As the following morning wore on I found myself becoming increasingly infuriated with my aunt. When I had first woken up it had been merely a tiny flame and I was still able to think of other things such as how delightful my quaint little room was. The beams in the ceiling were particularly lovely, as well as the leaded Tudor windows. A fluffy carpet covered the wooden floor, the bed had beautiful hangings and the writing desk was polished until it shone. The room also had an adjoining bathroom. All of it was very comfortable to say the least, if not as grand as that which I was accustomed to.
However, by the time breakfast was to be served, which was at nine (my aunt did keep very early hours), I was nearly boiling with rage. Who did she think she was? I could not countenance it a moment longer, I thought as I flounced down the stairs.
Fernandez was waiting at the bottom for me and he showed me into the dining room.
‘Oh good morning, dear niece,’ Phyllida greeted me when I entered the room.
‘Good morning.’ My voice sounded fierce even to my own ears and in other circumstances I might have been embarrassed at its harshness but this time I was filled with a righteously burning fire.
‘Is something the matter?’ my aunt asked casually while putting jam on a piece of toast. Well, there was no sense in avoiding the subject, so I replied honestly.
‘Yes, actually. Truly, who do you think you are, aunt, traipsing around the country-side pretending to solve crimes?’
Her eyes could not have become any wider. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Yes! You may have money enough to involve yourself in such pastimes at your leisure, but it’s certainly very cruel to do so at the expense of the poor people who get tangled into your delusion.’
She actually sputtered and seemed to get tea stuck in her throat. A horrified Fernandez hurried into the room and began, to my astonishment, to support her and pound her back in an attempt to assist her in coughing the drops away. Finally she regained her breath and turned to me with tears streaming down her cheeks. Impatiently she swiped at them with a napkin.
‘Thank you, Fernandez. What would I do without you?’ Her expression became thoughtful once she had taken a new sip of tea and calmed down a little. ‘Is that what you think?’
‘Why, yes, I believe I just made clear what I think. It seems to me you believe yourself to be some sort of… lady Sherlock Holmes? What on earth gives you the impression you have the knowledge to solve crimes, and take honest people’s money for your services? It’s ludicrous to believe some amateur lady is able to solve crimes which baffle the police force!’
‘Oh my dear girl, but this is entirely my fault!’ she burst out with true emotion while filling my cup herself with steaming tea. ‘Please, begin your meal and let me explain, but first let me assure you your accusations, though realistic and, I know, coming from a place of consideration for your fellow men and women, nonetheless are completely false.’
I almost felt slightly guilty when she phrased the words so utterly reasonable, though I was not yet prepared to admit any wrong. Still very much suspicious I nonetheless sat back with my tea and a buttered piece of toast.
‘Now, I shall tell you. As you know both your mother and I inherited an obscene amount of money from our father when he passed away. Your mother still chose to marry, but I had no desire in that for myself. Neither did I need it, after all there is plenty of money to support myself to live in luxury for the rest of my life.’ She interrupted herself with a sip of tea. ‘I needed to find other things to do with said life rather than raise a family, and that’s how I ended up in Britain. Perhaps you haven’t reached that line yet, but there are only so many items you can buy with money before you lose interest. For me that point came a long, long time ago and I no longer knew what to do with my time. At that point there was a crime committed where I lived back then, and mind you this is twenty years ago, and the police were unable to solve the case. I was distraught, because nobody could help, or so I thought. The chief inspector there had the sense to call on help in the form of a remarkable man called Ignatius Paul Pollaky. Mister Pollaky was a private detective and had one of the keenest minds I have ever encountered. It’s true he had retired several years before that, but thanks to a kind heart he nonetheless agreed to help with the case.’
Despite myself I was intrigued by her story and realised I had been chewing the same bite of toast for quite some time. I hurriedly swallowed. Aunt Phyllida kept giving her account.
‘In any case, he managed to solve it all. I was impressed beyond belief with his capabilities and once everything was settled I begged him to please take me on as a pupil. He taught me a great deal, though I also studied under Mister Charles Norris, Alexandre Lacassagne and Bernard Spilsbury. That, darling girl, is what I have been doing since I left the States. I should have told you yesterday, after all you must have the same kind of brain as I have. Truly, I should have realised you would question this.’
She smiled at me and I began to blush. The colour simply crept up my face and when it reached my lips I could no longer keep silent.
‘Oh I am so sorry, aunt. I was simply so scared you might injure people by some… some fancy of yours!’
‘No, I understand, really, I do. I would have questioned in the same way. Let’s talk no more about it, alright?’
‘Alright!’ I nodded. It was now much easier to continue with the rest of the meal. Fancy that, I thought, my aunt really was a true detective. Speaking about that… ‘How did you come up with the name, anyway? The Old Herring Detective Bureau is rather, well, unusual. Not what one would think a detective business to be referred to.’
She looked at me and that twinkle I was already a bit wary of entered her eyes. ‘I like herrings. They’re quite pretty, not to mention tasty. Yet, few people pay them homage. I figured they ought to long for their own recognition by now, don’t you think?’
I was stunned and unable to reply. Fortunately she took pity on me that one time and without warning the room was filled with her tinkling laugh. ‘Dear girl, it simply is too much fun to watch people’s reactions when I tell them the name! Though, I do actually like pickled herring now and then.’ She reached for the tea-pot and poured herself some more. ‘So, what would you like to do while you are here? There are a fair amounts of sights in this country which are quite lovely. I believe there is even arranged tours in Jane Austen’s footsteps, to towns important to her in some way. They are said to be lovely, and very relaxing.’
‘I don’t know if relaxing is what I need the most, to tell the truth. Perhaps what I need is also to keep busy.’ Phyllida’s eyes creased in sympathy with my words.
‘Miss Kynaston?’ Fernandez had glided into the room and held an envelope in his hand. ‘This just came for you, Miss.’
‘Very good, Fernandez, thank you.’ She quickly opened it and read. ‘Why, Matilda, it seems you might be kept busy after all! We have been invited to that girl Clarissa’s dance tonight. News travels fast, it seems.’
‘Oh not that fast. We were briefly sharing a train compartment yesterday, though I am not certain how she found out I was staying here. I never mentioned I was visiting you.’
‘I believe she has some powers of deduction of her own, darling. Would you like to attend? It begins at eight o’clock this evening.’
I shrugged. ‘Why not? It could prove interesting.’ The toast really was most delightful, I figured while auntie returned to reading her newspaper. Now, what should I wear for the night?
‘My my, I didn’t see this coming,’ Phyllida exclaimed softly with her eyes glued to the page before her. I felt my stomach clench. Had the news about me spread this far so quickly, despite my beliefs on the contrary? I need not have feared, however, it was not about me at all. ‘Tsar Alexander’s daughter, that Anastasia, is getting married.’
‘Really?’ I asked, interest piqued. It would have been marvellous to attend such a wedding.
‘Yes, they don’t reveal to who. I’m glad though, it was a close call there for a while, with the Bolsheviks. Personally I am rather pleased the Tsar managed to rally in the end.’
I nodded in agreement. It had been all over the news last year, how the Tsar family had been taken hostage and things had indeed been looking grim, when they managed to stage a genius counter-attack involving some very interesting new electrical inventions.
I was just beginning to get into the spirit of a relaxing breakfast in a beautiful dining room, this too in Tudor style which I had not noticed when I arrived in a rage, when aunt scared me so badly I nearly fell off the chair.
She suddenly slammed her hand down onto the table surface.
‘Damn it! Pickled herring, pickled, pickled… yes! I should have seen it coming as soon as I tasted those pickled onions!’ She exclaimed while looking slightly mad.
‘What?’ I imagine my eyes were like saucers.
‘Yes! Of course, devious man! Such a cunning trick, but of course the treasure is in the boat house!’ She pointed her tea-spoon at me and accentuated each word with a violent stabbing of the air with the same spoon.
‘The treasure is in the where now?’
‘The boat house, girl, do try to keep up.’
‘What on earth are you on about?’ I got up as she got to her own feet.
‘It’s too much to explain, but I have to go to York at once.’
‘Because I have solved a crime!’ she said triumphantly, waving the spoon in the air, and began bustling around. I followed her out of the dining room and into the parlour.
‘But you had breakfast? How can you sit and relax and… read about the Tsar while having a crime unsolved?’
‘Oh dear Matilda it doesn’t do to work oneself up into a tizzy. Breakfast is a very important meal. Besides, what could I have done anyway at a lull in the investigation? Though now it is all so clear! Fernandez, tell the maid to lay out some clothes, quickly, please! Oh, and do bring this spoon back to the kitchen.’ She gave the spoon to the man who did not have a hair out of place, and whose face did not give away the slightest thought that my aunt may, indeed, be mad as a hatter. A second later she had opened a cabinet and brought forth a pearl handled revolver. I quickly took a step back.
‘Goodness, don’t be silly, Matilda. It’s not loaded – yet!’ With that she hurried up the stairs while I remained, stunned. A couple of minutes later I heard her descend once more. Somehow she had managed to get dressed and have her hair and make-up done. This was a feat I would never master like she had. ‘I’ll take the car, expect me back this evening if all goes well.’
‘But the dance?’
‘Hm, yes. Oh, Fernandez will just have to accompany you and introduce you. Unconventional, I know, but we are eccentrics so I believe nobody will even bat an eyelid. Now,’ she said, kissing my cheeks loudly, ‘do your best to make a lasting impression, my dear. See you soon!’
The door closed behind her and she was gone. I was left alone in the hallway of a house I did not own, in a country I did not know and twelve hours later I would find myself investigating a crime I had no idea how to solve.