Through the Grapevine:
A tale of scandal, intrigue, and terrific derring-do
By Rachel Heffington
Chapter One, being punctuated by several cups of tea
“Isn’t it just the most horrid thing you’ve ever heard?”
“ ‘It’, madam? The term is rather ambiguous. Pray explain your meaning.” The speaker of these last words tugged the point of his beard with a lackadaisical expression on his sallow face, and practically yawned the sentence.
“Of don’t be dense, Alfred,” his companion said, flouncing a little flounce suggestive of feathers and lace, silk and Society. “Of course you know of what I speak. Such a scandal—and an inconvenience too, for now Lilliana must put off her marriage for another year at least. A murder puts such a damper on things.” She raised her tea-cup and sighed.
“Indeed, madam. No one would doubt that a murder quite extinguishes life.” Alfred smiled over the double-meaning, but he had no hope Lucy would understand a whit of the pun. She was intolerably stupid on a whole. He plucked several cubes of sugar from the bowl with the tongs and dropped them into his cup with a violence that would have been more to the point were the object something more threatening than sugar.
“And to think of that poor woman—quite in the prime of her life and such a beauty—being killed in such a way.”
“Egad, woman, your vagueness is positively maddening. In what sort of way, pray tell, do you mean?” He swallowed a mouthful of tea and savoured its bitterness, pondering his sister with the appraising eye of a practiced auctioneer. She’d fetch nothing at the current matrimony-market, this variety of single Society women being much too common for the worthwhile men to tamper with.
“Alfred, really. If you only exerted yourself a bit to try to understand the things I’d say we’d have a much more peaceful home.” Lucy was offended now. He knew that much by the tightness of her lips and the annoyed set of her jaw. He bided his time, knowing she would never be able to leave the conversation in such a helpless spot. All women liked news, but she was a pillar of them all.
Lucy eyed him out of the corner of her eyes and sighed. He smiled to himself and stroked his beard into a fiercer point, feeling prickly as a horse-chestnut. He certainly wouldn’t bend to her wiles.
Lucy sighed loudly, stirred her tea, sipped it, then set the cup and saucer down with a clatter that had a deal of defiance in it. “Alfred, you’re a beast.”
“Thank you, sister. And you are a charming woman.”
“Indeed. Well, as you will not continue the conversation I feel it incumbent upon me to.”
“I have no objection, madam.” He leaned back in his damask-covered chair and looked down his nose at Lucy. She’d fetch nothing at all on the current market. Men of quality wanted someone with intellect, not a parrot who mimicked the About Town column of the Post in her conversation.
Lucy made a great effort to suppress her indignation, and Alfred smiled patronizingly. She took a breath.
“The manner in which Lady Cameron was killed, or of which they speculate she was killed was by—”
“Oh come now, let’s have it be something ingenious this time. I’m tired of all your shootings and smotherings and all those dime-a-dozen methods.”
“Oh, but I interrupted you. Continue, my dear Lucy.”
“As it so happens,” and Lucy brought her tea-cup close to her chest until the ruffle of lace at her throat was in imminent danger of being doused, “The manner was quite out of the ordinary. There was no body found, in fact.”
“Really, woman, this is too much to be borne. No body? Then why the deuce do they take it for a murder?”
“The letter said as much, and Lady Cameron is nowhere to be found.” Lucy’s blue eyes were round and convincing.
“Woman, for the last time—speak plain or I shall leave the room and…throw myself in the river.”
“Al-fred!” The little shriek was just the desired effect. Alfred put his hand quickly to his mouth under pretence of wiping it, and smirked under his palm. She was a fantastic little chicken for scaring so.
Lucy arranged her furbelows with fluttering hands, then composed herself once again for a good dose of dirt-spilling. “There was a letter left with the butler with a threat to take her life—anonymous, of course—and footprints under the window, and…some talk of…of blood on the dresser-scarf.”
“By the name of the great perpetrator himself, it’s all run-of-the-mill!” Alfred burst out, jumping to his feet and pacing the floor with great energy. “Butlers and footprints under the window-sill and…blood on the dresser scarf! I’ll give you your murder, woman! It is easily explained from this very room! A slight lovers’ quarrel, a desperate lover who had drunk too much cognac at dessert and made a fool of himself. He came to the window to ask her pardon, she swooned in his arms, they decided to elope.”
“But the blood, Alfred!” Lucy pleaded, seeing her murder fall to shambles under his logical path of thought.
“It was dark in the room, she ran her hat-pin into her finger as she was dressing, and that’s the end of your murder, madam.” He had had enough of her trifling gossip. “I am going to the Golden Bee to seek out intelligent company, sister, and you will stay here. Good day.” And without another glance at Lucy, Alfred Pettigrew stormed out to the hall and tore his hat from its peg.
His worst days at Cambridge were a summer’s picnic compared to life with Lucy at Pettigrew Place. He would throw himself in the river if he thought it’d do him any good. But that was as life-extinguishing as murder itself, and it would give Lucy even more to talk about—perish the thought.
Murder indeed. As far as he was concerned, Lucy and all her Society-friends read far too many dime-novels. They made every elopement into a murder and every murder into a massacre. What a to-do over nothing at all. Alfred rambled toward town, sloshing through puddles left by the recent rain with the grim satisfaction that he was ruining a perfectly good pair of shoes. He was cross, and cross ideas suited his humor. Why, it would be more pleasant than a holiday in Paris to have a quarrel with anyone. Anyone, that is, except Lucy Pettigrew. Nevertheless, her story swirled in his mind with the thickness of cream poured into a cup of strong tea. His was an analytical mind, and in absence of anything more diverting to think of, his began to mull her details over. Of the fact that it was not a murder her was certain—the evidence, if Lucy could be counted on—and that he very much doubted—was against any such thing.
Absorbed in thought, Alfred stalked toward town, never noticing the cloaked figure dogging his steps.
To be continued...