“What?” William gazed at the earl with shock-ridden eyes, but the man said nothing more.
“May I inquire as to who she is?” William tried after a frustrating period of silence. “Is she even your kin?”
“My kin?” returned the earl. “That she is indeed. However, my relation to her is not through begetting. She is not my daughter, you see; the girl is my niece, the only offspring of my brother (God rest his soul). Her mother died in childbirth, and her father died of fever but a year or so later. Having no one to care for her, my dear Isabella (that is, my late wife) took her in out of pity.
“Isabella and I raised that child as almost one of the family. That ‘almost’ is important, sir. Since we had not formally adopted Christine, she cannot be considered a Hussey-Montagu and cannot legally inherit the palace or adopt any related titles.”
“Then, I ask you, why has she deceived me?” William said. “Why does she don a title she knows she can’t possess?”
“That is the fault of my son, Lord John Montagu,” replied the earl. “He was nearly twenty years her senior, but he was fond of her. How their bond came about, I shall never know. Yet he poured out unyielding affection onto that little girl.” The earl smiled in recollection. “Yes, he and—” He stopped abruptly, cutting off his speech. “John was a bachelor,” he began again. “He died, unmarried, at forty years of age. Of course, he had no children; but Christine was like his own child.
“In memory of him, she uses his title as her own, despite having never received such a title.”
“You allow her to do this?” asked William in disbelief.
“Only within the palace,” Earl Beaulieu replied. “Outside these walls, she is merely Christine Hussey, an Irish peasant who is fortunate enough to live here.”
“I see,” said William thoughtfully. “May I be perfectly candid with you, my lord?”
Earl Beaulieu looked curious. “This once, yes.”
“You have, perhaps, the strangest family about you, my lord,” William said. “And I may find you stranger yet e’er I recover that blasted box.”
“Yes, the box,” the earl mumbled. “A servant will bring you a shovel. You shall find it waiting for you in the courtyard.”
William was quite surprised to see Christine in the courtyard, kneeling on the ground, picking absentmindedly at the dirt surrounding the box. She looked grim as usual in those sable, mourning garments, perhaps more than yesterday; her appearance seemed ghastlier in the bright morning sun than by candlelight.
“Mr. Saville,” Christine said with a queer tremor of voice. Her pale eyes fixed on him with what seemed either eagerness or desperation; perhaps both. “May I speak to you as you dig?”
She handed him the shovel. William observed with slight awe the whiteness and sheerness of her small, slender hand. It was nearly blue with a web of veins. He wondered, with unnecessary (yet wonted) morbidity, how little effort it would take to bruise that little hand or furthermore cut a vein.
“You may,” William said, pushing those thoughts to the back of his mind.
“Do you know why I summoned you here?” Christine asked, with that same eagerness which had shone in her eyes.
“To solve the murder,” William replied. “Or at least to try to. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” Christine said. “But there’s more.”
“Oh?” William stuck the shovel into the ground, stomping his foot on its step to drive it deeper into the ground.
“I know the Monster didn’t kill Mr. Clarke,” said Christine.
“Have you any proof?” William asked, pulling up a blade-full of dirt and tossing it aside.
“I... well... no.” Christine’s voice was soft and shy.
William looked with interest upon Christine’s bashful countenance. He had not initially taken her to be a timid woman. She had addressed him quite boldly, in fact, when they had first met. What a strange woman!
“I have proof,” said William, “but not in the Monster’s favour.”
“Proof of what?” Christine asked, her eagerness returning. But now, that eagerness seemed more to resemble anxiety.
“I have the word of M. Bär,” William said, prying the mysterious box from the hole he had made.
“He’s a liar!” Christine cried.
She had such vehemence in her voice, William started and nearly dropped the box in his hands.
“What manner of accusation is this?” he snapped, causing her to start in return. “If you had seen his state as I have, you’d not have had so passionate a response. Perhaps you are misguided, Miss Hussey, but nonetheless your reaction was both inappropriate and insensitive. M. Bär can hardly leave his bed after what happened.”
Many expressions passed over Christine’s face in the brief span of a few seconds, none of which William could decipher. Those pale eyes locked with his, searching his eyes as if for answers.
“I don’t understand.” Timidity had crept back into her voice. “What do you mean ‘he can hardly leave his bed’?”
“M. Bär is so traumatized,” said William, “that the mention of our Monster sends him into frenzy. That Creature had nearly strangled him to death after strangling Mr. Clarke.”
“No,” said Christine, but her voice was soft and had lost its passion. “He would not kill. He has no reason to kill.”
“What makes you so certain?”
“I’m still alive.”
“What? What do you mean by that?” Could that creature last night which had called for Christine have been the Monster of Beaulieu? If so, what was it doing in the palace?
Instead of answering, Christine turned her attention to the box in William’s hands. “Are you going to open it?”
William looked down. The box, which was a considerable size, looked old and worn, but it was far too plain to suit a nobleman. He tried to lift the hatch; it was locked.
“Here.” Christine reached into the black folds of her gown and pulled out a knife.
“Where did you get that?” William asked, taking the knife from her hand and unsheathing it.
“My pocket,” Christine said simply.
William eyed her. He saw no pockets. As if to answer his unspoken inquiry, she stuck her hands into her skirt and said, “Here, on either side, between my skirt and petticoat. I can take one off if you wish to see one.”
“No need,” said William quickly. “But I am devilishly curious,” he added, “why a young woman like yourself keeps a knife about her.”
“For protection,” Christine replied.
William knew it was unlikely he would get any further of an explanation, so he didn’t press the matter. He, instead, turned his attention to the box and picked at the lock with the knife until the lock broke. Lifting the hatch, he peered inside the box and gasped.
“Begad!” he cried. “’Tis a plague mask!”
Christine frantically gazed inside. What little colour she had in her face drained immediately. Her pale eyes shone with fright. “It can’t be,” she gasped. “No! Devil!”