It was just one week after my father's death when we sat that afternoon in the saloon at Gracefield discussing it. We couldn't let it go. It kept nagging like a sore tooth. And like a sore tooth, the problem was destined to get worse before we were through with it.
"What I keep wondering," I said, "is what he was doing in Brighton in the first place, when he said he was going to London. Papa had no earthly reason to be in Brighton, Bunny."
My companion and cousin, Mr. Horatio Smythe, shook his head in mute wonder. Mr. Smythe had been nicknamed Bunny at Harrow, and though he had, at twenty-five, outgrown the nervous twitch of the nose which had given birth to the name, he remained an amiable, gentle creature, whose worst fault was his lack of conversation. "Boggles the mind," he agreed.
He took a sip of ale and looked around for a subject to distract me. I needed cheering. Papa had not only gone to Brighton when he should have been at London; he had died there, under mysterious circumstances. He was never sick a day in his life, and was only fifty years old. Not a colt precisely, but still he had always been a hale and hearty gentleman.
Bunny glanced around the saloon of Gracefield, my family's estate on the coast of Kent. It loomed large in his mind that I was now the sole owner of the estate. To cheer me, he had already mentioned a few times that Gracefield was "a dandy place, with hundreds of acres and a good income." The saloon we sat in was quietly elegant, though a touch too blue to suit me. I like cheerful rooms.
"All yours now, Heather," he said once again. "A dashed heiress. Good thing we're first cousins, or Mama would make me dangle after you."
Bunny spent more time at Gracefield than at his own home three miles away. It was the arguing females that drove him out of Seaview. No man should be saddled with three sisters, unless they were all three mutes. All the neighbors let Bunny run quite tame in their saloons. He was no menace to their daughters' virtue or reputations.
"There is something so very odd about it," I continued, "almost as though someone was trying to deceive us. The funeral wagon that brought the coffin was from London, and the doctor's bill was from London. But the man who brought back his carriage and horses let slip they had been stabled in Brighton."
"Could have lent his rattler and prads to someone. A friend," Bunny suggested.
"That is what we thought, but then just this morning his traveling case arrived from the Royal Crescent Hotel in Brighton. Aunt Lovatt burst into tears on the spot, so I had the servants take it away at once for Williams to unpack."
"Wits are gone begging, Heather. Ask Williams what your papa was doing at Brighton. His valet will know."
"Williams did not go with him. Papa always went alone to London. And that is odd, too, for you know he was always a little proud of his appearance."
"Regular peacock. Ah!" Bunny lifted his ale to hide the smirk that decorated his blushing face.
He only crops out into that particular shade of rose when he is thinking things he shouldn't about women. I wonder why the first thing that pops into a man's mind when some strange behavior arises is that a woman is involved.
"There is no lady in the case," I told him.
"Didn't say there was."
"Your smirk said it."
"By the living jingo, you have a mind like a steel sieve, Heather. Er--trap. You know what I mean. Thing is, why not take Williams, unless he was trying to keep something mum? Knew that clapper jaw of a Williams would tell Mrs. Gibbons. Mrs. Gibbons would tell your aunt. Even the best-intentioned servants blab everything they know."
"I wonder if there might be a clue in his traveling case," I said, frowning. The whole affair of my father's death was deeply troubling. Since Mama's death three years before, Papa had become a self-absorbed man. He was not close to either me or his sister, Mrs. Lovatt, who lived with us.
His hobby for some years had been breeding and training racing pigeons. After Mama's death, the hobby grew into a passion. He hired a live-in expert named Snoad to help him. A sly, encroaching man. I usually only saw Papa at mealtimes, and often not even then. It was by no means unusual for him to have a tray taken up to the pigeon loft.
That being the case, I had not thought I would miss him so much. Some lingering guilt added to my malaise. Papa and I had had a flaming row. It was ostensibly over his refusal to allow me a Season in London, but in truth, the real cause was his mistress. Mama died within a year of learning about Mrs. Mobley. I felt Mrs. Mobley contributed to her decline, and in the heat of battle, I threw it in Papa's face. Things were never the same between us after that.
If I had been a better companion for Papa, we would have been closer. His death seemed to cut everything off in the middle, and leave business unfinished between us. I had not even said good-bye the day he left. He liked an early departure. He had already left at eight when I came downstairs that morning a week ago.
"Ask Williams to bring the case down," Bunny suggested.
I sent off for Williams. The valet came, wearing an air of injury. "I have been packing your father's belongings, as Mrs. Lovatt requested, Miss Hume," he said.
"Have you unpacked his traveling case yet, Williams?
"I have not gotten around to it, ma'am. I am at present stuffing his boots with paper and giving them a final touch of polish."
"What are you doing with them?" Bunny asked.
"They are to go to the parish home, sir."
"Good," Bunny said approvingly. He was on the Parish Council, and took a keen interest in his job.
"Send down Papa's case. I'll look through it myself," I said.
Williams sniffed and replied, "Very well. Miss Hume, if you cannot wait an hour or two."
"You won't be sorry to see the back of that toplofty customer," Bunny said. "Mean to say, no point keeping a valet when his master is--er--gone." I had noticed that people had difficulty saying the word "dead."
"Mrs. Lovatt has given him a month to look about for another position. He was with Papa for five years. We cannot just toss him out on his ear, much as we may like to."
It was the parlor maid who entered moments later, carrying a leather traveling case with brass corners and lock pad. Bunny placed it on the sofa table and opened it. "Not locked," he mentioned. "I always lock mine when I'm traveling."
"The hotel would not have had the key. It was in a small box containing Papa's watch and wallet and jewelry that came with his body from London. But this case from Brighton proves that Papa was there. This is his case."
Bunny lifted out a bluejacket of Bath cloth. "This is his coat, right enough," he said.
"And that is his shirt," I added, lifting out a white shirt whose buttons had been moved by my own hand when Papa put on a few pounds. I shook it out. "What on earth is this dirt on it!" I exclaimed. A brown smear on the left aide stood out in sharp relief against the white. I stared in dismay as I realized what it was. Blood! "Good God! He must have been wounded. Look at this, Bunny."
Bunny's face had turned yellow. It wasn't the shirt he was looking at, but the jacket. I looked to see what had caught his attention. There was a small hole in the back, on the left side. His stubby fingers moved over the hole, which had certainly been made by a bullet. I turned the shirt over to examine the back. It, too, was bloodstained, though not so much as the front. Then I saw the little round hole. We exchanged a frightened look. "He was shot!" I said, on a light squeak of disbelief.
"I feared there was a woman in the case," Bunny said. "No point trying to keep it from you now. Fat's in the fire. Must have been a duel. Perhaps she was married."
"What woman? What are you talking about?"
"Your papa trotting off without his valet. Regular as clockwork every two weeks. He must have had a ladybird."
"I don't believe it," I scoffed. "He never looked at another woman after Mama's death." Bunny just looked at me. The name Mrs. Mobley hung in the air between us.
"I heard she went to Ireland," Bunny said. "Must be a new charmer."
"He did not go to London every two weeks to visit a lady. He went on pigeon business."
"Yes, but think, Heather. How long had he been taking these trips?"
"About two years. They began a year after Mama's death," I added pensively. It struck me as a likely period for celibate mourning of a wife. "But why did he say he was going to London?"
"Had to have some excuse."
"The story he told us was that he was going to meetings of the Columbidae Society, but he could have let on the meetings were in Brighton just as well. I wonder if he has a picture of her." I began rooting through the case. Stockings, cravats, and small cloths were churned up and fell to the floor. A smaller leather case held his razor and brushes. I pulled them out with trembling fingers. There was no picture. There was nothing in the whole traveling case to give any clue to the mysterious woman Bunny spoke of.
"There's nothing," I said, and felt disappointed, when I ought to have been relieved. "But he really did go to those pigeon society meetings, Bunny. He sold his racers, and bought birds from the other breeders. He always took a dozen pigeons with him, and brought other birds home. He would not go to all that bother just to meet his mistress."
"Killing two birds with one stone," Bunny suggested.
"I'll speak to Snoad."
But not yet. I was too shaken to stand up, let alone climb three flights of stairs to the loft. I had to examine the shirt and jacket again, to finger the little holes and try to imagine my father being so dashing as to have a mistress, and being involved in a duel. It was true Papa was a dasher in his youth. Mama often spoke of it, boasted of it really, but I had never seen any signs of it except the brief affair with Mrs. Mobley. The last few years, my papa had seemed as tame as Bunny. In fine weather he went shooting on his own or neighboring estates, but most of his time he spent on his pigeons.
Training the birds was a very cumbersome affair. The birds had to be taken to points distant from the loft, to train them to return. They began with a short distance, a mile or less, gradually increasing it to greater lengths. Snoad and my father shared the duty, one taking the birds, the other remaining in the loft to time the return.
"Papa was a good shot. It's odd he did not win that duel," I said. I looked again at the holes and the stains. A frisson scuttled across my scalp. "Look, Bunny."
"A terrible thing, dueling," he said grimly.
"Yes, and murder is worse. The bullet holes are in the back of the jacket and shirt. They did not come out the front. The bullet was lodged in his body. It was not a duel. Papa was murdered."
Bunny's mouth fell open. "By gad, you're right. Shot in the back, like a dog. I was so shocked at seeing the blood, I didn't notice where the holes were at first."
Nor had I. "What should I do? I must notify the constable."
"We'll drive in to Hythe," he said. Gracefield was two miles outside of the bustling seaport city of Hythe.
I remembered having my purse stolen from the counter in the drapery shop at Hythe a year before. I had described the thief in detail to the constable, but she had never been apprehended. Just how would a constable from Hythe find a murderer in Brighton? "No, to Brighton," I said.
"Brighton. That is where he was killed."
"That's more than fifty miles away."
"I don't care if it's fifty hundred. I must go." At last there was something I could do for Papa.
"You're right, of course. A bit late to leave today. We'll go tomorrow."
I looked a question at him. "You'll come with me?"
"Can't go alone," he said simply.
Nor could I go alone with a gentleman. "Aunt Lovatt will accompany me, but we will be very happy for your escort, Bunny. You will be better able to deal with constables and so on than Auntie and I."
"Least I can do. First cousins, after all. Your mama and mine were sisters. Don't see how Mama can talk me out of it, and it will be good to get away from those squabbling girls for a few days."
"I must break the news to Aunt Lovatt," I said reluctantly.
At that moment a brisk, no-nonsense lady of middle years strode into the saloon. She was a thin, wiry female with more of health than beauty. The edge of hair showing beneath her widow's cap was brown, just shading to silver. Her sharp green eyes wore the luster of intelligence. She had come to live with Papa when Mama died. I, at sixteen, had been considered too green to run the house. At first I set my jaw against her, but in the end we rubbed along very well.
She was not so very different from me, barring the difference in years. I tended to favor my father's side of the family. In twenty years I expect my brown hair will have silvered like hers. The fine claws of Mr. Crow will have marked the corners of my green eyes, too. Unless I run to fat like my mother's side of the family, I expect I shall have a similar figure.
As Mrs. Lovatt was a childless widow, she had welcomed the offer to live with us. I soon filled the hole in her life left by her lack of children. She could not have loved me more had I been her own flesh and blood. Neither of us was the maudlin sort who prated of love, but genuine affection was there in plentiful supply.
"Good day, Mr. Smythe," she smiled. "What must you break to Aunt Lovatt, Heather?" she asked, turning a sharp eye in my direction. She saw the open case, and drew back a step. "Those are Harold's things?" she asked.
"Yes, I asked Williams to send them down," I replied. "Sit down, Auntie. I'm afraid you will receive a dreadful shock."
Aunt Lovatt's face turned quite pale. She sank onto a chair, clutching her heart. Papa's death had been shock enough for one spring. The mystery of his carriage coming from Brighton had added to it, and just when we had decided that he had lent the rig to someone, his traveling case had come landing in from Brighton. Now I had to tell her about the murder.
Aunt Lovatt saw the brown stain on the white shirt, and knew at once that Papa had not died a natural death, as the report had stated. Heart failure, the death certificate had said. And the body already nailed into a sealed coffin to hide the truth. My aunt had insisted on having the coffin opened. It had seemed so incredible that Papa was dead. We had stood with the undertaker, just long enough for one peek at Papa's rigid, livid face. Then we had both turned away without even glancing at the rest of him.
"Was he stabbed?" she asked through grim lips.
"Shot," Bunny said, and rose for the wine decanter. He poured Mrs. Lovatt a glass and handed it to her. He waited until she had taken a sustaining sip before adding, "In the back."
"Murdered!" Mrs. Lovatt gasped.
"Yes, Auntie, and that is why we must go to Brighton to look into this," I said.
"Of course," she said at once. "We cannot leave it hanging like this. We must discover who did this heinous thing, and see he is punished." We three exchanged silent looks of dread. "We shall leave early tomorrow morning," she said.
"Bunny has offered to accompany us," I told her.
"How very kind of you, Mr. Smythe." Tears glazed her eyes. She rose on unsteady legs and said, "I shall ask the maid to remove the valise. Perhaps you will put your father's things back into it, Heather. We'll take it to Brighton with us for evidence."
"I'll handle it," I said, patting her arm.
"Poor Heather," she said, with tears in her eyes. I knew what was in her mind as she turned and went up to her room. She would be brooding over how this affair would affect my matrimonial chances. Like a concerned mother, she had hoped to see me make a grand match. I was becoming a trifle old to make my bows in London, but there were less demanding cities. Bath, for instance, received many visitors from the ton, and she had a wide field of connections there, where she had lived for many years. She had mentioned the visit before Papa's death, and while she was too refined to speak of it so soon after, I knew she meant to go after our year of mourning.
But a girl whose father had caused a scandal wouldn't stand a chance of being accepted in staid Bath. Perhaps we could keep the inquiry quiet. A few discreet questions at the hotel first, to see just what Papa had been up to, that he got himself killed. Very likely a woman was involved. Papa was still young enough to want female companionship. Or it might have been a card game with a Captain Sharp. That, while disastrous, at least cast no slur on Papa or his daughter. Any gentleman might fall amongst thieves.
But why the chicanery about moving his body to London before sending it home? There was something deep going on here. We must proceed with the greatest caution.