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  Escape Fiction For Eager Minds
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Cover of Whisper of Death by Patricia Wynn

.. excerpt from

Whisper of Death

-- Chapter One --

London, October 1716

“Just a bit farther, Mrs. Kean.” Their guide, Mr. Christopher Wren, son of the great architect, took hold of Hester’s elbow as she managed the final step.

Muffled voices, footsteps, and less-identifiable sounds echoed in Hester’s ears as she gazed up at the ceiling, soaring hundreds of feet above her head. Scaffolding spanned the width of the giant dome, ascending from what must be a second gallery concealed within the curvature of the dome. The outline of a painting was starting to take shape on the ceiling, but too little had been completed for Hester to make out the story it would one day tell.

Her head still swimming, she gave an embarrassed laugh. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Wren. The magnificence of your father’s creation appears to have overwhelmed me.”

Hester’s vision was clearer now. She thanked him for the foresight, which had spared her an embarrassing tumble, if not worse, and nodded to advise him that she was ready to proceed on her own. He released her to check on Mary and James Henry, who had paused a few paces farther along the gallery.

Now that Hester had experienced the exertion of the climb to the gallery, she was not surprised to see no ladies besides Mary and herself. She had visited the new cathedral not long after first coming to London, but on that occasion her cousin Isabella, Countess of Hawkhurst, had been appalled by Hester’s suggestion that they should climb the stairs. As Isabella’s waiting woman, Hester had been obliged to stay with her mistress, so the pleasure of seeing the gallery had been denied her. Mary Mayfield—more intelligent and adventurous than her sister—would never hear of missing such a treat. Since Hester and she had arrived from Yorkshire scarcely a month ago, it had been Hester’s pleasant task to show her cousin about London, more often than not accompanied by James Henry, Lord Hawkhurst’s receiver-general, who insisted that the two ladies would be safer on the London streets with his escort.

He had taken her arm now, as she peered down from the gallery to see the great lectern Mr. Wren was indicating below. Still feeling too unsteady to lean over the railing, Hester moved backwards until she felt the support of the wall, before attempting to peer up at the ceiling again. Mr. James Thornhill, who had painted the hall at Greenwich, had been given the commission to paint the dome of St. Paul’s with scenes from the life of St. Paul. The cathedral commissioners had taken the choice of artist away from Sir Christopher Wren to achieve a more economical rendering than the mosaics Mr. Wren said his father had planned.

“I shall kill him with my bare hands.”

The voice she had heard had been unmistakably male, the words and the tone laden with anger and malice, despite being uttered in a whisper. It was impossible that she had imagined them, but there was no one near enough to make his voice heard. She looked down over the railing to see if the threat could have risen from the floor, but saw at once that this, too, was impossible. The noise from below merged into the din that again had filled her ears. Below her moved doll-sized figures, with the soldiers’ red uniforms and ladies’ dresses providing contrast to the more sombre hues.

Hester put the threat from her mind, though the mystery of how she had come to hear it still nagged. “I was taken by a fit of giddiness on reaching the top of the stairs, but as soon as I caught my breath, the moment passed. I am ready to go on.”

After receiving Hester’s assurances that she was fully recovered, Mr. Wren continued the tour, describing the magnificent dome, the first structure of its kind in all of Great Britain. He explained that as impressive as the dome they saw here was, the exterior dome, a separate structure encasing this one, was larger still and proportioned to the exterior architecture, as this was to the interior. Then, he added, “Before we descend, I would like to demonstrate a curious phenomenon we have only recently discovered. I shall ask you to wait here until you see me reach a point half-way round the gallery from our current location. Then, as I turn to face that wall, I shall ask you to place your ears against this wall here.”

Mary uttered a quiet groan, but there was nothing to be done. One could not slight the son of the powerful Marquess of Ireton, no matter how much one might wish to avoid him. He had recently noticed Mary at Hampton Court at a drawing-room held by the Princess of Wales and had demanded an introduction. Mary’s mother, Mrs. Mayfield, had returned home in alt, convinced that her second daughter would make an even more splendid match than her first; but Mary was not as malleable as her sister Isabella and had made it clear that she found his lordship’s attentions repugnant. That had not stopped her mother from encouraging the gentleman’s pursuit or lecturing Mary on her duty to the family.

Just two years ago, he had impulsively eloped with a general’s daughter and presented her to his father as Lady Wragby. The fury of Lord Ireton had been such that Phillip had soon become disillusioned with his bride, loving the allowance that bought his horses and carriages and paid for his amusements more than a penniless wife. He had sent her to live at his country estate and had travelled the Continent with his tutor. Rumour had it that he had not laid eyes upon his wife since his return to England a month ago.

At first, Hester heard nothing but the usual echoes about the dome. Then, as she slightly turned her head, the voice of Mr. Wren rang clearly in her ear, “Can you hear me?”

As Mr. Wren turned to see if his surprise had met with success, Hester beckoned to him. With a beaming smile, he began the circular path back.

Mary completed her curtsy. “Thank you for your kindness, my lord, but we had a last moment change of plans.”

Hester hoped Lord Wragby would be too focused on Mary to notice James Henry’s mien, for her brother-in-law Harrowby, the Earl of Hawkhurst, would be angry to learn that a servant of his had behaved with less than perfect courtesy to the son of the most powerful leader of the Whigs.

Fortunately for James Henry, Lord Wragby seldom took notice of any persons beneath him. James Henry was a servant, a very trusted one who oversaw all his lord’s estates and a landowner in his own right, but a servant nonetheless. He was the illegitimate son of the former Earl of Hawkhurst, but to Hester’s knowledge, only three persons knew of this—herself, James Henry, and his half-brother, the outlawed Viscount St. Mars. She often wondered how James Henry managed to suppress what would be a natural resentment in his position, but except for expressing occasional loneliness, James Henry seemed to be content with his work. His father, though not acknowledging his paternity, had provided well for him, giving him a house and some acres of land, entrusting him with all his business, and paying him a generous wage. All he needed was a wife and heirs, and no one would find any reason to pity him.

Lord Wragby had now pressed so close to Mary that she was obliged to retreat a few steps. He giggled. “What? Do you fear that parson will scold us?” He looked about with an exaggerated air. “I do not spy any clerics about.”

As Lord Wragby turned to glance behind him, Mary stepped closer to James Henry, who shifted to stand between her and her unwelcome suitor. The movement was accomplished so quickly that they had exchanged places before the viscount turned back around.

“Yes, indeed,” Hester said, hoping to distract Lord Wragby. Mary concurred, saying that they were all in a quandary as to how his voice could reach them so clearly from the other side of the dome.

“What is this?” Lord Wragby glanced from Mr. Wren to Mary.

While Mr. Wren was speaking, Hester thought of the threat she had heard and realized that it must have travelled to her by this means. Now she knew why she had been unable to locate the speaker. She peered across the dome to see who could have uttered the words, but knew that she was searching too late. Whoever had spoken them, by now, would have changed his position. Since no one had gone past her to descend the stairs, however, the speaker must have been one of the men along the gallery now.

Lord Wragby had made a joke in response to Mr. Wren’s explanation. “A mystery, sir, or a miracle?” He winked at Mary and gave an irritating giggle, then turned to address his friends. “We must hope that no one was listening to our conversation, eh? What do they say? Even the walls have ears?”

Hester took advantage of Lord Wragby’s distraction to inform Mr. Wren that they were ready to descend. He did not urge them to make a complete circuit of the gallery—whether because he found Lord Wragby’s jest about a miracle in his father’s cathedral offensive or for his own convenience. By now, he must have escorted hundreds of visitors up to the “whispering gallery”, so perhaps he was relieved to cut their visit short. He yielded to this adjustment to their plans with no sign of resentment.

Lord Wragby quickly caught them up. Again, he used the privilege of rank to oust James Henry from Mary’s side. He whispered words into her ear that made her blush. The sight of her irritation filled him with hilarity and his giggles echoed from all sides.

At the sharp voice, they turned as one to see the Marquess of Ireton exiting the stairwell. He was dressed with his customary perfection, from his expensive Parisian peruke to the diamond pin in his cravat and the sparkling jewelled buckles on his shoes. His long silk coat and matching vest were heavily embroidered with gold and silver thread. The Brussels lace at his neck and cuffs was of the finest quality.

She bent into a deep curtsy and Mary hastily followed. The gentlemen made the proper obeisance for a peer of the marquess’s rank. His censorious frown passed from his son, who sullenly glared back at him, to Mary and Lord Wragby’s other companions. The two young Tories struck a defiant pose, while Mary guiltily lowered her eyes.

Lord Ireton neither returned their bows nor acknowledged his son’s friends with any greeting. Having delivered the reprimand for his son’s boorish behaviour, he gestured to his page to follow and sauntered away, his companions in his wake.

“Trust my noble papa to spoil one’s fun.” Lord Wragby expressed his relief with a sneer. “He’s just in a tiff because he won’t be able to govern me much longer. I have seen to that.”

It was impossible for Mary to reject Lord Wragby’s offer to escort her from St. Paul’s, though it was made without so much as a glance at her companions. Clearly, he intended to sweep her away. James Henry could say nothing to keep him from walking away with her—he had no right—but Hester felt no such constraints. She would insist, as politely as she could, that Mary return to Hawkhurst House in the carriage in which her brother-in-law had sent them.

The notes were so powerfully played that all voices ceased. Turning back with a cry, Mary halted their party in mid-stride, her face lit in radiance. Beside Hester, James Henry gave a quick intake of breath.

Lord Wragby could not fail to notice the slight. His brow furrowed, as for once his gaze dwelt on James Henry. Finding nothing in those hawk-like features to please him, he said peevishly, “Well, remain here if you like, but my friends and I have no wish to dally.” He relinquished Mary’s arm, bowed coldly to her, and stormed off with an air of having dealt her a crushing blow.

Hester was not surprised that James Henry doted on the girl. He had always been more indulgent with Isabella than she deserved, swayed, Hester suspected, by Isabella’s beauty. In Mary, he had found a worthier recipient of his regard.

As her emotions were stirred by the powerful tones, her mind began to wander. She could not be alone with her thoughts for long before the pain of missing St. Mars filled her. They had last met in Yorkshire. He had asked her to marry him, and she had accepted, never truly believing that such happiness could be hers. Then before they could elope to France to live openly as husband and wife, James Henry had unexpectedly arrived to fetch Hester and Mary to London. His news, that Isabella’s infant son had died, had dealt Hester a battering blow, hard on the heels of a terrifying experience. In the shock that ensued, Hester had barely been able to think. She had been only dimly aware of the hasty preparations for their journey, knowing still not only that her chance for happiness with St. Mars was slipping through her fingers, but that at all costs she must prevent James Henry from seeing him. For like everyone else, James Henry believed his half-brother Gideon Fitzsimmons, Viscount St. Mars, to be a murderer, and therefore, could not be trusted not to betray him.

Her brain argued this point with itself again and again. She tried to trust that St. Mars’s love was strong enough to forgive her—that he would understand the duty that had driven her back to London and realize, too, that she had acted in part to shield him from discovery. But smaller voices inside her head whispered that he would realize how narrow his escape had been—that he had been on the point of eloping with a nameless, penniless woman when the Vicomte de St. Mars could marry a lady of his own station in France.

Their coach with the Hawkhurst arms emblazoned on the door was waiting outside in Fleet Street. They had use of it for the day because Harrowby and Isabella had taken their newer carriage to Hampton Court to wait on the Prince and Princess of Wales. The weather through October had been trying with heavy rain nearly every day, which had dampened everyone’s spirits. Finally, as the month was drawing to a close, there was a prospect of finer days.

The King had remained in Hanover since July, leaving his son to watch over Great Britain with limited powers. At Court it was said that the Prince still fretted over his father’s refusal to name him Regent in his absence. Prince George also resented the changes the King had made to limit certain influences over him. Suspecting the Duke of Argyle of Jacobite sympathies, the King had dismissed him from his position as the Prince’s Groom of the Stole. This had infuriated the Prince, and only a threat from the King to install his brother Ernst Augustus in his son’s place had brought Prince George to heel.

Besides the physical danger of having so many idle soldiers in their midst, people were anxious because the jailing of suspected traitors continued. The slightest expression of disaffection with King George could lead to an arrest. Hardly a week went by, it seemed, that the Evening Post did not report that some person or another had been taken up by a King’s Messenger. Publishers and printers were especially vulnerable to charges of producing treasonable material, but any baker, cordwainer, or cleric could be arrested for an ill-considered remark. Most of the latter were examined and released, but others were found guilty and sentenced to months or years in gaol or to being whipped through the streets.

Tomorrow, Hester and Mary would go to Hampton Court with their family to celebrate Coronation Day. The King whose crowning was to be fêted would not be present, but it was felt, though unexpressed, that his absence would scarcely be missed.

Now, as the Hawkhurst coach rattled down Fleet Street and Temple Bar came into view, Hester averted her eyes to avoid seeing the heads of traitors hanging there. Having just visited St. Paul’s, she was struck by the irony of this other structure designed by Sir Christopher Wren. She wondered how the architect must feel to have his magnificent creation put to so gruesome a use. The last four prisoners to suffer the grisly punishment had been executed in July, so by now the rooks had picked their bones clean. Still, to see their skulls at the end of spikes on Temple Bar was a reminder that hundreds more might suffer the same fate. So many Londoners had lost their taste for blood that the executions, instead of acting as a deterrent, had raised sympathy for the Jacobites.

Mary had been happily chatting to James Henry, who listened to her with a fond look. The course of her speech faltered when the shadow of Temple Bar blocked the light through the small carriage window, leaving a chill behind. The first time Mary had seen the heads hanging above the gate she had shuddered and she grimaced now. James Henry leaned forward as if to take her hand, but, catching himself in time, he said instead, “You must not distress yourself over things beyond your power to prevent. Whatever else may be said, these men’s sufferings are over now.”

“The penalty for treason has ever been harsh—a reminder to all who would contemplate it of the consequences of such a reckless step.”

“His father must never have heard him, for I’m certain Lord Ireton would be distressed.”

“Why not?” Mary turned to face her. “I have seen him in their company before.”

James Henry shook his head. “My late master certainly could not. What he would say if he knew his successor was a Whig, I should not like to contemplate.” He said this with a teasing smile, to let Mary know that he did not share this bias against her family.

She must not let her thoughts drift to him again, however, for the others were sure to notice her withdrawal and Mary might ask the cause of her melancholy. They had become used to her silence, believing it entirely due to grief over Georgie’s death, which initially it was. But as the weeks went by, she had worried over the lack of any message from St. Mars.

While Mary and James Henry resumed their conversation, Hester thought about the men she had seen strolling around the gallery, including Lord Wragby and his friends. Anyone of them might have uttered the phrase before she had noticed them, but she found it hard to believe that Lord Wragby would conspire with a pair of Tories to kill anyone.

She had not known any of the merchants or tradesmen in the gallery. If one of them had spoken the hateful words, it was unlikely she would ever learn the cause.

Hester wished she had been able to make out the identity of the speaker, but there was seldom any distinguishing character to a whisper. Certainly not enough to recognize in a normal voice, if ever she should hear the speaker again.

Determined not to reveal her melancholy, she banished this thought, telling herself that the voice could as easily have come from one of the soldiers in the gallery.

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Last updated: 3 October 2017
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