1925. The fashionable Bright Young Things from London have descended on Wychbourne Court, the Kentish stately home of Lord and Lady Ansley, for an extravagant fancy dress ball followed by a midnight Ghost Hunt – and Chef Nell Drury knows she’s in for a busy weekend. What she doesn’t expect to encounter is sudden, violent death.
When a body is discovered in the minstrels’ gallery during the Ghost Hunt, Nell finds herself caught up in the police investigation which follows. As the darker side of the Roaring Twenties emerges and it becomes increasingly clear that at least one person present that night has a sinister secret to hide, Nell determines to unmask the killer among them. Could the Wychbourne Ghosts hold the key to the mystery?
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Dancing With Death
A Nell Drury Mystery
By Amy Myers
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2017 Amy Myers
All rights reserved.
'Galloping codfish, Kitty! What the dickens do you call that?' Nell Drury peered at the apricot mousse wobbling in fright at the thought of presenting itself for consumption by high society at Wychbourne Court.
'A disaster, Miss Drury,' Kitty answered dolefully, even though they both knew no one would ever notice the slight blemish where it had caught on the mould as it emerged from its shelter.
Nell laughed. 'Garnish, that's the ticket! The cook's chum.'
In her view, temperatures rose high enough in a kitchen without the chef adding to it. Her predecessor had run this kitchen like a prison before he stormed out in a fury because the soufflés sank. That wasn't going to happen now she was chef, Nell had vowed. She'd been in charge for six months and so far all had run relatively smoothly. Soufflés had risen, pies had been raised and tempers had retreated.
Here she was at the top of her profession and only twenty-nine years old, although tonight was her biggest challenge yet. Dinner for forty guests at seven o'clock, followed by dancing into the small hours, during which a late supper would be served both for them and the additional guests who were coming for the dance only. It was going to be fun, especially as many would be in fancy dress.
As with the mousse, however, all was not quite perfect. Nell made a determined effort to dismiss her misgivings and concentrate on checking the menu for the dinner, which was currently performing a chaotic dance of its own in her mind. First the band struck up with the hors d'oeuvres, then the twists and turns of the tango brought the fish into her mental checklist, then came the heart of the dance with the waltz of the entrées and roasts, then the artistic pleasure of the desserts foxtrotted and quickstepped through her head, and finally a last waltz appeared with fruit and savouries. And, of course, there were the exciting unexpected dishes – sorbets, salads, ices. They were like these new dances coming in from America, including one called the Charleston which sounded like fun.
'Miss Drury, you do know it's already four o'clock?' Mrs Fielding snapped. 'Lady Clarice will be waiting for you in the boot room.'
Trust Mrs Fielding to throw a fly in the soup. Nell knew all too well that the formidable housekeeper waited eagerly for her slightest slip-up in the hope of regaining her own lost authority. A mere cook would be under her jurisdiction, but as a chef Nell held equal ranking, controlling her own domain and staff.
'A clock five minutes in advance/Allows the chef a very last chance,' she sang out, waving a hand at the kitchen clock as she hastily improvised.
It was amazing that in this year of 1925 the old rigid hierarchy still prevailed for some, Nell thought. After the war, it had looked set to crumble, but the Mrs Fieldings of this world still clung to it like limpets to their rock. Mrs Fielding must be well into her forties now and no longer the bustling, sturdy power she once was, so who could blame her? Mrs Fielding was, as Nell's father would have said, a 'fine figure of a woman' and every inch of it was brought into play when she stormed in like Boadicea if she thought her territory was being invaded. The stillroom was her chief weapon and gave her any excuse she needed for a complaint. Preserves and distillations were Mrs Fielding's domain and that of the still-room maid, but that left a grey area which she exploited to the full.
Ah, well, if you set your mind to it, life's troubles could melt away like isinglass. Onward, girl, onward, Nell tried to instruct herself when an obstacle reared up before her. Don't waste time blaming an underchef like Kitty or the Mrs Fieldings of this world, just get on and solve the problem, small or large. Get rid of the whey in life, deal with the best of the remaining curds and you'll produce the cheese.
Nell was all too well aware of the ticking clock, however, and had one last look around. In the scullery, the two maids were working on pans and mixing bowls, two kitchenmaids were busy preparing vegetables and Mrs Squires, Nell's plain cook, was looking after the servants' hall meals with one eye while the other was tackling the melon. Pretty little Kitty and Nell's other underchef, anxious young Michel, were busy preparing other hors d'oeuvres, foie gras and garnish for the main course.
'I see you've Soufflé Helen on the menu again,' Mrs Fielding sniffed as Nell whipped off her apron to go through to the main house. 'No use expecting any raspberry preserve from me.'
'We've fresh fruit, thanks to Mr Fairweather,' Nell replied, rushing past her. He was the aptly named vegetable gardener and she cherished her good relationship with him, loving the colours and sheer excitement of the range of herbs, vegetables and fruit that he produced. This June Saturday evening was going to be a one hundred per cent triumph for Wychbourne Court and the Ansley family, Nell vowed, and every inch of her would be concentrating on making that happen, despite the nagging blot on the horizon that refused to disappear.
The ghost hunt.
Wychbourne, like old houses everywhere, had its secrets and some of them in the long-distant past had been dark ones. Lady Clarice, Lord Ansley's sister, was bent on reviving them through her devotion to the many ghosts that haunted it – at least, according to her. But even so, what could go wrong with a ghost hunt?
The Ansley family had been at Wychbourne Court, set deep in the Kentish countryside between Sevenoaks and Tonbridge, since time immemorial. No coming over with an upstart conqueror for the Ansleys. Wychbourne Court oozed history and that's what Nell loved about it. She had been fascinated by stories of kings and queens right from the time her father had taken her to the Tower of London and she'd seen those Beefeaters and been told they were the queen's soldiers.
The way of life at Wychbourne Court fascinated her. Every so often the present marquess, the eighth, would toddle off to the House of Lords and every so often the new prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, would toddle down to Wychbourne. It seemed to Nell, however, that on such occasions the affairs of state were rather less important than billiards and entertainment. Most days she would see His Lordship setting off to walk round the estate – that was where his heart lay. Politics seemed mostly to fly over his head.
They flew over the head of his sister, Lady Clarice, too. Her one preoccupation was those ghosts. She had never married and now, in her early fifties, was devoted to their welfare. She was rather ghostlike herself, Nell thought, with her thin, tall figure and perpetual anxious expression. Eccentric she might be, but Nell was fond of her.
She found Lady Clarice already installed in the boot room near the main entrance to Wychbourne Court, looking lost amid the piles around her, some in boxes, some just in heaps. Some of the boxes were in the open doorway to the adjacent and usually locked gunroom and Nell had to resist asking whether she intended to chase the ghosts with guns. Instead, she asked politely, 'You wanted to see me, Lady Clarice?'
Lady Clarice looked astonished. 'Of course, as you're leading the second group on the ghost hunt.'
'Am I?' This was the first Nell had heard of it.
'Did Lady Ansley not tell you? We are to divide into two groups so as not to frighten our ghostly visitors. You are able to commune with them.'
Was she? This too was news to Nell. She groaned inwardly. Fond though she was of Lady Clarice, she suspected she was as much of a burden to Lord and Lady Ansley as she could be to the servants. 'What would you like me to do now?' she asked.
'Check this equipment for the hunt. And I do want to run through the ghosts with you.'
Running through ghosts? That sounded like a challenge. Nell managed to keep a straight face as Lady Clarice continued, 'I want you to be particularly careful not to upset dear Hubert.'
Nell was at a loss. 'Is he one of the guests?' she asked cautiously.
'Don't be foolish,' Lady Clarice said impatiently. 'You must have met him. He was the Lord Ansley who died during the Civil War when he was abandoned in the Priest's Hole by mistake. However, Simon – who appears very rarely – told me the other day that it was actually his wife who shut him in. There's no proof she murdered him, of course, and Simon is such a fibber.'
'Simon?' Nell queried faintly.
'Really, Nell.' Lady Clarice sighed. 'The fifth marquess. Do take care of poor Hubert. He does seem very scared of women. Perhaps understandably if his wife did murder him.'
'I'll be very careful,' Nell promised gently. 'But I'll need a list of the ghosts and where they haunt.'
'If you wish, but there are only nineteen of them known to be active, including the baby and the dog.'
This was getting worse. 'A list would be very helpful,' Nell said firmly. 'Shall I begin checking the equipment boxes?'
On her knees – and grateful that she still had her afternoon working skirt and jumper blouse on, not her evening wear – she pulled the first box to her and began counting.
'Torches and lanterns, ten,' she informed Lady Clarice.
'I asked for fifteen,' she moaned.
'I could ask Jimmy – he's the lampboy – to bring candles —' Too late, Nell realized she had put a foot wrong.
'On no account.' Lady Clarice was appalled. 'Ghosts lose their power by candlelight.'
It was going to be a long business, Nell could see, mentally listing the work still awaiting her in the kitchen. She would speed up. 'Pads and pencils,' she said briskly. 'Twenty of each. Magnifying glasses, ten.' What on earth were they to do with these? she wondered. Crawl after the ghosts like Sherlock Holmes? 'Measuring tape, three —'
'Far too few.'
'Chalk,' Nell pressed on, skimming boxes one after the other at high speed. 'Two barometers, two thermometers, two phonographs for recording, two cameras, two dark cloths for focusing, two bags of flour.' What the dancing dickens was that for? Don't ask, just get on with it, she advised herself. 'Four mirrors.' Those really did puzzle her. 'What are these for, Lady Clarice? I thought ghosts couldn't be seen in mirrors?'
Lady Clarice beamed. 'Anything that does appear in them will therefore be automatically excluded from the list of ghosts sensed. This is a scientifically conducted experiment, Nell. I expect you promptly at a quarter to twelve in the great hall. My nephew Richard will be moving this equipment out there.' A pause. 'Do you really need a list?' she asked doubtfully.
'I do,' Nell assured her earnestly. 'I don't want to offend any ghosts by addressing them wrongly.' That, however, was the least of her qualms about the ghost hunt.
The story of Wychbourne Court was an amazing one to Nell. Before William the Conqueror strode into England this site had been a humble farm. The family and its farm had survived and under Good Queen Bess the current Ansley, Sir William, had become a baron and acquired the means to rebuild on a much grander scale. A seventeenth-century redbrick frontage had later been added and in the eighteenth century the house had taken flight with the addition of two huge wings, resulting in the whole sprawling, elegant mass it was today. That had been thanks to William's descendant, Philip, who had rendered services during the Seven Years' War that resulted in his becoming the first Marquess Ansley. The family's future was assured.
When war struck in 1914 its financial position rocked but recovered. There were far fewer servants here now than there had been twenty years earlier but, as Nell knew, that was the case everywhere. The Ansleys' great loss had been a hammer blow. The second son of the present Lord and Lady Ansley, Noel, had died at the Battle of Ypres. The eldest of their five children, Kenelm, was married and working abroad for the Colonial Service, but the other three still lived at Wychbourne Court. The gap that Noel had left was still there. Nell knew that even though she had worked here only a year, and for only half of that had she been on familiar terms with Lord and Lady Ansley and their children – the latter not always a pleasure.
She had come a long way from Spitalfields, where her dad had been a costermonger. He had taught her so much about vegetables and fruit that she could spot a rotten orange a mile off. He had wanted her to join him on the barrow but by that time she had fallen in love with the bright lights of London and become a chambermaid at the luxurious Carlton Hotel on the corner of London's Haymarket. There she had ploughed on until she came to the notice of its chef, Monsieur Escoffier, who had spotted her interest in the kitchens. Interest turned out to be talent and he had trained her – a unique privilege as not one of his fifty or so staff had been a woman until she joined it.
Hard though that had been, she had watched, learned and cooked, and by the time Monsieur Escoffier had retired five years ago she had become one of his underchefs. She hadn't married – why should she? Why marry to be dominated by someone else's life? She wanted her own and after four years as a chef at a manor house north of London, here she was at Wychbourne Court, busy appreciating the difference of operating in the countryside. Oh, the bliss of having an orchard and vegetable garden at one's disposal!
Why should she have misgivings about the evening ahead? Ghosts belonged to the past and this was a new age. A dancing age for everybody, both literally and metaphorically. The bright future lay ahead and tonight's festivities were a mark of that, although war and its tragedies lay deep and not forgotten. How could war be forgotten when so many soldiers had come home to no jobs and no hope? How could it be forgotten during the slump of 1921? Tonight it would be put aside, however. Tonight, Nell vowed, Wychbourne would be shouting welcome to the future – and not worrying about ghosts.
Sophy Ansley watched her brother and sister warily. They had great plans for tonight and had summoned her to the Blue Drawing Room to join them, although she wasn't sure she agreed with them. She had to appear to do so, however. She had too much to hide not to. She had little in common with her big sister Helen and big brother Richard. They were the bright young things of the family but she preferred books. That was what was important in life, even if she had made a mess of her coming-out last year, ending it not only without a potential husband but without a flock of admirers.
After all, Sophy consoled herself, she was only nineteen and neither Richard nor Helen was married yet at twenty-five and twenty-three respectively, even though Helen was famous for her golden-haired beauty and Richard was almost another Rudolph Valentino. Women swooned over him, which was cuckoo.
Nevertheless, Sophy had had to face the humiliating thought that she had no eager admirers attending the party tonight. Half of her wanted to be one of the new flappers; the other half thought they were all off their rockers. And Mother's insistence on her wearing that black and pink chiffon dancing dress wasn't going to help. Designed by Chanel or not, her figure was too short for it and had too many bumps. Her breasts refused to disappear to fit under tight bodices in order to meet the current boyish fashion craze. She often envied Helen's languid elegance and Richard's sporty hail-fellow-well-met charm, but tonight she didn't. She was Sophy and had her own plans for the evening. She would have a partner – and a very special one. Meanwhile, she must show some interest in their stupid jokes.
'You have asked Charlie, haven't you?' Helen asked Richard accusingly. There she was, Sophy thought, looking like a goddess sprawled on the daybed in her fashionable silk house pyjamas.
'Of course I've asked him, sister mine,' Richard said smugly. He would smoke those awful gaspers. Sophy knew everyone did it nowadays, even girls, but they looked silly and smelt horrible.
'Will he do it?' Helen demanded.
'Charlie's a good sort,' he answered. 'Of course he'll do it. Can't wait.' A languid wave of the cigarette in its elegant holder.
Sophy wasn't so sure that Charlie Parkyn-Wright was a good sort, even though everyone seemed to adore him. She prided herself on noticing things, such as the way his jolly grin disappeared every now and then and how some people seemed nervous of him, which suggested they didn't like him at all. When in a rare, sisterly moment she had voiced these thoughts to Helen, however, her sister had been furious.
'Charlie's a dish. Can it be you're jealous?' she snapped.
No, it couldn't. And that confirmed Sophy's suspicion that Helen had her eye on Charlie, a thought that appalled her, especially as that nice Rex Beringer was so stuck on Helen.
Excerpted from Dancing With Death by Amy Myers. Copyright © 2017 Amy Myers. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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