The second book in the series of Victorian murder mysteries set in London, with a clever and determined female sleuth
Frances Doughty is a young sleuth on her first professional case, trying to discover who distributed dangerously feminist pamphlets to the girls of the Bayswater Academy for the Education of Young Ladies. Armed with only her wits, courage, and determination, she finds that even the most respectable denizens of Bayswater have something to hide, and what begins as a simple task soon becomes a case of murder. As election fever erupts and the formidable ladies of the Bayswater Women's Suffrage Society swing into action, Frances’ enquiries expose lies, more murders, and a long-concealed scandal—and she makes a powerful new friend.
About the Author
Linda Stratmann is the author of Chloroform: The Quest for Oblivion and The Poisonous Seed.
Read an Excerpt
The Daughters of Gentlemen
By Linda Stratmann
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Linda Stratmann
All rights reserved.
Algernon Fiske was a very worried man. For some years he had been accustomed to living in the state of pleasurable equilibrium to which he felt he should be entitled, but suddenly all had been thrown into anxiety and confusion.
His late father had been a successful grocer, and while Mr Fiske would have been the first to state that grocers were splendid fellows he had declined to become one himself. The rent of several shops had enabled him to subsist on his true passion, English literature, and he enjoyed a modest celebrity as an author, lecturer and reviewer of books. His interests were especially directed towards the education of the impressionable young, and since he was the father of two girls he was particularly concerned with the prudent development of the female brain. His wife Edith was the daughter of a clergyman, whom he had selected not for love or beauty or fortune but for her good temper and the excellence of her mind.
A woman's intellect was, he believed, too often neglected. Was it not the duty of womankind to conduct the management of the home, that haven of comfort so essential to the successful man? And while a nursemaid was more than adequate to tend to the bodily comforts of the very young, it was to their mother that they should turn for stimulation of the mind during their tenderest years. As he watched his infant daughters, Charlotte and Sophia, grow into sturdy and serious little girls, he began to wonder what school might be best for their development into the young women he hoped they would become, and lighted upon a small but promising establishment whose proprietors, Professor Edward Venn and his wife Honoria, appeared to be suitable in almost every way. The only small drawback was the Professor's delicate state of health, which ill-equipped him for the burden of administration. Thus it was that Algernon Fiske MA became patron and governor of the Bayswater Academy for the Education of Young Ladies. He was soon joined by two other gentlemen with similar concerns, landowner Roderick Matthews, whose market gardens supplied the denizens of Bayswater with fruit, vegetables and fresh flowers, and Bartholomew Paskall, property agent. Under their guidance the little school moved to a larger establishment in respectable but not showy Chepstow Place and opened its doors to more pupils, the carefully brought up daughters of Bayswater gentlemen of substance. The unfortunate early death of Professor Venn, whose long hours of toil on a great work of history was both a fine example to society and his downfall, might have threatened the future of the school, but Mrs Venn had bravely stepped into his place. In all its years of existence there had been no suggestion that the school was anything other than the most perfect of its kind. This was the situation until the afternoon of Wednesday, 3rd March 1880, when fourteen-year-old Charlotte Fiske was unexpectedly escorted home by one of her teachers in a state of great distress.
Miss Bell (grammar, spelling and elocution) was quick to reassure the Fiskes that their daughter had done nothing wrong. That morning, Charlotte had discovered an item of printed matter in her desk that appeared to have been placed there by a prankster, but, being a sensitive girl, she had been upset by the incident and the school had thought it advisable that she return home for the afternoon to be comforted by her family. Edith Fiske was a shrewd woman who felt sure that Miss Bell, who loved the English language so much that she normally put it to constant use, was keeping something back. She ordered her cook to prepare a glass of warm milk, and as Charlotte sipped the soothing liquid, she carefully questioned her daughter.
'Well, my dear?' asked Algernon, a few minutes later, peering over his spectacles as his wife entered his study. There was a book of poetry on the desk before him. He had been struggling to compose a review and was trying to determine whether it was a greater kindness to the author to say only what good there was in his work, or tell him the truth and risk hurting his feelings.
'It is both better and worse than I had feared,' said Edith. 'Charlotte assures me that she read very little of the offending item, but it was enough to learn that it was a treatise attempting to persuade young girls that they ought not to marry.'
'Ought not to marry!' exclaimed Algernon, astounded. 'On what grounds?'
'Thankfully,' said Edith, dryly, 'Charlotte did not read sufficient to discover that.'
Fiske threw aside his pen. 'But why would anyone send our daughter such a thing? I hope she has taken no notice of what it says.'
'She will not,' said Edith. 'You may leave that to me. But you, Algy dear, must go to the school at once and speak to Mrs Venn. The person who did this must be found and stopped. Who knows what wickedness they may commit in future?'
Algernon sighed and looked down at his barely commenced review of the works of aspiring poet Augustus Mellifloe, a task that had suddenly acquired more relish, especially in view of the keen wind making hollow mocking sounds down the chimney.
'Don't worry, my dear,' said Edith, briskly. 'I will deal with Mr Mellifloe. And remember to wear your muffler.' Resignedly, Fiske rose from his desk. Edith took his place, selected a pen, tested the sharpness of its nib, and set to work.
Fiske returned home an hour later, his face grey with misery, and sank into an armchair. 'The whole school has been under the most hideous attack!' he exclaimed. Edith had, in his absence, completed the review to her satisfaction, although not, in all probability, to the satisfaction of Mr Mellifloe, and was stitching a lace edging to a new cap while simultaneously reading a book on English history, achieving this feat with a device of her own invention which held the pages of the volume open as she worked. She now abandoned both activities to give her unhappy husband her full attention and pour him a warming glass of sherry.
Fiske had learned that the morning class, which consisted of twelve girls, had assembled in the schoolroom to do an hour of quiet study on whatever subjects had been individually assigned. When Charlotte Fiske opened her arithmetic book a piece of folded paper had fluttered out. She had begun to read it when Miss Baverstock (music, deportment and dancing) who had been supervising the class, noticed the paper and investigated. Miss Baverstock decided to take Charlotte and the paper to see Mrs Venn (headmistress, history and geography) when a horrid thought struck her. She quickly ordered all the other girls to go up to the common room, and arranged for Mlle Girard (French, and plain and fancy needlework) to supervise them.
Mrs Venn, having perused the paper with understandable distaste, and establishing that Charlotte had no knowledge of how it had arrived in her desk, at once comprehended Miss Baverstock's way of thinking and both women went down to the empty schoolroom, leaving Charlotte to be comforted by Miss Bell. Every desk was opened and thoroughly searched, and in every one there was an identical paper, each one neatly tucked into the pages of a book. Mrs Venn then set about interviewing all the girls individually, but none of them had as yet discovered the pamphlets placed in their desks or had any idea how they might have come to be there. Mrs Venn concluded that it was merely chance that it had been Charlotte Fiske who had been the first to find hers.
'And what was your opinion of the item in question?' asked Edith.
'I did not see it myself,' confessed her husband, 'but I am told that it has been most carefully removed from innocent eyes. One hopes that it will never be seen again.'
Edith frowned and returned to her sewing. 'What does Mrs Venn propose to do?' she asked.
Fiske hesitated. Everything had been so very clear when he had spoken to the headmistress, but now, having to explain the position to his wife, he found it less easy to justify. 'It is my understanding that she considers no further action to be necessary.'
Edith raised an eyebrow. 'That is very surprising,' she said.
'She believes that the whole incident may have been no more than a childish mischief, the culprit being one of the girls who would not have understood the meaning of the publication,' said Fiske. 'Having spoken most firmly to all the pupils, she is convinced that the girl, whoever she may be, is now so thoroughly frightened by what she has done that she regrets her transgression and it will not recur.'
'And do you share this view?' asked Edith. There was something subtle in her tone that her husband could not help but find alarming.
'I would like to,' he said, hopefully.
Edith stopped sewing and looked at him with a direct stare that was all too familiar. 'But you are understandably afraid that she may be mistaken.'
He sighed. 'Supposing it is no thoughtless prank, but a plot by strident mannish women to affect the minds of our girls?'
'Then,' she informed him, 'you must be concerned that such a thing may happen again.'
'I am,' he said unhappily.
'And who knows what indecent material they may select for their next attempt?'
Fiske shuddered. 'I wish I knew what to do.'
'Mr Paskall and Mr Matthews both have daughters at the school,' Edith observed. 'It would seem appropriate to advise them of the situation.'
'Yes! Yes of course!' Fiske rose from his chair. 'I will go and see them at once. In fact, I will call a meeting – an extraordinary meeting of the governors. This thing must be stopped. Our girls must be protected at all costs!' He was visibly trembling as he left the room. Edith nodded approval, took up her scissors and cut a thread.
* * *
Later that evening Mr Fiske sat dejectedly in Bartholomew Paskall's study in company with Mr Paskall and Roderick Matthews. The three men, although all in their late forties and joined in a common purpose, were remarkably unalike: Mr Fiske, short, slightly portly, with greying side whiskers and a thinning pate; Matthews, tall with a broad forehead, glossy dark hair and trim beard, drawing languidly on a cigar, Paskall, thin and intense with a nose like an eagle's beak. While Fiske's study was warmly lined with the leather backs of lovingly bound volumes, and Matthews' spoke more of leisure than work, Paskall's was an extension of his business, the shelves stuffed with cracked ledgers and bundles of papers tied with string. The desk was piled high with newspapers and political pamphlets, since Paskall, to his considerable pride, had recently been selected as one of the two Conservative candidates for Marylebone in the forthcoming General Election. Those with their fingers on the parliamentary pulse confidently predicted that this would take place in the autumn.
'Of course you were right to alert us, Fiske,' said Matthews, whose two youngest daughters Amelia and Dorothea and a ward, Wilhelmina, were all pupils of the school, 'and right too to get the whole story from Mrs Venn. But the question is, what's to be done?'
'I don't think this is a childish prank,' said Paskall, frowning. 'And neither do I think it is some confederation of women who may be easily dismissed as misguided. It is more serious than that. It is a personal attack on me. I have political enemies, and the success of the Conservatives in the recent by-elections makes my victory in the autumn almost certain. Someone seeks to destroy me by creating a scandal in the school. Of course I am concerned for my daughters, but Beatrice and Leticia are sensible girls and they will listen to me.'
'Oh, I don't smell politics in this,' said Matthews, nonchalantly. 'It could be some rival school about to open its doors and hoping to gain pupils by discrediting us.'
'One thing we dare not do is make a public statement,' said Fiske. 'To deny wrongdoing would simply arouse suspicion where there was none before. Neither should we have anything to do with the police.'
'I doubt they'd be interested, Fiske,' said Matthews dismissively. 'From what you say it isn't even a crime.'
'Can you imagine if anyone were to see policemen going into the school?' said Paskall, his voice faint with horror. 'And as for detectives —'
'I would never condone persons of that sort speaking to our girls,' said Fiske. 'These men are in daily contact with the lowest type of criminals, and some of them are little better than criminals themselves. Many have actually been dismissed from the police force, for what reasons I dread to imagine.'
For a moment or two the only sound in the room was that of Matthews sucking at his cigar and a squally wind rattling the window and driving raindrops against the pane like pebbles.
'Why not ask Mrs Venn to make enquiries?' suggested Fiske. 'She is a sensible woman.'
'From what you have told us, Mrs Venn prefers that no enquiries should be made,' said Paskall. 'I agree that we should appoint someone, but it should be an individual with no involvement in the work of the school.'
'What about a female detective?' said Matthews with a laugh, which quickly evaporated when he realised that his two associates had taken his joke seriously.
'Is such a person entirely respectable?' asked Fiske. 'It seems a very strange sort of proceeding for a woman.'
Paskall suddenly pulled a recent copy of the Bayswater Chronicle from the pile of newspapers on his desk. 'Did you hear about Miss Doughty, the chemist's daughter?' he asked, and turned to the inner page of local news. 'Reading between the lines she danced rings round the police and it is she we must thank for solving the murder of Mr Garton.' He proffered the paper to the others and they examined a column headed 'My Remarkable Career by a Lady Detective.'
'What do you suggest?' asked Fiske when he had read the item.
'It can do no harm to engage her to look into the matter,' said Paskall. 'If the young lady can unmask murderers then I think she will be equal to this. The family is respectable, and I understand that her reputation is beyond reproach.'
Matthews put down his cigar and looked around for the brandy. 'Agreed,' he said, and somehow – and Mr Fiske never learned how – it was all settled in a moment that he should go to the chemist shop in Westbourne Grove and engage Frances Doughty as a detective.
* * *
The next morning Mr Fiske was unsurprised to discover that after the recent tragedies and charges of murder which had centred around Doughty's chemist shop, the business was under new management. The shop was bustling with ladies, all casting simpering looks at the new young pharmacist Mr Jacobs, from whom he learned that Miss Doughty had not yet vacated the apartments next door. There, he presented his card to the maid-servant, a burly young woman with a face like a disgruntled bulldog, and was shown upstairs to a parlour, almost bereft of comforts, a large box suggesting that arrangements were being made to move to new accommodation.
Miss Doughty was very young, scarcely old enough to have left school herself, but that, to Mr Fiske's mind, was to her advantage, as she might thereby gain the confidence of the girls. He was impressed by her calmness and composure, and as she listened to him, saw that she was already considering the difficulty and how she might resolve it. There was no hint of frivolity about Miss Doughty, no trace of unwarranted ornament or vanity, or a mind distracted by thoughts of romance. Miss Doughty would never have put a flower in her bonnet and made eyes at Mr Jacobs. Fiske departed, feeling a new confidence.
Frances was left alone for a while, and despite her cool exterior, her heart was thudding with excitement. Only an hour before she had been facing the dull but not unpleasant prospect of becoming a dependent of her Uncle Cornelius, a kindly man who she knew would attend to her comfort and happiness. Her main regret had been that Cornelius had no place for her maid, Sarah, who had been a quietly loyal and steadfast presence in her life for the last ten years. Sarah had first come to the Doughtys as a squat fifteen year old with an expression of deep gloom and the capacity for ungrudging hard work, and had become someone in whom Frances placed a confidence and trust that she would have shared only with a mother or sister. Cornelius had recommended Sarah to a family in Maida Vale, something Frances was still gathering the courage to mention, as she suspected that Sarah's feelings on the subject were even stronger than her own.
Excerpted from The Daughters of Gentlemen by Linda Stratmann. Copyright © 2012 Linda Stratmann. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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