Instruments of Darkness by Imogen Robertson

Instruments of Darkness - book cover

A family ring and a body threaten to put a noose round a soldier's neck.

Read a Short Extract


Friday, 2 June 1780, West Sussex, England

    ‘Mr Crowther, sir?’
    The light in the room was weak.  Morning light.
    ‘Whoever it is, send them away,’ he said.
    He blinked.  The maid was still there.
    ‘She won’t go, sir.  It’s Mrs Westerman from Caveley Park.  She said she is determined, sir.  And she said to give you this.’
    The maid held out a piece of paper, staying as far away from the bed as she could, as if she feared her master would bite.
    The intrusion was unusual.  Crowther had done a good job of ignoring his neighbours since taking up residence in Hartswood, near Pulborough, the previous summer, and their visits had swiftly petered out.  He did not need companions with whom to pass his time and had no intention of participating in diversions, picnics and subscription dinners of what passed for society in the country.  The rest of the village never expected to have much to do with him, but after a month or two of observation, many of the local women found the easiest way to still a child was to threaten it with Mr Crowther and his big knife.  He was a student of Anatomy.  He wanted to know how bodies lived, what record a man’s life left on his physical remains, and he had the leisure and means to inquire.
    His habits soon became known.  To the educated, he was a man of science cursed with an appalling lack of manners; to everyone under ten he was a devil doctor who cut the souls from the living bodies of naughty children and ate them.
    The maid still held the note out towards him; it trembled a little.  He snatched it from her with a low growl and flicked it open.  It was written on notepaper - taken from his own desk downstairs, he noticed - in an educated female hand.  The writer had not troubled with compliments or excuses about the hour, but confined herself to some dozen words: I have found a body on my land.  His throat has been cut.
    Crowther passed the note back to his maid.
    ‘My compliments to Mrs Westerman, and tell her I shall wait on her as soon as I am dressed.  Have my horse got ready and brought round.’
    The maid stared at him open-mouthed.
    ‘Do it now, if you please, madam.’

The previous evening, Adams Music Shop, Tichfield Street near Soho Square, London

SUSAN ADAMS PRESSED her ear to the floor.  On the first of each month her father hosted a little concert in his shop for his neighbours and friends.  It was a ritual of his since he had begun, in a small way, to succeed with his business of engraving and printing musical scores and selling them, along with collections of popular songs and airs, to London’s musically inclined residents.  It was a kind of offering he made in thanks for his seven rooms, workshop and yard.  His children built their own rituals around it.  Jonathan would come into Susan’s room, claiming he wished to hear the music better, then be asleep before the first piece was over in the comfort of his older sister’s bed.
    ‘Susan?’ he grumbled.  ‘You’re supposed to be in bed too.  You can hear the music from here, and it is not so hard as the floor.’
    ‘Shush, Jonathan.  I’m listening.’  She heard a sigh as her brother gave up and fidgeted the bed clothes around him.  The air was still heavy with the heat of the June day passed.
    ‘Well, tell me what is happening then.’ He yawned.
    She smiled; one of her blonde ringlets tickled her ear.  She tucked it away and considered.
    ‘Mr Paxton, Mr Whitaker and Miss Harding have all arrived.  Mr Paxton has his cello, Mr Whitaker is to play my harpsichord and Miss Harding is to sing.  They are all drinking punch in the shop.’
    ‘I helped sweep it this afternoon.’
    Susan had watched Jonathan’s attempts to help the maid, Jane, while she tidied away the scores and parts with her father.  She did not think he had been very helpful at all, but he was still only six, and should therefore be indulged by someone three years his senior such as herself.  Though he could be annoying.  She ignored the interruption.
    ‘The chairs have been dragged into long rows.  Mrs Service is sitting very shy in a corner, because she never buys any music, and her dress is old.  Mr and Mrs Chase from Sutton Street are here, because Mr Chase loves a little music when business is done.  And Mr Graves is here, of course, frowning and trying to rub inkstains off his fingers because he’s only just noticed them,’
    There was a sleepy giggle from the bed, followed by: ‘Is Miss Chase here?’
    ‘Of course.’  Susan leaped up suddenly and stood very straight, pointing one bare and not very clean foot in front of her.  ‘She is walking in right now, like this.’
    The little girl bent her head to one side, adjusted the shawl over her narrow shoulders and put one hand to her waist; the other gathered a pinch of her nightdress like the full skirts of an evening gown and she moved between the imaginary chairs, smiling to left and right.  The room seemed to flood with candlelight and conversations.
    Jonathan sat up in bed again.  ‘And Mr Graves is watching her?’
    ‘Yes, from his corner.’
    She hopped into a high-backed chair by the empty fireplace and became a tangle of limbs, a young man trying hard to look at his ease, and not entirely succeeding.  His mouth opens as if he would like to address someone, then he stops himself and returns to examining his fingernails.
    Jonathan laughed again.  Susan held up her hand.  Faintly from the room below came the first low rasp of Mr Paxton’s violoncello.
    ‘They are beginning.’
    Susan jumped from her chair and crouched again, her ear pressed to the gap between the floorboards.  She could feel the music from the room below entering through her hands.  She could feel it on her open lips.

Crowther was not afraid of silence, but the morning seemed unnaturally bare of birdsong for early June.  His visitor had already remounted when he came out of the house, and was waiting with her groom by his own chestnut bay.  She had greeted him with nothing more than a nod of her head and then urged her horse forward out of the yard and into the roadway as soon as he had taken the reins.  Crowther’s house was the first of any significance in the town, so in moments they were among the field and hedgerows.
    He was surprised, even a little annoyed at her silence.  He looked sideways at her profile.  As woman in her early thirties perhaps, neatly dressed and at some expense.  She could never, even in her first bloom of youth, have been very beautiful.  Her face was a little too long, and a little too narrow.  Her carriage and neat figure suggested good health and habits, however.  Her gloved hands rested easily on the reins and her hair was a dark red, curled under the edge of her riding hat.
    ‘Do you like it?’ she asked.  ‘My maid Dido always rejoices when I agree to have my hair curled.  I find it gets in my eyes.’
    Crowther stared, and faced forward at once.  ‘My apologies, madam.  I did not mean to stare,’
    She turned to him, looking squarely for a moment or two, then smiled.  Crowther noted the dark green of her eyes, was surprised to find himself wondering briefly what she might think of him.
    ‘No, I am sorry, Mr Crowther,’ she said.  ‘And I must thank you for riding out so early.  I have been wondering what to say to you, and I’m sorry to confess that nothing that seems appropriate has occurred to me.  I could ask you what you think the weather will be today and how you are enjoying Hartswood, but it hardly seems fitting, given our expedition.  So I waited until I had the opportunity to be rude to you instead.’
    He almost smiled.  ‘Perhaps you can tell me about your discovery and why you have called me rather than the Constable or the magistrate.’
    She nodded at the suggestion and tilted her chin up as she chose her words.  Her voice was light.
    ‘Well, my footman has gone to the Squire, in fact, but I read your paper last spring in the Transactions of the Royal Society; you wrote, if you recall, about the signs murderers can leave on their victims, and when I found the body I thought you might be able to read his death like the gypsies read picture cards,’  He looked at her with frank astonishment, and she frowned suddenly and looked out at the road in front of her again.  ‘Just because I have my hair curled doesn’t render me incapable of reading, you know.’
    Crowther could not decide whether to be offended at her tone, or to offer his apologies again and so did neither as they turned off the main road to Balcombe and then London and entered a narrower lane that, he guessed, must mark the boundary between the lands belonging to Caveley Park and those of the great estate of Thornleigh Hall
    ‘The body is in the copse at the top of the hill,’ she said. ‘The best path to it lies through the woods, so we must continue on foot.  My man will see to the horses.’

Copyright © Imogen Robertson, 2009