“Of course, the French have always had a certain… elegance in these matters, so it shouldn’t be a surprise how few of our jewellers measure up, but honestly you would think that she could still afford something of note. Her uncle is the Duke of Sutherland, for God’s sake, even the Viscount of Trentham’s family put on a better show.”
Arthur had a tendency to tune out the details somewhat when Elizabeth ranted about her peers, as she was wont to do after these dinners, but with the mention of jewellery his attention had snapped back to his beloveds words and he listened with growing mortification.
“I’m sure that garish, mass-produced tripe makes her feel like the belle of the ball in Dornoch or wherever it is she spends her time usually, but this is Edinburgh not some parochial little nowhere. I understand why the Duke never takes her to London.”
The main topic for tonight’s post-dinner debrief had been settled when Elizabeth had paid special note to one of the attendees’ somewhat overstated necklace, and while Arthur normally chose to cherish these stolen moments by focusing on the fine curve of her neck, the rapid motion of those gorgeous lips, and the flush that entered her face as her scorn enlivened her, it had not escaped his notice how similar the object of her derision was to a necklace sitting in her drawing room, where it was intended to be discovered tomorrow as she proceeded to her needlepoint.
“Honestly, we are living in the time of Fontenay and looking at her neck you would think that we had not yet even reached Froment-Meurice. Ghastly.”
And the more Arthur thought about it, the more concerned he grew that, while heartfelt, the poetry which adorned the box containing the jewellery may not quite be up to snuff. Frankly, the gesture that he had thought would guarantee her heart was rather turning into a disaster. Nevertheless, he held his composure until he had seen Elizabeth to her carriage and it was out of sight.
As Arthur climbed into his own carriage he fretted. The entrepeneurial young delivery lad he had used to make the deposit in the first place was unlikely to find a pretext to return to Elizabeth’s home for several days – and most certainly not before his ruse had been discovered. No, if this was to be resolved in a timely fashion, he needed to think a little outside the box.
Leaning forwards, he called to his man – “Buttress, take me to an inn.”
“At this time of night? It’ll only be drunkards and ruffians” the ginger-bearded coachman responded.
“That’s what I’m counting on.”
“Alright, I guess…”
Raibert knew he wasn’t the only one who had clocked the stranger as soon as he walked into the bar – it wasn’t unheard of for a posh lad to come here, but they normally had the decency to at least dress down a little first. He’d have to move fast if he wanted to gain the man’s confidence before someone else got hold of him.
As soon as he made eye contact though, the toff scurried over almost – looking almost embarrassingly grateful.
“Why hello there, I don’t suppose I could borrow a moment of your time?” the fop panted. A ruddy Southerner – Raibert should have known.
“Aye, I can spare a few minutes”
“I’m looking for someone who can perform a… certain task for me.”
“Oh, well certain tasks are me speciality”
“It does require a certain level of discretion”
Agreeing to meet at the fishmarket in the early hours, when it was busy enough that their movement might be undetected but not so late that they were likely to bump into anyone Arthur knew, the two left the inn together.
“Well then, ye’ve come to the right man”
“I have an item which needs… acquiring at very short notice”
“Oh, that’ll cost ye – when were ye thinking?”
“Well” – the gentleman shifted uncomfortably – “tonight.”
Raibert sucked in air between his teeth and looked at his prospective employer.
“It is rather urgent, you see. There’s a trinket – a necklace – that is in the drawing room of a nearby house, which I would like back in rather a hurry”
“And what’d ye be wanting to pay for such a task?”
“Name your price”
Raibert named. Named with ludicrous abandon, in fact, an outlandish sum which should give him a further leg up in the negotiations over this clearly desparate man – and was astonished when the gent assented with no haggling. For a necklace?
As they hunched forwards and discussed particulars, including layout, address, timing, and other similar details, the wee lordling took great pains to repeat the light touch nature of the job. “Leave absolutely no trace” – “No-one can see you” – “Nothing else can be missing” – and similar repeated motifs peppered the conversation.
Now, Raibert couldn’t say for sure that absolutely nothing else might find its way into his pocket should it happen across his path, but he got the gist of the sentiment and reassured the gentleman that he understood the ramifications for his reward should, for example, the house be ransacked.
“And sir?” Raibert called, as they parted ways. “Something less conspicuous when we meet later, please”
Elizabeth awoke with a start at the noise from downstairs. She understood that keeping a household running sometimes required a staff willing to work at these ungodly hours – in fact, she personally approved of the idea that as much work as possible be done at times when staff wouldn’t get themselves underfoot or make their presence too obtrusive – but clattering about when she was trying to get her well-deserved rest? Intolerable. She made a mental note to be particularly liberal with her reprimands in the morning.
Raibert cursed under his breath. With his eyes on the door and the hallway beyond, he’d not noticed a heavy copper kettle on the floor near the stove, and as his foot hit it, there was a perceptible “thunk”.
He crouched and froze in place – no stirring from upstairs. Perhaps his heightened senses had made the sound seem more audible than it really was – he had to admit that most of his best liberatory work had been undertaken in alleys, and a sleeping house was a much more formidable beast than he had anticipated. Not for the first time since they had parted ways, he toyed with the idea of simply meeting up with the toff at the fish market and freeing him of his purse there – but there would be too many people around. Hell, even whatever the gent had had about his person when they had met earlier would probably have been a better reward proportional to the risk – but he’d let his greed get the better of him.
Ah well, here now – he started to creep back through the kitchen, this time paying more attention to his feet than to where he was going. Entering the hall and then stealing into the drawing room, he was grateful that the gentleman had been so fastidious in his description of the location as the necklace box wasn’t immediately visible on entry – he had to shift some papers to get to it, but peeking inside he was sure that he had the right one. Not bad, but the gentleman was definitely paying above the odds for the recovery fee – he had seen others like it in jewellery store windows for a much cheaper price.
Either way, the sooner he was out of here the better. He shuffled back to the hallway and through to the kitchen – he’d originally thought about maybe looking for a little more silverware here or there, but no sense pushing your luck.
This was altogether too much. Elizabeth’s sleep had been thoroughly ruined. While she had initially had some fun planning some particularly cutting admonishments for the morning, as the movement downstairs resumed she grew increasingly frustrated. How was she supposed to be at her ladylike best with this sort of unruly staff?
Still, if anything her barbs would be even more sharp if launched now, so perhaps it was best to voice her opinions before time could dull their impact.
She crept out of bed, determined to catch some hapless maid mid-clumsy-fumble, and down the stairs. Seeing the silhouette of a shape moving through the kitchen, she sprung into the room, full of righteous indignation, making her presence known with a resounding “Excuse me!”
Raibert felt his nerves relaxing as he approached the door leading from the kitchen to the outside world, and the promise of imminent riches. However, suddenly from behind him, an outraged voice screeched “Excuse me!”
He span on his heels. An indignant young woman was visible in the light from the hallway – the jig was surely up. She would see his face – or chase him if he fled – and by morning everyone would know who he was.
Only one way out of this one. He grabbed at the handle of the copper kettle that he’d kicked earlier, springing up and swinging it at the side of the woman’s head with a tremendous wallop.
Elizabeth fell before she had even had time to fully register that this was not, in fact, a clumsy servant. Raibert dropped the kettle – an even louder clattering waking the rest of the household – and sprang for the door – leaving Elizabeth crumpled on the kitche n floor in a pool of rapidly spreading blood.
Raibert watched the gentleman standing awkwardly around in the fish market, debating whether to even go ahead with the meeting, but he was damned if he was going through all that without getting paid. Lad looked tense, but not guilty – he doubted the news would have spread yet.
As Arthur saw Raibert, some of the tension went out of his shoulders – and as Raibert produced the necklace waves of relief emanated from the young toff.
“It went well then, I take it?” enquired Arthur, reaching for his purse.
“Not quite according to plan, but we got away with it.”
“Oh, what changed?”
“Someone came into the kitchen as I was heading out the back.”
“Wait, who? That is very much not according to plan.”
“Some posh lady. Don’t worry, I didn’t leave any witnesses, like ye said”
“I’m sorry, beg your pardon, what?”
“Well I lamped her upside the head and pegged it”
“Look, we don’t have all day – give me the money, I’ll give you the necklace, we go our own separate ways and forget about it.”
“Is she alright?”
“Well, no – that was the point. Look, I know it isn’t exactly ‘no trace’ but it’s better than a witness, right?”
“Oh God Oh God Oh God”
Raibert waited another moment or two, watching Arthur mutter to himself, but as the lad started to rock back and forth – and as he didn’t seem amenable to the explanations Raibert proffered – the older man lent forward and slapped the little lordling.
“Look, we can’t stand around here, not with you like that – here’s the bloody necklace, give me the money, and we won’t ever have to see each other”
Raibert held out his hand for the purse and held the necklace in the other. Jolted by the unexpected slap, Arthur’s eyes became more clear and less distant. He looked at the necklace in its box.
“Wait, this is just the necklace?”
“That’s all you bloody asked me to get”
“There should have been some papers with it”
“You didn’t ask me to get any damn papers, I just got the necklace”
This time, Arthur wailed. Giving up on him, Raibert grabbed the purse, dropped the necklace in its place, and legged it, leaving the gentleman in a gathering crowd of onlookers. Time to bloody get out of town.
Not long later, Inspector Bell stood in the kitchen looking at the body of Elizabeth. Bloody stupid business, as far as he was concerned – who got killed by a ruddy kettle?
“Sir?” a young Constable called, leaning past the body from the hallway. “I think I have something. Might be a Clue, sir.”
“What is it?”
“Well one of the maids here says these papers shouldn’t be here. Nothing left in the drawing room normally sir. And it’s a little, well, odd…”
“Hand it over, lad.”
The inspector took the paper from the constable’s fingers and unfolded it, furrowing his brow before reading aloud:
“Without you I would feel such angst
So I would give my hearty thanks
If you would only care to deign
My love feelings to entertain
It makes me feel ever so glum
Whenever I return to London
Seeing you makes my heart go faster
I remain, your loving, Arthur”
“Well,” Bell said, refolding the paper and looking around the room, “at least she got out of it before she read the bloody poetry. Possibly a kindness. This is probably our guy though, I can’t say that he sounds the most stable.”
The cruelest part, thought Arthur as he sat in his cell, wasn’t that the judge hadn’t believed him. It wasn’t everyone thinking he was a murderer. It wasn’t even his father’s face at the trial.
No, what he regretted most about the whole affair was that The Scotsman had chosen to print his poem in its entirety. He had been willing to admit that he wasn’t exactly Rabbie Burns, but the accompanying commentary had been scathing – although not as much as the comments in the subsequent letters pages – and now every bloody guard thought that quoting lines of it at him through the bars was the height of comedy.
But perhaps art is formed through trying times. After all, wasn’t he really the victim here? And that might be the perfect theme for a truly great poem…
Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash
Edinburgh // Copper Kettle // Angst
Duke of Sutherland, some of the largest landholders in 19th century Britain, subsidiary titles included Marquess of Stafford, Viscount Trentham, etc.
Victorian Jewellery Design, Ch. 4 http://www.victorianweb.org/art/design/jewelry/gere/4.html
Eugene Fontenay https://gallerease.com/en/artists/eugene-fontenay__d68ce49a7da9
Newhaven Fishmarket https://www.thefishmarketnewhaven.co.uk/history/
The Scotsman was a broadsheet 1855-2004 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scotsman