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Chapter 8 - The Curious Incident of the Knight in the Library by A.J. Hall

Elizabeth looked at the beautifully arranged flowers the manservant had brought and turned the note which had come with them over and over in her fingers.

It grieves me more than I can express to learn that an evening which brought me such exquisite delight should, unbeknownst to us both, also have contained such horror. Be assured, my lady, that you are always in my thoughts. Whatever means I possess to lighten your burdens in these troubled times I put, unequivocally, at your disposal. If you need to reach me urgently, a note left at the Marsh Isles Inn, by St Oneysimos’s shrine, under cover to the landlord but sealed with the enclosed will bring help as speedily as thought may contrive.

The seal enclosed was a cylinder of onyx, carved intaglio with a device which after a little scrutiny Elizabeth identified as a badger carrying an outsized holly-leaf in its mouth. She allowed her fingers to caress it before she dropped it into her pocket, together with the note.

In all that long, drear morning, the only ray of brightness had been a few scribbled words penned by a man she had met only yesterday and in whose arms she had wantonly lain for the best part of the night.

Lain and laughed while a murderer – his villainy concealed behind a carnival mask - stole through the brilliantly lit ballrooms of the Palace to strangle a young girl and batter her face to a bloody wreck.

So far Frances and Grace had sobbed continuously on each other’s shoulders, exchanging wild tales from the winter fireside about rapes and disembowelments, until Elizabeth had been hard put not to box both their ears. They feared a masked stranger, a faceless monster, a foreign ogre. Lurking at the back of Elizabeth’s mind, though, was a deeper and more pungent fear.

What if the murderer lurks among those with whom we have broken bread over so many weeks and months?

The door opened and she looked up. Hector, his face not just the sour-milk colour of yesterday but covered in a cold sheen of sweat, stood framed in the arch, not meeting her eyes. A sound like a throat being cleared came from behind him. He started, and then withdrew onto the landing, no more than a couple of paces from the door but as seemingly as far as if he were still in England.

Two guards, dressed in the Palace livery, strode past him and took up stance either side of the doorway. Past them strode a third man. He was not someone who would stand out in a crowd, being of average height with a bland, doughy face and greasy black hair, cut in an unflattering style. Despite his appearance, he carried a cold chill into the room. Elizabeth did not mistake him for anyone other than an man of power.

“You are, I believe, Mrs Pickering?” he enquired, in a precise, clipped Latin.

“And you, sir?” she enquired. “You would appear to have the advantage of me?”

He gathered in both the guards by eye, as if sharing a private joke. The expressions on all three of them made her stomach turn. Nevertheless, she was a lady – the events of last night notwithstanding – and was owed the courtesy of that status.

“I requested your name, sir. And, if you would be so good, an explanation of your business. This is, as you will be aware, a house of mourning. We suffered an inconceivable tragedy last night and there are many claims on my time as a result.”

“None so pressing as mine, ma’am.” There was a slight emphasis on the word “pressing” and one of the guards – improbable as it was that he understood the language – half-choked back a laugh. “Andrew Dimmock, head of Palace Security. I and my – colleagues – have business with you this morning. You must come with us.”

“Palace security? But I had understood his grace the Crown Prince to have conduct of the investigation –”

Dimmock’s face looked, abruptly, as if someone had caught him by the throat. Elizabeth had not presided over so many Oxford dinners hosted by her brother for the Fellows of St Jerome’s to be unable to spot professional jealousy when she saw it. It gave her the smallest possible flicker of hope.

“The Crown Prince,” Dimmock choked out, “was gracious enough to interest himself last night, when I was unfortunately indisposed. However, murder is not a matter for gentlemen of the court to treat as a diversion to pick up and put down as it suits them. And, Mrs Pickering, in any event I understand the Crown Prince has not attempted to question you?”

A betraying red flush spread across her face. “Why should he? I left the ball early and returned to these lodgings. I was not aware that Lady Diana had been murdered until the rest of the party arrived home, some considerable time later.”

“Tell me, have you any witness to your movements last night?”

“A palace servant escorted me home.” That, at least, was true, if incomplete.

“A servant as to whose name you did not enquire and whose features you did not remark, no doubt.” Dimmock’s cold smile broadened. “I must invite you to accompany me elsewhere for questioning.”

She caught the sound of an indrawn breath from the landing and, despite the cold dread which threatened to render her limbs incapable of movement, she found a warm spark of anger. What had Hector thought these men were here for? A Duke’s daughter lay dead; the English Envoy’s wife had failed in her chaperonage of the girl; a royal Palace had been stained with blood. Obviously all anyone wanted was a quick, clean solution and what better than an extorted confession from someone who had quarrelled with the girl in front of umpteen witnesses yesterday?

Elizabeth rose to her feet. The slight weight of her pocket bumping against her hip reminded her that she was not, after all, wholly friendless here.

“I need to write a note before I leave. As I said, my duties are many and I, too, may not pick them up and drop them at convenience. “

Dimmock walked across the room and gripped her wrist; not painfully, but with promise of pain if she struggled. “No notes. Anything you need to convey, you may tell Sir Hector, in the hearing of us all.”

Her last frail hope dashed, then. She nodded, as if the prohibition were of no moment to her, and walked onto the landing, head held high. Hector started forward, as if to speak, but she brushed past him. The Conte d’Imola was ascending the stairs, eyes wide with shock and enquiry, and in this crisis she trusted more to the courier than to her own kin.

“These men are guards, from the palace,” she said, conscious of the need to convey as much as possible in the few words she was likely to be allowed. “They wish to question me about Lady Diana’s death. I do not know when I shall be at liberty to return. Look after our interests as best you can until I do. You have all the accounts and – here – ” She unloosed her girdle and slipped her pocket off it, holding it out to the Conte. “Take my keys.”

“These imbeciles think you may be the culprit?” he said, in Gaaldine, making no effort to disguise his incredulity. One of the guards, without warning, delivered an open-handed slap which left a reddening welt across the Conte’s face.

“We’ll have no insolence here. Hold your tongue, or you’re next.”

The Conte rounded on Hector, in a blur of velvet ferocity, speaking English now, an English so pure he could have been born and raised in her native Oxford. “And you, you pitiful whoreson! You’re standing here and letting them take her?”

Elizabeth coughed. “Leave our mother out of it.” She cast a withering glance at Hector. “He was her tragedy, not her fault.”

The Conte nodded, weighed the pocket casually in his hand and slipped it inside his jerkin. “Be assured, I’ll do my best to act in your stead in your absence. May God send you a good deliverance.”

He looked at Dimmock and switched to Latin. “I do not owe you any courtesy and were your servant a gentleman I would demand satisfaction. But I will offer you some advice, nonetheless. You are in the process of making the biggest mistake of your life. It is not impossible it will be the last such mistake you make. I beg you to reconsider or, if you find that impossible, at least apprise the Crown Prince of your intention to question Mrs Pickering.”

Dimmock stared at him. Then he laughed. “You forget yourself – soprano. Pray I do not chose to make you remember. We can’t crush your bollocks, pretty boy, but I’ll wager your fingers would remember our pilliwinks.” He made a nut-crushing motion with finger and thumb. “So. Shut. It.”

The Conte fell back a step. Elizabeth – shaking inwardly at the idea of the pilliwinks – summoned all her courage to cast a grateful smile in his direction. Absurd to hope for help from a foreigner who, for all she knew, had killed Lady Diana himself and, if he had not, should surely be more than happy to find the English party had found a scapegoat other than himself.

But – Hector was a broken reed, and who would listen to Frances; poor, plain, female and unmarried Frances? The Conte was her only hope.

“Let me escort my sister. It is my right and bounden duty.” Hector’s voice came out frail, fragmented and all of a rush. Elizabeth felt more fury than anything else. Dear God, she was being hauled off to torture and probable death, and Hector, damn his eyes, was still worried as to how his actions would look to the outside world?

She contained her seething soul in silence until they were at the street door, Outside a plain black carriage waited: the sort of carriage in which undistinguished, vanished people took their last journeys.

The coach door was flung open for her by one of the guards, and the step let down. She did not mistake it for courtesy – efficiency, merely.

Hector dogged her footsteps even that far, sobbing – whimpering, almost, turning his snuff-box over and over in his hands.

“Believe me, Elizabeth, I did nothing wrong. This was none of my doing.”

“And, like Pilate, you wash your hands of it?” She had given him forgiveness too easily, too often. She raised a foot to the carriage step. It might be the last time she saw Hector, her only surviving brother. There had been six of them once. Nevertheless. Nevertheless.

“Hector, hear this. If you wished me to forgive you then you should have made an effort to defend me. Like a man.” She paused. “Like, for example, the Conte d’Imola.”

She put her second foot onto the carriage step and swung inside. The door slammed, the horses were set in motion and she jolted off towards an unknown fate.

“I deeply regret, ” Philip said, “that his grace the Envoy is at present not at liberty to receive you.”

For perhaps the first time in the many, many times he had recited those words since arriving at the Legation, the regret was almost wholly unfeigned. Hatherleigh was staring at him with wide, dark-shadowed eyes, almost visibly shaking. If his companion, Sir Hector Bainbridge, hadn’t been the beau ideal of the obtuse English gentleman he’d have twigged something was wrong.

Philip cursed last night’s impulse. Oh, it had been gratifying, demonstrating to Hatherleigh that he still had him exactly where he chose to put him, notwithstanding the lapse of years and Philip’s blatant pursuit of the Crown Prince. Hotter than hell, too, not knowing who might come in and surprise them in the act (hoping it might be the Crown Prince).

But, still, a stupid impulse. Hatherleigh was as white as a girl and looked as if he might break down in hysterics at any moment. What the hell was going on? It couldn’t be grief for his half-sister, surely. Hatherleigh had never expressed anything but contempt for his father’s legitimate children, even when at Oxford. From what Philip could gather, the enforced proximity of the last six months had done nothing to change his opinion.

If only Lord Wardale had been on hand to take Sir Hector off Philip’s hands and give him a chance to find out what ailed Hatherleigh.

“Dammit, man, is no-one at his post today?” Sir Hector fumed. “It was the same at the Palace last night. They fobbed me off with some little chirugeon fellow – sinister little blighter.”

“John Watson, sir?” Philip found it hard to conceal his surprise. News, that, and not something his Palace sources had given him so far.

“I believe that was the name, yes. You’ve heard of him, then.”

“He’s the personal physician to the Crown Princess, Sir Hector.” And a great deal more than that to her, if Palace rumour spoke truth. Though, if that were the case, Philip could hardly understand why the Royal family would keep such a potentially embarrassing person not merely in their orbit but in a position of real, if unspecified, influence. One always had to remember, though, that the three kingdoms lay on the junction of Europe and Asia; nothing could be predicted about how people behaved out here. When he had the Legation, it would pay to remember that fact.

If he had the Legation. If Hatherleigh didn’t destroy them both. “Sir, our deepest condolences on your loss. How may the Legation assist?”

“They’ve taken m’sister.” For a moment something human and fragile poked through Sir Hector’s bluster. He took a large pinch of snuff, as if to conceal his emotion.

“I’m sorry, sir?”

“Man called Dimmock. Took her away in a carriage.”

“That’s the head of Palace security, sir. The Legation maintains close relations with the Palace on security issues.” Philip hesitated, then picked his words with care. “Lady Wardale informed me last night of Lady Diana’s decision to leave Mrs Pickering’s chaperonage. Given what transpired, a man like Dimmock might well see something of a motive for ill-will there.”

“Poppycock!” Sir Hector turned a nasty shade of puce. “Elizabeth understood the situation perfectly. The girl’s attitude may have been a disappointment to her – I don’t say it wasn’t – but m’sister’s a lady, bred in the bone. She would never have acted with anything other than dignity and restraint, were the provocation ten times worse. Anyway, she’s an Englishwoman. They’ve got no business laying hands on her. You’ve got to make this Dimmock man see that.”

Philip repressed the urge to tell this prosy old bore exactly what powers a small outpost of his Britannic Majesty’s Government actually possessed, out here in the wilds with six superannuated troopers by way of defence force. Further, the time for making representations had been before Mrs Pickering had been taken, not now she’d vanished into Dimmock’s clutches. Good God, they called the man “the Mastiff” in these parts. Once he’d got hold of someone no power on earth would make him drop them.

Besides, why should Philip squander diplomatic credit on a faded nobody like Elizabeth Pickering? A man who was in de facto command of a Legation and hoped soon to add the form to the substance had to be selective with regard to those to whom he directed his concern.

He pasted a reassuring smile on his face. “Be assured, sir, that we’ll pay the closest attention to your sister’s welfare and bring you the earliest news about what transpires.”

Sir Hector, fortunately, was the kind who heard what he wished to hear. He nodded.

“That’s appreciated.”

Besides him, Hatherleigh – either more alert to nuance or simply more on edge – quaked like a sick puppy. Time to take matters under control.

“Sir, the Legation chaplain will attend you directly. You will, no doubt, have much to discuss concerning the funeral arrangements, against the time – let us hope soon – when Lady Diana’s body is released into your care. I trust that, far from England as we are, we can send back a report to the Duke of Collompton that to the poor best of our ability all that could be done, was done.”

Sir Hector’s look of alarm convinced Philip of his suspicions. No doubt prior to Dimmock’s intervention he had expected to push all the work of the funeral onto his sister, reserving only the light duties of assuming the credit for the arrangements to himself.

Philip cleared his throat. “Mr Hatherleigh and I will, in the meantime, will do our utmost to relieve you of the more wearisome aspects of the paperwork, sir, while you and the Chaplain deal with the – ah – more spiritual side of matters.”

The Legation chaplain, once fairly launched on the hardships of operating a Protestant enclave amid the besieging forces of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Mohammedanism, would hardly let Sir Hector escape his clutches inside a full turn of the glass.

Once the door had shut firmly behind Sir Hector and the chaplain, Philip turned to Hatherleigh. He found himself forestalled.

“Look – it’s not that I don’t appreciate what you tried to do, but how could you bring yourself? And what possessed you to return to the library after we parted in the first place?” Hatherleigh’s voice sounded breathless, high-pitched; the sound of a man close to the edge of endurance.

Philip turned to rummage in a cupboard from which he pulled out a decanter and glasses. (One thing which could be said for the Legation under Lord Wardale; it would take an exceptional drought to make it run dry!) Only when he was certain he had his features schooled into calm neutrality did he turn back to face Hatherleigh.

“Here. Pour yourself one of those. And then tell me your side of what happened last night, from the very beginning.” Hatherleigh looked as if he might remonstrate, but Philip glared at him. “Surely you owe me that, at least.”

“Yes. Yes, I do. It was horrible, you can’t think.”

“And did you think?” The words came out like a whiplash. Hatherleigh cowered. Better. Essential to show him who was master. And to get a complete story out of him without betraying how little he knew.

“What option did I have? She heard us, Philip – she was right there in the library and she heard everything. She recognised my voice. She threatened me, Philip – she threatened us. I had no choice but to kill her. But I thought it would be over quickly, and instead it went on and on. She was gasping so loudly I thought someone would be bound to hear and come in.”

Oh, dear God. Worse than he could possibly have imagined. Murder. And now Philip was fixed with knowledge of it, and could not un-know it. And, by the sound of it, no hope of washing his hands of it by handing Hatherleigh to the civil powers of Gaaldine and letting matters take their course.

“Lady Diana threatened us with exposure?” Best to be absolutely sure.

Hatherleigh nodded, his tongue flickering across dry lips, his eyes restless. “She’d been waiting in the last-but-one bay, hidden in the dark in that damn black dress and mask –”

“Black dress?” Philip demanded. Lady Diana had been wearing an absurdly ill-chosen riot of colours last night - Lady Wardale had confided that someone from the Court had said something ill-natured about it. But that had been in another lifetime, before a body had been discovered in the Palace library and his whole world become engulfed in nightmare.

“Black and red, but you saw it, you must have done, when you – when the face -“

Black and red. Dear God. The thing became worse by the second.

“Did you know she was wearing the Crown Princess’ dress before she accosted you in the library?”

Hatherleigh’s eyes spread even wider. “Dear God! Was that who she’d swapped with?”

“It explains why the Palace rumour merchants were so adamant this was a botched political assassination.” Even though none of them had been able to pin down the likely culprit. Philip had heard Gondal, Angria and rebel factions within Gaaldine itself all blamed in the course of the night.

“Oh, God.” Hatherleigh wrapped his arms around his chest. “I had no idea of any friendship between her and the Crown Princess.”

“Nor I. But that’s hardly material now.”

Unless, of course, the Crown Princess influenced her husband to take an interest in the wretched girl’s death. And she very likely could. The Crown Prince might care little or nothing for his wife’s body, but her pretensions to the throne of Gondal must matter very much indeed to him. Especially now.

First things first. For whatever bizarre reason Hatherleigh had convinced himself that Philip had disfigured Lady Diana’s face (who had? And for what motive?). No point in trying to disabuse him of the notion. However, one thing had to be made clear.

“Listen, until we know how things stand we must avoid each other as much as possible. We can’t afford to have anyone starting to associate ideas.”

Hatherleigh looked stricken, and Philip cursed, inwardly. Why had he not noticed before that the man was as weak as water?

“Look, I’ll be working on it just as hard as I can. All you have to do is keep your head down and hope they focus on the Pickering woman. Or on political red herrings – I might see if I can send them after that castrato courier of yours, if they don’t take the Pickering bait.”

Hatherleigh nodded. And then, mercifully, one of the inner doors opened and Sir Hector and the chaplain emerged.

“Got everything settled, Hatherleigh?” Sir Hector enquired.

“I think we’ve covered everything that’s needed, sir,” Philip said.

Though there was, he reflected once he was alone, one thing which remained to be dealt with. If someone like Dimmock got hold of Hatherleigh, they were both lost. The threat of exposure would never go away, not while the man lived.

Something would have to be done about that.

Frances knelt on the floor, careless of the damage she was doing to her skirts, and put her lips to the keyhole. “Grace! Let me out.”

There came a creaking sound and the rustle of fabric from just outside the door. Grace must be kneeling in the passageway on the other side of the keyhole.

“Can’t, miss. More than my place is worth. Sir Hector were that firm that you weren’t to go rushing around ‘till someone catches this monster –”

“Well, no-one’s going to catch this monster if those idiots think that Mama did it. We could all be murdered in our beds while they waste time asking her imbecile questions. You’ve got to let me out so I can go and get help.”

“Look, miss, you didn’t see the man who took her away. Big bully, with guards. Brushed past Sir Hector like he was nobody. It’s going to take a lot to stop someone like that, once he’s got the bit between his teeth.”

“Let me get to –” Frances hesitated. The less Grace knew, the less she could reveal, if Sir Hector came back prematurely. “I’ve made friends in the city – they’ll know what to do.”

“That young man who knows Dr Atherton, miss? The one who came and fetched me last night, to help dress you? Well, he’s nicely mannered, for a foreigner, I’ll give him that.”

Frances repressed the urge to comment that the Crown Prince would no doubt be gratified to hear Grace’s endorsement. No point in antagonising the woman, not with a locked door between them.

“Him and his wife. I’m sure they’ll be able to help, if I can only get to them personally.”

Grace sounded as if she was pondering the matter. “I’ll grant they can’t do worse than we’ve got here, miss. It’s been a madhouse since they took your lady mother, miss, it has that.”

“So will you let me out?”

“Can’t, miss. Sir Hector took the keys with him when him and Mr Hatherleigh went to the Legation, though goodness knows what sense they’re expecting to get out of Lord Wardale this early in the day.”

“Doesn’t the Conte have a set of keys?”

“He rushed off, miss, just after they took your lady mother. Said something about going to light a candle for her at St Oneysimos’ shrine. Well, he said ‘rocket’ but it must have been a candle he meant. I don’t hold with papists, but I admit we could do with a miracle about now.”

“We don’t need divine intervention; we need me on the right side of this door and able to get to people who can actually help.”

“Well, we haven’t got any keys, miss, and wishing for them isn’t going to get this door unlocked. So if I were you, miss, I’d lie down and have some rest until your uncle gets back.” Grace paused. “Oh, there is one thing, miss. Don’t be disturbed if you hear a ladder at the window in a little while.”

“A ladder?”

“Aye, miss. After all, I’m sure your mother would want to make sure everything was done proper, given we’ve had a death in the house, even if she can’t be here to oversee it, poor lady. And in the village where I came from, the day after a death you always made sure to have every mirror or scrap of glass in the house polished up. ‘So as not to shame the angels, should they pass by,’ my old gran used to say.”

“Really,” Frances breathed. “And this would include cleaning the windows?”

“We weren’t rich enough to have glass in our windows at home, miss. But I think we should, miss. I’ll have the landlady’s boy do all round, now it’s quiet. Mind you, I sometime think he’s a bit lacking. Willing, mind you, but you set him a job and next thing you know he’s wandered off on his own devices and it takes you half an hour to find him again. Still, he’s the best we’ve got. So don’t be too worried if you hear a ladder at the window presently.”

“I’ll bear it in mind. And I’ll take your suggestion.” Frances gave an elaborate, noisy yawn. “It has been a most exhausting and distressing time. I feel a headache coming on. Please could you let my uncle know that I have retired to rest and that I hope I will be more collected by dinner-time.”

“That’s very wise, miss. I’ll see you aren’t disturbed until then.”