Main Things in Jars

Things in Jars

London, 1863. Bridie Devine, the finest female detective of her age, is taking on her toughest case yet. Reeling from her last job and with her reputation in tatters, a remarkable puzzle has come her way. Christabel Berwick has been kidnapped. But Christabel is no ordinary child. She is not supposed to exist. As Bridie fights to recover the stolen child she enters a world of fanatical anatomists, crooked surgeons and mercenary showmen. Anomalies are in fashion, curiosities are the thing, and fortunes are won and lost in the name of entertainment. The public love a spectacle and Christabel may well prove the most remarkable spectacle London has ever seen. Things in Jars is an enchanting Victorian detective novel that explores what it is to be human in inhumane times.
Year: 101
Language: english
ISBN: 3b852d50-d589-4b95-a80e-f7061f85b39e
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Practice Makes Perfect English Verb Tenses Up Close

Year: 101
Language: english
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Jess Kidd was brought up in London as part of a large family from County Mayo and has been praised for her original fictional voice. Her first novel, Himself, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards in 2016 and she was winner of the Costa Short Story Award in the same year. In 2017, Himself was shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and longlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger. Her second novel, The Hoarder, a tale of a lonely care worker, was described as a ‘a lyrical gothic detective saga’ (Guardian) and ‘a brilliantly imaginative tale of secrets and lies’ (Daily Express). Both books were BBC Radio 2 Book Club picks.



@JessKiddHerself | jesskidd.com

Also by Jess Kidd Himself

The Hoarder





First published in Great Britain in 2019

by Canongate Books Ltd, 14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE

canongate.co.uk

This digital edition first published in 2018 by Canongate Books Copyright © Jess Kidd, 2019

The moral right of the author has been asserted British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library ISBN 978 1 78689 376 5

Export ISBN 978 1 78689 375 8

eISBN 978 1 78689 374 1

Typeset in Bembo by Palimpsest Book Production Ltd, Falkirk, Stirlingshire





For my mother





Contents

Prologue

September 1863

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

May 1841

Chapter 7

September 1863

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

May 1841

Chapter 12

September 1863

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

May 1843

Chapter 18

September 1863

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

May 1843

Chapter 23

September 1863

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

August 1843

Chapter 26

October 1863

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

September 1843

Chapter 29

October 1863

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

October 1843

Chapter 35

October 1863

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

February 1837

Chapter 43

October 1863

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

October 1863

Chapter 46

Acknowledgements





Prologue


As pale as a grave grub she’s an eyeful.

She looks up at him, startled, from the bed. Her pale eyes flitting fishy: intruder – lantern – door – intruder. As if she’s trying to work out how they all connect, with her eyes cauled and clouded.

Is she blind?

No. She sees him all right; he knows that she sees him. Now her eyes are following him as he steals nearer.

She’s pretty.

She’s more than pretty. She’s a churchyard angel, a marble carving, with her ivory curls and her pale, pale stony eyes. But not stone – brightening pearl, oh soft-hued!

He could touch her: stroke her cheek, hold the wee point of her chin, wind her white curls around his finger.

Her lips are beginning to move, pouting and posturing, as if she’s working up to something, as if she’s working up to sound.

Without further thought he puts his hand over her mouth, his skin dark against hers in the lantern-light. She frowns and her feet beat an angry tattoo despite the restraints and the coverlet is off. She has two legs, like a girl. Two thin white legs and two thin white arms and not much else in-between.

Then she stops and lies still, panting.

The touch of her: she is like nothing in nature. Skin waxy and damp, breath cold: an unnatural coldness, like a corpse living.

And that smell again, stronger now, the sharp salt of the open ocean, an inky seaweed tang.

She fixes him with her pearly eyes. He feels the slick nubs of her teeth and the quick, wet probe of her tongue on his hand.

The man fancies that his head is opening like an easy winkle, the child is tapping and probing, her fingers are inside his mind. Touching, teasing the quivering insides. She is dabbling and grabbing as with a jar of minnows, splashing and peering as with a rock-pool. She hooks a memory with her little finger and drags it out, and then another and another. One by one the child finds them, his memories. She cups them in her palm, shimmering, each a perfect tear.

A boy slips on wet cobbles, himself, following a cart with a potato in his hand.

A woman turns in a doorway with the sun on her hair, oh, his brother’s wife!

A four-day-old foal stands in a green field, a pure white flash on its lovely nose.

The child tips her palm and watches the tears roll away.

Panic floods the man. Something swells in him – a pure and compelling disgust, a strong sudden urge to finish this creature off. To throttle her, stove in her face, snap her neck as cleanly as a young rabbit’s.

A voice inside him, the lisping voice of a child, mocks him. Isn’t he the most ruthless of bastards, wouldn’t he smother his own mother without a care? Hasn’t he done all things, terrible things, not stinted on the things he’s done? And here he is frightened to grant the kindest of mercies.



The man looks at the child in dismay and the child looks back at him.

He loosens his grip on her and takes out his knife.

A lantern dips and flares in the doorway and here’s the nurse. An ex-lag with a few years on her and a lame leg, clean of garb but not of mouth, used to bad business. Likes it, even. The others behind like her personal guard – two men, neckerchiefs up around their faces. Odd birds; elbows tucked in, heads swivelling, light-stepping, listening, blinking. With every step they expect an ambush.

‘Don’t touch her,’ the nurse says to him. ‘Get away from her.’

The man, looking up, hesitates, and the child bites him, a nip of surprising sharpness. He pulls his hand away in surprise and sees a line of puncture holes, small but deep.

The nurse pushes past him to the side of the bed, glancing at his hand. ‘You’ll regret that, my tulip.’

She makes a show of pulling on fine chain-mail gloves and unhooks the restraints that hold the child to the bed, dressing her in a harness of strong material, one limb at a time, buckling the child’s arms across her chest, lashing her legs together. The child lunges, open-mawed.

The man stands dazed, flexing his hand. Red lines track from palm to wrist to elbow, the teeth-marks turn mulberry, then black. He twists his forearm and presses his skin. Sweat beading on his forehead, his lip. What kind of child bites like this, like a rat? He imagines her venom – he feels it – coursing through him, from arm to heart, lungs to bowels, fingertips to feet. A blistering poison spreads, a sudden fire burning itself out as it travels. Then the lines fade and the marks dull to no more than pin-pricks.

All the time the creature watches him, her eyes darkening – a trick of the lamp-light, surely! Two eyes of polished jet, their surfaces flat, so strangely flat.



The nurse is speaking low, standing back to direct. ‘Roll her, bag her, make haste, watch her mouth.’

They wrap the child in canvas, a staysail to make a hammock of sorts.

The man, manipulating his arm, examining the pin-pricks, suddenly finds himself beyond words. He makes a sound, a vowel sound, followed by a string of gargled consonants. He drops to his knees, like one devotional, and falls backwards onto the hearthrug. He would scream if he could, but he can only reach out. He lies gasping like a landed catch.

From the floor he watches the two men lift the bundle between them. They move with deliberation, as if underwater.

The nurse limps over, lantern in hand, and looks down at the man. Her diagnosis: he is in a bad way, face as grey as his county-crop. Not old but already life-waned – and now this.

He begins to sob.

The nurse could sob too for the loss of a good thief, the kind who’d abstract the teeth from your head without the opening of your mouth.

She kneels with difficulty. ‘Close your eyes, lad,’ she whispers. ‘It will help me no end.’

Trussed in a canvas hammock she’s no weight. But the two men would carry a far heavier burden with greater ease. Of course they’d humoured the nurse, heard her stories in the tavern with a few inside them. But they see it now, in the child, as she said they would: all kinds of wrong.

What of the man fallen? They baulked to touch him after. The carrying of him would be worse than the leaving of him and they feel the leaving keenly. The child swings swaddled between them, big-eyed in the lantern dimmed; oh, they see it now, in her. By the time they reach the landing the men are sweating with the effort of not dashing her head against the wall. One would shoot her through the eye in a heartbeat; the other would cut her throat in a blink. At the top of the stairs they are in danger of hurling her down.

The nurse keeps them in check. Giving whispered orders, steadying them with her strong fingers on arms and ribs.

Bringing them back to the job in hand, for the money.

‘Don’t think on it!’ The nurse speaks urgent and low. ‘Don’t think on anything. Hoist her, aye, and we’ll be gone.’

The big house is silent tonight, but for our intruders moving through corridors with their trussed burden and breath-held shuffle. Awake to loose floorboards and creaking doors and light-sleepers.

But the servants slumber on. The housekeeper, tidy-bedded, neat of nightcap and frill (like a spoon put away for best), inspects the linen cupboards of her dreams. Smiling at immaculate piles, heaven-fresh, as clean as clouds. The butler, proper, even in his nightshirted sleep, patrols an endless cellar. The bottles giggle in dark corners. They ease out their corks and call to him in honeyed voices. They sing songs of laden vines and sunny hillsides and duty forgotten – liquid bewitchment! He grips his lantern and will not stop. The housemaids, in their attic nests, are dreaming of omnibuses and pantomimes. The cook snores fruity, unpeeled and well-soaked under warm sheets, as solid and brandy-scented as plum pudding. She dreams of matchless soufflés; she hunts them down as she sails in a saucepan over a gravy sea. All are senseless in the tucked-in, heavy-breathing, before-dawn quiet.

The big house is silent tonight, but for our intruders, hurrying out of the servants’ door.

The dogs lie poisoned in the yard, their muzzles flecked with spittle, a breeze ruffling their fur. This is the breeze that came over the sea, miles inland, past wood, fields and lane to whisk the gravel on the drive and dance around the rooftop chimney pots and whistle through the keyholes.

The mice are wakeful and so too is the mean-eyed kitchen cat who needles after their fat pelts, sly and silent. This snake-tailed curse of the larder watches the figures hasten across the cobbled courtyard, throwing moonlit shadows in their wake. The barn owl sees them as they round the house. She ghosts above on silent wings.

The lord of the manor. He, too, is awake.

A lamp burns in his study as he frets and puzzles, considers and adjusts. He bends over his writing, his handsome whiskers peppered with grey, his brow furrowed. He could be a fortune-teller, the way he’s inventing the future, coaxing and muttering it into being.

The shadows pass outside, crossing the terrace.

Perhaps hearing their footsteps, the lord of the manor looks to the window, but, remarking no change in the night sky, returns to his plans.

The shadows move quickly over the lawn, towards the gate, two with swag slung between them, one following, limping.

The bundle is cradled over the ground. The child feels the grass whip under her canvas hammock. She feels the night air on her face and takes a breath of it and lets out a sigh you can’t hear.

The sea rocked asleep, now wakes and answers, a refrain of waves and shale-song. The rain in the sky that is yet to fall, answers; a storm gathers. All the rivers and streams and bogs and lakes and fens and puddles and horse troughs and wishing wells wake and answer, adding their voices; faint and rushing, purling and gurgling, muddy and clear.

The child looks up. For the first time she can see the stars!



She smiles at them, and the stars look back at her and shiver.

Then they begin to burn brighter, with renewed fever, in the deep dark ocean of the sky.





September 1863





Chapter 1


The raven levels off into a glide, flight feathers fanned. Slick on the rolling level of rising currents and down-draughts, she turns her head, this way and that. To her black eye, as black as pooled tar, London is laid out – there is no veil of fog or mist or smoke-haze her gaze cannot pierce!

Below her, streets and lanes, factories and workhouses, parks and prisons, grand houses and tenements, roofs, chimneys and tree tops. And the winding, sometimes shining, Thames – the sky’s own dirty mirror. The raven leaves the river behind and charts a path to a chapel on a hill with a spire and a clock tower. She circles the chapel and lands on the roof with a shuffling of wings. She pecks at brickwork, at lichen, at moth casts, at nothing. She sidles up to a gargoyle and runs her beak affectionately around his eyes, nudging, scooping.

The gargoyle is a creature designed to vomit rainwater from the gape of his mouth onto the porch. The parishioners (when there were parishioners) blamed the blocked gutters, but it was always the gargoyle, holding back only to let go a sudden flood upon the faithful below as they stood at God’s threshold, looking up to the heavens, flinching.



The raven hops to the edge of the porch roof and peers down.

A woman is standing below: she looks up, but she doesn’t flinch. Bridie Devine is not the flinching kind.

What kind is she then?

A small, round upright woman of around thirty, wearing a shade of deep purple that clashes (wonderfully and dreadfully) with the vivid red hair tucked (for the most part) inside her white widow’s cap. She presents in half-mourning dress, well-cut but without flash or fashion. On top of her widow’s cap roosts a black, feather-trimmed bonnet of a uniquely ugly design. Her black boots are polished to a shine and of stout make. The crinoline is no friend of hers; her skirts are not full and she’s as loosely laced as respectability allows. Her cape, grey with purple trim, is short. This is a practical woman, or at least a woman who finds it practical to be able to fit through doorways, climb stairs and breathe. At her feet, a doctor’s case, patched and antiquated, the leather buttery from handling.

She takes from her pocket a pipe. Here’s a teaser: a fast habit in one so seemly? And isn’t there is canniness to her smoking in the shelter of a deserted chapel (and not puffing down the Strand with a chinful of whiskers and a basket on her head?).

The raven eyes her with interest.

The woman winks at the bird. There is a world of devilment in her wink. The raven responds with a soft caw.

The bird gauges the gargoyle. No water falls; the gargoyle is dry-mouthed, the lips frame an empty grimace.

Reassured, the raven takes to the air.

Bridie Devine watches the raven fly out of sight. Now all that’s moving in this chapel-yard are her thoughts, she thinks. The occasional cart or carriage passes the open gate. Otherwise there is a wall of a decent height between Bridie and world and that is enough.

Bridie breathes out, turning her face up to the sun: autumn warmth, fuller-bodied and lovelier than summer heat, with the mellow dying of the season in it. Bridie welcomes it on brow and cheek. That the sun has found a clear patch of air to shine through (in these days of smoke-haze and mist and fog) ought to be appreciated.

Bridie is alone with the sun and her thoughts and her pipe.

The pipe is unremarkable: clay-made, shaped to sit snug in the hand or in a tooth gap, of a cheap variety favoured by Irish market harpies. Short of stem and small of bowl so that the nose of a hag may overhang and keep the rain off the tobacco. The pipe may be unremarkable but the contents are anything but. To her usual twist of any mundungus Bridie has lately been adding a nugget of Prudhoe’s Bronchial Balsam Blend. A crumbly, resinous substance which burns with a pleasant incense scent followed by a lancing chemical stink. This is less unpleasant than it sounds, being simultaneously bracing and dulling. You add lots of Prudhoe’s Blend for colourful thoughts and triple that amount for no thoughts at all.

Prudhoe’s Bronchial Balsam Blend is just one of the recreational creations of Rumold Fortitude Prudhoe, experimental chemist, toxicologist and expert in medical jurisprudence. Prudhoe’s previous legendary blends, Mystery Caravan and Fairground Riot, proved either blissful or petrifying. As such, these blends continue to attract loyal followers among his more adventurous friends, Bridie being one of them.

But now Bridie’s pipe is empty. She has smoked it all.

Bridie puts the bit of her empty pipe in her mouth, just while she’s thinking. A drop more tobacco would be nice. It wouldn’t have to obliterate her thoughts, just line her lungs. She’ll smoke anything; earthy and wholesome or treacly and nasty, costermonger’s dust or gentleman’s savour.

As if in answer, in the far corner of the chapel-yard, a wisp of smoke wends its way up into the air.

Bridie takes this as a sign.

Bridie looks down at the man sprawled by the showy tomb of a successful family butcher. Two things strike her as immediately wrong.

Firstly, the man is deficient of clothing (his wardrobe consisting in its entirety of: a top hat, boots and a pair of drawers).

Secondly, she can see through the man.

She is able, with perfect ease, to read the inscription on the tomb that should, by rights, be obscured by the body of the man. She can even see the angels on the decorative stone frieze.

This is an ingenious trick – like Pepper’s ghost! There will be mirrors, screens certainly, black silk or some such, an illusionist’s contraption, a phantasmagorical contrivance. A rudimentary search of nearby graves turns up nothing.

Bridie is baffled. If no external explanation for the presence of this transparent, partially clad man is evident, the cause must be internal. She cannot recollect transparent partially clad men being a symptom of the consumption of Prudhoe’s Bronchial Balsam Blend. But the list is long and includes many adverse reactions, from sweating of the eyeballs to sensitivity to accordion music.

She resolves to inspect this apparition, systematically, from crown to toe.

A top hat is tipped down over the eyes of its owner. Like its owner the hat is transparent. Despite this, Bridie can see that the hat has known better days. It is dented of body and misshapen of rim. The transparent man is naked to the waist; below the waist he sports close-fitting white drawers, tight at the thighs, sagging at the knees. The boots on his feet are unlaced and his fists are sloppily bound with unravelling bandages, none too clean. He is massive of chest and bicep, strong-shouldered and thick-necked. And tattooed: stern to bow.

Below the tipped-down hat-rim: a nose that hasn’t gone unbroken, a clean-shaven jaw and a shining black moustache (generous in proportions, expertly waxed, certainly rococo). In the mouth, a pipe lolls. A draw is taken from it, intermittently. The smoke has dwindled to a wisp now and has no discernible scent. On inhalation the tobacco in the pipe bowl glows blue.

Bridie wonders if the man has a pinch of tobacco to spare and, if so, whether that’s likely to be transparent too.

The man, perhaps sensing her presence, pushes up his hat idly. His eyes open and meet hers. He springs to his feet in alarm, holding his fists up before him.

He is nothing short of miraculous.

The tattoos that adorn his body – how clearly Bridie sees them now – are, in fact, moving. She is put in mind of Monsieur Desvignes’s Mimoscope. A device of cunning construction (a wonder amongst wonders at the Great Exhibition), pictures looped between spools, illuminated by a spark. Bridie, transfixed, saw animals, insects and machinery – static images – flickering to life, to bounce and flutter, slither and winch. Bridie watches this man with the same fascination as, in one continuous motion, an inked anchor drops the length of his bicep. High on his abdomen an empty-eyed skull, a grinning memento mori, chatters its jaw. A mermaid sits on his shoulder holding a looking-glass, combing her blue-black hair. On finding herself observed the mermaid takes fright and swims off under the man’s armpit with a deft beat of her tail. On his left pectoral an ornate heart breaks and reforms over and over again.



He is a circus to the eye.

‘Had a good look?’ he asks.

Bridie reddens. ‘Forgive me, sir, if I startled you. I was after borrowing a smoke.’ She gestures to her empty pipe.

The man lowers his fists. ‘Merciful Jesus, it is you. Is it not?’ His expression turns to one of delight. He sweeps off his hat. ‘Oh, darling, do you know me?’

Bridie stares at him. ‘I do not.’

‘Ah now . . .’ He runs a hand over shorn hair, black velvet, dense as a mole’s pelt, and wrinkles his strong square forehead. ‘Your name is Bridget.’

‘My name is Bridie.’

‘It is.’ The man nods. ‘Your full appellation, if you would be so kind?’

Bridie hesitates. ‘Mrs Bridie Devine.’

The man grins. ‘What else would it be, with those eyes divine?’ He pauses. ‘And Devine would be your husband’s name, madam?’

‘Late husband, sir,’ corrects Bridie.

The man bows. ‘My sincere condolences, Mrs Devine.’

Bridie turns to go. ‘If you’ll excuse me, sir.’

‘Won’t you stay, Bridget? We could talk about the old times.’

Bridie stops. ‘Sir, you are quite mistaken in your belief that you know me—’

‘But I do know you: you are Gan Murphy’s girl.’

Bridie’s eyes widen. ‘He was my gaffer.’

‘I know that!’ The man pauses, his expression amused. ‘You don’t remember me at all, do you?’

Bridie looks at him in desperation, sensing a game that could go on for all eternity. ‘That is not the point, Mr—’

‘Doyle.’ He wanders to a grave across the way and gestures down at it. ‘Not a bad spot, is it?’

Bridie follows him. She reads the headstone:



THE DECORATED DOYLE

Here lies RUBY DOYLE

Tattooed SEAFARER and CHAMPION BOXER,

Untimely taken, 21 March 1863

“He felled them with a bow”

‘Do you know me now?’ asks the dead man.

‘Well, sir, you are a boxer by the name of Ruby Doyle. You have been deceased half a year, and still I do not know you.’

Ruby Doyle puts his hat back on. ‘Throw your mind back, Bridget.’ He taps his topper down at the crown. ‘Think awhile. I’m in no hurry.’

‘If this is some kind of trick, Mr Doyle—’

‘Ruby, if you please,’ he says, with a rakish tip of his hat rim. ‘What trick?’

‘You being dead.’

‘Trick’s on me.’

‘I do not believe in ghosts, sir.’

‘Neither do I – why do you not?’

‘I have a scientific mind. Ghosts are a nonsense.’

‘I agree.’

‘A parlour trick.’ Bridie looks at him hard. ‘Smoke and mirrors.’

Ruby smiles disarmingly. ‘A chance to pull one over?’

‘A fashionable flimflam.’

‘And what of table-tipping?’ Ruby, who seems to be enjoying this, scans the heavens: ‘Send me a sign, Winifred.’

‘Dark, overheated rooms and suggestible types.’

‘Half of London is at it!’

‘Half of London is duped. To believe in the existence of ghosts, spirits, phantoms – that one can see and converse with them – is deluded.’

‘Are you deluded, Bridget?’



‘I see you, sir, but I do not believe you exist.’

Ruby Doyle is crest-fallen.

Bridie frowns. ‘If you will excuse me, I have work to do.’

‘Churchyard work, is it?’ He glances slyly at the bag in her hand. ‘Is there a shovel in there? Let me guess: you’re a resurrectioner, like your old gaffer, Gan?’

She rounds on him. ‘And I look like a resurrectioner? I help the police.’

‘Do you, now. In what way?’

‘Working out how people died.’

‘How did I die?’

‘A heavy blow to the back of the neck.’

‘Now that’s clever. But you read about it in the Hue and Cry?’

‘I did not.’

‘Boxer bested in tavern brawl. I’d survived this fella trying to knock me to pieces, stepped in for a quick celebratory one and then—’

‘Ruby, I’m wanted in the crypt. They have found a body there.’

‘That’ll be the place for it. Off you go, so. And my compliments to your gaffer – how is Gan?’

‘Dead. In jail.’

Ruby stops smiling. ‘Then I am sorry. Gan was one of those fellas that go on: a long, thin strip of gristle, everlasting. Do you not see him too?’

Bridie regards the man with desperation. ‘Gan is dead.’

‘Then am I the only dead fella you see?’

‘Appears like it.’

‘What about Mr Devine?’

Bridie looks puzzled.

‘Your late husband,’ Ruby prompts. ‘You must see him?’

‘Never.’

‘Then I’m peculiar to you. Are you surprised, Bridget? Are you rattled?’



‘Nothing surprises or rattles me.’

‘Is that so?’ He reflects on this a moment, then: ‘Can I come with you, watch whatever it is that you’re doing in the crypt?’

‘You may not.’

Bridie walks through the gravestones. Ruby ambles alongside her. The boots, unlaced, lend a loose parry to his boxer’s strut.

At the edge of the path she stops and turns to him. ‘I am hallucinating. You are a waking dream.’ She bites her lip. ‘You see I smoked something a little stimulating earlier . . .’

Ruby nods sagely. ‘The empty pipe – is it Kubla Khan you’re visiting?’

Bridie is dumb-founded.

Ruby gestures at his bandages. ‘Ringside doctor, recited while he patched.’

When they reach the chapel, Bridie holds out her hand. ‘This is where we part company.’

Ruby smiles; it’s a charming kind of a smile that gaily remakes the contours of his fabulous moustache. His eyes, in life, would have been a handsome dark-molasses brown. In death, they are still alive with mischievous intent.

‘I would shake your hand, Bridget, but—’

Bridie withdraws her hand. ‘Of course. Good day, Ruby Doyle.’

She heads into the chapel.

‘I’ll wait for you, Bridget,’ calls the dead man. ‘I’ll just be having a smoke for meself.’

Ruby Doyle watches her walk away. God love her, she hasn’t changed. She’s still captain of herself, you can see that; chin up, shoulders back, a level green-eyed gaze. You’ll look away before she does. She has done well for herself, with the voice and the clothes and the bearing of her.

If it were not for that irresistible scowl and that unmistakable hair, would he have recognised her? But then, the heart always knows those long ago loved, even when new liveries confuse the eye and new songs confound the ear. Does Ruby know the stories that surround her? That she was an Irish street-rat rescued from the rookery by a gentleman surgeon who held her to be (ah now, this is a stretcher!) as the orphaned daughter of a great Dublin doctor. That despite her respectable appearance (it is rumoured among low company) she wears a dagger strapped to her thigh and keeps poisonous darts in her boot heels. That she speaks as she finds, judges no woman or man better or worse than her, feels deeply the blows dealt to others and can hold both her drink and a tune. Ruby Doyle meanders back to his favourite spot, to muse on all he knows and all he doesn’t know about Bridie Devine, lighting his pipe with the fierce blue flame of the afterlife.

The curate of Highgate Chapel is battling the locked door to the crypt with his collar pulled up and his hat pulled down. On seeing Bridie his face betrays surprise, which turns to displeasure when she reminds him of her business. The vicar is expecting her in relation to the delicate matter of the walled-up corpse. The curate fixes Bridie with a look of profound begrudgement and, managing to unlock the door, leads her into the crypt.

The corpse is propped in an alcove behind loose boards. Discovered by workmen clearing up after a flood, now abated. More than a few Highgate residents blame both the flood and the resurrected corpse on Bazalgette’s subterranean rummagings. All well and good creating a sewerage system that will be the envy of the civilised world, but should one really delve into London’s rancid belly? London is like a difficult surgical patient; however cautious the incision anything and everything is liable to burst out. Dig too deep and you’re bound to raise floods and bodies, to say nothing of deadly miasmas and eyeless rats with foot-long teeth. The rational residents of Highgate defend Mr Bazalgette as a first-rate engineer and deny the existence of eyeless rats.

The corpse had been immured in an alcove; its shackles and wide-socketed expression of terror suggest foul play. This poor soul met this fate an age ago, lessening police interest in the case. This is a bygone crime in a city flooded with new crimes.

The coppers are up to the hub in it: London is awash with the freshly murdered. Bodies appear hourly, blooming in doorways with their throats cut, prone in alleyways with their heads knocked in. Half-burnt in hearths and garrotted in garrets. Folded into trunks or bobbing about in the Thames, great bloated shoals of them.

Bridie has a talent for the reading of corpses: the tale of life and death written on every body. Because of this talent Bridie’s old friend, Inspector Valentine Rose of Scotland Yard, passes her the odd case – with the understanding that she stops short of a post-mortem, her unqualified status being a bar to this procedure. The cases usually have two things in common, other than having piqued Rose’s interest: bizarre and inexplicable deaths, and victims drawn from society’s flotsam (pimps, whores, vagrants, petty criminals and the insane). For her considered opinion Bridie receives a stipend (paid, unbeknownst to Bridie, from the pocket of Rose himself) and signs her report with an illegible signature. If anyone asks, her name is Montague Devine. In the event that she is called to give evidence, she’ll give it in a frock coat and collar.

With the curate’s help Bridie clears the remaining stones from the alcove. The crypt is a grim space, with a vaulted ceiling and flagstone floor. As with many subterranean, lightless places it has the climate of a year-round winter. The recent flood has left a rich, peaty smell not unlike a dug bog.

The corpse, a woman, Bridie judges, by size and apparel, is well preserved, allowing for her lengthy entombment. A macabre spectacle decked in finery. There is a cruel theatricality to her, costumed as if for a tableau vivant. A tragic heroine, a goddess – an unknown figure from history! Her gown, rotten now, could be Grecian, Roman. Her pale hair, shedding in clumps, falls onto withered shoulders. Bridie divines last moments spent shackled by the neck in the suffocating dark. It is there in the open mouth, stiffened around a howl.

The curate fusses with the lamp, swearing under his breath. He is a young man with an unfavourable look about him. Slight of stature and large of head, with light-brown hair that cleaves thinly to an ample cranium with bumps and contours enough to astound even a practised phrenologist. His complexion is as wan and floury as an overcooked potato and his mouth was made for sneering. Otherwise, Bridie notes, he is shabbily dressed for a curate and vaguely familiar.

‘Sir, have we met?’ she asks.

The curate regards her blankly. ‘I think not, Miss—’

‘Mrs Devine – I didn’t catch your name, sir.’

‘Cridge.’

Bridie resumes the examination. Trying to ignore Mr Cridge straining to see past her.

The corpse’s injuries (bone-deep lacerations to her right arm, three broken fingers, shattered mandible, fractured orbital) tell a dark story. A shawl hides her left arm. Bridie carefully unwraps it.

‘She has a child,’ she says.

A baby, swaddled, no bigger than a turnip, lies in a sling beneath the folds of its mother’s shawl. Bridie feels a flood of pity. There hadn’t even been space to sit, pressed as they were into a shallow recess, so this woman had died standing and her baby had perished alongside her.

Mr Cridge leans in nearer and bites his lip, wearing an expression of ghoulish excitement. Bridie is offended on the victims’ behalf.

‘If this is at all disturbing for you, Mr Cridge, I suggest you leave me to it.’

‘I’m not in the least disturbed. How old is the infant?’

‘At death: a few months old. It suckles still on its mother’s finger.’ Bridie peers closer. ‘The baby isn’t suckling the mother’s finger, it’s gnawing it.’

‘Well, I’ll be damned!’ The curate raises his eyes to the ceiling. ‘Apologies.’

Bridie frowns. ‘The lantern, Mr Cridge, as near as you can, please.’

Bridie sees the baby’s face, wizened now, its features vague and leathery. Bridie puts the tip of her finger into the infant’s tiny mouth cavity, gently pushing past the mother’s shrivelled digit.

‘They are like pike’s teeth,’ she says, astonished. ‘Irregular needles in the upper and lower jaw, sharp yet.’

‘How about that . . .’ murmurs Mr Cridge.

‘I will need to remove the corpses for a thorough examination in decent light.’

‘That will be impossible,’ says Mr Cridge sourly. ‘At least, not possible today.’

‘It must be today; the police will expect my report.’

‘The vicar is out.’

‘Then I shall wait for him.’

‘I will raise this matter with him directly he returns, Mrs Devine.’

‘Please make sure that you do, Mr Cridge.’

The curate turns from the corpse to Bridie with a look of such concentrated enmity she is in no doubt: if he could, he’d shove her into the alcove and wall it up again.

Mr Cridge closes and locks the gate behind them and pockets the key.



‘I would strongly advise you to keep the nature of this discovery to yourselves, Mr Cridge,’ says Bridie. ‘London has a taste for aberrations.’

‘I can assure you that this matter will attract the utmost discretion on our part. Good day to you, Mrs Devine.’ The curate puts his hat on, bows resentfully and heads off towards the vicarage.

Bridie surveys the chapel-yard: it is empty of partially clad, imaginary dead pugilists. Then she catches sight of it, bobbing into view above the top of the wall: a top hat. A hat that has known better days, dented of body, misshapen of rim and transparent. With a firm hold of her case Bridie takes flight, around the side of the chapel and out through the back gate. She continues along the street alone – once or twice glancing back over her shoulder, with a mixture of relief and something approaching disappointment.

Bridie, crypt-cold to the bone, is glad to be above ground. As she descends Highgate Hill, below her, in the acidulated smoke atmosphere, London glimmers. She follows the hidden Fleet townward, as the sky darkens and street-lamps are lit and the gas-lights are turned up in shops and public houses. Past St Giles, Little Ireland, where the tenements totter and the courts run vile with vice. New Oxford Street marches down the middle. The Irish hop over it and spread out to the north, forming new footholds. They have flooded this town, wave after wave of them, spilling out from their rookeries to perch in all places. On the south side the buildings turn their backs on the main road, leaning inwards, like gaunt conspirators. Change is always drawing near. Innovation waits like an offstage actor, primed and ready in the wings, biting its lip and grinning. Rag-plugged windows and crumbling bricks will give way to open landscapes of stone and sky.



The rats and the immigrants will be sent running.

But for now, the slums are as they have always been: as warm and lively as a blanket full of lice.

Bridie could find her way with her eyes shut and her nostrils open.

Try it now. Close your eyes (eyes that would be confused anyway by the labyrinthine alleys, twisting passages, knocked-up and tumbling-down houses).

Breathe in – but not too deeply.

Follow the fulsome fumes from the tanners and the reek from the brewery, butterscotch rotten, drifting across Seven Dials. Keep on past the mothballs at the cheap tailor’s and turn left at the singed silk of the maddened hatter. Just beyond you’ll detect the unwashed crotch of the overworked prostitute and the Christian sweat of the charwoman. On every inhale a shifting scale of onions and scalded milk, chrysanthemums and spiced apple, broiled meat and wet straw, and the sudden stench of the Thames as the wind changes direction and blows up the knotted backstreets. Above all, you may notice the rich and sickening chorus of shit.

The smell of shit is the primary olfactory emission from the multifarious inhabitants in Bridie Devine’s part of town. Everyone contributes, the Russians, Polish, Germans, Scots and the especially the Irish. Everyone is at it. From Mrs Neary’s newborn crapping in rags to Father Doucan squatting genteelly over his chamber pot. Their output is flung into cesspits, cellars and yards, where it contributes to London’s perilous reek.

Bad air (as any man of science worth his monocle will tell you) sets up stall for the latest bands of travelling diseases. Cholera is the headlining act. When cholera comes to visit you’ll find the lanes empty. Cholera keeps the women and the children from pump and square and the men inside scratching their arses. When cholera comes to visit, the streets are quiet. There is no bustling to and fro, no gossip and ribald laughter, only fervent prayer and the dread of an unholy bowel movement.

Mercifully there is no cholera today and so the streets are full.

Full as only London is full – and the din of it! Chanters, costers and traders, omnibuses thundering along thoroughfares, horse hooves at a clip and carriage wheels at a growl, carts and barrows at a rumble and all of London jostling in all directions at once.

Bridie heads home.





Chapter 2


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: parlour, 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 only reads 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 cosy-like). This plaque might offer a clue as to the trade conducted upstairs: Mrs Devine

Domestic Investigations

Minor Surgery (Esp. Boils, Warts, Extractions)

Discretion Assured 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. Neighbours 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 parlour.

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 parlour,’ Cora says, a testy look in her eyes.

‘On business?’

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?’

‘Didn’t ask.’

Cora opens the door to the parlour 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 gas-light, 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.’

Bridie frowns. ‘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.

‘And he’s entrusted this matter, this delicate, urgent matter, to you?’

The smile stays fixed. Dr Harbin puts a hand up to stroke his whiskers, one side and then the next, gently, reassuringly, as if they are fretful pets about to jump off his face.



‘I must say,’ says Dr Harbin. ‘I thought my employer was misguided in seeking out your services. I was certain that you had ceased to trade. Shut up shop, so to speak.’

‘As you can see I am still here, Dr Harbin,’ replies Bridie, grimly.

He throws her a sly glance. ‘It shows an admirable fortitude, carrying on, all things considered. Your last case: a young boy, was it not, Mrs Devine?’

A young boy she could not find in time.

She had read the story of her failure on his body: curly-haired, web-toed, dead. Perfect but for three inconspicuous bruises, one each side of his nostrils and one under his chin. Burked. A pattern a one-time resurrection girl would recognise, even if the buyer of the corpse didn’t.

‘Dreadful business.’ The doctor adopts a sympathetic expression. ‘We heard all about it, even where we are. Miles from London.’

Yes, you peeled bollock, thinks Bridie. It was in all the bloody newspapers.

‘The trouble is,’ continues Dr Harbin, ‘any amateur can call themselves an investigator. But is it not best to leave that sort of thing to the police?’

‘The police were involved in the case you referred to, Dr Harbin. I was not the only person searching for the stolen child.’

The doctor makes a gesture with his hand, a wave of sorts, at once dismissive and conciliatory.

Bridie looks him square in his sliddery eyes. ‘If you are of a mind that a police investigation is preferable, sir, then why are you here?’

Dr Harbin reddens, a deep flush inclusive of ears and nose-tip.

Bridie stands and walks to the door. She picks up the bell. ‘Would you care to join me in a drop of Madeira, Dr Harbin? It could only help matters.’



Cora comes instantly into the room. She throws Bridie an impatient look. This is taking far longer than a good clatter would.

‘Cora, would you bring the Madeira? The special vintage.’

Cora winks at Bridie, glowers at the guest and goes to fetch the decanter. Bridie has a plan. She’ll get this arse-sponge drunk on whatever coaxing mix that is in that Madeira bottle and then he’ll be rattling with news.

‘To recapitulate once more, Dr Harbin: you are here on behalf of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick – a baronet, no less. His six-year-old daughter, Christabel, is missing and, by your reckoning, almost certainly kidnapped.’

‘That is correct.’

‘Sir Edmund is widely held to have no heir, that his marriage to the late Lady Berwick was without issue.’

Dr Harbin’s eyes scurry behind glass; he nods.

‘But now it transpires Sir Edmund had kept a small and secret daughter at his home, Maris House.’

‘Yes.’

‘Sir Edmund is adamant that only four people know about her existence.’

‘That is correct.’

‘And those people are yourself, the butler, the housekeeper and the child’s nurse.’

‘Yes.’

‘That is, the nurse who is currently missing alongside the child?’

Dr Harbin is hesitant. ‘Yes.’

‘And Sir Edmund has never mentioned his daughter to anyone else: friends, relations, interested parties?’

Dr Harbin is beginning to sound weary. ‘That is correct.’



‘And Lady Berwick is deceased.’

‘Yes.’

‘When and how?’

‘Is that relevant, Mrs Devine?’

‘I haven’t decided yet.’

Dr Harbin looks resentful. ‘Lady Berwick had a tragic accident. A few days after Christabel’s birth.’

‘What sort of accident?’

‘Drowned, unfortunately.’

‘Where?’

‘In the ornamental pond in the grounds of Sir Edmund’s estate.’

‘Lady Berwick drowned in a pond?’

Even Dr Harbin doesn’t seem convinced. ‘Yes.’

‘So Sir Edmund’s heir has passed all six years of her life motherless, hidden away?’

Dr Harbin nods.

Bridie palms her pipe. ‘Do you object, sir?’

She reads the lift in his eyebrows as assent.

Bridie finds her tobacco, fills the bowl, tamps it down, lights it and raises a cloud. Then she remembers her resolve not to smoke, and instantly disremembers it.

Dr Harbin’s shuffles; his long legs twitch, wanting to be gone.

‘Have you a problem sitting, Dr Harbin?’

‘I am anxious to return to Sir Edmund in his hour of need, madam.’

‘Naturally.’ Bridie smokes her pipe serenely.

Dr Harbin makes an effort to stay still.

‘I am a little confused, Dr Harbin. Why would anyone hide a child away from sunlight and playmates, parties and Christmas? I’m assuming that, deprived of her liberty, the child has experienced none of these things.’

Dr Harbin looks to be studying his glass of Madeira, but it is hard to tell where his eyes are moving in the far-off depth behind his spectacles.

‘The child wants for nothing,’ he says. ‘She has everything she needs. As for playmates, she has my own daughter, Myrtle.’

‘Then there are five people who know about her existence?’

Dr Harbin’s fingers tighten on the stem of his glass. ‘Yes.’

‘Is there anyone else you’ve neglected to tell me about, sir?’

‘No, madam.’

‘The chimney-sweep, or the cats’ meat man? Perhaps they have met Christabel too?’

He is riled. Bridie detects a tightening of the mouth and an increase of leg-twitching.

She smiles. ‘You still haven’t answered my question, Dr Harbin. Why was the child hidden away?’

‘She is somewhat unique,’ says Dr Harbin, his voice stilted with anger.

‘What variety of unique?’

‘Sir Edmund has not given me permission to disclose that.’

‘Come, come, as the family physician you must have examined the child?’ Bridie studies the doctor closely.

And there it is: the doctor winces.

‘What can you disclose, Dr Harbin?’ asks Bridie evenly.

Dr Harbin’s hand goes up to his whiskers, for a soothing pat. ‘I can disclose that the child has singular traits – I will not disclose what these are – which have prevented her from entering society.’

‘So many mysteries! A missing girl hitherto kept a perfect secret from the world . . . that must have been difficult to contrive. But then again, six-year-old girls are usually small and quiet.’

Dr Harbin winces again. Again, Bridie notices.

‘And the missing nurse, how long had she been with the child?’



‘Nearly a month. Mrs Bibby came highly recommended.’

‘Not very long, then – and before Mrs Bibby?’

‘Sir Edmund’s own childhood nurse.’

‘Please elaborate.’

Dr Harbin pauses. ‘She drowned, unluckily.’

‘In the ornamental pond?’

‘No, in a wash-tub,’ says Harbin stiffly. ‘She slipped and fell.’

‘Dangerous place to live, Maris House.’ Bridie takes a puff on her pipe. ‘And you are telling me that the rest of the servants know nothing of Sir Edmund’s secret child.’

‘They know nothing of the child, madam.’

‘Dr Harbin, you know as well as I do – having kept them and doubtlessly having read the advice pertaining to them – that servants never know nothing. They have eyes, ears, brains and an addiction to gossip. This equips them to flush out secrets like trail dogs.’

‘Sir Edmund’s servants are loyal and discreet.’

‘You passed the child’s nurse, Mrs Bibby, off as—’

‘A seamstress, restoring the hangings in the west wing.’

‘The west wing being where the child was kept hidden?’

‘Yes.’

Bridie relights her pipe, thinking, smoking with relish. A movement in the corner of the room catches her eye. Behind the potted palm, next to the window, the dead man from the chapel-yard stands. He is rummaging down the front of his drawers. He glances up and, catching her eye, looks momentarily confused, then melts into the wall. Bridie waits, marking his point of departure, but there are no further emanations of a phantasmal nature.

‘Mrs Devine, are you quite well?’

‘I am, of course.’ She waves her empty glass in the direction of the decanter Cora has left on the sideboard. ‘Would you be so kind, Dr Harbin?’



Bridie is on her fifth glass and Dr Harbin has hardly tasted his first. He drinks Madeira like a maiden aunt, but it’s of no matter; the investigation is loosening up nicely now.

‘Have the police been informed, Dr Harbin?’

Dr Harbin looks cagey. ‘They were called by a servant who thought that a robbery had occurred.’

‘And it had, of course. But the police weren’t told of the theft of the small and secret daughter?’

‘No.’

Bridie nods; it’s as she expected. ‘The perpetrators have yet to make any demands?’

‘As I left there had been no word. Sir Edmund is willing to pay any ransom.’

‘Ransoming the child may not be the intention of her abductors.’

‘Whatever their intention, my employer wants his daughter found as a matter of urgency,’ Dr Harbin counters coldly. ‘Sir Edmund will recompense you for your trouble and your utmost discretion. And hopes that you will accept a generous bonus on the safe return of the child.’

Bridie frowns. She has the bones of the case – a stolen secret heir, missing nurse – but not the meat of it.

‘There’s a great deal you’re not telling me, Dr Harbin.’

‘I’ve told you everything Sir Edmund entrusted me to tell you.’

‘Even so, you’re a bit light on the old observations, the facts as they stand, for a man of science. The doctors I know love to put their guinea’s worth in.’ On Bridie’s face a notion of a smile. ‘Are you sure you’re not the valet, sir?’

Dr Harbin puts down his glass and stands abruptly. He steps forward, threat flickering darkly behind his spectacles. He reaches his hand into the pocket of his frock coat . . .

With a rush and a blur Ruby Doyle strides out from the wall and stands in front of Bridie, in a fighting stance. One hand is raised in a formidable fist, the other hitches up his spectral drawers.

Bridie stifles a laugh.

Dr Harbin, undeterred (seeing nothing but thin air between himself and Bridie Devine), pulls his hand out of his pocket.

In it sits nothing more dangerous than an envelope.

***

Bridie contemplates the envelope on the mantelpiece as she smokes her pipe distractedly, not altogether alone in her parlour.

Ruby has taken the chair opposite, having made a great act of kicking the departing doctor up his arse. He sits with his top hat between his knees, pulling on the side of his magnificent moustache; his gaze roams the room but mostly it falls on Bridie.

Cora comes in without knocking. ‘What did the bollock want?’

‘You heard, you were outside the door with your ears flapping.’

Ruby straightens up. ‘Does this one see me? Ask her.’

‘Cora,’ says Bridie, pointing at Ruby in the chair, ‘what’s that?’

Cora glances over. ‘A chair.’

‘And on the chair?’

Cora steps forward and runs a large hand over the arm of the chair and the back of it. Ruby crouches in the seat.

‘Lint, dust, fluff,’ says Cora. ‘Is this about my housekeeping?’

Bridie looks at Ruby. ‘Not at all.’

Cora turns down the gas-lights. ‘You took the case, then?’

‘They want the child found.’

Cora studies her. ‘And are you ready for that, after last time?’

‘Am I to decline?’ Bridie asks. ‘Even mutton is no longer on the menu. I’ve no idea what meat you’re serving but it’s hard to get down.’

‘It’s even bloody harder to run down,’ mutters Cora, mutinously. ‘Well, it’s up to you. If I can help, I will.’

Cora the loyal, since the day Bridie brought her home. A decade has passed since Bridie first set eyes on Cora, huddled in a bear cage.

It had been a rapid descent for Cora, from circus noblesse to livestock. She had long changed hands, from her unwed mother to the orphanage, the orphanage to a travelling circus. Cora had toured the country as headlining act Gertrude ‘Tree-Topping’ Gigantes and long-term mistress of Benny Whitlow, a well-respected showman from the north of England. When Benny died unexpectedly his nephew inherited the show and Cora along with it. Benny’s nephew devised new and sordid variations of her act, to satisfy select audiences with infernal tastes. The beatings started when Cora refused him. They worsened when she tried to run away.

Bridie, visiting the circus to investigate the alleged theft of an audience member’s emerald-set brooch, heard tales of a giantess held captive in a bear cage. She explored the camp and found Cora.

Bridie threatened Benny’s nephew with the law. When that didn’t work she threatened him with a pistol. In an act of glorious defiance Bridie picked the lock of the bear cage, liberated Cora, and the pair of them walked out of the circus in broad daylight. Benny’s nephew had no doubt, from the look on Bridie’s face, that she would shoot anyone who tried to stop them. Thereafter, Cora appointed herself Bridie’s housemaid. Bridie hasn’t had a decent meal since.

Cora lays a frugal fire. ‘You leave tomorrow for the scene of the crime?’

‘Maris House, Polegate.’

‘A proper nob?’



‘Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, no less.’

Cora grunts. Nobs are one and the same to her. She gets up, wiping her hands on her apron. At the door she turns back, nursing a question.

‘I’ll find her, Cora,’ says Bridie.

‘Else you know where she’ll end up?’

Bridie nods grimly.

Cora gives her a stern, sad, splay-toothed smile and is gone, whistling down the corridor with the coal-scuttle clanking against her muscled calves.

Bridie settles back in her chair to smoke her pipe and watch the mean little fire in the grate.

‘Where will the child end up? If you don’t find her?’ Ruby’s voice is soft.

‘You, sir, followed me home from Highgate Chapel, entered my home without invitation and eavesdropped on my confidential business.’

‘I did, madam,’ admits Ruby, his expression unrepentant.

Bridie studies him carefully. He is no less wondrous now than he was in the chapel-yard. She sees him in perfect detail, from the mud on his boots to the loose button on his drawers and unravelling bandages on his fists. Yet through his bare chest she can see a tapestried cushion and the antimacassar on the chair behind him.

‘Why are you here, Ruby Doyle?’

‘There’s no life at all in that chapel-yard.’

Bridie ponders this. ‘Why would you not be in a Catholic churchyard?’

‘I am where my friends saw fit to put me.’ His face falls. ‘They drank the money.’

‘Ah no, they put up that nice headstone for you,’ says Bridie, kindly.

‘So they did.’

Bridie rekindles her pipe, giving it a few rapid shochs. She squints at the dead man through the smoke. ‘I’m not in the market for a haunting.’

Ruby opens his bandage-bound hands. ‘I’m not haunting you. I just thought seeing as we’re old friends—’

‘You would follow me home and haunt me. As I told you before, I don’t know you.’

Ruby leans forwards and lowers his voice. ‘Now, what did the big fella in the dress mean about the stolen child? Where will she end up?’

‘Don’t digress. Cora is not a fella, she’s a lady.’

The ghost looks incredulous.

‘I’m not joking.’

The ghost looks sceptical.

‘You heard what Dr Harbin had to say, you were there hiding in the wall.’

‘Rum bloody cove.’

Bridie smiles wryly. ‘Thank you for saving me from him.’

‘In my experience, if a fella hops up and reaches into his pocket he’s likely to produce something that will sting a bit.’

‘I appreciate your solicitude, Ruby.’

A polite nod. ‘You were saying, about the child.’

‘The stolen child, as you yourself heard from Dr Harbin’s testimony, was born different. What Cora was alluding to are the three reasons why a child who has been born different—’

‘Like little Christabel Berwick.’

‘Like Christabel Berwick, should have been taken. For the obtaining of a ransom, for the collection of a private anatomist, or for a life as a circus curiosity.’

‘A private anatomist?’

‘A loose term, Ruby, I use it to denote individuals of considerable means with an unhealthy interest in the darker aspects of nature’s diverse bounties.’

‘How is the child different?’

‘Your guess is as good as mine, Ruby.’



Ruby sits quietly, lost in his ruminations, absently stroking the battered silk of his spectral hat. Then: ‘I’m at liberty, if you’d like a bit of assistance with the finding of the child.’

‘I work alone.’

‘Would you not make an exception, for an old friend with time on their hands?’

‘I wouldn’t.’

Ruby points to the picture over the fireplace. ‘That’s Ireland there.’

‘Wicklow.’

‘It’s a likeness: the mud and the hills and the rain.’

‘I hardly remember it.’

‘I knew it was you,’ he says, ‘as soon as I saw you standing in the chapel-yard with your red hair spilling out from under your wee cap. I said to myself, “Holy Mother of God, there goes Bridget. Green eyes and a biblical temper.”’

‘What do you know about my temper, or my eyes?’ Bridie puts the bit of her pipe between her lips.

‘I’m tormented watching you.’ There’s a gleaming smile on him now.

Bridie narrows her eyes. ‘Meaning?’

‘What I’d do for a smoke.’

‘Then don’t watch me.’

They sit before the fire.

When Bridie glances up she finds Ruby studying her. Feeling a sudden heat in her cheeks, Bridie moves her chair further from the hearth.

Ruby casts her an arch look. ‘It was you that conjured me up out of the ground, Bridie. I heard your little feet trotting above me and up I came, running after you.’

The tenderness in his saying of her name is not lost on her. She runs a stern eye over him. ‘You were already conjured up, Ruby, slumped against a tomb. Besides, how could I conjure someone I don’t know?’



Ruby stands. He arranges himself in front of the fire, as if warming his backside. ‘And you really don’t know me?’

‘Jesus, just tell me,’ says Bridie, and immediately regrets the saying of it.

There in Bridie’s words is her trust in the truth of it: that they have known each other. And there in her words is her wanting of an answer.

On Ruby’s face: triumph. The anchor tattooed on his arm lowers itself gracefully. The mermaid smiles into her looking-glass.

‘You’re the investigator, you fathom it.’

And with that, he drifts through the wall with a wink.





Chapter 3


The nurse, Mrs Bibby, sits with her bad leg on an upturned bucket. Strong and square of body and delicate of wrist and neck, with long deft pickpocket’s fingers, she gives the impression of heavy ballast combined with nimble grace. She is in midlife, but truth be told she has never looked young. In her physiognomy one can detect the vicissitudes of decades of hard and soft living. There is something predatory about her, a wild slyness to her eyes, which are very blue and very wide apart. She has a flattened nose and negligible eyebrows. A wide, generous mouth takes up the rest of her face, with several teeth to each side lost. This gives her the air of a raffish tomcat. As does the scar above her eyebrow, the deep nick to her ear lobe and the stump of her missing index finger. Her hair, a greying mouse, is moulded into a remarkable arrangement; a severe parting in the middle with two fluffed cones high on each side of her head. Her face is mesmerising, moving as it does from wide-eyed innocent to vinegary crone in a matter of seconds.

The child, it seems to the nurse, never tires of watching her, or of listening; but then Mrs Bibby’s voice, like her face, changes constantly. Every kind of voice lives inside her, from prim to wheedling, high-stepping to raucously lewd. After the previous nurse, who lay face down sleeping off her gin habit for the best part of six years, Mrs Bibby is a spectacle.

The child is observing her now; her eye peeping through the door of the vestry cupboard left ajar. This is where the good doctor saw fit to lodge the mite. He has brought lanterns and set them about so she can be kept in sight.

Mrs Bibby winks; the eye disappears. She returns her attention, forthright but caring, to Dr Harbin.

‘With all due respect,’ she says smoothly, ‘I would advise you to rein it in, sir.’

The doctor, who is pacing the length of the room, halts. ‘We can’t afford this delay, Mrs Bibby. What if the buyers renege? If they find out that he knows that he’s been . . .’

‘Rooked, sir?’ completes Mrs Bibby.

The doctor grimaces.

‘Well, he would have to find out at some junction, he’s all eyes and frigging ears. But those Parisians, now they’re at a distance. And I ain’t about to tell them you’ve bubbled your rightful buyer.’

Dr Harbin stares hard at her.

Mrs Bibby throws a devoted look up to the ceiling. ‘Before my light and saviour, ain’t we in this together, Doctor?’

‘What have I done?’ he whispers. ‘Of all the people to cross.’

The inky dabs of his eyes dart behind his spectacle lenses. There’s a newly haggard aspect to the doctor’s countenance, as befits a damned man.

‘This whole enterprise is slipshod.’ His eyes fall frostily upon the nurse. ‘How could there be no carriage?’

‘The jarvey was delayed, sir, wheel trouble, it can’t be helped.’

‘And when he arrives I know what I’ll find: a drunken coachman with a team of glue nags and a superannuated carriage that I could outpace on foot.’



Mrs Bibby’s expression remains unchanged but there is a note of irritation in her voice. ‘Would you have it above-board, all traceable-like?’

The doctor doesn’t answer.

‘Still, we found this place to hole up in and ain’t that a fountain of luck, sir?’

‘Mrs Bibby, we are not even a mile from Maris House yet.’

‘Dr Harbin, all plans have their hitches. I doubt if Sir Edmund will have the coppers out searching.’

‘Bridie Devine, she’ll be searching.’

‘Then we’re frigged, entirely!’ she laughs. ‘Doctor, take heart, soon we will be across the Channel.’

‘What if—’

‘And the French will be clamouring to buy your little oddity of nature.’

The doctor rubs his pate with the flat of his hand in a comforting, polishing motion. He turns to her and opens his mouth.

‘It’s all arranged, sir,’ Mrs Bibby says quickly. ‘Carriage, Dover, first light.’

Dr Harbin starts pacing again. ‘It must be tomorrow – the road is long, the risks increasing—’

‘You’re right there, Doctor,’ pipes up Mrs Bibby in a helpful tone. ‘He might catch up with us yet, to say nothing of the other collectors out there. With an eye and a nose for goods on the move that they can add to their cabinets of curiosities, their wonder rooms. Oh – you know about them collectors, do you?’

Dr Harbin’s face says he might.

‘Mercenary types, Doctor. Un-gentlemanly.’

‘I’d rather not think about that.’

‘Word gets around, don’t it?’ She gives him a contented smile. ‘Risk of ambushor. Or being stopped by coppers.’



‘Coppers?’

Mrs Bibby nods, blithely. ‘Sir Edmund may not alert them but they’ll be out there all the same, meddling. In villages, along the lonely roads, suspecting, searching.’ She points at the vestry cupboard. ‘Try explaining that.’

Dr Harbin is harried. ‘What should I do?’

Mrs Bibby picks up her book. ‘Oh, staying sanguine is all you can do, Doctor.’

The doctor collapses into a chair. From time to time he shakes his head with something like disbelief.

Mrs Bibby feels for him. This is strong business for a weak man.

‘And impromptu burials.’ He gestures with disdain at the muddied knees of his trousers. ‘Promise me that.’

Mrs Bibby merely looks at him, placidly, half-amused.

‘Do you realise how hard it was to get that body out from under Mrs Puck’s bloody nose?’ The doctor seems unnerved at the thought.

‘Our fallen comrade,’ laments Mrs Bibby. ‘As I said: all plans have their hitches, sir.’

She watches the doctor a moment, then returns to the book in her hand.

The child shuffles to sitting along the wall of the vestry cupboard. She wears a costume so that she will not bite herself or others. It is made of strong material and buckles. It is a job of work to get out of it; despite that, she has a foot loose. There is some slack in the ankle strap so she can shift along the cupboard floor.

‘The Kraken is short-tongued tonight,’ says Mrs Bibby from the chair.

The child nudges the cupboard door open a bit wider with her foot.



‘Playing mum? You understand more than you let on.’ Mrs Bibby puts down her book and reaches for the bottle on the table next to her. ‘Because I am dosed to the gills on Mother Bibby’s Quieting Syrup and enjoying this pleasant change of scenery, we shall have an instructive story.’

The child looks at her blankly.

‘You are going out into the world, Christabel, and it is only right that I should prepare you. Impart some of my wisdom and experience, so to speak.’

Christabel is silent.

‘Such as, people in polite company don’t use their feet to eat snails.’

As if in defiance, Christabel delicately picks up a snail between her two toes and bends her face to her foot.

‘It’s not well-bred,’ adds Mrs Bibby. ‘At least use your fingers.’

The child, inspecting the snail, ignores her.

Mrs Bibby takes a nip, corks the bottle and lays it in her arm crook. ‘All right, so. In the old days . . .’

There lived a witch. And how do you recognise a witch? They run orphanages in Wanstead and like eating babies. This witch ran an orphanage and was an expert in selecting the choicest of babies. She enjoyed the plump babies with savoury gravy and drop dumplings, the lean ones she’d spatchcock and griddle with onions. Above five years old children were stringy and barely edible. One day a girl came in who was thin and five and there was no eating on her. Let’s call her Dorcas. Life at the witch’s house was difficult for Dorcas. She was—

‘What was Dorcas like?’ muses Mrs Bibby. ‘I’m frigged if I can remember.’

Dorcas was a plain girl with a limp to her left leg. This was on account of her mother trying to lose her down the privy when Dorcas was born. A policeman fished her out by the ankle – and shook her by the ankle to get her started up again. Her mother swung for it and Dorcas’s leg was never the same. It wasn’t the policeman’s fault of course, you never can tell if a good act will turn bad, no more than if a bad one will turn good. At the witch’s house there were beatings and starvings (in that respect it was the same as every other orphan house Dorcas had lived in). Now it came about that one day a new baby arrived. The baby was not more than six months old and a fine fat chap with smiling blue eyes and rosy-pink cheeks. Dorcas, knowing the baby’s fate, for the other orphans had told her all about the witch’s tastes, devised a bold plan which would free all of the orphans, including herself, from the witch’s tyranny—

Mrs Bibby breaks off. ‘Put that bloody snail down. I see what you’re doing.’

Christabel stops licking the snail shell and eyes the nurse through the open cupboard door.

‘You heard.’ Mrs Bibby waits.

The empty shell is delicately dropped on the flagstones. The foot slowly retracts itself into the cupboard.

Mrs Bibby nods.

Dorcas already knew how to do for rodents. You got the poison from the store, put it in the mush the rats liked and then you waited. Sometimes the high stink said that the rats had crawled somewhere to die. Dorcas was the one to go after them. It was a job she liked because no one else had the stomach. Dorcas decided that if she grew up she would become a rat-catcher. In the meantime, she would poison the fat baby; the witch would eat the baby and thereby be poisoned too. It would be quick for the babe (if the rats were anything to go by), saving him a long roasting . . .



Mrs Bibby pauses, leans forward, biting her lip against the pain from her leg and peers into the cupboard. The child has her eyes closed, she has worked one of her hands lose from her restraints and holds it between her head and the cupboard wall, palm to cheek. The child, roused by Mrs Bibby’s silence, shambles upright.

‘You want the rest of the story?’

Christabel looks at her with unblinking pearl eyes.

‘The relentless demands of it.’ Mrs Bibby, wincing, takes another nip from her bottle.

Dorcas mixed up the poison in a milk jug, enough for a score of rats. Then she put the poison packet away at the back of the store. Dorcas knew that if the witch suspected anything she wouldn’t eat the baby and it might be a while before another fine plump baby came to the orphanage. Then she set flour, suet and a mixing bowl in readiness for the dumplings and laid a place at the table and put the cruets ready. Her preparations complete, she lugged the fat baby boy up into her lap and fed him the rat medicine. He waved his fists with delight when he saw the spoon coming, but when he tasted it, his face crumpled and he spat out the mixture and began to cry. Dorcas, who had picked up babies all her life, swung him backwards over her knee to surprise him. Her trick worked, his mouth opened, Dorcas spooned the poison in. Fighting with the baby made her hot and cross. She didn’t realise how hot and cross until his body went limp, his mouth bitter with poison, his face flushed and his curls damp on his head. How her arms ached. Dorcas was not much bigger than the baby after all. She put the baby in a roasting tin, tucked a napkin over him and waited.

***

The child wakes to a brightening morning. The vicar’s vestments, his cassocks and surplices, hang above her. She touches the hem of a stole with her free hand, strokes it between her thumb and forefinger. A sudden scramble in the cupboard and the child snatches.

‘Going fishing?’ laughs Mrs Bibby, who has been watching her.

The nurse is even more tom-cattish than usual. The fluffed cones of her hair are lopsided and she has scratches across the bridge of her nose and on her cheeks. While Christabel has been sleeping Mrs Bibby has been fighting.

Christabel opens her fist, carefully, carefully.

‘Oh, strong wriggler!’ Mrs Bibby mimes feeding herself and the child mimics newt to mouth.

She kisses the newt.

‘One of your subjects, Lady Berwick, like these ladies and gentlemen.’ Mrs Bibby gestures at the snails that stud the vestry walls. More are making their way across the floor towards the cupboard. They puddle the flagstones; there will be a moat of them soon.

The child inspects the newt’s spotty body and tail, its limbs and digits and the shiny disks of its eyes. She strokes its snout with its two neat nostrils, with the tip of her fingernail. It wiggles, and, holding it tighter, she puts it into her mouth, biting the head clean off. She looks down at the body in her hand. A twitch, a shudder and still.

‘Poor little bleeder.’ Mrs Bibby smiles.

The child strokes the newt’s soft belly against her lip, watching the early sun slant across the flagstones, following the snails.





Chapter 4


Bridie Devine travels neat and light with her old leather case and short cape, her white widow’s cap and ugly black bonnet. It is early yet, just after dawn. Below her, rats swarm along the ancient covered rivers, the lost tributaries, Styx-black and subterranean, under London’s feet. Above her, gulls wheel through still air. She crosses over the bridge. Mud-larks wrapped in rags are coming down to the low-tide, fog-wound Thames. Clinging to their long staffs, they walk out from the bank. The mud accepts them, sucking their little limbs sore with possessive kisses. They wade out into freezing water, watched by the stately herons that survey all with an ornamental disdain. The herons listen too, to the thin high song of the mud-larks, a song of things lost and found, of spools and nails, bones and coins and copper wire.

It is early yet and the costermongers are rising tired. They have felt the weight of their barrows all night as they bucked and swore between the juggernauting omnibuses of their dreams. The factory workers, too, are climbing from the warm sour pits of their families to walk to work with a heel of bread in their pockets and their hair on end. Kitchen maids wake into their bodies and find themselves already up and staring at the cold coals of the unlit breakfast fire. Above them, their mistresses turn on frilled pillows, dreaming of steaming teapots and pug dogs. The senior clerks are rising in the suburbs, fastening collars and finding their omnibus fares. The junior clerks are checking for cuff fray and putting their patched and polished best foot first. They join the legions wearing London Bridge’s pavement smooth twice a day.

It is early yet, and here are the ladies of the town about to turn in after a supper of new hot rolls straight from the bakers. They loll, hatless and bare-armed, red-lipped and rouged, in early morning doorways. Smoking, laughing, calling, they smile at Bridie, some address her by name, the lone woman walking the waking city.

Or is she alone?

Bridie checks behind her. Still nothing.

Ahead is Victoria Station, with its smart new train shed roof to shield the distinguished residents of Pimlico and Belgravia from the offensive emissions of the train: smoke and steam and the clatter of passengers and the hallooing of guards and the screeching and hissing of engines. Bridie passes the wooden huts erected in lieu of brick-built buildings when the works’ fund ran out due to the smart roofing.

She checks behind her. Nothing still.

And now she sees him: dim in the brightening morning, the dead man, sloping round a hut, walking towards her as if he’s been waiting for ever. Ruby Doyle, his dark eyes glowing, wearing little more than a top hat, drawers and a smile.

Bridie looks out of the window of the London Brighton & South Coast Railway carriage, watching the landscape change before her eyes. River and road, village and farm, the world remade at every moment. Coal smuts fly past and the train ploughs forwards, fire-bellied and smoke-spitting, a mystery of steam pressure and pistons, a miracle of gauges. The engine is a painted comet, its tail rattling behind with every class of passenger hanging on. Many undertake this mode of transportation with nervous trepidation, as well they might; it is well known that regular rail travel contributes to the premature ageing of passengers. Unnatural speed and the rapid travelling of distances have a baleful effect on the organs. Hurrying can prove fatal, notably when combined with suet-based meals, improving spirits and fine tobaccos. The worst offender: the new-built, gas-lit, steam-hauled carriages of Hades which will convey a passenger between Paddington and Farringdon under the very ground of the metropolis. According to reports miscellaneous, the passenger (smoke-blinded, nerve-rattled, near-suffocated) will emerge from the experience variously six months to five years older.

On the over ground train: there is no portion of it wholly conducive to safety or comfort. First-class offers all the advantages of tasselled curtains but is apt to be stuffy. Third-class promises an atmospheric ride buffeted by the weather and a choking stream of smoke. Second-class passengers have a roof but worry about their proximity to third-class.

In second-class there is additional cause for concern today: a woman who talks to herself. Small and handsome, with fine eyes and an ugly bonnet, she has been whispering emphatically to the empty seat opposite her since the train left Victoria Station.

Now she is ignoring the empty seat and staring silently out of the window.

The other passengers glance sympathetically at each other and return to their books or their musings.

The peace doesn’t last.



The small, handsome woman begins to eye the seat belligerently. ‘That is not the point,’ she announces, in a fierce whisper.

She listens awhile to the empty chair, chewing her lip. Then: ‘You are not a help, you are a hindrance – following and haunting and heckling—’

She hits her forehead with the heel of her hand. More than one passenger jumps. ‘If I remember, you will vanish?’

There’s an audible tutting from several occupants of the carriage.

A red-faced gentleman seated in the corner intercedes waspishly. ‘If you would kindly lower your voice, madam.’

Bridie turns to him, maintaining a haughty tilt to her nose. ‘I beg your pardon, sir?’

‘You do realise, madam, that this is a second-class compartment?’

‘I am not here by choice, sir.’

The red-faced gentleman raises his eyebrows.

‘I am here under the auspices of my employer,’ Bridie continues. ‘If I was situated in third-class I would no doubt be enjoying a song and a meat pie right now. In first-class, I would be partaking in cigar and some tip-top-gallant gossip.’

The red-faced gentleman opens his mouth to speak. Bridie holds up her hand.

‘But, being as second-class is gloomier than a funeral carriage, I am forced to make my own entertainment, sir, which is talking to this . . . seat.’

The confounded red-faced gentleman closes his mouth.

Bridie extends a recalcitrant glare to the rest of the passengers, who shrink into their frock coats.

‘Furthermore,’ she hisses to the seat, ‘I will in future be ignoring your lascivious grins, cryptic messages, baggy-arsed drawers and illuminated bloody muscles.’ She narrows her eyes. ‘What person, in full possession of their reason, would choose to swagger through eternity half-naked with their boots undone?’

The red-faced gentleman looks on helplessly.

‘All the legions of the glorious dead,’ she informs him, pointing to a patch of air, ‘and I’m plagued by that.’

At Polegate Station Bridie finds Sir Edmund’s carriage waiting to convey her to Maris House. The weather has turned and the rain lashes with no let-up. Although it is early afternoon the lanterns on the carriage are already lit and the rain runs from the waiting coachman’s nose and cap-brim. It pours, too, from the tails and bridles of the horses.

The ride is bad: the brougham has poor suspension, and the roads are rough in parts. The interior has been made sombre with dark-coloured plush and has the faint smell of mice and straw. The upholstery is thick enough to offer some protection to the fundament, but the experience is like being shaken to death in a velvet-lined horsebox. With no outward view from the steamed-up windows Bridie has time to contemplate the Berwick crest on the opposite wall of the carriage: two rampant moles and a baffled griffin.

The horses, skittish, slide on the rain-washed road, their ears flat. The driver doesn’t know what’s got into them; they’ve been acting queerly since he picked up Sir Edmund’s London visitor. He can’t imagine why; it’s only one lone woman in an ugly bonnet. He blames the weather and the dark road through the woods to Arlington. The horses brace their flanks against the lurching movement of the carriage as the iron-trimmed wheels slip into divots and potholes.

When the rain relents, Bridie puts down the window and looks out at a shabby inn and a muddy farm, a duck pond and a deserted village green. Then there are just trees again and a few fields. She sits back in her seat and bounces on.



And where is Ruby?

He has sculled up onto the roof of the carriage, where he lies smiling at the rain that falls through him. He blesses every mud-spun field that passes by and every cloud above him.

He grins. She hasn’t changed a bit. God love her.

The light is dying when the driver pulls up at the gates of Maris House. A stiff breeze is blowing the weather over; the clouds are no more than tattered dishrags now. The driver helps the visitor down. She’ll walk up to the house to get some air, she says, as she finds her pipe. A way up the drive she hears the sound she hasn’t been listening for – a footfall with a loose-laced step to it.

She doesn’t turn, but rather concentrates on her first impression of Maris House as she approaches.

Sir Edmund’s home is an architectural grotesque, the ornate façade the unlikely union of a war-ship and a wedding cake. A riot of musket loops, carved shells, liquorice-twist chimneys, mock battlements, a first-floor prow and an exuberance of portholes. On the carved stone pediment above the wide front door Neptune cavorts with sea nymphs. The lower floor windows are festooned with theatrical swags of stone starfish and scallop shells.

For all this, the house looks unlived in.

Rounding the side of the building, Bridie sees that the servants’ quarters give the best welcome; the lights there have been lit.

A new pack of dogs have been let loose in the grounds, in the stead of those poisoned the night of the abduction. They run to Bridie and press their noses into her hands briefly, to find that she is not made of hot panic like peasants and poachers. Nor is she made of woolly fear like the men of the road who wash up on lawns casting for alms. This woman is made of boot polish and pipe smoke, clean cloth and the north wind. And as for the dead man walking behind her, well, he means no harm. He smells only faintly of the afterlife, cold and mineral, like new snow. The dogs return to the business of scratching and sprawling in their kennels, for there are no intruders here.

Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick is following a circuit that runs from the terrace to the rose garden, the rose garden to the dovecote, the dovecote to the pond, and the pond to the rhododendron vale. It is a vigil that predates the theft of his daughter; Sir Edmund has long had an unquiet mind.

He has been ruminating on the curses of his bedevilled existence. Sir Edmund has been blessed with supernatural bad luck. As a consequence he is uncommonly superstitious for an engineer and amateur naturalist – a man of industry and science! He keeps a rabbit’s foot always upon his person and banishes black cats from his estate. Otherwise he draws comfort and perturbation in equal measure from the invigorating ministries of Mr Darwin. So that when he is not considering his own eternal damnation, his head fairly clangs with questions apropos brave science, religious dogmatism and the length of a giraffe’s neck.

Sir Edmund steals himself daily against forces which lie in wait to punish him for his dark and secret infatuation with unnatural nature. Sir Edmund is a collector, an insatiable, relentless collector, with an interest in anomalies and mutations, aberrations and malformations of life in or around the realm of water. If it swims or paddles or blows bubbles in any way oddly, then he’ll have it killed, stuffed or put in a jar and brought to his private library. Sir Edmund has sold off half his ancestral estate to fund his passion and participated in schemes ruinous to his peace of mind. Like the oologists who destroy future chicks in their lust for the egg, so the forces of acquisition and preservation, discovery and destruction wage war in Sir Edmund as in every collector. Take John Hunter. On one side of the coin: anatomist, surgeon and distinguished scientist. Flip the coin over: sick-man stalker, coffin robber, rabid boiler of an Irish giant’s bones.

Sir Edmund has done wrong in his collecting. He has been ruminating on his wrong-doing and on the punishments (legal and spiritual) he might reasonably expect. And so rounding the house in a heightened state of remorse and morbid dread, Sir Edmund readily mistakes Bridie Devine for a retributive being of the underworld. A banshee perhaps, or a malevolent imp; it is dusk and her bonnet has the air of a demonic presence perching mid-flight. It takes Bridie several minutes to coax the baronet out of an hydrangea.

Gazing at Bridie by firelight, Sir Edmund isn’t so sure. She sits comfortably in his study with her pipe in one hand and a sherry in the other. Sir Edmund doesn’t doubt that Bridie’s the sort of person who makes the most of every soft blessing. She is a riveting figure; Sir Edmund is riveted. A pleasantly stout, good-looking woman dressed in a purplish travelling twill. An outfit too warm for the room so that her face shines with perspiration, which, combined with her plump wool-swaddled breast, gives her the appearance of a delicious moist pudding. Her spectacularly ugly bonnet is curled up before the fire, bristling with feathers. She refused to give it up into the hands of the butler. Not that the butler was over-eager to take it. If it comes alive, Sir Edmund thinks, he will do for it with the poker.

Bridie Devine is a fairer prospect without her bonnet.

The red hair that peeps out from under her widow’s cap is rich in the firelight, is likely abundant. When she raises her dirty-green eyes to him his mind conjures images of fickle wood nymphs in dappled glades.



He wonders if he can trust her.

‘You could be an apparition, Mrs Devine,’ smiles Sir Edmund. ‘There’s something very other-worldly about you, ethereal.’

By a bookcase, Ruby stifles a laugh.

Bridie smoothes her skirts over her solid knees and throws Ruby a sharp glance. ‘I can assure you that I’m not an apparition, Sir Edmund.’

Sir Edmund looks at her closely and she looks back at him. How far can she see with those sharp brigand’s eyes: into his mind, yes, or into his soul?

God help him!

All Bridie sees is that Sir Edmund is a tall, shabbily elegant man with doleful eyes and stately whiskers. His study is as it should be: wood-panelled, leather-chaired, and cigar-scented, exuding grandeur and solidity. But the man who occupies it is unsteady. He’s like a rare vase, one that’s suffered a break, has been mended badly and now, near useless, has been relegated to an occasional table in the corner.

‘Dr Harbin outlined the particulars,’ Bridie begins. ‘I have the bones of the case but not the meat, if you’ll pardon the expression. A few questions for you, sir.’

Sir Edmund, who is usually pacing the herbaceous border at this time of the evening, wedges his hands under his knees to stop himself from rocking. ‘Go ahead, Mrs Devine.’

‘Do you have any enemies, sir?’

‘None, madam.’

‘Are you certain?’

‘Yes, entirely certain,’ says Sir Edmund, not looking at all certain.

‘Is there anyone you know who could have taken Christabel?’

Sir Edmund shakes his head.

‘And you’re confident about that?’



Sir Edmund nods, looking not at all confident.

‘Sir, I must ask you what Dr Harbin refused to tell me: why did you keep your daughter a secret?’

Sir Edmund rises slowly. He walks to the window. The rose garden awaits him, and the folly, and the orchard, and the road beyond. He has many miles to walk tonight. Sleep will come at dawn, or not at all.

‘I feared this would happen.’

‘You feared that your daughter would be taken?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why, Sir Edmund? Why would you fear that?’

The man’s face is bewildered.

‘The doctor mentioned that your daughter has singular traits. Could you elaborate?’

‘They are somewhat . . .’ Sir Edmund looks evasive. ‘Slippery.’

Bridie endeavours to remain patient. ‘Sir Edmund, if these singular traits somehow led to Christabel being abducted, then you must enlighten me – it may help me find and restore your daughter to you.’

Sir Edmund sighs. ‘On the subject of Christabel, madam, I cannot enlighten you.’

Bridie puts down her glass. She fixes the baronet with a flinty look. ‘Then let’s try this question, sir: why did you send for me, rather than seek the assistance of the local constabulary?’

The baronet reddens, opens his mouth and closes it again.

Bridie waits.

Finally: ‘Christabel makes you remember.’

‘Remember?’

‘Yes, memories you hardly knew you had. Not unpleasant, but’ – he falters, frowning – ‘then she also makes you think thoughts.’

‘Thoughts?’

‘Unfitting. Not entirely your own,’ he replies quietly.



Bridie glances at Ruby; he is tapping his temple with his finger.

‘It is hard to explain.’ Sir Edmund smiles a brief sardonic smile. ‘She looks at you and the thoughts come.’

With a sigh he gets up and goes to his writing desk, opens a drawer and takes out a silver-framed picture. He hands it to Bridie.

A fair-haired child sits in a chair, wearing a white floor-length gown. She seems to glow, the child, as if with a cold light. Not in the other-worldly way of Ruby, but as if she’s carved from bright marble. Bridie wonders if it is a photographer’s trick.

But her eyes are pale, too pale.

‘Is something the matter with her eyes?’ asks Bridie.

Sir Edmund takes the chair opposite, sitting forwards in the seat with his head bowed and his hands on his long knees; it’s a position of defeat. ‘Oh no, Christabel can see all right. That’s the problem. She can see too much.’

Bridie studies the picture carefully. ‘But they’re so pale.’

‘They change, actually.’

‘Change, in what way?’

‘From alabaster, to slate, to polished jet: quite remarkable.’

Bridie goes to hand the photograph back. ‘Eyes don’t generally change colour, unless of course the child is newborn.’

‘Christabel’s eyes do.’ Sir Edmund gestures at the photograph. ‘Keep it, for your investigations.’

‘These thoughts she makes you think. Can you explain them?’

Sir Edmund runs a hand across his forehead. ‘Perhaps they are not thoughts, perhaps they are feelings.’

‘Feelings, what sort of feelings?’

Sir Edmund considers. ‘Anger, chiefly.’

‘So that’s it: your daughter stirs up memories and thoughts, makes you feel angry and has stony, changeable eyes?’



Sir Edmund nods. ‘Yes.’

‘And physically, does Christabel have any distinguishing marks or features?’

‘White hair, strong teeth and she can hit shattering high notes.’ Sir Edmund regards Bridie somewhat defiantly. ‘And she can’t talk.’

‘She can’t talk?’

‘She understands everything perfectly well, of course.’

‘But she can sing, with the high notes?’

‘After a fashion . . . If that’s all?’ A brisk tone strides into Sir Edmund’s voice. ‘You’ll wish to question the servants, discreetly I trust, madam?’

Bridie, aware that the interview is over, assents. ‘And, with your permission, sir, I intend look over the house and grounds, starting with the nursery.’

‘Not the nursery.’

‘I beg your pardon, sir?’

‘The west wing is private, no one is to be admitted.’

‘Sir Edmund—’

‘My late wife objected to strangers in that part of the house. It was where she kept her quarters. I still uphold her wishes. Besides,’ Sir Edmund adds, airily, ‘there’s nothing to see.’

‘The nursery may give up valuable clues, sir, as to the identity of Christabel’s abductors.’

‘You believe several individuals were involved?’

‘In my experience, that is usually the case. On the matter of the nursery—’

‘There are no clues there. I’ve looked.’

Bridie frowns. ‘But the practised eye can detect—’

‘No, madam,’ says Sir Edmund, with surprising firmness. ‘You have permission to talk to my servants and to scrutinise the rest of my house and grounds as you wish, but you will not gain access to the west wing.’





Chapter 5


The servants’ hall is as it should be: teapot on the table and gas-lights burning cosily. Mrs Puck, the housekeeper, joyless and trim with a halibut pout, eyes Bridie coldly. The staff will be available for questions but Mrs Puck will not. It is Mrs Puck’s evening off and she will not cancel it, not even if Queen Victoria herself turned up for supper at Maris House. Mrs Puck finishes with an astringent downturn to her mouth and a withering stare, which communicates that she has better things to do than be interrogated by some fast and loose lady inspector. Mrs Puck takes it all in: the propriety of Mrs Devine’s dress, her bold countenance, the steady step of a woman who can afford a well-made pair of boots. But then Mrs Puck knows an Irish accent when she hears one, however diminished, just as she knows the shape of a finger from an always-worn wedding band. She’d only have to look at her own wasted ring finger. This flame-haired widow may be a charlatan but she’s also the master’s guest, and as such, Mrs Puck can’t aim her out the back door as she’d like to. Mrs Puck informs Mrs Devine that if she wants the guided tour she can make do with Agnes, the housemaid. And with that Mrs Puck departs with a caustic curtsey and much tut-tutting and clinking of keys.

Bridie makes herself comfortable at the table. Finding her pouch of tobacco and her pipe she sets about having a smoke for herself. Ruby takes off his hat and perches on a stool next to her.

They sit in companionable silence.

Bridie strikes a match. The tablecloth moves. She encourages her pipe alight and blows out the match. The tablecloth moves again, further now, the teapot and milk-jug travelling two inches to the right.

Bridie lifts the edge of the cloth. A child is sitting under the table with her legs crossed.

She’s a plain child, even unappealing, around seven years old with a blunt upturned nose and a stodgy, well-scrubbed face. Her light-brown ringlets are scraped back into a ribbon and she wears a viciously laundered pinafore.

She is whispering angrily to a woebegone china doll that has lost an eye and most of its hair.

Bridie drops the tablecloth and waits.

The child emerges and takes the chair opposite. She squints at Bridie through chaff-coloured eyelashes.

‘I like your doll,’ ventures Bridie.

‘I like your pipe.’

‘What’s your doll called?’

‘Rosebud. She’s a caution.’

‘Is that right?’

‘You are Mrs Devine and I am Myrtle Harbin.’

‘Dr Harbin’s girl?’

Myrtle Harbin shrugs, as if she’s not bothered either way. ‘He’s upstairs.’ She raises her eyes to the ceiling. ‘Sir Edmund has nerves again.’

‘Has he, now. Does Sir Edmund have nerves often?’

But Myrtle is engrossed, rolling her doll along the table.



Ruby drifts over to the window. Bridie watches the dead man as he hitches up his drawers, adjusts the tilt of his topper and leans on the sill.

Myrtle follows her gaze. Then she eyes the window with an expression of mild curiosity.

Bridie lowers her voice. ‘Can you see something, Myrtle? At the window?’

Myrtle regards her coolly. ‘Not especially.’

Bridie waves the pipe in her hand. ‘You don’t smoke Prudhoe’s Bronchial Balsam Blend by any chance, do you?’

Myrtle shakes her head.

Ruby, who is tightening the waistband of his drawers, glances over and smiles.

Bridie studies the child with interest. ‘So, standing at the window is . . .’

Myrtle studies her back. ‘Nobody.’ She turns her attention to Rosebud’s booties, adjusting buckles.

‘You’re Christabel’s playmate, aren’t you?’ Bridie’s tone is light.

‘I’m not allowed to talk about Christabel.’ Myrtle kisses her doll’s face gently, on the side that isn’t broken.

‘What’s she like?’

Myrtle looks up at Bridie with eyes like dishwater. ‘That’s a secret.’

‘Could you tell Rosebud what Christabel is like? You could whisper in her ear.’

Myrtle pouts. ‘Why would I? Rosebud already knows her.’

Bridie continues with her pipe, watching the child out of the corner of her eye. Myrtle lifts her doll up, as if to throw her in the air in a game of catch. Rosebud glares down with her one good eye.

The girl’s sleeves fall back to reveal line after line of scars: healed puncture wounds, like blackened cat bites. Myrtle catches Bridie noticing her arm. She drops her doll and pulls down her sleeves.



‘You’ve been bitten, Myrtle.’

‘I haven’t.’

‘What bit you?’

‘Rosebud.’ She passes Bridie her doll, poking her finger into its mouth to demonstrate the sharpness of Rosebud’s china teeth.

‘Then she’s a fierce one.’ Bridie touches the doll’s dented head. ‘And she’s been fighting, here?’

‘No. Christabel threw her against the wall.’ Myrtle frowns and clamps her hand across her mouth.

‘Don’t worry, I’m even better at keeping secrets than Rosebud.’

Myrtle slumps in the chair, with the weight of the world on her small shoulders. ‘I doubt it. Rosebud can’t speak. She isn’t real.’

‘But she can bite?’ Bridie neatens the tie on the doll’s apron and hands her back to Myrtle. ‘I don’t suppose you know where Christabel has gone?’

Myrtle shakes her head, vehemently.

‘Are you quite sure?’

‘Quite sure.’ Myrtle nods with emphasis.

‘You must miss her. She’s your friend, isn’t she?’

Bridie smiles at the child: Myrtle wrinkles her nose.

‘Are you going to bring her back?’

‘I’ll do my best,’ says Bridie.

‘Don’t,’ Myrtle whispers. ‘Please don’t bring her back.’

Agnes Molloy has a mess of curly brown hair, hardly contained by her mob cap, and a sharp, freckled face. She has large feet for her size and hands swollen as if they are waterlogged. Mrs Puck maintains that the girl is a hoyden, but grudgingly concedes that she is good at her work (if being good at your work means taking greater pride in a clean floor than in the state of your own filthy, dirty apron). Agnes has been in England for five years and a servant for all of them. Agnes misses Ireland not at all, for here she has three good meals a day and a half-day off on Sundays.

Agnes is happy to conduct Mrs Devine around the house, despite having a few last grates to bright (Brunswick bloody Black to mix, which fair gets up the nose with the turpentine), beds to turn down, wash-stands to ready, the servants’ hall to sweep and the breakfast table to set ready for the morning, else Mrs Puck will roast her.

Agnes leads Bridie into the drawing-room, turning up the gas-lights. Ruby follows.

Agnes points at the window. ‘That was found open, Mrs Devine.’ She measures the distance with her hands. ‘This much. They said that’s how the kidnappers got in.’

‘Kidnappers?’

Agnes flushes. ‘I mean the robbers, ma’am.’

‘Say what you mean, Agnes,’ Bridie says. ‘Do you know why I am here?’

‘Begging your pardon, ma’am, but Mrs Puck said it was not her job to question the master, but what she could gather was that you are a lady investigator.’

‘Your master has asked me to find something very important to him. You know what has been taken, do you not? Please be candid, Agnes.’

Agnes looks at her shoes.

Bridie speaks kindly. ‘This is a delicate matter, I know. Anything you tell me will b