Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd (19 page)

BOOK: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd
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It was as if he couldn't bring himself to speak his daughter's name.

“Was anyone hurt?” I couldn't resist asking.

“Yaass,” Tully said, reverting to some long banished county accent of his childhood. “
I
was.”

With a tragic look up and down the High Street in either direction, he turned and walked wearily back inside.

A moment later, Howard Carter appeared from the shadows of the public bar.

“You shouldn't ought to have asked him that,” he said. “You've gone and broke his heart.”

· SIXTEEN ·

T
HE REMAINS OF A
roasted chicken lay near the head of the table, looking like the wreckage of the Hindenburg.

I had missed dinner.

Undine made cuckoo eyes at me as I sat down and reached for the dessert, one of Mrs. Mullet's specialties to which we referred privately as Lymph Pudding. God only knows what was in it, and He wasn't telling, although today it had an aftertaste of smoked herring.

“Ned Cropper's run off with Mary Stoker,” I said to Feely. “I thought you'd want to know.”

“You're mistaking me for someone who cares,” Feely said.

“Alas!” I cried, throwing the back of my hand to my forehead. “Farewell flyblown chocolates…no more secondhand valentines.”

I could be merciless when I wanted information.

But Feely wasn't taking the bait. She had already turned her attention to one of the two matching mirrors at opposite ends of the room which, reflecting each other, allowed her to see her face and the back of her head simultaneously. The temptation was too great, and she was lost at once in a series of elaborate neck contortions that put me in mind of a parrot examining its reflection in a toy mirror.
Pretty Polly!
I wanted to say.

I have always found there to be a certain sadness about mirrors, since they double the space in a house which needs to be filled with love. We don't give nearly enough credit to the people who used to drape their looking-glasses with bedsheets.

I shuddered and shook the thought from my mind like a dog shaking off water.

Undine was picking something nasty off the soles of her shoes and scraping it onto the edge of her plate. At least she was being quiet.

“Daffy,” I asked, “have you ever heard of the Auditories?”

Daffy looked up from
The Catcher in the Rye,
in whose margins she was making profuse notes in pencil.

“The benches of the Roman magistrates, the stalls of the Haymarket Theatre, or that sect of the Manicheans who merely listened?”

“The fairies,” I said. “The ones that live in carpets.”

“Ah!” Daffy said, “those ones.” Which meant she didn't know. Or was pretending not to.

Did she not remember scaring me witless with
The Listeners
?

Daffy was an incredibly complex person: not at all what she seemed to be.

If I wanted to find out what she was playing at, I needed to go along with her.

“What about de la Mare?” I asked. “Didn't he write something about them?”

Daffy shrugged. “He may have. I don't remember. Have you read his
Memoirs of a Midget
? If not, you ought to. It's about a certain Miss M, who studies death by examining the maggots in the body of a dead mole she finds in the garden. It's right up your alley.”

I made a note to look up the book at once, but meanwhile, Daffy was evading my question. I needed to be more direct.

“Do you know anything about a Miss Trench—Lillian Trench? She lives out near Stowe Pontefract.”

“I knew you'd get around to her sooner or later,” Daffy said. “She's a witch. Stay away from her.”

“Do you really believe that,” I began, “or—”

“It doesn't matter what I believe,” Daffy snapped. “You're in over your head. Stay away from her.”

I was stunned. Had Daffy been secretly monitoring my doings? How could she possibly know where I had been and what I had been doing?

Daffy was the third person to warn me off the woman: First had been Dieter, then Mrs. Mullet, and now Daffy.

“Why?” I pouted, sounding like a petulant baby.

“Look, Flavia, believe it or not, there are things people get up to that you don't know about, don't need to know about, and don't want to know about. Take my word for it. Stick to chemistry. You're far safer piddling around at home with arsenic and cyanide than you are galloping round stirring up village gossip. Gossip has power, and some of it's black.”

It was a longer speech than I'd ever heard Daffy make in my entire life. Unless she was reading aloud to us from one of her favorite books, my sister was the kind of person who is sometimes described as “monosyllabic.”

(Why, incidentally, does a word meaning “a single syllable” require a five-syllable word to describe it? The world, as Mr. Partridge remarked in a recent talk on the wireless, is surely going to hell in a linguistic handbasket.)

Was Daffy trying to protect me? If she was, it would be the first time in the history of the planet Earth. There had to be more to it than that.

But before I could dig deeper, Daffy excused herself and hurriedly left the room.

“WC!” Undine said in a stage whisper. She had been following our conversation avidly.

I pretended not to hear, and picked listlessly at my pudding.

The clock ticked.

Somewhere above, a lavatory was flushed.

“See?” Undine said triumphantly.

In a remarkably few minutes, Daffy was back.

“I've just remembered,” she said. “The Listeners were one of the tribes of underground fairies. Neither visible nor invisible—which means that they can be seen by some people but not by others—they exist on the threshold of vision, and have the habit of hiding underfoot where they have the least chance of being detected. Possessing small, weak, sunken eyes, but with large, powerful ears, they overhear everything, even the most secret conversations, which they use to their own dreadful advantage. They are said to endow humans with great artistic talents, but to exact a terrible price in return.”

I knew at once that these were not Daffy's own words: She was quoting from a book.

I should have known! The flushing of the WC had been no more than a diversion, a decoy. Daffy had dashed, not to the lavatory, but to the library where she had consulted Professor Thorvald Fenn's great work,
An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of the Fairy Folk.
I had intended to do so myself, but she had saved me the trouble.

The fat green book was one I remembered well. I had pored over its pages in some detail after Daffy and Feely had almost convinced me that I was a changeling: a monstrous child swapped by the fairies for the real Flavia de Luce who was now, at that very moment, enslaved in some hidden cavern, a subterranean Cinderella being made to serve endless shamrock teas to the Little People.

Very much like my real life,
I sometimes thought—but only when I was having a bitter day.

“Thanks, Daff,” I said. “That's very helpful. I've been reading
The Golden Bough,
and it's made me think about taking up mythology and folklore.”

“Jolly good choice,” she said. “It will keep you away from those moonlighters.”

Moonlighters?
I thought. Had she let something slip?

“Those imbeciles that annoy the sheep by dancing round old stones in the rain. It's all the rage nowadays, even though it's a load of horsewallop.”

But if that were entirely true, why was Daffy warning me off it?

It was no harmless specter that had killed Roger Sambridge, or, rather, Oliver Inchbald. Had the Auditories at Lillian Trench's cottage had anything to do with his death? Had they been sent marching across the road to Thornfield Chase, to do their witch mistress's bidding?

There was no doubt that the late Oliver had been granted great artistic talents, as both author and wood-carver, and it was even more certain that he had paid a terrible price for these gifts. But who—or what—had actually killed him: man or spook?

Or could it have been the alleged witch, Lillian Trench herself? She had been a close neighbor of the dead man, so who knew what dealings she had had with him? It is common knowledge that neighborly disputes can sometimes escalate into murder, and even a lightning glance at the front page of the
Daily Mail
is enough to demonstrate this fact. A simple disagreement over a wandering cat may easily end with corpses piled up like kindling wood.

Which brought my thoughts back to the cat that had strolled so casually into the bedroom of the dead Mr. Sambridge, or, as I now knew him to be, Oliver Inchbald. It had made a second appearance at the cottage of his neighbor, Lillian Trench.

Whose cat was it, then? As I had noted earlier, cats don't generally waste their time howling at the homes of strangers.

It probably made sense when you stopped to think about it, that Lillian Trench kept a cat. Witches are widely known to keep felines as their familiars. I've never heard of a witch who didn't—except of course the Witch of Endor in the book of Samuel, but that's because there are no cats in the Bible—and it wouldn't have been mentioned even if she'd had one, just for the sake of consistency. I'd bet a fiver that she did.

By now, Daffy had given up on her conversation and returned to Mr. Salinger. I couldn't help noticing that her ears were going slightly pink.

As interesting a phenomenon as it was, I realized I was going to get nowhere with my investigation by watching someone read. There were certain questions which even my sister could not answer.

—

I tapped on Dogger's door with my knuckles, but there was no reply.

“Dogger,” I called softly. “It's Flavia. Is everything all right?”

Was
he
all right, was what I meant, of course.

Although he had not suffered one of his terrifying episodes for quite some time, there was always the worry that I was going to find him whimpering in a corner, his head cradled in his forearms, howling like a madman as his poor brain reenacted some unspeakable torture he had endured at the hands of his wartime captors. Father and Dogger had been held in the same Japanese prison, where each of them had lost parts of his being that could never be recovered.

Although it went against my every instinct to do so, I opened the door and peeped round it. We had been taught since we were children that Dogger's room at the top of the back stairs was his Holy of Holies; that when he was in his sanctum he was not on any account to be disturbed. Although I had broken the rule from time to time—mostly with good reason, such as when he was having an attack—I had generally left him alone.

I needn't have worried. The room was empty, and Dogger's sparse bed was neatly made up with military precision.

Perhaps he was in the kitchen, I thought, as I made my way downstairs.

But he was not. Mrs. Mullet had gone for the day, and the room felt curiously empty. I vowed never to be late for dinner again as long as I lived.

And suddenly it came to me. Of course! It made perfect sense. Why hadn't I thought of it before?

I retrieved my coat and mittens from the cupboard in the foyer, retraced my steps through the kitchen, and opened the back door.

The world was a nighttime wonderland. A razor wind had stripped away most of the clouds and the trees, under a gibbous moon, were a glorious, ice-covered confection, transparent spangles glittering with a cold brightness. It was like a decorated stage set from the Russian ballet, awaiting the dancers—
The Snow Queen,
perhaps, in which human hearts are pierced and frozen by shards of ice from the trolls' shattered mirror.

In the moonlight, even the kitchen garden glowed, the red brick of the old walls illuminating the dead beds with the cold, faded glory of old silver.

The ground crunched beneath my feet as I walked towards the coach house.

I made the courtesy of knocking on the door.

“Dogger?” I called out. “Are you here? It's Flavia.”

Almost as if he had been waiting inside, the door opened straightaway, and there stood Dogger.

“Miss Flavia. Is everything all right?”

“Yes, thank you, Dogger. May I come in?”

“Please do,” Dogger said, and I saw as he stepped back that his sleeves were rolled up to the elbows.

In the middle of the room stood Harriet's old Rolls-Royce Phantom II, which had stood neglected for years until quite recently when Dogger had somehow managed to get it started at a time when my life was in danger. It had been brought out again at Harriet's funeral, but had since then stood alone in the coach house, thinking its own thoughts and dreaming its own dreams among the dusty beams and the long-abandoned wooden stalls.

It was like a manger scene, I thought, lit by the light of a single hanging paraffin lantern, in order to conserve electricity.

Dogger had placed a milking stool in front of the towering nickel-plated radiator, which he now resumed polishing with a surgeon's touch.

“You're cleaning her up to go fetch Father, aren't you?” I asked.

I had known it all along.

Dogger picked at a reluctant bit of road grit with his fingernail.

“Bert Archer has offered to iron out some of her wrinkles,” he said. “He can't resist an old Rolls—especially one that has suffered indignities.”

He was referring, of course, to the damage the car had suffered in rescuing me from the Pit Shed behind the library, an incident which I preferred to forget—except for the happiness of my father's face on that occasion.

“Bert tells me that if we run her over to his garage this evening, he'll get to work straightaway.”

“But the cost—” I said, thinking of the piles of papers and unpaid bills that littered Father's desk like the crumbling towers of Angkor Wat. In spite of my having inherited Buckshaw, the affairs of the estate were still in shocking disarray after years of siege by those gray men, His Majesty's Revenue Rats, as Father called them when he thought I wasn't listening.

“Bert has offered to carry out the necessary repairs gratis,” Dogger said.

“He says it's the least he can do,” he added somewhat mysteriously. “Would you care to assist?”

Would I!

“I think I should like that,” I said, stuffing my happiness down my throat. If I were to become the lady of the manor I'd better start playing the part.

BOOK: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd
10.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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