For today something different. We had talked about giving readers a sneak peek at something we were working on. My snippet today is from The Twelve Clues of Christmas that comes out on November 6th. Georgie goes to Devonshire to help out with a Christmas house party and this is her arrival:
On one side a staircase ascended to a gallery and I spied a pair of legs in old trousers up on a ladder. He was a stocky chap with shaggy gray hair, wearing a fisherman’s jersey and old flannels and he was wrestling with a long garland of holly and ivy.
“Excuse me,” I called out.
He spun around in surprise and I saw that it wasn’t a man at all but a big boned woman with cropped hair. “Who are you?” she demanded, peering down at me.
My arrival wasn’t exactly going as I had expected. “I’m Georgiana Rannoch,” I said. “If you could please go and tell Lady Hawse-Gorzley that I have arrived. She is expecting me.”
“I am Lady Hawse-Gorzley,” she said. “Been so dashed busy that I completely forgot you were coming today. Come up and grab the other end of this, will you? Damned thing won’t stay put. It looked so simple in Country Life.”
I put down my train case and did as she requested. Together we secured the garland and she came down the ladder. “Sorry about that,” she said, wiping her hands on her old slacks. “I don’t want you to think we’re always this disorganized. Had a hell of a day here. Police tramping all over the place, not letting the servants get on with their work. That’s why we’re so behind. Must have the decorations up, y’know. First guests arriving day after tomorrow. ”
I came back down the stairs to meet her. She stuck out a big hand. “Well here’s a pretty first introduction to Gorzley Hall, what? Camilla Hawes-Gorzley. How do you do? Dashed good of you to muck in like this. Nearly had a fit when I saw my little advertisement answered by the daughter of a duke. You should have seen the other applications I got—their idea of impeccable background and mine weren’t at all the same, I can tell you. Parents in trade I shouldn’t wonder. So you were an answer to our prayers and here you are.”
She beamed at me making me realize she wasn’t as old as I had first thought. “Well don’t just stand there. Take off your coat. Come on through and have a sherry, then I’ll give you a quick tour of the house. Brought a maid with you, I expect?”
“Yes, I brought my maid.” I realized it was going to be hard to get a word in edgewise.
“Jolly good. If I can round up Martha, she can show the girl where you’re sleeping and take up your things.”
She rang a bell furiously. “Damned girl is probably entertaining the policemen in the kitchen. Got too much of an eye for the other sex, that one. Going to come a cropper, you mark my words.”
While she was talking she had led me through to a comfortable looking drawing room with arm chairs and sofas set around a blazing fire in a hearth almost the size of our one at home. Leaded paned bay windows looked out across an expanse of lawn. The walls were wood paneled and the ceiling had great beams running across it. What’s more, it was delightfully warm. Lady Hawse-Gorzley motioned me to sit in one of the arm chairs then went over to a table in the corner and picked up a decanter. “Sherry all right for you? Or would you prefer something stronger? A brandy maybe after your travels?”
“No, sherry would be lovely, thank you.”
“Always have one myself before dinner. I suppose the sun has to be over the yard arm, wouldn’t you say? What time is it, by the way? Damned grandfather clock has given up the ghost again. It’s been in the family since seventeen hundred so I suppose one can allow it the odd temper tantrum, but dashed awkward time to do it.”
“It’s about five thirty,” I said, consulting my wrist watch.
“Is it, by George. A little early for sherry, but in the circumstances, I suppose we can bend the rules, what?” She poured two generous glasses and handed me one. “God, how the time has flown today. I don’t know how we’re going to get everything ready for the guests in time. Those damned police tramping around all day.” She perched on the arm of a nearby chair and knocked back her sherry in one gulp. “Like another?” she asked and looked in surprise that I hadn’t yet started mine. “Come on. Drink up. Do you good.”
I knew that good breeding did not allow one to ask too many questions, but I was dying of curiosity. “Lady Hawse-Gorzley, you mentioned that the police had been here all day. What exactly have they been doing?”
“Tramping all over the place and upsetting my servants, that’s what. Damned impertinence. All because our stupid neighbor had to go and kill himself in our orchard. Of all the inconsiderate things to do, especially when he knew I had people coming. Still that was par for the course with him. Didn’t care a hoot about anybody but himself.”
I tried to digest this while she knocked back a second sherry. “Your neighbor killed himself? Committed suicide, you mean?”
“I hardly think so. If you wanted to kill yourself you probably wouldn’t bother to climb a tree first, would you? Not unless you wanted to fall and break your neck and our fruit trees aren’t that big. No, the police think it was an accident. Carrying a loaded rook rifle with him, somehow slipped or knocked the gun and it went off in his face.”
“Had he come onto your property to shoot rooks then, do you think?”
“Wouldn’t have thought so. The big elm by the church is where the rooks go to roost for the night. He could have stood in the church yard, fired with his eyes closed and not been able to miss at dusk. No, my husband agrees with me—it was probably designed to be another of his practical jokes. Going to rig up the rifle so that it went off when someone walked past, or maybe aiming it to shoot at one of our windows—that’s what the inspector suggested. “
“He was aiming to kill one of you?”
“No, just give us a nasty scare. That was young Freddie’s stock in trade. M’husband reckons that he wanted to pay us back because Oswald found him shooting grouse on the moor the other day. I mean to say--everyone knows the grouse shooting season ends on the tenth of December. And there he was, bold as brass on the eighteenth. Gave him a damned good talking to. Obviously didn’t like that and decided to get back at us.”
She took another swig of sherry. “Inherited the property behind ours from his father a few years ago. Still hasn’t married and amuses himself by being absolutely bloody to his neighbors. In his thirties now but still acts like a ten year old boy.” She paused and sighed. “Still, I wouldn’t have wished an end like that for the poor chap. He might have turned out all right if he’d married and had to settle down.”
She broke off as there was the sound of footsteps outside and several blue uniforms passed the window.
“Ah, they are finally off home,” she said. “I told them they were wasting their time tramping all over my property. Quite clear the fellow shot himself while trying to rig up some kind of trap. Had the wire with him. Fool. Well, let’s hope that’s the end of it. The last thing I want is to have my guests greeted by policemen all over the place. I was worried they’d all cancel when they read about the break-out last week.”
She looked up in surprise. “Don’t tell me you didn’t hear about it? I thought it was in all the newspapers. There have certainly been enough pressmen hanging around here.”
I shook my head. “Sorry. It takes a long time for news to reach us in the wilds of Scotland.”
She leaned closer. “Three convicts escaped from Dartmoor prison, only a few days ago. Supposed to be model prisoners and they were part of a gang working in the quarry. It was all very well planned. They lingered behind on some pretext, hit the guard over the head with a rock and made off over the moor. They were shackled, of course, but apparently one of them made his living as an escape artist. Two of them were entertainers of some sort, but they were all nasty pieces of work. History of violent crimes.”
“And they haven’t caught them yet?” I glanced up nervously at the window. It was now completely black outside with no lights showing anywhere.“Not seen hide nor hair of them. We’ve had men with dogs up on the moor, police check points along all the roads and not a sign of them. We think they must have had a vehicle waiting on the nearest road and have been whisked away before anyone could sound the alarm. Which means they are well away from here, thank God.” She stood up. “I tell you, it’s been a hell of a business. Quite upset m’husband. He’s a quiet man, is Sir Oswald, doesn’t say much. But I could tell it upset him, especially as he was the one who found the blighter slumped in our apple tree today.”