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Authors: Norman Russell

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All that Roderick Astley had ever possessed was pedigree. The Astleys had been at Astley Court for 600 years, in fortified castle and medieval grange, in spacious Elizabethan hall, and elegant Queen Anne mansion. Every acre of their land had been mortgaged to outsiders, and Adelaide Astley had grown up as her father, and his patrimony, declined into inevitable ruin. She had matured into a beautiful, but wild and ungovernable girl, fiercely protective of her weak, debt-ridden father.

Father and daughter lived amiably together in their shabby, half-ruinous mansion with its flaking stucco and leaking roofs, ministered to by a couple of old servants who had got into the habit of not being paid for their labours. And then, in 1865, just after her twenty-second birthday, her father had borrowed enough money to take them both to London.

He had rented one floor of a house on the fringes of Mayfair, and made his last desperate bid for solvency by launching his daughter into Society. He would provide the breeding; someone else, without breeding, could provide the money. And so, at one fateful glittering social occasion, she had been introduced to a young lawyer with expectations – Gideon Raikes.

A noise outside in Queen Adelaide Gate jarred her back into the present. She looked around the luxurious room, and felt the surface of the veneered cabinet standing below her father’s portrait, as though needing confirmation that all these things were real. Why did the very memory of Gideon Raikes fill her with such terror? A foolish question. She knew the answer perfectly well….

Why, oh! why, did her husband choose to launch a crusade against that man, of all men? Had he forgotten those early days? Was he so consumed with self-regard that he could not sense the dangerous serpent lying in wait to strike?

Adelaide Porteous resumed her seat among the cushions, and recalled her youngest daughter’s parting words. Minx! How dare she be so pert? She permitted herself an indulgent smile. Baby had never lost the power to charm and delight her. She had
always had winning ways, even as a tiny little girl. After her birth, the doctors had told Lady Porteous that she would have no more children. Maybe the girl sensed her mother’s protective tenderness. What a beauty she was becoming!

Beauty…. Adelaide suddenly recalled the library of her now vanished childhood home, and the calf-bound book that she had taken down at random one day when her father was out with the hounds. Why was she becoming afflicted by these phantom glimpses of a forgotten past? Beauty…. What had that poem said, the poem in the calf-bound book?

Beauty
is
but
a
flower

Which
wrinkles
will
devour;

Brightness
falls
from
the
air;

Queens
have
died
young
and
fair.

Arnold Box hurried down Fleet Street, which seemed to be crammed tight with a tangle of horse-drawn omnibuses. There was a certain amount of shouting and swearing, and Box could just see a sergeant of the City police beginning to stride
purposefully
into the carriage-way. Ahead of him he could see the familiar bridge carrying the London, Chatham and Dover Railway across Ludgate Hill, with the dome of St Paul’s looming up beyond in the haze.

The secret of finding out where Box lived, was to spot the great electric lamp hanging in front of the offices of the
Daily
Telegraph.
When you saw that, you prepared yourself for the sharp turn left into Cardinal’s Court. Unless you knew it was there, you’d miss it. As soon as you turned into Cardinal’s Court, the clamour of Fleet Street seemed to be turned off like a tap. All you saw were the tall ranks of old, redbrick lodging-houses, with their white stone window sills and rectangular sash windows. The court was set with fine cobbles, with a central gutter, a water-trough that could be filled from a cast-iron pump, and its own particular gas lamp in the centre. The view from Cardinal’s Court comprised the rear portions of the buildings in Fleet Street, and a similar view of the less flattering portions of some decaying properties in Fetter Lane.

Inspector Box climbed up the five steep steps of number 14, and entered a narrow, cluttered hallway. He was greeted by a not unpleasing aroma of fried fish. Mackerel? No, herring. Very nice, too. ‘Furnished Lodgings for Single Gentlemen’, proclaimed the cardboard notice in the downstairs window. It sounded rather forbidding, but in fact number 14 was a cosy, cheery place. There was room for two single gentlemen. He was one of them. The other was an elderly man called Lucas, a typesetter at the
Telegraph.

He was half way up the stairs when a woman’s voice called out, ‘Is that you, Mr Box? I’ll be up with your dinner, presently.’

‘It is, Mrs Peach. As promised! I’m home till six.’

 

Arnold Box closed the door of his sitting-room, removed his overcoat, and hung it on a hook behind the door. It was nice to be home for a while, away from the constant demands of King James’s Rents, though there were times when his work would follow him to Cardinal’s Court. He had a feeling that it would do so that day, as Mackharness had promised to send this Dr Oake to see him.

He sat down in his leather armchair near the fire. Mrs Peach always made sure that the fire was burning cheerfully at
tea-time
. His little round table had been set for dinner with a white cloth, gleaming cutlery, and the cut-glass cruet that he’d bought one day for 6d at a street market in Farringdon Road.

Box wondered what the new sergeant would be like. Jack Knollys. Jack, if you please! Not John. He’d held his tongue about that matter, but everybody knew that Mackharness and the Chief Constable of Surrey were old army mates from Crimean days. Maybe Old Growler was doing a favour for a pal…. Still, it would be best not to judge this Knollys before he’d seen him.

The slide show had gone very well. He’d bring the magic lantern back tomorrow. The oak bookcase where he kept his collection of novels looked forlorn without the tin case standing on top of it. Perhaps he’d get PC Kenwright to bring it down for him. For all his size and girth, PC Kenwright had nearly died of rheumatic fever earlier in the year. His divisional superintendent
had arranged for him to be taken off the beat, and given indoor duties. Mackharness had heard about him, and brought him to King James’s Rents. It was odd how a uniformed man, who’d spent most of his time on the beat, had taken to St James’s Rents immediately. Visitors often assumed that he’d always been there.

Box glanced at his crowded mantelpiece, where, among a welter of ornaments and photographs, a picture of the late Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, stood in a wooden frame, to which Box had gummed swathes of black crepe. The duke and PC Kenwright had both caught influenza in January. Kenwright’s had turned to a near fatal fever; The Duke of Clarence had died of pneumonia on the 14 January, aged 28.

What was the name of that place in Essex? Bardley. A bit of a backwoods, according to Mackharness. ‘Nearest railway station, Bishop’s Longhurst.’ Sergeant Isaac Bickerstaffe. That was the sort of name that suggested a slow-moving kind of man, the type of man you’d find in the back of beyond. Not surprising, really. You didn’t expect to find geniuses and prodigies out in the sticks.

Garrotted…. It seemed odd, somehow. This unknown lady of quality had not been manually strangled, according to Superintendent Parker’s report. She had been garrotted, choked from behind, with some kind of silken ligature. Why did he think of it as an old-fashioned kind of crime? It stirred some memory, but not from his own time as a police officer.

He looked thoughtfully at an old photograph further along the mantelpiece from the Duke of Clarence, the likeness of a round-faced, firm-featured police sergeant, dressed in the tailed uniform jacket, with eight big, bright buttons, worn in the early sixties. He was standing rather stiffly with his right hand on the back of a chair, on which he had placed his regulation top hat. Pa had always been a uniformed man, with a deep, practical
knowledge
of the villainous side of London. He’d have to visit him in Oxford Street. Pa would know all about that garrotting business.

Someone downstairs launched a thunderous assault on the door-knocker. Box registered the noise, but continued his train of thought.

Silk…. A thread of silk seemed to run through the report. The
dead lady’s green silk dress had been mentioned no fewer than seven times. ‘A green silk dress… The dress appears to be of the finest silk… A lady’s evening dress of costly green silk.’ Well, tomorrow morning he would go to see Mr Anton Berg, of Syria Wharf, a man who knew all about silk. He also knew about satin, and sarsenet, and every other conceivable type of dress material. With a bit of luck, he’d be able to persuade Mr Berg to examine the green silk dress when he brought it back from Essex – which he would do, whatever the powers-that-be down there thought about it.

Box had become so immersed in thought that he jumped with alarm when Mrs Peach knocked lightly on the door, and came into the room. She was holding a calling-card delicately between thumb and forefinger.

‘Mr Box,’ she whispered, ‘there’s a gentleman called to see you. He’s downstairs. Shall I bring him up? Dr Oake, he says his name is.’

‘Dr Oake? Thank you, Mrs Peach. I thought he might run me to ground here. Bring him up, by all means. And when he’s gone, perhaps a spot of dinner will be in order?’

‘It will, sir. Fried herrings with fried potatoes and pickle, followed by castle pudding and custard. I’ll show the gentleman up straight away, Mr Box.’

 

‘So you don’t know our part of Essex, Inspector? Well, it’s fairly remote, and not very important. Bishop’s Longhurst is more a grand village than a small town. It had something to do with wool in the Middle Ages, so they say. And that’s where I have my practice. I’m also police surgeon for the district.’

Box looked speculatively at his visitor. He had entered the room clutching a black sombrero-style hat, and carrying a small leather valise. Dr Oake was a large man in his mid-fifties, with a mane of thick white hair, and a keen, aquiline profile. His eyes were very dark and very lively. There’s not much, thought Box, that escapes this energetic man’s enquiring glance.

‘It’s very civil of you to call on me, sir,’ said Box, after his visitor had sunk gratefully into a chair on the other side of the fireplace.

‘Not at all, Inspector. I’m up here in Town on business, and I’ll be here all week. Seemed a pity not to see you fellows in person. Your superintendent sent me here in a cab – paid the fare in advance, too! He’s an extraordinarily nice man, isn’t he? Must be very pleasant, working with him. And this is your little billet, is it?’

The bright dark eyes darted round the room. It wasn’t mere curiosity, thought Box. This man was interested in people for their own sakes. He’d evidently known how to charm Old Growler, too. An extraordinarily nice man? Not half!

‘It is, sir. Very convenient, too, because it’s near enough to Whitehall for me to walk in to work every day. There’s this nice sitting-room, a bedroom on the next floor front, and a washroom and the usual offices at the end of the passage.’

Dr Oake had risen while Box was talking, and was peering at a framed and glazed photograph hanging near the door. Box found the doctor’s lively informality very attractive.

‘This is a fine picture, Mr Box! I see you’ve got – what? – four others framed, and up on the walls. Did you take them?’

‘Yes, sir. Photography’s my hobby, you see. Not that I get much time for it, these days. There’s a gentleman at number 12, further down the court, who makes the enlargements for me. That one you’re looking at is of a couple of market stalls in the New Cut. The man at number 12 makes glass slides for me, as well.’

Dr Oake resumed his seat. It seemed to Box that he made a conscious effort to put aside his genuine interest in the photographs. His face became grave as he unfastened his valise, and brought out a note book. He grimaced at what was evidently an unpleasant memory.

‘I’m afraid that the photographs waiting for you at Danesford police station are far less pleasant than these splendid prints,’ he said. ‘Sergeant Bickerstaffe has custody of them, together with my formal autopsy report, but I’ve brought my preliminary notes up here to London with me. Let me give you a few details.’

Dr Oake opened the note book, and turned over a few pages, refreshing his memory before he spoke.

‘The woman taken from the aqueduct, Mr Box, was aged
about forty. Forty to forty-five. She was in good health at the time of her death. I don’t think she was married, as there were no marks of rings on her fingers. Her hands were well
manicured
. There were no distinguishing marks. She had all her natural teeth.’

‘And she had been garrotted?’

‘Yes. Garrotted from behind with a silk handkerchief knotted beforehand, I should think, and thrown over her head before being tightened.’

‘The handkerchief was present on the body?’

‘No. But there were traces of silk in the ligature, which is why I suggest a silk handkerchief.’

‘How long had she been dead, Dr Oake? When she was found, I mean.’

‘Two hours. Certainly no more than that. She was found just before midnight, so she got herself murdered in the middle of nowhere at ten o’clock at night.’

‘Who found her, sir?’

‘A simple fellow called John Doake. He likes to wander in the moonlight, you know. He’s of weak intellect, but quite harmless. He was up there on the aqueduct at Bardley, and saw her floating serenely down our old canal like – like Ophelia, in
Hamlet.

‘Daft, is he? You don’t think—’

‘No, Inspector, I don’t. John Doake’s daft, but he’s harmless, as I said. He just found her, that’s all. Incidentally, there was nothing in her clothing to identify her. We thought somebody would miss her very soon. She was wearing a very costly dress, you see, and good quality shoes, though they pinched a bit. Vanity, most probably. And then, of course, there was the
necklace
. What does that signify? The poor woman was murdered right enough, but robbery couldn’t have been the motive.’

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