Sample chapters of Jack the Nipper
The world’s greatest private detective, Mr Sherlock Holmes, following a hand fight above the Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss Alps, had perished in the deadly waters below. News of his death was slow in reaching the outside world, in part through its isolated position and because his immediate circle of crime preventing associates decided his many enemies should not rejoice or profit too quickly on hearing of the tragedy.
Consequently, the innocent public continued to call at his lodging at 221b Baker Street seeking his advice and were instead offered the services of his ex-landlady Mrs Hudson and her Cockney maid, Fanny-Annie Grubbins, who were slowly gaining a reputation as the only female private detectives in London, if not the whole of Great Britain and the Empire.
On this particular late spring afternoon, not long after his demise, Miss Prim, Mrs Hudson’s long-suffering next-door neighbour at 221a Baker Street, sat gingerly on the edge of her chair in Mrs Hudson’s sitting room.
Mrs Martha Elizabeth Hudson, 55, was a red-faced chubby cheeked lady of ample proportions, dressed in a pale blue housedress and white cotton cap with tiny ribbons. The widow of the happily remembered Mr Claude E R Hudson, an insurance salesman of note in his day, who, after his passing received an adequate income renting out rooms, latterly to Mr Holmes and Dr Watson, neither of whom resided there any more: Holmes because he was, to put it bluntly, dead; Watson because he now had a practice with accommodation attached elsewhere in London.
The lady of the house passed much of her time when not being Baker Street’s resident sleuth along with her maid-of-all-work, constantly baking and sewing for the multitude of charities she supported. A smile was never far from her lips, especially when in the presence of someone in distress and needed their spirits bolstered, although on this particular occasion, and in fact when previously encountering her neighbour, it was proving very difficult, as if Miss Prim sucked joy and compassion from the very air around her.
‘Well, my dear Miss Prim,’ the detective lady said as equitably as possible, ‘what exactly is your problem? And please do try and relax and sit comfortably.’
‘That is part of the trouble, Mrs Hudson,’ snapped the irritable Miss Prim, painfully attempting to settle herself. ‘I am quite unable to.’
She was in her inevitable heavy black attire in sympathy, as many ladies of respectable sensibilities were, with the dear bereaved Queen Victoria who had been clothed in her mourning clothes since her husband and consort, Prince Albert, had climbed the golden stairway to heaven thirty years before. Miss Prim had the features of an undernourished vulture with small glittering eyes that missed nothing. Her thin long nose constantly monitored the world for unpleasant odours, which she noticed were prevalent everywhere outside of her own house at 221a.
She winced, sat up stiff and straight, and pressed her lips tightly together; not the most favourable way of imparting information, thought Mrs Hudson. Her assistant detective, Fanny-Annie Grubbins, hovered over the tea tray on the table, occupying herself in the most pointless of activities so as to eavesdrop as inconspicuously as she thought possible in her naive but eager fashion.
This was Miss Prim’s second recent visit. The previous time had been about her missing cat. Now it was something far, far more serious.
‘Yes, Miss Prim?’ said Detective Hudson, after a long and barely sufferable silence.
Miss Prim took a deep breath. ‘I am a victim of, of…’
‘Do go on, Miss Prim. Of what, pray?’
Which came to its conclusion when Baker Street’s senior detective lady said to her assistant detective and maid-of-all-work:
‘Miss Grubbins, for heaven’s sake stop fiddling with the tea service and either go and tidy up the kitchen or sit down and keep still!’
‘Yers, Mrs H,’ said Fanny-Annie. ‘Sorry, mum, but I was only just…’ Her mistress glowered at her. ‘I’m sitting, Mrs H, I’m sitting, I am really.’
And the poor gutter girl dropped swiftly onto an upright chair by the wall and clasped her hands meekly on her lap. She was a tragic example of an early life born in gross poverty in the dockland environment sprawling along the congested banks of the dirty River Thames.
She was small and thin through an undernourished childhood and now at twenty or thereabouts – arithmetic didn’t count to much to her, along with her reading and writing – beheld the bewildered expression of someone perennially confused with life. She was attired in the traditional maid’s uniform of black skirt and white blouse, white pinafore and cap. Her hair was dark brown and curled from under the cap like spiders’ legs. Her shoes were scuffed and coming apart at the soles despite being relatively new. Fanny-Annie was the kind of girl who had no aptitude for keeping smart and clean and generally careful with her appearance.
‘Garn,’ she’d tell herself, ‘what’s the point, you only gets Doris and Gerty again after you’ve gorn and got wet and washed.’
Her spotless mistress said to Miss Prim, ‘We are both women of the world. Is not our monarch, our dear Queen Victoria, a woman also? This is the burgeoning Age of Womanhood. And although we are not considered their equals, are we women not truly as clever and ingenious as men? There is surely nothing then that we two cannot discuss?’
But apparently there was.
‘Would you care to set it all down on paper, then, Miss Prim, to ease your troubled mind?’
‘Write it down?’ gasped the middle-aged spinster. ‘The very paper would be consumed in flames! The pen would crumble to dust! The ink would turn into blood!’
‘Oh, for goodness sakes...’
Miss Prim sprang to her feet, causing Fanny-Annie to jump with a muted squeal, and the visitor rapped her umbrella on the seat of her chair.
‘I have been accosted, madam, by, by that vile female molester the newspapers have so vulgarly labelled,’ she breathed in deeply to fortify herself before she finished with, ‘Jack the Nipper!’
‘Aow, Gawd!’ cackled Fanny-Annie.
‘Grubbins! Go down this instant into the kitchen and scrub the flags and put the soiled clothes to soak for tomorrow morning’s laundry session. If you please!’
The lowly gutter girl hung her head, said sorry, mum, I’m sure, and trudged out of the room sniffing and wiping her nose on her sleeve.
The name given by the newspapers to this latest headline celebrity, Jack the Nipper, was further proof of the shallow, callous nature of popular journalism. It was blatantly referring to the disgusting moniker these self same newspapers had given to the relatively recent murderer of numerous women stabbed to death over a number of years, Jack the Ripper. He had never been brought to justice and although his bestial behaviour had ceased to occur, there was a spurious rumour that it was this particular Jack, who in his dotage, was resorting to this tamer bloodless version of abusing womankind.
This recent outbreak was in total contrast to the ghoulish Ripper killing of his victims in the mean streets of the East End and in the bleak hours after midnight when few decent folk were abroad, for the Nipper attacked only in broad daylight on or around the highly respectable West End area of Oxford Street and where there were hundreds of observers.
Nonetheless, as Mrs Hudson deduced, ‘It takes far more courage, if one can use such a noble word with respect to this defiler of our female sex, to commit crimes in public places where he is open to immediate capture. The previous Jack could only have been a cowardly shadow of a man by contrast.’
She also pointed out if this current Jack wasn’t brought to justice very soon he might easily become more depraved and unable to refrain from emulating his predecessor in extreme forms of repulsive daylight exhibitionism.
The mature female investigator of 221b Baker Street now turned her attention back to her indignant client from next door and continued as if nothing had interrupted them.
‘Oh!’ she cried in mock shocked horror. ‘Never? Surely not?’
‘Yes!’ cried Miss Prim, the key of common sense having now unlocked the door to her dark secret. ‘Whilst passing through Manchester Square on my way back from a visit to a friend this morning, he jumped from behind the bushes and…well…’
She closed her eyes and began to breathe in rapid shallow breaths.
‘Now, now, Miss Prim,’ said the senior detective, sincerely concerned and not the least bit amused in spite of her dislike of the disagreeable woman. ‘Take your time. Shall I get you a bottle of salts?’
‘I am fine!’ she snapped back. ‘I have my own, thank you, Mrs Hudson.’
The lady of the house showed no open signs of annoyance at her prospective client’s rudeness, dismissing it as an aberration of birth. “The only way for us to live, is to forget and forgive,” she mentally quoted the religious aphorism acquired from being a member of the Baker Street Primitive Methodist Chapel.
‘It has been a dreadful shock, as one can imagine,’ Miss Prim continued. ‘I can get no rest whatsoever. Nor has solid food passed my lips since my abhorrent assault. I had hoped you would have informed your Mr Holmes on my behalf for him to catch this wicked bounder, however, now he is no more upon this earth...’
Mrs Hudson, the long-time landlady and surrogate mother to her deceased detective lodger, gritted her teeth to stem the continuing pain of sorrow at his corporeal absence, and then stoically resumed the consultation.
‘But surely the Metropolitan police force is out searching for him, according to the papers?’
‘He has not been caught, has he?’ exclaimed the Nipper’s latest victim. ‘He stalks the streets with impunity with his bestial habits. I managed to make my way to Mrs Stockley’s and spent hours in agony and fear while she sent her butler out with a stout walking stick, but he returned without having beaten the cad to pulp! Mrs Stockley is chair of the Good Ladies Campaign for Safe Streets and Clean Public Conveniences, if you are not aware of them, Mrs Hudson. She informed me she would be raising the matter at their next meeting. They are an exceedingly respected and influential society. Their patron is Lord Gillingham’s wife, consequently, they have the ear of the government.’
‘I do believe I have heard of them, Miss Prim,’ Mrs Hudson extemporised, so as not to appear embarrassingly gauche. ‘But they are not on my current social circuit,’ she said, then paused a moment before adding casually, ‘Yet, if an introduction could be made...’
Miss Prim considered this with pouting lips and squinting eyes. Then nodded.
‘I shall see what I can do, Mrs Hudson.’
The ex-landlady and now a fully motivated lady detective and doer of good deeds, smiled her thanks. Miss Prim then wiped the smile off her face with a codicil:
‘That is, of course, after this abominable creature is caught and punished unto an inch of his miserable dastardly life!’
‘Ah,’ said a disappointed Mrs Hudson. But then she quickly added in a brisk business-like manner, ‘Yes, quite so, Miss Prim. A perfectly reasonable quid pro quo, I think, eh? Now, I shall write down all of the details, if I may, in my shopping pad. His height first, Miss Prim.’
‘What has his height to do with it? It was his disgusting fingers that did the mischief!’
Mrs Hudson gritted her teeth and said, ‘A detective needs facts to go on, Miss Prim. All facts and any facts pertaining to the incident. Surely you must appreciate that? The detective assembles them and builds up a concise picture of a crime and its perpetrator, a motive and a solution.’
‘Huh. You seem unhealthily knowledgeable about the whole subject, if I may say so, madam.’
But Mrs Hudson beamed a noncommittal smile, refusing to be offended by the unconcealed barb. Miss Prim continued.
‘I did not see the wretch, Mrs Hudson. The devil came from behind. Did his nefarious business and disappeared.’
‘I do not suppose you know which hand he used?’
‘No, I do not!’ exploded the victim. ‘This is all getting most uncommonly coarse, Mrs Hudson. I am sure your Mr Holmes, a man though he was, would not have been so gross. I am not a judge of hand nipping, Mrs Hudson. And it was considerably more than nipping, I might add. The whole affair is most revolting. Men should be banned from being on the streets on foggy days. They should be made to keep their hands in their pockets at all times.’ She sniffed into her handkerchief. ‘It was never thus in my mother’s day!’
Rallying to the appeal for justice by one woman to another and as a method of gaining her client’s confidence and strengthening her societal respectability vis-a-vis becoming associated with the highly desirable Good Ladies Campaign for Safe Streets and Clean Public Conveniences, Mrs Hudson said:
‘I am sure that is true, Miss Prim. We live in a veritable age of Sodom and Gomorrah, I do declare. “He who lays the hand of shame on his neighbour, in Hell forever he shall labour,” Miss Prim!’
They then paused to rest their susceptibilities. Mrs Hudson glanced at her empty pad, did a doodle of a funny face, and scribbled over it.
‘No details of your attacker? No height or size? His voice, Miss Prim? Did he speak? Did his breath smell of something distinctive? Perhaps a particular brand of cigar? Or were there curry overtones, say, of some distinctive flavour?’
‘What on earth are you talking about? I was being assaulted for goodness sake, Mrs Hudson. Have you no idea what that is like? The ignominy. The heart stopping shock to the system. The appalling mental agony.’
She stiffened and shuddered on the edge of her chair to the extent that Mrs Hudson gathered herself ready to leap forwards and stop her slipping onto the floor in her passion of indignation and revulsion.
Miss Prim then cried out, ‘Someone must apprehend the perverted swine before the whole world of womankind walks forever in fear!’
Before the exchange continued, Fanny-Annie appeared in the doorway nervously wringing her hands together and poking her head forwards in a pose of uncertainty.
‘Yes?’ said her mistress in a sharper tone than she intended due to being so worked up herself by Miss Prim’s outburst.
‘Is, is everything all right, mum? Aow, lor, but what I heard such a load o’ shouting I thought…’
She stopped and a pained expression distorted even more her usually distorted face of displeasure with the way life treated her. Mrs Hudson gave her an impatient look of expectation, which encouraged her to resume and say:
‘That there was some poor soul being murder, or something, Mrs H, if you please, mum …’ tailing off awkwardly before finishing with a brief curtsy.
Mrs Hudson now gave her a facsimile of a warm smile as a form of dismissal for it didn’t do to be too familiar with one’s servants in front of visitors. This point lingered for a moment or two as it occurred to her how familiar she and Fanny-Annie, the gutter girl supreme, had become since becoming a detective partnership.
She spoke with her neighbour and new client for a little while longer, but it did not reveal anything substantial, and Mrs Hudson escorted Miss Prim out and said good evening. She rested her back against the door and expelled an exhausted breath.
‘Well, what is the purpose of taking on a case if there are no clues and the prime witness is so difficult to deal with? The old stick only wanted tea and sympathy. And she got none of either, so there!’
She went down into the basement kitchen where Fanny-Annie could be seen in an alcove by the back door, busy with pummelling bed sheets and clothing in a tub of heated water with the wooden dolly with its metal paddle.
‘You look good and properly boxed and bagged, Mrs H, begging your pardon for noticing, mum.’
‘If you mean I am extremely vexed and tired, you are quite right, Grubbins.’
‘Miss Prim’s a one ain’t she just, and all? That Jack the Nipper must have been proper desperate to have a go at fingering her you-know-what, Mrs H, eh?’
‘Can I take it you were listening to our interview, by some chance, Detective Grubbins?’
‘Cor, well, I have to practice me heavesdropping whenever I can. That’s what detectives do, don’t they, mum?’
Mrs Hudson had to admit that it was a justifiable excuse and complimented the novice detective on her enterprise, to which Fanny-Annie politely said thank you ever so, and made Mrs Hudson realise how much she herself had to learn of this profession that had been thrust upon her. She drank a glass of ginger water in uncultivated gulps to ease her uneasy mind.
‘So, what do we do now, Mrs H? Have you got a lot of clues we can detectivise with?’
Not having any, and not wishing to lose face before her assistant detective, and thereby destroy the poor girl’s enthusiasm, she said:
‘Tomorrow, Fanny-Annie. It is too late now.’
‘Fanny-Annie, you can assist me with a little task or two and then early to bed. We detectives need our sleep to be fresh and alert.’
‘Yers, we most certainly does, Detective Mrs H, mum,’ said Assistant Detective Grubbins, then adding, ‘So, what little task, may I perchance to inquire, mum? A quick rubbing of the brass fittings on the kitchen range? Or a minute’s worth o’ wiping of the cups and plates before they’s put away? Or a…?’
‘All that, plus hem stitching of the remaining fifty napkins and an ironing of the hundred pinafores,’ Mrs Hudson clarified, ‘for the Domestic Ladies of Bayswater’s kitchen display for their bring and buy sale to abolish domestic slavery such a worthy cause, do you not think, Fanny-Annie? Then just before you go off to your cosy attic bed…’
‘Garn,’ Fanny-Annie muttered under her breath. ‘I does hate being a maid-of-all-work, I really does.’
Later, the mistress of 221b locked up, and after checking Fanny-Annie had done her chores she damped down the fire in the kitchen range, and nibbling a slice of walnut and carrot cake, and chewing a handful of dried currents, she turned down the gas and went slowly up the stairs. Despite the total lack of evidence and clues, the two lady detectives of Baker Street would take on Miss Prim’s case for the sake of the whole of London’s unprotected women.
She suddenly stopped as she reached the top. ‘And that includes myself and Grubbins!’ she realised with a shiver.
Then a steely glint of determination came into her eyes and she went to bed with thoughts of capturing this Jack the Nipper fiend and handing him over to the grateful police amidst a cheering crowd of even more grateful women.
In the morning after breakfast, Mrs Hudson said, ‘Fanny-Annie, bring me all of the past few days’ newspapers from the waste-not-want-not cupboard. And go the newsagents for all those printed today. Well, off you go, chop-chop.’
‘That’s me on me way back, mum,’ said the gutter girl mischievously.
While she was gone, Mrs Hudson pinned up a large map of London on one wall of the sitting room following the removal of a number of photographs, daguerreotypes, and lithographs such as every respectable household ornamented their rooms with, in addition to aspidistras and other potted plants and heavy brocade antimacassars draping the settee and easy chair backs like skins of unknown white animals or even large fish.
Mrs Hudson sorted through the newspapers of the past few days’, stacking them in order on a chair next to the table. Sitting in another chair, she carefully scanned through them, pulling out pages containing any reference to this furtive Jack the Nipper character; then cutting out the articles and pasting them onto the back of a roll of old wallpaper.
Fanny-Annie returned with the latest daily papers and was instructed to do likewise with them after her mistress taught her to recognise the spelling of the words Jack and Nipper. When finished, Mrs Hudson again cut out each article and passed them on to Fanny-Annie to paste onto the wallpaper in order of date as she had previously done.
‘And the last one,’ announced the senior detective, ‘from today’s Times: “Yet another brazen attack on an innocent lady by that revolting Jack the Nipper. At approximately five-forty-five last evening, a lady who wishes to remain anonymous, having shopped at Marble Arch for a birthday present for her husband, was indecently assault as she walked along Oxford Street. No description given of the vile-fingered gent who melted into the crowd after his ten seconds of abomination. It appears the Metropolitan Police are refraining from taking these attacks seriously enough. However Inspector Trengrove of Scotland Yard is quoted as saying: “All officers on the beat are well aware of these incidents but with so little to go on we are limited with our results. We also do not have the man power to be on every street in the city at once.”’
This reference to Inspector Trengrove made Mrs Hudson quiver with delight despite the presence of her lowly maid-of-all-work. She and he were acquainted and an unspoken love-hate relationship had existed between them for some time. Forcing herself to gather her poise, she pinned the wallpaper up by the side of the London centre map and said:
‘So, there you have it, Detective Grubbins.’
‘Aow lor, Mrs Detective H, we ain’t safe in our beds, is we?’ Fanny-Annie then cackled her bronchial dockland laugh, and added, ‘Well, at least I am, coz I ain’t really got a bed, have I? Just a mattress on the floor.’
Mrs Hudson did not take kindly to the jest and hit her with a rolled up newspaper.
‘That mattress is filled with Egyptian cotton flock of the finest quality I’ll have you know, you impudent madam. Well, not quite the finest, but you wouldn’t know the difference. So, let us get on. We have a total of eleven attacks in the past four weeks, Grubbins. Although not every attack will have been reported. Our Miss Prim’s for example.’
They stuck into the map at the relevant locations, flags made from strips of writing paper glued to sewing pins and marked with a number.
‘The attacks are all in the vicinity of Oxford Street running from Marble Arch to Regent Street, do you see, Detective Grubbins? Thence from Regent Street to Tottenham Court Road, encompassing all the adjoining alleyways and streets. It certainly appears to be a most difficult case if the police cannot unravel it, do you not agree, miss?’
‘Yers, we got ourselves a right tarter here. Who do you think’s doing it, Mrs H?’
‘Well, it is not robbery as no one has reported losing a handbag or even an umbrella. No one has been killed yet, heaven forbid, which seems to imply the fiendish fellow is not dangerous in that sense. A gentleman rejected by women, perhaps, and getting his lusts partially satisfied by these gross acts of indecency.’
‘Garn,’ scoffed Fanny-Annie. ‘If you wants gross acts of indecency, Mrs H, you wants to hear what goes on down the docks where me old folks live. There was this geezer once and he…’
‘Stop! Despite the obvious edification of your tale, it is time to make a move, Miss Grubbins, thank you.’
‘We going out to catch the Nipper, mum? Break his fingers and hang him upside down from a lamp post and set fire to his hair?’
‘Not in the slightest, you lurid creature of the cess pools! We shall inspect the scene of Miss Prim’s crime and also make enquires of this Mrs Stockley to see if her butler can add anything more. We need facts and clues! One cannot build a wall without bricks. Facts and clues, Detective Grubbins.’
‘What, both together all at once? Cor, it can’t half get complicated, can detectivising, swipe me if it can’t.’
Mrs Hudson sighed and shook her head and said wearily, ‘I am sure you are right, I am sure you’re perfectly right.’
And so the two determined lady detectives were once again on a quest to ease the burden of the public from the wrong doing of others. Firstly they called in on Miss Prim next door at 221a. But the lady proved to be having an awkward turn since their meeting yesterday evening.
‘Who is it? And what do you want? Go away or I shall call Scotland Yard!’
Mrs Hudson had a wicked urge to tell her they were from Scotland Yard, quite apart from the fact that no police force in Britain employed women. And Fanny-Annie, in her child-like playfulness, thought how she could pretend to be a servant inviting her to lunch at Buckingham Palace; something she dreamed of occasionally herself when the fancy took her as she drifted to sleep after a particularly hard day.
‘It is Mrs Hudson, your next-door neighbour, Miss Prim. Might I have a word with you, please?’
Mrs Hudson was at loss how to answer at first and momentarily doubted if they had in fact actually met and discussed her situation last night.
‘About your attack, Miss Prim,’ she persisted. ‘My colleague and I are out searching for this Jack the Nipper fellow this very minute.’
‘I do not wish to discuss it any further, if you will be so kind, madam. The mere mention of it brings on my migraine and turns my stomach to acid.’
The two Baker Street sleuths shared an impatient look of annoyance.
‘Miss Prim, you asked for help and you will get it!’ said Mrs Hudson forcefully.
‘Yers,’ shouted Fanny-Annie. ‘Once we gets started we don’t never gives up, don’t we not, Mrs H?’
The senior detective lady took a moment to work out what the uneducated young woman meant before saying cautiously, ‘Er, no.’
After this frustrating conversation through the door, raised to a higher pitch over the increasing noise of work-a-day traffic which caused passers-by to glare suspiciously at them both a resolution was achieved.
They promised not to expose Miss Prim to the police or newspapers or intrude on her spinsterish privacy until they had caught the Nipper, in exchange for greater detail of her tragic circumstances. Therefore, before they left, Mrs Hudson had ascertained from her exactly where she had been attacked, for no amount of persuasion would compel her leave the protection of her dwelling and show the detectives the spot in person.
‘If there were not other victims involved in this Satan inspired assault, and potentially more yet to come, I do believe I could let the foolish woman stew in her own bile. What do you say, Detective Grubbins?
‘Yers, mum, stew, like a rabbit in pot. Is that what we might have for lunch, mum? I’m ever so partial to a cony, I am.’
There was a slight pause as she let her mind slip into a daydream, her pudgy nose twitching as she sniffed an imaginary pot bubbling, during which time Mrs Hudson speedily wrote Miss Prim’s directions in her note pad.
‘And what was it she was a-stewing in, Mrs H? You don’t half use some words what I ain’t ever heard before.’
‘You poor ignorant creature,’ sighed her mistress. ‘I could spend the whole remaining years of my life educating you to a fit standard of social competence, quite apart from my charity work and all this private investigating. But I shall endeavour to do just that, Fanny-Annie, or die in the attempt.’
The educationally deprived gutter girl sniffed again and wiped her nose on her sleeve; and said, ‘Ouch!’ after Mrs Hudson prodded her arm with her pencil.
‘Lesson one: use the handkerchief I gave you. Well? Where is it?’
‘Ah, now, Mrs H, now your talking. You sees, it was like this…’
‘You used it to wipe another part of your anatomy, did you not, eh, you misguided miscreant?’
‘Aow, Mrs H, mum, I’m sure I don’t know what you means, I really don’t, cor blooming blimey, I don’t.’
Mrs Hudson gritted her teeth in a snarl of distaste and annoyance but resisted chastising her further with all of Baker Street to see.