The Mitford Trial by Jessica Fellowes: New Excerpt
By Crime HQJanuary 8, 2021
18 June 1933
Outside, the horizon had been lost to the darkness, with sky and sea both black as the underside of a dead man’s eyelids. No stars shone and the moon was hidden behind the clouds. Only the white foam that curled away from the sides of the ocean liner revealed movement, as the prow forged through the water.
Inside, on deck B, in the drawing room of cabin seventeen, a man stood by a mirrored drinks cabinet and stared dully at the bottles before him. They hadn’t been sailing many nights and already most of them were half-empty. He poured a slug of whisky into a glass tumbler that he couldn’t be absolutely certain was clean. On the gramophone player, a woman was singing a song about her lover going away. The room was comfortable enough. It could have been the front room of any mock-Tudor house in the suburbs but for the smell of the sea and the occasional lurch of the ground beneath his feet. On the sofa was a pillow and a folded blanket. There was a woman merely yards away, on the other side of the thin wall, clattering in the bathroom, and soon she would sleep in the comfortable bed.
Curtains were drawn across the French windows – as grandly described in the brochure – leading out to a narrow balcony, large enough for a table and two chairs, where the cabin’s residents could enjoy watching the sunset with an expertly mixed cocktail. It wasn’t mentioned in the brochure, but there was also enough room for a person to hide, bent down in the corner.
The man sat down on the armchair that faced into the room, away from the pitiless dark beyond. He was tired, he had drunk too much, fought too much and knew he had lost too much. He’d made mistakes and felt too old to put them right. Besides, he’d already tried, and failed.
He heard the door to the cabin open, but it was out of sight and he couldn’t be certain whether someone had come in or was leaving. He wondered briefly if he should get up and check, and that was the last thing he thought before he dropped his glass, as pain blew through him and blood filled his mouth.
15 October 1932
When the morning arrived, Louisa Cannon, as she still was, lay for a while between the sheets, looking up to the ceiling as she studied the contents of her mind. She had slept deeply in an unfamiliar bedroom and wondered now if this was perhaps not a good thing. Weren’t nerves expected, possibly even necessary? A display of excitement and trepidation for what lay ahead was conventional, even if one was hopeful and optimistic. Yet Louisa was sure that she felt completely calm and safe, as if she knew she had been away too long and was at last on her way home. At that moment she heard noises on the landing, a shuffling of feet and fervent whispers beyond her door. Louisa smothered her laughter as the brass doorknob turned slowly and a voice of protestation was hushed severely. She saw three sisters standing in the doorway, looking at her with huge eyes, the smallest girl hopping from foot to foot with her usual impatience.
‘It’s all right,’ said Louisa. ‘You can come in.’
‘Nanny said we weren’t to disturb,’ the tall blonde said. ‘But I knew you wouldn’t mind.’ This was Jessica, known to all as Decca, fifteen years old and with a determined set to her mouth, hardly different in temperament from the three-year-old with long curls Louisa met when she arrived to work for the Mitford family. Then, there had been five young sisters and one brother; the youngest, Deborah, had not yet been born. She came up now to Louisa’s bedside, her blonde hair cropped to just below her ears, and handed over a piece of folded card.
‘I pressed some cornflowers for you,’ said Debo. ‘Something blue.’ She smiled shyly and Louisa smiled back.
‘Thank you, Miss Deborah. I shall keep them in my pocket and they’ll bring me luck. I suppose I had better get up, there’s somewhere I’ve got to be, isn’t there?’
The younger girls giggled at that, told her Nanny had made breakfast and they were going to go next door, to see their muv and farve, Lord and Lady Redesdale, the former of whom was likely tapping his watch as they spoke. The eldest of the three had said nothing throughout but watched Louisa with a steady gaze.
‘Miss Unity?’ Louisa reflected that while the other sisters wore their hearts – and their tempers – on their sleeves, Unity tended to the more unsentimental approach. As a small child she had often retreated alone to corners, and when she spoke it was usually to Decca, in their own secret language.
‘Do you really love him?’ she asked simply, her eyes still fixed on Louisa. But Louisa was able to reply with a steadfast look of her own.
Unity nodded solemnly and left the room, ushering her sisters before her.
Louisa savoured her breakfast with Nanny Blor, elderly now with her red hair faded to a rusty grey, though stalwart and bustling about the place as comfortingly as ever. Afterwards, Louisa put on her only ‘new’, a steel-coloured silk hat with a silvered veil. She pinned it carefully and was buttoning her coat up in front of the mirror in the small hall – she was staying in the mews cottage at the back of the Mitford’s London house in Rutland Gate – when the front door banged open noisily. Nancy and Tom, the first and third in the lineup of siblings, came rushing in, bringing some of the cold October air with them.
‘Lou-Lou,’ said Nancy affectionately, kissing her on the cheek. She was only a little younger than Louisa and not yet married herself, though she had been nothing less than generous when Louisa had told her about her engagement. ‘Don’t you look divine.’ She shot her brother a look, nudging him to approve the compliment.
‘Yes, yes,’ said Tom. ‘Very good indeed. Marvellous hat.’ He was tall, dark and handsome, like a hero in a romantic novel, and, Louisa knew, had women all over Europe longing for him to ask them to dance. With Louisa’s father long dead, she had nervously asked Tom to walk her down the aisle. Her mother wasn’t even coming up from Suffolk for the wedding, feeling too frail to do so, even if she was happy for her daughter. Although Louisa had been a maid of some kind for them over several years, the Mitfords were as close to family as anything she had. They maddened her half the time, but she felt she owed something of her happiness to them and she’d wanted them to be a part of her wedding.
Nancy fidgeted in her bag and pulled out a lipstick. ‘Here,’ she said and advanced on Louisa. ‘The finishing touch.’
Louisa submitted and allowed Nancy to apply the red colour to her lips. She even accepted dots of scent at her wrists and behind her ears, too.
‘Now shall we go?’ said Louisa. She felt a flutter in her stomach and, with it, a slight wash of relief. All was as it should be.
Nancy went next door, as she was going to share a taxi with her sisters Unity, Decca and Deborah, while their parents were driven by the second oldest daughter, Pamela, who had a passion for motoring and whose pride and joy – other than the herd of cows she managed for her brother-in-law – was her dark green Austin 10. Their other sister, Diana, would be making her way separately with her own two young boys, Jonathan and Desmond, from her house in Cheyne Walk. Diana’s husband, Bryan Guinness, was down at their country house, Biddesden, as he more or less had been in recent months. There were rumours of an impending divorce but nothing officially declared, and Louisa knew better than to ask the question.
Lord Redesdale had lent Louisa his car and driver, and it was only as the man in the peaked cap held the door open for her that she realised she had never sat in the back seat of a car before. All at once she felt shy, and remained silent for the journey to Chelsea Town Hall, Tom beside her. In those minutes, Louisa missed her father terribly; his brusque manner had ineffectually masked a genuine love for his family and she ached to be able to reach out for his hand, callused with work, soot permanently beneath his fingernails. She wondered if she had made a terrible mistake arriving in this grand car. She hadn’t meant to pretend she was something she wasn’t, it had just seemed like a glamorous and fun thing to do, and generous of her previous employers to offer it. But perhaps she should have taken the bus, as she normally did to go anywhere. She liked the bus, she thought with a lurch of sickness. Then, as the car slowed down to park beside the pavement on the King’s Road, yards from the blue door she was soon to walk through, Louisa spotted Guy Sullivan, her future husband, as he hurried along. He happened to look at the car she was in, then through the window and, for the briefest second, they caught each other’s eye. It was supposed to be bad luck to see each other before the wedding, wasn’t it? She leaned back slightly, but Guy grinned at her, the bright sunlight reflecting on his round spectacles, his long, lean frame poised as if in haste to marry her, and she knew she had never looked forward to anything so much as being his wife.
Afterwards, the wedding party crossed the road to go to the Pig’s Ear for what Nancy kept insisting was ‘the wedding breakfast’ but which Louisa knew was sandwiches, tea and beer. She and Guy had paid for everything themselves; there would be no champagne. But she was more than fine with that and as she stood beside Guy, before their friends, her cheeks were beginning to hurt from all the smiling. The thin gold ring was on her left hand, and Guy held onto her right, squeezing it often as he turned to look at her.
‘I can’t believe it has finally happened,’ he said. ‘Louisa Cannon, my wife.’
‘Mrs Sullivan to you,’ she teased, prompting another kiss from her delighted groom.
‘Oi, oi, there’s quite enough time for all that later on.’ A beaming Harry Conlon, the best man, tugged at Guy’s arm. ‘Wasn’t there something about a cake and speeches first?’
Harry’s wife, Mary, pretty and heavily pregnant, ticked her husband off. ‘When they’re ready and not before.’ She whispered to Louisa, ‘I think he was more nervous than Guy. Absolutely terrified he’d lose the ring. He’s never had stage fright like it before.’
They shared a conspiratorial look over at their husbands – their husbands! – before Mary walked off to find somewhere to sit down.
The pub was crowded. Though they had wanted only a modest wedding party, there was all Guy’s family – his parents, his three brothers and their wives, plus assorted cousins and small children – and all of the Mitfords. Plus a sprinkling of friends: Jenny, who had grown up on the same Peabody estate as Louisa, but whose beauty had married her into the upper class, was over from New York for a brief spell with her husband Richard; Luke Meyers, Louisa’s friend from the time she had spent working for Diana as her lady’s maid, who was now working in Munich as a correspondent for The Times; and one or two others of Guy’s childhood friends – neighbours from the street he had grown up on. That would have been enough guests, but it was Guy’s colleagues who had filled up the room. Policemen, Louisa had discovered, liked to celebrate one of their own, and as Guy had worked through the ranks from constable to detective sergeant for the CID, plenty of them had claimed him. There were uniformed juniors and plain-clothed seniors, all busily ransacking the egg and ham sandwiches, and repeatedly toasting the health of the new Mr and Mrs Sullivan.
Louisa pulled Guy over to a table in the corner, on which stood a white cake of three tiers, a long knife beside it. There was a clinking on glass and the room fell quiet. Louisa took a step to the side, gently pushing Guy’s hand away.
‘Go on,’ she whispered.
She saw Guy resist the urge to polish his specs, picking up his glass of beer instead. He raised it slightly.
‘My lords, ladies and gentlemen,’ he began, ‘my wife and I—’
He was interrupted by a roar from the room, the policemen calling out his name before he silenced them again with a wave of his hand. Louisa spotted Lord Redesdale looking about him with bemusement.
‘My wife and I are very happy to see you all here. Before we cut the cake, I’d like to thank a few people who’ve made the day possible.’ He went to pull a piece of paper out of his pocket but, as he did this, the door of the pub banged open and several heads turned around to see a young messenger boy come in.
In the momentary silence they heard a Cockney accent ask: ‘Is this the Sullivan wedding? I’ve been told to find the groom.’
There was an embarrassed murmur as people parted to allow the boy through. The boy’s eyes darted around the room and he pulled his cap further down on his head before he shuffled up to Guy, who watched him approach, his notes still in one hand, his drink in the other, as if caught out by the music stopping in a children’s party game.
At least, thought Louisa, the part in the ceremony when anyone could object to the marriage had passed.
The boy stood before Guy with a piece of folded paper in his hand and there was another dance as Guy realised he had to start moving, so gave Louisa his notes and drink, and took the note. He read it, then looked out to the sea of expectant faces. Louisa couldn’t detect what their mood was other than a mixture of exasperation and curiosity.
‘It’s from the commissioner,’ he started, and Louisa saw all the policemen lean forward a fraction. ‘The rally for the British Union of Fascists has begun and the crowds are bigger and more rowdy than expected. Everyone is needed. All leave is cancelled.’
He looked at Louisa and mouthed, ‘I’m so sorry,’ but before she could even respond, everyone’s drinks had been put down and the men were rushing out. There was the occasional call of ‘Sorry, mate,’ but on the whole, she knew, this was what they were made for, this was why they did what they did. Nor was the summons a surprise. Guy had warned her of the possibility, only two days before – too late to postpone the wedding.
Louisa took Guy’s hand. ‘You’d better go too.’
He kissed her on the lips. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Sullivan.’
She gave a small smile. ‘I’m a policeman’s wife, aren’t I? We’ll have our supper together tonight, at home.’
Home, for now, was with Guy’s parents. His father was ill and needed almost constant care, and Guy’s mother hadn’t the strength to do it all alone. Louisa and Guy had discussed it and decided to stay on until some other solution presented itself. Louisa didn’t mind too much – it was a neat and cosy house, and she had next to nothing by way of furniture of her own. This way, they could save and find somewhere they wanted. As for a honeymoon, that was only ever going to be a train to Brighton and one night in a hotel on the seafront. They would have to do it another time. There was no point in fussing, it couldn’t be helped.
Luke came over as soon as Guy had left and gave her a kiss on the cheek. ‘You look beautiful, darling,’ he said. ‘I thoroughly approve of this colour on you.’
‘What are they doing?’ In a corner, Louisa had noticed that Lord and Lady Redesdale were in an animated discussion with their daughters Nancy and Unity.
‘I gather the girls want to join the rally too, lend their support to Sir O,’ said Luke. ‘I think their Muv and Farve are trying to say no, but you know what it’s like trying to refuse those two something they want.’
Louisa knew only too well. Even so, she felt a pull of disappointment. ‘Does no one want to stay and help me celebrate my marriage?’
Luke raised an eyebrow. ‘Don’t be petulant. It doesn’t suit you. And besides, I’m here, thank you very much. I count for at least forty policemen.’
‘Yes, you do. Sorry.’ She knew she was being silly. Guy’s family were still there, and there was plenty of food to get through. She wished she didn’t mind about the Mitfords as much; somehow, she always let her expectations get the better of her and she kicked herself for it.
The only person in the room who had the good manners to look ashamed was Diana. Though still married to Bryan, everyone knew that her lover was Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the BUF and the instigator of the day’s rally. Louisa had heard Diana declare her undying love for him as Sir Oswald told her he felt the same, but that he would never leave his wife. Diana’s usual cream-and-rose complexion had a dark flush, and she kept her gaze away from Louisa as she handed her boys to Nanny Blor, apologising that her own Nanny Higgs was on leave. In the next moment she had fled the pub. Walking quickly through the door after her was a man Louisa didn’t recognise. He wore a grey trench coat and a hat with a wide enough brim to hide his features, and he didn’t give a backwards glance as he hurried out. He carried neither newspaper nor briefcase. Perhaps a plain-clothes detective who had been slower off the mark than the others.
Those bloody Mitfords, she thought, they’ve dictated my day again.
Copyright © 2021 by Little, Brown Book Group
A timeless murder mystery with the fascinating, glamorous Mitford sisters at its heart, The Mitford Trial is the fourth installment in the Mitford Murders series from Jessica Fellowes, inspired by a real-life murder in a story full of intrigue, affairs and betrayal…