Authors: Lynn Shepherd
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Literary, #Mystery & Detective, #Traditional British
ALSO BY LYNN SHEPHERD
Murder at Mansfield Park
The Solitary House
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
A Bantam Dell eBook Edition
The Solitary House
copyright © 2012 by Lynn Shepherd
was first published in monthly parts from March 1852 to September 1853 and appeared in volume form late in 1853. This edition contains the author’s final revisions as incorporated into the Charles Dickens Edition of 1868.
The Woman in White
was first published in 1860.
All Rights Reserved.
Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Delacorte Press is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc., and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
Originally published in the United Kingdom by Corsair, an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd. as
Jacket design: Laura Klynstra
Jacket photo: Trevillion/ © Tim Daniels
lately begun, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as in a Flanders field, and almost as little hope, at least for some. It is the greatest city in the world—quite possibly the greatest ever known—but on this dark early-winter day in 1850 you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve been transported, on a sudden, to a circle of hell even the devil has given up for lost. If a single man can ever be said to stand for a city, then it is this city, in this year, and the name of that man is Charles Dickens. But if that name conjures up colour and carol singers and jolly old gentlemen, think again. These streets are no cause for comedy, and know no tones but grim and grey. More than two million souls, and as many as a third of them sunk in a permanent and repellent destitution that will turn your stomach long before it touches your heart. Night and day London moves and sweats and bawls, as riddled with life as a corpse with maggots.
From where we stand, the air is so deadened with a greasy yellow fog that you can barely see three paces ahead, and risk stumbling in
the street over milk-cans, shattered bottles, and what look at first like rat-ridden heaps of rags, until they stare back at you with gin-hollowed eyes, and hold out their blackened hands for hard cash. The shops are lit two hours before their time, but the gas gutters, and the windows are sallow and unappealing, the merchandise filmed with the same sticky brindling of soot that will coat your clothes and line your lungs by the time we’re done.
But enough. This is not what you came here for. Muffle your face, if you can, against the stink of human and animal filth, and try not to look too closely at what it is that’s caking your boots, and sucking at your tread. And keep your pocket-book close as we go—this part of town is as silent with thieves, as it is strident with drunks. We have a way to go yet and the day is darkening. We must find him soon, or risk losing him altogether.
The Young Man
HE YOUNG MAN
at the desk puts down his pen and sits back in his chair. The fog has been thickening all afternoon, and whatever sun might once have shone is now sinking fast. The window before him is as blank as if it has been papered over. For all he can see outside, the room might give on the flat expanses of the Essex marshes, or command the ancient forests of the Kentish heights. Or it might—as indeed it is—be on the first floor of a London lodging-house, in a narrow street not far from the British Museum. That fact is significant in itself, as we shall see, and it is not necessary to be a detective (as this young man is) to make a number of other useful deductions about the character of the person who inhabits this space. He is a single man, this Charles Maddox, since the bed is narrow, the room small, and neither is very clean. He is careless of his appearance, to judge by the waistcoat hanging on the wardrobe door and the tangle of shirts spilling from the chest, but there are other things he does care about, for a large black cat has appropriated the best and warmest chair, which looks to have been placed next to the fire for precisely that purpose. He is a sentimental young man, then, but more
than anything else he is a curious one. For by his possessions shall ye know him, and this room is a mirror of Charles Maddox’s mind. He has little interest in languages, so has never come across the word
, but he has created one nevertheless—a small but perfect ‘cabinet of wonders’. Every level surface carries its prize—mantelpiece, bookcase, desk, even the wash-stand. An ostrich egg, and a piece of pale grey stone, slightly granular to the touch, imprinted with the whorl of a perfect ammonite; the blank face of an African mask, bearded with woven fibre, and next to it something black and shrivelled and eyeless that looks disconcertingly like a human head; a wooden box of old coins, and a blue jar filled with shells and pieces of coral; a case of stuffed birds feathered in primary colours that cannot be native to these drab shores; and a scimitar blade with a worn and battered handle that clearly once boasted jewels. There are maps, and prints, and charts of the voyages of the great explorers. And one whole wall is lined with bookshelves, many not quite straight, so that the volumes lean against the slope like dinghies in a wind. We are beginning to form a picture of this young man, but before you smile indulgently at the hopeless clutter, and dismiss him as a mere
, remember that this is the age of the gifted amateur. Remember too, that in 1850 it is still possible—just—for an intelligent man to span the sciences and still attain a respectable proficiency in them all. If, of course, he has money enough, and time. If, in short, he is a gentleman. It is the right question to ask about Charles Maddox, but it does not come with an easy answer.
Nor, it appears, does the task he is presently embarked upon. There is nothing scientific about this, it seems. He stirs, then sighs. London is full of noises, but today even the barrel-organ on the corner of the street is stifled and indistinct, as if being played underwater. It’s hardly the afternoon for such an unpromising task, but it can be
postponed no longer. He picks up his pen with renewed determination, and begins again. So engrossed is he—so intent on finding words that will keep hope in check but keep it, nonetheless, alive—that he does not hear the knock at the door the first time it comes. Nor the second. It is only when a handful of grit patters against the glass that Charles pushes back his chair and goes to the window. He can barely make out the features of the man standing on the steps, but he does not need to know the name, to know the uniform. He pulls up the sash.
“What is it?” he calls, frowning. What business has Bow Street here?
The man steps back and looks up, and Charles finds he recognises him after all.
“Batten—is that you? What do you want?”
“Message for you, Mr Maddox. From Inspector Field.”
“Wait there—I’m coming down.”
The message, when Charles gets it, is no more than two scrawled lines, but such brevity was only to be expected from such a man, and in such circumstances.
“The Inspector thought you’d like to see for y’self, sir,” says Batten, stamping his feet against the cold, his breath coming in gusts and merging into the fog. “Before we do the necessary. Seeing as you’re taking such an interest in the Chadwick case.”
“Tell Inspector Field that I am indebted to him. I will be there directly.”
“You know where it is—Tom-All-Alone’s? I’d take you m’self, only I’m on my way home and it’s the opposite way.”
“Don’t worry—I’ll find it.”
Charles gives the man a shilling for his trouble, and returns to his room for his coat and muffler. The former is over the back of the chair, the latter—it turns out—under the cat. There is the customary tussle, which ends in its customary way, and when Charles leaves the house ten minutes later the muffler remains behind. There is probably
nothing for it but to buy another one; when he can afford it. He turns his collar up against the chill, and disappears from sight into the coaly fog.
There’s no lamp at the corner of the street, just the little charcoal-furnace of the chestnut-seller. It throws a red glow up at her face, and onto the drawn features of four dirty little children clustered around her skirts. Not for the first time, the woman has a swollen black bruise around one eye. As he steps off the kerb, Charles only just avoids being trampled under an omnibus heaving with people that veers huge out of the dense brown haze into the path of an unlit brewer’s dray. He springs back in time, but not fast enough to avoid a spatter of wet dung from hip to knee. It’s not an auspicious start, and he hurls a few well-honed insults at both ’bus driver and crossing-sweeper before dodging through the traffic to the other side and heading south down an almost deserted Tottenham Court Road. No street-sellers tonight, and the only shop still open is Hine the butcher, who runs no risk of thieving raids in the lurid glare of his dozen jets of gas. A couple of old tramps are warming their faces against the glass, but paying customers are sparse. The afternoon seems suspended between day and dark, and the circles of milky light cast by the gas-lamps dispel the gloom no more than a few feet around. A gaggle of raggedly link-boys follow him hopefully for a while, tugging at his coat-tails and offering him their torches,
“Light you home for sixpence!” “Darn’t listen to ’im—I’ll do it for a joey—whatcha say, mister? Can’t say fairer than that.”
Charles eventually shakes them off—literally, in one case—and smiles to himself when one lad calls after him asking if he can see in the dark,
“ ’cause yer going to need’ta.”
Even in daylight, the city changes character every dozen yards. A fog like this plays tricks with the senses, blanking out familiar landmarks and shrinking distances to no farther than the eye can see. Having patrolled these streets for the best part of a year, Charles should know them, if anyone does, but there is something else at work here—an
ability he has to render the map in his head to the ground under his feet, which explains the assurance of his step. A modern neurologist would say he had unusually well-developed spatial cognition combined with almost photographic memory function. Charles has more than a passing interest in the new advances in daguerreotyping, so he might well understand the meaning of those last words even if not the science behind them, but he would most certainly smile at the pretension. As far as he’s concerned, he’s been doing this since he was a little boy, and thinks of it—in so far as he thinks of it at all—as little more than a lucky and very useful knack.