Read A Dangerous Mourning Online

Authors: Anne Perry

Tags: #Police, #London (England), #Political, #Fiction, #Literary, #Crime & mystery, #Crime & Thriller, #Police - England, #Historical Fiction, #Traditional British, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective - General, #Police Procedural, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Inspector (Fictitious character), #Monk, #Historical, #english, #Mystery & Detective - Traditional British, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Mystery, #General, #Suspense, #William (Fictitious character)

A Dangerous Mourning (23 page)

BOOK: A Dangerous Mourning
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and retired to the smoking room to think or perhaps to doze. Books and newspapers were forbidden as unfitting the sabbath, and the children were not allowed to play with their toys or to read, except Scripture, or to indulge in any games. Even musical practice was deemed inappropriate.

Supper was to be cold, to permit Mrs. Boden and the other upper servants to attend church. Afterwards the evening would be occupied by Bible reading, presided over by Sir Basil. It was a day in which no one seemed to find pleasure.

It brought childhood flooding back to Hester, although her father at his most pompous had never been so unrelievedly joyless. Since leaving home for the Crimea, although it was not so very long ago, she had forgotten how rigorously such rules were enforced. War did not allow such indulgences, and caring for the sick did not stop even for the darkness of night, let alone a set day of the week.

Hester spent the afternoon in the study writing letters. She would have been permitted to use the ladies' maids' sitting room, had she wished, but Beatrice did not need her, having decided to sleep, and it would be easier to write away from Mary's and Gladys's chatter.

She had written to Charles and Imogen, and to several of her friends from Crimean days, when Cyprian came in. He did not seem surprised to see her, and apologized only perfunctorily for the intrusion.

"You have a large family, Miss Latterly?" he said, noticing the pile of letters.

"Oh no, only a brother," she said. "The rest are to friends with whom I nursed during the war.''

"You formed such friendships?" he asked curiously, interest quickening in his face. "Do you not find it difficult to settle back into life in England after such violent and disturbing experiences?"

She smiled, in mockery at herself rather than at him.

"Yes I do," she admitted candidly. "One had so much more responsibility; there was little time for artifice or standing upon ceremony. It was a time of so many things: terror, exhaustion, freedom, friendship that crossed all the normal barriers, honesty such as one cannot normally afford—"

He sat facing her, balancing on the arm of one of the easy chairs.

“I have read a little of the war in the newspapers,'' he said with a pucker between his brows. "But one never knows how accurate the accounts are. I fear they tell us very much what they wish us to believe. I don't suppose you have read any— no, of course not."

"Yes I have!" she contradicted immediately, forgetting in the heat of the discourse how improper it was for well-bred women to have access to anything but the social pages of a newspaper.

But he was not shocked, only the more interested.

"Indeed, one of the bravest and most admirable men I nursed was a war correspondent with one of London's best newspapers," she went on. "When he was too ill to write himself, he would dictate to me, and I sent his dispatches for him."

"Good gracious. You do impress me, Miss Latterly," he said sincerely. "If you can spare time, I should be most interested to hear some of your opinions upon what you saw. I have heard rumors of great incompetence and a terrible number of unnecessary deaths, but then others say such stories are spread by the disaffected and the troublemakers wishing to advance their own cause at the expense of others."

"Oh, there is some of that too," she agreed, setting her quill and paper aside. He seemed so genuinely concerned it gave her a distinct pleasure to recount to him both some of what she had seen and experienced and the conclusions she had drawn from it.

He listened with total attention, and his few questions were perceptive and made with both pity and a wry humor she found most attractive. Away from the influence of his family, and for an hour forgetting his sister's death and all the misery and suspicion it brought in its wake, he was a man of individual ideas, some quite innovative with regard to social conditions and the terms of agreement and service between the governed and the governing.

They were deep in discussion and the shadows outside were lengthening when Romola came in, and although they were both aware of her, it was several minutes before they let go of the topic of argument and acknowledged her presence.

"Papa wishes to speak to you," she said with a frown. "He is waiting in the withdrawing room."

Reluctantly Cyprian rose to his feet and excused himself-from Hester as if she had been a much regarded friend, not a semiservant.

When he had gone Romola looked at Hester with perplexed concern in her smooth fece. Her complexion really was very lovely and her features perfectly proportioned, all except her lower lip, which was a trifle full and drooped at the corners sometimes, giving her a discontented look in repose, especially when she was tired.

"Really, Miss Latterly, I don't know how to express myself without seeming critical, or how to offer advice where it may not be desired. But if you wish to obtain a husband, and surely all natural women must, then you will have to learn to master this intellectual and argumentative side of your nature. Men do not find it in the least attractive in a woman. It makes them uncomfortable. It is not restful and does not make a man feel at his ease or as if you give proper deference to his judgment. One does not wish to appear opinionated! That would be quite dreadful."

She moved a stray hair back into its pins with a skilled hand.

“I can remember my mama advising me when I was a girl— it is most unbecoming in a woman to be agitated about anything. Almost all men dislike agitation and anything that detracts from a woman's image as serene, dependable, innocent of all vulgarity or meanness, never critical of anything except slovenliness or unchastity, and above all never contradictory towards a man, even if you should think him mistaken. Learn how to run your household, how to eat elegantly, how to dress well and deport yourself with dignity and charm, the correct form of address for everyone in society, and a little painting or drawing, as much music as you can master, especially singing if you have any gift at all, some needlework, an elegant hand with a pen, and a pleasing turn of phrase for a letter—and above all how to be obedient and control your temper no matter how you may be provoked.

"If you do all these things, Miss Latterly, you will marry as well as your comeliness and your station in life allow, and you will make your husband happy. Therefore you also will be happy.'' She shook her head very slightly.”I fear you have quite a way to go."

Hester achieved the last of these admonitions instantly, and kept her temper in spite of monstrous provocation.

"Thank you, Mrs. Moidore," she said after taking a deep breath. "I fear perhaps I am destined to remain single, but I shall not forget your advice."

"Oh, I hope not," Romola said with deep sympathy. "It is a most unnatural state for a woman. Learn to bridle your tongue, Miss Latterly, and never give up hope."

Fortunately, upon that final piece of counsel she went back to the withdrawing room, leaving Hester boiling with words unsaid. And yet she was curiously perplexed, and her temper crippled by a sense of pity that did not yet know its object, only that there was confusion and unhappiness and she was sharply aware of it.

* * * * *

Hester took the opportunity to rise early the following day and find herself small tasks around the kitchen and laundry in the hope of improving her acquaintance with some of the other servants—and whatever knowledge they might have. Even if the pieces seemed to them to be meaningless, to Monk they might fit with other scraps to form a picture.

Annie and Maggie were chasing each other up the stairs and falling over in giggles, stuffing their aprons in their mouths to stop the sound from carrying along the landing.

"What's entertained you so early?" Hester asked with a smile.

They both looked at her, wide-eyed and shaking with laughter.

"Well?" Hester said, without criticism in her tone. "Can't you share it? I could use a joke myself."

"Mrs. Sandeman," Maggie volunteered, pushing her fab-hair out of her eyes. "It's those papers she's got, miss. You never seen anything like it, honest, such tales as'd curdle your blood—and goings-on between men and women as'd make a street girl blush."

"Indeed?" Hester raised her eyebrows. "Mrs. Sandeman has some very colorful reading?"

"Mostly purple, I'd say." Annie grinned.

"Scarlet," Maggie corrected, and burst into giggles again.

"Where did you get this?" Hester asked her, holding the paper and trying to keep a sober face.

“Out of her room when we cleaned it," Annie replied with transparent innocence.

“At this time in the morning?'' Hester said doubtfully. "It's only half past six. Don't tell me Mrs. Sandeman is up already?"

"Oh no. 'Course not. She doesn't get up till lunchtime," Maggie said quickly. "Sleeping it off, I shouldn't wonder."

"Sleeping what off?" Hester was not going to let it go. "She wasn't out yesterday evening."

“She gets tiddly in her room,'' Annie replied.”Mr. Thirsk brings it to her from the cellar. I dunno why; I never thought he liked her. But I suppose he must do, to pinch port wine for her—and the best stuff too."

"He takes it because he hates Sir Basil, stupid!" Maggie said sharply. "That's why he takes the best. One of these days Sir Basil's going to send Mr. Phillips for a bottle of old port, and there isn't going to be any left. Mrs. Sandeman's drunk it all."

"I still don't think he likes her," Annie insisted. "Have you seen the way his eyes are when he looks at her?''

"Perhaps he had a fancy for her?" Maggie said hopefully, a whole new vista of speculation opening up before her imagination. "And she turned him down, so now he hates her."

"No." Annie was quite sure. "No, I think he despises her. He used to be a pretty good soldier, you know—I mean something special—before he had a tragic love affair."

"How do you know?" Hester demanded. "I'm sure he didn't tell you."

" 'Course not. I heard 'er ladyship talking about it to Mr. Cyprian. I think he thinks she's disgusting—not like a lady should be at all." Her eyes grew wider. "What if she made an improper advance to him, and he was revolted and turned her down?"

"Then she should hate him," Hester pointed out.

"Oh, she does," Annie said instantly. "One of these days she'll tell Sir Basil about him taking the port, you'll see. Only maybe she'll be so squiffy by then he won't believe her."

Hester seized the opportunity, and was half ashamed of doing it.

"Who do you think killed Mrs. Haslett?"

Their smiles vanished.

"Well, Mr. Cyprian's much too nice, an' why would he anyway?" Annie dismissed him. "Mrs. Moidore never takes that much notice of anyone else to hate them. Nor does Mrs. Sandeman—"

"Unless Mrs. Haslett knew something disgraceful about her?" Maggie offered. "That's probably it. I reckon Mrs. Sandeman would stick a knife into you if you threatened to split on her."

"True," Annie agreed. Then her face sobered and she lost all the imagination and the banter. "Honestly, miss, we think it's likely Percival, who has airs about himself in that department, and fancied Mrs. Haslett. Thinks he's one dickens of a fellow, he does."

"Thinks God made him as a special gift for women." Maggie sniffed with scorn. " 'Course there's some daft enough to let him. Then God doesn't know much about women, is all I can say."

"And Rose," Annie went on. "She's got a real thing for Percival. Really taken bad with him—the more fool her."

"Then why would she kill Mrs. Haslett?" Hester asked.

"Jealousy, of course." They both looked at her as if she were slow-witted.

Hester was surprised. "Did Percival really have that much of a fancy for Mrs. Haslett? But he's a footman, for goodness' sake."

"Tell him that," Annie said with deep disgust.

Nellie, the little tweeny maid, came scurrying up the stairs with a broom in one hand and a pail of cold tea leaves in the other, ready to scatter them on the carpets to lay the dust.

"Why aren't you sweeping?" she demanded, looking at the two older girls. "If Mrs. Willis catches me at eight and we 'aven't done this it'll be trouble. I don't want to go to bed without me tea."

The housekeeper's name was enough to galvanize both the girls into instant action, and they left Hester on the landing while they ran downstairs for their own brooms and dusters.

In the kitchen an hour later, Hester prepared a breakfast tray for Beatrice, just tea, toast, butter and apricot preserve. She was thanking the gardener for one of the very last of the late roses for the silver vase when she passed Sal, the red-haired kitchen maid, laughing loudly and nudging the footman from

next door, who had sneaked over, ostensibly with a message from his cook for hers. The two of them were flirting with a lot of poking and slapping on the doorstep, and Sal's loud voice could be heard up the scullery steps and along the passage to the kitchen.

"That girl's no better than she should be," Mrs. Boden said with a shake of her head. "You mark my words—she's a trollop, if ever I saw one. Sal!" she shouted. “Come back in here and get on with your work!" She looked at Hester again. "She's an idle piece. It's a wonder how I put up with her. I don't know what the world's coming to." She picked up the meat knife and tested it with her finger. Hester looked at the blade and swallowed with a shiver when she thought that maybe it was the knife someone had held in his hands creeping up the stairs in the night to stab Octavia Haslett to death.

Mrs. Boden found the edge satisfactory and pulled over the slab of steak to begin slicing it ready for the pie.

"What with Miss Octavia's death, and now policemen creeping all over the house, everyone scared o' their own shadows, 'er ladyship took to 'er bed, and a good-for-nothing baggage like Sal in my kitchen—it's enough to make a decent woman give up."

"I'm sure you won't," Hester said, trying to soothe her. If she was going to be responsible for luring two housemaids away, she did not want to add to the domestic chaos by encouraging the cook to desert as well. "The police will go in time, the whole matter will be settled, her ladyship will recover, and you are quite capable of disciplining Sal. She cannot be the first wayward kitchen maid you've trained into being thoroughly competent—in time."

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