July 16th, 1881:
Dr. Abberley came to see me today, and Ethan is cursing his foolishness for ever letting him in the door. According to the good doctor, my form is fragile, and he recommends Ethan and I refrain from intimacy until the child is born. Naturally, Ethan hit the roof, and called Abberley a quack and a charlatan and all manner of terrible things before I was able to calm him down. He has been sulking ever since, and truth be told, I rather tire of it. I am not thrilled about the restriction either, but I can endure it with grace for the sake of my son. Is it too much to ask that my husband do the same?
Well, no matter. Lord, I am so excited to meet you! You have not quickened yet, but that should come any day now. My hands are always on my belly these days, eager to catch that first little kick.
I pray I will be a good mother to you. I fear I did not have a good example myself. Auntie told me my mother was once a very beautiful, poised woman, but my few memories of her are of a sad, washed-out, hand-wringing little creature. Baby blues are commonplace, of course, but she could never shake them for some reason.
Sometimes I wonder if I did it. If I was too dreadful. All I know for certain is that she killed herself when she learned she was pregnant again.
Oh, but what am I saying? You need not hear of that! You are my dearest joy, and I live for your happiness. Soon you will be in my arms, where you are most wanted. Then, I swear, nothing tragic will ever stain these pages again.
“Anybody else feel like we’re barking up the wrong tree again?” Joshua said as the group trudged along a muddy path on the outskirts of Hallsbury.
“Now, now, children,” Watson said, “be patient. Just because no one has wanted to help us so far doesn’t mean the next person we see won’t either.”
He shot Holmes a wry look at this, which the detective flushed slightly at but otherwise ignored.
“They deserve the chance, at least,” Pippa insisted. “And it’s not as though we have many other options.”
Holmes nodded, then pointed through the trees at a small, charcoal blue cottage. “This should be it.”
Tramping though high weeds, they approached and knocked. A small, nervous woman opened the door. “Can I help you?” she asked, tucking her black ringlets behind her ears.
“Mrs. Amy Gundry?” Watson asked. “Beg pardon, but we were hoping to speak to you about your experiences serving at Merrimore House.”
Immediately the woman tried to shut the door, but Pippa caught it with her hand. “Please, madam, you are not in trouble. We are on your side. We just need to know what happened.”
“Happened, milady?” Gundry looked around frantically, a drowning woman in search of shore. “Nothing happened. I worked there until a better position opened up, then I left, that’s all.”
“A better position, but with reduced pay?” Holmes said. “There must have been some considerable benefits to taking that job, and so quickly too. Why don’t you tell us what they were?”
“We know about your pension,” Joshua said.
The maid went pale but stood her ground. “Lord Hallsbury took care of his staff. Paid his debts, he did, what’s strange about that?”
“What nature of debts, though?” Pippa asked, “and why such a high amount for so long?”
Gundry backed into the house, wringing her hands. “Listen, I dunno what you’re on about, but just leave me alone, hear? I never made trouble for nobody, I don’t want no trouble made for me, please, just go.”
Pippa and Joshua instinctively tried to push forward, but Shekhar pulled them back. Removing his hat and rounding his shoulders, he stood well away from the door, speaking to Gundry as softly as a thought.
“We are not here to harass you, madam. If you are certain that you have nothing you wish to share with us, we will of course leave and never again disturb you against your will,” he said. “All we ask is that you take some time – a moment, a day, a week, whatever you need – to be sure whether or not there is anything you have been waiting for the opportunity to say. For we simply hope to be that opportunity.”
Gundry hesitated for a long time, chewing a hangnail, before letting them in with a bitter laugh. “S’pose it was gonna get out sooner or later, what with Master Oliver’s trial. No point fighting, is there?”
In the center of her one room flat was a small, well-scrubbed, circular table. Holmes and Pippa sat while Watson and the boys stood. Gundry busied herself with the kettle.
“That’s quite alright, we don’t need anything,” Pippa said, but Gundry continued fussing, if only to have something to do with her hands.
“Were there many more?” she asked, tying leaves in a cheesecloth and dropping them in the pot.
“More what?” Pippa asked.
Gundry shot her a disbelieving glare over her shoulder. “More girls. I always knew there was others, but if you’re bothering to track me down, there must either be only a couple or else too many to count.”
Pippa clenched and unclenched her interlocked fingers. “The latter, I’m afraid.”
“Oh.” The lid of the kettle rattled as Gundry put it back in place. Her breathing was shallow.
“Listen,” Watson said, hurrying over to help with the cups, “why don’t you start by telling us how you came to work for Lord -”
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather get it over with, sir,” she said. The kettle began to hiss and Gundry made an identical sound out of the corner of her mouth. “Funny, that’s what I said then, too.”
The kettle screamed. Gundry let it go for some time before taking it off the stove. There were audible splashes as she poured.
“When did it happen?” Pippa asked.
“When we were 16,” Gundry said, looping her fingers through the mug handles and passing them out with remarkable balance. “So like ’76, ’77 maybe? I dunno how exact you need it to be. I know it was around Christmas on account of the smell.”
“Smell?” Holmes asked.
Gundry scratched at a chip in her mug with her fingernail. “I was cooking mince pies when it happened. Whole time, I smelled them burning. Still can’t make ’em anymore.”
“People must have been up then,” Pippa said, frowning, “if the ovens were still lit. There must have been staff about, people who saw or heard something.”
Gundry smirked humorlessly. “Fancy that,” she muttered. The scratching sped up.
Holmes pondered the woman, wearing the same expression he had with Folley. “Sixteen is an early age for a man to acquire a certain reputation with women,” he said, “but I hazard this was not beyond Readham’s abilities.”
“And therefore,” he added, more gently, “I expect any young ladies who still associated with him at that point also acquired a certain reputation.”
The maid bristled. “I wasn’t like that, though. Sure, lots of girls flirted with him. He was handsome, and we were all young, you know, no young girl is going to complain about a good-looking lad hanging about. But I wasn’t interested like that. He didn’t seem interested either, at first.”
Her lip trembled. “He was just…friendly. Real friendly. We joked around a lot, and sometimes he’d help if I was running the stoves late, even though it weren’t his place to do so. So I didn’t think anything of it when he came downstairs that night.”
She pulled at a loose thread in her cuff and fixed her eyes on the far window, speaking so softly they had to strain to hear. “He laughed the first time I moved his hand off me. So did I, to tell you the truth. I was embarrassed, but figured, ‘Well, he’s used to fooling around with the kitchen girls, maybe I did something to make him misread me, egg on both our faces but no real trouble.’ But when I told him no again, he…changed.”
“Changed?” Joshua repeated.
“Yeah, his eyes, they…they sort of…” She looked at Pippa and swallowed hard. “They looked like yours normally, but as he worked himself up, the whites went more and more bloody. Didn’t even look human by the end. Didn’t look like he’d ever been human.”
“Sounds about right,” Shekhar muttered darkly.
Watson stared mournfully into his tea before saying, “You told us there were other staff members in the area. Why did no one come to your aid?”
“Why the hell do you think?” Gundry snarled. “No point getting two people sacked ‘stead of just one, not when it wouldn’t make any difference what they saw or said.”
A strange, aching look crept over her face, and she pulled her shawl tight against some imagined chill. “Not that I managed to scream anyway. He kept his arm across my throat, and he was much bigger than me. I was pinned to the table, but even when he got off I couldn’t make a sound. Felt like a stone looking up from the bottom of a well.” Her voice cracked. “I’ve never known why. I wish I did. God, I wish understood.”
“I wish I could give you a satisfactory answer, Mrs. Gundry,” Holmes said, “or at least that I could promise the prosecution would not ask for one at trial. They likely will hit on that point quite viciously, however, and it is fair that you be aware of that before you testify.”
“Testify?” the maid shrieked, jumping out of her chair.
“Surely you want to!” Watson said, nonplussed. “Innocent lives are at stake, and you have nothing to fear from Ethan Cotton anymore.”
“He’s not the only Cotton though, is he?” Gundry said, tearing at her hair. “My children are in service, sir – why, my eldest is Lord Stanhope’s groom! What will become of him, if I speak ill of his cousin?”
“Speak ill?” Pippa said. “Speak true, you mean? There are bound to be other families you could serve, ones who would appreciate your honesty and courage.”
Gundry shot her a half-furious, half-pitying glare. “Pardon my frankness, milady, but you look me in the eye and tell me your father was the first and last gentleman to get away with forcing himself on the help.”
Pippa’s insides dropped sickeningly. “Ah. Right.”
“Right.” Gundry shook her head. “I’m sorry, madam, but if I turn on one man – even a dead one – the others will just circle their wagons, and I’ll be blacklisted. You can have my story, but I’m afraid you can’t have me.”
She escorted them to the door, but, as an afterthought, caught Pippa by the sleeve as they were leaving. “Tell it to Lady Folley, though, if she’s a mind to hear it,” she said quietly. “Might be a kindness to her, knowing he was like this before she come along. Knowing she’s not alone.”
Folley was indeed one of many, as the ledger proved, but as the days went on the group found none able to take the stand with her. The week was a parade of frightened eyes and bolted doors.
“My husband doesn’t know,” Janet Callahan whispered, peering over her shoulder into her flat. “Please, if he found out, he’d wonder about me. Wonder about our boy. I can’t lose him, please.”
The red-headed April Thompson ran three blocks when they saw her on the street. “I’ll be sacked,” she wept, tearing at her braids when Pippa finally caught up with her. “I work for Justice Evans, and everybody knows his son’s the same way. He’ll never allow it unpunished.”
The same was true for Penny Vale, who did not even come out to meet them. Instead, a contract was nailed to the door, stating that she had agreed not to disclose any information regarding her employer or his relations to any outside party. Pippa scowled when she saw the name Lord Henry Van Den Burg, Marquis of Catesby, written beneath Penny’s signature with a flourishing hand.
Mary Waterson laughed when they came to her. “Listen, I’d love to give that bastard another kick in the jewels, even if he’s in the ground,” she said, tightening the wrap around her dark curls. “And I’m not scared of his family. They should’ve drowned him at birth, and I’d be happy to tell them so. But who are we kidding?”
She stuck her arms out and turned her hands over twice. Her palms alone were pink. “You don’t want to put a black woman on the stand, Mr. Holmes. Not really, I can see it in your face. My story is true as silver, but that’s not going to matter up there. Hell, I’d be lucky to make it in the door.”
Her husband stood a little ways off, chopping wood all the while. The longer they spoke, the harder he swung, but each blow was more glancing and uneven than the last. He did not seem to notice. He just stared at the same spot on the chopping block, striking down with trembling hands, as though if he did it enough the world would split open, grow teeth, and devour itself.
The only truly enthusiastic volunteer was a Miss Sally Potter, who wrote to Baker Street in a near-indecipherable, all-capital scrawl. The story, as far as Pippa could follow, seemed consistent with the others, but the envelope was marked, “CARE OF BROADMOOR HOSPITAL,” across the top and back. She intercepted it by chance, and carried it in her pocket for three days, Waterson’s words ringing in her ears, before throwing it away without telling anyone.
We need to win, she told herself, and a madwoman’s word won’t help us. All the same, the letter folded and unfolded itself in her dreams.
Thus, it was in bleak spirits that the group approached the hard-faced brunette hanging laundry behind Banrock Manor. “Mrs. Sarah Brown?” Holmes said.
The Irish woman shook out a towel with a hard snap. “S’pose I shouldn’t be surprised. You’ll be that fella from the crime stories, right? Heard you been poking into everyone’s business.”
“Heard from who, may I ask?” Holmes said.
She snorted. “From folk who don’t want to be next on your list.”
“That doesn’t narrow it down,” Shekhar muttered.
“Mrs. Brown, we do not mean to intrude,” Watson said. “We simply wish to ask you a few questions about your tenure at Merrimore House.”
“Nothing noteworthy to ask about,” she said, “no matter how much you want to make something of it.”
“Then why are you in my grandfather’s accounts?” Pippa said, pulling the book out of her bag. “Why did he keep paying you after you left his service?”
Brown shrugged. “Lord, I know they en’t handing them out like they used to, but you have heard of a pension before, haven’t you, milady?”
“Not one that kicked in while the servant was still in her thirties,” Joshua said.
“Nor one that was never accepted,” Shekhar added.
Brown blinked at this, and her hands stopped mid-fold. “What are you talking about?”
“My grandfather paid you by check.” Pippa took out the bank records tucked in the ledger and handed them to Brown. “2 pounds a month, every month, since May of 1889. That’s 234 pounds, more than a chambermaid would make in three decades. Yet you never cashed them. Not one.”
A muscle jumped in Brown’s jaw. “Wasn’t aware that I had to, milady, beg pardon,” she said through gritted teeth.
“You don’t. You don’t have to do anything. But it does make me wonder why,” Pippa said.
“I don’t take things I didn’t earn.”
“Most people would have.”
“Yeah, well, just because your grandfather accepted things he shouldn’t have doesn’t mean I have to,” Brown snarled, her fingers suddenly clenching so hard on a tablecloth it threatened to tear.
Watson gently took the cloth from her and pinned it on the line himself. “No one is asking you to, Mrs. Brown.”
The woman adjusted the clothespins with a cold laugh. “No, you just want me to get up in front of the whole country and hope they think I’m too pathetic to shoot down. Well, nothing doing, sir. I don’t have the right kind of sob story you’re looking for, and I wouldn’t sign it over to you if I had.”
The boys turned to go at this, accustomed to defeat, but Pippa held her arms out and stopped them. “What do you mean, it’s not the ‘right kind’ of story?”
Brown hesitated, then sighed. “Look, I heard what happened to Penny Vale, years ago. Heard what happened to all those poor girls since. But it wasn’t like that with me. I got off light, you see, I sleep easy, no reason to complain.”
“Then why not talk to us?” Pippa said. “What do you have to lose?”
“You mean, apart from everything?” Brown snorted, but she nonetheless fixed Pippa with an appraising eye. Finally, after a staring match, Brown pinched the bridge of her nose. “Look, I’ll tell you what happened only so’s you’ll ken it’s not worth your time, okay? Then you should be on your way.”
“Fair enough,” Pippa said, trying not to dig her heels into the dirt too visibly.
Brown gathered up a handful of clothespins and turned her back to them, calmly stringing shirts as she talked. “I’d only been working a couple months before he came home from school. Wasn’t sure he wanted to go to university, see.”
She sneered. “He was nice to me right away, but it was too nice, and it was really only me. I’d heard about him already. Knew not to be alone with him.” She picked at a loose thread in a sleeve. “Well, that didn’t matter in the end, he found a way.”
“How?” Watson asked.
“Merrimore’s full of passages,” Brown replied. “Servants are supposed to be invisible, so if your master walks in unexpectedly, you can just pop behind the bookcase.”
“And Lord Readham did the reverse,” Holmes said.
Brown nodded. “Caught me in the study unawares. Put one hand over my mouth and the other down my blouse.”
“Was there a struggle?” Holmes asked.
“Course there was,” Brown said, glowering at him. “That’s what made it so hard for him to explain when Daddy walked in.”
“My grandfather saw?” Pippa said, agog.
“Yeah. Readham tried to play it off like we were just having a normal tumble, but I saw the look on Hallsbury’s face.” She clipped a dress onto the line with an audible snap. “He was scared. He knew. He knew right away.”
“And he sacked you anyway?” Shekhar said incredulously.
“Round about,” Brown muttered. “He accepted my resignation. I had to offer it, of course, but I gotta admit, I never expected him to be such a coward as to take it.”
“And I presume Readham went unpunished?” Holmes said.
“Naturally,” Brown hissed. “Just skipped off to France so he could do it out of sight. Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Holmes, he wasn’t the first smarmy cove to cop a feel, so he didn’t shake me none. But he did a lot worse after, from the sound of it, and I don’t think he would have if his father headed him off at the pass.” She folded a skirt over her arm, exhaling hard. “Guess it don’t matter now, though.”
“It can,” Pippa said. “All you have to do is testify.”
Brown burst out laughing. “Oh, that’s all, is it?”
“Listen, if you’re afraid of the Cottons, we swear to do everything in our power to shield you from retribution,” Shekhar said.
“I’m not scared of the Cottons,” Brown said, shaking her head.
“Then who are you afraid of?” Joshua asked.
“Nobody, I just…” The woman wrung her hands. “Just don’t wanna hurt your case, that’s all.”
“What do you mean?” Pippa said.
Brown reached the bottom of the laundry basket, but scratched the bare wicker frantically before replying.
“I saw that picture of Lady Folley in the paper. The one where she’s hugging her daughter,” the maid said quietly. “And I read her confession. She’s suffered – really suffered, and everyone can see it, but they still say the most godawful things about her. If that picture, that pain, isn’t enough…who the hell’s ever going to listen to me? If I’m not broken, why would they care at all?”
Pippa bit her lip. “I can’t give you a good answer to that,” she said at last, “and I can’t promise they’ll care. But can promise Folley will, and if you ever felt anything for the woman in that picture, the time to show it is now.”
Brown rolled the basket across her hip for a while, staring up at the sky. “Fine,” she said, so softly Pippa could barely hear. “If it can’t help, I reckon it can’t hurt either.”
She hurried uphill towards the manor, then paused at the crest, spun around, and called, “I’m cashing those checks then, Cotton!”
The men laughed, but Pippa stared pensively at the ground. Joshua elbowed her quizzically.
“Why the long face?” he asked. “We finally won a round!”
“Sarah Brown left Merrimore in 1878. Grandfather knew the whole time.” She clenched her fists, and did not unclench them the entire way home.