The Thief of Faces
These are the chronicles of the investigations of Emily Darkwood—my employer, teacher, and friend. A young woman of society who refuses to be dictated by it and lives a life of her own making. A student determined to become a physician and surgeon in a man’s domain. An innocent bearer of a guide-stone that draws its owner and darkness together. She courageously shines her light into the mysteries that surround her, searching for answers to her parents’ fates. She becomes a fighter of the wicked and the monstrous that she discovers lurking within the shadows…
Jack Hobbs, her ever faithful servant and your narrator, humbly presents…The Thief of Faces
I begin my telling of the many endeavours I had at my employer’s side, not with the first, or the last, or indeed the most memorable, but the first case that comes into my mind. I can do this because all the stories that I can tell you from our time together are of danger posed by the criminal and the supernatural. I cast the net of my memory back some twenty-four years to a spring evening in 1877, and I find my adolescent self standing in the vast graveyard of Kensal Green.
The sun bowed toward the horizon, pinks and oranges seeped into the darkening blue sky, and black shadows crept up from the graves and loomed out from behind the monolithic tombs that surrounded me and Miss Darkwood. Those stalking shadows gathered on the paths and greens of the cemetery as dusk descended upon the city and began to shroud our surroundings. I imagined they conspired to hide lurking dangers and nameless terrors. This was not the fancy of my teenage mind for I had already experienced as such through accompanying Darkwood on her investigations.
I had spent all day at Miss Emily Darkwood’s side in the graveyard, even taking a simple working man’s lunch of bread and cheese and apples there, which my mistress had supplied for us. The neat gardens and finely crafted stonework made this a popular promenade for the ladies and gentlemen of society, so our presence and lunching would not have been conspicuous or unusual to passers-by. Furthermore, with her Majesty Queen Victoria’s continued grief for her consort, a precedent for mourning had been set. Any grounds men who may have observed Darkwood’s long vigil would not have thought ill of it. Their attention would more likely be drawn to her carrying an umbrella during a long period of unbroken warm weather. She carried it at all times and usually answered any who questioned this odd habit with something akin to, “I like to be prepared for a turn in the atmosphere.”
The tomb we stood before was that of her friend Charlotte Abernathy, and it was a fine memorial. I remembered speaking with the servant of the Abernathys on the day of the internment a year before while we waited to attend our masters, and he had told me that Miss Charlotte Abernathy could well have had a much more modest resting place had it not been for the unrequited love of a failed suitor, Dr. Berkley.
The doctor had been a great friend to the family, especially during times of difficulty, thanks to his wealth which he was quick to loan to those around him in need. The Abernathys had been struggling financially for years after investing in the railway mania that had failed to provide a return and was unlikely to do so. Dr. Berkley had helped the family and earned the gratitude of Miss Abernathy, which he had mistaken for an altogether different affection.
The doctor had made his intentions toward Miss Abernathy known to her parents, only to be spurned by the young lady who had already fallen in love with a Mr. Giles Carmichael. This had upset the family’s chance of financial salvation and restoration which a marriage to the doctor could have assured them, but her parents had allowed their daughter to follow her heart.
Despite this rejection, Dr. Berkley could not see his departed Charlotte in the ground and had generously commissioned a striking and beautiful tomb from the best stone-masons. He paid for the works in full.
I cast my eye over it and suppressed a shiver. Despite its finery and the sentiment behind it, with the daylight draining away the grand mausoleum was undergoing an unpleasant transformation in my imagination; the gothic spires that pointed heavenward from each corner seemed more like horns, while inky shadows weaved like scales around the deeply carved trellis and roses. The arch and large iron doors set within came up from the ground like a yawning mouth and the twin rose windows set above sparkled with the last of the light, like demonic eyes with devilish intent.
Despite the encounters with the supernatural that I had experienced through my employment with Emily Darkwood, a night-soaked graveyard was not a place of comfort. Miss Darkwood seemed set to continue her vigil before the tomb, as she had since the first hours of the morning that day, so I was content to be at her side.
Darkwood was a fine young woman dressed in a rich plum dress of silk and velvet. Her corsage tapered to her narrow waist and sported a daring low-cut neckline between leg of mutton sleeves (her modesty and reputation preserved with fine dark lace). Her femininity was replete through her dark hair, plaited and pinned to her head to expose her slender pale neck, and the petite black pillbox hat that perched decoratively atop her head.
An outsider could easily think her a vulnerable young lady ill-placed in a shadow-filled cemetery in the semi-rural isolation of Kensal Green. That would be until they were startled by her dark penetrating eyes, strikingly noticeable despite the fine black lace veil that descended from her headwear.
Emily Darkwood was not defenceless; she was a young woman sure of her own mind who doggedly studied for a medical career considered to be the preserve of men, and had encountered and banished terrifying spirits and fought the undead. She had exposed the nefarious machinations of the Hellfire Club and foiled the criminal plans of that yellow-faced foreign devil, The Mandarin. Even in peril, Emily Darkwood could never be considered a helpless victim. I doubt her courage and strength of character could fail her, but if it ever struggled to meet the challenges she encountered she had me standing protectively at her side. Willing to defend her to my death for the life her family had given me in servitude, away from the poverty of the streets I was born upon.
Respectful of her mourning, I contemplated what might be passing behind those dark brown eyes. Miss Abernathy had been Miss Darkwood’s friend since childhood, until tuberculosis claimed her a year ago to the very day. Certainly in her watch of the grand gothic tomb she missed her friend, who she described as once being like a sister to her, and I daresay she considered her own mortality, for despite her courage she was as susceptible to death as any other.
The death of any loved one is sad, although the timing of Charlotte Abernathy’s passing was itself tragic, with it being only weeks before her marriage to Mr. Carmichael. I wonder if Darkwood’s mourning caused her to reflect upon her own opportunities for love and companionship, her eligibility for marriage reduced through her stubborn pursuit of a man’s career. At that time she had only the interest of Jonathan West, a fellow medical student who despite a fondness for her found himself perplexed and disapproving of her desire to be a physician.
The difficulties between Darkwood and West were intensified by his father, Dr Albion West, a surgeon of standing and influence within the college that educated Darkwood, and an outspoken and active opposition to women in the medical profession. Disagreements had on occasion resulted in Jonathan West siding against her and being a most spiteful thorn in Darkwood’s side.
I had been in Miss Darkwood’s employ for a year-and-a-half at that time, and I had observed enough to consider that the only other opportunity for happiness in love dwelled in her unconfessed affection toward her childhood friend and cousin, Robert Darkwood. I was certain he reciprocated such feelings from the stolen looks he threw her and the unspoken words that seemed to linger on his lips in her presence. Although with his entering the Catholic priesthood, a conversion from Anglicanism that had been a family embarrassment, his vocation had become an insurmountable obstacle to any romance and matrimony the pair may have imagined for themselves.
As you may tell from my faithfulness, consideration, and care for her beyond my station, I held my own feelings for Miss Darkwood at that time. I never insulted her by confessing them to her from my position then as her family’s page. In time the feelings I felt cooled in the darkness where I kept them, and as we relied upon each other more our bond strengthened into a strong friendship with sibling affection for one another.
Miss Darkwood drew her late father’s fob watch from where it hung on her chatelaine at her waist and flipped its cover to see its face, snapped it closed and surveyed the floral tributes laid at the tomb one last time. “I think we have lingered quite long enough, Hobbs.”
She spoke as though the duration of our time in the cemetery had helped her toward some conclusion. Despite her declaration she did not intend for us to raise a hansom back to the city, for she led us to the offices of the cemetery’s chief warden at the main gates to the grounds. He was a smartly dressed man whose common manner of speech undid all his attempts to present himself as an official and a man of standing.
Darkwood enquired after the key to Miss Abernathy’s tomb, which took me as much by surprise as it did this chief caretaker of the dead. He explained that he did not have a key and even if he did, he could not allow anyone but the family to have use of it.
“So you are not in possession of the key to the tomb?”
The man appeared uncomfortable. “No, Miss. It was one of many keys lost when the last head grounds man was accosted on night patrol and killed.”
Again this seemed to spark some reaction I did not understand within my mistress. “I remember the incident well. Eight months past. Poor fellow was strangled, was he not?”
“That he was, Miss,” he said, sounding astounded that she would have heard and bothered to retain the information of a low person’s death.
He was then quick to assure her that every care was taken to ensure the tombs remained undisturbed and that the Abernathy family would still be in possession of a key, although I could tell Darkwood had already lost interest in the man. To my surprise, instead of continuing out through the gates we returned to the tomb and she approached the doors.
“Miss, the doors are locked,” I reminded her.
“I have a key,” she declared. I could tell from her that she recognised my questioning look and provided an answer. “I already suspected that the key would be missing so to save inconvenience and time, I assured possession of the Abernathys’ key several days ago. I explained to dear Charlotte’s mother that there had been desecrations committed recently, and as I would be passing this way near the end of the day of the anniversary of Charlotte’s passing, I could also ensure that my friend’s tributes were safely placed in her tomb before nightfall.”
She slipped the large key into the lock. It turned a little although the lock remained secure. Darkwood nodded to herself.
“The wrong key?” I asked.
“I suspect it has always been the wrong key.”
“Hobbs, stand on the path and watch for anyone making an approach.”
With excitement in my belly I did as she asked, understanding then that her vigil had been in the pursuit of a mystery and I was going to be privy to its revelation, and knowing Darkwood as I did, privy to its solving, too.
I watched for approaching people and studied Darkwood as she produced a slender brass tube from her small carpet bag, repeatedly adjusted the levers that bristled from the handle of the device and tried its length in the door. After several attempts, the lock made a noise of mechanical movement and the door opened with a squeal of protestation onto a wall of impenetrable darkness.
Undeterred by the atmosphere of the tomb, Darkwood produced her bullseye hand lamp, struck a lucifer against the flagstone step and lit the wick within the lantern. She shone the projection of wavering orange light into the dark and disappeared within the tomb, out of sight. Her lamp lit the twin rose windows above the mouth of the tomb, and the demon I had seen in the tomb’s night-time face seemed enlivened and empowered from its swallowing of my mistress.
A high shriek sounded from within and filled the air with its blast, near startling me from my shoes.
Fortunately, I was accustomed to the sound of my mistress’ police whistle, although my anxiety around why she should need it did not abate until she emerged from the mausoleum. She had the look of satisfaction which she exhibited when her suspicions were confirmed, although her triumph was undermined by a paleness beyond her usual pallor and a frailty in her movements that gave me cause to think she had been shaken by what she had seen within the tomb.
“Hobbs, I will remain here with the grounds men that I observe are already running to this place. The police will undoubtedly arrive on their tails in response to my alarm. You, Hobbs, will make haste to Scotland Yard and you will inform Inspector Duggan that I have learnt the identity of the Thief of Faces.”
Beyond money for the hansom fare back to the city I needed no further encouragement from my mistress to make the journey, and I was so excited by her claim I gave little thought to the novelty and luxury of using a hansom cab independent of my employer.
The ‘Thief of Faces’ had been the name given by the newspapers to the unknown assailant that had so far preyed upon four young women of London and left their bodies to float in the Thames. The first body arrived at the mortuary attached to the Darkwood’s villa for Miss Darkwood’s uncle, Henry, to inspect in his role as a pathologist. Miss Darkwood had been present, using the exposure to bodies that the mortuary offered her to further her studies of anatomy, and I had been assisting in cleaning up after their day’s work. Inspector Duggan had accompanied the body, keen for any observations that the Darkwoods could offer.
The air of the small mortuary room stank of death and carbolic acid, and held a constant whisper from the gas lamps, as though a company of spirits communed within the walls. The flicker of the lamps caught in the surface of every glossy white bevelled tile like the embodiment of a damned spirit set afire. It was in this place that I saw a face that haunts me even to this day. More accurately, I should say it was a woman’s head without a face. It had been peeled away in the manner that an orange might be peeled, to reveal the fleshy segments of muscle that formed the architecture of the face and expression. A glistening pink grimace of bared teeth and lidless staring eyes, made all the worse by the locks of dark hair that surrounded the gory countenance and still clung to some styling despite the body’s exposure to the Thames.
The portly and ageing Henry Darkwood, his grey eyes straining beneath silver brows through his wire-framed spectacles pinched to his nose, deduced that the face had been removed surgically with precise cuts.
Duggan had stated that aside from the clothes she had been found in, the absence of any belongings and the lack of a face made identification near impossible until someone had been reported missing.
Miss Darkwood had disagreed and without any hesitation, as comes from someone used to handling the persons of the sick and the dead, reached into the sodden clothing of the young faceless woman and produced a lozenge of intricately carved silver caught in the tatted neck of her dress. She instantly popped it in half with her thumbnail and revealed it to be a locket.
Duggan had shuffled uncomfortably on the spot as she teased him for the oversight of his detection with a self-satisfied grin, “It was very small Inspector. I’m sure you would have discovered it for yourself. Eventually.” Although her smile quickly faded when she studied the two photographs within.
“Why, it is Nathaniel and Petunia Penderguard…” Master Darkwood gasped.
“Making this Mary Penderguard,” Miss Darkwood explained distantly, clearly affected by the discovery, for the Darkwoods and the Pernderguards were acquainted through a shared social circle, and Darkwood would have counted Mary Penderguard as one of her many friends on the London scene.
Within three months the newspaper sellers called out from street corners; ‘The Thief of Faces strikes again!’ Three other faceless women were presented to different mortuaries.
Miss Darkwood, drawn to mystery as she was and armed with her curious sense and skill for detection, had visited each victim and acquainted herself with the cases. As usual her investigations were much disapproved of by the constabulary and frustrating in particular to Inspector Duggan, although the benefit of her assistance and intervention previously had earned his grudging respect.
The two victims that followed Mary Penderguard remained unidentified and unclaimed, while the fourth victim, Lucy Grand, seemed to justify Darkwood’s investigation and fired her suspicion into her characteristic drive to solve the mysteries she came across She did not explain to me where her mind had been taking her, and how her investigations had led us to making our vigil in the graveyard, nor did she need to as I had experienced enough of her reasoning to trust in her ability to find the clues she needed to deduce the solution to a mystery.
Upon arriving at Whitehall Place in Westminster I entered the home of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department. A squat robust two-storey dark brick building. In the patchily painted brick lobby, the desk officer recognised me and sighed before lifting the trap in the broad dark wooden front desk in an autonomous fashion to allow me passage into the station. After instructing me not to run in my excitement, he escorted me down the windowless corridor to the office that Duggan occupied. A headful of dark hair greeted me, as his back was hunched, his attention deeply engaged in poring over his paperwork. The constable barked one word to snatch the Detective’s attention.
Although I could not see Inspector Duggan’s big brown eyes, I am most certain they would have rolled heavenward. Yet his serious attention soon diverted to me when I relayed my mistress’ revelation.
I made the return journey with Duggan and two burly, grim-faced, and heavily bearded uniformed officers in a four-wheeled police carriage. Duggan himself was a broad man, a man built for the police and the brutal conflicts the constabulary faced in the discharge of their duty.
From the lump on the bridge of his nose and his puffy misshapen ears, as well as the telling scar on his top lip, partly hidden by a thick dark moustache, Miss Darkwood had suggested in private to me, and not in any disparaging way, that she suspected he honed his fighting skills as a boxer in whatever spare time his position allowed. Despite this brutal sculpting of his head, his pouched cheeks blushed often, which spoke something of his sensitivity despite the harsh world he lived in, and when he smiled in his humour or mischief his face softened most reassuringly.
We arrived in Kensal Green with night fully upon us. Only the carriage lights and the police lanterns shone sufficient light to guide us through the cemetery. Darkwood waved and strode toward us. A widely spread officer, whose girth strained at his uniform, and his tall helmet’s chin strap cut into his fatty jowls, overtook her to greet Duggan himself.
The red faced constable blustered at the inspector, “Bloody woman calls us out because of what she has found in the tomb, which she has broken into might I add, and then won’t let us enter until you turn up!”
“Might I remind you that you are the authority here and you do not have to do as the Lady asks,” Duggan corrected, with particular emphasis on the constable’s term of reference to Miss Darkwood. Despite her behaviour which frustrated the detective he respected her nonetheless. “Although, constable, I have learnt that when it comes to Miss Darkwood, listening to her and following her lead can be a risk worth taking. Oh, and I would add that you should mind your language around a Lady.”
The officer went a darker shade of red and seemed to bloat through an increase in the internal pressure of his exasperation, “Follow her lead? We should do the Lady for obstructing justice. She also has police issue equipment!”
“The whistle? Yes, I know. I gave it to her. She has a habit of poking her nose where there is a chance it could come to harm.”
The constable stopped in his tracks and looked quite dumbfounded by the liberties his superior afforded Miss Darkwood.
“Come, Mr. Duggan, with my being the niece of Henry Darkwood you should know that it takes more than some colourful language to shock my sensibilities,” she referred to the fact that her uncle collected and exhibited foul language and slang as a hobby. “And I would never do anything as uncouth as ‘poke’ my nose anywhere.”
Duggan greeted Miss Darkwood warmly and asked her what it was that she thought she had discovered and deduced.
She simply gestured for him to enter the tomb. I decided that I would not be left out of the discovery and followed, as did the five constables then present. It would have been a comic squeeze had it not been for the grim environment we pressed into. Duggan removed his brown bowler hat, the only one of us to think of such an act of respect, something Darkwood later confessed to me privately that she thought of as ‘quite sweet’. I remember that when she told me this I instantly regretted not removing my own bowler, as I would have much wanted to earn such regard from her at that time. I’m ashamed to say that I would often resent Inspector Duggan when he earned such appreciation from my mistress, jealous as I could be.
Darkwood pointed at the lead coffin in its resting place on a stone mantle at the rear of the mausoleum.
“The casket has been broken open.”
“Burkers?” an older grizzled police officer suggested.
“Resurrectionists? My, you have a long memory. No, not these days. The Anatomy Act saw an end to that illegal trade years ago,” she met, with some pride in the progression into legitimacy that anatomy studies had taken.
I had thought the officer’s disgruntled expression had been due to his contribution being rejected. I would later consider that his discomfort and that of those around him might actually have been due to the mention of the Act itself. For while it had opened the door for any unclaimed body to be used for dissection to further the understanding of anatomy and for surgical training, the act had also meant that only the rich could be guaranteed dignity in death. The pauper and the workhouse poor and even some of the migrant working class (of which a constable drawn from an outside are to the one in which he served, could well be considered) might not go straight to the grave, and when they did they might not do so intact or wholly at all.
“The tomb itself was sealed, and there are only three keys,” Miss Darkwood continued. “One resided in the charge of the cemetery keepers and was stolen and could well have been used to gain entry. The other two keys were entrusted to people who professed their love for Miss Abernathy; one key was with her parents, whose key I had obtained myself and have since found does not fit this lock, and the remaining key is held by a man who loved her and commissioned this tomb, Dr. Berkley. A body is present, so this is not the straightforward act of grave robbery that you may have thought you were dealing with.”
“Miss Abernathy… What about her face?” Duggan hesitated in his delivery of the question, as if wanting to protect Darkwood’s feelings but needing to know whether the body of her friend had been mutilated like those of the victims of the Thief of Faces.
“The body within is intact. But, it is not that of my friend Charlotte.”
“With respect, how can you tell?” Duggan’s eyes fell upon the coffin lid that remained closed on the corpse within. “The body must be…”
“Yes, decomposition of the flesh has taken place. The body is dressed in my friend’s shroud although the poor condition of the teeth makes it clear to me that it is not my dear Charlotte’s body. I knew that smile well, Inspector, additionally her teeth would not have decayed so quickly. In conclusion, the body of my friend has been taken and substituted with the body of another unfortunate. And what is more, the perpetrator of this desecration and the Thief of Faces is one and the same. It is Dr. Berkley, the man who claimed to love my friend in life, and has stolen her body away in death!”
We were all startled by her revelation and Duggan was quick to ask for the route she had taken to this conclusion. In the flickering candlelight she explained that she had always thought that Mary Penderguard, the first victim, had borne a passing resemblance to Charlotte Abernathy.
“Despite coming from a working class background, Lucy Grand, the latest victim and only the second victim to be identified, had experienced the luxury of sitting for a photographic portrait with her family. From this photograph I found she was similarly dark-eyed and dark-haired and held a striking resemblance to both Penderguard and Abernathy. Even without the identity of the other two bodies being known I had been able to tell from the bodies that they also had dark features and it had seemed reasonable to me to assume that they too would have been of a similar appearance in face.”
“So all the women had been killed and had their faces stolen because they resembled Charlotte Abernathy,” Duggan summed.
Darkwood nodded and went on to explain that her investigation into the identity of the Thief of Faces had narrowed its focus to Miss Abernathy and those associated with her.
“Her parents had suffered ill-health since their financial ruination and the loss of their only child, and they did not have the physical constitution required to commit assaults and pitch the bodies into the Thames. Her widowed fiancé, Giles Carmichael, had attempted to distract himself from his grief by channelling all his energies into his work, and has been abroad these last nine months with the East India trading company. The only candidate to remain is Dr. Berkeley, whose proposition of marriage had been declined in favour of Mr. Carmichael’s. Dr. Berkeley also lives in a mansion house near Fleet Street.”
“And?” The fat red-faced constable asked in irritation, more than likely a little lost at the speed of my mistress’ explanation.
“And, my dear constable, Fleet Street is built over the course of the river Fleet and flows directly into the Thames where all the bodies have been retrieved thus far. Dr. Berkley’s house could have direct access to the sewer that channels the Fleet and would be a means for him to dispose of his victims unobserved. What’s more, I began to suspect Dr. Berkley of being a man of peculiar sensibilities when I heard rumours that he had been visiting the tomb he had commissioned for Charlotte almost daily after her internment. Four months later his visits ceased, coinciding with the strangling of the head grounds man of the cemetery. I believe Dr. Berkley had the poor man killed to steal the cemetery’s copy of the key to Charlotte’s tomb in the knowledge that he had given the parents a key that did not fit the lock. This would leave him in possession of the only keys that would provide access to the tomb, and so reduced the risk it being discovered that he had switched her body with that of another.”
Darkwood took a moment to survey the lamp lit faces, especially the corpulent constable that had so challenged her earlier, clearly expecting interruptions at her suggestion that Dr. Berkley had taken Miss Abernathy’s body. The blank stares met her in quiet, but patient perplexity. She continued, “My suspicions were justified to-day; his obsessive grave visits may have waned with time, but I would not have thought a man so grief stricken would miss the anniversary of his loved one’s death. The only tribute from Dr. Berkley was delivered by his manservant, a bestial giant of a Cossack who I suspect of being the doctor’s accomplice in his crimes. From my investigations I have learned that Dr. Berkley’s original housekeeper was choked to death in her bed at home almost two weeks after the grounds man was found dead, also strangled. And I propose that Dr. Berkley’s housekeeper was killed because she had become suspicious of her master harbouring Charlotte’s body in his home. The Cossack, might I add, has rather large hands, making him a perfect strangler.”
“You seem to have it sewn up, Miss,” the fat policeman admitted, astonished.
“I do, don’t I?” Darkwood beamed. “So let us go arrest this fiend before someone else falls prey to him.”
“And you pieced all this together yourself?” her reluctant convert questioned.
“Of course,” and she absently touched the brooch of amber mounted on her Alexandra choker, the stone she had inherited from her late mother and wore at all times.
I knew then that the mysterious guide-stone that drew the owner and darkness together had sharpened her sense to the discovery of the mystery, while her investigative skills and sharp logic had cut down to the bone of the truth.
The explanation that Miss Darkwood provided convinced all present that Dr. Josiah Berkley could well be responsible for the crimes she accused him of, although Duggan and his men were impeded by Dr. Berkley’s service to several cabinet ministers and the potential scandal a mistaken accusation could cause the Yard. Duggan’s superiors had ordered caution and surveillance until a case could be compiled through traditional channels. Frustrated, Darkwood chose a different course of action, as she usually did. Which led to me finding myself standing in the deep of night at her side in an alley of Fleet Street on our second vigil of the day, watching the detached three-story townhouse home of Dr. Berkley.
“See that all the windows of the first floor are open to the night air? It is spring and while it has been unseasonably warm there is a distinct chill in the air tonight.”
It was indeed unusual to be so exposed to the elements.
“Master Hobbs, I hate to ask this considering your successful liberation from an existence that would occasionally make demands on you to break the law to survive, however I can’t fail to see that drainpipe there that passes close to one of the open windows of the first floor without thinking about your dextrous prowess.”
I spotted the drainpipe in the shadow of a neighbouring building.
“You don’t even need to ask, Miss,” I answered enthusiastically.
She instructed me to enter the property, find my way down to the front door and unlock it to secure myself an easy escape route should I be discovered, then I was to explore the property as much as my judgement of the risk of discovery would allow, in search of the incriminating evidence that she suspected would be found within. I was then to report back to my mistress.
I realise it may seem irresponsible of Miss Darkwood to send a lad who might have been only fifteen at that time into a house of danger (my uncertainty around my age comes from being an orphan of the street with only the birth date that Miss Darkwood had given to me on a whim), but she was not reckless with my well-being or her own, simply someone who accepted that risks needed to be taken in the pursuit of justice.
I scaled the pipe with ease and climbed through the window with only the faintest of scuffing sounds from my shoes against the floorboards of the dark corridor beyond. The night-time climb made it easier for my eyes to adjust to the echoing darkness of the house, and I was assisted in navigation by the silvery wash of moonlight that spilled through the windows and splashed against the varnished wooden floor and panelled walls.
Flickering orange light reached out from a door ajar at the other end of the landing and gave away that the room was most likely occupied. The house was quiet but for the settling of its structure and the constant tick of what must have been a grand clock in the hall of the ground floor. Whoever was present was still.
The air was thick with the scent of flowers, and I could make out the ragged shapes of floral displays arranged in vases across the landing. In my stealthy descent of the stairs and approach to the front door I could see that the house was full of such ornaments, so much so that the scent of the flowers was most overpowering. Carefully, I unlatched the front door, and having travelled the corridors of the house I had seen that the first light had been the only light, so I headed back upstairs to it.
I crouched outside the room, concealed within the heavy door drape drawn to the wall, and listened for any signs of movement. There were none and I held my breath as I dared to ease the door open, mindful of the feel of resistance in its movement that might signal the hinges tightening to produce a creak or a squeal upon my presence. The sounds did not come, although the breath was startled from me nonetheless.
A grand four-poster bed of polished dark wood dominated the gas and oil lit chamber of plush drapes, intricate tapestries and abundant elaborate floral displays. In the bed a dark-haired woman sat upright, nestled in a mound of pillows and cushions. I froze, fearful she had seen me, but she remained motionless. She lay with her arms held up and outstretched while her legs were posed in a manner that I had never seen a woman display herself, and from the opening of her nightdress, display herself she did!
It was a posture that I found unsettling and embarrassing, and I confess to having felt arousal and abhorrence in equal measure. Beyond her positioning it was the unwavering and unfaltering maintenance of her outstretched offer of embrace that unsettled me. She was quite still even though her stare was upon me. Beneath the flower perfumed fog I caught a familiar pungent chemical scent, familiar to me from my work at Master Henry Darkwood’s side—formaldehyde.
Faced with the physical manifestation of what my mistress had suspected I crept into the room, sure that this woman and I were alone together. Drawing close to the bed, I averted my eyes from her indignity and could see that the face was heavily powdered and made-up although it could not disguise the evidence of decay in the flesh. I could then see that her dark eyes were glass substitutes.
This was no longer a woman—it was a thing, a mockery of what had once been Charlotte Abernathy. Her body preserved and set into a permanent embrace of whoever would be disturbed enough to lie within those arms and legs. I turned away in disgust and another face stared into mine with sightless eyes from a jar on the bedside table. The last face Dr. Berkley had taken, that of Lucy Grand, floated in preserving formaldehyde, ready to be the next face to front the corpse of Charlotte Abernathy.
Great hands gripped my shoulders and clamped them as firm as if in a vice. I strained to be free of them, yet could only twist and stare up into the wild-eyed, black-bearded face of the giant, Dr. Berkley’s Cossack. He had been concealed behind the door all the while! He growled a fearsome laugh in my face at my inability to escape while his employer, Dr. Berkley, emerged from the cover of a folding privacy screen in the corner of the boudoir.
The distinguished older gent in formal dress smoothed down the wisps of white hair above his ears that bordered his shiny pate then laced his fingers together before his barrel of a chest. His rotund body appeared bloated and swollen in relation to his slender legs. The mismatch between his fat body and spindly legs reminded me of a stretched out toad.
Dr. Berkley ordered the Cossack to secure me, and the brute thrust me down upon a chair with enough force to bruise me. He wrapped thick rope around me and tied it roughly in place. Dr. Berkley lodged a monocle in his left eye and studied me as Darkwood might scrutinize a specimen.
“We were warned of your mistress’ suspicion and watchful eye, and my trusty friend here spied you and Miss Darkwood in the street tonight. I knew then that Miss Darkwood, not content with parading around London with photographs of dead girls and asking after my behaviours and movements, had decided to move against me. However, with you, her trusted pet, in my snare, she will undoubtedly be unable to resist coming to your aid, and she will deliver herself as another dark-haired and dark-eyed beauty for my perishable collection.”
As if his words had conjured her, Miss Darkwood strode into the room with apparent fearlessness, her umbrella brandished in one hand and her slender, pearl-handled silver revolver held before her in the other. “How quick you have the measure of me, Dr. Berkley. Yet, you underestimate me at your peril. It will be your undoing.”
“Brave words. But empty ones, Miss Darkwood.”
“Master Hobbs here is not a bait in your trap, but a distraction to affect my entrance—and to prime my own snare.”
For a moment panic flashed in Dr. Berkley’s eyes, but then the Cossack lurched forward with surprising speed, swiped her weapon to the floor with his paddle of a hand and seized her arms to hold her still.
“Confident to a fault, just as my associates predicted,” his beady eyes glinted and he plucked at the point of his white moustache in some dark considerations. “All bluster and deception.”
“Your associates?” Darkwood did not allow danger to discourage her enquiries into mystery and intrigue, or the surprise to show upon her face.
“I was warned that in taking my beloved Charlotte as my wife I had strayed close to a power that could be my undoing.” Dr. Berkley cupped my mistress’ face in his hand and trailed his fingers down to the amber brooch she wore at her neck. To my surprise this man knew of the guide-stone!
His insight threw me as only very few knew of the lodestone’s power. Undoubtedly, Miss Darkwood was also similarly shocked, although her play of innocence did not give any such feeling away. “What do you mean?”
Dr. Berkley’s face contorted around a twisted smile that narrowed his eyes. “Don’t be coy with me, Miss Darkwood. I have an open mind and I have been informed of your amber-eye that sees the darkness that surrounds you and whispers in your mind offering you portents, directions, and dire warnings.”
Darkwood did not acknowledge his possession of her secret as being any victory over her and simply asked, “And how do you know of this?”
“Why, my associates are members of the Hellfire Club,” he grinned gleefully, clearly understanding the effect this revelation would have upon my mistress.
The Hellfire Club were a secret society that had haunted the backrooms of gentlemen’s clubs, coffee houses, taverns and bordellos, seducing gentry in pursuit of vice, debauchery, sin, and power, both earthly and unnatural, since the eighteenth century. They collected artefacts of power for their own secret agendas, and my mistress’ stone was one such object they sought most hungrily. As a matter of fact, there had been several underhand, threatening and most personal plays to gain possession of it.
“You are one of those villains?”
The doctor did not react to her slur, confident in his position as her captor and victor and in his own ideas of morality that vindicated him in his mind. “No my dear, but I aspire to be. I heard they possess arcane knowledge and secrets of the dark arts. I approached them in the hope that they would help me resurrect Charlotte as my living wife and companion. They refused. Until their monitoring of you led them to realise Miss Abernathy’s connection to you and your investigation into me. They approached me only this evening and assured me that the Hellfire stone would draw you to me, and they promised me membership and access to their knowledge if I obtain the Hellfire stone for them.”
“The Hellfire stone, a rather premature and presumptively possessive title,” Darkwood sneered.
Dr. Berkley closed in on my mistress and reached out to her face. She recoiled in a disgust he ignored as he eased the hat pins from her hair and dropped them to the floor. He removed her hat and allowed her hair to fall about her face. Darkwood met his stare and stood resolutely defiant.
“You are so pretty. So like dear Charlotte in countenance,” he said absently, as though he could not help but think aloud. “Give me the stone, Miss Darkwood,” Dr. Berkley growled, suddenly infuriated by her insolence. His voice then softened for reasoning, “Give the stone to me and the Hellfire Club will open the door for me to pursue the resurrection of dear Charlotte, and I will return your beloved friend to the land of the living.”
“Try taking it, Dr. Berkley,” Darkwood challenged with a tone that offered a veiled threat.
“Your boldness is misplaced, Miss Darkwood, when I have power over you. I know I cannot take the stone—for it to work for the Hellfire Club it needs to be given to them. Possession passed on, Miss Darkwood, isn’t that right?”
Darkwood refused to answer, but he was correct.
He tossed her hat into the fire.
“How uncivilised: to destroy a perfectly good hat.”
“Give it to me,” the doctor snapped.
“But, I can return Charlotte to us!” The delusional doctor could not understand my mistress’ objection.
“I said no,” Darkwood stated resolutely. “You have defiled my friend and sister Charlotte. How could she come back to this world after what you have done to her? How much of that is Charlotte any longer? If she were returned to us would she be allowed to resume her marriage to Mr. Giles Carmichael?”
“She has been divorced from that life and him through death. She would be reborn to a new life and husband through me. I would of course allow you to resume your friendship all the while you respected the life we shared together.”
“Then my denial is emboldened. You are a monster and I would not wish the life you would offer Charlotte upon a criminal!”
The doctor’s face turned red. His hands clenched into fists as his eyes betrayed his infuriation at Darkwood’s refusal. The emotion drained from him like water from a basin. He calmly stepped away from Darkwood, and closed his eyes so he could focus on some internal process. When he opened them again those dark marbles were possessed with menace. He took up an anaesthetic mask from within a drawer which would be soaked with ether or chloroform, and he produced a scalpel blade from his jacket pocket.
He spoke as though he addressed his students, “I have found that the best way to preserve the quality of the face is to remove it while the subject is alive.” He advanced toward Miss Darkwood.
Fortunately for my mistress and I, the thick fingers of the Cossack’s hands were suited for strangling and not for tying knots. While the monstrous doctor had spoken with Miss Darkwood I managed to wriggle free. I leapt on the back of the beastly Cossack, the surprise causing him to release my mistress. This enabled Miss Darkwood to reveal to both men why her umbrella travelled with her at all times, as she pulled the handle free and unsheathed its hidden sword blade. She raised the sharp point before her.
“I believe my blade trumps yours, Dr. Berkley.”
There was a great commotion from beneath us, which quickly climbed to our level when Inspector Duggan and a company of officers bulled into the room.
“You underestimate me, sir, if you believe I would endanger my companion and myself so recklessly. Knowing your house was also under surveillance by the determined detective Duggan I took the liberty of ensuring that my companion and I trespassed in your house in his view. This gave the constabulary reason to cross your threshold and I left my little bullseye lamp in the window of the landing outside this room to make certain they knew where to charge.”
Darkwood sheathed her blade back within her umbrella as the police men forced our prey into irons and wrestled them out of the room. Without a glance in the direction of the bed, she laid an affectionate hand upon the detective’s arm and standing close to my mistress I was the only one to overhear her speak aside to him.
“My dear Inspector Duggan, if what you have seen with your own eyes is adequate testimony to Dr. Berkley’s criminal depravity; it would be no impedance of justice if this house were to burn to the ground to spare the cherished memory that the Abernathys have of their daughter…”
And so, as the jar containing Lucy Grand’s face was removed and Duggan cleared the police from the house to await the cart to remove Miss Abernathy’s remains, flames sprung from that grim boudoir from an overturned oil lamp and the bed was quickly consumed in a cleansing pyre before the flames could be extinguished.
The reign of the Thief of Faces had come to an end and this Darkwood mystery had been solved. And for you, dear reader, the Darkwood Mysteries have just begun.