The first time Letty saw the peculiar gentleman was on a mild June night. She had sat up in the kitchen waiting to pay the night-soil men after their collection, and had been dozing with her head on her arms on the pitted oak table. Her arms were red and dimpled by the pattern of the wood, and her eyes were damp and heavy, but she laughed at the lewd jokes of the men, and paid them their shilling, barely noticing the stench of the waste they were adding to the already heaving cart.
As she wiped her hands on her apron, and turned to go back inside, she saw a silhouetted figure on the other side of the street creep out of an alley, dash past the illumination of the streetlamp, and disappear back into the shadows. The figure was tall, and bore the unmistakeable shape of a top hat on its head. Letty wondered briefly what he was doing, but was more concerned that she had to be up to light the range and open the shutters in three hours time, before the Askews rose for breakfast, and soon forgot all about him.
As the door closed behind her, Arthur Robinson crept back out from the shadows. Under the light of the gas lamp he pencilled a brief note in a small composition book, which he then replaced in his pocket. He glanced once more towards the house, then strolled up Hill Street towards Berkeley Square.
A few days later he was there again, watching Letty take a dawn delivery of coal. Soon she began to notice he was often lurking nearby late at night, or skulking furtively at the side of the house, early in the morning as she scrubbed the front steps or tipped slops into the gutter. She was naturally shy, and could see from his clothing that he was well-to-do, so she pretended not to have seen him, but would peep at him from the corner of her eye as she went about her work. However, the notes he was jotting in his notebook unnerved her, and eventually she found the courage to speak to him.
‘Can I help you Sir?’ she called across the street.
He started, put away his notebook, and glancing around to confirm the street was deserted came over to her.
‘It’s Letty isn’t it?’ he asked gently, then as she seemed rather taken aback, added, ‘I know your employers well, my wife and I have dined here with them on occasion.’
‘Are you spying on me? Did my mistress want you to check I’m doing my work properly? What… I don’t…’
‘No, no, no,’ he interrupted, resting his hand on her shoulder, and looking into her anxious eyes. ‘Nothing like that, in fact Mr and Mrs Askew don’t know I’m here, so it would be better if you didn’t mention it. No, the truth of the matter is that I am simply… carrying out some research. Yes, that’s all, some research. I’m interested in girls like you, ordinary, poor, hard-working girls. And if you were to, let’s say, help me further, I would make it worth your while.’
Letty took a sudden step backwards. ‘Sir, I’m no streetwalker! And you couldn’t pay enough to make me do anything… like that.’ She turned back towards the house.
‘I’m no man of vice!’ he snapped, then seeing panic in her expression he made an effort to soften his tone. ‘Wait Letty, you misunderstand me. Firstly, I am a happily married and very respectable fellow. I have no interest in immoral behaviour, I merely wish to learn more about the young girls of London who carry out good honest toil.’
He spoke convincingly, and his dark blue eyes never left her face. He certainly looked respectable, Letty thought. Rather handsome too, with his light brown whiskers and curly hair.
‘What do you want to know?’ she asked.
‘I simply wish to learn more about your work, your daily routine, the filthiest most dreadful of your chores, and the state of your general health. I can pay you handsomely, my only condition being that our meetings must be kept secret from absolutely everyone – including your employers and the other household staff.’
Arthur noticed someone turning the corner, and taking Letty’s elbow guided her gently around the side of the house.
‘How about we consider this our first meeting, and I give you this?’ he said, producing five shillings from his pocket and placing the coins in her hand. He looked at her calloused palm and traced the patches of rough red skin with his soft white fingertip. Letty snatched her hand away.
‘Thank you, Sir.’
She did not know whether to feel delighted or horrified. Almost a week’s wages for agreeing to some secret meetings, and having her hand caressed by a young gentleman who was actually rather pleasing to the eye. They agreed to meet again at midnight the following Tuesday, in Berkeley Square.
Letty spent some of her unexpected windfall on a small piece of soap and a jar of rose cold cream. She had felt so self-conscious when the gentleman had looked at her hand. She wished she had pale delicate hands like Mrs Askew or Miss Constance. No lady would go outside without gloves, but then ladies didn’t have to deal with ashes, slops and grime as she did. She resolved to wear gloves on Tuesday evening, if she went, which she was still rather unsure about.
Arthur was nervous too. He wondered if he’d pushed Letty a little too far, but he hadn’t expected to speak to her so soon. On Tuesday evening, when he heard his wife Isabella close her bedroom door, he took his notebook and pencil from his desk drawer and left the house. His fears were unconfirmed. Letty was already waiting on a bench in the central garden of Berkeley Square.
At first the conversation didn’t go quite as he hoped. Letty seemed to be downplaying the scale of her chores, making out that she was always careful to keep her cuffs and aprons clean, and that being a housemaid was easy, graceful, feminine work. She noticed he looked disappointed and stopped taking notes when she described at length how to turn and mend sheets, and how he kept trying to turn the conversation back to less salubrious tasks. He became positively excited when she told him how she would kneel in the hearth to brush the ashes and cinders from the grate, and her routine for collecting the bedroom slops every morning.
Letty was uneducated but not stupid, and after a few meetings she began to understand exactly what her gentleman wanted from her. His payments to her seemed to vary based on the amount of dirt and filth involved in her anecdotes, and she accordingly began to embellish them with the grimiest details she could think of. He asked her if she would keep a diary for him, but as she was unable to read or write it was not possible. Their meetings became weekly, and sometimes Letty earned ten shillings from Arthur if she had described something particularly miserable to him.
‘Yesterday, Sir, I was asked to clean the hole under the stairs where the brooms and dustpans are kept. It’s about two yards deep, and so low that I had to crawl in on my hands and knees, into the darkness, and sweep the walls down with a handbrush. There was dust and cobwebs falling all over me, and it made me cough like anything. When I came out I was black with dirt from head to toe.’
‘Black all over?’
‘Oh yes, Sir, there wasn’t an inch of me that wasn’t filthy!’
‘And crawling like that must have been rough treatment for your knees?’ Arthur asked hopefully, scribbling furiously in his notebook.
‘Oh Sir, they was as painful as anything, and grazed by the stone flags. I had to get down on them again this morning to scrub the front steps. And to black-lead the boot scraper. Oh and Sir, did I tell you, I have discovered that the best way to apply the black-lead is with my bare hands. It’s such oily stuff, so hard to put on with a brush, but using my hands it rubs in beautifully. Makes my hands terribly dirty though, look Sir how stained black my fingernails are.’
Arthur took the proffered hand, and looked almost as if he would bend to kiss it. Instead he jumped abruptly up from the bench, and fished some coins from his pocket.
‘You are keeping this secret, as I demanded?’
‘Of course Sir. I never break a promise, and you are so good to me.’
One Tuesday night Arthur was late leaving the house. Isabella seemed in no hurry to retire to bed, and was sat with him in the drawing room embroidering, and briefing him on the social engagements they had in the week ahead. Once or twice Arthur wandered over to the window to see if he could see Letty waiting for him in the Square, but there were too many trees obscuring his view of the bench. By the time he left the house the Square was deserted.
He intended to walk past the Askew house as frequently as possible over the next few days, until he could see Letty and explain why he had not turned up. He passed the house twice on Wednesday but saw no sign of any of the inhabitants.
The following evening Arthur and Isabella Robinson dined at the Webster house, with a handful of other guests including Colonel Huxley and his young wife Lavinia, a vivacious woman with a predilection for gossip for which Isabella loved her and Arthur loathed her in equal measure. He glowered into his calf’s-head soup as Lavinia elaborated on the sordid details of a scandalous affaire between Mrs Gertrude Moore and Lord Ashby. A lengthy discussion of the attributes of the three Greene girls and their slim chances of advantageous marriage occupied the diners through the stewed kidneys, and the mutton and turnips. Arthur had nothing to contribute to the conversation, but his acquaintances were used to his silence on matters of gossip, and therefore no-one was surprised that he had little to say when the partridges and cabinet pudding were served, and the conversation turned to the Askews and their recent troubles.
‘I saw Constance Askew and her mother at Benvenuto Cellini last night,’ said Mrs Webster. ‘They seemed most out of sorts.’
‘Oh, my dear Prudence,’ said Lavinia, ‘I can explain that to you. I was told in absolute confidence of course, so this must go no further, but they have had a terrible time with one of their servants.’
Arthur stiffened, then tried to appear as if he was concentrating on the cabinet pudding and paying no more attention to the conversation than usual.
‘It seems one of the housemaids had been stealing from them! They found an awful lot of money concealed in a purse under her mattress, all in small coins. She must have been squirreling it away for years, out of the housekeeping. They had always trusted her, she used to pay the tradesmen and do bits of shopping for them, and they never imagined she would steal. When they confronted her she denied it of course, but refused to explain where the money had come from. They threatened her with a magistrate but she managed to slip out of the house.’
‘Goodness!’ gasped Isabella.
‘But there’s worse,’ said Lavinia. ‘The following morning her body was found floating in the Thames. They don’t know if it was deliberate or accidental, but it makes me think she must have been guilty.’
Absorbed in the hubbub around the table even Isabella failed to notice that her husband had turned a ghastly shade of grey, and had replaced his wine glass carefully on the table with a shaking hand.