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Authors: Caro Peacock

The Path of the Wicked (9 page)

BOOK: The Path of the Wicked
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That surprised him. Not the message itself but the fact that it came through me. His expression turned blank and guarded, and when he spoke it was in a normal voice with no anger in it.

‘If you see him again, thank him from me.'

‘I'll see him. Is there anything else you want me to say to him?'

A shake of the head. He still didn't trust me.

‘Or to your sister?'

Another head shake. From somewhere below us a handbell clanged. The sound of many feet shuffling on stone flags came up to us. The warder got to his feet.

‘Time to go.'

The room seemed very crowded with the three of us standing up. I tried a question at random.

‘Did you know that Peter Paley has disappeared?' I said. ‘He galloped off the day after Miss Marsh was found dead and hasn't been seen since.'

Surprisingly, that brought a flicker of interest to his face. It looked almost like concern but was soon suppressed. ‘What's that to me – unless I'm supposed to have killed him too?'

The bell was still clanging. He turned towards the door and gestured to the warder to open it. Time for one last throw.

‘What were you doing near the house on the night she died?' I said.

Picton turned back, a grin on his face but not a nice one. When he raised his arms, the warder took a step towards him, but all he did was put his hands on top of his head, palms outwards, fingers fully extended, and waggle them at me.

‘Hopping into a trap, like a good little bunny rabbit.'

The warder opened the door and they were gone.

After a while the bald warder came back and escorted me to the doors. Mr Godwit's gardener was waiting with the gig by the cathedral. He was impatient to get back to the village, but I made him drive round the city until we found a men's outfitter that was open. My business didn't take long: two large cotton shirts and a set of flannel unmentionables to be sent to J. Picton at Her Majesty's prison. Yes, Monday morning would do.

It took all of the drive back through lanes of honeysuckle and meadowsweet to get the smell of drains and damp sacking out of my nostrils.

SIX

‘I
can't think of any reason why Picton should be concerned about young Paley,' Mr Godwit said.

Sunday morning at breakfast, sun streaming in through the window and ducks quacking from the pond. Our return the evening before had been late, well after dinner time, and although Mr Godwit was obviously brimming with curiosity, he'd played the good host and insisted I should eat and sleep.

‘They'd know each other by sight, I suppose,' I said.

‘Not necessarily. The Paleys live just outside Cheltenham. I can't think of any circumstances in which Picton and young Paley might have met.'

He pushed the honeypot towards me. I shook my head. I'd already had two slices of bread and honey. Delicious.

‘So, what did you make of Picton?' he said.

It was a fair question and I'd been puzzling half the night on how to answer it. Mr Godwit set such store by my opinion that he'd probably hoped I'd spend an hour with Picton and come back with a verdict: he's the murderer or he isn't. If I'd told him about the impression of anger and violence burning off the man, as well as the cold-eyed sarcasm, he'd have concluded that Picton was guilty as charged and would have been, I was sure, very relieved.

‘My problem was much the same as yours,' I said. ‘I couldn't find a way to break through that arrogance.'

There'd been his quiet acceptance of the message from William Smithies, but I'd decided not to tell Mr Godwit about that, for the moment at least. The Smithies, father and son, had to make their living in the community. Mr Godwit already had a black mark against them as Chartists and remaining on friendly terms with a possible murderer would have brought another.

‘He still claims to have been somewhere else?'

‘Not even that. Right at the end he talked about a trap, but there was no time to ask him what he meant. I had the impression that he thinks he has some trump card of evidence that he'll produce at the trial.'

‘But he gave no idea as to what it was?'

‘I asked him who killed Miss Marsh and he said somebody who wanted to keep her quiet. Quiet about what, I asked, and he said I should try asking people about what happened at Cheltenham race fair.'

A wasp was buzzing round the honeypot. Mr Godwit flicked it deftly away with a spoon and replaced the lid.

‘It makes no sense,' I said. ‘The races were going on when you came to see me in London. By that time, Mary Marsh was dead and Picton in prison.'

The wasp was making another circuit. Mr Godwit watched it with too much attention, spoon poised.

‘Did anything happen at the races?' I said. I remembered Amos's story about the time people burned down the grandstand.

‘As far as I know, nothing,' Mr Godwit said. ‘They seem to have been remarkably quiet this year.'

He made another swipe with the spoon. The wasp was yards away.

‘And other years?'

‘There was some serious trouble a couple of years ago,' he admitted.

‘What sort of trouble?'

‘Illegal gambling – mostly rogues up from London. Excessive drunkenness and so on. The constabulary and the magistrates had to intervene. There was some violence.'

‘Were you there?'

‘No. As it happened, I was visiting a sick friend in Bristol. I heard about it on my return and some of the perpetrators came up in court.'

‘Was Jack Picton among them?'

‘No.'

‘And was there anything at all relating to Mary Marsh?'

‘Of course not. What would a governess be doing at the race fair?'

‘So you have no idea of what Picton meant, telling me to ask people about it?'

‘None in the world. I suspect the man is trying to create as much confusion as possible.'

He asked me to excuse him, saying he must go and change for church. Naturally, the entire household would be attending.

‘Will the Kembles be at church?' I said.

‘Of course.' Then, sensing something in my voice: ‘You aren't going to ask them questions, are you?'

‘I shall have to at some point. Mary Marsh lived under their roof. Miss Kemble may have been the last person to see her alive, apart from the murderer. Rodney Kemble found her body.'

‘Colonel Kemble won't like it.'

‘Won't he? If one of your household had been found dead on your land, wouldn't you want to know what happened?'

He shuddered. ‘You can't go up to a man you've never met in church and talk about murder.'

‘I was thinking of the churchyard outside,' I said, only half seriously but it caused another shudder. ‘Very well, I won't try to talk to them today, but at least it will give you a chance to introduce me to them. I'm sure you'd do that with a visiting relative.'

Unarguable. He gave in, but still unhappily.

Churchgoing had strict patterns in the village. At half past ten, the bells started ringing. At a quarter to eleven, the children from the Sunday school marched in a double line from the parish hall, across the road and in at the church porch. Various gigs and carts dropped off families from outlying farms – little boys in stiff collars, girls in white pinafores, farmers clutching prayer books in gloved square hands that would have been happier round a spade. By that time our party was assembling on the garden path – Mr Godwit formal in tail coat and top hat, Mrs Wood in navy-blue wool and bonnet with restrained bows, myself in the plain blue cotton and a bonnet that might be a shade frivolous but would have to do. Suzie and Tabby appeared suddenly on the path behind us, pink-faced as if they'd been up to something. For a mercy, Tabby was wearing her grey dress and bonnet and looked halfway respectable, though she was gloveless and wearing scuffed boots. The look Mrs Wood gave her didn't miss a detail. The peals from the church tower gave way to a single summoning bell. Mr Godwit offered me his arm politely and we all went along the road and through the gate to the churchyard. The vicar was standing at the porch, welcoming the congregation. This caused something of a queue and Tabby took advantage of it to come alongside me.

‘What am I supposed to be doing?'

I asked Mr Godwit to excuse me and took her to one side.

‘You're going to church. You've done it before, haven't you?'

The look on her face told me no, she hadn't. By now the queue was moving forward and Mr Godwit was looking over his shoulder for me.

‘Just watch Suzie and do what she does,' I said hastily. ‘Only don't try to sing.'

I knew something about her song repertoire. Goodness knows what she might come out with. She didn't look reassured, but I had to leave her to her own devices, because once we were inside the church, it was clear that seating was by long-established order. A pew opener held back the flap to let Mr Godwit, Mrs Wood and me into a row on our own near the front, while Suzie dragged Tabby into one near the back with other servants. The service began.

It went on for some time, with three hymns and a twenty-minute sermon, which gave me time for a discreet look around. It was a large church, built long ago when wool prices were high, and half full, with the congregation arranged in three slices like a layer cake. At the back, household servants and labourers. In the middle, farm families and tradespeople. I looked for the Smithies father and son but didn't find them. The important ones of the village, including ourselves, were at the front. The very front pew to the right of the altar had six people in it and I was certain that three of them were Kembles. A tall elderly man, sitting so upright that his back made no contact with the pew, must be Colonel Kemble. The high dome of his head was almost completely bald when seen from the back, apart from a band of close-cropped grey hair. His coat was black and well cut. When it was time for prayers, he took some time to get to his knees, suggesting arthritis, and bowed his head in a soldierly way, enough for convention but without extravagant humility. The younger man beside him looked a couple of inches shorter but broader across the shoulders. His hair was an unremarkable light brown, worn long enough to hide the fact that his ears stuck out, unless you were looking at him a long time from the back, which I was. He must be Rodney Kemble. I noticed that when his father had trouble getting up from his knees, the son made no attempt to help and didn't look at him.

It was the same with the person on his other side – no turning towards her or sharing his hymn book – but then brothers don't always pay sisters much attention. I didn't even know Miss Kemble's first name, only that she was eighteen, had suffered a broken engagement, and three weeks and a few days ago she'd have woken to the news that her governess and chaperone had been found murdered. If she was grieving for her, there was no sign of it in her dress. Jade-green corded cotton with lace at the neck is not mourning wear, nor are bonnets with frilled green ribbons. She fidgeted during the sermon and turned round a couple of times. Under the bonnet were a round chin and ringlets of hair just bright enough to be called golden by men who wanted to pay compliments. The other three people in the Kemble pew were sitting at some distance from the family members and looked like upper servants – probably steward, butler and housekeeper.

The service came to an end at last and we walked out into the sunlight. Annoyingly, people stood back to let the Kembles go first, so they were halfway down the path on the way to a waiting carriage before we were out of the porch. I practically dragged Mr Godwit at a quick march between the gravestones to get to the lychgate before them and he did his duty.

‘Good morning, colonel. Miss Lane, may I introduce Colonel Kemble, his son Rodney and Miss . . .'

But Miss Kemble had already disappeared into the coach with a flutter of green ribbons. The elder Kemble touched my hand and said he was delighted to make my acquaintance, without any flicker of curiosity in his eyes. He stood very upright but looked like a man who'd been bearing illness for some time. The contours of his face were sharp, his eyes bright but sunken, lips thin under a neat iron-grey moustache. Rodney Kemble was delighted to make my acquaintance too, or so he said. He didn't look or sound as if he'd ever been delighted about anything, although he wasn't a bad-looking man apart from those ears, with regular features and hazel eyes. Dull hazel. Hazelnuts that had been buried in the soil by a squirrel and forgotten during a long winter. I had clockwork automata in my nursery toybox that looked livelier than the young Mr Kemble. When the courtesies were over and father and son moved to their carriage, he even walked like an automaton, a few paces behind his father in regular steps, arms clamped to his sides as if moulded there. The coach drove away and the line of gigs and carts that had been waiting politely behind it began edging towards the gate to pick up their passengers.

‘Is Rodney Kemble always like that?' I said to Mr Godwit as we walked back.

‘Like what?'

‘A man who expects the sky to fall on him if he makes a move out of place.'

‘I don't know him well enough to judge. He's always had a reputation as a serious young man and I gather he makes a good job of running the estate.'

‘It must have shocked him, finding her,' I said.

But did that account for his dazed look? A man who runs a country estate is used to dealing with death, from slaughtered pheasants to unfortunate horses. Wouldn't the shock be wearing off by now?

After lunch, I went in search of Tabby and found her helping Suzie with the washing-up. The broken halves of a plate, partly concealed by cabbage scrapings in the pig bin, showed that I was doing Mr Godwit's crockery a favour when I took her away for a talk in the garden.

‘Did you take food to the Pictons yesterday?'

‘Loaf of bread, more cheese, two cold lamb chops.'

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