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.