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Extract from Airs and Graces

Chapter One

Philippe, let me encourage you to come to England! The women here are delightful beyond imagining!

[Letter from Louis de Glabre to his friend Philippe Froidevaux, 16 January 1737]


'Watch out!' Esther cried.

I ducked - and my feet went out from under me. I slid in the snow, flailed wildly and ended up flat on my back. The snowball flew over my head.

Fat flakes of snow pattered wetly onto my face and clogged my eyelashes; blinking, I looked up at the dark night sky. Perhaps this hadn't been a good idea.

Esther was giggling as she bent to help me up. Her fair hair was coming loose under her hat, and her greatcoat was splattered with patches of snow where my aim had been better than hers. My wife; my lady wife, with generations of stern ancestors behind her, and a reputation as a sensible, middle-aged woman, was scandalously wearing breeches, and throwing snowballs. And I'd worried over the twelve years' difference between us, thinking she'd find me a callow youth!

'Are you all right, Charles?'

I sat up, feeling the wet soaking through my coat, and my shirt and my breeches. Even in the swirling blizzard, I could see the heightened colour in Esther's cheeks, the excited glow in her eyes. I was relieved; she'd not been feeling well recently.

'No,' I said grumpily. 'I'm not all right.' How would the ladies and gentlemen of the town - my customers - react if they saw me at this moment. Respectable musicians do not roll in the snow like children. I scrambled up. 'Why did you throw a snowball and then tell me to duck!'

'I didn't throw it!' she said, with laughing indignation. 'Hugh did!'

The flakes were coming down faster and thicker, veiling everything around us with a thick curtain of white. Obscuring the deserted Key: the tall buildings, the chandlers' shops, the taverns and the brothels, the printing office. Ships at the wharves had snow on every line of the rigging, and were sitting in a thin layer of ice as the River Tyne froze at the edges - the tidal flow kept the centre running though sluggish. The bell of All Hallows' church struck midnight. Sunday. That made it worse; Sunday is supposed to be a day of pious restraint.

I couldn't see Hugh anywhere. Hugh Demsey, dancing master -who'd just put me on my back in the snow. This expedition had been his idea. We'd originally intended to spend a quiet Saturday evening at home in Caroline Square, over dinner and wine, with music and conversation afterwards. My wife, myself, and my closest friend. But that was before Hugh glanced out of the window and said, 'Good Lord, it's snowing!'

We'd had an entire week of heavy frosts, and temperatures so cold no one wanted to venture out of doors. The snow had been bound to follow. 'Let's go out and have a slide,' Hugh said enthusiastically. Looking at the gently falling flakes, I'd remembered the winters of childhood, sledging and sliding and skating, and throwing snowballs …

I spotted Hugh at last, a dark shadow in the blizzard; I grabbed up a handful of snow and squeezed it hard. I'd have to be careful; Hugh was standing at the edge of the river and I didn't want to knock him in. I sauntered up to him, arm behind my back. If only Esther didn't give me away with her giggling!

Hugh swung round. His hat had come off and his black hair slapped about his face. Even the voluminous greatcoat couldn't disguise the handsome figure the ladies so admired - dancing masters rarely get fat. 'Look at this!' He pointed down into the river.

It must be a trick; I said, 'No, you don't get me that way!' but he'd already turned back. Esther peered over his shoulder into the driving snow that obscured the water below. I kept a safe distance, just in case, and followed their gaze.

The tide was out, exposing ice-crusted mudbanks below the wharfs. Two lanterns burned in the darkness, apparently hanging in the middle of the river. In reality, they were on the shops on the Tyne bridge of course; I could just make out the bridge's high arches and the dark hulks of the houses. Snow swirled in again.

'The second arch,' Hugh said. 'There's something hanging down.'

He was right. A faint whitish line seemed to be written on the bridge, dropping down the pier from one of the shops to the mudflat below. A rope - and someone was climbing down it.

'An elopement!' Esther said, delighted. 'I had half a mind to something similar myself, Charles!'

Esther and I have been married five months now and Society is, just, beginning to accept the situation. An alliance between a man of 27 and a woman of 39 is bound to be frowned upon, particularly when the woman has money and status, and the man is a mere musician. But we didn't need to elope. Ours was a forced marriage - my patron found us in a compromising position. That is to say, we were standing decorously a good six feet apart, but the room was a bedroom, which makes all the difference.

'We ought to do something,' I said uneasily.

'Don't be such a prig, Charles!' Hugh said. 'You're spoiling the romantic moment!'

Esther cautiously strained to look down at the mud flats. 'I cannot see an earnest lover.'

The snow danced in closer, blowing into our faces, obscuring our view. I squinted against the flying flakes, at the figure sliding down the rope. A woman, wearing skirts and struggling with them - she should have copied Esther and opted for a pair of breeches. The figure hung for a moment by one hand, then let go, dropping the last few feet to land on hands and knees on the mudbank.

'Mud is not romantic,' Esther said regretfully.

The woman scrambled to her feet, hauling up her skirts. She looked lithe and active, obviously young, and certainly not weighed down by anything as prosaic as luggage.

The thick snow swirled in again. 'We should do something,' I said uncertainly. I caught glimpses of the figure struggling through the mud towards the landing steps up onto the Key. There was no impatient lover in sight. 'It might not be an elopement. She might be a thief - stealing from one of the shops on the bridge ... '

Esther and Hugh broke into protests at the same time. Hugh grabbed my arms and turned me round, away from the bridge. 'No, no!' he said. 'Not a thief.'

'This is not another crime,' Esther said, firmly. 'Or, if it is, it is a small one, and we need not worry about it. Time to go home.'

'That's right,' Hugh said. 'Go home. Have a nice sleep. Forget all about it.'

'Yes,' Esther said, wickedly. 'Sleep - just what I was thinking of.'

I sighed. Over the past two years, I've somehow become embroiled in five murders - not in the least my fault - and now Hugh and Esther persist in thinking I see death and disaster everywhere. 'I'm not thinking of taking a hand in it myself! We could call out the Watch.'

'They won't come out!' Hugh said. 'Not in this weather! Besides, do you want them to see your wife in her breeches?'

'Alas,' Esther said, 'my reputation would never be the same again.'

'Then, ' I pointed out, 'you should stop wearing them.'

'I will,' she agreed cordially. 'When we get home …'

Hugh roared with laughter, slipped on the snow and almost went down. I grabbed at him to prevent him falling in the river, but he recovered almost immediately, dipped and snatched up a handful of snow. Esther shrieked, and dodged for the shelter of a pile of barrels. I seized snow from the top of the barrels -

And heard the screams of a frightened child.

***

The screaming was coming from the bridge. I swung round, slipped, regained my balance and started running. In the wet dance of snow, I could see barely a foot in front of me, but the flickering lights on the bridge led me along. Shadows shifted in the blizzard, a large dog pattered away from me, leaving deep footprints.

On the slope up onto the bridge, the cobbles were icy and I went down onto my knees. Hugh was at my shoulder, helped me up. Shops and houses clustered on both sides of the bridge; to the left were a group of four shops. The door of the last stood open, a haze of light seeping out …

The screaming went on - the panicking desperate fear of a young child.

Hugh and I reached the door together. The upholsterer's shop. I glimpsed the elegant interior in uncertain candlelight - fine striped wallpaper, elegant chairs, gilt mirrors gleaming. An occasional table had been knocked over, a small clock lay beside it on the floor.

The child was at the back of the room, standing by the counter. Staring down at something behind it.

We bolted for her. Six or seven years old, in her nightgown, with a candle in her hand and her dark hair in a braid down her back. She was screaming, mouth wide, face red and tears streaming down her face. Esther pushed past, took the candle from the child's hand and put her arm round the thin shoulders. The child turned into her embrace, hiccupping and sobbing.

We looked down on the body behind the counter. A young man, an apprentice, lay on the mattress that had been his bed. A blanket was pulled over him and he looked as if he was curled up in sleep.

Except for the blood pooling around him. Blood that was still liquid. I bent to touch him - he was as warm as in life.

'Esther,' I said. 'You'd better get the child out of here.'

She nodded, understanding at once I was afraid the murderer might still be here. She gave me the candle and said briskly, 'Take care.'

The shop had been open so the murderer had probably already escaped, but I was taking no risks; I looked round for a weapon and picked up a heavy candlestick.

'More blood,' Hugh said. He was standing at the door into the interior of the house. Stairs climbed straight up from the door; a small bloody footprint was imprinted on the bottom stair.

'It's the child's,' Hugh said. 'But it's coming down the stairs. She had blood on her feet before she saw the boy.'

I looked up into the darkness at the top of the stairs. I didn't want to go up to whatever horror awaited there. But there was no choice. Hugh took hold of another candlestick and we climbed by the light of the child's candle, following the trail of bloody footprints.

At the top of the stairs was a dark living room and another flight of steps. The bloody footprints came down the upper flight and in silent agreement, Hugh and I went up to a tiny landing whose boards creaked horribly.

A door on the right stood open. In the thin light of the candle, we saw a woman lying in bed, a woman in her fifties, long grey hair in a plait over her shoulder. She lay on her back, hands resting on the sheet, a red stain covering her breast. Her husband lay on his side, turned away from us; I edged through the narrow space between the bottom of the bed and the wall, and held the candle over him. His blood was still dripping onto the floor.

I went back onto the landing. A tiny stair went up again just outside the door, to the attics presumably. No blood on those stairs. We turned to the only other room on this floor. A smaller bedroom, with frivolous draperies of white and pink. A girl lay huddled on the bed, dark hair tangled, her back a mass of blood.

'They were all killed in their sleep,' Hugh whispered. He cleared his throat. 'At least they'd have known nothing about it.'

I was looking at the bed on which the girl lay. It was wide, and she was on the nearer side of it. On the other side, a second pillow was dented with the mark of a head; the blankets had been thrown back. There was no blood on that side.

I lifted my gaze to the far wall. The window was open. Snow swirled outside over the dark river, drifted in the casement and settled on the floor.

'Damn,' Hugh said.

We had not witnessed an elopement. We'd seen a murderer making her escape.









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