Death at the Crystal Palace (Kat Holloway Mysteries #5) - Jennifer Ashley


May 1882

Please, help me.”

The shaky words came to me from behind a column copied from those at Karnak in Egypt, lit by a chance beam of sunshine through the glass roof high above.

I’d met the woman who spoke them, Lady Covington, only an hour ago, introduced by my friend Mr. Elgin Thanos as the sister of his benefactor. She had paid little attention to me, as I was a domestic accompanying her betters in a treat outing to the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.

Lady Covington had greeted Lady Cynthia Shires, Mr. Thanos, and their friend Miss Townsend with interest, barely registering me and my eleven-year-old daughter standing slightly behind them.

After the visit, Lady Covington and her family had moved off, and Mr. Thanos had escorted the two ladies up to the galleries to take in the view. They had extended the invitation to me, but Grace wanted to see the Egyptian court, so she and I had wandered toward that exhibit, agreeing to meet up for tea later.

Now Lady Covington came to me furtively around the wide column painted with hieroglyphs. Her family—two grown daughters, two grown sons, and her brother—was nowhere in sight.

“Your ladyship?” I made a deferential curtsy, as did Grace. One always curtsies to aristocrats, even when they are begging for help, in case they take offense if you do not. “Are you unwell?”

“Quite unwell.” Another swift glance behind her, then Lady Covington leaned closer to me. “My dear, I have been poisoned.”

I felt Grace’s hand tighten on mine, and my alarm rose. I offered Lady Covington my arm, leaving it up to her whether she took it or not. “You ought to sit down, your ladyship. Why do you think you have taken poison? Are you ill?”

She looked well enough, if flushed, but it was warm this May day under the glass, with tropical plants and indoor ponds trapping the sun’s heat.

Lady Covington’s grip was strong when she laid her hand on my arm, but her gloved fingers shook. Grace said not a word, her eyes full of concern as I steered Lady Covington to the nearest bench. It was of stone, made to look as though it had been lifted from Egypt and transported to England, but I knew full well that all the things in the exhibit had been manufactured specially for the Crystal Palace, based on the real items in the British Museum or private collections.

We sank to the bench together, as Lady Covington did not loosen her grasp. Grace seated herself on the other side of me. Her shoes rested firmly on the floor, which made me realize how long her legs had grown. Soon she would be as tall as I was.

“Would you like a drink of water, your ladyship?” I asked. “Or a cup of tea? I can fetch it while you rest quietly.”

“No.” Her fingers dug into my arm. “No, please do not leave me. I need nothing.”

“If you believe you have taken poison, you must see a doctor. I can call your son, Lord Covington . . .”

“No!” The word was sharper still. “No, I can trust no one. I will be all right, if you sit with me.”

My alarm changed to puzzlement. Was the woman fancying things? Or truly in danger? And what had become of her family?

Lady Covington had a sharp face I imagined had once been pretty, though years, loss, and disappointment were etched into her skin. She was not an old woman, perhaps in her late forties at most, and she was slender, her posture upright. Her eyes were light blue and her hair was a rich, chocolate brown, bearing only a few threads of gray and pulled into a simple style under her high-crowned, mannish hat.

I knew she was quite wealthy, the widow of a railroad magnate who had also been a baron, the title going back generations. Her brother, Sir Arthur Maddox, had recently helped open the Polytechnic in London, a school devoted to educating young men in the sciences. Mr. Thanos, my friend and a brilliant mathematician, had been given a post there. Mr. Thanos had told me, in confidence, that Lady Covington was a generous benefactor to the new school. Sir Arthur could never have been involved without her help.

Lady Covington’s gown was obviously costly, but understated—a brown-and-cream-striped walking dress of light material that draped over her legs and gathered over a bustle in the back. The gown bore few frills, but its cut revealed its expense. A fold of fabric touched