One day Simpkin sent us the word that the household had returned from Bloomsbury to Queen Anne’s Square, that the household was once again in residence, back where it belonged. That day my mind went to the wood-panelled walls of the home I grew up in, and I found I could vividly picture the people within it—especially my mother. But, of course, I was picturing the mother I had known growing up, who shone, bright like the sun and twice as warm, on whose knee I knew perfect happiness. My love for Father was fierce, perhaps stronger, but for Mother it was purer. With Father I had a feeling of awe, of admiration so grand I sometimes felt dwarfed by him, and with that came an underlying feeling I can only describe as anxiety, that somehow I had to live up to him, to grow into the huge shadow cast by him.
With Mother, though, there was no such insecurity, just the almost overwhelming sense of comfort and love and protection. And she was a beauty. I used to enjoy it when people compared me to Father because he was so striking, but if they said I looked like Mother I knew they meant handsome. Of Jenny, people would say, “She’ll break a few hearts”; “She’ll have men fighting over her.” They applied the language of struggle and conflict. But not with Mother. Her beauty was a gentle, maternal, nurturing thing, to be spoken of not with the wariness Jenny’s looks inspired, but with warmth and admiration.
Of course, I had never known Jenny’s mother, Caroline Scott, but I had formed an opinion of her: that she was “a Jenny,” and that my father had been captivated by her looks just as Jenny’s suitors were captivated by hers.
Mother, though, I imagined to be an entirely different sort of person altogether. She was plain old Tessa Stephenson-Oakley when she met my father. That’s what she had always said, anyway: “plain old Tessa Stephenson-Oakley,” which didn’t sound at all plain to me, but never mind. Father had moved to London, arriving alone with no household, but a purse large enough to buy one. When he had rented a London home from a wealthy landowner, the daughter had offered to help my father find permanent accommodation, as well as employing the household to run it. The daughter, of course, was “plain old Tessa Stephenson-Oakley” . . .
She had all but hinted that her family wasn’t happy about the liaison; indeed, we never saw her side of the family. She devoted her energies to us and, until that dreadful night, the person who had her undivided attention, her unending affection, her unconditional love, was me.
But the last time I had seen her there was no sign of that person. When I think back to our final meeting now, what I remember is the suspicion in her eyes, which I realize was contempt. When I killed the man about to kill her, I changed in her eyes. I was no longer the boy who had sat on her knee.
I was a killer.
20 JUNE 1747
En route to London, I re-read an old journal. Why? Some instinct, perhaps. Some subconscious nagging . . . doubt, I suppose.
Whatever it was, when I re-read the entry of 10 December 1735, I all of a sudden knew exactly what I had to do when I reached England.
2–3 JULY 1747
Today was the service, and also . . . well, I shall explain.
After the service, I left Reginald talking to Mr. Simpkin on the steps of the chapel. To me, Mr. Simpkin said that he had some papers I needed to sign. In light of Mother’s death, the finances were mine. With an obsequious smile he said he hoped that I had considered him more than satisfactory in managing the affairs so far. I nodded, smiled, said nothing committal, told them I wanted a little time to myself, and slipped away, seemingly to be alone with my thoughts.
I hoped that the direction of my wanderings looked random as I made my way along the thoroughfare, staying clear of carriage wheels that splashed through mud and manure on the highway, weaving through people thronging the streets: tradesmen in bloodied leather aprons, whores and washerwomen. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t random at all.
One woman in particular was up ahead, like me, making her way through the crowds, alone and, probably, lost in thought. I had seen her at the service, of course. She’d sat with the other staff—Emily, and two or three others I didn’t recognize—on the other side of the chapel, with a handkerchief at her nose. She had looked up and seen me—she must have done—but she made no sign. I wondered, did Betty, one of my old nursemaids, even recognize me?
And now I was following her, keeping a discreet distance behind so she wouldn’t see me if she happened to glance backwards. It was getting dark by the time she reached home, or not home but the household for which she now worked, a grand mansion that loomed in the charcoal sky, not too dissimilar to the one at Queen Anne’s Square. Was she still a nursemaid, I wondered, or had she moved up in the world? Did she wear the uniform of a governess beneath her coat? The street was less crowded than before, and I lingered out of sight across the street, watching as she took a short flight of stone steps down towards the below-stairs quarters and let herself in.
When she was out of sight I crossed the highway and sauntered towards the house, aware of the need to look inconspicuous in case eyes were seeing me from the windows. Once upon a time I was a young boy who had looked from the windows of the house in Queen Anne’s Square, watched passers-by come and go and wondered about their business. Was there a little boy in this household watching me now, wondering who is this man? Where has he come from? Where is he going?
So I wandered along the railings at the front of the mansion and glanced down to see the lit windows of what I assumed were the servants’ quarters, only to be rewarded with the unmistakable silhouette of Betty appearing at the glass and drawing a curtain. I had the information I’d come for.
I returned after midnight, when the drapes at the windows of the mansion were shut, the street was dark and the only lights were those fixed to the occasional passing carriage.
Once again I made my way to the front of the house, and with a quick look left and right scaled the railings and dropped silently down into the gully on the other side. I scuttled along it until I found Betty’s window, where I stopped and very carefully placed my ear to the glass, listening for some moments until I was satisfied that there was no movement from within.
And then, with infinite patience, I applied my fingertips to the bottom of the sash window and lifted, praying it wouldn’t squeak and, when my prayers were answered, letting myself in and closing the window behind me.
In the bed she stirred slightly—at the breath of air from the open window perhaps; some unconscious sensing of my presence? Like a statue I stood and waited for her deep breathing to resume, and felt the air around me settle, my incursion absorbed into the room so that after a few moments it was as though I were a part of it—as though I had always been a part of it, like a ghost.