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Authors: Nicola Slade

The Dead Queen's Garden

BOOK: The Dead Queen's Garden
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For Arthur and Gloria Shilling, mountain walker and retail therapist respectively.

Although the places and people in
The Dead Queen’s Garden
are figments of my imagination, the inspiration for the novel came from the real ‘Queen Eleanor’s Garden’ which adjoins Winchester’s Great Hall. This is a must-see recreation of a mediaeval garden, designed by Dr Sylvia Landsberg and opened in 1986 by the Queen Mother. My Victorian version is nothing like the original, however, and any errors in planting are entirely mine.

Florence Nightingale, who makes a brief appearance in this novel, lived at Embley Park, about twelve miles from the Hampshire village of Otterbourne, on which Charlotte’s home at Finchbourne is based, so it’s perfectly plausible that the Nightingale and Richmond families would be acquainted.

Thanks as always to my brilliant readers, Olivia Barnes and Linda Gruchy, who can spot a plot hole at a hundred paces.

Particular thanks are due to Granville Winship and Oz Forster whose names I’ve ‘borrowed’ for this book.

Charlotte Richmond
  
A young widow who approves of a quiet life
Barnard Richmond
 
An Olde English Squire who approves of hospitality
Lily Richmond
 
The Squire’s lady who approves of a lordly title
Lady Frampton
 
A grandmother who approves of a good square meal
Lady Granville
 
A dramatic gardener who approves of the Middle Ages
Lord Granville
 
A genial old party who approves of pretty women
Oz Granville
 
A cosseted child who strongly disapproves of his name
Kit Knightley
 
A godfather with sorrow on his mind
Elaine Knightley
 
The reason for his sorrow
Sibella Armstrong
 
An unemployed governess
Verena Chant
 
Her sister, who is married to:
Dr Montagu Chant
 
Doctor to Prince Albert, and makes sure everyone knows it
Florence Nightingale
 
The Lady with the Lamp
Melicent Penbury
 
The Lady with the Limp
Capt Horatio Penbury
 
A bluff sailor with a greedy appetite
Miss Ethelreda Cole
 
A poor relation
Bessie Railton
 
May cause an earthquake in Charlotte’s peaceful life
 
A vicar, a vicar’s wife, a doctor, a baby, a butler, a blacksmith and other villagers, a cat with kittens, and a fat pony with a grievance.

‘M
URDER
! T
HERE'S
ACTUALLY
been a murder, isn't it delicious?'

‘What? What's that you say?'

The great west door slammed open letting in a blast of icy sleet and the speaker, a young, fair-haired lady, hurried into the shadowy darkness of the cathedral. Ignoring the verger who was struggling to close the door again, she shook out her umbrella and addressed the other young woman who had risen to greet her.

‘Dear Lord, what a dreary tomb,' she exclaimed, in a light, mocking, voice. ‘How can everyone be so deluded as to praise antiquity so fulsomely, when as far as I can see all it is fit for is to cast us into the deepest gloom.' Her tinkling laugh echoed in the ancient stillness of the great church. ‘That, and to make us all contract galloping pneumonia.'

‘But what is this about a murder? I can scarcely believe you,' was the response in a low, protesting tone. She hesitated then continued, ‘And you should not mock so in a place of worship, it is not fitting. As you are perfectly well aware, Winchester Cathedral is famed throughout the world as a magnificent example of religious architecture.'

‘Dear me, you are always so instructive and so solemn! Oh, very well then, my dear,' there was a laughing apology. ‘I shall not mock. Instead, I shall gratify your curiosity. I heard the shocking news just now as I hurried to meet you. Apparently some old woman has been battered to death, and the countryside is in uproar, crying rape and ravishment, with the murderer not yet apprehended.' She laughed again as they took a turn down the venerable aisle. ‘But here is the cream, my dear – oh, very well,' she pouted as her companion showed a shocked countenance.

‘A life has been lost; you should not be so unfeeling.' The quieter lady sank down onto a chair, looking shaken while her companion glanced at her unabashed.

‘I apologize if you must be so pious. However, this dastardly event took place only a few days ago in the very place where we are to attend tomorrow's christening! In Finchbourne village, no less.' She shivered, ‘Come, we must walk, or we shall freeze.'

There was a swish of bright silks and velvets from the laughing lady, together with a more modest murmur of serviceable grey merino from her companion, as the two women strolled along towards the altar, neither of them paying any attention to the two other occupants of the nave.

At the word ‘Murder', another woman, perhaps in her fifties, who was seated half way down the aisle, had jumped perceptibly as her round, pink, face lost colour and she clutched a hand to her plump bosom. She looked over her shoulder, apparently seeking the perpetrators of this outrage, her brow creased further in a petulant frown at the frivolous peal of laughter. The two young women had disappeared towards the grand new organ, so she applied a handkerchief to her eyes and returned to her devotions. The episode had clearly distressed her however, as her shoulders heaved and the handkerchief flapped continually.

The other onlooker, a decade or so older and a stone or two stouter, had patently sought the cathedral as a place of rest and shelter from the freezing rain, and was unashamedly taking the weight off her elderly feet.

The tinkling laugh rang out again, regardless of the sacred nature of the surroundings.

‘Well? Shall we be daunted by a sudden outbreak of murder or shall we attend this tiresome party, do you think? Young Mrs Richmond was quite insistent, was she not? And I must admit that this town is so dull that even the prospect of something like a provincial christening will help to relieve the tedium. No, my dear,' she laughed once more, ‘I know you do not wish to be sociable but I must insist. I am bored to tears and after all, there is to be a wassail bowl! Apparently that is some kind of hot punch with spices and fruit or some such. Did you not hear Mrs Richmond waxing lyrical upon the subject? How can we resist such entertainment?'

Their tour of the cathedral complete, the two ladies enquired of the verger as to the state of the weather. On being informed that the rain had ceased, they left the great building without a backward glance, the laughing lady remarking, ‘Did I tell you that there is a further treat in store at the manor? Some Australian relative who was lately in India was apparently caught up in the Mutiny and escaped to England with only the
clothes she stood up in. Her husband was reported killed in an ambush, but later he miraculously turned up in Hampshire, only to die almost at once. I do trust she is not too dreary, you know how much a widow can cast a pall on the proceedings!'

The seated worshippers remained in continued silence but not one of the four women present in the cathedral that day had the slightest inkling that death would soon once more stalk the quiet Hampshire countryside.

Hampshire, December 1858

‘D
EAR
L
ORD
,
BUT
that baby squeals louder than any pigling I ever ’ad the pleasure of meeting.’ The stout old lady’s cockney whisper was mercifully drowned by the wails of the infant in question, who was being presented at the font by his harassed godparents. She added, ‘I declare it would surely be a kindness if Percy dropped the little beggar and put us all out of our misery.’

Charlotte Richmond felt some sympathy for this radical point of view but she shook her head with a smile at the old lady, her late husband’s grandmother.

‘Percy wouldn’t dream of being so clumsy and Agnes is on tiptoe waiting to step in if the need arises,’ she murmured in response, glancing towards the vicar’s wife, Charlotte’s elder sister-in-law, who was anxiously watching the proceedings. ‘Besides, he knows full well that Lily would rise up and slaughter him if he did.’ The baby’s proud mother, Lily Richmond, Charlotte’s other, younger, sister-in-law, was glaring at the vicar obviously daring him to put a foot wrong.

‘Well,’ snorted old Lady Frampton, ‘at least the devil’s well out of the child, to judge by the racket ’e’s making.’

A slight snort of amusement came from behind to her left, and Charlotte half turned, to meet a pair of twinkling blue eyes as a young boy sitting at the end of the pew grinned at her. He looked about ten or eleven and his shock of flaxen fair hair shone even under the meagre light given by the candle sconce above him. The hand which had flown to his mouth to conceal his laughter at the
old lady’s remark was scratched and slightly grubby but his
presence
in the pews, and his good clothes, indicated that he was clearly an official guest at the christening. Charlotte shot him a sympathetic smile as she wondered who he could be.

The noise the baby was making was deafening, so Charlotte merely nodded to her elderly companion with a smile as she bowed her head in a final prayer for the future health, happiness and prosperity of Master Fairfax Algernon Granville Richmond, heir to the manor of Finchbourne in the county of Hampshire. The bearer of this great responsibility was her late husband’s nephew and there had been a brief moment of anxiety a week or so earlier, when Charlotte had feared she might be required to take on the duties of godmother to Algy, as he was to be known in the family. Her reluctance, and relief at not being thus invited, had nothing to do with lack of affection or interest, but all to do with the imperious nature of the baby’s mother.

‘You ’ad a lucky escape there, me dear.’ The old lady’s whisper competed with the baby’s howls as she nodded towards the font and Charlotte’s eyes creased in amusement.

Lily had been frank with her. ‘Barnard wanted you as godmother, Charlotte,’ she had said. ‘But I know you can have no objection when I tell you I’ve asked Lord and Lady Granville to stand as sponsors instead. They’re near neighbours and very
highly-regarded
locally, and it turns out that they have now decided to leave London and come home to Hampshire permanently.’

What her sister-in-law had not needed to mention was that the Granvilles were extremely wealthy, but Charlotte knew that was a consideration with Lily. Relieved of the responsibility that had hung, all unknown, over her head, she graciously assured both parents that she was happy to hand over the task to more
illustrious
godparents who would ensure that little Algy was raised as a Christian. She was also quite certain that Lily would refrain from meddling and pointing out the duties of a godparent to the Granvilles, as she would not, alas, have failed to do so, had Charlotte been so appointed. She concealed a quiet smile, picturing Lily’s face had she known of Charlotte’s antecedents: her late mother, unjustly accused of theft and transported to Australia, and
Will, her beloved stepfather who had died in India. He had been an escaped convict who posed convincingly as a clergyman, raising funds for churches that would never be built. Lily might have been more impressed by Charlotte’s godmother, but her approval would have vanished upon learning that Lady Meg’s noble brother had paid her to go to Australia where her overgenerous ways with men would no longer embarrass him.

A glance upwards made her shiver. The ornate memorial plaque placed there by his distraught mother, proclaimed the alleged virtues of her own, mercifully dead, husband. Charlotte’s
mother-in
-law had been at first in raptures when Frampton, thought to be dead in an Indian ambush, had been restored to her at the manor, but his subsequent death had shaken the family to the core, resulting in the elder Mrs Richmond’s departure to take the cure on the Continent. Charlotte still woke in shuddering fear when she dreamed of Frampton Richmond’s vicious tongue, and she tried to suppress all reminders of him.

Most Sundays she managed not to sit anywhere near the
memorial
, but today the old lady had wheezed so alarmingly that Charlotte was grateful for any resting place. She shivered and cast about for a less unhappy train of thought, hailing with gratitude a solution to her earlier puzzlement which occurred to her now, as she slid another surreptitious glance at the fair-haired boy.

‘Gran?’ she nudged her companion. ‘Is that the Granville boy?’

Lady Frampton heaved herself round and stared, responding with a smile to the boy’s friendly grin. ‘That’s ’im,’ she replied, turning back. ‘The precious son and heir, nice-looking lad, ain’t he?

Charlotte felt a moment’s surprise; the child looked intelligent and was clearly possessed of a sense of humour, traits she had so far failed to observe in her slight acquaintance with his parents, though to be sure his father seemed a jolly enough old fellow. Her glance fell on the other godfather, Kit Knightley, from nearby Knightley Hall, an old schoolfellow of the baby’s proud father, Barnard Richmond, and husband to Charlotte’s closest friend. The final godparent represented an even greater coup for Lily, and Charlotte shot a second covert glance towards the silently brooding woman beside Kit Knightley.

Seated, as a nod to her continued ill-health, Miss Nightingale’s face exhibited such disapproval and severity that Charlotte thought she resembled the Bad Fairy at Sleeping Beauty’s
christening
. Shaking herself out of such a fancy, she wondered yet again what on earth could have persuaded the Heroine of the Crimea to agree to take on this responsibility. True, the Nightingale and Richmond families were well known to each other and moved in much the same social circles since childhood, living as they did a mere twelve miles or so apart, but according to local gossip Miss Nightingale was at present mainly confined to her own room by some lingering though unspecified ailment. Indeed, it was clear that even her own mother had been startled by this sudden acceptance of the honour, coupled as it was with a brief emergence from seclusion. To judge by Mrs Nightingale’s fretful expression, as she darted anxious glances towards her famous daughter, she was afraid of some kind of relapse.

She need not worry, opined Charlotte, weighing up the strength of character in the famous lady’s drawn but handsome face. Miss Nightingale, who must be in her late thirties, had for some unknown reason clearly made up her mind that she should
interrupt
her ailing solitude and until that purpose was fulfilled, Charlotte was quite sure that there would be no relapse and no withdrawal from the christening party. She abandoned her discreet observation of the famous lady and turned her curious glance across the church towards the Granvilles, who had left their son in the pew and now stood at the font. Although she had now lived in Finchbourne for nearly eight months since her escape from the Mutiny, she had not previously encountered these particular neighbours as they spent most of their time in London and abroad.

‘They are persons of the greatest nobility,’ Lily had told her with unconcealed satisfaction. ‘They are accustomed to move in the highest circles of Society, so it is excessively condescending of them to honour our little Algy in such a way.’

Well now, Charlotte looked at them with some curiosity. Nobility and wealth along with great positions might be desirable, but to her critical eye Lady Granville had less natural elegance than the landlady of ‘The Three Pigeons’ just across the village green. Lady
Granville, shrouded in opulent brocades and cashmere in an unbecoming shade of brown, and covered overall by a bulky sealskin mantle, was nonetheless badly-dressed. She had an air of abstraction, as if clothes had no interest at all for her, so that she looked to have thrown on whatever garments had been put out for her, without regard to style or whether they suited her, merely as covering to preserve the decencies and to keep her warm. She was a tall, large-boned woman, possibly in her late 40s, even a little older, mid-50s perhaps, her dark hair frosted with silver, although it was mostly hidden under an unbecoming bonnet.

Evidently thinking along the same lines, Lady Frampton gave Charlotte a sharp poke in the arm as she whispered loudly, ‘That bonnet looks like a bloomin’ coal scuttle; whatever was she thinkin’ of when she bought it?’

Stifling a giggle, Charlotte had to agree. Despite her taste in clothes, the distinguished guest still bore the vestiges of a ravaged beauty, although her discontented mouth and air of chilly abstraction seemed at odds with the un-English darkness of her complexion; but there was no sign of the agitation one might expect of someone whose personal maid had so lately been found murdered almost on the lady’s own doorstep.

The shocking news had run like wildfire through the village some days earlier and Charlotte, on her way to the manor whence she had been summoned by Lily, had come upon several huddles of women, shocked and excited by the terrible event. A babble of voices had assailed her,

‘Oh, Miss,’ squealed the wheelwright’s wife. ‘There’s been murder done!’

Shocked, Charlotte had demanded to know all about it and the women vied to tell her what they knew.

‘It was Lady Granville’s maid, Miss. That old Maria Dunster who’ve been with her ladyship for ever. Set upon in the very drive to Brambrook Abbey, she was.’

‘She used to be her ladyship’s nurse,’ an officious newcomer informed Charlotte, and the others chimed in. ‘Dunster was a good enough soul in days gone by, though she did hold her nose up at anyone what her ladyship disapproved of,’ said one.

‘Sadly gone off, though,’ added two more in unison. ‘Poor old soul’s mind was beginning to fail.’

At the manor, Lily was in despair and Charlotte was required to comfort and advise her on the propriety of holding a christening party so hard on the heels of such a crime. A note from Lady Granville had decided the matter: Mr and Mrs Richmond were please to carry out their original intention, if they would, and her ladyship had every expectation of attending the ceremony and the celebration to follow. The inquest had taken place, as had the funeral of the unfortunate victim, and the whole sorry business was concluded.

Charlotte found such
sang-froid
chilly but practical. The village constable had been called to the scene of the crime and taken a statement from the only witness to the effect that a burly man had been seen making away over the fields. The coroner had found for murder by person or persons unknown and now, in church, Charlotte glanced at the poor victim’s employer and marvelled at her composure.

Bellowing his responses, Lord Granville also seemed
unperturbed
by the shocking occurrence on his own drive. At least a decade older than his wife, he resembled nothing so much as a robust countryman, with a shock of wiry, grizzled hair, ruddy complexion and whiskery countenance; he was above middling height and almost as broad as he was tall. He looked to be
hail-fellow
-well-met as he peered at everyone, his small, round blue eyes disappearing into slits in his fleshy face as he nodded genially on his progress back to his own pew.

‘Give me an ’and to get up, girl,’ demanded the old lady beside her, and Charlotte helped her to heave her considerable bulk up off the stout oak pew. The congregation straggled to its feet for the final hymn which was sung with gusto and with anticipation of the christening feast to come.

As she sang, Charlotte returned to her earlier thoughts, then sighed and gave a philosophical shrug. Lord Granville had an eye for the ladies, of that there could be no doubt. She had the bruising to prove it where he had squeezed her hand in a fervent greeting, along with the recollection of his hot breath on her face where he
had come far too close on being introduced. She supposed he was accustomed to take liberties unless – a thought struck her – was he perhaps a little short-sighted? It had not been until he was right beside her that his eyes had brightened, with a sudden gleam in his eye as he appraised her tall slender figure clad against the December chill in her best winter outfit: a green cashmere dress with a velvet jacket. The plain bodice of the dress was buttoned high to the neck, relieved only by a lace collar which was pinned with her godmother’s gold acanthus leaf brooch. She wore a narrow sable tippet that matched an edging of fur on her saucy little green velvet-hat, the whole ensemble finished off with the muff, also of sable, that she carried primly in her hand.

Oh well, after today I need not run across his lordship again, she consoled herself. He looks like a spent force so I expect he’s
harmless
enough and besides, I’ve met his like before; at his age they are usually content with little pats and the occasional surreptitious pinch, but seldom anything more encroaching.

With the closing notes of the last hymn, it was time to make the short journey from the chilly, ancient stone church across the village green to the old Tudor manor house, Charlotte’s home for the first few months of her widowhood in England. In no particular hurry, she waited while Lady Frampton gathered up her shawls and muff, as well as her prayer book and capacious reticule. As they made their slow promenade down the aisle, Lady Frampton decided she needed to take a further rest, and subsided with a groan of relief on to a chair near the porch.

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