Christine was hysterical. William wrapped his arms around the girl before she could faint.
“What’s wrong with you, girl?” he asked. “Have you seen this mask before?”
“Yes,” Christine said hoarsely. “That belonged to the devil who took Charles’ life away.”
“Charles?” William asked. Martha’s words rang through his mind: “Blast! I weren’t supposed t’ tell ye ’bout him. He don’t exist.”
“Was there another murder here?” he asked.
“Another murder?” Christine looked slightly dazed.
Damned hysteria, thought William. It has made her confused.
“Sit down, Miss Hussey,” he said as gently as he could, “and tell me about this Charles.”
Miss Hussey sat on the ground, her eyes fixed on the box which now lay open on the ground. “He was Lord Montagu,” she said softly.
By now, William’s temper with her was almost gone. He was in no mood to play mind games with this woman, and he wanted answers. “Damn you, wench,” he muttered. In an audible tone he said, “Lord Montagu was named John not Charles.”
“I’m not stupid,” Christine said tartly. “There were two Lord Montagu’s. But the second does not exist,” she added hastily. “I should not have mentioned him.”
“What does that mean?” William cried in frustration. “How can a man be taken by a demon or murdered by a hooded madman and yet not exist? Answer me, or I shall do some murdering of my own!”
“Ask the Earl of Beaulieu if you wish to know,” Christine returned. By now, all traces of hysteria were gone, and she seemed recovered.
“But don’t show him the mask,” she continued. “Hand him an empty box, if you wish. Lie, if you have to. Just don’t show the mask. It is more unbearable to him than it is to me.”
“Why?” William asked.
“All will be revealed in time, I swear it,” came the reply. “For now, trust me; I will get you all your answers. But I need you to find the murderer. The Monster is innocent. Find the real monster and bring him to justice.”
William looked into Christine’s pleading eyes. As strange a woman as she was, he was inclined to help her, if only out of pity. She had to be confused, perchance with something far more mentally agonizing than hysteria. But she was desperate, and her intentions were benign.
“I will,” he said honestly.
Christine’s eyes brightened. “Thank you, Mr. Saville.”
William returned indoors with the box under his arm. He hadn’t yet removed the plague mask and had no intention of doing so. “Where is Earl Beaulieu?” he asked as he passed Mr. Walton in the hallway.
“His study,” Walton replied. He caught sight of William’s finding. “What’s in the box?”
“An old mask,” said William.
“What kind of mask?” came the reply.
“A Venetian-like mask which has long lost its splendour. It looks quite lacklustre; nothing of interest. However, I told the earl I’d show him what I dug up, but I’m sure he will be disappointed.”
“May I see?” Walton asked.
“Not until I clean it up a bit,” William returned, “make it more presentable.”
Before Walton could press the matter, William hurried back to his room. In truth, he was going to examine the mask and had no intention of presenting it to the earl or his butler. He locked the door behind him and placed the box on the dresser. With a candle in one hand, he opened the box and held up the plague mask.
This is certainly no Venetian mask, he thought grimly to himself.
Droplets of blood were crusted onto the macabre hood. The mask’s vacant eyes seemed to stare lifelessly in opposite directions. The design was old, but the parts themselves, which were expertly sewn together, appeared to be relatively more recent.
William stuck his hand into the hood. It was empty, even in the protruding, beak-like nose. The mysterious plague doctor had left no trace of his existence in the mask nor the box. Was it possible this man had killed Charles in the palace?
“...methinks it took Master Charles.”
If it was the plague doctor who killed Charles, why did Martha believe the palace apparition had taken him? If the apparition did take him, why did Christine blame the plague doctor? What truly happened to Charles? Why would the inhabitants of the palace deny his existence?
What if, perhaps, both Martha and Christine were correct about Charles’ odd fate? What if the plague doctor had killed him, then the creature took him?
“What do I have to do to get answers around here?” William muttered.
He hadn’t expected to rope himself in two murders. Christine had told him to talk to Earl Beaulieu, and he figured that was the best way to settle whatever happened to Charles. Then, he could focus entirely on the murder of Mr. Clarke. Placing the mask back inside, William took the box once more under his arm and made his way to the earl’s study, receiving direction from some of the staff.
The study door was closed. William knocked.
“Christine is that you?” came the reply.
“No, ’tis Mr. Saville,” William said. “I’ve dug up the box in the courtyard.”
The door opened, and Earl Beaulieu stood in the doorway, looking eagerly at the box in William’s hand.
“Is there anything interesting inside?” asked the earl.
“That depends on your answer,” William replied. “What do you know of Charles?”
The earl froze in his spot in the doorway. His knuckles were white against the doorknob. He quickly recovered his ease, however, and said, “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Who is Charles?”
“You know who he is,” William said blandly. “He was your son, was he not? Lord Charles Montagu?”
“There was no Lord Charles Montagu,” the earl said, his voice growing harsh. “There was only Lord John Montagu. Who told you that rubbish? Christine, wasn’t it? Damn her eyes! The girl is delusional!”
“That she may be,” William returned, “but there was a Charles, wasn’t there? What happened to him?”
“I’ll tell you what happened,” said the earl. “He was the imaginary companion of Christine Hussey. He never existed and he never will. It was fun playing along, but Christine is a woman now and must put aside childish fancies. Let us not speak of this again.”
“Very well,” said William, forcing gaiety into his voice. “Would you like to see what I have with me?”
A look of relief passed over the earl’s face. “Yes, indeed.”
William opened the box and watched the relief die on the earl’s ashen face. “It seems those words should have been mine,” the earl mumbled, turning his shocked eyes to William. “What do you know of Charles?”