October 16, 1869
All Violet Harper wanted to do was have a peaceful luncheon at Worksop Inn with her husband. Instead, she was summoned away from her half-eaten fish pie to the most magnificent estate she’d ever seen, owned by the most eccentric man she’d ever met, to care for the most bizarre corpse she’d ever been called upon to undertake.
Violet and Sam had been in North Nottinghamshire for almost four weeks, with Violet touring the countryside while Sam worked tirelessly to get his coal mine into operation.
He had leased an abandoned mine that was situated on the Nottingham coalfield, a productive stretch of coal that ran beneath Nottingham. Sam had encountered more difficulties than he’d expected—given that the mine already existed and merely had to be updated and reopened—mostly because of the difficulty in hiring workers. Many locals were already employed at one of the various other active collieries, and a large number of healthy, strapping men worked at Welbeck Abbey, the enormous local ducal estate owned by the 5th Duke of Portland.
Rumor had it that His Grace employed hundreds of workers—not including household staff—for a variety of projects around the estate. But for what, Sam had no idea.
Violet, though, was about to find out, as Portland’s valet stood before her table, as rigid and correct and well groomed as such a servant should be in his work attending to a peer of the realm. The worry lines in his forehead, though, belied his calm exterior.
“Mrs. Harper?” he had asked.
Violet put down her fork, which was speared with morsels from the steaming mix of fish chunks, butter, cream, and breadcrumbs, by far her favorite dish at Worksop Inn. In fact, Mr. Saunders, the widowed innkeeper, was kind enough to cook it up especially for her even when it wasn’t part of the day’s offerings.
“I am,” she replied in cautious acknowledgement.
The man bowed and introduced himself as William Pearson, the Duke of Portland’s valet. “Your presence has been much commented upon in town, Mrs. Harper, as your, er, profession is most unusual.”
Very delicately put, she thought, which was surely to be expected from a servant in a high and trusted place, as a duke’s man would be.
“I had no idea my presence was so noteworthy,” she said, hoping the man would finish his greeting and be on his way. Already her fish pie was losing heat, the savory trail of steam from the center opening dissipating quickly.
Pearson, in his correct and formal manner, turned to greet Sam, wishing him well in the formation of his coal mine. Sam’s look of surprise told Violet that he’d had no idea that his activities were already well known in the area.
Unlike in the busy, chaotic world they had recently left behind in London, everyone here seemed to know what everyone else was doing, and they were especially attuned to the arrival and activities of strangers.
Finally, Pearson got to his point, his voice dropping to a nearly inaudible level. “If you will, madam, your services are urgently needed at Welbeck. There is a carriage waiting for you outside…”
Violet was instantly alert, her fish pie no longer of prime importance. “Someone has died at the duke’s home? Was it from an illness or perchance an accident?”
“I’m afraid I cannot say, madam.”
He couldn’t? Or wouldn’t? “What is the person’s age? Is it a man, woman, or child?”
“Again, I am unable to say.” Pearson’s expression was pained. Had something disturbing occurred at Welbeck Abbey? She tried once more as she glanced at Sam, who was shaking his head in a “you’re about to be embroiled in someone else’s problem again” sort of way.
“Has the local coroner been summoned?” Violet asked, which would determine whether the duke thought the death was suspicious.
“Mr. Thorpe is away in Derby, visiting his ailing mother. We don’t know when he’ll be back. In any case, Mr. Thorpe is a civil engineer by way of trade, and what is needed is an undertaker.”
Most coroners were appointed to their positions, often selected for their stature in society—and the major canal, railway, and waterworks projects of the past few decades had greatly increased the reputations of civil engineers. Only rarely was anyone who understood death or human anatomy made a coroner. Violet had often thought that undertakers should be regularly appointed to such posts, but unfortunately, there were enough charlatans in her profession that it did not enjoy a sterling reputation.
“I see. I’ll need my bag,” she said, rising briskly. Reluctantly abandoning her fish pie, but having the good sense to ask the innkeeper to wrap it as an evening snack, she left Sam with the valet and went up to their room to retrieve her undertaking bag—a large black leather satchel containing the cosmetics and tools needed to bring a corpse to the bloom of life. Violet had learned to never travel anywhere without it, precisely for unexpected moments like this.
She swiftly changed out of her burgundy-and-green-striped dress into her regular black crape undertaking dress—clothing she also never traveled without—and grabbed her black top hat with ebony trails from inside the room’s armoire. Once she had tied the hat’s ribbons under her chin and made sure the tails flowed sedately down her back, Violet Harper was thus transformed from carefree tourist to somber undertaker.
“I knew it couldn’t last for long,” Sam lamented as she reentered the dining room twenty minutes later. She typically wore black every day, for she never knew when her services would be called upon, as they suddenly were now.
Violet had largely laid aside the dreary clothing since they had arrived in Worksop. She hadn’t wanted to mislead her fellow tourists at the Long Eaton lace factory or the Sherwood Forest nature walk into thinking she was a woman in deep mourning engaging in entertainments highly inappropriate to such a time.
Sam had daily and delightedly expressed his appreciation for seeing his wife in bright colors for a change. Now here she was, back to her business black.
“It’s just for today,” she assured him.
Sam’s wry glance as he stood to say good-bye suggested he thought otherwise. However, Violet was now too consumed with the thought of the person and unfortunate family who needed her care at Welbeck to be overly concerned about him. The past month had been the longest period she’d gone without preparing for a funeral since becoming an undertaker more than fifteen years ago, except for her interlude of traveling from London to Colorado with Sam four years ago. She had to admit to herself now that she was feeling a nervous tingle at donning her business clothes again and heading off to tend to someone who needed her.
Violet waved absently to her husband and followed Pearson out to the ducal carriage, hoping that whoever had departed had not come to an unnatural end.
Unedited contracted excerpt, Copyright 2015 Christine Trent.