The Story of an Engaged Young Person. A Murder Mystery: 1857

THE STORY OF AN ENGAGED YOUNG PERSON.

[This story is told by a young woman on a long journey from London to Liverpool, to her fellow passengers, many of whom were emigrating to Australia.]

She was certainly the plainest of the female passengers. Her nose turned up, and her mouth had scarcely any turn at all; her hair was red, and so were the rims of her eyes; and her eyes themselves were far from being good ones; but there was a certain piquancy and sprightliness about her, too, as though she had been a French lady’s-maid rather than an English one. She looked as if she could put her hand and her well-rounded arm to anything, and had been very good-tempered and obliging throughout the journey. It was understood—it had been expressed, indeed, already rather triumphantly by the young lady herself—that she was an engaged young person, going out to Australia to be married; that there was a somebody waiting upon the other hemisphere with outstretched hands, yearning to receive her as his bride. She would be a capital wife for a settler without doubt, although perhaps in England we should have called her rather a settler for a wife. She seemed to know very well, indeed, what we were all likely to think about this matter; but she didn’t care.

If I had been better looking—she began her story with this—I might never have got a husband, or at least not the money to marry him upon, which is the same thing. The unsuitableness of my face to what I may be allowed to call a very tolerable figure, has been literally the means of bestowing happiness, as I hope, upon Joseph, and of putting £400 into my own pocket. And this was how it all came about: my late mistress, who was very kind to me, and had intended, poor thing—for she told me so—to leave me comfortably provided for, took me over with her, seven years ago, to Paris. She was a widow lady, fond of a gay life and brilliant amusements; and that place suited her so well, that she made it her home, and I, but little loath, remained there too. Joseph and I had kept company together before that time, but he was not so foolish as to wish me to give up my expectations for the sake of a hurried marriage; he said that he would wait patiently, dear fellow, although the great salt sea was to roll between us, and there could be no chance of his getting a letter more than once a day. He was a mason’s assistant in London, and very hardly worked, it seemed, for he himself was not able to reply nearly so often; however, of course I was not a bird, that I could be in two places at once, so I made the best of it, and was as happy as a confidential lady’s-maid, under such circumstances, could hope to be.

One evening I had been preparing my mistress, who was a very splendid dresser, for the opera; my only fellow-servant was on leave of absence for some days; and except the porter in the courtyard, there was nobody, when the carriage had driven off that night, in the whole house save myself; therefore, having nothing better—or at least nicer—to do, and being in my mistress’s bedroom amongst her beautiful robes and ornaments, it was hardly to be expected that I should resist such an opportunity of trying them on. The room, besides being charmingly hung with mirrors, had a delicious full-length swinging-glass, and before this I amused myself for a good long while. I beheld how Mademoiselle Elizabeth Martin — that is my present name, but dear Joseph’s is Andrews—how she looked in barèges, in silks, in muslins, for the morning; and how lace and satin, and low sleeves, with pearls, became her for evening wear; finally, equipping myself in a particularly pleasant glacé silk walking-dress, with a bonnet and falling veil fit for a bride, I could not help twisting round a little, to see as much of myself as possible, and contrasting the effect at the same time with that of madame—who was beautiful enough, but indifferently proportioned—I involuntarily remarked aloud: ‘Well, we may be plain in the face, but we are certainly unexceptionable behind.’ It was an absurd thing to say even to one’s self, and I remember blushing like a beet, as though it were not quite out of the question that I could be overheard. There were several jewel-drawers — this ruby upon my middle finger, a ring belonging to my mistress’s late husband, was in one of them—but I had no time for more than to set off a handsome necklace or two, and to very much regret that my ears had not been punched for the accommodation of an especial pair of diamond earrings, before I heard wheels in the courtyard, and my mistress came home. Everything had been put away very carefully, and I undressed her and saw her to bed as usual. She was more than commonly kind and gentle in her manner that night, as I have since thought at least; and when she wished me her bon soir, she added: ‘I am sure we shall both be tired to-morrow, Bessie; so call me an hour later, and take an extra sleep yourself.’ I was never to hear my good mistress speak any more.

Did I dream that night that she had left me all her wardrobe, and that I was married in the glacé silk? Did I, even in my sleep, build schemes of what I would do with the money that my dead mistress might enrich me with? No; as I hope for heaven, and to meet dear Joseph, with all my woman’s vanity, I had my woman’s heart too, beating true and warm, and I thought no shadow of evil. I told them so in court, where all looked black against me, and they believed me even there. But in that morning, late, when the sun was shining full upon the window, and the noise of the people going about their daily work was full and clear, I saw a frightful sight, a ghastly horror that the day but served to make more hideous and unnatural—my mistress murdered in her bed! No answer when I knocked; again no answer. The curtains at the bedside were close drawn, but through the open shutters a fiery flood of light fell red upon the carpet and the curtains—ay, and on the corner of the snow-white counterpane, red also. It was blood! I thought there had been a rain of blood; upon the handles of the drawers, upon the toilet-cover, on the dressing-case, upon the towels, in the basin—everywhere where the murderer’s hands had been after their deadly work; and in the bed—I dared not look in the bed; but in that great swing-glass, where I had decked myself but a few hours ago, I saw it all, and every mirror in the room was picturing the same sight—there lay the corpse, the murdered woman with her gaping throat.

They thought at first that I was murdered too, lying so stiff and cold in that death-chamber. I answered nothing to their questions, neither in the house nor in the prison. I knew nothing, nor could I have told them had I known, until Joseph came. It seemed to me then quite natural that he should be with me—nothing praiseworthy, nothing. (This dear little engaged young person’s eyes began to get redder about the rims at this reminiscence, and her story to assume an incoherent as well as choky character.) I did not understand how much I owed him: how, not having heard from me for some time, and reading in the paper that an English lady’s-maid had been taken up in Paris for a murder in the Rue St. Honore, but that she refused to speak, and even had perhaps in reality lost her senses, he started off at once, giving up his employ, and borrowing and begging what he could, and knowing no word of French but the name of that one street, he hurried to me: so that my mind came back again, and I could tell them what I knew. All he did, he said, was less than he ought to have done, because he had behaved ill to me of old (which, I am sure, dear Joseph never had, nor thought of doing). He stood by me in court—in the prisoners’ place along with me he stood and shared my shame.

I told about the jewels, and of my trying them on; how everything was safe, and the doors locked, and the chamber-window too high to be climbed up to, though a man might have let himself down from it into the yard. And then I learned for the first time that all that afternoon and night the murderer had lain hidden under my mistress’s bed; that he must have been there all that time —think of it!—that I was trying on the dresses and the ornaments; that there was murder waiting in that chamber all the while: it made me shudder even then, amidst that crowded court, with Joseph by me. They thought it very strange, they said, that since there was so much time before him between my mistress’s departure and return, that he had not murdered me instead. He had carried off all the jewels—those in the drawers as well as those which my poor mistress had worn that very evening; but from the moment he had dropped into the courtyard, the police could find no trace of him. A mere suspicion fell upon the brother of the gate-porter; but it was so vague that he was not put upon his trial. A great sum was offered in reward for the apprehension of the murderer, making up, with what was offered by my late mistress’s family, nearly £400. She died without a will, poor lady, and they were not disposed to give me anything beyond the wages due to me.

After my acquittal, a collection for mine and Joseph’s benefit was made by some good people; but the money only sufficed to bring us back to England. Joseph had to work out a heavy debt, incurred upon my account, and I went into service again at once, resolving to do my best to help him. At the end of two years, poor fellow, except that he had discharged his obligation, he was but little better off than at their beginning; and despairing of ever getting a living for us both in the old country, he sailed twelve months ago for Sydney. Whichever of us first got rich, it was arranged, should cross the seas after the other; and until very lately, it seemed that we might each stop where we were, engaged young persons, till we died.

I was nursery-maid in my new place, and was taking the youngest child across Hyde Park one afternoon, when I was followed by an impertinent man; I had my “ugly” on, for the sun was hot, so that my face might have been like Venus, for all he knew to the contrary; and otherwise, I flatter myself I was not disagreeable looking. At all events, I attracted the wretch, who kept close behind me. He was an abominable person, with a foreign appearance—which I had reason enough for disliking—and eyes that looked different ways, but neither of them nice ways, so that I was glad enough to get in sight of the policemen about the marble arch. He saw that there was no time to be lost, if he meant to get a good look at me at all, so he passed me on a sudden very quickly, turned round, and looked up into my face. I gave him a very tolerable stare, too, because I knew it would disappoint him, after his great expectations; and it did so; and not only that, for it made him give a sort of villainous grin, which I hope I may never see again, and he broke out, as if he could not help it for the life of him, with ‘Well, we may be plain in the face, but we are unexceptionable behind.’

I cried out ‘Murder’ and ‘Police!’ as loud as I could, and the man was secured at once. No human being except the one who had been under the bed, her murderer, could have known those words, which I had spoken alone, before madame’s toilet-glass. He denied everything, of course, and said it was an unjust detention; but in little more than half an hour, a telegraphic message from the Paris authorities set his mind at ease in this respect, and demanded his presence in that city. He was the elder brother of the gate-porter, whom I had never before seen; and what I had to tell, in addition to the previous suspicions against him, procured his conviction. He was sent to the galleys for life. This ruby ring, which he wore upon his little finger, I identified as having been in the jewel-drawer that very night. It was bestowed upon me after the trial by the heir-at-law, and I obtained besides the £400 reward. If I had been pretty, you see, there would not have been any occasion for me to have remarked upon it that evening, and I might have remained, my whole life long, an engaged young person.

Chambers Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, Volume 7, William and Robert Chambers, 1857

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has been a lady’s maid in several households, but has never forgot herself so strangely as to try on her mistress’s clothing or jewels. Such a liberty would be utterly abhorent to her nature. She might countenance hiding the odd murderer under the bed, if there was good and sufficient reason. However, such things are difficult to explain to the authorities, and complications inevitably arise when utilising this less-than-ideal scenario to remove a difficult employer. One would not wish to be in the unenviable position of having to simulate a struggle in which the murderous marauder was inexplicably garotted when he blundered into a scarf of point d’Alençon.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

 

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