Authors: Norman Russell
‘It’s very nice, Sergeant,’ said Box. ‘Now, the first thing I want you to do, is to show me those photographs. Sergeant Knollys, come and sit down here, at the desk.’
Bickerstaffe produced a bunch of keys, and stooped down beside a green-painted iron safe near the fireplace. He returned in a moment with a large manilla envelope. Box slid out a number of photographic prints on to the desk.
‘Now! Let us see what these pictures show us!’
Sergeant Bickerstaffe had quietly settled himself on a bench in a dim corner. His nephew had removed his helmet, and stood stiffly and uneasily near the door.
It would be impossible to put a name to that contorted face, impossible to match it to anyone’s description of the living woman she had once been. True, it was not fit for public view. Box looked fixedly at each picture for what seemed like minutes. The others watched him, wondering what he was thinking.
Box was saying to the contorted face,
‘Excellent!’ he said aloud. ‘These are excellent mortuary images. I know quite a lot about photography. It’s by way of being a hobby of mine.’
The words rang oddly in the quiet room. Knollys looked at him with a sudden understanding. The inspector was hiding some strong emotion behind a jaunty boast. Evidently the guvnor was one of those men who hid his feelings under a veneer of humour.
Box took a small brass instrument from his pocket, placed it flat on one of the more gruesome of the photographs, and applied his eye to a small optical viewer. He turned a knurled screw, and a silver arc of bright metal presented itself to his eye. To the left, he could see a smaller arc, which he recognized as one of the claws holding a diamond in place. Behind the silver arc of metal he could see a dark shadow. He turned the knurled screw
again, and discerned two or three thin filaments or fibres rising from the dark shadow. That shadow represented a space, or gap, between the necklace and the dead woman’s neck. The filaments were threads of silk, left behind when the garrotter had removed the silken handkerchief …
Box handed the magnifying instrument to Knollys, and pointed silently with his little finger to the tell-tale shadow.
‘Which of you first saw the necklace when the body was discovered?’ Box’s voice came so suddenly that everyone jumped in alarm.
‘I did, sir,’ said Joe Bickerstaffe. ‘I saw it shining in the
, and stooped down to look at it.’
‘And what did you think about it, Joe? When you saw it, I mean?’
As he spoke, Box gently drew the index finger of his right hand round the inside of his starched shirt collar.
‘Why, sir, that was it! The space! The necklace was quite loose on the neck, as a necklace should be. You’d have thought it’d have been crushed into the flesh…’
Box looked quietly pleased. There was no harm in showing off your skills. People like young Joe there could learn a lot from watching him. So could Knollys, for that matter.
‘May I see the necklace, Sergeant?’
Bickerstaffe went once more to the safe, and returned with a small parcel made up in tissue, which he unwrapped in front of Box on the desk.
‘We had it valued by a jeweller who came out from Chelmsford,’ said Bickerstaffe. ‘He told us that it’s worth at least two hundred pounds.’
‘At the very least, I should say. The hallmarks there show that the necklace was attested at Goldsmiths’ Hall this year. The maker’s mark is that of Asprey’s, the London jeweller. And now, Sergeant, I’d like to see the green silk dress.’
In a room at the rear of the cottage, Sergeant Bickerstaffe had arranged the unknown woman’s clothing on a table, ready for Box’s visit. The green silk dress had been folded neatly, and beside it stood a pair of white court shoes. Box lifted a table
napkin, and found that it had been used as a discreet cover for a pair of long cotton stockings, and some items of underwear.
Box gingerly lifted one corner of the green silk material. ‘Peking Tissue?’ he muttered. Sergeant Knollys suppressed a smile.
The dress, Box noticed, had not been cleaned, and there were traces of mud and grime, which a desultory brushing had failed to remove.
‘These stains, Sergeant – would you say they’d been picked up from the various sediments in the canal?’
Bickerstaffe peered over Box’s shoulder. He slowly shook his head
‘No, sir. They’re old stains, by the looks of them. They’re splashes from a road, I’d say. They’re not from the canal. It’s stagnant, you see. Disused. She just floated down, though I expect the wind up there helped a bit.’
They watched as Box picked up the court shoes, and examined them. He seemed for a while to lose contact with them, as though his mind was far away.
‘I don’t like the look of this at all, Sergeant Bickerstaffe,’ he said at last. ‘There’s something very wrong about all this. That necklace, for a start … And now, this dress. There are things there, Sergeant, that need an expert eye cast over them. So what I’d like to do is to take that necklace, and these clothes, back with me to London, and pursue the matter from there.’
‘Do you still want to go back to Bardley Aqueduct, sir? Joe there will get the trap ready, if so.’
‘Yes, Sergeant, I very much want to go out there. But just you and me. And I’d be obliged if you’d get hold of a pair of
. Sergeant Knollys and your Joe can stay here, and pack up these things in a decent parcel. No, Sergeant, I don’t like the look of this at all.’
High up on the aqueduct, Box listened to the soft humming and drumming of wind, a sound which served only to emphasize the stillness and quiet of the scene. It was bright and sunny, with a few clouds near the horizon. The canal unrolled its silver ribbon of water into the far distance.
They had climbed up to the spot where Bickerstaffe and the others had stood on the night of the sixth, with their backs to the hamlet of Bardley. The main road passed beneath them under the arch, and ran across country to Bishop’s Longhurst.
Inspector Box sat down on the low retaining wall of the channel, and produced a cigar case. He opened it, and offered it to Sergeant Bickerstaffe.
‘Well, thank you kindly, sir.’
The sergeant extracted one of Box’s slim cigars, and lit it with his own matches, sheltering his hands behind his turned-up collar. They were roughened hands, Box noted, with broken nails. This was a man who spent a good deal of his time toiling in the fields to supplement his police wages.
‘Is Joe a relative of yours?’ asked Box. ‘He seems a dependable young fellow.’
‘He is, sir. Joe’s my nephew. My brother Tom’s lad. He helps me with the potatoes and root vegetables I grow for the London markets. It’s what most of us do round here.’
‘What do you think of coincidence, Sergeant?’
‘What do you mean, sir?’
‘Well, a lady of quality turns up murdered in a canal, and at much the same time a lady’s maid steps out of a house and disappears. Connection? Or merely coincidence?’
Sergeant Bickerstaffe shook his head, and frowned.
‘Maybe one murdered the other, and then ran away, sir. Is that how your mind’s running?’
Box made no reply. He slowly scanned the scene. There lay Bishop’s Longhurst, the railway town, across a stretch of water, and away to the north-west, he could just make out the
of a canal lock.
‘What’s that lock over there, Sergeant Bickerstaffe?’ he asked.
‘That’s the lock at the village of High Barrow, sir. John Doake, the man who found the body, said that he’d seen it floating towards him from the north west; which makes me think that the deceased was placed in the water there. At High Barrow, I mean. If you’ll let your eye travel back a bit, you’ll see some
and a little church tower. That’s a place called Sleadon, which is another possibility, Mr Box. Or perhaps it was where
the canal starts its curve at Bishop’s Longhurst.’
Box listened again to the high drumming wind. He took up the pair of heavy binoculars that the sergeant had brought with him, and used them to look once again towards the north-west.
‘I can see High Barrow lock clearly now, Sergeant. There’s a large white mansion just near it, standing in a plantation. And then, a bit nearer, there’s a stretch of water – a lake, I suppose you’d call it.’
‘The house, Mr Box, is the home of Lady Hardington. Heath House, it’s called. She’s a widow, much liked in the district. Very well-to-do, she is. Does a lot of entertaining – foreigners, and such. That stretch of water is called Heath Mere, on account of it standing in the middle of heath-land.’
Inspector Box had trained the binoculars further down from Lady Hardington’s home. He kept the canal in sight, and noticed the railway line emerging from Bishop’s Longhurst and passing under the raised channel. Just at the junction there was another isolated house, with a steep, lichen-blotched roof, and
walls of dark brick. ‘There’s another house, Sergeant, standing in its own railed garden, just where the railway passes under the canal.’
‘That’s Bardley Lodge, sir, Mrs Courtney’s residence. I mentioned it to you earlier. That’s where Amelia Garbutt worked. The missing lady’s maid.’
Inspector Box perched himself on a tall stool, and watched Anton Berg as he spread the green silk dress carefully over a wide, shallow table standing before a tall, uncurtained window in one of the many rooms at Syria Wharf. Below them, the Thames was alive with river traffic, stately merchant ships, busy coasters, and officious tugs, but Mr Berg’s keen, dark eyes saw only the green silk dress. He had spent a few moments making crooning noises, indicating some kind of special pleasure. At last, he addressed his audience of one.
‘You see the neckline, Mr Box? Let us start our investigation there. A plain, square yoke effect, quite high, rising to the apexes of the shoulders, and joining the sleeves there. This dress was cut to take a corsage, but in no sense would you call it
‘Would you say, sir, that it was a young woman’s dress?’
‘Young? There are degrees of youth, Mr Box. This dress would not look amiss on a lady in her late thirties. It would be frightful on a young person of twenty. On a lady of – shall we say,
, fifty? – it would be perfect.’
‘You’re a shining ornament, Mr Berg. You’re helping me to see this dress in its proper light. I knew you would! How much would a dress like that cost?’
‘This? You would pay thirty guineas for such a dress in Bond Street. I tell you, Mr Box, I think I know who made this dress. Do I know this business or do I not?’
Berg opened a small leather case, that seemed to be a
of sewing-kit and optician’s eye-testing equipment, and extracted a magnifying lens. He peered closely at the neckline of the dress, all the time muttering to himself. ‘The tiny stitches, three and three, and then the little knot, scooped under the selvedge with a bodkin, so nothing is seen, and nothing is felt … Ah, Sophie, this is one of your confections!’
Berg suddenly straightened up, and flung his black curls impatiently from his brow. He seemed impossibly foreign and exotic. He looked sternly at Box.
‘Do you know what material this is?’ he demanded.
‘Peking fiddlesticks, Inspector! This is French silk.
Rare enough, I grant you, but I know where this particular example of it came from. This dress was made by Madame Laplace, in Bond Street. Go to her in her salon there, and she will tell you about it. She will know, you see, the lady for whom it was made. This lady who, alas! has been found drowned in a muddy canal!’
‘Not drowned, Mr Berg. Garrotted! Strangled from behind with a scarf—’
‘Bah! Let us not talk of these things. Why should a client of Sophie Laplace commit such a solecism as that? It is not nice, not ladylike, to permit yourself to be assassinated in that manner!’
Box chose to ignore these peculiar sentiments. There were other things he wanted to know. Mr Berg was clearly enjoying himself. Well, it would be his turn soon!
‘Sir, a very costly necklace was found around the dead woman’s neck—’
‘Ah, no! We are now entering the world of the grotesque!
at it, Inspector! Look at the dress! That neckline … it was never meant to be worn with a necklace. It’s wrong, I tell you. So there’s a social conundrum for you to juggle with: would a lady wealthy enough and tasteful enough to buy one of Madame Laplace’s high-cut evening dresses be so vulgar as to wear a necklace with it? For a necklace, you need a low-cut neckline. This dress, costly as it is, belongs to the fashion of two years ago. At the moment, Inspector, leg-of-mutton sleeves are the
ah, my friend, do you not know these things, without my having to tell you?’
‘In these matters, Mr Berg,’ said Box, ‘I defer to your superior wisdom. After all, I asked you to look at this dress, and you’ve done so. Very soon, thanks to you, I’ll be able to talk to the modiste who made it. Created it, as you’d say. All that remains is for me to have a quick look at the dress. Purely a formality, as you’ll appreciate! May I borrow your little magnifying lens?’
For some minutes Box examined various areas of the dress. Mr Berg had taken his place on the high stool, and was watching him. There was the merest suspicion of a superior smile on his face. The inspector said nothing as he moved round the table, but as soon as he had finished his examination, he burst into speech.
‘Now, Mr Berg, you will have noticed that the dress has a train, with a fashionable cord loop to hold it up off the pavement when mounting steps or getting into a carriage?’
Berg smiled with amusement. ‘Well, of course, Inspector. That is the style!’
‘It is. I concur with that remark, Mr Berg. And now, a little piece of advice: with dresses and suchlike, first observe the hem. That was the only thing I did to this dress while I was down in Essex. The dress had been dragged through mud and grime a good deal, and rather carelessly brushed. There are traces of grime there, and signs of wear, that even the canal water couldn’t remove. And from those indications, sir, we may conclude that the owner of the dress – or perhaps I should say the wearer of the dress – had no lady’s maid. What do you think of that?’
‘She was, perhaps, a lady in reduced circumstances,’ ventured Mr Berg.
‘Well, it’s a possibility, Mr Berg, but if you look properly at that dress – properly in
sense, of course – you’ll notice that it’s been altered.’
Anton Berg seized the magnifying lens, and flung himself at the dress. When he came to the waist-line he froze, as though something appalling had assailed his sight. ‘You are right! It’s
been taken in at the waist. You can see the old stitch-line. An amateur has done this, Mr Box. Those are not Sophie Laplace’s stitches. Imbecile that I am! Dolt! Why did I not see this?’
‘Because you were not looking for it, sir. But I was! So, despite the richness of the material, this
, the wearer of the dress was not very affluent. But there’s more to it than the question of affluence. That dress was part of a woman’s
. I was shown her shoes, high quality white court shoes, they were. The police surgeon down there in Essex told me that they pinched, and suggested vanity. But I saw something rather different than that. They were shoes that almost fitted, but not quite. They had been given to her, you see, by someone else. The shoes, the dress, the physical state of the dress – all those things point to a particular kind of person. Come now, Mr Berg, you must have the honour of concluding this investigation. Could I ask you to venture a few ideas?’
Anton Berg stood by the table, joined his hands together as though about to say a prayer, and launched into speech.
‘Inspector, our investigation has brought us to the conclusion that the lady in question was of a humbler station than the silk dress would suggest. But the unfortunate lady was wearing a necklace, which you tell me was a valuable piece. So here we have a discrepancy, which is best solved by assuming for the moment that the lady, for some very good but obscure reason, had been given the necklace. And had been given the dress, too—’
‘Exactly, Mr Berg. She was a woman who was given things. She was a lady’s-maid, or lady companion. I believe her to be a woman called Amelia Garbutt, and thanks to you, sir, I know how to confirm that belief.’
‘Congratulations, Inspector! Together, we have solved a mystery!’
‘Well, that’s only partly true, Mr Berg. We’ve still got to find out who murdered the poor woman, and I think the answer to that question lies here in London. We’ve got the teeming millions here, people drowned, people strangled, people burnt … Garrotting, though … It’s a strange business, Mr Berg; There are fashions in atrocities, and garrotting’s hardly the
just now. It’s time I consulted my old pa.’
Inspector Box turned in to Oxford Street, hurried past Marshall and Snelgrove’s on the corner, its awnings stretched low over the pavement, and plunged into the unceasing stream of wheeled traffic going west and east across London.
Box was adept at dodging niftily among the clatter and clash of hooves and iron tyres, tall rumbling omnibuses, lorries and vans, and the ubiquitous hansom cabs. He reached the far side of the street, passed the Eagle public house, and entered a shop just a few doors before the entrance to New Bond Street.
The shop was tall and narrow, with a small-paned window through which could be glimpsed various cuts of tobacco in jars. Standing on the inner window sill was a fanciful carved figure of a Red Indian with staring blue eyes and a real clay pipe clutched in his wooden hand. Above the doorway a framework of huge gilt letters spelled out,
BOX’S CIGAR DIVAN AND
It was pleasantly shady inside, and perfumed with the many subtle aromas of exposed tobacco. There was a mahogany counter, racks of cigars and boxes of cigarettes.
At the back of the shop, a beaded curtain gave access to the hair-cutting rooms, and even from the tobacco emporium it was possible to hear the busy clashing of scissors. A narrow staircase bore a sign reading, ‘Upstairs to the Cigar Divan and
Inspector Box nodded to a middle-aged, stooping man who was standing behind the counter, and all but ran up the stairs. It was quiet in the long, light room overlooking the street. The windows were closed to the roar and ring of the traffic, and a number of men were sprawled on settees, nodding off over the newspapers. The atmosphere was heavy with cigar smoke and the aroma of Turkish coffee. For a moment it reminded Box of the silk-hung sitting-room in Mr Berg’s premises at Syria Wharf. Box walked through the coffee-room and opened a door into a cosy little den lit by a skylight. There was a tiny fireplace with a brass fender, and an old round armchair in which reposed a stout old man with a bald head fringed with scanty white hair.
He was dressed in knee-breeches and worsted stockings, a floppy white shirt and a velvet waistcoat. A stout walking-stick lay across his legs.
I wonder how he is? thought Box. I should have asked Sam downstairs. Maybe I don’t want to hear …
‘Why, Arnold, whatever are you doing down here at this time of day? Are you after someone? Sadie! Detective Inspector Box is here!’
Pa was proud of his son’s rank of inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department. He always referred to his son by his rank and name, even when talking to his own staff.
Only someone familiar with the premises would have seen the narrow door beside the fireplace which opened to admit a woman of thirty or so, wiping her hands on a long white apron.
‘Pleased to see you, Mr Box,’ she said, ‘I’ll bring you up some coffee.’ The narrow door closed and she was gone. Inspector Box pulled up a chair and sat down.
‘Well, Pa,’ he said, ‘in a way I am looking for a villain. So I thought I’d come and jog your memory a bit. Take you back to your days on the beat.’
Toby Box reached up for a clay pipe from the mantelpiece. He began to fill it with strong black tobacco from a jar. He looked at his son with immense pride. A detective inspector with a fine reputation, a Scotland Yard man! He himself had always been uniformed, a station man, but he had known all the great names of the early days of the Metropolitan Police, and had worked with some of them. He had joined the Police Force at the age of twenty-one in 1840.
‘Here’s Sadie up the back stair with the coffee,’ he said, as the narrow door flew open again. ‘What do you want to know, Arnold?’
Box poured himself a cup of strong coffee and sipped it
. His father continued to puff quietly at his clay pipe.
‘It’s a garrotting case, Pa, and it’s reminding me of something that you must have told me. I know all about the chokings in the sixties, and the collars people bought to put round their necks. It must be something to do with those times, something you must have told me when I was a boy.’
The old retired sergeant smiled and removed his pipe from his mouth.
‘All kinds of tales I told you, Arnold, all things that had happened to me, or to the famous men like Mr Aggs and Mr Thornton, them great detectives. Some of them had been in the Runners at Bow Street in the olden days. In old King George’s time. Garrotting. Well, now, let me see….
‘I think I know what you’re alluding to, Arnold. It was
I told you about just after it happened, because it made a good story. You were only a little lad of nine or ten, as I recall. It was in the November of 1867. One of our constables found him – this man I’m telling you about – as he was coming off the night beat. He had to go up Garlick Hill, and he found this young man lying dead on the flags, just by the railings of St James’s, Garlickhythe, in the shadow of the Caledonian Coffee House.’
Old Mr Box’s eyes narrowed, and he paused with his pipe half way to his mouth. Inspector Box gazed at the fire in the small grate and said nothing. He was content to wait for his father to summon up his memories. Old Mr Box sighed, and puffed thoughtfully at the long clay pipe.
‘St James’s, Garlickhythe, it was, where you see the clock with the little man on top, pushed out on a kind of bracket over the street. They’d stopped cutting throats by then, more or less, but this garrotting that you mention was very popular. The reason you remembered it was that I told it to you as a mystery tale, and to my way of thinking, a private murder. It was done to kill, not to rob, for all that some things were taken.’
Done to kill, not to rob … Box saw in his mind’s eye the figure of a woman in a green silk dress, garrotted, and yet still wearing a diamond necklace.
‘Anyway, Arnold, this young man – he was still in his
– had been garrotted. Strangled, like, from behind. I went out to see him straight away. The upshot of it all was that he’d been murdered, apparently for his watch and for the few
in his purse. The rifled purse was lying near him on the pavement. The coroner’s jury sat on him and brought it in as murder in the pursuit of theft. Well, that’s what you’d have expected, in the circumstances.’