An Unexpected Peril by Deanna Raybourn: New Excerpt
By Crime HQMarch 1, 2021
That evening, Stoker amused himself with the earl’s latest purchase for the Rosemorran Collection—an enormous walrus that had required the combined strength of numerous porters to wheel into the Belvedere, the freestanding ballroom that had been given over to the various artifacts and works of art hoarded by seven generations of earls. It was, in due course, to serve as a museum once the contents were properly sorted and arranged for the edification of the general public. The fact that Stoker and I were the only two people working to organize the thousands of items meant that the museum was projected to open sometime in the middle of the next century. The Belvedere was a place of unending magic and mystery, crammed to the rafters with every variety of trophy—jewels, statues, fossils, paintings, coins, suits of armor, one or two moldering mummies, and natural history specimens of all descriptions. The acquisition of the walrus had long been a pet dream of Stoker’s and its arrival had kindled in him an enthusiasm akin to that of a child on Christmas morn. He had fallen upon the massive crate with a pry bar and single-minded determination. The fact that it smelt strongly of rotting fish had done little to dampen his ardor.
“It wants cleaning out,” he explained happily, anticipating with real pleasure many hours spent raking bits of decaying filler from its imperfectly preserved insides.
“Your tastes will ever surprise me,” I remarked dryly. I expected some vigorous rejoinder, but he was already peering intently into the creature’s mouth, neatly eluding the long, menacing ivory tusks.
“Amazing!” he exclaimed. “Do you realize that this is the largest single specimen of Odobenus rosmarus ever to be seen on English shores? Two thousand two hundred and forty-five pounds. And a half,” he added with all the pride of a new father observing his offspring for the first time.
“You don’t say,” I murmured. Stoker’s dogs, Huxley and Nut, and his lordship’s enormous Caucasian sheepdog, Betony, sat patiently at his heels, waiting for the destruction of the trophy to begin. Stoker had—upon several occasions and in exhaustive detail—explained that the fashion for stuffing specimens had been discarded for the more aesthetically pleasing and accurate method of mounting them. Older examples of the taxidermical arts had been stuffed with sawdust, newspapers, old book pages, rags, whatever was to hand when the job was in progress. Stoker had even unearthed a foul nest of dead kittens in one particularly vile specimen. It was his practice to take such trophies and deftly unstuff them, if one may be permitted to use such a word, removing the putrefying fillers and cleaning the various hides and skins to restore them to lustrous life. He fashioned his own eyeballs after intensive research into the proper shape and color and pupillary details, and he sculpted his own armature to hold the refurbished exteriors. It was a gift, of that there could be little doubt, to bring these creatures back to life, resurrecting them so perfectly that one could easily imagine they had been alive only a moment before—indeed might still be alive, only arrested in mid-breath. More than once I had glanced quickly back at one of his trophies, certain I had caught movement in the tail of my eye. I was not surprised the walrus had diverted him. I had met him when he was engaged in assembling an elephant of dramatic proportions, and with Stoker size was always a consideration.
I took myself up the narrow twisting stair of the Belvedere into
the gallery that provided a snuggery of sorts. It was furnished with low bookshelves and a campaign bed once belonging to Wellington as well as a few other cozy comforts. My own dog, Vespertine, trotted obediently behind, coming to rest lightly at my feet with a hopeful glance. The poor fellow had lost his mistress a few months previously and had taken to following me about with persistent devotion. He was a Scottish deerhound, tall and elegant, and had a habit of looking down his aristocratic nose at Huxley the bulldog and Nut the pharaoh hound. Huxley had belonged to Stoker when I met him, but Nut—like Vespertine—was the souvenir of an investigation, and it occurred to me, not for the first time, that Stoker and I were going to have to be a little more judicious in our acquisitions of animals unless we meant to start a dog circus.
I rootled through the stacks of newspapers until I found the ones I wanted: issues of the Daily Harbinger from the previous October. The front pages were covered in lurid illustrations from the murder scenes of that fiend popularly known as Jack the Ripper, but in the latter pages of one edition, I saw a mention of Alice Baker-Greene. It was the merest snippet, a paragraph only, stating that the renowned climber had died upon the slopes of the Teufelstreppe in an attempt to summit the mountain out of season. There was no byline on the piece, and I flapped it aside in irritation. I rummaged through a few more issues until I found a proper tribute. This one was more informative, detailing Miss Baker-Greene’s history as part of the noteworthy Baker-Greene climbing family. Her grandparents had begun the tradition, using the Pennines as their training ground. They took along their son, who soon distinguished himself as one of the youngest men ever to summit the Matterhorn. He was an ambitious youth, determined to gain access to peaks previously unchallenged by Englishmen—notably the Himalayas. There was a brief mention of his demise in the Karakoram and his father’s later death in an avalanche in the Andes. The only surviving member of the family was the elder Mrs. Baker-Greene, who had taken charge of her orphaned young granddaughter. She had curtailed her climbing in order to raise the child, but when she discovered the girl perched atop a substantial deposit of talus, she realized that it would be futile to think she could keep young Alice from mountaineering. The elder Mrs. Baker-Greene had resumed her travels, taking the girl with her when school terms permitted, teaching her everything she knew about the pursuit.
By the time she was twenty, Alice Baker-Greene had surpassed her family’s achievements, becoming the first woman to summit Coropuna. She gained fame for never shying from a challenge, setting herself impossible tasks and working doggedly at them until she achieved them. She was the first to climb without male porters or guides on the grounds that her accomplishments would never be recognized if there was the slightest possibility that a man might be credited with the work. She led teams of amateur lady climbers around the world in order to finance her solo climbs upon the more demanding peaks. She was outspoken, arguing forcefully for admission to the various mountaineering clubs that refused her entry on the grounds of her sex.
The piece went on to describe the contretemps that arose on the fateful expedition to South America with Douglas Norton, adding rather more colorful detail than the lady herself had included when she had related the tale to me. According to the Daily Harbinger, upon the descent of El Cielo, she had publicly horsewhipped Douglas Norton, challenging him to a duel and claiming that he had stolen her summit. In return, he had laughed at her and claimed that El Cielo was no longer fit to climb since a woman had touched its summit. It was the last time she climbed with a man. From then on, she climbed alone or with her ladies, proving her achievements by planting a small green banner blazoned with her name at each peak. When guides removed her banners to call her accomplishments into question, she had begun to climb with photographic equipment, hauling the heavy camera to the summit in order to prove her success. I thought of the collection of photographs hung along the stairs of the Curiosity Club, silent testimony to one woman’s determination to prove her worth.
“I wish we had met again, Alice,” I murmured as I paged through the newspaper to find the conclusion of the piece. “I think we would have got on rather well.”
The rest of the article discussed her political leanings. Rebelling against the cult of True Womanhood with its insistence upon domestic virtue and bodily delicacy, Alice Baker-Greene had been a vehement advocate of fresh air and robust exercise, putting forth the notion not only that were women strong enough physically to endure the arduous requirements of mountaineering, but that they were better suited to the challenges of solitude or cooperation that different expeditions required. She claimed women were, by nature and nurture, more adaptable and easygoing than men, better able to govern their tempers and work in harmony with circumstances rather than against them. She detailed the numerous examples of men who had perished on mountaintops from their stubborn refusal to accept that conditions had turned murderous. She did not have to cite her father and grandfather as examples. It was well-known that on her grandfather’s fatal climb, her grandmother had protested against the prevailing wind, pointing out that the damp warmth of it was likely to spawn avalanches. The men had pushed on, and only Alice’s grandmother, with the wisdom born of long experience, had turned back, and she alone survived.
Doubtless that event had shaped young Alice’s perspective and her determination to listen to her own instincts and experience rather than those of others. She gave speeches crediting her grandmother with the courage to resist even those who loved her when she knew they were wrong. And she pushed for women to do so in their own lives. She spoke at rallies for women’s suffrage and posed for a photograph of herself in climbing gear for a pamphlet on the subject. She wrote letters in support of Irish Home Rule and liberal immigration policies and comprehensive education for women. Her lectures on mountaineering were often picketed and protested, but she did not censor herself. Some of her articles took on a hectoring tone, lecturing against the evils of keeping women on pedestals that too often served as cages and advocating for rational dress. She had spent a night in jail in America for publicly burning a corset before climbing Pikes Peak. She was, in short, a firebrand who lived life on her own terms, and I felt oddly mournful as I read the conclusion of the article.
“But who would have wanted you dead?” I wondered as I put it aside. Again, there had been no byline, but I suspected J. J. Butterworth might have known a thing or two about it. I made a mental note to run her to ground and see if I could pry a little information free.
The last article was decidedly more salacious in tone, detailing her frequent visits to the Alpenwald in the last years of her life and the fact that she had often been seen in the company of an Alpenwalder aristocrat, the Duke of Lokendorf. There was an accompanying photograph of the duke, an official portrait of a handsome young man dressed in a dashing uniform lavishly covered in medals. The author of the piece hinted that Alice might well have found herself a duchess if she had lived, a minor member of the Alpenwalder royal family. I peered more closely at the photograph, reaching automatically for my magnifying glass. The photograph was poorly reproduced—the Daily Harbinger was not known for the quality of its prose or of its paper—but I could just make out the fine features of the duke, features that were enhanced by the presence of a lavish set of dark moustaches.
“Goodness me, you were a dark horse, weren’t you, Alice?” I murmured. So, the gentleman who had posed with her for a photograph on the Teufelstreppe was the Duke of Lokendorf. It had been apparent from the picture in Alice’s possessions that they had enjoyed a certain closeness. Had there been an understanding between them? I steepled my fingers together as I studied the newspaper cutting, wondering exactly how well such a connection might have suited a formal European court, no matter how small.
Just then Stoker appeared, hair disordered and hands streaked with unspeakable substances. I gave him a close-lipped smile. “You will want a bath,” I remarked, wrinkling my nose against the odor that clung to his clothes. It was a furious bouquet of mouse, sawdust, and fish heads, heightened by the pungent note of formalin.
He grinned. “His lordship informed me this morning that the Roman baths have been repaired. I thought you might care to join me.”
The Roman baths were one of a series of small follies situated on the estate. Room and board were included with our wages, and both of us had been given a choice of folly to serve as our private quarters. Stoker had selected a Chinese pagoda near the Roman baths whilst I had contented myself with an enchanting Gothic chapel, a miniature of Sainte-Chapelle, complete with star-flung skies and gilded tracery. These were, ostensibly, our private domains and not to be entered into by members of family or staff without our permission. The reality was somewhat less absolute. It was not uncommon to find one or another Beauclerk child lurking somewhere about, getting up to mischief.
Our affair, though not entirely secret, was conducted with due discretion thanks to the presence of the Beauclerk offspring. There were some half a dozen of them, ranging in age from eight to twenty, of varying degrees of intelligence and comeliness. The youngest of them, Lady Rose, had formed a firm dislike of me on the grounds that she adored Stoker and would not countenance a rival for his regard. I had won her over by giving her the perfect recipe for dosing her despised brother with a rhubarb concoction that would see him heaving up his guts, but the ensuing punishment from her father had swiftly put an end to our accord. Given her slightly alarming tendency towards physical violence, Lady Rose was not an enemy I cared to provoke.
“Lady Rose returned home this afternoon,” I informed him. “She has already told his lordship that she intends for you to take her stargazing this evening. Something about a meteor shower.”
Stoker swore under his breath. “What the devil is the little menace doing home? She is supposed to be at school.” Stoker was smiling in spite of himself. He had a real fondness for the child and her obstreperous ways, no matter how much he railed against her.
“Sent down,” I said briskly.
“Again? Did she try to burn this school down as well?” “No,” I told him. “The headmistress.”
Stoker blinked. “She tried to burn down her headmistress?”
I shrugged. “She meant to light a firework off to stop them having to go to chapel, but the thing shot the wrong direction and ended up in the headmistress’s wig, according to Lady C.” Her niece’s waywardness was a frequent source of vexation to Lady Cordelia, who was often left to the practicalities of caring for her brother’s motherless children. The rest of them had their challenges, legacies of seven hundred years of Beauclerk eccentricity, I had little doubt, but Lady Rose took the peculiarities to new heights.
I tipped my head. “I was just reading about Alice Baker-Greene. She advocated for strong physical education for high-spirited girls.”
“Perhaps Lady Rose needs to be taken to a mountain,” Stoker suggested.
“And shoved off it,” I finished.
“I am sorry about our evening,” he said, a faint note of hesitation in his voice.
I waved a hand. “Never mind. I have a great deal of reading to do in any event. And with Lady C. busy finding another school for Lady Rose, more of the work of the opening of the Baker-Greene exhibition will fall to us.
“Besides,” I added, resting a fond hand on Vespertine’s broad head, “I have a companion for tonight.”
His mouth curved into a smile. “Replaced by a hound,” he said lightly. But the smile did not reach his eyes, and when he turned to go, I did not stop him.
Copyright © 2021 by Deanna Raybourn.
About An Unexpected Peril by Deanna Raybourn:
January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club–an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women–Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves–and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears.
Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family–the royalty who has never claimed her.