I woke, or seemed to. I was on my feet, fully dressed in my evening clothes. My head ached, blood pounding in my temples, my eyes hot. Every limb was on fire but stiff, the old injury in my knee throbbing in quiet agony.
I rubbed finger and thumb into my eyes, trying to clear them, and moved my tongue in my dry mouth. The taste I met was foul, sticky and sweet, and at the same time rancid.
I had no idea where the devil I was. A cautious glance showed I stood in a massive but unfinished room, dim and silent. Cloths draped a bare wood floor, and a ceiling soared overhead, gray light leaking through tiny windows at the top.
Something caught my attention at my feet, and I rubbed my eyes again as I bent to peer blearily at the object.
It was a man, sprawled on a dust sheet, limbs askew. I stared at him in a daze, barely able to comprehend what I was seeing.
He was dead—I knew that immediately. His face was gray, open eyes unseeing, chest still. A blue uniform coat gaped to show a white shirt now stained with dark blood. The sword that had killed him, also coated with blood, was clenched in my hand.
It was a cavalry saber, well-balanced with a thick hilt and a curved blade. It wasn’t the sword from my walking stick—that one was straight, and the stick lay on the floor at my side.
I had no idea how I’d come to be here, or why I stood over the body of a dead man with a bloody sword in my cramped grip.
My heart beat thick and fast, senses returning slowly, but no memories. The chamber was utterly silent, no running footsteps of someone hurrying to investigate a fight, no shouts of horror or dismay. Only quiet, until a breeze outside carried to me the lone, shrill cry of a seagull.
I realized as awareness trickled into me that I stood in the Prince Regent’s house in Brighton. Half of what the prince called his Pavilion was unfinished, the other half already a confusion of styles, much like Carlton House, but on a more whimsical scale.
I’d dined here tonight with Grenville, my wife, and several other guests, including the man on the floor, hours ago it must be. Dawn’s light above confirmed that it was likely four or five on this summer morning.
I passed my tongue over paper-dry lips, panic a dim thing shouting inside me. My head hurt like fury, my stomach burned, and renewed pain flowed through my blood as bits and pieces of the night swooped at me like visions from a nightmare.
The man on the floor was Colonel Hamilton Isherwood of the Forty-Seventh Light Dragoons. I’d encountered him on the Peninsula, at Salamanca, seven years ago, where he’d despised me, and I him. Those memories were sharp and clear, as bright as the Spanish sky and the dusty, hard hills around it. Far clearer than the hours between supper and now.
Tonight, Isherwood had behaved, at the meal at least, as though we’d been briefly acquainted during the war, nothing more.
I had absolutely no memory of killing him.
Or of trudging back to the Pavilion after I’d left it last night. I should be at home in the bow-windowed house we’d hired, asleep next to my wife. Not in an unfinished room with a bloody sword in my hands, an old enemy dead at my feet.
I shook, my palms sweating in my gloves. I wanted to heave up the Regent’s excellent supper and fine port, but my throat remained closed.
Lay down the sword and depart, my common sense told me. Walk back home. Do not be found here.
Wise advice. I began to place the sword on the floor when I heard a gasp, loud in the silence.
I jerked around to see a young man in the wide doorway, a flickering candle in his hand. He wore a dressing gown, but he was not a guest. I’d seen his face earlier this evening, but it had been blank with deference as he’d served me port in the prince’s drawing room.
He was a footman, slim and tall, his skin black. He’d worn a turban while he carried trays about, as it was the fashion to have one or two “Moorish” servants in attendance, but the lad was no more Moorish than I was.
He stared at me as I slowly straightened, the candlelight showing his dark eyes wide with shock. He opened his mouth, drawing breath to shout.
“No!” I cried in a fierce whisper as I moved a shaky step toward him.
His face took on a look of abject terror, and I realized I still had the sword in my hand. I dropped it, but the lad turned and fled from the madman with the bloody weapon. He dashed through a doorway and was gone.
I snatched up my walking stick, having to brace myself on it to regain my feet. I could barely move as I turned to search for another way out of the room, one that would take me in the opposite direction the footman had gone.
The door through which he’d disappeared was open—in fact, the door had not been hung yet and leaned against the wall. I must be in one of the chambers the builders were overhauling in their frenzy to redesign and expand the Prince Regent’s Pavilion.
Drapes covered the soaring walls to protect them, the plasterwork on the arches still wet. The scent of paint, plaster, and dust hung heavily in the silent air.
I stumbled to the far end of the chamber, expecting at every step to hear men pounding after me. The footman would no doubt raise the alarm.
I pawed at the drapes until I found a chink in one and lifted it to slide behind it. The cloths hung about a foot out from the edges of the room, creating a tunnel between fabric and unpainted wall.
I groped my way along this for a while before I came upon a smaller door, closed but unlocked. I ducked through the narrow portal and along a short hall only to emerge in another enormous room.
This chamber had whitewashed walls, several massive fireplaces, and tables covered with pots, bowls, baskets, boxes, and haphazard piles of fruits and vegetables. Plucked fowls on one table leaked juices into a mound of flour.
It was far too early to find anyone in the kitchen, to my relief—and dimly to my distress. Something behind my panic did not like to see the comestibles out in the open with mice enjoying a small feast on the corner of a table.
I moved haltingly through the room, ignoring the smell of overripe fruit and aging fowl, but there seemed to be no way out of the infernal kitchen. At last I discovered another door in the shadows of a cupboard, and I entered another corridor, my entire body beginning to shake, as though I had an ague.
The passageway was plain and unadorned, the walls flaking plaster. A servants’ route through the lavish house.
I heard a step and flattened myself against the wall, as though that would make me unseen. Whoever it was loped toward me without trying to be silent, obviously not expecting to meet anyone back here.
When he was a few paces away I saw by the light of his candle that it was the same footman, probably on his way to alert someone about the murder. He jerked to a halt when he saw me, and I took advantage of his shock and seized him before he could run again.
He struggled. He was half my age, and very strong, but I was an experienced fighter, and in spite of my current infirmity, I held him in a firm grip.
“Stand still,” I commanded in a fierce whisper. “I did not kill that man. I found him there.”
Hadn’t I? I wished like the devil I could remember.
“I promise you,” I said. “I give you my word.” The phrases stung my throat and I hoped they were true.
The young man’s frightened breath made a wheezing sound in the stillness. “You’re Mr. Grenville’s friend, ain’t ya?”
His accent put him from somewhere in south London. He had no question about my identity, but the servants would know who was in this house at any given time and what they meant to the Regent.
“Yes,” I answered breathlessly. “Mr. Grenville will vouch for me. My wife will too—though that rather depends on her mood.”
The young man only stared at me as I made my feeble joke, ready to spring and run the instant I released him.
“What is that room?” I asked, waving vaguely behind me. “Where Colonel Isherwood …”
“Banqueting room. Sir.”
“What the devil was he—?” I broke off, knowing the question was a futile one.
I considered for a moment that this young man had murdered Colonel Isherwood, but I could see no evidence of it. The death had been a messy business, and the lad did not have a splash of blood on his white shirt or the dark blue dressing gown. I unfortunately, had a streak of blood starting at my right knee and ending in the middle of my coat, as though the dying man’s blood had smeared me.
“Show me the way out,” I said. “Unless you have a mind to run for a watchman. If so, you’d better go now.”
The young man swallowed, his slim throat showing a prominent Adam’s apple. “This way, sir.”
Whether he’d decided to trust me or would lead me straight to said watchman I could not guess, and truth to tell, I did not much care. I only wanted free of this place.
I released him cautiously. He did not bolt but started through the corridor, I staggering on his heels. The hallway’s blank walls were broken only by plain doors that would lead to the chambers of the Regent’s luxurious hideaway, each door identical.
My guide moved unerringly, leading me around turns and down short staircases until I was completely lost. I half-fancied we’d emerge once more into the room where the dead man lay, with twenty watchmen and a magistrate waiting to arrest me.
We descended yet another set of stairs, the footman slowing for my hobbling steps, and opened a door at the bottom. I had so convinced myself we’d return to the banqueting room or a similar chamber that I was surprised to feel cool, damp outside air and hear the sea in the distance.
The narrow door, opening to a tiny and noisome passage, must be meant for those removing slops or night soil, the parts of life one did not want marring a beautiful palace. A path led around a wall and past a bit of shrubbery that screened it from the house.
“Gate at the end,” my guide said. “Turn right. Lane will take ya to Great East Street.”
“Thank you,” I said sincerely. “What is your name, lad?”
I expected him to say “John,” or another common moniker Englishmen gave their servants. He stared at me and answered, “Clement.”
“Clement,” I said. “Again, I thank you.”
I held out my hand. He gazed at it in amazement and fear, as though I were handing him a snake.
I gave him a weak smile, let my hand drop, and made a weak bow. “I am most grateful. I swear to you, I did not kill Colonel Isherwood. You ought to send for a magistrate, no matter what you think of me, because someone murdered him.”
“Yes, sir,” Clement said, but I could not tell whether he’d obey me.
I left him and moved down the muddy path, which did indeed lead to a cesspit that stank in the damp air.
I looked back before continuing along the tall box hedge that separated the privies from the main house, and saw that Clement had disappeared. Now to discover whether he’d aided me or would betray me.
The wall led to a gate, as Clement had promised, and the gate opened to a walkway. I followed this to Great East Street then turned my steps south, or thought I did, trying to make for the promenade that fronted the town above the sea.
My head had not yet cleared, however, and I easily grew disoriented in the dawn light. I took a wrong turn and stumbled about in the back lanes, until I begged a flower seller to tell me the way out.
With a nosegay pinned to my lapel—the price of the information—I eventually reached Bedford Row and headed west under a misting rain, my body aching with each step.
I passed the artillery battery that faced the sea and turned to the new square which held the house my wife had hired for our summer stay in Brighton.
I found the front door locked. As I leaned heavily on the doorpost, wondering whether the cook had unbolted the back way in, the door was opened with a wrench. I nearly fell inside and into Bartholomew, my valet, who’d come to see who was trying to get into the house.
The belligerent look he’d assumed for an intruder vanished to be replaced by astonishment.
“Sir?” He blinked. “Were you walking all night? We thought you’d put up at Mr. Grenville’s.”
I had no strength to answer. I pushed past him, ill and weary, needing my bed.
Before Bartholomew could close the door, there was a rush of footsteps, and Thomas Brewster charged in from the street.
“Where you been, guv?” Brewster glared at me, out of breath, his clothes mist-spotted and mud-splotched. “I’ve been scouring this town for hours looking for you. You slid off from Mr. Grenville in the park, and I lost ya in the dark. I’ve been running around since searching for ya, getting all wet in this blasted fog. Where the bloody hell did you get to?”Return to Death at Brighton Pavilion