In September, amidst a driving rain that swept across the northern Norfolk coast, my hired coach rolled up the drive to my ancestral home and deposited me at the house’s front door.
My valet-in-training, Bartholomew, a lad used to working for the very rich, gazed at the edifice in doubt. “You lived here, sir?”
The house stood silently under lowering skies, the roof over one wing completely collapsed. The windows were dark–those that weren’t broken. Bricks and rubble decorated what was left of the lawn, and the drive was pitted and covered with weeds.
“Indeed I did,” I said.
My father had closed off rooms rather than spend money on repairs. Instead, he’d wagered away all he had or used it on gifts for his mistresses.
The house had at one time been a fine Palladian affair, with fanlights, columns, and a pleasing symmetry. Now the golden stone was chipped and fallen away, the Corinthian columns at the door dark with grime. Bits of brick and fallen slates littered the ground.
“And you intend to invite her ladyship here?” Bartholomew’s doubt rose several notches.
My wife-to-be, the Dowager Viscountess Breckenridge, daughter of an earl, had grown up on an elegant estate in Oxfordshire and now dwelled in a modern, costly townhouse in South Audley Street in London. I had spent a month at the Oxfordshire estate this summer, and the comparison between the two houses was dire indeed.
“Her ladyship insists,” I said.
“Well, you’ve got your work cut out, sir, I must say.”
“That is why I’m pleased you’ve come along to help, Bartholomew.”
Bartholomew’s mouth popped open, his face taking on a look of dismay. “Yes, sir.”
Bartholomew, former footman to the great and wealthy Lucius Grenville, held himself high above common laborers. I could not resist teasing him.
“I was not suggesting you try a bit of carpentry,” I said. “But you can help me coordinate and supervise the repairs.”
That was more to Bartholomew’s liking, and he looked relieved.
I had another errand to run while I was here in Norfolk, a letter to deliver which had weighed in my pocket all the way from London. I was reluctant to carry out the errand, though it was a simple one, but doing so would be symbolic.
Deliver the enclosed to one Brigadier Easton at Easton House south of Cley. Completion of delivery deducts twenty guineas from your debt. Denis.
James Denis was a criminal but a very subtle one. Very few deeds were traced back to him, and he had magistrates in his pocket. He also owned MPs outright and had aristocrats dancing his bidding. He and I had played a thrust-and-parry game for more than a year now, he constantly trying to coerce me to work for him, and recently he’d assisted me enough to put me firmly in his debt.
A letter written by Denis would not be innocuous. If Grenville had asked me to deliver a message, I’d think nothing of it, but anything involving James Denis could never be that simple.
The enclosed message hadn’t been sealed. Denis had known I’d insist on reading what I delivered, and he’d not tried to hide it. But when I opened the message, I found a note that made no sense to me.
I decided I’d make the delivery in case it proved important to Brigadier Easton, but I would not let Denis or the brigadier draw me into any intrigue. Nor would I become a permanent go-between. I’d deliver the letter, and that would be that.
The front door to my house was locked but I had a key, kept among my possessions for twenty years. I hadn’t been back to this house since I’d left it to follow my mentor to the army and India, to fight the Tippu Sultan long before the Peninsular Wars began.
The lock proved to be frozen, the key useless, but a firm shove broke the bolt right out of the wall.
I walked into a dim, dust-coated interior. A carpet lay on the floor but so thick with grime that its original color was indiscernible.
I left footprints in the dust as I moved through the wide entrance hall and looked into rooms on either side of the corridor. I expected memories–good and bad–to come flooding at me, but this ruined house looked so different from what I’d left that it spoke to me not at all.
I vaguely remembered the fireplace in the dining room, where my father had leaned while he regaled my mother and me with his pompous lectures. The fireplace had been painted wood, but now the mantelpiece had fallen, exposing the brick behind it.
Bartholomew coughed and pulled out a handkerchief. I moved on to the next room, the library with windows looking over the back garden. The garden was nonexistent now, a stretch of weeds that ran down to join sapling trees at the bottom of the field.
In here, at least, I did feel the touch of my past. My father had beaten me bent over the desk so often, my face pressed into its wooden surface, that I remembered every swirl of the grain.
He’d beaten me for every sin, real and imagined. He’d been trying to make me obedient, and instead had made me rebellious. As I’d grown older, I’d started deliberately inviting the thrashings, because I’d realized that if Father were beating me, he wouldn’t be beating my mother.
Memories were hell. As I stood in this room, I remembered why I’d been so keen to follow Aloysius Brandon and his young wife into the army, why I’d hurried to procure a wife of my own. My mother had died long before, and I’d wanted out of this existence, to get away, to find the world outside these walls, to live.
Well, I’d done that. And now here I was, twenty years older, injured, world-weary, far more cynical, and about to marry again. To a lady who’d have put my father in his place faster than a cat swats a sparrow out of the sky.
Bartholomew’s shout cut through my musings. I hurried out, my walking stick tapping in the dust.
I found Bartholomew at the front door. Coming up what was left of the drive was an elegant carriage with high-stepping horses complete with silver-gray plumes. The coachman had a matching brush in his hat, and the door of the carriage held the crest of the viscounts Breckenridge.
“Bloody hell,” I said.
The horses shook their heads at the rain, plumes dancing. Bartholomew hurried forward at the same time a footman jumped from the back of the coach into the mud. The footman unhooked a box from under the coach and placed it before the carriage door.
The footman opened the door, and a well-formed ankle came down, foot in a pristine leather shoe. Bartholomew and the footman stretched a canvas between them, holding it high to shield the lady who prepared to descend, and I came forward to hand her down.
Donata Anne Catherine St. John, Dowager Viscountess Breckenridge, was thirty years old and my betrothed. That she’d agreed to marry me still came as a bit of a shock.
Lady Breckenridge ignored me completely, thanked Bartholomew and her footman, and lifted her skirts to walk the few feet into the house. She said nothing as she tilted her head back to take in the entire wreck of it.
“I thought you were to stay with your friend near Blakeney,” I said, following her. “With its wonderful view of the sea.”
“I am, but I could not resist seeing the house of your birth.” Lady Breckenridge turned in a circle in the hall, staring up the wide staircase. “A man’s home can tell much about him.”
“That is what I fear,” I said dryly.
“Nonsense. It is falling apart, obviously, but there are good bones here. Well designed. Late seventeenth century, with later additions.”
As I stood, rather uncomfortably, on the bones of my ancestral home, Donata turned her dark blue gaze on me. “Now, Gabriel, I know it’s bad of me to pounce on you without warning, but I did so want to see the place. Do show me everything.”
A marvelous thing happened as I took Lady Breckenridge from room to room, explaining what was what. The past became just that, the past. My father was no longer the ogre who ruled my life. He’d become a distant ghost, gone for eight years now, releasing his stranglehold on me.
“Good bones, as I said,” Donata remarked as she stood in the largest bedroom, empty of all furnishings. “Well anchored. The wing that has fallen in was an eighteenth-century addition, was it not? A good architect can restore it and fix the flaws that kept it from standing.”
“The Lacey fortune hardly runs to architects,” I said.
“But the Breckenridge one does.” She watched me, waiting for me to object.
“I know you berate me for being too proud, Donata, but the last thing I want is to run through your money to repair my life. Every member of the ton supposes that’s what I’m doing, but I want you to believe that I am not.”
She shrugged. “I like you being proud, and to the devil with what my friends believe. But I am not being charitable, Gabriel. I am being practical. I will have to live here too, and so will my son, and I hardly want to worry about bricks falling on us as we walk about the passages. Besides, I will be inviting Lady Southwick–the friend with whom I am staying–and this house is ever so much better than hers. The Southwick house is gigantic, but modern, gaudy trash. I do so want to best her.”
I was torn between amusement and alarm. “You say you care nothing for what your friends think.”
“And I do not, but Lady Southwick and I have always been rivals. She even had it off with my husband–briefly–a long time ago. I believe she was as appalled by him as I was, so that did not quite work out as she liked.”
As always, whenever Donata mentioned her brute of a husband, whose face I’d once had the pleasure of bruising, I felt both irritated and protective. “Why do you stay with her, then?”
“We rather enjoy the game, I think. You’ll understand when you arrive. And she will try to lure you from me. It is her way, I must warn you.”
Her words were flat, but her eyes flickered.
“I have no wish to be lured, I assure you,” I said.
I had little wish to stay at the house of Lady Southwick, but I did not have much choice. The nearby inns were hardly fit for a viscountess used to the very best of everything, and I’d been pleased that she had a friend of equal rank and wealth nearby. I’d been included in the invitation to stay at Southwick Hall, and it would have been churlish of me to refuse. Lady Breckenridge would be the one to bear the brunt of disapproval at my rudeness, so I had capitulated.
I did finally persuade Donata that she should leave the cold dankness of my home and return to her rival’s house, which would at least be comfortable. Donata kissed me lightly on the lips and let me lead her back to the carriage.
Once she was gone, vanishing into rain and mist, I went back through the house. I knew I was simply delaying my errand for Denis, but the rain was pouring down, and Denis’s mission could wait.
I ended up in my mother’s sitting room–her sanctuary–once a room of whites and golds and pinks, light and airy. The windows looked past the garden to a rise of ground and a little copse. Beyond it was the gray green that marked the marshes that lined the sea. In the distance, a windmill, with a tall, cylindrical body and a four-bladed fan, turned slowly in the storm.
The windmill had been there, beside a stream, for as long as I could remember, built in the last century. The pumps drew water out of the marshy ground, lifting it to spill into the rivers and streams that carried it out to sea. The drained earth left behind was rich and fertile, allowing men to farm where once had been only grass and water.
I’d sneaked into in the windmill more than once as a child, only to be hauled out by the keeper before I ruined the pumps. The great creaking machinery had always fascinated me.
I turned back, the interior of the room dark after the rain-soaked glare. As I stood waiting for my eyes to adjust, I realized that something incongruous lay across the mice-chewed chaise.
I went to the chaise and leaned down to look. In the dim light I saw a dress–a long, high-waisted pale muslin that a young debutante might wear. The garment was thick with dust, the hem tattered. When I lightly touched the sleeve, the netting that covered the sleeve crumpled to nothing.
I straightened up, puzzled indeed. I had no sisters. My mother had died when I’d been a lad, and she’d not brought out any young women as favors to friends or even had them to visit. My father, as far as I knew, had chosen his mistresses from the glittering demimonde, ladies with much experience who’d never wear a gown so innocent as this.
Why the dress was there and who it had belonged to was a complete mystery. If a couple had broken into the house for a tryst–they’d have found it quite easy to gain entrance–why leave the gown behind?
I did not touch the dress again, fearing it would dissolve further if I handled it. The fabric was so very fine.
I needed to complete my errand before the paper burned my pocket to ash. I left the intriguing puzzle of the dress and closed the door of the room, locking it with the key I’d found in the lock. I put the key into my pocket.
My hired coach had returned to Norwich, and I prepared to walk the two miles to the brigadier’s house. Riding and walking much this year had given me back strength, though my left leg still tired easily and I’d never rid myself of this limp. However, I could face a two-mile walk without much dismay.
I told Bartholomew to meet me at the public house in Cley and indulge himself in a well-earned ale, and I went to the brigadier’s alone.
The rain had lightened a little. I could see across the farmland to the marshes that ran along the coast. Grasses bent in the wind, and all was as wet as could be.
I remembered the brigadier, though through the perspective of a boy. Brigadier Easton had been a martinet, like my father, but with a streak of fairness that my father had lacked. He lived in a brick house that was as tall and deep as it was wide, windows in even rows covering all three floors.
The footman who opened the door took my card, gave my damp clothes and muddy boots a disdainful look, but at least he let me wait inside, out of the rain. The brigadier must have recognized the Lacey name, because the footman quickly returned and bade me follow him upstairs.
I was shown into a long, narrow study whose windows looked north to another windmill. This windmill had been shut down and abandoned, its work done, its spindly arms still.
The brigadier, was in his sixties, as my father would have been had he been alive. While my father had been a big man–the same six-foot, broad-shouldered build as myself–the brigadier was small and slight. He made up for his stature with a powerful voice, which had, before his retirement, bellowed orders to troops in India.
He came to me, hand extended. “Gabriel Lacey. The young hothead who eloped and raced away in the middle of the night?” He chuckled as I shook his hand. “I had wondered when you’d make your move and become a man. Captain now, eh? Commended for bravery at Talavera; you and all the Thirty-Fifth Light. Damned bloody battle, that.”
It had been. I’d begun the morning a lieutenant and had been given captain that evening, both for my actions and because too many other captains had died. My father had died here in Norfolk that night, though I had not known until I’d received the letter weeks later.
Easton released my hand but peered up at me nearsightedly. “Back home now, are you? What are you going to do with the place?”
“I have some idea of repairing the house and living in it,” I said.
Easton’s look told me he doubted my sanity but wouldn’t argue. “And, you are getting married. Do not look so surprised. We read the London newspapers even here. My felicitations.”
I bowed politely in thanks. I put my hand into my pocket and withdrew the message from Denis.
“I did not come here only to call on a neighbor,” I said. “I was charged with delivering this to you. From London.”
Easton frowned. He took the folded paper–thick, cream-colored, and expensive–walked to his desk, sat down, and opened a drawer. He removed a pair of spectacles, put them on, and opened the paper. He read the one word on it and went utterly still.
I approached the desk. Easton stared down at the page, his face drained of color.
The one word on it was Corn. Obviously a code, but what Denis meant by it I could not say.
The expression on Easton’s face was telling me, however. The brigadier stood slowly, his skin wan, the man looking ten years older than when I’d walked in.
“You brought this from Mr. Denis,” he said.
“I did. Denis . . . asked me to.”
Now what was in his eyes was abject fear. Easton studied me anew, taking in my large build, my big hands, the walking stick I held, inside of which rattled a sword.
“I suppose I ought to have known. What else did he ask you to do? Tell me quickly; I’ve faced it before.”
I looked at him, puzzled. “Nothing. To deliver the message was my only charge. What does it mean?”
The brigadier let out a breath and sank to his chair. He put both hands on the desk and looked up at me, shoulders slumped in defeat.
“You’ve brought me my death sentence, my boy. That’s what it means. This is my last day on earth.”Return to A Death in Norfolk