Read Constable & Toop Online

Authors: Gareth P. Jones

Constable & Toop (8 page)

‘And where would that be?' asked Mr Constable.

‘St Paul's,' said Richard.

‘St Paul's?' exclaimed Mr Constable.

‘Not the cathedral,' said Edward. ‘A small church off the high street in Shadwell with the same name.'

‘Ah.' Mr Constable stroked his chin. ‘Internment in churchyards is a tall order in this day and age. I'm guessing your father was not a regular attendee at the church.'

‘It was where he was baptised, but no,' said Richard.

Mr Constable turned to Sam. ‘Sam, perhaps you could go there and speak to the rector?'

‘It would be my pleasure,' said Sam.

‘Thank you,' said Edward.

‘It is what we are here for,' said Mr Constable. ‘To steer you through the difficult time. It is what we take pride in. Now, gentlemen, shall we discuss the rest of the details?'

Mr Constable opened the large book on his desk and began talking to the two brothers regarding the types of stone, material for a coffin, the available adornments, number of carriages and all of the other countless details that went into the business of funerals.

Sam was relieved to have an excuse to avoid going upstairs. He still had the money Jack had given him to buy alcohol. He had no desire to see Jack drunk but nor did he want to return empty-handed and risk angering him. Better, he decided, to stay out of the house altogether for as long as possible. Even if it did mean a trip to London.

12
Lady Aysgarth's Diary

Clara Tiltman had found the diary some months back in an oak bureau in the attic of Aysgarth House. Her mother and father never ventured up there and Hopkins, the butler, had stopped using it for storage since his back had started giving him trouble. Mrs Preston the cook never so much as ventured upstairs, let alone so far as the attic. Clara liked the chaos of the place. Aysgarth House was so orderly and every item of furniture so well chosen that the attic, with its jumble of old broken tables and chairs, felt like its guilty secret.

She also liked the way she could see all the way down to Fleet Street from the small window in the eves. She liked to watch the journalists going in and out of
The Times
building, imagining one day she might be one of them, even though she never once saw a woman amongst their number.

Clara wanted to be a writer, but not of novels, plays or poems. It was the real world that fascinated her. It was this persistent curiosity that led to her discovery of a black book with a golden clasp tucked away in one of the drawers of the bureau.

Clara had taken the book back to her bedroom to read. The handwriting inside was exquisite and precise. It was the private diary of the house's previous owner, Lady Aysgarth, a woman whose formidable looks had been captured in a dusty old portrait under a sheet in the attic. Clara had an idea about using the diary to write about the history of the house but at first it was difficult to make sense of it at all. Every name was abbreviated and the entries were frustratingly short, often seeming more concerned with the weather than anything of importance. A typical entry read:

H away again. J in high spirits. Morning bright, afternoon grey.

Clara did a little more research, looking through other old documents in the bureau, and learnt that H was Lady Aysgarth's husband, Henry. J referred to her son, James.

Took J to watch H play cricket. Overcast.

On and on the diary went in this vein. Clara found it extremely frustrating and was on the verge of giving up with it when things took a turn for the worse in the life of the Aysgarths.

Dr came to see J. Inconclusive. H frustrated. Demanded a different Dr. Rain all day.

More doctors came but none of them, it seemed, could provide any comfort. Lady Aysgarth's son grew worse until the day she wrote her final entry.

J died today. H wept then planted a willow tree in his memory.

It was the only day Lady Aysgarth had omitted mention of the weather. Clara supposed it no longer mattered to a woman who had just witnessed the death of her only son.

From the other documents she found in the bureau, Clara pieced together what had followed. She found the death certificate of Lady Aysgarth's husband the following year. She found letters of regret from the house staff as they were all dismissed, leaving Lady Aysgarth alone in the big old house.

As sad as it was, there was no story in it and Clara forgot about the diary until her father suggested they have a man come and chop down the willow tree in the garden, fearing that its roots might be interfering with the outer wall.

Suddenly the strangest thing happened. The drawing-room curtain flapped wildly and the curtain rail fell away from the wall and crashed to the floor.

Once everyone had recovered from the shock and a man had been called to come and repair the curtain, there was much discussion of what had happened. Mrs Tiltman blamed poor workmanship, Mr Tiltman wondered whether a freak gust of wind could have blown in and caused it, but Clara had seen perfectly clearly the creases at the bottom of the curtains as a pair of invisible hands yanked at them.

Clara said nothing, but it was clear to her that her father's suggestion to remove the tree planted in memory of Lady Aysgarth's lost child had angered Her Ladyship so much that she had made her presence known. Clara had long since held her suspicions. Now she knew it was true. Aysgarth House had a ghost.

13
The Man in Grey

Lapsewood stood outside Drury Lane Theatre watching the crowds of people eagerly enter through the double-doors between the two magnificent pillars. It was so busy outside that it was impossible to avoid being walked through, but that didn't stop him from trying. Lapsewood had always had a squeamish disposition and had no desire to see any more of the workings of people's heads than was strictly necessary.

‘That some kind of new dance you're doing, love?'

He turned to see an attractive woman, wearing a blouse that hung precariously off each shoulder, with daringly few buttons done up. She was clearly a ghost, but he had never seen such life in a spirit's eyes.

Lapsewood's inability to speak in the presence of female beauty prevented him from uttering anything but a series of disconnected grunts and stammered half-words. Unsure where to look, he held up his hand, giving the impression that he was, quite literally, dazzled by the woman's beauty.

‘There something the matter with you?' she asked.

‘I'm waiting for my friend,' he replied, thankful that he managed to form a complete sentence, even if the remark was utterly incongruous.

She laughed. ‘You never seen a lady before?'

‘Never, er . . . never quite so much of one,' replied Lapsewood.

The woman laughed. ‘I don't normally get no complaints,' she said, holding out her hand. ‘Nell. Pleased to meet you.'

‘Lapsewood,' he replied, taking her hand and holding it, unsure whether he was supposed to shake or kiss it and compromising by waving it somewhere near his face.

More laughter from the woman.

‘I wouldn't go in that theatre if that's what you're planning,' said Nell.

‘You mean in case it's infected with the Black Rot?' asked Lapsewood in hushed fear.

‘No. It's
Hamlet
tonight and the lead is one of those slow speakers. I heard this version is running over five hours long.' She laughed and slapped him on his arm.

‘I must enter. You see, I'm looking for a woman,' said Lapsewood, rubbing his arm.

Nell laughed and fluttered her eyelashes flirtatiously. ‘What a fresh one you are,' she said. ‘If you're after female company then look no further than old Nell.'

Lapsewood coughed, embarrassed. ‘I mean to say a woman by the name of Doris McNally.'

‘Never heard of her,' replied Nell, sounding a little put out. ‘But you're right, you want to be careful which houses you step into these days. The Black Rot is infecting more every day.'

‘So I've heard. Do you know what could be causing it?'

Nell leaned close to Lapsewood, making him feel uncomfortable and uncertain where to look. ‘Must be someone vanquishing ghosts, I reckon,' she whispered.

‘Vanquishing?' replied Lapsewood.

‘Exorcism.'

‘Exorcism,' scoffed Lapsewood. ‘Surely that's one of those myths made up by the living.'

‘Is it, though?' asked Nell.

‘I can see you two are getting friendly,' said a voice. Lapsewood noticed Tanner standing behind Nell, grinning from ear to ear.

‘Hello, Tanner,' said Nell, pulling away from Lapsewood. ‘What you doing with all them spirit hounds?'

Tanner was holding five leads, each with the ghost of a dog on the end. In most cases, it was stomach-churningly obvious what had killed them. They all had patchy, mangy coats, revealing sore pink skin underneath. Some had been beaten, others run over, run through or shot.

‘Dogs?' exclaimed Lapsewood.

‘Yeah. They're sweet.' Tanner picked up a three-legged Jack Russell and ruffled its head.

‘They're anomalies,' said Lapsewood.

‘I think most of them are mongrels, actually.'

‘I mean they shouldn't exist. Dogs don't have souls. The Bureau doesn't even officially recognise their existence.'

‘Poor things.' Tanner scratched the dog under its chin. ‘They don't know what to do with themselves without hunger. I found this lot chasing after living cats, getting confused when they slipped through their paws.'

‘What use are they to us?' asked Lapsewood.

‘Well, as I see it, the problem we have is that you can't see the Black Rot from the outside . . .'

‘You can when it gets real bad,' said Nell.

‘Yeah, but not always,' said Tanner. ‘So how do we know if a house is safe to enter?'

Nell and Lapsewood looked at him, awaiting the answer.

‘The dogs. That's how. A spirit hound will be no more able to escape a building with Black Rot than one of us.'

‘That's true,' said Nell. ‘But the spirit of a dog won't quench the appetite of an empty building. A haunted house needs a human spirit.'

‘That's as maybe,' admitted Tanner, ‘but the point is, if they don't come back then we'll know it's not safe to go in.'

‘Is that true?' asked Lapsewood.

Nell laughed. ‘I can see which one's the boss out of you two.'

Lapsewood felt embarrassed, but could think of nothing to say to the contrary. ‘How do we make them go into the buildings?' he asked.

‘Like this. Watch.' Tanner pulled out a stick tucked into his belt and held it up for a black Labrador to sniff. He then took the dog off the lead and threw the stick straight through the wall of the theatre. All the dogs barked wildly trying to get it, but the freed Labrador ran after it and jumped through the wall.

‘How do you know he'll come back at all?' asked Lapsewood.

‘He'll come back,' said Tanner. ‘I told you, these dogs just want caring for.'

The Labrador bounded out of the wall, holding the stick in its mouth happily. Tanner took it and patted the dog. ‘Good boy,' he said, tying it back up. ‘You see?'

‘Smart lad,' said Nell affectionately. ‘Now, old Nell has somewhere she needs to be. I'll see you later, Tanner.'

‘See you, Nell,' said Tanner.

‘It was lovely to make your acquaintance, Mr Lapse­wood,' said Nell. She leaned towards him and pecked him on the cheek.

Lapsewood stood, stunned, unable to move or speak until a taxicab went past and its wheel hit a puddle, spraying water straight through him. Tanner laughed. ‘Come on, Romeo,' he said. ‘We got work to do.'

The last few stragglers were trying to get to their seats before the play began as Lapsewood and Tanner stepped into the theatre lobby. Lapsewood gazed up at the columns and statues as he followed Tanner up the stairs, unseen by the theatre workers checking tickets.

If the lobby had been impressive, it was nothing compared with the splendour and elegance of the high-ceilinged theatre itself, with row upon row of expectant people, chatting amongst themselves as they waited for the curtain to rise. In the centre, hanging from the ceiling, a gas chandelier gave the whole place a gentle glow that felt almost magical to Lapsewood.

‘There's our fella, now,' said Tanner.

At first Lapsewood didn't see who he was talking about, but then he noticed the man. He wore clothes more suited to a gentleman living some hundred years earlier, with a rather fussy shirt, yellow tights, a grey coat and, on top of his head, a three-cornered hat. He was sharing his seat with a large fidgety lady.

Seeing them approach, the Man in Grey stood up.

‘Greetings,' he said, raising his hat and bowing flamboyantly. ‘Please have a seat, my friends. You're in for a treat tonight.
The Tragedy of Hamlet
, by our greatest playwright, Mr William Shakespeare. I have seen many performances over the years, but the talk of the theatre is that tonight's lead is something very special indeed.'

Tanner rolled his eyes but Lapsewood pulled out his list and a pen from his top pocket. ‘Sorry to bother you, sir. I'm here from the Housing Department. I'm looking for Doris McNally.'

‘Ah, dear Doris, a charming lady. She prefers the comedies, you know,' replied the Man in Grey. ‘I'm afraid I haven't seen her in some time.'

‘Can I take your details?' asked Lapsewood. ‘For my records.'

‘Of course. Mr David Kerby. Born into life, 1771, born into death 1806. Known to the living as the Man in Grey, a title which, as you can see, fails to take into account the daring colour of my legwear, but one which I have grown accustomed to over the years.'

‘The living can see you?'

‘Occasionally. I have a licence for infrequent visibility, up to sixty per cent on the opacity scale, in accordance with the rulings on the haunting of public places.'

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