Chapter Fifteen

In which I witness more death

Three weeks passed and although the murder faded, my meeting with Westman did not. I imagined coming upon him in Covent Garden or The Strand. I saw him in my dreams and could not shake the thought that he now stalked my every waking hour. I dreaded finding him in the parlour or dining room, come to purchase my services. When I opened the curtains and shutters each morning I swore that he waited beneath the portico on the corner. I knew it to be fear and fantasy on my part, but I could not rid myself of his fiery-eyed evil intent.

Then, one Sunday morn, I attended Church with Mother Shadbolt and her nest of chicks. The day was cold and the Church even colder. We were wrapped in warm clothing: wraps, shawls, hats, and gloves, but my fingers were still frozen and my feet too. I sat with Mother Shadbolt in our designated pew and watched my breath mist the air. The sermon was tiresome; the Reverend Bullock talked of sin and implored us to repent and take the Lord Jesus into our heart, for only He could save us. It may well be true, but I longed for warm sun and fresh air. My eyes closed. My head nodded. Mother Shadbolt prodded me in the ribs and I jolted awake. I glanced around in embarrassment, but none of the congregation had noticed save one, and he was no man of this parish at all, but an evil presence in my mind.

William Westman. 

Not the dead man, but the living incarnation. He stood against the wall. His arms were crossed, his face fully turned towards me. I grabbed at my shawl and held it close against my throat. Why was he here? Had he followed me? I ventured another look. He had gone. I made my excuses and ran from the Church. I felt sure I would find him waiting for me outside, but there was no one other than a beggar huddled down against the cold. He put out a hand. I took out a coin and dropped it into his palm. 

Lines of smoke from the many fireplaces of our city rose in the cold grey sky. There was frost on the sheds and stalls and the very ground I walked was iced over. I heard the service come to an end and pushed back through the door to join Mother Shadbolt. As I did so a gasp went up. All converged on a pew in the middle of the Church.  Reverend Bullock hurried down the aisle to the centre of the commotion.

“What is it?” I whispered to Mother Shadbolt.

“Where did you go?” she replied.

“I felt faint. I am recovered now.”

I left her and pushed my way to the front of the crowd. A young man was slumped in his seat. His head rested against the wood of the pew in front of him. The Reverend Bullock asked that everyone give him air. 

“It’s too late for that,” shouted someone from the congregation. 

I followed his gaze to a pool of blood beneath the seated man’s feet.

“Please, stand back. Let us see what ails this poor man,” said the Reverend Bullock.  “Come, Sir. Are you sick?” 

He touched the man on his shoulder. The man did not respond. Gently, the Reverend Bullock lifted the poor soul from his position to seat him upright. The man’s head lolled back, his eyes wide open in fear, his mouth agape. He was as dead a corpse as any I have seen. Gasps went up and one woman fainted straight away. I almost dropped to my knees, but Mother Shadbolt had her hand on my arm and steadied me.

“It is none of our business,” she said, and tried to pull me away. 

I shook her off. 

“He was seated some way in front of us. He must have been dead for a while,” I said.

Mother Shadbolt nodded in agreement. 

“Apoplexy or something similar, I’ve no doubt,” she said. “We must go home. Leave the Reverend to do his job. They will take him to the bone house and fetch the Surgeon.”

“Apoplexy? With all that blood? We cannot be sure of how he died.” 

I thought of Westman and wondered why he had attended Church. He did not seem a religious man.

“Hush child. Do not say more.” Mother Shadbolt grabbed hold of me in a vice-like grip.

“I need to take the air. I will walk for a while,” I said, and pulled away from her. 

Daisy gazed at me with big eyes and implored me to remain by her side, but I shook my head.

“Do not be gone long,” Mother Shadbolt said. “We have the afternoon trade. Lord Appleby has made an appointment with you.” 

She made her way to the door, thrusting her charges before her.

“What?” I turned back to her. “Him? Why?”

“He asked for you.”

“He does not know me.” 

“Apparently, he does,” said Mother Shadbolt. “He said you invited him.”

“I did nothing of the sort.”

Priss sneered at me.

“You cannot turn down the aristocracy,” she said. “They pays too well, they does.”

I fled the Church, then to linger amongst the lichened gravestones. 

William Westman. 

Surely, his presence could not have been a coincidence? And the dead man? Who was he? ‘Tis true, plenty of people fall down dead in the street. My, but a lunatic had only recently thrown himself from the third floor window of the nearby Hummums Turkish bath house. 

I waited until I was sure all had left the Church (some remained on the steps to gossip), before I slipped back inside. All was quiet save for the drip of water as the morning’s ice thawed from the roof outside. Reverend Bullock knelt in prayer next to the dead man’s body. He looked up as I approached.

“Can I help you?” he said.

“I think I dropped a handkerchief,” I replied. 

It was a poor excuse and he saw it for what it was. 

“Did you know him?” the Reverend enquired.

“I thought… I thought if I could take another look. I might identify him, if you have not already done so.”

“No, I do not know who he is, but then we get so many here who are not regular in their worship.”

That might account for Westman’s presence. I nodded and eased myself alongside the Reverend, so I could more readily inspect the corpse.

“He was taken with some force, I believe,” he said. “Here. He was stabbed.” 

He indicated a rent in the side of the man’s coat. I could see the staining thereon and imagined the injury to his flesh. It must have been a very sharp knife to cut thus through fabric, skin and bone in one swift movement. Would he have died instantly, or perhaps lingered for some time in much pain? If he had, well then surely he would have asked for help? Or perhaps that was why he had come into the Church in the first place. He sat down to rest awhile and found himself overwhelmed by unconsciousness and eventual death. I compared this scene to that of the murdered man in my bed and realised how far I had come since that time. I had made no particular investigation of that man’s injuries. At some point in the recent past, I had crossed a threshold into the world of detection. I have to admit, it gave me something of a thrill. Perhaps I could yet discover the identity of my dead corpse and bring the murderer to justice. 

“You are not afraid of this?” said the Reverend.

I was, but I would not admit to it.

“I fear the metaphysical and psychic worlds. It is a sad sight, but no more.” How well I lied.

The Reverend thought about my words. “You attend regularly?”

“Mother Shadbolt oversees our religious education.”

“Of course. I understand.” 

Everyone knew of Mother Shadbolt. She was a pious woman, if nothing else.

“Perhaps if we inspect his pockets?” I said. “We could find something? A means of identification? It would help, would it not?” 

I made the suggestion in all honesty, but I wanted to know if he had about his person anything that might link him to Westman.

“I have sent for the surgeon.” 

The Reverend looked up at me with pain in his eyes. I had taken his frank conversation to be a sign that he was used to dealing with death and yet he seemed to be as distressed as the weakest amongst us. I took his hand and pressed it to my bosom. He let it rest there and did not try to pull away.

“I know you to be a good hearted man,” I said. “This is a terrible thing, but we must know who he is, so we can inform his family and bring them some comfort.” 

I thought of the dead man in the barrel. We had not found his family. We had abandoned him. I could still make it right. I stifled a moan. The Reverend gave me a look of concern.

“Yes, you are right of course. Ordinarily, women are such weak creatures. I know my wife… Well, she does not like to be inconvenienced by the unfortunate circumstances of other’s lives. But you are not like her. You are different.” He struggled to find the words. “You are a woman of the world.”

“Some of us are simply more used to the base nature of humankind, than others,” I said. This was true, at least.

I ventured to feel in the dead man’s pockets. Those of his coat were empty. It was strange that he had no money about his person, but then not so if his death was a product of a robbery. I struggled with the buttons and reached inside his waistcoat pocket, in which I found a folded piece of paper. I straightened it out carefully. It was a crudely printed bill for a gambling den called Harrington’s. I knew it to be in Exeter Street, though I had never ventured inside. I had heard rumours of it being the lowest dive imaginable where, nevertheless, all strata of society met in order to satiate their avaricious desires.

“What does it say?” said the Reverend. I passed the bill to him. “He was a gambler? “He looked up at me quizzically. “He owed money and they killed him? Is that what this is?”

“I do not know. It would be wrong to jump to a conclusion.” I said.

“Then who? What?” said Reverend Bullock.

“Look,” I said, lifting the dead man’s hand in my own. It was clammy to the touch. “He wears a signet ring. This may identify him.”

“I cannot make out the impression on it,” said the Reverend.

I twisted the ring from the man’s finger. The Reverend grimaced as I did so. I held it so the light caught the shadows of the engraving. It was very fine work, but smooth, such that it was almost all one with the surrounding gold.

“It could be a bird, or a ship, or… or anything. It is so worn away,” I said. I handed the ring to the Reverend.

“We may never know who he is,” he said. “But I will pass this to the Coroner. Perhaps he can shed some light on the matter… and if this man is a gambler… well then there are many in these parts who might know his identity.”

“It is beyond my ken,” I replied. “Will you allow me to make some enquiries?” 

“You may, but it is irregular indeed for a woman to undertake such work. The Coroner will want to question you. You will present yourself if asked?” said the Reverend.

I had to admit I was nervous of coming into contact with the Coroner. Particularly, as it might give light to my involvement in the earlier murder. However, I was determined to now do the right thing and was emboldened by the Reverend’s readiness to accept my assistance. Besides, I was curious to know more of the real Westman and what part he had to play, if any, in both murders. 

“I will make myself available and be truthful on this matter.” 

Reverend Bullock thanked me profusely and I took my leave. I had an appointment to keep with Lord Appleby.


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