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Authors: Christine Trent

The Mourning Bells

BOOK: The Mourning Bells
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T
HE
L
ADY OF
A
SHES
M
YSTERIES
Lady of Ashes
 
Stolen Remains
 
A Virtuous Death
 
The Mourning Bells
 
 
A
LSO BY
C
HRISTINE
T
RENT
 
By the King’s Design
 
A Royal Likeness
 
The Queen’s Dollmaker
 
 
 
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
THE
M
OURNING
B
ELLS
A Lady of Ashes Mystery
CHRISTINE TRENT
KENSINGTON BOOKS
www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
To maintain a joyful family requires much from both the parents
and the children. Each member of the family has to become,
in a special way, the servant of the others.
 
—Pope John Paul II (May 18, 1920–April 2, 2005)
 
 
For James D. and Lois A. Trent,
who so readily took me into their family when I married their son,
and have served me in far greater ways than I have ever served them
.
A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS
I am the most fortunate of writers to be surrounded by friends and family who help me shepherd my books from plot development to final editing. My thanks to my mother, Georgia Carpenter; my brother, Tony Papadakis; my husband, Jon; my sister-in-law, Marian Wheeler; and friends Diane Townsend and Carolyn McHugh for constantly dropping everything to help me.
Also, I extend a big shout of thanks to Petra Utara, who ensured that I stayed on track for this book, and permitted no whining or complaining on my part to get in the way of the book’s deadline.
I am also the most fortunate of writers to have both an editor and agent who genuinely care about my books. I don’t deserve Martin Biro at Kensington Books and Helen Breitwieser at Cornerstone Literary, but I am grateful for them every single day as I navigate the crazy world of publishing.
Finally, I am deeply appreciative to the staff at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital’s Cancer Care Infusion Services, who have unwittingly done more to help me write than they can possibly realize. From providing me a table and chair each week from which to work while my mother receives treatment, to their unfailing sympathy, grace, and affection in caring for my mother in her hours of need, they ease my mind and make it free to dwell inside Violet’s world. Dr. Amir Kahn, Joan Popielski, Mary Abell, Cathy Fenwick, Teresa Gould, Rose Jupiter, Diane Loftus, Rachel Louden, Gloria Nelson, Deborah Pavlik, Patty Svecz, Sherry Wolfe, and Chris Wood—you simply cannot imagine the large space you occupy in my heart.
Sola fide.
C
AST OF
C
HARACTERS
VIOLET HARPER AND HER FAMILY AND FRIENDS
 
Violet Harper
—undertaker
Samuel Harper
—Violet’s husband
Susanna Tompkins
—Violet’s newly married daughter
Benjamin Tompkins
—Susanna’s husband
Mary Cooke
—mourning dressmaker and Violet’s friend
 
THE UNDERTAKERS
 
Harry Blundell
—Violet’s business partner
Julian Crugg
—Violet’s nemesis
Birdwell Trumpington
—Mr. Crugg’s assistant
Augustus Upton
—tightly corseted and pompous
James Vernon
—bland and uninspiring
 
THE MEDICAL MEN
 
Mr. Byron Ambrose
—physician and anatomist
Mr. Nathan Blackwell
—superintendent of Royal Surrey County Hospital
 
THE DEPARTED AND ALMOST DEPARTED
 
Harold Herbert Yates
—Where did he go after his body arrived at Brookwood?
Raymond Wesley
—Did he follow in Yates’s footsteps?
Lord Roger Blount
—second son of the Earl of Etchingham
Miss Margery Latham
—Blount’s fiancée
 
FRIENDS, ENEMIES, AND BUSYBODIES
 
Jeffrey Blount, Lord Audley
—Roger Blount’s elder brother
Uriah Gedding
—Brookwood South stationmaster
Cyril Hayes
—banker at London East Bank
 
THE DETECTIVES
 
Magnus Pompey Hurst
—detective chief inspector at Scotland Yard
Langley Pratt
—second-class inspector at Scotland Yard
Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding dang dong, ding dang dong
 
Are you sleeping, are you sleeping,
Brother John, Brother John?
Morning bells are ringing! Morning bells are ringing!
Ding dang dong, ding dang dong
—“Frère Jacques,”
French nursery rhyme ca. mid-19th century
 
 
All I desire for my own burial is not to be buried alive . . .
 
—Lord Chesterfield,
in a letter to his daughter-in-law,
March 16, 1769
Prologue
T
he man tried to grope about, except that it was impossible to do much more than scrabble his fingers along the sides of the coffin, what with the lid being mere inches from his body.
Why is it that everyone always talks of how the passing over from life to death takes a mere painless instant, but neglects to tell anyone about the horror of being confined inside a coffin?
the man wondered from his unfortunate vantage point.
Why don’t the ministers, during their dignified and dull sermons, warn congregants that the worst part of death isn’t the looming specter of hell but the endless journey from dining room table to graveside?
He knew where the lid was only because he had hit his face on it, trying to rise from his confines. It was darker than a crow’s wing in here, which only heightened his great fright.
He had shouted several times to whoever might be near him, but to no avail. His body rocked back and forth now, and the increased clattering below him signaled that the funeral train had picked up speed and was making haste for the cemetery.
Surely someone would hear him once they arrived at the cemetery and would unhinge this unholy slab of wood that was like a raised drawbridge, separating a knight pursued by arrows from the safety of the castle.
Dear God, what if I expire again before we get there?
Despite the lack of air and his terrifying situation, this irony was not lost on the man, and he even choked out a guttural laugh that sounded strangely like a sob in his ears. He might die a second time and no one would ever know.
How had this happened? What had he done to deserve this wretched situation? Was there even the remotest possibility that he would be discovered here before he was buried, with spadefuls of dirt ensuring that his shouts and gasps would be silenced forever?
He felt a tear leak from the corner of his right eye. Why, he hadn’t cried in more than twenty years, since he was a young boy and his favorite dog had died after being bitten by one of Father’s horses. He would offer a thousand of the brainless pups now as a sacrifice to escape this vault of doom.
Someone help me. Please.
1
August 2, 1869
 
U
ntil today, undertaker Violet Harper would have sworn that it was impossible for corpses to rise out of their coffins.
Now, she wasn’t so sure.
The sun was just breaking over the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral when Violet entered Waterloo station to stand on a dedicated funeral train platform with her undertaking partner, Harry Blundell. They were both watching as six coffins, including one under their own care, were loaded into the long compartments on the railroad hearse van, which contained twelve total slots. Each compartment in the van had a door in the side of it, past which a coffin was pushed so that it lay perpendicular to the train’s length. The coffins, stacked in individual compartments, were three high and four wide in the wood carriage. These special carriages were made especially for the London Necropolis Railway and painted chocolate brown, edged in an orange-red vermilion, to match the carriages of the London and South Western Railway, upon whose tracks the LNR ran.
Coffins were placed on large biers with hand cranks by the coffin porters, who wore simple dark-blue uniforms and matching hats with large brims and flat crowns. With one man on the ground cranking the bier up, the second coffin porter rode on the bier and pushed the coffin into its compartment, and was then cranked to the ground for the next coffin.
As the last coffin was pushed into its compartment on the ground level—a little too carelessly, in Violet’s opinion—she noticed that it bore a maker’s plate from Boyce and Sons Cabinetmakers. It reminded her that she wanted to set up dealings with Putnam Boyce again, now that she was permanently back in her London undertaking business.
But the coffin was hung up on something, and as one of the coffin porters pulled it back out to reposition it, she noticed something disturbing. She held up a hand to stop them.
“What’s the matter, Mrs. Harper?” Harry asked in irritation. Harry’s wife was expecting, and although she wasn’t due for at least a month, he was always impatient to return to the immediate area surrounding their shop.
She waved him off as she moved closer to inspect the coffin. It was one of those confounded “safety” coffins, intended to give loved ones comfort with the idea that if the deceased were not truly dead, he could send an alarm aboveground and be rescued even after burial.
Violet heartily despised these so-called safety contraptions, which took the form of bells, trumpets, and even ladders in vertical coffins, by which someone who awoke to find himself mistakenly buried could literally climb up a ladder and out of his grave.
No matter how often Violet railed against these foolish mechanisms, firmly telling people that only the return of the Lord Christ would cause people to waken in their graves, people still wanted them as a measure of comfort. And as always, unscrupulous undertakers were happy to sell them.
This one had a bell apparatus, with a bell attached to a string following along a folding brass pole that would be unfolded after the coffin went into the ground so that the bell sat above the freshly shoveled dirt.
Violet’s insides churned. If she opened the coffin, she would undoubtedly find a string tied to the deceased’s fingers and toes, so that with the merest of tugs, he could set the bell jangling.
More frustrating was that this coffin had been made by Putnam Boyce, a respected cabinetmaker whom Violet had used in the past. Most cabinetmakers made coffins during their slow times, for there was always demand for them in a mortal population. Mr. Boyce’s coffins were well crafted, with tightly fitted lids and smooth surfaces. Why, then, was he peddling safety coffins?
Perhaps she would have to rethink her plan to purchase coffins from him.
“Thank you,” she said simply to the two coffin porters, who were still looking at her in bewilderment as to why she was halting their work. They pushed the coffin off the bier and into the compartment. With the last coffin now placed inside the hearse van, the train was ready for its journey from Waterloo station to Brookwood station in Woking, Surrey.
Violet climbed into the passenger carriage with Harry. They would accompany Mr. Harland’s body to the cemetery, making final arrangements at the chapel until his family arrived later in the day for the funeral.
The LNR had been in operation since 1854, but Violet had only recently become involved with it. Although she had sold Morgan Undertaking to Harry Blundell and his partner, Will Swift, four years ago, Will had recently asked her to buy him back out so that he could join his wife’s floral business. During his time with Morgan Undertaking, though, Will had built up a considerable business with wealthy patrons who wanted to start family crypts far outside the stench and overcrowding of London.
Not content with some of London’s garden cemeteries, such as Highgate and Kensal Green, they were flocking to Brookwood, which its owners bragged had enough spaces that London need never build another cemetery again. Clearly the gentlemen had no experience with what happened in a cholera or typhoid outbreak, where deaths in the thousands could occur in the space of a few weeks.
However, coffins at the 2,200-acre Brookwood didn’t have to be buried in the crowded manner that they did at these other cemeteries, and certainly didn’t need to be stacked up to six high as they did inside the ancient and overflowing church graveyards. The owners’ idea of creating a cemetery that could accommodate millions of bodies when fully developed—thus alleviating the need to ever build another London cemetery again—was commendable.
The funeral train pulled out of Waterloo with a steamy snort and a jarring lurch as Violet settled into her third-class compartment with Harry. This special train was only comprised of an engine, the hearse vans, and six passenger carriages. The passenger carriages were divided into two sections, conformist and nonconformist, with first-, second-, and third-class carriages within each religious section.
Conformist carriages were for those passengers who belonged to the Church of England, also called the Anglican church. The nonconformist carriages typically conveyed Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Quakers, but might be those of other sects, as well. Special care was taken to ensure that people from different social backgrounds and religious leanings didn’t have to be distressed by having to mix with others of a different class.
The train ran a single, hour-long route from Waterloo to Woking, southwest of London, so it certainly had no beds or Pullman dining carriages, but it did have comfortable enough seats for the hour’s ride, even in third class. The first-class seats included plush cushions, chandeliers, filigreed ornamentation, glass windows instead of bare openings, and doting attendants, but such fripperies were never Violet’s concern when there were bodies to be looked after.
The only real inconvenience was having to travel at dawn with the bodies and wait at the cemetery for the train to return to London to pick up mourners at the more civilized hour of eleven thirty in the morning. If the number of mourners for the day justified it, later trains followed.
There were always details to attend to at Brookwood, but it was still earlier in the morning than Violet cared to rise.
The train conductor stepped into their carriage, nodded at Violet, Harry, and the other two undertakers in the car, and passed on through to the next carriage via the open platform between them. The undertakers were always recognized by their severe black dress and tall hats with black crape wrapped around the base of the crown and trailing down their backs. However, the conductor had to dutifully check for any stowaways who might attempt to board the train for a free ride.
Now that they were in relative privacy, seated across from each other, Harry asked, “Do you feel well, Mrs. Harper?”
Violet had had violent experiences with trains in the past, having been involved in a wreck and also having witnessed a train hitting a murderer who had fallen from a platform. She had largely overcome her resulting fear of the hulking, steam-breathing beasts, but always felt an unwelcome twinge as the whistle shrilly blew and the engine started its laborious forward motion.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she assured him, even as she swallowed the unpleasant taste in her mouth.
Harry nodded knowingly and then proceeded to change the subject. “What did you notice on the platform?”
“A bit of false hope by loved ones preyed upon by an unscrupulous undertaker. A bell safety coffin.”
“Really? How fascinating. I was reading in the latest issue of
Funeral Service Journal
that an American named Vester has developed a new safety coffin that adds a tube connected to a viewing glass inside the coffin.” He seemed eager to share both his knowledge and the evidence of his willingness to research the latest in undertaking. “That way, the face of the corpse can be viewed from above. An interesting solution to the inadvertent bell-ringing problem.”
Harry referred to the fact that the swelling or position shifting that naturally occurred when the body began to decay would frequently cause the body to ring the bell and send people into a frenzy of grave digging. A viewing tube would enable a mourner or cemetery worker to look down and determine whether the coffin’s occupant was still alive.
Not that it mattered, for coffins held very little air, perhaps two hours’ worth at most, and so unearthing a coffin in time to rescue someone buried alive was nearly impossible.
Violet was displeased with her own grumpiness but unable to condone even a discussion of the infernal contraptions. She turned dismissively to the window to avoid any further discussion of safety coffins and the deceptive reassurance they gave grieving families. Instead, she contemplated the packed and soot-covered hovels of south London. That dreary cityscape soon opened up to impressive country estates, the rich red-brown coats of Sussex cattle, and the spires of crumbling country churches.
 
Brookwood station’s main platform was deserted except for a few LNR workers, as to be expected so early on this August morning. There were two separate substations serving the cemetery: The North station was located in the center of the nonconformist section, whereas the South station was situated on the east edge of the Anglican cemetery.
The train chugged gently past the main platform and on to the North station, where Violet and Harry remained seated as the nonconformist coffins were unloaded from their hearse van. They then continued on to the South station, where Mr. Harland and the other remaining bodies were unloaded.
Undertakers sometimes neglected to accompany bodies to Brookwood, a failure Violet found shameful and a dereliction of their moral duties. The deceased certainly deserved the respect of an attendant, but many undertakers did not want to rise before the cock’s crow to take a third-class ride an hour outside of London.
The nonconformist third-class carriage always carried whatever undertakers were accompanying the train to Surrey so that they were immediately on hand for the coffin unloading. Also, since they rode for free, the LNR wasn’t about to provide them with luxury accommodation.
Violet suppressed a yawn. Perhaps the lazy undertakers did have a point about these arduous trips.
Soon, she and Harry stood on the South station platform amid a scattering of coffins, waiting for the LNR’s horse-drawn biers to arrive from the company’s stables. It was unusual for these conveyances to not be at the ready.
Harry looked particularly irritated. Violet touched his arm to comfort him. “All will be well, you’ll see. We cannot return until after the funeral anyway, remember?”
He dropped his scowl. “You’re right, Mrs. Harper. I’m just anxious over what the next month will bring. . . .”
“I understand.” Violet moved to sit on a backless bench, and Harry followed. The coffin porters were just cranking down the last box from the third level of the hearse van.
Violet watched their work in fascination, almost missing a man in a tall beaver-skin hat poking about one of the coffins as if looking for something. Violet would have thought he was another undertaker except he hadn’t been on the train, and his jacket was a light camel color. Perhaps he was a local fellow.
She paid him no more mind, for her attentions were diverted by a distinct sound that at first she unconsciously attributed to a servant’s bell. As it penetrated further into her senses, though, the hair stood up on the back of her neck.
Ting. Ting. Ting-a-ling.
Impossible!
Wide-eyed and with only a horrified glance at Harry, who looked as dumbstruck as she was, Violet jumped up from the bench and rushed to the sound.
It was coming from Mr. Boyce’s coffin. The bell, dangling down from the tip of the folded brass tubing, danced insistently now. Dropping her reticule to the ground, she knelt down and tugged ineffectively on the coffin lid. It was nailed down in several spots.
Harry was now at her side, and with the burly strength that enabled the man to single-handedly lift empty coffins and move them with effortless ease about the shop, he ripped the lid off as though he were merely opening a tin of biscuits. The two undertakers gasped in unison at the sight of the body inside. Instead of a lifeless corpse there was a man of about thirty years in a rumpled but high-quality frock coat. His coppery beard, mustache, and hair were flecked with early gray and closely cropped, but his bloodshot, pale-blue eyes were wild with panic as he struggled to sit up.
“Havfindabang,” the man slurred, weaving where he sat as he squinted in what was now bright morning light, like a mole popping out from its burrow.
Violet stared at him, speechless. She had been undertaking for more than fifteen years and had never, ever come across a body resurrecting itself. Dead bodies sometimes moved on their own, or made noises through the expulsion of gases, but this—this—was inconceivable. This was actually a body sitting up after having been dead for presumably at least a day. She shivered involuntarily, overcome by the implication of what it meant. Surely it was not possible that she herself had ever buried someone who was not truly, irrevocably dead....
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