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Mr Dickens Investigates: Murder at Christmas

abbey_in_snow

Charles Dickens stared out at the snow which lay thick and shining under a great lamp of a moon. It seemed unusually large to him, yet it was peaceful, as if it lit the way to the heavens. It must have stopped snowing sometime during the evening. The lawn below his window was perfectly smooth as if a giant had laid a snow white cloth for his Christmas feast. Not a mark, not a footprint, nor the faint pencil scratch of a bird. And the silence was profound. The household had gone to bed, worn out by the feasting and dancing.

It had snowed hard and thick for three days and everyone’s plans had gone awry, his own included. It was Christmas Eve and he should have been home in Devonshire Terrace; he should have, as was his custom, taken his children to the toy shop; he should have dined with his guests at Devonshire Terrace. But travel had been impossible for all the visitors at Fairfax Abbey. However, they had made the best of it, and the impromptu party had been the gayest imaginable. Sir Gaston Fairfax and his wife, Lady Adelina, were the most charming hosts and not a whit put out by their unexpected guests.

The evening had ended with his telling a story. ‘A ghost story!’ Arthur Fairfax, a good-humoured young gentleman, had cried after the music had ceased and they all sat exhausted by the fire in the great hall where the candles flickered on the Christmas tree. Sir Gaston had thought it too late, but he was outvoted. All eyes had, of course, turned to Mr Dickens. They had wanted A Christmas Carol, but Dickens thought of poor Sir Gaston. The Carol was much too long. He looked at the Christmas tree, at the fire, and around the great hall with its black oak panelling and high beamed ceiling. Improvise then.

The lamps had been turned down, and by the light of a branched candlestick set upon a table near him, he had begun:

‘We come to the house, and it is an old house, full of great chimneys where wood is burnt on ancient dogs upon the hearth, and grim portraits – some of them with grim legends, too – lour distrustfully from the oaken panels of the walls…’

And they had been spellbound; only the fall of ash in the fire and the occasional crack of a log had broken the enchanted silence. Flames leapt up at intervals and in their light he had seen their rapt faces. The tale came easily to him and from time to time his eye rested upon a listener who grinned at the entrance of the wicked cavalier, or one who glanced down at the floor when the bloodstain could not be got out. Even Sir Gaston whose eyes had drooped, opened them and chuckled when he heard of the middle-aged nobleman who had given a generous supper to a house full of company. Only one face never looked his way, but looked, it seemed fixedly, across the room. At what or whom, Dickens could not tell.

‘And then we go to our bedroom. It is a very old room. There are great black beams in the ceiling, and there is a great black bedstead, supported at the foot by two great black figures who seem to have come off a couple of old tombs in the old church in the in the park. At length we go to bed. Well, we can’t sleep. The embers on the hearth burn fitfully and make the room look ghostly.  And the locked door opens … and there comes in a young woman, deadly pale, and with long fair hair, who glides to the fire, and sits down in the chair, wringing her hands. Our tongue cleaves to the roof of our mouth, and we can’t speak. Her long hair is dabbled with mud …’

Here Dickens paused for effect, sensing the combined shiver creeping along the spines of his audience. Several looked up at the ancient timbers of the great hall and thought of the black bedsteads in their rooms. Someone looked at the door as if she thought two black figures might come in from their graves. He looked across to see one white face staring back at him. The eyes seemed to blaze in the firelight, and then the face looked away again into the dark. Dickens looked at the Christmas tree where the candles were going out one by one. He went on to the end:

‘O Christmas tree, let me look once more! I know there are blank spaces on thy branches, where eyes that I have loved have shone and smiled; from which they are departed. But, far above, I see the raiser of the dead girl, and the Widow’s son; and God is good! Amen.’

There was applause, and a general sense of peace and quiet joyfulness as the company rose to go to their beds. Dickens saw only one thing: that ravaged face and those burning eyes.

An odd fellow, Julius Redlaw. Almost mad, Dickens had thought on the morning before the day of Christmas Eve. He, only of the trapped guests, had wanted to try any which way to leave. Dickens thought now of his agitation. It had seemed excessive even though he wanted to get home to his wife who was unwell. He had begged a horse from Sir Gaston– surely he could ride to the railway station? Sir Gaston had turned his eyes to the library window through which could be seen the whirling snow, driven by a bitter east wind. There was no knowing when it would stop, Sir Gaston had pointed out. The very sky was laden with it so that great swags of cloud seemed about to burst with snow. ‘Impossible, my dear fellow,’ Sir Gaston had declared.

Julius Redlaw’s face had been white with anger. It seemed to have shrunk to bone. His hands shook. He said he must walk then. He could not stay. It was imperative he leave – at once. Dickens attempted to reason with him. ‘You’ll meet your death out there, sir, and cause your wife more heartache. Don’t think of it, I beg you.’

He was rewarded by a look of such blazing fury that he felt scorched.  ‘What do you know of life or death? Or heartache?’

Enough, Dickens had thought, but he was saved from answering by the timely entrance of Lady Adelina to whom her husband turned for support. Redlaw was apparently soothed by her kindly tone. She promised that as soon as the snow stopped arrangements would be made for his prompt departure, but it was impossible now. He did not turn on her when she mentioned his wife – politeness forbade that, and at length he was calm and went away to his room.

‘Poor Julius,’ said Lady Adelina, ‘he has always been rather sensitive, and unreasonable. He is, I am afraid, too much wrapped up in himself and his fancied injuries.’

‘What about his wife?’ asked Dickens, ‘is she really so ill?’

‘No, a bit of a chill, I think. He fancies her delicate and imagines all kinds of disaster. I rather think it is jealousy. She should have been here, but, the chill, it seems, prevented her.’

‘Didn’t expect him to come,’ said Sir Gaston, ‘and I wish he could go. A bit of a blight on the proceedings. This damned snow. I beg your pardon, Adelina, my dear, but he is an irritating fellow at the best of times.’

‘Alice insisted. I called there last week. I thought she was looking rather wan and tired. She complained that she couldn’t sleep. Julius immediately said he would stay with her, but she was adamant that he should come. Said she simply wanted to rest quietly, and that her mother would come to nurse her.’

‘A rest from him, I daresay,’ Sir Gaston muttered.

‘Are they not happy?’ ventured Dickens. He could not help being curious. Such fury, and then the mention of jealousy.

‘I think he is a rather wearing person.’ Lady Adelina chose her words carefully. ‘He is so highly strung, and she so pretty and sociable. I sometimes think he would like to lock her up in a tower, but Alice is a young woman of character, determined to have a life of her own. Still, there is no doubt he loves her - and I am sure she loves him.’

Dickens had not paid much attention to Julius Redlaw during the dinner and subsequent jollity. He had no wish to speak to the man again. Those burning eyes had unsettled him, and the curious response to his attempts to reason with hi. Well, he had supposed, it hadn’t been his business. He ought not to have interfered. Nevertheless Redlaw’s words had stung him.

Looking at that great moon now, he thought, what were his books about if not life, and its dark sister, Death?

Yet, who, or what was it that Redlaw had stared at so fixedly as Dickens told his ghost story?

Ah, well, the clear night promised a brighter day tomorrow, and he could make his way home. He probably would not meet Julius Redlaw again. He closed his curtains and made ready for bed.

After breakfast, Dickens packed his travelling bag. As he had foretold, the morning upon which he looked out was bright and clear. Someone had been out already. There was a clear set of footprints across the snowy grass. The coach which was to take the guests to the station was already at the door, and the footman was stacking boxes and portmanteaux. He heard voices. People were making ready to depart. It was time he went down. Then he heard the lightest of knocks at his door.

Sir Gaston came in. He looked rather pale and anxious. Dickens said, ‘Oh, am I keeping everyone? I am ready to go.’

Sir Gaston put a finger to his lips and spoke unusually quietly. ‘Can you wait a while, Mr Dickens? Could you take a later train? I think we may need your help.’

‘Certainly, what may I do for you?’

‘It’s Redlaw. He’s locked himself in his room. Hasn’t been down for breakfast and the footman can’t get an answer. I’ve told him I’ll deal with it. I rather hope you might …’

‘You think something’s wrong?’

‘I do. I stood at the door. There’s a silence. It’s as if I were knocking at the door of an empty room.’

‘Do you think he’s gone already? There are footprints across the lawn. Perhaps he didn’t want to wait – has walked to the station.’

‘Fool thing to do if he has. There’s only the one train this morning. The coach would have been just as quick. But, no, he can’t have – the door’s locked from the inside. The key’s in the lock.’

‘Window?’ Dickens went to look out of his window. ‘He could have jumped. Look the snow is very deep against the walls and on the path. He wouldn’t have come to any harm – be like landing on a cushion. He did seem desperate.’

‘I don’t know – I’ll have to go out and look under his window. Mad thing to do if he did. Do you mind waiting until the coach has gone? If there is something wrong, I’d rather –’

‘I understand.’

‘I’ll go and see the others off and check beneath the window. Perhaps you could listen at his door?’

Dickens followed Sir Gaston who went downstairs after pointing out the door at the end of the corridor. Dickens knocked lightly. But there was no sound within. He did not dare knock too loudly. That might bring a servant and Sir Gaston wanted secrecy – at least for the time being. He put his ear to the door, but there was nothing to hear. He knocked again and understood what Sir Gaston had felt. It did seem as though he were knocking at an empty room. The man was gone … Or, worse? He thought of that white face and the glittering eyes. A madman, he thought. Perhaps something had turned his abnormal sensitivity into madness. It happened. Something long repressed breaks out – jealousy, he wondered. The separation from his wife – the wife who had been adamant for his coming here. And the snow which had delayed his departure.

He listened again, feeling more and more apprehensive. He had seen that fixed gaze. He had wondered what the man was looking at. Nothing, he supposed. Whatever it was, it had been in his mind’s eye. Perhaps he had been imagining his wife at home with some other man. And at the end of the story, how Redlaw’s eyes had blazed at Dickens’s final blessing.

He started at the sound of footsteps. Sir Gaston came puffing up the stairs and along to the door.

‘Anything?’

‘Not a sound. The window?’

‘Shut fast and the curtains still closed. And the snow is not the least disturbed. It would have been had he jumped. There were only the footprints – a woman, I’d say. One of the servants out early.’

‘Then we have to get in. ‘

‘Not break down the door?’

‘Have you a man who could somehow force the door without too much noise?’

‘Couldn’t you?’

‘I’ll need tools – a chisel, a hammer. Can you get those?’

‘I don’t suppose I can. I’ll have to get Giles. He’ll be discreet.’

Dickens waited again. It seemed a long time – a long, silent time during which he knocked lightly again, a long silent time in which he became certain that the man was dead - had killed himself. There could be no other explanation.

Giles, the butler, came with the tools, and managed to dismantle the lock and prise open the door. He stood back and Dickens went in. The fire had died out. Redlaw lay on the great black bedstead under the great black beams. His throat was cut. Blood had cascaded from the wound and had soaked the white nightshirt and the counterpane. The smell was of the slaughterhouse. Dickens felt the bile rise in his throat, but he forced himself to look. He heard Sir Gaston’s gasp behind him. Giles shouted out. Dickens saw that the left hand flopped down by the bed. A bloodied cut-throat razor had dropped from that hand.

Sir Gaston cried out, ‘Good God! What has he done?’ He held on to the bed post and turned his head away.

Giles, whose face had taken on a sickly pallor, retained sufficient command of himself to lead his master to a chair.

Dickens leant over the body. First he closed the eyes, dulled now, but still retaining that horrible expression of madness. He could not bear to look at those eyes again. But, he looked at the wound. He had seen something similar before. His policeman friend, Superintendent Jones, had shown him how to examine such a wound. He could see that it was deeper on the right side where the razor had gone in and that it terminated gradually to a sharp angle on the left where only the skin was wounded. He looked at the hand which had dropped from the bed and the razor which lay there. Redlaw was left-handed. Surely, he had done this himself. He had to ask.

‘Sir Gaston, was Redlaw left-handed?’

Sir Gaston looked a hundred years older than the man who had chuckled at the story last night, but he uttered a hoarse, ‘Yes.’

‘Then it is suicide, I’m sure.’ It was impossible, he thought, that a left-handed murderer had left a locked room. He could not have jumped from the window for Sir Gaston had seen no evidence of such an act in the snow.

The doctor was summoned and a footman sent with a message for the police in the nearest town. Dickens agreed to go to Mrs Redlaw’s house in London. He would return if the police wanted him. It was imperative that Alice Redlaw was informed as soon as possible – before news could reach her from any other source.  Sir Gaston and Lady Adelina were clearly in no state to go. Sir Gaston had broken down at the sight of that bloody corpse, and his wife, though shattered herself, had much to do to restore him. Dickens offered and Lady Adelina looked upon him as a drowning man might look upon a man with a life-belt.

The house in Portland Street was in complete darkness. He knocked and knocked, but no one came. Perhaps she had left him. Perhaps, there was a lover. Don’t jump to conclusions, he chided himself.  There was a simpler explanation. Her illness had worsened and her mother had taken her home. Lady A

delina had given him the address. He would go there.

Lady Margaret Bowley, cousin to Lady Adelina Fairfax, explained that of course there could be no answer at Portland Street.  Her daughter and son-in-law were in the country at Fairfax Abbey, the house of Sir Gaston Fairfax. News of the heavy snowfalls had reached her. She had guessed that they were delayed. They were to come to her for Christmas, or certainly when the snow cleared and it was possible to travel. Their house had been closed, the servants given a holiday.

Dickens had great difficulty in making her understand that Julius Redlaw was dead and that his wife had not been to Fairfax Abbey. He made her stay where she was. He would take his friend, Superintendent Jones of Bow Street, to find out more. He would come back with news as soon as he could.

Alice Redlaw was dead in her bed, her long fair hair dabbled with blood. Her throat had been cut. Superintendent Jones thought that the weapon had been a cut throat razor. The wound was from right to left, but it did not terminate gradually. It was deeply incised in the soft parts. Murder. The murderer had been left-handed. There was no sign of the razor.

Dickens let himself in to a silent house. Christmas night was over and all his guests had gone. His wife and children had retired to bed to sleep their innocent sleep. He was bone-weary and did not want to speak to anyone. He would sleep in his dressing room.

When he closed his eyes, he saw a white face and a pair of burning eyes. Exactly as they had blazed at him. Three times. He sat bolt upright. When first in the story telling? It was at the moment he had paused. It was not the black beams or the black bedstead which had enflamed those eyes. It was the ghost woman with the long fair hair dabbled with mud who enters the bedroom and sits down wringing her hands. Mud. Had Redlaw heard blood? Had Dickens’s story, so fatefully invented, propelled Julius Redlaw to his final act of madness?

Had Redlaw seen Alice Redlaw in the shadows?  Had he, in his mania, seen the wife he had murdered enter his bedroom? He thought of the footprints in the snow. The footprints of a woman. 

The clock in the hall struck three. Charles Dickens did not sleep again that night.

By J. C. Briggs

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