Home > Murder in the Snow

Murder in the Snow
Author: Verity Bright


One

 

 

‘Botheration!’

Despite weeks of meticulous planning, one small, but crucial detail had been overlooked.

Staring up at the cream-stone country mansion, Lady Eleanor Swift was, however, quite unable to fathom what it was. All three floors and both narrow towers that flanked the entrance were decked out in shimmering festive splendour. Inside, the finishing touches for the villagers’ Christmas Eve lunch were being efficiently ticked off by her meticulous butler and hard-working staff. So what was it?

She walked inside looking around the impressive marbled entrance hall with her piercing green eyes. And then she remembered.

‘Gladstone!’ She clutched her mop of red curls. ‘What on earth are you doing?’

The stumpy tail furiously wagging under the Christmas tree froze.

She strode over and tapped his back. ‘Come out immediately!’

The elderly bulldog she’d inherited from her late uncle, Lord Byron Henley, backed out reluctantly and stared up at her. A green Christmas bauble swung from one of his bottom front teeth.

‘Oops! I thought I’d made sure they were all too high for you to reach.’ She relieved Gladstone of his prize and dropped to all fours, shuffling under the broad lower branches to check there were no more hiding. The bulldog joined her, covering them both in pine needles.

The tree had been planted in an enormous container filled with earth and she now saw, dotted around the base, the telltale signs of bulldog burial.

‘Gladstone! You’ve been burying all the baubles the staff spent so long putting up.’

He gave a loud woof in reply and spun in a stiff-legged circle, which made the whole tree lurch dangerously.

She flinched at the sound of more decorations falling to the polished oak floor and then clutched her cheek. ‘Ouch!’ She held her breath. ‘Shh! We need to sort out this mess before Clifford finds out.’

A polite cough came from behind her.

‘Too late,’ she whispered in the bulldog’s ear. ‘Double botheration!’

She crawled back out and straightened her dress against her slender frame. ‘Ah, Clifford, there you are. The tree looks absolutely wonderful.’

Her impeccably turned-out butler cast a disapproving eye over her muddy hands, the nest of pine needles in her hair and the gash on her cheek. ‘Most perceptive of you to crawl all the way underneath to fully appreciate it, my lady.’

His tone was reminiscent of the way he’d spoken to her as the little girl who used to spend rare summers at the Hall during holidays from her boarding school.

‘Very funny. Gladstone and I were—’

He pointed a white-gloved finger at the cream damask-upholstered settle streaked with muddy dog prints.

She winced. ‘Okay, I was just trying to cover up the fact he’s been un-decorating the tree before you noticed.’

‘A plan unlikely to have succeeded, my lady, seeing as I was hanging onto the tree from the first-floor landing to save it from falling on your, and Master Gladstone’s, head.’

‘Ah! Thank you.’

‘Regrettably, I appear not to have totally preserved you from injury.’ He pulled a pristine handkerchief from his pocket. ‘That cut needs attending to.’

She put a tentative hand to her cheek. ‘Pah, it’s just a scratch.’

‘I believe I may have mentioned previously that a scratch which bleeds that perceptibly is in fact termed a “cut”, my lady. And we have but thirty-five minutes left before you need to play hostess as the… ahem, lady of the manor.’

 

With her hands hastily scrubbed and the worst of the pine needles shaken from her hair, she was about to rejoin Clifford when her housekeeper appeared. A diminutive, soft-curved woman, her ever-ready smile and patient manner gave her the air of everyone’s favourite aunt.

‘Gracious, my lady, excuse my asking but what happened to your face?’

Eleanor felt for the cut, which she silently admitted was feeling rather hot and raised around the edges. ‘Oh, it’s just a scratch, Mrs Butters. I’m fine.’

‘There’s nothing fine about anything that angry looking. I can’t leave you walking about like that. Whatever would your late uncle think of that, God rest his soul?’

Eleanor patted her housekeeper’s arm. ‘Thank you, but Clifford already insisted I douse it in something frightfully spiteful. Honestly, I ended up with much worse scrapes and bruises when I travelled the world. And none of my arms or legs fell off.’

Mrs Butters chuckled. ‘I see half of your uncle and half of your mother in you, if you don’t mind my saying so, my lady. Not that I saw a huge amount of your mother, as you know. But there is definitely a streak of your mother’s fierce independence in you.’

Eleanor reflected that she hadn’t seen a great deal of her mother either. Her parents had disappeared when she was only a young child, after which her uncle had sent her to boarding school. ‘Thank you. Now, how about a compromise? Instead of dragging you away from preparing for the hordes of ravenous villagers who will soon descend upon us, I’ll slap whatever you recommend on this minor scratch… er, cut. Then, together, we can finish any last-minute preparations.’

‘Deal, my lady. In the medicine cabinet beside the second kitchen dresser there’s a pink tin. It smells like honey and eucalyptus. Slather that on nice and generously. Then you need to find the arnica tablets and take two.’

 

After following her housekeeper’s instructions, Eleanor checked that everything food-wise for the event was going smoothly. Mrs Trotman, her warm-hearted but no-nonsense cook, with the help of Eleanor’s young maid, Polly, seemed to have everything well under control. Except, rather worryingly, Gladstone. He’d gone AWOL from his bed by the range where he’d been grounded for the stealing-baubles-from-the-Christmas-tree-and-burying-them escapade.

Out in the hallway, she frowned, trying to remember what she had been doing before a wilful bulldog had interrupted her.

‘Perhaps if you would care to consult the planner I gave you, my lady?’

She jumped. ‘Clifford, how many times have I told you not to do that silent materialising trick? It’s most off-putting.’

‘Apologies, but I am a butler. I will in future, however, endeavour to appear at your side heralded by sackbuts and cornetts.’

‘It would be a help.’ She spotted the ghost of a smile. Clifford had not only been her late uncle’s butler, but before that his batman in the army. Despite the class difference they had become firm friends. On his deathbed, Lord Byron had asked Clifford to look after his beloved niece, a duty he carried out with unwavering loyalty, iron resolve and large doses of dry wit. She patted her cardigan down. ‘But it appears my planner has… erm, misplaced itself. Again.’

‘Indeed. Might I suggest then inspecting the ballroom? The luncheon tables are almost finished. The ladies have done a remarkable job, as always.’

‘Of course they have. You all fulfil your duties with such dedication, you richly deserve your own treat once the villagers have retired tonight.’ She smiled at him. ‘Wasn’t it a wonderful tradition Uncle Byron instigated, inviting most of Little Buckford to the Hall each Christmas Eve?’

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