Plodding around the cold house in my robe, I found all vestiges of last night’s party tidied up, everything cleaned and put away, the teakettle ready to be put on to boil, and an assortment of breakfast choices ready for me on the kitchen counter. I moaned and made only the tea.
The fireplaces had all been set but not lighted, and I had to fumble with forgotten flues before I had flames going in the parlour, study, bedroom, and kitchen. The sunlight and unusually warm weather that had made the entire Christmas week seem so strange had fled as the new year came in—it was grey, windy, and sleeting outside when I finally parted the drapes to peer out.
After finishing my mid-day breakfast, I considered my options. I had told George and Besse that I would probably spend the week at my club, but a query at the Athenaeum two days earlier had informed me that there were no rooms to let to members until the sixth or seventh of the month.
I could always return to Gad’s Hill Place, but Dickens was performing his murder before the unsuspecting public for the first time at St James’s Hall on Tuesday, 5 January, and then resuming his tour to Ireland and beyond—this abominable New Year’s Day I was suffering through was a Friday—and I knew his household would be in a buzz of preparation and rehearsal until then. I had Black and White to write, Fechter was in London right then, and the distraction and isolation of Gad’s Hill were the last things I needed.
But I needed servants, food prepared, and the company of women.
Still brooding about this, I wandered the empty house, finally looking into the study.
The Other Wilkie was there in one of the two leather chairs by the fire. Waiting for me. Just as I had expected him to be.
I left the study doors open, since there was no one else in the house that day, and took the other chair. The Other Wilkie rarely spoke to me anymore, but he did listen well and sometimes he nodded. Other times he might shake his head or give me a bland, noncommittal look that I knew from Caroline’s comments about my own expressions meant disagreement.
Sighing, I began telling him about my plans to kill Charles Dickens.
I had been going on in a normal voice for ten minutes or so and had just gotten to the part about Mr Dradles finding the empty space between the walls of the crypt under Rochester Cathedral and the efficacy of the lime pit on the puppy’s carcass when I saw the Other Wilkie’s opiate gaze shift up and focus on something over my shoulder. I quickly turned in my chair.
Agnes, George and Besse’s daughter, was standing there in her robe and nightgown and tattered slippers. Her round, flat, homely face was so pale that even her lips were white. Her gaze moved between the Other Wilkie and me, then back and forth again. Her small hands with their bitten nails were raised like a puppy’s paws. I had no doubt whatsoever that she had been there for a while and had heard every word I’d said.
Before I could speak, she turned and ran to the stairs, and I heard the slap of her slippers on wood continue on towards her room on the third floor.
Panicked, I looked back at the Other Wilkie. He shook his head more in sadness than in alarm. His expression alone told me what I had to do.
EXCEPT FOR THE FIREPLACES, the house was now dark. Outside, the Christmas week that had been so warm was ending on a New Year’s Day night ice storm. I kept rapping on Agnes’s door.
“Agnes, please come out. I need to speak with you.”
No response but sobbing. The door was locked. Candles were lit in her room, and from the shape of the shadows glimpsed in the crack under the door, she had pushed some heavy bureau or washstand up against that door.
“Come out, Agnes, please. I didn’t know you were here, in the house. Come out and talk to me.”
More sobbing. Then—“I’m sorry, Mr Collins… I ain’t dressed. I ain’t well. I didn’t mean to do nothing wrong. I ain’t well.”
“Very well, then,” I said calmly. “I’ll speak to you in the morning.”
I went back down to the dark parlour, lighted some candles, and found the note I’d missed earlier in the day. It was from George and had been left on the mantel:
Mr Collins, Sir:
Our daughter Agnes is sick. She was coming with Besse and me to Wales but we did think better of it early this Morning, as the Poor Child has Fever. It would Not Do, we think, to bring High Fever to two Death Beds.
So with your permission, Sir, we leave Agnes behind under your Care and Protection until next Tuesday, when I (George) hope to Return to Your Service, no matter what the Disposition of Besse’s parents’ Fates be.
She can cook for you, Sir. (Agnes) After a fashion. And though that will not be up to Your Standards, she will keep the place Clean if you choose not to spend all the time at Your Club. At the very least, Mr Collins, she will let the Burglars, as she Recuperates and carries out her Humble Duties, know that the House is not Empty in your Absence.
How had I not noticed the paper hours earlier when I had wrestled with the flue and lit the fire? I started to throw the note into the fire but then thought better of it. Careful not to wrinkle it, I set it back on the mantel where I had found it. What to do?
Too late for that now. I needed to deal with this first thing tomorrow. And for that I needed money.
I WOKE AT dawn on Saturday, the next morning, and thought about the situation. As the grey light grew stronger in the room—I’d left the heavy drapes pulled back the night before for just that purpose—I noticed that there was a tidy stack of the Other Wilkie’s notes on the straight-backed chair near the door. I hadn’t noticed them the day before, but they had probably been written that night, since Frank Beard had been kind enough, in the early morning hours after our New Year’s Eve dinner party, to inject my morphine before he’d left. Most of my Droodish dreaming and dictation occurred while under the influence of morphia.
There was no immediate urgency. I kept telling myself this. Whatever the dull-witted girl had overheard was safe within these walls until her parents returned—or at least until George came back.
It fascinated me, as I lay there in the big bed with the light coming up, how little attention I had paid to Agnes’s presence over the years. At first she had simply been the extra little mouth to feed (but not to pay)—a side condition to my hiring of George and Besse, who were themselves a compromise as servants: never terribly efficient, but always very cheap. With the money I had saved with George and Besse’s wee salary over the years, I had always been able to hire a fine cook when necessary. Actually, the rent I received from the stables behind the big house there at Number 90 Gloucester Place paid for Agnes’s parents’ salaries with a good bit left over.
Agnes—with her chewed fingernails, flat, round face, constant clumsiness, and slight stammer—had been so familiar a part of the background here (and at Melcombe Place before this) that I simply thought of her as part of the furniture. For years she had also existed for me less as a servant than as a counterpoint to Carrie’s intelligence and good looks, although the girls had played together when they were younger. (Agnes had been too dull and unimaginative a playmate to hold Carrie’s interest once both girls were out of their nursery years.)
But what to do now that the girl had seen the Other Wilkie and overheard me describing my plans to murder Dickens?
I needed money, that was certain. The sum of £300 came to mind. Lying there visible and tangible in bills and gold coins, it would be a staggering fortune to the simple-minded girl, but not so much as to seem abstract to her; £300 seemed about right for what I was to propose.
But where to get it?
I’d spent the last of my cash and written too many personal cheques over the past few days, obtaining tickets for the pantomime, purchasing gin and champagne for the party, and paying Nina Lehmann’s new cook for the feast. The banks were closed until Monday, and although I knew the manager of my bank, it simply would not do for me to show up at the door of his home on a weekend, asking to cash a personal cheque for £300.<
Dickens would loan that amount to me, of course, but it would take half the day for me to get to Gad’s Hill Place and back. I did not want to leave Agnes alone here for that length of time. She had no one with whom to speak with her parents and Carrie gone, but there was no guarantee that she would not write and post a letter in the time I was absent. That would be disastrous.
And I also did not want to raise Dickens’s curiosity as to why I needed £300 that weekend.
The same applied to other people in London who might have loaned me that amount of cash on a moment’s notice—Fred or Nina Lehmann, Percy Fitzgerald, Frank Beard, William Holman Hunt. None would let me down, but all would wonder. Fechter would never ask me why I needed that particular sum and would never worry about where it went or if he would ever get it back, but Fechter was—as always—broke himself. Indeed, I had made so many personal loans to him in the past year and poured so much of my own money into “theatrical expenses” (as yet unrecouped), first for No Thoroughfare and now, already, for Black and White (even though the writing for it had just begun), that I was in some financial difficulty myself as the new year began.
After I had bathed and dressed especially well, I heard bustling coming from the kitchen downstairs.
Agnes had also dressed to the apex of her poor ability—the thought that she was in her best clothes to travel caused a flurry of panic in me—and was in the process of fixing a full breakfast for me as I came into the kitchen.
The girl actually flinched, pulling back into a corner.
I gave her my warmest and most avuncular smile, even as I held both hands up, palms towards her, and stopped in the doorway to show her that I held no aggressive intentions.
“Good morning, Agnes. You are looking especially lovely today.”
“G-g-g-g-good morning, M-m-m-m… Mr Collins. Thank ’ee, sir. Your eggs ’n’ beans ’n’ bacon ’n’ t-t-t-toast is almost r-r-ready, sir.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “May I sit here in the kitchen with you to eat it?”
The idea obviously horrified her.
“On second thought, I’ll have it in the dining room as always. Has the Times arrived?”
“Y-y-y-yess—yesss—sir,” she managed. “It’s on the dining room table, as always.” She omitted the second “sir” rather than get stuck on it again. Her face was a bright red. The bacon was burning. “D-do you want coffee this mornin’… Mr Collins… or tea?”
“Coffee, I think. Thank you, Agnes.”
I went in and read the paper and waited. Everything on every plate she brought was either burned or raw or—somehow—both at once. Even the coffee tasted scorched, and the girl slopped it into my saucer when she poured it. I ate and drank it all with every sign of relish.
When she came in to refill my cup, I smiled again and said, “Can you sit down and talk to me for a minute, Agnes?”
She looked at the empty chairs at the table and gave me another look of horror. Sit at the master’s table? Such things were not done.
“Or stand, if you’re more comfortable with that,” I added amiably. “But I think we should chat about…”
“I di’n’t hear nothing las’ noon,” she said in a tumble of rushed syllables. The main word came out as nothink. “N-n-nothing at all, Mr Collins, sir. And I saw nothing as well. I di’n’t see anyone else there with you in your study, Mr Collins, I swear I di’n’t. And I heard nothing…” Nothink. “. . . about Mr Dickens or nobody and nothing else.”
I forced a chuckle. “It’s all right, Agnes. It’s all right. My cousin was visiting…”
My cousin, yes. My identical-twin cousin. My Doppelgänger cousin. My perfectly identical cousin of whom I had never spoken, never mentioned to George or Besse. Identical down to the glasses and suit and waistcoat and belly and hint of grey beginning in the beard.
“. . . and I would have introduced you to him if you’d not left in such a hurry,” I finished. It was hard to hold such a wide and gentle smile in place for so long, especially while speaking.
The girl was shaking from head to foot. She had to set one hand on the back of a chair to help hold her upright. I noticed that the already-bitten nails were now bleeding.
“My… cousin… is also a literary gentleman,” I said softly. “It’s possible you heard the tag end of a fanciful story we were devising… about the murder of a writer somewhat like Mr Dickens, whom you know has visited here often and would have been amused by our tale. Like Mr Dickens—we used his name as a sort of shorthand—but not really Mr Dickens, of course. You are aware that I write sensationalist stories and plays, aren’t you, Agnes?”
The girl’s eyes were actually fluttering. What would I do if she fainted or screamed or ran out into the street in search of a constable?
“At any rate,” I finished, “neither my cousin nor I wanted you to get the wrong idea.”
“I’m sorry, Mr Collins. I di’n’t see nor hear nothing.” She repeated this four times.
I set down my paper and pushed back my chair. Little Agnes jumped half a foot into the air.
“I’m going out for a few minutes,” I said briskly. There would be no more mentions of last night from me. Ever. “I shall be back shortly. Would you be so kind as to iron my eight best evening dress shirts?”
“They was ironed by Mum jus’ before she left,” managed Agnes, her voice constricted. At the words “Mum” and “left” her eyes grew moist and her hands shook more fiercely.
“Yes,” I said almost harshly, “but they were not ironed to my satisfaction. I’m going to the theatre several times this week and will require those shirts to be perfect. Could you do that at once, please?”
“Yes, Mr Collins.” She ducked her head and left with the coffeepot. As I went to the foyer closet to find my overcoat, I could hear the iron being heated in the kitchen.
I had to keep her busy the next hour. I had to be sure she would have no time to write and send a letter, nor time enough to think and then run away.
If I could keep her here the next hour, there would be nothing for me to fear.
MARTHA R—— WAS HAPPY to see me at her door. She was always happy to see me at her door. And her door was only a short distance from Gloucester Place, and I’d been lucky enough to find an empty cab leaving Portman Square near my home. With a little more such luck, I’d be back before Agnes had ironed the first shirt, much less before she had time to write and go post a letter.
At first blush, Martha—known to her landlady and other Bolsover Street residents as “Mrs Dawson”—would be an unlikely place to find £300, despite the fact that I gave her a most generous allowance of £20 per month. But I knew Martha’s habits. She purchased almost nothing for herself. She ate frugally, sewed her own dresses, and got by on very little. She always set aside some of the money I gave her monthly and had brought some savings with her from Yarmouth.
I told her what I needed.
“Of course,” she said and went into the other room and came back with £300 in various bills and coins.
I had not taken off my overcoat and now I thrust the money into my coat pocket and opened the door. “Thank you, my dear. I will return the amount first thing Monday, after the banks open. Perhaps before then.”
Her voice stopped me. She rarely called me by name.
“Yes, my dear?” I had to work to keep the impatience out of my voice.
“I am with child.”
I blinked rapidly behind my small round glasses. My neck was suddenly very warm and prickly.
“Did you hear me, Wilkie? I am with child.”
“Yes, I heard you.”
I opened the door to go but paused. She had no idea how precious were these seconds and minutes I was giving her. “How far along?” I asked softly.
“I believe our child will come in late June or early July.”
A little over two months ago, then. It had been that night in October
I smiled. I knew I should take three steps forward and put my arms around her—I knew that Martha expected this, even though she usually expected or asked for so little—but I could not. So I smiled instead.
“We shall have to raise your allowance when the time comes,” I said. “Perhaps from twenty pounds to twenty-five pounds.”
She nodded and looked down at the worn carpet.
“I shall return this three hundred pounds as soon as I can,” I said. And then I left.
COME INTO THE PARLOUR, child,” I said.
Agnes had been ironing my third shirt when I returned. I’d left the cab waiting outside. During the ride back from Bolsover Street, I’d given careful thought to where the girl and I should have our conversation. The kitchen was too informal… and I did not want her in that room yet. Normally, I would have asked a servant who needed a talking-to to come into my study, but that would have frightened Agnes now. So it was the parlour.
“Sit down, please,” I said. I had taken the large leather chair near the fire and I waved her to a lower, less comfortable wooden chair I had pulled into place. This time my tone left no room for her not to comply.
She sat. Her eyes were down, focusing on nothing save for her red hands folded on her lap.
“Agnes, I have been giving much thought recently to your future.…”
She did not look up. Her entire body was trembling slightly.
“You know that not too long ago I placed Carrie… Miss G——. . . in a wonderful position as governess to an excellent family?”
She said nothing.
“Speak up, please. You are aware of Miss Carrie’s new position?”
“Yes, sir.” The syllables were so soft that an ember crumbling in the fireplace could have muffled them.
“I have decided that it is time for you to have the same opportunities,” I said.
She looked up then. Her eyes were as red-rimmed as her fingernails. Had she been crying while she ironed?
Drood by Dan Simmons / Horror / Mystery & Detective / Fantasy have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes