1. Talking to the Dead
It was a grimy March day and the smoke from hundreds of chimneys mingled its sooty breath with the mist that came drifting up from the river. By late afternoon the air had grown so thick it seemed to curdle in your lungs. People went about their business wrapped and muffled, coats buttoned up to their throats, scarves held over their mouths.
The fog transformed London. Instead of a lively, bustling city, it became a sinister and treacherous netherworld. People appeared out of the murky haze then disappeared again as it closed around them like a sea. Sounds were magnified in the gloom, even the steady chewing of a cab horse echoing dully in the lifeless air.
By seven o’clock it was dark and bone-chillingly cold. The line of people outside the William Wilberforce Memorial Hall in Wapping shivered as they shuffled slowly forwards, one by one. They never came in pairs – for these were solitary individuals. Each of them had lost a loved one. That was why they were here. They had been drawn to this place by posters stuck up all over the East End:
Nathaniel sat on a stool inside the door of the hall, collecting the entrance fees. The customers seldom looked him in the eye. They were always a bit ashamed to be attending an event like this. You weren’t supposed to seek contact with the dead, everyone knew that. But these were desperate people. There was a hole in the life of each and every one of them – a space that had once been occupied by a husband or wife, son or daughter, brother or sister, fiancé or sweetheart. They longed so badly to hear that missing voice, they no longer cared what other people thought. Even if friends and family disapproved, they had made up their minds. The flowers and cards of well-wishers had not helped them, nor had time healed their pain. Now they were putting their faith in Cicero Wolfe.
Nathaniel had seen it all before, of course. His father had been holding seances for nearly four years and at first there had been no more than a trickle of customers. Gradually, however, word had got round and in the last twelve months the audiences had been growing. Mortality was on everybody’s mind these days. Queen Victoria had started it. After her beloved Prince Albert had passed away, she’d locked herself in the palace, refusing to see a soul. Her country and empire no longer interested her. She was lost in thoughts of the world to come. Everyone was talking about her odd behaviour. Perhaps that was why more and more people were plucking up the courage to consult a medium. Death was becoming fashionable.
The hall was full tonight. When there wasn’t a single empty seat Nathaniel shut and bolted the doors. A buzz of expectation settled upon the crowd. They were ready to see the man who had promised so much. But Cicero did not come out immediately. He liked to make them wait. That was the first rule of a showman: make them laugh, make them cry but always make them wait. At last, however, the curtains twitched and he stepped onto the stage. Immediately, the hall fell silent.
He was in his early forties, good-looking, with a full head of thick black hair. (Only Nathaniel knew about the special preparation his father purchased from the chemist to disguise the grey at his temples.) He was a strong man, built like a bull with a barrel chest and muscular arms. He wore a long, black top-coat and matching trousers, grey waistcoat, white shirt and stiff collar – the uniform of a professional man, a doctor perhaps, or a lawyer. The clear light of day would have revealed a certain shabbiness about his clothes, but in the pale yellow glow of the gas lamps, he looked eminently respectable.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to an evening of hope,’ he began. ‘I say an evening of hope because that is what I bring. Like many of you, I know how cruel it is when a loved one is snatched away. I, too, have suffered such a loss.’ When he said this he put his hand to his heart and lowered his eyes, as though feeling the pain of bereavement all over again. ‘Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, after my own dear wife was taken from me I raged against heaven. But not any more. For I have discovered a sacred truth that I will share with you. It is this.’ He paused, leaned forwards and in a stage whisper, added, ‘The dead have not forsaken us. They are always among us. Even tonight, in this very room.’
There was a gasp from the audience as he said this and one or two of them craned their necks to look about them, as if they expected to see spirits hovering in the corners of the building.
‘There is so much they are longing to say,’ he continued in his normal voice, ‘and tonight, through me, they will speak. That is my promise.’
He held them in the palm of his hand, as he always did. This was what he was good at. Not that it was difficult, for these were people who wanted to be convinced. Nevertheless, Cicero knew exactly what to say and when to say it. ‘In a moment, ladies and gentlemen, I shall sit down on this chair and make myself available to those spirits who are here tonight. But before I do so, I must request that during the seance, there is complete silence. Remember, it is as difficult for the dead to break through as it is for us to hear them. We must all assist in the process by concentrating. Focus your minds on whoever you wish to speak to. Try to think of them as they were when they were hale and healthy, for that is how they are now on the other side. Let us begin.’
He sat down on the red velvet armchair in the middle of the stage. For a long time nothing happened and the expectation in the room grew deeper. Then suddenly his face began to change. He grimaced horribly like someone in the most appalling agony. His eyes rolled in his head and he slumped back in the chair like a dead man. A moment later he sat bolt upright again and began to speak. But not in the strong baritone voice with which he had introduced himself, for it was no longer Cicero Wolfe talking. ‘I have a message for someone in the room,’ he intoned in a thin quavering treble. ‘ Are you there, Elizabeth?’
A thin woman in the third row sprang to her feet. She was younger than most other people in the audience. The majority were elderly widows or widowers but she looked no more than thirty. Yet grief had done its work on her features and she was certainly not out of place in such a company. ‘Is that you, Jack?’ she demanded, her voice trembling with emotion.
‘Of course it’s me.’
Nathaniel went over to the end of the row and signalled for her to come out. She looked stunned and moved like a sleepwalker as he led her up the steps and onto the stage. ‘Ask him what his message is,’ Nathaniel whispered.
‘What do you want to say to me, Jack?’ the woman asked.
‘You must stop worrying about me, Elizabeth,’ the spirit-voice continued. ‘I am at peace now.’
The woman nodded, her eyes filling up with tears. ‘Jack, what shall I say to Mr Mayhew?’
There was a moment’s hesitation, then the voice spoke again. ‘What did I always say when I was alive?’
Elizabeth frowned. Then she nodded, eagerly. ‘You said he loved nothing so much as the sound of his own voice. You said that for all his money he was just a great big windbag.’
‘So you think I should turn him down, Jack?’
‘You know what I think, Elizabeth.’
Elizabeth nodded. For the first time that evening she smiled and her face was transformed. Suddenly she looked young again. ‘I’ll tell him no, then.’
Nathaniel led Elizabeth back to her seat and a moment later another voice began to speak, thin and high – a woman’s voice. ‘Where is Gabriel?’ it demanded.
A very tall, white-haired man with an enormous nose stood up at the back of the hall. ‘I’m here, Lily,’ he called out, excitedly.
Nathaniel led him up onto the stage where he stood as straight as a ramrod, despite his years. ‘What is your message for me?’ he demanded.
‘Stop dwelling on the past, Gabriel,’ Lily told him. ‘You must concern yourself with the present.’
‘But the boys won’t speak to me any more, Lily. They’ve turned against me,’ he complained.
‘You know why that is, Gabriel.’
‘I don’t see why I should have to apologise.’
‘You were always too proud, Gabriel.’
‘So I have to go down on my knees to my own sons!’ he continued, bitterly.
‘You will have to leave your pride behind some day, Gabriel. There is no room for such things on the other side. Now is the time to make a start.’
Gabriel went back to his seat with his head bowed, looking a great deal more humble than when he had first walked onto the stage.
Nathaniel had to admit that Cicero was good. More than good. He was brilliant. If Nathaniel hadn’t known otherwise, he might even have believed it himself. But it was all a fraud and Nathaniel was far from happy at his own part in the deception. Unfortunately, he had little choice. To say no to Cicero would have been to take his life in his hands – perhaps literally. Underneath the gentlemanly exterior, Cicero was entirely ruthless. He got his own way by bullying and if that didn’t work, by violence – especially when he had a drop of gin inside him.
Ever since the death of his wife, Cicero had been inclined to take comfort in alcohol whenever things got difficult. That was what had brought about the end of his music-hall career – getting drunk, turning up late, forgetting his lines. When Nathaniel’s mother had been alive that would never have happened. Perhaps it was only a matter of time anyway, for Cicero wasn’t as good on his own. His voice was best suited to working with others. Henry and Louisa Wolfe, the husband and wife act, had been a great success, but Henry Wolfe, solo artist and occasional drunkard, was a different matter. So he had changed his name and found himself a different career, one which suited a performer with very few scruples.
‘I tell them what they want to hear.’ That was how he justified it and most of the time it was true. The sorry individuals who came to Cicero’s seances generally needed comfort and that was what he provided. He assured them that their loved ones were waiting for them and whenever they asked about a particular problem, he did his best to turn the question round so that they answered it themselves. Most of his customers went away happier than when they arrived.
Nevertheless, Nathaniel hated taking money from the customers. Or clients, as Cicero preferred to call them. Often, they were from among the poorest people in the city and he could only guess at the sacrifices they had made to scrape together the few pennies that were the price of admission. Once, more than a year ago now, Nathaniel had refused to take part. Cicero’s face had turned white with rage at his son’s defiance. He had knocked him to the ground. Then he had taken off his belt and laid into him. There were still scars on Nathaniel’s back from the beating he had taken that night.
So these days he played his part without protest – collecting the money, taking the chosen ones up onto the stage and leading them back down again afterwards. If there was any sign of trouble, it was his job to put the lights back on and call the whole thing to a halt. But there had never been any trouble. Occasionally Cicero’s answers were not along the right lines. Then the questioner would look puzzled and raise objections. But Cicero usually found a way out. As long as he stayed away from the gin. Drinking slowed his brain and when things did go awry, it was usually because Cicero had allowed himself a little tipple before the show.
Tonight’s seance went very much like all the others. One woman wanted to be forgiven for not taking her husband’s illness seriously enough, a one-armed man wanted to know whether he would get his lost limb back on the other side, but most of them only wanted to hear that their loved ones were waiting for them. It was pathetic really, in Nathaniel’s opinion. They were so desperate to believe in a life beyond the grave that they convinced themselves they were hearing their loved ones speak. The truth, Nathaniel strongly suspected, was that death meant the end of everything. You died, you were buried and your body rotted away into the earth. That was all there was to it. Everything else was just wishful thinking. You wouldn’t catch him falling for nonsense like this.
At the end of the evening there were always people who were disappointed that their names had not been called since it wasn’t possible for everyone to step up onto the stage. But even those who had waited in vain for a message went home with their faith in the next world confirmed. The only unbelievers who left the hall at the end of the evening were his father, himself and Mrs Gaunt.
Gaunt by name and gaunt by nature, the third party in the conspiracy was a thin, haggard looking woman with sunken cheeks and long, bony fingers. If you had wanted a person to serve as an illustration of hunger, Mrs Gaunt would have done very nicely. She and Cicero had been cronies for a long time. Their connection went right back to the music-hall days when Mrs Gaunt had sometimes featured on the same bill as Henry and Louisa. In those days, incredible though it seemed to Nathaniel, she had been known as the Shadwell Nightingale. ‘Her voice was as sweet as her face was sour.’ That was Cicero’s verdict on her, though never, of course, in her hearing.
Mrs Gaunt was present at every seance, mingling with the crowd as they milled about in the foyer, telling them confidences about herself, most of which were entirely untrue, and finding out little details about their lives in return. This information she passed on to Cicero when she slipped backstage just before the seance began.
After every performance, Mrs Gaunt left the hall with the rest of the audience but a few hours later, she turned up at the two shabby rooms Nathaniel and his father shared not far from the docks. By this time the money had been counted and she was there to collect her share. The landlady, Mrs Bizzantine, always opened the door to her but Mrs Gaunt showed herself upstairs. She knew the way well enough.
‘Would you care to join me in a drop of gin Mrs Gaunt?’ Cicero asked, though why he bothered with such pleasantries, Nathaniel could not imagine since the answer was always the same.
‘I don’t mind if I do, Mr Wolfe.’
They always addressed each other in these formal tones. It was never Agatha and Cicero, or even Agatha and Henry. Always Mrs Gaunt and Mr Wolfe.
Cicero poured some gin into a cracked cup and offered it to her.
‘Thank you very kindly Mr Wolfe.’
Cicero raised his own, grimy cup. ‘To the dead,’ he said.
Mrs Gaunt chuckled and touched her cup to his. Then they both took a long sip of their gin and sat back on their chairs with satisfied smiles.
Nathaniel knew what was coming next – it was always the same. They would begin to reminisce about their days in music hall, the artists they had known – all just names to Nathaniel – the occasions that had gone well and those that had not.
True to form, it was Mrs Gaunt who began. ‘Do you know what I was thinking about on the way here, Mr Wolfe?’ she asked.
‘No, Mrs Gaunt. I do not,’ Cicero replied.
‘Archie Bennett. You remember him? He used to sing that song about two little orphans?’
‘I was remembering the time he fell over on the stage and broke his nose.’
Cicero grinned delightedly. ‘Of course. He carried on to the end of the song, I believe. What a performer! My Louisa used to say, “it’s people like Archie that keep the world turning”.’
Nathaniel had heard this story many times before, including his mother’s opinion of Archie Bennett. He decided to slip away and let them get drunk together. Outside a wind had sprung up, blowing away the fog and leaving a clear, cold March evening under a sky ablaze with stars. At first he set off without any real idea where he was heading but pretty soon his steps began to lead him in a familiar direction.
He passed a big house which stood by itself, the last remnant of gentility in an area that was going steadily down in the world. Nathaniel let himself in at the gate and made his way to the front step where a tub of yellow flowers stood. He had no idea of their name, only that the sight of them blooming in March when everything else was still locked in the grip of winter, made him feel hopeful. They weren’t really the sort of flowers to put on a grave, being altogether too small, but he picked a few of them, just the same. Whoever had planted them would be furious in the morning but Nathaniel could not help that. He needed to pay his respects and this was the only way he could afford to do so.
The churchyard of St Agnes the Martyr was kept locked at this time but it wasn’t difficult to climb over the railings. He made his way to the corner of the churchyard and stood looking down at his mother’s tombstone. There was just enough moonlight to read the inscription, though of course he knew the words by heart: Sacred to the memory of Louisa Mary Wolfe, wife of Henry Wolfe, beloved daughter of William and Mary Monkton.
The stone had been put there and paid for by his mother’s parents since at the time of her death his father could not afford one. Nor had his financial situation improved since then, any additional money he earned being immediately converted into gin.
Nathaniel had never met his maternal grandparents because of the great feud that had taken place in the family. They were respectable people and wealthy, too, at least according to Cicero. Mr and Mrs Moneybags, he called them. They had disapproved so violently of their daughter marrying a music-hall performer that neither party had ever spoken to each other again.
Nathaniel stood for a long time in front of the grave with his eyes closed, trying to recall his mother’s face. It was she who had taught him his letters and he could clearly remember the sound of her voice as she sat on the floor beside him, drawing the shapes of the alphabet on a piece of slate and repeating their sounds out loud. But her features escaped him now. He had seen so many faces over the years. They rose up before his mind’s eye in a great procession – a parade of those who had been left behind by the dead, just as he had himself. Such a long line of people that there was no room for his mother amongst their number. He sighed, opened his eyes and placed the flowers carefully on the ground. Then he turned and walked sadly away.