'Come, Powerscourt, come. I have a great secret to tell you.'
Lord Rosebery was waiting impatiently outside his front door as Powerscourt's luggage was taken into the house. Dalmeny, near Edinburgh, was one of Rosebery's many mansions.
'I've only just arrived. Why can't you tell me inside Dalmeny, rather than rushing me off like this?' Lord Francis Powerscourt sounded petulant.
'There are too many people in my house just now. I am taking you to Barnbougle, my little castle by the sea. Nobody will disturb us there.'
Rosebery led the way down the little path that led into the woods. A pair of magpies, predatory and delinquent, flew off ahead of them on some malevolent mission.
'I will tell you the most important part now, Francis,' said Rosebery, peering melodramatically around him as though spies or enemy agents might have been lurking in his woods. He drew his cloak tightly around him and whispered into Powerscourt's ear. 'Someone is blackmailing the Prince of Wales. The Princess of Wales fears for the life of her eldest son Prince Eddy.'
Rosebery stepped back with the special satisfaction of those who pass on secrets. Powerscourt was already mentally shifting through his previous cases. He had investigated murders in Simla and in Delhi, in London and in Wiltshire. Only once before had he encountered blackmail.
He had known Rosebery since Eton, and they had remained friends though they were so dissimilar. Rosebery was slightly below average height with the face of a cherub maturing slowly into a statesman. He was very rich and much of his wealth was consumed in his annual, unfulfilled quest to win the Derby. Rosebery had been Foreign Secretary and was widely spoken of as a future Prime Minister. Powerscourt was a head taller than his friend, a head crowned with unruly black curls. Beneath them a pair of blue eyes inspected the world with detachment and irony, the lines of his smiles turning imperceptibly into wrinkles by the sides of his mouth and his eyes. He had served with distinction in India and Africa as Chief Intelligence Officer for various armies of the Crown. His skills in collecting and evaluating information had given him a second career as a solver of murders and mysteries at home and abroad.
'There it is!' said Rosebery, pointing proudly at a small castle right on the shore. 'Barnbougle. My ancestors were swept out to sea here, along with the bricks and mortar. I've had it restored.'
All around the little castle the waves were beating steadily, cascades of spray thrown against the walls. Far out in the Firth of Forth a coal packet was beating its way towards the North Sea, black smoke marking the afternoon sky.
Rosebery led the way through a large hall to his library on the first floor.
'Now then, Rosebery, tell me more about this blackmail.'
Rosebery sat by his fireplace, the lines of his bookshelves marching symmetrically towards the windows. 'There isn't a great deal more to say. The blackmail letters arrive at irregular intervals. They threaten to expose the Prince of Wales for his adulterous lifestyle.'
'Surely,' said Powerscourt, 'the mystery is that nobody has tried to blackmail the Prince of Wales before. His life is one long debauch. He keeps or has kept strings of mistresses rather like you keep your racehorses on Epsom Downs.'
'I sincerely hope that he has more success with his mistresses than I do with my racehorses,' said Rosebery ruefully. 'I should think that of the two, mistresses, if properly bred and trained, should be the cheaper option to maintain.'
'Do you know how the letters are written? Block capitals, disguised handwriting, that sort of thing?'
'Oddly enough, that is one of the few details the Prince of Wales' Private Secretary, Sir William Suter, chose to impart. They are made up of letters cut out of newspapers, believed to be The Times and the Illustrated London News, and pasted on to a sheet of plain paper.'
'Are they delivered by hand?'
'No, they come by post, usually on Tuesdays. They are always posted in Central London on Mondays.'
Powerscourt turned to gaze out at the sea. Faint sounds of the angry waves carried up into the library. Rosebery was looking at his rare and valuable books.
'And the Princess of Wales, Rosebery? You said she was worried about the life of Prince Eddy.'
'She is, she is,' said Rosebery, picking out an ancient Bible from his shelves and blowing a small cloud of dust from the spine. 'Sir William did not say whether this was a mother's anxiety or if there was some other deeper reason for it.'
'Does Prince Eddy share his father's tastes? A life entirely devoted to pleasure with occasional breaks for opening new buildings and laying foundation stones?'
'I don't think the aphrodisiac of adultery has quite the same appeal for Prince Eddy as it does for the father. They say he likes men as well as women.'
'Dear God, Rosebery, what a collection.'
'They are all we have, Francis, God help us. They may live on the edge of scandal all the time, the Prince of Wales and his set, but they are the Royal Family and we must do what we can. But Francis, you will not be surprised to hear that they want you to investigate this blackmail. I told Suter I would send him a wire today, to say that you were on board, that you had accepted the commission.'
Powerscourt stared intently at his friend. 'It will be very difficult, Rosebery, almost impossible. No crime has been committed, apart from pasting up a few letters and sticking them in the post. There are never any witnesses with blackmail, as you know. There is nobody to question. Any correspondence that might have a bearing on the matter will be out of bounds. Payments from banks and bankers to blackmailers with or without scissors and paste and back copies of The Times are rather hard to trace. Messrs Finch's & Co., you know as well as I do, Rosebery, do not share their secrets with any passing lord.'
'I know, Francis, I know.' Rosebery had adopted the tone he used in the House of Lords with dim-witted and elderly peers. 'But you must do it. There have been far too many scandals involving the Prince of Wales and his family. One more could do untold damage to the stability of the constitution and the coherence of the Empire.'
'Those of us who have accepted the Queen's Commission in the past cannot refuse it now,' said Powerscourt sadly. 'I accept. But you will help me, won't you? You know these people far better than I do.'
'Of course I'll help you, Francis,' said Rosebery, rising to his feet and clasping Powerscourt's hand firmly in his own. 'I will help you in any way I can as long as your investigation lasts. But come, I must send that wire.'
Darkness was falling as the two men made their way back to Dalmeny, their boots crunching through the late autumn leaves.
'You and I have an appointment at the Prince of Wales' London residence at Marlborough House at nine o'clock in the morning on Tuesday. Five days from now.'
Lord Johnny Fitzgerald, Powerscourt's friend and companion in detection, was perched precariously on top of Slaughter, nearly one hundred feet above the ground. To his left were Conquest, Famine and Death, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. To his right, more shadowy in the dusty shafts of light that fell into the bell tower, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John gave silent testimony to the gentler thoughts of the bell wrights who had cast these monsters two hundred years before.
Round his neck there hung a pair of the finest field glasses the Prussian Army could purchase. Up here, in the tower of his friend Powerscourt's Rokesley church, Lord Johnny could indulge his passion for bird-watching. There was a splendid view of Powerscourt's house Rokesley Hall just beneath him. To the south, beyond the hill, was the pleasant market town of Oundle with its fine eighteenth-century buildings and its architecturally less distinguished public school. To the east lay Fotheringhay with its square church tower, evoking memories of the incarceration of Mary Queen of Scots. To the west and the north lay the broad expanse of Rockingham Forest which ran for some ten miles before petering out at Kings Cliffe.
Above the forest great hunting birds would circle, rising impossibly slowly in great rhythmic sweeps up the air currents before hurtling down towards their invisible prey. In his lair, surrounded by the four evangelists and the four horsemen of the apocalypse, Fitzgerald would sit for hours at a time, watching the hunt, waiting for the kill.
Lord Francis Powerscourt was walking home from Oundle station. The boys from the school were playing a rugby match, the treble cheers of their supporters echoing shrilly back into the town. Powerscourt was thinking about Latin unseens, passages of Pliny, speeches from Livy, rhetoric from Cicero staring up at you from a page you had never seen before. You might recognize a couple of words the first time you read it through. The rest was a mystery to be unravelled. All his life Powerscourt had been fascinated by mysteries: puzzles as a small child, sitting by his mother's chair, a great fire burning in the hearth, the flow of Irish conversation passing literally over his head: codes and cryptograms during his time in the army in India, struggling in some stifling tent to decipher the messages of Her Majesty's enemies.
Each new investigation now seemed to him like another Latin unseen. You began with a few words, a few pieces of knowledge to be amplified and translated as the case went on. He remembered the satisfaction he found at school as the meaning of the Latin slowly became apparent, revealed like invisible ink under the solvent of his brain.
Some noise from above reached Powerscourt, walking briskly down the hill. Fitzgerald must be here, watching his birds from the top of the tower.
'Johnny!' shouted Powerscourt. 'Johnny! Johnny!'
His cries had no effect on the bird-watcher up above. Powerscourt hurried across the drive to meet his friend in the churchyard.
Powerscourt and Fitzgerald had known each other growing up in Ireland. They had the special closeness of those who have fought side by side in battle. Fitzgerald was rash and impetuous and had been saved more than once by the cooler head and accurate shooting of his friend. They still served together on Powerscourt's detective missions. And on two occasions, as Powerscourt sometimes reminded himself, Lord Johnny had saved his sanity.
Over twenty years before Powerscourt and his three younger sisters had been devastated by the sudden death of their parents and three of their grandparents in the great influenza epidemic that decimated the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in and around Dublin. They were left in their huge mausoleum of a house, drenched in memories they could not escape. Two of Powerscourt's three sisters grew thin and pale and looked as though they would waste away. Powerscourt himself felt sick with the responsibility of unexpectedly becoming head of his family.
Uninvited and unannounced, Lord Johnny Fitzgerald and his mother came to stay. Quite what kind Lady Fitzgerald said to his sisters, Powerscourt never knew. But they began to get better. Johnny Fitzgerald took Powerscourt off for five days in which they walked right round the Wicklow Mountains, staying at country inns, rising early, exhausted by nightfall. And at the end of their march, Lord Johnny spoke harshly to his friend.
'Look here, Francis, forgive me if I give you some advice.' They were standing on top of the great marble staircase of Powerscourt House that looked out on to the fountain in the lake and the faint blue of the Wicklow Mountains beyond the gardens. 'You're all going to hell in a handcart if you stay in this house any longer. You must get away. All of you. You must begin again while you're all young enough to do it and before those lovely girls turn into old maids of mourning. I know a man who will give you a tremendous price for that house and for as much of the estate as you want to sell. A tremendous price.' Lord Johnny nodded his head vigorously in admiration of the tremendous price he had negotiated with a Dublin coal magnate before his visit. 'You should move to London. You'll get your sisters married off in no time at all over there.'
Reluctantly, then with increasing energy and vigour, Powerscourt followed his advice. They had all moved to London, the three sisters, possibly taking to heart the advice of Lady Fitzgerald, enthusiastic for new friends and a different society. The lovely girls were indeed all married now, producing nephews and one niece with a speed that sometimes alarmed their uncle as the intervals between birthdays grew shorter and shorter, the names of new babies harder and harder to remember. Soon he would have a cricket team composed entirely of Powerscourts if his sisters continued breeding like this.
'Johnny, I'm so glad to see you,' said Powerscourt. 'I think we have a new case. A real puzzle of a case. Come and have some tea and I'll tell you all about it.'
Fitzgerald had saved Powerscourt once in his twenties. He was to save him again at the end of his thirties.
At the age of thirty-six, in St George's Hanover Square, Lord Francis Powerscourt had married Caroline Stone, eldest daughter of Albert Stone, a wealthy landowner in Dorset. One year later their first child, Thomas, was born. Two years after that, mother and son were drowned when the SS Amelia, a passenger ship on the Dublin to Liverpool route, went down with all hands. One hundred and sixty-seven people died. For Powerscourt, it was as though death came for him once a decade. Parents, wife, child, all had gone. This time Fitzgerald carried him off to Italy for three months, hoping that Powerscourt's love of classical antiquity and the masterpieces of the Renaissance would cure him of the terrible grief.
On their return to England once again Lord Johnny suggested flight. 'You must get away, Francis, away to somewhere where you never knew Caroline, somewhere out of London. You don't need to be in London any more now. But if you stay you'll end up withered and shrunk like that old Queen Victoria and her forty years of mourning.'
So Powerscourt had moved again and now he was pouring tea in Rokesley Hall for his friend in the little sitting-room that looked out over the lawns to the churchyard and Lord Johnny's bells.
'I have been closeted with Lord Rosebery in his Dark Tower by the sea at Barnbougle. Somebody is trying to blackmail the Prince of Wales. The Princess is fearful for the life of their eldest son. They say, God help us all, that he likes men as well as women. I am bidden to a great conference with Private Secretary Suter in Pall Mall two days from now. That's it in a nutshell.'
Outside a couple of very small birds were performing a slow dance across the lawn.
'Bloody hell! Some shell. Some nut.' Lord Johnny Fitzgerald looked closely at his friend. 'That would be the very devil to crack. I'm not sure it can be done. Nobody's going to talk.'
'We can't give up at this stage, Johnny. We haven't started yet. I think I am going to make some inquiries about the Prince of Wales' finances.'
Fitzgerald helped himself to a couple of crumpets and a small mountain of butter. 'And I could make some inquiries into what the rich and discreet homosexuals of London get up to. Prince Eddy must be known in that world, if what they say is true.'
'Do you think we could get a man on the inside, Johnny? Blackmailers usually have inside knowledge from somewhere. The most likely place is from the servants at Marlborough House or Sandringham. I wonder if they'd let us put one of our own people in there, a senior footman or underbutler, somebody like that.'
'You could try it, Francis. I think I know a man who went to school with that Private Secretary Sir William Suter. He was a mean little sod then. I don't suppose he's changed.'
For two hours the two men talked until the fire had gone out and darkness had fallen over the Powerscourt estate beyond the windows. As they went off to dinner in Oundle's finest hotel, Lord Johnny had cheered up sufficiently to order a bottle of Chassagne-Montrachet with the fish.
'We're celebrating,' he told the wine waiter. 'I saw three kestrels and a hawk today.'
Excerpted from GOODNIGHT SWEET PRINCE by David Dickinson. Copyright © 2002 by David Dickinson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 2002 David Dickinson.
All rights reserved.