The Secrets of Wishtide - Kate Saunders

One

1850

It was a bright, windy October morning, and Mrs Bentley and I were down in the basement kitchen making a rabbit pudding. The rabbits were a gift from Mrs Bentley’s second son, whose daughter I had helped to place in a very respectable domestic situation with the Mayburys of Finchley, and when the doorknocker sounded I was up to my elbows in flour.

‘Drat.’ Mrs Bentley dropped the potato she was carving (she was infinitely patient about cutting out the black parts). ‘You’re not expecting anyone today, are you, ma’am?’ She got up and went to peer out of the window. ‘It’s Watson – from Mr Tyson’s office!’ Her pale eyes were suddenly as bright and alert as a squirrel’s. ‘Shall I ask him to come straight down?’

‘Yes, do.’ I carried on rolling out the suet pastry, very glad not to be interrupted by a formal call, which would have meant handwashing and hairbrushing and the removal of my coarse apron. Despite my ‘reduced’ circumstances (that term always puts me in mind of sauces), the vicar’s wife felt obliged to visit me, and I sat on several charitable committees with various local ladies. They all knew how reduced I was, but would have been horribly shocked to catch me in the act of cooking.

‘Well, I hope this means Mr Tyson needs another little job doing.’ Mrs Bentley beckoned Watson in eagerly, and I felt a flutter of anticipation as his great nailed boots came ringing down the area steps. Watson was a ticket-porter employed by my brother’s chambers; the fact that he had been sent all the way from Lincoln’s Inn to Hampstead could only mean a new case.

‘Good morning, Mrs Rodd.’ Watson pulled off his greasy hat; he was a stocky, grizzled, growling man, wrapped in a greatcoat that looked and smelt like a horse-blanket. ‘I’ve a note from Mr Tyson, ma’am, and I’m to wait for a reply.’

‘Thank you, Watson.’ I banged my floury hands on my apron and took the single sheet of paper. ‘Please sit down and rest for a few minutes – Mary, draw him a glass of beer.’

‘Very civil of you, ma’am.’ Watson was not an enormous man, yet he seemed to swamp the room and fill the entire house with the reek of stale tobacco; I would have to open all the windows later.

The note was the usual terse summons: ‘Dear Letty, a matter has arisen. My carriage will come at five, yrs affect. F.’

I pencilled an equally terse reply: ‘Dear F, at your service, L.’

Discretion was the foundation stone of my work; Fred and I were scrupulously careful about what we committed to paper.

Watson drained his beer, and was barely through the door before Mrs Bentley burst out with, ‘Well, ma’am? Is it another case?’

‘That’s what it looks like.’

‘Praise be! I’ll get your good black silk out of the press.’

‘Yes, Mary, if you would.’

‘And you’ll be staying at Mr Tyson’s for dinner,’ Mrs Bentley said. ‘So we can keep the rabbit pudding for tomorrow.’

‘Don’t be silly – what will you eat?’

‘I’ll toast the rest of the bread and cheese; there’s more than enough for one.’ She scattered white pepper and salt over her bowl of meat and vegetables. ‘I wonder what it’ll be this time?’

‘So do I, but Mr Tyson didn’t give any details, and it’s pointless to speculate.’

‘The money will be handy, that’s for certain – we’d never have managed till next quarter-day on what you’ve got left. The Bradshaw business was months ago and you didn’t take enough for it.’

‘That was light work; all I needed to do in the end was