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Chapter 7 - The Curious Incident of the Knight in the Library by A.J. Hall

The Conte d’Imola strode through the double doors into the writing room. Despite himself, John found his eye tracing the lines of the Conte’s body, the curious balance between the almost feminine flare of his hips and the free athleticism of those long limbs. His lustrous dark eyes and glossy black hair would have been the envy of any woman at the ball tonight, as would the sculptured alabaster brow and those peach-smooth cheeks.

Of course, as a medical man practising so close to the territories of the Sultan, John had encountered eunuchs before and felt nothing but pity for them. He’d never before encountered one of the legendary castrati of the Papal States, though. The Conte d’Imola had flitted through the capital over the last few days, a prurient buzz of commentary following him, but John had not previously been so close. Nor had he expected the Conte’s ambiguous presence to reach so deep within him, to excite some hidden, shameful part of his being, to stop his breath and set his heart thumping erratically.

Sherlock rose as the Conte approached.

“So,” he purred. “Not running away from my presence this time?”

“You summoned me to attend on you. How could I refuse a royal command?” The Conte’s speaking voice was a vibrant contralto, deeper than John had, sub-consciously, been expecting and with the control which betrayed the trained singer.

“I understood you were famous for it.”

“Perhaps it depends on the nature of the prince in question?”

“Not the nature of the command?”

“Yours – to command.” The Conte swept the deepest and most courtly of bows and then, with scarcely a break, rose and kissed Sherlock on both cheeks.

Sherlock smiled, took the Conte in his arms, and kissed him back with equal fervour. John suppressed a gasp; his eye went to the door which, mercifully, remained tight shut.

“Sherlock, what the –?”

“Won’t you introduce me to your friend, my sweet? Before an effluxion of blood into the brain snatches him from you in the prime of his – ah, his prime.”

“Irene, kindly stop that. John, may I introduce Miss Irene Adler? As you may have gathered, John, we are old – adversaries. We first met seven years ago when I was on a delicate diplomatic mission to Bohemia and she was on a distinctly indelicate mission to the same court.”

John gulped. “You – um – him – that is – her –”

“Yes; she’s currently posing as an Italian castrato acting as courier to Dr Atherton’s party. Irene, how did even you produce a story to explain the combination of your alleged condition and your title?”

“Long practice, sweetling. Besides, I have a large and varied acquaintance, and the man from whom I borrowed this particular life history had no further use for it.”

Something about the glitter in her eyes warned John not to press the point. “So, Miss Adler, what brings you to Gaaldine?”

Sherlock yawned. “Or, more bluntly, have you succeeded in making Rome too hot to hold you? I warned you last time about teasing Cardinals.”

“No. When I choose to retrace my steps, Rome will welcome me with open arms. Including those of at least one Cardinal. Since you ask, I’m here on a professional engagement.”

“Your other profession, I take it. Mycroft and I have tried our best, but it’s been an uphill struggle to bring the Terpsichorian arts to Gaaldine. The better class of theatrical managers are reluctant to risk their companies in the wilds. And our aristocrats would rather sport and gamble than encounter anything which requires them to use what passes for their brains. But my wife takes a keen interest in music. Charis may succeed in making opera fashionable with the Duchesses and Countesses where we have failed with the Dukes and Earls.”

“Yes, I heard a rumour in Rome you’d married, Sherlock, but you know what far-fetched tales drift about. No-one could have been more surprised than I when I arrived in the three kingdoms to discover it was actually true.”

“Thank you. Your congratulations mean a great deal to me. Do you wish to meet Charis? When we’ve got a little more leisure, I mean, not immediately. She’s had rather an awful night. And there is a murderer still at large; I fear we are all in danger of forgetting that.”

John’s jaw dropped. “You’re planning to introduce Charis to – um – “

“Miss Adler, John. I detest repeating myself. Why not? It’s not as if I’m the King of Bohemia. She’s not some embarrassing relic of my pre-marriage days. She hasn’t even been my mistress.”

“Even I doubted my ability to remain in character long enough to achieve that.”

“Thank you, Irene. I can assure you the feeling was mutual. So, who are you working for this time? If it’s the Pretender, I shall be forced to withdraw that invitation. Indeed, your continued liberty within this realm would become somewhat debateable.”

“Me, act for the Pretender? Have you met him?”

A sudden, unexpected silence. Then, in a flat, bereft voice which took John back twenty years, Sherlock said, “Briefly. Once.”

Irene’s head jerked up; she, too, had heard – whatever it was. “I’m not engaged with regard to your affairs. England’s paying me.”

“Good luck on collecting your fee. One obscure clerk in some deep-buried department of account and you’ll be whistling for your money for the next ten years. It’s happened before.”

“So I gather. Which is why I’ll take any lucrative sideline, provided it’s not in conflict with my mission.” She paused, and then added, very deliberately, “I was in Gondal less than a month ago and I am persuaded that you will find my observations of interest.”

“For that, you would definitely need to meet Charis. Not least, because you happened to be present for King Ambrosine’s funeral. It grieved her excessively that she could not attend. But I propose to offer you a rather more direct contract. I need to know everything about your party. And I will pay for that information.”

“And if that conflicts with my mission?”

“Then I’ll buy out your contract and James of England can get whatever’s left over.”

“No, Sherlock. I am not for sale.”

He gave an exasperated sigh. “You’ve chosen the wrong side. Time will show you.”

“It’s my side. Make the best of it.”

Sherlock paused, then nodded. “I suppose, I could expect no less of you, Irene. Tell me what you can.”

John coughed. “Sherlock, could we have a word?”

Sherlock nodded. “Irene, give us a quarter turn of the glass. Wait outside. If you see any of your party, give the impression you’re frightened to within an inch of your life.”

Irene lifted her chin, looking him straight in the eye. “If I truly were the Conte d’Imola, I would be terrified. With good reason. With limited exceptions, those in my party are not willing to show kindness to those they deem outsiders. When trouble comes, the first thought which occurs to Sir Hector is on whom he should pin the blame. Nor is he the only member of his party driven by thoughts of escape, or with secrets they would kill to protect.”

She turned to look at John. “I do not know who murdered Lady Diana Scoton, for your information. Though I certainly could have done so, twenty times over. She had a way of looking at people – I, of course, was a particular target of her contempt. But so was Grace, her tiring woman, whom she treated as a beast of burden, and Mrs Pickering, whom she was scheming to dismiss virtually from the moment she left Rome. But I wouldn’t have been such a fool as to kill Lady Diana here, of all places. Not with Sherlock in the Palace.”

There came a rapid patter of knocks on the door. Sherlock gestured to Irene and she became – John could not have said how - the Conte d’Imola again; a mixture of obsequiousness and defiance, putting on an unconvincing bold front to cover his terror.

“Come in,” Sherlock commanded, and Jonathan entered the room.

“Sir,” he began and then stopped, looking sidelong at the Conte d’Imola.

“Events have, it appears, moved on,” Sherlock said. “I shall not need to question you further this evening. Hold yourself ready to be summoned again in the morning. Goodnight.”

The Conte made a deeply theatrical bow and withdrew.

Having checked the door had closed properly, Jonathan said, “Sir, it’s as you said. Looks like the party in question has remembered what he’s forgotten. On his way there now, sir.”

“No danger of the butterfly escaping the net before I get there?”

Jonathan shook his head. “The lads on the staircase have their orders, sir.”

“Excellent. Then I’ll be on my way. John, I’ll leave you to deal with Sir Hector.”

“Me? But he’s expecting to see you.”

“Quite so. He will be affronted beyond bearing by my absence. So he’ll say a great deal more than he intends, and phrase it less carefully than he should. I’m relying on you, John. Note down everything of importance. And if you don’t think it’s important, note it down anyway.

“And you?”

“Me? I’ll be in the library.”

“This is intolerable,” Sir Hector said, for what John calculated must be the eighth time.

“It has been an extremely trying evening for us all,” John agreed. Sir Hector eyed him suspiciously.

“I demand to see the Crown Prince.”

John allowed an edge of ice to enter his voice. “His grace the Crown Prince is not at liberty to receive you.”

“But a madman has struck down Lady Diana Scoton in this very Palace. Questions will be asked at the very highest levels within the Government of my country.”

“Eventually, once the news reaches them, yes. But I can assure you, questions are already being asked at the highest levels of Government in this country. Principally by the Crown Prince. Hence his unavailability at present. He is investigating a promising line of enquiry. He has taken the burden of the investigation into his own hands.”

Sir Hector – whom John suspected of being unable to take his own privates into his hands without a confirmatory memo in triplicate – gulped and took a pinch of snuff. “And what might his preliminary conclusions be?”

“I am not at liberty to divulge them.” Which would have been equally true had John known anything, and so perfectly safe (as well as suitably pompous) by way of answer. “Have you any idea of anyone who might have had reason to bear a grudge against Lady Diana?”

A furtive, fugitive expression flitted across Sir Hector’s face. His voice, too, might have been just a little too emphatic as he said, “Certainly not. She was a charming, beautiful, high-spirited girl with the world at her feet. Who could have dreamt of bearing her any malice?”

Every other girl in her vicinity, on that showing. John could hear his sister Harriet’s forthright voice as clearly as if she was in the room, not two hundred miles to the north. He made his voice stern.

“Sir Hector, this is not the time to be overly delicate. When someone dies by violence, the first thing which needs to be forgotten is any nonsense about ‘not speaking ill of the dead’. Someone did indeed feel ill-will towards Lady Diana – sufficient to kill her. Therefore we need to know who that might have been. Try to think.”

The Conte d’Imola’s words swirled around John’s head. I, of course, was a particular target of her contempt. But so was Grace, her tiring woman, whom she treated as a beast of burden, and Mrs Pickering, whom she was scheming to dismiss virtually from the moment she left Rome.

Sir Hector, of course, was Mrs Pickering’s brother. Could he, John, have mentioned Harriet’s name, in parallel circumstances? Only, he thought, to Sherlock, who would undoubtedly have known already, and so didn’t count.

After a moment Sir Hector said stiffly, “Lady Diana had from time to time expressed concern that the Conte d’Imola might be taking advantage of the party. She also believed that he – well, I suppose someone like that – it’s to be expected he’d be somewhat strange –”

“Could you be a little more explicit?” John suggested, when Sir Hector had, apparently, managed to tie himself up in verbal knots so effectively as to preclude further speech.

Sir Hector’s face was puce with embarrassment. “Lady Diana suspected that he’d been rummaging through the women of the party’s baggage – to be precise their – ah – smallclothes.”

Fighting the impulse to guffaw took a major effort on John’s part. Even if he had not known the Conte d’Imola’s true identity, the idea of him rummaging through an adolescent girl’s underwear seemed somehow irresistibly funny.

“How very disturbing,” he managed eventually. “And when did she raise this concern with you?”

Any lingering interest he might have had in the story dissipated abruptly at the news that the story had been put about by Lady Diana within the first two or three days after their leaving Rome, where the Conte had joined their party on letters of recommendation furnished by one of Dr Atherton’s numerous correspondents. Elizabeth Pickering had, apparently, investigated the business and reached the conclusion that Lady Diana was probably making the whole story up either to make herself seem important or to contrive the Conte’s dismissal.

Which, John reflected, was doubtless an accurate assessment but could hardly have contributed to good feeling between the two women. He wondered, yet again, where Mrs Pickering might have gone. She’d been ignominiously dismissed from her position as chaperone that very evening – would she have simply gone back to her lodgings? Or hung around the Palace, angry and confused, possibly contemplating a confrontation with the girl, an appeal to her better nature?

That might explain the girl’s presence in the library. Lady Diana should, surely, have been too alert to the danger to her reputation to agree to an assignation with a man. A woman – her own former chaperone – posed no such danger.

He allowed the discussion with Sir Hector to wrap up in woolly pleasantries. The English knight was palpably of no interest in this regard. His sister, on the other hand – as soon as Sherlock returned John would impress upon him the importance of finding Elizabeth Pickering without delay.

For a man who had been marched into the writing room between two of Sherlock’s armsmen, Dr Atherton seemed remarkably unperturbed. Perhaps he could not believe a man with whom he had corresponded so long and so amiably could truly prove a threat to him. Unlike John, he seemed oblivious to Sherlock’s knife-edge tension; the sense of controlled fury boiling beneath his composed exterior, a tension that must only be increased by Dr Atherton’s startling likeness to the King. Instead he seemed to be merely curious as to the process of logic which had led to this outcome.

“But what, sir, caused you to look for my handkerchief in the library in the first place?”

“From the angle of the blows to Lady Diana’s face, I calculated that the person wielding the poker must have been kneeling or crouching beside her body. Also, there was a small stain of lamp-oil on the floor by the body’s head. When I tried to recreate the scene, the lamp I placed in that position illuminated the gold lettering of a book on the shelf which was exactly on my eye-line. Earl Rivers’ Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers. That book bore every sign of having been pulled from the shelf and replaced in haste.”

John coughed. “Couldn’t the librarian or his assistants have disturbed the book? Or simply not straightened the shelf since the last reader?”

Sherlock grinned; a feral, menacing expression. “You have met the Court librarian? If his assistants regularly left the shelves in that state – especially before a function – then the city hangman’s appropriations for rope would need to be trebled. No, that book had been recently perused. And, since it’s in English –”

“Ah. I was wondering.”

“The books on that shelf are all rare incunabula in English. That’s why we put them low down and out of sight. Only a handful of people who have access to them can read them, and even fewer want to. That immediately narrowed my field of suspects, especially since, from the angle, the book would only have been likely to catch the eye of a man of my height.”

In John’s opinion, Dr Atherton was an inch or two taller than Sherlock (another point in which he resembled the King) but he felt this might not, perhaps, be the moment to insist on strict accuracy.

“You believed someone decided to take a quick look at a book which had piqued his interest while he was disfiguring a dead body?

“There’s little I’d put past a true bibliophile.”

Dr Atherton, almost unbelievably, looked flattered.

“However, the one thing I would not believe is that the man who might be distracted by a tempting book in such circumstances would dream of contaminating it even by the hand’s ordinary grease and dirt.”

“Certainly not,” Dr Atherton said. “It was printed in 1477! I would, even in ordinary circumstances, have changed my gloves, and in this case, the state of my hands –” He looked down at them and, for the first time, his genial expression wavered.

“Quite so,” Sherlock said, and there was something in his tone which chilled John’s blood. “Allow me to reconstruct your actions, Dr Atherton. You entered the library shortly before midnight. For obvious reasons, you wished to avoid being present in the ballroom when the signal was given to unmask.”

“Obvious reasons, indeed.” He assumed an expression of somewhat precarious dignity. “I should have avoided Gaaldine altogether. And, certainly, once in Gaaldine, avoided mingling in Court circles. But curiosity, I’m afraid, got the better of me. But – for the credit of my family – this was not a face I should have shown in these parts.”

“And, also out of curiosity, Dr Atherton, is your mother still alive?”

“She is indeed. A pillar of our small Oxford society. Anyone acquainted with us will attest she has devoted the autumn of her years to acts of charity.”

“Anyone acquainted with my late uncle might suggest similar impulses must have governed the springtime of her days, also.”

“Perhaps, if we could return to the main issue?” John said.

“Yes, indeed,” Sherlock said. “So, Dr Atherton, once in the library you stumbled across Lady Diana’s corpse. What did you observe? Evidence only, not surmises.”

The appeal to the detached observer in him seemed to work. He started to tick off points on his fingers. “Cyanosed face, bulging eyes. Marks on the neck. Manual strangulation as the cause of death, without a doubt. No – ah – disturbance of the garments. Very little sign of any resistance.”

“Could Lady Diana have mustered much?”

Dr Atherton shook his head. “Not if taken by surprise – for example, by someone in her party, whom she knew well. She was of a sanguine not an energetic type and by that stage in the evening would have consumed a considerable amount of wine.”

“Had. Nothing conditional about it. So, what then? For reasons best known to yourself – we’ll come on to those in a moment – you decided against raising the alarm. Instead, you took the poker and set about rendering the corpse unrecognisable.”

The memory of the sick horror which had assailed him in the library forced John to speak. “Lady Diana’s face was almost destroyed. What kind of philosopher does a thing like that?”

Sherlock stretched out a calming hand; its warm weight rested on John’s arm. His voice dripped vitriol. “You must forgive my friend. As court physician, he was one of the earliest witnesses of your handiwork. He assumed – as you intended anyone stumbling on the scene to assume – that the body was that of my wife Charis. A woman John has known since she was born.”

“What else could I do? I hoped to deflect suspicion away from our party, by suggesting that Lady Diana had been killed by mistake, and the assassin disfigured the body to conceal his blunder. I knew the deception could not last long, but I had to buy time. It’s not something I’m proud of, you know.”

Sherlock’s eyes were chips of ice. “You shouldn’t be. Anyway, you knelt by the corpse to carry out your task and, just as your task was almost finished, caught sight of a rare volume which you had long hoped to read.”

“Earl Rivers was the most fascinating thinker,” Dr Atherton said, his voice wistful.

“Who ended his days beneath the headsman’s axe, as a result of an ill-thought-out excursion into politics.”

“Sherlock, time’s getting on. What then?”

Sherlock looked at Dr Atherton. “You covered your hand with your handkerchief to protect the book. You took the book off the shelf meaning only to steal a quick glance but quickly became engrossed, and were only recalled to yourself by a sound outside the door which made you fear someone was about to enter. You thrust the book back onto the shelf, discarded the poker by the body and made for the staircase to the upper gallery. On the way, you realised your handkerchief bore highly incriminating stains. There being no fire in the room, and apprehensive that you might be subjected to a search, you dropped it into the vase by the staircase foot, only realising subsequently that the handkerchief bore your monogram.”

“As accurate as if you had been there. That really is quite remarkable,” Dr Atherton said, shaking his head in wonder.

John thought so too, though in his case it was the sheer idiocy of which the highly intelligent were capable on which he remarked. Not, as it happened, for the first time.

“One question, only, Dr Atherton,” Sherlock said.

The scholar inclined his head in acquiescence. “Yes, sir?”

“What was your object in disfiguring Lady Diana’s face? Especially since it must have occurred to you that any serious student of the human body would be able to tell that it had occurred some time after her death.”

He smiled; an odd, sad little smile. “While I knew one such student was in the city – indeed, in the Palace itself – I made a blunder unworthy of a man of science. I assumed that you would not choose to get your own hands dirty. Palace guards are not, in my experience, a class of men overly aware of the niceties of post-death changes in the body, or intimately familiar with the De Motu Cordis.”

“You really weren’t thinking clearly, were you, Dr Atherton? Given how long we have corresponded. But again, what motivated you?”

The scholar sighed. “An impulse to protect that unhappy woman. And to shield her daughter from the shame and disgrace of her mother’s crime.”

Sherlock leaned forward, steepling his hands beneath his chin. “You believe Elizabeth Pickering to be Lady Diana’s killer?”

“Who else?” Dr Atherton waved a hand in an explanatory gesture. “Motive – means – the inherent instability of the female sex, exacerbated no doubt in Mrs Pickering’s case by the approach of the climacteric – they warned me before I left England that it would be the women of the party who would be the trouble. I was foolish enough to believe that whatever trouble they might stir up, I could remain unaffected by it. Philosophy would be my armour.”

John cleared his throat. “Were you aware of the bad blood between Lady Diana and Mrs Pickering?”

The scholar pursed his lips. “Philosophy can only take a man so far. I have full command of my ears, and the row about Lady Diana’s choice of dress for this evening could have been heard in Glasstown.”

“I rather think you knew more than that,” Sherlock said. “At the time when you stumbled across Lady Diana’s dead body in the library you were aware she had earlier placed herself under the chaperonage of Lady Wardale. I think, too, you were also aware of Sir Hector’s decision to dismiss Mrs Pickering and her daughter from his party, in an effort to heal the breach with Lady Diana and protect his own position with the Duke.”

Dr Atherton nodded. “I had hoped we – Sir Hector and I – could have dealt with this quietly. I do not believe Mrs Pickering could have been in sound mind at the time. That was what motivated my obfuscation. I am sorry.”

“That you did it, or that it failed to answer?” Sherlock did not allow him a chance to respond. “I think, Dr Atherton, I shall be corresponding with the Royal Society. I have admired the papers you presented there, in particular the meticulous beauty of your experimental method, and wished affairs of state had permitted me to be present to hear you deliver them.”

“You flatter me, sir.”

“Apparently. The man sitting in this room before me, the man who mutilated a dead girl’s face in a settled belief – based on very little empirical data – that he knew who had killed her – I cannot reconcile that man with the author of those papers. Not, at least, without assuming he had a more than commonly able assistant. Tell me, how long have you been using Frances Pickering as your devil?”

“Amanuensis, sir. That I’ll concede. She writes an admirably clear hand and my close sight is not what it was. Maybe, too, some assistance on mechanical calculations and on the routine taking and noting of observations. But only under my closest supervision.”

John expected Sherlock to challenge this; the curl of his lip suggested disbelief. Instead, he merely said, “Well, Dr Atherton, that would seem to be all we can take forward now. Don’t leave the capital, will you? I like my guard to keep in training, but I disapprove of having to send them haring around the country unnecessarily.”

After the door had closed behind him, Sherlock let out a long sigh. “God save me from imbeciles and time-wasters. All I could have read from the corpse irrevocably erased, and for what? Because Dr Atherton chose to leap to conclusions.”

“Just because he leapt to them, doesn’t make them necessarily wrong,” John said, hitching himself comfortably on the arm of the settle. “After all, Elizabeth Pickering did have good grounds for hating Lady Diana, she could have had time to kill her – “

“Lady Diana didn’t die earlier than Anthea’s arrival at the party, if we believe Frances Pickering’s story.”

“And do we?”

“Well, there are plenty of reasons a girl might end up stripped to her underclothes in a closet at a Palace ball –”

“‘Plenty’ strikes me as pushing it. ‘One or two outstandingly obvious’ would be nearer the mark.”

“John, you’d be surprised. But, anyway, while I take nothing on trust, the circumstantial evidence is reasonably strong. Anthea – according to both Anthea and the person with whom she was having her intimate pre-ball supper – could hardly have entered the ballroom much before eleven. But Lady Diana’s blood had ceased to flow some time before Dr Atherton bashed her face to bits with the poker, which on his account – again, supported by circumstantial evidence – happened just before the signal to unmask was given at midnight. And if anyone in the Palace saw Elizabeth Pickering after eleven, they’re not saying. Which is, of course, the most interesting thing about the whole business.”

“Why? Strangulation of that type would only take a moment or two, so a tight timetable is a very different thing from an impossible one. If Mrs Pickering had killed the girl, trying to make herself scarce would be the obvious reaction.”

“Trying? That, yes. But succeeding, in becoming invisible, in the Palace? When it’s me asking? I can think of only one explanation which adequately accounts for that. And if I’m right – well, then this game has taken a truly unexpected turn. “

His eyes danced with mischief, but John knew from bitter experience that enquiring further would be futile. If they were all spared, he would no doubt find out in due course. Until then, he would have to contain his soul in patience.