Read Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd Online
Authors: Alan Bradley
GRAY, GRUBBY DAWN
was breaking as we arrived in London. The platform was in even more than its usual hubbub. I edged my way slowlyâso as not to attract attentionâinto the center of a jostling mass of schoolboys. Ughhh! Somebody's sister, I would pretend to be: welcoming a grubby, jammy brother home for the holidays.
We seethed, like a mass of jellyfish, towards the station's exit.
On the street, a black cab edged forward from the rank.
“Where to?” the driver asked, squinting horribly behind his cigarette. “Buck'num Palace?”
He wheezed like a tin whistle, as if he had made a capital joke.
I climbed into the backseat in a businesslike manner. “Bedford Square,” I told him.
“Any partic'lar address?”
“Number seven,” I said, partly because it was the first number that came to mind, and partly because I guessed that any square, anywhere in London, must have a number seven. A much higher number might have betrayed my relative ignorance of the city's geography.
“Right-o,” he said as we jerked into motion.
I do not encourage early morning chirpiness, even in those whom I know and love. It is generally a sign of a sloppy mind, and is not to be encouraged.
Before I knew it, we had reached our destination. I paid the driver, turned away, and walked briskly to the door of number seven, where I pretended to rummage in my pocket for my keys. Judging by the nameplates at the door, the building was a nest of architects.
I waited until the taxi had driven off, then set out in search of the address I was looking for. The numbers began on the east side of the square and proceeded north, then west.
Then suddenlyâunexpectedlyâamong the Georgian doors of solicitors, surveyors, and assorted societies, there it was:
I tried the cold brass knob, but the door was locked. I rattled it a bit, but it was no use. There were no lights visible in the windows.
I looked up and down the square. Besides my own, there were few footprints in the fresh, unshoveled snow. The business day had not yet begun. I would simply have to wait.
I blew into my cupped hands, producing a kind of hollow owl call. I had left home without gloves or mittens, and I was beginning to regret my haste.
The temperature seemed to be dropping alarmingly. Surely it was colder now than it had been at the station.
I was weighing my options when a man in a caped overcoat turned the corner and approached along the street. In spite of the snow, he was carrying a furled umbrella and a rolled-up newspaper.
He nodded genially as he fished for his keys.
“Mr. Gath?” I guessed.
The man seemed startled at first, and then a slow smile spread across his face.
“Good lord, no. Mr. Gath, like Jacob Marley, has been dead these seven yearsâwell, six, actually, but seven is so much more metrically pleasing, don't you think?”
I must have looked crestfallen.
“Never mind,” he said. “In spite of Mr. Gath's precipitous departure, his inconsolable successors continue to crank the sausage machine at the same old stand. Now then, what can I do for you?
“But waitâcome in, come in. No point freezing ourselves to death out here on the doorstep when we could just as well be chugalugging tea in a warm study. Are you familiar with the word
? It's an Americanism. We had it last year in a book about fly-fishing in Colorado. Far too good not to crib, don't you think?”
“Yes,” I managed.
“Come in, come in,” he said, putting his shoulder to the swollen door.
Inside, we stamped the snow from our feet on an ancient jute doormat, and I followed him upstairs.
Not surprisingly, his office was like a cave carved into a cliff of books. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, teetering stacks: Every available surface had been used to create a precarious tower of printed volumes, the piles reminding me of the photos I had seen of the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the gigantic termite mounds of Ethiopia.
“Have a chair,” he said, taking my coat and shifting a pile of dusty books from the seat of what looked like a Chippendale.
“Now, then,” he said, when I had settled into it, “I'm Frank Borley. What can I do for you, Missâ¦ahâ¦”
“De Luce,” I told him. “Flavia de Luce. Actually, I'm doing research on one of your former employees.”
Because I didn't know her surname, I had to make a game of it.
I leaned forward, lowered my voice, and added in a confidential tone, “She drowned several years ago while diving in the Mediterranean.”
“Good lord,” he said. “Louisa Congreve?”
It was a question but not a question. I let his words hang in the air.
“She was the aunt of a friend,” I said, which was more or less true. “Her family are thinking of having me write her biography.”
Which was more or less not true.
“I understand she led an exciting life,” I went on. “I should like to communicate with people who may have known her. I thought this would be as good a place as any to begin.”
“And her family have given you permission to do this?”
“Her niece, Carla Sherrinford-Cameron. Yes. She practically begged me.”
Frank Borley stuck his little finger into his ear and wiggled it about a bit, as if fine-tuning it for truth.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “I remember Louisa mentioning once that she was taking a niece to the London Zoo and, yes, as I recall the niece's name
Carla. Yes, that sounds about right.”
I gave him a smarmy look, as if to imply,
Very well then, let's get on with it
“Are you an author, then?” he asked.
This was an unexpected question.
“I'm considering it,” I said, “âbut only as an avocation.”
I knew this might sound a bit starchy, but when you're caught short, starchy is sometimes the best you can come up with.
“Biographies to be your specialty?”
“I'm very fond of biographies,” I said. “Especially those about the lives of the great chemists, such as Priestly and Lavoisier. I have a copy at home of Lord Brougham's
Lives of Men of Letters and Science,
of course, even though it's quite outdated in terms of recent scientific discoveries.”
“And you're planning to drag it, kicking and screaming, into the twentieth centuryâis that it?”
I hadn't thought of this before but I saw at once the possibilities.
Lives of the Great Chemists,
by Flavia de Luce.
Cavendish, Scheele, Priestly, Boyle, Hales, Hooke: The list went on and on. I would have a chapter devoted to each.
“And how does our Miss Congreve fit into all of this?”
It seemed the kind of question a publisher would ask; I had to think quickly.
“She died wearing an Aqua-Lung,” I replied, improvising as I went. “A device which owes its existence to the experiments of Black and Lavoisier into the nature, chemical composition, and elasticity of air.”
“Hmmm,” he said. “Quite a novel idea, I must say. But hardly conducive to a bestselling, tell-all, no-holds-barred biography. Not the sort of thing we might see serialized in the tabloid newspapers.”
“Except for her friendship with Oliver Inchbald,” I said. “I understand they were very close.”
Was it my imagination, or did Frank Borley go white?
“Good lord!” he said, gripping the edge of the table. “Is this blackmail?”
“Not at all,” I said. “I'm merely making private inquiries.”
“Do you realize what would happen if this got out? Oliver Inchbald's books still sell by the lorry load. The man's an
. We mustn't do anything to sully his reputation. Think about it! We'd be letting down generations of readers.”
He had now got up and was pacing the floorâwhat little there was of it left clear among the books.
“I should never do that, Mr. Borley,” I said. “I was brought up on Crispian Crumpet myself.”
“Were you indeed? And so was I! Hold onâthere's something I'd like you to see. If you'll excuse me for a few minutesâ”
And with that he was gone.
I didn't waste a second. Digging into my pocket, I pulled out a sheet of ship's letterhead upon which was a hurriedly scribbled series of numbers: hurriedly scribbled but exquisitely formed, each and every one of them.
I picked up Borley's telephone and dialed the digits, keeping the handset close to my mouth.
It rang twice at the other end before being picked up, but no one said anything.
“It's me,” I said to the silence. “I'm in London.”
“Flavia! Is it you?”
“Yes,” I said. “I have to ring off right away.”
“I understand,” Mrs. Bannerman's voice said. “Where are you?”
Mrs. Bannerman had been my chemistry teacher at Miss Bodycote's Female Academy, in Canada, and had accompanied me on my recent voyage home. She had bid me farewell half an hour before docking, but only after pressing her London telephone number into my hand.
Having been once convicted of murder and then released after a sensational trial, she was determined to let her return to England pass unnoticed.
“I shall become the Invisible Woman,” she had told me. “We shall communicate using codes and ciphers and gadgets hitherto known only to Secret Government Laboratories.”
She had been joking, but I knew what she meant.
“Bedford Square,” I said.
“Right. I can almost see you. There's an A.B.C. shop in New Oxford Street. Five minutes' walk south of where you are. You can't miss it. See you there in, shall we say, half an hour?”
“Perfect,” I whispered, and set the receiver quietly down into its cradle just as Frank Borley came back into the room.
“I thought you might like to see this,” he said, untying the worn ribbons of a flesh-colored folder. “It's the original manuscript of
He placed it reverently on the table.
To be honest, it wasn't much to look at: a pile of dried-out musty papersâthose soft, pulpy tinted sheets that look as if the cat has vomited on them. The first few pages were written in black ink in a slapdash scrawl, as if the white heat of composition had overcome penmanship.
There, before my very eyes, were those famous first words, written in Oliver Inchbald's own hand:
“I'm blowing my trumpet,” says Crispian Crumpet
“I'm blowing my trumpet,” says he.
“I shall trumpet the town till the walls tumble down
“And everyone knows that it's me.”
The later pages were typed, and were neater than the first, except for a few surprising penciled spelling corrections. In the title poem, “Hobbyhorse,” for instance, the word “equestrian” had been spelled without the
but crossed out and corrected in blue pencil.
“One of our greatest treasures,” Frank Borley said. “Priceless, probably. The books have sold millions. Never been out of print.”
I looked suitably impressed.
“And I thought you might like to see this,” he said, placing a book in front of me. “It's a first edition.”
It was the same book I had seen in Mr. Sambridge's bedroom. I opened it and turned to the back flap of the dust jacket.
“Is this him?” I asked, pointing to the author's photo.
Again that mental itch that you can't quite scratch.
“Yes, that's Oliver Inchbald.”
“He looks like a nice enough man,” I said. “Was he, actually?”
My question caught Borley off guard.
“Well, let's say that he knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it.”
“But was he
?” I asked.
You sometimes have to be persistent.
“Well, no,” Borley said. “Respectedâ¦yes. Belovedâ¦no.”
“What about his son?” I asked. “What did Crispian Crumpet think of him?”
It had just occurred to me that Crispian Crumpet was probably still receiving royalty checks for his father's books.
“Hilary?” Borley said, sticking his finger in his ear again. “It's hard to say. Hilary has never been allowed the luxury of being an ordinary person.”
I could well imagine he had not. I knew from my own experience that growing up famous was no bed of roses.
“Hilary Inchbald?” I asked. “Is that his name?”
Borley nodded. “He keeps pretty much out of the public eye,” he said. “Actually, he's painfullyâperhaps even pathologicallyâshy.”
“I suppose he can afford to be,” I said. “He mustn't have to go out to work.”
“Oh, I wouldn't say that,” Borley said. “He devotes his life to a charity he's set up in Gloucestershire for homeless cats.”
“I'd love to meet him,” I said, and I meant it.
“I'm afraid I can't be of much help,” Borley said. “Confidentiality, and so forth.”
I couldn't hide my disappointment.
“There is this, though,” he said. “If it's of any help. I found it caught at the back of one of Louisa's desk drawers when we were cleaning out.”
He rummaged through a cardboard file and removed a creased newspaper clipping.
the headline read.
“I'm afraid it's not in the best of taste,” Borley said, “but then, what is, nowadays?”
The photograph showed a slender man with prematurely white hair and alarmingly thick spectacles holding a glass of wine and a fat and contented tortoiseshell cat. He was so bent overâhis shoulders so stoopedâthat he looked like a comic umbrella.