The Droitwich Deceivers

The Droitwich Deceivers

A VICTORIAN CRIME STORY

Kerry Tombs

For Joan – with love, for all her help and
encouragement over the years.

S
he stood on the cold, empty platform, holding the child of her joy and sin close to her shaking body, watching the train disappearing from view, through wet sorrowful eyes, and wondering how the pattern of her life had bought her to this unwelcoming place.

Drawing the shawl ever closer round the baby to protect the infant from the bitter wind, she began to walk quickly towards the waiting-room at the end of the platform, and pushed open the creaking door.

Relieved to discover that the room was empty of passengers, she sought the end of the old wooden bench near the grate which contained the burnt out remains of yesterday’s fire, and placed the brown parcel on the seat beside her, before looking down into the face of her sleeping child – the child she had never thought possible, the child who had arrived so unexpectedly, the child who had been scorned by others, and who now lay peacefully in her arms.

Presently she turned her attention to the large clock which adorned one of the white washed-walls of the room, and for the next few minutes anxiously watched as the large hand
moved on steadily. She wished with all her heart that she could halt its progress, but knew that now the decision had been made she could do little to alter that which had been set in motion.

As the hand reached the end of the hour, she grew restless and concerned. She had half expected the couple to meet her upon her arrival, then, once the train had arrived and departed, depositing and collecting no one, she had told herself that perhaps she had failed to comprehend the instructions within the letter: that the hour had been incorrect, or that she had mistaken the day. Now as the hand crept forwards into its next circle of time, she resolved to leave at the completed quarter, to give up her resolution and return once more to the scene of her disgrace.

Suddenly the door opened and a short, grey-haired woman, wearing a black bonnet and long coat stood on the threshold. ‘You must be Alice?’ she said smiling.

She had expected someone different, had assumed that the woman would be younger, and that her husband would be with her. ‘Yes,’ was all the young woman could reply.

‘I am sorry I was delayed, my dear.’

‘I thought your husband—’

‘Detained on business in the city.’

She turned away from the new arrival and looked down at her baby.

‘And is this your child?’ asked the woman in a soft almost musical tone of voice, and smiled again as she seated herself beside her. ‘What is her name, my dear?’

‘Lily,’ she answered in a voice that seemed like a distant forced whisper to its owner.

‘Lily. What a pretty name! You would not object if we added Ann to her name, in memory of my late daughter, Clarisa Ann. There is hardly a day goes by when we do not think of
her, the poor child. My husband and I would so like that, if we could call her Lily Ann,’ said the woman sniffing, and bringing a handkerchief quickly to her eyes.

‘Lily. That is her name,’ Alice replied protectively drawing the child towards her.

‘Of course my dear. I understand. May I hold the child?’

Alice looked into the woman’s face unsure whether she would find kindness there amidst the well worn features and tired eyes.

‘May I?’ repeated the woman, in a firmer tone of voice.

‘I should want to know that she be taken well care of.’

‘And so she shall, my dear,’ replied the other reassuringly. ‘As I said in my letter, my husband and I are so distraught by our loss. We only require some companionship in our old age. That is all we seek. We know that our lovely, sweet innocent daughter can never be given back to us, but the good Lord has sent you to us, in our hour of need. God be praised! Your child – Lily Ann – will want for nothing, I can assure you. My husband is an important man in the city and we live in a pretty, neat little house in Cheltenham, with two servants to attend to our every need.’

‘Two servants?’ she looked up, her eyes widening at the thought.

‘Why yes. Mr Huddlestone would not have it any other way. We have all the comforts of a good Christian life. Upon my return today, I will hire a nurse to care for Lily Ann, and when she is older I will engage a private tutor to teach her to read and write and instruct her in the best of manners.’

‘A tutor!’ Alice exclaimed, almost unable to accept what she was being told by this strange woman.

‘Your child will want for nothing when she is with us. You can rest assured that we will bring her up as if she were our own.’

‘You are so very kind.’

‘No, it is you who is kind, my dear. Why I said to Mr Huddlestone only yesterday that if we could bring a little Christian happiness into this ungrateful, sinful world, then our lives would not have been in vain. I believe that we have all been placed on this earth to fulfil God’s purpose. May I?’ smiled the woman reaching out to receive the child. ‘Why, what lovely features she has. She is not unlike our dear Clarisa Ann in that respect.’

‘Please let me have her back,’ Alice pleaded, suddenly realizing that she had given away that which she valued above all other. ‘Give me back my daughter!’

‘Now then my dear, don’t you go fretting and upsetting yourself. That will do neither you nor the baby any good. We mean her no harm, you know that.’

‘But she is my daughter!’

‘And what can you do for her, my dear, a poor servant girl like you? You will be fortunate indeed to find another position in your circumstances. No one wants an unmarried mother with a young child, these days. People have to be so careful; they cannot afford the disgrace. There is always the workhouse – but what start in life is that for the child? Such cold, unfeeling places. She would be fortunate indeed to survive the first year. I suppose the father does not want to do anything for you both? No, I thought not. They never do,’ reprimanded the woman, shaking her head from side to side.

‘No,’ was all she could reply, and as she turned away tears again began to come to her eyes.

‘You know that little Lily Ann will be better cared for with me and my husband. We can give her so much. But of course if you would rather bring up the child yourself?’

‘No. I cannot.’

‘You are doing the correct thing, my dear. The good Lord
will look down upon you in future years and will bless you for your charity in giving Lily Ann this opportunity to better herself. You could not deny her that, my dear, could you?’

‘No,’ she sobbed.

‘Good, then that is all decided upon. I think I hear my train drawing into the station,’ announced the woman rising suddenly her the seat, whilst cradling the child in her arms. ‘Now my dear, I don’t like to mention it, but there is the question of a certain …’ her voice trailed away.

‘I’m sorry,’ said the young mother reaching into her pocket, from which she withdrew a crumpled envelope.

‘Just to cover our initial expenses, as agreed. Five pounds, my dear?’

‘It is all I have,’ Alice replied looking up into the woman’s eyes as she passed over the envelope.

‘You must look upon it as investment for your baby, my dear. Believe me I would not ask for anything, but Mr Huddlestone is quite particular in these matters,’ said the woman adopting a firmer tone as she pushed the envelope into her coat pocket. ‘And that must be the parcel?’

She said nothing as the woman reached out for the dirty brown package.

‘A few things for the baby, no doubt as we suggested – just until we can purchase some new garments for Lily Ann, you understand. Now my dear, I do believe my train has arrived.’

‘Please no!’ she called out, quickly rising from the seat.

‘Now then my dear, it is best if you stay here. It won’t do the child any good if she wakes up now and sees you crying like that, it will only cause her more distress, and we don’t want that do we?’

‘No, I suppose not.’

‘You just sit there for a few minutes. You know it is the right thing.’

‘Can I see her?’ she pleaded. ‘Can I come and see her sometimes?’

‘Of course you can, my dear. I believe you have my address. We reside at Number 22, Suffolk Square, Cheltenham. Do you know the town?’

‘I have never visited there.’

‘Suffolk Square is in the most fashionable part of Cheltenham, near Montpellier. Mr Huddlestone would not wish to associate himself with any less desirable quarter of the town, I can assure you. You would be most welcome to call upon us, shall we say in about six months?’

‘That seems so long time,’ she said through her tears.

‘I think it would be unsettling for the child if you were to come sooner. We must allow the infant to become familiar with her new life. As a mother I am sure you understand that. Now we must go, before the train departs without us. It would never do if we were late returning. Mr Huddlestone would be so worried.’

‘Please, may I look at my child one more—’ she pleaded, but before she could complete her request, the woman had stepped out onto the platform, closing the door quickly behind her.

‘No. No!’ Alice cried out, throwing herself down on the bench, and covering her face with her hands as her body shook uncontrollably.

Through her tears she became aware of a whistle being blown and then the sound of the train commencing its slow exit from the station. ‘Oh no!’ she exclaimed, rushing towards the door.

‘I’m afraid you’ve missed the 3.30, miss,’ said the large, red-faced railway porter entering the room and blocking her way. ‘Next train won’t be for another two hours. Are you all right, miss?’

‘The train. You have to stop the train,’ she said pushing past the man and running out onto the platform.

‘I can’t do that, miss. Once the train has begun its journey it is too late,’ replied the man following on behind. ‘If you don’t mind my saying so, you don’t look very well, miss. Why don’t you sit down for a minute, while I calls you a cab.’

But she did not hear his words, for as the smoke cleared from the station and the train disappeared from view down the track, the awful realization of what had just taken place suddenly swept over her and, covering her wet face with her trembling hands, she sank to her knees in despair.

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