The House of the Red Candle
To the end of his days, Charles Dickens forbade all talk about the slaying of Thaddeus Whiteacre. The macabre features of the tragedy—murder by an invisible hand; the stabbing of a bound man in a room both locked and barred; the vanishing without trace of a beautiful young woman—were meat and drink to any imaginative mind. Wilkie Collins reflected more than once that he might have woven a triple-decker novel of sensation from the events of that dreadful night, but he knew that publication was impossible. Dickens would treat any attempt to fabricate fiction from the crime as a betrayal, an act of treachery he could never forgive.
Dickens said it himself: The case must never be solved.
His logic was impeccable; so was his generosity of heart. Even after Dickens’s death, Collins honoured his friend’s wishes and kept the secret safe. But he also kept notes, and enough time has passed to permit the truth to be revealed. Upon the jottings in Collins’s private records is based this account of the murder at the House of the Red Candle.
* * *
A crowded tavern on the corner of a Greenwich alleyway, a stone’s throw from the river. At the bar, voices were raised in argument about a wager on a prizefight and a group of potbellied draymen carolled a bawdy song about a mermaid and a bosun. The air was thick with smoke and the stale stench of beer. Separate from the throng, two men sat at a table in the corner, quenching their thirsts.
The elder, a middle-sized man in his late thirties, rocked back and forth on his stool, his whole being seemingly taut with tension, barely suppressed. His companion, bespectacled and with a bulging forehead, fiddled with his extravagant turquoise shirt pin while stealing glances at his companion. Once or twice he was about to speak, but something in the other’s demeanour caused him to hold his tongue. At length he could contain his curiosity no longer.
‘Tell me one thing, my dear fellow. Why here?’
Charles Dickens swung to face his friend, yet when he spoke, he sounded as cautious as a poker player with a troublesome hand of cards. ‘Is the Rope and Anchor not to your taste, then, Wilkie?’
‘Well, it’s hardly as comfortable as the Cock Tavern. Besides, it’s uncommon enough for our nightly roamings to take us south of the river, and you gave the impression of coming here with a purpose.’ He winced as a couple of drunken slatterns shrieked with mocking laughter. The object of their scorn was a woman with a scarred cheek who crouched anxiously by the door, as if yearning for the arrival of a friendly face. ‘And the company is hardly select! All this way on an evening thick with fog! Frankly, I expected you to have rather more pleasurable company in mind.’
‘My dear Wilkie,’ Dickens said, baring his teeth in a wicked smile. ‘Who is to say that I have not?’