Read Murder at Newstead Abbey Online
Authors: Joan Smith
Tags: #Regency Mystery
Sir Reginald Prance was struck green with envy upon his first view of Newstead Abbey, glimpsed through a tangle of elm and oak branches, as his carriage bowled through the park. He arrived in mid-December, with the shadows of twilight already lengthening by four o’clock. The carriage drew to a stop before the ruined façade of the west front and he alit, hardly aware of the arctic wind tearing at his coat tails and setting his scarf dancing. He stared at the great soaring arch, open to nature, its stone encrusted with lichen and wreathed in ivy. Above, four crocketed spires, two on either side of the roof-line, pointed like arrows into the pewter sky. The place was
stretching off into the purple shadows, much grander than Byron had led him to believe. Mortgaged to the chimney pots, unfortunately, and, of course, in a wretched state of repair. Byron had not underestimated that.
Prance’s own estate, Granmaison, diminished to the insignificance of a child’s playhouse before such faded grandeur as this. How could one
be a great poet, with such a deep well of inspiration as these perishing golden walls, etched with ancient carvings and surrounded by wild nature, to draw on?
“Now that’s what
call a gothic heap,” his companion, Coffen Pattle, said with satisfaction. “Old weathered falling apart stone, them pointy windows, drooping trees. Bound to be crawling with ghosts, eh? Puts them perishing castles in Mrs. Radcliffe’s books to the blush.”
It was unusual for Coffen to make a literary reference. His scanty acquaintance with the printed word was usually confined to sporting magazines to keep abreast of racing matters, and theatre playbills to see if any of his favorite actresses were performing. It was Lord Byron’s invitation to spend Christmas at Newstead that had led him to gnaw his way through a couple of marble-covered gothic novels borrowed from his cousin, Lady deCoventry. Byron had promised him ghosts, and he wanted to learn their tricks before meeting them.
The invitation to the Abbey had been issued to the four members of the Berkeley Brigade, of which Sir Reginald and Coffen formed a half. Their leader was Lord Luten, the other member was his fiancée, Lady deCoventry. The name derived from their living as neighbors on Berkeley Square. These ardent Whigs were the leaders of the ton in matters of fashion, but their more serious interest was to replace the reactionary Tory government, Mouldy and Company they called them, with the reforming Whigs. They had recently been involved in solving a few crimes, during the course of which they had become friends with Lord Byron. Luten had been given the assignment of luring Byron into the Whig shadow cabinet.
“How does one actually get inside the place?” Prance said, for beyond the iron gate on the west facade there was no sign of an operable doorway.
“Thing to do,” Coffen said, “prowl about until we find a door. He’s home all right. There’s smoke coming out of the chimneys.”
They were saved from this course by the arrival of their host, looking every inch the lord, astride a glossy bay mare. “Welcome to Newstead,” he said, smiling and lifting his hat. As if by magic, a groom appeared to take his mount and lead the carriage to the stable, while they followed Byron around a corner and into the building.
An aging man dressed in black came creeping forward, examined them with rheumy eyes, sighed wearily and returned to wherever he had come from.
“My butler, Joe Murray,” Byron explained. “He came with the Abbey, and appears to be in a similar state of decrepitude.”
“We are extremely impressed with your abbey, Byron,” Prance said, peering down a long stone hallway more suitable to a prison than a gentleman’s home.
“Yessir, a dandy ruin,” Coffen added.
“Thank you. It’s certainly big, but whether my precarious finances will ever permit me to restore more than a dozen rooms to livability is a moot point. I don’t even aspire to comfort.”
“I like it rough myself,” Coffen said. “Are Luten and Corinne here yet?” Corinne was his cousin, Lady deCoventry.
Prance wished, when he saw the salon Byron had redone, that he had been on hand to steer his young friend into a more acceptable mode of refurbishing. Prance considered himself an expert in all artistic matters. The fittings bore the marks of a youth’s idea of finery. They were ostentatiously grand, the red brocades doing battle with yards of blue velvet — gaudy! As to that wallpaper! And really, to have a life size portrait of
decorating the salon! Such a heroic portrait, too, the subject standing like Admiral Nelson at the mast of a rolling ship, dressed all in black and white. What was Byron thinking? It seemed the kindest thing to damn it with faint praise, then ignore it.
Glancing at him, Byron saw his disapproval and said, “Done in my salad days, Prance, when I was young and green.”
Corinne and Luten, sitting before a blazing grate enjoying a glass of wine and a plate of biscuits, made a more charming picture. Both had crow black hair. Corinne wore hers in a tousle of curls that framed her oval face, giving the effect of a cameo. She was famous for her sparkling green eyes and lithe figure. Luten was tall and slender, with intelligent gray eyes and a strong nose that lent authority to his finely chiseled, aristocratic face and thin lips.
Corinne’s female companion sat with them. It was ineligible for a lady to spend a holiday unchaperoned with a pack of gentlemen, especially when one of them was the dashing Lord Byron. Mrs. Ballard was a mousy clerical relict whose wardrobe was limited to black and who, like a well-behaved child, spoke only when spoken to and went to bed early.
“How did you get here so fast?” Coffen asked them. “We started before you, and Fitz wasn’t driving us. We came in Prance’s rig.”
This was an indirect slur on his own coachman, who had only the scantiest knowledge of geography or his duties. It was the way with all his servants. His groom couldn’t read a map, his cook couldn’t cook, and it was Prance’s stated opinion that his valet wouldn’t recognize an iron if it jumped off the board and bit him.
“No doubt it was our stopping every hour for you to inhale a quart of ale that gave them the lead,” Prance said.
“Yes, we spotted your rig at a little inn around two,” Corinne said. “We didn’t stop as we’d already had lunch.”
Prance lowered his brows at Coffen and said, “So had we.”
“You was in such a rush to get here you didn’t let me finish my wine. Haste not, want not,” said Coffen, who regularly made fritters of the King’s English. “So, where do we find the ghosts, Byron?”
It was the promise of ghosts that had drawn Coffen hither. Prance had come because he was madly infatuated with Byron. Luten in the hope of luring Byron into a position in the Whig shadow cabinet, and Corinne because Byron was society’s pet that year, and like all the other ladies, she was enchanted with him. Nor did she relish the notion of her fiancé spending two weeks with the raffish Byron while she remained in London. She shared with her fiancé the quality of jealousy.
Byron entertained them with tales of Sir John Byron the Little, whose portrait hung over the doorway of the baronial great hall. As this was one of the rooms Byron had renovated, he took the group to see this bearded, black-looking ancestor. Prance, more interested in the decorating than in ghosts, soon collared the conversation and before Coffen heard any more ghost tales, they were making a tour of the abbey.
“The place was a shambles when I first saw it,” Byron said, with a dégagé air, to cover his embarrassment. According to reports, Luten’s estate was in perfect order, and ran like a Swiss watch. “Even worse than it is now. The fifth baron, my great uncle, cut down the oak forest to pay his debts, and shot seventeen hundred deer to annoy his heir. The refectory had lost its roof. It made a fine shooting gallery. I flooded the dungeon and made it into a plunge pool, since I had no plans to lock anyone up.”
Luten listened in horror to these revelations of wretched management. Corinne blinked and wondered how much of this was exaggeration for effect. Prance, who seldom found a fault in his favorite, felt there was indeed some madness in this family.
Coffen said, “You must of hated to lose all that — the shooting gallery, the pool and all. Dandy.”
“I blame it on my youth. As I hadn’t the money to shore the place up, I decided to enjoy it as best I could,” Byron explained.
Coffen nodded. “Very sensible. I’d have stocked the pool with trout, myself. Don’t much care for swimming.”
“Swimming and riding are my sports,” Byron said modestly. His audience carefully averted their eyes from his clubfoot.
“We are aware of your having swum the Hellespont in emulation of Leander’s feat, during your travels,” Prance said. “Very modest, your making a joke of it in that poem.”
When the tour was finished, the group parted to dress for dinner. Corinne, finding the dining room as drafty as the salon, regretted that she hadn’t brought a woolen shawl. Prance mentally criticized the meal. Quail ought
to be served in a sauce. Its fragile aroma dissolved in liquid. The forkful of mutton he tried was delicious. He never ate more than enough to keep his body alive. It was not until they were seated around the table that Coffen had another chance to inquire about ghosts. “You mentioned some monk ghosts that walk in the cloister, Byron,” he said.
“You’re referring to the Black Monk, who promenades in the Monk’s Avenue. Yes, he’s one of our more famous spectral tenants, but by no means the only one.”
Coffen said what he always said when he didn’t understand a speech. “Eh?” It was the “spectral” that confused him. He knew what a tenant was all right. He had them himself.
“He means ghosts,” Prance explained.
“You mean to say they pay rent!”
“No, it was just a figure of speech.”
“Ah, one of them.” He scowled at Prance, who was often guilty of this linguistic sin.
“There’s also a phantom choir that sings when the moon is full,” Byron continued. “And then there’s the Rook Cell, where I myself have oft-times seen a ghastly black form. It sits on my bed and stares silently at me with awful, accusing eyes like a Methodist at an orgy, then gets up and fades away. I believe it’s the same Black Friar who also haunts the Monks’ Walk.”
“P’raps you’re in his bed,” Coffen suggested. “Stands to reason he’d want a rest after all that walking. But you said in London you’d never actually seen a ghost.”
Byron shrugged. “Perhaps it wasn’t a ghost, but a shadow, or the result of a guilty conscience, or an overindulgence in wine. It didn’t say anything, or do anything except give me the chills. One doesn’t brag about such things, or he’d be taken for a lunatic. Especially when one is curst with the name Byron.”
Prance stared to hear this demigod of the western world call himself cursed. All of society was running after him, since his grand success with his
poems. Gentlemen aped his coiffure and his kerchief in lieu of a proper cravat. The Whigs wanted him in their cabinet, society hostesses wanted him at their balls, the ladies wanted him in their beds. And on top of it all, he was young, had a title and a face to make Adonis weep in envy. A curl tumbled over his forehead. His eyes, the stormy blue-gray of the Atlantic, were edged in inch-long lashes. His nose was of classic size and shape, and his lips were as sensitive and capricious as a lady’s. All this beauty was enhanced by a fashionable pallor, despite his travels in tropical climes. And as if that weren’t enough, the glamour of his foreign travels shone about his head like a halo.
While Luten and Corinne exchanged tolerant smiles, Byron continued with other ghostly tales. A wisp of white mist that appeared in one of the paneled bedrooms and a visitor who had seen a lady in white walk through one wall of a room and through the opposite side. There were unexplained phantom footsteps in the dining room, dirges played on a ghostly stringed instrument, the sound of horses riding, and various unexplained sounds.
“No clanking chains?” Coffen asked hopefully.