Lady of Ashes (Lady of Ashes Series #1)by Christine Trent
Only a woman with an iron backbone could succeed as an undertaker in Victorian London, but Violet Morgan takes great pride in her trade. While her husband, Graham, is preoccupied with elevating their station in society, Violet is cultivating a sterling reputation for Morgan Undertaking. She is empathetic, well-versed in funeral fashions, and comfortable with… See more details below
Only a woman with an iron backbone could succeed as an undertaker in Victorian London, but Violet Morgan takes great pride in her trade. While her husband, Graham, is preoccupied with elevating their station in society, Violet is cultivating a sterling reputation for Morgan Undertaking. She is empathetic, well-versed in funeral fashions, and comfortable with death's role in lifeuntil its chilling rattle comes knocking on her own front door.
Violet's peculiar but happy life soon begins to unravel as Graham becomes obsessed with his own demons and all but abandons her as he plans a vengeful scheme. And the solace she's always found in her work evaporates like a departing soul when she suspects that some of the deceased she's dressed have been murdered. When Graham's plotting leads to his disappearance, Violet takes full control of the business and is commissioned for an undertaking of royal proportions. But she's certain there's a killer lurking in the London fog, and the next funeral may be her own.
Equal parts courage, compassion, and intrigue, Christine Trent tells an unrestrained tale of love and loss in the rigidly decorous world of Victorian society.
Praise for the novels of Christine Trent
"Genuinely engrossing. . .with a rare Regency heroine who loves her work and does it well." Publishers Weekly on By the King's Design
"Exuberant, sparkling, beguiling. . .brims with Dickensian gusto!" Barbara Kyle, author of The Queen's Lady on The Queen's Dollmaker
"Winningly original. . .glittering with atmospheric detail!" Leslie Carroll, author of Royal Affairs on The Queen's Dollmaker
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LADY OF ASHES
By CHRISTINE TRENT
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Christine Trent
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the midst of life we are in death. —The Book of Common Prayer (1662)
London May 1861
Violet Morgan often wondered why she was so skilled at dressing a corpse, yet was embarrassingly incompetent in the simplest household task, such as selecting draperies or hiring housemaids.
If only they hadn't moved to fancier lodgings in a more elegant section of London, she wouldn't be burdened with having to learn a myriad of rules for keeping a proper home. Surely her domestic mismanagement was the source of her husband's current displeasure. How else could Graham have become so morose and embittered these past few months? Surely it wasn't the hot weather, which had never before made him so bilious.
Violet picked through her tray of mourning brooches, organizing them neatly for the next customer who wished to make a purchase. She slid the tray of pins into the display case and reached for the pile of papers Graham must have carelessly thrown on top of it. She sorted through the mix of invoices, newspapers, and advertising leaflets. A recent copy of The Illustrated London News caught her eye. Graham had circled headlines regarding events in the United States and scribbled in his own comments beside them. Her husband was avidly following current events transpiring across the Atlantic, hoping for destruction on both sides of the U.S. conflict.
One article opined on the expected duration of the conflict raging there. The Americans had recently engaged in hostilities, after years of Southern states bickering with those in the North. Since last month's first firing of shots at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, much taunting and posturing had occurred. How the citizens of the United States enjoyed fighting. Each side boasted the skirmish would last just a few months, and self-proclaimed experts declared that all the blood to be spilled in the contest could be contained in a single thimble, or wiped up by one handkerchief.
The newspaper agreed, but Violet felt that was foolish optimism. England's own civil war had gone on for almost a decade and nearly destroyed the country.
And to what end? The Roundheads eliminated the monarchy with the beheading of Charles I in 1649, and by 1660 the monarchy was back with his son, Charles II. Nothing changed, but thousands of lives lost and a king beheaded. Surely the Americans would end up with a fallen leader, too.
Another article, which Graham had not only circled, but drawn brackets around, focused on the South's hunger for recognition. During the past couple of months, the Southern states had pressed Britain to recognize their burgeoning nation. The poor fools thought they had Britain in a state of helplessness because they controlled much of the world's cotton, so necessary for England's cloth mills. They didn't realize that England had been storing cotton for some time and was flush with it. What the country did need was wheat.
Wheat was produced by the Northern states.
The crafty British politicians, though, were willing to host a confederate delegation in London and let it press its suit for diplomatic recognition, thus not publicly rejecting the South in case it should win the war.
Violet sighed as she separated the pile of papers into related stacks before removing another tray to straighten, this one full of glass-domed mourning brooches. Buyers could weave the hair of the deceased into a fanciful pattern and place it under the glass to create an everlasting keepsake to be pinned to one's breast.
To think of all those American soldiers who would die ignominious deaths, heaped into mass graves, without the distinction of a proper funeral and burial. How could her husband, a man whose profession was to bring dignity to death, wish for mass slaughter?
She replaced the second tray. The display case looked much better now that it was tidied up inside and out. She moved over to the linen closet, its door discreetly hidden in the wallpaper at the back of the room. Inside were shelves stacked with bolts of black crape for draping over windows, black Chantilly lace for mourning shawls, and fine cambric cotton for winding sheets. Except the cambric had all tumbled to the ground in a heap. How had that happened?
"Graham?" she called out. "Did you let our cambric fall to the floor?" Only when there were no customers at Morgan Undertaking would she dare raise her voice above the gentlest of tones.
"For what reason would I have done that? Maybe Will was the sloppy one going through it," he replied from the shop's reception area.
Perhaps, but Will was usually as careful as Violet.
Violet glanced at the mantel clock over the fireplace. Nearly ten o'clock in the morning, time to visit the Stanley family. She gathered up her cavernous undertaker's bag, filled with embalming fluids, tinted skin creams, cutting tools, syringes, fabric swatches, and her book of compiled drawings of coffins, mourning fashions, flowers, and memorial stones. Going to the display case, she pulled out a selection of mourning jewelry and added the pieces to her bag.
Violet lifted her undertaker's hat from its stand and tied the sash under her chin. The extra-long, flowing tails of black crape wrapped around the hat's crown were a symbol of her trade. Graham wore his own hat adorned with black crape when meeting with customers, as well. She peered into a mirror she kept next to the hat stand, pinched her cheeks to bring some color into them, and tucked an errant strand of hair under the brim of her hat before putting on black gloves. In his more jovial days, Graham used to tease her that one day he'd be rich because he'd cut off and sell her long hair, which he deemed the color of newly minted bronze ha'pennies and of even more value in its beauty.
With a quick farewell to her husband, she left the premises and boarded a horse-drawn green omnibus for Belgravia. Graham always insisted that they hire private cabs for transport to meetings with grieving families, contending it was more representative of the Morgans' socially elevated state, but Violet was still uncomfortable with their new entry into higher circles and usually ignored his demand. She wasn't quite sure their income supported the luxuries Graham contended were their due. The omnibus, London's horse-drawn public transport, cost a mere threepence to travel to most places through central London, and only sixpence to travel farther out.
She exited the omnibus a few blocks from the address she had been given, and walked the rest of the way.
The Stanleys lived in an up-and-coming neighborhood on the outer edges of Belgravia, an area known for its wealthy—and usually aristocratic—residents. The Stanleys' townhome wasn't quite as stately as the residences nearby, being situated in a long row of recently built units that reflected the current construction craze in London.
Nevertheless, this district was a few steps up from the London locale where she and Graham had settled after inheriting his father's undertaking shop. Graham's ambition was eventually to move to Mayfair, maybe even Park Lane, yet Violet was just as happy in their Grafton Terrace townhome in Kentish Town, a very respectable area north of Regent's Park.
Mostly respectable, anyway. They did have odd neighbors, Karl and Jenny Marx, who named all of their daughters after Jenny. Mr. Marx seemed to have no occupation other than writing letters and essays every day, sometimes under the name "A. Williams." There was also neighborhood gossip that Mr. Marx, or Williams, had fathered a child with his housekeeper, but Violet stayed out of such tittle-tattle. She lived in a pleasant area and had no desire to stir up anything ugly.
There was no black crape festooned under the windows and above the doors of the Stanley residence. Violet made a mental note of it as she pressed the "Visitors" bell. Some debate existed as to whether or not an undertaker should be using the "Servants" bell, but in Violet's opinion, anyone assisting the family with a proper departure from their earthly existence was certainly entitled the rank of Visitor.
A maid with swollen eyes and dressed in black opened the door. Immediately recognizing who Violet must be by her garb and large black bag, the young woman silently led Violet to the front parlor and closed the door before going to seek out her mistress.
The Stanleys were far wealthier than she and Graham were. A new grand piano, polished within an inch of its ivory-keyed life, stood prominently in one corner as a testament to fashion. The windows were draped in three separate layers of material, a sign that the Stanleys took current trends very seriously. Multiple linings were expensive, but kept out the dirt, heat, and noise from the street. The papered walls proudly displayed paintings and bric-a-brac, while the wood floors were covered with bright, intricately designed carpets. Violet's own attempts at interior decoration fell far short of the Stanleys' remarkable expressions of taste.
Here was a family that would demand a funeral of nearly aristocratic proportions.
The same maid opened the door to the room again, and a middle-aged woman, haggard beyond her years and dressed head-to-toe in black, entered. Violet nodded solemnly.
The other woman spoke first. "Mrs. Morgan? I'm Adelaide Stanley. Thank you for coming to attend to my Edward." The woman brought an extravagantly laced handkerchief to her eyes. "I can hardly believe he's gone. Such a good husband he was. I don't know how we'll manage." Mrs. Stanley twisted the soaked handkerchief in her hands.
"God finds a way to help us manage," Violet said, pulling a spare cloth from her sleeve and discreetly handing it to the woman, who accepted it with a fresh flow of tears. "Where is Mr. Stanley?"
"Upstairs in his bedroom. So calm and peaceful he was when he passed. Like an angel, despite the torture he endured from pneumonia. Do you wish to see him now?"
Violet considered. Mrs. Stanley was truly grieving, but was relatively composed, unlike some of the hysterical relatives Violet usually encountered, so it might be best to address practical matters first in case her customer should later collapse.
"Why don't we discuss Mr. Stanley's ceremony first?" she suggested.
"Of course, as you wish." Mrs. Stanley rang a bell and gave instructions for tea to another maid who appeared, dressed much like the first one. Violet and her customer sat in deeply plushed, heavily carved chairs and chatted innocuously until the maid returned. After steaming cups had been poured, the maid withdrew, and Violet pressed into the delicacy of arranging a proper funeral.
"I saw immediately upon approaching your elegant front door that Mr. Stanley was a man of some importance, is that not so?"
"Indeed. Edward made us quite comfortable through investment in the London and Birmingham rail line back in the forties. Once it merged with Grand Junction and the Manchester and Birmingham Railways, well, Edward had proven himself to be a very astute investor. He had many influential friends."
"Quite so. And this parlor tells me you are a woman of impeccable taste. Your extensive blue-and-white china collection is to be commended."
Mrs. Stanley was no longer crying. "You are kind to notice, Mrs. Morgan. Mr. Stanley and I strove to present the right sort of furnishings befitting our station. The china is all antique, you know, none of those newly manufactured pieces that have become so popular with the masses."
Violet shifted uncomfortably in her chair. Graham had ordered several new imported blue-and-white vases and jardinières to ornament their home.
"Of course," she replied, removing her gloves and opening her bag, which lay at her feet. "Mr. Stanley wasn't part of a burial club, was he?" Violet withdrew her undertaker's book.
"My, no. We never expected him to go so soon. We never had any thought of it."
"Actually, I applaud the fact that you never did this. Many burial clubs are operated by unscrupulous undertakers who tell grieving widows that they cannot pay out the money until the club's committee meets in three months' time. Naturally, since the burial must be completed quickly, she cannot wait, and the undertaker offers to loan her the money, and charges an exorbitant sum for the funeral.
"My husband and I would never engage in such a practice. I'm simply relieved that we don't have to try to wrest your money from such a club. You and Mr. Stanley were very wise not to have been deceived by one of these dishonest groups."
Violet reached over and patted Mrs. Stanley's hand, and received a grateful smile in return. She continued. "There is much you can do to ensure Mr. Stanley's status is properly recognized at his funeral. Let me show you." Laying the book open in her lap so that Mrs. Stanley could see it, Violet flipped through sections marked "Poor," "Working Class," and "Tradesman," stopping just short of "Titled" to the section marked "Society."
"Most people of your position opt for a hearse with two pairs of horses, two mourning coaches each with pairs, nineteen plumes of ostrich feathers as well as velvet coverings for the horses, eleven men as pages, coachmen with truncheons and wands, and an attendant wearing a silk hatband."
Mrs. Stanley's eyes grew wide. "Oh my. Is all of that necessary?"
Violet flipped backward in the book to the section marked "Tradesman." "Please be assured, we can assist you at a variety of levels. We could pare down to a hearse with a pair and just one mourning coach, and reduce the mourning company to just eight pages and coachmen."
"And that is the standard for what those in the trades do?"
"Yes, madam. For a tradesman such as a railway officer or a solicitor. The cost of such a funeral is around fourteen pounds sterling."
Mrs. Stanley frowned. "And for the other one? With all of the horses and mourners?"
"A bit more, at twenty-three pounds, ten shillings."
"I see. That is certainly well within our abilities. It wouldn't do for my husband to have a funeral that wasn't worthy of him."
"Tell me, what sort of cof—resting place—would my husband have?"
"An exceptional one, made of inch-thick elm, covered in black and lined with fine, ruffled cambric; a wool bed mattress; and the finest brass and lead fittings on the coffin. Its quality would be nearly that of an aristocrat's. See here." Violet flipped to a page containing a line drawing representing the coffin she was suggesting.
Mrs. Stanley nodded. "A beautiful resting place for my Edward."
"Very elegant, I agree. Now, Mrs. Stanley, do the Stanleys have a plot or mausoleum?"
"His family is at Kensal Green."
"Perfect. A lovely garden cemetery." It truly was. It had attracted many prestigious families and even some royalty. Augustus Frederick, the Duke of Sussex, as well as Princess Sophia, uncle and aunt to Queen Victoria, were both buried there. The princess rested in a magnificent sarcophagus.
"But they're in the crypt under the chapel. We never thought about purchasing a mausoleum in a better section. We never imagined anything would happen to him," Mrs. Stanley said in explanation for why the newly wealthy Stanleys were not in a more exclusive part of the cemetery.
"Please don't fret over it, Mrs. Stanley. Take your time purchasing a location and we can move your husband later."
Violet steeled herself for the next question she must ask. "Mrs. Stanley, tell me, do you wish to have your husband embalmed?"
The look of horror that passed over Mrs. Stanley's face was a familiar sight. "Heavens me, no! What an un-Christian-like thing to suggest," the widow said, a hand across her heart.
"My apologies, I have no wish to offend. It's just that Mr. Stanley would be ... available ... longer if he was embalmed, and you could therefore have more visitors."
Violet hardly had the words out of her mouth before Mrs. Stanley was emphatically shaking her head. "Absolutely not. My husband will be buried naturally, as all respectable people are."
Embalming was a new concept in England. Although the practice had been around for centuries, with the ancient Egyptians routinely employing it as one of their many types of funeral practices, it had been mostly limited to royalty in Europe, and even then not frequently. The Americans whom Graham despised so much were already making use of it for their battlefield dead, and the French had written extensively on the merits of the practice, but, thus far, Morgan Undertaking had only performed it on a handful of corpses. Most people were still suspicious of doing something so unnatural to a body that would shortly be committed to the ground.
Violet, in particular, ran into difficulties with families who found it unseemly that a woman would be desecrating a newly deceased person by making cuts, draining blood, and injecting fluids to prolong the freshness of the corpse. Putrefaction typically started within twenty-four hours of death, requiring profusions of flowers and candles around the coffin during visitation, as well as a quick interment.
Excerpted from LADY OF ASHES by CHRISTINE TRENT Copyright © 2013 by Christine Trent. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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