Chapter 6 - The Curious Incident of the Knight in the Library by A.J. Hall
Something had happened.
When he’d been little, he’d imagined the Palace as a dragon out of one of the bestiaries in the library; huge, glittering and never, ever, wholly asleep. Like a dragon, too, it nursed poisonous fire within its belly, which belched forth at intervals with destructive and unpredictable force.
One might master a dragon, but never tame it. And, if one aspired to be a dragon-master, one needed to be constantly alert to the smallest shift in mood, the tiniest flex of muscle, the blinking of an eye.
Something had happened. There had been several of the discreet, dark-garbed men of the Palace guard circulating among the guests in the room a quarter turn ago; now they had all vanished. All exits from the Palace are to be secured before an alert can be given.
He made a glib excuse to the French Ambassador, who’d been angling for more details of the Alwentdale affair (why? Had the Pretender managed to embroil one of the major powers of Europe in the sea-wolf raid and was the Ambassador wondering if he knew? Or were the French positioning themselves to promote or suppress one of the potential marriage alliances Genia’s death had opened up for Gaaldine?) and left the room.
Jonathan came out of the shadows to meet him before he was five paces over the threshold. Good initiative on the man’s part; bad that it needed to be deployed.
“Where? What’s happened?”
“Library, sir. They’ve found a body.”
“Who found it?”
“Dunno, sir. One of servants, most like. But it’s her grace’s physician who’s giving the orders at the moment.” Jonathan hesitated and said, very carefully, “He told us to find the King. Or the Head of Palace security.”
“Dimmock’s still on sick leave. Gregson’s on duty tonight,” he said, automatically, and then., “John told you to find Mycroft?”
He took the stairs two and three at a time. The library blazed with the light of every lamp which could have been commandeered at short notice. As Sherlock strode in, John jerked up his head at the slam of the double doors. The expression on his face, like a carving on a rood screen depicting the torments of the damned – no power on earth or under it should have been able to make John look like that. So, by the bitter, inevitable workings of logic, he knew whose body must lie behind him.
John’s voice sounded like nothing human. “Sherlock, stay back.”
“Why?” His own voice was barely above a whisper, his stride almost a stroll as he walked down the full length of the library to where John crouched, like a dog guarding the dark bulk of the body on the floor behind him. “Where else should I be but here? Show me.”
For a moment John paused, as if prepared physically to bar his passage. Sherlock put all the force he could command into his voice, though he did not raise its volume. “John. You’ve already, I suspect, confirmed one particularly pervasive court rumour tonight. Don’t try to make it two. Let me look.”
Reluctantly, John moved aside, to reveal the sprawled figure on the floor behind him, its skirts pooling around where it lay.
Black velvet and red brocade.
He dropped to his knees. The corpse’s mask – one of those soft, velvet affairs – lay against the base of a bookcase some feet away (thrown aside by the murderer? Or had the victim chosen to reveal her identity by an ill-thought-out dramatic gesture?) The corpse’s face was a battered, unrecognisable wreck. A poker lay discarded close by, seemingly tossed aside in the midst of the act of destruction (sudden fear of discovery, probably someone at the door of the library.)
He lifted a lock of hair (fine, flyaway, natural blonde); traced the curve of an ear (no feature on the human body more individual); sniffed unfamiliar soap and perfume. He’d known from the moment he’d seen the dress, but to settle John’s mind not a scintilla of doubt must be permitted.
He spoke crisply, giving each word its due weight. “Rest easy. Whoever she is, she’s not Charis.”
“Sherlock, don’t –” The pain of dawning hope on John’s face was almost unbearable to witness.
“How often have you known me be wrong?”
“Look, I saw Charis at dinner, before the ball. She was wearing this dress.”
“And I danced with her much later than that. When she was wearing something completely different. She’d swapped clothes with – ” Habitual caution intervened. “With another girl.”
“Oh, God.” John looked down at the body. “Poor girl. The assassin must have mistaken her –” He came to an awkward stop, honesty warring with shame in his expression.
There is no-one in the three kingdoms he would not sacrifice if it would protect Charis. Why scruple to admit it?
“But if that isn’t Charis, where the hell is she? And is she safe?’
“I’ve not seen her for some time –” Sherlock strode to the door of the library. Jonathan stood at attention just outside, looking – fairly convincingly – as if he had not been listening to everything which had transpired within.
“Jonathan, about this dead woman. Not the Crown Princess, but there’s a sporting chance the murderer thought it was.”
The armsman nodded. “You’ll be wanting me and the lads to find her grace and make sure she’s safe, sir?”
“Yes. Once you’ve found her, bring the word to me. If you haven’t found her inside a quarter of a turn, bring that news to me, but keep looking. And don’t let that idiot Holderness try to grab command. Give him my compliments and tell him I’m relying on him to stop the diplomats from taking anything personally until I’ve found out what’s going on.”
“On the case, sir.”
That done, Sherlock returned to where John remained sunk in thought beside the corpse.
“Observe, John. You’re a physician. What do you see?”
Focussing was clearly an effort. Still, after a moment John said, “There should be more blood.”
“On the poker and the face, both,” he agreed. “She’d been dead some time when this was done.”
Not much past one in the morning now. The signal to unmask had been given at midnight. Had the dead girl still been alive to hear it? He cursed, not for the first time, the lack of a truly reliable way of determining the time of death. He felt at the corpse’s jaw, trying to determine if there was even the hint of the onset of rigor. Nothing yet, nothing that might not be imagination.
The mask – had the girl been murdered while wearing it, or not? Why would she go to the library in the midst of a ball? For an assignation? To avoid an importunate suitor? The body might have been tampered with after death, but something in the free sprawl of the limbs suggested that it had not been moved bodily from the place where the murder had occurred.
Leave questions for now. Start with the facts.
Hardly any blood on poker or face. A body disfigured some time after death – possibly, on the evidence of the discarded poker, moments before the crime was discovered. Two actors working independently – or in concert – or conceivably, even if idiotically, the murderer returning to the scene to deface the body.
Start with facts. There was a small stain on the floorboards of the library, besides the corpse’s head. He licked a forefinger, ran it over the stain and raised it to his nostrils. Lamp oil.
“John, put one of those lamps down here, down on the floor, just by the head. Then douse the rest. There’s too much light. I want to see what whoever did this must have seen.”
Paradoxically, the room proved very illuminating indeed once most of the lights were out.
“Oh. Oh, yes.”
He scrambled to his feet. The spiral iron staircase leading to the library’s upper gallery was barely ten feet away. In the glare of the lamps it had looked an utterly obvious escape route. In the dimness, though, the little door which led from the gallery to the upper landing was hard to spot. To someone who didn’t know the door was there, the staircase led into a dead end. Interesting, if anyone could have been shown to have left that way.
He picked up the lamp from the floor and moved towards the staircase. There was a large blue-and-white Chinese porcelain vase on a stand near the stair foot. As he passed it he groped down inside; a faint hope which crystallised into a blazing triumph as his hand closed over a crumpled ball of fabric.
He heard the double doors to the library open, and thrust the evidence out of sight before he turned to face the new arrival. The acting head of Palace security was white to the lips, but stood commendably straight.
“Your grace,” Gregson said, “I hear bad news.”
“Not as bad as rumour no doubt reports. If an assassin struck at the Crown Princess, then by good fortune the blow went awry.” Sherlock moved aside to let Gregson see the body. “Whoever this is – and our next task is to discover that – it is not my wife.”
“Thank the Blessed Virgin,” Gregson muttered fervently. “Sir – I have been seeking the King.”
“Despite appearances, my instincts tell me it’s likely to prove a domestic, rather than a political killing. Accordingly the King’s rest need not be troubled. I assume full responsibility for that decision. Can two of your men remove the body to one of the sitting rooms downstairs?”
“Indeed, sir. And lock the library?”
He fingered the ball of fabric he had retrieved from the vase. “Oh, no. I’m distinctly hopeful we may have visitors to the library later tonight. I’d hate to put any barrier in their way.”
“Charis, don’t come in here!”
Sherlock raised his head at John’s shout, saw his wife white-faced in the doorway, grasping at the edge of the door, her eyes like those of a terrified animal. She’d changed her dress again since last he’d seen her – why? She now wore another of her elegant mourning affairs, cut on more demure lines than the one in which she’d started the evening.
“So it is true what they said she was wearing – oh, Holy Mother!” She swayed on the spot. John was instantly beside her, his arm around her shoulders, holding her upright by main force.
“I can’t think what you were thinking of to come in here at all,” he scolded.
“But you don’t understand,” she wailed. “She’s wearing my dress! I got Frances killed.”
Unfeigned horror and contrition in her voice. Expected, but interesting, nonetheless. An intelligent assumption about the corpse’s identity (wrong) and, hence, the murderer’s motive (very possibly correct).
First things first.
“Frances? The English girl I danced with, the one with sensible views on henbane? Preposterous on the face of it. Her chest is even flatter than yours. Unlike the corpse’s.”
“Sherlock!” John’s voice sounded resigned rather than outraged.
“What? It’s a simple observation of fact. The corpse does have significantly larger breasts than either Charis or Frances.”
“It’s probably just corsetry,” Charis said sulkily. “There’s supposed to be a new style of Italian lacing, that –”
“Charis, whatever whichever dressmaker it is is trying to talk you into, don’t. It’s a basic rule. Dress for the body you’ve got rather than the one you think you ought to have, or you’ll end up looking like a duck. And stop interrupting my train of thought. Come in and sit against the wall, over there, where you aren’t as likely to interfere with anything important.”
“Sherlock, this is no place for - “
“Do give Charis credit for being quicker on the uptake than you are, John. It’s a masked ball. The dead girl’s roughly her height, colouring and wearing one of her dresses. Even you were fooled for a minute or so. If the murderer made a mistake, he may be still around. And thinking of rectifying it.”
She shuddered. “Everyone wearing masks, all evening. He could be anyone. They tried to get me off to my chambers but I knew I’d only be safe if I stayed with you.”
“That’s a definition of ‘safe’ I haven’t quite tumbled to, yet,” John said.
That stung, probably more than John had meant. But then, John hadn’t had Genia’s white, set face haunting his sleep for the last weeks.
“It’s a perfectly valid application of logic,” Sherlock snapped. “If the intended victim was Charis, then I’m almost the only person who isn’t a suspect. First because I know perfectly well what Charis looks like, whether she’s wearing a carnival mask or not, and secondly because princes of the blood traditionally don’t murder their wives by strangling them and then – after an unexplained delay of half a turn of the glass or so – beating their faces to a pulp with a poker. Framing them for an adulterous liaison with a treasonous edge to it is much more the preferred royal style.”
“Over my dead body,” John growled.
“Well, obviously. You hardly think I’d try arranging Charis’ judicial murder without eliminating the biggest single impediment to it first?”
“Do you mind if I lie down flat on the floor for a few minutes?” Charis enquired faintly.
A sensible suggestion from more than one perspective. “Go ahead. In fact, it could be quite helpful. Let me know if you spot anything that strikes you from that angle. Anything at all; don’t worry if it doesn’t seem important.”
Charis’ voice was muffled by her awkward position on the floor. “Well, if she was still alive, whoever she is, I’d tell her to dismiss her tiring-woman.”
She raised her head a few inches and flapped her left hand feebly in the direction of the corpse. “Just look at that lacing. Tension all over the place. Whoever did it must have been drunk. Or working in the dark.”
Different possibilities exploded in multiple chains of thought, almost too quickly to keep track of them all. “Or dressing a body that was already dead?”
“Ugh! That’s –” Charis’ hand went to her mouth, as if to stifle an impulse to vomit.
“Not all that likely,” John interrupted, glaring at him.
In point of fact, it would explain a number of points rather better than some of the alternatives. Perhaps when Charis had calmed down a little, he could ask her to play dead while he experimented with the ease of dressing and undressing her, to explore the feasibility of the murderer’s having done so. Better not to broach the topic at the moment.
Sherlock selected a less fraught line of enquiry. “Laced by someone without much experience? A friend, maybe, rather than a maid. Though when you and Frances exchanged clothes, your lacing didn’t look any different from when your own maid does it.”
“She did do it. I signalled her when I got the idea of us swapping –”
“No-one told me you’d changed clothes. What was the idea?” John asked.
Charis didn’t respond; something wrong, there. Sherlock cocked his head on one side.
“Charis? You were all cock-a-whoop about it when we were dancing the Volta. What happened afterwards? Why did you change clothes again?”
She ducked her chin and didn’t answer. She held her upper body tense, almost as if prepared to ward off a blow.
She’s afraid. And not of a killer in the dark. Of me. Which makes no sense at all, except –
“What happened after I saw you last?” Damn, that sounded much more threatening than he’d intended. He moved over to kneel beside her, extending a hand to take hers in his. It was cold and clammy. She almost whimpered at his touch. His eyes met John’s over her head.
“I’ll go and get you a glass of brandy, Charis. You need it.” Blessed John; if he couldn’t read a man’s profession in the calluses of his hand, he could at least read an unspoken plea to make himself plausibly scarce for a time.
As soon as John had shut the door behind him, leaving them alone (save for the corpse, who wasn’t in a position to comment), he slid his arm under Charis’ shoulders and pulled her into a sitting position. She flopped like a rag doll.
“What happened to Frances’ dress?”
“It got torn.” Her voice was breathy, barely more than a whisper. The tears were flowing, now.
“By the Viscount?” The sudden tension in her body gave him the answer.
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“Who said it was?”
“The nuns.” She paused, clearly sensing that this was not having the enlightening effect she might have hoped. “They said that – that we should wear our chastity like invisible armour.”
“Lacking combat experience, your nuns, evidently. Half the point of good armour is to persuade whoever’s thinking of attacking you to try someone less well-defended, instead.” Intuition dawned just a second too late. “He attacked you?”
She nodded; a tight, tense movement of her head, her eyes averted from him. Rage rose up, corrosive and overwhelming. Keeping his fury from spilling out before Charis took every iota of his self-control (all this time being wasted while a murderer walked the Palace, unhindered.)
“Tell me what happened. All of it.”
She stumbled out the story; it did not take long. The news of John’s intervention filled him with deep, desperate relief. It was if a good fairy had offered John one talent at which he would surpass all other men on the earth, and instead of opting – as most men would – for success in battle or the bedroom he had, with typical, unassuming John-ness ,simply asked for the ability to always be in the right place at the right time.
“I’m sorry,” Charis said, sniffling to a halt.
“You’re sorry? What on earth for?”
“I let it happen. The nuns said the way a girl walked, the way she carried her head – if she kept her thoughts fixed on the Virgin –”
“Charis, don’t take advice from a blind man on archery and don’t take advice from a nun on how to fend off sexual advances. The Viscount saw that blue dress, thought you were Frances and assumed he could therefore demand favours which you were in no position either to refuse or revenge. Not your fault. His.”
Her eyes were dark with shock. He leant forward so their faces were bare inches apart.
“Listen. As soon as the current crisis passes, it will be my very great pleasure to demonstrate to that presumptuous imbecile that cucullus non facit monachum. Not a maxim he’ll have heard. No abbeys in his country.” Realisation hit with a sudden blinding flash; he cursed his stupidity. He scrambled to his feet. As he pushed open the door John – his sense of timing impeccable as ever – appeared on the threshold, carrying a bottle and glasses.
“Where are you going?”
“To find Frances Pickering.”
“You think she’s in danger?”
“Oh, she’s certainly in danger. The interesting question is whether she’s also a murderer.”
He swept through the door, letting it fall shut behind him, before a second thought struck him. He opened the door just a crack and craned his head back round. “Cucullus non facit monachum. But if it walks like a duck and looks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”
He ignored the goose-walking-over-grave feeling Charis’ and John’s eerily similar looks of bafflement gave him, and clicked his tongue against his teeth.
“You really should learn English. Both of you. Not being gifted linguists themselves, the English are all too prone to assume that no-one within earshot understands their barbaric tongue except when they choose to issue orders in it. Earlier this evening, I heard Lady Wardale boasting to her husband that the Duke of Collompton’s daughter had dismissed Mrs Pickering as her chaperone and chosen to put herself under her care. “
“So what?” John enquired.
“Have you seen either Frances or Elizabeth Pickering since the body was discovered? I haven’t. Frances can’t have fled the Palace in her underclothes – not without occasioning some comment, certainly. And yet the dress she was last seen wearing is now on the corpse – showing every sign of having been laced up in haste, by someone not trained as a tiring woman.”
“And the body –”
“I suspect is that of Lady Diana Scoton. I shall ask her brother to identify it. John, will you stay here while he does so? Charis, you may prefer to be elsewhere. Feel free to explain why to John; I can assure you he will feel exactly as I do.”
Her eyes were very resolute, though her face was pale and there was a suspicious wobble about her lower lip. “No. The Viscount may be a loathsome individual, but his father – and Lady Diana’s – is a power in a Government whose friendship we need. The formalities must be observed. If the King remains absent and you are elsewhere engaged, I have to meet him. Though – ” Her tone faltered for the first time. “I would be obliged if you could ask Lady Wardale to accompany the Viscount.”
He nodded – it was almost a salute – and let the door fall shut behind him.
“Oh, dear,” Lady Wardale said. Beside her, the Viscount swayed on his feet in a way which to John’s experienced eye meant he was a hair’s-breadth from passing out. Gondal’s had been a harder-drinking Court than Gaaldine’s, always (and would be worse now under the Pretender; abstemious himself, he’d always found it both amusing and profitable to encourage the vices of other men). John’s skills had been required by dozens of similar half-baked young aristocrats after Gondal’s Court festivities; inhaled vomit, wounds from drunken brawls, men half-drowned from falling in the Palace ponds, the incident with the hedgehog he preferred not to recall too closely –
If only the demands of state and his own physician’s oath had not prevented him, the treatment John really wanted to apply to the Viscount at this moment was to sober him up using the roughest techniques he’d learnt in the field and then geld him with a rusty pair of boar shears.
Charis stood ramrod-straight and set-faced, like a young officer in the honour guard at a state funeral. His heart swelled with pride.
“Sir,” John said, his face wooden, “I regret to inform you that the body of a young woman has been discovered in the Palace. We have reason to believe it may be your sister, Lady Diana Scoton. Might I ask you to undertake the painful duty of identification?”
The Viscount blinked, glassily, at him. John sighed. “Allow me, sir.” He indicated the stretcher on the floor of the room, covered by a white linen sheet.
“Oh, this is so horrible,” Lady Wardale moaned. “I can’t bear to look.”
“Please, if you would prefer to sit down, I should advise it.” Charis indicated a sofa. Lady Wardale sank down and then gave an alarmed squeak as she realised Charis had remained standing.
“No, please,” Charis said, repressing Lady Wardale’s attempt to rise again with a decisive gesture. “I insist.”
“But I don’t understand, ma’am,” Lady Wardale said, averting her gaze resolutely from the corner with the stretcher. “Why do we not know if that poor, unfortunate girl is Lady Diana or not? You met her myself, ma’am, at my little tea-party at the Legation. Such a beautiful girl, her features would be immediately remembered by anyone who had seen her for a moment –”
John coughed. “Before proceeding with the identification, sir, I should warn you that the face has been much disfigured by violence.”
“Oh, dear God!” Lady Wardale gulped. “There must be a monster abroad!” Then, with an intelligence John had not expected, she added, “But if not her face, then her dress. Such a distinctive colour, and she wore it with such –”
She came to an awkward stop.
“Indeed she did,” Charis said. “However, it was a masked ball. It is far from uncommon at such affairs for women to arrange to exchange dresses, so that even their own party may not recognise them until the signal to unmask is given.” She stood, if anything, a little straighter, looking the Viscount full in the face. “I myself did so, with Frances Pickering.”
The Viscount started opening and shutting his mouth like a carp. With regret, John thought it was probably the prelude to vomiting rather than the realisation that he had committed an offence punishable by being torn apart between four horses. Technically, at least. The King would, probably, veto any attempt to put it into practice. First, because the political consequences of an English Duke losing both his legitimate children by violence in Gaaldine’s Palace would be insupportable. Secondly, because it was undoubtedly the sort of thing the King would consider made Gaaldine look uncivilised in the eyes of powers such as France.
“Could you say, sir, if your sister possessed some identifying mark you could recognise?”
The Viscount still seemed unable to say anything. John moved forwards.
“Well, sir, you will just have to see what you can. Prepare yourself.”
He moved back the sheet. That was the moment when the Viscount did vomit. John grabbed his shoulders and jerked him backwards to prevent the corpse being contaminated, something which would undoubtedly have had Sherlock throwing all his support behind the torn-apart-by-horses party. Fortunately, the front of the Viscount’s doublet caught the worst of the problem.
“My condolences,” Charis said, with a lack of sincerity so transparent that Lady Wardale jerked her head up with shock. “The sight is an appalling one, is it not? I almost swooned myself when I witnessed it.”
With a little whimper, the Viscount subsided onto the floor. He was, John noted with regret, breathing, although he displayed no sign of consciousness.
“Oh, dear,” Lady Wardale said again.
One of the attendant guards went to the door and spoke low words to someone outside. Within seconds servitors arrived to mop the marble floor.
“We shall have to send for Lady Diana’s tiring woman,” Charis said. “She will be with the other personal attendants. She will be the most likely person to know what her distinguishing characteristics are.”
“My dear!” Lady Wardale said, and then gulped. “I mean, ma’am. A tiring woman? Is that a proper suggestion?”
“It is the Crown Princess’s suggestion,” John said repressively. “See to it, one of you. Also, find someone who can assist the Viscount to his lodgings. His personal secretary was with him in the card-room earlier; he’s probably the best person.”
Much to everyone’s relief, Grace Vinson turned out to be a phlegmatic, competent person; the type, John diagnosed, who got on with the job at hand in a crisis and saved tears and collapse until later, when they would do no harm.
Through the medium of Lady Wardale, she explained that Lady Diana had had a ragged half-healed cut on the sole of her left foot, caused by treading on a shard of pottery in her room three weeks earlier, and a mole on the nape of her neck. Both blemishes were present. The tiring woman added that she would, in any event, have recognised the lace on the corpse’s shift anywhere, having been required to unpick it and reapply it three separate times until it met with Lady Diana’s approval. That settled the question of identity.
There remained the issue of the Viscount. John rolled him over onto his side, reflecting with savage satisfaction that in the absence of witchcraft that was the last time the Viscount would be able to wear that doublet. He was just contemplating the merits of dousing the man’s head in a bucket when the door was flung wide and Sherlock, trailed by one of Charis’ maids, strode through.
He said something in English to Grace Vinson, who dropped him a slightly bemused curtsey and allowed herself to be led off somewhere by the maid. Then he turned to John and Charis.
“We’ve found Frances Pickering,” he said, speaking a fast, idiomatic Gondalian which Lady Wardale, quite plainly, could make nothing of. “In one of the closets near the main ballroom.”
Charis uttered a quick, sharp gasp of horror. He reached out and squeezed her hand.
“No; she’s safe and well. Once I knew about the lacing on the corpse’s dress, it wasn’t difficult to guess where she must be. But I had to make sure I found her, before the murderer did.” He looked at the battered thing on the stretcher. “That little brat talked her into swapping clothes and, once she was safely dressed, abandoned Frances in her stays and shift. No way of getting into that damned duck dress without help. I do love having a thoroughly unpleasant victim. It opens up so many more possibilities.”
“I’m sure Lady Diana will be devastated to have been of service to you.” John said. “So this formal identification charade was simply to keep us out of your way while you hunted for Frances Pickering?”
“Certainly not.” Sherlock gestured at the recumbent Viscount. “It was to keep him out of my way. At least, until I’ve had a word with Mycroft about his anti-duelling laws. My brother, with his usual inconvenient timing, remains absent. He’s always had a bad habit of holing up in some secret lair part-way through Palace functions, but you think he’d come out now there’s something interesting happening.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t want to spoil your fun,” John said acidly. “And in the King’s continued absence you might, perhaps, offer the Family’s formal condolences to Lady Wardale on the death of her charge. In a language she can understand.”
“Of course.” He turned, bowed, and, in Latin, said, “I very much regret that I must formally apprise you of the death of Lady Diana Scoton. We offer you Gaaldine’s most profound sympathy in your loss.. Be assured, ma’am, that we shall track down the perpetrator and that the King’s justice will be carried out to its fullest extent once we have done so. I apologise that we cannot at present release the body into your care for tending –”
Lady Wardale’s face betrayed that she had not even considered the possibility of having to take the corpse home with her from the Palace. She recovered herself commendably.
“I understand perfectly, sir. In any event, I believe I should ascertain the wishes of Viscount Dalgleish as to how his sister’s remains are to be disposed once you are in a position to release them.” She looked down at the heap of misery on the floor and sounded resigned as she added, “When, that is, he is more himself.”
“Never more himself than he is at the moment,” Sherlock muttered. “Indeed, one might consider he is currently displaying his most pleasant aspect.”
Rather fortunately, at this moment the door opened again to admit Hatherleigh, who looked worlds different from the dapper, fulsome young man who had received them at the English party’s lodgings. His hair was dishevelled and he was panting, as though he had run all the way from wherever the message had reached him.
“May I beg to know what has happened, your grace?” he burst out, as soon as he entered the room. “There are such rumours flying around and – oh.” He caught sight of the body on the stretcher and his face went an indescribable colour. “Good God, her face! Who can have done such a thing to her poor face?”
“We are engaged in trying to establish that very matter,” Sherlock said smoothly. “Do you, incidentally, recognise whose body it is?”
Hatherleigh looked at him. “I – ah, the rumours suggested –”
“Lay rumour to one side for the moment. Court gossip is speedy but frequently very inaccurately directed. You should hear what the Palace rumour mills say about me.”
The secretary’s glance flicked, uneasily, from Sherlock to Charis. Almost as if on cue, Charis rose, her arm linked in Lady Wardale’s.
“I shall return Lady Wardale to her party and say farewell to them on our behalf, if that is in accordance with your wishes,” she said, dropping a formal curtsey to Sherlock.
He bowed in response. “Admirably so. After which, I commend you to your chambers. The night has been long and arduous and you require your rest.”
She curtseyed again. “A sound suggestion. Good night.”
The door swished shut behind them. John had never been so glad of the control his years of card-playing had given to his features. There was a certain quirk at the corner of Sherlock’s mouth which suggested he was more than aware of John’s reaction.
Hatherleigh blinked, plainly flummoxed. Then he turned back to the business at hand.
“Might I, sir, take the liberty of checking a point?”
Sherlock made a “help yourself” gesture, and Hatherleigh dropped to his knees beside the body on the stretcher, moving aside the skirts just enough to reveal the feet. He scrutinised their soles for a second and then raised his head.
“My worst fears are confirmed, sir. I dread having to write to the Duke with the news.”
“You will write the letter, undoubtedly, but surely her brother will sign it?”
An odd, calculating expression spread across Hatherleigh’s face. “You may not be aware, sir, but the Duke has been my most kind patron for many years. My late father did him a signal service during the wars in our country.”
“Oh, it was your father.” Sherlock’s pause was timed to a nicety. “To whom you owe the Duke’s patronage, I mean. When we met the other day, I confess to wondering how a man having the obscure origins you claimed had obtained such an elevated position as Viscount Dalgliesh’s private secretary. Notwithstanding your self-evident talents.” He paused again. “Regrettable, how the world wags, isn’t it? The slight accident of birth elevates one man above another, when the second would have done so much more with the worldly gifts the first man will simply squander.”
He looked, pointedly, at the bundle of misery on the floor. “You must by now have developed a practised technique for returning the Viscount to his lodgings when he is – overcome with exhaustion. Might I ask you to make use of it now? Feel free to avail yourself of any assistance from the Palace servants as you may need. We’ll speak further in the morning, but I have more pressing interviews to conduct. Farewell for the moment.”
He whisked out of the room. John shrugged, helplessly, in the direction of Hatherleigh and followed in Sherlock’s wake. He did not speak until they were alone in the small writing room adjacent to the library, which it seemed Sherlock had chosen as his base for operations.
“Could you please tell me what the Hell that was? And what was going on with Charis?”
“Hand signals,” Sherlock said succinctly. “I needed to get rid of Lady Wardale.”
“Hand signals,” John echoed. “You have a code?”
“Of course we do. I realised shortly after the wedding that the possibilities marriage opened up were enormous.”
“I do so wish I could stop myself adding, ‘For deception and obfuscation’ to that otherwise admirable-sounding husbandly sentiment.”
“You know me too well, that’s the problem.” Sherlock’s smile, especially in the soft candle-light of the writing room, as ever had the power to make his heart turn over. John gritted his teeth.
“No; the problem is the murky depths I’m discovering in Charis. What, if you care to tell me, was behind that sudden display of coolly correct wifely submissiveness?”
“As you know perfectly well, there’s a strand in Court gossip, which holds that ‘coolly correct’ describes the precise state of our relations.”
John fought his sudden urge to punch something. “Idiots. Empty-headed, prattling idiots.”
“It’s sometimes useful to give idiots something they can choose to think of as evidence. It flatters their vanity and distracts their attention. Hatherleigh isn’t an idiot, John, but he has a blind spot.”
“Lord Wardale’s secretary?”
“Quite so. Philip Derwent. Who has no regard for anything except Philip Derwent’s advancement, no matter what that takes. And whose own blind spot is his settled conviction that anyone to whom he chooses to make himself agreeable must find him irresistible. It’s a dangerous combination, the two of them; each reinforces the other’s faults.”
He flopped carelessly down on one of the sofas, his hands steepled beneath his chin. “Time to start questioning the rest of the English party. If the attack on Lady Diana was not that of an incompetent assassin aiming for Charis –”
“You still think it could be?” John demanded, the fear that always rested barely sleeping beneath his ribs leaping up and threatening to take him by the throat. “And you let her go to her rooms?”
“At present, I think it a small but real possibility. And no, of course she hasn’t gone to her rooms. Hand signals, John. She’ll be in my suite by now, with half my guard watching the routes in and a honed poignard beneath the pillow. To say nothing of one or two other nasty surprises for anyone who tries to break in there. Among which, I might mention, will be Charis herself. I don’t expect to see my own bed tonight, but that’s no reason she shouldn’t make use of it. Anyway, as I say, time to start questioning the rest of the English party. Sir Hector is a pompous individual, highly conscious of his own importance. He will therefore expect us to call him first.”
“So who are we proposing to call?”
“Who but the party’s courier? Who knows everywhere they have been and everything they have spent.”
John snorted. “Better, if I know couriers.”
“In this particular courier’s case, most certainly. John; kindly pass the word for the Conte d’Imola.”