On the walk to Bethlem he had time to compose the report he’d be making to Sir James. It had been a depressing trip to Hastings, and the sight of a little sunshine out over the sea had done nothing to improve it. Sebastian’s train was late back into Waterloo, and there was a further delay as the Metropolitan Police briefly closed off one of the platforms to make an arrest. Outside the station, the forecourt was jammed with motor cabs attempting to turn in a space meant for the passage of horses.
Such a racket, accomplishing so little.
His employer had grown suspicious about the mental health of a prominent solicitor, a man of means with a City practice and a house in fashionable Mortimer Common. Rumours of his distressing behaviour had reached the Lunacy Commission through colleagues. But whenever Sir James had tried to arrange an interview, his efforts were met with some plausible evasion or a breaking of the appointment.
It was for such cases that Sir James kept Sebastian Becker on his private payroll. Sir James Crichton Browne was the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor in Lunacy, Sebastian his Special Investigator. Sebastian soon established that the solicitor’s diary was a sham, his reported movements those of a wraith, his signature on any correspondence forged. Sebastian had followed a weekly money order to Hastings, where he’d found the man in a two-roomed house in St Leonards. He was confined there under the care of husband-and-wife servants who took most of the money intended for his keep. His dementia, worsened by these conditions, was now profound.
His fortune was not at stake—power of attorney would surely have been granted to his brother with no need to involve the Masters of Lunacy in his financial affairs—but Sebastian had uncovered a darker reason. A daughter’s society wedding plans were threatened by any question of madness in the family. So the madness must be hidden.
Sebastian had called in doctors who arranged the man’s transfer to the East Sussex County Asylum. He was half-starved, his lower limbs covered in sores. The couple were in the hands of the police.
Of the wedding plans, Sebastian knew little and cared less.
It was a half mile walk from the terminus to his place of work. His office was a basement room in Bethlem Hospital, Lambeth’s once-notorious asylum for the insane, but he spent as little time there as possible. He shared it with the suitcases and trunks of those who’d died in Bedlam, forgotten by the world, their effects unclaimed.
The door to his basement room stood open. Inside he found Thomas Fogg, one of the Men’s Ward assistants, struggling to reach down one of the topmost bags.
“You’re standing on my chair,” Sebastian said.
“Beg pardon, Mister Becker,” Fogg said, “but I did bring a rag to wipe it with.”
The back half of the room was like the end of a baggage car, floor-to-ceiling with the luggage of the departed. Sebastian gave Fogg a hand to climb down with the case, which went onto the table that served for a desk.
Sebastian said, “Is it to be claimed?”
“No, sir,” Fogg said. “I’ve to return this letter to its rightful place and then back up it goes.”
“Twice in one day,” Sebastian said. “Beware of altitude sickness.”
“We’re below ground here, sir.”
“I was aware of that.”
Sebastian glanced at the envelope in Fogg’s hand. It was addressed to one Joseph Sachs, care of the hospital.
“When did Sachs die?” he said.
“The day he got the letter,” Fogg said. “It was found on his body in the laundry. The Coroner took it in evidence and returned it just now.”
“Sachs was the suicide?”
“Let me see that.”
Fogg gave up the letter without protest. Becker had no official status in the hospital, but everyone knew he was the Visitor’s man. Joseph Sachs had been resident in the hospital for a year, overcome by a disabling melancholy after the death of his young wife. His house had been sold to pay for his keep. Male patients were not generally to be seen in the laundry rooms, but after receiving his letter he’d gained access and there drank a fatal dose of lye.
In the envelope was a single sheet of folded paper. The stationery was of the best quality. Nothing was written there, but within the fold were two items: a lock of dark hair, and a pressed flower.
“If you speak to the gardeners,” Fogg said, “they’ll tell you a white tulip’s the flower of remembrance.”
“And that’s what this is?”
“That’s what they say.”
“So what was the Coroner’s conclusion? That the letter reawakened his grief?”
“I wouldn’t know, sir. I was just told to put it back.”
“Leave it,” Sebastian said. “I’ll sort it out.”
Fogg paused for long enough to polish the footprint from Sebastian’s chair with the rag he’d brought for the purpose, and left.
Sebastian sat, and examined the stationery again. The dead man’s sense of loss was something that he could well understand. He looked more closely at the franking. The ink was blurred but the date was readable.
Then he turned to the suitcase. It was mid-sized, of splitting black cardboard with reinforced corners and two straps to hold it together. Inside it were a gentleman’s grooming kit with its silver all tarnished, some Christian tracts, personal cutlery, shoe cream, old pyjamas. Of most interest to Sebastian was an ivory portrait miniature in an oval frame. Small enough to hold between his thumb and forefinger, it showed a young woman with an elaborate coiffure. A flower in her hair, a thick braid over one shoulder.
Was this the departed wife? If so it was an oddly old-fashioned image, and one in which she was barely smiling. He turned it over. The reverse was glazed to reveal a single lock of dark hair, laid on brown silk.
“For a while the police thought he’d killed her,” Fogg said from the doorway.
“I thought you’d gone.”
“I’m going now.”
“The hair in the envelope was of the same colour as the lock of hair in the miniature,” he told Frances that evening after supper. They were seated by the coal fire in Sebastian’s rooms above a Southwark wardrobe-maker’s shop, enjoying the last of its heat before retiring to their separate rooms. Frances was the unmarried sister of Sebastian’s late wife. She’d lived with them for years, and stayed on as his housekeeper now that he was alone.
“Just because it’s the same colour,” she said, “that doesn’t have to mean it came from the same person.”
“But the intent was there, I think. For the association to be made.”
He said, “Whoever sent the memento could hardly expect such an extreme response. But why send it at all? Was it an accusation? An attempt to stir guilt? Is there some message here I’m not seeing?”
“What did the gardeners tell you about the flower?”
“I didn’t ask them. I just took Fogg’s word on that.”
“May I see?”
“I put the letter back.”
“Did you really?”
He hesitated. But she was giving him that look, the one where she dared him to deny something. It was half-amused, but mostly knowing. He gave in and took the envelope from his inside pocket.
“I’ll return it to the suitcase in due course. No one’s in a hurry to collect it.”
“And the miniature?”
“God help me if I ever try to keep a secret from you, Frances.” Sebastian hitched over sideways in his chair to dig the miniature out of a side-pocket, where he’d been keeping it wrapped in a handkerchief.
He watched her as she held one item after another close to her face. Her eyes were blue, her skin pale, porcelain by firelight. She’d been their silent helper as their son had grown, as loyal over the years as she was dependent. Through circumstance alone, the marriage season had passed her by. In all their years together, he’d only really begun to know her after Elizabeth died.
As Frances turned the miniature around he wondered whether a decade of needlework in poor light served to strengthen the eyes, or to ruin them.
She said, “In the language of flowers, a bloom can have more than one meaning.”
“Is that so?”
“It is. Do you plan to look into this any further?”
“No one’s asked me to,” he said.
The next morning he stopped for his usual breakfast at the pie stand under Southwark Bridge. Bread and butter, and a mug of cabman’s tea. He’d not slept well. Thoughts of Hastings troubled him. Not thoughts of the squalid conditions in which he’d found his man, but of seeing street after street of those divided St Leonards houses. They were the one and two-roomed apartments of so-called ‘remittance women’, the spinster relations of families that had no place for them. They lived out their years, dependent and alone. He thought of Frances and her situation, and it made him feel uneasy.
Or perhaps it was the grief and mystery of Joseph Sachs that played on his mind. On reaching Bethlem he went to the Physician-Superintendent’s office and asked to see the dead man’s records.
They were already to hand, for archiving. Along with Sachs’ admission papers and medical notes, there was a police report.
As Fogg had suggested, Sachs had been a suspect in the disappearance of his wife. His story—of a handwritten note that had sent him to find her shoes and coat, neatly folded by the river—had not rung true. He said he could not locate the note, though he swore it had been lying on the kitchen table when he left the house. Its contents were burned into his memory, he said. He insisted that her stated intention was take her own life. He’d raced out in the hope of preventing this. He could quote her words, but he could not produce them. Or her.
No wonder the man had been driven to the madhouse.
But then there was more. Rumours, but only rumours, that she’d been sighted alive in Birmingham. Further police investigation revealed that she’d given false information on their marriage certificate. No trace could be found of her ‘brother’, to whom Sachs had been persuaded to lend several large sums.
The real story there was plain to see.
To everyone, except for Joseph Sachs.
North of Oxford Street in the heart of the West End, the Langham was one of London’s premier hotels. Perhaps even the premier hotel of its time, its clientele a regular mix of rich Americans and European aristocracy. Sebastian had rarely felt more shabby and out of place in his heavy coat and one good suit than here in its busy entrance hall. Even the bellboys were better turned-out than he.
The General Manager could hardly refuse to cooperate with Sir James’ man, but he made his reluctance all too clear.
“I can’t discuss the private affairs of guests,” he said. “If Sir James were here himself, I’d say the same thing. They have a right to my discretion.”
“I understand that, Mr Robarts,” Sebastian said. “But you will at least confirm that this letter was posted from your hotel?”
“It’s our mark,” Robarts conceded. “But that’s all I can say.”
The Langham was the only hotel in London with its own post office and the right to frank its guests’ mail. Sebastian had this information from an avid philatelist on the incurables’ ward.
“And your stationery?”
“It looks very much like it.”
“I’d say that’s a woman’s handwriting on the envelope. Would you agree?”
“Mister Becker, I’m no detective and you’re keeping me from my duties. You have as much from me as I can give you. You will please excuse me. I have a fire drill to supervise.”
“Of course,” Sebastian said. “But before I go. This woman. Is she in any way familiar to you?”
He was holding up the miniature and watching Robarts’ expression; but the manager’s face gave him nothing.
“Really, Mister Becker,” Robarts said.
“My apologies, sir,” Sebastian said, pocketing the image. “If you think of anything further, I can be reached at the Bethlem Hospital.”
“Bethlem?” Robarts echoed. “Are you talking about Bedlam? That place for the insane?”
“I can also receive messages at the pie stand on Southwark Bridge Road,” Sebastian said.
“A pie stand.”
“Any cabbie will oblige you.”
“Good day to you, Mister Becker,” Robarts said.
Sebastian sat in the public entrance hall, the miniature close to hand for easy reference, watching guests come and go until an assistant manager came over. He leaned close to Sebastian’s ear and murmured, “Please forgive me, but I’ve been sent to ask you to leave.”
“Am I causing a disturbance?”
“Mister Robarts fears you’ll try approaching the guests. I’m very sorry, sir, but Mr Robarts can be very protective. He’s been known to turf out the blind for lowering the tone.”
“Then I must lower it no further.” Sebastian rose to his feet, turning his hand to ensure that the assistant manager caught a glimpse of the mystery woman’s face. The man looked for a moment. Then gave a nod so brief that it would pass unseen from across the lobby.
“Guest or staff?”
“Guest,” the man said, as perfectly as any stage ventriloquist.
“I thank you for your courtesy,” Sebastian said.
“My father was in Bethlem, sir,” the assistant manager now spoke quietly but in a normal voice. “He was returned to us cured.”
Across Oxford Street, in a coffee shop down by the Palladium, Sebastian took a corner table and perplexed the waitress by asking for a fork with his brew. With the tip of one of the fork’s tines he popped open the miniature frame. It fell into two halves, revealing a trade label on the portrait’s backing paper.
The London Stereoscopic Company. Their new studios were in Hanover Square, not five minutes’ walk away.
The move from Cheapside to Mayfair had brought the company a corner showroom in a tall Regency-style building close to Regent Street. On sale and display were all kinds of hand and stand cameras, telescopes, enlargers, and cases of field and opera glasses.
The clerk was a man of less than thirty, but with the birdlike frame and thinning hair of a classics professor in a Punch cartoon. He’d grown his remaining hair long, and arranged its darks strands across his dome in an effect that was more of a reminder than a disguise.
He took the disassembled miniature, inspected it under a glass, and said, “This isn’t an ivory. It’s an overpainted photograph. They were a fashion for a while and cheaper than the real thing. This style would most likely have been a wedding gift from wife to husband.”
“But it is one of yours.”
“We still offer the service, but most people can appreciate the art in photography now. It’s just that to some…”
“They mistake tradition for taste?”
“I would never say that to a customer.”
“Can you tell me anything more about this customer?”
The clerk consulted his glass again. “We’ll have the plate on file. Along with any record of prints and payments made.”
All of the newly-moved company’s records were in cabinets and boxes, stacked up in the storeroom to await unpacking. But their filing system was efficient and the glass negative was quickly located. It had been stored upright in a numbered tray, along with a paper proof and a sales slip.
“Well, that’s strange,” Sebastian said. Though the miniature was no more than two inches high and showed a woman in an evening gown, the proof was taken from a half plate negative and showed a full-length figure in a different costume.
The clerk said. “With a portrait on file, there’d be no need for Miss Hannigan to bear the expense of another sitting. We could just print the head and shoulders from this one. The dress is easily painted over.”
The future Mrs Sachs stood before a canvas backdrop of a classical garden, with an urn of flowers for a foreground prop. Her dress was ruched at the shoulders, corseted in the bodice, and flared out from the waist over white tights. Though hardly dressed for ballet, she wore laced pumps and stood in a dancer’s third position. Her right hand gripped a riding crop, its other end laid in her left palm.
“She was a theatrical,” Sebastian said.
“Our cabinet cards are very popular with the profession,” the clerk said. “We give discounts on large orders.”
“May I take this?”
“The proof? I don’t see why not.”
He showed the bromide paper proof to Frances that evening over supper.
“She was an equestrienne,” Frances said.
Sebastian looked at it again. “You think so?”
“The ballet shoes and riding crop. They’re not the usual photographers’ properties. We saw costumes like it on riders in the Ringling Brothers shows. And no woman would be seen wearing a dress like that outside the circus.”
“The name on the invoice was Joan Hannigan,” he said, “Though that could be another alias.”
“Will you take this to the police?”
“Only if I can find a crime to take along with it. If they ask me how a lock of hair might drive a man to suicide, I’ve nothing to offer.”
“You always tell me there are only two likely keys to any mystery,” Frances said. “It’s always love, or money.”
“Well, he’d already lost his money. He’d dug into his capital to lend it to her so-called brother. The sale of his house barely covered his keep at the asylum.”
“You believe she’s alive.”
“I’m sure of it. And no doubt she’s working her next scheme in a hotel full of Dukes, Princes, bankers, and railroad tycoons that I can’t even get near.”
Frances said, “I went by Borough Market this morning. I took the chance to speak to the man on the flower stall. I asked him about white tulips and the language of flowers. I was sure they have another meaning, and I was right.”
“So what can they mean, besides remembrance?”
“Apology,” she said. “A plea for forgiveness.”
It was two days before Sebastian could return to the Langham, during which time he secured the liberty of a widow in Chatham, unjustly committed by two local physicians at the behest of concerned relatives. The relatives were concerned at the prospect of their inheritance being spent on ocean travel. Later in the day he’d an appointment to swear an affidavit in Temple Bar. He could spare an early hour or two, lurking and watching from across the street, and if she didn’t appear in that time then he’d have to move on.
But the wait took only minutes, not hours, as he saw the former Mrs Sachs being ushered by the doorman to a waiting taximeter cab. She was dressed in a short jacket and a riding skirt. The cab headed north toward nearby Regents Park. Sebastian followed it as far as he could and then crossed the park to the Gloucester Gate entrance, where he was just in time to see his quarry riding out on a rented hack from one of the many nearby stables.
She was beyond hailing distance. The animal broke into an easy trot, and horse and rider disappeared from view in the direction of the Outer Circle. The park had become more popular for early-morning canters when, earlier in the year, Queen Mary had issued a Royal ban on women riding astride in Rotten Row. Rather than go side-saddle, most had chosen to exercise elsewhere. These were modern times, where the word of a Queen no longer carried the force it once had.
Sebastian waited under a group of trees close to the Broad Walk, and within half an hour saw her returning, still alone. As she drew level with some bushes a small terrier—brown and white, angry-looking and spiky, a classic ratter—dashed across her path, pursued by a small boy.
The horse reared. The rider fought for a few moments and then, when it was clear that she couldn’t keep her seat, did an athletic dismount, landing on her two feet without releasing the reins. The horse tried to pull away, but by the time Sebastian reached her, she had it under control.
Rather than remount, she had begun to lead the animal the short distance back to the gate. “Thank you, sir,” she said breathlessly as he approached, “but I need no help.”
“May I at least walk with you?” he said.
“That’s hardly proper,” she said. “I have told you, there is no need.”
“I feel I should,” Sebastian said. “Since I’m acquainted with your husband.”
Her manner changed. She brightened. She immediately entered her latest role and said, “You have business with Sir Robert? Then be assured that I welcome your concern.”
“Not Sir Robert,” he said. “The man you married. Joseph Sachs.”
She grew pale. Then set her face and walked on.
“You’ve mistaken me,” she said.
“I don’t think so,” Sebastian said, keeping up with her and holding out the miniature for her to see. She glanced, and knew it straight away. Her accent slipped from Mayfair toward Manchester.
“Did he engage you to find me? I took steps against that.”
“By ruining him and then driving him into the madhouse?”
“That was never my intention.”
“He thought you were dead. But then you sent him anonymous proof that you were not. Your mistake was to send it from the only London hotel that franks its own letters.”
“If it was grief that sent him to Bedlam, then knowing that I am alive and unworthy of his love may lift him out of it. Tell him I am sorry and not to seek to contact me again. No good can ever come of it. He’ll think me cruel but he is a good man who deserves better. He should despise and forget me, and put an end to his mourning.”
“It’s too late for that.”
“It’s all the apology I can offer.”
“After receiving your letter he took his own life. Believing you dead robbed him of his peace of mind; but knowing how you deceived him took away his will to live.”
She was shocked. She appeared to weaken. It was real. He offered his arm, but she did not take it.
“So,” Sebastian said. “You’re playing the Lady now. And is your Sir Robert the same man who posed as your brother while the two of you hollowed out your husband’s fortune? I imagine he’s another one who’s turned con merchant from the Music Halls. I’ve met many such. Masters of the patter and of separating people from their money.”
She took several deep breaths. In her portrait she was plain. In person it was possible to see how men might be so willing to be taken in by her.
She said, “Joseph knew what I was. I was no soiled dove in his eyes. He took me from the life and I let him believe that he’d saved me. The plan was always to take his money and disappear. But he was so decent. The first truly decent man I’d ever known.
“Conscience is a luxury I cannot afford. I made enquiries, hoping to hear that his spirits were on the mend. But instead I learned of Bedlam and a life ruined. I knew I couldn’t put things right, but I hoped to ease the pain I’d caused. What will you do?”
“What can I prove?” Sebastian said. “But the power to change is yours. You can start with whatever bogus scheme the two of you are running from your fancy hotel address.”
They were almost at the exit to the park. She walked with her head down for a few paces. As they reached the street and its traffic, the horse slowed without being told.
“If you don’t change your ways and restrain your man,” Sebastian said, “be assured that I will.”
“You can have no idea what you’re asking,” she said.
Sebastian said, “There’s a suitcase waiting to be claimed. Joseph’s personal effects were few. You’re still his wife—if you don’t claim them, can you name someone who might?”
She gave no reply. But she gave him a look; brief, sideways, and haunted. The kind of look given to the well-meaning by the truly damned.
He waited by the gates as she led the horse, now calmed, across the road toward the mews where he was stabled.
Sebastian watched her for a few moments, then turned and walked back into the park.
The boy was waiting for him by the great stone drinking fountain at the Broad Walk’s north end. The terrier was by his side, a yard of string serving for a leash.
Handing over the money he’d promised, Sebastian said, “You were only to distract the horse, not throw the rider.”
“I told that to the dog, sir,” the urchin said, “but the dog dint listen.”
There was a message waiting for Sebastian at the pie stand the next morning. A request to contact Mr H B Robarts at the Langham Hotel on a matter of urgency. Rather than telephone, he went.
When he arrived he was ushered into Robarts’ office. Robarts closed the door. He was tight-lipped and furious.
He said, “You’re a detective of sorts, are you, Becker? I want to engage you. The people you were looking for have been calling themselves Sir Robert and Lady Cransfield.”
“And they’ve skipped?” Sebastian hazarded.
“With their champagne suppers and entertaining, the bill is close to seven hundred pounds. Last night some of the staff heard voices raised in their suite. Then this morning, Sir Robert settled his bill and departed before breakfast. By the time the bank refused the cheque, they were long gone. They even stole the sheets!”
Sebastian had a moment to ponder that last point, as it was here that the telephone rang. Robarts picked it up and, without waiting to listen, said, “Not now!” and ended the call.
He said, “There’s no Sir Robert Cransfield listed in the Peerage.”
“You didn’t check before?”
“There was no reason to be suspicious. Sir Robert lodged a number of bonds in the care of the Cashier’s Office. I considered them adequate surety.”
“And the bonds now prove to be worthless.”
“Newspaper. I saw them go into the envelope and watched him seal it. But newspaper is all we found.”
Sebastian said, “A little sleight of hand would be nothing to them. They are a pair of known fraudsters with music hall skills.”
“You couldn’t warn me of this?”
“I was seeking your help in establishing it, but you turned me away. Call in the police.”
“I would rather this were not brought to public attention. WHAT?”
This last was directed at a nervous-looking hotel employee who had dared to put his head around the door.
He said, “Beg pardon, Mr Robarts, but there’s a problem with the water supply. We may need to warn the guests.”
Robarts said, “We’ll do no such thing. Open the connection to the Hampstead reservoir and have the master plumber inspect the well.” The Langham was famed for the purest and softest water in all of London, rising from deep underground through its own artesian bore.
“It’s not the well, sir. The pumps are working fine. It’s the cistern that’s blocked, and what little’s coming through has a funny old smell.”
Sebastian said, “When Sir Robert left the hotel. Did you see the woman?”
The manager was slightly thrown by the sudden switch back. “No. He’d sent her on ahead. Why?”
“An argument between fraudsters, the man leaves alone, you’re missing a sheet and now there’s something blocking your water tank,” Sebastian said. “If you don’t summon the police and have them look in the cistern, I will.”
“He’d strangled her,” Sebastian told Frances. “That was his answer to her change of heart. A woman who could feel pity for their victims—what use was she to him now? And if she gave in to the urge to confess, she’d most likely take him down with her. She wouldn’t fit in a trunk so he wrapped her in a weighted sheet and sunk her to the bottom of the tank where she wouldn’t be found for a while. He may have imagined that he’d bought himself a day or two, but detectives tracked him to King’s Cross and the police took him off his train in York the same afternoon.”
“They should thank you.”
“I don’t deserve thanks. If I hadn’t intervened, she’d still be alive.”
“She’s the author of her own fate. All you did was expose her actions. If you’re responsible for anything, it’s for showing her how she might redeem herself.”
“Which cost her dear. But I can always rely on you to lift me up, Frances.”
They were passing down Southwark Street by Borough Market, a maze of halls under railway arches where the yelling of stallholders and costermongers was in regular competition with the thunder of steam trains right above their heads. The alleys here were a regular jam of wagons and handcarts, the public houses with their doors flung open, keeping market porters’ hours. Frances had linked Sebastian’s arm for safety.
She said, “What will happen now?”
“She’ll get a parish burial, and he’ll be hanged.” The counterfeit knight had been identified as Octavius Hannigan, failed Shakespearian, second comedian, and sideshow three-card swindler. Joseph Sachs’ suitcase would rejoin all the others. Like a trapped and forgotten soul, parked for all time, soon lost to notice.
Frances said, “She was the fool. Joseph died for love. She left it too late and died for nothing.”
“Dead is dead,” Sebastian said.
“If you say so,” Frances said, in an airy tone that said she would indulge his inclination to argue without for a moment accepting his argument.
Sebastian glanced back toward the market. He’d decided that he would return, later on, and seek out the flower seller. Frances ought to know that she was appreciated. Not like all those forgotten women in St Leonards, parked in their remittance homes like unwanted baggage, paid off to keep their genteel distance. He valued her, but he could not find the words. Perhaps something in the language of flowers would express what he wanted to say.
A flower seller should know.
And if no advice was forthcoming, there were always white tulips.