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PART OF THE Generations ISSUE

‘Lord Grange’s face remained still, unfathomable. Yet as his eldest daughter peered under her bonnet at him, she thought she saw a flicker of something, a twitching around the lips on the otherwise impassive features.’

Though starting out her writing career as a food writer, Sue Lawrence has been gathering many fans over the last few years with her historical fiction. Her latest novel, The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange, sees her tackle one of Scotland’s most intriguing true crime stories – the faked death, kidnapping, and incarceration of Rachel Chiesley, wife of James Erskine, Lord Grange, a suspected Jacobite sympathiser. Here we publish a scene from the novel’s prologue, where Lady Grange’s daughter, Mary, is unconvinced of her father’s official story.

 

Extract taken from The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange
By Sue Lawrence
Published by Saraband

 

1732

 

‘Mother is not in that coffin, you know.’

‘Don’t be foolish, Mary; it’s your mother’s funeral. Of course she’s in there. And a rather fine polished oak your father chose for the cask, too, I must say.’

‘Aunt Jean, Mama is not dead. She can’t be. She wasn’t ill; she never was.’

‘Keep your voice down, child.’

‘I am not a child,’ Mary hissed. ‘I am…’

There was a loud bang as the door flew open and four pallbearers entered the room, heading for the coffin. They took up their places at each corner and turned towards the minister, who approached and rested a bony hand upon the wood, rubbing his long fingers up and down it, as if enhancing the sheen. He raised his head and surveyed the room.

There was Lord Grange, whose wife’s burial was about to take place. Beside him stood Aunt Jean’s husband, Lord Paterson, and the five surviving Grange children, all dressed in black, arrayed in descending order of age. Mary, the eldest daughter, stood beside her father’s sister.

‘I repeat, Aunt Jean, she was not ill. I can’t remember a single time when she was ailing; she was always as strong as an ox. Besides, how is it possible that her waiting woman has also disappeared, vanished into the night?’

‘She never was a reliable servant.’

‘Fannie and Aunt Margaret agree with me; Mother is not dead.’

‘Fannie is but a child. And really, Mary, as if your mother’s sister would say otherwise,’ Lady Paterson harrumphed.

‘Hush now, the minister is about to speak.’

The Reverend Elibank began, in his reedy, high-pitched voice, speaking to the family and the assembled great and good of Edinburgh, including several from the bench. There must have been some thirty people packed into Aunt Jean’s parlour and they all turned to hear something of the remarkable life of Rachel, Lady Grange, who had sadly passed away so unexpectedly three days earlier. In a solemn tone, he told them how she was mourned by her beloved husband and her seven children, two of them from beyond the grave.

Lord Grange’s face remained still, unfathomable. Yet as his eldest daughter peered under her bonnet at him, she thought she saw a flicker of something, a twitching around the lips on the otherwise impassive features.

The minister droned on about Rachel Grange’s journey to heaven, guided by the angels and archangels on her ascent. His voice became louder as he described her arrival at the crystal clear river of the water of life and how she then came before the throne of God. The crescendo continued as he intoned the lines from scriptures: ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.’

Mary nudged her sister, who had put her hands over her ears as the minister’s voice peaked. He was exclaiming to the mourners – but particularly to the women and children, who of course would not be attending the burial at Greyfriars Kirk – ‘I am the first and the last’. There was a sudden hush in the room as, finally, he closed his eyes as though in silent prayer to end his homily. Slowly, as if for dramatic effect, he opened his eyes and bent over in a deep bow towards Lord Grange. He then nodded to the pall-bearers, who raised the coffin upon their shoulders, as he squeezed his willowy body through the throng of people, heading for the door.

Everyone watched the coffin shudder a little as it settled on the four pairs of shoulders; it tilted over at the head end, where the shortest bearer raised one shoulder high to try to regain his balance. He turned and nodded to the assembled men and they trudged towards the door.

Lord Grange lifted the hat that he had been holding at his side and leant over to his sister. ‘We shall return within the hour, Jean. Be sure the table is laden – and be especially generous with the wine and brandy.’

‘We’ve discussed this, James. Cook has excelled herself. As well as the roast meats, there are plum cakes and sweetmeats in abundance. The stoups are already filled to the brim with claret, brandy and ale; there’s also tobacco aplenty. Now, be off and don’t upset yourself further, dear brother.’

The man kissed his sister’s cheek, patted his youngest children on their heads then glanced over at his friend Simon, whose ruddy cheeks and bulbous nose were already flushed with claret.

Mary stared at her father as the two men exchanged glances, hoping for some token of sympathy from the bereaved man to her, his eldest daughter; but she saw only the glimmer of a smile around his lips as he acknowledged his fellow mourners then turned away, striding towards the door, where he placed his hat firmly on his head as he prepared to face the January chill.

 

The Unreliable Death of Lady Grange by Sue Lawrence is published by Saraband, priced £8.99.

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