Monday, 4th of February 1924
Four young people meet for the first time on the steps of 4 Aubrey Street, Kensington, London. They are Mister Scott Rhodes, archaeologist, a specialist, in so far as somebody still so near the beginning of his career may have a specialty, in Ancient Egypt, Miss Elan Gwynne, a self described ‘ghost hunter’ with a broad interest in the possible existence of the supernatural, Sir Malcolm Chandler, 2nd Baronet, an explorer recently returned from warmer climes, and Miss Evelyn Sharp, a bluestocking whose intellectual curiousity goes beyond the merely mundane. All have been summoned by letter or telegram to the home of a shared acquaintance, Mister Lionel Gullan who has given them every impression that he is urgent need of assistance but no other details.
They are admitted to the home that Mister Gullan appears to share with nobody but an unknown number of cats, and once he has them all in his library, and has served them all tea (his own fortified from a flask), he gradually comes to the point. He informs them that his seventeen year old niece, a Miss Alice Daw died yesterday morning in somewhat confused circumstances. When Mister Gullan was informed of the news, he was initially shocked to hear that his niece – who was by all he knew a Godfearing and innocent young girl – had died of a miscarriage. He had seen her only the previous afternoon – she often visited him here at his home – and he had certainly seen no sign that she was expecting a child, although her behaviour was odd. Just before she left, he saw her attempting to hide a book from his extensive library under her coat, an attempt it seemed to steal from him. This was totally out of character and also she would have known totally unnecessary. If she had needed money or anything of that nature, he would have willingly given it to her and she knew that. If she wanted to borrow the book – or even to own it herself – he’d have given her the book as well. But even stranger, when he confronted her, she seemed confused as if she was totally unaware of what was happening. She threw down the book and fled leaving Gullan confused, but he decided he would wait until the next time he saw her to ask what was going on.
Mister Gullan was asked what book it was that Alice had tried to take and he is quite willing to show it to those he has called to help him. The volume is covered in brown paper and tape with the title neatly written on this covering – Liber de Lumine by Ramon Llull. It is an 1827 copy printed in Milan of a thirteenth century work – not particularly valuable, Mister Gullan says he bought it primarily because of the attractive leather binding. It is in Latin, which Alice certainly would not have been able to read. There is no logic he can see to her wanting it.
He is pressed as to why he has asked his four visitors to come and see him and he explains to him that a Doctor Banks – a lady Doctor – came to see him yesterday evening. She had been the Doctor called when Alice’s body was discovered, as she works at the Woodbridge Chapel in Finsbury, just around the corner from the Daw family home. He believes she came to see him as Alice’s nearest adult relative besides the girl’s own parents (Gullan’s sister, Dorothy and her husband, Bartholomew). Doctor Banks wanted somebody in the girl’s family to be aware of certain things and perhaps did not feel the bereaved parents were the right choice so soon after their daughter’s death. Doctor Banks explained to him that the police were ready to label Alice’s death as a simple miscarriage, but she did not believe that such a simple explanation was correct. There was something very strange about Alice’s injuries. Mister Gullan explains that he became angry and distressed at what he was being told and he fears that he frightened Doctor Banks away before she could tell him all she came to say. That is why he has asked the four of them to come and see him. He wants them to look into what happened to Alice. To find out what was going on.
When asked why he has chosen them, Gullan is somewhat evasive. He says simply that he knows them all and what he knows of them makes him think that they will be open to unusual ideas and will not just going looking for the simple, obvious solution unless it truly does match all the facts. When pressed a little further, he says that when he was a younger man, he was involved in looking into some strange matters – but he won’t go any further even when pressed. He simply asks that they do this for him. He is quite desperate for help.
And they agree. They ask for a letter introducing them to Doctor Banks, and obtain her working address – the Woodbridge Chapel in Woodbridge Road, Finsbury, as well as the address of the Daw family – 7 Allen Street, Finsbury. Sir Malcolm offers to drive them all to Finsbury in his rather wonderful Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, and so it is that they set off on the short drive to Finsbury. On arrival, a young boy offers to ensure that the very fine car will remain unmolested in exchange for a small gratuity. After brief haggling, Sir Malcolm nonetheless pays the boy the sixpence he originally asked for.
The Woodbridge Chapel is a block building, which also serves according to the plaque near its front door as the Clerkenwell Medical Mission, providing medical services to those of limited means. A brief interview with the nurse inside who obviously sees herself as the doorkeeper in terms of access to a Doctor is quite readily solved by donations totalling six pounds into the collection box. Doctor Edith Banks is more than willing to see such generous people. They are shown into her simple, though modern, consulting room.
They hand over the letter of introduction and once Doctor Banks, a nervous seeming woman of middle years, has satisfied herself as to why they have come – to discuss what she feels is strange about the case of Alice Daw, the Doctor leads them down into the cellar of the chapel. This room is kept cold by blocks of ice, although perhaps in February, this may not be entirely necessary. It clearly serves as a mortuary. There are four tables, three of which clearly have bodies under sheets. After satisfying herself that the gentlemen present will act with discretion, Doctor Banks removes the sheet that covers the body of Alice Daw. The unfortunate girl lies naked on the table, face down, and Doctor Banks draws the observers attention to the strange deep wound in the small of her back. A little under two inches across, the wound is ragged edged and very deep. It looks like very much like something has bored into or out of the girl’s body.
Doctor Banks explains this is the second time in recent days she has seen such a thing. And moves over to another table and again removes the sheet. Lying naked on her back is a second girl with a very similar wound, but this time it in the lower abdomen at the front. This body also bears the marks of cutting and sewing. Doctor Banks explains that this is the body of Mary Hamer, an 18 year old flower seller of Sans Walk, Finsbury. She collapsed a week ago outside her home and died before Doctor Banks, the nearest available Doctor could get to her. Doctor Banks has performed an autopsy on Mary and what she found was quite odd. A number of her internal organs – both her kidneys, her liver, and her womb had suffered significant but not necessarily fatal damage, to the extent that the Doctor could not really identify a cause of death. It could have been the failure of any one of a number of organs or simple blood loss. But it also seems to Doctor Banks as if some sort of animal was living inside the girl eating her internally, but in a way that would keep her alive as long as possible. But what it might be is beyond Doctor Bank’s knowledge. She says she intends to carry out an autopsy on Alice as well, and if they would like to come back later in the day she will share her findings with them. What has happened seems very odd, but unless she can say what did happen she does not really want to bring it to the attention of authorities. She has her own reputation to think about. If she can’t find a clear alternative cause she can put a name too, then unless she feels there is a clear danger to others, she is likely to simply endorse the police conclusion of miscarriage. Alice does show some signs that she might have been pregnant but not as many as Doctor Banks would normally expect. But she has the impression that the possibility Alice was pregnant though a shock to Alice’s father, may not have been quite as shocking to Alice’s mother.
The four investigators leave the Medical Mission resolving to return later in the day. The Rolls Royce is still in excellent condition, sixpence well spent, and it is decided to return to Mister Gullan to inform him of what they have already been told and also to get a letter of introduction to his sister and her husband, Alice’s bereaved parents. On arrival back at Aubery Street, there is no answer to a knock on the door but finding the door unlocked, the investigators enter the residence of Lionel Gullan. They find him asleep and snoring in an armchair in his library. An empty bottle of Scotch and a tumbler sit on a table next to him, a half empty bottle of cooking sherry on the floor. He is obviously drunk.
They wake him and after some brief moments of confusion the man orients himself toward coherence and understanding. He becomes somewhat belligerent when it is suggested that he seems to be taken the death of his niece very hard – obviously offended at the idea that he shouldn’t. He is further pressed for details about the strange experiences in his earlier life, in case they are relevant. He insists there is no reason to believe they might be but says he was involved as a witness in some sort of scandal involving a séance – some sort of fraud. He will not say anymore. But he agrees to sign a letter introducing the investigators to his sister and brother-in-law. And the investigators return to Finsbury.
The Daw family occupy the second floor of a terrace house. Mrs Dorothy Daw welcomes the investigators into her home when she hears they have been sent by her brother. She introduces them briefly to her husband who she persuades to go and visit a nearby pub. It seems obvious she does not want him there for the conversation with the investigators. Once he has gone, Mrs Daw seems very open to questions. She obviously is in deep mourning for her daughter, but she also wants to understand what happened. She confirms that Alice had told her a few days before that she might be pregnant but would not explain exactly why she thought this. This was something of a shock to Mrs Daw but one she took in her stride. Alice has a suitor, a young tailor’s apprentice named Cecil Bosco, the same age as Alice was, and if Alice was pregnant, it would be a relatively simple matter to arrange a quick marriage, and a somewhat ‘premature’ birth. Mrs Daw has assumed for the last year that Cecil and Alice would marry in time so while it might happen a little earlier and a little faster than expected, this would not be a disaster. However, she was waiting for the opportunity to talk to her husband about it as his initial reaction until he calmed down might have tend towards violence towards Cecil Bosco. Mr Daw still saw his daughter as an innocent little girl who had nothing to do with any boys besides her own brothers – her mother being more realistic. Now that Alice has died, she still fears that if her husband finds out about Cecil, the boy could be in danger. When asked if she knows anything about Alice’s life outside the family home, she says she knows little. She visited her Uncle regularly, but besides that and going to work (a clothing merchants on Berry Street where Cecil also works) and sometimes visiting the local Church – Alice was devout – she doesn’t really know what her daughter did. She thinks perhaps the girl may have confided some secrets to her younger brothers, Jethro aged 14, and Arthur aged 11.
The investigators ask to examine Alice’s room and Mrs Daw agrees. She takes them to the door but says she would rather not go inside herself right now. The room is much as would be expected for a girl of Alice’s age in a reasonably prosperous but not luxurious home - a single bed, all the bedclothes removed but obvious bloodstains remain on the mattress. A chest of drawers, a dressing table with mirror, and a wardrobe. The investigators search the room and find two objects of interest. In the pocket of Alice’s coat which hangs on the back of the door, Miss Gwynne finds a piece of folded brown paper that still bears some tape. It is clearly identifiable as a book covering virtually identical to that which covered Liber de Lumine in Lionel Gullan’s library. Again a title is written on the paper – The Alchemical Writings of Edward Kelley. In the dressing table, Sir Malcolm finds a ring. With his knowledge of jewellery, he can identify it as being gold with a rather inferior emerald mounted in it and the intial ‘A’ engraved inside the band. Except under close examination, it is a very nice ring, and it strikes him as the type of ring a young man of limited means might save up to but for a sweetheart. It could even be an engagement ring.
Miss Sharp looks under the bed and can see something moving under there. The bed is overturned by the two gentlemen and the scurrying creature emerges. Shaped like a five pointed star, about the size of a human hand, it scurries across the floor. Miss Gwynne stomps on it and it lies twitching on the ground. They scoop it up and put into a jar taken from Miss Gwynne’s bag. It is like a starfish, although land dwelling, with barbs and a beak. Before they can examine it in detail, the door is opened by a boy of about 14. He introduces himself as Jethro Daw. Obviously upset at the death of his sister, but trying to be grown up about it, he answers the investigators questions. The night before she died, he heard his sister run into the house, up to her room and slam the door. He didn’t think much of it because she often did such things. He can confirm she had a boyfriend named Cecil Bosco who she was going to marry someday (although Jethro is not entirely sure, Cecil knew that was going to happen). And she spent most of her spare time as far as he knew either at home, or visiting their Uncle Lionel, or the Church – St James Church, here in Finsbury.
Sir Malcolm decides he will contact the Butler at his club, the Wentworth Club, a club famous for its membership of people interested in a wide variety of intellectual and academic pursuits to get the name of somebody interested in natural history who may be able to shed some light on the strange creature in the jar. It isn’t Sir Malcolm’s field but he would have thought he would have least known of the existence of what seems to be a land dwelling starfish.