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Chapter 7 - The Physician's Quest by A.J. Hall

As Ronald Adair’s hand went to the bell-pull to summon his manservant, Sherlock stepped out from his place of concealment behind the bed-hangings. “Don’t,” he said. “I crave but one quarter turn of your time. Alone. What I have to say touches most nearly on your own honour, your family’s position and the safety of the realm.”

 Adair’s hand dropped to his side. He turned to face Sherlock, face drained of colour but his hand commendably steady.

“How did you get in here?”

He gave a short, unequivocal jab of his chin towards the bed. “The same way as your fresh sheets. That is, by way of the castle laundries and a strategically deployed linen hamper.”

“Mr Verney!  This intrusion is an outrage and you are a trespasser.”

“You, on the other hand, are a patriot.” The boy’s mouth opened; Sherlock raised his hand to forestall him. “If you plan to continue as a gamester, you should take more care to guard your countenance. The threat to your honour offended you: that to your position alarmed you. It was, however, the threat to the realm which informed your actions. A fact which may yet save us all.”

“Save us?  From what?”

Before answering, Sherlock walked to the stand beside the bed, reversed the sandglass which stood there, and then crossed the room so that he stood between Adair and the door. The boy eyed his position, but said nothing.  

“I said a quarter turn, and I am a man of my word. In any event, time is not on our side. Your uncle is, relatively soon, going to examine a man whom your soldiers have entrapped and brought here by a base subterfuge.”

“A base subterfuge? Against a Gondalian spy?”

“Against a man who, in all innocence, entered this castle on a mission of mercy, motivated by nothing more than his belief that your uncle’s sight and – perhaps – life depended on the urgent exercise of his skill.”  

The boy’s chin dropped. “I did ask if there wasn’t another way, but Colonel Moran – Colonel Moran said –”

“He said that it was a ruse de guerre and  implied – subtly, but nonetheless unmistakably – that it was not for an untried boy to question a seasoned captain as to what were lawful tactics in such a case.” He made an impatient gesture with his hand. “Oh, don’t look like that. I neither overheard him nor divined his words by necromancy. What else could he have said to justify it? Nevertheless, his manoeuvre was a base one.” Brilliantly conceived and economically executed, part of his mind supplied grudgingly. 

“You named me a patriot, a few moments ago,” Adair said. “Surely, in a case of this nature, when the safety of the realm is in jeopardy, scruples must needs be set aside?”

Sherlock looked steadily at him until the boy dropped his gaze. 

“A realm that jettisoned its customary niceties in the name of survival would shortly cease to be the same realm. The essence of a kingdom does not lie within an outline drawn on a map.”

The boy drew himself up. Every line of his face bespoke cold hauteur. “A realm where small town scriveners presume to lecture their betters on such matters seems, already, to have lost a great part of its essence.”

Sherlock made a harsh, impatient noise at the back of his throat. “Oh, do grow up. And stop wasting time. Do you seriously think I would use this tone to you were I only a small town scrivener, as you put it?  Though you would do well not to underestimate small towns, nor those that dwell there. That lesson I learned the hard way.”

“Who are you, then?”

A harder question to answer than it seems. Not the man who left Court a month ago, assuredly.

The tattered paper fluttering from the church door put weights on his tongue. He chose his next words with extreme care.

“I am Mr Verney, but he is not wholly me. And there is more to Mr Verney than you imagine.” He paused, and added very deliberately, “I am the man who bore the King’s commission, five years ago, when I arrived here charged with investigating your late father’s last illness.”

The sudden greenish tinge to the boy’s already pale cheek gave him the answer to a question which he had considered, on and off, over the years. 

“Servants’ rumours, or your own suspicions?”

“What?”

“As to your parents’ deaths.” 

“My father died of a slow, chronic decline and my mother – ” Adair trembled to a stop.

“Let us leave your mother’s death to one side for the moment. Her suicide, as we both know, has been an open secret in the town since it happened. The accident story is nothing but a fig-leaf for decency’s sake. No, don’t interrupt me. The time for niceties has long flown. Concentrate on your father’s death. So you have, indeed, wondered?”

The boy gave a sharp, bitten-off sound of pain. His eyes were showing too much white, like a horse in a thunderstorm. His voice, when it came, was an agonised whisper. “There was something wrong, that last time I stayed in the holidays. Things had – changed. Mama – she was distant, the servants whispered in corners, and Papa – he confided something to me, once, when he fancied himself unobserved – I thought it the dark fancy of an invalid, God forgive me!”

He dropped his head in his hands. Sherlock averted his head, so the boy might recover his composure unobserved. No-one had ever accused him of sentiment, but John’s survival depended on the boy’s goodwill. Men, he had found, put disproportionate store in small acts of courtesy.

After a moment or so Adair looked up. There were taut lines around his finely shaped mouth. “You say you came here with the King’s commission. Did you execute it?”

For a moment the boy’s meaning escaped him. Then he understood.  

Dear God, do the people think us Zeus, wielding thunderbolts?

“The King’s justice extends only to the living. Not beyond the grave. And I am his investigator only, not his headsman.”  

With unaccustomed gentleness, he added, “My report lies sealed in the Royal archives, away from prying eyes. I doubt the King’s clerks will refuse your application to read it, should you apply. For the moment, though, time is short. There is a spy of Gondal in the castle, though he’s not the man you think.”

The boy swallowed. “Do you mean –”

“Let be for the moment. Your uncle is about to question the oculist. Is there a place from which I can listen unseen?”

After a short pause – thank the Virgin for the pliable nature of young minds– Adair nodded.  

“Follow me. I don’t claim to believe you, but for what happened, back then, you deserve one chance. But – you are in a castle, and every guard here is one of my men. Don’t think to leave here as easily as you entered.”

He inclined his head. “Understood. And for my part, I lay no charge on you. Only listen, learn, and use your own judgement.”

Thankfully,  Adair nodded. 

“I will do as you ask.”

He allowed himself to be taken up to the high place with its incomparable view down onto the audience space. He compressed his tall frame to fit within the lurking chamber, where it had amused so many of the castle’s masters to lie before. He even lay there in silence when John’s small, foreshortened figure, weighed down by shackles, was led forth before the equally short black figure of Francis Maynooth, enshrined in his chair of state on a dais at the end of the hall.

No-one could ever tell how hard it bit. To his dying day he would hear those thin, fluting, questioning tones.

“So,  what kind of man are you?  And what brings you into Sancta Maria Inter Prata?”

John’s voice came clearly up from the floor below.

“I came here to practise my profession. Indeed, I entered this castle for that very reason.”

“Your – profession.” Maynooth made the last word a sneer, though Sherlock judged that he would have done the same to anyone obliged to work with hand or brain. “Well, profess this. Repeat after me: Sinuous snake sliding/through misty morning sea-stones/Green as the June grass.

That old chestnut!  Just the sort of thing an idiot like Maynooth would think was clever. Gaaldine and Gondalian were sister tongues, differing little between each other. But the Northern language was far harsher, more guttural, compared to the sibilance of the Southern. Legend held that a man, under pressure, always reverted to the dialect he had learned in childhood, making imposture impossible.

In his own case, Sherlock knew, legend spoke false. But in John’s?

“You’ve brought me here to play at word-games?”  John’s air of polite puzzlement tinged with offended dignity was beautifully done. 

“I’ve brought you here to condemn or save yourself out of your own mouth.”

“By reciting your shibboleth? But a cultured man such as yourself must appreciate its imprecision?  So close to the border, I’d wager one in five of men in this room would have trouble pronouncing that, maybe more.” John might have been discussing some arcane point of philosophy, not arguing for his life.

“What –?” Francis Maynooth sounded momentarily bewildered. Sherlock tensed in his lair. If the old gentleman realised he was losing control of the interrogation his reaction would doubtless be violent.

“Uncle.” Ronald Adair’s voice cut in, assured and yet still respectful. “A word.”

He bent and whispered in the old gentleman’s ear. After a moment, Maynooth nodded.

“Go ahead. It should be a salutary demonstration.” He turned and glared at John.

“My nephew has proposed we take you up on your suggestion. Five men here present will essay the same test, thus demonstrating its validity. Ronald, make your selection.”

Adair nodded to the captain of the guard. “My uncle has already shown the correct pronunciation. Four more needed only. Johannes, will you go next?”

“Aye, sir.” The captain of the guard drew himself up and rattled off the verse with aplomb.  

“Splendid. Nominate one of your men, Johannes, to follow.”

The captain called someone from the back row – Sherlock couldn’t catch his name, but from the ripple of amusement which ran round the hall he must be the castle buffoon. He stumbled through the verse with many backtracks and errors, but with, nonetheless, an impeccably Gaaldinian stress on his sibilants.

Adair turned to John.  

“Your wager seems a little optimistic, wouldn’t you say?”

“Perhaps.” John’s voice seemed almost indecently light-hearted, though Sherlock’s acute ear could identify the tension beneath it. “Two more opportunities, though.”

“Well, it’s my turn, then. Or – no – on second thoughts maybe I should bring up the rear. Colonel Moran, how about you?”

The blood thundered in Sherlock’s ears. The boy must be more acute than he looked. Either that or he was taking revenge for Moran’s earlier presumption.

A pause, which threatened to become overlong, and then a merry laugh.

“Ah!   Our oculist may have drawn a bow at a venture, but even random arrows sometimes find their mark.” Moran, for the first time stepped out into Sherlock’s field of view, so he stood besides John, perhaps four feet  away. Neither man gave the smallest sign of having recognised the other.

Moran looked up at Maynooth on the dais, his shoulders fearlessly back.  

An honest soldier, without a particle of guile in his makeup.

“My lord, that shibboleth has threatened to overset me more than once in my military career. Whether the fault lies in some trifling defect in my palate, or – as my lady mother was inclined to lament, her injudicious selection of a Gondalian girl as my wet-nurse and foster mother, I’m afraid I should make a shocking hash of it. For what it’s worth, your prisoner may consider himself to have made his point.”

“For what it’s worth.” Francis Maynooth seemed to be clinging on to the words like a man in deep snow clutching his staff. He glared at John. “And what is it worth?  Are you a man of Gondal or not, hey?”

“Gondal gave me birth, true.” The words fell into a suddenly silent hall. “But Gondal no longer welcomes me.”

“Ah. And why would that be?” Contempt dripped from Maynooth’s voice.  

Even from a distance, even from only seeing the back of John’s head, Sherlock knew what Maynooth would be confronting: the direct blue gaze of utter integrity.

“Because I adhere to the Modernist party. That is, those of us – and we are not few – who believe that Gondal’s bar on inheritance of the throne through the female line sets us at odds with the greater part of enlightened Europe.”

John paused. There was nothing of the orator about him; his words were simple and unpolished. Nevertheless, there was complete silence in the hall.

“It was, during King Ambrosine’s reign, an entirely – respectable – movement. Our objectives were known, our methods moderate and our meetings open to all those in sympathy who wished to attend.” His voice lifted; Sherlock’s pictured his smile. “These days, I doubt they enjoy such tolerance from the Palace. It certainly became clear to me that if I wished to continue to enjoy good health, it would be advisable to move South of the border before James of Gondal reached the throne.”

“You can hardly expect us to believe the word of one who – on his own story – is wanted for stirring sedition in his own land,” Maynooth sneered.

“Even where the objective of such sedition is to press the claim of your own Crown Princess to the throne of Gondal?”

Dead silence. Then, Ronald Adair’s voice.

“Such claims can hardly be tested here. Do you know of anyone who could vouch for you in this land?”

John paused. A wholly evil bubble of hilarity swelled up in Sherlock’s chest. Suppose John were – with all justice – to name the King as one who could vouch for him?  What would Maynooth, that small-town snob, do then?

The humour dissipated abruptly as he realised exactly why that fantastic vision could never become reality. A paper nailed awry to a church door.

“There is one within the household of the Crown Princess, who came with her from Gondal; he might recall my presence at meetings of the Modernist party.” John’s voice was thoughtful. “It would be a matter of a few days to send a message.”

“Then the matter is settled.” Adair turned to his uncle. “Is that not agreed?  We can hold this man here until his story is confirmed or denied.”

Maynooth gaped, momentarily. Before he could say anything Moran’s voice cut in. “A wise move. But in the meantime I shall go down to the town and see whether this man has left anything incriminating in his lodgings. Johannes, I shall need two of your men to assist me in the search. Someone who knows that part of the town and its rabbit warrens and bolt holes backwards.”

With a jingle of gear the two captains left the hall, heads bent in discussion.