Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Riverboats Part 12: Mrs Hunter

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When I stepped onto the Sunrise for the first time since I had left, it was as if I boarded a different boat. The crew were quieter, more solemn; there was barely any laughter and song as there had been weeks before. And not a single sailor would look at me except to glare. Of course they should hate me: I was the one who had asked for their captain to be taken in by the police, who had stolen Alexander Strong away to be hung, and for all that had I helped them even once?

That was why I was there, of course. To apologise…and to see if I could find one last scrap of courage before the most difficult task.

Laneham beamed as he led me through to the dining area. The rest of the crew stayed outside, avoiding us, so I was surprised when I saw Clark sitting at the table, as if he had been waiting.

‘Well?’ he asked as soon as he saw me. Laneham sat down and asked the same question with his expression. Two expectant gazes, one happy and one stern. I quailed.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘They still don’t know where he is.’

Laneham’s face darkened and he looked at the table, fingers tapping on the surface. I expected an outburst from Clark – a rant about how I had betrayed their trust and played them – but instead he merely said:

‘Then what do they know?’

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Next to nothing. The Hunters who have been brought in don’t know a thing or they’ve refused to talk – Isabel knew the most, but he left the hideout she knew of over a year ago. I’m sorry.’

Clark looked disgusted with my apologies. That was more like what I had expected.

‘So that’s it? You’re giving up?’

‘No,’ I started ‘we–’

‘You know all this is his fault?’ Clark said. ‘You do know that, don’t you? When he killed Mr Grey, everything went out of control – that’s when Uncle and Father and David and everyone became involved. He’s the one who started the murders, he fired the first shot – you can’t just let him go!’

I had heard something similar from Christian: there had been resentment and rivalry between the two families, but it never gone further than drunken fighting until Archibald Hunter killed Mr Grey during a petty argument. I looked to Laneham, who was watching Clark with dead eyes.

There is one thing we can do, I signed.

‘You should just take Mrs Hunter in and make her spend a night in the cell,’ Clark sneered.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s something like that.’

Both men turned to me in surprise.

She’ll never talk, Laneham signed, bursting into a flurry of hands. If other Hunters have not talked, she will never talk.

‘And that’s if you can convince her to come to the station,’ Clark added. ‘No matter how many policemen you have, she still has her friends and relatives to protect her.’

‘They won’t even consider bringing her in,’ I said. My heart had sunk as they voiced all my own objections. ‘She’s too powerful. They would have too many complaints – they’re getting complaints as it is, from interrupting the boat services.’

They can’t make her do anything. Surely you know this and always have?

I sat down, weary when I had barely started.

‘The police can’t make her to come in for an interview. So…I have to convince her instead.’

A pause, and then Clark burst out laughing.

‘As if! She’ll eat you alive!’

Laneham made a cutting motion across his mouth: the sign to shut up. He leant across to me, his eyes sparkling with intrigue.

Do you think you can?

‘Please, as if Mrs Hunter would ever listen to Edie.’

Another motion to be quiet. Laneham waited for my reply, grey eyes lit up.

‘He’s right,’ I said, finally ready to pour out the feeling that had bubbling in me all day. ‘I don’t think she’ll listen to me. Christian has said this is our only chance – but I can’t do it. Mrs Hunter thinks I’m a nuisance, at best. She probably hates me after everything that’s happened. If even Isabel can’t convince her to do anything, then what chance do I have?’

But after starting this, she has to pay attention to you, he said.

‘But I can’t convince her to do anything!’ I said. ‘What reason could she have for talking to the police? Everyone who has harmed her family is either dead or taken in. Mr Hunter’s the only one left – and she won’t give up her only son.’

Clark gave a sardonic smile.

‘It seems we agree on something for once, Miss Heinlein.’

Laneham had his hand at his mouth, full of thought.

There must be a way, he signed. She must have been hurt by her family fighting and dying. You need to show her that it’s better if this feud ends.

‘Tell her that the sooner she talks, the sooner her business can return to normal,’ Clark added. ‘That will appeal to her interest.’

I tried to laugh. Though I had received no answers, visiting the two of them had still improved my mood considerably.

‘I’ll see her tomorrow morning,’ I said. ‘With luck, she’ll agree. I’ll let you know.’

‘If you go to the station, spit in John Cooper’s cage for me,’ Clark said as I rose from the table. I smiled but agreed to nothing (Christian didn’t let me in to that part of the station). Laneham rose and walked with me until I was on the dock again.

Edie, he signed, hands hard to see in the dim light. I know you can do it.

You’re kind, I replied.

I mean it. Mrs Hunter is what brought us together, and her son is what tore us apart. You have done so much, and convinced so many people to do what’s right. I’m sure that if you put your heart into it, she’ll know what’s best.

His words touched me, and gave the courage I needed. I kissed him in thanks, and had to break away to stop myself from kissing him more. With a hard-beating heart, I said goodbye and turned away home. Back to work: my biggest challenge yet.

*

My hands were shaking as I was led into Mrs Hunter’s house. She lived away from the river, in a well-to-do townhouse in an area where my lack of fashionable clothing marked me out to all the residents. I was more akin to the servant girl who showed me in – in another life, I could have been her. And yet here I was, intending to talk to the owner of half of the fleet as if I was her equal. I stood in the hallway for a few, long minutes – staring at the paintings on the walls and attempting to see up the stairs – until the maid told me that Mrs Hunter would see me in the drawing room.

As nervous as I was, I was surprised at the opulence of the room. I say “opulence”, of course, because I had grown up on boats, and around the tiny houses by the docks; as far as townhouses were concerned, I learned later, Mrs Hunter’s was minimally furnished. Still, I was not used to sofas, and bookcases, and paintings, and a desk with an inkwell and a modest piano in the corner: it struck me as very fancy. And Mrs Hunter, in her rich brown dress with black embroidery, seemed the most opulent of the lot. She barely glanced up from her book as I was brought into the doorway, but called across to me:

‘Come in and sit opposite me, Miss Heinlein.’

I did as she said, and the maid shut the door on us both. I wished she could have stayed. I said nothing, waiting for her to begin, and after a moment she put a slip of paper into her book and laid it beside her.

‘I’m surprised to see you in this part of town, though I cannot say I am surprised at your temerity in coming here. Ten of my relatives have been taken into that dreadful station, and four have been told that they will never return. My boats have been delayed, my customers are outraged, and my family is in uproar. And you, Miss Heinlein, bear the blame for all of this.’ She fixed a steely gaze on me. ‘And, no doubt, you have come to me today to beg my forgiveness, or ask an even greater inconvenience of me. Am I right?’

I felt that I should be intimidated, but her words were exactly what I had expected, and her glare failed to faze me. My nerves faded away. All I could think of was how strange she looked without her hat – I had always seen her with her wide-brimmed hat covering her head, and without it she seemed much smaller.

‘If not for me, Isabel would be dead,’ I said. ‘And Laneham, and who knows who else. I don’t regret what I have done.’

Her look turned into a withering stare.

‘Have you come here to preach to me?’

My sudden lack of fear unsettled me, but she could not see that.

‘I want you to come to the station, and talk to the police about what you know.’

‘You have no right to tell me what you want of me,’ she said. ‘I made you, Edith. I gave your family a living when their boat fell apart, and I gave their only daughter safety with my kin. I have protected you and helped you your entire life, and yet you repay me with disobedience and wide-spread strife. I should have put you in a house in town, instead of with Isabel – then you would have learnt your place.’

‘This isn’t about me,’ I said, struggling not to show how her words struck me. ‘It’s about what’s right. I will always be grateful to you for what you’ve done for me, but this isn’t about my problems – it’s about helping others. The police are stuck, and you’re the only one who can help them.’

‘I have no obligation to help them to do their work,’ she sniffed.

‘You have no obligation to help anyone,’ I said. ‘But I’m asking you to help.’

‘And what good would it do me?’ she said, eyebrows pinching together. ‘I have nothing to gain by talking to them – and they have even less to gain from me, since I have no desire to speak to them.’

Lie, Edie, lie.

‘Anything you say will be helpful,’ I said. ‘So many people involved are related to you in some way. You can strengthen the case for them or against them, since you know everyone and you know all that happens at the docks. And,’ I added, seeing how unconvinced she looked, ‘as for what you gain – you’ve already gained from this.’

‘Have I?’ she said, full of scorn. ‘Pray tell me what advantage having my family interrogated and my business interrupted gives me?’

‘The man who killed your cousin’s son is caught,’ I said. ‘The man who killed the May family is caught. All these people who harmed your workers and your family are being brought in. You won’t have to mourn anymore; you won’t have to worry whether you will see your younger relatives again, or whether they’ll be shot dead the next night. Once this feud has been stopped, then you won’t have to lose work over grieving families, or patching boats, or sailors choosing different routes so they don’t run into rival boats – you’ll have a normal, working fleet. This fighting doesn’t come without cost to you, so it’s best for you if it stops. A few weeks of interruption is worth years of peace, is it not?’

She considered what I had said. I tried to imagine her being upset at John Eynham’s death, or at the May brothers’ deaths, or at anyone’s death, but I could not see it.

‘I think you assume too much about me,’ she finally said.

My shoulders dropped as the despair set in.

‘You won’t help, not even for that?’

‘I have no obligation to help the police do their work,’ she repeated. ‘This will all clear up in time, and poor fools those relatives of mine who are caught. I shall carry on without them, and this peace you speak of will come naturally – with or without me.’

It wouldn’t. I wanted to cry it at her: without your son behind bars, that resentment will keep festering, and blow up all over again. What would Laneham and Clark say? I wouldn’t have smiles from either of them ever again; I would lose Laneham forever. The Coopers would keep looking for Archibald Hunter until they found him, and I knew Mrs Hunter would think little of peace if her son was killed. Then what? It would all have been for nothing – all my worry and heartbreak for nothing!

I couldn’t help it. She turned her back on me, took up her book and said that I should leave, and the tears sprang into my eyes.

‘I always thought you were a good person, Mrs Hunter,’ I said, not disguising the hurt in my voice. ‘You brought Laneham to us when you could have put him out on the street, and you put me with Isabel when you could have put me in town. But if you don’t care that people have died because of this, and that people will keep dying if we don’t stop it – then what can I say to you? You might live away from the boats, in a fancy house, but you’re not apart from it all…’

She turned and looked at me as if I was worth less than the mud on her boots.

‘I think you should leave now, Miss Heinlein,’ she repeated. I didn’t say another word to her. I left the room, walked past the servant girl and out onto the street, and I barely noticed the distasteful looks I received from the people nearby, as I was too busy wiping away my tears, and choking back the bitterness of my failure.

*

I took the long way back to Scotland Yard. I tried to think of how to tell Christian what had happened. Once I calmed down a little, I realised that Christian would merely shrug and say bad words about Mrs Hunter, before deciding what to do next. No, it wasn’t the thought of telling him that upset me: it was admitting that I may have ruined everything to myself. And telling Laneham and Clark was unthinkable; had I let myself dwell on that thought, I would have kept walking and never reached the station. Eventually, I regained the scraps of my courage and entered the station.

‘Where’s Mr McNeil?’ I asked Mr Perry at the front desk. He nodded to a side room – the same where Isabel had talked to Alexander Strong.

‘Someone’s in with them, arguing about that man you brought in the other week. You’d best go in – McNeil will probably want your help.’

I thanked him and walked to the door, wondering who it could be. Would there have been enough time for Mrs Hunter to come here? Surely she could have taken a carriage in the time it took me to walk…

I opened the door and the two men inside turned to me. One was Christian, and the other I didn’t recognise, but looked vaguely familiar. He was an older man – somewhere in his fifties, I guessed – slim, and in a well-made grey suit.

‘Miss Heinlein,’ Christian said, looking relieved to see me. ‘Good to see you. Perhaps you can convince Mr Cooper that he cannot see his nephew.’

Mr Cooper. A man who I had long heard of, but never seen with my own eyes. I was too bewildered to speak at first, as I imagined him taking in Laneham, and becoming his surrogate father when all else had failed for him. He looked a little like Clark, I realised: same thin face and dark eyes.

‘It is my right to see the man who killed my son,’ he said, paying me no attention.

‘And it is our right not to risk another person killing him!’ Christian snapped. ‘No-one from the Hunters or the Coopers is to see John S. Cooper. Understand?’

‘I merely want to talk to him,’ Mr Cooper said.

‘I’m sorry, Mr Cooper, this is my fault,’ I said, stepping forward and interjecting. ‘When he was brought in, my friend Harriet was with me, and Christian let her talk to him – and she nearly shot him.’

Mr Cooper examined me as if he had only just noticed me, and I did not like the feeling of his eyes after the meeting I had just had.

‘What is your name, sorry?’ he asked.

‘Edith Heinlein,’ I said. Mr Cooper looked faintly amused.

‘So you’re Miss Heinlein. I’ve had no rest of complaints because of you – even before you had the police involved.’

I said nothing. I had no more apologies to give that day.

‘Tell me, did John S. Cooper say anything of David, before you took him in?’

His words were fresh, as if they had been scored into my brain – it must have been my panic that did that.

‘He said he killed David at his own wish, because he didn’t want to live with his injuries.’

Mr Cooper’s face twitched.

‘Is that so? If that is true, then I dearly wish he had refused. Please, then, Miss Heinlein – since you started this, and know so much – tell me if you are any closer to catching the killer of Mr Grey, my brother-in-law? I know it was that death that separated you and Laneham, and I know he has always wanted to bring that villain to justice at least as much as I. Please tell me you are close to finding him.’

My mouth was dry. Christian looked at me expectantly, knowing the outcome of my interview with Mrs Hunter would come out now – and I did not know what to say. I opened my mouth, said ‘I…’, and then the door burst open behind me.

‘Madam, you cannot go in there!’ Mr Perry was shouting from the hallway. Mrs Hunter paid him no attention. She took two strides into the room, mouth open to say something, before her eyes caught Mr Cooper. She froze. She seemed twice as large as she had done earlier – she had her hat on again – but at the sight of her business rival, she seemed to shrink again, while Mr Cooper looked even paler and thinner at the sight of her.

‘Mr Cooper,’ she said in stiff acknowledgement.

‘Mrs Hunter,’ he said. ‘I did not expect to see you here.’

‘Edie petitioned me for help,’ she said, without looking at me. ‘And I decided to oblige her, as I do consider her a ward of sorts.’

‘Indeed,’ Mr Cooper said. ‘That is unexpectedly kind of you.’

His cool words only added to the friction in the air. Christian coughed and moved.

‘Mr Cooper, I believe we’re done speaking. Mrs Hunter, if you wish to give information then would you please–’

‘Why don’t you both talk to each other?’ I said, before I considered what I was saying. Everyone stared at me and my confidence faltered again. What was I saying? Did I think they could work out a happy agreement between them, when they clearly couldn’t stand seeing each other? Yet I continued, as if my mouth knew what to do when my brain had the opposite idea.

‘I mean, I doubt you’ve had the chance to talk about this feud between your people. And it’s hurt you both, so…’

Mr Cooper gave a wan smile.

‘It has been a long time since we spoke properly, has it not?’

‘I came here to protect my people,’ Mrs Hunter said, with a glare at me as if I had planned this all along. ‘Not for idle chatter.’

‘Please, if–’

A knock came at the door. Christian looked at our strange situation, clearly eager to answer the knock and get away.

‘Neither of you are armed, are you?’

Mr Cooper shook his head and Mrs Hunter said, ‘Do I look like a marksman, sir?’

‘Good, because I’ll be back in a moment,’ he said, with a look that told me to keep things under control. I wanted to object, but he was gone before I knew it. Mrs Hunter and Mr Cooper still stared at each other in stand-off. After a moment, Mr Cooper moved to the end of the table and sat down, and after a longer pause, Mrs Hunter sat opposite.

‘I have little to say to you,’ she said, once she was comfortable. ‘I am only here at Edie’s wish.’

‘Are you going to tell the police what you know?’ Mr Cooper said.

Mrs Hunter’s cheeks coloured.

‘I will say what I choose to say, and that is none of your business.’

‘It is my business,’ Mr Cooper said, strangely calm, strangely earnest compared to her. ‘This needless fight has killed my nephews, my friends, even one of my sons. And your business is my business, because while those murderers have been found, we still don’t have the man who killed my brother-in-law.’

‘I don’t know what you are talking about,’ Mrs Hunter said, cheeks red now.

‘Don’t act ignorant, Marianne, it doesn’t suit you,’ Mr Cooper said. The use of her first name brought an unexpected level of intimacy to the conversation (it was strange enough that Mrs Hunter had called me “Edie”). I stepped back and tried to blend into the wall. Mrs Hunter locked her gaze on him.

‘Do not be so presumptuous as to use my Christian name, John, when you have not spoken to me directly in years. I do not have to tell you anything if I do not want to, and speaking to me is worthless. We cannot stop this idiotic fight between our people by discussing it at a table.’

‘Truly, you must not have lost anyone important to you, if you can call it “idiotic”,’ Mr Cooper said, with such dignified pain in his voice that I saw how Laneham could be so devoted to him.

‘I have lost those I love,’ Mrs Hunter replied acerbically. ‘I merely know how to handle myself.’

‘But the one closest to you, whom you have lost, is still alive.’

‘I do not need to speak to you about that.’

‘Your son killed my brother-in-law,’ Mr Cooper said, every word slow and emphatic. ‘And that is why my nephews set on your family, and that is why this all came to be. Please, Marianne, I’ve lost more than you – I’ve lost more than enough. If we can find the original culprit, we can put all this behind us, and return to mere competition.’

‘I have nothing more to say to you,’ Mrs Hunter said, scraping her chair back and standing up. ‘I came here to speak to the police, and I cannot see why I’m wasting my time with you.’

‘Do you think Miss Heinlein asked you here for anything other than your son’s whereabouts?’ Mr Cooper said. ‘He is the only one you chose to hide, so he is the only one they cannot find. Really, they were able to find my nephew John hidden away in town – of course Archie’s the only reason they need you.’

Mrs Hunter gave me a glare so powerful I thought I might die under it.

‘Is this true?’ she said.

I nodded.

‘And I came here because I was touched by your tears,’ she said. ‘I should have known better.’

Her words felt like a kick to the heart, but I couldn’t let her feel she was the superior one. That was what she thought, but she was wrong. She was wrong.

‘It’ll all be for nothing unless we find him,’ I said. ‘Please. You want peace, don’t you? This is the only way.’

‘You want me to give up my only son?’ she asked, and a shadow off sorrow crossed her features.

‘Your son is a murderer,’ Mr Cooper said. ‘He has ruined lives, and he needs to be taken in. My family deserves justice as well as yours, Mrs Hunter.’

She turned to him.

‘How much pain did you feel when David died?’ she asked.

‘I felt as if my world had collapsed,’ he said, ‘and I would never be happy again.’

‘You have three other sons,’ she said, and that statement held the accusing tone of a wounded child.

‘I will have less than that, unless we stop this fight,’ Mr Cooper said. ‘Please, Marianne. You’ve said yourself that you’ve already lost Archie by hiding him. Do the right thing. Tell the police where he is.’

At that moment, Christian came back into the room. I half suspect he had been listening outside and chose this as the opportune moment to return.

‘Sorry about that,’ he said. ‘Now, Mrs Hunter – what is it you wished to tell me?’

She looked at me, and at Mr Cooper and his pleading eyes, and I had never seen her look so immeasurably sad.

‘I will tell you where my son is,’ she said slowly. ‘I am sick of death.’

Christian’s eyes lit up, but he merely nodded and looked to me. I asked Mr Cooper to come outside with me, and as he passed Mrs Hunter, he touched her arm and said:

‘Thank you.’

She did not reply; she looked away to another corner, as resigned as if she had decided to face her own death. I gladly shut the door on her and Christian, said goodbye to a disgruntled Mr Perry, and walked outside, aware Mr Cooper was still at my side.

‘Miss Heinlein,’ he said, turning to face me. ‘Thank you for everything you have done. I know that I would like Archie Hunter to suffer, and John, and Matthew May, and everyone else you have caught; I know that imprisonment and even hanging does not feel as just as revenge from my family’s hands. But, if I never have to suffer hearing that awful news again, then it is far preferable to me to go this way. Thank you.’

I was flattered, and a little at loss to respond, but knew I had one important thing to say to him, that had been in my heart for a while.

‘Thank you, sir, for taking Laneham in that time.’

Mr Cooper laughed and put on his hat.

‘I think I have benefitted from that kindness far more than you, my dear.’

He bowed, and stepped into his waiting carriage. I watched him leave, before turning and running down the street, eager to catch the Sunrise before it sailed, and to tell Laneham of my unexpected success.

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Written by G.J.

28/10/2012 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Riverboats

Tagged with , , , ,

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