Hello, and welcome to my 2023 A to Z Blogging Challenge! For a detailed explanation of what I’m up to this year, see my Theme Reveal. But basically, I’m taking all the suspects I made up for my A to Z last year (with help from several commenters!) and putting them all into an actual murder mystery. See the sidebar for links to last year’s posts; if your device doesn’t display sidebars (if, for example, you are visiting on your phone), the links will be under the comment section, right under my A to Z 2023 participation badge.
Chapter Twenty-Four: Xavier
“I will tell you about the bones,” said Xavier darkly. “And then perhaps you will know more about human nature than you do at present.” And he glanced again at Wilhelmina’s face, and squeezed his eyes shut, as if in pain from looking at a bright light.
“But first I must explain about the machine,” Xavier continued. “I am an inventor, of sorts, and lately I have made an X-ray machine. It is, I think, quite an improvement over the earlier models. I designed it for use on things whose contents it may be well to get a look at before they are exposed to air. Mummy cases, for example.
“I have visited Clutterbuck Court often all my life. Sir Adam and I were great friends, for a time, in our childhoods, and we have remained—uncomfortably close. There is a bond, a tie—or so I thought. But I shall come to that presently. First, perhaps you could send your man there to bring down a trunk from the attic? It is in a small room with a broken lock. The last door on the left. I have marked the trunk I mean with a cross.”
Mug looked at Crowner pleadingly. He hated missing dramatic revelations. However, there was no help for it.
“Mug, go and get it, please,” said Crowner. He turned to Xavier. “Will he be able to carry it on his own, sir?”
Xavier looked grimmer than ever. “Oh, yes. The contents are… quite light.”
Mug departed. Crowner nodded to Xavier. “Go on,” he urged.
And Xavier went on. “I have said there was a bond between Sir Adam and myself. That came about in an odd way. When we were young, we fell in love with the same girl. Belinda, her name was, and she was the daughter of one of the servants here. At first, when we were all very young, the three of us were inseparable friends, nothing more. And then, we all grew up a bit. There was a terrible summer. Terrible, and wonderful, all at once.
“And then… Belinda disappeared. One day, we woke up, and she was not there. We thought—some of her things were missing—that she had run away with a local boy. But there was something, a tension in the air, between Adam and myself. When he accused me of murdering Belinda because I could not have her, I cried with joy. Because, you see, if he suspected me of doing that, he could not himself have done it.
“And so—I had my friend back. And our mutual love for Belinda, which once had driven us apart, now seemed to bring us together. And all, for a time, was well.” Xavier paused, seeming to look back into the golden glow of that time. Then his face contorted with bitterness. “That all changed, on this visit.
“As I have said, I brought my X-ray machine with me on this trip. I wanted to test it in various conditions, and Clutterbuck Court has extensive collections of junk, going back many centuries, in its various nooks and crannies. Sir Adam told me that I was free to do as I liked, with one exception—the trunks in the locked room in the attic.
“Why I disobeyed him I still do not know. But I found myself looking more and more at that locked door, and wondering what secrets might lie behind it. And then one day I picked the lock. The room was dusty and had the air of a tomb. Still, and thick, and choking. It was almost empty, just a few trunks moldering in one corner. I subjected them all to the rays of my machine, and… ah, here it is. How timely. I can now show you what I found.” Mug came in, sweating and straining, with a sizable wooden trunk balanced on the thickest part of his belly. He set it down with as much gentleness as he could muster.
Xavier strode over to the trunk and lay a reverent hand upon the lid. “Now you will see,” he said. “I have already compromised the lock. I had to inspect it, you understand, once I saw what my machine seemed to show me.”
The lid opened with a cloud of dust, and the contents were revealed. Bones, white and shining in the dark interior of the trunk.
And, in the stir and shock of that moment, there occurred a subtle but remarkable chain of events that set Crowner’s skin tingling. First, Josephine’s eyes went wide at the sight of the bones. Then the little black dog on Josephine’s lap moaned loudly, as if at some slight tightening of his mistress’ fingers where they lay tangled in the fur of his back. At the sound, Eli and Ingrid stiffened, as if petrified by a sudden thought. And Crowner, too, was petrified, for a split second, as a new pattern started to fall into place.
But the next thing that happened drove all of these more nebulous thoughts away.
“Bones!” Cried Xavier. “The bones of a young girl. Belinda’s bones. That swine Adam could not have her—perhaps he found that in her heart she preferred me, or perhaps she merely spurned his amorous advances and thus enraged him—and so he killed her. And all of these years, when I have visited here on terms of friendship, she has been here, in the darkness, waiting for me to find her. Oh, I did not kill the swine, but if only I had! If only I had run him through with a sword, or beaten him to death! Poison was too kind a death, no matter how painful! He ought to have died at my hands!” And he brought his fist crashing down upon a table. It immediately broke into pieces.
“But they cannot be Belinda’s bones,” cried Wilhelmina. “For I am Belinda.”
Xavier let out a strangled cry and fell to his knees at Wilhelmina’s feet. “Could it be? I thought… all along… but how?”
Wilhelmina smiled. “I did run away,” she said simply. “With my Johnny. We wanted a larger life for ourselves, and things at the Court were… difficult. I knew, you see, that neither of the young gentlemen courting me would be likely to want to marry me, daughter of a servant that I was.” Xavier almost spoke—but then he closed his mouth again without uttering the protest that he had been moved to make. Wilhelmina smiled again, and shrugged. “Johnny and I were friends, and we understood each other very well. That was all, at first. Love came later. And in London, Johnny’s talents had scope, and I had access to a wider culture. And now he is gone, and I have come back here.” She blinked back tears. “I know I should have written, at least to Mother,” she said. “But I was afraid she would find me. I was dreadfully ignorant then, and I think I thought my mother had almost supernatural powers of detection.” She smiled sadly. “Anyway, I did not write. I assumed that everyone would know that I’d run off with Johnny.”
Xavier stared. “Belinda,” he said, his voice throbbing with emotion. “It is like a ghost appears before me. I… but then—whose bones are these?”
Yuri sprang to his feet and strode over to the trunk. “But these are my bones!” He cried.