The Problem of the Missing Miss (23 page)

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
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The only diversion permitted on a Sunday morning in Brighton was religion. Just as Friday and Saturday had been devoted to every form of secular pleasure, so now visitors to Brighton could take their pick of spiritual refreshment. Church of England, Church of Rome, various dissenting sects were all ready to provide the antidote to the previous evening's gaiety with a good dose of piety. The miserable weather only added to the agreeable sensation of martyrdom for those who sought their release from worldly cares in the environs of holy ground.

Among those hardy souls abroad before the fashionable hour of eleven o'clock in the morning was Mr. Dodgson, who marched down the Queen's Road to Dr. Doyle's lodgings with purposeful strides. He had already been to the early service in St. Peter's, conducted not by the Reverend Mr. Barclay but by one of his visiting guests. There he had prayed for guidance, and, as always, his Maker had not failed him. He was refreshed, physically and mentally, and ready to resume his quest.

To this end, Mr. Dodgson knocked at Mrs. Keene's door and demanded to see Dr. Doyle.

The landlady led Mr. Dodgson to the back dining room, where Dr. Doyle was at breakfast in his shirtsleeves, with Touie across the table from him in her tartan traveling dress.

Dr. Doyle got up hastily, still holding his teacup. “Mr. Dodgson! I am surprised …” he began.

Touie was more gracious. “Do sit down, Mr. Dodgson, and have some more tea.”

“‘I've had nothing yet, so I can't take more,'” Mr. Dodgson quoted from one of his more celebrated scenes. “But I thank you, Mrs. Doyle. Doctor, I owe you an apology. I can only say in my defense that last night I was—”

“—No, no, sir, it was my fault. I had not made allowances for your age and condition,” Dr. Doyle stammered, rushing to set out a chair for his visitor. “I should never have insisted that you accompany me to that …”

“No, Dr. Doyle, it is I who was pusillanimous. There is no other word for it. My courage quite deserted me.”

“Gentlemen,” Touie said sweetly, but firmly, “please sit down. Arthur, you did take Mr. Dodgson to a most disreputable street, where he might have been subject to all sorts of indignities. As for you, Mr. Dodgson, perhaps you were too vehement with Arthur, who, after all, is trying to help you find that child. Now, can I give you a cup of tea?”

The two men looked sheepishly at each other, then sat down and allowed Touie to pour for them.

“I came immediately after the early service,” Mr. Dodgson said. “Of course, I will be glad to accompany you to the later one.” He looked expectantly at his two young friends.

Touie looked at her teacup. It was for Dr. Doyle to explain: “I'm afraid Touie and I are not churchgoers, sir.”

“Oh my, yes. You will, of course, go to the Romish church.”

“I was brought up as a Catholic,” Dr. Doyle admitted. “But over the years, I've had grave doubts, Mr. Dodgson. Let us say, my faith has been tested severely. But this is not why you came to us, is it? Simply to patch up a quarrel between what are, after all, mere acquaintances? As you so rightly told me last night,” he added.

Mr. Dodgson inclined his head gravely. “Quite right, Dr. Doyle. I have spent some time going over this problem, or rather, problems. You and I have been pursuing one half of the equation, the disappearance of Miss Marbury. The death of the nurserymaid, Mary Ann, is, presumably, connected to that. So is the death of the actor, Keeble. It is this aspect of the case that I wish to follow today. And I assume you will wish to accompany me. In fact,” he added shyly, “I may need your support, if we encounter any more persons such as those who accosted us yesterday.”

Dr. Doyle buttered a piece of toast and munched on it. “I don't see where that will lead us.”

Mr. Dodgson's voice took on the singsong quality of a teacher instructing a particularly dense pupil. “What do we know of the man who left his marks on Keeble?” he asked rhetorically.

“How do you know it was a man?” Touie put in.

“Keeble was of my own height and build, and I am not as short as I may seem,” Mr. Dodgson said. “Unless she is a veritable giantess, I doubt that a woman could have lifted him over the railings of the Chain Pier, which have been built quite high enough to prevent such accidents from occurring. Also, the button was one used in male attire. I realize that some women have taken to wearing manly waistcoats when engaged in sports such as riding or bicycling, but neither horse nor bicycle was on the pier that night. If so, it would most certainly have drawn notice.”

“So,” Dr. Doyle said, warming to the task, “we are looking for a man, probably of average height or higher.”

“Oh, taller than average,” Mr. Dodgson corrected him. “And strong in the arms and upper body, to lift Keeble over the railings.”

“Wearing a brown suit,” Dr. Doyle added. “The button was brown, not blue or black. And if the man were in evening clothes, there would not be a button at all, but a white stud from his evening dress.”

“Very good,” Mr. Dodgson said approvingly.

“What's more,” Dr. Doyle added, “we know that he is a gentleman, or at least, not a mechanic or farmer.”

Mr. Dodgson raised an eyebrow in interrogation.

“The dents on his collar,” Dr. Doyle explained. “They did not show any discoloration. A person who worked with his hands would have left a stain or smudge, as a farmer would have earth on his hands, or a blacksmith would have ashes.”

“Aha!” Mr. Dodgson said with a decisive nod. “So: We have a tall gentleman, in a brown suit, on the Chain Pier at approximately nine o'clock of a Friday night.”

“Nine?” Touie asked.

“I have consulted a chart as to the tides. According to our friends at the police station, the body was able to drift onto the shingle because it was thrown over at the low tide. If the tide were going out, the body would have been swept out to sea, and Keeble would simply have been one of those unfortunate persons who disappear, never to be seen again.”

“Did you know the man?” Touie asked sympathetically.

“I have seen him on the Esplanade,” Mr. Dodgson said. “I also may have seen him play in London. I enjoy the theater,” he confessed.

Dr. Doyle set down his cup. “So, how do you propose to find his killer? Assuming, as we are, that the man did not merely stumble into the sea fully dressed, clutching a button.”

Mr. Dodgson leaned earnestly over the table. “Dr. Doyle, I have come here with the purpose of requesting that you join me in this endeavor. I am, perhaps, not as fit as I once was, and a younger man might be better equipped to run about after villains.”

Dr. Doyle smiled under his mustache. “Indeed, sir, I was thinking that I could not make head nor tail of this nonsense, and that I would have to rely on the police to finish the business for us.”

“Hm! The police!” Mr. Dodgson sniffed. “They persist in regarding both these deaths as unconnected accidents. I do not believe that these two deaths are either accidents or unconnected with Miss Marbury's disappearance, and I am going to prove it—with your strong arm to assist me.”

“Not another stroll down Church Street,” Dr. Doyle warned him.

“Not at all. You and I, Dr. Doyle, must go out to the Esplanade and find Keeble's friends, the members of his troupe. I dare say they are having some sort of memorial for him, as is the custom of such people. We must question them and find out who, if anyone, contacted Keeble. He was supposed to have been performing that night. It follows that one of the troupe might have seen the person who owns that button.”

“But who was that someone?” Dr. Doyle was on his feet, looking for his coat and deerstalker cap.

“I have considered that, too,” Mr. Dodgson said. “Someone must have hired him to impersonate me.”

“And you suspect that this mysterious someone then fought with him and threw him over the rails to the sea below …”

“Where he drowned, fuddled by drink,” Mr. Dodgson finished for him. “If Keeble recognized something particular about his employer …”

“And tried to blackmail him …” Dr. Doyle took up the thread again.

“It is very possible.” Mr. Dodgson looked favorably upon his new student. “Now we must ascertain if any of the troupe saw Keeble in conversation with a gentleman, in a brown suit, on the pier on Friday night.”

“And then what?” Dr. Doyle looked about him for his deerstalker. Touie handed it to him fondly.

“You need not worry about me, Arthur,” she said. “I shall remain here and write some letters. Just find that little girl, and bring her back here safely.”

“Of course, my dear,” Dr. Doyle said, pressing her hand to his lips.

“And do be careful,” Touie called out, as the pair left the lodgings and turned their steps to the seafront.

The Esplanade was virtually deserted. The wind whipped the waves into curls of white foam that broke over the pebbled beach with a hiss and a roar. The hotels had put up canvas awnings to shield the verandas from the rain that would wreak havoc with rattan furniture or satin upholstery. The band shell was deserted; no musician would risk harm either to his instrument or his person on such a morning.

The only person in sight was a stout man in a Mackintosh coat with a pile of handbills in a sack slung around his shoulder, who looked as if he wished he were anywhere but on the Esplanade in the rain at nine in the morning of a Sunday, when anyone with any sense was in bed, at breakfast, or in church.

Mr. Dodgson crossed the King's Road resolutely, and descended gingerly down the slippery wooden stairs to the shingle below. To Dr. Doyle's surprise, the elderly scholar moved carefully down the beach, peering under the arches of the underpinning of the Esplanade.

“Good morning,” Mr. Dodgson called out to someone under the piers.

“Hello.” Dr. Doyle nearly stumbled on the stones in his haste to keep up with his companion.

Mr. Dodgson had found friends, three girls and a boy, ages between eight and ten, as far as Dr. Doyle could judge. The children were dressed in patched cast-offs, but they seemed cheerful, with none of the pinched look of the habitually hungry.

“It is a morning for ducks,” Mr. Dodgson remarked. “I see you have found a dry spot. May I join you?”

“Suit yourself.” The boy appeared to be the spokesperson for the group.

Mr. Dodgson drew the bag of sweets from his pocket. “I have heard,” he said, “that lemon drops are a sovereign remedy for damp. Because they are so dry, you see,” he explained.

“Dunno about that,” the tallest girl said, taking the offered sweet.

“A pity about the rain,” Mr. Dodgson said.

“Ay,” the boy agreed.

“No punters out,” Dr. Doyle put in. The children ignored him.

Mr. Dodgson smiled at the youngest girl. “I have seen you on the pier,” he said. “You do acrobatics.”

The girl smiled, revealing a gap where her two front teeth were missing. Then she bent backwards, flipped onto her hands, and circled Mr. Dodgson, her skirts hanging about her ears and her red drawers outstandingly visible. She flipped back onto her feet and took a bow.

Mr. Dodgson applauded. “Very clever, my dear. I do hope you continue to improve yourself. Girls are often able to get work in the circus, even in London.”

“Ah,” said the middle girl, wisely. “Lunnon. Pa says when the Brighton season's over, we may try our hand at Lunnon.”

Dr. Doyle fidgeted. Why did the man take so long to get to the point?

Mr. Dodgson had taken the silk handkerchief from his pocket and was tying it into various shapes, to the delight of the children.

“You should do that on the pier,” the boy observed. “You'd make a nice penny from that.”

“Oh, dear me, no,” Mr. Dodgson said. “I just like to amuse children. I could never be a professional, like, oh—let me see? Who does those tricks on the pier?”

“Old Keeble used to,” the smallest girl piped up. “But he's dead. They found him on the beach yesterday.”

“Drunk,” the boy said succinctly. “My ma says it's drink as does you, every time. Made my pa sign the Pledge when the Salvationists came 'round.”

“My pa says that's all rot,” the middle girl stated. “He likes his pint, but he don't go off like Old Keeble and blue the lot.”

“I believe I knew Old Keeble,” Mr. Dodgson observed. “Wasn't he with the Bailey Boys?”

The oldest girl laughed heartily. “Not Old Keeble! You're thinking of the Jokers. They're down by the Chain Pier every night.”

“Indeed.” Mr. Dodgson put away the candy and the handkerchief. “I wonder, would they be performing today?”

“In this slop?” The boy was scornful. “They'll be down the beach, along with my pa and the rest of 'em, giving the old boy a good sendoff.”

“Would you direct me to the place? As a patron of the art of busking, I would like to pay my respects.”

“Come on, then. We only came out to get out of the way.” The boy led Mr. Dodgson and the rest back along the beach toward the Chain Pier.

To Dr. Doyle's surprise, the children ducked under the shorings of the Esplanade, to a sort of cave that had been left when the construction had been completed.

Here, only a step away from the fashionable world, a makeshift tavern had been set up, where the Sabbath laws were cheerfully being broken by a crowd of actors, singers, acrobats, jugglers, and comic players. A rough plank table held bottles of beer and stronger stimulants, together with an assortment of glasses and mismatched mugs for dispensing of same. A short, balding man with enormous ears and a snaggle-toothed grin served the liquor, spicing his talk with a series of anecdotes. There was a dead silence as the company realized that a stranger was in their midst.

“Someone wants to pay respects to Old Keeble,” the boy announced, in the sudden hush that descended at the sight of Mr. Dodgson and Dr. Doyle.

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
9.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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