Read Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd Online
Authors: Alan Bradley
I fancied I was Donald Campbell, that Gladys was his speedboat
and that we were tearing across Coniston Water at 170 miles an hour. With the world rushing by in a blur, it was easy to see how one could become addicted to racing, and it was only halfway down that a close encounter with a cow made me back off on the old sauce for our final descent into Bishop's Lacey.
By the time I rode into the high street, I had retransformed myself into a slow and precise-pedaling Miss Prim: a shoulders-back, straight-spined model of deportment, all right angles, like a carpenter's square or a middle-aged spinster: a person who couldn't possibly be involved in murder.
Without even thinking about it I found myself pursing my lips into a “prunes and prisms” shape as I gave a crisp nod to Tully Stoker, the landlord of the Thirteen Drakes. Tully was standing on a stool, putty knife in hand, putting the last touches to a new pane of glass in the window of the saloon bar.
Steadying Tully's stool was a thin, slightly frail gentleman I'd not seen before, and I couldn't help wondering what had become of Tully's potboy, Ned Cropper.
Ned was another of Feely's innumerable suitors. Although he was not gifted with many of the so-called social graces, Ned had taught me how to produce a two-fingered whistle that could be heard as far away as Culverhouse Farm.
Had something happened to him in my absence? Had Ned been sackedâor met with some mishap? I surely hoped not. Perhaps he had given up on Feely, married someone else, and emigrated to Australia, sayâto take up farming, or perhaps even to open a pub of his own. If he had, Tully's daughter, Mary, would be furious in a heartbroken kind of way. She had adored Ned since they were both of them in nappies.
I made a note to quiz her later.
But for the moment I needed to concentrate on how I was going to report Mr. Sambridge's demise.
I managed to contain my excitement until I reached the vicarage.
“He's dead!” I shouted as I burst through the door, not even bothering to knock. “Mr. Sambridge is dead!”
Cynthia was all wide-eyed as I flew into her arms in the kitchen and buried my face in her shoulder. I resisted the urge to beg her to summon the police. There are times when you have to let nature take its course.
I allowed myself to be made a nice cup of tea, and to refuseâin spite of my secret droolingâa plate of Peek Frean Bourbon biscuits.
“You poor thing!” Cynthia said, and I let her comfort me. She needed it more than I did.
“Was it awful?”
I clamped my teeth down on my lower lip and nodded dolefully.
“I understand,” she said. “You don't want to talk about it. I'll ring up Constable Linnet. He'll know what to do.”
He would indeed,
I thought. He'd know enough to call in Inspector Hewitt and his men, Detective Sergeants Woolmer and Graves.
I was already feeling a warm glow of anticipation at matching wits with them once again.
“Here, blowâ” Cynthia said, producing a handkerchief from thin air, and I blew.
He had sent Graves and Woolmer off to secure Thornfield Chase, but decided to interview me personally before going there himself.
A wise choice,
and a flattering one
In the December rain, the vicarage was especially damp and soggy, with an aura of boiled eggs and old booksâa perfect setting for our encounter: dark, brooding, and simply reeking of secrets and tales told in an earlier time.
Cynthia, discreet as always, had taken herself off to the farthest corner of the house, leaving the inspector and me to speak frankly to each other.
“Did you touch anything?”
His first question did not please me.
“Of course not, Inspector. I know better than that.”
“Mmmm,” he said, not confirming or denying my words.
Since Cynthia had already explained to him about sending me on her errand, there wasn't much left to talk about except the scene of the crime itself.
“Did you see anyone, going to or returning from Thornfield Chase?”
I told him about the twitching lace curtain. Best to be up front about it, just in case the resident busybody had reported my presence.
He was quizzing me closely, testing my powers of observation.
“No. Nobody, Inspector. Not until I was back in Bishop's Lacey. Mr. Stoker was replacing a windowpane at the Thirteen Drakes.”
“Hmmm,” he said, rubbing his chin. “Seems odd in this day and age, doesn't it? Cycling all the way to Thornfield Chase and back without spotting or being spotted by a single living soul?”
I could play this game, too.
I shrugged. He could hardly hold me responsible for the geographical distribution of the entire population of Great Britain at one particular hour on one particular rainy day.
“I was merely thinking aloud,” he said, but only after an unnerving pause. “How long do you suppose he had been dead?”
“Not long,” I said instantly.
It was too late. I had already fallen into his trap.
“The slight discoloration of his face. Posterior hypostasis, I believe it's called.”
Actually, I knew jolly well what it was called, but I didn't want to damage my chances by being too superior too soon.
“Excellent!” Inspector Hewitt said, and I couldn't help swelling a little. “And the time?”
“The kitchen clock was at 10:03,” I told him.
“Thank you, Flavia,” he said. “That's extremely helpful. I thought you might have noticed.”
Was it getting warm in here, or was it just me? My face was flushing and there was nothing I could do about it.
I faked a cough but it was too late.
“It was because he was hanging upside down,” I added, trying to be helpful. “The posterior hypostasis, I mean. It might have been more advancedâ”
“Thank you,” the inspector said. “But please say no more. I haven't yet visited the scene, and I prefer to form my own first impressions.”
I took this to be a lieâor at the very least an outright evasion. A corpse was either upside down or it wasn't. It had nothing to do with who saw it first. But if it
a lie, it was one that I appreciated: the kind of lie I might tellâand often have toldâmyself.
The inspector closed his notebook with an audible
and got to his feet. He had written down no more than the time of day I had given him.
I must admit that I didn't want him to go. Until that moment I hadn't realized how much I had missed having his undivided attentionâhaving him all to myselfâfrom time to time.
Was it love? I didn't know, but it wasn't pleasant. I'd do anything to keep him with me for even a few moments more.
“How's Mrs. Hewitt? Antigone.”
“She's very well, thank you. I shall tell her you were asking.”
He turned to go.
“Actually,” he said, stopping with his hand on the doorknob, “she wrote you in Canada, but her letter came back stamped âRTS.' Return to sender. Address unknown.”
I gasped. “That's impossible,” I said. “Did she mail it to Miss Bodycote's Female Academy, in Toronto?”
“I believe so,” he said. “But that's neither here nor there now, is it? Now that you're here.”
I could only nod dumbly.
What cretinous clod would have sent back Antigone's letter? Could other mail have been returned? Could this be why a single letter from Dogger was the only communication I had received from Buckshaw during my entire incarceration in Canada?
My face must have mirrored my thought.
“Oh, well,” Inspector Hewitt said. “Welcome home, regardless.”
And that, for what it was worth, was the sum total of my encounter with Inspector Hewitt. Although pleasurable, it hardly lived up to my expectations.
In another moment he was gone, and I was on my own again.
I shouted up to Cynthia who, judging by her voice, was somewhere in the distant attics.
“Thanks, Cynthia. I'm leaving now.”
“I'll be right down,” her muffled voice came back.
“Don't bother,” I called. “I have to get to the hospital.”
And before she could say another word I was out the door, had seized Gladys's handlebars, and was pedaling homewards.
Even as I turned in at the Mulford Gates and rode along the avenue of bare chestnut trees, Buckshaw seemed strangely quietâas if it had been abandoned.
Although it was not the busiest place in Bishop's Lacey, there was often someone coming or going, whether it be Mrs. Mullet or the postman, a delivery van or the occasional taxi.
Now it stood strangely bare and silent. No taxi was parked on the gravel sweep, as it ought to have been if we were going to Hinley and the hospital.
I parked Gladys and opened the front door.
Silence. I cocked my head and made use of my near-supernaturally acute hearingâa sometimes troublesome trait I had inherited from my late mother, Harriet.
Not a sound. The house was perfectly quiet.
I walkedâtiptoed, actuallyâto the center of the foyer and listened again.
The bloodcurdling two-toned yodel seemed to be coming from all directions.
Something heavy struck me between the shoulders, and down I went, tumbling ace over teakettle, onto the floor in a heap.
“Caught you!” Undine shrieked. “I'm Tarzan of the Apes and you're a marauding warthog.”
Winded, I rolled over and lay on my back, staring up dazedly at a long, heavy rope, which was now swinging lazily to and fro in the foyer. It seemed to be attached high above, to one of the upper staircases.
“What are you doing?” I demanded furiously. “I might have been badly injured. You might have broken my spine. What are you doing rigging up a rope in the house? I'm going to tell on you.”
This was rather a weak threat, and I think Undine sensed it. With Father in hospital, there was really no one in authority to report her
“To Dogger,” I added.
“Ha!” she said. “Dogger already knows. He helped me rig up the rope.”
I reeled back as if slapped in the face.
Dogger? Rigging a rope for Undine to play her childish games?
My mind refused to process the thought. It was as useless as if some comic farmer had tried to get a tractor started by stuffing hay into the petrol tank.
“I don't believe you,” I said.
“It's true, Miss Flavia,” Dogger said quietly. He had suddenly appeared behind me in the way he sometimes does.
“Miss Undine was very much missing her homeland and her mother. I thought that if we could re-create something of the former, if not theâ”
“Thank you, Dogger,” I interrupted. “I understand.”
Even though I did not. There were probably good enough reasons for his betrayal, but I was not yet ready to be pacified.
Undine's mother, the late Lenaâof the Cornwall de Lucesâhad brought her to Buckshaw from Singapore before coming to a grisly end here in the parish church.
What a vine-swinging ape-man could possibly have in common with Singapore was beyond me; perhaps the recently rigged rope served only to remind the child of Johnny Weismuller films she had attended with her mother in happier days.
Meanwhile, the rope swung slowly and accusingly back and forth between us, like an awkward stage prop in one of those tiresome mystery plays in London's West End.
For just an instant it reminded me of another rope: the oneâor onesâby which the late Mr. Sambridge was suspended in his bedroom at Thornfield Chase, but before I could focus upon it more sharply, the thought was gone.
“Miss Undine has been looking forward for quite some time to surprising you,” Dogger said.
didn't I?” Undine crowed. “Come on, Flavia, admit it. I scared the stuffing out of you, didn't I?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “You certainly did.”
I was seized by the sudden and inexplicable urge to sweep this lonely little girl up into my arms and hug her until the jelly came out, but luckily, I was able to suppress it. The de Luce blood is stronger, after all, than sentiment.
What was coming over me? I wondered. Was my brain going soft?
Would I soon be reduced to one of those gibbering idiots said to be locked away in a walled-up tower room by so many of our titled English families?
Although homesickness can take many forms, one's eventual homecoming can be even more terrifying than being away. Could it be one of those illnesses Dogger had once told me about, in which the cure is far worse than the disease?
I was thinking not so much of Undine as myself.
“I suppose I'd better go powder my nose and get ready for the hospital,” I said, trying desperately to make light of an otherwise awkward situation.
“I'm afraid we'll not be going today,” Dogger said quietly. “Matron feels that Colonel de Luce needs his rest, and Dr. Darby agrees.”
The taste of disappointment in the mouth is more bitter than gall: more bitter even than brucine or strychnine, which are two of the most sour substances known to humankind.
My fury was incandescent. I felt as if I were going to burst into flames: as if I were about to spontaneously combust. I hardly dared draw another breath for fear of fanning the fire.
Where, then, did the power come fromâthe power that made me nod wisely as if I were in full agreement? The power that made me float as gracefully up the staircase as if I were Vivien Leigh in powdered wig and silk brocade?
Don't tell me there are no such things as miracles.
I know better.
I was lying on my bed with my hands clasped behind my head. As sometimes happens when you're frustrated, snippets of verse kept popping, one after another, into my head:
O Timballoo! How happy we are
When we live in a sieve and a crockery-jar!
Edward Lear had written that, and Mr. Lear was a very wise man. Living in a sieve and a crockery jar was a near-perfect description of my present situation. Shakespeare himself couldn't have phrased it better.
When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.
This one was Robert Louis Stevenson.
As a child, I had thought it was a nursery rhyme about burying someone on the beach, but was disappointed to be told that it was merely about puttering in the stupid sand.
Crispian Crumpet had built sand castles, too, hadn't he, in those books by Oliver Inchbald? Like a grave digger, Crispian was always doing something with shovels.
Crispian Crumpet is digging a hole
Down by the garden wall.
“Where will it take you?” I ask him politely.
“To China,” he says, “Or Bengal.”
“What will you do when you get there?” I ask him
Down by the garden wall.
“I shall buy tigers or tea,” he says brightly
“Or a red rubber rug for the hall.”
Why had Mr. Sambridge kept immaculate first editions of this nauseous drivel on his bedside table? And why was Carla Sherrinford-Cameron's name inked into one of them?
Had Carla killed the old wood-carver? It seemed unlikely, but stranger things had happened, as I knew all too well, not only from listening to the detective adventures of Philip Odell on the wireless, but also from my own life.
Was there some hidden link between the girl and the owner of Thornfield Chase? Could he possibly be her grandfather?
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the doorknob being rattled. Since Dogger didn't rattle doorknobs, I had already worked out who it was most likely to be.
“Go away!” I said.
“Open the door,” came Undine's voice.
I just knew it!
“Go away. I'm sleeping.”
“Let me in, Flavia. It's vitally urgent.”
I couldn't help smiling.
“Just a minute,” I said. I took my time about letting her in.
“I'm sorry if I discommoded you,” she said. “Abu used to say that âdiscommoded' was when you shoved someone off the loo. She was being facetious, of course.”
“Abu” was the name she had called her mother back home in Singapore. “Possibly,” I said. “What do you want?”
“Feely promised to take me to the Advent concert at St. Tancred's, but now she's begged off with a headache. She ought to marry Dieter and sort it out for once and for all.”
“Hmmm,” I said. I didn't want to become involved in Feely's love strategyânot, at least, through Undine.
“The concert begins at half two,” Undine said. “They're having gingerbread for the children and oolong tea for the grown-ups. I adore oolong tea. You can pilfer some for me.”