London, November 1811
The clatter of wheels broke the stillness. Two horses strained in harness, nostrils flaring, breath steaming in the night air. Wrapped in a greatcoat and low-crowned hat, the driver rode hunched over, face hidden by his scarf. A gloved hand cracked the whip. Faster.
The woman lying in the road seemed unaware of her peril. She kept her eyes fixed on the church rising against the night sky. As the mists parted, the rose window emerged, a circle of textured shadow patiently awaiting the sun’s fire.
The horses reared, and the woman’s body tumbled beneath hoof and carriage, arms and legs a-tangle. Whipping around the wheel, her cloak yanked her back and up so that for one instant she was held suspended. Down she tumbled to land in a heap. The coach tilted wildly, regained control, and sped on. Hoof beats echoed away. The silence closed in with the fog.
# # #
Penelope tumbled out of sleep, stifling a scream. Someone was in the room. A step shuffled; a drawer edged open with the scratch of old wood. Her arm reached instinctively for the child at her side, but Sarah still slept, warm and sweet, breathing softly.
A form detached from the shadows by the bureau and moved toward her. She heard a thud followed by a muffled curse.
“Who left that blasted thing in the middle of the room?”
As he bent to right the rocking horse, Penelope slipped out of bed, groping for the tinderbox on the nightstand. Fingers trembling, she struck metal against flint until a spark caught. She lit her candle and turned to face him.
Jeremy stepped into the flicker-glow, slivers of light illuminating eyes, nose, or mouth, each in turn then thrust back into darkness. He was smiling.
“What do you want?” she said.
“You’re not curious about how I breached your defenses? Quite simple actually. You should remember to lock your windows.”
“However you entered, you can exit by the same route.”
He looked hurt. “Now is that any kind of greeting after so long an absence? That trellis is deuced rickety. I could have been dashed to my death.”
“You’d have landed in the rosebushes. And perhaps a bed of thorns is in order here.” She loosened her grip on the candlestick. “Keep your voice down or you’ll wake Sarah.”
Jeremy bent closer to the bed and grazed the child’s cheek with his fingertips. “She’d sleep through the storming of the Bastille. All’s well with her?”
“What do you want?” she said again.
“I am short of funds at present. I hoped you might spare a few pounds out of the household money.”
Anger quickly flamed in her: a familiar anger, a warm and secure anger that set her jaw. “Scorched again? Well, I won’t have it, Jeremy. Besides, we’ve little to spare as you should know.” But she knew she had no choice, for he might take everything if he so desired and she could not stop him. A few pounds would satisfy him for now.
Penelope took his arm and pulled him into her tiny sitting room. Turning up the lamp, she perched on the settee, indicating he should take the chair opposite. Instead, Jeremy removed his cloak and squeezed next to her.
He leaned closer so that she could smell the brandy on his breath. “Listen to me, love,” he said. “I’ve had a run of ill luck.
I need a trifle to tide me over until I finish my commission. Just to pay my shot with a few of the more pressing duns and get my shirts out of hock from the laundress.”
“Constance Tyrone. The daughter of a baronet. Possessed of a face like the Virgin’s, but there’s fire beneath. Sixty-five guineas for a full-length, no less.” His voice was reflective.
“You should see my sketches of her,” he went on. “Best work I’ve ever done. And there’s more, Penelope. She’s got influential friends. If I play my hand right, I’ll be awash in solicitations for portraits.”
“Why should she do that for you?”
Jeremy looked mischievous. “A favor for a favor. I know some and suspect more.”
“What can her private affairs mean to you?”
“Why nothing, of course. Except that handled delicately, she may not be averse to lending aid to one who understands her so well.” He chuckled, leaning back against the cushion. His eyes fluttered shut.
For the first time she looked at him in the light. He wore dark breeches and a white waistcoat traced with silver thread under an evening coat that fit perfectly across the shoulders. She had not seen this particular ensemble before and eyed him with some disgust, calculating how much it might have cost.
“Understanding women is rather a specialty of yours. Don’t you dare fall asleep. Mrs. Fitzhugh stirs early, and I won’t be put in the position of explaining your presence here.”
His eyes flew open. “I need your help. Would you have me beg for it, Penelope?”
As his long artist’s fingers closed about her hand, his gaze met hers. She could see the faint lines forming at the sides of his mouth and along his cheeks, looking strangely out of place on his youthful features. Not marks of character or of wisdom, but of dissipation. Countless nights spent drinking and wenching were beginning to take their toll even on Jeremy’s beauty.
“How much do you need?” She pulled away, rising.
“A trifle, just to see me along.”
Penelope walked across the room to her desk and removed a small enameled casket. For a moment she stared at the lid, which depicted a scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Miranda and Ferdinand embracing in their brave new world. True lovers. She flipped it open to expose a small roll of bank notes and some coins. Handing him about half the roll, she said, “Here. Take it.” He took the money, but kept hold of her hand. “You shall have it back, my sweet, and perhaps tenfold should Fortune smile.” He gave her a searching look. “Any word from your father by the by, or is the Great Man yet to forgive his erring daughter? Not that I should be concerned so long as he does not neglect your allowance.”
She snatched her hand away. “I imagine he’s busy if the talk we hear of unrest in Palermo is true. Father will be in his glory if the republicans can wring some concessions from King Ferdinand.” “No doubt,” said Jeremy, losing interest. “I suppose you keep up your scribbling? Any luck on the literary front?”
“Just my work for Father’s printer friend. Several little poems and a piece about Sicilian cookery. None of which qualifies as literature.”
“Ah well. The lot of the artist is rarely without its perils, and frittering away one’s talent on Philistines is the worst of them.” He shot a sidelong glance at her. “Still using your nom de plume, I trust?”
She knew why he asked. He was perfectly willing to grant a woman her right of self-expression. Write by all means, make money if possible, but do so anonymously, savoring any triumphs in secret. Whatever you do, do not attract the world’s vulgar notice. She felt again the old disappointment.
“Not to worry, Jeremy. Mrs. Fitzhugh insists upon maintaining the respectability of her lodgings. A woman alone with a child is bad enough. If she were to discover she harbors a lady writer as well, we’d be in the street by first light.”
She became aware that Jeremy’s gaze had drifted down from her eyes. And suddenly she realized she stood clad only in her shift, the lamplight revealing her body through the sheer material. Disconcertingly, she felt her nipples harden.
“Don’t look at me like that.” She crossed her arms over her chest, backing away.
“I didn’t come for that, love. Though I can’t say the notion doesn’t have appeal.”
“You know me better than that. Not with liquor on your breath and likely another woman’s scent elsewhere.”
“That’s just it; I do know you.” He slid his fingers across her throat, gripped her shoulders, and bent to kiss her cheek gently. “Not to worry. I’ve an engagement.” He put on his cloak and walked to the window.
“In the middle of the night?”
Laughing, he waved his hand and was gone.
Ten minutes later Penelope was back in bed listening to Sarah’s quiet breathing. Remembering that instant of yearning, she felt ashamed, then angry again.
“Damn you, Jeremy,” was her last thought before she fell into a dreamless sleep.
# # #
“Who found her, Constable?” John Chase let his gaze sweep down the line of terrace houses and back to St. Catherine’s church, imposing in the early light. There was something about the colorless dawn that made the day start bleak. It was not a cleansing light. Dirt from the day before looked that much dirtier, ugliness that much uglier, and human frailty that much more frail.
He looked down at the woman at his feet. They would have to move her soon. Already a line of drays and carriages had formed and tempers grew short, drivers shouting curses at the street-keeper who waved them toward a detour.
A small crowd had begun to gather on the pavement, the curious eager to sniff out any lurid details. And soon the Grub Street hacks themselves would arrive. Someone was bound to have informed them since the journalists paid a shilling for any tidbits.
“Who found her?” Chase repeated.
Constable Samuel Button pulled his eyes from the body. “Sorry, sir. The curate Mr. Thaddeus Wood discovered her before daybreak. Unlocking the church gates he was, sir, when he shines his lantern into the street and sees her lying there.”
The constable’s broad, bovine countenance wore a troubled expression. Lord knows, most men avoided the year-long stint as an unpaid official more studiously than the plague itself, especially given the possibility of facing something like this. Most, in fact, employed a substitute to execute this duty.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Chase always tried to turn the parish authorities up sweet since a little honey produced better results than the usual bitter rivalry. “I’ll warrant you wish you’d nabbed a Tyburn Ticket when this business ousted you from your fireside.” A Tyburn Ticket, purchased at an enormous price, exempted one from parish duties.
Button gave a rather strained smile. “Indeed, sir.” He cleared his throat, produced his occurrence book from somewhere, and began to flip through the pages. Then, like a child about to recite a lesson, he darted a nervous glance at Chase. “Upon finding said deceased, Mr. Wood calls the Watch who summons me. A matter for the Runners, I say to myself, knowing Bow Street won’t say no to a murder inquiry, fees arranged or not. It’s a queer situation, I don’t mind telling you.”
“Is it now?” Chase smiled at him. He groped in his pocket for his spectacles and put them on, squinting irritably at the smudges on the glass. It was not yet half past seven, and already his forty-one years weighed heavily. In addition to the frustration of the spectacles, only of marginal help to his failing vision, Chase was enduring the usual pain in his bad knee.
Suddenly impatient, he lifted the book from Button’s hand and scanned the rest of the report. Not much there thus far, merely a few remarks recorded in the man’s rather laborious hand and the name and direction of the curate who had found the victim.
The constable said slowly, “You see, sir, I thought at first she was killed accidental while crossing in the dark, but directly I spied her neck ’twas plain we had ourselves a nasty one.”
He paused for confirmation, but Chase just nodded at him to continue.
“Though I reckon she was struck after the fact. We get a number of complaints about night coaches rattling through the streets keeping honest folk from their rest. And drivers so intoxicated as to be a menace to any poor soul what crosses their path.” He lapsed into silence.
Chase circled the body. The woman’s thin muslin gown, torn and filthy, had bunched at the waist, exposing her shift and a hint of white flesh where this garment too had ridden up. Cloak in a similar tangle about the shoulders and upper torso. Neck at an odd angle, obviously broken. Thick dark hair matted with mud had tumbled from its pins although smooth curls still clustered around her face. She looked like a child’s outgrown rag doll tossed in a pile of refuse.
Bending down to examine her more closely, he saw at once what Button meant. Blood had trickled from her nose, and her neck was bruised with livid finger marks. Death by strangulation. Yet she was not as disfigured as such victims customarily were. Very often the tongue protruded through swollen lips; the cheeks displayed a garish blush. This woman was pale, her features unmarked.
“Anyone touch her?”
“Only to examine her pockets.” “Have you identified her, Constable?”
“Certainly, sir.” He puffed out his chest. “The curate knew her, you see. She’s one Constance Tyrone of the St. Catherine Society. The curate says as how she and her women let the old rectory on the church grounds. One of them charitable societies what’s been springing up all over.”
“Not a prostitute then.” “Indeed not, sir.”
Chase fingered the folds of the woman’s cloak, a thick, soft merino, obviously of the highest quality. Peering more closely, he plucked a few strands of a lighter coarse thread that were stuck to the fabric and slid them into his waistcoat pocket. Later he would have a look around and try to match the threads with something in the vicinity.
“What on earth was she doing roaming the streets?” he wondered aloud. “She must have been on her way to or from the Society, but why would a lady be out on her own in such weather? Now were she a barrow woman or a serving lass, I could fathom it.”
“Odd, wouldn’t you say, sir?” said Button. “Mr. Wood says as Miss Tyrone’s coachman always collected her at dusk. Seems last night she wasn’t here, so the coachman drove home, thinking perhaps she’d gone early. Then she turns up this morning.”
“She been robbed?”
“I’d say so, sir. No wipe in her pocket, no gloves nor reticule neither. And the curate says as she were wont to wear a fine gold cross round her neck, and, as you see, it’s not there now. Of course, she may have had other valuables on her as well.”
Chase stood up. “I’ll speak to Wood once I’ve finished here. Have your man keep this area clear for a few moments more.” Scanning the spectators automatically, Chase noted that the journalist Fred Gander was present. A small, sharp ferret man, Gander stood next to an enormous woman with two children clinging to her skirts. Elbowing the woman out of the way, he minced toward the curb where he waved his ink-stained fingers at Chase and held his notebook poised.
“Seems rather unorthodox to deposit one’s victim in the center of the road,” Chase said, louder than before.
“It is at that,” replied Button. “Witnesses?”
“One woman has come forward to say as she spied a hackney coach strike the victim, but she wasn’t close enough to see much.” “And I’ll wager she describes everyone from the devil to the Prince Regent himself driving the thing!”
There was scattered laughter from the crowd while Gander scribbled furiously.
Chase turned back to the constable and pointed to the marks visible on the paving stones. “See here, Button. Observe these horse and carriage tracks. It looks as if she were dragged along here after being struck by the horses and caught by the wheels. The impact probably snapped her neck.”
“But was she quite dead before it struck, sir? I’d hate to think of her lying in the cold suffering all to herself.” Button lifted somber eyes from the ground.
Meeting his gaze, Chase lowered his voice. “’Tis hard to say. It depends on whether or not the throttling killed her first.” He paused. “I’ll see the Watch now.”
“He’s here, sir.” Button indicated a frail, stooped old man sitting on a low wall nearby, a stave and grease-encrusted lantern at his feet.
The old man approached, his rheumy eyes glaring at Chase. “Get on with it. I need my sleep and can’t afford to waste time standing here freezing my arse.”
Button was embarrassed. “Show some respect, Old Tom. This gent’s from Bow Street.”
Tom merely snorted, but Chase addressed the old man politely: “Were your rounds regular last night, Tom? Any business delay you?” He purposely gave the old man an out in case he had been sleeping in his box, tippling, or talking to the dollymops, all activities popularly attributed to the Watch.
“Like clockwork! Every half hour in the rain and all.”
“Did you notice anything out of the common? Any strangers? Any disturbances?”
“No more ’n usual.” He started to shuffle away, but Chase waved him back.
“You see, Tom, the attack must have occurred after the rain stopped as the loose dirt on the front of the victim’s cloak has not been washed away. Nor is her clothing as damp as one might expect. When did the rain end, do you recall?”
“After three, I reckon.”
“Might you have overlooked her on your circuits? Oh, not through lack of diligence,” he put in hastily as Old Tom’s hackles rose. “In the dark.”
“Couldn’t say.” He folded his lips together as if determined to add nothing more.
Button broke in. “Verifying the gates are fast is part of Tom’s duty, sir. He’d have seen her, that’s certain.” He pointed to a narrow iron gate set in the churchyard wall.
“What’s on the other side of that wall?” asked Chase.
“Just the garden, sir, and the Society’s buildings beyond. The women use this gate, I believe, as it’s most convenient.”
“What about the other gates? Are they kept locked as well?” “Yes, sir. I did ask the curate, and he unfastened them as usual this morning.”
After regarding him frowningly a moment, Chase looked back at the Watch. “One more question before you seek your bed, Tom. What time did Mr. Wood summon you?”
“He called to me as I was making my six o’clock rounds. So I springs my rattle and folk come running. Logical, ain’t it?” He brandished the rattle in Chase’s face.
Moving aside, Chase nodded in dismissal. “That’s all for now.” The old man snorted again and hobbled away through the muck, his tracks joining the welter of smudged markings in the street.
“The horse and wheel traces are still plain,” Chase remarked, “but as for footprints, I’d swear a herd of bullocks plowed through here. We won’t distinguish hers in all this.”
“Perhaps we rubbed ’em out, not looking where we were stepping.” The color came up under Button’s round cheeks.
Chase moved toward the curb with his head down. “Clear these people away, Constable.”
“You heard him, Pinch,” Button called to a man at the front. “And you too, Meg.” He and the other parish officer moved through the throng, addressing people by name, urging them to disperse. The fat lady made a face at Button and turned to go, a child draped over each massive arm. Gander retreated to the doorway of the bakery across the way.
Returning to the dead woman, Chase studied her once more. This time he felt a heavy regret he knew would linger rather like the perpetual ache in his knee.
Constance Tyrone had rich, yet delicate lips, a high forehead, and gray eyes, death clouded. The curve of her profile was lovely. He stooped to pick up one white hand stiff with rigor. Chase replaced it gently, his gaze traveling lower.
On her right foot she wore a pale blue slipper tied at the ankle. A white satin rosette adorned the toe. Strange footwear for walking on a wet night, no hat in evidence either. And where was the other slipper? Her left foot was covered in just a ripped stocking. He motioned to Button.
“She’s missing a shoe. Have a look around and see if you can spot it.”
“Must have flown off when she was struck.” “Flown where? Surely no farther than we can see.” The constable looked helpless.
Chase fingered the slipper. “And I’ve a mystery for you, Button. Do you suppose she was a witch?” He smiled at the constable’s blank amazement. “No muck on the sole, man. See for yourself. Unless she was in the habit of flying through the streets of London, I cannot think how she got here. She assuredly did not walk.”