The Case of the Woman in White

A Henrietta (Henri) Lowell & Doctor Elizabeth Thrift mystery. Consulting lady detectives in 1920s England. (Partially inspired by You Know Who.)

Copyright © 2022 by Tabatha Wood 

This story is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without the permission of the publisher. Tabatha Wood has asserted their moral rights as the author of this work.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Henri had been more restless than usual that morning, pacing the floor like a caged lion. She was bored, I knew, craving some excitement. Another case to get her teeth into. I had suggested a brisk walk around the botanic gardens, to take in some fresh spring air. The weather had betrayed us not far from the seasonal flowerbeds and the sunshine had given way to dark clouds. We had beaten a hasty retreat homewards as heavy raindrops began to batter the tulips. 

They were waiting for us when we returned to Bartleby Terrace. A man and a woman in their early thirties, both impeccably outfitted in the style most becoming of the time. She, slim and pretty in a dropped-waisted dress of fine, yellow silk; he, much fatter and ruddy in the face, in a dark grey suit and poorly knotted tie. Henri’s housekeeper, Mrs Teasdale, had welcomed them into our rooms and furnished both with a cup of hot tea. She told us they had arrived at exactly the same time but, oddly, in separate carriages.

They had seated themselves at opposite ends of the room, the distance between them somehow larger than merely the physical space. I noticed the woman had moved the chair she occupied from its usual spot by the window. Undoubtedly, to be as far away as possible from her unwanted companion. 

The man rose from his seat as we entered the apartment and held out his right hand in greeting. A cloud of confusion passed over his face as Henri stepped into the light. 

“I, err…” he stammered. “Am I in the right place? I was expecting Henri Lowell and Doctor Thrift?”

“And you have found them,” Henri smiled, removing her sodden jacket, and smoothing her chin-length black hair. “Henrietta Lowell and Doctor Elizabeth Thrift, consulting detectives at your service.” She took the man’s hand in hers and gave it a firm shake. The man’s eyes widened, and his cheeks flushed. He looked Henri up and down, taking in her attire; her white collared shirt and fitted pants, her round rimmed spectacles and stout leather shoes. 

Henri leaned forwards slightly, just a little too close for the man to be comfortable, her broad smile showing a few too many teeth. “And who might you be?” she asked.

The man was almost beetroot now. He pulled his hand away and tried to regain his composure, straightening to his full height before introducing himself. “I,” he began, one palm on his ample chest, “am William Henry Robertson.”

I detected a Northern timbre to his accent. Yorkshire. From the Dales perhaps?

Robertson gestured to the woman, and I observed his face harden as he spoke. “And this is my sister-in-law, Clara Montgomery. Forgive me, Miss Lowell, Doctor Thrift, you’re not exactly what I expected.”

We knocked the dirt from our Oxfords and hung up our hats, the edges of my bob curled by the rain. “I can assure you, Mister Robertson,” Henri said, lowering herself into her high-backed chair and rummaging in her pockets for her cigarette case.  “We hear that a lot.” 

I settled into my usual seat by the fire. My cheeks stung as if slapped as they were warmed by the flames, and Henri’s nose shone a shiny crimson. 

“Appearances can often be deceiving,” I continued, and Henri’s lips curled into an almost-smile. “I assume your being here means you are in need of our services. Tell us, what brings you both to Bartleby Terrace?” I asked. 

Clara opened her mouth to reply but was drowned out immediately by Robertson. 

“My wife, my Isobel, has disappeared,” he boomed.

Clara pursed her lips and wrinkled her nose, and I heard her give a scornful grunt.

Robertson continued, unaware of her reaction. “The police tell me they believe she’s dead. They say she was taken from us…” here he lowered his tone to almost a whisper, “by her own hand.”

“But you disagree?” Henri countered.

Robertson nodded. “Isobel would never do such a thing. I don’t care what all them people say.”

“What people?” I asked, leaning closer to the fire, trying to rub the cold from my bones. 

“Those who were on the cliff that evening,” Robertson said. “The people what said they saw her jump.” 

“I think,” Henri told him, as she put a match to her cigarette, inhaled and shook out the flame. “You need to start at the very beginning and tell us everything you know.”

Robertson settled his portly frame into the leather-backed armchair and adjusted the hem of his waistcoat. He let out a deep sigh before continuing.

“My wife, is the daughter of Frederick Montgomery, you might have heard of him?”

I shook my head. Henri failed to respond. 

“Montgomery was a businessman, trading in carpets and rugs, and the owner of Blackstone Furnishers in Whitby, on the North East coast where I come from. He started out as a cabinet maker, a chair-maker and an upholsterer, and moved north from York to open the store. He wanted to offer the best London styles at ‘more readily affordable prices.’ That was his advertising, see? The business did remarkably well, and his pieces were in great demand. Ten years ago, he and Isobel’s mother were both killed in a tragic accident, right here in London town. Hit by one of them big open-topped busses.”

Thankfully, he saw no further need to elaborate. As a doctor I was well-versed in the calamities of modern, motorised transportation. I looked across the sitting room at the silent Clara, her cupped hands resting in her lap. 

“I’m so very sorry for your loss,” I said.  

She flashed me a small smile then turned to glare at Robertson. He seemed oblivious to her ire, and carried on as if she were not even present.

“Isobel inherited a great deal of money after her parent’s death, Miss Lowell. Matter of fact it helped us fund our own business. Well, my business naturally.”

“And what is it you do?” Henri asked him. I was quite aware that such a question was to merely humour the man. No doubt Henri had known the answer since the moment she had set eyes on him, such was her deductive ability.  

“I’m a shipping merchant, ma’am. I too come to London a fair bit, dealing with the necessities of business, and all. It was mutual contacts who suggested I come see you. After the police refused to help.”

“After Isobel passed away?” Henri said. 

“After she disappeared, Miss Lowell,” Robertson corrected. “My wife, she had been troubled for some time. She was always a sensitive sort. Delicate. You know the type.” 

“By troubled, do you mean she was unwell?” I asked.

Robertson paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts before he answered. 

“I suppose you could say that. In the weeks before she disappeared, she was sleepwalking almost every night. I’d wake up to find her gone from our bed, roaming the hallway or standing out in the garden. She said she’d seen and talked with her parents. I came home one evening to find her setting out three cups. When I asked her who was visiting she looked at me like I was mad, and said Mother and Father, of course. She waved at the empty chairs and asked me, could I not see them sitting there?

“But the worst of it was when she said she’d seen the Black Dog, running down the Abbey steps.”

“The Black Dog?” Henri echoed, exhaling smoke.   

“Aye, the Barguest. Are you familiar with the local legend?”

“I’m afraid not.” 

“They say it takes the form of a gigantic black dog with terrifying, blood-red eyes. It serves as an omen of impending death to all who see it or hear it howl. You should never try to halt its path, or it will strike you with its paw and leave a wound that never heals.”

“And Isobel said she had seen this beast?”

“Many times she said she’d heard it barking and howling, at the top of the East Cliff in Saint Mary’s graveyard.”

I felt compelled to interject. “Did Isobel believe the legend?” 

“I don’t know —” he began, and Clara snorted in annoyance.

“You know quite well that she did!” she snapped. “But you refused to entertain such a thing. My sister was distraught and clearly suffering from hysteria. She needed medical assistance, comfort and understanding, but your solution was to lock her in her bedroom while you went out to work!”

“How would you know? You weren’t there!” Robertson shot back.

“You know damn well how I know! All those letters she wrote me.” Clara sprang from her seat and jabbed an accusing finger at the man. “She killed herself, and it was you who drove her to it!” 

“Lies!” Robertson blustered, his round cheeks flushed with rage. “They never found her body, nor any trace that misfortune had befallen her.”

“Mr Robertson. Miss Montgomery.” I said loudly but calmly, hoping to defuse their spat. “Please, just tell us what you know.”

“I’ll tell you,” Clara said, quieter now. She plucked at the pearls wound tightly at her throat and returned to her chair. “It was a foggy, but moonlit evening when my late sister let herself out of her house in Church Street wearing nought but her white cotton nightgown and walked up the one hundred and ninety-nine steps. Those who saw her later said she seemed quite lucid, not distressed nor confused in any way. She climbed the steps that led to the Abbey but turned left towards the graveyard instead. She walked calmly to the cliffside that looks out across the harbour mouth and threw herself over the edge. These are the facts as we know them, and I see no reason at all to dispute them.” 

The woman fell silent and bowed her head, her fingers clasped together as if in silent prayer. 

“Ridiculous!” Robertson grumbled. “How can you take the word of a stranger? ‘Walked calmly to the cliffside,’ indeed! What rot.” 

“Eight strangers, William,” Clara spat back. “Eight different people said they saw her walking up the steps. Saw her poised on the edge of the cliff. And not just strangers either. Edward Harkness, the butcher’s boy. John Coles and Emmeline Sutcliffe. People who knew her, who recognised her, William. Who heard her cry out before she fell. You’re just bitter because of her will.”

“Her will?” Henri enquired.

“Yes. Her will,” Clara replied. “Upon her death, it was discovered that Isobel had inherited a lot more money than anyone had previously known about. Including him,” she gestured at the enraged Robertson. “Added to which, she had left all of this money and her possessions to me, which this oaf is exceedingly unhappy about. The only reason he wants to prove that his wife is not dead is to ensure I receive nothing of what I am rightfully owed.”

Robertson appeared to visibly swell in the chair as he puffed out his thick chest in anger. 

“Because that in itself is preposterous!” he boomed. “I wasn’t even aware she had a damned sister until you suddenly came along!”

“You didn’t know…?” I began, but Clara was quick to explain.

“Isobel and I had been estranged for many years due to a terrible argument, the details of which I would rather not divulge. Suffice to say it was quite the falling out; I wasn’t even invited to her wedding. I’ve been living overseas in Paris since our parents passed, and I had neither seen nor heard from Isobel until recently, when I received a letter from her out of the blue. We corresponded a few times and she spoke quite frankly about certain aspects of her life, especially those which were making her rather unhappy.” She scowled pointedly at Robertson. “It was still a massive shock to find that Isobel had left everything she owned to me.” 

Henri sat very still. She closed her eyes and steepled her fingers, the tips resting on the bridge of her spectacles.

“Tell me, Mister Robertson, what was your wife like?”


“Yes, describe her to me.”

Robertson floundered, momentarily stumped. “Well, I admit I didn’t always understand her. What man ever really knows the inner workings of their wife’s mind?” I smiled to myself at such a comment. “She liked to read and paint, had a few close friends, and she mostly kept herself to herself. She hated the shipping business, had no head for money.”

“And her appearance, Mister Robertson? What did she look like?” 

“Well, I’ll show you, Miss Lowell.” He reached into his inside pocket and retrieved a miniature silver picture frame. He opened the clasp and passed the frame to Henri. I saw a rare and fleeting look of surprise pass over her face, as she looked from the photograph enclosed to Clara at the other end of the room. 

“Ah,” she said, noncommittally, and handed the portrait to me. 

“But that’s…” I began and Clara laughed. 

“Twins?” Henri asked her, and she nodded. 

“I’m the eldest, by seventeen minutes.” 

“Quite a shock indeed, Mister Robertson, to find out not only did your wife have a secret, estranged sister, but one who looked exactly like her.” 

Robertson sucked his teeth and raised his eyebrows. 

“I damned near had a heart attack when I saw her at first. Talking with Inspector Swales. I ran up and went to hold her, thinking she was Isobel, and she slapped me right across the cheek.”

“Of course I did, you bumbling idiot. I didn’t have the slightest clue who you were! Isobel only told me that she was married. She didn’t describe to whom.”

“You’re a shrew of a woman, you know that? Not like your sister at all.”

“I should hope not! I would never have been foolish enough to marry such a beast!”

“A beast? You don’t even know me, woman, yet you are determined to slur my good character!” 

I cleared my throat rather pointedly and they stopped bickering and apologised. 

“I’m sorry, Doctor Thrift. She sets me off, she does.”

“Tell me, Mister Robertson,” Henri mused, “why exactly did you travel here today?”

“Isn’t it obvious, Miss Lowell? I want you to find my wife.”

“And you, Miss Montgomery?”  

“The circumstances of her death are quite awful enough. I won’t have this man spreading falsehoods and sullying my sister’s memory as well.”  

Henri rose from her chair and crossed to the window. She pulled back the heavy velvet curtain and stared down into the dull London street. 

“It’s a long journey back to Whitby. I’d say what, seven hours?”

“Almost eight, Miss Lowell,” Robertson told him.

“I imagine you will be staying the night in London. Catching the morning train?”

“I’m here in London for the next five days. Business obligations, mainly.”

“And you, Miss Montgomery? Will you be remaining in England now, or do you plan to go back to France?”

“I also have some business to attend to. Paris may have to wait.”

Henri nodded but kept her back to the room. “Very well. Leave your details with Elizabeth. I will be in touch forthwith.” 

“Does that mean…?”

“Goodbye, Mister Robertson and Miss Montgomery!” Henri called out cheerfully. “Safe travels, both of you.”

I waited until the pair had left, rather awkwardly and still trading insults, until I joined Henri at the window.

“All right then, out with it,” I told her, crossing my arms in mock anger. 

“How is Frederick?” she asked, changing the subject and referring to my son. 

“He’s fine. Excellent in fact. Spending some time with his aunt Maud in the country. It does wonders for his weak chest. Why do you ask?”

“Then I shall meet you at Kings Cross at eight tomorrow. We can catch the early train.”

“The early train to where?” 

“Why, Whitby, of course. Where else?” 

“So you do intend to take the case.”

“Perhaps,” she replied, still observing the street. I saw over her shoulder the fog-shrouded shapes of Robertson and Clara, walking in opposite directions. “I should like to see the town for myself. It certainly seems to inspire plenty of interest in the literary circles, don’t you think?” 

“Ah, you mean—”

“Yes, quite. Ghosts, ghouls and other curious goings-on. An elaborate fantasy, of course. But the medieval Abbey itself is splendid, so I’ve heard, and as you’ve just said, any time spent inhaling fresh air is always a nourishing tonic. It’s just what the doctor ordered!” 

She clapped me exuberantly on the back. I winced and rolled my eyes. I knew there would be no dissuading her now. 

“So, that’s settled then,” she said. “Tomorrow at eight. Don’t be late, my dear Lizzie.”  

I arrived at the station at a quarter to the hour, carrying my suitcase and essentials, and spied Henrietta reclining on a wooden bench reading the daily newspaper.

I called out, “Good morning,” and she bobbed her head in greeting and folded the paper in her lap. 

“Good morning, indeed. I have our tickets prepared. We leave for York at half-past.”

The Great Northern express was already waiting at the platform; a thin, pale grey plume rising softly from the smokestack. We boarded and took our seats. We remained mostly silent as the carriages filled up and the guard blew his whistle for departure. The driver coaxed the massive locomotive into action and it began grumbling its way down the line. 

“Tell me, Elizabeth,” Henri began at last. “Have you given any thought to our disappearing woman?” 

“A little,” I admitted. “Yourself?”

“Tell me your thoughts,” she said, ignoring my question. 

“It is clearly a very emotional affair, for the both of them. The shock of losing your wife in that manner, and then discovering she had an identical twin sister of whom you knew nothing about. Very emotional indeed.”

“Do you believe her?”

“The sister? She seems very sure. And the husband, one cannot blame him for asking questions. Neither of them appeared very sorrowful though, did they? Dead or disappeared, whatever happened to that poor woman, they seemed more determined to merely prove the other wrong.”

“The husband needs the money,” Henri declared. 

“How do you figure that?”

“His complexion for one, the blush across his nose and cheeks, a clear sign of a man who likes his drink. Affirmed by the scent of scotch on his breath, but harsh, a cheaper brand than he would prefer. No doubt he decants it into finer bottles so his associates do not suspect. The patches of dried soap behind his ear, where he has missed them while shaving, suggests he is perhaps not at his best in the morning, and that he grooms from necessity rather than care.”

“Come now, Henrietta, the man is grieving for his wife. Surely you would not begrudge him a drink or two to help to soothe the loss?”  

Henri raised an eyebrow and made a hum of acknowledgement. “And what of his attire, Lizzie? What did you notice there?”

“Standard for a businessman of his sort. The suit was somewhat crumpled, but still a good cut. Well-tailored. Decent shoes, although they could have stood to be polished.”

“They were tatty at the seams and fastenings, Lizzie, and most likely a few years old. His shoes were worn out on the soles, well overdue for a cobblers touch. His jacket was cut for a much smaller frame, it barely would have covered his girth. No, he was keeping up appearances perhaps, but with limited funds to do so. 

“William Robertson’s uncle owned a shipbuilding business, a lucrative industry in Whitby, especially in James Cook’s time, less so in recent years. I gather he came by his first merchant ship thanks to his late relative’s benefaction. By the looks of his hands he’s never sailed himself, although that is not particularly unusual, not every shipowner enjoys the high seas. My guess is he was somewhat forced into the family business, and has found himself out of his depth.

“His marriage to Isobel Montgomery, however, meant her inheritance would have profited them both. As a businessman he would have managed their finances, she had ‘no head for money’ was what he said.”

“You think he was spending her inheritance?”

“Almost certainly,” Henri replied. 

“So her leaving everything to Clara was a blow for him, especially if he was relying on those assets.” A sudden and terrible thought occurred to me. “Good grief, do you think he might have killed her, Henri?” 

“Certainly, some men have done far worse for less,” Henri agreed. “But no, whatever fate has befallen Mrs Robertson, I don’t believe he was directly involved. What then, of Clara Montgomery?” 

“In looks, she seems identical to her sister,” I said. “But I surmise from how she spoke to Robertson that her temperament is very much different. There is no love lost there.”

“Hmmm,” Henri mused, her eyebrows rising briefly. “Certainly, that would appear to be the case.”

“You disagree?” 

“Not exactly, but such a rage has passion. I wonder what else he might have done to make her feel such a way.”  

“They hardly know each other.”

“So they say.” 

“You don’t believe them?”

“I believe actions often speak louder than words.” 

“But what possible reason would they have for disputing the other’s claim?” 

The light in the carriage went dim for a moment as the track took us into a tunnel. Henri turned to the darkened window and her ghostly reflection gazed back.

“I have no idea, Lizzie,” she said, seeming suddenly very far away. “But I expect one of them knows far more about the truth of the matter than they are letting on.”

 The train rattled along the track at speed, stopping only at two major stations along the way—Peterborough and Leeds—but I knew we were unlikely to reach York before lunchtime. The stewardess served us refreshments from the on-board trolley. As she poured out the tea from a shiny silver teapot, I took several helpings of hot toast. It dripped with golden, melted butter and there were three different kinds of jam on offer. Henri and I conversed a little, drank tea and read our papers, as the landscape changed from grey to green and the fields opened up on either side of us.

We changed trains at York for Rillington, with one other final change to Whitby station, and I was glad of the brief chance to stretch my legs. The sun was already past its peak as we rumbled through Pickering and across the North Yorkshire Moors, and the station clock read almost four when we finally reached our journey’s end. 

“You talk in your sleep,” Henri told me, a glimmer of amusement in her eyes. I was vaguely aware of having dozed momentarily, somewhere across the moors.

“Oh. Did I say anything interesting?” 

“Not particularly,” she replied, retrieving her suitcase. “But there are monkeys in the birch trees at the botanic gardens apparently.” She winked and scanned a slip of paper pulled from her pocket. “Our lodgings are on the West Cliff, I believe. Are you happy to take a walk?”

“Goodness, yes. I’d be glad of it.” 

From the station to the West Cliff was all uphill, and my knees protested at the exercise. We arrived at a guest house on the Royal Crescent and were met by a Mrs Vasey, who bustled and fussed and showed us to our rooms overlooking the beach and the North Sea. I was in no mood to stay inside after such an arduous journey and said as much to Henrietta. 

“Quite so,” she agreed, and we set out once more, away from the promenade to the East side of town. 

The ruins of the Abbey were an imposing sight, perched high on the hilltop above the houses, gilded by the rays of the low sun. The sea breeze was crisp but not unpleasant, the scent of salt on the wind. We crossed the harbour via the swing bridge, a marvel of structural engineering; a four arched bridge with one cast iron arc that could swivel to allow boats to pass through. On the East side, we walked along Church Street, the heels of our shoes clattering on the cobbles. The market rang with a cacophony of voices as the tradesmen hawked the last of their wares, and as we neared closer to the stone church steps I caught the tang of wood smoke and herring from the fish smokehouse at the entrance to Henrietta Street. 

We stood briefly at the bottom of the multiple steps, before beginning the route to Saint Mary’s. I counted each one as I ascended, mumbling under my breath. By the first hundred, I was ready to take a break, but Henri showed no sign of tiring. How anyone could manage to carry a laden coffin up this way quite astounded me. 

I took my hundred and ninety-ninth step and looked back upon the way we had come. From up here the buildings looked like miniatures. A doll’s-house scale replica of the town.  

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Henri said, at my shoulder. 

“Beautiful,” I answered, still breathless. “A very different view to that of Bartleby Terrace.” 

“Come, Elizabeth” she beckoned, and I broke my awestruck gaze. “I want to see where she fell before the light fades.” 

We followed the winding path through the gravestones. There was nothing at the edge to mark Isobel’s passing, although quite what I was expecting I wasn’t sure. Others were mingling amongst the gravesite; couples taking a stroll together, sometimes pausing to look out to the horizon and admire the sun as it dipped towards the waves. Others pulled weeds and errant grass from around the headstones, tending plots that must surely mark the final resting place of a relative or friend. They paid no mind to us as we examined the sharp drop from the clifftop to the houses on Henrietta Street below. The steep slope was made from alternating layers of shale, sandstone and clay, declaring each element in broad stripes of colour.

“Do you see that, Lizzie?” Henri asked me, pointing a little way down the ridge. I looked, but at first, I couldn’t see what she referred to. “Right there, maybe five or six feet down, a ridge in the cliffside. Do you see?” 

I looked again, shielding my eyes from the low sun with my palm, and saw that she was right. 

“What about it?” I asked.

Henri rubbed her chin and pursed her lips before moving closer to the edge. 

“Careful, Henri,” I called after her. “It’s a dreadfully long way down.”

“Is it?” she replied, sounding oddly sceptical, and without another word, she jumped.

“Henrietta!” I yelled, racing to the edge, my entire body shaking with shock. 

“Hello, Lizzie,” came her perfectly calm reply, and I looked down to see my friend crouched without concern on the lip she had previously pointed out to me. “How far to the bottom do you think it is from here?” 

I looked and offered a rough estimate. “Fifty, maybe sixty feet?” 

“Could you climb it?” 

“Going down? Perhaps, if I was exceedingly careful I suppose. There seems to be plenty of handholds and footrests. It would be dangerous though. One mistake and you would tumble all the way to the ground. Not to mention the rock face seems fragile here, the surface liable to crumble.”

“Yes. It’s sedimentary, my dear Lizzie,” came her reply, and I looked up to see her flash a rare and mischievous grin. It was fleeting, however, and she was soon deeply absorbed in his surroundings again. “Do you recall how Clara described the weather that night her sister jumped?”

“Foggy, but moonlit,” I said.

“Clear enough for people to see her disappear, but perhaps dark enough that they might miss what happened after. The shroud of mist clinging to the cliffs could provide good cover for many deceits.” She took another tentative step down.

“What are you thinking, Henri?” I asked her. “And please, be careful.”

“Those houses down there, the street links up with the bottom of the steps. You could climb down, be well away into the town without anyone watching from the top left any the wiser.”

“I suppose you could,” I agreed. “So, do you think Isobel is alive? Do you think she has faked her death?”

“I think we should talk to Inspector Swales in the morning. Get his impression of the case.” She took one last look at the cliff face beneath her and held out a soil-streaked hand.

“I say, Lizzie, any chance you can help me back up?”

Edwin Swales was a well-built man, impressive in both bulk and stature. He held himself with a soldier’s precision, straight-backed and level-chinned. His dark blonde hair was cropped close to his head, shorter than most regular styles, and his neat moustache was groomed and waxed, trimmed with careful precision. He fixed Henrietta with a steely blue-eyed stare and took a hearty swig of his tea. 

“Consulting detectives, eh? Yes, I’ve heard of yous. I’m not surprised Robertson has called you in. He doesn’t believe a word we’ve told him about his wife’s disappearance, or her apparent suicide. He is convinced we are all lying to him; hiding Isobel somewhere. He even insisted on checking the cells.”

Henri leaned forwards and steepled her fingers. “What do you think has happened to her?”

Swales puffed out his cheeks and shook his head. “I can’t say anything for certain. There’s no doubt at all that she went over the edge. Plenty of witnesses saw her fall. But there was no sign of a body at the bottom, or on Tate Hill sands.”

“Could she have fallen into the harbour and been swept out?” I asked.

“Hmmm. Maybe,” he said, smoothing his moustache, although it was already perfectly neat. “Unlikely though. Most bodies get tangled up by the pier, the current is too weak to pull them out. Besides, if she’d tumbled down the rock face, I’d expect to find her at the end of Henrietta Street, rather than on the beach.”

“Unless the witnesses were wrong and she jumped from a different spot,” Henri said.

“Ah, I thought of that. We searched all around the headland and across The Scar. Found absolutely nothing at all.”

“Those witnesses you mentioned, how many were there?” 

Swales licked a finger and flicked through the pages of a pocketbook. “That would be John Coles, an archivist and librarian with the Whitby Literary Society, and his sweetheart, Moira Westland; James Southwell, who owns the Custom House down by the pier, Edward Harkness –”

“The butcher’s boy?” I interjected.

“That’s correct, Doctor. Then, Emmeline Sutcliffe, she’s an artist, paints a lot of watercolours of the local area; Mr and Mrs Eglon, they own a teahouse, best cheese scones in Whitby, I’d say; and Samuel Wycliffe, a retired solicitor, out for a walk with his dog.”  

I could see Henri counting them up in her head. “And these were all people who knew Isobel?” 

“Very well. But this is a small town, Miss Lowell. We all know each other very well. There’s not much goes on here that avoids becoming local gossip. As you can imagine, this whole business is quite the scandal.”

“I assume the witnesses stories all corroborate each other? Nothing unusual in what any of them say?”  

“They all said exactly the same thing. They saw Isobel in her nightclothes ascend the church steps, walk calmly to the edge of the cliff, and then throw herself over the edge.”

“Her sister told us they heard her cry out before she fell?” Henri asked.

“Yes. Three of them—Wycliffe, Southwell and Emmeline—they swear they heard her shout out, ‘I’m coming, Mother!’ just before she jumped. I can only presume she was expressing a wish to join her deceased parents.”

“But the absence of a body means you cannot be sure?”

“Look, Miss Lowell,” Swales said sharply, flipping the pocketbook closed. “Sometimes people just disappear. Things happen to them, and we do our very best to find out what, but every so often we come across a case that is a genuine, head-scratching mystery. It’s my job to follow the clues and piece together the story, to find an answer that makes sense. This time…” the inspector turned his palms to the air and shrugged. “I have no idea what happened.”

Henri stood up and shook Swale’s hand. “I understand, Inspector. Thank you for your time.”

We left the redbrick police station and stepped out into the street. From here we had a vantage point looking down on Station Square and across the west side of the town. 

“Tell me, Lizzie, how many butchers shops do you think there are in Whitby?”

“I really couldn’t say, Henri. Probably half a dozen?”

“And if you lived here, you would patron the one closest to your house, would you not?”

“That would certainly make the most sense.”

“Come then, Lizzie. We walked past a butcher’s shop yesterday on Sandgate, not far from the Robertson’s home address. If the Inspector is right about the people who live here, I’m rather keen to hear what else Master Harkness has to say.”  

The butcher’s shop was bustling with customers when we arrived, and it took a good half hour before young Edward was able to take a break and join us in the Town Hall square. As Henri had foreseen he was eager to tell us everything, and more, about what he had seen that night. 

“I could hardly believe it when I saw her do it, miss,” he said, “Mrs Robertson was always so nice to me, always chatting with me in the shop when most other ladies what come by are too busy to bother. She’d always ask about my Ma and how her legs were doing—she’s crippled, my Ma you see, miss—and she’d send us a card every Christmas time, with a little something for me younger sisters and me brother. I mean, it were a real shock, I can tell you that for nowt. Especially when she’d seemed so normal when she spoke.” The boy paused for a moment, obviously remembering. “Of course, it weren’t regular for her to be out dressed like that. Bare feet, and in her underthings and all…” The boy’s cheeks flushed and he stared at his feet. 

“You said she spoke to you?” Henri queried.

“Yes, miss. She said, ‘Good evening, Edward, how lovely to see you. I shall miss you very much,’ and she reached out and patted me right here.” The boy motioned to his arm. “I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just said, ‘Thank you, Mrs Robertson.’ I feel right daft about it now.” I saw the beginnings of tears flash in the boys eyes, but he swallowed hard and blinked them away. 

“Do you know,” Henri asked him, “if she spoke to any other people on the clifftop that night?” 

“She did indeed, miss. Everyone what she knew. She’d stop for a moment and greet them before carrying on to the edge.”

“And did she seem distressed in any way? Give you any reason to suspect she might be upset?”

“Not at all, miss. She seemed quite calm. Cheerful even.” He fell quiet again and chewed his lip. “Miss Lowell, do you really think she’s dead? It’s just… Well… If I’d known what she was going to do, I’d have tried to stop her, miss. For sure I would have. But she seemed so normal, like she was just out for a stroll. I never thought…” 

I laid my hand on the boy’s shoulder and gave it a light squeeze. “It’s alright, Edward. You mustn’t blame yourself. There was no way you could have known.”

We walked him back to the butcher’s shop and thanked him for his time. Half-way back to the harbour bridge, our path was blocked by a robust, middle-aged woman. A leather satchel was slung around one shoulder, and she clutched a wooden foldaway easel underneath one arm. 

“Henrietta Lowell, I presume?” she began, and held out her free hand for Henri to shake. “Emmeline Sutcliffe. I hear you are investigating poor Isobel’s death?” 

Henri nodded her affirmation. 

“Such a terrible thing to happen to such a lovely girl. And no body to bury or say goodbye to! Such a tragedy. I have to say, I’m not at all surprised that William would secure your services. He doesn’t seem in the least bit upset at Isobel’s disappearance. All he wants is the inheritance. Desperately, I suppose.”

“What makes you say that?” Henri asked.

Emmeline grinned, like she had been waiting for this question and was eager to spill all the juicy details.

“Well, everyone in Whitby knows his shipping business is failing. He can’t compete with the bigger shipbuilders. Those up the coast in Hartlepool, building iron steamships and whatnot. He made some poor decisions, spent far more than he ever had and lost the rest on a bad hand of cards. Rumour has it he needs in excess of seven hundred pounds just to keep the whole thing afloat.” She chuckled at her joke. “That inheritance would come in very handy. Of course, he won’t see a penny of it now.” 

Henri raised an eyebrow. “And how do you suppose Mr Robertson feels about that?”

“Oh, he’s furious! Everyone saw him have a blazing row in the street with Isobel’s twin sister. He said he would stop at nothing to get what he deserved.” 

“Do you think he had a hand in Isobel’s disappearance?” I asked. The woman turned her head to me and laughed loudly. Her rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes made her look rather handsome.

“Good Heavens, no. William is a blunderbuss and a drunkard, that much is certain, but I don’t believe he would hurt anyone. Besides, what would be the point? The money was partly his until recently. What would have to gain?”

“That’s a very logical way to look at it, Mrs–”

Miss Sutcliffe,” she corrected, and gave a knowing smile. “Happily unmarried for the moment. My art is my first and only love.” She winked and said, “I suspect the same is true for you, Miss Lowell. Anyway, ladies, all that said, I think it’s time for me to take my leave. I want to get up to the Abbey again, before the best of the day is done. Good day!” She bustled through the crowds in a flurry of skirts, using the edge of the easel to carve a path between the throng.     

“Well, Lizzie,” Henri began, glancing at her pocket watch. “It appears we have learned a great deal today, but we are still no closer to a conclusion. If it’s alright with you, I have some errands to run. Shall we meet outside the Public Library at, let’s say, four o’clock?” 

“I, er…” I floundered. “Where?”

She placed a unlit cigarette in the corner of her lips and it wobbled as she talked. “On the quayside, Lizzie, above the public baths. You can’t miss it.” And with that she struck a match, sent a plume of smoke into the wind, and stalked across the bridge to the opposite side of town.  

A soft breeze teased the clouds away from the sun, and I stood for a moment, enjoying its rays, taking in the sights and sounds of the town. I smelled the fish from the market along the east pier. Heard the gulls as they swooped above my head. I breathed deeply and tasted the salt in the air, and set off in a steady amble towards the West Cliff. 

I met Henri at the library as she had suggested, but she was in no immediate hurry to leave. She was perched at a desk looking out across the waterfront, poring over what appeared to be a heavy ledger. 

“Ah, Elizabeth!” she exclaimed as I sat down across the table. “Is it that time already? I can see by the sand in your coat sleeves that you have been walking on the beach. How was it?”

“Wonderful, Henri,” I told her. “Very relaxing, yet also invigorating. I was almost tempted to take a donkey ride, but I suspect the poor creature deserved better.” I nodded at the book she was reading. “What have you found?”

A look of excitement crossed her face. “I have found Clara Montgomery!”

“What do you mean?” 

Henrietta closed the ledger with a thump and pocketed her notes. 

“I mean, Lizzie, that the facts have led me to a theory about Isobel’s unusual disappearance.”

“And are you going to share that theory?” I asked her. 

“Perhaps, Lizzie. Perhaps. But first, let us find somewhere to dine and drink. At the Eglon’s tearoom, maybe? A cheese scone sounds rather delicious right now, and we have a long journey back to London tomorrow.”

Henrietta refused to be drawn on whatever details she had found about Clara and Isobel Montgomery, which I admit, I found terribly vexing. We rose and made our way to the train station the next morning, eager to catch the first train. The journey to York was long but pleasant, and I spent much of my time staring out of the window, counting the fields as we sped past. I felt strangely morose at the thought of leaving the calming seaside behind and heading back into the loud, grey city.  

We arrived at the station a little past one and crossed the platform to where our connecting train was due to depart. It was purely by accident that I saw the woman up ahead, struggling with a massive wooden trunk.  

“Henri,” I said, grabbing her arm. “Isn’t that?” She looked ahead and saw her too. I saw her pause for a moment before she called out her name.

“Isobel? Isobel Robertson?” 

The woman turned, responding to her voice, and I saw her face fall when she saw us. Henri walked briskly along the platform and she stood poker-straight, arms folded. 

“Henrietta Lowell,” she said, curtly. “What a surprise to see you here.”

“And you, Isobel,” she replied. “It is Isobel, isn’t it?”

The woman sighed and declined to answer. Henri pulled a slip of paper from her jacket and began to read.

“Clara Ann Montgomery. Born 1797 to Francis and Annabel Montgomery. Sister to Frederick George. Died, unmarried, in Paris, five years ago, aged eighty-seven years old.” 

“I’m sorry, Henri,” I said. “I’m confused. Clearly, that is a different Clara Montgomery to…” I gestured awkwardly at the woman. “How is this relevant to our case?”

‘Because, dear Lizzie, the Clara Montgomery we know, doesn’t appear to exist. There is no record of her whatsoever. In addition, there is no mention at all of Isobel ever having a sister. Isn’t that true, Mrs Robertson?”

She pursed her lips and glared at Henri. “Just what are you suggesting?”

“I should have realised it from the start,” Henri replied. “Only those who had once been bound together in marriage would argue with such intensity and fire. Wouldn’t you agree, Lizzie?”

“Well… I…” I began.

“I saw straight away that ‘Clara’ had a notch on the third finger of her left hand. A clear sign that, until recently, she had been wearing what I suspected was a wedding ring, but it had since been removed. I noticed how she reacted to how William spoke of his late wife, how she bristled when he described her temperament.” Henri turned to face the woman. “In the picture Robertson showed me, I saw Isobel had a prominent brown freckle, right at the base of her throat.” She put her fingers to her own neck. “You hid it with your pearls that day, Isobel. But I see you are not wearing them now.” 

I stared, and on the woman’s throat I could plainly see the undeniable proof. 

She huffed a little and then relaxed her posture. “Well done, Miss Lowell. Well done indeed. It appears you have discovered the truth.”

“So, there is no Clara?” I asked, astounded. 

“Oh yes,” she said. “There was. Clara Montgomery was my late aunt. She was a formidable woman who never married, and her life was one glorious adventure. She travelled all over Europe, working as a governess and a schoolmistress. She was everything I ever wanted to be but was always too afraid. 

“My husband was a drunken fool, and a terrible businessman to boot. I’ve lived with his appalling behaviour for far too many years. He blames everyone else for his failures and refuses to take any responsibility himself. He frittered away my money as if it was his own. Lost even more when he fell to gambling but didn’t have the spine to tell me the truth. I simply grew tired of it, Doctor. Tired of being meek and ignored. His deceit was the final straw.”

“You faked your own death,” Henri said, stating fact. “You made sure that as many people as possible witnessed you jump off the cliff, but you landed on the ledge and climbed down to the street.”

“Yes,” Isobel admitted. “Samuel helped me with the details.”

“Samuel Wycliffe?” I asked. 

Isobel nodded. “He’s a long-time friend of the family. He was my father’s solicitor. In their youth, he and Aunt Clara courted briefly. He always loved her wildness of spirit. He helped me forge letters to ‘Clara,’ and hid me since the night I ‘died’. He was so angry when he found out what William was doing. Almost as angry as I was. 

“Between us, we devised a careful plan, carried out over several months. I made William believe I was terribly unwell, so that he wouldn’t doubt my intentions. But it seems I didn’t fully convince him. 

“When I found out that he was going to ask for your help to try and disprove my death, I decided to go along myself to try to throw you off the scent. It appears you are every bit as clever as they say, Miss Lowell.” 

“Certainly more clever than your husband,” I said. “How could it be that he did not recognise you?”

She laughed openly then, genuinely amused. “Are you married, Doctor Thrift?” 

“I was once. He passed.”

“I’m sorry,” Isobel said. “But do you think your husband could have described you in minute detail? Including how you walk and talk?”

“Yes, I think so. We were very much in love—”

“My husband barely paid any attention to me, Doctor. I was simply a walking piggybank to him. All I had to do was style myself differently. A new haircut, a beauty mark, some lip stain and rouge. Isobel was never so ostentatious. All that was left was for me to find my wild spirit, to channel my late Aunt Clara. William was so focused on the loss of the money, he never cared about the loss of his wife.”

I heard the hiss and chug of an engine boiler, bursting into life. She bent down and grasped the leather handle on the side of the trunk. 

“My train is almost ready to leave, Miss Lowell, and I intend to be on it. It is time for me to have my own adventures, somewhere William will never find me. Goodbye, ladies. It was nice meeting you again.” 

She strode down the platform towards the waiting train, dragging the trunk behind her. She didn’t look back as she spoke to the porter, who helped her lift the trunk into the carriage. 

Henri caught the attention of a passing guard. 

“Excuse me, can you tell me where that train is going?” 

“That’s the express to Edinburgh, ma’am, due to leave in two minutes. Were you wanting to board?”

“Oh, no. Thank you,” she told the man. “I was just curious, is all.” 

I saw a flash of a figure behind the window of the train as Isobel found her seat. Henri curled my arm in hers and we set off towards the opposite side of the station. 

Robertson was waiting for us again when we returned to Bartleby Terrace, keen to know if there was any update on his case. I had pressed Henrietta on the journey back to the city if she would tell William the truth. She had stayed silent for a long time, staring out of the carriage window watching the landscape flash past. 

“I think,” she told me eventually, “what transpires in a marriage is the sole business of the parties involved.” 

William sat in the same chair as before, his portly frame filling the seat. Henri sat opposite and put her palm to her chin. I stood by the window of the apartment as Henri spoke to the man, pretending I was more interested in the pigeons perched on the outer windowsill, than I was in their conversation but I was desperately curious to hear what she would say.

“Mr Robertson,” Henri began, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “It’s not good news, I’m afraid. I’ve done as much as I possibly can, and I followed every clue I found. Unfortunately, your case has proved inconclusive. I’m so very sorry to say this to you, sir, but I have reason to believe your wife is gone.”