When Inspector Field shows his friend Charles Dickens the body of a young woman dragged from the River Thames, he cannot have foreseen that the famous author would immediately recognize the victim as Isabella Gordon, a housemaid he had tried to help through his charity. Nor that Dickens and his fellow writer Wilkie Collins would determine to find out who killed her.
Who was Isabella blackmailing, and why? Led on by fragments of a journal discovered by Isabella’s friend Sesina, the two men track the murdered girl’s journeys from Greenwich to Snow Hill, from Smithfield Market to St Bartholomews, and put their wits to work on uncovering her past.
But what does Sesina know that she’s choosing not to tell them? And is she doomed to follow in the footsteps of the unfortunate Isabella …?
About the Author
Cora Harrison turned to writing historical fiction after she retired from teaching to live on a farm near the Burren in the west of Ireland. As well as the Gaslight Mysteries, she is the author of the Reverend Mother Mysteries, and the ‘Mara’ series of Celtic mysteries, set in 16th-century Ireland.
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'I wouldn't if I was you, Isabella.' Sesina opened the door of the kitchen range and placed her shoes on its black, leaded edge, hitching up her skirt to get the warmth on her ankles. 'You're taking a norful risk, you are, Isabella. You know what men are like!' But there you are, wearing your best dress and thinking everything is going to go your way. The words went silently through her head as she watched the other girl's face, lit by the firelight that left the rest of the kitchen in almost darkness. Dead obstinate. That was Isabella.
'I'm a match for any of them. Move over, Sesina, stop hogging the fire.'
Isabella wasn't going to listen. Sesina knew that by the stubborn expression on her face. Oh, well, do what you want to do. Don't say that I didn't warn you. But she saw how Isabella gave one more look around the kitchen and seemed to breathe in its shadows, its scents of baked bread, devilled kidneys and fried haddock. Almost like she was saying goodbye to them all.
Sesina made one more effort.
'Easy to say, Isabella. Here you are sitting in a nice warm kitchen, toasting your toes by the range. Not so brave you'd be, down beside the river in the fog. That's what I say. That Hungerford Stairs is a creepy place at night; you know that as well as I do myself, Isabella. Why does he have to meet you there? Funny idea, that. Why can't he meet you in the place where ... well, you know ...' She finished there, purposely letting her voice tail out. Perhaps Isabella would blurt out the name of the place where she'd met this person, where she had first told him that she knew the secret.
'You shut up, Sesina.'
But Isabella, Sesina noticed, looked quickly over her shoulder at the pale oblong of street light that came through the basement window. Full of the jitters this evening, she was; that was sure. Her gaze kept flickering along the dresser shelves, kept being attracted by the light on the copper pans, on the stone bottles of prunes and the glistening glass jars of mushroom catsup.
'Told you! You're scared, ain't you? You can't fool me, Isabella,' she said aloud.
'Mind your own business, Sesina!' Isabella, as usual, was working herself into one of her furies, her voice sharp and shrill. Angry. That was her. Always ready to fly off a handle. Spitting out the words again, her voice shaking this time, 'Just you mind your own business, Sesina.'
She had seen something nasty in that fellow. That would be it. Isabella was as sharp as a needle. Should be a bit more sensible, now, but money had come into it. Money and the idea of a nice, easy life. No good talking to her when she had that on her mind.
'Do what you like. Don't care,' said Sesina with a shrug. Luxuriously, she hitched her skirt up above her knees and placed her shoes on top of the range. Nothing like the heat of the fire on the calves of the legs. Took all the tiredness out of them. She reached down a poker and rattled the coals. Isabella was always stubborn. There was no arguing with her. One of those who never knew which side her bread was buttered on.
'He knows I wasn't born yesterday. As soon as I told him that I knew all about it, he changed his tune pretty smart; I can tell you that. It'll be all right.' But there was definitely a slight shake in Isabella's voice. Sesina gave her a sharp look. Biting her nails, she was. It'd been a long time since Isabella had bitten her nails. Had done it that night when they had nowhere to go, no place to sleep.
'What did you tell him?'
'You'd like to know, wouldn't you, Sesina. Mind you, there's a lot of guesswork in it. But I wasn't born yesterday. I just hinted at a few things, told him one or two of the things that I've found out and ...'
'Well then, tonight, I'll tell him the rest. Show him what I've got. Then it'll be his turn, won't it? Told him what I wanted, didn't I? Some nice little lodgings and money punctual, every week.'
Sesina thought about it for a moment. Isabella was always one to give a smart answer, mostly a cheeky one. But would that work with a man who was being blackmailed?
'You think that he'll have a fit, when you tell him, don't you? You think he'll be kneeling at your feet? Be beseeching you to keep quiet? Be offering you all sorts of money? Be talking about buying you a new dress, a house of your own, a carriage? That's what you're thinking, isn't it?'
She waited for a reply. There was none. Isabella's expression had not altered. She sat there, soaking up the warmth from the stove, calmer now, her face slightly pink, wholly self-satisfied, her eyes full of dreams.
Sesina looked at her with contempt. 'You poor cow,' she said just as one of the bells on the wall agitated convulsively. 'Oh, drat that bell. What's that fellow want now?' she said.
'I'll go,' said Isabella, jumping up from her chair.
'No, you don't; I've got some more to say to you.' Sesina seized a broom. 'There! That's fixed it.' One quick pull with the head of the broom and the noise had stopped. 'Dead old, that wire. Snaps ever so easy! You sit down again, Isabella.'
'I'll tell the missus that you was the one that broke it.'
Isabella wouldn't tell, really. And she knew that Sesina knew she wouldn't. In the morning, they would both swear blind that the wire must have snapped by itself.
That's if Isabella was still here in the morning. Sesina still couldn't believe that this man had agreed to fix Isabella up in brand-new lodgings. And new clothes, everything. Told her not to bring anything with her and he would dress her like a lady. And then arranged this night meeting. That was suspicious, if anything was. Dead dangerous this going out at night to meet this man. And the Hungerford Stairs was a stupid place to fix for a meeting with a man that you were going to blackmail. Not a nice place even during the day. And so near to the river, too. It would be downright stupid to go there.
And then she looked at Isabella. Hair brushed. Wearing her best dress. The one that she kept for Sundays. A bit faded now, but still the red and green colours shone out and they suited Isabella, suited her dark hair and her dark eyes. No, Isabella was determined to go. She had a vision; Sesina could see that. A picture at the back of her mind of a different future. A vision of escape. And she was determined to try her luck, thought Sesina. She scuffed the stone flag beyond the stove with one down-at-heel shoe, her eyes looking down, full of dreams, most like. What more could she say, thought Sesina. Isabella would walk out of the kitchen in a few minutes. Off to meet this mystery man.
Unless she could stop her. But she didn't think that she could. There was something about Isabella tonight. Something taut as a wire, as if she, too, would snap in two any moment, just like that wire on the wall.
Nevertheless, Sesina went back to her argument.
'Chances are that he'll knock you over the head and drop you down into the water. Why are you meeting him there in the dark, just beside the river if he's going to take you to new lodgings?'
'He's a gentleman, ain't he? He don't want to be seen talking to me in broad daylight, with everyone looking on. Use your loaf, Sesina.'
'I still think that you're taking a norful risk. Why don't you get someone, someone else, to talk to him?'
Sesina knew that question would come, but she said nothing, half-hoping that the same name would come to Isabella. Better if it did. 'No one can tell you nothing,' she said aloud.
'Well, go on then. Go on. Say it. Who can I get to talk to him for me?'
'What about Mrs Morson ... or him, you —'
'Mr Dickens? What made you think of him? You mad or wot? You know what would happen? He'd be down to this place like a ton of bricks. Talking to the missus. "Very bad character, these girls. She'd blacken a nunnery." That's what your precious Mr Dickens said about me and I wouldn't like to tell you what he said about you, Sesina.'
'But if Mr Dickens did help you, he'd advise you. After all, if you've really found out something, something worth money, something you know about him, something that he'd give anything to hide, you needn't say the name to Mr Dickens, just ask his advice ...'
'I've got something on him all right, but I'm not having that Mr Dickens interfering. After all my work in tracking down this fellow. I can just imagine what Mr High-and-Mighty Dickens would say. I know what he's like. If he did help me ... Mind, I say, if, well, you know what he's like, don't you? He'd take over. Might get money, but would he give it to me? Not him. Would use the money to put me to school or something, send me off to Australia. Would be like that Urania Cottage place all over again and getting lessons like we was little kids or something. Nah, I just want money from this fellow. Don't want nothing to do with the law or anything like that.'
'Tell us his name. Go on, Isabella, you might as well, an' then if anything happens to you, I'd be able to get the peelers on to him if he strangles you or something. That 'ud be some satisfaction, wouldn't it?'
'No, I'm not telling you his name, or nothing about him. I know you, Sesina, you'd be in there like a flash, you'd be after him with your hand out, getting your cut, and chances are that you'd spoil everything. No, you keep your nose out of everything. I'll be a rich lady and have my own carriage, just you mark my words.'
'If he gives you enough money to buy a place of your own, can I come, too?' Stupid, said Sesina to herself, just one of those daydreams that they had sometimes, chatting together by the fire. What would you do if you was a lady? But there was something about Isabella that made you think that she knew what she was talking about.
'I might consider you for a scullery maid, consider, mind you. Of course, you would have to address me as Madam. That would have to be the way of it.'
'Ta, ever so. I'll stay where I am.' Be better off, too, thought Sesina. Easy place this! Easy enough to fool Mrs Dawson. Dead stupid, she was. Pretend that the cat got the cheese; that the fishmonger gave short weight; that the crack in the window was caused by the errand boys throwing stones into the basement area; the missus was dead stupid and would swallow everything. Isabella would be a different matter. She'd know all the tricks. Still, I'd have something to hold over her.
Aloud, she said, 'Here's the missus. I suppose that Mr High-and-Mighty's been complaining that the bell doesn't work. Quick, start scrubbing that soup kettle. She was on about that earlier.' Sesina, herself, energetically seized the handle of the knife polisher and started it whirling as Mrs Dawson waddled in and looked around the kitchen with a beaming smile. Sesina relaxed. Been at the lawyer's gin, again. Always did put the missus in a good humour. Sesina had heard Mr Doyle complaining about the level in the bottle going down so fast. Mrs Dawson hadn't let him get away with it though. Called on Sesina to witness that the bottle had been three-quarters empty when she had cleaned his room the day before. And, of course, for good measure, Sesina had sworn blind that there was even less than a quarter in the bottle first thing that morning; that she had noticed it immediately.
'Off to bed with you, girls,' said Mrs Dawson, suppressing a hiccup. 'The gentlemen have all turned out their lights, now. Off to bed, you'll need to be up early. The sweep's coming. One of you will have to let them in at five o'clock. We don't want them getting in the way of the breakfasts, do we? Which one of you? Want to toss for it?'
'I'll do it, Mrs Dawson. I'll let the sweep in.' Just as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.
Sesina looked at Isabella suspiciously. Perhaps she was going to be out all night. Downright dangerous that would be. Up to something, anyway.
'So off you go to bed, now, girls. Good night.'
'Good night, Mrs Dawson.' Sesina waited until the footsteps went back up the stairs again before saying, once more. 'I wouldn't if I was you, Isabella.'
'Yes, but you're not me, are you? You have no ambition, that's what's wrong with you, Sesina. I don't want to be a slavey all my life, do I? Sitting here in this basement. Not even a proper window. Look at that cheeky bugger trying to get a look at us. Go away, get away, you little guttersnipe! The wheel of that cart will roll over him if he's not careful. Pull down the blind, Sesina.'
But she did it herself, rapping sharply on the window and then pulling a face at the boy. Wound up like a clock, she was, thought Sesina. She looked across as Isabella went back over to the door. No good saying any more. Pig-headed. Always was. That was Isabella. Always crying for the moon. She shrugged her shoulders as Isabella took down her shawl from behind the door.
'I'm off now, Sesina. How do I look in my best dress? Want to look good for the gentleman, don't I? Suits me that dress. Mr Dickens picked out the material. I remember him coming when I was sewing it. "Red and green are just right for you, Isabella," that's what he said, so he did.' She pulled a bundle from behind the dresser and stepped out into the passageway outside. Sesina waited with a half smile, waited to hear Isabella rattle that locked door, but all she heard were soft rapid footsteps climbing the stairs to the upper basement.CHAPTER 2
Wilkie Collins, Basil:
The evening, I remember, was still and cloudy; the London air was at its heaviest; the distant hum of the street-traffic was at its faintest; the small pulse of the life within me, and the great heart of the city around me, seemed to be sinking in unison, languidly and more languidly, with the sinking sun.
Dickens and I had walked forth from my lodgings in Lincoln's Inn; through the quiet gardens of Temple Inn; then along the side of the river. It was the hour of dead tide; the slime and ooze stained the foreshore and birds picked busily among the filth. We did not speak; we watched the lazy roll of the water, listened to the cries of the seagulls; each of us immersed deeply within our different worlds of fantastical creation; until, silently, we turned away from the river and into a muddy alley. It was dark there, almost too dark for walking, but we rounded a corner and saw a blue lamp flaring with a cold, clean light in the murky air and casting the black shadow of a man in a top hat on to the white building. I started. I remember that. Somehow it gave me a shock; as though it were an ill omen, a devil coming with bad news.
'Inspector Field! You are a long way from your home patch. What brings you here?'
I knew him then. An acquaintance of Dickens. One of the many who courted the great man and who were flattered by any recognition from him.
The inspector wore an expression of one who is bringing goods. He jerked his thumb at the door behind him. 'Dragged something out of the river not half an hour ago. Care to have a look? Might interest you. Come in, Mr Dickens, and you, Mr Collins.'
He led us across a paved and cobblestoned yard and into a small, icily cold, stone house at the back of the police station, only big enough to hold a marble slab and an iron pump. There was a girl there, quite dead, lying on the marble slab, her eyes widely opened, river water oozing from a faded red and green print dress, descending drip by drip into the drain below the slab. I gazed at the body in horror. The last dead body that I had seen was that of my own dear father, but he had been a tired, ill, old man. This was a girl younger than myself. Pretty, too. Smooth skin, lovely dark hair rippling out from an oval face, large black eyes, widely opened and staring up at me.
'What happened to her?' I blinked, wiped my glasses with an unsteady hand.
'Strangled and then thrown in the river. The surgeon hasn't seen her yet, but look at her neck. Been broken. That's what killed her, I'd say. Not the river. Legs broken, bruises on her arms. Been beaten and strangled, that's what I think, anyway. The old story. She's dead now and that's the end of her.'
'Who did it?' The girl's face was unmarked. A pretty girl with dark hair. Someone had spread it out across the slab. The men who brought her in, I supposed. 'Who could do a thing like that?' I said the words half to myself and half to Inspector Field. Dickens was wearing one of his forbidding looks, his dark eyes angry, his mouth compressed. I saw him reach over as though to close the dead girl's eyes and then withdraw his hand.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Season of Darkness"
Copyright © 2019 Cora Harrison.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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