Extract from Remembrances of a Gutter Press Hack by Gideon Pound, published Hardier-Walt, 1923
The Patterson suicide played on my mind for five days straight. It was a neat little worm, always burrowing away at the back of my mind as I filed copy, to the point that it drove me to distraction.
The news that week had been dominated by the balloon farce. Some posh madam with a fine, double-barrelled name (not Welsh, thank heaven) had landed a dirigible in the East End, and every column inch was consumed with supposition about her actions. Everyone from the Times to the lllustrated News got involved, extolling her virtues or admonishing her for ridiculous faults; one leader, penned by some lofty editor who presumably only ever entered the real world to dine, even complained that a woman should have not been allowed to pilot a dirigible. Presumably he preferred the Sacramento‘s passengers (and assorted bystanders below) all to die in fiery conflagration than breach protocol. As I’ve said, there’s nothing society likes more than a scandal, even when there’s no scandal to be found.
Balloons did not interest me. Nor did the rest of the ‘news’, which consisted of the usual Northerners going on strike about their coal mines, the usual Royal Navy squadrons departing from Scapa Flow, and the usual white-whiskered gufftraps blathering about in parliament. And thus I found myself returning, again and again, to that platform at Fenchurch Street.
I pride myself having a nose for a story, and there was something queer wafting in the tale of Emily Patterson. According to the information I could garner (a little too easily, I felt), she was 24 years old and a governess by trade, and had recently returned from Madeira where she had been engaged in private capacity. All of this was perfectly proper for superficial inspection. But as you dug your nails in to the flesh of her story, a strange mask began to peel off Ms Patterson.
Her place of birth was listed as Rochester. Very well. But her school was given as ‘Lowood’. As any simple sleuth knows, Lowood is the school from Jane Eyre, whose heroine falls in love with Mr Rochester. If that were not a strange enough coincidence, Jane herself is a governess. The details seemed as though they had been conjured up at short notice, and the lowest hanging fruits in the mind had been harvested.
This was enough to make me wonder why Patterson would have been on the train; she had no registered abode in London, and besides trains from Rochester run to London Bridge, not Fenchurch Street. An examination of the timetables showed the train ran from Shoeburyness via Southend, and out through Pitsea, Vange and Horndon and so to Fenchurch. It so happened that these final three stations (through the bumpkin countryside and far from true civilisation) had short platforms, and thus no one would have ventured to the final carriage. Shoeburyness was a nothing station too, only used to alight holidaymakers, which suggested she had boarded at Southend.
Why would a governess have been at Southend? The ‘recent return from Madeira’ could have been a good reason; many steamers chose to anchor at the mouth of the Thames than venture deep up its blackened waters. Indeed, the entire nation’s tea supply relied on the clipper-catamarans from the Orient, which habitually docked at Southend or Gravesend. Yet I suspected Madeira was false, too; in Jane Eyre Rochester’s mad, attic-bound wife is from that tropical port. This forced me to travel there myself, and check the harbour records.
Here my hunch proved sound. Only one ship had docked that day, and not from Madeira. The Fiery Cross had been collected by steam tug and brought to Southend docks at 9pm that eve. She was still in harbour, too, and a magnificent sight: a four-master tea clipper-catamaran, built in the latest design of smooth lines and soaring sails. Sail had surrendered to coal fire years before, but the clipper fleet were the apotheosis of an age, and their fine lines still beat the salt-caked smoke stacks of the heavy steamers given good weather. Fiery Cross had made the passage from Hong Kong to England in only 80 days, which was about as fast as any ship could muster.
The Cross proved the final nail in Ms Patterson, too. For I found the mate in a nearby sailor’s stew, a swarthy chap of calloused complexion, and slipped him a bob to talk of passengers. His response was clear.
The Cross had a passenger, yes, and she fit Ms Patterson’s description. And yes, come to think of it her name was Patterson, though she kept to her cabin much of the time.
“And she disembarked that night?”
“‘Course,” says the salt. “Her and the tea chests.”
“Tea chests?” The plural struck me. One chest for a travelling governess would be reasonable. But two was an extravagance of personal effects.
“That’s right. Two. Sent ’em to the Dog’s Face, where she took up board.”
“She did not go to the station?”
“Not that I know of squire.”
“And was there anything strange about her behaviour?”
“Nah, mate,” he said, taking out a pipe and beginning to suck on it, lifting a match to its bowl. “Though it was a night of strange things.”
“As we came in to dock, there was a hoot. Like an owl, only bigger. More strained, like a throttling, hollow sound. She didn’t seem bothered by it, but I confess it sent a chill down my britches. It was a portent, so it was: an evil omen. And sure enough, later that night we get the horror, clear as a picture. It was the call of the banshee.”
“One of the dock hands vanished. One of the foreign workers, little yellow chap brought over by the tea magnates. Drowned no doubt, twisted up in the bow lines. Must have slipped and caught himself between ship and the dock while unloading the crates. Not a pleasant way to go, if you get my meaning; the Devil claims anyone who slips in such a gap, and all it takes it one wrong foot on the gangplank to end up there.”
“Is that common?” I baulked a little at the grisly discovery, and wondered if the Gazette‘s readers might revel in the dangers of longshore work. The mate shrugged and pulled on his pipe.
“Common enough not to be worthy of mention in a busy port. It was only the hoot that makes it memorable, chum. The banshee. It was callin’ the fellow to his doom. Aye, and when I hear it again, I’ll make sure I say a prayer to God and hope he’ll take a sinner yet.”
I returned on the first train to London, bamboozled. The Dog’s Face (yes, I did visit that dockside den) proved a dead end, for no woman had taken lodgings that night, and the trail of Emily Patterson vanished into the aether.
Still, the death of the dock worker convinced me I was on the right scent. A woman returns from China; a Chinaman dies in strange circumstances; the woman is found dead on a train that very night.
My nose smelled the fresh ink of column inches in this tale. And I knew the answer lay waiting for me in the Southwark Morgue.