Murder on the Serpentine
The man stood in front of Thomas Pitt in the untidy office, papers all over the desk from half a dozen cases Pitt was working on. There was no discernible order to the papers, except to him. The visitor’s appearance was immaculate, from his discreet regimental tie to his crested gold cuff links. Not one silver hair was out of place.
“Yes, sir,” he said gravely. “Her Majesty would like to see you as soon as possible. She hopes that now would be convenient.” There was not a flicker of expression in his face. Quite possibly no one had ever refused him. Victoria had been on the throne since 1837, sixty-two years, and he was merely the latest in a long succession of emissaries.
Pitt felt a chill run through him, and his throat tightened.
“Yes, of course it is.” He managed to keep his voice almost steady. He had met Queen Victoria before, on two occasions, but not since he had become head of Special Branch, that part of Her Majesty’s Government that dealt with threats to the safety of the nation.
“Thank you.” Sir Peter Archibald inclined his head very slightly. “The carriage is waiting. If you would be kind enough to accompany me, sir . . .”
There was no time for Pitt to tidy the papers, only to inform Stoker that he had been called away. He did not say to where, or by whom.
“Yes, sir,” Stoker said, as if such things happened every day, but his eyes widened slightly. He stood back a little to allow them to pass him and head through the door into the passage.
Sir Peter led the way down the stairs and onto the street, where a very well-turned-out Clarence carriage stood waiting half a block away, outside a tobacconist’s shop. There was no crest on the carriage’s door to proclaim its owner. The coachman nodded in acknowledgment as the two men climbed in, and a moment later they moved into the traffic.
“A trifle cool for early summer, don’t you think?” Sir Peter said pleasantly. It was a polite, very English way of letting Pitt know that there would be no discussion of why the Queen wished to speak with him. It was even possible that Sir Peter himself did not know.
“A little,” Pitt agreed. “But at least it’s not raining.”
Sir Peter murmured his agreement, and they settled to riding in silence the rest of the way from Lisson Grove to Buckingham Palace.
As Pitt expected, they went past the magnificent façade and around the side. Pitt found his stomach knotting and had to make a deliberate effort to unclench his hands. They were in the Palace Mews. Coachmen and grooms were preparing horses and carriages for the royal family’s evening visits, giving animals a final brush, trappings a last check and polish. A groom passed in front of them with a pail of water. He was whistling cheerfully.
It was barely dusk, just a slight fading of the light and a lengthening of the shadows. The carriage stopped and Sir Peter alighted, with Pitt a step behind him. Still nothing was said, no inkling of the reason for this extraordinary visit. Pitt tried to stop his mind from racing over the possibilities. Why on earth would the Queen send for him in this hurried and so very private manner? His was a government appointment, and there were official channels for just about everything. Too many of them. Sometimes he felt strangled by red tape of one sort or another.
He followed Sir Peter’s stiff, upright figure—his straight back and squared shoulders. The emissary walked with a short, perfect military stride, as if he could maintain it for miles.
Once they had gained entry they went in silence up and down stairs, along passages decorated here and there with faded sporting prints, or perhaps these were the originals. As Pitt vaguely recalled being here before, Sir Peter stopped abruptly and knocked on a large paneled door. It was opened immediately and Sir Peter stepped in, spoke to someone just inside, then turned and gestured for Pitt to follow him.
It was a comfortable, private withdrawing room, high ceilinged but not very large, with windows onto the lovely back garden, curtains not yet drawn against the dusk. The walls were almost entirely covered by portraits, ornately framed. The carpet had once been patterned but was now fading gently with the passage of decades of feet.
Ahead of Pitt, in a chair to one side of the huge fireplace, sat a plump little woman who looked very tired. She was dressed entirely in black, which made her seem faded and quite old. She had little left of the vigor he had seen in her only a few short years ago when she had defied the men who had her hostage at Osborne House. Not that anyone knew of that, except Pitt and a couple of very close friends.
Pitt stood still. He knew better than to move or speak until invited.
He heard the door close with a slight click.
“Good evening, Mr. Pitt,” the Queen said quietly. “I am obliged for your attention with so little notice. I hope I have not drawn you from urgent matters of state?”
It was merely a politeness, a way of beginning the conversation. There was a chair opposite her, but Pitt did not sit in it. One stood in the presence of the monarch, for however long the interview might last. Even when he was prime minister, Mr. Gladstone had not been granted the liberty of sitting. Only Mr. Disraeli had been offered that, because he sometimes made her laugh.
“Not at all, Your Majesty,” Pitt replied, lifting his eyes a little but not yet meeting hers. “There are no unusual troubles at the moment.”
She let out her breath in a sigh. “You choose your words carefully, Mr. Pitt. If you had said there were no troubles at all, I should have disbelieved you. I do not wish to be catered to, as if I were unable to grasp difficulties, or too old or too tired to face them.”
There was a tone in her voice now that demanded he meet her gaze. Was he expected to answer her? From the silence, apparently so. What could he say? He could neither agree nor argue with her.
“It was not so long ago, ma’am, that I recall you facing armed men who held you captive, and defying them with some vigor. Time and griefs touch all of us but they have never broken your spirit.”
She nodded her head, and there was a hint of a smile on her face. “Your new position has taught you a little polish, Mr. Pitt. Probably a good thing. I hope it has not made you evasive.” It was more a challenge than a question. She did not wait long enough for him to reply. “I do not have time for polite euphemisms, going around in circles until nobody knows what anyone else is talking about.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He inclined his head very slightly. The burden of some deep fear was playing in the weary lines of her face. She was a very small woman, a foot shorter than him, overweight now, and the years of constant duty and the loneliness since Albert’s death were written indelibly in her skin, the slightly beaky nose, the thinning hair scraped back off the bones of her brow.
She sat silently. Was she wondering whether he was the man she wished to trust, or merely gathering her thoughts for something that was more difficult to tell him than she had anticipated? With anyone else he would have asked, but with her it would be presumptuous.
She took a deep breath, and her attention, which looked to have been wandering, returned to the present.
“You may be seated, Mr. Pitt. I have much to tell you, and I do not care to look up at you. It makes my neck ache.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He nearly thanked her, then realized that that too would be inappropriate. He sat down on the hard-backed chair opposite her, his spine straight, both feet on the floor.
She smiled very briefly, only a ghost of amusement, as if some memory had stirred and then vanished before she could capture it. Her eyes studied his face as she spoke.
“The Prince of Wales has recently acquired a new adviser in certain matters, mostly to do with horses, I think, but the man seems to be everywhere, and involved in all sorts of other affairs.” Her eyes sharpened, as if she had seen some surprise in Pitt’s face. “Of course he has to have friends—we all do—” she said a trifle quickly, “but Edward will be king one day, quite . . . soon. He cannot afford to choose haphazardly.” She stared at Pitt. She was not waiting for a response, she did not require his opinion, but she wished to see if he was paying attention.
Did she want to hear more about this friend, and from Special Branch? All his life the prince had loved horses, and horse-racing. It was to be expected that he would seek friends among those who shared his passion.
Satisfied that he was listening to her, the Queen continued. “I am concerned that Alan Kendrick is not an entirely satisfactory influence. He is a”—she searched for the right word—“forceful character,” she finished. “And I do not care for his wife either. A woman who does not know her place. Sharp-tongued, occasionally of unseemly behavior. Or perhaps I am simply old-fashioned . . .” She looked away from him for a moment, and he realized that memory had intruded on her with painful clarity, perhaps of the happy years of her marriage. She had been an opinionated woman herself, but she had been queen—since she was eighteen, awakened in the night to be informed that the old king was dead and she was his heir.
She brought her attention back to Pitt, blinking rapidly and staring at him again.
“I wish to allay my concerns,” she said tartly. “I have few people I can trust with such delicate matters, and I was prepared to be told that my anxiety was unfounded. I considered whom I might ask to look into Mr. Kendrick for me with the utmost discretion, you understand?” It was a question. She required an answer.
“Yes, ma’am,” Pitt said quickly, his heart sinking. This was not a matter for Special Branch. Was there a way he could tell her so without giving offense? Did one ever refuse the Queen? He was trapped.
“You appear uncomfortable, Mr. Pitt,” she accused.
He felt himself flush. He had not realized he was so obvious.
“You know something of this man?” she demanded.
She gave a little grunt, and it was impossible to tell if it was displeasure or merely impatience.
She looked at him intently, as if making an accurate judgment of him was of the greatest importance. Or possibly, at eighty, her eyesight was failing and it was merely an effort for her to see his face clearly.
“I asked my old and trusted friend Sir John Halberd to look into this man Kendrick and give me his opinion.” She blinked rapidly, fighting some deep emotion, and stared down at her hands, folded neatly in her lap but gripping each other too tightly.
Pitt had a sudden desire to comfort her. He was waiting for her to say that Halberd had told her something that hurt her very much. But whatever it was, however badly Kendrick had influenced the Prince of Wales, it was not something in which Special Branch could interfere. It might be a disappointment to the Queen, even an embarrassment, but surely she was used to the prince’s libertine way of life? Everyone else was. And he appeared to have calmed down a lot as he had grown older, less physically well and also, of course, as Victoria became more fragile and he came closer to the throne himself.
The silence grew heavy. She seemed to be waiting for Pitt to respond.
“Did Sir John give you his opinion, ma’am?” he asked.
“No,” she said abruptly. “He sent me a message that he wished to see me urgently. It came late in the evening. I was not well. I replied to him that he might attend me anytime he wished the following day. He always gives my well-being the utmost care.” Again she stopped, and was quite visibly struggling with deep feelings.
Pitt dreaded what she was going to say. Had she been anyone else he would have attempted to make it easier for her, but one did not interrupt the Queen. He waited in acute discomfort.
“He never came,” she said in little more than a whisper. Pitt drew in his breath sharply.
Now she was looking into his eyes almost as if they were equals, just an old woman deeply distressed and a younger man who might help her.
She nodded, her lips tight, then spoke with an effort. “He was found dead that morning. In a rowing boat in Hyde Park. At least, strictly speaking, he was in the water, shallow as it is. He appeared to have stood up, for some reason, then slipped and struck his head on the edge of the boat, fallen into the water, and drowned.”
“I’m very sorry,” Pitt said gently.
She swallowed with effort. “I wish you to find out for me if his death was the accident it appeared. And what it was that he intended to tell me regarding the man Kendrick. You are an excellent detective. This I know from our previous acquaintance.” She did not refer to either incident specifically, but she had not forgotten their brief captivity at Osborne.
“And now you have the power and the secrets of Special Branch in your hands. I require to know the truth, Mr. Pitt, whatever it is. What did John Halberd find out, and was he murdered because of it?”
For a moment he was speechless.
“I trust you, Mr. Pitt,” she said gravely. “Both for your skill and your discretion.” She did not mention loyalty. Perhaps it was taken for granted. More probably, he thought, to question it was too painful at the moment. Halberd had died, possibly because of his loyalty. She was asking a great deal of Pitt, personally rather than through official channels. She had mentioned discretion. Was that a polite way of telling him he was to speak of this matter only to her? That was something he needed to know, and he felt that it gave him the right to be direct.
“To whom shall I report, ma’am?” He met her eyes and saw in them a grief so deep it startled him. And guilt? Did she fear she had sent an old friend to his death? Even as the thought came to him, he was certain it was so.