Callander Square, страница 1
THE AUTUMN AIR hung mild and faintly misty, and the grass in Callander Square was dappled yellow with fallen leaves in the late afternoon sun. In the small garden in the center of the square two men stood with spades, looking down into a shallow hole. The taller of them bent down and put his hands into the damp soil, searching. Gingerly he brought up the article he sought, a small, bloody bone.
The other breathed out noisily.
“What d’yer reckon it is, then? Too big to be a bird.”
“Pet,” the first replied. “Someone buried a dog, or the like.”
The shorter man shook his head. “They didn’t oughter do that.” He looked disparagingly at the pale Georgian facades rearing up in severe elegance beyond the lacy birch leaves and the limes. “They got gardens for that sort of thing. They oughter have more respect.”
“It musta bin a small dog,” the taller man turned the bone over in his hand. “Maybe a cat.”
“A cat! Go on. Gentlemen don’t ’ave cats; and ladies don’t go digging in gardens. Wouldn’t know a spade if it up an’ bit em.
“Must ’a’ bin a servant. Cook, most like.”
“Still didn’t oughter do it,” he shook his head to emphasize his point. “Like animals, I do. A pet what ’as done ’er service in the ’ouse oughter be buried proper: not where people’s going to go and dig ’er up again, unknowing like.”
“They mightn’t ’a’ thought we was going to dig ’ere. It’s years since we put anything new in this bit. Wouldn’t‘a’ done now, except we got this bush give us.”
“Well we’d better put it somewhere else: a bit over to the left p’raps. Leave the poor little thing in peace. It ain’t right to disturb the dead, even animals. Dare say someone cared for it. Kept someone’s kitchen clean o’ mice.”
“Can’t put it to the left, yer gawp! We’ll kill the forsythia.”
“You watch yer tongue! Put it to the right then.”
“Can’t. That rhode-thing grows like a house, it does. Got to put it ’ere.”
“Then put the cat under the rhode-thing. Dig it up proper, and I’ll do the burying.”
“Right.” He put his spade where he judged it would bring the body up in one piece and set his weight on it. The earth came up easily, soft with loam and leaf mold, and fell away. The two men stared.
“Oh Gawd Almighty!” The spade fell from his hands. “Oh Gawd save us!”
“It’s not a cat. I—I think it’s a baby.”
“Oh Holy Mother. What do we do?”
“We’d better get the police.”
He let the spade down slowly, very gently, as if somehow even now it mattered.
“You going?” The other stared at him.
“No. No, I’ll stay ’ere. You go and get a constable. And ’urry! It’ll be dark soon.”
“Yeah! Yeah!” He was galvanized into action, desperately relieved to have something to do, above all something that would take him away from the hole in the ground and the bloody little mess on the spade.
The constable was young and still new to his beat. The great fashionable squares overawed him with their beautiful carriages, their matched pairs of liveried footmen and armies of servants. He found himself tongue-tied when he was required to speak to them, the magisterial butlers, the irascible cooks, the handsome parlormaids. The bootboys, the scullery maids, and the tweenies were much more his class.
When he saw the hole in the ground and the gardeners’ discovery he knew it was totally beyond him, and with horror and relief, told them to wait where they were, move nothing, and ran as fast as his legs would carry him to the police station to hand the whole thing over to his inspector.
He burst into the office, abandoning his manners in the excitement.
“Mr. Pitt, sir, Mr. Pitt! There’s been a dreadful thing, sir, a terrible thing!”
Pitt was standing by the window, a big man with long, curved nose and humorous mouth. He was plain to a degree, and quite incredibly untidy, but there was intelligence and wit in his face. He raised his eyebrows at the constable’s precipitate entrance, and when he spoke his voice was beautiful.
“What sort of dreadful thing, McBeath?”
The constable gasped; he could not utter a coordinated sentence for his lack of breath.
“A body—sir. In Callander Square. Pitiful, sir—it is. They just found it now—the gardeners—dug it up. In the middle. Planting a tree, or something.”
Pitt’s face puckered in surprise.
“Callander Square? Are you sure? You haven’t got lost again, have you?”
“Yes, sir. No, sir, right in the middle. Callander Square, sir. I’m positive. You’d better come and see.”
“Buried?” Pitt frowned. “What sort of body?”
“A baby, sir.” McBeath closed his eyes and suddenly he looked quite ill. “A very small baby, sir, like newborn, I think. Reminds me of my kid sister, when she was born.”
Pitt breathed out very slowly, a sort of private sigh.
“Sergeant Batey!” he said loudly.
The door opened and a uniformed man looked in.
“Get an ambulance and Doctor Stillwell and come to Callander Square.”
“Someone been attacked, sir?” His face brightened. “Robbed?”
“No. Probably only a domestic tragedy.”
“A domestic tragedy?” McBeath’s voice rose in outrage. “It’s murder!”
Batey stared at him.
“Probably not,” Pitt said calmly. “Probably some wretched servant girl seduced, kept it to herself, and gave birth alone, and the child died. She’d bury it and tell no one, nurse her grief to herself, so she wouldn’t be put out on the streets with no job, and no character to get another. God knows how many times it happens.”
McBeath looked pale and pinched.
“Do you think so, sir?”
“I don’t know,” Pitt answered him, going toward the door. “But it wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last. We’d better go and see.”
It took Pitt the last half hour of daylight to look at the little body, poke round in the crumbly soil to see if there were anything else, to help identify it, and find the second, misshapen, cold little body. He sent the doctor and the ambulance away with them both, and a shaking, white-faced McBeath home to his rooms, then Batey and his men to post guard in the gardens. There was nothing else he could do that night until the doctor had given him some information: how old the babies had been, how long ago they had died, as near as could be estimated, and if possible what had been wrong with the second, deeper buried one to cause that misshapen skull. It was too much to hope they could tell now from what they had died.
He arrived at his own home in the dark and the fine, clinging dampness of fog. The yellow gaslights were welcoming, promising warmth not only to the body, but to the mind, and the raw, vulnerable feelings.
He stepped inside with an acute sense of pleasure that nearly two years of marriage had not mellowed. In the spring of 1881 he had been called to the horrifying case of the Cater Street hangman, the mass murderer of young women, who garroted them and left their swollen-faced bodies in the dark streets. In that dreadful circumstance he had met Charlotte Ellison. Of course at that time she had treated him with the dignified coolness any such well-bred young woman would use toward a policeman, who was rat
They were poor, startlingly so compared with the considerable comfort of her father’s home, but with ingenuity and her usual forthrightness she had dispensed with most of the small status symbols without which her erstwhile friends would have considered themselves bereft. Occasionally when his feelings were raw on the matter, she joked that the relief from pretense was a pleasure to her; and perhaps it was at least half true.
Now she came from the small drawing room with its sparse, well-polished furniture and autumn flowers in a glass vase. Her dress was one she had brought with her, wine colored, a little out of fashion now, but her face glowed and the lamplight picked out all the warm mahogany tones in her hair.
He felt a quick surge of joy, almost of excitement, as he saw her and reached out immediately to touch her, to kiss her.
After a moment she pulled back, looking at him.
“What is it?” she asked with a lift of anxiety in her voice.
In the quick, enveloping warmth of meeting he had forgotten Callander Square. Now the memory returned. He would not tell her; heaven knew, after Cater Street there was little of horror that she could not cope with, but there was no need to distress her with this. She was quick to sympathy—the little bodies, whether crime or simple tragedy, would stir her imagination to all the pain, the isolation and fear, whatever lonely, terrible thoughts had possessed the mother.
“What is it?” she repeated.
He put his arm round her and turned her back to the drawing room, or perhaps parlor would have been a less pretentious name for it, in so small a house.
“A case,” he replied, “in Callander Square. It will probably prove to be very little, but tedious in the proof. What have we for dinner? I’ve been outside and I’m hungry.”
She did not press him again, and he spent a slow, sweet evening by the fire, watching her face as she bent in concentration over her sewing, a piece of linen worn beyond its strength. Over the years there would be much patching and making do, many meals without meat, and when the children came, hand-me-down clothes; but it all seemed only a comfortable labor now. He found himself smiling.
In the morning it was different. He left early when the October mist still clung round the damp leaves and there was no wind. He went to the police station first, to see if Doctor Stillwell had anything to tell him.
Stillwell’s dour face was even longer than usual. He looked at Pitt sourly, bringing with his presence an immediate reminder of death and human mutability.
Pitt felt the warmth slip away, the comfort he had woken with.
“Well?” he asked grimly.
“First one quite normal, as far as I can tell,” Stillwell said quietly. “Which isn’t very far. Been dead about six months I should judge, poor little thing. Can’t tell you whether it was born dead, or died within a day or two. Nothing in the stomach.” He sighed. “Can’t even tell you if it died naturally or was killed. Suffocation would be easy, leave no marks. It was a girl, by the way.”
Pitt took a deep breath.
“What about the other, the one lower down?”
“Been dead a lot longer, nearer two years, from what I can tell. Again, that’s pretty much of a guess. And again, I don’t know whether it was born dead, or died within a few days. But it was abnormal, I can tell you beyond doubt—”
“I could see that myself. What caused it?”
“Don’t know. Congenital, not an injury in birth.”
“Would there be something in the parents’ history—?”
“Not necessarily. We don’t know what causes these things. Children like that can be born to anyone, even in the best families; it’s just that they more often manage to keep it quiet.”
Pitt thought for a few moments. Could that be what it was, a matter of social embarrassment?
“What about the top one?” He looked up at Stillwell. “Was that one deformed as well, anything wrong with its brain?”
Stillwell shook his head.
”Not that I could see, but of course if it were going to become mentally defective, there would be no way of telling at that age. It was no more than a few days old at the most. It could even have been born dead,” he frowned. “Although I don’t think so. There wasn’t anything I could see to cause death. Heart, lungs, and intestines seemed quite normal. But of course it was to some extent decomposed. I really don’t know, Pitt. You’ll just have to make your own inquiries, and see what you can find out.”
“Thank you.” There was nothing else to say. Pitt collected Batey and in silence they set out in the misty morning, the tree-lined streets smelling of rotting leaves and damp stone.
Callander Square was deserted; the sightseers such a discovery might have provoked elsewhere were abashed to invade its elegant pavements. There was no sign of life in the great houses except the whisk of a broom on an area step and the hollow sound of a footman stamping his boots. It was too early for errand boys; the cooks and parlormaids would barely have finished serving breakfast to the later risers.
Pitt went to the nearest house, up the steps, and knocked discreetly at the door, then stepped back.
Several minutes later it was opened by a well-built, darkly handsome footman. He looked at Pitt with heavy-lidded, supercilious eyes. Years of training had taught him to sum up a man even before he opened his mouth. He knew instantly that Pitt was a little better than a tradesman, but far from being a man of birth, let alone a gentleman.
“Yes, sir?” he inquired with a faint lift of his voice.
“Inspector Pitt, police.” Pitt met his eye levelly. “I would like to speak to the mistress of the house.”
The footman’s face was impassive.
“I am not aware that we have suffered any burglaries. Perhaps you have come to the wrong house? This is the residence of General Balantyne and Lady Augusta Balantyne.”
“Indeed. I did not know that. But it is the situation of the house that makes it of concern to me. May I come in?”
The footman hesitated. Pitt stood his ground.
“I’ll see if Lady Augusta will see you,” the footman conceded reluctantly. “You had better come in. You can wait in the morning room. I shall discover if her ladyship has finished her breakfast.”
It was a long, irritating half hour before the morning room door opened and Lady Augusta Balantyne came in. She was a handsome woman with bone china elegance of feature, and dressed in expensive and classic taste. She looked at Pitt without curiosity.
“Max says that you wish to see me, Mr.—er—”
“Pitt. Yes ma’am, if you please.”
“What about, pray?”
Pitt looked at her. She was not a woman with whom to prevaricate. He plunged straight in.
“Yesterday evening two bodies were dug up in the gardens in the middle of the square—”
Lady Augusta’s eyebrows rose in disbelief.
“In Callander Square? Don’t be ridiculous! Bodies of what, Mr.—er?”
“Pitt,” he repeated. “Babies, ma’am. The bodies of two newborn babies were found buried in the gardens. One was about six months ago, the other nearer to two years.”
“Oh dear,” she was visibly distressed. “How very tragic. I suppose some maidservant—To the best of my knowledge it is no one in my household, but of course I shall make inquiries, if you wish.”
“I would prefer to do it myself, ma’am; with your permission.” He tried to make it affirmative, as though he were assuring her agreement rather than asking her permission. “Naturally I shall be calling at all the houses in the square—”
“Of course. My offer was merely a matter of courtesy. If you discover anything that involves my household, naturally you will inform me.” Again it was a statement and not a question
He smiled acknowledgment, but he did not commit himself in words.
She reached for the bell and rang it. The butler appeared.
“Hackett, Mr. Pitt is from the police. There have been two babies found in the gardens. He will be questioning the servants in all the houses. Will you please find him a quiet room where he can speak to any of the staff he wishes? And see that they make themselves available.”
“Yes, my lady.” Hackett looked at Pitt with distaste, but obeyed precisely.
“Thank you, Lady Augusta,” Pitt inclined his head and followed the butler to a small room at the back which he supposed to be the housekeeper’s sitting room. He obtained a complete list of the female staff, and the essentials of information about each one. He did no more than speak to them this time. Everyone showed shock, dismay, pity; and everyone equally denied all knowledge. It was exactly what he had expected.
He was in the hall, looking for either the butler or one of the footmen to say he was finished, for the time being, when he saw another young woman coming out of one of the doorways. There was no possibility she was a servant; far more suggestive of her position than her silk gown or her beautifully dressed and coiffed hair was the hint of swagger in her walk, the half smile on her full-lipped little mouth, the sureness, the suppressed excitement in her dark, fringed eyes.
“Goodness!” she said with mock surprise. “Who are you?” She raked him up and down with an amused, blue glance. “You can’t be calling on one of the maids, at this hour! Have you come to see Father? Are you an old batman, or something?”
Only Charlotte had ever shaken Pitt’s composure, and that was because he loved her. He looked back at this girl steadily.
“No, ma’am, I am from the police. I have been speaking to some of your servants.”
“From the police!” her voice rose in delight. “How perfectly shocking. Whatever for?”
“Information.” He smiled very slightly. “That is always what the police speak to people for.”
“I have a suspicion you are laughing at me.” Her eyes were bright. “Mr.—?”