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  • Published: 23 January 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761043406
  • Imprint: Viking
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $34.99

Maude Horton’s Glorious Revenge

Extract

Ra-pa-pa-pa-pa.

Maude Horton beats a fist on polished mahogany, the sound swallowed by the stark, clean marble of the corridor. Her chest heaves, sweat making thick the dark hair coiled at the back of her neck. Her skin feels damp and oddly exposed here, surrounded by towering portraits of proud, uniformed men. Hubris captured in brushstrokes, she thinks. She puts an ear to the door, waits.

Silence.

She bangs again, sparing no thought for impudence, for bad manners, for the sentiment that women should not go around beating fists on doors such as this one. There had been no reply to her enquiries. This had become the only option.

There’s a rustling sound, and Maude briefly imagines those inside dressed in embroidered blue, poring over dusty maps and wind charts, cigars clasped under heavy, oiled moustaches.

RA-PA-PA-PA-PA.

Just as she hears the frantic footsteps of the pursuing guard catch up to her, a crack appears at the door and a man with silver hair and the swollen throat of a toad leans forwards to fill it.

‘What is the need for this racket?’ The medals at his breast wink keenly.

‘Commissioner.’ The security guard arrives breathless. ‘She dodged right past me. Tried to stop her. Just . . . I just couldn’t quite. She said she was one of the new maids!’

‘All right, Mason. Stand down. It’s hardly the Storming of the Bastille, is it?’ The commissioner’s eyes flick idly across Maude’s simple clothing. ‘And?’ Wiry eyebrows lift almost to his hairline. ‘What is it that you need?’

She thrusts the paper, marked with an official admiralty stamp, towards the gap. ‘I’m Maude Horton,’ she says. ‘My sister was Constance Horton, and what I need is the truth.’

 

Entering the admiralty boardroom is like having a rag clamped over one’s mouth. It brings about a dizzying, suffocating effect. Maude steps forwards, careful not to stumble on the carpet, watching as Sir Hancock, admiralty commissioner, crosses the room then turns to face her, arms folded. Everything within these oak-panelled walls has a leaden weight to it: the imposing ceiling, sculpted into octagons; the mariners’ tools so intricate they appear as items in a museum. Carvings frame the ornate fireplace – anchors, swords, sceptres and telescopes – and over the mantelpiece a large wind dial, the size of a shield, has been painted with a map of the British Isles. A thin, white arrow strikes furiously to NORTH-NORTHWEST.

Maude glances at the long, mullioned windows, yearning for a taste of clean air. Instead, a watery morning light scythes in through the glass, landing on a long, polished table, where several white-haired men are seated. Some are straight-backed with curiosity, others recline like lemurs on overstuffed leather, nonchalant – as if a woman barging her way into the admiralty boardroom at Whitehall is as common as a mouse crossing the floor.

‘Ms Horton’s come about an incident on the Makepeace. Despie’s ship in the Passage.’ Hancock’s words land with a thud. A wan desk clerk takes up a pen and begins his scribbling.

‘Although, I’m afraid, Ms Horton, there is little more to be said on the subject.’ He looks vaguely at the floor in front of her. ‘I’m sure you have all the particulars in your letter there’ – a cursory wave of the hand – ‘from the secretariat.’

She turns over the piece of paper. Five meagre lines written in cursive.

We regret to inform. Misadventure. Regards.

‘Particulars?’ Her voice sounds small and she feels her chest begin to flush with heat. ‘With respect, there are no particulars in this letter, commissioner. Only meaningless formality.’

Hancock sucks in his cheeks. The lemurs grumble and shift in their seats.

‘What is it exactly that you would like to know, Ms Horton?’ The words are soaked in sugar.

The clerk pauses and holds his pen aloft. Gilt lanterns flicker and a dozen pairs of eyes bore into her.

She draws a slow breath.

‘I demand to know the circumstances surrounding my sister’s death on the Makepeace. I demand to know to what exactly this word refers: misadventure.’ She holds out the paper and taps it, hoping that they do not perceive just quite how violently her finger shakes.

It had offended her, that word, when she first received the letter a few weeks ago. Hollowed out by grief and frantic for answers, she had torn open the report and scanned the few lines within. Her eyes fell on the loaded term, one that can tell any number of stories.

Hancock heaves a sigh. ‘It can mean many things in the Arctic, Ms Horton. And while I am grieved to distress you, accidents happen often on such ambitious expeditions. As I’m sure you can quite imagine.’

She wants to tear the vile smirk from his face.

‘The Far North is an inhospitable place,’ he continues, ‘and in such conditions, weaker bodies can just . . .’ He flaps his hand again. By weaker, she knows he means female. ‘Can just . . . fall foul of the environs. It is why we do not allow women on our ships, Ms Horton.’

That, and the fact that men alone on ships cannot be trusted.

‘And, I shouldn’t think I have to remind you that your sister should never have been aboard the Makepeace in the first place. She cheated her way to a berth, she flouted the rules, disregarded regulations, not to mention disrespected hundreds of years of seafaring tradition and history. So, as I’m sure you’ll allow, the admiralty can hardly be at fault for what became of her during that journey.’

He seems very certain of what she will and will not allow.

‘What sort of accident occurred?’ She will not be distracted by pomp, by old-fashioned notions of swashbuckling men on the high seas. ‘If you’ll oblige me, commissioner. I must push you again on the specifics.’ A keen ache in her jaw betrays her clenched teeth.

Hancock scoffs derisively, shakes his head, the motion continuing for far too long for someone who knows the answer to the question posed. He makes a few hollow vowel sounds, then looks to the table. A stringy man peers over his pince-nez to study the contents of his glass. Another appraises the ceiling panels most intently.

‘I am not at liberty to—’

‘She was my sister!’ Maude’s voice rings off the room’s cut crystal. There is a short, collective gasp. She knows instantly that she has made a mistake.

‘Ms Horton.’ The commissioner’s words are clipped now, but his eyes have grown alarmingly wide. ‘I am not privy to the particulars of every death that occurs in foreign seas. As you can appreciate, there are rather a lot of them, and I have more pressing things to concern myself with here. Not least the running of the entire country’s naval operations.’

‘Something happened out there.’ She had told herself she would not allow hysteria to take over. She must try and retain her composure. ‘Something happened that you are not telling me, you are not telling anyone, and I will not be brushed aside by a word that has been selected in order to remove any accountability from the admiralty.’

Hancock smiles drily.

She has pushed it too far.

‘Ms Horton, I shall have to insist that you—’

‘Why is the body not here?’

Hancock indicates to the guard that their meeting is over.

‘Why could we not have a burial? Who performed the autopsy?’

‘I think you’ve wasted quite enough of everyone’s time. Good day.’

The men at the table clear their throats. Mr Pince-nez strikes a lucifer, lights his cigar, takes a glorious puff.

A sour taste crawls from Maude’s stomach to her throat, as the guard stalks across the room. No. She had hoped that if she came here herself, if they were compelled to put a face to the incident, a family member to the ‘official report’, that they might tell her something.

‘I will find out,’ she threatens as the guard seizes her shoulder.

‘I will find out what happened, even if that means locating the crew. Or . . . Captain Despie.’ Strong hands propel her roughly to the door. ‘Or anyone with courtesy enough to tell me why and how my sister died.’

‘As is your choice, Ms Horton.’ Hancock locates an armchair, sits, reclines.

Blue curlicues of cigar smoke escape from the room as the guard yanks open the door. He does not release his grip until they have descended several sets of winding stairs, and he has deposited her, with a pert shove, back out into the yard. As she turns, he pulls the double doors together with a satisfied clunk. Maude’s shoulders slacken, and she allows her head to tip backwards, eyes to the sky. The clouds are sullen, as damp as her mood, and she fights the sob threatening to escape from her throat.

She needs action. Not emotions. She has always been the one to assemble a plan, to find the solution. Tears aren’t going to help with that.

She straightens her back, smooths down her skirts and crosses the yard, passing cabs and strolling businessmen as she steps out onto the busy thoroughfare. The patter of footsteps behind her stops her in her tracks.

‘Ms Horton!’ Someone is calling out. ‘Ms Horton!’ She turns, eyes shut, bracing herself for her punishment.

Nothing comes.

She blinks open her eyes. Standing before her is the desk clerk, the man who was taking minutes for Hancock. The one with skin so pale his veins show themselves like rivers on a map.

He glances behind him and takes a cautious step closer, indicating with a slight jerk of the head that he wants her to move into a side street.

‘I think not.’ She is not in the habit of stepping into dark alleyways with strange men. ‘Can I help you?’

‘Ms Horton, you are quite safe, I assure you.’ He ushers her with feeling, now. ‘I want to ensure we are not being observed.’

Her curiosity outweighs her caution, then, and she follows him off the street and into a quiet alley pocked with last night’spuddles. The walls, she sees, are crawling with lichen.

He leans out, peers both ways down the street, returns.

His body is uncomfortably close to hers, she realizes; the smoke of other men’s cigars still clinging to his shirtsleeves. She takes a step back, watching his pale eyes dart with anxiety. She should be nervous too, she supposes, but this stick insect of a man appears incapable of doing any measure of harm to anything.

‘Ms Horton.’ He speaks out the side of his mouth as if they are being scrutinized by lipreaders. ‘Forgive the impropriety, but I have something that I believe you are very much going to want to see.’

Oh dear. Perhaps she should be nervous after all.

‘It’s about the Makepeace,’ he stammers quickly. ‘About what happened to your sister.’

Something takes quick light inside of her. She nods her head giddily, yes, grasping for an end to the agony of unknowing. Then, suddenly, she stops.

‘Who are you?’ she asks tersely. ‘Why would you help me?’ More pressingly, how does she know that she can trust him? Hancock could have sent him out here, given him something to throw her off the scent, to stop her asking questions once and for all.

‘I am Francis Heart, clerk at the admiralty secretariat.’ He waits for a response, then when it does not come: ‘I am the one who writes everything down.’ He straightens his collar. ‘I have had the immense displeasure of working for the commissioner and his officers for the last several years.’ Maude scours his face as he talks. He appears a few years older than her twenty-five, but something about his eyes is very old. Beleaguered. ‘You do not know that you can trust me, of course. You can only hope that I am acting in good faith, and I assure you that I am.’ He barks out a laugh. ‘That’s what I would say if I were not, I suppose. But I sense you are desperate for answers, and I am quite sure that will compel you to take this risk.’

It needles that he thinks he knows her, and it needles even more that he is emphatically right. He glances around them, again. Traps and coaches stream down the street just yards from where they hide. ‘So, you will meet me. Here.’ He hands her a notecard. On it, she gathers at a quick glance, the name of an establishment with which she is not familiar.

‘Friday night,’ he says. ‘Seven o’clock. Wear something forgettable. This should do just fine.’ He gestures at her grey cotton dress.

He nods, goes to leave.

‘Wait!’ she calls. He turns as a crow flaps clumsily overhead.

‘What can I expect? If I am to come. If I am to travel to meet you, can you at least tell me what I will find?’

Heart pauses, a look of resoluteness comes upon him.

‘A message from your sister,’ he says, and steps back out onto the busy street.


Maude Horton’s Glorious Revenge Lizzie Pook

Maude Horton’s Glorious Revenge is a mysterious, transporting tale about the unbreakable bond of sisterhood, from the author of the critically acclaimed Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter.

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