Authors: Anne Perry
The Cater Street Hangman
in the centre of the withdrawing room, the newspaper in her hand. Her father had been very lax in leaving it on the side table. He disapproved of her reading such things, preferring to tell her such matters of interest as he felt suitable for young ladies to know. And this excluded all scandal, personal or political, all matters of a controversial nature, and naturally all crime of any sort: in fact just about everything that was interesting!
All of which meant that since Charlotte had to obtain her newspapers from the pantry where the butler, Maddock, put them for his own reading before throwing them out, she was always at least a day behind the rest of London.
However, this was today’s paper, 20 April 1881, and the most arresting news was the death the day before of Mr. Disraeli. Her first thought was to wonder how Mr. Gladstone felt. Did he feel any sense of loss? Was a great enemy as much a part of a man’s life as a great friend? Surely it must be. It must be the cross thread in the fabric of emotions.
There were footsteps in the hall and she put the paper away quickly. She had not forgotten her father’s fury when he had found her reading an evening journal three years ago. Of course, then it had been about the libel case between Mr. Whistler and Mr. Ruskin, and that was a little different. But even last year when she had expressed interest in the news of the Zulu War, reported in person by those who had actually been in Africa, he had viewed that with equal disfavour. He had refused even to read them selected pieces such as he considered suitable. In the end it had been Dominic, her sister’s husband, who had regaled her with all he could remember—but always at least one day late.
At the thought of Dominic, Mr. Disraeli and the whole matter of newspapers vanished. From the time Dominic had first presented himself six years ago when Sarah had been only twenty, Charlotte herself seventeen, and Emily only thirteen, she had been fascinated by him. Of course, it was Sarah he had called on; Charlotte was only permitted into the drawing room with her mother so that the occasions might be conducted with all the decorum suitable to a courtship. Dominic had barely seen her, his words polite nothings, his eyes somewhere over her left shoulder, seeing Sarah’s fair hair, her delicately boned face. Charlotte, with her heavy, mahogany-coloured hair that was so difficult to keep tidy, her stronger face, was only an encumbrance to be endured with good manners.
A year later, of course, they had married, and Dominic no longer held quite the same mystery. He no longer moved in the magical world of someone else’s romance. But even with five years of knowledge of each other, of living under the same spacious, well-ordered roof, he still exerted the original charm, the original fascination for her.
That had been his footstep in the hall. She knew it without conscious thought. It was there, part of her life: listening for him, seeing him first in a crowd, knowing where he was in the room, remembering whatever he said, even trivial things.
She had come to terms with it. Dominic had always been out of reach. It was not as if he had ever cared for her, or could have done. She had not expected it. One day perhaps she would meet someone she could like and respect, someone suitable, and Mother would speak with him, see that he was socially and personally acceptable; and of course Father would make the other arrangements, whatever they were, as he had done with Dominic and Sarah, and no doubt would do with Emily and someone, in due course. It was not something she wished to think about, but it remained permanently in the future. The present was Dominic, this house, her parents, Emily and Sarah, and Grandmama; the present was Aunt Susannah coming to tea in two hours’ time and the fact that the footsteps in the hall had gone away again, leaving her free to take another quick look at the newspaper.
Her mother came in a few moments later, so quietly Charlotte did not hear her.
It was too late to hide what she was doing. She lowered the paper and looked into her mother’s brown eyes.
“Yes, Mama.” It was an admission.
“You know how your father feels about your looking at those things.” She glanced at the folded paper in Charlotte’s hand. “I can’t imagine why you want to; there’s very little in them that’s pleasant, and your father will read those things out to us. But if you must look at it for yourself, at least do it discreetly, in Maddock’s pantry, or get Dominic to tell you.”
Charlotte felt the colour flood her face. She looked away. She had had no idea her mother knew about Maddock’s pantry, even less about Dominic! Had Dominic told her? Why should that thought hurt, like a betrayal? That was ridiculous. She could have no secrets with Dominic. What had she let herself imagine?
“Yes, of course, Mama. I’m sorry.” She dropped the paper behind her onto the table. “I shan’t let Papa catch me.”
“If you want to read, why don’t you read books? There’s something of Mr. Dickens’ in the bookcase over there, and I’m sure you haven’t read Mr. Disraeli’s
Funny how people always say they are sure when they mean they are not sure.
“Mr. Disraeli died yesterday,” Charlotte replied. “I wouldn’t enjoy it. Not just at the moment.”
“Mr. Disraeli? Oh dear, I am sorry. I never cared for Mr. Gladstone, but don’t tell your father. He always reminds me of the vicar.”
Charlotte felt disposed to giggle.
“Don’t you like the vicar, Mama?”
Her mother composed herself immediately.
“Yes, of course I do. Now please go and prepare yourself for tea. Have you forgotten Aunt Susannah is coming to call on us this afternoon?”
“But not for an hour and a half, at the soonest,” Charlotte protested.
“Then do some embroidery, or add some more to that painting you were working on yesterday.”
“It didn’t go right—”
“Grammar, Charlotte. It didn’t go
I’m sorry. Perhaps you had better finish the comforters so you can take them to the vicar’s wife tomorrow. I promised we would deliver them.”
“Do you suppose they really comfort the poor?” It was a sincere question.
“I’ve no idea.” Her mother’s face relaxed slightly as the thought occurred to her, obviously for the first time. “I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone really poor. But the vicar assures us they do, and we must presume he knows.”
“Even if we don’t like him very much.”
“Charlotte, please don’t be impertinent.” But there was nothing harsh in her voice. She had been caught in an unintentional truth and she did not resent it. She was annoyed with herself, perhaps, but not with Charlotte.
Obediently, Charlotte left the room to go upstairs. She might as well finish the comforters; it would have to be done sometime.
Tea was served by Dora, the kitchen maid, in the withdrawing room. Tea was the most erratic affair. It was always at four o’clock, and always (when they were home) in this room with its pale green furniture and the big windows onto the lawn, closed now, even though the clear spring sun was slanting onto the grass and the last of the daffodils. It was a small garden, only a few yards of lawn, a patch of flowers, and the single delicate birch tree against the wall. Climbing the old brickwork were the roses Charlotte loved best. The whole summer from June till November was glorious with them, old roses, rambling undisciplined in showers and fronds, shedding carpets of petals.
It was the company that was erratic. Either they called on someone, perching on unfamiliar chairs in some other withdrawing room and making self-conscious conversation, or one of them received callers here. Sarah had young married friends whose conversations were indescribably boring to Charlotte. Emily’s friends were little better; all romantic speculation, fashion, who was, or was about to be, courting whom. Most of Mama’s friends were stiff, a little too consciously righteous, but there were at least two who were given to reminiscences which Charlotte loved to hear—memories of old admirers, perished long since in the Crimea, Sebastopol, Balaclava, and the Charge of the Light Brigade, and then memories of the few who came back. And there were stories told with mixed admiration and disapproval of Florence Nightingale, “so unfeminine, but you have to admire her courage, my dear! Not a lady, but an Englishwoman one might reasonably be proud of!”
And Grandmama’s friends were even more interesting. Not that she liked them, not many of them; they were singularly disagreeable old ladies. But Mrs. Selby was over eighty, and she could remember the news of Trafalgar, and the death of Lord Nelson, black ribbons in the streets, people weeping, black borders on the newspapers; at least she said she could. She spoke frequently of Waterloo, and the Great Duke, the scandals of the Empress Josephine, the return of Napoleon from Elba, and the hundred days. Most of it she herself had overheard in drawing rooms much like this one, perhaps a little more austere, with less furniture, lighter, neoclassic; it was nevertheless fascinating to Charlotte, a reality sharper than this.
But today was 1881, a world away from such things, with Mr. Disraeli dead, gaslights in the streets, women admitted to degrees in London University! The queen was empress of India and the empire itself stretched to every corner of the earth. Wolfe and the Heights of Abraham, Clive and Hastings in India, Livingstone in Africa, and the Zulu War were all history. The prince consort had been dead of typhus twenty years; Gilbert and Sullivan wrote operas like
What would the Emperor Napoleon have made of that?
Today Mrs. Winchester was here to see Mama—which was a bore—and Aunt Susannah was here to see them all, which was excellent. She was Papa’s younger sister; in fact she was only thirty-six, nineteen years younger than her brother and only ten years older than Sarah; she seemed more like a cousin. It was three months since they had seen her, three months too long. She had been away visiting in Yorkshire.
“You must tell me all about it, my dear.” Mrs. Winchester leaned forward fractionally, curiosity burning in her face. “Who exactly are the Willises? I’m sure you must have told me”—sublime assurance that everybody told her everything!—“but I do find these days that my memory is not nearly as good as I should like.” She waited expectantly, eyebrows raised. Susannah was a subject of permanent interest to her; her comings and goings, and above all any hint of a romance, or better still, of scandal. She possessed all the elements necessary. She had been married at twenty-one to a gentleman of good family, and the year after, in 1866, he had been killed in the Hyde Park Riots, leaving her comfortably provided for, in a well-run establishment of her own, still very young and enormously handsome. She had never married again, although no doubt there had been numerous offers. Opinion veered between the conclusion that she was still mourning her husband and, like the queen, could never recover from the grief, to the reverse conclusion that her marriage had been so acutely painful to her that she could not entertain the thought of a second such venture.
Charlotte believed that the truth lay between, that having satisfied the requirements of family in particular and society at large by marrying once, she now had no desire to commit herself again unless it were for genuine affection—which apparently had not yet occurred.
“Mrs. Willis is a cousin, on my mother’s side,” Susannah replied with a slight smile.
“Indeed, of course,” Mrs. Winchester leaned back. “And what does Mr. Willis do, pray? I’m sure I should be most interested to know.”
“He is a clergyman, in a small village,” Susannah answered dutifully, although her eye caught Charlotte’s momentarily in unspoken amusement.
“Oh.” Mrs. Winchester struggled to hide a certain disappointment. “How very nice. I suppose you were able to be of much assistance in the parish? I expect our own dear vicar would be much encouraged to hear of your activities. And poor Mrs. Abernathy. I’m sure it would take her mind off things, to hear about the country, and the poor.”
Charlotte wondered why either the country or the poor should comfort anyone, least of all Mrs. Abernathy.
“Oh, yes,” her mother encouraged. “That would be an excellent idea.”
“You might take her some preserves,” Grandmama added, nodding her head. “Always nice to receive preserves. Shows people care. And people are not as considerate as they used to be, in my young days. Of course, it’s all this violence, all this crime. It’s bound to change people. And such immodesty: women behaving like men, and wanting all sorts of things that aren’t good for them. We’ll have hens crowing in the farm yard next!”
“Poor Mrs. Abernathy,” Mrs. Winchester agreed, shaking her head.
“Has Mrs. Abernathy been ill?” Susannah enquired.
“Of course!” Grandmama said sharply. “What would you expect, child? That’s what I keep saying to Charlotte.” She gave Charlotte a piercing glance. “You and Charlotte are alike, you know!” That was an accusation aimed at Susannah. “I used to blame Caroline for Charlotte.” She dismissed her daughter-in-law with a wave of her fat little hand. “But I suppose I can hardly blame her for you. You must be the fault of the times. Your father was never strict enough with you, but at least you don’t read those dreadful newspapers that come into this house. I had you too late in life. No good comes of it.”
“I don’t think Charlotte reads the newspapers as much as you fear, Mama,” Susannah defended.
“How many times do you require to read a thing before the damage is done?” Grandmama demanded.
“They are all different, Mama.”
“How do you know?” Grandmama was as quick as a terrier.
Susannah kept her composure with only the faintest colour coming to her face.
“They print the news, Mama; the news must be different from day to day.”
“Nonsense! They print crimes and scandals. Sin has not changed since Our Lord permitted it in the Garden of Eden.”
That seemed to close the conversation. There were several minutes’ silence.
“Do tell us, Aunt Susannah,” Sarah began at last, “is the country in Yorkshire very pretty? I have never been there. Perhaps the Willises would permit Dominic and me . . . ” she left the suggestion delicately.