The Scent of Death

The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor Read Free Book Online

Book: The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor Read Free Book Online
Authors: Andrew Taylor
Government mailbags by the first packet that sailed for home.
    ‘Though God knows when that will be,’ the official observed. ‘What with the rebels within and the French fleet without.’
    ‘We might as well have our dinner now,’ Townley said afterwards. ‘Nothing else can be done at present until this fuss and bother die down.’
    As we were leaving, one of Mr Townley’s servants approached him with the news that the fever had claimed the life of his clerk in the early hours of the morning.
    ‘The poor fellow,’ Townley said. ‘Troubles never come singly, do they? It is this damned heat – it encourages every kind of pestilence. I must send something to his widow.’
    We walked slowly towards the Common. Townley knew of a little inn in King George Street – nothing to look at from the outside, he told me, but the cook was from Milan and could do quite exceptional things with the meanest materials. I had already learned that Mr Townley thought a great deal about his meals and how they were prepared.
    The excitement had ebbed away from the city. The broken glass had been swept up. The shops were as busy as ever.
    ‘It’s as if nothing had happened,’ I said.
    ‘That is the nature of war, sir,’ Townley said. ‘Terrors succeed terrors, but one cannot be apprehensive all the time. These exceptional alarms are much less of an inconvenience than something more mundane – like the death of my unfortunate clerk, for example. In life he was sadly imperfect, but in death he will be sorely missed. A mass of tedious business must inevitably fall on my own shoulders.’
    ‘I wonder.’ I hesitated, but only for a moment. ‘I think I told you, I met an American on the voyage. He worked as a lawyer’s clerk in London, and even knows something of the American Department. I believe he is in want of a position.’
    A happy coincidence. Indeed I even congratulated myself on this turn of events – at a stroke, I thought, I might be able to oblige a new acquaintance while discharging a debt I owed to an older one.
    ‘Really?’ Mr Townley said. ‘How very interesting.’

Chapter Ten
    After dinner, I returned to Warren Street. I found the ladies of the house in the drawing room. Mrs Arabella was at a table by the window with a copy of the
Royal American Gazette
spread out before her. Old Mrs Wintour was sitting in front of the empty fireplace.
    I bowed in turn to them and wished them good afternoon. The old lady nodded graciously to me. But she said nothing and in a moment began to stare fixedly at the fireback as if trying to commit its sooty surface to memory.
    Mrs Arabella beckoned me towards her. For the first time I saw her by daylight. Her face was oval, the complexion pale and unblemished, the lips full and the eyes brown. Her hair was partly concealed beneath her cap, but what I could see of it was lustrous and so dark as to be almost black.
    ‘Pray do not mention the explosion or yesterday’s fire, sir,’ she said in low voice. ‘Nor Mr Pickett’s death. Mrs Wintour finds subjects of that nature disagreeable.’
    I nodded. Major Marryot was a bear in a red coat yet she clearly had him in thrall. Mr Townley spoke of her with a strange mixture of delicacy and wariness. Even Noak, as dry and dull as a ledger, knew her charms by reputation: ‘Once seen, never forgotten.’
    Now, seeing Mrs Arabella in the glare of natural light from the window, I was frankly disappointed. She was well enough but her face lacked the classical proportions and high-bred refinement of Augusta’s; her figure would not have been considered
à la mode
in London, and her cotton dress seemed positively dowdy. The Americans, I thought, perhaps judged a lady’s personal attractions by lower standards than we did.
    I had, on Mr Rampton’s advice, brought the Wintours some small presents from London – lace for the ladies, chosen by Augusta, a volume of sermons for the Judge and several pounds of tea for them all. When I presented the

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