Read Aunt Dimity's Christmas Online

Authors: Nancy Atherton

Aunt Dimity's Christmas (9 page)

“Go on,” said Julian.

“Kit comes from a comfortable home,” I said, gazing out at the falling snow, “yet he chooses to live among the poor. He befriends outcasts. When faced with violence, he turns the other cheek. He gives up his own meals—sacrifices himself—so that others may eat.” I smoothed the canvas carryall with my palms. “If Kit's crazy, then Christ was crazy, too.”

“Ah, I see.” Julian stroked his goatee meditatively. “You think Kit might be a religious fanatic.”

“I think Kit's a good man!” I exclaimed heatedly. “And the world's in a pretty sorry state if we've started classifying goodness as a form of mental illness.”

Julian gave me a sharp glance, then faced forward. “Christ didn't stand in the rain watching invisible airplanes,” he said. “And Christ was never confined to an asylum.”

I let the words flow over me, unheeded. I couldn't explain all of Kit's behavior. I didn't know for sure why he'd gone to the airfields, or the Heathermoor Asylum.

But I intended to find out.

I returned home to find my sons on the living-room floor, surrounded by empty cardboard boxes—their favorite toys—while my father-in-law, immaculate as ever, watched over them from the comfort of a nearby armchair. After greeting Will and Rob, and covertly scanning them for signs of damage, I sat on the floor with them and filled Willis, Sr., in on my very eventful day. I expected my eminently sensible father-in-law to fall in line with popular opinion on the subject of Kit Smith's sanity, but, as usual, he surprised me.

“The evidence is flimsy at best,” he pronounced. “Mr. Smith's actions, in my opinion, remain open to interpretation. We cannot know for certain what he meant when he told Mrs. Somerville that he was ‘keeping watch for the airmen.' Perhaps he was speaking metaphorically. Perhaps he was being facetious, in an attempt to discourage her from intruding further into his private affairs.”

“He stood in the rain for eight hours,” I pointed out.

“That is … unusual,” Willis, Sr., conceded.

“And what about the Heathermoor Asylum?” I asked. “It's pretty hard to ignore the ID card's implications.”

“You might telephone the institution and inquire after Mr. Smith,” said Willis, Sr.

I pulled Rob out of a cardboard box and into my lap. “They wouldn't release patient information to me,” I said. “I don't have the necessary authority. Besides, I don't want to run the risk of alerting them to Kit's whereabouts. If
he's absent without leave, they might try to round him up again.”

“Quite so.” Willis, Sr., tented his hands over his silk-lined waistcoat and tapped the tips of his index fingers together. “Perhaps we could ask Miss Kingsley to look into the matter.”

I gaped at my father-in-law, awestruck. “William, you're a genius. I'll get right on it.”

Miss Kingsley was the concierge at the Flamborough Hotel in London, and a longtime friend of the Willis family. She was discreet, efficient, and blessed with an uncanny ability to ferret out information on the most obscure individuals. If anyone could bore through a wall of institutional confidentiality, it would be the redoubtable Miss Kingsley.

“Would it be too great an imposition to request that you postpone your telephone call to Miss Kingsley until after we have dined?” said Willis, Sr. “I have fed my grandsons, but I have not yet had the opportunity to feed myself.”

A wave of guilt dampened my jubilation. I'd been so preoccupied with Kit Smith that I hadn't bothered to ask how my father-in-law's day had gone, much less given a moment's thought to our evening meal.

“Dinner'll be on the table in twenty minutes,” I promised, and when Willis, Sr., began to rise from his chair, I ordered him to stay put. “Relax,” I said. “You've done enough for one day.”

I devoted the rest of the evening to hearth and home. I whipped up a meal for Willis, Sr., bathed Will and Rob and got them off to bed, then invited my father-in-law to join me in the kitchen while I baked a double batch of angel cookies, in a belated attempt to celebrate my mother's
birthday. By the time Willis, Sr., turned in for the night, it was too late to telephone Miss Kingsley.

It wasn't too late, however, to speak with Aunt Dimity. Tired though I was, I went to the study, pulled the blue journal from its niche on the bookshelves, and curled up on the tall leather armchair before the hearth.

I yipped in alarm when the journal sprang open in my hands.

It's about time.
The familiar copperplate raced across the page in a nearly illegible scrawl.
I was beginning to think you'd forgotten me. Did you go to the Radcliffe? Were you allowed in to see the tramp? Have you learned anything more about him
?

“His name's Kit Smith,” I began, and for the second time that evening, recounted everything I'd learned about the man in the Radcliffe Infirmary. When I'd finished, Dimity's handwriting resumed, this time at its normal pace.

I do not remember anyone called Kit Smith. Tell me again about the medals in the suede pouch.

“There's a DSO, a DFC, an Air Force Cross, and a Pathfinder badge, among others,” I told her. “Why? Did you know someone who flew bombers during the war?”

In February 1943, I was given a temporary assignment with Bomber Command, at a base up in Lincolnshire. I came to know many aircrews, but none of the men with whom I worked were so highly decorated.

I slumped in the chair, discouraged. “Then we still don't know why he risked his life to come here. Julian'd say that it was just another example of Kit's crazy behavior.”

Then Father Bright would be jumping to conclusions. We may not know Kit's reasons for coming to the cottage, but that doesn't mean he had none. I do wish you'd been able to see Kit more clearly. Your description of him remains woefully inadequate. Around forty years of age, tall, slender—well, he would be slender, wouldn't he, if he's suffering from malnutrition
?

I bit my lip. I hadn't exactly lied to Dimity, but I hadn't told her the whole truth, either. “The cubicle was dimly lit,” I said, “and Kit was wearing an oxygen mask.”

And since Father Bright and the Somervilles saw Kit as you did, through a curtain of hair and heard, they wouldn't he able to describe him either. You must return to the Radcliffe after they've removed Kit's mask and take a good, long look at him. I will search my memory for anyone called Kit Smith, but I'm still counting on you to bring me an accurate description.

“I will,” I promised, but as I watched Aunt Dimity's handwriting fade from the page, I wasn't sure I'd keep my promise.

I closed the blue journal and looked across the study to the desk where I'd left Kit's carryall when I'd returned from Oxford. I'd borrowed the bag from Julian, telling him, and myself, that I hadn't had time to examine its contents thoroughly, and that a closer inspection might provide a further clue to Kit's identity. I wondered now if my reasons for keeping the bag had less to do with discovering Kit's identity than with experiencing his presence.

I closed my eyes and saw Kit's face so clearly I could almost count his lashes. I saw the creases at the corners of his eyes, the sculpted cheekbones, the curving lips, and the fine, straight nose, each feature bathed and softened by golden light. Once again, those violet eyes gazed up at me and that sweet smile pierced my heart.

Why hadn't I described Kit to Aunt Dimity? Why had I withheld from her the very information she desired most? Was I afraid I might describe him all too accurately?

Suddenly, at the very edge of my hearing, I heard the distant sound of a howling wind. I trembled slightly and opened my eyes, scanning the ivy-webbed window for signs of an impending storm, but the ivy hung as still as a stenciled pattern against the glass panes. I shook my head
to clear it, ran a hand through my dark crop of curls, and returned the journal to the shelves, telling myself that I was more tired than I'd thought. Kit had been caught in the blizzard, not me.

As I trudged upstairs to bed, it occurred to me that Kit's sleep might well be troubled by the memory of a howling wind. It also occurred to me that my feelings for him might not be entirely philanthropic.

W
hen I saw the faint circles beneath Willis, Sr.'s clear gray eyes the next morning, I put them down to grandchild-induced battle fatigue. My sons were perfect angels, of course, but at nine months even angels could be a handful.

I had no intention of letting my father-in-law fly solo again. Once I'd finished making a few phone calls in the privacy of the study, I'd join him and the twins in the living room and resume my dual roles as mother and daughter-in-law of the year.

The first call was to Dr. Pritchard, who informed me that Kit's condition had deteriorated during the night. They'd managed to stabilize him, but he remained comatose and was now on a ventilator. The doctor concluded his report by telling me not to worry. I bit back a shout of “
How
?”, thanked him politely, and hung up the phone.

Every cell in my body wanted to dash out of the cottage and run to Kit's side, but I told myself not to be a fool. Kit
was in good hands, and my presence at his bedside would make no difference to his recovery. I thought briefly of telephoning Julian Bright, then realized that he would already know of Kit's setback, since, according to Nurse Willoughby, he visited the Radcliffe every morning.

My second call was to the Willis mansion in Boston, but I was informed by the housekeeper that Bill had already left for Hyram Collier's funeral. I envisioned Mrs. Collier standing over her husband's grave, shivering in a bitter northeast wind, and was gladder than ever that Bill was there to comfort her.

My third call was to Miss Kingsley, who accepted her assignment with alacrity, promising to get back to me as soon as possible with whatever information she could glean about Kit's stay at the Heathermoor Asylum.

“Are you sure you're okay with this?” I asked. “The Flamborough must be pretty busy at this time of year.”

“I could do with the distraction,” Miss Kingsley told me. “If I hear ‘Good King Wenceslas' one more time, I swear I'll take a gun to the roof and start picking off Salvation Army bell ringers.”

“Miss Kingsley!” I gasped.

“Working in a hotel at Christmastime would be enough to drive a saint to cynicism,” Miss Kingsley stated firmly. “Please tell me that your Christmas Eve party's still on. It's the only thing left to look forward to.”

“It's on,” I assured her, “and I'll expect you to be there, with bells on.”

“No,” she said, her voice shuddering. “No bells …”

When I finished speaking with Miss Kingsley, I picked up Kit Smith's carryall and brought it with me to the living room. I wanted to give Kit's meager belongings a second look while keeping an eye on the boys.

I should have known better. Before I got a chance to
look at anything, Will grabbed the tin mug, Rob made off with the soup spoon, and Reginald, my pink flannel rabbit, fell across the prayer book's open pages. Willis, Sr., rescued Reginald and the prayer book, then settled back in his chair to watch while I retrieved the spoon from Rob and wrested the mug from Will's grasp.

After propitiating my angels with a pair of plush elephants, I replaced everything I'd removed from the canvas bag, zipped it shut, and left it on the coffee table, vowing to wait until naptime before I made another attempt to examine its contents.

“Hmmm,” said Willis, Sr. The prayer book lay open on his lap and Reg perched on the back of his chair, looking for all the world as if he were reading the book over Willis, Sr.'s shoulder. “Interesting.”

“What?” I got up from the floor and went to Willis, Sr.'s side. “What's interesting?”

Willis, Sr., pointed to the top of the lefthand page. “The corner has been folded down. It may mean nothing, of course, but then again …”

I sat on the arm of his chair. “What's on the page?”

“Prayers for the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels,” said Willis, Sr., scanning the text. After a moment, he began reading aloud. “‘There was a war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon…. And the great dragon was cast out…. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them.”' He fell silent, then began leafing through the book. He stopped when he came to a section titled
The Burial of the Dead.

The top corner of every page in the section had been folded down.

“‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live,”' Willis, Sr., intoned, “‘and is full of misery…. In the midst of life we are in death….”' When he turned
the page, I saw that a passage had been added in tiny handwriting between two of the prayers.

“What does it say?” I asked.

Willis, Sr., bent low over the book to read the handwritten passage. “‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death—' ”

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