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Pitt leaned out of the bedroom window in his nightshirt and looked down into the street below. The police constable was standing on the pavement staring up at him. The constable's face, yellow in the gaslight from the street lamps, was tense and unhappy, and it was for more reason than simply having woken the commander of the Bow Street police station at four o'clock in the morning.
"Dead, sir," he answered Pitt's question. "An' I can't see as 'ow it could a' bin an accident, not 'ow 'e is, an' w'ere I found 'im. An' I oughta be gettin' back, sir. I darsen't leave 'im there by 'isself, sir. Someone might move 'im, like ... mess wif evidence."
"Yes, of course," Pitt agreed. "Go back, Constable. You did the right thing. I'll get dressed and I'll be there. I presume you haven't had a chance to call the surgeon or the mortuary van?"
"No sir, I come straight 'ere, seein' as w'ere 'e is."
"I'll call them. You go back and stand guard."
"Yes sir. I'm sorry, sir."
"Don't be. You did the right thing," Pitt repeated, pulling his head in and shivering involuntarily. It was June--at least nominally summer--but in London the nights were still chilly, and there was a faint mist hanging over the city.
"What is it?" Charlotte sat up in bed and fumbled for a match. He heard it scrape and then saw the flame as it caught the wick of the candle. It lit her face softly, gleaming on the warm, dark color of her hair, which was falling out of its long braid. She looked worried.
"They've found a body in Bedford Square," he answered. "It seems as if he was murdered."
"Do they really need you for that?" she protested. "Is it somebody important?"
Since his promotion Pitt had been asked to concentrate on those cases which were of political significance or threatened scandal.
"Maybe not," he replied, closing the window and walking over to where his clothes were hanging across the back of the chair. He took off his nightshirt and began to dress, not bothering with collar or cravat. There was water in the ewer, and he poured it into the basin. It was cold, but there was certainly no time to light the kitchen stove and heat it so he could shave. Unfortunately, there was also no time for a cup of tea, which he would have liked even more. He splashed his face and felt the sharp tingle of coldness, then with his eyes shut, felt for the towel.
"Thank you." He took it from Charlotte's outstretched hand. He rubbed his face vigorously, feeling the rough cotton stir the blood and warm him. "Because apparently he was on the front doorstep of one of the big houses," he replied.
"Oh." She understood the implications. London was peculiarly sensitive to scandal just now. In the previous year, 1890, a scandal had occurred at Tranby Croft. Now the trial was rocking the entire country. It was all very regrettable, a matter of gambling at a country house party, an accusation of cheating at baccarat, an illegal game, and of course an indignant denial. But what could not be hidden or excused was that the Prince of Wales had been involved and was now to be called to the witness stand to give evidence. Half of London opened the daily newspapers with bated breath.
Pitt finished dressing. He put his arms around Charlotte and kissed her, feeling the warmth of her skin and pushing back the heavy hair with his fingers, enjoying its softness with an all-too-fleeting pleasure.
"Go back to bed," he said gently. "I'll be home when I can, but I doubt it'll be for breakfast." He tiptoed across the floor and opened the door quietly, not to waken the children and Gracie, the maid, asleep up on the top floor. The landing gaslight was always left on very low, and it was sufficient for him to see his way downstairs. In the hall he picked up the telephone--a fairly recent acquisition in his home--and asked the operator to connect him with the Bow Street Station. When the sergeant answered, Pitt instructed him to send the police surgeon and mortuary van to Bedford Square. He replaced the receiver, put on his boots and took his jacket from the hook by the front door. He slid back the latch and stepped outside.
The air was damp and chilly but it was already beginning to get light, and he walked quickly along the glistening pavement towards the corner of Gower Street and turned left. It was only a few yards into Bedford Square, and even from that distance he saw the unhappy figure of the constable standing alone about halfway along the pavement. He looked immensely relieved to see Pitt striding towards him out of the gloom. His expression brightened visibly and he waved his bull's-eye lantern.
"Over 'ere, sir!" he called out.
Pitt neared him and glanced where he was pointing. The dark figure was easy to see lying sprawled on the front steps of the large house immediately to their left. It seemed almost as if he must have been reaching for the doorbell when he fell. The cause of death was apparent. There was a deep and bloody wound on the side of his head. It was difficult to imagine how he could have come by it in any accident. Nothing that could have occurred in the roadway would have thrown him so far, nor was there another wound visible.
"Hold the light for me," Pitt requested, kneeling down beside the body and looking at it more closely. He touched his hand gently to the man's throat. There was no pulse, but the flesh was still just warm. "What time did you find him?" he asked.
"Sixteen minutes afore four, sir."
Pitt glanced at his pocket watch. It was now thirteen minutes past. "What time did you come this way before that?"
"Abaht quarter afore three, sir. 'E weren't 'ere then."
Pitt turned around to look up at the street lamps. They were off. "Find the lamplighter," he ordered. "He can't have been here long ago. They're still lit on Keppel Street, and it's barely daylight enough to see anywhere. He's a bit sharp as it is."
"Yessir!" the constable agreed with alacrity.
"Anyone else?" Pitt asked as the constable took a step away.
"No sir. Too early for deliveries. They don' start till five at the soonest. No maids up yet. 'Nother 'alf hour at least. Bit late fer partyers. Most o' them's 'ome by three. Though yer never know yer chances, like. Yer could ask...."
Pitt smiled wryly. He noticed that the constable had abandoned doing it himself and considered Pitt the one to work the gentry of Bedford Square and ask them if they had happened to notice a corpse on the doorstep, or even a fight in the street, as they returned from their revels.
"If I have to," Pitt said dourly. "Did you look in his pockets?"
"No sir. I left that fer you, sir."
"I don't suppose you have any idea who he is? Not a local servant or tradesman, suitor to one of the maids around here?"
"No sir, I in't never seen 'im afore. I don't reckon as 'e belongs 'ere. Shall I go an' find the lamplighter, sir, afore 'e goes too far?"
"Yes, go and find him. Bring him back here."
"Yessir!" And before Pitt could think of any more questions for him, he put his bull's-eye down on the step, turned on his heel and strode off into the broadening dawn light.
Pitt picked up the lantern and examined the dead man. His face was lean, the skin weathered, as if he spent much of his time outside. There was a faint stubble of beard across his cheeks. His hair had little color, a dark mousy brown that had probably been fair in his youth. His features were pleasant enough, a trifle pinched, upper lip too short, eyebrows wispy, the left one with a pronounced break in it as if from an old scar. It was a face easy to see and forget, like thousands of others. Pitt used his finger to ease the collarless shirt back an inch or two. The skin under it was fair, almost white.
Next he looked at the man's hands. They were strong, lean, with fingernails chipped and far from clean, but they did not look like the hands of a manual worker. There were no calluses. The knuckles were torn as if he had been in a hard fight very recently, perhaps only moments before his death. The bleeding was slight in spite of the ripped skin, and there had not been time for bruising.
Pitt slipped his hand into a jacket pocket and was startled to close his fingers over a small metal box. He pulled it out and turned it over under the light. It was exquisite. He could not tell at a glance whether it was gold-plated or solid, or possibly even pinchbeck, that brilliant imitation of gold, but it was intricately modeled like a tiny cathedral reliquary, the sort used to house the bones of saints. The top was decorated with a tiny reclining figure, relaxed in death and wearing long clerical robes and a bishop's mitre. Pitt opened the box and sniffed gently. Yes, it was what he had supposed, a snuffbox. It could hardly have belonged to the man who lay dead at his feet. Even if it were pinchbeck it would be worth more than he had seen in a month, perhaps in a year.
But if he had been caught stealing it, why was he left here on the doorstep, and above all, why had whoever killed him not retrieved the box?
Pitt felt to see if there was anything else in the pocket, and found only a short length of string and a pair of bootlaces, apparently unused. In the man's other pockets he found a key, a piece of rag for a handkerchief, three shillings and four pence in small change, and several pieces of paper, one of which was a receipt for three pairs of socks purchased only two days before from a shop in Red Lion Square. That, if diligently followed, might possibly tell them who he was. There was nothing else to indicate his name or where he lived.
Of course, there were thousands of people who had no homes and simply slept in doorways or under railway arches and bridges, or at this time of the year in the open, if tolerant police did not disturb them. But looking at this man, Pitt deduced that if such misfortune had happened to him, it must have been recent. His clothes were all hard worn; there were holes in his socks--these were not the new ones! The soles of his boots were paper-thin in places, but he was dry. He had not the inlaid grime or the musty, moldy smell of someone who lived outside.
Pitt stood up as he heard footsteps along the pavement and saw the familiar, awkward, angular figure of Sergeant Tellman approaching him from the Charlotte Street direction. He would not have mistaken Tellman even in the lamplight, but the dawn was now whitening the eastern sky.
Tellman reached him and stopped. He was hastily dressed, but it was noticeable only in his jacket, buttoned one hole crooked. His collar was as tight and straight as usual, his cravat as plain and neat, his hair wet, combed back from his lantern-jawed face. He looked dour also, as usual.
"Some gentleman too drunk to avoid being run down by a hansom?" he asked.
Pitt was used to Tellman's opinion of the privileged.
"If he was a gentleman he was on extremely hard times," he replied, glancing down at the body. "And he wasn't hit by a vehicle. There isn't a mark on his clothes other than where he fell, but his knuckles are grazed as if he put up quite a fight. Look at him yourself."
Tellman eyed Pitt sharply, then bent as he was told and examined the dead man. When he stood up again, Pitt held out his hand with the snuffbox in it.
Tellman's eyebrows shot up. "He had that?"
"Then he was a thief...."
"So who killed him, and why here on the front doorstep? He didn't go in or out that way!"
"Don't reckon as he was killed here either," Tellman said with a hint of satisfaction. "That wound on his head must have bled a good bit ... heads do. Cut yourself and you'll soon see. But there's not much on the step around him. I'd say he was killed somewhere else and put here."
"Because he was a thief?"
"Seems a good reason."
"Then why leave the snuffbox? Apart from its value, it's the one thing that could trace him back to the house he stole it from. There can't be many like it."
"Don't know," Tellman admitted, biting his lips. "Doesn't make sense. I suppose we'll have to start asking all 'round the square." His face reflected vividly his distaste at the prospect.
They both heard the clatter of hooves at the same time as a hansom came from the Caroline Street corner of the square at a brisk clip, followed immediately by the mortuary van. The van stopped a dozen yards along the curb and the hansom drew level with them. The frock-coated figure of the surgeon climbed out, straightened his collar and walked over to them. He nodded greeting, then regarded the dead man with resignation. He hitched the knees of his trousers slightly, to avoid stretching the fabric, and squatted down to begin his examination.
Pitt turned as he heard more footsteps, and saw the constable coming with a highly nervous lamplighter, a thin, fair-haired man dwarfed by his pole. In the dawn light through the trees he looked like some outlandish knight-at-arms with a jousting lance beyond his strength to wield.
"I din't see nuffink," he said before Pitt could ask him.
"You passed this way," Pitt reaffirmed. "This is your patch?"
There was no escaping that. "Yeah ..."
"S'mornin'," he replied as if it should have been obvious. "'Bout first light. Like I always do."
"Do you know what time that was?" Pitt said patiently.
"First light ... like I said!" He sent a nervous, sideways look at the body, half obscured by the surgeon as he bent over it. "'E weren't 'ere then. I din't see 'im!"
"Do you have a watch?" Pitt pursued, with little hope.
"Wo'for? Gets light different time every day," the lamplighter said reasonably.
Pitt realized he was not going to get more exact than that. The answer, from the lamplighter's point of view, was sensible enough.
"Did you see anyone else in the square?" he said instead.
"Not this side." The lamplighter shook his head. "There were an 'ansom on t'other side, takin' a gennelman 'ome. Bit the worse fer wear, 'e were, but not fallin' down, like. Din't come 'round 'ere."
"No one else?"
"No. Too late fer most folks from parties, an' too early fer maids an' deliveries an' like."
That was true. At least it narrowed it down a little more. It had been dark when the constable had been on his previous round, and barely light when he had found the body. The lamplighter could not have been around long before. Which meant the body had been put there within the space of fifteen or twenty minutes. It was just possible, if they were very lucky, that someone had awoken in one of the houses on this side and heard footsteps or shouting, even a single cry. It was a forlorn hope.
"Thank you," Pitt accepted. The sky was pale now beyond the heavy trees in the center of the square, the light shining on the far rooftops and reflecting mirrorlike in the top-story windows above them. He turned to the surgeon, who seemed to have completed at least his superficial examination.
"A fight," he pronounced. "Short one, I'd guess. Know more when I see him without his clothes. Could be other abrasions, but his coat isn't torn or stained. Ground was dry, if he fell over or was knocked. Wasn't on the street, anyway. There's no mud on him that I can see. No trace of manure or anything else. And the gutters are pretty wet." He glanced around. "Rained yesterday evening."
"I know," Pitt retorted, looking at the glistening cobbles.
"'Course you do," the surgeon agreed, nodding at him. "Don't suppose I can tell you anything you don't! Have to try. What I'm paid for. One very heavy blow to the side of the head. Killed him. Probably a length of lead pipe or a candlestick or a poker. Something of that sort. I'd guess metal rather than wood to do that much damage. Heavy."
"Likely to be marks on the person who did it?" Pitt asked.
The surgeon pursed his lips thoughtfully. "A few bruises. Perhaps where the fist connected. Judging by the splits on his knuckles, most likely a jaw or head. Clothes or soft flesh wouldn't do that.
Face would be bruised, hand wouldn't show. Other fellow had a weapon, this one didn't, or he wouldn't have had to use his fists. Nasty."
"I'm not arguing," Pitt said dryly. He shivered. He was getting cold. "Can you say anything about time?"
"Nothing you can't deduce for yourself," the surgeon replied. "Or about the poor devil here," he added. "If I can improve on that, I'll send you a message. Bow Street good enough?"
"Certainly. Thank you."
The surgeon shrugged slightly, inclined his head in a salute and went back to the mortuary wagon to instruct his men in the removal of the body.
Pitt looked at his pocket watch again. It was just after quarter to five.
"I suppose it is time we started waking people," he said to Tellman. "Come on."
Tellman sighed heavily, but he had no option but to obey. Together they walked up the steps of the house where the body had been found, and Pitt pulled the brass doorbell. Tellman rather liked Pitt's refusal to go to the tradesmen's entrance, as someone of the social order of policemen should do, but while he approved the principle, he also loathed the practice. Let Pitt do it when Tellman was not with him.
It was several long, uncomfortable minutes before they heard the bolts slide and the lock turn. The door swung inward and an extremely hastily dressed footman, not in livery but in ordinary dark trousers and jacket, stood blinking at them.
"Yes sir?" he said with alarm. He was not yet practiced enough to have the really superior footman's supercilious air.
"Good morning," Pitt replied. "I am sorry to disturb the household so early, but I am afraid there has been an incident which necessitates my making enquiries of both the staff and the family." He held out his card. "Superintendent Pitt, of the Bow Street Station. Would you present it to your master and ask him if he will spare me a few moments of his time. I am afraid it concerns a very serious crime, and I cannot afford the pleasantries of waiting until a more civilized hour."
"A crime?" The footman looked startled. "We haven't been burgled, sir. There's been no crime here. You must have made a mistake." He started to close the door again, relieved to shut the whole matter outside on the street. It was somebody else's problem after all.
Tellman moved forward as if to put his foot in the doorway, then resisted. It was undignified. He hated this. Give him ordinary people to deal with any day. The whole notion of being in service to someone else was abomination to him. It was no way for a decent man, or woman, to make a living.
"The burglary is incidental, if indeed there was one," Pitt said firmly. "The murder is my concern."
That stopped the footman as if frozen. The blood fled from his face.
"The ... the what?"
"Murder," Pitt repeated quietly. "Unfortunately, we found the body of a man on your doorstep about an hour ago. Now, would you please be good enough to waken your master and inform him that I need to speak to everyone in the house, and I would like his permission to do so."
The footman swallowed, his throat jerking. "Yes ... yes sir. If ... I mean ..." His voice trailed off. He had no idea where one left policemen to wait at five o'clock in the morning. Normally one would not permit them on the premises at all. If one had to, it would be the local constable, perhaps for a hot cup of tea on a cold day, and that in the kitchen, where such people belonged.
"I'll wait in the morning room," Pitt said to assist him, and because he had no intention of being left shivering on the step.
"Yes sir ... I'll tell the General." The footman backed in, and Pitt and Tellman followed him.
"General?" Pitt asked.
"Yes sir. This is General Brandon Balantyne's home."
The name was familiar. It took Pitt a moment to place it. It must be the same General Balantyne who had previously lived in Callander Square when Pitt was investigating the deaths of the babies, nearly a decade before, and who had also been involved in the tragedies in the Devil's Acre three to four years later.
"I didn't know that." It was a foolish remark, and he realized it the moment it had crossed his lips. He saw Tellman turn to look at him with surprise. He would have preferred not to discuss the past with Tellman. If he did not have to, he would let it lie. He walked smartly across the hall after the footman and followed him into the morning room, leaving the door open for Tellman.
Inside was so exactly what Pitt expected it jerked him back sharply, and for a moment the intervening years disappeared. The shelf of books was the same, as in the previous house, the dark brown and green-leather furniture, polished with use. On the mellow wood of the small table was the brass replica of the cannon at Waterloo, gleaming in the gaslight the footman had lit and turned up for them. On the wall over the mantelpiece hung the picture Pitt remembered of the charge of the Royal Scots Greys, again from Waterloo. The Zulu assegai was on the wall next to the fireplace and the paintings of the African veld, pale colors bleached by sun, red earth, flat-topped acacia trees.
He had not meant to look at Tellman, but he turned and caught the sergeant's eye accidentally. Tellman was staring, his face a mask of disapproval. Tellman had not even met the man, but he knew he was a general, he knew that at the time of his service officers had purchased their commissions rather than earned them. They came from a few wealthy military families, all educated at the best schools, Eton, Rugby, Harrow, and then possibly a year or two at Oxford or Cambridge, more probably straight into the army--and at a rank no working-class man could hope to achieve even after a lifetime's service, risking his life on the battlefield and his health in foreign climes for no more recompense than the king's shilling.
Pitt knew Balantyne, and liked him, but there was no point in saying that to Tellman. Tellman had seen too much injustice and had felt it too keenly among his own people to hear anything Pitt would say. So he kept silence, and waited, standing by the window watching the light broaden across the square outside and the shade deepen under the trees in the center. The birds were loud, starlings and sparrows. A delivery cart rattled by, stopping regularly. An errand boy on a bicycle came around the corner rather too sharply and steadied himself with an effort, his cap falling over his ears.
The morning room door opened, and Pitt and Tellman both turned to face it. In the entranceway stood a tall man with broad shoulders. His fair brown hair was graying at the temples and beginning to thin. His features were powerful, with an aquiline nose, high cheekbones and a broad mouth. He was leaner than when Pitt had last seen him, as if time and grief had worn down the reserves of his strength, but he still stood very upright--in fact, stiffly, his shoulders squared. He was wearing a white shirt and a plain, dark smoking jacket, but it was easy for the mind's eye to see him in uniform.
"Good morning, Pitt," he said quietly. "Should I congratulate you on your promotion? My footman said you are now in charge of the Bow Street Station."
"Thank you, General Balantyne," Pitt acknowledged, feeling a faintly self-conscious flush in his cheeks. "This is Sergeant Tellman. I am sorry to disturb you so early, sir, but I am afraid the beat constable found a dead body in the square at about quarter to four this morning. He was on the doorstep just outside this house." He saw the distaste on Balantyne's face, and perhaps shock, although of course the footman had told him, so he was not taken by surprise now.
"Who is it?" Balantyne asked, closing the door behind him.
"We don't know yet," Pitt replied. "But he had papers and other belongings on him, so we shall almost certainly be able to identify him quite soon." He watched Balantyne's face but saw no discernible change, certainly no tightening of lips or shadow across the eyes.
"Do you know how he died?" Balantyne asked. He waved one hand at the chairs to invite Pitt to be seated, and included Tellman in a general way.
"Thank you, sir," Pitt accepted. "But I should like your permission for Sergeant Tellman to speak to your household staff. Someone may have heard an altercation or disturbance."
Balantyne's face was bleak. "I understand that the man did not meet a natural death?"
"I am afraid so. He was struck across the head, most likely after a fight, not long, but very fierce."
Balantyne's eyes widened. "And you think it happened on my doorstep?"
"That I don't yet know."
"By all means have the sergeant speak to my staff."
Pitt nodded at Tellman, who left eagerly, closing the door behind him. Pitt sat down in one of the large, green-leather-covered armchairs, and Balantyne sat a little stiffly in the one opposite.
"There is nothing I can tell you," Balantyne went on. "My bedroom is at the front of the house, but I heard nothing. A street robbery of such violence would be extraordinary in this area." A fleeting anxiety puckered his face, a sadness.
"He wasn't robbed," Pitt answered, disliking what he must do next. "At least not in any usual sense. He still had money." He saw Balantyne's surprise. "And this." He pulled the snuffbox out of his pocket and held it out in the palm of his hand.
Balantyne's expression did not change. His face was unnaturally motionless; there was no admiration for the beauty of the piece, no amazement that a murdered man involved in a fight should be in possession of such a thing. But all the self-mastery in the world could not control the blood draining from his skin and leaving him ashen.
"Extraordinary ..." He breathed out very slowly. "One would think ..." He swallowed. "One would think a thief could hardly miss such a thing." Pitt knew he was speaking to fill the emptiness of the moments between them while he decided whether to admit owning it or not. What explanation could he give?
Pitt stared at him, holding his eyes in an unwavering gaze. "It raises many questions," he agreed aloud. "Have you seen it before, General?"
Balantyne's voice was a little husky, as if his mouth were dry. "Yes ... yes, it is mine." He seemed to be about to add something, then changed his mind.
Pitt asked the question he had to. "When did you last see it?"
"I ... don't think I remember. One gets used to seeing things. I'm not sure I would have noticed its absence." He looked profoundly uncomfortable, but he did not evade Pitt's eyes. He anticipated the next question. "It's kept in a cabinet in the library."
Was there any point in pursuing it? Not yet.
"Have you missed anything else, General Balantyne?"
"Not so far as I am aware."
"Perhaps you would be good enough to check, sir? And I'll see if any of the servants have noticed anything moved, signs of a burglar in the house."
"It sometimes happens that burglars have called at the house earlier, to make an assessment or to--"
"I understand," Balantyne cut across him. "You think one of us may recognize him."
"Yes. If you, and perhaps your butler and one of your footmen, would come to the mortuary and see if he is known to you, it may help."
"If you wish," Balantyne agreed. He obviously disliked the idea, but he accepted the inevitability of it.
There was a sharp knock on the door, and before Balantyne could answer, it opened and a woman came in. Pitt remembered her immediately. Lady Augusta Balantyne was handsome in a dark, cold way. There was strength in her face, but it was inward, self-contained. She, too, must have remembered him, because there was instantly a chill in her when she saw him, more than could be accounted for by the fact that he had disturbed the household so early in the morning. But then, after their two previous encounters she could hardly think of him with any memory except that of pain.
She was dressed in a dark silk gown of formal cut, suitable for making morning calls, fashionable but subdued, as befitted her age and dignity. Her dark hair was streaked with white at the temples, and grief had faded her skin but not the intelligence or the iron will in her eyes.
Pitt rose to his feet. "I apologize for waking you so early, Lady Augusta," he said quietly. "Unfortunately, there has been a death in the street outside your home, and it is necessary that I enquire if anyone here was aware of the disturbance." He wished to spare her feelings as much as possible. He did not like her, and it made him even more careful than he would have been otherwise.
"I assumed it was some such duty that brought you, Inspector," she answered, at once dismissing any possible social contact between them. This was her home. He could only have come in the course of his trade.
Ridiculously, he found himself clenching inside, as aware of an insult as if she had slapped him. And he should have expected it. After all that had passed between them, the tragedy and the guilt, what would he have presumed differently? He tried to make himself relax his body, and failed.
Balantyne was on his feet also, looking from one to the other of them, as if he, too, should apologize--to Pitt for his wife's condescension, to her for Pitt's presence and for another tragedy.
"Some unfortunate man was attacked and killed," he said bluntly.
She took a deep breath, but her composure did not crack.
"Was it someone we knew?"
"No," Balantyne said immediately. "At least ..." He turned to Pitt.
"It is most unlikely." Pitt looked at Augusta. "He appeared to have fallen on hard times and to have been involved in a fight. He was not apparently robbed."
The tension slipped away from her.
"Then I suggest, Inspector, that you question the servants to see if they heard anything, and if they did not, then I regret we cannot assist you. Good day." She did not move. She was dismissing him, not herself leaving.
Balantyne looked uncomfortable. He had no desire whatever to prolong the interview, but then neither did he wish to avail himself of a rescue by his wife. He had never retreated from battle. He was not about to do so now. He stood his ground painfully.
"If you would inform me when it would be convenient to go to the mortuary, I shall do so," he said to Pitt. "In the meantime, Blisset will show you whatever you wish to see, and no doubt he will know if anything has been moved or is missing."
"Missing?" Augusta queried.
Balantyne's face tightened. "The man may have been a thief," he said curtly, without explaining further.
"I suppose so." She lifted one shoulder slightly. "It would account for his presence in the square." She stood back into the hallway to allow Pitt to leave, and waited silently until he should pass.
The butler, Blisset, a middle-aged man of stiff-backed, military bearing, was standing at the foot of the stairs. Very probably he was an old soldier Balantyne had employed, knowing his service. Indeed, when he moved he did so with a pronounced limp, and Pitt guessed it was a battle injury which had caused it.
"If you will come with me, sir," he said gravely, and as soon as he was sure Pitt was behind him, he went across the hallway to the baize door and through to the servants' quarters.
Tellman was standing by the long table in the dining hall where the servants took their meals. It was laid for breakfast, but obviously no one had yet eaten. A housemaid was standing in a gray stuff dress, white apron crisp and clean, lace cap a trifle crooked on her head as if she had placed it there hastily. She was looking at Tellman with considerable dislike. A footman of about nineteen or twenty was standing by the door to the kitchen, and the bootboy was staring round-eyed at Pitt.
"Nothing so far," Tellman said, biting his lip. He had a pencil and an open notebook in his hands, but there was very little written on the page. "Lot of very sound sleepers here." His tone was bordering on the sarcastic.
Pitt thought that if he had to get up at five in the morning as a matter of habit, and work with little respite until nine or ten in the evening, he would probably be tired enough to sleep soundly too, but he did not bother to say so.
"I'd like to speak to the housemaids," he said to Blisset. "May I use the housekeeper's sitting room?"
The butler agreed reluctantly and insisted on remaining present, to protect his staff, as was his responsibility.
But two hours' diligent enquiry and a thorough search of the main part of the house produced nothing of value. The housemaids had both seen the snuffbox but could not remember how recently. Nothing else was missing. There was quite definitely no sign whatever of a break-in or of any unauthorized person in any room upstairs or downstairs.
No one had heard anything in the street outside.
There had been no caller or tradesman other than those who had dealt with the household for years, no vagrants, no followers after the female servants that anyone would acknowledge, no beggars, peddlers or new deliverymen.
Pitt and Tellman left Bedford Square at half past nine and caught a hansom back towards the Bow Street Station, stopping just short of it to buy a hot cup of tea and a ham sandwich from a stall on the pavement.
"Separate bedrooms," Tellman said with his mouth full.
"People of that social status usually have," Pitt replied, sipping his tea and finding it too hot.
"Hardly seems worth it." Tellman's face was eloquent of his opinion of them. "But it means no one in the house is accounted for. Could have been any of them, if the fellow did get in and was caught stealing." He took another mouthful of his sandwich. "One of the maids could have let him in. It happens. Anyone could have heard him and got into a fight ... even the General himself, come to that."
Pitt would have liked to dismiss that suggestion, but the expression in Balantyne's eyes when he had seen the snuffbox was too sharp in his mind to allow it.
Tellman was watching him, waiting.
"Early to speculate," Pitt answered. "Get a little more evidence first. Go 'round the rest of the square, see if any of the other houses were broken into, anything moved, any disturbance."
"Why would he move something rather than take it?" Tellman argued.
"He wouldn't." Pitt looked at him coolly. "If he were caught in the act and killed, presumably whoever killed him would take back what belonged to that house, but not the snuffbox, because it wasn't theirs and would require some explanation. And we'll see what the surgeon can tell us when he's looked more closely. And there's the bill for the socks." He sipped his tea now it was cooler. "Although putting a name to him may not help a great deal."
But diligent enquiry all around Bedford Square and the immediate neighborhood elicited nothing whatever of use. No one had heard anything, nothing was moved or missing. Everyone claimed to have slept through the night.
In the late afternoon General Balantyne and his butler, Blisset, fulfilled their duty by going to the mortuary to look at the dead man, but neither knew him. Pitt watched Balantyne's expression as the face was uncovered and saw the momentary flicker of surprise, almost as if Balantyne had expected to see someone else, possibly someone familiar.
"No," he said quietly. "I have not seen him before."
Pitt arrived home late, and a small domestic crisis kept Charlotte too occupied for there to be time to discuss the case with her more than briefly. He did not yet want to tell her of General Balantyne's involvement. He remembered that she had liked him. She had actually spent some time in his house, helping him with something or other. Better to see if a simpler explanation appeared before he distressed her, perhaps unnecessarily. Last thing at night was not an appropri-ate time.
In the morning Pitt went to inform Assistant Commissioner Cornwallis of the case, simply because it had occurred in a part of the city where such an event was remarkable. The crime itself might not have concerned any of the residents or their households, but they would certainly be inconvenienced by it.
Cornwallis was fairly new to his position. He had spent most of his career in the navy and was well accustomed to command, but the natures of crime and of politics were both new to him, and politics in particular he found at times beyond his comprehension. There was no deviousness to his mind. He was unaccustomed to vanity and circular thinking. The sea did not permit such indulgences. It sorted the skilled from the clumsy, the coward from the brave, with a ruthlessness quite different from the impulses of ambition in the worlds of government and society.
Cornwallis was of no more than average height, lean, as if physical occupation were more natural to him than sitting behind a desk. When he moved it was with grace and control. He was not handsome--his nose was too long, too prominent--but there was balance in his face, and an honesty. The fact that he was entirely bald became him. Pitt found it difficult to think of him any other way.
"What is it?" He looked up from his desk as Pitt came into his room. It was a sultry day outside, and the windows were open, allowing in the noise of traffic from the street below, the rattle of carriage wheels, the occasional cry of a coachman or hansom driver, the heavy rumble of brewers' drays, the sharper treble of crossing sweepers hoping for a penny, peddlers calling their wares: bootlaces, flowers, sandwiches, matches.
Pitt closed the door behind him.
"Found a body in Bedford Square early yesterday morning," he answered. "Hoped it might be nothing to do with any of the houses there, but he had a snuffbox in his hand which belonged to General Brandon Balantyne, and it was actually on Balantyne's doorstep that he was lying."
"Burglary?" Cornwallis asked, the assumption in his voice. There was a slight pucker between his brows, as if he were waiting for Pitt to explain why he had bothered to mention it, let alone to come in person.
"Possibly he was burgling one of the houses and was caught in the act by a servant or the owner, there was a fight, and the thief was killed," Pitt said. "Then, in fear of the consequences, they put him outside Balantyne's door instead of leaving him where he was and sending for the police."
"All right." Cornwallis bit his lip. "I take your point, Pitt. Not the actions of innocent people, even in panic. How was he killed?"
"A blow to the head with a poker, or something like it, but there was a fight beforehand, to judge by his knuckles." Pitt sat down in the chair opposite Cornwallis's desk. He was comfortable in this room with its watercolor seascapes on the walls, the polished brass sextant on the shelf next to the books, not only on police matters but also a Jane Austen novel and a copy of the Bible, and several volumes of poetry: Shelley, Keats and Tennyson.
"Do you know who he is?" Cornwallis asked, placing his elbows on the desk and making a steeple of his fingers.
"Not yet, but Tellman is working on it," Pitt answered. "There was a receipt for three pair of socks in his pocket. There's a chance it might help. They were bought only two days before he was killed."
"Good." Cornwallis seemed to be unconcerned over the matter, or perhaps he was occupied with something else.
"The snuffbox in his pocket belonged to General Balantyne," Pitt repeated.
Cornwallis frowned. "Presumably he stole it. Doesn't mean he met his death in Balantyne's home. I imagine--" He stopped. "Yes, I see what you mean. Unpleasant ... and puzzling. I ... know Balantyne, slightly. A good man. Can't imagine him doing anything so ... stupid."
Pitt had a strong sense of Cornwallis's anxiety, but it seemed to have been present since before Pitt had come in, as if something else held his attention so strongly he was unable to put his mind fully to what Pitt was saying.
"Nor I," Pitt agreed.
Cornwallis jerked his head up. "What?"
"I can't imagine General Balantyne doing anything so stupid as putting a corpse outside his own front door rather than simply calling the police," Pitt said patiently.
"Do you know him?" Cornwallis looked at Pitt as if he had walked into the middle of a conversation and was aware he had missed the beginning.
"Yes. I investigated two previous cases in which he was concerned ... indirectly. As a witness."
"Oh. I didn't know that."
"Is there something troubling you?" Pitt liked Cornwallis, and while aware of his lack of political knowledge, he had a profound respect for his honesty and his moral courage. "It's not this Tranby Croft business, is it?"
"What? Good heavens, no!" For the first time since Pitt had come in, Cornwallis relaxed, on the verge of outright laughter. "I'm sorry for them all. I've no idea whether Gordon-Cumming was cheating or not, but the poor devil will be ruined now, either way. And my opinion of the Prince of Wales, or anyone else who spends his time drifting from one house party to another, doing nothing more useful than playing cards, is better unexpressed, even in private."
Pitt was uncertain whether to ask again, or if that had been a polite way of evading the issue. Yet he was certain that Cornwallis was worried to a degree that it intruded into his thoughts even when he wished to put his entire mind to a present issue.
Cornwallis pushed back his chair and stood up. He walked over to the window and pulled it closed sharply.
"Terrible noise out there!" he said with irritation. "Keep me informed how you progress with this Bedford Square case."
It was dismissal. Pitt stood up. "Yes sir." He walked towards the door.
Cornwallis cleared his throat.
"I ..." Cornwallis began, then hesitated.
Pitt turned around to look at him.
There was a faint flush of color in Cornwallis's lean cheeks. He was profoundly unhappy. He made the decision.
"I've ... I've received a blackmail letter...."
Pitt was astonished. Of all the possibilities that had come to his mind, this seemed the most outlandish.
"Words cut out from the Times," Cornwallis went on in the prickling silence. "Pasted on a piece of paper."
Pitt scrambled his thoughts together with difficulty.
"What do they want?"
"That's it." Cornwallis's body was rigid, his muscles locked. He stared at Pitt. "Nothing! They don't ask for anything at all! Just the threat."
Pitt loathed asking, but not to would be to walk away from a man whose friendship he valued and who was obviously in profound need of uncritical help.
"Do you have the letter?"
Cornwallis took it out of his pocket and passed it over. Pitt read the pasted-on letters, most of them cut out singly, some in twos and threes or where a whole word had been found as the writer wished to use it.
I know all about you, Captain Cornwallis. Others think you are a hero, but I know differently. It was not you who was so brave on the HMS Venture, it was Able Seaman Beckwith, but you took the credit. He's dead now and he cannot tell the truth. That is all wrong. People should know. I know.
Pitt read it again. There was no explicit threat, no request for money or any other form of payment. And yet the sense of power was so strong it leapt off the creased paper as if the thing had a malign life of its own.
He looked across at Cornwallis's pale face and saw the muscles clenched in his jaw and the faint, visible pulse in his temple.
"I suppose you have no idea who it is?"
"None at all," Cornwallis replied. "I lay awake half last night trying to think." His voice was dry, as if he had held himself rigid so long his throat ached. He breathed in deeply. His eyes did not waver from Pitt's. "I've gone over and over the incident I think he's referring to, to remember who was there, who could have misinterpreted it to believe it that way, and I don't know the answer." He hesitated, acute embarrassment naked in his face. He was a private man who found emotion difficult to express; he vastly preferred the tacit understanding of action. He bit his lip. He wanted to look away, so he forced himself not to. He was obviously sensitive to Pitt's discomfort and unintentionally made it worse. He was aware of foundering, of being indecisive, the very sorts of things he had meant to avoid.
"Perhaps you had better tell me about the incident," Pitt said quietly. He moved to sit down, indicating his intention to stay.
"Yes," Cornwallis agreed. "Oh ... yes, of course." He turned away at last, his face towards the window. The sharp daylight emphasized the depth of the lines about his eyes and mouth. "It happened eighteen years ago ... eighteen and a half. It was winter. Bay of Biscay. Weather was appalling. I was a second lieutenant then. Man went up to shorten the mizzen royal--"
"The what?" Pitt interrupted. He needed to understand.
Cornwallis glanced at him. "Oh...three-masted ship." He moved his arms to illustrate what he was saying. "Middle mast, middle sail ... square-rigger, of course. Injured by a loose rope. His hand. Got it jammed somehow." He frowned, turning towards the window again, away from Pitt. "I went up after him. Should have sent a seaman, of course, but the only man near me was Beckwith, and he froze. Happens sometimes." He spoke jerkily. "No time to look for someone else. Weather was getting worse. Ship pitching around. Afraid the injured man up on the mast would lose his grasp, tear his arm out of its socket. Heights never bothered me in particular. Didn't really think about it. Been up often enough as a midshipman." His mouth tightened. "Got him free. Had to cut the line. He was almost dead weight. Managed to get him back along the yard as far as the mast, but he was damn heavy and the wind was rising all the time, ship pitching around like a mad thing."
Pitt tried to imagine it, Cornwallis desperate, frozen, trying to hang on to a swaying mast forty or fifty feet over a wild sea, one minute above the heaving deck, the next, as the ship keeled, out over the water, and carrying another man's helpless body. He found his own hands were knotted and he was holding his breath.
"I was trying to readjust his weight to start down the mast," Cornwallis went on, "when Beckwith must have unfrozen and I found him just below me. He helped take the man's weight, and we got down together.
"By that time there were half a dozen other men on deck, including the captain, and it must have looked to them as if Beckwith had rescued me. The captain said as much, but Beckwith was an honest man, and he told the truth." He turned back to meet Pitt's eyes, the light behind him now. "But I can't prove it. Beckwith died a few years after that, and the man up the mast hadn't the faintest idea who else was there, let alone what happened."
"I see," Pitt said quietly. Cornwallis was staring at him, and in the misery that was in his face Pitt glimpsed some perception of fear that he was trying to hold inside himself. He had lived a life of discipline against an element that gave no quarter, no mercy to man or ship. He had obeyed its rules and seen the deaths of those who had not, or whom misfortune had overtaken. He knew as few men can, who spend their lives in the safety of the land, the value of loyalty, honor and sheer, overwhelming physical courage, instant and absolute obedience, and total trust in those with whom you serve. The hierarchy within a ship was absolute. To have taken credit for another man's act of courage was unforgivable.
In what Pitt knew of Cornwallis, it was also unthinkable. He smiled at him, meeting his gaze frankly. "I'll look into it. We need to know who is doing this, and most of all what he wants. Once there is a specific demand, then there's a crime."
Cornwallis hesitated, still keeping his hand on the letter, as if already he feared the result of any action. Then suddenly he realized what he was doing. He thrust the paper at Pitt.
Pitt took it and put it in his pocket without looking at it again.
"I'll be discreet," he promised.
"Yes," Cornwallis said with an effort. "Yes, of course."
Pitt took his leave and went out of the room, along the corridor, downstairs and out onto the pavement. He had gone barely a dozen yards, his mind consumed with Cornwallis's distress, when he was forcibly stopped by almost colliding with a man who moved across in front of him.
"Mr. Pitt, sir ...?" he said, looking up at him, but although his words were framed as a question, there was a certainty in his face.
"Yes?" Pitt replied a trifle sharply. He did not like being ac-
costed so physically, and he was too concerned about the ugliness of Cornwallis's situation to wish interruption in his thought. He felt frustrated and helpless to protect a man he cared about from a danger he feared was very real.
"My name is Lyndon Remus, from the Times," the man said quickly, still standing directly in front of Pitt. He produced a card out of his inside coat pocket and held it out.
Pitt ignored it. "What is it, Mr. Remus?"
"What can you tell me about the dead man found in Bedford Square yesterday morning?"
"Nothing, except what you already know," Pitt replied.
"Then you are baffled?" Remus concluded without hesitation.
"That is not what I said!" Pitt was annoyed. The man presumed without justification, and Pitt hated trickery with words. "I said I can tell you nothing beyond what you know ... that he is dead and where he was found."
"On the front doorstep of General Brandon Balantyne's house," Remus said. "Then there is something you know but cannot tell us. Is General Balantyne involved, or someone in his household?"
Pitt realized, now with considerable anger, that he must be a good deal more careful how he phrased his replies.
"Mr. Remus, a body was found in Bedford Square," he said grimly. "We do not yet know who he was or how he died, except that it seems extremely unlikely it was an accident. Speculation would be irresponsible and might severely damage the reputation of an innocent person. When we know something for certain, the press will be told. Now, will you please get out of my way, sir, and allow me to go about my business!"
Remus did not move. "Will you be investigating General Balantyne, Mr. Pitt?"
He was caught. He could not say no without both lying and appearing to be prejudiced or inefficient, and if he said yes, then Remus would take it to imply suspicion of Balantyne. If he evaded the question Remus could put any complexion on it that he wished.
Remus smiled. "Mr. Pitt?"
"I shall begin by investigating the dead man," Pitt replied awkwardly, aware of inadequacy in the face of questions he should have foreseen. He took a breath. "Then, of course, I shall follow that lead wherever it takes me."
Remus smiled bleakly. "Isn't this the same General Balantyne whose daughter, Christina, was involved in the murders in the Devil's Acre in about '87?"
"Don't expect me to do your work for you, Mr. Remus!" Pitt snapped, and slipped around him smartly. "Good day." He strode off, leaving Remus looking satisfied.
Pitt arrived home at the end of the day tired and unhappy. They had the full information about the death of the man in Bedford Square. The written report added nothing to what the surgeon had told him in the beginning. Tellman was busy pursuing the bill for the socks and further questioning all the residents around the square. Nobody had seen or heard anything of value.
Actually, Pitt was more troubled over the letter Cornwallis had received. Although the two matters were not dissimilar, insofar as each could cause harm to the reputation of a good man by whisper, suspicion and innuendo before any facts were known. Suggestions could ruin a person if they were believed even by a few. Both men were vulnerable, but Pitt knew and liked Cornwallis, and he believed him totally innocent. It was odd that he had received what was clearly a threatening letter, yet with no request or demand. Presumably it would follow soon.
He went in through the front door, hung up his coat, then bent and unlaced his boots and took them off. He walked in stocking feet along to the kitchen, where he guessed Charlotte would be. They had an excellent maid, Gracie, but Charlotte still did most of the cooking herself. A maid-of-all-work came in four days a week to do the heavy linen laundry, scrubbing and so on. At least that was what he thought. It was not his concern.
Charlotte was at the stove, as he had expected, and there was a savory aroma coming from the oven. Everything was clean, smelling of scrubbed wood and fresh linen. He glanced up and saw sheets hanging on the airing rail across the ceiling, ropes to the winch that held it up on the wall. Blue-and-white china on the dresser gleamed in the sun from the windows. Charlotte had flour on the front of her dress, her apron was caught up at the corner and her hair was coming out of its pins.
He put his arms around her and kissed her, ignoring the long spoon in her hand which trailed egg yolk across the top of the stove and onto the floor.
She kissed him back with considerable enthusiasm, then told him off.
"Look what you have made me do!" She indicated the egg. "It's all over the place!" She went to the sink, wrung out a cloth and came back and wiped it up. On the stove it was burnt and smelling slightly.
He stood still, Cornwallis's face sharp in his mind's eye. Cornwallis had none of Pitt's safety protecting him; no one Cornwallis knew would believe in him regardless of what anyone said, not even someone with whom he could share the tension of waiting for the next letter to come or explain why it mattered so much.
"What is it?" Charlotte asked, watching him more closely now. Automatically, she pulled the dish with the egg away from the heat. "Is it the body in Bedford Square? Is it going to involve one of the houses there?"
"I don't know," he answered, sitting down on one of the hard-backed chairs by the kitchen table. "It's possible. I was stopped by a newspaper writer this afternoon. He wanted to know if I was going to investigate General Balantyne."
She stiffened. "Balantyne? He lives in Callander Square. Why would you investigate him?"
"He must have moved," he replied, still unable to rid himself of his fear for Cornwallis. "I'm sorry ... it was on his doorstep that the body was found. I don't suppose it was more than mischance."
It was only towards the end of dinner, when he was eating the baked egg custard, that he even thought of the snuffbox and realized that he had told her a good deal less than the truth. But there was no point in distressing her by adding that now. It would worry her for nothing. She could not help.
He was too absorbed in his own thoughts to notice her silence as anything but companionable. Where should he begin with Cornwallis's letter? How could he protect him?