The Ledbury Lamplighters

BOOK: The Ledbury Lamplighters


A Victorian Crime Story

Kerry Tombs

For Samuel and Joan
Fond memories of Ledbury

He had always known – of course – that eventually he would have to kill her.

That much was certain.

The outcome of their liaison had never been in dispute. The only question that now remained was when, and how, the deed would be performed.

Four weeks previously he had sought her out in the drinking taverns of Whitechapel. There he had watched her, as she had flaunted her crude charms in front of her prospective customers. Later he had followed her down the dark alleyways of the neighbourhood, where he had observed with almost clinical aloofness the coarse nature of her trade, while he had waited for his opportunity to speak with her alone. Finally one night, he had felt sure of himself and had confronted her in the alleyway near her lodgings. At first she had laughed at the elderly shambling man with his grey hair, flowing beard and polite speech, but as he had shown her the gold coins in his gloved hands, he had witnessed the look of greed flutter across her eyes, and knew that she would eventually undertake all that would be demanded of her. After that initial conversation, he had always been careful that they had only met in places where they could remain unobserved. Slowly, as he had gained her confidence, he had discovered her fancies and desires, and it had been easy to make her believe that if she went with him, and him alone, then he would grant her everything that she wished for. At the same time he had been sure to swear her to
secrecy, declaring that their association would end if she told anyone of his existence.

When he had informed her of his impending visit to France, he had known that she would be only too anxious to accompany him, and it had been easy for him to send her on ahead to Portsmouth, while he had used her room to complete the work he had begun so earnestly earlier that autumn. Before the body had been discovered, he had left the capital well behind him, and by the time the news of his latest atrocity had been printed in the newspapers, they had arrived safely in Brittany.

At first she had wanted to travel on to Paris, but he had insisted that they remain in Saint-Malo for a few days, and when he had taken her to the costumiers to purchase some new clothes for her, she had been more than pleased to comply with his request.

As they had made their way down the narrow winding streets of the historic town, or sat in pavement cafes, he had become used to people turning their heads to observe the unusual couple – the old man with his walking stick and large hat, progressing slowly on his way, and the young, laughing woman full of charm and good looks, her arm looped through his, seemingly dependent on her new benefactor for everything.

Then he had deemed it prudent to move on – that had always been his way – and they had travelled the few miles along the coast until they had arrived at Dinard and the Hotel Gandolphi. As they had alighted from their carriage, however, he had been momentarily taken aback when he had seen that nuisance Ravenscroft and his new wife departing from the hotel. For a brief moment he had been afraid that the interfering policeman had recognized him, but as he had shuffled his way up the steps of the front entrance and the other carriage had driven away, he had recovered his confidence, knowing that his disguise had served him well.

For several days after their arrival, they had enjoyed the late autumn sunshine, sitting out on the balcony of the Gandolphi overlooking the sand and the sea, visiting the town of Dinan to admire its steep cobbled streets and gentle river, stopping off for refreshment at cafes in small Breton villages. And all the time he had been careful that they had kept to themselves, shunning the polite after-dinner conversations of their fellow guests, always travelling alone and above all making sure that she had no
opportunity to read the London papers, where she might have learnt of the outrage that had taken place at her former lodgings.

Now, however, he had become restless and unsettled. The quiet, unhurried pattern of their existence, which had at first been so welcoming and enlightening, had begun to bore him. Worse still, he had grown tired and embarrassed by the attentions of his young companion, whose pretentious French mannerisms and silly conversation had started to irritate him. And when she had cast glances at one or two of the more eligible male single diners in the hotel dining-room, he had known that it would be only a matter of time before she abandoned him for another perhaps more appealing prospect – or worse still, would reveal her true identity to some passing stranger.

When he had announced that they were about to return to London, she had become annoyed, still believing that he had intended taking her on to Paris, but he had bought off her displeasure with the promise that once they returned to England he would visit his lawyer to instruct him to draw up his will, leaving his entire estate to her and her alone.

‘We are sorry to see you leaving us, Monsieur Cranston, Mademoiselle Kelly, and trust that you have enjoyed your stay at the Gandolphi,’ said the manager of the hotel on the morning of their departure.

‘Yes, thank you,’ he had replied, and she had laughed and squeezed his arm.

‘We wish you a safe journey, and hope to see you both again some day.’

‘Thank you, I’m sure that we will.’

They had made their way out the hotel and down the steps to their waiting carriage.

Later that afternoon, as they had boarded the ferry, the sun had already begun setting over the fortress walls of Saint-Malo, bathing the town in a gentle autumnal glow. He had been sure to book a cabin in a quiet part of the boat, and once there he had complained that he was unwell, lying on the bed and requesting that his companion read to him so that they would not have recourse to mix with the other passengers.

Presently, they had dressed for dinner and had begun to make their slow way towards the dining-room.

Suddenly he paused as they were about to climb the steps on to the deck.

‘What is the matter?’ she asked anxiously, looking into his face.

‘I am still feeling unwell, my dear.’

‘Shall we return to the cabin?’

‘No. I shall be well in a moment. I think if we could go up above for a brief moment or two, I would be much better after some air. I find the close confines of the boat somewhat oppressive, my dear.’

Taking his arm, they made their way up the steps and out through the door that brought them up on to one of the promenade decks.

‘It is far too windy!’ she recoiled, drawing her shawl close around her, and wishing to return indoors.

‘I am sorry, my dear, to bring you up here. I promise we will not be very long. I feel a little better already. Perhaps we could walk for just a minute or two, before we go into dinner,’ he suggested.

She gave him a look of momentary displeasure, then remembering the reason for their journey, smiled and complied with his request.

The couple made their way along the empty, dimly lit deck. He looked out across the wide expanse of sea, to where a solitary lamp somewhere in the far distance broke the intense darkness of the night – and knew that the time had come.

‘Please can we go into dinner? It is so cold and dark out here!’ she pleaded, shouting above the noise of the crashing waves.

‘I think you are right, my dear. I am so sorry to have brought you up here,’ he replied.

Suddenly he let out a groan and staggered forward. She moved quickly and reached out to prevent his fall.

‘Shall I call someone?’ she said anxiously, holding his arm tightly.

‘Over there,’ he muttered, moving towards the rail.

‘Do let me call someone. You are not well.’

‘No. It will pass,’ he replied, reaching out for the rail. ‘Just hold on to me. All will be well in a moment.’

‘Of course, but—’

‘Just hold me tight.’

She complied with his instructions. ‘Let me fetch someone.’

‘I am so sorry it has come to this, but believe me, there is no
other way.’

She said nothing, but as she looked into his eyes she saw the sudden flash of hatred there, and as the hands closed quickly around her neck she knew that she was powerless to prevent the draining away of her short life. A few seconds later her head fell silently on to his shoulder. He held her close, feeling the fragile, limp body against his own.

‘Madame is not well?’

The unexpected voice startled him. He had been so sure that they had been alone.

‘Madame does not like the sea air?’ enquired the new arrival.

‘Madame will be well in a moment. It is just the motion of the vessel. Thank you.’

‘I understand, Monsieur,’ replied the fellow passenger, smiling and taking his leave.

He watched as the stranger made his way back along the deck, continuing to support his victim as he waited for the sound of the door opening and then closing.

He waited for a few seconds, his face close to hers, listening and looking for anything or anyone that could possibly disturb his next action. Then, sure that he was alone and unobserved once more, he quickly thrust her forwards over the rail, and stepped backwards into the darkness as the body fell into the water.

He stood silently on the deck for a few moments, hoping that no one would have heard the sound, before quickly retracing his steps through the door and down the steps to his cabin.

Locking the door behind him, he stared into the mirror without emotion and began to slowly remove his beard and grey hair. Opening his case he took out another set of clothes, which he placed neatly upon the bed.

The Old Man had served him well but it was now time to move on and leave Cranston as nothing more than a brief passing memory.

He would again become Monk, the man of the shadows. He had covered his tracks with his usual expertise. There had been nothing to suggest that it had been anyone other than Marie Jeanette who had perished in that room that night, and now that he had ended her short life as well, there would be nothing to link him with the crimes of the previous few months. The police would continue to
make enquiries, but he would never be found.

His secret would continue down through the generations.

Now he could begin again – a new life!

Tomorrow he would assume his new identity, slip away unnoticed from the boat and return to the capital, where he would again seek out others who would have need of his services.

‘A very Happy Christmas to you sir!’

Anthony Midwinter looked across at the old lamplighter in Church Lane. ‘Yes, thank you, Mr Sanderson, and to you,’ he replied quickly, anxious to continue his journey.

‘Looks to be a cold one. Snow falling already, sir,’ continued the other, reluctant to let his new listener depart, and attempting to rectify the spluttering flame.

‘Yes, I think you are correct,’ said Anthony, turning up his collar against the cold air and the falling flakes as he made his way across the cobbles.

‘My best wishes to your good lady, sir,’ called out the lamplighter.

The old church clock of Ledbury struck four. Another hour and Anthony knew that he would be free to attend to his own celebrations, not that they would amount to a great deal. There would be no excited children to open presents before an open fire, no unexpected guests to disturb their Christmas dinner, no long-lost relative returning to arouse their curiosity. He would merely exchange gifts with his wife later that evening. They would attend church on the morrow, where they would pass a few words of greeting with their fellow townsfolk, many of whom he had served in a professional capacity for the past forty years. On the day following they would make the tiresome journey across to the nearby village of Eastnor, where they would be welcomed by his wife’s irritating brother and his dull wife. No, he was long past the
time of life when Christmas had come to hold any appeal to him. But then he remembered that there would at least be the hunt to watch, where he would again pay his respects to the local gentry, and an opportunity perhaps to read one or two books in the evenings, seated before a roaring fire. In fact, the more he considered the prospect of Christmas, the more he found himself growing to like the idea.

Suddenly he felt himself sliding as his foot slipped on the wet surface of the cobbles, and he flung out one of his hands in a vain attempt to soften his fall.

‘My dear sir, let me be of assistance,’ said a concerned voice somewhere above him.

Anthony accepted the outstretched hand and regained his footing. ‘Thank you, sir, you are most kind.’

‘A treacherous afternoon. Are you hurt in any way? I live in the cottage over there. You would be most welcome to enter and rest with my wife and myself until you feel reassured to continue with your journey,’ said the speaker, smiling.

‘No. I am quite well, sir. That will not be necessary, I thank you,’ he replied, brushing the wet flakes away from his coat.

‘If you are quite sure? My name is Samuel Ravenscroft,’ said his saviour, offering his hand.

‘Anthony Midwinter of Midwinter, Oliphant and Burrows, at your service, sir,’ replied the solicitor, shaking hands with the middle-aged man with thinning hair and pleasant manner.

‘I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr Midwinter.’

‘You are a new arrival in the town, sir?’ inquired Anthony, always anxious to acquire new prospective clients.

‘Yes, although my wife has lived here for over three years. You may have known her as Miss Armitage?’

‘I know of the name but cannot recollect having ever met the young lady in any professional capacity. If you will excuse me now.’

‘Yes, of course. It is a busy time and I must not detain you.’

‘I thank you once again for your kind assistance, Mr Ravenscroft. Should you ever feel in need of my legal services, you will find my offices across from the marketplace.’

‘I wish you the compliments of the season, sir,’ said Ravenscroft, giving a slight bow before walking across to his cottage.

Anthony continued on his way, down the narrow lane where the
old black and white buildings looked across at one another from opposite sides of the walkway. He exchanged greetings with one or two of his clients at the bottom of the lane. The flakes of snow began to increase as he entered the busy marketplace. He drew his coat closer to him as he paused to listen to a group of carol singers.

‘A penny for the poor of Ledbury,’ said one of their number, shaking a box in his direction. Anthony dug deep into his inner pocket and produced a coin, which he placed in the slot. He doubted whether the poor of Ledbury would ever have need of his services, but he knew the gesture would be expected of him as one of the prominent businessmen resident in the town.

‘God bless you, Mr Midwinter – and a Happy Christmas to you!’

Anthony nodded and quickly made his way through the crowd towards one of the open shops.

‘Good day to you, Mr Midwinter. Can we interest you in one of our lovely birds?’ said the cheery, red-faced shopkeeper, raising his arm and sweeping it majestically across his display.

‘I’ll take that goose, if you please,’ replied Anthony, pointing to the bird at the end of the open table that had first presented itself to his casual gaze.

‘A good choice, sir, if I might say so; a very good choice. This bird would do justice to the finest table in Ledbury. I’ll have my boy deliver it to your house within the hour.’

‘Thank you.’

‘The compliments of the season, sir, to you and your good wife,’ shouted out the butcher, as his latest customer hurried away.

‘And to you and your family.’

Anthony turned away from the marketplace, crossed over the road, and walked a few yards before entering an old building which bore a brass plaque with the words ‘Midwinter, Oliphant and Burrows. Solicitors’. Seeing the highly polished plate with its neat lettering never ceased to remind him of the day when he had first joined the practice as an articled pupil some forty years before. Then the business had been merely Burrows and Son. When old Burrows’ son had died unexpectedly, however, Anthony had used his meagre inheritance to buy his way into the partnership, and when Burrows himself had passed away some fifteen years previous, he had assumed the sole ownership of the firm. That was when he added the Oliphant. There had never been any Oliphant,
of course, but Anthony had added it nevertheless, believing that it created the impression that the firm was larger than it first appeared.

‘Any news, Perkins?’ he enquired of the young clerk who rose from his desk as he entered.

‘No, Mr Midwinter. I think everyone is far too busy at the moment preparing for Christmas to require our services, sir.’

‘No matter, Perkins. At least we are here should anyone have urgent need of our services. The pen and our expertise are always available. Have you completed the copying yet?’

‘Another page to go, sir,’ replied the young man smiling.

‘Good. Let me know when you have finished,’ said Anthony, opening the door of the inner office as the clerk resumed his labours.

After hanging his coat on the single peg, he warmed his hands in front of the dying embers in the grate before seating himself behind his large desk. Opening a folder before him, he read intently for some minutes before uttering a deep sigh and leaning back in his chair. As he gazed up at the stained ceiling, thoughts of expansion again crept into his mind, as they had done from time to time during many an idle moment in the past five years. He really could do with taking on a new partner, someone younger, who would attend to the more mundane work of the practice and to whom he could eventually sell his share when he needed to seek retirement – but then there was the continual worry that such a move might not support two partners. Since that new practice had opened up further along the Homend six years ago, with its two young partners, he had seen a steady decline in the fortunes of his own business as his clients had slowly drifted away.

His thoughts were disturbed by a knocking at his door.

‘Begging your pardon, sir, but there is a gentleman who would like a word with you. He is most insistent, sir,’ said his clerk, entering the room.

‘Is this gentleman known to us, Perkins?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Did he give a name?’

‘No, sir. I’ve never seen him before. He says his business is most important and that he must see you before Christmas.’

‘Then you had best show him in.’

His clerk closed the door, only to reopen it a few seconds later.

A tall, thin gentleman, wearing a long overcoat with a turned-up collar, grey hat, and sporting a turned-down carroty-type moustache, entered the room.

‘Good day to you, sir. Good of you to see me at such a late hour. Mr Oliphant, I presume?’ said the stranger, extending an arm.

‘Midwinter,’ corrected Anthony, rising from his seat and shaking the new arrival’s hand as his clerk left the room. ‘Mr Oliphant is away on business at present.’

‘My apologies, sir. Mr Midwinter.’

‘Would you care to take a seat, sir. And whom do I have the honour of addressing?’ he enquired.

‘My name is of little consequence,’ said the other.

‘And how can I be of assistance to you, sir?’

‘My business is of a highly serious and delicate nature, Mr Midwinter,’ said the stranger, accepting the seat and removing his hat.

‘Most of my clients would say the same,’ replied Anthony.

‘I would need to be assured, sir, that what I tell you in this room tonight would not go any further than these four walls.’

Anthony observed that the new arrival spoke in a London accent, and that his delivery was of a hurried, almost nervous, nature.

‘You would have my word on that, my dear sir,’ said Anthony, trying to sound reassuring.

‘I would also need to know that you would not seek to question me further about my affairs, or my motives in the matter that I intend placing before you. I can assure you that you would be paid well for undertaking a task that would require little effort on your part.’

‘I see. I cannot see a problem in that respect,’ replied Anthony, leaning back in his chair and becoming intrigued as to what was about to be revealed to him.

‘Good. I can see that I have made the correct choice,’ said the new arrival, unbuttoning the top two buttons of his coat, reaching into its inner pocket and producing a large brown package, which he placed on the table before the solicitor.

Anthony stared down at the package, not knowing whether he should leave it where it was or examine it.

‘This envelope, Mr Midwinter, contains papers of a delicate and sensitive nature. The package must never be opened, by anyone, least of all by yourself or anyone in your employ. There are others out there who would seek to do so. Should these documents ever find their way into the public arena, the very foundation and stability of our country would be put at risk,’ said the stranger, leaning forward and tapping the envelope with one of his fingers.

‘I see,’ said Anthony, somewhat taken aback by what was being imparted to him.

‘I have two requests of you, Mr Midwinter. One is that I leave the package with you, for safe custody. No doubt you have a secure safe?’

‘Over there.’ Anthony indicated to the corner of the room, where the tall metal device was located.

‘Excellent. And the keys?’

‘There is only one set of keys to the safe, and I have it upon my person at all times. Not even my clerk has access. Be assured sir, that your package will be safe with us.’

‘Good,’ said the stranger, again reaching into his coat pocket and taking out a wallet from which he extracted a five pound note. He placed it upon the desk in front of Anthony.

‘I will return on 1 May, when I may have further instructions for you, and when you will be paid a further five pounds for your services. I trust that will be satisfactory?’

‘Yes, that will be more than satisfactory. We are often asked to look after important papers for our clients. I will have my clerk issue you with a receipt.’

‘That will not be necessary, Mr Midwinter.’

‘As you wish. But you mentioned two requests?’

The stranger paused for a moment, shifted uneasily in his chair and frowned deeply before speaking. ‘My second request may not need to be carried out, Mr Midwinter. Should I not return to your offices on 1 May, however, you are to take the package and present it to the manager of the bank here in Ledbury.’

‘We have two banks here in Ledbury. There is Martins Bank and there is Cocks and Biddulph. To which bank am I to take the package?’ asked Anthony, looking puzzled.

‘Cocks and Biddulph. You must insist on seeing the senior partner, and him alone, and present him with the package. He will
see that it is returned to its rightful illustrious owner.’

‘Forgive me, sir, for enquiring, but why have you chosen me to look after your package? Would it not be more convenient for you to leave it with Cocks and Biddulph in the first place?’ asked Anthony, becoming somewhat perplexed by the whole matter that was unfolding in front of him.

‘Mr Midwinter, sir, I have requested that you do not enquire into my affairs. It is you whom I have chosen to look after the envelope. You are only to carry out my second instruction should I not return to your offices on the appointed date. I think I make myself clear on that point,’ said the stranger, hastily rising from his seat.

‘Of course, my dear sir. There is no address where I can contact you?’

‘None. I shall be leaving Ledbury on the evening train for London. You will not see me again until May. I wish you the compliments of the season, sir.’

‘And to you, my dear sir.’ Anthony rang the bell on his desk, rose to his feet and shook the other’s hand.

The door opened and his clerk entered.

‘Ah, Perkins, will you show this gentleman out?’

‘Of course, sir. If you would care to follow me, sir.’

The stranger hurried from the room, and Anthony listened to his clerk opening and closing the door of the outer office.

Anthony stared down at the package for some moments before picking it up. He estimated that it perhaps contained a dozen papers or so. Crossing over to the safe, he placed his key in the lock and opened the large, heavy door. Before depositing the package on the second shelf from the top, he observed that the envelope had two initials written in pencil in the top left-hand corner – ‘A.V.’ Anthony scratched his head. The initials obviously meant something to the man who had ensured the package to his safe custody, and had probably been written on the outside of the envelope so as to distinguish it from any others of a similar nature.

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