The Dead in Their Vaulted Arche(8)
Author:Alan Bradley


    The sky.

    Heaven.

    Heaven was where Harriet was, at least according to Denwyn Richardson, the vicar.

    “I think that I am quite correct in assuring you, Flavia, that she is sipping tea with her ancestors even as we speak,” he had told me.

    I knew he was doing his best to comfort me, but a part of me knew, all too well and from personal experience, that Harriet’s ancestors—and mine, come to think of it—were moldering away in crumbling coffins in the crypt of St. Tancred’s and quite unlikely to be sipping tea or anything else, unless it was the seepage from the church’s rotting rainspouts.

    He was a dear man, the vicar, but dreadfully naïve, and I sometimes thought that there were certain aspects of life and death which eluded him completely.

    Chemistry teaches us all that can be known about corruption, and I realized with a shock that I had learned more at the altar of the Bunsen burner than at all the altars of the competition combined.

    Except about the soul, of course. The only vessel in which the soul could be studied was the living human body, which made it as difficult as trying to study the soul of a Mexican jumping bean.

    We could learn nothing about the soul from a corpse, I had decided, after several firsthand encounters with cadavers.

    Which brought me back to the man under the wheels of the train. Who was he? What was he doing on the platform at Buckshaw Halt? Had he come down from London on Harriet’s funeral train with the other dignitaries? Presumably he had, since I hadn’t seen him there before the train pulled into the station.

    What had he meant about the Nide being under? And who on earth was the Gamekeeper?

    I didn’t dare ask. It was neither the time nor the place.

    The stony silence inside the Rolls told me that each of us remained lost in our own thoughts.

    To each of the mourners outside in the lane, I would be no more than a pale face glimpsed for a moment behind the glass. I wished I could smile at each of them, but I knew I must not, since a grinning mug would spoil their memories of this sad occasion.

    We were all of us mourners overtaken by the moment: It was not ours to shape. We must give ourselves over to being the Grieving Family, upon whom others must be permitted to shower sympathy.

    All of this I knew without ever having been told. It had somehow been born in my blood.

    Perhaps this was what Aunt Felicity had meant when she had told me that day upon the island in the ornamental lake that it had been left to me to carry the torch: to carry on the glorious name de Luce. “Wherever it may lead you,” she had added.

    Her words still rang in my head: “You must never be deflected by unpleasantness. I want you to remember that. Although it may not be apparent to others, your duty will become as clear to you as if it were a white line painted down the middle of the road. You must follow it, Flavia.”

    “Even when it leads to murder?” I had asked.

    “Even when it leads to murder.”

    Could it be that the slightly dotty old woman sitting in rigid silence behind me in the Rolls had actually spoken those words?

    I knew that I needed now, more than ever, to get her alone.

    But first there was the arrival at Buckshaw to be got through. It was the part of the day I had been dreading more than anything.

    We had been briefed on the scheduled events:

    At ten A.M., Harriet’s coffin would arrive at Buckshaw Halt, which it had now done. It would be transported by hearse to the front door of Buckshaw, from which point it would be carried inside and placed on trestles in Harriet’s boudoir, which was upstairs at the extreme south end of the west wing.

    This seemed at first a peculiar choice of rooms for a lying-in-state. The enormous foyer with its dark wood paneling, black-and-white checkered floor tiles, and double rising staircases would have provided a much grander setting than Harriet’s private apartments, which Father had preserved as a shrine to her memory.

    Except for the looking glass on the dresser, and the cheval glass in the corner, each of which had been covered just yesterday with a black pall, everything in the boudoir, from Harriet’s Fabergé combs and brushes (one of which still had several strands of her hair caught up in its bristles) and Lalique scent bottles to her absurdly practical carpet slippers standing ready beside her great princess-and-the-pea four-poster bed, was precisely as she had left it on that last day.

    Only afterwards had it occurred to me not only that Father wanted Harriet to be returned to her private sanctuary, but that the room where she was to lie in state was connected to his own by a private door.

    Now Dogger was turning the car in at the Mulford Gates, whose mossy stone griffins stared down impassively upon the procession. I thought, just for a moment as we swept past, that the drops of green water which still oozed from the smutty corners of their eyes after last night’s rain were actually tears.

    Out of respect, the “For Sale” sign had been uprooted and put discreetly out of sight until after the funeral.

    Up the long avenue we went, under the canopy of chestnuts.

    “Arrive Buckshaw 1030 hours,” it had said on the schedule Father posted in the drawing room, and it was so.

    Even as we stepped from the Rolls, the clock in the tower of St. Tancred’s, a mile to the north across the fields, struck the half hour.

    Dogger opened the car’s doors for us, one at a time, and we formed a respectful double line on both sides of the front entrance. There we stood, looking everywhere but straight ahead as Harriet’s coffin was hauled on chromium rollers from the hearse by six black-suited bearers—all of them strangers—and carried into the house.

    I had never seen Father look more haggard. A wayward bit of breeze ruffled the front of his hair, causing it to stand on end, like a man frightened out of his wits. I wanted to fly to his side and comb it down with my fingers, but of course I didn’t.

    I fell in behind the coffin, as I thought was only right: As youngest of the family, I would be a sort of flower girl—first in the procession.

    But Father stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. Although his sad blue eyes looked directly into mine, he said not a word.

    And yet I understood. As if he had handed me a fat procedures manual, I knew that we were meant to linger a bit longer out of doors. Father didn’t want us to see Harriet’s coffin being manhandled up the stairs.

    It’s things like this that really shake me: sudden terrifying glimpses into the world of being an adult, and they are sometimes things that I am not sure I really want to know.

    There we stood, like stone chessmen: Father, the checkmated king, graceful, but fatally wounded in defeat; Aunt Felicity, the ancient queen, her black hat askew, humming some tuneless tune to herself; Feely and Daffy, the rooks, the two remote towers at the distant corners of our castle world.

    And me: Flavia de Luce.

    Pawn.


    Well, not quite, actually—although that was how I felt at the time.

    Since Harriet’s body had been found in a Himalayan glacier, our lives at Buckshaw seemed to have fallen under the control of some unseen force. We were told the when, the where, and the how of everything, but never the why.

    Somewhere, in some far-off vastness, arrangements were being made, plans being laid, all of which seemed to trickle down to us as if they were the freshly melted decrees of some unknown ice god.

    “Do this, do that—be here, be there,” they commanded, and we obeyed.

    Blindly, it seemed.

    That was what I was thinking when my acute hearing picked up a clattering noise coming from the direction of the gates. I turned just in time to see a most unusual vehicle appearing from among the chestnuts and the hedges and coming to a halt on the gravel forecourt.

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