Authors: Jacqueline Winspear
he small office had changed in the thirty days since Maisie had taken up occupancy. The desk had been moved and was now positioned at an angle to the broad sash window, so that from her chair Maisie could look up and out over the rooftops as she worked. A very sophisticated black telephone sat on top of the desk, at the insistence of Lady Rowan, who maintained that “No one, simply no one, can expect to do business without a telephone. It is essential, positively essential.”As far as Maisie was concerned, what was essential was that the trilling of its authoritative ring be heard a bit more often. Billy Beale had also taken to suggesting improvements lately.
“Can’t have folk up ’ere for business without offering ’em a cuppa the ol’ char, can you, Miss? Let me open up that cupboard, put in a burner, and away you go. Bob’s yer uncle, all the facilities for tea. What d’you think, Miss? I can nip down the road to my mate’s carpentry shop for the extra wood, and run the gas along ’ere for you. No trouble.”
“Lovely, Billy. That would be lovely.”
Maisie sighed. It seemed that everyone else knew what would be best for her. Of course their hearts were in the right place, but what she needed most now was some clients.
“Shall I advance you the money for supplies, Billy?”
“No money needed,” said Billy, winking and tapping the side of his nose with his forefinger.“Nod’s as good as a wink to a blind ’orse, if you know what I mean, Miss.”
Maisie raised an eyebrow and allowed herself a grin. “I know exactly what that saying means, Billy: What I don’t see, I shouldn’t worry about.”
“You got it, Miss. Leave it to me. Two shakes of a lamb’s tail, and you’ll be ready to receive your visitors in style.”
Billy replaced his cap, put a forefinger to the peak to gesture his departure, and closed the door behind him. Leaning back in her chair, Maisie rubbed at tired eyes and looked over the late afternoon rooftops. She watched as the sun drifted away to warm the shores of another continent, leaving behind a rose tint to bathe London at the end of a long day.
Looking again at her handwritten notes, Maisie continued rereading a draft of the report she was in the midst of preparing. The case in question was minor, but Maisie had learned the value of detailed note taking from Maurice Blanche. During her apprenticeship with him, he had been insistent that nothing was to be left to memory, no stone to remain unturned, and no small observation uncataloged. Everything, absolutely
right down to the color of the shoes the subject wore on the day in question, must be noted. The weather must be described, the direction of the wind, the flowers in bloom, the food eaten. Everything must be described and preserved. “You must write it down, absolutely and in its entirety, write it down,” instructed her mentor. In fact, Maisie thought that if she had a shilling for every time she heard the words,“absolutely, and in its entirety,” she would never have to work again.
Maisie rubbed her neck once more, closed the folder on her desk, and stretched her arms above her head. The doorbell’s deep clattering ring broke the silence. At first Maisie thought that someone had pulled the bell handle in error. There had been few rings since Billy installed the new device, which sounded in Maisie’s office. Despite the fact that Maisie had worked with Maurice Blanche and had taken over his practice when he retired at the age of seventy-six, establishing her name independent of Maurice was proving to be a challenge indeed. The bell rang again.
Maisie pressed her skirt with her hands, patted her head to tame any stray tendrils of hair, and hurried downstairs to the door.
“Good. . . .” The man hesitated, then consulted a watch that he drew from his waistcoat pocket, as if to ascertain the accurate greeting for the time of day. “Good evening. My name is Davenham, Christopher Davenham. I’m here to see Mr. Dobbs. I have no appointment, but was assured that he would see me.”
He was tall, about six feet two inches by Maisie’s estimate. Fine tweed suit, hat taken off to greet her at just the right moment, but repositioned quickly. Good leather shoes, probably buffed to a shine by his manservant.
was rolled up under one arm, but with a sheet or two of writing paper coiled inside and just visible. His own notes, thought Maisie. His jet black hair was swept back and oiled, and his moustache neatly trimmed. Christopher Davenham was about forty-two or forty-three. Only seconds had passed since his introduction, but Maisie had him down. This one had not been a soldier. In a protected profession, she suspected.
“Come this way, Mr. Davenham. There are no appointments set for this evening, so you are in luck.”
Maisie led the way up to her office, and invited Christopher Davenham to sit in the new guest chair opposite her own, the chair that had been delivered just last week by Lady Rowan’s chauffeur. Another gift to help her business along.
Davenham looked around for a moment, expecting someone else to step out to meet him, but instead the young woman introduced herself.
“Maisie Dobbs. At your service, Mr. Davenham.” She waved her hand toward the chair again. “Do please take a seat, Mr. Davenham. Now then, first tell me how you came to have my name.”
Christopher Davenham hid his surprise well, taking a linen handkerchief from his inside pocket and coughing lightly into it. The handkerchief was so freshly laundered and ironed that the folds were still knife sharp. Davenham refolded the handkerchief along the exact lines pressed by the iron, and replaced it in his pocket.
“Miss, er, Dobbs. Well, um, well . . . you have been highly recommended by my solicitor.”
Maisie leaned her head to one side to accentuate the question, and to move the conversation onto more fertile ground.
“Oh, um, Blackstone and Robinson. Joseph Robinson.”
Maisie nodded. Lady Rowan again. Joseph Robinson had been her personal legal adviser for forty-odd years. And he didn’t suffer fools gladly unless they were paying him—and paying him well.
“Been the family solicitor for years. I’ll be frank with you, Miss Dobbs. I’m surprised to see you. Thought you were a chap. But Robinson knows his stuff, so let’s continue.”
“Yes, let’s, Mr. Davenham. Perhaps you would tell me why you are here.”
Maisie’s stomach churned. Oh, Lord, after all her training, her education, her successes with Maurice Blanche, had it come to this? A love triangle? But she sat up to listen carefully, remembering Blanche’s advice: “The extraordinary hides behind the camouflage of the ordinary. Assume nothing, Maisie.”
“And what about your wife, Mr. Davenham?”
“I believe . . . I believe her affections are engaged elsewhere. I have suspected it for some time and now, Miss Dobbs, I must know if what I suspect is true.”
Maisie leaned back in her chair and regarded Christopher Davenham squarely.“Mr. Davenham, first of all, I must tell you that I will have to ask you some questions. They may not be questions that are easy or comfortable for you to answer. I will have questions about your responses, and even questions about your questions. That is my job. I am unique in what I do. I am also unique in what I charge for my service.”
“Money is not a problem, Miss Dobbs.”
“Good. The questions may be, though.”
“Mr. Davenham, please tell me what personal evidence you have to suspect that your wife is betraying your marriage in any way?”
“Tuesdays and Thursdays, every week, without fail, she leaves the house immediately after I have departed for my office, and returns just in time to welcome me home.”
“Mr. Davenham, time away from the house is no reason for you to suspect that you are being deceived.”
“The lies are, though.”
“Go on.” Maisie wrote in her notebook without taking her eyes off Davenham, a skill that unnerved him.
“She has told me that she has been shopping, visiting friends or her mother—and upon investigation I find that if such visits have occurred, they have taken only an hour or so. Clearly they are a smokescreen.”
“There are other possibilities, Mr. Davenham. Could your wife, perhaps, be visiting her physician? Is she undertaking a course of study? What other reasons for her absences have you explored in your investigations, Mr. Davenham? Such absences may have a completely innocent explanation.”
“Miss Dobbs. Surely that is for you to find out? Follow her, and you will see that I am right.”
“Mr. Davenham. To follow a person is an invasion of the right of that individual to privacy. If I take on this case—and I do have a choice in the matter—I am taking on more than the question of who did what and when. I am taking on a responsibility for both you and your wife in a way that you may not have considered. Tell me, what will you do with the information I provide?”
“Well, I . . . I’ll use it. It will be a matter for my solicitor.”
Maisie placed her hands together in front of her face, just touching her nose, as if in prayer.“Let me ask you another question. What value do you place on your marriage?”
“What sort of question is that?”
“A question to be answered, if I am to take on this investigation.”
“A high value. Vows are meant to be honored.”
“And what value do you place on understanding, compassion, forgiveness?”
Davenham was silent. He crossed his legs, smoothed the tweed trousers, and leaned down to rub away a nonexistent scuff on his polished leather shoes, before responding.“Damn and blast!”
“Miss Dobbs, I am not without compassion, but I have my pride. My wife will not divulge the nature of her business on those days when she is absent. I have come here in order to learn the truth.”
“Oh yes. The truth. Mr. Davenham, I will ascertain the truth for you, but I must have an agreement from you—that when you have my report, and you know the truth, then we will discuss the future together.”
“What do you mean?”
“The information I gather will be presented in a context. It is in light of that context that we must continue our discussion, in order for you and your wife to build a future.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
Maisie stood up, walked to the window, then turned to face her potential client. The bluff of the stiff upper lip, thought Maisie, who keenly felt the man’s discomfort, and was immediately attuned to his emotions. Intuition spoke to her. He talks about pride when it’s his heart that’s aching.
“My job is rather more complex than you might have imagined, Mr. Davenham. I am responsible for the safety of all parties. And this is so even when I am dealing with society’s more criminal elements.”
Davenham did not respond immediately. Maisie, too, was silent, allowing him time to gather his resolve. After some minutes the stillness of the room was broken.
“I trust Robinson, so I will go ahead,” said Davenham.
Maisie moved back to the desk, and looked down at her notes, then to the rooftops where pigeons were busy returning to newly built nests, before she brought her attention back to the man in the leather chair before her.
“Yes, Mr. Davenham. I will, too.” Maisie allowed her acceptance of the case to be underlined by another moment of silence.
“Now then, let’s start with your address, shall we?”
aisie rose early on Tuesday, April 9. She dressed carefully in the blue skirt and jacket, pulled a navy blue wool overcoat across her shoulders, placed a cloche on her head, and left her rented room in a large three-story Victorian terraced house in Lambeth, just south of the Thames. It was cold again. Blimey, would spring ever spring up? she wondered, pulling gloves onto already chilled fingers.
As usual Maisie began her morning with a brisk walk, which allowed her time to consider the day ahead and enjoy what her father always called “the best of the morning.” She entered Palace Road from Royal Street, and turned right to walk toward Westminster Bridge. She loved to watch the Thames first thing in the morning. Those Londoners who lived just south of the river always said they were “going over the water” when they crossed the Thames, never referring to the river by name unless they were speaking to a stranger. It had been the lifeblood of the city since the Middle Ages, and no people felt the legacy more keenly than those who lived with it and by it. Her maternal grandfather had been a lighterman on the water, and like all of his kind, knew her tides, her every twist and turn.
Londoners knew she was a moody creature. Human beings possessed no dominion over the Thames, but care, attention, and respect would see any vessel safely along her meandering way. Maisie’s grandfather had all but disowned her mother when she had taken up with Maisie’s father, for he was of the land, not that Frankie Dobbs would have called the streets of London “the land.” Frankie was a costermonger, a man who sold vegetables from a horse-drawn cart that he drove from Lambeth to Covent Garden market every weekday morning. To Frankie Dobbs the water was a means to an end, bringing fruit and vegetables to market, for him to buy in the early hours of the morning, then sell on his rounds and be home by teatime, if he was lucky.
Maisie stopped at the center of the bridge, waved at the crew of a pilot boat, and went on her way. She was off to see Celia Davenham, but Celia Davenham would not see her.
Once across the bridge, Maisie descended into the depths of Westminster underground railway station and took the District Line to Charing Cross station. The station had changed names back and forth so many times, she wondered what it would be called next. First it was Embankment, then Charing Cross Embankment, and now just Charing Cross, depending upon which line you were traveling. At Charing Cross she changed trains, and took the Northern Line to Goodge Street station, where she left the underground, coming back up into the sharp morning air at Tottenham Court Road. She crossed the road, then set off along Chenies Street toward Russell Square. Once across the square, she entered Guilford Street, where she stopped to look at the mess the powers that be had made of Coram’s Fields. The old foundling hospital, built by Sir Thomas Coram almost two hundred years before, had been demolished in 1926, and now it was just an empty space with nothing to speak of happening to it. “Shame,” whispered Maisie, as she walked another few yards and entered Mecklenburg Square.
Named in honor of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who became queen consort upon her marriage to George III of England, the gracious Georgian houses of the square were set around a garden protected by a wrought-iron fence secured with a locked gate. Doubtless a key to the lock was on a designated hook downstairs at the Davenham residence, in the butler’s safekeeping. In common with many London squares, only residents had access to the garden.
Maisie jotted a few more lines in her notebook, taking care to reflect that she had been to the square once before, accompanying Maurice Blanche during a visit to his colleague, Richard Tawney, the political writer who spoke of social equality in a way that both excited and embarrassed Maisie. At the time it seemed just as well that he and Maurice were deep in lively conversation, so that Maisie’s lack of ease could go unnoticed.
While waiting at the corner and surveying the square, Maisie wondered if Davenham had inherited his property. He seemed quite out of place in Mecklenburg Square, where social reformers lived alongside university professors, poets, and scholars from overseas. She considered his possible discomfort, not only in his marriage but in his home environment. As Maisie set her gaze on one house in particular, a man emerged from a neighboring house and walked in her direction. She quickly feigned interest in a window box filled with crocus buds peeking through moist soil. Their purple shoots seemed to test the air to see if it was conducive to a full-fledged flowering. The man passed. Maisie still had her head inclined toward the flowers when she heard another door close with a thud, and looked up.
A woman had emerged from the residence she had been observing, and was now depositing a set of keys in her handbag. She adjusted her hat and made her way down the steps and onto the pavement. Christopher Davenham had provided Maisie with an excellent description of his wife, Celia, a petite, fair-complected woman with fine features, no taller than five feet two. Celia Davenham had silky blond hair that tended to unsettle a hat that already required more than one hatpin to render it secure, and hands that seemed constantly to fiddle with bag, gloves, hat, and hair as she walked to the main road.
Even from a distance of several paces, Maisie noted the quality of the woman’s deep burgundy gabardine suit, and the soft leather gloves and felt hat chosen to complement the expensive ensemble precisely. Her shoes had clearly been chosen with care as well, for they were of fine burgundy leather with half straps at each side that met in the center and were secured with a grosgrain ribbon tied in a small bow. Maisie was intrigued by the bow, for it suggested a certain girlishness, as if the woman could not quite accommodate the maturity her age suggested.
Celia Davenham made her way toward Heathcote Street and turned into Grays Inn Road, where she hailed a taxi-cab outside the Royal Free Hospital. Fortunately Maisie managed to secure a taxi-cab at once, so that she could travel immediately behind Mrs. Davenham. As she sat in the rear seat of the heavy black motorcar, she hoped that the journey would be a short one. For Maisie travel by any means other than her own two feet was nothing but an indulgence. The journey by underground to Warren Street was a treat she allowed herself in the morning only if she considered that she had worked hard enough to warrant the additional expenditure.
At Charing Cross railway station, Celia Davenham climbed out of the cab, paid the driver, and proceeded to the ticket counter. Maisie followed closely. She stood behind Mrs. Davenham at the ticket counter, and pretended to fumble in her bag for her purse, listening keenly as the childlike woman with the soft blond hair stated her destination.
“Nether Green, please. First-class return, thank you.”
What on earth could this woman want at Nether Green, a small town on the outskirts of London, where it met with the county of Kent? Apple orchards giving way to terraced houses, an old station, a few good homes. Now if she had asked for Chislehurst, with its new-money grandeur, Maisie thought she might have understood. But Nether Green? Maisie requested a second-class ticket for the same destination, then proceeded to the correct platform to await the train. She stopped only to buy a newspaper, which she carried under her arm.
The train pulled in with a loud hiss, pumping clouds of smoky steam as the engine reached the buffers and the screeching brakes were applied. The olive green livery of the Southern Railways, painted on each carriage, was tarnished by coal dust and wear. Celia Davenham immediately walked toward the first-class compartments, whereupon a guard hurriedly stepped forward to open the sturdy, iron-framed door, and to extend a steadying hand as she stepped up into the carriage. Maisie passed on the way to the second-class carriages, and just before the door closed, noticed that the collar and cuffs of Mrs. Davenham’s burgundy suit were edged with the same ribbon used to form a bow on her shoes. She quickly reestimated the cost of the clothes the woman was wearing that day.
Having ensured that the object of her investigation was aboard the train, Maisie claimed a seat in a second-class carriage, pulled down the window to observe the platform, and waited for the whistle to blow and the train to chug out of one of London’s busiest stations. Eventually the guard walked down the platform, instructing Maisie as he passed that it would be better for “yer ’ead, Miss,” if she sat down. He checked that the train was clear of all platform onlookers, blew his whistle, and waved the green flag, signaling the engine driver to move out of the station.
As the train chugged and puffed its way through south London and out into the city’s border with Kent, Maisie pondered the changes she had seen in the city in her lifetime. London was creeping outward. Where there had been fields, houses now stood. Rows of shops were doing brisk business, and a new commuter class was working to improve itself. By the time the train reached Grove Park, Maisie had brought her notes up to date again, ensuring that each small detail of her journey, from the time she left her rented flat in south London that morning until the present moment, was recorded—along with every penny she had spent along the way.
The next stop was Nether Green. Maisie stood, inspected her reflection in a mirror strategically placed between two dim lights on the carriage bulkhead, adjusted her hat, and took her seat again to wait for the train to slow down, for the hissing of brakes. As the carriages rolled into the station, Maisie stood once more, pulled down the window, and poked her head out to keep an eye on the first-class compartments. When the train came to a halt Maisie put her arm out of the window so she could open the heavy carriage door from the outside and, keeping the first-class compartments in view, she jumped smartly from the train and walked at a brisk pace toward the ticket collector. Celia Davenham was ahead by only a few yards, obscured slightly by other passengers, including a very slow old lady who would not be rushed.
“Now just you wait, young man,” said the old woman to the ticket collector. “It’s a sorry state of affairs if you can’t give your elders and betters a minute or two to find the ticket.”
The ticket collector stepped back a pace, as if anticipating a blow to the head from the doughty woman’s black umbrella. Maisie waited impatiently, for Celia Davenham had passed through the barrier and was leaving the station. Finally she reached the ticket collector, handed over her ticket, and walked as quickly as she could to the station gate. Glancing both ways, Maisie saw that Celia had paused by a flower stall. Luck indeed. She walked toward the stall, rearranging the newspaper under her arm and consulting her watch, even though she knew the time to the second. She approached it just as Celia Davenham was walking away.
Maisie looked over the bunches of fragrant blooms while addressing the stallholder. “Lovely flowers, the ones you wrapped for that lady.”
“Yes, Ma’am, very nice indeed. Always has the irises.”
“Yes, twice a week. Never fails.”
“Oh well, she must like them,” said Maisie, picking up a small bunch of Jersey daffodils. “I think I’ll have something a bit different, though.”
“Color of mourning, those irises,” observed the man. “These daffs are a lot more cheerful by half!”
Maisie looked at her watch and made sure that Celia Davenham was still in sight. She walked slowly, but was not distracted by goods displayed in shopwindows. Keeping her eyes focused on the ground, she seemed to be avoiding any contact with people passing by.
“Well, I think so, too. I’ll take the daffs, thank you very much.”
“We sell a lot of irises, what with the cemetery up the road. That and chrysanths, always popular.”
Maisie took the bunch of daffodils and handed over the exact change in pennies.
“Thank you.Very nice indeed.”
She set forth at a steady pace, and was soon just a few steps behind Celia Davenham. They had passed the shops now, and although there were still passersby, the number of pedestrians heading in the same direction was thinning out. Celia Davenham turned right, then left onto the main road. She waited for some motorcars and a horse-drawn cart to pass, looking ahead to the green-painted iron gates of Nether Green Cemetery. Maisie followed, careful to maintain her distance yet still keep the other woman in view.
Celia Davenham walked with purpose, her head lowered but her step firm. Maisie watched her, mentally noting every detail of the other woman’s demeanor. Her shoulders were held too square, hunched upward as if on a coat hanger. Maisie copied the woman’s posture as she walked, and immediately felt her stomach clutch and a shiver go though her. Then sadness descended, like a dark veil across her eyes. Maisie knew that Celia Davenham was weeping as she walked, and that in her sadness she was searching for strength. With a sense of relief, as she walked along Maisie shook off the other woman’s way of holding herself.
She followed Celia Davenham through the open gates, and along a path for about fifty yards. Then, without changing her pace, the object of Maisie’s investigation turned in from the path and walked across the grass, pausing by a relatively fresh grave. The large marble angel towering above a neighboring grave caught Maisie’s eye, and she made a mental note of this landmark. She knew she’d have to be careful. One grave can seem much like the next one when you are in a cemetery.