Christmas Treason Part 2
For form's sake we spoke to Sir Evan Wallescourt and Lady Margaret first; but they had not even spoken much to the fraulein. Lady Margaret was in an interesting condition and only determination had brought her here for Christmas as she was suffering much from swollen ankles and Sir Evan danced attendance upon her with a touching solicitude that belongs only to the young married man as I remarked to Lady Molly when they had withdrawn. She laughed her tinkling laugh.
"Oh men who have been married longer CAN manage it you know, Mary; if they try hard enough; and if they feel that their attentions are appreciated" she said, glancing at the screen.
I blushed. How could I have forgotten even for an instant that Percy was concealed there!
Fortunately my confusion was interrupted by Lady Phoebe's arrival on quick decisive feet.
"Phelim thinks that I should not be answering questions without a father or betrothed to protect me; which is nonsense of course" she said "I asked Margaret to let me know when you were ready for me while papa and Phelim were arguing their way to agreeing with each other."
"And was the invitation of Mr Effingham to show Mr O'Toole in a better light?" asked Lady Molly. Phoebe grinned.
"As it happens, yes; I suggested the concept and Margaret provided the maggot in the apple. Do you think Effingham's a sex maniac and he killed Uschi because he thought that foreign women ought to be less of ladies than English ones and she protested?"
"It was not something that crossed my mind" said Lady Molly "But why then would he stab her in the back?"
"Oh I thought about that" said Phoebe "If he tried to embrace her on the gallery, she might be the one to have snatched a knife – he's too short to reach it readily, but Uschi and her maid are such veritable valkyries! – and then he wrested it from her and stabbed her with his arms about her, they stumbled down the stairs and he lowered her down."
"An interesting hypothesis" said my lady "And logically reasoned given the facts and your construction on the characters of those involved. I shall not discard that theory out of hand; though I believe there were other factors involved. But of course" and she smiled her singular and lovely smile "Even where there are other factors, the basest of human urges might even so emerge and the potential motives merely serve to muddy the waters."
"Oh she was a spy then?" said Phoebe, interested. "I did wonder."
"Yes" said Molly. "What made you wonder?"
"Oh the questions she was asking papa about his work in the government; and I don't know much German but I heard her quarrel with her maid; that Liesel Natter is a sly piece and always sneaking around. I heard her say to Uschi that Herzog Von Wieseltanz would not be pleased about something that I did not catch; and I vaguely recall Percy – Lord Percy Devinne, you know – having said that Hans Von Wieseltanz was one of Turpitz's spymasters."
I should not have curled my fingers into claws that she should use Lord Percy's name so freely; after all she had known him, no doubt, from early childhood.
"Interesting" said Lady Molly.
"Is it? oh good" said Lady Phoebe "I shouldn't mind being a lady detective; and if I've been moderately clever, perhaps you'll give me a recommendation. I can't really ask Percy; he's not really a proper detective, he just does things that mean he works with Scotland Yard sometimes and besides he's fearfully ancient and would probably think it's not a proper thing like Charles says it isn't."
I had not actually realised quite what a mere babe she was; and shifted my chair hurriedly to hide the sound of Percy's indignant and not entirely swallowed snort in the corner.
We were interrupted by Mr O'Toole full of Gaelic indignation, and Lord Atiltone.
"Sure and what are they doin' t'ye, me threasure, me dharlin'?" cried O'Toole.
"Phelim you are an idiot" said Phoebe with scorn "What COULD they do to me? I've been advancing some of my theories and Lady Molly thinks them logical. Go away; I don't NEED protecting; this is the twentieth century and I am not some fainting heroine from the rubbish your great uncle Byron wrote."
"I believe I don't need to ask you anything else Lady Phoebe" said my dear lady "However, as Mr O'Toole is here, he may as well be the next on my list; the order after all is of little moment. Lord Atiltone, do you feel a need to protect the young man's honour from my dangerous presence?"
Her gay tone had the peer goggling for a moment, then as he finally recognised a joke, he laughed.
"Ho ho! Protect his virtue from two dangerous women eh? I think O'Toole is old enough to protect himself! But I think my daughter should have had someone to warn her not to say anything in her foolish way; she is young and does not understand that jests may be taken seriously and land her in trouble!"
"Oh I believe I know a jest from serious comment" said Lady Molly "And I have no suspicions whatsoever about Phoebe; she is no taller than five feet four or so; it is impossible to suspect her, even if she were not so patently and openly innocent of anything more than a wish that she were in charge of the investigation. However" she added in a steely tone "You would be well, Lord Atiltone, to make sure she is never alone with anyone but yourself, your son, Lord Percy, or your other daughter. Indeed, as this might affect your older daughter adversely I should like you to ask her to return to her home taking Phoebe with her. I will know where to find her if any other question arises to put to her."
"What – you mean – do you think Phoebe knows what happened? Saw something?" he went white.
"No My Lord; but I do know that she is of curious disposition and an open, talkative girl who might say something in front of someone which has a significance she does not realise. If I KNEW, I could then protect her better in your home. But I would prefer that she was out of the way."
"Percy said to obey you implicitly…. If my little girl is in danger…. I shall do as you suggest."
"And I shall go with her, for sure I will" said O'Toole.
"No you will not" said Lady Molly "Because you might be one of the people I need to protect her from."
"ye besom! Wha's that has the givin' av yez the roights ter sthart accusin' av folks?" the angry Irishman became almost incomprehensible.
"The right that I've been called in not Scotland Yard in full; that might shut you up pending an investigation into you" said Lady Molly. "For all I know, you might be using Lady Phoebe to get your hands on knowledge her father is privy to in the same way as Fraulein Von Bhaerburg was initially using her brother. Now sit down; I have no time for you to act nursery tantrums. If you can't behave civilly I WILL have you arrested and investigated for Fenian activity."
He paled and sat.
"Oi dabbled with Fenian politics when Oi was at school" said O'Toole sullenly, his brogue thickening under stress. "Sure, and wasn't it just fashionable t'do so; and didn't Oi grow out of it, so Oi did; and sorra a thing t'do wit' the nonsense since Oi was about seventeen!"
"How did you meet Lady Phoebe?" asked Lady Molly conversationally.
"Sure, and didn't she ask for an introduction to me at a dance?" said O'Toole. "Ef yer thinkin' Oi sought her out, ye're sadly mistook me lady; for it's not knowin' her from Adam as Oi was until Oi did."
We unravelled that and found that it made sense once one allowed for the idiom in which it was couched.
"How tall are you, Mr O'Toole?" asked Lady Molly.
"An inch or two shorter than the dead Fraulein and throuble I'd be havin' t' shove a Knoife in at the angle ut was in, even ef I wuz standin' on the stair above" said O'Toole.
"And what angle WAS it in?" asked Lady Molly.
O'Toole went slightly green.
"It wuz…. Goin' down inther the body" he said "I get up early; come upon the housemaid havin' hystherics over ut, silly eejit; then Gregson arroived. Ye couldn't do it from the stair above, I'm thinkin'; not ef she wuz turned loike yez had Phoebe turn. But whoever did ut was as tall as the Fraulein or taller."
"Well that's interesting" said Lady Molly "I have no other questions for now; you may go. I suggest you take advantage of the Marquis' brandy."
"And not a drap o' the rale stuff in the house; only that substitute…..rubbish fram Scotland" mourned Mr O'Toole who evidently scorned the mature thirty-year-old single malt from Balvenie that we later found was Lord Atiltone's favourite tipple.
When he had gone I said,
"He might be lying about the angle to throw suspicion off himself"
"He might" said Lady Molly "But the other stiletto is lower; and I fancy would have been more convenient for a short man to take. And I'd say he was nearer three or even four inches shorter than Uschi Von Bhaerburg; but even faced with suspicion he cannot but boast. That's the Irish for you" she added with affectionate tolerance.
We saw Mr Richard Effingham next. He leered at both of us; at least that is the only way I can describe the smile he gave, especially in the direction of Lady Molly whose silk waist fitted her shapely figure closely, its pin-tucks running into the open shawl collar of the long, slimline velvet jacket of her outfit that matched in shade exactly with the twill skirt, a rich claret that so few women can wear without looking either pale or hectically flushed; needless to say, Lady Molly looked quite perfect in it.
"Well at least they now send investigators that are easy on the eye!" he said, rubbing his hands together.
"You are a brave man, Mr Effingham" said Lady Molly demurely.
"Eh? What's that strange idea in your pretty little head?"
"Oh hardly a strange idea" said my lady "Only that as my husband is a military man he will insist on calling out any man he feels excessively complimentary towards me; and he's such a good shot I can't but think you a brave man for being prepared to take him on."
Mr Effingham paled to a dirty grey colour; although many small men have physical courage well beyond their inches, he was not one of them.
"I'm a rich man" he said "I'm sure he could be persuaded…."
"He'd lay you out for such a suggestion" I interposed "Besides, you may have a little money, Mr Effingham; what is that to landowners who have had land for generations? You are insolent to my lady who is from one of the foremost families in England. She has contacts who could make sure you were ruined if she chose."
"Mary" it was an admonition from my lady; but the way he looked at my lady made my blood boil; I could not but put him in his place!
"My Lady, I apologise if I have caused YOU offence by drawing attention to your estate" I said formally.
"This gets us no further forward" said Lady Molly. "There are certain reasons, Mr Effingham, that you would appear not to be responsible for the stabbing of Ursule Von Bhaerburg; however if you had an interest in any papers she also had an interest in, and have any knowledge to throw light upon this unfortunate business, then I suggest that it would be within your interests to do so. Whilst no foreign national can find themselves in trouble for espionage since there is no law against it, may I say that YOU could be charged with treason if you were found to be in possession of, or attempting to gain possession of, certain papers."
He went if anything greyer.
"I know nothing of any papers!" he almost squealed in terror.
"No? you did not talk your business acquaintance into giving you an invitation to his father-in-law's house purely to get a glimpse of these papers for your own enrichment?" Lady Molly's voice held just the right note of official disbelief.
He whinnied in horror.
"I didn't even know that there were papers here that might be of interest to me!" he squealed. "All I know is that I made a pass at that little German bitch and she slapped me; and as for that maid of hers, she fetched me such a smack I went to bed with a dose of chloral to help sleep with so sore a face. See, I have the bruise yet!" he added indignantly. "And that Frowline wouldn't discipline her; said it served me right! A SERVANT allowed to hit me? Intolerable!"
The girl Liesel had certainly given him a goodly blow; and I could not say I blamed her.
Lady Molly smiled.
"Perhaps someone told the maid that in England we pride ourselves on our freedoms – and the fact that taking liberties with girls is considered a crime" she said with a charmingly innocent look. "After all, only someone who is an utter boor would force himself on a girl; not at all what any gentleman would do, and I daresay she mistook your intentions."
He went from grey to a kind of beetroot colour.
"Well, I know nothing about papers nor the girl being killed" he said loudly.
Lady Molly nodded.
"Very well; if I wish to ask you anything else I shall have you sent for" she said "Please send in Mr Rasbrazjutov next."
He actually managed a jerky bow on leaving; really I cannot say that I have ever disliked anyone more!
"I swear to you that I, Arturin Vasiliev Rasbrazjutov, have had nothing to do with killing the girl" rumbled the big Russian.
"Somehow I fancy you'd be more likely to strangle someone anyway, not use a slender knife" said my lady dryly. "Tell me, apart from the dispute that was settled by Lord Atiltone as a disinterested third party, did you have any interests in the papers he was studying?"
"Ha!" said Rasbrazjutov "He had a treaty with the Japanese; saw it on his desk the first day I was here; tried to hide it but I know their scripts when I see them; written in English and the Japanese language both I should think. I knew then I had no chance of persuading him to decide in Russia's favour!"
"I think you'll find that Lord Atiltone went by the point of law not any personal preference" said Lady Molly.
"Well if it was personal preference I should think that little – I do not know the English word and would not say it in front of ladies anyway – the American – would put him off. You get me wrong; Lord Atiltone is an honest man and also patriotic and if there was to be a treaty with Japan I know I had no chance of bribing him to find a loophole."
We sat aghast that he should admit the fact that he might have attempted bribery.
"I see" said Lady Molly "You did not wish to er, borrow the document for a closer look to verify what it said?"
"Yomayo! Why would I need to look at it? If England makes a treaty with Japan, whose naval officers are all trained at Dartmouth, it will be a naval treaty; and this means that Russia has no chance to fight Japan again. All because that fool Rozhestvenski let his idiot captains get out of hand – and did not even leave lifeboats for the fishermen of the Hull fishing fleet that the fools sank! What with that and the clowns - yes CLOWNS – on the Kamchatka who might almost have been supposed to have been traitors were they not all certainly merely moronic, it was a farce. And Russia made a villainous laughing stock; pravda! So it is I, who am the most tolerant and reasonable and discreet of men, who comes to speak about this matter and I am truly shown to be the quietest and gentlest of creatures, for have I taken that little rat of an American and torn him into pieces for his insolence? No I have not; and I will not because it will create another incident. 'Arturin' I say to myself, 'the Americans have sent this gadfly only to see if they can make a war; because they want to steal Russian lands in Siberia to give them more naval bases so THEY can fight the Japanese'; and when I remind myself of this, I do not then fall into the trap of reacting to the little MUDLO – no, that I cannot and will not say in English before gracious ladies – and I am at peace with myself. I should like very much to kill him however" he added smiling beatifically.
Lady Molly dismissed him and I am afraid we both burst out laughing.
"If he is an example of Tolerant, Quiet, Discreet or Reasonable" I giggled "I should hate to meet an unrestrained Russian!"
The American was a wiry fellow just about tall enough to have done the deed and only a great bear of a fellow like Rasbrazjutov would consider him 'little'.
"Let me first say that I do consider this prying to be quite intolerable" said Schilepper "And really, do you HAVE to have all that pagan rubbish even in here?" he indicated the evergreens which decorated the study.
"Why yes, I believe we do" said Lady Molly "I would never be so ill bred as to even consider asking a host to change his arrangements of decoration; besides, it is a tradition stretching back in time immemorial; but of course you would not understand tradition. However as a guest in this house I would certainly not dream of interfering; and I am amazed that you should ask it of me since I have known Americans with manners quite as good as anybody's."
"You sniffy broad!" he snarled "I wager you're no real lady at all!"
Lady Molly smiled sweetly.
"You would lose your wager so I'd not recommend it" she said. "I am the daughter of the late Earl of Flintshire; which gives me the right to the title for my lifetime. Call my veracity into doubt and I will sue you for slander. Now, if the personal remarks are all over, might we move on to relevancies? You may have time to waste but I should like to enjoy the rest of Christmas with my family."
"I didn't kill the Kraut broad" he said.
"And I suppose you didn't have an interest in the papers she may have had in her possession either?" said Lady Molly in a disbelieving tone.
"Papers? What interest would I have in storypapers and whatever rubbish you broads read?" he sneered.
"THAT is pretending too much chauvinism to be believable" I said "You are surely aware that the lady was engaging in espionage for her country?"
He stared then laughed. It sounded like a donkey braying.
"What, the Krauts let GIRLS do spying? Hey I knew they were stupid but really! Women have no ability to think and are easier to manipulate if they are fool enough to think they have – like someone talking the girlies into supposedly investigating this death because you are too stupid to realise your chief wants his Christmas day in peace."
Really if he were only taken to court and introduced to our King, it would be enough to make King Edward determined to be friendly with his nephew no matter what; his offensive way of speaking must have made anyone consider any prejudices we might hold against the German nation to be almost affectionate differences by comparison! And his attitude to women was fairly repulsive!
"Odi profanum vulgus et arceo" murmured my lady.
"What does that mean?" demanded Shilepper.
"Apparently it means that I am so stupid that I am able to acquire more Latin than you" said Lady Molly smiling sweetly. "And by the way, the phrase contained a dismissal; I can see that you would not be interested in any treaties or documents since I doubt you are literate enough to understand them. Pray depart."
He went with ill grace.
Percy emerged, chuckling.
"You hate the unenlightened crowd and bid them depart indeed!" he said.
"It was the best one I could recall under the circumstances, Lord Percy" said my lady "I am quite shaking with anger; Mary, I dare say you feel the same?"
"Some of the company here appears to be a trifle NEANDERTHAL" I said.
"Oh bravo, Miss Granard" said Percy. "We are no further forward though."
"On the contrary" said my lady "I should say we were considerably further forward. We know who could NOT have murdered Fraulein Von Bhaerburg; and who was unlikely to have done so. I should have said that only one suspect remains. Mary, I pray you after tea to see if you might find any prints on the knife; and also to take your print kit and see whether the killer felt a need for bracing with a left hand against the banisters whilst stabbing the fraulein. Even a strong person might feel a need to place a hand against the banister; and of course such a print will go across the banister not, as would be the case of someone using it as balance or assist going up or down stairs, in line with it."
"I'll do that first" I said "Before the so-efficient marquis has the whole banister polished. But I dare if I find anything it is more likely to be the print of a maid using the banister to get up after having scrubbed the stair."
"Well then we must take the prints of all the servants to eliminate them from the enquiry" said my lady serenely. "Let us go in to tea."
"You're a dashed pretty girl, Miss Granard" said Richard Effingham laying an unwelcome hand on my arm "Thing is if you ever wanted to leave that starchy creature you work for, I should be VERY happy to have you as my secretary; nice gifts for anything extra-curricular of course, and the possibility that if we suit each other, I might even consider marriage."
I stared open mouthed.
"If you think for one moment" I said coldly "That I would submit for one instant to being pawed by a creature like you even if I wished to leave the company of my dear friend you must be out of your mind."
"Furthermore" said Percy coming over "You will do me the favour of unhanding my affianced wife before I hit you."
His hooded eyes were narrowed and dangerous and I never thought he looked so beautiful.
Effingham looked pointedly at my finger, bare of any ring.
"I did not know" he said, reluctantly removing his hand.
"It seemed inappropriate in light of the tragedy here to announce our engagement" said Percy. "Mary, my dear, did he trouble you much?"
"Not so much that I felt constrained to kick him" I said.
"Good girl!" he said "And by the way" he added in a low voice "I do apologise for not asking first; am I correct in thinking that you would not mind me asking the question?"
"I should like it very much, Percy" I said, flushing a little to use his name "But if you only said it to rescue me I quite understand."
"No I damn well didn't" said Percy "I would like very much to kiss you but we're a little constrained by polite company, tea and mince pies."
"Why then" I said, flushing again "We must consider each bite of a mince pie to stand for a kiss."
He gave a low chuckle.
"I can eat a lot of mince pies" he said.
"I, being ladylike, will merely take smaller bites; though each one will be as sweet and any gentleman's sized bites" I said demurely.
I am quite sure that neither of us attended to any other conversation at tea – served on low tables in the library – for we were much too busy synchronising our efforts to bite simultaneously into mince pies and I at least feeling uncommonly warm and pleasant for the exercise.
Percy was kind enough to aid my efforts in the searching for fingerprints, whilst Lady Molly lined up all the guests and servants to take their prints for, as she said, elimination purposes. I believe that certain of the company made something of a fuss which was forestalled by Lord Atiltone declaring that he would go first since he did NOT have a guilty conscience such as would be the only reason to refuse. He may not have been the brightest candle on the tree as you might say, but he was shrewd enough in some respects, and even apologised handsomely for not understanding the importance of preserving the scene. I believe Gregson had explained it to him.
Gregson wanted to see if I turned up any prints on the knife; and was most disappointed when I did not find anything that might be readily used; but as I had an excellent palm print and two fingers from the banisters I was less concerned. Though if they WERE the prints of one of the servants it would be disappointing.
Lady Molly examined my results and had the whole company, servants and all summoned.
"The knife yielded little" she said "But it so happened that there was a singular print on the banister; and this was why we had to take the prints of all the servants – in case it was from a maid who had been scrubbing the stairs and used the banisters to assist her rising. Who scrubbed the stairs?"
"I did ma'am" said a woman of indeterminate age "And Liza helped me" she indicated another maid.
"And nobody else was involved?" asked Lady Molly.
"No ma'am" said the first woman.
Lady Molly nodded.
"The print was that of one of the servants" she said.
"I knowed it wasn't one of us" said Shilepper. Lady Molly gave him a look of dislike.
"The print was that of Liesel Natter" said my lady. "Whose room Lord Percy has been searching in her absence."
At this the German woman launched herself on Lady Molly; and was blocked by the Captain; who as I have frequently mentioned was built on noble lines and was more than equal to even a valkyrie of a woman.
She was pouring forth vituperation in German.
"Speak English" said Lady Molly "You speak it perfectly well or you would not have followed the conversation up to now.. Ah, Percy, have you anything?"
"Only some letters from a man called Hans – I believe it to be Herzog Hans Von Wieseltanz – couched in such terms as might lead a gullible girl to suppose he has some feelings for her, if she was well primed by him" said Percy. "Warning that as she feels her mistress is unreliable she must do everything to prevent her being a traitor."
"Ach, ach ACH! You have no right to search my room!" cried Natter.
"I have every right; I asked Lord Atiltone if I might" said Percy. "And I had the housekeeper with me for propriety; which some may consider me to have in too great an abundance, but you are a lone female far from home – but now it is proven that you were aware of, and participating in espionage."
"There is NOTHING you can do! You Britishers have no law against spying!" cried the woman.
"No; but we DO have a law against murder" said Lady Molly "And it is for murdering Fraulein Von Bhaerburg that you will be hanged. The print is as clear as any that I have seen."
"Weren't my missing papers in her room? Where then are they?" demanded Lord Atiltone.
"HAH! You will never have them – because if I could not find them, they will never be found!" cried Liesel Natter.
"On the contrary" said Lady Molly "I know exactly where they are; and have done all day. But as they were safe enough where they were I preferred to leave them there for the time being."
"Upon my word!" said Lord Atiltone, outraged.
"And no doubt also watched to see if Charles had mentioned his riddle to anyone in case anyone else solved it? clever" said Percy. He had slipped an arm around my shoulders.
"Quite so" said Lady Molly. "Fraulein Von Bhaerburg repented of espionage against the country of one whom she had come to love; and decided to hide the papers and leave their whereabouts concealed in a rebus that she told to Charles."
"Here I say! I thought it was a riddle!" said Charles. "What's a rebus when it's at home?"
"It is a word puzzle that employs pictures to suggest homonyms of the true word or part thereof; and in this case is couched purely in words" said Lady Molly "As the Fraulein had no chance for any other endeavour, and had worked very hard to produce something in English for her beloved; since he knew no German. She had been looking up synonyms and the like in her dictionary to make a good puzzle; a piece of paper that was improperly burned led to mislead her maid here into searching her dead mistress' petticoats – including those she was wearing."
There was a collective sound of repugnance that my lady had played for; even though we must, in the course of our duties, do such repugnant things ourselves.
"Narsty creature" said one of the maids.
"Indeed" said Lady Molly. "But you must recall that she has been deceived by a dangerous and unpleasant man and sought only to please him."
I wondered why she should now defend the girl Liesel; but Percy murmured,
"Clever; isolate her, then show her compassion. I should think we'll learn a great deal about Wieseltanz now."
It was not nice; but then spying can never be so; and I must be aware that this is part of the Great Game that Percy is a part of; and learn to live with it.
"The rebus recalled to Lord Charles a fun-fair; suggested less fun but a squeal of joy" said Lady Molly "Which seemed to suggest fair; plus some kind of cry. The only ejaculation of such a kind that seemed to fit was 'ee!' making 'Fairy'" she looked around and laughed at their puzzlement. "I'll finish if I may; she then asked him to consider little goats started by the sea; almost an acrostic clue more than a rebus. Little; or petty; goats begun with a sea, or the letter 'C' – petticoats to be sure. Yes, that much was also in plain view on the burned paper; but without the first part, fairy, it is useless. Fairy petticoats; the petticoats of the fairy on the Christmas tree to be sure!"
"Ach so THAT is what she was doing leaning over the banisters!" cried Liesel Natter "And I never realised!"
Lady Molly herself ran lightly up the stairs to lean over and remove the fairy, a large doll, fortunately of lightweight papier-mâché construction bar the bisque head. With her little sewing scissors she snipped the lace sewn in layers as a petticoat; and revealed that most of the layers were not in fact lace at all – but paper!
Lord Atiltone gave something close to a sob of relief.
"My dear Lady Molly! Oh this is excellent! Why they are all intact!" he cried, flicking through the several sheets.
I think the next best Christmas present I had that day, next to Percy's irregular proposal, was seeing the look on Shilepper's face when he realised that he could not have solved the rebus my lady made such light work of.
And of course the kiss I had under the mistletoe once the local police had taken Liesel Natter and the body of her mistress away.