Authors: Suzanne Downes
A PLACE FOR REPENTANCE
By Suzanne Downes
The Sixth Underwood Mystery
The rights of Suzanne Downes as author of this work have been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright Design and Patents Act 1993. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of any of the characters to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental
Also by Suzanne Downes
The Underwood Mysteries
A Noble Pair of Brothers
Food for the Gallows
Behind the Horseman
An Aria Writ in blood
Yield Not to Misfortune
A Place for Repentance
The Devil Drives a Jaguar
Blood and Stone
An Empty Handed Traveller
A Troublesome Woman
For my friend Zoe Smith – even though she never reads my books – perhaps she will read this one since it mentions her name!
(Extract from a journal discovered by C H Underwood, Winter, 1829)
I’ve sometimes wondered what leads some of us to kill others – for gain perhaps, for revenge, for love? But not I! No, I began to kill for survival – and I continued to kill to help others around me survive.
That makes murder sound magnanimous, doesn’t it? Can it ever be so? I think it can. I know it can! I live my life now to aid those who are helpless, as I once was, to find the strength to save themselves.
I can never forget the day I decided to kill my father. The day I realized that it was going to be him or me, that it was always going to be him or me, unless I found the courage to change it – it was not that he was going to be the death of me, nothing like that. I’m not talking about physical safety, but the death of my spirit, the crushing of all hope, all self-respect, even the desire for anything better, for I knew that good things were not for me. Oh no, he would never have killed me, he enjoyed me too much alive, and he intended to go on enjoying me for as long as he could! Believe me, death would have been a blessed release from his attentions.
It was only when – no I’ll not give any names –it would not be fair for me to reveal another’s secrets along with my own. I only write this so that should the worst happen, there will be some record of my true nature; that I was driven to do all that I did and continue to do, and that others joined me in my endeavours because they recognized the justice of my actions – not Man’s so-called Justice, of course, but the natural justice of the animal kingdom where no creature is blamed if it kills another to save itself. This argument will not save me from the gallows, but mayhap it will give pause to those who seek to condemn me now, but whose ‘justice’ failed to save me when I needed it most.
Suffice it to say it was an expression on a face which alerted me to a strange truth. I had hated my father for what he was subjecting me to, despised him and myself for not being stronger. Of course I felt disgust at what he was forcing me to do; misery and melancholy were my constant companions.
But the expression on this person’s face was anger; pure, unadulterated fury and I suddenly realized that this was the only emotion I had not allowed myself to feel. He was my father and I believed that even though I hated what he did, he could do as he pleased, for was I not his property? Until that moment I thought that I had not the right to resist.
That look of anger on another’s face, however fleeting it was before it was obediently repressed made me realize that this was not the case and it made me feel overwhelming fury – a fury that made me suddenly strong.
‘Video Meliora Proboque, Deteriora Sequor’ – I see the better course of action and I approve of it, but I follow the worse course
“I know it is silly, Gil, but I am a little worried,” said Verity, though in truth she need not have spoken the words aloud, for her agitated pacing and clenched hands told her brother-in-law of her unhappiness more eloquently than anything she could have confided.
“Am I to assume my dear brother is causing your anguish?” he asked, not a little wryly, for he knew well that very little else in life could stir Verity to such levels of disturbance than her beloved husband. Not even her daughters, Horatia and Clarissa, consumed so much of her energy, despite their youth.
“He is not recovering as well as I would have hoped from his illness,” admitted Verity sadly.
The illness to which she so delicately referred was actually a case of poisoning to which Underwood had been subjected the year before and from which he had almost died. Gil found the subject difficult to face with equanimity for he was torn by conflicting emotions. A large part of him admired his brother’s intelligence and tenacity; indeed he could not fault the high-minded principles which prompted Underwood to investigate crime and bring the culprits to justice, however, he felt very strongly that now Underwood was a husband and father, he should look to his own affairs and keep very firmly out of matters that did not directly concern him. The attempt on his life had been a revenge attack by a particularly wicked man who had been thwarted in his desire to claim an inheritance to which he had no legal claim. Gil thought that the misappropriation of another man’s money was a poor reason to lose his only brother.
“It was extremely serious, Verity,” he pointed out, careful to keep any hint of criticism from his voice, “perhaps it is not surprising that he has taken a long time to regain his health.”
“But really, Gil, this long? It has been months. I’m quite at my wit’s end.”
If he was honest, Gil had not seen very much evidence of real illness in his brother, who had always been inclined to drift around aimlessly unless he had his intellect fully occupied by some puzzle or another, but if Verity was fretful, he was rather disposed to take her at her word, for she lived up to her name as no other woman had ever done. If Verity said it was true, then it must indeed be a fact.
“Perhaps a holiday would bring about some improvement?” he suggested, hoping to at least set her mind at rest if nothing else. “After the services he rendered to my father-in-law, I’m sure the Earl would be only too happy to allow you to stay in Brighton at the villa for as long as you need to. The sea air might agree with him.”
“It is a kind thought,” said Verity, still pacing, “but Underwood never really cared for the sea side – he only went to Brighton in the first place under duress and nothing that happened there endeared the place to him.”
Gil could well understand that! The sojourn in Brighton had been gory and full of intense drama to say the very least. The Earl’s brother having been found in a locked room with his throat cut and thereby leaving the son of the house suspected of his uncle’s murder. It had taken all of Underwood’s ingenuity to find a solution to the mystery and save Gil’s young brother-in-law from the gallows.
“Somewhere else, then,” he said, “I know my brother would be happiest in a place of historic interest, with a goodly sprinkling of theatres, libraries and perhaps even a College in which he might be allowed to wander and refresh his academic spirit?”
Verity smiled delightedly, “That sounds perfect, Gil, but does such a place even exist?”
“Not only does it exist, my dear,” said Gil complacently, “but it is within my remit to house you and Underwood in some comfort there, for as long as you wish. As Rural Dean my influence is only slightly less wide than the Bishop’s. Within a half a day’s carriage ride lies the small market town of Dacorum-in-the-Marsh. The vicar is an old friend of mine from my own University days. He is an unmarried man with a huge rectory, designed and built for a large family. I’m sure he would be delighted to offer bed and board to you both – in fact, if my memory is not at fault, I do believe Chuffy knows him too.”
This caused his sister-in-law to smile. It always amused Verity when the usually serious clergyman referred to his older brother by his childhood soubriquet. Could anyone who less suited the name ‘Chuffy’ be found than the urbane and cultured C H Underwood Esquire?
“Oh, Gil, you always come to my rescue - but what of the children? Would your friend not find two young and boisterous girls rather an inconvenience if he is used to only his own company?”
“I think this holiday should be yours and Underwood’s alone. Cara and I will take care of the girls. My three sons will benefit immensely from some female influence in their lives. And I imagine you’ll only be gone two, perhaps three weeks?”
“Three at the very most – I couldn’t bear to be away from my little ones for any longer than that. But a short break from routine could be just what Underwood needs. Thank you so very much, Gil – but are you sure you should not first consult with Cara? More children in her care will be an imposition, I think.”
“Nonsense, my wife is already mentioning expanding our family in the hope of a little girl – perhaps this will make her see sense,” joked Gil – or perhaps, thought Verity with an inner smile, there is no jest intended. With two small sons of his own, and a stepson fast approaching manhood, from his tragic first marriage, it could be that Gil really did feel that his family was complete.
“If you are quite sure,” she ventured softly.
“Absolutely,” he answered briskly, “I’ll send the necessary letters this afternoon. The one advantage of marrying into the aristocracy is the fact that my letters are franked by the Earl and there is no charge to the recipient and very little delay in their delivery. I daresay you can be on your way to Dacorum-in-the-Marsh within a sennight. If I were you I would begin packing.”
Gil was true to his word. Within five days Verity had an invitation from the Reverend Lindell Draycott. The holiday, however, was not to be quite as welcome and uncomplicated as she had imagined, for Underwood took against the notion as soon as she mentioned it.
“I can’t possibly go away just now, my love,” he said firmly, when she happily proffered the letter from the Reverend Mr Draycott.
“Why on earth not?” she asked, too shocked to be subtle, or even polite. To her certain knowledge Underwood had nothing pressing to do, either in his academic writing or even his voluntary detective work; nothing untoward had occurred in the small Spa town of Hanbury for some months.
“I have promised Horatia that I will teach her how to play Backgammon,” said Underwood, “and, as you know, I never break my word.”
Verity smiled grimly. Her adoration for her husband did not blind her to the fact that all Underwood’s promises were flexible, depending on his needs of the time. It was true he never actually reneged on an oath, but he was not above delaying the fulfilment of them for an unspecified amount of time until forced by guilt to proceed.
“Horatia can wait a fortnight for her game,” said his wife forcefully, “you are coming to Dacorum-in-the-Marsh with me!”
Even Underwood knew when not to argue with his normally biddable spouse. With a grimace he shrugged, “Very well, but you should know I feel quite badly about letting her down.”
“And you should know that I recognise humbug when I hear it!” Verity replied tartly, “Now go upstairs and decide which of the clothes I have laid out on the bed you wish to take with you.”
Underwood knew when he was beaten. The valises were duly packed and Lady Hartley-Wells was persuaded to lend her carriage and coachman for the journey. She stood in Underwood’s debt for the careful way he had handled her old friend Mrs Woodforde and had reunited that mother with her long-lost daughter as well as very nearly paying for the task with his life. She knew she was obligated and felt this was the very least she could do.
Once they had clattered out of Hanbury and had put a few miles between themselves and home, Verity ventured a comment to her husband, who leaned against the squabs, his eyes closed, a slightly pained expression on his face, “Do you want to tell me the real reason you were so reluctant to come away, my dear?”
Without opening his eyes Underwood, knowing it was useless to pretend to be asleep, replied, “Oh, I knew you would make a tiresome fuss over me if you had no children to distract you.”
She smiled softly, “You do not fool me, Cadmus, for I know well enough that you adore it when I make time to coddle you, for all your denials.”
He opened grey eyes and smiled at her, his frown banished, “You have me quite wrong, my dear; it is true that I have no objection to your solicitations, but only if there is nothing so very serious to fret about.”
Verity subsided into a thoughtful silence; this was the first time, since she had been called to what she had feared at the time was his deathbed, that Underwood had acknowledged that he too might be concerned about his own health – not in his usual way, with a hint of hypochondria, designed as a means of self-preservation, so he might not be coerced into doing that which he had no desire to do - but a very real worry that he had not recovered fully from the attempt on his life some months before.
After that rather startling revelation, she allowed him to sleep for some while, knowing that he was not a happy traveller and was probably feeling the swaying of the vehicle much more keenly than she was herself.
A stop at lunch time marked the halfway point of their journey and over a cold collation at a rather pleasant inn, Verity read aloud to Underwood from a travel journal which Gil had lent her, telling them all about Dacorum-in-the-Marsh, or at least how it had been some seventy years before when the vicar of the time had written his assessment of the place.
“A charming, medieval town, almost unchanged by the years, if one ignores the fact that the now ruined monastery was sacked and left to fall into sad disrepair by Henry VIII’s henchmen. Fortunately they left the rather pretty little church of St Eustace intact.”
“It sounds idyllic,” said Underwood, but Verity was not entirely sure he was not being facetious. She scrutinized his face but his expression was entirely guileless, so she allowed the comment to pass.
“Narrow streets of brick houses with wooden overhanging upper floors remind one that this was how London looked before the Great Fire razed it to the ground,” she continued reading.
Underwood grunted, “Let us hope that it does not hold the same stench and disease that the Metropolis boasted before the cleansing fire of 1666.”
“I’m sure it is just as delightful as Gil promised,” she said tartly, but she laid the book aside. Her husband was evidently not in the mood to be lectured.
“Gil is generally a reliable source of information,” answered Underwood, but his mind was far away she could tell.
“Cadmus, would you like to tell me what is really going on? I know that some vague worries about your health have not put you in this horrid mood,” she said decidedly, suddenly cross with all his prevarication. He might very well have been ill for these past months, but her life had not exactly been easy during that time either, with a terribly sick husband and two young daughters to care for. She felt she probably needed this little break from home and every day cares quite as much as he presumably did and she did not appreciate his lack of attention to her when she was attempting to ensure they both had a pleasant time.
He gave his low, self-deprecating laugh, “I’m so sorry, my dear. I’m being a boor, I know. It is just that this is the same route that I took travelling to West Wimpleford last year and being in the same vicinity is provoking memories, not all of which are happy ones, I fear.”
She was confused by this admission, for in her estimation the town should have no unpleasant associations. As far as she knew Underwood had successfully solved the mystery of Miss Greenhowe’s missing diamonds and had, in doing so, released the man charged with stealing them from his convict status in Australia.
As soon as he observed her puzzled expression, Underwood realized that he had made an error in voicing his unhappiness. At the time he had, of necessity, kept the worst aspects of his adventures from his loving wife. She did not know that he suspected that he had been fed poisoned tea – he could not be sure because it transpired that he had already been dosed with arsenic in Hanbury a few days before, but nevertheless he had been exceedingly ill. What was not in doubt was the attempt on his life by a highwayman who had aimed his flintlock pistol directly at Underwood and ordered him out of the stagecoach. It was at this point that Underwood’s life had been saved by a mysterious widow, who had shot the brigand before he had time to injure the shocked Underwood. This had all been kept from Verity for her own peace of mind, but now, by his own stupid introspection, Underwood had very nearly given the game away.