Episode Twenty – ‘Corpses & Corporeality’, Part Two

                                                     12 Gay Street,

                                                      Bath,

                                                      1st April 1818

My dearest Lucy,

                       I did not expect to find myself writing to you again so soon, before you have even had chance to reply to my last letter, but I felt I simply must send you this brief note to acquaint you with the very sad event we have just experienced here. I fear I am not much good with the gentle phrasings and soft words which ought to accompany such tidings so I will just come right out and say it. Poor dear Captain Crowley has passed away! It was most unexpected, occurring as it did right in the middle of Mrs Grace’s party yesterday. He seemed perfectly well and in fine spirits at the start of the evening but sometime after supper he simply sat down in the window seat and died. Of course, everyone here in Bath is very sad at his loss (and I rather fear Mrs Grace was especially put out as it necessarily entailed the abandonment of what had been, until then, a most successful party).

        Word of the tragedy has already been sent to the Captain’s wife in Dorset (poor woman – barely six months a bride and already a widow!) and his son in London. They are both expected here by the end of the week when Capt C will be laid to rest at St Swithin’s, an event for which I am sure we can expect a good turnout. In the meantime Capt C has been laid out at his lodgings at Mrs Rosscommon’s and Mama and I are to accompany Rev Miller there after church tomorrow morning to pay our respects.

        This is a most melancholy time to be sure but I think we may console ourselves with the knowledge that the Captain had led a full and happy life. I trust you will not think me too frivolous if I go on to express my wish that this sad business will not put too much of a dampener on the season as a whole. I am, of course, still very much looking forward to your being able to join us in Bath just as soon as you are able. Do keep in touch and let me know when we might expect you.

        All my very best to Henry and young William.

               Your loving friend,

                       Emily.

******************************

     Michael and I were making what felt like our twentieth circuit of Queens Square when we finally spotted Emily approaching along Barton Street in the company of her mother and Reverend Miller. We immediately cut a hasty detour, doubling back along Princes Street before nipping through an alley above Beaufort Square, so that we might spring out upon them with every appearance of our paths having crossed naturally.

     “Why Miss Somerton, Mrs Somerton, Reverend Miller!” exclaimed Michael with a smooth bow. “What a delightful surprise!”

     It was, of course, nothing of the sort, the encounter having been carefully planned from the instant we had overheard the news of their intended visit at Mr and Mrs Walton’s supper party the previous evening. Our entire morning had in fact been organised in the hope of casually bumping into the group to see if we might cadge an invitation to tag along.

     “I can’t believe we’re aiming to gate-crash a wake,” I had somewhat weakly protested to Michael at the time of our plotting.

     “It’s not exactly gate-crashing as such, we have every right to honour the dearly departed,” Michael had retorted. “Besides, Mrs Rosscommon’s is one of the few houses in the area we haven’t yet looked around. We might not get a better chance.”

     So here we were, fixing on our brightest smiles and most endearing manners. Emily and Reverend Miller responded warmly to Michael’s opening gambit but Mrs Somerton merely fixed us with a frosty smile. She undoubtedly represented the biggest obstacle to our goal. We were well aware that we were neither of us her favourite people. She suspected (not, I had to admit, without good cause) that I was liable to lead her daughter astray and Michael was in possession of two characteristics which, when taken in common, set the alarm bells ringing in the eyes of any mother of an unmarried daughter, namely a dashing manner and a mysterious past. Therefore, I opened our campaign with due caution.

     “Such a lovely morning, isn’t it?” I remarked brightly. “We were just planning on taking a stroll up to the Crescent. Would you care to join us?”

     “I’m afraid we are expected at Mrs Rosscommon’s,” Mrs Somerton quickly replied.

     “We’re going to pay our respects to dear Captain Crowley,” explained Emily.

     “Poor Captain Crowley, such a tragic loss,” noted Michael with due solemnity.

     “Indeed, indeed,” agreed Reverend Miller. He was a portly, garrulous man in his mid-forties whom we viewed as a potential ally. He seemed to have selected his profession less from any true spiritual vocation than for the opportunity it afforded him for poking around in other people’s lives. In fact, until the invention of the role of either psychiatrist or gossip columnist it was hard to see another job he could have chosen that would have suited his personality so well.

     “We hadn’t known the Captain long but he seemed such a dear old man,” I remarked, fixing the Reverend with one of my most wistful smiles.

     Mrs Somerton seemed to sense the danger and made a move as though to hurry the party along but she was just a fraction too late. Reverend Miller suddenly tapped his walking cane on the floor in the manner of a man who has just had the most brilliant idea and jubilantly declared, “Now why don’t you come along with us? Even if you hadn’t known the Captain long there’s no reason why you shouldn’t pay your respects also.”

     “Well, if you’re sure it wouldn’t be too much of an imposition?” replied Michael hesitantly.

     “I’m sure Mrs Rosscommon could have no objections,” insisted Reverend Miller cheerfully. “And I always say that grief is a burden best shared, don’t you think?”

     “Oh yes,” agreed Emily enthusiastically.

     Mrs Somerton merely pursed her lips together and bowed to the inevitable.

     So we turned our footsteps down the street and made our way across town together. Mrs Rosscommon’s house lay at the southern extremity of fashionable Bath, in a sort of hinterland where the houses were manifestly less smart without quite falling out of respectability altogether. The housekeeper who opened the door to us was rather old and bent and the parlour to which we were admitted had a certain sheen to it, that glossy yet worn look of a place where the furniture has been patched up and the carpets scrubbed clean just once too often.

     Mrs Rosscommon herself was a plump, kindly-looking woman who carried precisely the same air of having seen better days as her home. She appeared to take her position as custodian of the Captain’s mortal remains very seriously. She had sewn thick black bands around the sleeves of her grey dress and wore a permanent expression of vague anguish that may have represented genuine sorrow at the Captain’s passing or perhaps just deep regret at the loss of a paying tenant.

     “We’ve put him in the dining room for now, he always liked it in there,” she solemnly informed us. “It’s a fine room, it catches the sun for the best part of the day. I don’t think it’s asking too much of my other tenants that they take their meals in the kitchen for a day or two, do you?”

     We all hastened to assure her that we didn’t think this too much to ask at all.

     “I wouldn’t like anyone to think I hadn’t done right by the Captain, he’s been with me so many years now. It just won’t be the same without him.” She paused for a dignified sniff. “Would you like some tea before you go in to see him?”

     Reverend Miller, who I suspect was rather more comfortable with the living than with the dead, readily agreed and so we all settled down to tea. During the somewhat stilted conversation that followed Michael managed to drop enough compliments about the house to finally entice Mrs Rosscommon into giving him a full tour of her residence. Unfortunately, after a swift circuit of every floor from basement to attic he returned to the parlour disappointed, conveying to me with a regretful shrug of his shoulders that there was no sign of a hidden room of Sturridge’s prison lurking anywhere within.

     Our business here thus effectively concluded, I would gladly have made an excuse, if only I could have thought of one, and departed. But having effected our entry on the premise of wishing to pay our respects to Captain Crowley it would doubtless have looked a bit odd if we had gone away without giving him the slightest glance. In truth nobody seemed especially eager to get on with the business of respect-paying and it was only once both tea and conversation had entirely dried up that Reverend Miller, with some reluctance, suggested we should perhaps get on with the viewing of the body. We had just risen from our seats, bracing ourselves for the task ahead, when we were stopped in our tracks by an unexpectedly violent jangling of the doorbell.

     Everyone looked around, quite nonplussed as to how to react. Mrs Rosscommon adopted a rather pained expression as though it were a personal embarrassment to her that somebody should have dared to ring the bell at such an awkward moment. We hovered anxiously as muffled voices could be heard at the front door, followed by footsteps shuffling along the hall and finally the parlour door opened and the aged housekeeper announced in a tone of mild surprise, “Mrs Crowley to see you ma’am.”

     She had barely time to finish her sentence before she was virtually flattened against the wall as the woman herself, clearly not in the mood to be kept waiting, swept into the parlour. The Captain’s widow was, as had been foretold, some years younger than her late husband, probably not much more than thirty in fact, with a generous figure and a polished pink face artfully framed by a careful array of blonde curls. Like Mrs Rosscommon she had sewn black mourning bands around the cuffs of her dress but they somehow contrived to look both more showy and more temporary than those of the landlady. Having burst so dramatically into the room Mrs Crowley stood and glared suspiciously around at the assembled company as though she thought it entirely possible she might just have caught us all red-handed in some form of conspiracy against her.

Enter The Widow Crowley

     Reverend Miller was the first to recover from the surprise. “Dear Mrs Crowley, please forgive us if we appear a little taken aback at your arrival. We were not expecting you in Bath so soon.”

     “I set off just as soon as I heard the news and urged the driver not to spare the horses,” replied Mrs Crowley defiantly. “I could not bear to linger in Dorset a moment longer than necessary.”

     “Of course, I quite understand,” said Reverend Miller. “May I say how sorry we all are for your loss. Captain Crowley was such a popular man. Our small party arrived here this morning with the express purpose of paying our respects to your dear husband.” He went on to introduce first himself and then each of us in turn. We offered up a succession of sympathetic nods and vague words of condolence which Mrs Crowley appeared to accept as no more than her due.

     “I am right then in thinking that his body rests here until burial can be arranged?” said Mrs Crowley.

     “It was thought to be for the best,” confirmed Reverend Miller.

     “I suppose that when tragedy strikes away from home one is obliged to rely on the kindness of strangers,” said Mrs Crowley. “I hope that everything has been done well, has it not?”

     “I’ve always done my best to take good care of the Captain, I’m sure,” asserted Mrs Rosscommon, puffing her chest out ever so slightly. “We’ve laid him out in the dining room. It’s a fine room, it catches the sun for the best part of the day.”

     Former wife and former landlady stood, eyeing one another for a moment with a distinct whiff of heavyweights circling the ring, before Mrs Crowley produced a weak smile and said, “I’m very grateful for your attentions, I’m sure.” She turned back to Reverend Miller. “Has John been here yet?”

     “John?” repeated Reverend Miller uncertainly.

     “John Crowley, the Captain’s son,” explained Mrs Crowley.

     “Oh no, I’m afraid he has yet to arrive.”

     “But he has been notified of his father’s passing?” said Mrs Crowley.

     “Certainly,” confirmed Reverend Miller. “Word was sent to London at once. We expect him by coach in just a day or two.”

     Mrs Crowley digested this news with a strangely satisfied expression. “Well then, I think I should like to see my husband now if I may,” she finally said.

     “Of course,” replied Reverend Miller. “Perhaps you would like me to…” He offered up his arm.

     “Thank-you but if you don’t mind I feel I should prefer to be alone with him, for a little while at least,” said Mrs Crowley. “I’m sure you understand.”

     Reverend Miller bowed solemnly.

     “The dining room is just across the hall, first door you come to,” announced Mrs Rosscommon. “Do call if there’s anything you need.”

     Mrs Crowley nodded and swept back out of the room. The rest of us resumed our seats at something of a loss for what to do next. The tea had all been drunk and taking up any kind of conversation would have felt quite unnatural in the circumstances. However, we had been sat for barely a moment before the silence was punctured by a sudden shriek from just across the hall. Everyone looked around in surprise. Mrs Crowley had hardly seemed the type to be inconsolable in her grief and anyway the shriek had sounded rather more indignant than sorrowful. Everyone was still wondering how to respond when it was followed up by a sharply cried out command of, “Reverend Miller! Mrs Rosscommon! Do come at once!”

     The vicar and the landlady shared a perplexed glance before getting to their feet and heading out of the door. The rest of us hesitated for just a moment, glancing furtively at one another, before curiosity got the better of us and we each jumped up and hurried out after them.

A door on the other side of the hall stood open onto the dining room and we rushed straight in. It was, as Mrs Rosscommon had asserted, a fine room, broad and high-ceilinged with two large sash windows through which the morning sunlight flooded. The bright atmosphere was somewhat subdued by reams of black crepe which had been hung around the walls and across the large dining table, on top of which stood an open coffin. Mrs Crowley was standing on the other side of the coffin with a quite furious look upon her face.

     “What have you done with my husband?” she demanded, indicating the interior of the coffin with a dramatic gesture.

A missing corpse

     Mrs Rosscommon and Reverend Miller stepped forward and peered inside the wooden box with due trepidation. Then they looked up at one another in confusion before gazing back down into the coffin.

     “But I… I don’t…” spluttered Mrs Rosscommon, completely at a loss.

     “How extraordinary,” muttered Reverend Miller, turning helplessly around as though one of us might offer up an explanation for the confusion.

     Curiously I edged a little further forward and peered down into the coffin to see for myself.

It was entirely empty.

“But he was here only this morning,” murmured Mrs Rosscommon in bewilderment.

     “Good gracious,” declared Reverend Miller. “Somebody appears to have stolen Captain Crowley!”

**********************************

     “This business of the missing body is going to cause quite a scandal,” remarked Michael thoughtfully as he and I were enjoying afternoon tea at Sally Lunn’s Coffee House later that day.

     “You don’t say,” I murmured distractedly by way of reply, being too busy with the act of spreading a carefully measured layer of jam over my bun to pay him too much attention.

     “Everyone will be talking about it,” continued Michael, undeterred by my apparent lack of interest. “They’ll all want to know what’s become of Captain Crowley.”

     “I suppose so,” I muttered casually.

     “I don’t think we can rely on the police to find out what has happened,” went on Michael.

     “I don’t think there is a police force in Bath at this time, is there?” I said, looking up briefly.

     “Exactly!” declared Michael. “And I wouldn’t hold out much hope for any decisive action from the parish constable.”

Tea-time

     I conjured up an image of the parish constable, a wheezy, arthritic figure we had occasionally encountered tramping the streets of Bath with a lantern in hand, and was obliged to nod in agreement.

     “Yet people will be looking for answers,” remarked Michael. “Now then, if we could only figure out what happened…”

     “I don’t see that it has anything much to do with us,” I remarked.

     “It doesn’t, technically,” conceded Michael.

     Thinking the matter thus concluded, I turned my attention to the pouring out of the tea, which in this pre-teabag era was a delicate business of strainers and carefully calculated angles.

“But just think how popular we’d be if we were the ones to solve the mystery,” Michael pressed on with an eager gleam. “Every drawing room in Bath would be open to us. I’ll bet even grand old Lady Swannage will be ready to issue us with an invitation!”

     I looked up from the teapot and regarded Michael with an expression of shock and dismay. After all these months travelling together I figured I’d become pretty familiar with most of his faults (a penchant for particularly pungent forms of tobacco, occasional fits of vanity – well, he was an actor after all – and a tendency towards irritatingly unwarranted bursts of optimism being chief among them) but one vice I had never thought to accuse him of was snobbery. But it seemed the atmosphere of Regency Bath had affected him more than I had realised for here he was, social climbing with the best of them.

     Michael soon caught on to the meaning of my gaze and gave an exasperated shake of his head. “There’s no need to look at me like that,” he protested. “I’m not chasing after Lady Swannage’s approval, it’s only her house I’m interested in. The more I think about it the more I’m sure it has to contain Sturridge’s hidden room. We’ve checked off just about every other house in the area.”

     “Oh, I see,” I said, putting down the teapot and picking up the milk jug with some relief. “But this seems like a rather convoluted way of securing an invitation. There must be an easier way of getting in than by hunting around Bath for some mouldering old corpse.”

     “If you have any other suggestions I’ll be glad to hear them,” noted Michael with the mildest air of huffiness.

     I thought hard about it but by the time I’d finished pouring the milk I still hadn’t come up with anything more constructive than a murmured, “Hmmm.”

     “The alternative is that we continue with the evenings of polite conversation in the hope that we might eventually meet someone with the right connections to swing us an invite,” Michael remarked. “Of course, it might just take the rest of the season…”

     “Alright, alright! Let’s see if we can’t dig up the late Captain Crowley then,” I finally agreed. Michael noted my acquiescence with a satisfied smile and took a sip of his tea. I took a bite out of my bun. It was quite delicious. “What’s more,” I added with a sly smile, beginning to warm to the idea, “I think I know the perfect place to start.”

To be continued…

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