Bridie Devine has, for some years, resided on Denmark Street in the rooms above the shop premises belonging to Mr. Frederick Wilks, bell hanger. Mr. Wilks is a very old man with the look of something that has been carefully varnished and then put away for a long time. His face is as benign as his clothes are severe. Above a stiff jet-buttoned frock coat, with the rigidity of something ossified, moons a round face with large bleary eyes and a larger man’s pair of ears framing a white-haired head. Bridie suspects that the old man lives in the shop, tidying himself away into the tool cupboard at night. By day, he sits by the window fiddling with his tollers or polishing his clappers. Held upright by his coat, Mr. Wilks rarely moves, but when he does it’s with a sudden flapping flit, from stool to workbench and back again.
Bridie rents from Mr. Wilks the two upper floors (comprising: parlor, kitchen and scullery, bedchamber and maid’s attic room) and the use of a yard if she wants it. It is not the most salubrious of addresses, granted; the more genteel or less robust visitor may recoil at its proximity to slums notorious and their noxious emissions (criminal, moral, and pestilential). But it’s a convenient spot in a friendly street nestled between Herr Weiss, baker, and Mr. Dryden, gunlock manufacturer. Bridie Devine is unquestionably the best tenant Mr. Wilks has ever had. Deaf from decades of bell testing and milky eyed with cataracts, he is nevertheless able to both hear Mrs. Devine (oh, a melodious brogue that carries!) and see her (oh, glorious fiery locks!).
Mrs. Devine arrived at Mr. Wilks’s widowed. Details of the late Mr. Devine’s demise, previous standing in the world and other particulars of interest remain unforthcoming. Mrs. Devine is held to live either above or below her station (depending on who you talk to) on account of being in possession of a “mahogany” sideboard, a library of books, and a giantess of a maid she has taught to read these books. This is untrue; Bridie’s maid reads only penny-bloods (stories old and new, chiefly those featuring romances of exciting interest, highwaymen, and hangings).
Then there is the fact of Mrs. Devine’s occupation further to that of a widow with a modest annuity. A plaque hangs next to Bridie’s front door, which is beside Mr. Wilks’s front door (all cozy-like). This plaque might offer a clue as to the trade conducted upstairs:
MINOR SURGERY (ESP. BOILS, WARTS, EXTRACTIONS)
Look up. There is a locked-down, tight-lipped feel to Bridie’s residence. Her front door is always closed and the windows are rarely open, the curtains are sometimes drawn and the shutters occasionally fastened. Neighbors are not encouraged to stop by for the cupeen of tea. Cora Butter, Bridie’s housemaid, is impervious to the joys of gossip and will not be baited into conversation, even when she’s out sweeping the front step.
Cora Butter is the only, and most terrifying, seven-foot-tall housemaid in London. The local children never tire of spying on Cora. On fair weather days she can be seen hanging out washing in the yard, singing hymns in her glorious baritone. Or else shaving in the kitchen, stropping her razor, taking time to work the soap into the bristles on her chin. And if she catches the children watching there’s the joy of hearing her bass bellow lift the rooftops and scatter rats and pigeons.
If you are calling on business, then Cora will fix you with an unnerving glare and lead you into the parlor.
Cora greets her mistress at the top of the stairs. Bridie hands Cora her cape. Cora shakes it violently, wrings its neck, and hangs it up.
“There’s a man in your parlor,” Cora says, a testy look in her eyes.
Cora nods. “He has the manner of a weasel about him. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.”
Bridie smiles up at her housemaid. Cora has never trusted a client. Cora doesn’t trust anyone. And, depending on his size, she can throw a man surprisingly far.
“Does he have a name?”
Cora opens the door to the parlor a fraction and they look inside. The caller paces from the fireplace to the window and back again, suggestive of a state of nervous agitation.
To be fair, the room itself would do nothing to contribute to his ease. It is low-ceilinged and dreary. The lights burn dim and there is no welcoming fire in the grate, for Cora is frugal with both coal and gas. The furniture is ill-matched and includes a gentleman’s writing bureau of an unfashionable design, cabinets crammed with glass bottles and bookcases stuffed with difficult reads. The sideboard is pretty and makes a stab at mahogany (but even in this light it’s clearly counterfeit). The caller squints at the spines of a few books, raises his eyebrows at several, and takes one from its shelf and opens it under the gaslight, only to hurriedly put it back again. He turns and notices, gathering dust on the mantelpiece, an object of mystery and interest. A large unfathomable mechanism wrought in dull metal with a rubber attachment ending in a sinister kind of nipple. A gauge of some kind, an instrument of some sort, but who can tell what?
The visitor draws nearer to this device. He puts out his finger and tentatively touches the rubber nipple, stepping back quickly as if expecting repercussions. When nothing happens he touches it again, stroking it lightly.
“See what I mean?” Cora whispers.
“He has an unpromising aspect to him.”
“It’s his head,” observes Cora, “as bald as a peeled bollock.”
“Testicle, Cora. What’s his business?”
“He wouldn’t say, but it’ll be sneaky business.” Cora glances at her. “Will I give him a clatter and hold him upside down until he admits to something?”
“We will try to find out what he wants without the clattering. By using our intelligence.”
Cora snorts and sails off to the kitchen. Bridie enters the room.
The caller turns and offers Bridie a rigid bow.
A man of middle age with luxuriant side-whiskers, the twin carpets of which cover his cheeks, as if to compensate for the smoothness of his pate. His chin is clean-shaven and the wire-framed spectacles he wears hooked high on the bridge of his nose are thick lensed. This inauspicious head is set on a hotchpotch body composed of a long back, thin arms, downward-sloping shoulders, and large womanly hips.
He has a pettish face, with a tense, red-lipped mouth and tiny eyes that flicker restlessly under glass, like tadpoles. They travel over Bridie in a series of inky darts.
He expected rather more.
But then people are always disappointing in the flesh if you’ve heard brave things about them. And, of course, Bridie Devine would be diminished, what with the debacle of her last disastrous case.
The caller looks closely to see how diminished Bridie Devine might be.
She is small and sturdy and stalwart in appearance; she’d stand in a storm. Divested of her bonnet, her hair, a riotous shade of auburn, escapes in wisps from her white widow’s cap. Her eyes are prominent, muddy green and roguish, changeable in expression. The caller is instantly put in mind of harems and savages, high seas and vagabonds.
“You are here on business, sir?” asks Bridie.
“On a matter of great urgency and even greater delicacy, madam.”
“You represent yourself in this matter?”
He shakes his head. “No, I represent a man of great social standing.”
“Good for him, and who are you that he’s sent to me, then? His valet?”
The smile becomes rigid. “His friend and personal physician, William Harbin.”
“Are you, now? Well, isn’t that grand.”
Bridie motions him to sit and takes the seat opposite. Dr. Harbin perches his backside on the edge. He’s a man with business so pressing he hasn’t time to sit down properly.