Book 2 of the Florence Nightingale Mystery Series
The London summer of 1854 is drawing to a close when a deadly outbreak of cholera grips the city. Florence Nightingale is back on the scene marshaling her nurses to help treat countless suffering patients at Middlesex Hospital as the disease tears through the Soho slums. But beyond the dangers of the disease, something even more evil is seeping through the ailing streets of London.
It begins with an attack on the carriage of Florence’s friend, Elizabeth Herbert, wife to Secretary at War Sidney Herbert. Florence survives, but her coachman does not. Within hours, Sidney’s valet stumbles into the hospital, mutters a few cryptic words about the attack, and promptly dies from cholera. Frantic that an assassin is stalking his wife, Sidney enlists Florence’s help, who accepts but has little to go on save for the valet’s last words and a curious set of dice in his jacket pocket. Soon, the suspects are piling up faster than cholera victims, as there seems to be no end to the number of people who bear a grudge against the Herbert household.
Now, Florence is in a race against time―not only to save the victims of a lethal disease, but to foil a murderer with a disturbingly sinister goal.
As readers of No Cure for the Dead, Book 1 of the Florence Nightingale Mysteries, know, this series was inspired by my late mother, who was herself a nurse for many years until poor health prevented her from carrying out the rigorous duties the job demands.
Writing Florence Nightingale is a pleasure on many levels. First and foremost, it is homage to my mother. But Florence was also very unique in history, having single-handedly driven massive changes in nursing care that are still felt today.
Even more fascinating was Florence’s personality. She was both deeply compassionate and shockingly prickly. No nonsense in the extreme (which made her so successful), she did not tolerate fools well at all.
I initially started out writing this book in third person, but as time went on, I realized that something wasn’t quite right. I wasn’t able to demonstrate Florence’s unique personality that way. So, for the first time in my writing career, I switched to first person, which enabled me to inhabit Florence’s mind in a way that I think works better for the reader.
Florence was indeed involved with the cholera epidemic discussed in the book, as you might imagine. She was also extremely influential at the highest levels of the British government.
Unfortunately, the publisher decided not to continue with the series after A Murderous Malady. However, assuredly I do have future plans to send Florence to the Crimea—the place where she revolutionized battlefield medicine and won her place in the hearts of British soldiers—to solve a crime or two. After all, the Lady with the Lamp deserves no less.
I still stood in the main hall of the Establishment, unable to make any sense of the letter in my hand. What did Sidney mean there had been an attempted murder of his wife? Why would anyone wish to harm Liz?
Well, I wasn’t about to waste time sending another letter back to him, even if there would be at least one more postal pickup for the day.
“Goose?” I called out, knowing that my faithful companion, Mary Clarke, would be somewhere nearby.
Sure enough, she materialized next to me in moments. “Yes, Miss Florence?” she said. “What may I do for you?”
She had once been the beloved wife of my old childhood tutor, Milo Clarke. He had unexpectedly died of a stomach obstruction, leaving behind a grieving widow with no means of support.
My mother had sent the stout and sturdy Mary to me, ostensibly as a companion, but without question as someone to watch my movements here at the hospital, a place Mother considered no better than a brothel.
Because of her sometimes silly and frightened manner, I had quickly dubbed Mary “Goose,” which she didn’t seem to mind.
“I need to go to Herbert House,” I announced.
She immediately smoothed back one side of her graying hair and said, “I’ll get my notebook.” She turned on her heel to retrieve her writing implements, as she had quickly learned that I always had thoughts, ideas, or notes that needed to be committed to paper.
“No.” I stopped her with a hand to her shoulder. “I will go alone.”
Mary frowned. “Alone? The streets are always so much safer when we walk in pairs, aren’t they? Even in the middle of the day.”
She clasped her hands and I knew she was resisting the urge to wring them together.
“I cannot have you there. I think it is too private a family matter.” I held out Sidney’s succinct note for her to read.
Flo, come quickly—Liz was attacked in her carriage—nearly murdered—do not want police involved.
Mary handed it back wordlessly.
I took Sidney’s letter back, and in its place handed her the rest of the mail, which included an astonishing letter from Richard, for her to place in my study. Much as I wanted to scurry to my room and re-read Richard’s missive over and over to make sense of why he was reaching out to me now of all times, I had to put him resolutely from my mind. There would be time enough to dwell on him later.
Mary’s skin had taken on the pallor of a rotten lime. She swallowed several times before asking tentatively, “But why would someone wish to harm a friend of yours?”
Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that an attack on Liz might have anything to do with me.
I was ushered into the Herberts’ elegant double townhome by a servant. The minutes seemed to tick by endlessly until Sidney finally came to greet me with kisses to both cheeks.
The Secretary at War was a handsome man—equally matched in looks by his pretty wife—and had a fiery drive and ambition that I greatly admired, even if I didn’t always agree with some of his decisions. But what did I know about the conduct of a military conflict?
He ushered me up a wide staircase to his wife’s suite of rooms two floors up, explaining the situation as we quickly climbed the steps. My one hand was safely tucked into the crook of his elbow for support, while my other hand clutched my drab brown and black checked work dress to keep from tripping.
I regretted that I had not thought to change into a more elegant dress before dashing into a taxi.
“Liz and the General were headed through Soho on their way to the British Museum for a visit to their new Anglo-Saxon war weapons collection. I was none too happy about it, as there are rumors of cholera in that area, but Liz’s father believes himself indestructible, and that, by extension, he can prevent any harm from ever coming to his daughter.”
“He must have done so in this instance,” I said, taking a glance sideways at Sidney as we reached the top of the walnut staircase.
Sidney’s expression was inscrutable, except for a small tic at the outer corner of his right eye. There was a small mole there I had never noticed before, not that I made it my occupation to study the facial features of my dear friend’s husband.
“Yes,” Sidney said noncommittally. “As the open landau got caught up in traffic, a madman appeared and virtually jumped up onto the mounting step.”
I halted in midstride as we approached Liz’s private rooms. “Are you saying she was attacked inside the Herbert carriage? With the General right there?” My incredulity overshadowed my surprise.
I could hardly countenance how anyone would do that, unless perhaps he was out of his mind with gin or opium.
“Actually, no, and that’s what makes it so damnably frustrating.” Sidney led me the remaining steps to Liz’s rooms and paused with his hand on the polished brass knob. “That man seemed to vanish into the crowd when the General threatened him.”
I waited, knowing there must be much more to this story.
“The actual attack came from a pistol somewhere in the crowd,” Sidney told me.
“Heavens!” I exclaimed. “How do you know it wasn’t from the same man who tried to jump into the carriage?”
“Both Liz and her father insist it wasn’t. But I haven’t told you the worst part.” Sidney sighed heavily, and now I was terribly fearful that Liz had been bodily injured or disfigured.
“Enough shots were fired that one of them found my coachman. He’s dead.”
I instinctively put a hand to the lace collar at my throat. “Sidney, how terrible,” was all I could manage. “Does he have a family? A wife and children?”
“Fortunately, no. And I confess I am relieved Liz was not the victim. I’ll bury the man out of my own purse, of course. He was excellent with the horses and knew all the quickest routes throughout the city. He won’t be easily replaced. But dear God, if it had been Liz…”
Sidney shook his head, unable to voice his thoughts on such an outcome. He twisted the knob as he lightly rapped on the darkly-stained door.
“Come,” barked a gruff male voice from inside the room, even as Sidney was opening the door and stepping aside to allow me in.
Liz and her father reminded me of an old masterpiece painting. Liz sat up in her carved tester bed, encased in freshly laundered and ironed snowy-white sheets. She wore an elegant burgundy dressing gown and lace cap with matching, dangling ribbons over perfectly-coiffed hair.
At least I could thankfully see she had not been physically harmed.
In a chair at the left side of the bed was the General, leaning forward and fervently clasping his daughter’s hand. It was sweet, yet a bit…dramatic.
I did have a vague remembrance of having met General Charles à Court before. He had struck me then as a proud military man and that notion was not dispelled now.
Liz had told me years ago that he had gone to Parliament in 1820—the year I was born—to represent Heytesbury upon the death of his own father but had resigned the seat after only a few months. I suppose military men used to strict discipline did not fare well in the pell-mell bedlam of politics. I imagine they find war to be much more rational.
He had later gone to Afghanistan and served to quell an uprising against the East India Company rule in 1842. Later, the General had been given the colonelcy of the 41st Welsh Regiment of Foot in 1848, a post he still held. I wasn’t quite sure what a regiment of foot was, although it sounded like infantry—men walking—to me.
Liz had referred to him as the General ever since his promotion to lieutenant-general, and that was how I thought of him now. She spoke confidently of how he would one day be promoted to full general, and I had no doubt of it either, particularly with his current work at the war office, assisting his son-in-law in various unofficial capacities.
He scowled darkly and sat ramrod straight in my presence, although he did not release Liz’s hand.
“Flo!” Liz brightened visibly. “Sidney promised me that nothing would keep you away.”
She gently disengaged her hand from her father’s grasp and held both arms out to me in open invitation. I remained on the opposite side of the bed as I bent over to kiss her cheek and readily accept her embrace.
“I came the moment I received his note. What happened?” I stepped back and, the moment she dropped her arms, the General picked up her right hand again.
“Didn’t her husband tell you himself?” the General said accusingly before Liz had a chance to reply. I sensed Sidney bristling behind me.
“He did, but of course I wanted to hear it from dear Liz herself.” I sat on the edge of the bed, while Sidney moved over to the fireplace mantel along the wall nearest me. A heavily figured brass urn dominated the mantel, which was also littered with other bric-a-brac. He managed to surreptitiously move aside a couple of figurines to allow room for his elbow.
It was ironic to me that all the Herberts’ public spaces were done in the old formal Georgian style, all pastels and light and exquisite plaster moldings, but up here in their private spaces everything was in the latest fashion of overstuffed heavy furniture, bold wallpaper patterns, and thick draperies in multiple layers across the windows.
“It’s of no matter,” the General said. “It is the police we need for this, not some skirted nurse.”
Sidney sighed heavily. “Father,” he began, offering a term of endearment to his father-in-law that was not reflected in his tone, “I told you that—”
“Yes, yes, we don’t want notoriety brought upon the household.” The General was repeating a notion with which he obviously didn’t hold. “I’ll say it again, then. We need to hire a private investigator.”
“A private investigator is still not someone to be trusted,” Sidney said patiently. “He would have no loyalty to us, and no doubt this event would make for juicy gossip. Imagine the bulging pouch of guineas one of the local rags would be willing to hand over for a lurid story about the Secretary at War’s wife. We cannot have such scandalous distractions while we are trying to prosecute a war.”
Still holding Liz’s hand, the General threw up his other hand. “So you are willing to permit the lunatic to come after my dear girl again because of your precious reputation?” Now the General’s scowl was directed toward his son-in-law. “Unconscionable, my boy. Perhaps I should take matters into my own hands.”
I sensed that Sidney was controlling himself with everything he had. He was an important man in her majesty’s government, and no doubt unused to being chastised for his decisions. The prime minister and Liz were probably the only people in the world who could challenge him, and neither would be so boorish about it.
Yet Sidney allowed it, and I knew it was a sacrifice he was willing to make for his adored Elizabeth.
“Father,” he began again. “I have no intention of permitting a lunatic to come after Liz. However, I do intend to be cautious and intentional about my actions. I’ve called Miss Nightingale to us, not only because she is Liz’s friend, but because she has already proven an investigative talent in a situation at her hospital. We can trust her, and I believe she can help us.”
“Papa,” Liz jumped in, cajoling her father with a winsome smile that made it impossible to remember that she was already the thirty-one-year-old mother of three children, the most recent having just been born in May. “I’m sure Sidney knows best. Why don’t we simply have tea with Florence and see if she can help us?”
Sidney left his place at the mantel and went to the hallway, where he entered into murmured conversation with a passing servant.
I sat on the bed next to Liz so that she was on my right side. Now I could more easily see both the General and Sidney. The two of them reminded me of caged tigers: wary, watching, and dangerous to cross.
“Tell me everything,” I urged. “You know that I will do anything I can to be of service to you, dearest.”
Liz quickly brushed away a sudden tear. The incident must have been horrifying, for my friend had never been anyone I considered to be of a nervous or hysterical nature. In fact, I couldn’t recall ever having seen her weep, not even when her mother died.
“Papa and I were headed to the British Museum. They have a new collection of Anglo-Saxon weapons, you know. I was anxious to show it to Papa, what with his military leadership. We decided to go on Saturday, since he wasn’t needed that day at the War Department. When we—”
“I told Sidney I should have gone down to study the War Department maps while he had his little henpecking party with the prime minister.” The General was glowering again. “Those maps are riddled with errors. For instance, they never accurately reflect the distance between harbors and encampments.”
“Yes, Papa.” Liz smiled fondly at her father and addressed me again. “I finally had my father to myself and was quite happy that he had to put the maps away for a day.”
That effectively silenced the General, although I suspected that he had been torn between his fatherly love for Liz and the need to rectify the War Department maps that might cost life and limb in a future battle.
Liz continued her tale. “As we traveled through Soho, the streets became so very crowded and narrow, much more so than they are here in Belgravia. It made it all so confusing, you see. Poor Joss, he had to deal with something in the roadway and we came to a stop. He is typically so conscientious about ensuring that the carriage continues moving. That was when this deranged man came from nowhere and practically jumped into the carriage with us. He—” Liz halted her narration and shuddered delicately upon remembrance.
“He managed to perch himself atop the folding steps. I frustrated his attempt to enter the carriage,” the General said, adding his own disquieting details to the account.
“Yes, Papa,” Liz said again. “What was terrible was what he was shouting at me. It was so vile I can hardly repeat it.”
The General interjected again. “I’ll tell you what he—”
“Father, isn’t it best if we let the women talk?” Sidney said, again employing a patient tone that I suspected was reaching its limit.
I wanted to take Liz’s other hand in my own but refrained, lest she feel like a marionette being worked by two puppeteers. “Whatever he said to you was merely the ranting of a madman. You didn’t recognize him, did you?”
“Of course she didn’t!” the General said.
This time Liz didn’t gently admonish her father, but merely ignored him. “I have no idea who he was. I’ve been wondering to myself if perhaps I’ve met him before and caused some offense of which I was unaware, and he has now fallen upon hard times and is misguidedly seeking revenge upon people in his past.”
Certainly her idea wasn’t out of the question, but she still hadn’t told me what it was the man had shouted at her. “Whatever he told you must have led you to believe this, I presume?”
Liz shuddered again. “It was terrible. He said—he said—” She took a deep, sustaining breath. “He pointed a finger at me and said that I was the British Bitch and the Babylonian Whore. That I knew it and would be made to pay for it. I apologize for my coarse language, but that was what he said. I confess I felt like Marie Antoinette riding to the guillotine.”
Something registered in the General’s eyes, but I didn’t know him well enough to know what it meant. I could have sworn that it almost looked like guilt. Perhaps I would feel guilty, too if I thought myself a towering figure of a man who had been unable to prevent his daughter from being insulted like this, not to mention having been nearly murdered.
“But that is positively ridiculous,” I began, feeling greatly affronted for my dear friend. “You—”
It was as if the General couldn’t help himself. “It most certainly is ridiculous! How dare he? When I find him, I will rip out his heart with my hands and feed it to him.” General à Court closed a fist in the air as if he already had the man’s heart in his hand and was readying to carve it into pieces.
I admit I was somewhat taken aback by the General’s gruesome declaration, but I continued speaking, concluding that Liz’s father might be best ignored. “You are the most faithful of women, in both your marriage and in your friendships. There has never been the slenderest wisp of scandal smoke associated with you. Or Sidney, for that matter.”
Now it was Sidney’s turn to shift uncomfortably. I wondered fleetingly what I had said to cause him sudden disquiet. Or was he merely vexed by the madman’s accusation toward his wife? I had to remember that Liz had almost been killed. Any husband would be upset and uneasy.
Liz nodded. “I don’t know why the man was so unpleasant. Worse, there was someone else so unhappy with me that he tried to kill me. Why, Flo?”
It baffled me also. Liz Herbert might be the wife of a famous man, but she herself was perfectly innocuous.
Excerpt copyright 2019 Christine Trent.