Veronica Well’s Journal, 14 Match 1916 -
Don’t let me go. Don’t let me go, I screamed as I hung suspended above the street. It seemed five floors down to the cobbles below. My feet seeking anything for purchase. My free hand flaying at the air. It was night. The only light, the moon, it seemed huge, much too large, shimmering through the racing clouds as it illuminated the rooftops. The chimney pots bellowing harsh smoke. I was wearing only a frail white nightdress. I looked up in terror. Don’t let go. Don’t let go. I pleaded as she looked down at me – holding me suspended by the wrist. Her fair hair lifted by the wind, fanning about her lovely face. She was beautiful save for her eyes. Pale sapphires. Having become adamantine. Not the voluptuous wickedness that had been watching me as I slept. As I felt the bed linen sliding down from me; her slender fingers ever so slowly pulling upon them. I could move but I didn’t want to. I wanted her to remove the linen. I wanted her to sit beside me, to draw closer. I wanted her to loosen my nightdress. And yet, I felt frightened as she did so, as I looked into her long seductive gaze. I felt the thrilling sensation of my hair being brushed back even as I felt an ever-growing trepidation. Lying so languid in anticipation, I felt her moving closer and closer, leaning over me, her exquisite lips parting. The sensation of her breath upon the sensitive flesh of my throat. The lips sweetly pressing upon the pulse driven my all too excited heart. Flights of angels I don’t think brought me to the rooftop. How or why? I was only there. Dangling. She held me by one hand. The wind in our hair. Bellowing the hem of my nightdress. Don’t let go. I am more than certain that Dr Freud could explain what it all meant, but I rather suspect it was inspired by that lurid cover illustration of ‘Sunday’s’ Illustrated Police News – which I had taken notice of lying upon ‘Sunday’s’ table, upon our furtive entrance to the private club in Fitzrovia – of the lovely somnambulist ingénue, barefoot, her gossamer gown suggestively clinging to her figure so as to depict the night wind of the rooftops as she was about to step off the edge. But rather than walking I was dangling in my sleep.
I am plagued now by visions and dreams. And why not? Am I not held against my will – ever watched by Mr Ferguson and the odious Mr Crump? Though I try to take my mind way from 126 Long Lane to lose myself in reading – I but make it through but several paragraphs to find myself asking, what is it I have just read? I see the words, but they have lost all meaning; and so I have to go back, and read again. Over and over again. Which only adds to my frustrations. My anxieties. My vexation of the situation. Of the circumstances of my own making. Of my ever-growing complicity. If not for Miss Miniver’s marvellous concoction — she had mixed up another glass upon my return from my willing seduction and Pleydell-Smith’s bed, whereupon I put myself away in my bedroom with a book and my conscience. I am resigned to what I have done – lain with him as they desired. And in that I have done so, not out of concern for my well-being – well aware that by their hand the young woman before me found herself butchered – but for my dear sisters. I am now so assuredly ashamed of my self-absorption and spiteful monomania in regards to my selfish desires in having so neglected them, and my brother. Here I sit a Rapunzel locked away in my tower with my sins and regrets. My restless sleep. My nightmares. And I feel so tired today. Struggle against a great lassitude. It is as if I cannot shake the weariness of sleep. I arose in a chill and peered out the window. The morning sun shining upon the remnants of the days’ worth of snow, the barren limbs of the trees standing so stark and forlorn. A stray dark bird hopping upon the glistening crest to suddenly take flight as if it felt my eyes upon it. Everything had a cold clarity to it. I peered downward, but being upon the first floor, the perspective was not of the great height from which I had dangled in my dream. Though I failed to pull back the thin drape too far, as the gleam of the sun upon the crest of the snow was rather painful. I allowed the frail drape to fall and dressed to fret about the bedroom. It was the first day I had awaken without Miss Miniver to play as lady’s maid.
She had left the evening before. When I had gone down to dinner – Mrs Willingham host to Mr Crump, Mr Ferguson and myself – she was not there. No one replied to my enquiry about her. Whatever self-assurance and bit of bravado I had felt earlier from my successful seduction of ‘my assignment’ was quickly shaken by their silent disregard. As if I were now too sullied for their course and hypocritical sensibilities. Or their disdain being perhaps more a reflection of their thought that though I easily enough succumbed, as I entered with my usual grace to take my place at the table, is was too high and mighty to admit I was in fact now in the ‘game.’ Whatever the cause, tension had taken up the fifth chair.
It was an incredulous meal, what with the Misters, sitting at table. Mr Crump slurping his soup and Mr Ferguson, eyes downcast into the columns of the paper before him, taking slow sips from his dripping spoon. I asked once again of Miss Miniver
“As always with Miss Miniver, she is about — whatever Miss Miniver is about.” Mrs Willingham said quite abstractedly, sitting imperiously at the head of the table so much like my father lost in The Call rather than the Times.
“She is not under your direction?” I enquired.
“Miss Miniver?” She mocked in some incredulousness. “I dare say anyone has that woman under direction.”
“She’s Neville Pym’s?” Mr Ferguson not looking up from this reading.
I recalled her assault upon the underground platform, having only been accosted by Pym moments before in the rumbling carriage; and the two of them seeing to my invitation to the Golden Calf —
“Neville Pym’s,” Careful, to seem merely curious — seeking further information, “I thought she was that pornographer’s — Aytown’s.”
“Oh, not in that way,” Mrs Willingham said distracted, “Not Miss Miniver.”
“Naughty Librarian —" Mr Crump said all too knowingly, glancing across the table to Mr Ferguson, who at that looked up for a moment as they exchanged a look. And with a base smirk, Mr Crump continued: – “Unlike you, she’s no use of a cock.”
“She’s by way of Neville — who’s had such dealings with her.” Mr Ferguson offered in that measured, detected voice of his, “The camera, you see. Among other things”
She’s with Pym. And he’s with the Russians — only in the underground carriage he admits he has no allegiance to any apparently but to himself. Wishes me to reveal whatever it is Lady Helene wants me to obtain from Winston – the Chemist. And so, yes, it does make some sense to me, she being his confederate – how else would he expect me to misdirect, surreptitiously, whatever it is I am – I am in Winston’s bed to find.
Veronica Well’s Journal, 14 Match 1916 – later
I had arisen and dressed, uncertain of the day’s proceedings as Miss Miniver, of whom I have grown to expect to daily divulge the itinerary, had yet to arrive.
Two young women appearing at breakfast, led by a new gentleman – using the term quite loosely, though he was well-dressed – by the name of Teddy. A tall, young man, with lots of chestnut hair and a schoolboy’s smile, whom the colours should have been coveted. Each of the young women appeared more as typists in an insurer’s office than to their chosen profession – which became immediately known by their conversation with Mrs Willingham, their divergent Marxist Madam. Some Australian lads not yet shipped off to France had refused to settle accounts based upon their knowledge of some arrangement with someone, who oversaw, as I deduced – being as he had no name, only the Supply Officer – the logistics of getting stolen medical supplies into black market transport. With a stern resolution apparently forthcoming, owing to the look in Miss Willingham’s eyes as she rather slowly placed her napkin upon the table and arose – departing with the two women, and ‘Teddy,’ for whom her response was to be solely restricted. As I was continuing to prepare my plate from the breakfast-sideboard, Mr Crump, his presence announced by the stepping upon a creaking floorboard, entered the door leading from the kitchen into the dining-parlour, to rather gruffly inform me there weren’t no time for breakfast — “Gather up your hat and coat. We’re going out.”
There was something very ominous about the tone of his voice, the look in his eye, his stance, hip-shot with some cocky self-assurance, that gave an involuntary rise of anxiety and my apprehension as I did well to keep my hand holding the plate from trembling, “Out? Where—” My foreboding was ever growing. There had been no Miss Miniver. Mrs Willingham had left the room. I had not felt well to begin with — and now I felt faint owing to a whirl of doubts and thoughts and suspicions. Had I not done as I was instructed. Had I not proven to be sufficient to have lain in his bed? Although — he had not called. Yesterday evening or night. In that there had been no following-up — no card, no letter, no flowers — was this wherein, I too had proven myself to have been insufficient? I turned at the sound at the opposite door to see Mr Ferguson entering the dining-parlour, my hat and coat in hand. Whereas Mr Crump was all seemingly sinister eagerness, Mr Ferguson’s face was devoid of all emotion. She had said I was no mere trifle, but I felt a need for her support. “Where—where is Miss Miniver?”
“Just the three of us.”
“Well, I’m having breakfast.” I tried to make my voice stronger than I felt.
No need? Before I could put forth a further protest, Mr Ferguson stepped forward and offered my hat and coat. With Mrs Willingham closeted behind closed doors, with the two women and ‘Teddy,’ I was hurriedly ushered from the dining-parlour; down the creaky narrow corridor; though the transom lit entrance hall; out of the house, and with almost a stumble, into the awaiting Lanchester. The morning looked to be a bright one. The glare of the sun breaking from the cover of clouds painful as I sat back, one hand shielding my eyes. Given a moment to enquire, I asked once again as to where we were headed — but neither of the Misters would reply. Why did I feel so dreadfully weak?
And then we were off – where to, I had no idea. From sideboard to Lanchester it had all been a whirl of bewilderment. Beside me, adjusting the skirt of his coat, Mr Crump retrieved his pocket watch, clicked it open, checked the time, and smartly snapped it shut, to return it to its tight waistcoat pocket’s nest. I looked to him and enquired once more, as we turned upon Borough High Street, where were we going. His reply was to remove his hand from his overcoat pocket to display, for a brief moment, the threat of a closed, ivory handled straight-razor: —
“There will be no theatrics.”
My mounting apprehension turned to sudden fear – the abruptness of it all, the hurried way in which they had escorted me out of the house, the sinister tone of Mr Crump accompanied by the menace of the razor. I was assailed once more by a light-headedness as I tried to make sense of it all. What had happened? What turn of events? Where was Miss Miniver? My attention now run wild with an oppressive confusion of thoughts. There are things far worse than death. She had said, but now, it would appear death was a very real possibility. She would do everything in her power – she had assured me – and yet – she was nowhere to be found this morning. I looked beyond the window, the early morning pedestrians, labours set out on a task or looking to be to work, as they hurried on their way – to strike upon the window, to wave, to call out, would no doubt have only gotten me a curious but idle glance. In a limousine, this early in the morning, they would have thought it nothing more than some wayward daughter being retrieved and taken back to her father – I will tell you now Veronica, there is within you some abominable desire for destruction, of which, I cannot fathom the depths of, nor, from whence it arises; this insufferable suffragette hysteria of yours . . . riotous pushing and shoving in the streets . . . prison; prison mind you — my daughter hell bound for prison; you mark my words, if you do not curb this appetite for ruin, you will soon discover yourself lost beyond all measure, beyond all conventional society, respectability, and who will have you then — no one; I have to say it, truly, I do, I fear there but awaits for you a fate which should deservedly be reserved for nothing less than some common trollop, or far worse, that of a criminal — for the good of the family, Veronica, for the good of all, for the love of God, perhaps more importantly, for yourself, turn from this course – which his lawyers and a well written cheque sought to silence the scandal and to preserve what’s left of my reputation.
Within the rattle of the motor, its thin tyres crushing though ruts upon the icy roadway, jostling on the button-tufted back seat of the limousine, the echo of my father’s prediction, like a gypsy curse upon me; I pulled the lapels of my coat about me and huddled into my woollen scarf. There was a soreness at my throat. A weakness. An accompanying shortness of breath. Why did I feel so listless? I knew for certain in a struggle, I would not fair at all against them.
As we made our way down Borough Road toward St. George’s Circus, my eyes looked to the shops and businesses going by, sought the adverted faces of those walking along the narrow pavement. Something had happened. Decidedly. I tried to recollect some sense of it. This morning – having awoken from my restless dreadful dreams, weak, and feeling rather ill – I had been to be sure late in coming down. But there had been no Miss Miniver to awaken me. To administer her morning concoction. In her odd way to reassure me. To have so earlier despised her, I now admit I was so desirous of her attentions, and now – infinitely suspicious of their absence. Had there been a meeting held downstairs? A decision made? When I arrived to breakfast, Mrs Willingham having so quickly abandoned me. Those two women – the Australian soldiers – the whole of it seemed upon reflection all too contrived. In order to leave me to the hands of the Misters?
Out the window, there were now more people moving along the pavements of the narrow road as we moved past works and factories. We were heading into Lambeth. Another lamb to slaughter? The traffic grew thicker with workers, cyclists, a few lorries. Rattling trams. Bundled in coats and wraps, their hats held by hand and pin against the wind. Those walking the pavement or stepping to the cobbles only cast an occasional glance to the oddity of a limousine moving through their borough. Some member of the peerage? Or yet another of those too new to wealth, longing to be posh, upon making another profit from the sacrifice of those in the trenches. As ostentatious as it would appear, making our way through the labyrinth of Lambeth, using the Lanchester was so well-designed, in that moving among those in this borough, there would be little care as to what happened to anyone within as we passed. To be looked upon with scorn. To be ignored. My eyes looked upon the door latch. I could open it and hurl myself to the icy slush of the cobbles. A couple of those passing-by stopping to look. The car coming to a halt. The Misters alighting from the Lanchester, brandishing their revolvers. Gunshots—
There was now the scent of the river. The circle of gulls. And suddenly I was filled once more with the thoughts of that poor Diced-Up Girl. Had she taken just such a journey? Had they come for her — gather your hat and coat. Just the three of us. Having been insufficient. But I was sufficient. I had seduced him. I wanted to cry out – I fucked him!
Mr Ferguson sitting stiff-backed and sullen at the wheel; Mr Crump solemn at my side. I had had little regard for either man and I had made it quite evident; and Mr Crump’s left eye, though less pronounced as it had been, still showed evidence of its blackening – which I well suspected owed to my previous bit of subterfuge in escaping them to see Randall Tanner in Limehouse. And now they were smug in the assurance of my comeuppance – certain be sure to inflect as much pain as possible – oh, God, if you are up there – I felt a sudden swell of tears and a catch of my breath – they might not even kill me before they began to cut me up.
How had things changed so drastically – and why? I felt once again as if I could not breathe, the confines of the limousine, the narrowing roads of Lambeth as we made our way ever closer toward the bridge – but in doing so it only made it ever so obvious their intent, in that it long since been closed to motorcars. I glanced once more to the door latch. I await a moment for the Lanchester to slow —
Approaching the bridge, I could see the streetlamps, the icy glint of the steep incline, the few pedestrians hazarding now its slickness to cross. It has long since been closed but to foot traffic – there will come a moment . . . when suddenly, tugged by the momentum, we turned left to travel along the river. The Lancaster not at all slowing as it hurled its menace along the roadway. The noxious smells of the neighbourhood finding their way into the carriage, those of the river mixed with the industry along the banks. The Pottery. Lack’s Dock. The looming gin distillery. The large vinegar factory.
I glanced out the window – where – when – wherever it is to be – an abandoned factory, some warehouse, a shed on the dock – wherever, wherein, they intended to do it – the limousine to take a sudden turn. Pulling into some dank seclusion. Mr Crump reaching to grab me, pulling me out, thrashing, screaming – the grim sky, the cry of gulls above looking down to watch our struggle; the snap of the razor opening – the glint of steel, the sharp slice across my throat – feeling of my life’s blood gushing out. Or rather, to be drug forth, manhandled, struggling, unable to break free, forced through a dark threshold and tossed into the filth of a foul-smelling hovel, whereupon, lifted up and thrown down, upon some much stained table – where they gutted fish as well as women – having been stripped and struggling against fetid hemp bindings; a butcher’s cleaver in hand, Mr Crump, “I’m goin’ to quite enjoy meself.” I felt once again the dizzying heights of my dream – precariously dangling. Don’t let go! Don’t let go! What had I done? What had brought me to this point? Where were they taking me?
I asked again. My anxiety and alarm growing as no one spoke. Mr Ferguson beyond the glass at the wheel. Mr Crump, his lips set in a grim determination. The car hurling along the road of the embankment. If this was it – if this was their intent – then I would take it into my own hands, I would pull the latch – I would end it in a twisted heap rather than allow them do what they will.
I could see the distant hint of the Vauxhall Bridge. The motorcar relentlessly hurling along the embankment road. Suddenly once more I felt lightheaded. Almost faint. Why was I so weak? Something they had given me. Surely. When? In my sleep? To make it easier. For them. Oh, God –please. Please! The bridge now growing closer. The gulls. The river. When? Where? My eyes seeking the repellent, foetid shed, slick and stinking of the river. Thoughts of their hands upon me. I could not hold back tears. I wanted so to say good-bye to Gwen. Seized with relentless remorse—why had I not written her a letter. Why had I not written to explain how much she meant to me – instead of this endless accounting in this horrid journal, when I should have tried to explain how much I love you, how horribly wretched I am for having never told you so. Not defending you more against father. I could barely see the Vauxhall Bridge through the tears. Gwen – oh dearest Gwen all I have done — I have done now to keep you safe. The river now growing ever so close.
And quickly I sat forward and grasped the latch – but it did not work!
I pulled at it franticly — again and again.
I heard the light chuckle from Mr Crump.
I felt a quickening rush as we grew nearer and ever nearer the Vauxhall Bridge. The rumble of the train now somewhere near heading to Vauxhall Station. Where? I looked out the back window. Tried to see through the windshield. Somewhere, any moment — the quick turn. To some hidden industrial dock. No doubt just beyond the Gas Works. There they could toss whatever was left of me into the river. Oh, God. My fist to the window.
Please – God let them kill me first.
And then, abruptly we turned right at the bridge and we were on it — passing over the river. I closed my eyes and felt the tears, as I sat back and knew now it to be true — that I have no conviction, that I am a hypocrite, for when faced with the imminent certainty of death, I had cried to God, I had prayed, whether I not I believed.
God or Ra, or whomever — thank you.
My hand trembled. I felt ill. They had taken me down to the river but they were not going to put me in it. We crossed over. Barges and smaller vessels leisurely proceeding as they left their grey, cold wakes in the water. Still, where were we going?
I cast a look to Crump, but his glance was void of expression.
“Bastard.” I was trembling but within the fear it now gave way to anger.
“What’s that? You thinking we were going to put you in the river?”
“It is what you ¬wanted me to think it.” If ever I hated anyone –
“Just so we have it clear. I don’t like you. I don’t like you one bit. And if it comes to it, and I’m told to take you to the river, I can tell you, I will, and I will quite enjoy — doing it.”
The it not having any further need of explanation, nor that in his grim, stubble cheeked expression, the sinister glint in his eye, there was any question as to who had cut up that poor girl – the only mystery remaining being what he may have done to her before having done so.
What a pit of vipers I had truly fallen into. My hands were trembling still as we moved now along Grosvenor, south of Pimlico, I looked to the river’s cold water, where fathoms below, he said he would delight in sending me – weighted down, hair streaming like the tresses of a mermaid – naked, pale. Eyes, dead and staring. That is if I were intact. Which I would not be, in Mr Crump would be certain in taking his greatest pleasure in seeing to my slow dismemberment.
To whatever they were about – wherever we had left the Long Lane for – they had seized upon it as an opportunity to abuse me – not physically, in that bruises would have to be explained, though Mr Crump most certainly must feel a bruise or two was no doubt just compensation for the one he wore – but rather, they had purposefully set out to scare me, to terrorize me, to let me know they were but a word away from turning this their mean trick into a reality. Miss Miniver had said I was no delicate trifle – but this morning, weak and pale, still trembling from my imaginings of this impromptu journey, I had proven myself to be just such. And I vowed I would never be again. I cast a furtive glance to Mr Crump – if one were to survive a pit of vipers then one needed to sprout some fangs – white, sharp, elongated incisors, lips pulled back . . . looking down upon me, dangling, holding me suspended by my wrist, my dream once more haunting me – and abhorrently I so envisioned how should I but slyly purloin that ivory handled razor, I would so silent slip it open, my thumb touching its steel, cold and sharp, as I crept stealthily, with all the instinct of a preying cat, one careful step after another, silently, lithe and slow, just behind unsuspecting Crump, where I could reach out, and around, and quickly pull the straight edge of the razor across his throat – the great rush of blood flowing out – the heady scent of it . . . assailed . . . and for a moment I was overcome by the horror of the thought that I could do so . . . and feel nothing – nothing more than it being but just compensation – for that feeling of helplessness as the limousine hurled along toward a demise beyond imagining; for that tone in his voice as he informed me he would take great pleasure in inflicting whatever horrors that were within his providence; for rather than having filled me with ever more fearful submission, they had awakened a determination, born of anger at myself for having become so overcome by my dreadful imaginings — for having become, rather than as Miss Minver had said I was not, some delicate trifle. For it was more than obvious to me now, in that my circumstance was not about to miraculously change — it was I who needed to do so.
And as I write this I am still stuck by the memory of the imagining of Crump’s blood gushing from the wound of this throat – the exciting sight of it, the heady scent of it. How do I know the scent of blood?
Yes, well, past the Royal Hospital, before Burton’s Court, a turn at Flood Street, we proceeded. I knew Chelsea to be bohemian, an artist’s quarter – Wilde had lived here – closer to the river, Cheyne Walk, among artists, painters, poets, and radicals. Anarchists — philosophical and otherwise. We travelled along an avenue of large terraced townhouses. Whatever were we doing here, I could only wonder as Mr Ferguson pulled to a halt in front of one. “You can cease your wondering.” Mr Crump said, as he opened the door and stepped out into a wind, which quickly caught in the skirt of his overcoat, pulled at his hat. The motorcar still running, Mr Ferguson, seemingly well disinterested, sat unmoving at the wheel.
I looked at Crump, standing in the wind, as he gave a rise of his shoulder and a bit of sideward motion to his head, hands deep into his overcoat pockets, towards the red-bricked terraced townhouse before us. “Come along with you. Time enough for trembling later.” As I slid across the seat to do so, he offered no supporting hand, but rather stood impatiently looking at the front of the terraced townhouse. I sat at the edge of the seat, and glared at him. He stood his ground and gave me a hard look in return. Whatever awaited – would wait, he would either gave me a hand in assistance getting out of the motor car, or he would drag me out. A brisk gust of wind came down the avenue and perhaps aware we may very well be standing before the gaze of whomever awaited within, he took a hand from his pocket – the one in which he had concealed the razor – and succumbed to offering me a helping hand out of the limousine.
I squinted against the gleam of sunlight off the crest of the snow which still blanketed the pavement and lie atop the wrought-iron of the street fence ornamenting the pavement and walk. My gaze wandered over the red-brick face of the terraced townhouse, before taking a more than casual observation of the neighbourhood. A few idle pedestrians out seeking the returning sun in a leisurely walk. Others with a more hurried step – servants on a task. And a fair-haired woman in a long black coat. A hat with a black lace veil. As if in morning mourning. She stood at the corner as if having just taken notice of our arrival. Mr Crump, having stepped over and pushed open the iron gate of the street fence, said with some irritation, “Don’t just be standin’ there.” I gave him a quick look and in turning back, the woman was no longer there. Odd. There had been something all too familiar about her.
We proceeded through the gate along the swept walk to the front steps as I looked up beyond the terrace of the first of least four floors. My dream. The height from which I dangled? A premonition? The steps too had all been swept clear of the cling of ice and the dusting of snow. Mr Crump walked up but rather than knocking just opened the door. As there was no one to greet us, having walked into the spacious entry hall, one hand reaching to grasp the crown, Mr Crump, removed his hat and continued to lead the way. The floor, a dark polished hardwood, ever a task to maintain, announced our footsteps; the entry hall was large — the size of many a receiving hall I had been in — but the receiving hall we passed into was grand. A huge chandelier hung over the central expanse, above a gleaming polished mahogany table – which occupied as well the centre of a lighter hued hardwood floor – whereupon its claw feet rested upon a very expensive gold-and-crimson carpet. A curled staircase, its handrails dark mahogany, supported by its cast iron balusters, led up to the entrance of the first-floor landing. Behind us there was an open door letting on to a library, and before us, and to the right, the ajar door of a good-sized waiting room. Across the expanse of the receiving hall was the opening entry to a large dining room. From what I could see, the rooms were lofty, spacious, and the furnishings were to say the least not at all what one might expect, ostentatious – or of just mere splendour for splendour’s sake – but rather they all seem to reflected a real taste of elegance.
As I stood, removing my gloves, having just unbuttoned my coat, a side door opened and from it there emerged Lady Hélène — closely followed a rather stout gentleman in a grey suit, waistcoat, with a visible gold watch chain, who asked, in a decidedly deferential tone, whether or not he could proceed. “In lieu of the addendum of our notations, I think we can say yes,” She replied and glancing across the central table, gave me a look of recognition.
“They have all been made, milady.” The gentleman, securing a small black portfolio rather carefully under his arm, said as he closed the door behind them, “There’s of course the change of wallpaper in the fourth bedroom, second floor; the telephone installation in the kitchen; renovation of the front parlour, from gentleman’s library, to lady’s morning room; the replacement of the drapes in the master bedroom and dressing room —”
“And the blemish on the mantel,” she added as she continued to look at me now beyond mere recognition with some considerable interest, “Veronica, you are looking a bit pale.”
“Oh, yes – I have noted that as well.” the gentleman confirmed, trailing her as he gave me a quizzical glance.
Lady Hélène came to a sudden halt at his continued interruption and turned to him, “Excellent. See that M. d’Avary reviews the documents. And if all is satisfactory, I shall finalize them.”
“Today, Milady?” He rather anxiously enquired, while doing his best to maintain his obsequious courtesy, “Seeing as how . . . there are some — and totally understandable, owing to misadventure of the documents — staff already on premises.”
“M. d’Avary.” She repeated ever so dismissively, as she gave him a wave of her hand and turned to once more to move toward us, “Mr Crump, there should be coffee in the kitchen.” She informed him, and was done with him, as well; her concern was now more with me as her hand reached out to brush back a few stray strands of hair about my temple, “Veronica, you are not ill?”
“No. I just did not sleep well.” I replied.
As Mr Crump, hat in hand, began to make his way toward the opening to the dining room, Lady Hélène stopped him up short — “Tell Lampton I will be taking breakfast,” and then, casting a inquisitive glance to me, asked whether I desired coffee. I explained I had not yet had breakfast. The more than slight look of incredulity to this information gave way quickly to vexation, as she told Crump to inform ‘Lampton’ I would be joining her for breakfast, even as she took note of the stout gentleman, who, having opened his small black portfolio, there upon the mahogany centre table, was now making some notations with his fountain pen. “As I said, all particulars are to be given to M. d’Avary – I will finalize them later – this has taken far too much of the morning as it is. And as you are heading out, Mr Ballard — please take Veronica’s coat and hat and place them in the hall closet, when you retrieve your own.”
He closed up his pen and portfolio with the slightest of frowns, which quickly became a fawning smile, and he moved about the table towards me to watch as I removed the pin from my hat, and then my coat, which he took and gave me a smile of all his smarmy politeness.
“As you can see, things are amiss this morning. I had thought the house to have been let yesterday, and staff to move in,” her displeasure sharply conveyed in her voice, “But I arrive from my hotel to find it to have been locked up last night — when they arrived.”
“I am so very sorry—what with the war and all, there is, as you see, such a shortage these days of qualified clerks — not of course to give any impression that those, to whom we employee lack in any professional capacity, but, in certain circumstances, rare though they are, there are upon occasion – as uncommon an occurrence as it is within such a wealth of transactions, which pass through their hands, but certainly, an understandable reason, not an excuse – for a documentary misadventure, in such instances, wherein a signature is, as inadvertent as the case may be, overlooked, ” The gentleman offered to me as if I were someone of importance, “But now, we will shall see to things expeditiously, milady.” A quick glance to Lady Hélène, “To be assured.”
When first I met her that horrid evening, in which I found myself trapped in the centre of the web of the conspiracy spun by Mrs Willingham and that odious Neville Pym, I was uncertain whether or not Lady Hélène was but merely some faux title bestowed upon her in some criminal grandiosity – in that I was vaguely aware among their associations they gave one another odd appellations either by way of some affection or in disparagement – but now, seeing her in this grand townhouse, in the rich silk mulberry dress, the all too dismissive look, it was readily apparent that she was indeed born of the aristocracy. For in reply to Mr Ballard, she said nothing, but the posture and long look conveyed volumes, as he gave her a rather quick insecure nod and then made a hasty footed exit with his portfolio in one hand and my coat and hat in another. It was as well readily apparent that the Misters had received word to gather me up, as I had been so directed in gathering my hat and coat, and to deliver me here, to her – upon which they had so delightfully designed their malicious subterfuge.
As we proceeded into the dining room, two men, apparently the butler and a footman, by their appearance, arrived. The butler to stand at attention at the sideboard, whereupon the footman transferred from his tray a silver bowl of black pudding, to accompany the eggs, bacon, sausage, grilled tomatoes, croissants and toast there already arrayed. Criminals for servants? Or servants who were criminals? Infiltrating to steal. To gather information, to secure intelligence for future blackmail – to be sold to a higher bidder, for some nefarious business leverage – or revenge. “What do you think of it?” Lady Hélène asked, as she strode leisurely beside me, while we made our way alongside the dining table, “I just let it.”
“Rather grand.” I fell into step with her.
“Ten bedrooms, three bath rooms, four reception rooms. A tearoom. Ball room. There is even a billiards room. A steal to be truthful – what they are asking. Family being in distress. Seems the long-supposed heir fell victim to one of Lettow-Vorbeck’s East African guns.” All said as casually as if but discussing the trifling acquisition of an evening dress.
“You say you were staying in a hotel – where is your home?” How oddly easy I found myself, walking with her – to fall into a rather effortless conversation – and recalled feeling similarly when we had done so that night in the Cavern of the Golden Calf.
“Most of my interests are on the continent, but Paris is my home. I have two, actually. An apartment in the nineteenth arrondissement. And a maison in le 16e. But it seems more and more I am being drawn back to England.”
“You are English?” I asked, as she spoke with an accent.
“Coffee madam?” The taller of the two men, whom I took to be Lampton, the butler – who though middle-aged still seemed to have lost none of his hair — although it had succumbed to strands of grey — and there were about his eyes, and in the corner of his smile, something, which gave vague testimony to him being not the dour, Mr Cranston, of our household, or like any other butler in any other household, for that matter, to which I was familiar, as he concealed a rather sly disdain directed in my direction, which he did well to try and mask, as he enquired upon our approached of the sideboard. I nodded as I watched Lady Hélène take up her plate and began to select from serving dishes.
“And so, nowhere in England to call home?” I enquired, well aware the footman was now far beyond but a casual observation of my figure.
“There is a family estate, near York, but – I am not at all welcome.” She selected from the bacon, “As yet.”
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
She did not reply as she stepped over to take her place at the end of the table and Lampton expertly put in place, a fine crystal glass of water, as well as an elegant china cup and saucer, into which he poured coffee. I was amazed at how quickly and with a true servers finesse they moved, as the other, set glass and coffee down, as I had began, but had not yet had a chance, to sit.
“Thank you, Lampton.” To which he nodded, understanding it was his cue to depart, but before he did so, he placed a small silver bell on the table near to her hand.
The food looked wonderful as I took up my napkin and felt a great sigh of relief, finding surprising comfort in having sat – I was apparently weaker than I had thought.
Lady Hélène, preparing a bite, gave me yet another look of concern, “I understand, your assignation with the Chemist was successful. It went well?”
“Nothing untoward I assume – rather straightforward.” She delicately lifted the tines of her fork with their host of egg.
I gave a look. Reminded once more I was not a guest. “I did as you asked – I fucked him.”
“Oh my—” She sat suddenly back with mock chagrin, “Vulgarity as emphasis.” She sat looking at me, “Or vehemence. Designed to shock. To forthrightly shame me with the perversity of the depths of the degradation to which I have so horribly subjected you to.” And then she sat forward once more, her fork held almost as if an elegant instrument, “Since Eve was handed over to Adam, to do so — we have been fucking, my dear. It is our lot. In this man’s world, for those of us who understand, it is the only true power that that same God gave us when he so handed us over. That is why we must force them into a civilized world. So that for those men who want it – they cannot just take it, without some extreme consequences, and in so doing – it is ours – to bestow or to deny. Ours to weaponize.”
“Or to exploit,’ I replied, “There were two young women this morning —”
“A commodity, my dear,” and she placed her fork down to take up her cup. “One that I do not valuate – but they.”
“You are cruel.”
“And you are naïve. In that there is within you the very same cruelty.” She said, rather than taking the sip, but putting the cup precisely down in its saucer. “You just do not want to admit it. While I —” and she gave me a long look, “I saw it that night in the Cavern. And I do so recognize it. There within you. Ever lurking — just beneath the surface. Amid the confusion of mixed ideas and desires — the seeking and striving. The craving for something seeming ever just beyond your grasp. The freedom to be. To be yourself. Fuelled by the red-hot emotions of spite and resentment. Father, family, society, religion — all united to hold you back. Condemning you for your impertinence to rebel. Your seemingly unreasonable actions. Unreasonable to them because you and I know from which depths they truly spring. Absolute selfishness. Not the idleness of a spoiled dilettante. But pure wanton self-absorption. The blunt point of it — when the door is closed and you are alone to look into the mirror, your world is wholly reflected there — for you care not a whit about anyone but yourself. You want — what you want. You know it as well as I. Your Lieutenant, McFarlane, and any and all that came before him, are but mere vehicles to be cast aside upon the avenue of their own disappointed hopes, upon your reaching whatever destination you have charted. You see — I know you better than yourself. For when I look at you, I am but looking in a mirror. That is why you and I — we together — could do great things — if and when you decide to put aside the holy strictures of some rather antiquated societal mores, that shackle of your patriarchal morality, having, no doubt, been well prevailed upon you by your father.”
“Work together? You and I?” I decided to no longer sit back — although, her words had hit hard at the very centre of my being, of that I could not deny. “Whomever I choose to work with — I would as well choose to be candid . . . which you have not. Intimidation, coercion, extortion, blackmail, they are your ideas of establishing an association. From the first moment we met, you have done nothing but threaten me into subservience. Turned me into a— ” I started to say whore, but I was a whore — or I could not have so easily fallen into bed with Winston. “Prostituted me. For what? A whim? To prove that you could? I still have absolutely no idea. What it is you want. Why I am so deign to being in the Chemist’s bed. What does he have of such consequence? You didn’t even tell me the truth behind why you needed me – your second-best choice—that you had killed the first. For being merely—”
“Hester Rowley,” she revealed the name with such little emotion. “Second-best. That does stick — does it not? The distaste in the mouth of being merely second-best?” She lifted a bite of egg, almost as if she were about to offer it to me, “As I recall, you were told that of all the candidates from which to choose, you by far had all my qualifications – save one. Impatience. It is your singular fault. Imperious impatience. And I well know the consequence of my own impatience — and so I did not have time for yours. The mistake I made was in having weighed it against his proclivities, and so, I chose her. She was younger. But as to her death. That came not by my hand.”
“But I was told . . . “
“That she was insufficient. That she had failed to entice? That was the assumption of others. Whereas, I know otherwise.”
I put down my own fork, as did she – almost as if done in some fencing movement. “If you and I are to do ‘great things’ together – then you will leave me in the dark no longer. That is the price I place upon it – I am not a common whore.”
“I never said you were common.” She smiled rather whimsically, “Or a whore —for that matter.”I sat back, “Who killed her. Who diced her up?”
“Oh, I had her diced up.” The bit of bemusement suddenly gone, as her eyes went cold in but a blink, “Molly McIntire killed her.”
Why this should astonish me I don’t know, but it did, as I sat for a long moment, just looking at her. Molly McIntire. I instantly recalled her opening the door of Winston’s elegant bath; her catching me arising, as I was from the awkward stoop of having retrieved my Elarco tin, just as she was entering; her eyes upon me cold, ammonite – appraising my nudity – and most assuredly judgemental. Breasts too small. Hips too narrow. So very little to confide beneath my stays. This is what he takes to bed? But—judge, jury and executioner? Insufficient — found lacking — would she have returned, a long isosceles-bladed knife held behind her, suggesting one of Winston’s powders, I find the blue one quite luxuriant, as she approaches, an amiable but alluring smile, perhaps suggestively, as if to indicate to make room for her, when suddenly, the blade would come out, and down, striking, over and over again – the white luxury of the tile bespattered crimson. I had known her immediately to be possessive, even jealous. You may have the leisure, but I run the house . There had been a cruelness just there at the corners of her delicate mouth. I knew her then to be dangerous.
“My, Winston — you are quite the treasure,” Her look appreciative rather than derisive. “Lovely Molly, yes. Of course, by then, she was well aware of Hester’s subterfuge – in finding her way into Winston’s bed. Having received information that she was far more than merely just one more of his schoolgirl dalliances, but rather, a calculating opportunist. Sweetly seductive. Alluring. A little whisper here. A little blackmail there. And my, how the girl advances. Information of course, I had supplied.” How so calmly she spoke of the murder of a girl – of having her dismembered.
“Then you had her—”
“I think it was Jesus. Yes — I am sure, it was the Christ — who said it best: no man can serve two masters. And as God is jealous, so am I. She conspired with Neville.”
“He has offered you the same I am told.” As if but asking the weather.
I looked at her, remembering him in the underground, the carriage rattling along: bring it to me first , emphatically, not a suggestion but a command. And then, of Miss Miniver shockingly hurling me up against the wall of the underground platform. Where was she? Where had she been all morning? This is why I am here? Why the Misters had been so self-assured, in taunting, terrorizing, me. A little whisper here. A little whisper there. And Miss Miniver having whispered in her ear — told her of Pym’s advances? Who was this woman?
How had she come to sit thus? In this grand house she had just let. My Moriarty — her influence exerted not only here in London, but in Paris, and who knew how many other capitals throughout the continent. A woman — from whom even the malevolent Misters took subservient direction — who provided the strategies, combined and commanded, the resources of Mrs Willingham – a callous calculating manipulator of women, with ties to prostitution, pornography and narcotics – and Neville Pym – a devious and deceptive spy for the Russians, who was apparently not adverse to selling out governments to his own self-interests – as well as who knew what else. Had they not earlier spoken fleetingly of black-market transactions in medical supplies – of a Supply Officer, which surely must indicate possible reaches even into the military. How many strands of her evil web were woven by her criminal machinations? From the moment I had first met her – she had struck me, of them all, as the one to truly fear.
“The question is Veronica, have you realized which of us has your best interest?”
“Neither of you are my master..”
“The master of your fate? The captain of your soul? Shall we stand in the middle of No Man’s Land and tell that to the boys in the muck?” She sat back, with but a languid sigh, “Whether or not you wish to hear it, there are but ever a few masters. That is the way of the world and has ever been. To be a master — one must do whatever it takes. Realizing the consequence and yet making the choice. Be that for you — in choosing either myself or Pym.”
“The consequence of one of those being diced up?”
“I do not have the luxury of time. You are well infiltrated. You are what he desires. I need only to know to whom you give your allegiance — and I then, if necessary, I shall make the proper contingencies.”
“Either way you plan to plan to kill me?” I retorted, as I was already damned. Pym’s subterfuge. Miss Miniver’s betrayal.
“I planned to give you this house.”
I was stopped cold, “What?”
“If you want to be a master, you first must be an apprentice.”
“This house?” I could not disguise my incredulity, nor my wandering eye to the grand dining room.
“And everything in it.”
There was a long silence. I had been but one turn away from a filthy shed filled with the stench of gutted fish and the river; and now — I sat looking into those inquisitive hazel eyes. Was this some clever manipulation?
“What are you saying?”
“I need someone to replace Mrs Willingham — when you get me what I want.”
We sat looking at one another. Had she at one moment in her life, perhaps even as I, over a breakfast with whomever had been the spark that had ignited her career, been asked to make such a decision? To step away from everything she had been instructed, as regards to morality, adherence to, as she called the holy strictures, of some rather antiquated societal mores. Astonishment. Repulsion. Apprehension. Gratification. Shock. Awe. Fear. What a tumult of emotions assailed me. How could I even contemplate what she was suggesting? What she was offering – while at the same time I must confess — what a temptation. Replacement for Mrs Willingham – whom I suspected had far greater power and authority than what my mere circumstance had but given me a glimpse. This house? This house! And everything within it — no doubt, financial freedom – freedom from dependence. To take a seat at her table, within her hierarchy – but at what cost? To be, as I had viewed Mrs Willingham, a manipulator of women. To coerce — to extort; to blackmail. To be able to send them to the river? Cold and callous? She had said looking at me was looking into a mirror – was I, somewhere deep within, that heartless? That malicious? That cold? Could I kill? Crump in a heartbeat – and that thought was – and is in writing it – an astonishing admission. For this morning, death had been very real and eminent – and when I had asked Miniver if they had intentions of killing me – whenever this was over – she had not at all denied their intention. She had only given me some false assurances she would in some way intervene – but where was she this morning? If they had been given the word – they would have done so. But in admitting I could delight in the killing of Crump – in looking at the starkness of it, the ink upon the paper – I am well aware that it is not at all written merely in self-defence. And I am horrified to have written it – for it is true – there is within me — yes, a wicked and wanton selfishness. A cruelty. Had I not imagined the excitement of slitting his throat? Of the delight in the heady scent of his blood? Awakening now, freed from the shackle of my father’s morality? This darkness within me – of which I had been unaware, and yet as if gazing in a mirror, she has seen it – or I am most assured, contrary to whatever she may have said about luxurious time, I would not have been sitting at her table. And that was — was solely – why she had kept me from the fathoms of the Thames. As I knew in that moment it was she who had given me a glimpse of a future – one in which I was taken to the river. And now, I was being given another. And as I looked at her, I understood the Misters had not concocted the ride. She had. And as she returned the look, she knew that I knew. And rather than as the Lanchester had been hurling along the embankment river road – this was it! The decision point. Perhaps one Hester had come to as well. There were before me two futures. Where she to be believed. One was uncertain whereas the other, with but one misstep, not even mine, but by Pym, to sow distrust, would surely send me to the river. Refusal – distrust. Acceptance – this house. And everything within it. Everything I had ever dreamed, and with her as mentor. Temptress. My Moriarty. As we looked at one another, I well knew what acceptance was. To acquiesce to my wicked selfishness in all its consequences. There would be no turning back. And in that moment, I knew as well, that yesterday, in the luxurious waters of Winton’s blue powders, I had already come half way — and now, having awaken from my disturbing dreams of a precarious descent, of having been so seduced to the fall, I must confess I had begun this journal, this accounting in order to document my grievous circumstance – and now, as I look at it, I discover it is the unfolding of my transformation. Socialist, Suffragette, Anarchist — Criminal. Miss Miniver had said there were things worse than death. And I yet, I was well aware I had – as those anabaptists – already baptised myself in Winston’s elegant tub. To rise up, anew. Yes. To be sufficient. Sufficient unto the day — is the evil thereof.
And there came a voice from my precarious dream as I dangled: — We, together. I will not let go .
“So – what it is you want?” I gave her my answer as I pressed the tines of my fork into the bite of egg.
“A location, for what?”
My fork stopped as I lifted it and I looked at her incredulously, “It does not exist. It’s an alchemical substance – a myth. Like the Philosopher’s Stone.”
“Which is what they are looking for.”
“The Philosopher’s Stone?”
“A stone – well, a meteorite, actually.”