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Chapter Eleven – No Tea with a Murderess

I had never truly set foot in a pet store before, pets being something which my family in the States simply did not busy themselves with. They considered them time-consuming and messy, and to an extent I suppose this is accurate. After all a dog may carry on its person a certain amount of sand or mud and I was, as previously mentioned, fast finding out just how much time a puppy like Sigurd required. However, both of these facts did not, in truth, discourage me or make me feel as if the effort was not worth it. I would have to have a talk with my mother about this, I thought, since I really believed that a dog about the house would be good for her and father. Perhaps I could even arrange to have one delivered to them, if I contacted a kennel in the States. Maybe that would channel my dear father’s energy into something else than taking the gun out at every available excuse. I smiled weakly at the thought of my parents taking a dog out in sport outfits, but everything was possible these days. At least that was the sentiment present after the war.

In any case, the interior of a pet store was completely novel to me. There were pet accessories everywhere, and along one of the walls I spotted several tanks of different fish. In a room at the back I could see cages containing birds and, what I suspected to be, small animals like mice and rats. I was carrying Sigurd inside, so I could choose the right size of the collar, and at sensing all the smells in there he perked up and sniffed the air.

I wanted to explore the entire thing from top to bottom but that would not have been fair on Phyllida who waited outside. The whole business was conducted rather efficiently and only a few minutes later I was once again in my aunt’s car, a leather collar, connected to a leather leash, around Sigurd’s neck. The collar had several notches so he would be able to keep using it as he grew older. Right now he did not seem to like it all too much as he kept trying to scratch at it with one of his paws.

‘No, Sigurd, stop that nonsense,’ I told him though I am not at all that sure he understood what I meant. Even if he did not, he ceased his pawing and the rest of the ride to Delia Keighley’s house went smoothly.

It was at the edge of the town but unlike the place I had visited the previous evening this was not large or luxurious. Instead it was a small and modest building; old, but not decrepit and we stopped the car outside the wooden gates. Together we exited the vehicle and began walking up the little gravelled path to the front door.

There was a subdued air around the home, so even if it had rather recently been re-painted in a bright red, it looked all but cheerful. This was not odd at all considering the events of last night. I imagine anybody might feel a bit blue after their husband-to-be is unexpectedly murdered. Even if the murder was expected I think it would still be enough cause to feel less inclined toward laughter, if I was to be honest. Unless you had not liked the man to begin with, of course, in which case it might be a welcome course of events. Then I had to draw the conclusion that whatever else may or may not be insinuated about miss Delia Keighley, she had been fond of her husband. I stopped my thoughts since they were going a bit too deep into these very strange ponderings.

While we walked up the little path I could see movement by the kitchen curtain. Someone was home then, at least. On the other hand, where would they go a day like this? My aunt barely had time to raise a hand to knock on the wooden door before it opened before us by a woman who looked a lot like an older version of Delia’s sister Anita, though she had chestnut coloured hair rather than red. The same grey eyes honed in on my aunt before a pale hand ushered us inside.

‘Thank goodness, Phyllida! You have no idea how many gossip-mongers have been skulking around out here today.’

‘Thank you, Minny,’ my aunt replied.

I was surprised there were not people outside her house right now, but perhaps the British were more discreet in their hunt for scandal and gossip. I doubt the small detail of someone’s death would discourage people in America. We hurried inside, Sigurd still in my arms and Patrick bouncing along at our feet. Once in the hallway I put Sigurd down on the floor.

‘You can let him go, this isn’t one of those posh places you know. Not a lot can be ruined by a puppy.’ Her words were accentuated by a smile which led me to believe she did not mind this too much. Perhaps she was happy in her little cottage, I mused, that is, before all this took place. So I unleashed Sigurd who began exploring the place and to my great pride, even if I doubt it was anything I had brought out in him, he did not seem inclined to chew on any furniture or rugs.

‘Please, do come and sit down for tea. When I saw you out the window I put the kettle on. It should be ready in no-time. I’ll call down my daughters as well.’

‘Perhaps you should let them be, at least Delia? This can’t be easy on her, poor girl. How old is she now?’

My aunt’s voice was filled with real sympathy and I realised that this was something she was involved in personally. Obviously I should have guessed this as soon as I was presented with the fact that my Phyllida and Minny were on first name-terms, but I had been too caught up in my own thoughts just then.

‘No, no, oh I don’t know. One minute I think that is indeed best, she is devastated, but then I think it’s better to get her up from the bed.’ She looked at us imploringly. ‘I’ll call them down for tea. If she doesn’t want to stay she can always return upstairs.’

Phyllida nodded her agreement and Minny called softly up the stairs to her girls. Meanwhile we sat down by a table in the kitchen. It, too, was very unlike previous tables I had sat by. Aunt Phyllida’s table was rustic but still elegant and well-polished whereas the one at home was graceful with flowing lines, seeming to strive upwards where it stood on the dining room floor. This, by contrast, was just rustic. Its surface bore the signs of long-time use with scratches and marks, each almost like a scar and representing times gone by. I could imagine family dinners when the sisters had been children, and how, perhaps, they had sometimes marked the table on purpose whereas other times it had been by accident. In any case the wood told a story and I wished I had my aunt’s sense for detail, then maybe I could interpret it.

The scent of the brewing tea was spreading in the room just when Anita and her mysterious sister Delia came down the stairs. The previous evening I had been struck by Anita’s fierce beauty but that was shadowed by her sister. Delia’s eyes shone green, not grey, and not even the tears she had shed had dulled their glow. Anita’s hair was a bit unruly but Delia’s was sleek and a deep fiery red, in beautiful contrast to the black she wore. Her skin was pale, paler than her mother’s or sister’s, and flawless. She also sported a rather large belly, proving her delicate state. She was clearly in, as some people persisted in saying, ‘the family way’.

While walking into the kitchen she was supported on her sister’s arm and nodded tiredly at me and Phyllida. As soon as she sat down Sigurd appeared out of, seemingly, thin air and pressed his nose against one of her hands which she used to support her belly. She started slightly but then looked down into his eyes and suddenly she gave a little smile. There really was something healing with puppies, I thought, remembering my own broken heart. Her mother set down cups in front of us and my aunt produced a cake in a tin which I had been unaware she had in her bag. Phyllida introduced me briefly and then a heavy air settled in the room.

For a little while all was silent before my aunt spoke.

‘Delia, I am so sorry for you loss.’ Her voice was gentle in a way I had not really heard before.

‘Thank you,’ Delia replied very silently.

‘I’m sorry we’re here to disturb your grief but there will be a lot of speculation and frankly we are your best chance at disolving them. That superintendent will no doubt pop by later on this afternoon or tomorrow and he will be certain of your guilt.’ Delia’s eyes widened.

‘I didn’t kill him! I loved him, he’s the father of my child! Was the father… we were going to get married.’

Now her eyes were like green fire because of the outrageous accusation and I became convinced in my very soul that this woman was innocent. She could have nothing to do with her husband-to-be’s death, anymore than I had. I also knew, however, that because of her scandalous state combined with her looks, people would long to find her guilty. It was a bit like those witchhunts of old.

‘Well, darling,’ Phyllida said slowly while sipping on her tea, ‘people will say that he was only going to marry you because you were pregnant with his child. Then they will continue down that road and wonder if it is, indeed, his child you are carrying.’

Delia paled and I wondered if my aunt had gone to far but Anita put her hand on her sister’s. ‘She’s only speaking the truth, sister.’

Delia kept her eyes on the steaming tea in her cup while she spoke again. ‘His parents are rich, well, he was also. As you can see, I am not. We don’t really want for much, we’re doing fairly well, but it’s not possible to say we’re wealthy. His parents refused to let us marry, so we took a risk, to my mother’s horror. If I became pregnant then a marriage to avoid scandal… we figured they would probably want that rather than a bastard child. It took them months to come around but in the end they did, and just then he is murdered…’

It was too much for her and she broke down crying again, but not into the sobbing and heaving kind, but in an elegant sort of way and we quickly made our excuses and left. Since then I have never encountered anybody else able to cry so elegantly as miss Delia Keighley. 

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Chapter Ten – In Which Matilda Discovers the Ruthlessness of Women

Being faced with the realisation that somebody has, without your permission, been where you are sleeping is possibly one of the most unsettling sensations one might encounter. There is no telling what might have taken place while you were not there, and neither do you truly know what the intention was. Did the person breaking in intend to harm you, or merely threaten you? Did they indeed mean to visit while you were away to get a chance to go through your belongings, or had they hoped for something more?

Seeing the state of my room I yelled for my aunt.

‘Phyllida, come quickly! Phyllida!’

She ran up the stairs, though very silently I must say. At arriving she first shushed me.

‘Darling niece, whatever is the matter? Please, be reasonable or you shall wake the entire house. Then who will make the breakfast in the morning if the cook is too tired to get out of bed? One needs one’s priorities straight, my girl oh goodness me! What on earth has happened?’

‘Well, Phyllida, it seems someone has tried to find something of mine, though I have no idea what.’ I took a bit of pride in sounding so calm, as if this did not affect me in the slightest.

‘I say! In my house!’

My aunt really was quite upset though we both realised it was too late to do much about it that evening. She asked if I wanted to stay in another room for the night but I said no and together we cleaned up the worst of the mess quickly, so I could sleep more or less peacefully in the bed which, thankfully, had remained untouched. If some stranger had moved the sheets around I could never sleep in it unless all of them were changed – at least.

‘There, darling Matilda, will you be alright now? I will ask the maid to help you clean the rest up tomorrow. Do make certain to be here while she does, so that you can spot at once if something is missing. I will speak to Fernandez as well about the security of this place, and how the culprit got inside. This simply does not do!’

Sigurd, who had curled up on his blankets, cracked an eyelid open at her words. I realised the little fellow might have been upstairs, in this room even, when the villain entered, and shuddered at the thought. It seemed my aunt had read my thoughts because she shuddered a slight second after and put a hand on my arm. Her eyes were burning with something I had not seen earlier and I became aware that she was furious. The colour was high in her cheeks, or at least on her prominent cheek-bones though her lips were all but white.

‘I will catch them, whoever they are, Matilda.’ It was a rare thing for her to not put an endearment in front of my name. She must be cross indeed. ‘If I have to sit here with a rifle myself the next time they enter, then I will do so, and believe me, I won’t hesitate to shoot.’

‘Aunt!’

‘No. I might be an eccentric, peaceful most of the time, but when someone threatens those I care about, under my protection, then things change.’

Looking at her face, I was reminded of a warrior and I did not doubt a single one of her words. Oddly enough, I had rarely felt more protected. She was not a large woman, not a soldier, but right then she looked ruthless and I knew that she would rather die than let anybody get to me. My heart swelled at once at this and before I knew it I felt my lips draw back a little and I stared into her eyes, mine burning with an equal fire.

‘Phyllida, I will join you in the hunt.’

It is said that men fight all the time and women do not. This is true, but it is often forgotten that on certain occasions women may also set aside their peace and that is if something dear to them is threatened. I think it is so that men fight to fight, though when women fight they fight to kill. This is what my aunt, and also, I realised, what I intended. I went to bed after that realisation and despite my room having been broken into I fell asleep almost instantly. It is true I discovered in the weeks following that I am much braver than I had thought previously, but that did not mean I had not been affected by all the goings-on of the day. After all, it had been my first day in this town.

The following morning I slept rather late and even though my aunt is an early-bird on normal occasions she had also slept an hour or so longer than usual. This was lucky, since it meant there was still breakfast on the table when Sigurd and I came downstairs. Before I sat down I had to, of course, take the little darling out in the garden and he happily relieved himself. When I had found him he had spent the day resting and eating but now he seemed fully recovered and after having conducted his business, he wanted to play. Since I had not yet eaten I was not likewise enthusiastic, but I promised him that after our morning meal we would go out in the garden again and play like he wanted. He did not reply to this, for which I was rather grateful. I am not certain what I would do if my dog suddenly started to utter human words.

I came back inside and sat down at table. Like the previous day it was loaded with all manner of things for breakfast; eggs, bread slices ready to toast, several kinds of marmalade and cheese and sweet cakes for a kind of breakfast dessert which my aunt seemed most fond of. Of course there was also a large pot of tea beneath a cover to keep it warm for longer. I poured myself a large cup and finished it off with a splash of milk before I put a couple of slices of toast in the toaster. Thank goodness the bread was turned automatically these days, though I felt there was a lot of room for improvement on the market still.

When the toast was ready I buttered it generously and made sure to spread the jam evenly. I also added a bit of cheese on top. It was funny really. In the states I had been very careful with what I ate and I had watched my figure a lot but since arriving at Phyllida’s house I had not bothered in the slightest. I wondered if that was to be the norm for the continuance of my stay here, and supposed it was a bit early to establish after a mere two days spent on the isles. As I put the cheese on the toast there was suddenly a ‘Mrf!’ from the chair opposite and I startled. Then I saw that it was Patrick who had uttered the very demanding noise and now he was staring intently at the cheese.

‘Patrick, what manners!’ Phyllida exclaimed and gave the dog a stern look. He did not seem affected at all but merely kept on staring at the cheese. My aunt sighed. ‘Alright, alright. Here, have a slice.’

She cut a piece and gave it to Patrick who gobbled it down. A couple of days ago I am certain this would have made me quite outraged but now I only shrugged and returned to my own meal. Honestly, it did not really alter the course of the world should my aunt’s dog be fed cheese at the table. I think a frightful lot more is required in order to accomplish that.

‘We should visit Delia today,’ my aunt said after having reassured herself I was peacefully eating my breakfast.

‘Aren’t we waiting for Darby to, well, come to his senses?’

‘Pfft!’ she snorted. ’We have no time for that. Maybe if your room hadn’t been searched we would, but what if the crimes are somehow connected? You never know with these things and I’d rather be a step ahead of the person responsible.’

I stared at her. ‘Why do you suppose they are connected?’

‘Well, they might not be, but it’s a rather large coincidence, isn’t it?’

‘But why would anybody think I had something to do with it, or something to use against someone committing it? I suppose those are our only two routes as to the reason.’

‘Indeed.’ My aunt looked impressed at the display of my skills in applying reason. ‘Who knows? People are far from reasonable most of the time. Perhaps they imagine you do have some shred of evidence, such as the weapon used for the stabbing, or even a photograph, or that you spotted someone who left the scene mere seconds before you arrived! In these circumstances it is always hard to tell and I want to find out as soon as possible.’

I nodded, thinking fast. ‘In that case I’ll get ready as soon as possible and we can visit this Delia and see how she fares. It is important to have a look through my belongings of course, but this seems to me to be more urgent. I mean to say, after all, it is only proper seeing as we saw the body of her husband-to-be yesterday, to ask how she is doing. If we find things out about the crime itself in the meantime, that will simply be a happy coincidence. Not even Darby can have something to say against that!’

‘My darling niece, why, you begin to think like a professional sleuth already! I knew it was the right choice to ask you to become my assistant!’

I blushed a little at her praise but was certainly pleased. The temptation of some day-dreaming was simply too great and I saw before my inner eye how I would return to New York an accomplished detective and Nestor Bloxam would be shocked to the very core of his being. So would my mother be, I imagined, as would my best friend. Previously it had been most important for me to fit in the social norm but now I quite enjoyed envisioning how I went outside the same.

When breakfast was done I hurried upstairs and got ready for the day, wearing a dress in a lovely shade of blue. It was only the beginning of April but it was an unusually warm season so it already felt as if it was summer. Sigurd looked at me tragically and I remembered my promise to him, realising it would not come true today. That was not such a great start really, breaking the promise to a dog you had barely had for a day, even. So I decided he should come with us while we conducted our enquiries to soften the blow a little.

‘Who knows,’ I told him, ‘it might even help poor Delia if you were to come along. I have heard it said that animals can help in ways which are rather surprising indeed.’

At the sound of my voice the little fellow began wagging his tail with vigour and I was suddenly grateful to myself for this idea. It meant he would be tired come evening, as I had just begun to understand how much energy a puppy, in truth, had.

When we once again came downstairs, me first and then Sigurd following suit, my aunt was already ready and waiting for us in the hallway. She looked like she was born well-dressed and I wondered, not for the last time, how she managed to carry out such a feat so quickly. Fernandez was waiting, hovering close-by with a lovely summer jacket at hand.

‘Splendid, darling Matilda. You’re all set to go.’ Then she spotted Sigurd plastered to my legs. ‘And I see the little one is coming with us.’

It was not really a question but I nodded anyway.

‘Quite alright, Patrick is coming with us too.’

As she said this I spotted Patrick calmly sitting by the door. When he felt my eyes upon him he chirruped at me. As usual I was shocked, it simply was not the way a dog should sound! Though the shock was not quite genuine, I found. It seemed my young dog wanted to make absolutely certain he was not to be left behind like yesterday evening, because not even the presence of Patrick could lure him off. I had no doubts the maid had looked after him splendidly, but I think he had begun associating me with, well, his carer and he was determined to remain in my close vicinity henceforth. I briefly touched the thought of what I should do once it was time to again cross the Atlantic since I was not at all sure Sigurd would like New York, but any such ponderings were too painful to delve further into. How could I be so very fond of him already?

With time I would come to understand that it is something with puppies which makes you give away your heart without a further thought, but back then I was still a bit too young to understand. Perhaps it is their utter helplessness but also their great promise that any love you give them will be given back in even greater quantities. There is nothing which can beat the utter ferocity with which a dog can love.

I picked Sigurd up and carried him to the car which my aunt drove out to the road beside the house. He snuggled close to me and was content to simply come with me, without any need to do much more. I imagine other dogs might need to be entertained constantly at such an outing, especially as puppies, but not Sigurd. It was obvious to me that he was a very special creature, certainly more intelligent than other dogs.

‘Phyllida,’ I said as we drove down the road. ‘Is there a pet store on the way? I should like to buy a collar and a leash for Sigurd, to keep him in before he is fully trained.’

I could already see before me how glorious he would look when he did no longer need a leash to be restrained, but would walk beside me of his own accord.

‘Why yes, we’ll stop on our way over to Delia’s. It’s just around the next corner.’

To my surprise I was very excited to be on my way to my first inquiry and I could barely sit still in the car, but made an effort. I was soon to find it was not as easy as I had thought, though no less interesting.

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Chapter Nine – Strawberry Pies and Assistand Detectives

It was not all that late once we arrived back at my aunt’s home, seeing as the ball had ended rather early due to the events taking place. Even so Phyllida did not want to disturb the cook so she put water on the stove for tea herself. I was only momentarily surprised she was planning the tea superintendent Darby had suggested, but then remembered she had resided in this country for quite some time. She was bound to take after one or two customs, at least she chose a pleasant one. To my annoyance the thought of Darby had a much too intense effect on me and I told myself to get a grip.

While the water was boiling my aunt rummaged through the cupboards and produced several kinds of sweet treats. There were a couple of kinds of biscuits and pieces of pie in a metal tin, as well as what looked like a marvellously tasty pudding. My stomach rumbled a bit and I was reminded that there had never been any dinner served at the ball, though I did feel a bit bad about how unappreciative I was of the fact.

‘Hah!’ I could hear her muttering as she put the treats on the table. ‘I knew there would be more cakes hidden in here, even if the cook swears she has cut down on the baking. Though I have no idea why someone would want to do that. I was certainly not the one to order her do any such nonsense. When has some cake hurt anybody?’

I could do nothing but agree and to my delight Phyllida also found some sandwiches lurking about, with my favourite chicken and mayonnaise filling. My mouth was watering at the sight of them and I had to restrain my hands in order to not tuck in at once. It would be rather rude, I thought, without the tea finished and my aunt seated. Luckily, in a few minutes a steaming cup was set before me and the rich aroma from it even made me draw a breath of pleasure. I had come to appreciate the near instantaneous sense of comfort a well-brewed cup could bring, and splashed a bit of milk into it. With a tiny shudder I took a sip and immediately became aware of how tense I was. It did not surprise me and so I let it be even if I longed fiercely for my bed, or rather the one aunt Phyllida provided me. I did not, however, wish to lie down in it with an empty stomach. With grateful abandon I picked up one of the sandwiches and took a large bite.

‘My my my,’ my aunt exclaimed softly while sitting down opposite me, watching me chew. ‘I didn’t expect that to happen, at least not during your first ball.’

‘Did you expect it at all?’ I asked, rather incredulous, once I had finished my first mouthful. I felt better already, and was to my surprise not particularly affected by the murder, at least not appetite-wise. Just then I heard a soft padding and suddenly felt something wet being pressed against my calf. I jerked back and looked down to see a pair of glimmering eyes. Little Sigurd stared back at me, sleepy but intent on remaining at my side. I picked him up and placed him on my lap, where he happily curled up and fell asleep, uttering a sigh of contentment.

‘Ah, that is the dog the staff mentioned when I brought home the car?’ Phyllida leaned forward to try to get a better look, which was not the easiest of tasks. A black dog is not soon spotted in a darkened room, and at the moment there were only a couple of candles lit at the table.

‘Yes, I found him down by the river today. The poor thing, somebody had just left him there inside a sack. If it wasn’t for Patrick I don’t think I would have noticed it at all. Where is Patrick, anyway?’

‘Oh, I expect he’s upstairs sleeping. He has never been very fond of drama. Bless him, he has always been a wise dog, that one. As to your other question,’ she continued while leaning back again. I took the opportunity to take another bite of my sandwich and could see Sigurd sniff after it in his sleep. ‘No I hadn’t exactly expected something like this to happen. One must at least have faith that an evening can progress without incidents such as this. However, this area seems prone to various mysteries taking place, though I have to say an actual murder is rare. Usually people are just missing, or some property is gone and similar. Perhaps there is something in the air which make people prone to conducting horrible acts? Though, a dead body is… uncommon indeed.’ She took a sip of her tea, looking rather thoughtful though that might just have been a trick played by the flickering candlelight.

‘So what about superintendent Darby’s idea that it was Delia who committed the ghastly crime?’ I asked while nibbling on a ginger biscuit, the worst of my hunger stilled by the sandwich. Sigurd’s nose moved again in his sleep, no doubt catching the scent of this as well.

‘It’s ludicrous, I tell you,’ she said with a sniff. ‘He has agreed to marry her, indeed even proposed it by the sounds of it, so why on earth would she kill him?’

‘Jealousy? Maybe he did have something going on with miss Murdoch? She was awfully fond of him, at least.’

‘How do you know?’ she gave me a sharp stare.

‘She was already in the room with the dead body when I arrived there, asking herself something about what she had done. When she spotted me she ceased it at once, and looked rather ill-at-ease, if I do say so.’

‘I can imagine, that is most peculiar, but Delia committing this sort of crime out of jealousy?’ Phyllida slowly shook her head. ‘No, even if he had I think there needs to be much more at stake for a pregnant woman to up and risk everything. Maybe if her child was threatened…’

‘Though why would he threaten her child? It’s a bit too late for that, everyone already knows it’s his. Wouldn’t it be a bit too conspicuous?’

‘Perhaps he wanted her to have an abortion?’

I stared at Phyllida in shock. ‘Surely not!’

‘You never know, some women do, as is their right. However, the man shouldn’t decide things like that. It could make any woman furious, though I still don’t think she did it, even if he would be that cruel.’

‘How so?’ After all, my aunt had just come up with a rather plausible reason why she could have done it. Now, however, she merely shrugged before she spoke.

‘She’s pregnant. Do you honestly think she would skulk around the country-side, chasing down her husband-to-be to murder him? If she really wanted it,’ she said and tucked into a piece of strawberry pie, ‘she would have done it in the comfort of her own home. Then she could have returned to her tea and cake afterwards, instead of yet again skulk back home. Pregnant women, dear niece, are pragmatic. A dreadful lot of energy is needed to sustain the child inside them, they won’t waste it willingly. At home she could have passed it off as anything from food poisoning to a heart attack or stroke.’

‘Perhaps not…’ I was not convinced. If I was pregnant and found out my husband or husband-to-be had been unfaithful or was threatening me, then surely I would stop at nothing to solve the problem, pregnant or not? Hopefully I would not resort to murder, though.

‘No, believe me on that one.’

‘So what do we do? If Delia didn’t murder him, then who did?’ I asked while stroking Sigurd’s back. He nestled closer to me.

‘Not much we can do, openly. Tomorrow I think we should visit Delia, and if she didn’t do it, well… it’s impossible to know at this stage, I suppose, who would have done it otherwise. There might have been people with a grudge toward her fiancee, I’m thinking. Would that be enough to kill somebody? In any case, she might know about these possible grudges. Also, I am curious of miss Murdoch’s reaction, and it would be rather neat indeed to find out the cause of it. That is, if you are willing to help? After all, you indicated just this morning that nobody should play detective…’

My cheeks burnt at her reminder and of course she was right. I had no knowledge how to solve crimes, so it was only reasonable that I should stay well out of it instead of running around making a mess of the entire thing. She was the professional, not I.

‘You are right, aunt,’ I said with a sigh. She snorted and I looked up with surprise. That was when I spotted the glint in her eye.

‘Don’t be stupid, Matilda, dear. I’m not upset, or anything. You are more than welcome to join me, as my assistant. I won’t let you do anything on your own initiative, but if you like, well,’ she shrugged, ‘you can stay here a while, and become a detective under my tutelage. You would be the first one I pass any knowledge on to. What do you say?’

I stared at her, utterly lost for words. It was an offer I had never thought I would receive in all my life, and completely outrageous. I should be focused on finding a husband and starting a family, not running around the countryside searching for clues. Then again, my heart shuddered at the thought of going back to New York and face the humiliation of having been cast aside before my marriage even began, and what else could I do? I doubted another man in the same social circles would want to enter the holy matrimony with me and choosing someone else would mean I had to marry beneath my station, as everybody was, well, beneath my family. It was too late to apply for the universities for the upcoming autumn and I had never been good at being still and doing nothing. At least this would distract me from any pain I might have still felt. Though of course there was very little pain, if any at all.

All of that only truly took me a few seconds to think through, because I had already more or less decided what I wanted to do. With determination I looked back to my aunt and nodded.

‘Yes, please, and thank you. I would love to become your assistant, and maybe, in time, I would have my own bureau!’

She grinned back at me in response.

‘I knew you were a go-getter, dearest niece. You’ll see how splendid this is, it takes you around the world!’

I yawned at her and realised how terribly tired I was, shattered even. It was no wonder, considering the evening’s events. Phyllida saw this and nodded toward the kitchen door.

‘Go upstairs, girl, we’ll start the real work tomorrow.’

With a smile I cuddled Sigurd securely in my arms and went upstairs, my head filled with images of my mother’s scandalised face as I notified her of my new occupation. I could not help but feel pleased at the prospect, and warmer at heart. This was the first time I had had something completely of my own like this, a dream, a goal that was just mine. Burying my nose in the fur on Sigurd’s head I pushed open the door to my bedroom.

I gasped in shock at my things being strewn over the floor. Someone had been there.

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Chapter Eight – Where Lady Matilda Meets the Insufferable Superintendent Thorburn Darby

Dear Maman,

So much has already happened in this country. I do not know why you thought this would be a restorative visit for me, because as of yet it has proven… much more challenging than such a visit has the right to be. I do not have a lot of time to write, but suffice to say that only two days have passed and I already find myself being the owner of a beautiful little puppy named Sigurd, as well as the-almost-witness to a grisly murder…

Before the evening of Clarissa Murdoch’s party I had never before seen a murdered body. There is a difference between someone simply dying and someone being murdered. Perhaps now you say that of course there is, it is obvious, but before that moment I had never thought about it. Not thinking about it might be a sign of sanity more than anything else, and I briefly wondered how mystery writers such as Sir Doyle managed to carry it all out on the pages. Had he indeed seen murdered people for it to be so… alive on the page? Or did he simply have a ghastly imagination? In any case my reaction was naturally to hurry over to the parlour, but the feeling in there was not one of peace or even absence like I have known death to be on previous occasions. Rather, it felt violent and somehow unfinished.

There was not as much blood as I had always imagined when I thought of such things, which was seldom (I hardly spend my time imagining people being murdered left, right and centre), and the body had been artfully placed in a chair. It looked quite relaxed to be honest, which was very disturbing, though it was quite clear indeed that the man in question had been stabbed to death. His shirt was soaked through with blood, but it had not poured onto the floor. All this I noticed as I squeezed past Fernandez, who stoically tried to prevent me from witnessing such gruesome sights, into the parlour. I was one of the first there, only Clarissa Murdoch had beaten me. She was staring at the corpse, who had been a handsome man in life, and her face had lost any trace of colour. It looked like porcelain. She was also shaking with emotion even if she kept her face under control, and wrung her hands before her.

‘Kenneth, my darling,’ she whispered, ‘what have I done…’

That was when she spotted me and she straightened her spine at once. Her eyes were wide with fear as she realised I must have heard what she was mumbling. My own heart had grown cold at her words. What did they mean? I understood this was the man that she did not want Delia to marry, the one she herself obviously had feelings for even though she had denied any such existence earlier that evening. Now it looked as if she was giving in to remorse.

Just then a man bustled into the room. He was one of the guests, I had seen him in the ballroom earlier. His hair was such a pale blond it was impossible not to notice him in a crowd. Now he had shed his evening jacket and introduced himself as constable Norren.

‘Good thing I was here, then, wasn’t it?’ he pointed out though I was uncertain if it was such a good thing. He seemed quite shaken, indeed, and I wondered what sort of help he was expecting he would be. ‘I have already phoned the station for back-up. We will have this solved in no time, ladies and gents.’

A mumble from the hallway, where I realised everyone was now crowding, was heard at his words. Some people were nodding their heads in approval.

‘Now, miss,’ he said to me, ‘I must ask you to remove yourself from the scene of the crime.’ He had already convinced Clarissa to go and lie down and she had gratefully gone from the room without a glance in my direction. Someone I had assumed to be her mother, given how much they resembled each other, had supported her.

‘Lady,’ Fernandez said pointedly at constable Norren’s words.

‘Pardon me?’ The constable looked confused.

‘You are speaking to a lady, not a miss. This is lady Arkwright.’

‘Oh, I apologise, miss. Lady. Though I must insist you leave the scene at once. This is no place for civilians,’ he puffed his chest out at the word, ‘and certainly not for a lady!’

I looked down my nose at him, he was not a large man, while some commotion took place in the hallway and pondered what I could say to make him give up his hope for my swift departure. At this point I thought I could almost see the hint of a smile on Fernandez’ lips. I soon understood why.

‘Coming through, please, ladies, gents, let me pass. After all,’ the voice said while coming closer, ‘do you honestly trust the police to solve this for you on its own? No no, believe me, they need some proper assistance, yes, for certain.’

Into the parlour flounced the form of my dearest aunt Phyllida, accompanied by Patrick, the dog. He sniffed the air inquiringly, no doubt because he could sense the scent of the blood.

‘Oh, darling niece! Quite a party, I hear.’

‘Quite!’ I said.

‘Mrf!’ said Patrick in greeting. I nodded down at him and wondered how much further I needed to go before I could be said to have lost my mind. What sane person nodded a ‘how do you do?’ to a dog? Then again, I had never really felt saner in all my life, bloody murders notwithstanding. It was as if my life prior to arriving in England had been carried out half-asleep and now my eyes were wide open. A state which was, regardless of the current scenery, much preferable to walking through life as if being un-dead. I enjoyed the feeling and suddenly, in the middle of a room with a dead body, a confused constable, my notorious aunt and her too-human dog, I was left wondering how I would feel the day it was time to go back across the Atlantic. Resolutely, if surprised, I pushed any such thoughts from my mind.

‘Now, Matilda,’ the same aunt interrupted my reverie. ‘Do tell me what has happened. One really can’t even be gone one day without the whole place falling to pieces, can one?’

‘It does seem like it, aunt. Well, I’m not certain how much help I can be. I didn’t witness the murder myself, thankfully. Only a few minutes ago a woman killed the entire ball by announcing the death of this man, not that I say it was bad that she did, of course.’

‘Of course.’

‘I just mean one could have been more tactful about it.’ Phyllida nodded her sympathy. ‘In any case, that is all I know, really.’

‘Not at all, dear girl. Why, you also see clearly that the woman interrupting the party was right when she said this man has been stabbed, and I am certain you will have noticed many additional things. Now, if everybody could leave the room, please, we can begin the initial investigations. No, not you constable. Though I don’t personally approve of the methods of the police, I do believe you ought to stay.’ People began to disperse and soon the hallway was empty even if I could hear the chatter of the guests from a distance. Phyllida went to close the door.

‘So,’ she turned to the constable, ‘mister Norren, what do you believe took place?’

‘Obviously we have some sort of crime of passion, or revenge.’ His voice did not sound as secure as he wanted it to, I think.

‘Obvious is it,’ my aunt replied dryly. ‘Though, I wonder why it took place here. Seeing the recent scandals surrounding miss Keighley it seems strange that mister Plaskett should be present. As far as I know miss Murdoch isn’t fond of Delia in the slightest?’ She looked to me for confirmation and I nodded. ‘So why was her man invited to her ball? And if he wasn’t invited, then why was he here?’

Her eyes bore into the constable and I almost felt sorry for him. He cleared his throat and looked nervous but did not reply. Maybe he did not know, or maybe he was prohibited from relating any findings to my aunt. Though had she not said she was a real detective? They should want her help, I thought. On the other hand, I pondered as I looked her over, I might also be a bit hesitant to convey sensitive information to a woman dressed in some sort of workman’s boots and a raincoat, though she had, if I understood correctly, been forced to visit a boathouse. In that instance her choice of clothes was most sensible, indeed. It seemed constable Norren reached the same conclusion because after a moment more of my aunt’s piercing gaze he relented.

‘We’re not entirely certain, it does seem odd he was present here.’ My aunt nodded just as the door opened and one of the most dashing men I had ever seen sauntered inside. He introduced himself as superintendent Thorburn Darby.

‘Ah, Phyllida, I thought I might see you here.’

Her eyes glittered at his words, like she was a mischievous child up to no-good and to my utmost horror I felt a stab of jealousy. How well did she know this man, were they…? Then I stopped my thoughts. Superintendent Darby was probably ten years her junior and I doubted she wanted a man that age; I had always imagined her to be fonder of more mature males. If she wanted men. Who really knew?

‘Superintendent Darby, what a pleasure. I believe it is the first time we accompany each other at a ball?’ If I was not mistaken I did hear a slight hint of sarcasm in my aunt’s voice at Thorburn Darby’s title.

‘I believe so. Now, who is this enchanting lady?’

With a jolt I realised his ice-blue gaze was focused on me and I ceased my speculations about my aunt’s preferences regarding relations of the flesh.

‘This is my niece, lady Matilda Arkwright.’

‘Dear lady,’ he said while tossing back his black hair before kissing my hand, ‘I am truly enchanted.’

I blushed, and then blushed at my own blushing. I was no longer a young girl and had no reason to blush, yet there it was. It was embarrassing, is what it was. With a deep breath I found my voice and managed a smile, though I could see he was delighted at the fact I was so very effected by his presence. Compared to him my old fiancee was nothing.

‘Superintendent Darby, what a pleasure to meet you.’

‘I understand you were one of the first at the scene? One of the guests phoned me with constable Norren’s instructions.’

‘I was, yes, together with Phyllida’s butler, Fernandez.’

He raised an eyebrow at the fact a butler had obviously accompanied me to the ball in question, but said nothing about it. If I was to take a bet I would think he was used to my aunt’s antics by now and unsurprised should I be in possession of the same. Or maybe he had noticed Fernandez’ delightfully exotic complexion and deemed it worthy enough.

‘Interesting. Well, if I am not much mistaken, I think our prime suspect needs to be Delia Keighley.’

Phyllida’s eyes grew wide. ‘Superintendent, have you utterly lost your marbles?’

‘Not at all, she has motive if I have understood the scandals correctly. And you should be pleased I share that information with you at all. I only do it because of your status as fellow detective, mind you. Now, I suspect we shall be here most of the night, though you ladies can retire, I should say. If we need help in any way from you we will be certain to let you know.’

I stared at him and how easily he decided to dismiss us and my regard for him diminished rapidly. My aunt, however, did not seem flustered at all. She merely smiled at him.

‘Of course, superintendent. My niece and I will go home and have a nice cup of tea. We need it after so much excitement!’ When I did not chime in at once she elbowed me in the ribs while superintendent Darby was looking the other way.

‘Ow… oh yes, quite! A cup of tea is just what we need.’

With that my aunt nearly pushed me out of the room and we hurried outside to the car, which Fernandez had already prepared.

‘How did you get here, Phyllida?’

‘Oh I left the other car at home and took a cab, dear girl. One is rather modern, unlike that superintendent.’

‘I’m surprised you let him off so easily,’ I said as I sat down in the backseat. Fernandez sat next to the driver.

‘He’s a thick-headed fool, that man. There’s no point arguing right now, he’s too filled up with his own importance. In a couple of days he will realise his mistake. And can you believe,’ she looked at me, ‘that each investigation starts off exactly the same. Just like that. Then he always realises my value in the end.’

I shook my head at the folly of some men.

0

People Don’t Change Opinion (Real Life Post)

So I have a new idea for a book, real good too, I think. There is only one problem, which this far has prevented me from starting the writing process. It is that there is an emperor involved in the story, and for it to go forward, he needs to change opinion. Why is this a problem, then? Because in general people don’t change opinions just like that. Usually someone has their opinion, and they’re bloody sticking to it, no matter what.

I’ve even been in situations where I can clearly show evidence of my view, and the person opposing me still don’t change theirs. Not even in the face of obvious evidence, because they have their view and… they are sticking to it. This seems to be pretty normal human behaviour. So why would an emperor in my story change his view and outlook on life when thus far he has received everything he desires by not changing it?

It drives me up the wall to read books where the main character suddenly just switches view or accepts things which prior to the book events have been completely impossible. One example is Bella Swan, who just seems to go: ‘Vampires? Yeah, alright, I mean they are kinda hot. And I’ve got an open mind, so I’m totally okay with that.’
Sure she was a bit reluctant at first but not really all that much. Somehow I think a person functioning normally would go something along the lines of:
‘AAAAAAAAARGH they’re sucking BLOOD! GET ME OUTTA HERE!’
Right?

Edward Cullen? Not so cool.

Alucard from the Hellsing series. Now that's a real vampire.

Alucard from the Hellsing series. Now that’s a real vampire.

 

Don’t get me wrong, even if there is a lot (or rather not a lot to be honest) to be said about Meyer’s writing, she isn’t the only one who has done this. A few years ago I read some supernatural romance novel where the main character also simply accepted the presence of werewolves and vampires overnight. After all, the Love Interest was a vampire, and he was hot, so she just shrugged and went along with it. Loads of supernatural/romance novels work this way, but it’s not, I think, a normal human behaviour to just accept that which has previously not existed and/or has been frightening if it did. Neither do people just change their views about other people or the way to live one’s life.

After all, a rather classic theme in literature and film is ‘The Other’. We have the real classic here as Friday and the cannibals in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, but this theme has continued. In movies we see it in the villains who, for this reason, often have been foreign, preferably with an accent. It’s the same in literature. A few centuries back a villain was spotted by his foreign sounding name. We feel threatened by that which is not ‘us’. Admittedly, this is a rather silly thing, but then again racists and nazis can’t be said to be very clever. Xenophobia is the sign of low intelligence if ever I saw one, but I digress.

The point is, that people are afraid of that which is foreign and different, and they won’t change views in life unless they have a very good reason. I’m thinking this could, in the case of my emperor, be an economical one perhaps. I don’t think love will be enough. Or maybe a near-death-experience. Or maybe I should just kill him off.

0

Chapter Seven – How to Kill a Ball

The car arrived at a rather splendid mansion, I have to admit, though I never cared much for Clarissa herself. She cared a bit too much about other people’s opinions about her for me to be comfortable in her company. It made me wonder why she interacted with me the way she did and I did not like what it implicated.

There was a long driveway up to the house and once there Fernandez jumped out to open the door for me. The driver drove off with the car to spend the evening chatting to the other people in his profession as they do, and I stared up at the large and looming building in front of me. Now, something I did like with Britain was the fact that the buildings had history. Everything is new in the States, whereas on the British Isles I doubt they rarely build anything these days. It seems most things have been around as long as the ground itself, though perhaps that is an exaggeration. In any case, the mansion was built in sturdy stone and I was certain that should there be an earthquake, not that those happened in Europe a lot, it would remain standing.

Fernandez tucked my hand firmly into the crook of his arm and we went inside through the open door. They were, after all, expecting us. We were greeted by the staff in the hallway and motioned into the ballroom, and thus we proceeded. The heels of my shoes clicked against the marble and I straightened my back. It would not do to show fear in these circumstances, I was after all from across the pond from one of the greatest countries in the world. I had no idea why I was suddenly nervous at the thought of meeting a bunch of Brits. Fernandez must have sensed my anticipation because he squeezed the hand I held on his arm with his free one for a second before we went inside.

‘It will be alright, miss. Your aunt would not have sent you here otherwise.’

As soon as we had entered the ballroom Clarissa spotted us. She must have been keeping an eye out for me, and now she hurried over. Of course, she looked even more dramatic than she had on the train. Her eyes were even more sooted, her hair even more shiny and her gown was absolutely splendid. It was made of a velvet kind of overdress in burgundy, and beneath it was a cream coloured longer skirt.

Darling Matilda, how good of you to attend!’ she exclaimed and leaned in to kiss both of my cheeks. I smiled back and at once felt the butterflies still. Now I was in my element. The scandal notwithstanding I had always been very able to sail the waters of the société. ‘Though I see your aunt Phyllida isn’t with you?’

‘No, unfortunately, she couldn’t attend. She sends her regrets.’ I was certain Phyllida did nothing of the kind, but one had to keep up the niceties.

‘I see! Who is your company?’ she asked coyly while smiling at Fernandez. I was stunned. Did she not recognise him? Then again, she had probably never taken a closer look at him either and it had to be said he looked a little like some prowling exotic predator. I had to swallow before I replied as the sight of him left my throat suddenly dry.

‘This is Ignacio Fernandez, who graciously offered to escort me to your event.’

‘Splendid, how do you do Mister Fernandez?’

He took her hand and kissed the back of it before replying and I had to bite my tongue not to giggle because suddenly Fernandez spoke with heavily accented English. ‘Miz, I am, how do you say, enchanted.’

‘Oh you foreigners! Such manners!’ Clarissa said with a smile which took the edge off her words. ‘Would you excuse us for a moment, my lord, I need to speak to miss Arkwright alone!’

He looked positively ready to burst with laughter, probably at the fact that he had just been referred to as a lord, and I hurriedly told him to go and fetch some refreshments. Clarissa wasted no time but drew me to the side of the room, next to a pillar carved with leaves and cherubs.

‘You will never believe what has happened!’ she whispered eagerly to me. I sighed inwardly. More gossip about that poor girl Delia, no doubt. It turned out I was right. Clarissa continued without waiting for me to reply in any way. ‘That pregnant hussy I told you about, you remember, the man, lord Kenneth Plaskett, making her pregnant, or so we assume, has announced he is to marry her! Marry her! Can you believe it? He informed me of this earlier today. It has all but ruined my evening, I tell you.’

‘I fail to see the problem,’ I pointed out. ‘This will surely solve any predicaments, won’t it?’

‘He deserves better than that. Nobody even knows if it’s actually his child.’

I looked at her closely, at the way she narrowed her eyes when mentioning Delia, but also how her pupils dilated when speaking about her man.

‘Oh goodness, Clarissa, you care about lord Plaskett, don’t you?’

She jerked away a little and looked at me sharply. ‘Don’t be absurd! Of course not, I just don’t want to see a peer of the realm disgraced and trapped into marriage by an obvious fortune-hunter. Imagine that, me caring about a man such as him.’

‘Well I don’t know, I’ve never met the fellow, after all,’ I pointed out. ‘Is there something dreadfully wrong with him, you know, of the variety which makes it impossible to care about him?’

She stared at me in shock. ‘You Americans, always so vulgar! Of course not, I couldn’t possibly believe there was. I just don’t care for men who make other women with child.’

‘Good, then,’ I said with a sweet smile. Thankfully Fernandez returned just then with a glass of some bubbling wine and a plate with a few appetisers. There were ham roses on bread, salmon roulades with some sort of soft cheese and finger-sandwiches with several fillings. Clarissa quickly excused herself and wandered off.

‘Goodness me, Ignacio, I have never really seen the point of all these bite-sized foodstuffs. I hope there will be a proper meal later?’

‘There usually is, and I’m certain miss Murdoch will want to show off, as well.’

‘Very well,’ I said while taking a closer look at the room and the other guests. Everyone looked splendid, the women clad in fashionable dresses in all manner of colours, some with glitter like mine. The men all wore well-tailored suits.

‘Are they all from here? It seems an awfully big gathering of, well if you’ll excuse my language, the upper crust for such a small town?’ I turned to Fernandez with my question.

‘I believe the Murdochs have invited people from York and Leeds as well, my lady.’

‘Of course,’ I said while watching Clarissa steal from the room, after having been briefly talking to what I had to assume was one of her guests. At the conversation all colour drained from her face and was then followed by a grim look of determination before she stole toward the door. It seemed she did not want to be seen sneaking out, but then again it is rather rude to leave your own party.

‘That false bitch,’ someone said close to my ear and I gasped aloud. I could not help myself, it was simply such awful language! I admit I consciously tried to shock and get rid of Clarissa before but at least my choice of words had not been as bad as all that! I turned toward the person having uttered them.

‘I beg your pardon?’

I was met with a calm and arrogant grey gaze, surrounded by fire-red hair. Both of these were assets of a small woman standing next to me, holding a glass and seeming perfectly at ease.

‘Oh, only I saw your gaze follow Clarissa Murdoch out of the hall and couldn’t help myself. She’s a real terrible woman, she is. Slandering my sister and whatnot. I’m telling you, she’d see anything done to stop their marriage,’ she said with a sip of her drink. ‘Not that I wouldn’t mind him marrying somebody else, though it’s too late now. And it’s what my sister wants, anyway. What do you suppose she’s up to, then, that Clarissa? Meeting someone, an illicit rendezvous, is my guess.’

‘Your sister is Delia Keighley?’ I asked. It was too much to respond to any of her other statements and questions.

‘Yes, sorry, of course you have no idea. You’re the American. I’m indeed Delia’s sister Anita. How do you do?’

‘Delighted, miss Keighley. I’m Matilda Arkwright.’ Did everybody know an American was visiting, I wondered.

‘Lady Matilda Arkwright, to be precise,’ Fernandez said with an air of wounded dignity. I supposed he would see nobody robbed of their full and rightful title on his watch.

‘A real lady? There aren’t too many of those around here, I say. Well, it’s been a pleasure, lady Arkwright. I hope we’ll speak another time? I need to be off, really, seeing as I’m not actually invited to this party. Besides, I have another appointment. I just wanted to see what was going on. Ta ta.’

With that she threw back the remains of her drinks in one swallow and strode from the room, the eyes of the other guests following her covertly, or what they surely believed was such.

‘Deary me, she was surely something, wasn’t she, Ignacio?’

‘Why yes, my lady, she is something of a well… she’s well-known in the area.’

‘Well-known as what?’ I asked though I could almost guess.

‘She’s known as a rather difficult person, I mean.’

‘How so, though? Obviously I can see she has a strong character…’

‘She speaks her mind a bit too freely, for the English temperament.’

I snorted a bit in amusement. I could indeed believe that would be regarded as difficult in this country where good manners were so important. They were in America as well, but the English tended to hold on to principles more than anything else.

‘Come, let us walk around the room, Ignacio.’

He graciously held out his arm for me and we ambled around the hall, stopping here and there to make introductions. There were a lot of people who were all curious about aunt Phyllida’s niece, I noticed. A little while later Clarissa came back into the room and she went at once to the table for refreshments to refill her glass, the contents of which she threw back quickly before taking yet another serving of the punch. There was something odd about her and I was just about to make my way over to where she was standing and see if she was alright when somebody spoke next to me.

‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’ I turned toward the voice, which belonged to a terribly handsome man, blond and dashing. My brows furrowed in puzzlement. I could not remember having spotted him previously when I arrived.

‘Are you speaking of Clarissa Murdoch?’ I asked, trying to remember.

‘Oh, I do apologise, I just couldn’t help but noticing you were watching her. Perhaps you are inclined toward the… tender sex yourself?’

I felt heat flush my cheeks and knew they were turning scarlet at his suggestion.

‘No, I do not.’

‘Perhaps you should introduce yourself, Mr…?’ Fernandez thankfully interrupted.

‘But of course, how rude of me. My name is Steven Trask. It’s a pleasure to meet you, miss…?’

‘This is lady Matilda Arkwright, and my name is Ignacio Fernandez,’ my dear evening company clipped every word. He was insulted on my behalf, bless the man.

‘How do you do, lady Arkwright?’

I sniffed and turned away from him.

‘Please, forgive me my earlier rudeness, it’s just been such an eventful day, and now being here in the company of a lady, whom I have heard so much about, I simply forgot my manners!’

I have always had trouble to hold a grudge for very long.

‘You are forgiven,’ I said with a gracious smile. ‘Please, tell me, where you here when I arrived? I don’t think I saw you.’

‘Indeed, I was here but I must have been out on the balcony. So, my lady, how do you enjoy the English countryside so far?’

‘I have to say it is most charming. To tell you the truth I didn’t think I would enjoy it quite so much as all this.’

‘No it must be quite a change from, where were you from?’ He asked me with an eyebrow raised.

‘Manhattan, in New York.’

‘I say! How come you came here?’

I felt my smile stiffen a little on my face. It was a very personal question, I suddenly found. Steven Trask apparently realised this on his own this time because he smiled apologetically.

‘There I go again, don’t I? I didn’t mean to pry, I’m simply excited to see a new face! Let’s change the subject completely,’ he said taking a sip from his glass. ‘I assume you have heard all about our little scandal?’

What was it with people, I pondered as I took a sip myself to buy some time before answering. Why did they want so badly to speak about this poor girl Delia? I resolved I needed to see her myself in the close future.

‘I have heard, indeed. Don’t you think she deserves some privacy? Poor woman.’

‘Why, yes, of course, but then again nothing ever happens here. There is no privacy when people are bored. She deserves someone better, if you ask me.’

I turned to look at him. He looked a bit distant. ‘Do you have a soft spot in your heart for miss Keighley?’ I figured that if he could be personal, then so could I, by all accounts.

He laughed, a bit too loudly. ‘No, of course not! No, I simply mean that everyone deserves the very best that they may attain, and she should have someone better. My heart, though, is set on someone else.’

I followed his gaze and spotted Clarissa yet again. This time the colour had returned to her complexion. I almost pitied the man his task of trying to woo her, because it could be no easy task.

‘Gracious me, well, good luck with that, mister Trask.’

‘Thank you. In fact, I think I shall go and have a word with her. You know, a man must take his chances!’

‘Indeed. Good evening to you.’

‘Good evening!’ he replied and strode across the room to speak to his beloved.

‘Ignacio, I think I need some air to tell you the truth. It’s awfully stuffy in here.’

‘The balcony, miss?’

I considered this but could see that there were several people who came and went to the balcony all the time. I needed some more privacy than that, I suddenly felt.

‘No, do you know if there is some more secluded balcony than this one? I can’t abide all the people right now. These three encounters have been quite enough for the present, I feel.’

‘Of course. Only follow me, we’ll go across the corridor and out the one belonging to the parlour.’

We started to walk across the room but never had time to leave it completely. Just as we were but a few steps from the exit the doors burst open and a rather heavy-set woman blustered in. Everybody ceased their conversations and turned their eyes on her. She put a hand to her chest and exclaimed:

‘There is a dead man in the parlour. Quite dead. I’m afraid, goodness me, he’s been stabbed…’ With that her eyes rolled back and she began to, horribly slowly, topple over and would have fallen sprawled onto the floor had not Fernandez dashed forward and caught her. In his hands it seemed she weighed no more than a slip of a girl and he easily deposited her in a chair before turning to me.

‘Goodness gracious me, Ignacio,’ I said into the silence which had fallen in the ballroom. Nobody had dared to move yet.

‘Indeed, miss. Bloody inconvenient. On your first visit here as well.’