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A Dead Bore
Escaping scandal following her husband’s death, Lady Fieldhurst accepts an invitation to a house party. Tragedy follows her when the vicar, author of a dull local history, dies in a fire. She suspects murder, and sends to Bow Street for John Pickett. Posing as her footman, he investigates from belowstairs while she gathers information above. But Pickett finds her assistance both a help and an all-too-pleasant hindrance. Regency Mystery/Romance by Sheri Cobb South; originally published by Five Star
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In Which Lady Fieldhurst Ponders an Invitation
The weather on this June morning was particularly fine, but no ray of sunlight illuminated the Berkeley Square drawing room where two ladies sat drinking tea. The gold velvet draperies adorning the windows of this elegantly appointed chamber were tightly closed, for this was a house of mourning. Grief, however, was not the emotion uppermost in the mind of at least one of the pair, a dashing brunette dressed in vibrant shades of blue.
“Yorkshire?” exclaimed the Countess of Dunnington in tones of deepest revulsion, returning her teacup to its saucer with a disapproving clink. “You would go to Yorkshire in July? My dear Julia, you must be mad!”
Lady Fieldhurst, sipping her tea, smiled at her friend’s vehemence. The younger of the two ladies by some ten years, she was clad in the sober black of the recent widow, and was as fair as the fashionable Lady Dunnington was dark. “Mad? Nonsense, Emily! Why do you say so?”
“No one goes to Yorkshire unless they are escaping from something—a dunning tradesman, perhaps, or an importunate lover.”
“Or a thoroughly unpleasant scandal,” added Lady Fieldhurst.
“A scandal which was none of your making,” Emily reminded her. “Still, if you wish to leave London for a time, you would do better to come with me to Brighton. At least you should find plenty there to amuse you.”
Lady Fieldhurst, refilling the cups from a silver teapot, arched a skeptical eyebrow. “Indeed, I should—far more amusement than is seemly for a widow of less than two months’ standing.”
“And you so fond of poor Fieldhurst, too,” sighed Lady Dunnington, shaking her head with mock sorrow.
The widowed viscountess gave her friend a reproachful look, but held her ground. In truth, her reluctance to accompany Lady Dunnington to Brighton had less to do with her recent bereavement than with her desire to avoid the company of certain gentlemen of her acquaintance, the first and foremost of these being Emily’s latest paramour. She frequently wondered what her friend saw in a foppish and by all accounts penniless young man several years her junior. At six-and-twenty, however, Lady Fieldhurst was too much a woman of the world to be shocked by the connection. Indeed, she had been on the verge of taking a lover of her own when fate had intervened in the form of Viscount Fieldhurst’s untimely demise.
“Lord Rupert will be in Brighton,” observed Lady Dunnington, regarding her with a measuring look.
Lady Fieldhurst colored slightly at having her thoughts so accurately read. “You have quite decided me, Emily! If Lord Rupert is to be in Brighton, I must certainly go to Yorkshire. Between the pair of us, Rupert and I have given the tabbies quite enough to gossip about already.”
Lady Dunnington was not deceived. “Aha! Then I was right when I suggested you might be escaping an importunate lover. Are Lord Rupert’s hopes to be dashed, then?”
“I don’t know,” confessed Lady Fieldhurst, sipping her tea and wishing it was not too early in the day for sherry. “I haven’t yet decided. I only want to go away for a while so that I may be left alone. If I am fortunate, no one else at this house party will have ever heard of me, much less my recent notoriety.”
“My dear Julia, I fear you are doomed to disappointment. Society circles are not so large as to allow anonymity. Depend upon it, everyone knows of your narrow escape from the gallows, even those whom you have never met.”
“Do you think so?” asked Lady Fieldhurst, crestfallen. “I am scarcely acquainted with the hostess, but my recollections of Lady Anne Hollingshead are that she is excruciatingly proper. I cannot imagine why she should have invited a guest so recently featured in all the scandal sheets. I know nothing of the rest of the family. I have never met her husband, for instance—”
“Nor are likely to, so long as you are fixed in London,” Emily put in. “I believe Sir Gerald prefers the country life.”
“He seems an odd match for Lady Anne, then,” observed Lady Fieldhurst. “She has always seemed to me the very personification of the Society matron. During my come-out, I lived in fear of a disapproving glance through her lorgnette. I should have thought her husband would be one of Society’s leading lights—a member of Parliament, perhaps, or a diplomat.”
Lady Dunnington helped herself to a slice of seed cake and leaned forward with a confidential air. “Ah, but Sir Gerald was not her first choice. In her mad youth—if one can imagine Lady Anne ever having had such a thing—she was set to make a brilliant match.”
Emily shrugged. “He died. I don’t recall the details. It all happened before my time. She is several years older than I, you know.”
“Everyone is older than you, darling, including your eldest son,” retorted Lady Fieldhurst without malice. “Still, it is a sad story, but at least she found a second chance at happiness.”
“And so shall you, my dear—but not if you insist on burying yourself in Yorkshire.” As Lady Fieldhurst opened her mouth to protest, Lady Dunnington raised a silencing hand. “Very well, I shan’t tease you on the subject. Go to Yorkshire if you feel you must, but I predict you will be bored to tears within a se’ennight!”
In Which Are Introduced the Local Gentry
The light was beginning to fade by the time the hired post-chaise lurched to a halt before the imposing stone façade of Hollingshead Place. Lady Fieldhurst regarded the stark gray edifice through the rain-streaked carriage windows and wondered, not for the first time, why she had been so determined to come. Three days and two hundred miles ago, when she had first set out from London, Emily’s predictions of unmitigated boredom had been easily dismissed. After all, Emily had never been rumored to have murdered her husband, and so had no notion of how very welcome the prospect of boredom could seem. In the end, the matter had been decided by a letter from the dowager Lady Fieldhurst, who insisted that Julia spend the first few months of her widowhood quietly at the Dower House in the company of her mama-in-law. Although imminently suitable, at least in the eyes of Society, this prospect was so daunting that Lady Fieldhurst had penned her acceptance to Lady Anne Hollingshead that very day.
A liveried footman rushed out of the house to meet her with an unfurled umbrella, and Lady Fieldhurst steeled herself with the reflection that, no matter how dreary her present prospects, her situation might have been much worse: she might have been obliged to spend a rainy day trapped inside the Dower House with her mother-in-law. Fortified with this knowledge, she turned up the collar of her black kerseymere pelisse, disembarked from the vehicle, and accepted the footman’s protective escort to the house.
She was pleased—and to no small degree relieved—to discover that its somber exterior was deceptive. Inside, a cheerful fire burned merrily on a massive hearth, reflecting on the black-and-white marble tiles of the floor and turning the richly carved wainscoting to burnished gold. Framed portraits of earlier generations of Hollingsheads gazed down at the newcomer from their heavy gilt frames, and twin suits of armor flanked the staircase, but even these daunting entities seemed well pleased to welcome a viscountess to Hollingshead Place. A movement overhead drew her eye upward to the tall, graceful lady descending the curved staircase.
“My dear Lady Fieldhurst!” exclaimed Lady Anne Hollingshead, her arms outstretched in greeting. “Such dismal weather with which to welcome you! I do hope the roads were not too badly rutted?”
“Not at all,” murmured Lady Fieldhurst with more courtesy than accuracy. Lady Anne’s elegance made her painfully aware of her rain-spattered and travel-stained appearance. To her chagrin, she felt more like the gauche debutante she had once been than the modish and slightly scandalous Society matron she had become.
“Shocking amount of rain we’ve had lately, absolutely shocking!” put in Sir Gerald Hollingshead, shaking his grizzled head as he lumbered down the stairs in his wife’s wake.
Observing his descent, Lady Fieldhurst found her earlier speculations confirmed: he did indeed seem an odd match for Lady Anne. He was fully two decades his wife’s senior, but this in itself was unremarkable; fifteen years had separated the late Lord Fieldhurst from his bride, and Lady Fieldhurst knew of many matches where the age difference was a quarter century or more. No, the difference had less to do with the ages of the parties involved than with their respective appearances. Unlike the stylish Lady Anne, Sir Gerald was dressed for comfort rather than fashion in a loose-fitting tail coat, buckskin breeches, and cuffed top-boots. Lady Fieldhurst received the impression that he would be far more content to be outdoors with a gun over his shoulder and hounds at his heels. Lady Fieldhurst, herself country-bred, was reminded of her own doting papa, and found herself liking her host on sight. Still, she could not but acknowledge that he and Lady Anne made an ill-assorted pair.
“Pray accept my condolences on the loss of your husband,” Lady Anne continued in a more serious vein. “How dreadful for you, to be widowed at such a young age, and in such a fashion!”
Privately, Lady Fieldhurst considered being left a widow at the age of six-and-twenty far less dreadful than coming within Ames-ace of hanging for murder. But in the past two months she had perfected the art of mouthing platitudes, and it was this habit to which she now sought recourse. “You are too kind, my lady. My husband’s death came as a great shock, but I take comfort in the knowledge that his sufferings were brief.”
“Such sentiments do you credit, my dear,” said Lady Anne, squeezing Julia’s hands warmly. “I hope that while you are with us, you will be able to forget your recent loss, at least for a little while. I fear one or two of our guests have been obliged to send their regrets on account of the weather, but I have contrived to throw together a modest dinner party to introduce you to the local gentry. But I must not keep you standing here in those wet clothes! I’ve put you in the Wedgwood bedchamber; Mrs. Holland will be happy to take you there.”
At the mention of her name, a dour-faced housekeeper in mobcap and starched apron executed a stiff curtsy, then led Lady Fieldhurst up the curving staircase to the room that was to be hers for the next month.
As its name implied, the room was hung with the same blue shade as the china for which it was named, and trimmed out in woodwork painted a pristine white. It appeared neat and inviting even on a gray and rainy day; Lady Fieldhurst had no doubt that in sunshine it would be lovely. Her trunks had already been carried up, and an apple-cheeked maid bustled about the room hanging her gowns in the center of the clothes press and storing her undergarments in its drawers.
“I trust my lady will find everything to your liking,” said the housekeeper. “If not, you have only to tell me, and I will be happy to rectify any omission.”
The woman’s accommodating words notwithstanding, Lady Fieldhurst had the distinct impression that any complaint about the room would not be happily received at all, but taken very much amiss.
“Thank you, Mrs. Holland,” the viscountess replied, dismissing her with a nod. “This will do very well, I’m sure.”
The housekeeper departed somewhat mollified, and as the maid completed her task, Lady Fieldhurst took stock of her surroundings. She noted with approval the Adam fireplace with its cheerful blaze, and the mahogany writing table adjacent to it. Glancing at the cheval mirror, however, she was considerably less pleased. The woman gazing back at her wore a stylish traveling costume of black kerseymere, but her skirts were creased from travel and spotted with raindrops, and her hem was two inches deep in mud.
She tugged at the black ribbons of her bonnet and tossed it onto the bed as she surveyed the damage to her coiffure. Her golden curls, though dry, were sadly flattened from her headgear, and would certainly have to be brushed out and pinned up again before dinner. She heaved a sigh at her own lack of foresight in neglecting to bring her lady’s maid, but the girl was newly hired and Lady Fieldhurst was not yet entirely convinced as to her competence.
“Begging your pardon, your ladyship,” said the maid, closing the doors of the clothes press, “but I’ve finished unpacking your trunks. Will there be anything else you’ll be needing?”
“Only one thing,” returned the viscountess, frowning at the damage to her crowning glory. “Is there a maid who could dress my hair before dinner?”
The maid’s plump, plain face lit up. “Oh, I’d be pleased to do your ladyship’s hair, right after I finish with Miss Hollingshead’s.”
“Excellent!” pronounced Lady Fieldhurst. “What time does the family dine?”
“Nine o’clock. We keep Town hours during the summer months,” the maid added proudly.
“In that case, I must not keep you, for Miss Hollingshead will no doubt require your services very shortly. What is your name, pray?”
“Rose, my lady.”
“Very well, Rose. That will be all.”
“Yes, my lady.” Rose bobbed a curtsy and exited the room.
Left to her own devices, Lady Fieldhurst divested herself of her damp pelisse and gown, then opened the double doors of the clothes press. Here was one small act of rebellion that her friend Lady Dunnington had heartily approved: after a scant two months of widowhood, she was going into half-mourning, exchanging her somber black crapes and bombazines for less funereal grays. She reached into the clothes press and withdrew a dinner gown of lustrous gray silk with a fine black stripe woven into the fabric, then laid it out almost lovingly on the bed. The garment might raise a few eyebrows despite its elegantly simple lines and modest décolletage, but the viscountess found the potential disapproval of her fellow guests less distasteful than the hypocrisy of mourning a philanderer whose violent death had almost sent her to the gallows. She was already the subject of gossip; she might as well give the tabbies something worth talking about. But even as she had made this momentous decision, she acknowledged her own cowardice in waiting to act upon it until she was well out of London.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a woman’s voice coming from the next room and the sound of a door shutting a bit more forcefully than was strictly necessary.
“—Like a moonling, making sheep’s eyes at Emma Hollingshead!”
“The lad is not yet two-and-twenty,” a male voice responded more calmly. “Besides, Emma’s a deuced pretty girl. I’d be more concerned if he didn’t make sheep’s eyes at her.”
“Surely you have higher ambitions for your only son than to see him wed the daughter of a country squire!” objected the woman.
“And the granddaughter of a marquess on her mother’s side,” the man pointed out. “Added to the fact that their land borders ours, I can think of worse matches for the boy. But never you fear: Lady Anne has ambition enough to match your own. She’ll give poor Robert his marching orders quickly enough.” He chuckled at the prospect.
The woman, however, was not amused. “Just as she’s given Mr. Meriwether his?” she retorted, her skepticism evident even through the dividing wall.
Lady Fieldhurst, cast in the role of unintentional eavesdropper, decided it was high time the people in the next room were made aware of her presence. She returned to the clothes press, opened the double doors, and shut them with sufficient force to make the heavy piece of furniture tremble. The couple next door immediately fell silent.
* * * *
At half-past eight, having arrayed herself in the gray silk gown, Lady Fieldhurst left her room and made her way to the drawing room where, Rose had informed her, the family would gather before dinner. Rose’s talents as a hairdresser had not disappointed: Julia’s rejuvenated locks were swept high on her head, with little tendrils allowed to escape at the temples in order to soften a deceptively severe style. As she approached the drawing-room door, voices within the room alerted the viscountess to the fact that she was not the first arrival.
“You might have at least sent the carriage for him, Mama,” complained a well-modulated contralto. “He can hardly be expected to walk all the way from the village in this weather.”
“If he elects to remain at home rather than brave the elements, that is his decision,” replied a cooler voice which Lady Fieldhurst recognized as that of her hostess. “If the weather proves too great a deterrent, then perhaps his affections are not so firmly engaged as you suppose. I need not remind you that he has made no attempt to speak to your father on the subject.”
“No doubt he knows what sort of reception he might expect!”
It seemed to Lady Fieldhurst as if she were destined to be an eavesdropper will she or nill she. As she hovered in the hall wondering how best to make her presence known, Lady Anne Hollingshead addressed her daughter in conciliatory tones.
“Surely you cannot fault your father for that. With your birth and beauty, my dear, you might look a great deal higher. We only want you to look about before throwing yourself away on a penniless young man without birth or breeding—
“Mama, how can you say such a thing? He is family!”
Lady Anne made a derisive sound which in a lesser personage would have been called a snort. “Wrong side of the blanket, or near enough as makes no odds.”
Lady Fieldhurst decided it was high time to announce herself before she could make any more awkward discoveries about her fellow guests. She cleared her throat quite audibly, then sailed into the room. Two guilty countenances met her gaze for the briefest of moments before chagrin was masked by smiles.
“My dear Lady Fieldhurst, what a fetching frock,” said Lady Anne. If the slightly raised eyebrow with which she regarded this creation was intended to shift Julia’s attention to her own decision to cast off her blacks, it was singularly successful. However, her ladyship’s voice held no note of censure as she urged her guest forward. “Do come and meet my elder daughter. Emma, my dear, make your curtsy to Lady Fieldhurst.”
A dark-haired beauty of about twenty, Emma was less skilled than her mother in the social art of dissembling. Although she curtsied prettily enough, her heightened color and sparkling eyes betrayed her volatile emotional state.
“How do you do, Miss Hollingshead,” responded Lady Fieldhurst, returning the younger woman’s curtsy.
“I am sure Emma will have a great deal to ask you,” continued Lady Anne, seemingly oblivious to her daughter’s inner turmoil. “She is to be presented at court next spring and have her Season in London. I only hope she may enjoy a fraction of your own success. How well I remember your debut! You were quite the Toast of the Season, as I recall.”
The viscountess, seeing Emma Hollingshead’s face assume a mulish aspect, surmised that the approaching London Season was another bone of contention between mother and daughter. She could imagine few things more disagreeable than recounting her social successes—which had eventually culminated in a brilliant yet miserable marriage—to an obviously hostile audience. In fact, her debut had been a rather modest affair in Bath; it had been here that she had first been introduced to Frederick Bertram, Viscount Fieldhurst. The social triumph Lady Hollingshead recalled had taken place the following spring, after her whirlwind marriage. She remembered little of the court presentation itself, so fearful she had been of somehow disappointing the awe-inspiring gentleman who had swept her off her feet. It was perhaps inevitable that she had eventually done exactly that, and he had never let her forget it. She had no intention, however, of divulging these old hurts to women who were little more than strangers.
“It was all so long ago, I fear I can remember little beyond how absurd my high-waisted gown looked when worn over the hoops required at court,” she told Miss Hollingshead apologetically.
“You are too modest by half,” declared her hostess. “Surely you must remember more than that!”
“Now that I think of it, I recall how shockingly my head ached from the aigrette of ostrich plumes my abigail had fastened in my hair. I do believe the woman must have nailed the thing to my skull.”
Although these less than glowing recollections found no favor with Lady Anne, they won a reluctant smile from her daughter, who was able to greet the next arrival with more composure. This proved to be a very young man dressed in the fashionable extravagance of the Incroyable, and Lady Fieldhurst wondered fleetingly if he might be the object of Miss Hollingshead’s affections. A moment’s reflection, however, was sufficient to remind her that one given to extremes of fashion would be unlikely to risk his finery by walking to dinner in a rainstorm; nor did the young man’s raiment show any signs of his having done so. When a portly gentleman and a sharp-featured woman followed him into the room, the older man scolding the younger on the shirt points of his collar—the height of which made it impossible for him to turn his head—Julia realized that this was the quarreling couple in the bedchamber next to hers. The young dandy who was even now making a beeline for Emma Hollingshead could only be their son.
“Lady Fieldhurst, allow me to present Lord and Lady Kendall, and the Honourable Robert Kendall.” Lady Anne performed the introductions with practiced grace. “The Kendalls are our nearest neighbors—except for the vicar, that is—and Lord Kendall is Justice of the Peace.”
Lady Fieldhurst was surprised to discover that the Kendalls were in fact local, but before she had time to wonder at their occupation of one of the guest bedchambers, Lady Kendall supplied the explanation.
“I must thank you for allowing us the use of your guest chambers,” she told her hostess. “I shudder to think what my gown would have looked like had I been obliged to pile in and out of a carriage in this rain. As for Robert,” she added, scowling at her son, “I daresay he would never have consented to leave the house for fear of getting his coat wet.”
Unfortunately, this rider was wasted. Young Mr. Kendall, listening with rapt attention to something Miss Hollingshead was saying, showed no sign of having heard his mother at all.
The drawing-room party was soon joined by others. Sir Gerald Hollingshead was the first of these, entering the room with the curious rigidity of the English country gentleman unwillingly stuffed into evening clothes. Next came the schoolroom set. Young Mr. Philip Hollingshead, on holiday from Eton, was almost as tall as a man, yet still possessed the smooth, rounded cheeks of childhood. His sister Susannah, the younger daughter of the household, was clad in demure white muslin with a pale blue sash, her unbound hair tied back with a matching blue ribbon. Lady Anne introduced her children with the air of one bestowing a rare treat, leading Lady Fieldhurst to surmise that they were not often granted the privilege of dining with their elders. Miss Susannah was accompanied by her governess, Miss Harriet Grantham, a once-handsome woman whose plum-colored satin gown had clearly seen better days. Hard on their heels came the butler to announce a pair of new arrivals.
“Mr. Cyril Danvers and Mr. Jasper Carrington,” he intoned.
A short, rather frail man of sober attire and scholarly mien entered the room, accompanied by a raven-haired gentleman of indeterminate years whose swarthy complexion suggested a career spent in India or the West Indies. Any confusion Lady Fieldhurst might have felt as to which one was which was soon put to rest as Lady Anne greeted her guests.
“Mr. Danvers, how pleased I am that you could come,” she said, offering her hand to the soberly dressed scholar. “I do hope you did not walk all the way from the vicarage. If the weather should bring on an attack of catarrh, I should never forgive myself.”
“No, indeed, my lady! I should normally have spent such an inclement evening at home writing my sermon, but when Mr. Carrington offered me a place in his curricle, the prospect of good food and congenial company was too much to resist.”
“In that case, Mr. Carrington, we stand in your debt,” said Lady Anne, turning her attention to the dark gentleman.
“I assure you, my lady, the pleasure was all mine,” he demurred.
Having exchanged pleasantries all around, the group indulged in idle chatter until the dinner gong sounded promptly at nine o’clock.
“Doubtless the weather proved too much for Mr. Meriwether,” observed Sir Gerald, casting his elder daughter a glance that was not wholly without sympathy. “Shall we go?”
As Lady Fieldhurst was the highest ranking of the female guests, it was to her that he offered his arm. The others followed suit, pairing off according to rank, which left Miss Grantham to bring up the rear in solitary splendor. They had just reached the door when it burst open to admit a tall, bespectacled young man in outmoded evening wear which, besides being much worn at the knees and elbows, was decidedly damp. His windswept hair owed more to current weather conditions than to curling tongs, and his clocked stockings were liberally spattered with mud.
“Pray forgive my tardiness,” he addressed the company in somewhat breathless accents. “The rain is letting up, but the road beyond the village is well nigh impassable in places, and the river is rising. I can only hope the bridge will not wash out.”
“Indeed,” said her hostess without enthusiasm. “Lady Fieldhurst, may I present Mr. Colin Meriwether, the curate and our distant cousin.”
Color flooded Emma Hollingshead’s glowing countenance, and she dropped Mr. Carrington’s arm as if she would have flown to the curate’s side. Good breeding restrained her from committing such a shocking faux pas, but her inclinations were clear enough, as evidenced by her mother’s warning scowl as well as the glowering look bent upon the late arrival by the magnificent Mr. Kendall.
Lady Fieldhurst, although having sworn off men on her own account, had no objection to observing the romantic pursuits of others. Given a choice, she would put her money on Mr. Meriwether to carry the day; aside from Miss Hollingshead’s obvious partiality, the young man’s presence in the face of such discouragement suggested a strength of character sufficient to overcome any obstacles Lady Anne might place in his way.
In fact, decided the viscountess, her friend Lady Dunnington had been quite wrong in her assessment. The next four weeks should prove anything but dull.