Authors: Stephanie Barron
Tags: #Austeniana, #Female sleuth, #Historical fiction
… Fortune had once
Been his friend, for a time, and then his foe
No man can ever expect her favor to last.…
HE GENTLEMEN LOUNGED IN AN UNEASY GROUP, RESTRAINING
their dogs, near the publick footpath. The beaters—two fellows employed by Edward’s gamekeeper—sat cross-legged in the dirt near a pair of canvas bags whose humped shapes suggested the hunting had already been well advanced when the fatal accident occurred. The spaniels’ tongues were lolling cheerfully from their mouths, as tho’ a human corpse were not so very different, after all, from one with feathers; they leaned happily against the legs of their masters, who were unwontedly silent when they ought to have been chaffing each other.
The corpse itself was sprawled across the Pilgrim’s Way, an inert figure clad in browns and greens that must have been indistinguishable
from the autumnal verdure; small wonder neither beater nor hunter had noticed the fellow. The man’s utter stillness, coupled with the blood-stained earth all around him, had thrown a pall over the shooting-party.
The scene might have been an engraving by Cruikshank:
Mishap of a Sporting Nature, Or, the Wrong Bird Bagged
There was John Plumptre, his serious dark eyes holding an expression of trouble and a faint line of apprehension on his brow; glorious Jupiter Finch-Hatton, whose posture as he leaned against an oak suggested a fashionable malaise I suspected he was far from feeling; James Wildman, who started forward upon perceiving me, as tho’ determined to offer a lady every civility regardless of chaotic circumstance; and my own nephews George and Edward. Their frank looks of dread recalled countless episodes of schoolboy mischief gone terribly awry: arms broken whilst tree-climbing, window panes smashed with cricket balls poorly batted, and dolls’ heads severed by makeshift guillotines. They were blenching at the prospect of their father’s inevitable lecture, on the thoughtlessness of young men wild for sport.
“Aunt Jane,” Edward said nervously—he is but nineteen, tho’ he affects an attitude of someone far more up to snuff, as must be expected of The Heir—“You have met with Fanny, I conclude.”
“Yes, Edward, I have. She is gone for your father. May I see the poor fellow?”
“Do you truly wish—that is to say, I should have thought—a spectacle
for the frailer sex—” This, from Mr. Wildman, who being the eldest at five-and-twenty, appeared to regard himself as the minder of his fellows.
I smiled at him rather as one of his old governesses might. “Pray do not make yourself anxious, Mr. Wildman. I am quite accustomed to death. My father was a clergyman, you know.”
“Ah,” he said, and looked slightly mortified.
I walked resolutely towards the corpse, the gentlemen heeling their dogs a discreet distance from my skirts, and made as if to kneel down beside the Deceased. I was forestalled by John Plumptre, who flung his shooting coat—a high-collared affair of drab that just brushed his ankles as he strode through the fields—down upon the ground. “The blood,” he said briefly. “It has soaked into the earth.”
I nodded my thanks, and knelt carefully on the coat.
My heart was pounding, however much courage I may have affected for the reassurance of the young gentlemen—for tho’ I have looked on Death before, I never meet Him without the profoundest sensibility. I closed my eyes an instant, drew a steadying breath, and forced myself to study the unfortunate creature whose mortal remains lay before me. I owed the dead man that much—to note what I could of the way he had died—for the five sporting fellows ranged about were so discomfited and mortified by the terrible event, they seemed determined to take no notice of the corpse at all. Perhaps then it might be swallowed up by the forgiving turf, and all should be right as rain in their world. But no
was no apparition conjured by an excessive indulgence in claret the previous night; this was real, and the bucks of the neighbourhood should be forced to grapple with it, if I had my way. Death should never be so incidental as the bagging of a pheasant. I leaned over the man, consumed by an immense feeling of pity.
He lay on his back with arms flung wide and one leg bent beneath the other, hazel eyes staring sightlessly at the canopy of bare tree branches overhead. The wound in his chest had oozed a good deal, but was darkened and quiet now. He was in his middle forties, I should judge, and had apparently lived a life much out-of-doors, from the weathered condition of his skin, which was quite tanned for October. Not much of this
could be seen, however, for he was bearded—a factor that must suggest the labouring class; a gentleman might sport a moustache, but rarely whiskers. The fellow’s clothes bore out the assumption, for they were of worsteds and nankeen, nothing out of the ordinary way. The boots, however, raised a question in my mind. For tho’ they were caked with mud and had seen hard use, they appeared to have been cut by an excellent cobbler from an expensive hide, in a stile I should only describe as
I frowned. What business had a labourer wearing a gentleman’s boots? Even admitting that they might be purchased at second- or third-hand, what folly urged their display on a wearisome journey by foot? Our man gave every appearance of having walked to the place of his death—a satchel and stout stick rested nearby.
, Fanny had said. One token alone suggested the activity: a large silver cross hung round the corpse’s neck on a solid silver chain. Something about its shape, or perhaps the irregularity of its design, brought to mind the amber cross my brother Charles had purchased for me in Malta—and the thought rose unbidden that our corpse had travelled in distant lands, perhaps by sea. This was foolishness, of course—anything might be purchased in London, after all, regardless of which village the man claimed as home. Perhaps his satchel would tell us something of his identity—
I had half-risen from my knees in order to rifle the corpse’s belongings, when the canter of hooves announced my brother’s approach. Of course Edward would saddle a horse—he might even have been on the point of riding out for pleasure, as was his custom each morning, when Fanny burst upon his scene big with news.
He dismounted rather heavily, and tossed the reins of his hack to young Edward without a word. He was frowning as he observed my crouching position by the body.
“Are you on the point of swooning, Jane? Have none of these blockheads supported you?”
“Indeed I am not!” I retorted indignantly. “Only puzzled exceedingly by what I find. Or rather—not
, exactly, for the matter is clear enough.”
He raised his brows quizzically as he dropped down beside me, his fingers feeling for an absent pulse in the corpse’s neck. “Quite cold,” he observed grimly.
“That is not all,” I murmured in an undertone. “I must tell you, Edward, that for several reasons I am
in my mind.”
“Were you to be otherwise in the presence of a dead man, Jane, I should be severely shocked.” He tossed one cutting phrase over his shoulder at the knot of sporting men standing respectfully behind: “Which of you young fools cut off this man’s life?”
There was a painful silence.
My nephew George cleared his throat noisily, a sure sign of panic.
“To be frank, sir,” began James Wildman—
“—We haven’t the slightest notion,” interrupted Jupiter Finch-Hatton. He thrust himself away from his languid pose against the oak and dusted his gloved fingers with an air of distaste. “We’d just flushed the nicest little covey of pheasant a man could wish to find. All our guns were raised; most of ’em fired. Impossible to know which dropped the feller. Oughtn’t to have been there. Trespass on a private manor.
. Damned impudence, my opinion. Got his just desserts.”
“Thank you, Finch-Hatton. When I want your
I shall certainly ask for it,” my brother rejoined brusquely. “James, what was your party’s position when the last shots were fired?”
Mr. Wildman appeared relieved; this was a question he
could answer. He whirled around and pointed in the direction from which I had come, but well to the right of the Lime Walk. “Quite a way off—thirty yards, I should think.”
“Forty,” corrected John Plumptre. “And the beaters were driving towards us, of course, when the pheasant went up. As Finch-Hatton says—a beautiful little covey, and we got most of them, sir. We’d no notion that any of the shot went awry until the dogs—”
“Quite,” Edward said abruptly. “And when you came up with him, was he already expired? Did he speak?”
“Not a word, sir. I knew as soon as I glimpsed his face that life was extinct.”
My brother was hardly attending to Plumptre, I thought, his gaze being fixed on the corpse and his countenance teeming with speculation. Edward had seen all that I had, and formed what I should guess were similar conclusions; but it would be best to discuss such matters in private.
“Observe the satchel,” I murmured. “How it sits off the path, near the walking stick. As tho’ both were
, not fallen, there.”
“Have you searched his things?”
Edward assisted me to rise, then lifted Plumptre’s coat and tossed it in a careless bundle towards the young man. “Thank’ee. You’ll find, I believe, that it’s not much stained.”
Edward glanced coolly at the reddened ground, nodded once, and strode to the spot where the satchel lay.
The strap that had secured it was torn open and some of the contents had spilled out onto the ground. Edward collected these, examined them briefly, and then slipped them back into the leather sack. “A knife in a sheath,” he said, “a crudely drawn plan of the Pilgrim’s Way from Boughton Lees to Canterbury, showing our side-path to St. Lawrence Church; a flask of Blue Ruin against the rain; a heel of brown bread; and a Bible. Perhaps he
a pilgrim, after all.”
“Is there no name written in the Bible? No family history of births and deaths?” I asked.
Edward shook his head. “And odder still, Jane—there’s not so much as a farthing on the fellow. Unless he wore his purse next to his skin.”
I glanced at the corpse, which still stared Heavenward, oblivious to our deliberations. I did not like the thought of searching for a wallet within his coat; it was stiff with blood. “Perhaps,” I suggested, “being intent upon a holy journey, he came as a mendicant—and relied upon the succour of strangers.”
“You do not believe that,” my brother said quietly, “and neither do I.”
He began to pace delicately along the edge of the path, scanning the ground. “A welter of footprints, worse luck—we cannot know if they were made by this fellow, or our own pack of young sportsmen. But here, Jane—” he crouched abruptly, his gloved finger probing the dead bracken some ten yards from the corpse—“a pair of horses were tethered to this tree. The hoofprints are just visible in the soft ground.”
?” I repeated.
Edward glanced up at me, his blue eyes hard and bright. “Perhaps our pilgrim owned a horse, once. Edward!” he called to his son, “take Rob Roy and ride for Dr. Bredloe at Farnham. If he’s not at home, find out where he is. Do not be satisfied until he returns to Godmersham with you.”
“Very good, sir,” my nephew said stoutly, and swung himself into his father’s saddle.
“What am I to do, Father?” George asked breathlessly.
“You—and the rest of these young reprobates—may make yourselves useful, and carry this unfortunate man up to the house. We shall invade Mrs. Driver’s scullery, I think, tho’ she may well give notice on the strength of it.” He wheeled on the beaters, who had been chewing idly on pieces of straw as tho’ we were engaged in nothing more than a delightful picnic
excursion. “You there, Monk, collect the bags, and Jack, you take the gentlemen’s guns. On no account should they be cleaned; leave them in the gun room just as they are, until I have had an opportunity to examine them.”
“And the dogs, sir?” Monk objected.
Edward glanced at me. “The dogs will follow Miss Austen, I think. She has a way with them.”
This was an outrageous lie, but I did not regard it. “Dr. Bredloe is also the coroner?” I asked, as I hurried to keep pace with my brother, who was striding ahead of the shooting-party as it struggled to bear its ghastly burden. The leg that had been bent under the corpse in falling, had already stiffened in that position. I was on the point of alerting Edward to this curious fact when he stopped me with a word.
“Bredloe is a man who knows how to keep his mouth shut. I think that is of vital importance, Jane, do not you?”