by Saralee Etter
Being a short mystery story involving Victorian amateur sleuth Lucy Turner and the unexpected crisis that befalls the daughter of a family from her Kensington neighborhood. The year is 1865, Lucy is eighteen years old, and it is Springtime in London.
“A girl should have no secrets from her mother. It’s unnatural,” Mrs. Gilbert declared during our morning call. She sat rigidly erect on her favorite chair, which was placed so she could see an oil portrait of her son, Mr. William S. Gilbert. From a corner by the front window, her daughter Florence threw her a quick glance.
“I think secrets make a person interesting,” I answered.
“Lucy!” cried Mama. My poor Mama’s face was a study in dismay. For her sake, I regret that I’m not the most docile and obedient young woman in Kensington – but I have never aspired to that. Mama worries about me. To catch a husband, she says I must hold my impertinent tongue, lower my challenging gaze, and smile ever so sweetly.
So, I may never marry. But that’s a good thing for the eligible gentlemen of our neighborhood, since I wouldn’t want them to marry me under false pretenses. They may think I’m a little Dresden shepherdess, nothing but blonde curls and blue eyes, but I do have a will of my own. One oughtn’t to judge a book by its cover.
“You’re unpleasantly pert, Miss Turner,” Mrs. Gilbert said with a scowl.
Florence, the older of Mrs. Gilbert’s two unmarried daughters, didn’t say anything. She was peeking out the window toward the front steps of their house.
When we took our leave a few minutes later, Florence walked us to the door to bid us adieu.
I hugged her arm. “How are you, dear?”
“Fine,” she said, her voice tense and her arm stiff. As we stepped out into the rainy street, Florence pushed a stiff envelope into my hand. “Take it to Bab,” she whispered.
I frowned up at her. “Bab” was her older brother’s nickname – a silly thing to call a grown man who was well over six feet tall, and who looked like a Norse god disguised as a Victorian gentleman. But the brother and sister were close, so some silliness was excusable.
Mrs. Gilbert appeared right behind her daughter. “What are you doing out here, Florence? It’s raining.”
“Nothing!” Florence flapped her hands at me, pleading for secrecy. “Nothing at all.”
I tucked the letter in my pocket. ““Do come and see us soon.” I hoped she would hear the message under my words, that I would help her any way I could.
Florence pushed her mother back into the house. “Yes, yes. Good heavens, what terrible weather. Good bye!”
The door shut.
“What on Earth was all that?” Mama asked.
As soon as I was alone in my bedchamber, I took the letter out. Plain envelope, black ink. Printed block letters nearly washed away by the rain. Why was Florence so worried? Why couldn’t she visit her own brother and deliver the letter herself? No doubt she didn’t want her mother asking questions about whatever the letter was about.
I itched to find out what it was about. Curiosity is my besetting sin.
A nobler soul would have refused to pry. Had Florence received a love letter from a secret admirer, and wanted her brother’s help to encourage him? Florence deserved an admirer! She was shy, hiding herself away by practicing the piano. Her sister Maude was bolder in seeking out masculine attention.
Not that either sister had much hope of marriage, for their dragon of a mother pronounced every suitor a fortune-hunter or a cad and chased them all away. Poor girls, what were they to do but go behind their mother’s back?
Maude had been absent today, when Mama and I had paid our call. To tell the truth, I would have expected Maude to get herself into a scrape over a man. Not quiet Florence.
But the quiet sister had been the one who had begged me to take this letter to their brother. My duty was clear. Mine was not to wonder why. I was simply to carry the letter to its destination like a good messenger.
But shouldn’t I know what I was getting myself into? Perhaps I should decline to get involved, if this was a love letter from some hopelessly unsuitable but highly romantic young man.
My curiosity won. I opened the letter with the greedy hope of reading a declaration of love, a promise of undying devotion. Ah, if only one day I should have such beautiful sentiments written to me!
The single page was stiff, and crackled as I opened it. It said,
“Put £500 in a plain container behind Marble Arch at SIX this day for Daughter to be returned alive.”
I jolted back as if struck by a physical blow. The letter dropped from my hands. Instantly all was clear to me: Maude was in trouble. There was no telling how she’d been lured into the trap, but “Daughter” must mean Maude and she’d been kidnapped.
My eyesight blurred with helpless tears.
After a few moments I wiped my eyes on my sleeve and looked at the paper again. The message was made of words cut from another document. But not from a newspaper — from something handwritten in fine, spidery copperplate. It was ghoulish to see such menace expressed in elaborate curls of ink.
What should I do? My own dear Mama would have said that crimes are best left to the police, or to Strong Men. Mr. William Gilbert was just the man to save his sister. I must take the letter to him without delay.
I chose my sturdiest walking boots, my navy blue wool pelisse and brown bonnet. Brown kid gloves, a big black umbrella and a purse with as much money as I had, and I was ready.
Casually, I strode downstairs.
“I am going to the linen drapers on Kensington High Street to look for ribbons, Mama,” I called. A preoccupied hum from the parlor told me that Mama was most likely counting her knitting stitches.
Once safely out of the house, I walked to the High Street before hailing a cab. Mama had hailed many cabs, but this was my first solo attempt. Soon enough, a hackney pulled up. The driver was a round and jolly man with a big red nose and huge fists. Climbing heavily down from his perch, he helped me scramble up into the passenger’s seat. I gave him my direction and he nodded.
Speed was of the essence. “SIX” was the time specified in the ransom note, and though it was only mid-afternoon, I was conscious of the moments slipping too swiftly by.
We trotted past Hyde Park, past cages of scaffolding around office buildings and mounds of rubble dug out of road-work trenches. A driver attempting to back his dray into an alley-way brought traffic to a standstill, and I leaned out of the cab, wondering if I should walk the few blocks from High Holborn to Mr. Gilbert’s law chambers in Gray’s Inn.
The number of male heads swiveling in my direction changed my mind. I drew back, hiding from their curious gazes.
When we arrived at Gray’s Inn, my relief was so great I handed the driver his fee plus a shilling tip.
The Inns of Court are an all-male preserve, and many barristers had their offices at Gray’s Inn. The place even smelled male, of cigar smoke and dusty papers and hair oil. As I entered the reception area, I felt like an explorer penetrating some unknown land.
My insides fluttered. What would Mr. Gilbert think when he saw me? Would he be pleased, or would he be annoyed that an unimportant little acquaintance had interrupted his busy day? It didn’t help that I knew I was the bearer of bad news.
A sly-looking young man with dark pomaded hair and a thick black mustache under a hatchet-blade of a nose approached me. He was dressed in the black frock coat and striped gray trousers of a lawyer. He leered at me. “Good day, my dear. How may I assist you?”
I drew myself up, making myself as tall as possible. “Is Mr. Gilbert here? I have an important matter to discuss with him. Privately.” My face felt hot. I drew in a breath. “I have a letter for him.”
The young man stilled, suddenly alert. “A letter?”
I backed away.
A door slammed open. A man with long, graying hair and spectacles resting on his nose stumped down the hall. He stopped when he saw us.
“Culver, no women allowed. Keep your light o’ loves out of here.”
In a loud voice I demanded, “Where is Mr. Gilbert?”
The gray-haired man growled, “Regency Theatre. Now take yourself off.”
“And where is the Regency Theatre?” I turned a haughty glare on the older man.
He gave me some curt directions and I stalked out with my head high. Outside, I swallowed nervously. The cab driver who had brought me was long gone. I would have to walk to this Regency Theater.
My brown velvet bonnet and navy blue pelisse seemed bright and new on these shabby streets, lined with even shabbier public houses. Even the people seemed worn down. Drab and hopeless women mutely offered me their bunches of sharp-smelling watercress. Men pushing carts redolent of baked potatoes or roasted chestnuts whistled and called out. Even the pair of gaudily-dressed women waiting on the corner stared at me.
Their gazes prickled against my back as I stopped in front of the theater, which was closed up tight. Foolishly, awkwardly, I searched for a doorbell, then knocked on one of the big double-doors.
A high-pitched voice said, “Go round to the stage door, miss. Down the alley.”
I looked over my shoulder. The boy who had spoken stuck out a grubby hand.
I put sixpence in it.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a mob of ragged urchins surrounded me, hands reaching, clawing. Voices shrilled for money. I flattened my back against the locked theater doors.
“G’wan! Go!” The first urchin beat the others away from me. They cowered and fled. He said cheerfully, “They’s hungry, is all. Makes ‘em forgit themselves.”
I gave him a second coin.
“Fanks, Milady,” he said, tugging his forelock in respect as if I were a wealthy noblewoman. He vanished.
Stage door. Of course. Taking a deep breath, I peered down the malodorous lane that the boy had indicated. There was the stage door set into the brick wall, so I picked my way down the alley, ignoring the things that squelched under my feet. My boots were going to stink. I wasn’t even going to think about the hem of my skirt.
Was all this a fool’s errand? What if I was wrong about everything? I could have completely misinterpreted everything I’d seen this morning – Maude might be lying safely in bed at this very moment. The letter might have been a joke I’d failed to understand and this entire trip a reckless waste of time.
I slipped my hand into the pocket and felt the hard edges of the envelope. …for Daughter to be returned alive. No, I hadn’t mistaken the anguish on Florence’s face. The danger was real.
I knocked on the stage door.
A bleary eye appeared in the crack of the door, which then opened to reveal a wizened and toothless old face. “Auditions is Tuesday.”
The door started to close again, and I wedged one foot into the gap. “I’m not an actress. I wish to speak to a – a gentleman who is in the theater. He’s a writer.”
The door opened wider, and the wizened old person burst into a loud cackle that ended in a fit of coughing that doubled her over. By this time, I could see that she was a charwoman – black knitted shawl, dingy white apron and a bucket of dirty water.
“You wish to speak to a writer! Dearie, nobody speaks to them.”
“His name is Mr. Gilbert,” I said impatiently.
Since the charwoman was not putting up any further resistance, I stepped in. I found myself backstage amid narrow corridors with bare wooden floors lined with equipment, props, tools, ladders, ropes and props. The plastered walls were discolored with large rings of mildew and everything smelled of disuse and neglect.
I walked down the corridor, hoping to find the stage eventually. A lucky turn took me directly onto a brightly-lit stage.
Two actresses and an actor stood on the stage, talking to a woman with gray-streaked hair sitting in the front row the audience. Rustling sounds from the rear of the darkened house told me that there were other people present.
“Auditions are held on Tuesdays,” said the actor closest to me, a slender, elegant man with a Van Dyke beard and a smile like a friendly Satan. His voice was sonorous and musical.
“I’m looking for Mr. Gilbert,” I explained. “It’s terribly urgent.”
“Oh, Mr. Gilbert!” said one of the actresses. “It’s teddibly urgent!”
A burst of laughter greeted this sally.
The older woman barked, “Control yourselves! Mr. Gilbert?”
Mr. Gilbert hurried forward. “Yes, Mrs. Wilton.“
“The green room, if you please.”
Once we were alone, I handed over the letter. He paled as he read it, then collapsed into one of the worn-out chairs. Poor man, what a shock to have such a disaster break over one’s head all of a sudden!
“Tell me what I can do,” I urged him. “Can you find her? Where could she be?”
He shook his head.
“Can you deliver the 500 pounds?”
That roused him. “It’s a bloody fortune! How am I supposed to find 500 pounds? I thought I was rich when I inherited 300 pounds – and that was spent almost as soon as I had it – one hundred to pay my call to the Bar, another hundred to be articled to a conveyancer’s chambers, and the last to outfit my own chambers.”
He looked so desperate. I was filled with pity, not just for him but for Maude as well. What must she be thinking? Betrayed, imprisoned… how could we find and free her?
“It’s a bloody mystery to me,” snapped Mr. Gilbert. I hadn’t realized that I’d spoken aloud. I frowned at him. He added, “Sorry. Dreadful language.”
“Show me that letter again.”
He handed me the ransom note, a puzzled look on his face.
“Florence wanted me to keep it a secret from your mother,” I said. “Now, if we assume Maude liked a gentleman that your mother disapproved of, where would she have met him?”
“Maude’s a fool,” growled Mr. Gilbert, tearing at his hair.
“Look at this,” I said, pointing at the ransom note. “The words are cut from some other document. Something old and handwritten.”
Mr. Gilbert leaned over the letter on the table. With his long fingers he pressed the small squares flat. “You’re right. Probably cut from an old property deed. An old will, maybe, or a trust.”
“Wouldn’t a newspaper have been a better choice?” I reasoned. “Someone is bound to notice a Last Will and Testament with holes in it, like a slice of Swiss cheese.”
Mr. Gilbert turned to me with an arrested expression.
I said, “You look like you’ve seen something like that.”
“I’m afraid I have,” Mr. Gilbert said quietly. “At Gray’s Inn. In the chambers of another barrister there.”
A terrible thought grew in my mind. “Did Maude ever meet this person?”
“No,” Mr. Gilbert said. He shook his head like a man denying the evidence of his own eyes. “No. She couldn’t – she wouldn’t—“
I watched him carefully. “Should we go back there?”
“I’ll handle it.” He thrust the ransom note in his pocket as he strode from the room.
“The devil you will,” I said, and sprinted after him.
I had to run to keep up with his long legs, but we were back at Gray’s Inn faster than I thought possible. Mr. Gilbert pounded on one of the doors. “Culver!”
The door burst open under his assault. In front of an untidy desk spilling over with yellowed documents, stood the sly young man I’d met before. He turned to face his unexpected intruders with a look of surprise and indignation on his face.
In two strides, Mr. Gilbert had reached the man. With one blow he knocked him down. “Where is she?” he roared.
With a growl, Culver pushed himself up off the floor and swung a fist at Mr. Gilbert. The blow missed, and Mr. Gilbert struck him again. “Where is my sister?”
A thump and a muffled cry sounded behind me. I spun on my heel to find a small door off to one side. Inside, lying on her side, I discovered Maude bound and gagged. I hurried to release her, picking at the knots with my fingers until they came free. Tears and explanations came pouring out of her as I crouched beside her, patting her shaking shoulders.
Once she’d pulled herself together, though, it took all my strength to keep her from flying at her kidnapper to scratch his eyes out.
“Don’t get in between them! You might make your brother miss the fellow,” I warned. “We don’t want Culver to escape.”
So she held back. But when the police constables grabbed the bruised Culver by the arms, ready to haul him away, Maude gave him a solid kick in the shins.
On our way home to Kensington, Maude explained that Mr. Culver had promised her marriage – as soon as he had made enough money. She’d had no idea what he’d planned.
“I didn’t hit him enough,” muttered Mr. Gilbert.
“Yes you did,” I said.
As I went to climb out of the cab, she hugged me. “Thank you. I’ve been a fool.”
“No!” I soothed, hugging her back.
“You couldn’t have known,” Mr. Gilbert gruffly told his sister.
She flung her arms around him. “Thank you, Bab,” she said in a choked voice.
He patted her back, rolling his eyes and smiling lopsidedly with a very brotherly blend of affection and exasperation. I hoped he could help her find a better partner. Maybe even someone his mother might not disapprove of.
Suddenly, I turned back to them. “Just – please don’t tell my Mama.”
“We won’t tell yours if you don’t tell ours,” Maude replied.
Mr. Gilbert winked at me. “It’s our secret.”