Read Cavalier Case Online

Authors: Antonia Fraser

Cavalier Case

BOOK: Cavalier Case

A Jemima Shore Mystery





I the portrait 

II toast To decimus 

III A ghost walking

IV cavalier masquerade 

V disaster 

VI mission To frighten

VII bodysnatching 

VII the departed servant 

IX sport for spectators

X seduction of the fittest 

XI what the butler knew 

XII smelling of history 

XIII late that night 

XIV death rehearsal 

XV thunder As forecast 

XVI decimus goes home 

The Meredith Family


Decimus Antony Norton Meredith (
Handsome Dan), 18th Viscount Lackland

Charlotte Lackland,
his wife

Zena Meredith,
his sister

Marcus Meredith, MP,
his cousin

Babs Meredith,
his first wife 

Nell Meredith,
Babs' daughter

Louisa, Emily and Decimus (Dessie)
Meredith, Charlotte's children


Thomas Antony Decimus Meredith (Cousin Tommy), 
17th Viscount Lackland, recently dead


Decimus Meredith,
1st Viscount Lackland, Cavalier poet

Olivia Lackland,
an heiress, his wife

Antony Decimus Meredith, 
2nd Viscount Lackland, his only child

Rev. Thomas Meredith,
Chaplain at Lackland Court, his cousin


The Portrait

Two things happened on the night of the twelfth of July, both of them important to the Cavalier Case (as it was later known). An old man fell down some stairs in a large house in Taynfordshire and broke his neck. And in London, sitting at her desk at Megalith Television, Jemima Shore, Investigator, fell in love.

Since the object of Jemima's passion was a person in a portrait who had been dead for well over three hundred years and the old man who stumbled down the stairs to his death was seventy-seven years old, half-blind and fond of his late-night whisky, it could scarcely have been expected that this conjunction of events would lead in time to that thrilling mixture of sex, violence and the supernatural, snobbery, historical romance, and even sport, which went under the general name of the Cavalier Case. It is true that there was one obvious connection between the two events. The person in the portrait, Decimus Meredith, 1st Viscount Lackland, poet and Cavalier, mortally wounded in the Battle of Taynford in 1645, was the direct ancestor of the old man who died thus accidentally if not unexpectedly.

But Thomas Antony Decimus Meredith, 17th Viscount Lackland, had led a career in direct contrast to that of his famous forebear. Forgetting that human taste for the bottle in his latter years, conventional obscurity might be a way of summing it up, beyond the fact he still lived in Lackland Court, the poet's house. There had been a respectable, even gallant war record which far from ending in a hero's death had merely formed the prelude to the post-war life of a a country landowner; no poetry in sight (except the works of his famous ancestor reverently enshrined in the library) and certainly none composed. No, surely no one could have foreseen the chain of events which would link the passion of Jemima Shore to the death of old Tommy Lackland, bringing a chain of destruction in its wake.

Of course there was another way of looking at it. Since the career of the new Lord Lackland—previously known as Handsome Dan Meredith—had been marked by a certain romantic turbulence, it was hardly to be expected that his inheritance of his cousin's title would prove to be utterly peaceful. What with Handsome Dan's two wives, Babs and Charlotte ... his numerous girlfriends, last but not least Alix . . . Then there was the Meredith family: Zena, the three little ones, poor Nell, and in quite a different sense, poor Marcus. But as Jemima Shore sat moodily in her Megalith office gazing yet again at the portrait of Decimus Lackland, Handsome Dan himself was quite unknown to her, beyond a name cursorily encountered in the newspapers in the past. There was after all no reason why their paths should have crossed. And without the fortuitous appearance of the Lackland portrait (combined with one of Cy Fredericks' notorious "seminais") they would presumably never have done so. Once again the world would have been the poorer—or at least less colourful—for the lack of the Cavalier Case.

The portrait of Decimus Lackland was propped up opposite Jemima's desk. It was in fact a large oil painting: over five feet high. The background was mainly dark, although some kind of pillar could be discerned and a heavy swag of rich reddish material—taffeta perhaps— encompassing it, with a snatch of obscure country landscape beyond. The light fell mainly upon the face and the high pointed white lace collar, falling over the further darkness of the armour. In the poet's face, as in the picture, darkness was set against light: the pale oval contrasted with almond-shaped black eyes, the dark fringe and the flowing lovelocks of the Cavalier. To Jemima, the face itself seemed to rise above the armour and transcend it as though at once disdaining the arts of war, and ennobling them by its participation.

There was a further patch of light on the splayed white hand with its long—perhaps disproportionately long—fingers; it rested on the head of an enormous dog—a hound.' a mastiff? Jemima was not good on dogs. A few words were sketched in spidery gold in the corner of the picture: although Jemima could hardly make them out herself, she had learned from the back of the portrait (which confidently proclaimed it on a faded typed label to be "by Sir Anthony Van Dyck") that the legend read: AMOR ET HONOR.

Love and honour: a good if enigmatic motto, perhaps all the more good because it was so enigmatic. Jemima sighed. Love ... It had to be said that her private life at the present time was fairly lovely without being exactly what you would call honourable (having been exactly the reverse for nearly a year); it was also just slightly claustrophobic, hence perhaps this sudden passion for the romantically unattainable Decimus Lackland. For only recently Cass Brinsley had come back into her life, his marriage on-therebound-from Jemima having broken up with the same startling suddenness as it had begun. Jemima herself still did not fully understand the reasons. All she knew was that Cass was back, and since she was too much of a lady—well, most of the time anyway—to express sentiments like "I told you so," the situation between them seemed outwardly remarkably unchanged.

That is to say, she still found Cass fantastically attractive and probably always would, fascinated by the formality of the lawyer's demeanour in public combined with something much less controlled in private. It was also true that their first sweet reconciliation when he actually spoke the words she had longed to hear: "I was mad . . . how could I ever forget you . . . never for one minute
I forget you . . . ," had lasted sexually speaking all one evening, then all one night, then most of two days of a lost weekend. There was no doubt that reconciliation (its own silent revenge on the younger rival who had dared to marry her Cass when she, Jemima, had persistently declined to do so) was a sweet process when it involved sex.

All the same . . . The trouble was that after that, a long time after that, but a moment that would still inexorably arrive, Jemima was still Jemima, she who did not want to marry Cass or anyone else come to think of it, someone who pleased herself and in doing so liked to please others. As and when she chose. Freely and in freedom. In short, once again not settling-down material. Whereas Cass, she had an awful feeling, was so keen to settle down that he would run through several marriages in an attempt to do so. "I thought it was women who were supposed to long to get married," he had exclaimed with mock bitterness only last night.

Jemima gazed into the slanting dark eyes of Decimus Lackland and sighed. Love and Honour. Had he found love within marriage immediately? She knew that he had been married off to the famous Olivia of the "Swan" poems when he was a mere sixteen and she fourteen. Presumably love itself, the love celebrated in his poetry, had come later, and the marriage itself had been founded on the seventeenth-century concept of honour: worldly honour in the shape of money, since Olivia Lackland had been an orphan and the heiress to Lackland Court in her own right. Do I perhaps need an arranged marriage? pondered Jemima gloomily. After all, who ever really married for love in any century? Cass, had he really married for sudden overwhelming love of the young and charming Flora Hereford (as Flora Hereford herself presumably believed)? Or had he married because Jemima Shore would not say yes to him—nor no, for that matter—and to marry Flora was the most hurtfully decisive thing he could do Linder the circumstances?

Another sigh. In her present mood, how much easier to fall in love with a portrait who demanded no commitment, than with a real live man, determined, in that dreadful phrase, to "settle down"! (Why
, for God's sake? The mere word gave the game away.) In her present mood, it was particularly easy to fall in love with the man who had written to a woman that poem every schoolchild learned, but was in fact far more explicitly sensual than one realised at the time: "I fain would be thy swan ..."

The portrait had arrived two days before as a result of a
from Jemima's friend from Cambridge days, the brilliant, engaging— and disorganised—Dr. Rupert Durham. Since Jemima, like all Rupert's friends, was accustomed since Cambridge to do far more onerous things for him than merely housing a portrait, she was delighted to be able to assist him so easily. It turned out that Rupert Durham had been bequeathed the portrait by the nonagenarian widow of a former President of his old college. (She had fallen a victim to his famous charm at a college dinner intended in theory to raise funds for the college, not a portrait for Rupert.)

As ever with Rupert Durham, questions of scholarship—art scholarship in this case—came first. In fact he had spent some time digressing on the National Portrait Gallery's own fine recently acquired Van Dyck portrait of the poet and what he called "the whole ridiculous early Lely red herring" before Jemima had actually realised what she had been asked to do. Which was to give Decimus Lackland house room, as it were, until Rupert managed to uncover just one portion of a wall either in his large book-filled rooms at Cambridge, or, even less likely, in his room off Ladbroke Grove. Here he had moved "temporarily," without unpacking anything except books, about five years ago after being thrown out for the third and final time by Jemima's friend Becky Robertson. ("The trouble with Rupert," Becky had told Jemima rather wearily on the telephone, "is that he may have a first-class mind, but his famous intellectual powers apparently do not extend to concentrating on one woman at a time. I mean, since when was absent-mindedness a plausible excuse for large-scale infidelity.'")

As a cat-lover, Jemima did occasionally cat-sit for friends (one of these episodes—in a flat in Bloomsbury—had resulted in one of her more harrowing investigations a few years back). She also occasionally allowed visiting cats who belonged to really good friends, although the air of injured betrayal with which her own cat, the proud and independent-minded Midnight, greeted these intrusions was hard to bear; Jemima also suspected that in cat-terms he might be right—it was the ultimate betrayal to allow another cat on his territory. Altogether, housing a portrait would be much less trouble, reflected Jemima innocently, having no hint of the upheavals, beyond anything within the compass of the most devilish cat, which this elegant ikon would bring into her life.

Jemima's reverie was interrupted by an inordinately long blast on her buzzer. Even before she picked up the instrument, she knew that the caller must be Megalith's Chairman. She also knew that she had only a brief moment to answer before Cy Fredericks' busy fingers passed on in an increasing frenzy to other buttons . 

"Jem, my gem," Cy was indeed saying in great agitation into her ear. "Where
you?" But before Jemima could answer, reasonably enough, "Right here in my office, just where do you expect?" she was cut off, and a noise of infuriated buzzing began to spread audibly through the other offices. With a last sigh—Decimus Lackland with his romantic looks must be temporarily put aside—Jemima performed the necessary ritual for acknowledging Cy's call by buzzing in her turn his secretary, the estimable Miss Lewis.

"What's it all about?" Jemima asked casually when she had established that she was sitting quietly in her office, and expected a second call from Cy in about ten minutes' time when he had explored all the other possibilities (including the messenger's room and the gentlemen's cloakroom). Miss Lewis and Jemima were old allies; both believed ardently, where Cy was concerned, in the principle that forewarned was forearmed.

"A ghost, I think. Cy wants you to interview a ghost," replied Miss Lewis with equal casualness. Being a loyal ally did not preclude her from occasional throwaway lines like this.

"Of course, what else?" murmured Jemima easily, wondering whether she would after all warn Miss Lewis that she had heard Cy inviting both Jane Manfred and Baby Diamondson to visit India with him in the autumn at a party the night before. The problem being not so much that both had accepted, but that Jane Manfred was married to Baby Diamondson's first husband, a fact Cy might have overlooked at the time but the ladies concerned would certainly not, throughout a three-week trip.

All the same, she was grateful that she had had at least some warning, when she found herself sitting in Cy's baroque office and listening to his excited disquisition on the general nature of ghosts.

"So you see, Jemima," he was saying, "it really would make a seminal programme." Experience had taught Jemima not only to beware the word "seminal" on Cy's lips, but also that Cy's notion of a "seminal programme" differed widely from the meaning generally attached to the word.

All the same: "Tell me more, Cy. " That seemed the most circumspect thing to reply under the circumstances. Especially since Cy was certainly going to tell her more in any case. Why this sudden interest in ghosts, she wondered.' There had to be a lady - probably two ladies, knowing Cy - at the bottom of it all; as in a murder mystery, once she knew who, she might know why. And what to do about it. If some passing fancy was responsible, then she might by delaying - and if Miss Lewis was in a cooperative mood - sit the whole thing out, and avoid altogether the big series Cy was now busily outlining. But if someone serious was involved - Jane Manfred for example - then quite different tactics had to be employed, an altogether longer and subtler battle might have to be fought - a battle which would not necessarily be won by Jemima.

"Lady Manfred has seen a ghost." Under the circumstances these words, announced by Cy with much gravity as though Lady Manfred had left her husband - hardly likely owing to the totally delightful relationship both complaisant and complacent which existed between them - were to Jemima's ears doom-laden. Before Jemima had decided quite how to deal with this extremely threatening situation, Cy proceeded as though she had actually contradicted him. "No, you must understand, Jemima, this was a . . ." He looked round and ended triumphantly as though using the word for the first time: "A seminal experience."

There was nothing for it but to bide her time in patience. And as a matter of fact what Cy had to relate was not without a certain touching quality. For the ghost Lady Manfred had so surprisingly seen was, it transpired, her
ghost; no, not her own ghost in that sense, how could she see her own ghost, queried Cy in slight irritation.

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