1901 was both the nadir and acme of popular literature, in the Post Editor's opinion. At no other period could writing be so bad and so good at the same time. I've discovered a new favourite love-to-hate writer. It's all Paigetheoracle's fault. He told me to read Robert Aickman, but of course I had to look him up first. I haven't got to Aickman yet, because I ran across his grandfather: Richard Marsh. Marsh's real name was Richard Bernard Heldmann. He used to write uplifting boys' fiction, until he got in trouble for check-kiting and changed genres and names. After that, his work tended to the supernatural and outré.
Marsh's most famous work was The Beetle, a gender-bending novel about an evil shape-shifting Egyptian that also features a Bertie Wooster-style nitwit whose hobby is inventing WMDs. Believe it or not, The Beetle came out the same year as Dracula, and was more popular.
The following mess is so delightful that I'm going to run it for you in its entirety, but since it's in three chapters and is too long for the internet, I'm going to spread it out over three weeks. This will give you time to try and solve the mystery. That should add to the 'fun'.
Here, then, is some snobbery with violence. You're sure to recognise the style, which is sort of snarky Charlotte M Yonge. This short story is taken from the anthology Amusement Only, and reproduced courtesy of Project Gutenberg.
The Lost Duchess1
Chapter 1: The Duchess is Lost
'Has the Duchess returned?'
Knowles came further into the room. He had a letter on a salver. When the Duke had taken it, Knowles still lingered. The Duke glanced at him.
'Is an answer required?'
'No, your Grace.' Still Knowles lingered. 'Something a little singular has happened2. The carriage has returned without the Duchess, and the men say that they thought her Grace was in it.'
'What do you mean?'
'I hardly understand myself, your Grace. Perhaps you would like to see Barnes.'
Barnes was the coachman.
'Send him up.' When Knowles had gone, and he was alone, his Grace showed signs of being slightly annoyed. He looked at his watch. 'I told her she'd better be in by four. She says that she's not feeling well, and yet one would think that she was not aware of the fatigue entailed in having the Prince to dinner, and a mob of people to follow. I particularly wished her to lie down for a couple of hours.'
Knowles ushered in not only Barnes, the coachman, but Moysey, the footman, too. Both these persons seemed to be ill at ease. The Duke glanced at them sharply. In his voice there was a suggestion of impatience3.
'What is the matter?'
Barnes explained as best he could.
'If you please, your Grace, we waited for the Duchess outside Cane and Wilson's, the drapers. The Duchess came out, got into the carriage, and Moysey shut the door, and her Grace said, 'Home!' and yet when we got home she wasn't there.'
'She wasn't where?'
'Her Grace wasn't in the carriage, your Grace.'
'What on earth do you mean?'4
'Her Grace did get into the carriage; you shut the door, didn't you?'
Barnes turned to Moysey. Moysey brought his hand up to his brow in a sort of military salute – he had been a soldier in the regiment in which, once upon a time, the Duke had been a subaltern5:
'She did. The Duchess came out of the shop. She seemed rather in a hurry, I thought. She got into the carriage, and she said, 'Home, Moysey!' I shut the door, and Barnes drove straight home. We never stopped anywhere, and we never noticed nothing happen on the way; and yet when we got home the carriage was empty.'
The Duke stared.
'Do you mean to tell me that the Duchess got out of the carriage while you were driving full pelt through the streets without saying anything to you, and without you noticing it?'
'The carriage was empty when we got home, your Grace.'
'Was either of the doors open?'
'No, your Grace.'
'You fellows have been up to some infernal mischief. You have made a mess of it. You never picked up the Duchess, and you're trying to palm this tale off on to me to save yourselves.'
Barnes was moved to adjuration:
'I'll take my Bible oath, your Grace, that the Duchess got into the carriage outside Cane and Wilson's.'
Moysey seconded his colleague:
'I will swear to that, your Grace. She got into the carriage, and I shut the door, and she said, 'Home, Moysey!'6
The Duke looked as if he did not know what to make of the story and its tellers.
'What carriage did you have?'
'Her Grace's brougham7, your Grace.'
'The brougham was ordered because I understood that the Duchess was not feeling very well, and there's rather a high wind, your Grace.'
The Duke snapped at him:
'What has that to do with it? Are you suggesting that the Duchess was more likely to jump out of a brougham while it was dashing through the streets than out of any other kind of vehicle?'8
The Duke's glance fell on the letter which Knowles had brought him when he first had entered. He had placed it on his writing-table. Now he took it up. It was addressed:
To His Grace
The Duke of Datchet.
The name was written in a fine, clear, almost feminine hand. The words in the left-hand corner of the envelope were written in a different hand. They were large and bold; almost as though they had been painted with the end of the penholder instead of being written with the pen. The envelope itself was of an unusual size, and bulged out as though it contained something else besides a letter.
The Duke tore the envelope open. As he did so something fell out of it on to the writing-table. It looked as though it was a lock of a woman's hair. As he glanced at it the Duke seemed to be a trifle startled. The Duke read the letter:
Your Grace will be so good as to bring five hundred pounds (£500) in gold to the Piccadilly end of the Burlington Arcade within an hour of the receipt of this. The Duchess of Datchet has been kidnapped. An imitation duchess got into the carriage, which was waiting outside Cane and Wilson's and she alighted on the road. Unless your Grace does as you are requested the Duchess of Datchet's left-hand little finger will be at once cut off, and sent home in time to receive the Prince to dinner. Other portions of her Grace will follow. A lock of her Grace's hair is enclosed with this as an earnest of our good intentions.
Before 5.30 p.m. your Grace is requested to be at the Piccadilly end of the Burlington Arcade with five hundred pounds (£500) in gold. You will there be accosted by an individual in a white top-hat, and with a gardenia in his button-hole. You will be entirely at liberty to give him into custody, or to have him followed by the police. In which case the Duchess's left arm, cut off at the shoulder, will be sent home for dinner – not to mention other extremely possible contingencies. But you are advised to give the individual in question the five hundred pounds in gold, because in that case the Duchess herself will be home in time to receive the Prince to dinner, and with one of the best stories with which to entertain your distinguished guests they ever heard.
Remember! not later than 5.30, unless you wish to receive her Grace's little finger10.'
The Duke stared at this amazing epistle when he had read it as though he had found it difficult to believe the evidence of his eyes11. He was not a demonstrative person as a rule, but this little communication astonished even him. He read it again. Then his hands dropped to his sides and he swore12.
He took up the lock of hair which had fallen out of the envelope. Was it possible that it could be his wife's, the Duchess? Was it possible that a Duchess of Datchet could be kidnapped, in broad daylight, in the heart of London, and be sent home, as it were, in pieces? Had sacrilegious hands already been playing pranks with that great lady's hair? Certainly, that hair was so like her hair that the mere resemblance made his Grace's blood run cold. He turned on Messrs. Barnes and Moysey as though he would have liked to rend them:
He moved forward as though the intention had entered his ducal heart to knock his servants down. But, if that were so, he did not act quite up to his intention. Instead, he stretched out his arm, pointing at them as if he were an accusing spirit:
'Will you swear that it was the Duchess who got into the carriage outside Cane and Wilson's?'
Barnes began to stammer:
'I – I'll swear, your Grace, that I – I thought – – '
The Duke stormed an interruption:
'I don't ask what you thought. I ask you, will you swear it was?'
The Duke's anger was more than Barnes could face. He was silent. Moysey showed a larger courage:
'Could have sworn that it was at the time, your Grace. But now it seems to me that it's a rummy go.'
'A rummy go!' The peculiarity of the phrase did not seem to strike the Duke just then – at least, he echoed it as if it didn't. 'You call it a rummy go! Do you know that I am told in this letter that the woman who had entered the carriage was not the Duchess? What you were thinking about, or what case you will be able to make out for yourselves, you know better than I; but I can tell you this – that in an hour you will leave my service, and you may esteem yourselves fortunate if, to-night, you are not both of you sleeping in gaol. Knowles! take these men to a room, and lock them in it, and set some one to see that they don't get out of it, and come back at once. You understand, at once – to me!'
Knowles did not give Messrs. Barnes and Moysey a chance to offer a remonstrance, even if they had been disposed to do so. He escorted them out of the room with a dexterity and a celerity which did him credit13, and in a remarkably short space of time he returned to the ducal presence. He was the Duke's own servant – his own particular man. He was a little older than the Duke, and he had been his servant almost ever since the Duke had been old enough to have a servant of his very own. Probably James Knowles knew more than any living creature of the Duke's 'secret history' – as they call it in the chroniques scandaleuses – of his little peculiarities, of his strong points, and his weak ones. And, in the possession of this knowledge, he had borne himself in a manner which had caused the Duke to come to look upon him as a man in whom he might have confidence – that confidence which a penitent has in a confessor – to look upon him as a trusted and a trustworthy friend.
When Knowles reappeared the Duke handed him the curious epistle with which he had been favoured.
'Read that, and tell me what you think of it.'
Knowles read it. His countenance was even more of a mask than the Duke's. He evinced no sign of astonishment.
'I am inclined, your Grace, to think that it's a hoax.'
'A hoax! I don't know what you call a hoax! That is not a hoax!' The Duke held out the lock of hair which had fallen from the envelope. 'I have compared it with the hair in my locket, and it is the Duchess's hair.'
'May I look at it?'
The Duke handed it to Knowles. Knowles examined it closely.
'It resembles her Grace's hair.'
'Resembles! It is her hair14.'
Knowles still continued to reflect. He offered a suggestion.
'Shall I send for the police?'
'The police! What's the good of sending for the police? If what that letter says is true, by the time I have succeeded in making a thick-skulled constable understand what has happened the Duchess will be – will be mutilated!'
The Duke turned away as if the thought were frightful – as, indeed, it was.
'Is that all you can suggest?'
'Unless your Grace proposes taking the five hundred pounds.'
One might almost have suspected that the words were spoken in irony. But before he could answer another servant entered, who also brought a letter for the Duke. When his Grace's glance fell on it he uttered an exclamation. The writing on the envelope was the same writing that had been on the envelope which had contained the very singular communication – like it in all respects down to the broomstick-end thickness of the 'Private!' and 'Very pressing!!!' in the corner.
'Who brought this?' stormed the Duke.
The servant appeared to be a little startled by the violence of his Grace's manner.
'A lady – or, at least, your Grace, she seemed to be a lady.'
'Where is she?'
'She came in a hansom, your Grace. She gave me that letter, and said, 'Give that to the Duke of Datchet at once – without a moment's delay!' Then she got into the hansom again, and drove away.'
'Why didn't you stop her?'
The man seemed surprised, as though the idea of stopping chance visitors to the ducal mansion vi et armis had not, until that moment, entered into his philosophy. The Duke continued to regard the man as if he could say a good deal, if he chose. Then he pointed to the door. His lips said nothing, but his gesture much. The servant vanished.
'Another hoax!' the Duke said, grimly, as he tore the envelope open.
This time the envelope contained a sheet of paper, and in the sheet of paper another envelope. The Duke unfolded the sheet of paper. On it some words were written. These:
The Duchess appears so particularly anxious to drop you a line, that one really hasn't the heart to refuse her. Her Grace's communication – written amidst blinding tears! – you will find enclosed with this.
'Knowles,' said the Duke, in a voice which actually trembled, 'Knowles, hoax or no hoax, I will be even with the gentleman who wrote that.'
Handing the sheet of paper to Mr. Knowles, his Grace turned his attention to the envelope which had been enclosed. It was a small square envelope, of the finest quality, and it reeked with perfume. The Duke's countenance assumed an added frown – he had no fondness for envelopes which were scented. In the centre of the envelope were the words 'To the Duke of Datchet,' written in the big, bold, sprawling hand which he knew so well.
'Mabel's writing,' he said to himself, as, with shaking fingers, he tore the envelope open.
The sheet of paper which he took out was almost as stiff as cardboard. It, too, emitted what his Grace deemed the nauseous odours of the perfumer's shop.
On it was written this letter:
'My dear Hereward15, – For Heaven's sake do what these people require! I don't know what has happened or where I am, but I am nearly distracted! They have already cut off some of my hair, and they tell me that, if you don't let them have five hundred pounds in gold by half-past five, they will cut off my little finger too. I would sooner die than lose my little finger – and – I don't know what else besides.
By the token which I send you, and which has never, until now, been off my breast, I conjure you to help me. – MABEL.
Hereward – help me!'
When he read that letter the Duke turned white – very white, as white as the paper on which it was written. He passed the epistle on to Knowles.
'I suppose that also is a hoax?'
He spoke in a tone of voice which was unpleasantly cold – a coldness which Mr. Knowles was aware, from not inconsiderable experience, betokened that the Duke was white-hot within.
Mr. Knowles's demeanour, however, betrayed no sign that he was aware of anything of the kind, he being conscious that there is a certain sort of knowledge which is apt, at times, to be dangerous to its possessor. He read the letter from beginning to end.
'This certainly does resemble her Grace's writing.'
'You think it does resemble it, do you? You think that there is a certain faint and distant similarity?' The Duke asked these questions quietly – too quietly. Then, all at once, he thundered – which Mr. Knowles was quite prepared for – 'Why, you idiot, don't you know it is her writing?'
Mr. Knowles gave way another point. He was, constitutionally, too much of a diplomatist to concede more than a point at a time.
'So far as appearances go, I am bound to admit that I think it possible that it is her Grace's writing.'
Then the Duke let fly at him – at this perfectly innocent man. But, of course, Mr. Knowles was long since inured.
'Perhaps you would like me to send for an expert in writing? Or perhaps you would prefer that I should send for half-a-dozen? And by the time that they had sent in their reports, and you had reported on their reports, and they had reported on your report of their reports, and some one or other of you had made up his mind, the Duchess would be dead. Yes, sir, and you'd have murdered her!'
His Grace hurled this frightful accusation at Mr. Knowles, as if Mr. Knowles had been a criminal standing in the dock.
While the Duke had been collecting and discharging his nice derangement of epithets his fingers had been examining the interior of the envelope which had held the letter which purported to be written by his wife. When his fingers reappeared he was holding something between his first finger and his thumb. He glanced at this himself. Then he held it out towards Mr. Knowles.
Again his voice was trembling.
'If this letter is not from the Duchess, how came that to be in the envelope?'
Mr. Knowles endeavoured to see what the Duke was holding. It was so minute an object that it was a little difficult to make out exactly what it was, and the Duke appeared to be unwilling to let it go.
So his Grace explained:
'That is the half of a sixpence which I gave to the Duchess when I asked her to be my wife. You see it is pierced. I pierced that hole in it myself. As the Duchess says in this letter, and as I have reason to know, she has worn this broken sixpence from that hour to this. If this letter is not hers, how came this token in the envelope? How came any one to know, even, that she carried it?'
Mr. Knowles was silent. He still yielded to his constitutional disrelish to commit himself. At last he asked:
'What is it that your Grace proposes to do?'
The Duke spoke with a bitterness which almost suggested a personal animosity towards the inoffensive Mr. Knowles.
'I propose, with your permission, to release the Duchess from the custody of my estimable correspondent. I propose – always with your permission – to comply with his modest request, and to take him his five hundred pounds in gold.' He paused, then continued in a tone which, coming from him, meant volumes: 'Afterwards, I propose to cry quits with the concoctor of this pretty little hoax, even if it costs me every penny I possess. He shall pay more for that five hundred pounds than he supposes.'
Okay, reader. No fair looking it up. Is the kidnapping real or not? How did the criminals fool the footman and driver? Was it hard? Will they really cut off the Duchess' finger and send it to the Duke? Will it arrive and shock the Prince, or is he used to that sort of thing? Where is Sherlock Holmes when an aristocrat needs him? Tune in next week for the next thrilling instalment of 'The Lost Duchess'.
Oh, wait….I know why!!!!! You're getting paid by the word, and the rent is due! You're forgiven. (As long as it isn't a Guide Entry.)9Yes, it is. We've read over 800 words, and all we know is that the duchess isn't in the carriage. Or brougham. Or whatever. Get on with it! And Youtube gives three completely different pronunciations for 'brougham'.10Nobody combines hilarity with utter creepiness quite like Marsh. Stoker couldn't do it, I swear. Of course, Stoker hung out with Henry Irving. He had standards.11As did we.12Swore what? Oh, yeah. They had a stiffer filther back then.13And quickly, before the author thinks of any more synonyms.14Only her hairdresser knows for sure.15He's a genius at names, this author. Hereward and Mabel, a marriage made in dictionary heaven.