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11 September 2013 @ 06:34 pm
death comes to haslewood hall - chapter one [whitechapel au bigbang]  
Chapter One
Earlier that day…

He read the invitation once again. In a fine, skilled hand, it said:


»You are cordially invited to celebrate the most joyous event of the engagement between Joseph Chandler III, Earl of Haslewood, Secretary and Keeper of the Seal of the Council of the North to the Honourable Lady Morgan Lamb to take place at Haslewood Hall on the 21st December at 5 o’clock in the evening.«

More than thirty guests were expected to arrive this evening, mostly members of noble families from the county, some from York and a few well-to-do members of the local gentry. The late Earl of Haslewood had been held in high regards by many. His son and heir, Joseph Chandler, hoped to achieve the same someday. He had only very recently inherited the title, along with the estate, after his father’s sudden death. As the new Earl of Haslewood, it was also his duty to find a wife as soon as possible and Lady Morgan Lamb was a fitting match. She herself was the daughter of an Earl. In addition to her social status, her physical beauty and kindness made her a very appealing prospect. The few times they’d met in public, Chandler had been impressed with her. Unlike most members of her sex, she was witty and well educated. A truly accomplished woman. It had been a mystery to him how such a rare gem had not yet been snatched up by another man.

He was fortunate indeed to have found such a young, charming lady. The marriage had been arranged by her parents and Lord Anderson, who had acted as Chandler’s guardian in the matter until the inheritance had been settled.

Now at last, six months after he had become the new Earl of Haslewood, Chandler would formally engage himself to Morgan Lamb. By tomorrow half the county would know of his upcoming nuptials. The thought made Chandler’s head spin. Was he really ready to settle into married life? He had to admit to himself that he’d had some minor doubts from the start, but which he had always chosen to ignore, up until now that is. Lately those doubts were becoming more and more of an issue. They occupied his thoughts not only when he found himself lying awake in the wee morning hours, but increasingly also during the day.

These thoughts were now even starting to interfere with the time he needed to deal with matters of the estate. Perhaps it was just the fear of sharing his life with someone so completely, of letting someone so close to his heart.

He was still holding the wedding invitation absentmindedly in his hand when he heard someone knock on his study door. »Come in.«

His fiancée gazed at him through the door, which stood slightly ajar. »My dear, I was hoping to find you here. I have just received word that some of our guests won’t be able to make it in this weather,« the countess said as the opened the door and swept into his study.

Chandler put on a brave smile. »I feared as much. The ground is solid ice. And the snow isn’t getting any less either. It’s difficult enough to ride under these conditions, let alone travel by carriage.«

»Quite true, my dear. Anyway, let me get myself ready. At least some of our guests will be arriving shortly, I’m sure.«

»Tell your brother to do the same. I want him to come down with us to greet them. It wouldn’t look proper if there were just the two of us.«

»Indeed,« Morgan agreed, a flash of concern spreading across her face.

»However, poor Louis said that he isn’t feeling too well. I think he might have caught cold, but I’ll tell him to come down for your sake.«

»Thank you, my dear.«

With a fleeting kiss on the hand, Morgan left the study and Chandler made his way to his own chambers to prepare himself for the evening ahead.

Chandler looked at himself in the mirror. He was wearing a dark green silk doublet and gray hose. As a concession to the latest styles, he also wore a ruff at his neck and a codpiece, but kept both modest. Personally, he had always hated these accessories, but fashion was fashion after all.

Just as he had completed his sartorial ministrations, Chandler heard a carriage pull up. His servant informed him that his first guests of the evening had arrived. He was surprised to find Lady Riley, Lady Llewellyn and the Mansell sharing a carriage. They were happily chatting away as they exited the carriage, filling the air with their cheerful voices and occasional laughter. Lady Riley, a widow of considerable wealth, was the first to alight. Chandler knew her only by sight. He remembered hearing stories about her and her many husbands – five all together. And all, it would seem, had died quiet suddenly under less than clear-cut circumstances, leaving her with extensive estates and a sizeable fortune.

»So this is the young Chandler. What a feast for the eyes! I dare say your father has kept you well hidden in the past. I remember never getting more than a glimpse of you in society.«

Lady Riley seemed to be a kind, agreeable woman, although it appeared she could sometimes forget herself.

»You are very welcome here at Haslewood Hall,« Chandler greeted her with a smile.

As he leaned down to kiss her hand, he got an eyeful of her rather exposed bosom. He tried to avert his gaze and focus instead on the large pearl necklace she was wearing.

Chandler was dismayed to find that in this moment she reminded him more of a busty tavern wench than a lady.

He suddenly noticed Miles standing close by. »My Lady, the correct form of address for my Lordship is: Earl of Haslewood Hall, Secretary and Keeper of the Seal of the Council of the North.«

Chandler tried hard not to roll his eyes. Although it was standard protocol, he swore Miles only did it to annoy him. He was like that sometimes. Before the Earl could reply, Lady Llewellyn and Mansell were standing in front of him, ready to pay their respects. Lady Llewellyn was the next to address him. Compared to Lady Riley, she was dressed in a more modest fashion.

»Earl of Haslewood, Secretary and Keeper…« she began, only to be interrupted by Mansell. »Oh just say, ›What he said‹.« Mansell pointed to Miles and grinned. »You see, no one actually knows what the title means anyway.« Mansell continued smirking.

Chandler hardly knew how to reply to that. He had met Mansell on a few previous occasions and had heard about his unseemly behaviour from others. Up until now, however, he had never experienced it himself. He could sense, rather than see Miles smirk at Mansell’s remark behind his back. Oh, this was going to a be a long evening.


»Right, well, you’re all very welcome. My steward, Miles, will see you inside.«

With his first guests safely indoors on this chilly December day, he turned his attention to the estate’s main entrance where two riders had just passed through the gate. An older gentleman and a younger man with a mop of dark curls peeking out from underneath his hat were riding towards the manor house. Chandler was almost certain that he had never seen either one of them before. Then again, he hardly knew more than half of his guests personally. Father and son, he surmised, before dismissing that thought, as they got nearer. They were nothing alike.

The older man looked plain and was simply attired, whereas the younger one looked refined and slightly exotic, maybe even foreign. His hair was almost black and formed a stark contrast to his porcelain white complexion. Although he was certainly dressed to impress, his large, luminous brown eyes betrayed his nervousness. Chandler felt inexplicably drawn to him and could hardly tear his gaze away long enough to welcome the older man who had dismounted in the meantime.

»Buchan, Sir. Edward Buchan. Very pleased to make your acquaintance.«

He bowed briefly and continued before Chandler could reply.

»I was a tradesman for your late father, God rest his immortal soul.«

Chandler forced himself to concentrate on the older man.

»I recall, yes. A very valued tradesman. And I also hear that you have been recently given a knighthood, Sir Edward.«

A proud smile spread across the man’s features. It was clear that he hadn’t yet become accustomed to his social elevation.

»Indeed, I can tell that the Earl is well informed, as was your father. It is an honour to finally meet you.«

»And this is…« Chandler began, turning towards the young man. »Baronet Emerson Kent, my Lord,« the dark-haired man replied and also quickly bowed.

*

Kent could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He’d been preparing for this moment a long time and wanted to get everything just right. He addressed the Earl in the proper manner, using his full title, which he’d learnt by heart. The Earl seemed rather taken by this effort. It was only when he unbent from his bow that he got a closer look at the man behind the title. Kent could barely contain his startled reaction, for he was certain that he was gazing upon one of the most fetching men he had ever seen. He let his eyes take in the tall figure with his broad shoulders, lean waist and even his attractively toned calves. All truly impressive, but his smile, which seemed almost timid, was by far the most breathtaking feature.

Kent could feel himself blushing, mentally cursing his pale complexion for betraying him.

He tried to hide his quickly reddening cheeks by turning his attention elsewhere. Luckily for him, Buchan chose that moment to cut in, asking about the Earl’s well-being as they were ushered inside. Two more faces greeted them in the grand hallway, which was larger than the Kent family’s entire sitting room back at Hanbury House. A short, brown-haired lady stepped forward. She was pretty enough, with a sharp, pointed look about her. Not overly elegant, Kent thought uncharitably.

»And this is the Lady Morgan Lamb, my fiancée,« Chandler announced. Well, that was certainly a surprise. As a highborn lady, especially one worthy of the dazzling Earl of Haslewood, Kent thought she would have looked a bit more the part. He had imagined her to be stunningly beautiful with attire befitting her rank. A few large gems and pearls adorning her gown perhaps.

Both Buchan and Kent bowed and kissed her hand briefly as a sign of respect. A young man, who had been hidden behind her, came forward.

»And this,« Chandler continued, »is Count Lamb, the younger brother of Lady Morgan.« They both greeted the young man, who seemed to be at least five years his sister’s junior. He still had a very boyish look about him, and was both short and very skinny. Almost sickly looking. As if on cue, he started to cough, apologising right away.

»I fear the Count isn’t feeling too well,« Lady Lamb interjected. »Perhaps it would be better, dear brother, if you returned upstairs to lie down. I’ll see to it that dinner is sent up to you.«

He simply nodded and then mumbled: »If you’ll excuse me, it was a pleasure to meet you all.« Before anyone could reply, he had turned around and was striding up the broad oak staircase, disappearing out of sight.

Kent hardly had any time to form an opinion of the young man. From what he could tell so far, the Lambs appeared to be a good family who didn’t put on any airs, despite their noble status. The same was true of their host, the Earl. Within the first few minutes of their acquaintance, Kent was sure that he had never met a more dashing, more elegant or more gracious gentlemen. He also seemed to be possessed of a kind nature, treating all members of society alike, be they barons or tradesmen.

The last guest of the evening to arrive, who just managed to brave the worsening weather conditions, was the Duke of York. He was by far the highest-ranking noble of them all, and unfortunately nothing like Chandler or the Lambs. Kent watched the tall, dark-haired man give the Earl a cursory greeting and briefly nod at the other guests before promptly strolling through the hallway to the dining room as if he owned the estate. He had sat down at the end of the long table and demanded a bottle of wine before any of the other guests could even take their seats. There was no proper introduction. The Duke doubtlessly assumed that everyone was familiar with him.

When all were seated and the drinks were being served, their host stood up and cleared his throat: »My Lords and Ladies, I give you Duke Cazenove of York. We are glad you could make it, good sir.«

Cazenove was already drinking from his goblet before Chandler even finished with his brief toast. The Duke nodded, swallowed audibly and then replied: »Good of you to have me, Chandler. Very decent wine, I must say. Now where’s the food? I’m starved.«

Kent kept a close eye on the Duke during the course of the meal. He knew he shouldn’t judge his betters, especially ones he had just met, but truth be told, Kent was disgusted by the Duke. While he was clearly dressed in the most expensive fabrics, finest brocade and the smoothest velvet, his hair was lank and greasy. Certainly one look at him and everyone could tell he came from wealth and power. And yet he decided to behave worse than a local farmer. He spoke in a loud manner and chose topics that were highly inappropriate for such an evening. And his table manners were worse still. It almost made Kent sick to see him stuff himself using his bare hands, shovelling large amounts of pork, venison and pheasant into his wide mouth.

By the time dessert was served, Kent had had enough. He desperately tried to direct his attention elsewhere. As he looked down the length of the table, he briefly met the Earl’s gaze. For a moment, they both seemed to be caught within each other’s gaze, but then Chandler quickly looked away again. He turned to Mansell and the ladies, exchanged a few words with them before singling out Buchan. They were all happily chatting away, speaking of topics Kent knew little about. He smiled and nodded when it seemed appropriate, trying not to show that he felt slightly out of place. When the platters weighed down with desserts were finally brought in, Kent breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone’s attention was drawn to the mouth-watering dishes that were being placed in front of them. There were cherry trifles, custards, minced pies and foreign fruit. Buchan, who was sitting directly next to Kent, couldn’t hide his look of amazement.

»Well, what a sight to behold! I would say that Chandler has truly outdone himself with this feast, wouldn’t you agree?«

»Sir Joseph or Lord Chandler,« Kent corrected him quietly.

»Quite right, of course.« Buchan had the grace to blush.

Dessert was a quick affair and soon afterwards they all moved into the drawing room for the evening’s entertainment. Morgan was the first to grace the guests with a performance on the harp. Chandler beamed with pride throughout her entire performance and applauded louder than anyone after the last song. Next, it was Mansell’s turn. He lightened the mood with a few rather vulgar ballads he recited. Lady Riley was clearly amused, laughing rather loudly and unladylike. Kent observed that the two were getting along rather well. One could almost say that they were coquetting with one another. Both of them had mentioned that they had been widowed a few times before, but as far as Kent knew, Mansell was still married at the moment. He watched them silently, feeling that it wasn’t his place to say anything about the matter.

Kent was so caught up in his speculations that he hadn’t notice the room going all silent. When he looked up from where he had been absent-mindedly studying the fine carpet, he noticed all eyes on him.

»Kent, would you oblige us with a song?« Buchan asked.

Kent felt a lump forming in the back of his throat.

»Well I…I don’t really have much of a singing voice, I’m afraid.«

»I dare say you do. I heard you sing a song on our way here. Quite a bonny voice for singing, I assure you.«

There seemed to be no way out of this now. Kent hated to be in the limelight. He cursed the fact that he had sung a few verses while riding earlier. Blushing once more, he got up from his seat and stood in the middle of the room. Clearing his throat, he began.

*

Chandler hadn’t dared to look at Kent during dinner. The earnest young man had an unsettling effect on him for some reason. It was only now when everyone’s gaze was glued to the young baronet that he allowed himself the pleasure of looking. He was instantly mesmerized. Not only by the soft voice, which was indeed very pleasing to his ears, but also Kent’s whole appearance. It was the first time in fact that he got a good long look at the other man. Young Kent had closed his eyes when he started to sing which made it even easier for Chandler to gaze his fill. Kent was a good deal shorter than Chandler, slim and almost petite. His face was clean-shaven and his curls neatly trimmed. His outfit was rather modest, but the brown and mauve suited him perfectly.
Halfway through Kent’s second song Chandler turned to glance at his fiancée. Her shawl had fallen from one of her shoulders. He felt guilty for having been so absorbed by the young man that he had failed to pay proper attention to her. She, however, didn’t seem to have noticed, for which he was more than grateful. He slowly turned his attention towards Kent once again, fully enjoying the musical performance. It was innocent after all, wasn’t it? He was merely admiring the melodic voice of a young man with a pleasant demeanour. And yet something in the back of his mind told him that his interest was anything but innocent. It was most bewildering.

Duke Cazenove, whom Chandler had to admit had already made quite a spectacle of himself at dinner, continued with his improper behaviour. He was unabashedly eyeing a servant girl, leering at her whenever she came closer to fill his cup. Chandler hated such conduct, but the Duke was his most esteemed guest, so he had to tolerate it. Soon after Kent had finished his second song, Cazenove excused himself and followed Laurel, the servant girl, outside. Chandler didn’t even want to imagine what he might be up to.

Another song followed, applauded by everyone. By now, Kent’s flush had faded and he was smiling in earnest. All thoughts of the Duke’s scandalous behaviour were immediately wiped from Chandler’s mind.

»Wonderful! Simply wonderful!« Chandler exclaimed, clapping louder than anyone else.

»Thank you, my Lord.« With a short bow, he left the stage and sat down again.

»Well that was something, wasn’t it?« Lady Llewellyn asked of no one in particular.

She started to fan herself. Her cheeks were a slight shade of pink, though Chandler couldn’t say if it that was the result of the wine or due to the pleasure of hearing such as comely young man perform for them.   

»I say we all take some fresh air before it gets dark.« Chandler suggested.

Everyone seemed in agreement. Although it was still snowing lightly, a short turn in the garden wouldn’t do any harm. As Chandler rose he helped Morgan to her feet: »You go on my dear, I think I shall stay indoors. It is awfully cold outside and I wouldn’t want to get sick like poor Louis.«

»Are you sure? I could stay with you and let the others go.«

»Nonsense. You’ll do no such thing. Besides, you won’t be long. I’ll be upstairs.«

It was decided. As they moved towards the entrance to the garden, Chandler paused to allow Miles help him with his frock coat.
»Follow me. Haslewood Hall has magnificent, extensive grounds. Of course, the gardens are much lovelier in summer…«


Chapter Two - Master Post