One morning before dawn in the stables of her country estate, Lady Truelove meets a violent death in an encounter with a dangerous horse. Classified as “death by misadventure,” this appears a gruesome accident. But Scotland Yard Detective Joe Sandilands suspects foul play—a misgiving he is struggling to separate from his personal grievances toward Sir James Truelove, who is Lady Truelove’s widower and the influential academic patron of Dorcas Joliffe, whom Joe one day hopes to marry.
Joe enlists old friend and former constable Lily Wentworth to trail James, and finds an ally in a fellow police officer familiar with the Truelove estate. But as the investigation yields surprising secrets about one of England’s most powerful families, Joe discovers how little he knows about not only the gilded lives of the moneyed, but also his relationship with Dorcas. Is Joe prepared to risk a future with the girl he loves to uncover the truth behind Lady Truelove’s death?
About the Author
Barbara Cleverly was born in the north of England and is a graduate of Durham University. A former teacher, she lives in Cambridge. She is the author of twelve books in the Joe Sandilands series, including The Last Kashmiri Rose, Strange Images of Death, The Blood Royal, Not My Blood, A Spider in the Cup, and Diana’s Altar.
Read an Excerpt
England. April 1933.
“Gingerbread? You’re sure it was gingerbread she asked for, Gracie?”
The odd request was the very last thing a housekeeper wanted to hear at this moment. Mrs. Bolton stood in the centre of the heaving kitchen overseeing her troops with a discipline firm enough to have impressed the Duke of Wellington himself. But, ever alert, the Iron Duke would, like her, have had his attention snagged by an unexpected detail.
“Don’t run!” Mrs. Bolton swept a teetering pile of dirty dishes from the hands of an exhausted fourteen-year-old kitchen maid, straightened them, waited until the girl was steady on her feet again and then handed them back. “Put these in the sink and go upstairs to bed, there’s a good girl. You’ve done well tonight, Elsie.” She turned her attention back to her ladyship’s maid. “Now, Grace. You see how we’re fixed. It’s half past eleven. Twelve sat down to dinner. Twelve have to be cleared up after. That’s before we start setting for breakfast. And you come swanning in here telling me her ladyship wants gingerbread served with her bedtime cocoa?”
The two women exchanged glances. They were getting dangerously near to implying criticism of the mistress. The other servants were bustling a little less noisily. Mrs. Bolton sensed that ears were being cocked in her direction and she finished diplomatically: “You must have misheard, Gracie. She doesn’t eat gingerbread. Take her a slice of nice plain Victoria sponge if she’s still hungry. Can’t see why she would be—she cleared her plates as usual and had a second helping of Pavlova pudding.”
Grace smiled and shook her head. “No, no, Mrs. Bolton. She was very particular. Just tell me if you’ve got gingerbread in the pantry and I’ll do the tray myself. I won’t get in your way.”
Mrs. Bolton led her over to the larder. “If you’re sure then. But I warn you—the mistress can’t abide anything spicy.”
“Ah . . . women can change their minds sometimes, you know. And their fancies,” Grace confided. “For undisclosed reasons.”
“Oh, ho! So that’s how it is!” Rolling eyes and a quick intake of breath indicated that enlightenment had struck the housekeeper. “It’s true then, the murmurings I’ve heard? Well I never! You and she have kept that one dark, Gracie! I doubt even the master knows his good news. Is that so?”
“Shh! I’ve no idea what you’re on about Mrs. B. We don’t want to spread silly rumours do we? Now if you’ll . . .?”
“You’ll find some in the Jubilee biscuit tin behind the pantry door. I keep it for the servants’ tea. It’s a bit stale, but if I’m guessing right and this is by way of being a craving, she probably won’t notice. I’ve known fancies for stranger things than stale gingerbread at midnight. Oh, and by the way . . .” Mrs. Bolton wiped all expression from her face as she added, “Bearing all in mind . . . she might like to hear that the master has retired to the snooker room with Master Alexander and the other gentlemen and two bottles of his best Napoleon brandy. It looks like being a long session. She should have an untroubled evening.”
“Just for once, she’ll be glad of that,” Grace replied, winking.
The housekeeper smiled. Grace Aldred was always quick on the uptake and discreet with it. The very best lady’s maid you could hope for. Mrs. Bolton thanked her lucky stars for Gracie, who covered as best she could for the inadequacies of a not universally popular mistress. Her ladyship couldn’t always—in fact, couldn’t often—be depended on to make good decisions, but in this case she’d done the right thing in offering the delicate and demanding post to what you might call a “home-grown” girl off the estate. Not like the personal attendants the lady guests had brought with them for this house party weekend. A heap of trouble they were! Demanding fusspots, hating each other, hating being cooped up together in the country in unseasonably Arctic conditions. Unlike their ladies who, for the most part, were as good as gold and content to gossip in corners over their embroidery.
Except for the fifth female guest. The one who’d arrived late. She’d turned up by taxi all the way from Cambridge, if you please. Gadding about the country like some Zuleika Dobson! Who on earth was she? No one seemed to know.
“No friend of the mistress, that little Miss Mystery,” the footman had reported knowingly when called on to shed some light on the problem at the end of dinner. Leaning close to ladle out the soup, the footmen were always the first to assess relationships and get a breath of scandal. “You’re wrong about that, Mrs. Bolton. At each other’s throats through the last four courses, they were! All her ladyship’s fault—you know what she’s like. Did her best to bomb the poor little person out of her trench. But when she finally managed it between the sole and the cutlets, she wished she hadn’t! Got as good as she gave! Better! But watch out—you wouldn’t want to get caught between those two. Trouble! With a bit of luck, the lassie will pack her traps and buzz off back to Cambridge before we get to the hair-tugging and eye-scratching.”
A puzzle. A young, unrelated, single girl of undeniable attractions could not possibly be here as a guest of the master, and yet she appeared to be at daggers drawn with the mistress. Most unusually, the young woman had turned up unaccompanied by male escort or lady’s maid. When Mrs. Bolton had offered the services of young Rosie to do the necessary, she’d declined them. Oh, politely enough—there was nothing wrong with her manners—but had there been a touch of supercilious indulgence in her tone as she’d added, “I can tie my own shoelaces and brush my own hair, thank you”? She’d shaken her over-short London haircut and laughed. Mrs. Bolton marked her down as something of a renegade. One of those Bright Young Things. Even the Bloomsbury set when they visited—and they were odd enough—at least brought their maids with them. Maids! Their girls were not required to wear cap and apron, and expected to be called by their Christian names. And those would be borrowed from some Greek goddess, like as not. All that nonsense set a bad enough example, but this latest guest, trailing an atmosphere of unease and defiance in her wake, looked even more disruptive, Mrs. Bolton calculated. A Modern Miss. Independent. Might even be a Socialist. She’d bear watching.
Enid Bolton sighed. Three French maids, two warring women and one bemused housekeeper to keep the peace. Tin hats on, she reckoned, should be the order of the day.
“Did you get it? You did? Good girl! Let me see.” The voice was bubbling with eagerness and laughter. Grace’s mistress, sitting in silken pyjamas at her dressing table, put down her hairbrush and examined the contents of the supper tray. She tilted her nose in exaggerated scorn at the square of brown, spongey cake. “So that’s gingerbread. Are you supposed to eat it or bathe with it? I’ll take the cocoa, thank you, but this offering you can put over there on the table by the window. That shall be our laboratory, our home pharmacy. I want you to do the mixing—I can’t be doing with the stinks. Spices always make me sneeze. Now, let’s check we have all the ingredients.”
Grace unlocked a drawer of the bureau and took out four small blue packets bearing the label of the local pharmacy. Her mistress took a crumpled scrap of paper from her jewel box, smoothed it flat and, putting on a country accent, read out the four items scrawled on it. The affected voice was meant to convey the roughness of the handwriting done in indelible pencil: “Rose Mary, Finnigrig, Sinnimun, Oil of Cummin.” She handed it to Grace for inspection.
“All present and correct, ma’am, though the chemist spelled some of them differently,” Grace commented and put it away in her pocket.
“Right-oh. Now you have to mix them all into a paste and spread it over the piece of cake.”
“But they’re mostly powders, ma’am.” Grace said, peering into the packets. “How’m I supposed to make a paste?”
“Oh, don’t be such a weed! Think of something!”
Grace looked about her. “Your cocoa, ma’am? If there’s a drop left in the bottom of the cup . . . It’ll add to the flavour.”
“Of course! Here, take it. Why don’t you combine all the ingredients in the cup? There, that’s the way. Urgh! How simply ghastly!” Her ladyship held a handkerchief to her nose. “What was that you just put in?”
“That’ll be the cumin. Smells worse than a pigman’s old socks. This fenugreek isn’t much better. Took me ages to get it out of the chemist. Old Morrison pretended not to know what I was on about when I asked for ‘finnigrig’ as it says on your list. ‘It’s a mite special,’ he says, ‘and not for putting about the place.’ And what did I need it for anyway? he wanted to know. He’s a suspicious old cove! I told him cook had requested it to make a curry. Indian gentleman expected at the house next week. That shut him up.”
“You think of everything, Grace. Now mix it all up.”
“Yes, ma’am. Anything else you’d like me to slip in there while I’m at it? ‘Eye of newt? Toe of bat? Adder’s fork?’ . . . How does it go?”
This was greeted with a shriek of laughter. “That’s ‘toe of frog,’ I think you’ll find. And, no, I shan’t be needing any of that rubbish. Not when I’m in possession of bone of toad! That’s the real stuff! Here, Grace, I want you to stir the mixture with this. Careful now! It’s precious! I’m not sure how strong it is. It looks a bit ancient to me. And I’ve sworn to give it back to its owner again in one piece.” She took from amongst the silver toiletry implements on her dressing table tray a three-inch-long piece of bone, the colour of old ivory and forked like a chicken’s wishbone. She handed it to her maid, who took it with a shudder of distaste and stirred the mixture gently with it.
“Now, set the bone to one side to dry out and check in the morning that I’ve got it safely hidden away in my left pocket. It has to be the left because that’s the side the Devil favours or some such rot. The bone’s the important bit of the magic. Absolutely crucial! Nothing works without it.”
Grace dropped it onto the supper tray, turned her back on her mistress and made the sign of the cross over her chest. “Didn’t much care for the feel of that old toad bone in my hand, madam. Cold and soapy. It fair gave me the creeps.” Her voice was pitched unnaturally high with the strain of daring to disagree with her mistress. “Not sure we ought to be fiddling about with magic. It could all turn nasty.”
“Nonsense! Untested magic I would have no truck with, but I’ve seen this work with my own eyes. Magic? It’s practically science! I have my information and instruction from the very best practitioner. Neither of us must breathe a word, though, or we’ll have the clod-hopping peasantry of this whole benighted county vowing vengeance. Mum’s the word, Grace!”
Grace bit her lip and bobbed to show her understanding. Her city-bred mistress forgot—or didn’t care—that her maid was of Suffolk stock herself. She tinkered about for a few minutes more, the homely activity of spreading and slicing the gingerbread calming her. She began rather to enjoy herself, like a child at a dollies’ tea party. “There, that’s all done. It’s neat and in a hand-sized lump, but it’s a bit sticky. I’ll put it into one of these empty chemist’s bags so it won’t spoil the inside of your pocket.”
“Thank you, my dear. Put it away in the closet for the night, will you, and spray my pillows with rosewater. Then you may retire. It’s almost midnight! Leave the door unlocked so that you can come straight in without knocking in the morning. We don’t want to wake the whole house. Just be sure to wake me well before dawn.”
Night-time showers had left the ground sodden, and Grace was glad she’d had the forethought to search out a pair of gumboots in her mistress’s size in view of her destination. It was quite a hike down to the Home Farm, and at crack of dawn on a misty April morning, the stables were likely to be a bit nasty underfoot. The wind had turned at last, sending rainclouds racing away in tatters, and a slash of pink on the eastern horizon promised a fine fresh morning. In the darkness, Grace could only just make out her ladyship, but she could hear her clearly enough and cringed as she heard her hailing the two stable-boy escorts in her hunting-field voice. She was wearing a sensible riding outfit over which she’d flung a baggy waterproof cape with two large pockets.
The lads, blinking and bleary, answered up shyly, assuring her that all was ready. She turned with a triumphant smile, patted each pocket in a pantomime of exaggerated care for Grace’s benefit and gave a playful farewell flourish of her riding crop.
Grace, from the back doorstep, watched her mistress march off into the morning mist to perform her magic. The maid’s body twitched as training did battle with instinct; dutiful obedience helped her to fight back an almost uncontrollable urge to chase after her and somehow find the words that would persuade her to give up her mad scheme. Resentment and anger flared, and thoughts beginning with, “Serve her right if . . .” had to be quickly censored. The woman had no idea what she was dealing with, the danger she was running into. Grace had done her best. She’d always had her doubts but, this time, she’d taken advice from one who would know and acted on it. It wouldn’t be the first time the maid had deflected harm and criticism from the mistress and always without acknowledgement, let alone thanks.
A last flurry of rain came from nowhere to slap her face with cold reproof, and she hurried back inside to seek out warmth and companionship in the kitchen.
The horses were already awake, stamping and neighing gently, listening for the sounds of their grooms. The horsemen were as regular as clockwork and would be here to feed them their first bait of the day at five o’clock. The two lads collected gear from the tack room as they’d been told to and presented themselves, ready to harness the horse their mistress had picked out. She led them past the lines of saddle horses and through to the farthest corner of the cobbled stable yard where the farm horses were billeted. Eight magnificent Suffolk Punches, the pride of the Home Farm, held court here. Four matched pairs—expensively matched, all being of the coveted bright chestnut colour—would, by seven, be fed, brushed, harnessed up and turning out to work the fields.
The men were behind by a full week with harrowing the winter wheat, waiting for the chill east wind to stop scything in over the North Sea from Russia. The heavy horses too had had enough of this long winter. They had sensed the change in the wind and, raring to go, stepped up to their half-gates. Sleek, noble heads peered out, red-gold with intelligent eyes, welcoming the sounds of humans in the yard with a gentle whickering. The boys had grown up with these animals. They knew them as well as they knew their brothers and sisters. They started to count the familiar faces: Boxer, Scot, Jolly, Joker, William, and the two mares Blossom and Gypsy. Seven heads. The lads exchanged glances full of foreboding.
Number eight was refusing to show himself.
Her ladyship stopped in front of the last stall in the line. She held up a hand, and the little procession came to a halt.
They’d been praying that something or someone would intervene before she got this far, but here she was, only inches now from the Devil himself and half an hour to go before the horsemen came whistling down to work. The moment had come and the boys, brothers Sam and Tom Flowerdew, stood ashen-faced, twitching with a fear they were unable to express. They would normally not have ventured to say a word to their mistress on any subject and, if addressed directly, would have reddened and stumbled over their answer. Even so, pushed beyond the limits of reticence, the older of the two, Sam, burst out: “Beggin’ your pardon, missis, but ’es a right terror, that ’oss! ’Es new. Master not long bought ’un. We nivver so much as got a halter on ’im. ’E done for ’is leader, owd Jonas! Bit ’is ’and clear off to ’is elbow.”
“Terrible great yeller teeth ’e ’as!” Tom breathed in support of his brother.
“Then ’e put Reuben in ’orspital. Don’t you go near, missis!” Sam finished and fell silent.
This was the longest speech he’d ever made in his life, and he was horrified by his own boldness. The lady was well known in the county for her horsemanship. She was a fearless rider to hounds. No horse under her was ever known to refuse a fence, and all returned from the field in a lather of exhaustion. Just like her poor old husband, they joked in the village pub when they’d had one too many of Martha’s ales. Sam had gone too far, and now she’d probably sack him and his little brother for impertinence. Would her anger extend to their father? The old fellow held a tied cottage on the estate. It went with his job on the land, and if he lost it, they’d all starve. They remembered what had happened to old Walter’s widow and her kids when she’d crossed her ladyship. The old bat had waited until the Master was away, then thrown the family out without notice.
But the lady didn’t seem to have retribution on her mind this morning. She was glowing with confidence, putting on a show, you might say, and the boys were her puzzled audience.
“Enough of that defeatist talk, you two! Jonas and Reuben clearly didn’t come properly prepared. Now, get behind me if you’re nervous. All you have to do is stand ready to put his harness on when I’ve finished speaking to him. What’s his name?”
“We call ’im Lucy, missis.”
“Lucy? I understood the new horse to be a stallion?”
“’Es that all right. Got all ’is bits and pieces. It’s short for . . . Lucifer.” He muttered the name under his breath. “But ’e don’t answer to it, ’cos we don’t say it out loud—it’d be like calling up . . . you-know-who, missis. We dussn’t go near. We ’as to lower ’is fodder and drink through the roof. Until the vet come with ’is gret big gun. Due tommorrer, Mr. Hartest is.”
“Well, Mr. Hartest and his great gun will find their services are no longer required. I want you to watch carefully what I’m about to do. In a few minutes we will have the head halter on him and he’ll be stepping out following me like a poodle on a lead. I intend to take him for a little promenade right up to the front door of the Hall to parade him for my husband and his guests. Such ones as are gathered at the breakfast table.” Lavinia peered at her wristwatch. “Good. We’re slightly ahead of ourselves. That will give me and Lucifer time to get acquainted. The gentlemen will soon be coming down to breakfast—there’s to be a shoot later on this morning.” She gave a laugh tinkling with good humour. “You boys will be the first to witness a Lady charming the Devil. You have my permission to pass the story round the village. In fact, I insist that you do—none of your usual Suffolky bashfulness! Ready? Then draw back the bolts, stand clear and prepare to be amazed.”
The boys shot the bolts and hurried to obey the second command. They watched from behind the corn hutch as their mistress patted her left pocket, then fumbled about and extracted something from her right. Holding out what they took to be an offering for the horse, she moved confidently forward, cooing, “Come on, Lucifer my beauty! See what a treat I have for you . . . Oh, don’t be shy . . . I won’t hurt you . . . Here, take it . . .”
The expected furious charge forward with pounding hooves and snapping teeth did not occur. For once, the horse hung back in his stall. Snorting and clattering, he appeared, if anything, to be moving backwards to avoid the cooing advance.
The boys flinched on hearing a shriek of protest as piercing as the unearthly screams you heard on butchering days round the back of the knacker’s yard at the end of the village. But their mistress paid no heed to the stallion’s distress and took another step forward, thrusting her hand towards his flaring nostrils. From the depths of the stall came the flash of eyes rolling in fear, a neck arched aggressively, ears flattened to the skull, the huge head stretched out parallel to the ground. The whole fury of the one-ton, seventeen-hand body seemed to be channelled through the bared and vicious teeth from which foam dripped in gobbets.
Tom began to sob. Sam put a protective arm round his brother’s thin shoulders and called out a last desperate warning.
A further harrowing scream followed, human this time, and the scream ended abruptly in a gurgle. The stallion appeared at the door of his stall, wild-eyed, the body of his mistress clamped by the neck between yellow teeth that opened a source for the runnels of blood and froth coursing down the folds of her cape. He shook her once, twice, as a terrier shakes the life out of a rat at the harvest hunt, and dropped her onto the wet cobbles. For good measure, two massive, iron-shod feet reared up and smashed down on the already lifeless form.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sandiland, fascinating study.
I LOVE the Joe Sandilands series and I was so excited when I saw this new installment. Joe is dashing, funny, and extremely clever. They are an entertaining read for anyone who enjoys a good mystery. I am an avid Agatha Christie reader, but these books are right up there with her books. Barbara Cleverly is a talented writer, and I hope she continues!! This book is mostly about Joe being an Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard. He has a run-in with a politician that not only threatens his job, but the relationship with the woman he loves. If you enjoy a great mystery, check this one out!!
Barbara Cleverly's Sandilands books just get better with each new book. This is one that even if you haven't read all of the series you will enjoy. It will cause you to have to read all of them however.
I have always enjoyed the Joe Sandilands series, but this latest novel misses the point. The book rests its case on too much dialogue that sounds like uneducated dribble. I finished the book with very little sense of the area or the people. The bright star of the novel becomes an insignificant character, the vet Adelaide. Will Joe pursue this highly intelligent and fetching vet and leave Dorcas? Adelaide explains to Joe that he needs to step away from Dorcas and if interested in Dorcas to court her as a new woman and not as the young girl he met so long ago.
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