A Burial At Sea: New Excerpt

A Burial at Sea by Charles Finch
A Burial at Sea by Charles Finch
1873 is a perilous time in the relationship between France and England.  When a string of English spies is found dead on French soil, the threat of all-out war prompts government officials to ask Charles Lenox to visit the newly-dug Suez Canal on a secret mission.

Once he is on board the Lucy, however, Lenox finds himself using not his new skills of diplomacy but his old ones: the ship’s second lieutenant is found dead on the voyage’s first night, his body cruelly abused. The ship’s captain begs the temporarily retired detective to join in the hunt for a criminal.  Lenox finds the trail, but in the claustrophobic atmosphere on board, where nobody can come or go and everyone is a suspect, he has to race against the next crime—and also hope he won’t be the victim.

No matter how far Lenox strays from his old life, it will always come back to find him.

 

Chapter 1

He gazed out at the sunfall from an open second-floor window,
breathing deeply of the cool salt air, and felt it was
the first calm moment he had known in days. Between the                                   outfitting, the packing, the political conversations with his brother,
and a succession of formal meals that had served as shipboard
introductions to the officers of the Lucy, his week in Plymouth
had been a daze of action and information.

Now, though, Charles Lenox could be still for a moment. As
he looked out over the maze of thin streets that crossed the
short path to the harbor, and then over the gray, calm water
itself—smudged brown with half-a-dozen large ships and any
number of small craft—he bent forward slightly over the hiphigh
window rail, hands in pockets. He was past forty now,
forty-two, and his frame, always thin and strong, had started
to fill out some at the waist. His trim brown hair, however, was
still untouched by gray. On his face was a slight, careworn
smile, matched by his tired, happy, and curious hazel eyes. He
had been for much of his life a detective, more lately a member
of Parliament for the district of Stirrington, and now for the
first time, he would be something else: something very like a
diplomat.

Or even a spy.

It had begun two months before, in early March. Lenox
had been at home on Hampden Lane. This was the small
street just off Grosvenor Square, lined with pleasant houses
and innocuous shops—a bookseller, a tobacconist—where he
had lived nearly his whole adult life. For much of that time
his best friend had lived next door to him, a widow named
Lady Jane Grey whose family was also from Sussex: they had
grown up riding together, fidgeting through church together:
together. Just three years before, to his own confused and
happy surprise, Lenox had realized how very much he loved
her. It had taken some time to gather the courage to ask her to
marry him. But he had. Now, in the winter of 1873, they were
just getting used to the upside-down tumble their lives had
taken. Their houses, side by side as they were, had been rebuilt
to connect, and now they lived within a sprawling mishmash
of rooms that matched their joined-up lives. They were
a couple.

Lenox had been in his study that evening in March, making
notes for a speech he hoped to give the following day in the
House of Commons about India. There was a gentle snow outside
the high windows near his desk, and the gaslights cast a
dim and romantic light over the white, freshened streets.
There was a knock at the door.

Lenox put down his pen and flexed his sore hand, opening
and closing it, as he waited for their butler, Kirk, to show the
guest in.

“Sir Edmund Lenox,” Kirk announced, and to his delight
Charles saw his older brother’s cheerful and ruddy face pop
around the doorway.

“Ed!” he said, and stood. They clasped hands. “Come, sit
by the fire—you must be nigh on frozen. Well, it’s been two
weeks nearly, hasn’t it? You’re in the country too often for my
taste, I tell you that frankly.”

Edmund smiled widely but he looked exhausted. “In fact I
wasn’t at the house, so you can’t lay that charge against me,” he
said. The house being the one they had grown up in together,
Lenox House.

“No? But you said you were going to see Molly and the—”
The baronet waved a hand. “Security reasons, they say, but
what ever it is we were at Lord Axmouth’s place in Kent, five of
us, holed up with the admiralty, the chaps from the army, a
rotating cast of ministers . . . with Gladstone.”

The prime minister. Charles furrowed his brow. “What can
it have been about?”

In person Edmund Lenox looked very much like his younger
brother, but he was perhaps less shrewd in the eyes, more
open-faced. He served in Parliament out of a sense, not of ambition,
but of duty, inherited from their father, and indeed
preferred the country to London. Perhaps as a result he had a
countryish air. He seemed heartier than his brother Charles.
This innocent, candid mien, however, concealed a more intelligent
mind than one might immediately have suspected. It
had been to Lenox’s great shock when he first learned, five or
six years before, that Edmund wasn’t the stolid backbencher he
had always appeared to be, but in fact a leading member of his
party who had declined important posts again and again, preferring
to work behind the scenes.

Now he surprised Charles again.

“You know something of my purview?” Edmund said.

“Something.” Lenox himself was still a backbencher, but
could say without undue immodesty that he was a rising man;
long hours of work had seen to that. “You advise the ministers,
consult with the prime minister on occasion, find votes—that
sort of thing.”

Edmund smiled again, an unhappy smile this time. “First of
all, let me say that I come to ask a favor. I hope you’ll agree
to do it.”

“With all my heart.”

“Not so quickly, for love’s sake, Charles.”

“Well?”

Edmund sighed and stood up from the armchair, staring for
a moment at the low, crackling glow in the hearth. “Might I
have a drink?” he asked.

“The usual?” Lenox stood and walked over to a small,
square, lacquered table crowded with crystal decanters. He
poured them each a glass of Scotch whisky. “Here you are.”

“There are other parts of my job, that I haven’t mentioned
to you before,” said Edmund after a sip. “A role I play that you
might call more—more secret.”

Lenox understood instantly, and felt well inside him some
mixture of excitement, tension, surprise, and even a slight hurt
that he hadn’t heard of this before. “Intelligence?” he said
gravely.

“Yes.”

“What branch?”

Edmund considered the question. “You might call me an
overseer, of sorts.”

“All of it, then.”

“Since the new prime minister came in, yes. I report to him.
These weeks we have been—”

“You might have told me,” said Charles, his tone full of forced
jocularity.

With comprehension in his eyes Edmund said, “I would have,
believe me—I would have come to you first were I permitted to
speak of it.”

“And why can you now? This favor?”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

“It’s France,” said Edmund. “We’re worried about France.”

“That doesn’t make sense. Everything has been cordial,
hasn’t it? Uneasily so, I suppose, but—”

Edmund sat down. “Charles,” he said with a hard look, “will
you go to Egypt for us?”

Taken aback, Charles returned his brother’s stare. “Why—I
suppose I could,” he said at last. “If you needed me to.”

So that spark had burst into this conflagration; Lenox would
set sail twelve hours from now aboard the Lucy, a corvette
bound for the Suez.

A cool breeze fluttered the thin white curtains on either side
of him. He felt his nerves shake slightly, his stomach tighten, as
he contemplated the idea of leaving, of all his fresh responsibility.
This Plymouth house—a cream-colored old Georgian in a
row, let by the week or month to officers and their families—
had in just two weeks come to feel almost like home, and he
realized with a feeling of surprise that he would be sorry to
leave it, even though he had looked forward to nothing else for
two months but his voyage. Then he understood that it wasn’t
the house he would miss, but the home that his wife had made
of it.

He heard the door open downstairs.

“Charles?” a voice rang from the bottom of the stairs. It was
Lady Jane.

Before he answered he hesitated for a brief moment and
looked out again at Plymouth Harbor, under its falling golden
sun, savoring the idea, every boy’s dream, of being out at sea.

“Up here!” he cried then. “Let me give you a hand.”

But she was clambering up the stairs. “Nonsense! I’m already
halfway there.”

She came in, pink-faced, dark-haired, smallish, pretty in a
rather plain way, dressed all in blue and gray—and holding her
belly, which, though her dress hid it, had begun to round out.
For after hesitation and dispute, something wonderful had
happened to them, that daily miracle of the world that nevertheless
always manages to catch us off guard, no matter our
planning, no matter our dreams, no matter our circumstances:
she was pregnant.

 

Chapter 2

The next morning was bright, and now the harbor shifted
and glittered brilliantly. Anchored some way out, close
enough that one could see men moving aboard her but far enough
that their faces were indistinct, lay the Lucy, bobbing up and
down.

She had come into dry dock some six weeks before, after a
two-year tour in distant waters, and had since then been refitted:
her old and tattered sails, mended so often they were
three-quarters patch, replaced with snow-white new ones, the
dented copper below her waterline smoothed and reinforced,
her old bolts refitted, her formerly bare engine room again
coaled. She looked young once more.

Lucy had come off the same dockyards as Her Majesty’s ship
Challenger in the same year, 1858, and both were corvettes, ships
designed not for firing power, like a frigate, or quick jaunts out,
like a brig, but for speed and maneuverability. She carried three
masts; from stem to stern she mea sured about two hundred
feet; as for men, she held roughly two hundred and twenty
bluejackets—common seamen—and twenty-five or so more,
from the rank of midshipman to captain, who belonged to the
officer ranks. The Challenger, which was well known because
of its long scientific mission to Australia and the surrounding
seas, was quicker than the Lucy, but the Lucy was thought to be
more agile and better in a fight.

In her means of propulsion she embodied perfectly the uncertain
present state of the navy’s technology. She was not
steam-powered but rather steam-assisted, which is to say that
she used the power of coal to leave and enter harbor and during
battle, but the rest of the time moved under sail, not all
that differently than her forebears in the Napoleonic Wars
sixty years earlier might have. Using coal added several knots
to the Lucy’s speed, but it was a problematic fuel source: coaling
stations were few and far between and the burners were
thin-walled and had to be spared too much taxation lest they
falter in an important situation. (New, thicker burners were being
manufactured now, but even in her Plymouth refitting the
Lucy didn’t receive one of them.)

Lenox had learned all of this information three nights before
from the captain, Jacob Martin, a stern, youngish fellow,
perhaps thirty-five, extremely religious, prematurely gray but
physically very strong. Edmund said that he was much respected
within the admiralty and destined for great things,
perhaps even the command of a large warship within the next
few months. Martin politely did his duty by welcoming Lenox
to the ship and describing her outlines to him, but all the same
didn’t quite seem to relish the prospect of a civilian passenger.
“Still,” he had said, “we must try to prove our worth now,
the navy. It’s not like it was in my grandfather’s day. He was an
admiral, Mr. Lenox, raised his flag at Trafalgar. Those chaps
were heroes to the common Englishman. Now we must stretch
ourselves in every new direction—diplomacy, science, trade—so
that you mathematical fellows in Parliament will continue to
see the use of us. Peacetime, you see.”

“Surely peace is the most desirable state of affairs for an                                         officer of the navy?”

“Oh, yes!” said Martin, but in a slightly wistful tone, as if he
weren’t entirely in agreement but couldn’t tactfully say as much.
They were in a private room at a public house near the water,
where many officers regularly took supper. It was called the
Yardarm. “I realize there must be fewer men afloat than during
war,” said Lenox, trying to be sympathetic.

Martin nodded vehemently. “Yes, too many of my peers are
on shore, eking out a life on half-pay. Dozens of children, all of
them. Meanwhile the French have started to outpace us.”
“Our navy is much larger,” said Lenox. He spoke with
authority—he had read the world’s driest blue book (or parliamentary
report) on the subject.

“To be sure, but their ships are sound and fast and big,
Mr. Lenox.” Martin swirled his wine in his glass, looking into
it. “They were ahead of us on coal. Our Warrior was based on
her Gloire. Who knows what they’re doing now. Meanwhile
we’re all at sixes and sevens.”

“The navy?”

“It’s a period of transition.”

“Coal and steam, you mean, Captain? I know.”

“Do you?”

“I thought so, at any rate. Please enlighten me.”

“It’s not as it was,” said Martin. “We must now train our
men to sail a full-rigged vessel, as we always have, and at the
same time to coal a ship to fourteen knots under steam even
as we fire a broadside. Because she’s built for speed the Lucy is
very light in guns, of course—only twenty-one four-pounders,
which would scarcely trouble a serious ship—but still, to be
worried at once about sail, steam, and shooting is no easy task
for a captain or a crew. And the Lord forbid you find yourself
without coal.” He laughed bitterly and drank off the last of his
wine.

“I understand the depots are few and far between.”

“You might say that. I think it’s more likely we’ll see three
mermaids between here and Egypt than three proper depots
where we can take our fill.”

Lenox tried good cheer. “Still, to be at sea! It’s stale to you,
but for me I confess it’s a thrill.”

Martin smiled. “I apologize for sounding so negative, Mr.
Lenox. I’ve been afloat since I was twelve, and I wouldn’t be anywhere
else for money. But a captain’s job is a difficult one. When
I’m on the water all of my problems are soluble, you see, but on
land I can think over them and fret and worry myself half to
oblivion. Before we leave, for instance, I must meet with the
admiralty to discuss the prospects of my lieutenants. I’m bound
to break one of their hearts. Well, but let us speak of other
things. You’ll have a child soon, as I hear it? Might we drink to
your wife’s health?”

“Oh, yes,” said Lenox fervently, and signaled to the waiter at
the door for another bottle.

If supper at the Yardarm had been morose in stretches, due
to Martin’s heavyhearted fears over the future of his service,
Lenox’s visit to the wardroom of the Lucy had been entirely
different.

It was in the wardroom where the rest of the officers took
their meals. They were a far more rollicking, jovial set of men
than their captain, and they had insisted Lenox actually visit the
ship by way of introduction.

In the wardroom itself—a low-slung, long chamber at the
stern of the ship with a row of very handsome curved windows,
where lanterns swung gently from their moorings in the roof,
casting a flickering light over the wineglasses and silver—Lenox
met a bewildering array of men. All were seated at a single long
table that ran fore-to-aft through the entire room. There were
the ship’s five lieutenants, each of whom hoped one day to take
on the responsibilities that Martin bemoaned; two marines,
dressed in lobster-red, a captain and lieutenant, who commanded
a squadron of twenty fighting men in the ship, and were thus part
of the navy and not quite part of it at all; and finally the civil
officers, each with a different responsibility, from the surgeon to
the chaplain to the purser. Each of the fifteen or so people present
sat in a dark mahogany chair, upholstered in navy blue, and as
Lenox had learned from the rather rough quarterdeckman who
had fetched him from shore, none could speak out of rank until
the Queen was toasted.

When at last this happened the fierce decorum of the first
glasses of wine fell off and people began to converse companionably.
Lenox had already forgotten half the names he had
heard, but to his plea sure he discovered that the person seated
to his left, a second lieutenant called Halifax, was an agreeable
sort.

“How long have you been with the Lucy?” Lenox asked him.
“About five months,” said Halifax. He was a plump fellow
with a face slick and red from the warmth and wine. He seemed
somehow gentle, though—not the card-playing, hard-drinking
type Lenox might have expected. His voice was soft and melodious
and his face was more than anything a kind one.

“What brought you on board?”

“Captain Martin’s previous second lieutenant had been lost
at sea just before, and I met the ship at Port Mahon to replace
him.”

“Poor chap.”

A troubled look passed over Halifax’s face, and his eyes ran
along the faces at the table. “Yes. Unfortunately the navy can
be unkind. Not all men get their wishes—not all lieutenants
are made captain, for instance, however much they may feel
they deserve it. Or take my case: nobody likes getting work at
another man’s expense, of course, but I admit that I’m happy
for the time at sea. Shore is dull, don’t you find?”

“I don’t,” said Lenox, “but then I’ve nothing to compare it
to.”

“Very true. Do you fish, at least?”

“When I was a boy I did. Not since then.”

“I’ve a spare rod—you must come with me to the quarterdeck
some time.” Halifax smiled to himself, his eyes fixed
somewhere in the middle distance. “Watching your line bob
along the water as the sun goes down and the ship is quiet—a
mild wind, leaning over the rail, cool breeze, perhaps a cigar—
it’s the only way to live, Mr. Lenox.”

“What do you catch?”

“It depends where you are. My last ship, the Defiant, was
broken up, but I sailed with her to the northern waters with
Captain Robertson. There you found char, sculpins, cods,
gunnels. Any number of things. We raked over a fair few hundred
jellyfish. Have you ever seen one?”

“I haven’t, except in pictures.”

“They’re enormous, several feet long. Harmless, though
their sting hurts like the dickens. Rather beautiful. Translucent.”

“And on our way to Egypt what will you find?”

A delighted look came into Halifax’s face. “The Mediterranean
is a treat, from all I hear, enormous tuna fish, bream,
mullet, marlins, swordfish. A velvet-belly shark, if we’re very
lucky.”

“I must strike off my plans to go for a swim.”

“Nonsense—most refreshing thing in the world! If you’re
sincerely afraid of sharks the captain will put a net out alongside
of the ship, which you may swim in. Oh, but wait—a toast.”

The white-haired chaplain was rising, wildly inebriated, and
when he had (not without difficulty) attained a standing                                       position, proclaimed in a loud voice, “To a woman’s leg, sirs! Nothing
could be finer in the world! And to my wife Edwina!”

There was a raucous cheer at this, and as anyone might have
predicted who witnessed that moment, the wardroom’s supper
went on very late into the night.

 

Copyright 2011 Charles Finch


Charles Finch is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries, including The Fleet Street Murders, The September Society and A Stranger in Mayfair. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. He lives in Oxford, England.

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