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“[Anne] Perry once again demonstrates her true and lively passion. . . . Her finely drawn characters couldn’t be more comfortable within the customs and sensibility of their historical period.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Perry uses her well-mannered prose, satiric wit and sense of place and time to construct a completely believable and human world. A sterling performance.”—Library Journal
“With a steady hand at dissecting character and motivation, a keen grasp of social history and a flair for description of Victorian London, Perry guarantees a good read to those who like their murder in a believable historical and psychological context.”—Publishers Weekly
“[An] excellent Victorian thriller.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Hetty stood at the edge of Westminster Bridge and stared across the dark roadway at the man lounging rather awkwardly against the beautiful three-headed lamppost on the far side. A hansom cab passed between them, clattering northwards over the great span towards the Houses of Parliament on the far side, and the newly installed electric lights like a row of golden moons along the Victoria Embankment.
The man had made no move since she had come. It was after midnight. Such a well-dressed gentleman, with his silk hat and white evening scarf and the fresh flowers in his buttonhole, would hardly be lounging around here waiting for an acquaintance! He must be a likely customer. What else would he stand here for?
Hetty sauntered over to him, swishing her gold skirts elegantly and cocking her head a little to one side.
"Evenin' ducky! Lookin' fer a little comp'ny, are yer?" she asked invitingly.
The man made no move at all. He could have been asleep on his feet, for all the notice he took of her.
"Shy, are yer?" she said helpfully—some gentlemen found themselves tongue-tied when it came to the point, especially if it was not their habit. "Don' need ter be," she went on. "Nothin' wrong in a spot o' friendship on a cold night. My name's 'Etty. Why don't yer come along wiv me. 'Ave a nice tot o' gin, an' get ter know each other, eh? Don' corst much!"
Still the man neither moved nor spoke.
"'Ere! Wot's wrong wiv yer?" She peered at him, noticing for the first time that he was leaning back in rather a strained position, and that his hands were not in his pockets, as she would have expected at this time of a spring night in such chill, but were hanging by his sides. "Are yer sick?" she said with concern.
He remained motionless.
He was older than he had looked from the far side of the road, probably into his fifties; silver-gray hair caught the lamplight, and his face had a blank, rather wild stare.
"You're soused as an 'erring!" she exclaimed with a mixture of pity and disgust. She understood drunkenness well enough, but one did not expect it from the gentry, not in so public a street. "You better go 'ome, before the rozzers get yer. Go on! Yer can't spend all night 'ere!" No custom after all! Still, she had not done badly. The gentlemen on the Lambeth Walk had paid handsomely. "Silly ol' fool!" she added under her breath to the figure against the lamppost.
Then she noticed that the white scarf was round not only his neck but round the wrought iron decorative fork of the lamppost as well. Dear God—he was tied up to it—by his neck! Then the hideous truth struck her: that glassy stare was not stupor, it was ... death.
She let out a shriek that cut through the night air and the deserted road with its beautiful lamps and triple pools of light and shot up into the empty void of the sky above. She shrieked again, and again, as if now she had started she must continue on and on until there were some answer to the horror in front of her.
At the far side of the bridge dim figures turned; another voice shouted and someone began to run, footsteps clattering hollowly towards her.
Hetty stepped back away from the lamppost and its burden and tripped over the curb, falling clumsily into the road. She lay stunned and angry for a moment. Then someone bent over her, and she felt her shoulders lifted.
"You all right, luv?" The voice was gruff but not ungentle, and she could smell damp wool close to her face.
Why had she been so stupid? She should have kept quiet and gone on her way, left some other fool to find the corpse! Now a little knot of people was gathering round her.
"Gawd!" someone squealed in sudden horror. "'E's dead! Dead as a mackerel, poor beggar!"
"You'd better not touch him." This was an authoritative voice, quite different in tone, educated and self-confident. "Someone send for the police. Here you go, there's a good chap. There should be a constable along the Embankment."
There was the sound of running feet again, fading as they drew farther off.
Hetty struggled to stand up, and the man holding her hoisted her with good-natured concern. There were five of them, standing shivering and awed. She wanted to get away, most particularly before the rozzers arrived. Really, she had not used the wits she was born with, yelling out like that! She could have held her tongue and been half a mile away, and no one the wiser.
She looked round the ring of faces, all shadows and eerie highlights from the yellow lamps, breath making faint wisps of vapor in the cold. They were kindly, concerned—and there was no chance whatsoever she could escape. But she might, at least, get a free drink out of it.
"I've 'ad an 'orrible shock," she said shakily and with a certain dignity. "I feel all cold an' wobbly like."
Someone pulled out a silver flask, the light catching on its scrolled sides. It was a beautiful thing. "Have a sip of brandy?"
"Thank you, I'm sure." Hetty took it without protestation and drank every drop. She ran her fingers over it, tracing the engraving, before reluctantly handing it back.
Inspector Thomas Pitt was called from his home at five minutes past one in the morning, and by half past he found himself standing at the south end of Westminster Bridge in the shivering cold looking at the corpse of a middle-aged man dressed in an expensive black overcoat and a silk hat. He was tied by a white evening scarf round his neck to the lamppost behind him. His throat had been deeply cut; the right jugular vein was severed and his shirt was soaked in blood. The overcoat had hidden it almost entirely; and the folded scarf, as well as holding him up and a trifle backwards so the stanchion of the lamp took some of his weight, had also covered the wound.
There was a group of half a dozen people standing on the far side of the bridge, across the road from the body. The constable on duty stood beside Pitt with his bull's-eye lantern in his hand, although the streetlamps provided sufficient light for all that they could do now.
"Miss 'Etty Milner found 'im, sir," the constable said helpfully. "She said as she thought 'e were ill, an' inquired after 'is 'ealth. Reckon more like she were toutin' fer 'is business, but don't suppose it makes no difference, poor devil. 'E's still got money in 'is pockets, an' 'is gold watch 'n chain, so it don't look as if 'e were robbed."
Pitt looked again at the body. Tentatively he felt the lapels of the coat, taking off his own gloves to ascertain the texture of the cloth. It was soft and firm, quality wool. There were fresh primroses in his buttonhole, looking ghostly in the lamplight, with the faint wisps of fog that drifted like chiffon scarves up off the dark swirling river below. The man's gloves were leather, probably pigskin; not knitted, like Pitt's. He looked at the gold-mounted carnelian cuff links. He moved the scarf aside, revealing the blood-soaked shirt, studs still in place, and then let it fall again.
"Do we know who he is?" he asked quietly.
"Yes sir." The constable's voice lost some of its businesslike clarity. "I knows 'im meself, from bein' on duty round 'ere. 'E's Sir Lockwood 'Amilton, member o' Parliament. 'E lives somewhere souf o' the river, so I reckon as 'e was goin' 'ome after a late sittin', like usual. Some o' the gennelmen walks of a fine night, if they lives close, an' a lot o' them do, wherever they're a member for." He cleared his throat of some impediment, perhaps cold, perhaps a mixture of pity and horror. "Could be some town the other end of the country. They 'as to 'ave a place in town w'en the 'ouse is in session. And o' course them as is 'igh in government 'as ter be 'ere all the time, 'cept fer 'olidays and the like."
"Yes." Pitt smiled bleakly. He already knew the customs of Parliament, but the man was trying to be helpful. It was easier to talk; it filled the silence and drew one's mind from the corpse. "Thank you. Which one is Hetty Milner?"
"'Er over there, with the light-colored 'air, sir. T'other girl's in the same line o' business, but she isn't got nothin' ter do with this. Just nosy."
Pitt crossed the road and approached the group of people. He looked at Hetty, noted the painted face, hollow in this harsh lamplight, the low neckline of her dress, the fair skin which would be coarse in a handful of years, and the cheap, gaudy skirts. They were torn from when she had stumbled off the curb, showing slender ankles and a fine leg.
"I'm Inspector Pitt," he introduced himself. "You found the body tied up to the lamppost?"
"Yeah!" Hetty did not like the police; it was an occupational hazard that her associations with them had all been to her disadvantage. She had nothing against this one in particular, but she must do what she could to rectify her earlier stupidity by saying as little as possible now.
"Did you see anyone else on the bridge?" he asked.
"Which way were you going?"
"'Ome. From the souf."
"Over towards the Palace of Westminster?"
She had a suspicion he was laughing at her. "That's right!"
"Where do you live?"
"Near the Millbank Prison." Her chin came up. "That's close on to Westminster, in case as you dunno!"
"I know. And you were walking home alone?" There was nothing sardonic in his face, but she looked at him disbelievingly.
"Wot's the matter wiv yer? You daft or suffink? Course I was alone!"
"What did you say to him?"
She was about to say who? and realized it would be pointless. She had just virtually admitted she was there plying her trade. Bleedin' rozzer had led her into saying that!
"Asked 'im if 'e was ill." She was pleased with that answer. Even a lady might ask after someone's health.
"So he looked ill?"
"Yeah—no!" She swore under her breath. "All right, so I asked 'im if 'e wanted a spot o' comp'ny." She twisted her face in an attempt at sarcasm. "'E didn't say nuffin'!"
"Did you touch him?"
"Noi! in't no thief!"
"And you're sure you saw no one else? Nobody 'going home'? No trades-people?"
"At this time o' night? Sellin' wot?"
"Hot pies, flowers, sandwiches."
"No I didn't; just a cab as passed wivout stoppin'. But I didn't kill 'im. I swear by Gawd, 'e were dead w'en I got 'ere. Why would I kill 'im? I in't crazy!"
Pitt believed her. She was an ordinary prostitute, like countless thousands of others in London in this year of grace, 1888. She might or might not be a petty thief, she would probably unwittingly spread disease and herself die young. But she would not kill a potential customer in the street.
"Give your name and address to the constable," he said to her. "And make it the truth, Hetty, or we'll have to come looking for you, which would not be good for trade."
She glared at him, then swung round and walked over to the constable, tripping again on the curb but this time catching herself before she fell and continuing with her chin even higher.
Pitt went over to the other people and spoke to them, but none had seen anything, having come only when they heard Hetty's screams. There was nothing more he could do there, and he signaled to the mortuary carriage waiting at the far end of the bridge that it could come and remove the body. He had looked carefully at the scarf: the knot was such as anyone would tie without thinking, one end over the other, and then again. The man's weight had pulled it so tight it could not be undone. He watched them cut it with a knife and lower the corpse, then put it gently in the carriage, which drove away, a black shadow against the lights, clattering across the bridge and turning under the great statue of Boadicea in her chariot with the magnificent horses, and right along the Embankment till it disappeared. Pitt went back to the constable and the second uniformed man who had arrived.
Now came the duty that Pitt hated more than almost any other, except perhaps the final unwinding of the solution, the understanding of the passions and the pain that produced tragedy. He must go and inform the family, watch their shock and their grief and try to disentangle from their words, their gestures, the fleeting emotions on their faces any thread that might tell him something. So often it was some other pain or darkness, some other secret that had nothing to do with the crime, some ugly act or weakness that they would lie to protect.
It was not difficult to discover that Sir Lockwood Hamilton had lived at number seventeen Royal Street, about half a mile away, overlooking the garden of Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
It was hardly worth seeking a cab; it would be a short walk, and on a clear night very pleasant—no doubt that was what Lockwood Hamilton himself had thought when he left the House. And it would give Pitt time to think.
Ten minutes later he was standing on the step rapping with the brass knob on the fine mahogany door. He waited several moments, then rapped again. Somewhere in the attics a light came on, then one on the second floor, and finally one in the hallway. The door opened, and a sleepy butler in hastily donned jacket blinked at him, realized he was a stranger, and drew breath to be indignant.
"Inspector Thomas Pitt, of the Bow Street Station," Pitt said quickly. "May I come in?"
The butler sensed a certain gravity, perhaps a shadow of pity either in Pitt's face or voice, and his irritation dissolved.
"Is something wrong? Has there been an accident?"
"I'm sorry—it is more distressing than that," Pitt replied, following him in. "Sir Lockwood Hamilton is dead. I would omit the circumstances if I could, but it will be in the morning newspapers, and it would be better if Lady Hamilton were prepared for it, and any other members of the family."
"Oh—" The butler gulped, took a moment to gain his composure while all sorts of horrors raced through his mind, scandals and disgrace. Then he straightened himself and faced Pitt. "What happened?" he said levelly, his voice very nearly normal.
"I am afraid he was murdered. On Westminster Bridge."
"You mean ... pushed over?" The man's face registered disbelief, as though the idea were too ludicrous to credit.
"No." Pitt drew a breath. "He was attacked with a razor, or a knife. I'm sorry. It will have been very quick, all over in a moment, and he will have felt very little. I think you had better have her maid call Lady Hamilton, and prepare some restorative; a tisane, or whatever you think best."
"Yes—yes sir, of course." The butler showed Pitt into the withdrawing room, where the embers of the fire were still glowing, and left him to turn up the gas lamps and find a seat for himself while he set about his unhappy task.
Pitt looked round the room; it would tell him something of the people who lived here and made it their home while Parliament was sitting. It was spacious, far less cluttered with furniture than was the fashion. There was less fringing on couches and chairs, fewer hanging crystals on the light fixtures, no antimacassars or samplers, no family portraits or photographs, except one rather severe sepia tint of an elderly woman in a widow's white cap, framed in silver. It was at odds with the rest of the room, a relic of another age. If this was Lady Hamilton's choice of decor, then the woman might be Sir Lockwood's relative, perhaps his mother.
The pictures on the walls were cool, romantic, after the style of the Pre-Raphaelites; women with enigmatic faces and lovely hair, knights in armor, and twined flowers. On the decorative tables by the wall there were pewter ornaments of considerable age.
It was ten minutes before the door opened and Lady Hamilton came in. She was of above average height, with interesting, intelligent features which in her youth had probably had a certain loveliness. Now she was in her middle forties, and time had taken the first bloom from her skin and replaced it with marks of character which to Pitt were far more appealing. Her dark hair was coiled in the hastiest of knots at the nape of her neck, and she wore a dressing robe of royal blue.
She made an immense effort to remain dignified. "I understand you have come to tell me that my husband has been killed," she said quietly.
"Yes, Lady Hamilton," Pitt answered. "I am extremely sorry. I apologize for distressing you with the details, but I believe you would prefer to hear them from me, rather than from the newspapers or from other people."
She paled so markedly he was afraid for a moment she might collapse, but she drew in her breath and let it out very slowly, managing to retain her composure.
Excerpted from Bethlehem Road by Anne Perry. Copyright © 1990 Anne Perry. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 20, 2013
No text was provided for this review.