Read Death in a Scarlet Coat Online

Authors: David Dickinson

Death in a Scarlet Coat

BOOK: Death in a Scarlet Coat
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For Leo, who’s just arrived.

The stately homes of England!

How beautiful they stand,

Amidst their tall ancestral trees,

O’er all the pleasant land.

The deer across their greensward bound

Through shade and sunny gleam,

And the swan glides past them with the sound

Of some rejoicing stream.

Felicia Hemans, 1828

It was very cold at nine o’clock on a breezy autumn
morning
in Lincolnshire. The mounted men and the handful of mounted women of the Candlesby Hunt were ranged round the forecourt of Candlesby Hall. Two outlying pavilions were connected to the wings of the main building by a couple of long walls with large niches left for statues of
classical
antiquity. As with so much of Candlesby Hall, ambition outran reality. Two hundred years after their creation the niches were still waiting for Cicero and Caesar, Pericles and Plato to drop in from Greece and Rome and grace the front of a gentleman’s house in the East of England. They were as empty today as they had been on the day they were created. The pavilions themselves were joined by a tall black railing with a grand opening in the centre.

The wind had abated since last night’s gales, but clouds of fallen leaves still swirled and eddied in the forecourt. Inside the square formed by the house and the pavilions was a circle of grass with a path round the edges and a broken fountain in the centre. Even in the gloom the hunters’ coats of scarlet and black and dark blue, with their cream and white breeches and stocks, made a brave show. The conversation was animated, men and women speculating about the forthcoming hunting season. One or two claimed to have spotted foxes trotting through the countryside in the weeks before. Latecomers were saying good morning to
the hunt officials. The true aficionados were more excited than they would have cared to admit. They could hardly wait for the sheer delight of the hunt, the wind in your face, the rain in your hair, the sensation of speed as your horse raced after the scarlet coats at the front, the alarming moment when it left the ground to clear another hedge or wall, the cry of the huntsman’s horn, the shouts of your friends close by, on and on and on across the countryside with the fox smarter than the hunt today and only a
handful
of riders left in pursuit. It made the blood race, even to think about it.

People more interested in architecture than in hunting might have paused after a careful inspection of the great house behind them. On top of the front was a group of three statues. Only one had all its limbs and features intact. The others were suffering from various ailments – heads fallen off, arms left as stumps, stone staff of office broken at the hilt. The great pillars jutting out at the front of the house were no longer of uniform colour but stained with dark green and a dirty yellow as if they had some terminal disease. On the top floor, where the servants had their
quarters,
half a dozen windows were broken and remained unrepaired.

The Candlesby butler, old, white-haired and stooping over his tray, was moving through the crowd with his stirrup cup, a mixture of port laced with brandy to fortify the hunters against the cold. The master was not here yet. The master was often late. Cynics whispered that the master was not very good at getting up the morning after the night before. Nobody would have dared say such a thing to his face, for his temper was the most feared in the county, the violence of his language capable of reducing strong men to tears.

Three of his five sons were here today, turned out for the hunting field like everybody else: Richard, Lord Bourne, the name inherited by all Candlesby eldest sons, thirty years old, heir to Candlesby Hall and what remained of its estates,
who had inherited so many of his father’s characteristics; Henry, the second son, three years younger than Richard, who had inherited most of his father’s vices and none of his virtues, if any of those had ever existed; and Edward, the third son, twenty-five years old, who seemed to be
having
trouble controlling his horse. An earlier Dymoke, the original family name, Sir Francis Dymoke, had been made an Earl by Charles the Second for services to flattery
according
to the cynics. He had taken the name of Candlesby in Lincolnshire for his earldom and his great house, originally built on lands given him by his King.

Still the master did not appear. The officials and the field master and the whippers-in and the terrier men exchanged anxious glances. Some of the hunting party began peering in at the windows of the house to see if there was any sign of the master in there, checking the buttons on his coat perhaps, shouting at one or more of the servants. He had always been an eccentric master, John Dymoke, Earl of Candlesby, ever ready to change the hunting colours one year, or alter the dates of the opening and closing of the hunting season another. But nobody could remember a day when the master hadn’t done his duty to the hunt and led them out across the county in pursuit of the fox wherever the chase would lead, however many broken bones might be acquired along the way. Those with highly strung or nervous horses took them on little sorties around the circle of grass. The hounds were swarming about on the far side of the railings under the watchful eye of the huntsman, barking and yelping as they waited for the chase. The more adventurous spirits took a second or a third helping of the stirrup cup, saying it would help them over field and fence. A number of people were looking at their watches now. Some were thinking of abandoning the hunt and going home. If the master failed to turn up there would probably be a row about who should be the acting master that might go on all morning.

It was the butler with his tray of empty stirrup cups who saw him first, or thought he might be seeing him. From the forecourt of Candlesby Hall a road led out of the gates in the railing, and then straight as straight could be across
hundreds
and hundreds of Candlesby acres for well over a mile until the ground dipped down and the road was lost from view. Something was moving very slowly along this road, past the scattered branches blown down in the great storm the night before. It might have been just a horse, or it might have been a man walking beside a horse. A hunting bird followed the little procession, like a mourner at a funeral.

The butler whispered something into Richard’s ear and continued to peer down the road. Gradually the other members of the hunt began staring at the little procession advancing so slowly towards them. The huntsman appeared to think of blowing a message of some sort on his horn but thought better of it. There was definitely a horse, and the animal seemed to be carrying something fairly heavy. There was definitely a man, walking beside the horse, turning his cap round and round in his hand.

The riders began to back their horses up against the walls, blocking out the niches meant for the heroes of antiquity. Henry Dymoke suddenly noticed that the little parapet at the top of the pavilion to the right of the entrance was broken. He could just make out sections of broken pillar lying across each other. The hunt was growing
apprehensive
now. There was something uncomfortable in the little procession of horse and human making their way ever so slowly towards the great house. The butler made another round with the last of his stirrup cup. Nobody spoke, all eyes locked on the party coming toward them. There was definitely a package on the back of the horse, completely covered by a couple of blankets. There was, Henry Dymoke with his quick eyes noticed, something familiar about the shape on the horse. He knew, before anybody else, that it was his father’s body he was looking at, making its last
melancholy progress back to the house where he had been born.

Even the short-sighted could make it out now, a horse with what looked like a body thrown across it, wrapped in blankets, accompanied by a middle-aged man twirling his cap in his free hand, advancing towards the neighing horses of the Candlesby Hunt and their apprehensive riders. The very sharp-sighted thought they could see the corner of a scarlet coat poking out underneath the blanket. The men and women of the hunt were mesmerized by the drama unfolding before them. It was as if they had been rendered incapable of movement. The only noise was the barking and howling of the hounds. When they were a hundred yards or so from the railings, man and horse stopped. The man gestured to Lord Bourne to come forward.

‘I’m terribly sorry, my lord, but that is your father wrapped up on that horse.’ Jack Hayward was senior groom at Candlesby, the man who held sway over the horses and their kingdom, one of the few people the Master was never rude to, admired as much for his horsemanship as for his common sense. He was speaking very quietly, almost
whispering.
‘Don’t look at him now, for God’s sake, not in front of these people. It’s a terrible sight. I think you should send them all away, my lord, and then you could look at him in peace. I’ll take him over to the stables and then I’ll go and fetch the old doctor if he’s still with us.’

Richard nodded. How strange it felt, he thought. For so many years he had waited and hoped and dreamt about becoming an Earl, Lord Candlesby, master of Candlesby Hall and all its acres. A month after his thirtieth birthday he had come into his inheritance. Now the moment was here it was nothing like he had ever imagined. ‘Today’s hunting is cancelled,’ he said in a harsh voice when he was back where the hunt could hear him. ‘Please return to your homes. You will be informed about the next meet as soon as possible.’

Perhaps, he said to himself, as the hunt trotted off, I should have told them the truth. Then they would have something real to gossip about, rather than the fruits of their imaginations. For the Master of the Candlesby Hunt had come at last, not mounted on his horse, but wrapped across it in blankets like some vagrant found dead by the roadside.

 

Lord Francis Powerscourt had fallen in love. This was not the aching, all-consuming love of youth, or even the love to the last that parents have for their children. His wife Lady Lucy was a partner in his passion, and his children had to be restrained from showing their feelings when they encountered the object of his affections. For Powerscourt this was a love he had never known before. Some men fall in love with horse racing or hunting or cricket or fly fishing. He had fallen in love with a Ghost.

More precisely a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, first
produced
by Mr Royce the year before and sold to him by Mr Rolls for a king’s ransom, a ransom his brother-in-law and chief financial adviser Mr Burke told him he could afford after some successful share dealing in America. The Ghost could seat four or five people comfortably. It had a great shiny silver bonnet and a cream body with red leather upholstery and a hood you could take off in the summer. A mighty horn warned passers-by of your arrival and two powerful headlights illuminated the Ghost’s
passage
in the dark. Its top speed, a fact which so delighted the Powerscourt twins, Christopher and Juliet, that they had to be told the figure every time they climbed into the back seat, was sixty-five miles per hour. Why, the Ghost was as fast as a train! As it happened, Powerscourt’s great friend Johnny Fitzgerald had bought the twins a new book the previous Christmas called
The Wind in the Willows
, about a group of animals who live by the side of a river and a
toad who develops an unhappy obsession with motor cars. Sometimes, when they were in the back seat, Christopher and Juliet Powerscourt would serenade their father with the toad’s battle cry of ‘Poop-Poop!’ Johnny Fitzgerald never tired of reading them the final chapter, which contained a great battle between the four animals and their enemies the Wild Wooders, marauding bands of stoats and ferrets and weasels.

So here he was, Lucy at his side, bowling happily along the road that led past Candlesby towards the cathedral city of Lincoln. Neither Rat nor Toad nor Badger could have helped Powerscourt at this moment. He was not driving particularly fast, he seldom did, but as the car went over a humpbacked bridge he was not ready for the sharp
left-hand
turn on the far side and the front of the car sank slowly into the ditch, making a nasty mechanical noise as it went. Lady Lucy, he discovered, was unhurt. They decided to walk to the nearest town or village, which Powerscourt thought couldn’t be very far away.

 

At Candlesby Hall three sons of the dead man, a corner of his bloodied scarlet coat still visible, blankets draped across his face, set about the doctor. The last Earl was still in the stables where his body had been taken. The medical man, Dr Miller, had just arrived. He was well past retirement age and had a frail appearance now, like one of his elderly patients. There were only wisps remaining of what had been a fine head of white hair. His teeth were not what they had once been either, leading him to tell his
housekeeper
that he was particularly fond of dishes like soup and scrambled eggs. His eyes were the worst affected by the ravages of time, but a pair of thick glasses left him still capable of reading.

The three sons crowded round the doctor. Richard, the eldest, had a great shock of red hair like the hair that could
be inspected on the portraits of his ancestors inside the house; Henry, the second son, was extremely tall and thin; Edward was short and tubby. Charles, the fourth son, was believed to be in London and had been summoned home. James, the youngest, was in his rooms, not invited out for this melancholy interview. Richard had refused to allow any of his brothers to take a last glance at their father.

‘I’m the head of the family now, I’ll have you know, and I forbid you to look at him. I absolutely forbid it.’ Richard did not trust Henry or Edward not to let something out in their cups or in the taverns of Spilsby close by.

‘Now then, Dr Miller,’ he began, ‘I should like to remind you of the amount you owe this family. I’m referring, of course, to things more valuable than money, debts of
obligation
, favours that have to be repaid.’

‘Hear, hear,’ said his brothers, advancing still closer towards the doctor. They might not see eye to eye with Richard about very much, but on questions of family
honour
they hunted like a pack of hounds.

‘I’m not sure what you mean,’ said the doctor, shaking his head sadly. ‘What is it you want me to do?’

‘That’s better,’ said Richard grimly, ‘that’s more like it. I want you to say on the death certificate that my father died of natural causes. It was a heart attack or a stroke that killed him, whichever you think will be the most convincing.’

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