My baby sister, Alexandra Christian, and I are both big Sherlock Holmes fans in almost every incarnation, and bless our hearts, we do write romance. So last year as a lark we challenged one another to each write a Victorian romance with a hero that was both romantic and a reasonably authentic version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective. My offering was the story excerpted here, The Butterfly. (To read Lexie’s take, check out the excellent novella, Chasing the Dragon.) Both stories are free to download through Saturday, February 16, 2017:
The glass-domed greenhouse stretched the entire width of the house and extended deeply into the patch of garden behind it. The late Lord Northrup, whose fortune had been greatly enlarged over two decades in India, had kept his own private jungle in the center of London. It was reported to have been his favorite room in the house, and he had died here, sprawled in an embarrassing attitude across a wicker chaise. The butler now led Holmes past the same spot which was now bare of furniture.
Lady Northrup was in a far corner near the glass wall. Her mourning costume had been augmented with a straw sun hat and a pair of gardening gloves. “Good morning, Mr. Holmes,” she said without turning around as she tended some large, rather ferocious-looking plant. “If your intent was to surprise me, you’ve succeeded.”
“No doubt you find it surprising that I would dare show my face here,” Holmes said, feeling uncomfortably like a small boy caught being naughty.
“Not at all.” She turned around with her hands full of colorful flowers. “I imagine you would dare anything.” She handed these to the butler. “Thank you, Mr. Poag.” Giving Holmes one last glare, the butler took his blossoms and left. “But I never dreamed you would come here to apologize.”
“It seemed appropriate.” After their last visit, Watson had declared Lady Northrup to be “quite striking.” Holmes was not the connoisseur of female beauty his friend was, but he couldn’t pretend the woman was unattractive. “Thank you for seeing me.”
“I could hardly resist.” She took off the hat and gloves. “Pray commence, sir.” She was almost smiling. “Apologize.”
“Of course.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “I deeply regret any embarrassment to yourself caused by my investigation of your husband’s death.”
“Embarrassment?” She walked past him, headed toward the rest of the house. “Is that what you’d call it?”
“Perhaps rather more than that.” He followed her. “Though in my defense, I must protest that I never once said you were a can-can dancer.” She led him out of the solarium into a cozy parlor with a grand piano and several overstuffed chairs. In contrast to what he’d seen of the rest of the house, these furnishings looked brand new. “I merely reported that you were a member of the ensemble at an establishment in Paris where the can-can is performed.”
“Was performed, Mr. Holmes.” She took one of the chairs and pointed him to another. “The nightclub has long since closed.” Tea had been laid on the table between them. “And I was not a member of the ensemble.” She poured a cup and smiled. “I was the star.” She held up the cup. “Cream and sugar?”
“Neither, thank you.” He took the tea and sipped, an act of faith, considering he had recently implied she might be a poisoner.
“You’re quite welcome.” She put sugar and cream in her own cup. “And your apology is accepted. I’m sure you only did what you felt was right.”
“I was engaged within the compass of my profession.” He would have turned the case down, but for some reason his brother, Mycroft, had insisted he take it. “And you must allow that the circumstances of your husband’s death bore investigation.”
“A man well past the prime of life in less-than-perfect health with a known fondness for tobacco, alcohol, and other indulgences drops dead with his trousers unbuttoned in the presence of a half-dressed upstairs maid,” she said, stirring her tea. “Yes, Mr. Holmes, very mysterious.”
“A maid who seemed to vanish into thin air immediately after making her report to the police,” Holmes pointed out.
“Indeed,” she said. “Are you certain I didn’t kill her, too?”
“Quite certain,” Holmes said. “I spoke to the young lady four days ago at her mother’s home in Brighton.”
“Oh, you found her.” Her tone and manner were calm, but he saw fury in her eyes. “I wonder that the papers didn’t mention it.”
“The papers weren’t told,” he said. “I saw no need to disrupt the poor creature’s life any further. She’s been through quite an ordeal already.”
“Indeed.” Her teacup rattled on the saucer. “How very chivalrous of you.”
“Lady Northrup, I had no idea your late husband’s nephew would go to the papers with my report.”
“Didn’t you?” she said, setting down her cup. “I thought you were meant to be clever. Having failed to deprive my son of his inheritance by sending me to the gallows, any fool could see his only recourse was to have me publicly declared a slut.”
“By the time those papers went to press last night, he had already engaged his lawyers to enter a suit to declare my son, Sebastian illegitimate based on my—how do the documents phrase it?—my well-known history of lewd and immoral behavior.’ And with the help and faith of more fine, intelligent men like yourself, he’ll win his case.”
“Lady Northrup, I assure you—“
“You have made your apology, Mr. Holmes,” she cut him off as she stood up. “Your conscience is clear. And I have taxed my lowborn understanding of good manners to the utmost by not bouncing you out my front door on your arse. So really, we have nothing left to say to one another. I think it must be time for you to go.”
“Peter Northrup is the lowest form of weasel,” Holmes said. “I told him as much to his face the first day he came to see me. I only agreed to take the case to prove how petty and ridiculous it was. If you had shown the slightest genuine regret at the loss of your husband—“
“Dear god, man, why should I regret it?” she demanded. “He made my life a living hell for eleven years and died forcing his attentions on my maid.” She seemed to remember herself and sat back down. “No, Mr. Holmes, I do not grieve for my husband. I grieve for my son who will have no father. But for my husband, no.” She smiled slightly. “But that doesn’t mean I killed him.”
“When you and I first spoke, I knew very little of the circumstances of your husband’s death,” Holmes said.
“Only what Peter had told you.”
“Yes.” He felt a most uncomfortable heat on his face. “I do not like to think his prejudice against you influenced my perceptions.”
“I dare say it was my fault entirely,” she said. “I knew only too well what Peter must have told you. I could have easily played the grieving widow to perfection. I am a very accomplished actress—or at least I used to be.” She picked up her teacup again. “Would you be flattered to hear your reputation frightened me? That I was afraid you would see through my performance?”
“Flattered, yes, perhaps,” he said with a small smile of his own. “But not convinced.”
She laughed, a brief, musical lilt. “I was furious, Mr. Holmes, at my husband’s nephew and at you. How dare you come into my home and accuse me when I had suffered so much?”
Holmes found this much easier to believe. She looked like the sort of woman accustomed to fits of fury far beyond her own self-interest. “Rather a rotten husband, then?” he said, sipping his tea.
“Rather,” she drawled, mocking his diction. “He was a wealthy, titled Englishman. I was an Irish-born actress. Can you not picture our courtship?”
“Dr. Watson said it must have been quite romantic,” Holmes said.
“Dr. Watson was mistaken,” she said. “Bless him.” She set down her teacup and looked away as if she couldn’t decide what she should tell him. “Ours was very much a business arrangement. He gave me security of a kind, a name and a home for as long as I could play the part. It was quite understood that he would divorce me the moment anyone discovered my true identity. But no doubt you know that already.”
“Yes,” he said. “There were papers to that effect in the safe. I considered that your most likely motive for murdering him.”
“As well you might,” she said. “But before you exposed me, I played the role to perfection. Did you find anyone in England besides Richard’s solicitor who knew?”
“No one,” he admitted. “Even the nephew was fooled until the solicitor told him. So what did your husband receive in this contract, if I may ask?”
“You just have asked,” she said, laughing. “Why aren’t I surprised?”
“Your charms would certainly seem to be sufficient compensation for most men,” Holmes said. “But he was, as you say, giving chase to the chambermaids.”
“Perfectly expressed, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “The chase was the attraction for Richard, always. He married me because he couldn’t have me any other way. And in Paris, he had to have me.” He followed her gaze to a colorful painting hanging over the fireplace, a poster in the new French style depicting a woman in a striking black and blue gown. “I was La Papillon,” she said. “The Butterfly. The prize. Every man in Paris wanted to possess me.” She smiled her fragile smile again. “But no doubt you are immune to such attractions.”
“Generally speaking,” he said. “Though in your case, I believe I understand.”
“Why, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “You take my breath away.”
“I said I understand the disease, Lady Northrup,” he said. “I never said I was afflicted.” Watson had often accused him of willful cruelty, but that was almost never true. He rarely meant to wound anyone with his remarks; he simply had no tact. But something about this woman made him want to cut past her arrogant façade and lay her bare.
She obliged his base desire to hurt her by gasping slightly in shock, her eyes widening. Then she smiled. “Indeed,” she said. “So tell me, Mr. Holmes. Why have you decided I didn’t kill my husband after all?”
“Because I can determine no method nor opportunity by which you might have done so,” he said. “Your husband died suddenly while undertaking strenuous physical activity, though not of a nature unusual or outside his accustomed routine.”
“No,” she said. “Richard was always active.”
“The maid who was with him at the time testified that he exhibited only a brief period of distress during which his left arm appeared to stiffen and give him pain and his face first flushed then turned pale. She has not wavered in this account of his passing except to add, after my questioning, certain other details inappropriate for polite conversation that are also consistent with the sudden, violent onset of heart failure or stroke.”
“He lost control of his bowels but maintained an impressive erection,” Lady Northrup said. “You forget, Mr. Holmes, the butler and I were the first assistance the poor girl summoned to the scene.”
“Quite so,” Holmes said. “Marked dilation of the right pupil observed postmortem by Dr. Watson also indicated a strong possibility of stroke.”
“Then why suspect me at all?” she said.
“Mr. Northrup’s certainty of your guilt combined with your own apparent resignation to if not pleasure at your husband’s death made my suspicion inescapable,” he said. “No detective worthy of the name could have failed to investigate.”
“Oh yes, I forgot,” she said. “It was my fault. So what was your theory of the crime? How did you imagine I had done it?”
“As you were not present at the time of death, poison seemed the most likely method,” he said. He rather enjoyed talking it over with her this way; her lack of histrionics in the face of his deductions was far more charming to him than her looks. “Though until I spoke to the maid myself, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that she had lied to the police and was in fact your accomplice.”
“How relieved she must have been to hear you’d changed your mind,” she said, finishing her tea. “So why don’t you still think I poisoned him?”
“I consulted many sources within my own library and at the medical college and corresponded with several experts and determined that there is no poison available in London that could have produced precisely such a death,” he said. “Certain toxins injected directly into the bloodstream via syringe might conceivably produce similar symptoms, but they would have had to have been administered by someone in Lord Northrup’s presence when he was struck. You were upstairs in your dressing room with two other maids and Peter Northrup’s wife. More to the point, no needle marks were found on the body, only bug bites. Your husband’s valet testified that these were received on a hunting expedition the week before.
“Are they so different?” she said. “Bug bites and needle marks?”
“Chalk and cheese, Lady Northrup,” he said. “Or so Dr. Watson assures me.”
“So my husband died of a stroke.”
“Your husband died of a stroke.” Regret was not a luxury he allowed himself often, but sitting across the tea table from her now and remembering the boy he had met in the hall, he could hardly avoid it. “And I have done you harm.”
“I’ve lived through worse,” she said. “Though if you wanted to make amends, there is something you could do for me.”
He instantly regretted his regret. “Indeed?”
“I would very much like to go to the theatre this evening. The new Gilbert and Sullivan is opening at the Savoy, and my late husband and I have a box. Under the circumstances, I can hardly attend on my own.” She paused as if waiting for him to make a helpful suggestion, but he would sooner have taken a bite from his teacup, chewed it up and swallowed it. “As my current situation as a social pariah is at least partially your fault, would you be so kind as to accompany me?”
“Certainly not,” he said. “I do not care for the theatre, particularly the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.”
“My dear Mr. Holmes,” she said, laughing. “What you do or do not care for is entirely beside the point.” Her lovely smile was rather frightening. “I care for the theatre very much. And you owe me.”
He could have brushed off this challenge like a butterfly from his sleeve, but he found he didn’t want to. “So it’s to be torture, then?” he said, returning her smile.
“So it seems.” Her color was high and quite fetching in spite of her mourning gown. “Are you man enough to bear it?”
“We shall see.” He stood up. “Until this evening, Lady Northrup.”
She laughed. “Call for me at seven, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “I refuse to turn up late.”