Book 5 of the Lady of Ashes series
While on a much-needed respite with her husband, Sam, in Nottinghamshire, undertaker Violet Harper is summoned to Welbeck Abbey by the Fifth Duke of Portland to prepare a body.
His Grace is known as the “mad duke,” and Violet has more than an inkling of why when she arrives at the grand estate and discovers that the corpse in question is that of the duke’s favorite raven, Aristotle. Many of the duke’s servants believe a dead raven is a harbinger of doom, and the peculiar peer hopes to allay their superstitious fears with an elaborate funeral for his feathered friend.
But Aristotle’s demise is soon followed by the violent murder of one of the young workers on the estate. Wishing to avoid any whisper of scandal, the reclusive duke implores Violet to conduct her own discreet investigation. In her hunt for evidence, Violet wonders if the manner of the raven’s death might provide a crucial clue in solving the crime…before someone else – including herself – risks an untimely fate.
It’s a lot of fun to visit some of the famous names of history and fictionalize them. Queen Victoria is the most well-known figure in the Lady of Ashes series, and I’ve explored Lord Nelson, George IV, Madame Tussaud, and more in other novels.
But it’s even more fun to bring to life figures from history that were well-known in their time but have been sort of lost to history. In Death at the Abbey, I had the opportunity to resurrect, so to speak, William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the 5th Duke of Portland for this, the 5th Lady of Ashes novel.
The duke’s lifelong project was his rambling estate, Welbeck Abbey, in Nottinghamshire. It was full of tunnels and strange rooms, and the duke was known for his strange habits, such as requiring the aroma of roasting chickens to be spread throughout the Abbey (on consideration, that kind of seems like an awesome idea). However, he also employed most of the people in the surrounding town and was known for his great generosity to his employees.
I stumbled upon the duke while seeking out a new locale for Violet to visit. I had decided to send her to Nottinghamshire so that Sam could explore a new business opportunity in coal mining. It also dove-tailed with bringing Alfred Nobel, the inventory of dynamite and for whom the Nobel Prize is named, into the story.
When I discovered what an eccentric character the duke was, I knew he had to be the centerpiece of a story, which begins with Violet being requested to provide her services to a most unusual, deceased body.
But the duke’s greatest eccentricity centered on his estate, Welbeck Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, the oldest portion of which dates to the 12th century. He had construction projects occurring throughout his life: ballrooms, guest rooms, a chapel, a picture gallery, and so forth. Sounds like an average duke’s life passion, right? Except that the Duke of Portland had all of these structures built…underground.
With a series of tunnels connecting not only the various structures to each other and to the house, but connecting the house all the way to the nearby town of Worksop, the duke had figured out a way to live outside the watchful eyes of others. He had figured out a defense against spy drones long before the 21st century arrived!
Lest we judge Portland too harshly for his eccentricities, it should be noted that he was an extremely generous employer. Any man who came to him looking for a job would be granted one, and would also be given an umbrella and a donkey so that he could always make it to work and wouldn’t be soaked from the rain. Portland was Nottinghamshire’s largest employer, frequently having in his hire—and even housing in cottages and dormitories—upwards of 1,500 men.
Welbeck Abbey served as an army hospital during World War I, then after World War II was used as an army training college until 2005.
The estate is family-controlled, and today serves in many capacities, such as hosting festivals, being used as a filming location, as well as setting up garden centers and even an artisan food school.
October 12, 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 thought he would—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 Arms. 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 disconcert her fellow tourists at the Long Eaton Lace Factory or the Sherwood Forest nature walk into thinking she was a woman in deep mourning yet all the while engaging in highly inappropriate entertainments.
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.
Excerpt copyright 2015 Christine Trent.