Sir Pierre Morlaix, Chevalier of the Angevin Empire, Knight of the Golden Leopard, and secretary-in-private to my lord, the Count D’Evreux, pushed back the lace at his cuff for a glance at his wrist watch--three minutes of seven. The Angelus had rung at six, as always, and my lord D’Evreux had been awakened by it, as always. At least, Sir Pierre could not remember any time in the past seventeen years when my lord had not awakened at the Angelus. Once, he recalled, the sacristan had failed to ring the bell, and the Count had been furious for a week. Only the intercession of Father Bright, backed by the Bishop himself, had saved the sacristan from doing a turn in the dungeons of Castle D’Evreux.
Sir Pierre stepped out into the corridor, walked along the carpeted flagstones, and cast a practiced eye around him as he walked. These old castles were difficult to keep clean, and my lord the Count was fussy about nitre collecting in the seams between the stones of the walls. All appeared quite in order, which was a good thing. My lord the Count had been making a night of it last evening, and that always made him the more peevish in the morning. Though he always woke at the Angelus, he did not always wake up sober.
Sir Pierre stopped before a heavy, polished, carved oak door, selected a key from one of the many at his belt, and turned it in the lock. Then he went into the elevator and the door locked automatically behind him. He pressed the switch and waited in patient silence as he was lifted up four floors to the Count’s personal suite.
By now, my lord the Count would have bathed, shaved, and dressed. He would also have poured down an eye-opener consisting of half a water glass of fine Champagne brandy. He would not eat breakfast until eight. The Count had no valet in the strict sense of the term. Sir Reginald Beauvay held that title, but he was never called upon to exercise the more personal functions of his office. The Count did not like to be seen until he was thoroughly presentable.
The elevator stopped. Sir Pierre stepped out into the corridor and walked along it toward the door at the far end. At exactly seven o’clock, he rapped briskly on the great door which bore the gilt-and-polychrome arms of the House D’Evreux.
For the first time in seventeen years, there was no answer.
Sir Pierre waited for the growled command to enter for a full minute, unable to believe his ears. Then, almost timidly, he rapped again.
There was still no answer.
Then, bracing himself for the verbal onslaught that would follow if he had erred, Sir Pierre turned the handle and opened the door just as if he had heard the Count’s voice telling him to come in.
“Good morning, my lord,” he said, as he always had for seventeen years.
But the room was empty, and there was no answer.
He looked around the huge room. The morning sunlight streamed in through the high mullioned windows and spread a diamond-checkered pattern across the tapestry on the far wall, lighting up the brilliant hunting scene in a blaze of color.
Nothing. Not a sound.
The bedroom door was open. Sir Pierre walked across to it and looked in.
He saw immediately why my lord the Count had not answered, and that, indeed, he would never answer again.
My lord the Count lay flat on his back, his arms spread wide, his eyes staring at the ceiling. He was still clad in his gold and scarlet evening clothes. But the great stain on the front of his coat was not the same shade of scarlet as the rest of the cloth, and the stain had a bullet hole in its center.
Sir Pierre looked at him without moving for a long moment. Then he stepped over, knelt, and touched one of the Count’s hands with the back of his own. It was quite cool. He had been dead for hours.
“I knew someone would do you in sooner or later, my lord,” said Sir Pierre, almost regretfully.
Then he rose from his kneeling position and walked out without another look at his dead lord. He locked the door of the suite, pocketed the key, and went back downstairs in the elevator.
Mary, Lady Duncan stared out of the window at the morning sunlight and wondered what to do. The Angelus bell had awakened her from a fitful sleep in her chair, and she knew that, as a guest at Castle D’Evreux, she would be expected to appear at Mass again this morning. But how could she? How could she face the Sacramental Lord on the altar--to say nothing of taking the Blessed Sacrament itself.
Still, it would look all the more conspicuous if she did not show up this morning after having made it a point to attend every morning with Lady Alice during the first four days of this visit.
She turned and glanced at the locked and barred door of the bedroom. He would not be expected to come. Laird Duncan used his wheelchair as an excuse, but since he had taken up black magic as a hobby he had, she suspected, been actually afraid to go anywhere near a church.
If only she hadn’t lied to him! But how could she have told the truth? That would have been worse--infinitely worse. And now, because of that lie, he was locked in his bedroom doing only God and the Devil knew what.
If only he would come out. If he would only stop whatever it was he had been doing for all these long hours--or at least finish it! Then they could leave Evreux, make some excuse--any excuse--to get away. One of them could feign sickness. Anything, anything to get them out of France, across the Channel, and back to Scotland, where they would be safe!
She looked back out of the window, across the courtyard, at the towering stone walls of the Great Keep and at the high window that opened into the suite of Edouard, Count D’Evreux.
Last night she had hated him, but no longer. Now there was only room in her heart for fear.
She buried her face in her hands and cursed herself for a fool. There were no tears left for weeping--not after the long night.
Behind her, she heard the sudden noise of the door being unlocked, and she turned.
Laird Duncan of Duncan opened the door and wheeled himself out. He was followed by a malodorous gust of vapor from the room he had just left. Lady Duncan stared at him.
He looked older than he had last night, more haggard and worn, and there was something in his eyes she did not like. For a moment he said nothing. Then he wet his lips with the tip of his tongue. When he spoke, his voice sounded dazed.
“There is nothing to fear any more,” he said. “Nothing to fear at all.”
The Reverend Father James Valois Bright, Vicar of the Chapel of Saint-Esprit, had as his flock the several hundred inhabitants of the Castle D’Evreux. As such, he was the ranking priest--socially, not hierarchically--in the country. Not counting the Bishop and the Chapter at the Cathedral, of course. But such knowledge did little good for the Father’s peace of mind. The turnout of the flock was abominably small for its size--especially for week-day Masses. The Sunday Masses were well attended, of course; Count D’Evreux was there punctually at nine every Sunday, and he had a habit of counting the house. But he never showed up on weekdays, and his laxity had allowed a certain further laxity to filter down through the ranks.
The great consolation was Lady Alice D’Evreux. She was a plain, simple girl, nearly twenty years younger than her brother, the Count, and quite his opposite in every way. She was quiet where he was thundering, self-effacing where he was flamboyant, temperate where he was drunken, and chaste where he was--
Father Bright brought his thoughts to a full halt for a moment. He had, he reminded himself, no right to make judgments of that sort. He was not, after all, the Count’s confessor; the Bishop was.
Besides, he should have his mind on his prayers just now.
He paused and was rather surprised to notice that he had already put on his alb, amice, and girdle, and he was aware that his lips had formed the words of the prayer as he had donned each of them.
Habit, he thought, _can be destructive to the contemplative faculty_.
He glanced around the sacristy. His server, the young son of the Count of Saint Brieuc, sent here to complete his education as a gentleman who would some day be the King’s Governor of one of the most important counties in Brittany, was pulling his surplice down over his head. The clock said 7:11.
Father Bright forced his mind Heavenward and repeated silently the vesting prayers that his lips had formed meaninglessly, this time putting his full intentions behind them. Then he added a short mental prayer asking God to forgive him for allowing his thoughts to stray in such a manner.
He opened his eyes and reached for his chasuble just as the sacristy door opened and Sir Pierre, the Count’s Privy Secretary, stepped in.
“I must speak to you, Father,” he said in a low voice. And, glancing at the young De Saint-Brieuc, he added: “Alone.”
Normally, Father Bright would have reprimanded anyone who presumed to break into the sacristy as he was vesting for Mass, but he knew that Sir Pierre would never interrupt without good reason. He nodded and went outside in the corridor that led to the altar.
“What is it, Pierre?” he asked.
“My lord the Count is dead. Murdered.”
After the first momentary shock, Father Bright realized that the news was not, after all, totally unexpected. Somewhere in the back of his mind, it seemed he had always known that the Count would die by violence long before debauchery ruined his health.
“Tell me about it,” he said quietly.
Sir Pierre reported exactly what he had done and what he had seen.
“Then I locked the door and came straight here,” he told the priest.
“Who else has the key to the Count’s suite?” Father Bright asked.
“No one but my lord himself,” Sir Pierre answered, “at least as far as I know.”
“Where is his key?”
“Still in the ring at his belt. I noticed that particularly.”
“Very good. We’ll leave it locked. You’re certain the body was cold?”
“Cold and waxy, Father.”
“Then he’s been dead many hours.”
“Lady Alice will have to be told,” Sir Pierre said.
Father Bright nodded. “Yes. The Countess D’Evreux must be informed of her succession to the County Seat.” He could tell by the sudden momentary blank look that came over Sir Pierre’s face that the Privy Secretary had not yet realized fully the implications of the Count’s death. “I’ll tell her, Pierre. She should be in her pew by now. Just step into the church and tell her quietly that I want to speak to her. Don’t tell her anything else.”
“I understand, Father,” said Sir Pierre.
There were only twenty-five or thirty people in the pews--most of them women--but Alice, Countess D’Evreux was not one of them. Sir Pierre walked quietly and unobtrusively down the side aisle and out into the narthex. She was standing there, just inside the main door, adjusting the black lace mantilla about her head, as though she had just come in from outside. Suddenly, Sir Pierre was very glad he would not have to be the one to break the news.
She looked rather sad, as always, her plain face unsmiling. The jutting nose and square chin which had given her brother the Count a look of aggressive handsomeness only made her look very solemn and rather sexless, although she had a magnificent figure.
“My lady,” Sir Pierre said, stepping towards her, “the Reverent Father would like to speak to you before Mass. He’s waiting at the sacristy door.”
She held her rosary clutched tightly to her breast and gasped. Then she said, “Oh. Sir Pierre. I’m sorry; you quite surprised me. I didn’t see you.”
“My apologies, my lady.”
“It’s all right. My thoughts were elsewhere. Will you take me to the good Father?”
Father Bright heard their footsteps coming down the corridor before he saw them. He was a little fidgety because Mass was already a minute overdue. It should have started promptly at 7:15.
The new Countess D’Evreux took the news calmly, as he had known she would. After a pause, she crossed herself and said: “May his soul rest in peace. I will leave everything in your hands, Father, Sir Pierre. What are we to do?”
“Pierre must get on the teleson to Rouen immediately and report the matter to His Highness. I will announce your brother’s death and ask for prayers for his soul--but I think I need say nothing about the manner of his death. There is no need to arouse any more speculation and fuss than necessary.”
“Very well,” said the Countess. “Come, Sir Pierre; I will speak to the Duke, my cousin, myself.”
“Yes, my lady.”
Father Bright returned to the sacristy, opened the missal, and changed the placement of the ribbons. Today was an ordinary Feria; a Votive Mass would not be forbidden by the rubics. The clock said 7:17. He turned to young De Saint-Brieuc, who was waiting respectfully. “Quickly, my son--go and get the unbleached beeswax candles and put them on the altar. Be sure you light them before you put out the white ones. Hurry, now; I will be ready by the time you come back. Oh yes--and change the altar frontal. Put on the black.”
“Yes, Father.” And the lad was gone.
Father Bright folded the green chasuble and returned it to the drawer, then took out the black one. He would say a Requiem for the Souls of All the Faithful Departed--and hope that the Count was among them.
His Royal Highness, the Duke of Normandy, looked over the official letter his secretary had just typed for him. It was addressed to _Serenissimus Dominus Nostrus Iohannes Quartus, Dei Gratia, Angliae, Franciae, Scotiae, Hiberniae, et Novae Angliae, Rex, Imperator, Fidei Defensor_,... “Our Most Serene Lord, John IV, by the Grace of God King and Emperor of England, France, Scotland, Ireland, and New England, Defender of the Faith,...”
It was a routine matter; simple notification to his brother, the King, that His Majesty’s most faithful servant, Edouard, Count of Evreux had departed this life, and asking His Majesty’s confirmation of the Count’s heir-at-law, Alice, Countess of Evreux as his lawful successor.
His Highness finished reading, nodded, and scrawled his signature at the bottom: Richard Dux Normaniae.
Then, on a separate piece of paper, he wrote: “Dear John, May I suggest you hold up on this for a while? Edouard was a lecher and a slob, and I have no doubt he got everything he deserved, but we have no notion who killed him. For any evidence I have to the contrary, it might have been Alice who pulled the trigger. I will send you full particulars as soon as I have them. With much love, Your brother and servant, Richard.”
He put both papers into a prepared envelope and sealed it. He wished he could have called the king on the teleson, but no one had yet figured out how to get the wires across the channel.
He looked absently at the sealed envelope, his handsome blond features thoughtful. The House of Plantagenet had endured for eight centuries, and the blood of Henry of Anjou ran thin in its veins, but the Norman strain was as strong as ever, having been replenished over the centuries by fresh infusions from Norwegian and Danish princesses. Richard’s mother, Queen Helga, wife to His late Majesty, Henry X, spoke very few words of Anglo-French, and those with a heavy Norse accent.
Nevertheless, there was nothing Scandinavian in the language, manner, or bearing of Richard, Duke of Normandy. Not only was he a member of the oldest and most powerful ruling family of Europe, but he bore a Christian name that was distinguished even in that family. Seven Kings of the Empire had borne the name, and most of them had been good Kings--if not always “good” men in the nicey-nicey sense of the word. Even old Richard I, who’d been pretty wild during the first forty-odd years of his life, had settled down to do a magnificent job of kinging for the next twenty years. The long and painful recovery from the wound he’d received at the Siege of Chaluz had made a change in him for the better.
There was a chance that Duke Richard might be called upon to uphold the honor of that name as King. By law, Parliament must elect a Plantagenet as King in the event of the death of the present Sovereign, and while the election of one of the King’s two sons, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Lancaster, was more likely than the election of Richard, he was certainly not eliminated from the succession.
Meantime, he would uphold the honor of his name as Duke of Normandy.
Murder had been done; therefore justice must be done. The Count D’Evreux had been known for his stern but fair justice almost as well as he had been known for his profligacy. And, just as his pleasures had been without temperance, so his justice had been untempered by mercy. Whoever had killed him would find both justice and mercy--in so far as Richard had it within his power to give it.
Although he did not formulate it in so many words, even mentally, Richard was of the opinion that some debauched woman or cuckolded man had fired the fatal shot. Thus he found himself inclining toward mercy before he knew anything substantial about the case at all.
Richard dropped the letter he was holding into the special mail pouch that would be placed aboard the evening trans-Channel packet, and then turned in his chair to look at the lean, middle-aged man working at a desk across the room.
“My lord Marquis,” he said thoughtfully.
“Yes, Your Highness?” said the Marquis of Rouen, looking up.
“How true are the stories one has heard about the late Count?”
“True, Your Highness?” the Marquis said thoughtfully. “I would hesitate to make any estimate of percentages. Once a man gets a reputation like that, the number of his reputed sins quickly surpasses the number of actual ones. Doubtless many of the stories one hears are of whole cloth; others may have only a slight basis in fact. On the other hand, it is highly likely that there are many of which we have never heard. It is absolutely certain, however, that he has acknowledged seven illegitimate sons, and I dare say he has ignored a few daughters--and these, mind you, with unmarried women. His adulteries would be rather more difficult to establish, but I think your Highness can take it for granted that such escapades were far from uncommon.”
He cleared his throat and then added, “If Your Highness is looking for motive, I fear there is a superabundance of persons with motive.”
“I see,” the Duke said. “Well, we will wait and see what sort of information Lord Darcy comes up with.” He looked up at the clock. “They should be there by now.”
Then, as if brushing further thoughts on the subject from his mind, he went back to work, picking up a new sheaf of state papers from his desk.
The Marquis watched him for a moment and smiled a little to himself. The young Duke took his work seriously, but was well-balanced about it. A little inclined to be romantic--but aren’t we all at nineteen? There was no doubt of his ability, nor of his nobility. The Royal Blood of England always came through.
“My lady,” said Sir Pierre gently, “the Duke’s Investigators have arrived.”
My Lady Alice, Countess D’Evreux, was seated in a gold-brocade upholstered chair in the small receiving room off the Great Hall. Standing near her, looking very grave, was Father Bright. Against the blaze of color on the walls of the room, the two of them stood out like ink blots. Father Bright wore his normal clerical black, unrelieved except for the pure white lace at collar and cuffs. The Countess wore unadorned black velvet, a dress which she had had to have altered hurriedly by her dressmaker; she had always hated black and owned only the mourning she had worn when her mother died eight years before. The somber looks on their faces seemed to make the black blacker.
“Show them in, Sir Pierre,” the Countess said calmly.
Sir Pierre opened the door wider, and three men entered. One was dressed as one gently born; the other two wore the livery of the Duke of Normandy.
The gentleman bowed. “I am Lord Darcy, Chief Criminal Investigator for His Highness, the Duke, and your servant, my lady.” He was a tall, brown-haired man in his thirties with a rather handsome, lean face. He spoke Anglo-French with a definite English accent.
“My pleasure, Lord Darcy,” said the Countess. “This is our vicar, Father Bright.”
“Your servant, Reverend Sir.” Then he presented the two men with him. The first was a scholarly-looking, graying man wearing pince-nez glasses with gold rims, Dr. Pateley, Physician. The second, a tubby, red-faced, smiling man, was Master Sean O Lochlainn, Sorcerer.
As soon as Master Sean was presented he removed a small, leather-bound folder from his belt pouch and proffered it to the priest. “My license, Reverend Father.”
Father Bright took it and glanced over it. It was the usual thing, signed and sealed by the Archbishop of Rouen. The law was rather strict on that point; no sorcerer could practice without the permission of the Church, and a license was given only after careful examination for orthodoxy of practice.
“It seems to be quite in order, Master Sean,” said the priest, handing the folder back. The tubby little sorcerer bowed his thanks and returned the folder to his belt pouch.
Lord Darcy had a notebook in his hand. “Now, unpleasant as it may be, we shall have to check on a few facts.” He consulted his notes, then looked up at Sir Pierre. “You, I believe, discovered the body?”
“That is correct, your lordship.”
“How long ago was this?”
Sir Pierre glanced at his wrist watch. It was 9:55. “Not quite three hours ago, your lordship.”
“At what time, precisely?”
“I rapped on the door precisely at seven, and went in a minute or two later--say 7:01 or 7:02.”
“How do you know the time so exactly?”
“My lord the Count,” said Sir Pierre with some stiffness, “insisted upon exact punctuality. I have formed the habit of referring to my watch regularly.”
“I see. Very good. Now, what did you do then?”
Sir Pierre described his actions briefly.
“The door to his suite was not locked, then?” Lord Darcy asked.
“You did not expect it to be locked?”
“No, sir. It has not been for seventeen years.”
Lord Darcy raised one eyebrow in a polite query. “Never?”
“Not at seven o’clock, your lordship. My lord the Count always rose promptly at six and unlocked the door before seven.”
“He did lock it at night, then?”
Lord Darcy looked thoughtful and made a note, but he said nothing more on that subject. “When you left, you locked the door?”
“That is correct, your lordship.”
“And it has remained locked ever since?”
Sir Pierce hesitated and glanced at Father Bright. The priest said: “At 8:15, Sir Pierre and I went in. I wished to view the body. We touched nothing. We left at 8:20.”
Master Sean O Lochlainn looked agitated. “Er ... excuse me, Reverend Sir. You didn’t give him Holy Unction, I hope?”
“No,” said Father Bright. “I thought it would be better to delay that until after the authorities has seen the ... er ... scene of the crime. I wouldn’t want to make the gathering of evidence any more difficult than necessary.”
“Quite right,” murmured Lord Darcy.
“No blessings, I trust, Reverend Sir?” Master Sean persisted. “No exorcisms or--”
“Nothing,” Father Bright interrupted somewhat testily. “I believe I crossed myself when I saw the body, but nothing more.”
“Crossed yourself, sir. Nothing else?”
“Well, that’s all right, then. Sorry to be so persistent, Reverend Sir, but any miasma of evil that may be left around is a very important clue, and it shouldn’t be dispersed until it’s been checked, you see.”
“Evil?“ My lady the Countess looked shocked.
“Sorry, my lady, but--” Master Sean began contritely.
But Father Bright interrupted by speaking to the Countess. “Don’t distress yourself, my daughter; these men are only doing their duty.”
“Of course. I understand. It’s just that it’s so--” She shuddered delicately.
Lord Darcy cast Master Sean a warning look, then asked politely, “Has my lady seen the deceased?”
“No,” she said. “I will, however, if you wish.”
“We’ll see,” said Lord Darcy. “Perhaps it won’t be necessary. May we go up to the suite now?”
“Certainly,” the Countess said. “Sir Pierre, if you will?”
“Yes, my lady.”
As Sir Pierre unlocked the emblazoned door, Lord Darcy said: “Who else sleeps on this floor?”
“No one else, your lordship,” Sir Pierre said. “The entire floor is ... was ... reserved for my lord the Count.”
“Is there any way up besides that elevator?”
Sir Pierre turned and pointed toward the other end of the short hallway. “That leads to the staircase,” he said, pointing to a massive oaken door, “but it’s kept locked at all times. And, as you can see, there is a heavy bar across it. Except for moving furniture in and out or something like that, it’s never used.”
“No other way up or down, then?”
Sir Pierre hesitated. “Well, yes, your lordship, there is. I’ll show you.”
“A secret stairway?”
“Yes, your lordship.”
“Very well. We’ll look at it after we’ve seen the body.”
Lord Darcy, having spent an hour on the train down from Rouen, was anxious to see the cause of the trouble at last.
He lay in the bedroom, just as Sir Pierre and Father Bright had left him.
“If you please, Dr. Pateley,” said his lordship.
He knelt on one side of the corpse and watched carefully while Pateley knelt on the other side and looked at the face of the dead man. Then he touched one of the hands and tried to move an arm. “Rigor has set in--even to the fingers. Single bullet hole. Rather small caliber--I should say a .28 or .34--hard to tell until I’ve probed out the bullet. Looks like it went right through the heart, though. Hard to tell about powder burns; the blood has soaked the clothing and dried. Still, these specks ... hm-m-m. Yes. Hm-m-m.”
Lord Darcy’s eyes took in everything, but there was little enough to see on the body itself. Then his eye was caught by something that gave off a golden gleam. He stood up and walked over to the great canopied four-poster bed, then he was on his knees again, peering under it. A coin? No.
He picked it up carefully and looked at it. A button. Gold, intricately engraved in an Arabesque pattern, and set in the center with a single diamond. How long had it lain there? Where had it come from? Not from the Count’s clothing, for his buttons were smaller, engraved with his arms, and had no gems. Had a man or a woman dropped it? There was no way of knowing at this stage of the game.
Darcy turned to Sir Pierre. “When was this room last cleaned?”
“Last evening, your lordship,” the secretary said promptly. “My lord was always particular about that. The suite was always to be swept and cleaned during the dinner hour.”
“Then this must have rolled under the bed at some time after dinner. Do you recognize it? The design is distinctive.”
The Privy Secretary looked carefully at the button in the palm of Lord Darcy’s hand without touching it. “I ... I hesitate to say,” he said at last. “It looks like ... but I’m not sure--”
“Come, come, Chevalier! Where do you think you might have seen it? Or one like it.” There was a sharpness in the tone of his voice.
“I’m not trying to conceal anything, your lordship,” Sir Pierre said with equal sharpness. “I said I was not sure. I still am not, but it can be checked easily enough. If your lordship will permit me--” He turned and spoke to Dr. Pateley, who was still kneeling by the body. “May I have my lord the Count’s keys, doctor?”
Pateley glanced up at Lord Darcy, who nodded silently. The physician detached the keys from the belt and handed them to Sir Pierre.
The Privy Secretary looked at them for a moment, then selected a small gold key. “This is it,” he said, separating it from the others on the ring. “Come with me, your lordship.”
Darcy followed him across the room to a broad wall covered with a great tapestry that must have dated back to the sixteenth century. Sir Pierre reached behind it and pulled a cord. The entire tapestry slid aside like a panel, and Lord Darcy saw that it was supported on a track some ten feet from the floor. Behind it was what looked at first like ordinary oak paneling, but Sir Pierre fitted the small key into an inconspicuous hole and turned. Or, rather, tried to turn.
“That’s odd,” said Sir Pierre. “It’s not locked!”
He took the key out and pressed on the panel, shoving sideways with his hand to move it aside. It slid open to reveal a closet.
The closet was filled with women’s clothing of all kinds, and styles.
Lord Darcy whistled soundlessly.
“Try that blue robe, your lordship,” the Privy Secretary said. “The one with the--Yes, that’s the one.”
Lord Darcy took it off its hanger. The same buttons. They matched. And there was one missing from the front! Torn off! “Master Sean!” he called without turning.
Master Sean came with a rolling walk. He was holding an oddly-shaped bronze thing in his hand that Sir Pierre didn’t quite recognize. The sorcerer was muttering. “Evil, that there is! Faith, and the vibrations are all over the place. Yes, my lord?”
“Check this dress and the button when you get round to it. I want to know when the two parted company.”
“Yes, my lord.” He draped the robe over one arm and dropped the button into a pouch at his belt. “I can tell you one thing, my lord. You talk about an evil miasma, this room has got it!” He held up the object in his hand. “There’s an underlying background--something that has been here for years, just seeping in. But on top of that, there’s a hellish big blast of it superimposed. Fresh it is, and very strong.”
“I shouldn’t be surprised, considering there was murder done here last night--or very early this morning,” said Lord Darcy.
“Hm-m-m, yes. Yes, my lord, the death is there--but there’s something else. Something I can’t place.”
“You can tell that just by holding that bronze cross in your hand?” Sir Pierre asked interestedly.
Master Sean gave him a friendly scowl. “‘Tisn’t quite a cross, sir. This is what is known as a crux ansata. The ancient Egyptians called it an ankh. Notice the loop at the top instead of the straight piece your true cross has. Now, your true cross--if it were properly energized, blessed, d’ye see--your true cross would tend to dissipate the evil. The ankh merely vibrates to evil because of the closed loop at the top, which makes a return circuit. And it’s not energized by blessing, but by another ... um ... spell.”
“Master Sean, we have a murder to investigate,” said Lord Darcy.
The sorcerer caught the tone of his voice and nodded quickly. “Yes, my lord.” And he walked rollingly away.
“Now where’s that secret stairway you mentioned, Sir Pierre?” Lord Darcy asked.
“This way, your lordship.”
He led Lord Dacy to a wall at right angles to the outer wall and slid back another tapestry.
“Good Heavens,” Darcy muttered, “does he have something concealed behind every arras in the place?” But he didn’t say it loud enough for the Privy Secretary to hear.
This time, what greeted them was a solid-seeming stone wall. But Sir Pierre pressed in on one small stone, and a section of the wall swung back, exposing a stairway.
“Oh, yes,” Darcy said. “I see what he did. This is the old spiral stairway that goes round the inside of the Keep. There are two doorways at the bottom. One opens into the courtyard, the other is a postern gate through the curtain wall to the outside--but that was closed up in the sixteenth century, so the only way out is into the courtyard.”
“Your lordship knows Castle D’Evreux, then?” Sir Pierre said. The knight himself was nearly fifty, while Darcy was only in his thirties, and Sir Pierre had no recollection of Darcy’s having been in the castle before.
“Only by the plans in the Royal Archives. But I have made it a point to--” He stopped. “Dear me,” he interrupted himself mildly, “what is that?”
“That” was something that had been hidden by the arras until Sir Pierre had slid it aside, and was still showing only a part of itself. It lay on the floor a foot or so from the secret door.
Darcy knelt down and pulled the tapestry back from the object. “Well, well. A .28 two-shot pocket gun. Gold-chased, beautifully engraved, mother-of-pearl handle. A regular gem.” He picked it up and examined it closely. “One shot fired.”
He stood up and showed it to Sir Pierre. “Ever see it before?”
The Privy Secretary looked at the weapon closely. Then he shook his head. “Not that I recall, your lordship. It certainly isn’t one of the Count’s guns.”
“Quite certain, your lordship. I’ll show you the gun collection if you want. My lord the Count didn’t like tiny guns like that; he preferred a larger caliber. He would never have owned what he considered a toy.”
“Well, we’ll have to look into it.” He called over Master Sean again and gave the gun into his keeping. “And keep your eyes open for anything else of interest, Master Sean. So far, everything of interest besides the late Count himself has been hiding under beds or behind arrases. Check everything. Sir Pierre and I are going for a look down this stairway.”
The stairway was gloomy, but enough light came in through the arrow slits spaced at intervals along the outer way to illuminate the interior. It spiraled down between the inner and outer walls of the Great Keep, making four complete circuits before it reached ground level. Lord Darcy looked carefully at the steps, the walls, and even the low, arched overhead as he and Sir Pierre went down.
After the first circuit, on the floor beneath the Count’s suite, he stopped. “There was a door here,” he said, pointing to a rectangular area in the inner wall.
“Yes, your lordship. There used to be an opening at every floor, but they were all sealed off. It’s quite solid, as you can see.”
“Where would they lead if they were open?”
“The county offices. My own office, the clerk’s offices, the constabulary on the first floor. Below are the dungeons. My lord the Count was the only one who lived in the Keep itself. The rest of the household live above the Great Hall.”
“What about guests?”
“They’re usually housed in the east wing. We only have two house guests at the moment. Laird and Lady Duncan have been with us for four days.”
“I see.” They went down perhaps four more steps before Lord Darcy asked quietly, “Tell me, Sir Pierre, were you privy to all of Count D’Evreux’s business?”
Another four steps down before Sir Pierre answered. “I understand what your lordship means,” he said. Another two steps. “No, I was not. I was aware that my lord the Count engaged in certain ... er ... shall we say, liaisons with members of the opposite sex. However--”
He paused, and in the gloom, Lord Darcy could see his lips tighten. “However,” he continued, “I did not procure for my lord, if that is what you’re driving at. I am not and never have been a pimp.”
“I didn’t intend to suggest that you had, good knight,” said Lord Darcy in a tone that strongly implied that the thought had actually never crossed his mind. “Not at all. But certainly there is a difference between ‘aiding and abetting’ and simple knowledge of what is going on.”
“Oh. Yes. Yes, of course. Well, one cannot, of course, be the secretary-in-private of a gentleman such as my lord the Count for seventeen years without knowing something of what is going on, you’re right. Yes. Yes. Hm-m-m.”
Lord Darcy smiled to himself. Not until this moment had Sir Pierre realized how much he actually did know. In loyalty to his lord, he had literally kept his eyes shut for seventeen years.
“I realize,” Lord Darcy said smoothly, “that a gentleman would never implicate a lady nor besmirch the reputation of another gentleman without due cause and careful consideration. However,”--like the knight, he paused a moment before going on--”although we are aware that he was not discreet, was he particular?”
“If you mean by that, did he confine his attentions to those of gentle birth, your lordship, then I can say, no he did not. If you mean did he confine his attentions to the gentler sex, then I can only say that, as far as I know, he did.”
“I see. That explains the closet full of clothes.”
“Beg pardon, your lordship?”
“I mean that if a girl or woman of the lower classes were to come here, he would have proper clothing for them to wear--in spite of the sumptuary laws to the contrary.”
“Quite likely, your lordship. He was most particular about clothing. Couldn’t stand a woman who was sloppily dressed or poorly dressed.”
“In what way?”
“Well. Well, for instance, I recall once that he saw a very pretty peasant girl. She was dressed in the common style, of course, but she was dressed neatly and prettily. My lord took a fancy to her. He said, ‘Now there’s a lass who knows how to wear clothes. Put her in decent apparel, and she’d pass for a princess.’ But a girl, who had a pretty face and a fine figure, made no impression on him unless she wore her clothing well, if you see what I mean, your lordship.”
“Did you ever know him to fancy a girl who dressed in an offhand manner?” Lord Darcy asked.
“Only among the gently born, your lordship. He’d say, ‘Look at Lady So-and-so! Nice wench, if she’d let me teach her how to dress.’ You might say, your lordship, that a woman could be dressed commonly or sloppily, but not both.”