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The Gold Masters
By Norman Russell
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2006 Norman Russell
All rights reserved.
After the Exhumations
Detective Inspector Arnold Box, walking with a young constable along the cobbled length of Aberdeen Lane, caught sight of his own reflection in the mirrored door of The Grapes public house, and winced. It wasn't right for a Scotland Yard officer to look so jaded and disreputable. His tightly buttoned fawn overcoat was smart enough, and his brown bowler was tilted fashionably forward over his forehead, but his shirt collar was grimy, and his cheeks showed unmistakable signs of needing a shave.
He and young PC Lane had been on duty from midnight, when the oil flares had been lit in the backyard of 14 Back Peter Street, Soho, and the navvies had begun to hack up the brick surface in front of the outside privy. What followed had been very trying, to say the least.
They passed the police stables, where one or two of the ostlers looked up from their work to greet them. As they rounded the corner into King James's Rents, a neighbouring clock struck half past seven.
Arnold Box looked at his silent companion with concern. When the last of the bodies had come to light, a three-foot-long bundle wrapped in sacking and secured with rotting clothesline, PC Lane had swayed on his feet, and blundered out into the dark alley behind the squalid house. There had been four bodies in all, but only the last of them, dragged from the dark pit excavated beneath the yard, had affected the young man so badly. How old was he? Twenty-two, twenty-three. Not old, by any means, but old enough to have seen some of the shocking sights that formed part of a policeman's lot.
The cobbled expanse of King James's Rents lay quiet and deserted in the early morning July sun. On the far side of the square lay the entrance to Whitehall Place, where the old buildings of Scotland Yard were still occupied, though the main body of the force had moved, two years earlier, to Norman Shaw's magnificent new headquarters on the Embankment – New Scotland Yard, as they called it.
Young PC Lane belonged over there, in Whitehall Place, because he was an officer in 'A' Division. Normally in uniform, he had been borrowed from 'A' at short notice for Box's plain-clothes detail, as they'd been short handed yesterday at the Rents.
Lane had told him that he had been attached for the last three years to the special detail raised to guard bank premises whenever bullion was to be moved. He had not been accustomed to the kind of vileness that they had unearthed that night just past in Back Peter Street.
There was something wrong with Lane, and Box wanted to know what that 'something' was. He looked up at the soot-stained irregular pile of buildings that constituted Number 4 King James's Rents, then turned to the young constable.
'You'd better come into the Rents for a bite of breakfast, Constable Lane,' he said. 'You can finish writing your report in my office, and then get back across the cobbles to Inspector French.' He quickly mounted the worn steps that would take the two men into the gloomy warren of offices and passageways known as the Rents.
* * *
Inspector Box sat in his favourite chair at the cluttered table in his office, a long, dismal room reached through swing doors from the vestibule, and watched PC Lane as he finished his report on the exhumations in Soho. He was left-handed, and the quill pen squeaked in protest as it scratched its way across the official buff form. He'd asked Box the date, which he should have known, and Box had told him: Monday, 10 July.
Lane had a round face, that would have looked cheerful if it wasn't for the droopy straggling moustache that he favoured. Box's own adornment was of the clipped variety, eminently suitable for a man of thirty-five with a growing reputation as one of the Yard's cleverest young inspectors.
PC Lane was nearly six feet tall, and strongly made into the bargain. But height, Box thought, wasn't everything. Box wouldn't have called himself small. Average stature, that was the expression. Of medium height, with fair, well-brushed hair and dark eyes. Not everyone in this world could be a giant.
The swing doors opened, and an elderly man in shirt sleeves and waistcoat edged into the office, carrying a tray containing tea things, and a plate of bacon sandwiches.
'There you are, Mr Box,' he said, as the inspector hastily made a space among the books and papers, 'that bacon's hot from the frying-pan, so eat up them sandwiches straight away. I've put a can of boiling-hot water for you in the ablutions, together with a bit of soap and a cut-throat. Don't leave it to go cold! Will that be all, Mr Box? I'm off at eight.'
'That's all, Charlie, and thanks very much for this breakfast. You're a shining ornament, if I may say so.'
The man called Charlie chuckled as he turned away towards the door. Mr Box came out with some funny expressions.
'And you likewise, sir,' he said. 'Don't let that water go cold. If you do, you'll have to go upstairs all cut and bleeding when Superintendent Mackharness calls down for you.'
'Mr Mackharness is away in Birmingham today, Charlie,' Box replied. 'So I'll not be disturbed this morning. Not by him, anyway. But thanks for the hot water.'
When Charlie left the room, Box bit into his thick bacon sandwich, balanced what was left of it delicately over the edge of the table, and poured out two cups of strong tea from a brown enamel teapot. PC Lane pushed aside his completed report, and immediately attacked his breakfast with gusto. For some minutes the only sounds in the room were those of two hungry men breaking the fast of what had been a terrible night. Box glanced at the long railway clock on the wall beside the fireplace. Ten past eight.
'So what's the matter, PC Lane?' he asked, wiping his fingers delicately on a piece of ink-stained rag. 'What was it that made you stagger a bit back there in Soho? It wasn't just the exhumations, was it?'
PC Lane licked his fingers, and wiped them absent-mindedly on his coat. He gulped down a mouthful of tea, and sat back in his chair.
'No, sir, it wasn't the exhumations as such. It was the last bundle that did for me. It was a little girl....'
The constable's voice faltered, and he brushed away a tear with his coat sleeve.
'Emily Elizabeth Foy, aged two and a half,' said Box, glancing at a paper in front of him on the table.
'Yes, that's right. Well, just over two weeks ago the wife and I lost a little girl of that age. Two and a half. She could walk when she was twelve months old, but was slow to speak. She'd just started to say a few words when she died. Diphtheria. She was a funny little thing. Catherine, her name was. Catherine Mary Lane. Catherine because we liked the name, and Mary after her mother.'
The two men sat in silence for a while, listening to the settling of coal in the small fire burning in the grate, and the hissing of the rackety gas mantle suspended from the grimy ceiling. Whatever the season, it was chilly and dark in Box's office. Box thought: What can you say when a man tells you tragic things of that nature? Best just to listen, and say nothing. He took a cigar case from his pocket, opened it, and offered it to PC Lane.
'For me, sir? Thanks. Thanks very much. So that's why I was a bit upset back there last night, Mr Box. That bundle made me think of little Catherine Mary, struggling for life in her little cot.'
Box lit a thin cheroot, and passed his box of wax vestas across the table.
'Where do you live, Constable Lane?'
'Batt's Lane, sir, just off Bevis Marks. Do you know it?'
'Yes, I do. It's almost across from the Baltic Exchange. How's your wife bearing up to it?'
'Well, sir, we've three other children, two boys and a girl, so she's got her work cut out. But it's cruel hard for her. She started to visit a medium – a spiritualist. I don't hold with it myself, and not just for religious reasons, as you'll appreciate, sir. There's a lot of fraud and deception going on in that particular world.'
PC Lane suddenly smiled, and his morose face lit up, revealing the man that he would have liked to be. He drew on his cigar, blowing perfect smoke rings up to the ceiling.
'The woman Mary goes to see is called Mrs Pennymint. Would you credit it, sir? I've been to hear her, and it was just a lot of silly rot. I told Mary that I'd not stop her going, but that I wouldn't go there myself any more.'
Inspector Box wrote the name 'Pennymint' on the cover of an exercise book. The constable's eyes seemed to hold an expression of unassuaged desire for certainty.
'Did any money pass, Constable?'
'Oh, no, sir. But then, they'd have known that I was a policeman. There was a collecting plate, though, on a table near the door. That's legal enough. It wasn't a private house. It was a kind of whitewashed meeting-hall with a platform, and gas laid on. It's called the Temple of Light, and it's in a little back crack off Leyland Street in Spitalfields.'
'Quite a drag from where you live, then. Do you want to go again? You looked quite wistful when you said you'd never darken its doorstep again!'
'Well, Mr Box, to be honest, I would like to give this Mrs Pennymint another chance. There may be something. ... Two and a half, that's all my little girl was. She's in Putney Vale Cemetery.'
Arnold Box stood up. It was nearly half past eight, time to send PC Lane back across the cobbles to 'A' Division. He'd just have time to shave before Jack Knollys, his sergeant, came in from Syria Wharf.
'Well, Constable,' he said, 'if you really want to go back to that place, I'll go with you. You needn't tell your wife. We'll make it a kind of unofficial visit. Just let me know when you want to go, and I'll make myself available.'
PC Lane brushed a few crumbs from his overcoat, and picked up his hat from the table.
'You've been very decent to me, sir, what with breakfast and all, and I'll take you up on that offer, if I may. Good morning, sir.'
PC Lane drew himself briefly to attention, and hurried through the swing doors of Box's office.
Box rummaged round in the desk drawer until he found a spare white starched collar. Holding it in his hand, he left his office through the swing doors, turned abruptly right, and clattered along a bare-boarded passage that took him out into the enclosed yard at the back of the Rents. It was a roughly triangular area, wedged between tall black buildings. Superintendent Mackharness, a veteran of the Crimean War, liked to call it the exercise yard.
Box entered the ablutions, little more than a chilly stone passageway half open to the sky, and found his can of water still usefully lukewarm. A cut-throat razor and a piece of yellow soap lay ready on a square of towelling. He poured water into the brownstone sink, and began to shave himself, squinting into the fragment of mirror propped up on the ledge above the sink.
Poor young PC Lane. ... To lose his little girl was bad enough, but having to witness the exhumation of a murdered infant must have been the last straw. Yes, he'd go with him to visit this Mrs Pennymint. Women like that were vampires, preying on people's grief. They could be had up under the Vagrancy Act.
As for the Back Peter Street murder, it was now a closed case. Joseph Foy, costermonger, aged thirty-two, and his wife Thora, thirty, had been taken up on suspicion, following an information laid against them with the magistrates at Bow Street by a suspicious neighbour. Joseph Foy, terrified by a ranting preacher doing the rounds of the Bridewell, had suddenly confessed all.
Foy and his wife had smothered their three children, aged two and a half, four, and six, and for good measure had strangled their wretched maid, Ada Mason, aged fourteen, on the principle that dead maids told no tales. All the victims had been made up into neat parcels, and buried in quicklime beneath the backyard privy. It was rumoured that Ada Mason was another of Joseph Foy's children, conceived out of wedlock. The lives of each of the four victims had been insured for five pounds. Joseph Foy and Thora Foy would both hang.
Box swilled the razor under the hissing brass cold-water tap that hung over the sink, then released the plunger, sending his shaving water gurgling down the waste pipe into the grated gully in the yard. He patted his face delicately on his handkerchief, then spent a grim minute or so fixing his newly starched collar to the front and back studs of his shirt. Smartness was a necessity for a man who was often in the public eye. A final look in the mirror? Why not? No one could say that he was a dandy.
Medici House, the town mansion of the international financier Sir Hamo Strange, stood in Blomfield Place, a secluded enclave of ancient houses sandwiched between Lothbury and King's Arms Yard. It had survived the Great Fire of London, and rose in all its Renaissance splendour behind high brick walls enclosing a small but attractive garden. Here, on the morning of 10 July, 1893, while Inspector Box and PC Lane were eating their bacon sandwiches, the great financier was preparing for his journey into the City.
Sir Hamo Strange was a man so thin that his many enemies – and some of his friends – called him 'the articulated skeleton', and assumed that he must live in constant ill health. But as soon as Strange spoke, his listeners heard how his voice sprang with unexpected power and resonance from his attenuated body. One expected his lungs to be sere and dry, so that his ringing tones always came as a shock.
Certainly, Sir Hamo Strange appeared fragile, but beneath the apparently delicate exterior, there beat a heart of steel and an adamantine will, the heart and will of a man ruthless in the pursuit of wealth, and of what wealth could bring. Hamo Strange knew well enough that he was numbered among the great ones of the world, as the world measured greatness, and that his wants would be satisfied without question.
From his study on the first floor of Medici House, Sir Hamo could see the towering edifice of the Bank of England's rear elevation on Lothbury. It was to the Bank that he had been summoned by a special messenger, who had presented himself at Medici House late on Saturday evening.
It was just after eight o'clock, and Sir Hamo, having taken an early breakfast, was sitting at the desk in his book-lined study. He was dressed very formally, in clothes so cunningly tailored that his skeletal thinness was all but obscured. His pale face, its skin like ancient parchment, was unlined, and his great luminous eyes shone bright from their dark pigmented rings.
'Is all ready, Curteis?'
A handsome man in his early forties, who looked as distinguished as his famous master, Curteis had long ago attuned his ears to the demands lying behind his employer's powerful and domineering voice. Strange, he knew, expected an affirmative answer to that particular question. Any prevarication would have led to an unthinkably unpleasant scene. The secretary's voice was deferential but firm, and a glance at the man would reveal that he, like his master, had hidden strength and power held deliberately in reserve.
'Everything is in order, Sir Hamo. Your provisional list of consortium members is in your leather document case, together with your estimates of their possible contributions. I venture to suggest, sir, that the Governor will be startled to see that you've read his mind!'
Sir Hamo laughed, and his confidential secretary recalled that his master was never averse to a well-turned compliment.
'I expect you're right about that, Curteis,' Sir Hamo said. 'But that's the rule in this kind of business: be at least two steps ahead of the others. That's why I went to Stockholm immediately after my visit to Austria. I beat the Governor of the Bank of England – and his Chief Cashier – at his own game.'
'Another brilliant coup.'
'Yes, I suppose so. But it's small beer, you know, Curteis, compared to – well, compared to other business in hand. Business to do with the Foreign Office and the India Office. You know what I mean.'
'Ah, that, sir! Yes. There could be a peerage for you in that business, if all goes well.'
Sir Hamo smiled, and in that smile there was a warning to Curteis to say no more. Curteis was the only man whom Sir Hamo trusted. He was a man content to hear half-truths, and accept them as gospel, as in the impending business with the Foreign Office. But Strange had permitted him to know every detail of his labours over the Swedish Loan.
'Talking of Austria, sir,' Curteis continued, astutely changing the subject, 'have you had time to examine your purchase? The ancient book you bought from Herr Sudermann? I should imagine that it will be most interesting.'
'I've glanced at it, Curteis, no more than that. By any criterion it's a beautiful work. Magnificently produced, you know, and in six volumes, but with a special secret of its own that makes this particular set unique. It's through there, in the sanctum, reposing in the safe. But there, the City awaits my coming. Tell Johnson that I'm ready to be dressed for the street. See that the brougham is brought round to the side gate.'
When Curteis had gone, Sir Hamo sat in thought for a while, thinking of his recent visit to Austria. There, in the remote hill town of Regenstein, nestling in the dense forests of the Duchy of Styria, he had fulfilled an appointment with Herr Aaron Sudermann, the renowned dealer in antiquities. A ponderous, stooping man with shrewd grey eyes, Sudermann was an acknowledged genius at procuring the unprocurable for collectors of every kind. Sudermann was as much a genius in his line as Sir Hamo was in the world of international money-dealing, and he had employed that genius to secure for Strange one of the rarest books in the world: the unique 1519 edition of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible. It had stood discreetly parcelled in green baize on Sudermann's dining-room table, six quarto volumes bound in ancient embossed calf.
Sudermann had prised this unique set of volumes from the hands of the reclusive Spanish nobleman, Count Fuentes de la Frontera. On his own admission, he had almost been too late. A learned Scotsman, an emissary from Strange's hated rival Lord Jocelyn Peto, second son of the Marquess of Millchester had arrived on the same morning. Sudermann had won the day, and Count Fuentes had accepted £5000 in sovereigns. Without demur, Sir Hamo had reimbursed him by means of a personal cheque drawn on Hoare & Company of London.
'The carriage is at the door, sir.'
'What? Thank you, Curteis. I will be down directly.'
The Polyglot Bible. ... He had arranged for a young scholar from Cambridge to come up to Town and verify the provenance and authenticity of the work. Perhaps he should invite Lord Jocelyn Peto to view it? That would be an amusing revenge for Peto's attempt to thwart him in Spain. Peto's collection of old books and antiquities was of considerable worth, but he was not going to have the satisfaction of crowning its fame with the 1519 Bible.
Excerpted from The Gold Masters by Norman Russell. Copyright © 2006 Norman Russell. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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