Excerpt: The Sudbury School Murders

The Sudbury School Murders (Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries) by Ashley Gardner

Book 4: Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries

March 1817

“And I want it stopped,” Everard Rutledge growled.

One week after my arrival at the Sudbury School, Rutledge faced me over his desk in his private study. The headmaster had a large, flat face, a bulbous nose, and short graying hair that looked as though perpetually whipped by high wind. His coat hung untidily on his large frame, his ivory waistcoat was rumpled, his yellowing cravat twisted. The effect was as though a bull had climbed into an expensive suit and then gone about its business.

He had just told me a story of vicious pranks that had been perpetrated in the school–a chandelier in the dining hall coming down, a fire in the maids’ attic, threatening letters written in blood, and three boys falling ill due to poisoned port.

“Not nice,” I remarked. “Worse than the usual pranks boys play on each other.”

“Exactly,” Rutledge barked. “What do you intend to do about it, eh?”

I looked at him in surprise. I had not thought that discovering pranksters would be in the sphere of the secretary’s duties, but Rutledge glared at me as though waiting for me to produce the name of the culprit then and there.

“What would you have me do?” I asked him.

“Well damn it, man, is this not why you are here? Grenville told me you were a master at poking your nose into things that did not concern you.”

“I do hope Grenville did not put it quite like that,” I said mildly.

Rutledge scowled. “He neglected to tell me how impertinent you are. I cannot imagine you made a very good soldier.”

“My commander would agree with you,” I said. Colonel Brandon, once my closest friend, had often lectured me about my tendency to disobey orders and tell my superiors what I thought of them.

“But please continue about the problem,” I said, my curiosity piqued in spite of myself. “If you wish me to discover which boys are responsible, I will need as much information as I can obtain.”

“You will do it, then?”

I wished I had been asked rather than simply expected. Lucius Grenville had much to answer for. “I admit interest,” I said. “That these tricks have been perpetrated for three months without anyone being the wiser is intriguing. Someone has been uncommonly clever.”

“Uncommonly indecent,” Rutledge snarled. “When I put my hands on him– ”

I knew the rest. Rutledge, I had learned in the week since my arrival, believed in strict and severe discipline. This was not unusual for a school’s headmaster, but Rutledge seemed to enjoy meting out punishment more than did most sergeants in the King’s Army.

Rutledge’s harsh methods so far had produced no result. I could see that the students here feared Rutledge but did not respect him.

He leaned across his desk. “I do not think you grasp the seriousness of the situation, Lacey. The sons of the wealthiest men in England attend the Sudbury School. Their money could buy you, and even Grenville, a dozen times over. I do not wish for fathers to become unhappy at their sons’ complaints. Do you understand?”

“I understand well enough.”

The Sudbury School did not house the sons of lords and statesmen; rather, their fathers were nabobs and merchants and men prominent in the City. They were the merchant class, the middle class, the sons of men who had started with nothing and gained fortune with the sweat of their brows. Boys finished Sudbury School, went to the City to add to their father’s fortunes, and in turn sent their own sons here.

Rutledge did not care a fig about money, personally. The unkempt manner of his clothes, his obliviousness to the comfort of his study, his evenhandedness in dealing out punishment to the boys, told me this. Rutledge would be as much at home in Carleton House as in a hovel–in other words, he’d never notice.

What Rutledge cared about was the Sudbury School. His form of honor, if you will. Rutledge was gentleman born, had attended Eton with Grenville. But he’d stuck his claws into this school for bankers’ sons, and by God he intended it to be a success. Its reputation was his reputation.

Rutledge went on, “I know that you yourself were the victim of a prank, Captain, though you chose not to report it. Sutcliff, my prefect, had to tell me. What were you thinking, man?”

Bartholomew a few nights ago had thrown back my bedding to reveal a grass snake, half-suffocated on the featherbed. I had lifted it between my fingers and laid it gently in the branches of the tree outside my window.

I said, “I was thinking it was harmless and did not need to be brought to your attention.”

“Harmless?” Rutledge almost shouted. “And why, pray, did you believe it harmless?”

I half smiled. “I assumed a few boys were simply testing out the new man. To see whether I fussed or laughed.”

Rutledge’s expression told me that levity had been the incorrect response. “You should have reported it to me at once, and the boys found and punished. You encourage their behavior.”

I held my temper with effort. “I doubt it connects to the more serious pranks.”

“How can you know that?”

“Poison in port and fires in servants rooms are considerably more dangerous than one bewildered grass snake.”

Rutledge’s annoyed expression told me he did not agree. “So the question remains, Captain. What do you intend to do about it?”

His belligerence was ruining a fine spring day. I had hoped to escape for a walk after my duties, but Rutledge had ordered me to stay. Then he’d laid aside his papers, rested his fists on his desk, and told me all about the pranks.

“I will question the boys,” I told him. “They likely know who is involved but are reluctant to speak. Even if they do not know, they might be able to point to something. I will speak to the prefects of both houses, as well. They are much closer to the boys than you or even the tutors can be.”

Rutledge peered at me in disappointment. “I expected more from you, the way Grenville boasted. The students have already been questioned. I had them all thrashed, but to no avail. You will get nowhere with that line of thinking.”

“The students might be more willing to speak to a sympathetic stranger than their headmaster or even a prefect,” I pointed out. “Servants, too, see things, hear things. I shall have my man talk with them.”

Rutledge dismissed this with a wave of his hand. “Useless. They will not tell you, even if they do know.”

I grew annoyed. “Did you expect me to pull the solution out of the air? I must begin somewhere.”

“Yes, yes, very well. But I expect you to tell me everything. Everything, Lacey.”

I did not promise. I’d tell him what he needed to know, nothing more. I had learned in my life that problems were often more complex than they seemed, and most people did not want to know the entire truth. Rutledge was a man who saw everything in black and white. Subtle complexities would be beyond him.

He dismissed me then, curtly. Without regret, I left the warm and comfortable room for the cold hall.

The case intrigued me, but Rutledge had not endeared himself to me. I was also put out with Grenville and intended to write to him so, first for not telling me that my employment here was simply a means for solving a puzzle, and second for not warning me that Rutledge was such a boor.

A walk in the brisk March air, I thought, would do me good.

It was late afternoon, and boys and tutors spilled through the double doors to change their clothes for chapel or dinner or more studies. There were thirty boys in this house, which was called the Head Master’s house. I had not yet met all the students, but I had started to recognize a few. Ramsay was a tow-headed boy of about thirteen who always looked apprehensive. Timson, the same age, had a roguish look, and it pained me to realize that he reminded me of myself at that age. Frederick Sutcliff, the prefect, was tall, lanky, older than the other students, and generally despised. He was full of himself and not above a little harsh discipline that he did not report to Rutledge. His father was also one of the wealthiest men in England.

The Classics tutor, Simon Fletcher, gave me a nod. He did not live in this house, but in the one opposite, called Fairleigh. Fletcher liked a quiet pint in the village tavern, and I’d met him there on more than one evening. The mathematics tutor, Tunbridge, was lecturing his star pupil as usual, a heavy-browed, spindly youth of sixteen.

The lads gazed up at me as I made my way down the stairs and out of the house. They always stared because I was a tall, broad-shouldered man obviously wounded in the war, and also because they’d heard I’d refused to toady to Rutledge. This had raised me to a certain admired status.

Some of the boys nodded and said a polite, “Captain.” Most of the others simply watched.

Cool damp air awaited me outside in the quad, and I breathed it in relief. Rutledge’s study was comfortable enough, but his moods fouled the air.

The setting of the Sudbury School was fairly peaceful. The houses had been built in the time of Henry VIII. They had dark, narrow staircases and galleries that creaked, small windows, and crumbling plaster. But the estate had been owned by a family of vast fortune, who were able to fortify the houses and modernize them as time went on without marring their beauty.

The Head Master’s house comprised the north and east sides of the quad, and Fairleigh, named for one of the founders of the school, the west side. The south building housed a large hall and two smaller ones for lectures, tiny classrooms, a common dining hall for the boys, and a more formal dining room, in which Rutledge hosted visitors to the school.

I left the quad through the gate and began walking to the stables. The Berkshire countryside certainly smelled cleaner than London’s grime-filled streets. Here was the fragrance of new grass, wet earth, and the faint musty odor that came from the quiet canal that flowed past the school.

Rutledge at least did not mind me taking a horse every morning and riding about the green swards or along the towpath beside the canal. Rutledge was mad for sport and approved of men who liked to ride. I was still a cavalryman at heart and was glad to have the opportunity to ride regularly again.

I reflected as I walked that I had come to Berkshire to find peace, and so far, it had eluded me. But perhaps peace was not in a place but within one’s self. In that case, I might never find it. There was little at peace inside Gabriel Lacey.

In the stable yard, I met Sebastian, a young Romany who had been taken on by the head groom to assist him. He was cleaning tack and not looking happy about it. Sebastian was excellent with horses, and he and I had become friends of a sort. I had been surprised at first to discover that Rutledge allowed one of the Roma to work in his stables, but Sebastian told me Rutledge had not known about it until after the fact. Sebastian had proved handy enough–and came cheap–and Rutledge had decided to look the other way.

“Good afternoon,” I said genially to Sebastian.

He gave me a nod. The other stable hands ignored me. Two leaned on rakes and chatted, one sat on a crate smoking a pipe while he mended a bridle.

Sebastian was usually effusive, but today, he frowned at the saddle he polished. “Did you want a horse, Captain?” he asked in his melodious voice.

“No. I’m out for a short stroll, that’s all. Is everything well with you?”

“Yes.”

It was not, I could see, but Sebastian closed his mouth in a tight line. He was about twenty, not much older than the oldest boys at the school. The pupils generally liked him, because he was good-natured and knew everything there was to know about horses.

A door at the end of the line of stalls led to the quarters for the groom and his stable hands. A man emerged from this door just then. He was tall and burly, with black hair under a coachman’s hat.

I stared at him. I recognized him–or thought I did.

He saw me, stopped, and ducked back into the shadows of the doorway.

“Who was that?” I asked Sebastian.

He looked up, puzzled at my tone. “Mr. Middleton,” he answered. “The groom.”

I had not seen this Middleton since my arrival. I usually visited the stables very early in the morning, and Sebastian alone prepared my mount.

But I knew Middleton. Or at least, I’d seen him before, in London. He had once been the lackey of a man called James Denis.

James Denis was a criminal, or should have been labeled so. He was a gentleman to whom wealthy gentlemen went when they wished to obtain a fine piece of art that was unobtainable, to gain a seat in Parliament that was already filled, to succeed in whatever enterprise they wished. In return, they gave their loyalty and a high percentage of their wealth to Mr. Denis.

I had encountered Denis far more often than I cared to. He had helped me once or twice, but he had also threatened me and once had his lackeys kidnap me and beat me to teach me to respect him. He wanted me to fear him, and my friends, Grenville included, advised me to, but Denis had only succeeded in making me very, very angry.

I watched the door, but the man did not reappear. “What do you know about him?” I asked Sebastian.

Sebastian shrugged. “Not very much. He’s a coachman, or was. He’s very good with horses. A gentle sort with the beasts.”

“How long has he been here?”

“Don’t know.”

I moved to the stable hands still leaning on their rakes and asked them. Like Sebastian, they eyed me in surprise, but answered. Middleton had been employed at Sudbury for six months.

I might have been mistaken, I told myself. I had only glimpsed the man. But I did not think so. Why one of James Denis’ men should have taken up a post in Berkshire, at a boys’ school, I hadn’t the faintest idea. But if I was right, this boded no good.

*** *** ***

“You sure it was him, sir?”

Bartholomew held my coat in one hand, his stiff-bristled brush in the other. The blond giant had stopped and gaped, wide-eyed, when I’d announced who I’d seen.

“No,” I answered. I drank the thick coffee Bartholomew had brought after my supper. The quarters allotted to me consisted of a rather plain but cozy room on the top floor of the Head Master’s house. My windows looked over the meadows behind the school and the line of trees that marked the canal. “He did not come out again, and I could not go charging after him. He looked just as surprised to see me.”

“But he must have heard you’d come here,” Bartholomew said. “That’s why he’s kept scarce whenever you came to take a horse, I’d wager.”

“Well, if he is Denis’ man, why is he here?” I wondered. “Did Denis send him to keep an eye on me?”

“Could be, sir. Or could be he’s quit of Mr. Denis. Or could be he doesn’t want Mr. Denis to know where he is.”

“True.” If I was correct about who he was, Denis had once sent the man Middleton to my rooms in Covent Garden to fetch me. Denis generally employed pugilists and former coachmen to serve as rather menacing bodyguards and lackeys. This one had been no less menacing than any of the others. I had refused the summons. Bartholomew’s presence had helped, and the man had left in defeat.

I had never seen him again. Though I’d visited Denis not long ago, while pursuing the affair of the Glass House in London, Middleton, as far as I remembered, had not been there.

“Well, it’s interesting,” Bartholomew remarked. “What are you going to do?”

I lifted my cup. “I will let it lie for now. He obviously did not want me to see him. But I’ll watch. I do not trust Denis, nor any man associated with him.”

“No, sir.” Bartholomew resumed brushing. “Of course, it does no harm asking about in the kitchens. Why he’s here, I mean.”

“Your curiosity might prove as dangerous as mine, Bartholomew,” I said.

“Yes, sir.”

I turned the conversation back to the pranks that Rutledge wanted me to investigate, and frowned in thought. “I wonder whether one house has seen more of the pranks than the other. It would be difficult, for instance, for a boy in this house to get into Fairleigh at night.”

“The Fairleigh boys would chuck him right out if they saw him.” Bartholomew grinned. “And not in a nice manner, would they?”

The houses, the Head Master’s and Fairleigh, were similar in amenities and distribution of boys, but the two houses were fierce rivals, each convinced that members of the other were weak and ineffectual. It is common thing among mortals, I had observed, that when placed even arbitrarily into this or that group, they immediately begin to defend themselves against all other groups. I do not exclude myself from this phenomenon. In the Army, I valiantly defended the honor of the Thirty-Fifth Light Dragoons, and would have done so with my life. And of course, I esteemed the abilities of the light cavalry over the heavy. Still more serious was the manner in which cavalry viewed the infantry–that body of foot wobblers who could not shoot straight even standing on the ground and dug into place.

I fully admitted to prejudice in my views–I had realized once that if someone were to come along and paint a red or blue spot on each of our foreheads, we who had the blue spots would congregate to other blue-spotters and come up with reasons why we were infinitely better than the red-spotters.

The Fairleighs contended that they were superior to the Head Masters and vice versa. Therefore, if any Head Master boy were caught sneaking into Fairleigh uninvited, said boy had better be fast on his feet and good with his fists. In addition, news of such a break-in would be all over school the next day.

Therefore, the prankster must either be a master of infiltration and deception, or there must be more than one.

I continued to drink my coffee, and Bartholomew and I continued to speculate on the pranks until I sought my bed and slumber. The matter of Middleton, for the time, was dropped.

But the matter reasserted itself almost immediately. Bartholomew woke me early the next morning to tell me that Middleton had been killed in the night, his body fetched up in a lock of the nearby canal.