In honor of Tessa Arlen's Agatha Award nomination for Best First Novel, here is an excerpt of the first chapter of Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman!
Lady Montfort has been planning her annual summer costume ball for months with scrupulous care. Pulling together the food, flowers and a thousand other details for one of the most significant social occasions of the year is her happily accepted responsibility. But when her husband's degenerate nephew is found murdered, it's more than the ball that is ruined. In fact, Lady Montfort fears that the official police enquiry, driven by petty snobbery and class prejudice, is pointing towards her son as a potential suspect.
Taking matters into her own hands, the rather over-imaginative countess enlists the help of her pragmatic housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, to investigate the case, track down the women that vanished the night of the murder, and clear her son's name. As the two women search for a runaway housemaid and a headstrong young woman, they unearth the hidden lives of Lady Montfort's close friends, servants and family and discover the identity of a murderer hiding in plain sight.
On the morning of Lord and Lady Montfort’s annual summer ball, their housekeeper, Edith Jackson, was up, washed, and almost dressed by six o’clock. She unraveled her long bedtime plait, brushed out her hair, and, with a mouth full of hairpins, swept the thick auburn swath into a twist at the nape of her neck, deftly securing it in place. The glance she cast into the looking glass was brief, made only to reassure that she was presentable. Then she rang for the third housemaid to bring breakfast up to her parlor.
As Mrs. Jackson sat down to eat her bacon and eggs, she mentally prepared herself for a day that would be packed with complicated, overlapping timetables and countless calls on her patience and tact. She was quite certain the house was ready for the greatest event of its year, but she did not allow herself to be complacent about her ladyship. The countess often awoke to her best ideas on the morning of the ball. In past years, dancing by the lake or midnight supper in the ruin of the old moated castle were inspirations that had struck Lady Montfort only at the last moment. Mrs. Jackson knew from long experience that it did not pay to be overconfident about readiness where her ladyship was concerned. Don’t tempt fate, the housekeeper told herself, not until after your meeting with her at nine o’clock.
She finished her second cup of tea and washed her hands before leaving the sanctuary of her rooms to descend three flights of stairs to the servants’ hall. Walking past the kitchen, she increased her pace as she heard the strident voice of the cook harrying her kitchen maids to greater efforts. She was careful not to turn her head in case she caught Mrs. Thwaite’s eye; an early encounter with Cook, who was of a garrulous nature, would certainly slow her down. Fortunately, Cook was wholly absorbed in straining a large copper pan of veal stock, and Mrs. Jackson made her escape out of the scullery door, unnoticed.
Once outside, she rounded the tall laurel hedge at the edge of the kitchen yard. The house and its gardens lay before her, glorious in the morning light. These hours in the garden, when the day was fresh and new, were a favorite time for Mrs. Jackson. The only movement was the swoop and flutter of birds as they caught insects and drank fountain-water, the only sound the jubilant trill of their early morning song. She stopped, turned her face up to the sun, closed her eyes, and took a slow breath. The air was fresh with the earthy fragrance of rainwater and the sweet, rich scent of freshly mown lawns and scythed meadow grass. She allowed herself a few moments to enjoy the peace and solitude of the garden, a brief respite from the clamor belowstairs in the house. Glancing at her wristwatch, she saw that it was nearly seven o’clock and set off at a fast clip along the drive. Whatever you do now, she told herself, don’t fritter away your time, or you’ll lose the day.
When she stepped through the green, arched wood door in the brick wall of Iyntwood’s kitchen garden she was transported from the empty, smooth lawns, groomed parterres, and shrubberies of the house into a different world altogether, but one she found just as pleasing in its own way. Abundant ranks of vegetable, fruit, and flower beds stretched before her, bristling with frames, trellises and bamboo stakes supporting the lush crops of early summer. An orderly vegetable garden never failed to gladden her practical heart; there was comfort in the sight of such well-tended profusion.
In the middle distance she saw Ernest Stafford chest-deep in rows of vivid blue delphiniums. He was obviously ready to wait on her in the cutting garden rather than the elderly head gardener, Mr. Thrower. Momentarily confused, she came to a halt and became engrossed in the list of instructions in her hand, to give herself time to adjust to this change in plans. When she moved forward she was conscious to keep the tenor of her meeting with Mr. Stafford formal; their past few exchanges had left her with the distinct impression that he was one of those men who didn’t pay quite enough attention to the importance of social convention. He was often direct with her, which she had no objection to, but on occasion his demeanor bordered on unwelcome familiarity.
In Mrs. Jackson’s limited experience, men who worked in the open air were often withdrawn and not given to conversation. But Ernest Stafford was a cut above the average gardener: he was a landscape architect, which presented a puzzle to her rather hierarchical cast of mind and stern regard for social distinctions. That he was an educated man who held a job where his hands were often dirty no doubt contributed to Mr. Stafford’s disconcerting social manners, she thought. And most certainly his success with the new sunken garden, and Lady Montfort’s entranced enthusiasm for everything he had accomplished there, had rather gone to his head.
Mrs. Jackson allocated exactly twenty minutes to spend in the kitchen garden before she moved on to the more important tasks of her day, and as a result she was a little brusquer than she intended to be as she said good morning.
“I know what’s on your mind,” he said in his easy way, oblivious to her stiffening back. “The delphinium—no need to worry, they are perfect despite the rain and should open up completely by this afternoon, once you have them inside. But I think we need something for contrast; lime-green amaranths would set off those stunning blues beautifully, don’t you agree?” She nodded, and couldn’t help but admire Mr. Stafford’s unerring sense of balance when it came to color; Mr. Thrower would undoubtedly have suggested a commonplace and insipid pink. Mr. Stafford’s creative eye for composition awoke all sorts of possibilities and she eagerly asked which roses were at their best.
An unhurried litany on flowers took place between them, of which colors, scents, and contrasting foliage choices were the only topic. On safe and familiar ground, Mrs. Jackson regained her composure. With decisions made for all the rooms in the house, she finally lifted her chin and, without turning her head in his direction, risked a tentative glance. It was difficult to judge the expression on his face, as his eyes were hidden by the shadow of his hat brim, but she noticed that the set of his mouth was good-humored and relaxed.
Mrs. Jackson was tall for a woman, almost as tall as Stafford. She carried herself well with an upright, quiet dignity that was accentuated by the simple cut of her clothes. Now in her middle thirties, she believed that once, when she was young, she might have been quite a good-looking woman. She certainly didn’t think she was now.
Emerging from her moment of introspection, she was embarrassed to see Mr. Stafford watching her, as if he knew what she had been thinking. She swallowed slightly and felt a complete fool.
“The lads will carry them all up to the house for you immediately, Mrs. Jackson. I’d better go and help Mr. Thrower.”
She heard Mr. Thrower’s cracked old voice, clearly audible even at this distance, lifted in cries of alarm and impatience from the direction of the vegetable beds in protest against the clumsy handling of tender lettuce and purslane.
Set at ease by everyday ritual and past the worst of her anxiety, she realized their time had come to an end. She thanked Mr. Stafford for his help and watched him turn and walk back down the path toward the men in the vegetable garden. She noticed that he held himself upright: back straight, broad shoulders squared, when most gardeners were often round-shouldered and stooped. She ran her hands down the front of her skirt to smooth its folds, fixed her attention firmly forward to the business of the day ahead, and set off back the way she had come.
When she entered the kitchen courtyard, she saw the first of the wagons from the dairy parked outside the kitchen door. She called out a greeting to the driver, and walked through the doors and down the steps to the orderly and familiar world over which she held dominion: the storerooms, pantries, larders, laundries, and the servants’ hall, which stretched in a subterranean maze beneath the ground floor of Iyntwood, Lord Montfort’s country house.
* * *
The private rooms of Clementine Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Montfort, were situated in the west wing of the house and looked out over the rose garden. Her bedroom was spacious and airy with tall windows on two sides; the walls a deep Wedgwood-blue silk damask, the furnishings in soft grays and silvers. It was in these elegant and supremely comfortable surroundings that Lady Montfort awoke to her day, and on this particular day, long before her breakfast tray was brought up by her maid Pettigrew.
Her first groping thought as she emerged from a deep sleep was whether it was raining, and with this concern she was immediately awake. It had been drizzling off and on throughout the preceding afternoon and evening, and she had gone to bed praying it would clear in the night. She sat up, swung her legs out of bed, walked to the nearest window, pulled back the heavy velvet curtains, and gazed out onto a sun-drenched lawn. Perfect! She turned her gaze upward—not a cloud in sight. Even better! Elated that somehow she had cheated the weather, which was so often unpredictable in June, Clementine clapped her hands together and turned to face the day with even greater energy and resolve.
Through the open window the sweet morning air poured into the room and she felt a momentary thrill of eager expectancy, like waking up on Christmas morning when she was a child with the prospect of a huge treat in store. She would forgo her morning ride, she decided, as there was far too much to do in preparation for the ball tonight.
She rang for her maid, but when Pettigrew arrived with her tray, Clementine was too charged to linger over breakfast. She distractedly nibbled toast and marmalade, her attention focused on last-minute plans. Having had a moment to think over all that must be done as she sipped her tea, her mood of anticipation and pleasure at the prospect of tonight’s magnificent ball was intermittently eroded by underlying anxieties that would be hers until she met with her housekeeper and was reassured that no problems had emerged since their meeting the evening before.
Clementine planned the festivities for her annual summer costume ball with scrupulous care. It was a significant social occasion and stood for something a little more momentous than the opportunity to get together to enjoy good food and dancing in the company of their friends and family. It was important to remind their friends and neighbors that despite whatever new economic upheavals might be imminent in their twentieth-century lives, the Talbots’ wealth was copious, their holdings and estates were plentiful and productive, and their place in society was therefore secure. Unlike the many brash arrivistes who had bought their way into upper society, Clementine was careful to ensure that her ball did not smack of vulgar ostentation but displayed the elegant, understated style that stood for the effortless security of coming from an ancient family entrenched in the county for centuries.
She walked to the west windows and looked down on the rose garden, which had been carefully tidied to remove all traces of yesterday’s rain. She watched several men from the estate stringing pretty, painted, paper Japanese candle-lanterns across the garden and into the surrounding trees. Immediately below on the terrace, she was pleased to see that every potted palm, scented shrub, and small flowering tree had already been carted up from the glasshouses and the dowager’s conservatory and were now being arranged to create intimate bowers on the terrace for her guests to sit out and enjoy supper. She hoped this would transform the terrace from an austere blank of gray flagstone into a fairyland found only in the balmy, soft nights of the Mediterranean, or perhaps, she thought with a little stab of apprehension, the set of Gilbert and Sullivan’s production of The Mikado. They must be careful not to overdo the paper lanterns.
As Pettigrew withdrew after helping her mistress dress, Clementine was already running her eye and pencil down one of several lists that her maid had brought up on her breakfast tray. She stopped work for a moment and threw down her pencil. She rather wished that Althea, their middle daughter, who was on a walking tour in Switzerland with friends, and their eldest daughter, Verity, married and living in Paris with her young family, were able to join Iyntwood’s festivities this year. This would be the first time since the girls had come out that they would miss the fun. It just wouldn’t be the same, she thought, without the shared silliness of getting ready for the ball together with her grown-up daughters.
Harry would be with them, of course, as he was coming home today from Oxford for the long vacation, and Harry was tremendous company. But sons, she had reluctantly come to realize as their children had grown, who were so much more independent than daughters, somehow had the knack of staying in a house without actually being present.
A new thought crossed her mind, and, discarding her lists, Clementine wandered into her dressing room to take a good long look at her costume for the ball. She had taken the idea from the little Sèvres porcelain figure, in the library, of an eighteenth-century French milkmaid. Holding her dress up against herself, she gazed critically at her reflection in the looking glass. It was certainly very elegant, she thought, as she twisted from side to side to take in all angles. The jade-and-ivory silk of the skirt à la polonaise was finely embroidered, and the flat, rolled-straw hat would look quite the thing and rather chic with curled and powdered hair falling about her shoulders.
She transferred her attention away from the dress and leaned in to gaze thoughtfully at her reflection in the glass. Large gray eyes with delicate, dark brows stared back; her rich brown hair was still glossy but it was beginning to show gray at her temples. She peered closely at fine lines gathering in the corners of her eyes. She knew she wasn’t considered pretty by the rather lush standards of the day; her elegant, slender frame was far from that of a pouter pigeon, and she liked to think hers was a lean and intelligent face that would bear up over the coming years. Bone structure was a valuable asset, she reminded herself, as she turned herself sideways and spread the skirt of her dress around her slender hips.
Her reverie was interrupted by the welcome arrival of her housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, who was holding several lists of her own and appeared fully in charge of her day. Jackson, always self-possessed, looked positively rigid with intention this morning, which caused Clementine to shed most of her anxieties about Iyntwood’s preparedness. She was always reassured by her housekeeper’s composure and equanimity; Jackson was such a soothing individual and so extraordinarily capable. George Hollyoak, Iyntwood’s butler and majordomo, was a faultless person, but she saw her housekeeper as Iyntwood’s internal-combustion engine, propelling a household, with upward of sixty rooms and a staff of fourteen resident servants, resolutely forward to meet each day with unfailing and dedicated service.
“Morning, Jackson, how are things?” Mrs. Jackson was standing at a respectful distance by the door. “Yes, do come in. Have you seen Mr. Thrower this morning? Please, before anything else, tell me the rain hasn’t ruined the flowers.”
“Not at all, m’lady, everything is at its best.”
“Well, that’s a relief. Anything horrid I should know about, any last-minute surprises?”
Clementine seated herself in a comfortable chair by the window and Mrs. Jackson took two steps toward her so that she wouldn’t have to raise her voice. There was a surprise, Clementine thought. She could tell by her housekeeper’s hesitation, but she knew Mrs. Jackson would have a solution to go with it, as no problem was ever mentioned without one.
“Mr. Evans of the Market Wingley orchestra sent a message over last night: his first violinist has sprained his wrist and is unable to play.”
“There’s always something at the last moment, isn’t there? How many violinists do they need, for heaven’s sake?” Clementine did not allow herself to overreact, but patiently waited for Mrs. Jackson’s way out.
“The Market Wingley usually plays with three, m’lady. I sent Dick over to Mr. Simkins, as the schoolmaster is a very accomplished player, and he sent word this morning he would be happy to join the orchestra tonight.” Mrs. Jackson produced her perfect resolution to the problem with pacific calm, and Clementine made sure it was properly acknowledged.
“Oh, well done, Jackson, five steps ahead as always. I thought we had a real problem on our hands for a moment. Mr. Simkins? Why, that’s Violet’s father. If she’s up-to-the-moment on her duties, will you make sure she spends some time with him?” Clementine relaxed and then tightened up again. “What about oysters—did we manage to get some?”
“A bit difficult at this time of year, m’lady, but we were fortunate. They arrived from Billingsgate on the early train with the other fresh fish this morning. We are completely prepared in the kitchen.”
“Well, it appears we are on top of things. I’ll join you and Hollyoak after luncheon for a quick walk-through, if you are sure you will have the flowers done by then.”
Mrs. Jackson assured her that she would.
“Now here are my lists, no real changes.” Regardless of how unnecessary she knew it was, she went about the task of updating her long-suffering housekeeper with her annotated lists of last-minute needs and wants. Her annual summer ball must always surpass the spectacle of luxury and the cachet of previous years and nothing must be overlooked. But what Clementine did not foresee was that it would become one of the most talked-about events of the season.
Copyright © 2015 Tessa Arlen.
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Tessa Arlen, the daughter of a British diplomat, 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 U.S. in 1980 and worked as an H.R. recruiter for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, where she interviewed her future husband for a job. This is Tessa's first novel. She lives in Washington.