The Problem of the Missing Miss (5 page)

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
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Barrow glared at the two men before him with the look of one who had been far too lenient with rank outsiders. Mr. Dodgson's protests were stilled as Dr. Doyle led him out of the police station and back into the now-darkened streets.

“He actually thought … I cannot believe …!” Mr. Dodgson was incoherent with rage.

“He is, after all, a policeman,” Dr. Doyle explained. “The question is, what do we do now?”

Mr. Dodgson stiffened. “You may escort me to the Rectory of St. Peter's Church,” he told Dr. Doyle. “It is at the upper end of the Grand Parade. They are expecting me to dinner and will be quite worried if I do not appear. And then I am going to find that child, sir, and bring the ones who abducted her to justice!”

“At least let me help you,” Dr. Doyle pleaded.

Mr. Dodgson's long legs were already eating up the distance between John Street and St. Peter's Church. Dr. Doyle had to trot hard to keep up with him.

“I thank you, but I believe you have done all that is required of you. You really do not have to put yourself out, sir. Think of your wife.”

“Oh, Touie will understand, sir. I am like the sleuth-hound; once the game is afoot, I must pursue it to the end!”

They had reached the venerable church, and the charming residence provided for its clergy. Mr. Dodgson turned to face his companion.

“In that case, Dr. Doyle, I intend to take the very first train tomorrow to London. I suspect that poor young creature in John Street is the domestic who was accompanying Miss Marbury … although how you were able to tell so much about her, I do not understand.”

Dr. Doyle shrugged modestly. “Oh, that I learned from my old mentor, Dr. Bell, up in Edinburgh. He always said, examine the hands first. The hands can tell you everything. That girl's hands were red, but clean, showing she did plenty of washing up. Her shoes were new and of good quality, and fitted well, which indicated that whoever her employers were, they were able to supply their staff with proper clothing, not cast-off finery, as so many young persons in service are given. Anyone who took care to see that their servants were well-shod would probably be of a liberal and reforming temper. I had reached your conclusion, sir. Lord Richard Marbury is a Liberal stalwart, and his interest in social reform is well known in the Party. I would be happy to accompany you to London tomorrow, sir.”

The figures of the Reverend and Mrs. Barclay emerged from the gloom of the churchyard.

“Mr. Dodgson, is that you? We were so worried—where is the child? We have prepared a cozy room for her.” Mrs. Barclay, tall and lean, peered at her guest.

“It is a very long and unpleasant tale,” Mr. Dodgson said. “Dr. Doyle, will you call for me tomorrow morning? If you insist on taking part in this adventure, you must keep my hours.”

“Good evening, then. And I'll be here at first light!” Dr. Doyle strode away down the street, whistling happily. Mr. Dodgson turned to his hosts.

“That is a most extraordinary young man,” he decided. “Now, Henry, I greatly fear our young guest is not coming tonight. I shall find her tomorrow.”

“Charles!” The Reverend Henry Barclay bustled forward to lead his friend into the house.

“We have had dinner put back,” Mrs. Barclay announced. “You must tidy yourself, and then you must tell us all about it.”

CHAPTER 5

Friday night in Brighton! The first day of the weekend, the first chance for visitors to sample the delights on the Esplanade and the piers, to stroll on the Marine Parade, and to examine (from a discreet distance) the bizarre charms of the Royal Pavilion. Friday was the perfect time for holidaymakers to make their plans over platters of turbot and sole in grim lodgings or well-appointed dining rooms. What to do next was the question. Should they drive out to Arundel and look at the castle? Risk life and limb on Volk's Electric Railway? Or just pray that the next day would be suitable for sea bathing?

The sea breeze whipped around Brighton, ruffling the waves on the Channel, fluttering the fringes on the paisley shawls of the women on the Esplanade and the Chain Pier, and making the gas lamps on the streets not yet electrified flicker. Brighton by day was gaudy; Brighton by dusk slightly sinister; Brighton by night was a glittering (if slightly tawdry) fairyland.

At the heart of the merrymaking were the two piers: the Chain Pier, and the newly built West Pier, jutting out into the English Channel, its rails and columns outlined by the new electrical lamps, visible for miles out to sea on a clear night. To this beacon came the holidaymakers, seeking refreshment in the fish-and-chips stalls, hokey-pokey wagons, and taverns, and entertainment from the buskers, those wandering entertainers who could carol a popular ditty, dance a few steps, and pass the hat for pocket change. The Pierrot troupe was there, performing the same basic play that had kept the crowds pleased for four hundred years. Punch and Judy knocked each other about on the puppet stage; Columbine flirted with Harlequin; the singers led the choruses, and no one noticed the tough-looking men who lurked in the few dark corners of the pier while their furtive partners' eager fingers felt for wallets, watches, and whatever else might be loose.

None of this attracted Mr. Dodgson tonight. He sat in the back parlor of the Rectory, on a sofa covered with Mrs. Barclay's carefully worked antimacassar doilies, under the watchful eyes of past rectors of St. Peter's Church, and worried. He had planned to show Miss Alicia the wonders of the new pier, while protecting her from its less enchanting aspects. Now she was taken, possibly removed from Brighton altogether.

The Rector, rotund and genial, his scalp barely covered by a few strands of graying hair, and his taller, severely dressed wife, whose lean figure led the more frivolous of their congregants to compare the couple to Jack Sprat and his lady in reverse, sat on their well-stuffed chairs and listened to their guest unburden himself.

“… and that young man has insisted on accompanying me to London tomorrow,” Mr. Dodgson complained. “He is most extraordinarily persistent. Dicky Doyle's nephew, of all things. He sounds like a Scot. I believe the Scots are known to be persistent.”

“You know, Charles,” the Rector said thoughtfully, “it might not be a bad thing to have a young man of his stamp about you while you pursue this business. One does not like to think about such things, but these people are, um, prone to violence.”

Mr. Dodgson turned his accusing gaze on his host. “Henry! You have not been reading the
Pall Mall Gazette
! I thought better of you.”

His friend turned bright purple with embarrassment. “Well, Charles, a pretty fool I should look if I did not keep pace with my parishioners. One cannot get away from those articles. I tell you, sir, there will be a reckoning. I understand that there have been mass meetings in Birmingham and Manchester, demanding action at the Parliamentary level. In fact, I have been requested to organize such a meeting myself, right here in Brighton.”

Mr. Dodgson looked grave. “That is not for you to do, Henry. Your duties are to the Church. You should not be involved in political maneuverings.”

Henry shook his head, setting his plump jowls wobbling. “Here we must disagree, Charles. In matters of morality, the Church should take the lead. I quite agree with my parishioners that something should be done. I read this morning that a Bill is before the House of Commons, and a vote is being called for. I shall most certainly lead the fight to get it passed.” The little cleric looked positively militant.

Mrs. Barclay nodded her approval of her husband's statement. “Henry is quite right,” she stated. “As a rule, I do not approve of such matters being discussed in the public forum, but if half of what these articles say is true, something must be done!” She emphasized her statement with a curt nod.

Mr. Dodgson disagreed. “I am all too aware of this Bill,” he complained. “It has been read at least two times, and twice it has failed of passage. There is no reason to expect any better now. Mr. Stead has overreached himself with these articles.”

“On the contrary,” the Rector argued, “by publishing these facts, Mr. Stead has brought them to the attention of the people, and the people will be heard!”

Mrs. Barclay closed the discussion. “Henry, that will do. Charles has had a dreadful experience, first losing that child, and then the police. Charles, you must go to your room and change for dinner. You will be able to think more clearly with some sustenance.”

Mr. Dodgson rose and allowed himself to be led away. “You are undoubtedly right. I must have my dinner, and then I shall think about this. There are dark forces at work here, Henry. I do not like it at all.”

Down the hill, Dr. Doyle and his bride had sallied forth to enjoy the splendors of the Esplanade. Touie had changed from her traveling tartan to a flowered chintz dress, buttoned up to the neck, and covered with a warm woolen shawl. Dr. Doyle had added a deerstalker cap to his traveling suit by way of marking the transition from day to night. Together they walked happily to Muttons, that venerable establishment where a signboard announced:
TURTLE SOUP AVAILABLE AT ALL HOURS
. Under the famous glass dome, the honeymooners enjoyed the turtle soup and each other's company, while Dr. Doyle told his wife of their reception at the John Street Police Station.

“… So you see, Touie,” he finished, “there's nothing for it. I feel it is my duty to assist Mr. Dodgson in any way I can. Scholar he may be, but he is no match for any ruffians or villains that may be after him. And Marbury! Think of it, Touie, the daughter of a Member of Parliament, the Marquis of Waltham's brother! If those fiends can abduct her, then no child is safe.”

Touie placidly spooned up the dregs of her turtle soup. “Of course, Arthur. Mr. Dodgson needs you, and afterwards, once you have found the child, you may be able to use his name as a reference. It would be too much to expect him to be a regular patient, if he lives in Oxford, but one never can tell when he might be called on to recommend someone in Portsmouth. After all, you and I have the rest of our lives together.”

Dr. Doyle smiled fondly at his bride. “Touie, you are a woman in a million! Most new brides would have their husbands dancing attendance on them day and night …”

Touie interrupted him. “Arthur, dear, I know how much you want to be part of this adventure. You needn't worry that I will be bored or mope. Mrs. Keene has told me of several quaint shops where I may purchase a few things for our establishment, and Mother has asked that I get her some small things as well. Then I shall sit on the beach and watch the bathers, and perhaps even go for an ice. Now, I want you to tell me everything, as soon as you can, and you must bring the child to me as soon as she is found, poor little thing.”

Dr. Doyle reached across the table and squeezed Touie's hand. “I knew you would understand. You are the best wife in the world, and we are going to be very happy!”

Together they smiled into a future that they were sure would lead to fame and fortune, either in medicine or literature, or both.

Outside, on the Chain Pier, the crowds jostled each other in joyful camaraderie. Below the pier, the Jolly Jokers lined up for their performance, clad in mismatched checked and striped trousers and spotted shirts, topped with battered hats. The leader, Joker Jim, flourished his trumpet, while the others pranced about him, waiting for the signal to begin their well-rehearsed banter. The only problem was that the feed, the person who began the routine with a well-timed quip, was unaccountably absent.

“Where's Keeble?” the trumpeter hissed.

“Dunno,” said the lanky fellow with the concertina. “Went off before tea, said 'e 'ad summat to do. 'Aven't seen 'im since.”

“I thought I saw him in the boozer,” piped up the youngest member of the troupe, a wiry youth with a mop of dark curls topped by an outrageous striped cap, who answered to the name of Bouncing Billy. “He was with some toff.”

The trumpeter cursed. “Damn the old souse! Well, Billy, you'll take his lines. The crowd's picking up, and we've got to make our nut somehow. Here we go!”

The trumpeter stepped out of the shadow of the pier and onto the pebbled beach, into the pool of light thrown down by the electric bulbs on the pier above him. His trumpet fanfare drew the audience, while the rest of the group cavorted to the gay strains of the concertina. No one noticed the two men at the very back of the pier, where only a railing separated the crowds from the tumbling surf below, and the lights cast deep shadows.

Keeble, the old actor, had used his riches to fortify himself with gin. Now he faced “the Guv'nor” and breathed alcoholic courage into the other man's face.

“Miss Harmon employed me to abduct a child,” he wheezed. “Well, I did. However, I did not reckon on the child belonging to a Member of Parliament, and one related to the Marquis of Waltham at that. Ah yes, Guv'nor, I recognized the young lady for who and what she is, and ten pounds is not enough payment for that, Guv'nor. Not by a long chalk.”

The other man tried to step backwards, but found himself braced at the railings that separated the pier from the lapping waves below. “You've been paid once. That was all that was agreed to.”

“Ah, but that was before I got a good look at you,” Keeble said with a boozy grin. “I have seen you before, Guv'nor, and under very different circumstances, with very different companions, on more than one occasion. You would not like your noble employer to be aware of your, um, secondary interests?”

“If this is an attempt to get more money from me—” The other man began to shift around. Keeble persisted. The two men were now leaning against the railings, while the water beneath them lapped at the exposed struts of the pier.

“Ten pounds? Did you think that I, Keeble, who trod the boards with Forrest, would be bought off with a mere ten pounds?” The old actor drew himself up with dignity bolstered by gin. “Oh, no, Guv'nor. You shall pay me ten pounds a week, until I say nay!”

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
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