Kat Holloway steps out from beneath the stairs and into international intrigue, where murder and stolen treasure lurk among the upper echelons of Victorian London.
In return for a random act of kindness, scholar Li Bai Chang presents young cook Kat Holloway with a rare and precious gift—a box of tea. Kat thinks no more of her unusual visitor until two days later when the kitchen erupts with the news that Lady Cynthia's next-door neighbor has been murdered.
Known about London as an "Old China Hand," the victim claimed to be an expert in the language and customs of China, acting as intermediary for merchants and government officials. But Sir Jacob's dealings were not what they seemed, and when the authorities accuse Mr. Li of the crime, Kat and Daniel find themselves embroiled in a world of deadly secrets that reach from the gilded homes of Mayfair to the beautiful wonder of Kew Gardens.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Jennifer Ashley
The Chinese gentleman ran from between the carriages packed the length of Mount Street and straight into my path. I had no chance—he emerged so suddenly and without my seeing him that I barreled directly into the poor man.
My basket full of produce slammed into his narrow belly, knocking from his feet. He landed on the cobblestones in a tangle of limbs and fabric.
I shoved my basket at my assistant, Tess, and bent over the unfortunate man.
“My dear sir, I do beg your pardon—you popped out so quickly.” I thrust my hands down to him, intending to help him to his feet.
Instead of accepting my assistance, the man cringed from me, his face screwing up in abject fear.
“Come now,” I said, softening my voice. “You can’t stay on the cobbles—they’re full of mud and muck.”
The man hesitated, still afraid, so I firmly took hold of him and hauled him to his feet.
He was small boned and light, easily lifted, but I felt strength under his garments. Once he was standing upright, I saw that he was a few inches taller than I, dressed in a silk robe that fell to his feet, the sleeves so wide his hands would disappear if he folded them together.
His round cap had fallen to the ground, revealing a head that was quite bald from forehead to the top of his skull. As though to make up for the lack of hair in front, a thick braid hung down his back to his knees, and a beard curled to his chest.
His robe was a deep blue, with birds and vines embroidered on the hem in rich yellow and green. The colors were muted from dust, rain, and London grime, but the garment must have once been lovely.
The Chinese gentleman finally lost his agitation and looked at me directly. He was not a young man, middle aged perhaps, though his hair and beard held little gray and his face bore only a few lines. But his eyes, which were dark brown, nearly black, contained a weight of years greater than my own, an understanding that comes from experiencing life, all its tragedies and triumphs. He had an air of supreme confidence that even falling to a London street could not erase.
This gentleman stared at me a moment longer before he tucked his hands into his sleeves, dropped his gaze, and gave me a slight bow. “Forgive me, madam.”
“Not at all,” I said briskly. “I knocked you over, sir, so I ought to apologize. Do take care as you walk about. The drivers do not go as cautiously as they should, and they can’t always stop their heavy drays in time. I would hate to think of you lying hurt on the street.”
He listened to my speech without blinking, though he transferred that keen gaze to my left shoulder. I sensed Tess behind me, gawping at the man with no sense of her own rudeness.
“Please accept my many apologies, good lady,” he said.
His manners were exquisite, such a refreshing change from those of men who had no intention of being courteous to a mere cook.
“No harm done,” I said. “Now, you must excuse me, sir. I need to walk past you, and there is very little room on the road today.”
The corners of the man’s eyes crinkled with good humor. As he bent to sweep up his cap, I saw razor scars on the top of his scalp from many years of shaving back his hair.
He gave me a final nod and darted off, moving swiftly between the carriages, around the corner to Park Street. I watched until he disappeared from sight then I took my basket from Tess, and we walked on.
“Well, that was interestin’,” she said in her cheery tones. “You don’t see many Chinamen in these parts. I’m surprised he’s allowed to walk in Mayfair.”
I shrugged. “He likely works for a family here, as we do.”
Even as I spoke, I felt a frisson of doubt. I’d been employed at the Rankin house on Mount Street long enough to have become acquainted with the servants in the homes around it, and none employed a Chinese gentleman.
Also, I did not believe he was a common laborer, as were many Cantonese who had come to London to escape poverty or war in their own country. While the gentleman had been afraid when I’d first knocked him down, he’d stood proudly on his feet, without the slump of shoulders of a menial. His faded robe had once been fine, the touch of the silk like gossamer.
“I’d never be Chinese,” Tess said, swinging her basket. “I hear their women stuff their feet into tiny little shoes.” She kicked out her long foot in its high laced boot. “Can’t work if you do that.”
“You couldn’t help being Chinese if your parents were,” I pointed out. “And the women in China from our walk of life work just as hard as we do.”
“If you say so, Mrs. H.,” Tess said. She crowded close and tucked her hand under my arm. “We’re packed in tight today, ain’t we? Her ladyship next door has no business inviting so many to her house for an afternoon. She’s ruined the whole street.”
Lady Harkness, wife of a knight of the realm, was holding a gathering today to show off her husband’s exquisite and unusual garden, full of plants he’d brought home from his years in the Orient. As it was September, most families of note were off in the country, hunting foxes or shooting birds flushed out by their servants, so but Lady Harkness still managed to fill her gathering. Her husband was decidedly middle class and possibly lower, said Mrs. Bywater, the mistress of my house, with a sniff. Sir Jacob been given a knighthood for services to the Empire, but he’d been born a tradesman in Liverpool.
Regardless of his beginnings, his wealth had brought him much prestige. The number of fine carriages that lined Mount Street and wrapped around the corner showed that his humble beginnings had been forgiven.
Not only did the waiting carriages jam up the works, but carts, wagons, and foot traffic served to clog the area further. Even the most elegant corner of London was a thoroughfare to somewhere else.
Mrs. Bywater was attending the garden party, in spite of her snobbishness about Sir Jacob and his wife. So was her niece, Lady Cynthia, with whom I’d formed a friendship. Both ladies wanted a look at the strange plants Sir Jacob had brought back from his many years in foreign parts. Lady Cynthia would tell me later about Lady Harkness’s do, most likely how horrifically wearying it had been.
For now, I had to get supper on the table for the family when they returned and for the entire body of servants—a dozen of us—who kept the Mount Street house running efficiently.
I entered the kitchen, exchanging coat and hat for apron, and began to sort through the comestibles, my encounter with the Chinaman fading to the back of my mind.
While Lord Rankin, a baron, owned the house where I lived and worked, he allowed Lady Cynthia, sister of his deceased wife, and her aunt and uncle, the Bywaters, to occupy the house while he dwelled in Surrey. Cynthia’s aunt and uncle had moved in to chaperone her, and also to keep her behavior in check—at least Mrs. Bywater considered this to be part of her duty. She and her husband wished to get Cynthia married off, out of harm’s way, but Cynthia, so far, had resisted.
The family had remained in residence through the sticky, smelly, uncomfortable London summer. Mr. Bywater always had much business in the City, and Lady Cynthia refused to return to her father’s house. Therefore, my duties had not eased during the hot months, and the kitchen had become like the devil’s anteroom.
Tess and I and the rest of the staff had sweated and struggled, our tempers short. A walk outside had scarcely brought any relief, as the heat enveloped the entire city. At least we were mercifully away from the river and its stink.
September brought welcome coolness and abundance as farmers began to cart in the harvest. Potatoes and apples gradually dominated the vendors’ carts, as well as walnuts and game from the countryside—partridges to venison. Mr. Bywater did not hunt or shoot, but he had friends who sent him whole birds or meat packed in paper and sawdust. Such a savings, Mrs. Bywater never failed to state.
One lesson the penny-pinching Mrs. Bywater learned, however, through the long, roasting summer, was that we truly needed a housekeeper.
Mr. Davis, the butler, and myself had taken on much of the housekeeping duties, but I was too busy cooking, Mr. Davis too busy tending to the wine, silver, and service at table, to take care of much else. Discipline deteriorated among the maids and footmen, and tasks did not get done. I insisted on a large share of the household budget for food, but Mr. Davis wanted it for the master’s wine and brandy. We quarreled frequently, and Mrs. Bywater lost her patience with us.
Mr. Davis told me, triumphantly, a week ago, that Mrs. Bywater had finally broken down and asked an agency to send her candidates for a housekeeper. She hadn’t found one she liked yet, but at least she’d begun the proceedings.
Until then, it fell to me to go over the household accounts, keep inventory of the food, supervise the kitchen staff, and cook until my hands were sore, burned, and abraded.
Tess had proved to be quite capable, learning what I taught her quickly, and was beginning to master recipes and more complicated cooking techniques. She’d been scrubbing floors before I’d taken her on—a sad waste of talent. She’d make a fine cook after more training.
I did not muse on my encounter with the Chinese gentleman the rest of that day, as I had much to do. The next day was also particularly busy, and by the time I prepared the evening meal, I was short tempered and exhausted. Mr. Davis blamed me for a missing bottle of wine—had I put it into my sauce by mistake?
When Charlie, the kitchen boy, spotted the wine behind a stack of greens, had Mr. Davis apologized and owned he’d been wrong? No, he’d sniffed, tucked the bottle under his arm, given Charlie a half-hearted clout on the ear, and stalked away.
I could only shake my head and return to my sauté pan, hoping I hadn’t ruined my sole in butter sauce. The butter had to brown, not burn, or the entire dish was spoiled.
Mr. Bywater liked his supper the moment he returned home, and we were a bit behind with the soup and greens. I thickened the soup with flour instead of letting it reduce, tossed in some cream and a good handful of salt, and sent it up.
Then Emma, the downstairs maid, spilled half my perfected butter sauce on the floor, and fell to weeping. I plunked the rest of the meal onto platters to go up in the dumbwaiter, told Tess to see to the staff’s supper, caught up a basket, and went out through the scullery.
Cool air touched my face as I walked up the stairs to the night, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I usually did not mind my life as a cook, but at times I found it trying. I reminded myself of the virtue of hard work and the fact that I was saving my shillings for the day I could reside with my daughter and run a little tea shop, the two of us living in bliss. Sometimes this vision helped, but tonight, peace eluded me.
In spite of my pique, I hadn’t forgotten those in more need than myself. My basket held scraps I’d saved from the meal—greens too wilted for the dining room, trimmings of cooked meat or fish sliced off for symmetry, fruit too squashed to look fine in the bowl, and dried ends of yesterday’s cake.
The few who gathered outside, knowing I would appear with my basket, swarmed to me with gratefulness. I handed out the food in pieces of towel that would have only gone into the rag bag.
A slim figure joined those in the shadows. I always met the beggars exactly between the streetlamps, where the darkness was greatest. The poor things feared the light, knowing they could be arrested for being unemployed and hungry.
I turned to the newcomer with my last bundle of scraps. “Now, sir, get that inside you, and you’ll feel better . . . Oh.”
I was surprised to see my Chinese gentleman from the day before. His long beard was a wisp against his robes, the blue of the silk black in the shadows.
He held out a box to me, a small wooden casket. “Please,” he said. “A gift for you.”
I held up my hands. “No, no, you do not need to give me anything.”
“You did me a kindness, madam. Allow me to thank you by doing one for you.”
“You are courteous,” I said, softening. “And I thank you, but I cannot possibly accept it. A gentleman does not give gifts to a lady, especially one he is not acquainted with. I am not certain of your customs in China, but in England, I am afraid that is the case.”
His eyes glinted as he raised his head, and I saw in them a flash of hurt. I felt contrite—I must have insulted him.
I gentled my tone. “Forgive me. I know it must be difficult being far from home.” I’d never been farther than Cornwall, and though I’d found it lovely, I’d longed to return to London with all my might.
To my concern, his eyes filled with tears. “Indeed.” The sadness in his voice tugged at me. “Very difficult.”
I put an impulsive hand on his arm. “My dear sir, I am so sorry. Might you tell me your name? Then you would know at least one person in London. I am Mrs. Holloway.”
He hesitated, gazing at my hand on his arm. I lifted it quickly, wondering if I’d just insulted him again.
“Li,” he said after a moment. “That is my name.”
“Excellent. Well, Mr. Li, now that we are friends, perhaps I can accept the gift you are so generously bestowing. As long as it is not too extravagant, mind.”
The box was small and did not look very costly, but one never knew what was inside boxes until one opened them.
“It is, as you say, a trifle.”
“If you promise,” I said doubtfully.
A smile pulled at the corners of Mr. Li’s mouth. “It is tea.”
“Oh,” I said, pleased. A good cup of tea was a fine thing. “Thank you, Mr. Li. You are kind.”
“It is you who are kind, Mrs. Holloway.”
I decided to end our effusion of politeness by taking the box. The wood was intricately carved but the box was light.
“There now,” I said, not certain how to gracefully take my leave. “I ever you have need of a friend, Mr. Li, I am the cook in the house yonder.” I pointed to it. “I am extremely busy most of the time, but if you do need help, do not hesitate . . .”
I trailed off, realizing I spoke to empty air. Mr. Li had slipped into the shadows as I’d pompously waved at the great house. I glimpsed him walking swiftly along Mount Street toward Berkeley Square, but I soon lost sight of him in the lowering mist. The beggars had taken their food and gone, and I stood alone.
Chuckling at myself, I tucked the box into my basket and returned home.
I left the basket in the larder, but the tea I took upstairs to my bedchamber and locked into the bottom drawer of my bureau. It was my tea, and I would not risk Mr. Davis happening upon it, and my gift disappearing down his throat.
In the morning, Sunday, as I was about to pour out the batter-like dough for the breakfast crumpets, Lady Cynthia rushed into the kitchen.
She did this often, as she found the company of her aunt and uncle stifling and many of their guests a bore. The accepted life of a spinster was not for her. She demonstrated this today by appearing in trousers—riding breeches to be exact—with boots to her knees and a waistcoat, long-tailed coat, and neatly tied cravat.
As she kept to her feet, I remained standing, as did Tess, Charlie, who tended the fire, and Emma, who’d come in to help convey breakfast to the dining room.
“I thought you’d like to know right away, Mrs. H.,” Lady Cynthia said. “There was a death last night. Sir Jacob Harkness.”
“Oh, dear.” I’d never liked Sir Jacob—what little I’d seen of him—but I felt a dart of sympathy. Sudden death was always sad, difficult for the family. “Poor man. Was he ill?”
“No, indeed. Fit as a proverbial fiddle.” Lady Cynthia’s voice was as robust as ever. “That’s why I’m telling you. He was murdered. Stabbed through the heart in his own bedchamber. The police are even now swarming the house next door, questioning everyone in sight.”
I stared at her in shock. The others froze in consternation, Tess behind me, Charlie poised with a shovelful of coal, Emma at the dumbwaiter.
“Good heavens,” I exclaimed. “What happened? Were they robbed?”
“Don’t know,” Cynthia admitted. “I have my knowledge from Sir Jacob’s valet, Sheppard, who came charging around to tell Uncle, most upset. Lady Harkness is in hysterics, and Aunt Izzie has gone to calm her down. Not the person I’d want with me if I were upset, but there was no stopping her.”
Before I could ask more, the back door banged open, and one of the housemaids from next door burst in. “Oh, Mrs. Holloway, Mrs. Finnegan says, will you come?”
Mrs. Finnegan was the Harkness family cook, and she was disorganized on the best of days. She would be in a right mess now.
I glanced at the pots burbling on the stove, boiling the eggs for the family’s and servants’ breakfasts. The crumpet dough rested on the table, ready to be poured into rings on the stove. “Tess . . .”
“Go on,” she said, waving me off. “I can manage. I know you like to be in the thick of things.”
“Not at all,” I said coolly. “I’m certain their kitchen is at sixes and sevens, and I ought to help.”
“Right you are, Mrs. H.” Tess winked at me and moved to take over the crumpets.
“Not too long on the hob,” I told her. “Or they’ll burn on the outside and be raw on the inside.” I called the last words as I hurried down the passage to the housekeeper’s parlor, where I kept my coat.
“I know.” Tess’s voice rose behind me. “I do pay attention when ya teach me things.”
I snatched my coat from its peg and put it on over my apron. I saw no sign of Mr. Davis in the hall or in his pantry—I guessed he was upstairs watching the footmen ready the dining room for breakfast.
Lady Cynthia waited for me at the back door and accompanied me out through the scullery to the street.
A small crowd had gathered before the house next door. They glanced with envy at Lady Cynthia and me as I walked around the railings and down the stairs to the kitchen. Cynthia continued to the front door, where she was quickly admitted.
I’d been correct about the kitchen being in chaos. Mrs. Finnegan sweated desperately over a stove that was nowhere near as well ordered as mine. She shouted commands at a kitchen maid who wept and paid no attention.
The table, strewn with flour and blotched with butter and grease, held a pile of kippers on its wooden surface. I suppressed my distaste. I would have put the lack of cleanliness down to the violent crime in the household, but I’d been in Mrs. Finnegan’s kitchen before.
“Mrs. Finnegan,” I said loudly over the fizzling stove and the maid’s histrionics.
Mrs. Finnegan swung around. She was a large woman with greasy black hair stuffed into a soiled cap and burn marks on her cheeks. She was not an unfriendly woman, but now she glared at me.
“There you are, Mrs. Holloway. You took your time fetching her, Jane. Her ladyship wants breakfast for all the coppers rushing over the house, accusing the servants of stabbing the master to death.”
“I’ve only just heard.” I stripped off my coat, found a place to hang it out of danger of spattering fat, and took up a towel that looked somewhat clean. “Cease your crying, child,” I said kindly to the kitchen maid. “Fetch a plate for these kippers, and scrub off the table. The best cure for an upset is hard work.”
The kitchen maid obviously did not agree, but she hurried to obey.
While the maid cleaned up the mess, I looked over the boiling eggs, the bacon frying in an inch of grease, potatoes bubbling in another pot, and a basket of yellow onions starting to brown.
“If you’re feeding policemen, make a nice hash,” I suggested to Mrs. Finnegan. “They won’t expect to sit down to a polished meal.”
Mrs. Finnegan gave me a surly nod. “Best get to chopping those onions, then. I have pork from yesterday’s roast, and plenty of scone scraps from the garden party.”
The leftover scones proved to be in another basket, hard and stale. But stale breads could be added to other dishes to give them body.
I moved the onions to the table, which the maid had finished wiping, picked out a few of the best ones, and fell to slicing.
“Tell me what happened,” I said.
“I don’t know, do I?” Mrs. Finnegan jerked a greenish copper pot from the rack above her head and slammed it to the stove, dumping in the bacon she fished from the frying pan. “I was starting the breakfast when Sheppard bursts in, shrieking the master was dead. Next thing I know, housekeeper is hailing a constable, and in they come, demanding us to tell them whether we’d killed the master. I never see the master, I say to them. I keep to my kitchen and my little cubby for sleeping. But you know what coppers are like. Everyone is a villain, in their minds.”
I had encountered such policemen before, so I could not argue. “Jane—what do you know about it?”
Jane, the maid who’d retrieved me from next door, shook her head. “Nothing much, ma’am. I was on the upstairs landing, dusting as usual, when Mr. Sheppard comes rushing down, yelling his head off. When I peeked up the stairs, I see the mistress coming out of the master’s chamber, Mrs. Redfern holding her up. I went down to the kitchen to find out what was the matter, and Mr. Sheppard is here, babbling that the master is dead. Cook had to give him brandy to calm him down.”
Mrs. Redfern was the Harkness housekeeper. The household did not employ a butler—Mr. Sheppard filled in the butler’s duties.
“And now the police are questioning all of us,” Mrs. Finnegan said sourly. “The master went out last night, so Sheppard said, to that Kew Gardens place, which the master gives so many of his plants to. They’re asking when he came home, who did he meet, did anyone return with him? As though we take all the master’s particulars.”
“Where is Mr. Sheppard now?” I asked.
“Policemen have him cornered upstairs,” Jane said. “They think he did it. But he couldn’t have, could he? Mr. Sheppard faints when he sees a mouse.”
But a man afraid of mice might not necessarily be afraid to fight or kill, especially when threatened. I agreed, however, it was highly unlikely that timid Mr. Sheppard had decided to murder his master and then run downstairs to announce the fact.
“The house wasn’t broken into?”
“No one has said that.” Mrs. Redfern chose to enter the room as I asked the question. “Good morning, Mrs. Holloway.”
“Mrs. Redfern.” I gave her a nod. She and I were not on the most cordial terms, likely because we both knew our own minds and were not willing to retreat from our opinions.
Jane, who should have returned to her duties upstairs, curtsied stiffly to Mrs. Redfern and hurried contritely out.
“Very kind of you to assist us, Mrs. Holloway,” Mrs. Redfern said. “But scarcely necessary.” She gave me a sharp look from eyes that were intelligent and watchful.
“On the contrary,” I answered. “Mrs. Finnegan is rushed off her feet. I have suggested a hash for the constables, since you need to feed them. Browned onions give it a nice flavor.”
As I spoke, I chopped the onions into a careful dice, my knife making a tick, tick, tick sound on the table.
Mrs. Redfern folded her arms, the keys on her belt clanging. “Since I know you will be eager to learn all, I will tell you this, Mrs. Holloway. Sheppard entered the master’s chamber early, as Sir Jacob likes to rise and breakfast at six. Sheppard found the master in bed, in his dressing gown and nightshirt, with a stab wound in the middle of his chest amidst a quantity of blood. Turned the white sheets quite red, he said.”
I have a good imagination, and the description made me a bit queasy. The kitchen maid sank into a chair—a maid should never sit when senior staff is present, but I do not think the poor girl knew up from down at the moment.
Mrs. Redfern ignored her and continued. “Sheppard lost his nerve and bolted out of the room, shouting hysterically, which woke the mistress, who, I am sorry to say, ran in and saw her husband lying there, dead. I put Lady Harkness back to bed, she being upset, as you can imagine, and went out and found the constable on his beat. He fetched a sergeant, and he fetched a fellow from Scotland Yard, who is now investigating. One of the ground-floor windows was open, so it is likely the culprit entered and exited that way.”
Mrs. Finnegan dumped cut-up pork into the pot with the bacon and scattered flour over all. I would have added some mushroom ketchup and cloves to give the hash flavor, but Mrs. Finnegan only poured in a handful of salt and mashed everything together.
“The police should stop accusing us of doing him in,” Mrs. Finnegan said darkly. “Next thing you know, they’ll cart the lot of us to jail.”
The kitchen maid gasped again. I wiped my hands and patted her shoulder. “If it’s an open window, they’ll believe it an intruder.” I longed to examine the window in question, but I would have to invent an excuse to go upstairs. “Stands to reason. Why would any of you murder Sir Jacob?”
Mrs. Redfern’s lips pinched. “Nothing has been stolen, that we can find. Sir Jacob’s watch and purse with his money were in their places, all as should be. But the master never made a secret that he left us each a small legacy in his will, so of course, one of us killed him for our fifty guineas. Or the mistress did it for all the money he’d leave her.” Her icy stare told me what she thought of these theories.
Sir Jacob had certainly been generous—fifty guineas was a good sum, enough to ease a person’s way in the world. I’d observed while working in great houses that often those who had little or started with little were more lavish and openhanded than those who were used to wealth. I’d known the cook to a duke who’d nearly beggared the woman while he lived in ease upstairs, while a man who started in the gutter paid his servants handsomely.
“That’s as may be,” I said. “But none of the servants would have reason to climb in through the window. And if you are like me, you prefer to be fast asleep in the middle of the night, not skulking about the house with a knife.”
The kitchen maid nodded fervently, and Mrs. Finnegan looked relieved.
I returned to my task of preparing the onions and carried them to the stove to brown. I advised Mrs. Finnegan to add the meat and gravy she’d just made to the onion pan, and though she stared at me in puzzlement, she obeyed. We added the potatoes after that, stirring all together and letting the hash sizzle.
“Why did your master go to Kew Gardens in the middle of the night?” I asked Mrs. Redfern. “Surely, the place would be shut.”
“It wasn’t the middle of the night,” Mrs. Redfern answered. “It was seven of the clock. Sir Jacob bade Sheppard fetch a hansom, and off they went. Sheppard accompanies him everywhere. He says that once they were there, he lost the master in the fog for a few minutes. He swears he saw him talking to someone off in the mist, but he can’t be certain. They came home just before nine, and Sir Jacob went to bed.”
“I see.” I briefly wondered whether the person Sir Jacob met at Kew had followed him home and committed the deed.
Then again, the journey to Kew might have nothing to do with his death—if Sir Jacob shared his exotic plants with the gardens, he might have met with a person there to discuss such things when they wouldn’t be disturbed by punters coming to gaze on the flora. Still, it seemed an odd time for a garden appointment.
Once we had the hash finished, I helped Mrs. Finnegan set it in a covered pan to be carried up to the constables. Mrs. Redfern departed, muttering that someone had to keep an eye on the goings-on upstairs.
The dumbwaiter in this house had ceased to work a year ago; Sir Jacob had never bothered to have it fixed, so the maids and footmen lugged the food up themselves.
I volunteered to help carry the trays and plates to the dining room so I might have a look about. I had never been anywhere but the servants’ areas in this house, and when I emerged from the back stairs, I was astonished to find the main floor decorated with every part and parcel of China that could be fitted into a packing crate and transported on a steamer.
There were many-drawered cabinets of red polished wood, chairs with curved backs, screens painted with lavish scenes, and settees upholstered in red and strewn with tasseled cushions. Scrolls of silk, some with Chinese writing on them, others with pictures, hung on the walls.
Objets d’art crammed every available space the cabinets and tables provided. I saw carved wooden boxes, as well as vases, bowls, and pots of many shapes, sizes, and colors. One lovely bowl of translucent porcelain, a blue dragon dancing around its sides, caught my eye. It was exquisite, like a breath of air.
There appeared to be no organization for these things—they were simply jammed onto every shelf and surface or piled on the floor.
A long table of exotic wood filled the center of the dining room, surrounded by ordinary factory-made chairs. The sideboards held plenty of lacquerware and thin vases, but these were for decoration, not use.
We set our trays onto silver racks that had small candle burners beneath to keep the food warm. The plates the policemen would eat from were plain, not the exquisite Chinese porcelain the family used.
I had worked in houses whose owners had collected chinoiserie—furniture made in the Chinese style and lavishly decorated with black lacquer and gold paint. The Harknesses, however, had brought home the true China—or at least what the Chinese would sell to foreigners—with furniture in rich woods, lovely porcelain, and scrolls with beautiful calligraphy.
The wooden boxes reminded me of the one Mr. Li had given me, carved with curlicues and flowers. I admitted I valued the box more than the tea inside—I drank tea every day, but it was not often I was given such a fine container.
The Harknesses had piled up a treasure trove, and pile was the correct verb. The things sat haphazardly, as though we walked through a warehouse, not a home.
I peeked inside the room Jane whispered to me held the unlocked and open window. It was a drawing room, also filled with Chinese souvenirs and glass cases. One of those cases lay on its side, smashed, presumably where the thief had knocked it over while climbing into or out of the house.
A man with a thick golden mustache stood next to the window, scowling at a footman who babbled back at him. I recognized Detective Inspector McGregor, and beat a hasty retreat, hoping to heaven he hadn’t noticed me.
I was to be thwarted in my hope, because Inspector McGregor strode out of the room a moment later. “I ought to have guessed I’d find you here, Mrs. Holloway.”
His glare could make the most stouthearted criminal wilt, but I swallowed my trepidation and met his gaze. “Of course, as I live next door. I came to lend my aid to the cook and housekeeper, as you see.” I indicated the dining room, where the food now reposed. “Policemen in the house means extra work for them.”
His hazel eyes held a skeptical glint. “As long as you are here, tell me what you know of this. Did you see anyone lurking near the house last night or this morning?”
“I saw a good many people,” I answered truthfully. “Mount Street is a busy thoroughfare. As for lurking, I could not say. What time did the crime occur? I could be more specific if you told me that.”
“We don’t know.” McGregor might be a bad-tempered man—mostly from frustration—but he was an honest one. “The valet saw him alive at nine last night, and found him dead this morning at six.”
“That is quite a long span. About nine last night I was outside in the street, handing the leavings of supper to beggars. They took what I gave them and went. None lingered or crept near this house. After that, I was attending my duties until I went off to bed, and I did not bother to look out any windows. So I am afraid I cannot help you.”
I kept my encounter with Mr. Li to myself. I knew the moment a foreigner was mentioned, the police would fix on him as the most likely suspect, and I was quite certain Mr. Li had nothing to do with this. He was a polite, well-spoken gentleman, and after he’d given me the box of tea, he’d walked off in the opposite direction from the Harknesses’ house, heading for Berkeley Square.
I knew full well that Mr. Li could have returned to Mount Street later in the night, but I had lived with the dregs of London in my youth, and Mr. Li was not at all the criminal type. He was also past his first youth. How easy would it have been for him to climb into a window, rush upstairs, and stab a rather hearty man like Sir Jacob?
The ground-floor windows lay behind railings, which would have to be scaled. A nimble burglar would have no trouble, but a middle-aged man in flapping robes might be hard pressed. Then he’d have to ramble through the house to find the correct bedchamber, avoiding servants and other members of the household. Not an easy thing, by any means.
The inspector looked disappointed with my lack of knowledge. “If you remember anything . . .”
“I will immediately send you word,” I assured him. “Now, if you will excuse me, they will expect me home.”
McGregor nodded a dismissal, but I felt his suspicious gaze on my back as I went.
I returned to the kitchen, told Mrs. Finnegan to send for me if she needed further assistance, and left through the scullery to the street.
As I made my way to the stairs leading to our kitchen door, two constables came out of Sir Jacob’s house and hurried past me. I watched them, mystified, as chill wind blew along the street, holding a note of coming winter.
I continued down the stairs and in through the scullery. As I entered my warm kitchen and slid off my coat, a man rose from the table where he’d been lounging. My heart skipped a beat and I stood with my coat dangling half on, half off, probably looking a right fool.
“There you are, Mrs. Holloway,” Daniel McAdam said. “Did you find the murderer yet?”
Mr. Davis strode into the kitchen at the moment and snatched up the teapot to slosh tea into a cup for himself, sending Daniel a severe look as he did so. Mr. Davis did not approve of my friendship with Daniel, He believed Daniel too far beneath me.
If only Mr. Davis knew the truth. To be fair, I wasn’t certain I knew the truth of Daniel. He was many people all jumbled up.
“Don’t be silly,” I said. A steaming cup of tea rested on the table at Daniel’s place, which meant he’d charmed it out of Tess.
“I saw the police run down the street, likely to search for a culprit,” I continued as I hung my coat on a peg and moved to the stove. “I suppose Inspector McGregor has already fixed on a poor unfortunate.”
“A Chinaman,” Mr. Davis said. He blew across his tea to cool it. “Sheppard told me a few minutes ago. Seems a gardener—at least a man helping Sir Jacob with his garden—claimed to have seen a Chinaman wandering the street nearby last night. Sir Jacob made plenty of enemies in China, so Sheppard says. Sheppard was in China with him, so he’d know.”
“Oh,” Tess said with interest. “I wonder if he means your Chinaman, Mrs. H.? Just fancy—you might have been talking so cozy to a murderer.”
Silence followed Tess’s remark, and I turned to find all staring at me—Mr. Davis in shock, Tess with curiosity, Daniel in growing concern.
“Mrs. H. was chatting with him like they were old friends,” Tess babbled on. “Of course, she knocked the poor bloke over day before last, and I suppose she was apologizing again. Fancy, not long after that, he went next door and done in their master.”
“He certainly did not.” I resolutely returned to cooking, giving the potatoes Tess had put on to parboil a vigorous stir. “He walked in entirely the opposite direction—I watched him until he was gone. I will not tell the police to chase him down because he is Chinese.”
“Would you if he were simply another Londoner?” Daniel asked, his voice holding a note of gentleness.
I sent him an irritated look. “No, I would not. Not only did he walk the other way, he did not seem the murderous sort. He was very polite and well spoken. But I am not being sentimental because he is foreign, if that is what you are implying. Even if he’d been a Cockney carter, I’d not set the police on him. He did not linger, I tell you, but went on his way. Once the coroner discovers the time of death, or as near as he can, I imagine the suspects will be narrowed down.”
“How can they do that?” Tess asked as she chopped mushrooms into a neat pile. “Find out when a man died, I mean? When he’s been laid out for hours?”
I shrugged, relieved the topic had been changed. “Stiffness, I believe. I suppose coroners develop an instinct—the same as I can tell how long a fish has been sitting on a market stall. The fishmonger might claim it’s fresh as a daisy, but I know he’s had it for a day or so.”
“Blood.” Daniel took a noisy slurp of coffee and lifted a flat crumpet from the platter in the middle of the table. “It pools in the bottom half of the body. How much blood has sunk can help the coroner guess how long the person has laid in one place.”
Mr. Davis shuddered. “Gruesome. Well, Mrs. Holloway, I hope your conviction does not let a murderer get away. I shall certainly secure all the windows on this house quite rigorously tonight.”
“Wise,” Daniel said. “One never knows, Mr. Davis.”
He spoke calmly, chewing his buttered crumpet like a man happy to have a few moments to do nothing. The tops of his work boots were muddy, but I could see from lack of mud on the floor that he’d scraped them well on the doorstep.
“You won’t tell the constables, will ya?” Tess appealed to both Mr. Davis and Daniel. “Don’t want to get Mrs. Holloway in trouble.”
Mr. Davis gave her a freezing look. “I do not speak to the police, young woman. Mrs. Holloway must follow her conscience.”
With that he strode out, turning in the direction of the butler’s pantry. I noticed another crumpet missing and a few spots of butter on the floor where he’d stood.
Tess shook her head. “Some days I want to creep up behind him and yank off his false hair. Wouldn’t we all laugh?” She cackled in delight.
“You will do no such thing.” My admonishment was a bit more forceful than need be, because I was at times tempted to do the same. “Mr. Davis is butler here and deserves your respect. Now, say no more about it.”
Tess had grown used to my chiding, and her smile did not waver. She’d learned to discern when I shared her opinions.
Daniel came to his feet. His crumpet had vanished, crumbs and all. “Perhaps we can have a word, Mrs. Holloway?” He spoke easily, but a firmness underlay his tone.
“If you wish.” I poked at the potatoes then used cloths around the pot’s handles to remove it from the burner and set it on the back of the stove to keep warm. I’d sauté the potatoes later—they fried up better if they were parboiled first.
Taking my time, I laid down the cloths, glanced approvingly at Tess’s heap of mushrooms, and told her to move on to the onions. Only then did I lead Daniel to the housekeeper’s parlor.
I’d taken over this room as my own since the last housekeeper had departed. I’d made the place cozier with a few more cushions and two framed prints I’d bought in a shop—one of flowers, the other of a pleasant country landscape. I kept my cookbooks and accounting books here along with my kitchen journal and the few magazines I allowed myself as an indulgence.
I waved Daniel to a chair. “As I see you have cleaned your boots thoroughly, I will allow you on the carpet.”
“Good of you, Kat.” He dropped his working-class accent for the more neutral one he used when we were alone. He waited until I’d seated myself on the Belter chair before he took the plainer, harder one. “Now, tell me about this Chinese gentleman.”
“Do you know I believe no one would be interested in the poor man if there hadn’t been a murder,” I said. “He’d just be one more foreign face on the street.”
“But there has been a murder, and Sir Jacob has a strong connection with China. You’d never seen this man before . . . When did Tess say? The day before yesterday?”
I told Daniel the story, ending with how Mr. Li had waited for me last night to give me a small token of thanks.
Even as I spoke, I realized Daniel was correct. It was strange that Mr. Li had been in the street near the Harknesses’ house for me to run into, and also odd that he’d returned to give me so elaborate a present. I also had to wonder how he’d known I would emerge to give scraps to the beggars, though that could have been chance. He might have been waiting to go downstairs and knock on the door when I’d walked out. Or he could have asked the beggars, and they’d told him I would come appear.
“What was the token?” Daniel asked, his tone holding caution.
“I suppose you cannot help your suspicious nature. It is nothing grand. A box of tea. Kind, but hardly gold from the court of Peking.”
“Did you look inside the box?”
“A quick peek. It is definitely tea. Brown leaves. Smelled fine—higher quality than what servants usually have, but that does not signify. Mr. Li might work in a tea shop or a tea warehouse. Not that I mean he stole it,” I added quickly. “He might simply know how to purchase a better grade.”
“I am not happy you are so close to a house in which there was a murder,” Daniel said.
I laughed lightly. “You forget, my dear Daniel, there was a murder in this house earlier this year.”
“And I was not happy about that either. You do seem to attract trouble.”
“The murders we’ve stumbled across were hardly my doing,” I pointed out. “This one does not seem as great a puzzle as the others—I wager a burglar climbed through the open window and made his way upstairs in search of riches. Sir Jacob woke and surprised him, and the burglar stabbed him in panic. He then fled through the same window, in too much of a hurry to steal anything, and vanished into the night.”
“I would agree with you,” Daniel said, “except for one thing. You live next door, and ordinary things do not happen around you.”
I gave him a stern look. “Now you are being fanciful. Not everything is about antiquities thieves or plots to assassinate the queen. Sometimes it is an ordinary burglary and a frightened person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unnerving, but not a grand conspiracy.”
“Ah well.” Daniel sat back. “It must be my suspicious nature that makes me believe otherwise.”
“My apologies. I did not mean to insult you.”
“No insult, Kat. I am teasing you.”
“How is James?” I asked abruptly.
Daniel’s eyes warmed. “Hale and hearty. Driving me to distraction.”
“Good. As it should be.”
James was Daniel’s sixteen-year-old natural son who’d been grievously hurt in our last adventure. Daniel had taken a house in Kensington—very cozy; I quite liked it—and had moved James in to care for him.
James, with the vigor of youth, had recovered quickly. But instead of sending his son back to the boardinghouse where Daniel had been keeping him, Daniel had James remain with him.
I quite approved of the arrangement, but after a long, hot summer together, I knew both were chafing. Father and son were very much alike.
“And Mr. Thanos?” I inquired.
“Also hale and hearty, and has returned to his own rooms near Regent’s Park. Has a bee in his bonnet about Maxwell’s equations at the moment, but I am certain the fit will pass.”
I did not know who Mr. Maxwell was or what his equations were about, but Mr. Thanos was a brilliant mathematician, and I was certain he’d solve them soon.
“You may tell Mr. Thanos,” Lady Cynthia’s voice came to us from the doorway, “that he could remember his friends and send them word occasionally. And that there are other things in the world besides mathematics.”
Daniel came to his feet and made a servant’s bow as Lady Cynthia strolled in and shut the door. He balled his large hands around his cap, which made him look like a laborer who’d been caught where he shouldn’t be.
“I am not certain Mr. Thanos realizes this,” he told her.
“Do sit down,” Cynthia commanded, waving at us both—I too had come to my feet. She plopped into the remaining chair. “You do not have to play the lackey for me, Mr. McAdam. I know too much about you. I’ve come to tell you more about the murder next door, if you are interested.”
I was very much. Despite my dismissal of it as a simple crime, I admitted to curiosity. I felt a twinge of guilt at my morbidity, but I assuaged it by telling myself I could possibly help find the killer and make him pay for what he’d done. Sir Jacob, from what little I knew of him, had been pompous and boasted a bit too much about his adventures in China, but he no more deserved to die than if he’d been saintly and silent.
Cynthia crossed her booted feet. “It’s all very well for Inspector McGregor to send his men to scour Limehouse for any Chinaman who happened to be west of Regent Street last night. But McGregor wasn’t at the garden party the other day, was he? Harkness got into it with his botanist, the very one who is trying to throw suspicion on a Chinese man he claims he saw skulking about. Skulking my foot. The chap’s inventing things.”
“Mr. Davis said the man who’d seen the Chinese gentleman was a gardener,” I said in puzzlement.
Cynthia shook her head. “Mr. Chancellor is a botanist Sir Jacob quizzes every fortnight about his Oriental plants. Chancellor is installed at Kew Gardens and apparently has all the goods on anything that grows. Sir Jacob consults him, I suppose about grafts and fertilizer and other things for growing his exotic blooms. At the garden party, the two were at it, hammer and tongs. Shouting and screeching. We all saw and heard. Lady Harkness hovered about, not knowing what to do, so I went over and told them to quiet down.”
I could well imagine Lady Cynthia striding to Sir Jacob and explaining to him that he was ruining his wife’s party. She had little patience with those who bullied others, and she had confidence in her own authority.
“Chancellor looked dashed embarrassed,” Cynthia went on. “Though Sir Jacob snarled at me, the uncouth ass. Nonetheless, the two men went their separate ways. But I saw the look Chancellor threw Sir Jacob as he departed. Disgust, near to rage. Not surprised Chancellor wants to throw the blame onto someone else. I suspected him right off, especially as Sir Jacob had toddled out to Kew Gardens beforehand.”
“But Sir Jacob was stabbed while he was in bed,” I said. “I can understand Mr. Chancellor coming to visit and the two getting into a tussle, but if he’d lured Sir Jacob to Kew, why not finish him off there? Or lure him somewhere else entirely? Why follow Sir Jacob home then creep into his bedchamber and stab him?”
“Haven’t the faintest idea,” Cynthia said without worry.
“And why would Mr. Chancellor be in Mount Street to see a Chinese man lurking?” I went on.
“Don’t know,” Cynthia answered. “Only filling in what I observed. You are the expert on the whys and wherefores, Mrs. H.”
“Many possibilities,” Daniel agreed.
“I still believe a burglar is the most likely culprit,” I said. “Unlocked window, the family in bed. Is Lady Harkness certain nothing was missing? I saw quite a lot of things in their house—I imagine it would be a job to inventory them all.”
“No one believes anything was taken,” Cynthia said. “At least not that they’ve discovered. What I do know is that the family was not in bed. Lady Harkness had a late-night visitor, Mrs. Knowles, a sort of companion and confidante. I know nothing about her—no one does, really. The woman seems respectable enough, if a bit smarmy for my taste. Hangs on Lady Harkness’s every word, tells her how wonderful she is, that sort of thing. A sycophant.”
“Is she likely to have stabbed Sir Jacob?” I asked doubtfully.
“One never knows, does one? You taught me that. Mrs. Knowles is a tiny woman, but a lucky blow, from above . . .” Cynthia demonstrated with her strong hand. “Could have done it. She’s like a terrier, is Mrs. Knowles, protecting Lady Harkness. Sir Jacob might have been threatening Lady Harkness, or simply said the wrong thing to Mrs. Knowles.”
“Have they determined the time of death yet?” Daniel broke in. “As Mrs. Holloway pointed out to me, that may be the deciding factor.”
“Not really. Sheppard, helped Sir Jacob dress for bed at nine, just after they returned from Kew. Sir Jacob believed in early to bed, early to rise—all that nonsense. It was Sir Jacob’s habit to be put into his nightshirt and dressing gown, and then putter about his room, reading and whatnot, before he retired, usually at half past nine, or at ten if he felt particularly vigorous. Up again at six. Hell of a life.”
“No one saw him after nine o’clock?” I asked. “He did not ring for the valet to fetch him tea or help him into bed?”
“Sheppard says not. The man’s terrified though, so he might have lied about that. But Lady Harkness swears she heard no one go upstairs to her husband after Sheppard left him.”
“I can always ask in the kitchen,” I said. Mrs. Redfern no doubt would know every step every servant in the house took at every minute, though I was not certain she’d tell me. Mrs. Finnegan might, but her memory was less reliable.
Cynthia touched her fingers in turn as she summed up. “So, we have Lady Harkness, her friend Mrs. Knowles, Sir Jacob, and Sheppard all upstairs at nine. Mr. Chancellor I suppose somewhere nearby. Sheppard goes down soon after nine—or so he says. Mrs. Knowles did not depart until after twelve.”
“Is there a Mr. Knowles?” I asked. “I mean, she did not feel the need to rush home to a husband?”
“None that I’ve met,” Cynthia said. “He might be the meek sort, always in the background, or perhaps spends all his time at his clubs, paying no attention to what his wife gets up to. As I said, none of us know much about her. Lady Harkness has another sycophant friend, Mrs. Tatlock, but as far as I can find out, she was not there that night.”
“Any other acquaintances?” I asked. “Or, I should say, anyone else who quarreled with Sir Jacob?”
“He has a friend called Mr. Pasfield,” Cynthia answered. “Who, by the way, arrived moments before I departed just now, the man in such a state. Horrible thing to happen, says he, all aflutter. Poor Lady Harkness. He must go to her.”
“Ah,” Daniel said, brows rising. “The loyal friend come to look after the widow?”
“He’s not a dashing Lothario, if that is what you are thinking,” Cynthia said, mirth in her eyes. “He’s middle aged, rotund, and conceited. What one calls an Old China Hand—a man who’s lived and worked in China and purports to be an expert on it and the Chinese. Businessmen consult them about how best to approach the natives, and so forth. Sir Jacob was one too—they knew each other in Shanghai, or Hong Kong, or wherever they were. Sir Jacob was made a knight for grubbing about in the Orient and amassing a fortune, but Mr. Pasfield seems to be stolidly working class. They were great friends, the two of them.”
I thought of Mr. Li and wondered how “expert” he’d consider these gentlemen.
And I hoped, I truly hoped, that Inspector McGregor would leave Mr. Li alone. They would not, I feared, if they found him. I would simply have to prove someone else had done the deed. It was the least I could do for the kindly gentleman with loneliness in his eyes.
I drew a breath to ask Lady Cynthia more about this Mr. Pasfield when Mr. Davis threw open the door.
He stopped short when he saw Lady Cynthia and made a quick and correct bow, but he looked a bit wild about the eyes.
“Begging your pardon, my lady,” he said breathlessly. “But I need Mrs. Holloway to come with me at once. Our new housekeeper has arrived.”