Authors: Celina Grace
Murder at Merisham Lodge
© Celina Grace 2015
I’m not ashamed to say that I screamed when the body fell at my feet. In fact, it almost fell
my feet, but I managed to stagger backwards. Instead of receiving the full force of impact, my one pair of decent shoes received a stippling of blood across the toes, spattering the leather in a string of glossy red beads.
There was an exclamation and I looked up, furious.
“Sorry! Sorry, miss.” One of the men I’d seen working on the estate hurried towards me, his shotgun hanging loosely from his hand. “I didn’t see you there.”
By now he had reached me and we both looked down at the body of the magpie, its black and white wings a monochrome splash against the dusty grass.
By now, I hoped I’d recovered a little poise. “You startled me,” I said inadequately, trying to stop my voice from shaking. The man hung his head a little. He was younger than I’d first thought, about thirty-five, his skin tanned and weathered from all the work he did outdoors. “What on Earth are you doing, shooting magpies, anyway?” I added in a more normal tone.
“Ah, they’ll take the young chicks if they find them, miss,” he said. He stooped and picked up the body of the bird. “Not as bad as the kestrels, though, but we’ve still got orders to shoot them if we see them around the breeding grounds.”
“I see,” I said. I looked at my shoes again and tutted.
The man almost blushed. “Let me help you there, miss,” he mumbled and bent and tore up a handful of grass. Before I could stop him, he had wiped the blood from the toes of my shoes.
“Thank you,” I said, my own cheeks now scarlet. I was half thinking that he’d done that just to get a good look at my legs. He clambered back onto his feet and stood back a little, to let me pass by.
“You work up at the kitchens, don’t you?” he said, just as I was walking away.
“Yes, I’m the undercook,” I said with dignity and perhaps just a touch of ‘so I’m higher in the servants’ hierarchy than
in my voice.
I’m not sure he got the message. He grinned and said, “Well, I’ll have some lovely birds for you to cook up soon, miss.”
I said nothing but gave him a cool nod and went on my way.
It was summer’s last gasp, September 1930; the very tail end of the good weather. It was a good season in Derbyshire when it was still warm, with the chill of autumn just around the corner but not yet felt. The leaves on the trees were just beginning to be touched with colour, turning yellow here and there within the mass of green. The sun still had some real warmth behind it. Though I was supposed to be hurrying back – my afternoon off ended abruptly at four o’clock – somehow I just couldn’t seem to make my feet move faster than a dawdle. I followed the footpath that skirted the edge of the Merisham estate, winding through the oak and beech trees. Halfway along the path, I had to clamber over a stile, a little awkwardly in my long skirt, before the path led me across a field, past the chattering little brook that crossed the corner, over another stile and finally onto the road that eventually led to the back gate of the lodge.
Merisham Lodge had been in Lord Cartwright’s family for over a hundred years. My friend, Verity, had told me so when she persuaded me to apply for a position here.
“It’s a big old place,” she told me and then added hastily after seeing me flinch, “but not
old – not as old as Asharton Manor. The family keeps it for shooting parties and for their summer residence, normally. They’re going up a little early, this year, and so they’ll need a full set of staff…”
“I don’t know, V,” I said. “Is it very isolated? I don’t think I could stand that again.”
Verity hastened to reassure me. “It’s only a mile from the village, and you’re less than five miles from Buxton. It’s nothing like Asharton Manor, believe me, Joan.”
“Hmmm,” I said, not entirely convinced, but then I trusted Verity. After all, what other choice did I have? It wasn’t as if there were hundreds of jobs out there for a partly-trained kitchen maid, or at least not so many in places that I would actually want to work. If I took a position at Merisham Lodge, I’d be working in the same house as Verity. We might even get to share a room. It wasn’t as if I particularly liked the place where I was working at that time; it was a doctor’s house in Kilburn. It had been one of the places I’d applied for in a panic after I left Asharton Manor.
“The food’s good, and you get a decent amount of time off,” Verity said encouragingly.
?” I didn’t have to elaborate any further. Verity knew whom I meant.
“Oh, he’s a bugger,” she said cheerfully. “And Madam’s just as bad. But believe me, Joan, you won’t come into contact with them very often, so you don’t have to worry.”
“Hmmm,” I said once more, but that was just for show. By that time, I’d already made up my mind.
My first sight of the lodge hadn’t exactly been encouraging. I’d met the housekeeper, Mrs Anstells, in London to be interviewed. I had actually met her before, as Verity had worked for the family for years. Of course, Verity had also put a good word in for me, and I had a good reference from my last position at Asharton Manor (probably the only positive thing to come out of the whole ghastly experience). I was pleased but not greatly surprised when I was offered the position. I’d taken the train up the following week and prepared to walk the couple of miles from Merisham Station to the lodge. My trunk hadn’t been that big but it seemed to get heavier and heavier, the further I plodded. Of course it
start raining before I got more than fifty yards. I trudged on through the downpour, thinking what a fine sight I’d look when I actually got to the lodge; more like a drowned rat than a professional servant.
As I walked, I remembered the first sight I’d had of Asharton Manor and what a shock it had been. It had seemed like a palace to me, newly arrived from grey old London. What a fine sight it had been – and how deceptive the appearance was. It wasn’t particularly cold, despite the rain, but I still shivered at the memories.
By then I had become more accustomed to fine houses, the lodge didn’t look all that awe-inspiring, especially as I could only glimpse it through a curtain of falling rain. It looked handsome enough, I suppose; solid, well-built, and surrounded by some fine lawns and well-tended gardens. I had walked on round the back, of course, and rang the rather rusty bell affixed to the wall by the back door, wondering what my fellow servants would be like.
Today, the house looked very different in the spring sunshine. In high spirits, after my walk and the few hours I’d had to please myself, I wiped my feet on the boot-scraper by the back door and went on into the kitchen.
“Oh, Joan, you’re back. Good.” The cook, Mrs Watling, darted back and forth between stoves, as was her wont. I’d never met someone quite so blessed with energy – she made me, some twenty years her junior, feel quite tired. “Had a nice afternoon?”
“Lovely, thank you,” I said with feeling. I liked my job well enough, and Mrs Watling was a good and patient person to work for, but all the same, a job is a job and after a few hours of freedom, it was always rather melancholy to come back to reality with a bump. I tried to shake off the feeling. It helped that the kitchen windows were flung wide and the sunshine and fresh spring air flooded through into the kitchen.
As kitchens go, it was actually quite a pleasant place to work. The whole room had been modernised some years before and we had, wonder of wonders, a gas stove as well as the range. The ‘pop’ of the gas as it lit had scared me stiff at first – I was sure we’d all be blown to kingdom come - but as was usual, it was amazing how quickly I got used to it and soon became rather blasé about striking a match and lighting it. The floor was tiled with smooth red ceramic tiles, such a pleasant change from the usual pitted and marked flagstones that needed a hearty scrubbing every day before they looked clean.
“Joan, go and change, there’s a good girl. They’ll be wanting tea at half four, and I’ll need you to cut sandwiches.” Mrs Watling scraped a load of carrot peelings into the stock pot with a flourish. “There’s the ginger cake that needs eating as well. That and scones should be enough, I would have thought.”
I nodded obediently and made for the servants’ stairs. Those stairs irritated me, as they had done in every house I’d been in that had them. It wasn’t enough that we had to run around after these people, catering to their every whim and often receiving nothing but scorn in return, but that we had to do all that whilst remaining as invisible as we possibly could. I mean, God forbid that we were able to use the hallowed steps of the main staircase. I stomped on upwards, my good mood of the morning dimming more the further up the stairs I went.
One of the good things about working at Merisham Lodge was that I had indeed been able to share a room with Verity. It wasn’t the way things were normally done, the undercook and a lady’s maid sharing a room, but, in her usual way, Verity had charmed Mrs Anstells around into thinking that it was a good idea. I wondered whether Verity would be there now, but it didn’t seem likely. Verity was lady’s maid to the daughter of the house, Dorothy, and would very likely now be cleaning her jewellery or mending her underwear, or making up a beauty potion for her mistress to use later. I knocked on the door of our room, just in case, but only silence met me. Never mind. I’d see Verity at dinner time, and we’d be able to have a good old chinwag then.
I hung up my skirt and blouse and pulled on my uniform. Standing in front of the little mirror, which hung on the far wall above the narrow table we used as a dressing table, I peered at my dim reflection. I tried to scrape back my hair until it was entirely hidden under my cap. It was difficult, as I had to virtually festoon my very thick, long hair with hairpins before it consented to do what it was told. As always, I wondered whether I would ever be bold enough to have it cut short, like Dorothy Drew wore hers, in a daring flapper bob. But then, when you’re rich and young and beautiful, you can carry off a style like that. “Dorothy would look good in an old sack,” I remember Verity saying once, and I had to agree. Fleetingly, I wondered whether Dorothy would be considered
so beautiful if she hadn’t been
My hair safely stowed away under my cap, I picked up a clean apron and a clean pair of cuffs and made my way back downstairs, hurrying as I caught sight of the clock. I hastened into the kitchen, washed my hands, and began sawing at a loaf of bread. Cucumber sandwiches and meat paste, perhaps… Mrs Watling backed out of the larder, her hands full of eggs, and gave me an approving nod.
“Don’t forget the ginger cake,” was all she said before she sped off in the direction of the wine cellar.
The sandwiches cut, the ginger cake placed on a cake tray, and the jam and butter carefully decanted into separate pots, I hastily arranged the scones on a plate and added the linen napkins. I could hear the drawing room bell jangling away out in the passage but nobody appeared. Cursing under my breath, I went out in the corridor, wondering if I should shout. Where was everybody? I knew Nora, one of the two parlourmaids of the house, was out on her afternoon off – I’d even seen her in the village and we’d exchanged smiles from across the street – but Nancy should have been here. It was almost quarter to five and the bell for the drawing room was even now bouncing up and down on its hook. I cursed a little louder, whipped off my dirty apron, and picked up the tray.
I pounded up the back stairs to the ground floor, manoeuvred my way through the door to the hallway, and then hurried along towards the drawing room, tray chinking and clinking in my hands. I caught sight of myself in the enormous gilt-framed mirror that hung on one side of the hallway and groaned inwardly. I was scarlet in the face, tiny beads of sweat garlanding my nose. While the apron I’d discarded in the kitchen had kept the worst of the muck off my dress, there were still enough spots and splashes and stains all over me to make me look like something that could have been dragged up from the cellar.
Nobody will even notice you, I told myself reassuringly, and sure enough, once I’d knocked and was bid to enter, I might as well have been invisible. I set the tea tray on the round table by the window, just as it was always placed for this daily ritual.
The whole family was gathered in the drawing room: Lord and Lady Cartwright, Lord Cartwright’s son, Duncan, and Lady Cartwright’s daughter, Dorothy. Lord Cartwright’s social secretary, Rosalind Makepeace, was also there, sitting quietly by herself over to one side of the room. I looked at her quickly before looking just as quickly away. She intrigued me: she was good looking, in a way that was the antithesis of Dorothy Drew’s showy beauty. Rosalind’s face had something more subtle.
Still waters run deep
was the phrase that occurred to me then. I thought she had a kind of foreign look to her, without being able to say exactly what I meant by that. Perhaps it was her black hair, glossy and smooth as jet, or the sharpness of her cheekbones. Duncan Cartwright was seated next to Rosalind, but he was turned quite sharply away from her, leaning towards Dorothy. As usual, they were laughing and joking together, the cigarettes in their hands sending up twining blue tendrils of smoke that partly veiled their faces. He
good-looking, I thought, that was undeniable, but all the same, I didn’t much like his face. There was something a little cruel around his mouth, and while he seemed to be always smiling, it never seemed to reach his eyes.