London, October 1888
What in the name of flaming Hades do you mean his lordship wants me to officiate at the wedding of a tortoise?" Stoker demanded.
He appeared properly outraged-an excellent look for him, as it caused his blue eyes to brighten, his muscles to tauten distractingly as he folded his arms over his chest. I dragged my gaze from the set of his shoulders and attempted to explain our employer's request again.
"His lordship wishes Patricia to be married and asks if you will do the honors," I told him. The fact that the Earl of Rosemorran had made such a request shouldn't have given Stoker a moment's pause; it was by far not the most outrageous of the things we had done since coming to live at Bishop's Folly, his lordship's Marylebone estate. We were in the process of cataloging and preparing the Rosemorran Collection-amassed thanks to a few hundred years of genteel avarice on the part of previous earls-in hopes of making it a proper museum. With our occasional forays into sleuthing out murderers and the odd blackmailer, we were a bit behind, and his lordship's latest scheme was not calculated to improve matters.
"Veronica," Stoker said with exaggerated patience, "Patricia is a Gal‡pagos tortoise. She does not require the benefit of clergy."
"I realize that. And even if she did, you are not clergy. The point is that Patricia has been quite agitated of late and his lordship has taken advice on the matter. Apparently, she requires a husband."
Patricia had been a gift from Charles Darwin to the present earl's grandfather, a souvenir of his travels to the Gal‡pagos, and she occupied herself with eating lettuces and frightening visitors as she lumbered about with a disdainful expression on her face. She was as like a boulder as it was possible for a living creature to be, and the only moments of real interest were when she managed to upend herself, a situation that required at least three grown persons to rectify. But lately she had taken to hiding in the shrubbery, moaning mournfully, until the earl consulted a zoologist who suggested she was, as the earl related to me with significant blushes, tired of being a maiden tortoise.
I explained this to Stoker, adding, "So his lordship has ordered a suitable mate and has every expectation that when Patricia is properly mated, she will be right as rain."
Stoker's expression was pained. "But why a wedding? Tortoises are not precisely religious."
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. "Of course they aren't. But Lady Rose is home just now and overheard her father discussing Patricia's new mate." I started to elaborate but Stoker held up a quelling hand. The mention of the earl's youngest and most precocious child was sufficient.
"I understand. But why am I supposed to perform the ceremony? Why can't his lordship?"
"Because the earl is giving away the bride."
Stoker's mouth twitched, but he maintained a serious expression. "Very well. But whilst I am marrying two tortoises, what will you be doing?"
"Me?" I smiled graciously. "Why, I am to be a bridesmaid."
I would like to say that a tortoise wedding was the most eccentric of the tasks to which we applied ourselves during our time in his lordshipÕs employ; however, I have vowed to be truthful within these pages. Even as I persuaded Stoker to officiate at reptile nuptials, I was keenly aware that we were perched on the precipice of a new and most dangerous investigation. Our previous forays into amateur detection had been largely accidental, the result of insatiable curiosity on my part and an unwillingness to let well enough alone on StokerÕs. (He claims to involve himself in murderous endeavors solely for the benefit of my safety, but as I have saved his life on at least one occasion, his argument is as specious as LamarckÕs Theory of Inheritance.)
We had just emerged from a harrowing ordeal at the hands of a murderer in Cornwall when we were summoned back to London by Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk, Lord Rosemorran's elderly great-aunt and minence grise behind the throne. For the better part of the nineteenth century, she and her father had made it their mission to protect the royal family-not least from themselves. Lady Wellie meddled strategically, and no one save the royal family and a handful of very highly placed people of influence knew of her power. She dined twice a month with the Archbishop of Canterbury and regularly summoned the Foreign Secretary to tea, and the head of Scotland Yard's Special Branch held himself at her beck and call. This last, Sir Hugo Montgomerie, was my sometime ally, albeit grudgingly on his part. He knew, as did Lady Wellie, that my natural father was the Prince of Wales. I was unacknowledged by the prince, which suited me perfectly, but my very existence was dangerous. My father had undergone a form of marriage with my mother-entirely illegal, as she was an Irishwoman of the Roman Catholic faith and he was forbidden by law to wed without the permission of his august mother, Queen Victoria.
"Bertie always was a romantic," Lady Wellie once told me with a fond sigh.
"There are other words for it," had been my dry response. Lady Wellie did not appreciate levity where her favorites were concerned, and my father occupied a particularly cozy spot in her affections. For that reason, perhaps, she was sometimes indulgent with me, turning a blind eye to my unconventional occupation as a lepidopterist. Butterfly hunting was a perfectly genteel activity for ladies, so long as one was properly chaperoned and never perspired. But I had made a comfortable living from my net, traveling the world in search of the most glorious specimens to sell to private collectors. Even if my parents' union had been a conventional one, sanctioned by both church and state, the fact that I frequently combined business with pleasure-using my expeditions to exercise my healthy libido-would have made it impossible for the prince to recognize me officially as his child. That Lady Wellie had, in the days of her robust youth, indulged regularly in refreshing bouts of physical congress no doubt influenced her attitude of bland acceptance to my discreet activities.
In fact, she had encouraged them on more than one occasion, at least as far as Stoker was concerned. In spite of his numerous attractions-and the fact that we were both more than a little in love with one another-we had hitherto resisted the more primitive blood urges. Stoker frequently swam in whatever available pond or river provided a chilly respite, and I submerged my yearnings in rigorous scientific study and the odd evening spent sampling the collection of robust phallic artifacts I had been sent by a grateful gentleman who had escaped the noose thanks to our efforts on his behalf.
But in the course of our most recent adventure, Stoker and I had cast off our reticence at last, acknowledging that the curious mental and emotional bond we shared seemed to comprise a physical element as well. At least that was how I liked to phrase it. The truth, dear reader, is that I was as ready for him as any filly ready for the stud. My blood thrummed whenever he came near, the air crackling between us like one of Galvani's electrical experiments. It was a mercy that we had not been alone in our train compartment on the journey back to London; otherwise, I suspect the urgent swaying of the conveyance would have proven too much for my increasingly limited self-control.
Stoker, as it happens, was possessed of more decorum. Lady Wellie would have pronounced him a romantic as well, for he insisted that our inaugural congress must be properly celebrated-to wit, in a bed. A comfortable bed, he added firmly, with a wide mattress and a sturdy frame and a headboard that would bear some abuse. I blinked at this last, but agreed, realizing that time and privacy would be required to fully sate us both.
The result was that we arrived back in London in a fever of anticipation, bickering happily about which of our lodgings should provide the better setting for our genteel debaucheries. Lord Rosemorran housed us in two of the follies on his estate, Stoker in a Chinese pagoda, and me in a miniature Gothic chapel.
"Mine has a wider bed," I pointed out.
"Mine is nearer the Roman temple baths," he reminded me. I fell into a reverie, distracted at the notion of a very wet, very imperfectly clothed Stoker and the hot, heavy air of the baths with their vast pools of heated water and comfortable sofas.
"Excellent point," I managed.
But we returned to find that the plumbing in the Roman baths had exploded modestly, damaging the temple and Stoker's adjacent pagoda.
"No worries," Lord Rosemorran told him, unaware of our predicament and therefore jovially oblivious to our dismay. "I have had Lumley move your things into the house. You can sleep upstairs. There is a very nice guest room next door to the night nursery."
I spent the better part of that day trying to decide whether Stoker should break out of the house that night or whether I should break in, but in the end, the matter was decided for me. Preparations for the upcoming tortoise nuptials had set the household at sixes and sevens, and amidst the chaos, Lady Wellie sent for us. We had been summoned back to London at her insistence. The audacious killer known as Jack the Ripper had begun a murderous rampage, slaughtering his victims so brutally that it had caught the nation's attention-and Lady Wellie's. We knew the villain had struck again, two victims in the same night, and it was this heinous double crime that caused her to dispatch a telegram insisting upon our return and ending our Cornish adventure.
After the bracing air of Cornwall, London was a contrast of sooty fogs and afternoon lamps lit against the early October gloom. Lady Wellie awaited us in her private rooms, her dark gaze alert. A clock on the mantel ticked softly, and in the corner stood a large gilded cage in which two lovebirds chattered companionably. Lady Wellie flicked a significant glance towards the clock.
"It is about time," she said by way of greeting.
Stoker bent to brush a kiss to her withered cheek. She did not simper as she usually did, but her expression softened a little.
"I do apologize," I told her. "His lordship waylaid us on the way in with news of alterations in our lodgings, and then we were sorting the details for a tortoise wedding. Patricia is to be a bride."
Lady Wellie's clawlike hand curved over the top of her walking stick. "I know. I was asked to provide her with a bit of Honiton lace for a veil," she replied. "But I have not summoned you here to discuss the latest family foray into madness. I need your help."
Lady Wellie was plainspoken by habit but seldom quite so forthright. Stoker shot me a glance.
"The East End murderer," he supplied. "We read the latest newspapers on the train this morning. He has a penchant for prostitutes, this fellow."
"Not prostitutes," she corrected swiftly. "The newspapers know what sells, but the most one can say definitively of these unfortunates is they are women who possibly turn to the trade in moments of necessity. None of them has been a true professional."
"Does it make a difference?" I put in.
"I imagine it does to them," she replied. Her hand flexed on the walking stick, and I noticed she did not offer us refreshment. Lady Wellie kept one eye on the ormolu clock upon the mantel as she spoke. For the first time, I was aware of a taut stillness in the room, something expectant, stretched on tiptoe. Even the lovebirds fell silent.
She went on. "It is still early days in the investigation, but it seems each of them had a regular occupation-flower seller, hop picker. If they sold themselves, it was only to make the price of a bed at night or a pint of gin. When they had need of ready cash and nothing left to pawn, they exploited the only asset in their possession."
"Poor devils," Stoker said softly. We lived in luxury thanks to his lordship's largesse, but we had seen such women often enough in our travels about the city. Haggard and worn by worry and poor nutrition, they were old before their time, their flesh their only commodity. Whether they used their bodies to labor in a field or up against the rough brick of an alley wall, every ha'penny they collected was purchased at a dreadful cost.
Lady Wellie cleared her throat. "Yes, well. As you can imagine, the newspapers cannot contain themselves. They are utterly hysterical on the subject, whipping up the capital into a fever of terror and speculation. I do not like the mood at present. Anything is possible."
She narrowed her eyes, and I filled in the rest. "You mean republicanism is on the rise again."
"There is agitation in every quarter. These journalists"-her voice dripped scorn upon the word-"are taking this opportunity to stoke resentment against immigrants, against the Jews, and against the wealthy."
"Not groups that ordinarily fall in for resentment from the same quarter," Stoker observed.
"They do now. The middle class is perfectly poised to hate in both directions. They think the lower orders criminal and they fear them even as they look down upon them. And they resent the rich for not taking better care of the situation, policing the poor and the indigent."
I thought back to the tent city that had occupied Trafalgar Square for the better part of the year, row upon row of temporary structures sheltering those who had no other place to go. For months, the indigent had slept rough, washing themselves as best they could in the fountains, passing under the gaze of the Barbary lions. There were not enough soup kitchens and shelters and doss-houses to keep everyone fed and warm, and it was all too easy to step over some slumbering wretch upon the pavement and dismiss it as someone else's trouble to solve.
"The mood, at present, is dangerous," she went on. "The goodwill from last year's Jubilee seems to have evaporated." Queen Victoria, desolate in her widowhood, had withdrawn from public life, immuring herself in stony silence at Windsor Castle.
But it had been two and a half decades since Prince Albert's death, and the queen's unwillingness to show herself to her people had bred annoyance, which had turned to outright debate about whether a monarchy was even relevant in modern times. The previous year's Jubilee had seen the queen out and about, a rotund little figure swathed in black silk and larded with diamonds, nodding and waving to the cheers that resounded as her extended royal clan trotted obediently in her wake in a glorious and glittering panoply. But a year was a long time in public memory, and over the winter-the hardest in decades-privation and want had grown so terrible that all of the warm feeling of patriotism and bonhomie towards the royal family had melted like ice on a summer's day.