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Authors: Minette Walters

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Historical, #Thrillers, #Suspense

A Dreadful Murder

BOOK: A Dreadful Murder
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For Martin and Hannah Jones
whose generous donation to Julia’s House,
a children’s hospice, has helped give
support and hope to families in Dorset.

Contents

Foreword

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Epilogue

Author’s Note

Foreword

A Dreadful Murder
is based on the true story of the shooting of Mrs Caroline Luard, which took place near the small village of Ightham
1
in Kent, on 24 August 1908. It remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the twentieth century.

Mrs Luard was shot in broad daylight in the grounds of a large country estate called Frankfield House. She was nearly sixty years old, came from a wealthy, upper-class family, and was known in Ightham
1
for her charity work with the poor.

Her husband, Major-General Charles Luard, was a County Councillor and a Justice of the Peace. His closest friends were the Chief Constable of Kent and the local MP. He was nearly seventy at the time of his wife’s death.

Although no one was ever arrested for the crime, it was believed by many that Charles Luard murdered his wife in cold blood, and that his friends helped him escape justice.

Chapter One
Monday, 24 August 1908 –
Frankfield Park, afternoon

There was nothing in the clear blue skies over Kent to warn Caroline Luard she was about to die. The rain clouds had gone. The sun was shining. Everything was right with her world.

Or so it seemed.

She strolled with her husband, Charles, a retired Major-General, along the dusty lane that ran beside the dense woodland of Frankfield Park. Their fox terrier, Sergeant, loped ahead of them, tail wagging at every scent.

Perhaps they were talking about the holiday they were due to take in two days’ time. Caroline was looking forward to the fresh sea air. Charles to some rounds of golf. Or perhaps, after thirty-three years of marriage, they had no need to speak at all.

Caroline had told her maid she would walk as far as the wicket gate into Frankfield Park. The Major-General would head on to Godden Green Golf Course to fetch his clubs. Caroline would return home through the woodland in time to greet a friend who was coming to tea.

The couple parted just beyond St Lawrence’s Church. Charles’s route would take him along the roads, Caroline’s along a grassy footpath. Neither said goodbye. There was little point. They would see each other again in a couple of hours.

Even so, Caroline paused to watch as Charles strode down Church Road with their dog, Sergeant, beside him. The stoop of his shoulders made him look old. ‘Try to get a lift home,’ she called. ‘You know how heavy your golf bag is. And don’t forget Mrs Stewart is coming to tea. I’m sure she’d like to see you.’

Charles lifted a hand to show he’d heard, but he didn’t turn round. Only Sergeant glanced back, ears pricked, for a last glimpse of his mistress.

* * *

Mary Stewart looked up in alarm as Major-General Luard swept into the drawing-room. She was twenty years younger than Charles and his brisk manner scared her.

‘Where’s Caroline?’ he demanded.

Mary had been asking herself the same thing for twenty minutes. It made her uneasy to have been sitting in the Major-General’s house without either of its owners present. ‘I don’t know,’ she told him nervously. ‘Your maid keeps telling me she’ll be back any minute.’

Charles folded his tall frame into an armchair and stared at Mary. He looked puzzled. ‘She started home two hours ago. I left her by the gate into Frankfield Park.’

‘Perhaps she met someone along the way.’ Mary tried a small smile. ‘If it was Mrs Joliffe, it will be hours before she can get away.’

The old man gave a grunt of amusement, smoothing his long white moustache with a bony finger. ‘Dreadful woman. Talks for England. Do you want some tea?’

He fired the words like pistol shots, and Mary looked guiltily at the teapot and cake stand which the maid had left on the low table in front of her. Was he expecting her to play hostess in Caroline’s absence? ‘Would
you
like some?’ she asked.

Charles shook his head. ‘Do you think she’s had an accident? Fainted? Something like that?’

Mary gave a helpless shrug. ‘Is that likely?’

‘Don’t imagine so. She’s as fit as a fiddle.’ He pushed himself to his feet again. ‘Let’s go and meet her. If she’s with the Joliffe woman, she’ll need rescuing.’

Mary followed him out of the house because she couldn’t come up with a good reason not to. The Major-General wasn’t the type to take no for an answer. He whistled up his dog, and they walked down the garden to the path that led through Frankfield Park.

Mary assumed Charles was matching his steps to hers out of politeness and urged him to go ahead at his own pace. ‘I’ll wait here for you.’

But he wasn’t prepared to leave her behind. ‘There’s no hurry,’ he said. ‘Five minutes won’t make a difference.’

Afterwards, when all the rumours started, this little episode set Mary thinking that the Major-General had wanted a witness when he found his wife. If so, she failed him. At five o’clock, she stopped at a path leading back to Ightham and said she had to go home.

‘We have guests coming at six. Please tell Caroline I’ll call on her tomorrow.’

Mary told her husband some days later that the Major-General looked annoyed when she said this, as if it wasn’t part of his plan that she should leave. But Mr Stewart told her not to repeat the remark in public. There was too much gossip already and he didn’t want his wife adding to it.

What people saw – and what they
thought
they saw – were rarely the same.

* * *

The first the outside world knew of Mrs Caroline Luard’s brutal murder was when her husband ran from some woodland at the bottom of the long formal lawn in front of Frankfield House. Two gardeners – James Wickham and Walter Harding – heard his cries for help.

They hurried towards him but couldn’t make out what he was saying. He was pointing towards an ornate summer house – known as La Casa – which stood amongst the trees. It was a single-storey building, surrounded by a raised wooden veranda and a picket fence. Very little of it was visible from the lawn.

‘I thought the summer house must have fallen down,’ James Wickham told the police later. ‘But I couldn’t see why that would put the Major-General into such a state.’

‘He could hardly speak,’ Walter Harding added. ‘He was out of breath and weeping. He grabbed our sleeves and kept tugging us towards La Casa. I’ve never seen anyone so upset.’

The men were shocked at what they found. The body of a woman lay face down on the veranda. Her feet pointed towards the veranda gate as if she’d just mounted the steps, and her head was turned to the side with her left cheek uppermost. There was blood on her face, blood in her hair and vomit on the wooden boards. A few yards away was a straw hat with cherries on its brim and a cream silk glove turned inside-out.

‘We could see she was dead,’ Harding said. ‘She looked so small . . . so shrunken. But we didn’t realise it was Mrs Luard until the Major-General told us. It was just a bundle of clothes.’

Both men were moved by the old man’s torment. He threw himself to his knees and clutched at the woman’s hand. ‘My darling wife,’ he cried, tears falling freely down his face. ‘My darling wife. She’s gone . . . she’s gone. I don’t know what to do.’

James Wickham, the older gardener, reached down to help the Major-General to his feet. ‘Best to step away, sir. There’s nothing to be done for the lady now. By the looks of it, she’s been shot. I’ll take you up to the house while young Walter here goes for the police.’

No one was ever able to persuade Wickham or Harding that Charles Luard’s distress wasn’t real. They always insisted it was ‘terrible to behold’. They knew the Major-General as a tall, imposing man with an air of command. They didn’t recognise him in the ‘poor, sad person’ who wept over the body of his wife.

But, once the tittle-tattle started, very few people were willing to believe them. Even a cold and distant man like the Major-General could summon up a show of grief if it meant he might avoid the hangman’s noose. There was only one person likely to fire bullets into Mrs Luard’s brain, and that was the stiff-necked old brute she’d married.

Chapter Two
Monday, 24 August 1908 –
Frankfield Park, late evening

With night falling, Henry Warde, the Chief Constable of Kent Police, ordered his men to light lanterns around the summer house. The soft yellow glow lent a strange beauty to the scene, though no one there could see it. They all agreed with their boss. This was an ugly business.

Dr John Mansfield, the local police surgeon, began by parting the blood-stained hair on the back of Caroline’s head. ‘Bullet wound,’ he said, before leaning over to study the hole in her left cheek. ‘It looks as if she was shot twice. First behind the right ear, then here, above the jaw.’

‘What caused her to vomit?’ Warde asked.

‘Shock?’ Dr Mansfield suggested, feeling the skin at the back of her skull. ‘There’s a large swelling here. I’m guessing she was hit with something hard – possibly a pistol or rifle butt – which knocked her to the ground. The shooting happened afterwards.’

‘How long afterwards?’

‘I can’t say.’ He pinched one of Caroline’s hands to see if there was any sign of her body stiffening – the start of rigor mortis. ‘It depends if the blow knocked her out. It may be that she was stunned for several minutes and vomited when she started to come round. Nausea is a common side effect of head injury. That may be the reason she was killed.’

‘Explain.’

The doctor pushed himself to his feet and leaned on the picket fence. ‘Perhaps the aim was never to kill her . . . only to knock her out and rob her. You say her purse and rings are missing. Her attacker may only have shot her because she opened her eyes and saw him.’

The Chief Constable walked a few steps to the nearest corner of the summer house. ‘She’d have seen him anyway. Where could he have hidden? The door was locked. He had to be somewhere outside.’

‘Or following her. The blow to the head was from behind.’

‘Mm.’ Warde tapped his walking stick on the veranda floor. ‘You think it was a stranger? Someone who saw her in the woods and thought she might have some money on her?’

‘It’s possible.’

‘But not very likely,’ said Warde. ‘A man would have to be very foolish to think a woman on a country stroll had large amounts of cash in her pocket. It doesn’t happen.’

‘What about her rings?’

Warde lifted his cane to point at the silk glove near Caroline’s hat. ‘Hidden under that. A casual thief wouldn’t know she was wearing them until he peeled it off her hand. Why gamble on the gallows for money and rings that might not exist?’

Dr Mansfield shrugged. ‘A twenty-year-old was hanged last month for killing a man for less than a pound. Do you think a passing tramp, acting on impulse, would use logic before he struck?’

The Chief Constable glanced at one of his inspectors, who was standing on the other side of the body. ‘What do you say, George?’

George Hamble frowned. ‘I can’t see it being a vagrant, sir. Guns aren’t cheap. If a man was that hard up, he’d have taken the weapon to a pawnbroker’s instead of hanging around a deserted wood waiting for someone to pass.’

‘Perhaps she disturbed him breaking into the building.’

‘There’s no sign of forced entry. But let’s say you’re right . . . Why shoot her? Why not jump the rail and run away? If we caught him later, the only thing we could arrest him for was trespass.’

‘What other explanation is there?’

‘Mrs Luard’s rings and purse were stolen to make it look as if theft was the motive.’

‘Meaning what?’

‘Someone wanted her dead.’ The Inspector stared down at the body. ‘This looks more like an execution to me. A bang on the skull to bring her down then two shots to the brain. Did anyone other than her husband know she’d be here this afternoon?’

There was a short unhappy silence before Warde shook his head. ‘If you’re suggesting Charles killed his wife, I won’t accept it, George. He’s a close friend of mine. I’ve known him for years.’

The Inspector was well aware of the bond between his boss and the Major-General. ‘Even so, we can’t ignore him as a suspect, sir. In cases like this, it’s always the husband we look at first.’

‘But the man’s in pieces. He’s aged ten years in a matter of hours. There’s no way he could have done this.’

Dr Mansfield stirred. ‘Perhaps Mrs Luard asked someone to meet her.’

But the Chief Constable didn’t like that idea either. ‘Are you saying she had a secret meeting that her husband knew nothing about?’ he demanded. ‘I’ve never heard anything so absurd. They’ve been married for over thirty years.’

BOOK: A Dreadful Murder
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