Chapter 6 - The Physician's Quest by A.J. Hall
The livery stable backed onto the inn-yard, doubtless a mutually profitable business arrangement for their respective proprietors (officially cousins; unofficially but in all too obvious fact half-brothers.)
Lest anyone had been left sentry over the stable, Sherlock avoided the main exit and ducked through a small postern in the wall that divided the two establishments. People rarely marked anyone’s comings or goings from inns.
Then, to the castle. Would John be already there? Hardly, unless he and the soldiers ran. Medical emergency, even if fake. They’ll have run. Neat. A ruse tailored to John’s conscience. And once in the castle he’ll be Moran’s bait, his tethered goat.
Lost in thought, he reacted a second too slowly when a shambling figure stretched a long arm out from an outbuilding’s entrance, caught and twisted the back of his collar. Breaking the hold would cost his assailant a shattered wrist and destroy forever his pose as the delicate, bookish Verney.
And so give Moran what he wants.
He caught a whiff of roasted barley malt. Fighting suddenly ceased to be an option. Without turning round, he said, “Master Theo, be assured you have my full attention. I do not propose to run away.”
The hand on his collar dropped away. A guttural voice muttered, “She warned me you was uncanny.”
He faced the potman. “No; I just keep my eyes open. When did you speak to Mrs Hudson?”
Theo’s face went slack. The town supposed him to be “lacking”, but Sherlock suspected that beneath his rude exterior the potman possessed considerable native cunning, allied to a laziness which bordered on the pathological. Nevertheless, Sherlock should have remembered that Theo closed up like an oyster when confronted with a direct question.
He forced his body into a pose of perfect stillness, like a river fisherman watching an eel-trap. “Not less than one or more than two turns ago this morning. She came to tell the oculist to expect me, then let you know I’d be along. Clever, to assume I’d cut through here.”
Theo’s frog-like mouth curled in a crafty grin. “Good business for an inn, having a physician or suchlike nearby. Those that visit him, they get good news or they get bad. Either sort goes better with ale.”
“More of a philosopher than many in the capital. As is Mrs Hudson.”
“What I saw been worrying me. Always used to go to Ma Hudson, when I was little and in trouble. All us kids did.”
“Wise. Also to take her advice to consult me.”
“Had to. Who else could I trust?” He pointed towards the cellar door. “Those barrels were as solid as the church tower. I’d swear it on anything you like.”
“So Mrs Hudson said.”
Fortunately, Theo was not the type to go looking for ambiguities. He nodded, vigorously. “Something wrong. I smelt it. And then I minded the little fellow. He’d been in the corner of the bar that night.”
Sherlock leant forward. No-one had mentioned another man.
“I shouldn’t suppose anyone else spotted him, with their eyes on Mr Ronald and him about to clean out Colonel Moran. A big win distracts everyone.”
Theo shook his head, vehemently. “No. Not the third night. It was the night before. Jem took Mr Ronald on one side to warn him about the play, when I was changing the barrel. I’d rolled the empty one out the back, and I saw the little man come out of the side door into the yard, past where Jem and Mr Ronald were talking.”
“Wrong door. The jakes are on the other side of the inn.” He paused. “Though I suppose a stranger might have been confused.”
“Not quite a stranger. Been here before, once or twice. Shabby robes and a funny way of talking. Scholar, maybe. Bit of a manner on him, know what I mean? Like he was sneering at everyone behind his sleeve.”
Likely true of any scholar who blundered into Sancta Maria inter Prata. Five years ago, doubtless they’d have said the same of Verney, the scrivener.
“There’s many like that.”
“True enough. Not the sort you’d recognise in a crowd.” Theo put his finger on his lips. “Though I mind one trick he had. When he was watching, like when he was watching the play, and later, when he was watching Jem and Mr Ronald, he moved his head from side to side a bit. Put you in mind of a weasel watching a rabbit.”
”Half a lifetime,” he’d said to John. In years that was true. Times like today, though, it was if he was fifteen again, back in Gondal. He crouched concealed within a closet in the upstairs room of an inn, his eye pressed to a knot-hole, witness to a scene which would mean his death were he to be detected.
On the eve of exile the Heir of Gondal says farewell to his loyal followers and bids them keep the faith.
“Like this, perhaps.”
He counterfeited the movement. Theo stared for a second, then stumbled backwards, crossing himself.
“The very spit of it. You – you know the man?”
“You’ll never meet one more deadly.” Not even if Mycroft hauled the potman in for personal questioning. An outcome which was by no means impossible, especially if the dice today fell awry.
Theo’s face crumpled. “I was that close to him.” A thought struck him and he brightened. “Not that he saw me.”
“No?” Though in support of your argument, you are still alive.
“Well, you know how it is, sir.” The potman blew his nose on his fingers. “He saw me but he didn’t see me. Who notices the potman in the inn-yard, eh, sir?”
Again, a surprisingly profound insight, especially given its source. Though Sherlock imagined Theo had devoted sufficient time to the art of hiding in plain sight when work needed doing to have become a finished master of the art.
That insight stirred the ghost of an idea.
Before, however, he could formulate a plan there came the sound of hurrying footsteps. Theo thrust him through the archway into a storeroom. Then he leaned across the archway. Sherlock retreated into the gloom of the storeroom, stubbed his toe on a loosely-tied bundle of barrel staves and barely suppressed an oath.
“Oh, I do hope I’m in time.” Mrs Hudson’s voice sounded outside. “Theo, I’m looking –”
Sherlock moved forward soundlessly, ducking his head so his face would appear under Theo’s arm. He put a warning finger to his lips.
Mrs Hudson barely paused. “I’m looking for Catherine. I’ve a bowl of best chicken dripping for her, since she helped me out with those honeycakes last baking day. My hip’s playing me up something cruel; it’s always the damp that gets to it. I’ll just sit on this barrel under the overhang of the eaves while you run and find her, there’s a good boy.”
Another man might have wriggled out of it – though Sherlock would have been hard pressed to name more than half a dozen men he thought were up to it. Theo never stood a chance. He made a mumbled protest; Mrs Hudson raised her eyebrows and he shambled off through the back door of the inn kitchen, muttering to himself.
“Come in here,” Sherlock said, his voice little louder than a whisper. “Some of the castle guard may still be about.”
“Oh, so you’ve heard?” With surprising agility Mrs Hudson hopped down from the barrel. “I had it from Mrs Turner who got it from that red-headed laundry-maid of hers who’s walking out with her niece’s lad Tommy Evans.”
Sherlock felt a brief flash of hope. Moran might be the greatest hunter and tracker Gondal had produced in generations, but the power of the matrons of Sancta Maria inter Prata and their legendary gossip network was, surely, something even he had not calculated for.
“And Tommy Evans let slip what?”
“Mr Verney, you must have guessed. That the oculist is a spy of Gondal, surely.”
“Absurd!” He’d spoken a little too warmly; Mrs Hudson shot him a very beady look.
“Would that be so, Mr Verney? I take it you have private knowledge on the subject? Might you have met him before?”
He could have lied. But there was something about the shrewd glint in Mrs Hudson’s eye that suggested she might be harder to convince than many. And, for that matter, he owed her much already. Honesty was the least of his debts.
“Yes,” he muttered. “He’s an old friend.”
Unexpectedly, she smiled; a small, sad and secret smile. “Ah. I always wondered.”
His eyes opened wide. “What?”
“Mr Verney, you may think you’ve fooled me all these years, but I was a married woman with a son of my own – God rest him these twenty years – before you’d left the nursery, and that’s assuming you have the years you claim.”
Mrs Hudson’s voice was gentle, but had an edge to it. It reminded him – absurdly – of Genia, back before the cloud had fallen over her. And then his heart suddenly caught up with his ears and began thudding erratically, out of control.
John. She guesses about me and John. Even if I hoick him out of the castle, she can still destroy us both before the Bishop.
She folded her arms, looking at him as if he were a particularly dense child – or, perhaps, Theo.
“Perhaps, Mr Verney, it’d be as well if we continued this conversation behind a bolted door? That is, in my home?”
“I don’t have time–”
”You can’t scale a castle wall by yourself, Mr Verney, and I can assure you that I’ve gone in and out of the castle all my life, and never once through the great gates ‘cept on festivals and holy days. Hudson, wherever he lies now, used to be the assistant quartermaster and her then ladyship didn’t care to have the garrison fraternising with the village girls.”
“So you – found ways of getting in to see him?”
“I did. And he found ways of getting out to me. Which won’t surprise you. Since it appears you know rather better than you’ve been letting on all these years, you’ve as much chance of damming the Reaching Beck and making the water run back upstream as you have of stopping two young people who want to be together, from being together.”
“Being executed as a Gondalian spy might do that trick.”
Mrs Hudson snorted. “Now, there you are. Clearly you aren’t thinking straight. Mr Ronald won’t be of age until two years come Michaelmas, if we all live that long. It’s the old gentleman who exercises the King’s commission in these parts, and, Mr Verney, you’ve been coming here for how long, now? The old gentleman would put on state merely to intimidate a poacher. Heaven alone knows what he’ll do when it’s a suspected Gondalian spy. He’ll be dithering about whether he’s showing too much or too little marten fur to create the right impression, and whether news of his doings will get back to Court – and then planning his outfit in case it does, and the King’s spies have a critical eye for fabric. You’ve hours yet; don’t spoil all by overhaste, as my mother, God rest her, used to tell me when I was a young thing she was teaching to cook.”
Despite himself, despite everything that had happened, Sherlock choked out a short, unexpected laugh. Mrs Hudson smiled.
“That’s better. Let’s you get back home. You’ll be all the better for a mug of hot spiced ale, and a bit of space to think. Now. I’m a respectable widow, me, and I’m not going to be seen coming out of a tavern. So we’ll leave the way we came in. Oh, don’t worry. No-one’s watching that route. My eyes may be old, but they aren’t failing. And nor are yours, Mr Verney.”
He blinked at her; she laughed.
“You left a pitiful example of trailing writing on the slate for me to find this morning. The oculist was quite shocked when I showed him; spoke Greek and all sorts.”
“I know how many quills I left, Mr Verney. A round dozen. And there were but ten when I returned. If your poor eyes were so bad when working with slate, why move on to wasting paper, a careful man like you?”
And with that final salvo she caught his elbow and steered him out of the inn-yard through into the postern. Amid all the jumble of thoughts which swirled around his mind one came uppermost.
Moran may not be the only one to have underestimated the ladies of Sancta Maria inter Prata.