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Death at Dawn: A Liberty Lane Thriller

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      Death at Dawn: A Liberty Lane Thriller
Caro Peacock

Duelling, derring-do, and dastardly deeds are all in a day’s work for Liberty Lane: a new heroine for fans of Matthew Hawkwood and Sarah Waters’s Victorian novels.June 1837. She should have remained in the care of her sour aunt in Chalke Bissett, but Liberty Lane was never one to obey instructions. Eager to be reunited with her beloved father, she heads for Dover. But her hopes of surprising him as he steps off the boat are dashed by an anonymous note informing her that he has been killed in a duel at Calais, and commanding her to remain where she is and speak to no one.Thomas Jacques Lane – radical, romantic, scholar, republican, gambler and devoted father -had led an unconventional life. His movements in the days leading up to his death are a mystery, but of one thing Liberty is certain: he would never have taken part in a duel, for it went against everything he believed in. And if the author of the anonymous note expected her to swallow this lie and meekly obey his command to stay put, he had severely underestimated Liberty Lane.With no resources bar her own wits, she immediately sets sail for Calais in pursuit of the truth – and her father's killer. There she encounters a mysterious stranger who promises information in return for her services as a spy, planted in the Windsor estate of the powerful and ambitious Lord Mandeville. And as the nation prepares to celebrate the coronation of young Queen Victoria, Liberty uncovers a treasonable plot which could lead to another vicious civil war…

CARO PEACOCK

Death at Dawn

To Caroline Compton

Contents

Title Page (#u9e4cb376-1FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Dedication (#u9e4cb376-4FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter One (#u9e4cb376-6FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Two (#u9e4cb376-7FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Three (#u9e4cb376-8FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Four (#u9e4cb376-9FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Five (#u9e4cb376-10FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Six (#u9e4cb376-11FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Seven (#u9e4cb376-12FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Eight (#u9e4cb376-13FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty-Two (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty-Three (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty-Four (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty-Five (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty-Six (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty-Seven (#litres_trial_promo)Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER ONE (#u9e4cb376-5FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

‘Would you be kind enough to tell me where they keep people’s bodies,’ I said.

The porter blinked. The edges of his eyelids were pink in a brown face, lashes sparse and painful-looking like the bristles on a gooseberry. Odd the things you notice when your mind’s trying to shy away from a large thing. When he saw me coming towards him over the cobbles among the crowds leaving the evening steam packet, he must have expected another kind of question altogether. Something along the lines of ‘How much do you charge to bring a trunk up from the hold?’ or ‘Where can I find a clean, respectable hotel?’ Those kinds of questions were filling the air all round us, mostly in the loud but uneasy tones of the English newly landed at Calais. I’d asked in French, but he obviously thought he’d misheard.

‘You mean where people stay, at the hotels?’

‘Not hotels, no. People who’ve been killed. A gentleman who was killed on Saturday.’

Another blink and a frown. He looked over my shoulder at his colleagues carrying bags and boxes down the gangplank, regretting his own bad luck in encountering me.

‘Would he not be in his own house, mademoiselle?’

‘He has no house here.’

Nor anywhere else, come to that. He would have had one soon, the tall thin house he was going to rent for us, near the unfashionable end of Oxford Street when we … Don’t think about that.

‘In church then, perhaps.’

I thought, but didn’t say, that he was never a great frequenter of churches.

‘If an English gentleman were killed in … in an accident and had no family here, where might he be taken?’

The porter’s face went hard. He’d noticed my hesitation.

‘The morgue is over there, mam’selle.’

He nodded towards a group of buildings a little back from the seafront then turned, with obvious relief, to a plump man who was pulling at his sleeve and burbling about cases of books.

I walked in the direction he’d pointed out but had to ask again before I found my way to a low building, built of bricks covered over with black tarry paint. A man who looked as thin and faded as driftwood was sitting on a chair at the door, smoking a clay pipe. The smell of his tobacco couldn’t quite mask another smell coming from inside the building. When he heard me approaching he turned his head without shifting the rest of his body, like a clockwork automaton, and gave me a considering look.

‘It’s possible that you have my father here,’ I said.

He took a long draw on his pipe and spoke with it still in his mouth.

‘Would he be the gentleman who got shot?’

‘Possibly, yes.’

‘English?’

‘Yes.’

‘She said his clothes had an English cut.’

‘Who said?’

Without answering, he got up and walked over to a narrow house with a front door opening on to the cobbles only a few steps away from the morgue. He thumped on the door a couple of times and a fat woman came out in a black dress and off-white apron, straggly grey hair hanging down under her cap. They whispered, heads together, then he gave her a nudge towards me.

‘Your father, oh, you poor little thing. Poor little thing.’

Her deep voice was a grieving purr in my ear, her hand moist and warm on my shoulder. Her breath smelled of brandy.

‘May I see him, please?’

She led the way inside, still purring ‘Pauvre petite, oh pauvre petite.’ Her husband in his cloud of pipe smoke fell in behind us. There were flies buzzing around the low ceiling and a smell of vinegar. The evening sun came in through the slats of the shutters, making bars of red on the whitewashed wall. Three rough pinewood tables took up most of the space in the room but only one of them was occupied by a shape covered in a yellowish sheet. The woman put her arm round me and signed to the man to pull the sheet back. I knew almost before I saw his face. I suppose I made some noise or movement because the man started pulling the sheet back over again. I signed to him to leave it where it was.

‘Your father?’

‘Yes. Please …’

He hesitated, then, when I nodded, reluctantly pulled the sheet further down. They’d put my father in a white cotton shroud with his hands crossed on his chest. I took a step forward and untied the strings at the neck of the shroud. The woman pulled at my arm and tried to stop me. Trust your own eyes and ears, he’d said. Never let anybody persuade you against them. He’d been talking at the time about the question dividing some of his naturalist friends as to whether squirrels were completely hibernatory, standing in some beechwoods with Tom and me on a bright January day. I tried to keep the sound of his voice in my head as I lifted up his right hand, cold and heavy in mine. I pulled the shroud aside with my other hand and looked at the round hole the pistol ball had made in his chest, right over the heart, and the livid scorch-marks on his skin surrounding it. No blood. They’d have sponged his body before they put it in the shroud. That probably accounted for the vinegar smell. It would have been done by the same plump, liver-spotted hand that was now pulling at my arm, trying to make me come away. The thought of that hand moving over him made me feel sick. I pulled the shroud up, crossed his right hand back over his left and watched while they covered him up again.

‘His clothes?’ I asked.

She looked annoyed and left us, wooden clogs clacking over the cobbles. The flies buzzed and circled. After a minute or two she was back with an armful of white linen, streaked with rusty stains. Breeches, stockings, a shirt. On the left breast of the shirt was a small round hole. I bent over it and smelled, through the iron tang of blood, a whiff of scorched linen and black powder. I think the woman imagined I was kissing it, holding it so close, because her arm came round me, sympathetic again. The man was repeating some question insistently.

‘You will need an English priest?’

‘I don’t think … Oh, I see. For the burial. Yes.’

He produced a dog-eared calling card from his pocket. I heaped the linen back into the woman’s arms and took the card. She’d tried to be kind to me so as I left I slid some coins from my bag into the pocket of her apron. It struck me as I walked away that they were English coins and of no use to her, but then in Calais she could find somebody to change them. It came to me too that she hadn’t shown me his outer clothes, shoes, hat or jacket. One of the perquisites of her job, probably. Some lumpish son or cousin of hers might be wearing them even now. There should have been rings as well. I made myself picture the crossed hands against the shroud. They’d let him keep the narrow silver ring on his left hand that he wore in memory of my mother. He usually wore a gold one with a curious design on his right, but I was certain that the hand I’d held had been bare. The thought of somebody else wearing his ring made me so angry that I almost turned back. But that was not sensible, and I must at all costs be sensible. I walked by the sea for a long time, watching the sun go down. Then I found a pile of fishing nets heaped in a shed, curled myself up in them and alternately slept and shivered through the few hours of a June night. In the shivering intervals, every word of the note that had jolted my world out of its orbit came back to me.

Miss Lane,

You do not know me, but I take the liberty of addressing you with distressing news. Your father, Thomas Jacques Lane, was killed this Saturday, seventeenth June, in a duel at Calais …

CHAPTER TWO (#u9e4cb376-5FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Everybody knows the place in Calais where gentlemen go to fight duels, the long stretch of beach with the sand-hills behind. People point it out to each other from the deck of the steam packet. By the time the first grey light came in through the doorway of the fisherman’s hut I knew that the one thing I wanted to do was follow the route my father would have taken three days before, at much this time of the morning. I unwrapped myself from the nets, brushed dry fish scales from my dress and walked along the harbour front, past shuttered houses and rows of tied-up fishing boats. Eventually the cobbled road runs out in a litter of nets and crab pots, just above the fringe of bladder wrack and driftwood that marks high tide line. They would have left their carriage there.

No carriage this morning, nothing but a fisherman’s cart made of old planks, bleached silver by the wind and sea, with shafts just wide enough for a donkey. No pony, even the most ill-used one, could be so thin. The owner of the cart probably lived in one of the little row of hovels built of rocks and ships’ timbers, so tilted and ramshackle they looked as if some especially high tide had dropped them. The windows were closed with warped wooden shutters. There was nobody looking out of them so early in the morning, not even a fisherman’s wife watching for her husband. In any case, a fisherman’s wife would know there was no use looking out for boats with the tide so very low, almost at its lowest, the silver strip of sea hardly visible across the wide sands. Would it have been so low at first light three days ago? I thought I must buy or borrow an almanack when I go back into the town. It might be of some importance to know. Anything might be of some importance, it was simply a matter of knowing what.

Later, I’d come back and try to talk to the fishermen’s wives. It’s easier, usually, to talk to women than to men.

‘I am sorry for disturbing you, madame, but can you recall a carriage drawing up there where the road runs out, three mornings ago? Just as it was getting light, it would have been, or even while it was still dark.’

They might quite easily have arrived in the dark, perhaps waited in the carriage until that first strange, flat light that comes before sunrise, when they could see to walk along the beach. I’m sure if he had met a fisherman’s wife that morning, he’d have raised his hat and wished her good day. But almost certainly he did not meet her, the morning being so early. And even if she had met him or seen the carriage standing there, I don’t suppose for one moment she’d tell me. The men and women who live in that ruckle of cottages must be used to seeing carriages drive up in the early morning, dark silhouettes of gentlemen against the pale dawn sky walking across the sands, but I’m sure they don’t talk about them to strangers. These gentlemen and their purposes have nothing to do with the fishermen’s world, any more than if they’d come down from the moon, and the fishermen will know there is no good in what’s happening, nothing but harm and blame. So I should ask, but nobody would tell me. It was simply one of those things which must be done.

Now that I considered, there should have been two carriages, not one. But then, he might not have come by carriage. It was only a short walk out here from the town and he was never one for taking a carriage when he could go on foot. He might have slipped out of the side door of an inn while it was still dark, the horses asleep in their stalls, only the dull glow of a fire through the kitchen window, where some poor skivvy was starting to poke up the fire for coffee. I dare say he’d have liked a cup of coffee, only he couldn’t wait. So he might have walked here and seen the other carriage drawn up already and gone on without pausing over the sand.

Alone? He shouldn’t have been alone. There should have been a friend with him – or at least somebody he called a friend. In that case, they would have stayed the night together in an inn. If I asked around the town somebody surely would have seen the two of them together and be able to describe the other man. I’d do that later, when I come back from my walk.

The sand was firm underfoot, only I wished I’d brought stouter footwear. But then my escape from Chalke Bissett had been so hurried I’d had no time to go to the bootroom and find the pair I keep for country walking. Besides, when I escaped I had no notion in my head of walking over French beaches. A day or two on English pavements was the very worst I’d thought to expect. Still, the shoes were carrying me well enough. The ramshackle cottages were already a mile behind me, the sand dunes and the point at the far end of the beach in sight. Nearer the tideline, there was a gloss of salt water over the sand. My foot pressed down, making a margin of lighter sand, then the footprint filled up with dark water behind me. Salt water and sand were splashing up to the hem of my skirts, making them drag damply round my ankles. From here, if there were figures on the point you’d be sure to see them. He would have seen them – three of them – with the sun rising behind them. They would have to pay attention to that sun, be quite sure it didn’t get in their eyes. The figures would be waiting there, just where the gull has landed, and my father and the man he called his friend would have walked over to them, not slowly but not too fast either, like rational people who have business together. They’d have shaken hands when they met, I know that, and serious words would be spoken, a question put, heads shaken.

‘Since your principal refuses to offer an apology, then things must proceed to their conclusion. Would you care to choose, sir?’

And the black, velvet-lined case would be snapped open. As the man challenged, my father would have first choice. So he’d take a pistol, weigh it in his hand and nod, and the other man would take the other. How do I know? The way that anybody who reads novels knows. I confess with shame that ten years or so ago, around the age of twelve when much silliness is imagined, the etiquette of the duel had a morbid fascination for me. I revelled in wronged, dark-haired heroes, their fine features admitting not the faintest trace of anxiety as they removed their jackets to expose faultless white linen shirt-fronts over their noble and so vulnerable breasts, shook hands with their seconds (who – not being heroes – were permitted a slight tremor of the fingers) then strode unconcernedly to the fatal line, as if … Oh, and any other nonsense you care to add. Write it for yourselves and thank the gods that no girl stays a twelve-year-old for ever. But that’s why I knew enough to imagine how it would have happened three days before, at very much this time in the morning. The two pistol shots, almost simultaneous. Then the frightened seabirds wheeling and crying – unless the seagulls on the Calais sands are so blasé by now that they are not in the least alarmed by duellists’ shots. A figure flat on the sand, the two seconds bending over him, the doctor opening his bag. A little further off, the survivor with his left arm over his eyes to shield out the dreadful sight, pistol pointed to the sand, anger drained out of him; ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’

‘It really is the most appalling nonsense,’ my father said. ‘I wish you would not read these things.’

Back to being twelve, and my father – who was so rarely angry with anything or anybody – much annoyed with me. I had just twirled into the room in my new satin shoes and a fantasy of being a princess carelessly mislaid at birth – trilling that I hoped one day men might fight a duel for love of me. He’d caught me in mid-twirl, plumped me down in a chair and talked to me seriously.

‘Some day another man besides myself and your brother will love you. But hear this, daughter, if he proves to be the kind of fool who thinks he can demonstrate that love by violently stealing the life of another human being, then he’s not the man for my Liberty.’
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