I confess I found her, upon our introduction, an unlikely candidate for a romance. It were fashionable, though, to make the attempt, and in other circumstances I might have thought it approaching an honour to have been granted the opportunity. As it was, on this night my hat hung listlessly from my hands; my eyes could not find their rest; and my feet shifted in the footprints of a long line of gallants that had drifted through the streets of London before finally and inevitably arriving at the Lyceum to wrack upon the rocks. It has long been my opinion that actresses can do no less than deserve their reputations. They traffic in mass seduction, which necessitates putting many a man to scorn who could not hold firmly in his mind that, when the curtain fell, his role in her life ended as much as hers in the play.
Miss Rebecca Smith cultivated admiration as a gardener would a rose; but as she could not tend equally all those who reached up from the dirt to hold her eye, many quickly turned into corruption, and left the city scattered with thorns that she might, in stooping to pluck a favorite, catch her cheek and stain the affair with blood. In two years, no less than four unacknowledged suitors had quietly resigned from lucrative posts in the City, or disappeared from the comfortable lodgings of their families--though not before posting to her apartments in Doughty Street letters of a highly undecorous nature. These four gentlemen, it had been presumed, had wisely chosen to remove themselves from the entire fashionable world following their dismissal from the area behind the stage, doubtless urged on by the shame resultant from their desperate missives' publication in several popular magazines. For some time, their absence left Ms. Smith to pursue in relative peace the heights of the profession to which, the gazetteers enthusiastically reported, her many attributes so appreciably recommended her. For these six months she had thought herself to have perfected that balance of allure and coolness that would fill the house but not encourage any men to aspire beyond the curtain. Alas, it seems her powers were beyond her capacity to regulate them; for it is only a fortnight gone by since she received a note that gave her sufficient discomfort to contact me.
I received her letter and a copy of that note, the last of several from her recent suitor, whilst at my home in Gough Square. The letter was writ in a well-practiced hand; the result, I imagined, of time spent in a finishing school, or perhaps the fruits of a large-minded father who saw fit to provide her an education above that commonly enjoyed by the rest of her sex. She requested, with some urgency, that I attend her following her performance this Saturday in Holcroft's A Tale of Mystery. My love for the stage being minimal, and this particular piece being a turn-of-the-century body foolishly dug up and dusted off for new display, I determined to spare myself the performance and time my arrival to its close.
Naturally I am a cautious fellow, and as the streets of London may present certain challenges to even the most experienced traveler, I made sure not to leave without my pistol.
Her powder was too liberally applied. Beneath its luminescent pallor may have been a woman worth the trouble she had caused; though in her mind and my demeanour she was blameless. I waited for a quarter-hour amongst the countless bouquets of flowers at her door, gloved hands behind my back as if her butler or valet. Several well-dressed gentlemen slunk about the corridors at a distance, no doubt chary of approaching a door now apparently guarded. None would come near. I took a moment to review the troubling note, so that if need be I could refer to it from memory, and thus prove myself a man of parts. Perhaps, I thought, its bitter loathing might help me to defend myself against its cause, as Perseus' shield showed him the Gorgon's face but left him uneffected. And thus it went:
Why do you deny me? That there were others I do not dwell on, nor view as an impediment to a happy and successful marriage. Have I not been devoted? Have I not offered good testament, and made clear that I esteem you above all others, and more, and ever more, and beyond even those who, if they could not rest in yours, made haste to oblivion's always open arms? But no; you stubbornly persist. Know this: that your strong resistance only enflames my resolution, and I will have you in my arms til your strength fail. This note finds you at your home, in the unwatched hours of the night; so might I; so will I. What recourse will you have then, when whilst alone and undefended my armed and outraged love creeps quietly upon you? Imagine that embrace; our first, and so hot with passion; proceeding in long moments unto our last--and so then cold, as lovers who with surcease of love must part, though in their parting none go to the grave. I will see you wed at last. I will see your unending devotion. There is a kiss yet to be had which you nor any other can deny; and I will see that love, the only you deserve, and the only which now would have you. And though you be betrothed unto another, yet, I think, at the last, I shall keep your heart all for my own, as you have kept the hearts of those who came before me. For well I know what you have done to them; and I will not suffer the same, though you do ensnare me. What is the word that--how did it go--but I know it not, nor ever did. I am coming. Until then, I remain...but no--for this time, you shall not.
A fierce composition, to be sure, but I thought it had rather too much of the theatre in it. As I finished reading, and noted the time, I began to think the theatre had rather had too much of me in it, and moved to go--but as I did the door opened, causing a mighty stir amidst those slinking, servile and so called gentlemen. I occupied a strange place in the hierarchy; a lowly servant, but a servant with access--the satisfaction of which fact I let flash across my face when I slipped into the room, summoned by a firm but feminine voice without trace of warmth or welcome.
"Ms. Smith." I removed my hat.
"What did you think?" She wore an elegant dressing-gown, and though I saw but little it was more than should have been. She clutched it close about her neck with one hand, but with the other stroked the ivory-colored belt that at every moment threatened to divest itself of its native purpose.
"I did not seen the performance, miss."
"Of course you did not." She smiled, and began faintly to hum some lyrical sort of melody or other. Some moments went by before she turned to address her mirror.
"I am not a devotee," I explained.
"I should not have thought otherwise," she replied. She made no move to touch her face, but only stared at it, and me, whilst a finger played about her silken collar. "But I was referring to the note."
"From your admirer, you mean?"
"Your levity is out of place, I think; but yes."
"I thought it melodramatic."
"He is a devotee. How do you intend to discover him?"
"I did not understand that to be my charge."
"Did you not?"
"I am most often employed defensively."
"But you are armed."
Her eyes fell upon my body. I shifted my weight against the pistol concealed beneath my coat, and said nothing.
"Or so I presume." Her eyes turned back to the mirror. "You will please turn around now."
I turned to face the door and soon heard the rustle of fabric falling to the floor. I saw something of a shadow move across the walls; it was neither discrete nor discreet. She continued to hum her little tune; an airy lullabye I felt I knew but was likewise sure I had not heard before. She had a voice matched to her face--beautiful, perhaps, somewhere beneath the unnatural arts she had applied to it. She took time enough in getting dressed. The melody repeated as she stepped quietly, on bare feet, into her gown; the candlelight flickered with her movement. The silence pressed heavily upon me, and I wanted fiercely to break it, but was interrupted as I drew in air to speak by strangely familiar words, softly sung as though a whisper in my ear:
"Hush, they say to the grasses swaying; Hush, they sing to the clover deep! Hush—'tis the lullaby Time is singing--Hush, and heed not, for all things pass--"
I stood as if in a phantasy; for though the words receded back into a melodious hum, my mind searched deeply for the rest of the verse, sure as I was that I might accurately recall them with sufficient force of will. But no words came, and what will I had to think or move diminished as I felt her come up behind me.
"You may escort me home, now."
Her hand was on my shoulder. I turned to behold the same woman as I had first met, only now made up for more forgiving light. She appeared somewhat diffuse now to me eyes; softer, less intent, but still aglow under the candles. She had put off the harsh glare of the stage, and we left the Lyceum a delicate female and her wary guardian.
There were no eyes on her that I did not trust as we stepped into the cab. Indeed, there were none that dared to turn that I did not think to be on me. I had held her firmly by the elbow and moved her quickly through the crowd, which dispersed the more quickly, I surmised, for the free hand I kept inside my coat. As in the hall outside her dressing-room, men seemed not to hope to catch her gaze, but just the reverse: they seemed anxious to avoid it. Once underway, she spoke but little, preferring instead to look upon the gas-lights bleeding into the darkness along the Strand.
"This is unlike the previous instances of threats against your safety?" I asked.
She shuddered, and drew her cloak further up around her neck. Her breath caught the light, so I could see it to be rapid.
"I saw no sign of danger," I offered.
"Perhaps it saw you first."
Strange figures clung to the lights along the Chancery. Men in poor and tattered clothing lifted dented flasks and leered in the direction of the cab. Their malcontented murmurs and clinking bottles disrupted the steady rhythm of the horse's hooves upon the street, and I could tell my charge thought of them as if by their undirected malevolence they might somehow be implied in the gruesome end she imagined for herself. I knew her death at such hands as those could only be by accident; a clumsily executed attempt at robbery, ending in unlooked-for violence; the sudden and unexpected appearance of a pistol to overmatch a blade. I ran a thumb over the ice-cold cylinder under my arm. The hands at which she would die--if she must die--I knew, would surely be elegantly gloved; and their directing heart would not trade the speedy work of a knife-point for the tactile pleasure of closing their fingers slowly around her throat.
Again she started to sing. This time more softly, so that I had to half fill the words in, in my mind. Though still she never would complete the song, and still I could not do it for her. As she moved through the notes, her breathing slowed, and her shoulders slackened; after some moments, I too, found my hand had slipped away from the pistol. I had given my thoughts over to her, who had only been beautiful, and too strongly if unwisely loved by strangers. She must now be just shy of forty, and to be alone--
"Hush, and heed not, and fall asleep..." she sang.
There was something remarkable about this woman, I thought. Something I knew, or wished to know. It was there, just before me, and then not, like one of the street-figures coming in and out of the light.
He had writ on decent paper. That much, if nothing else, could be said on his behalf. His hand was as polished as hers, and the absence of a single blot upon the page suggested the draft he sent, and which I now held, had not been the first. She had kept it folded carefully in her bureau, atop a small stack of other correspondence still bound with black ribbon. Not enough time had passed for her to bind it with the others and so count the matter resolved; but there they were together, old and unrequited lovers piled and entombed within a drawer, the most recent yet still breathing and clutching at a life not his to take. Such love is cowardly. Should he come for her, I thought, he will find her less alone than he anticipated.
Miss Smith refused the modern convenience of the gas-light in her home, preferring there instead, as in her dressing-room, candles. I read by several in her sitting-room, left temporarily to my own devices as she went about some private business. Our approach to her door had not been well-met. Peering eyes levelled on my presence, and narrowed at my entry through her door. A late hour, a strange man, an actress with a troubled past--they must have taken me for another lovelorn scrivener in the making. I could not help but laugh at the fact that they would necessarily not see me emerge until morning, hopefully departing as quietly as I had come; for I intended to remain, to keep her safe.
Her song wafted through the openness of all her many empty rooms; now here, now there, so that it seemed to travel disembodied through the air. It went on endlessly, or seemed to; she never tired of it, and indeed it was a pacifying tune.
"...Hush, and heed not, and fall asleep; Hush, they say to the grasses swaying...are you quite comfortable? Mr...?"
"Pardon?" I thought that had been a strange thing for them to say to the grasses swaying, until after a moment I realized the question had been directed at me. I placed the letter in my pocket. "Yes, quite. Perhaps though it were better if you refrained..." But I could not say the rest.
From singing, I had meant to say, for fear that her voice might reveal her location in the night, and at once lull me to an ineffectual state. But that were weakness, and not to be admitted; and more, if she were encroached upon, then it might be hoped that he who sought her would devote all his attention to her song, and spare none for his defence. For this reason, and no other, I said nothing.
"May I ask you a question?" she went on, stepping silently into the room. Her feet were again bare, and again she appeared in a dressing-gown of ivory silk, drawn tight at the neck with one hand, though less than carefully tied. She gently lowered herself to the settee, and allowed her fingertips to play through a nearby flame. "Does tonight feel like a murder?"
Theatrics! I thought, and would have said, but for something in her look that left me ill at ease. "There is a chill in the air, Miss Smith," I replied. "But that is no more than a restless mind and an open window."
Shadows flitted over the walls in doubled figures, cast by moon and candle-light. Behind her still figure danced a myriad appartitious shapes, folding into one another as though a stage-trick meant to heighten scenes of witchcraft; a concert of phantasmagorical illusions.
"You have nothing to fear," I pronounced.
"We all have something to fear," she replied. "And though we may apprehend our danger, it is rare that we have time enough wisely to anticipate it."
"But you have," I said.
"Yes," she answered slowly. "I have."
The room grew dark about us. She quickly stood, and yet more quickly approached me where I sat, as if to throw herself upon me; but her movement suddenly arrested; her eyes widened and burned. They fixed me in my chair as if by force. I could not stir; and so I sat, ensorceled and transfixed, and thus she spoke: "Have you?"
I woke to the sound of a door creaking somwhere down the hall. The candles in the sitting-room had gone out, immersing me in blackness; Miss Smith had gone, I knew not whence nor when, but the heaviness of the step outside told me that, whatever I had heard before, what I heard now could not be her.
The singing, which last I heard whilst waking, had ceased; silence penetrated into every corner of the flat. As surreptitiously as possible, I slid out of my shoes and withdrew my pistol from my coat. From the sound, I knew he had already passed this room, so single-minded was he on completing his grisly quest. I followed, though darkness left me blind; he would not reach her, not before I had my hands upon his throat or he a barrel in his back. For a moment, I lost my way, but recovered it when in his madness he determined to menace her with speech.
"Where are they?" he demanded.
He got no response.
"What have you done with them?!"
My hand flew to my pocket. Of couse! I thought. His letters! I smiled, for he knew not I had the last and most damning of them all. Though he escape me tonight I would still see him hanged...
"Damn it, you vile whore," he shouted. "Where have you put them?!'
Believing now he meant to do her terrible and immediate harm, I leapt through the open doorway to her chambers. We collided, and grappled fiercely. I feared the worst, for she said not a word, nor could I see to verify her safety. He caught me unguarded whilst I tried to peer into the abyssal dark, knocking me back into something that shattered against my head. I lashed out with the butt of my weapon, meaning to pistol-whip him, for I could not risk firing blind; but the blows did not connect. I flailed wildly; I knew my hair and collar to be soaked with blood, and the advantage lost. He would have us both, this coward, and when I fell he would cut out her poor murdered heart! I howled, but my voice met only silence.
Utter stillness reclaimed the room. I took in a final breath, and held it, waiting for the blow. I could only hear my own heart, still beating, and beating strong, as hers was, and still should have been. I would have been lost--all had been lost--in those sad thoughts, had I not once more heard the sounds of singing--this time calling me back from the spectres of my mind:
"Hush, and heed not, for all things pass; Hush, ah hush! and the Scythes are swinging, Over the clover, over the grass!"
I turned, and fired; the flash was more blinding than the darkness. I saw not what happened next, but only fell, to fall asleep in the creeping warmth of spilled blood.
"Well sir, you're not much the worse for it, are you?"
"Am I not?" I asked, suddenly aware of a throbbing pain in the back of my head. Daylight poured in through the open windows, and the flat was alive with activity. The man addressing me wore the frumpled coat and knowing look of a police inspector.
"No sir, I think you'll recover. Which is more than can be said for your friend in the other room."
"Which?" I demanded, springing up to find myself haphazardly draped upon a sofa. "Whom do you mean?"
"'Whom, sir?" the man puzzled. His furrowed his brow at me. "Perhaps you've suffered a more grievous blow than I thought."
"What do you mean? Who else has been injured?"
"Sir--there's only one other person here, sir. A gentleman, shot once in the chest, and dead upon the floor in the lady's bedchamber. Do you own the deed?"
"I do. He meant her harm. He came to--"
"He came for the letter as was in your pocket, sir." He withdrew it partway from his own. "And nothing more."
His look was grave. I listened for a word of her from the hall, but none came. "What do you mean?"
"He meant her harm, sir, that much is past doubt; but he could do her no more than was done already, two nights ago--when he came at her in her dressing-room at the Lyceum."
My head swam; I could not have heard him correctly. "But...I was at her door there, and just yesterday, after the performance, and at her invitation."
"There was no performance, yesterday, sir. You are mistaken. She was discovered two nights ago, as I say, as cold as stone upon the floor. I'm afraid he came upon her quite suddenly--she hadn't time to properly close her dressing-gown before he got his hands about her throat. The marks they left...you could scarcely get at her door, last night, sir, for all the flowers left at it. I understand she was very much admired by..."
But here he broke off. My mind had shattered all too splinters, or so it felt. He looked me over quite thoroughly, my head in my hands, blood seeping through the bandage he or one of his men had applied. At last, he sniffed at me through his mustache. "...by many gentlemen. Yes, sir, you've clearly suffered quite a blow, there. I think we'd best help you to the street."
"Yes," I agreed, lost in the haze of memory. "Yes, I think I'd best go."
He lifted me to my feet. The letter and my pistol were to be taken into evidence; though, he explained, if I could produce the letter from Miss Smith in which she expressed her intention to engage my services, it would go a great length to mitigate the circumstance of my having killed her murderer. I quickly assented, and assured him I would retrieve it from my desk if he would be so kind as to attend me to my apartments. He nodded kindly, and handed me off to two constables who walked me down the stairs and into a waiting hansom. As the carriage wound its way through the streets of London, I could not help but hum her little lullabye, the words of which were now burned into my memory.
The lullabye used is "Scythe Song," by Andrew Lang (1844–1912). Its use here is anachronistic; it was written in 1895, several decades after this story is set.
"A Tale of Mystery" was first performed in Covent Garden in 1802, and is widely considered to be the first English melodrama.
"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go the grave with the song still in them." ~ Thoreau