Home > The Dark Enquiry (Lady Julia Grey #5)

The Dark Enquiry (Lady Julia Grey #5)
Deanna Raybourn

The FIRST CHAPTER

I will sit as quiet as a lamb.

—King John

London, September 1889

“Julia, what in the name of God is that terrible stench? It smells as if you have taken to keeping farm animals in here,” my brother, Plum, complained. He drew a silk handkerchief from his pocket and held it to his nose. His eyes watered above the primrose silk as he gave a dramatic cough.

I swallowed hard, fighting back my own cough and ignoring my streaming eyes. “It is manure,” I conceded, turning back to my beakers and burners. I had just reached a crucial point in my experiment when Plum had interrupted me. The table before me was spread with various flasks and bottles, and an old copy of the Quarterly Journal of Science lay open at my elbow. My hair was pinned tightly up, and I was swathed from shoulders to ankles in a heavy canvas apron.

“What possible reason could you have for bringing manure into Brisbane’s consulting rooms?” he demanded, his voice slightly muffled by the handkerchief. I flicked him a glance. With the primrose silk swathing the lower half of his face he resembled a rather dashing if unconvincing highwayman.

“I am continuing the experiment I began last month,” I explained. “I have decided the fault lay with the saltpeter. It was impure, so I have decided to refine my own.”

His green eyes widened and he choked off another cough. “Not the black powder again! Julia, you promised Brisbane.”

The mention of my husband’s name did nothing to dissuade me. After months of debating the subject, we had agreed that I could participate in his private enquiry investigations so long as I mastered certain essential skills necessary to the profession. A proficiency with firearms was numbered among them.

“I promised him only that I would not touch his howdah pistol until he instructed me in the proper use of it,” I reminded Plum. I saw Plum glance anxiously at the tiger-skin rug stretched on the floor. Brisbane had felled the creature with one shot of the enormous howdah pistol, saving my life and killing the man-eater in as quick and humane a fashion as possible. My own experiences with the weapon had been far less successful. The south window was still boarded up from where I had shattered it when an improperly cured batch of powder had accidentally detonated. The neighbour directly across Chapel Street had threatened legal action until Brisbane had smoothed his ruffled feathers with a case of rather excellent Bordeaux.

Plum gave a sigh, puffing out the handkerchief. “What precisely are you attempting this time?”

I hesitated. Plum and I had both taken a role in Brisbane’s professional affairs, but there were matters we did not discuss by tacit arrangement, and the villain we had encountered in the Himalayas was seldom spoken of. I had watched the fellow disappear in a puff of smoke and the experience had been singularly astonishing. I had been impressed enough to want some of the stuff for myself, but despite numerous enquiries, I had been unsuccessful in locating a source for it. Thwarted, I had decided to make my own.

“I am attempting to replicate a powder I saw in India,” I temporised. “If I am successful, the powder will require no flame. It will be sensitive enough to ignite itself upon impact.” Plum’s eyes widened in horror.

“Damnation, Julia, you will blow up the building! And Mrs. Lawson dislikes you quite enough already,” he added, a trifle nastily, I thought.

I bent to my work. “Mrs. Lawson would dislike any wife of Brisbane’s. She had too many years of keeping house for him and preparing his puddings and starching his shirts. Her dislike of me is simple feminine jealousy.”

“Never mind the fact that you have created a thoroughly mephitic atmosphere here,” Plum argued. “Or perhaps it is the fact that you keep blowing out the windows of her house.”

“How you exaggerate! I only cracked the first lot and the smoke damage is scarcely noticeable since the painters have been in. As far as the south window, it is due to arrive tomorrow. Besides, that explosion was hardly my fault. Brisbane did not explain to me that sulphur is quite so volatile.”

“He is a madman,” Plum muttered.

I pierced him with a glance. “Then we are both of us mad, as well. We work with him,” I reminded him. “Why are you here?”

Plum snorted. “A happy welcome from my own sister.”

“We are a family of ten, Plum. A visit from a sibling is hardly a state occasion.”

“You are in a vile mood today. Perhaps I should go and come again when you have sweetened your tongue.”

I carefully measured out a few grains of my newly formulated black powder. “Or perhaps you should simply tell me why you are here.”

He gave another sigh. “I need to consult with your lord and master about the case he has set me. He wants me to woo the Earl of Mortlake’s daughter with an eye to discovering if she is the culprit in the theft of Lady Mortlake’s emeralds.”

I straightened, intrigued in spite of myself. “That is absurd. Felicity Mortlake is a thoroughly nice girl with no possible motive to stealing her stepmother’s emeralds. I am sure she will be vindicated by your efforts.”

“That may be, but in the meantime, I have to secure for myself an invitation to their country seat to make a pretense of an ardent suitor. This would have been far easier during the season,” he complained.

“Can you put the thing off?” I asked, wiping the powder from my hands with a dampened rag.

“Not likely. The emeralds are still missing, and Brisbane said Mortlake is getting impatient. Nothing has been proved of Felicity, but until his lordship knows something for certain, he cannot be assured of her innocence or guilt. One feels rather sorry for him. Of course, one ought rather to feel sorry for me. Felicity Mortlake detests me,” he said, pulling a woeful face.

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