Authors: Harriet Smart
The Dead Songbird
Published by Anthemion
Copyright © 2013 by Harriet Smart
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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Table of Contents
Northminster, March 1840
Felix Carswell sat in his consulting room, scowling over the latest edition of the Lancet. He had skimmed through two papers written by contemporaries of his at Edinburgh. They were excellent papers, and their authors were men whom he had not thought capable of anything much. It was galling, for he, the winner of several university prizes, had published nothing. He had not even submitted anything. It was true that he had a couple of half-worked-up ideas but they were languishing in a drawer and, in the light of what he had just read, he was tempted to throw them into the fire.
He lit another cheroot, despite all his resolutions to quit. Major Vernon, the Chief Constable, had told him that the Duke of Wellington abominated smoking in a gentleman. This meant that the Major himself disliked it and Felix did not wish to displease him unnecessarily. But it was a struggle to forgo the pleasure of it, and having enjoyed a long, sweet breath of smoke, he hooked his arm over the back of his chair and turned to watch the woman who was sweeping the floor of the adjoining room.
Usually this was not a matter to excite his attention, but Mrs Craven, the usual charwoman, had sent her widowed daughter Mrs Parkes to clean his rooms in her stead.
Mrs Parkes was tall and clearly accustomed to hard labour, but she was graceful in her movements, and Felix found her well worth looking at. She had handsome, determined features, which put him mind of antique statuary. He found there was much to admire in her profile, and he liked the way a few dark curls were escaping from the restraint of the plain but fetching linen cap she wore. Her cheeks were reddened as were her lips, and as she swept, she hummed an old and wistful tune.
She made him think of the maids in his parents’ house: those bare-armed Highland girls, who had first awakened his senses to the bewitching possibilities of the other sex. He had spent hours in his boyhood idly dreaming of those girls, and how he might possess one for himself. Now he wondered how it would be to possess Mrs Parkes, with her long neck and her rounded hips. He mentally removed her calico print dress and gingham apron, and laid her on a freshly made bed, with her knees raised and an expectant smile on her face...
Just then her baby, lying in a basket that was set down on the threshold between the two rooms, stirred from sleep and began to scream. Mrs Parkes rested her broom against the wall and loosened the front of her bodice, apparently unaware that he was looking at her. She scooped up the child and put it to her breast, without much modesty. He knew he ought not to be remotely stirred by the sight of a woman feeding a child but he could not help himself. The tantalising curve of the milk-swollen breast entirely caught his attention.
She at last realised he was looking at her. Their eyes met, and from her level gaze, he could have sworn she was daring him to look directly at her, to discover if he would be so insolent as to continue to look back.
He did continue, and then, feeling himself flush with shame, forced himself to look away and back at the irritating words of the periodical in front of him.
He wondered if she was available, if she was perhaps that sort of woman. He knew she was a widow of a year, with a posthumous child, and several others to feed. Would she be amenable to such a proposition and how much did it cost to make such an arrangement? Was there a going rate? How did one even go about making such arrangements? How did one broach the subject? Other men seemed to manage these things, with ease.
At that moment he could only think about the monumental beauty of her swollen breast, which he longed not only to touch, but which, just like that greedy bairn, he wished to thrust into his mouth. He stared down fixedly at his desk, wretched with shame and desire.
“I’ll be done in a minute, sir,” she said.
“You should sit down,” he managed to say.
“If I sit down I’ll never get up again,” she said. “And I’ll never get through the half of it. Now, sir, about your laundry – my mother told me to tell you that if you want things mending, she will have to charge you extra.”
“Of course,” he said.
“Just to make it clear,” she said.
“Is money tight?” he said.
“We manage, sir,” she said.
“If you find yourself in any difficulty, you know you must only ask,” he said. He stubbed out his cheroot, and got up, but was careful to avoid looking at her, but instead at the bookcase on the far side of the room. “There are perhaps other things you can do for me. We might come to some arrangement.”
Even as the words fell from his lips he was appalled at himself. It was at once too vague and at the same time outrageously graphic. He might as well have specified some indecent act.
There was a long silence and then she said, “I know what you are trying to say, and the answer is no.”
Her tone was so sharp he could not help but look at her again. To his regret he saw she had covered herself with a shawl.
“What did you think I was trying to say?” he said, flushing in spite of himself.
“I’ve seen the way you’ve been looking me over, and it isn’t decent. I think you should spend more time reading your Bible and thinking about your immortal soul, sir, that’s what I think.”
“That is not what I meant,” he said.
“Whatever you say, sir,” she said, reaching down and picking up the baby’s basket. “My mother will come and clean in here tomorrow, as usual.”
As she pulled open the door, she was met by the sight of Major Vernon. She dropped a brief curtsey.
“I hope you mother improves,” Major Vernon said.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, “I hope so too,” and gave a fierce glance back at Felix, before she deftly slipped past Major Vernon into the corridor, her child still at her breast.
“May I come in?” Vernon asked. “No patients this morning, Mr Carswell?”
“All dealt with,” said Felix.
“And no calls to make?”
“Your practice will pick up in time,” said Major Vernon, his glance taking in the dish of cheroot stubs on Felix’s desk. “I am sure of it. In the mean time I have a diversion for you. What do you make of this?” he said, holding out a small, pale grey envelope made of good quality paper. The hand on it was feminine, elegant and pleasantly legible. Felix turned it and saw it was sealed with dark blue wax, with the pattern of a lyre pressed into it which made a rather charming effect. “Hardly typical of my usual correspondence. Delivered by hand.”
The seal had been broken so Felix drew out the letter and glanced over it.
“Mrs Morgan presents her compliments to the Chief Constable and begs the favour of an interview with him. Mrs Morgan understands that the Chief Constable must have great demands upon his time, but the circumstances in which she finds herself are such that she can only think to put the matter in the hands of the appropriate authorities. She hopes therefore he will not consider it a great imposition to wait upon her at the above address as soon as is practical.”
“What do you think of that?” said Major Vernon.
“Mrs Morgan?” said Felix, handing the letter back to Major Vernon. “Am I supposed to know her?”
“You haven’t heard of Mrs Morgan?” said Major Vernon. “Haven’t you noticed the bills all about town for the Handel Festival, announcing ‘Mrs Morgan, the famous soprano’? I wonder what that all means.”
“Probably some hysterical triviality,” said Carswell. “These prima donnas are well known for that.”
“You had better come with me and see for yourself, then,” said Major Vernon. “I am going to wait on her.”
“I take it you do not have a great deal to do this morning either, sir,” said Felix.
“I cannot overlook it.”
“You could send a constable.”
“I could. But I admit I am interested to see her for myself. And she may be in some real difficulty. My brother-in-law thinks she has a remarkable voice – and it is, he tells me, a considerable coup for the Handel Festival to get Mrs Morgan to come all this way. So, Mr Carswell, get your hat, we have a call to pay.”
“With all due respect to Canon Fforde,” Felix said, as they went downstairs, “I do not know how anyone can get so excited about a soprano. Have you ever heard her sing?”
“No, but I should like to.”
“I do not like over-trained voices,” said Felix. “They sound artificial to me. I hate all that trilling around and warbling on the high notes.”
“Mrs Morgan is supposed to have the voice of an angel.”
“Whatever an angel might sound like,” said Felix. “How can one know?”
If he had time at his disposal, Giles Vernon never liked to walk straight to an appointment, but to use the walk as an opportunity to see that all was well in Northminster. That morning, although they were headed for the Minster Precincts, he chose to take a detour through All Souls, an area which had once been one of the most respectable parishes in the city, with its own ancient and vast church, topped with a gilded cockerel. But now it had lost its foothold on the ladder of prosperity. The merchants who had built the large houses and paid pew rent to sit in All Souls Church had long since moved away, and the lesser, middling sort had come to occupy it. It was the sort of place you would go to get a fiddle mended or have a dress made over. But it was obvious that this was changing too. All the houses had now been subdivided and the shops looked shabby and uncared for. The stench of the river was noticeable, and the smoke from the factories added to the unpleasant note of sulphur.
As they turned into All Souls Green, he saw that the churchyard railings had become the gathering place for a rag-bag assembly of hawkers and handcart men of the sort who usually kept their trade to the most distressed parts of the city. There, their cheap but dubious goods found a ready market. Yet they seemed to be doing good business in All Souls.
One, a print and ballad seller, had set up a veritable exhibition along the railings. He was announcing his presence with a handbell and a lively line of patter.