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 III: And Found
In which we view the whole socioeconomic situation somewhat differently.
Mr. Dacre eyed his companion covertly as they progressed. His Grace of Datchet appeared to have some fresh cause for uneasiness. All at once he gave it utterance, in a tone of voice which was extremely sombre:
'Ivor, do you think that scoundrel will dare to play me false?'
'I think,' murmured Mr. Dacre, 'that he has dared to play you pretty false already.'
'I don't mean that. But I mean how am I to know, now that he has his money, that he will still not keep Mabel in his clutches?'
There came an echo from Mr. Dacre:
'Just so – how are you to know?'
'I believe that something of this sort has been done in the United States.'
'I thought that there they were content to kidnap them after they were dead. I was not aware that they had, as yet, got quite so far as the living.'
'I believe that I have heard of something just like this.'
'Possibly; they are giants over there.'
'And in that case the scoundrels, when their demands were met, refused to keep to the letter of their bargain, and asked for more.'
The Duke stood still. He clenched his fists, and swore:
'Ivor, if that – – villain doesn't keep his word, and Mabel isn't home within the hour, by – – I shall go mad!'
'My dear Datchet' – Mr. Dacre loved strong language as little as he loved a scene – 'let us trust to time and, a little, to your white-hatted and gardenia-button-holed friend's word of honour. You should have thought of possible eventualities before you showed your confidence – really. Suppose, instead of going mad, we first of all go home?'
A hansom stood waiting for a fare at the end of the Arcade. Mr. Dacre had handed the Duke into it before his Grace had quite realised that the vehicle was there.
'Tell the fellow to drive faster.' That was what the Duke said when the cab had started.
'My dear Datchet, the man's already driving his geegee off its legs. If a bobby catches sight of him he'll take his number.'
A moment later, a murmur from the Duke:
'I don't know if you're aware that the Prince is coming to dinner2?'
'I am perfectly aware of it.'
'You take it uncommonly coolly. How easy it is to bear our brother's burdens! Ivor, if Mabel doesn't turn up I shall feel like murder.'
'I sympathise with you, Datchet, with all my heart, though, I may observe, parenthetically, that I very far from realise the situation even yet. Take my advice. If the Duchess does not show quite so soon as we both of us desire, don't make a scene; just let me see what I can do.'
Judging from the expression of his countenance, the Duke was conscious of no overwhelming desire to witness an exhibition of Mr. Dacre's prowess.
When the cab reached Datchet House his Grace dashed up the steps three at a time. The door flew open.
'Has the Duchess returned?'
A voice floated downwards from above. Some one came running down the stairs. It was her Grace of Datchet.
She actually rushed into the Duke's extended arms. And he kissed her, and she kissed him – before the servants.
'So you're not quite dead?' she cried.
'I am almost,' he said.
She drew herself a little away from him.
'Hereward, were you seriously hurt?'
'Do you suppose that I could have been otherwise than seriously hurt?'
'My darling! Was it a Pickford's van?'
The Duke stared:
'A Pickford's van? I don't understand. But come in here. Come along, Ivor. Mabel, you don't see Ivor.'
'How do you do, Mr. Dacre?'
Then the trio withdrew into a little ante-room; it was really time. Even then the pair conducted themselves as if Mr. Dacre had been nothing and no one. The Duke took the lady's two hands in his. He eyed her fondly.
'So you are uninjured, with the exception of that lock of hair. Where did the villain take it from?'
The lady looked a little puzzled:
'What lock of hair?'
From an envelope which he took from his pocket the Duke produced a shining tress. It was the lock of hair which had arrived in the first communication. 'I will have it framed.'
'You will have what framed?' The Duchess glanced at what the Duke was so tenderly caressing, almost, as it seemed, a little dubiously, 'Whatever is it you have there?'
'It is the lock of hair which that scoundrel sent me.' Something in the lady's face caused him to ask a question: 'Didn't he tell you he had sent it me?'
'Did the brute tell you that he meant to cut off your little finger?'
A very curious look came into the lady's face. She glanced at the Duke as if she, all at once, were half afraid of him. She cast at Mr. Dacre what really seemed to be a look of enquiry. Her voice was tremulously anxious:
'Hereward, did – did the accident affect you mentally?'
'How could it not have affected me mentally? Do you think that my mental organization is of steel?'
'But you look so well?'
'Of course I look well, now that I have you back again. Tell me, darling, did that hound actually threaten you with cutting off your arm? If he did, I shall feel half inclined to kill him yet.'
The Duchess seemed positively to shrink from her better-half's near neighbourhood:
'Hereward, was it a Pickford's van?'
The Duke seemed puzzled. Well he might be:
'Was what a Pickford's van?'
The lady turned to Mr. Dacre. In her voice there was a ring of anguish:
'Mr. Dacre, tell me, was it a Pickford's van4?'
Ivor could only imitate his relative's repetition of her inquiry:
'I don't quite catch you – was what a Pickford's van?'
The Duchess clasped her hands in front of her: 'What is it you are keeping from me? What is it you are trying to hide? I implore you to tell me the worst, whatever it may be! Do not keep me any longer in suspense; you do not know what I already have endured. Mr. Dacre, is my husband mad?'
One need scarcely observe that the lady's amazing appeal to Mr. Dacre as to her husband's sanity was received with something like surprise. As the Duke continued to stare at her, a dreadful fear began to loom upon his brain:
'My darling, your brain is unhinged!'
He advanced to take her two hands again in his; but, to his unmistakable distress, she shrank away from him:
'Hereward – don't touch me. How is it that I missed you? Why did you not wait until I came?'
'Wait until you came?'
The Duke's bewilderment increased.
'Surely, if your injuries turned out, after all, to be slight, that was all the more reason why you should have waited, after sending for me like that.'
'I sent for you – I?' The Duke's tone was grave. 'My darling, perhaps you had better come upstairs.'
'Not until we have had an explanation. You must have known that I should come. Why did you not wait for me after you had sent me that?'
The Duchess held out something to the Duke. He took it. It was a card – his own visiting-card. Something was written on the back of it. He read aloud what was written:
''Mabel, come to me at once with bearer. They tell me that they cannot take me home.' It looks like my own writing.'
'Looks like it! It is your writing.'
'It looks like it – and written with a shaky pen.'
'My dear child, one's hand would shake at such a moment as that.'
'Mabel, where did you get this?'
'It was brought to me in Cane and Wilson's.'
'Who brought it?'
'Who brought it? Why, the man you sent.'
'The man I sent?' A light burst upon the Duke's brain. He fell back a pace. 'It's the decoy!'
Her Grace echoed the words:
'The scoundrel! To set a trap with such a bait! My poor, innocent darling, did you think it came from me? Tell me, Mabel, where did he cut off your hair?'
'Cut off my hair?'
Her Grace put her hand up to her head as if to make sure that her hair was there.
'Where did he take you to?'
'He took me to Draper's Buildings.'
'I have never been in the City before, but he told me it was Draper's Buildings. Isn't that near the Stock Exchange?'
'Near the Stock Exchange?'
It seemed rather a curious place to which to take a kidnapped victim. The man's audacity!
'He told me that you were coming out of the Stock Exchange when a van knocked you over. He said that he thought it was a Pickford's van – was it a Pickford's van?'
'No, it was not a Pickford's van. Mabel, were you in Draper's Buildings when you wrote that letter?'
'Wrote what letter?'
'Have you forgotten it already? I do not believe that there is a word in it which will not be branded on my brain until I die.'
'Hereward! What do you mean?'
'Surely you cannot have written me such a letter as that, and then have forgotten it already?'
He handed her the letter which had arrived in the second communication. She glanced at it, askance. Then she took it with a little gasp.
'Hereward, if you don't mind, I think I'll take a chair.' She took a chair. 'Whatever – whatever's this?' As she read the letter the varying expressions which passed across her face were, in themselves, a study in psychology. 'Is it possible that you can imagine that, under any conceivable circumstances, I could have written such a letter as this?'
She rose to her feet, with emphasis:
'Hereward, don't say that you thought this came from me!'
'Not come from you?' He remembered Knowles's diplomatic reception of the epistle on its first appearance. 'I suppose that you will say next that this is not a lock of your hair?'
'My dear child, what bee have you got in your bonnet? This a lock of my hair! Why, it's not in the least like my hair!'
Which was certainly inaccurate. As far as color was concerned it was an almost perfect match5. The Duke turned to Mr. Dacre.
'Ivor, I've had to go through a good deal this afternoon. If I have to go through much more, something will crack!' He touched his forehead. 'I think it's my turn to take a chair.' He also took a chair. Not the one which the Duchess had vacated, but one which faced it. He stretched out his legs in front of him; he thrust his hands into his trousers-pockets; he said, in a tone which was not only gloomy but absolutely gruesome:
'Might I ask, Mabel, if you have been kidnapped?'
The word I used was 'kidnapped.' But I will spell it if you like. Or I will get a dictionary, that you may see its meaning.'
The Duchess looked as if she was beginning to be not quite sure if she was awake or sleeping. She turned to Ivor:
'Mr. Dacre, has the accident affected Hereward's brain?'
The Duke took the words out of his cousin's mouth:
'On that point, my dear, let me ease your mind. I don't know if you are under the impression that I should be the same shape after a Pickford's van had run over me as I was before; but, in any case, I have not been run over by a Pickford's van. So far as I am concerned there has been no accident. Dismiss that delusion from your mind.'
'You appear surprised. One might even think that you were sorry. But may I now ask what you did when you arrived at Draper's Buildings?'
'Did! I looked for you!'
'Indeed! And when you had looked in vain, what was the next item in your programme?'
The lady shrank still further from him:
'Hereward, have you been having a jest at my expense? Can you have been so cruel?' Tears stood in her eyes.
Rising, the Duke laid his hand upon her arm:
'Mabel, tell me – what did you do when you had looked for me in vain?'
'I looked for you upstairs and downstairs, and everywhere. It was quite a large place, it took me ever such a time. I thought that I should go distracted. Nobody seemed to know anything about you, or even that there had been an accident at all – it was all offices. I couldn't make it out in the least, and the people didn't seem to be able to make me out either. So when I couldn't find you anywhere I came straight home again6.'
The Duke was silent for a moment. Then, with funereal gravity, he turned to Mr. Dacre. He put to him this question:
'Ivor, what are you laughing at?'
Mr. Dacre drew his hand across his mouth with rather a suspicious gesture:
'My dear fellow, only a smile!'
The Duchess looked from one to the other:
'What have you two been doing? What is the joke?'
With an air of preternatural solemnity the Duke took two letters from the breast-pocket of his coat.
'Mabel, you have already seen your letter. You have already seen the lock of your hair. Just look at this – and that.'
He gave her the two very singular communications which had arrived in such a mysterious manner, and so quickly one after the other. She read them with wide-open eyes.
'Hereward! Wherever did these come from?'
The Duke was standing with his legs apart, and his hands in his trousers-pockets. 'I would give – I would give another five hundred pounds to know. Shall I tell you, madam, what I have been doing? I have been presenting five hundred golden sovereigns to a perfect stranger, with a top-hat, and a gardenia in his button-hole.'
'If you have perused those documents which you have in your hand, you will have some faint idea. Ivor, when its your funeral I'll smile. Mabel, Duchess of Dachet, it is beginning to dawn upon the vacuum which represents my brain that I've been the victim of one of the prettiest things in practical jokes that ever yet was planned. When that fellow brought you that card at Cane and Wilson's – which, I need scarcely tell you, never came from me – some one walked out of the front entrance who was so exactly like you that both Barnes and Moysey took her for you. Moysey showed her into the carriage, and Barnes drove her home. But when the carriage reached home it was empty. Your double had got out upon the road.'
The Duchess uttered a sound which was half a gasp, half sigh:
'Barnes and Moysey, with beautiful and childlike innocence, when they found that they had brought the thing home empty, came straightway and told me that you had jumped out of the brougham while it had been driving full pelt through the streets. While I was digesting that piece of information there came the first epistle, with the lock of your hair. Before I had time to digest that there came the second epistle, with yours inside, and, as a guarantee of the authenticity of your appeal, the same envelope held this.'
The Duke handed the Duchess the half of the broken sixpence. She stared at it with the most unequivocal astonishment.
'Why, it looks just like my sixpence.' She put her hand to her breast, feeling something that was there. 'But it isn't! What wickedness!'
'It is wickedness, isn't it? Anyhow, that seemed good enough for me; so I posted off the five hundred pounds to save your arm – not to dwell upon your little finger.'
'It seems incredible!'
'It sounds incredible; but unfathomable is the folly of man, especially of a man who loves his wife.' The Duke crossed to Mr. Dacre. 'I don't want, Ivor, to suggest anything in the way of bribery and corruption, but if you could keep this matter to yourself, and not mention it to your friends, our white-hatted and gardenia-button-holed acquaintance is welcome to his five hundred pounds, and – – Mabel, what on earth are you laughing at?'
The Duchess appeared, all at once, to be seized with inextinguishable laughter.
'Hereward,' she cried, 'just think how that man must be laughing at you!'
And the Duke of Datchet thought of it7.