Read Terror by Gaslight Online

Authors: Edward Taylor

Terror by Gaslight

T
HE BANGING ON
the garden door started just after ten o’clock. Irregular, sometimes frantic, sometimes feeble, it resonated through the house, somehow amplified by the dark and the absence of any other sound, save the hoot of a distant owl somewhere out on the Heath.

After two minutes the drawing-room door opened and two women entered nervously, both in night attire and dressing gowns. They carried hastily lit oil lamps, for the gaslights on the drawing-room walls had been put out half an hour ago, when the Austin sisters retired to their rooms for the night.

As Harriet and Mrs Butters came in, the banging on the door was beginning to weaken and now they could hear moaning.

‘Lord help us!’ cried the terrified housekeeper. ‘It sounds like the devil himself!’

Harriet pulled back the curtain on one of the windows and tried to see who or what was outside the door but it was pitch dark and the angle was wrong.

Now Clare entered the room, wearing her day clothes and displaying annoyance rather than terror. She had a strength about her that comforted Mrs Butters.

‘Oh, Miss Clare!’ she pleaded. ‘What are we to do?’

‘Make sure the doors and windows are bolted as well as
locked,’ said Clare briskly. ‘Then we must wait and watch until this nuisance goes away.’

The banging seemed to increase again, and the moaning became louder and more piteous.

‘No, Clare, we must help,’ insisted Harriet. ‘Someone is in dreadful pain.’

‘Father told us never to open the door at night. Especially when he’s not here.’

‘But we cannot ignore those cries! There must have been an awful accident!’

‘It might be a trick,’ said Clare. ‘Some drunken rogue bent on mischief. It could even be the Heath Maniac!’

This thought doubled the housekeeper’s fears. ‘Don’t open the door, Miss Harriet!’ she wailed. ‘He’s likely out for blood!’

‘But there are three of us! We can defend each other! Come, Clare, a fellow human being is in distress!’

Clare was persuaded. ‘Very well, sister, if you are so determined. But let us at least find weapons, in case it is a trick.’

‘No, no, Miss Harriet,’ the older woman begged again.

‘Don’t worry, Mrs Butters,’ Harriet said. ‘The chain is on the door, it will open only a few inches. If I see danger, I shall slam it shut! And my sister is right, we must arm ourselves.’

Harriet took a heavy statuette from the mantelpiece and then went to the garden door. As she slid two bolts back and turned the key in the lock, Clare picked up the poker from the fireplace.

The banging and the moaning petered out as Harriet opened the door the short distance the chain allowed. She peered through the gap and then reacted with alarm and amazement.

‘Great heavens!’ she cried. ‘It’s Robert! Robert! What’s happened to you? Come in! Come in!’

She unhooked the chain and pulled the door open, and the women saw a man standing unsteadily on the threshold,
his eyes glazed, his face contorted with pain and his clothing soaked in blood.

The man took one small shambling step inside, then fell forward face down on the carpet. Harriet knelt down beside him and tried to turn him, so that she could cradle his head in her lap.

But as she did so, Robert Kemp let out one final, awful, choking groan and lay still.

Tears flowed down Harriet’s cheeks as she looked up at the other women. ‘I think he must be badly hurt,’ she sobbed.

Clare’s voice was calm as she looked down and said, ‘I think he’s dead.’

H
ILLSIDE WAS ONE
of a row of houses on the Highgate Road and though basically a modest middle-class dwelling it had one priceless asset. The front of the house was mundane, separated from the street only by a thin strip of grass and paving stones. But at the back was something special.

The rear of Hillside faced south and had a magnificent view across Hampstead Heath, with the ground sloping gently down towards the City and the Thames. In the latter years of Queen Victoria’s reign, the skyline was not yet cluttered with high buildings, and St Paul’s Cathedral stood out as a thing of immense beauty, solitary and imposing. On a clear day, one could see across the river to the Crystal Palace and sometimes even to the North Downs far beyond.

The architect had made the most of all this, creating a long drawing room with wide windows. Between the windows a door opened on to the well-kept garden, and then the acres of grassland, woods and ponds that made up the Heath.

It was through this garden door that the mortally wounded Robert Kemp had stumbled last night. Then the scene had been all darkness and horror. This morning everything was bathed in glorious sunshine.

It would have dazzled Mrs Butters, as she went about her work, had she not drawn a curtain across one of the
windows. She did not want to be dazzled this morning. She had scarcely slept and was polishing the furniture without much vigour.

On the other hand, when Meredith Austin came in, he was showing all his usual pent-up energy. A dapper man in his early fifties, he wore a sober city suit and an expression of disapproval. His shoes were highly polished, and his neat black hair seemed to be glued in place. He was not pleased to see his housekeeper’s sluggish behaviour, and he spoke brusquely.

‘Have the police gone?’

‘Yes, sir. The inspector said they’d be back tomorrow. They want to speak to Miss Harriet.’

Austin’s disapproval mounted. ‘Do they indeed? We’ll see about that.’

‘What a terrible thing, sir! I don’t know whether I’m coming or going this morning.’

‘Well, kindly ascertain your precise direction quickly, Mrs Butters. We should all have grown used to horrors after the events of the last few months.’

‘The murders on the Heath were bad enough, sir. But on our own doorstep! And all that blood! I’ve had the mat soaking in the kitchen copper all morning. I doubt if the stain will ever come out. We may need to have a new one.’

‘Certainly not! I do not intend to waste money on new mats. You must dye the old one to match the stain.’

‘Very well, sir, I’ll do the best I can,’ sighed Mrs Butters.

‘Never mind your best, Mrs Butters, just get it done,’ was Austin’s harsh response.

A childhood of genteel poverty had left its mark on Meredith Austin. The sole companion of an ailing mother, living on a widow’s pension, he had learned the value of money. It had been a small pension, earned by his father’s lifelong barren years as a junior bank employee, and Austin
had seen too much of it spent on keeping up appearances, rather than more practical needs. It was a mistake he didn’t intend to make. He wanted respectability, of course, but respectability with economy.

He went to his desk and sat down. He kept his desk in the drawing room, to get the benefit of the view. But he was in no mood to appreciate that this morning. He quickly noticed shortcomings.

‘Mrs Butters, you have not tidied my desk this morning,’ he said sharply. ‘Nor have you adjusted my calendar.’

Mrs Butters hurried to remedy the omissions. ‘I’m sorry, sir. All these shocking goings-on, it’s enough to drive a body out of her wits!’

Prominent on Austin’s desk was a small wooden frame, in which cards displayed the date. Mrs Butters moved the top two cards to the back, to show Monday, 26 November. Then she busied herself lining up pens and pencils, and removing the used sheet from the blotting pad, chattering as she worked.

‘I hope they won’t pester Miss Harriet, sir. She’s taken it very badly – as you’d expect, the young man being her fiancé.’

Austin reacted angrily. ‘The young man was not her fiancé! I had given no consent for an engagement!’

‘No, sir. Sorry, sir.’

‘Ask Miss Harriet to come here at once!’

‘She’s resting in her room, sir. She was crying all night.’

Austin glowered at the woman. ‘Tell Miss Harriet to attend me immediately, Mrs Butters!’

‘Yes, sir.’ The housekeeper put a final pen in place and scuttled off to obey his order.

Left alone, Austin thought intently for a moment, and then began writing on a blank sheet of paper. After completing several lines, he stopped to think again. Then he screwed up the paper and threw it into his wastepaper basket.

After further thought, he retrieved it from the basket and tore it into small pieces, which he put in his coat pocket. This barren activity completed, Austin began pacing back and forth between his desk and the door. His eyes lit on two ornamental Indian daggers fixed horizontally on the wall, one above the other. They seemed to have got out of alignment. He went over and took down the upper dagger, which he studied thoughtfully, before replacing it more neatly on the wall.

As he finished this task, the drawing-room door opened and in came Harriet, pale but composed, as if she had no more tears to shed. She was carrying a small brown cat in one hand, and stroking it gently with the other. Her voice was quiet. ‘You wished to see me, Father?’

‘Yes. You have hidden away long enough. And please do not bring that beast in here. I require your undivided attention.’

‘Oh. Very well,’ said Harriet. ‘Ella, you must go back to our room.’ She opened the door, put the cat carefully down outside, and closed it again. Then she turned to face her father.

Austin addressed his daughter sternly. ‘Harriet, there are matters we have to discuss. Something I have to ask you.’

‘But Dr Frankel said I was not to answer questions today.’

‘Dr Frankel said that to deter the police. It is essential that you and I confer before you talk to them. Sit down. Will you take a glass of Madeira?’

‘Yes, please. I am still feeling a little weak.’

As Harriet sat down, Austin filled two small glasses from a decanter and handed one of them to his daughter. Then he confronted her.

‘Harriet, why was Robert Kemp visiting this house at ten o’clock last night?’

‘We do not know that he intended to visit us. He was attacked on the Heath outside. Naturally, he would come to our door for help.’

‘Do not be devious, child. Kemp’s home is … was … in Gospel Oak. He would not be in this area without a purpose. And I believe he has crossed the Heath to impose himself on you several times before.’

‘He came first to see you, Father.’

‘He presented himself to me once in a proper manner and asked permission to speak to you. After I refused, he made clandestine visits, did he not?’

Harriet took a sip of her wine and looked down at her lap.

‘Answer me, miss!’ Austin thundered. ‘Did Kemp call here on several occasions? Answer me! At once!’

‘He called three times.’

‘On Sunday nights, when I am known to be at my club!’

‘Sunday night is the only one possible for him. He has classes on other evenings.’

‘He
had
classes. Master Kemp’s attempts at counter-jumping are now at an end.’

Austin’s brutality had found another reservoir of tears and ruptured it. They flowed down Harriet’s cheeks in great translucent drops. Her father’s attitude softened; he went to her side and put his hand on her shoulder.

‘I am sorry to speak harshly, my dear,’ he said. ‘I much regret the grief that has been caused to you. Though I suspect that Robert Kemp was always destined to bring you grief in one way or another.’

‘But why, Father? Why? He was kind and courteous. He shared my love of reading. He came here to lend me books, or borrow mine.’

Austin scowled. ‘Romantic novellas! Trash!’

Harriet became more spirited. ‘No, important books! Robert was interested in so many things – in travel, in art, in ideas! He was gentle and caring. Yet the first time you met him, you made it plain you disliked him.’

‘I was perfectly civil. If I was somewhat cold, it was
because I am well able to recognize a fortune-hunter when I see one.’

‘Fortune? What fortune? He cannot have supposed that I am rich!’

‘You are not rich at present. Though your station in life would always exceed Robert Kemp’s. But you are aware that you may inherit wealth in due course. You may have been unwise enough to mention that.’

‘I did no such thing! You know I do not understand these matters.’

‘Indeed. But I am sure that Master Kemp did.’

‘We never discussed such things. And our circumstances here would not suggest that we are rich.’ Austin’s frugality was evident throughout his home. All was neat and adequate, but there was no luxury.

‘Not to others of our class, perhaps. But to a clerk, living in diggings, you would seem a pretty catch. Hillside is not a mansion but it is very far from poverty.’

‘This house is yours, not mine.’

‘One day it may pass to you or Clare. And Kemp must have known of my prosperous business. He was a fortune-hunter, my child. However, he is gone, and I would not have wished such a fate on him.’

Harriet dried her cheeks with a small pink handkerchief, and drank a little more of her wine. There was no point in arguing further. Instead, she sighed and said, ‘I still cannot believe it. He was so alive. So strong.’

‘Stronger men than he have fallen prey to the Heath Maniac. What we must now discuss is what you will tell the police.’

Harriet was surprised. ‘Why, surely I tell them the truth.’

‘The truth, yes. But not the whole truth.’

‘You would have me withhold information?’

‘Certainly. You will tell them how he banged on our door in
the night, and how he fell dead when you let him in. You will tell them that he was merely a family acquaintance, whom you met in my company. They must infer that Robert Kemp came to us only because he was wounded, and this was the nearest refuge. You will not tell them of his previous visits, when I was out. There must be no hint of a liaison between you.’

‘But why should I conceal our friendship?’

‘Because of the family’s reputation. The newspapers get their stories from the police. And a man in my position cannot afford any sort of scandal.’

‘There is no scandal. Robert was a dear friend. His visits here were innocent.’

‘Indeed? I have extracted from your sister the admission that you were in here alone with him. Clare was scribbling in her room, as usual. And Mrs Butters was in bed.’

‘We were alone with our books. Robert would never …’

‘Silence!’ Austin was now exasperated. ‘I don’t wish to discuss this further. You will tell the police what I have instructed you to tell them, and no more. Now, that’s the end of it. Go to your room and rest. Mrs Butters will bring your luncheon to you there.’

Harriet seemed about to protest. ‘Father …’

Austin was having none of it. ‘Go!’ he bellowed, and then added more quietly, ‘We shall talk again this evening.’

Harriet hesitated briefly. Then she rose and left the room, closing the door behind her.

Her father picked up a small hand-bell from his desk, opened the door again, shook the bell vigorously, and called for his housekeeper.

He had scarcely time to replace the bell on his desk before Mrs Butters appeared, quietly awaiting orders. Perhaps she had not strayed far from the door during her employer’s confrontation with his daughter.

‘Mrs Butters,’ said Austin. ‘I now find I have to make some notes before I finally get away to the City. This infernal business has totally disrupted my timetable.’

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ said the housekeeper humbly.

‘Don’t talk nonsense, woman! This is one fiasco that cannot be blamed on your incompetence. The point is, when I eventually get there I shall have no time to go for lunch at the chop-house. Prepare a packet of sandwiches I can take with me and eat at my office.’

‘Very good, sir. I’m afraid the ham was finished on Saturday. Will cheese do?’

‘It seems it will have to.’

‘There’s a good piece of Cheddar, sir, and a nice ripe Stilt—’

Her employer cut her short. ‘Yes, yes, anything. I’m a busy man. I can’t waste time discussing catering trivia!’ And then, after a moment, he added, ‘Just make sure there’s a good pickle. The strong, not the sweet. Put in some slices of cucumber. And a small bottle of pale ale. And some sweetmeats for the digestion.’

 

Clare Austin closed the front gate behind her, turned right, and walked briskly eastward along the Highgate Road.

Five years older than her sister, Clare did not share Harriet’s good looks, partly due to a two-inch horizontal scar on her left cheek. She was used to this being the first thing people registered when they met her. She had seen so many eyes drawn to that side of her face, and then instantly flick away, pretending the scar hadn’t been noticed. There’d been a time when the reaction had hurt her. But that was long gone. Now, as a keen observer of human nature, she found it mildly amusing, a prime example of compulsive behaviour.

But she would never forget the day the wound was inflicted. Nor would she ever forgive the perpetrator. It was
one of the factors that made her more determined, stronger, and more self-possessed than her sibling.

Like all the residents of Hillside, she had lost most of her night’s sleep, and she had then been subjected to an hour of questions from a detective inspector, with a portly police sergeant taking notes. (The ordeal which Harriet had so far been spared on medical grounds.) Clare had remained calm and articulate throughout and, when the inquisition was finished, had felt no inclination to retire to her room and lie down. Her remedy for stress and weariness was not rest, but fresh air and exercise. Besides, she had a mission to complete.

Clutching the precious envelope in her gloved hand, she approached the pillar box on the corner. At this moment a little girl was being lifted up by her mother to put a letter in the slot, an adventure she was clearly enjoying.

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