A Death by Any Other Name is the 3rd book in the Lady Montfort Mystery series (available March 14, 2017).
The elegant Lady Montfort and her redoubtable housekeeper Mrs. Jackson's services are called upon after a cook is framed and dismissed for poisoning a guest of the Hyde Rose Society. Promising to help her regain her job and her dignity, the pair trek out to the countryside to investigate a murder of concealed passions and secret desires. There, they are to discover a villain of audacious cunning among a group of mild-mannered, amateur rose-breeders. While they investigate, the rumor mill fills with talk about a conflict over in Prussia where someone quite important was shot. There is talk of war and they must race the clock to solve the mystery as the idyllic English summer days count down to the start of WWI.
Coming home after a holiday is almost as enjoyable as the holiday itself, Edith Jackson thought as she surveyed the familiar comfort of her bedroom and parlor, her eyes lingering over beloved objects that she had collected over the years. Here it all was, just as she had left it: her small library in one corner, a pretty writing bureau by the window that she had been given by Mr. Hollyoak, the butler, to celebrate her appointment from first housemaid to housekeeper ten years ago. She sat down in a deeply cushioned wing chair, a present to herself four years ago: a fireside chair that offered deep comfort for long winter afternoons with a good book. However humble or simple these simple objects appeared to be, they nevertheless made her homecoming a welcome one.
She pulled her canvas rucksack across the carpet toward her and carefully took from its place, between her nightie and a pair of heavy woolen stockings, a slightly creased watercolor of the magnificent view from Stanage Edge in Derbyshire painted by her friend Emily Biggs. She propped the painting up on the mantelpiece, tilting it so it would be visible from her armchair and then sat back down to enjoy it. Considering that there had been a stiff breeze blowing when she had set up her easel, Emily had done quite a good job of capturing the immensity of the peak district in northern England with its gritstone cliffs, outcrops of boulders and wide, ever-changing skies.
As Mrs. Jackson gazed at Emily’s painting she realized how much she would miss her friend’s outgoing company and good-natured disposition. Their walking holiday of the hills and dales of Derbyshire, with its open prospects, had given each day a sense of endless liberty—a pleasant contrast to the often claustrophobic life they led in service to families of consequence. Emily Biggs, the niece of the Talbot family’s old nanny, worked as a governess to Sir Stanley Pritchard’s three youngest daughters at neighboring Northwood. Mrs. Jackson felt more than a little sympathy for Emily, as Sir Stanley ruled his household with a rod of iron and had an unpredictable temper; a man wholly unlike the Earl of Montfort, whose grand Elizabethan house, Iyntwood, Mrs. Jackson was proud to call home as its housekeeper.
But however placid the atmosphere at Iyntwood, Mrs. Jackson’s holiday in the north of England had been a particularly welcome break; she rarely strayed from the earl’s principal country seat, unless she was required to make the occasional trip up to the Talbot family’s London house if her ladyship had need of her particular help. She sighed as she got up from the chair to finish her packing. Lady Montfort in the last two years had developed what could only be described as a rather intrusive desire to involve herself in other people’s problems. Not the usual sort of problems that beset gently bred women of the aristocracy, such as whom their daughters should marry or whether their sons should be discouraged from indulging their passion for aeroplanes and fast motorcars. Mrs. Jackson’s expression became somber as she remembered the last two rather unorthodox demands made on her time in what she privately referred to as “plain old interfering” in matters best left to the police.
She stowed her walking boots and empty rucksack at the back of the wardrobe. Lady Montfort’s investigation last winter into the murder of a guest at a dinner party to celebrate the birthday of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. Winston Churchill, had certainly started out as a polite “inquiry,” as her ladyship liked to refer to their interfering. But it had almost backfired on them, quite dangerously for her ladyship, before they had pieced together the identity of the murderer.
Ah well, the English aristocracy are not without their eccentricities, she thought as she closed the wardrobe door. At least Lady Montfort did not involve herself in the outrageous antics of the suffragette movement like the assertively outspoken Lady Constance Lytton, the middle-aged, unmarried daughter of the Earl of Lytton who had spent the last five years escalating her fight for the franchise from setting light to the occasional post-box to instigating a one-hundred-woman-strong hunger strike in Liverpool Prison, which had brought untold humiliation to her family. And neither did Lady Montfort design highly unsuitable underclothing like that embarrassing Lady Duff-Gordon with her fancy London salon, Madame Lucile, in Hanover Square. Everyone knew it was unsuitable for the wife of an aristocrat to earn her own living—a fact made quite clear by the Court of St. James when Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon was informed that he would not be permitted to present his entrepreneurial wife at court. Mrs. Jackson gave her mackintosh a good shake before hanging it up on a peg by her parlor door. No, there were never any unconventional and awkward displays from Lady Montfort, she had that at least to be thankful for. Her ladyship conducted her inquires with tact and quiet good manners as befitted her place in society.
Her unpacking complete, Mrs. Jackson washed her face and hands and walked through into her comfortable and well-furnished parlor where a tea tray had been left ready for her by the third housemaid. She had the rest of the afternoon to settle herself before she tackled whatever situations had blown up in her absence belowstairs—perhaps she might run over the household accounts after she finished her tea.
It took disciplined organization and considerable forethought to maintain a house as grand as Iyntwood and Mrs. Jackson was curious and a little nervous as to how the butler had managed without her. Mr. Hollyoak was without doubt their leader in the servants’ hall, but it was the housekeeper’s industrious and conscientious attention to the many details that an establishment of this size and importance required that made her an invaluable second-in-command, and she had a particular flair for organizing important occasions.
She opened her parlor window to the warm afternoon air and, hungry from her long railway journey home, sat down at the table in anticipation of a nice cup of tea and some hot buttered toast. But no sooner had she lifted the teapot than there came a knock on her parlor door. Before she could call out a reluctant summons to enter, it opened and Iyntwood’s cook put her head around it into the room. But I’ve only been back for less than an hour, Mrs. Jackson thought with exasperation as she noticed that Mrs. Thwaite’s long face was wearing a particularly peevish expression. Any expectation that she might have an hour or two to herself, to savor her homecoming, evaporated with the steam of the teakettle. In Mrs. Jackson’s experience, Mrs. Thwaite liked to get her version of any unpleasant event in first—usually because she was responsible for most of the tiffs that took place belowstairs at Iyntwood. And true to form, Mrs. Thwaite waded in with her usual asperity.
“So you’re back then and not before time,” the cook said, as if Mrs. Jackson had escaped from Iyntwood, been tracked down, and marched home in disgrace. “I hope you enjoyed yourself up there in Derbyshire, climbing up and down them hills all day.” Her curious eyes came to rest on Mrs. Jackson’s rosy cheeks and lightly sunburned nose, which gave her large gray eyes an even greater clarity and depth of color. “Looks like you had good weather for it then.” This was said with marked criticism to one who had been self-indulgent enough to enjoy the luxury of sunshine.
“It was a most enjoyable interlude, thank you, Mrs. Thwaite, but I am glad to be back.” She politely waited for what was coming next as she poured herself a cup of tea.
“You’ve no idea what’s been going on here while you were away, have you? Well, I am here to tell you it’s been quite a to-do.” Cook’s tone became more conciliatory as she sidled into the room with her head tilted to one side like a sly parrot scuttling along its perch. “I think Mr. Hollyoak is losing his marbles, I really do.”
The housekeeper did not respond to this disrespectful description of the state of the butler’s mental health as it was apparent that she was about to be caught up in one of the many power struggles between Iyntwood’s cook and its butler. It was an unequal struggle since the butler held complete sway over his dominions belowstairs, but Mrs. Thwaite was by nature a woman of considerable thrust and was not afraid to provoke a minor border skirmish now and then.
Uninvited, she sat her bony bottom down on a chair and folded her arms expectantly under her nonexistent bosom, and Mrs. Jackson understood that she was being invited to adjudicate in the age-old feud between cook and butler, which was dormant if she was vigilant but had obviously flared up in her absence. She fixed her tranquil gaze on Mrs. Thwaite’s face as she sipped her tea. To invite further information from Cook was unnecessary, as it would be forthcoming anyway, but she would not encourage her in the mistaken belief that she was her confederate in whatever state of affairs now existed in the servants’ hall.
“Frustration doesn’t begin to describe the last week in this house, Mrs. Jackson. All caused by a certain person who is determined to undermine my status, causing me great embarrassment in front of my staff.” She was referring to three kitchen maids and one scullery maid, all of whom worked directly under, what she often referred to as, her purview. The cook guarded her lofty status belowstairs—no one crossed her without thinking twice about it. No one except the housekeeper, and from long experience Mrs. Jackson picked her battles where the cook was concerned.
She guessed at the cause of the disagreement that must have raged throughout the servants’ hall. Mr. Hollyoak had probably refused to allow Cook to use the telephone to place her orders with local tradesmen, Fortnum & Mason, Harrods, and the Billingsgate fishmonger in London. It was an old battle that had been fought many times over the past two years. The instrument was in the butler’s pantry and might be used only by Mr. Hollyoak and Mrs. Jackson. It was a simple enough rule and understood by all as immutable. No doubt in the housekeeper’s absence Mrs. Thwaite had assumed that as acting second-in-command belowstairs, with temporary authority over the pantries and larders, she would also have access to the thrilling power of the telephone and its sophisticated place in their domestic world.
She listened in impassive silence to complaints and threats, which ended with the cook lifting her large red hands to her face in what Mrs. Jackson recognized as pretended despair. She noticed Mrs. Thwaite’s bright little eyes regarding her through her fingers to judge the effect of her suffering at the hands of the butler and felt a wave of sympathy for her old comrade Mr. Hollyoak. She could only imagine how draining her time away had been for him.
“Now, Mrs. Thwaite, it is a shame that you have upset yourself over this business. But, as you know, it is Mr. Hollyoak’s responsibility to order grocery items and other food supplies when I am not here to do it for him. I hope you have not made things difficult between you, because…” she lifted a hand to halt the flow of explanations that started to spill from the cook’s lips, “I was particularly banking on your being Mr. Hollyoak’s right hand whilst I was away and not—”
“He wouldn’t let me be his right hand, Mrs. Jackson.” Mrs. Thwaite could barely contain her indignation. “Wouldn’t even let me lift the earpiece of the tele—”
“And being his right hand meant that you also followed his orders, just as you would if I were here, don’t you see? Now, I will talk to Mr. Hollyoak and explain to him that your intention was only to help him, and I am sure everything will sort itself out in the next day or two.” If you will only let it, she added to herself.
With this she got up and went to the door, opening it wide for the cook to pass through ahead of her. “I have yet to meet with her ladyship.”
“She is presently taking her tea with that Miss Jekyll, the gardening woman, in the rose garden,” Mrs. Thwaite informed her as she stumped ahead of her down the back stairs to the servants’ hall.
“So, we have just the one guest then. What are you planning for their dinner?” And she respectfully listened to the cook’s menu for six courses, all of which sounded quite delectable and made her only too conscious that she was more than ready for her supper.
* * *
Clementine Elizabeth Talbot, the Countess of Montfort, was seated under a bower of fragrant, white climbing roses. An illustrated book, Roses for English Gardens, by the renowned horticulturist and plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll, lay open on her lap, and a pencil and notebook were on the table in front of her. She lifted her head to observe a majestic procession coming across the terrace toward her. Hollyoak was proceeding at a measured pace followed by his under-butler, Wilson, and first footman, James, each bearing the wherewithal for afternoon tea. She slipped a letter from their middle daughter, Althea, to mark her place in a chapter titled “Roses for Converting Ugliness to Beauty” and sat back in her chair with her eyes closed.
What are we to do about a young woman whose only interest in life is to travel? Althea’s letter was full of enthusiastic descriptions of her sailing expedition with her uncle Clarendon and older married cousin Betsy Twickenham around the fjords of Norway. Clementine had noted with resignation from her letter that Althea was hoping to sail on to the Baltic with them before returning home: “Well in time, Mama, I promise you, to come with you and Papa to Wethergill for the start of the grouse-shooting season on the twelfth of August.” Althea was already a month overdue for her return home. Why are young women these days so determinedly independent? she asked herself with more than just a little irritation. I was married and a mother by the time I was nineteen.
Clementine was anticipating with pleasure the gathering of her three adult children for the Talbots’ annual trip to Inverness for the start of the Glorious Twelfth. Their elder daughter, Verity, would be joining them from her home in Paris and bringing her two little boys. Clementine smiled at the thought of her grandsons, it had been nearly six months since she had last seen them. Lord Montfort and their son, Harry, would take off to spend long hours with their guests on the grouse moors, leaving Clementine, her two daughters, and her grandchildren to spend long, uninterrupted, happy days with close friends away from the obligations of the estate.
The warm summer air carrying the drowsy and hypnotic sound of late-afternoon birdsong was now accompanied by the soft chink of china and the rattle of teaspoons as Hollyoak and his attendants set about laying the table with the reverence that such ceremonies required.
Clementine opened her eyes and observed a short, rounded figure whose shape somewhat resembled a large onion, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, approaching at an energetic pace. She closed the book on Althea’s letter and laid aside her plans for the family visit to the Highlands of Scotland.
“Ah, tea,” Miss Jekyll said. “Gardening on a warm afternoon is such thirsty work.” She peeled off a pair of heavy leather gardening gloves and dropped them onto the lawn beside her chair. “I am glad to say that Mr. Thrower’s valiant fight to save the rose garden has been victorious, Lady Montfort. Not a sign of black spot anywhere; everything is thriving and quite healthy. He must be careful to spray again in autumn and again, to be on the safe side, early next year, before things start to sprout. But a capital job though, you have to admit it all looks quite splendid.” She turned to survey the immaculate rose garden stretching before them in formal beds that spilled a profusion of blooms in ivory, buffs, golds, reds, carmines, and pinks onto the smooth grass pathways intersecting each parterre.
“When Thrower appeared at the end of April holding a leafless rose stem in one hand and a handful of black-and-yellow leaves in the other, I must admit I was close to panic.” Clementine would not forget the shock of seeing leaves that had unfurled in the first warm days of spring with the glossy gleam of vigorous health, curled and discolored two weeks later with a virulent case of black spot. Without hesitation she had written to Gertrude Jekyll begging for her help. “I can’t thank you enough, Miss Jekyll, for coming to our rescue. Once one rose goes down with the disease, you live in dread that it will spread to the others before you have a chance to treat them.” And knowing what was expected of her, Clementine did not keep her guest waiting but sat forward on the edge of her lawn chair to pour tea.
She was well aware how lucky she was that Miss Jekyll, old friend and very distant neighbor, was prepared to motor up from Surrey to spend a couple of days pottering around her gardens as their guest at Iyntwood. And knowing how much Gertrude Jekyll enjoyed her food, Clementine had been careful to instruct her cook to be lavish; Miss Jekyll’s time was much sought after. Clementine smiled as she thought that asking Gertrude Jekyll to come and advise her head gardener on cures for rose diseases was rather like asking the late King Edward to pop over and give some instruction to the butler on what port to lay down in the cellar.
Miss Jekyll, now comfortably seated in a wide lawn chair, fixed expectant eyes on a Victoria sponge cake sandwiched with raspberry jam and thick yellow cream adorning the middle of the table on its crystal cake stand. And the two women fell into the most satisfying of topics, that of roses: the best breeds to cultivate and the benefits of different fertilizers.
They were interrupted by the arrival of Lord Montfort, who came across the terrace toward them, followed by his dogs. Ralph Cuthbert Talbot, the Earl of Montfort, was a calmly mannered man, with the habitual leisurely air of the landed aristocrat. In looking up to greet her husband, Clementine noticed his preoccupied expression and suspected that all was not quite well in his world.
“Lovely afternoon…” He put an affectionate hand on his wife’s shoulder. “Just heard from Harry; he wrote to say that he will join us at Wethergill, but only for a couple of weeks; he and Tom Sopwith are hard at work on testing a new aeroplane design.” Their eyes briefly met over Miss Jekyll’s head.
Oh, dear, she thought, careful to keep any concern to herself, for any mention of their only son’s fascination with flight and exploring new innovations in aeroplane design with his engineering friend at Mr. Sopwith’s aeroplane manufactory always stirred a little anxiety in Clementine’s maternal bosom. Last winter Harry had been offered a commission by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to join the new Royal Naval Air Service and had added the rank of captain to his traditional title: Viscount Lord Haversham. “I am so glad he can get away,” was her response to this news; there was no need to burden their guest with their family problems. “Miss Jekyll has just been congratulating us on the success of our fight to save the roses from black spot.”
Gertrude Jekyll laughed and lifted her second cup of tea to her lips. “Yes indeed, Lord Montfort, as you can see, the garden is certainly at its best.” Her dark brown eyes shone with health and good humor behind wire-rimmed spectacles. How old is she now? thought Clementine as she gazed at Gertrude Jekyll’s large, tanned face deeply lined from exposure to all weathers. She must be in her seventies and she has twice the energy of a woman half her age.
Underneath her serviceable straw hat Miss Jekyll’s hair was quite gray, but her large, strong hands held her teacup with light delicacy and her movements were brisk and assured; there was no indication from her vital good health and abundant energy that this little tub of a woman had any intention of slowing down the tempo of her busy and purposeful life. She neatly wolfed down a couple of sandwiches as if by sleight of hand, and, with her mouth full, she nodded an enthusiastic “Yes,” to Hollyoak’s proffered slice of cake.
Lord Montfort set down his cup and dropped a hand to offer the last bite of his sandwich to the dog lying closest to him, causing the heads of the other two lying on the grass at his feet to lift in immediate expectation. He reached for two more sandwiches, so as to avoid hurt feelings, and said in his quiet and unemphatic way, “I’m afraid I heard quite the most depressing news this afternoon.” He had their instant attention. “Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria has just declared war on Serbia. Apparently he does not believe that the Serbian government made a sufficient attempt to comply with his request to deal effectively with their anti-Austrian rebels. I was praying this wouldn’t happen after the assassination of his nephew in Sarajevo but, unfortunately, it has.”
“I heard that his demands were wholly unreasonable.” Gertrude Jekyll’s profession kept her busy at the country houses of Britain’s top families in government, so she was well informed. “And what about the German kaiser? You can be sure he’s backing the emperor.” She put down her half-eaten piece of cake. This was indeed grave news.
“The situation is just about as bad as it can possibly be. Serbia complied with the Austrian government’s demands the best they could—but they refused to have an Austrian police force maintain law and order in their country. So Austria has declared war. This means, almost inevitably, that Russia will rumble to her feet in defense of Serbia and in defiance of Austria and, if so, it would be impossible for Germany and France to refrain from lending a hand to one side or the other. So at the moment we are in measurable, or imaginable, distance of a real disaster in Europe.”
“But we would not involve ourselves, surely?” Clementine felt a ripple of alarm as she reluctantly left the serene world of gardening and roses to join a greater one that suffered far more threats in this complicated day and age than simple black spot. “Surely it’s just a storm in a teacup?” she asked hopefully, lifting her cup to her lips and taking a sip of China tea.
The ominous word war hung in the soft afternoon air. If Britain was pulled into war, Harry and his group of pilots would take off in their ridiculous flying machines to do something he often referred to jubilantly as “air reconnaissance.” She glanced at her husband’s serious face, no wonder he had looked so tired when he’d walked across the terrace to join them. “Surely it’s just Austrian bluster in response to what happened in Sarajevo? Isn’t that what everyone is saying?” She managed to remain calm as she said this, but underneath her polite suggestion alarm bells rang. Althea, sailing toward the Baltic Sea, was probably already putting ashore somewhere in Estonia. Oh good heavens above, they simply must put about and come home now; her fingers tightened on the fragile handle of the cup she was holding and she carefully set it down in its saucer on the table. It was out of the question that Althea continue on with this ridiculous junket if there was unrest in Europe. And she would write immediately to Verity and tell her to consider extending her month’s stay in England until this falling-out in Europe was well and truly over.
Her husband sensed her alarm and hastened to reassure: “I have telegraphed to Clarendon to advise him to turnabout and head for home—with our daughter onboard, no matter how persuasive she is about exploring the Baltic. There is probably no real need to curtail their yachting holiday, but we should play it safe.” Clementine blessed her husband’s unruffled and farsighted view, and his ability to put a firm foot down where Althea’s gadding-about was concerned and only prayed that her cousin Clarendon had the strength of character not to be persuaded otherwise by their strong-minded daughter.
Having reassured his wife of their daughter’s imminent arrival home, Lord Montfort returned to the possible crisis in Europe. “I hope it is a minor storm, but the assassination of Franz Ferdinand has given the Austrians the excuse they were looking for to bring Serbia fully under their control. And now we must all sit back and wait to see how things roll out from here.” His wife noticed that he did not add And pray they roll out smoothly, because she was quite aware that prayer would not help in this particular instance.
Copyright © 2017 Tessa Arlen.
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Tessa Arlen is the author of Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman and Death Sits Down to Dinner. She is the daughter of a British diplomat and had lived in or visited her parents in Singapore, Berlin, the Persian Gulf, Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She came to the US in 1980 and worked as an HR recruiter for the LA Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, where she interviewed her future husband for a job. She lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.