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Chapter 4 - The Alchemist’s Snare by A.J. Hall

No light leaked through the cellar door. Small wonder; it must be three finger-breadths thick, oak bound with iron. Sherlock sensed the presence of barrels, hogsheads and demijohns by smell first, confirmed by touch. The air was heavy with a sharp, yeasty aroma, tinged with the metallic, sickly taint he had tasted the previous night. Sir Giles’ gift had been put to the front of the cellar, perhaps in the hope that any servant hoping to pilfer from the barrels might receive his just deserts.

“At least, we are unlikely to occupy the time by drinking ourselves senseless on this wine.”

Sherlock’s voice sounded louder than he had intended, but only a battlefield shout would pierce that door.

“It might come to that, eventually.”

Despite her efforts to control it, Sarai’s voice wobbled. It did, indeed, seem unlikely that Sir Giles would send them any better cheer to smooth their passage to the gallows — assuming, that is, that wiser counsels did not prevail or Sherlock thought of a plan of escape in the meantime. Wagering their lives on Sir Giles’s reasoning capability or on breaking out of a wine cellar without tools or light to guide them was a bet at longer odds than Sherlock normally favoured. That meant there was one more thing he would have to make clear.

“My presence here in Angria — the communications between Gaaldine and certain people high in the councils of King Adrian — these must not be known. At whatever cost. You do realise what I am telling you?”

If Sarai Benveniste would not consent to going silent to the gallows on this absurdity of a charge, it would be his duty to stop her voice himself. He flexed his hands surreptitiously. It might be a better death than the botched effort of a backcountry hangman, at that. Though he could not imagine meeting Naomi’s eyes, after. As for John, who had been her friend, teacher and who knew what else, he thanked the Virgin (irony upon irony!) that he would never have to know how John took the news of Sarai’s murder at the hands of a villainous wine merchant, should the word filter north to Gondal. Nor, if Mycroft did his job, would Altamount ever be linked to the Crown Prince who would so unaccountably have vanished from the face of the earth.

Sarai’s voice was hesitant, questioning in the chill dark of the cellar. “Forgive me; I am a foreigner and this is no business of mine. But, with a foreigner’s eye, I can see that the three kingdoms are brothers born of the same mother. Why, then, this incessant strife between you?”

Sherlock snorted. “Youngest of seven girls, you said? If you’d ever had brothers, you’d not ask the question.”

“If, sir, you mean to imply that girls do not fight with their sisters, I can only commend you on having led so sheltered a life.”

The dry note in her voice reassured and warmed him. No feigned attack would be required. She understood.

“Hardly that — but do go on. I find it strangely interesting.” That was truer than Sarai could know. He sensed a trailing end. If he could but find it and pull, it would lead him to unravel this mess.

And that end lay within Sarai’s tales of sisterly rivalry. He was sure of it.

“Isn’t it obvious? After all, what do most of these sibling quarrels come down to but ‘Papa loves me the best’? Yet when it comes to sisters - well, even children such as Catherine and Veronica know that their papa will always value a boy more than a girl. They do not have to read a Will; they learn it in their cradles. So their fights are doomed to be inconclusive. They can aspire to be better beloved; never best.”

“Ah!” He sat up and snapped his fingers. “There. Was your brother so set on a son?”

“There is the Will. Also, he married three times.” Sarai hesitated, then added, “I have known Marie since she was a child — in understanding, to be honest, I hardly believe she has advanced much. Barring the lucky intervention of a third party on one side or the other, my brother’s union with Sir Giles’ daughter has — to me at least — seemed inevitable for some years past. The families have always been such close neighbours.”

“As I suspected. Marie Vernon’s chief charm was that of geography.”

“What a way of expressing it!”

“Forgive me, but I am a prince of the blood. What other mode of wooing would you expect me to recognise?”

That provoked an amused “huff” from Sarai; sufficient encouragement to allow Sherlock to expand his thesis.

“Sir Giles is the riparian landowner. Both banks, given the Primontel bridge falls within his sole, if neglectful care. I glimpsed a mill downstream. Every ear of grain from these lands must be ground at Sir Giles’s mill and pay his tithes. Sir Giles does not sound like the kind of man who would sacrifice short-term gain to long-term improvement. The tithes, doubtless, make the cultivation of grain in these parts a barely-paying proposition.”

“I have heard my brother’s complaints on that head for many years.” Sarai sounded rueful. “On that side at least it was a prudential match. But I do not think Sir Giles would have consented to leave his whole estate to Marie unless he saw it passing through her to the next generation. He would not risk his estate ending in the hands of we —”

She broke off, so whatever epithet she had been planning to use was lost. No matter. Whether they belonged to the petty squirearchy or to the high aristocracy, men of Sir Giles’s type bore little love for Jews, even those, like Lemberger, who converted. Which would have provided an interesting motive for the murder, had Lemberger’s untimely death happened after Marie had borne him a couple of sons —

Abruptly, he saw the solution, rolled out bright and shining, like a chain of silver just delivered from the Palace goldsmiths. It only remained to test each link.

“Nux Vomica is one of the bitterest of substances. Master Lemberger could not but have detected it. Even though he complained that the power of taste and smell had deserted him of late. So, Mistress Physician, how would you have contrived for him to swallow it?”

There was a note of dawning realisation in Sarai’s voice. “Short of force — which was self-evidently not used — there is only one possibility. He took it in the form of medicine.”

“Do you use it so?”

“In very small quantities, and with great care. But yes; it has its uses — not least, by convincing one’s patients that they have indeed swallowed medicine. That, often, is half the battle.”

He recalled John saying as much, and clenched his fists against the pain of memory. With an effort, he steadied his voice. “And had you prescribed such a medicine for your brother?”

“Save in emergencies, I do not treat my family.”

He could have kissed her. If Lemberger were not her patient, she could speak more freely about what she knew or surmised of his medical history.

He pictured Marie, holding her hands beneath the Turkey shawl, squirrel-like below her chin, and phrased his next question with care.

“Had you any reason to suspect that your brother might have been in some doubts about his ability to perform his husbandly duties? Or that someone might have persuaded Marie that this was a risk?”

“Oh.” Sarai sounded as if she had bitten into a lemon. “A few weeks ago — perhaps a month before the marriage — I caught Catherine reading one of those awful handbills quacks push into your hand at fairs. You know the kind of thing I mean.”

“I do.” His mind drifted, unstoppably, to the late unlamented Dr Shlessinger, of Vienna. “I trust Catherine did not.”

“I am glad to say she was most perplexed by the whole thing. Though I would rather face the assembled ranks of the rabbis of Salonika at their most disputatious than find myself having to parry those questions again. Especially the ones having regard to noses. But when I asked her where she’d got it, she said she’d picked it up from the bank of the river, when she and Veronica had been off mushrooming. I supposed some traveller had dropped it crossing the bridge. But there is, of course, another explanation.”

“The handbill, I take it, offered divers sovereign cures for the privy ills of man?”

“And woman, likewise,” Sarai agreed. “But I remind you my brother’s symptoms were not those of cantharides or ergot, nor yet of yellow orpiment. And Nux Vomica is unsuited for widespread use in quack remedies. Quite apart from anything else, it is costly. Nor is it something one not familiar with apothecaries and their suppliers would find it easy to procure, not in a country district.”

“Which would seem to rule out any of the servants. Or — forgive me — your niece Naomi. Quite so. But —”

He broke off and turned at a noise from the corner of the cellar. The thick, encompassing blackness had been broken by a line of light; a line no thicker than the breadth of a bit of string, but a life-line nevertheless. He caught Sarai’s arm, directing her attention to it.

As soon as the line had widened to a ribbon Sherlock moved cat-like towards it. He knelt and reached out, grasping the edge of what turned out to be a trap-door, flipping it back abruptly. Light rushed into the cellar. It was only a lantern with a single candle within, but it hit his light-starved eyes with the ferocity of the noontide sun.

“Oh!” said a very put-out young voice. “You spotted me.”

“Catherine!” Sarai’s exclamation saved Sherlock the trouble of working out which of the little girls this was. Since their father’s death they had been creeping around like woe-begone little ghosts, too cast down to exchange more than monosyllables with anyone. Sherlock had not made any effort to distinguish between them.

Catherine pulled herself fully through the trapdoor with a practised wriggle which told Sherlock it was not the first time she had travelled this route.

“Do you need anything to eat? Naomi thought you’d be starving.” She held out a linen bundle. In the lantern light it could be seen that her dress was soaked to well above the knee, splashed with mud and torn.

“Later,” Sherlock murmured, on his knees besides the hole, having commandeered the lantern. Sarai, with less restraint, had the linen parcel open and was wolfing down the bread and cold meat it contained.

The lid of the trapdoor had been covered with a thick layer of plaster, cunningly rendered with dirt and paint to make it indistinguishable from the flagged floor of the cellar. He noted, too, that the lines whitewashed onto the floor, to guide cellar men in placing barrels, carefully skirted the fake flag. The hole itself led straight down with handholds carved into the living rock. The candlelight being too dim to allow him to see how far down it went, he dropped a pebble and heard it ‘clink’ almost immediately.

He knew at once what he was looking at. The three kingdoms had, over the years, fought hard to hold themselves apart from the great forces threatening to crush them on all sides: the Sultan to the East, the Emperor to the North and the Pope across the narrow seas.

Should invaders come — as they had from the dawn of time — they could never be defeated by force of numbers. But they could be beaten back by luck and care and persistence: by daggers in the dark and rumours on the wind, and by picked bands of warriors assembling in secret to plot each daring coup.

In centuries past, limestone outcrops, riven with tunnels and caves, had been a favoured site to place manors such as this one.

But the European Powers had, for eighty years or more, neglected the three kingdoms in favour of bigger aims. The hidden places had fallen into disuse, save for occasional contraband. Often even the memory of them had passed out of knowledge.

One of Sherlock’s minor amusements on journeys such as these had been to guess where such secret spots might be located. There would be clues in the changing vegetation showing the rock type beneath, in place-names, in slight oddities about the placing of outbuildings or barns.

Had he approached this house in daylight, or been less preoccupied in his time since, he might have anticipated there being something of the sort.

“Well?” Sarai demanded. “What are we waiting for? We should be off.”

She gestured at the trapdoor.

Catherine drew her brows together. “Aunt Sarai, I should warn you, it gets awfully narrow. There’s a bit where you have to get down and crawl, really low. And the stream’s running very high; it almost knocked me off my feet. Father made us promise not to come through until at least two days after a big storm and I thought he was just fussing, but he really wasn’t.”

“It would be as well if we waited for the water to subside further, then,” Sherlock said, easily.

“Wait? Why wait?”

From the tightness in Sarai’s tone, Sherlock guessed she was imagining all sorts of catastrophes, everything from Catherine’s absence being noticed upstairs to Sir Giles electing to come down to the cellar to gloat at his prisoners.

“Well, for a start, we must consider not merely the advantage of running away — which are obvious — but of where we should run to. We would not get far in open country without horses, and stealing horses carries its own risks. Also, I presume, Mistress Catherine, the household has only just retired to bed?”

The little girl nodded, open-mouthed, though the deduction was a trivial one.

“Well then. Let us give them time to get thoroughly asleep before making our move. In the mean time, Mistress Catherine, satisfy my curiosity. This trapdoor has been recently refashioned. How long ago did your father learn of the tunnel? It was not something he was told of when buying the manor?”

She pouted. “We found it.”

She and her sister. One worry the less, then.

“Yes, of course you did. This summer? You and your sister were out wandering almost every day.”

She kept coming here. She and her horrible father,” Catherine said. “She didn’t want to see us and we didn’t want to see her.”

“An entirely understandable reluctance. On your part, I mean. So, after few stiff meetings, mainly taken up with criticisms on your appearance, manners and standards of performance on the — what instrument is it that you are required to torment?”

“The clavichord,” Sarai said. “And Catherine and her sister perform very creditably for —” She came to a halt, as if aware that not even a physician’s practised smoothing of a painful truth would get her over the next hurdle. “It is difficult to procure competent music teachers so far from the city, and the instrument is sadly in need of tuning.”

“Quite so. And I doubt that tow-haired nincompoop could tell good music from bad, in any event.”

From Catherine’s expression that had hit the right note. He continued smoothly on.

“So, by way of a kindly conspiracy between your father, your older sister and his cook, you two were given bread and cheese or whatever else might be portable and told to make yourself scarce until dusk. Which you interpreted as an invitation to wander as far around the district as possible.”

“It’s almost as if you’d been there,” Sarai observed.

He winked at her across Catherine’s head. “I might have been somewhere similar, once. You were accompanied by your dog, Barnard. Your father may have been indulgent, but he was not a fool. There are wild boars in these woods. One day, while the three of you wandered up in the hills above and behind the house, Barnard started some game bird or animal —”

Catherine crossed herself. “It was a hare.” Her eyes were round with terror.

“A hare. Quite so. You lost sight of Barnard as he coursed it. You called, but he did not return. You and your sister became frantic, running everywhere, calling his name. Then you heard his bark — but it was coming from deep underground. Guided by the noise he was making, you eventually found a narrow slit in the rocks, the entrance to a cave —”

“Stop, sir!” Catherine was visibly shivering; Sarai put an arm round her, her eyes rebuking Sherlock above the girl’s head.

“I am no warlock, Mistress Catherine,” Sherlock said. “I observe and I draw conclusions; I hear things, I remember them and I make connections. There is nothing supernatural in it. If the mass of men were not credulous fools, those who use the same techniques to pass themselves off as wizards and sorcerers would be much shrunken in the belly.”

“You believe tales of witchcraft must always be false?” Sarai enquired.

“I have never seen or heard of a reputed instance which cannot be explained by applying the tenets of natural philosophy. Also, by presuming humans are gullible idiots.”

“Master Buccafusca is a wizard,” Catherine asserted.

The ring of absolute conviction in the little girl’s voice caught Sherlock’s attention. “Your evidence for that proposition, Mistress Catherine?”

“Village rumour,” Sarai said. “He is not a popular man. He is a foreigner and a scholar. As you may have noticed, neither of those characteristics endear one to the locals. Ever since he came here, all sorts of tales have circulated about him.”

Catherine jutted her lower lip. “He is a wizard. I know it.”

Sarai frowned. “Listen, Catherine, so you can learn how foolish tales start, and so be armoured against gossip for the future.”

Sherlock raised his hand. “A moment. How do you know any of this?”

“My brother was not a fool, Master Altamount.”

At the use of the past tense Catherine hiccuped out a broken sob, and Sarai’s arm around her shoulders tightened. “Me, too, little one,” she whispered into the child’s hair.

With an awkward duck of his chin, Sherlock acknowledged the point.

“May I proceed? Naturally, when he purposed taking Master Buccafusca into his household, he made all proper enquiries.” Her eyes gleamed for a moment in the candlelight. “My brother’s correspondence is wide, and he is owed many debts, not all of them in money. I’ll lay odds Master Buccafusca is in ignorance even now of how much my brother learned about him.”

Something twisted inside Sherlock’s head, like the start of one of those headaches which came with flashing lights. Something — the genesis of a thought. If only he could seize onto it, and hold it.

“Go on.”

“Master Buccafusca’s family is an old one, and once very powerful, but his is the junior branch and in any event the family influence has much declined from what it once was.”

“Backed the wrong politicians or the wrong horses?”

Sarai shrugged. “Who knows? But they must have done it thoroughly. Master Buccafusca could only pursue a degree at the University of Bologna by acting as servitor to a wealthier student.”

“That must have been a trial, to someone of his temperament.”

“Undoubtedly. Although —” Sarai’s voice acquired a sardonic edge. “His pride may have been wounded, but at least he was allowed to attend, a privilege denied to many of us.”

“I take your point,” Sherlock said. “Did Master Buccafusca?”

She snorted. “It would seem he did not. He was engaged as Catherine and Veronica’s tutor, as well as as chaplain, yet a few weeks ago he told my brother that he’d taught them all the book-learning it was seemly for women to know, and they’d be better off put to dairying and attending to their needles. But, at all events, his poverty compared to his patron and the other feckless gentlemen in his class rankled. He and two other students, similarly situated, began a quest for the philosopher’s stone.”

“Not a quest likely to endear them to the University authorities,” Sherlock observed. “Wherever in the world they may reside, fellows of colleges do so hate loud explosions and noxious fumes in their vicinity.”

“Should I ask you how you came by that knowledge?” Sarai enquired demurely.

“Better not. So, how did his quest end?”

“Better for Master Buccafusca than for his two co-seekers. Come the day they had planned to test their new compound, the stars being in alignment, they assembled at the appointed place. He did not join them. Perhaps they planned to steal a march on him, or maybe his tutor delayed him. Whichever it was, he escaped the explosion which left one student dead and the other so torn and twisted his life was for months despaired of.”

“I expect that one — the second one — will have been the crooked man,” Catherine said.

Sherlock crossed the cellar and knelt down next to her, waving Sarai to silence. He knew little about children, but all about witnesses.

Tell me about the crooked man.”

“That was how we knew Master Buccafusca was a wizard in truth,” Catherine confided. “It was just after Ascension Day. Mistress Bianca, in the village, had said there was a beggar in the district, who halted on two sticks and whose face looked like he’d been through the fires of hell. Nica and me were terrified we’d meet him. And we were coming back through the woods one evening, and we did see someone on sticks, hobbling along the road. So we crouched down behind the wall — we feared Barnard would give us away, but he was just as good as gold — and just as the crooked man was about to walk past we heard Master Buccafusca’s voice. He must have come out of the woods on the other side of the road. We were going to make ourselves known to him, but before we could the crooked man said, ‘So you came, after all.’”

“So they had arranged the meeting? Are you sure what you heard?”

Catherine stuck her chin out. “Definitely. Because then, Master Buccafusca said, ‘They told me you had died.’ And the crooked man said — his voice was a sort of horrible wheeze — ‘That man did. See what returned in his place.’ And then Master Buccafusca sort of gasped — Nica and me thought, when we talked about it later, that perhaps the crooked man had dropped his hood and shown his face. And then Master Buccafusca said, ‘Why have you come? I can do nothing for you’ and the crooked man said, ‘How odd, because I can do much for you. Exemplum, I can save your body from the flames which await confessed and proven sorcerers — were you to give me solid reasons to show you had repented of your youthful sins.’ And then they must have walked away, because we couldn’t hear any more.”

“Solid reasons?”

Sherlock was not aware he had spoken aloud until he saw Catherine and Sarai’s faces. So Master Buccafusca had been subject to an extortionist. It was not true, as conventional wisdom had it, that men in such straits were capable of anything. Rather, Sherlock had found, their entire conception of their own limits became so fundamentally disordered that it became impossible for anyone, including the victim, to know what they were or were not capable of any more. Which, in the current situation, was of the utmost significance.

Sarai, plainly, was not thinking about that aspect.

“Catherine, why did you or Veronica not tell your father of this? Or your sister? Or me?”

“Aunt Sarai, they were wizards.” Catherine’s words had the irrefutable logic of childhood. Nevertheless, there was something about her manner —

Sherlock fixed her with the glare which had always proved so efficacious in converting part truths into whole in the past.


She shifted uncomfortably, but her lips remained resolutely shut. Sherlock raised an eyebrow, by way of increasing the pressure, and she broke.

“It was that day, Aunt Sarai. When we got home she was there and her horrible father and the notary. And she looked at us both like — like Ruth looks at Barnard when he’s been rolling in something horrible and comes into the kitchen. And then Papa told us they were betrothed and we were to go upstairs and make ourselves presentable for the feast. And after that he started being ill, and Naomi and Ruth told us we weren’t to trouble him until he was better, and then he didn’t get better. He was almost too ill to rise from bed even on his wedding day, and she was always there. And, Aunt Sarah, you know how thick she’s always been with Master Buccafusca.”

“He came on Sir Giles’s original recommendation,” Sarai said, looking at Sherlock. “I believe his mother is some family connection. And, since the Vernons have some quarrel with the parish priest, he is Marie’s confessor.”

Is he indeed? And you say, Mistress Catherine, your father’s illness came on within a day — or even less — of this encounter you witnessed in the lane?”

“Yes. So it was witchcraft,” Catherine said.

Sherlock, his imagination on fire, saw it all rolled out plain before him.

“On the contrary. If Master Buccafusca indeed had the powers he sought, he would have nothing to fear from the secular authorities. He could make himself invisible, or bid demons carry him to Cathay. ‘The crooked man’ played upon what he had sought to become, not what he was.”

Every scrap of evidence tended the same way. Put on the spot, in a place he thought himself secure, Master Buccafusca had panicked. His only hope of meeting the extortioner’s demands was from his employer’s coffers, but Sherlock himself had heard Master Lemberger’s barbed jibe at alchemy. To confess anything further — to put himself within the power of someone he considered less than dirt — unthinkable!

Embezzlement, then. But Master Lemberger’s book-keeping was impeccable. And so, step by step, Master Buccafusca had put into place his scheme (How had the ‘crooked man’ been persuaded to wait? Perhaps, on the basis that to swoop now would be to kill the bull-calf, which would with time and careful nurture prove itself sire of a line of strapping progeny.)

First, render Lemberger frail and insensible by exposure to the metallic poisons. Easily achieved; as a churchman Master Buccafusca could plausibly claim devotion as an excuse for not sharing a poisoned dish, or eating only sparingly of it. He might with equal plausibility tell the palsied functionary who — on the occasions he was well enough — did the duties of butler at the manor that lead crystal was cleaned best by using lead shot and a tablespoon of brandy.

As Lemberger’s health failed, so, doubtless, had Master Buccafusca increased his depredations into his accounts. Yet he must have known that he was walking the narrowest of edges. Master Lemberger would not postpone his reckoning indefinitely, however ill he was. And then had come on the scene one Master Altamount of Glasstown, a disinterested party with a clear palate to detect poison and a trained eye for a ledger. He recalled that odd exchange with Lemberger, when Master Buccafusca had asked him to take a book of devotions to his lady. A pre-arranged signal, no doubt, that this was the night she should give her husband the medicine which would allow him to father a son on his new bride. Naturally, given the horrifying sequel, Mistress Marie could be relied on to get rid of the remaining medicine. If she accused Master Buccafusca, she risked standing condemned alongside him; given her dependence on him and her limited understanding, it would be easy for him to convince her some error in dispensing on her part had turned a wholesome medicine into a poison.

Each link in the chain of reasoning held firm. It only remained for him to prove it.

“Who else in this district is a magistrate?”

Sarai wrinkled her nose. “The nearest is Master Frankland. But the man is five parts mad. He sues everyone — half his fortune is gone already in lawsuits and he has three more on at the moment.”

“Any against Sir Giles?”

“Two out of the three, but —”

“Better and better. Mistress Catherine, it is plain you know this tunnel of old. Down it, now, and find your sister Naomi. Tell her to come and meet us in the cave. Tell her to dress for a respectable visit; we are off to visit Master Frankland.”

“Naomi? Why?”

“She represents the interests of three quarters of the legatees. If Marie were to be found guilty of her husband’s murder, her share, too, would pass to your nieces. That, I fancy, is the kind of argument likely to appeal to Master Frankland.”

“But Marie — she may have been a little fool, but I don’t think for a moment she was trying to kill my brother.”

“Probably not, but she’ll not confess to her dealings with Master Buccafusca unless she feels the breath of the executioner on her neck. And husband-poisoners burn as surely as do reputed sorcerers.”

Even in the dim light of the wine cellar Sherlock caught Sarai’s cold glare and knew he had gone too far. There was an echo of things long ago in that unsmiling integrity. Given the last few days, he found it intolerable. He rose to his feet.

“Our own necks hang by a thread; this is scarcely the time to be nice. Mistress Catherine, will you lead on?”