Chapter Sixteen (completed)
Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, end of February, 1816
“Porter! Come with me!” Alex shouted at the batman cleaning boots in the small room next to the kitchen and startling him in the process. “We have urgent business in the village.”
They bundled themselves into their greatcoats, hats and scarves and headed for the stables.
“Major, the vicar! Shouldn’t we wait for ‘im?”
“He drove here himself.”
They tore from the estate at a thundering pace. Alex still marvelled at the wonder of regaining his eyesight almost completely, which allowed him to ride a horse again. His beloved stallion, Titan, had adapted splendidly to his riding and corrected his master’s errors to a fault. They reached the Turnbull house in less than a quarter of an hour. Alex jumped from Titan and tossed Porter the reins.
“Major, for heaven’s sake, wait fer me! Ye don’ know what’s inside!”
Alex did not listen. He drew his sword and his pistol, nevertheless. He kicked the door and it swung open with a crash.
“Good Lord, Alex! You scared the bloody daylights out of me! What is happening?”
Dr Orme was kneeling beside the body of a man. A rope – no, a noose – showed around his neck and his face was the awful sight of a hanged man; tongue sticking out of his contorted mouth, eyes bulging in a greyish countenance. Nevertheless, Alex knew fairly certainly that this was Peter Johnston, and it appeared that he took his own life by hanging himself. The dead man’s face was very similar to that of the man who attacked Rowena on the evening Emma Rose was born.
Fairly certain he might be, Alex mused, but not completely so. That night his vision had not yet returned fully, and moreover, it had been dark and foggy in the graveyard.
“Bloody bleedin’ ‘ell …” Porter’s soft but heartfelt curse roused Alex from his momentary stupor. Bloody hell, indeed. Alex, in his capacity as Earl of Ketteridge was the magistrate for this part of Leicestershire and would maybe have to order an inquest.
“Richard, would you do a full autopsy? Even though it is crystal clear that he did himself in, I still want a complete report on this.”
“Ah, well, Alex, that is where you err. He did not commit suicide. I discovered this when I cut him down. Look here, if you please?”
Dr Orme raised one of the corpse’s arms and showed Alex the almost invisible bruises which were typical when the hands were bound.
“The murderer must have used something soft but strong like silk or brocade to bind his hands and incapacitate him so that he could be hanged without too much resistance. Afterwards the bindings were removed yet we have not found them here. This was a carefully planned murder, Alex. It is only because the man must have put up a severe struggle that I am able to see the marks on his wrists.”
Richard was right, of course. It was murder, and Alex was bound by honour and duty to find out what happened and who the culprit was. However, he could not in all honesty declare that he was certain about the corpse’s identity.
“Porter, what do you think? Is this Johnston?”
“I dun’ know, major. It were awfully dark in that cemetery. I didn’ see ‘is face at all, remember? I just tried te tackle ‘im but he was too bloody quick fer me. Bloody limp isn ge’ing any be’er with time!”
Alex cursed under his breath. There was someone who could identify Peter Johnston, but Alex knew he could never ever asked Rowena to do that.
Rowena had just returned from the nursery where she had fed Emma Rose, when her husband’s strong voice sounded from the hall below. She had heard the front door knocker earlier, so there must have been a visitor. Therefore she was puzzled as to why Alex and Porter needed to depart so urgently when someone had called on them. She rushed downstairs and managed to waylay Meg before she disappeared into the servants’ quarters.
“What was that all about, Meg? Where are they going?”
“I have no idea, Rowie. I saw the vicar leave, just now. It seems odd that the reverend should depart without greeting you.”
Rowena snatched her thick woollen cloak and sturdiest bonnet from the stand and hurried through the back door to the stables. There was no time to fetch her half boots, so her slippers would have to be ruined, but she did not care. She was till struggling into her cloak when she watched Alex and Porter racing down the drive towards the village. Reverend Bonneville followed them at a more leisure pace, allowing Rowena to attract his attention by waving vigorously at him.
The vicar halted his gig and lifted his hat. “My lady, whatever is the matter? Can I be of service?”
“Yes, Mr Bonneville, you can take me with you. I need to follow his lordship to wherever he is heading.”
“My lady, I do not think …”
“You could tell me why his lordship is rushing down the road at breakneck speed without waiting for you to accompany him. Clearly you have told him something that requires this urgency, so you can enlighten me as well now.”
Mr Bonneville looked so forlorn that Rowena took pity on him. “Very well, sir. Please tell me where they are heading to.”
“My lady, forgive me. A body was found in old Turnbull’s house, and since his lordship is the magistrate, he had to be informed. The man – God rest his soul – took his own life.”
“But … why the haste? Is it anyone known in the village?”
“No, my lady, this man is a stranger we have never seen before. I cannot fathom why his lordship departed so hastily, my lady, unless it is because this is the first time he is being called upon as magistrate and he desired to appear diligent?”
Yes, Rowena mused, that would be so adequately typical for Alex. “Thank you, reverend. I wonder if you could take me there? I do so want to watch my husband execute his duty.”
And also, she had a fair inkling who this man was, and if she was right, she needed to know.
“Wait, Rich,” Alex asked, when Dr Orme gestured to the two farmhands to help him take the corpse away. “Did you cut him down?”
“Yes, with the help of these lads here. He is still a large man, even though he must have had little to eat in his last weeks. It is a wonder he survived this long during the harsh winter we have had.”
“I suppose he was staying in this empty house?”
“Yes, as you can see, there are some leftover possessions of his. He had a makeshift fishing pole and some snares but it must have been difficult to catch something in this weather.”
Alex nodded and dismissed Carter and his farmhand, since they had better thigs to do than to loiter here.
After the man left the room, Alex began investigating the surroundings, a large part of which had been the kitchen when the house had still been occupied. A ramshackle table and a few broken chairs, a cupboard, a simple straw mattress and a pile of rags in the corner, that was all. No indications as to who the man had been. There was not even a bag or box to stuff his clothing, which he must have had if he indeed was an army deserter. The murderer must have taken it with him.
Devil take it, but he wished he would have been able to see Johnston’s face more sharply on that gruesome night. He simply had to be certain it was Rowena’s former lover. He knew she had been opening up to him earlier when she was still convinced of the man been killed at Waterloo. Suddenly, Alex felt that it was paramount to him for Rowena to open up to him. He could not fathom why this fact was almost of vital importance to him, but there it was; he wanted, craved, could not function without Rowena’s affection. It was frightening him to no end. Deuce take it.
The rumbling of wheels outside drew Alex from his musings.
“That must be the reverend,” he said. “I asked him to come back here after he warned us at the manor.” Rising from his knees, Richard conceded, “This poor bloke is all his, since there is nothing I can do for him anymore.”
However, it was not only the Reverend Bonneville who entered the scene of catastrophy.