Read Behind the Mask (House of Lords) Online
Authors: Meg Brooke
Just then there was a knock at the door.
“Who on earth could that be?” she asked. Colin got up and went into the dressing room to find his robe. Then he stumbled over to the door in the darkness. When he opened it, Crawley was standing on the other side, the brightness of the candle in his hand a shock to Colin’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, My Lord,” Crawley said.
Colin rubbed his eyes. “What time is it?”
“A little after three. I think you had better come downstairs, My Lord.”
“Meddur Udad has been poisoned.”
Suddenly appearing at his side, Eleanor said, “Good God! He’s not...”
“He’s alive. We got him an antidote in time.”
“An antidote?” Colin asked. How had Crawley known what to give the man?
“I’ll explain, My Lord, but you’d better come downstairs.”
Colin nodded and went back into the dressing room to find some clothes. When he had thrown on a shirt, trousers and jacket and slipped into his boots he went back out into the hall. Eleanor closed the door behind him.
Colin put a hand on Crawley’s shoulder as they walked. “How was he poisoned, exactly?”
Crawley rubbed the back of his neck. “That’s the trouble, My Lord,” he said. “We think...we think it may have been Strathmore.”
Now Colin stopped in his tracks. “
?” he said.
Looking down at his feet, Crawley said, “No one’s seen him since before dinner, My Lord. But it was he who took the food in to Udad earlier this evening. Then he was supposed to ride a patrol, but he never appeared.”
Colin stood perfectly still, allowing this news to sink in. Strathmore had always seemed to him to be the perfect agent: knowledgeable and quick thinking, loyal and brave. But then, he had thought Angeline was perfect, too, and look what had happened with her.
He followed Crawley down the stairs and into the dressing room, where Udad was laying on a pallet that had been dragged in. His skin was wan, but he looked alert, and at his side knelt Toby Hollier. “What is he doing here?” Colin asked.
“He came to warn us.”
Hollier stood. “I came through the tunnel,” he said. “The instant I discovered that Strathmore had come through, too—”
“He did what?” Colin felt as though he had walked into a play halfway through the second act. He put his hands on the table and leaned over it. “I think you’d better go back to the beginning, Mr. Hollier.”
Hollier looked down at Udad, the concern apparent on his face. “It is a long story, My Lord,” he said.
“Let’s go in to the servants’ dining room,” Colin offered. “It will be empty at this hour.” He led the way out into the corridor. Three soldiers waited outside the door. “One of you stay beside him,” Colin said. “Come and get me if there’s any change.”
One of the red-coated men went in. Colin led the way into the little dining room, where he gestured for Hollier and Crawley to sit. Then he dropped into a chair as well. There was a little clock perched on the ledge beneath the hopper windows. It read three-thirty. “Now,” Colin said, “begin at the very beginning, please.”
Taking a deep breath, Hollier said, “There are, you understand, more than a dozen separate tribal groups devoted to the ouster of the French occupiers in Algeria, and they each speak a different dialect and observe different customs. When I was sent to Algeria, after those officers had been killed, everything was chaos. Forty men were not enough to sort it out—four hundred men would likely not have been enough. The negotiations were completely derailed, but the Company insisted that I stay, even after...what happened, and so I offered what help I could provide to the British agents. That’s how I met your man Crawley here. I did what I could, though I don’t think I was of much help.”
Crawley smiled at that. “He was indispensable, My Lord. We were all impressed by his determination, especially after what the White Hand had done to him. But we never found the culprits. We managed to narrow it down to a single group.”
“The Serraray,” Colin said.
Nodding, Crawley said, “Of course. They were—and still are—the only group organized enough to act on such a scale, over such a wide area.”
Crawley shook his head, “He was out in the field most of that year, trying to track down the Serraray.”
“I only met him once,” Hollier said. “He seemed a decent enough fellow, extremely dedicated to his work.”
“When he returned to Algiers,” Crawley put in, “I noticed nothing amiss, but clearly something happened out there.”
“How do you know?” Colin asked.
“Because,” Toby said, “tonight he overpowered the man guarding the entrance to the Priest’s Passage at Havenhall and stole one of our horses. But first he poisoned that man in the dressing room.”
“I’m afraid that’s my fault, My Lord,” Crawley said, looking down at his hands. “I gave him the books—my father’s books. I thought...I thought we were friends, My Lord. I didn’t see any harm in it.” Now Colin thought of how Strathmore had inserted Crawley’s name into the conversation when they had first learned Yates had been poisoned, saying that
was the expert on botany, and how he had steered Colin’s attention to Hollier as well. The man had been covering his tracks, trying to cast suspicion on anyone but himself, while he abused Colin’s trust and used the independence he had been given to work covertly against his own mission.
Scolding himself for his own near-sightedness, Colin asked, “And the antidote?”
“One of the soldiers came and found me when Mr. Hollier came out of the tunnel in the cold room. When he explained the situation to me, we went to see Udad at once. It was obvious he had been poisoned. Fortunately I carry a case of tinctures with me. One of them, a dilution of
, is an antidote to a valerian overdose. Strathmore did a rather more sloppy job with this one than the first two, and Udad would likely have survived no matter what, but I administered the
anyway, just to be safe.”
Colin put his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands. “And we have no idea where he is now?”
Hollier said, “He would be difficult to track, even with the rain letting up.”
“No matter,” Colin said. “I think our time is better spent with Udad. He can give us far more valuable information, and be may be more willing in light of recent events. We will send out Colonel Taylor’s men when it is light, though I doubt they’ll turn anything up.”
Crawley nodded his agreement.
“I’ll go and speak with Udad now.” Colin stood. “Mr. Hollier, I can’t thank you enough. Your quick thinking has saved that man’s life.”
“It was no more than any man would do,” Hollier protested.
“I think not,” Colin said. “There are many who would have let a man like Udad die, who would not have acted. It does you credit.”
“Thank you, My Lord,” Hollier said, still not meeting his eyes.
“Give us a moment, would you, Crawley?” Colin asked. His aide went out into the hall without another word. When the door had closed, Colin said, “You have every reason to dislike me, Mr. Hollier.”
Now, at last, the man looked him in the eye. “I know, My Lord,” he said. “And yet I do not, I promise you. I harbor no ill will towards you or towards Eleanor. She had every right to forget me, to choose someone else.” He paused, and Colin saw his grip on the edge of the table tighten, “But just because I understand her choice does not mean it does not give me pain to see her with you. Surely you can accept that?”
“Of course,” Colin said, trying to put himself in Hollier’s position. “I understand completely. Don’t think that I mean to say you should forget her or suppress your feelings. All I mean to say—Lord, I have bungled this, haven’t I? All I mean to say is that I have gained a great deal of respect for you tonight, Mr. Hollier. You could have chosen not to act merely to spite me, but you did the right thing.”
“I did my duty, Lord Pierce,” Hollier said.
Colin smiled as he and Hollier both rose. Here was a man who would do the Foreign Office credit. “Have you ever considered the foreign service?” he asked. “I think you would be an asset to the nation.”
“Thank you, My Lord,” Hollier said, and Colin noticed that though he did not say a job offer from the Foreign Office would be welcome, he didn’t rule it out, either.
“I must go see Udad now.” Colin said. “Tell me, Mr. Hollier, do you speak any of the Berber tongue?”
Hollier shrugged. “Enough,” he said.
“Come with me.”
The man nodded and followed him back into the dressing room, where Crawley had gotten Udad into a sitting position on the pallet. “I’m glad to see you’re still with us,” Colin said to him.
Udad smiled. “The White Hand did not do his best work,” he said weakly.
Out of the corner of his eye Colin saw Hollier clutch the edge of the table. Crawley’s eyes widened. “The White Hand?” Colin asked.
Udad muttered something in his native tongue.
Hollier crouched down beside him and asked him a question in a halting Berber dialect. Udad looked surprised, but he responded. When he had finished speaking, Hollier looked from him to Colin and back. “He says that he believes your friend—I assume he means Mr. Strathmore—is the White Hand. Mr. Udad’s group was told that the White Hand would be giving them their orders when they arrived in England.”
Udad listened carefully and then said something else. Hollier nodded and thought for a moment before interpreting. “He says that they never saw the White Hand’s face—he always came to them in disguise—but that he recognized his voice the first time Strathmore spoke. He was too afraid to accuse Strathmore. He was worried that something bad would happen to him, like it happened to his cousin.”
“Usem want to give up the White Hand,” Udad said. “After the Tuareg torture the white man, he say we not sent to kill many people, only one, and she a girl child. He say it wrong. The White Hand say he kill Usem if he try. And he did.”
“How many men are left now?” Colin asked.
“Only one,” Udad said without a trace of hesitation. Colin had to stifle a sigh of relief. If there was only one man left, Strathmore would not make any further attempts. He would be forced to give up and retreat, and though that meant that they might never catch him, it also meant that they were safe.
Udad said, “The other man, he...” he paused, searching for the word, “he the one torture your friend. The White Hand say that was good, that no one think a white man help us when you see him.”
Udad looked down at his hands. “I sorry, My Lord. Very sorry for him. Me and Usem, we try to tell him stop, but he not listen. Then the White Hand come with the poison.”
Colin stared at Udad for a moment, trying to understand. If what he said was correct, then it was very likely that Yates had been alive until Strathmore arrived at Sidney Park. He tried to think back to that night—had Strathmore had an opportunity to go out alone? Of course he had, while Colin had been flirting with Eleanor. Perhaps he had been surprised to discover that the Serraray had captured Yates, or perhaps he had instructed them to do so. Either way, he could hardly let the man live once he knew of Strathmore’s treachery. Colin could hardly fault Udad for Yates’s death. “What is the other man’s name?” he asked.
“We have no names, the Serraray. I only know Usem name because he is my cousin. But the other man, he is Tuareg.” He had said that word once before.
“What does that mean?” Colin asked.
“There are many Berber tribes in Algeria,” Crawley explained. “Meddur is Kabyle, from north of Algiers. The Tuareg are from the southeast.”