Death Sits Down to Dinner: New Excerpt

Death Sits Down to Dinner by Tessa Arlen is the 2nd installment of the Lady Montfort Mystery Series where a dinner party of London's elites turns deadly and Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson must find the killer before he strikes again (Available March 29, 2016). 

Lady Montfort is thrilled to receive an invitation to a dinner party hosted by her close friend Hermione Kingsley, the patroness of England's largest charity. Hermione has pulled together a select gathering to celebrate Winston Churchill's 39th birthday. Some of the oldest families in the country have gathered to toast the dangerously ambitious and utterly charming First Lord of the Admiralty. But when the dinner ends, one of the gentlemen remains seated at the table, head down among the walnut shells littering the cloth and a knife between his ribs.

Summoned from Iyntwood, Mrs. Jackson helps her mistress trace the steps of suspects both upstairs and downstairs as Hermione's household prepares to host a highly anticipated charity event. Determined to get to the bottom of things, Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson unravel the web of secrecy surrounding the bright whirlwind of London society, investigating the rich, well-connected and seeming do-gooders in a race against time to stop the murderer from striking again.

Chapter One

A wet and miserable late-autumn day had turned into a bitterly cold winter night as the sun sank unseen below a horizon obscured by a bank of thick gray clouds. The wind veered to the east and the first strong gust gathered force from the estuary and bellowed up the Thames, blowing sprays of puddle water into the air and plastering wet leaves against the legs of those unfortunate enough still to be hurrying homeward.

Tucked away in the quiet comfort of her bedroom at Montfort House, Clementine Talbot, the Countess of Montfort, and her maid, Pettigrew, were absorbed in the leisurely business of dressing her for dinner. As they went diligently about their work, engrossed in the particulars of choosing the right shoes for her evening dress and making difficult decisions on the appropriate jewels for the occasion, they enjoyed an intermittent exchange of information on the new cook who had recently taken up her appointment at Montfort House.

“Her food is quite nice, I suppose, considering how young she is and not even French, but from somewhere in the north of England; some industrial town like Newcastle or … Sheffield.” Clementine suppressed a smile at Pettigrew’s grudging praise. Her maid viewed all changes in the Talbots’ London house servants’ hall with skepticism and was not naturally given to enthusiasm.

The search for the new cook had been a long and worrying business. Clementine was well aware there was little enough to entice her husband away from the family estates at Iyntwood to London. But once convinced he should make the effort, it did not do for him to eat his dinner at the Carlton or White’s, where he heard horribly exaggerated accounts from his friends of lucrative rents garnered from the lease of their London houses to the nouveaux riches.

“Lord Montfort must not eat all his meals at one of his clubs when he comes up to town, White,” Clementine had reminded the Montfort House butler when after weeks of interviews he had found no exceptional candidate. “It prompts him to question the prudence of keeping on the expense of a full establishment in London.” She knew the butler would understand the wisdom of thisthinking. “It is absolutely vital that a first-rate cook be found before his lordship’s next visit.”

White had certainly more than redoubled his efforts. And when the perfect candidate accepted an offer of employment a collective sigh of relief had resounded throughout the household belowstairs that their future employment was once again secure. And upstairs, Clementine had given thanks that she would continue with a house of her own to stay in whenever she chose to come up to town.

Persuaded by his wife that the domestic crisis was over and breakfast, luncheon, and dinner at Montfort House would no longer regrettably remind him of Eton, Lord Montfort had come up to London for the first time in months. He had enjoyed a delectable dinner of veal consommé, succulent trout in crisp blanched almonds, game quenelles and truffles, followed by a roast goose with a red-currant glaze, and pronounced that London was almost civilized.

“Her food not only tastes sublime, it looks wonderful, too,” Clementine said, regarding herself critically in the looking glass. She wondered if wearing her hair piled high toward her forehead was flattering now that she had reached her forties.

“She’s got her little ways though,” said Pettigrew and wrinkled up her nose. Clementine knew, of old, that her maid could never resist taking some of the gilt off the gingerbread; it was almost expected of her.

“I think you should wear the diamond circlet when we do your hair this way, m’lady.” She held her choice over Clementine’s head, and they both gazed thoughtfully into the glass.

Clementine shook her head. “No, it’s a bit too ornate for this evening.” Pettigrew produced a more modest affair. “Yes, that will do nicely.” She returned to their earlier conversation. “What little ways?”

“Well, nothing at all really, m’lady. She gave us a nice beef stew for dinner the other day for servants’ dinner, called it by some French name. It had two bottles of wine in it.” And catching Clementine’s startled look, Pettigrew used her fading-away voice to say, “Oh no, m’lady, not the good stuff.” And feeling that more explanation might be required: “Just some of the ordinary from France she said it was. Does wonders for the cheaper cuts of beef.” Clementine’s shoulders came down a notch, and Pettigrew continued, “Anyway, she announced at servants’ dinner today that she would prefer us to call her by her nickname.” She paused and glanced at Clementine in the looking glass.

A little warning bell began to chime in the distance and Clementine struggled for outer calm. It was hard enough to find and keep good servants in London without making things any more complicated than they already were. There was a shortage of talented cooks who were also sober, honest, and didn’t cause havoc belowstairs. Now one merely prayed that the new candidate would fit into the claustrophobic and tightly knit group whose members made up her servants’ hall. But Pettigrew no doubt expected a reaction to her tidbit and Clementine dutifully obliged.

“Her nickname? Oh really? How awfully nice of her!” Clementine said in a bright sort of voice. While it was important to take an interest in the lives of those who worked for her, she believed it best not to involve herself in the servants’ social interaction with one another, it only made muddles.

Pettigrew, concentrating on the finishing touches to Clementine’s hair as she fixed the diamond half-circlet firmly into place, took a moment to reply, “Yes, m’lady, she is a nice young woman, very friendly. But as Mr. White says, it’s important to observe decorum and the proper respect for each other.” Pettigrew was a traditionalist, a member of the old school of personal servants, and would be appalled, thought Clementine, if anyone other than her family called her Edna. She hurried to agree.

“Of course, he’s absolutely right; important to observe social convention, saves a lot of misunderstandings in the long run. Whatis her Christian name by the way?”

“I think it might be Ethel, m’lady. But she said, ‘Just call me Ginger.’” Pettigrew pulled her mouth into a tight knot as she slid in the last hairpin and lifted her eyes to gaze with reproach at Clementine’s face reflected in the looking glass.

“Ginger,” Clementine was puzzled until she recalled her only meeting with the new cook. “Ah yes, all that glorious titian hair. So do you? Call her Ginger, I mean.” She was careful to maintain only a polite interest.

“No, m’lady, we most certainly do not.” The lines around Pettigrew’s mouth deepened. “We may not be a sophisticated bunch belowstairs, but we have our standards. We call her Mrs. Harding, as we ought.”

“And very right and proper, too,” was Clementine’s only comment.

They lifted their heads as they heard a powerful gust of wind chasing down the street.

“Hark at that, m’lady, wouldn’t be surprised if we lost a few roof tiles tonight.” Pettigrew, happily complacent they were not her roof tiles, searched for the left hand to the pair of Clementine’s evening gloves. The bedroom windows rattled in their heavy frames as another gust clouted the front of the house.

“Yes, it’s definitely taken a turn for the worse,” Clementine observed, equally unworried. “Thank you, Pettigrew. No need to wait up, we’ll be back late. But perhaps come in before I leave to make sure I have everything.” A small puff of smoke blew back down the chimney.

Pettigrew laid the gloves on the dressing table, retrieved Clementine’s evening handbag from the bed, made a quick inventory of its contents, and laid it next to the gloves. She reached over to her mistress and carefully smoothed the neckline at the back of her dress, then hurried off to the servants’ hall for a nice cup of hot cocoa and, guessed Clementine, for further assessment of Ginger’s other interesting eccentricities.

Clementine walked over to her bedroom window and pulled back the heavy velvet curtain. The draft creeping in around the edges of the window frames struck cold against her bare arms, but she leaned forward to look down the street in time to see a quick blue flare at the bottom of the square as the lamplighter lit the last lamp. She watched him climb down his ladder, swing it up onto his shoulder, and stagger into the wind, his cap pulled down on his head and scarf tied tightly up around his neck. In the light from the lamppost outside Montfort House she watched the last of the leaves that had blown off the plane trees in the center of the square fly upward, as if trying to reattach themselves. She let the curtain fall back and with an exaggerated shiver turned back into the welcoming brightness of the room; a log fell in the grate and a pretty gold and ormolu clock chimed a silvery half past the hour. The door opened and Lord Montfort walked into the room

“What a wretched night,” Clementine said and recognized, too late, her husband’s raised eyebrows and slightly downturned mouth—customary indications of reluctance and resignation in the face of duty—and realized she had said the wrong thing.

“‘Wretched’ isn’t what springs to mind. ‘Unbearable’ is more like it.” Her husband walked over to the fireplace and, flipping the tails of his coat out of the way, sat down in a chair, his legs extended and crossed comfortably at the ankle. He must have heard his tone and decided it sounded ungracious because he looked up at her with an appreciative smile and said, “You look rather nice. Is that new?”

She cast an assessing glance at her dress in the pier glass. She thought the color beautiful, a shade of rich, old gold, the narrow skirt falling in three diagonal layers of lace-edged tulle from a fitted bodice of pomegranate-red silk velvet, with delicate gold tulle split sleeves to just above the elbow.

“Yes, it’s from Worth. Like it?”

“Yes, very much, perfect color for you.” He always appreciated the trouble she took to dress in elegant clothes with simple lines.

She smoothed down the front of the dress and went to sit at her dressing table, head tilted to one side to put on her earrings.

“How’s Olive bearing up?” He was making a supreme effort to shake off low spirits as he politely inquired after her afternoon round of visits.

“She’s in a bit of a fluster over poor old Sir Thom.” Clementine laughed as she referred to one of her closest friends and patron of the arts, Olive, Lady Shackleton, and her ongoing fascination with Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor and director of his own symphony orchestra; he was also the managing director of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and impresario of His Majesty’s Theatre, and privately referred to by the three of them as Sir Thom, because of his tendency to stray, like a male cat when the moon was full, from his current mistress, Maud, Lady Cunard.

“Oh, and the Shackletons will not be with us for dinner tonight,” Clementine said, delivering what she knew would be bad news.

“Shackleton not coming to Hermione’s tonight?” His dismay was palpable. The last lifeboat onboard the sinking ship of his evening had been found to have a hole in its bottom.

Clementine did what she could to reassure: “But Henry and Emily Wentworth and Aaron Greenburg will be there. And do you remember Lady Ryderwood? We met her at the Waterfords’. No? Yes, of course you remember her. She is the widow of Sir Francis Ryderwood; they lived on the Continent.”

The company of Lord Montfort’s good friends Henry Wentworth and Aaron Greenberg, with the added attraction of one of London’s most lovely widows, did little to dispel gloom that had probably been building all afternoon. Clementine knew what was causing her husband’s despondency, but she did nothing more to try to convince him that their evening would be enjoyable. It was too late: his morale had already taken a nose-dive, so all efforts would be wasted.

At tonight’s dinner there could not be enough old friends to make the evening palatable for her husband. The principal guest, the man whose birthday was being celebrated at the house of their close friend Hermione Kingsley, was the First Lord of the Admiralty; a man whom Lord Montfort had never approved of and whose company he took considerable pains to avoid. There were plenty of men who held positions of power and responsibility in government with whom Lord Montfort got on quite well, in spite of differences in their politics. Winston Churchill was not one of them.

“The one thing I can never forgive Churchill for is his treachery…”

“Treachery”? Surely this was a bit steep? All the man had done was leave one political party to join another. He had merely left the Tories to join the Liberals. Clementine prepared herself for a long list of Churchill’s many faults.

“Treachery rewarded by a meteor-like career from a lowly undersecretary,” her husband reminded her, as if she could possibly ever forget, “to home secretary in just six years … not to mention his self-aggrandizing and grandstanding.”

Well, of course he has a point. Winston Churchill’s habitual indulgence in passionate rhetoric can be rather trying.

“But worst of all is the man’s complete nincompoopery and his … well … his showing off.”

Clementine tried to find patience. Please, not the Siege of Sidney Street again. She sighed as she recognized the prelude to her husband’s favorite diatribe toward a man he despised.

But she was evidently not to be spared. The slums of Whitechapel, made notorious by Jack the Ripper twenty-five years earlier, had provided the backdrop for a calamitous incident in Winston Churchill’s early career as home secretary. The police had made a telephone call to Churchill for permission to call in military support in the arrest of a gang of desperate Latvian thieves who had killed three policemen in an armed robbery and were now trapped in a dilapidated, terraced house in Sidney Street.

“What I can’t begin to understand is Churchill’s determination to thrust himself forward and rush off to join a scene which was already verging on the edge of violent disaster. It was an action most unsuited to his position. Dispatching the Scots Guards from the Tower of London should have been enough. But his appalling display of eagerness to personally direct their efforts in storming that shabby little house was undignified.” Like most men of his background, Lord Montfort despised public displays of enthusiasm, he thought them vulgar and demeaning. “And he used field artillery, for God’s sake!”

He stared ferociously into the flames leaping in the fireplace and Clementine knew he was not quite finished.

“Of course the house caught fire and the fire brigade was called. And what did the ridiculous man do?” He gave his wife a look of outrage, as if she had been responsible for egging on Churchill’s childish behavior, and she sighed.

“He refused to allow the firemen to put out the fire! What could he have been thinking? When the house was a smoking wreck, two pathetic bodies were found charred beyond recognition and the rest of the gang had miraculously escaped. All of this watched by a growing crowd of Londoners and the newspapers. I am not surprised public and official outcry was tremendous.”

Clementine knew her husband would never forgive or forget the incident, as it served as an indication of Churchill’s true character.

“I’ll never forget the sheer arrogance of Churchill’s self-justification after the Sidney Street debacle or forgive his outrageous encouragement of brute force and violence. What did he say when pressed for a reason for this deplorable display? That he thought it ‘better to let the house burn to the ground than risk good British lives in rescuing rascals.’ And then a year later the blighter is made First Lord of the Admiralty—unforgivable!”

He shot his wife a look confirming that his usual good humor had left him hours ago.

“However much I am devoted to Hermione Kingsley and her selfless efforts on behalf of her charity, I simply can’t imagine why she would have to court a friendship with someone as detestable as Churchill. I find him to be a pugnacious and wholly obnoxious bore, he monopolizes all conversation. The thought of an evening celebrating his birthday makes me want to hop on a train for Iyntwood and give my guns a thoroughly good cleaning.” He caught her eye and laughed, and to her relief he shook his head. “Yes, I know, I know … the man somehow manages to bring out the worst…”

“Yes, it’s rather unfortunate. I had hoped that everyone else would provide a buffer. I’m sorry, darling, but you simply must—”

“Get a grip. Yes, I know I must, and I will. Of course I will. But I am not happy about it. Feel I’ve been put on the spot.”

She turned back to her dressing table and picked up her gloves and evening bag, as a signal that it was time for them to go.

“Aaron Greenberg is lovely company, and so is Henry Wentworth in his own way.”

“Yes, you are right, Clemmy, but neither of them is as dynamic and witty as Churchill. So they won’t get a word in all blasted evening.”

Clementine sought a distraction; it wouldn’t do for him to keep on in this vein.

“Olive told me this afternoon that Lady Ryderwood is to sing a duet with Nellie Melba at Hermione’s charity event next week; such an honor for her. Melba only sings privately for royalty now and is celebrated across the world—her season in America was a colossal success. And Olive says her temper is even more terrifying now that she is famous and she still absolutely refuses to sing at Covent Garden. How long has her feud with Sir Thom been going on for now? Is it two years since he told her she was ‘uninterestingly perfect and perfectly uninteresting’?”

Lord Montfort shook his head and chuckled. “You can be quite sure he has said far worse than that to her. Melba may have a silver voice, but she has a tongue of brass and she loves a good scrap with her conductors. Just pray she behaves herself at Hermione’s charity event and doesn’t feel the need to shriek directions at the pianist.”

“Oh, she will be quite the grande dame; the Chimney Sweep Boys charity event is heavily attended by royalty. Lady Ryderwood is going to sing for us tonight, a sort of informal dress rehearsal for the charity event. Olive says she has an exquisite voice, and you have to admit she is very lovely.”

“Yes, I remember her husband well. Nice chap, terrible health after the Boer War. Didn’t they spend the rest of his life somewhere in the Balearics? Died recently, didn’t he? I heard that he was confined to a wheelchair, awfully bad luck for an ex-cavalry officer. Shame really, horses were his passion.”

“All I know is that she returned to England this spring, recently widowed. We met her at the Waterfords’. I rather took to her.”

More chimes announced the hour. Pettigrew arrived to wrap Clementine up in her sable fur, pulling its deep collar high up around her ears. Even with this layer of insulation around her she could still hear her husband’s voice quite clearly as they walked downstairs to the hall.

“Do you know the swine has commissioned two more super dreadnoughts at two million blasted pounds a throw? Heard about it in the club this afternoon, the wretched man is collecting battleships like a damn schoolboy. I have never known anyone as hungry for war as Churchill; Kitchener can’t hold a candle to him.”

The butler helped him on with his coat and handed him his scarf and hat. He turned at the foot of the stairs, held out his arm, and walked her to the front door. She rather wished that they were not going out after all.

Clementine buried her gloved hands deep inside her fur muff as the butler opened the outer door and let in a draft of air so frigid that husband and wife huddled together as they went out into the night. Clementine raised her muff to shield her face. “Thank you, White; looks like winter is finally here,” she said through clenched teeth.

“It’s bitterly cold out there, m’lady, but Herne has a foot-warmer and plenty of rugs in the motor. There will be a thermos flask of hot coffee for you on the way home.”

On the way home. She sighed as she thought of the evening ahead and was quite envious of White, no doubt anticipating a cozy evening of leisure in the servants’ hall eating coq au vin.

“Good heavens, White, we are only driving half a mile; we’ve hunted in worse weather than this.” Lord Montfort took his wife’s arm and she marveled at his determination not to be swerved from his dislike for the evening, it seemed that he was determined to wrong-foot everyone tonight.

 

Copyright © 2016 Tessa Arlen.

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Tessa Arlen is the author of the Lady Montfort mystery series set in the early 1900s. 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 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. She lives on Bainbridge Island, in Washington.

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