Elegy for Eddie, p.1Jacqueline Winspear
Elegy for Eddie
A Maisie Dobbs Novel
OLIVER AND SARA
And Allah took a handful of southerly wind, blew
His breath over it, and created the horse.
For evil to happen, all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing.
Once in a while you will stumble upon the truth but most of
us manage to pick ourselves up and hurry along
as if nothing had happened.
About the Author
Also by Jacqueline Winspear
About the Publisher
Lambeth, London. April 1887
Maudie Pettit pushed the long broom back and forth across the wet flagstones, making sure every last speck of horse manure was sluiced down the drains that ran along a gully between the two rows of stalls. Night work at Starlings Brewery suited Maudie, because the grooms and drivers were just leaving when she arrived in the evening, and there was only the night watchman there, and one stable boy who slept in a hayloft over the harness room, just in case a horse was taken ill. Maudie was all of sixteen, and though an observant woman with a measure of common sense could see that she was in the final weeks, if not days, of pregnancy, her long skirts and a loose blouse topped with an old coat served to cloak her condition. Disguise was crucial, because if the guv’nor found out, she’d be out on her ear with a new baby and no job to keep the poor little scrap. Maudie had been born in the workhouse, and she was determined that not only would she not be going back there, but her baby wouldn’t be born in the workhouse either.
From the time she was twelve years of age, Maudie had cleaned the stalls at the brewery every night, and then gone on to the morning shift at the pickle factory, and sometimes picked up a bit more work at the paper factory in between. She had precious few hours each day to mind her own business, but considered herself lucky to have a roof over her head and fellow lodgers who looked out for her. Jennie and Wilf were brother and sister, born in the workhouse a few years before she came into that ugly world. But as luck would have it, all three managed to live beyond the age of ten to find honest work outside. And they stuck together, eventually renting two upstairs rooms on Weathershaw Street from Mabel Hickmott, who was, as Jennie often said, “Madam by trade and madam by nature.” All the same, Mabel left them alone and didn’t want to know their business as long as she had the rent money in her hand on time.
“Owwwwww,” Maudie bent double, clutching her swollen belly with one hand, and holding on to the brass bars of a stall with the other. The old mare, Bess, turned away from her feed and came to investigate the noise.
“Shhh, Bess, it’s only the baby moving, love. You go back to your mush, go on.”
The mare nickered, brushing her soft mouth against Maud’s fingers. Maudie loved the mare. The draft horses at Starlings were all geldings, but Bess had been there for years, and was used to draw the guv’nor’s cart when he went out to the pubs to check on business. They said that having the old mare at the stables kept the geldings in check, that she’d sort out any funny business with just one withering look across the stalls. Some of the stable lads were a bit scared of her, having felt a nip when they brushed her too hard. But Maudie always kept a treat for Bess, and would stop for a moment to run her fingers through the horse’s mane.
“Oh dear God, Bess, my darlin’, the baby’s coming, and here I am in a manure gulley.”
Maudie pulled herself up and began walking up and down again, pushing the broom back and forth, even though the flagstones were now as clean as anyone had ever seen them.
“Got to keep moving, haven’t I, eh, Bess? That’s what Jennie said to do, if she wasn’t at home when the baby came.” She blew out her cheeks and stopped to rub her back. The horse did not return to her mush, but stood watching as Maudie walked first one way, then the other.
The girl’s work didn’t end until midnight, after the brass fittings on the stalls had been cleaned and the floor of the harness room was spick and span. She needed the money—good Lord, she needed the money, especially if she couldn’t go to the pickle factory tomorrow—so she had to carry on. She clenched her teeth to stop herself from crying out again. Then she dropped her broom and reached out towards the bars of the stall once more.
“Oh, no, the baby’s really coming now.”
She was alone. The stable lad and night watchman were likely playing cards and taking a nip or two of whiskey in the feed room, which was just as well. She didn’t want anyone to know. She just wanted to lie down and have her baby. Taking a deep breath, she slipped the latch on the mare’s stall. Old Bess stood back and nuzzled Maudie’s pocket, then moved her nose across the rise of her belly.
“That’s right, old love, my baby’s in there and he’s wanting to come out. Let me lay down with you, just for a minute. He might change his mind and the pains will stop.”
Maudie piled hay in the corner of the stall, covered it with her coat, and lay atop the softness. Old Bess leaned down and nickered, her nose close to the girl’s head.
“Leave me be, Bess, love. I’m all right, in truth I am.”
Soon the pains became almost too much to bear, and as she felt the baby move, Maudie clutched at her underclothes and pulled back her skirts. Tears cascaded down her face; tears for the pain, tears for fear she’d be found out, and tears of terror because she might end up in the workhouse once more. Again and again she took a deep breath and pushed, and at last felt the baby’s head, then his shoulders, and then, in her arms, her son, who squealed, announcing his arrival.
“Oh Bess, oh Bessie, now what am I to do? Now what? I don’t know what to do.” Still crying, she started to clean the baby with the sleeve of her blouse.
The mare leaned towards the baby boy squirming in Maudie’s arms and began to lick his head, then his arms. Maudie lay back, astonished, exhausted, and too worn out to push the giant horse away. Then the mare looked up, her ears twitching back and forth.
“You there, Maudie? Maudie? You there?”
It was the stable lad.
“I’m here . . .” She almost faltered, and without thinking, placed her hand across the baby’s mouth, for fear he would cry. Then she unbuttoned her blouse and lifted him to her breast. “Just making a bit of water in the mare’s stall, if you don’t mind turning your back and walking out again, Harry Nutley.”
Bess was standing by the door to her stall, looking out and giving young Nutley the eye that said that if he came close, she’d go for him.
“Well, we’ve just brewed up, and there’s a cuppa here for you, if you want it.”
“Much obliged, Harry. I’ve just got to do the brasses and the harness room floor, then I’ll be going home.”
“All right, Maudie.”
She heard his footsteps recede into the distance, and muffled voices as he and the night watchman continued on with their ta
Jennie had never told Maudie what to do if there was no one to help when the baby came, but she knew she had to cut the umbilical cord. She pulled a length of ribbon from her underskirt, tied the lagging cord in two places, then the new mother leaned forward and used her teeth to separate her son from her body. She breathed deeply, looked down at the baby as he continued to suckle.
“What shall we call him, eh, Bess?” she whispered. “They say my dad was an Edwin, not that I ever knew him. Died from the consumption before he even saw me. So I’ll call him Edwin. Little Edwin Pettit. Got a ring to it, eh? Eddie Pettit.”
And as if the mare had understood every word, she stood over mother and child and nickered.
There are those who say Maudie Pettit was seeing things that night. They said the terror of having her boy in the stables at Starlings Brewery had been too much for the girl, and she’d had the sort of vision you hear about. But Maudie stuck to her guns, and always maintained that when old Bess leaned over them, Eddie raised his little fist and pressed it against her nose, and with that one touch from a newborn baby, the horse closed her eyes and sighed; then she turned around, pawed her spot, and lay down alongside the hayrack. Maudie said it was the mare who woke her before dawn, while the stable boy was still in his loft and the grooms and drivers had yet to arrive. The girl washed her underskirts in cold water and threw the soiled hay on the pile of stable debris at the back of the brewery courtyard, covering it with more hay so no one might wonder what had taken place. And as Maudie Pettit told it, when she walked away with her son in her arms, Bess called out to her, whinnying for her to come back. She said it was like having a guard of honor, with the horses all lined up to watch her leave, staring at the bundle in her arms as she walked past the stalls. Maudie always said that, even then, with only a few hours of life to his name, her Eddie could calm a horse just by being close.
London, April 1933
Maisie Dobbs pushed her way through the turnstile at Warren Street station, then stopped when she saw Jack Barker, the newspaper vendor, wave to her.
“Mornin’, Miss Dobbs. Paper today?”
“Mr. Barker, how are you this morning? It’s very close, isn’t it? Summer’s here before spring!”
“At least it ain’t as hot as it is over there in America—people dying from the heat, apparently. Mind you, at least they can have a drink now, can’t they? Now that their Prohibition’s ended. Never could make that out.”
“You know, you’re the only newspaper seller I know who reads every single one of his papers,” said Maisie. She took a coin from her purse and exchanged it for the day’s Times. “And there’s been a lot to read this year already.”
“Ever since all that business about the bodyline bowling over there in Australia, it seems it’s been one thing after another—and not very nice things, either. Not that I hold with bad tactics in cricket, whether it’s ours or theirs, but I’m glad England kept the Ashes all the same. Mind you, not my sort of game, cricket.”
“Jack, I have to confess, I still don’t know what that was all about. I never could quite understand cricket.”
Maisie’s comment fell on deaf ears, as Jack Barker continued his litany of events that had come to pass over the past several months.
“Then there was all the noise about that Adolf Hitler, being made Chancellor in Germany. What do you reckon, Miss? Seems the bloke’s got people either worried or turning cartwheels.”
“I think I’m on the side of the worried, Mr. Barker. But let’s just wait and see.”
“You’re right, Miss Dobbs. Wait and see. Might never happen, as the saying goes. And then we’ll all be doin’ cartwheels, eh? At least we’re not like them poor souls in Japan. I know it’s a long way off, the other side of the world, and can’t say as I’ve ever met one of them in my life—don’t expect I ever will—but they say it was one of the worst earthquakes ever. Hundreds killed. Can’t imagine what that would be like, you know, the ground opening up under your feet.”
“No, neither can I—we’re lucky we live in a place where that sort of thing doesn’t happen.”
“Oh, I reckon it happens everywhere, Miss Dobbs. I’m old enough to know it doesn’t take an earthquake for the ground to break apart and swallow you; you only have to look at all them who don’t have a roof over their heads or a penny in their pocket to put some food on the table.”
Maisie nodded. “Never a truer word said, Mr. Barker.” She held up her newspaper by way of a wave and began to walk away. “I’ll look for the good news first, I think.”
Jack Barker called after her. “The good news is that they reckon this weather will keep up, right until the end of the month.”
“Good,” Maisie called back. “Makes a nice change.”
“Might be a few thunderstorms, though,” he added, laughing as he turned to another customer.
She was still smiling at the exchange when she turned into Fitzroy Square. Five men were standing at the foot of the steps leading up to the front door of the building that housed her office; one of them stepped forward as she approached.
“Miss Maisie Dobbs?”
“Yes, that’s me, how can I—oh, my goodness, is that you? Mr. Riley? Jesse Riley?”
The man doffed his cap and smiled, nodding acknowledgment.
“And Archie Smith—” She looked at the men in turn. “Pete Turner, Seth Knight, Dick Samuels. What are you doing here?”
“We were waiting here for you, Miss Dobbs.”
“Well, come in then. You could have waited for me inside, you know.”
Maisie unlocked the door, wiped her feet on the mat, and dropped her umbrella into a tall earthenware jar left alongside the door. The weather might be fine this morning, but she always took an umbrella with her when she left the house, just in case.
“Follow me.” She turned to speak again as she walked up the stairs. “Was there no one in to see you?”
“Oh yes, Miss. Very nice young lady came to the door when we rang the bell. She said we could wait for you, but we didn’t want to be a nuisance. Then the gentleman came down and he said the same, but we told him we’d rather stand outside until you arrived.”
Maisie could not quite believe how the morning was unfolding. Here they were, five men she hadn’t seen since girlhood, waiting for her on the doorstep, all dressed in their Sunday best, in the flamboyant way of the cockney costermonger: a bright silk scarf at the neck, a collarless shirt, a weskit of wool and silk, and best corduroy or woolen trousers, all topped off with a jacket—secondhand, of course, probably even third- or fourth-hand. And each of them was wearing their best flat cap and had polished their boots to a shine.
Maisie opened the office door and bid her two employees good morning as she removed her hat and gloves. “Oh, and Billy, could you nip next door to the solicitor’s and ask if they can spare us a chair or two,” she added. “We’ll need them for an hour at least, I would imagine.” She turned to Sandra, who had stood up to usher the men into the room, which at once seemed so much smaller. “Oh, good, you’ve brought out the tea things.”
“We told the gentlemen they could wait in here, Miss Dobbs.”
“I know. It’s all right.” She turned to her visitors. “I seem to remember this lot can be particularly proud, can’t you, Jesse?”
The man laughed. “Well. Miss D—”
Maisie cut him off. “I was Maisie to you when I was a girl, and I’m Maisie now. There’ll be no standing on ceremony. Ah, here we are, more chairs. Thank you, Billy.” Maisie smiled at her assistant as he returned with several chairs stacked one on top of the other. “Come on, all of you, take a chair, sit yourselves down and tell me what this is all about—I can’t ever remember having a delegation of costers greet me, and at this time in the morning.”
Sandra had taken the tray with china and a teapot to the kitchenette along the corridor, and in the meantime, with the men seated around her, Maisie perched on the corner of her desk
“We’ve come about Eddie. Remember Eddie Pettit?”
Maisie nodded. “Of course I remember Eddie. I haven’t seen him or Maudie for a few years, since I lived in Lambeth.” She paused. “What’s wrong, Jesse? What about Eddie?”
“He’s dead, Miss—I mean, Maisie. He’s gone.”
Maisie felt the color drain from her face. “How? Was he ill?”
The men looked at each other, and Jesse was about to answer her question when he shook his head and pressed a handkerchief to his eyes. Archie Smith spoke up in his place.
“He weren’t ill. He was killed at the paper factory, Bookhams.” Smith folded his flat cap in half and ran his fingers along the fold. When he looked up, he could barely continue. “It weren’t no accident, either, Maisie. We reckon it was deliberate. Someone wanted to get rid of him. No two ways about it.” He looked at the other men, all of whom nodded their accord.
Maisie rubbed her arms and looked at her feet, which at once felt cold.
“But Eddie was so gentle. He was a little slow, we all knew that, but he was a dear soul—who on earth would want to see him gone?” She paused. “Is his mother still alive? I remember the influenza just after the war had left her weak in the chest.”
“Maudie’s heart is broken, Maisie. We’ve all been round to see her—everyone has. Jennie’s looking after her, but Wilf passed on a few years ago now. The grooms down at the bottling factory, the drivers at the brewery, everyone who looked after a horse in any of the boroughs knew Eddie, and they’ve all put something in the collection to make sure we give him a good send-off.”
Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes