CHAPTER ONE
    

'Who's for Cremorne?'
     The young man's cry rings out along the paved embankment, echoing beneath the girders of Hungerford bridge. 
     'How about you, Sir? Care to go down to Cremorne tonight, Sir?'
     The gentleman in question, a whiskery man in his sixties, strolling leisurely along the river terrace, merely shakes his head, offering a regretful smile, as if to say 'No, no, I am told old for that - far too old.'
     The young tout grins sympathetically. He looks down and rubs the brass buttons of his uniform. His coat is an eye-catching red, a deep crimson upon which are embroidered a capital C., the mark of the Citizen Boat Company. He raises his voice once more.
     'Cree-morne! Departin' on the hour!'
     The cry carries far in the evening air. It is not long before it finds more receptive ears. For the tree-lined Thames Embankment is still busy with promenaders and West End pleasure-seekers; the young man will not have to work too hard. Indeed, for every dissenter, there are two enthusiasts directed towards the wooden huts that serve as the company's ticket booths, couples quite prepared to pay the fourpenny fare to Cremorne Gardens. And they do come in pairs, two by two, much like the inhabitants of a certain famous vessel of ancient times, a good mixture of every breed of Londoner: the prosperous costermonger and his Poll; the shop-boy and his Sarah; the up-and-coming City clerk in sparkling white turnover collar, who walks in company with his Angelina, a muslin-clad creature, a zephyr shawl draped over her arm, a white rose pinned to her dress. True, there is no bona fide aristocrat amongst the steamboat crowd; but there  are at least a few swells, polishing jewelled tie-pins and patting down their extravagantly long side-whiskers. 
     One couple, however, strike the tout as peculiar, as they approach the nearest booth and pay the fourpenny fare: a gentleman in his fifties, in a black billycock hat and brown tweed jacket, and a younger man, no more than twenty five, black-suited, with a fulsome white cravat. Both seem an oddly formal pair for the Cremorne boat. 
     In fact, if the tout thinks anything, as he turns away, and resumes his vocal entreaties to passing pedestrians, it is one word, a word which proves him a good judge of character: 'Coppers.'

*****      

'Have you ever wondered, Sir,' says Sergeant Bartleby, unconsciously straightening his cravat, as the pair complete their business at the booths, 'why we get all the queer cases?'
     'Stop your preening, man,' replies his companion.
     'Sorry, sir. I just thought, if we're supposed to be out on the spree,  I'd dress the part.'
     Decimus Webb looks rather brutally at the cravat. 'I fear it would take more than that.'
     The sergeant does not reply, since, at that moment, a chain is removed and the crowd begins to jostle forward along the wooden pier. A knot of impatient men and women forms, as the more delicate females in the assembled company negotiate the wooden bridge that leads to the waiting steamer. 
     'Take it slow, your highness,' says a raucous female towards the front. Several of the costers break out in hearty laughter. Others merely tut to themselves. Meanwhile, behind Decimus Webb, a pair of men raise their voices.
     'Stop that scrouging, won't you? 
     'Well, perhaps you'd be so polite as to mind where you put you bleedin' hoofs?'
     Most of the people nearby raise a smile at this debate. But Webb frowns. It may be that the men seem a little too theatrical in their complaints; or perhaps, as they bump into him, it is merely that, familiar with metropolitan crowds, he possesses a sixth sense in such matters. In any case, Webb turns towards Bartleby, raising his eyebrows significantly, giving a slight nod.  
     The sergeant, to his credit, unobtrusively glances down and responds instantly, placing a firm hand on the shoulder of the first 'scrouger'.
     'And perhaps you would be so kind,' says Bartleby, whispering in the man's ear, 'as to remove your hand from the Detective Inspector's pocket, and hook it - the pair of you.'
     The scrouger turns a shade of white and his friendship with his neighbour is abruptly renewed. The men hastily push back through the throng under Bartleby's watchful gaze. The crowd, meanwhile, moves forward.
     'We should have taken them in, Sir,' says the sergeant, as they finally reach the  steamer.
     'And spend half the night at the police-court? Don't you want to get to Cremorne, Sergeant?' 
     'Cremorne, sir? To tell the truth, I'm quite looking forward to it.'
     'Your enthusiasm for your work is admirable, sergeant,' replies Webb, though he does not sound so keen himself.
     The two policeman find a spot upon deck and it only takes a further couple of minutes for the steamer to receive its full complement of passengers. The ropes are loosed from the moorings and sound of the boat's engine, already rumbling below, changes its pitch, the machinery emitting a reverberating rattle. With a puff of steam from its tall funnel, the boat moves off, twin paddle-wheels directing it beneath the iron railway bridge that spans the river. 
     'Not going below, Sir?' asks Bartleby, gesturing towards the trapdoor and steps that descend into the low-ceilinged lower deck, where liquid refreshment is on sale.
     Webb shakes his head. 'I prefer to see where I'm going, sergeant. I might as well take something of interest from this fool's errand. It's a good while since I've been down to Chelsea; I expect it has changed a little.'
     Bartleby casts a longing glance to below decks, but stays beside his superior. 'You think it will be a wasted journey?'
     'I did not say that. But the whole business is quite ridiculous. It is not a detective matter; not for Scotland Yard, at least.'
     'You think this fellow's harmless, Sir?'
     'I don't think he is Sweeney Todd, put it that way, sergeant.'
     Webb's gaze returns to the river and, as the boat passes by the breweries that line the south bank, the tall smoking chimney of Barclay & Perkins's famous establishment wafts the faint smell of hops towards the Palace of Westminster. He looks back at his Sergeant.
     'Very well, you may go below. Nothing more than a half of stout. Make a few casual inquiries. Doubtless many of them go down to Cremorne every week.'
     'Thank you, Sir,' says the sergeant with a grin. 

*****

The journey upstream takes little more than forty minutes, the boat stopping briefly at Nine Elms and Battersea, though few come on board at either stop and not a soul disembarks. It is only when the steamer approaches the old wooden supports of Battersea Bridge, passing the giant black tub of the local gasometer upon the southern shore, that a perceptible change of spirits occurs amongst its passengers. Suddenly there is activity. Gaily-coloured shawls are gathered up, drinks and downed, hats and bonnets returned to their rightful place. Sergeant Bartleby, takes the opportunity to return to the deck, where he finds Decimus Webb watching the sun set, its final rays dissolving into the murky brown silt of the Thames.
     'Anything of interest?' asks Webb.
     'Not much, Sir. They've all read the papers. No-one's seen the fellow themselves but friend of a friend swears they did - you know the sort of thing.'
     'Worthless,' mutters Webb. 'Ah, well, here we are, at least.'
     And, as Webb speaks, the boat turns towards the pier upon the north bank of the river, the splash of its wheels slowing to a leisurely speed. The pier is a large wooden structure, illuminated in the dimming twilight by a row of gas-jets, mounted on a iron rail along its length, each burning brightly within a large glass globe. As the boat approaches, the mooring ropes are thrown to waiting attendants and the steamer is pulled in, its hull banging noisily into the timber piles, until it finally settles, bobbing on the water.
     'Cremorne!' shouts the man on shore, as the boarding plank is secured, the guide-ropes pulled tight. 'Everybody off!'
     The announcement, of course, is merely a formality. Nobody can doubt their location, even though the river esplanade that runs along the south of the pleasure-gardens is not marked by any signpost. The signature of Cremorne is the aura of gaslight; not one individual lamp, though there are a dozen along the river-side path. Rather, it is the omnipresent radiance within the gardens themselves, a garish, cheerful glow that, from the Thames, suggests a magical kingdom hidden from view. 
     No surprise, then, that the passengers of the steamer all but run into the ticket-hall.
     'Shall we make ourselves known to the management, Sir?' asks Bartleby, as the two policemen quit the boat, amongst the last to alight. 'I've met with the lads from T division already, mind you. I know them on sight.'
     'I think,' says Webb, 'we merely watch and wait. If he is here, he will make a move. That sort cannot help themselves. Now, Sergeant,' he continues, peering at the queue for the box office, 'tell me, do you happen to have two bob?'

*****

It is gone half-past nine, past night-fall, when the two policemen reach the heart of the pleasure-gardens, the Crystal Platform, its wooden boards already thronged with dancers. From the outside, the area is almost hidden from view; for it nestles amid a grove of ancient elms, and surrounded on two sides by twin tiers of supper-boxes. The latter resemble the boxes in a theatre, but the only stage is the great dancing platform itself, a great circular rostrum in the open air, raised a foot or so off the ground, railed around by wrought iron. The railings are interrupted at intervals by tall triple-crowned lamps and, between them, above the crowd, arched iron festoons dripping with tear-drops of coloured cut-glass, sparkling in the gaslight. At the heart of the platform sits a hexagonal Chinese pagoda, its upturned eaves and exotic fret-work painted rainbow colours; a 'Refreshment Room' lies within, devoted to the sale of 'Choice Wines and Sprits' and, most importantly, on the storey above, a thirty-piece orchestra, providing a noisy accompaniment to the couples gaily waltzing below. 
     'They say it's the place for loose women, Sir, now the Casino's closed,' remarks Bartleby, gazing at the platform as the waltz comes to an end, and the M.C. calls for a quadrille. 'And those supper-boxes too. You can imagine, can't you?'
     Webb looks around at the boxes. Indeed, in a couple there is merely a hint of candlelight and indistinct movement behind a muslin curtain. 
     'I know what they say, Sergeant, and you can spare me your imagination. We are not here to grub up dirt. Keep your eyes peeled for our man.'
     'How do I spot him?'
     'In the act, Bartleby.'
     The sergeant smiles wrily, and looks round the exterior of platform. White-aproned waiters move briskly around the tables set on the grass, accepting the 'refreshment tickets' that are the gardens particular currency. Men and women seem to lounge in an easy intimacy, listening to the resounding music, admiring the sets formed by the more proficient dancers. A blue-uniformed member of T Division strolls past, giving the two detectives a discreet nod. But no-one appears remotely suspicious. Plenty are inebriated; a good few may have dubious morals, but nothing out of the ordinary, on a summer's night in such a place.
     Webb taps the sergeant's arm.
     'There - that fellow in the great-coat. A bit warm to wear that in May, don't you think?'
     Bartleby peers at the man, upon the opposite side of the platform, a good two or three hundred yards distant. The man, about nineteen or twenty years of age, appears and disappears behind the dancing couples, but there is undoubtedly something nervous in his movements.
     'You take the left, I'll take the right,' suggests Webb.
     Bartleby nods, and the two policemen begin to work their way around the seated groups, in front of the lower tier of supper-boxes. It takes them a good couple of minutes to negotiate past Cremorne's revellers, but the man give no indication that notices them. Rather, he walks cautiously up to the queue for the sheltered 'Money Box' just beyond the clearing, one of the small cabins where Cremorne's bankers change cash into token. He places himself just behind a young woman wearing a dress of dark blue poplin, and seems to hesitate for a moment. 
     Webb motions to Bartleby to get closer.
     As the quadrille comes to a close, applause echoes round the platform. And the man in the great coat reaches towards the woman's neck.
     'Grab him!' shouts Webb.
     Bartleby springs forward. Both considerably taller and faster than the man in the great-coat, he tackles him to the ground even as the latter's hand touches the woman's dress. The woman herself spins around in surprise. A chorus of exclamations break out from the nearby table; some express concern, but mostly they are words of encouragement, as if al fresco wrestling is suddenly upon the evening's entertainment. Webb stands to one side, as Bartleby looks up imploring, his captive squirming vigorously in his grip.
     'I could do with a little ' says the Sergeant, interrupted by the necessity of avoiding the man's fist.
     'On its way, Sergeant,' replies Webb, as two men from T Division run round the platform. 'On its way.'
     The sergeant says nothing. At length, however, the strong arms of the two constables prove sufficient to render the struggling man quite prone.
     'Sorry, miss,' says Webb, turning to address the victim, 'Are you quite all right? Did he harm you?'
     'I think he took my necklace,' says the woman, a little shaken.
     'Oh, damnation,' exclaims Webb, rather to her dismay. 'Is that all? Check the fellow's pockets, Sergeant. Is there anything?'
     Bartleby obliges. A trawl through the coat quickly reveals two sovereigns, a gold fob watch, two necklaces, one silver, one gold, a purse, and a season ticket to the gardens.
     'Nothing, Sir. This your necklace, miss?'
     'That's mine,' says the woman, bemused. 'But what did you expect to find?'
     Inspector Webb sighs. 'A pair of scissors, miss.'

*****

Outside the gas-lit rockery of the Hermit's Cave, in the north east corner of Cremorne Gardens, Sarah Jane Hockley, maid-of-all-work, quits the company of the garden's famed elderly prognosticator and walks back in the direction of the lawn. She dawdles behind her male companion, a young groom who is eager not to miss the fireworks at 10 p.m., and who has, in his own words, 'waited all night.' In part, her slowness is a growing disinclination for the young man's company; in part, she is bent on reading the prophecy vouchsafed to her by the sage:

"Thalaba's Prophecy. The star of your nativity intimates a very good foreboding. Although not entirely unchequered, it promises much future prosperity. The conjunction of Mars with Venus in the square of your nativity offers tokens to show that energy will bring about your advancement and that your union will prove the token of your felicity. See her in the magic mirror. Many future blessings are shown towards the end of the year - many good results will arise, and profitable friendships spring up to your interest. Thalaba."

So fascinating is her destiny, written clearly on the crumpled foolscap paper, that she hardly heeds the sound of footsteps on the grass behind her. And it is far too late, when the sound of her dress being cut alerts her to the man's presence. 
     Far too late, when something pierces her side, colouring her ripped muslin bright red.

 

 

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