Read Aunt Dimity's Christmas Online

Authors: Nancy Atherton

Aunt Dimity's Christmas (4 page)

“Is it possible that the tramp's a friend of yours?” I asked patiently.

It's more than possible. It's highly probable
.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

He used the bridle path, Lori
.

“So?”

The bridle path shaves a quarter-mile from the distance between Finch and my cottage
.

The bridle path ran along the edge of the river in Finch, out of sight of most of the houses, then followed a course that crossed behind the Pym sisters' house, wound past the Harrises' stables, and cut through the oak grove that separated my property from theirs.

A stranger wouldn't know about the bridle path. The gentleman must have visited me on previous occasions, and he must have been a regular visitor, to know about such a shortcut
.

“He hasn't come here recently, though,” I pointed out, “or he would've known that you're … no longer at home to visitors.”

An old friend, then, out of touch for some years…. What would compel a sick and starving man to venture down a lonely bridle path in the midst of a blizzard
?

“Does it really matter?” I asked, preoccupied with thoughts of Christmas pudding.

Of course it does. We must do something, Lori
.

“He's already in the Radcliffe, getting the best medical care money can buy,” I asserted.

But what will happen to him after he's released from hospital? We must find someone to look after him
—
his family, his friends
….
He must not, under any circumstances, he thrown hack onto the streets
.

“But we don't know who he is,” I said.

Then we must find out. Describe him to me
.

I shrugged. “Tall, thin. Long hair, long beard, both gray.”

And his face
?

“His face?” I tried to focus on the man's features, but all I could remember was the beard, the hair, and, oddly enough, his long, almost delicate fingers. “He has beautiful hands,” I offered. “That's the best I can do. For Pete's sake, Dimity, I was saving a man's life, not painting his portrait.”

Then you must go to the Radcliffe and have another look at him
.

“Today?” I asked nervously. Hospital visits were not high on my list of favorite activities.

The sooner the better
.

“But today's my mother's birthday,” I protested. “Bill and I were going to get our family Christmas under way.”

Your family Christmas will have to wait, Lori. I'm sure your mother would understand. You must go to the Radcliffe as soon as possible
.

“The guy's in a coma,” I said.

Then he won't mind being stared at, will he
? The handwriting continued more swiftly.
It's no time to be squeamish, Lori. I know how hospitals upset you, but you must go. I cannot bear to think of an old friend lying anonymous and alone in a casualty ward. We must find out who he is
.

“I'll go,” I promised grudgingly.

Just remember to breathe through your mouth, dear
. A soft
breeze wafted through the study, the ghost of a sigh.
It's a dreadful time of year for the homeless. Winter is not kind to the poor
.

I waited until Aunt Dimity's handwriting had faded from the page, then closed the blue journal and sat for a moment, contemplating the futility of advance planning. I'd planned to spend the day at home with my family, baking angel cookies, hanging ornaments, and belting out my favorite carols, but the tramp's arrival had turned my plans to dust. Thanks to Dimity's disreputable old pal, I'd spend the day in Oxford, trying not to lose my lunch in the Radcliffe's antiseptic corridors.

“Ho. Ho. Ho,” I muttered irritably, putting the journal back on the shelf.

Feeling aggrieved, and feeling guilty for feeling aggrieved, I returned to the living room. The Pyms were playing peekaboo with Rob, Bill was giving Will a horsey ride on his knee, and Nell was discussing the Nativity play with Willis, Sr., who was transparently delighted to learn that Nell would be playing Mary to his Joseph.

“Peggy Kitchen coveted the part,” Nell was saying as I entered the room, “but even she had to agree that I was more suitable.”

I paused midstride, momentarily distracted by the notion of an oversized, bossy widow like Peggy Kitchen playing the role of a round young virgin, then continued across the room to stand in front of the fireplace, where I could speak to everyone at once.

“I'm sorry to interrupt,” I said, “but Bill and I have to go to Oxford.”

“Oxford?” Bill groaned. “I thought we agreed to spend the next two weeks at home.”

“I've had a sudden change of heart,” I said, giving him an I'll-explain-everything-later glare. “I'm worried about the
tramp. I want to see for myself that he's being looked after properly.”

The telephone rang and Bill picked it up.

Ruth firmly endorsed my plan. “One can never be too careful …”

“… when pneumonia sets in,” Louise continued. “You might bring him a thermos of strengthening broth or …”

“… a pot of calf's-foot jelly,” suggested Ruth.

“How are you going to get to Oxford?” asked Nell. “The lane's drifted in all the way to Finch. I'd offer my sleigh, but—” She broke off, interrupted by a cottage-shaking rumble.

Startled, Willis, Sr., turned to look out of the bow window, but I already knew what he would see. Mr. Barlow's snowplow was a local institution, a home-built monstrosity consisting of a wide blade welded slantwise to the front of a garbage truck. Clouds of dark smoke puffed from its exhaust pipe and its engine roared like a demented dinosaur, but Mr. Barlow, a retired mechanic, had reason to be proud of his creation. Noisy and unsightly though it was, it cleared the country lanes surrounding Finch with an efficiency that put the county to shame.

“There,” I said, when the snowplow had passed. “Now we can drive to Oxford.”

“I'm not so sure about that,” said Bill, hanging up the phone. The look on his face told me that something was terribly wrong. “It's Hyram Collier,” he said, in answer to my unspoken question. “He died last night at his home in Boston, of a massive heart attack.”

“Oh, Bill, I'm so sorry.” Hyram Collier was a millionaire philanthropist whose son had been at boarding school with Bill back in the States. Hyram was the exact opposite of Willis, Sr.—an extravagant extrovert who knew how to make an awkward young boy feel at ease. Hyram had been
there to comfort Bill when Bill's mother had died in a foolish traffic accident, and had remained a steadfast source of advice and friendship ever since. “When is the funeral?”

“The day after tomorrow,” said Bill. “I should be there, but …”

“You'll be there,” I said, taking Will from him. “William can drive you to Heathrow this afternoon. You'll be in Boston tomorrow.”

“But how will you get to Oxford?” Bill asked.

“Forget about Oxford,” I said. It was no time to challenge my husband's erroneous conviction that I was incapable of driving in England. “Just go upstairs and pack.”

I felt a vague sense of foreboding as Bill said good-bye to Nell Harris and the Pyms. First the tramp had arrived, and now Bill was leaving.

Christmas was definitely not going as planned.

I
left for Oxford early the next morning, warmly clad in a claret-colored velvet tunic, slim black wool trousers, and my gorgeous cashmere coat. I paused on the way to pick up a thermos of strengthening broth and a pot of calf's-foot jelly from the Pyms. I knew that the tramp was in no shape to consume the sisters' remedies, but I thought the broth might do me some good. The mere thought of entering a hospital made me weak in the knees.

I was not cut out for the medical profession. The sight of sick people made me feel sick, and I nursed a secret horror of bumbling into dreadful scenes involving protruding bones, gaping wounds, and vats of bodily fluids. I hoped and prayed that I wouldn't disgrace myself on the way to the tramp's bedside.

My car, a Morris Mini that had seen better days, handled the snow-slick lane with surprising ease, and my first glimpse of Finch covered in snow drove away all thoughts of carnage.

The blizzard had turned the village into a frosty fairyland.
The golden limestone buildings glowed like honey in the bright morning sun. Twinkling icicles graced each overhanging eave, every roof sported a fine, deep crown of snow, and the holly bushes surrounding the war memorial gleamed as if each leaf had been individually polished. Finch would have looked like a gingerbread village decked out in its winter finery if the villagers had left well enough alone.

They had, alas, entered into the spirit of the season with a display of bad taste that was truly breathtaking. Disembodied plastic Santa heads garroted with tinselly garlands leered from the tearoom's windows, life-sized plastic choirboys alternated with blinking candy canes along the front of Peacock's pub, and the large display window in Kitchen's Emporium featured a deer-shaped lawn ornament posed stiffly beside a motorized Father Christmas whose staring eyes and lurching movements hinted more at madness than at merriment.

“Good grief,” I muttered, skidding to a halt in front of the horrible display. “If I'd seen that as a child, I'd've run screaming into the night.”

No sooner had I voiced the thought than a truly frightening vision appeared as the front door of the Emporium opened and its proprietress came charging toward my car, shouting, “Lori! I want a word with you!”

Peggy Kitchen—shopkeeper, postmistress, and undisputed empress of Finch—had mellowed somewhat since her engagement to the long-suffering Jasper Taxman, but she still ruled the village with an iron hand. Bill referred to her as a wolf in grandmother's clothing. No one in his right mind would dream of telling Peggy that her window display was likely to give small children nightmares.

Peggy eyed me suspiciously as I rolled down the Mini's
window. “What's all this about you encouraging undesirables to come to the village?”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“They say you plucked a tramp out of the gutter and dropped him in the lap of luxury,” Peggy boomed.

I didn't bother asking who “they” were. “They” was village shorthand for the ubiquitous garbled gossip that spread news faster than optic cables.

“I found a sick man and got him to a hospital,” I explained.

“In a helicopter,” roared Peggy. “Seems the lap of luxury to me.”

“The lane was blocked,” I pointed out, “and the man was in critical condition.”

“Malingering,” Peggy said ominously. “You can't trust these fellows. Liars and thieves, all of them.”

“Did he steal anything?” I asked.

“Not that I know of,” Peggy admitted. “But he must've been up to no good, to come sneaking around here.”

“Sneaking?” I said. “What makes you think he was sneaking?”

“No one saw him,” Peggy thundered. “He slipped through the village like a thief in the night, which I've no doubt he is.”

“I don't have time for this,” I snapped, and rolled the window up so quickly that I nearly nipped the tip of Peggy's nose. I wasn't a fan of tramps and vagabonds, but Peggy's blanket condemnation riled me. She had no right to call Aunt Dimity's old friend a thief.

It was odd, though, that no one had seen him. As I left Peggy fuming in the slush, I wondered why he hadn't stopped at Peacock's pub before going on to the cottage. He could have warmed himself at the fire before tackling
the long walk, but he chose instead to bypass Finch entirely. It was almost as if, like poor old Robert Anscombe, he hadn't wanted to be seen.

On the other hand, I mused, he might have been playing it safe. I doubted that the Peacocks would have been as harsh as Peggy Kitchen, but they probably wouldn't have encouraged the tramp to sit by their fire for very long. Panhandlers were notoriously bad for business.

I drove past the schoolhouse, where the Nativity play would take place on Christmas Eve, and up Saint George's Lane, where I spotted the vicar trudging toward the church. He waved to me to stop and I pulled over.

Theodore Bunting was so tall that he had to bend nearly double in order to speak to me through the Mini's window. His mournful gray eyes surveyed me sadly as he dabbed at his red nose with a white handkerchief.

“Are you all right, Vicar?” I asked.

“A slight head cold,” he replied, sounding as though his head were stuffed with cotton wool. “Lilian and I were very sorry to hear of Bill's loss. He's off to Boston for the funeral, I understand.”

Again, I didn't bother to ask the source of the vicar's information. News traveled through the village as swiftly as windblown snow.

“He'll be back on Friday,” I informed him.

“Oh, dear.” The vicar frowned anxiously. “The first rehearsal of the Nativity play is tomorrow. However will Lilian find another Joseph on such short notice?”

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