Janet Gleeson The Grenadillo Box

ISBN 13: 9780593048030

The Grenadillo Box

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9780593048030: The Grenadillo Box
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It is New Year's Day 1755 and Nathaniel Hopson, journeyman to the famous cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale, finds himself drawn into a chilling affair. While working at the country home of Lord Montfort, Nathaniel discovers his patron shot dead in his magnificent new library. The conclusion seems obvious: burdened with gambling debts and recently possessed of a melancholic nature, Montfort must have taken his own life, but Nathaniel is not convinced. While the gun near Montfort's hand suggests suicide, what of the blood on the windowsill and the confusion of footprints on the library floor? And there is another strange detail: the small, elaborately carved box of rare grenadillo wood clutched in the aristocrat's lifeless hand. No sooner has Nathaniel been set up as a most unlikely investigator than another body is found, frozen and cruelly mutilated. Nathaniel's detachment is shattered. He knows the victim well - but what was he doing on Montfort's country estate? Nathaniel's investigation will take him from palatial drawing rooms to the slums of Fleet Street and London's Foundling Hospital, where the identity of a child abandoned twenty years ago may hold the key to the mystery. But someone has already killed to keep this secret and each step Nathaniel takes on his journey is a step further into danger. As intricately crafted as a Chippendale cabinet, THE GRENADILLO BOX is both an utterly irresistible detective story and a vibrant recreation of eighteenth-century England, and marks the fiction debut of this supremely accomplished writer.

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About the Author:

Janet Gleeson was born in Sri Lanka, where her father was a tea planter. After taking a degree in History of Art and English she joined Sotheby's, and later worked for Bonhams Auctioneers. In 1991 she joined Reed Books, where she was responsible for devising and writing Miller's Antiques and Collectibles. She is the author of the Sunday Times non-fiction bestsellers The Arcanum and The Moneymaker. She is also the author of three novels, The Grenadillo Box, The Serpent in the Garden and The Thief-Taker.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Clumsiness rather than cleverness marked the starting point. To put it another way, the discovery happened after two blunders.

It was New Year's Day, 1755, in the midst of Lord Montfort's dinner, when I stumbled first. The platter I was serving tipped and sent a pyramid of oranges madly spinning over the Turkey carpet. Puce with self-consciousness, I squatted to gather them up, threading my way between a forest of silk-stockinged and mahogany legs. But I needn't have worried; no one had noticed. They were ablaze with alarm at the cause of my slip -- a deafening gun blast that had rudely interrupted their party. It had reverberated through the building, a truly deafening noise, made more earsplitting perhaps by its unexpectedness; loud enough to make the door shudder and the glass in the window frames rattle; loud enough to ring in my ears several minutes afterwards.

The people assembled in that room cried out, pressing hands to their ears as if to ward off the penetrating sound, but none of them went straight to the nub of the matter. None asked the most obvious question. What had become of their host, Lord Montfort?

The gentlemen strode stiffly about the room or sat erect in their chairs. One (I know not whom, for I was still scrabbling on the floor at this juncture) cried out the only question to which the response was already evident. "What in God's name was that?"

"A gunshot."

"A gunshot, you say?"

"Aye, a gunshot..."

In her husband's absence, the mistress of this household, Lady Montfort, should perhaps have taken charge. Yet when the other ladies rose fluttering and squawking like startled pheasants put up by a beater, she seemed oblivious to her obligations. Cowed and silent, she turned a ring with her forefinger, her shoulders twitching with suppressed emotion.

In truth, though I was but a stranger here, I did not think her behavior peculiar. From the outset Horseheath Hall had struck me not only by its air of isolated seclusion -- I am well accustomed to city life, and found its remoteness unsettling -- but also by its singular character. This was my sixth day in the house; the longer I stayed the more my conviction grew that, for all its studied luxury, the mansion lacked some fundamental quality. Horseheath Hall was devoid of the essential warmth that fuses mere stone and bricks and floors and windows into an entity deserving of the name of home. Its elegant rooms were suffused with shadow. Gilded furnishings and damask draperies and ornaments did not fill the emptiness; nor did sunlight and fires ever warm it.

This oppressive chill seemed also to infect its inhabitants, and in particular its unhappy mistress. Elizabeth Montfort was but a young woman, of perhaps two and twenty years, yet there was no youthful gaiety about her, no liveliness, no freedom of expression or spirit. As far as I had observed, her habitual manner was one of suppressed anxiety and unusual agitation. Her complexion was wan, her face pinched, her eyes pale blue and rather prominent, which only added to her fretful expression. Over the past days, whenever I caught sight of her, whether penning a letter or stitching her embroidery or going listlessly about the house, it seemed to me she started, as if my appearance was somehow fearsome to her.

This evening that nervousness had worsened when her husband's temper grew markedly capricious. His final choleric outburst had caused all vestige of composure to desert her. When he stalked from the room her face turned parchment pale. Afterwards she sat clenching the tablecloth as if terrified to the depths of her soul that at any moment he might burst back and berate her again.

It was Lord Foley, senior guest at the present assembly, who swiftly took command. He instructed all servants to be sent in search of the source of the sound. When I lingered on (not regarding myself as a servant, I didn't feel obliged to follow his direction), my inertia was swiftly remarked; whereupon he clicked his fingers, furrowed his caterpillar brows, and ordered me away as curtly as one might command a dog to follow a scent.

Unable to refuse such a command, I bowed with suitable deference, then turned tail so swiftly I reckon I surprised him. But why dawdle when it was plain to me where to go? Naturally Lord Foley wasn't aware then who he was ordering about, that I was in a sense an impostor here, or that there was only one room in the house that concerned me. Lord Montfort's new library was where I headed.

From the threshold I looked in. The room was blacker than a mourner's coat, not a candle lit, only a blast of January cold, the sound of rattling panes and flapping cloth, and a yawning mouth of chimney where the fire should be. Unthinkingly, without a glimmer of dread, for I was a lusty one and twenty years and knew so little of the world that I could laugh at the indeterminate terrors it held, I retreated, took hold of a candlestick, and plunged back into the Stygian murk.

My flimsy light showed me it was no ghostly presence but an open window on the far side of the room that chilled the air and billowed the curtains. I began to cross the room, my intention being to reach the window and secure it before I ventured further. From the corner of my eye I could see the velvet-clad figure of Lord Foley now picking his way some distance behind me like a strange iridescent beetle. I located the great bookcase facing the windows and began to inch my way along it, with Lord Foley following on a few yards behind. Our lights threw feeble yellow stains over shipwrecked hulks of furniture. We walked forward slowly, footsteps clicking on the polished boards, twirling the candles about our heads as elegantly as dancers do at a summer entertainment in the Vauxhall Gardens.

I had taken scarcely half a dozen paces when my foot came down on an invisible object. I relinquished my grip on the bookcase and skidded forward, only to be halted by a further obstacle concealed in shadow. For the second time that night I staggered. The candle clattered to the ground and went out. An instant later I plummeted alongside it.

As I have said, fear had hitherto been a stranger to me. Until that moment. For as I recovered myself in the blackness and groped around waiting for Lord Foley to find me, I recognized its presence rising spontaneously like a fist in my gullet, dampening my armpits, prickling under my wig. Looking back, I believe I must have had some presentiment of danger. I knew in my marrow, even before I saw it, that something horrible awaited in the shadows.

"What happened, man?" demanded Lord Foley as he drew close.

"I can't see, my lord," said I, sitting up on the floor and rubbing my head. "My foot touched something and I tripped. If you would be so kind as to bring your light here, I will find out what it was..."

He lowered his light; I squinted through the jaundiced flame.

It was the body of a man. He lay spread-eagled against a painting, The Death of Icarus (of moderate quality, so Lord Foley later informed me), which had been propped against the bookcase ready for hanging.

I say "body," for it was apparent from his distressing condition that the man was dead. His head had slumped forward and was supported by rippling concentric circles of chin. A mess of gore, like maggots feasting in a plum, emanated from a circular wound in his temple. This stew of brain and blood and bone had matted his wig and formed a slimy trail merging with a trickle of saliva oozing from his lips. Stupefied and sickened by this scene, I sat rooted to the floor like an idiot. Even in its mutilated state I recognized the grotesque face with its bulbous pitted nose and thick fleshy lips, the corpulent body clad in silk and lace and velvet finery. It was my patron for the last few days, the owner of this estate, Lord Montfort. In life Lord Montfort's choleric humor and fondness for dissipation had reddened his jowls. In death his color was diminished. Beneath the rivulets of blood that emanated from his wound, once-florid flesh was now pallid and blotchy. How vividly I remember the unnatural hues illuminated by Foley's candle: the white of bone, powdered wig, starched cravat, against which lilac flesh and crimson gore glistened. As I looked I felt any vestige of youthful courage extinguished. Beads of perspiration bulged on my brow. I could hear my own heart palpitate within my breast. How long I stayed rooted thus I do not know, only that at length I became aware of the spindly figure of Lord Foley beside me. He crouched over Montfort, shaking his head incredulously, muttering to himself, "What is this? What is this? I cannot...cannot be the cause of it."

The emotion in his voice unfettered me. I raised my head in his direction. His candle was now on the floor, and its light cast a vast distorted silhouette of his profile on the ceiling above -- a jutting brow, a great hooked nose, a prominent chin -- and called to mind some monstrous gargoyle.

"I am sure you are not the cause of this, my lord," I replied, although I hadn't a notion to what he referred.

"What? Do you know whom you address? How can you conceive of what has happened here? You can have no knowledge of this. It is no business of yours."

His snappish tone should not have surprised me -- I was a member of the lower orders (even if I wasn't precisely the servant he believed me to be), and I had presumed to speak to him without the deference he expected. My face flamed at the crispness of his rebuke, but I understood his drift. He was an invited guest in this house, a noble one at that; I would be prudent to adopt a more subservient manner.

I murmured an apology and busied myself as best I could. I relit my candle, pushed back Montfort's head, and probed his neck for signs of life. His skin was already clammy from the bone-chilling air; there was no flicker of a pulse. By now my eyes had become more accustomed to the gloom, and I thought I discerned a lozenge of glistening black, about as long as my thumb, wedged between his fleshy jowls. I screwed up my eyes, pushed his head back again, this time at a slight angle, and leaned forward to examine his neck. Imagine then my surprise when I discovered that the black shape was not alone but one of several. Gingerly I touched one. It fell into my hand, pulsating and slimy, leaving a bead of garnet blood on Montfort's neck.

"Dear God!" I exclaimed, flicking my hand violently to dislodge it.

"What is it?" asked Lord Foley impatiently.

"There are leeches on him."

Scarcely had I uttered these words than a surge of nausea rose in my belly. I became feverishly hot within my costume, my head boiled beneath my wig, yet my face and hands grew cold and clammy as death itself. I began to shudder uncontrollably. This only doubled my distress. I was mortified to make such a pathetic display of myself before Lord Foley, and yet I was incapable of suppressing any of it. And at that moment a further discomforting thought occurred to me. The spectacle I made was no different from one I had witnessed, without comprehension, not five minutes earlier. I was reacting precisely as Elizabeth Montfort, wife of the unfortunate victim, had done when she first heard the gun blast.

Foley lit another light and brought it close. He stared unblinkingly at Montfort's neck. He saw the creatures I'd described, and his lip curled with scorn. "Come, come, man," he said, flaring the nostrils of his hawkish nose, "you are very squeamish. To be bled is a common enough occurrence -- a panacea for multiple ills."

I gulped a mouthful of air and swallowed deeply to stem the sickness that was growing stronger by the minute. "I am well aware of the benefits of bleeding, sir....Only the leeches took me by surprise. I had not expected them...in these...these...circumstances."

"I grant you they are unsightly," said Foley, bending low to study Montfort's neck, on which I could now detect half a dozen or more leeches were feasting, "but they are hardly the horror you make them." He glanced at me once more, steely-eyed, and must have read the queasiness in my face. "If you wish to retch, man, go quickly and do it from the window."

Groaning incomprehensible words of apology, I staggered across the room towards the open window. I stooped my head beneath the sash, slumped out over the sill, and the steamy contents of my stomach ejected to the ground below. Thank God I had my back to Foley and he was shielded from the worst of my degradation, though I knew he could hardly fail to hear my spittings and splutterings. The knowledge only compounded my torment. All the while my stomach was racked by spasms and disgorged itself, my mind was snarled in similar turmoil. This was the first body I had witnessed, and as I've said, until the moment I clapped my eyes on it I'd believed myself to be impervious to fear or squeamishness. Now I'd shown myself I'd no more pluck than a rabbit.

Foley displayed not a jot of interest in my plight. He continued his monologue while I vomited from the window, although I was too incapacitated to pay any attention to him until the worst of my seizure had subsided. Even when I listened more attentively, most of his words were no more than indistinct babble. The only phrase I caught quite clearly was this: "What is beyond my comprehension, however, is why he should choose to bleed himself during this evening's dinner."

The sound of the closing sash drew his attention back to me. I teetered towards him, sensing an arrow of disapproval let loose in my direction. All at once he addressed me directly. "In any case, as I've already told you, this is no business of yours. Indeed if there's an alien body in this room, I fancy it's not these creatures but you. Who the devil are you? For I swear I never saw you before."

"You are right, my lord," I conceded, gulping to dispel the acrid taint in my mouth. "We have never met until tonight. My name is Nathaniel Hopson, and I do not belong here at all."

I have long prided myself on the quickness of my fists and feet, yet the speed and violence of his reaction flabbergasted me. He gathered his brows to a black line and, placing his candle so close to my chin I fancied he might singe me, pressed my scalp back with his other hand and held it there. I felt my wig slip awry and tumble to the floor. Like a horse at market, I was being prodded and pulled, assessed for teeth and temperament. Yet Lord Foley had already made clear he expected me to be pliant, and I'd no desire to anger him unnecessarily, thus I could do nothing but submit. Eventually the unnerving examination was complete. He released my head and drew back. "Explain yourself, man. This is no time for puzzles or impudence, and besides I detest both."

I retrieved the fallen wig and held it in my hand. "Forgive me, my lord, I didn't intend to muddle you. I'm journeyman to Thomas Chippendale, cabinetmaker, of St. Martin's Lane, London."

Here I should explain, as I knew I must that night for Lord Foley (despite chattering teeth and queasiness still lurking in my belly), the unusual events that had brought me to Horseheath Hall. But first let m...

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