‘Got it?’ Honor asked as she entered the situation room.
‘I’ve got it, all two hours of it,’ Brogan confirmed grimly.
Honor sat down beside Brogan and put her tablet on the control desk. Their mood, upbeat at the start of the afternoon, had turned sombre.
‘I can’t believe what we just witnessed,’ Brogan said.
‘It didn’t really end the way I thought it would.’
‘You can say that again.’
‘When the doctor certified that the cause of death was tetanus, it never occurred to me to question it.’
‘Why would it? You’re not a chemist.’
‘What do we do with the video now?’ Honor looked at Brogan.
‘I don’t know. Keep it with the other research you’ve done on the house. You might want to publish it one day.’
‘I feel like we should report it to someone, if only to get the bust of that bastard removed from the town hall, but I can’t see anyone being interested after all this time.’
‘And what would you say?’ Brogan raised an eyebrow. ‘We’d like to report a murder that we witnessed. Oh yes, Madam, and when did the crime take place? 1891.
‘We’d be laughed out of the police station.’
Three days ago, on the morning of the discovery, Honor had found her research on the house’s history in the loft and they had established that the family of 1890 consisted of Mr and Mrs Robert Harrison, a local politician and philanthropist, and his wife, fifteen years his junior; their son, William, whose presence in a room was only evident to Honor and Brogan when one of the women addressed him in conversation; the Harrisons’ twin daughters, Mary and Elizabeth; Miss Wendell, the governess; a cook; and two maids.
Teasing out the end of the story involving Mrs Harrison and Miss Wendell had not been easy. Honor and Brogan had to experiment with the tablet in different rooms and at different times until they became familiar with the house’s daily routine. Honor’s study of women’s lives during the Victorian era meant that she could take a guess at where individuals might be found at certain hours of the day and night, which enabled them to hang around in that location, filming an empty room, until someone showed up. Once they picked up one of the family or staff, they were able to use the mobility of the tablet to follow that woman from room to room.
Due to their interest in Miss Wendell, the schoolroom—Charlie’s bedroom at the top of the house—became a frequent jumping-off point. Brogan and Honor discovered that Mrs Harrison and Miss Wendell met most often after morning classes when the children went down to the kitchen for lunch. It was in this room on the 28th of May 1891 at midday that the affair between Mrs Harrison and Miss Wendell came to a crisis point.
‘How was William today?’
‘The same. The change in him is inexplicable. He used to be such a kind, giving boy and now…’ Miss Wendell shook her head. ‘Don’t think me vain, but I rather fancy William used to be a little bit smitten with me.’
Mrs Harrison laughed. ‘I cannot fault him for that.’
The older woman moved closer to the younger and, placing her arms about Miss Wendell’s waist, she pressed their bodies together.
‘William is probably becoming a man. It’s not something to worry over unduly; although should his sullenness turn to rudeness you are to inform me at once.’
Miss Wendell frowned. ‘I don’t know. I wonder whether perhaps he knows about us. In my experience, children can be surprisingly perceptive.’
Mrs Harrison shook her head. ‘He doesn’t know. How could he?’
Miss Wendell searched her lover’s face and, after a moment, gave a slight nod.
‘Now,’ said Mrs Harrison, a smile playing about her lips, ‘when are the children returning?’
‘I have given them an hour with cook,’ replied Miss Wendell, returning Mrs Harrison’s smile.
Mrs Harrison bent close to Miss Wendell and whispered something, too quiet for Brogan and Honor to catch with the microphone, before kissing her deeply. Their kiss became more ardent as Mrs Harrison, pressing Miss Wendell against the teacher’s desk, moved her thigh in between the younger woman’s skirts. Miss Wendell chuckled as she grabbed a handful of Mrs Harrison’s skirts, pulling her closer.
There was a loud thud as the door handle of the schoolroom door hit the wall with some force. Miss Wendell and Mrs Harrison jumped apart, frightened by the noise as much as by who they could see standing in the doorway. Brogan and Honor could only guess at who had interrupted the two women. The empty doorway told them the intruder, or intruders, was male.
The intruder addressed the shocked women.
Mrs Harrison started to reply, ‘We were… I was…’ but an explanation failed her and she petered out.
The intruder said something further, which caused Miss Wendell to say, ‘William, how could you?’ confirming to Brogan and Honor that William was present.
Something further was said by the invisible party in the doorway before Mrs Harrison, drawing herself up to her full height and looking magnificent, said, ‘I feel no guilt, Mr Harrison. Why should I? What I have done, you have done. Did you think I was not sensible to the women you have had over the course of our marriage? Should I have been a man, I would have sought a divorce long ago.’
It seemed likely to Brogan and Honor that Miss Wendell had been correct in her assumption that William’s moodiness had been as a result of discovering his governess’s affair with his mother. Jealously, William had then told his father and arranged for them to catch the two women in flagrante delicto.
A week later, Brogan and Honor witnessed a conversation between Mrs Harrison and Miss Wendell that made clear how different the lives of the two Victorian women were from their own and how very dependent women were on men then.
‘He refuses a divorce. He says it cannot be adultery as we are two women.’
‘You spoke to him of divorce? Oh, Sarah, you are fortunate that he refused.’ Miss Wendell sat down heavily on her chair in front of the schoolroom’s row of three desks.
‘Would it not free us to be together?’
Miss Wendell shook her head. ‘Your husband’s real reason for refusing a divorce is that the court proceedings would be reported in the newspaper, our affair would be revealed and he would be shown to have been cuckolded by two women; two women who would also be ruined. We are fortunate that your husband is a man of standing who wishes to avoid a scandal.’
Honor had discovered plenty in the town’s archives about Robert and William. Robert Harrison had been an enthusiastic adopter of new technology and had been instrumental in the success of the town’s new electricity works. His son was no less involved in the town’s history, being one of the men responsible for the building of the public library in 1921. The role of their wives in their triumphs passed undocumented.
‘What are we to do?’
Miss Wendell sighed and placed her head in her hands. ‘Ever since he found us out, an axe has hung over our heads, my head especially.’
‘I know, my darling. That is why I went to force the matter with him.’
Sarah Harrison knelt beside Miss Wendell and took her hand, pulling it to her breast. ‘We must be patient. He has done nothing to part us or do harm to us, yet. He may not. He may be content with the services of his mistress and, so long as we are discreet, he may not seek to take action against us.’
Miss Wendell rose and extricated her hand from Sarah Harrison’s grasp. ‘Do you really believe that he will allow this situation to continue?’
‘I don’t know, but should we not make the best of what leniency he has shown us?’
Miss Wendell moved to the small window in the eaves and looked out. ‘Leniency? Ha! Sarah, you do not know as much of the world as I. A man wronged in love is more dangerous than any woman scorned. He is playing with us as a cat toys with a mouse.’
Sarah Harrison moved to join Miss Wendell at the window. She placed her hands on Miss Wendell’s shoulders. Miss Wendell turned to face her lover with tears in her eyes. ‘We may not be pariahs yet, but we are prisoners. Our lives are in his hands. He has the power to ruin us utterly. We have nothing: we have no money, save what I might earn were my reputation to remain intact; we have no recourse to law; we are physically weaker than him and fettered by our skirts; and, those who you count as friends now, will evaporate should our crime ever be revealed. Mark my words, he will seek revenge for what we have done, what you have done, and when he does it will be merciless.’ Miss Wendell’s voice cracked as a sob escaped her.
Sarah Harrison pulled the younger woman’s head onto her shoulder and stroked her hair soothingly.
‘Ada, you must prepare yourself for some bad news.’
Having watched hours of video taken of Sarah Harrison and Ada Wendell’s fruitless discussions that went back and forth and round and round their predicament, Brogan and Honor recorded the conversation that tipped the women’s affair from being merely scandalous to dangerous.
‘Mr Harrison has informed me that I am to dismiss you from our service. If I protest, he will ensure that you never get another position. The character he will give you will ruin you.’ Sarah Harrison’s voice wavered as she imparted the news to Ada Wendell.
‘We thought that such a thing might happen,’ Ada Wendell said flatly. Her shoulders were hunched as she sat on one of the schoolroom chairs, her head down and her hands tightly bunched in her lap. ‘And should I refuse to leave this house?’
‘He will have you removed by the police. I can do nothing to stop him.’
Sarah Harrison sat down opposite Ada Wendell, their knees touching, and, reaching over, she took the young woman’s hands. Ada Wendell looked up and, staring fiercely at her lover, said, ‘I love you and will fight with every breath I have to stay with you.’
Sarah Harrison shook her head. ‘It is hopeless. He is a powerful man. We must do as he says and you must leave. If we comply with his wishes, I know he will give you a good character. I know he will keep his word. We must accept this is how it is to end.’ Sarah Harrison’s voice trembled.
Ada Wendell frowned. ‘You will not fight for what you want? Do you not love me?’
‘Yes, yes, I do, but I cannot see how it can be.’
Ada Wendell’s expression softened and she said, ‘I have been thinking there might be a way. Your husband wishes to avoid a scandal, seemingly at all costs. What if we were to place a price on our silence?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘What if we were to demand of him the price of two tickets from Southampton to New York, one way, in exchange for not placing the letters we have written to one another into the hands of a gentleman of the press?’
‘But we have not written any letters.’
‘I know, but your husband does not know that and, besides, it would be a work of an hour to write one or two as a sample that he might review. It would provide us with the means to leave here, to leave him, and to start anew, somewhere where we are not known. We might travel as sisters.’
Sarah Harrison released her hold on Ada Wendell’s hands. ‘Blackmail. We cannot.’
‘Why? He is doing the same in asking you to dismiss me or else he will ruin me.’
‘We cannot do it because I cannot leave my children.’
Sarah Harrison began to cry. Feeling hopeless and unable to offer any comfort, Ada Wendell watched her tears fall.
‘Then, I suppose, we really do have no option but to comply with his demands,’ Ada Wendell said bitterly.
Brogan and Honor had to work backwards from the culmination of the events that followed to discover who had been responsible for putting the strychnine in the coffee on the evening of the 11th of June 1891. They witnessed the murderer’s accomplice at work in the kitchen preparing the victim’s coffee cup with the grains of rat poison, ready to be dissolved by the coffee as it was poured from the silver coffee pot into the cup, the murderer then administering the dose by passing an innocent-looking cup of coffee to the victim as they did every evening after dinner.
They witnessed the overturning of the side table, lamp and coffee cup as the first of the violent convulsions took hold of the victim and the murderer running from the room to summon the family doctor. They were chilled by the murderer’s sly suggestion to Dr Barnes that the victim might be suffering from the dreaded tetanus, brought on by the sudden arrival of summer following the Great Blizzard of March and the unseasonably cold temperatures the country had been experiencing until now.
They witnessed the struggle to get the victim up the stairs and into bed, whilst the murderer’s accomplice cleared away the coffee cup, washed it and replaced it in the china cabinet. Finally, they endured the thrashing of the bed-clothes as the victim underwent wave after wave of agonising convulsions of the spine and limbs, each one tenting the bed-clothes higher and longer than before, until two hours later the sheets lay still and Robert Harrison was dead. His death certificate would record that tetanus was the cause, not poisoning by strychnine at the hands of his wife and her lover, the children’s governess.
‘I find it hard to believe that William didn’t say anything,’ said Brogan, the day after they had witnessed the murder. ‘I mean, the little shit started the chain of events that led to his father’s murder.’
Honor smiled sadly and reached for a manila envelope. ‘Take a look at this.’ She handed Brogan the marriage certificate she had just received in the post from the General Registry Office.
‘Really?’ Brogan exclaimed, reading the names on the certificate. In beautiful neat script, the document stated that William, town councillor, son of Robert and Sarah Harrison, had married Ada Wendell, governess, daughter of John and Hannah Wendell (both deceased), on the 20th of July 1893. Sarah Harrison, widow, had been one of the two witnesses to the marriage. ‘You’re telling me, after what we just saw, that Ada went into that marriage willingly?’
‘No. William resorted to a little blackmail of his own and Ada was forced to marry him or he would reveal his suspicions about his father’s death to the police. I did some more research whilst you were lecturing this morning.’
‘Oh, that’s not fair. You were supposed to wait for me.’
‘Sorry, I couldn’t resist.’ Honor wrinkled her nose. ‘Obviously, I could only record Ada and Sarah’s side of the conversation, but it was fairly obvious what was going on. They were backed into a corner by a man again. The only way for Ada and Sarah to be together was for Ada to marry William.’
‘So, the murder was all for nothing?’
‘Yep.’ Honor paused. ‘It makes me so angry, Brogue.’
‘My subject. Sometimes it is just too painful to teach, you know?’
Brogan didn’t really know so she stayed silent as Honor wrestled with something inside her.
‘The damage done to women by men, time and time again, throughout history, is overwhelming.’
‘Well, at least Sarah and Ada got a bit of their own back for womankind,’ Brogan offered.
Honor shook her head. ‘It’s not a win, being forced to take a life because you have no other option. Men forcing women to become criminals, men imprisoning women against their will, fathers selling daughters into marriage for favours and social position, husbands certifying wives as insane and locking them up when their views become inconvenient, men raping underage girls because they’re stronger and they can, it’s barbaric and it doesn’t stop. It’s still happening right now, somewhere in the world.’
‘I know,’ Brogan said and squeezed Honor’s shoulders reassuringly. ‘But you know what? Big Sister might provide us with a way to change all that.’
Copyright © 2015 Liberation Publishing (www.liberationpublishing.co.uk)