About this Book
I had the idea for The Diary of a Murder some years ago, having read the diary of a secretive, weirdly intriguing Victorian.
The man in question was one Arthur Munby, a minor poet and civil servant who kept assiduous records of his fetishistic interest in working women. He was given to accosting them in the street servants, prostitutes, milkwomen, you name it and eliciting their life story, wages, living conditions &c., as well as recording, for example, the amount of dirt under their fingernails. Unlike the other Victorian journalists and social investigators who adopted similar interviewing tactics (Henry Mayhew et al.), Munby's was a very personal obsession, almost undoubtedly evidence of a certain peculiar sublimated sexuality. Such was Munby's fascination that he would even spend his holidays in parts of the country where particular women workers abounded — eg. the women mine-workers of Staffordshire — merely to watch, chronicle and observe for his own personal pleasure. It was there that he was once accused of being Jack the Ripper, an unlikely allegation, but doubtless fostered by the evidence of his strange voyeuristic obsession. He also lead something of a double-life. In particular, he married the servant Hannah Cullwick, an uneducated girl, well below his station in life, and kept their relationship utterly secret.
It was a combination of Munby's vivid diaries, and his secret life with Hannah, that inspired me. Our 'hero', however, is one Jacob Jones. His particular secret is his rather sordid upbringing, from which he is desperately trying to escape, through living the epitomé of a respectable middle-class existence. It is his tragedy that he cannot escape his own character and history, and his destiny is to be accused of murdering his beloved wife. Did he commit the crime? His rather obsessive diaries seem to hold the key to solving the case ...
The book itself has had a rather rocky genesis. I first attempted it as my second novel, following London Dust, before A Metropolitan Murder. My wise editor at the time wisely scuppered the idea which, to be honest, I wasn't then fully equipped to realise. But it has haunted me ever since — a full Victorian diary, but with a treacherous plot woven between the daily entries. Picture The Diary of a Nobody, but written as murder mystery, and you get something of the flavour. In 2009 I decided to attempt it once more. Unfortunately, the ups and downs of my publishing deal meant The Diary of a Murder was not required by my UK publisher (unlike my lovely French folk). This disappointed me — I rather thought it was my best work — and I decided to publish it on the internet in 2010, for fun, publicity and whatever might come. This led to a couple of print-book offers; and it now appears in proper book form, courtesy of Snowbooks.
All well and good, but why should you read this book?
Well, firstly, here's a sample of what readers said, when I placed it on my website:
"Fiend! I just finished Diary of Murder. It was an unexpected and satisfying conclusion. Well done sir!"
"I enjoyed the book very much and shall certainly pass it on to friends. "
"An unexpected ending and a good read!"
"I've been sitting here thinking about your book. I think it will be even more fun the next time I read it, catching more clever little red herrings. Now, that's the mark of a good story, when I can sit and enjoy thinking about it. "
"You, sir, are a brilliant deceiver!! I very much enjoyed the twisted ending."
"It was very wonderful, a very unexpected ending."
"You had me completely fooled! ... Very much enjoyed the read."
I didn't solicit those comments, and they rather warmed the cockles of my heart.
Second, well, I think this is damned good book. I'm not sure anyone has ever used a diary quite like this in the crime novel; and I am very sure that few people have managed quite such a detailed, elegant 'first person' recreation of middle-class Victorian life, even if I say so myself.
Dear me, now it sounds like I'm bragging. Maybe I am. You would not believe the amount of dedication and effort it took to both write this book and ultimately get it to a publisher; it's something of which I'm immensely proud. It's unlikely to prove a bestseller but I'm in love with it.
So, if you like the Victorian era and mystery novels — or want to know what it was really like to live in Victorian Islington, and don't object to the occasional murder — please give it a try. Want to know more? There's a sample below ...
P.S. A Kindle version is due in the near future, Kindle-fans; but the print cover is rather lovely.
The Diary of a Murder - Sample Chapters
The sergeant, dressed in plain clothes, stood upon the front step and rang the bell. Behind him, the young constable remained on the pavement, removed his glazed hat, and stared up at the tall sash windows.
‘All shuttered up, sir. I haven’t seen them open these last few days. I thought they’d gone and took an holiday.’
‘Perhaps they have,’ said the sergeant. He tugged the bell-pull a second time.
‘What’s the fellow’s name, again?’
‘Clerk. The Crystal Palace Company.’
‘And they haven’t seen him at his office?’
‘Not since Friday,’ said the constable.
Sergeant Preston, a seasoned member of the Detective department, pursed his lips, and glanced through the gated railings that protected the house’s sunken basement from the street. Two bottles of milk stood by the kitchen door, their delivery ignored.
‘And it’s the wife’s family that’s been making a fuss?’
‘They say she’s gone missing. Her mother was expecting her to visit her at Chelsea, Friday evening. She never turned up.’
‘What do you think, constable?’
‘Could be they were behind with the rent,’ suggested the constable. ‘They could have bolted.’
‘They could have,’ replied Preston, unconvinced.
‘What should we do next, then, sir?’
Preston pondered the question, stepping back onto the pavement.
‘You say the wife’s father has called here, too?’
‘Twice, sir. No answer.’
‘Is he anyone in particular?’
‘Depends what you mean, sir. His name’s Willis. I heard that he owns a draper’s warehouse: a big establishment, near the Regent’s Circus.’
‘Has a few pennies, then,’ muttered the sergeant. ‘Right, I suppose we better have a look. Follow me, son.’
Sergeant Preston swung open the iron gate and walked briskly down the steps to the basement.
Moments later came the sound of breaking glass.
‘We ain’t got a warrant, sir,’ protested the constable.
‘I thought I heard someone cry out for help,’ said Preston, without any hint of conviction. ‘Didn’t you?’
He did not wait for a reply but made a swift and methodical examination of the kitchen. Pots, pans and skillets were in good order, hanging from hooks on the wall; every utensil and plate was neatly stored in cupboards and drawers. The modest pantry and scullery were well-stocked, neat and orderly. He placed his hand on the range.
‘Stone cold. Well, come on then, up we go.’
They ascended the stairs to the hall. The walls were papered, in a pattern of intertwining roses; a recent adornment, the colours, red and green, still bright and vibrant. The plain drugget, which covered the polished floorboards, likewise bore few tell-tale traces of wear and tear.
‘Anyone at home?’
Preston’s rich baritone echoed through the house. There was no reply.
‘Very well,’ said the sergeant, with a sigh of resignation. ‘You start at the top of the house. I’ll have a look down here.’
‘What are we looking for, sir?’
‘I wish I knew. Just be a good lad and have a look about the place. That way, we can tell my inspector that we’ve made a thorough job of it, eh?’
The constable nodded, and made his way up the steep, narrow stairs at the rear of the hall. Preston, in turn, wandered into the dining-room at the front of the house and, finding nothing of particular interest, tried the door to the morning-room.
The second room had been left in a very different condition to its neighbour: the windows were not shuttered and daylight fell upon a chaotic scene. The gilt-framed mirror atop the mantelpiece was cracked; bookcases lay open, their contents strewn here and there; an overturned chair sat beside a leather-topped writing desk. The most striking feature, however, was a disordered pile of foolscap, promiscuously scattered across the surface of the desk, pages spilling over onto the floor. The sheets themselves appeared to be filled with prose in a neat hand, with a solitary exception. It sat atop the heap on the desk, as if placed there with deliberate intent, and bore only a few lines of hasty scribble.
Sergeant Preston, puzzled, read its contents.
I know in my heart I am the man to blame. I have valued at nought all I should have held dear and pursued a sinful illusion of happiness at the cost of my own soul. When I am gone, this testimony will remain. If you care to read these wretched pages, then you will know how it came to this …
Rapid footsteps on the stairs.
It was the voice of the young policeman. He stood at the threshold of the room, his face terribly pale, his voice quaking with excitement.
‘What is it?’
‘I’ve found her, sir. In her room, on the second floor.’
Preston looked up from the paper, grim-faced.
The young man nodded, breathless, unable to speak.
‘Now then, pull yourself together, son. Is she alive or dead?’
‘She’s dead, sir.’
‘Bashed her head against the mantelpiece, far as I could see, sir.’
‘Her head? Did she fall?’
‘I mean it’s been bashed good and proper,’ said the policeman. ‘I don’t know how many times it must have been –’
The young man fell silent.
‘Right, you stay here, son,’ said Preston. ‘Let me have a look, then we’ll send to the Yard.’
The constable gratefully agreed to the plan. When the sergeant had left, he grasped the jamb of the door, fearful that his legs might not support him a step further. Yet, he could not resist surveying the scene before him; and, once he had recovered his self-possession, it was not long before his curiosity drew him to the writing desk and the mess of paper.
He began to look at the dates. It would be a simple task, he concluded, to put the sheets in order.
Monday, 9th December
I have met with the house agent a second time – Mr. Phillips, the affable old gentleman, with a liking for port wine – and signed the lease. We are bound for Amwell Street. It is merely a modest Islington terrace, but the terms are commensurate and the six rooms are light and airy. Dora in raptures. I fear, however, we must hope for an increment in my salary, if my little wifey has her way. She says it must be ‘painted prettily and nicely furnished’, which is as much to say ‘at the greatest trouble and expense’. There is only one nuisance: our leasehold commences not on the quarter-day, but New Year’s Eve.
Mary-Anne, meanwhile, ‘hopes the stairs will suit her knees’ (an unlikely contingency, I fear) and raises complaints at every opportunity, reciting a litany of the endless trials which await her in Islington. One might think the wretched creature received no recompense for her trouble.
Thursday, 13th December
More preparations for the ‘move’.
I quit the office an hour early (Mr. Hibbert’s dispensation) and visited Bedford’s Pantechnicon. It is a large furniture warehouse and carriers on Tottenham Court Road with stables at the rear. Inspected the covered vans – which were most satisfactory – and queried their estimate, which was promptly reduced by two shillings. Made arrangements for ‘wrappers, mats, boxes & waterproofs’ to be delivered; also took insurance against damage en route.
I could not bear the dreadful huddle of the omnibus and so walked home, even though it was cold and inclement. The London trader is very much ‘alive’ to the season: more gas-lit signs than ever; shop-windows universally wreathed in holly. In short succession, walking down to the river, I saw Christmas books; Christmas hats; Christmas ‘diamonds’ (Brummagem work, doubtless). Toys are much advertised this year. On hoardings by Hungerford Market, there was pasted a monster line of posters, with the imprecation, ‘Papa, do buy me Dugwell & Son’s Mechanical Spiders’. We did not possess such things in my youth, I think – I certainly did not – nor did the likes of Messrs. Dugwell & Son heap such importunate puffs upon the public.
Then the question struck me.
Whatever shall I buy my dear Dora?
Saturday, 14th December
Returned from work and found that Dora had gone to Chelsea to visit her mother (who wrote yesterday complaining of ill-health). Alone in the house with Mary-Anne. The girl has a genius for turning the simplest task into a cause of vexation! I had her light a fire in the dining-room. Within seconds – though I was closeted in the room above – I could hear her cursing the coal-bucket (for what failings, I could not hazard a guess), and attacking the fire with such loud and vigorous prods of the poker that I feared she might demolish the chimney. I descended to ask the cause of her rage – a polite inquiry – and she informed me, with the utmost gravity, that the cat had ‘gotten at’ her herring during breakfast, and put her ‘quite out of sorts’. I found it quite impossible to answer her.
A brief vain attempt at writing. I could not muster my thoughts; perhaps it is the ‘move’ preying on my mind. Still, the MS. goes well, I think; it needs but a little time devoted to its completion.
I wonder whether it will ever be published?
D. returned at seven. Mama Willis not so sickly as she had feared.
Sunday, 15th December
A black day.
A little before noon, a nervous-looking boy, no more than fourteen years of age, called at the house. He informed me that he had ‘come directly from Mr. Willis’. I suddenly had a presentiment that Mama Willis had unexpectedly died during the night – that she had been ill. And if Papa Willis lay prostrate with grief –
I was wrong. It was news of a tragedy – the boy put in a cab and instructed to travel to sundry friends and relations with the dreadful information – but it came from another quarter entirely.
Dear me! It is an evil thing to write it, but I suppose I must.
Prince Albert has passed away.
What news! Of course, the man was but flesh and blood; and we had heard all the reports concerning his health. Nonetheless, I felt a sense of profound amazement and great sorrow. A bulwark of our great Nation lost to us forever.
I gave the boy a penny for his trouble and spent the afternoon in solitary reflection. D. suggested we close the shutters; I concurred.
We went to evensong – though it is not our custom – and found the little church quite full. It would be uncharitable to suggest that the ladies wished to display their best black silk; but there was a good deal of that material in evidence. Dora, too, most fetching in her moirée.
Dull service, awful choir. A dreadful intake of breath, from all present, when the customary prayers were said for the Queen and her family, and his name left absent.
It is a salutary lesson that we all live on quicksand; nothing is sound or certain.
Tuesday, 17th December
Pervasive gloom in the City; the funeral will be Monday 23rd at Windsor. One must respect Her Majesty’s wishes, but it is a shame for London that it cannot be in the Abbey.
The conundrum of a gift for D. is preoccupying me. We are not long since married and yet possess – as far as I can establish – every possible item of household utility. It must be some small token of esteem and affection, such as a man might give to his wife, without – I wish it were not so – incurring undue expense. But what? Last night, I inquired, off hand, whether her work box might not be replaced in due course. The wood is chipped in several places; the painting on the lid, a mother and child in bucolic setting, quite faded. D. replied that it was her grandmother’s; that it meant a good deal to her and that she would sooner replace me (!).
A fine sentiment in a wife!
Luncheon at Lakes, Cheapside, in company of Fortesque. Chops; much foolish ambitious talk from F., ‘starting out on his own account’ &c.
Played one game of billiards; lost.
Saturday, 21st December
Went up Regent Street in the afternoon; an opportunity to visit the shops. All in mourning; even the crossing-boys at the Circus with black armbands; shops once wreathed in holly now decked out in crape, thin black borders painted on their plate-glass. Finished my expedition at Medici’s, the photographer’s. Crowds all around the place, looking at the few portraits of the Prince which remained. Went inside and inquired, but none to be had. Even articles in window were ‘reserved for particular patrons’ – ‘I can put your name down for the next batch, sir, but I can’t make no promises.’
Found another photograph, of the Queen and Prince and children, in smaller shop off the principal thoroughfare. Last one which remained (or so I was assured!); paid four shillings for what might have cost me eighteen pence the week before.
I have never known public feeling at such a pitch. One feels enormous sympathy for the Queen and her loss, but it is also a noble thing to see a nation so united in sorrow.
Monday, 23rd December
The Prince’s funeral. Our poor Sovereign!
Also, a letter from Mama Willis in the first post – an invitation to ‘A Christmas gathering of family and friends’. I remarked to D. that it was ill-timed, to arrive upon a day of national mourning. She replied that her mother ‘was too practical to think of such things’. I suggested this showed a remarkable want of feeling; D. obliged to agree.
In truth, I cannot muster much enthusiasm for Christmas in Chelsea. I have attended on two previous occasions, and, in both instances found myself addressed with such arrogant condescension by certain parties that I vowed never to return. It is only out of fondness for D. that I shall go this year. Now we are married, at least, I hope that I may be treated with due respect and a degree of consideration.
A hour or two after I returned home, a boy appeared in the street selling ‘a memorial sheet of the funereals’. No commercial opportunity is missed in our great metropolis.
Purchased two copies.
Tuesday, 24th December
Went to Bond Street, in search of the gift. What blessings must the sellers of fancy goods and bookshops heap upon our Lord, on the eve of His birth! Never have I seen the streets so crowded. It was a challenge simply to cross the threshold of many an establishment, and I soon lost heart. In the end, I found a set of Mendelssohn’s Piano Forte Compositions, in four volumes, all elegantly bound with gilt edge.
I hope D. will be satisfied with my efforts. I have no idea what she might prefer. I suppose it is a rare husband that knows the secrets of his wife’s heart!
After dinner, D. warned me – dear little wifey, so strict and stern! – that I must not be ‘too particular’ in Chelsea; that her father ‘will speak his mind, without thought for others’ and that I must forbear ‘for her sake.’
The very thought of it put me in a bad humour. I spoke to Mary-Anne about the state of the dining-room. I asked if she possessed a duster – ‘yes’ – and if she was familiar with dust – ‘yes’ – and if she understood how the one might stand in relation to the other. Met with mute insolence.
I should not care over much if the stairs at Amwell Street are too much for her; with luck, she may fall and break her neck!
Wednesday, 25th December
Exchanged our gifts after church. Dora gave me a writing-box in rosewood and maple, which is very fine, and a new pipe. For her part, D. said that she had already determined to practice more often, once we are removed to Amwell Street; and that the Mendelssohn would suit her nicely.
She is such a sensible creature!
12 noon. D. making lunch in kitchen (!) as she has given Mary-Anne leave to visit her sister (‘we cannot forbid it, if she is to forego the New Year with her’). No Cook – she broke the news last week that she ‘cannot come in during the festive season’. I did not press for a reason but the woman is decidedly not of the temperance persuasion; I suspect she is quite determined to be thoroughly incapacitated throughout.
If only we had a better class of servant!
Will we find a cab to take us to Chelsea, I wonder?
10pm. Returned from Chelsea; will write to-morrow.
Thursday, 26th December
The Christmas-box nuisance is greater than ever this year; my change in matrimonial circumstances is noted amongst the tradesmen, and they double their demands accordingly. In truth, I do not grudge them a few pennies; but they have been admixed with every sort of street-scavenger and itinerant musician, who believes they should be recompensed for their ‘constancy’. In such cases, if I recognise them at all, it is only as a recurring source of irritation. I said as much to one stout fellow with a cornopean, who has a habit of interrupting my Sunday afternoons, strolling down from the Common, playing (if that be the word) ‘Gone to the Crusades’ and other dismal ditties. He appeared at the door, cap in hand, and was most affronted by my refusal. He said that ‘he would wish me an ’appy New Year, but was sure an ounce of ’appiness would stick in my miserable throat and choke me’. I told him I would happily stick his wretched instrument down his throat; and we left it at that.
Now, I should, I suppose – if I am to be ‘constant’ to my diary – write something of Chelsea. I must mix the good with the bad, after all, if I am to bequeath to my future self a truthful account.
We took a hansom, as I had planned, at one o’clock, though it was quite hard to come by, due to the weather. The day had begun quite clear, but a thick fog had come down along the river, noxious and burnt brown in colour. It sent D. – poor thing! – into choking fits and made the cabman go wrong on at least two occasions. We did not arrive, therefore, much before two. The house inside had been done up gaily enough; mistletoe, holly, ivy in abundance and a Christmas Tree in royal fashion, heavy with pendent bonbons and gilt gingerbread. I remarked to Mama Willis that it was a ‘fine display’; she replied that ‘it was not done for ostentation, but to mark the season’. She seemed quite determined to misconstrue me, so I held my tongue.
Some twenty or so had arrived for dinner; family for the most part, but also a pair of spinster sisters – Misses Harris – whom, I later learnt, lived in the neighbouring cottage. It was, I concede, an excellent meal, though I found the goose a little too rich for my liking. Nonetheless, I determined to eat all my portion, lest D. chide me for my ingratitude. In consequence, left feeling dyspeptic throughout the afternoon and evening. With the sole intention of calming the stomach, I fear I indulged too freely in brandy.
Much post-prandial conversation amongst the men concerning the Prince; and a toast to his memory. Then Papa Willis held forth on the American War, summoning up a good deal of the popular prejudice, railing against the Yankees for their seizure of the Trent &c. Asked me if I thought it was a cause for war? I said not; that the Royal Navy had been known to exercise its rights with equal belligerence; that the Southern negroes were the victims of a gross evil, long since banished from these shores; and that, if he were to appear in the room, I would heartily shake the hand of Mr. Lincoln. It was a fine piece of mischief; I could see he was much provoked, though he strove to conceal it – he flushed bright red about the gills! For, like any decent draper (he is no more than that, however much he puffs himself up) he is obliged to bow before King Cotton, and declare the Southerners the most benevolent, peace-loving capitalists as ever lived.
We were reunited with the ladies for music. I call it ‘music’, but was very much the drawing-room variety, principally the work of a young lady of ‘accomplishment’ and an elderly uncle, who regaled us with such outlandish gestures and grimaces – even during the most plain ballad – that I half expected the man to reveal a banjo at any moment, and adopt the pose of an Ethiopian serenader. I remarked as much to D. but her father overheard and commented, much to his own amusement, that I ‘thought a good deal too much on the subject of negroes’.
Tea was served, then we proceeded to ‘games’. I cannot see the need for ‘games’ in a gathering composed mostly of persons above the age of majority. The first was acting charades, a French amusement for which I have little enthusiasm. I suppose it may be done in a lively and entertaining fashion, in respectable company. In my experience, however, it leads to all manner of vulgarity and all manner of tiresome dispute. I need only say that yesterday was no exception to this rule (fortunately I was not called on to play the fool). I was, however, not long afterwards the victim of a juvenile prank. The assembled company had embarked on a game called ‘Prussian Exercises’ which required us to form a line, in regimental fashion, and to ‘follow the leader’, obeying whatever order our ‘captain’ commanded (Papa Willis taking this role; enjoying it greatly). The commands were of a military nature, ‘eyes right’, ‘show arms’ &c. but interspersed with unlikely freaks, such as ‘tweak noses’ or ‘slap cheeks’, that were designed to elicit laughter and produce a forfeit. I need hardly record that I did not find these manoeuvres amusing but, for D.’s sake, obliged with as much good grace as I could muster.
At the last, however, we were told to ‘ground right knee’ and ‘present arms’. I cannot say if it was planned, or merely childish mischief; but a younger cousin of D.’s, a whey-faced boy of thirteen years or so, took the opportunity to nudge me in the ribs. He did this so forcefully, in fact, that I fell over, directly into one of the Misses Harris, who fell into the Uncle, who then sent most of the company tumbling, like a row of dominoes. I concede that most of the party took this in good spirits; but I do not see how any self-respecting gentleman can relish being the butt of such ‘practical jokes’.
The evening drew to a close with demands for a ‘ghost story’. The gas was turned down, and Papa Willis obliged with a tale about a haunted railway carriage (could there be anything so unlikely?) and ended with the revelation (I use the word loosely) that our protagonist was himself, too, some form of ghastly revenant. I fear my scepticism must have been betrayed by my countenance, for he then said (and I can recall verbatim):-
‘Of course, my dears, I can lay no claim to poetical or literary distinction in my simple story; I aim only to please. Now, tell me, Jacob, my boy, do you still harbour literary ambitions? Shall we see your name in print, this year?’
I could take my boy but it was the this year which galled me; I could not contain myself.
‘If you do, sir,’ I replied, ‘it will not be appended to some old nurse’s tale, best suited to credulous children.’
Perhaps it was the brandy; for it was not simply the words themselves; I spoke too freely, with too much passion. There was an awkward silence; then the Uncle remarked ‘these literary men and their spats!’ in jovial fashion, which restored some semblance of good humour. D. looked quite miserable.
We left the house not long afterwards, D. pleading a ‘head’. At the door, Papa Willis took me aside, and said he ‘hoped there was no unnatural ill-feeling between us,’ on account of his views on the American War. I replied, truthfully, that there was not, on that cause. I knew he had not done with me. He went on to say that he was glad on Dora’s account that I had found a decent house in time for the New Year (do we live in a sty, at present?), one more akin to what she is accustomed (!); that he hoped I thrived in that little office and that if I ever wanted something with decent remuneration, there was always a good place for me in the business.
And what a prize ‘place,’ that would be! A draper’s clerk!
D. silent in the cab home. I asked if she thought it proper that I should be subjected to such insults, on every occasion I met her father. She said he ‘meant no insult at all’ and that I should ‘be more charitable in disposition’.
My little wifey is such a sweet innocent.
Friday, 27th December
Alone in the office with Fortesque, Mr. Hibbert having removed himself to the country until the New Year. I asked him how he had spent Christmas Day, and he regaled me with an account of his acquaintance with a young milliner, whom he met dancing at the Holborn Casino. Asked – merely in fun – if he intended to marry her and he replied that he ‘might well, at that; she’s a fine-looking bit of muslin’.
I represented to him that no woman who frequents the Holborn Casino, however interesting in appearance, can possess the morals and character one expects in a wife; indeed, even if her morals have miraculously remained intact, she cannot possess the ignorance of vice which is desirable in one’s mate. F., however, considers himself something of a ‘swell’, professes a profound liking for ‘fast’ women, and affects a youthful disdain for conventional mores.
He asked where I had met D. – I told him we met whilst attending a lecture at the Polytechnic. He replied that that was a guarantee of ignorance, in any female. He thought himself very droll and amusing; but, if he has any hopes of rising in society, attaching himself to this milliner will be the end of them.
In any case, I believe I have returned to D.’s good graces: she greeted me this evening with a kiss on the cheek, and Cook had done a fine side of beef for dinner.
This business with her father has but one moral: ‘family’ is a curse.
Saturday, 28th December
The house now quite over-run by boxes &c. supplied by Bedford’s. Moreover, our worldly goods seem to have expanded and enlarged themselves in the process of marshalling them for packing. I now cannot believe they ever fitted into the house in the first place.
I wrote yesterday of ‘family’. I wonder sometimes if I possess the ‘second sight’. It has been five months since I last heard from my father, and, this very evening, a letter arrived in the post. I knew the hand instantly; as spindly as a spider’s web. I opened it in secret, when Dora was occupied with her needlework.
The letter itself is full of the usual bluster: he blames the world for his condition; he blames his bad luck that he cannot raise himself up; he blames the parish for not coming to his aid. It all has the usual import: a heavy debt (three pounds, to a boot-maker in Soho) has been accrued; and the interest upon it has swelled to such a sum that he must swallow his pride (!) and beg from his son.
It is worse than the last occasion; he tells me – as if it occurred by some mere chance – that I am named as guarantor.
He would drag me into the very pit in which he rots.
I will not be a part of it.
It is fortunate that we are moving.
Sunday, 29th December
A dreadful development.
The area bell rang when we had just finished dinner. It was a curious hour for a delivery, and I chaffed Mary-Anne that she had a ‘follower’ (a romantic possibility so unlikely that even my ever-sensible Dora could not suppress a smile). Mary-Anne assured me most earnestly (blushing, no less!) that she did not; and hurried to the kitchen. She returned, some minutes later, and said that there was a man to see ‘the master’; that he would not give a name, but that it was a ‘private matter’. ‘A man?’ said Dora. – ‘A gentleman, do you mean?’ – ‘I couldn’t rightly say, ma’am. He speaks proper enough; but he don’t dress the part.’ – ‘Well, is he some sort of hawker?’ – ‘No, ma’am; least, I don’t reckon he’s selling anything. He ain’t carrying nothing with him.’
I am sure my face must have turned quite pale; for I had a clear presentiment of who our unexpected caller might be. I did my utmost to regain my composure and went downstairs directly.
It was my father; and, although more than a year since I last laid eyes upon him, I found him quite unchanged.
He remains the finest example of the ‘shabby genteel’ type that you might care to meet: – viz. his coat is a decent woollen affair, but the buttons hang loosely, as if attached (or, rather, re-attached) by the slenderest thread; his trousers are peg-tops, after the latest fashion, but shiny as beeswax at the knees, where they have worn thin; his ‘white’ gloves, meanwhile, have long since turned an admixture of yellow and grey.
I noticed one ‘improvement’ to his appearance: a weary-looking pair of Dundreary whiskers (ridiculous on a man of his age) which served to partly hide the gouty, bloodshot condition of his countenance. There was no concealing, however, the sharp aroma of liquor, the same degrading stench that has clung to him for the last twenty years.
He looked at me, his hat clasped against his chest, and broke into a smile. ‘My boy!’ he exclaimed, in a false tone of lachrymose affection that quite turned my stomach. – ‘You are not welcome here,’ I replied, bluntly. – ‘I know, my boy, I know. I deserve every rebuke you may heap on my old grey head. But did you get my note, my boy? I’m being imposed upon terribly …’ – ‘And you thought you might impose upon me.’ – ‘Now, now,’ he cried, ‘that isn’t it. Not at all. I just thought you wouldn’t want to see your poor papa persecuted by a scoundrel …’
And so it went on, the solemn, well-rehearsed tale of woe which I have heard a dozen times before. The truth of the matter was, however, easy to discern amidst all the flummery: the money owed to the boot-maker is not, of course, for a pair of boots; it is a ‘debt of honour between gentlemen’ (gentlemen!) acquired at a gaming table. The boot-maker, moreover, is an insalubrious character, who runs his own gaming-house above his shop, and is given to ‘bashing the life out of’ anyone who crosses him.
‘If this boot-maker threatens or harms you,’ I said, ‘you may go to the police’ – a likely eventuality! – ‘And if he comes to me, he will find your “guarantee” is worthless.’
Then came the prayer I anticipated.
‘Can’t you oblige me at all, my boy? For your mother’s sake?’
In truth, I could have struck him down upon the spot. I checked myself and told him that I would give him nothing and that if he had any doubt as to how I could be so cold-hearted, he should look to his own history – that I well recalled how my mother worked herself to death, while he had drank himself into oblivion – that it was the bitterest pill to think of her lying in a parish plot, while he still drew breath – that he might one day repent and find forgiveness in Our Lord, but that I could never be so saintly. I spoke so violently that I grew fearful that D. or Mary-Anne might have heard me.
He hesitated, then spoke once more, abandoning his previous tack.
‘I got talking to your girl,’ he said, at last. ‘I gather you’re moving up in the world, my boy. Islington, isn’t it?’ – I cursed Mary-Anne under my breath. – He looked back at me, as conniving and artful as a fox – ‘Well, I’m sure I won’t trouble you there, dear boy. I wouldn’t wish to disturb a respectable house, nor distress your dear lady wife; but, of course, if my creditors make inquiries –’
And there it was – blackmail. His meaning was plain: if I did not supply the three pounds (plus interest!) then, upon moving to Amwell Street, I could expect to be dunned by every importunate ruffian that ever made my father’s acquaintance!
What could I do? I would have paid him the money, there and then, just to be rid of him. As it happened, I did not have more than a few shillings in my pocket; nor could I return to my study and write a cheque, without incurring suspicion. Then I heard the sound of Mary-Anne descending the stairs to the kitchen.
My father immediately understood my embarrassment and pressed a piece of paper into my hand, with which he had plainly come prepared.
‘It need not be this very moment; but it must be soon, my boy. I won’t trouble you at home again; you have my word. Come to my lodgings to-morrow evening; we’ll make the place decent for you, on my oath.’
He was gone in an instant. When Mary-Anne appeared, I reprimanded her for being so free with her gossip.
Dora, quite naturally, asked me to whom I had been talking. I told her it was simply a well-spoken beggar. I said that he had told me a long tale, in the hope of pecuniary reward – that much was true – and that I had given the man nothing for his pains.
If only that were the whole truth! If only I could confide in her!
In fact, I am now obliged to visit ‘Pear-tree-court, Goswell-street, Clerkenwell’ and give three pounds (plus interest!) – which, in fact, I can ill afford – to one of the most worthless creatures in God’s creation. I even wonder if this bullying boot-maker exists; or if he is a profitable figment of my father’s imagination.
I cannot think I shall sleep much tonight. It is a dreadful thing to have raised oneself up so far, by dint of toil and perseverance, and then to be obliged to look back into the abyss.
The Detective Inspector arrived in a hansom, one hour and a half after the discovery of the body. He was a man of modest stature, dressed in tweed, with dark brown hair and neatly clipped whiskers, but possessing an air of authority that more than compensated for any deficiency in his height. He strode briskly up the steps, greeting the constable stationed at the front door. He then entered the house with as much confidence as if it were his own.
He was met by Sergeant Preston, whom he addressed in familiar tones. The latter, after a few brief words of explanation, led him upstairs, to the upper floor. A final precipitous set of steps continued to the attic above, but Preston came to a halt on the landing.
‘This is it, sir. Two bedrooms. The gentleman’s at the front with a little dressing-room, the wife’s at the back. That’s where we found her. Well, you only have to follow your nose, eh?’
Inspector Delby nodded, his manner quiet and business-like. He pushed open the door.
Like the rest of the house, the bedroom was tastefully furnished. The bed, wardrobe, chairs and chiffonier were polished mahogany; the curtains, partly concealing the sash, were of thick crimson rep, beneath which was placed a low couch, upholstered in a matching colour.
The woman’s body lay beside the cast-iron fire. She was dressed in a pale cornflower crinoline. At first glance, judging by appearances, she seemed to have simply fainted, collapsed across the black hearth-stone. But it was plain from her ashen-white face, which lay flat against the floor, mouth agape, that she was long dead. Moreover, there could be no doubt she had been murdered. For her hair, though it was still pinned into a delicate chenille net upon one side, had fallen loose upon the other. The long brown tresses were matted into thick bloody strands; the cracked and crushed bone beneath cruelly exposed, visible in jagged fragments.
‘How long has she been here, do you think?’
Preston frowned. ‘Judging from the odour, sir, it must be a day or two.’
‘Quite right,’ murmured Delby, stepping gingerly around the hearth. ‘It is quite chastening, is it not, how, bereft of animation, we begin to rot so quickly?’
He glanced from the woman’s clothes, up to the mantelpiece. The back of her dress was flecked with carmine drops of dried blood; the mantelpiece and mirror were painted in the same fashion.
‘From the blood on the mirror,’ he continued, ‘I should say there were at least two or three blows. It goes off in all directions, you see?’
‘I drew the same conclusion, sir.’
‘If it was a mere fracture, of course, one might consider the possibility of an accident. She is a small woman – perhaps there was a heated argument – she might stumble backwards – her head would be at the right height …’
‘You only have to look at the state of her, sir,’ interjected Preston.
‘Quite. The fellow must have shook her like a rag-doll, until he’d cracked her head open. What manner of man could do such a thing?’
‘I shouldn’t like to say, sir.’
‘Now, she is the lady of the house, I assume. We can be certain of that?’
‘Oh, it’s Mrs. Jones, all right, sir. A local lad – local constable, begging your pardon – recognised her.’
‘And what of the husband?’ said Delby, turning away and peering through the window, down into the narrow back-garden below.
‘Scarpered. He’s left a confession, mind – well, if that’s the right word for it. Here, see what you make of it, sir.’
The sergeant produced the piece of paper which had rested on the desk downstairs. Delby, in turn, perused its contents.
I know in my heart I am the man to blame. I have valued at nought all I should have held dear and pursued a sinful illusion of happiness at the cost of my own soul. When I am gone, this testimony will remain. If you care to read these wretched pages, then you will know how it came to this dreadful conclusion.
My only recourse is to throw myself on the mercy of my Maker. I do not have the stomach to wield a blade; and I do not possess a gun. It must be the water; I pray I may find the strength..
I expect no forgiveness; I deserve none.
The inspector raised his eyebrows.
‘It’s a queer sort of note, sir, isn’t it?’ said Preston.
‘What are these “pages” he talks about?’
‘Sorry, sir, I should have said – our Mr. Jones seems to have kept a diary. There’s three or four years’ worth in a little locked cabinet, nicely bound. But we found the pages from the last few months all loose, scattered about on his desk; and this was left on top of them. I’ve had that lad I mentioned putting them in the right order. I thought you might want to read through them.’
‘I’m sure the fellow’s account of his domestic tribulations are of great interest, sergeant, but I’d prefer to lay my hands on the man himself, as soon as possible. Now, for a start, do we know if he kept to his stated intention? Have you made inquiries with the Marine Police?’
‘Not ten minutes ago, sir. I’ve telegraphed to Wapping. But I haven’t heard of any suicides in the route papers at the Yard; not in the last week.’
‘Nor I. Still, the river does not always give them up so quickly, if at all. Well, suppose he did not kill himself, where has he gone to ground? Does he have family in London? Friends?’
‘Wish I knew, sir. I’ve found nothing in the house. No correspondence whatsoever, except with tradesmen and his wife’s people; no photographs, nothing. It seems they’ve only been in Amwell Street since January. Now, the dead woman’s family are from Chelsea; the father’s a draper, one of the grand sort. Big premises off the Regent’s Circus.’
‘Well, it seems unlikely Mr. Jones has gone there, eh? But they must be informed; we had better make the draper’s our first stop. Now, what’s become of the servants?’
‘I’ve had a couple of words with the maidservant next door, sir. I didn’t tell her anything in particular, apart from how we wanted to find Mr. and Mrs. Jones. It seems they just had a cook who came in for breakfast and dinner, and a skivvy who lived on the premises. This girl I spoke to hasn’t seen the cook this last week; and she reckons they dismissed the skivvy on Thursday night – saw her leave – exchanged a couple of words with her.’
‘They must both be found. Do we have a name? An address?’
‘Mary-Anne Bright was the skivvy, sir. We think she was heading for lodgings near King’s Cross; that’s all I know. I’ve got a man looking for her now. Likewise for the cook, a Mrs. Galton.’
‘Very good, sergeant, you’ve been very efficient. Well, let us go down and have a look at Mr. Jones’s diary. I suppose we had better give it a quick glance, if the fellow was so determined that we should read it.’
Preston nodded and the two men descended the stairs. They found the local constable – the same young man who had first discovered Mrs. Jones’s body – having completed his task, quietly reading through the assembled papers.
On seeing Delby, the constable jumped nervously to his feet.
‘Sorry, sir, I was only …’
‘I can see what you were doing,’ said the inspector, walking over to the desk. ‘I take it you’ve put all this in order, since you appear to have time on your hands. Well, I suppose you are the man to tell me: do the dull minutiae of Mr. Jones’s life explain why he should do away with his wife?’
It ain’t that, sir – what he’s writing about – I mean, well, you had better read
it for yourself – all of it –’