A small, shadowy creature scurried across the roof and dislodged a little flurry of snow that tumbled past the window to land in a heap on the ledge outside. Inside, Helen took a last look around her room from the door before plucking her gloves from the console table and turning into the corridor. She slipped them over her fingers as she made her way along the landing to the top of the stairs, grasping the banister in one hand and hoisting her abundant skirt with the other as she started her descent. The grandfather clock ticked loudly in the silent hall below, the pendulum swinging to and fro with a low, whispering thud from inside the tall, wooden base. Two figures stood stiffly in the lobby and Helen suppressed a smile by chewing her lip as she neared the foot of the stairs.
Tesla stood in his greatcoat just inside the great oak door, his top hat clasped in gloved hands crossed behind his back while Mr Maplin the porter glowered at him from his position a few feet away. Nikola shifted as she approached, visibly relieved at her arrival and she gave a light cough as she stepped close.
“Miss Magnus,” Nikola said hurriedly, stepping forward and extending his hand towards her. She curtsied demurely and allowed him to kiss the back of her hand, the stern eyes of Mr Maplin watching their every movement like a hawk.
“Good evening, Mr Tesla,” she responded pleasantly as he straightened up and she turned to Mr Maplin. “I shall be on my way now, thank you Mr Maplin.”
The porter regarded her gravely and gave a modest bow before he spoke. “The doors shall be locked at nine as usual, Miss Magnus,” he informed her in low tones.
“Indeed, Mr Maplin,” Helen replied and turned to Nikola who quirked a brow before gesturing towards the door with his hat.
“Shall we?” he asked and Helen smiled sweetly in return.
Mr Maplin shuffled forward to open the front door as Nikola adjusted his hat on his head and extended his arm towards Helen. She demurely laid her hand atop his and allowed him to lead her out into the chilly evening.
A small carriage awaited them at the gates and the two horses before it shifted uneasily in the cold, great misty clouds of breath billowing from their noses. The driver shifted in his seat, his back curved sharply as he sat hunched forward in an effort to keep warm, passing the reins between his hands as he readied the horses to move off. Mr Maplin watched from the door as Nikola helped Helen inside before climbing in after her and the wheels groaned loudly as they began to turn on the frosty cobbles beneath. The carriage lurched along the snow lined street and when it disappeared from view, the old porter turned back inside and closed the door heavily behind him.
“Dear Lord, it is beyond cold,” Helen muttered, shivering.
“Ah,” he began, turning to her with a grin and digging inside his coat, his discomfort evaporating the instant that they were alone. “I venture I may have a tonic for that.” His smile grew decidedly more wide and definitely more wicked as he pulled a small flask from his pocket and waved it at her. Helen chuckled as he popped the cap off and handed it to her, taking a long swig before passing it back to him.
“Oh my!” she exclaimed, shuddering as the alcohol burned its way down and Nikola chuckled. “What on earth is that?”
“A little Christmas cheer courtesy of Mr Griffin,” Nikola told her, tipping the flask to his lips and grimacing with equal violence. “I confess I am in need of it after the less than friendly reception of your steward, Helen.”
Helen smiled wanly and patted his arm. “Oh pay no mind to the old man,” she told him. “He believes it is his duty to guard the virtue of the ladies of Somerville college as well as the door.” Nikola raised his brows and took another sip of Nigel's witches brew before passing it back to her.
“Oh your virtue is in great peril indeed!” he exclaimed. “Imagine what depravity awaits us at church?” Helen choked a little as she drank, clutching his arm firmly in her hand as she hunched forward giggling. “I have heard the most scandalous tales of the goings on there,” he continued in the most serious of tones. “Such wickedness as singing and prayer. Imagine! The horror! PRAYERS?”
Helen tipped her head back and pressed against the chair behind her. “Oh, Nikola!” she rasped through her laughter and he beamed, gazing at her with a soft expression.
“The things I must endure on your behalf, Helen! You must do all you can to protect me from the deranged ramblings of these madmen!”
“You poor creature!” Helen told him. “Fear not, I have heard tell that there will be mince pies and mulled wine in the church room after.” Nikola tilted his head to one side as he plucked the flask from her hands and raised it to his lips.
“One must be thankful for small mercies I suppose,” he answered and stared into her big blue eyes as the carriage rattled onward.
Inside the church, they bickered over which pew would be the most appropriate, Nikola preferring to be tucked away at the back as far from the pulpit as possible while Helen favoured getting as close to the front as they could.
“We want to be able to see them,” she explained, tugging on his arm and dragging him down the aisle. Nikola grumbled but allowed her to pull him in beside her and stowed his hat under his seat as they sat. He watched her with a mild expression as she adjusted her skirts and his heart fluttered as her fingers brushed his when she lay them modestly in her lap, staring ahead as the male voice choir of Christ Church college shuffled in. She nudged him gently with her elbow and gestured with her chin, a tender smile spreading across her face. Nikola raised his head to see the smiling face of John Druitt standing on the back row between James and Nigel. His heart sank.
“Helen!” James greeted as he stepped through the crowd after the service. Helen beamed at him and raised her hands to catch his. James squeezed her fingers fondly, any more earnest declaration of his esteem for her impossible given the public setting. “I am so glad to see you!” He held her hands for a minute longer than was strictly appropriate.
“You were wonderful James!” she gushed.
“Where's Tesla?” he enquired looking through the mass of bodies and Helen turned her head towards the far wall.
“Getting some wine of course,” she told him and a moment later Nikola's face appeared through the crowd as he approached cautiously with two steaming glasses in hand.
“Watson,” he stated in a neutral tone.
“Tesla,” James replied equally passively, watching as Helen took the proffered glass from Nikola and raised it to her lips.
“Where are John and Nigel? I was hoping to say hello,” she said, looking about. James ignored the flare of Nikola's nostrils and looked over his shoulder.
“I am sure they will be along soon but you are coming with us Helen, are you not?” Helen hitched a shoulder and made a face.
“Oh James, I want to but the old fart is bolting the door at nine!” James jerked his chin back in horror.
“Nine? But it is almost half of eight now! Helen this just will not do! I told Lytton's wife you would be joining us!”
“I want to come James, really but what am I to do?” Helen complained but before James could respond Nigel and John came bustling through the crowd behind him.
“Nigel! John!” Helen uttered with a smile, stepping forward to greet them. Nigel squeezed her elbow fondly and shuffled in beside her to give Nikola a playful swat on the shoulder.
“I thought you said you would only come to church if they brought you in a box?” he mocked and Tesla quirked a brow at him.
“Do not be deluded by the idea that I am here for any other reason than the free wine,” Nikola told him dryly.
“Of course not,” Nigel said, glancing towards Helen with a sly grin. Nikola stuck his chin out and pouted in his best approximation of indifference.
“Helen,” John drawled and Nikola stared at the contents of his glass for a moment before taking a long drink.
“It was wonderful, really,” she fawned, the rest of the room fading away as John stared down at her intently and clasped her hand.
“I hope you are feeling more festive now,” he said softly and she huffed a bashful breath.
“Oh very much!” she breathed in reply.
Nikola curled his lip and drained his glass. “Do excuse me but I am in need of a refill,” he muttered.
Nigel sighed sympathetically and squeezed through the crowd behind him.
“So what did you make of the performance?” he asked as they waited for the steward to serve them, attempting to distract Nikola from the black mood that had begun to descend upon him and failing.
“It was not utterly dreadful,” Nikola told him, blowing hard on the steaming wine before tipping it back in one swig and wincing as it went down.
“Steady on, old chap!” Nigel warned but Nikola ignored him and thrust his arm towards the steward for another. The steward raised his eyebrows in distaste but silently took the glass and filled it again.
“I am merely fortifying myself against the winter chill,” Nikola replied sourly.
“Thought the English winter was a feeble, trifling thing?” Nigel asked before taking a slow drink and Nikola raised a brow.
“Whether it be minus five or minus fifty, water still freezes at zero,” Nikola uttered, turning and moving through the crowd and Nigel sighed.
“I think perhaps we ought to leave now Helen,” Nikola said, gently grasping her elbow and ignoring the mischievous look on Druitt's face. She turned to him with a smile and glanced towards James.
“Right, yes, about that....” James said, resting his palm on Nikola's shoulder as they began to make their way towards the door.
“Thank you for a lovely evening Mr Tesla,” Helen intoned in her most gracious voice as they stood some time later at the foot of the stairs inside Somerville college. Nikola, aware of the beady eyes of Mr Maplin, bowed dramatically.
“It was my pleasure Miss Magnus,” he told her, staring at her shoes and trying not to smirk as Helen shook imperceptibly, biting her lip against the nervous giggle that threatened to erupt. “A merry Christmas to you.”
“And to you Mr Tesla,” she responded, turning to give a brief nod to the porter before climbing the stairs towards her room. She stopped halfway and turned to watch as Nikola straightened his coat and allowed Mr Maplin to usher him out of the front door, the heavy lock thudding ominously behind him.
Outside, Nikola clapped his hands together and rubbed them vigorously as he strode purposefully towards the carriage at the gates.
“Alright then?” Nigel asked as he climbed inside and knocked his snowy boots against the floor with a loud thud.
“Quite,” Nikola replied, banging his hand on the roof of the carriage and Nigel's grin grew wide as they moved away down the street.
Helen meanwhile was making her way along the second floor corridor but as she approached her door she did not slow, hurrying on towards the end of the corridor instead. She glanced surreptitiously around the corner and seeing the passage was clear, made her way as silently as she could towards the narrow stone stairs at the end. She descended a few steps before coming out onto a narrow walkway lined with windows, the moonlight casting the criss cross pattern of the bronze casement across the floor.
She found herself now out of the residential wing of the college and inside the faculty building that housed the library. It very dark in the long hallway and Helen hoisted her skirt to trot along towards the bright patch of moonlight that illuminated the bay at the far end. Her heart thudded inside her chest as she lay her hands across the cold stone of the windowsill and peered through the glass across the roof of the portico beneath.
The lawn spread out like a blanket of white, studded with the bare trunks of trees before it was bisected by the dark slash of the river. As she looked through the window, something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye and she turned to see two dark figures scurrying across the grass between the trees. Smiling, Helen flicked the catch on the window and opened it wide, wincing as it creaked on its hinges. Taking one final look about the hall, she braced herself on a wooden bench and climbed up. She struggled with her skirt as it caught on the latch, her stockinged legs exposed to the crisp winter night as she twisted on the windowsill and dropped down onto the roof below. The dark figures were getting close now and Helen turned to push the window closed behind her before padding delicately towards the edge of the portico and peering over. She could not help but grin as John's smiling face looked up at her from the lawn below, James trotting up behind him.
“Hello!” she uttered from her lofty position and John stared at her, grinning idiotically. James pushed by him and moved closer.
“Alright then Helen?” he said as he tugged on the ivy covered trellis that was attached to the wall.
“I thought you were bringing a ladder?” she asked, eyeing the vines sceptically and James chewed his lip for a moment.
“Ah, yes, I am afraid we couldn't quite manage it,” he replied, craning his neck to meet her eyes.
“You are not suggesting that I attempt to climb down are you James?” she asked aghast as she knelt down and reached over the side to pull at the ivy.
“I am not quite sure what else to suggest,” he answered meekly and Helen stared at him agog.
“Give me a bunk up, old boy!” John told him, stepping forward and digging his fingers into leaves. James turned to him with a huff of disbelief but a moment later linked his fingers together and held them out. John hoisted himself up and James grimaced, wobbling slightly under the other man's weight.
“I am really not convinced of the merits of this plan, gentlemen,” she told them in a concerned voice. John grunted as he pulled himself up the wall and Helen sighed in resignation, sitting down on the ledge and turning her legs over the side. James gaped at the sight of her stockings under her skirt but made no comment, moving instead to stand as a kind of human safety net below. John meanwhile had pulled himself up the wall and took a moment to peer over the portico roof before turning to Helen and greeting her with a cheeky grin.
“My lady,” he said in a low rumbling voice that made Helen shiver and she shimmied along the ledge towards him. Her breath hitched a little as he wrapped his arm around her waist. “I have you, turn into me and hold on tight,” he instructed and Helen complied, gripping onto his shoulders with trembling hands.
“Are you sure it will hold John?” she asked nervously as the flimsy wooden trellis creaked beneath him. John turned his head and dropped his gaze to James below.
“Well....if it does not we have at least something to fall back on,” he told her and she chuckled despite herself. He held her fast with one arm wrapped around her body, his other hand gripping the twisted vines against the wall and began to tentatively ease them towards the ground.
“Ah, Helen,” James offered with a slight cough. “Your skirt is snagging on the branches.”
“Oh god,” she complained and looked John in the eye before releasing her grip on the wall and reaching down to tug it free. John swallowed hard as the trellis groaned under the force of her movements and gripped her tightly.
“Helen, my dear,” he began in an anxious tone.
“Almost. Got. It,” Helen rasped, twisted awkwardly in his arms as she attempted to free her petticoat from a particularly pernicious twig. The branches creaked menacingly and John pressed her back against the wall, clinging onto the ivy with both hands. Helen let out a yelp and wrapped her arms about him tightly in terror.
“John,” James warned from below, stepping closer and placing his palms against the wall. “John you must come down from there at once! I fear it will not hold!”
John swallowed back his anxiety and met Helen's wide eyed look of terror with a meek smile. He shifted his foot and began to move downwards, Helen grimacing as the ivy tangled in her hair. John took another step and then another before there was a sudden, loud snapping sound and the entire trellis came away from the wall.
“JOHN!” James yelled from below as they swung outward from the wall, the branches of ivy supporting their weight for a brief moment before they were torn away completely.
“Ah!” Helen cried as her hair was caught and pulled painfully, a ripping sound reaching her ears as her petticoat tore on the branches. John cried out and attempting to grab on to anything he could, succeeded only in dislodging some mortar from the brickwork. It tumbled downward with a clatter to smack James hard in the face.
“Bugger!” James muttered, reaching up to wipe the dust from his eyes and staggering back a step, only to be knocked to the ground a moment later as John and Helen came crashing down on top of him.
When he opened his eyes it was to find Helen's bright blue eyes peering at him in concern, her face very close. John's shoulder was lodged between them as he lay squashed against the snowy earth beneath.
“James!” she cried, rolling to one side and he took a loud wheezing breath. “Dear Lord, James are you hurt?”
“I...I...” he began as John slid off him with a groan but fell immediately silent as Helen began to run her fingers gently across the top of his head.
“Well that was fun,” John said sitting up and shaking his head, little tufts of snow flicking out of his hair to land on James' face as he lay dazed on the ground. He groaned and stared blankly past Helen's face at the white strip of her petticoat that fluttered where it hung from the remains of the ivy on the wall behind.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Nigel stood beside the horses sharing a cigar with the driver while Tesla paced up and down the lane impatiently.
“Finally! Where have you been?” he demanded cantankerously as Helen, James and John came bustling through an opening in the hedge. He ran his gaze over them, taking in Helen and James' dishevelled appearance.
“Slight...ah....snag,” James told him as they approached the carriage and Tesla frowned, yanking open the door of the carriage and extending his hand to Helen. John rolled his eyes at James as Tesla turned and immediately followed her inside, leaving the others to fend for themselves.
“Someone had better ride up top with the driver, there is barely enough room in here as it is!” he complained as they climbed in and Helen hoisted her skirt out of the way to make room.
“Oh dear oh dear,” Nigel intoned from the doorway as he saw the crush inside. Helen smiled at him meekly through the crook of James' elbow and dug her hand into Nikola's coat. John's brows went up and he glared at Tesla hotly. Nikola smirked.
“Take this, to keep you warm,” she told him, thrusting Nikola's flask at him.
“I think Johnny ought to go,” Nikola said, a smile hidden beneath his moustache. “You have the longest legs.”
“I think not, old boy,” John drawled with a menacing look. Helen huffed and turned her face to the window, lifting her skirt slightly to allow James to fit into the seat opposite her. Their knees were tucked together, hidden from sight under the layers of crepe and crinoline. Nikola and John, locked into the business of scowling at one another hatefully, did not notice the bashful smiles they shared as the carriage rolled on.
When they arrived at their destination a little while later, James quietly mocked their sour-faced companions as he guided her up the icy path towards the house. Helen squeezed his gloved hand affectionately before he knocked on the door and when it opened a moment later, Nikola barged between them and stepped inside.
“Oh dear Nigel, I feel dreadful, really I do,” Helen fussed as they stood in the hall and helped him out of his coat, his movements stiff. He turned to her with a wicked grin, his cheeks rosy red from the cold and the home brew he had been tippling on the way.
“I know what will warm me up,” he said and Helen raised her chin as his eyes flicked towards the ceiling. A bundle of mistletoe hung inside the hall and Helen gave a mild chuckle as Nigel reached forward and planted a kiss on her lips. He grinned at her toothily and then staggered forward as John gave him a shove from behind.
“Watson! Good of you to come!” A voice boomed from the doorway of the drawing room, the sound of chatter drifting down the hall. James extended his hand and smiled broadly as the infamous Lytton stepped forward to greet him. “And who is this vision?” he asked, grinning at Helen. She shook her head and gave him an indulgent look as he bowed low to kiss the back of her hand.
“May I present Miss Helen Magnus, Helen this is Mr Nathaniel Lytton,” James said by way of introduction. Helen narrowed her eyes at him as Lytton took her hand and led her towards the salon with a wicked gleam in his eye.
Lytton's parties were well known for their debauchery which is why, Nikola supposed, James and John had been so insistent that Helen attend. As he stood now, leaning against the piano at the back of the room and nursing another glass of wine, the aforementioned pair of scoundrels were inciting Helen to drink absinthe as Lytton's very pretty wife elegantly prepared it. The hour had grown late and their number was considerably diminished, leaving only the five of them,their hosts and two other gentlemen to whom he had not been properly introduced. They sat now in the salon amid a sea of dirty glasses, the servants having been banished with a dish of chicken in aspic, a bottle of gin and strict instructions not to venture beyond the scullery.
“That's Fulton, he's a fellow at Oriel and the other one is Browne, he's Lytton's assistant,” Nigel had told him earlier. “I think James might be after his position, not that I could blame him. He gets his own private study.” Nikola was not really listening for he was too busy eyeing Druitt hatefully. He ground his teeth and took a long swig of his wine, watching as Druitt's enormous paw stroked Helen's elbow while James tipped the glass to her lips. Lytton murmured something but Tesla could not hear it for at that moment, Nigel began to choke loudly on a piece of Christmas ham and he was forced to slap him heartily on the back as a titter of laughter rippled around the room.
“I think we should play a game!” Mrs Lytton said, standing up straight and placing her hands together as if in prayer.
“What sort of game did you have in mind, my dear?” Lytton enquired, moving close behind her and smiling beneficently.
“Charades!” Nigel called from the back of the room and Tesla curled his lip.
“Oh no, nothing so dreary as charades,” Mrs Lytton cooed and Nikola felt himself warm to her somewhat. “I was thinking something more....in keeping with the spirit of the season.”
“Such as?” her husband asked with a quirk of his brow, turning away to lounge rakishly in an armchair beside the fire.
“Murder in the dark!” she replied earnestly. Nigel glanced at Nikola with a cynical look.
“A child's game?” Lytton chuffed in amusement.
“It is Christmastime, darling. I could not bear to let these good people go home without frightening them half to death first!” Mrs Lytton argued and Helen chuckled loudly.
“I think it is a marvellous idea,” she added to Mrs Lytton's great delight.
“Quite,” Nikola piped up. “It sounds like a wonderful game.”
“Oh, do you play Murder in the dark in Russia, Mr Tesla?” Mrs Lytton asked in her sickly sweet voice, stepping towards him with charming smile. Nigel covered his mouth with his fist and coughed loudly. Nikola regarded him through slitted eyes for a moment before turning his attention back to their hostess.
“Alas no but perhaps you would care to enlighten me, Mrs Lytton?” he replied smoothly, catching Helen's mild grin of amusement from across the room.
“Well, it is really very simple, Mr Tesla,” she began, drawing him gently by the elbow out of his hiding spot beside the piano.
“In a moment, Miss Magnus and I” she continued, giving Helen a conspiratorial wink. “...shall step out of the room and we shall return with a hat, which I should be much obliged for your loaning to me, Mr Tesla,” she said with a teasing smile. “The hat shall contain several pieces of paper and on one of those pieces of paper we shall have drawn the letter X. Everyone present shall draw from the hat and whomsoever draws the X, well they shall be the murderer you see.”
“And how are these.....murders....to be committed?” Nikola asked, giving Helen a cheeky grin.
“Well now that's the fun part!” Mrs Lytton told him enthusiastically.
I know Tesla is from Serbia. It is in fact Mrs Lytton who is the nincompoop and not this humble author.
Nikola paced back and forth in the salon, his hands crossed behind his back. It was just his luck that he would have to play the Constable while everybody else was sneaking about in the house getting up to all sorts.
“Bad luck, old chap,” Druitt had said as the lights were dimmed, ushering Helen out of the door with a malicious smirk.
Nikola huffed an indignant breath and helped himself to a large glass of wine that sat abandoned on the table. He stalked over to the doorway and peered into the hallway. A slight gasp drifted down the staircase followed by a giggle and Nikola ground his teeth together, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. A floorboard creaked and there was the shuffle of feet from the landing above.
“Ergh! Argh!” A voice echoed down the stairs, squealing melodramatically before there was a loud thud. Nikola seized a candelabra from the mantelpiece and immediately sprinted towards the sound to find Lytton lying across the hallway floor with his cravatte askew, his tongue lolling from his mouth. Nikola wafted the candelabra into the air and saw James and Mrs Lytton standing a way down the hallway smirking.
“You!” he said accusingly, pointing his finger at them. “It was one of you!” Mrs Lytton giggled and stepped closer.
“I assure you Mr Tesla it was not!” she protested.
“It must have been,” Nikola countered. “You are both present at the scene of the crime!”
The sound of a suppressed sneeze echoed along the hall and Nikola snapped his head around to peer down the passageway in the opposite direction as the vaguest of shuffles was heard. Nikola narrowed his eyes, stepping towards the curtain at the end of the corridor and tugged it back abruptly to find Nigel hiding behind.
“Oh dear, oh dear, Griffin,” James drawled as he and Mrs Lytton moved closer.
“Well I didn't do it!” Nigel protested with an ignorant shrug of the shoulders.
“Why are you hiding?” Nikola asked, eyeing him suspiciously.
“Ah.....” Nigel began but when he could not answer Nikola grabbed him by the arm and began to march him along the landing towards the stairs. James chuckled and turned to Lytton's prone form, jabbing him in the side with his toe.
“Oi!” Lytton chirped.
“You are supposed to be dead,” James told him and Lytton opened his eyes and stared up at them.
“Oh yes, sorry about that,” he told them.
“You died wonderfully, darling,” Mrs Lytton told her husband as she stooped down to help him up.
“Why thank you my dear girl,” he replied, planting a brief kiss on her lips before following Nikola and Nigel down the stairs.
Nigel sat on the couch with his arms folded, looking about the room innocently as Nikola resumed his pacing in front of the fire.
“You have the wrong man!” he complained.
“I shall say nothing, Mr Tesla,” Lytton told him as he propped his feet on the table and lounged back on the other end of the couch.
Nikola glared at them and let out a huff of breath. He had just opened his mouth to reply when another gurgling mock scream resounded along the hallway. Nikola closed his jaw and immediately stalked out of the room, Nigel and Lytton trailing behind him to peer over his shoulder at the body on the floor.
“I am dead,” Browne slurred, leaning back against the wood panelled wall outside the dining room, an empty glass on the floor beside him. Nikola immediately stomped ahead towards the open door and disappeared inside.
John and Helen stepped suddenly apart and Nikola narrowed his eyes at them as Helen pursed her lips, staring at the floor in embarrassment. John merely hitched a shoulder and Nikola suppressed the urge to bring the candelabra down on his head.
“You!” he snarled. “Into the salon with you!” Druitt gaped.
“Me?” he uttered aghast. “I have done nothing!”
“Oh dear John,” Helen said in an amused tone, a smile spreading across her face and Nikola gestured at the doorway with the candlestick.
“So does that mean I can get back to it?” Nigel asked hopefully a few minutes later, standing upright and brushing his hands together. He and Lytton had assisted Browne onto the couch, the aforementioned gentleman being somewhat unsteady on his feet. Browne slouched haphazardly to one side the moment his derriere made contact with the cushions, staring blearily at nothing in particular while John leaned sulkily against the piano, his chin in one hand and jabbing at a piece of pie crust on a discarded plate with the other. Lytton sat down on the stool and began to press the keys one by one, chortling in amusement at the plink plonk of the piano. Nikola glared at them all in turn.
“We have two victims and two suspects,” Nikola began, tapping his index finger against his cheek.
“Taking it all rather seriously, eh Mr Tesla?” Lytton said mockingly and Nikola narrowed his eyes at him as the tuneless plink plink continued.
“I think we should have another drink,” Browne said definitively, leaning forward and banging his hand onto the table hard enough that the glasses rattled.
“Come on Tesla old man!” Nigel whined. “You can't still think I am the one you want! Let me get back out there!”
Browne clanked Mrs Lytton's slotted spoon over the nearest glass and began to pour a generous measure of absinthe into it. Nikola wrinkled his nose as the spirit slopped across the table top and stepped forward to pluck the bottle out of Browne's hand although he did not seem to notice. Lytton sat with a toothy grin that resembled the ivory keys of the piano in front of him and continued merrily with his plink plonking as Browne reached forward indelicately to reach for the sugar, sending the little white cubes skittering across the floor.
John meanwhile was rather interested in fiddling with the workings of a musical automaton he had found on the bookcase and the dissonant twang of the bells began to float maniacally around the room as Browne chuffed victoriously.
"Aha!" he said, wafting a box of matches in the air. Nikola snatched them from his hand with an angry scowl and sighed.
James was making his way down the narrow back stairs having lost Mrs Lytton somewhere along the way. Ahead of him he heard the shuffle of footsteps and a moment later a soft perfumed body collided with his. Helen gasped in fright and James, unable to resist the opportunity, wrapped his arms about her and pressed her against the window.
“Am I dead?” she squeaked and he chuckled.
“No, Helen,” James answered in a low rumbling voice as her face became visible, a thin shaft of moonlight penetrating the dark green curtains. The white of her teeth glinted at him in the dim corridor as she smiled.
“You have to protect me James,” she mocked and James hummed in response, swaying a little closer. Her breath felt warm against his cheek and she let out the most adorable little sigh as he squeezed her arms gently.
“Helen,” he breathed, the hitch of her breath doing strange things to his body as his cheek brushed against hers. Helen turned her face towards him ever so slightly and James began to pant loudly in the shadowy corridor, pressing his lips to the corner of her mouth in the slightest of kisses.
At that moment a door opened down the hall and James froze. Helen stiffened in his arms and they both turned to look towards the sound as Nigel's voice piped up.
“About bloody time!” he complained, his footsteps clomping on the floorboards. Helen gasped and shoved James away from her, covering herself quickly with the curtain. James for his part scurried back towards the staircase and disappeared from sight.
Back in the salon Nikola stood in the doorway scowling at Nigel's retreating figure. He let out an indignant huff and turned back to the room as Lytton began bash out a dirgeful honky tonk tune on the keyboard. Browne meanwhile had managed to get to his feet and was staggering around rifling through the drawers of a dresser by the window. John looked down his nose as Nikola approached and slowly closed the lid on the automaton. Nikola curled his lip slightly and regarded him with a look of disgust. He opened his mouth to let out the ascerbic comment that had just come to mind when Nigel let out a gurgling fake scream and John smirked at him victoriously.
“What did I say?” John drawled in amusement and followed Nikola through the open door.
They found Nigel lying on his back at the foot of the stairs with legs akimbo. He wheezed vaguely, shaking as he tried to stifle his laughter.
“You make a very poor corpse,” Tesla told him unamused. John turned sideways and slipped past him.
“I told you you had the wrong man,” he said dryly and trotted away up the stairs.
“Just my luck eh?” Nigel said, sitting upright. “This has been the lousiest game of murder I have ever had the misfortune to play.”
“Browne you bloody lunatic!” Lytton bellowed and there was a loud crash. Nigel raised his head to peer across Nikola's shoulder in the direction of the salon. Together they made their way back towards the light and stepped into the room to be greeted by the sight of Lytton wafting a cushion in the air. Browne sat slumped half in the coal scuttle with the charred remains of a match clasped in his fingers, frozen with a look of shock on his face while Lytton batted at the tall blue flames that danced across the table.
“Gordon Bennett!” Nigel cried and dashed forward to help him. Nikola watched from the doorway with a broad smile at the carnage before him as Nigel grabbed a seltzogene from the cabinet and began to blast soda water over the tabletop, spraying Browne thoroughly in the process. Browne blinked slowly, touching his fingers to his singed eyebrows and at that moment James voice sounded from the landing above.
“WOE IS ME! I AM SLAIN!” he bawled and Nikola's shoulders slouched as he clasped the candelstick in hand and dutifully traipsed up the stairs.
Helen meanwhile found herself in a moonlit corridor, a narrow wooden staircase at the far end and flanked by doors on one side. She started a little when she felt a hand tighten around her wrist.
“It's me,” a voice whispered huskily, warm breath tickling her ear and she smiled at the darkness as John's arms wrapped around her. She stifled a giggle and together they shuffled along into the stairwell where John promptly spun her around and pressed her against the wall.
“John!” she uttered in surprise.
“Hush!” he murmured, pressing a finger to her lips. Helen's mouth curled upward and she peered up at him through her lashes, his smile just visible in the dim light.
“You're not going to kill me are you John?” she whispered and he chuckled.
“No, Helen,” he told her in a very quiet voice and her breath hitched as he swooped down and pressed his lips to hers.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Nikola found James face down across a love seat at the top of the main stairs, sniggering into the cushions. Nikola sighed, regarding him with disinterest for a moment before turning to look down the corridor in either direction. As he squinted through the darkness, he heard the faint shuffle of fabric and snapped his head around to see a flash of petticoat disappear around the corner.
"YOU!" he shouted and set off after the perpetrator, following the sound of heels clicking on the wooden floor. He turned into the next corridor, a scurry of feet ahead and a titter of laughter floating through the moonlight that broke through the gaps in the heavy drapes. As he neared the doorway at the end of the hall, he noticed a huge pair of feet sticking out across the landing beyond and as he neared his gaze ran over the feet and up the abnormally long trouser clad legs to find John Druitt sitting slouched against the wall with a dreamy expression.
"Are you dead?" Nikola asked in exasperation but John merely sighed wistfully. As Nikola looked more closely, he noticed John's hair was starting to come loose from where he had tied it behind his head and his cravatte was hanging loosely around his neck. Nikola curled his lip in revulsion.
A moment later a door slammed loudly from upstairs and roused from his temporary distraction, Nikola leapt over John's gangly limbs and raced up the stairs towards the sound. The landing upstairs was narrow and sparsely decorated, the servants quarters he surmised and seeing a shaft of light beneath the first doorway kicked the door open to find Fulton locked in a clinch with the housekeeper. The pair pulled apart abruptly, the young woman letting out a horrified gasp.
"I say, do you mind?" Fulton growled and stomped closer, shoving Nikola hard by the shoulder out of the door. Nikola staggered backward into the hall, hot wax dripping from the candles onto the back of his hand as the door was slammed hard in his face. Nikola let out a hiss and shoved the candelabra into his free hand, shaking the other up and down as the wax cooled and the burning sensation subsided. He exhaled raggedly through his nose and his face returned to the scowl he had been wearing most of the evening as he turned back towards the stairs.
He gripped the bannister firmly and had taken a couple of steps down the stairs when a titter of laughter reached his ears from the hallway behind. Nikola froze and turned his head towards the sound.
"Sshh!" a female voice whispered as the sniggering continued. Nikola narrowed his eyes and moved very slowly back up the stairs, licking his fingers and snuffing out the candles one by one. They made a vague hiss as they were extinguished and he hoped the smell of the smoking wicks would not give him away as he crept lightfooted towards the end of the hall. He neared the end and craned his head to peer around the corner and in the darkness noticed the curtain swaying. At the bottom, two pairs of female shoes peeked out from beneath the dark fabric and Nikola began to smirk as he moved closer, reaching forward and gripping the curtain.
Helen and Mrs Lytton squealed in surprise as they were exposed before descending into fits of infectious hysterics. Nikola grinned at them victoriously.
"Oh dear, Nikola! You gave us quite a fright! We were sure you were the murderer come to do us in!" Helen gushed and Mrs Lytton began to howl uncontrollably.
"Really?" Nikola drawled skeptically. "I think perhaps my dear Helen, that you pair have been leading me on a merry dance have you not?"
"Oh Mr Tesla, whatever do you mean?" Mrs Lytton chortled in a mockery of sincerity. He turned to her with a dark smile and regarded her through narrowed eyes.
"You cheated," he breathed and they both began to giggle. "You have been in cahoots during this entire charade. There was no X on any of those slips of paper!"
Mrs Lytton chewed her lip and turned to Helen who snorted with laughter.
"Oh alright Nikola, I confess. It was both of us!" she admitted.
"I KNEW IT!" Nikola exclaimed victoriously.
"You did NOT!" Helen challenged and his expression darkened.
"I saw through your deceit immediately Helen! I merely allowed it to continue so as to appear what you English would refer to as....sporting," Nikola drawled in a smug tone.
"Oh ho!" Mrs Lytton chuffed. "And that, Mr Tesla is what we English refer to as poppycock!" And with that she hoisted her skirt and shuffled away down the hall.
"Oh Nikola!" Helen said softly. "You are a funny one!"
Nikola straightened his cravatte and turned to walk with her towards the stairs. "How so?"
"You have been in a foul mood all evening. And there I was, thinking you were looking forward to my company." She sighed. Nikola furrowed his brows as the reached the top of the staircase.
"Helen...." he began but she chuckled and cut him off with a finger to the lips.
"Happy Christmas Nikola," she told him earnestly and Nikola stood like a startled rabbit as she leaned forward and kissed him tenderly on the mouth. "Hmmm" she uttered a moment later."That moustache just will not do, Nikola," but he was too surprised to respond and so Helen left him standing dazed at the top of the stairs and skipped merrily down to join the others.
I hope you enjoyed it. I confess it was a bit rushed, Christmas took over and I ran out of time. Hopefully it will be a suitably festive bit of fluff for you! Merry Christmas! Now hand over that figgy puddin' or else!