Sherlock Holmes, His Wife and the Hunt for Jack the Ripper
Happy Sunday, Happy reading! And just a reminder that this isn´t such ancient history, Jack the Ripper terrified London around this time just 140 years ago.... think about it! No fingerprints in those days. No DNA testing. Photography was still young (although some of the photographs I looked at when I researched this were enough to give me nightmares). Not even any telephones! Just the policeman on the beat, and - of course - the world´s greatest detective and his wife ....
Don´t run, dear. It´s so very dark, you might trip and injure yourself, and that would never do. That´s right. Just…. Walk. Pretend you can´t hear me. Pretend you don´t know I´m behind you. If you do that, I might not be here. But I am here, aren´t I? Perhaps I can see in the dark much better than you; I saw you stumble just now. Don’t look back! That´s the way, just keep on walking. As if you know where you´re going. As if you´re not lost, or frightened, not at all. Just keep on walking, and when you realise that you don´t know where you are and that nobody is going to open a door and invite you in, why all you have to do is whistle for me. Whistle and I´ll come for you. And then what fun we´ll have!
For want of something to do, I wandered about the bedroom listlessly, too jittery to focus on anything much. Through the constant rumble of London traffic I could hear the excited yell of the newspaper seller in Baker Street, shouting his headlines. I listened, but couldn’t quite make out what he was on about. It irritated me to the extent that I threw up the window and stuck my head out. Then I could hear clearly enough.
All too clearly.
“Pay-per! Pay-per! All the latest! Another horrible murder in Whitechapel! Police baffled! Read all about it! Pay-per!”
At once I wished I hadn’t bothered opening the window, but it was too late. The paper boy had caught the movement, and was already legging it down the street to me, a copy of the Globe clutched in his hand, waving it at me enticingly.
“Paper for you, Missus? Hot off the press, an’ all. Another woman done to death in Whitechapel. Mr. Holmes going to investigate, is he?”
It sometimes seems that most of London knows where my husband Sasha, better known as the world famous consulting detective Mr. Sherlock Holmes, hung out. Most days I would have been mildly amused, but today…. Today was different.
“No, he isn’t.” I snapped. “And if he was, you’re the last person I would tell. It would be all over London in half an hour.”
The urchin grinned at me, not at all put out, and raised the copy of the Globe enticingly. I knew when I was beaten, and tossed a penny down. The copy of the paper promptly came up, and I closed the window against the weather and the noise.
These days, it seems there´s a murder nearly every day in London, but as I read on the article beneath the headline hit me hard. A poor woman had been attacked in the streets, not far from her own home in East London, robbed, and – as the Globe delicately put it - “interfered with” appallingly. The unfortunate Mrs. Smith had later died of her injuries, but had lived long enough to say that one of the men who had attacked her was actually little more than a boy. The newspaper made it clear that Mrs. Smith was either a whore, or not far short of it, and clearly felt that murder was little more than an occupational hazard for her sort. I shook my head wearily; what sort of city was this to bring my daughter up in?
I threw the newspaper down and went back to the window. How was it possible that it had only been yesterday that I had stood here, waiting? The glass had been cold against my face, my nose squashed almost flat as I squinted to see the pavement. The window is one of those old fashioned ones, with a bull´s-eye in the middle. It had distorted my view and I felt like bashing it with my fist until it gave way and I could poke my hand through and at least wave. I had heard the front door open and close, and then I did hit the glass, my blows feeling as feeble as the efforts of a fly batting to get free.
Rosie paused behind both girls, her hand on her daughter´s shoulder. Eleanor looked up at her mother trustingly and Nona immediately followed suit. If it was good enough for Eleanor, it was good enough for her, as always. I watched Rosie usher both girls into the waiting hansom cab. She paused before climbing in herself and peered up at my window.
I doubted that she could see me; a dense, nasty drizzle was falling that could do little to wash away the normal London fog. A proper pea-souper of a fog, yellow and so thick you felt you could grab handfuls of it and tear it apart to force a passage through. Whether she could see me or not, Rosie waved anyway, and blew me a kiss. She mouthed something – I couldn´t make out what, but I guessed it was instructions not to worry. She would look after Nona for me. Of course she would. But it didn´t make me feel any better.
My darling daughter was being taken away from me, and that was all knew. All I cared about. I slid down from the window and sat on the rug and wept. Tucked my head into my breasts and snorted noisily.
“Nell, dear one. Stop it. Nona’s in good hands with Rose, you know she is. It would take a tiger to hurt either of those two when she´s around.”
Sasha sat himself down beside me. He´s so very tall and angular his every movement is … bony. Normally, the thought would have made me laugh, but not today.
“She´s gone.” I howled. “I should have been going with her. It´s not fair. It´s not right.”
“I know. But it can´t be helped and there´s no good going to come of you weeping about it. You´ll make yourself worse. Nell, stop it.”
Sasha sounded … not angry, precisely, but brusque. As if he really couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Abruptly, the four years we had been married were wiped away. He was once again the obnoxious paying lodger I had been forced to allow to share my lovely house at 221B Baker Street. I had had no choice in the matter; my first husband, Kit Hudson, had been murdered and had left me with not a penny to my name. Nothing but the house he had inherited from his Aunt Martha. I had thought Sasha arrogant and sneering at first. It was not until we became lovers that I realised that that was no more than the public face of the world´s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes. Underneath, he was caring and passionate and gentle.
Or so I had thought. Now, I began to wonder. Had my husband, without me noticing, stopped being my Sasha, and gone back to the man the world saw; Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the clever, cold genius? There was a world of difference between the two, beginning with the name. My Sasha was named for a little Russian boy I had known in the orphanage where I had been raised. He had been called Sasha, and had always claimed he was named after a Russian saint. Whether that was so or not, I loved the sound of the name and almost from the moment we really began to know each other, to me Sherlock Holmes was Sasha. To me, and nobody else. But now?
I glared at him. He was staring into space, his expression stony. I wished he would blink; it seemed unnatural that he could maintain that stare without needing to blink now and then. It was a trick he used when he was interrogating suspects. It made him seem less than human, somehow. But that was Sherlock Holmes, not my Sasha. Not my husband.
“Sasha?” My voice quavered. He said nothing, but I suddenly realised why he was keeping his eyes wide. It was so he didn´t cry. I glanced down: Sasha had beautiful hands, with long, slim fingers. He used them almost as much as his voice; stabbing the air when he wanted to make a point, describing a shape to support something he was saying. Now, those long fingers were clenched tightly into his palms.
I reached down and prised them open, and it took all my strength to do it. His nails had dug so tightly into his palms that the indents they had made were crescents of blood. I whimpered and put his palm to my mouth, kissing it better. Just as I would have done for Nona.
He let me do it in silence, and then the pain became too much for both of us and we wept together, wound tightly in each other´s arms to give and take what comfort we could.
Until then, it had been a good four years. The best years of my life. Nona has arrived very soon after we married, and if I thought I had been happy before, then now I knew what paradise meant. Sasha doted on her; even in the cradle she could wind him around her pudgy little fist.
Dear God! She had only been gone from our lives for five minutes, and here we both were, reduced to tormented wrecks by her absence.
“You´re shivering.” Sasha said quietly. He lifted my hands and inspected the woolly mittens that were tied firmly at my wrists. He checked the bows and nodded, apparently satisfied. “Come on. Let´s get you back to bed before you freeze.”
He tucked me in carefully, and then leered at me, jiggling his eyebrows suggestively.
“Hullo, love.” He growled, his normally cultured accent pure Cockney dockside. “And how´s your belly off for spots, then?”
I had to smile. The traditional Cockney greeting – the equivalent of “How are you?” in more cultured circles - was so apt it made me chuckle.
“Bloody awful, thanks. And these mittens tickle, as well.”
“Don´t care. You know Watson explained to you that you would scratch yourself to ribbons without them. They´re for your own good.”
I pulled a face. Dear Dr. John had explained that to me. At the same time he had insisted that Sasha rub sticky calamine lotion all over the spots, twice a day. I hated it. It was smelly and stuck to my nightgown. He had plastered poor Nona and Eleanor with it as well, but they had been given the treat of a boiled sweet afterwards. I didn´t even get that.
I guessed something was wrong with both girls long before the spots came out. Normally the brightest, most mischievous of children, first Eleanor and then Nona has suddenly become quiet and listless. Nothing interested them; not even the suggestion of a trip to Regent´s Park Zoo could raise any enthusiasm.
“Anything doing the rounds at The Eagle?” I asked Rosie quietly. “Influenza? Coughs and colds?”
But Rosie had shaken her head. Once upon a time – before I married Kit Hudson – I had worked as a barmaid at The Eagle where Rosie was the manager. I had even appeared on the stage at the Grecian Saloon, the popular Music Hall attached to the tavern. “Little Nell, the Singing Doll”, that was me. You´ll know The Eagle, of course. One of the most famous taverns in the whole of London town. Remember the rhyme?
“Up and down the City Road,
In and out The Eagle.
That´s the way the money goes,
Pop! Goes the weasel.”
The “weasel” in question being the gold pocket watch that every man worth his salt wore on an Albert chain across his belly; the watch that was “popped” into pawn to provide funds for his bit of fun at The Eagle.
My darling Nona was born just a year after Rosie´s Eleanor popped into this world. The girls were inseparable right from the start. At first, I had been amazed that Sasha was happy to have his daughter spend so much of her time at The Eagle, but he laughed at my surprise.
“She´ll come to no harm there. The regulars would lose their right arm before they saw anything happen to either of their little darlings. To be honest, I often wish I had led a less sheltered life when I was young. Private tutors and boarding school hardly prepares one for real life.”
Well, if he was happy then so was I. It gave me an excuse to go and gossip with my old mate Rosie, and both girls were as happy as griggs in each other´s company. Although it must be said that Rosie was a bit doubtful of our choice of name for our daughter.
“Nona.” She said thoughtfully. “Foreign, is it?”
“Sort of.” I explained. “It´s Latin for “nine.” It´s Sasha´s idea. As she was born at nine o´clock on the 9th September, he felt it suited.”
“Oh, well then.” Rosie´s expression cleared immediately at the mention of Sasha. Poor Rosie! She was completely in awe of my husband, the world famous private – sorry, consulting - detective, and anything he said had to be right.
But now, we both watched our darling daughters, and worried. Sasha pooh-poohed our concern.
“Children are always catching something. Don´t worry about it, they´ll be fine.” He insisted. Oh, yes? As soon as the first spots appeared, it was Sasha who sent one of his street urchins – his “Baker Street Irregulars” – running with a message for Dr. Watson to come quick. Which, bless him, he did.
“Well, Watson?” Sasha demanded. Dr. John bit his lip.
“Get them both upstairs to the spare bedroom.” He said quietly. “Tuck them up in bed, and keep them warm, no matter how much of a temperature they´re running. Have they got some soft gloves?”
I nodded, bewildered.
“Good. Put them on, and strap them around their wrists so they can´t get them off.” He ignored my startled protests, and spoke to the girls instead. “Now then, ladies. You´re going to have to spend some time in bed, I´m afraid. I´ll give you a rub with some ointment that will help the itching, and you´re going to drink lots and lots of honey and lemon in hot water. We´ll soon get you better. Come along with Uncle John, now.”
By the time both men came down again, I was frantic with worry.
“I´m sorry, Nell.” Dr. John sat down heavily. “They´ve both got a nasty dose of the Scarlet Fever.”
I didn´t realise I was whimpering until Sasha put his arm around me and held on to me tightly. Scarlet Fever! There had been an epidemic of it in recent years, and with every round of the illness it seemed to get worse. It was the disease every parent dreaded. It could – and did – kill. Often, if the child survived they were left blind or deaf or both. If nothing else, it could mark almost as badly as smallpox.
“They both have it very badly.” Dr. John said quietly. “You must keep the bedroom dark, Nella, and very warm. They must keep the gloves on, or they´ll scratch themselves to pieces. Other than that,” he shrugged and the worry on his face hit me like a fist. “Other than that, there´s nothing I or anyone can do.”
“How long?” I whispered. “How long before they get better?”
I saw the glance that passed between both men, and I was on my feet in a moment, grabbing Dr. John by the waistcoat and shaking him. They were not going to die. Not my baby. Not Rosie´s little darling. God couldn´t do that to us. Could he?
Rosie and I sat together in the bedroom with our babies. Slept there at night, dozing and waking at the least sound. For weeks, the whole house hovered in some dreadful limbo where the best that could be said was that the girls didn´t get any worse. Then one morning Dr. John arrived and I heard the sweetest words in the whole world from Nona.
“Uncle John, will you stop that! It tickles.”
Within seconds, both Rosie and I were at his side, all three of us gazing down at my daughter as though she had just performed a miracle. For us, at least, she had. For the past three weeks, John might well have been trying to mend a doll for all the response he had got out of either of them. Now, at least, Nona had the strength to protest. It was wonderful.
Eleanor, of course, followed suit. If Nona was better, then so was she.
If I had had the energy, I would have run down stairs to tell Sasha the worst was over. That our baby and our God Daughter had pulled through. They were going to live and they could hear and see. Not so much as a pock mark to disfigure their beautiful skins. As it was, I walked unsteadily on legs that seemed to be stuffed with rags to give him the news.
It was very odd. I can remember pushing the parlour door open, and walking through. Sasha was getting to his feet as I entered, and I´m sure I said something about the fever having abated, that the girls were going to be well, but for some reason Sasha´s face wasn´t happy. In fact, he looked horrified. He moved towards me and then the whole room turned grey and seemed to swing around as though I was on a carousel that had suddenly jerked into motion and I was falling and falling and falling….