The Dead in Their Vaulted Arche(9)
Author:Alan Bradley


    The thing was mint green and boxy, like the caged lift from a Welsh coal mine. It had an open frame upon which a canvas roof could be strapped in case of rain, and a winch mounted on its nose. I recognized it at once as a Land Rover: We had seen a similar model not all that long ago in a safari film at the cinema.

    Seated at the wheel was a middle-aged woman in a black short-sleeved dress. She braked and yanked the Liberty scarf off her head as if it were the starting cord for an outboard motor, letting her long red hair tumble to her shoulders in the process.

    She stepped down from the Land Rover as if she owned the world and looked about at her surroundings with what was either partial amusement or total contempt.

    “Undine, come,” she said, extending a hand in the manner of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There was an alarming flutter in the depths of the Land Rover, and a most peculiar child shot up her head.

    She bore no resemblance to the woman, whom I took to be her mother. She had a pasty moon face, pale blue eyes, black-rimmed spectacles of the National Health variety, and the haunting, ageless look of one of those bruised-looking baby birds that has fallen helpless and unfinished from the nest.

    Some primal fear stirred inside of me.

    They crunched across the gravel and stopped in front of Father.

    “Lena?” Father said.

    “Sorry we’re late,” the woman answered. “The Cornish roads were—well, you know what Cornish roads can be, and the ones in—good heavens! Could this be little Flavia?”

    I said nothing. If the answer was “yes,” she wasn’t going to hear it from me.

    “She’s awfully like her mother, isn’t she?” the supposed Lena asked, still talking to Father and not looking at me at all, as if I wasn’t there.

    “And you are?” I asked, just as I had asked the stranger at the station. It may have been rude, but on such an occasion as today, one was entitled to a certain brittleness.

    “Your cousins, dear—Lena and Undine, of the Cornwall de Luces. Surely you’ve heard of us?”

    “I’m afraid not,” I said.

    And all the while, Feely and Daffy were standing open-mouthed. Aunt Felicity had already turned abruptly away and vanished into the black maw of the open door.

    “Shall we go inside?” Lena said, and it was not a question. “Come along, Undine, it’s chilly here. We’re likely to catch our deaths of cold.”

    It was chilly all right, but not the way she meant. How could you be chilly on such an unseasonably sunny day?

    Undine stuck out her tongue as she marched past me and into the house.


    In the foyer, Father spoke quietly to Dogger, who went quickly about removing the intruders’ luggage from the Land Rover and hauling it to an upstairs room.

    With that seen to, Father turned and began to trudge heavily up the stairs himself, as if his shoes were filled with lead.

    Bonggggggg!

    A sudden deafening explosion of noise filled the foyer. Father stopped in his tracks and I spun round. Undine was hacking away at the Chinese dinner gong with Father’s prize malacca walking stick, which she had pulled from the umbrella stand inside the front door.

    Bonggggggg! Bonggggggg! Bonggggggg! Bonggggggg! Bonggggggg!

    The mother seemed oblivious. Cousin Lena—if indeed that’s who the woman was—stood staring appreciatively, with her head thrown back, at the paneling and the paintings as if she were the Prodigal Daughter being welcomed home, peeling off her black gloves almost obscenely as she mentally totted up the value of the artwork.

    Now the child was running up and down the staircase—upon which Father had stopped in disbelief—clattering the cane along the uprights of the banister as if they were a picket fence.

    Drrrrrrrrrr! Drrrrrrrrrr! Drrrrrrrrrr!

    Feely and Daffy were, for the first time in living memory, speechless.

    Feely was the first to make a move: She drifted off towards the drawing room. Daffy opened her mouth, then shut it and made for the library at full speed.

    “Flavia, dear,” Lena said, “why don’t you show Undine round the house. She’s quite keen on paintings and so forth, aren’t you, Undie?”

    I felt what tasted like black vomit rising in my throat.

    “Yes, Ibu,” Undine said, slashing at the air with the cane as if she were cutting her way through the jungle.

    I kept my distance.

    “Perhaps Miss Undine would like to view the sharks,” Dogger suggested. He had reappeared suddenly and silently on the staircase.

    There were no sharks at Buckshaw, I was quite sure of that, but part of me was hoping desperately that Dogger had rounded up a few. Perhaps he had secretly stocked the ornamental lake.





    SIX



    THE GREAT BLACK SHARK came boiling up from the surface, hung motionless for a moment, its massive jaws gnashing at the air, then fell writhing back into the choppy waters.

    Undine shrieked. “Again!” she shouted. “Again! Again! Again!”

    “Very well, but this one must be the last,” Dogger said, manipulating his bare hands in front of the shaded desk lamp, and the black shadow shark rose up once more on the wall, snapped fiendishly at the air, and splashed back into the billows of waving fingers.

    Dogger rolled down his sleeves, rebuttoned the cuffs, and switched off the lamp.

    He removed the blankets he had hung over the kitchen windows, and we blinked in the sudden light.

    When Dogger had gone, Undine said, “Does he always make sharks?”

    “No,” I said. “I’ve seen him form elephants and crocodiles. His crocodile is quite terrifying, actually.”

    “Huh!” Undine said. “I’m not scared of crocodiles.”

    I couldn’t resist. “I’ll bet you’ve never seen one,” I said. “Not in real life, anyway.”

    “I have, too!”

    Little did she know that when it came to the bluffing game, she was up against a master. I’ll teach her a trick or two, I thought.

    “Where, precisely?” I asked. She probably didn’t even know the meaning of the word “precisely.”

    “In a mangrove swamp at Sembawang. It was a saltwater crocodile—they’re the world’s largest living reptile.”

    “Sembawang?” I must have sounded like the village idiot.

    “Singapore,” she said. She pronounced it Sing-a-PORE, with the accent on the last syllable. “Have you never been to Singapore?”

    Since I had not, I wondered how I could best quickly change the subject.

    “Why do you call your mother Ibu?” I asked.

    “It’s Malay,” she answered. “It means ‘mother’ in Malay.”

    “Is Singapore in Malay?”

    “No! Malay is a language, you silly goose. Singapore is a geographical location.”

    This discussion was not going at all as I had hoped. Time for another diversion.

    “Undine,” I said. “What a peculiar name.”

    Perhaps “peculiar” was a little harsh, but she had, after all, struck the first blow by calling me a silly goose.

    “Not so peculiar as it might have been,” she replied. “My father wanted to call me Sepia, but my mother prevailed.”

    That was the way she spoke: “prevailed.”

    What a curious little creature she was!

    At one moment, she was a baby bawling for more amusement, and the next, she was talking like some boring old stick from the Explorers Club.

    Ageless, I thought. Yes, that was the word that best described Undine: ageless.

    Still, I wasn’t quite sure whether to believe her about the Singapore saltwater crocodile. I’d check her up later.

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