The Problem of the Missing Miss (2 page)

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
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“There seems to be some other difficulty, sir. Good-day!” Mc-Naughton glared at the underling, who approached him in a highly agitated state.

“Mr. McNaughton, may I have a word?” That most ominous of phrases.

“What is it, Payton?”

“There seems to have been an unfortunate occurrence—” The guard glanced over his shoulder. “I have summoned the police, but I believe you should take charge, sir.”

McNaughton settled his cap on his head, glared at his uninvited guests, and marched out of his booth. “I suggest you take yourselves elsewhere. Good-day!”

“But …”

“Thank you for your assistance, sir. I think we will look for the child ourselves.” The doctor took the older man by the arm and firmly walked him out of the glass office, followed by the faithful Touie. Once back on the platform, the older man pulled away from his would-be rescuer.

“Sir, that was not necessary. I am quite capable of dealing with persons like that.”

“Undoubtedly, sir, but I could tell that he was about to be extremely rude, and I couldn't have that, especially not in front of my wife.” The young doctor glanced at the love of his life, who smiled prettily.

“Very well, but I am sure I can manage …”

“Please, sir, permit me to help you find your missing child.”

The older man glared at the younger one. “Are you always this—determined?” he asked querulously.

Touie followed them as they walked toward the baggage platform. “Indeed he is, sir. Why, when my poor brother was ill, he tried everything in and out of his power to cure him.”

Her husband laughed heartily. “Aye, that's it. I cannot walk away now. I must see this through to the end. I would die of curiosity if I did not solve this mystery.”

“Mystery indeed!” huffed the older man. At the baggage platform large men in striped shirts were heaving huge trunks onto waiting wagons, and grimy urchins with handcarts shouted for customers.

“ 'Ere! You're back!” one of the largest of the porters accosted the trio.

“Back? I just arrived,” the older man protested.

“You was 'ere not ten minutes since,” insisted the porter. “Tile 'at, gray gloves, black coat …”

“With a little girl?” the doctor asked.

“Ah! Pretty little thing, with all that red 'air down 'er back,” the porter observed. “Didn't even stop fer 'er trunks, wot the nurserymaid said wos to be sent on.” He indicated a well-made traveling trunk, securely lashed, neatly labeled. “And wot's to be done with it, eh?”

“You may send it on, by carrier, to this address,” the elderly gentleman said, producing a card, which the porter took with a nod. He turned to the young doctor. “Miss Marbury is supposed to have auburn hair,” he added, consulting his letter.

The doctor frowned. “This becomes more and more tangled,” he complained. “Presumably the domestic was told they would be met, and by whom … or at least, was given a description of the person who was to meet them, namely, you, sir.”

“The—the ch-cheek of it!” The older man looked as if he might have another fit.

“This is all quite mysterious,” Touie said. “But perhaps we had better find somewhere less public to discuss it. Arthur, where is our lodging?”

“Just off the Queen's Road, my dear, near Duke Street. Porter, can one of these lads bring our valises to this address?”

“As you say, sir.” At a wave of the porter's hand, one of the larger boys trotted up with his handcart.

“If you insist on pursuing this acquaintance, I had better introduce myself. I am Mr. Dodgson,” the elderly man said. “The Reverend Mr. Dodgson, of Christ Church, Oxford.” He bowed and extended a gray-gloved hand.

“Aye, and I am Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, practicing in Southsea, and this is my wife, Louisa.” They solemnly shook hands and followed the handcart down the hill, around a corner, through the cobbled streets and into the summer sunlight.

CHAPTER 2

Brighton had changed considerably in the seventy years since the Prince Regent brought his glittering friends to take the air and show off their splendid equipages to the gaping yokels, fisher-folk, and other low persons who inhabited the village of Brighthelmstone. Now, instead of Regency bucks and demure debutantes, stout provincial shopkeepers and their wives filled the Steine, while their daughters shopped at the quaint stalls along the King's Road. There was even talk of using some of the less sinister portions of The Lanes for commercial purposes, and the merchants of Brighton made their financial hay while the July and August sun tried to shine.

Along the steep and cobbled streets that led down to the Esplanade, anyone with a room to spare set a sign in the window and took in lodgers. Rooms were let by the day, week, or month. The hordes of pleasure-bent Britons could find accommodations for any pocketbook, from a back alley for a few shillings a night to the grand hotels facing the sea, where a suite might be had for a month at a sum that equaled a laborer's yearly wages.

Young Dr. Doyle and his wife were in neither the back alley nor the seafront category. They followed their guide down the Queen's Road with Mr. Dodgson locked between them, past houses where women called out raucously from upper-story windows (Touie pretended she did not hear them), and down the cobbled street toward the Esplanade. They could just catch a glimpse of the Channel between the rows of buildings, which grew larger and more ornate as they approached the strip of blue sea visible at the end of the road. The Doyles eagerly sniffed the salt-tinged air as they marched along with Mr. Dodgson. The tang of the sea breeze mixed with the less wholesome scents drifting out of the taverns and fish-and-chips stalls: stale beer, frying fish, and cheap tobacco.

The rest of the holiday crowd pressed on to the sea, and through it the urchin with the handcart wove his way, with Dr. Doyle and Mrs. Doyle and Mr. Dodgson close behind him. There was no time for conversation, even if one could be heard above the roar of humanity and the snatches of music from the Esplanade, where the band was playing the popular airs of Dr. Sullivan. At last, the boy made a sharp turn and angled his cart into a side street lined with three-story houses, jammed together to form a row, each adorned with the universal placard:
ROOMS TO LET
.

Touie paid off the boy, while Dr. Doyle mounted the steps and rang the bell. A stout woman, swathed in the prerequisite black bombazine demanded by all landladies, loomed behind the maid who answered the bell.

“Dr. Doyle, and Mrs. Doyle,” the Scottish doctor introduced himself.

“Ah,” the landlady said. “I'd fair given up on you, you're that late.” She gave Mr. Dodgson a sharp-eyed stare. “The booking was for two, was it not?”

Dr. Doyle laughed. “This is Mr. Dodgson. He's staying elsewhere, but—”

“I really must be going on,” Mr. Dodgson said, disentangling himself from Dr. Doyle's enthusiastic grasp. “I m-must find Miss Marbury! There is no t-time to be lost!”

He turned as if to move off.

Touie took him by the arm. “You cannot go off without some refreshment, Mr. Dodgson. Wherever the child is, your starving will not bring her back any quicker.”

“Touie's right,” Dr. Doyle said. “Mrs. Keene, could we have some tea?”

“Tea's extra,” the landlady reminded him.

“Hang the expense! We're on our honeymoon!” Doyle exclaimed.

Mrs. Keene smiled suddenly, revealing a set of well-manufactured dentures. “Honeymoon, is it? Well, then, you just step into the parlor, and I'll bring you tea. And I'll have your things brought in, then. Hi, Jemmy! Look sharp!”

Jemmy, a large youth in a striped shirt, leather waistcoat, and velveteen trousers, wrestled with the Doyle's modest portmanteaus, while the guests were shown into the front parlor, a hermetically sealed room crammed with furniture. A carved and stuffed red-upholstered sofa and matching chairs jostled a whatnot filled with figurines, cup-and-saucer sets, and carefully painted shells. A carved table was placed before the sofa, adorned with several tinted engravings of the Queen and the late Prince Consort. Two more chairs, draped with crocheted antimacassars, were placed under the windows, flanked by large urns filled with dried reeds. The window itself was framed with purple velvet draperies over lace curtains.

“Here is the front room,” the landlady stated unnecessarily. “You may use it for your visitor, if you like.”

“Thank you so much, Mrs. Keene? It is Mrs. Keene?” Touie asked.

“It is. Keene was my husband, but not as keen as all that!” The landlady chuckled at her own wit.

“I really cannot stay to tea,” Mr. Dodgson fussed. “My friend Barclay and his good wife are expecting me for dinner, with Miss Marbury. Whatever am I to tell them? How can I face her father? Lord Richard Marbury, you know, one of Mr. Gladstone's most devoted and useful backbenchers.”

“Indeed!” Doyle broke in. “I am the secretary of the Portsmouth Liberal Unionist Club. I will do anything in my power to assist Mr. Gladstone, in or out of office.”

“Quite kind of you, I am sure,” Mr. Dodgson said, his voice growing shriller, “but quite unnecessary. Thank you for your assistance, Dr. Doyle.” He suddenly stopped. “How odd. I knew a man named Doyle. Dicky Doyle, of
Punch.
I called on him when I was in London. He died, you know. I thought of him to do the illustrations for
Alice
but Tenniel was so much better—”

“If you mean Richard Doyle, he was my uncle,” Dr. Doyle said. “My father's brother, actually. I was saddened to hear of his death. He was rather kind to me when I was a boy.”

“Indeed. Fancy that! If you are Dicky Doyle's nephew, I will take tea with you after all.”

Mr. Dodgson settled back into his chair just as Mrs. Keene arrived with a tray containing the teapot, cups, cream and sugar, and a plate of suspiciously pink cakes, all of which she placed ceremoniously on the table in front of Touie.

“You just pour out, my dear. First time, eh?” With a vast chuckle, Mrs. Keene surveyed the honeymoon couple and their guest.

“Thank you, Mrs. Keene, that will be all.” With the aplomb of a seasoned hostess, Touie poured the tea and dealt with cream and sugar. Mrs. Keene sighed sentimentally and left the couple to entertain their elderly guest.

Mr. Dodgson stirred his tea. “As I was saying, Miss Marbury was meant to come to me for two weeks in my lodgings in Eastbourne while her father is occupied with a Bill before Parliament. All this is quite mysterious. I do not understand why she was abducted; I am not even sure why her father sent her to me in the first place.”

Dr. Doyle frowned over his tea. “Then, when the stationmaster quizzed you back there …?”

Mr. Dodgson looked from one young face to the other in bewilderment. “I received a letter from Lord Richard Marbury two weeks ago asking if I could take his daughter Alicia to stay with me, as I often do have young ladies to stay with me, at Eastbourne. My land-lady would be able to attend the young lady, as she often does. The domestic who traveled with her was to return to London on the next train.”

“Of course,” Doyle said.

“And now this! Someone impersonating me, removing the child from Brighton Station. I tell you, Dr. Doyle, I do not know what to make of it.”

The Doyles exchanged knowing glances over the teapot. The young doctor cleared his throat and said carefully, “It is possible, you know, that the child was removed to one of those, um, establishments of the sort one reads about in the articles in the
Pall Mall Gazette
.”

Mr. Dodgson exploded: “Do not mention that filthy, scandal-ridden publication to me! Most assuredly, do not mention it in the presence of your wife! Never have I read such an atrocious, disgusting account of perversity as those articles, which are polluting the eyes and ears of everyone capable of reading them. I have written to Lord Salisbury on the subject. My letter was published last week in the
St. James' Gazette,
under my own name!” He set down his teacup in his agitation.

Dr. Doyle's eyebrows rose. “As to the subject of the articles, sir, I can assure you that as a medical man, they come as no shock to me. When I was a student in Edinburgh, the charity wards were filled with such pathetic cases, children used brutally for the pleasures of those who should have been succoring the poor. Touie is as one with me on this subject, isn't that right, my dear? We abhor the filthy trade, but we must admit that it exists. If those articles can alleviate some of that misery by exposing the procurers and their customers …”

Mr. Dodgson shook his head violently. “No, no, Dr. Doyle. It is not that I doubt the veracity of the claims. That there are such villains, I am quite certain. That such things must be stopped is the business of the police, and the courts. In fact, Lord Richard Marbury is at this very moment leading the fight for the Bill that will extend the age of consent to sixteen, and force criminal penalties on those who indulge in such abominations. No, sir, it is the tone of the revelations that is so repugnant to me. The gloating, if you will. That, and the fact that the writer of the articles, the editor of the newspaper, and the proprietor of the publication are doing it, not to improve the lot of those unfortunate children, but to make money. There, sir, is the true villainy!” Mr. Dodgson looked fiercely about him, as if to find one of the offending persons in the parlor.

Touie sipped at her tea thoughtfully. “I see you care very much for children, Mr. Dodgson,” she said softly.

“I love children—except for boys,” Mr. Dodgson replied. “I have had many happy hours in the company of young girls. In fact, on one occasion …” He stopped suddenly, and put his lips together, as if a wayward word might escape.

Touie blinked suddenly. “Did you say Alice?” she asked, just as her husband shouted, “Dodgson! I knew I was familiar with the name!”

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
12.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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