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Chapter 5 - The Alchemist’s Snare by A.J. Hall

The tunnel had proved no worse than Sherlock expected, if it no better. He and Sarai cooled their heels (rather literally; the stream had been running so fast that he acquired a new respect for the child, coming through it earlier when it had been higher yet) while Catherine went to seek her sister.

Naomi, unexpectedly, arrived with Ruth, both of them well wrapped up and carrying bundles, which included fresh clothing for the erst-while prisoners. To his surprise, once he and Sarai were looking as respectable as could be contrived in the circumstances, Ruth made it clear she proposed to accompany them to Master Frankland’s.

“Jacopo won’t say anything, and as for those two men Sir Giles left on the premises, well, I gave them a good dinner and plenty of wine to it — and, Mistress Sarai, I took the liberty of dosing them with the last of the opium. They’ll not rise early, after that.”

“Ruth, I trust you were careful —” Sarai sounded strained, and Sherlock could hardly blame her. It would be piquant — to say the least — if they had inadvertently managed to kill two men by poison in an effort to escape an unfounded charge of poisoning.

Ruth snorted. “Not to worry. Both were snoring when I left, but I’ve heard worse from them in ale. But you’ll need me at Master Frankland’s. His housekeeper — well, there’s those who’ll say she’s more, but I say live and let live and don’t go poking your nose where it isn’t invited — she’s not the woman to let just anyone in, ‘specially after dark, and I can’t blame her. But we worked side by side when they had the enteric in the village last summer and I trust her and she knows my knock. So I’m coming with you.”

Frankland’s residence, two miles away, appeared to be a chaotic, generous, sprawling farmstead, with only the last vestiges of the defensive walls which had once been de riguer in those parts.

“Stand back, the rest of you,” Ruth whispered as she rapped out a precise pattern of knocks on the door. “And keep your heads covered. Leave it to me to explain.”

The woman who unlocked the postern (Frankland’s mistress in truth, in that position for more than a decade, he more anxious to regulate matters by matrimony than she) looked concerned but unsurprised to see them. Clearly the cooperation between the two households was of long standing.

“We’ve matter of much moment to put before Master Frankland at once,” Ruth said, without preamble. “And sore need of a quiet place to do it, with none but the two of you knowing we’ve troubled the household.” She leant over and whispered a few more words in the housekeeper’s ear. The woman’s eyes widened, but she showed no other signs of shock.

“You’d best come in. You two —” The housekeeper gestured at Sarai and Sherlock. “Don’t you say a word until you’re spoken to, and keep your heads down. Wait here.”

She showed them into a small parlour, returning a few moments later with slices of fruitcake, crumbly, salty sheep’s cheese and a decanter of wine which stood in relation to Sir Giles’s gift as the pure spring of the uplands does to foetid swamp water.

They were permitted a blessed half turn to eat and recruit themselves before Master Frankland was shown in. He was an excessively short man, wearing an absurd skull cap with a silk tassel, and an elaborate dressing gown of damascened brocade with a pattern of fighting dragons. Wild greying curls swirled around his choleric, rounded face.

“Well then, well then. Who do we have here?” Frankland had a deep, booming voice, quite jarring when set against his tiny form.

Before any of the rest of them could move, Naomi stepped forward and sank to her knees. “Master Frankland, may I consign these into your possession?”

She reached into the bag which she had carried from the manor and produced four substantial leather-bound ledgers.

“And these are?”

She ducked her head submissively. “Master Frankland, they are the records of my father’s business. From hints he dropped before his death, I collect he suspected Master Buccafusca may have been — have been presuming on his frailness. From what I have been able to discern, with my poor wit, I believe my father’s suspicions were but a shadow of the true position. Master Frankland, I am executor and guardian for my sisters, whose inheritance the manor is. I cannot stand by and see fraud done upon their futures. You are, I collect, a man knowledgeable in the law.”

“No man more so — as your late father well knew! I’m surprised you came to me, given I whipped him so soundly in the only case we ever fought against each other. Also, you hussy, why are you worrying about trifles such as embezzlement when his killers remain unhung?”

Sherlock and Sarai, standing at the back of the room, their heads swathed in their cloaks, tried to give the impression of taking a purely scholarly interest in this question.

“Master Frankland!” Naomi almost threw herself forward at his feet. “You knew my father. He could not rest easy in his grave, did he think me remiss in protecting his estate. There is no service I could do him which better honours his memory.”

A slight smile touched Frankland’s lips, indicating a sally which had found its mark. Emboldened, Naomi pressed on.

“Besides, should Master Buccafusca be an embezzler, what more like than he is the poisoner also? Far more likely that my father had but one criminal in his household, who killed to cover his tracks, than to credit my aunt, who has devoted all her life to curing the sick, and Master Altamount, whom we never saw before this week, with such a wicked deed.”

Frankland inclined his head; the tassel on his skull cap swung.

“There is something in that, girl. You show more perception than I would have credited.”

Naomi remained in her submissive pose, though Ruth, standing against the wall next to Frankland’s housekeeper, looked as if she were restraining herself from treating him to a piece of her mind. Even as Sherlock reached this conclusion, the housekeeper’s hand stretched out and circled Ruth’s wrist in a firm grasp.

“Remain completely quiet, everybody. I’m thinking.” Frankland drew his hand slowly down over his chin in an attitude suggestive of deep contemplation. After a moment he looked up, fixing Sherlock with a beady stare.

“We have not been introduced, Master Altamount, but you will find I am not a man who can easily be fooled.”

Sherlock inclined his head. “Sir. Your reputation runs ahead of you, and everything I have perceived since entering your house confirms it.”

Frankland puffed up like a bantam cock. “You needn’t think you can get round me by flattery. I’m not proposing to ask you how you got here — I’m not a fool, and only a fool asks a question when knowing the answer will do him no good. But I will ask why you are not fled? You could have been half way to the border by dawn, had you not spent your time turning south to converse with me.”

Sherlock cocked his head on one side. “A little less than half way, surely, given the need to divert around the Primontel bridge?”

At this reference, Frankland’s face turned dusky plum colour. “I told the sessions five years ago of Vernon’s neglect, yes, when I brought suit against that prating windbag, and yet the fools dismissed my suit as damnum sine inuria and nisi ex futura causa. Had that rogue done what he ought, when he ought, there’d be two widows fewer in this district, and that’s before you calculate the harm to trade by the bridge being out. Harm to his own market tithes, as much as anything, the short-sighted blunderer. But you deflect me, you deflect me, sir! I’ll have none of it. Give me a straight tale. Why did you not run when you had the chance?”

Each line of Sherlock’s body was carefully composed to project sincerity, tinged with a certain consciousness of personal rectitude. Master Altamount, he reflected with an inner flash of amusement, was not without courage, but might be something of a prig on prolonged acquaintance.

“Because, sir, neither I nor Mistress Benveniste have done anything wrong. Were we to run, it would have been as good as a confession of guilt. Furthermore, it would leave a most dangerous man in a position of influence over one who — I would not presume to criticise one of rank, sir, were it not that I perceive you already near to the heart of the matter — who is not of strong understanding, and who has not your wariness of flatterers. Buccafusca has already a strong hold over the widow, and his influence over Sir Giles will increase immeasurably following these events.”

“A hold over the widow?” Frankland collapsed into guffaws: paroxysms so violent that his housekeeper’s hand moved towards her pocket, presumably to check her smelling bottle was on hand. “You had the line right close up until that moment, but lost it on a false scent at the last. Trust me, should Master Buccafusca go to forswear his vows, it will not be by paddling in that river. Fowl or fur, sir, not fish for that one, even in Lent.”

Besides him, he could feel Sarai stiffen. Picking his words carefully, Sherlock said, “There are more ways of extending influence than carnally, sir.”

Taking Frankland’s absence of interruption for encouragement, he sketched out the story of the crooked extortionist, followed with his and Sarai’s theory of Nux Vomica and the medicine given by Master Buccafusca to Marie, to be deployed at his signal. He grew animated; he gestured with his hands in the air and traced figures with his fingertip on the table, until Sarai kicked him hard on the ankle bone and he looked up to see Naomi looking grey.

“An interesting tale, Master Altamount,” Frankland said, when he had finished. “But how to prove it?”

“Look in the ledger,” Sherlock said. He gestured to Naomi. “The most recent, please. The one showing household outgoings from Ascension Day onwards. You need not go earlier than that. But Nux Vomica is costly, and I imagine Master Buccafusca will have had to send to Glasstown for it. The individual items may have been disguised, but a large sum paid to an apothecary will stand out. Mistress Naomi; you had control of the family medicine chest until your father’s marriage, did you not?”

“And afterwards,” Naomi said. “It was not a responsibility Marie wished to take over, save in name, and my father told me I should continue. But save for staples such as opium, its contents are for the most part prepared by Ruth and I, in our own still room. We do not order in from Glasstown; should I need anything which cannot be procured locally I send an express to Sarai, who knows where the purest and most reliable drugs can be obtained.”

“Of course. And, as a physician, at the most favourable rates: doubtless a point that was not lost on the late Master Lemberger. So any sums paid to an apothecary are inherently suspect.”

With that prompting, it did not take long to find the order in question. Frankland made a note of the apothecary’s name and direction in Glasstown, and remarked he would send an express messenger at once, to confirm what had in fact been in the package.

“Might I trouble you, sir, to include a message also to a certain address in Colavun? Your messenger must change horses there, and I would have my principals informed of my plight.”

At Frankland’s nod, Sherlock scribbled down a message, using a particular code-word. The man in Colavun was indeed the North Angrian agent for Ferdinand Fratres, along with several other mercatile houses of the capital, but it was not the only allegiance he owed. Whether Mycroft could or would do anything might be a moot point, but at least he could not reproach Sherlock for not having given him the chance.

The messenger despatched, they turned to a more detailed consideration of the evidence. The perusal of the ledgers revealed much to fuel the suspicion of embezzlement, and that in Master Buccafusca’s own hand. Lemberger could not but have discovered it had he had the full use of his faculties, and nor could the Glasstown merchant, Altamount, whom he had asked to serve as his amanuensis in that regard. Master Buccafusca might have sought to make himself master of the dark arts, but the mysteries of double-entry bookkeeping it would seem had eluded him. His subterfuges were but poor things to the scrutiny of trained eyes.

Thin fingers of dawn were beginning to stretch into the room by the time they finished. Frankland sat up, looking cherubic and revived, like a man risen from nine hours of blameless rest.

“I think we have him. Confronted with this, I think the craven rogue will crack. If we could but lay hands upon the crooked man — I shall set my beaters on the task, and tell them to enlist my tenants in the search. I doubt the rogue will have travelled far, not when his schemes are so near to consummation. Marie Lemberger lies at her father’s house at present, does she not?”

“She has expressed an intention never to sleep under the manor’s roof again,” Naomi said.

“Excellent! It means we can take the two birds separately, and not let each of ‘em know what the other has told us. Master Buccafusca first, before he goes to celebrate early Mass. Then, when the widow has had enough time to become uneasy at his absence and messengers sent to him have not returned, or returned only with uncertain and disquieting tidings, then I shall arrive with a formal escort and question the lady.”

“Her father will not permit you to do so.” Naomi was tight-lipped.

“Her father has nothing to say on the matter. She’s a widow; she’s mulier emancipata, whosoever’s roof she lies under. Furthermore, I’m a magistrate of the district, before whom causa petendi demonstratus erat. And a question whether she authorised Master Buccafusca to purchase Nux Vomica is as relevant to an enquiry into irregular accounting as it is to poisoning, and it’s not my affair which she takes it as.”

He rubbed his hands together with a palpable air of glee. Naomi and Sarai’s faces looked greyer than ever in the wan lamplight. It occurred to Sherlock that, little as they liked Marie, she was their kin by marriage, and to this family such ties were all but sacred.

“One other thing.” The note in Frankland’s voice sounded a warning bell; Sherlock’s head jerked up.


“If we are to do this matter by the law, then within the law we must remain. Ex turpi cause non oritur acta. You will have to return unseen to that place from which you were delivered, by whatever means seem good to you. Otherwise you’ll be dismissed as fugitives and outlaws, and all your good reasoning fall on hardened ears and your solid proofs left to whistle down the wind.”

“But —”

Sherlock raised his hand, cutting short Naomi’s cry of distress.

“We understand. We trust in the rightness of our cause, and submit ourselves to stand or fall by the law’s dictates. We will hold ourselves ready to answer its summons, whenever that may come.”

He had thought Naomi look grey before. Now, he would not swear to ever having seen a living person with so corpse-like a hue. Nevertheless, her eyes blazed with a fanatic gleam in that drawn face.

“Trust us. We won’t let you down. We won’t.”

Sarai composed herself in the corner of the cellar. By the thin light of the candle, he could see her face looking strained and weary.

“You don’t doubt Master Frankland’s ability to procure our release?” Sherlock enquired.

“I wish I could be out there and doing myself.”

“Me also. But since it cannot be so, we will have to amuse ourselves with tales, like benighted travellers waiting for the road to clear. You first, Mistress Benveniste. Tell me about Vannstown. The histories of the wars between Gondal and Gaaldine contain many accounts of triumphs and catastrophes for each side, but Vannstown alone, I think, claims credit for having been both, for each army in turn. How did it look from where you were standing?”