Buckingham Palace, London
Violet Harper had never been inside Buckingham Palace before. Her work for Queen Victoria had always taken Violet to either Windsor Castle or Osborne House, as after her husband’s death the queen had retreated from Buckingham Palace to both of these places that held such fond memories of her marriage.
Lately, though, the queen had slowly returned to life, which meant she was taking more interest in political affairs and in her residences that had seemed destined for dusty cobwebs and faded draperies.
Buckingham Palace was so neglected that a wag had once posted a sign at the gate, “These commanding premises to be let or sold, in consequence of the occupant’s declining business.”
Now, however, as she was ushered through wide corridors and past elegant state rooms, it was obvious that the palace was coming to life again in richly colored wall coverings and sparkling chandeliers. The number of ballrooms and dining rooms suggested to Violet that the queen and prince consort must have entertained lavishly while he was still alive.
Her mind was not entirely on the state of the palace, though. The queen’s summons gave no indication of why she wanted to see Violet. From experience, Violet knew it could mean anything from a death in the family to hunting down a killer.
Thus prepared, what actually awaited her inside the queen’s private sitting room two floors up was disconcerting.
All of the pale blue drapes were pulled closed, despite the sunny day, and candles set in sconces decorated the fireplace mantel and every available table surface. The gas lamps in the room were extinguished, so that the room had an eighteenth century glow to it.
Queen Victoria, dressed in her customary black, sat on a blue and gold settee across from her favorite outdoor servant, or ghillie, John Brown. Between them on an ottoman lay a familiar spread of cards. Standing behind the queen and observing what was going on was a girl, maybe twelve years old, with long, straw-colored hair flowing wildly down her back and pulled off her face with a simple red ribbon. Pearls swayed from the girl’s ears in equally simple gold settings as she intently watched as the queen’s personal servant gathered the cards back up, shuffled, and redistributed them face down in a formation resembling a cross with four additional cards lying in a vertical row to the right of the cross.
“Ah, Mrs. Harper, you’ve finally arrived,” Victoria said. “Dear Mr. Brown is about to do another reading.”
Violet rose from her deep curtsy that the queen seemed not to have noticed in her thrall of the cards. “Your Majesty, did you summon me to attend–”
“Please sit, Mrs. Harper. Mr. Brown’s readings have been exceedingly significant lately. He is having difficulty interpreting the cards, and since you share our passion for the afterlife and things other-worldly, we thought you would be interested in joining a reading.”
“Your Majesty, I’m an undertaker, not a spiri–”
“We also thought you might try your hand at interpreting the cards, since you have an affinity for those that have passed into the Great Beyond.”
Violet sank into the plush, peacock-blue chair that the queen had indicated. “Yes, but my affinity is merely–”
“You haven’t met our daughter, Beatrice. She, too, is very spiritual in her nature. Sweetheart, this is Mrs. Harper, the undertaker we mentioned.”
Princess Beatrice raised large, soulful eyes at her, eyes that seemed to render Violet completely transparent to the girl’s penetrating stare. Violet shivered. Perhaps the princess was the one Victoria should consult with on spiritual matters.
Violet rose from the chair and sank into another curtsy, unsure what the proper etiquette was with such a junior member of the royal family.
“I am delighted to make your acquaintance,” Beatrice said in a solemn, flat voice. Violet took that as a signal that she could rise, and sat back in her chair again.
The queen reached down and tapped the back of one of the cards. “We haven’t seen you use this deck before, Mr. Brown. It is lovely.”
Brown swatted the air around the queen’s hand. “Ach, Wumman, don’t touch them. You’ll disrupt the aura surrounding them. I had these cards imported from Italy.”
“Oh dear.” The queen pulled her hand away.
Beatrice leaned further forward over the back of the settee in order to get nearer to what was happening. It almost looked as though Victoria had two heads, so close was daughter to mother. Victoria impulsively brought a hand up and patted the girl on the cheek, and Beatrice responded with a kiss to her mother’s ear.
“With Baby here, and you, as well, Mrs. Harper, we will undoubtedly reach an answer together, won’t we, Mr. Brown?”
“I am confident of it, ma’am.” Brown turned over his first card, which lay over a hidden card in the center of the cross. “Yes, the two of pentacles.”
The queen brought a hand to her mouth. “Ohh. Again, Mr. Brown. It’s a two of pentacles each time.”
The servant had turned over a card which showed a man in Medieval peasant dress, his back to the viewer so that one could only partially see that he was holding some sort of puzzle knot in his hands.
Brown dropped his voice low. “As you know, madam, this card represents your current situation. Our young man in the picture is trying to balance two ends of a very big knot, which tells us that you have a very difficult problem before you, one that is hidden from your view.”
He divined that much from a card mass produced on a printing press?
His voice dropped even lower. “Now let us see what the near future holds for Your Majesty.”
Brown flipped over the card that had been underneath the first one. This one featured a man holding three swords, with two more at his feet, as he looked sadly over what appeared to be a burning village.
The servant shook his head. “This represents your near future. Desolation and loss, I’m afraid.” He sat back and closed his eyes, spreading his hands out, palms up, in supplication.
“Yes, I feel intense suffering for Your Majesty. It is almost as if–oh!” Brown dramatically clutched at his heart with one hand. “The pain is almost unbearable.”
“What is it? Will we be ill? Is it our heart? Oh, we’ve felt such palpitations lately.”
Brown spread his hands out again and breathed deeply. “No, it is not disease or illness.”
He opened his eyes again. “Let us look further at what the cards tell us.” He rapidly turned over the remaining cards, each bearing a figure in some sort of pose, surrounded by numbers, and words like “pentacles,” “cups,” “chalices,” and “wands.”
“Look at this card. It represents Your Majesty’s hopes and fears, and is the tower, from the major arcana. It speaks to me. It speaks of arrogance, and ruin, and of someone’s downfall. In fact, I see death.”
The queen gasped, and even Violet recoiled at what the ghillie had just said.
Brown waved his hands over the cards as though he was absorbing thoughts or feelings from the miniature artwork, although Violet couldn’t imagine how the cards might be telling him some sort of story.
“There are secrets in the palace, ma’am. Someone within the palace walls is plotting a dangerous scheme. Someone has dark secrets, black as coal. The cards, they are afraid to speak directly to me about this very serious matter. They say there is someone else to whom they will reveal the truth. Someone who comes out of blackness.”
Eerie silence descended on the room as Brown let his words settle on the women like coal smuts on a freezing cold morning.
“What does it mean, Mama?” Beatrice asked.
“We don’t know. If only your father were here, he’d know. Perhaps we need a séance to communicate with our dear prince, so that he can relay the meaning. Don’t you think so, Mr. Brown?”
“Yes, ma’am, we can certainly summon the spirits to seek your dear husband’s advice, but I believe the cards are pushing us in a specific direction.” He closed his eyes briefly and opened them again.
“Out of the darkness the answer will come. No, wait, someone dark will provide the answer. No–” Brown took a deep breath and blinked rapidly for several moments as he held his hands over the cards again. “Ah, the cards speak more plainly now. Someone in black will divine the solution.”
Victoria looked down at her dress, which made her look like a roosting crow. The severe color was relieved only by a cream lace collar and a matching lace cap on her head, as well as a gold mourning brooch which contained curled locks of Albert’s hair.
Now it was the queen’s turn to take a deep breath. “Surely the cards do not suggest that the queen of England traipse the streets like a Wilkie Collins character, poking about in dark alleyways for clues.”
“Mama, the plot is inside the palace, not in St. Giles or Whitechapel.”
“Still, Baby, it is unseemly for the spirits to demand this of us. Surely they mean someone else, Mr. Brown?”
“Perhaps, good lady, perhaps.”
“Why do you look at Mrs. Harper so curiously? Surely you don’t think…but perhaps you are correct. Mrs. Harper, you dress in black regularly for your profession, don’t you? And with your love of the occult, why, you must be whom the spirits want as their medium. Mr. Brown, perhaps the spirits led me to call Mrs. Harper here for today’s reading.”
A slow smile spread across Brown’s whiskered face. “You may have the right idea of it, Your Majesty.”
Violet was horrified. Wander about Buckingham Palace’s corridors, hoping to meet with either a horde of specters or a confederation of traitors?
“Your Majesty, my husband will be returning soon from Wales, and–”
Victoria waved her off with royal aplomb. “He will certainly understand that your queen needs you to perform this small service.”
Violet had learned that services for the queen were never small, and they had resulted in Violet’s near demise on more than one occasion.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
With an enthusiasm incongruous to her black garb and the dire warning her servant had just pronounced, Queen Victoria clapped her hands together. “So we shall have our own mystery here at Buckingham Palace, and the undertaker shall solve it. Is that not frightfully amusing, Mr. Brown?”
“Mrs. Harper, you are permitted to roam our palace at will, as long as you do not disrupt any official or family affairs. Please remain at St. James’s Palace while you investigate.”
Violet had been installed at St. James’s while helping the queen on a peculiar situation involving a murdered viscount that had been resolved recently, and still retained her quarters there.
“You are very generous, ma’am, but perhaps I am not the best–”
“Mr. Brown will be happy to do more readings for you, to help you get more in touch with the spirits.”
“I’m sure that won’t be necess–”
“Mama, I want to help discover the plot. We must prevent any deaths from occurring.” Beatrice’s eyes flared with anticipation.
“Now, Baby, don’t you want to stay by your mama’s side? We have so much correspondence for which we need your help addressing envelopes, and you told Mr. Caradoc you were ready to start your painting lessons.”
As quickly as it was ignited, the light in Beatrice’s eyes was extinguished. “Of course, mama.”
“Mrs. Harper, we will await your findings.”
This was Violet’s cue to leave. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
She backed out of the room, bewildered by the task she had been assigned. Did this just amount to a game Mr. Brown was playing to entertain the queen, or was it possible that there was some sort of treasonous plot being contrived in whispers and secret rendezvous inside the queen’s own residence? He didn’t actually mean to imply there would be a murder within the safety of the palace walls, did he?
Violet sighed heavily as she made the short walk from Buckingham Palace to her quarters at St. James’s Palace. How had she just gone from royal undertaker to royal snoop?
Unedited contracted excerpt, Copyright 2013 Christine Trent.