Fingers to the Bone
As part of Bristol's Brunel 200 celebrations, crime writer Andrew Taylor has penned a whodunit tale set in the engineer's time and featuring the man himself. Read the installments here all this week.
5: Nothing Begets Nothing
In the hall of the house in Rodney Place, Robbie said quietly, “You lie. Mary's no slut.”
Fanmole's eyes flicked towards him and then returned to Sir John. “I assure you, sir, the girl is a prostitute, and a thief besides. I found a watch in her pocket when I was tending her, and I cannot believe she came by it honestly. I have prayed for her. Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. Luke, chapter fifteen.”
“If she's a thief,” Robbie said, “it is because you made her steal.”
“Take us to her,” Sir John demanded. “Let the girl put her side of the matter.”
“You are not master here,” Fanmole said with his harsh laugh.
Sir John pulled a revolver from his pocket. “I've not come here to argue with you.”
Fanmole shrugged. He picked up a candlestick from the hall table and led the way through a green baize door. With their shadows dancing beside them on the white-washed wall, they descended a flight of stairs and reached a passage running from front to back of the house.
“She's in a wood store,” Robbie said. “Lying on the floor without even a blanket.”
“She was feverish,” Fanmole said over his shoulder. “She could not abide to be covered. The wood store was convenient since it is near the office where I conduct the business of the Missionary Society. Ah – here we are.”
At that moment the candle went out, and total darkness enveloped them. There was the sound of a blow. Sir John cried out. Hobnails scraped on stone. Something clattered to the floor. Robbie blundered into a wall.
A match scraped; a flame flared. Mr Fanmole had the pistol in his hand. Keeping his eyes on Robbie, he lit the candle, which was now standing on a narrow shelf near a door at the back of the house. Sir John lay motionless on the floor, and there were streaks of blood in his silver hair.
“You've killed him.”
“I doubt it,” Fanmole said. “I hit him with the candlestick but I used no more than reasonable force. You are my witness. He threatened me in my own house with a stick and a pistol. But let us be charitable. Age has infirmities of the mind as well as those of the body.” The barrel of the gun swung from Sir John to Robbie himself. “And what would a court make of your rôle in this, young man? Much depends on how you act now. Our first step must be to restrain this poor gentleman before he does any more damage. Open the back door. You will find the wood store beyond. He might as well cool his heels in there, along with his young woman. And you shall keep him company.”
A revolver is a powerful argument. Robbie did as Fanmole had told him. The back door led to a basement area containing the wood store. Robbie unbolted the door, conscious all the while of Fanmole behind him. Light from the candle spilled across the floor. There was no sign of Mary near the heap of logs.
“Take Sir John's legs,” Fanmole said.
Robbie turned back. At that instant he saw Mary, standing by the doorway in her bloodstained yellow dress, her face as pale as wax. She held a finger to her lips. In her other hand was a hatchet.
“Hurry, damn you,” Fanmole urged.
Robbie bent down and took the old man by the ankles. He dragged him slowly into the wood store. Fanmole advanced slowly, the revolver in his right hand. He reached the doorway and gripped the jamb with his free hand.
“Where's the slut gone?” he cried.
Robbie felt the air shift by his ear. There was a thud. Fanmole screamed. The revolver fell to the floor. Robbie saw the muzzle flash before he heard the crash of the shot. Mary fell backwards on to the logs. Fanmole danced with pain, blood spurting from his left hand, flashes of bone where the tips of two of his fingers had been.
As the echoes of the shot subsided, another sound forced its way down from the house above them: the pounding of the knocker on the front door.
Fanmole raised his head. His nostrils flared.
“The police,” Robbie said. “They've come for you.”
Fanmole ran up the steps to the garden at the back of the house.
Robbie snatched up Sir John's weighted stick and set off after him. With surprising agility, the little clergyman darted down the garden. The distant hammering continued. Fanmole unbolted a gate and slipped into the cobbled alley beyond. Robbie followed the running footsteps. Once, when they passed the lighted windows of a tavern, Fanmole looked back. His pale features were contorted with pain and effort, the face reduced to something slimy and inhuman, a creature of nightmare.
They ran through Sion Place and burst into the open. On the crest of the Downs, the Observatory was a black stump against the paler darkness of the night sky. Fanmole veered to the left, towards the edge of the Avon Gorge.
“Stop!” Robbie cried, but the wind snatched away his words.
The clergyman ran towards Brunel's unbuilt bridge. Within a stone's throw of the Clifton tower, he stopped. His breath came in ragged gasps.
“Leave me.” He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and pulled out something that glittered faintly. “Take this, Sir John's Breguet watch. Sell it or claim the reward. Just go. Say I gave you the slip in the dark.”
Robbie did not reply. The memory of Mary filled his mind and the bloody stain spreading over the yellow dress. He moved slowly towards the clergyman. Fanmole clambered on the low wall around the abutment on which the tower stood, intending to drop down to the little footpath beneath. But Robbie's advance made him change his mind and retreat along the parapet of the wall.
“No,” he said, flapping his hand as though waving Robbie away. “Pray leave me. I have valuables concealed in a place nearby. I shall tell you where to find them.”
He held out the watch. Robbie stepped forward and snatched it. But Fanmole jerked backwards immediately afterwards. By now he was on the corner of the wall, where it swung through ninety degrees to run parallel with the river more than 200 feet below.
“Watch out,” Robbie shouted.
But the clergyman’s hunched figure was still moving backwards. His left leg stepped into nothing.
Nothing begets nothing, as my mother used to say.
Fanmole toppled out of sight. Branches snapped and crackled as he tumbled down the steep slope. He cried out only once. Then came a moment's utter silence.
WHO IS KNOCKING ON THE DOOR OF THE HOUSE IN RODNEY PLACE?
My Dear Brunel
You will have heard from my Solicitor that I have decided to accede to your request: I hope it will not be too many years before the Great Western Railway will bring you to Lydmouth.
As to that other business, I cannot tell you how glad I am that the girl, Mary Linnet, is no longer at death’s door. Without her intervention in Rodney Place, I might not have survived to write this letter. Both she and her mother are now on the road to recovery and I shall find them respectable employment when their health is restored.
It was fortunate that, with the obstinacy of his breed, my hackney driver chose to pound on the door to demand his fare. Trevine tells me that Fanmole believed the knocking heralded the arrival of the Constabulary, and that this precipitated his fatal decision to flee.
I am informed that goods worth several thousand pounds were found in the shed which Fanmole rented by the Gorge. It appears that the work of his so-called Missionary Society among the poor allowed him to recruit weak-minded young people, such as Mary Linnet, and set them to thieving and other mischief on his behalf in Bristol and neighbouring towns. (So you see, my dear Sir, the railway is not an unmitigated blessing!)
But Fanmole's desire to have revenge on me proved his undoing. When he saw my arrival in Bristol announced in the newspapers, he sent the girl to discover where I was staying; she was then to take hold of me when I returned to the room, ring the bell, and complain vigorously that I had assaulted her! His design was to destroy my reputation as, he believed, I had destroyed his.
As you know, the matter turned out very differently: and this was in great part due to the young man Robert Trevine, who returned my late Brother's watch to me. He appears honest; he can even read and write. I offered to find him a situation on one of my estates – but no! the fellow wants nothing better than to stay in Bristol or its environs and work for you in some capacity on the Great Western Railway! It is true he shows some mechanical aptitude but I fancy that the presence in the City of a certain young woman may have something to do with it. In any event, I should be very grateful if you could find him a position.
I am, Sir, yours very truly
This story has two godfathers – Adrian Muller, co-organizer of Left Coast Crime 2006 (www.leftcoastcrime2006.com), and Andrew Kelly, of Brunel 200 (www.brunel200.com).
Chris Morris – author of The Great Brunel (Tanner's Yard Press, www.tannersyardpress.co.uk), an excellent photographic essay on the man and his work – generously lent me his collection of books about Brunel and his achievements. Mike Rowland of the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust (www.clifton-suspension-bridge-trust) kindly allowed me to draw on his extensive knowledge about the bridge and the city. The expertise is theirs; the errors are mine.
I am also extremely grateful to Simon Gurr whose illustrations perfectly complement the text.
Sir John Ruispidge, Bt, also appears in The American Boy. Readers of the Lydmouth Series will be aware that a branch of the Great Western Railway eventually reached Lydmouth, and that the Ruispidges still lived nearby in the 1950s; indeed they may be there still.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel died in 1859, worn out by years of overwork, at the age of 53. Bristol's Clifton Suspension Bridge was at last completed in 1864, as a fitting memorial to Britain’s greatest engineer.
last updated: 11/03/2008 at 11:06