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Authors: Cordelia Frances Biddle

Conjurer

BOOK: Conjurer
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PRAISE FOR THE WRITING OF CORDELIA FRANCES BIDDLE

The Conjurer

“Biddle, from one of Philadelphia's old Main Line families, knows her manners and her city, and shows both to great advantage. … The reader, as in all good historical mysteries, learns as much about a time and place as about the crime.” —
The Plain Dealer

“A first-rate mystery featuring rich period authenticity and beguiling characters,
The Conjurer
succeeds on all levels—as top-flight historical fiction and as a classic whodunit.” —Julia Spencer-Fleming,
New York Times
–bestselling author of
Through the Evil Days

“A feast for those fans who enjoy engaging characters and may attract readers who loved Caleb Carr's attention to detail in
The Alienist
and Jacqueline Winspear's appealing sleuth, Maisie Dobbs.” —
Library Journal

“Masterful storytelling … transports readers to 1842—complete with sights, sounds, and a narrative that rings true to the period.” —Rhys Bowen, author of
Heirs and Graces

“Biddle successfully uses 19th-century Philadelphia, mining the landscape for the kinds of jewels that illuminate a good mystery, and shaping characters that ring true.” —
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Deception's Daughter

“Martha is a winning sleuth in the tradition of Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs and Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily Ashton.” —
Booklist

“Well crafted, the plot moves along quickly without sacrificing the authentic details of life in Philadelphia during the period. While this book is the second in the series, the plot and characters are not dependent on familiarity with
The Conjurer
(Thomas Dunne, 2008). Mystery fans will enjoy the suspense and pacing, while fans of historical fiction will revel in the rich detail of the setting. A romantic subplot about Martha and the criminal investigator adds to the mounting tension as the mystery unfolds.” —
School Library Journal

The Conjurer

A Martha Beale Mystery

Cordelia Frances Biddle

For Steve

husband, partner, and dearest friend
,

with my love and admiration always

One who never turned his back but marched breast forward.

Never doubted clouds would break,

Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,

Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,

Sleep to wake.

—
ROBERT BROWNING
,
Asolando

A River in Flood

T
HE TWO DOGS STARE DOWN
into the river. In their intense concentration, they neither move nor whimper, while their brown fur, wet and bemired with hunting, appears all of one color with the earth like two animate objects formed from the flinty Pennsylvania soil. The older dog shivers and finally relinquishes his post, curling himself into a woeful ball on the frost-hardened hilltop, but the pup remains seated, gazing fixedly at the turbulent rapids as they roar past the riverbanks below, sending up mud-filled foam and sprays of dirt-gray water that almost scream out power and vengeance. The Schuylkill in flood is a terrible place: twice as broad as it should be, the waves so relentless they appear likely to crest over the high hill itself. The island that sits in the midst of this part of the stream is already drowned; only the top halves of its trees remain, leafless black limbs like arms thrust upward in supplication.

As the young dog watches, entire tree trunks and mangled fence rails thunder past, the power of the surge so great that each sodden piece of wood is repeatedly plunged below the surface to then repeatedly shoot back up into the air. The pup scans these projectiles with apprehensive eyes, although he never follows their course for more than a yard or two. What he desperately searches for should be directly below his resting place.

He sniffs the air, briefly pricks up his ears, then flattens them again. It is bitterly cold, and the dogs have remained atop the steep rise for a long time. Their coats no longer emanate heat or the steamy moisture of warm bodies accustomed to racing across fields at their master's call. The old dog groans from his icy bed, then closes his eyes. The pup turns briefly toward his companion, his allegiance torn between love and duty. Then he also whimpers and lies down.

“We really should consider proceeding with luncheon, Mr. Simms. I'm sure Father simply lost track of the time.” It's Martha Beale who makes these twin statements, although her tone lacks conviction. Her stance is also hesitant: a tall figure cloaked in a blue cashmere gown. Despite its lilac satin trim, its tight bodice and white lace, its long sleeves equipped with two
à la mode
pouffings, Martha is scant competition for the opulent red velvet swags that drape the parlor's cherrywood portal. Not that it would enter her mind to attempt such an outrageous act. Ladies, she's been taught, must be discreet additions to their habitations, speaking only when necessary—and then with decorum and tact.

As a result of this rigorous schooling, even the requisite under-wiring of her costume, the whalebone corset and stiff crinoline underskirts, fails to make her an impressive figure when compared to the excesses of Beale House: its room upon room overflowing with torchères of bronze and alabaster, with Turkey carpets, marble urns, and dense suites of black walnut furniture. All new, of course, just as the country estate in the wooded and ravined land that stretches west of the city of Philadelphia is new, and built in the most fashionable and ornate of Gothic styles.

“You know how unhappy Cook becomes when the schedule is forsaken …” Martha adds, keeping her polite gaze upon her father's confidential secretary, who remains seated beside one of the parlor tables, his attention devoted to the newspaper in his hands.

“As you say, Martha” is Simms's sole response.

“Surely Father won't mind if we commence without him.” She attempts a small laugh, hoping to sound assured and competent, but the effort merely makes her seem younger and less experienced than her twenty-six years would suggest. “Especially if he's had a successful morning's hunting. Besides, he must have packed some nourishment in his creel. Biscuits and cheese, at least …”

She pauses, again at a loss. How long has it been, she wonders, that Owen Simms has been part of the household? Fifteen years? Sixteen? She knows it was well before she achieved adulthood, and because of this fact it seems that he has always been here, and that her behavior with him has never climbed out of an uncomfortable and tongue-tied infancy. Or perhaps her reaction simply reflects the great man he serves. “… And we both know how fond Father is of tramping into the deepest reaches of the forest—”

“As you say.”

Martha suppresses a sigh as she considers the response.
As you say
, not
as you wish
. And
Martha
, rather than
Miss Beale
, which would be fitting and right given her age. If she were married, perhaps … but no, there's no use in starting down that long and tortured road. At her advanced years, it's doubtful she'll ever participate in wedded life. The rules of social conduct are strict in 1842, but doubtless they've always been so. “I'll inform Cook, then, shall I?”

Owen Simms merely nods. Seated within a pool of light cast from a nearby paraffin lamp, he should appear lesser than the standing Martha, but the very opposite is true; and he seems as authoritative and commanding as the granite bust of a Roman senator: each chiseled curl in place, the watchful eyes full of self-satisfaction and pride. “The decision is yours, of course, Martha. This is your father's house, after all. And you, naturally, are its hostess. Matters of dining and so forth must be left in your capable hands.” With that remark, Simms returns to his newspaper. He doesn't wait to see if his master's only child stays or leaves, and so Martha Beale makes one more foray into conversation, affixing a masterful smile she doesn't remotely feel.
Capable hands!
she thinks, and her cheeks involuntarily redden. She has no idea whether Simms means the words as a compliment or a critique.

“Good. Let us dine. Father certainly wouldn't wish us to go hungry.”

Then she walks away to tell Cook that they will sup without awaiting her father's return. But this small moment of autonomy doesn't engender a sense of dignity or ownership. Instead, Martha feels utterly immaterial; and her body as she crosses the broad foyer and turns down the corridor that leads to the kitchens and pantries is self-conscious and stiff.

It's the head gardener, Jacob Oberholtzer, who finds the dogs, so cold the old male can scarcely move, while the pup recognizes the servant and barks often and noisily without once forsaking his sentry station on the hill. Oberholtzer drags the old dog up by the scruff of his neck and propels him forward by pumping his shivering sides as though they were bellows. “Come,” he orders in English, although that's not his native tongue: “Come, dog.”

The old male weaves unsteadily forward. The pup remains behind. “Dog, come!” Oberholtzer yells, but the pup refuses to move. The gardener swears in
Plattdeutsch;
the pup barks; the old dog wavers, and Jacob, his teeth chattering viciously, his hands and nose nearly numb, storms back to the site overlooking the swollen Schuylkill. He makes a grab for the pup, but the pup leaps away, whining and nearly plunging backward down into the madly rushing river.

The value his master places upon these two makes Oberholtzer hesitate; he can't risk losing one of them to the gray-brown waves that tumble past the rock-strewn bank. In pausing, Jacob looks beyond the recalcitrant animal, beyond the frost-flattened scrub of the hillside, beyond the tangled trees that lead into the wilder parts of the forest. The daylight is fading fast, and the landscape and waterscape taking on a leaden hue: sky, earth, water, river boulders of the same dead color that presages snow. Oberholtzer swears again, and in giving voice to his frustration and his wrath finally sees the creel and rifle dropped among the stones at the Schuylkill's swollen edge. Premonition paralyzes him. His legs, accustomed to hours tramping the Beale estate, refuse to move. His mind, trained to take orders without asking questions, panics. He stares down at the valuable gun, shouts his master's name, turns his head from the roaring river to the nervous dogs, then nearly runs from the scene.

Martha is reading in the parlor when Oberholtzer barrels through the front door of Beale House. Naturally, she assumes it's her father, at long last returned from his shooting excursion. She thinks the noise and the stomping, the rush of servants clattering into the foyer, are in answer to his immediate needs: a warm jacket to replace his cold outer coat, slippers in place of boots, a soothing glass of port wine. She never imagines it's Oberholtzer who has engendered this commotion; servants enter through the rear of the house, and a gardener, rarely at all. Only people approaching the Beales' social status are admitted through the main door. With her book resting on her lap, she composes herself in the attitude of calm and cheerful anticipation her father would expect.

But it's not Lemuel Beale who enters the room; rather, it's Owen Simms. “Your father seems to be missing” is what he tells her; his tone is as measured as always. “Oberholtzer found the two dogs and then spotted your father's hunting equipment at the river's edge.”

“Missing?” is all Martha can think to reply. “But that's impossible, Mr. Simms. Father cannot be
missing
. He must have walked further upriver, or down. Or perhaps he entered a crofter's cottage to escape the chill, or found a farm wagon to carry him home. Late as it's become, Father would never—”

“And left his dogs behind? And his percussion rifle?”

Martha has no response to these queries other than to utter a gentle “But there must be a logical explanation …” Then she attempts a lighter tone. “And you know how fond Father is of logic—”

BOOK: Conjurer
4.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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