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The Jacobite Murders
By G.M. Best
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2013 G.M. Best
All rights reserved.
THE HOUSE IN QUEEN SQUARE
As Lady Phyllis Overbury stepped out of the sedan chair it was obvious to even the most casual of observers that this latest visitor to Bath would be a welcome arrival. She was elegantly dressed in the latest fashion and striking to look at. Her aquiline nose and firm chin gave her a natural air of authority whilst her dark brown eyes sparkled with a natural vivacity and her graciously winning smile exuded good-humour and intelligence. Only the more discerning could see that her powdered wig and rouged cheeks indicated she had long lost the bloom of youth. The house before which she stood was one of eight on the south side of Queen Square that together formed one immense building with an elegant Palladian façade. As she gazed at its simple grandeur, Lady Overbury was grateful that Sir Robert Benson had offered her the house's use for the duration of her first stay in the city.
She looked with equal admiration at the houses on either side of the square. To her right were two attractive villa-like buildings and between them a beautiful house, while to her left were six more substantial homes, each with its own elaborate doorway and unique decoration. Turning around she viewed the square's central garden, which was enclosed by espaliered limes and elms and dominated by an immense seventy-foot obelisk that arose from a circular pool. Beyond this she could see the north side of the square, which contained seven even grander houses. These gave the appearance of being a single magnificent palace because their façades contained impressive Roman-style columns that supported a richly decorated entabulature. She thought that she had not seen a grander sight even in London.
Her maid, who had followed the sedan chair on foot, lacked all her mistress's glamour, but she was much younger and equally attractive in her own way. The simple clothes that protected her from the bitterly cold weather disguised her slender form but she had an undoubtedly pretty face. She had ruby-red lips, beautiful teeth, a small and slightly upturned nose and, most striking of all, engaging blue eyes that flashed beneath unusually long eyelashes. Her complexion was not of the milk-white kind but this did not matter because her glowing cheeks were surrounded by a mass of golden curls. From the animated expression on her face she was obviously as delighted as Lady Overbury to have finally arrived in Bath.
Before the maid even got near the door to knock for admittance, it opened. A middle-aged woman, who was tall and somewhat heavy in build, stepped out. She was dressed in an unfashionable but serviceable black gown. Some of the prettiness of her younger years was still evident in her features, particularly in the slope of her nose and in the line of her lips, but her heavily wrinkled forehead and face and greying hair spoke of a life that had seen more than its fair share of trouble. Ignoring the maid, she gave a subservient nod of her head to her mistress.
'Please come in, Lady Overbury,' she said. 'I hope that you have not had too difficult a journey from London. November is not at all a good month for travel. Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Agnes Grey and I am Sir Robert's housekeeper. I welcome you to Bath. It will be my pleasure to ensure that you have all you require while you stay here.'
'Thank you, Miss Grey,' replied Lady Overbury. Sir Robert had told her how indispensable this woman was to the running of his house and, looking at her, she thought she could see why. There was a firmness in her eyes and a steeliness in her manner that exuded efficiency and authority. This was clearly a woman who had not yet let life wear her down. 'I confess that it has been a long and tiring journey over the past two days,' she continued, 'not helped by the fact that unfortunately my companions in the coach were an exceptionally dull lot. Their only topic of conversation appeared to be about the likelihood of our being robbed by highwaymen and I have to say that was not conducive to a peaceful state of mind. As a consequence I slept little last night in Newbury. Today's journey was even worse. At times we made such slow progress that at one stage it must have taken a couple of hours to travel five miles. I never knew roads could be so uneven. You would think that a volcano had thrown up some sections.'
Lady Overbury and her maid followed the housekeeper inside. They found themselves standing in a large and gracious hallway with a grand oak staircase. Although both women were sorry to lose their view of the square they were more than glad to get out of the cold. The maid began to help divest her mistress of the protective clothing that she had worn throughout the coach ride while Lady Overbury continued her tale of the horrors of the journey.
'I can tell you, Miss Grey, there were times when I thought the coach was going to fly to pieces because we were so jolted about. Not surprisingly, I now ache in every bone, especially as the weather has been depressingly damp.'
'I trust, your ladyship, that the city's greeting has compensated in a small way for what you have endured in getting here,' responded the housekeeper solicitously. 'I heard the abbey bells ringing on your arrival.'
'Yes, I confess that I was impressed by that mode of welcoming us – and by the flutes and violins that serenaded us once the coach had come to a stop.'
Miss Grey smiled. 'And doubtless Mr Nash, our Master of Ceremonies, welcomed you personally?'
'I chose not to wait for his arrival. I preferred to leave my luggage at the coaching inn and come straight here in a sedan before it got too dark. He can see me tomorrow when I am feeling more refreshed.'
Lady Overbury permitted herself to be led into the house's spacious drawing room. She looked around her with pleasure at the oak floor, the brocatelle-covered walls, the fine marble fireplace, decorated ceiling, and the large window with its fashionable silk curtains decorated with motifs that depicted garlands of flowers, knots of ribbons, and fronds of leaves. A delightful couple of watercolours had replaced the unfashionable tapestries that so often darkened the rooms in other houses. She equally admired the comfortable curved sofa and matching fully upholstered wingback chairs and the graceful walnut cabriole-legged furniture. 'This is a most delightful room,' she declared.
Miss Grey acknowledged this compliment with a smile. 'I am pleased that you like it, your ladyship. I have prepared some refreshment for you and I will send Joseph Graves, our manservant, to fetch your luggage so that your maid can unpack it whilst you are eating. Unfortunately there are no other servants to assist because they are all in London with Sir Robert. I have his instructions to hire others once your ladyship decides what will be required during your stay here.'
'That is most kind of him. I should explain perhaps that my maid is new to my service and may require more guidance than would otherwise be the case. She is called Sarah Darr.'
The housekeeper cast the maid a sideways glance but in such a cool way as to establish her superior authority. 'Would you like me to show you both the rest of the house, your ladyship?' she asked.
'Yes, I think that would be most helpful.'
Miss Grey directed the guests back into the main hallway. 'On this entrance level there are two more reception rooms,' she explained. 'One is a library that doubles as a card room, and the other is a small dining room. They are spacious enough to enable you to entertain a number of guests once you have entered into the society currently here in Bath. You will find that both rooms are very cold at present, but I can light a fire in either of them whenever you wish to use one. I can assure you that they are both very snug even on the most wintry of nights.'
They entered the library first. It had one wall entirely covered by books and the others were richly lined with oak panelling, bar for the space taken up by a large stone fireplace. Against one wall was a large mahogany desk with a sloping front, whilst in the centre of the room there was a small walnut table with a hinged top and four oval saucers positioned to be at each player's left. Round this stood four walnut chairs, each bearing a distinctive scallop shell across their top. The dining room next to it was also wood-panelled but its elegant fireplace was made from a slightly rose-tinted marble and above it was a beautiful rococo mirror surrounded by gold stucco. Lady Overbury particularly liked the room's silk curtains, but the main feature of the room was its impressive walnut table and accompanying chairs with their unbroken curved lines.
'Where does that lead?' asked Lady Overbury, pointing to another door as they returned back into the hallway.
'That leads to a spiral staircase for use by the servants, your ladyship. It goes the full length of the house unlike this main staircase, which only links this floor to the two floors above. The spiral staircase descends from here down into the kitchen and all the other working rooms in the basement and it ascends upstairs not only to the main rooms on the next two levels but also to my and the other servants' living quarters at the top of the house. Any servants can thus pass up and down the building without having to be seen by you or any of your guests. You will find in every room a cord that, if pulled, will summon me, or, when she knows her way around, your maid.'
Lady Overbury approved of this fashionable feature of the house's design and then she and her maid followed Miss Grey up the main staircase. On the first floor they entered the room at the front of the house that was above the drawing room. It bore all the signs of a woman's touch – every item of furniture and every decorative object had been chosen to harmonize with each other and the crackling log fire provided a welcome warmth. Lady Overbury swept around the room, touching the fabrics, looking at the paintings, opening the mahogany wardrobe, admiring the dressing mirror that sat at the toilet table, and examining the fine four-poster bed, which had rich velvet hangings.
'This room was used by Sir Robert's wife until her untimely death,' explained the housekeeper.
Lady Overbury knew that Sir Robert had largely ceased visiting the house since that tragic event. As far as she knew, his son, Lord Kearsley, now used it. 'It's a very charming room,' she acknowledged.
'Through this door, your ladyship, there is a dressing room also for your use. It is furnished with some comfortable chairs and a walnut writing desk on which you will find writing paper and pens and ink. I assumed that you would bring a maid and, as you are the sole guest using the house, I have prepared a temporary bed in the other bedroom on this level so that she may sleep near you rather than providing her with a room in the servant's quarters. However, if you would prefer her to sleep upstairs I can easily arrange that.'
'Remain here, Darr, whilst I view what is proposed for you.' Lady Overbury entered the other bedroom. A small mattress and some sheets and blankets had been placed on the floor at one end so that the maidservant should not have to use the grand silk-covered bed that dominated the room. 'This room is unsuitable,' muttered Lady Overbury disapprovingly. 'I fear having such lavish accommodation will serve only to make any future place my maid sleeps seem like a prison cell!'
'You are the only person in residence and I think she will be much better placed to attend to your needs from here than if I provide her with a room in the servants' quarters.'
'You are most thoughtful, Miss Grey, but is there not a less elegant room for her on the next level?'
'The rooms on the floor above are similarly well furnished and Sir Robert instructed me to keep them all locked because he knew they would be surplus to your requirements.'
'Very well,' conceded Lady Overbury with a slight shrug of her shoulders, 'I suppose it will be helpful to have Darr near to me.'
Miss Grey gave her a dutiful smile. 'I am glad you see it that way, your ladyship. If you would like to return downstairs, I will prepare tea to accompany the refreshments that I have laid out for you, whilst your maid goes with Graves back to the coaching inn and identifies what luggage to bring back here.'
Shortly afterwards Lady Overbury found herself enjoying a delicious light supper cut from freshly baked pies and tartlets. The experience of Sarah Darr was not so happy. Joseph Graves undertook the task he had been given with little grace and made it obvious to the maid that he viewed her mistress's arrival as a nuisance. She was not sure how to respond, not least because she was rather disconcerted by the man's strange appearance. His large hairy hands, round shoulders and stocky build gave him an almost troll-like quality and this illusion was strengthened by a mouth that was unusually wide, a nose that was unattractively pointed, and jug-like ears that stuck out from his ruddy face. His eyes appeared sunken under eyebrows that were still jet black in sharp contrast to his hair, which was streaked with grey. Sarah was very glad indeed when, after fetching the luggage, he left her alone to unpack it.
By that stage Lady Overbury had finished eating and was sitting enjoying the comfortable warmth of the drawing room, which, now that evening had fallen, was lit with candles. Using the bell-rope, she summoned the housekeeper and was surprised at how speedily she responded. 'I have not been to Bath before, Miss Grey, and so I would be grateful if, before I go to bed, you would outline what is likely to be my daily routine while I am in residence here. I have heard much about the city from my friends and I gather that there are many activities open to visitors.'
'If your ladyship has come to improve her health by bathing in the spa waters, I would recommend that you begin your day early and go between six and seven in the morning. Many gentry choose the Cross Bath because it tends to be more socially exclusive but others still prefer to go the larger King's Bath, which is near the south-west side of the abbey. I would not recommend the Queen's Bath because it is a trifle cooler and, whilst that is all right in the summer months, it is less satisfactory at this time of year.'
'Why should I go so early?'
'Because the water is then at its cleanest, the pools having been emptied overnight and refilled. After eight o'clock the King's Bath in particular becomes much more crowded and, I regret to say, that not all who enter the water are very clean. As a consequence the water becomes murkier and less wholesome.'
'You do not make this bathing sound a very tempting experience,' Lady Overbury said drily.
The housekeeper smiled very slightly. 'Maybe not, your ladyship, but there are many who profess to the healing and beneficial qualities of the water.'
'So I have heard. They say the waters can cure anything from colic and gout to paralysis and palsy,' replied Lady Overbury in a tone that clearly indicated her disbelief. 'Perhaps I should say at once that I am not in need of the restorative powers of any of these baths. I would not wish to use them even if my health was poor. I am not convinced of their curative powers and I do not approve of mixed bathing. What therefore may I do instead?'
'Most people, your ladyship, would go to the Pump Room next to the King's Bath. There they can drink whatever number of glasses of the spa water their doctors have prescribed.'
'And I have heard that, like all good medicines, this water is foul to the taste?'
'I fear so, your ladyship,' acknowledged the housekeeper. 'It is like water that has been used to boil eggs. To take away the taste gentlemen retreat into their coffee houses where they can also read their newspapers and discuss business.'
Lady Overbury laughed and a mischievous twinkle lit up her eyes. 'It is my experience that men love to gather together in such places whether or not they have been drinking any spa waters! Where do the women go?'
'There are rooms set aside for women to converse with each other.'
'Well, I hope the talk is not simply about disorders and illnesses, or else their conversation will be duller then the men's.'
A flicker of surprise passed almost imperceptibly across Miss Grey's face at such outspoken words but she responded demurely. 'I cannot comment from experience, your ladyship, but I am sure that the conversations must sparkle with wit.'
In Lady Overbury's experience such social occasions were marked more by senseless gossip than by intelligent conversation, but she chose not to disillusion the housekeeper. Instead she asked, 'And what next?'
'Then it is time for breakfast. When they first arrive visitors often eat in their lodgings – and I will certainly prepare a breakfast for you here tomorrow morning – but anyone of quality, like your ladyship, is soon invited to one or more of the public breakfasts organized by the wealthy and more fashionable.'
'I hope they are not too extravagant?'
Excerpted from The Jacobite Murders by G.M. Best. Copyright © 2013 G.M. Best. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The House In Queen Square,
2 Fielding And Friends,
3 Enter Beau Nash,
4 The Mysterious Intruder,
5 A Visit To Prior Park,
6 A Third Murder Attempted,
7 Dead In The Water,
8 The Agent Provocateur,
9 A Secret Uncovered,
10 Jacob's Ladder,
11 Resolving a Mystery,
12 The Traitor Revealed,
13 The Beggar's Opera,
14 The Identity Of The Accomplice,
15 The Ride North,
16 The Council Meeting,
By the Same Author,