Blackmail at Beckwith Place




London, July 1926

Several months ago, in the blackmail notes that Grimsby, the now-dead valet, compiled about everyone in the family, Philippa Darling learned about a young woman with a baby who showed up at Sutherland House in London, looking for the man who got her in the family way.

Crispin Astley, Viscount St George, scion of the Sutherlands, had been using the London house as his base when he was in Town carousing with his set of Bright Young People, so everyone, including Grimsby, assumed that Crispin was the guilty party. Crispin, however, swears that the baby isn’t his.

Pippa never expected to have the opportunity to meet the mother and child herself, but that’s just what happens one day in July. During a weekend party at Beckwith Place to celebrate Cousin Francis’s 30th birthday, there they are: the young woman and the baby with the fair Sutherland hair and Astley blue eyes.

Everyone in the family is present for the celebration. Aunt Roz and Uncle Herbert, Francis and his new fiancée, Constance Peckham. Pippa, Cousin Christopher, and Cousin Crispin. Even Crispin’s father, the recently widowed Harold, Duke of Sutherland, has showed up for his nephew’s combination birthday celebration and engagement party.  

And when the young woman winds up dead on the grounds of Beckwith Place, bashed over the head with a croquet mallet, the field is wide open. One of the men in the family was responsible for getting her with child, and now someone—the same person or someone else—is responsible for taking her away from that child. The only question is who?

Chapter One

My cousin Francis proposed to Miss Constance Peckham on the 5th of July, 1926, two months to the day after they first met. That might have seemed rash, as if they had something to hide—I’m sure I don’t have to spell out what, as we’re all familiar with babies being born ‘early’—although in justice to them, I don’t think that was the case. Constance had been living at Beckwith Place with Aunt Roz and Uncle Herbert, Francis’s parents, for most of those two months, so opportunities to misbehave had been few and far between. I didn’t think Francis was the type, anyway. Certainly not with Constance. It had been, as the saying goes, love at first sight, and we had all seen this coming for the past month and a half.

For me personally, the 5th was memorable for another reason. It was the day I finally saw the girl with the baby.

The words ought perhaps to be capitalized. The Girl with the Baby, like an impressionist painting or the title of a lurid crime novel. That was more or less how I thought of her, or of them.

I had first heard of the pair at the end of April, during that fatal weekend at Sutherland Hall during which Duke Henry, his valet, and Lady Charlotte, the Duke’s daughter-in-law, had all met their ends by various means. At that point, she was just a story that Grimsby the valet told, one of many he had dug up about everyone in the family. The girl had made her appearance at Sutherland House, the Town seat of the Astleys, a month or two earlier, with a baby she claimed belonged to someone in the family. Upon being presented to the then-Honorable Crispin Astley—now the Viscount St George since his grandfather’s death, and no more Honorable now, in spite of the title—he had declaimed any knowledge of her.

Naturally, no one believed him. Crispin was a card-carrying member of the Society for Bright Young Persons, with a reputation for fast living and a penchant for seducing anything in a skirt. Sutherland House had been pressed into service as his bachelor pad and love nest during his weekends in Town. There was no reason to think he wasn’t as guilty as sin. Ergo, he must be lying, or he had been too drunk to remember, or he had bedded so many women that this one had simply slipped his mind… the excuses were plentiful, and all quite reasonable.

He was adamant, however—to me, to Christopher, to anyone who would listen—that the baby wasn’t his, and upon further investigation, I decided that it was just possible that he might be telling the truth. Rogers, Sutherland House’s butler, told me that the girl had asked for the Duke’s grandson when she knocked on the door that day, and not for Crispin specifically. He’s quite well known around London—Crispin, I mean; not Rogers—and he features often in the gossip rags. If he had bedded her, I would have expected her to know his name.

But all that is by the by. In the late afternoon of Monday the 5th of July, while Francis might have been down on one knee in front of Constance somewhere in the wilds of Wiltshire, Evans the doorman called up to let me know that my cousin and flat-mate Christopher Astley had a visitor.

“What kind of visitor?” I wanted to know.

“A young woman, Miss Darling.”

“A woman?” I wrinkled my nose.

Unlike his cousin Crispin (or for that matter his brother Francis), Christopher’s affections don’t incline towards young women. Not in a romantic sense. That doesn’t mean that young women don’t pursue him, of course. He might only be fourth in line for the title, but he’s young and handsome and reasonably wealthy, and he has a strong connection to the Sutherland lands and title. He also has no stomach for chasing off women on his own, which is where I usually come in.

“Yes, Miss Darling,” Evans said. “A young woman with a baby.”

My heart skipped a beat. The words ‘woman’ and ‘baby’ in the same sentence tended to do that to me these days. “Send her…”

No, wait. Did I want her in mine and Christopher’s space?

He wasn’t at home, or I would be having this conversation with him. I was alone in the flat, and perhaps I didn’t want to open it up to someone I didn’t know. I’m a friendly sort, but not that friendly.

On the other hand, if I went downstairs to meet her, we’d have to have our confrontation in front of Evans, or alternatively on the street outside, and I wasn’t so keen on either of those options, either. The revelations were certain to be sensitive, and I’d rather not have them in front of an audience, even if it was an audience of people I didn’t know and who didn’t know me.

Evans waited patiently while I weighed my options and made a decision. “I’ll be down to fetch her, Evans. Tell her to wait.”

This way, I could at least get a look at her before I decided one way or the other.

“Yes, Miss Darling.” Evans disconnected.

Christopher and I share a two-bed service flat in the Essex House Mansions in London. It’s not overly ostentatious—we’re not talking about the Albert Hall Mansions here—but it’s quite a nice place for all that. At the moment, it looked as if no one had cleaned it in a while. A pair of Christopher’s evening gloves were draped over the back of the sofa—don’t ask—and there were stacks of books everywhere, as well as two teacups and saucers with crumbs on the coffee table.

I eyed the mess, and decided it wasn’t worth doing anything about. The young woman wasn’t likely to stay long. If she was here to confront me with the idea that Christopher had got her with child—he was a grandson of the late Duke, after all—I’d soon disabuse her of that notion, and the dust bunnies under the Chesterfield wouldn’t stop me.

So I headed for the lift with my head high and my steps steady, only to be met with the glad cry of, “Hullo, Pippa!” as soon as I made it into the hallway.

I managed to bite back the bad word that had come to my mouth, but only just. “Good afternoon, Florence,” I said instead, politely, as I made my way towards her and the door to the lift. “Going out for tea? That’s a lovely frock.”

It was, in fact, quite lovely, at least if you like flounces and ruffles and flourishes.

Like most of Florence Schlomsky’s frocks, it was pink, the better to bring out the healthy roses in her cheeks, undiminished by months in the heart of London, and it was girlishly fluttery. Florence likes her chiffon panels. She also likes beads, and tassels, and fringe. You might think the heiress and only daughter of an American business magnate would show better taste, but you’d be wrong. Florence’s tastes are delightfully base—in fact, it was just a month ago that she’d had St George backed into a corner of this very lift, and if that isn’t stunningly base, I don’t know what would be.     

“This old thing?” She brushed the compliment off with a swish of her hand and bared all her teeth in a wide smile. While I know it’s physically impossible, I swear she has more than the usual number, all blindingly white and straight. “Say, Pippa…”

I managed to avoid rolling my eyes, but just barely.

“—where’s that cousin of yours holed up these days?”

“Christopher’s out with a friend,” I said.

I knew very well that she didn’t mean Christopher, and she doesn’t know Francis, but they are my only cousins, at least on the distaff side. I probably have other cousins in Germany, but these days, it’s just as well to forget that side of my family. Anti-German sentiment is still high less than a decade after the Great War, and besides, I feel pretty thoroughly English by now.

Flossie giggled and tossed her neck, making the brown curls bounce. “Don’t be silly, Pippa. You know I don’t mean Mr. Astley. Where has Lord St George been keeping himself?”

“Crispin’s in Wiltshire,” I said repressively. “If he’s been up to London in the past three weeks, he hasn’t stopped in.”

And small wonder. The last time he dropped by for a visit, he lost two friends to murder and two more to prison, and almost ended up arrested himself. (In addition to being almost devoured by Flossie in a corner of the lift.) By now, he probably thought of me as a jinx and we would never see him again. And while at one time I would have cheered for that prospect, these days I felt rather bad about it.

Not that I liked St George. Of course not. But Christopher is fond of him, and he had grown on me lately—like a fungus, in the event that he asked. I was at least able to put up with him for short periods of time without feeling an uncontrollable urge to strangle him.

“Well, if you see him,” Florence said, as the lift arrived and the automatic doors slid back. She grasped the grille covering the opening and pulled it aside so I could go in first, “—give him my love.”

I crossed into the lift box and made a face as Florence followed. “I’d really rather not.”

I had seen Flossie express her love, and there was no part of me that wanted to partake in passing it on.

She giggled, and pulled the grille back the other way. “Of course not, Pippa.”

The lift’s gears engaged, and we started to descend. Flossie added, quite sincerely, “It’s every woman for herself in the matrimonial stakes.”

“Oh, God,” I said, shaking my head. “No, Florence, you misunderstood. If you can snag him, you’re welcome to him. I certainly don’t want to marry him. Although you shouldn’t want to, either. He’s not a good prospect for marriage. He has discarded lovers all over England, you know. In fact—”

In fact, there was a young woman downstairs right now, who might be in possession of the next heir to the Sutherland dukedom.

But the lift arrived at the ground floor before I could throw St George further under the bus, and the door slid away. Flossie got busy pulling back the grille. “Listen, Pippa,” she told me over her shoulder, “you don’t have to make up stories to keep me away from him.”

“I’m not. I assure you—”

But that was as far as I got, because Flossie exited the lift, chiffon panels fluttering, and I followed, and now we found ourselves face to face with two other young women, probably no older than the two of us.

One must be Florence’s date for tea, I assumed. She was lavishly dressed—a bit too lavishly, if you ask me. The dotted dress was a bit too smart for her rather plain face, the blue too sharp for her coloring, and the sheer chiffon overcoat was too elaborate for afternoon. She had three strands of good pearls around her neck—they appeared real—and a matching cloche hat from under which she squinted at us.

It took me no more than a second to process all that, and to move on. To the other woman who stood a few feet away from the first, clutching a baby, under Evans’s watchful eye.

She had probably been pretty before childbirth and poverty took their toll. She had soft, brown hair and big eyes, and her afternoon dress, a sprigged rayon, was well made and must have been reasonably expensive when it was new. Now it was a couple of seasons out of date, and too large, as if she had lost weight since having the baby. Her hair was lank and could use a shampoo and set, and there were dark circles under her eyes. Unlike Flossie, there was no healthy pink in her cheeks.

The more eye-catching of the two was the baby, however. It was still small enough that I couldn’t say with certainty whether it was a boy or a girl, although I leaned towards girl. Either way, it was small and bright-eyed and had all the vigor its mother lacked. Its cheeks were rosy and it was bouncing on its mother’s hip, banging a closed fist against her collar bone. A tuft of blond hair stood up on its head, and it had a pink-cheeked, heart-shaped face with a small chin, large blue eyes, and a rosebud mouth.

Now, I will admit that it’s difficult to tell with babies. They have a look all their own, and often grow up to appear quite different from the way they did when they were small. But if I were pressed, I would have to say that this particular baby had a Sutherland look to it. In addition to the Astley blue eyes and the Sutherland fair hair, it also had the heart-shaped face and Cupid’s bow mouth that Christopher and Crispin share.

I have seen pictures of them both from when they were small, and I have to say that the resemblance was startling.

And of course Francis looks like an older, more muscular version of Christopher. So does his father, Lord Herbert. And Crispin’s father, the current Duke, is clearly cut from the same cloth, as well, even if he is taller and more slender than his brother.

Not that I suspected either uncle of being guilty of adultery. I just mention it as a point of fact. Crispin’s platinum hair and gray eyes notwithstanding, the Sutherland genes are strong, and all the men in the family look quite a lot alike. Crispin has the blood, so there was no reason to think he couldn’t have passed the traditional blue eyes and sunny wheat hair down to a child, even if he didn’t sport them himself.

Beside me, Florence’s jaw had dropped. She hiked it back up again. “Is that…?”

“It might very well be. That’s what I’m here to find out.” I brushed past her. “Good evening, Miss…?”

The girl’s mouth opened, but nothing came out. After a moment, she cleared her throat and tried again. “Dole. Abigail Dole.”

“Miss Dole.” I smiled graciously. “Won’t you and—”

I eyed the baby.

Abigail clutched him or her a bit closer. “Bess.”

How deplorably common. I imagined my late Aunt Charlotte, Crispin’s mother, being faced with a grandchild named Bess, and could only be grateful that she—my aunt—was dead and would be spared the indignity.

“Won’t you and… um… Bess come upstairs, where we can talk privately?”

Both Evans and Flossie were unabashedly listening, and so was the young lady in blue. Abigail glanced from one to the other with a flush. “I’m here to see Mr. Astley.”

“Christopher isn’t in,” I explained. “But if you’ll come upstairs with me, we can have tea and a biscuit while we wait for him to come home.”

She took a step back. “I don’t think…”

I took one forward. “It’s perfectly all right, I assure you.”

“I just wanted to see Mr. Astley—”

“I have photographs,” I said, inspired, “although honestly, if you’ve seen Crispin—and you have, haven’t you? Seen Lord St George?”

She took another step back, still clutching the baby. “Yes, I…” Her cheeks flushed. “I have seen Lord St George.”

I smiled winningly. “Well, then you’ve pretty much seen Christopher. They look enough alike—” at least to someone who doesn’t know them well, “—that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen the other.”

Beside me, Flossie nodded.

“I have to go,” Abigail Dole said and turned on her heel.

And that was that. I ended up standing in the middle of the foyer, my mouth open and my hand raised, while she fled through the door into the street, the baby gurgling and bouncing in her arms as she scurried away from me.

The door shut behind her with a bang, and I dropped my hand and blinked.

“Well, I never!” Flossie said. Her expression was caught somewhere between appalled and avid. “Was that…?”

I shook my head, more to clear it than in response to the question she hadn’t quite got out. “We don’t know. She never sticks around for long enough that anyone can find out.”

She slanted me a look. “You’ve seen her before?”

I haven’t,” I said. “But she’s been at Sutherland House, so I knew of her existence.”

I turned to Evans while Florence and her friend exchanged a look. “You’ve never seen her before, have you, Evans?”

Evans shook his head. “No, Miss Darling.”

So she hadn’t come to the Essex House looking for Christopher before. And—although it probably doesn’t need to be said—a year or year and a half ago, whenever little Bess must have been conceived, Christopher and I lived at Beckwith Place in Wiltshire, and she had never, to my knowledge, been seen there, either.

Back then, Crispin lived—as he still did—at Sutherland Hall. His grandfather and his mother had both been alive then, along with Uncle Harold. But even during that time St George had been in the habit of traveling up to Town for occasional weekends of debauchery. The fall of 1924 was a few months after he’d come down from Cambridge, and that was when the infamous treasure hunts had been all over the newspapers.

And Francis, of course, lived at Beckwith Place, but he also traveled up to Town from time to time. He had friends from the war, as well as from school, who lived here, and there had also been a period in Francis’s life where he had spent rather more time than he should have in debauchery. Not Crispin’s juvenile carousing, either, but rather darker stuff that included a lot less fun and games and a lot more drinking and doping himself into oblivion. It was not impossible that Francis, during one of those periods, had met this girl, and bedded her, and forgotten all about it afterwards.

And she wasn’t really Crispin’s type, any more than she was Christopher’s. Crispin likes girls, yes—likes them a lot—but to my knowledge, he preferred girls from the Bright Young Set, flashy and modern, with privilege and money of their own. Not this pitiful waif in her outmoded dress with her tired eyes.

Part of me noticed, but tried hard not to dwell on, the fact that Abigail Dole looked quite a lot like Constance Peckham, the girl who had turned Francis’s head. Dainty and pretty in a soft and old-fashioned way, with the same brown hair and big eyes.

“Let me know if she comes back, will you, Evans?”

I turned to the lift without paying Florence any mind, although I could feel her eyes, and those of her friend, boring into my back as I disappeared inside the box without a word.