Narrow Escape: Shaleship Manor Book 1 - Chapter 1

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Narrow Escape Shaleslip Manor 1 - Sample Chapter 1 - Emmaline Hoffmeister
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Narrow Escape;

Shaleslip Manor Book 1

Chapter 1

 

Derbyshire, England April 1802


It was well before the usual time for callers when someone knocked on the rickety wooden door of the Poe residence in the village of Breckhill. Martha Poe dried her hands on the apron tied around her waist and then opened the door, a sudden feeling of foreboding twisting her insides.


The feeling intensified when she recognised Mr. Jonas Hammond standing on her doorstep, hat in hand. With a wary eye she regarded the inquisitor in charge of the case against the notorious Derby Mill Lead Mine masters. The door creaked as Mrs. Poe opened it wider and wordlessly invited him to enter.


Ducking his head to keep from hitting it on the low lintel, Mr. Hammond stepped over the threshold into the dimly lit lodging. Though the morning sun shone brightly outside, the light did not reach the Poe home, which stood in the shadow of a larger building across the street.


Martha did not offer him a seat, nor did she take one herself. Instead, she stood with the wooden table between them, desperately seeking answers. “What are you doing here? Tell me how my Matthew fares. He has been gone for weeks and I’ve heard nary a word from him.”


Her husband, Matthew, was in hiding. He knew a great deal concerning the immoral, unconscionable, and outright illegal business practices of the Derby Mill masters, and he had agreed to share this knowledge with magistrates, judges, and anyone else who would care to listen. The Derby Mill masters were not forgiving men, and if they found her husband his life was surely forfeit. She desperately wanted to hear any news of him, but at the same time she feared what Mr. Hammond might say.


“I am sorry, Mrs. Poe, but I am afraid I bear sad tidings. Perhaps you should take a seat.”


“Good God, what has happened to my Matthew? Where is he?” she asked, the words tumbling out in a rush. Her chin trembled.


“I am afraid Mr. Poe is dead.”


“Dead! How?” She staggered, her hands grasping at the table to hold her up. Her mind swirled, her breathing shallow and erratic. Matthew was the only person she cared for in the entire world.


“Come sit next to the fire,” Mr. Hammond coaxed as he moved around the table.


“No! Tell me what happened,” she cried. Her knuckles were white from the strength of her grip on the edge of the table.


“He was shot,” Mr. Hammond admitted quietly.


“By those men! Matthew said they would kill him if he agreed to testify. He knew. Curse him, he knew. You were supposed to protect him. What use is the law if you cannot even keep him safe?” Tears steadily flowed down her cheeks, but her voice was surprisingly strong.


Mr. Hammond remained silent in the face of her grief, recognising her need to rant.


Martha bowed her head and took a deep breath. “I want to see him.”


“His wounds are of such a nature … he would not wish you to see him in his present state, but rather remember him as he was.”


A strangled cry left Martha’s throat and her knees nearly buckled.


“His body is in Masson, where he will be buried this afternoon,” Mr. Hammond continued gently. “I will take you there and bring you home after the service.”


“No, he can’t be buried in Masson. He always wanted to be buried in Shalebury under the shadow of Mam Tor near his foster mother. His father would never allow him to be buried with his real mother.”


“I’m sorry, Mrs. Poe, but you mistake me. I have paid all the funeral expenses for his burial in the Masson parish cemetery, not the Poe family plot. If you want him buried elsewhere, you must do it at your own expense.”


“I haven’t the money. You know I haven’t.” Martha put her hand over her mouth in an ineffectual attempt to stifle a sob. She tried to calm herself, tried to breathe, but air would not come. Her legs buckled under her and she collapsed to her knees. She kept one hand over her mouth, but the other still maintained a white-knuckled grip on the edge of the table as she sobbed, her head sagging until her chin touched her chest.


“How may I help? Is there someone I could send for? Your family or a friend, perhaps?” Mr. Hammond stepped closer, his hand outstretched.


“Stay away from me,” Martha screamed. It took a minute or two for her to regain her composure, but soon she rallied. She smeared her tears across her cheeks with her hands, ignoring the handkerchief Mr. Hammond proffered. Then, taking a deep breath, she stood and said, “Very well, if he must be buried in Masson, I must accept it. Give me a few minutes and I will gather my things.”


As she readied herself for the trip to Masson, her mind turned to practical matters with a speed that shocked her. Though her husband was dead and her heart lay in tatters, she was already calculating how long her meagre savings would last and how much extra work she would have to do in order to support herself. She could take in extra washing at home, so long as her employer at the laundry did not find out, and a boarder could help her pay the rent. Matthew had not left her with much, but she would survive. She would press on.


That’s what strong women did, and Martha Poe was a strong woman.


 

Freddy Knox sat with his back against the cold, hard bricks of the abandoned lodgings across the street and three doors down from the Poe residence. After years as an action agent in the British Secret Service, spying on a common washerwoman was an irritating task far below his abilities.


The job had sounded intriguing at first. His employer wished him to dig up information related to lead mining trade agreements. Had Freddy known where the position would take him, he would have turned it down. It was too late now, though; he was in too deep to get out. Twice Freddy had tried to discontinue his professional relationship with Lord Sharpson and the Derby Mill masters, but they well and truly had him over a barrel.


He bitterly regretted ever meeting the masters in person. They had only to reveal his true identity to certain people in his checkered past to ruin him, and they had no scruples in making such threats to insure his continued loyalty. Lord Sharpson had a number of surprisingly low connections, and Freddy had no doubt he could make good on his threats. He would do their bidding for now and bide his time until he could make a clean break from them.


In his hands was a piece of softwood. He often passed the hours whittling. It was the perfect pastime for a man on a mission such as his. Whittling allowed Freddy to keep a surreptitious eye on the comings and goings at the Poe residence while looking as if he belonged there. He had set up a sort of stall where he displayed his carvings, and he appeared for all the world to be nothing more than an opportunistic street vendor taking advantage of the rent-free real estate.


When he was not gathering information for aristocrats and businessmen, ladies and gentlemen from every county in England sought him out to commission grand carvings. As far as they knew, art was his only profession. While keeping watch over Mrs. Poe he had crafted and sold three small rowboats—complete with a pair of oars and a pudgy wooden oarsman—and given away several wooden soldiers and animals of all descriptions. He always gave away more than he sold to the urchins who roamed the village, and his stint as a street vendor was not likely to be a profitable one. Not, at least, where money was concerned. He still had hopes for the other matter that had brought him here, though they were becoming slimmer by the day.


Until today Mrs. Poe had gone about the same daily routine: scrubbing at the laundry, more scrubbing at the church, yet more scrubbing at home, and then a simple meal before retiring not long after the sun went down. Freddy expected today to be the same, but it proved to be otherwise rather early on.


Before her usual time of departure, a man dressed as an inquisitor came to her door. He watched as the inquisitor went inside, then he left his stall, crossed the street, and leaned casually against Mrs. Poe’s wall with his ear very near the crack in the door. He listened long enough to learn what he needed and then returned to his usual place.


The information that Mr. Poe was dead and soon to be buried in the Masson Cemetery was just what Lord Sharpson and his associates most wanted to know. Freddy scrawled a nearly illegible note on a dirty scrap of paper. He was just folding it when he espied the inquisitor and Mrs. Poe leaving together.


Seeing a boy of about eleven years old, Freddy motioned for him to approach. He was a regular at Freddy’s stall. He was a smart and steady lad who liked the wooden soldiers and horses best, and, to Freddy’s despair and delight, he could not read a jot.


“Want to earn a farthing?” Freddy asked, holding up a coin in front of the boy.


“Yes, sir,” the boy answered, his eyes wide with anticipation.


“Take this message to the two-storey brick house on the corner of Main and Broad. Can you do that?”


“’Course I can.”


Freddy handed over the note and the farthing. “You make sure it gets there. I’ll not be pleased if I find out you were lax with the job.”


“You can rely on me,” the boy said, throwing a mock salute before he took off running in the direction instructed.


The lad reminded Freddy of himself at that age. Always ready to run an errand for a coin or two. That was before his experiences in the Secret Service made him suspicious of everyone. More than a few men in his former profession, himself included, had been raised more by the cold streets than by a mother’s gentle hand. Such an upbringing better prepared them for life in the Service. To excel required a certain finesse. Finesse with a pistol, or a dagger, or with information.


The latter was Freddy’s specialty. He knew things, and if he did not, he had the means to discover them.


 

Only Martha Poe struggled to hold back tears of grief at her husband’s gravesite in the Masson Cemetery. Her tears would have seemed out of place in this strange gathering. Aside from herself and Mr. Hammond, the only other onlooker was a stodgy journalist for the London Gazette. The ceremony was one of efficiency, not emotions.


Four strong lads hired by Mr. Hammond dug the grave and assisted with the burial. They pulled the coffin from the dead wagon and lowered it into the ground with thick ropes wrapped around their calloused hands. A young curate recited a memorized burial service over Mr. Poe’s grave without looking at the bible he held out in front of him.


The unpretentious words were meant to be a tribute to Mr. Poe’s life. With each word the clergyman spoke, Martha wanted to pummel him or Mr. Hammond. She wanted to scream aloud that everything was wrong. Her husband should not be dead. He should not be buried in Masson Cemetery. Matthew hated Masson and all that it represented. It broke her heart afresh that she could not afford to bury him in Shalebury as he had wished. The expense would have ruined her, leaving her less than nothing to live on.


The curate completed his recitation and Martha stepped forward on trembling legs to throw a handful of dirt on the coffin. When no one else moved, one of the gravediggers gave her a pitying look and added his own handful of dirt. Mr. Hammond gave a start, as if only then recalling why they were all there, and hastened to follow suit. It took all of Martha’s strength of will not to leap into the grave, scoop up the dirt, and throw it back in the inquisitor’s face.


Though the effort cost her dearly, she held her tears in check and watched the coffin disappear as the gravediggers went about the business of burying her husband. It was not until the fresh mound of earth was being tamped down that she turned away and walked with a stiffened spine to the inquisitor’s carriage.


The curate and the journalist walked with Mr. Hammond from the gravesite. The journalist was the first to speak.


“With the loss of Mr. Poe as your key witness, how will it affect your case against the Derby Mill masters?” The short, heavyset man held a pencil in his pudgy fingers, poised to scribble notes in his small notebook. He did not bother to look up at Mr. Hammond as he answered.


“It will no doubt make my job more difficult, but the loss is not so significant that the case cannot move forwards,” responded Mr. Hammond.


“Is Mr. Poe’s death connected with the recent deaths of Lord Grange and Mr. Ball?”


“Further investigation will be necessary before I can definitively answer that. Do you have other questions?”


“Not at this time,” the journalist said, closing the notebook and stuffing it and his little pencil in the pocket of his waistcoat. He bowed and took his leave, exiting the cemetery from the south entrance near the main road where his phaeton waited at the wooden tie post.


Mr. Hammond hated journalists as much as he hated criminals. They were sensationalistic gossipmongers who hampered the progress of his inquisitions, twisted facts, and misreported events to sell more papers.


Mr. Hammond watched the man climb into the phaeton and set off at a smart clip before addressing the curate who remained at his side. “Thank you for performing the ceremony upon such short notice. I will see the church is compensated for your troubles.”


“Will the death of this man truly not jeopardise your case?” The quiet sincerity with which the curate broached his query resonated with Mr. Hammond. He could not comprehend lying to a man of the cloth.


He bowed his head and admitted, “The case falls apart without the testimony of Mr. Poe. Now, if you will excuse me, I must get Mrs. Poe back to Breckhill.”

 


Narrow Escape Shaleslip Manor 1 - Sample Chapter 1 - Emmaline Hoffmeister
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Download PDF • 1.54MB


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