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Murder and Muslin: the dead ringer

January 12, 2018 03:43PM
Introducing Miss Comfrey, who will, I hope, have a book full of short stories to her credit one day as she visits her old friends and pulls the solutions to mysteries out of her reticule

Miss Comfrey and the Dead Ringer

Miss Elizabeth Comfrey wrote carefully,
“Heronshaw House

My dear Beatrice,
I would be delighted to come and stay with you in Bath to explore a new venue for my next novel. I am much gratified that you enjoyed the first. I am sure that you did not really recognise any acquaintances we might have amongst the characters, and I assure you I would never use you as a character without express permission.”

Miss Comfrey paused. She was beginning to think that the squeals of mock horror and the phrase ‘Oh, you didn’t put me in it did you?’ were more inclined to be the opposite of what was said, and the dread of being left out rather than the fear of being in any wise caricatured. She had already received a letter from an old school friend thanking her for making said friend into the heroine, and then animadverting on why she would never have chosen the man Miss Comfrey had written as the hero. Miss Comfrey sighed, perhaps she should have published as ‘A Lady,’ as so many female authors did.
Still, if Beatrice was agog to be put in a novel, it had rendered the result of an invitation to stay an indefinite time, which meant that the bills would be reduced. Miss Comfrey had what might be described as a comfortable competence from her father’s investments, amounting to some £200 a year, which allowed her and her maid, Betty, to live in some comfort, with village girls in to do casual work, the stabling of a couple of ponies and the gig at a livery stable, and the ability to keep up with fashion by paying the local seamstress to make over old dresses and bonnets in the latest style without too much further outlay.
Writing helped; two volumes of a book before this one, published anonymously, brought in satisfactory royalties for being somewhat lurid and gothic in construction, not something Miss Comfrey would ever put her name to, but the frequent ravishment of Lucillina Montmorency paid the bills very nicely, even if they owed more to the imagination than to experience.
Naturally the gothic novels had been published under the name of a man, Sebastian d’Orsino, a nod to Shakespeare with an allusion to gender concealment, and guaranteed to excite the senses of young ladies over a novel by an exciting Italian name. Doubtless some of them wondered if it were the real name of her villainous hero, or possibly heroic villain, Lord Amadeo Delamore. Beatrice would be horrified, thought Miss Comfrey, cynically, if she knew her dear Eliza had written such trash. She wondered if Beatrice had read it often enough for it to get grubby pages above the more interesting of Lucellina’s vicissitudes.
She continued writing.

“I am looking forward to spending time in such a famous watering hole as Bath, and I am certain to find inspiration there. You must tell me all the local on-dits so I have something to work with. I believe my next heroine will be called Hermione and will have hair like a raven’s wing and soulful, dark eyes. I will give her a lover with guinea-gold curls who turns out to be worthless, and she will turn to the embraces of the swarthy and despised second son of a Duke who unexpectedly inherits after she has accepted his suit.
Your ever loving
Elizabeth Comfrey.

There, that was lard enough for Beatrice, who was dark haired with rather protuberant and muddy brown eyes, and who tortured her angular figure into languid attitudes. Miss Comfrey knew she had read ‘The Trials of Lucilliana’ because Beatrice had commented on how commanding the dark, piratical Delamore was.
Beatrice’s own husband was short, plump, pale skinned, blond after a fashion and very worthy. The idea of tying up any female, even with ropes of the softest silk, to have his way with her would horrify him.
Miss Comfrey giggled.
Lucilliana had been great fun to write, but she was ready for more serious work.

As Miss Comfrey did not have to economise too much, she chose to hire a coach to take her to Bath, rather than going by stage coach or, horrors! The mail. She reflected how nice it would be to have a coach, with horses posted at every stage on every main road, but one would have to be a very Croesus to do that. Still, the squabs of the coach were soft enough , and if it was not quite as convenient as having one’s own coach, it did very well indeed.
“I could have described Bath to you without having to go gallivanting off there,” said Trowse, Miss Comfrey’s maid, looking up from her endless knitting of stockings.
“To be sure you could, Trowse, I’m sure you’ve frequently danced at the assemblies and drunk the waters at the tap room,” said Miss Comfrey. Trowse disliked travel, and complained about her mistress’s desire to see new places, and yet refused to stay at home and let Miss Comfrey hire a maid while she was away.
Trowse flushed.
“I’ve drunk the waters, anyway,” she said truculently. She had not attended any of the assemblies, not being of the class to do so. She was not going to acknowledge that the rebuke for getting above herself was justified.
“Poor Trowse, I wish you will sit beside me facing the direction of the travel so you feel less queasy,” said Miss Comfrey. “You may always nip across to the other side whenever we stop, lest any think you improper to sit beside me.”
Trowse considered this, and with a guilty shuffle moved across the coach to sit at her mistress’s side.
“It is better, madam,” she said, with some relief.
“Good. We shall employ this method of making you less uncomfortable in the future,” said Miss Comfrey. “Unless you will wish me to employ a girl with whom to travel?”
“Now, Madam, you know as how nobody looks after you better nor what I do,” said Trowse.
“Undoubtedly; but I would put up with a green girl not to make you unhappy,” said Miss Comfrey.
“I’d rather be uncomfortable in the body than worriting all the time about you,” said Trowse, jealous of her position. “At least we’ll be staying in a proper house, not some nasty inn, where ten to one the sheets will be damp or not changed in dear knows how long.”
“Indeed, it cannot be easy getting linen washed and dried fast to replenish the rooms after every customer,” said Miss Comfrey. “And it is why I prefer to stay with old schoolfriends than to make use of inns more than I have to. There will be better accommodation for you, as well.”
“Indeed, and having a dressing room as is proper, will be an improvement over being placed any old where in an inn, and having to mix with low trollops like tap wenches.”
“You cannot know they are trollops, Trowse !”
Trowse sniffed.
“I don’t doubt but that some of them might be honest girls, but the indignity of sharing a room with such is still not what I am accustomed to,” she said.
“And I do my utmost not to leave you to such indignity, it was unfortunate that the last inn we stayed in had no truckle bed, and the bed too narrow to fit us both, even if you would have put up with it.”
“It ain’t suitable, madam, for you to demean yourself to share your bed with a servant. But I hopes we shall avoid that inn again.”
“Oh, indeed, a most uncomfortable place.” Miss Comfrey smiled to herself, the inn had been most uncomfortable indeed, but it had given a great deal of opportunity to observe other people, also put out by the unexpectedly meagre accommodation, owing to an unlooked-for bare-knuckle fight in the vicinity. It was as well that the parents of the schoolboy had not been more observant of his jubilation at having to sleep in the barn, whence he might slip out to see the mill more readily. Nor had she missed that the flashily-dressed young man had been ready to demand that a lady like herself be turned out of doors so he might have a room, flashing his blunt to try to overturn social convention. Miss Comfrey had murmured a warning to the Ale-draper that such a young man might be wishful to be inside where he could more readily steal from the fine gentlemen whose rooms were already bespoken, for he had eyes which added up the worth of everyone. The slight disturbance in the night when the flashily-dressed young man had been taken up by the innkeeper’s men in the act of stealing had seen the fee for her bed waived by that grateful gentleman. Trowse had missed all the excitement in her noisy despite for tap wenches. Miss Comfrey judged that one of the girls was supplementing her wages by judicious entertainment of the gentlemen who stayed at the inn, but that the rest were but village girls, most of them hired as extra hands for this occasion. And the one whose room Trowse had shared had a wedding band on her finger, and a figure that suggested several youngsters, for whom this extra work would mean enough for new clothes for the winter.

Beatrice Hetherington lived on a terrace called Laura Place, not one of the most fashionable of streets, but certainly not a location to be despised. A footman had plainly been looking out for Miss Comfrey, for when they stopped he came and held the door, and extended a gloved hand to assist Miss Comfrey to step down.
Miss Comfrey was glad of the courtesy, for she was not a tall woman, and the steps of a carriage constituted a challenge for her to negotiate. She preferred the term ‘petite’ but was forced to acknowledge that ‘dumpy’ probably more nearly described her build and figure. A liking for fine food was offset to some extent by a fondness for walking, but she had to admit that ‘petite’ also implied a sylph-like figure, which had never been hers to claim. That, and mid-brown hair and a face better described as ‘intelligent’ than ‘pretty’ had guaranteed her unwed state at the age of thirty. Not so for pretty Beatrice, born Greene, who had accepted the hand of her lord and love at the age of seventeen, and had presented him with several hopeful offspring.
It did make Miss Comfrey gasp, however, to see a pair of funeral mutes, and it was a moment before she had realised that they stood outside the house next door to the one for which she was destined. They were a sombre sight, as intended, of course, clad in black with the black crepe sashes, black crepe swathing on their tall beavers, which hung down behind them, and the tall staves, tied up in the middle with a bow of more black crepe which hung from the cross-piece near the top of the stave.
Funerals were common enough things, but Miss Comfrey could hear Trowse muttering behind her about it being an ill-omen.
If the crepe on the stave had been white, Miss Comfrey reflected that she would have come close to having a spasm, for fearing that it had been one of Beatrice’s children who had died, but fortunately she had noticed that the door to the house where she was headed was open in welcome, and another footman issuing to collect her baggage. One might not, after all, always manage to receive warning when on the road that one travelled to a house of bereavement.
Miss Comfrey headed for the comfort of number 6, Laura Place, and the expectation of a cup of tea and Neapolitan biscuits, one of Beatrice’s few weaknesses. It was a shock when the nearer of the two mutes turned slightly, and smiled at her, and winked.
Miss Comfrey gasped, and headed in as fast as she could walk with dignity. Funeral mutes did not smile.
The other mute had done nothing, but his beaver sat well down over his ears, and the swathing of it lay on his shoulder, not down his back. His coat hung off his shoulders, and wrinkled at the waist, over the sash. His funereally black gloves did not show his hands, but Miss Comfrey would have been surprised if he had shaved this morning.
Beatrice flew into the vestibule to hug and kiss her.
“My dear Eliza! How splendid to see you, I fear Hetherington will have to go out this evening, to the funeral of our neighbour, but you and I will have a splendid coze!”
“I think, my dear Bea, that it would be wiser for Hetherington to stay at home,” said Miss Comfrey.
“Why, what can you mean?” cried Beatrice.
“Bea, there is dirty work afoot next door, and indeed, I believe I should speak to your nearest justice of the peace,” said Miss Comfrey.
Beatrice made a moue.
“You have been seeing things you should not, again, haven’t you?” she said.
“Indeed, I have, my dear, and I shall have to speak to the JP or to the funeral director at least, if he is a reputable fellow, and burglaries not wont to dog the footsteps of his funerals.”
“Why, I cannot see Lady Anne hiring anyone who is not reputable; the funeral is by Page of Milsom Street,” said Beatrice. “I have heard of no robberies from their funerals, though to be sure there have been a spate of robberies of funeral corteges recently, and the ruffians getting away under the cover of darkness. I have heard that some folk have even considered holding funerals in the day time to obviate such problems, but Lady Anne, of course, is a stickler for propriety.”

“Mr. Page,” said Miss Comfrey, briskly, “I have come to speak to you because I believe that one of your mutes has been replaced by an imposter, and another is in some wise threatened. The mute with the mole on his left cheek smiled and winked at me.”
“Oh my goodness! I shall turn him off immediately!” cried Mr. Page.
“Mr. Page, you will not,” said Miss Comfrey, crisply. “I believe he took a risk of acting out of character in the hopes that someone would report it, and send several burly undertakers to his home to see if his wife and offspring, if any, are under threat. As to the other mute, I cannot think that you employ slovenly men whose funerary garb is too big for them and who do not shave. Therefore a visit to the home of the other mute would also be in order to see if he has been killed, or is merely incapacitated. I believe that there will be an attempted robbery at the funeral tonight, when the cortege is under cover of darkness. Doubtless the deceased will have a very valuable escutcheon, and the goods of those attending such a funeral would be valuable too.”
“Dead G-d!” cried Mr. Page, springing to his feet. “You think I am to be targeted by the Bath Bashers? Woe is me!”
“Woe is not you if you recall that all your undertakers are strong men, accustomed to using their upper body strength to carry coffins,” said Miss Comfrey. “They might readily take up cudgels against any ruffian at the homes of your mutes, and indeed disguise cudgels amongst the flowers and crepe at the funeral.”
“It is true,” Mr. Page calmed down. “Who are you that you can so readily fathom this evil?”
“My name is Miss Comfrey, and I am but a student of human nature,” said Miss Comfrey. “I may be found at number 6, Laura Place, next door to the deceased.”

Miss Comfrey was ensconced in a comfortable chair, chatting to Beatrice of Beatrice’s family. That is to say, Beatrice was expounding at great length, and Miss Comfrey was listening with a smile on her face to the doings of Tace and Lalage, the twin daughters of her friend, who managed to belie their names in that Tace was a chatterbox, and Lalage rarely spoke or laughed. Miss Comfey hid her smiles in her sewing, her offering to the poor being a series of shifts and petticoats for orphan children. Miss Comfrey believed that all little girls should have something pretty to wear, and lavished care on flounces and vandyked trim and shell-hemmed edgings.
Into this quiet idyll came the man of the house, Sir Henry Hetherington.
“My dear one, Miss Comfrey, you will be amazed to know that Miss Comfrey indeed guessed correctly about an attack,” he declared.
Miss Comfrey smiled genially, and considered adding senna to his brandy for suggesting that anyone might be surprised that she was right.
“What happened?” demanded Beatrice.
“Why, when we got to the churchyard, a load of ruffians tried to pull the escutcheon off the door, and they were waylaid by extra pall bearers who had followed and hidden, and they were trussed up as fine as fivepence before they could rob the rest of us,” said Sir Henry. “Apparently there were fewer ruffians than there would have been, as some of them had already been taken in charge for having been at the houses of the mutes, threatening people, can you credit such a thing! And Page, the funeral man, would have it that it was what you said to him, Miss Comfrey, but you may be quite assured on that score, I told Sir Edward, the Justice of the Peace, that it was all a hum, for you are not at all clever, being an authoress.”
“Indeed? Of course a clever man like you would find writing novels quite easy,” said Miss Comfrey.
“Oh, I’m sure I would if I wanted to waste my time on such,” said Sir Henry. “But even so, I fear he wants to speak to you. I will not permit him to be alone with you, of course,” he added.
“I fancy I am beyond the first flush of my youth so there would be no impropriety in it, so long as the door was open,” said Miss Comfrey. “You are not, after all, a family member, Sir Henry, and for a lone woman to be alone with two men who are not related to her or each other would be quite shocking!”
“”Er, yes, I suppose so, I meant it only for the best.”
“Naturally,” said Miss Comfrey. Senna it would definitely be.

Sir Edward congratulated Miss Comfrey on her deductions. He was a well-knit gentleman of around forty, with prematurely greying dark hair which grew in a widow’s peak. His blue eyes were sharp and shrewd.
“I fear Sir Henry missed the point when the mute smiled at him, and merely lodged a complaint,” he said. “It was an excellent piece of logic, Miss Comfrey. Sir Henry is not the cleverest of men.”
“He’s a patronising fool, and I suggest you pass on the brandy if he invites you to dine,” said Miss Comfrey. “I believe I was so upset by his manner that I may have accidentally introduced some senna into it, because he made me jump by booming at me.”
Sir Edward blinked.
“I see,” he said. “Of course it must have been an accident, one could not condone a deliberate poisoning of one’s host, however fatuous.”
Miss Comfrey beamed at him.
It was always nice to be congratulated on her acumen by a personable man, like Sir Edward. Almost as nice as the reward money he had brought, having split the bounty for the apprehension of the Bath Bashers between Miss Comfrey and the pall bearers and quick witted mute who had facilitated their arrest.
Five hundred pounds went a very long way towards making up for Sir Henry’s misogyny.

Murder and Muslin: the dead ringer

Sarah WaldockJanuary 12, 2018 03:43PM

Re: Murder and Muslin: the dead ringer

AlidaJanuary 13, 2018 07:47PM

Re: Murder and Muslin: the dead ringer

Teresa DouglasJanuary 13, 2018 06:43AM

Ditto! (nfm)

Patricia NodaJanuary 16, 2018 05:04PM

Re: Murder and Muslin: the dead ringer

JoannaJanuary 13, 2018 06:12AM

Couldn’t have said it better myself! nfm

KarenteaJanuary 14, 2018 06:36AM


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