Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd (3 page)

BOOK: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd
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“Such as?” I could be remorseless when necessary.

“There is a new drug from America: aureomycin.”

“Chlortetracycline!” I said. “It's an antibiotic!”

Its discovery and extraction from a soil sample in a field in Missouri had been mentioned in an issue of
Chemical Abstracts & Transactions
which—because of Uncle Tar's lifetime subscription, and the failure of my family to notify the editors of his demise—was still being delivered to Buckshaw like chemical clockwork more than two decades after his death.

“Bless you!” I blurted, certain that Dogger had somehow taken a hand in Father's treatment.

“It is Dr. Darby who should be the recipient of our gratitude. Not forgetting, of course, the drug's discoverer.”

“Of course not!”

I made a mental note to send up a bedtime prayer to—Dr. Duggar, was it?—the American botanist who had extracted the stuff from a mold sample in the soil of a garden plot in Missouri.

“Why did he call it aureomycin, Dogger?”

“Because of its golden color.
means ‘gold' in Greek, and
means ‘fungus.' ”

How simple it all was, when you got right down to it! Why couldn't life itself be as straightforward as a man bending over a microscope in Missouri?

My eyes were heavy.
Iron eyelids,
I remember thinking. I stifled a yawn.

I hadn't slept properly for ages. And who knew when I would have another chance?

“Good night, Dogger,” I said, filling the hot water bottle. “And thank you.”

“Good night, Miss Flavia,” he said.


When at last my red eyes came open in the morning, they fixed upon the shrouded beef and lettuce sandwich, which still crouched accusingly on my dresser.

Perhaps I should eat the thing,
I thought,
in spite of my revulsion
. I'd been given so many lectures all my life about wasting food during a time of rationing that guilt had become automatic: It came on by itself, like a burglar alarm.

Trying to keep my gorge from rising, I reached for the plate and lifted the tea towel.

Beneath it lay two toasted crumpets—still warm—with a slathering of honey on both sides, just as I liked them.

” I said aloud as I propped myself up in bed, “your price is above rubies. You are the crème de la crème—you're the cat's pajamas.”

I chewed, in something close to contentment, letting my eyes wander round the room. It was good to be home again, propped up against my own pillows, listening to the familiar
of my own clunker of an alarm clock, searching for the spots in the ghastly yellow Victorian wallpaper where—if you squinted slightly—the wormy red squiggles in the pattern seemed to form a devil's head peering out of a mustard pot.

This was all mine now—or soon would be—I remembered, to do with as I pleased. Hard to believe, but it was true. When my mother Harriet's will had come to light after ten years, it was a shock to everyone—especially myself—to discover that she had left Buckshaw to me.


All of it.

The whole kit and caboodle.

Not that everything was settled yet. There were still tons of paperwork to be sifted, I supposed, but in the long run, Buckshaw was in the bag.

I suppose that might sound callous, but it was true. I had tried during much of the past year to keep from thinking of the weight of responsibility that would eventually fall upon my shoulders: on that future day when all the paperwork had been dealt with and I was at last the chatelaine…mistress of Buckshaw.

My relationship with my sisters had not exactly been a day at the fair—not even at the best of times. The very thought of how they would react when I owned the very beds they slept in—even the spoons they ate with—was enough to give me the judders.

Feely was engaged to Dieter Schrantz, of course, and would soon be gone: perhaps as early as next summer. But Daffy—and it was Daffy whom I really feared—would be a force to be reckoned with.

She had the same devious mind that I had. And mercy, simply because we were sisters, was out of the question.

Both of them had been in bed when I arrived last night, so that my reception still remained to be seen. Breakfast would be a battlefield.

I needed to keep a sharp eye out and antennae tuned.

I got up, dressed, washed my face, and plaited my pigtails as neatly as I could. Appearance was important. I needed to show them that I had learned
at Miss Bodycote's Female Academy—that I was not the same simple little sister they had sent packing in September.

Sophistication was what was called for.

Should I put a flower behind my ear? I dismissed the idea as soon as it popped into my head. Flowers would never do, what with Father in hospital: It might seem to be a celebration. Besides, it was December, and flowers were thin on the ground. I had spotted a potted poinsettia in the foyer, but its blood-red color was hardly in keeping with the gravity of the situation.

Perhaps I would just stroll in, sit down at the breakfast table, and light a cigarette. That would certainly signal a new maturity.

But the problem was this: I didn't smoke. It was a filthy habit. And furthermore, I had no cigarettes.


Slowly I came down the east staircase, shoulders back and chin up, as if I were balancing an invisible Bible on my head.

The old P&D: poise and decorum. Feely was always yattering on about it, and I had picked up a few extra tips from a dog-eared back issue of
The Lady's Friend
in the waiting room of the dentist's office before setting out on my voyage to Canada.

Poise was keeping your knees and your lips together, your eyebrows and your nostrils apart.

Decorum was keeping your mouth shut.

I needn't have bothered: There was no one in sight.

For a few moments I stood alone in the middle of the foyer, which seemed somehow larger and more empty than usual.
was the word.
There was an unaccustomed coldness about the place.

Ordinarily at this time of year, there would have been a Christmas tree: not as grand, of course, as the one in the drawing room, but a seasonal welcome to visitors nevertheless. There would have been paper garlands, with holly wreaths and dangling mistletoe, and the warm dusty air resuscitated by the smell of rosemary, and of oranges and cloves.

But as far as I could see, there was not a trace of Christmas at Buckshaw this year. It was as if some curse—some ancient and ancestral chill—had fallen upon the house, as it does in the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

A shiver shook my shoulders.

Get a grip on yourself, Flavia,
I thought. This was no time for sentimentality. I was about to face my family. Where was I? What had I been thinking?

Oh, yes: poise and decorum. I needed to be as crisp and cool as a colonial cucumber.

I walked casually, but briskly, into the dining room, pulled out my chair without allowing it to grate on the floor, and unfolded the linen napkin fussily into my lap.

Perfection. I was proud of myself.

Daffy's nose was in a book—
The Parasites,
by Daphne du Maurier, I couldn't help noticing—while Feely appeared to be examining her own reflection in one of her highly polished thumbnails.

I helped myself to a lukewarm kipper.

“Good morning, sisters dear,” I said, with just the slightest touch of sarcasm.

Like a pair of sick suns rising, Daffy's eyes came slowly up above the binding of her book. I could tell she hadn't slept.

“Well, well,” she said. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

“How's Father?” I asked. “Has there been any news?”

“He's in hospital!” Daffy snapped. “As you very well know. Put there by being made to drag himself up to London.”

“That's hardly my fault,” I snapped. “I understand he contracted pneumonia on the train.”

Less than a minute in the room and already the knives were out.

“Hardly!” Daffy spat. She was seething. “
Your father is at death's door and yet you sit here quibbling about—”

“Daphne—” Feely said, in that voice of hers which would stop an army tank dead in its armored tracks.

Mrs. Mullet had come into the room and was busily bustling about, trying to pretend that everything was tickety-boo when it wasn't.

“Bacon'll be along directly,” she said. “The Aga's a chore to light when it's been let go out overnight. My fault, though, what with Colonel de Luce an' all.”

I glanced at an imaginary wristwatch. “What time is Clarence coming with the taxicab?” I asked. “I'm anxious to see Father.”

“Bless you, not till half one,” Mrs. Mullet said. “Visitin' hours aren't till two. Don't make a face, dear. It might freeze, and then where would you be?”

And so my hopes of rushing to Father's bedside were dashed, just like that. I tried to swallow my disappointment.

“How's Dieter?” I asked, turning to Feely and attempting to start a civil conversation.

“How would I know?” she spat as she threw down her napkin, jumped up from the table, and stormed from the room.

She and Undine passed in the doorway. Undine stopped and cupped a hand behind her ear, as if listening to Feely's rapidly retreating footsteps.

“Cousin Ophelia is overwrought,” she said in her over-loud, froggish voice. “She and Dieter have had a big bust-up. It's about having babies, I expect. Hello, Flavia. Welcome home. How did they treat you in Canada?”

She came striding awkwardly across the room and stuck out her hand. Besides stabbing her to death with a crumpet fork, I had no choice but to give it a quick, limp shake.

Undine stood there staring out at me from her great white moon face, as if expecting me to make a speech. Her watery blue eyes, framed and magnified by the large black rims of her spectacles, gave her an odd and ageless look: She might have been eight or a hundred and eight. She looked like some child's crayon drawing of a de Luce.

When I didn't answer, she leaned over and helped herself to the remains of my kipper.

“We saw Uncle Haviland yesterday,” she said, meaning Father. “He looks dreadful.”

Even before my brain could work, I was on my feet.

That Undine—a distant cousin of the nth degree—could see Father and I could not was not just unbearable, it was the last straw.

I got up from the table and, as if in a trance, left the room.

It was the first time in my life I had ever walked out of anything, and if the truth were told, it felt damnably good.


Which explains why I am bicycling to Bishop's Lacey in the freezing rain.

I need desperately to get away from Buckshaw: to get away from my family. My destination is the vicarage, and the person I intend to call upon is Cynthia Richardson.

Who would ever have believed it?

Cynthia and I have had an animal aversion to each other that began years ago when she spanked me for scraping chemical samples from the stained-glass windows of St. Tancred's.

It was, I think, only when I discovered that she and her husband, Denwyn, the vicar, had tragically lost their only child, a daughter, beneath the wheels of a railway train on the platform at Doddingsley, that the tide began to turn, and Cynthia and I had now, in the past year or so, become firm friends.

There are times when even family can be of no use: when talking to your own blood fails to have meaning.

I suppose when you stop and think about it, in the great scheme of things, that's what vicars' wives are for.

I dismounted and leaned Gladys against the churchyard wall. She would be quite safe here until I was ready to go home. As Gladys was rather fond of churchyards, the wait would be something of a treat for her, in spite of the rain.

“It's nice to be home,” I whispered, giving her a pat on the seat, but not in a sentimental way. “Enjoy yourself.”

I walked through the wet grass, wiped my feet on the steel scraper at the door, and tugged on the bellpull. From the depths of the vicarage came a distant, muted jangling.

I waited. There was no answer.

I counted slowly to forty—which seemed to be a reasonable interval: not short enough to seem a nuisance and yet not long enough for anyone inside to think the caller had gone away.

Another yank on the pull resulted in the same far-off clattering.

The house sounded empty.

Perhaps Cynthia was in the church. I hadn't thought of that. So much of her time was taken up with flowers, leaflets, surplices, hymnals, Brasso, and beeswax, to say nothing of parish visits, meetings of the WI, the Mothers' Union, the Altar Guild, Brownies, Girl Guides (in which she served as Brown Owl), Boy Scouts, Wolf Cubs (in which she was sometimes acting Akela), the Restoration Fund (of which she was chairwoman), and the Parish Council (of which she was secretary).

I waded back across the wet grass, but the church was empty. It was now raining harder than ever and my feet were cold and wet.

As I walked back towards Gladys, there came a call from the direction of the vicarage.

“Flavia! Yoo-hoo! Flavia!”

I didn't recognize the voice as Cynthia's, but it turned out to be her all the same.

She was huddled behind the front door, holding it open no more than a crack. As I stepped onto the veranda I could see that she was clutching closed a shabby pink dressing gown.

She looked awful.

“Welcome home,” she croaked. “I've got a beastly cold, so I won't give you a hug. Denwyn and I were sorry to hear about your father. How is he?”

“I don't know,” I said. “We're going to see him this afternoon.”

“Come in…come in,” Cynthia said, opening the door just wide enough to squeeze through. “I'll put the kettle on and we'll have a nice cup of tea.”

BOOK: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd
2.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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