the window. It is a warm day, even for the time of year. She lifts up the sash, leans out and smells the afternoon air. In the distance, past the end of Edith Grove, across the King's Road, she can just make out the distant walls of Cremorne Gardens, plastered with the multicoloured fly-posters that promise untold delights within.CHAPTER THREE
OUTRAGE AT CREMORNE. A young woman is now lying at the Chelsea Union Infirmary having suffered a brutal assault at the hands of an unknown assailant. Sarah Hookey, a servant who resides at 23, Worthing Terrace, Pimlico, was in the Gardens on Saturday evening last when her person was attacked with a sharp instrument, which cut her dress, and penetrated her side. A number of men, attracted by her cries, hastened to the scene. The woman lapsed into an unconscious state and was carried by Constable 104 T to the King's-road, where she was conveyed in a cab to the infirmary. There is every hope of a recovery, but the perpetrator of this peculiar sanguinary outrage remains at large.
Decimus Webb puts down his copy ofThe Timesand looks rather despondently out of the window of the cab, at the shops and houses of the King's Road. Bartleby, seated beside him, picks up the paper, and reads the brief article.
âThey've got the name wrong,' says the sergeant.
âThat is the least of our worries, Sergeant,' replies Webb, as the cab begins to slow. âJust wait until thegutter rags put two and two together. I've already had a personal note from the Assistant Commissioner.'
The cab judders to a halt. As the two policeman alight, Bartleby spies a piece of paper trodden into the dirt by the side of the road. He picks it up.
âI think you're too late, sir. Look here â “Ballad of the Cremorne Cutter”. Look's like a new one. Now, let's seeâ'
âSpare me the doggerel, Sergeant, I can quite imagine,' replies Webb.
The cab-man, overhearing the conversation, looks down from his perch atop the hansom. âSaw a little 'un selling those yesterday. Selling like hot-cakes they were.'
âYes, thank you,' says Webb, passing the man his fare. âThat will be all.'
âI'll wait if yer like.'
âI am sure there's no need,' replies Webb, rather sourly. The cab-driver shrugs, tugs on the reins, and swings the vehicle around, whilst the two policemen approach the pay-box that guards the iron gates to the pleasure ground. The clerk inside deliberately busies himself with other matters.
âWill you let us through?' asks Webb.
âWe ain't open until three,' replies the clerk brusquely.
âMy name is Webb. Mr. Boon is expecting us, I believe.'
âAh,' says the clerk, eyeing the policemen up and down, then tapping his nose in the approved âknowing' fashion, âis he now? Well, why didn't you say so?'
The clerk takes up a set of keys, and steps out to the iron gates. âHere, come through. You'll find him at the Circus, I reckon. Through the Fernery â you can't miss it.'
Webb and Bartleby follow the man's directions. The walk through Cremorne in daylight is not an unpleasant one. For, despite its man-made vistas, it possesses a certain rustic charm in the large oaks and elms that dominate the landscaped paths. But there is also something of going behind-the-scenes: the fountains have been turned off; the marble limbs of the Greek gods that adorn the park's arbours seem pale and wan in the daytime; it is, all in all, a little lifeless.
At length, the two policemen reach the Circus, though the area is obscured in part by the primeval foliage of the Fernery. The Circus itself is a large circular amphitheatre of wooden construction, surrounded on all sides by raised benches, gaily decorated with flags and streamers, with a canvas tent for a roof, rising to some forty or fifty feet above the ground. In the dirt-covered ring at its centre a dozen horses prance in circles, forming complex patterns around a moustachioed gentleman in riding costume, who directs them with the occasional flick of a long whip. There is no audience but for a solitary, rather portly middle-aged man in a fashionable silk suit, watching from the side. He gets up when he sees the two policemen.
âWhat do you make of that?' says the man, enthusiastically, before either Webb or Bartleby can introduce themselves. âTwelve horses. Fine specimens, thoroughbreds, but is it a decent draw? Now, I've told him, put a posture-master on each one, have them juggle, and we're in business, eh? Now, am I right? I believe I am; one must always think of the public, eh? Always!'
âYes, I suppose so, sir,' replies Webb.
âSo, enough of that, what do you do, eh?'
âMr. Boon?' says Webb.
âOf course, sir!'
âMy name is Inspector Webb. This is my sergeant, Bartleby.'
âAh,' replies Mr. Boon. His enthusiasm instantly ebbs. âI see. You must excuse me. We have been holding auditions and . . . well, an honest mistake. Please, take a seat.'
âThen I can assume you know why we are here?' says Webb.
âI regret I do. That business last night. First, how is this unfortunate girl?'
âThe surgeon says it was a lucky escape; a flesh wound,' says Bartleby.
âWell, that is something,' remarks Boon. âI suppose it is the same man that attacked her â the same as the others?'
âMore than likely,' replies Webb. âBut, I would like to be quite clear, he has never stabbed someone before?'
âI hope the police have all the facts, Inspector. There have been three incidents to my knowledge. In each case he only cut away some of the girl's hair. I must confess, when I first asked for help from Scotland Yard, I did not expect it to come to this. I thought the fellow was merely a nuisance.'
âI hardly think you can consider us responsible, sir,' says Bartleby.
âNo, I did not mean that. But if the fellow . . . well, what if he does it again? Does this wretch have a thirst for blood?'
âPlease, sir,' says Webb, âif you'll forgive me, there is no need to be quite so dramatic. We've drafted in ten more men from Westminster. If he tries it again, we will catch him.'
âI see. You have no clue as to his identity?'
âI've spoken to all the women personally, sir,'interjects Bartleby. âNot one recalls anything of value. One thought he was a tall fellow; one thought he was short. I don't believe any of them even saw him, not to speak of. He picks his moment.'
Boon sighs, rather theatrically. âYou must realise, if this continues, I will be ruined. This could be the final straw for Cremorne.'
âSir?' says Webb.
âYou need not be coy, Inspector. You must have read a certain letter that appeared inThe Timeslast month?'
Webb nods. âI seem to recall something rather uncomplimentary.'
âUncomplimentary! To say the least! I have suffered the grossest imputations upon my character that one can imagine â you might think I keep the Gardens open specifically for the ruin of young women. And now this!'
Webb says nothing.
Mr. Boon frowns. âWe do our utmost to maintain propriety â you may ask anyone.'
âI am sure we spied a few females of the unfortunate variety on Saturday night, sir,' suggests Bartleby.
âAs with any public place of recreation. What theatre or concert-room would be any different? Come, you know how it is. We do not encourage any species of immorality. Quite the reverse.'
âThat is not the Gardens' reputation, though, is it, sir?' suggests Bartleby.
âThe result, Sergeant,' replies Boon, a note of anger in his voice, âof the braying of half a dozen narrow-minded puritans, who have hounded me in the press. I've half a mind to sue, you know.'
âI am sure,' replies Webb with a rather disinterested tone to his voice. âTell me, are you the owner of the grounds, sir?'
âThe lessee, Inspector. I hardly see what difference that makes.'
âNo, quite. And we can assume you have no idea yourself as to the identity of the attacker?'
Boon shakes his head despairingly. âYou may as well call him “The Cutter”, Inspector. Everyone else is.'
âI am not of a melodramatic disposition, Mr. Boon,' replies Webb. âAnd I do not much believe in monsters or phantoms, not of any variety.'
The two policemen return to the King's Road, but the wait for a cab is a considerable one, and Webb begins to regret his decision to dismiss the driver that brought them to Chelsea.
âWhat do you make of it, sir?' says the sergeant.
âThere is no connection between the women that this “Cutter” attacks, Sergeant. I am sure of that much â except that they are in the first bloom of youth. He seems quite particular about that. They have all been from completely different corners of the metropolis, for a start. Ah, which reminds me, did you talk to the “hermit”?'
âWhy, do you think heknowswho it was, sir?' says Bartleby with a grin.
âSergeant,' says Webb in gruff admonition.
âSorry, sir. I did. No joy there. He's an old fellow, theatrical sort, made a point of telling me how he knew Macready. Was in his “cave” the whole time. The thing is, he wears spectacles when he's not on duty. He might have second sight but I wouldn't say his regular eyes are up to much.'
âHmm,' replies Webb.
âMaybe it wasn't the same man that stabbed Miss Hockley as attacked the others,' continues Bartleby. âMaybe it was more personal-like?'
âYes, well, you should look into the girl's circumstances,' replies Webb. âThat would be wise. At least you are thinking it through. But did you see her dress?'
âHer dress, sir?'
âI meant to point it out when we saw her at the infirmary. It looked to me like the cut of a pair of scissors â not a puncture or a gash like a knife might make, but a series of three or four sharp lacerations along a line, then the tear. No, I rather feel it is the same man. You know, I am not even sure if he meant to stab her.'
Webb pauses and frowns. âTelegraph the mad-houses in London and the counties. A madman seems the most likely explanation. If it is some escaped lunatic, I don't want anything missed.'
John Boon opens his afternoon's post. The first item is, however, not at all to his liking: it is a pamphlet of a biblical nature, containing several odious comparisons between the entertainments on offer at Cremorne Gardens, the âNew Sodom upon the Thames', and the Canaanites' worship of idols.
Boon rips the paper to shreds.CHAPTER FOUR
âRose! Must you constantly watch the street? I have told you before.'
âSorry, Mama. I was just looking out for Father.'
Mrs. Perfitt looks indulgently at her daughter.
âRose, I will speak to him as soon as he comes home. I am sure he will say yes.'
Charles Perfitt is a tall, well-proportioned man, forty-five years of age, with smartly trimmed whiskers of the mutton-chop variety. Like most of the gentlemen arriving at Chelsea Station of an evening, he wears an immaculate business suit and hurries off the train as quickly as possible, walking briskly down the platform to the exit. He makes a point, however, of nodding to the booking-clerk as he passes the ticket office. It is his custom, upon his return from the City, to pay this small homage to the old party in question. For the clerk has taken the receipts of the London Western Extension Railway at Chelsea for as many years as Mr. Perfitt can recall. The old man, of course, nods back. Mr. Perfitt, as satisfied with this transaction as with any of his cleverly calculated dealings with jobbers upon the Stock Exchange, then turns his steps towards the King's Road.
Mr. Perfitt's journey is an agreeable walk by any standard. The route passes the Italianate towers of St. Mark's Training College â which look rather pleasing in the evening light, hinting at some forgotten corner of Tuscany â and, upon the opposing side of the King's Road, lie the famous nurseries of Messrs. Veitch, whose rose gardens and treasured exotic blooms, concealed by a high wall, lend a sweet fragrance to the surrounding suburban streets. But Mr. Perfitt does not linger, even as he passes the gates to Cremorne Gardens. In fact, it is only a matter of five minutes or so before he arrives at his front door. Once inside, he makes his way to the first-floor drawing-room, as is his custom. He finds his wife pacing rather nervously around the hearth-rug.
âCharles! You are back at last!' she exclaims.
âI find it's rather expected of me, this time of day, Caroline.'
âI thought you might have gone to your club.'
Mr. Perfitt sits down in the nearest armchair. âNow why should I do that?'
âOh, I don't know!' replies Mrs. Perfitt, a little annoyed at his calm response. âI have such news â you will never guess!'
âTobacco running high? I know already. They say it's the scarcity of western leaf. I should have bought last month. Would have made quite a tidy sum.'
âCharles, for pity's sake, don't tease. Alice Watson called this afternoon . . .'
Charles Perfitt rolls his eyes.
âAlice Watson called this afternoon . . .' says Mrs. Perfitt, but then hesitates. âNo, wait, I must find Rose.'
Charles Perfitt takes a deep breath, as his wife bustles from the room, almost catching the hem of her dress in the door. She returns, in a matter of moments, with her daughter in tow.
âOut with it,' says Mr. Perfitt, observing his daughter's rather animated and cheerful expression. âI can see it will cost me money.'
âPapa, don't be a beast!' exclaims his daughter.
âAlice Watson called today,' continues Mrs. Perfitt, âand she has spare tickets for a ball at the Prince's Ground upon Saturday. It is such a stroke of luck!'
Mr. Perfitt raises his eyebrows. âAre you quite sure? Thought it was strictly thebon tonat the Prince's?'
âAlice, as you well know, is a personal acquaintance of Lady Astbury, who herself is a close friend of the Princess Louise.'
âI do know rather, as she never ceases from telling me. I thought one had to be introduced at Court before the Prince's Club would so much as glance at you.'
Mrs. Perfitt looks askance.
âNot that you aren't good enough for such society, my dear,' adds her husband, drily.
âIt is a charity night, Charles, for the Society for the Suppression of something or other. A grand ball. Members may bring guests.'
Rose Perfitt takes her opportunity. âMay we go, Papa, please?'
Her father says nothing for a moment.
âVery well. I do not see why not.'
Mrs. Perfitt smiles. âI should think so too.'
Rose, meanwhile, bends down to her father, and kisses him lightly on the cheek. âThank you!'
âNow,' continues Mrs. Perfitt briskly, âthere is the matter of a new dress. I will send a note to Alice. We must find out what her Beatrice is wearing.'
Mr. Perfitt looks at his daughter significantly. âThere, I told you it would cost me money.'
Mr. Perfitt looks reprovingly back at his daughter, but then turns his attention to the magazines kept by his chair, in a wooden rack by the fire-place. He pulls out one item and brandishes it in his hand.
âI don't recall a subscription to this, Caroline.'
Mrs. Perfitt looks down, distracted from her mental calculations on the cost of certain fabrics suitable for ball-gowns, and glances at the cheaply-bound sheets.
âAh, you have Mrs. Featherstone to thank for that.'
Mr. Perfitt flicks through the pages of pamphlet. âShe called again?'
âMy dear,' replies Mrs. Perfitt, âyou know she makes a point of it; she visits every house in the street at least once a week.'
âWell,' says Mr. Perfitt, hastily putting the rather inky paper down, âI suppose we shall never run short of reading matter. I just wish Featherstone might get his way and the place might close. At least then we could all be done with it.'
âThey can't close the Gardens, Papa!' protests Rose.
âMy dear girl,' says Mr. Perfitt, âyou do not know what goes on there nowadays. Everyone in Chelsea would be grateful to see it go. Am I not right, Caroline?'
âOf course you are,' replies Mrs. Perfitt, taking her daughter's hand. âCome on, my dear, we will go and look at your wardrobe. We have lots to do.'CHAPTER FIVE
Whatever their views upon Cremorne Gardens, it must be admitted that many of the inhabitants of Edith Grove look to the heavens at the mention of a certain Mrs. Bertha Featherstone. For she constantly appears uninvited in their drawing-rooms, in the aid of one good cause or another. Moreover, her husband, the Reverend Featherstone, is not the ordained minister of the parish, but rather one of several staff members employed by the National Society at St. Mark's Training College, an institution for the instruction of Christian school-masters. Thus, Mrs. Featherstone does not even call upon her neighboursex officio. It is, perhaps, something of a testimony to her character that she persists with such enthusiasm and diligence, and that she does rather well for the Society for the Suppression of Vice and several other august bodies.
As Mr. Perfitt calls her to mind, however, Mrs. Featherstone has already finished her round of calls for the afternoon and returned home to St. Mark's College. Indeed, her rather stout, corseted form is quite striking as she enters the grounds. She receives a particularly servile bow from the gate-keeper, and there is something of the ironclad battleship about her as she glides towards the suite of rooms that belong toher husband. She finds him bent over his books, preparing his monthly report upon one of his pupils â not one of the College's trainee pedagogues, but rather one of the boys who attends the College's schoolroom, to act as an experimental subject. Mr. Featherstone, a grey-haired man in his late fifties with rather aquiline features, looks up at his wife as she enters the room.
âDo you know Hughes, Bertha? Capital little chap. His Euclid is excellent.'
Mrs. Featherstone states that she is sure she does not. She looks around the study. âAugustus, has Jane not done this room?'
Mr. Featherstone puts down his pen and looks up. âHow am I to know such things?'
Mrs. Featherstone runs her finger along the surface of the nearby chiffonier. âI'll swear she has not.'
âThere is no need to swear anything, Bertha. Really.'
Mrs. Featherstone, however, not one to let a matter rest, proffers her dusty forefinger to her spouse.
Mr. Featherstone gives in. âThen have words with her, if you must. But I sometimes think that you do pick at the servants, dear.'
Bertha Featherstone's face turns rather dark. Her husband, sensing he has gone a little too far, tries to add a note of contrition to his voice. âBertha, you might open the evening post.'
Mrs. Featherstone obliges. She takes up the pile of letters, and applies the silver letter-opener provided by her husband, with a vigour that disturbs his concentration and altogether defeats the object of her assistance. As she sorts through each one, she places the opened letters in two neat piles upon the chiffonier, one for more urgent items, one for the remainder. Or,rather, she does so until she comes to a particular envelope, whose contents are quite different from the daily ecclesiastical correspondence with which she is familiar.
âGood Lord!' exclaims Bertha Featherstone. âThis is dreadful!'
Her husband, quite startled, gets up from his desk.
âWhat on earth is it?'
âAugustus,' she says, clutching his arm in a fashion with which he is quite unfamiliar, âI'd never have believed it.'
âWhatever is it?'
Mrs. Featherstone does not release her grip.
âYou must call the police, Augustus. This instant. It says he intends to kill you!'
It is late in the evening when, having been summoned by the local constabulary, Sergeant Bartleby sits down in the room that serves as the Featherstones' parlour at St. Mark's College. His slightly awkward posture in the armchair is suggestive of a certain degree of discomfort and it is not merely the chair's ageing upholstery. For there is something rather uncomfortable and stuffy about the room itself, not least the heavy velvet curtains, which drape the windows. Indeed, it is altogether a dull, sombre sort of room, plainly decorated, whose only obvious nod to ornamentation is a glass-domed bell-jar that sits upon the mantelpiece. The jar in question contains a stuffed owl, perched on a little branch, which, thanks to some considerable artifice in its re-creation, possesses a peculiarly lively expression. An uncharitable person might say considerably more lively than that of its owner.
âSergeant is your rank?' asks Mrs. Featherstone, seated opposite the policeman.
âYes, ma'am,' replies Bartleby, âof the Detective Branch.'
âI rather expected an inspector.'
âIt is quite late, ma'am,' replies Bartleby. âI assure you I will consult with Inspector Webb tomorrow, once we have the facts.'
âI should hope you will,' replies Mrs. Featherstone.
âI gather you insisted on seeing someone from the Yard, rather than a local man?'
âOf course. This is a serious business, Sergeant. But here is my dear husband at last.'
Bartleby stands up as the Reverend Featherstone appears at the door, still dressed in the long black gown, which marks him out as one of the masters at St. Mark's.
âThis is the police sergeant, Augustus,' says Mrs. Featherstone, laying a rather negative stress on Bartleby's rank.
Bartleby offers the clergyman his hand. âSergeant Bartleby, sir.'
âForgive me, Sergeant. A meeting; I have certain responsibilities in the College, I am afraid. They cannot be abrogated. Please, sit.'
âIt's no trouble, sir,' says Bartleby, eager to proceed. âNow, I gather from Mrs. Featherstone that you received an unfortunate letter earlier this evening?'
âNot merely “unfortunate”, Sergeant,' says Mrs. Featherstone. âDo show him, Augustus.'
âMy dear, please,' replies her husband, handing Bartleby a folded piece of note paper. âThis is the item my wife is concerned about. It came in the post.'
Bartleby opens the letter and reads it through:
Damn all your infernal squawking âyouare the honest nuisance in the Gardens. I know you and Mother Goose and I will have my say. I would beware of dark lanterns and sharp daggers, if I were in your shoes. I have talked to the United Brotherhood of Chelsea and they all say I should set your little castle in flames, and roast you, old bird. I will do it too, you just wait, and I will carve up the meat good and proper.
The sergeant is silent for a moment. âThe red ink is a nice touch,' he says.
âYou mean it is not . . .'
âNot blood, ma'am, no, I shouldn't say so. Doesn't dry quite that colour, if you think about it.'
âBut these threats, Sergeant,' says Mrs. Featherstone.
âIt is a very serious matter. That is why I specifically asked the constable for Scotland Yard. I mean to say, we know this awful creature is in earnest â the wretched girl he assaulted only the other night . . .'
Bartleby nods, then looks up at Reverend Featherstone. âForgive me saying so, sir, but you don't seem so concerned as your wife.'
The clergyman smiles. âI think it is an idle boast, Sergeant. Someone hopes to deter me from my mission. I can readily defend myself, if needs be. I have the Lord on my side.'
âI see. And, forgive me, what is your “mission”, sir?'
âWhy, to remove the stain of Cremorne Gardens from Chelsea. I expect you have come across my tracts?'
âWell,' says Bartleby, apologetically, âChelsea's not my part of the world.'
âWait one moment, Sergeant,' says Mrs. Featherstone, quitting her seat. âI will get one for you.'
Bartleby is too late to protest, as Mrs. Featherstone bustles from the room. âPerhaps, sir,' he suggests, âyou might just give me the gist of your, ah, work?'
âYou must have heard of Cremorne Gardens' ill-fame, Sergeant? It goes back a good number of years. Mr. Boon is the most recent lessee; I am sure you have heard of him.'
âMet him today, as it happens, sir.'
âDid you? Well, his so-called “management” has made matters much worse. Even if one puts aside the noise and inconvenience of the place â just try and walk along the King's Road of a night! There are fast young men and loose girls in every state of degradation and vice. Quite disgusting.'
âI have heard something of the kind, sir,' replies the Sergeant, tactfully.
âAnd it is quite true,' says Mrs. Featherstone emphatically, overhearing as she re-enters the room. âHere, Sergeant,' she continues, offering him a pamphlet, âyou may keep it, we have others. You will find it quite informative.'
â“Dancing to Satan's Hornpipe in Chelsea,”' reads Bartleby out loud.
âYou would not believe what goes on behind those gates, Sergeant,' says the clergyman's wife. âAnd we call ourselves a Christian country.'
âYes, well. Thank you, ma'am. Thank you very much. But you think there is nothing in this letter, sir?' says Bartleby, turning back to address the Reverend. âYou think it is all bluster?'
âIt is the work of some crank. Utter nonsense â the“United Brotherhood of Chelsea” indeed!' Reverend Featherstone pauses for thought. âUnless, of course, he is trying to intimidate me. But I doubt that even he would stoop so low.'
âWho?' asks Bartleby.
âBoon, Sergeant! Who else? I have the measure of that man, I can tell you.'
âForgive me, if those are your feelings on the matter, why did you ask Scotland Yard to get involved, sir?' asks Bartleby.
âTo be frank, Sergeant, my dear wifeâ'
âAugustus!' exclaims Mrs. Featherstone. âReally, it quite terrified me.'
Bartleby looks hard at Mrs. Featherstone. There is something about her imposing manner that suggests it would be very difficult indeed to do such a thing; nonetheless, he does not contradict her display of womanly feeling.
âWell, we shall look into it, ma'am, I promise you.'
âAnd what should we do, Sergeant?' asks Mrs. Featherstone.
âAh,' replies Bartleby, considering the question. âI should lock all your doors of a night, ma'am. Just in case.'
Mrs. Featherstone looks back at the sergeant, not at all satisfied with this response. It is a look that leaves him quite certain she would have definitely preferred an inspector, without any shadow of a doubt.
Sergeant Bartleby quits the Featherstones' room at a little past ten o'clock and retraces his steps through the college's corridors, into the central cloister. He walks briskly, the letter safe in his jacket pocket, his mind turning over how to report the matter to DecimusWebb. He is sufficiently distracted that, as he turns a corner into the quadrangle, facing the main entrance, his feet slip on the polished stone, just as a maidservant comes walking briskly in the opposite direction. He narrowly avoids falling into her, bracing himself awkwardly against the wall.
âBeg your pardon,' says Bartleby.
âNo harm done,' replies the young woman, brusquely.
âNo, but all the same,' replies the sergeant.
The maid is a ruddy-faced, muscular-looking woman, clad in a white pinafore, about twenty-five years of age. She stares at Bartleby with a certain degree of disdain, saying nothing. Bartleby is about to walk on, when he stops and turns back.
âHere, what's your name?'
âJane Budge,' she replies, a little wary.
âHave you worked here a long time?' asks the sergeant.
âFive year. What's that to you?'
âDo you know Reverend Featherstone?'
âCourse I do.'
âAnd do you know of any party that might bear some grudge against him?'
âYou a peeler or something? I ain't done nothing.'
âI never said that you had. Do you though â know of anyone?'
âShouldn't be surprised if there was. His Missus told us I was going to bleeding burn in hell-fire today, just 'cos I ain't dusted her precious shelves.'
Bartleby cannot help but smile. With a nod and brief thanks, he bids the maid good night.
It is too dark for him to notice the nervous expression that passes over Jane Budge's face as he departs; nor the peculiar haste with which, once he has gone, she walks in the opposite direction.CHAPTER SIX
In Edith Grove, Charles Perfitt stands up and lights the fish-tail burners above his drawing-room mantelpiece. The gas splutters to life, as the flames flicker on either side of the tall gilt mirror above the hearth, their light reflected in the glass.
âShall I do the lamp?'
Mr. Perfitt nods towards the gasolier that hangs from the ceiling but his wife, seated at the small writing desk against the wall, does not turn her head.
âOr shall I just throw myself on the fire?'
Mrs. Perfitt looks up. âI'm sorry, dear, what did you say?'
âShall I light the lamp?'
âYes, dear, you may as well.'
Mr. Perfitt strikes a match and turns on the gas-tap.
âIs your correspondence particularly enthralling?' he asks.
âAlice has sent a note. Beatrice is to wear that green surah she wore at Easter, so, thankfully, everything is all right.'
âIs it?' replies her husband.
âCharles, you don't see at all. It means Rose canwear thepoult de soiethat Madame Lannier showed me last week; I knew I was wise to have her put it aside. I am so pleased.'
âIs that so? I swear, I should have never agreed to you attending this wretched ball in the first place. Rose is quite beside herself already. And you are little better.'
âCharles! It is the perfect occasion. Rose may be introduced to â well, Lord knows who!'
âThat is precisely my concern,' says Mr. Perfitt, his expression suddenly more serious.
Mrs. Perfitt gets up and puts a gentle hand on her husband's arm. âYou must let her go into society, Charles. She is eighteen. It is expected. She will have no better chance. Besides, what would you do? Lock her in her room until she is an old maid?'
Mr. Perfitt shakes his head. âI only want her happiness. It is just that I am not sure she is quite level-headed enough to cope with such excitement. I should not like her to fall in with the wrong sort.'
Mrs. Perfitt removes her hand.
âHow could that happen at the Prince's Ground, of all places? Charles, please. She will never improve if we keep her cooped up like some caged bird.'
Mr. Perfitt smiles faintly. âYou may be right.'
âOf course, I am. Now, don't take on so, please. I must write back to Alice.'
Mr. Perfitt nods, and returns to his arm-chair, picking up the newspaper he put down earlier. He reads for a minute or two, then looks up at his wife.
âWhere is Rose?'
âIn her room. I think she was a little tired. We spent such a long time talking about her dress; and she will argue so. I expect she is asleep.'
Mr. Perfitt looks at his wife, already absorbed again in her correspondence, and shakes his head.
Rose Perfitt does not sleep. Rather, though the bedroom curtains are all drawn, she is seated at her desk, with all the accoutrements of letter-writing laid out in front of her, and an old brass Argand lamp to provide illumination. She takes up her pen, dipping the metal nib into the inkwell, and puts it to paper, writing in a neat hand:
My Dear Love,
Another month has gone by and you have not come. I have waited and waited but you never came. Please come, beloved, and clasp me to your heart. I know you will be true. I have not forgotten you, but I know you shall come.
A kiss, fond love, a kiss.Your own ever dear
Rose looks down at the paper, carefully dabs it with a sheet of blotting paper, then folds it and presses it to her lips. She holds it there for a good while, her eyes closed, as if repeating some silent ritual. Then, at last, she returns it to the desk, and slides it into an envelope. She does not, however, pen any address, but merely closes the flap of the envelope and opens a concealed drawer, adding it to a large bundle already there.
There is a knock at the door. She hastily closes the desk.
The Perfitts' maid-servant enters.
âWould you like any supper, Miss?'
âNo, Richards, thank you,' replies Rose.
âIt's just the Missus said you didn't eat much at dinner, Miss. I thought I'd ask.'
âYes, Miss. Thank you, Miss.'
The girl leaves, closing the bedroom door behind her. Rose Perfitt tidies away her stationery, running her hands over the wood of the desk.
On a whim, she leans over the surface, laying her head upon her hands, and closes her eyes.
She is a little girl lost in the maze at Cremorne; the endless green hedges that seem to turn and twist in an infinite puzzle. She is there as it grows dark, the heavens seemingly descending lower and lower, extinguishing the sun.
She grows tired; she sits upon the path until a boy comes along. He teases her; chaffs her about her frock. She does not like him and runs.
There, that is when it happens. It is inevitable. The sound of footfalls on the grass, catching up to her.
That is what makes her heart race.
Then her mother calls out to her.
Rose Perfitt wakes up. The lamp still burns beside her, but not as brightly. Her hair has come loose, and her neck is stiff. For a moment, she recalls her dream.
But only for a moment.CHAPTER SEVEN
Not a half mile distant from the Perfitts' home, Mrs. Bertha Featherstone lies in her bed. It is unusual for the bells of St. Mark's chapel to wake her during the night and the mere fact of being conscious at such an ungodly hour rather disturbs her. She blinks, listening to the seemingly endless peals, estimating that it must be midnight.
Then she hears footsteps outside.
It is perhaps rather foolhardy of her to put on her dressing-gown, without alerting her husband in the adjoining room. Nonetheless, she does so, and proceeds into the narrow hallway outside her bedroom. In a matter of seconds, she reaches the door that leads into the cloisters and swings it forcefully open.
âWho's there? Show yourself!'
She peers round the darkened quadrangle. She can hear the sound of footsteps again, clicking on the stones.
âDon't skulk in the shadows â I know you are there.'
Mrs. Featherstone turns, startled, to face the figure of Jane Budge. The maid-servant is wrapped in a tartan shawl, a crumpled white bonnet upon her head.
âI weren't skulking anywhere, ma'am,' says the maid emphatically.
Mrs. Featherstone looks a little relieved. âWhat in heaven's name are you doing?'
âGoing home, ma'am, as it happens,' she replies, her voice rather tart. âWe don't often see you at this hour.'
The clergyman's wife pulls her dressing-gown tightly around her body. âNo, indeed. I was asleep. I thought I heard something.'
âLikely it was me, then.'
âYes, I see. Well, good night. Go carefully.'
âI always do, thank you, ma'am,' she replies. âGood night to you.'
And, with a glance at Mrs. Featherstone, and a haughty look rather unsuited to her position in life, Jane Budge cuts across the courtyard, out onto the cobbled drive towards the gate-house.
The gate-keeper himself, whose nights are spent in a small wooden hut by the entrance, is nowhere to be seen. Only the sound of his snoring announces his presence to any would-be intruders. Miss Jane Budge, therefore, does not trouble to wake him, but lets herself out, and walks briskly eastwards along the King's Road.
Jane Budge's walk home takes her past the gates to Cremorne Gardens, as it does every night. She herself has little doubt that the pleasure gardens are not quite so bad as they are painted. True, she notices a couple of hansom and clarence cabs waiting by the gate. And it may be that some of those getting in or out of the vehicles are somewhat the worse for drink â but there is nothing so unusual in that. And if the women whomcertain gentlemen have upon their arms are not their wives or daughters â well, who is to know? It does not matter to her, in any case.
A mile down the road, she comes to the old World's End inn, then walks down to Lindsey Row, which runs along the river. The end of the row is where the Thames Embankment begins: a grand gas-lit carriageway stretching eastwards, on to Westminster and beyond. But Jane Budge's journey takes her south â to Battersea Bridge.
To anyone unfamiliar with the crossing, it might seem a bold move. Built upon rickety-looking wooden pilings, sloping at a steep angle, the bridge gives the impression of an altogether makeshift affair, thrown together in haste. Admittedly, it boasts a quartet of lamps, mounted on the iron railings that run along either side; but it is principally a timber construction; and old timber at that, nailed together in odd proportions and angles, occasionally giving out a mournful groan, complaining in vain at the shifting waters below. Still, it is safe enough; Jane Budge knows the bridge of old. She pays the toll-keeper and crosses the Thames, alone in the moonlight.
On the Surrey shore, the Battersea Road is devoid of activity. The handful of public houses along its length have, by and large, dispersed their customers into the night, and the labourers and factory workers who inhabit the area are mostly in their beds. Further from the river, it becomes quieter still: the houses diminish in number, and the gas-lights disappear; for Battersea is still a half-finished suburb, a place where clay soil is being churned up to make bricks, and where plots of ground, once fields, are marked up with lengths of rope, in anticipation of putative terraces and villas. It is, moreover, a rather hazardous place in darkness: trenches and pitsabound upon either side of the road, and there are odd turnings, barely visible in the nocturnal gloom. But Jane Budge seems perfectly familiar with the Battersea brick fields, only slowing down when she comes to a dirt-path known in the vicinity as Sheepgut Lane, a lonely road in the shadow of the railway lines that crisscross nearby Lavender Hill. She trudges along, passing several old cottages â where there is a not a single light visible â until she comes to a slightly larger building, set back a little from the road. It resembles an old, rather dilapidated farm-house, with a solitary candle that burns in the parlour window. The light faintly illuminates a handwritten sign upon the front door: âBudge's Dairy'. Jane Budge lets herself in.
âThat you, Janey?' says a voice from the candle-lit parlour.
âWho were you expecting, you old whore?'
There is a laugh from the parlour, as Jane Budge unwraps her shawl. She opens the connecting door and walks in.
The front parlour of Budge's Dairy is a low-ceilinged room, thick with smoke, emanating from a small brick-built hearth that gives out more fumes than heat. As for the room's decoration, there is little to speak of: some plain-looking crockery sits upon an old oak table that has seen better days; a couple of wicker baskets lie heaped up in a corner. There are, however, two persons inside. One is a woman of about sixty years, seated upon a chair by the fire. She is a little plump, with grey hair pulled tightly back from her face, and wears a voluminous russet-coloured dress that balloons out from her legs, entirely concealing their very existence. Almost hidden in her arms is the second inhabitant: a baby of some three months, swaddled in a grey blanket.
âWhat's the fire going for?' asks Jane Budge.
âThe little 'un's got a chest,' replies Mrs. Budge.
âI ain't surprised with you smothering him like that.'
Mrs. Budge tuts. âI looked after you, Janey girl, didn't I? I knows what I'm doing.'
Jane Budge walks over to the baby and looks at his face, touching his cheek with her finger. âIt ain't his chest, Ma. He's got a fever.'
âThat's his natural complexion. Quite healthy.'
âIf you like.'
Mrs. Budge purses her lips. âWell, did you see your father on the road?'
Jane Budge shakes her head.
âHow about Madam? Did she pay her dues today?'
âNo, she wrote us a letter, though,' replies Jane.
âDid she now?'
âYou won't like it. She wants to see the boy. Won't take no for an answer.'
Mrs. Budge lets out a long breath. âIs that what she said? Well, I'll be blowed. After all this time.'
As Mrs. Budge speaks, the movement wakes the baby in her arms. The child lets out a pitiful cry, halfway between mewling and choking, its face reddening. Mrs. Budge looks down at the infant, then stands up.
âBring that light, will you, Janey?' she says, nodding to the candle. Her daughter obliges.
âThat's enough of you, little 'un,' she says, walking towards the back of the parlour. With her daughter holding up the candle, she pushes open a low wooden door with her foot. Jane Budge follows idly behind her.
The second room is a little cold and lacks a single window. Once, it most likely was a store-room of some kind. Mrs. Budge lays the infant down in a simple cot that lies upon the stone-flagged floor.
âShe wants to see the child,' repeats Jane Budge.
âThen she'll have to see him,' replies her mother. âSeeing is believing, ain't it? What about Mary Whit's boy?'
Mrs. Budge smiles, showing the rather irregular contours of her teeth. âI'll send her a note. Here, come and have a proper sit. I've got a drop of something strong that your Pa got hold of.'
âIf you like,' says Jane Budge. As she follows her mother, she raises up the candle, casting its meagre glow on half a dozen similar cots that lie arranged in twin rows upon the flag-stones.
âHow many today, Ma?' says Jane Budge, peering at the infant face in each cot.
âFive little angels,' replies Mrs. Budge. âNone of 'em a bother. Two is ailing, though. Won't be long.'
âThat's a shame.'
âAh, it is, Janey,' replies Mrs. Budge, complacently. âTerrible.'CHAPTER EIGHT
âGood morning. Your number?' asks the warder.
âD4-3-10. Ticket-of-leave,' replies the young man.
âSign here or make your mark, 4-3-10,' says the warder. The young man obliges.
The warder looks down at his papers. âNelson, is it?'
âYou have your freedom, Nelson. Do not squander it.'
âNo, sir. I don't intend to.'
âVery well,' continues the warder, handing the young man a small book from a pile of identical volumes upon his desk. âThe chaplain wishes to give you this, for your moral welfare. You can read, I take it?'
The young man nods.
âGood,' continues the warder. âI commend it to you. It has the address of the Discharged Prisoners' Aid Society; you will find them at Charing Cross â make that your destination and you will not go far wrong.'
The young man casts a cursory glance over the gift.
âBe on your way, then. Next!'
It is a little past nine o'clock on a Monday morning when George Nelson quits the confines of PentonvillePrison. There is no mass exodus of freed inmates from the gaol. Instead, they trickle through in ones and twos during the morning, at carefully timed intervals, to avoid any possible disturbance. Thus Nelson is quite alone as he passes the Warden's lodge and walks beneath the rather fanciful portcullis of the prison's gate-house. In fact, as he goes down the avenue that leads to freedom, beside the yellow brick of the outer wall, his footsteps echo on the stone pavement, a strangely solitary, lonely sound.
The guard who stands at the prison's perimeter looks at him sternly as he passes.
âMind you don't come back, eh?' says the man in question.
George Nelson looks at the official, pauses for a moment, then spits on the ground.
âHook it,' says the guard, a look of unconcealed contempt on his face.
Nelson does not reply but walks on, round the corner of the gaol, onto the Caledonian Road. He pauses, standing in the shadow of the prison walls. Perhaps his only reason to stop is the ill-fitting discharge suit, which, he discovers, obliges him to adopt a somewhat shuffling gait. Or it may simply be the sight of the traffic â the waggon that slowly passes by; the omnibus in the distance; the dozen people making their way along the pavement â the ebb and flow of daily life he has not seen for five years. Regardless, he stands there, seemingly frozen, for a good few minutes, before he recovers, and directs his steps to the opposite side of the road, where the Bull in the Pound public house is conveniently situated.
The landlord does not even blink at the spectacle of George Nelson as he enters the public bar. He is used to the rather shabby fustian outfits provided byHer Majesty for those quitting Pentonville. In fact, though he keeps early hours for the nearby Metropolitan Cattle Market, the convenience of his hostelry as a watering-place for the ex-residents of the prison is not lost upon him, and he makes no effort to discourage such custom.
âGive us a pipe and some baccy, for God's sake,' says Nelson, placing his hands on the bar. âAnd a pint.'
The landlord smiles at the familiar request.
âBeen a long time, has it, old son?'
âFive years,' replies Nelson, as the landlord pulls on the beer-pump.
âNeed lodgings? I know a good few places. Cheap 'uns.'
Nelson shakes his head. âI know where I'm going.'
The landlord shrugs.
George Nelson stays for an hour or so in the Bull in the Pound, seated by the door. As occasional customers enter, he peers out, back at the high wall of the gaol, as if to reassure himself of his location and that his freedom is not illusory. At last, with every ounce of tobacco burnt through in the clay pipe, and his pint pot quite empty, he reaches inside the unfamiliar jacket of his suit, and retrieves an envelope, stamped with Her Majesty's crest, the lion and unicorn. Unfolding the contents, he reads it through:
Order of Licence under the Penal Servitude Acts,
1853 to 1864
HER MAJESTY is graciously pleased to grant toGeorge Frederick Nelsonwho was convicted ofRapeat theCentral Criminal Courton the14thday ofJune 1870, and was then and there sentenced to be kept in Penal Servitude for the term ofsix yearsand is now confined in thePenitentiary Prison, Pentonville, Her Royal Licence to be at large from the day of his liberation under this order, during the remaining portion of his said term of Penal Servitude, unless the saidGeorge Frederick Nelsonshall be convicted on indictment of some offence within the United Kingdom, in which case such licence will immediately be forfeited by law, or unless it shall please Her Majesty sooner to revoke or alter such Licence.
Nelson looks at the document long after he has finished reading it. He takes a long breath, then returns the ticket-of-leave to its envelope, replacing it in his jacket pocket.
Standing up, he nods to the landlord, who has long since lost interest in him, and makes his way out of the bar. Behind him, upon the small deal table at which he was seated, lie the crumpled remains of a pamphlet, entitledThe Long Road that leads to Heaven.CHAPTER NINE
Decimus Webb takes a sip from his mid-morning mug of coffee, as he stands and stares out of the narrow window of his office, looking at the cobbled yard below. It is a warm day, even for the time of year, and he notices that the mud between the stones in the courtyard has disappeared, baked into a dry layer of dust. Then he hears the familiar sound of someone ascending upon the stairs at a brisk pace.
âGood morning, Sergeant,' says Webb, even before Bartleby opens the door.
âMorning, sir,' replies Bartleby.
âYou needn't look so cheerful,' mutters Webb. âUnless you've just captured our wretched scissor-man single-handed.'
âNo, sir. Beautiful day, though, isn't it?'
âI suppose so. Do you have anything further to report? I can make out the weather for myself.'
âWell, I've been and seen Miss Hockley in the infirmary; she seems to be doing well enough. They reckon the wound will heal quite nicely, given time. And then I went and had a word with her mistress.'
âDecent sort. Runs a little confectioner's on the Old Kent Road. Nothing to say against her. She came toher with a good character and she was happy to let her go out to Cremorne on Friday night.'
âVery liberal,' replies Webb, taking another sip of his drink.
âWhat's more, sir, she doesn't know of anyone who might have a grudge against the girl. Apparently she'd been keeping company with the young man she was with for a few weeks, but nothing untoward â no rows or nothing.'
âYes, well, I do not think we will find anything there,' replies Webb. âShe was certain that her young man was ahead of her, not behind. I thinkourman is a simple opportunist. The way he cut at her, there is nothing to suggest great preparation, or even much determination.'
âAnd what do you make of that, sir?' asks the sergeant, gesturing to the Featherstones' letter, which sits atop a pile of papers on Webb's desk. âHave you had a chance to look at it?'
âYes, and I have read your report. I think the Featherstones are safe enough. To my mind, it smacks of a prank â red ink, for pity's sake!'
âDo you think Mr. Boon sent it?' asks Bartleby.
âThat, Sergeant, is rather a can of worms, is it not? I certainly have no wish to be dragged into this ridiculous dispute over the Gardens.'
âStill, perhaps we should talk to Boon again, sir?' suggests Bartleby.
âNo need,' replies Webb. âAs it happens, I had a letter from Mr. Boon this morning. He says that he plans to call on me shortly â for what reason I cannot quite make out. And I can tell you, for what it is worth, his handwriting appears quite different to that of your “Cutter”.'
âAre you sure, sir?'
Webb, however, does not reply, as something catches his attention outside.
âAh, here he is, I think. Yes â keeps his own carriage, too, by the look of it â no expense spared.'
Webb nods. âAnd with a young lady as his companion. You had better find us a couple more chairs, Sergeant.'
Mr. Boon enters Decimus Webb's office with a young woman upon his arm. She is smartly dressed in a dark emerald day-dress, and carries a folded parasol in her hand. After a brief introduction, both parties are seated in front of Webb's desk.
âNow, sir, what may I do for you?' says Webb.
âYou have no news, then, Inspector?' asks Boon.
âNot since we last spoke, sir, no.'
âVery well, as I thought. Then I have a proposal for you. This is, as I say, Miss Richmond. I expect you recognise her.'
Webb looks at the young woman, whose rather average features bring no-one particularly to mind. âI can't say as I do, sir.'
âCome, sir. Miss Richmond, one of our fair city's greatest artistes. You tell me you do not know her?'
Webb shakes his head rather wearily. âPerhaps my sergeant can assist â Bartleby?'
Sergeant Bartleby frowns as he looks at the young woman. âThere is something, sir, but I can't quite place it.'
âPlease, Inspector,' says Boon, âI did not intend a guessing game. Miss Richmond is “The New Female Blondinâ The Most Astounding Aerialist and Mistress of the Gymnastic Art”. Her performances haveengendered adulation and astonishment in all who have seen her. Now, if you dare, tell me you have not heard of her!'
âOf course!' says Bartleby, with some enthusiasm. âI saw you at Astley's last year, Miss. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.'
âMr. Boon, Miss Richmond,' interrupts Webb, âthis is delightful, I am sure. But I seem to recall you mentioned a “proposal”?'
âQuite right! I have a plan, Inspector. We cannot wait on this maniac to strike at will. We must lure him out. Miss Richmond has a delightful head of hair, as you can see' â the young woman blushes rather fetchingly â âand she assures me that she is happy to oblige, if it may help rid us of this danger to her sex. And, besides, she has her own contract to consider; we had planned three shows a night from June.'
Webb clasps his hands together. âI struggle to get your meaning, sir.'
âA trap,' says Boon, in the manner of a conspirator. âMiss Richmond waits in a quiet spot â and then we have him!'
Webb sighs. âAm I to understand you propose to entice the wretch to assault this young woman?'
âAnd then we pounce!' says Boon, banging his hand on Webb's rather cluttered desk for emphasis. Several pieces of paper fall to the floor.
âOh good Lord,' says Webb. âYou are not serious?'
Webb smiles politely in the direction of Miss Richmond. âI am sorry, Miss. I applaud your courage, but I could not allow such a thing. The danger to yourself would be far too great.'
âBut, Inspector!' protests Boon. âSurely with trained men at handâ'
âNo, sir. Categorically no.'
âVery well,' says Boon, a hint of indignation in his voice, âthen you leave me no choice in the matter.'
âI had hoped I might be spared the expense. But I can see there is no other way. I give you notice, Inspector, that I intend to place an advertisement upon every wall in Chelsea. A fifty-pound reward to whomever can accomplish this lunatic's capture.'
âI hardly think that is a good idea, sir,' says Webb.
âI have no choice, if you cannot find this fellow. I think the promise of a reward may work wonders.'
Webb shakes his head, but Boon interjects before he can speak.
âMy mind, Inspector, is quite made up. Come, Miss Richmond. We will leave the inspector to his work. Good day to you both.'
And, with that, John Boon rises dramatically from his chair, straightens his jacket, and leads the rather submissive Miss Richmond from the room. Decimus Webb watches them go and then places his head in his hands, rubbing his temples.
âHot-headed, these theatrical types, sir,' says Bartleby, going over to the window and looking at Boon's carriage pulling out of the courtyard. âBut a reward â can't be that bad, surely?'
Webb casts a despairing glance at the sergeant. âBartleby, really. Do you think, knowing the sorts who visit Cremorne, that they will be overly scrupulous about finding the right culprit? For fifty pounds we'll get a dozen “Cutters” a night; and none of them our man, I'll lay odds. One may have a squint; or he may have a low brow; or merely look askance at some female. That will be all it takes; anything will suit. It will work against us.'
Webb places his hands on his forehead.
âJust once I would like to meet a simple out-and-out villain.'
George Nelson looks at the room on offer. It is a small space in the attic floor of a somewhat below-par lodging-house, in a rather dingy side street. It is barely large enough for the bed, wash-stand and dressing table within.
The landlord shakes his head.
âLaundry?' says Nelson.
The landlord smiles, but shakes his head again.
âI'll take it.'
âHow long for?' asks the landlord. âMonth? I can't say less than a month. I'd be doing myself a disservice if I said less than a month. In advance.'
âA month then,' says Nelson, shaking his hand.
âWhat's your line of work?'
Nelson pauses. âNothing in particular.'
âLost your position, eh? What brings you here?'
The ticket-of-leave man walks over to the room's small window and peers out. âThought I'd look up some old friends.'CHAPTER TEN
Rose Perfitt stands perfectly still upon a low stool in the work-room of one Madame Lannier, âSuperior Milliner and Dressmaker', as the latter circles about her, minutely examining her form, like a scholar pondering some marble Venus in the basement of the British Museum. Rose's appearance is a matter of professional pride to Madame, who has spent fifteen minutes adorning her in a garnet-coloured ball-gown of corded silk, albeit one as yet with no trimmings, the body and cuirasse held together with a temporary arrangement of cleverly placed pins. Madame Lannier, it must be said, is a renowned perfectionist and must have things âjust so'.
Rose's mother, meanwhile, accompanying her daughter to the fitting, merely sits upon a wing chair by the door, observing the proceedings.
âYou must keep the back straight, Mademoiselle, if you please,' insists the dressmaker, a thin woman with a surprisingly firm manner, who tugs gently at the dress's putative cuirasse, then, seeming to change her mind as to the cause of the difficulty, manipulates Rose's shoulders, pushing them firmly into an acceptable posture. Rose does her best to oblige.
âNow,' says Madame Lannier, turning to Mrs. Perfitt, âthe skirts are tied back like so, yes?Vouscomprenez,Madame? That isla lignefor the season â you see the waist, yes?TrÃ¨s prononcÃ©â here and here. Then, of course, we attach the train. My girls will add the lace trim tomorrow.'
Mrs. Perfitt beams. âI think it will be delightful, Madame Lannier. What do you think, Rose dear?'
âI do like it, Mama, but I would ratherâ'
âAttendez!' interrupts Madame Lannier, observing a slight turn by her model. âDo not move, my child, please, not yet.'
âRose,' says Mrs. Perfitt, âplease do not make a fuss. It is quite perfect. Your father will be so proud.'
Mr. Perfitt's query resounds throughout the Perfitts' drawing-room.
âCharles, do not pretend for a moment that you even care about such trifles.'
âYou know I do not hold with such extravagance, Caroline. It will quite turn Rose's head. She is in the clouds enough, as it is. You saw her at dinner â I could barely get a sensible word out of her.'
âMy dear, we have discussed this,' replies his wife, reaching for his hand and taking it in hers. âOne cannot turn up to the Prince's Ground in some ready-made from Marshall and Snelgrove. This is your daughter's entrÃ©e into Society.'
Mr. Perfitt replies with a rather indistinct murmur of disapproval.
âYou will come too. And I shall be her chaperon â why, don't you trust me to keep my eye on her?'
âI should hope I did.'
âWell then. You need not worry so. She will be quite safe.'
Mr. Perfitt looks to the floor, and says nothing. His wife squeezes his hand.
âI expect,' he says at length, âit is one of those modern articles, all waist and whalebone.'
âMadame Lannier makes everything to the latest fashion, if that is what you mean,' replies his wife, smiling gratefully at the touch of good humour returning to his voice.
âThen I am sure it will be something no decent young woman would wear.'
âI shall be wearing something similar myself,' replies Mrs. Perfitt. âIf you do not think it is suitable . . .'
âI suppose if she must go, she ought to look her best.'
âThank you, Charles,' says Mrs. Perfitt. âThank you. Oh Lord, that reminds me,' she continues, âI shall need something to settle Madame Lannier's account. It is due the week after next.'
Rose Perfitt sits at her desk. Instead of opening her treasured cache of letters, a daily ritual she has already performed, she begins a new missive, addressed to her older sister:
17 May 1875
My Dearest Laetitia,
Just a little note, as I said I would write. Today we went to Lannier's, an awful bore, though Mdm. made herself very agreeable afterwards. She said I shall look like a princess at the ball â trÃ¨s gentile, n'est ce pas? But I think Mama hopes I shall be a Cinderella. Of course, my dress willnot be magicked up, except by Papa's ten guineas! HE thinks it is all nonsense â poor Papa! I confess, my dear Letty, I am gettingsoexcited about the dancing that I know I shall be quite out of my mind with it on the night; and I cannot believe that three whole days remain until Saturday. I mean to enjoy it like anything. Mama says no-one present will have less than seven thousand a year â she thinks that I shall go fishing out one of them like a prize angler. I cannot say why, my dear Letty, if you can forgive me a little secret, but I do not think such men will ever capture your little one's heart; but I expect they shall all mark my programme. For I long todance!! I trust your Mr. Worthing and the boys are keeping well. The weather here is heavenly â I hope it lasts. I shall write to you properly, I promise, once the agony of waiting is over!
Your loving sister,Rose
Rose smiles, satisfied with her prose, folds the letter into an envelope and rings the servants' bell. Her maid arrives promptly.
âCan you see this is posted tonight?'
An hour later, as Rose Perfitt is completing her evening toilette, assiduously brushing her long hair, she is interrupted by a knock at her door.
The Perfitts' maid reappears. âBeg pardon, Miss.'
âI posted that letter, Miss.'
âThank you,' replies Rose, perplexed. âRichards â whatever is it?'
âThere was a gentleman, Miss. He came up to us when I was at the pillar-box.'
âI do not follow. Was he pestering you?'
âYes, Miss. Well, not exactly,' replies Richards, blushing. âHe gave me this envelope, Miss. He said I was to take it just to you, seeing how it was a secret.' The maid holds out a rather dusty-looking envelope. Rose takes it swiftly from Richards' hand.
âYou may go, Richards.'
âThank you, Miss,' replies the maid, a conspiratorial twinkle in her eye.
Rose Perfitt waits until the maid has left the room before taking up her silver letter-opener. She slices open the envelope, peers inside and turns it inside out.
A single petal from a red rose falls onto her desk.CHAPTER ELEVEN
âAwarm night, ain't it?' says the toll-keeper upon Battersea Bridge, tugging at his shirt collar. âI reckon there's a storm brewing.'
âIs that right?' replies Jane Budge, surrendering a copper coin to pay for her crossing.
âAye, that's right,' says the toll-keeper, gesturing magnanimously towards the turn-stile. âUs old 'uns can feel it in our bones.'
âYou're like my old Ma, 'cepting with her it's rain, snow, and who'll win the bloody Derby.'
âYou laugh, my girl. You laugh when you're soaked through and no 'brella.'
âI'll be all right,' she says, over her shoulder, walking on across the bridge.
In truth, Jane Budge wonders if the old man's prediction may prove correct. The nocturnal sky seems black as pitch, punctuated by neither the moon nor the stars. She sets herself a brisk pace, past the gas-lights upon the bridge, quickening her step down to the Battersea Road. There, for want of any better mental exercise, she estimates her progress by ticking off each public house as she goes past, useful milestones along the rather dingy thoroughfare. It is only when she passes the Red Cow, considering herself quite aloneon the road, that she hears the distinct sound of foot-steps on the stone paving behind her.
She turns around, but there is no-one to be seen. Pausing for a moment, the only figure she can discern in the gloom is several hundred yards away, in the side road next to the last public house, a man bracing his body against a wall with one arm, relieving himself of an excess of beer. He looks far too unsteady to be any danger. She shakes her head and walks on, looking back at him two or three times, to be sure he is not following. But the man merely remains against the wall, as if determined to prop it up all night.
Jane Budge's nerves become calmer by the time she reaches the brick fields. Perhaps she reasons that her familiarity with the half-made roads is a charm against danger â for any drunk would be as likely to trip and break their neck somewhere along the way, as catch up with her. In any case, she strides along the darkened lanes with some assurance.
But, again, she hears the sound of someone walking. Not the firm clatter of boots on stone, but soft muddy footfalls on the new unpaved street, not far behind her. She rather fancies that she can hear a man breathing.
âWho's there?' she says, stopping in her tracks, looking about her. But she can only see the black outlines of the brick kilns in the nearby fields, which appear rather like malign carbuncles upon the rugged landscape, and there is no reply except the echo of her own voice.
She takes a deep breath and quickens her steps.
It comes as a relief to find the turning down Sheepgut Lane. The two familiar rows of dilapidated cottages doubtless seem comforting, even if indistinct in thepitch darkness. She can, at least, make out the candle in her mother's window.
There it happens again. A man breathing heavily; the sound of someone moving about.
This time she runs, though she does not quite have the confidence to turn around. But as she approaches Budge's Dairy, within inches of the gate, a man's hand grabs her wrist, yanking her body about.
âWho you running from, Janey?' says George Nelson.
âBleedin' hell!' exclaims Jane Budge, her face a picture of astonishment.
âI knew I'd find you here. Still clutching at your mother's apron strings.'
Jane Budge shakes her arm, but does not remove her captor's grip. âI thought you were still inside.'
George Nelson looks at her contemptuously. âDid you now? Well they gave me a ticket, you see, for good behaviour. So I'm a free man. Can do as I like.'
âAs you like?' she replies breathlessly. âThe peelers won't stand for you coming here.'
Nelson tilts his head quizzically, still maintaining his grasp of her arm. âTo say hello to my old sweet-heart? It'd be a hard man who could object to that, eh? Where are you working now, Janey? I looked for you at the old place, but you weren't there. I thought you were their little treasure.'
âWill you let go of me? You're hurting me.'
âThat's a shame. Don't squirm so. Where are you working?'
Jange Budge bites her lip. âDown at the Training College. What's it to you?'
âJust wondering who'd have a cheap whore like you, that's all.'
Jane Budge swings her free hand in a swift arctowards Nelson's face. He, however, is far too quick for her, grabbing her so that he has both her arms firmly in his grasp.
âWhat do you want from us, George?' she says angrily.
âWhat do I want? I spent nigh on five years in Pentonville on account of you, Janey. I suppose I didn't have much else to think on: what I'd say to you when I got out; what I'd doâ'
âYou ain't man enough to do nothing,' says Jane Budge defiantly.
George Nelson scowls. âFive years, Janey. Hard bed, hard board, hard labour. Leaves a man liable to do anything. Every other day on the 'mill, turning that blasted wheel, till I was fit for nothing. And not allowed to say a word, except “yes, sir”, “no, sir”, “thank'ee, sir”. Imagine that, eh?'
He tightens his grip on her wrists. Jane Budge grimaces in pain.
âIt changes a man,' he says. âIt changes him all right.'
As he speaks, there is the sound of a door creaking open. George Nelson turns his gaze to the exterior of Budge's Dairy. The substantial figure of Mrs. Budge stands upon her doorstep. In one hand she holds an oil-lamp, casting an orange glow, which illuminates the darkness; in the other is a small pistol, the burnished metal of its barrel glinting in the light.
âReckon you look much the same to me, George Nelson. Now, let go of my Jane before you get hurt.'
âYou wouldn't dare,' says Nelson.
âDo for a villain like you? Trespassing on a person's property in the middle of the night, when you've hardly set foot out of the jug? If I killed you stone dead they'd give me a medal and draw up a subscription.'
Nelson's hesitation, his eyes fixed on the gun, is sufficient for Jane Budge to wring her hands free of him. She hastens to her mother's side.
âOff you go, then,' says Mrs. Budge, with considerable authority.
Mrs. Budge gestures with the gun. George Nelson does not reply. With a silent and sullen parting glance at Jane Budge, he turns back down the path.
Mrs. Budge watches him leave. When she is quite certain he is not coming back, she shepherds her daughter inside.
âLor!' she exclaims, once the front door is bolted. âWho'd have thought it?'
Jane Budge shakes her head. âWhat will we do? You heard him. He won't just let it go, not now he's out.'
âI didn't think he'd have the nerve to come round here, pestering you,' says Mrs. Budge, standing in front of the fire, a rather worried look upon her face.
âWhere did you get that?' says Jane, looking at the gun.
âYour Pa won it â must be ten year back; made a wager with a commercial traveller. Thought I'd best keep it safe.'
âIt ain't loaded, is it?'
Mrs. Budge shakes her head, placing the pistol on the wooden mantel. She does it rather too casually, however, and the gun falls from the shelf as she lets go of it, landing on the stone floor â with a terrific noise and a sudden explosion of smoke.
Both women instinctively freeze. When the smoke has dissipated, a small china tea-cup that rested decoratively above the fire-place is smashed into half a dozen pieces.
âBless me!' exclaims Mrs. Budge. âIt was an' all.'
From the rear of the room comes the sound of a crying child.CHAPTER TWELVE
âSo, another clue falls into our laps, courtesy of your clergyman,' says Decimus Webb in a tone that would extinguish the enthusiasm of the most eager detective sergeant. âBut we do not know what it is?'
Bartleby, however, refuses to be quenched. âIt's just that the wife was quite insistent you turned out and talked to her husband, sir. Inspector or nothing. I think she thought we weren't taking her seriously last time.'
âI hold you responsible for that misapprehension, Sergeant.'
The cab carrying the two policemen pulls up outside the Fulham Road entrance to St. Mark's Training College.
âIf you met the lady, sir,' says Bartleby, âyou might understand.'
âI will admit,' replies Webb, paying the driver, âthat any female that sends you away with a flea in your ear has my utmost respect.'
Bartleby adopts the resigned smile he reserves for such exchanges and seeks directions from the gate-keeper. The two policeman are directed to a peculiar stone octagon that nestles inside the college walls. Two storeys high, it is in a similar Italianate style to the college's principal buildings, even down to a miniature eightsided campanile that forms the summit of its tiled roof.
âApparently it's the Practising School, sir,' says Bartleby. âThe Reverend should be there this time of day.'
If anything, it seems to Webb that the building has the look of some obscure chapel, rather than any school with which he is familiar. The interior does nothing to dispel the impression: a cruciform space within the octagon, with boys on various benches and forms in each arm of the cross, both on the ground floor and in a gallery above. The scholars themselves receive attention from individual monitors, pupil-teachers learning the art of pedagogy, but all of the boys face the centre. And there, seated on a tall chair, is the Reverend Featherstone, his eyes roving around the room. The clergyman's field of vision is not quite three hundred and sixty degrees, for at the heart of the room is a multi-sided chimney, extending up to the roof, with four substantial fire-places at its base. And yet, there is undoubtedly something of the prison panopticon in the unusual design and, although not given to sentiment, Decimus Webb feels a stab of pity for the pupils in St. Mark's model school.
âAh, Sergeant,' says the Reverend Featherstone. âMy wife said you might call.'
âThis is Inspector Webb, sir,' replies Bartleby. Webb, however, seems a little distracted, leaning over the shoulder of one of the nearby pupils.
âSir?' says Bartleby.
âAh, Sergeant. Yes, forgive me,' says Webb, turning and offering his hand to the clergyman. âPleased to meet you, Reverend. Now, perhaps you could tell us what is the matter? I gather you have received another little missive.'
âNot quite, Inspector. Perhaps if you might come with me.'
The policemen follow Reverend Featherstone who,signalling to his juniors to continue, quits the schoolroom and leads them outside. He walks in the direction of the main buildings.
âHave you worked here long, sir?' asks Webb.
âThree years or so, Inspector.'
âAnd do you find it rewarding work?'
The Reverend Featherstone smiles indulgently, as if humouring his interlocutor. âIt is my calling, Inspector. So, yes, of course I do.'
âI would not be responsible for a mob of children if you paid me, sir. I expect the younger boys are the worst, eh?'
âInspector, I fear your work must have engendered an unfortunate cynicism. One must simply show them a firm hand. Then one earns their respect.'
âAh, well, of course,' replies Webb.
Featherstone leads the two policemen into the main quadrangle but not to his suite of rooms. Instead, they turn down a rather dark corridor, to a small box-room, tucked away from public view, where the college's servants keep their cleaning utensils.
âMy wife would not have it in our rooms, Inspector. The smell, you see? I thought it best to leave it here but the servants have complained. The sooner you remove it, the better.'
âComplained of what, sir?'
Featherstone frowns, and retrieves a rolled-up newspaper from a nearby shelf. Gingerly, he unwraps it with his fingertips, revealing the rather ripe carcase of a scraggy-looking plucked chicken â minus its head.
âPungent, I'll grant you,' says Webb.
âHere, Inspector,' says the clergyman, proffering a piece of paper.
Webb takes it and reads the contents.
Watch out, old bird!
âThis is everything?' says Webb incredulously. He casts a rather irritated glance at Bartleby.
âIs it not enough, Inspector?' asks Featherstone. âI mean to say, I have no great concern for my safety, but you must take this sort of thing seriously. If some party, whether it is Mr. Boon or not, is hounding me in this way â however ridiculous it may be â well, surely it is a criminal matter.'
âI should not make wild accusations, sir,' suggests Webb.
âBut surely you must look into it.'
Webb nods. âWell, of course, sir. I can assure you I will give this matter the attention it deserves. You have my word.'
Reverend Featherstone looks relieved. âMrs. Featherstone will be so glad, Inspector.'
Webb nods. âThank you, sir. It is an . . . interesting development. We can find our way out â no need to accompany us â your students will be missing you. Sergeant . . .'
âBe a good man and bring the evidence, will you?'
Bartleby casts his eye over the dead bird and grimaces, holding his breath.
âI have never, Sergeant, wasted my time in such a ridiculous wild goose chase.'
Sergeant Bartleby begins to speak, but is cut short.
âDon't even contemplate that remark, Sergeant.'
âNo, sir. One moment, sir?' he says, spying a familiar figure crossing the college quadrangle and running back, before the inspector can reply.
âMiss? Miss Budge, isn't it?' asks the sergeant.
Jane Budge looks up, startled. âCan't you leave me be?'
âI am sorry. I did not introduce myself when we met â my name is Bartleby, Sergeant Bartleby.'
âSergeant? And I thought you was a chief inspector,' replies Jane Budge sarcastically. She looks at the newspaper in the sergeant's hand, her nose curling up. âLor, if that's your fish supper, I'd take it back.'
âIt's a dead bird. It was left here last night, outside Reverend Featherstone's rooms.'
âDid you see anyone prowling here last night?'
âI'd have smelt 'em first if I did.'
Jane Budge shakes her head. âWon't you take no for an answer?'
âSergeant!' shouts Webb.
âWell, if you see anything out of the ordinary, Miss, you let me know. At Scotland Yard.'
Jane Budge shrugs. âIf you like. Your old man's calling, you know.'
âI know,' replies the sergeant with a grin. As he turns away, however, he notices Jane Budge's hands â the skin around both her wrists mottled with bruises.
âHow did you get those?' he asks.
Jane Budge pulls her sleeves further down her arm.
âMind your own business, Sergeant, eh?'
The sound of Decimus Webb's voice interrupts him again, and Sergeant Bartleby reluctantly returns to the inspector, leaving Jane Budge to her own devices.
âI warn you, Sergeant,' says Webb. âYou are not brightening my mood with your disappearing tricks.'
âShe's one of the servants, sir. Does for the Featherstones. I thought she might have seen something.'
âI don't care if you were asking her to a matinÃ©e at the Alhambra,' says Webb as they reach the southern gates of the college, which lead out to the King's Road. âCome and let's find another cab. Good God! And throw that wretched thing away, won't you?'
âBut I thought you said it was evidence?'
âEvidence of a juvenile prank is all it is, Sergeant. Do you know what I saw scratched on one of those forms in the schoolroom?'
âA small representation of a bird, with a cap and gown. Quite artistic for a youngster. And the word “Feathers”. It is Featherstone's nickname amongst his pupils, though he appears not to know it. These notes are the productions of some wretched schoolboy with an over-active imaginative faculty.'
âAre you sure, sir?'
âNot only am I sure, Sergeant, I suspect we can look forward to more of the same from all quarters. Look over there.'
Webb points to the wall of Veitch's Nursery, upon the opposite side of the King's Road. A row of colourful red and green posters, each identical to the other, have been papered over the bricks.
REWARD of Â£50For Information which leads to theCAPTURE of theDreadful Fiend known as âTHE CUTTER'APPLY Mr. J. Boon, Cremorne Gardens
âYou know, Sergeant,' says Webb, âI do not think this could get any worse.'
Bartleby does not disagree, tossing the rolled-up newspaper into the gutter and wiping his hands on his trousers.CHAPTER THIRTEEN
âMama, I said I might see Beatrice at Barassa's at half-past three.'
âOh really, Rose, must you? The cab is an awful expense. When did you make this arrangement?'
âBea wrote to me this morning.'
âBeatrice Watson should know better. What would your father say if he thought you were running off to some dingy confectioner's every other day?'
âMama!' protests Rose Perfitt. âIt is not dingy. You know it isn't. Nor every other day.'
âAnd the cab, Rose?' replies Mrs. Perfitt. âYour Papa is not made of money.'
âThen I shall walk.'
âYou shall do no such thing!' exclaims Mrs. Perfitt. âVery well, I suppose you cannot disappoint Beatrice. Have Richards find a cab. And be back by five â or your father will have something to say about it, I am sure.'
âThank you, Mama!' exclaims Rose, running up to kiss her mother. Mrs. Perfitt smiles, but does not let her daughter leave the room without offering some further advice.
âRemember, Rose, we expect certain standards of behaviour now you are a grown woman. If we are to be introduced at the Prince's on Saturday no-one willcare to hear about the ices at Barassa's. You must put aside these girlish things, dear.'
âYes, Mama,' replies Rose Perfitt dutifully.
âAnd do take your sun-shade.'
In a matter of minutes Rose Perfitt is seated in a four-wheeled cab, wearing her best linen day-dress, a maroon check, and carrying her favourite Japanese parasol. With her fare paid in advance, the cab ought to speedily progress eastwards towards Barassa's Fancy Confectioner's, a popular resort for young ladies taking tea in the purlieus of Chelsea and Brompton. Instead, contrary to Miss Perfitt's supposed itinerary, it stops just round the corner from Edith Grove, on the King's Road.
It is Rose Perfitt herself who pulls the check-string that calls the driver to a halt. Moreover, she opens the door of the cab, stepping onto the pavement before he can even inquire what is the matter.
âYou may go,' she says. âI shall walk from here. It is such a beautiful day, after all. Please, keep the fare.'
âWalk, Miss?' says the cab-man, utterly perplexed, not having travelled more than four hundred yards.
âYes, thank you,' replies Rose with a distinct nod, as if to signal a polite end to the conversation.
The cab-man raises his eyebrows â in a manner calculated to suggest he possesses certain doubts as to the mental faculties of his passenger. However, with a fare already in his pocket, he resolves to let the matter rest, and so instructs his horses to âwalk on', albeit allowing himself a brief glance over his shoulder. Rose, for her part, waits until the cab is in the far distance, then turns round, walking hastily across to the opposite side of the King's Road â to the very entrance of Cremorne Gardens.
âOn your own, Miss?' asks the clerk on the gate. âOne shilling.'
The clerk's initial question is not a pointed one. For the daytime reputation of the Gardens is not so bad as the night. Indeed, it is not unknown for nursemaids and governesses, from more liberal households, to bring their infant charges, as a special treat, to listen to the concerts of Cremorne's own brass band, or to the see the matinÃ©e performances of Senor Rosci's Astounding Dogs and Educated Monkeys in the Theatre Royal. If a certain proportion of Chelsea's inhabitants consider even these innocuous daytime amusements to be tainted, it is only a small proportion. It is certainly not a consideration in the mind of Rose Perfitt â she eagerly buys her ticket and makes her way through the gates.
Once inside, Rose walks with confident steps along the Gardens' central tree-lined avenue. As she walks, however, she constantly scrutinises the horizon for something or someone â although, by her expression, she does not seem to find it. Nonetheless, she carries on: past the American Bowling Saloon and the Hermit's Cave, until she comes to the Gardens' famed glass fountain. It displays a kneeling Grecian nymph, upon a crystal dias supported by a trio of long-necked storks, perpetually pouring out an endless stream of water from a bounteous jug. The fountain is in a secluded spot â nestling in a rose garden, beneath the shadow of the twin Moorish towers of the Fireworks Platform. Rose finds herself quite alone.
Rather than sit down upon one of the nearby benches, she begins to pace around the fountain's round basin.
Rose Perfitt re-emerges onto the King's Road as the church bells of the parish ring five o'clock. Her face is rather gloomy, a hint of tears upon her cheeks, and an air of solemn disappointment about her. She hardly pays attention as she crosses the road, and she is surprised to hear her name called out as she turns onto Edith Grove. She looks round to see the Reverend Augustus Featherstone approaching.
Rose blushes. âYes, sir?'
âAre you quite all right, Miss Perfitt? Forgive me, you look a little distressed.'
âNo,' protests Rose, forcing a smile, âI am fine, I assure you.'
âAre you alone?'
âYes, sir. I mean, I have just come back from tea with a friend. I asked the cab to drop me just along the way, so I might take some exercise.'
âIs that wise, Miss Perfitt?'
âWhatever do you mean, sir?'
âWell, the Gardens. You know the sort they attract, my dear girl. I would not wish to hear of a young lady such as yourself subjected to the insults of the idlers who frequent that place.'
âI am sure I have not seen any idlers, sir,' replies Rose. âAnd if there were, I am sure I should be quite safe in broad daylight.'
The Reverend shakes his head, as if to admonish Rose for her naivety. âSad to say, Miss Perfitt, there is a class of ill-conditioned blackguards who do not hesitate to presume upon the good nature of innocent creatures such as yourself. Now, shall I accompany you home?'
âThere is no need, sir. It is not far now.'
âNo? As you wish, my dear,' says the ReverendFeatherstone, his thin aquiline features wrinkled in an expression of deep concern. He reaches out and clasps Rose's hand in a rather bony grip. âGood day, then. But do take care, I beg you.'
Rose bids him goodbye, and hurries down Edith Grove. The clergyman lingers upon the corner, watching her disappear up the steps to her home.
He turns his gaze from the Perfitts' residence to the gates of Cremorne Gardens, and then once more back to Edith Grove, a look of consternation upon his face.CHAPTER FOURTEEN
There is a light summer drizzle falling on the muddy ground of Sheepgut Lane, as one Alfred Budge departs for work. He is a short man of fifty years or so, stocky in build, with craggy features and a slouching cloth cap that barely conceals a thick mop of rather dirty-looking brown hair. With his rugged face and fustian coat, he very much resembles the archetype of a London ârough', only differing from that happy ideal in his gait. It is a lame, lop-sided progress, caused by a crushed foot, trapped beneath a beer barrel some years ago, which remains stubbornly twisted at an odd angle to his body.
His cap does little to protect his head from the rain. In consequence, Mr. Budge mutters sundry curses to himself as he walks, his eyes fixed upon the ground, wary of pot-holes and other obstacles. Presumably, were he to meet one of his neighbours on the way, despite his displeasure at the weather, he would make some desultory nod or greeting. But he is quite alone, for the casual labourers and down-at-heel navvies who inhabit the lane's tumble-down cottages have long since gone to look for work. Mr. Budge, on the other hand, potman of The Old King's Head, keeps the civilised time of the victualling trade. In fact, heconsiders the present hour, at just gone ten o'clock in the morning, âa precious early start'.
But Mr. Budge has little option in the matter. For his departure has been superintended by his wife of some thirty years, who stands indoors at the window of Budge's Dairy. As is often the case, she has an infant child in her arms. But she holds the baby in a rather disinterested fashion, seemingly oblivious to its cries, and the distinct tearfulness about its eyes, her attention focused on the figure disappearing down the road. Only when she is quite certain that her husband has receded out of sight, does she glance at the child and, even then, it is only to put it down in the cot that sits by the fire-place.
âHush,' she says.
The baby does not oblige her. Mrs. Budge turns to the other individual in the room: a four-year-old boy who sits quietly upon a chair by the hearth. He is dressed in what is considered âSunday best' in Sheepgut Lane, a little suit of cheap cloth that boasts at least a couple of buttons and a shirt that might loosely be described as white.
âAnd how are you keeping, Davey?' she asks the boy.
The little boy nods in a rather timid way.
âCome now, dear, don't be shy,' says Mrs. Budge, coaxingly. âRemember what your Ma told you?'
The little boy nods again.
âGood. Now, let me tell you something. I know a shop, not far from here, Davey, that sells the sweetest hardbake that any little boy is ever likely to taste. But they only sell to them that is good boys. What do you think of that?'
The mention of the sugared delicacy in question brings a rather more cheerful, expectant expression to the boy's face. Mrs. Budge smiles.
âThat's it, Davey,' she continues. âYou be a good boy, like your Ma told you, and keep thinking on that, and we'll have a fine old time. Now, we're going on a little outing.'
An hour passes and Margaret Budge stands upon the pavement of the approach to Vauxhall Bridge, with an umbrella under one arm, and Davey Whit at her side. She takes the umbrella and points out the spectacle of the Houses of Parliament upon the far shore, and a steamboat heading up river, but the little boy in her charge seems disinterested. He is more struck by the sight of a soot-black pigeon that walks confidently along the gutter, occasionally pecking at the dirt, oblivious to the proximity of passing carriages. It is only when the bird flies away, as a clarence cab draws to a halt along side them, that the little boy looks up.
In truth, he looks startled. A judicious whisper of the word âhardbake', however, serves to calm his nerves. As for the carriage, it remains motionless, with no sign of movement from within. Mrs. Budge, therefore, walks the boy to the kerb. At last, the window of the clarence is lowered by a black-gloved hand, revealing a female face inside, hidden by a dark veil, of the sort normally reserved for the mourning of close relatives.
âMa'am,' says Mrs. Budge, with a rather awkward curtsey, made problematic by the balancing of her umbrella and Davey Whit's hand tightly clasping her own. âI trust you are well, ma'am.'
âThank you. I am well enough. Is this the child?'
Mrs. Budge places Davey in front of her, one shoulder firmly in her grip, as if fearing he might bolt at any moment.
âThis is the boy, ma'am. Answers to Davey â David, ma'am.'
The woman in the carriage pushes the door ajar. âCome here, David.'
Mrs. Budge ushers Davey forward. As he seems a little reluctant, she does not release her grip on his shoulder until he is on the carriage step.
âJust the boy,' says the woman inside, rather sternly.
Mrs. Budge nods and steps back.
âCome, boy, you needn't be afraid of me,' says the woman. âStep in so I may see you properly.'
The little boy looks back anxiously at Mrs. Budge, who urges him onward. Once he is inside, his interlocutor says nothing, but merely stares at him.
âHe's a fine lad,' says Mrs. Budge from the roadside.
The veiled woman says nothing. At one point, she seems to raise a hand, as if to touch his face, but the boy flinches, and she withdraws it. At length, at what must be an interval of two or three minutes, she bids the boy to step down.
âIs everything all right, ma'am?' asks Mrs. Budge.
There is a silence from within the cab.
âHe has changed a good deal,' she says at last.
âOh, they do, ma'am. It's a year or two since you saw him; he were just a little whelp before.'
There is no reply.
âMa'am?' says Mrs. Budge at last.
âI would have him emigrate,' says the woman in the cab, bluntly.
âEmigrate. That is why I came here. To the colonies. I am sure a good place can be found for him by one of the societies. He has been in your care long enough.'
âWe've looked after him well, ma'am,' says Mrs.Budge, shaking her head, and putting a finger to her eyes. âI don't know, I really don't. This is a hard blow.'
The woman in the carriage turns her head, her eyes hidden behind the black gauze of the veil.
âYou will respect my wishes.'
âOf course, ma'am. But there is all sorts of difficulties . . . I mean, to separate him from those what have loved and cherished him all these years.'
âI will pay a premium, of course.'
âA premium?' replies Mrs. Budge, her tone of studied regret somewhat diminished. âThat puts a different face on it, begging your pardon, ma'am. It would be hard on a body, but, put that way, I can see as how it might be for the best.'
âTwelve sovereigns. By the usual arrangement.'
âAnd when would that be, ma'am?' asks Mrs. Budge.
âTonight. You shall have it tonight.'
âThank you, ma'am. That's a comfort.'
The woman closes the carriage window and slams the door, without uttering another word. The driver, in turn, makes the gentle tug upon the reins that drives the horses to trot on. As the vehicle departs, Mrs. Budge looks down at her youthful companion, ruffling his hair, much to his obvious discomfort.
âRegular Young Roscius, you are, Davey,' she says. âYour Ma should put you on the stage.'
âI want my hardbake,' says Davey, quite emphatically.
True to her word, Mrs. Budge satisfies Davey Whit's appetite upon their return to Battersea. The little boy, in turn, is then collected from Budge's Dairy by his mother, who gratefully accepts two shillings for the services of her offspring. Once this transaction iscompleted, Mrs. Budge bids mother and child goodbye, and watches them depart along Sheepgut Lane. At length, when they have disappeared into the distance, Mrs. Budge turns away from the window, and walks into the back parlour. Her infant charges still lie there, side by side, and she crouches down beside a particular crib. Peeling back the grey linen, she touches the skin of the child, which feels decidedly damp. It cries out, but only a little, as if it cannot quite muster the power to complain any further.
âNot long till the good Lord gathers you up, eh? Most likely it's for the best, dear.'
Mrs. Budge smiles sympathetically, gets to her feet and returns to the front parlour. She goes over to the table, where a paper and pen lie ready. She dips the pen in the ink, and composes a brief note for the morning paper, with an ease and fluency bred of long experience.
NURSE CHILD WANTED, OR TO ADOPT â The Advertiser, a Widow with a little family of her own, and a moderate allowance from her late husband's friends, would be glad to accept the charge of a young child. Age no object. If sickly would receive a parent's care. Terms, Fifteen Shillings a month; or would adopt entirely if under two months for the small sum of Twelve pounds.
Mrs. Budge reads her handiwork with pride, then gets up to search for an envelope.CHAPTER FIFTEEN
Mr. John Boon waits behind the ticket booth at the gates to Cremorne Gardens. Decimus Webb stands a few yards distant, silently observing the night's steady stream of revellers tender their shillings and stroll merrily into the Gardens' landscaped walks. Boon, having finished a conversation with the clerk in the booth, walks back over to the policeman.
âWould you believe it, Inspector? Receipts are up!' he remarks cheerfully.
âYour notice has done the trick, then, sir.'
âInspector!' protests Boon. âThat was never my intention. I merely wish to see the devil caught, as quickly as possible.'
âOf course, sir,' says Webb. âAnd if the public has a natural curiosity to see it happen, then what are we to do about it?'
âQuite,' says Boon, uncertain whether Webb is mocking him. âAnd you have no news I take it?'
âThree reports this afternoon, sir. All of them seem thoroughly specious. I've left Bartleby to make certain of it.'
âI am sure we shall catch the man, Inspector. Either that or he will not dare make another attempt, when the whole of Chelsea is looking for him.'
âWell, you will win out in either case, sir.'
âInspector, I do not think that I careâ'
Boon's words are cut short as he hears some kind of disturbance on the far side of the gates.
âWhat the deuce is that?' he exclaims, pushing his way past the booth, where a group of would-be visitors have halted. The cause is the approach of a large group of black-robed figures along the King's Road, all of whom are singing at the top of their voices.
The King of love my shepherd is,whose goodness faileth never.I nothing lack if I am his,and he is mine forever . . .
Webb steps up beside Boon, as the group draw to a halt by the gates. He recognises the leader as the Reverend Featherstone, and a couple of the younger men, dressed in their cassocks, as the junior masters he saw in the Training College's schoolroom.
Perverse and foolish, oft I strayed,but yet in love he sought me . . .
Featherstone does not interrupt the verse, but nods politely to Webb who, despite himself, cannot quite conceal a smile at Mr. Boon's almost apoplectic rage.
âInspector!' exclaims Boon. âYou must put an end to this . . . this intrusion!'
âWhat intrusion, sir?' asks Webb. âI believe they are on the public highway.'
âIt is persecution, Inspector! Does the Law countenance such behaviour?'
âI'm rather fond of a good tune, myself, sir,' says Webb.
âRose?' says Mrs. Perfitt, opening the bedroom door. âMy dear, must you keep disappearing to your room?'
Rose Perfitt turns from her seat by the window. âI am sorry, Mama, I just felt a little seedy.'
âYou do look tired. Are you coming down with something? Oh, I do hope not â not now. Why, I should think you might be a little more excited.'
Rose smiles. âI do want to go to the ball, Mama, I promise. I shall be better tomorrow.'
âWell, Madame Lannier will bring the dress in the morning. I expect that will raise your spirits?'
âGood. Now your dear father is still at his club, so Lord knows what hour he may come home. And I said I would call on Elspeth this evening â she has had one of her turns again.'
âI hope it is nothing serious?'
âYou know your aunt, Rose â a slight head and she is convinced she has a brain fever. I expect it is nothing. Still, I shall not be back before ten. Tell your father if he comes home before you retire, will you?'
âYou will be quite all right on your own?'
âVery well, dear. Have Richards bring you some supper. You must keep up your strength.'
Rose casts a chastening look at her mother, who smiles and withdraws from the room. She remains seated until she hears the sound of a cab arriving outside, and the front door of the house opening andclose. Getting up, she watches her mother climb into the four-wheeler.
As the cab departs, Rose turns and looks around for her summer shawl.
It is approaching nightfall as the Reverend Featherstone's amateur chorus come to a pause, in order to light the lanterns they have brought with them. John Boon has already disappeared, annoyed and exasperated, back into the gas-lit gardens. Decimus Webb, upon the other hand, remains by the gates. He takes advantage of the pause in theal frescoconcert to speak to the clergyman.
âGood evening, Reverend.'
âAh, it is you, Inspector, I thought it was,' replies Featherstone. âI feared you might arrest us.'
Webb shakes his head. âYou aren't causing that much of an obstruction, sir. Nor a great public nuisance.'
âMr. Boon might disagree with you.'
Webb shrugs. âThere doesn't seem to be many takers for your pamphlets, sir,' continues the Inspector, nodding at the handful of bills that one of the Reverend's juniors holds out to those approaching the gates.
âWe only hope for “one sinner that repenteth”, Inspector. Anything more is a great blessing.'
Webb nods. âI trust your good wife has found nothing else upon her doorstep today, at least?'
âThankfully not, Inspector.'
âWell, that is something. I see you have all your young men assisting you?'
âEveryone at St. Mark's is of a like mind, Inspector. We must see Cremorne closed. It is the Lord's will.'
Webb nods, but does not comment.
In truth, if the Reverend Featherstone's protest has any obvious effect, it is principally to empty St. Mark's College of its staff and pupil-teachers, leaving the college buildings rather devoid of activity. The few persons that remain behind are mostly wives and servants, and several take the opportunity to visit the college chapel, and spend an hour or two in prayerful contemplation, Bertha Featherstone amongst them.
After the chapel bells are rung for ten o'clock, however, Mrs. Featherstone resolves to return to her rooms. She quits her place at the rear of the chapel's nave and gently opens the heavy wooden door that leads out into the college grounds. The short walk to her apartments in the main building is a peaceful one, and there is nothing in the warm summer night to disturb her serene progress, save the creaking iron weathercock that roosts atop the chapel's summit.
But even Mrs. Featherstone visibly jumps when she hears a strange, muffled scream, as she enters the college quadrangle. Even though the sound is somehow muted, it is unmistakably frantic, a raucous and primitive cry.
For a moment, she cannot quite believe her ears. Echoing stone walls can play tricks, after all; it is, she reasons, an animal, some wretched cat or fox. But then it comes again. She can do nothing but pursue the sound, completing almost a full lap of the cloisters until she realises the noise comes from the servants' quarters, not far from her own rooms. In fact, from the servants' scullery.
In her heart, she knows something of what awaits her, before her eyes see the evidence. For, mixed with the screams, there are repeated desperate thuds against some hard surface, and a sound like the crackling of autumn leaves upon a bonfire. It takes only the sightof smoke creeping beneath the scullery door to confirm her worst suspicions.
Instinctively, Mrs. Featherstone rushes forward, heedless of any danger to herself, and, as the smoke rises around her, struggles to free the heavy bolt that holds the scullery door firmly shut. The metal is already warm with the blaze, and it takes all her strength to move it. Moreover, she does not anticipate the sudden rush of acrid air and belching fire as the door flies open, singeing her dress; it compels her to run back along the corridor to safety.
It is probably for the best that she does not come too close. For it means she does not see the full horror of Jane Budge's face as she tumbles from the blazing inferno, her body writhing in agony, her hands scratching senselessly at the floor, as the flames dance gaily on her back.PARTTWOCHAPTER SIXTEEN
Decimus Webb stands alone in the well-kept grounds of St. Mark's in the first light of dawn. The towers of the college buildings seem strangely insubstantial, almost one-dimensional, silhouetted in the earlymorning half-light, like shadows from a lantern-show. In the background he can hear the morning chorus of the neighbourhood's sparrows, underscored by the distant bass rumble of a freight train on the London Western Extension Railway, its line adjacent to the college's grounds. The policeman's face looks a little troubled; it may be that he simply regrets there is no breeze to remove the noxious smell of burnt matter that lingers in the air.
The figure of Sergeant Bartleby approaches, coming from the college.
âI wondered where you'd got to, sir.'
âI was just taking a moment to gather my thoughts. What progress?'
âWe'll move the body this morning, sir, to the Chelsea Infirmary. Autopsy this afternoon. Coroner's tomorrow.'
âWell, I should be surprised if we are mistaken asto the cause of death,' replies Webb. âStill, it is best to be certain that we have not missed anything. And the rest?'
âI've made arrangements to interview everyone on the premises; there's about sixty resident pupil-teachers, and half a dozen staff and three wives â though most of them seem to have been absent.'
âI can vouch for that. They were outside Cremorne Gardens, at the Reverend Featherstone's impromptu prayer-meeting.'
âAh, yes, sir, you did say.'
âDid you look at the body, Sergeant?'
Bartleby visibly winces. âYes, sir.'
âA peculiar murder, all things considered,' says Webb, disdaining to notice his sergeant's queasy reaction. âI suppose we should be grateful the whole place did not burn down, and not merely the scullery.'
âThe brigade came out pretty sharp,' replies Bartleby.
âI know, Sergeant, I was here myself.'
âYou're sure it was no accident, sir?'
âI should be impressed if Miss Budge managed to set herself alight, and bolt herself inside the room, locking it from the outside.'
âWell then, what next, sir?'
âI think we may now interview Mrs. Featherstone,' says Webb. âShe seemed a little too distressed to be questioned last night.'
âStill a bit early in the day, though?'
âIs it? Well, let us find her husband and see what he says about it. I am loath to delay any longer.'
Bartleby assents and the two policemen walk in silence across the lawn, back towards the college. As they approach the cloisters, Bartleby turns to Webb.
âYou weren't to know this would happen, sir. To tell the truth, I didn't take that letter too seriously myself.'
Webb pauses, causing Bartleby to draw to a halt beside him.
âWhen I require your opinion, Sergeant, I shall ask for it.'
Mrs. Featherstone sits in her parlour, a strong cup of tea by her side and the two policemen seated opposite, together with her husband. If there is any change to her normal rather implacable appearance, it is only that her dress is a little more creased than might be expected, and her eyes a little tired and bloodshot.
âThank you for seeing us, ma'am,' says Webb. âYour husband said you might be agreeable to a brief interview.'
âOne must do one's duty in such terrible circumstances, Inspector,' replies Mrs. Featherstone. âIn truth, I have not slept since the incident.'
âMy wife is a woman of spirit, Inspector,' adds the Reverend. âYou may rely on her.'
âOf course,' agrees Webb. âSo, tell me, ma'am, if you can, precisely what happened?'
Mrs. Featherstone takes a deep breath. âI came back from the chapel, Inspector, not long after the stroke of ten. I often go there to pray in the evening. I heard a scream. I thought it was some distressed animal. I could not locate it at first.'
âBut you realised it came from the scullery?'
âAt length, yes. After a minute or two. Then I smelt something burning. Naturally, I went directly to see what was wrong.'
âAnd it was you who opened the door?'
âWith some difficulty. I did not think I would find . . . well, I did not think.'
âThere, Bertha, please, do not distress yourself,'interjects the Reverend, placing a hand on his wife's arm.
âDo go on,' says Webb.
Mrs. Featherstone takes another breath. âI shouted for help. Some of the servants came to my aid. Jane . . . I believe they managed to extinguish the flames with a blanket, but she was beyond help. God rest her poor soul.'
âTell me, ma'am,' persists Webb, âwas it usual for Jane Budge to be on the premises at such an hour? She did not lodge here, I understand?'
âNo, Inspector, she did not. But she had chores that might take up most of the evening.'
âI see. And what of the scullery itself? Who would normally use it?'
âJane and the other servants, I suppose. There are five or six girls who work for the college.'
âSo Jane Budge was not your own maid?'
âNo, she was employed by the college,' interjects Reverend Featherstone. âBut principally she was engaged to clean our rooms, and those of the pupil-teachers on the adjoining landings here, for whom I am responsible.'
âAh. Well, thank you, sir. Now, I do not suppose, to your knowledge, or yours, ma'am, that she had any enemies?'
âEnemies, Inspector?' asks the clergyman, as if rather perplexed.
Webb frowns. âForgive my bluntness, sir, but it is undoubtedly a case of murder. It is no accident.'
âYes, yes, Inspector, I realise that much,' replies Reverend Featherstone, with impatience. âBut we know who is responsible, do we not? I admit I did not take him seriously at first, but all the same.'
If the Reverend Featherstone is about to elucidate, he is given no opportunity. âThis man who calls himself “The Cutter”, Inspector!' exclaims Bertha Featherstone, jumping in. âHeavens! Have you not even read the letter we gave your man here?'
âI have, ma'am,' says Webb cautiously, âand I would not race to such conclusions, not yet.'
Mrs. Featherstone gives Webb a look of utter incredulity. âRace? What “conclusions” will you draw, Inspector, when this lunatic murders us in our beds? What then?'
âBertha, please,' says the Reverend, attempting to placate her. âYou are over-tired. I am sure the inspector meant no harm.'
âWe are obliged to keep an open mind at this stage, ma'am,' says Webb. âAnd whether we attribute this to our friend “The Cutter” or not, I fear it does not help us identify the person or persons responsible.'
Mrs. Featherstone says nothing, though the stern fixity of her gaze is eloquent in itself.
âI think, Inspector,' suggests the Reverend Featherstone, âthat might do for now?'
âOf course, sir,' replies Webb. âI shan't be a moment; one last point. If I may, Mrs. Featherstone, what was your opinion of Jane Budge?'
Mrs. Featherstone relaxes her stern expression of contempt only to the degree that it allows her to speak.
âAs a servant, Inspector, I would say she was not of the best class. Her work often left something to be desired.'
âAnd what of her character, ma'am?'
âI know of nothing against her, Inspector. Why?'
âIt is only that we are having a little difficulty establishing where she lived. The address she gave, uponstarting work here, turns out to be a common lodging-house in Battersea. We sent a man down there to make inquiries last night. They claim not to have seen her for more than two years, and that she never lived there for any length of time.'
âIndeed? Well, that is curious. Still, I believe her last position was with a very respectable family, with whom I have the honour of being acquainted.'
âI see. Who might that be, ma'am?'
âThe Perfitts, Inspector. They reside quite near here â in Edith Grove.'CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
The town houses of Edith Grove are typical examples of a certain breed of London terrace. For, with a nod to the civilisation of Ancient Greece, they are of the classical style, much favoured in the western portion of the great metropolis, that places an Ionic portico above every doorstep, and a stucco pediment above every window. In size, they are a little smaller and more stunted than the fashionable homes of Belgravia or even Mayfair; but they are respectable houses, nonetheless, whose polished front steps are regularly washed down and whose black iron railings, tipped with gold points, are regularly repainted.
âYou're sure someone was trying to do away with Jane Budge, sir?' asks Sergeant Bartleby, as the two men walk along the road. âI mean to say, not just our man trying to burn the place down, and the girl got in the way?'
âAnything is possible, Sergeant, but ask yourself this about your scissor-man. First, why does a man with some morbid urge to remove the hair of young women suddenly decide to murder a respectable clergyman? Second, why do so by fire? Is the man suddenly a pyromaniac too? It is hardly the most efficient or likely way to effect his object, is it? Third, it is apeculiar time and place â why not in the Featherstones' apartments whilst they slept? Why the scullery?'
âBut the letter, sir? It said he'd “roast” him. That can't be a coincidence.'
âWhy start a fire when Featherstone was out?' Bartleby shakes his head.
âIf we are searching for a genuine lunatic, Sergeant, who acts utterly at whim,' continues Webb, âthen I confess that any further cogitation upon the subject is wasted. But we are required to investigate this matter and, therefore, we may as well assume some logic exists, some cause and effect?'
Bartleby nods. He knows Webb well enough to recognise a purely hypothetical appeal to his own judgment.
âNow,' continues Webb, âhere we are at last. Ring the bell, will you?'
Bartleby rings the bell. It is swiftly answered by a young maid-servant. Webb, in turn, inquires if either the master or the mistress of the house is at home. After a brief period of consultation, during which, doubtless, the inspector's calling card causes a degree of consternation, the two policeman are relieved of their hats and shown up to the Perfitts' first-floor drawing-room. They find Mrs. Caroline Perfitt ready to welcome them.
âInspector Webb?' she asks, in the polite but slightly haughty tone that is her custom.
âAnd this is Sergeant Bartleby, ma'am. You must forgive our intrusion at such an early hour.'
âOf course. But did you wish to see my husband, Inspector? He has already left to catch his train. I trust there is nothing wrong?'
âI hope not, ma'am,' says Webb, as affably as he is able. âMerely you might be able to help us with some information. Either your good self or your husband might suffice; but we can call another time, if it is more convenient.'
âNo, please, if I can be of any assistance, of course, ' replies Mrs. Perfitt. âPlease â Inspector, Sergeant â do take a seat.'
âThank you, ma'am,' replies Webb, as Mrs. Perfitt herself sits down. âIt relates to a former servant of yours, so we understand â one Jane Budge.'
âJane? Poor creature. I trust she is not in any trouble?'
â“Poor creature”, ma'am?' asks Bartleby.
âForgive me, Sergeant. An awkward turn of phrase. Inspector, what is it?'
âMay I be blunt, Mrs. Perfitt?' asks Webb. âI do not wish to shock you.'
âOf course, Inspector,' she replies, with considerable calm. âReally, you must tell me. I am quite in suspense.'
âShe is dead, ma'am.'
âMurdered, I am afraid. She died last night. We are trying to learn something of her history.'
âGood Lord,' says Mrs. Perfitt. âLast night? Who would do such a thing?'
âWe do not know yet, ma'am. Forgive me, I must persist. You were once her employer?'
Mrs. Perfitt nods. âFor two years or so. She left us . . . well, it would be almost five years ago.'
âAny particular reason for her departure, ma'am?'
âThe family quit London for a few months' holiday, Inspector. She did not wish to travel with us to the country.'
âI see. Can you tell me anything about Miss Budge? Did you provide her with a good character? I assume so, as she found a place quite readily at St. Mark's?'
âI did, Inspector. She was an excellent maid-of-all-work. But,' says Mrs. Perfitt, pausing, as if vacillating whether to speak any further, âwell, I suppose it must out. You will soon hear about it, I am sure.'
âYou ask about her character, Inspector. There was one particular circumstance, though I would not wish it to reflect badly upon her. It is rather delicate.'
âSpeak plainly, ma'am, I beg you.'
âVery well,' replies Mrs. Perfitt, although she seems a little affronted by the policeman's lack of politesse. âMy husband, at one point, did suspect her of improper conduct.'
âTheft?' suggests Bartleby.
Mrs. Perfitt shakes her head. âNo, Sergeant, nothing of that sort. It was, rather, he thought that she was engaging in relations of a questionable character with a particular young man.'
âAh,' says Webb. âI see. But your husband was proved wrong?'
âI almost wish he was right, Inspector. You see, he discovered the man in question . . . his name was Nelson, I recall . . .' says Mrs. Perfitt, faltering, her cheeks colouring a little. âYou must forgive me . . . he discovered him forcing himself upon her.'
Webb frowns. âI am sorry you are obliged to recall such matters, ma'am.'
âQuite. Charles â that is my husband â insisted the fellow was brought to trial. And, I am glad to say, he was convicted and sent to gaol. We did not feel it would be right to make any reference to it in Jane's character, but the whole business was rather awkward.'
âAnd how long was this before she left your employment, ma'am?' asks Webb.
âPerhaps a month or so,' says Mrs. Perfitt. âPoor girl.'
âAnd is there anything else about her that you recall? Did she have any family? How did she come to you?'
âI believe it was through one of the local agencies, Inspector. My husband may have the correspondence. As for her family, I am not so intimate with the personal affairs of my maids.'
âOf course, ma'am,' replies Webb. âWell, in that case, I think it might be best if I returned for a quick word with your husband, perhaps this evening?'
âI can provide you with the address of his firm, Inspector,' suggests Mrs. Perfitt. âBarker and Co., in the City.'
Webb smiles politely. âThank you, but tonight would be more convenient, ma'am, if you don't mind. What time shall we say?'
âYou might come at seven o'clock,' suggests Mrs. Perfitt, âbefore dinner.'
âExcellent,' says Webb, moving to stand up. âThen that is all, I think. Again, I am sorry for intruding, ma'am.'
âNot at all,' replies Mrs. Perfitt. âInspector, you did not say how poor Jane died?'
âI hoped to spare you the details, ma'am. They are rather unpleasant.'
âI am sure I will hear them at some point, Inspector.'
âVery well. She was caught in a fire, ma'am.'
âA fire? Really? It was not an accident then? You are certain?'
âNo, ma'am,' says Webb. âQuite deliberate.'
âWhy did you want to leave seeing his nibs until tonight?' asks Bartleby, as the two men walk back down Edith Grove.
âIt is merely because I think we would do better to spend a little time over this “awkward” business of Miss Budge and â Mr. Nelson, was it not? â before we talk to Mr. Perfitt. It may provide us with a few more questions about the girl, even if it does not provide any answers. You can talk to the local division about it, for a start. Find out where Nelson's serving his time. We might even pay him a visit.'
Bartleby nods, notebook already in hand. âAnd what about Mrs. Perfitt, sir?'
âWhat about her, Sergeant?'
Bartleby pauses for thought. âShe said she wasn't intimate with her maids, but her husband seems to have kept a close eye on Jane Budge â close enough for him to discover this fellow having his way with her.'
âAnd then they got rid of her; because no-one cares for soiled goods, do they, Sergeant? A good character supplied to compensate, naturally.'
âYou don't think it was Jane Budge's aversion to country air, then?'
Webb allows himself a derisive snort. âI should think not.'
There is another pause before Webb turns to the sergeant. âDid she strike you as an “excellent” sort of servant, Sergeant?'
âHard to tell, sir. More the skivvying sort, rather than your lady's maid, I'd say.'
âBut Mrs. Perfitt described her as “excellent”. That was not Mrs. Featherstone's opinion, by any means. Curious, eh?'
âPerhaps Mrs. Featherstone has different standards, sir.'
âI doubt they are higher than those of Mrs. Perfitt,' replies Webb. âI'd say she has fairly high standards herself.'
âIt could be that she didn't want to speak ill of the dead,' remarks Bartleby.
âI suppose that must be it.'
âWho was that, Mama?' asks Rose Perfitt, entering the drawing-room. Her mother stands by the window, watching the street.
âNo-one, Rose,' replies her mother. âNo-one at all.'CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
Reports of murder are not uncommon in the great metropolis. Some may even be all but overlooked: a brawl in an East End beer-shop may result in a fatal wound, but merits only two lines in the day'sPolice News. The wife-murder; the poisoning; the mutilated corpse â anything with a hint of sensation â is another matter entirely. Rumour of such dreadful events is carried not only by the papers, but by word of mouth, passing from one man or woman to another, travelling at speed like some dreadful contagion. And the murder of Jane Budge is no exception. Whether it is the association with the peculiar reputation of the âCremorne Cutter', or the effect of the words âWoman Burnt Alive' rendered in bold type, her demise swiftly becomes the subject of common gossip. Thus, in due course, less than twenty-four hours after Jane Budge has breathed her last, the news reaches one Mrs. Margaret Budge in Battersea.
It arrives in the form of a neighbour, a woman hesitantly bearing a copy of theBattersea Evening Recordwho finds Mrs. Budge at home, alone but for an infant in her arms. The woman is, in truth, no great friend of the Budge family and merely stops long enough to offer some words of comfort â and, perhaps,to observe the effect of her evil tidings. But if the woman expects tears, she is disappointed. Mrs. Budge appears perversely calm; and so the woman excuses herself and leaves, audibly muttering the word âunnatural'.
Mrs. Budge watches her visitor depart, then casually places the baby she is holding, a small undernourished creature, to one side. There is almost always one such child in Mrs. Budge's tender care. Indeed the presence of a mewling infant is something Margaret Budge rather takes for granted; an almost comforting constant in her life. On cue, the child cries out a little at being abandoned, immediately missing the warmth of her adoptive mother's bosom.
Mrs. Budge herself puts her hands to her head and lets out a sigh, a low throaty sob. Her round face trembles and tears trickle down her cheeks. The child responds in kind, its cry more insistent and aggravated.
âHush now,' says Mrs. Budge, at length.
But the child does not oblige.
âHush,' says Mrs. Budge, placing a finger on the child's lips. âHush.'
Still it screams.
Mrs. Budge rises wearily from her chair, to the small cupboard that serves as her medicine cabinet.
âYou need something to calm your spirits, little 'un,' she says out loud, a distracted expression upon her face. âA nice dose of quietness, eh? I expect we both do. And what will I tell her father? Not that he'll care, the old sot.'
The child screams all the more. Mrs. Budge sighs a second time, her face still wet with tears, and pours out a spoonful of Godfrey's Cordial, her hand rather unsteady, spilling a good deal upon the floor. She putsthe bottle down, laying the spoon beside it, talking to the infant, her tone shifting to a harsh whisper.
âI hope that bastard Nelson swings for it.'
The object of Margaret Budge's curses is, in fact, not many miles distant. He sits alone in the tap-room of the World's End tavern, a quiet, smoky resort of Chelsea's labouring classes, concealed from the outside world by frosted glass and separate from the more refined snug by a nicely carved wooden partition. It is suited to men who enjoy a quiet drink at the end of a day's work; its seats are plain and wooden, without padding or ornament; its tables made of cheap varnished deal. A handful of locals sit chatting animatedly near the bar but George Nelson remains on his own, seated at a small table, a pint pot in his hand. He does not look up when two newcomers enter from the King's Road â or, at least, not until they stand directly over him.
âNo need to take that tone,' says Decimus Webb.
âPeelers, ain't you?'
Webb smiles, apparently gratified to be recognised. George Nelson puts down his drink.
âMy name is Inspector Webb. This is my sergeant. May we join you?'
Nelson looks up, as if about to say something rather forcefully against the idea. But he seems to hold himself back. âJoin me? You buying then?'
Webb shakes his head and sits down beside Nelson.
âShame,' says Nelson.
âI think you know why we're here,' suggests Bartleby.
Nelson shrugs. âI ain't done a thing. I've got myticket; I already reported to the station. I don't want any trouble.'
Webb raises his eyebrows. âI'd have thought a man in your position would steer clear of Chelsea in the first place; make a fresh start.'
âI've pals here. What do you want with us?'
Webb looks directly into the ticket-of-leave man's eye. âI think you know, Mr. Nelson. But I'll happily spell it out for you. A strange coincidence, you see â I've been making inquiries today into the murder of a young woman named Budge; she was killed last night. I find out this morning that five years ago she was assaulted by a certain George Nelson â a nasty piece of work by all accounts. I make further inquiries. It turns out that our Mr. Nelson has just finished his penal servitude; that he's out on leave.'
âBad business that fire,' replies Nelson, taking a gulp of his drink. âI just read about it, as it happens. In the paper.'
âIs that so?'
âWhat, you don't think I can read?'
âYou don't seem very sorry about it,' says Bartleby.
Nelson looks up at Bartleby. âMaybe I ain't.'
âWhere were you last night, Mr. Nelson?'
âAll night?' asks Webb. âBetween, say, nine and eleven o'clock?'
âI was here. Ask the landlord there; he knows me. Ask anyone you fancy.'
Webb looks at Bartleby and nods. The sergeant heads off in the direction of the bar.
âWhen did you last see Miss Budge, then?' asks Webb.
Nelson frowns. âFive year back, I should say.'
Webb pauses. âI don't see many of your pals about,Mr. Nelson. Why did you really come back, eh? Did you want to punish that wretched girl for what she did to you? For putting you away?'
âI said already, I was here the whole night,' repeats Nelson, in monotone.
Webb pauses. âA costly habit, drink. Have you found employment?'
âCremorne?' asks Webb.
âI used to work there. They're happy to have me.'
âWhat is your position?'
âGeneral labourer. Scene-shifter.'
âThey must have thought highly of you, to take you back, knowing the sort of man you are. A risk for them. All those young women, actresses, ballet girls . . .'
Nelson places his drink firmly down upon the table, turning to look Webb directly in the eye. âLook here, Inspector â I know your game. But I never did nothing to that damn girl.'
Webb does not reply. Nelson takes a deep breath.
âAh, here's your poodle now,' says the ticket-of-leave man as Bartleby returns.
âWell?' says Webb.
âHe was here, sir,' says Bartleby. âThe landlord and two others will vouch for it.'
Nelson takes another sip of his drink. The hint of a smile curls at the edge of his lip. âThat's cooked your goose, ain't it, Inspector?'
Webb ignores the remark. If he is about to ask Nelson any further question, he thinks better of it. âWe may wish to speak to you again, Mr. Nelson. Do not leave your current lodgings without notifying us.'
Nelson nods, an expression of mock gravity upon his face. âI know the rules of the ticket, Inspector. I know 'em all right.'
âI am glad to hear it,' says Webb, getting up from his seat.
âOne thing, Inspector,' says Nelson.
âWhat?' says Webb.
âWho do you think killed her then? They say it's this “Cutter” fellow, don't they?'
Webb wordlessly gets to his feet.
âLet me know if you catch up with him,' says Nelson, grinning. âI'd very much like to stand that gentleman a drink.'
âWarm sort of chap, wasn't he?' says Bartleby, as the two policemen walk along the King's Road.
âI've yet to meet a convict with great love for the police, Sergeant,' says Webb. âStill, these men who vouched for him â did they seem reliable?'
âFar as I could tell, sir. They didn't seem to have been put up to it. I've got their names. And I'll ask the lads at T Division what they know about the landlord.'
Webb nods. âHe had a grudge against the girl, we know that much.'
âYou think he had someone else do it?'
âPossibly; though he does not strike me as the type. A queer way to go about it, too. One might imagine a garrotting would suit his purpose; a knife in a dark alley as the girl made her way home. This fire smacks of something different; hardly the act of a determined assassin.'
âSpur of the moment?'
Webb smiles. âCorrect, Sergeant. Improvisation. Or, perhaps, desperation.'
âWhere now, sir?'
Webb pulls out his watch from the pocket in his waistcoat.
âBack to Edith Grove.'CHAPTER NINETEEN
Webb and Bartleby find Charles Perfitt already returned home, expecting their arrival, waiting together with his wife. Introductions are swiftly made, and soon the policemen are seated once more in the Perfitts' drawing-room.
âI fear you have wasted your journey, Inspector,' says Mrs. Perfitt. âI have talked to Mr. Perfittâ'
âCaroline, please,' interrupts Charles Perfitt, rather firmly. âI am quite able to speak for myself.'
Mrs. Perfitt blushes and falls silent.
âI am sure that you are correct, ma'am,' replies Webb, tactfully. âAnd I don't wish to detain you or your husband longer than is necessary. I gather then, sir, that you do not have any further particulars regarding the personal circumstances of Jane Budge?'
âI looked through my papers, Inspector. She came to us through an agency, as we were new to the area. She was only a young girl at the time. We took her on trial, and she proved suitable. I can provide their address, if you like, though I am not sure they are still in business.'
âThank you, sir. Bartleby here will make a note of it. Did you have any contact with Jane Budge after she left your employment? I suppose you or your wifemust have passed her in the street upon occasion, the college being so near by?'
âNot to any great extent, Inspector,' replies Mr. Perfitt. âI may have seen her, in passing, on occasion.'
âSo you do not know, for instance, if she had any particular acquaintances or friends? Or if there was someone who might wish her harm?'
âI have no idea, Inspector,' replies Mr. Perfitt. âWhy ever should I? Besides, from what I hear, some lunatic is responsible â that same fellow who's been molesting these girls in the Gardens?'
âWe cannot be certain of that, sir,' says Webb. âI merely wondered if you took any particular interest in Miss Budge's welfare, after she left you. Mrs. Perfitt explained you decided to give her a good character, even after the unfortunate business with Mr. Nelson.'
âI would prefer not to discuss that painful affair, Inspector, if it is all the same to you. I know that my wife has already mentioned it â and I would rather she had not â but, really, I cannot imagine that we need to rake it up again.'
Webb frowns. âI fear we policemen must grub in the dirt upon occasion. One never knows what one may find. I would not wish to distress Mrs. Perfitt, however . . .'
Webb's implication is not wasted on Charles Perfitt. âYes, Caroline, perhaps you might be spared this, at least.'
âReally, Charles,' replies Mrs. Perfitt. âThere is no need.'
âCaroline,' returns her husband firmly, âI rather think the inspector is right.'
âVery well,' replies Mrs. Perfitt. And with a polite, if somewhat forced, smile, she gets up and quits the drawing-room.
âYou must forgive my wife, Inspector. She can be rather headstrong.'
Webb dismisses the apology with a wave of his hand. âI am sorry to be the cause of any awkwardness, sir. But I fear we do need to discuss George Nelson. He is, at least, the only person we have yet discovered with any grudge against Jane Budge. An unpleasant character too, though he appears to have an alibi.'
Charles Perfitt smiles ruefully. âYes, well I expect Pentonville Prison will stand for that.'
âNo,' says Webb. âI am afraid it is not quite so cast-iron as Pentonville. You see, he was released on ticket-of-leave two days ago.'
Charles Perfitt's face becomes suddenly pale.
âYou seem surprised, sir?'
As Caroline Perfitt quits the drawing-room, she finds her daughter loitering near by, upon the stairs.
âRose! Heavens, were you eavesdropping?'
âNo, Mama!' replies Rose indignantly. âI just heard we had guests, that is all. It is the same men that came this morning, isn't it? I saw them in the road.'
âDid you now? Rose, I swear, I sometimes think you spend half your life gazing out of that bedroom window. I have told you a thousand times â it is so common.'
âI'm sorry, Mama,' replies Rose, a little shamefaced. âBut it is the same men, isn't it?'
âRose â please, it need not concern you.'
Charles Perfitt sips from a glass of brandy.
âYou know how servants will have hangers-on, Inspector,' he says at last. âI mean, one tries to discourage it, but it is to be expected.'
âI've heard it said, sir.'
âBut I began to see this fellow Nelson â a labouring man by the look of him â loitering in the street, late at night â almost every night, in fact. Then my wife noticed him in Jane's company when the girl returned from running an errand. There seemed a disagreeable intimacy between them. I told Jane it had been noted and she must desist from seeing him. She protested her innocence of any mischief.'
âYou did not believe her?'
âI had some doubts. In any case, it was not more than two or three days after I made my opinions clear, that I saw the fellow loitering once more, just as I was going to my bed. Worse â he went down into our area; I was sure it was for some pre-arranged nocturnal assignation.'
âSo you went to have words with him?' asks Webb.
âWith them both. But it was not as I had imagined. Well, it was a fearful attack, Inspector. Rape, that is the only word. The girl was struggling against him, struggling for her life â the way he held her down â she was fortunate not to be seriously injured. Naturally, I intervened. Floored the brute, I am proud to say.'
âAnd you gave Nelson in charge?'
âI made sure there was a prosecution, Inspector. Any decent man would have done the same for the poor girl â for the common good.'
âQuite, quite,' says Webb.
âDo you believe it was Nelson that killed her?' asks Mr. Perfitt anxiously, taking another sip of brandy.
âHe claims to have an alibi, sir. And he would have to have made his way into the college somehow. But it's clear he had no great fondness for the girl, let me put it that way.'
âYou have spoken to him?'
âNot fifteen minutes ago, sir. He's lodging by theWorld's End; we found him there, drinking in the public house.'
Charles Perfitt's face freezes into a stony, shocked stare.
âThe World's End?' he says after a brief pause. âI rather wish that's where he were, Inspector. I would happily put ten thousand miles between us.'
âI do not blame you, sir,' replies Webb. âBut I think he should know better than to give you any trouble. We've marked his card, as it were.'
âBut if he bears a grudge against me, Inspector? I have to think of Rose and Caroline.'
âMy daughter, Inspector. I would not put her in any danger,' says Mr. Perfitt.
âI'll have a word with the local constables, sir,' says Bartleby. âMake sure they keep a special eye on the premises. And I think we'll be doing likewise for Mr. Nelson's movements?'
Bartleby's query is directed to Webb, who nods his approval.
âTell me, sir,' says Webb, âwhy did Jane Budge leave your employment?'
âAh, well, we decamped to the country, Inspector. If I may be honest, my wife took the whole business with George Nelson rather badly. My part in the trial was rather a strain on her nerves; our doctor, marvellous fellow, recommended a thorough rest; I took her for the water-cure.'
âAnd Miss Budge was unwilling to accompany you to . . .'
âLeamington Spa. Dr. Malcolm has his own establishment there. I confess, the baths did Caroline a great deal of good.'
âA pleasant holiday, you might say.'
âYes,' replies Mr. Perfitt. âI suppose you might.'
âWell, I am sure we have wasted enough of your time, sir,' says Webb, raising himself from his chair. âNow if you can just find that address for my sergeant, we will be on our way.'
Caroline Perfitt waits until the two policemen have left the house before she rejoins her husband. She finds him sitting before the drawing-room hearth with an half-empty glass of brandy held loosely in his hand. He looks around as she enters.
âCaroline,' he says, extending his arm towards her, âsit down.'
âCharles, whatever is the matter?'
âGeorge Nelson has been freed. They have released him on leave.'
Mrs. Perfitt puts her hand to her mouth.
âGood Lord,' she says in a whisper.
âPerhaps,' continues Mr. Perfitt, âwe might take a holiday for a month or so; the firm would not object, I am sure. We might even go abroad?'
âCharles, no! Rose is coming out this season; we have the ball at the Prince's Ground â and then . . . no, I cannot possibly allow it.'
âIt might be for the best,' says Mr. Perfitt. âFor Rose's sake if nothing else. I do not want any unpleasantness.'
âCharles, I assure you, if you have any fears . . .'
âI just thought this whole business was behind us.'
Mrs. Perfitt rallies. âAnd it is. There is no need to be so rash â promise me you will sleep upon it, at least.'
Mr. Perfitt looks solemnly at his wife.
âI doubt I shall get much sleep at all.'CHAPTER TWENTY
Decimus Webb bites into a slightly stale piece of buttered bread provided by Metcalf's Temperance Coffee House, chewing it rather ruminatively. The bread itself comes upon a plate in four thick slices, almost sufficient to constitute a loaf. Served to complement the Coffee House's stock-in-trade, it provides a âfourpenny breakfast' for weary travellers â a modest outlay for a distinctly modest form of early-morning refreshment. It is, however, eminently suited to the drowsy clerks and impecunious cab-men who constitute a majority of the clientele. Decimus Webb himself might certainly afford somewhere a little better. But he makes the Temperance Coffee House a stop upon his way to work in nearby Scotland Yard whenever he notices that a certain table is free by the window â a table that provides a panorama of Trafalgar Square. And if it is free, and he has anything upon his mind, he makes a point of sitting there. For he can watch through the plate glass and observe the progress of the hundreds of souls who pass by, until the chimes of St. Martin-in-the-Fields eventually persuade him it is time to visit his office.
Unfortunately, as he looks out of the window, the approach of Sergeant Bartleby from Whitehall oftenserves to jolt Decimus Webb from whatever reflections, pleasant or unpleasant, might play upon his mind. Today is no exception. The sergeant waves cordially as he catches the inspector's eye through the glass.
âMorning, sir,' says Bartleby, as he enters the coffee house. âThought I might catch you here. The Clarence not open yet?'
âSpare me, Sergeant, it is too early in the morning. I take it you have some news?'
âLooks like it. A fellow made himself known to V Division last night â seems he's Jane Budge's father.'
âV Division? Wandsworth?'
âBattersea Rise. He's a potman in some local public house. I said you'd want a word with him.'
Webb takes a sip of coffee. âI suppose it would be wise, before we see the Coroner.'
âThe Coroner will have to say it's murder, though?' suggests Bartleby. âPersons unknown?'
âI should imagine that will be his verdict. Unless you intend to solve the whole business before breakfast, Sergeant. Now find us a cab while I finish my coffee.'
âYou not having that bread, then, sir?'
Webb pauses for a moment, then shakes his head. The sergeant, in turn, takes a slice of bread and bites into it.
âWell,' says Webb impatiently, âwhat are you waiting for, man?'
Bartleby swallows, with a little difficulty.
âCab's already waiting, sir,' replies the sergeant.
The policemen's cab takes them from Westminster down to Battersea, until they come at last to Mr. Budge's given address â The Old King's Head,situated upon Folly Lane, not four hundred yards from Battersea Bridge. It proves to be a small rather dingylooking public house with the external appearance of a run-down labourer's cottage, marked out only by the wooden sign that projects from its upper storey. This bears the head of the house's titular monarch â although the bewigged face is so dirty and smutted that no particular royal resemblance is visible â and provides a useful clue for the cab-man, who reins in his horse.
Webb looks around as Bartleby pays the cab-man to wait. There is no doubt that the pub possesses a rather seedy aspect, surrounded on every side by large commercial premises, manufactories with small soot-blackened windows. At one point, doubtless, it sat in a scenic spot, a stone's throw from the mighty Thames. But now, with a foundry on one side and bridle-maker's upon the other, it seems very distant from the river, which flows unseen, concealed behind the brick wall of King and Cosgrove's Turpentine Works, upon the opposing side of the road.
âMr. Budge told them we could generally find him here,' says Bartleby.
âThat bodes well,' says Webb.
The door to the public house lies open, though it is a good two hours or more before drinking may commence. The interior proves to be little better than the outside, a darkened parlour into which sunlight seems reluctant to intrude. There is no landlord behind the modest counter that takes up one corner of the room and there is no-one else in the bar â save for a man in his fifties, clad in a grimy rust-coloured jacket, slumped over one of the tables.
Bartleby walks over to the man, and bends down by his side.
âDead drunk. We should have the landlord for breaking his licence.'
Webb joins the sergeant, and tilts back the man's head, observing his rather ruddy complexion and heavily-lidded eyes, which do not fall open.
âI know my lushingtons, Sergeant, and I suspect this gentleman is of the confirmed variety. I would not blame the landlord. He probably had his fill last night and stayed put.'
Webb releases the man's head, letting it fall heavily back down onto his arms, folded across the table. The shock, however, seems to stir him to a semblance of consciousness, and a pair of bloodshot eyes reveal themselves.
âInspector Webb of the Metropolitan Police,' says Webb firmly. âAm I addressing Mr. Alfred Budge?'
Mr. Budge somehow contrives to both sit upright and then immediately slump backwards in one continuous motion. âThat you are, 'Spector. I am that unlucky fellow,' he replies, after a considerable pause, his voice quite slurred.
Webb rolls his eyes. âSergeant, find the landlord â he must be out the back if his door is open â and get this . . . Mr. Budge a cup of something suitable.'
âRum'd do it, old man,' says Alfred Budge. âDrop of rum'd do it.'
âA fellow speculates on his family, don't he, 'Spector?' inquires Alfred Budge, some twenty minutes later, and a little more sober.
âIs that so?'
âDon't matter whether it's a boy or a gal, he speculates his own life-blood on the return, don't he? Heinvests what he has, what he knows, in that little indiwidual what is the fruits of his loins.'
Budge's speech is still rather slurred, albeit with a certain world-weary consistency. Webb cannot help but frown as âfruits' and âloins' take on a peculiar elasticity of pronunciation.
âAnd this,' he continues, âis what he gets for his trouble.'
Mr. Budge pauses and sighs, closing his eyes.
âThere will be a Coroner's inquest, today, if you wish to attend,' suggests Bartleby.
Mr. Budge merely shakes his head.
âThere is the question of a burial,' says Webb. âOr will it be upon the parish?'
Mr. Budge opens his eyes. âNo, not a parish job, 'Spector. You send her here when you're done.'
âYou live here then?'
âPotman, you see?' says Budge, waving his hand indiscriminately at the room.
âThat cannot pay much, in a small place like this?'
âHe's paid in kind, I reckon,' whispers Bartleby.
âI gets by, 'Spector,' says Budge, seemingly oblivious to the sergeant's comment. âYou send Janey here. We'll see her done right. Proper send-off.'
âIs there a Mrs. Budge?' asks Webb.
âThere was a sweet creature of that name, 'Spector. But I don't care to recall her. Beyond price she was â the old girl.'
Budge seems to sag as he speaks, his eyes faltering. Webb shakes his head, casting a glance to Bartleby that suggests he is ready to leave. As the two policemen rise, however, the drunken man recovers himself a little.
âNelson. That's your man, 'Spector. Pound to a penny, it were Nelson.'
Webb stops as he reaches for the door. âGeorge Nelson? What about him? Have you spoken to him, Mr. Budge?'
âNo, I don't bloody speak to him. I don't needs speak to him. He's the one â I'll swear it blind. If it weren't for my old 'firmity,' says Budge, slapping his leg, âI'd settle him. I'd settle him, all right. My poor sweet little girl.'
âMr. Budge, please,' says Webb, âthink for a moment. Anything in connection with George Nelson might be important to us. Did your daughter say anything about Nelson before she died? Or was there anyone else, perhaps, who might bear her a grudge?'
Budge drunkenly waves his hand at the inspector's questioning, as if attempting to swat a fly. âHere, who are you anyway? What's your game, pestering a honest man?' he mutters, his eyes drooping once more.
âThank you, sir,' replies Webb, courteously as he can manage. âI am sorry for your loss.'
Alfred Budge remains at his table until the policemen have gone; to all appearances barely conscious. It is only when he is joined by his wife, who walks cautiously into the tap-room, that he shows some signs of wakefulness, assisted by a firm poke in ribs.
âWotcha do that for?' exclaims Mr. Budge.
âDid you tell 'em what I said? About Nelson?'
âI told 'em, for pity's sake,' says Mr. Budge, in a rather self-pitying tone.
âWhere they keeping our little girl?'
âChelsea dead-house. We can have her tomorrow. Poor thing.'
Mrs. Budge scowls. âYou old fool. Much good you were to her when she was alive.'
âDon't say that, Maggie â don't be harsh,' replies Mr. Budge. âI did what you said, I swear I did. I don't see why, mind you.'
Mrs. Budge pokes her husband more vigorously, producing an audible yelp.
âBecause, I has to be discreet, Alfred Budge. I have a handful of little reasons at home to be discreet, don't I? Or do you think the bloody peelers would turn a blind eye, if they came sticking their beaks in?'
âI swear, I told them,' protests Mr. Budge, as if still arguing the point.
âYou'd better have,' replies Mrs. Budge emphatically.CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
My Dearest Laetitia,
Forgive your foolish little sister â whom you must think an ungrateful, spiteful creature â for not replying sooner. I confess, Letty, the ball is never out of my thoughts â to think that there is only tomorrow! â and I have been awful slow with my letters.
The gown is now finished, you will be glad to hear; I have shown it to Bea and she is quitegreenand says she now think hers is frightful! Mama still frets about it! Papa, meanwhile, says nothing â he considers Mama and myself quite empty-headed.
Now, Letty â I must ask you something â as a dear sister who is in my confidence, as I hope I am in yours. A queer thing happened yesterday. Two strange men visited us twice and Mama positively would not tell me who they were. This morning â at breakfast â Mama and Papabothseemed so very quiet and low in spirits, I almost thought they were ill. It is as if they know some awful secret, which they will not tell â please,Letty, I hope that neither you nor the boys are in a bad way?Please, you would not keep such a thing from your own Rose? I am quite grown up enough to know the worst.
Please answer and put my heart at ease.
Your loving sister,Rose
Charles Perfitt picks his silk hat from its stand, and opens his front door. He looks outside with the wary glance of a seasoned commuter, and finds that the sky has darkened since he enjoyed his breakfast, and that specks of rain have begun to fall. He steps back, therefore, to grab the elegant ivory-handled umbrella that is always left by the door. His wife appears upon the stairs.
âCharles?' she says, hurrying down to the hall. âYou did not say you were going?'
âDid I not, my dear? I am sorry. You know I always leave at this hour.'
âMind you do not get soaked through.'
âNo, my dear, that is not my intention,' he replies with a rather forced smile, brandishing the umbrella in his hand.
âReally, Caroline, what is it? I will be late.'
âHave you thought about what we discussed last night? You were so quiet at breakfast, and I did not want to mention it in Rose's presence.'
Charles Perfitt nods. âI have.'
âI think you are right. We should stand our ground; a coward would run away, and I am not a coward.'
âI never said you were, Charles. But you mean it â we may go to the ball? You realise it is tomorrow night?'
âThe ball! As if I could forget,' says Charles Perfitt. âYes, why let that wretched man ruin everything? Now, I shall see you tonight.'
âTonight,' replies Mrs. Perfitt, smiling with relief, closing the door as her husband departs.
Mr. Perfitt walks swiftly out onto the road, raising his umbrella. His wife does not observe his progress down Edith Grove, which is perhaps fortunate. For at the Grove's junction with the King's Road, facing Cremorne Gardens, he turns left instead of right, walking away from Chelsea Station, in the direction of the World's End public house.
Mr. Perfitt's journey is a brief one, no more than ten minutes' walk, if that. He finds the World's End itself to be shut at such an early hour, as he expected, and therefore makes several inquiries of passing strangers â inquiries as to the availability of cheap lodgings in the vicinity. Dressed in his fine black City suit, with rain spattering off his umbrella, he elicits more than a few puzzled looks from the maid-servants and delivery boys whom he importunes. Nonetheless, he eventually finds himself in a narrow side street behind the public house called Albion Terrace, where several of its old tenements are let by the room. And, by persevering further, it is not long before he is welcomed into a particular establishment. The landlord of the place is quite happy to present Mr. Perfitt's compliments to one George Nelson and returns to announce that Mr. Perfitt is cordially invited to âgo up'.
The staircase in question turns out to be a ratherancient assemblage of bare boards, with its banisters preferring to arrange themselves in twos and threes at odd intervals, suggestive of comrades long since lost â perhaps to the unchecked descent of a heavy piano, or substantial chest of drawers. Nelson's attic room is upon the third floor, the door slightly ajar. With no word from inside, Mr. Perfitt knocks and walks in.
He finds George Nelson standing bare-foot in front of him, tucking his shirt into his trousers.
âAh, now then, look who's come to see me,' says Nelson, âso early in the morning.'
âI did not intend to wake you,' says Mr. Perfitt, warily, his voice sounding far from confident.
âI ain't too particular. It's just a fellow likes his sleep, after he's been in the jug,' says Nelson, picking up a grubby-looking mirror from the nearby dressing table and straightening his hair with his fingers. âEven this here object,' continues Nelson, returning the mirror to its place, and nodding at his rather Spartan bed, âfeels like you're on the softest feathers there ever was.'
âI expect you would care to know why I have come here,' says Mr. Perfitt in his best business-like fashion.
âI can guess.'
âI will be blunt, Mr. Nelson. I will pay you money. Good money. One hundred pounds to leave us alone; to quit Chelsea.'
George Nelson smiles. âMr. Nelson is it? Now why would a fellow do something so contrary to his wants and inclinations?'
âTwo hundred then.'
Nelson positively grins. âIs that what I'm worth? I remember it were only fifty last time, weren't it?'
âTwo hundred and fifty. My final offer,' says Mr. Perfitt.
âNot three?' says Nelson, cheerfully. âAnd here's me reckoning my stock was up.'
âThree then, damn you, but not a penny more,' exclaims Mr. Perfitt.
George Nelson shakes his head, a mocking smile upon his lips. Then, without any warning, he lunges towards Charles Perfitt, pushing him backwards against the half-open door, so that it slams shut with the full weight of his body falling against it. With one hand, Nelson presses hard against Perfitt's chest; with the other he grabs him violently by the throat, his rough fingers crushing his victim's starched collar. Mr. Perfitt in turn, can do little but struggle in vain, barely able to breathe.
âDamn me, would you? Damn me? If I'm going to hell, I reckon I'll be seeing you on the way down, eh? I bet you bloody laughed, didn't you â you and that bitch of yours â when they sent me down. I bet you split your bloody sides?'
Mr. Perfitt tries to speak, his words coming out in a whisper. âOne word from meâ'
âAnd what? It'll look pretty queer the likes of you sniffing round here, I reckon.'
Mr. Perfitt can barely utter a reply. Looking at Perfitt's flushed features, Nelson leaves the question hanging in the air, stepping back and releasing his grip.
âNo-one will take the word of a convict,' splutters Mr. Perfitt, recovering his equilibrium.
Nelson shakes his head and picks up the razor that lies besides his mirror, moving with slow deliberation. âI tell you straight, you bastard, if you try that game again, I can bide my time. And when I come out, I'll do for you, and that wife of yours. And I'll take my bloody time about it.'
âThen just tell me what you want,' exclaims Mr. Perfitt, frustration in his voice.
âI don't want nothing,' replies Nelson. âWell, excepting the love of a good woman. Now, you know what that's like, don't you?'
âListen to me â I swear, if you so much as come near my wife or daughterâ'
Nelson laughs in derision. âI wouldn't so much as piss on your Missus if she was on fire.'
Mr. Perfitt blanches a little, but ignores the taunt. âAnd Rose â give me your word that will not come near her. Give me your word and I will say nothing of this encounter. We may call our account settled.'
Nelson pauses for a moment, as if in thought. âIf you like.'
âI have your word?'
âVery well,' says Mr. Perfitt. âThat is settled.'
Nelson says nothing. His guest, therefore, opens the door and quits the room, descending the stairs in a hurry. It is only his pride that prevents him from running; and it is only when he is sure that he is out of Nelson's sight that he wipes the sweat from his brow.
George Nelson sits on his bed, a smile of evident satisfaction in his face. He reaches into the pocket of his coat, laid by his side, and pulls out an envelope. Reaching over to his dresser, he roots inside one particular drawer with his hand. At length, he retrieves a handful of dried red petals, which he slides carefully into the open envelope.
âI don't need to go near her, old man,' he mutters to himself. âShe'll come to me, will your little Rosie. She always had a fancy for me. And then we'll see who's laughing.'CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
The police station of T Division at Chelsea, which sits upon the King's Road, is located not half a mile east of Cremorne Gardens, a little past the World's End public house. It is not so large or bustling as many of its contemporaries in the great metropolis, a plain brick building, distinguished only by the customary blue lamp above its front door. Indeed, were it not for that distinctive light it might be easy for a stranger to pass it by, quite unaware of its function.
Inside, however, there are clues for the discerning eye: walls are plastered with police notices, half a dozen bearing photographic likenesses of certain âwanted' gentlemen; there is a wooden dock, with a regulation height-gauge beside it, to measure the precise dimensions of those brought up on a charge; and in the small offices that lead off the hall, one or two of the desks boast not only pen, paper and ink, but a pair of handcuffs or a wooden truncheon laid carefully to one side.
It is in one such office â an hour or so after the Coroner's jury has returned a verdict of âwilful murder' upon Jane Budge â that Decimus Webb sits, his forehead creased in concentration, with a small black notebook in front of him.
âAny luck, sir?' asks Bartleby, appearing at the door. âHow are you getting on?'
âInspector Cheadle â the fellow in charge here â was at Nelson's trial. He has kindly provided me with his notes â but his handwriting is almost as bad as yours.'
âI am sure it can't be that bad, sir.'
âHmm. It seems Nelson pleaded innocent, said the girl consented.'
âThey always say that, don't they?' replies the sergeant.
âIn this case, however, the testimony of Mr. Perfitt said otherwise. Miss Budge was quite fortunate in that respect, at least.'
âIt appears she let Nelson into the Perfitts' kitchen voluntarily; they were also seen keeping company on several occasions. Now, in such circumstances, how would you rate her chances of seeing Mr. Nelson convicted, without a witness?'
âI think you are too optimistic, even in that. But there is something wrong here, if one reads this account of the trial and we assume that Inspector Cheadle is a reliable reporter. You recall Mrs. Perfitt's comments â that she did not want to cast aspersions on Jane Budge's character, given what happened?'
âBut Budge did not deny in court that she was on familiar terms with Nelson; in fact, it appears that she had let him inside the house on at least two other occasions â well, Mr. Perfitt almost said as much, did he not?'
âHe did, sir. But I don't quite take your point.'
âShe deceived her employers, Bartleby. Whateverher relations with Nelson â whether carnal or otherwise â they were hardly proper; certainly not what respectable people like the Perfitts expect from their servants. So why did they keep her on? Why give a good character to this girl who repeatedly admitted this villain into their home?'
âPity, sir?' says Bartleby.
âYou may think me a cynic, Sergeant, but Mrs. Perfitt did not strike me over much as the pitying kind.'
âWell, I wouldn't like to say, sir,' replies Bartleby. âNot when you hear who Constable Dawes saw visit George Nelson this morning. He just sent word with the local man on the beat.'
Webb looks up. âDawes?'
âOur plain-clothes, sir. Had him stationed at the World's End, if you recall.'
âAh, yes. Well, who was it?'
âMr. Perfitt. Made a point of finding where George Nelson lived, asked directions, and then went and paid a call.'
âYou are sure it was Perfitt?'
âOur man followed him. Then the local constable identified him.'
Webb closes the notebook in front of him. âI trust Dawes was not seen.'
âI don't think he was spotted. He's a good man.'
Webb taps his fingers upon the desk. âMr. Perfitt, eh? Rather curious for a man who wanted absolutely nothing to do with Nelson.'
Webb pauses for a moment.
âTell me, Sergeant, do you recall how the Perfitts described their trip to Leamington Spa, after Nelson's trial?'
Bartleby smiles. âMade a note of it, sir. Mrs. Perfitt said it was a holiday; her husband said it was a rest-cure.I thought she was probably being discreet, sir â not wanting to admit to trouble with her nerves.'
âPossibly,' says Webb, musing for a moment. âHe gave us the name of their doctor, did he not?'
âReginald Malcolm,' replies Bartleby, without even referring to his notes. âLooked him up yesterday â office in Harley Street.'
âVery good, Sergeant,' replies Webb. It is a rare moment of praise untinged by sarcasm; Bartleby cannot quite contain a triumphant smile.
âWhen you have stopped grinning like a lunatic, perhaps you might care to arrange an interview for me with Dr. Malcolm â at his convenience, of course. There is something amiss with this whole business, I am sure of it. Something does not quite ring true. I just cannot put my finger on it.'
Bartleby pauses upon the threshold.
âWell, Sergeant, what is it?'
âNo more thoughts on The Cutter, sir?'
Webb sighs. âI have not forgotten him, Sergeant. There were no reports last night?'
âNo, sir. Perhaps he's gone to ground. I just wondered if this business with Nelson is . . .'
âWell, out with it?'
âDistracting us, sir. I mean, even if The Cutter's nothing to do with this Jane Budge case â we still have to nab him.'
âYour opinion is noted, Sergeant,' replies Webb. âAnd if you have any suggestions, I am happy to hear them.'
âI thought not,' says Webb. âNow let me return to my reading.'
Decimus Webb quits Chelsea police station at a little after seven o'clock in the evening. Rather than walking directly towards his home in Clerkenwell, he turns his steps westwards, back along the King's Road towards Cremorne. He passes the World's End tavern with barely a sideways glance and only comes to a halt when he reaches the great gates to Cremorne Gardens. For, standing upon the pavement, addressing anyone who comes to the Gardens' ticket booth, is the Reverend Featherstone, with a Bible in one hand, and a bundle of pamphlets in another.
âBack again, sir?' asks Webb.
âAh, Inspector. Yes, I am afraid the Lord's work must still be done. One must persevere. And my wife is a little less delicate today; I will not say she has quite recovered from her experience, but she is much better.'
âI am glad to hear it,' replies Webb.
âI do not suppose you have any news for us? You have not caught The Cutter, I take it?'
Webb looks away, as if reminded of something he would rather forget. âNot yet, sir. I was just taking a stroll, mustering my thoughts. Is Mr. Boon not with you?'
Featherstone smiles. âHe was here a little earlier, but does not have much patience. That is how we shall defeat him, Inspector. With God's love and patience.'
âDefeat, sir? You make it sound like a battle.'
âIt is, Inspector. For the souls of the poor wretches who are lured here to Cremorne. You have not come to remove me, I trust? I had assumed, after our last discussion, that there could be not objection to my coming here.'
âNot if you are polite and peaceable, sir. It's not Scotland Yard's business to interfere in such matters.'
âI am gratified to hear it.'
As the clergyman speaks, a pair of coaches draw up, discharging a rather noisy party of smartly dressed young men and women onto the pavement. The Reverend Featherstone offers his pamphlet to the gentlemen as they pass by, but is thoroughly ignored â to the obvious amusement of their female companions.
âYou don't seem to have much luck, sir, if I may say so,' observes Webb.
âWe shall see, Inspector. It is a hard path I have chosen, but I am sure it is the right one. This place is a cancer in the very heart of our fair suburb. I have seen young persons â many of them of respectable families, mind you â corrupted, time and again. And now we have this business of The Cutter â I consider it the fruit of this social evil, which we have allowed to flourish, quite unchecked. Bitter fruit, Inspector. I only pray that a few of them may learn from it.'
Webb sighs. âI rather gather from Mr. Boon that it's doing wonders for his business â apparently the public rather likes the mystery.'
âLord preserve us!' exclaims the Reverend Featherstone.
âSome people don't know what's good for them, sir,' remarks Webb.
âNo,' replies the clergyman, his face rather downcast, âyou are quite right. Some people do not.'
Alone in her room, Rose Perfitt opens a sealed envelope with tremulous fingers. Dipping her hand inside, she finds its contains nothing but scattered red petals and a brief handwritten note, which she reads eagerly.
She smiles as she begins to get ready for bed, placing one of the petals to her lips.CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
Rose Perfitt sleeps uneasily as the church bells of Chelsea chime midnight, soft cotton sheets twined and trapped around her body. In her hand she clasps a folded piece of paper to her breast, unconsciously pressing it tight against the fabric of her nightdress, even as she tosses and turns in her slumber.
Outside, meanwhile, there is almost perfect silence in Edith Grove, only a faint rustling breeze, the soothing murmur of a warm summer's night. It does not rouse her. Instead she merely turns over once more, the pupils of her eyes moving rapidly beneath closed lids.
It is much the same every night. A carriage ride through unfamiliar streets; left and right, then left again. For in the dark recesses of Rose's dreaming, the streets of Chelsea take on a peculiar geography that she can never quite comprehend. Roads she has never known become roads in which she has lived; one is mixed up with the other.
And then they give way; they melt or vanish, as if the bricks and stone paving were merely snow or ice that dissolve in the sun; for all the terraces and windingpaths of her imagination can only lead Rose Perfitt to one place â the ornate iron gates of Cremorne Gardens.
They are not quite identical to the reality, of course. They are a little bigger; somewhat more forbidding and grand than their worldly counterparts. And the man in the ticket booth has a sterner face, one that is somehow both awful and familiar at the same time. In fact, he is a little like her father; and this always disconcerts her.
But he lets her through; he lets her through every night.
First, with the instantaneous progress of a dreamer, she comes to the Gipsy's Grotto or the Hermit's Cave or the Wizard's Lair â for they are all one and the same, the promise of reading from the dark page of futurity â where she pulls aside the muslin curtain and sits down upon a wooden stool.
The grotto walls are encrusted with oyster shells, plastered in pearly magnificence upon every surface. A single candle lights the face of the Hermit, who squats in the flickering shadow. An old man, he has the eyes of a gipsy, deep brown orbs that resemble dark caves themselves, infinite recesses in which one might become thoroughly lost. And Rose is sure she must know him too; for he surely knows her every secret.
âCross my palm with a shilling, my dear.'
He hands her a piece of paper â the name of her first love.