Make sure to read the previous chapter of The Erebus Accounts: His Last Christmas before reading Chapter III, so you don’t spoil the story for yourself!
A polite engagement of idle conversation carried us through the remaining few minutes to the top of the hour, upon whose chime my father swiftly terminated the topic of Prince Albert’s landscaping acumen – a subject, one should note, of which Victoria spoke uniquely in the present tense – and declared our intent to settle into our rooms and change our clothes before joining the Queen and her household for dinner. Victoria was visibly taken aback at this sudden closure, but offered no protest, for she seemed at once to remember how exhausted she truly was. She sank back into her chair as my father and I rose to our feet. It struck me then how peculiarly frail and withered the most powerful woman in the world had become.
My father and I shared a glance, and I saw in the hint of a grimace that his thoughts echoed my own. We stepped back, bowing in tandem as Colonel Phipps hurried in front of us to attend to Her Majesty. It was as she began to raise a hand – no doubt to wave away the Secretary’s concerns with thinly veiled exasperation – that I was first able to steal a glance behind me, toward the black-clad man whom I had not heard move from the window.
It is difficult to describe my feelings towards the sight I beheld then, for I found myself at once satisfyingly vindicated in my prior surmisal; yet my stomach viciously turned by the affirmation that our situation was, indeed, every bit as bleak as my most morbid analysis had foretold.
The man was gone. He had not left via door nor window, for the distinctive sound of each I had consciously anticipated from the moment I turned my back. Nor could he have moved into some unseen alcove, for his shadow would have passed through my vision, as I had likewise attuned my senses to detect. The apparition – for I was now incontrovertibly certain that such was the true nature of the figure – had vanished. More precisely, he had dematerialised, for a glance at the bloodless visage of the guard I had observed earlier – who now endeavoured, entirely in vain, to avert his eyes from my own – made unmistakably clear the fact that the embodied spectre was not merely a projection of mine own mind (a somewhat less common, though far less troubling, explanation for such phenomena); but rather a full, physical manifestation of a lingering spirit, wrought upon the mortal plane. Its presence, and now absence, brought with it the answer to another mystery, confirming our unspoken supposition that the Queen’s unrelenting lethargy was not simply a symptom of natural heartache, but the ever-wearying consequence of a super-natural affliction.
I was reminded of a moment, at an otherwise unremarkable ball in the recent Autumn, in which the vacuous mistress of an inconsequential gentleman commented – rather too loudly – that, “Her Majesty is haunted by Prince Albert’s ghost!” The pitifully inane creature had laughed then, producing both a braying noise and appearance more familiar to a middling horse-breeder than the halls of supposedly polite society; but I recall distracting myself from the ensuing surge of internal misanthropy with the consideration that this shallow filly, and her obliging flock of appropriately dressed cockatiel impersonators, may, in fact, have been closer to the truth than any among them had the capacity to realise.
“Henry,” my father prompted softly. The slight raising of an eyebrow urged an explanation.
I motioned with a look towards the window, and elucidated in little more than a whisper: “The thirteenth man.”
The cryptic hint proved sufficient. He regarded the location with an inscrutable expression, pausing for a little over two seconds, before his brow twitched with realisation. His tone was unaltered, “Ah. I see.”
I allowed him a further moment to mull these revelations before enquiring to satisfy another curiosity.
“Your timing: the guard?”
He nodded, with the hint of a smile, confirming that he had ended our conversation with Her Majesty to coincide with the changing of the household guard. This was an old trick of his in dealings with royalty – foreign and domestic alike – as it afforded the invaluable opportunity to intercept, and politely interrogate, those whose duty it was to observe all that came and went in the presence of their noble charges.
“I have a mark,” I confirmed.
“Good. Then I shall survey the rooms.” He turned and departed without another word, catching Grey’s arm as he left, informing the Secretary that he would be showing Lord Morscroft to his rooms. The statement was phrased as a question, of course, but his tone brooked no argument, as always.
With the Secretaries both now engaged – Grey with Victor and Phipps with Victoria – the moment to interrogate the unfortunate guard was imminent, though not quite upon me. I calculated approximately thirty seconds before the sentry’s replacement would enter and relieve him, and so dedicated that interval first to adjusting my cravat, then to cross-referencing my watch with the clock on the mantel, to ensure the latter was accurate.
The doorhandle turned as I began crossing the floor, but the guard was too perturbed by my approach to notice it. This was ideal, as it left him caught between two simultaneous disruptions to his otherwise uneventful watch: first, by a moment of fleeting panic when my deliberate gaze signalled my approach; second, by the tug at his sleeve from his replacement, who now leaned through the doorway, seemingly reticent to have two occupants of the same post coexist at it simultaneously for even the briefest instant. At this, the first guard showed relief, and evidently surprised his comrade by darting out of the door with the unmistakable alacrity of a soldier late for parade. I increased my own pace accordingly, sweeping past the replacement with a polite nod.