Excerpt: The Traitor in the Tunnel
From The Traitor in the Tunnel
Mary Quinn is undercover for the Agency again, and this time she’s working as a housemaid at Buckingham Palace. The night before she’s recalled from the job, she overhears a commotion: pre-dawn visitors demanding to see the Queen on urgent business. Clearly, Mary can’t resist trying to learn what’s happened. And it’s far more scandalous than she could have imagined – and far more personal, too.
The Yellow Room, despite being the most intimate of the drawing rooms at the Palace, was a vast, high-ceilinged apartment; she’d never overhear a thing without concealing herself inside. It was the riskiest option, of course; but tonight’s investigations had nothing to do with caution. In a few hours, she would leave the Palace forever. And luck was with her tonight: Mr. Brooks [the head butler] must have unlocked the door, for when she tried the handle it turned beneath her hand.
The gas lamps were already hissing – Mr. Brooks again – and they defined the area in which the conversation would take place: two deep armchairs, arranged rather like a pair of throne-chairs, facing an open space framed by a Persian rug. One of its silk tassels was ever so slightly disarranged – another subtle indication that even the butler, under his neutral façade, churned with anxiety tonight. She just had time to whirl behind a heavy curtain and ensure its pleats remained perfectly regular before the door handle clicked again. Any footsteps were muffled by the silk carpets, but soon enough Mary heard the lady-in-waiting’s voice, scarcely altered by the thick drapes. “Her Majesty will see you shortly.”
They hadn’t long to wait. The Queen was remarkably quick when occasion required, moving with a smooth rapidity that belied her short-legged bulk. Mary wished she could see Her Majesty now, as the door opened and closed once again. It was impossible, though, without disturbing the curtains and giving away her hiding place.
“You bring news of the Prince of Wales,” were her first words, spoken in a clipped tone.
“Your Majesty; Your Highness. I am Commissioner Blake, of the Metropolitan Police Service, and this is -”
“We know who you are.” The voice was colder than the room. There came a pause. Then, the Queen continued in a voice so different that Mary scarcely recognized it. “Where is my – ” there was a barely repressed sob “- where is the Prince of Wales? Is he injured?”
“But very slightly, Ma’am: one or two bruises and a slight graze. The Prince of Wales is now resting safely in his apartment.”
“His apartment here in the Palace?”
“Yes, Ma’am. A doctor is with him.”
“Then we shall go there. You may give us your news afterwards.”
“Your Majesty – if I may have just a moment, to explain what – .”
Queen Victoria interrupted the commissioner. “My eldest son is here, under highly irregular circumstances. You say he is well, yet you have summoned the Serjeant Surgeon to his bedside. Do not trifle with us further, Commissioner.”
There was a tense silence. Mary imagined the policemen frozen with awe and frustration.
And then a new voice spoke. “Her Majesty and I shall not be long,” said Prince Albert. As Prince Consort – the Queen’s husband, but not king in his own right – he had allowed his wife to take the lead. “But we must satisfy ourselves as to the Prince of Wales’s well-being.” His German accent sounded especially harsh – the only indication of the anxiety he, too, must feel.
There was a sweep of fabric, the click of a doorknob, and then the room fell silent. The Commissioner heaved a gusty sigh. After a very long interval – perhaps ten minutes, in reality, although it felt several times that duration – the second man said, in a hesitant tone, “Shall I try to find the Queen, sir?”
“This news – it can’t wait much longer.”
“And you propose to – what? Romp through the Palace, calling out for Her Majesty? Tell her to hurry, as we’re on police business?”
“Then be silent. It is Her Majesty’s privilege to take all day, should she desire.”
But as Mary had witnessed during her service at Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria seldom presumed upon her privileges. She was a dutiful, serious-minded monarch whose small frame contained apparently boundless self-discipline so long as she was on state business. This morning proved no exception. Within half an hour, she and the Prince Consort were back in the drawing-room.
“We appreciate your patience, Commissioner,” said His Highness. “Our minds are somewhat relieved to have seen the Prince of Wales, resting under Mr. Lawrence’s orders.”
“Was it on your instruction that he was given a sedative?” asked the Queen, a sharp note in her voice.
“Our suggestion, Your Majesty,” said the Commissioner in his humblest tones. “The Prince was gravely upset and very emotional, I’m afraid. We were anxious that he should rest.”
There was a charged silence. Then, abruptly, the Queen turned the conversation. “This is not a time for riddles. You had better explain just what has happened.”
“Of course, Your Majesty. We are here to inform you of a grave accident that has happened, this night, to the Honorable Ralph Beaulieu-Buckworth. I believe you are acquainted with this young person?”
Prince Albert’s voice was hard. “One could scarcely say ‘acquainted’. He was at Eton at the same time as the Prince of Wales, of course; one might go so far as to call them contemporaries. But the Prince does not associate with the person you named.”
Commissioner Blake scarcely paused. “Your Majesty; Your Highness. I am sorry to inform you that your son was in the Honorable Ralph Beaulieu-Buckworth’s company at the time of the – tragedy. The time, in fact, of Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth’s unfortunate death.” His last word seemed to echo in the silence that followed; a heavy, absolute silence in which the soft ffffft of the gaslamps became loud and obtrusive. There was no soft oath, no sudden intake of breath, from the royal couple. When Blake spoke again, his tone was even, measured – the voice of a bureaucrat doing his job. “The Prince of Wales has stated to us that he came down to London this afternoon at the invitation of Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth.”
“You questioned the Prince of Wales, in the absence of his parents?” Her Majesty’s anger was clear. “He is but eighteen years old.”
“We did not formally question him, Your Majesty; I apologize for the false impression my words created. The Prince of Wales, in his agitation, gave us to understand a number of facts. We realize, of course, that upon reflection he may be able to correct some of those statements. But we are repeating to you the information he volunteered to us.”
A grim, skeptical silence. Then the prince consort again: “Carry on, Commissioner.”
“Thank you, sir. The young men’s intention was to celebrate Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth’s birthday, and a number of young men – all old Etonians – were invited to the festivities. The Prince’s equerries were in attendance, naturally.” A pause.
“It was rather a large gathering. They dined at – ”
“Oh, what does it matter where they dined?” cried the Queen in a voice so terrible that even the commissioner’s dry recitation faltered. “Stop toying with us, man, and tell us what has happened!”
Blake swallowed audibly. “Very well, Your Majesty. You’ll understand, Ma’am, that the young men had drunk wine with dinner, and continued to indulge in various wines and spirits over the course of the long evening. The Prince of Wales informs us that by two o’clock in the morning, he and Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth were gravely impaired. They had become separated from their companions, including the Prince’s equerries, and Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth proposed a tour of what he called ‘the dark side’. Against the prince’s better judgement – ”
The Queen gave a sharp, sudden sob. “Judgement, my God! The boy lacks all common sense and good judgement!”
Commissioner Blake paused, uncertain.
“Pray continue, Commissioner,” said Prince Albert.
“The Prince of Wales assented. Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth led him into East London, through a maze of streets the Prince assured us he should never have been able to navigate alone. They eventually came to an establishment catering to the desire for the consumption of opium – ” At this, Commissioner Blake paused.
“Even we, with our sheltered lives, have heard of opium dens,” said the prince consort with heavy irony.
Blake cleared his throat. “Quite. At any rate, Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth persuaded the Prince to enter, in order to view what he described as ‘the scum’. The Prince informed us that he was reluctant to enter. However, he feared losing Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth, who promised to guide him afterwards out of the maze of slums. Thus he followed his friend into the opium-smoking establishment.
“The Prince tells us that a dark-skinned man – the proprietor of the establishment, we believe – asked them if they wished to smoke. They declined, whereupon the dark-skinned man proceeded to fill a hookah for them and urge them to sample his wares. Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth became agitated – remember, he was extremely intoxicated – and either struck or kicked at the smoking-device.” The commissioner stopped, as though considering how to phrase his next sentence.
The room became perfectly quiet once more, the Queen and her consort still awaiting the terrible blow that was surely to come.
Eventually, Commissioner Blake cleared his throat. “At this point, the Prince’s recollections become regrettably confused but he describes, in general terms, a contretemps. The proprietor was angered by this destruction of his property, and harsh words were exchanged. There were a number of patrons – Lascars, mainly, on shore leave – smoking opium at the time. Some were, of course, in a drug-induced stupor that left them unaware of the goings-on. But others were more alert, and one seems to have been enraged by Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth’s language; the Prince described it as strong. This man – the Prince describes him as an elderly sailor, and an Asiatic – rose up and staggered towards the young gentlemen. The Prince of Wales was a little closer to the Asiatic, and thus caught the first blow. The Prince says he attempted to grapple with the man, but soon found himself thrown aside with a force that was quite astonishing, given the Asiatic’s apparent age and build.
“Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth said something – the Prince does not recall precisely what. The Asiatic then turned to Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth. It seemed a fistfight, at first, but in a very short time – the Prince was unable to say how many minutes, as he was still downed and struggling to make sense of the struggle – Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth lay sprawled on the floor, face down.”
Mary could well imagine what Beaulieu-Buckworth’s “strong” language had been like. England was rarely a comfortable place for Asians, or any foreigners for that matter. But since this past summer’s aggression and bloodshed between Britain and China, tempers and temperatures had run especially high, especially for the Chinese community in London. England was not at war with China. Not officially, at least. But English troops were killing Chinese – both soldiers and civilians; the Chinese retaliated, and there had been rumours of torture.
The horrors in China now echoed through Limehouse, where for generations Asians had lived in quiet – if not, perhaps, peaceful – coexistence with their English neighbours. Now, there were reports of conflict: service refused to a Chinese woman at market; a Chinese man attacked by a gang of boys; a shop selling Chinese herbs burned down. English outrage was high, and some took that as license to “retaliate” – as though the denizens of East London were responsible for the actions of the Chinese emperor. There could be no doubt as to where Beaulieu-Buckworth stood.
Had stood. That was the key: the pig was dead. And although his name was mud in aristocratic circles – a well-known gambler, whoremonger, drunkard, and coward – he was still one of them. He was, after all, an “Honorable”, a scion of a noble house. That his short life had been almost entirely without honour or nobility mattered not. There would be no satisfactory ending to this tale.
“The Prince,” continued the commissioner, “though alarmed by the general violence, decided this was a good opportunity to persuade Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth to depart. But when he tried to help his friend up, he found him dying, a knife buried deep in his chest.”
A strange, high-pitched sound erupted – a cry that seemed more animal than human. “Murder!”
Mary scrambled to make sense of this scream. It hadn’t come from the Queen.
“Murder of a young aristocrat, and an attempt on the Prince of Wales’s life!”
“Indeed, Mrs. Dalrymple,” said Blake, to the lady-in-waiting. “But we are speaking to Her Majesty in confidence; it is of utmost importance that you keep silence about what you’ve just heard.”
“That goes without saying,” said Her Majesty severely. “We do not tolerate tale-bearing and idle gossip at our court.”
“Forgive me, Your Majesty.” But Mrs. Dalrymple’s voice continued to vibrate with emotion.
“We are glad of your discretion in coming to us first,” said Prince Albert, “and we still have much to discuss. But first: you have arrested the vermin, of course?”
“Yes, Your Highness; the miscreant is in Tower gaol even as we speak.”
“He was an opium fiend?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“And an Asiatic, you said.”
“A Chinese sailor, Your Highness, and a rather elderly one at that. Unless I’m much mistaken, he sailed his last journey some years ago.”
A pause. Then, the Prince Consort murmured, “That is useful.”
“Surely you understand me, Commissioner,” said His Highness in a meaningful tone.
“Mrs. Dalrymple,” said the Queen suddenly, “you may instruct my maids to draw my bath and prepare my morning dress.”
“Very good, Your Majesty,” said Mrs. Dalrymple in a soft, even voice. A few moments later, the door closed behind her with the softest of clicks, and Mary tried to visualize those who remained: Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, Blake, and Blake’s silent subordinate, she thought.
“The Prince of Wales must not be named as a party to this shocking event,” said the Queen in a rapid and matter-of-fact fashion. “Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth was alone in his visit to the opium den. The Prince and his equerries became separated from the larger group at a much earlier hour, and the Prince returned here, to his family, at midnight.”
Blake cleared his throat. “There is the small matter, Ma’am, of the other witnesses. Patrons of the opium den, for example.”
“A rag-tag band of drug-addled sots,” replied the Queen.
“And the owner, with whom the Prince exchanged words?”
“He must be persuaded of his error. He cannot possibly believe that the Prince of Wales entered his low den and spoke to him.”
“We can certainly try, Ma’am. But the gravest difficulty lies with the Lascar who attacked Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth. He will insist that the Prince of Wales was present – perhaps, even, that he joined with Mr. Beaulieu-Buckworth in attacking him. Pure invention, of course,” Commissioner Blake added hastily, “but these scoundrels seize upon anything to shore up their defense and muddy the truth.”
“He may be certain of a second gentleman,” allowed the Queen, “but he is clearly mad if he imagines it to have been the Prince of Wales. Did you not say the man was an opium fiend?”
“We believe so.”
“And do opium addicts not suffer from fits and delusions?”
“Y – es…”
“Then we have no difficulty.” There was a long, meaningful pause. “Have we?”
“And yet we may.” Prince Albert’s voice was deep, reluctant – and utterly surprising. “The first attack,” he said very slowly, “was on the Prince of Wales. And you say the Asiatic sailor recognized him?”
“The Prince of Wales thinks so,” said Blake. His expression was carefully neutral but tense all the same. “He believes he was recognized.”
“Then we have not only a clear identification, but a much more serious crime: an attack – most likely a murderous attack – on the person of the future King of England.”
There was a prolonged silence, during which the unspoken word seemed to reverberate about the chilly room. Treason – not merely against the state, but against the monarchy. That made it high treason.
Blake bowed. “Correct, Your Highness.”
Queen Victoria frowned. “That is true only if Bertie is correct about the identification. Could he not be in error? What would an opium-addled foreigner know about the Prince of Wales’s appearance in order to identify him so confidently – especially under such circumstances?” Her voice grew angry. “It beggars belief that such a villain could instantly recognize – and have the temerity to attack – the future King. This must surely be a grotesque error.”
“The Prince of Wales is a public figure,” argued Prince Albert. “His portrait appears regularly in society papers. Just as your subjects recognize you, my dear, they recognize your heir.”
“Perhaps,” said the Queen. “And I grant the seriousness of the attack. But if we pursue this route, the Prince of Wales will be subjected to a public scrutiny far too painful for him to bear. There will be scandal, not to mention the horror of a trial – good God, what if he is required to testify? Only think of what people will say – what newspapers might print! I cannot permit this!”
There was another prolonged silence. It was perhaps fanciful of Mary to imagine, sightless as she was behind the drapes, but this pause had a different quality. It was not a stand-off, but a sort of silent negotiation between husband and wife. Mary had seen them do this before – the rapid, minute flashes of change and exchange in their eyes. The sort of conversation only a close, long-married couple could have.
After a moment, Her Majesty once again addressed the commissioner. “The Prince Consort and I shall speak with our son tomorrow, when he is awake and calm. We shall ask the Prince of Wales to repeat his impressions of the night’s events. Once we have arrived at an understanding, we shall inform you how we wish to proceed.”
A pause. Then, reluctantly, “As you wish, Your Majesty.”
The interview was over, bar the formalities. Mary let out a long, silent breath she hadn’t known she was holding until that moment. She raised her shoulders and willed her tense muscles to soften. Outside this room, the day was starting. Servants would soon be rising. It was cutting it fine, but she ought to have time to return to the bedroom before her roommate woke.
“A moment, Commissioner.” Queen Victoria’s voice sliced through Mary’s thoughts. “What is the name of this opium fiend – the murderer?”
“It’s a Chinese name, Your Majesty. Difficult to say, even assuming he gave his real name.”
“Do your best.”
A pause. Then, haltingly, “It’s Lang.”
Mary caught her breath. The blood in her veins seemed to freeze for a long moment, then resume its course with a drunken swoop. Foolish, she scolded herself. Utter coincidence. Lang was a common-enough Chinese surname. What did it matter that it was the same as hers – the real name she’d abandoned, yet another fragment of her lost childhood?
“Why, there are Englishmen named Lang.” Prince Albert sounded the ‘g’ in Lang, making the name hard and Teutonic, not tonal and Chinese. “The name is of German origin.”
“It’s the rest of his name that gives trouble, Your Highness,” said Blake with an air of apology. “His Christian names – although I doubt he’s a Christian. It’s something like Jinn High.”
Mary swayed and caught desperately at the window-sill for balance, suddenly knocked dizzy by two syllables.
“Spelled J-i-n H-a-i, Your Majesty. Jin Hai Lang.”
Her pulse roared in her ears, so loudly she could scarcely hear the Queen’s terse thanks and dismissal.
Jin Hai Lang, a Lascar in Limehouse.
Lang Jin Hai, his name in Chinese.
An opium addict.
And, unless she’d gone completely mad…