Chapter 4 - The Curious Incident of the Knight in the Library by A.J. Hall
“Hector –” Elizabeth gripped onto the edge of the library table for support. Even in this crisis some distant part of her brain noted the delicacy of its mother-of-pearl inlay.
“I can’t discuss this now. But understand this, Elizabeth. As things stand at present my only hope of preferment lies with the Duke. I cannot come to a breach with him.” Sir Hector took a lavish pinch of snuff: his invariable habit when nervous and attempting to disguise the fact. “The Duke dotes upon his daughter. If Lady Diana doesn’t change her mind -“
“Such as it is,” Elizabeth muttered.
“There you are, you see! You don’t help yourself. You never have. If you’d only be a bit less unbending, a bit less of the drab Puritan widow, accept that Lady Diana Scoton is a high-spirited filly with the world at her feet –”
Elizabeth lost patience. “Lady Diana Scoton is a spoilt child with no more sense of morality than a feral cat. It’s been a great personal struggle to resist the temptation to push her into every river from the Scheldt to the Danube. Her current troubles are entirely of her own making. If she chooses to appear at an All Souls Eve ball in a gown bright enough to make a flamingo look anaemic then she should have the backbone to carry it off whatever happens, and not fall into the vapours when some young blade with more wit than manners decides to compare her to a duck.”
“Yes, and who was the young man? Don’t think he’s getting off scot-free insulting an English Duke’s daughter in a public place, either. Once Lady Diana tells her brother, the Viscount will be sending his friends to wait upon him, and to do that he’ll expect me to have the young man’s name.”
“Yes, it would appear to be something of a precondition, certainly. Unfortunately, masked ball, remember?” Thank God. She detested duelling and the Viscount was just the sort of hot-headed young idiot to issue a challenge on the slightest provocation.
“Foreign custom. Don’t care for it. Bound to lead to trouble of exactly this sort – people thinking they can say what they like, do what they like just because they aren’t prepared to put their true countenances to it. But you must remember something about him?”
“He was Frances’ dancing partner. Dark hair. Spoke English without a trace of an accent and French to perfection.”
“Hmph! Worse and worse. Sounds like a member of the Corps Diplomatique. God help him if he’s one of our delegation. Lady Wardale will have his letters of authority revoked and he’ll be on the next cargo boat back to the Port of London before you can say knife!”
“I’m glad to see, Hector, that at least you recognise who is really His Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Gaaldine. At least, from noon onwards.”
Sir Hector blinked. “Before you start making fun of the Wardales, I’ll remind you that Lady Diana has put herself under the baroness’s chaperonage, and she is very much inclined to take the girl’s part.”
“She would. That’s because she’s a howling snob, no doubt due to the fact her grandfather was a grazier, her father a government salt-beef contractor and the ink is scarcely dry on her husband’s patents of nobility.”
“Irrelevant. Between Lady Wardale and Lady Diana, the Duke won’t get a good account of your conduct.”
“Except, of course, that he’ll have the benefit of the corrective report, giving the true facts of this over-inflated farrago, filed by his master of archives and personal tutor to his son and heir, won’t he, Hector?”
Before he spoke her brother had already betrayed his answer. His pasty fingers jerked convulsively on his old-gold snuff box, one of the pair the Viscount had presented to him and Hatherleigh in Paris. Further proof, if any were needed, of just how dependent Hector was on the favour of the Duke and his children.
“Elizabeth – don’t make this more difficult for me than it has to be. But you must understand. You and Frances cannot remain with us while Lady Diana is irreconciled. We’ll need to think of some way to get you home – perhaps there’s some respectable merchant travelling to Venice or Antwerp who might be persuaded to let the two of you accompany his party that far for a small consideration –”
“Hector! And what about when we get home? Lady Diana may avoid her father’s country estates as much as she pleases, but she’s bound to stumble over me and Frances at Oversbank eventually.”
“Ah. Yes. I was coming to that.” Impossibly, her brother’s air of shiftiness had increased.
Her entire insides lurched. “Hector, you cannot possibly mean –”
“I’ve been thinking that the two of you really have been with me for a very long time now. And while that was all fine and good while I was Master of St Jerome’s – delightful, in fact – the grace-and-favour apartment the Duke allots me – while ample for a single man – is more than a little cramped with the three of us. You – and especially Frances – need a bit more space to turn round in. What about those cousins of your husband’s in the North parts – Robin Hood’s Bay, wasn’t it, or Whitby?”
“You mean the Sutcliffes?” she said faintly. “You think I – Frances and I – should seek a home with the Sutcliffes?”
Gentlemen farmers in the wilds of Yorkshire without a thought in their heads beside livestock prices and ale. And while Frances probably wouldn’t mind living in those backwaters too badly, if only there were birds to watch and plants to collect, she, personally, would go mad with boredom inside a month.
Sir Hector nodded. “Very suitable. I’ll write them in the morning. I’m sure Lord Wardale will frank it for us and send it with the rest of his dispatches. Well, that’s settled. Go back to the ball and enjoy yourself for once, since you aren’t needed as a chaperone any more. Lady Diana is under Lady Wardale’s care, now, and Frances is more than old enough to look after herself – after all, it’s not as if any young nobleman’s likely to ravish her, is he?”
So many possible things to say to him tumbled over themselves in her mouth that by the time she managed to get her thoughts in order he had made good his escape. She laid her arms along the library shelving, dropped her head against them and let her tears leak out into the sleeves of her black gown. The feel of the fabric against her face triggered a reminder. Drab Puritan widow indeed! Her husband had fought for Parliament, yes, but from fury at Charles Stuart’s venality and incompetence, his reliance on moneyed favourites above good governance and sound counsel. The creeping cold fanaticism of the Commonwealth had betrayed her husband’s sacrifice and sucked the heart out of him.
Elizabeth raised her head from her arms, wiping her eyes dry with the back of her hand. James Pickering had been no Puritan and nor was his relict. Her brother was no doubt expecting her to crawl back to their lodgings and lick her wounds, his suggestion that she stay and enjoy herself nothing more than a sop to what must, surely, be an uneasy conscience.
But – why not, after all? She was in a palace, guest at a King’s ball. If the rest of her life held nothing more than working her fingers to the bone as an unpaid skivvy in some remote farmhouse, then by God and all his angels she’d take some memories back with her. England was over a thousand miles away; only a handful of people knew her here and she respected the good opinion of only two of those.
She strode to the looking glass above the fireplace, straightened her hair and made sure not a trace of her recent tears showed on her cheeks. Then she stiffened her spine and threw her shoulders back.
“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall be in Yorkshire,” she said aloud, and laughed. Her reflection laughed back at her.
There came a faint, audible rustle, from the gallery which ran round the upper level of the library. She tipped her head back, just in time to see an unmistakeable figure whisking out of sight through a little door she had not, previously, realised was there.
Dr Atherton. Despite his protestations, it seemed he’d come to the ball after all – though, having done so, it was entirely characteristic that he’d chosen to bury himself out of sight in the library.
And, assuming he hadn’t been engrossed in some rare tome – a far from unlikely prospect – he must have heard her entire argument with Hector. How would she ever manage to look him in the face after that?
“With the help of a very large glass of Angrian red,” she told herself, and made determined tracks for the principal ballroom.
“You damnable swine. Just what the hell do you think you’ve been playing at all evening?”
(Christ, the petulant twist to his full red lips.)
“You never used to be this unsophisticated when we were at Oxford. Has travel narrowed your mind? Or the Palace wine fuddled your wits?” (It had certainly created a delicious flush over those sharp cheek-bones.)
“Not more than it’s evidently fuddled yours. Could you have made it clearer you were making yourself available to the Crown Prince if you’d been kneeling on the floor with your tongue hanging out?”
“Coarse words.” (Reproach, not anger had always been the key to managing him at Oxford.)
“Necessary deeds. The Crown Prince may profess to admire subtlety, but he hardly displays it when it comes to his preferences.” (And hadn’t that point been proved tonight?)
“So that’s where your lofty ambitions have ended? Trading everything we once talked about on the chance of becoming a foreign princeling’s catamite?”
“Don’t delude yourself I want that.” (God, how much he wanted it.) “But great rewards demand commensurate sacrifices. I’m playing a long game, in both our interests. And not unsuccessfully. Did you see the formal dances?”
“No. I was in the cardroom. Also playing a long game. Losing a small sum I expect to recoup ten-fold before the evening is out.”
(Milking the Viscount, evidently. Good. A loan now could come in handy. Pursuing a prince was an expensive business. That damnable tailor and his bill for the azure doublet.)
“Then you missed the Crown Prince dancing the Volta – bear in mind, the Crown Prince never dances – with some little nobody. Hands up between her legs and all but ravishing her on the dance floor.” (An exhibition of leaping, untamed power and sensuality, aimed straight at his groin.)
“Who was she?”
“Who cares? Some little tart with ambitions, connections and no money. These affairs are stuffed with them. Court manners, but dressed like a provincial merchant’s daughter at the Tallowchandlers’ Ball.”
“And you call that ‘not unsuccessful’?”
(Odd how that hint of scepticism stung.)
“It’s rather late, wouldn’t you say, for him to discover an inclination to the fair sex? ‘Specially since rumour has it he’s not got it up with his own wife in over nine months of marriage. No; that pointed display of uninterest was addressed to me.”
“Assume you have piqued his interest. Hell, why not go the whole way? Assume one of the Palace servants taps you on the shoulder later this evening with a discreet invitation to the Prince’s private quarters. What then? Where do ‘we’ come into it?”
(A fool, but not an utter fool. Best to play this cannily. A show of candour, like gold spread over pebbles.)
“Do you seriously consider things at home are stable? When James Stuart falls, I want to find myself sitting pretty on top of the wreckage, and not by risking my neck and guts by backing another Monmouth, either.”
“Ssh. That time still gives me nightmares. James Stuart’s seat might be shaky, but his reach remains long. There’s times I’ve wondered if his spies are watching, even out here.”
“You always were given to frights and fancies. I see you’ve not changed in that, at least.”
“You’d be surprised how little I’ve changed.”
(Promising. Soft library lamplight on tousled dark hair; what memories that evoked. This evening might end even better than he’d hoped.)
“I may ask you to show me, later. Anyway, Wardale may be James’s man through and through, but he’s up to his neck in local intrigue. Though if he ever sobered up long enough to put two and two together he might realise that not all of the dispatches he thinks are from His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to Gondal have ever crossed the border.”
“So? Why don’t you report him?”
“And risk having him replaced by a competent man, who’d be less easy to manage? Not until I can be sure of securing the Legation for myself. Which means, not until Father’s back in favour at home. When the time is ripe, I can have Wardale given his congé by the Gaaldines quick enough. But to be sure of springing my trap effectively, I need friends in high places.”
“I see. Hence your plan to whore yourself out to the Crown Prince.”
“Jealous?” (No need to ask.)
“Of that supercilious pasty-faced princeling? What do you think to take me for?”
(Time to play his last, best card.) “Anything you’re offering. Since you ask.”
“What, tonight? Here? With half of the nobility of Gaaldine prowling the other side of the library door? Are you mad?”
“For you, yes. And you?”
Surprisingly, given the clemency of the night (Elizabeth spared a thought for what Yorkshire would be like at this time of year, and shuddered) the terrace was deserted apart from Dr Atherton. He leaned on the marble balustrade at the far end of the terrace, looking out into the garden, a glass of red wine virtually untouched by his hand. Probably he’d been distracted by the cry of some unfamiliar bird.
Seeing him – knowing he’d overheard her and Hector in the library, so that he was the one person in the whole place to whom she could speak without its being a breach of anyone’s confidence – crystallised a resolution she had not been conscious of forming.
She strode down the length of the terrace. “Dr Atherton! Can you tell me where to find Hector? I must settle this business tonight; I can’t let just leave it. If it were just me, it would be one thing, but there’s Frances to consider.”
He turned. Something about his stance alerted her to something wrong even before – in breach of the etiquette that faces were not to be uncovered before the signal was given – he swept off the velvet mask he wore to reveal the face of a stranger.
One, admittedly, who bore a startling resemblance to Dr Atherton, but a more intense, a more vivid, a more alive Dr Atherton. Next to this man Dr Atherton would look like a watercolour portrait across which someone had swept a wet sponge, causing outlines to blur and colours to bleed into one another.
“I regret,” he said in precise but faintly accented English, “that I am not the man you seek. I can, however, tell you where your brother is, Mrs Pickering. He is in the card room, progressively losing both his money and his temper.”
It seemed both pointless and rude to retain her own mask, in the circumstances. She removed it.
“I really am very, very sorry,” she said.
“Surely, apologising for misrecognising someone at a masked ball goes rather beyond the strictest requirements of politesse?”
He sounded amused, but she sensed a reserve beneath his amusement, which warned her not to press the point. Still –
She sank down into a deep curtsey.
“Elizabeth Pickering, sir. I am most honoured to make your acquaintance.”
He contemplated her for a moment, then bowed in return. “Regrettably, my family saddled me with numerous names, most of which strangers to this country find difficult, for one reason or another. The Count d’Houx is probably simplest, for present purposes. A small castle and quite dreadfully draughty, but I’m fond of it.”
Typical, of course, that she’d managed to involve a foreign aristocrat in her gaffe. Though it was a Palace ball; probably the number of plain “Mr”s present could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
“Ma’am, might I take the appalling liberty of offering some advice?” the Count enquired. “I, too, am afflicted with a brother. When you spoke to me a few minutes ago, under the misapprehension that I was Dr Atherton, you indicated that you proposed to resolve something with Sir Hector tonight. Is it fair to assume that you and your brother are currently at odds, about a matter of some considerable importance to you and your daughter?”
She hesitated, but detected nothing but sympathetic interest in his warm brown eyes.
“You could say so.” Family loyalty pressed her to add, “It’s not Hector’s fault. Not really.”
His lips curled, mischievously. “A fatally flawed admission, ma’am. Once we start conceding that our respective siblings may ‘have a point’, may be, however partially, ‘in the right’ then we are lost, utterly. Especially since I am quite convinced that Sir Hector would not dream of making the converse concession.”
“He would not,” Elizabeth said drily, before she could stop herself.
“Nor mine, neither. So, for the purpose of the current exemplum, let us take it as a given that your brother is completely, utterly and without any shadow of a doubt in the wrong. Let us also take as a given that if he proceeds in his current course it will cause irreparable harm.”
Elizabeth stifled a sob. His summary might be hypothetical but it was all too accurate. Fortunately, he appeared to have noticed nothing. His mellifluous tones continued.
“There will be a part of his brain – heart – conscience which recognises that point. However, if you resume your argument this evening, it will push him into silencing that part. Only if you leave him until the first glow of resolution has started to fade and his qualms become louder do you have a chance of him letting his better part speak. And you only have a hope of winning if you allow him to believe that any change of heart is entirely his own idea.”
“And does this work, when you are at odds with your own brother?”
The Count looked faintly sheepish. “Ah. Well. To be perfectly honest, it’s something I – ah – hitherto have lacked the patience to put into practice with him. But it doesn’t stop it being excellent advice.”
Elizabeth couldn’t help it. The giggles forced themselves out of her. After a moment, the Count joined in. When they were more collected, she observed, “You speak English extremely well. Do you have family there? Have you visited?”
“Alas, no.” He paused for a moment. “Neither. Though my uncle was rumoured to have left his heart in your country in his youth. He fought besides Prince Rupert, in your civil war.”
“Oh.” Elizabeth felt the familiar cold dread beneath her breast. So often this came up; less now, of course, as she aged and the previous generation died off. “He may have fought against my late husband. He was for Parliament.”
The Count contemplated that for a moment. His voice was surprisingly gentle when he spoke again. “It is one of the greatest tragedies a country can suffer, a civil war. So often, one ends up liking many of the other side far better than one’s own allies.” He paused. “Your husband’s party were too honourable. They should have engaged an assassin.”
Elizabeth found herself almost unable to comment, certainly not with the appropriate tone of shocked horror.
“You think so?” she managed to choke out.
“But of course. The other countries of Europe would have found assassination far more palatable. To kill a king by a knife in the dark or an arrow from a distance is part of the natural order of things. That a nation should rise up and tell its monarch first to leave and then submit him to the forms of law when he does not –” He shrugged, eloquently. “One cannot change the past, however. “
Changing the subject, clearly, was another matter. After a brief pause, the Count said, “My likeness to Dr Atherton has been remarked on before.”
“Really? By whom?”
“My brother, who else? He found the discovery irresistibly funny. He’s been a correspondent of Dr Atherton for many years, and insisted on visiting him the morning after your party arrived in the capital.”
“Oh, is your brother the rather odd one, with the dead dog?” Undoubtedly the Angrian red talking; her face flamed. Her companion’s laugh, though, was as rich and warming as spiced ale on a winter’s night.
“I have waited over thirty years for someone to describe him with such accuracy and economy of expression.” He waved a hand and a servitor appeared, instantly, at his elbow. “Shall we drink confusion to our respective siblings?”
No doubt it was a sign that she had already been shamefully over-indulgent, but the wine seemed to have improved immeasurably in flavour, though it had hardly been lacking before.
“Not bad,” the Count said judiciously. “I trust it is to your taste? Good. Would you care for a turn around the grounds? There are particularly fine views of the night sky from the belvedere over there.”
Elizabeth hesitated for a moment. Hector, of course, would be horrified at the bare idea that she might consider heading out into the dark unknown of the Palace grounds with a foreign aristocrat whom she had just met and about whom she knew very little indeed. Though, judging by his dismissive remark about Frances’ attractions, he would hardly assume Elizabeth to be an object of prey even to the most depraved Count in Eastern Europe. Even you, Hector, cannot hold two opinions of equal and opposite unreasonableness.
Of course, quite clearly the Count d’Houx – who was by no means depraved - had no intentions of that sort. Which was something which she, as a respectable widow (though not, in any sense, a Puritan) should only be glad of. He no doubt had a grown-up daughter with an unsuitable suitor or his (clearly feckless) brother was planning on sinking funds into one of Dr Atherton’s antiquarian schemes. During the course of the walk through the grounds he would broach the topic (whatever it was) and she would give her opinion and advice. She should be delighted to Be Of Use.
So why did misery claw at her heart, then?
“You are worried about becoming chilled? I understand that fires are often lit in the belvedere on evenings such as this, for the convenience of those who wish for solitude and the chance to observe the stars away from the Palace’s lights.”
A servitor was at her elbow, holding out a wrap which was far finer than any clothing she actually possessed; another was helping the Count into a fur-lined cloak which seemed in her estimation more suitable for a winter’s carriage ride than a stroll on a warm autumn night. Doubtless living in climes such as these tended to thin the blood.
A cynical part of her mind reflected on how the addition of a title to a man’s name improved the quality of the service he received. Only a small part, though.
“No,” Elizabeth heard herself saying, as if the voice was that of a stranger. “I do not fear the cold. A turn about the grounds would be delightful, sir.”
“Sir, you cannot – you cannot mean to – Stop this at once!”
He showed no signs of hearing her protests, let alone understanding them. Two beefy arms locked around her body, almost crushing her, forcing her back against the wall, into the corner by one of the smaller staircases.
Torn apart between four horses.
How hollow that threat sounded now! God! he was strong. Rough, raw fumes of brandy poured over her with his every panting breath, but the drink seemed only to have inflamed him, not slowed him down one whit.
“You’ve no idea what you’re doing. Let me go!”
No help in sight; he had timed his ambush well. Most of the guests were in the buffet rooms, piling into the lavish late supper served before the unmasking at midnight. The dedicated card-players would barely have started the serious business of the night. The dancers were taking last opportunities to swing unsuitable partners around the floor, relying on the thin protection of their masks against any later charges of impropriety.
Charis cast the last shreds of dignity to the winds. “You whoreson English bastard, get your filthy hands off me!”
His hand covered her mouth, brutally obstructing her breathing. She bit down, hard, but the muffling folds of her mask prevented her doing any real damage. He growled, something deep, low and menacing in his barbarous tongue and pinned her against the wall with his hips.
Despite the hampering skirts of her gown, she hooked a foot around his ankle and thrust him momentarily off-balance. She broke from his grip with a thunderous tearing of fabric. Only two steps, though; he caught her and brought her crashing to the marble floor; he was on top of her, the damaged gown was slipping, revealing her breasts, his full weight pressing her down, his breath hot in her face, his hands busy amid her skirts –
Abruptly, his weight was dragged from her body.
“I don’t think the lady welcomes your attentions.” A blessedly familiar voice - though her fear-addled brain for a moment had difficulty in putting a name to it. She rolled onto her side in a feeble attempt to conceal her naked flesh.
Out of her line of vision, the Viscount snarled something incoherent. And half-choked; her rescuer clearly had him firmly by the throat.
“You’d be better off for some fresh air. And a lesson in manners, though I doubt yours can be cured at this late stage.”
Comprehension, relief and terror came together in one blinding flash. John. She whimpered into her blessedly concealing mask. Rescue, yes, and John, dear John would know she was the injured party here. But – what would Palace gossip make of the story? She, the ranking lady at court, found sprawled beneath an English nobleman in a dark corner at a ball, all but naked to the waist. Dear God, what would Sherlock make of it? Cold sweat broke out on her spine. She had boasted to Frances of the great-grand aunt who had had the man who insulted her torn apart, but that very woman had ended her days raving in her husband’s dungeon, following his surprising her in a compromising position with one of his armsmen.
“I’m taking him outside – I assure you he’ll not trouble you further, ma’am. Shall I send one of the Palace maids to assist you?’
She shook her head vigorously. If she could only get up to her own suite and change into something suitable in time to appear in the ballroom for the unmasking no-one except her own confidential maid – not Sherlock, not John and especially not the loathsome Viscount – need ever know she’d been here.
John, bless him, didn’t argue. He glared at the Viscount. “Sir, your behaviour is an insult to this Palace and to your host the King, as well as to this lady. You are clearly in no fit state now to appreciate the enormity of your actions but I invite you to reflect on them overnight.”
Although the Viscount must have had half a foot on John in height, he went like a lamb, possibly due to the position of John’s thumbs. Charis picked herself up from the floor, wrapped the wreckage of Frances’ dress around herself as best she could, and made her shaky way upstairs.