The Dead in Their Vaulted Arche(2)
Author:Alan Bradley


    Daffy gave my ribs a dig with her elbow and pointed with the faintest inclination of her chin.

    At the south end of the platform, a rather stout old gentleman in a dark suit was standing apart from the others. I recognized him instantly.

    As the bearers moved slowly away from the train, bent under their sad burden, he removed his black hat in respect and lowered it to his side.

    It was Winston Churchill.

    Whatever could have brought the former Prime Minister to Bishop’s Lacey?

    He stood there alone, watching in the deadly hush as my mother was carried to the open doors of a motor hearse, which had appeared in uncanny silence as if from nowhere.

    Churchill watched as the coffin, preceded by an officer with a drawn sword, was borne gently past Father, past Feely, past Daffy, and past me, then placed himself shoulder to shoulder with Father.

    “She was England, damn it,” he growled.

    As if awakening from a dream, Father’s eyes lifted, came to rest, and focused on Churchill’s face.

    After a very long time, he said, “She was more than that, Prime Minister.”

    Churchill nodded and seized Father’s elbow. “We can ill afford to lose a de Luce, Haviland,” he said quietly.

    What did he mean by that?

    For a moment, they stood there together in the old sunshine, these two seemingly defeated men, brothers in something far beyond me: something I could not even begin to imagine.

    Then, having shaken hands with Father, with Feely, with Daffy, and even with Aunt Felicity, Mr. Churchill came over to where I was standing, a little apart from the others.

    “And have you, also, acquired a taste for pheasant sandwiches, young lady?”

    Those words! Those exact words!

    I had heard them before! No—not heard them—seen them!

    The roots of my hair were suddenly standing on tiptoe.

    Churchill’s blue eyes were piercing, as if he were staring into my soul.

    What did he mean? What on earth was he suggesting? What was he expecting me to say?

    I’m afraid I blushed. It was all I could manage.

    Mr. Churchill stared intently into my face, taking my hand and giving it a gentle squeeze with his remarkably long fingers.

    “Yes,” he said at last, almost as if to himself, “yes, I do believe you have.”

    And with that, he turned and walked away from me along the platform, acknowledging, with solemn nods to the left and to the right, the recognition of the villagers as he slowly made his way through them to his waiting car.

    Although he had been out of office for ages, there was still a remarkable air of greatness about this plump little man with his bulldog face and the startling stare of his great blue eyes.

    Daffy was already whispering in my ear. “What did he say?” she asked.

    “He said that he was sorry,” I lied. I didn’t know why, but I knew that it was the thing to do. “Just that he was sorry.”

    Daffy gave me that squinty evil look of hers.

    How could it be, I wondered, that with our mother lying dead under our very noses, two sisters could be almost at each other’s throats over a simple fib? It seemed ridiculous, but it was happening. I can only suppose that that’s the way life is.

    And death.

    What I did know for certain was that I needed to get home, that I needed to be locked in the silence of my own room.

    Father was busy shaking hands with all the people who wanted to give him their condolences. The very air was alive with the reptilian hissing of their Ss and the little animal squeals of their Ys.

    “Sorry, Colonel de Luce … sorry … sorry,” they were telling him, over and over again, each in his or her own turn. It’s a wonder Father didn’t go mad on the spot.

    Could no one think of anything original to say?

    Daffy once told me that there are approximately half a million words in the English language. With so many to choose from, you’d think that just one person, at least, could find something more original than that stupid word “sorry.”

    That’s what I was thinking when a tall man in a coat too long and much too heavy for such a lovely day detached himself from the crowd on the platform and made directly for me.

    “Miss de Luce?” he asked, in a surprisingly gentle voice.

    I was not accustomed to being addressed as “Miss de Luce.” It was a name usually reserved for Daffy or Feely—or for Aunt Felicity.

    “I am Flavia de Luce,” I said. “And you are?”

    It was a response Dogger had taught me to give automatically when spoken to by strangers. I glanced over and saw Dogger hovering solicitously at Father’s side.

    “A friend,” the man said. “Just a friend—of the family. I need to talk to you.”

    “I’m sorry,” I said, taking a step backwards. “I’m—”

    “Please. It’s vitally important.”

    Vitally? Anyone who used the word “vitally” in everyday conversation could hardly be a villain.

    “Well …” I said, wavering.

    “Tell your father that the Gamekeeper is in jeopardy. He’ll understand. I must speak to him. Tell him that the Nide is under—”

    The man’s eyes widened suddenly in puzzlement—or was it horror?—as he looked over my shoulder. What—or whom—had he seen?

    “Come along, Flavia. You’re keeping everyone waiting.”

    It was Feely. My sister gave the stranger a tight, polite smile as she put a hand on my shoulder and gave it an unnecessarily hard tug.

    “Wait,” I said, ducking to one side and breaking away from her grip. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

    Dogger was already holding open the door of Harriet’s old Rolls-Royce Phantom II, which he had parked as close to the platform as he possibly could. Father was halfway to the car, shuffling alarmingly, his head bowed.

    It was not until that moment, I think, that I realized what a crushing blow this whole business must be to him.

    He had lost Harriet, not once, but twice.

    “Flavia!”

    It was Feely again, her eyes bugging with cold blue impatience. “Why,” she hissed, “must you always insist on being such a—”

    A shriek from the engine’s whistle blotted out her last few words, but I was easily able to lip-read their shocking shape.

    The train began to move, slowly at first. We had been told during our briefing by the undertakers that, as we departed the station, the train would be taken to a disused railway yard somewhere north of East Finching to be turned round for its return run up to London. It was a breach of undertaking etiquette, as well as being “uncommon bad luck,” according to Mr. Sowerby, of Sowerby & Sons, to run a funeral train backwards.

    By now, Feely was dragging me—literally—towards the waiting Rolls.

    I tried to break free, but it was no use. Her fingers dug deeply into the muscle of my upper arm, and I was dragged stumbling along, gasping in her wake.

    A sudden shout broke from among the stragglers at the station. I thought at first it was Feely’s cruel treatment of me that had caused the outcry, but I saw now that people were running towards the edge of the platform.

    The guard’s whistle was blowing frantically, someone was screaming, and the engine banged to an abrupt halt with clouds of steam billowing out from beneath its driving wheels. I struggled free of Feely’s grasp and elbowed my way back along the carriages, squeezing past the possible Air Vice-Marshal, who seemed rooted to the spot.

    The villagers stood transfixed, many hands clapped to many mouths.

    “Someone pushed him,” said a woman’s voice from somewhere behind me in the crowd.

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