Saturday Short Story Feature ~ Marsali Taylor @marsalitaylor @AllisonandBusby

Today I have a wonderful story from author Marsali Taylor, whom I met oh so briefly at Bloody Scotland Crime Festival earlier this year. Look out for a guest post on Marsali’s trip to Serbia!  For now settle down with a cuppa and indulge in this wonderful tale.

Rupert, Prince Palatine as a boy, by © Gerrit von Honthurst.

Three Knocks

Being the first of the Chronicles of Rupert, Prince Palatine
The Hague, January, 1629

It was a damned cold day, with a bitter wind blowing off the steel-grey sea and oozing its way around the leather hangings across the coach windows. I was ten, as I remember; you will hear later why that year was impressed upon my memory.

We were packed in the jolting coach from Leyden like tulips in their market boxes: Elizabeth in one corner facing the team of sturdy horses, with the younger ones packed around her, Louise on one side, Louis on the other. Timon – Charles Louis, nicknamed for his sardonic comments – had declared his seniority and taken the other corner, and Madame Du Plesseus, our governess, with her two grim-faced daughters in her train, had appeared in time to prevent me disputing it with him. That left Maurice and I back to the horses, and clinging to the straps at every bump. The baggage coach followed behind, an unnecessary expense, Eliza declared, since we had few clothes to fill it, as the poorest princes in Europe. Indeed, she was in the right of that; my christening gown, in Prague, before the revolution, was the most expensive outfit I was ever to have in my whole life.

‘But we have to look at our best,’ she said, angrily, ‘to be shown off to whatever visitors the Queen of Hearts has gathered this time.’

‘You should not talk so of our mother,’ Timon said, ever the older brother, ready to lay down the law.

‘Why not?’ Eliza took a tighter grip of Louis as the coach lurched into a rut and out of it again. ‘It’s what all Europe calls her.’ She switched from French to English. ‘All those knight-errands from England, who remember her as their Protestant princess. The little milord Craven.’

For once, I was on Timon’s side. ‘Mother wants to see us. It’s been three months since our last visit.’ I enjoyed our visits to The Hague; the court was full of music and laughter, with games of Forfeit and Blind Man’s Buff, a far cry from our round of lessons at Leyden.

‘The visit of those long-nosed Puritans, in hope of a better pension from the English parliament.’ Eliza shrugged. ‘Oh, no doubt she will be pleased enough to see Timon, ever her favourite.’

Louise’s lower lip began to tremble. ‘Mother likes to see all of us.’  She looked across at me for reassurance, for Elizabeth and Maurice were comparative newcomers to our house at Leyden, having come to join us from our grandmother in Brandenburg but the year before.

‘Of course she does,’ I soothed her. ‘And we’re nearly there. You’ve just time to make one last drawing.’ I flung an arm round Maurice’s shoulder. ‘Here, we’ll sit for you. The two noble kinsmen, or Don Quixote and Sancho.’ Maurice pulled a rustic face, which made her laugh. She brought her pencils and paper out of her pinafore pocket, and was soon absorbed.

I sat in silence, watching the flat country drag past, thinking about what Eliza had said. It hadn’t occurred to me before that we were only brought to see our parents when there were important visitors – apart from Henry, who was fifteen now, and old enough to be with Father all the time. The palace, which had been given to them by the Stadtholder after they had been driven from Bohemia, was large enough to hold them and their court, along with all the monkeys and dogs Mother made such a fuss of. It could easily have held us as well as the nursery party who were still there: Henriette, Philip and the new baby. Eliza’s words were starting to make an uneasy place for themselves, like a boar run to bay trampling a space in a thicket.

Louise had just finished her drawing when we came onto smoother gravel and turned around in front of the door of the palace. The gates were lit with flambeaux, and the lackeys scurried down to let down the steps. We tumbled out, stretching to get rid of the stiff places, and followed them into the house. It was part of the routine I’d taken for granted, that Mother did not rush to greet us as we arrived. Now, I noticed it. But the house, as we entered, was in more of a bustle than usual, with running footsteps and shouting echoing through the hall; and then one of Mother’s monkeys came scampering through the vestibule, up one curtain, down another and back along, with a pack of servants at its back, and Mother following them, her face flushed with running.

She was barely thirty then, our mother, with smooth, unblemished skin, a rose-bud mouth, and great almond-shaped eyes, blue in some lights and green in others. The older French visitors compared her to her grandmother, Mary of Scotland; the English court talked of that other Elizabeth, Gloriana. There was a string of pearls round her neck, and pearl drops in her hair and dangling from each ear. She paused on seeing us, then came forward to greet Timon with a cry of delight, and a kiss. ‘Dear Charles! This wretched monkey … no, no, do not join in the chase. He is frightened enough, with these fools of servants.‘  The rest of us got a swift, smiling glance. ‘Rupert, I swear you grow like a weed, and Maurice is no better. I will see you all at dinner.’ She scurried after her missing pet, leaving us in the hall.  Louise began to sniffle again. The nursery maid came down to shoo the little ones upward, with Eliza following, and we boys went to our own room to put on our best suits and lace collars.

By the time we came down again, the monkey had somehow got itself behind the carved wooden panelling that lined each room. We would hear scrapings and scruffling from one place, then from another, until Mother was almost ready to order hacking a panel out with an axe to get the creature out. Only milord Craven’s insistance that it had found its own way in, and would find its way out again once it was hungry, calmed her. Dinner was a gloomy affair, in spite of the Christmas wreaths of bay and holly that still festooned the walls and lay along the mantelpiece. Our father and Henry were absent, gone to meet the Dutch fleet, Mother said, her expressive face lighting up. ‘Our ship has come in at last – our legacy from Prince Maurice, his share in the company’s latest venture. They met with a Spanish treasure fleet.’ She turned to smile at Timon. ‘Now we’ll look for a princess for you.’

Carl was just dictating his requirements when the door swung open, and Louise came in. Her fair hair was dishevelled, there was a smear of dust and the hint of a spider-web across her cheek, and more than a hint of it on her pale blue satin skirts. She held the squirming monkey in a tight grip. ‘I got him out, Mother.’

Mother rose at once. ‘How clever of you, Louise!’ She took the animal from her, cradling it in her arms. It stretched its skinny arms round her neck. ‘Silly little one! Now, you see, you are back to where you belong. What were you doing, running away like that?’ One of the servants stepped forward to take it away from her, but she waved him away. ‘No, no, I will put him back in his cage myself.’

She swept out, past Louise, murmuring scolding endearments.  Louise watched her go, eyes beginning to fill with tears; as Eliza rose, she stamped her foot, turned, and ran out of the room.

Mother returned in cheerful mood, and the company was laughing with her when suddenly three knocks echoed around the room. My eyes went first to the door, but there was nobody there. Besides, it had not sounded like the door; more like a hand knocking from inside the panelling. I listened intently, and thought I heard a stealthy sound from behind the wall.

At the head of the table, Mother had gone deathly pale. She snatched up her fan, and began waving it by her face, struggling for breath. ‘An omen,’ she said at last, the words cramped as if her lips had stiffened. ‘My grandmother heard it at Fotheringay.’

The maids at Leyden enjoyed frightening each other with such stories, but I found such stuff as ghostly hands heralding death hard to believe, here in the real world. I left them all fussing around Mother, rose and strode into the hall, listening. There was nothing now, but I could have sworn that I’d almost heard the creak of wood against wood, masked by my footprints. It had come from the little parlour that backed on to the dining room. I was just about to fling the door wide when it opened of itself, and Louise came out. I eyed her narrowly. ‘What were you up to in there, Louie?’

She shook her fair curls and opened her blue eyes wide. ‘Rien, Rupert.’ She held up her hand to display a handful of sugar-plums. ‘Mademoiselle said I might come and get these, as a reward for catching Mother’s monkey.’

Naturally, I didn’t believe it. Louise saw the scepticism in my face. She bit her lip, and raised her blue eyes to mine, her little face bleak. ‘I thought she would be pleased, but she didn’t even say thank you.’

‘Where did you find him?’ I asked.

Her eyes went swiftly to one of the lower panels, then returned to my face. ‘In the hall. I have to go back upstairs.’ I watched her sweep up the stairs, all innocence, then had a look at the panelling. Once I looked where she had, I saw the crack, dark along the moulding. I presssed it with my fingers, and it slid sideways a foot, and jammed again. It was just large enough to admit a small child. She’d had plenty of time to squeeze out and close the panel while we’d all been reacting. I eased it shut, and it made the same protesting creak I’d half-heard before.

I went back into the dining-room. Mother was sitting up, but her face was still pale, her eyes wide; they sprang to me. ‘Rupert, if that was you up to one of your tricks, I’ll have you whipped.’

I gave up all thought of betraying Louise. ‘I was here in the room when the knocks sounded.’ I scowled at Timon. ‘Bear me out in this. I didn’t move until afterwards.’

‘He didn’t!’ Maurice seconded.

‘It’s true enough, he didn’t,’ Timon said, with a touch of reluctance. I didn’t bother to thank him, but sat down and addressed myself to my plate once more. I wanted to reassure my mother, take the white from her lips and the alarm from her eyes, but I couldn’t do it at Louie’s expense.  I’d warn her later that however much we might play such pranks on each other at Leyden, they were frowned upon here.

Visiting the Hague was no excuse for idleness. In the morning, Timon, Maurice and I had to give an exhibition of our sword-play for the visiting gentlemen. I disarmed Timon in all three of our bouts, which pleased me greatly, and sent him into the sullens. Eliza joined the ladies in gossip, and the little ones walked in the woods with their governess.

It was in the afternoon that we heard the knocks again, sharper this time, as if a bony hand was reaching out to rap at the panelling. My mother was still reacting as the door opened, and Louise came in, curls smooth, hands clean, eyes wide with innocence. ‘What was that strange noise?’ Her gaze landed on our mother, and a satisfied smile touched her mouth.

I frowned at her. I had no doubt she’d knocked, but she’d certainly not had time to come out from behind the panel and close it after her. Unless she’d sent in five-year old Louis … but on the thought the nursery party appeared, all washed and ready to be admired, Louis among them, fine in pale amber satin, with his long curls brushed. He’d not been behind a dusty wall, that was certain.

I had to get up at the crack of dawn to get the room to myself, creeping out of the room, breath-held, so as not to wake my brothers – Maurice was safe enough, but Timon would tattle. This time I stretched my arm into the wall cavity, letting the candle light it. Nothing. I shoved my head after it, and spotted a long stick on the floor, picked up in the woods, from the look of it, with a sharp stone attached to the head with embroidery thread, like a spear hastily fashioned for one of our Shakespeare plays. I stretched in and swung it forwards. The knock resounded in the space.

I pulled the stick out, broke it in four across my knee and dropped it in the fireplace. The stone went into the nearest flower jug, the thread into my breeches’ pocket, and that, I thought, would end that prank.

It was that same day that the news came. Our father and Henry had taken the passage boat back from Amsterdam, and it had capsized crossing the Haarlemmermeer. The captain had saved our father, but Henry had been lost. I was much older when I heard the full story. Father had claimed the bullion, but couldn’t be given it straight away, so they’d got the cheap packet home, and it had been rammed by a heavier ship. Henry had called out ‘Save me, Father!’ as he drowned, and Father, lying in a fever in Amsterdam, heard that cry over and over, and had to be restrained from leaping up to go to him. He was never well after that, poor Father, and died of a fever but three years later, on the day after my thirteenth birthday. They said that he heard that same call on his deathbed.

Mother was distracted at the news. ‘I told you it was a death omen!’ she wailed to milord Craven. Louise shuddered at that, and crept closer to me. Her hand slipped into mine. I bent down to her. ‘Papist superstition,’ I breathed in her ear, with my best imitation of Madame Du Plesseus’ grating voice. Her hand clutched mine, but she made no reply. Her lower lip trembled.

Naturally we were bundled off back to Leyden. I went to look for Louise while the flurry of packing was going on, and found her out in the garden, sitting forlornly by the sundial in the rose garden, surrounded by bare twigs. I sat down beside her. ‘What’s wrong, Louie?’

She shook her head, but I could see she’d been crying.

‘Is it because Henry’s dead?’

She nodded. I took her cold hand in mine. ‘He’s gone to be with God.’ It didn’t feel like comfort, but it was the best I could do. I kept remembering the pair of us riding our ponies up the stairs, with Madame Du Plesseus scolding, and Mother laughing at us. We were going to be soldiers together, fighting for Father’s throne, and Henry’s. He would be the Crown Prince,and I’d be his General of Horse …

Louise began crying in earnest, and I managed to distinguish the words ‘It was my fault’ among the sobs. I gave her a gentle shake. ‘Don’t be a goose. How could it be your fault?’

‘I knocked with the stick. Mother said it was a death omen.’

‘Pish!’ I said, mindful that Madame De P was safely seven leagues away. ‘How could you playing tricks with that old stick from the woods cause a boat to capsize in the Harlemmermeer?’

Her hand gripped mine tighter. ‘Are you sure, Rupert?’

‘Certain,’ I promised her. ‘Now think no more of it.’

She walked with me to the coach. Mother was on the steps with Timon. ‘Now you are the heir to Palatine, and your father’s honours,’ she told him. She kissed him, and let him go. I stepped forward as he stepped back, but she had already turned away, leaving me standing foolishly there, cheek tilted. I watched her go into the house, straight-backed and elegant, with the delicate lace collar like snowflakes on her black dress, the tear-drop pearls dangling in her hair, and felt as though it was she who had died.

The embroidery thread was still in my pocket. I fished it out and pressed it into Louise’s hand. ‘Next time we play that trick,’ I said to her, ‘we’ll use stouter cord.’

Marsalo Taylor. 

Marsali’s latest book ~

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Cass Lynch has achieved the post of third officer aboard her beloved ship, Sorlandet. They’re sailing from Norway to Ireland as part of the Tall Ship’s race when an unnerving early-morning encounter leads to suspicions that there’s a stowaway aboard – yet a police search finds nobody. Then one of the trainees goes missing … Cass and DI Gavin Macrae find themselves up against a ruthless killer.

You can order your own copy here:

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Merry Christmas from Kelly & The Team, thank you for all your support and love in 2017.

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