Authors: Oscar de Muriel
Following the events of
The Strings of Murder
, Inspector Ian Frey visits his family’s country estate back in England for Christmas after a thoroughly trying time in Edinburgh.
But the welcome respite of hunting trips and brandy by the fire is ruined by the arrival of an unwelcome guest …
A hard blizzard hit the Forest of Dean on Christmas Eve.
It was nothing compared to the disastrous storms that would come in the following weeks, but strong enough to clean the air and the skies. By dawn there were golden streams of sun trickling in between the leafless trunks of oaks and birches.
Deer stalking on Christmas Day was a Frey family tradition, and some of the happiest moments of my childhood took place in those woods. Along with the excitement of the sport, those were the times when my uncle and I became true comrades.
Uncle Maurice is my late mother’s younger brother, and the perfect balance between English refinement and French candour. The latter is something my father and stepmother still find difficult to tolerate. Fond of the ladies, the drink and the good times, Uncle Maurice never married or settled down. To him life is an eternal succession of dinner parties, hunts and trips. No wonder he is always in such high spirits. That morning he was the first to rise, even before the servants, and walked into our bedrooms to give us all a good shake.
After a wholesome breakfast, my father, my brother Elgie, Uncle Maurice and I took to our mounts.
As Oliver, my flimsiest brother, has never liked anything that involves leaving the house (or moving any limbs at all) he stayed in bed. My eldest brother, whose presence I’d feared all along since the engagement, was fortunately not expected.
We all gathered in a small clearing before the hunt began. Men, dogs and horses projected steamy breaths as we waited for Uncle’s foreman to announce that the stags were ready.
Uncle Maurice selected the old or infirm animals for stalking, while the healthier specimens were secluded in a reservation where they couldn’t be touched. That is how the herds have been kept in good health for centuries, making room for the younger animals and keeping disease at bay.
Over a concert of stomping hooves, barking, neighing and the cracking of whips, my dear uncle chatted earnestly to everyone and everything around him. He turned to my father and shamelessly mocked his appearance. Our poor patriarch, no longer used to such exertion, was wrapped in his thickest jacket, hat and leather gloves, his face swathed in a woollen scarf that only left his eyes uncovered. Instead of replying, he stared daggers at his brother-in-law, produced his silver hipflask and pulled down his scarf just enough to have a long swig of brandy.
Maurice then turned to Elgie, the youngest in our party, and praised the incredible weather. Elgie looked just as red as our father, but managed to maintain his good mood.
Then Maurice looked at his pack of hounds, tossed them some small bait and told them how handsome they looked. The dogs trotted merrily around him. The younger ones wrestled, barked and rolled in the snow like naughty children, while the older ones moved proudly and elegantly, as if saving their energy for the more important matters at hand.
We finally heard a distant shot, signalling that the hunt had commenced. The dogs immediately went ahead, barking thunderously, and we followed.
I whipped my mare and rode away, losing all sense of time as my chest swelled in a wave of joy I had not felt for months. Her hooves sank in the snow as we chased one of the older hounds. The dog had clearly picked up a scent and moved towards it like a dart.
I very nearly caught the first beast, but Uncle Maurice had been tracking the same animal and managed to seize it before me. I knew he’d be boasting this victory for the rest of the year. Undeterred, my good hound was soon onto another scent, its nose close to the ground, this time running even faster. My heart jumped when I first saw the trail, unmistakable in the deep snow.
The dog barked and I yelled in excitement as the tips of antlers appeared in the distance, barely a hint amidst the trunks and branches.
I spurred the mare on, jumping over dead bushes and fallen trees. Despite the freezing wind I felt hot, trickles of sweat rolling down my back. Elgie had been playing Vivaldi the night before, and the fast violin notes flashed in my memory as I galloped.
We approached the stag, seeing for the first time that it was an old animal. From his heavy movements and patchy fur I could tell his best days were behind him. It was an imposing creature nevertheless, with a wide body and the most majestic antlers that would be caught that day. It was a clean shot too, and Uncle Maurice was close enough to witness it.
‘Beginners’ luck!’ he cried, pulling the reins and rushing in search of the next target. He was indeed more experienced than me, and without much effort he managed to beat us all: five stags of various sizes. None of them, however, was as spectacular as my first kill, though my subsequent two were also rather good.
I was feeling almost giddy, but soon realized I’d been overshadowed by my father. The old Mr Frey, despite complaining bitterly about his gout, backaches and chapped groin, had managed to shoot four very decent specimens, and very quickly at that. He was the first one to retire, as he’d found the stump of an ancient oak in the centre of a sunny clearing, which became the perfect spot on which to sit back and enjoy his drink. When we found him, he was proudly looking at his trophies, piled at his feet by one of the keepers.
Elgie was the clear loser, managing to shoot only one stag, and it had been the most measly and sad-looking of all. I could picture the creature, half-dead already, dragging itself terribly slowly until Elgie managed to put it out of its misery.
It was early afternoon when we made our way back to the manor, marching proudly in an almost military cavalcade, as a new wave of snowflakes started to fall around us. A small crowd of maids and house servants received us at the gates, cheering as if we’d returned from battle, as the delicious smells coming from the kitchens reminded me how hungry I was.
Our dinner had been roasting in the ovens since the night before, and my mouth watered when I thought of the tender pork falling off the bones, for Christmas was the day when my uncle carved the best joints his estate could provide.
My stepmother, Catherine, did not share the general glee. We found her waiting for us in the gentlemen’s drawing room, standing straight and stiff, with the reproving stare of a school headmistress.
‘You are finally back!’ she said. ‘Did you enjoy your killing?’
Uncle Maurice, who has never needed to keep her happy, was about to mock her as he always does, but then Catherine saw the state my father was in.
‘Oh, William, you look ghastly! I told you not to over-exert yourself. Did Maurice force you to –?’
’ uncle cried, grinning. ‘Nobody can force old William Frey!’
‘Look how red you are!’ Catherine went on, pulling my father’s scarf. She offered him a hot beverage, which she had ready on a little table, but my father pushed it away.
‘For goodness sake, woman, I am not an invalid – not yet, at least! Maurice, bring us some brandy!’
We all cheered – even Elgie, who is usually dominated by his mother – and Catherine had to admit defeat.
‘Very well, drink yourselves to oblivion. I shall leave you to your Hall of Death,’ she said, casting a condemning stare at the antler heads and stuffed pheasants hanging on the walls, before clipping off away down the corridor.
Once the drinks were poured and the cigars lit, we all sat by the fire and spent the following hour discussing the hunt. The chatter was only interrupted for a quick change of clothes.
‘Where is father?’ I asked, walking back into the drawing room, wearing my newest jacket.
Elgie was already there, ‘Mama forced him to have a bath. She said he stank like the beasts he just shot.’
‘A bath on Christmas Day!’ Uncle Maurice gasped with a theatrical shudder. ‘What a horrendous prospect …’
As we were lounging back on the leather sofas, the butler came in, looking rather alarmed. I noticed his eye kept flickering towards me.
‘Milord, Mr – Laurence Frey has arrived … with …’ he cleared his throat and couldn’t say more, for my eldest brother was already walking in.
Proudly holding the hand of Eugenia, my former fiancée.
Nobody moved. Nobody so much as blinked.
Before my eyes even made a proper judgement of their appearance, Eugenia’s perfume hit my nostrils, and for a split second the scent of gardenias took me back to happier times.
She looked as angelic as I remembered – with her alabaster skin, golden hair and petite figure – but at the same time there was something decidedly different. She held her chin a little higher, looking ever so pleased with herself, and her eyes, though still wide and blue, now shone with a patent arrogance. I wondered whether that glow had always been there and I’d simply failed to notice until then. She kept tapping her bosom with a lace fan, her hand moving in an unashamed attempt to show off her new engagement ring. There was no need, though: the diamond was the largest and most vulgar stone that money could buy.
The first word came from Uncle Maurice, thinking out loud as always. ‘How come you’re here?’
Laurence clicked his tongue. ‘Uncle! Is that how you receive guests? I was expecting at least a “Merry Christmas” … then again, you did forget to send me an invite.’
Maurice seldom blushed, but his cheeks turned scarlet. ‘I didn’t think it proper.’
Then Catherine walked in, bearing the widest grin her jaw was capable of. ‘Laurence, Eugenia, dears! You made it! I was beginning to think you would not come.’
‘You invited them!’ cried Maurice, jumping to his feet.
‘Of course, Maurice. It is Christmas after all.’
‘Your husband specifically asked me not to send them an invitation.’
‘Did Father really do that?’ Laurence said with that irksome, derisive smile of his. ‘I find that hard to believe. Why would he not want to see his eldest son and his first daughter-in-law?’
‘I am sure he does,’ Catherine said. ‘I suppose you brought a footman and a chaperone?’
‘Indeed, Mrs Frey,’ said Eugenia, her sweet voice now a screech to me. ‘They are waiting at the back entrance with our luggage.’
‘Excellent.’ Catherine looked at the butler. ‘Pogson, see that they are given comfortable rooms. The north wing chambers would be perfect for Miss Ferrars.’
The butler took a step ahead, but halted when I spoke.
That syllable was more shocking than any foul-mouthed obscenity. All the heads turned to me, and their anxious stares followed my every movement as I rose from my seat and walked towards Laurence.
‘Catherine,’ I said, but glaring at my brother, ‘you cannot give such instructions. This is not your home. You are not to decide who is welcome.’
‘Oh, Ian! I am sure –’
‘Only Uncle Maurice can decide that,’ I interrupted, speaking from the bottom of my stomach, inches away from Laurence’s face.
The butler was still standing by the door, his face distorted and telling of an agonizing inner conflict. One of the maids was pretending to collect dirty glasses at a glacial speed, not blinking.
‘Scotland has turned you rough, brother,’ said Laurence, wiping a stray fleck of spit which had landed on his cheekbone. ‘Not that you were too tempting a catch to begin with.’
For the second time this year, I grabbed him by the collar, only this time I pulled a fist back and was about to strike him on the face. Fortunately for him, I was disgracefully interrupted.
What the dickens is happening here?
My father’s thunderous voice startled us all, as we saw him enter the room in the most inappropriate attire: his tie was undone and at least three of his shirt buttons were unfastened.
I covered my face with a weary hand, expecting my father’s sharp tongue to destroy me. Laurence had always been his favourite son, the one with the chief post in Chancery Lane, the high connections and the house closest to Father’s. Now he’d crown it all with the perfect wife.
‘How dare you show your faces here today?’ Father hissed. It took me a moment to realize that he was not talking to me.
Laurence’s face lost all colour, as did Eugenia’s.
‘Fa–father, I wanted to introduce –’
‘Introduce me to your wife to be? Nonsense! It’s been two years since we all met that trollop!’
Eugenia gasped, her mouth opened as if she wanted to swallow the entire room. Uncle Maurice was uncontrollably grinning in the background.
‘William, stop it!’ cried Catherine, putting her arms around Eugenia. ‘Where are your manners?’
Where is their bloody honour? Stealing his brother’s mare! What a damned fine thing!’
‘Father. I will not tolerate that you call my fiancée –’
‘Then leave. In fact, I
you to leave – and I’m sure Maurice wants you out as well, but he’s too damned polite to say so.’
Catherine’s face, usually self-possessed, was mortified, and for the first time in a long time, I noticed her wrinkles.
‘Why, William, you cannot throw your son out on Christmas Day! Maurice, dear, pray tell William he is being unreasonable!’
My uncle was looking away, trying to conceal his smirk.
‘I shall go to my room,’ said Father, ‘pour myself a large whisky, and by the time I return I want you both out. Understood?’
He was not expecting a reply. Then the old Mr Frey, who had probably touched me only a dozen times in his life, seized me by the arm and pulled me out of the room. He grumbled unintelligibly as we walked to his bedroom and slammed the door behind us.
It was as though he’d locked us in a vault, miles away from the rest of the family. He poured the drinks very generously as we sat together, face to face, for the first time in years.
‘The one good thing that’s ever come out of bloody Scotland,’ Father said as he appraised his glass, rejoicing in the fiery bouquet.
I thought I’d need a long sip to utter the following, but it transpired I required three. ‘I must … thank you for your intervention.’
Father replied with a vague grunt, shaking his head and hand dismissively.
‘I always assumed you would take sides with Laurence.’
‘And I usually do,’ Father was quick to reply. ‘Laurence might be as haughty as you think, but you cannot deny he tends to make sensible choices – a nice career path, well-chosen property investments – unlike
. Quitting Cambridge and then Oxford … or was it Oxford and then Camb—? Well, it doesn’t matter anymore, I suppose.’