Chapter 2 - The Alchemist’s Snare by A.J. Hall
The tap on his door caught Sherlock — comically, he thought later — unprepared. Such absurdities happened at Court or on progress. Even when he was incognito, approaches happened with tedious frequency. But here? He hardly thought Naomi was the type, still less the cook, and even if he’d guessed right about the chaplain, so bold a stroke seemed improbable in the extreme.
He sidled noiselessly towards the sound.
“Who is it?” he breathed through the keyhole.
“May I speak with you? I would not trouble your rest, save on a matter of most signal urgency.”
Even in a whisper, he recognised the voice. Sarai Benveniste. Thoroughly intrigued, Sherlock eased the door open. She slid through the gap as soon as it was wide enough to admit her. Once inside, she doused the taper she had shielded in her hand, lest any light penetrate through to the outside.
She did not raise her voice, even now the door was shut. He had to strain to hear.
“I know who you truly are. And it is with him I must speak.”
Sherlock led the way to the bed, murmured, “For discretion, purely,” and parted the bed hangings to allow Sarai to scramble in, then followed her. The thick curtains blocked sound and draughts alike; they were able to converse at a less strained volume.
“May I ask what you mean?” Misunderstanding seemed unlikely, but there was too much at stake to take any shadow of a chance.
“Please, your grace, we cannot waste time pretending to misunderstand each other. Some considerable time ago — you will know exactly when I mean — you attended an anatomical lecture in Amsterdam. A dissection of a convicted criminal. The dissection revealed an abnormal growth on the subject’s liver, among much other matter of interest.”
“I recall it.” His voice hardened. “What I do not recall is your being present.”
Even in the dark, he could tell Sarai was smiling. “I shall take that as a compliment, from a man I have myself seen to be a master of disguise.”
“Hardly a master, given you recognised me.” Sherlock hoped that didn’t sound petulant. But to have been recognised at all meant he was teetering on the edge of disaster.
“I had advantages. Not just seeing you undisguised (save for air and voice) but in special knowledge. There is an assassin’s weapon, peculiar to a certain sect of Wallachians. It leaves a most distinctive scar: such a one as you bear below your left shoulder blade. However ferociously rivalries run in the Angrian wine trade, it seems unlikely anyone would spend coined silver hiring a foreign assassin to see off Master Altamount of Glasstown.”
“A generous opinion, and one I fear does the trade more credit than it deserves.” His voice hardened. “But your knowledge of weaponry is commendable. How came you by it?”
“My knowledge, your grace, was gained in the theatre of war. I was the youngest of seven daughters — my eldest sister became Andre Lemberger’s wife before I was born. My parents had no surviving sons. So, since I had no particular desire to follow my sisters into matrimony, my father was more than happy to train me in his own profession. But only up to a point. On his death, I learned he had left his practice to my second sister’s husband. A reasonable precaution, from one perspective. My apprenticeship was not yet over and my sister’s husband was a physician of growing repute. What more reasonable than that he should continue guiding me as my father had done?”
Her tone could have stripped varnish.
“It did not answer?”
“It did not.”
He almost expected her to end there, but after a moment she added, “It became impossible for me to remain in Salonika. I disguised myself as a man — it had served when I was younger, and wanted to attend public dissections and the like, from which women were barred — and crossed into Gondal. And there —” her voice went up in remembered amusement “— There I happened upon the surgeon-general of Gondal’s armies, who was barely fooled for a quarter of a turn by my disguise but, being desperately short of field surgeons, was more than willing to take me on as I was. I learned fast, and I learned well. Necessity is most truly the best of tutors.”
“Gondal,” he said flatly, his mind racing. “How long ago?”
“A decade?” He felt, rather than saw, her shrug. “Perhaps a little more.”
Ten years. Of course. When else could it have been?
“Then you will have been at Vannstown?”
Had he betrayed himself? But no; there were tens of thousands of reasons he might have asked that particular question with that particular emphasis. Someone might sift through each possibility, like a man sifting the sand on a beach, before happening upon that answer.
“I arrived with the relief force. I wasn’t one of the Forty.”
Despite his dry mouth, Sherlock contrived a tolerable imitation of dispassion. “I understand the relief force found much to occupy itself with, nonetheless.”
Sarai’s tone reflected his own dark humour. “You could say that, indeed. In my case, the more so because our surgeon-general had received a near-mortal wound when the garrison abandoned the citadel. In addition to having his duties to attend to, his care fell to my lot. And when he rallied at last and started to regain strength, enteric fever swept through the camp and he succumbed. I thought I’d lost him twice over.”
Sherlock thanked the Virgin his shaking hands were concealed from Sarai’s view. His heart pounded.
“Your skill is to be commended.” He paused, calculating. Men in fever talked, not usually coherently. Names, though — names might stick. Best to conceal the truth below a show of candour.
“I had the privilege to know him, a little, when I was a hostage in Gondal as a boy. You could hardly have saved a better man.”
Amusement rippled through Sarai’s voice. “I understand the Queen was quite of your opinion. She was distraught how her favourite had suffered in her service. I doubt she would have allowed him back in the field, even had his health permitted.”
Coming like that, unheralded, out of the confiding dark, it was a blow to the heart. He curled around himself to smother the pain, and was only glad Sarai could not see him so.
Her voice was slow and mediative. “But Vannstown saw the end of me, too, as a physician under arms.”
“Why so?” To his credit, he sounded calm, almost to the point of indifference.
“Whatever I’d contrived on the battlefield, a score of jealous voices shouted it down. She wasn’t there at all. Or: If she were, then t’was to the shame of Christendom As if I cared for Christendom! Oh, and, She was the surgeon-general’s mistress; nothing more. She stole his credit. Nonsense, the lot of it, but with my patron laid up, weak as a kitten, and Gondal hot with fire against all foreigners, what hope had I? I bethought me of my kin in Angria, and took the southern road. This house proved a haven to me. I am sorry you see it now in stormy weather.”
Even though Sherlock could still hear the shutters banging, he did not mistake Sarai’s comment for literalism.
“Is that what brings you here? ‘Stormy weather’?”
“Yes.” After a short pause, she went on, “I am deeply concerned about the health of my brother.”
So she still thought of Lemberger as a brother, notwithstanding her sister’s death, his conversion from the faith of their fathers, physical distance and the two remarriages. Something twisted painfully in his chest.
“Indeed, he does not seem to be a well man.”
“No. He does not. And yet —” Sarai hesitated. “And yet he was hale three months ago, and I find it hard to attribute a physical cause to his decline. Tell me — for I have heard that this is an interest of yours — if I were to say, ‘poison’ what would first come to your mind?”
Jesu! What a serpent’s nest to stumble into! But that was the countryside all over. Smiling and beautiful on the outside, but the lowest and vilest alleys of any capital of Europe could not present a more dreadful record of crime.
Beneath that thought came another sensation: a curious ease. He had guessed right about this house from the first.
Furthermore, Sarai Benveniste intrigued him. No, be honest for once. Her connection to John Watson provoked envy, sharp as a knife in the gut. To have learnt from him, to have shared his danger in the field, to have saved his life —
How could this woman have had everything he could ever have wished for, and be so unaware of her riches?
From the sly allusion to the Queen it was clear Sarai had not the smallest suspicion of his own interest (Unless she knew all and was a cleverer dissembler than all the courtiers he had ever met? Men in fever talked; enteric was notorious for it. Ha! More interesting yet, if so.) But, if thrown together in a common task, more would emerge. Anecdotes of life in the field, each a hidden jewel waiting to be picked up and polished. Borrowed surgical knacks, familiar motions of wrist or finger. Perhaps they even corresponded.
He stretched full length on the bed, the clockwork of his mind clicking and whirring. His orders were to press on for Gaaldine with all speed, but there was too much here to tempt him to linger. Surely, for the health of his horse and to let the storm-swollen rivers to subside, he could afford to spend another day on the problem? Leaving aside Sarai Benveniste and Lemberger himself, surely none of the household possessed enough wit to devise a scheme which it would take him longer than 24 turns to unravel?
Poison. Used over months, so a cumulative toxin. Such as one of the metallic poisons.
“How are his gums?” Sherlock enquired.
There was a grim note in Sarai Benveniste’s voice. “Yes — I fancy there is a bluish line there. But given Sir Giles’ wedding gift —”
She left the sentence hanging, but Sherlock completed the thought. “Hard to tell, is it not, if lead poisoning is accident or design, in those circumstances?”
“I trust my brother not to drink rashly of that or any other brew. But I would be happier if Sir Giles were out of this house, and his wine with him.”
Sherlock noted Sarai’s not-quite nailing of her colours to the mast in the manner of her chief suspect. Unless, of course, that were a personal judgment, unconnected to any thoughts of crime. Sir Giles, he rather fancied, might not be too nice in his judgements with respect to an unmarried female relative of the house, her reputation already put into the balance by rash adventuring onto the public stage.
“There are other slow poisons,” he observed.
“There are indeed. But why —?”
Her words were cut short by a piercing scream. Then another. Then another.
Sherlock was out of bed, reaching from his clothing. “I will tap on the door when the coast is clear.”
He did not look back to see if she was following him once he had given the signal, but he was confident that she was there, hanging back a little into the shadows so as not to arrive too suspiciously close on his heels.
The noise guided him through the maze of upstairs rooms to one which could only be the master bedroom. The intricately carved wooden door was flung wide, and the chamber within blazed with lights; beeswax candles, not rush dips.
Sherlock saw Lemberger, his face contorted into a rictus, thrashing on agony on the bed, his back arching as he convulsed. By his bed a very young woman with long tousled blonde hair in plaits grasped his hand and screamed. It seemed to Sherlock that Lemberger’s convulsions became more intense at each scream.
She raised her eyes as Sherlock entered, and her face changed. “You! how dare you come in here?”
“My lady, I heard you cry out for assistance.” He took two steps nearer the bed. Even the slight vibration of his steps seemed reflected in the rhythm of Lemberger’s agonies; his suspicion about the effect of sound intensified. “Tell me where I may find the physician.”
“I am here.” He had not heard Sarai come in; he stepped back to let her approach the bed.
Shockingly, the blonde girl turned from her sick husband and spat, accurately but feebly, at Sarai. The gob of spittle landed a couple of paces short. “That whore? That unnatural creature? I’ll not have her touch my husband —”
“Suh- suh - ister,” the man on the bed gasped, and convulsed again.
“What’s that, my dearest?” His wife dropped to her knees beside the bed, seeking to cradle his head in her arms.
“He says,” Sherlock observed, “that Sarai Benveniste is his sister. More to the point, she’s probably the only physician this side of the Primontel bridge, and that bridge is down.”
He might have said more, but Sarai “sshed” him decisively, moving to the bedside and gripping the girl’s shoulder.
“Marie, stop being absurd. Master Altamount, pray find Jacopo. We must bleed my brother at once and it will take both of you to hold him while we do.”
In a swirl of white lawn, Marie Lemberger rose to her feet. “I shall go to papa.”
There was a brilliantly-dyed Turkey shawl cast carelessly across the low table by the bed; she swept it up but did not immediately swathe her shoulders in it, holding it instead between both hands and staring down at it as if for a moment she wondered what it was, and why it had come there.
Conscious, even in this extremity, of the need to maintain Altamount, Sherlock stepped towards her, gesturing at the shawl. “Ma’am, allow me. You must not take chill.”
At his approach, Marie squealed. She caught up the shawl in both hands, clutching it beneath her chin — absurdly, Sherlock was reminded of a squirrel protecting a nut — and scurried from the room.
At her departure, Sarai sighed. “Now she’s off to persuade Sir Giles to find another physician. But he can hardly repair the Primontel bridge for her; had he that ability, we can confide he would have done so during the five years his tenants have been complaining of its condition.”
An extraordinary sound came from the bed. Lemberger was laughing; a thin, feeble sound cut short as yet another paroxysm assailed him. Still, what a quality in a man, to attempt to find humour even in such extremity. So much would be lost, if Lemberger died this night.
Jacopo was already in the kitchen, fully dressed (did the man never sleep?) and exchanging low-voiced comments with the cook, who was blowing the fire to wakefulness with the tense wariness Sherlock associated with battery captains on the cusp of an engagement.
The next two turns proved the cook had the right of it. Like any battle Sherlock had known, all sense of any wider purpose — let alone an over-arching strategy — was lost in the first moments. Blood spattered them all (cupping a man in convulsions, even with an expert hand, was no sinecure). The screaming of the anguished Lemberger, the stench as he voided bladder and bowels: these, too, were familiar from the field of war.
And, as in war, long before any of the combatants openly acknowledged the fact, the balance turned against them, so that they already knew themselves defeated before they had ceded more than a foot of ground. Had it been so for the Forty in the Vannstown heights?
Pale dawn leaked into the room. With one final convulsion, so violent it would have thrown him clean off the bed had Sherlock and Jacopo not held him down, Lemberger gave up his life.
In the sudden silence Sir Giles’s voice could be heard, clear and cold.
“I am the magistrate of this district. I require this to be examined. All of you are confined here under my authority. I will know why my daughter is a widow.”