The Dead in Their Vaulted Arche(3)
Author:Alan Bradley

    At my feet, as if reaching for my shoes, a human hand stuck stiffly out, with awful stillness, from beneath the wheels of the last carriage. I knelt down for a closer look. The newly filthy fingers were wide open, reaching for help that would never arrive. On the wrist, which was almost indecently naked, tiny golden hairs stirred gently in the moving air beneath the train.

    My nostrils filled with the smell of hot, oily steam, and with something else: a sharp coppery odor which, once experienced, is never forgotten. I recognized it at once.

    It was the smell of blood.

    Shoved up nearly to the dead elbow was the still-buttoned cuff of a coat too long and much too heavy for such a lovely day.


    THE ROLLS CREPT ALONG the lane at a snail’s pace behind the hearse.

    Even though Buckshaw Halt was little more than a mile from the house, I knew already that this sad journey was going to take simply ages.

    The analytical part of my brain wanted to make sense of what I had just witnessed on the railway platform: the violent death of a stranger beneath the wheels of the train.

    But a wilder, more primitive, more reptilian force would not allow it, throwing up excuses that seemed reasonable enough at the time.

    These precious hours belong to Harriet, it was telling me. You must not steal them from her. You owe it to the memory of your mother.

    Harriet … think only of Harriet, Flavia. It is her due.

    I let myself sink back into the comforting leather of the seat and allowed my mind to fly back to that day last week, in my laboratory.…

    Their drowned faces are not so white and fishy as you might expect. Floating barely beneath the surface in the blood-red light, they are, in fact, rather the color of rotted roses.

    She still smiles in spite of all that has happened. He wears a shockingly boyish expression upon his face.

    Beneath them, coiled like tangled tentacles of seaweed, black ribbons dangle down into the liquid depths.

    I touch the surface—write their initials in the water with my forefinger:

    So closely are this man and this woman tied together, that the same three letters stand for them both: Harriet de Luce and Haviland de Luce.

    My mother and my father.

    It was odd, really, how I had happened upon these images.

    The attics at Buckshaw are a vast aerial underworld, containing all the clutter, the castoffs, the debris, the dumpings, the sad dusty residue of all those who have lived and breathed in this house for centuries past.

    Piled on top of the moldering prayer chair, for instance, upon which the terrible-tempered Georgina de Luce had once perched piously in her powdered periwig to hear the whispered confessions of her terrified children, was the crumpled wreckage of the home-built glider in which her ill-fated grandson, Leopold, had launched himself from the parapets of the east wing scant seconds before coming to grief on the steel-hard frozen ground of the Visto, bringing to an abrupt end that particular branch of the family. If you looked carefully, you could still see the stains of Leopold’s oxidized blood on the glider’s frail linen-covered wings.

    In another corner, stacked in a stiff spinal curve, a pile of china chamber pots still gave off their faint but unmistakable pong in the tired, stuffy air.

    Tables, chairs, and chimneypieces were squeezed in cheek by jowl with ormolu clocks, glazed Greek vases of startling orange and black, unwanted umbrella stands, and the sad-eyed head of an indifferently stuffed gazelle.

    It was to this shadowy graveyard of unwanted bric-a-brac that I had fled instinctively last week after Father’s shocking announcement.

    To the attics I had flown, and there, to keep from thinking, I had crumpled into a corner, reciting mindlessly one of those shreds of childhood nonsense which we fall back on in times of great stress when we can’t think what else to do:

    “A was an archer who shot at a frog;

    “B was a butcher who had a black dog.

    “C was a crier—”

    I wasn’t going to bloody well cry! No, I bloody well wasn’t!

    Instead of archers and criers, I would distract my mind by rehearsing the poisons:

    “A is for arsenic hid in a spud,

    “B is for bromate that buggers the blood …”

    I was up to “C is for cyanide” when a slight movement caught my eye: a sudden scurrying that vanished swiftly behind a crested French armoire.

    Was it a mouse? Perhaps a rat?

    I shouldn’t be at all surprised. The attics of Buckshaw are, as I have said, an abandoned dumping ground where a rat would be as much at home as I was.

    I got slowly to my feet and peeked carefully behind the armoire, but whatever it had been was gone.

    I opened one of the dark doors of the monstrosity, and there they were: the smart black carrying cases—two of them—shoved into the far corners of the armoire, almost as if someone hadn’t wanted them to be found.

    I reached in and dragged the matching containers out of the shadows and into the half-light of the attic.

    They were covered in pebbled leather with shiny nickel-plated snaps, each case with its own key, which hung, fortunately, from the carrying handles by a bit of ordinary butcher’s string.

    I popped open the first box and swung back the lid.

    I knew at once by its metallic crackle finish, and the way in which its mechanical octopus arms were folded into their fitted plush compartments, that the machine I was looking at was a ciné projector.

    Mr. Mitchell, proprietor of Bishop’s Lacey’s photographic studio, owned a similar device with which he occasionally exhibited the same few tired old films at St. Tancred’s parish hall.

    His machine was larger, of course, and was equipped with a loudspeaker for the sound.

    Once, during a particularly dreary repeat showing of The Paper Wasp and Its Vespiaries, I had whiled away the time by inventing riddles, one of which I thought rather clever:

    “Why is the House of Commons like a ciné sound projector?”

    “Because they both have a Speaker!”

    I could hardly wait to tell it at the breakfast table.

    But that had been in happier times.

    I fingered the snap and opened the second box.

    This one contained a matching device, smaller, with a clockwork crank on its side and several lenses mounted in a rotating turret on its snout.

    A ciné camera.

    I lifted the thing to my face and peered through the viewfinder, moving the camera slowly from right to left as if I were filming.

    “Buckshaw,” I intoned in a newsreel voice. “Ancestral home of the family de Luce since time immemorial … a house divided … a house apart.”

    I put the camera down rather abruptly—and rather roughly, I’m afraid. I did not feel like going on with this.

    It was then that I noticed for the first time the little gauge on its body. The indicator needle was calibrated from zero to fifty feet, and it stood nearly—but not quite—at the end of its range.

    There was still film in the camera—even after all these years.

    And if I were any judge, about forty-five feet of it had been exposed.

    Exposed but never developed!

    My heart lunged suddenly into my throat, trying to escape.

    I nearly choked on it.

    If my suspicions were correct, this film, this camera, might well contain hidden images of my dead mother, Harriet.

    Within the hour, having made my preparations, I was in my chemical laboratory in Buckshaw’s abandoned east wing. The lab had been constructed and outfitted towards the end of the Victorian era by the father of Harriet’s uncle Tarquin de Luce, for a son whose spectacular collapse at Oxford was still, even after more than half a century, only whispered about among those dreaming spires.

Most Read
Top Books