Authors: Caro Peacock
Table of Contents
DEATH AT DAWN
(USA: A FOREIGN AFFAIR)
DEATH OF A DANCER
(USA: A DANGEROUS AFFAIR)
A CORPSE IN SHINING ARMOUR
(USA: A FAMILY AFFAIR)
WHEN THE DEVIL DRIVES *
KEEPING BAD COMPANY *
THE PATH OF THE WICKED *
*available from Severn House
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First published in Great Britain and the USA 2013 by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9 â 15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
eBook edition first published in 2013 by Severn House Digital
an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited.
Copyright Â© 2013 by Caro Peacock.
The right of Caro Peacock to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
The path of the wicked.
1. Lane, Liberty (Fictitious character)âFiction. 2. Women
private investigatorsâFiction. 3. Gloucestershire
(England)âSocial conditionsâ19th centuryâFiction.
4. Detective and mystery stories.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78029-041-6 (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-396-9 (epub)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
he problem is, I'm a coward.'
The gentleman sitting in my clients' chair made the confession as simply as a person might admit to short sight or a dislike of marmalade. No drama about it and a tone that came closer to mild regret than self-reproach. Mildness seemed to be his chief characteristic. His height was moderate, his figure rounded but not corpulent, his face clean-shaven with the lightly sunburnt complexion of a man who spent most of his time in the country. A pate that was almost completely bald, apart from a trim fringe of brown hair round the circumference, and arched brows over mild grey eyes gave him the face that a child might draw on a hard-boiled egg. A pleasant-natured child, though, who'd made a likeable face. His eyes stared across the table into mine, as if I'd understand everything from that one admission. I waited.
âI'm a magistrate. It's expected of one, living in a small community. I can't say I enjoy it, but it's my duty and it doesn't usually involve much unpleasantness. Fines for being drunk, a few months for poaching or stealing a chicken and so on â everybody knowing everybody else and not much resentment on the whole. We sit as a bench of three, and usually I agree with the other two. Now and again, if I think they're being too severe, I might tell them so. Sometimes it makes a difference and sometimes it doesn't. I think Penbrake thinks I'm by way of being a nuisance now and then, butâ'
âChairman of the bench. A very just gentleman, very able. I fear I annoy him, but he doesn't usually show it. Which is why all this is so very disagreeable. It was a man's life, I told him. It was our duty to give him a chance to produce evidence. He thought I was making some reflection on his character, which was not what I had in mind at all.'
Again, that grey-eyed stare, begging me to understand. I felt tired. It was late July, the tail-end of the social season, when the air in London feels as if too many people have been breathing it, the grass in the park is trodden and yellowish, thin layers of dried horse dung coat the streets. I was sleeping badly, aware of the workhouse clock across the way striking the hours through the night, the smell of the cesspit, which the landlord would never empty when he was supposed to, wafting through the open window on the first breeze of morning. I could smell it now, in the small upstairs room I use as an office, and I assumed my potential client could, too. The first I'd known about him was when a note was delivered to my quarters in Abel Yard, Mayfair, the day before.
Dear Miss Lane,
I hope you will excuse this note from a person who has not had the pleasure of being introduced to you. I live in a village near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire and am in London on family business. While talking with my solicitor about it, I took the opportunity to raise another matter which was causing deep concern to me. He suggested that I should consult you. If, therefore, you find it possible to favour me with an appointment tomorrow, before I return home, you would be doing a great service to the man who respectfully subscribes himself Stephen Godwit.
The address for reply was a Piccadilly hotel. The note was enclosed in a covering letter from the solicitor in question, an honest man who had been involved in several of my cases. I'd suggested an appointment at eleven next morning, and Mr Godwit had arrived at the bottom of my staircase on the first stroke of the hour.
I was inclined from first acquaintance to like him, because he did not seem disconcerted by either Abel Yard or me. Respectable visitors tended to raise eyebrows at a place so at odds with a Mayfair address, surprised at chickens in the yard, the smell of cows from the byre at the end, sounds of hammering from the carriage repair shop by the gate. When I'd gone down to open the door to him, he was bending and gently ruffling a hen's neck feathers just the way she liked it. The bird was already swaying on its legs in a pleasant trance. It nearly fell over when he straightened up and gave a little bow.
âMiss Lane. So very kind of you to see me.'
Just a hint of surprise in his eyes. Perhaps he'd expected somebody older. But he'd made no comment, as some people annoyingly did, on the oddness of finding a woman in my profession. He had stepped up the stairs in his neatly shod feet, sat in the chair I offered him and come out with his story. It was simple enough in its way. A young man was likely to be sentenced to death by hanging in a few weeks' time and Mr Godwit could not rid himself of the idea that it would be partly his fault.
âI should have persisted, I can see that now. But Penbrake is a chop-chop kind of chairman â have done with it, then on to the next thing. And he was right in many ways. The evidence against young Picton is pretty strong and he didn't help himself with the attitude he took. He denied the charge, but refused to answer most of the questions that were put to him. He claimed the landowners were determined to see him hanged no matter what he said and as good as accused Penbrake of being in their pockets. He said he'd been elsewhere on the night in question, but not very convincingly, and wouldn't give names of anybody who might support him. I tried to argue for an adjournment to give Picton time to produce a witness to his whereabouts, if he had one, but Penbrake wouldn't have it. He said that could wait till the assizes, that all we had to do was decide whether there was a
case against Picton, and there was, so we had no choice.'
âWhat about the third magistrate?' I said.
âHe's seventy years old and more than half deaf, poor man. He just goes along with Penbrake.'
âWasn't it a fair point that Mr Penbrake made?' I said. âIt will be the jury at the assizes who decide whether the man is guilty or not.'
He shook his head.
âThat's the worst of it. The jury will have made their mind up before young Picton even steps into the dock.'
âHe has a bad reputation?'
âI fear so.'
I waited, imagining some rural thug with a record of violence. Mr Godwit's enlargement of the point, given with some regret, came as a surprise.
âThe fact is, I'm afraid young Picton is by way of being a revolutionary.'
He looked at me, waiting to see disapproval on my face.
âWhat kind of revolutionary?' I said.
It was a nervous time, with dark warnings from some political quarters of an English revolution brewing.
âA trade unionist,' Mr Godwit said sadly. It was, after all, only a few years since six Dorset farm workers had been transported to Australia for trying to form a trade union. Then, seeing that I hadn't immediately reacted with horror, he added: âA Chartist, too.'
âQuite a lot of people are,' I said.
More than a million people had signed the petition calling for votes for working men. From Mr Godwit's face, there was worse to come.
âThe fact is, Picton was almost certainly involved in that unpleasantness at Newport last November.'
This was more serious. The night of rioting, when thousands of men marched on Newport prison to try to free one of the Chartist leaders, had ended in soldiers opening fire and men dying. The rising had failed and the Welsh Bastille hadn't fallen, but it left the comfortable classes badly shaken, fearing rocks through their windows and peasants with pikes in their drawing rooms. Mr Godwit was probably right about the opinion of the jury. Jurors are property-owning men.
âWas Picton convicted of taking part in the riot?' I said.
âNo. But nobody saw him for quite a long time afterwards. A lot of them went into hiding.'
âSo whom is he accused of murdering?' I said.
âA young woman named Mary Marsh. She was governess to the Kemble family. That's all part of it. There was bad blood between young Picton and the Kembles.'
âThe Kembles being local landowners?'
âYes. Colonel Kemble owns about eight hundred acres. He's retired from the army. His wife died last year. His son, Rodney, runs the estate farm and they keep a few racehorses. Young Picton's father used to work for them, until he had an accident. He was killed falling off a ladder in a barn, leaving the wife with three young children to bring up. They say he was drunk at the time. I believe Colonel Kemble behaved decently enough, paid a pension to the widow and so on, but young Picton harboured a grudge.'
âWas that common knowledge?'
âVery much so. Last year Kemble cut off the pension, because of all the talk about young Picton and so on. Picton threatened Rodney Kemble in pretty violent terms â said in front of a dozen witnesses that the Kembles' time was coming and they shouldn't expect to be landowners for ever.'
âAnd yet it was the governess who was murdered. Is Picton supposed to have hated the Kembles so much that he'd kill anybody from the household?'