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Death at the Crystal Palace : Excerpt

Book 5: Below Stairs Mysteries

Chapter One

May 1882

“Please, help me.”

The shaky words came to me from behind a column copied from those at Karnak in Egypt, lit by a chance beam of sunshine through the glass roof high above.

I’d met the woman who spoke them, Lady Covington, only an hour ago, introduced by my friend Mr. Elgin Thanos as the sister of his benefactor. She had paid little attention to me, as I was a domestic accompanying her betters in a treat outing to the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.

Lady Covington had greeted Lady Cynthia Shires, Mr. Thanos, and their friend Miss Townsend with interest, barely registering me and my eleven-year-old daughter standing slightly behind them.

After the visit, Lady Covington and her family had moved off, and Mr. Thanos had escorted the two ladies up to the galleries to take in the view. They had extended the invitation to me, but Grace wanted to see the Egyptian court, so she and I had wandered toward that exhibit, agreeing to meet up for tea later.

Now Lady Covington came to me furtively around the wide column painted with hieroglyphs. Her family—two grown daughters,  two grown sons, and her brother—was nowhere in sight.

“Your ladyship?” I made a deferential curtsy, as did Grace. One always curtsies to aristocrats, even when they are begging for help, in case they take offense if you do not. “Are you unwell?”

“Quite unwell.” Another swift glance behind her, then Lady Covington leaned closer to me. “My dear, I have been poisoned.”

I felt Grace’s hand tighten on mine, and my alarm rose. I offered Lady Covington my arm, leaving it up to her whether she took it or not. “You ought to sit down, your ladyship. Why do you think you have taken poison? Are you ill?”

She looked well enough, if flushed, but it was warm this May day under the glass, with tropical plants and indoor ponds trapping the sun’s heat.

Lady Covington’s grip was strong when she laid her hand on my arm, but her gloved fingers shook. Grace said not a word, her eyes full of concern as I steered Lady Covington to the nearest bench. It was of stone, made to look as though it had been lifted from Egypt and transported to England, but I knew full well that all the things in the exhibit had been manufactured specially for the Crystal Palace, based on the real items in the British Museum or private collections.

We sank to the bench together, as Lady Covington did not loosen her grasp. Grace seated herself on the other side of me. Her shoes rested firmly on the floor, which made me realize how long her legs had grown. Soon she would be as tall as I was.

“Would you like a drink of water, your ladyship?” I asked. “Or a cup of tea? I can fetch it while you rest quietly.”

“No.” Her fingers dug into my arm. “No, please do not leave me. I need nothing.”

“If you believe you have taken poison, you must see a doctor. I can call your son, Lord Covington . . .”

“No!” The word was sharper still. “No, I can trust no one. I will be all right, if you sit with me.”

My alarm changed to puzzlement. Was the woman fancying things? Or truly in danger? And what had become of her family?

Lady Covington had a sharp face I imagined had once been pretty, though years, loss, and disappointment were etched into her skin. She was not an old woman, perhaps in her late forties at most, and she was slender, her posture upright. Her eyes were light blue and her hair was a rich, chocolate brown, bearing only a few threads of gray and pulled into a simple style under her high-crowned, mannish hat.

I knew she was quite wealthy, the widow of a railroad magnate who had also been a baron, the title going back generations. Her brother, Sir Arthur Maddox, had recently helped open the Polytechnic in London, a school devoted to educating young men in the sciences. Mr. Thanos, my friend and a brilliant mathematician, had been given a post there. Mr. Thanos had told me, in confidence, that Lady Covington was a generous benefactor to the new school. Sir Arthur could never have been involved without her help.

Lady Covington’s gown was obviously costly, but understated—a brown-and-cream-striped walking dress of light material that draped over her legs and gathered over a bustle in the back. The gown bore few frills, but its cut revealed its expense. A fold of fabric touched my brown woolen frock, which though neat and mended was years out of fashion. The contrast between the two of us could not have been more marked.

“Your ladyship, if you are unwell, I must strongly advise you seek a doctor. He can give you a draught to purge you at the very least.”

Lady Covington shook her head. “You must think me quite mad, Mrs. . . .” She groped for my name.

“Holloway. I am Lady Cynthia’s cook.”

“Yes, that is why I sought you out.” She regarded me with confidence that I would see the obvious connection.

“Are you worried about something you ate?” I ventured.

“Perhaps. I assure you I am not mad, though I understand why you would believe so. They would like to see me dead, Mrs. Holloway.”

“Who would?” I asked in bewilderment.

“All of them. Except dear Jonathan, of course. He has been nothing but a help and guide to me.”

I remembered the flurry of names that flew by as Sir Arthur introduced his family. Jonathan was the younger of Lady Covington’s sons. The older was the current Lord Covington.

“Perhaps I could send for him.”

“Not yet.” Lady Covington craned to see beyond the crowd clustered about the popular Egyptian court.

We sat facing the hall of columns, which were reproductions of those at Karnak, though in a smaller size. Behind us was a replica of the temple at Abu Simbel in Nubia, and to our right was a tomb from another time in Egyptian history, filled with colorful paintings I’d found quite fascinating.

Lady Covington turned back to me. “I am not mad, and I know have been given poison. Not much, which is why I am able to speak to you and do not appear to be ill. Slow poison is wicked, and I am surrounded by wicked people.”

I could hardly argue with her, but I did not understand what she expected me to do. “Why tell me, your ladyship? Your brother could help you—”

“Not Arthur.” Her voice changed to steel. “He would never believe me.”

“Miss Townsend or Lady Cynthia, then. Both are very capable young ladies.”

“I wanted you.” Lady Covington’s anxiousness had receded a bit, and she once more became the widow of an aristocrat, certain of her place. “I have heard of the goings-on in Lord Rankin’s household, and how you made certain the police arrested the correct criminals for heinous things. I want you to call on me. My home is in Park Lane, not far from where you are employed.”

Park Lane contained the mansions of some of the wealthiest families in Britain. I worked in a house in Mount Street, around the corner and a short block away.

A cook did not call upon a rich baron’s widow to sip tea in her parlor, but I could see that Lady Covington was in some distress. She might be imagining things, in spite of her protests, but then again, she might not. I had observed men and women of all walks of life cruel enough to kill another for even trivial reasons.

“I could pay a visit to your cook, if you like,” I suggested “Or your gardener—do you grow many vegetables or herbs?”

She blinked her pale eyes. “Yes, an excellent excuse. Do come to the garden, tomorrow morning. Ten o’clock. I will speak to you then. But I must—”

“Your ladyship.” A stern female voice cut through Lady Covington’s breathless words. A rather stout woman wound her way around the columns and sightseers to the bench. She had a severe face and hard brown eyes, her gray hair pinned into a tightly twisted bun. “I have been searching everywhere for you.”

The newcomer pinned me with a glare, as though certain I’d waylaid Lady Covington for nefarious purposes.

“Never mind, Jepson.” Lady Covington rose, tone brisk, and I and Grace hopped up beside her. “I was asking Mrs. Holloway about one of her recipes. I’ve told her to bring it to Cook tomorrow.”

A plausible reason for me to enter the house. Apparently, she’d dispensed with my idea of approaching the gardener.

Jepson folded her arms in a fair imitation of one of the Egyptian statues behind her. “They are waiting for you, your ladyship.”

Jepson was a lady’s maid, I surmised. They were usually called by their surnames only, and a lady’s maid was the one servant of the household likely to accompany its mistress on an outing. She would look after Lady Covington’s things and make certain her ladyship was where she needed to be.

“Let them wait,” Lady Covington snapped. “I’ll not come to heel for that pack of hounds. They depend on me, not the other way about.”

“Yes, your ladyship.” Jepson’s pursed mouth told me she’d heard this rant from her mistress many a time.

Lady Covington gave me a stiff nod. “Thank you for speaking with me, Mrs. Holloway. Please greet Mrs. Bywater for me. I am looking forward to your recipe.”

Jepson’s eyes narrowed, and she switched her gaze to me. “Recipe for what?”

Lady’s maids could be less censured for impertinence than other servants, if they had an understanding with their mistress, but this was rude even so. Lady Covington flushed.

“Lemon cake,” she said quickly. “I fancied some. Come along, Jepson. As you say, I should not keep my stepson waiting. George is foul when he’s cross.”

Without further farewell to me, Lady Covington stepped past Jepson and headed from the exhibit toward the nave. Sunlight through the glass above us caught on the brown satin ribbon around her hat. Jepson, with another suspicious glare at me, followed her mistress.

“Poor lady,” Grace said, watching the pair go with sympathy. “She is very frightened.”

“Yes, I believe she is.” I took my daughter’s hand. “You were very good to say nothing. You are a well-behaved young lady.”

Grace didn’t smile or preen—she regarded me solemnly. “Mrs. Millburn says it’s ridiculous to believe that children should be seen and not heard. But even so, she says it’s polite to remain quiet when meeting ladies and gentlemen until they speak to me first.”

“Mrs. Millburn is quite right.” Joanna Millburn, my greatest friend, had kindly taken in Grace and looked after her so I could earn my living. “You are a credit to her.”

Grace blushed but accepted the praise with modesty. “Will you help Lady Covington?”

She stated the words without pleading, but I could see that Grace was worried for the woman. As was I.

“Of course I will,” I said. “I will visit her tomorrow, as she requests. But first, I must invent a recipe for lemon cake to take to her.”

“There you are, Mrs. H.” The voice of Lady Cynthia Shires echoed to me as Grace and I wound our way to the transept, as the aisle intersecting the main one was called.

Lady Cynthia dressed in gown today that was not much different in cut than Lady Covington’s. This was worth remarking upon, because Lady Cynthia much preferred men’s suits to wearing frocks. She had conceded to the gown because Mr. Thanos, the dark-haired gentleman hovering behind her, had invited her and Miss Townsend on this outing to meet his benefactor, and Cynthia had not wanted to embarrass him with her eccentricities.

“Time for that tea,” Cynthia continued as I reached her. “Won’t hold a candle to your teas, Mrs. H., but it might be jolly.”

I was happy to partake. Today, Thursday, was my one full day out a week, a condition of my employment, and I wanted to make it last long as I could. Grace lived with the Millburns, and I resided in the house of my employer, so Thursdays and Monday afternoons were all I had with her.

The tea shop was situated near the indoor garden, enabling us to sit at a table and enjoy the beauty of exotic flowers and Egyptian palms amid the sound of burbling fountains.

The five of us enjoyed tea brought by a harried waitress, my three friends chattering about the exhibits, especially liking the medieval court with its statuary. Miss Townsend, who was an artist, discussed with candor the merits—of lack thereof—of the picture gallery.

As they conversed, I debated whether to tell them about my strange encounter with Lady Covington—my friends had been in the thick of problems I had faced in the past.

But I wasn’t certain I should break Lady Covington’s confidence. The poison might be nothing but her imagination, that of an overwrought woman surrounded by a family who perhaps preyed on her fortune. The lady’s maid, Jepson, had certainly been a dragon. Lady Covington hadn’t been at ease with her brother or children, I recalled. She’d stood stiffly next to Sir Arthur when she’d been introduced to us, speaking polite phrases with no warmth behind them.

Whether she was being poisoned in truth or only worried she had been, would Lady Covington thank me for spreading the tale? She might be horribly embarrassed if Lady Cynthia and Miss Townsend charged around to visit her, demanding the entire story.

Well, I would meet Lady Covington tomorrow and assess the situation. I firmly drank tea and kept silent.

“What did you think of Sir Arthur, Mrs. Holloway?” Mr. Thanos regarded me with eager brown eyes. His dark hair, courtesy of his Greek ancestry, was brushed back from his face, exposing sharp cheekbones and the few lines about his eyes inscribed from squinting. Mr. Thanos needed spectacles but was loath to wear them.

“Very . . . zealous.” I chose my words carefully. I had no business forming opinions of my betters, but I knew Mr. Thanos truly wanted my impression. Sir Arthur, who looked much like his sister, had spoken at length and with vigor about the new Polytechnic. The younger members of the family had striven not to appear bored.

“He does tend to go on a bit,” Mr. Thanos said apologetically. “But he is excited about an institute devoted to science and new discoveries. As am I. It will be wonderful to teach mathematics and theories to young men who have a true interest.”

Young men who would understand what Mr. Thanos was talking about, he meant. Mr. Thanos had a brilliant mind, and we lesser mortals could not always follow him. He, however, did not always fathom social niceties, hence his invitation for me to join this outing, meet his employer, and render an opinion of a man far loftier than myself.

“Do not worry.” Cynthia poked Mr. Thanos with her elbow. “Sir Arthur likes you. I could see that in the way he introduced you to his family. You are his pet mathematician. He expects great things from you, and you will give them to him.”

Mr. Thanos’s smile dimmed. “I hope you are right.”

“Nonsense. He wouldn’t have set you up in that lovely flat if he weren’t convinced you were the ticket. Cheer up. You’ll do well.”

“Do you think so?” Mr. Thanos’s mouth pulled downward. “My first lecture is Monday evening, right here at the Crystal Palace. I hope I do not work myself into a muddle.”

“No fear,” Cynthia said stoutly. “We shall all be in attendance. If they admit women to the lectures, that is. What a nuisance if they won’t.”

Mr. Thanos looked puzzled. “I can’t imagine why ladies could not at least listen to the lectures. Scientific advancement benefits all.”

“I will make certain of it.” Miss Townsend took a delicate sip of tea. “Cynthia and I will be there, and Bobby. Mrs. Holloway, you are welcome to join us.”

She set her down her teacup, her fine kid gloves like a second skin to her slender fingers. Miss Townsend was ladylike and elegant to a fault, but I’d come to know that beneath this young woman’s modish exterior lay an intelligent mind and a steely will. If she determined that women could attend Mr. Thanos’s lecture, they would. She did not command me to accompany them, because she knew that Monday was my half day, and I spent my afternoon with Grace. She would leave the decision up to me.

“Thank you,” I said. “I will give it some thought.”

“I wouldn’t be half so nervous if I knew you were there, Mrs. Holloway.” Mr. Thanos sent me a wistful look. “You bolster my spirits. There’s nothing you wouldn’t face.”

“You exaggerate, Mr. Thanos, but I know you are being kind.”

I wished he’d said that Cynthia also would bolster his spirits, but he did not notice the omission, and neither did Cynthia. Cynthia and Mr. Thanos were a bit mired in the space between them, and they’d had gone no further than acknowledging they were friends.

Miss Townsend managed to settle the cost of the tea—she had a private conversation with the head waiter and herded us out soon after, and I never saw money change hands. Again, neither Mr. Thanos nor Cynthia seemed to notice a thing. They were an unworldly pair.

Miss Townsend had us out of the Crystal Palace and heading for the train forthwith. I was grateful—I needed to return Grace to the Millburns’ and arrive home before the evening meal so Mrs. Bywater, Cynthia’s aunt, would not have reason to chide me. She and I had clashed recently, and I strove to return punctually to avoid further altercations.

As we filed to the terrace overlooking the vast gardens, I glimpsed Lady Covington and her family near the base of the stairs and the great fountains there. Beyond, rose gardens and water features moved gently down the hill to lakes that bore islands full of antediluvian creatures.

Sir Arthur was holding forth, waving his arm at the expanse of the park, probably giving a full lecture about it. Lady Covington adjusted her parasol against the sun, as though hiding her weariness at her brother’s pontification.

I studied Lady Covington’s four children with interest. They did not bother to disguise their ennui with their uncle, the younger son, Jonathan, pointedly staring in the opposite direction. The four stood in two distinct groups, the older son and daughter to Sir Arthur’s left, the younger son and daughter to his right. Several yards of space separated the groups, giving them the air of strangers who happened to meet in the gardens of the Crystal Palace.

“The youngest two are Lady Covington’s son and daughter from her first marriage.” Miss Townsend was at my elbow, her low voice in my ear. “The elder are her stepson and stepdaughter—the late Lord Covington’s children from his first marriage. The stepson, George, is now Baron Covington and lets no one forget it. Jonathan Morris, Lady Covington’s son, is a wild young man. Gets himself into scrapes, runs up debts.”

And yet, Lady Covington had spoken of him as “dear Jonathan” and said what a help he was. Affection could make one blind to another’s faults, I well knew. Perhaps Lady Covington did not realize the extent of Jonathan’s misdeeds.

“The younger daughter, Harriet Morris, is very much on the shelf and feels it keenly,” Miss Townsend went on. “The stepdaughter, Erica Hume, is the widow of a rather feckless MP. He left her penniless, and she’s entirely dependent on her brother and Lady Covington.”

Erica held herself rigidly, her parasol at a precise angle. So unmoving was she that I envisioned a blow breaking her into a thousand brittle shards.

The younger woman, Harriet, seemed more at ease, her blue plaid gown rippling in the breeze. Though she must be well into her twenties, she swiveled back and forth, like a child who longed to be elsewhere.

“Why tell me this, Miss Townsend?” I glanced into her shrewd brown eyes and wondered if she’d seen me having the tête-à-tête with Lady Covington.

“You like to know about people,” Miss Townsend replied smoothly. “And they are an interesting family. The lot of them live together in the house in Park Lane, as well as on an estate in Kent. Though George is now the baron and could heave them all, including his stepmother, to the pavement, it is Lady Covington who rules the roost.”

“Perhaps the new Lord Covington is showing kindness to his stepmother and siblings.” I did not believe this was the case, but I always attempted to find good where none seemed to lie.

“There is no kindness in George Broadhurst. He once asked me to marry him, as a matter of fact. I turned him down flat—I shudder to think what life would be, shackled to the likes of him. Now he sneers at me, as though I made the wrong choice. I had my chance to be Lady Covington, his contempt says, but ah well.”

I did not press Miss Townsend for further details. Lady Cynthia and Mr. Thanos, who had been discussing a towering specimen of tree that I believed came from the Americas, joined us, and we turned for the railway station.

The Crystal Palace had two stations—the High Level Station, which first-class passengers could reach through a tunnel from the Palace’s main entrance, and the Low Level Station, a short walk through the park. Miss Townsend, who’d booked the tickets, had chosen the Low Level, as it was a fine day, and we enjoyed the stroll through the gardens.

As our train skimmed out of the station past the lakes, Grace pressed her face to the windows to gaze at the models of ancient beasts that inhabited the islands. The giant reptiles glowered at their human observers, though children ran among them fearlessly. We’d not had time to visit the islands today, but I would bring her back another time so we could explore them thoroughly.

At Victoria Station, Grace and I parted ways with my friends. A hansom, generously provided by Miss Townsend, conveyed my daughter and me across St. James’s to the Strand and along Fleet Street to St. Paul’s and the Millburns’ house not far from the cathedral. I visited briefly with Joanna then parted with Grace, again praising her good manners as I hugged her. After this, I ascended the hansom once more to return to Mayfair.

I wiped my eyes as we went—dratted soot in the air. My chest felt hollow, as it always did when leaving my daughter.

I alighted from the hansom in South Audley Street near Grosvenor Chapel and walked around the corner to Mount Street. It would never do for the mistress to look out the window and see me emerge from a cab—she’d lecture me, as usual, on me getting above myself.

The sky darkened with the coming evening as I tramped heavily down the outside steps to the kitchen door. I entered to find Elsie singing in the scullery as she washed a stack of dishes, and the kitchen abuzz with activity.

Tess, my assistant, vigorously stirred something burbling on the stove, sweat dripping down her freckled face. She’d come a long way in the last year from the impertinent waif who’d never chopped a carrot to a competent cook I could leave in charge on my days out.

Mr. Davis, the butler, was lecturing a footman in the servants’ hall—from the words that floated to the kitchen, I gathered the new footman had made some sort of gaffe while serving at table during luncheon.

Tess called out a cheerful good evening to me. “Happy to see you, Mrs. H. This sauce ain’t thickening for nothing. It needs your touch, it does.”

I unwound myself from coat and hat, though I’d need to change my frock before I began cooking. I could not afford to let this one be stained.

Mrs. Redfern, our housekeeper, strode from the passageway into the kitchen, though she halted just inside the doorway. She would never presume to impede meal preparations.

“I feel I must warn you.” Mrs. Redfern’s preamble made Tess spin in alarm, the spoon with which she’d been stirring the recalcitrant sauce dripping white stock to the floor.

“Warn me of what, Mrs. Redfern?” I asked, a trifle impatiently. I was tired and still had much work to do before I could rest.

“Of what is happening upstairs—”

“It’s a devil of a thing,” Mr. Davis cut in as he joined her, having finished his lecturing. “The Earl and Countess of Clifford have arrived.”

Mr. Davis’s words made me stop in astonishment. “Good heavens.” Lord and Lady Clifford were Lady Cynthia’s parents. They lived on an estate in Hertfordshire and seldom left it.

“Good heavens, indeed,” Mr. Davis said. “They’ve declared they’re here to fetch our Lady Cynthia home.”