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Chapter 5 - The Curious Incident of the Knight in the Library by A.J. Hall

The Palace grounds were aromatic with the mingled scents of wild herbs and cultivated flowers. The breeze blew warm and the moon – three days past the full – hung orange above the cliff opposite, lighting their steps as effectively as if they’d brought a link-boy.

“This is beautiful,” Elizabeth said. “Thank you for accompanying me.”

“The thanks are all mine.” The Count hesitated. “It is a painful All Souls Eve for me, but I welcome your presence very much. Neither solitude nor incompatible company would be supportable, tonight.”

Ah. Mourning. That would be it.

“You have recently lost someone, sir?”

He paused, then spoke with great precision. “The person I am thinking of I lost many years ago. But I learned of her death mere weeks ago. The wound is – a new cut into an old scar. And the old wound had not healed as thoroughly as I had deluded myself.”

“I do not mean to pry. But if you wish to speak of it, I am a discreet ear. And, if this assists, one unlikely to be in Gaaldine for much longer.”

“Really? I expected your party to winter here. You are very late for travelling back to England.”

She strove for a neutral tone. “I am unsure of the party’s plans in general. Frances and I are not to remain with them. Lady Diana does not wish it.”

“I see. That, I take it, is what set you and your brother at odds.”

“Sir, I do not –”

“Like yourself, ma’am, I can be a discreet ear at need. Tell me your troubles.”

For a moment she was irresistibly tempted. But then, suppose he took Lady Diana’s part? The nobility, even if foreign nobility, were a clannish lot.

“It is nothing, sir, thank you.”

“Indeed it is not, ma’am. At the least, it leaves you parted from your companions fourteen hundred miles from your home and with no certainty as to when or how you will see that home again.”

For a moment Elizabeth thought of Oxford and felt a deep pang. Damn Hector and whatever murky business had driven them from St Jerome’s. Oversbank, whose elegant façade concealed multiple petty rivalries and diabolical drains – worse, by far, than many they had encountered on their travels – that had never been home, and if the alternative were anyone but the Sutcliffes she would be pleased to see the back of it forever.

The Count nodded. “Ah. I see. An incompatible home but one which has, at least the merit of security. Still, no small matter. I take it the Scoton child already bore a grievance against you before your party entered the ball-room?”

“Six month’s worth of grievances,” Elizabeth said with feeling. “This evening – or, to be precise, this afternoon – merely put the coping-stone on them.”

“This afternoon. Oh, I see. She had earlier objected to your – entirely proper – efforts as her chaperone to prevent her making herself look ridiculous – to prevent, in fact, the very situation which arose.”

Elizabeth gulped. How much of the events in the ball-room had this man seen, and why had she not remarked his watching them?

The Count smiled ruefully. “I should, incidentally, apologise on my brother’s behalf for his part in the disaster. Especially as I’m certain he has not the slightest intention of doing so himself.”

“Your brother was Frances’ dancing partner, sir? I had not an idea of it, but I should have recognised his voice, from his call on Dr Atherton.”

“You were probably too horrified at what he was saying in it. Comparing Lady Diana to a duck may have had accuracy on its side – that particular style was introduced at Versailles by the French King’s maîtresse en titre, who has five inches of height, twenty-six years of age and an infinity of sophistication over the Scoton girl. It did, however, succeed in making a bad situation infinitely worse.”

“Nevertheless,” Elizabeth said, motivated by an obscure desire to be fair to all parties, “I am very obliged to him for showing Lady Diana not only that Frances had not danced the Volta with him, she could not have done so.”

“A fact that malicious chit should have realised before she started spreading her poison. We start being taught those dances at three. You are quite right; it is a point I should acknowledge.” He paused, and added, thoughtfully, “You know, something seems to be humanising him? A year ago, should a similar set of circumstances have arisen, he would undoubtedly have danced the Volta, but would not have felt any obligation to protect a random English girl whose reputation he had damaged in the process.”

“Excuse me, sir, if the question seems an over-familiar one, but did the two of you by any chance have the misfortune to lose your parents when you were young?”

He stopped walking, and turned to look at her. “That is either very perceptive or a lucky guess on your part, ma’am. Both were dead by the time I was twelve – five, in my brother’s case. He always – ”

As the pause threatened to become prolonged, Elizabeth prompted gently, “You believe, perhaps, he envied your having more memories of them? I have known that, from the youngest members of a family towards the elders in such circumstances.”

“You know, he told me once he could not remember our mother’s face.” There was something unutterably wistful in his tone. “There are, of course, portraits, but the style of the era was stiff and formalised. None of them capture her likeness. I was furious with him at the time – the details are unimportant – so I missed the chance to say what I should have said, and have never had it renewed.”

“That being, sir?”

“That he should look in the glass.”

“There is another thing, sir, I have noted about children who lose their parents young,” Elizabeth said. “They often find it difficult to believe in the reality of their being loved by anyone.”

“You are an extraordinary woman,” the Count said. “That is a profound truth. Though I think, in my brother’s case, he has recently begun to have a perception of it. His situation is peculiar, but I find numerous points of hope in it.”

Elizabeth had had the Count in mind, not his brother. She felt loneliness shrouding the man like a second cloak.

“I do not often find myself in a position where I have either the inclination or the opportunity to share personal confidences,” he said, echoing her thoughts. “Your patience and insight have brought a profound easing of my spirit.”

“Thank you, sir. But it has required no patience. I am honoured by the trust you have placed in me.”

“If you allow me, then, I shall continue to trespass on your sympathy a little longer. As I hinted earlier, I had the misfortune, many years ago, to become estranged from one whom I loved very dearly. It was entirely my fault. I took what I believed to be the prudent course – it’s my besetting sin, ma’am – and it all but destroyed her.”

“You allowed yourself to be persuaded out of a betrothal?” Elizabeth hazarded.

“On the contrary. I married her.”

Elizabeth caught her breath at the pain in his voice.

“She bore children – twin boys – and a summer fever took them before their second birthday. Since that day, she refused to see me. I could – of course – have ordered barred doors battered down and had her brought forcibly into my presence. I assure you, a husband who finds himself in such circumstances does not lack for advice to do precisely that.”

She winced.

“I agree with you, ma’am. In any event, I lost the woman I loved on the day I took her to the altar. We should never have married. Our love was not of that kind and could not survive the change in our relations. My so-called prudence left me an alchemist who had succeeded in turning gold into lead.”

“You do not strike me, sir, as a man who would follow the course of common prudence without imagination or sensitivity to the consequences for others.” The contrast with Hector lent a note of bitterness to Elizabeth’s voice. “The forces urging you to that course must have been powerful indeed.”

He turned to her. “Ma’am, that is the third time this evening your insight has astonished me. Yes. My grandfather insisted on the match and crossing his will would have been – extremely unpleasant. For both of us.”

Elizabeth could not help feeling that the word the Count had originally intended to use was “dangerous”. Or perhaps, “fatal”.

“And, sir, you must have been very young at the time?”

“Twenty-two. Old enough. My brother made that quite clear. On the next occasion we met – it was two years later; he had been out of the country at the time of my marriage – he told me directly that, placed in my position, he would have died rather than make the choice I did.”

Elizabeth snorted. “Easy enough words to say, sir. Especially for a – what would he have been? A seventeen-year old boy.”

The Count sighed. “Ma’am, I have tried with greater or lesser success to delude myself about many things about that period in my life. But I never doubted the truth of the words he spoke. He had already given me sufficient proof that he would, if put to it, die for a principle. The contrast between his courage and my cowardice has lain between us ever since.”

She shivered, despite the wrap and the clemency of the night. All Souls Eve indeed; the ghosts were undoubtedly present.

“Only a little further down this path, ma’am. And I can smell woodsmoke. They have lit the fire in the belvedere.”

The change of subject signalled, to Elizabeth’s careful ear, the shutting of a door. The Count had stepped extraordinarily far out of the bounds of convention and might, perhaps, be regretting it. She would not increase his pain by trespassing any further. She made her voice lighter.

“Well, then, sir, by all means let us take advantage of it. For it remains a most glorious night, and I cannot think of any company I would prefer to share it with.”

The slam of the closet door cut off Frances’ protesting whimpers. She deserved it. This was the worst evening of Diana’s entire life and someone, somewhere, was going to pay.

That damned dress! All her troubles that evening had stemmed from it. She’d have enjoyed far greater success at the ball if she hadn’t had her nerves upset and her poise ruined by that ridiculous argument in the lodgings about what colours were suitable for an All Souls Eve ball in some forgotten little backwater that called itself a kingdom. All Souls Eve! As if the very name didn’t show what an uncivilised, hag-ridden, papist-infested country this was.

Of course, that frump Pickering couldn’t be satisfied with letting her have the last word. She must think Diana was stupid, not to see through that utterly shameless set-up. That arrogant young man, Frances’ dancing partner, so clearly primed by the widow Pickering deliberately to insult her taste, hiding his impertinence behind one of these damnable masks. And then, the final straw, the appearance on the scene of that obnoxious tall brunette. Someone from the Court, obviously, someone of importance judging by the susurration which had run round the ballroom on her insolently late arrival. Not merely an arrival, but a triumphal entrance, almost as if specifically planned to point up the fact she was wearing the exact same dress as Diana. At least, the same model but in styled layers of white and purplish black which brought to mind a magpie’s plumage, rather than that of –

A mandarin duck. After a particularly successful moult.

The precise, drawling intonation Frances’ dance partner had used about the colour scheme of her own dress intruded past Diana’s best efforts to shut it out. She stamped her foot. Who did that young man think he was, anyway? And as for Frances - she deserved to be left with the thing. If she could manage to dress herself in it. If not – well, let her escape in her underclothes to find help. Or stay in there until morning to be found by the Palace maids.

At least Diana was now dressed in Frances’ borrowed finery and no longer at risk of invidious comparisons to the elegant brunette. She smoothed down the layers of black velvet and dark red brocade and allowed herself a moment’s satisfaction before the true miseries of her position intruded once more.

Telling that interfering hag Elizabeth Pickering where she got off had been satisfying, so long as it lasted, but Lady Wardale was so fawning, so helpless, and – a point Diana had not, fully, appreciated at the time – rooted to her husband’s side in this Godforsaken foreign hole, at least until King James chose to recall him.

Diana had only the haziest gasp of politics, but she was, dimly, aware that Papa would not be best pleased that she’d thrown in her lot with the Wardales. She’d heard him be scathing often enough about the sorts of people the new King had chosen to ennoble, and the Wardales, so far as she could tell, exemplified the breed.

Worst of all, if she didn’t do something, she’d be stuck with them all winter. Despite the deceptive warmth of the evening the weather was, she was told, due to break, with wild winter storms and the roads choked with mud and wolves and bandits venturing down from the mountains to make travelling, especially for ladies, dangerous and difficult.

An entire winter in this uncivilised hole, with disgusting, oily, garlic-laden food, holed up with the Wardales. The prospect was not to be borne. Something had to be done.

Damn, there was the Wardale woman, fussing along the corridor, plainly looking for Diana. And, while she hadn’t spotted her yet, when she did she was bound to recognise her dress as the one Frances had been wearing. And the storm of gossip which would envelop her once Lady Wardale realised she’d swapped dresses – oh, never while she had breath in her body could she endure that!

On the instant, Diana caught at the nearest door-handle, turned it, and, heedless of what lay of the far side of the door, dived through into sanctuary.

The library. Bays of dark, carved wood shelves bearing utterly uninteresting leather bound tomes – much like Oversbank, from what Diana could recall, though – annoyingly – significantly bigger. Unlike the glittering ballroom outside the lights in here were subdued; anyone attempting to read by them would be hard pressed.

She stole through the dim room. Best to lurk here until Lady Wardale was well clear of the vicinity. As she approached the end bay, though, sounds started to become audible. Unmistakeable sounds, at least for a sharp-eared girl brought up at Oversbank, with its crowds of man- and maid-servants. Harsh, rapid, irregular breathing; the rustle of fabric; the rhythmic slam of a body against a wall. And then, a voice, breathy and urgent.

“Oh, God, yes. Yes. You’ve no idea what you do to me. It’s been so long. I’ve missed you so badly. Oh, God, I –”

The shock of recognition hit her like a blow. Soundlessly, she withdrew into the darkest corner of the penultimate bay, a broad smile spreading across her face.

She had worried about how she would get out of the Wardale mess. Now Fate had given a weapon into her hand. The lovers would separate after their tryst, of course. One would leave and the other remain and she would make her plans accordingly. It little mattered which of them left first – she was effectively invisible here, in her dark gown and mask, at least until she chose to show herself. But, whether here or outside, she would corner her prey and then she would drive her bargain.

“I know a secret. Here’s what you must do for me, if I am not to tell.”

From some inner recesses within the fur-lined cloak the Count produced a bottle of the superb Palace red wine – previously opened but the cork pushed roughly back – and a pair of crystal glasses and set them down on the belvedere’s low hearth-side table. True to his promise, a fire of aromatic logs – cherry-wood, she thought, or some similar tree – blazed in the hearth.

“I always have the greatest possible respect for those rare men who are capable of forethought,” Elizabeth said, “but you are clearly the very Platonic ideal of the forward planner.”

“My English is very serviceable for most purposes but I cannot always – Mrs Pickering, are you mocking me?”

His lips curved in a smile, but Elizabeth recalled his earlier vulnerability and hastened to reassure him.

“Only in the smallest possible degree – and mocking myself, as much as you. To be honest, I am enchanted. A fire, the glorious stars, refreshment – even a nightingale singing from that bush over there –”

“Technically, I believe it may be a bulbul. The song differs slightly.”

“I see that you bear more than a superficial resemblance to our Dr Atherton. In any event, what I meant to convey is that this is an evening of my life which I shall treasure for so long as memory lasts to me. I confess, I had few expectations of this evening beyond hoping that my daughter enjoyed herself. I find myself – this is something unlooked for –”

Damn! The tears prickled behind her eyes. Memories of this night would follow her into her Yorkshire exile and recalling its sweetness amid that bitter desert would tear her in two. The breath of that future misery still had power to chill her.

“Tonight is precious for me, also,” the Count said. His hand strayed up to caress her cheek. Elizabeth was conscious that propriety required her to demand he remove it but it had been so long since anyone had –

Be a bit less unbending, a bit less of the drab Puritan widow, Hector had advised her. Well, let her take her brother’s advice for once! She exhaled. The tentative fingers became more assured.

“Listen, forget tomorrow,” the Count said. “Many things may happen to improve your affairs. One of them will have happened already. You never had a hope of persuading the Scoton girl not to wear that ridiculous dress, but have you never noticed that a burnt finger teaches a child far more effectively than a voice saying, ‘Do not put your finger in the candle-flame’?”

“Your meaning, sir?”

He smiled. “A certain lady, a personage of importance – Court gossip rumours her to be the King’s mistress but is, in this case, inaccurate – should by now have arrived at the ball. Her eye for colour is impeccable and she has the poise and figure to carry off that particular dress to perfection. The Scoton girl is quite remarkably stupid but even she will by now be appreciating fully the ignominy of the contrast and – let us hope – the wisdom of your earlier advice.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth breathed. Joy pervaded her body, spreading down into her finger-ends.

“Ah. I am glad to see, ma’am, that you are not above savouring the pleasures of revenge.” He took her hand. “Sit with me, before the fire.”

He spread the fur-lined cloak before the hearth and gestured. She sank down, her skirts pooling about her feet. She shifted them sideways, to allow space for him to sit beside her. He poured wine for them both and set the bottle down beside the log box.

“Affairs, crises, the clash of personalities who cannot abide each other and yet have to be yoked in tandem for business to proceed – sometimes my life seems an endless storm-tossed ocean, with never a glimpse of land. I do so long for peace. You carry calm within yourself, you know; your companions are trebly fools not to know what a rare jewel –”

Emotion overcame him, he stuttered to an awkward pause, looking down at his hands. A moment’s exasperation seized her. Men! How on earth had the human race managed to last this long when men – for all their predatory reputation – were so completely incompetent at either making their wishes known or acting on them?

“Sir, we are in danger of drowning in words. At risk of seeming unduly forward –” She wavered for a second, but there was something about his face – something lost and yet hoping – that pushed her over the edge. She caught his chin and pulled his face down to hers.

“If you wish it, tonight I am yours,” she whispered.

“Oh, my dear, yes of course I wish it. More than words can possibly express.”

“Then, sir, I suggest you try actions, not words.”

And that, she reflected later, was not only the best advice she had ever given but – a rarity in her experience – advice taken as fully as even she could desire.