Lexie Conyngham's Blog: writing, history and gardening.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Death of an Officer's Lady: Chapter One



I

She was careful to leave the rent money for the landlord: she did not want anyone to think she had flitted because she could not pay. The candle flame swerved and plunged as she spun quickly in the empty room, making sure that the money was all that was left. No trace: good. No way of following her.
She snipped out the candle with a pinch, pulled her shawl over her bonnet and hauled one of their bundles under her arm.
‘Let’s go,’ she whispered.
They never made a sound on the stone stair. But as they vanished through the street door into the night, one of the flat doors they had passed opened silently. There was a breath a little like a laugh, but she was too far away to hear it.

II

‘We should never have stuck him on Elba: we should have locked him in the Tower of London and thrown away the key.’
‘Ken what he was doing on Elba? He raised an army and a navy. What kind of exile’s that?’
‘Och, the wee mannie canna help himself. Put him in a nunnery and he’d raise three regiments.’
‘That’s what I mean. Tower of London, that’s what I say.’
‘Now, the only way to stop the likes of him is that guillotine thing they had in the Revolution. Best way to deal wi’ a Frenchie with notions.’
George Murray turned away to hide a grin as he passed the soldiers. They had found an edge of grass to make themselves a little teashop, with a fire, a saucepan, and tin cups, though the tea smelled as if it had been used a few too many times. He did not expect them to salute: there were far too many officers on the streets of Brussels at present for all to be recognised, and the soldiers had a way of building a little room for themselves out of no walls and barely a ceiling, as if they were cut off from the people passing by.
Besides, he was inclined to agree with them about Napoleon Bonaparte. Elba was no safe prison for a man like that, and now he was out and in Paris and raising who knew what force against them. Well, Wellington would know. Wellington had brought them here, to overfill Brussels with red coats and bonnets and kilts and boots, shakoes and rifles and bayonets on every corner. Wellington in his grand house on the Park, and the French Royal family in their chateau, and every soldier in uniform, all on tenterhooks to hear the first movement from Paris. Would he fight or would he run, the little Corsican? Or would he stay in Paris and bluff, luring Wellington ever further south, through the part of France least friendly to the Allies, nibbling away at his army until the final confrontation on the Seine?
Well, it was no immediate concern to George: he was off to meet a fellow officer in a coffee house for the latest gossip and a bowl of fine soup. There was no harm being quartered in a civilised place and taking a rest before the final confrontation with Bonaparte. It had to be the final confrontation, for Wellington had had enough of his boldness, and where Wellington led, George would cheerfully follow.

III

If he squinted up at the sky through the May-green branches, listening to the birdsong, he could almost believe that everything was all right with the world.
And it was, here and now: the air was mild, though it had been chilly; his horse mumbled contentedly at the grass under the tree; the dogs lay and panted, pretending to be restful. No one, as far as he knew, was around: no one would notice that their dignified laird and master, all of thirty-two years old and highly respectable, was lounging on his back up a tree, contemplating the emptiness of the Fife sky and scuffing his boots on the branch above his long legs.
‘Mr. Murray, sir?’
The voice, when it came, was sudden enough to cause a painful shock – painful because of his position on the branch. Sharp points he had been carefully avoiding jabbed his legs and back. His hat, cradled on his chest, tumbled to the ground. Otherwise, the voice was unalarming: stolid, a little cautious, not quite sure yet if it were intending tenor or bass.
Charles Murray of Letho wriggled round so that he could look at the ground instead of the sky, and blinked to rid his eyes of the bright images of leaves.
‘Who’s there?’
‘Um …’
‘Come along, speak up! Who is it?’ He felt himself start to slither on the powdery lichen of the branch, scrambled for purchase and then jumped. His cuff caught and ripped just before he hit the ground, but he was otherwise quite pleased with his landing – upright, at least. He brushed some of the green dust off his differently green coat, picked up his hat, and looked around. A boy of about eleven was regarding him solemnly.
‘Walter,’ said Murray with a sigh. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’m taking a basket to my grandpa, sir,’ said Walter, his hands clasped seriously behind his back, a servant in the making. Anyone less likely to laugh at his master falling out of a tree would be hard to find, certainly amongst eleven-year-old boys.
‘This is hardly the most direct path between the kitchens and your grandfather’s cottage, Walter,’ said Murray, attempting to resume some dignity. ‘And besides, where is the basket?’
‘That would be the problem, sir. You see, I’ve lost it.’
‘Lost it?’
‘I set it down somewhere – it was somewhere, sir,’ he emphasised, as though baskets were prone to slipping out of reality, ‘and now it’s away.’
‘You think someone stole it?’ A basketful of Mrs. Mack’s cooking would certainly be worth stealing, but Murray was surprised that someone would have been bold enough in broad daylight so near the path.
‘Ah, no, sir, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that.’ Walter’s brow wrinkled, though it was a little hard to see: his shining brown hair sat round on his head as if someone had clapped him into a ripe horse chestnut. ‘It’s more a matter of me forgetting where I was when I set it down.’
‘I see. And do you remember if you were on this path at all?’
‘Do you know, I don’t think I was, sir?’ Walter looked pleasantly surprised at this revelation.
‘Well, then, I doubt the basket is, either. They don’t tend to move of their own volition. Here,’ said Murray, untying his horse as the dogs sprang to their feet, ‘let us go to the path near your grandfather’s cottage, through here, and work our way back.’
Walter was reunited with his uninjured basket, concealed in long grass, in a matter of ten minutes or so. He gently removed one or two adventurous snails from its sides, and set off to his grandfather’s cottage – Mr. Fenwick had been the butler at Letho for many years and merited supplies from the kitchens. Murray, with a sigh, pulled himself up on to his horse, and set it to meander, not too fast, back to Letho House. He knew he sighed far too much these days.
His manservant, Robbins, met him in the hall, and was too well-trained to comment on the state of his coat.
‘A letter for you, sir,’ he said with a slight bow. Since they had returned from India Robbins had resumed a little of the distance between man and master that they had lost abroad.
‘Thank you, Robbins. Where is my wife?’
‘Lady Agostinella is in her parlour, sir.’
‘I’ll be in the library.’
‘Sir.’
Safe at his desk in the library, Murray pushed aside an advertisement for Aberdeenshire turnip seeds and a copy of the Edinburgh Quarterly, and looked at the letter with pleasure. It was from his brother George, an officer in the Royal Scots. Murray knew they were currently in Belgium, waiting to see whether the British Government would opt for peace or war. The latter seemed all too necessary.
Brussels,
12th. May, 1815
My Dear Brother,

As you can see we’re still in Brussels, which is no bad thing as you know I like the city. I’m not sure I should like it so much in the ordinary way but it is so full of soldiery that there is a pleasant hum about the place and it is busy and business-like, and nearly everyone speaks English. On an ordinary day when war is not expected at every turn, it is a city probably much more to your liking than to mine – old buildings, and parks, and so on.
As to the war there is little news. Bonaparte is still in Paris, unless he has left in the last few days. We hear that Murat is in a bad way, and losing battles left, right and centre, and also that support for the Bourbons is growing. We’re mostly all here, though Blucher’s headquarters is at Namur and Wellington’s is at Mons, much nearer the French border, though Namur was held by the French for years. Mind you, Brussels has been going back and forth between the French and the Austrians for long enough. How anyone can live in such a place where the very country you belong to changes from week to week, it seems, is beyond me!
Now, here is a reason for writing: I am to ask you a favour. Only if it suits your turn of mind, though, for I thought it might be something that would be of interest to you if you are still in Edinburgh. If you have already gone to Letho and this catches up with you there, then no matter – it is likely to be nothing.
I have a junior officer with me at the moment, a Lieutenant James Argo, a nice fellow and a little in need of looking after. Just lately he has been more anxious than usual, and I find that though he has been writing constantly to his wife in Edinburgh, he has had no reply for some weeks. Well, you know what the post is like at present, with everything going through Mons – trust Wellington to have it arranged efficiently, but it must needs take time.
Anyway, the wife, Alicia Argo (there cannot be too many of them!) lives in Potterrow, and I said I would ask if you would pop round and see if she is well and safe, or Argo will not be fit to fight for worry. Though perhaps she has abandoned him, and that would not be good news either – he seems greatly attached to her.
I shall write again, no doubt, before we leave Brussels. My best regards to the Lady Agostinella and to all who know me.
Your loving brother,
George

Murray smiled at George’s delight in living in a Brussels crowded with soldiers, then frowned at the little mystery he had outlined. There were so many possible reasons, ordinary and extraordinary, for a wife not to seem to respond to her husband’s letters. Letters were chancy things at the best of times: this one had travelled some distance to reach him, after all. His Queen Street house in Edinburgh was closed up for the moment, so Patie, the groom next door, must have collected the letter from the carrier and sent it on up to Fife. It would only have added a couple of days to its journey, assuming that Patie had not tried to open it first, for Patie was a martyr to voracious curiosity.
Well, he was no longer in Edinburgh, and had indeed gone to Letho for the summer. There was a great deal to do on the estate at this time of year, and after his long absence in India he felt the need to put work in, to reconnect with the state of the majestic black cattle and the experimental Cotswold sheep on his pastures, to speak to the tenants about their farms, to see the stages of crop rotation on the improved lands and in the heavy clay fields where the soil was harder to work. More to the point, he wanted to stretch his legs and stride over fields and through the loose little woodlands of Fife, to ride in the fresh air and feel the good earth under his horse’s hooves, and not to see any metropolis mightier than Cupar or St. Andrews. The mere thought of Edinburgh in the summer, crowded and stinking and hot, was enough to make him feel that Lieutenant Argo’s absent wife could fend for herself.
The Potterrow … the street was off Nicolson Street, in the Old Town, an area inhabited mostly by merchants and the better kind of tradesmen. His friends the Armstrongs lived nearby: it would be pleasant to see them if they were not away. But where would he stay? The Queen Street house was large, too large to open just for him and a servant or two for a few days. His dearest friends, the Blairs, who would readily have put him up for as long as he liked, were visiting family in Sussex as they usually did in the summer. There was no question of Agostinella coming with him: she had made it clear that Edinburgh held no interest for her. No, it was altogether too awkward: there was no point in going to Edinburgh.
He rang for Robbins.
‘Yes, sir?’
‘My brother George has sent me a little mystery to look into, but it is in Edinburgh.’
‘Is it urgent, sir?’ Robbins’ pale, hooded eyes took on a wary expression: he had his own reasons for wanting to stay in Letho just now.
‘I believe it might be. One of his officers has had no letter from his wife in some time and is worried that something might be amiss.’
‘Do you intend to go, sir?’
‘It makes little sense, Robbins. There is plenty to oversee here.’
‘I’m sure the steward would be happy to keep an eye on things for a couple of weeks, sir. It’s not as if he doesn’t know his job.’
‘True enough …’
‘Would you want to open the house, sir?’
‘I’m trying to think who I would stay with if I didn’t open the house. I don’t want to take you away just now, and I wouldn’t trust anyone else to open the house.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘How is Mary today?’
‘She’s doing well, I believe, sir. She says it will be a few days only: I pray she is right, and yet I dread it.’
‘I know.’
Robbins’ wife was expecting their first child, but she had lost children before by previous husbands: mothers, too, were easily lost in childbirth, but Mary was strong and calm – Murray could not imagine her submitting to any accident or illness.
‘And what about Artemesia? How is she keeping?’
Like Murray himself, his first footman Daniel had married a girl from Naples. Unlike Murray, Daniel’s wife had with indecent rapidity produced twin boys, a feat which was followed at a more reasonable pace with the births of two daughters. She was now expecting again, as if it was their sole aim to cram the little cottage they had been given with as many human beings as was physically possible. A good cook, Artemesia managed to fill a fair share of the cottage herself, and Daniel was plumper than he had been. It sometimes seemed to Murray that his entire household was being taken over by children, though not above stairs.
‘Artemesia is said to be blooming. She always does.’ Robbins managed to infuse just a little disapproval into his expression, though whether this applied to the consistency of the bloom, the frequency of the bloom, or Daniel’s enthusiasm for the bloom, was not clear. It was said by some that Robbins had softened since his marriage, but if he had, then Daniel had not benefited from it.
‘So I can’t take you and I can’t take Daniel,’ Murray said thoughtfully, ‘if I were to go.’
‘I’m sure Daniel wouldn’t mind a fortnight in Edinburgh,’ Robbins remarked.
‘He might not, but I’m not sure I want to encourage him,’ said Murray. ‘And William?’
‘William’s not so keen on Edinburgh, not that that should stop him if you want him, sir,’ said Robbins. ‘At least his wife’s not expecting at the moment.’
‘Ah, we’re all old married men now, that’s the trouble, Robbins,’ sighed Murray.
‘There’s Walter,’ said Robbins suddenly. ‘You know, sir, Mr. Fenwick’s grandson. He’s not coming along too badly: it might be time to give him a few more tasks to himself.’
‘Walter. Yes, I met him this afternoon. He seems a serious lad.’
‘He is. I couldn’t see him fooling around like Daniel, sir, and he has more wit about him than William, I think.’
‘He’s not married yet, then?’ asked Murray facetiously. Robbins’ mouth tweaked slightly, his version of a grin.
‘Not the last I saw him, sir, no.’
‘Well, sound him out, but no promises, Robbins. I’ll probably not go at all.’
Robbins bowed and was about to leave, then turned back.
‘Forgive me, sir, but didn’t Mr. William Dundas say before you left Edinburgh that you were welcome to stay at his new flat?’
Murray frowned, remembering.
‘So he did – he seemed very proud of his new set-up. In Prince’s Street, wasn’t it?’
‘I believe so, sir – forgive me, it was something he was saying to you as he left after supper. He was not perhaps … I should not have been listening.’
‘Oh, Robbins, how could you not? And yes, he was far gone on the brandy. And I’m glad you remembered. That might indeed be a solution. If I were to go. But I probably won’t go at all.’

Lady Agostinella Murray, nĂ©e de Palaeopolitani de Cumae, was seated in her parlour, a shady room to the north of the house. She had been offered for this purpose a number of rooms, including Murray’s late mother’s own parlour on the sunny south with a pretty view, but she had declined them, saying that the air was not right. Murray found the shady room a little disturbing: Lady Agostinella was such an insubstantial creature herself, a wisp of ancient tissue, that it was hard to see whether or not she was in the room unless she moved. Even when she was definitely not there, the room still seemed dusty and a little haunted.
When she called a faint ‘Entrez!’ at Murray’s knock, she and her maid were at their needlework. They usually were. Murray assumed the maid also helped her dress and arrange her hair, though he never saw this happen. Robbins, questioned, said the maid made only rare appearances in the servants’ hall, and never spoke except to ask for things for her mistress.
‘Good day, my lady,’ said Murray in French, and kissed her offered hand. ‘I trust you are well?’
‘My throat is a little sore. I fear I have a chill coming on.’
‘The air is very mild outside: perhaps a walk would help you shake it off?’
Lady Agostinella shuddered.
‘I think not.’
‘Very well.’ He sat on a stool which had been covered in the embroidery his wife and her maid were working, in shades of ash and mud, for all he could see. His elbows slumped on to his knees, though he tried to keep upright. ‘I’ve been out about the river fields. The flax is coming on well – it had a good start this year.’
‘We never grew flax in Naples.’
‘I can’t imagine the climate would be right for it there, though I may be wrong. Er, the flowers are very pretty, a delightful shade of blue.’
‘I may go and see it, if the weather improves.’
And Daniel may become Moderator of the General Assembly, thought Murray, but it’s unlikely.
‘You have spent the morning in agricultural pursuits?’ she asked, almost managing to sound interested.
‘Yes, yes I have.’ And up a tree, he thought. ‘And you: has the morning gone well?’
She shrugged.
‘The firewood in my room was damp, I think, and very smoky. Then there was no more black silk for my embroidery. But aside from these it was satisfactory.’
‘Oh, good, good.’ He wished the maid would go away. She was always there. Agostinella had told him that the maid spoke neither English nor much French, but nevertheless Murray always had the sense that she was listening. Listening and taking notes. Not good notes, either, or at least not ones sympathetic to him.
‘I’ve just received a letter from my brother George,’ he announced, feeling that they had exhausted the delights of their respective mornings.
‘The soldier.’
‘That’s the one.’ He had just the one, but George and Agostinella had not met. ‘Perhaps if all goes well with him in this coming war, I shall have the pleasure of introducing him to you soon.’
Lady Agostinella did not reply. Perhaps she was overwhelmed at the thought, though she seemed to be unpicking some unsatisfactory stitch.
‘He has asked if I would go back down to Edinburgh as a favour to him.’
‘Back to Edinburgh? Why?’
‘One of his fellow officers is worried that something might have happened to his wife. He hasn’t received a letter for some weeks.’
‘Always you are drawn to deaths!’ Agostinella exclaimed, making him jump.
‘Deaths? There’s no thought that she might have died.’
‘Mysteries, then! Always you must look into this and poke into that – it has never done you any good, has it?’
Murray reflected a little unwillingly. She was quite right: mysteries had a tendency to be detrimental to his health.
‘Well, indeed,’ he said. ‘That is a good point. Then there is the matter of where I would stay if I did go. If you were to come too –’
‘I shall not be returning to Edinburgh this season.’
‘No, of course not.’ Edinburgh society had been excited to welcome Murray’s new wife – an Italian contessa, no less! – but despite some effort on both sides, the season had ended in mutual disappointment. ‘I was only saying that if you were to come too, it would make it worthwhile to open the Queen Street house, but as you aren’t coming I shall – should – have to find somewhere else to stay.’
‘Most of your friends, I assume, will have left the town by now. The season is all but over.’
‘Most of them, yes. Willie Jack Dundas did say I could stay with him.’ He did not elaborate: as Robbins had hinted, Willie Jack was well into his cups when he made the offer but fortunately had been sober enough to get Murray alone in the hallway before he had added, slurring, ‘If I had a wife like that I’d want a bolthole, my friend,’ pressing his fingers hard into Murray’s chest for support. To be fair, he had had a struggle with the word ‘bolthole’. It had been an interesting evening.
‘To stay with Willie Jack Dundas? No, that is not a good idea, either. I say no. You should not go back to Edinburgh.’

IV

Letho’s servants’ hall was fresh and new, a bright and dry building of which the servants universally approved. Walter in particular, the latest recruit to the staff, found it dazzling, and haunted the kitchen with its glinting batterie de cuisine, its duck-egg walls, its black Carron stove and, miracle of miracles, its running water, pumped indoors from a nearby spring.
Mrs. Mack, the cook, liked Walter because he was calm and quiet, and not impudent in the common way of new boys. Daniel, for instance, when he was new – well, Daniel had never really grown out of a certain cocky aggravation which drove Mrs. Mack to want to give him laldy with a rolling pin, were he not twice her height. Thus when Robbins came into the kitchen after supper, it was not Daniel he found perched solemnly on a creepy stool by the kitchen fire listening to Mrs. Mack’s stories, but Walter, which was what Robbins had hoped.
‘Walter?’
‘Sir?’
The boy stood smartly, and Robbins was pleased. He would do.
‘Here’s something new for you. You’re to go with the master tomorrow. He’s off to Edinburgh.’

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