Extract: The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders
The first book in the Victorian murder mystery series by Kate Saunders, featuring private detective Laetitia Rodd, is an eye-catching and intriguing read.
Mrs Laetitia Rodd is the impoverished widow of an Archdeacon, living modestly in Hampstead with her landlady Mrs Bentley. She is also a private detective of the utmost discretion. In winter 1850, her brother Frederick, a criminal barrister, introduces her to Sir James Calderstone, a wealthy and powerful industrialist who asks Mrs Rodd to investigate the background of an ‘unsuitable’ woman his son intends to marry – a match he is determined to prevent. You’ll be pulled into the conventions and morales of Victorian London in this vividly painted tale by Saunders.
Read on for an extract from The Secrets of Wishtide…
The Secrets of Wishtide
It was a bright, windy October morning, and Mrs Bentley and I were down in the basement kitchen making a rabbit pudding. The rabbits were a gift from Mrs Bentley’s second son, whose daughter I had helped to place in a very respectable domestic situation with the Mayburys of Finchley, and when the doorknocker sounded I was up to my elbows in flour.
‘Drat.’ Mrs Bentley dropped the potato she was carving (she was infinitely patient about cutting out the black parts). ‘You’re not expecting anyone today, are you, ma’am?’ She got up and went to peer out of the window. ‘It’s Watson – from Mr Tyson’s office!’ Her pale eyes were suddenly as bright and alert as a squirrel’s. ‘Shall I ask him to come straight down?’
‘Yes, do.’ I carried on rolling out the suet pastry, very glad not to be interrupted by a formal call, which would have meant handwashing and hairbrushing and the removal of my coarse apron. Despite my ‘reduced’ circumstances (that term always puts me in mind of sauces), the vicar’s wife felt obliged to visit me, and I sat on several charitable committees with various local ladies. They all knew how reduced I was, but would have been horribly shocked to catch me in the act of cooking.
‘Well, I hope this means Mr Tyson needs another little job doing.’ Mrs Bentley beckoned Watson in eagerly, and I felt a flutter of anticipation as his great nailed boots came ringing down the area steps. Watson was a ticket-porter employed by my brother’s chambers; the fact that he had been sent all the way from Lincoln’s Inn to Hampstead could only mean a new case.
‘Good morning, Mrs Rodd.’ Watson pulled off his greasy hat; he was a stocky, grizzled, growling man, wrapped in a greatcoat that looked and smelt like a horse-blanket. ‘I’ve a note from Mr Tyson, ma’am, and I’m to wait for a reply.’
‘Thank you, Watson.’ I banged my floury hands on my apron and took the single sheet of paper. ‘Please sit down and rest for a few minutes – Mary, draw him a glass of beer.’
‘Very civil of you, ma’am.’ Watson was not an enormous man, yet he seemed to swamp the room and fill the entire house with the reek of stale tobacco; I would have to open all the windows later.
The note was the usual terse summons: ‘Dear Letty, a matter has arisen. My carriage will come at five, yrs affect. F.’
I pencilled an equally terse reply: ‘Dear F, at your service, L.’ Discretion was the foundation stone of my work; Fred and I were scrupulously careful about what we committed to paper.
Watson drained his beer, and was barely through the door before Mrs Bentley burst out with, ‘Well, ma’am? Is it another case?’
‘That’s what it looks like.’
‘Praise be! I’ll get your good black silk out of the press.’
‘Yes, Mary, if you would.’
‘And you’ll be staying at Mr Tyson’s for dinner,’ Mrs Bentley said. ‘So we can keep the rabbit pudding for tomorrow.’
‘Don’t be silly – what will you eat?’
‘I’ll toast the rest of the bread and cheese; there’s more than enough for one.’ She scattered white pepper and salt over her bowl of meat and vegetables. ‘I wonder what it’ll be this time?’
‘So do I, but Mr Tyson didn’t give any details, and it’s pointless to speculate.’
‘The money will be handy, that’s for certain – we’d never have managed till next quarter-day on what you’ve got left. The Bradshaw business was months ago and you didn’t take enough for it.’
‘That was light work; all I needed to do in the end was intercept a couple of letters.’ The previous spring I had uncovered the younger Bradshaw daughter’s plan to elope with her dancing master; my work could be described as the Management and Prevention of Scandal (my brother used to enjoy making up facetious advertisements for my services – ‘Blushes Spared and Broken Commandments Mended!’).
‘Anyway, that was dull as ditchwater,’ Mrs Bentley said. ‘Let’s hope the sins are bigger this time.’
‘I’m not wishing for any more sin in the world, ma’am – but there’s never a shortage, so why shouldn’t some of it come our way? You’re too charitable, that’s your trouble – and too blooming refined to ask for more money, when folk certainly ain’t too refined to cheat you.’
Overfamiliarity is, of course, a dreadful quality in a servant; this was one of the first principles I had to get into the heads of the girls I used to train up for domestic work. ‘You’ll never rise out of the scullery if you take that tone,’ as I told them. ‘You’ll be turning a mangle until doomsday.’ But Mary Bentley was more than a servant to me. Mary Bentley was a friend I trusted with my life, and she had an endless fund of the plainest common sense; her shrewd eye for human falsity had been invaluable in all my cases.
I had been living with her in this narrow, sooty, inconvenient house in Hampstead for more than two years. On the day that I came to look at the place, my husband had just died, and our house in Bloomsbury had been broken up and sold. I had been looking for a small place near my brother in Highgate, but there was nothing suitable in Highgate that I could afford (Fred couldn’t help me; his wife’s lavish housekeeping ate his income up to the very limit), and I had come to Hampstead because it was busier than its sleepy neighbour, with cheaper lodgings to be had.
Well Walk was a bustling, workaday street and Mrs Bentley’s house was practically next door to a tavern. I didn’t see how I could possibly live in this shabby little terrace, with carts and drays rumbling past all day. I had done my best to put a good face on things, and I really don’t think pride is one of my besetting sins, but at that moment, on that damp February morning, I felt how far I had fallen – Matt would have been so sad to see me. I had been as brave as everyone expected me to be, but there were times when my longing for him, and my sense of how solitary I was without him, pierced me like a knife.
The door of this unpromising house was opened by a small, spare old woman. At first glance I took her to be ancient. The thin frizz of hair underneath her cap was snow-white. Her brows and lashes were white and her pale eyes held only the washed-out memory of blue. But she was wiry and vigorous, and simply pale in the way that very fair-skinned people and white mice are pale. Once upon a time (as she told me later), her hair had been flaming red. Her five sons and her tribe of grandchildren were all red-headed; she had scattered ginger across every north London village from Golders Green to Kentish Town.
Mrs Bentley was talkative, and while I was examining the fireplace in the front parlour, she told me that she had once, many years before, let rooms to the poet John Keats.
I was off my guard, aching for the lost half of my soul, and a great tenderness and sorrow came over me. Matt had a fondness for poetry that I often told him was unsuitable in an archdeacon. I was only teasing – it was our shared weakness for poetry that drew us together in the first place. I saw myself as I had been at twenty-two, dreaming my way through the long summer days of our engagement, reading Matt’s letters that bristled with romantic quotations from Wordsworth, Crabbe, Young – but mostly Keats, the highest romantic of them all, whose verses he particularly loved.
Now Matt was gone, as thoroughly as if he had never existed, and I was a poor, childless widow of two-and-fifty – ‘In drearnighted December,/Too happy, happy tree,/Thy branches ne’er remember/Their green felicity –’
I found, to my mortification, that I was weeping.
Mrs Bentley said, ‘There, there, ma’am!’
Ignoring my feeble protests, she marched me down to the kitchen, where the fire was, and told me that I needed ‘something to keep the cold out’.
I sniffed that a cup of tea would be most welcome.
‘Tea be blowed,’ said Mrs Bentley.
She made a little jug of brandy and hot water, with a spoonful of sugar, and it warmed us into a state of confidentiality. I spilled out the story of my husband’s sudden death, and the annuity he never got round to providing for me. Mrs Bentley told me about the rheumatism which prevented her letting her lodgings to anyone more demanding than a single lady. At this moment, the supposed social gulf between us was meaningless; we were two lone women, struggling for a place in this cold world. By the time the jug was empty I had even told her about Fanny.
‘I’m living with my brother and his wife at the moment, and I can’t endure much more of her.’
‘Wants rid of you, does she?’
‘Worse – she’s counting on me to stay in that tiny room overlooking the stables and teach the children for nothing. She thinks that’s what a poor female relation is for.’
‘Oh, I know all about that,’ Mrs Bentley said. ‘When Bentley died, all my sons’ wives were wild for me to give up the house and move in with them as an unpaid nursemaid. You should stand up for yourself more, ma’am. I could make a beautiful little place for you here, and you’d be at nobody’s beck and call.’
And so the bargain was made and Fanny had to keep her expensive governess, much to her annoyance. I had the house in Well Walk thoroughly cleaned and repainted; I installed the few bits and pieces I had salvaged from my old home – most precious of all, the portrait of my beloved Matt by Edwin Landseer, which was presented to him by the Diocese of London the year before he died (and is so like him that it can still, after all this time, make me weep if I gaze at it too long).
Mrs Bentley’s youngest son nailed up pictures, curtain rails and shelves. I discovered that my neighbours were an interesting mixture of busy tradesmen, out-at-elbow young writers, retired sea-captains, bankers, actors and vagabonds of every class. Matt would have loved it.
He would also have loved Mrs Bentley’s stories about Keats and his two brothers, though her memories were not very poetic. More than thirty years earlier, the late Bentley had worked as the local postman. Mary Bentley had been a young wife bringing up five little boys, and to make ends meet, she let serviced rooms to gentlemen. Into this crowded house had come the poet and his two younger brothers – how they all fitted in is still a mystery to me. According to Mrs Bentley, the Keats brothers were very nice young men, though Mr John had the sauce to complain about the noise, and he once lost his temper when it poured with rain and she had to dry the boys’ worsted stockings on the stairs. It was the last house, she said, where the Keatses had all lived together and been happy. Matt would have laughed at me for taking this as good omen. ‘By God, Letty,’ he would have said, ‘what a romantic old boiler you are!’