Chapter 10 - The Curious Incident of the Knight in the Library by A.J. Hall
Hetherington flexed his hands and wondered if he was imagining the cramping ache in his finger joints. Horrible. The image of Lady Diana’s face, mottled, swollen and ugly beneath the frantic pressure of his thumbs had been a constant presence throughout last night’s dreams. Small wonder if the memory clung to his flesh, also.
The sun slanted brightly through the window. No-one had called him. Presumably the Viscount had given orders not to be disturbed – he had, after all, chosen to drink himself into insensibility yesterday evening, also. And, the Viscount being absent – in spirit if not in body – perhaps no-one had had cause to recall Hetherington’s existence, either?
For some reason, that thought seemed almost more painful than anything else. He kicked his sluggish body into life just as his bedroom door swung open and Jenkins, bearing a tray on which rested eggs, ham and toast said, “Sir? Sorry to trouble you, sir, but Sir Hector will be needing you. There have been letters and flowers and such flooding in since yesterday, and with Mrs Pickering away, he’s finding it hard to answer them. Breakfast, sir.”
It was, briefly, a relief to stir into anger. “Why wasn’t I called earlier?”
Jenkins glanced at him. “Sorry, sir. There seemed no call not to let you have your sleep out, and I thought – well, if you’ll excuse my mentioning it, sir, I know there are reasons you might be taking her ladyship’s death harder than some.”
Reasons? For a moment Hatherleigh tottered on the edge of madness. What could Jenkins have seen – guessed – known?
“Not that I’d ever say anything to his lordship, sir, it wouldn’t be my place. Not if his grace didn’t wish it. But – if you’ll forgive the liberty, sir – your family feelings do you nothing but credit. More than can be said for some people.”
He set the tray down on the table and sidled out crab-wise, as if afraid to be betrayed by his emotions into straying even further from his proper sphere.
Hatherleigh sat on the edge of his bed, driving the heels of his hands into his shut eyes. Of course, Jenkins had been a servant at St Jerome’s before he had accompanied Sir Hector to Oversbank. College servants, notoriously, knew everything. But to have travelled so far in his company, and never to have dropped a hint that he knew Hatherleigh’s true parentage - God, what a card player the man would have made, if his Puritan conscience had allowed.
Sick misery overwhelmed him. Jenkins, plainly, had no idea as to his other, darker secrets but how long before a man of such shrewdness detected something amiss, something more than grief for Lady Diana? His whole position was that of a man sitting on the edge of a volcano. Either the lip would crumble away beneath him or the flames roar up and engulf him. He sat there a long time, his breakfast congealing on the plate, until at length Sir Hector’s bellow from below recalled him to his duties. He hastily finished dressing, and swept his hand across the stand to gather his personal possessions into his pocket.
The servant popped his head round the door and grimaced at the uneaten breakfast. “Sir?”
“What the devil’s become of my snuff-box?”
Jenkins shuffled his feet. “Sorry, sir. I’ll get it.” He returned a few seconds later. “Here, sir. I’ve found it helps, sir, to keep occupied. Stops my mind turning over so much. I started by cleaning the silverware and the ladies’ jewellery – ” For a moment his voice caught, and Hatherleigh was horribly afraid the man might break down. He recovered himself with an effort. “Not much left to polish, sir, now I’ve done the snuff-boxes and all the buttons.”
Sudden insight forced Hatherleigh to speak. “You loved her, didn’t you?”
Jenkins turned bright scarlet. “I never said nothing out of place, sir. She never knew a thing about it. You’ll not let on to his lordship or Sir Hector, sir, please.”
Hatherleigh shook his head. Doubtless the sanctimonious Jenkins would never have dreamt of offering any such promise had it been Hatherleigh’s illicit loves that were in question. And, as for the woman herself – if she had cared about discretion, or even understood the nature of love, the whole tragedy need never have happened. But, still, the man had never done him harm and Hatherleigh owed him some recompense for his loss.
Sir Hector bellowed again; Hatherleigh dropped his snuff-box into his pocket and scrambled downstairs. It occurred to him, some time later, that Jenkins had been right. The routine of dealing with correspondence, of composing nicely judged responses in three separate languages did help settle his mind.
Until he happened to find amid the pile a letter addressed to him, written in a fine scholar’s hand, the language being Latin and the message unequivocal.
You and he whom you met at the Sign of the Heavenly Twins were not as discreet as you hoped. Rumours are carried by the autumn winds and those winds blow strong for England. Those within this kingdom who have no love for the English King advise you and your friend to take care. Those who would turn rumours into accusations are closer than you think.
Sir Hector, stupid as he was, had noticed the pause.
“Hatherleigh? Are you well?”
“As well as can be expected, sir. All things considered. But I wonder, sir, if I might be better deployed elsewhere? You, sir, are tied to your duties here. I, however, could perhaps drop by the Legation, and see if they might have news of your sister? Sir?”
“I told you to avoid the Legation. No-one must suspect we have anything more than the most casual of acquaintance.”
“Too late for that. Look here.”
“Dear God – “
“I agree.” Hatherleigh glared at Derwent. “Don’t say anything. Unless it is very much to the point. Forget everything which has happened since. When we met in the Gemini wine-shop, you assured me there was no conceivable possibility that anyone would know what was said there. You promised.”
“What do you think I am? Would I for a moment have given such a promise had I known myself forsworn?”
“Conceivably.” Whence had that coldness sprung? Wherever it was, he welcomed it; hitherto he had always found it too easy to be distracted in Derwent’s presence. Not for the first time, he wondered if Derwent exploited that. “I need truth, here. And help. Who among our circles might be a spy for James?”
“None at the Legation.” Derwent frowned as the door swung open to admit the chaplain and a tall, elderly man in rusty black robes.
“Ah, Derwent. And Mr Hatherleigh, this is opportune.” The chaplain indicated his companion. “May I commend you to Sir Franklin Evans, who is deputising for the King’s coroner? He brings – well, one can hardly call them good tidings, in the circumstances. But welcome – that, I think we can say. Yes, I venture to call it welcome news.”
Hatherleigh looked up. “Such news being, sir?”
The coroner cleared his throat. He had a high, quavering voice and a curious way of biting off his phrases, as if measuring each by rule. “I am bidden by the King to inform you that the examination of Lady Diana Scoton’s body have been concluded. There exists no barrier to her funeral progressing as soon as it may be arranged. To that end, I have instructed two of my staff to transport the corpse to the Legation. Unless, perhaps, her family believe it would be best to have the body lie in the Protestant chapel until it can be interred, to allow those so minded to pay their respects? It would, of course, have to lie within a closed coffin, given the damage to the face.”
The image was, abruptly, so vivid that Hatherleigh gagged. The coroner looked at him; the rheumy eyes sharper than he had expected. “You are concerned the warmth of the last few days may, perhaps, have accelerated the natural processes to an unpleasant degree? Fear not, sir. The Palace morgue has been constructed with an admirable eye to such matters – I have travelled extensively and I flatter myself that here in Gaaldine we can stand with any of the capitals of Europe in the excellence of our arrangements. Chambers tiled throughout, sir, all below ground level and cold water let in from the river into lead-lined chilling tanks below our slabs. We’ve had bodies there for a week in the height of summer and still as fresh as midwinter when we came to bury them.”
“Excuse me,” Hatherleigh choked out, raising his handkerchief to his lips and stumbling out into the passageway.
Derwent found him there. “Don’t say anything. Come with me.”
A supportive hand propelled him up the stairs into Derwent’s own chamber. He sat on the edge of the bed while Derwent found him a glass of brandy.
“I’m sorry –”
“You should be. Without me to cover your back, where would you be?” Derwent’s voice lacked the sting of his words; Hatherleigh even detected a hint of warmth. “I did my best to imply that, as you and Lady Diana had travelled together for months, there might have been something beyond companionship in your feeling for her.”
“What? Are you mad?”
Derwent shrugged. “Who out here will know any different? Not even the Viscount knows your parentage. Anyway, it sufficed. Fortunately, even the chaplain was young once. And that dessicated old vulture of a coroner, hard as it is to credit. Drink your brandy. It’s Lord Wardale’s best.. Which reminds me – give me your snuff-box and I’ll refill it before you leave.”
“And the letter?” Hatherleigh said dully.
“Leave that to me. Someone must have smuggled that letter into your lodgings. Probably trying to panic you into doing something stupid. My betting is that courier fellow of yours knows more than he’s letting on. You picked him up in Rome, didn’t you? And he’s a Papal count, or claims to be. It ties up.”
“Do you think so?”
“Well, someone like that’s bound to be in someone’s pay and we may be able to beat out of him who it is. It gets dark early, this time of year. And I’ve got connections in the city through whom it may be arranged. But now, man, pull yourself together and come downstairs to tell the chaplain what’s needed for the funeral.”
“A meeting at the Palace?” Sir Hector’s eyes bulged; Irene thought for a moment he might be about to succumb to an apoplexy.
“So this man says.” She turned to the footman who, so far as she could tell (having, by now, some considerable experience) was a perfectly genuine member of the Palace staff.
“By whose command are we bidden there?”
“It is the Crown Prince’s most especial request that all your party attend on him there within the hour. Without fail, sir.”
Irene translated the information, laying particular emphasis on the “without fail”. Goodness only knew what the party assumed the relevant penalties available to a prince of Gaaldine were; barbaric, extensive and painful, she only hoped.
“Is there news?” Sir Hector groped inside his pocket for his snuff-box.
The footman seemed to have been expecting such a request; he was shaking his head almost as soon as she began to speak.
“It would seem not.”
“Well, then, as it’s a royal command, I suppose we have no choice.” He glanced down at the old-gold box in his hand, made two strides to the door, and bellowed, “Jenkins! You imbecile! Come here at once!”
Irene looked narrowly at the footman. “By ‘all’, do I take it your master means to include the servants?”
“My master was most insistent upon the point, sir. ‘All of the party who arrived in Gaaldine, with the exception of the corpse.’”
Clearly a direct quotation, though as the Conte d’Imola she could hardly be expected to know it. No matter. She coughed, drily. “Well, I can see that his grace might reasonably feel her ladyship had outstayed her welcome at the Palace. Especially given the temperature of the last two days.”
“Sir.” The footman’s face was wooden. “I can testify milord’s concern is misplaced.”
Well, she supposed she’d asked for that. Sir Hector, fortunately, was still fully engaged in haranguing Jenkins for some minor error – something to do with misplaced property – and the servant’s fulsome excuses covered the exchange.
“Some of our party are out in the city. An hour gives little time for us to gather them together. Mr Hatherleigh, for example, is at the Legation, making arrangements for the funeral.” She paused, and then added, blandly, “And Miss Pickering is lodging with Mr and Mrs Sigerson, while her mother is away.”
“Sir, I understand that the Palace have already sent word to Mr Sigerson’s dwelling. Miss Pickering’s arrival at the Palace is likely to be earlier than your own.”
Impossible to tell anything behind that carved mask. The Palace’s people were good. Paid to be so, of course, but in Irene’s experience payment only took one so far. The Palace’s people were better than payment could explain.
“Have they also alerted the Legation?”
“I understand, sir, that milord Hatherleigh –” (The footman pronounced it “Haffasslee” – Irene immediately found it burnt onto her brain) “- has already left the Legation, doubtless to return here. Though his grace milord Sir Hector may wish to despatch his man to find him, and advise him of my master’s command and of the need for haste. But, sir, it is my master’s especial request that news of this meeting is not bruited abroad to those not invited to attend. I was to say that he entrusts to your good discretion, sir, to manage your companions to achieve that.”
“Be sure to advise your master that my discretion is fully at his command.”
The footman bowed and took his leave.
Having despatched Jenkins to find Hatherleigh, Irene, on the excuse of changing into clothes more suited for the Palace, made for her room. Her travelling bag had been three-quarters packed since Sherlock’s warning yesterday; she made her final preparations and laced it closed, concealing it within a chest.
She gave a final glance around the spare, simply furnished room. Somehow she rather suspected she would not be sleeping here tonight. The game had taken a new turn; whatever Sherlock planned would profoundly affect them all. Excitement tingled down her nerves. He had promised, yesterday, to aid her mission. Now came the time when he would make good on that.