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An Unpardonable Crime
by Andrew Taylor

Published: 2004
Hardcover : 496 pages
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A BookPage Notable Title
This irresistible literary thriller in the tradition of "The Alienist" and "An Instance of the Fingerpost" is set in early 1800s England and involves young Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe is an American boy in England, a child standing on the edge of mysteries. ...

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Introduction

A BookPage Notable Title
This irresistible literary thriller in the tradition of "The Alienist" and "An Instance of the Fingerpost" is set in early 1800s England and involves young Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe is an American boy in England, a child standing on the edge of mysteries. In 1819, two Americans arrive in London. Soon afterward a bank collapses. A man is found horribly mutilated on a building site and an heiress flirts with her inferiors. All the while, Poe's young schoolmaster struggles to understand what is happening before he and his loved ones are destroyed. But the truth, like the youthful Poe himself, has its origins in the New World as well as the Old -- in a bitter episode of corruption during the War of 1812.

With settings ranging from the coal-scented urban jungle of late Regency London to the stark winter landscapes of rural Gloucestershire, An Unpardonable Crime is a multilayered literary murder mystery, a historical novel, and a love story. In addition to shedding fascinating light on Edgar Allan Poe, the book is a fast-paced suspenseful read, filled with shocking revelations.

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Excerpt

The Narrative of Thomas Shield

8th September 1819 -- 23rd May 1820

Chapter 1

We owe respect to the living, Voltaire tells us in his Première Lettre sur Oedipe, but to the dead we owe only truth. The truth is that there are days when the world changes, and a man does not notice because his mind is on his own affairs.

I first saw Sophia Frant shortly before midday on Wednesday the 8th of September, 1819. She was leaving the house in Stoke Newington, and for a moment she was framed in the doorway as though in a picture. Something in the shadows of the hall behind her had made her pause, a word spoken, perhaps, or an unexpected movement. What struck me first were the eyes, which were large and blue. Then other details lodged in my memory like burrs on a coat. She was neither tall nor short, with well-shaped, regular features and a pale complexion. She wore an elaborate cottage bonnet, decorated with flowers. Her dress had a white skirt, puffed sleeves and a pale blue bodice, the latter matching the leather slipper peeping beneath the hem of her skirt. In her left hand she carried a pair of white gloves and a small reticule.

I heard the clatter of the footman leaping down from the box of the carriage, and the rattle as he let down the steps. A stout middle-aged man in black joined the lady on the doorstep and gave her his arm as they strolled towards the carriage. They did not look at me. On either side of the path from the house to the road were miniature shrubberies enclosed by railings. I felt faint, and I held on to one of the uprights of the railings at the front.

"Indeed, madam," the man said, as though continuing a conversation begun in the house, "our situation is quite rural and the air is notably healthy."

The lady glanced at me and smiled. This so surprised me that I failed to bow. The footman opened the door of the carriage. The stout man handed her in.

"Thank you, sir," she murmured. "You have been very patient."

He bowed over her hand. "Not at all, madam. Pray give my compliments to Mr. Frant."

I stood there like a booby. The footman closed the door, put up the steps and climbed up to his seat. The lacquered woodwork of the carriage was painted blue and the gilt wheels were so clean they hurt your eyes.

The coachman unwound the reins from the whipstock. He cracked his whip, and the pair of matching bays, as glossy as the coachman's top hat, jingled down the road towards the High-street. The stout man held up his hand in not so much a wave as a blessing. When he turned back to the house, his gaze flicked towards me. I let go of the railing and whipped off my hat.

"Mr. Bransby? That is, have I the honour -- ?"

"Yes, you have." He stared at me with pale blue eyes partly masked by pink, puffy lids. "What do you want with me?"

"My name is Shield, sir. Thomas Shield. My aunt, Mrs. Reynolds, wrote to you, and you were kind enough to say -- "

"Yes, yes." The Reverend Mr. Bransby held out a finger for me to shake. He stared me over, running his eyes from head to toe. "You're not at all like her."

He led me up the path and through the open door into the panelled hall beyond. From somewhere in the building came the sound of chanting voices. He opened a door on the right and went into a room fitted out as a library, with a Turkey carpet and two windows overlooking the road. He sat down heavily in the chair behind the desk, stretched out his legs and pushed two stubby fingers into his right-hand waistcoat pocket.

"You look fagged."

"I walked from London, sir. It was warm work."

"Sit down." He took out an ivory snuff-box, helped himself to a pinch and sneezed into a handkerchief spotted with brown stains. "So you want a position, hey?"

"Yes, sir."

"And Mrs. Reynolds tells me that there are at least two good reasons why you are entirely unsuitable for any post I might be able to offer you."

"If you would permit me, I would endeavour to explain."

"Some would say that facts explain themselves. You left your last position without a reference. And, more recently, if I understand your aunt aright, you have been the next best thing to a Bedlamite."

"I cannot deny either charge, sir. But there were reasons for my behaviour, and there are reasons why those episodes happened and why they will not happen again."

"You have two minutes in which to convince me."

"Sir, my father was an apothecary in the town of Rosington. His practice prospered, and one of his patrons was a canon of the cathedral, who presented me to a vacancy at the grammar school. When I left there, I matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge."

"You held a scholarship there?"

"No, sir. My father assisted me. He knew I had no aptitude for the apothecary's trade and he intended me eventually to take holy orders. Unfortunately, near the end of my first year, he died of a putrid fever, and his affairs were found to be much embarrassed, so I left the university without taking my degree."

"What of your mother?"

"She had died when I was a lad. But the master of the grammar school, who had known me as a boy, gave me a job as an assistant usher, teaching the younger boys. All went well for a few years, but, alas, he died and his successor did not look so kindly on me." I hesitated, for the master had a daughter named Fanny, the memory of whom still brought me pain. "We disagreed, sir -- that was the long and the short of it. I said foolish things I instantly regretted."

"As is usually the case," Bransby said.

"It was then April 1815, and I fell in with a recruiting sergeant."

He took another pinch of snuff. "Doubtless he made you so drunk that you practically snatched the King's shilling from his hand and went off to fight the monster Bonaparte single-handed. Well, sir, you have given me ample proof that you are a foolish, headstrong young man who has a belligerent nature and cannot hold his liquor. And now shall we come to Bedlam?"

I squeezed the thick brim of my hat until it bent under the pressure. "Sir, I was never there in my life."

He scowled. "Mrs. Reynolds writes that you were placed under restraint, and lived for a while in the care of a doctor. Whether in Bedlam itself or not is immaterial. How came you to be in such a state?"

"Many men had the misfortune to be wounded in the late war. It so happened that I was wounded in my mind as well as in my body."

"Wounded in the mind? You sound like a school miss with the vapours. Why not speak plainly? Your wits were disordered."

"I was ill, sir. Like one with a fever. I acted imprudently."

"Imprudent? Good God, is that what you call it? I understand you threw your Waterloo Medal at an officer of the Guards in Rotten-row."

"I regret it excessively, sir."

He sneezed, and his little eyes watered. "It is true that your aunt, Mrs. Reynolds, was the best housekeeper my parents ever had. As a boy I never had any reason to doubt her veracity or indeed her kindness. But those two facts do not necessarily encourage me to allow a lunatic and a drunkard a position of authority over the boys entrusted to my care."

"Sir, I am neither of those things."

He glared at me. "A man, moreover, whose former employers will not speak for him."

"But my aunt speaks for me. If you know her, sir, you will know she would not do that lightly."

For a moment neither of us spoke. Through the open window came the clop of hooves from the road beyond. A fly swam noisily through the heavy air. I was slowly baking, basted in sweat in the oven of my own clothes. My black coat was too heavy for a day like this but it was the only one I had. I wore it buttoned to the throat to conceal the fact that I did not have a shirt beneath.

I stood up. "I must detain you no longer, sir."

"Be so good as to sit down. I have not concluded this conversation." Bransby picked up his eye glasses and twirled them between finger and thumb. "I am persuaded to give you a trial." He spoke harshly, as if he had in mind a trial in a court of law. "I will provide you with your board and lodging for a quarter. I will also advance you a small sum of money so you may dress in a manner appropriate to a junior usher at this establishment. If your conduct is in any way unsatisfactory, you will leave at once. If all goes well, however, at the end of the three months, I may decide to renew the arrangement between us, perhaps on different terms. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Ring the bell there. You will need refreshment before you return to London."

I stood up again and tugged the rope on the left of the fireplace.

"Tell me," he added, without any change of tone, "is Mrs. Reynolds dying?"

I felt tears prick my eyelids. I said, "She does not confide in me, but she grows weaker daily."

"I am sorry to hear it. She has a small annuity, I collect? You must not mind me if I am blunt. It is as well for us to be frank about such matters." There is a thin line between frankness and brutality. I never knew on which side of the line Bransby stood. I heard a tap on the door.

"Enter!" cried Mr. Bransby.

I turned, expecting a servant in answer to the bell. Instead a small, neat boy slipped into the room.

"Ah, Allan. Good morning."

"Good morning, sir."

He and Bransby shook hands.

"Make your bow to Mr. Shield, Allan," Bransby told him. "You will be seeing more of him in the weeks to come."

Allan glanced at me and obeyed. He was a well-made child with large, bright eyes and a high forehead. In his hand was a letter.

"Are Mr. and Mrs. Allan quite well?" Bransby inquired.

"Yes, sir. My father asked me to present his compliments, and to give you this."

Bransby took the letter, glanced at the superscription and dropped it on the desk. "I trust you will apply yourself with extra force after this long holiday. Idleness does not become you."

"No, sir."

"Adde quod ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes." He prodded the boy in the chest.

"Continue and construe."

"I regret, sir, I cannot."

Bransby boxed the lad's ears with casual efficiency. He turned to me. "Eh, Mr. Shield? I need not ask you to construe, but perhaps you would be so good as to complete the sentence?"

"Emollit mores nec sinit esse feros. Add that to have studied the liberal arts with assiduity refines one's manners and does not allow them to be coarse."

"You see, Allan? Mr. Shield was wont to mind his book. Epistulae Ex Ponto, book the second. He knows his Ovid and so shall you."

When we were alone, Bransby wiped fragments of snuff from his nostrils with a large, stained handkerchief. "One must always show them who is master, Shield," he said. "Remember that. Kindness is all very well but it don't answer in the long run. Take young Edgar Allan, for example. The boy has parts, there is no denying it. But his parents indulge him. I shudder to think where such as he would be without due chastisement. Spare the rod, sir, and spoil the child."

So it was that, in the space of a few minutes, I found a respectable position, gained a new roof over my head, and encountered for the first time both Mrs. Frant and the boy Allan. Though I marked a slight but unfamiliar twang in his accent, I did not then realise that Allan was American.

Nor did I realise that Mrs. Frant and Edgar Allan would lead me, step by step, towards the dark heart of a labyrinth, to a place of terrible secrets and the worst of crimes.

Chapter 2

Before I venture into the labyrinth, let me deal briefly with this matter of my lunacy.

I had not seen my aunt Reynolds since I was a boy at school, yet I asked them to send for her when they put me in gaol because I had no other person in the world who would acknowledge the ties of kinship.

She spoke up for me before the magistrates. One of them had been a soldier, and was inclined to mercy. Since I had indeed thrown the medal before a score of witnesses, and moreover shouted "You murdering bastard" as I did so, there was little doubt in any mind including my own that I was guilty. The Guards officer was a vengeful man, for although the medal had hardly hurt him, his horse had reared and thrown him before the ladies.

So it seemed there was only one road to mercy, and that was by declaring me insane. At the time I had little objection. The magistrates decided that I was the victim of periodic bouts of insanity, during one of which I had assaulted the officer on his black horse. It was a form of lunacy, they agreed, that should yield to treatment. This made it possible for me to be released into the care of my aunt.

She arranged for me to board with Dr. Haines, whom she had consulted during my trial. Haines was a humane man who disliked chaining up his patients like dogs and who lived with his own family not far away from them. "I hold with Terence," the doctor said to me.

"Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto. To be sure, some of the poor fellows have unusual habits which are not always convenient in society, but they are made of the same clay as you or I."

Most of his patients were madmen and half-wits, some violent, some foolish, all sad; demented, syphilitic, idiotic, prey to strange and fearful delusions, or sweeping from one extreme of their spirits to the other in the folie circulaire. But there were a few like myself, who lived apart from the others and were invited to take our meals with the doctor and his wife in the private part of the house.

"Give him time and quiet, moderate exercise and a good, wholesome diet," Dr. Haines told my aunt in my presence, "and your nephew will mend."

At first I doubted him. My dreams were filled with the groans of the dying, with the fear of death, with my own unworthiness. Why should I live? What had I done to deserve it when so many better men were dead? At first, night after night, I woke drenched in sweat, with my pulses racing, and sensed the presence of my cries hanging in the air though their sound had gone. Others in that house cried in the night, so why should not I?

The doctor, however, said it would not do and gave me a dose of laudanum each evening, which calmed my disquiet or at least blunted its edge. Also he made me talk to him, of what I had done and seen. "Unwholesome memories," he once told me, "should be treated like unwholesome food. It is better to purge them than to leave them within." I was reluctant to believe him. I clung to my misery because it was all I had. I told him I could not remember; I feigned rage; I wept.

After a week or two, he cunningly worked on my feelings, suggesting that if I were to teach his son and daughters some Latin and a little Greek for half an hour each morning, he would be able to remit a modest proportion of the fees my aunt paid him for my upkeep. For the first week of this instruction, he sat in the parlour reading a book as I made the children con their grammars and chant their declensions. Then he took to leaving me alone with them, at first for a few minutes only, and then for longer.

"You have a gift for instructing the young," the doctor said to me one evening.

"I show them no mercy. I make them work hard."

"You make them wish to please you."

It was not long after that he declared that he had done all he could for me. My aunt took me to her lodgings in a narrow little street running up to the Strand. Here I perched like an untidy cuckoo, mouth ever open, in her snug nest. I filled her parlour during the day, and slept there at night on a bed they made up on the sofa. During that summer, the reek from the river was well-nigh overwhelming.

I soon realised that my aunt was not well, that I had occasioned a severe increase in her expenditure since my foolish assault with the Waterloo Medal, and that my presence, though she strove to hide it, could not but be a burden to her. I also heard the groans she smothered in the dark hours of the morning, and I saw illness ravage her body like an invading army.

One day, as we drank tea after dinner, my aunt gave me back the Waterloo Medal. It felt cold and heavy in the palm of my hand. I touched the ribbon with its broad, blood-red stripe between dark blue borders. I tilted my hand and let the medal slide on to the table by the tea caddy. I pushed it towards her.

"Where did it come from?"

"The magistrate gave it to me for you," she said. "The one who was kind, who had served in the Peninsula. He said it was yours, that you had earned it."

"I threw it away."

She shook her head. "You threw it at Captain Stanhope."

"Does not that amount to the same thing?"

"No." She added, almost pleading, "You could be proud of it, Tom. You fought with honour for your King and your country."

"There was no damned honour in it," I muttered. But I took the medal to please her, and slipped it in my pocket. Then I said -- and the one thing led to the other -- "I must find employment. I cannot be a burden to you any longer."

At that time jobs of any kind were not easy to find, particularly if one was a discharged lunatic who had left his last teaching post without a reference, who lacked qualifications or influence. But my aunt Reynolds had once kept house for Mr. Bransby's family, and he had a kindness for her. Upon threads of this nature, those chance connections of memory, habit and affection that bind us with fragile and invisible bonds, the happiness of many depends, even their lives.

All this explains why I was ready to take up my position as an under-usher at the Manor House School in the village of Stoke Newington on Monday the 13th of September. On the evening before I left my aunt's house for the last time, I walked east into the City and on to London Bridge. I stopped there for a while and watched the grey, sluggish water moving between the piers and the craft plying up and down the river. Then, at last, I felt in my trouser pocket and took out the medal. I threw it into the water. I was on the upstream side of the bridge and the little disc twisted and twinkled as it fell, catching the evening sunshine. It slipped neatly into the river, like one going home. It might never have existed.

"Why did I not do that before?" I said aloud, and two shopgirls, passing arm in arm, laughed at me.

I laughed back, and they giggled, picked up their skirts and hastened away. They were pretty girls, too, and I felt desire stir within me. One of them was tall and dark, and she reminded me a little of Fanny, my first love. The girls skittered like leaves in the wind and I watched how their bodies swayed beneath thin dresses. As my aunt grows worse, I thought, I grow better, as though I feed upon her distress.

Chapter 3

Once again, I walked to save money. My box had gone ahead by carrier. I followed the old Roman road to Cambridge, Ermine-street, stretching north from Shoreditch, the bricks and mortar of the city creeping blindly after it like ants following a line of honey.

About a mile south of Stoke Newington, the vehicles on the road came to a noisy standstill. Walking steadily, I passed the uneasy, twitching snake of curricles and gigs, chaises and carts, stagecoaches and wagons, until I drew level with the cause of the obstruction. A shabby little one-horse carriage travelling south had collided with a brewer's dray returning from London. One of the chaise's shafts had snapped, and the unfortunate hack which had drawn it was squirming on the ground, still entangled in her harness. The driver was waving his blood-soaked wig at the draymen and bellowing, while around them gathered a steadily expanding crowd of angry travellers and curious bystanders.

Some forty yards away, standing in the queue of vehicles travelling towards London, was a carriage drawn by a pair of matching bays. When I saw it, I felt a pang, curiously like hunger. I had seen the equipage before -- outside the Manor House School. The same coachman was on the box, staring at the scene of the accident with a bored expression on his face. The glass was down and a man's hand rested on the sill. I stopped and turned back, pretending an interest in the accident, and examined the carriage more closely. As far as I could see, it had only the one occupant, a man whose eyes met mine, then looked away, back to something on his lap. He had a long pale face, with a hint of green in its pallor and fine regular features. His starched collar rose almost to his ears and his neck cloth tumbled in a snowy waterfall from his throat. The fingers on the windowsill moved rhythmically, as though marking time to an inaudible tune. On the forefinger was a great gold signet ring.

A footman came hurrying along the road from the accident, pushing his way through the crowd. He went up to the carriage window. The occupant raised his head.

"There's a horse down, sir, the chaise is a wreck and the dray has lost its offside front wheel. They say there's nothing to do but wait."

"Ask that fellow what he's staring at."

"I beg your pardon, sir," I said, and my voice sounded thin and reedy in my ears. "I stared at no one, but I admired your conveyance. A fine example of the coach-builder's craft."

The footman was already looming over me, leaning close. He smelt of onions and porter. "Be off with you, then." He nudged me with his shoulder and went on in a lower voice, "You've admired enough, so cheese it."

I did not move.

The coachman lifted his whip.

Meanwhile, the man in the carriage stared straight at me. He showed neither anger nor interest. There was an impersonal menace in the air, as pungent as gas, even in broad daylight and on a crowded road. Like an itch, I was a minor irritant. The gentleman in the coach had decided to scratch me.

I sketched a bow and strolled away. I did not know the encounter for what it was, an omen.

Stoke Newington was a pretty place, despite its proximity to London. I remember the trees and rooks with affection. The youngest boy in the school was four; the oldest nineteen and so nearly a man that he sported bushy whiskers and was rumoured to have put the baker's girl with child. The sons of richer and more ambitious parents were prepared for entry at the public schools. Most, however, received all the learning they required at Mr. Bransby's.

"The parents entrust their sons' board and lodging to us as well as their tuition," Mr. Bransby told me. "A nutritious diet and a comfortable bed are essential if a boy is to learn. Moreover, if a child lives among gentlefolk, he acquires their ways. We keep strictly to our regimen. It is an essential foundation to sobriety in later life."

The regimen did not affect Mr. Bransby and his household, who lived separately from the rest of the school and were no doubt sufficiently sober already. I was expected to sleep on the boys' side, as was the only other master who lived at the school, the senior usher.

"Mr. Dansey has been with me for many years," Bransby told me when he introduced us. "You will find him a scholar of distinction."

Edward Dansey was probably in his forties, a thin man, dressed in black clothes so old and faded that they were now mottled shades of green and grey. He wore a dusty little wig, usually askew, and had a cast in one eye, which, without being actually oblique, approached nearly to a squint. Both then and later, he was always perfectly civil. His manners were those of a gentleman, despite his shabby clothes. He had the great merit of showing no curiosity about my past history.

When I knew Dansey better I found he had a habit of looking at the world with his chin raised and his lips twisted asymmetrically so that one corner of the mouth curled up and the other curled down; it was as though part of him was smiling and part of him was frowning so one never really knew where one stood with him. The cast in his eye accentuated this ambivalence of expression. The boys called him Janus, perhaps because they believed his mood varied according to the side of his face you saw him from. They were scared of Bransby, who kept a cane in every room of the school so he could flog a boy wherever he was without delay, but they were terrified of Dansey.

On my second Thursday at the school, the manservant padded along to the form room as the boys were streaming out to their two hours of liberty before dinner and requested me to wait on his master.

My immediate fear was that I had somehow displeased Mr. Bransby. I went through the door that separated his quarters from the rest of the house, which was like stepping into a different country. Here the air smelt of beeswax and flowers and the walls were freshly papered, the panels freshly painted. Mr. Bransby had silence enough to hear the ticking of a clock, a luxury indeed in a house full of boys. I knocked and was told to enter. He was staring out of the window, tapping his fingers on the leather top of his table.

"Sit down, Shield. I must be the bearer of sad news, I'm afraid."

I said, "My aunt Reynolds?"

Bransby bowed his heavy head. "I am truly sorry for it. She was an excellent woman."

My mind was blank, an empty place filled with fog.

"She charged the woman with whom she lodged to write to me when she was gone. She died yesterday afternoon." He cleared his throat. "It appears that it was very sudden at the end, or else they would have sent for you. But there is a letter. Mrs. Reynolds directed that it should be given to you after her death."

The seal was intact. It had been stamped with what looked like the handle of a small spoon. I thought I could make out the imprint of fluting. My aunt had probably used the small silver spoon she kept locked in the caddy with her tea. The wax was streaky, a mixture of rusty orange and dark blue. Economical in all things, she saved the seals of letters sent to her and melted the wax again when she sent a letter of her own.

The mind is an ungovernable creature, particularly under the influence of grief; we cannot always command our own thoughts. I found myself wondering if the spoon would still be there, and whether by rights it was now mine. For an instant the fog cleared and I saw her there, in my mind but as solid as Bransby himself, sitting at the table after dinner, frowning into the caddy as she measured the tea.

"There will be arrangements to be made," Bransby was saying. "Mr. Dansey will take over your duties for a day or two." He sneezed, and then said angrily, "I shall advance you a small sum of money to cover any expenses you may have. I suggest you go up to town this afternoon. Well? What do you say?"

I recalled that my sanity was still on trial, and now there was no one to speak for me so I must make shift to speak for myself. I raised my head and said that I was sensible of Mr. Bransby's great kindness. I begged leave to withdraw and prepare for my journey. A moment later, I went up to my little room in the attic, a green hermitage under the eaves. There at last I wept. I wish I could say my tears were solely for my aunt, the best of women. Alas, they were also for myself. My protector was dead. Now, I told myself, I was truly alone in the world.

Chapter 5

My aunt's death drew me deeper into the labyrinth. It brought me to Mr. Rowsell and Mrs. Jem.

Her last letter to me was brief and, judging by the handwriting, written in the later stages of her illness. In it, she expressed the hope that we might meet again in that better place beyond the grave and assured me that, if heaven permitted it, she would watch over me. Turning to more practical matters, she informed me that she had left money to defray the expense of her funeral. There was nothing for me to do, for she had decided all the details, even the nature of her memorial, even the mason to cut the letters. Finally, she directed me to wait on her attorney Mr. Rowsell at Lincoln's Inn.

I called at the lawyer's chambers. Mr. Rowsell was a large, red-faced man, bulging in the prison of his clothing as though the blood were bursting to escape from his body. He directed his moon-faced clerk to fetch my aunt's papers. While we waited he scribbled in his pocketbook. When the clerk returned, Rowsell looked through the will, glancing up at me with bright, bird-like eyes, his manner a curious compound of the curt and the furtive. There were two bequests of five pounds apiece, he told me, one to the maid of all work and the other to the landlady.

"The residue comes to you, Mr. Shield," he said. "Apart from my bill, of course, which will be a charge on the estate."

"There cannot be much."

"She drew up a schedule, I believe," said Rowsell, reaching into the little deed-box. "But do not let your hopes rise too high, young man." He took out a sheet of paper, glanced at it and handed it to me. "Her goods and chattels, such as they were," he continued, staring at me over his spectacles, "and a sum of money. A little over a hundred pounds, in all probability. Heaven knows how she managed to put it by on that annuity of hers." He stood up and held out his hand. "I am pressed for time this morning so I shall not detain you any longer. If you leave your direction with Atkins on your way out, I will write to you when we are in a position to conclude the business."

A hundred pounds! I walked down to the Strand in a daze similar to intoxication. My steps were unsteady. A hundred pounds!

I went to the house where my aunt had lodged and arranged for the disposal of her possessions. Of the larger items, I kept only the tea caddy with its spoon. The landlady found a friend named Mrs. Jem who was willing to buy the furniture. I suspected I would have got a higher price if I had been prepared to look elsewhere, but I did not want the trouble of it. Mrs. Jem also bought my aunt's clothes.

"Not that they're worth more than a few shillings," she said with a martyred smile; she was a mountainous woman with handsome little features buried in her broad face. "More patches and darns than anything else. Still, you won't want them, will you, so it's doing you a favour. I've only thirty shillings. Will you wait while I fetch the rest of the money?"

"No." I could not bear to stay here any longer, for I wanted to contemplate both my loss and my good fortune in peace and quiet. "I will take the thirty shillings and collect the balance later."

"As you wish," she said. "Three Gaunt-court. It's not a stone's throw away."

"A long throw."

She gave me a hard stare. "Don't worry, I'll have the money waiting for you. Six shillings, no more no less. I pay my debts, Mr. Shield, and I expect others to pay theirs." I could not resist a schoolboy pun. "Mrs. Jem," I said solemnly, "you are indeed a pearl of great price."

"That's enough of your impudence," she replied. "If you're going, you'd better go."

The balloon of mirth subsided as I walked away from the house where my aunt had lived. So this was all that a life amounted to -- a mound of freshly turned earth in a churchyard, a few pieces of furniture scattered among other people's rooms, and a handful of clothes that nobody but the poor would want to buy.

There was also the small matter of the money which would come to me. For the first time in my life, I was about to be a man of substance, the absolute master of £103 and a few shillings and pence. The knowledge changed me. Wealth may not bring happiness, but at least it has the power to avert certain causes of sorrow. And it makes a man feel he has a place in the world.

(Excerpted from An Unpardonable Crime By Andrew Taylor © 2004 by Andrew Taylor. Published by Hyperion. view abbreviated excerpt only...

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  "A Dickensian mystery steeped in nineteenth century complexity."by Frazzle (see profile) 07/17/07

This book didn't engage many of our readers. They felt that it was too complex and convoluted and that the characters didn't engage or sustain their interest.

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