Charles Dickens is smitten with Ellen Ternan, a teenage actress, and heads to the country to retrieve her from the home for fallen women run by Angela Burdett-Coutts—who also owns one of England’s largest banks and has recently received an anonymous threatening note.
Back in London, Dickens and his fellow writer Wilkie Collins give the note to Inspector Field. But more urgent worries are to come. Both men’s paramours—the actress as well as a former prostitute—have been attending Women’s Emancipation Society meetings. When a young feminist is found fatally strangled at the scene of a robbery at Coutts Bank, Ellen, whose scarf was the murder weapon, is arrested. And it is up to Dickens to clear her name—hopefully without sullying his own, since at the time of the killing, the two were together in a hotel room . . .
“The story offers not only a mystery but also a look at some of the more prurient aspects of nineteenth-century London society . . . Atmospheric and cunningly plotted . . . Absorbing.” —Booklist
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||1 MB|
Read an Excerpt
Saint George or the Dragon?
June 3, 1852 — Noon
It began in a coach, as his A Tale of Two Cities would years later. But this coach collected me on a glistening spring day and galloped out into the country toward Urania Cottage.
'Tis difficult to penetrate the world of women, yet the narrative of this newest commonplace book must, for it was those relentless hoydens who turned the cards in what would be, perhaps, the most dangerous game of chance that Dickens, Field, and your most humble servant would ever be drawn into. It was the women who forced us back on duty with Inspector Field.
"What a brick you are, Wilkie!" Charles broke the silence which had gathered around us inside that speeding coach. "You are always ready at my summons, a willing accomplice."
If the truth of the matter be told, his choice of words, "willing accomplice," somewhat put me off. He made it sound as if we were two criminals setting off on a "crack," as Tally Ho Thompson might have said in his colorful highwayman's argot. But that day Dickens was skittish, and I didn't fully understand why he was so nervous until that ill-considered phrase, "willing accomplice," gave away his guilt.
"You know, Wilkie, success is relative." Charles grinned expansively as the lush green countryside rushed by. "The more successful you are, the more relatives you find you've got." It was a feckless little joke. I smiled at it, but we both knew that it was counterfeit joviality. He went back to contemplating the countryside.
I realized how many reasons there were for him to be nervous. Certainly he was nervous about his Ellen. But why? He had visited her many times in the fourteen months since she had entered Miss Burdett-Coutts's establishment. All seemed quite proper there. Perhaps he was nervous because this was the first time anyone had accompanied him upon one of his visits. As I look back upon it now, I am sure he asked me for propriety's sake. I would not venture to comment upon the dark intent of his interest in this sixteen-year-old actress because I had already preceded him in the execution of such dark intent. My own Meggy was even more deeply sunken into the depravities of the night streets. Meggy, unashamedly, had been a street whore, where Ellen Ternan had been a stage actress, though in the lexicon of many Victorian gentlemen one was no different from the other.
For whatever reason, Charles was exceedingly nervous as we entered the tree-lined drive that led to the front veranda of the sprawling three-storey villa which Miss Burdett-Coutts had purchased for their little experiment in social redemption. That fresh spring day we were come to set his mysterious Ellen free like some princess in a fairy tale. Perhaps that was it. Dickens was a nervous Saint George, fearful of loving this enchanting young woman so many years younger than himself, fearful that he was not the rescuing knight but the ravening beast.
As we stepped out of that coach and entered Urania Cottage, Dickens's agitation, I am now sure, was that of a hitherto good and moral man suddenly forced to question his deepest intentions. Etched deeply into the tension of his face and the hesitance of his step was the clear fact that Dickens didn't know what he was doing, yet was powerless not to do it. He wanted the girl, and he couldn't yet envision, amidst the disparities in their ages and the strict proprieties of the age, how he could possibly have her.
Urania Cottage was a quite pleasant place, and as we disembarked that spring morn all seemed, as Mr. Browning put it, "right with the world." The porch was festooned with potted flowers and the lacy white curtains billowed out of the open windows like Mr. Pope's mischievous sylphs floating on the air. Urania Cottage was the brainchild of Angela Burdett-Coutts and Dickens, and that noble lady met us at the threshold.
"Charles, so good to see you, it has been weeks." She took him in tow. "And Mr. Collins. This is the first time you have visited Urania Cottage, is it not?"
"Why yes, uh, no reason, uh, quite pleasant here, I say," I stammered in the face of her knowledge. Miss Burdett-Coutts was a tall, hovering woman with a long neck and a face too small and fair and gentle for her angular presence. She was not unattractive; her dark brown eyes seemed especially lively, quite fervent in their focusing upon one as she spoke. She wore one of the conventional heavy silk dresses of the day, shiny grey with white lace rising high up around her neck as if intent upon twisting off her small head. Her hair was pinned up in the shapeless bread-loaf style (which is still, regrettably, in vogue). "Must be quite exciting, uh, I mean different, uh no, pleasant for those young ladies chosen to reside here." My doddering inanity elicited a bubble of mirth from Miss Burdett-Coutts.
"Oh no, not really," she laughed. "Many try to escape. Some find their former life on the streets much more exciting."
"Ah, but others," Dickens knifed into our conversation, "are utterly changed for the better, learn to respect and consider themselves in a whole new way."
"Oh, Charles," she hurried on as she led us down a long, shining wooden corridor leading to the rear of the house, "I must talk with you quite briefly before you go to her. She is all packed, one small bag, since she came here with nothing. She is quite enthusiastic about our arrangements."
Dickens nodded attentively, but seemed eager to get to his Ellen, disinclined to tarry to talk trivialities with Miss Burdett-Coutts. From all I could infer, we had come in our coach to liberate Miss Ternan, transport her back to London to begin her new life.
"What is it, Angela? Can it not wait? We can meet to talk at the bank in the city at any time this coming week." Dickens in his nervousness was somewhat short with her.
"Oh yes, Charles, I know, but I've just found it so distressing since it arrived that I wanted you to see it and tell me what to do," she said, and for the first time, she revealed her own agitation.
The anxious tone of her voice brought Dickens up short and he sensed her fear.
"Angela, what is it? I'm sorry. What is wrong?"
"Oh, probably nothing. It is probably some sick prank." Her hands fluttered in the air like startled birds. "But it frightened me when it came, a threat like that."
"What threat?" Dickens had become quite intent upon her distress.
"This letter, it came yesterday." She handed a coarse envelope to him.
The letter was brief and scrawled in a thick and clumsy hand. Dickens held it out in front so that I could read over his shoulder. My very first thought was that it was written by someone attempting to disguise his handwriting, or by a poorly schooled child.
June 1, 1852
Miss Coutts, of Coutts Bank — You won't get away with this highhand treatment. You rob people at your bank. You keep whores and sodomites in country houses. You turn innocent people out into the street. You encourage women to overthrow law. I know your secrets. I can bring down both your houses.
a private Phantom!
"It seems awfully melodramatic." Dickens studied it with the eye of a detective.
It sounds mad, if you ask me!" I blustered, shocked that a person of Miss Burdett-Coutts's enormous wealth and public stature should have to deal with such impertinent harassment.
"I must say it frightened me, Charles" — she had brought herself quite under control — "at first. I had never received such a thing, and if the family did, my father certainly never mentioned it. It surprised me, but now I feel, with Mr. Collins, that it must be some sort of aberration. But perhaps we should look into it, don't you think?"
As she spoke, Dickens was studying the letter intently. When he spoke, it was as if he were simply thinking aloud, critiquing what the smudged text told him.
"It is purely a threat." He punctuated his certainty by pushing the letter gently at her in the air. "There is no mention of blackmail, no request for money." He paused and read it through once again. "It is written by someone who knows a great deal about you, about your philanthropies, your business." He stopped again to study. "It is written by someone who feels badly treated, perhaps someone you have dismissed, or whose business with your bank turned out unprofitably."
"Yes, I see that now." Angela nodded her head in agreement, her anxiety momentarily forgotten.
"Really, Charles, I say" — I stared intently over his shoulder at the letter — "quite right, yes ... but couldn't it just be something written in a fit of anger, something the writer will think better of?"
"Let us hope." Dickens turned back to her. "But nonetheless, Angela, this sounds dangerous enough. I shall give it to my friend Field of the Protectives. He will look into it."
"Oh thank you, Charles."
"Do not be alarmed. In fact, forget about this. I'm sure Wilkie is right. It is but an ill-considered outburst. Now, let us go to Miss Ternan." And with that, he seemed to dismiss the whole affair. Only, however, after safely depositing Miss Burdett-Coutts's distressing letter carefully into the inner pocket of his waistcoat.
As we traversed the cool dark corridor leading out to the garden, Dickens's nervousness reasserted itself.
"You have apprised her of all of our arrangements? She knows where and with whom she shall be living? That her monster of a mother is out of the way? That I shall be her guardian in all things? At her service? She feels comfortable and safe?" He interrogated poor Miss Burdett-Coutts as if she were a servant or some military subaltern.
She hesitated to answer in the face of his earnestness.
He misinterpreted her wariness for discretion.
"You may talk freely," Charles assured her. "Wilkie knows Miss Ternan. He was there when that whole sad affair happened."
"Quite." Miss Burdett-Coutts nodded her understanding as we emerged from the cool dark tunnel of the house into the bright spring sunshine of the lawn. The green grass stretched back to a thick pine forest, and was dotted in the eighteenth-century style with bushes sculpted in the forms of animals: a large rabbit here, a fat hedgehog there, two proud stags carved out of a privet hedge guarding the back verge of the property. The sunshine made the whole scene glisten in hues of green, an evergreen world peopled with young women in white dresses seated on stone benches.
"Her recovery and progress into womanhood have been quite astounding," Angela assured him with the utmost seriousness. "She has, since your last visit, survived her sixteenth birthday." (Her majority according to English law, and a feat few of her less fortunate colleagues of the London streets can claim — Charles would survive his forty-first that year.) "And it is time for her to return to the world, to the theatre, which is the only life she knows, and for which she expresses a great fondness."
"Excellent" — Dickens nodded his satisfaction as we crossed that wide expanse of lawn — "that has been my hope."
As we traversed the greensward, young women in white, virginal I might have thought from appearances if I hadn't known better, glanced up at us from their knitting needles or their reading. Some were probably reading Dickens's own stories and may not have realized that the author was actually walking in their midst.
"There she is." Angela pointed to a bench flanked by those ferocious stags at the farthest boundary of the lawn. As we approached, Ellen Ternan looked up from beneath a wide-brimmed summer hat of white straw, and smiled innocently.
It was the first time I had seen her in fourteen months, since that dangerous night in the roiling Thames. As she rose to meet us, I realized that this was quite a different young woman from that poor confused victim we had saved from suicide. It was how she extended her hand confidently to me and looked directly into my face as we were reintroduced that first intimated the extent to which she had changed.CHAPTER 2
June 3, 1852 — Noon and Later
One did not have to be overly observant, an inspector of detectives or a hired spy, to perceive the change in Dickens as he took his young ward's hand and basked in the radiance of her smile. Suddenly all his skittishness was gone, and he seemed utterly oblivious of his surroundings and his companions. Since his last birthday, Dickens had cultivated a rather rakish goatee, but his own smile (for Miss Ternan's eyes only) burst out of that sculpted thicket of his face.
"Miss Ternan, ah yes, today is the day, and our English sunshine favors us."
He was formal yet alive with enthusiasm. He was courtly, even fatherly in his concern, yet he could not hide his excitement at seeing her, his attraction to the powerful lodestone of her smile. I overstate. Perhaps under the influence of later events, the ensuing history of their remarkable relationship, I have romanticized this moment, and that look that passed between them, as enchanted.
"Mr. Dickens," she answered with her proffered hand, which he took in both of his, "there is no way that I can thank you and Miss Burdett-Coutts for all you have done for me."
It was a well-rehearsed speech, the opening sally of an actress who has learned her lines and is taking the stage. If such can be truly said of one of her tender years, she looked wiser, no longer a vulnerable child, more powerful. Her dress could not hide the fullness of her young body. As she extricated her hand from Dickens's possession and turned to Miss Burdett-Coutts and me, her mien showed no trace of the fright and humiliation of those earlier terrible events. Her smile was warm and innocent. Her gaze was open. There was strength lingering about her eyes, the wariness and determination of a survivor, but a hopeful survivor, one who has not despaired of the possibilities of life, not grown cynical from the brutality of experience.
But I think all of this was lost on Charles, or perhaps I am romanticizing again. Nonetheless, I feel with utter certainty that Charles could see nothing but her smile, her white shining presence, as if she were his Guinevere or Dulcinea. Some might misconstrue the fact of such an accomplished and powerful middle-aged man's devotion to a woman so young, especially in the light of her striking dark beauty; but, that day, in that unabashed English sunlight, as I looked at his face, I knew that he was truly in love with her.
Dickens, like some solicitous waiter in a fine European hotel, sat Miss Ternan and Angela down upon that stone bench between those two vigilant stags and opened a formal colloquy upon that young woman's immediate future.
"Miss Ternan, ah, Ellen, if I may ...," he began, standing rather stiffly over them as I stood by.
"Nellie," she interrupted him easily. "Nellie is what all my friends call me. Please be easy with that. It is a new name which I enjoy."
A new name which helps to escape the terrible past, slithered across my mind as I stood eavesdropping.
"Nellie, of course." He was still a bit nervous, but he knew what he needed to say. "Miss Burdett-Coutts, ah, Angela, has apprised me of your determination to return to public life in the city, and she has" — bowing respectfully to Miss Burdett-Coutts — "also apprised you of the arrangements we have made together to allow you to do so." He sounded like some pinch-backed countinghouse clerk delivering a bill. "Are you content with those arrangements?"
"Oh, Mr. Dickens ..."
"Charles please, my friends ..." And he looked of a sudden to me for help, as if I might throw him some spar to keep him from sinking. I honestly think that in his confusion it was the first moment that he remembered he had brought me along. "This is my friend, Mr. Collins, Wilkie."
"Miss Ternan" — I bowed shallowly, and she smiled ever so slightly — "Charles has told me so much about you."
"Yes, Mr. Collins, I do remember now. You have been a good friend." And again I glimpsed that determined look of the survivor about her eyes.
"Yes, thank you, yes." I really had no idea what I was saying.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Hoydens and Mr. Dickens"
Copyright © 1997 William J. Palmer.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.