Excerpt

Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar

Kate Saunders

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar, by Kate Saunders. The detective Laetitia Rodd is summoned by a dying wealthy businessman, with a request that she track down his brother, a brilliant professor who vanished more than decade ago, and has been rumored to live among the gypsies now. She tries to enlist help from old friends, but when murder strikes, she knows she does not have long to uncover the truth.

I wrote to Rachel Somers as soon as I got home, boldly announcing my arrival the following week. This was a matter that had to be dealt with quickly; I  had liked Mr Welland, and I honoured his desire to win his brother’s forgiveness before he died.

‘He said nobody must know that I’m searching for him,’ I told Mrs Bentley later. ‘I have already decided to take exactly the opposite approach; I want everyone to know, so that I can be sure my message is delivered. There’s so little time.’

‘You might have longer than you think,’ said Mrs Bentley. ‘People can put off dying for ages when they’re waiting for something. I had an old aunt who hung on for weeks until her son came home from sea, and then out she went like a light.’

‘Yes, I’ve seen the same thing, but I daren’t take the risk in this case; poor Mr Welland can’t last for more than a few weeks. I will see to it that Joshua gets the information, after which it will be up to him to decide what to do with it.’ I was back in my old gown and we were drinking hot brandy and water beside the kitchen fire. Mrs B had run out to the nearby tavern for a half-quartern of brandy and produced sugar and a lemon from I know not where; this was how we celebrated a new case, and I always liked to hear Mary’s ruminations. ‘What a shame it is, when brothers fall out.’

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‘It’s a rare thing, if my boys are anything to go by,’ said Mrs B. ‘They’ve had their fights, but nothing bad enough to cut them off completely. In my experience, there’s only two things will do that – money or a woman.’

‘In this case, a woman. I haven’t read Mr Welland’s account yet, but he said it was because they both loved the same girl, and she died.’

‘I knew it!’ Mrs Bentley was solemn. ‘Love or money.

And love’s the worst.’

‘The most urgent business, as far as I’m concerned, is my packing for Oxford. I can’t travel in my silk, but the black marocain is too warm and the poplin is in a sorry state.’

‘Oh, you can leave that with me,’ Mrs B said. ‘All it wants is airing and ironing and holding over a hot kettle, and I’ll have a go at your gloves while I’m at it.’ (Despite her rheumatism, she had a talent for dragging garments back to respectability from the very brink.)

‘My brother changed one of Mr Welland’s banknotes; I can put a nice sum into the Windsor Castle box, and I expect you to use it.’

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‘You always leave too much, ma’am,’ she protested. ‘You know it drives me to distraction when you’re stingy on my behalf.’ I was laughing softly now, for this was our eternal argument. ‘Apart from anything else, it makes me look hard-hearted. Think of my reputation, and make sure you spend Mr Welland’s money on coals and decent food and candles. I have my spies, dear Mary, and if I hear that you’ve been caught sitting in the dark again, I shall be most displeased.’

There were shouts outside in the street, and a burst of raucous singing – one of the cockney ballads that were so enormously and annoyingly popular at the time, with a howling ‘Toora-loora’ chorus.

‘As Vilikins was walking in the garden one day, He saw his poor Dinah as cold as the clay,

A CUP OF COLD POISON did lie by her side, And the little ducks said that for Vilikins she died.’

It was late and our jug of brandy was empty. Mrs B went to bed and I went upstairs to my small drawing room, to study Mr Welland’s papers by the light of the china lamp that had once graced my large drawing room in Bloomsbury. Above the fireplace, watching over me like a benign spirit, was the portrait of Matt by Edwin Landseer; a gift from the diocese the year before he died, and now my dearest possession.

The papers given to me by Mr Welland included banknotes, a pass for the railway and two letters of introduction to men who had seen Joshua (or claimed to have seen him) since his disappearance: a fellow of his college and a local landowner conveniently close to where I would be staying. There was also, as Fred had said, a sheet of instructions headed ‘In the Event of my Death’ and a sealed letter addressed to Joshua.

Most interesting to me, however, were several sheets closely written by hand.

Herewith a full and true account of the wrong done by Jacob Welland to his brother, Joshua.

We grew up in Kent. Our father was a clergyman of the meanest rank—a poor curate, keeping someone else’s living warm for a yearly pittance. Our mother was the daughter of another poor curate. I was their oldest child. My brother Joshua, born ten years later, was their youngest. There were two girls—Mary and Ruth—who lived and died between us. All Joshua knew of them was their little grave in the churchyard.

Our poor mother always said Joshua was her late blessing, sent by Heaven to heal her broken heart. He was our golden boy—healthy, handsome and sweet-natured. I had never been much of a scholar, but Joshua soon showed signs of a remarkable intelligence. By the time he was seven he had nearly exhausted our father’s stock of learning and knew every book in the house (there were not many) by heart. It was clear to us all that Joshua needed an education. It was equally clear, however, that we could not afford it. Schools, books and tutors cost money, which we did not have; as the poet says, ‘Every door is barred with gold, and opens but to golden keys.’

I was at that time an impatient hobbledehoy of seventeen. Thanks to the dozens of begging letters fired off by my father, I had lately joined the ranks of the civil service as a junior clerk in the Navy Pay Office at Chatham. As far as my parents were concerned, my fortune was made. But I hated the work, which mainly consisted of copying long lists of names and numbers. I hated my damp lodgings beside a brewery. Chatham was a town of sailors. The great ships at the docks loomed over the buildings, magnificently mysterious, promising all kinds of freedom and adventure.

I told my father that I could make money for Joshua’s education if I left my office and joined one of the trading ships. He refused to hear of such a thing, having worked hard for his position in life as a ‘gentleman’.

The immediate problem of Joshua’s education was solved, for the moment, by a neighbour of ours, a Mr Thorne—an impoverished eccentric who lived amidst mountains of books. He proved himself a most excellent teacher; it was thanks to him that Joshua won his scholarship to the grammar school in our nearest town.

I had not, in the meantime, lost my desire to escape and make my fortune. This is not an account of my life and career; it is only necessary to state that I defied my father and sailed off to America. I did not make my fortune overnight; there was much struggle and hardship in the life I had chosen. The life suited me, however; I never once regretted turning my back on the civil service.

Joshua was a gangling youth of sixteen when I saw him next, with just the same modesty and sweetness of character, though he was Head Boy of his school and widely admired for his scholarship. It was largely due to Joshua’s entreaties that my parents forgave me so readily for running away to sea.

Though my wealth was still in the future, I had at least saved enough for independence. I bought a small farm near to my father’s parish. It was a bad investment, for which I paid too much. The farmhouse was dark and damp and the land decidedly marshy. I made something like a living. It is odd to think that I might be there now—if only she had not come.

Yes, there was a ‘she’; what else could have divided two such devoted brothers?

Her name was Hannah Laurie and she was a distant cousin from my mother’s side of the family. She was an orphan, sixteen years old when she came to us, with the bright golden hair that looks red in some lights and eyes of the purest blue.

Our father welcomed the poor orphan into our home, and not only from Christian duty. Our mother was failing in health and her wits had begun to wander. Hannah became her nurse, her companion, her friend—almost one of her lost daughters.

I fell in love with Hannah, but I knew in my bones that Hannah did not love me. Though nothing had been said, it was plain to all around us that she loved my brother.

I am not a jealous man by nature, and I made the best of the situation for the next few years, until our parents were both dead. Hannah was left utterly alone, without house or income, or anything more than the clothes she stood up in. Joshua had nothing and could do nothing.

I often think how different this story would have been if we’d had any money.

Hannah would never have married me.

I didn’t need to force her; the poor girl was only too grateful to find a refuge with me. To put it bluntly, she had no choice. Somewhere deep down, I was fully aware that I was taking advantage of a helpless creature. A butterfly loses its loveliness when it is trapped and pinned to a card. I believe that Hannah was fond of me, that she looked up to me—but she was not happy. I did my best to ignore the bitter fact that her heart belonged to someone else.

I did not tell my brother of our marriage until after the event. Joshua was deeply hurt and angered by my betrayal and vowed he would never see or speak with me again. I admit now that my actions were despicable. Here were the only two people left on this earth that I loved, and I had given them nothing but pain.

That sweet girl would never have cast herself into the darkness if not for me. Shortly after Joshua left his college to commence life as a woodland hermit, I lost her. She left with only the scant belongings she had brought with her, fading out of my life like breath upon a mirror. Her note contained just two words: ‘Forgive me.’

I searched for her. I sent other people to search for her across miles of countryside. I did not care that they laughed at me. I did not care that they pitied me. I was certain she had followed my brother. I never did find them, though I heard all kinds of stories—that they had joined a band of gipsies, or built a house in a tree, or run off to the Antipodes.

After nearly a year, a trusted friend sent word that Hannah had died. The news took a long time to reach me and the grass had grown over her grave by the time I saw it. She lies in the peaceful churchyard at Shotton Barrow. There was no word from my brother. I took myself and my broken heart to South America, where I made the fortune I no longer wanted. I can only hope Joshua makes better use of my money than I did. If God is merciful I will see him again before I die.

I read this romantic story several times and sat up brooding over it until after midnight. Mr Welland had not given me much in the way of facts about his brother. It might help, I thought, to visit the grave of Hannah Laurie. I wondered how she died, and when she died—this innocent girl who had, apparently, run off with the raggle-taggle gipsies.

Hannah had committed a grave sin in deserting her lawful husband for his brother, but I could not condemn her; she had been forced to choose between a decent roof over her head, or a hedge under the stars. Mr Welland was right to admit that he had taken mean advantage of her helplessness. He knew she and Joshua could not declare their love openly because they were too poor to marry. A better man would have found a way to assist the young couple, instead of tearing them apart.

And love had won in the end, when Hannah chose the hedge after all—as the old song says, what cared she for her goose-feather bed? I found myself hoping, against all my principles, that she had found a little happiness before she died.

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From Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar by Kate Saunders. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2019 by Kate Saunders.




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