Authors: A Mortal Curiosity
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to everyone who helped me with the research for this book; to Alan Shotter for a description of the site and location of the original Southampton Town railway station; to Graham Parkes for information regarding the landing arrangements for the Hythe (Hants) ferry before the building of the pier at Hythe; and, as always, to fellow-writer Angela Arney who drove me around the New Forest (and offered me her ever-generous hospitality).
Thanks also to all those who regularly support me in my labours: to my editor Clare Foss, my agent Carole Blake and above all to my husband John.
THE MAN opposite in the first-class compartment wore a shiny black top hat draped from crown to brim in a large white silk handkerchief. It floated gracefully in the movement of the air and gave the impression his otherwise dignified form might levitate at any moment to disport itself above our heads, alongside the luggage racks.
The fancy made me hide a smile, because he was in all other ways a neat, even fastidious, figure. There were streaks of grey in his russet moustache and the luxuriant side-whiskers that followed his jaw line and joined forces beneath his chin in a forked beard. Still, I put his age at no more than forty-five or -six. His slim form was clad in a black frock coat; his linen – what could be seen of it – presented a snowy white contrast. His hands rested one upon the other on the carved ivory knob of a long malacca cane. The pose drew attention to his best quality braided kid gloves. The swell of my own skirts prevented my seeing his footwear but I was sure that, too, was immaculate. As for the hat, that had surely been an expensive purchase. Flying cinders from the engines entering and leaving Waterloo station might have damaged it. He’d prudently protected it with the silk scarf while on the concourse and had either forgotten to remove the covering, now we were underway, or still feared a flurry of hostile sparks might find its way into our compartment despite the tightly closed glazed windows.
Now then, Lizzie! That’s enough of that!
I chided myself as I realised I risked appearing rude in staring at him so critically. I hoped he hadn’t noticed and hastily turned my gaze to the view outside, such as it was. We were rocking steadily out of the London and South Western Railway’s Waterloo terminus and the sight was an unexciting one of soot-grimed buildings.
A sense of adventure was beginning to tingle through my veins together with just a little nervousness. The south coast of England was as unknown to me as London had been when I’d arrived there from the north, earlier that year, with my modest baggage. Now I was on the move again. Unpleasant and unforeseen events had cut short my stay in the capital. As things turned out, they’d also opened the door to new possibilities. Yet I might have been venturing into darkest Africa for all I knew of my present destination. It certainly didn’t appear any less exotic in my imagination.
We rattled through Clapham and had reached the suburbs. Already the houses were smaller and clustered in brick terraces. Their carefully tended back gardens ran down to the railway embankment offering glimpses of modest domesticity. Linen flapped on lines and children’s toys lay abandoned on lawns. Trees and open spaces suggested the countryside. The overpowering presence of commercial London with its thronged streets, dust, smoke and never-ending hubbub was fading.
I wasn’t leaving it all without regret. One person in particular was very much in my mind.
‘That young man of yours,’ my Aunt Parry asked one day over the substantial midday meal she called a light luncheon. ‘Is he intending to offer marriage?’
I’m not normally lost for a reply but this question, put without warning, left me floundering. Aunt Parry wasn’t looking at me. Her eyes were fixed on her plate and she was apparently concentrating on one of her favourite occupations: eating. I watched as the spoon reached her mouth and her pouting lips parted. I thought how small her mouth was and how, with her snub nose and pink pouched cheeks, she resembled a middle-aged cherub. Auburn curls escaping from her lace cap enhanced it. Very auburn. I do believe, I thought, she’s taken to using henna! Then my mind returned reluctantly to her question and how to answer it.
For the past three months I’d been officially ‘walking out’ with Ben Ross. In reality I saw very little of him. The truth was I had a rival and its name was police work. The criminal world took no holidays, I’d soon discovered. At all hours of the day and night, with a fine lack of consideration for the police officer and his private life, housebreakers relieved citizens of their valuables, fraudsters hatched their ingenious plots, while murder, that most ruthless of predators, prowled the alleys of the slums and slipped unseen into the dwellings of the better-off.
The continual foiling of any plans hatched by Ben and myself was embodied in the substantial form of Superintendent Dunn. He was a nice enough man, bluff and canny. But I’d quickly learned Dunn saw his junior officers as being at his beck and call, first, foremost and ‘pretty well all the time’, as I’d hotly declared to Ben.
So what on earth was I to reply to Aunt Parry? I could have told her that I thought Ben was probably working up to a proposal but, on the other hand, nothing specific had been said. What was more, if I would see as little of him as his wife as I was currently seeing of him as his ‘young lady’ I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to be married to an inspector of the Metropolitan Police, plain clothes division.
My turmoil had been made worse by the note delivered only that morning by an impudently grinning urchin. In it, Ben begged my forgiveness and presented heartfelt apologies, but he would not be free to accompany me to the open-air concert in Hyde Park as planned that afternoon. When the outing had been decided upon Ben had assured me that, given the long hours he had been working and the not inconsiderable success of his efforts, it should be possible for him to claim a free Saturday afternoon. But no, again we were frustrated. I knew he was as disappointed as I was. But it didn’t help, and the most annoying phrase in the whole carefully worded note, over which I knew poor Ben had sweated, was that in which he declared he was sure I ‘would understand’.
Oh yes, I did understand very well. Superintendent Dunn had required Ben’s services and the concert was pushed aside to make way probably for another gruesome murder.
So I replied at last to Aunt Parry’s question with a brisk, ‘I’m sure I have no idea.’
She looked up, startled. ‘I am responsible for you, Elizabeth my dear!’ she said as if to justify her curiosity.
She probably thought my brief frown meant I felt she was intruding on a delicate private matter. The question about Ben’s intentions hadn’t annoyed me but the declaration that she was ‘responsible’ for me did jar.
I wanted to tell her she wasn’t responsible for me at all. She was only my aunt ‘by marriage’ being the widow of my late godfather, and currently my employer. I had been my widower father’s housekeeper and general factotum until his death and looking after myself had always been very much my own responsibility. But it would not only have been imprudent of me to say any of this, it would also have been ungrateful. In her own way, she had been very kind to me. It was the fault of neither of us that we were quite incompatible.
When a child, if I had found myself faced with some difficult situation, I would run to the top of our ramshackle old house and hide in the attic until I had sorted things out in my own mind. I couldn’t do that now. What I needed more than anything was to go away, be alone, and have time to consider my predicament undisturbed. Instead I spent most of my time (thanks to Superintendent Dunn) listening to Aunt Parry’s chatter and playing whist with her and her friends.
‘Dear Aunt Parry,’ I said. ‘I’m very grateful for all you’ve done for me. I know you worry about my future. I should of course be sorry to leave this house and the home here you’ve been so good as to give me, but I’ve been thinking that perhaps I should leave London altogether for a little while.’
‘How about Hampshire?’ asked Aunt Parry immediately.
I gaped, then pulled myself together. ‘I don’t know Hampshire. I’ve only ever been in my home town and here in London.’
‘Oh, you’d like Hampshire,’ said Aunt Parry confidently. ‘Especially the area called the New Forest. It’s very pretty and on the coast. You would benefit from the sea air.’
Was she proposing I take a holiday? I couldn’t believe it. I was right to have my doubts. A holiday wasn’t what Aunt Parry had in mind.
She pushed aside her dish of gooseberry fool – an action that told me how serious she was.
‘I’ve been talking,’ she said, ‘to an old acquaintance of mine, Mr Charles Roche. Mr Roche was once in business with my poor Josiah; silks, you know. For a few years now he’s added the import of tea from China to his interests. He owns, I understand, two fast clipper ships. Just fancy, from Canton to London in only nine weeks!’
Aunt Parry paused to smooth the fabric of her sleeve with her short podgy fingers. ‘So clever of Charles,’ she murmured, ‘to combine silk and quality tea, two things no lady can do without.’ She roused herself from whatever interesting byway this had led her into, and went on briskly, ‘Now I’ve just learned that a little – private difficulty – has arisen in his family. It occurs to me you could be just the person to help out.’
I had to be intrigued. ‘Yes?’ I encouraged her.
Aunt Parry beamed approval. I wasn’t going to be difficult.
‘Well, dear, Mr Roche has a young married niece, Mrs Craven. She’s called Lucy. Mrs Craven is not long since delivered of her first child but sadly the infant died after only two days.’
‘I’m sorry to hear it,’ I said sincerely.
‘Her spirits have been very low ever since,’ Aunt Parry went on. ‘Her husband—’ Here she paused and looked a little awkward.
‘Mr Craven?’ I suggested blandly.
Aunt Parry wasn’t a fool. She blinked and said sharply, ‘Quite so. Mr Craven is abroad on business. He and his young wife are by way of being cousins – once or twice removed, I fancy. At any rate, Mr Roche would like to see Mr Craven advance in the firm, and so he’s sent him to China to learn about the tea trade.’
‘Business is business, I suppose,’ I said. ‘But it seems very unkind to send the young man away when his wife is recovering from her lying-in and both of them in mourning for their child.’
‘I gather he’d sailed before the child was born,’ Aunt Parry admitted and held up her hand. ‘The circumstances don’t concern us, Elizabeth. The present situation is this: young Mrs Craven is living with Mr Roche’s sisters, a pair of maiden ladies, at their home in Hampshire. I gather it’s beautifully situated just where the New Forest looks out on the Solent. One may see right across to the Isle of Wight, where our dear Queen has that charming Osborne House.’