Read The Dead Songbird (The Northminster Mysteries) Online

Authors: Harriet Smart

Tags: #Fiction

The Dead Songbird (The Northminster Mysteries) (3 page)

BOOK: The Dead Songbird (The Northminster Mysteries)
9.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“To save her from Lord Rothborough?” Felix said. “I think not.”

“Do not judge her until you know the facts,” said Vernon, climbing up. “Come along.”

“She wrote to you,” Felix said, going towards the door, “not me.”

“Mr Carswell,” insisted the Major, with an emphatic gesture to follow him.

Felix did so, but with great reluctance. The Major was now striding upstairs with jaunty confidence, like a sportsman with his gun crossing a field in search of a bird. Felix felt his own steps were leaden, especially when on the half landing he noticed a man’s great-coat lined with cherry-coloured tossed carelessly across a cane settee. He began to dread what it was that Major Vernon was so determined to burst in upon.

The icily beautiful maid was standing on the landing, her ear turned to the half-open door. She spun round with a guilty start when Major Vernon tapped her on the shoulder.

“Announce me, won’t you?” he said, and propelled gently her through the door.

The piano continued for a moment, the singer for a note or two more.

“Yes, Berthe, what is it?” said a woman’s voice.

“This gentleman, he insists...” responded the maid.

“What gentleman?” said Lord Rothborough.

“Forgive me my Lord,” said Major Vernon, taking his cue and going in. “Mrs Morgan, I am Major Vernon, the Chief Constable. I have come about your letter.”

“Oh yes, I see,” she said. “How prompt you are, sir.”

Felix remained on the landing, hoping he might not be seen, but the Major pulled the door open.

“How could we not respond promptly to such a request, ma’am?” said the Major. “We could not ignore it, could we, Mr Carswell?”

Felix could not now avoid going in, and not wanting to look at Lord Rothborough, found himself staring instead straight into the lustrous blue eyes of Mrs Morgan.

Chapter Four

She smiled at him across an expanse of shining rosewood – for she stood on the far side of a large piano. He sensed a constriction to the vessels of his heart, which was of course nonsensical. At the same time he felt his mouth go dry and he could do nothing but stare back, aware that he must look like a slack-jawed fool, but he was unable for a moment to do anything about it. Her appearance struck him as something beyond remarkable. He felt he might faint if he continued to look directly at her, but neither was there any question of his looking away.

She was too ravishing for that. She was tall, slender and crowned with pale golden hair, braided and wound about her head. There was a becoming pink flush on her high, finely-sculpted cheeks and long, dark lashes framed extraordinary eyes that seemed to know him in a glance. He felt scorched and yet comforted in the same moment. It was like being in the presence of a goddess.

“Mr Carswell?” she repeated. “Lord Rothborough has mentioned you.”

Damn him, thought Felix, reddening.

“How delightful!” said Lord Rothborough, rubbing his hands. “Felix, my boy, and Major Vernon! How excellent to see you both. But, my dear, what letter is this?”

Felix’s heart sank at that careless endearment. How close were they, he wondered, and at what point in this story had they blundered in? The thought of the two together made him faintly nauseous. For Lord Rothborough’s reputation in these matters was by no means unblemished, and their situation could not be anything but suspicious.

“Just a trifling business,” said Mrs Morgan.

“With the police?”

“It is nothing, I assure you. Nothing of any concern. I wanted a professional opinion, that is all.”

“You could not have summoned a better man,” said Rothborough. “Though I wish you had asked me first. Major Vernon and I are well acquainted.”

“I did not like to bother you. You have so many calls on your time already, such important business to attend to. Indeed I think I must be keeping you from –”

“Not at all, not at all. What could be more important than seeing you are comfortably settled, Mrs Morgan?”

“More than comfortably,” said Mrs Morgan. “I am honoured to have such a house put at my disposal.”

“We could not have a national treasure putting up in ordinary lodgings. Such places are full of drafts and are most insanitary. If you had caught cold and lost your voice in Northminster, it would be a disaster. And this time of the year is dangerous. I have known so many people drop dead in March. One can never be too careful.”

“Please be assured, Lord Rothborough,” she said, with a laugh that made Felix want to sit down and luxuriate in it, “I have no intention of dying in Northminster, especially not in your beautiful house. Your generosity has sustained my will to live. And now that you have seen for yourself that I am completely comfortable, I really cannot take up any more of your valuable time.”

It was a dismissal; clear enough, though sweetly done. But Rothborough seemed disinclined to leave.

“My time is at your disposal, Mrs Morgan.”

“No, no, I will not believe that, my Lord,” she went on.

“It must be. How can it not be?” he said. “And this police business. You cannot think I will not help you?”

“I know you would move continents for me. But I do not think that continents will need to be moved. It is a trifle, as I said. I do not want you to trouble yourself, truly. And remember, I shall expect you at the rehearsal this afternoon. If you are not there I shall be disappointed. I need your opinion on which arias I should sing.”

“You know I shall be.”

“And if Mrs Morgan’s business turns out to be anything but trifling,” Major Vernon said, “we will at once enlist your assistance, my Lord.”

“Very well, very well. I shall hold you to that, Vernon,” said Lord Rothborough. He turned to Mrs Morgan and took her hand. “
A bientôt, ma chére Madame

He bent to kiss her hand, and seemed to take such a devil of a long time at it that Felix wanted to manhandle him away for his presumption.

When Rothborough had at last gone, there was a moment of awkward silence and then she turned to Major Vernon and said, in a quiet, grave tone, “I hope you didn’t mind my writing. I couldn’t think what else to do.”

“Then it is not entirely a trifle?” said Major Vernon.

She shook her head and walked away, down the room.

“No,” she said, with her back to them. “I was not sure to whom I should speak. It’s such a strange matter and I thought of going to Bow Street, but...”

“Perhaps we should sit down,” said Major Vernon, reaching for his notebook.

She turned back to them.

“Yes, of course, gentlemen, do sit. I’m sorry, I have forgotten myself. Shall I ring for tea?”

“No, we have everything we need. But you, ma’am, you are not at your ease. Please won’t you sit down? Carswell, get a chair for Mrs Morgan.”

Felix moved a chair and set it opposite the Major.

“Now, please, ma’am, sit, and you can begin from the beginning.”

Felix positioned himself on a sofa next to the wall, where he could observe her completely. He saw her folding her pale hands neatly in her lap, but then after a moment she began to play with one of her rings. She did not need such decorations, he thought; her hands were perfection already.

“I have never spoken of this to anyone before,” she said, after a brief silence. “I thought if I did not, then it would go away, but it did not.” She glanced from Major Vernon to Felix with a half smile. “Oh dear.”

“Think of me like a Roman Cleric in a box, hidden behind a grille,” said Vernon. “Anything you say is quite safe.”

“So long as I do not get a penance for my sins,” she said, with a sort of nervous levity.

“So?” prompted the Major.

“Yes, yes, of course,” she said, and reached in a pocket in the folds of her skirt and took out a folded piece of paper. She fingered it for a moment then held it out to him. “This is why I called you. It is probably nonsense.”

Vernon took the paper, unfolded it and looked it over.

“That is not nonsense,” he said after a moment. “May I show this to Mr Carswell?”


Felix crossed the room and took the paper. It read:

“Death is too good for a whore like you.

But He may show you mercy yet.


It was not written out, but made from printed letters, chopped up and pasted, a violent jumble of typefaces and capitals, so that the words seemed like blows. He stared down at it, appalled that anyone should think of doing such a thing to her.

“Good God,” he said, under his breath.

“This was delivered to you here?” Major Vernon asked.


“Amongst your usual letters?”


“But delivered by hand, apparently,” said Vernon. “There’s no stamp, I think?” Felix turned the paper over, glad not to look at it. The name and direction had been carefully printed but the Major was right. There was no stamp. “You don’t recognise this hand at all?” the Major continued.

“No. I have puzzled over it before.”

“You have had such letters before?”


“How many?”

“I don’t know.”

“Two or three?”

“More than that. Usually I throw them straight into the fire. That seems the best place for them. After all, they are just little bits of gummed paper, it’s just some horrible, childish game. I decided I would not let myself be hurt by them. To take them seriously, well, that seems to play into their hands. I should have burnt that one.”

“But you decided not to on this occasion. Is the language stronger?”

“Yes, somewhat.”

“And why did you decide to speak of this now?”

“Because I have not given out my address here. I had thought it was just some nonsense that happens in London. People do write to me a great deal there. It is a hazard of being well known, and I tried to make light of it. But finding one here, when I am supposed to be away from all that – it disturbed me.”

“When did it arrive?” Felix asked.

“Yesterday afternoon, with my other letters. It was waiting for me when I arrived. That disturbed me and last night I did not sleep. A strange bed in a strange house I suppose accounts for that, but to find it here already, waiting for me...”

“How long have you been receiving these letters, then?” Major Vernon asked.

“I cannot say when it began. I have pushed it from my mind, I suppose. It was too unpleasant. When it came I threw it straight on the fire. It was last summer, I think.”

“And you have spoken to no-one of this?” he said.


“Not even your husband?” the Major said.

She shook her head.

“My letters are a slightly sensitive matter between us,” she said, after a moment. “I get a great many letters. I do not invite them. It is simply that people of my profession seem to attract admirers.”

“Especially female singers?”

“Yes. Of course that is hard for my husband. It is an affront to his pride. So I do not speak to him of my letters, good or bad. I do not want to wound him unnecessarily, and these letters would make him angry. Perhaps that may seem strange to you, gentlemen, but really I have been trying to make light of this. I should have carried on like that,” she said, getting up. “Really, I have been wasting your time. After all, what can be done about this? I cannot send the police after a shadow who is trying to scare me out of my wits – but who has not succeeded.” She held out her hand to Felix, who stood still holding the letter in his hand. Before he knew what she had done, she had taken the letter from him. “This should go in the fire like the rest of them. And I will lose no more sleep.”

She walked over to the fire with it, but the Major leapt up and stayed her hand.

“Sir?” she said, in surprise.

“If you burn it, I cannot catch him. And I will catch him. This cannot be allowed to pass.”

“I would be happier if I could burn it,” she said. “And think it all nonsense. I want to laugh at this wretch, not fear him.” And she moved her hand again towards the fire, but the Major again stopped her. There was a slight struggle between them, the great fire blazing behind them, and the light of it cast strange shadows on her face, making her beauty seem more other-worldly than before.

Suddenly she stepped back and yielded the letter to Major Vernon. She walked swiftly up the room away from them, then spun round, throwing up her hands.

“Yes, yes, you are right. Of course. I concede, but please give me credit for my defiance. Tell me I have courage for being so careless!” and then dropped a low curtsey, as if she was on stage. As she began to rise from the curtsey, Felix met her eyes again and he could not help himself: he rushed forward and took her hand.

“It is more than courage, ma’am. It is...”

She did not allow him to hold her hand for more than a moment. She stepped back from him and turned again to Major Vernon.

“It is less than courage,” she said. “It is foolish. I should have spoken to someone long ago. I have let it carry on too long. Thank you for making me see sense.”

“I think we should begin by questioning your household,” the Major said. “These things often lie close at home. A disgruntled servant –”

“I cannot think of anyone whom I might have offended. But perhaps I am a bad mistress. I am so busy with my work that sometimes these things may escape me. You should speak to my sister-in-law, Mrs Ridolfi. She engages the servants for me, and counts my sheets and is the repository of all our domestic virtue. She’s out in the garden now with my little boy.” she said, going to the window. As she looked out Felix saw her face light up and wondered what it might be like to be the recipient of her unfettered affection.

“A handsome boy,” Major Vernon said. He was looking out of the other window. “How old is he?”

“Harry is just three,” she said.

“That’s a charming age.”

“I have not yet found an age at which he did not charm me,” she said.

The maid came into the room again.

“Madame,” she said, “there is a policier at the door. He is asking for Major Vernon.”

“If you’ll excuse me a moment,” said Major Vernon and left with the maid.

Felix alone with her, felt dry-mouthed again and struggled to think what he might say. He could not make small talk about her child. He was longing to ask her how things stood with Lord Rothborough, but that was not a question that could be asked.

BOOK: The Dead Songbird (The Northminster Mysteries)
9.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Knife Edge by Malorie Blackman
Bracing the Blue Line by Lindsay Paige
Aloha From Hell by Richard Kadrey
The Apostles by Y. Blak Moore
Dorothy Garlock by More Than Memory
The Wild Wood Enquiry by Ann Purser
The Guest House by Erika Marks
The Beginning and the End by Naguib Mahfouz