MISSING: Nellie, 1888

Note: ‘Nellie’ Forbs may not be one of the Missing in the strictest sense.  It is not clear, either from Edith’s letters or additional documents, whether “beloved Nellie” refers to the baby girl Cornelia, Edith’s toddler half-sister (b. 1886), or her full sister, Helena (b. 1878).  The records regarding both girls are sketchy (birth certificates are extant, but there are no recorded marriages or deaths), and neither is mentioned in connection with the Forbs family after 1888.  Also, both girls are much younger than the usual victims.  However, the timing is correct, marking the midpoint between the disappearances of Effie Wright (1876) and Rhoda Evanston (1900). If another girl, perhaps of a lower class, vanished that year there is no record of it in other sources. The case is therefore included here only for the sake of the timeline, and may not be canonical.

Details from Edith Forbs’ letters to her cousin, Augusta Monteroy, in Bath, England, and Cecil Forbs’ household bookkeeping, 1883-9 . — MD

From an early age, Edith Forbs learned to dread the knock on the door at midnight.  Such a sound echoing through their Chelsea cottage heralded the arrival of “two or three gentlemen in top hats and long cloaks” who would wait in the hall while her father dressed himself.  Then they hastened out into the London fog and she would not see her Papa for a day or two, sometimes even a week.  There was never any explanation for his absences, nor were they mentioned upon his return. Edith was aware her father engaged in important business with what her mother referred to as “the Society”, but what this entailed, or why the gentlemen knocked only at midnight, was never discussed — at least, not in front of the children.

Edith was a curious girl, however, and a light sleeper.  So, each time a knock rattled her from sleep, she scrambled to the window to try to get as good a view as possible of the late-night callers before creeping over to her bedroom door and straining her ears at the whispered conversations in the hall.  The same hushed words and phrases drifted up the staircase every time.  Her father was urged to “make all haste” to go with the gentlemen, in order to perform some kind of task for which they possessed neither the knowledge nor the power. Sometimes her father seemed to be expecting them, sometimes not.  If they surprised him he was angry, as if some previously agreed schedule had been breached. He took no equipment from his study, but one of the other men usually seemed to be carrying a doctor’s bag. He never seemed quite willing to perform whatever duty was required of him, and had to be reminded that he was “bound by his oath and had better not dilly-dally”, otherwise they would all (with great stress laid on the ‘all’) face dire consequences.  Every time, the callers assured her father “this won’t happen again”. Every time, they lied.

At seven, eight, nine, even thirteen years old, Edith could not guess what arcane skill her dear Papa, a lowly antiquarian at Sotheby’s, made available to the cloaked gentlemen.  She had inherited his love of detail, however, his patience for painstaking research, so she listened for the knock and gathered information over years and years. All repeated patterns, she reasoned, from hieroglyphs to algorithms, eventually reveal their meaning. One cold night shortly before her fourteenth birthday in January 1884, the pattern was disrupted.

The knock that midnight was lighter, a feathery tat-tat-tat more urgent than the usual bam-bam-bam of the gentlemen.  When Edith stumbled to her window she saw, not the satin gleam of a top hat but the ruffles of a black velvet bonnet. In 1903, in a letter to her cousin Augusta, she recollected the thrill of the moment.

“A lady! Walking the streets alone in the midnight frost! I knew in an instant this portended some great shift in circumstance. As soon as my father descended the stairs to greet this unprecedented visitor I crept to my listening post. When he flung open the door he was clearly not expecting to see a lady standing there, and had to make rapid adjustment to his attitude and language, immediately inviting her in from the cold, a courtesy he did not always extend to his usual callers. I glimpsed grey hair as she removed her cloak and bonnet.  She was a stranger to my father yet claimed some kind of family connection. She was richly dressed, clearly refined and elegant, which made her unaccompanied arrival on our doorstep at such a late hour even more bizarre.

He took her through into the parlor, where the evening’s coals still gave off a shadow of warmth. Consumed by curiosity, I tiptoed with all stealth down the stairs and crouched in the shadows by the closed door. The stranger’s voice was low, but clear. “You must leave London,” she was saying. “I can no longer protect you here.”

“What about my wife?” said Papa. “And I have four daughters.”

“Then you are blessed,”said the stranger. “Only one is required.”

I struggle to explain what happened next, for it most certainly did not occur in the way that I remember it. It could not have done, because there was a solid wall between us. Yet, I saw her face in the flicker of the Papa’s candle — he must not have expected her to stay long, as he did not light the gas lamp — smooth and unlined despite her mass of grey hair.  She turned towards me, as though I was standing in the room directly in front of her, and said, “Your eldest need not worry. I will speak for her when the time comes.”

I have no doubt, to this day, she knew I was eavesdropping on the other side of the door.  Her eyes — and she had the most curious, pale amber eyes — burned into mine with a warning I could not fail to heed. As quietly as I had descended, I ascended the stairs to my bedroom, and listened for not another word.

And that, cousin, is my last clear memory of childhood. Almost immediately thereafter came the shock of my father’s inheritance, the chaos of our move to America, our arrival at the ruins in Virginia, and our emergence into a whole new way of life. I call them my chrysalid years, for I cocooned myself behind a protective barrier of my own making, not quite awake, not quite dreaming.  I cannot recount one single event from that time to you, even though I know there were many of enormous significance — the birth of my youngest sister, the loss of my mother, my father’s unseemly second marriage, the grand re-opening ceremony for the house.  There is proof irrefutable of my presence at many of these occasions, standing solemn in a satin frock in the commemorative photographs. Yet I have no remembrance of any personal involvement, no sense that I inhabited my physical body on that day.  My sisters possess vivid sense memories, the way sunlight reflecting off the lake dazzled the crowd at the Temple re-dedication ceremony; the soul-rending screech of metal when the kitchen boiler exploded; the putrefaction roiling from the lilies around my mother’s coffin. They can flex their fingers and touch the past, while I grasp for phantom sights, smells and sounds that elude me entirely. It is as though I fell asleep the night the strange lady dismissed me, and my senses did not wake again until, once more, I was roused by the old midnight knocking at our front door.

When it came, in the second week of August 1888, the family was of course living at The Poplars and it was the job of servants, not my father, to answer the call. The heavy iron door knocker, in the shape of a giant crow, was one of the newly commissioned fittings and barely fit for purpose. It either made no noise at all or threatened to split the house in two.  At midnight, it woke everyone. I remember, personally, me, in the moment, standing at the top of the grand staircase wrapped in a shawl as two men in city clothes — top hats and cloaks having fallen out of favor in the wilds of Virginia — conferred in whispers with Papa at the front door. 

Of their heated conversation I caught only the name ‘Martha’, and the old lie about it being the very last time. I also caught their London accents.  These gentlemen had clearly travelled a long way, in haste, and wanted to make the return journey in an equally expedited fashion. My father, as always, acquiesced, even though as the newly-minted richest man in Forbs County there was absolutely no financial or social reason why he should agree to their request. He packed a valise and was gone before dawn.

I will never know how Papa occupied his time in London that autumn. I read about those slaughtered unfortunates in the newspapers, and wondered if and how he was involved in the drama as it played out.  I like to think he saved at least one other wretch from the fiend, but as I say, I will never know.  The murders were not a topic I could discuss with my stepmother or my sisters, nor was I able to reference to such horrors in front of the servants.

The night Papa came home, in December, we sat in the Library in front of a substantial fire, yet still he shivered with some inner chill. The pile of old books on the desk in front of us disturbed him still further.  He picked them up, riffled the pages, put them down, as if alarmed by the contents, although he indicated nothing of his thoughts to me. I tried to distract him with chit-chat, but he fended off all my polite inquiries about our London acquaintance.  It appeared he had visited none of our family or friends during almost five months in England. “There was too much else to attend to,” he said.  It was not long before we both slumped into miserable silence.

The clock struck ten, startling Papa into a new burst of energy. He leapt to his feet, told me that he loved me, and he had never so fervently wished that all his children had been born boys.  Then he kissed the top of my head and hurried away, as if keeping some kind of appointment. 

Dearest Gusta, I remember that night so clearly. I remained, despondent, curled in one of the deep leather armchairs, gazing into the flames as they died down, feeling the cold night creeping in around me, praying for some kind of revelation before I too would be forced to stumble off to my bedchamber.  I was so young then. I wished ardently to know everything, for there to be no mysteries, no secrets kept locked safe behind thick stone walls. I waited for an answer as I felt something deep inside that cursed house also waited.  If only I could have outlasted it, kept vigil, heard the feathery tat-tat-tat and been the one to open the door.  As it was, as you know, I awoke at dawn, numb with cold, with the distinct sense that I had been watched over all night by a pair of amber eyes. While I slept, alas, tragedy had struck. My beloved Nellie was vanished for evermore.”

This brief reference to the disappearance of “beloved Nellie”, fifteen years after the fact, is not corroborated by any other correspondence or official records.  This disappearance was never reported to the police or in the local press, nor did the unflinchingly inquisitive Reverend Hayward mention it in his diary.  Nonetheless, some dramatic occurrence spooked the Forbs family in the last weeks of 1888.  Whatever it was, they covered it up completely. In January 1889, the second Mrs. Forbs returned to New Orleans, and Cecil’s three eldest daughters by his first wife, Edith, Caroline and Agnes, boarded the RM.S. Etruria to Liverpool, where they were greeted with open arms by their mother’s family.  None of these women ever returned to The Poplars.  Cecil remained, by all accounts a ghost in his own house. He confined himself to the Library, studying the vast collection of ancient books he had inherited along with The Poplars, until his death in 1892.

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