The Crime Readers' Association

The Lady Suliena, by Marsali Taylor

– being a detective chronicle of Rupert, Prince Palatine.


It was my aunt who brought me into the affair of the automaton.  The court had had a great craze for chess that season, and I was playing with my cousin Charles – God save His Majesty! – when she bustled into the room, with one of her ladies following her. ‘Rupert,’ she said, ‘you solved the theft of my jewels. See if you can help my dear Carlisle.’

I abandoned my game as lost (even at ten, my cousin Charles was as clever as half the court put together) and rose to bow. Lady Carlisle’s eyes were red with weeping, but she managed a smile and a curtsey.

‘If you could help, your Highness, I would be most truly grateful.’

I promised my best efforts and she launched into her tale. ‘My lord is a keen player, and two weeks ago he was beaten by Sir Thomas Fairfax. He said to me privately that my lord cheated, but he has no way to prove it.’ She paused for breath, leaving me a moment to wonder how one could cheat at chess.

‘Then, two days ago, my lord was approached by a man who said there is a chess-playing automaton who is able to defeat the best brains in London. My lord is wild to buy it, and challenge Sir Thomas to play against it, and be beaten in front of the whole court. The owner is asking a fortune for it, and I fear there is a trick, that my lord will ruin us to buy it and then it won’t work, or Sir Thomas will beat it, and the whole court will laugh at my lord.’

‘Lord Carlisle is one of your uncle’s strongest supporters,’ my aunt said, ‘and Fairfax is a friend to Pym and Hampden. I fear there is a plot here.’

Lady Carlisle’s eyes flooded over, as if she was Juliet confronting her father. She dropped another curtsey. ‘Oh, your Highness, do you think you can expose it as a fraud?’

‘I can look at it, at least,’ I agreed. ‘Where is it? I haven’t heard any rumour of such a thing on display.’

‘My lord was given an address in Southwark,’ my aunt said, ‘and I have a plan for you. Charles, my son, how would you like an outing with your cousin?’

Half an hour later we were sitting in the Queen’s Barge, being rowed across the river. We had half a dozen attendants in the queen’s colours at our back as we walked up from the river, with Charles and I striding ahead of them towards the house, a dark-shuttered, frowzy place, with the malodorous smell of the river clinging thick to the walls. We’d just reached the corner of the street when two men came out, and turned away from us. One was my lord Fairfax himself; I knew him by his foible of wearing a blue-dyed plume in his hat. The other, arm in arm with him, was my brother, Timon.

I halted on the corner and held a hand back to still our retinue, thinking furiously. While full of respect for my uncle, Timon held aloof from my aunt, because of her religion, and kept instead in fine feather with the Protestant lords who paid my mother’s pension.  All the same, I didn’t believe he’d be involved in a plot against my uncle.

We let them get out of sight before we came up to the house. I knocked on the door, and swept a low bow to the maid that opened it.

‘Your pardon, mistress.’ I saw she recognised me; half of London knew me by now, by my height. I bowed Charles forward. ‘His Majesty, the Prince of Wales.’ She dropped into a curtsey, eyes widening in alarm.  ‘We’ve heard you have a mechanical marvel in the house, and His Highness is wild to see it.’

Charles raised big brown eyes to her and nodded solemnly. ‘If you please, mistress, I would like to try a game against it.’

We had caught her on the wrong foot. She looked at Charles, at the retinue behind us, and did not know what to say.

‘A half hour bout only,’ I wheedled.

Then a showman’s voice came from behind her, rolling like the waters of the Thames. ‘They come from East and West, as the Queen of Sheba. Your Royal Highnesses, I am honoured. Enter my poor house, enter.’

He was a strutting turkey-cock of a fairground mountebank, with a twirl of beard, like a French soldier, and a green coat bound over his belly with a scarlet sash. His grey hair was cropped midway between ear and shoulder; his mouth was jovial, but his eyes calculating as a cornered boar’s. He gestured inwards.  ‘It will be Lady Suliena’s pleasure to try so illustrious an opponent.’ He turned to the maid. ‘Hetty, my dear, send John to prepare the lady’s chamber for our guests.’ Another greasy smile. ‘A glass of wine, your highnesses?’

Either the trickery was simple, or already set up, for he kept us but five minutes before showing us into the upstairs front parlour, where the automaton waited.

It was stilll afternoon, but the shutters were closed. In the candlelight we saw at first only that she was life-sized, head bent as if she had dozed in her chair. She was like a woman from a seraglio, dressed in Eastern garb; her jewel-sewn bodice and Persian trousers glowed peacock-blue in the candle-light. As we came in, she raised her head, and looked around at us,  the whites of her eyes gleaming under her dark lashes. Light danced on her thin gold bracelets as she extended one hand to us. Her curls were glossy black under a jewelled veil, her dusky skin porcelain-smooth, her lips the red of ripe cherries. She was placed right in the centre of the room, seated on a stool, with a table in front of her – no, a box, with a mirror lid, on which the chess pieces sat.

Both box and stool were on a wheeled platform, six inches deep, so that her maker could bring her into the room unaided. I wondered if that was significant; but the platform stood a foot clear of the floor, so you could see that there was no trickery from below. There was clear air under the legs of the stool too, and her trim waist was too narrow for there to be somebody concealed up her interior. We saw that for ourselves as the maker turned her around, and lifted up her bodice to show us a door in her back. She was so lifelike, turning her head at us, her breast rising and falling as if she was breathing, that I felt I should apologise for his indecency. The space inside went to her front, I’d swear, and was filled with brass cogs and rods, such as might move her arms and head, and a glimpse of the bellows that moved her chest.

Then he opened the doors at the front of the chess-board box, and showed us the interior. There were more wheels within, and rods, but no space for a person beside them.  Still, I was suspicious of that heavy box, when it would have been easier to give her a lightweight table. The trick was worked from there, I was sure of it. I stepped forward, as if to examine it more closely, and he closed the doors, leaving me looking at my own face in the chequered mirror of the board.



A manservant brought forward a chair for my cousin, and the game began. Suliena continued to turn her head and look about her, for all the world like a living person. Uncanny it was to watch her, alive, yet not alive, with her beautiful face so cunningly carved, and her eyes glinting at us. Only her hands gave her away, the fingers never changing position as they slid forward on the board. Her arm moved at the elbow to shift the piece, one stiff movement, as if it was the hand that was pulling the arm, while her other hand flourished in the air, as if to draw attention to itself. Once the piece was in its new position, she lifted her head and looked a challenge at her opponent.

Half an hour only, I’d said. The game wasn’t yet over, but my cousin Charles knew he was on the run. I stepped back, as if to give him room to think, and leaned my body forward, all attention. Charles rose, and bowed to the lady, sweeping off his hat in his grandest manner, while my fingers turned the bolt of the shutter behind me, giving out over the back courtyard of the house.

‘Your servant, Madam Suliena,’ my cousin said. ‘I congratulate you on your play, and concede you the victory.’  I eased the shutter open, then slid the bolt down again, so that to a casual eye it would appear still locked.

The lady bowed her head in acknowlegement, and the mountebank showed us out with flourishing bows and thanks for honouring his poor house. I slipped him a purse of gold, and hoped he wouldn’t go back up and check the shutters.

‘Cousin,’ Charles asked as we rowed homewards, ‘how can you tell if something is alive?’

‘By its breathing,’ I suggested, like a soldier.

‘That lady breathed. Her chest rose and fell.’

It was true. ‘By the ability to think, then.’

‘She thought, too. She would have beaten me, if we’d played on.’

But she wasn’t real,’ I said. ‘She wasn’t living. She had no soul. She couldn’t think, or love.’

‘But she looked as if she was living.’ His expression was ten years older than his rounded cheeks. ‘Sometimes people who do have souls are a failure in love. Are they still human?’ He was silent for a moment. ‘Maybe if something behaves as if it’s living, then it is, whatever makes it alive.’

I couldn’t think of an answer to that. I was fretting about  what Timon had been doing there. It was hard for the winner to cheat at chess; much easier to lose on purpose. I remembered how theatrical I’d found Lady Carlisle’s tears, and wondered if it had been Sir Thomas who’d received the invitation to visit the Lady Suliena. Who was double-crossing whom?

Meanwhile, my aunt had been busy. One of our men remained not far from the house, and gave us word that the mountebank had gone out after our visit, dressed as if for an evening’s roistering. As soon as it was dusk, I slipped across the river, while she and my uncle led the court into the gardens to enjoy a firework display. There were to be silver and blue flowers lighting up the Thames, and a green dragon flying over London Bridge. Naturally, every serving man and wench in Southwark came out onto the riverbank to watch, while I scaled the malodorous house at the back, eased up the window-catch with a knife, and pushed the shutter open.

She was an eerie sight in the half-dark, the lady, still as any waxwork, but with the whites of her eyes gleaming, as if she was watching me.  She was so beautiful, when the silver bursts lit up her great dark eyes and red lips; if she’d been real, I’d have kissed her. I swept my hat off to her, then opened up my lantern and set to examining her properly.

She was made of wood, with kid stretched over her face and hands, soft as a real woman’s skin, and warm to the touch. The door into her back showed that the wheels and rods did indeed take up all of her torso and came down into her legs, where they met the wheels in the box under the chessboard. I set my lantern on the board and stretched my hand under, following them inwards, then went around to look at them from the front. Yes, the space was a good deal larger than the workings required, and fixed lower too, so that the rods were a foot longer than they needed to be.

Suddenly there was a soft touch on my hair. My heart pounded. Then I realised that my touching the rods had moved her hand. I heard the bellows expand with a sigh like a breath. I turned my head and her fingers lay on my cheek, like a caress. I jerked back and bent my head towards my hands, glimmering in the lantern light – except that the lantern was sitting on the board, and my hands were below it, and should have been in shadow.

I frowned, then thrust my head under. Yes, I could see through the board. The mirror was see-through from underneath, with each chess piece shining clear in its square. The one nearest to me was marked with an R. I brought my head back out, and lifted the castle up. It looked to be carved ivory, but it was surprisingly heavy.

I remembered the way the lady’s hand had slid along the board, and felt underneath again, directly below the outstretched hand. There was a lump of metal. I wrenched it off, and brought it to the lady’s hand above the board. The fingers quivered and jumped to me. I shivered as the kid touched my palm and clung there. The lump of metal was a powerful magnet.

Outside, I heard a burst of fire-claps, then applause and excited talk from the crowds, mixed with squeals: the dragon going over. That was my signal. I was running out of time.

I lay down and ran my hand under the platform. It was a complete box, the boards solid underneath, which seemed extra weight in something designed to be moved. My fingers touched  a knothole, and as I probed it the board beside it moved. I felt carefully around, and found the boards cut in a square hole, large enough to admit a slim man or a child.  I reached up, and found that  the seeming-solid base of the chess-board box also lifted from below.

I had the secret now. There was no room for a whole person inside the lady herself, as the mountebank had shown us, but all that was needed was space for the person lying stretched on his back within the platform to remove the bottom of the chessboard-box and thrust his head, shoulders and arms in, once the mountebank had shown there was nobody there. He would see the moves from below, and use the magnet to draw the lady’s hand, while his other hand worked the rods to animate her head, eyes and other arm.

Downstairs, the door opened, and the servants came in, chattering excitedly. I waited until they were busy in the kitchen, then replaced the magnet and boards as I had found them. Now, in the lantern-light, I could see only the outline of the lady’s cheek and curled hair. I bowed to her, breathed a good night, and slipped out of the front window, silent as a shadow in the night.

My aunt had the mountebank arrested on charges of fraud and extortion. Naturally, there was no mention of plots or patron lords – he had been well-paid to keep his mouth closed, and my uncle agreed that was a midden left unstirred. He was given a pass to the Continent, and left with a whole skin. The Lady Suliena was seized as part of his goods, and brought to Whitehall, where I showed Charles her secret.

Naturally, he wished to try her straight away. I watched the light gleam on the lady’s soft skin, and saw her eyes looking at me as we played, and for all I knew she was false I couldn’t help believing in her. If something behaves like it’s alive …

‘I don’t think I’m good enough to beat my lord Carlisle, nor my lord Fairfax,’ Charles said thoughtfully, once he had clambered out of the platform and smoothed his rumpled hair. He shot a mischevious grin at me. ‘But shall we send the lady’s challenge to your brother Timon?’


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