Authors: KJ Charles
For Natalie, who is brilliant.
Sir Henry Curtis and the Kukuana Place of Death are the creations of H. Rider Haggard in his classic 1885 romp
King Solomon’s Mines
. Archie is my unauthorised addition to the Curtis family tree. I felt it could take the shake-up.
With thanks to the TFR goons (for gun advice) and Alexandra Sherriff (for
The train up from London took hours, a weary ride for a man who was too tense to sleep and too busy with his thoughts to read. He would have preferred to motor, but that was impossible now.
There was a car waiting at the station, the latest model Austin. The uniformed chauffeur stood by it with military bearing, but leapt to help as Curtis approached and hovered while he got himself into the passenger seat, solicitously offering blankets against the evening chill in the autumnal air. He waved them away.
“Are you sure, sir? Lady Armstrong gave instructions—”
“I’m not an invalid.”
“No, Captain Curtis.” The chauffeur touched his cap in salute.
“I’m not an officer either.”
“I beg your pardon, sir.”
It was a long drive to Peakholme. They avoided the industrial areas of Newcastle, though he saw the black smoke thick against the darkened skies. It was only a few miles before they had left the city quite behind and were driving through the open country. Farmland turned to scrub and rose into the foothills of the Pennines, and at last they headed up an otherwise empty winding road onto a bleak and open hillside.
“Is it much further?” he asked.
“Nearly there, sir,” the chauffeur assured him. “See that spot of light ahead?”
Curtis blinked against the cold, but he did see light on the hillside, and soon made out a darker shape round it. “It’s a touch bare round here for a country house,” he remarked.
“Yes, sir. Sir Hubert always says, it’s bare now, but just you come back in a hundred years.” The chauffeur chuckled loyally. Curtis made a mental wager with himself how many times Sir Hubert would come out with that witticism during his stay.
The Austin purred through the recent plantations which would, in that much-anticipated century, become a magnificent forest surrounding Peakholme. At long last they pulled up outside the great new house, bright yellow light spilling from the doorway. A servant was waiting on the drive to open the car door. Curtis bit back the grunt of pain as his knee straightened. He flexed his leg a couple of times before crunching over the gravel to the stone steps where a footman waited to take his coat.
“Mr. Curtis!” cried Lady Armstrong, coming into the brightly lit hall to greet him. Her dress was a marvellous confection in blue, frothing around her bare shoulders and setting off her fair hair to perfection. She would have looked dashing in London, let alone this remote region. “How wonderful to have you here. It’s such a pilgrimage to reach us, isn’t it? I’m so happy you could come.” She held out both hands for his, her characteristic, charmingly informal greeting. He gave her his left hand, withholding the right, and saw a flash of concern or pity on her face, stifled almost at once. “Thank you so much for joining our little party. Hubert!”
“Here, my dear.” Sir Hubert had come into the corridor behind her. He was a stout, bald-headed man, a good three decades older than his wife, with a benevolent look that was at odds with his professional reputation. “Well, well, Archie Curtis.” They performed a pantomime handshake, Sir Hubert’s hand surrounding Curtis’s but barely touching it. “It’s a great pleasure to see you. How’s that uncle of yours?”
“In Africa, sir.”
“Good heavens, again? He always had itchy feet, Henry did. When we were at school he was forever breaking bounds, you know. I should be delighted to see the old chap some time, and that naval pal of his. I suppose they’re still jaunting around together?”
“As usual, sir.” Sir Henry Curtis had been left with the care of his youngest brother’s orphaned child when Archie was just two months old. Sir Henry and his inseparable friend and neighbour Captain Good had raised the boy between them, for years curtailing their trips to far-flung regions so that they were there each summer when he returned from school. He had grown up assuming that easy, uncomplicated companionship was the natural order of things. Now, it seemed a lost Eden.
“Well, I trust we’ll give you a good enough time that you’ll encourage them to visit. And how are you, my dear fellow? I was so very sorry to hear about your injury.” That was no platitude, Sir Hubert’s eyes were full of concern. “That was a bad business, a dreadful mistake. It shouldn’t have happened to you.”
Lady Armstrong broke in with a rippling laugh. “My dear, Mr. Curtis has had a terribly long journey. We’ll be dining in an hour. Wesley will take you up. The east corridor, Wesley,” she told a well-built servant in Peakholme’s dark green livery.
Curtis followed the man up the wide stairs, leaning a little on the banister rail and admiring the house as he went. Sir Hubert, a wealthy industrialist, had had Peakholme built to his own specification some fifteen years ago. It had been an extraordinarily modern creation at that time, equipped with the very latest innovations, with running water in all the bathrooms, heated by hot-water radiators and illuminated throughout by electricity from his own hydroelectric generator. These luxuries were becoming quite familiar in London hotels, but to find them in such measure in a private house so far from the centre of things was still a surprise.
The long hallways on which the electric lamps shed their bright yellow light, reliable and clean but so much more glaring than gaslight, seemed conventional enough otherwise. Sir Hubert’s son was well known to be hunting mad, and it seemed to be a family trait, since the passageways were hung with oils of fox-chasing scenes and lined with stuffed birds of prey in glass cases, all in dramatic poses. An owl stooped, wings sharply bent, in the act of catching a mouse; a hawk leaned off a branch, ready to launch into the attack; an eagle glared with glassy eyes. Curtis registered them as landmarks in a house that wasn’t altogether easy to negotiate.
“This is a rather unusual arrangement,” he remarked to the servant.
“Yes, sir,” Wesley agreed. “The house is laid out to permit a service corridor running behind the bedrooms here. That’s to allow for the electrical wiring, and the centralised heating.” He spoke the technical words with pride. “Marvellous thing, the electrical. I don’t know if you’re familiar with its operation, sir?” he asked hopefully, opening the door to a room at the end of the corridor.
“Please, demonstrate.” Curtis, a practical man, was quite familiar with electricity, but this tour was obviously the highlight of the servant’s day, so he let Wesley show him the miracles of buttons that summoned servants, and switches that brought illumination or operated an overhead fan. Given the chill in the outside air this cold October, let alone the house’s position in the north of England, he doubted he would require the latter.
There was a large gilt-framed mirror on the inner wall of the room, opposite the bed. Curtis glanced at himself, assessing his travel-stained state, and caught Wesley’s eye in the glass.
“Welcome to Peakholme, sir, if I may be so bold.” The servant was watching his reflected face, without dropping his eyes. “If there’s anything I can do for you during your stay, sir, please ring. You don’t have a man, I believe?”
“No.” Curtis turned from the mirror.
“Then may I assist you now, sir?”
“No. Thank you. Unpack for me later, please. Otherwise I’ll ring if I need you.”
“I hope you will, sir.” Wesley accepted the shilling Curtis gave him, but hesitated a moment. “If there’s anything else…?”
Curtis wondered what the man was hanging around for; the tip had been generous enough. “That’ll be all.”
“Yes, Mr. Curtis.”
Wesley left the room, and Curtis sat heavily on the bed, giving himself a moment before he had to change and get ready to face his fellow guests.
He didn’t know if he could do this. What was he playing at, coming here? What did he think he could achieve?
He had used to enjoy house parties, in the days when they were rare oases of entertainment and relaxation between military postings. He had attended three since he had retired from the war a year and a half ago, jollied along by all the people who told him that he had to come out of his shell, rejoin society, be a good fellow. Each visit had felt more arid than the last, its activity more pointless, the frenetic self-indulgence of people whose lives held nothing but the pursuit of pleasure.
At least he was at this party with some sort of purpose, even if, now, his purpose seemed so unlikely as to be absurd.
He stripped the black leather glove off his right hand and flexed his thumb and forefinger. The scar tissue that covered his knuckles, where the other fingers used to be, was tight. He rubbed it with the softening ointment for a few minutes, thinking about the work ahead, then pulled the disguising glove back over the gnarled mess of mutilated flesh and began to dress for dinner.
It wasn’t too much of a chore, although perhaps he should have let the man Wesley remain. But he’d had eighteen months to get used to managing studs and buttons with fewer fingers, and to preserve his independence in dress only took him perhaps three times as long as when he had been an able-bodied man.
He adjusted his white piqué waistcoat and tweaked the collar points to his satisfaction. A little pomade controlled his thick blond hair’s tendency to wave, and he was ready.
He assessed himself in the mirror. He was dressed like a gentleman; with his bearing and his skin tanned by the African sun, he still had the air of a soldier. He didn’t look like a spy, a sneak, a liar. And, unfortunately, he didn’t feel much like one either.
He was the last into the drawing room, and Lady Armstrong clapped her hands for attention. “My dears, our final guest. Mr. Archie Curtis. Sir Henry Curtis’s nephew, you know, the explorer.” There was a murmur. Curtis smiled, resigned to this by a lifetime of similar introductions. The adventurous African trip that had made his uncle rich some twenty-five years ago was still a matter of public fascination.
“And now, I must introduce you to everyone,” Lady Armstrong went on. “Miss Carruth and Miss Merton.” Miss Carruth was a pretty, vital young woman in her early twenties, dashingly dressed and with a twinkle in her pansy-brown eyes. Miss Merton, who seemed to be her companion, was a couple of years older with a plainer style and a watchful look, but she murmured the right courtesies.
“Mr. Keston Grayling and Mrs. Grayling, of Hull.” Provincial money, Curtis thought, as the couple smiled their greetings. Mr. Grayling looked a rather silly sort of chap, expensively dressed but lacking polish, and with a hint of double chin. Mrs. Grayling wore a gown that was cut rather too tight and too low for Curtis’s approval. He wondered if she was the sort of lady who enjoyed a little country-house intrigue, of the conventional kind.
“My brother John Lambdon, and Mrs. Lambdon.” In this pair it was the man who looked like he passed between bedrooms. Lambdon had his sister’s striking good looks and was well-built enough, though not of Curtis’s breadth. Mrs. Lambdon was a pallid presence beside him, with lank hair, a limp hand, and the air of the professional headache-sufferer.
“Hubert’s son, James.” Curtis knew this was the product of Sir Hubert’s first marriage. The man looked to be in his late twenties, no more than five years younger than the current Lady Armstrong. He had a cheerful look on a broad, open face, which was weathered by outdoor pursuits and bore no great signs of intelligence.
“Curtis, good to meet you.” James Armstrong put his hand out. Curtis extended his own right hand and winced as the young man took it, his powerful grip crushing the scar tissue.
“Darling, I did tell you,” said Lady Armstrong, voice sharp.
“Oh, so sorry, mater.” Armstrong gave her an apologetic smile, then turned it to Curtis. “Completely slipped my mind, what.”
“Mr. Peter Holt. James’s dear friend,” Lady Armstrong went on. The man she indicated was a striking piece of work. He matched Curtis’s own size and build, a good six foot two, with powerful shoulders, a nose that had been broken at least once, and a pugilistic air. His bright, observant hazel eyes suggested intelligence as well as strength, and his grip on Curtis’s hand was definite, without painful pressure. A man who knew how to use his muscles.