Corpse & Crown Excerpt
Queen Victoria’s private chambers were dominated by a silk-draped canopy bed, several gilt-framed portraits of the late Prince Albert and the overpowering scent of dog. A fire blazed in the marble hearth, making the room feel like an oven. Already, a trickle of sweat had worked its way down the back of Aggie’s neck and past her shoulder blades. The overheated room was only partially to blame for her unease. The other cause was lying in bed, propped up by half a dozen lace-trimmed pillows, wearing a mobcap over her gray hair and an expression of stone-faced blankness. Difficult to fathom that this was the most powerful woman in the world—the Queen of England.
The elderly Queen did not acknowledge Moulsdale as he checked her heartbeat with the stethoscope. Staring out into the middle distance, she did not even blink when Moulsdale waved his hand in front of her eyes.
“Hmm,” said Moulsdale, turning to the man sitting in an armchair on the other side of the queen’s bed. “How long has she been like this, Lord Salisbury?”“Since the morning, I’m afraid. She was like this when her lady of the bedchamber came in with her tea.” Like Moulsdale, Lord Salisbury was tall and stout and had trouble with his legs, but while Moulsdale was a bull terrier of a man, bright eyed and tenacious, the prime minister seemed more like a morose basset hound. “I was afraid of this from the beginning, you know.”
Moulsdale replaced the stethoscope in the leather satchel. “My lord, pray do not jump to some dire conclusion.”
Salisbury shook his head. “Do not attempt to mollycoddle me! I am not some society lady you can bamboozle.”
Moulsdale’s face registered a momentary flicker of irritation, quickly concealed by a salesman’s glib smile. “You are perturbed by Her Majesty’s ailment,” he said, pulling a bottle of bright green ichor from the medical bag. “Entirely understandable, but also unwarranted.”
Shiercliffe, who was attaching a needle to the syringe, gave Moulsdale a look that contradicted his assertion, but Salisbury did not appear to take any notice. “I should never have listened to your outrageous proposal,” he said, his gaze fixed on the queen’s frozen countenance. “Better we should have let nature take its course last year than to—” He broke off, glancing at Lizzie and Aggie, who were both standing off to one side, trying to stay out of the way.
“Don’t worry, my friend—it’s perfectly fine to speak freely in front of these young ladies,” Moulsdale assured the other man. Taking the syringe from Shiercliffe, he turned to Aggie and said, “Go on now, girl. You know what to do.”
Aggie rolled up the queen’s sleeve, baring one plump and flaccid arm before cleansing the area with a cotton swab dabbed in carbolic acid. As Moulsdale approached with the syringe, the queen showed no sign that she noticed or cared what was being done to her.
“Still and all,” said Salisbury, “I see no sense in carelessly revealing our secrets to just anyone.”
“I am hardly careless,” said Moulsdale, injecting the syringe of ichor into the queen’s arm without checking for air bubbles. “Miss Lavenza is one of our top medical students and has been sworn to secrecy. As for the redhead, she’s a scholarship girl and dependent on the school’s largesse, so we can trust her to be discreet.” Moulsdale handed Aggie the used needle and syringe.
Ears burning with embarrassment, she unscrewed the needle and placed it in a small steel case for disinfection. Buck up, she told herself. It’s not like he’s saying anything you don’t know. Still, it stung to hear the unvarnished truth stated so bluntly.”