the short story project


Janice Woodard

The Curious Death of Samuel Pryor

            My name is Glen Raymond McVarley. I am a local reporter assigned to follow the investigation surrounding the death of Mr. Samuel Pryor, a resident of Wolfton, in Kent, who was found on the property of Lord Richard and Lady Madeleine Willoughby, who reside at Lionshead Manor, also in Wolfton, Kent.

            What follows are statements made to me by several individuals questioned during the investigation.

Geoffrey, the Butler

            My name is Geoffrey Abbott, and I became the Butler for Lord and Lady Willoughby nearly 10 years ago, in 1947, when I was in my late forties. The position suited me perfectly since I had no other family after losing my wife and daughter in an automobile accident. The Willoughbys and the Staff, including a chauffeur, two maids, a cook and several groundskeepers, became my family.

            Lionshead Manor is very elegant, surrounded by woods, with beautiful flower gardens in both the front and back. The colors and smells are captivating and the back garden provides a comfortable sitting area suitable for small parties, with pathways leading back to other parts of the estate, including stables for the horses, chicken pens, rabbit warrens and vegetable gardens.

            With the exception of Lord Willoughby’s occasional overnight out-of-town travel for purposes relating to his mining business, life at the Manor was quite routine. The days were spent in whatever pleasurable pursuits Lord and Lady Willoughby decided upon both separately and together. The evenings often included elaborate dinner parties.

            Lady Willoughby, now a widow, is in her 33rd year, standing approximately 5’ 7” tall, with beautiful red hair (not the unattractive brash reddish color), which falls midway down her back. Oh, yes, and deep blue eyes. And best of all, to me at any rate, a melodious laugh which would simply light up the room and a smile that could….oh dear. Sorry. I’m getting a bit carried away.

            Where was I now. Oh, yes.

            Everyone loved Lady Willoughby.

            When Lord Willoughby died suddenly from a heart attack a year ago at the age of 44, Lady Willoughby withdrew completely, rarely leaving Lionshead or interacting with her friends. She passed her long, lonely days (and some nights) sitting in the parlor. Just sitting. Reliving whatever memories her brain recreated for her.

            But she seldom cried. At least not openly. I would have known.

            All this was very painful for the Staff to observe. The Cook would attempt to draw her out with delicious aromas emanating from the kitchen and wafting their way throughout the house. All Lady Willoughby’s favorites, of course.

            To no avail.

            I, however, possessing absolutely no talents suitable for amusement purposes, was unable to offer any solace and simply answered the tinkling of her bell to attend to her wishes. There were some times, sadly, that by the time I reached her she would have forgotten the reason for the summons. It was those times I could see the pain trying to escape through her eyes.

            Helpless. That’s how I felt. For as you may already be aware, there is no remedy for a broken heart. The pain may abate somewhat, but it is never fully healed.

            So, I spent my days attending to whatever tasks normally consume the time and attention of someone in my position. All the while grieving for her in my own private way.

            Samuel Pryor was the owner of a much smaller estate on the opposite side of the woods where, with the help of a live-in housekeeper, he cared for his five year-old nephew. Being the child’s only relative, Mr. Pryor assumed guardianship when the child’s mother died after a long illness.

Unmarried at the age of 40, and a physically unimpressive man of little importance in the community, he was sometimes invited to social events at the Manor, including the annual Yuletide Masquerade Ball, as a result of his relationship with Lord Willoughby.

            It was at one of these festivities I saw him maneuvering to be near Lady Willoughby. I took notice immediately as he moved closer to her – guest by guest – working his way across the room.

            Lord Willoughby, by nature gregarious and no stranger to the bottom of a wine glass, was apparently blithely unaware of Mr. Pryor’s attempts, focusing instead on the attention shown him, especially by his female guests.

            I do not know whether or not Lady Willoughby was aware of Mr. Pryor’s behavior. If she was, she made no show of it. Once appearing beside her, she rarely gave him more than polite notice. As one would expect from a lady of such fine character.

            Which brings me now to the situation at hand.

            Following the customary year-long period of mourning after Lord Willoughby’s untimely death, Samuel Pryor appeared at the Manor door. Bearing flowers. And a book of poetry. Requesting an audience with Lady Willoughby. I excused myself, left him in the foyer, and went into the library to inform her of Mr. Pryor’s arrival.

            “Offer my apologies and tell him I am indisposed, will you, Geoffrey?” she instructed.

            “Of course.”

             Whereupon I returned to advise Mr. Pryor that Lady Willoughby was unwell.

            His face reddened slightly, “Of course. Please give her my condolences and wishes for a speedy recovery.”

            Over the weeks, this scenario repeated itself several times, eventually minus the gifts, with Mr. Pryor’s face reddening deeper each time. Even I was beginning to become uncomfortable. Would the man never get the point??

            Sometime later I overheard a conversation among some of the Staff about an occasion when Mr. Pryor chanced upon Lady Willoughby in town with her friends. Taking this opportunity, he expressed his delight at seeing her recovered from her illness and the hope they would soon meet again.

            This came as a complete surprise to her friends, as they were totally unaware of her suffering an illness! Thankfully, they did not voice their thoughts in the presence of Samuel Pryor.

            Eventually it appeared that Mr. Pryor had abandoned his relentless pursuit of Lady Willoughby, and things seemed to return to relative normalcy.

            However, after a brief period of peace and quiet, late one night I was awakened by a call of Nature and, thinking I heard a noise outside, looked out my window and noticed a slight movement a short way down the garden path.

            I dressed and made my way through the back door. It was at this moment I realized I not only had no means of defense, I had no light by which to illuminate my surroundings, limiting my ability (and desire) to investigate very far, and made my way back to my room.

            I reported the incident to the local constabulary the next day, informing them of my suspicions regarding Samuel Pryor, describing his appearances at the Manor and various attempts to gain Lady Willoughby’s attention. Hiding in the garden at night in hopes of spying on her through her bedroom window.

            After much head-scratching and beard-stroking the authorities decided there was no actual PROOF of my suspicions, saying they were unable to act on mere suspicion alone.


            They did, however, agree to speak with Mr. Pryor. Which, of course, turned out to be a complete waste of time. He knew nothing. Saw nothing. Did nothing.

            Again, bah!

            Several weeks later a piercing shriek broke the early morning quiet. It didn’t take long to discover the Cook in the garden, shaking violently, standing over the very still form of Samuel Pryor lying on the cobblestones.

            While checking his body for signs of life, I found a gaping wound at the back of his head.

            Dead. Obviously. No question.

            Finally, Charlotte was calmed enough to speak. “Oh Geoffrey! I was taking food to the rabbits when I found….” and at this point she merely pointed to the unfortunate Mr. Pryor.

            Then I saw Lady Willoughby making her way toward me on the path.

            “What has happened??”

            “There’s been an accident. Let’s get you both back to the house.” I managed to divert her before she had a chance to get a good look at the scene and then ushered her and Charlotte back into the house.

            Then I quickly scoured the area to…well, I don’t actually know what I was thinking. It just seemed the obvious thing to do. However, I found nothing out of order and summoned the authorities, who appeared on the scene in a mere three quarters of an hour. Death not being of sufficient importance to interrupt breakfast, perhaps?

            Following lengthy interrogations of the household Staff as well as Lady Willoughby, the authorities eventually concluded that since no weapon had been found, and there was no evidence of a struggle, the unfortunate Mr. Pryor had simply fallen upon the stones in the garden during one of his nocturnal spying attempts. The only item of the slightest interest was a hairpin, determined to belong to Lady Willoughby, found on the ground near the body. This was hardly significant, since it was known that she often took walks in the garden. 

            At long last, they offered weak apologies for not investigating previous reports of Mr. Pryor’s nighttime forays. That was it. Results of any further investigative efforts on the part of the constabulary remained unknown to me.

            Things at Lionshead Manor returned to normal, including preparations for the fast-approaching holiday season and the Yuletide Masquerade Ball.

            I resumed my responsibility of tending to the needs of Lady Willoughby and the Cook continued to draw her to the dining table with aromas impossible to ignore.

            And best of all, the sweet music of laughter once again rang throughout the Manor.

Lady Madeleine Willoughby

            When my husband died suddenly, I felt as if my world had ended. He was my life. My love. And I continue to carry the love and the pain in my soul.

            Despite the tireless efforts of my loyal Staff, nothing could pluck me from the darkness into which I withdrew. My dear butler, Geoffrey, did his best to ensure I was not needlessly disturbed. I daresay he most likely threw himself in front of my chamber door to prevent any intrusion! He rarely appeared except to bring medicine for sleep if I should need it.

            The Cook, Charlotte, spent her days planning and preparing delectable culinary delights in an attempt to lure me from my room as the aromas sneaked under whatever door I had sequestered myself behind.

            I sometimes overheard them discussing their concern for my well-being. I daresay even the gardener was included whenever his presence in the house was required to discuss some issue or another!

            As I have said quite frequently, I am blessed with a devoted and protective Staff.

            Before my beloved Richard died, this manor was alive with gaiety and happiness. He so loved a party, being in the presence of attractive – sometimes fawning – women, celebrating whatever event took his fancy. Any excuse would suffice. Richard could be quite charming and loved being the center of attention.

            He especially loved the annual gala Yuletide masquerade ball. During the months of secret planning and scheming, Richard would finally be allowed entry to the ballroom as the Staff would slowly open the doors and display their efforts.

            It was always a big production in which Richard would be wonderfully amazed and full of praise for their work. What the Staff did not know, however, was that my husband was not above quietly creeping down the stairs late at night and making his way to the ballroom to take a peek inside before he was allowed to see.

            He did not know, however, that I was aware of this charade! And I never let on.

            I also enjoyed the celebration. Except for…Samuel Pryor.

            My husband and Mr. Pryor shared a business relationship of sorts. He and Richard would close themselves behind the study door to deal with matters which required their joint attention. I never knew the nature of their dealings. A wife should not be bothered with such things. At least that was how my Richard felt. He was no doubt correct in that.

            Although I had met Mr. Pryor, I rarely conversed with him. There was just something about him that made me uneasy. While I have no specific support for this conclusion, he struck me as a devious little man. Not to be trusted. However, I never made my feelings known to Richard.

            Although not an entirely insufferable man, Samuel Pryor lacked the gentlemanly traits I found desirable in my husband. Richard was not only quite handsome with his salt and pepper hair, he possessed wit, charm, and intelligence. All qualities lacking in Mr. Pryor.

            There were times at the holiday ball that Mr. Pryor would seek me out. Did he think I did not recognize him even under his disguise? How silly. Of course I did. His attempts at conversation were embarrassing. His behavior struck me as anything but appropriate.

            Following the requisite year of mourning, Mr. Pryor increased his efforts to gain my attention. Several times he appeared at the door bearing gifts and flowers, hoping for an audience. At such times I instructed Geoffrey to dismiss him with whatever excuse he could think of.

            After several such efforts, Geoffrey ceased informing me of his arrival and simply sent him away. Politely, of course.

            Then one night, as was my habit, I opened my chamber window to allow fresh air into the room, and noticed a slight movement below. But after a few moments, I saw nothing further and returned to my bed. Convinced my eyes deceived me in the darkness.

            I mentioned this to the Staff the next day to determine if they’d had the same experience. They looked at each other, shook their heads and went about their business.

            After that, however, they seemed to begin hovering. Did they think I was going mad?

            Samuel Pryor had remained quiet. No gifts. No flowers. I dared hope he had given up his pursuit of my attention.

Then there came the terrible shock of learning that he was lying dead in my garden.

            I had remained in bed later than usual that day because I wasn’t feeling well, but arose quickly when I heard a scream from outside. I hurriedly put on my robe and made my way down the garden path. Before I got very far, Geoffrey took my arm and quickly ushered Charlotte and me back into the house. It was then Charlotte told me what she had found.

            The poor thing was a quivering mess, and although shaken myself, I somehow managed to remain calm enough to hold her hand while assuring her that everything would be alright.

            As I recall, it was some time before the authorities arrived.

            After questioning first Charlotte, myself, Geoffrey and the rest of the Staff, the officers conducted a search of sorts, looking for clues I imagine.

            The only item they managed to find was one of my hairpins on the ground near the body. This was hardly suspicious since it is well known that I frequently take early morning walks in the garden. I simply had not yet discovered the hairpin had fallen out of my hair at some point.

            I do not know what to make of all this. Quite shocking, of course. Perhaps I should have taken Mr. Pryor’s behavior more seriously, not just a nuisance! It is quite disturbing to me actually. And the questions posed by the authorities were….almost accusatory in nature.

            Yes, yes, I suppose they were only doing their job, however, their manner was offensive. I am not accustomed to having to explain my movements in my own home!

            Life has returned to its usual pace now, although the investigation by the authorities continues.  And as for me, I intend to occupy my time and thoughts with the happier activities relative to the Masquerade Ball.

Charlotte, the Cook

            When I began my employment at the Manor I was 33. That was nearly 10 years ago, and I hoped it would be my home for the rest of my life. Lord and Lady Willoughby were kind people who treated me very well. But I always knew my “place” was in the kitchen..

            The Staff are close and watch after one another. Almost like a real family. The only thing missing from our “family” is children. We knew Lord and Lady Willoughby were unable to bear children and it was never mentioned in their presence.

            When friends of Lady Willoughby who were fortunate enough to have children would visit, she was at her happiest. It was a joy to watch her interact with the children. She loved it so much. The halls would ring with their laughter!

            The years passed quickly. My days spent in the kitchen and my nights in the Staff quarters or my bed chamber, which was at the back of the house on the bottom floor next to the kitchen.

            Life was ordinary and I was happy.

            Then Lord Willoughby died and the sadness that fell over the Manor weighed heavily on all of us. Lady Willoughby stayed in her chamber where her meals were taken to her on the occasions she chose to eat.

            It was heartbreaking.

            After the year of mourning passed, Lady Willoughby slowly returned to her usual self. But nothing was ever quite the same. The joy was gone from her laughter and her eyes could not entirely disguise her sadness.

            It was about this time that Samuel Pryor started coming around. He would arrive with flowers and a gift of some kind, and Lady Willoughby would tell Geoffrey to send him away.

            We all thought he would eventually give up, but that didn’t happen. I always kept my rolling pin handy just in case!

            Samuel Pryor would have been in serious trouble if any of us had caught him hanging about! We are very protective of our “family.”

Kay, the Upstairs Maid

            I’ve been here since I was 16, which is almost 7 years now. Just like everyone else at the Manor, I consider this my home and family. Lord and Lady Willoughby always treated me well. And Geoffrey, the Butler, keeps a close eye on all the Staff.

            I never really saw anything strange going on with Mr. Pryor, other than what some of the other Staff told me about suspecting him of prowling around in the back garden at night.                                                                           

            And then one day Charlotte found him dead on the pathway.

            How awful that must have been for her! Glad I’m not the one that found him! Poor Charlotte! I wouldn’t put it past her to give him a good thunk with her rolling pin if she caught him snooping around, but kill him? No! Charlotte isn’t that kind of person!

Marjorie, the Downstairs Maid

            I’ve only been here a few months. Gilda Radowitz, a friend of my Aunt Karen, was kind enough to recommend me to Mr. Abbott. I am only 16 and this is my first position. I am still learning how to do my job properly. I don’t have a lot of time for anything other than following Mr. Abbott about while he explains what is expected of me. Other than sometimes overhearing the other Staff talking, I don’t know very much about what goes on.

            I spend what little personal time I have helping the stable boys with the horses. Johnny and Stephen have been very nice to me and Johnny is teaching me how to ride. He hasn’t been here much longer than I have. I don’t think they like each other though. Sometimes I can hear them arguing. They stop as soon as they see me coming.

            One time, after I was sure everyone was in bed asleep, I sneaked Johnny into the house because he’d never been inside before and wanted to see what it’s like. He was only inside for a few minutes. I hope I don’t get into trouble!

            I had heard the other Staff talking about Mr. Pryor, but I don’t think I ever saw the man. The constables asked me a few questions, but there was nothing I could tell them that would help them figure out what happened to him.

William, the Chauffeur

            I have no idea what happened to Mr. Pryor! I did overhear the Staff talking about him, but they’re always gossiping about something, so I didn’t pay much attention. I figure he was snooping around where he shouldn’t have been and he fell. And died on the spot.

            I have better things to do with my time. I will leave the police work to those who know what they’re doing.

Stephen, the Stable Boy

            I don’t know much about the Samuel Pryor business, other than what Majorie told us. All I do know is Johnny likes her. I’ve been tryin’ to train him with the horses, but it doesn’t seem like he’s really interested in learnin’. Always talkin’ about what he wants to do somewhere else. He’ll probably leave here the first chance he gets. It’s a waste of time for me to train the guy.

            He’s not a person I would trust. Nope.

            Marjorie let him into the Manor one night because he wanted to see the inside. I tried to tell her that was a bad idea, but she wouldn’t listen. She’s nice girl an’ I hope she doesn’t get into trouble over it.     

Johnny, the Stable Boy

            When Majorie let me in the Manor that time, she didn’t know it was so I could check the place out and see if there was anythin’ I could easily steal.

            I hated my job in the stables and needed money to get away. I never got along with Stephen. He always acted like he was better ‘n me an’ was always criticizin’ my work. After another nasty go-around with him – this one over Marjorie – I decided the time was right, and sneaked into the Manor through an unlocked cellar window I saw during my tour. I took the stairs to the main floor an’ started stuffin’ the few silver items I found in the dinin’ room in the bag I brought with me.

            Suddenly, I thought I heard someone comin’ an’ ran back down to the cellar an’ crawled out the window the way I come in.

            Totally panicked, I ran down the garden path and collided with someone, knockin’ ‘em backward onto the cobblestones. I hadn’t seen ‘im! I shoulda stopped but was afraid someone else was right behind me. I kept runnin’ back to the stables, picked up the small bag with my stuff, grabbed one of the horses and escaped through the woods.

            A few months later, I got caught after I broke into another place. I still had some stuff I stole from Lionshead Manor which did me up for the theft there.

            When I found out Samuel Pryor was dead, I tried to explain that it was an accident. Honest, I didn’t mean to hurt the man! I only wanted to get away! I didn’t know no one had seen me!

            I heard Majorie was dismissed from Lionshead. Please tell her I’m sorry. I really do like her.

The Butler finishes the story…

            Four months after Samuel Pryor’s death, I answered the front door of the Manor to find an elderly woman holding the hand of a young boy. I recognized neither the woman nor the child.

            “May I help you?” I inquired.

             “I do hope so,” she replied. “My name is Joyce Meriweather. I am…or I should say was… Samuel Pryor’s housekeeper. And this young man is Anthony. He is Mr. Pryor’s nephew.”

            “Yes?” I impatiently urged her to continue after glancing at the boy.

            “Before he passed, Mr. Pryor gave me instructions that, should anything happen to him, I was to take Anthony to Lionshead and give this envelope to Lady Willoughby. Only Lady Willoughby.

            “Would it be possible to speak with her?”

            I invited her into the foyer while I went to the library to repeat the information I had just been given.

            “I have no idea what she wants, but she refuses to explain further or release the envelope to anyone but you. Perhaps you could spare a moment?”

            Lady Willoughby thought for several moments before saying, “Very well, Geoffrey. Let’s find out what this is all about so we can finally put the dreadful Mr. Pryor behind us once and for all!!

            “Show her into the study.”

            With that, I returned to the foyer to fetch Ms. Meriweather and the boy and led her to the study. Lady Willoughby requested that I remain in the room.

            “So, Ms. Meriweather, how can I help you?” asked Lady Willoughby as she stood behind the great oak desk.

            “This is very awkward for me, but in this envelope are instructions and documents Mr. Pryor gave me before his death.” The woman handed the envelope to Lady Willoughby, who invited her to be seated.

            As she began to look at the documents, Lady Willoughby turned quite pale and began to tremble. I feared she may faint and encouraged her to sit down. As she did so, she handed me the documents, which to my horror included a birth certificate for the young child, naming Richard Willoughby as the father!

            Also in the envelope was a letter instructing the housekeeper to bring the child to the Manor and confront Lady Willoughby with her husband’s secret, adding that he had kept quiet as long as Lord Willoughby paid him a certain amount of money each month.

            But after Lord Willoughby died, along with him went the blackmail money.

            “The funds left me by Mr. Pryor have run out. I am going back to Wales to live with my daughter, and I cannot take Anthony with me. Since you are, indirectly, his only relative now, I must ask that you accept guardianship of him. I have no other option for the child’s care.”

            Suddenly, some things became clear to Lady Willoughby. The reason for the behind-closed-doors meetings, and her husband’s overnight sojourns out of town. One can only guess at the reason behind Mr. Pryor’s behavior toward Lady Willoughby. Perhaps after Lord Willoughby’s death he hoped to become her husband’s replacement by using the information he held as “encouragement”?

            We will never know for sure.

            Although she inquired about the child’s mother, the housekeeper had little information, since she’d been hired after the mother’s death.

            To say Lady Willoughby was shocked at these revelations would be an understatement of monumental proportions. Stunned. Embarrassed. Angry.  But she realized there really was no moral option. Especially knowing what would likely happen to the boy if she refused him a home.

Above all else, Lady Willoughby has a kind and generous heart.

            Being only five years old, Anthony has no knowledge of his history, other than his mother died and Samuel Pryor was his uncle. In spite of living with the likes of Mr. Pryor, the child has been taught good manners and received the beginnings of a proper education by Ms. Meriweather.

            With dark brown curly hair and brown eyes, he’s a fine lad who, as yet, has no obvious physical resemblance to Lord Willoughby – whose indiscretion is never mentioned. To all appearances, Anthony was adopted by Lady Willoughby after being approached by Joyce Meriweather. Not wishing to be the subject of local gossip, the actual details of his heritage remain known only to Lady Willoughby and myself.

            Lord Willoughby’s chambers were redone to accommodate the Nanny and the child, and a tutor was also taken on.

            Life continues at the Manor, with the child’s laughter echoing throughout. The Staff is delighted with young Anthony in the family.

            Perhaps, if one believes in such things, this was divine intervention? Since Lady Willoughby loved children so much but was unable to bear any, this could be considered a blessing.


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