Chapter 9 - The Curious Incident of the Knight in the Library by A.J. Hall
As the irons shifted from dark iron to glowing red and then white, their heat beat out across the room in ever more oppressive waves. They had stripped her to her shift when they brought her in here, one among the many humiliations of her position. Then they had bound her to a table. She could not turn her head. Deliberately, no doubt, the instruments occupied the majority of her field of vision. She could just glimpse the door, but it was shut and had been locked with an immense key.
Down here in this brick-lined chamber time had no meaning. She had passed through fear – how long ago? Terror lurked on the edge of her consciousness, ready to tear her apart should her defences flag for a moment. But simple fear – that was a tired remembrance of something she had once been capable of feeling.
One could choke back terror by anger, at least for a time. By love, too, she supposed. But love was too far away, and too fragile. Frances – God and his saints would surely have a mind to Frances. Maternal love could add little to her armour, and as for anything else, however unlooked for, that, it seemed, was doomed to perish still-born, in this grim room, deep beneath the earth, where no sunlight ever came.
Dimmock leant over her. “You will talk in the end. Why not now?”
“Talk is useless to people who aren’t prepared to listen,” Elizabeth spat. “I did not kill that girl and whatever you are proposing to do to me will not change that fact.”
“Ah, you choose to be difficult. Believe me, ma’am, I deeply regret what you are making me do. But I do not regret it as much as you will.”
“I am not a fool. If I had anything to tell you, I should have told it by now.”
He turned and signalled to his assistants.
They nodded. All the nerves in Elizabeth’s body twitched at once. Now was the time for terror. It engulfed her, wave after paralysing wave.
She heard the grating sound of a key turning and then a clang as the door was flung wide. She craned her head and could just see two guards march in and stand either side of it. Then the Count d’Houx. Then a third guard.
Dead silence fell on the room. And then, with a rustling of fabric and – Elizabeth thought – an audible creaking of joints, Dimmock and his three assistants dropped to their knees. The Count’s third guard walked forward, a poignard in his hand. It must have been razor sharp. Elizabeth’s bonds parted before its edge like cheese beneath a wire. She struggled up into a sitting position, suddenly horribly conscious that she was dressed in nothing but her shift before the gaze of eight men.
The Count stalked up, unslung his own cloak and wrapped it around her body. Somewhere in the room someone – Elizabeth prayed it was Dimmock – let out a sound that could only be described as a stifled sob.
She heard the sound of marching feet. A moment later the Count’s brother, Dr Atherton’s correspondent, entered the room flanked by two guards.
“You’re late,” the Count said.
“Later than you were,” the new arrival corrected. “But I would not, I think, have been too late.”
He glanced at Dimmock, who quivered, visibly. The Count nodded.
“No. Not too late.” He glanced round the room. “This matter is not for discussion. Other matters will be, in due course. ” He looked at his brother. “Charis is now looking after Frances Pickering?”
“Indeed. Miss Pickering very sensibly came straight to Charis for help when she found her mother had been taken away, though she had to climb out of a window to do so. That idiot Sir Hector had had her tiring maid lock her in, allegedly for her own protection. May I ask Charis to look after Mrs Pickering also?”
Charis. The Crown Princess of Gaaldine. The putative Queen of Gondal. There could only be a handful of people in the kingdom with the rank to refer to her by her first name, and two of them were in this chamber with her now. And both of them were on her side.
Elizabeth’s limbs were trembling with reaction. She only wanted to fall flat on some bed and weep. The discussion above her head seemed curiously distant. Someone would take her somewhere and she would be safe. But she could not walk there.
“Allow me,” the Count said, as if reading her thoughts.
He was not a count, of course, or not merely a count, but Elizabeth could not comprehend who he must be, not yet, not now. Especially not when he stepped forwards and swung her up into his arms, taking her weight as if it were nothing.
At which point Dimmock did whimper.
“I’ve a carriage outside,” the Count’s brother said. “I expect you have, also, but mine will be quicker and prying eyes will make less of it. May I offer you its services?”
The Count nodded. He still had her in her arms and she knew she was no lightweight but she could think of no place she would rather be.
“Good, then. Let us be away.”
There followed a bewildering sequence of events in which the only constant was the reassuring pressure of the Count’s arms. The carriage’s blinds were not thrown up until it had entered a secluded courtyard. It was empty apart from the Count’s brother, who must have gone ahead on horseback, and who opened the carriage door himself.
“Could you contrive to walk if we both supported you?” he enquired. “My brother has already astounded me with his exertions today, but I have no desire to find myself unexpectedly inheriting his job. Accordingly, I propose to veto his carrying you up another flight of stairs.”
“I will try,” she murmured.
“We’ll take matters very slowly. Come.”
Although Elizabeth knew she must be in the Palace, she recognised nothing of the route. This must be an older part of the Palace complex, a place of winding staircases and broad, sunlit landings, with none of the ostentation of the public rooms where she had danced last night. Like the courtyard, the rooms through which the two men guided her shaky steps appeared deserted, though doors swung open at their approach and closed behind them once they had passed.
She knew, now, beyond a shadow of doubt who had lain with her in the belvedere, even as she recoiled at the enormity of that knowledge. A noble – a great state official, say – might have had the power to snatch her out of Dimmock’s interrogation. But to walk unescorted and unchallenged through the private family apartments of the Palace – mere nobility and authority would never suffice for that.
“Did you ever plan to tell me you were really the King?”
The man pacing with slow grace by her left hand side looked a trifle embarrassed.
“I am truly the Count d’Houx, also. I did not misrepresent that fact.”
The man on her right – the Crown Prince, she now realised – gave an amused snort. The King glared at him. “And you, Sherlock, have such a pristine record when it comes to the use of aliases? I’m considering issuing a court dispatch condoling with you on your equerry Count Osric’s untimely death in an accident involving a farmyard midden and two exceptionally aggressive goats.”
“Oh, please, can you leave me to investigate the one untimely death we’ve actually got? In which, incidentally, Dimmock’s idiocy has given us the luckiest of chances. The real murderer will be far more off his or her guard now they think we have fastened on Mrs Pickering as the culprit. If I’d thought, I’d have planned it this way.”
“I do not see it in that light.” The King’s voice was low and dangerous.
The Crown Prince paused, then nodded. “Had I planned it, I would not have put you through such great distress, ma’am. Nevertheless, this may work out to our advantage. My wife will be more than happy to have you and your daughter as our guests, but if we could ensure that your stay remains incognito, it will increase immensely our chances of capturing the murderer.”
Gradually, Elizabeth had begun to revive. Now that she was out of danger it occurred to her for the first time to wonder at something.
“Sir, you never chose to ask me any questions. And yet – may God forgive me – I did detest Lady Diana and I had quarrelled with her on that evening. Can you tell me, truly, that you never suspected I might have killed her?”
The Crown Prince glanced at the King, as if seeking permission.
“I did not rule you out as a suspect for some time,” he said carefully. “The time at which the girl was killed – not when she was found for the first time and her face disfigured, which was somewhat later – you must have been still in the Palace itself. And, as you yourself point out, you had a sufficient motive. But it early became clear – at least to me – that you must have left the ball in my brother’s company.”
Her hand went to her lips. “Oh,” she managed.
The Crown Prince smiled. “He doesn’t make a habit of it, I assure you.”
“And, if I did, I’d still thank you for not discussing it,” the King snapped. “Yes. I leapt at the opportunity of enjoying something practically every other man in Gaaldine takes for granted; the chance to spend an evening in the company of a sympathetic and intelligent woman, unhampered by the barrier of my position.”
“Not strictly my field, but I take the point. Well, ma’am, that settled it. The most hardened villain could not have spent an evening in my brother’s company immediately after committing murder and not have it detected.”
“I’m relieved you appreciate that,” the King said. The brothers smiled at each other, and Elizabeth felt as if the sun had come out after rain so prolonged one had forgotten what blue sky looked like.
And then they were at the door of the Crown Princess’s suite and there was Frances – dear, good, intelligent Frances, who would have saved her had the King not done so. (“I would not have been too late,” the Crown Prince had said, and the King had agreed.)
She fell into her daughter’s arms and they wept. When they were more composed, Elizabeth stood back and found the Crown Princess hovering enthusiastically besides her.
“I wasn’t sure what was needed but I have ordered my tiring woman to attend on you shortly with some gowns which I hope will be suitable and ordered you a bath in the meantime. We will have a private family dinner later, in this suite – all tremendously informal, of course, in the circumstances.”
Elizabeth reflected that “private” and “informal” clearly bore a very different meaning when the other diners comprised a reigning monarch, his heir presumptive and an aspirant to the throne of the neighbouring kingdom. And then she caught the King’s eye upon her, knowing he had caught her very thought, and that it amused him.
She smiled back.
“I’m sure,” John said in a resigned way, “that you have a perfectly logical reason for missing dinner so as to hare out to the English party’s lodgings disguised as this Mrs Sigerson’s footman, but doesn’t it occur to you that it might be easier just to tell Sir Hector that his niece is under Charis’ chaperonage?”
“Easier, John, but not nearly so much fun.” Sherlock flashed him a smile which would certainly have had the footman whom he was counterfeiting turned out of doors for presumption. He was rewarded by a flicker of amusement in response; the most relaxation John had allowed his features to assume since the horrors of the discovery in the library. The shadow of what might have been had hung over his spirits ever since. For that alone Sherlock had no intention of forgiving Dr Atherton.
“You’re investigating a murder. Fun isn’t supposed to come into it.”
Sherlock shrugged. “I take my pleasures where I find them. Anyway, my strategy depends on Sir Hector not realising his niece has influence at Court. Now Elizabeth Pickering’s apparently vanished into Dimmock’s custody without hope of release I’ve every expectation the murderer will become overconfident and make a mistake.”
John’s brow furrowed as he digested this.
“And the Sigerson business?”
“Sir Hector has a keen sense of propriety, or at least values the appearance of it. He’ll need assurances that his niece is respectably lodged. If he enquires at the Palace, he’ll find that one Stephen Sigerson holds the eminently worthy post of Keeper of the Royal Bees.”
“He does?” John enquired with heavy emphasis.
“Oh, yes. Appointed back in my grandfather’s day. He’s about a hundred years old by now and madder than moonlight. And, of course, never comes anywhere near the capital. Not enough bees here, obviously.” Unbidden, the memory came of fields of clover and the steady hum arising from them, as the old man – seemingly more weathered and ancient even than the Castle ruins on the hill – quoted Georgics and initiated a small, lonely boy into the endlessly fascinating mysteries of apiculture.
“And Mrs Sigerson?”
“If you ask Court sources, they’d probably assume she’s the wife of young Mr Sigerson. He’s a great-nephew, or some shadowy connection of that nature. Lives a quiet life – he’s a private gentleman of modest means – in a town-house hard by the Cathedral, when he isn’t in the country assisting his great-uncle.”
“Well, I’m glad we’ve got our Sigerson family history straight. But I’m still perplexed why you’re pretending to be anyone’s footman.”
“Invisibility. People don’t look at servants.”
“I’ll remind you that ‘people’ in this instance include Hatherleigh. In that livery – especially those silk hose – I think you might be surprised.”
Had he imagined the waspish note in John’s voice? His smile was intended to reassure, this time.
“Trust me, I’ll be careful.” And then a thought struck him, and he cursed himself for his stupidity. It had, after all, been staring him in the face all yesterday evening. But if that lay behind Diana Scoton’s death, cracking the mystery would depend on concentrating his firepower on the weaker vessel. Which made the success of his current subterfuge even more important.
Jenkins ushered him into a small reception room on the ground floor and bade him gruffly to wait Sir Hector’s convenience. The manservant spoke a halting kitchen Gaaldine which, nonetheless, suggested to Sherlock’s experienced ear that he had a fair knowledge of the language, for understanding if not for speech.
There was something slightly ruffled about Jenkins’ dress; not neglect, but something which came within breathing distance of carelessness. Sherlock discerned a slight roughness about his voice and redness around the eyes which might, perhaps, be an incipient cold but seemed more likely to be the marks of grief.
Sherlock was not a man much given to reflecting on human emotion (the paths it led down were ones he had learned young were too painful to tread). Still, it struck him as a bitter jest that the first mark of sincere grief for Lady Diana Scoton’s death he had seen should be from someone she would, in life, scarcely have acknowledged as human.
Jenkins vanished, leaving him to cool his heels. There was little to be deduced from the room, though its windows were polished to a high shine. Grace Vinson, it seemed, was thorough. It would be interesting to question her. Not in this current disguise, though. No-one was harder to fool when impersonating a servant than another of the same rank, and Grace Vinson had twice seen him at close quarters dressed as a gentleman.
Mrs Sigerson’s footman would have been fully entitled to feel indignant on his mistress’ behalf at Sir Hector’s delay in responding to her message. The detached intelligence which analysed that fact and adjusted the footman’s stance – just a trifle – to convey ruffled dignity also noted that Frances Pickering’s disappearance could not have been discovered yet.
Sir Hector’s eventual arrival had all the flurried pomposity Sherlock had expected. Greatly to Sherlock’s amusement, it appeared that Sir Hector’s limited linguistic gifts had collapsed entirely amid the stresses of the last day and a half. After a futile few moments of sustained non-communication in a combination of slowly spoken Gaaldine and pidgin English at ever increasing volume, Sir Hector lost patience and rang the bell for the Conte d’Imola to act as translator.
Irene, bless her, reacted to Sherlock’s presence with no more than a slight widening of the eyes. She listened impassively to his detailed, yet stiffly formal account of how “the English mees Peekering” had sought refuge with his mistress Mrs Sigerson (long digression here into the ancient lineage, respectability and generosity of the Sigerson family as a whole and Mrs Sigerson in particular). She made a couple of interjections, for form’s sake, and then turned to Sir Hector, who had become more irritable during the whole performance, as if his inability to understand the language was their fault.
“This man is footman to a Mrs Sigerson. I know a little of the family; they have connections at Court, though not very elevated ones.”
“And what business do the Sigersons have with us?”
“It seems that Miss Pickering met Mrs Sigerson on one of her nature rambles shortly after arriving in Gaaldine and they became friends. Accordingly, when her mother was taken for questioning, she sought assistance from the Sigersons, and they offered her hospitality until – as we all hope – Mrs Pickering is released from custody. After all, without her mother’s chaperonage, she can hardly stay in a household which includes no other woman of rank, and two unmarried gentleman – besides myself – to whom she is not related.”
Sherlock considered the “besides myself” to be a particularly artistic touch on Irene’s part, forcing Sir Hector, as it did, to contemplate matters he would doubtless prefer to avoid. He attempted to conceal his confusion with a vigorous application of snuff. (Old-gold snuff-box, monogram of his initials on lid. Interesting.)
“Good heavens, man,” Sir Hector said, once he had finished sneezing and was himself once more, “this is arrant nonsense. My niece is upstairs in her room with a headache – has been since this morning.”
“Is she?” Irene enquired. “Would it not be wise to check?”
Sherlock assumed an attitude of patient non-comprehension during the pointless and prolonged argument which followed, which ended – as, of course it was always going to end – with an expedition upstairs and the discovery that Frances Pickering’s room was empty.
The interval was not without interest. It enabled him to refine the impressions of the English party he’d started to make overnight. The Viscount staggered in, greenish-white and clearly in the grip of an epic hangover (Sherlock’s gut clenched in fury; Mrs Sigerson’s footman ducked a respectful head). Dr Atherton; oozing a vague, generalised concern, nevertheless projected a faint sense of smugness, as if Mrs Pickering’s removal by Dimmock’s men had somehow validated his violent destruction of the dead girl’s face. Hatherleigh he glimpsed only long enough to note that John’s concern had been quite misplaced; locked in some private hell, the Viscount’s secretary would not have noticed Sherlock had he stood naked in the withdrawing room.
It took three-quarters of a turn of the glass before Sir Hector was finally persuaded to accept not merely that his niece was nowhere in the house but that the explanation for her absence given by Mrs Sigerson’s footman might bear further investigation.
Irene seized upon Sir Hector’s first moment of weakness on the topic. Like a violin virtuoso, she played expertly on his ruffled nerves, his uneasiness about his linguistic abilities, his precarious dignity as an island of Englishness amid an encroaching sea of foreign confusion and his pressing need to remain at home to deal with the continued difficulties of Lady Diana’s death.
At length her persuasion prevailed. The Conte d’Imola, armed with a stern missive from Sir Hector to his niece, left the house in the impassive company of Mrs Sigerson’s footman.
They made it at far as the nearest corner before Irene broke silence.
“Well? What’s going on?”
Sherlock, in character, remained a pace behind Irene and with eyes faced relentlessly forward. An observer could hardly have seen his lips move.
“The King commends your initiative, earlier today.”
“You took Elizabeth Pickering’s pocket, saw the note she’d received, the seal accompanying it and followed those instructions.” He paused. “As matters turned out, it wasn’t entirely needed, but trust me, I am not speaking only for myself when I say our House owes you a favour of almost infinite scope.”
Blast the woman! Anyone with any sensitivity would have detected his reticence. And Irene was not without sensitivity. Fortunately, he had other weapons at his disposal.
“That’s of no account. Speaking specifically –” He hesitated. “It is towards the end of the sailing season. The weather is unpredictable. Nevertheless, we pay a handful of madmen extremely well to be at our disposal at all times to risk their lives and their vessels if we ask. If – hypothetically – you were shortly to receive vital information which you needed to pass to Rome or beyond – you have earned the right to use those resources.”
She turned towards him.
“Why would you aid my mission?”
He kept his eyes facing forward. “Not for its own sake. I’ve told you before, Irene, the house of Stuart is a broken reed. It will betray you, if you let it. Or drag you down in its own ruin. But – you are doubtless familiar with the expression, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’? I wish to see the Duke of Collompton destroyed, utterly. Mycroft and I are in complete agreement on the point. We have the means to do so. But it must not be traceable to Gaaldine.”
She nodded, slowly. “May I ask why?”
“The sins of the children are to be visited on the fathers. It is a matter of honour. And, no; no further details. But hold yourself ready to travel at short notice. And if I ask you to convey a note to a member of your party, and to obscure where it originated, may I call on you to do that, also? Excellent.”