The chambermaid, creeping into my lady’s room to light the fire, noticed nothing amiss. Prey to all the discomforts of a cold in the head, with her hearing muffled, Sukey was unaware of the unusual silence. Nor could any unpleasant odour penetrate beyond the thickness of a stuffed-up nose. Indeed, her concentration was intent upon trying not to sniff too loudly, for fear of disturbing her mistress’s rest.
With deft and practised movements, she went about her accustomed task with the minimum of noise, scraping out last night’s ashes and setting fresh coals and faggots in their place. When it came to blowing up the embers to encourage a fitful flame, however, the shortness of breath induced by Sukey’s condition made her cough involuntarily.
Catching a hand to her throat, the chambermaid paused in her work, her fearful head automatically turning towards the great four-poster behind her, poised for the slightest sign of wakening within.
At this juncture a faint sense came over her of something out of true. Unformed and eerie, the feeling momentarily froze Sukey’s spine as she stared at the dark shape of the curtained bed, only half-visible in the grey tint slipping round the edges of the shutters at the windows.
A shiver shook her, and she jerked round towards the fire again, watching the struggling flame without seeing it or remembering for a moment what she must do to make it flare brighter.
A drip at her nose recalled Sukey’s attention to the task in hand. Wiping her sleeve across the offending moisture, she resumed her work, tucking flinders into the flame with unconscious haste and blowing now with a will, her ills pushed to one side in a bid to be done as quickly as she might and be gone from my lady’s chamber.
A little more than an hour later, her ladyship’s personal maid, stepping quietly into the dressing room next door, was less fortunate. Burdened with nothing worse than the morning cup of hot chocolate destined for the delectation of her mistress, Mary Huntshaw yawned the remnants of sleep out of her eyes and paused as they took in the condition of the room. What she had left in meticulous order upon retiring to her bed the night before had become a shambles.
The silken bodice, the overskirt, and its embroidered petticoat had been carefully laid up in the larger press by the lady’s maid herself, but her ladyship’s under-petticoats lay in an untidy heap on the floor, together with a crumpled shift and her discarded stays, the laces half-ripped from their moorings. The drawer in the dressing commode had been left open, and a dusting of colour overlay the disarranged pots within, indicating a hasty application of paint and powder. The maid’s disapproving glance next caught upon an object thrown carelessly into the mess, and a betraying twinkle in the gloom forced from her lips a shocked gasp.
The fan, my lady’s precious fan, relic of a bygone age, a prized family heirloom, had been flung down as if it were of no account. It was an exquisite object, its guards encrusted with gemstones, its painted leaf of finest kid decorated with a scattering of tiny diamonds. Now it lay carelessly discarded, half unfurled, its delicate sticks spread across the open pots, exposed to disfiguring smears and breakage.
As she stood there, dismay and consternation gathering in her breast, Huntshaw grew aware of an acrid odour emanating from the bedchamber. Her instant thought was of the chamber pot and the unpleasant duty which must fall to her lot, of emptying its contents and washing it out. An immediate reflection followed: How unlike her ladyship to leave it under the bed rather than stowing it in the bedside cupboard where the smell would be somewhat contained.
Like Sukey before her, Huntshaw fell prey to an inner prescience that slid a ripple of apprehension through her bosom. Moving without realising that she did so, the maid went to the connecting door and seized the knob. For a moment she hesitated, a tingle in her fingers. The little silver tray she held in her other hand trembled slightly and Huntshaw was obliged to tighten her grip for fear of dropping it. Her mouth felt dry and her heartbeat quickened.
Come, she told herself, this was fanciful. She had only to open the door and step into the room to find that all was well.
Gently, she turned the knob and pushed the door slowly open. Shadows, thrown by slivers of light escaping through the shutters, played eerily across the curtains of the big bed. It was a sight to which Huntshaw was well accustomed, but now it seemed portentous. The silence yawned at her as she strained her ears for the muffled sound of the sighing breath that should have signalled my lady’s rest. Instead she became conscious only of the faint regular tick of the gold-mounted clock on the mantel.
The smell of ordure was stronger as Huntshaw’s feet shifted her closer to the bed. She was hardly aware of her own motion, impelled by the growing sensation of wrongness that thumped at her brain in rhythm with the pounding of her heart.
The tray became leaden and she needed both hands to steady it, but they trembled as she set it down on the bedside table. This close the stench was overpowering, but the maid scarcely noticed, her senses strung like a bow taut for scraping.
Her timorous fingers crept towards the break in the curtains. She grasped an edge and wrenched it back.
Shards of light raced across the dark mound within, one arrowing up to the face, illuminating a bulging eye, fixed and staring.
The screams, delivered at a pitch of terror that jangled nerves all over the household, drove into the dreams of Lord Francis Fanshawe and jerked him awake. For a space of several seconds, he blinked uncomprehendingly into the gloom of his curtained bed, half-fogged in the remnants of sleep. Then, with a speed ingrained through years of soldiering, he flung aside bedclothes and curtains, launched himself out of bed, thrust his feet into a pair of embroidered slippers, and gathered up his dressing gown on his way to the door.
The anguished wails were coming from the other side of the house in relation to where his chamber was situated, but Francis made short work of the lobby and came out into the vestibule in time to witness several flying figures racing downstairs and up, heading for the commotion. By the time he reached the scene, fastening the belt of the gown he had dragged on over his nightshirt as he sped, a veritable crowd was gathered in the hallway between the principal bedchambers. The screams had subsided into a violence of sobbing, joined by a riot of comment and question.
Francis’s mind raced, the intense urgency of the clamour lacing query with foreboding. His brother Randal? Or was it
outside Emily’s room that the knot was gathering? What disaster could have occurred to-merit this level of panic?
Arriving at the edge of the hubbub, Francis halted perforce. He adopted the voice of penetrating command.
“What the devil is amiss? Who was it screaming?”
A swift hush fell, even the intensity of sobs reducing a fraction. Several faces turned in his direction, written over variously in shock, horror, and bewilderment.
Then he saw the butler standing just inside the aperture of the bedchamber doorway, his customary urbanity severely shaken. His wide jowls trembled, his eyes looked bleak, his complexion ashen.
The butler passed an agitated hand across his bald pate. He had been caught in his shirt-sleeves and looked discomfited—for being discovered by one of the family incompletely dressed, Francis wondered?
“I hardly know how to express it, my lord,” he managed, casting a shaken glance over his shoulder into the room behind. “It was Huntshaw who found—”
He broke off, casting a hesitant glance at the distraught female nestling on Mrs. Thriplow’s ample bosom. The housekeeper was still attired in her bedgown with a voluminous dressing gown half-falling from her shoulders and her nightcap awry, revealing a couple of rag curls in her hair.
“Well?” Francis prompted sharply. “What did Huntshaw find?”
A wail, renewed in strength, burst from the lips of the lady’s maid, but the housekeeper clasped her more tightly, hushing urgently. The surge of lamentation had the effect of urging the butler into speech.
“It’s her ladyship, my lord. She’s dead.”
The blow hit like a douche of cold water. Francis went momentarily numb. Automatic refutation rose to his lips, but
he curbed the words. He did not trouble to enquire who, if any, had verified the fact. Long habit of command took over and he began to push through the bodies thronging the door.
“Make way! Stand aside!”
He was aware peripherally of the scramble to get out of his way, but his intent carried him through the open doorway before his imagination could supply him with what he might find. The stench struck him at once, and he realised he had been partially aware of it earlier. It was an odour he recognised: the stink of death. He’d known it again and again, for the most part dissipated in the open air. Here the enclosed space contained it, forcing it crudely upon his notice. Francis put up a hand to shield his nose.
Someone had opened the shutters and raised the blinds, flooding the chamber with light, but the bed-curtains remained closed on this side. He strode below the four-poster and turned the corner. Here the curtains were wide open, revealing a sight that brought him up short.
His sister-in-law was sprawled on the bed, her blotched face stained dark red, her eyes open and bulging, her tongue protruding. The single glance sent Francis searching down her neck where the blue bruising finger marks told their own tale.
Emily had been strangled.
All his experience of violent battlefield deaths did not prevent nausea from rising up in Francis’s stomach. The horror of it gripped him, not least the hideous realisation that the deed must be laid at someone’s door. And that perpetrator must inhabit this house.
The thought galvanised him into action. Turning from the horrible contents of the bed, he walked quickly around to the doorway where Cattawade’s bulk was now stationed, preventing the intrusion of prying eyes.
Vaguely recognising that the maid’s understandable griefs
were now muted, Francis rapped out a question, jerking his head towards the closed door opposite.
“Has my brother been awakened?”
An uneasy silence greeted this. The bevy of servants eyed one another, glance flying to glance in a shifty manner that roused a demon of suspicion. Francis fixed upon the butler.
Cattawade coughed, a sign of discomfort which showed equally that the man’s shattered poise was returning.
“His lordship is not in the house, my lord.”
Which was obvious, had one time to think of it, Francis reflected. A heavy sleeper, doubtless due to a habit of heavy drinking, even Randal could not have remained oblivious, considering the close proximity of his room. The thought gave place to another, one so unpalatable that Francis could hardly bear to put the next question.
“Does anyone know where the marquis has gone?”
Again the shifting feet, heads going down to avoid his gaze. Cattawade went so far as to fetch a sigh. Francis lost patience.
“It is of no use to keep it from me. Where is his lordship?”
The housekeeper cleared her throat, a worried frown increasing the lines across her forehead. Francis caught her gaze over the top of the maid’s head still resting on the woman’s shoulder.
“Yes, Mrs. Thriplow?”
“It ain’t as it means anything, Master Francis, sir,” she said in a flurry of words, forgetting in her agitation that she was no longer addressing the stripling she’d known from his childhood. “The case is, sir, that his lordship left the place in the early hours. Abel here was sent for to go to the stables.”
The footman so indicated, one of the few servants fully dressed, nodded in fervent corroboration. “Foscot came for me, my lord. His lordship was wishful to haVe his travelling chariot brought round.”
Francis’s stomach dropped. Randal had bolted. He fought to keep his voice steady. “At what time was this?”
“I’m not rightly sure, my lord,” said the footman, “but it must have been four or thereabouts, for it took me a while to rouse Turville, and it was near five by the time the carriage left and not worth going back to bed.”
“I take it both Foscot and Stibbs accompanied him?”
“Yes, my lord. Stibbs was driving, my lord.”
A measure of relief dissipated the ugly fear gnawing at Francis’s stomach. Would it befit a guilty man to take along his valet and his groom? Francis made a mental note to question Abel further, but for the moment he was beset by more urgent matters. His sister-in-law was murdered. His brother had fled the house—and the country, for all Francis knew. It fell to him to deal with the aftermath.
Thrusting all his misgivings to the back of his mind, he turned to the butler. “Cattawade, I am going to lock this room. None is to enter, do you understand?”
“Yes, my lord.”
The man’s tone indicated that he had regained his equilibrium. Relieved, Francis bent his mind to priorities.
“Pellew must be sent for. See to it, Cattawade.”
At this, the lady’s maid flung up her head. “Of what use to send for the doctor? What can he do for my poor mistress now? He cannot bring her back.”
A fresh outbreak of sobs ended this outburst, and Francis was obliged to raise his voice to make himself heard over the top of the housekeeper’s clucking and the mutterings of the rest of the company.
“The doctor is needed to certify the death, that is all.” “Certify? Certify?” cried Huntshaw, her tone becoming frantic. “When anyone can see my poor lady has been throttled in her own bed!”
“That is enough.” The sharp tone had its effect. Francis
looked from one to another, taking in the varied degrees of stupefaction and alarm. He would swear that until this moment the full story had not been understood by most. He could wish it had remained unsaid, but there was nothing to be done about it now.
In a kinder tone, he said, “Mrs. Thriplow, take Huntshaw away and look after her, if you please. I will keep Cattawade only a moment, but I rely on the two of you to keep everyone as calm as possible.”
The housekeeper, already hustling the weeping lady’s maid to the vestibule, paused, turning her head. “You know I’ll do my best, Master Francis, but this is a terrible business, and no mistake.”
“Which is why we must try to get through it with as little noise as possible. Now go, if you please. I need only Cattawade, Diplock, and Abel here. About your business, the rest of you. The house must still run.”
He was gratified to see the knot of persons begin to disperse almost before he had finished speaking.
“And, for the love of heaven,” he called after the retreating forms, “keep this affair within these walls, I beg of you all!”
A murmur started up at this, and several heads turned, startled faces glancing back at him. Francis trusted that one or two nods were to be relied upon, though it could only be a matter of time before the news escaped. The imminent threat of an appalling scandal pushed him into further action. There was but one friend he might trust in a predicament such as this.
“Cattawade, send someone at once to fetch Colonel Tretower to this house. Nothing is to be said about this affair. Tell him only that I will be grateful for his immediate aid in a matter of extreme urgency.”
He saw the butler’s glance flick towards the footman, and swiftly intervened.
“Not Abel. I need him to guard this door, at least until the colonel gets here. Take note of anyone who attempts to enter, Abel.”
The footman thrust out his jaw. “No one won’t get past me, my lord.”
“Excellent. Cattawade, why are you standing there? Get going, man! And don’t forget the doctor.”
The butler hurried away and Francis turned to the last of the remaining servants.
“Diplock, I must dress directly. Make all ready in my chamber, will you?”
The valet, a man who had seen military service with Francis and was consequently to be relied upon to recover readily from even such a cataclysm at this, gave a small bow. “As you wish, my lord.”
In a blinding flash, a new duty presented itself to Francis’s mind. Much stirred, he seized the valet’s arm as the fellow began to walk away.
“One moment, Diplock. I have just had a perfectly ghastly thought.”
The valet registered concern. “Indeed, my lord?”
“It falls to me, I must suppose, to inform my mother.”
And how the Dowager Marchioness of Polbrook would react when she heard that her daughter-in-law had been slaughtered in her bed and her elder son had done his best to ensure suspicion centred upon him was a question Francis could not contemplate with any degree of equanimity.
From Diplock’s expression, it was evident he shared his master’s dismay. “It is early, my lord, but in the circumstances, perhaps a tot of brandy would not go amiss?”
Francis gave a short, if mirthless, laugh. “You must have read my mind.”
The valet permitted himself a slight smile. “I shall attend to it immediately, my lord.”
With real gratitude, Francis thanked him. Then he braced himself and went back into the bedchamber. Distasteful as the task was, it behoved him to take a more thorough examination of the bed and its unhappy occupant.
Breaking her fast in company with her new employer, Mrs. Ottilia Draycott reflected uneasily on the wisdom of her decision to abandon the familiarity of her brother’s household to take up a post as companion to a lady of advancing years. One could naturally expect little in the way of entertainment, but she had dared to hope the change of scene might dissipate the tedium of her days now that she no longer had the care of her two enlivening nephews. She had not thought a lady of some sixty summers was likely to replace the amusement supplied by Tom and Ben, but the tone adopted by the Dowager Marchioness of Polbrook and the acerbic nature of her remarks was promising.
“You have realised, I hope, Mrs. Draycott, that the position is merely temporary?”
Ottilia nodded. “It was made quite clear to me, ma’am, by Mr. Jardine, when he offered me the appointment.”
“If only Teresa had not so foolishly broken a limb, I need not have set Jardine to find me a replacement,” grumbled the dowager, as she had already done several times since Ottilia’s late arrival the night before.
To her surprise, she had found the elderly dame still up, though attired in her nightgown, covered with a handsome, embroidered silk dressing robe and what appeared a quantity of shawls draped over her shoulders. Her personal maid in attendance, she had waited, despite the advanced hour, ensconced in a cosy parlour with the fire burning and all the candles alight, fortified by a glass of port and the third volume of a work of fiction by the noted authoress Fanny Burney.
“Why in the world should I not sit up?” the dowager had demanded in response to Ottilia’s mild protest. “I might as well be reading here as in my bed.”
“I am truly sorry to have kept you from it,” Ottilia had said. “We were severely delayed by the state of the roads after so much rain. I would have put up at an inn, but we were so very close to the metropolis by nightfall, I had supposed it would be only a couple of hours to reach you.”
“Well, it makes no matter. Now you are here—which you need not have been if that silly creature had been more careful—I may go to bed with a quiet mind. You look sensible enough, if a trifle pasty. But I daresay that may be due to fatigue. Good night.”
With which the dowager had departed, leaving Ottilia prey to lurking merriment and reliant upon the lady’s maid to direct her to her quarters. Defying expectation, the Dowager Lady Polbrook had appeared at the breakfast table betimes, none the worse for her late night and clearly determined to extract the last ounce of discontent from the situation. “Teresa is your usual companion?” Ottilia asked.
“Teresa Mellis. Miss Teresa Mellis. Never caught a husband, the ninny, though she might have married the curate if she hadn’t been so nice. She’s a relative of sorts. Been with the family for years and years. My late husband took her in, and when he died, she came with me to the Dower House.” “How did she come to break a limb? Was it her arm?” “Her leg, more’s the pity. It may be weeks before she is able to get about again.”
Conscious of her kinship with the unfortunate Miss Mellis, who was clearly condemned to a life of dependence upon the charity of her relatives, Ottilia ventured to turn the dowager’s mind on the subject.
“She is the more to be pitied, surely? Is she laid up in this house? May I perhaps be of service to her?”
The dowager gave a snort. “Of service to Teresa? I hardly
think so when you are here for my benefit. But you need not fret. I am sure she is well served by her sister, to whom I had released the wretch for a spell.” She looked down her Roman nose at Ottilia. “And there you have Teresa Mellis in a nutshell. She goes, if you please, to care for her widowed sister in her recent bereavement, and she can think of nothing better to do than to fall while alighting from the coach and break her leg. If I’d thought about it, I might have predicted some such contingency. It is perfectly in accord with her nature.”
The indignation in her tone severely tried Ottilia’s control. Suppressing the bubbling mirth, she again tried to look for the bright side.
“It is most unfortunate, but perhaps one may look upon it as a blessing in disguise?”
A pair of delicate brows was raised at her. “How, pray ?” “Will it not give her widowed sister s thoughts a different direction in being obliged to care for Miss Mellis? There is nothing like engaging in bustling activity for the purpose of dissipating melancholy, or so I have always found.”
The dowager looked struck. “You’re more intelligent than you look.”
Ottilia burst into laughter. “I thank you, ma’am. A most acceptable encomium.”
“Is it? How so?”
“We females strive for beauty, do we not, rather than brains? If I do not look intelligent, ma’am, it is safe to assume I am not wholly devoid of countenapce.”
Then she rather regretted having spoken, for the dowager’s keen black eyes appraised her, running over her features one by one. Ottilia bore the scrutiny without comment, but was chagrined to feel warmth rising in her cheeks. It was a long time since anyone had troubled about her appearance.
“Well, you’re no beauty,” pronounced her employer at last, “but you’ve got good bone structure and bone structure is everything. Can’t abide the pudding-faced creatures with pug noses and mouths like a bow that pass for beauties these days. Cheekbones are most necessary if a face is to have any character at all. That and eyes. You can discover a great deal from eyes.” Ottilia inclined her head. “Then I am flattered you do not find me deficient in these particulars.”
“No, and you’re not deficient in brass, young woman!” Ottilia was obliged to laugh. “Oh, pardon me, Lady Pol- brook, but not ‘young.’ At close on thirty, I am entitled to a modicum of maturity, surely?”
“Thirty is young to me, Mrs. Draycott. And as for maturity, age has nothing to do with it. Teresa is close on five and fifty, but she had as well be nineteen for all the common sense she displays. Break a leg, indeed.”
At this point they suffered an interruption, for which Ottilia could only be thankful. The door to the breakfast parlour opened and a gentleman hastily entered the room unannounced.
“Forgive my bursting in on you at the breakfast table, ma’am, but—” He broke off, his eyes falling on Ottilia. “Ah. You are not alone.”
The fact appeared to Ottilia to afford him no little dissatisfaction. In light of the current trend of her conversation with the dowager, she was led to take note of the gentleman’s personable appearance. A lean figure looked to advantage in the prevailing mode of well-fitting cloth coat and breeches. He was not precisely handsome, but there was a lively mobility in the strong-featured face, framed by hair of rich brown tied at the nape. Although he bore a slight resemblance to her employer, his nose was more aquiline than Roman, his lips more full, but he had the same delicate brows over deep dark eyes and the same stubborn tilt at his chin. Ottilia’s gaze swept his cheeks, noting at once the high cheekbones that caused the planes to appear lean—taut even, at this moment, when she judged his whole appearance to be overlaid with anxiety. And distress?
“It’s only my new companion,” said the dowager, with a gesture Ottilia could not but find dismissive.
The gentleman came fully into the room and shut the door, his frowning gaze shifting from Ottilia’s face to the dowager’s. “Where is Teresa?”
The dowager’s brows shot up. “Great heavens, Francis, can you have forgot that I gave her leave to visit her sister?”
“But I thought she was to return within a week or two.” Ottilia inwardly groaned as the dowager once more launched into a recital of her perceived wrongs.
“I was obliged to direct Jardine to find me someone else,” finished her ladyship, “and this is she.”
The gentleman struck a hand to his forehead. “Jardine! I should have sent for him at once. Confound it, there is no end to the business!”
Ottilia gazed at him with growing concern. That some misfortune had occurred could not be doubted. She saw that the dowager was looking astonished, having at last taken in the condition of the gentleman, whom she must guess to be her ladyship’s son. Impulsively, Ottilia stood up.
“Pardon me, sir, but I think you are come to convey news of some import to her ladyship. Would you prefer me to withdraw?”
Taken aback, Francis looked at the woman properly for the first time since his entry into the room. She was a good deal younger than Teresa, although her style of dress suggested otherwise. She looked the part, dowdy and dull in a plain gown of some dark stuff, relieved only by a lace ruffle at the neck. But her features, framed by a cap that showed a mere glimpse of neatly banded hair, were pleasing, if unremarkable. Except for the eyes, which caught his gaze, a look in them of such clear understanding that Francis was startled.
“You read me aright, ma’am,” he said, summoning the ghost of a smile. “But it makes no matter. The news will undoubtedly be all over town by nightfall, so there is little point in keeping it from you. Besides, you may be of use to my mother.”
He was interrupted. “What in the world is to do, boy? You look as if all the devils of hell were after you.”
Francis gave a dry laugh. “They are, ma’am.”
“Out with it, then. Don’t keep me in suspense.”
He drew a tight breath. Of all the tasks that had held his attention this morning, this was the one he dreaded rriost. He was aware of having put it off for as long as possible, but his friend Tretower had more or less taken charge, leaving him free to accomplish it. This companion of his soldiering years had sold out to take up his inheritance but, finding civilian life sadly flat, had raised a local platoon of militia, which made him just the man to be brought in under the present eventuality. Tretower had authority, and Francis trusted him absolutely to do all in his power to hold off officialdom until Randal could be found. Although he could not prevent the coroner’s being called in, particularly since Doctor Pellew had stated his inability to sign the death certificate without this necessity. In a word, the complications were mounting already, but they were as nothing to the awful necessity of apprising his mother of the circumstances.