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Authors: Norman Russell

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‘You see that, gentlemen? Is it sufficient to call this creation by the simple name of “silk”? Is it adequate? Is it
right
?’ Mr Berg’s eyes blazed with something approaching fanaticism. His long black curls fell across his brow. ‘Feel it! Four hundred and eighty stitches to the square inch, and as smooth as butter! Look at the weave!’

He produced a little square lens from a pocket, and thrust it into Box’s hand. ‘Chinese?’ Box ventured, peering at the almost invisible weaving of the shimmering blue material.

‘No. Italian, Mr Box. Venetian.’ His voice, normally vibrant, sank to a conspiratorial whisper as he quoted some lines of verse. 

‘“
There’s
magic
in
the
web
of
it

The
worms
were
hallow’
d
that
did
breed
the
silk,

And
it
was
dy’d
in
mummy,
which
the
skilful

Conserv’d
of
maidens’
hearts.”

Mr Berg suddenly laughed, swept up the length of silk from his knees, and deposited it on the floor beside his sofa.

‘So what can I do for you, Inspector? I’ve got the best French silk here, and finest Italian, as you’ve just seen. Lovely stuff. I bring these things in for the Bond Street fashion houses. Just tell me how many bolts you want, Mr Box, and it’s yours at trade price. I don’t sell any shoddy stuff.’

Box saw that Mr Berg was eyeing Sergeant Knollys with curiosity. Why on earth had he not introduced the sergeant formally, as was the custom? Perhaps because he felt he had only just been introduced to the man himself.

The inspector put down his Turkish cup carefully on the saucer, and looked at Anton Berg. What was he? An Austrian? His English was perfect, but there was a slight foreign accent
lurking behind it. Whatever else he might be, he was a salesman to his manicured fingertips.

‘Trade price, plus five per cent discount for quantity,’ Berg added.

‘I don’t want to buy anything, Mr Berg.’ Box’s voice assumed a plaintive tone, which held the suspicion of a whine. Why did people always want to sell him things? Did he look like a soft touch? ‘I want you to do me a favour. When I come back from Essex, let me bring you that dress! The victim’s green dress. Seven times, they mentioned it. There must have been
something
special about it, and you’ll see what it is. Will you agree to look at it?’

Anton Berg had made up his mind before Box had finished speaking.

‘Of course I will! It’s an intriguing prospect, Inspector. But you must bring it to me here, where I can examine it by the light of heaven. Don’t ask me to root around in your warren of dark little rooms at King James’s Rents! Besides, I have the tools of my trade here. So bring the dress when you will.’

Sergeant Knollys had said nothing since they had entered the Arabian Nights apartment. He had watched Anton Berg in
fascination
, and wondered what connection there was between this rather exotic foreign man and the dapper, Cockney detective who was to be his new guvnor.

‘Do you live up here, then, Mr Berg?’ asked Knollys.

‘Live here? Not now, Sergeant. My wife and I have a very nice little villa in Islington. But I did live up here once, for a time. That’s why it’s still furnished. I was watching you just now, and thought how well you merged into this room! You seemed to fit it, if you know what I mean. Look! From the windows here, on the City side, you can see St Paul’s rising above the throng of streets! Over there, you can see the back of the Mansion House. Walk across the room, and there’s the river below you. The fog’s almost cleared now. You can see the whole of Southwark in prospect.’

‘Marvellous,’ said Knollys, softly. ‘A marvellous place, sir. And you don’t live here now?’

‘No, Sergeant – er, I don’t think Mr Box mentioned your name?’

‘Knollys, sir. Detective Sergeant Knollys.’

‘Knollys, hey! A very interesting name, if I may say so. I recently supervised the hanging of new curtains at Marlborough House for the Prince and Princess of Wales. I find myself
occasionally
moving in very exalted circles! Anyway, one of the footmen pointed out a gentleman called Sir Francis Knollys, and told me that he was not only the Prince’s secretary, but also Gentleman Usher to Her Majesty. A very old family, apparently. One of them was Lord Mayor of London, so this footman told me. A relative of yours, perhaps?’

Inspector Box started uneasily. Maybe this Jack Knollys really
was
a scion of this exalted family. He caught his new sergeant’s eye. It held a kind of mocking gleam.

‘Sir Francis Knollys and I, Mr Berg,’ said the sergeant, ‘share a common ancestor.’

‘Indeed? Well, Sergeant Knollys, this place is empty and forlorn, pining for company. It is, as you say, a marvellous place. Somewhere, a tenant is waiting for it. Who knows what the fates may bring? I wish you all success for your investigation, Inspector Box. Will Sergeant Knollys be accompanying you down to Essex?’

Box saw the eager, almost pleading look in Knollys’ eyes, and made up his mind instantly about what to reply.

‘He will, sir. It’s the custom, you know. Inspectors and sergeants tend to hunt in pairs!’

 

‘Are you game for a brisk walk back to Whitehall?’

‘Yes, sir. And thank you for sparing my blushes back up there. About going down to Essex, I mean.’

They had proceeded in silence half way up Garlick Hill before Knollys added, ‘It was a fine scrap, wasn’t it, sir? You’d have downed Joseph Jenkins yourself, I expect, without my help. He was all flab! Out of training, as you might say.’

Box glanced at his companion, and saw the glint of pleasure in his eyes. He really had enjoyed the fight! Knollys would prove a very useful man to have in a tight spot. They reached the top of the narrow road, and turned left into Cannon Street.

‘It’s certainly a point of view, Sergeant,’ said Box. ‘My own
view, for what it’s worth, is that I’d have been pulverized without your timely appearance. Mangled.’

At St Paul’s Churchyard, Box suddenly stopped on the
pavement
, forcing one or two passers-by to walk round him. He glanced briefly at the great dome of the cathedral rising above the throng of people and vehicles streaming towards Ludgate Circus.

‘It was just here, Sergeant Knollys, that I spotted you. Nailed you for certain, I mean. “Who’s this ugly customer on my tail?” I thought. I let you keep me in sight, so I wouldn’t lose you myself. Just as well, all things considered.’

‘When they told me at King James’s Rents where you’d gone, sir, I took a cab to Fleet Street, waited for you to arrive, and followed you from there. That big constable – Kenwright, his name was – gave me your description: mid-thirties, round face, thick moustache, light overcoat, brown bowler, rapid gait, a little below average height—’

‘Yes, well, never mind this preoccupation with height, Sergeant. I’ve enough to put up with from PC Kenwright, and George Boyd, without you starting on me! And let me remind you that Goliath … Goliath … no, it was David. He was only a titch, too, and he felled that giant with a single stone. Well, not a titch, of course. I expect he was of average height for a youth … I think I’m getting out of my depth in this conversation. But here we are at the Circus, Sergeant Knollys, and here’s the good old King Lud. So I suggest we adjourn for a bottle each of India Pale Ale.’

It was comfortably gloomy inside the King Lud. The two detectives sat at a little marble-topped table near the door. There was an incessant murmur of voices from the long, crowded public bar. Light from the street outside filtered its way through narrow windows filled with coloured glass, and glinted off the brass handles of the beer engines along the bar.

‘Ah!’ said Box, after an appreciative sip from his glass. ‘Very nice. And lightly chilled, as it should be, though some folk prefer it warm, like draught beer. I don’t suppose you’re settled anywhere, yet?’

‘I’ve dumped my kit in the section house for the moment, sir.
That’ll do me, I expect. But I was very taken by that eyrie of Mr Berg’s back there at Syria Wharf. Perhaps he and I could do a deal, if you’re agreeable.’

‘The section house! Bobbies’ barracks! That brings back fond memories, Sergeant. One bed, one table, one chair. Tidiness was the watchword. Plenty of camaraderie, as they say, but not much in the way of creature comforts. See Mr Berg by all means, as soon as ever you and I get back from Essex. We’ll go down tomorrow morning by the eight o’clock train.’

Both men had drained their glasses. Knollys rose to his feet, and half turned towards the bar. Box saw the wary look in his eyes. They had talked easily together, but the sergeant was evidently wondering whether or not he had gained acceptance.

‘Another one, sir?’

‘Well, perhaps so, Sergeant. It’d help to mend our shattered nerves after the – what did Mr Berg call it? – the “fracas”. Then we’d better get back to King James’s Rents. We don’t want to disgrace ourselves by staggering over the threshold! And thanks very much, Sergeant Knollys. Very civil. Much appreciated.’

Box watched the big sergeant as he made his way to the crowded bar. As well as being a powerful man, he was a
well-dressed
man. He evidently cared much for his appearance. Maybe he’d like to give George Boyd a few lessons in
deportment
. Despite that hideous scar, Knollys was still a good-looking man. That scar needed some kind of explanation. He would choose his time to ask.

‘What’s your connection with Mr Berg, Inspector?’ asked Knollys, when he returned carrying two bottles. ‘There’s a very nice, genuine man lurking beneath all that froth and tosh.’

Box carefully filled his empty glass.

‘A very nice man? Yes, that’s quite true, I suppose. But you’ve got to watch him. He’s a born salesman. I once came away from that warehouse of his with half a bolt of orange cloth. Orange! I suppose you realize that he was trying to get you as a tenant back there? I’m not so sure that he hasn’t succeeded, either! But, tosh or no tosh, Sergeant, Mr Anton Berg knows what he’s talking about. He’s helped me before, as you may have
gathered
.’

‘How did you meet him? Was it on a case?’

‘It was.
His
case, so to speak. Do you know St Olaf Stairs, across the river? Well, Anton Berg used to have his warehouse there. It was burnt down by a man called Stryver. Twelve engines went out to that fire, Sergeant, twelve engines, and the whole river behind them, all to no avail. The place just glowed and glowed all night, and then collapsed in a mound of ash.’ Box paused for effect, and then added, rather cockily, ‘I was the man who hunted Stryver down, and saw him put away for life.’

Sergeant Knollys treated his inspector to an amused smile.

‘Didn’t this Stryver like silk-merchants, then?’ he asked.

‘Stryver, Sergeant Knollys, was acting for a third party, the same party who was behind the murder of the unfortunate Mr James Hungerford at St Saviour’s Dock.’

‘And are you going to tell me the name of this third party, sir?’

Box drained his glass, and stood up. He looked almost absently at Knollys.

‘What? Yes, I’ll tell you all about him when we get back from Essex. His is a name not to be dropped lightly, Sergeant; he’s hardly material for the fag-end of a conversation in a public house. So we’ll talk about him later. At the moment, we’d better turn our thoughts to this business down in Essex: the garrotted lady of quality in the green silk dress.’

Sergeant Isaac Bickerstaffe paused with his clay pipe halfway to his lips. A thought had struck him, and he liked to worry a thought until he’d ferreted out its meaning. That poor dead lady … Why hadn’t she been wearing a coat? It had only been the sixth of September when they’d found her, but still, it was chilly enough then to need a coat of an evening.

He puffed away at his pipe, and leaned back in his chair. Of course, they’d noticed that she’d no coat when they’d hauled her from the canal, but it was only now that the point had clamoured for his attention. What did it mean?

Bickerstaffe lumbered to his feet, and padded out of his crowded cottage parlour, tightening his leather belt as he did so. It was more comfortable to let it out a notch when you were sitting down at the fireside. He left his heavy serge uniform jacket unfastened.

‘Joe! Where did I put that list of missing persons? The one they sent down from Maldon? This Scotland Yarder might want to see it. This Inspector Box.’

A strong, stolid young man of twenty or so was half way up a ladder, busy whitewashing one of the walls of a kind of annexe, built on to the cottage at right angles. He paused in his work, and considered the question for a few moments.

‘I know! You put it under the blotter, Uncle Isaac. You said you’d know where to find it if you put it there.’

The sergeant stood for a while, watching his nephew Joe as he
painted with long, steady strokes. Joe was a good lad, and made a good constable. The Bickerstaffes had been constables at Danesford for generations, long before the Peelers came. Danesford was a good place. Not every village had its own church, and a decent alehouse. The church stood at one end of Field Lane, and the police station, which was housed in Isaac Bickerstaffe’s ancient weather-boarded cottage, at the other.

Behind the cottage stretched his smallholding, and beyond that, the countless flat acres of wheatfields and wide marshland that characterized his part of Essex. The winds always bore more than a hint of the sea, and an awareness in their salty tang of the countless creeks and inlets, islands and mudflats, in the estuaries of the Stour and the Blackwater, long miles away to the east.

Sergeant Bickerstaffe went back into the long, dim front parlour, and sat at his little cluttered desk in the window. Sure enough, the missing persons list was where he’d left it under the blotter, still in its buff envelope with the penny stamp and Maldon postmark. It would be as well to look at it again, before he and Joe set out in the trap for Bishop’s Longhurst, to meet this Inspector Box and his sergeant at the station. The Scotland Yarder would want to know about the missing persons.

Jane
Peplow,
spinster,
aged
thirty.
Well, she’d turned up alive and well. She’d had a difference of opinion with her father over a young man, and had been staying with another young lady near her home just outside Maldon. Bickerstaffe picked up a stub of pencil and crossed Jane Peplow off the list.

Laura
Beckford,
schoolteacher,
aged
twenty.
She was still missing, apparently. She lived with her mother and father at Chelmsford. They said that she’d left home properly dressed in coat and hat. So she couldn’t have been the lady in the canal. Anyway, she was too young. The dead lady had been older than that.

Amelia
Garbutt,
lady’s
maid,
age
not
established.
She’d gone missing from Mrs Courtney’s house, but there’d been no coat left behind in her room, according to Mrs Courtney, so presumably she’d been wearing it when she left the house. So she wasn’t the dead lady, either. In any case, this Amelia Garbutt was a lady’s maid, whereas the dead woman had been a lady of quality. It was a fine mess! They’d waited near on a fortnight, thinking that
someone would raise a hue and cry about their missing relative. But nobody had …

The sergeant rekindled his pipe, and leaned back into his chair at the little desk. He puffed away thoughtfully, from time to time glancing out of the window at his nephew, who was still
whitewashing
the wall. It had been a funny business altogether …

He recalled the twelve slow strokes that had sounded from the clock in Bardley Church tower as they’d arrived in the bright moonlight on the night of the sixth – himself, young Joe, and Dr Oake. The witching hour of midnight, some called it, and there had certainly been a ghostly feeling in the air that night. Bardley was little more than a tiny huddle of cottages, each in its own neat moonlit garden, near the old Roman road.

They had scrambled up the steep bank of the aqueduct to the west of Bardley village, where Roman’s Way, as the ancient road was called, ran dark and straight between banks of fern, then dipped below the twenty-foot high bridge of rustic brick that carried the canal over the road. Poor, daft John Doake had been waiting for them, standing guard over what he had found on his nightly wandering. The four of them had waded into the water and with great difficulty had freed the body of a woman from the reeds and debris clogging the disused waterway. Poor soul! She had been in her early forties, from the look of her. They had laid her down on the narrow footpath at the side of the water channel, and Dr Oake had stooped down to examine her in the bright moonlight.

At first, Bickerstaffe had assumed that she’d been strangled. Her contorted features and bulging eyes certainly suggested that. But Dr Oake had soon found out otherwise. He had straightened up at last, his face grim and forbidding. For a few moments the four men had stood motionless, outlined against the full moon, as though in tribute to the dead woman. They had bowed their heads, and the sergeant had fancied for a moment that they must have looked like the mourning figures of soldiers, arms reversed, that you found sculpted upon a cenotaph. Then Dr Oake had broken the silence.

‘Garrotted, Sergeant. Probably with a scarf. Not strangled, as you might have thought. Anyway, it’s murder, as I don’t need to
tell you. But you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for me to give you a full report. I can’t see much up here, and I certainly can’t do anything.’

The sergeant had turned then to the giggling man standing beside him, and had put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

‘Go home, now, John Doake. You did well. Go home, now.’

‘I did well, didn’t I, master?’

‘You did. Go home now, John Doake.’

The simpleton had slithered down the bank to the road, and run off. Then Dr Oake had manoeuvred his considerable bulk gingerly down through the grass and nettles to the road, where his carriage was waiting. Sergeant Bickerstaffe had watched him, noting his aquiline profile, etched against the bank by the bright moonlight. Oake had retrieved a wide-brimmed slouch hat from the seat, and had waved it in a kind of comradely farewell before cramming it firmly over his shock of white hair. The carriage had moved off along the Danesford road. A nice man, was Dr Oake, and a shrewd one, too …

He had looked across the landscape, where the curving track of the old Essex Union Canal formed a ribbon of silver before being lost to view behind some distant woods. Then his
attention
had returned to his nephew.

‘Well, Joe,’ he had said, ‘this is a bad business. I don’t fancy the look of this at all. She was a lady, to judge from that expensive dress. Garrotted – strangled from behind with a scarf … I wonder who she is? Have you ever noticed her?’

‘No, Uncle Isaac. But I agree she must have been a lady. I’m no great judge of such things, but I’d say that’s a very expensive dress that she’s wearing. Green, it looks like, though it’s hard to tell properly in this light.’

Joe had stooped down, and gently touched the dead woman’s neck. He was a good lad, not easily frightened. His sharp eye had caught something brilliant flashing for a moment in the moonlight.

‘She’s wearing a necklace, Uncle. See, how it sparkles! Very valuable, by the look of it. Dr Oake didn’t notice it, because it was caught up in a fold of the dress. Diamonds, I’d say.’

And that had been that. A lady in a costly green silk dress, but
with no outer coat or cloak. She was still adorned with her diamond necklace, so robbery had not been the motive. Garrotted … They’d dragged the canal later that week, but had found nothing of significance. No coat, no hat, no handbag or reticule. Poor soul …

 

Sergeant Bickerstaffe recalled again the quiet, moonlit
countryside
, and the shining water of the canal snaking away into the distance. She couldn’t have floated far. There was the lock barring the water-course five miles on at High Barrow, so she’d have been put into the water at Sleadon, perhaps, or on the other side at Bishop’s Longhurst. They’d made their enquiries, and scouted around, but nothing had come of it. After a week and a half had elapsed, Mr Parker at Maldon had decided to call in Scotland Yard.

Sergeant Bickerstaffe watched the smoky train as it rumbled to a halt further along the single platform of Bishop’s Longhurst station. Several people alighted. It was obvious which ones were locals. You could tell from their working clothes, and from the certainty with which they hurried towards the ticket barrier. These two, coming along now – the dapper man in the fawn overcoat and curly-brimmed bowler, and the hulking great young fellow with the scar – these would be their visitors from Scotland Yard.

‘What do you think, Joe?’ he asked, as Box and Knollys approached them.

‘I don’t know, Uncle. The little cocky one’s the inspector, I suppose. Very alert, he looks. Very pleased with himself! I don’t know what to make of the other one – the sergeant, he’ll be. I wouldn’t like to fall foul of him, though! A couple of know-alls, I expect. They’ll just have a look round, and then we’ll be shut of them.’

 

Isaac Bickerstaffe conducted his visitors to the cab-yard, where they all clambered up into a pony and trap. The young constable, Joe Bickerstaffe, took the reins. They travelled at a fair pace along stone roads crossing the flat, marshy countryside. It was a damp sort of place, thought Box, and more than that. It
had its own quality of remoteness, a feeling of detachment from the greater world beyond its boundaries.

After twenty minutes or so, they came in sight of an
embankment
towering above them to the left of the road. It curved sharply away towards a clump of trees. At a word from the sergeant, Joe brought the trap to a halt.

‘That’s part of the old canal, Mr Box,’ said Bickerstaffe, ‘the canal where the poor lady was found. We’re just passing near Bardley village now, though you can’t see it from this side. This road is called Roman’s Way. That’s the old lime works on the right.’

‘Very interesting, Sergeant. Maybe we can come out here later today. This deceased lady – the lady in the green silk dress – I believe some photographs were taken of her?’

‘They were, Inspector. I’ve got them ready for you to see. Terrible, those photographs! Garrotted, she’d been, that lady, so that her face was unfit for normal view. Not suitable, I mean, for showing around to members of the public!’

At a nod from the sergeant, Joe urged the pony on, and they continued their journey.

‘What about your missing persons, Sergeant Bickerstaffe? Superintendent Parker at Maldon telegraphed a short list for this area. Have any of them turned up?’

Sergeant Bickerstaffe looked pleased. He knew all about the missing persons.

‘Well, sir, there were only three folk missing in all. Jane Peplow, spinster, aged thirty – she’s turned up. Laura Beckford, schoolteacher, aged twenty, is still missing, but she’s too young to be the dead lady. Amelia Garbutt, lady’s maid, age not
established
… I’ll tell you a bit about her, sir, if I may— Joe, mind how you go round this corner!

‘Amelia Garbutt was a lady’s maid, sir, employed by Mrs Courtney of Bardley Lodge, which is a house standing in its own garden, very near to the aqueduct. When Mrs Courtney reported her missing, we wondered whether she could have been the murdered lady.’

‘Why was that?’

‘Well, sir, she was not a local woman, and we’d not even heard
her name before. She’d not been at Bardley Lodge for long. She went missing on the evening of the sixth – slipped out of the house for some reason of her own, and just disappeared. It’s an odd business altogether, sir. She’d settled in well at Bardley Lodge.’

‘Just disappeared, did she?’

‘Yes, sir. Stepped out into the garden, and was gone. But the details were wrong. The dead lady was a lady of quality, not a maid. The expensive dress and the necklace showed that. And for another thing, Mrs Courtney was quite certain that the maid had no green silk dress, and that she certainly didn’t possess a diamond necklace! Quite firm and positive, she was. Worth hundreds of pounds, that necklace. But here we are, sir, at Danesford now.’

Before making their way to the police station, the party paid a brief visit to the village churchyard, a walled enclosure across a narrow road from the parish church. The four men stood bareheaded for a moment, looking down at a fresh grave, with its mournful wooden cross, and its laconic inscription:

Drowned Woman. Known to God. 8.9.92.

‘Drowned?’

‘Yes, Mr Box,’ said Bickerstaffe. ‘It’s the usual form employed in these parts for folk who’ve been fished out of the river, or washed up in the estuary. In this case, we thought it the
decorous
thing to write on the cross. “Garrotted” isn’t – well, it wouldn’t be right. Not on a cross.’

 

‘Come in, sir,’ said Bickerstaffe, ‘and you, Sergeant. It’s a bit untidy, but I know where everything is! That’s my business desk in the window, Mr Box. That swivel chair’s very comfortable, so perhaps you’d like to sit there.’

Arnold Box removed his hat, folded his gloves into it, and sat down in the swivel chair. The cheerful muddle of the cottage living-room struck an instant and familiar chord. This was the home of a man who had been a bachelor all his life. Its owner had left a veneer of untidiness and incipient dustiness, evidently
waiting for someone to deal with it. The untidiness had not descended into domestic chaos. ‘It’s a bit untidy at the moment, sir,’ observed Sergeant Bickerstaffe, evidently reading Box’s mind. ‘The lady who tidies up for me won’t be along until this afternoon.’

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