Authors: Roberta Rogow
The Problem of the Missing Miss
A Charles Dodgson and Arthur Conan Doyle Mystery
To my grandfathers, Harry Heller and Irving Weinstein, who introduced me to Mr. Dodgson and Dr. Doyle.
No one expected to find murder in Brighton. London, that great metropolis, was well-known as a sinkhole of vice, where murder was part of the ambiance, as it were. The grim manufacturing towns like Manchester and Birmingham had their share of grim crimes committed by grim men (and a few women) and even the sanctified towers of York Cathedral looked over bloody deeds in a past that included Viking raids and the Wars of the Roses. But no one would have any reason to believe that a holiday in Brighton would lead to murder, abduction, and general skulduggery.
After all, Brighton was a holiday spot, a place dedicated to recreation and entertainment, although this had not always been so. For centuries, the village known as Brightelmstone had been a haven for fishermen and the occasional smuggler. Then it had been “discovered” by no less a person than His Royal Highness, George, the Prince of Wales, soon to be the Prince Regent. The town was now fashionable, and became more so as the eighteenth century eased into the nineteenth.
By the time the Prince of Wales had become the Prince Regent, Brighton was being rebuilt, from the sea inland. As the Prince's vast Pavilion took shape, rows of elegant houses were erected to accommodate the visitors that followed royalty. The seafront was enhanced by a Promenade, so that the bucks could ogle the charming ladies and the ladies could more modestly eye their prospective mates. Brighton was, indeed, the place to be in July and August, when London was no place for the fashionable.
When the Prince Regent finally assumed the throne as George IV, he retired to Brighton to finish his reign in his ornate palace, surrounded by memories of past frolics. His brother, the seagoing William, enjoyed Brighton's opulence, and brought his considerable (and illegitimate) offspring there to take the sea air.
Time passed, and so did “Sailor Billy,” to be succeeded by his prim niece, Victoria. Victoria shuddered at the thought of residing in the incredibly ornate and Oriental Pavilion, where she and her thoroughly legitimate offspring could be ogled by the mob. Her thrifty Prince Consort sold the structure to the borough of Brighton, and the town itself lost a good deal of its fashionable cachet as society followed the Crown to the Isle of Wight or to Scotland to escape the summer stink.
Though the fashionable left, the unfashionable continued to flock to Brighton, which was delighted to accommodate them. Regency town houses became lodgings. The Pavilion was refurbished and used for public events, concerts, and lectures. A grand pier was built, jutting into the English Channel, so that the visitor might have the experience of being on the sea without the discomfort of malde-mer.
With the railroads came an even greater influx of visitors. Brighton was now a resort for the many instead of the few. Anyone with the railway fare could come to Brighton for a day, to paddle in the sea, gawk at the street buskers, eat whelks and chips, and get as much of a sunburn as the English summer can give. In Brighton, a holidaymaker could have a decent meal, see a Punch and Judy show, or lose a few bob on a penny dip, and still be home in time for work on Monday morning.
On this particular August Friday, in the year of Her Majesty's reign 1885, the vast vault of Brighton Railway Station was overflowing with humanity. Everyone in England seemed to have but one goal: to get as far away from hot flats, cottages, houses in cities, towns, and villages as they possibly could. To this end, a vast multitude of men, women, and children descended upon Brighton, armed with valises and carpetbags filled with summer linens and cottons, determined to enjoy themselves or die trying.
Train after train, from as far away as darkest Yorkshire, bore visitors to the once-fashionable (now rather blowsy) summer terminus. Whistles echoed and re-echoed as each train announced its arrival. Porters scrambled to accost prospective patrons. Fathers in black alpaca coats and mothers in striped calico (with or without the requisite bustle) counted and re-counted their broods. Unattached young men in red and white-striped shirts and buff blazers ogled unattached young women in flowered chintz dresses, who giggled back. Sailors on leave from Portsmouth and soldiers from the Encampment beyond the town added touches of Navy blue and bright red to the shifting scene. The sounds of transportation and incipient revelry bounced off the glass and iron roof of the terminus, making normal conversation almost impossible.
In the middle of all this hullabaloo stood a stooping, middle-aged man with a curiously unlined face, surmounted by artistically long iron-gray hair topped by a slightly out-of-date tall black silk hat, his hands encased in gray cotton gloves, his black coat as conspicuous as a crow in a flowerbed among the dainty cotton prints and white linens of the holidaymakers on the platform. Oblivious to the throng, he fussed along the platform, peering into first one car and then another, growing more and more agitated with each compartment he searched. Over and over again he checked the paper in his hand, even going so far as to refer to the large overhead sign that announced each incoming train.
Finally, he sought help from the stationmaster, that august personage enthroned in the glass-enclosed booth at the furthest end of the station. The stationmaster, one McNaughton, a large and mustachioed functionary whose dark blue uniform fairly gleamed in the light that filtered through the station, ignored the frantic tapping on the walls of his
The elderly gentleman persisted. “Sir! Sir! I must inform you â¦” The rest of the message was lost in the noise of the crowd, the shriek of a whistle, and the sudden hubbub that indicated some disaster in the offing.
The stationmaster stared at the ostensible lunatic who was waving at him on the other side of the glass. What manner of man was it who interrupted a stationmaster on this, the busiest time of the day, in the middle of August, the sacred time of the holidays?
The intruder staggered suddenly and seemed to collapse. The stationmaster emerged from his glass coccoon to find a hearty-looking young man in tweeds, with neatly brushed reddish hair and a not so neatly trimmed reddish mustache, attending to the stricken one, while a fresh-faced, plump young woman in a tartan traveling dress hovered anxiously behind.
“Here, here, what's all this?” The stationmaster relied on the terms used by his brothers-in-arms of the Brighton Constabulary.
“Hello! It's all right, I'm a doctor. I noticed this old chap having some kind of a fit.” The young man turned to his putative patient. “Are you all right, sir?”
“I b-beg your pardon? I didn't understand.” The older man looked up at his rescuers in some confusion, putting a gray-gloved hand to one ear.
The young woman behind the doctor peered over his shoulder. “Arthur? The porter is ready with our baggage â¦”
“In a minute, Touie. Just thought I could lend a hand, you know.” The doctor's Edinburgh burr was noticeable even through the noise of the station, and McNaughton decided that here was a fellow Scot, a practical fellow capable of dealing with madmen who interrupted busy stationmasters by having fits in front of their offices.
“Better have him in my office, then,” the stationmaster conceded. “Can't hear yourself think out here.”
The group filed into the glass-enclosed hub of the Brighton railway station, an office already crowded with two rolltop desks, a carved chair, three high stools, several piles of Bradshaw's
and the reams of paper that seem to follow officialdom wherever it may lurk. Charts covered the walls, announcing everything from the Firemen's Outing to the excursion rates for Parliamentary trains. The office, somewhat cramped before, seemed filled to the bursting point once Touie in her traveling dress (and its bustle) was added to the three men.
Having closed the door and shut out the roar of the crowd, Mc-Naughton straightened his cap, adjusted his uniform, stroked his mustache, and asked again, “What's all this about? Are you quite well, sir?”
“I am quite all right, thank you.” The victim straightened himself and patted his coat into place. “Stationmaster, I must speak with you. I fear a child is missing!”
“Eh?” The stationmaster's eyebrows nearly met over his well-developed nose. There were persons whose whole business it was to deal with misplaced children: guards and porters. Busy stationmasters had better things to do.
“I was to meet her when she arrived on the four-thirty train from London. I have searched the station, but she is not here.” The older man spoke with the shrill tones of the deaf, emphasizing each plosive consonant.
“Well, sir, the train from London was a mite late, but not all that much. It arrived at four-twenty-two. I have it noted here in my log.” The stationmaster produced a complex chart, with times neatly entered.
“Are you certain?” The older man frowned.
“Oh, yes, sir. The train was due at four-twenty and came in at four-twenty-two.”
The elderly gentleman looked about him, as if to locate a safe place to collapse. The doctor caught him as he was falling and eased him into the nearest seat, the stationmaster's own, sacred chair.
“This is quite imp-p-possible,” the older man stammered. “See here, I have the letter with instructions. I was to meet Miss Alicia Marbury on the platform of the train arriving from London at four-thirty. She was to visit me at Eastbourne,” he explained, his stammer becoming more and more pronounced. “I had arranged for us to stay with my friends, the Rv-Reverend and M-Mrs. Barclay, Rector of St. Peter's Church?” He looked to McNaughton as if for approbation but received a cold stare. In agitation, he searched for his precious letter in the pocket of his coat.
Out came the contents: a piece of string, a selection of colored scarves, a pair of small dolls, a bag of spice drops, and a folded piece of paper. Arthur took it and unfolded it as his putative patient restored the rest of the debris to its hiding place.
“Interesting. Your correspondent uses the new typewriting machine,” the doctor observed. “Ah, I see your problem. The two has been overstruck with a three. Hence your dilemma: do you meet the four-twenty train or the four-thirty?” The older man snatched the letter back.
“I supposed that the three was correct, since it had been struck over the two,” he said testily. “What I want to know is, where is Miss Marbury?”
“I assume you know the young lady by sight,” the stationmaster said.
“Er â¦ no. Her father is an acquaintance by s-sight â¦” the older man stammered.
The stationmaster frowned. “Related, are you, then?”
“Er, not precisely â¦”
“Then I suppose someone else met the girl,” the stationmaster said abruptly. The colloquy was interrupted by one of the underlings, a guard in a blue uniform who tapped urgently on the window of the glass booth.