Episode Twenty – ‘Corpses & Corporeality’, Part Four

My dearest Lucy,

                       I was delighted to receive your letter this morning but I am once again so sorry to hear of your continuing troubles. I can well understand how anxious you must be over young William’s health but I hope you will not take it amiss if I dare suggest that perhaps your worries may be a trifle excessive. You have, after all, the reassurance of both the doctor and your friends that it is nothing more than a passing sniffle (your neighbour, Mrs Stepney, in particular sounds like a most sensible woman full of good advice – having brought up seven of her own you must surely allow that she knows a thing or two about these matters!). And I am quite sure that Henry does not mean to be unfeeling about it all – only I am sure he must have such a lot on his plate with all the parish business just now. I think it sounds very much as though all three of you could do with a change of scenery – the sooner you are able to arrange your stay in Bath the better.

        And, oh Lucy, what a lot of excitement you will find when you get here! By now you will have received my letter telling you of the sad passing of Captain Crowley. Well, you will never believe what happened next – the Captain has been stolen! His body was taken from out of Mrs Rosscommon’s dining room where it had been laid out for people to come and pay their respects and the theft was discovered by none other than his widow, Mrs Crowley herself! As you can imagine, this has caused quite a scandal. Everyone is just desperate to know what has become of the poor Captain’s remains.

        Well, if I can trust you to keep my secret, dear Lucy, I will tell you that I have vowed to do more than just wonder! Together with my friends, Miss Everingham and Mr Redgrave, I have been making enquiries and – oh Lucy! – you would not believe what we have so far discovered! I dare not commit the details to paper and our investigations are still far from complete but I promise you that I will tell you the whole story just as soon as you get here. When all is fully revealed it promises to be the most thrilling, scandalous news ever heard in Bath!

        So do please hurry along with the preparations for your journey just as fast as you can – I can’t wait to see you all. Wishing you Godspeed and a comfortable journey,

               Your loving friend,

                       Emily.

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

     I could hardly believe the crush we encountered when Michael and I stepped into Mrs Grant’s drawing room on Monday evening. The excitement over Captain Crowley’s disappearance seemed to have brought the whole of Bath society out of doors that evening and the party, which under any other circumstances would probably have been a rather sedate, sparsely populated affair, had become a seething press of sweaty bodies. Unfortunately, almost the sole exception to the rule was Lady Swannage, who had not yet let any curiosity she might feel about the Crowley incident push her into leaving her house and, more importantly, still showed no inclination to invite anyone back there either.

     Refusing to be discouraged in our ambitions, Michael and I edged our way through the drawing room throng until we came upon Emily and Mrs Somerton. As we exchanged the usual polite formalities I could see that Emily was fizzing with excitement and as soon as her mother had turned aside to acknowledge a greeting from Mr and Mrs Walton she leaned forward and hissed, “He’s here! I’ve seen him standing by the fireplace.”

     There was no need to ask who she was referring to – since Dr Worthing’s revelation Sir Robert Farleigh had become our key target – though I was quite impressed she had managed to spot anyone in this scrum. I peered curiously in the direction of the fireplace but found it impossible to pick out any one individual through the press of bodies. “What do you think?” I asked Michael. “Do we just go right over and ask him – what did you do with Captain Crowley?”

     Michael shrugged. “I guess so.”

     “You can’t go without me!” urged Emily.

     “But what about…?” I said with a discreet nod towards Mrs Somerton. Though she was currently obliged to listen to Mr Walton prattle on about the latest developments in coffin security she was still somehow managing to keep a watchful eye over her daughter at the same time. Sneaking off didn’t seem much of an option and we could hardly quiz Sir Robert Farleigh about his bodysnatching tendencies with Emily’s mother watching over us.

     Emily chewed her lip thoughtfully, considering the problem for a moment, before, at the first sign of a pause in Mr Walton’s conversation, she boldly stepped forward and grasped her mother’s arm. “Oh Mama, I think I see Reverend Miller over there. I must go across and apologise for leaving his card party so early.”

     Mrs Somerton cast a pained look over the congested room. “Really Emily, I don’t think that’s such a good idea right now,” she replied disdainfully. “You’ll be buffeted terribly in this crush.”

     “That’s alright, Mr Redgrave has kindly offered to escort me,” Emily quickly replied. And before her mother could make any further objection, she had hooked an arm through Michael’s and thrust them both through a narrow gap in the crowd, signalling for me to follow. There was just time for me to catch one final glimpse of Mrs Somerton glaring after her daughter in impotent fury before the gap closed behind us and she was lost in the swirl of people.

     Once free of Mrs Somerton it still took us a good fifteen minutes to work our way across the room, shuffling along to a chorus of ‘excuse me’s and ‘I do beg your pardon’s and fending off various attempts to suck us into conversation along the way. Eventually however we found ourselves approaching the fireplace, from where Sir Robert Farleigh was watching over the room with a familiar air of disdainful amusement. As we nudged our way through the last few feet I had plenty of opportunity to observe the man identified by Dr Worthing as the leader of Bath’s resurrection men.

     Personally, I’ve never been one to go in for the sort of Darcy-mania that is popularly supposed to afflict female readers of Jane Austen novels (frankly I don’t care how well Mr Darcy fills his breeches or how big his house is, if you ask me he’s still essentially a moody git who needs to bloody well get over himself) but if the hero of Pride and Prejudice does happen to be the kind of thing to get your juices flowing then I’ll be willing to bet that Sir Robert Farleigh would soon have you weak at the knees. He was undoubtedly the proverbial ‘single man in possession of a good fortune’, his estate being one of the largest in the county, and he had good looks in abundance too, boasting a tall, slender figure that was always impeccably dressed and a handsome face that was all sharp cheekbones and dark, sensuous eyes.

     He didn’t, it had to be admitted, look much like my idea of the head of a bodysnatching gang but I wasn’t inclined to doubt Dr Worthing’s assertion. There had been too much of an air of genuine glee about the doctor when he had revealed his secret for me to believe that he had just made the whole thing up. However, it would be no easy thing to make the accusation stick and these were hardly ideal conditions for an interrogation. I could only hope that the noise and bustle of the room would provide a certain privacy for at least everyone seemed on the whole much too intent on their own conversations to pay attention to anyone else’s.

     I exchanged knowing nods with Michael and Emily before we finally edged our way into forming a small semi-circle in front of our quarry.

     “Good evening Sir Robert.” It was Michael who opened proceedings with a polite nod of his head.

     Sir Robert eyed his rival languidly for a moment before responding with a weary nod of his own. “Mr Redgrave.”

     “Sir Robert.” I performed my customary awkward bob.

     “Miss Everingham.”

     “Sir Robert.” Emily flushed brightly.

     “Miss Somerton.”

     “We wondered if we might perhaps have a word with you Sir Robert,” began Michael after a brief glance around to ensure nobody was following our conversation.

     “And what, pray, do you wish to talk about Mr Redgrave?” responded Sir Robert with a sigh that indicated that whatever it was he doubted very much that it could be anything of any interest.

     “We wish to talk about the disappearance of Captain Crowley,” Michael asserted.

     Did I spot just the slightest hint of tension in Sir Robert’s chiselled jawline at the mention of the dead man? If I did, it was soon gone and Sir Robert maintained the same weary tone as he said, “Dear me, that is all anyone seems to want to talk about this evening. Everyone, it seems, has a theory about what has become of the wretched fellow.”

     “And what is your theory Sir Robert?” asked Emily boldly.

     “I’m afraid I am the exception to the rule,” replied Sir Robert with a rueful smile. “I have no theory. In fact, I must confess I have no interest at all in such dreary affairs.”

     “Now that’s funny,” I remarked. “Cos we thought you would have had a particular interest in this affair.”

     This time there was no mistaking the anxious look that fluttered briefly across Sir Robert’s face. “What an extraordinary thing to say,” he replied, still endeavouring to maintain his pose of studied ennui. “Why should I care what happens to the Captain’s mortal remains?”

     “Because we have it on good authority that you are the leader of the resurrection men here in Bath,” replied Michael smoothly. “So therefore you presumably know all about missing bodies.”

     There was a long pause. Sir Robert’s eyes narrowed as he gazed sharply at each of us in turn, presumably trying to weigh up precisely how much we might know. I could almost see him picking up and discarding several different responses in his mind before he finally said, “You’ve been talking to that damn quack, Dr Worthing, haven’t you?”

     “So you really are the leader of the resurrection men!” exclaimed Emily excitedly.

     “You have no proof of that,” retorted Sir Robert quickly.

     “You’re sure about that, are you?” challenged Michael.

     Sir Robert’s eyes narrowed again. “No, you’re bluffing, I’m sure of it,” he finally declared after careful consideration. “If you make any kind of public accusation it would be simply your word against mine. And when it comes down to it my word is that of the holder of a baronetcy that dates back to the time of James I, whereas yours…” Sir Robert paused to give each of us a particularly withering glance. “Well, perhaps you’d care to tell me precisely what you think your word is worth?”

     “The truth does not rely on questions of rank,” returned Emily stoutly. “We will be believed because people will see the purity of our intentions.”

     “Oh dear, I’m afraid everything, Miss Somerton, ultimately relies on questions of rank,” replied Sir Robert haughtily. “Your purity of intentions come a very poor second.”

     My first instinct was quite naturally to tell Sir Fancypants exactly where he could shove his questions of rank but I swiftly recognised that getting into a spat with the snob was unlikely to help our cause so I swallowed my feelings of repugnance and said instead, “Look, to be perfectly honest, we don’t much care what you get up to in your spare time. Our only interest is in locating the remains of Captain Crowley. So why don’t you just tell us what you’ve done with him and we’ll say no more about it.”

     “I haven’t done anything with Captain Crowley,” replied Sir Robert in a surprisingly sulky tone.

     “Oh come now, you’ve as good as admitted to us your involvement with the resurrection men,” protested Michael. “You may as well come clean about the Captain.”

     “I tell you I had nothing to do with the Captain’s disappearance sir,” retorted Sir Robert huffily. “You can take my word for that. And a Farleigh’s word is his bond.”

     “Except where you can use your title to bluff your way out of trouble,” I noted pointedly. “Isn’t that what you just told us?”

     Sir Robert glared for a moment longer then sighed. He took a quick glance around before eventually confessing, “Very well, I admit to my involvement with the resurrection trade but I swear that my men and I are not responsible for the disappearance of Captain Crowley. We conduct our business very discreetly, we have to in order to survive. Our operation would be unlikely to prosper for very long if we simply went around snatching any old body that was left lying around. Think it over.”

     I thought it over and was obliged to concede that he had a point.

     “But if you didn’t take Captain Crowley, then who did?” Emily asked after a moment of puzzled silence.

     “That’s what I should very much like to know,” replied Sir Robert. “This whole furore has been very bad for business. But don’t worry, my men are busy making enquiries as we speak. If somebody in this city thinks to set themselves up as our rivals they will soon be made to think again.”

     “Are you sure your men are to be trusted?” asked Michael thoughtfully. “There’s no chance one or more of them might be involved without your knowing it, is there?”

     Sir Robert gave this suggestion a moment of concerned consideration before resolutely shaking his head. “No, that’s not possible,” he insisted. “Any old fool with a shovel can dig up a corpse but it takes careful planning and negotiating skills to successfully trade it at the right price. My fellows in the trade know how essential I am to the whole operation.”

     A brief silence followed, each of us lost in our own thoughts, before Emily suddenly asked Sir Robert, “Whatever made you become involved in such a dreadful trade in the first place? Surely a man with your fortune has no cause to mix himself up with such a risky enterprise.”

     “If only,” replied Sir Robert with a heavy sigh. “Unfortunately, my fortune is mostly theoretical these days. Land doesn’t pay nearly as much as it used to and maintaining one’s position in society does not come cheap. It’s very sad to say but even a man with a pedigree like mine will find that his lines of credit will only stretch so far.”

     Somehow containing my bleeding heart, I remarked, “But surely there must be easier of ways of making a living. Was stealing corpses really the best job you could find?”

     “Job?” repeated Sir Robert in a tone of mild horror. “I have no job. I am a gentleman Miss Everingham, I cannot possibly work for a living.”

     “Of course not, silly me,” I muttered.

     Before we could delve any further into the ethics of labour my attention was distracted by a polite cough just behind me. I turned to find Mrs Grant’s butler hovering respectfully on the edge of our little group.

A note for Sir Robert

     “I’m very sorry to interrupt,” he said, addressing his remarks primarily to Sir Robert, “but there has been a man at the servant’s entrance sir, enquiring whether you were within.”

     “A man?” responded Sir Robert guardedly.

     “Yes sir, a man,” repeated the butler, indicating by his tone that the omission of the prefix ‘gentle’ was by no means an accident. “He would not leave his name but he asked that I give you this.” The butler held out a small silver tray on which a rather grubby note somewhat incongruously lay.

     “Ah, I see,” said Sir Robert, taking the note from the tray. “Probably one of my tenants. No matter how often one tells them to take their little quibbles to the estate manager they will insist on trying to address one in person.”

     The butler inclined his head in a moderate show of sympathy for Sir Robert’s woes before he turned away and, with a fresh peal of discreet coughs, began to make his way back through the press of guests.

     There was an expectant silence as Sir Robert glanced down hesitantly at the note in his hand whilst the rest of us stared eagerly at Sir Robert. Eventually he could resist it no longer and tore the note open.

     “Aha, yes, as I thought!” he declared, having read through the brief contents. “It’s from Tom Bailey, my top man. It seems the gang have had some success with their enquiries. Tom has arranged a meeting to discuss the next step.” Sir Robert threw a glance along the fireplace towards the clock that sat on the mantlepiece. “In fact, I had better be getting along there now.” He turned back to us and offered up a facetious little bow. “It’s been a pleasure talking with you. Do enjoy the rest of Mrs Grant’s party.”

     “Hey now, wait a minute,” I objected. “If there’s news of Captain Crowley to be had then we’re coming with you.”

     “I cannot allow that Miss Everingham,” replied Sir Robert dismissively. “This is resurrection men business. Outsiders will not be tolerated.”

     “We won’t interfere with your business,” said Michael. “We just want to find out about Captain Crowley.”

     “Simply not possible, I’m afraid,” returned Sir Robert firmly.

     “Well, I think you’d better make it possible,” I told him, adopting my finest menacing glare. “Unless you want some awkward questions asked about your extra-curricular activities.”

     Sir Robert glared back angrily. “I’ve already told you what will happen if you try to denounce me as a resurrection man,” he said, aiming at a tone of airy dismissal but unable to keep a faint trace of concern from seeping into his voice. “No-one will listen to you. You have no proof.”

     “But gossip can be so insidious, can’t it?” remarked Michael with a sly smile. “Once an idea like that gets about, well…”

     Sir Robert scowled for a moment or two more. Then, opting for a different tactic, he turned back to me. “Really Miss Everingham, it is for your own good that I suggest you remain here,” he said. “You would not enjoy the company of these men, they are very rough fellows.”

     It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that I was sure I’d met far rougher fellows than he could even conceive of, perhaps citing as an example my old schoolmate, Mark, who was never happier than when kicked about some moshpit or other and who could fart the Countdown theme tune on command. But in the end I contented myself with simply stating, “I think I’ll cope.”

     Sir Robert scowled some more.

     “So, what’s it to be?” Michael asked, raising an eyebrow. “Do you intend to depart alone and leave behind you a perfect storm of gossip and innuendo or will you leave quietly, taking Miss Everingham and I with you?”

     “And me,” Emily suddenly piped up. “You can’t go without me.”

     I turned to her with an expression of concern. “Oh Emily, I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” I cautioned.

     “I don’t see why not,” she retorted. “If it’s safe for you to go along, then why not I?”

     I floundered for a moment, failing to find a simple answer to that complicated question.

     “But what about your mother?” suggested Michael, coming to my rescue.

     “She needn’t know,” insisted Emily. “So long as I’m back before the end of the party, with a crowd like this she’ll never even know I’m gone.”

     “Well…” I said. I looked at Michael and he looked at me, each of us feeling that we ought to somehow deter Emily from coming but neither of us quite knowing how.

     “Good, that’s settled then,” said Emily resolutely. She turned to Sir Robert. “We’re ready when you are.”

     “Oh, you are, are you?” retorted Sir Robert. “So we are to troop off to a gathering of the resurrection men as though we were going on some ladies picnic, are we?” he spluttered sarcastically.

     “It looks like it,” I said with a shrug.

     Sir Robert continued to glare at us for a moment or two longer then finally gave in with a weary gesture of his own. “Very well then,” he said. “Follow me and I’ll take you to the resurrection men.”

To be continued…

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