Stoker, I cannot say that I care much for your goat. He is leering at me."
Stoker grunted by way of reply. The Honorable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane-Stoker to friends and enemies alike-was my professional collaborator in endeavors of natural history as well as murderous adventures. (The solving of them, I should note, not the committing of them.) He was also, as of the previous month, my bedmate. The fact that our relationship, once an elevated meeting of the minds, had evolved to include a rapturous commingling of our persons did not preclude him from taking umbrage when I criticized his work. He was nothing if not exacting in his practice of the taxidermical arts.
"Protest all you like," I told him with my usual firmness, "but that goat is most definitely looking at me, and with an expression I can only describe as unwholesome."
Stoker rose from where he had been brushing out the pelt of the animal in question and gave me a pointed stare of his own. "That goat, I will have you know, is an example of Capra ibex, the European mountain goat. Furthermore, this particular specimen is an extremely rare variety found only on the slopes of the Alpenwald. You will note that the development of the horn-"
It was at this point that I stopped listening, letting the gentle tirade flow over me like a burbling river. Stoker was never happier than when imparting information, whether one asked for it or not. This, I had observed frequently upon my travels, is common in the male of the species. Did I hold forth at length on the details of Alpenwalder lepidoptery? I did not, although, I reflected as I regarded the display case before me, I had rather better cause than Stoker and his smelly old goat. Alpenwalder butterflies-and one rather spectacular moth-were few in number but charming, with a subtlety of color and line that only a true connoisseur would appreciate. One in particular, Papilio athena, sported a delicate blue coloration, its hindwings touched lightly with a spot of white, like a tender bloom against an Alpine sky. I gently adjusted the angle of a wing, showing it to best advantage against the dark cloth I had pinned for a backdrop with as much care as a theatrical impresario considering his leading lady.
"Are you listening, Veronica?" Stoker demanded.
"Not in the slightest," I assured him cheerfully.
"I was saying that it is no doubt the pupils which account for the expression," he informed me. "They are both square and horizontal, which is decidedly uncomfortable for human sensibilities to appreciate. I daresay another goat would find this fellow quite handsome."
I flicked the goat a sidelong glance. "Perhaps his mother."
Stoker went on as if I had not spoken. "Besides which, the horizontal pupil is, I suspect, a function of evolution. It may well provide a wider aspect for a grazing creature, which is naturally subject to predation, to be forewarned when a predator is about. If you consider the necessity of passing such a trait to one's offspring-"
"If you speak of Lamarck's theory one more time, I shall scream," I warned him.
His expression was cool. "I certainly do think that Lamarck had some perfectly sound ideas," he began.
I opened my mouth to deliver the promised shriek when the door opened and Lady Cordelia Beauclerk entered. "Good morning to you both. Getting on with the exhibition, I see?" she greeted us. Her color was good and her step firm, both of which I observed with real pleasure. In addition to being the sister of our patron and employer, the Earl of Rosemorran, Lady Cordelia was friend to both of us. The previous year had been a trying one for her in every possible way, and she had consequently suffered considerable lowness of spirits. I had attempted to counter this malaise by the occasional evening spent in reading fashion papers and drinking copious amounts of aguardiente, a potent South American intoxicant-to mixed effect. But with a new project in hand, she seemed invigorated. She had been chosen to oversee the installation of an exhibition of mountaineering including Alpenwalder flora and fauna at the Hippolyta Club, an establishment devoted to the edification and fellowship of women of adventure.
To those of us who were members, it was affectionately known as the Curiosity Club, a private aerie where we might gather and discuss our exploits and pursuits with like-minded women. We ran the gamut from mathematical geniuses (Lady Cordelia) to world-traveled lepidopterists (myself), with everything from botanists to zoologists in between. We gathered for lectures and magic lantern shows, photographical exhibits, musical evenings, scientific demonstrations, and the presentation of academic papers.
And we gathered to mourn. Ours was an intrepid and fearless group of wanderers, and whilst some, like the academics, rarely traveled beyond the shores of the British Isles, there were always those scattered about the globe in pursuit of their passions. One such, a mountaineer by the name of Alice Baker-Greene, had perished a few months previously on the highest peak in the Alpenwald, a tiny country lodged precariously on the border between Germany and France. Located somewhere vaguely north of Switzerland, it boasted one impressive mountain, the Teufelstreppe, an alp whose position on the map gave the impression that it had wandered off from its brothers after a quarrel and taken up solitary residence a little distance away.
The Alpenwald as a country was aloof, seldom deigning to mix in the quarrels of its neighbors, counting postage stamps-colorful and highly collectible-and mountaineering as the pillars of its economy. The fact that an English climber had lost her life on their alp had been a source of keen embarrassment to them. They had shipped over Miss Baker-Greene's effects, which her grandmother, a noted alpinist herself, had immediately forwarded to the club for an exhibition dedicated to her granddaughter's life and work. Lady C., who had known Miss Baker-Greene and admired her, immediately volunteered to undertake the arranging of the exhibition, recruiting Stoker's assistance in creating a diorama of mountain fauna as well as enlisting me to prepare the butterfly mounts and attend to the rest of the preparations.
Lady C. had taken a keen interest in every detail, supervising us with an attentiveness that bordered upon the oppressive, but I could not find it in my heart to begrudge her. It was the first real interest she had shown in any project since our voyage to Madeira the previous year, and I was delighted to observe her healthful appearance as she stepped close to the wall, peering intently at a detailed watercolor map of the Alpenwald that had been handsomely framed and hung at eye level. It depicted the thick black evergreen forests that fringed the tiny country, giving way here and there to fertile valleys that shimmered with the silvery green tributaries of the Rhine. In the center, the vertiginous peak of the Teufelstreppe hung above the tidy capital of Hochstadt. A series of photographs next to the map showed narrow streets little larger than alleyways, twisting beneath the overhanging upper stories of half-timbered houses whose balconies were laden with colorful blossoms and banners. All led eventually to a main square that fronted the royal castle, a faery-tale eminence of grey stone and peaked turrets that would have looked very much at home in any child's storybook.
Lady C. gave a cluck of approval. "Very good. The average person has never even heard of the place. This will provide a sort of context for the rest of the exhibit," she remarked, more to herself than to us. She turned to me. "Butterflies next, I think. We ought to build up to Stoker's rather more arresting goat," she added with a nod towards the alcove where Stoker continued to work on his mount. She tipped her head thoughtfully. "I cannot say that I like that drapery very much," she said.
Stoker poked at the thick folds of figured scarlet damask hung behind the alcove. "It does rather ruin the effect." He stepped back, stroking his chin, leaving a trail of sawdust along the whisker-roughened jaw. "What if I painted a mountain scene, something simple, just to set the stage, so to speak? I could position the canvas just behind the mount."
Lady C. nodded. "That could be quite effective indeed."
"But not with that carpet," I pointed out. The goat's cloven hooves balanced atop a gold-and-scarlet carpet woven with a running H pattern, much like a mayoral chain. It had been specially woven for the club's display hall, adding a touch of grandeur to an otherwise staid room.
Stoker shrugged. "I could sculpt a base and cover it with moss to give the effect of spring upon the mountain," he offered.
"Perfect," Lady C. pronounced. "I think that will make Her Serene Highness very happy indeed."
Stoker and I exchanged glances. "Her Serene Highness?" I ventured.
Lady C. nodded. "Her Serene Highness, Gisela Frederica Victoria Helena, the Hereditary Princess of the Alpenwald and ruler of that country. We have just received word that the princess herself wishes to open the exhibition."
"Why on earth would the Alpenwalder princess come here to open an exhibition honoring an English climber?" Stoker demanded.
It was Lady C.'s turn to shrug. "Miss Baker-Greene's greatest achievements as an alpinist came on the Teufelstreppe. The mountaineering community in the Alpenwald is very close and the princess is a casual climber herself. Perhaps she simply wishes to pay her compliments to one of the most accomplished mountaineers of the age. In any event, the princess wants to be present and we can hardly refuse a head of state."
"There might be a more cynical reason," I proposed. "The Alpenwalders derive a good deal of their national income from the money spent by mountaineers traveling to climb the Teufelstreppe. They must be desperately embarrassed that Miss Baker-Greene died on their alp."
"You may indeed be right," Lady C. said briskly. "Alpinists are a superstitious lot and one of their contingent has already let slip that the numbers of planned expeditions for the next season are decidedly low. A bit of good publicity will certainly not hurt, if that is what they are after. I only know that I have been instructed by Her Serene Highness's people to make certain the grand tradition of climbing in the Alpenwald is sufficiently reflected in this exhibition to further formal Anglo-Alpenwalder relations."
"I wasn't aware there were formal Anglo-Alpenwalder relations," I put in.
"God yes," Stoker replied. "Father used to do business with them. We do not have a proper embassy in Hochstadt, but he acted as a sort of de facto consul for a few years-well before I was born. He said it was the oddest little place he had ever been. One mountain, one small city, one castle, and seventy varieties of beer. He remembered it with great difficulty," he finished with a grin. I was not surprised the late Viscount Templeton-Vane had afforded himself of whatever libationary charms the Alpenwald offered. He had not been a particularly abstemious man, if his reputation was correct.
"And one of our own royal family married into theirs a few generations back," Lady C. put in. "A sister of George III? Or was it George IV? In any event, we have an entire exhibition to finish and less than a week in which to do it. Do you think we can manage?" A trace of worry touched her brow, creasing it.
"Certainly," Stoker soothed. "If I have to hold this blasted goat together with my bare hands while the princess walks by."
She smiled. "Thank you. And naturally, you will both be expected to be here for Her Serene Highness's official opening of the exhibition. You will be presented to the princess."
Stoker and I exchanged glances again. After a few of our more recent adventures, I had had quite enough of princesses, but Stoker's concern was more pragmatic.
"Surely you do not mean to present me," he said gently.
Stoker's status as a man whose marriage had ended in divorce put him socially beyond the pale. He could never be presented at Court, nor would any member of the royal family or the highest circles of society recognize him in public. This troubled him not at all; in fact, on more than one occasion he observed he would have divorced his mildly homicidal wife far earlier if he had known it would result in people leaving him in peace.
Lady C.'s expression was one she did not often adopt, but it was sternly effective. She could not bear hypocrisy, and the notion that Stoker should be ostracized for divorce when almost every member of refined society was cheerfully committing adultery was one she found enraging.
"I have spoken to the princess's entourage and made it quite clear that the dictates of the Hippolyta Club forbidding exclusion on the grounds of marital status are to be honored, regardless of royal custom."
I grinned at him. "You know the rules, Stoker. We do not discriminate against the divorced here, but the fact that you are a man means you are welcome only on sufferance."
I turned back to Lady C. "And I am to be presented as well?"
"As one of the official representatives of the club," she said, clearly expecting I would appreciate the honor.
I thought of what would most likely be endlessly boring rules on protocol and forced conversation with a princess who would most likely be dull in the extreme if not actively stupid. I bared my teeth in a smile. "What an unexpected delight," I told her. "I cannot wait."
The next few days were ones of frantic activity, with more boxes being delivered from Alice Baker-Greene's grandmother. That imperious old lady sent each with lengthy instructions on how the memorabilia were to be displayed written in a firm, bold hand. There was a small crate filled with tiny belts and pickaxes-a child's collection of climbing gear. I brandished the murderous little things at Stoker.
"Can you imagine learning to climb as a child?" I asked.
Stoker looked up from where he was applying lavish amounts of glue to a sculpted base. "Did she?"
"She did indeed. Her grandmother taught her. Have you not read Climbing in the Peaks: A Lady Mountaineer's Guide to the Pennines by Mrs. Pompeia Baker-Greene?"
"I have not," he admitted.
I curled a lip. "She is a pioneer of the alpinist movement, a founding fellow of the Hippolyta Club, and yet you haven't read her magnum opus. You are a dreadfully lax explorer."
He gave me a repressive look. "I have had rather a busy time of it lately," he reminded me. He was not entirely wrong. Between sleuthing out murderers, cataloging the Rosemorran Collection, and allowing ourselves to experience the rumbustious pleasures of the flesh, we had had little time to spare for hobbies.