‘Indeed,’ she murmured, seemingly surprised that I should consider it. ‘And they were not paid last quarter day. Mr Aislabie
disputes the bill.’
‘They’ll be paid.’ Mr Sneaton had limped across the room to join us. ‘Mr Simpson drinks hard and counts poor. One day I’ll catch him sober and we’ll make his bill tally. His men are fed and most are quartered on the estate. They won’t starve.’
The rain had eased off enough for the men to discard the waxed sheets and take up their tools again. The sound of hammers and chisels rose up once more, ringing against stone.
‘They won’t starve,’ Mrs Fairwood echoed. ‘What good fortune they enjoy.’
If Sneaton heard the sarcasm, he chose to ignore it. ‘I’ll make a list of all the servants for you sir,’ he said quietly. ‘Mark those who could visit the laundry and the linen cupboards unseen.’
‘—Sneaton!’ Aislabie was heading towards his study. ‘Mr Hawkins, we shall speak further at dinner. And you must visit Mr Hallow, my head keeper. He knows all the poachers hereabouts. See that you ask him about the Gills.’
Sneaton bowed to us and turned upon his good leg, hobbling after his master.
‘You have your orders, sir,’ Mrs Fairwood said, looking pleased to be rid of me.
‘Yes. I’m afraid I’m excessively poor at following orders. If it is not too much trouble, madam, I should like to hear your story. Dinner must be an hour away, at least.’
She drew back. ‘It would not be seemly to be alone in your company, sir.’
I had spent so long in London, I had quite forgotten the cramped etiquette found in some parts of the country. I assured her I had no designs upon her virtue. She was a fine-looking woman, without question, but hers was a cold beauty, worn like armour. And she lacked that spark I loved, the wit and play that made seduction so enjoyable. I might as well flirt with a marble statue.
‘Well.’ Mrs Fairwood remained reluctant. ‘I still do not see how it is your business.’
In truth, it wasn’t. I had one urgent task at Studley Hall, and it did not involve Mrs Fairwood in the slightest. But that must wait until nightfall. If, in the meantime, I did not investigate the threats made against his family, Mr Aislabie would grow suspicious. And a lost daughter, returned from the grave? I confess – I was intrigued.
I reached into my pocket and drew out the most recent note. Mrs Fairwood read it slowly. ‘
You are not alone by day or night
.’ She shuddered. ‘How terrible.’
I found it curious that it was this line that disturbed her the most, more than the threat of being burned alive in her bed. ‘It was pinned to a butchered doe. Her fawn had been cut from the womb.’
‘Dreadful,’ she said, in an absent tone.
I plucked the note from her hands. ‘I am under orders from Queen Caroline to investigate these threats. Whoever wrote this letter believes that you are Elizabeth Aislabie, saved from the fire. They would have you burn along with your father.
You are the fawn
, Mrs Fairwood.’
She considered this for a long moment, her lips caught in a deep pout. ‘Very well,’ she decided. ‘Let us be done with it. The library should be empty, unless Metcalfe has taken up residence.’
I had no idea who this was.
She furrowed her brows. ‘We should be safe. I doubt he’s left his room today.’ She drew away from the window and, in an imperious fashion, beckoned for me to follow. I found it wearisome.
‘Remind me – what’s that fellow’s name?’ I indicated the head footman, inching silently towards the kitchens.
A flicker of anxiety crossed her face, swiftly buried. ‘Bagby.’
‘Mr Bagby!’ I called.
He gave a start. ‘Sir?’
‘Obliged if you’d bring a bottle of claret to the library. Wait!’ I held up my finger. ‘How long is your story, madam?’
She frowned at me. ‘I have never timed it, sir.’
‘Two bottles, Bagby,’ I said. One could never be too careful.
The library lay at the back of the house. Thick volumes of history and natural philosophy lay open on dark mahogany tables. Terracotta busts of great writers and thinkers stared out blindly from the tops of high shelves. The air smelled of leather and old fires. I rubbed my hands together, and blew on them. The library faced north. Its tall terrace doors helped bring in more light, but the room felt colder than my cell in the Marshalsea.
I kept my eyes sharp for the green ledger – the sole reason I had been sent to Studley Hall. It seemed unlikely that Aislabie would leave something so dangerous and valuable out on view, but one should never underestimate the arrogance of the abominably rich. I would return tonight to hunt in earnest, with Sam.
A young maid arrived to light the fire, carrying fresh kindling in her apron. Mrs Fairwood, perceiving some fault in the preparation, began to direct the girl in a low but insistent tone. I was reminded of my stepmother’s meddling in the kitchen, to the despair of our long-suffering cook. This girl was no more than fifteen, but she must have built a thousand fires and surely required no assistance.
I left them to their negotiations, idling my time by examining a handsome desk set in a corner next to the terrace doors. Upon closer inspection, I found it had been somewhat ruined – the green leather top was scratched and torn and spattered with ink stains. A jumble of notes lay abandoned on one side, weighted with a volume of Lucretius’
De Rerum Natura
. I moved the book aside to examine the papers more closely. A gentleman’s hand, I thought, heavily blotched and growing wilder as it reached the bottom of the page. It put me in mind of the most recent threats to Mr Aislabie, and the paper was of a similar quality. I slipped the top sheet into my coat pocket.
The desk was covered in little curls of spilled tobacco, that had me reaching for my own pouch. The maid had coaxed a few flames into life, so I stole a piece of kindling to light my pipe, then tossed it back.
Mrs Fairwood had left the fire and stationed herself at the terrace doors, frowning through the glass at the scene beyond. I joined her there, trailing tobacco smoke. She glared at my pipe as if it were an instrument of the devil and reached for the latch, opening the closest door with a hard shove. Damp spring air streamed into the room. Behind us, the maid muttered to herself, shielding the fire with her body.
I leaned against the door post, struck once again by the unfavourable position of Mr Aislabie’s house. For a man of his enormous wealth, I would have expected his library to open out on to a tranquil stretch of lawn, or a formal garden with a fountain burbling away at its heart. Instead it looked on to a large and busy yard, servants rushing back and forth to the laundry, the dairy, the water pump. Chickens scratched in the dirt for corn, flapping and squawking as a groom ran through them, heading for the stables. The dogs were barking in their kennels and there were pigs somewhere: I could smell them.
Mrs Fairwood had opened the door to let in the fresh air, but with it had come the warm country stink of sweat and manure, sour milk and wet hay, fresh bread and livestock. These were the smells of my childhood – the happy times when I could escape my father’s lectures and roam about the outhouses. The first time I’d fucked a girl the world had smelled the same – a dairymaid with rough hands and a grin that could stir me now, just at the thought of it. In truth she had fucked me, pushing me to the ground and straddling me . . . which made me think again of Lady Judith, and her breeches.
Who must be fifty. At least fifty.
Our parsonage had remained so close to the outhouses because of my father’s miserly tendencies and loathing of disruption, but such proximity was unusual for such a grand estate. I supposed that once Aislabie’s new building was finished he would tear down Studley Hall, leaving the working parts of it at a greater remove from the house.
Pugh led a grey mare across the yard, her hooves splashing through silvery puddles. My gaze drifted to the dark woodland beyond, the trees pressed together in dense clusters. It would be easy enough to steal through them at night, torches burning. Or was someone scheming from inside the house? Mr Aislabie seemed determined to trust his servants. A noble sentiment – but if he was wrong, I could burn along with him.
I returned to the fire, settling myself in a high-backed armchair. The seat was well padded in green silk, and – after five days of jolting and bumping along terrible roads – I sank into it with a quiet pleasure. If I must burn, let me burn in comfort. Perhaps I could just stay here
for the duration, and let the world come to me? If I might just have a footstool? To my knowledge there was no law stating that a secret and potentially life-threatening mission must be conducted without a footstool.
The maid pushed herself back off her knees. ‘Would you like the candles lit, sir?’
‘No, that won’t be necessary,’ Mrs Fairwood replied. She had been toying with a globe set beneath one of the larger bookshelves, turning it slowly east and west across the wide stretch of the Atlantic.
‘It’s turned dull this afternoon,’ I said. ‘And I think Mr Aislabie can afford it.’ I nodded to the maid, indicating that she should light the candles. She looked quietly thrilled to be acting against Mrs Fairwood’s wishes. I asked for her name.
‘Sally Shutt, sir,’ she replied, in a broad accent. She lit a taper, crossing to each candle in turn. She was a pretty girl, with a plump figure and a fair complexion. A little tired though, about the eyes.
‘Do you light the rooms at daybreak, Sally?’
‘I do, sir.’ She lit the final candle and blew out the taper, tossing it on to the fire.
‘You found the deer this morning,’ I said. She flinched, which was answer enough. ‘Did you see anything? Anyone?’
She shook her head. ‘It were barely dawn. Just me and the crows . . .’
A memory, long buried, returned to me – ruined corpses lined up in a prison yard, and the sound of crows cawing in excitement. The cloying stench of death. I could taste it again in my mouth.
‘. . . Must’ve bin a dozen or more, pecking for meat. They made a fine breakfast of it.’
‘Enough chatter, Sally.’ Bagby had arrived with the wine: two bottles as requested upon a silver tray. ‘Cook’s been calling for you.’ His words were for her, but his disapproval was aimed at me. Perhaps we were not meant to converse with the servants. Some households are tediously fastidious about such matters.
Sally curtsied and hurried from the room, but not before flashing me a look that promised there was more to be said, later.
I smiled in acknowledgement, earning myself a scowl from Bagby.
Mrs Fairwood had kept her back to the room throughout this exchange, spinning the globe slowly beneath her gloved fingers. But I could tell from the set of her shoulders, the stiff way she held herself, that she had been listening attentively.
She joined me by the hearth. ‘Silly girl never remembers the screen,’ she said, moving it in front of the grate. She perched upon the edge of her chair so that her feet might reach the floor, and stared at me, the wine, the butler, with barely concealed distaste. Her eyes were fringed with thick black lashes, and very dark. Despite her ill-humour, they were quite captivating.
Bagby poured me a glass of claret. I wondered how he kept his gloves and stockings so crisp and white. I suspected by giving all the troublesome jobs to his men. Well, it was his prerogative, I supposed.
Mrs Fairwood held a hand over her own glass, and told him to close the terrace doors. ‘Then leave us.’ Bagby did as he was ordered. ‘Ghastly man,’ she muttered, without explaining why. But then I’d yet to hear her speak well of anyone. We might all be reduced to a two-word insult by Mrs Fairwood. Silly girl. Ghastly man. Frightful rake.
The sounds of the yard were now muffled, and the pungent stink had been locked outside, leaving only a faint whiff on the air. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked quietly. I gulped down most of the wine, and filled the glass again to the brim.
Mrs Fairwood seemed reluctant to begin, so I prompted her. ‘Well then, madam. You believe you are Mr Aislabie’s lost daughter?’
She pulled off her gloves and sighed heavily. ‘Yes, Mr Hawkins, I do. And may God help me to endure it.’
Mrs Fairwood was raised in a small village on the Lincolnshire coast, the nearest town a day’s ride away. There was money – a good deal of it – and a grand house with servants. She called her childhood ‘quiet’ – I thought it sounded lonely, trailing the empty rooms, filling the silence with books. She had no siblings, but she was close to her father, who recognised her appetite for knowledge, and encouraged it.
‘And your mother?’
‘Devout.’ Her teeth trapped the last letter. She didn’t appreciate the interruption. I drank my wine and settled back, shoulders relaxing in the deep embrace of the armchair. The heat from the fire burned upon my cheek.
‘When I was twenty-one, my father decided we should spend the summer in Lincoln with his sister. There was talk of finding a husband. I had dissuaded him many times before. I was content at home.’ Her eyes flickered to the shelves behind me. ‘My father insisted. He said it was time that I lived in the world, not just in my books.’ Her fingers clenched together in her lap.