A Death at Fountains Abbey

Antonia Hodgson

A Death at Fountains Abbey

The third book in the Tom Hawkins series, 2016

For my parents, with love

Was any thing like this ever heard of in any Age before? Was ever any Englishman us’d in such a manner?

John Aislabie, 1721

Bonfires were made in the citty the day Mr Aisleby went to the Tower.

Thomas Brodrick, 1721


January, 1701

Red Lion Square, London

She never meant for the fire to spread. It was a distraction, nothing more, a trick to keep them busy while she took what she was owed. She had cried, ‘Fire! Fire in the attic!’, and laughed to herself as the house woke in panic. They pushed past her on the stairs, running to fetch water, to save what they could, coughing as the smoke caught their lungs.

She saw him too, clutching his daughter Mary to his chest as he carried her to safety. John Aislabie. He didn’t notice her as he passed, close enough to touch. He hadn’t noticed her for a long time.

She joined the flow of servants hurrying downstairs. When they ran out into the square, no one realised that Molly Gaining wasn’t with them any more.

She crept down the empty corridor to Mr Aislabie’s study, tiptoeing her way in the dark. It was the first duty of a housemaid to be silent. Invisible.

He had called her his treasure. He’d murmured promises to her in the deep night, vows he had never meant to keep. I will cover you with gold; I will wrap you in silks. She had believed him. She had given him everything he wanted. And when he was done, he’d tossed her aside, no longer his treasure but some sordid piece of rubbish he would never touch again.

She heard muffled shouts, somewhere high up in the house. Here inside his study, all was still, save for the ticking of the clock. She felt her way to the desk with no need for a lamp: she had swept and polished this room every day for the last five years. She opened a drawer, groping past quills and papers to find a key buried in one corner. Moving swiftly to the hearth, she splayed her fingers, searching for the loose floorboard she’d discovered a few days before. There. She lifted the board and reached inside, touching cold metal. A strongbox, so heavy she needed both hands to pull it free.

The key turned with a soft click. A shiver of illicit excitement thrilled through her. She must be quick, before the fire was tamed and she was discovered. She threw back the lid.

He had promised her gold, and diamonds. She would keep him to that promise.

She lifted out a handful of jewels, gold chains dangling between her fingers. Touch and memory showed her what her eyes couldn’t see in the dark: long strands of creamy white pearls, gold rings studded with precious stones, a diamond and ruby brooch that she could feel now, cool and heavy in her palm. Bags of gold coins. She tucked them into the wide pocket she had stitched beneath her gown, and reached for more. Enough for the life she had dreamed of. Enough for the life she deserved.

Voices, loud outside the door. She had lingered too long. Cursing under her breath, she threw another fistful of coins into her pocket and straightened her gown just as a young man pushed open the door and strode into the study. His face was handsome in the orange light of his candle, and full of purpose.

‘The account books. Hurry!’

Jack Sneaton: Aislabie’s clerk.She shrank back, praying he wouldn’t see her, while he gathered up books and papers, throwing them into the arms of his apprentice. Trust Jack. Of all the things to save from the fire, he runs for his precious tally books.

He turned for the door.

‘Sir?’ Sneaton’s apprentice nodded towards the hearth.

She was discovered. Fear pressed a fist into her heart.

Sneaton thrust a sheaf of papers into the boy’s arms. ‘Molly? What are you about down there-’ He stopped and stared in dismay at the coins and jewels glinting on the floor where she had spilled them in her haste. He blinked several times, very fast, as if hoping the scene might vanish before his eyes.

‘Thief!’ his apprentice hissed.

Sneaton winced, as if the accusation caused him physical pain. He took one last, studied look at the empty strongbox. Then he grabbed Molly by the arm and pulled her to her feet.

‘No!’ she cried, as he dragged her from the room. ‘I weren’t stealing, I swear. Please, Jack… Mr Sneaton, sir – I was saving them from the fire.’

He pressed his hand against the nape of her neck and pushed her through the house out on to the street. She stumbled on the steps and fell to the ground, crying out as a shard of glass pierced the plump flesh beneath her thumb. There was glass everywhere.

She crawled along the cobbles on her hands and knees, sucking in her breath as she pulled the glass free. Blood trickled down her wrist.

And, looking up, she saw what she had done.

The fire was raging from the top of the house, flames tearing across the roof and bursting through broken windows. Thick grey clouds of smoke billowed high above the flames, choking the night sky. A line of servants passed buckets of water up through the building as neighbours hurried to join them, desperate to stop the fire spreading further along the square.

A footman collapsed to his knees at the doorway, his face black with soot. He gulped a few breaths of clear air, grabbed a fresh bucket, and plunged back inside.

‘It was only a small fire,’ she whispered. She tottered forwards, drawn towards the flames. She could feel the immense heat of them on her face. ‘I never meant…’

Sneaton pulled her away. ‘Mr Aislabie. Mr Aislabie, sir!’

He was standing a few feet from them, closer to the burning house, still holding Mary in his arms. Jane, his younger daughter, was clinging to his leg. Both girls were mute with terror.

‘Mr Aislabie,’ Sneaton called again, and he turned, and saw them.

‘Molly,’ he said. ‘Thank God you’re safe.’

Misery and fury closed her throat. Now you look at me, John. Now you speak my name.

‘Found her in your room, sir,’ Sneaton said. ‘She was stealing from your strongbox.’

He stared at her.

‘I wasn’t thieving,’ she stammered. ‘I was trying to save them from the fire. You know me, sir…’

She saw a flicker of doubt in his eyes. ‘We’ll settle this later,’ he said, distracted by the flames. He lifted Mary to the ground and handed both girls to a neighbour. ‘Harry!’ he called out to one of his men, limping from the house. ‘Where’s Mrs Aislabie? Is she safe?’

Harry couldn’t speak from the smoke. He bent to the ground, wheezing as he took in the fresh air.

‘For heaven’s sake, man, where’s my son?’ Aislabie shouted, in a sudden panic. ‘Where’s Lizzie? Where’s my little girl?’

Harry shook his head.

For a second, Aislabie was too stunned to react. Then he spun about and ran blindly into the blazing house, calling their names. Anne. William. Lizzie.

‘Damn it!’ Sneaton cursed. He pushed Molly into his friend’s arms as if she were a bundle of dirty rags. ‘Keep a hold of her, Harry. She’s a bloody thief.’

Worse than that. She gazed up at the house, the flames rolling across the roof, the smoke pouring from every window. Lizzie, the youngest girl, only just learning to walk. Mrs Aislabie. William, the new baby. What had she done? An emptiness opened up inside her and her body felt light, as if she could drift up into the air and dissolve to nothing…

Molly!’ Sneaton’s voice broke the spell.

‘It was such a small thing, Jack. Such a small fire. I never meant…’

She never forgot it, the look Jack Sneaton gave her in that long, silent moment. ‘You were my jewel, Molly,’ he said, quietly.

The cobbles tilted beneath her feet. She never knew. He’d never told her. If she could just go back half an hour. That was all she needed to make things right again – just half an hour. But it was too late.

Sneaton snatched up a bucket and soaked his neckerchief in the water. ‘Where are they, Harry?’

Harry pointed to a window on the second floor. ‘You won’t reach it, Jack. The smoke’s terrible.’

Sneaton put the wet cloth to his mouth and ran inside.

Harry pulled her away. She stumbled along with him until they reached a ring of neighbours, clinging to each other in horror as the house burned down in front of them. They watched as Mr Aislabie was dragged out by his servants empty-handed, screaming his wife’s name. Saw the last few men beaten back by the smoke and flames.

‘Nothing to be done, now, God rest their souls,’ one of the neighbours said. ‘Just pray it doesn’t spread.’

Harry dug his fingers deeper into her shoulder.

Then someone gave a shout and pointed to a window on the second floor. ‘There! Look!’

Jack Sneaton stood at the window, clasping a tiny bundle to his chest. He clambered on to the ledge, smoke pouring all about him like a thick grey cloak. No way to clamber down, not from such a height. H ...

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