The Problem of the Missing Miss (7 page)

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
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“Hi! Cabby!” Dr. Doyle's curiosity had to be satisfied. “Where is everybody? Not a cab today? All on holiday?”

The cab driver, a wizened gnome of a man swathed in an oversized and outmoded greatcoat, grunted. “All gone to watch Mrs. Jeffries let out of Newgate! What ain't been took is out there on their own.”

“Mrs. Jeffries? And who is she?” Mr. Dodgson shrilled out.

Dr. Doyle's mustache twitched as he tried to hide a grin. Mr. Upshaw was more outspoken.

“She is the owner of a number of, urn, establishments of ill repute,” he said primly. “She was sentenced to a term in jail and a fine. The fine was paid by an extremely prominent peer, who is one of her most fervent patrons.”

Mr. Dodgson's face twisted in revulsion. “And this person has called up every cab in London?”

“I believe it is in the nature of a victory parade,” Mr. Upshaw said apologetically. “It must be said, Mr. Dodgson, that disgraceful as Mrs. Jeffries's establishments are, they are supported by a certain portion of the population. She has her influential backers, sir. It is said,” Upshaw's voice dropped to conspiratorial level, “that Mr. Gladstone himself has been seen in one of her, um, houses.”

Dr. Doyle's mustache quivered again, but not with amusement. “Mr. Gladstone's interest in the unfortunate females of a certain profession is that of a reformer and humanitarian,” he declared. “Well, gentlemen, I believe that we must take this cab, since there will be no other. Grosvenor Square!” he ordered, as the other two squeezed into the seat next to him.

The cab inched through the streets of London, past the shops and the strollers who were eager enough to venture out on a Saturday morning in August, when the temperature was reaching eighty degrees Fahrenheit, around the squares and parks, and into Mayfair, enclave of the rich and powerful. Mr. Dodgson fretted as the ancient steed plodded past elegant houses built by the great Whig aristocrats for their London residences. Dr. Doyle tried to appear unaffected by his proximity to the seat of wealth and power, while Mr. Upshaw, to whom this was familiar territory, merely fussed with his papers all the more.

“There she is!” crowed the cab driver. “Dang me, but she's got the brass! She's come to Mayfair, she 'as!”

Mrs. Jeffries's victory parade was heard before it was actually seen. A raucous howl of male voices, mixed with the shriller shrieks of female laughter, split the Saturday silence of Mayfair. The noble families whose great houses lined the streets of that exclusive district had left for greener pastures in Scotland or the Shires; only servants remained to witness the procession of cabs mixed with sporting carriages bearing the coats of arms of the most noble families of Britain. Scantily dressed young women waved at the astonished maids, housekeepers, and butlers. Young men (and a few who looked old enough to know better) pranced along on their high-stepping horses.

In the lead was a coach-and-four, driven by no less a personage than a ducal coachman, disgust mingling with amusement on his face as he led the throng. Inside the coach was the famous (or infamous) Mrs. Jeffries herself, an imposing figure of a woman in violet velvet, rubies twinkling in her ears, diamonds on her fingers, and plumes nodding over her bonnet, reveling in the limelight.

The parade had wound its way through Regent Street, up Bond Street, and now into Grosvenor Square, where Mrs. Jeffries had her coach stop in front of a modest house (by Mayfair standards).

She leaned out of the coach and gave tongue: “Ho! You up there! Let me out!”

The powdered footman at the back of the coach hopped forwards. Mrs. Jeffries majestically stood on the coach step and stared at the closed door of the house in front of her.

“You—Marbury! I know you're in there!”

The door remained obstinately closed. Only a twitching window curtain gave any hint that there was a soul within.

“You won't win, Marbury! I'll still be in my house long after you've been thrown out of yours!”

Dr. Doyle, Mr. Dodgson, and Mr. Upshaw watched as the wild panoply moved on. Only one man remained: a tall, youngish gentleman in a disreputable-looking check suit, with his collar undone, his cravat under one ear, and his waistcoat buttoned wrong. He had carroty-red hair and eyebrows and an infectious grin, with which he favored the three gentlemen approaching the Marbury residence.

He mounted the front stairs as the trio paid off the cab and joined him. All four were waiting when the venerable butler finally opened the door. The butler peered around to be certain none of the revelers were left in the street before permitting the four visitors to enter the House of Marbury.

CHAPTER 7

The south side of Grosvenor Square marked the boundary between fashionable Mayfair and the lesser portions of London. A row of attached houses, each with its areaway and kitchen entrance, formed a barrier beyond which the unfashionable were merely tolerated. The houses themselves had been built a mere thirty years before, and were therefore considered quite modern, fitted out with such amenities as Mr. Crapper's porcelain fixtures and gas lighting.

Marbury House was one of these: a narrow, five-story slot in the south face of Grosvenor Square, its windows shielded from the gaze of passersby by red-velvet draperies and lace undercurtains, its front door at the top of a short flight of steps. On the top step, now, stood the four men upon whom the butler gazed with hauteur, mixed with healthy curiosity.

“Good morning, Mr. Kinsale, Mr. Upshaw.” The butler gazed inquiringly at Mr. Dodgson and Dr. Doyle. “Are you two gentlemen expected?”

The new addition to the group looked around at the others and laughed. “I don't know who these two are, Farnham, but you might tell Lady Pat that I'm here. Any chance of breakfast?”

“Lord Richard and Lady Richard have already breakfasted,” the butler informed him loftily.

“Farnham, I must speak with Lord Richard at once!” Upshaw shoved through the crowd to bark at the butler, who was not impressed.

“I shall see if Lord Richard is available.” Farnham held his ground against all comers. Clearly, ten-thirty on a Saturday morning was not the correct hour for either business or social calls.

“And you may send in my card,” Mr. Dodgson added, fumbling in his waistcoat pocket. “It is quite urgent that I speak with Lord Richard Marbury.”

“Lord Richard is …”

“Damme, Farnham, you can't leave us all on the doorstep,” Kin-sale said breezily. “Upshaw's all right, and I suppose these gentlemen have good reason to burst in on a man at the crack of dawn of a Saturday morning. Be a good chap, now, and move yourself!”

To Farnham's dismay, the unruly Kinsale shoved him aside and marched into the house, with Upshaw, Dodgson, and Doyle close behind. Once inside, they were left to contemplate a long, dark hall, hung with funereal green wallpaper and decorated with murky portraits of former Marburys, while the butler went in search of Lord Richard.

Lord Richard saved a great deal of time by emerging from the inner recesses of the house. He was already a prime target for caricaturists, with his long nose, wisp of a mustache drooping over his thin-lipped mouth, and aggressive chin. Lank, fair hair hung down about his collar and one lock draped itself invitingly over one eyebrow. He had apparently been dressing, since he had not put on his morning coat, but was clad in shirt, waistcoat, and trousers, with his cravat yet untied. He gazed at the crowd in the hall and lighted on the one face he had not expected to see at any time, let alone ten-thirty on a Saturday morning in August.

“Mr. Dodgson!” he exclaimed, sweeping back his fair hair from his forehead in what would soon become a practiced gesture. “I thought you were in Brighton!”

“I was,” Mr. Dodgson began.

Mr. Upshaw interrupted. “Lord Richard,” he stated, “I must inform you that we are up against it! I've tried, sir, but I cannot guarantee that we shall have a majority, not even of our own Party!”

“Hello, Ricky!” Mr. Kinsale greeted Lord Richard in a ripe brogue. “I just thought I'd drop by, on the chance you might be in.”

“I thought you were with that disgraceful crowd,” Dr. Doyle put in.

“Och, they were just in high spirits,” Kinsale shrugged.

“High spirits, indeed!” sniffed Upshaw. “At that hour of the morning? Pah!”

Lord Richard waved his brother-in-law away. “Ned, I have no time for your difficulties now. If you've got gambling debts, neither Pat nor I will pay them again.” Lord Richard turned to his secretary, who thrust the bundle of papers under his nose.

“Lord Richard, the best I could do was to get a few promissory notes from those members I could track down,” Upshaw said apologetically. “This is the most inopportune time to press for a Bill—and this particular Bill is most unpopular, sir. There is a certain portion of the population who consider the terms of the Bill, well, an imposition on their liberties …”

“To debauch young children!” Dr. Doyle burst out. “Is this the Criminal Amendment Bill before Parliament? The one being agitated for in the
Pall Mall Gazette
? I'm a doctor, sir, and it makes my blood boil to think that Englishmen consider it their God-given right to take their pleasure at the expense of young girls!”

Mr. Dodgson stepped forward. “Lord Richard, this is Dr. Doyle. Dicky Doyle's nephew, you know.”

“I didn't know, and I still don't know what you are doing here, instead of keeping my daughter safe for me in Eastbourne until all this is over.” Lord Richard sounded exasperated.

“If you will permit me to explain,” Mr. Dodgson began.

Yet another voice was added to the hubbub in the front hall. Lady Pat, as Lady Richard Marbury preferred to be called, descended the stairs, drawn down from her boudoir on the upper floors by the sound of argument below. She had not yet dressed for the day and was still in her morning gown of pale green lawn, looking like a sea nymph with her pale skin, delicate features, and coppery hair.

“Ned!” she called out. “Whatever are you doing up at this hour?”

Ned grinned mischievously at his sister. “Haven't been to bed yet, darlin'. I happened to be about …”

“Really, Ned!” His sister clucked over him. “Just look at you! You must get a manservant to look after you. How could you be seen in that suit, after dark? And with a button off your waistcoat.”

“Give over, Pat,” Kinsale shook her off. “You've seen me in worse state. And where I was, I could hardly wear evening dress.”

Lady Pat turned to her husband. “Oh, Richard! I heard all those people outside. You didn't answer that dreadful, vulgar woman, did you?” Lady Pat's wide green eyes rested on her husband for a moment, then went on to take in the rest of the group. “Mr. Upshaw, we were expecting you last night. Where were you?”

“Ah. I was about Lord Richard's business, ma'am. But it is kind of you to take notice.”

“Lady Richard, I must speak with Lord Richard, privately!” Mr. Dodgson's shrill voice cut through the rest of the babble.

“But why are you all here in the hall?” Lady Pat asked, confused. “Richard, you must take them all into your study, and Farnham, bring some refreshment. Coffee, I think, not sherry at this hour of the morning. And some biscuits.” Lady Pat took over as hostess, herding the lot of them down the hall and into Lord Richard's private study, a paneled room on the ground floor toward the back of the house, with French windows that were opened in the August heat to reveal a small back garden that consisted mostly of shrubs in terracotta urns.

Lord Richard's personal domain contained a large carved desk and leather-covered chair in one corner, a rolltop desk and plain wooden chair in another, both covered with manila folders, scribbled sheets of paper, and newspapers. In the niche between the rolltop desk and a glass-fronted bookcase lurked the pedestal on which rested the typewriter, with a small stool set before it for the operator of the infamous machine. Dr. Doyle made for it with a gleam in his eyes, while the rest of the group arranged themselves as best they might. Lord Richard sat in the leather chair behind the desk, while his brother-in-law perched irreverently on a corner of that same carved repository of enough paper to fill the British Museum. Upshaw dumped his sheaf of papers on the rolltop desk, and Mr. Dodgson looked about for somewhere to sit down.

“Mr. Dodgson, you must take my chair,” Mr. Upshaw offered, turning the wooden chair around so that the scholar could sit properly.

“Thank you.” Mr. Dodgson looked earnestly at Lord Richard. “I do not know how to tell you this, Lord Richard.…”

“As quickly as possible, Mr. Dodgson. My time is limited. I am needed in the House this afternoon,” Lord Richard said testily.

“But why you, Ricky?” Ned asked. “I mean, there are others …”

“No, there are not. Mr. Gladstone is out of office, after that disastrous vote in May, and he accepted the offer of a cruise on the Norwegian fjords. For all the use he is to us now, he might as well be down a crevasse in a glacier. Lord Salisbury is in the country and cannot be found. Lord Randolph Churchill … I do believe only the Lord knows where Lord Randolph is. Lady Randolph is canvassing for him, but that won't help us in the House of Commons. A pity that women don't stand for Parliament.”

“Surely, Ricky, you don't mean to give women the vote!” Ned exclaimed in real alarm.

“I sometimes think that would not be such a dreadful idea, considering some of the men I have to deal with,” Lord Richard snapped. “After all, you got in.”

Kinsale grinned. “Aye, that's a laugh, eh? ‘Roaring Ned,' M.P. But I stood, and I got the votes, and here I am.”

“And well I know it!” Lord Richard leaned forward. “Ned, where do you stand? I should like to think I had at least one vote in my pocket on this matter.”

Ned shook his head. “Ah, Ricky, you're asking an Irishman to vote for a Bill that would make whoring and procuring a criminal offense, punishable by prison sentences?”

BOOK: The Problem of the Missing Miss
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