Lilibet Investigates – Chapter One
It was a cool, mid-July morning in Buckingham Palace, the sound of bagpipes drifting in through the window. Life was beginning to return to normal after the war, and the first post-war garden party had been held earlier that same month. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, wife of George VI, was sitting down to breakfast when she noticed that the room was unusually quiet. She looked to her eldest daughter and asked “Where has that sister of yours gotten herself to?”
Princess Elizabeth looked up from the newspaper and finished a mouthful of toast before giving the merest hint of a shrug.
“Well, you might at least wait for her before finishing off the toast.” said the queen.
“If I'm going to finish it either way,” said Elizabeth, “better to do it before she arrives.”
The queen smiled. “Even so, darling, it's not like her to be late to breakfast.”
Elizabeth sighed. “It is entirely like her to be late, mummie. She's probably with Ruby or Crawfie, keeping them from their breakfast.”
“Well, she mustn't miss out. Ainslie, go and see if you can find her, won't you?”
The steward gave a small bow and left the room. Elizabeth returned her attention to the news of the day. There was a lot about the occupation of Germany, of course, and some important changes to the coal industry, but she was having trouble focusing on it now – Margaret's fault, of course. The queen sensed her daughter's irritation.
“It offends your sense of order, doesn't it?” she said, laughing. “Margaret's out of place again!”
Elizabeth was spared the need to think of a reply by the return of Ainslie.
“Her Royal Highness is in the bedroom corridor.” he said. “She seems quite agitated. Something about a missing painting.”
Elizabeth strode down the long, draughty corridor, acknowledging the bows of staff members as she passed. Her sister was standing outside her bedroom arguing with Elizabeth's own maid, Margaret “Bobo” MacDonald.
“It was certainly there yesterday!” said Princess Margaret. “Lilibet! I know you'll see sense here. The painting outside my room is missing.”
Bobo turned to her mistress.
“Paintings are moved all the time!” she said. “I keep telling her, it was probably taken down to have the frame repaired or something!”
“In the middle of the night?” snorted the princess, appealing to her sister.
Elizabeth stopped and considered the empty spot on the wall. Paintings were evenly spaced along the corridor, except in this one place, and she was surprised she hadn't noticed as she'd walked by earlier. It really stood out, now that it had been brought to her attention.
“Actually, she's right, Bobo.” she said. “That painting was certainly there last night, and there was no reason it should be moved.”
“Well, what do either of you expect to do about it now?” asked Bobo. “You haven't even had breakfast yet.”
Elizabeth didn't bother to correct her.
“I'll ask Ainslie to look into it.” she said.
Still, something about that particular painting vanishing like that bothered her in a way she couldn't explain. If only she could remember which one it was.
At fifteen minutes past one, the king emerged from his study, as he always did at that time of day, and joined the family in the second-floor dining room. The room was a sort of private retreat for the family, a place within the palace that felt more like their own private home. The queen had picked out the soft beige carpets and the walls were covered in paintings by Sir Alfred Munnings, an artist who apparently shared the heiress presumptive's love of horses. Immediately on entering, George noticed an unusual atmosphere. Margaret seemed to be in a mood and Elizabeth was looking distracted. He gave the queen an enquiring look.
“The girls are convinced that someone has snuck into the palace and removed a single, unremarkable painting.” she said.
Margaret sighed theatrically.
“That is not what we think, papa. Mummie refuses to take us seriously!”
The king looked to his other daughter, but she remained silent, apparently lost in thought, so he turned back to his youngest.
“Well, why don't you tell me what has happened?
“There was a painting outside my room last night, and this morning it was gone. Mummie and Bobo insist it must have been taken down for repair or some such nonsense, as though that would happen in the middle of the night!”
“I'm sure it'll turn up!” he said brightly. “Now, how about some lunch?”
The silence that greeted his suggestion told him that this was not going to be the cheerful, relaxing lunch he'd hoped for. He sighed and helped himself from the sideboard.
“I'll ask Mr Cameron to look into it.” he said. “Although I'm sure it will be a complete waste of his time.”
Later, Elizabeth sat in her room attempting to sew. It was supposed to be a good way to keep the hands occupied, leaving one free to think, but she'd somehow never had the knack and was finding herself becoming frustrated. It was a source of constant confusion to her family – even the king had been known to sew quite competently – and a constant irritation to her that she couldn't seem to master this apparently universal talent.
“I don't know why you bother, Lilibet.” said Bobo. “It's not as though queens are expected to do their own sewing. That's what you have me for.”
“I'm trying to think.” said Elizabeth. “It's not working.”
“You're not still worried about that painting, are you?”
Elizabeth stood up and began pacing. Her bedroom was usually a good environment for thinking, painted in soft, soothing tones and with very little in the way of decoration to catch the eye or offer distraction. Some simple, plain white furniture and a bed were all she felt she needed.
“It's just that it makes no sense.” she said. “Obviously no one could have taken it and walked out of the palace without being noticed, so where has it gone? And why? I wish Philip were still about, he'd have the palace searched top to bottom in no time.”
“Didn't your father say he'd put a detective on it?”
“Well, yes, but he doesn't seem to regard the task with any sort of urgency, and I can't really say I blame him; I know it's not a particularly valuable painting. But it still shouldn't go wandering off like this.”
Her thought was cut off by the arrival of a postman. It's a curiosity often remarked upon by visitors that Buckingham Palace has its own post office and staff of postmen. Mail is delivered internally to individual rooms, or on occasion, to specific persons wherever they may be in the palace.
Elizabeth, had been looking forward especially to the arrival of the post of late, as it often meant a letter from Philip. The two had been in close contact for some time, and had made definite plans the last time he had visited. The King felt that Elizabeth was too young to marry, and so no public announcement had been made, but the two young people now felt themselves informally engaged.
Unfortunately, today's mail brought no news from Philip, but there was one item that aroused Elizabeth's interest immediately. There wasn't much odd about the envelope, beyond the curious oversight of a lack of return address, but there was an unusual weight to it. Clearly it contained something more than mere paper. Tearing it open, Elizabeth found herself looking at a large, old-fashioned key.
“What is it?” asked Bobo.
Elizabeth held up the key, frowning.
“Is there a note?” asked Bobo.
There was no note. Elizabeth tore the envelope apart to make sure nothing was written on the inside, but found no further clues. She sat down and examined the key closely, but there seemed nothing out of the ordinary about it, save for the manner of its arrival. Suddenly she smiled.
“I've got it.” she said, with satisfaction. “They've overplayed their hand. The painting was inexplicable, all right, but I guess it didn't get the kind of response they were after.”
“Who, ma'am?” asked Bobo.
“Crawfie and my sister, of course. You know how keen they are for pranks.”
“I'm afraid I don't understand.” said Bobo.
“Maggie must have hidden the painting herself, but since no one jumped on the bait she's sent me this key to pique my interest. But it's too obvious, too mysterious.”
Bobo was no less confused.
“How can it be both obvious and mysterious?”
“Well, I mean to say that it's obviously supposed to be mysterious.” said Elizabeth. “If someone were really trying to hide what they were doing, they wouldn't send a clue in the post. And if it weren't meant to be mysterious, then there would be a note. The only explanation that fits all the facts is that someone is playing a trick, and my sister is the most obvious suspect.”
“You're just Sherlock Holmes.” said Bobo.
The princess smiled.
“Elementary, my dear Bobo!”
Marion Crawford was in her own room at this time of day and was surprised, but delighted to see Elizabeth. More and more of the princess's time was taken up these days with her increasing responsibilities, so she didn't see her friend and former tutor as much as she would like.
“I know what you're up to.” she said with a smile.
Crawfie was taken aback.
“I'm not up to anything, Lilibet.” she said.
“You don't have a little plot cooked up with my sister?” asked Elizabeth.
Crawfie shook her head, genuinely confused.
“Is this about that missing painting? She did mention it to me this morning, but it's nothing to do with me.”
“I don't suppose you know anything about this key I received in the post today either then?”
“Now why should I mail you an old key?”
Elizabeth stood silently for a moment, appraising the other woman. She'd known Crawfie for a long time, and could usually read her fairly well. She didn't seem to be hiding anything.
“All right then.” she said. “Let's assume that you had nothing to do with it. It must be all down to Margaret herself.”
“Don't you think you might be jumping to conclusions a little?” asked Crawfie. “I know Margaret is fond of pranks, but this seems a bit strange for a prank, and she does seem a bit upset about it.”
“She's just upset that no one's taking enough interest in it to make it worthwhile.” said Elizabeth.
Crawfie wasn't convinced, but she could see that in this case it would do no good to argue. Elizabeth's mind was clearly made up, and she'd never been one to let herself be talked out of things – whether they be plans or convictions.
Margaret was furious. It seemed that everyone she'd relied on to support her had dismissed her, or worse. At least her sister had been on her side. The two had always been close – growing up together, largely separate from others their own age – and it had often been the two of them allied against their parents or Crawfie. But now Elizabeth had come to her, a smug smile on her face, and accused her of orchestrating the whole thing.
“This is not a prank!” Margaret said.
Elizabeth remained silent. Naturally, this had the effect of further enraging her sister.
“It isn't!” she insisted. “It's bad enough that mummie and papa aren't taking me seriously, but now you as well? I thought I would at least have you to rely on.”
Elizabeth's confidence began to waver, but she remembered well how convincing her sister could be when playing a role or doing impressions. It was possible she still thought she had a chance of pulling off whatever elaborate prank she had planned and this was all a front. Margaret waited a moment, but her face fell as it became clear that Elizabeth still didn't believe her. Slowly she turned and walked away.
Dinner that evening in the second-floor dining room was a subdued affair. The princesses weren't speaking to each other, and the king's attempts to lighten the mood fell on deaf ears. Even the queen, who could usually manage to get a smile out of just about anyone, could do nothing to reconcile her daughters. In desperation, she turned the subject she'd been avoiding.
“So, did that painting turn up yet?”
Margaret's icy glare brought her up short, and it was a relief when Elizabeth spoke up.
“I think someone” she said, meaningfully, “is playing a trick. I got this key in the post today.”
The queen dutifully took the key and examined it before passing it to her husband to scrutinise.
“How mysterious.” she said.
“Yes.” said Elizabeth. “Almost like some prankster wants us to think there's something mysterious going on.”
The queen saw now the cause of the hostility evident in the room.
“Well, you've certainly no proof that your sister is behind it, Lilibet, even if it is a prank. It seems a rather poor one if it is, and she's usually much funnier than that, aren't you dear?”
Margaret was saved from having to feign modesty by her father, who had finished his examination of the key.
“It looks to me,” he said, “rather like an old wardrobe key. Bound to be dozens of them around here. Ainslie, do you think you could investigate when you have a moment?”
He handed the key to the steward.
“Soon get to the bottom of this.”
Dinner resumed, the tension in the air slightly reduced.
It being one of the king's few evenings free of engagement outside the palace, the whole family was still present when Ainslie returned, his search complete.
“I return,” he said, “with the solution to two mysteries. Firstly, the key was, as your Majesty suspected, that of a wardrobe. Secondly, the contents of the wardrobe included the very painting which, if I'm not mistaken, used to hang outside the rooms of Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret.
“Well done!” exclaimed the king.
Elizabeth was less impressed.
“Don't you see though,” she said, “this doesn't resolve anything.”
“She's right.” said Margaret. “We still don't know who did it, or why.”
“Does it really matter?” asked the king.
“Well that depends entirely on what the explanation turns out to be.” said Elizabeth. “It's entirely possible that there's a perfectly innocent explanation, such as a failed prank -”
“- or it may be that there is something worthy of investigation going on.”
“Well,” said the queen, “I don't see what we can really do about it ourselves. Seems more like a job for a detective. I believe Mr Cameron is already looking into it. Why don't you talk to him tomorrow? Let him know the painting's been found and ask him to keep you updated should anything else come to light.”
Elizabeth said nothing, but the queen got the distinct impression that her daughter was not going to be so easily put off.
Crawford, Marion. The Little Princesses: The Story Of The Queen's Childhood By Her Nanny Crawfie. UK: Orion, 2012. Ebook.
Marr, Andrew. The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People – From Coronation to Diamond Jubilee. London: Macmillan, 2011. Print.
“Personal Maid is Queen Elizabeth's Closest Friend and Confidante.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune 2 Nov 1957. 2. Print.