Chapter 3 - The Curious Incident of the Knight in the Library by A.J. Hall
Philip smiled, concealing his irritation with the ease of long practice. Good grief, how could Lady Wardale fuss so? It was a masked ball, not the fomenting of a coup d’etat. Thank God there was no danger of Lord Wardale’s being awarded an embassy to France or Spain or anywhere that actually mattered.
“Yes, ma’am, I’ve cultivated my sources in the Palace extensively.” He formed his features into what, he thought sourly, would no doubt have been classed as a simper were he a girl. “Indeed, my manservant may have difficulty in escaping an action for breach of promise from the Crown Princess’ tiring woman.”
Lady Wardale’s face registered alarm before, mercifully, she recognised the jest and relaxed into a weak smile.
“Thank you, so much. Of course – a masked ball – so many dangers of making an inadvertent breach of protocol – over-familiarity – presumption –”
He waited until her mindless bleating ran down to a stop.
“You may be quite sure, ma’am, my information as to what the Royal party will be wearing is as accurate as it can be. Identifying the King, I’m afraid, may nonetheless be an issue – his dress has always been subdued and is likely to be so even at the ball, though he has let it be known that he does not propose to assume formal mourning for the Queen –”
“So shocking!” Lady Wardale murmured reflexively.
“Indeed, ma’am. Still, his height is distinctive. Best treat all tall men in sober clothing with caution, ma’am. The Crown Princess will be wearing mourning of a sort – black velvet and dark red brocade, according to her tiring woman. The Crown Prince –”
Here Philip paused. Obtaining that information had been costly, and in more than money. Though, if all went well, it was an investment which would repay itself ten-fold.
Midnight blue, shot with gold, silver and flame to catch the light, like fireflies in an autumn garden at dusk, or fireworks exploding against the night sky.
What message was that intended to send in the convoluted game of dynastic politics in Gaaldine? Last month’s explosion in Alwentdale had done more than remove one key piece from the board; it had changed the relations between the others irrevocably. A widowed King who conspicuously refused to wear mourning for his wife’s death. A Crown Prince who must, for the first time in almost twenty years, be truly appreciating the difference between being heir presumptive and heir apparent. A neglected Crown Princess, who might – perhaps – now be wondering if a better bargain should have been made for her.
Matters, Philip sensed, were coming to a head. Positioning oneself in the right place would be key to a successful outcome.
“And the Crown Prince?” Lady Wardale said, rapping him on the arm with her fan in a way she no doubt considered roguish.
“My apologies, ma’am; my thoughts were wandering. I hear contradictory accounts, ma’am. One can only be sure that whatever the Crown Prince wears will be tailored to a nicety.”
“He does dress with considerable flair,” Lady Wardale said, with a cool restraint Philip mentally filed for future reference. “In any event, his mannerisms are most distinctive. I doubt he will be the most difficult person to recognise. Well, that accounts for the Royal party. I confess, I’m more agog to see what our visitors from England will be wearing. Think of it, they were at Versailles not five months ago. And Lady Diana is such a stylish young lady. She will be bound to have taken due account of the latest French modes. I do wonder what she will be wearing this evening.”
Philip left her to her wondering. He had to don his own outfit, a doublet in a velvet of a deep lapis lazuli shade with gold piping and a gold trimmed mask. It flattered his colouring, of course, but once he’d put it on he was struck by doubt. Before his superimposition of an inescutcheon bearing the arms of Gondal, the Crown Prince’s shield had been azure, a single sword, or. Was Philip’s colour scheme a little too blatant a reference to that?
He shrugged. The doublet was bought, now, if not paid for (and hardly likely to be so any time soon, absent an unexpected run of luck at the gaming tables). Princes were notoriously susceptible to the most outrageous flattery. The game was his to win, if only he played his hand shrewdly enough.
And then unpaid tailors’ bills and the need to flatter Lady Wardale and her sot of a husband would alike be things of the past.
He straightened his shoulders and strode down the Legation staircase to where the Envoy and his lady awaited.
A tear leaked out of the corner of her eye and Frances thanked her lucky stars for the blessed concealment of the mask.
“Is he being truly awful?” a voice whispered, from the far side of the pillar behind which she had taken refuge. “No, don’t look round. I’ll get John to distract him, and while they’re talking you can steal out of the ball room through the East door. It’s the one with the dreadful equestrian portrait of the last King, Sherlock’s uncle, hanging above it. Entirely the wrong bit and ridiculous stirrups. And his seat can’t possibly have been that bad. Third door on the left, down that corridor.”
Losing the Viscount proved easier than she had feared, with the help of a collaborator. After only one false turn, Frances hit upon the right room, and was startled to find the Crown Princess, stripped to her stays, her discarded dress already laid out neatly on a settle and a tiring maid hovering nearby with a look of bland, vaguely benign unflappability which, Frances supposed, was the sort of expression servants assumed in your presence if you were a princess. Not much like Grace’s weary frown, which conveyed that squeezing Frances in on top of her duties to Lady Diana and mother was a significant imposition.
“We swap,” the Crown Princess explained. “I had the idea when I saw you edging away for the third time. Is he always that bad?”
Frances shook her head. “I can’t think what’s got into him. Usually he doesn’t even notice I exist.”
“People do get strange at masked balls, I’ve noticed. Even when they know perfectly well who one is. But, of course, if we swap he won’t know who you are, even if he thinks he does. And it will be much easier for me to cold-shoulder him than you, since I won’t be worried about –” the Crown Princess paused for a moment and then added, carefully, “Under our law, it would be treason for him to attempt the liberties with me I suspect him of attempting with you. I could order him torn apart between four horses, you know.”
The younger woman’s tone put Frances in mind of Billy Richards, the magistrate’s son, backed up against the pump, shouting to the village bullies that his father would have them hanged them out of hand. That affair had ended with fatherly cuffs and canings all round and no executions whatsoever. Princess or no princess, she somewhat doubted her friend’s capacity to follow through on the threat – even out here, on the very edges of Europe, where the rules were changed.
“Torn apart between four horses?”
The Crown Princess shrugged. “I believe so. My great-grand aunt is supposed to have had it done, back in 1570-something. Though the punishment may have fallen into desuetude since.”
Frances ran her hand over the rich black velvet and dark red brocade of the Crown Princess’s dress. She had never dreamt of wearing anything half so fine. Her own pale blue looked like a peasant girl’s Sunday best beside it. But if the Crown Princess seemed happy to swap, who was she to argue? And it would get rid of the pestilential Viscount.
The maid moved up closely behind her. “Ma’am? Could you raise your arms for me, ma’am?”
“My lady! The musicians are starting. And you promised to save this dance especially for me.” Sherlock’s hand in the small of her back steered her firmly through the press on the ballroom floor, towards the cleared space in the centre, leaving the Viscount crestfallen in their wake.
“Thank you,” Charis murmured, as soon as they were out of his earshot. “He was becoming excessively tedious.”
“That’s because he’s becoming excessively drunk. If he goes into the card-room in that condition he’s a lamb to the slaughter. I might let John know. For the most honourable man I know, he’s surprisingly ruthless at the card-table. In any event, thanks are superfluous. I particularly wish to dance this dance with you.”
“But it’s the Volta.”
“Yes, Charis; do at least concede me the ability to recognise a dance measure by ear. The Volta could not suit my purposes better had I ordered the musicians to play it specifically.”
She had been married to him for three-quarters of a year. There was a certain note in his voice she could, by now, recognise. “And did you?”
The musicians paused, and then swept into the elaborate overture. The dancers lined up for the introductory galliard. Charis rose onto her tip-toes, poised ready.
“You know I shouldn’t. Not in mourning,” she murmured. “And, anyway, you –”
“Am more than capable of lifting you above my head without dropping you. Just because I don’t usually choose to dance, doesn’t mean I can’t.”
“But you don’t dance –”
“Not without good reason. And the good reason is currently looking at the pair of us from behind that ludicrously florid Laccoon and his sons I’ve been trying to persuade Mycroft to give to someone as a token of his especial esteem for the last five years.”
She essayed a cautious glimpse at the slender young man in azure velvet and a gold-leaf encrusted mask part-hidden by the sculpture in question.
“Who is he?” An absurd question to ask at a masked ball, but this was Sherlock, after all. He would be bound to know.
“Someone who has spent an irritatingly long time this evening trying to offer me something in which I am not in the least interested, in exchange for something I have no intention of giving him.”
Not as informative as it could be but she got the gist. One of the unexpected pleasures of wearing Frances’ dress had been the protection it had afforded her from importunate petitioners. The Viscount’s earlier boorishness had been a small price to pay. And, it occurred to her suddenly, wearing Frances’ pale blue meant she was not, technically, in mourning. Not visibly, at any rate.
The stirring strings were getting into her feet. She wanted nothing more to let the music inhabit her, take her where it would. The overture was ending; soon they would be committed.
“So you really think it’s all right? I mean, for me?”
“Not merely all right, but your bounden duty as my wife. I do recall your promising to obey me, you know. So, Charis, this is an order. Stop arguing and dance.”
“Diana, just look what that little hussy is doing now,” Crispian moaned. “I can’t believe she’s actually letting him – good God, just look where he’s putting his hands.”
“What were you expecting? It’s the Volta,” Diana said, nibbling at the inside of her mask and assuming a tone of profound boredom. The alternative – leaping up and down and screaming with pure frustration – was not to be contemplated, not least because it would tell that plain, flat-chested, dull-as-ditchwater baggage exactly how profoundly she had scored.
“You can call it that, but I could name women in this town who’d call it three thaler, in gold, cash up front.” Overcome with his own wit, Crispian sprayed wine out of his nose. Diana withdrew her sleeve only just in time.
“Do you have to be so disgusting? Apart from anything else, if you go spending all your money on whores, Hatherleigh will write to Papa again, like he did from Paris.”
“Hatherleigh’s my secretary, not my gaoler. And we’re much further away from Oversbank now than we were in Paris. We could do anything, and it would take Papa months even to find out about it.”
Diana looked resentfully at the dancers, to where the tall young man in the superbly cut midnight-blue doublet had lifted Frances once more aloft, his supporting hands resting amid her pale blue skirts with a careless, assured intimacy which was intolerable to witness. “Well, having her mother in the same building doesn’t seem to have stopped Frances from doing what she likes, either. Perhaps Mrs Pickering thinks the only way she can get her married off is to have some man compromise her so badly he can’t not marry her.”
Crispian snorted. “Are you mad? Can you see Sir Hector standing over some foreigner with a horsewhip, just because he’d dishonoured Frances? Let alone challenging anyone.”
The thought of podgy, fussy Sir Hector in the role of protector of virgins was suddenly overwhelmingly funny. Diana collapsed into giggles. Crispian caught up with her a second or so later.
“You know, it’d almost be worth it.” Behind the mask, his eyes glittered. “He’d never dare call me out. And imagine the surprised look on Frances’ face. I wonder how long it would take her to work out what had happened?”
“Dare you. No, wager you. Fifty thaler that you won’t seduce Frances before we leave Gaaldine. And don’t even think of cheating. I’ll get at the truth, one way or the other. After all, who else has Frances got to confide her girlish troubles to, but me?”
“Yes, I know, Lady Wardale, I could hardly credit it myself.”
From the vicious, self-satisfied note in Lady Diana’s voice the girl was plainly up to no good. As a responsible chaperone, it was her job to nip it the bud. Whatever “it” was.
Elizabeth stifled a sigh, and picked her way through the gaggle of women surrounding Lady Wardale. Lady Diana must have been aware of her approach but continued talking.
“I mean, for any lady to allow a man to dance with her in such an intimate manner, in public! I can’t think what her chaperone must have been thinking.”
“Whose?” Elizabeth asked. Lady Diana managed a very creditable counterfeit start.
“Oh! I hadn’t realised you were here. We were talking of the shocking exhibition that girl in blue’s just been making of herself. Masked balls must give rise to so many opportunities for indiscretion, wouldn’t you say?”
Lady Diana swept her hand languidly towards a group on the edge of the dance-floor. With a sinking heart Elizabeth spotted the unmistakeable shade of Frances’ dress. Impossible to hope Lady Diana had not recognised it – her malice was too sure and precise. And yet, while mothers were proverbially blind to acts of immorality committed by daughters apparently even more demure and biddable than Frances, there was something about this entire set-up which did not ring true.
“I missed whatever event your ladyship is talking about. Tell me more?”
Elizabeth’s bored tone clearly stung the girl. “That Volta. The most shocking exhibition I’ve ever set eyes on; more fit for a common stews than a Palace.”
“Really? A court dance?” Even more evidence in favour of Frances’ innocence. Paralysing shyness and – maternal prejudice could only take one so far – the apparent possession of two left feet when presented with a dance floor meant that if Frances ever did take to lewdness, it would certainly not be in three/four time.
“They do have different standards out here,” Lady Wardale said. “I didn’t see the incident myself, but it sounds to have been quite shocking.”
“Lady Diana has very delicate sensibilities,” Elizabeth breathed. “Well, I see her ladyship’s in good hands with you, Lady Wardale. If I may, I’ll take a turn around the ballroom and see if I can find Frances. The country dances will be starting soon, and I need to see if she has found a suitable partner. Dear Frances is not one of the world’s natural dancers, bless her.”
And with that parting shot she made her way determinedly towards the patch of pale blue on the far side of the ballroom. She had no confidence that Lady Diana would take her last hint and stop mischief-making. But, plainly, whoever was wearing Frances’ dress was not Frances. And, by one means or another Elizabeth was going to make that fact obvious to Lady Wardale and her set, before Lady Diana could damage Frances’ reputation any further.
“Mother!” Frances said with trepidation. The Crown Princess looked up to see a black-gowned figure making a determined way towards them.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Of course she’s sure,” the Crown Prince drawled from beside her. “Most people are better at recognising a walk or a back than they are at recognising a face. To say nothing of the dress.”
“Definitely mother,” Frances confirmed, and then she was upon them.
“Young man,” she said without preamble, “I can quite see that these two girls may not have been thinking straight when they swapped dresses for whatever reason seemed like a good idea to them at the time, but you could have used your wits before making a damaging show of yourselves in the Volta. You must have been aware that someone might recognise Frances’ dress and draw the worst possible conclusions. Which at least two people are energetically doing at this very moment.”
Frances writhed inwardly. Etiquette meant she should not betray the identity of any of the masked revellers. Etiquette, equally, demanded that she should make Mother aware she was in the process of rebuking the Crown Prince of Gaaldine. To complete her dilemma, her tongue seemed to have swollen to the size of a vegetable marrow and was preventing her from making any noises more coherent than a strangled squeak.
“Ah. The reason for your abrupt arrival now becomes clear,” the Crown Prince said. “Lady Diana Scoton, I presume. And her brother? No, he will have gone off to the cardroom by now. Lady Wardale, then.”
“You seem to be well-informed,” Mother said.
“A simple process of elimination. Only a member of your party would be likely to recognise your daughter’s dress and at least two members of your party are, in fact, incapable of doing so. Not that Dr Atherton is inclined to gossip in any event.”
Frances suppressed a giggle.
“Of course,” the Crown Prince added meditatively, “Lady Wardale’s own inclinations in that direction are seriously handicapped by the fact that she has the worst memory for names of any woman I’ve met. She relies on her husband to help her out, but – ah – his own memory is distinctly more reliable in the forenoon than later in the day.”
“I’m glad to see you do not regard gossip as a purely feminine diversion,” Mother said demurely. The Crown Prince laughed.
“I’d be lost without it. However, I can quite see you don’t think your daughter should be its subject. The country dances are just starting. Would you object, Mrs Pickering, if I danced with your daughter?”
“Me?” Frances squeaked. Mother nodded.
“I think that will answer very well, sir.”
A red tide of horror overwhelmed her; her knees felt as if they could barely hold her upright, let alone permit her to dance. “But, Mother, you know I don’t – I can’t –”
“That’s rather the point,” the Crown Prince said, just as Mother said, “My dear, modesty is all very well, but there is a time for complaisance.” Each of them paused for the other to finish.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” the Crown Princess said unexpectedly. “This is a terribly easy one. A – a spavined donkey could dance it.” She gave Frances a gentle push between her shoulder-blades. “Go on, they’re starting. We’ll see you over by Lady Wardale.”
“She’s always saying that she wishes she had more opportunities to practise speaking Gaaldine.” The Crown Prince’s voice was sharp, malicious. “Go and give her some. We’ll see you presently.” He half-turned, looking away from the Crown Princess. He spoke as if addressing his words to the tapestry behind them. “Two dances in an evening. And the second one, at least, pure altruism. Don’t think I’m going to make a habit of it.” Her turned back to Frances and extended his hand. “Come on. As my wife says, the musicians are starting.”