Authors: Paula Paul
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Historical
Symptoms of Death
For Linda, my beautiful daughter-in-law.
The dinner party was singularly unremarkable until the lunatic arrived.
And then, it was not the lunatic whom Nicholas Forsythe remembered so much as the woman who had been at the other end of the table. She was the one who stopped the poor demented creature and saved them all from whatever it is lunatics do when they burst into a dining room screaming and waving a machete. Mass murder?
Until that unfortunate incident, Nicholas had paid little more attention to the woman at the end of the long table than he had the white linen that covered the table or the gleaming silver with which he brought the rare roast beef to his mouth. He had only a vague memory of having been introduced to her by Edward Boswick, Fifth Earl of Dunsford, his host. He had made the introduction earlier when she first arrived at Montmarsh,
the earl’s country estate. The memory was of rose colored silk and a bit of décolletage. Not particularly remarkable décolletage at that, if his memory served him.
The dinner had progressed beyond the roast beef to pudding and cheese and Nicholas was amusing himself in a bit of flirtatious conversation with Mrs. Isabel Atewater, his arm resting on the back of her chair and dangerously close to her bare shoulder. He had just moved his forefinger close enough to caress the satiny skin of that very inviting shoulder in a manner discreet enough that her husband, Jeremy Atewater, would not notice. That is precisely when the crazy woman burst into the dining room.
Her hair was loose and flying wildly about her head, her eyes bright with passion. She carried a long knife in her right hand, and she waved it carelessly, crying, “’E won’t get by with it ’e won’t. I’ll see to it meself. And you bloody well watch yer selves, all o’ ye swells.”
“Come back here, girl
. Come back here, I say. For God’s sake, girl.” It was the cook calling out to the lunatic while she stood in the doorway that led to the kitchens. The cook wrung her hands in the voluminous brown muslin skirt that covered her more than ample hips. Behind her was a bevy of servants looking over her shoulder, mouths agape and eyes stunned.
Cook would not enter the dining room, however. Instead, she turned away, her face buried in her hands
while the mad woman wreaked havoc in the dining room.
’Tis your fault, ’tis so.” The lunatic woman pointed the long knife at Edward, the host, before she swung it in an arc to indicate the entire table and then turned back to Edward. “I’ll kill ye, Lord Dunsford. Ye bloody nob. And all yer nobbie friends. I’ll kill ye for what ye done to Georgie. And none of yer bloody money nor yer bloody houses here in Essex nor in London will save ye.”
She swung the blade again, well off her mark but narrowly missing the top of Jeremy Atewater
’s head. In the same instant Nicholas sprang to his feet and held the mad woman’s arms, restraining her.
The lunatic, whom Nicholas now realized was nothing more than a girl, struggled mightily. “Get yer filthy
’ands off of me, you murderin’ lout.” she screamed.
She managed to wrench herself free of Nicholas
’s grasp and had raised the knife to do God knows what when the woman in the rose-colored silk grasped the demented girl’s wrist and spoke to her.
Nicholas could scarce
ly hear what she said, but he knew the voice was soft, almost hypnotic, and at the same time firm. In spite of the soothing voice, the girl continued to struggle, and Nicholas, along with Atewater, Lord Dunsford, and Lord Winningham, tried to restrain her again. They wrestled her to the floor, and Nicholas was aware of the rose silked woman shouting for the servants to fetch something.
’s with my wrap in the cloak room. Hurry.” Then she turned her attention back to the girl who, though she had dropped the knife, was now kicking on the floor and screaming obscenities. “Not too rough on her, gentlemen. She’s not going to hurt you,” Miss Rose Silk said.
“My dear,” Nicholas said, addressing Miss Rose Silk in a voice that sounded choked because the lunatic girl had just pushed her knee with considerable force into his stomach, “perhaps you
’d better go with the ladies.” Nicholas nodded his head toward the ballroom where the other ladies were being led by the two or three of the gentlemen.
The woman ignored him and shouted another command to the serving staff. At precisely the same moment another string of obscenities issued forth from the girl on the floor, along with another punch of her knee. This time the jab landed several inches below Nicholas
’s stomach. Tendrils of fire radiated from his groin to his buttocks and down his legs. It doubled him over and brought bile to his throat. He struggled to swallow it and to keep his balance.
’d better sit down, sir,” the rose silked woman said.
Nicholas tried to answer her, to keep his dignity and lie to her that he was all right, but pain had robbed him of his voice. He could do nothing except back away weakly and obey her command.
The rest was a blur to Nicholas. He was vaguely aware of a servant appearing with a large bag in his hand and the woman removing a vial of something from the bag then mixing the contents with water and forcing the screaming girl to drink. He also had a hazy memory of the silk-clad woman leading the subdued girl away toward the kitchen.
It was several seconds before Nicholas was able to stand and then to walk, slightly bent, back to his chair at the table. By now, the other women had all been safely dispersed to the ballroom, and the men were settling at the table again ready for their port. Even a mad woman would not deter an English gentleman from the tradition of port and cigars after dinner.
“Sorry, bloody sorry.” Eddie brushed at his sleeves and straightened his jacket. “One never knows what one is getting in kitchen help these days.”
“I thought all we
’d have to worry about is that band of robbers roaming the countryside,” one of the gentlemen said. “Had no idea there would be mad women. What was that all about anyway?”
“God knows,” Eddie said, distracted now by a servant serving the port.
“Accusing you of murder?” Lord Winningham said. “Good God, man, what was she talking about?”
“I have no idea,” Eddie said. “I
’ve seen the wench only a few times, and the only time I’ve spoken to her was last year when Cook hired her and brought her to me for introductions.”
“Then you don
’t know the poor dead bugger she was talking about?” Winningham said. “Georgie, wasn’t it?”
“Georgie?” Eddie shook his head. “I have no idea who the poor bloke could be. She made no sense at all. I suspect she
’s been helping herself to the wine cellar.”
All of the gentlemen laughed. “Then she must have had a bloody good time, Eddie,” one of them said, raising his glass. “The port is exceptional.”
“Here! Here!” another said, and raised his glass—a signal to all to raise their own.
“The woman who ministered to her,” Nicholas
asked as he selected one of the Havana cigars being offered him by a servant, “who was she?”
“Oh you mean Miss Gladstone?” Eddie said. “Didn
’t I introduce you?”
“Well, yes you did, but I
’m afraid I paid little attention to—”
Gladstone?” one of the guests said with a certain amount of disgust in his voice. “Don’t think I caught the name either. Not related to that bloody William Gladstone in Parliament is she?”
Eddie laughed. “No relation at all.”
“Mark my word,” the gentleman said. “The bastard will be prime minister again and what will that do to Disraeli and his foreign policy?”
The topic then turned to politics
. Although Nicholas would have liked to learn more about Miss Gladstone, he did not change the subject. He aspired to a career in politics and took every opportunity he could to learn the political pulse of his class.
As the conversation continued
, he downed several glasses of the port, so that, by the time it was necessary to join the ladies in the ballroom, the pain in his groin had disappeared completely.
Once in the ballroom, he
searched for the woman who had aroused his curiosity in the dining room. Besides her slender form, lovely ginger colored hair, and sparkling golden eyes, he’d been intrigued by her confident manner with the lunatic. The woman he sought was nowhere in sight. Isabel, however, caught his eye and gave him a coy smile as she wiggled her fingers at him from across the room. Nicholas knew full well what those wiggling fingers meant, but he had lost interest in Mrs. Atewater. He was beginning to regret his flirtation, since he would be confined with her and the rest of the guests at Montmarsh, Lord Edward Dunsford’s country estate, for a few days. It was Eddie’s habit to invite the liveliest of his London friends out for an extended stay at his family’s country estate in the summer. Nicholas had no country estate of his own. He was the younger son of a viscount with no title to inherit, so the family estate went to his older brother. He preferred his London townhouse anyway, for entertaining as well as for living.
“Nicky, old boy
. Enjoying yourself, I hope? In spite of the bloody scene in the dining room.” Eddie gave him a hearty slap on the back. Lord Edward had been his classmate at Eton, a handsome man in his early thirties with a stocky build and thick flax-colored hair and hazel eyes.
“Enjoying myself? Of course, Eddie. Smashing party, as always.” He noticed then, how pale Eddie looked and how profusely he was sweating. “I say, Eddie, you
’re not in any danger are you?”
Eddie laughed. “Danger? Why would you suggest that?”
“After all, that scullery maid did threaten you.”
“Oh that.” Eddie pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and smiled. “I told you she must have been drinking. Or perhaps she
’s a bit touched in the head.” He laughed again as he patted the perspiration from his forehead.
Nicholas laughed with him, but he didn
’t miss the worried look that Eddie tried to mask with his off-handed manner. “And that woman who led her away. What did you say her name is?”
“Oh yes, Alexandra Gladstone. You asked about her before, didn
“Yes, I think I did, but—”
“Odd woman, that one. But I was obliged to invite her just for the evening. She’s the daughter of the late Dr. Huntington Gladstone, you know.”
“No, I didn
“Odd bird in his own right, so it
’s no wonder his daughter is odd as well. A physician. No title. His brother inherited. No family of distinction, really. But so well respected in our little parish that one doesn’t dare slight his off-spring if one is to have a party.”
Nicholas nodded. “Ah, the daughter of a physician, you say. Then that explains the potion she poured down the poor lunatic
’s throat with such efficiency. And all without even the slightest mussing of that lovely rose silk she was wearing.”
Eddie cocked an eyebrow in a knowing gesture. “Oh come now, Nicky, don
’t be going ga-ga over that one. Won’t you have your hands full tonight with Mrs. Atewater? Oh, now don’t deny you were flirting with her.”
“Well, certainly I tried to be courteous, but—”
“Her room is next to her husbands, so take care when you steal your way across the hall tonight.” He winked at Nicholas.
“Always thinking of my welfare, aren
’t you, Eddie?”
His old classmate grinned and gave him a friendly pat on the back. “If that
’s the case, then heed my advice. Miss Gladstone is not your type. Rather coarse, if you know what I mean.”
“Really? She didn
’t seem at all coarse.”
“Ah, yes, but listen to this: She
’s actually taken over her late father’s practice. Trained well by the old boy, I’ll grant you, and all the locals look to her for their doctoring same as they did her father. Knows all about autopsies and any number of ghastly surgical procedures.” Eddie pretended to shudder. “Coarse, wouldn’t you say? And unwomanly? No amount of silk can remedy that, I think you’ll agree.”
“Hmmm,” Nicholas said, managing to sound noncommittal, in spite of the fact that his curiosity was aroused more than ever.
Eddie might have gone on more about the woman, but he was distracted by another guest who pulled him into a little knot of people by insisting that he settle a playful argument concerning the merit of a rather bawdy theater production they’d all seen recently in London.
Free of Eddie, Nicholas scanned the room again, looking for Alexandra Gladstone. He could not spot her, and he was still searching when he felt a hand fall ever so lightly on his arm.
“You were expecting someone else?”
A servant walked by with a tray of drinks. Nicholas took one quickly. “Someone
“Who are you looking for, Nicky?”
“No one in particular.” He took a sip from the glass and kept his eyes scanning the room.
“Are you going to dance with me?”
He looked down at her, as if he’d only just seen her. “Dance with you? Of course.” He placed the glass on a table, took her in his arms, and led her across the floor to the strains of the Viennese Waltz the orchestra played, making sure he twirled her around so that he had a view of the door, just in case the mysterious Alexandra entered.