I stopped by B.P. Charles and Co., Stationers, to buy some ink, when the heavens opened, letting out a downpour unprecedented in the history of London.
Oh, very well, it was an ordinary shower, but I write for the Teatime Tattler, so I’m accustomed to exaggerating—to making the best better and worst even worse. While I waited out the rain, I began to write my gossip column:
It has come to our attention that the Countess of Medway, fondly known amongst the ton (and, I dare say, amongst Britons as a whole) as the Perfect Aristocrat, finds herself faced with a dilemma.
A guffaw startled me, and I knocked the inkpot flying. I clapped a hand to my bosom, as Mr. McBrae, who does etchings for Mr. Charles, set the inkpot down.
“What a piece of nonsense!” He gestured at my deathless prose, still laughing.
“A trifle exaggerated,” I said, “but Lady Medway is as near perfection as makes no odds.”
He snorted. “Only if you define the perfect aristocrat as rude, ignorant, domineering, and utterly convinced of her superiority.”
I haven’t met her ladyship, but I expect Mr. McBrae has, as he has friends in high places. However, the Tattler can’t afford to offend her. My encomium was taken from sightings of her in the park, where she is effortlessly elegant, composed, and aloof. “You may dislike her, but even you would pity her now. Her daughter, Lady Rosamund, is on the verge of another scandal, and as usual, it’s all Corvus’s fault.”
He chuckled at mention of the infamous artist. “In what way? Lady Rosamund is no longer in London, so Corvus will find another victim to caricature.”
“Not when he hears this.” I lowered my voice. “Her father, the Earl of Medway, has been invited to a house party at the estate of Sir Alphonse Lewis, that well-known frequenter of theatrical circles—and he wants Lady Rosamund to accompany him!”
“Surely not,” McBrae said. “She’s in mourning.”
“Yes, and if that wasn’t bad enough, Sir Alphonse’s guests are playwrights and actors, inferior persons with whom no high-born lady should associate. What’s more, the hostess is his mistress! I don’t know what Lord Medway was thinking. But there’s worse!” I lowered my voice further. “At a previous party at Sir Alphonse’s estate, there was an orgy!”
McBrae huffed. “Lord Medway won’t allow his daughter to participate in an orgy.”
“No, but Lady Rosamund’s reputation is already scandalous, thanks to Corvus. Her poor mother has two choices: either do nothing and hope word doesn’t spread—”
“Which won’t work, because you intend to spread the word yourself,” McBrae said.
I fear I blushed. “True, but spreading gossip is our raison d’être at the Tattler. What else can we do when such a juicy morsel comes our way?”
McBrae acknowledged this with a rueful shrug. He is a kindly sort of man. He disapproves, but he also understands.
“Her second choice is to send her son hotfoot to the rescue,” I said, “and risk that he, being a young, virile man, will participate in the orgy, too!”
“You have a fertile imagination, ma’am,” he said, “but no orgy is likely to take place.”
“I suppose not,” I said dejectedly, for it would have been an astonishing story. “But the real problem is, what will Corvus make of it all?”
“Something amusing, no doubt.”
“If I were Corvus,” I said, “do you know what I would do? I’d go to Sir Alphonse’s house to see what really happens.”
“Ah, but think what fun for Corvus,” McBrae said, “to just make it all up?”
Fun indeed. All England awaits his next caricature with bated breath, and you may count on the Tattler to inform you of every tidbit of news in what could well prove to be the scandal of the decade!
About the Book
Widowed Lady Rosamund spends the first months of her mourning in the Lake District, where it’s safe and peaceful, and murders are exceedingly rare. Luckily, she is rescued from this tedium by a house party comprised of playwrights, poets, and actors—an immoral set of persons with whom no respectable lady should associate. Even so, she hardly expected to wake in the wee hours to find one of the guests lying dead.
As if that wasn’t troublesome enough, Gilroy McBrae is at the same party, masquerading as a footman to investigate a series of thefts. Was the sudden death an accident—or murder? Almost everyone had reason to loathe their unpleasant fellow guest. Rosie must set aside her confused emotions about McBrae and work with him to find the culprit before an innocent person is accused of the crime.
The first night at a house party, Lady Rosamund is wakened by a scream…
I sat up in bed, heart battering my chest. By the grey light in my room, I surmised it was almost dawn. Had that shriek been merely a dream? The house seemed enveloped in silence.
And then came more screams, ghastly and chilling, one after another after another.
I leapt out of bed, crammed my feet into my slippers, donned my wrapper once again, and rushed into the passageway.
It was cloaked in gloom, but faint light from the Great Hall filtered up. It was from there that the screams came, now dissolving into hoarse sobs. A door opened behind me across the passage, but I was first to the stairs.
Which you no doubt think was foolish of me, but I couldn’t help myself. Although I have had many small brushes with supposed insanity, I’m not a complete idiot. I peered over the banister before starting down.
Below me, flat on the floor, was a man. All I could discern was his head and feet, for something huge and unidentifiable lay atop him. As I stared, a woman appeared and glanced about. She bent over the huge something, grunting…and then with a swish of skirts, she vanished.
Meanwhile, a sobbing girl stumbled up the stairs toward me. She tripped on her gown and fell, crying out, and I helped her up. “What happened? What’s wrong?”
“He’s dead.” She swayed. “Oh God, he’s dead. He murdered him!”
I feared she would faint, so I kept a firm hold on her. “Who?” A stupid question, I realized. In the first place, I didn’t specify whether I was asking for the identity of the victim or the murderer. In the second place, she was hysterical and unable to speak coherently. I could very well go see for myself, once I got rid of her.
“It’s all my fault,” she whispered, clutching my arm. “I wish I had never come to this horrid place.”
An understandable sentiment, but she couldn’t have predicted this…could she?
“Helen! Miss Gardner, that is.” Mr. Powers hurried up, clad only in shirt and breeches. This utter disregard of the proprieties, coupled with his use of her Christian name, seemed to indicate that his relationship with the young woman might be as close as Harold Bellevue feared. “What happened?”
“He’s dead!” she wailed, and cast herself upon his breast.
“Hush,” he said. “Who’s dead?”
“How could you?” she cried, and sobbed into his shirt. She, at least, was fully dressed, making the embrace less improper than it otherwise might have been.
I left them to it and hastened down to see the body for myself. Obviously, it behooved me to determine first of all whether the man on the floor was indeed dead.
It was the unpleasant Mr. Fence, but looking unlike himself—tranquil and at peace. With a shudder of revulsion, I realized that what lay atop him was a huge rack of antlers. I glanced up at the wall of the landing: sure enough, the largest stag’s head I’d seen there last evening was gone.
I knelt beside him and felt for his pulse—a waste of time, for even if he still lived, he wouldn’t for long. Two prongs of the antlers had pierced his chest.
There was not even a flutter of heartbeat.
I stood and took a deep breath, trying to shove away the thought that ran over and over through my mind: you wanted a corpse, and you got one.
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About the Author
Rumor has it that Barbara Monajem is descended from English aristocrats. If one keeps to verifiable claims, however, her ancestors include London shopkeepers and hardy Canadian pioneers. As far as personal attributes go, she suffers from an annoying tendency to check and recheck anything and everything, usually for no good reason. Hopefully all this helps to explain her decision to write from the point of view of a compulsive English lady with a lot to learn about how the other ninety-nine percent lived in 1811 or so.
As for qualifications, Barbara is the author of over twenty historical romances and a few mysteries, for which she has won several awards. On the other hand, she has no artistic talent and therefore is really stretching it to write about an artist who draws wickedly good caricatures. But she’s doing it anyway, because he’s irresistible. To her, anyway. Not so much to the aristocratic lady. Or at least not yet.
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