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JAOCTGOHONO 2017 - The Phantom of Longbourn Bridge

Draculli
October 31, 2017 06:45PM
JAOCTGOHONO 17
The Phantom of Longbourn Bridge
by Draculli


There was an uproar in Meryton and its surroundings as no one had ever witnessed within living memory. One of Mr Bennet’s dairy maids had been found dead close to Longbourn Bridge, and that had revived an old legend which lost nothing in its repeated telling. The bridge, it was said, claimed a life every seven years, and it was Mr Bennet’s fault for not allowing his tenants to drown a black hen under the bridge to buy another seven years’ worth of peace and quiet. Soon gossip became so vicious that Mr Bennet, not usually one to pay much attention to what his neighbours said or did, felt compelled to get help. He did not believe in the Phantom of Longbourn Bridge, but there was a slight possibility that the girl’s death had not been an accident, and if that was the case there was a murderer at large.
Although he did not feel in the least guilty for not having a black hen cruelly killed at the bridge, he did feel responsible for discovering the circumstances of the very suspicious death of one of his servants that had furthermore occurred on his own land. So, with the assistance of his son-in-law, Mr Darcy, he contacted Bow Street in London, and asked for one of the famous Bow Street Runners to come to Hertfordshire to investigate. Considering that he still had two unmarried daughters living in his house, he asked for a sober, gentlemanlike man, not too young or dashing – Mary, he knew, was quite unimpressionable when it came to young men, but there was no knowing what Kitty would do when presented with a bold young officer; even if that officer was just a vulgar thief-taker from London and wearing plain clothes. There had been trouble enough with Lydia, Mr Bennet thought, and decided that he would not risk another Mr Wickham in his household. And so, Mr Robert Gaskin arrived in Longbourn with his task made clear to him. He had to find a murderer and fail to impress Mr Bennet’s daughters.


~~~0~~~



“We will all be murdered in our beds!” Mrs Bennet wailed. “And what does your father do about it? Nothing! Nothing at all!”

“As far as I know, he has written to London and asked for a Bow Street Runner to come and investigate,” Mary pointed out.

“As if that is going to do us any good,” Mrs Bennet snapped. “Bow Street indeed! As if a thief-taker could help us, with the Phantom lying in wait for us whenever we have to cross the bridge! Just you wait until you wake up dead one morning.”

Mary refrained from informing her mother that waking up was not usually associated with the dead. Or mornings, for that matter. Instead she took her place at the pianoforte and tried to drown her mother’s ceaseless chattering and complaining in some music. Kitty was just as bad, she thought. Together her mother and sister managed to spread panic wherever they went. As for the ridiculous nonsense they were telling everyone, about the Phantom which would take anyone that dared cross over that bridge, it made Mary feel positively ashamed for her family. It was not the first time they made her feel like this, it was true, but enough was enough. Maybe she ought to accept her sister Elizabeth’s invitation and go to visit her in London for a couple of weeks. By the time she got back, the panic would have died down.

After her sisters’ marriages, Mary had been promoted to the position of Eldest Daughter of the House – at least when none of her sisters was visiting – and as such her mother expected her to take her part in the entertainment of guests. The Runner from London, she had been told, would stay as a guest in their house, even though no one expected him to be a gentleman. But Longbourn was the best place to keep an eye on Longbourn Bridge, and if all else failed Mary supposed he would be well looked after in the servants’ hall, considering his errand. She expected someone middle-aged (Mr Darcy had described him as “an experienced man”), probably uncomfortable in polite society and certainly not genteel himself. He would be dull, she supposed, like most men, and not interested in intelligent conversation. Most men were not.

Her surprise was great when Mr Gaskin arrived. He was not middle-aged but about the same age as her brother-in-law, Mr Darcy. His speech and bearing were that of a gentleman, and although Mary did not consider herself an expert in male attire she thought he dressed rather well for someone who roamed London’s streets and alleys in search of miscreants. Mary had heard of the Runners, of course, but she had never thought any of those people could look – and act – so gentlemanlike, or afford such clothes as Mr Gaskin was wearing. It was not, after all, the kind of profession a gentleman was supposed to take up. Although, Mary supposed, one needed a certain amount of intelligence and education to be successful in such a venture.

On the evening after his arrival, Mary tried to take more part in the conversation that usual to discover whether Mr Gaskin was as clever as her brother-in-law had indicated. She discovered that Mr Gaskin was well-educated (which meant that he had read enough of those books Mary was fond of to hold his own in a conversation without making a fool of himself). He knew Mr Darcy from school and university, he told them, and Mary again wondered why a gentleman who had had the benefit of an expensive education had to stoop so low as to hunt criminals in London for a living. However, she felt this was not a question to ask a man only a couple of hours after meeting him for the first time. Maybe if he stayed in Longbourn for long enough she would find out.

~~~0~~~


Mr Gaskin immediately set about his task. First of all, he wanted to speak to everyone who had seen Polly, the dairy maid, during her last two days, and to any witnesses who might have noticed something strange at Longbourn Bridge. Like Mr Bennet, he did not believe in ghosts, but he did believe that someone planning mischief might make use of a local legend that kept people away from a certain place. Since some of the maids did not want to speak to him without someone present to protect their virtue – one never knew with those Londoners – Mary volunteered to sit with them while they talked. To be honest, she also volunteered so she could watch Mr Gaskin’s methods. In the end, his occurrence book contained the following information:

- Polly, the dairy maid, had left the house at four o’clock in the morning to milk the cows. She had done so every day, which was a well-known fact in the neighbourhood.

- According to Hill, the housekeeper, Polly had been a good girl. There had been no love affairs, not even a fiancé.

- Several members of the household claimed to have seen the Phantom lurking at Longbourn Bridge, including Mrs Bennet and the younger of her daughter, though this had not been substantiated by the elder of her daughters who had been in the carriage with them at the time.

- There were several villagers who had also seen what they called the Phantom – a dark shape resembling a headless man – lurking under Longbourn Bridge. None of them had dared approach the spectre to see whether it was a real person dressed up as a ghost.

- It was reasonable to assume that the person who had posed as the Phantom was also the person responsible for Polly’s death.

- Speaking of Polly’s death, its cause had not yet been identified beyond doubt. It remained a mystery.

- Polly had no enemies that anyone could think of. There had been occasional arguments with her fellow servants at Longbourn, but nothing to cause serious trouble. Two days before her demise, Polly had had an argument with the housekeeper, but Mrs Hill had an alibi.

Mr Gaskin was not happy with the results of his inquiry. “This case does not make sense,” he told Mr Bennet. “We have a girl who died under suspicious circumstances, but it is not clear how it happened. We have no suspects to speak of, and we have talk of a ghost that will, to put things politely, make this investigation rather awkward for me. Whatever anyone has seen, they will blame it on the ghost.”

“There must be some clue at the bridge itself,” Mary suggested. “Maybe we should search the river bank there?”

“Maybe I should search the river bank there,” Mr Gaskin corrected her. “Let me inform you that this was the first thing I did this morning, but without any notable success. There is nothing for it; I will have to keep watch there at night. Some people have told me they have seen the Phantom even after Polly died - this means that whoever killed her may still be around and wait for another victim. Best keep the place under observation.”

Mr Bennet generously offered Mr Gaskin some of his stable hands to assist him, but Mr Gaskin declined the offer. The fewer people were there the better it would be, he said. One man could accomplish the task without attracting the culprit’s attention. Several men, however, could hardly pass unnoticed.

“And to say the truth, sir, the best chance we have at the moment is catching the man red-handed. I cannot arrest anyone unless I have a good reason for doing so.”

“But this means that even if you catch someone hanging around at the bridge you will not be able to prove he is Polly’s murderer”, Mary pointed out. “Unless he confesses to his crime. It is no crime that I know of to spend one’s nights under a bridge.”

“The bridge is on your father’s land, so I might get him for trespassing,” Mr Gaskin said, smiling. That smile made him look almost attractive. “Loitering with intent, maybe.”

“Which is not the same thing as murder,” Mary replied.

Mr Gaskin sighed and looked serious again. “True. But for now, watching the bridge is the only thing I can do.”

~~~0~~~


We must catch the man red-handed if we want him to be punished for his crime, Mary thought. But how was this to be done? She tossed and turned in her bed, unable to go to sleep. Unless there was someone foolish enough to walk across the bridge that night, the Phantom would not attack anyone. Would Mr Gaskin provoke an attack by crossing the bridge himself? But if the legends were to be believed, the Phantom never took a man’s life. It had to be a female. And whoever it was who was impersonating the Phantom wanted to kill women, too. So, if one wanted to catch the Phantom red-handed, one would have to set a trap for him; and bait it with … a woman. Mary was clever enough to know that it would be foolhardy to venture to the bridge that night, without having told Mr Gaskin what she was up to. Even if the Phantom did not attack her Mr Gaskin might, in the mistaken belief that she was the man impersonating the Phantom. She would have to consult him first.

“You must be raving mad, Miss Bennet, if you think I would let you do such a dangerous thing,” Mr Gaskin said when she told him about her idea the next morning. He was looking tired, and his night watch over the bridge had not been crowned with success. No one had come near it all night. “What if I failed to protect you? I don’t want another death on my hands.”

Mary took due note of the word “another”. “I am not afraid,” she said. “I can look after myself.”

“Oh yes, indeed,” Mr Gaskin said ironically. “A woman who can come up with such hare-brained ideas is as capable of looking after herself as a new-born kitten. No, Miss Bennet, I do not want you anywhere near the bridge tonight.”

Mary was annoyed. There she had come up with a perfectly useful idea and had been willing to sacrifice herself to the good cause, only to have her effort thrown into her face. She did not doubt that Mr Gaskin would have accepted her assistance if she had been a man. Why were women always underestimated?

The second night watch was unsuccessful too. Mr Gaskin had spent all night outdoors watching over Longbourn Bridge, and for a moment had thought he had seen something, a shadow of a man moving along the road and disappearing under the bridge, but by the time he reached the spot where the shadow had vanished there was nothing there. Unwilling though he was to accept defeat, Mr Gaskin decided that he would leave the next day if another vigil proved unsuccessful. Mary was sorry to hear that he would leave, although she knew that he could not extend his stay in Longbourn indefinitely if there was no good reason for him to do so. Whatever he might have said, she decided to take the risk and walk across Longbourn Bridge that night. She would take a kitchen knife with her to defend herself if she should be attacked by a human criminal, and she would wear her topaz cross on her necklace to protect herself from a ghostly attacker. But she trusted Mr Gaskin to be there to save her before her situation became desperate.

Shortly before midnight, Mary got out of bed and got dressed. She put on one of her oldest gowns – one did not wish to ruin one’s best clothes even for the sake of an adventure – and her cloak to keep herself warm. She put her necklace around her neck, tiptoed into the kitchen to get a knife, and left the house by the kitchen door.

It was a dark night, with hardly any moonlight. The clouds were covering the moon, and so Mary could reach Longbourn Bridge and cross it without being seen. For a moment she was worried – what if Mr Gaskin, discouraged by his previous attempts, was not watching the bridge that night? She did not have much time for thinking, however, for the moment she sat down on the railing someone grabbed her from behind and pulled her off the bridge, towards the river. Mary screamed and tried to defend herself using the knife, only to have it wrested from her hand and thrown into the water.

“Did no one ever tell you,” a hoarse voice said in her ear, “that every weapon you carry can be used to harm you unless you are really good at using it yourself? Foolish girl!”

“Mr Collins!” Mary gasped. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Do you think I’ll spend a lifetime paying pensions to the Bennet women?” he asked, laughing. “The Phantom of Longbourn Bridge will get its sacrifice, and I’ll get Longbourn – without any womenfolk to add to my responsibilities.”

He was dragging her into the water now, with Mary fighting him every step of the way. But it was no use – Mr Collins was much stronger than she.

“Then why Polly?” she gasped. If she had to die, she wanted to know what Polly had done to deserve death.

Mr Collins laughed. “Oh, Polly was my first attempt – I wanted to see if I could kill someone without being caught. And I did – everyone thought it was the Phantom. That silly girl, too. She did not even scream – I told her if she crossed into the Other Realm she’d no longer be a servant but mistress of her own estate, with gold and jewels and expensive dresses for her to wear. Not even that Runner from London, idiot that he is, found out who has done it. Now that he is gone I can complete my work.”

With these words, he tripped her up and pushed her head under the water. Mary’s last thoughts were of Mr Gaskin – he had been right, trying to bait the murderer had been an extremely foolish thing to do. And had he really left without saying goodbye to her? Not that it made any difference now …

~~~0~~~


Mary awoke in her own bed, with one of their maids watching over her. “Thank heaven, Miss, you’re alive,” she cried as Mary opened her eyes, and left the room only to return with Mrs Bennet. For once Mary did not object to hearing her lament and fuss over her. Not long ago she had been in danger of never hearing her again. But since she did not feel ill any more, she decided to get up, get dressed and find out what had happened.

Mr Gaskin was in the library with her father. He rose from his chair as she came into the room.

“Miss Bennet, you should not have got out of bed.”

“I could hardly stay in bed and speak to you, sir,” she replied. “I suppose I have you to thank for saving my life.”

“It is rather odd,” he said. “I may have played a part in it, but I think it was the Phantom of Longbourn Bridge that saved you.”

“The Phantom?” Mary gasped. “But there is no such thing!”

“A few hours ago, I would have agreed with you,” Mr Gaskin said, leading Mary to a comfortable chair and asking her to sit down. “But there is no other explanation to what happened at the bridge. When I heard your scream, I was about a hundred yards away – I ran to the bridge, but it took a while until I could see where you were. I found you and Collins right under the bridge; him pushing your head under water. I took my pistol and shouted at him to let you go or I’d shoot him – hoping I’d hit him, after all it was pitch-dark. And then something rose out of the water, a dark shadow, and I heard it say, “You have come to kill, and I have come to kill, too.” Then there was a scream as the shadow grabbed Collins and dragged him away from you. I did not wait to see what happened next; I jumped into the water and got you out.”

“So, you did save me,” Mary said.

“If I had not, the Phantom might have,” Mr Gaskin said. Mary was not sure about that – the Phantom might have been happy to have two victims for once.

“Did you arrest Mr Collins?” she asked.

“There is no need to do so now,” Mr Gaskin told her. “He was found dead half a mile down the stream. Looks like the Phantom chooses its own victims.” He turned to Mr Bennet. “I am sorry I was not able to prevent this,” he said. “But as it seems Polly’s murderer will do no more harm, which means I will have to return to London. Miss Bennet, this was one of the bravest and yet one of the most stupid things anyone has ever done for me. I will never forget having met you.”

He bowed, took her hand and lightly kissed it. “Good bye, Miss Bennet.”

~~~0~~~


And then Mr Gaskin was gone, back to London to hunt down criminals, leaving Mary to wonder. What had he meant when he had spoken of another death? And why had a man like him, a gentleman, chosen his profession? There was only one way to find out – she had to go to London and make sure to meet him again. Time to write that letter to Elizabeth and accept her invitation, Mary thought.
SubjectAuthorPosted

JAOCTGOHONO 2017 - The Phantom of Longbourn Bridge

DraculliOctober 31, 2017 06:45PM

Re: JAOCTGOHONO 2017 - The Phantom of Longbourn Bridge

VesperNovember 01, 2017 01:11PM

Re: JAOCTGOHONO 2017 - The Phantom of Longbourn Bridge

Shannon KNovember 01, 2017 01:54AM

Re: JAOCTGOHONO 2017 - The Phantom of Longbourn Bridge

NN SOctober 31, 2017 07:12PM

Re: JAOCTGOHONO 2017 - The Phantom of Longbourn Bridge

Bloody MariOctober 31, 2017 08:47PM

Re: JAOCTGOHONO 2017 - The Phantom of Longbourn Bridge

KEvelynOctober 31, 2017 10:55PM

Blurb

UlrikeOctober 31, 2017 06:47PM



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