Chapter 1 - The Curious Incident of the Knight in the Library by A.J. Hall
Frances, intent on creeping up on the handsome white, pink and black bird without disturbing it, trod on a patch of loose stones, flailed for a moment and slithered helplessly down-slope, the light thorny undergrowth catching at her skirts. The hoopoe flew up and away with a soft, chattering call as if it mocked her.
“Oh! I really am most frightfully sorry.” Frances pulled herself to her feet, looking down at the girl in the black dress and broad straw hat, whose easel she had almost overturned. The girl looked blankly back at her.
Belatedly, Frances realised that speaking English was probably slightly optimistic, out here on the very edge of Europe (Dr Atherton had been keen to press on to Constantinople and she had prayed his opinion might prevail, but Lady Diana had started a panic about being snatched away into the harems of the Sultan, and Grace had made bitter comments about plague, bed-bugs and the impossibility of getting proper soap, so her uncle had put his foot down and Gaaldine would represent their furthest East.)
“I do apologise,” she said, slowly and carefully in Gondalian. “I did not see you here. I was watching the bird.”
The Conte had assured her the languages of the three kingdoms were sufficiently close that knowledge of one would allow her to get by in the others. It had worked in the border provinces, but this was the first time she had put it to the test in the capital itself.
The girl’s face brightened immeasurably. “Oh, that’s very good,” she said, in Latin. “You’ve got that ‘chrk’ sound perfectly. It trips lots of people up. Down here, of course, it’s more of a ‘shrr’ – I always think it sounds as if people are a little drunk, even when they aren’t. You must be one of Dr Atherton’s party from England.”
Frances gulped. “How did you know?” Latin was, mercifully, far easier than Gondalian,
thanks to all that intensive study on the road, though goodness only knew how Lady Diana would manage – she’d ostentatiously feigned sleep during Dr Atherton’s lessons, even when the ruts and potholes would have kept Morpheus himself awake. As for the local languages; Lady Diana had compared Gondalian to a cat coughing up a fur-ball only yesterday, and still couldn’t manage a simple “Good morning” in that language.
“Oh, my husband mentioned you were expected in the capital. He has been corresponding with Dr Atherton for years. They share a common interest in henbane and suchlike plants.”
“Your husband?” Frances tried to conceal her surprise. Hard to guess ages, of course, given the unfamiliar clothing and hair-styles of this remote region and the girl’s eerie self-possession, but she seemed very young.
“We will have been married a year in December. May women not marry at fourteen in your country?”
“Some do,” Frances said. “And most before they are twenty.” Honesty compelled her to add, “Not me, though. I am twenty-four, and I do not think it likely I will marry at all.”
“Oh.” The young woman put her head on one side, as if thinking about that. “You were recently in Gondal, I understand. Tell me, were you in the capital for the midsummer festival? Did they send the lighted lanterns down the river on the flower rafts this year? Who won the boat race? Almeida or de Samara?”
Even through the cool formality of the Latin a note of yearning rang through. Frances, who was a stranger to homesickness on her own account – left to herself, she wouldn’t have stopped even at Constantinople, but gone on and on until they reached Cathay, and whatever lay beyond – recognised it for what it was. She ventured a shy, sympathetic smile.
“It was all exceedingly beautiful, but I’m afraid I do not know the different teams. Though the captain of the winning boat was extremely handsome. Dark hair and the most melting soft eyes. And a sword-cut high up on one cheek-bone.”
“That’s Rupert Lestrade. The de Samara boat, then. The scar’s from a duel. He’s supposed to have been out upwards of twenty times. They call him ‘the Widowmaker’.”
“Have you met him?”
“Not for years. He was exiled to his country estates before his twentieth birthday. Not even Marguerite told me the details, so it must have been the most tremendous scandal.”
She sounded a little wistful. Frances could hardly blame her, recalling as she did a certain strapping, black-haired lad, son of the local squire, who’d owned her heart when she herself had been twelve or so, though he’d never directed a word in her direction. He’d been packed off to the Dutch wars by his family with an unspoken air that, whatever he might get up to there, at least there was a good chance the family wouldn’t have to know about it. Frances had never heard for sure what had become of him.
“Surely he must have been recalled, if he was captaining a boat at the festival?”
The girl made a face. “He was always a close companion of the Heir. Doubtless influence won his pardon. You must have still been in Gondal at the time of my – at the death of the King. How did the people react?”
“With very great grief,” Frances said, soberly, recalling that night; all the lights and fires doused, whispering knots of people on every street corner, and the great bell of the Cathedral, its clapper muffled, tolling on and on, beating against exhausted, strung up nerves, so that it seemed as if it would call the dead to judgment before dawn would ever come.
She pulled herself back from the reverie with an effort. “Yes; with grief and – some of our party thought – much fear. We paid our condolences in form, and then left straightway for Gaaldine. My mother and the Conte d’Imola – he has acted as our courier since Rome – thought it best, and at length they carried the day.”
“They did well.” Frances was surprised at the grim note in the girl’s voice. “I doubt you would have found your passage across the border as untroubled had you delayed it. But you cannot have been in the capital more than a day or so, surely?”
“We arrived yesterday.” Frances smiled. “The gentlemen of the party would never have forgiven us for hurrying on to yet another city once the sporting season started, especially since they had letters of introduction to a nobleman with a great estate in the North. We were there three weeks and had it been left to the Viscount we would have stayed twice as long. He glories in the chase. And there were splendid Roman ruins close by, so we could hardly drag Dr Atherton away, either.”
The girl laughed. “Ah, that sounds familiar. Oh! John! Is it time already?”
Frances jumped. She had not noted the approach of the stocky, sandy-haired man in the olive green jerkin and breeches.
“Very nearly. Time to start packing up, in any event. What have you devised?”
The girl moved her easel sideways, pointing with the end of her charcoal. Now it was in full view, Frances was struck both by the skill displayed and the oddity of the composition. It was a study of the ruined castle which surmounted the overgrown, tangled peak on whose lower slopes they were sitting, looking across at the palace which had superseded it a couple of centuries ago.
So far, so conventional. What was anything but conventional were the dotted and dashed lines depicted across the hillside. They could not be tracks – one, indeed, seemed to go right up the overhanging crag immediately below the ruin itself. But they clearly meant something.
The girl looked enquiringly at the man she had addressed as John. “Well? Do you think it will answer?”
“Perhaps. But it’s good practice not to discuss one’s strategy except with those in the inner circles of your staff council.” The twinkle in John’s eye as he glanced at Frances belied the sting of his words.
“I don’t think my people would have let her up here if they’d thought her a spy for Blue team,” the girl said, matching his tone.
“Your people? I didn’t see anyone,” Frances said, awkwardly conscious that she might be trespassing. She had grown so used to rambling almost unchecked around the countryside that it had not occurred to her that she might have to seek anyone’s permission to enter the grounds surrounding the old castle.
“I know. They’re very good.” The girl looked down at her sketch. “I hope they’re good enough. Sherlock will crow so, if Blue team take the pennant again. Anyway, I must be on my way. John reminds me I have a surprise night attack on a defended position to plan for. I daresay we will meet again soon. As soon as you have waited on Lady Wardale she will be arranging something at the Legation. Until then, farewell.”
She rose gracefully to her feet and dropped a formal curtsey. A servant appeared, apparently out of the undergrowth, to take her easel and sketching bag. Frances, slightly bemused, returned the curtsey and watched as the little party wound their way out of sight down the hillside. Then, revelling in her freedom and in the unaccustomed late October sunshine, she turned her attention back to the pursuit of the hoopoe.
“That’s the last of them,” Elizabeth said, drawing a neat double line under the columns of figures in the accounting book, and scattering sand to blot the page. She and the Conte d’Imola exchanged a look of mutual satisfaction and respect. Heaven only knew what the Conte might have been able to put over on her brother if Hector had remained in actual, rather than purely nominal, charge of the party’s coffers. Still, the party would have a great deal more trouble from Rome onwards without the Conte. Elizabeth was prepared to accept the labourer was worthy of his hire. At least, provided she kept a watchful eye on “Expenses”, “Sundries” and “Contingencies”.
“I shall go to make our duties at the Legation,” the Conte said. “I have not been in Gaaldine’s capital for some years and need to reacquaint myself with the proper protocol.”
He rose, just as Grace ushered in a tall young man with a vivid, alert face. The Conte almost tripped over his own feet and, without even the barest acknowledgement of the new arrival, pushed past him and out of the room. Grace and Elizabeth exchanged long-suffering looks. The Conte’s regular outbreaks of “temperament” were, in Elizabeth’s opinion, a bit much, even for an Italian with a tragic history, at least some of which might be true.
The visitor walked to the window and watched the Conte running down the street, a malicious smile playing about his lips.
The door to the upstairs apartments was flung wide and Dr Atherton himself appeared in the doorway. “My dear sir! I received your note only moments ago. So the dog died, did it?”
“Almost instantaneously.” The young man looked at Dr Atherton with an odd, abstracted expression, almost as if thinking of something else. “You were quite right about the effects of dessication. The toxicity of the leaves was almost unimpaired. Do you wish to assist at the dissection?”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure. Mrs Pickering, pray make my excuses to Sir Hector and the Viscount. Tell them not to delay waiting on Lord Wardale on my account; I have no idea when I will be back. Lead on, sir!”
Grace and Elizabeth were left looking at each other.
“Well,” Grace said. “I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies, ma’am. At least this one speaks English. And knows how to wash.”
As opposed to the other lame ducks, impecunious scholars, eccentrics and (in Elizabeth’s private opinion) at least two outright charlatans who had appeared and claimed acquaintance with Dr Atherton in their progress across Europe. It was, she supposed, reasonable for an eminent natural philosopher to correspond with people who then wished to meet him in person when he appeared in their cities. Why, though, did they all insist on being so strange?
“English. Washes,” she agreed. There came a shriek from the next room and the sound of something being thrown, hard, against the wall.
“Oh.” Elizabeth’s voice was dull with foreboding.
“That’ll be her ladyship,” Grace said, obviously.
The door opened. “Butter! Why isn’t it possible to get butter in this godforsaken hole? I can’t eat oil. It will ruin my skin. Send someone out for butter. However much it costs. Now. Go!”
Elizabeth and Grace exchanged another look.
“Yes, your ladyship,” Grace said. “Right away.”
Lord Wardale, out of the corner of his eye, caught sight of the Conte d’Imola’s unnaturally smooth, smirking face and tried not to shudder. Not for him to dictate whom Sir Hector Bainbridge chose to engage as courier for his party, but even being in the same room as that unmanned creature made him feel ill. It was bad enough when wretched Italian peasants did it to their sons, in the hope of sharing in the fabulous rewards which the leading operatic castrati could command. But for a man of good family to allow it to happen, reputedly justifying it by some quip to the effect that the pleasures of the flesh were transient but the pleasures of music were eternal – that, Lord Wardale thought, bespoke a habit of mind not merely irremediably foreign but truly and without doubt perverted.
Which, he added to himself with a man-of-the-world’s cynicism, would probably guarantee the Conte d’Imola a tremendous success at the court of Gaaldine. Perhaps that prosy, gout-ridden old bore Sir Hector had more discernment than his appearance suggested. And now here was Viscount Dalgliesh asking him for recommendations as to the specific pleasures of Gaaldine’s capital – really, these young court bloods were all the same, hardly able to tell the difference between His Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary and a common bawd. Still, at least that implied that whatever influence the Conte d’Imola had over his party, the Viscount seemed immune to the temptations of unnatural vice.
“I doubt a staid old married man like myself is the best person to advise, my lord,” Lord Wardale said, assuming the avuncular tone he reserved for such occasions. “However, Derwent, perhaps you’ll correct me should my information be outdated, but I understand that – ah – ‘Big Gertie’s’ establishment near the Cathedral enjoys a high reputation.”
His secretary, Lord Philip Derwent nodded, solemnly. “No, sir; as ever your finger remains on the pulse of the city. If you wish, my lord, I can arrange a small private supper there with some of the younger members of the Corps Diplomatique. Would tomorrow evening suit?”
It would, it appeared, suit the Viscount admirably. Lord Wardale heaved a discreet sigh of relief. Big Gertie’s girls were politically astute, cultured and, to the extent anyone could ensure such a matter, clean. With only a modicum of luck (and provided the wretched boy hadn’t brought anything with him) there was every chance the Viscount might leave Gaaldine without having picked up anything more than usually unfortunate.
After a little more chit-chat, Derwent ushered the party out. Lord Wardale waited.
It took longer than he had expected for Derwent to return, which put him on edge, not helped by his going to refill his snuff-box and discovering his stores unexpectedly depleted. Since only he and Derwent had keys to that particular cupboard – one did not leave something of such value where anyone might purloin it – it was all too apparent who was to blame.
Blast the boy! It wasn’t that he minded Derwent helping himself to a pinch or so here and there – he’d been young himself once, and the young were opportunistic. No bad trait in someone hoping to make a career at Court. Within reason, one could almost consider it a compliment to Lord Wardale’s taste; his snuff was of the finest and driest to be had.
No, the thing that irked him was the sheer scale of the depredations. It was as if Derwent either thought him too stupid to notice or – more probably – too intimidated by his smooth, aristocratic young secretary as to complain.
The worst thing was, he was almost certainly correct in his assumption.
It was hardly Lord Wardale’s fault his father had been a mere baronet. Surely, it was to his credit that he had risen to his present heights on his own merits. However, at times like these, a dark tide of envy washed through him for those who, being born to the highest reaches of the English aristocracy, breathed its rarefied air with unconscious ease.
Suppose Derwent, the Earl’s son, was even now laughing about him with Viscount Dalgliesh, whom he doubtless knew? The Duke of Collompton and the Earl of Buxton had both been prominent figures of the Court during the last reign. Small wonder if their sons found much in common.
Lord Wardale threw caution aside and rang the bell, demanding brandy when the servant arrived. It might, perhaps, be a little early in the morning, but he deserved something to get the taste of having to make small-talk with that oily castrato fellow out of his mouth.
Two glasses later, the day bore a rosier hue.
A new king sat on the English throne these days, one who valued Lord Wardale as he ought. Gondal, the neighbouring kingdom, also had a new King James.
Dispatches had come in overnight from His Majesty’s Ambassador to Gondal. He wrote guardedly but with unmistakeable purport. Fresh winds were blowing, even in this godforsaken backwater. Occasions conspired to the favour of the new men, whether in the three kingdoms or back home. All a man had to do to achieve success was to spread sail and let the following wind take him where it would, holding his hand firm on the tiller.
Lord Wardale reached for the decanter and poured himself a third glass of brandy.
Lady Wardale stole yet another look around the withdrawing room and wished the tea party was already over, rather than yet to begin. She ran through the names on the guest list, trying to derive what crumbs of comfort she could. Sir Hector’s widowed sister, Elizabeth Pickering, the English party’s chaperone, could hardly be too formidable, and her unmarried, aging daughter, Phyllis – no, Frances – would probably be too overawed by the atmosphere of the Legation to utter a word. Lady Diana Scoton, though –
The little that had reached Lady Wardale through her gossip network suggested that the Duke of Collompton’s daughter could be distinctly difficult, should the mood take her.
Nor did the visitors from the Gaaldine court offer much prospect of relief. Certainly not Lady Anthea; hooded-eyed, too intelligent for her own good and reputedly the mistress of the King, even though Derwent, who always pretended to have privileged sources within the Palace crowd, had laughed outright at that suggestion.
The Crown Princess was harmless enough, she supposed, in herself. If only the very sight of her didn’t remind Lady Wardale of the appalling day, almost six months ago now, in which Roger had formally presented his letters of appointment to the Palace.
Lady Wardale still shuddered to recall the Crown Prince, deputising for his brother, who had turned to her after exchanging a few brief courtesies with Roger. In a rapid, idiomatic French which had stretched her linguistic talents to their utmost, he had quizzed her about England’s drove roads and fattening grounds; slaughterhouses and packing sheds. It had been as if he wanted to rub her face in the source of her dowry (a golden attraction to the impoverished heir to a baronetcy - no thought then of the Peerage and she wished there never had been). Yes, her father had built a fortune on the supply of salt beef to the Navy, caring little if King or Parliament approved his estimates. But it was honest money, as honest as anything in Government purchasing ever got, anyway. She would kill whoever within the Legation had seen fit to tell the Gaaldine royal house that the Envoy’s wife bore the taint of trade. Philip Derwent, probably. If only his father weren’t so important, so Roger might send him packing and get some honest clerk to scribe his dispatches.
Six women to drink tea. How difficult could the matter be, after all?
“Anthea, can you do something for me?” Charis hoped she’d managed the right tone of nonchalance in her request; Lady Anthea was something of an unknown quantity even after all these months.
“You have to address yourself predominantly to Lady Diana and Lady Wardale at tea,” Anthea said, not looking up from her commonplace book as they paced, gracefully, through the gravelled walk of the Italian garden.
Charis gritted her teeth. Anthea’s pose of omniscience – her insistence on answering the question one had not yet got round to asking, or which, in this particular case, one had thought of asking and already discarded – was practically an incitement to violence.
“I know that. I was wondering about afterwards. I should like to contrive an opportunity to talk further with Frances Pickering.”
“Oh yes. You met her in the grounds of the old castle, just after they arrived, didn’t you?”
And I will see you in Hell before I ask how you know that.
“I think she brought me luck. She slipped on some loose stones and that was what gave me the idea of letting loose the sheep to cover our night attack.” The morning’s grievance returned in full force. “And whatever some people are saying, Red Team won fair and square – it wasn’t Sherlock letting me get away with it to avoid having to give me the pearl bracelets.”
That did bring Anthea’s head up from her book. “Newcomers to Court or just very stupid? No-one else would imagine the Crown Prince values a pair of pearl bracelets more than he values winning.”
Whatever she thought about Anthea’s mannerisms, Charis had the highest respect for her knowledge of Court. A smile rose to her lips. “Really?”
“Really.” After a moment Anthea added, “Of course, it’s safer for you if they think that he only let you win. Especially if the Pretender’s spies believe it.”
“Are we having another outbreak of espionage?” Best to speak of it so, as if it were murrain in cattle. Certainly before Anthea.
Anthea returned to the contemplation of her book. After a short while she said, seemingly unconnected with anything which had gone before. “Dr Atherton’s party are persons of interest to some within the Palace.”
Why can this woman only speak in riddles?
“Frances Pickering is a person of interest to me.”
Anthea’s head came up again, scrutinising Charis in a cool, leisurely way which made her want to stamp her foot, snatch the commonplace book out of Anthea’s black-lace mittened hands and throw it in the carp-pond.
“I might invite Mrs Pickering and her daughter on a tour of some of the charitable projects which engage the ladies of the Court, once Lady Wardale’s tea party is over,” Anthea said. “Lady Diana is hardly likely to importune me to make one of the party. Especially not if I mention the words ‘Poor Persons’ in connection with the hospital. And then, when we get there, I can have the Bursar engage Mrs Pickering in conversation – I feel persuaded that her interests in the hospital will be more in its funding and management than in its patients – while I take Frances Pickering through the wards. But I’d be obliged if we could contrive to stumble across you at a time and place where your charitable impulses haven’t required you to bathe in blood to the elbow. And, hopefully, without one of Big Gertie’s staff as your patient.”
On anyone except Anthea, that might have passed for wry humour. Charis decided to take it at face value.
“Thank you. So, should we to tea?”