Chapter 8 - Gambit Declined by A.J. Hall
“But why?” Harry demanded, not for the first time.
John reflected how much the last weeks had changed her. Before, on the fleeting occasions she had met him, she had seen Sherlock as a dazzling exotic, like a phoenix or a cameleopard, and had been far too overcome to address two consecutive words to him. Now she treated him, if not with contempt, at least with a kind of breezy disregard. It seemed she had not taken long to learn that distinction, most important to anyone setting out to swim in treacherous Court waters, between those merely of rank and those who mattered.
A muscle tightened in his jaw. He wished – again, not for the first time – that the nursery retaliation of hair-pulling was now forever beyond his reach.
He caught a sidelong glint of amusement in Sherlock’s expression.
“We need a dress which is known to have been worn at Court. Your aquamarine satin fits the bill admirably. Anyone with an artist’s eye will have remarked it. How fortunate that Clarence Duplessis cannot tell red from green and doubtless sees it in some indifferent shade of murk.”
“Fortunate?” Harry almost yelped, as if Sherlock had indeed pulled her hair.
He raised his eyebrows. “If you dress to catch someone’s eye, I’m sure you wish it to be for the right reasons. And yet, that dress – while of the finest fabric – does nothing to flatter your colouring. It appears almost as if it had been made for a different woman.”
Harry looked as if she’d been hit. An ugly flush rose on her cheeks. Given eighteen years’ experience of Harry’s expressions, John knew there’d either be tears or violence within minutes, and quite probably both.
“Look, I’m sure Sherlock didn’t mean –”
“You are, of course, concerned lest we damage it.” Sherlock’s voice was now coolly business-like. “I quite understand. Fine fabrics are, of course, also the frailest. A deal, then. Bespeak a new gown at the Queen’s dressmakers – don’t feel any need to stint yourself, but please in the name of God listen to their advice about colour – and I’ll underwrite all charges.”
“You’ll pay for a new gown?”
Disbelief and avidity warred in Harry’s expression; John could hardly have said which angered him more. Stymied by his sister, he turned to Sherlock.
“That’s quite out of the question. Think of the gossip. What would happen if news got to your grandfather that you’d been buying gowns for the one of the ladies of the Queen’s bed-chamber?”
“Grandfather? Quite frankly, I suspect he’d order the chapel bells rung.”
There was a great deal he could have said to that, had it not been for Harry’s presence (she was, damn her, looking far too knowing; further proof of the corrupting effects of Court).
“In any event,” Sherlock added, “the Queen is apprised of our intentions. Anyone trying to spread scandal will have her to contend with. So, that being settled, and you being assured of a new gown whether we bring the original back or not, may we please borrow that aquamarine satin affair?”
The mention of the Queen, not unmixed with self-interest, clinched the matter.
They escaped with the prize, and repaired to a shabby little wineshop in the student quarter.
Less than a year ago the wineshop had been John’s refuge, on days when the incomparable wonder and mystery that was the human body had defeated him.
Notwithstanding the passage of time, when Sherlock had asked him to find somewhere they could talk, with no risk of being remarked by anyone from the Court, his steps had led them unerringly to The Ragged Doctor. That, no doubt, spoke volumes about him, to anyone able to decipher it.
“So. We’ve got Harry’s gown. Now tell. What do you need it for?”
Sherlock stretched back in his chair, his booted legs crossed at the ankles, blending effortlessly into his surroundings. To any passing drinker, he was a just another impoverished, wandering scholar.
“Isn’t it obvious? Dr Shlessinger – I am quite sure – has been primed to expect an approach from one within the Queen’s circle. He will expect that person to approach in disguise. The crucial thing is to give him what he expects.”
“And who’s the woman you have inveigled into this nonsense?”
Sherlock tipped his head back, exposing an impossible length of white throat as he laughed. “Haven’t you worked that out yet? Well. Wait.”