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Chapter 2 - The Curious Incident of the Knight in the Library by A.J. Hall

“And that, gentlemen, brings me to the final item on the agenda.” The Lord Chamberlain shuffled his papers together, as if giving the other men round the long oval table leave to do likewise. “The All Souls Eve ball. I am sure that in the light of the recent tragedy in Alwentdale – to say nothing of the death of his late Majesty King Ambrosine XVII – we are all agreed that, however many tears and reproaches our decision may wring from our wives and daughters, the only appropriate thing is to cancel it.”


Sherlock’s flat monosyllable cut across the rising buzz of assent in the room. The Lord Chamberlain paused, as if unsure what he had heard.

“Your grace? I’m sorry?”

“I have discussed the matter with my brother. He and I are in complete agreement. Genia would find cancelling the ball on her account absurd. At least, unless you would have cancelled it on account of the other casualties at the Residence, had she survived the explosion. Which I give leave to doubt.”

“And the Crown Princess?” The Lord Chamberlain demanded. “It is not just the late Queen who demands our respect. King Ambrosine XVII was, after all, Princess Charis’ father.”

Oversensitivity, or was that a ghost of a disrespectful snigger from somewhere at the far end of the table? No matter. John leaned forwards and cleared his throat.

“If you’ll permit me? I knew his late grace of Gondal well, both as his physician and – making all due allowance for the difference of ranks between us – as a friend. Few in this room are privileged to say as much. And one thing which characterised his grace was his directness. He was not, if I may say so, a man who choked back his opinion for form’s sake.”

“If one wanted to hear one’s eyes damned by an expert, crossing King Ambrosine’s line in the chase would do it every time,” Sherlock observed. “Be assured, gentlemen, I’d not lightly risk incurring his grace’s wrath, even from beyond the grave. Especially not on All Hallows Eve.”

“I can second that,” John said. “On the subject of mourning, his grace King Ambrosine was as firm as he was on most other things. As you know, gentlemen, he underwent a slow decline and was an invalid for much of the last year that the Crown Princess spent in Gondal. Shortly before we left Gondal for Gaaldine, he expressed to me the wish that, having stolen one year of her grace’s youth with his illness – as he, in his generosity of spirit expressed it – the burden of mourning his death should be rendered as light as possible for her. I am fully persuaded he would wish the ball to go ahead.”

Before the ensuing silence could become too loaded, Sherlock sprang to his feet, sweeping all his papers into the official minute-keeper’s lap.

“We should leave it there. If the objective of such meetings is to establish consensus, then we have achieved apogee. A King of Gondal and a Queen of Gaaldine in perfect agreement is not a conjunction which often decorates the heavens. Holderness, I take it the ball is included within the ordinary entertainments budget so we don’t need to discuss specific appropriations? Excellent. Gentlemen, good day.”

John caught up with him half-way down the cloisters.

“And now would you like to explain precisely what that performance was in aid of? You go out of your way to avoid court functions in the ordinary way, and the King, if anything, is even more reluctant to attend. I should have thought the last thing you’d have been interested in was going to elaborate lengths to ensure the ball went ahead.”

“No ordinary ball, John. An All Souls Eve ball. And therefore, as you know full well – it’s the same across all three kingdoms – a masked affair.”

In case any of the dead chose to return, to mingle with the living and inveigle those they had loved into one last dance. Despite himself, John shuddered. He might still feel a hollow-chested, tearing sense of loss whenever he thought of Felicia (accompanied, all too often, by a stab of guilt at the recollection of how infrequently that seemed to occur, these days). Still, he could hardly claim in clear conscience that he would welcome Felicia’s reappearance in the flesh. Not now his life was so complicated already.

He looked up to see Sherlock regarding him, bright-eyed and alert.

“The dead know everything or they know nothing.”

“Which is supposed to reassure me how, precisely?”

Sherlock’s answer was forestalled by the arrival of a member of his guard, who saluted respectfully enough, but with the unmistakable air of a man agog to deliver important news.

“Yes, Jonathan?”

“One of the parties you’re interested in, sir, is in position and t’other has just left his lodgings. Heading right way, at all accounts, and they’re ready for you there. ‘Fraid you’d not get away from your meeting in time, sir.”

“Oh, I’d that well in hand. But thank you. Come on, John. We’re needed at a wine shop.”

His stride lengthened, but John had been expecting that and, despite his lack of height compared to Sherlock, had no difficulty keeping up. From long experience, he forebore to enquire where they were going or to press his enquiries about the All Souls Eve ball.

Instead, he observed, “That man’s shoulder is never going to recover sufficiently to allow him to return to active military duties. Are you proposing to tell him?”

“Why should I? In my experience, soldiers generally have the ability to make such assessments for themselves. It puts that of the average physician in the shade.”

“Certainly that of whichever butcher extracted that arrow.”

“Master Ripley never claimed his skills lay in the area of field surgery. And even you, John, would have been somewhat pushed to achieve a perfect result given Jonathan was forced to improvise an evacuation and the harrying of an enemy’s retreat from woodland cover within hours of the extraction. Anyway, I have sufficient able-bodied men in my guard. It’s men with nimble wits I lack. Jonathan’s position’s secure enough.”

“Then I suggest you tell him. If his mind is clouded with worry, his recovery will be set back yet further. Here?”

“Here,” Sherlock agreed, and gave six rapid taps on the narrow oak door set in the side-wall of the alley. It opened instantly, giving upon a steep flight of stone doors down into a cellar. The cellar linked to another; they went up another flight of stairs, out of another doorway, through an alleyway and then up a creaky wooden outdoor staircase, partially sheltered by overhanging eaves. At the top was a balcony, and another door. As Sherlock put his hand to the latch he turned to look at John.

“Not a word, beyond this point.”

John nodded. On the far side of the door they found themselves in an upstairs gallery, a place of rough board floors through which voices came up. They sat down on either side of an upturned barrel, on rough-hewn stools that would never have been given countenance at court. A silent servitor poured wine: more than passable, despite the surroundings.

The voices below became louder; plainly they were unaware that anyone might be positioned in the eyrie above, able to hear every word.

Hear but not – at least in John’s case – understand. He had attended enough soldiers on enough battlefields to acquire a smattering of most of the languages of Europe, though mainly limited to the profanities and invocations uttered by men in pain. The two men below them were speaking English, he knew that much, but what they were discussing was a closed book.

But not to Sherlock. He leant forward across the barrel top, taking rapid notes. They were there perhaps a turn of the glass, perhaps a little longer, before John heard one of the two men, speaking, this time, heavily accented Gaaldine, call for the reckoning. The moment they had paid and left Sherlock, without bothering to go through any formality of the sort, was up and back down the outside stairs, out into the street.

“Quick,” he said, whisking John down yet another of the maze of alleys which criss-crossed the older part of the capital. “We have a call to pay.”

“A call? On whom?”

“On Dr Atherton. Though he’s not there. He’s been called away to the other side of the city, to see a man who wants to sell him a mermaid.”

“A mermaid?”

“It’s a very good one. I had a look at it myself and even I could hardly see the stitching. Dr Atherton will be happily engrossed for hours.”

In the world of Sherlock logic, setting off to pay a call on a man he had taken steps to ensure would not to be there to receive him made, John supposed, admirable sense.

A sullen manservant – whom Sherlock addressed in French which seemed, even to John’s decidedly non-expert ear, to be unexpectedly hesitant and inaccurate – admitted them to Dr Atherton’s lodgings. He furnished them with wine and small spiced cakes and bade them await his master’s return.

“Presbyterian, of Scotch-Irish stock,” Sherlock observed, as the servant excused himself to pursue his business below. “Despises his nominal master for being a dangerous freethinker – Dr Atherton’s three-quarters of the way to being a full-blown atheist, but I doubt he’s grasped that, or he’d have decamped from the party already. He’s a romantic with at least one foot in the past. And, being a romantic, he cherishes a hopeless passion for one of the women in the party, who is so oblivious to his very existence she could not – if challenged – name him accurately within three guesses. He knows that, incidentally.”

John nodded, and nibbled one of the cakes. Sherlock would hardly be here about a love-lorn manservant.

The door to the street was flung open and an arrogant English voice shouted, “Jenkins!”

John’s spine froze. He had never heard that voice before today. Yet he would have betted his life – and he, John Watson, was most emphatically a betting man with all that implied – that the voice’s owner had spent one turn of the glass unseen beneath him on the floor of the wine shop, talking emphatically and confidentially in a language he did not understand, but which had caused Sherlock to scribble frantic notes in a common-place book.

Moments later the door to the room burst open. “I trust Jenkins has seen properly to your comfort? Your grace, how may I be of service?”

He spoke Latin; the lingua franca of the educated classes. Sherlock responded in the same language.

“I had hoped to see Dr Atherton; he and I have corresponded for some years on issues of natural philosophy. But I understand him to be detained elsewhere in the town.”

“I do not believe he will be long; he said something about wishing to acquire a specimen for his cabinet of curiosities. You may, perhaps, have heard of the celebrated Oxford rivalry between him and Dr Ashmole. Would you care to wait?”

“Thank you. John, may I present Mr Benjamin Hatherleigh? Mr Hatherleigh; Dr John Watson.”

They exchanged bows.

“Your grace’s condescension overwhelms me,” the young man murmured. “I had not thought the name of a humble private secretary would have come to your grace’s ears.”

For a moment John thought he caught a flicker of Sherlock’s habitual savage reaction against those who sought, too obviously, to flatter his vanity. If it ever existed it was gone in an instant, leaving Sherlock all charm, pouring out a flood of small-talk.

Hatherleigh strove to rise to the occasion. After a few minutes he even felt enough at ease to produce his snuff-box – an oddly garish old-gold affair with his initials in monogram on the lid – and offer them a pinch. Somewhat to John’s surprise Sherlock, who normally preferred to set light to his tobacco before inhaling it, accepted. It set the seal on Hatherleigh’s awed bedazzlement.

After about a half-turn of the glass Sherlock sprang to his feet, declared himself devastated he was unable longer to await Dr Atherton’s return, and left. John smiled apologetically at the baffled secretary as he whisked out of the door in Sherlock’s wake.

He caught up with Sherlock halfway down the street.

“Would you care to explain what is going on?”

“Had to get out of there before Mrs Pickering and that maid woman - Grace Vinson – get back from the Legation. I made a bad blunder when the party arrived in the capital; I came to see Dr Atherton and allowed those two to know I spoke English. Of course, I took care not to identify myself, so there’s a sporting chance they may not associate Dr Atherton’s over-eager visitor with the Crown Prince who condescended – ” Sherlock almost spat the word “- to pay a call this afternoon. But I’d prefer that smooth young man didn’t realise that I could have eavesdropped on him this afternoon, let alone that I did.”

“Why? Who was he meeting?”

“Philip Derwent. Lord Wardale’s secretary. Who, incidentally, seems not only to be helping himself to Lord Wardale’s snuff, but to be purloining sufficiently large amounts to supply his friends. Hm. Does that display wild confidence in Wardale’s spinelessness or is it a daring throw on Derwent’s part to impress Hatherleigh with his generosity?”

“How do you know it’s Lord Wardale’s snuff?”

“It’s a unique blend. Mycroft had it made up for him as a gift to welcome him to Gaaldine, and he appreciated it so much that he prevailed on my brother to tell him the name of the blender. Since when, he’s been a very loyal customer. Apparently he consumes the stuff in heroic quantities – though today’s events cast a rather different light on that.”

John resisted the temptation to enquire how the King found time to govern, if he had to spend so much of his day monitoring the tobacco intake of the heads of minor legations.

“Hatherleigh and Derwent know each other?”

Sherlock flashed a smile that showed his teeth. “Rather more than ‘know’, I think. In any event, they were at university together. I suspect, by the way, despite Hatherleigh’s recent parade of his obscure origins, Derwent relied on him to fund their position among the fashionable set. Hatherleigh had no trouble ensuring his college bills were discharged, unlike Derwent. But when it comes to tangible proofs of fatherly affection, being the first-born of a Duke beats being the third son of an Earl, every time.”

“First-born -?”

“On the wrong side of the blanket, much to the Duke’s regret. Especially when his Duchess later presented him with that empty-headed, vicious little brute Viscount Dagliesh as an heir to his titles and estates. Odd how often that happens, the brains and character going down the illegitimate line. Not that Hatherleigh’s character is good, precisely, but there’s plenty of it.”

“So – you suspect them of treason?”

“An interesting point. Half of what they were discussing earlier would be enough to leave their heads decorating London Bridge if it came to James of England’s attention. And not theirs alone. But none of that threatens our interests. Though there is something – I’m sure there’s something. Why can’t I see it?”

Sherlock paused, and then shook his head. “Well, one good thing came out of that excessively tedious half-hour. Even under a mask, I’m fairly certain I will recognise Mr James Hatherleigh again.”

“A mask?”

“Do keep up, John. The All Souls Eve ball. What an opportunity for every high-ranking conspirator in the land to mingle in plain sight with those whom they dare not be caught speaking to on any normal night of the year. And that imbecile Holderness actually thought we should cancel it! As if the realm’s safety were secured only by arms. No, I’m looking forward to it. Very much indeed.”