There is a dead woman in the shrubbery at Belsfield Hall – the country seat of baronet, Sir Edgar Montague – and nobody even knows who she is. It is all very shocking. As the languid Lady Montague declares from her sofa, 'one does not know what to think'.
Miss Dido Kent – who is very far from languid and rarely gets an opportunity to occupy a sofa – knows what to think. She thinks that the killer had better be identified as soon as possible; for if he is not there could be trouble in store for her favourite niece, Catherine.
Dido is thirty five, past her 'first youth': a woman who, in her own words, 'gave up the business of falling in love some years ago.' A spinster with no independent fortune she is considered to be entirely at the disposal of her brothers and their families whenever there is an illness, a lying-in, a death or any other family crisis. And it is just such a crisis which has brought her from her humble cottage to the grandeur of Belsfield.
Catherine has 'summoned' her aunt because she has lost her fiancé. Literally. She does not know where he is. Catherine has recently become engaged to Richard Montague, Sir Edgar's son and heir; but, during their engagement ball, a stranger approached Richard. The two men stood together for a while; they did not speak a word to each other; but immediately afterwards Mr Montague told Catherine that he was 'ruined' and their engagement must end. The next morning he had disappeared from Belsfield.
Catherine, whose ideas are all 'romantic', refuses to accept that the engagement is over, or that her beloved can be in any way at fault. She insists upon Dido finding out what has happened to him. Dido, whose ideas are a great deal more down-to-earth, distrusts the young man's behaviour – particularly after the woman's body makes its appearance among Sir Edgar's well-trimmed laurels.
Perhaps Richard Montague is not only fickle, but a murderer too. Only discovering the whole truth about recent events will set Dido's mind at rest. But as she begins to make discreet enquiries, she discovers that everyone at Belsfield seems to have a secret to hide. Handsome, dissolute Tom Lomax is pursuing the daughters of Lady Montague's rich brother, Mr Harris – both of them at the same time. Why is their father permitting the attentions of such a worthless suitor? And why should the two Harris girls be so very determined upon pursuing 'accomplishments' when their performances upon drawing board and pianoforte are so excruciatingly awful? Why is the log basket in Colonel Walborough's bedchamber always empty? And what is one to make of the rumours which suggest an 'indiscretion' between Lady Montague and the charming widower Mr William Lomax?
This last question is particularly troubling to Dido; because William Lomax is, 'so kindly, and so well made and has a very fine profile.' In fact, he is just the sort of man to make one regret having given up the business of falling in love…
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